The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Nine
Continued from The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Eight.
Vulkan leaned back against the pillows at the top of his bed, and let the relaxing breeze from the open window blow over him. The salty winds felt as soothing as a massage on his bare skin, and was infinitely better than the foul air of the unnamed Daemon World on which he had been trapped for so long. The moment he had awoken in the Sororitas convent, he had been bewildered by the sights around him, unfamiliar as he was with extent to which the Imperium had changed in his absence. The Cardinal had explained the situation in the galaxy at length, and skilled orator as he was, Vulkan was able to pierce through the religious folderol to learn that the Imperium had essentially fallen to pieces in the last nine millennia.
The realization that the Imperium had resorted to religion, of all things, to keep the masses under control had been like a hammerblow. Had not the will of the Emperor been that there was to be no worship of deity? The garbage the Cardinal had been spouting smacked of Lorgar, every word.
Vulkan had impressed upon the Cardinal that his recovery would be best spent on the pleasure world below, to the Cardinal’s infinite disappointment. He had insisted, however, so what could the old man do but obey? He had relented and called in a favor with a friend on the surface below, who had been utterly overjoyed at the prospect of the Primarch staying at his resort for a few days. The next few days had been a blur, as Vulkan’s weary mind and body had swam in and out of a nightmare for time. On one occasion, upon waking up, he had found that his beloved iron chisel had been left behind, and he nearly tore out a bulkhead of his shuttle in a blind panic before a Sororitas who had accompanied him pointed out that it was still safely in the cargo hold.
He had landed on Sedris’s Fortune in a deep sleep, and had awoken to find that the Sororitas guard had left him in a guest apartment with a single Sister to keep an eye on him while he slept. She had immediately offered whatever service she could to keep him comfortable during his rehabilitation, but he had found simple human company to be more pleasant than any medicine or workout. She had been entirely overawed to find herself in his company, and he had learned to his surprise that she was a mere twenty years old; he would have guessed half that again from the wicked scars on her back and arms.
The other guards had cycled out, keeping a tight but discreet guard over the estate grounds during Vulkan’s rest. The owner had been on the other side of the planet at the time, and so had granted Vulkan run of the estate until his return. He had been intimidated as hell by the power-armored Sisters, but, being an old friend of the Cardinal, hadn’t objected to their presence. The first few days had been spent simply enjoying the opportunity to sleep without being eaten, and when the owner returned, he had happily granted Vulkan and his ersatz bodyguard a master key to the grounds, which included, to Vulkan’s pleasant surprise, a very well-appointed gymnasium.
The Sororitas guards around the place kept the fences surrounding the mansion secure, so for the first time in nine thousand years, Vulkan could truly feel safe. He was under no impressions of its permanence, however, since he was sure that he would have to return to command of the Salamanders eventually.
Until then, the company of the young Sister had been a treasure in itself to the contact-starved Primarch. Her name was Julia, of the Order of the Eternal Gate, and she was as reliable a source of information about the Imperium as any Astropath Vulkan had ever met. The two of them had made a habit of jogging with whichever Sororitas happened to be off-duty that day, though it had had to wait until Vulkan found clothes that would fit his gigantic body. The workout – unharried by flocks of gargoyles and warp sprites – was a pleasure to him, and after two days of rest, and two days of exercise and conversation, he could finally feel the horrors of the warp fading from his mind.
Julia, once she had been convinced not to genuflect every time he opened his mouth, had been delighted to act as his guide to the new Imperium, and had, upon his request, sent an astropathic message to Nocturne, telling the Salamanders that his return would be soon. She had further gone out of her way to provide him with her own personal preferences of local foods, which their host in turn had provided.
All in all, it was about the most relaxing period of Vulkan’s life, and he savored it, knowing that he would have to return to service soon enough.
Vulkan’s imminent return, as announced by the Primarch himself via Astropath, had brought new hope to the people of Prometheus. The Salamanders had set themselves to their mission from the Emperor with relish, gathering all of the Techmarines in the Techmarine-saturated chapter to the Chalice and putting them to work.
The Adeptus Mechanicus was of the mindset that making new Terminator armor was wasteful. It was still possible, of course, but it took so much time and so much effort that it was rarely deemed ‘worth it.’ In light of the imminent return of their Primarch, suddenly those concerns boiled away.
Tu’Shan and He’Stan themselves oversaw the creation of the armor. While some of the components had to be salvaged from suits that had been damaged on Armageddon and elsewhere, much of the suit was being ‘made from scratch,’ as it were. The Forgefather had seriously considered implanting the four man-portable Artefacts of Vulkan into the armor, but had decided against it. They were immensely ancient and valuable, after all, and not all battles would call for their use. As such, he instructed that the gauntlets, pauldrons, and shoulder joints of the armor be made to accommodate the addition of the Artefacts if Vulkan so desired, but not to incorporate them. The shoulders he ordered to contain additional hardpoints, in case the Unbound Flame was what he suspected it to be, though he did not share the knowledge with Tu’Shan.
The power supply was a work of art, even by the standards of the Salamanders. The Mechanicum had gifted the chapter a prototype armor fusion bottle many years before as a reward for saving the forge world of Lansma’Tel from a heretek cult. The Salamander Chapter Master had ordered it be used here, to breathe life into the new suit. Its machine spirit was blessed by the techpriests of Prometheus as its core was bound to the suit. Its left arm bore an immensely powerful Storm Shield, created by the artificers of the chapter with an image of a drake skull wreathed in ash. The shield would provide a massive amount of protection to their Primarch, which He'Stan knew he would be requiring in the coming days. Its left hand was left free, but the mounting slots could accept the Song of Entropy if Vulkan ever desired it. Its right, by default, mounted a weapon that Vulkan himself had designed long ago: the Thunder Ballista. This wicked-looking weapon functioned like a Thunder Hammer that recoiled, such that all the wearer had to do was flex their hand in a certain specific way, and the weapon would launch a spike of wrought adamantine clean into a target, then discharge a built-up force charge.
The device was so huge and unwieldy, and drew so much power, that actually installing it on anything had been largely impossible until the Mechanicum had granted the Salamanders their fusion bottle. Now, all that was needed was a final touch, something that would make this magnificent suit of armor more than just Artificer Armor…and make it a thing of legend.
Tu’Shan personally oversaw the final ritual. The armor had been painted in Fire Drakes colors, naturally enough, and the helmet had been modified to accept the advanced asupex and atmospheric filters that all Salamanders installed as a matter of course. The final ritual, however, was more than just a modification of the helmet: it was the installation of the fusion bottle and wargear. A Crux Argentum of titanium, crusted with diamonds taken from Prometheus’ many, many volcanoes was fitted into the suit’s left shoulder plate. An extra pair of grenade slots on a normal Terminator equipment belt was strapped around the middle of the suit. A purity seal, describing Vulkan’s refusal to bow to Chaos for ten thousand years, was poured and stamped on the colossal chest plate. Finally, the fusion bottle itself was lowered into its plasteel/adamantine cradle, and the suit was complete.
Tu’Shan found himself holding his breath as the Techmarines pressed the activator. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then, with a brilliant flash of red from both eyes, the suit’s joints clicked one by one as the machine spirit came to life, the Thunder Ballista rose a hair as its fire control software ran through its installation, and the Storm Shield crackled as a charge ran through its circuits for the first time.
The suit settled back down, and Tu’Shan stood, unable to repress an exhausted grin. “Brothers, we have worked a wonder. Now, let us make ready our own wargear. Lord Vulkan shall not find his sons’ readiness wanting.”
Back in the jungles of Zargh 3, Chief Warboss Skullwearuh was hard at work. The native Orks had been added to his own ranks with minimal protest, and now he set about pressing out towards the Imperial base. He had lost all contact with his forward army, and the news had set off some grumbling amongst the ranks of the Mega Nobs. He had had to kill one to restore order, but they had fallen back in line fast enough. Now, the only problem was finding the blasted base at all.
He had struck out blindly in the jungle, looking for the place the humie captives had described, but found nothing. Finally, one of his Sub-bosses pointed out that all they had to do was follow the humies as they ran away and they’d find the temple.
And so they did, the green host pursuing the fleeing humans to the temple. They passed through the canyon Dante had used to such effect, stopping only to loot the fallen. Dante watched their progress on the tactical map installed in his aircraft as it hurtled towards the base, his stomach tightening as he saw the area completely overrun by the green and black mass of aliens. If he and the troops had lingered there only a few hours more…
But enough. There was no point dwelling on the past. The Guard and Astartes troops were falling back to the base now, those few who hadn’t fit into the Thunderbolts and dropships hitching a ride on the Chimeras and Rhinos.
Any moment, the Thunderhawk gunship was going to touch down on the surface, and he would be face-to-face with the Emperor himself. Dante wasn’t really sure what to think. He was certain that he had served well, and that he had nothing to fear, but all he could think of was the innumerable tiny mistakes he had committed in his career, the little things that had gotten men killed, or from which nothing at all had come.
It was irrational. He knew that. That didn’t make it easier to ignore. The battle today had gone flawlessly, and he would try to steer the conversation there if he could. The engines’ roar changed pitch, and the passengers aboard shifted as the pilot slowed the aircraft. Dante rose to his feet and grabbed the reinforced supports of the ceiling as the ramp dropped, and he strode down, head held high.
