The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Ten
Continued from The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Nine.
Terra was teetering on the brink. Hundreds of billions of menials, and tens of billions more adepts, across the entire globe had risen in anger at the proclamation that the Emperor had absorbed a daemon, demanding that the truth be told. No amount of reassuring by the High Lords was going to solve this, and they were smart enough to see it. Entire armies of Arbites had been mobilized in the hive cities where the local law enforcement had been unable to control the problem, which was very nearly a third of the planet. The mere thought that the Custodes themselves might be mobilized in the hives adjacent to the Palace had kept them quiet, but it was more than a thought now. Nearly a quarter of the gold-armored guardians had been dispatched to Hive Aleph Setr, which was nearly sharing a wall with the Palace at the base. The hive had calmed down within hours of their arrival, and the Custodes were fanning out to other hives now, with nearly two million Sororitas in support. The High Lords were, understandably, horrified at the possibility that the Emperor might return to find his throne world in ruins.
The sound of bolter shells and crackling flame echoed all throughout the elevated roads of Hive Beta Solar, as a squad of the Sororitas of the Order of the Sacred Rose advanced against a hail of detritus and stubber rounds. A pack of crazed zealots were hurtling missiles and bullets at them with complete abandon from atop a pile of wrecked aircars. The Sororitas had, wisely, donned their helmets before charging in, with a trio of arbitrators backing them up. The first power armor-clad Battle Sister took a paving tile square in the faceplate and stumbled back, but pressed on, a visible dent in her helmet. One of the Arbites paused his advance long enough to line up his riot gun on the pack of hoodlums, blasting his unfortunate victim back off the trashed vehicles. The frontmost Sororitas took advantage of the sudden decrease in incoming fire to jump the barrier, and land squarely on top of the wrecked car, which buckled near in half under her weight, pitching the rioters to the ground in a heap. Before the other four Battle Sisters could reach them with their sarrissas, the Arbites were on them, lashing out with their shock mauls and suppression shields. The rioters shrieked and tried to scramble off, but found their retreat cut off by the imposing mass of the Sororitas. One of the rioters broke free and charged the Sisters, screaming his anger. “You lying bitches will never take our faith from us! I’ll die in the Emperor’s true name!”
The screaming rioter reached the nearest Sister and lunged forward, but she effortlessly caught him with her augmented arms, and hurtled him clean off the elevated road. His screams echoed into nothing as he plummeted out of sight.
The Arbitrators finished constraining the rioters, and clipped their hands and feet to a bent lamppost on the roadside with the length of plastic one carried at his belt before turning to the Sororitas. “Battle Sisters, are you able to reestablish comms with the Precinct yet?” the leader asked, prying the plastic shield on his helmet up and wiping off a sheen of sweat. The senior Sororitas tapped the side of her helmet and nodded.
“Affirmative, Arbitrator. We have contact with your headquarters now. Can your vox not reach them?”
“Of course not,” the Arbitrator said coolly. “The voxes in your suits are far superior to our comm beads. Are there reinforcements available? We can’t transport a tenth of the prisoners we’ve captured so far.”
“Not as such. However…” the Sororitas trailed off, tilting her head as if listening to several conversations at once. “However, the Convent dispatchers have informed us that…oh my.”
“What?” the Arbitrator snapped. “Are they coming?”
“The Divine Emperor Himself is returning to Terra, to resume control of the planet.”
“Grand,” the Arbitrator muttered. He leaned down to the twitching prisoner at his feet and raised his voice. “Got that, heretic? The Emperor Himself will be judging you. Put your best face on.”
Nearly two hundred kilometers away, in the halls of the Imperial Palace, the newly appointed Captain-General of the Adeptus Custodes walked quickly to the Hall of the Golden Throne, with packs of tense guards and Adeptus Terra workers scurrying all around him. From the tops of the towers, one could actually hear the screaming sirens of the Arbites Rhinos as they drove about the adjacent buildings and bridges, and the reports of casualties from the riots was spreading around the palace at the speed of bad news. The Senate of the High Lords had convened several times over the last few days, and though he was not among its members, the newly-minted Captain General knew enough to be worried. The Emperor Himself was returning, apparently after a successful campaign against the Orks on Zargh 3, and the news was sure to escalate the riots.
The High Lords had misjudged the extent to which society would revolt against the Emperor’s decision. The truly pious, the ones who accepted the High Lords’ words without question, and the vast majority of the military had rallied behind the Administratum, and struggled against the tide of discontent, but most of the planet’s population seemed enraged by the High Lords’ proclamations. Not all had risen against the Adeptus Terra, but trillions had, and gradually the entire globe was drowning in anarchy. Making things worse, entire families of the world’s obscenely wealthy aristocracy had apparently taken the initiative to decide that the world was ending, and that it was time to party. Nobles from nearly half the great families were flying into the wealthier spires, soaring serenely over the carnage below.
Now, the Captain-General, and the rest of the Senatorum Imperialis – even those who did not presently have a seat amongst the High Lords – were assembling before the Eternity Gate, where some very anxious-looking Inquisitors, a trio of Grey Knights, and five PDF and Guard Commanders were already fidgeting. The pair of Warhounds guarding the Gate were carefully keeping their weapons pointed anywhere but the cluster of hierarchs. There was only one man missing now, the final representative of the High Lords: the representative of the Chartist Captains. While they waited, the various politicos and warriors chatted amongst themselves.