The base looked largely as it had when left, though several more prefabricated buildings were up, including some that did not match his original battle plans. A stream of crates and boxes emerged from the cargo teleporters, interspersed with some servitors. A small huddle of Imperial Navy transports sat on the pads, with a pack of very frightened-looking feral worlders shuffling on board, escorted by a dozen Hospitallers.
A constellation of stars appeared in the mid-afternoon sunlight, and with a suddenness that Dante had long become used to, eighteen prefabricated bolter, autogun, and missile turrets slammed into the ground outside his base, and a platoon of servitors trundled out of one of the hangars and into the jungle to unpack them. A convoy of five Land Raiders in the unmistakable colors of the Dark Angels drove by his own pad, with a few Guardsmen riding on top, clutching grenade launchers. It was something on the far side of the base that caught his attention, though. The loading dock doors were open on the vehicle garage next to the temple.
Dante walked over to the building, the bustle of Guardsmen across the whole base parting in his path. He arrived at the garage and walked in, where he spotted something he had never seen off Terra: an Adept Custodian. Dante broke stride for all of one step, then carried on. Of course the Emperor had seen fit to mobilize his own personal guard. Why wouldn’t he? The ten thousand warriors of the Custodes had marched alongside the Emperor when he led the Great Crusade.
There were Astartes in four different chapter colors huddled around the Custodes, with whom they seemed to be having an argument. One Dante recognized as Corbulo, his High Sanguinary Priest. Corbulo saw him walking in and beckoned him over, relief evident on his face.
“Master Dante, I was hoping you’d get here first. How went the battle?” he asked.
“Flawlessly, I am happy to report,” Dante said as he walked up. “The Orks were butchered, and we did…” his voice trailed off as he recognized the Ultramarine standing next to Corbulo. It was Lord Roboute Guilliman himself.
Guilliman turned to face the ancient Blood Angel. “Lord Commander Dante? Lord Roboute Guilliman. An honor to meet you in person,” he said, placing his helmet on the table behind him and reaching his hand out to shake. Dante hesitated for a second, then took the proffered gauntlet. Guilliman shook once and released Dante’s hand, clearly not interested in childish strength games. “I understand that you have lead the Blood Angels to a perfect victory this morning. Not one casualty?”
“The honor is mine, Lord Guilliman,” Dante said, leaning forward in an abbreviated bow. “And, yes, we did destroy the Orks utterly. No losses.”
“Remarkable. Too bad we didn’t have a commander of his caliber during the Great Crusade to lead in our absence, eh, Lord Russ?” he asked.
“Indeed, brother,” the Custodian said, turning to peer at the Blood Angel through a raised visor. Dante’s own eyes widened behind his mask at the realization that he was actually speaking to two Primarchs.
“I am deeply honored to meet you both, my Lords, and I hope to be of service in this evacuation,” Dante said, confused as to Russ’ appearance. Russ stared at Dante’s mask, shaking his head slowly.
“By the winds of Fenris, that mask looks so much like Sanguinius it’s uncanny,” he said quietly.
“I am pleased to hear that, Lord Russ. I wear this to remind my brothers for whom we spill the blood of the foe,” Dante said with due reverence. “Your own appearance surprises me, Lord Russ. May I ask why you are in Custodes armor?”
“It was the best the Blood Ravens had on short notice,” Russ said, glancing briefly at the fourth Marine, a Blood Ravens Librarian who was looking very sheepish under his Psychic Hood.
A large shadow eclipsed the light coming from outside as the conversation continued, and Dante stepped to the side so whatever it was could enter without looking. A psychic voice echoed through his head, as he did so, and he spun around, startled.
“AH, ROBOUTE, LEMAN, THERE YOU ARE. SORRY TO KEEP YOU WAITING, I HAD SOME LAST-MINUTE ADVICE FOR LION,” a gigantic orange creature said. Dante gaped. The tone of its ‘voice’ in addressing the two Primarchs…was this the Emperor’s new body?
Russ’s reply drove all doubt from his mind. “No trouble at all, Father, the evacuation is going ahead of schedule thanks to the transports we brought.”
“GOOD. ARE YOU LORD COMMANDER DANTE?” he asked, turning to the ancient Blood Angel. Dante immediately sank to his knees, bowing his head until the top of his mask nearly touched the ground.
“I am, my Liege. I am humbled by your presence.”
“PLEASE RISE, DANTE,” the Emperor said at once. Dante did so. “YOU HAVE SERVED THE IMPERIUM WITH GLORY, VALOR, SKILL, LOYALTY, AND WISDOM FOR OVER A THOUSAND YEARS. YOU NEED NOT BEND THE KNEE TO ME MORE THAN ONCE.”
“I am…honored beyond words by your praise, my Liege,” Dante said, nearly overcome. “It is the pride of my life to hear you say that, truly.”
“I SPEAK ONLY TRUTH, DANTE,” the Emperor said. “LORD GRIMNIR OF THE SPACE WOLVES TELLS ME YOU WERE CAPABLY LEADING THE BLOOD ANGELS BEFORE HE WAS EVEN BORN. YOU HAVE SERVED ME FOR A LONGER CONTINUOUS TIME THAN EVEN MY SONS. THROUGH LITTLE FAULT OF THEIR OWN,” he added, noting Roboute’s slight grimace. “WHERE DID YOU PROCURE THAT MASK, BY THE WAY? ITS LIKENESS TO SANGUINIUS IS REMARKABLE.”
“It was gifted unto me by the prior Chapter Master of the Blood Angels, my Liege,” Dante said, running a finger along the clamp that sealed it over his head. It parted with a faint hiss, and he lifted it off. Corbulo did not let his considerable surprise show. He had never seen Dante remove the mask on duty.
Dante’s face was nearly gone, replaced by a patchwork of augmetics that left only his mouth, parts of his forehead, and one of his eyes in place. The rest was gone, chopped away by Orks dead for centuries, boiled off by Tyranids from fleets that had died in a past millennium, ripped off by the gnashing fangs of daemons a thousand years banished. What little skin the man still had on his face was white and scarred, crisscrossed with wrinkles. Dante held the mask out for the Emperor to see, and the huge being did so.
Russ caught Guilliman’s eye and cocked his head almost imperceptibly. Guilliman nodded. Neither of them had ever seen a Marine that badly injured still serving, though of course their own experiences did not include the past ten millennia. The mask crackled with a faint electrical charge. It clearly had an embedded Iron Halo.
“It is long-standing tradition for the Master of the Blood to bear our progenitor’s likeness, my Liege,” Dante said, his voice betraying his age as clearly as his visage. Somehow, the image of Sanguinius in his prime on the mask imparted strength to Dante’s presence that he simply lacked in its absence. He secured the mask back onto his collar and it hissed as the seals re-engaged.
“WELL, I CAN SEE YOU TAKE THE ROLE SERIOUSLY, AS IT SHOULD BE, COMMANDER DANTE. I AM ALSO IMPRESSED WITH THE EFFICIENCY WITH WHICH YOU CREATED THIS BASE AND EVAC PLAN FOR THE NATIVES. I HAVE ADDED ADDITIONAL STRUCTURES TO THE BASE, AND I ORDERED ABOUT EIGHTEEN EXTRA TURRETS PUT UP TOO.”
“I saw, my Liege, and I’m glad you did,” Dante said. He dropped his hands to the small of his back respectfully. “We can hold the base a bit longer against the Ork vermin now. The longer we have the base, the more feral worlders we can rescue, of course.”
“OBVIOUSLY, BUT I THINK WE’RE AIMING TOO LOW, TO BE FRANK,” the Emperor said. “I SEE NO REASON TO LET THESE ORKS SIMPLY HAVE THE WORLD WHEN WE’RE DONE WITH IT.” “The Inquisition could virus-bomb it when we’re done, my Liege,” Leman Russ chimed in, though his face and tone suggested exactly how un-fond of the idea he was. “They’ve done that before.”
“THEY HAVE. BUT THIS IS A JUNGLE PLANET. THEY’RE A RARITY IN THIS GALAXY. WE SHOULD AT LEAST ATTEMPT TO PRESERVE IT,” the Emperor pressed.
“If I may, my Liege?” the Blood Raven Librarian put in hesitantly. The Emperor nodded. The Librarian continued. “If you were to spearhead a reprisal force against the Ork warboss, I’m sure we could crush the greenskins in time to save the planet from turning into an Ork breeding ground. If you lead it personally, I mean.”
“INDEED. THAT’S MORE OR LESS WHAT I HAD IN MIND, LIBRARIAN,” the Emperor roared. “DO YOU HAVE A SUGGESTION?”
“I do, my Liege,” he said, his voice gaining strength as he imparted his idea. “We could use the Pyres of the Lost’s boarding teams in that regard, once they’re finished with the boarding effort. Especially if they happen to catch the Warboss on board.”
“AGAIN, I HAD MORE OR LESS PLANNED ON THAT, LIBRARIAN,” the Emperor said. “YOUR POINT?”
“My point, my Liege, is that we could use the natives’ knowledge of the planet against the greenskins,” the Librarian explained. “We could expand the main evacuation base, here, as large as it would be if our full forces were present, including those in space, then have the Guard and Imperial Fists forces we have here on the planet dig in and fortify as much as possible. Meanwhile the rest of the task group uses whatever terrain advantage the locals can give us to slow the greenskins down. Essentially, what Commander Dante did on a vastly larger scale. When the Hulk is cleansed, we simply bring the forces in orbit down and have them take their pre-made places in the defensive forces, then you, my Liege, punch through the center of the green line and kill the Warboss. The resultant anarchy as the enemy turns on itself would be great enough that we could encircle them and grind them to dust with minimal losses.”
Dante nodded. “Reasonable enough. Corbulo, have we sufficient transports now to evacuate all of the Imperial forces left on the surface at once?”
“Not even a fraction, my Lord,” Corbulo said, to Dante’s mild surprise. “The arrival of the Emperor, and the forces you brought with you, my Liege,” he said, glancing up at the Emperor, “strained our capacity to the breaking point. You brought more transports with you, of course, but not enough to improve our ratio of troops-to-evac capacity.”
“UNFORTUNATE, BUT NOT INSURMOUNTABLE,” the Emperor said. “ADDITIONAL ASTARTES ASSETS ARE ON THE WAY, AND THEY ARE BRINGING MANY MORE TRANSPORT VESSELS WITH THEM, MORE THAN WE BROUGHT WITH US. MORE THAN ENOUGH TO SHORTEN THE EVACUATION TIME EVEN WITH OUR HEIGHTENED NUMBERS.”
“Oh.” For a moment, Corbulo lips tightened into a grimace, which quickly faded. “I stand corrected.”
“IT WILL NOT BE ENOUGH TO EVAC NEARLY SEVENTY THOUSAND TROOPS AS WELL AS ALL THE NATIVES AT ONCE, HOWEVER, NOT BY ANY MEANS,” the Emperor continued. “IT WILL HELP, THOUGH, AND I EXPECT LORD CORAX IS EAGER TO RETURN TO BATTLE.”
As a matter of fact, he was not. The Raven Guard Primarch was streaming through the Warp at that very moment. All around him flew the vessels of the Raven Guard, pulled towards the miserable jungle planet like magnets, thanks to the Warp-manipulating powers of the Emperor. Yet, truly, all he needed was a nap.
The Emperor’s summons had come just when he had finally managed to start to feel his old self. He had grown weary of Poedra’s questions within an hour, and had returned to his ancient bedchambers to get some rest, He was vaguely surprised to find that they had been meticulously cleaned out in his absence, to the point that there was nothing left but some furniture and some of his favorite trophies. He had grumbled a bit at the discovery that there was no clothing at all to be found, but had made do, ordering some to be sent up while he slept.
After staying dead to the world for three days solid, he had awoken in a murderous funk and stumbled about the fortress, his battle-brothers telling him all sorts of tales about the state of the Imperium while he hunted down a serf who actually knew how to cook. After downing enough pork and bourbon to kill a lesser man, he finally managed to process the reams of information Poedra had been dropping on him the entire time. After feeling his guts churn at the thought that the Imperium could have fallen so far, he had set about doing what he could. First of all, he had ordered that the Apothecaries examine the medical data they had gathered while he was comatose to see if he had been mutated by the Warp.
The Apothecary had reported with undisguised relief that he had suffered no ill effects genetically whatsoever, thanks entirely, he surmised, to the fact that they would have distorted Fulgrim’s enjoyment. Poedra, meanwhile, had been pestering the Techmarines into fashioning a replacement suit of armor for the one Corax had worn for fully ten thousand years in the Warp, as it was carefully dissected and cleansed. Corax had been of the mindset that the galaxy would keep spinning for his absence, but Poedra had gotten it into his head that babbling on and on – with the utmost respect, of course – like a broken holovid about the state of things was endearing.
After two days of intermittent nightmares and Poedra’s logorrhea, Corax had sealed himself in his rooms with instructions not to be disturbed for anything other than a summons from the Emperor. Sure enough, that very hour, a summons from the Emperor had arrived, ‘requesting’ that he come to Zargh III with every transport he could scrounge up.
The Primarch had stared at the clearly overwhelmed serf for nearly twenty seconds before waving him out and slamming his head down on the pillow. Fortunately, reason had reasserted itself quickly. He fumbled his new fatigues on and relayed the order to the rest of the Raven Guard, and within a few hours, the fleet departed. Corax had spent the astoundingly short flight in a grumpy haze, which he suppressed for the convenience of Poedra and the others who had never seen him before, and wouldn’t understand. He spent his tiny amounts of spare time surveying the Raven Guard armories for anything he would find useful in the field. The final morning before arrival in Zargh, he found himself perusing the crates of carefully-maintained wargear, looking for any tools he would be able to use. His eyes settled on a handheld auspex, and he hefted it, distantly impressed with how light it was compared to the ancient junk he had been used to. Perhaps Poedra had exaggerated the deplorable state of technology in the Imperium?
He clipped the auspex to his belt and continued his inspection, while a pair of Techmarines stood at the hatch, hovering like anxious parents. Corax spotted a small black container at the edge of a shelf, and flicked it open. He gasped at the sight of the contents: a pair of locking pliers he himself had rescued from a cache on Deliverance, before its name changed. One of the Techmarines spoke up. “I apologize, Lord Corax, those aren’t supposed to be there. I’ll put them back in the workshop.” He reached his hand out to grab the tool, but Corax yanked his hand back, staring at the tool in nostalgia. With practiced ease, he spun the pliers around his finger and dropped them back into the container. He grinned at the sight.
“Haven’t lost it…” he said idly, clipping the tiny container to his belt next to the auspex. The Techmarines exchanged a glance, but wisely kept their mouths shut. Corax finished his browsing, and scooped a double handful of extra bolt magazines into pouches on his belt, then slid a pair of normal flare guns, the kind the Guard used to mark landing sites at night, into the same bags. He turned to the Techmarines and suppressed a yawn. “All right, tech-brothers, let’s get this war started.”
About a day later, his ships had arrived at the besieged planet of Zargh III, and Corax had failed to catch more than a few hours sleep in the interim. He had been lucky enough to grab a few grox buns on the way up to the bridge, which he scarfed down while waiting for the ships in orbit to acknowledge his arrival. When they did, he had been surprised to find that the Emperor’s summons had been a personal one. The vox officer on the Neverending had apparently been acclimatized to the presence of Primarchs and the Emperor, because he greeted Lord Corax’s vessel as if it were just there to deliver a pizza.
“Molten Shadow, this is Neverending, granting your request for an orbital berth and a teleport queue,” the vox operator said, and a small icon appeared in the middle of the holographic representation of Dante’s base. “Commander Dante says you are clear to depart troops whenever you want.”
“Acknowledged, Neverending,” the Molten Shadow’s vox officer replied, glancing over his shoulder to see Corax munching another bun, looking pensive. “We’ll drop units as soon as possible. Shadow out.”
Poedra stood behind his Primarch, helmet on and weapons held at the ready. “Lord Corax? Any final instructions before we depart?”
Corax swallowed the bun hastily and shook his head. “No, brother Poedra. We’re going to play this out as we best can, so just start deploying the vehicles we have through the teleporter, then drop the rest of the force in assault pods. We only have a little over one company’s strength with us, so we’ll move fast.” “Aye, Lord,” Poedra said, relaying the order through his own comm to the deployment bays.
Down on the surface below, Roboute Guilliman was overseeing the deployment of the Guard forces at his disposal in defense of the base. It was unknown how many Orks had moved ahead of the horde, but with the complete destruction of the vanguard army Dante had fought, their Kommandos would be the only advance threat. Guilliman was lucky enough to have a Catachan regiment at his disposal, whose native world so closely resembled this one. Their expertise had been invaluable in preparing the army’s formations fortification.
The Orks were only a few hundred kilometers from the base now, and the Imperial forces had been running skirmishes with them the entire way. The Orks had been their usual persistent selves, breaking a few small groups off to attack Imperial harrying units, then re-merging back into the main group. They had overrun several Imperial Guard units already, and they were barely slowed by the traps and ambushes the Imperials had laid in their path. The Orks at the rear of the column seemed like they were distracted by something, however, and they hadn’t kept up with the bulk of the army.
Dante himself was standing in the Command center at his base when Corax arrived, watching the Ork’s progress with trepidation. The Emperor himself was leading the counter-charge. It would be educational to see how he performed.
“Lord Dante?” Corax asked, trying to keep his weariness from his voice. Dante spun around at the sound of the Primarch’s question.
“Yes, Lord Corax. You honor me with your presence,” he said, saluting respectfully. Corax returned it and gestured at the holographic display.
“Give me a sitrep, Lord Dante. I need to know where to insert my own forces.”
“Of course, Lord Corax. The Orks landed here…” Dante pointed at the map, where a large green blob eclipsed an entire valley complex. “This is where I engaged their vanguard and destroyed it,” he said pointing at another spot between the landing site and the base. “And this is where we are,” he said, pointing at their own location.