“So you’re saying he actually fell into the hole?” the Lord Commander Militant asked of the PDF head honcho.
“Yep, fell in like the scummer he was,” the tattooed man replied, his voice somewhere in the range of being able to vibrate rocks on a tabletop. “So of course, the clever little moron jumped right in after him. I mean, how do you forget that YOU’RE the one who filled the hole with spiders? Of course he became acutely aware of his foolishness very quickly, but naturally it was far too late.”
“How does a man that dumb even live that long?” the Lord Commander asked aloud, and the PDF officer chuckled.
“Well, some men are just lucky. Of course he was right back to life in no time, but it was funny listening to his ghost whine for a few seconds.”
“What the HELL are you two talking about?” the Grey Knight asked irritably. “Coming back to life? What?”
“Nothing of importance, Lord Draigo,” the PDF officer said respectfully. “Just killing time until Commodore Romes arrives.”
“Yes, where is he, anyway?” Draigo asked of nobody in particular. “I know for a fact that his ship is here on-planet.”
“LOOK OUT BELOW!” a voice suddenly cried, and the crowd parted as the chartered Captain suddenly landed in their midst with a *clunk*. Several of the group drew weapons and trained them on the man, but before the hall could dissolve into gunfire, the Fabricator-General laughed.
“Romes, I see you haven’t lost your ability to make an entrance.”
“Shut the hell up, General,” the man came back, slowly tottering to his feet with audible creaking sounds. “Those rocket knees you gave me are far too sensitive. I tried to take two steps in a stairwell at a time and I nearly launched myself into the ceiling.”
“Oh, bitch, bitch, bitch,” the nearly robotic Fabricator-General said, waving one of his many, many metal tentacles about. “Most men would kill to have rocket knees.”
“My rocket knees are going to get me killed,” the balding Commodore said. Before the Magos could snap back with something witty, the doors slowly rumbled open.
The group quickly shut up and holstered their weapons, as a group of two hundred Techpriests walked out of the room, pushing carefully sealed crates. The group was trailed by a pair of servitors with a massive piece of golden metal embossed with the seal of Golden Throne in their augmented ogryn hands. The Captain-General nodded. “Just in time, I see. I was hoping we’d get the disassembly done today.”
“My Lord General?” one of the Techpriests asked of the Fabricator-General. “Will you be returning with us? We need to oversee the purge and reassembly of the Throne, and your experience will be vital.”
“Surely I will return with you, Magos, but not for a while yet,” the Fabricator-General said. “There is a meeting I must attend first.” The group of Imperial leaders followed the Captain-General through the Gate before the Companions could close it.
The room beyond was the riot of activity that Draigo remembered. He glanced over his shoulder to see that Haldebrandt and Valentine were still following, and indeed they were, Haldebrandt looking apprehensive to the point of illness, Valentine just looking resigned.
The psykers in the group started shifting and grumbling, some holding their heads. Sure enough, moments later, with a loud *crack* of displaced air and a burst of purple fog, the Emperor appeared. He glanced around a bit, watching the convoy of servitors and Techpriests carrying out the last bits of the Golden Throne, then settled his gaze on the assembled High Lords. “AH, THERE YOU ARE. RIGHT ON TIME.”
The Ecclesiarch bowed low, and most of the others followed suit immediately. “My Divine Emperor, you bless us with your presence again. We are at your entire disposal.”
“I HOPE SO; WHAT’S ALL THIS I HEAR ABOUT RIOTS NEARLY TEARING SOME HIVES APART?” the Emperor roared.
“The planetary population did not believe our statement that you had returned in the guise of a daemon, O Divine One,” the Ecclesiarch said contritely. “They have, after all, heard us say for millennia that the ways of Chaos are the most foul and corrupting in all of the galaxy. They think that we’re making a cover story about the Palace being attacked. The people are-”
“The people are scared and resentful,” the Grand Marshal Provost broke in. “Hell, most of the people we’ve fought so far aren’t even committing heresies, just property damage.”
“RESENTFUL FOR WHAT, PRECISELY?” the Emperor asked reasonably. An awkward silence followed his question.
“Imperial worlds across the entire galaxy have been taxed to the hilt to pay for the increasingly intense battles against the Tau, Tyranids, and Necrons, my Lord God,” the Chancellor said. “Resentment among the families of PDF troops who were tithed up to the Guard when they didn’t want to be is spreading. Quickly.”
“Under the circumstances, you can see why, I hope, my Emperor, the people are growing restless and angry. Then, we tell them a fantastic tale about how the Emperor, whose benevolent protection ensconces the Imperium, is now…inside a daemon, and well…the dam broke,” the Provost said nervously.
“I SEE. HOW DISAPPOINTING,” the Emperor said pensively. “I ASSUME THAT THE PDF AS WELL AS THE ARBITES HAVE BEEN MOBILIZED?”
“Indeed, my Lord God,” the PDF commander said, looking a bit overawed. “Most of the men are just hive gangers with a uniform and a little indoctrination, but they’re getting the job done, with the help of the regional law enforcement and the Sororitas.”
“THEN IT SEEMS I HAVE LITTLE CHOICE. HOW CLOSE ARE THE RIOTERS TO ACTUALLY SUCCEEDING?” the Emperor asked.
“They can’t really ‘succeed’ if they don’t have a goal, my Divine Emperor,” the Ecclesiarch said with trepidation. “There is nobody directing these hooligans, from what we can see.”