“I can see that, Lord Dante,” Corax said coolly. “I want to know where my own troops would be most effective.”
“Here, Lord Corax,” the ancient Blood Angel said abashedly. He placed an icon on the map where several small river tributaries came together. “The Orks will reach this spot in a few hours. If you were to attack them here, their nearby forces would consolidate and nail the position. That would draw their forwardmost units away from the Guard sappers who are planting mines in their path, and give them time to widen the minefield.”
“Done,” Corax said, tapping his comm-bead and relaying Dante’s suggestions. When he was done, he turned back to the holographic display and selecting a few other Imperial icons. “What are these two groups here?”
“Adeptus Sororitas battle detachments, Lord Corax, each about battalion strength.” Dante brought a quick summary of their strength up next to their icons. Corax read them over and grimaced.
“Two thousand women against eleven million Orks?”
“Those troops are capable, determined, pious fighters, Lord Corax, make no mistake of it,” Dante cautioned, “and they are not engaging the Orks directly. They’re hitting the greenskins on the flank.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Corax said, dismissing them from his mind. He skimmed the tactical display a bit more and looked over the Ork army, then spotted the widening gap between their two groups. “What’s this gap caused by?”
“The forward, larger portion is the main force, and we think the Warboss is in it. The rear group has most of the heavier vehicles, including the gargants, of which we have spotted five,” Dante said, zooming the holographic view in on the greenskin mass. “However, our orbital cameras have also spotted several explosions at the camp where the native Orks lived before the new Warboss arrived. We’ve been using our orbital weapons to pick off enemy units, but we don’t have many ships with weapons heavy enough to destroy ground targets, and what few we have are effectively blocked from action by the presence of the Space Hulk.”
“About that, Lord Dante, do you need my troops to help take the Space Hulk?” Corax asked, changing the subject.
“No, Lord Corax, Lord El’Jonson is handling it personally, I’ve been told,” Dante said. “I would greatly appreciate it if you joined Lord Guilliman at the front. I’ll be heading out as well, as soon as the Land Raiders the Dark Angels brought with them are deployed. Their Ares will spearhead the charge, alongside the Emperor himself.”
“Yes, I saw that he was in charge here,” Corax said, his tone changing to distant respect. “I’m glad he’s so eager to return to the front.”
This was more or less an accurate appraisal. The Emperor, at that very moment, was leading two companies of the Blood Angels towards the Ork lines. A trio of Land Raider tanks chugged along behind them, with the other Raider and the Ares on the flanks. The Astartes were quite understandably unnerved by the fact that they were being led into battle by a daemon, but none raised a complaint. The Guard forces ahead of them were knee-deep in it now, the artillery regiments dropping as much ordinance on the edges of the Ork horde as possible. Nobody present expected the Orks to break, of course, but it did the trick: by destroying the Orks at the front of the pack, it slowed the time of arrival down.
The Emperor paused when they reached the back of the Guard artillery line, and turned to face Leman Russ, who had been leading the Guard contingent. The Space Wolf saluted distractedly as the cluster of Guard higher-ups who had been in conference with him failed miserably not to gape at the enormous orange Emperor. “LORD RUSS. WHAT IS THE ESTIMATED TIME OF ARRIVAL FOR THE ORKS AT THE FRONTMOST GUARD LINES?” he asked.
“About fifteen minutes until the Orks are in melee range, my Liege,” Russ replied, his eyes tracking the greenskins on the auspex he carried.
“GOOD. I’LL BE ATTACKING THEIR COLUMN FROM THE RIGHT FLANK PERSONALLY. I TRUST YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THE LAND RAIDERS?”
“Naturally,” Russ replied without looking up. He grinned at the pasty Lord Commissar next to him, who was looking a bit green at the sight of the Emperor. “We’ll hold them long enough.”
Just under sixty miles away, Jaghatai Khan was riding high.
“Oooohhh yeeahh, take that, you xenos weaklings!” he roared, casting high and low with his Lightning Claw. The few Orks that clung tenatiously to the sides of his rampaging Squiggoth fell off leaking ichor, and he laughed at the top of his lungs. “Come on, you greenskin trash! Come and get some of this!” He opened up with the Orkish bolter he had scrounged from a fallen alien, and the primitive weapon barked and spat bolts at a cluster of shootas that were desperately trying to stop him. He wasn’t particularly worried, though. Even a pack of shootas couldn’t stop a Squiggoth.
He roared with laughter as the terrified animal ran right over the Orks, and he tossed a ‘liberated’ grenade at a tank of promethium the gretchins that were decorating the squiggoth’s legs had been hauling. It went off with a satisfying *fwump* of burning liquid, incinerating the Squiggoth’s tracks. The White Scar Primarch yelled a war cry and squeezed the trigger on the forward-mounted lobba, sending a shell into the packed ranks of the Orks in front of him.
Jaghatai tossed another grenade at a Nob that was waving and smacking his boyz into line, trying to coordinate them. The grenade blasted him apart at the joints, and the boyz roared and fired, hitting each other as much as the Squiggoth. Jaghatai triggered the ork bolter again and hosed down the pack of boyz, then twisted the spear he had driven into the green beasts’ spine to the side. It screamed in agony and twisted to follow the blade, changing course to run straight off a cliff.
At the last moment, Jaghatai grabbed the pair of bolters he had strapped to the beasts’ back, and jumped off. It went roaring over the side, slamming into the steep slope and tumbling down. He didn’t even pause to watch it, instead spinning on his heel and draining both bolters into a pack of stupefied slugga boyz on the edge. They roared in challenge, charging forward, but he stood his ground, slicing the frontrunner to shreds with his lightning claw, then slamming one empty bolter into another and tossing him backwards at the rest of the mob. He raised the other one and fired the last bolt in the clip, chucking it into the crowd. The detonation knocked one luckeless greenskin backwards, but the others heaved forward, roaring a challenge.
Jaghatai lunged forward, meeting their charge head-on, with all the strength his Terminator armor could lend him. The mob’s charge stopped and started to reverse as he sliced through the pack of aliens. The biggest one of the pack broke free of the tangle and slashed at the White Scar with his choppa, which Jaghatai barely managed to duck in time. It nicked the skin on the side of his head, drawing a splash of blood, but Jaghatai reacted instantly, ripping one of the other Ork’s choppas loose and slicing the Ork’s head clean off.
Silence descended on the scene. Jaghatai dropped the choppa over the cliff and strained his ears, but there was nothing. Either he had somehow killed every single Ork nearby, or they had all been driven off by something else. Jaghatai bent over and scooped up a pair of grenades and a primitive bolt pistol from the heap of dead greenskins, and spared a glance for the crumpled Squiggoth at the bottom of the hill. “Damn shame,” he sighed. “I wish I could find a mount that big back home.”
The air grew still. Jaghatai paused and listened, then realized what was about to happen. He dropped to his knees and clamped his armored gauntlets over his head, screwing his eyes shut. A thunderclap that ripped leaves off branches and a beam of light that seemed to burn right through his eyelids split the air, the unmistakable side effects of a cruiser’s lance battery firing at a ground target. Jaghatai cracked his eyes open and looked for the lingering lines of electrostatic energy that would be arcing around the target…and found them several miles away, in the same direction as the cliff edge.
Another beam of light slammed into the ground, much farther away, and Jaghatai blinked away the afterimage, scrambled back from the edge, and took off like a daemon was at his heels. He had no idea how close the bombardment was going to get, and it was never a good idea to get closer. He crashed through the forest like the squiggoth had before, although he kept half an eye out for any signs of movement. After running for a few minutes, he paused, panting in the humid air, and stared at the unfamiliar ground before him. There was a huge mess of tire and tread marks, and the outlines of heavy boots, all heading straight away from the cliff side. Jaghatai hefted one of the two stolen bolters and followed. His curiosity was piqued, no question. He was causing the one thing Orks loved above all else: a big fight. Why had they veered off?
A loud *thump* of exploding shells echoed through the jungles, coming from somewhere ahead of him. Jaghatai shrugged. He had his answer. The noises continued, intermingled with the roaring of a fire, by the sound of it, and a lot of screaming. Jaghatai resumed running, heading for the disturbance.
Columns of smoke rose above the trees, and the noises grew quieter as he approached. Jaghatai saw a glimpse of sunlight through thich trees ahead, probably a clearing. He slowed his approach, and moved silently to the edge of the trees, peering around one of them.
A gigantic smoke cloud eveloped most of the clearing. A trio of burnaboyz were pouring gouts of fire into the mass as a wartrukk drove into it, but whatever was in there was putting up one hell of a fight. The trukk flew out a few seconds later, broken in half and on fire. An arc of purple energy leaped to the flamer-wielding boyz, and they exploded in a shower of gore. Jaghatai ducked back behind the tree and considered his options. Whatever was fighting the Orks was winning handily, and would probably make short work of him, too. Perhaps it was time to just go liberate another Squiggoth and make his way to the Imperial lines? Yes, he decided, that would be most prudent. However, he couldn’t resist taking one last look around the clearing. He leaned out, silently, straining his eyes at the cloud of smoke. Something seemed to be moving behind the slowly dissipating cloud.