“I MEAN, HOW CLOSE ARE THEY TO ACTUALLY DESTABILIZING ANY OF THE HIVES?” the Emperor asked patiently.
“Some hives aren’t rioting at all, my Emperor,” the Provost said. “Others are on the brink of anarchy, and entire battalions of Arbites Enforcers have been sent in and lost.”
“THEN I THINK IT’S TIME FOR THE NUCLEAR OPTION, SUCH AS IT IS,” the Emperor said, eliciting some alarm from the assembled politicians. “DEPLOY ANY UNCOMMITTED ARBITES AND OTHER LAW, AND IF POSSIBLE, DISPATCH THE REMAINING SISTERS OF BATTLE TO SPEARHEAD POLICE ACTIONS IN ANY HIVES THAT NEED IT.”
“We shall, my Emperor, though I should say that there aren’t many more Arbites we can deploy that aren’t guarding prisons or courthouse Precincts,” the Provost said carefully.
“I SHOULD HOPE NOT, CONSIDERING THAT DEPLOYING THE ARBITES IS THE BEST MOVE YOU COULD MAKE AGAINST THE RIOTERS,” the Emperor thought/spoke. “THESE FORCES, HOWEVER, SHALL BE THE MERE VANGUARD. I AM SENDING THE CUSTODES INTO THE HIVES TO RESTORE ORDER.”
The cluster of people erupted in buzzing that the Emperor silenced with a single impatient glance. “I KNOW IT’S ALL BUT UNPRECIDENTED, AND I KNOW THAT THE CUSTODES, FOR ALL THEIR POWER, RARELY ACTUALLY ENTER BATTLE THEMSELVES, BUT IT NEEDS TO BE DONE. IT WILL SHOW THE PEOPLE THAT I AM STILL VERY MUCH ALIVE AND VERY MUCH IN CHARGE.”
“As you so will it, my Emperor,” the Captain-General said. “How many of the Custodes shall be dispatched?”
“AS MANY AS CAN BE SPARED FROM PALACE DEFENSE, PLUS HALF THE COMPANIONS,” the Emperor said, surprising the assembly. “I WILL BE PREPARING A SPEECH TO THE PLANET, TO BE READ AS SOON AS IT’S FINISHED. AFTER IT’S DONE, THE CUSTODES-LED FORCES WILL ADVANCE ON THE SEDITIOUS HIVES, AND TAKE CONTROL. I EXPECT SOME WILL STAND DOWN WHEN THEY HEAR MY SPEECH. THE REST WILL BE BROUGHT AROUND TO A MORE PROPER WAY OF THINKING BY THE CUSTODES. THE SIGHT OF THE COMPANIONS PERSONALLY LEADING A CHARGE WILL BE ENOUGH TO COW SOME, THEIR TACTICAL SKILL WILL CULL THE REST.”
Lord Primarch Vulkan was, Tu’Shan noted, not an easily distracted man. No sooner had he disembarked from his shuttle onto the Chalice of Fire than he had gone about the task of meeting his new officers. Nearly the entire Salamanders chapter was present, since they had all returned to Nocturne after Armageddon.
He’Stan led the Primarch and his Chapter Master into the Chalice’s armory, where Vulkan could inspect the new armor they had made for him. Vulkan was speaking to the other two about the Emperor’s rescue. “I honestly don’t know how long the trench went. He just opened fire, and there it was. It was astounding.”
“I didn’t know what to expect when that Eldar informed us of the things the Emperor was doing behind the scenes,” Tu’Shan confessed. “The whole story was so unbelievable.”
“Understandable,” Vulkan nodded. The trio passed a lumbering guard servitor trudging the other way. “I had no idea what I was looking at the first time I saw him.”
“I wonder if we shall see him in person, when we arrive at Terra,” Tu’Shan wondered aloud. “I imagine we would. His summons was urgent.”
The three of them reached the armory, and Tu’Shan slid the hatch back. Vulkan stooped to walk through the hatchway and stepped in, taking in the familiar sights.
The Armory was arranged just as he had left it, if a bit worn. The carefully arranged sets of tools and racks of calibration tools had been shuffled around a bit by the previous users, and a whole rack of Mechanicum prayer scrolls were cluttering up one side wall. The central open space – a waste on a normal warship – was occupied by a low bench, with drawers tucked underneath. The ceiling was cluttered asymmetrically with track lights, each of which could be moved independently, and a few dangling power outlets on cords. The bench was lined down the middle with more outlets, and small sanding and air-compressing devices. There was no actual equipment on the bench, much to Vulkan’s approval: nothing got under his skin like sloppiness.
He’Stan walked past his Primarch to the sealed vault at the back of the armory where unworn suits of armor were kept. He tapped the activation runes and the hatch slid open. He glanced over his shoulder to see if Vulkan was following, but he wasn’t. Vulkan was standing at the middle of the workbench, idly rolling a tube of silicon gel between his fingers and tapping the runes on the calibration tool in front of him, lost in thought. After a moment, he glanced up at the two staring Salamanders and grinned self-consciously. “Sorry. It’s just good to be home.”
He’Stan nodded modestly. “Take your time, my Lord. We’re still days out from Terra.”
“Well not even I can be lost in nostalgia that long,” Vulkan said wryly, putting the lube and calipers away. He followed He’Stan and the Chapter Master to the door to the armor locker and stepped in. “Say, I like what you’ve done with the place.”