Whatever it was, it was gargantuan. Easily four times the size of the squiggoth he had hijacked, just vertically. It had claws the size of an Astartes, easily, and a jaw that looked big enough to sweep a bus aside without trouble. It was walking out of the cloud of smoke, heading purposefully for a pair of Orks that were trapped under a slab of metal from the trukk. It reached them, and slammed one massive hand down on it, squishing them both into paste.
Jaghatai, at that point, decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valour. He started to back away from the sight, but only made it a few steps before the creature’s head snapped around and fixed him with horrible, beady eyes.
He snarled and turned to bolt from the clearing, when a psychic voice spoke in his mind. “JAGHATAI? WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
Jaghatai arrested his turn and turned back, utterly confused. “I’m…who are you?”
“IT’S ME, JAGHATAI. THE EMPEROR OF MANKIND,” the voice said, as the huge daemon flicked a chunk of gretchin off its claws.
Jaghatai’s jaw dropped, before he remembered the entitiy he had sensed as he broke free of the chronovortex in the Webway. He had realized who it was, and this being possessed the same voice. “Father? What happened to you?”
“IT’S A CONVOLUTED STORY INVOLVING CHAOS AND POOR TIMING. I’LL TELL YOU THE WHOLE THING WHEN WE GET YOU TO SAFETY. WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING OUT HERE? I WAS GOING TO SCOUR THE WEBWAY LOOKING FOR YOU.”
“I escaped the Webway days ago, Father, thanks to you,” Jaghatai said, stepping into the clearing. “That story can wait. I want to know why you look like Khorne’s favorite pet.”
“FINE, FINE. I SENSED THAT ABBADON WAS ABOUT TO UNLEASH AN UNSTOPPABLE PLAGUE ON CADIA, AND THAT A GROUP OF HUMAN PSYKERS WERE ABOUT TO DO SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID THAT WOULD HAVE HAD CATASTROPHIC EFFECTS ON ME,” the Emperor said. He took a few steps forward, the ground shaking with each. “I WAS DESPERATE. I SUMMONED A DAEMON AND MERGED WITH IT. SIMPLE AS THAT.”
“I’ve…no clue how you managed to do that,” Jaghatai said, his distrust flaring up. The Emperor sighed, or at least it looked like he did.
“I DON’T BLAME YOU FOR BEING SUSPICIOUS, BUT COME ON. IF I HAD ULTERIOR MOTIVES, I’D JUST KILL YOU AND BE DONE WITH IT. YOU CAN GO ASK ROBOUTE AND RUSS WHEN WE GET BACK TO THE BASE IF YOU’RE SUSPICIOUS, I RESCUED THEM ALREADY.”
Jaghatai gaped. “Leman? You found Leman?”
“YEAH, I DID. I GUESS YOU HAD ALREADY DONE YOUR DISAPPEARING ACT WHEN ROBOUTE WAS MANGLED, THOUGH. WELL, YOU’LL SEE THEM BOTH SOON ENOUGH. LET’S GET YOU OUT OF HERE.” “Very well,” Jaghatai said, his distrust settling almost down, “I’ve had enough of this stinking jungle. Are we close to Imperial lines?”
“NO, BUT I CAN TELEPORT YOU BACK THERE WITH NO TROUBLE,” the Emperor said. He planted his claws in the ground, and a blast of purple light emanated from him for an instant. Jaghatai had a feeling of whiplash before he was suddenly deposited in a maintenance bay in the base. The Emperor was nowhere to be seen, though several nearby Techpriests were looking a bit windswept by the rush of air preceeding Jaghatai’s arrival. The Emperor’s voice continued in his head. “I NEED TO PRESS THE ORK LINES A BIT MORE BEFORE I CAN REJOIN YOU. GO TRACK DOWN ROBOUTE, HE SHOULD BE BACK BY NOW.”
Jaghatai looked around, bewildered, as the Techpriests scrambled for an alarm. Jaghatai raised one arm to forestall them. “Wait, wait, don’t sound the-”
A shrieking noise split the air and the Techpriests scrambled out. Jaghatai closed his eyes and sighed. “Thanks, dad, you idiot. Way to not tell people I’m coming.” Two of the other doors rushed open, and a pile of Guardsmen poured in, lasrifles at the ready. Jaghatai turned to face them, trying to keep his temper level. “Dismissed, troopers. Silence the alarm.”
“Who the hell are you?” one of them shouted, waving his rifle at the Primarch.
“I am LORD Jaghatai Khan, and if you don’t find a new place to point that, I’ll find a new place to store it,” Jaghatai snarled. One of the other Guardsmen made an ‘oh’ noise of recognition and hastily gestured at the others to stand down. The apparently smarter Guardsman immediately knelt at Jaghatai’s feet, and the rest followed suit, albeit hesitantly. Jaghatai buried his face in his armored hands and walked past them to turn off the alarm. He grabbed one Guardsman and pointed at the comm panel next to the alarm, glaring. The Guardsman tapped the call button, his face gleaming with sweat. “Ah, control, team ten. False alarm, the contact was friendly.”
“Acknowledged, team ten,” came the response. “ID on contact?”
“Ah…Lord Khan, sir,” the Guardsman said. Jaghatai gestured at the other Guardsmen to get up, which they did, some exchanging nervous glances.
The comm was silent for a long moment. Jaghatai’s glare deepened, much to the Guardsman’s consternation. Finally, the operator came back on. “Uh, acknowledged, team ten. One of the psykres in the command team is saying the Emperor just contacted him and passed along the news. Put him on the comm.”
“I’m right here, soldier,” Jaghatai said. “What kind of welcome is this?”
“Our apologies, sir,” the operator said quickly. “You’re not where the Emperor told us you would be. Would you mind reporting to the command HQ, sir? Lord Guilliman is requesting your presence.”
“Fine,” Jaghatai said curtly. “I’m en route.” He turned from the comm panel and stared at the Guardsmen. They shifted under his gaze until one of them spoke up.
“Sir? Is there something else we could do for you?”
“The HQ, fools! I just got here! I have no idea where it is!” Jaghatai nearly yelled. What kind of circus of tomfoolery was going on in this base?
“Oh! Of course, sir! I’ll show you,” the squad sergeant said, flushing. He shoved the nearest door open and held it. “Right this way, sir, and watch your feet. There’s rough riders around.”
Jaghatai grumbled and stepped past the Guardsman, nearly crushing his arm against the doorframe. The sergeant snapped his fingers and the rest of the troopers hurried into an escort formation. They headed off for a wo-story prefabricated building a short way away. The base around them was a riot of activity, with dozens of transport trucks and Chimeras sumbling about, ferrying feral worlders – some of them looking sedated – to waiting shuttles or teleporters. The temporary barracks structures looked deserted, their occupants out in the field, preparing for the inevitable Ork onslaught.
A very familiar noise caught Jaghatai’s ear, and he paused. The troopers behind him nearly collided with him, but he barely noticed. A few seconds later, a pair of Tallarn rough riders on their horses trotted by, clearly preparing to go reinforce the front lines. Jaghatai grinned at the sight for a moment before jogging after the Sergeant, who hadn’t noticed the pause. The Guardsman opened the door of the HQ, acknowledging the salutes of the honor guards at the door with a nod. Jaghatai walked straight in, leaving the Guardsmen behind. Guilliman was hunched over a very nervous female vox operater, whose hands were visibly shaking on her controls. Fortunately for her, Guilliman halted his scrutiny of her console when he heard his brother approach. He straightened up as much as the low ceiling would allow and stuck his hand out. “Brother. It does my heart good to see you alive and well.”
Jaghatai returned the handshake, his habitual grimace twisting into a smirk. “Roboute. Good to see you. What happened to your neck?”
“Fuck you,” Guilliman said casually, turning to point at the holo display. The situation was grim, Jaghatai saw, with several Imperial units engaging the Ork hordes, but getting pushed back by the inexorable greenskin tide.
Fully forty regiments of the Imperial Guard were dug in on the middle of the line, some with tanks so close to each other that they were nearly touching. Several Land Raiders and nearly four hundred Astartes were hammering away at the nearest point of the Orks army to the Emperor’s position. On the opposite flank, a whole lot of completely unfamiliar contact icons were cutting into the Ork flanks, and Jaghatai pointed them out. “Who are those men?”
“Nothing of the kind, I’m told, brother,” Guilliman said. “They are the battle-sisters of the Adeptus Sororitas.”
“What? When did that happen?” Jaghatai asked, surprised. There hadn’t been any of those when he got sucked into the Webway.
“Apparently, around six thousand years ago. I’m told it was the third worst thing to happen to the Imperium, all told, the conflict that spawned them. They’re the Chamber Militant of the Ordos Hereticus,” Guilliman said, “Another new institution.”
“Things are changing for the worse, it seems,” Jaghatai muttered. Louder, he asked “How can I help?”
“I appreciate your offer. We have a regiment of Tallarn Rough Riders and a regiment of Septiim Defenders on Rapid reaction status, ready to punch into any Orks that break the Guard lines, though they haven’t managed it yet. I figure one thousand hardened cavalry and two thousand elite sappers and defensive anti-tank units should fit your experience quite well,” Roboute said.
Jaghatai grinned again, more naturally this time. “You know me well. Do you have any Jetbikes or Attack Bikes I could use?”
“Jetbikes are apparently discontinued, actually, brother,” Roboute said, to Jaghatai’s disappointment. “We have a pair of Blood Raven bikes sitting in a hangar unused at the moment, though. You’re welcome to them.”
“Excellent. Who are the Blood Ravens? A Blood Angel successor?” Jaghatai asked.
“Thousand Sons, actually, if I recall their hurried confession properly,” Roboute said, and hid his smile at Jaghatai’s stunned expression. “But forget that. We are short on time. The Orks are ravaging our forward units. Get out there and make a difference, brother.”
“Of course. Wish me warrior’s fortune,” Jaghatai said, and headed out the door. If possible, the base was even more frantic now. Entire buildings were being broken down and crammed into transports to be lifted up to the fleet in orbit. Jaghatai spotted the hangar Roboute had mentioned, and walked in. The sight of two Bikes sitting in the back of the hangar was wonderfully nostalgic, even if they were in the wrong colors. He walked up to one of them and experimentally tested their balance, wondering if his Terminator armor was going to be problematic for them. They held his weight, though, and he glanced around for a fueling hose.
“Let me, sir,” an Enginseer said, popping out of a pile of tools and crates. He grabbed a hose and plugged it into the bike, then glanced over the Primarch’s armor. “Wow, I haven’t seen Kensik 3 armor in ages. They fell to the Dark Eldar so long ago, most of their products are museum pieces nowadays.”
“Hmph,”Jaghatai snorted. “One more thing for those xenos trash to answer for.”
“Indeed…I didn’t know the Scars were part of Dante’s task group,” the Enginseer said.
“Who the hell is Dante?” Jaghatai asked, turning his glare down on the red-robed Mechanicum adept.
“Are…are you serious, Marine? He’s the Force Commander!” the Enginseer said in surprise. “Well, before the Omnissiah returned to lead us in person.”
“I just got here,” Jaghatai muttered irritably.
The Enginseer looked at him askance and pulled the hose back out of the bike. “All set, Marine. Omnissiah’s beneficence be with you.”
“Likewise,” Jaghatai said, revving the engine and putting the exchange entirely out of his mind. He suddenly recalled that he still had both Ork bolters strapped to his armor, and dropped them on the floor of the garage. “Here, have fun,” he said, peeling off and heading north. The wind pulled at his hair, and it carried the familiar smell of burned promethium. He smirked again. Home, sweet home.
He reached down and grabbed the lance tucked into the holder on the side of the bike, hefting it to check its balance. Finding it satisfactory, he clipped back in and returned his attention to the rough dirt road. Several miles ahead, drifting clouds of smoke and flashes of white and yellow light betrayed the location of the center Imperial lines. He gunned the throttle and drove off, feeling more like his old self than he had in ten millennia.
Ahead, he could see the rough clearing the sappers had cleared, where the horses of the Rough Riders were gathered. He stopped the bike in front of the Rough Riders regimental colonel, who was looking very surprised to see him. He dismounted and walked over, his huge suit and modified physique nearly bringing him up to the colonel’s eyes. The Tallarn saluted, clearly overawed. “My Lord, you honor us with your presence. I’m sure your divine leadership will carry us to victory.”
“Only if your men carry their fair shares of the burden, Colonel,” Jaghatai said curtly, in no mood for garbage on his first day back on the job. “I’ll be leading the charge, not supporting it. I expect that your men know how to handle jungle terrain?”
“In fairness, Lord Jaghatai, we’re not jungle fighters,” the Tallarn colonel said, disturbed by Jaghatai’s lack of religious protocol. “We’re assigned to the defense of the line, should the Emperor’s protection fail any portion of the defenses. That’s why our regiment was chosen, we can react quickly.”
“True,” Jaghatai sighed. Was he not going to get to fight?
“And, my Lord, my troops maintain the anti-vehicle defenses, supporting any part of the line that needs anti-tank weapons,” the Septiim colonel said, glaring at the Tallarn. Clearly he wanted to show off too. Jaghatai clapped his hands together once, and both men immediately shut up and stopped glaring at each other.
“Then you had best get ready, soldier. I’m holding your two regiments in reserve until we’re needed.”
High above, aboard the Pyres of the Lost, Lord El’Jonson was wading through the corridors of the Space Hulk, trying to keep his bearings. Half of the damned bulkheads were either rusted out or damaged by battle or the warp, and his troops hadn’t been aboard before. Luckily enough, however, the Magos had indeed found new motivation, and had managed to get his HUD working properly. The map was projected in a corner of his vision, and it seemed accurate enough.
He was preceded by a quartet of Imperial Fists Terminators, with the four Blood Ravens with him bringing up the rear. The rest of his reinforcements trailed behind them in single file, looking for ambush sites or traps the first wave had missed. So far, they had found none.
Their attack on the Ork position next to the power room had been resolved, though it had taken longer than the Primarch had wanted. Now, nearly a day of constant fighting had worn the Orks down to a mere few hundred chambers and a single hangar bay, with the bridge and a few other crucial room left to go. El’Jonson had blasted his way through through the first line with no real difficulty, but now the Orks had fallen back to the rooms they knew they had to protect, and they were dug in deep. He had found himself surprisingly grateful for the presence of the Blood Ravens, who had managed to forsee several ambushes that would have ripped them to pieces otherwise. Whatever sins against the Imperium they had committed, they were clearly willing to earn redemption.
El’Jonson arrived at his destination, the antechamber of the bridge. Several dozen Terminators and a small squad of close-combat servitors were arrayed around the four hatches that led into the room, with the nine surviving, uninjured Deathwatch troops each having taken charge of a squad. Commander Revka saluted as El’Jonson entered the room. “Lord El’Jonson, I’m honored. Are you prepared for the final push?”
“No, not until I have an idea of what your plan may be, Commander Revka,” El’Jonson snapped.
“As you say, Lord. We have twenty-seven Terminators in this room, plus seven other Astartes and nine servitors. Plus you, the four Terminators you brought with you, and the Librarians,” Revka rattled off, in case El’Jonson was blind. “My plan to is breach all four chamber hatches simultaneously with magnesium bombs, send my own Deathwatch units in first to clean out any traps, then split the force evenly among the hatches with a standard clearing action. Estimated time between breach and all units through the hatches: four seconds.”
“Too slow,” El’Jonson said. “The Orks have surely placed flamer units behind the hatches. The breaching units would get fried. We’ve seen it before.”
“Then what do you recommend, Lord?” Revka said, hiding his irritation. “There are no other entrances.”
“We don’t need other entrances, we need other weapons, Revka. The Librarians,” El’Jonson said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, “should project their powers through the walls first. Create phantoms for the Orks to shoot.”
“Such as, Lord? Orks are brave creatures,” Revka said, glancing at the Librarians.
“Something that Orks that live on a Space Hulk should have learned to hate long ago, Commander. Wyrdboyz.”
Boss Grog of the Neck-slicers clan hated waiting. He could SMELL the humies outside! Why weren’t they attacking?!
“Boyz! Get ya shootas ready! The humies will come through da door any bleedin’ second now! Burnaz, get ya fires goin’!” he roared. The boyz scattered throught the ruined Battle Barge bridge yelled their acknowledgement and leveled their weapons. Grog spun his powachoppa around one finger and snarled. One of the wyrdboyz was leaving the line. “Oi! Get yer arse back in da line, ya grot!” he yelled. The wyrdboy turned to look at him, right as his eyeballs exploded. Grog blinked. “Oi! What ya doin’? They’z humies out there, get ya eyes back in place!”
The wyrd tilted its head back and screamed. A bunch of glowy red things flew out of his head, some of them hitting the floor and running away. Grog raised his powachoppa and bolted for the wyrdboy. “Quit that shite ya bleedin’ squig-herder! Ya getting’ your bitz all over da boss’s ship!” The other Orks watched in befuddled amusement. Grog swiped his powachoppa at the wyrdboy, but it exploded a moment before he could reach it. Grog skidded to a halt and watched with his fanged jaw dropping as a giant, red-stained arm reached out of the pile of guts, scrabbling around on the floor like it was looking for something.
Grog roared and slammed his powa-choppa down on the writhing hand, but the blade passed right through. Before he could think about what had just happened with his tiny brain, the doors flew open in a blast of white. The Nearest Orks had dropped their guard, and their eyes were dazzled by the light. Eight Deathwatch Terminators charged in, firing plasma and metal storm rounds at the greenskins. The burnaz were cut down before they even had time to turn around. The rest of the Orks responded immediately, turning their bolters on the Terminators. It was far too late, though, the first eight were through and moving sideways to allow the next eight to pass. Within ten more seconds, it was messily over. The illusion vanished as the Librarians released it, panting and red-faced, safe on the other side of the bulkhead. El’Jonson stepped onto the bridge, casting a critical eye over the carnage.
“Not bad, Commander. Not bad. Casualties?”
“Two slightly wounded from shrapnel damage, no deaths, Lord,” Revka said, prodding a twitching wyrdboy with his armored boot. “We still have to take some other chambers on the ship, and we haven’t even started on the last hangar, but the bridge is ours.”