The Terminator suits of the Chapter, some undergoing minor repairs or upgrades, were stored in sanctified cradles on the sides of the room, with several inactive servitors lining the center, each with massive augmetic claws to lift the huge armor plates. A sculpted ceramite block stood alone in the back of the room, with the recovered Artefacts adorning it. Vulkan gravitated to the sculpture, and looked at each recovered Artefact in turn. “Let’s see…the Song, the Mantle, the Gauntlet, and the Spear. We’re in the Chalice…”
“…And the Eye is currently installed in orbit above Prometheus,” He’Stan finished. “The Song I recovered only weeks ago.”
“Interesting…” Vulkan said, hefting the Spear and balancing it experimentally. He grimaced. “I never did finish balancing this…I’ll have to tune it later.”
“If I may ask, your Lordship, what are the remaining three Artefacts?” Tu’Shan asked. He’Stan shot him a look of pure venom, but before he could say anything, the Primarch replied without looking.
“The Unbound Flame is an upgrade kit for a Terminator Suit. The Obsidian Chariot is a ship…I suspect Brother He’Stan already knows what the Engine of Woes is.”
“I do, though I can not for the life of me even begin to figure out where the hell it is,” He’Stan said. “I strongly suspect it to be a combat servitor you custom made, my Lord.”
“What? No,” Vulkan said, surprised. “It’s not a servitor at all.”
“Then…I see,” He’Stan said, crestfallen. Vulkan noticed and hastened to explain.
“Recall the prophesy, brother?”
“ ‘In an island of the neverending winter, the sons of the dragon keep the Engine of Woes. Never shall the sons of the Fire Drake defeat the sons of the dragon, until the sky is made hot again. The automatic arms of the Engine keep the sky company, and its activation will be the island’s end,’ ” He’Stan said from memory. “I assumed that to mean that the Engine was a combat servitor you had created, that it would be overrun by a cult, and that we would defeat the cult with the Engine.”
“Well, no,” Vulkan said, replacing the Spear. “I’ll cut to the chase, then. The Engine was a pair of the weapons taken from a wrecked Knight. The weapons could be mounted on the side turrets of a Land Raider, if its troop compartment were replaced with a larger engine and an improved suspension system.”
“Oh…” He’Stan looked positively heartbroken at the declaration that his interpretation of the Prophesies of the Book of Fire had been so grossly inaccurate. Tu’Shan leaned over to him while Vulkan was still engrossed with the sculpture.
“Take heart, brother. You did find one Artefact, that’s more than the prior forty Forgefathers did.”
“I suppose,” He’Stan said morosely. Tu’Shan’s voice hardened.
“Suck it up, Brother, you’re acting like an altar boy being chided for missing a line in a hymm."
He’Stan was on the verge of saying something stupid when Vulkan turned back to them. “Gentlemen, I am impressed with the extent to which my good old workshop was preserved. I crafted six of the Artefacts in these two rooms…so long ago.”
“If you so desire, Lord, you could wield them yourself, again,” Tu'Shan said, straightening up from his glowering friend.
“Oh?” Vulkan said, peaking one eyebrow curiously. “You have armor ready for me, do you?”
“We do indeed, Lord Vulkan,” Tu’Shan said, pointing towards the second of the two hatches out of the armory. Vulkan walked through into the third room of the armory, and his jaw dropped. A magnificent green and gold Terminator suit stood in the middle of the room, held in place by an internal lattice. A spotlight shone from directly overhead, casting shadows down the arms under the pauldrons. Vulkan slowly walked up to it and stared at the helmet. He clamped his hand over neck seal and popped it loose, then hefted it experimentally. He turned back to the two Salamanders who had followed him through, and smiled broadly.
“It is indeed good to be home.”
Eight hours had passed since the Emperor had made the command for the Primarchs to return to Terra, and the Neverending, alongside the Dark Angel and Blood Angel taskforces, were streaming in the Emperor’s wake. The trip would probably have not taken a week, though they had dropped off the civilians in the care of the Hospitallers on a Shrine world they had passed. Now, the convoy was streaming for Terra, answering their Emperor’s urgent call.
The ship was, above all, a Space Marine ship, and as such there was precious little aboard devoted to any sort of entertainment. A small lounge for the ship’s non-Astartes crew was provided, and little else. The five Primarchs aboard – Guilliman, Russ, Corax, Jaghatai, and El’Jonson – were gathered in one, listening to the ship’s eldest serving Marine – Dante – tell tales of the Imperium’s recent past.
“Naturally, the problems with the Eastern Fringe were exacerbated by the Tau, but it wasn’t that particular batch of xenos filth that was truly troubling us,” Dante said, leaning back against the wall in his armor.
“It was these Tyranid things I keep hearing about, I gather,” Russ said.
“Indeed it was, Lord. They came from bloody nowhere about three hundred years back and have been ripping the Imperium to shreds ever since. Nearly a thirtieth of the Imperium has been laid barren, though of course hundreds of billions of people have managed to escape worlds in the Hive’s path. The greater problem, for now, is the genestealers which precede them. They’re almost impossible for the average Imperial citizen to detect. A genescan can spot them instantly, and the most gravely mutated victims are instantly recognizable, but it’s still a problem, especially on feral worlds where there are no genescanners to use.”
“Troubling, indeed, though it seems that these…what did you call them? Necrotics? They seem the larger threat,” Guilliman said.
“Necrons, Lord Guilliman, and yes, I believe that they are. The Tyranids actively avoid them, such is their threat, and one-on-one, there is no deadlier force outside the Custodes,” Dante said heavily.