“Very well, Commander. See to the wounded. I’m going to head up the hangar assault myself,” El’Jonson said, directing his gaze at the recovering Librarians.
Vulkan stood on the edge of the landing pad and shielded his eyes. The glare from the shuttle descending towards his position was harsh, but he felt the need to greet it in person. He had been informed by the Sororitas that the Salamanders had dispatched a small ship, crewed by over two dozen Techmarines and the Forgefather, along with certain other higher-ups, to meet him halfway to Prometheus. The Warp currents left by the Emperor’s travels had made the journey lightning quick.
He hefted the bag that carried his few meager possessions, including his beloved chisel, and turned to face the trio of Battle Sisters that had accompanied him to the pad. “Battle sisters, thank you for your vigilance,” he said, as the shuttle neared the pad. “I appreciate your assistance.”
“It was the honor of our lives, Lord Vulkan,” Julia said, beaming. One of the other Sororitas tapped her ear and looked distracted for a moment, then gestured at the perimeter fence.
“That accursed paparazzi is outside again, Sister Maynard. See to him, would you?” she asked.
“Yes, sister,” the third one said, loping off to the fence, brandishing her sarissa. The other Sororitas wandered after her, mumbling about nosy reporters. Julia took a few steps back as the shuttle’s engines kicked up dust. Vulkan effortlessly swung the kitbag over his shoulder and turned to face his erstwhile tutor. “It’s been an atypically relaxing few days, Julia. Please be sure to thank our host for me, would you?”
“Of course, Lord Vulkan,” she said. Vulkan bowed formally, and made to rise, when he felt her hand grab his shoulder. She planted a kiss on his cheek, and he straightened back up, surprised. She flushed beet red and returned the bow. “I hope we meet again some day.” Without another word, she turned and made a beeline for the manor, glancing back over her shoulder a few times.
Vulkan slowly shook his head and grinned. “Kids.”
The shuttle’s ramp dropped, and a pair of Imperial Navy provosts walked down, coming to parade-ground attention at the bottom. As one, they drew their weapons up to attention and clicked their heels sideways, facing each other. Vulkan took the invitation, walking up the ramp. He spotted a pair of luxuriously-appointed chairs facing one another from either side of the small cabin at the top, one of which was occupied by a Techmarine in Salamanders colors. The Techmarine immediately rose to his feet and saluted. “Lord Vulkan. Welcome back.”
“Good to be back, Techbrother,” Vulkan said, dropping his bag to the floor with a *clank*. “I have missed civilization.”
“I’m sure, Forgefather,” the Techmarine said. He stood at ease as Vulkan nonchalantly shoved the bag under one of the chairs and dropped into the unoccupied one with a sigh. “Chapter Master Tu’Shan is awaiting you on board the Chalice of Fire, with the current Forgefather Vulkan.”
Vulkan stared. “The current what?”
“Ah, the title of the person entrusted with recovering the Artefacts you created is Forgefather Vulkan, Lord, in your honor.”
“Oh. Uh, that’ll get confusing fast,” Vulkan said.
“He’Stan is his name, and he was Captain of the Fourth Great Company before ascending to his current rank,” the Techmarine said.
The Techmarine was loaded for bear, Vulkan noted, with what looked like a needler in his mechadendrite and two pistols in his holsters. He pointed them out. “Expecting boarders?”
“No, lord, but it’s entirely possible that we will be dispatched to the fronts as soon as you’re up to speed,” the Techmarine said, reaching for his helmet. He paused, his hand on the seal, and glanced at Vulkan. Vulkan gestured dismissively, and the techmarine removed the helmet. He had been modified with extensive bionics, Vulkan noted, but that was to be expected from a Salamander Techmarine.
“Any idea how long the flight will be?” Vulkan asked.
“Yes, lord, about two days. The warp currents are amazingly strong.”
“They would be,”Vulkan said, shaking his head again. He glanced over the cabin. “Pretty luxurious for an Astartes chapter.”
“It’s not ours,” the Techmarine hastened to explain. “It’s a loaner from the Navy. They had a vessel at the coordinates where we were going to set up our rendezvous, and we saw no harm in them tagging along.”
“Ah.” The two provosts finished whatever they were doing outside and walked back in, securing the ramp. It lifted and sealed in place, and both men took guard positions at the aft of the cabin.
The ship vibrated audibly as its thrusters kicked in, and it accelerated smoothly into the air. Vulkan felt the familiar sensation of being pressed back into his seat. The cabin rocked a bit as the shuttle pulled free of the atmosphere, and the Techmarine leaned forward to press down on the trap of Vulkan’s bag with the toe of his boot.
Vulkan waited for the rumbling to cease a few minutes later before reaching down and lifting the bag. The Techmarine cocked his head, gesturing to the next room on the tiny shuttle. “Lord Vulkan, the Navy crew prepared a bedchamber if you needed it. Your message said that you had had a very trying experience.”
“Indeed, brother, but several days at a beach resort goes a long way,” Vulkan said drily. He stood back up and stretched, nearly touching the ceiling of the cabin. “Still, I get the feeling that rest will once more be a luxury soon enough.”
“Can’t say I’d know, Lord Vulkan,” the Techmarine said in the same tone, “vacation time isn’t exactly on our list of priorities.
The noises of seven thousand boots ringing on steel was deafening. Fulgrim watched from a distance as the assembled ranks of the Emperor’s Children and many more Noise Marines besides assembled in front of his palace, as packs of daemonettes and warp sprites writhed behind them. The lovely sounds of the captured xenos the returning warbands had dragged with them were drowned out completely by the legion’s marching. A few rows of possessed vehicles and a pair of Secret Keepers led the army, with fully fifteen Obliterators standing on each flank. Fulgrim viewed the assembled legion of Slaanesh with glee. “You escaped me, brother Corax, but soon enough…you will be mine once more.”
A shrieking noise echoed over the courtyard as a Keeper of Secrets dragged his tentacles over the captured xenos. They screamed and tried to flee, but velvet hands rose from the ground and held them in place. The daemon sucked out their souls and devoured them, and Fulgrim smiled contentedly at the sight, reveling in the sensation. The daemon finished its snack and turned to the Prince, hefting a scimitar high.
Fulgrim saw the signal and leaped from his balcony, landing in front of the assembled Noise Marines. As one, they turned to face him. He threw his head back and roared, catching the ears of every assembled being. “My Children! Sons of Slaanesh! We go to take our vengeance on the pitiful servants of the corpse Emperor today! We shall suck their souls barren and ravage their Spire, and sacrifice their geneseeds to Slaanesh! March! March unto war!”
The battle for Zargh 3 was nearing its climax. The Imperial army had fought harder and longer than even Dante had assumed it would, with the arrival of the Emperor and the Primarchs turning the tide like no other portent could have. The Guard and Sororitas forces had interpreted it as divine intervention, which the Emperor hadn’t dissuaded. The Astartes forces had been as phlegmatic about his return as he had expected them to be, and Jaghatai seemingly hadn’t lost his skill at cavalry charges, slicing the Ork advance units to ribbons.
Still, the force of a dozen million Orks is an unstoppable one, and even with the Emperor teleporting around, blasting away at their flanks, they simply didn’t have the forces necessary to stop the greenskins completely. The Emperor was restrained by the presence of so many humans on the planet; he couldn’t simply cut loose like he had against Thracka.
After several days of campaigning, the last of the feral worlders who had managed to make it to the evacuation site had been lifted to orbit, and the Pyres of the Lost had been cleansed. The Raven Guard fleet had provided the transports needed to move the rest of the civilians into orbit, and the only humans on the ground were the natives too far from the temple to be evacuated safely, a few hundred Guard troops that hadn’t already died or gotten off-planet, and Dante.
Dante and the Emperor stood outside one of the prefabricated buildings that was being rigged to blow by the last of the Septiim sappers. The sky claws and shuttles were lifting from the pads constantly, and the teleporters were hastily broken down and packed up. A few dozen automated turrets had been left behind to serve as a firebreak, and to trouble the Orks all the more after the Imperium retreated. The sound of constant firing was growing more and more audible over the sounds of the base being torn down.
The Emperor was asking Dante the question he had been avoiding thus far. “DANTE, I WANT TO HEAR MORE ABOUT THIS PROPHESY OF SANGUINIUS’.”
“Well…my Liege, as I’m sure you know, Sanguinius prophesied that a golden warrior would stand before you, defending you from the onrushing hordes of Chaos. He took it to mean he would die wounding Horus, and that you would survive the battle. Clearly, that was the case. However…I interpreted it to mean me.”
“REALLY. WHY?” the Emperor asked. Dante hung his head.
“My Liege…I have lived a very long time. Too long. Even an Astartes feels ennui, exhaustion. Old age. That prophesy has driven my blade for over a millennium. I have watched as innocents were devoured by daemons, their minds taken by foul xenos, their hearts corrupted by heresy and mutation. I have stood fast, my Liege, against the tides of darkness that have threatened the walls of the Imperium so, so many times. I have watched the rise of the Necrons and Tyranids and the Tau and the Glasians, and now, now I see the foundations crumble. I see the Imperium taking losses from which it never recovers.”
He closed his eyes in shame. “I…know the hubris of my words. But when I think of the prophesies, all I can see is the galaxy, falling to pieces, humans going the way of the Eldar.”
“AND SO YOU REINTERPRETED A PROPHECY THAT HAD ALREADY COME TO PASS TO MEAN THAT YOU WOULD BE THE LAST THING BETWEEN ME AND DEATH,” the Emperor said. “I DON’T SUPPOSE IT OCCURRED TO YOU THAT THE GOLDEN WARRIOR MIGHT BE ONE OF MY GOLD-ARMORED CUSTODES?”
Dante was silent for a moment. “It did.”
“YET THAT DID NOT DISSUADE YOU.”
“It did not, my Liege.” The Emperor sat staring at his son’s face on another man’s body for several more seconds, then sighed.
“I SEE. DANTE, AS THE HEIR OF SANGUINIUS, IT IS YOUR PREROGATIVE TO INTERPRET HIS PROPHESIES AS YOU SEE FIT. I HOPE THAT THIS CONVERSATION DOES NOT COME TO HARM YOUR DEDICATION.”
“Never,” Dante said. “I am a loyal servant of the Imperium, first and foremost.”
“I KNOW, YOU HAVE PROVED IT CAPABLY, MANY TIMES. MAKE FOR YOUR SHUTTLE, BLOOD ANGEL. I WILL SEE TO THE LAST OF THE BASE EVACUATIONS.”
Dante saluted and walked off, lost in thought. The Emperor watched him go, then turned his gaze north, where the Orks had come closest. After thinking for a moment, he nodded to himself. His mind made up, he vanished with a *crack* of purple mist.
TRANSCRIPT APPENDED: SESSION OF THE HIGH LORDS
ATTENDING (all representatives referred to by title):
Lord High Inquisitor
Grand Provost Marshal
Grand Master Assassinorum
Grand Master Telepath
Lord Commander Militant, Guard
Lord High Admiral, Navy
Representative, Chartist Captains
Marshal: Then it is decided. The Emperor will be informed of the damage when He returns.
Administratum Master: I still think it would be prudent to inform the Emperor now, via astropath. The riots have swollen to the point that entire convents of the Sororitas could be sent in and not retrieved. Terra is ripping itself apart.
Inquisitor: Even if we sent the message, we have no clue where He is.
Telepath: We’re getting reports of Him from a thousand worlds, all of which so far have turned out to be dreams or lies. We don’t even know when He will return.
Master of Assassins: His order to ready the Eversor will take years to fulfill, with the Silent Ships scattered to the winds. We’ve recalled as many as possible, but it may be years before they arrive.
Ecclesiarch: I’m sure He will understand. We, His most loyal servants, have belabored to preserve and expand His Imperium.
The last of the shuttles docked with the Neverending, as the surviving ground units arrived. The Emperor himself was nowhere to be seen. Russ wandered on the bridge, drawing the quiet ire of the Techmarines and Navy personnel manning the controls. After a few minutes of meandering he glanced over at the auspex screen that had been tracking the Emperor’s position. The blip that had represented his coordinates had vanished.
Russ frowned and turned to face the operator. “Astartes, why has the Emperor’s contact vanished?”
“He has teleported, Lord Russ, and his destination was not announced to us,” the Techmarine said, looking over the readout and fiddling with a brass knob. The screen zoomed out of its view of the surface, but the contact remained absent.
The Marine turned back to Russ and shrugged uncomfortably. “He seems to already be off-planet, sir.”
“Of course he is,” Russ muttered. “Well, I’m sure he’ll turn up. Has Commander Dante withdrawn from the surface yet?”
“He has, Lord Russ, his Thunderhawk and the last few Aquillas are withdrawing at the moment. The Orks will enter the automated defenses’ fields of fire in…four minutes.”
Suddenly, a huge slash of bright red appeared on the atmospheric auspex screen. The cogitator bleeped an alarm, and nearly every eye on the bridge swiveled to stare. The region around the Ork landing site was aflame, and the fire was spreading fast. The inter-ship vox panel before the communications officer pinged a signal. “Neverending, this is Prize Team. Come in, Neverending.”
“Neverending here, Prize Team,” the comm officer replied.
“Can you confirm the impact of the wreckage?” the comm speakers blared.
“We confirm, Neverending,” the comm officer said, glancing over the sensor panel. “What just happened down there?”
“The Emperor ordered that one of the wrecked Ork Killkroozers on the outside of the Pyre’s hull be dropped on the landing site to exterminate the greenskins at that point, Neverending, less than five minutes ago,” the speaker aboard the Pyre said. “We’re to use this Battle Barge’s localized virus torpedo to kill everything within a designated area once the Orks are all clustered around the base.”
“They more or less are right now, Prize Team,” the comm officer said. “The Emperor did not inform us of this plan.”
“He communicated it to us via the Librarians accompanying Lord El’Jonson, directly, Neverending.”
“I’m not doubting Lord El’Jonson’s honesty, Prize Team, merely expressing surprise,” the Techmarine said, with exceptional care.
“Acknowledged, Neverending. Deploying torpedo.” Without another word, a tiny red blip on the ship’s auspex appeared, streaking towards the planet’s surface. Everyone on the bridge of both ships watched its progress until the blip intercepted the atmosphere of the planet.
“Well, that’s it then,” Russ said tiredly. “So much for Zargh 3.”
“A localized virus bomb just destroys all cell membranes within a two thousand kilometer radius, Lord Russ,” one of the Techmarines put in, “leaving the organic molecules and atmosphere largely intact. In a very few decades, the world will be completely habitable instead of merely partially habitable.”
“I suppose,” Russ said, slouching off towards the exit. “Brother-Captain, you have the helm,” he said over his shoulder, turning away from the man’s salute. He plodded down to the armory, where he started tiredly peeling off the Custodes armor with the help of a few servitors.
Several decks above, Jaghatai was grumbling to himself as he tossed and turned in his bunk. The fact that he was sleeping in an actual bed was as alien as the faint noises of the ship around him. He had managed to sleep on the planet below out of need, as any campaigner of his experience knew how to force rest, but now that he wasn’t leading an army or running for his life, the quiet of the ship sounded far too much like the infinite emptiness of the Webway.
After tossing about in his oversized bunk for nearly an hour, he tossed off the sheets and pulled on the Space Wolves jumpsuit he had been issued when he came aboard. He wandered the halls of the ship aimlessly, pointedly ignoring the gabbling clusters of refugees that cluttered every room and chamber. Finally, his aimless walking brought him to the small chapel of the Omnissiah that the Techpriests of the ship maintained. He leaned against the door and stared at the sight of his father as a clockwork devotional icon.
“Depressing, isn’t it?” Leman Russ asked, walking up behind his brother.
“Oh yeah, it is,” Jaghatai said. “Wasn’t this something we both – and he, for that matter – tried to prevent?”
“It’s a long story, brother,” Russ said, joining his brother in staring at the stained glass image of their father with mechanical skin. The single Techpriest inside noticed the two huge men at the hatch and started, recognizing both. He scuttled over on metal feet and bowed low.
“My Lords, you honor me. How may I serve you? Do you seek the Machine God’s blessing?”
“Heh. No,” Jaghatai said, keeping his distaste in check with an effort. “Just sleepless.”
“I see, Lord Khan. And you, Lord Russ?”
Russ shifted his arms uncomfortably. “No, sieur, just passing by on the way to bunking. May I ask when the worship of the…Machine God became widespread? I seem to recall it was somewhat more…muted when I departed the Imperium, though I remember it had always been around.”
“Oh, time immemorial, Lord Russ,” the Techpriest beamed. “Our worship of the words of the Machine began nearly when the Age of Strife did, if not sooner. It’s just…well, Lord, it became so very clear to the practitioners of the Mechanicus that the Emperor was indeed the Omnissiah when He ascended the Throne. A machine, maintaining the life of the most powerful man to have ever existed, who in turn became a god on His throne.”
Jaghatai grimaced, though it would have been hard to tell even in full lighting, as opposed to the muted brassy glow of the chapel. Russ was more polite. “Thank you, sieur. Good night.”
The Space Wolf grabbed Jaghatai’s elbow discretely and tugged him away from the chapel while the Techpriest bowed obsequiously. Jaghatai jerked his arm loose and glared at Russ, who pretended not to notice as the two men walked down the corridor. When they were out of the range of the Techpriest’s augmented ears, Jaghatai snorted. “Why the hell did you do that?” “Because it never hurts to be polite to the people who maintain the air cyclers, brother,” Russ said, “and also because it looked like you were spoiling for a fight.” “Bah.” Jaghatai said dismissively. “I have no more time for their lies than you do. We both know Father is not some…cyborg prophet.”
“Perhaps not, brother, but there’s no need to pick a theo-seminary fight in the middle of a ship packed full to the brim with refugees who are barely clinging to their sanity from terror, either,” Russ said, dropping his voice an octave. “Now. As I recall, you preferred to work off your troubles with tarot. Up for a few hands? I have a little backlogged irritation to work off, too.”
Continued in The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Ten.