“I see. Obviously, the Emperor knows of the threat,” Guilliman said.
“Oh, naturally. He’s known for over a millennia. And the damn things are vulnerable if they’re still ‘sleeping,’ problem is that the largest of their Tomb worlds are outside the Astronomican’s light. That means that not only can we not reach them safely, but that they are at liberty to harvest all the other xenos out there for all their technology, souls, precious bodily fluids, whatever they harvest,” Dante said with disgust.
“Well…if I know my father, he’s probably hard at work creating a means for the Imperium to overcome the myriad foes it faces,” Roboute said. Jaghatai nodded.
“Oh yeah. That was something he insisted on, to his own detriment, once or twice.” Russ snorted.
“Beyond the obvious, you mean, brother?” he said grimly. Dante shifted uncomfortably.
Guilliman broke the awkward silence, his authoritarian voice effortlessly cutting through the pause. “I suspect that the Mechanicus will be heavily involved in his plan, whatever form it takes.”
“Probably,” Russ said with clear distrust in his accented voice. “I find them entirely distasteful, but they have obvious uses. I wonder, though, why the tone of his summons to return to Terra was so urgent. Surely his plans can wait a few days? At the rate we’re travelling the Warp, we’ll be at Terra in no time flat.”
“I got the feeling that his summons had more to do with Terra itself, brother,” Corax said, speaking up for the first time. “His message made mention of civil problems on the planet, didn’t it?”
“I was rather more excited by the addendum, myself,” Russ said. “Vulkan will beat us there by nearly a day, according to the message. I miss the bastard. He was the only one who ever laughed at my jokes because he thought they were funny instead of just for fraternization.”
“Oh, that hurts,” Jaghatai said crossing his hands over his heart dramatically.
“It’s so true, though,” Russ chuckled. Lion nodded sagely, which Russ didn’t fail to notice, shooting his brother a cool stare.
Terra was on the verge now. The rebellions had spread, turning from simple riots and civil disorder to a full-on uprising in the heart of the Imperium. Entire hives were aflame, and the Inquisition itself had mobilized to protect the Astronomican, which had actually been threatened by a small army of enraged rioters. The Palace’s walls had not yet been breached, but there had been a few close calls, wherein whole platoons of Arbites and PDF had been forced to incinerate columns of rioters that had got too close. The Arbites forces stationed on Mars, Luna, and the other thirty void stations, planets, and moons in the Solar system were streaming now, descending in their red and gray starships to restore order to Terra. The Inquisitorial and Grey Knight forces that lingered in the system had been ordered to the Palace by the Emperor himself, to replace the outgoing Custodes, though even the Inquisitorial representatives of the Ordo Hereticus had been sortied a few times. Now, word was reaching the Emperor’s massive orange ears that even the wealthier hives were starting to revolt, along with some hives that the Custodes were assaulting.
True to his prediction, the fact that the Companions –his own guard – were leading the charge had calmed some of the rioters down; the heartfelt sermon delivered by the Ecclesiarch to the populace , written by the Emperor himself, had calmed many of the rest. Still, a wildfire in a lumberyard is hard to extinguish, and there were several hives that had been consumed entirely in the conflagration of heresy. There was no denying it now: while most of the rioters had just been terrified Imperial citizens, some were openly calling for the reborn Emperor’s death, claiming that he had betrayed everything for which the Imperium stood.
That, however, was the last thing on the Emperor’s mind, now. Mere moments before, his son Vulkan had strode into the Hall of the Throne, resplendent in his new armor, and bent the knee to his father.
“My Emperor, I am once more at your service,” he said, helmet tucked under his arm.
“RISE, MY SON. IT IS GOOD TO SEE YOU WELL AGAIN. ARE YOU FEELING BETTER?”
“I am indeed, Sire,” Vulkan said, replacing his helmet with a hiss of air. “I ask your forgiveness for my earlier comments.” He’Stan and Tu’Shan both stared at Vulkan, their mouths agape, but the Emperor merely smiled with his horrible mouth.
“AS I SAID BEFORE, VULKAN, THERE IS NOTHING TO FORGIVE. YOU WERE BEING TORTURED, WHAT DOES IT BEHOLD US TO HOLD YOU ACCOUNTABLE FOR YOUR TONE? I AM RATHER MORE INTERESTED IN WHAT YOU’VE GOT, THERE.”
“This, father, is a gift from my Battle Brothers, Forgefather He’Stan,” he said, pointing at the Forgefather, “and Chapter Regent Master Tu’Shan, Lord of the Drakes,” he said gesturing at the younger man in turn. “They belabored to create this work of art at your command, in fact.”
“IT’S A HELL OF A LOT BETTER THAN THE ONE I WAS WEARING AT THE END,” the Emperor roared, half-joking. “THOSE ARE FASCINATING ACCOUTREMENTS. ARE THEY THOSE ARTEFACTS OF YOURS?”
“Indeed, Sire. Not all, but enough to turn the tide of a battle. On that note,” Vulkan said, his voice darkening, “I saw hives aflame on my flight in. What’s going on here?”
“I SUSPECT THAT A TAINT, TOO LONG DISMISSED, IS SPREADING, MY SON,” the Emperor said angrily, “AND IT’S MY OWN DAMN FAULT.”
“Sire?” Vulkan prompted. “What do you mean?”
“THE RIOTS HAVE CEASED, FOR THE MOST PART. NOW, INSTEAD, WE HAVE SOMETHING FAR WORSE. ENTIRE HIVES BURN BECAUSE THE HIVERS ARE BURNING THEM. IT WASN’T THE INCENDIARY ZEAL OF THE BATTLE SISTERS THAT CAUSED THOSE FIRES,” the Emperor said, his tone grim.
“Why would the hivers burn themselves?” Vulkan asked, nonplussed.
“BECAUSE THEY’RE OUT OF CONTROL,” the Emperor said. “THEY’RE NOT IMPERIAL CITIZENS ANY MORE, THOSE BASTARDS. YOU, MY SON, WILL PERSONALLY LEAD THE ATTACK AGAINST THEM.”
“As you so will it, Sire, so it shall be,” Vulkan said. “I am still confused as to our foes’ behavior.”
“NOT FOR MUCH LONGER. GO. MY REMAINING COMPANIONS WILL JOIN YOU, AND WHATEVER ELEMENTS OF THE NAVY AND SALAMANDERS YOU BROUGHT WITH YOU,” the Emperor said. “INQUISITOR VALENTINE WILL INFORM YOU OF YOUR FOES.”
Vulkan nodded to acknowledge the dismissal, and turned on his heel, the other two Salamanders falling in behind him. The ranks of Custodes, PDF, Guardsmen, Salamanders, and Naval Provosts that had accompanied Vulkan to his father’s throne room stood to attention. Vulkan raised the Spear over his head and spoke. “Warriors of the Imperium, our orders are given. We are to descend into the hives that are still resisting the advance of the Arbites and Sororitas, and cleanse the heretics that have destroyed them. If there are innocents to be found, we will evacuate them, but the hivers are burning down their own homes now. Do what must be done.” He clipped the Spear back into its sling across his armor and gestured grandly towards the far end of the hallway. “Victoria, Vita, quod Vires ut Imperium! Ave Imperator!”
The Imperial column trooped out to one of the Palace’s many landing pads, marching straight up the boarding ramps into the waiting troop ships. Vulkan was marshaling the Companions, who were understandably unused to such boarding actions, when an Astartes in a model of armor he didn’t recognize walked up to him. Before Vulkan could say a word, the Marine held up a hand. “Lord Vulkan, an honor. Lord Draigo, Grey Knights.”
Vulkan gripped the proffered gauntlet. “Lord Draigo. Is there something I can do for you? I don’t remember seeing your units slated for deployment with mine.”
“Indeed not, Lord Vulkan. However, I’m offering my services nonetheless. I share the Emperor’s suspicions about the root cause of this riot,” the man said, tapping the side of his helmet. Vulkan caught the hint and gestured towards the gunship that he had chosen to carry his own men into battle.
“Then you’re welcome to share them with me en route, Lord Draigo. Does your title reflect leadership of your Chapter?” he asked, walking up the ramp.
“I am the Supreme Grand Master of the Grey Knights, Chamber Militant of the Ordos Malleus, armored fist of the Inquisition,” Draigo said, surprising Vulkan greatly. “And as far as all but a handful of other chapters of the Astartes know, we do not exist. The Lamenters, the Raven Guard, the Salamanders, the Space Wolves, the Ultramarines, the White scars…most First and Second Founding chapters at least know of us, but our policy until…literally days ago was to mindwipe all Astartes who knew of us. Such was the vital secrecy of our mission.”
“If you’re Malleus, then your missions is to…what, banish Warpspawn that breach the veil between dimensions?” Vulkan asked with perfectly concealed distaste.
Draigo raised his voice slightly to be heard over the engines. “Precisely, though we sortie against other threats as well. Since the Emperor desired that the Custodes be deployed directly against the rioters, my own Chapter was called in to help defend the palace in their absence. We’re based off of the moon of Titan, so it was not a problem.”
“I see,” Vulkan said, dropping into a seat. The ramp lifted and the aircraft was off, turning slightly on the thrusters before accelerating off. The sensor package in Vulkan’s helmet came alive and displayed a myriad of contacts, linked directly into the gunship’s auspex. A group of five transports, being their own Thunderhawk Gunship, two Thunderhawk Transports, an Aquila, and a Navy dropship, were visible, above the battle-streaked ruins of the streets below. The sensors flickered with other contacts, mostly Arbites and PDF vehicles on the group, rounding up prisoners or cleaning up rubble. The sensor package’s machine spirit popped up a new icon: an ETA timer. The timer was counting down from fifteen minutes.
Vulkan leaned back into his seat and took stock of the gunship’s other occupants. Besides himself and the Knight, there were five. He’Stan and Tu’Shan sat beside each other opposite the Primarch, and a Techmarine from Tu’Shan’s Honor Guard sat beside them. The other two wore the gold and red armor of the Companions, and were discussing something with exaggerated hand motions. Apparently, this was their first time in actual combat. Vulkan reflected that it was a sign of the changing times: in his days the Companions were selected from the Custodes with the MOST experience.
The door to the three-person cockpit was open, and a trio of Salamander serfs were flying the aircraft. Vulkan watched the city lights go flying by through the armorcrys window before turning back to Draigo. “So, Lord Draigo, what exactly are we facing here? Why did the Emperor not want to tell me back at the Palace?”
“I can’t speculate as to the Emperor’s state of mind in the Palace, Lord Vulkan, but I would say that our foes are probably more than mere rioters,” Draigo said. “We noticed that the most dangerous riots, the ones where people were really get butchered, were in the hives adjacent to the Navigatrix Quarter.”
“The Navigators?” Vulkan asked in surprise. “Why would they be rioting? Their continued survival is utterly dependent on the Imperium’s.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea, Lord Vulkan. However, I suspect that the rioters themselves aren’t Navigators. Rather, the worst offenders looked to the Arbites like the wealthy residents of the hive spires immediately adjacent to the Navigator’s Quarter,” Draigo replied.
“Is the presence of the Warp-sorcery of the Navigators the reason for your own presence, Lord Draigo?” Vulkan asked. The timer on his helmet reached ten minutes. “No, Lord Vulkan,” the Grey Knight said. “But we do suspect the presence of sorcerers amongst the rioters. The Sororitas that went in reported seeing truly unholy things going on amongst the rioters.” Before he could explain the statement, the Aquila-class shuttle leading the column of aircraft suddenly dove, releasing chaff. The rest of the aircraft dove to follow, and Vulkan gripped the metal piping next to his seat to keep his balance. Suddenly, one of the two Thunderhawk Transporter icons on his HUD shuddered and spun out of formation, clipping against a skybridge that send it spiraling into the glass side of a building. The serf pilots did their best, evading and juking their aircraft, but whatever had downed the transporter came after them. With a shriek of tearing metal, the gunship pitched onto its side, tossing He’Stan clean out of his seat to sprawl in the aisle. The co-pilot craned his head back over his shoulder and shouted.
“Get ready to bail, Lords, we’re not going to be able to land!” he yelled, his voice cracking under the strain.
“Bloody try!” one of the Companions yelled, struggling out of his seat and gripping the overhead storage rack. The pilot was trying, certainly, and the craft leveled off out of its dive, careening forward. A loud *spang* noise sounded from one side of the benighted gunship, and Vulkan set his teeth. The noise meant AA fire, bolters, probably stubbers too. The sound repeated itself, this time on the underside, and then it was like flying through a hailstorm. The sound of stubber slugs ricocheting off of the hull was constant, and the pilot growled aloud in frustration as the damaged port engine gave out entirely.
The man was on top of it, though, no doubt motivated by the presence of a Primarch in his cabin. He tilted the flaps of the ship’s atmospheric wings up to coast on the remaining engine, and pulled the switch to jettison the ancillary fuel and ammunition tanks from the underside of the gunship. The ship lurched upwards as the air tugged it level and its loss of weight tugged it up, and for one horrible moment it looked like the ship would crack in half under the stress. Vulkan clenched his hands around the metal bar, trying not to let his unease show. The gunner suddenly slapped a pair of red switches on his panel and squeezed the triggers on this sticks, and the cabin filled with the noise of the Thunder Cannon firing. The windows flared with the light of the Hellstrikes unleashing their payload onto some target below, and the polarized armorcrys windows turned black from the light of discharge.
The co-pilot turned back to the passengers. “This is as close as we can get, the air’s so full of shells you could walk to Mars! We’re dropping you behind the monorail annex, we just cleared it!” The pilot suited actions to words, lowering the sputtering craft down behind the crumbling building, but just as he hit the release for the aft ramp, the whole craft shook as a krak missile slammed into the other engine. The Thunderhawk gave out, dropping the last ten feet to bounce off the pavement.
Vulkan launched himself off of the ramp, slamming into the ground in his Terminator armor and spinning around to see He’Stan following him. Tu’Shan had been farther in the cabin, and stumbled out of the smoking wreck a moment later, clutching his and He’Stan’s bolters in both hands. Draigo was next out, with the unconscious gunner draped over his pauldrons. The Companions struggled out with the rest of the crew following, their arms full of the wargear and ammo boxes that had been stuffed into the storage rack. Vulkan turned back to the sight of the scorched monorail annex, its surfaces damaged by the Hellstrike. A small cluster of poorly-dressed skeletons with melted stubbers in their hands lay crumpled against a retaining wall. The red-cloaked Companions hefted their halberds and moved to either side of the small building that the Thunderhawk had crashed behind. The ship’s pilot stared at the crashed gunship and made the sign of the cogwheel, apparently in thanks for the thing lasting as long as it had. The co-pilot was a bit more pragmatic, dragging the unconscious gunner away from the burning wreck before the fuel tank exploded.
Draigo lifted his Nemesis pike and grabbed a satchel of frag grenades, slinging the strap under his belt and tightening it. Vulkan quickly stood and grabbed the shorter man’s shoulder. “Lord Draigo, this may be the last chance either of us get to discuss what the hell is over there. I know of no filthy aristocrat that can shoot down a gunship.” Draigo smirked humorlessly.
“Indeed. Nor a transporter.” The other three aircraft in the formation vanished in the distance, shooting clean over the wrecked monorail annex and turning around a massive hive spire that stretched into the sky like a man-made mountain.
The co-pilot finished carrying his wounded comrade and slapped a pressure bandage onto the gash on the gunner’s head. He’Stan dragged the armloads of equipment he and the Companions had salvaged over to where Vulkan was standing, wordlessly offering his Lord the meager bounty. Vulkan shook his head, then sighed and relented, grabbing a single-use flare gun and hanging it off the metal loop on the back of his mounted Storm Shield. Draigo continued, “The enemy we face is most likely corrupted, Lord Vulkan. Huge numbers of the world’s wealthy aristocrats were seen flying into these few hives before this madness began. My Chapter is composed entirely of psykers, Lord, and we can sense something deeply wrong here, as well. Still, I’m fairly sure it was krak missiles, not sorcery, that downed our aircraft.”
Vulkan snorted. “Really?” The crackling noise from the Thunderhawk was getting louder. The pilot finished his meditation and scampered over to where his co-pilot was tending to their gunner, and Tu’Shan hefted a multi-melta from the pile of weapons to join the rest of the group.
“Gentlemen, we have little choice, it seems, but to proceed. We can head towards wherever the AA fire came from, or we can proceed down the course we were following before.” Vulkan considered a moment.
“We deal with the AA. We can’t let any more Imperial forces fall into that trap,” Vulkan said decisively. The co-pilot looked up in shock.
“Sir, we’re barely ambulatory here. Kester will die if we try to move him.”
“Then call an Arbites medical unit in and stay here, serf,” Vulkan said, checking the charge on his Thunder Ballista and finding it full. “We must advance.”
Terra orbit, aboard the Neverending
At nearly the same moment, high above, the Neverending was entering its orbital slot. The first thing Guilliman did when he saw the anarchy on the hives below was page the Palace, asking to speak to the Emperor at once.
“The Emperor is in conference with the Senate of the High Lords, Lord Guilliman, but we can get you patched through to the Hall of the Throne. One moment,” the dispatcher said. A moment later, the line clicked, and a holographic image of the Custodes appeared.
“Yes?” a voice asked. Apparently the line didn’t have visual. “This is Commodore Rodes. To whom am I speaking?”
“This is Lord Guilliman of the Ultramarines, and I’m trying to get ahold of the Emperor. It’s somewhat urgent,” Guilliman said, his voice clearly betraying his irritation.
“Ah, of course, Lord Guilliman, the Emperor told us to expect you. He says to bring all of the ground units you may have left to Hive Lucresti as fast as possible, the situation may not be contained much longer without immediate reinforcement.”
“What situation?” Guilliman asked, his temper flaring. “We just got here.”
“Riots, Lord Guilliman, massive riots that are burning entire hives to cinders. Small armies of PDF and Arbites have already been lost,” Romes said gravely. “Worse, some of the rioters are suspected to bear the taint of Chaos.”
Guilliman was shocked. He shot a look over his shoulder at Corax, who seemed equally floored. “How is that even possible? What’s happened here?”
“At first, the people seemed to be merely upset that something like what happened to the Emperor could actually have occurred, my Lord, but now it looks like there’s some sort of sorcerous conspiracy brewing in a few of the wealthier hives.” A loud noise interrupted the Commodore’s voice for a few seconds. “The Emperor asks that you land your ground units at the site he has specified immediately, Lord Guilliman. I’ll be happy to explain further, but the PDF, Sororitas, and Arbites forces down there need assistance desperately.”
Guilliman closed his eyes and inhaled heavily, then sighed shortly. “Very well. We will dispatch our ground units to the location you specify.” The board in front of him lit up with the coordinates the Emperor desired, and Guilliman gestured to the Neverending’s Captain. The man nodded and began paging the loaders and dropship crews. Guilliman returned his attention to the vox. “Commodore, please inform the Emperor that we are on the way.”
Hive Lucresti, Terra
Vulkan checked over the auspex gear in his helmet. The source of the missiles seemed to be a pair of concrete buildings clean on the other side of the annex, and several stubber gunners had mounted heavy guns on the sides of the plaza, firing down on the team every time they tried to advance. The crew of the Thunderhawk elected to stay behind and await Arbites extraction, while Vulkan advanced the others through the train station. They hadn’t had to wait long before the obvious signs of more serious problems began to emerge. No sooner had the Astartes sorted out their wargear than the doors on the building had burst open, and a pack of screaming rioters had charged at them. The Custodes, true to their nature, hadn’t hesitated a fraction of a second despite their inexperience, and had waded into the ranks of the rioters with cool precision, slicing them to ribbons with their Guardian spears. Vulkan and the other three Power Armored men hadn’t had to fire off a single shot before the gold, black, and red cloud of swinging blades had ceased their cleaving, and the rioters were crushed.
Once inside, however, it was clearly a different story. There weren’t any people left there, but clearly there had been before the missile ruined the forces outside. Vulkan pawed through a heap of paper marked with bizarre, raving scribbles and sighed.
“I’ve seen this before.” Draigo nodded agreement.
“Their minds are going. Something here is…very wrong.” The Companions shifted their gaze from the doors to the two men.
“What do you mean, Lord Draigo?” one asked.
“These fanatics were planning this. They’ve been camped here, making these drawings, since before the riots started,” Draigo said. He held up one sheaf, covered in strange symbols. “Most heretics are idiots, with no idea whatsoever how to summon the powers of the Warp. Some aren’t. It looks like these particular rioters were making a summoning circle.”
“And did they succeed?”
“Of course not, there are no bloody summoning circles outside of cheap horror holos,” Draigo said. “It takes either dozens of psykers and huge amounts of effort, nearly a hundred cultists and lots of preptime, or a few very powerful cultists and a massive sacrifice of innocent blood to even consider summoning a daemon. These people had none of that.”
“They still attacked us,” the Companion pointed out.
“They were out of their minds, and attacked us. Yes. However, they attacked us because they were being controlled by something foul, something they didn’t summon. Where it is and how long it’s been here I have no idea. Looks to me that they got here when the Emperor’s new form was announced, tried to summon a daemon to cause some anarchy for their own gain, and got brainwashed into attacking us by a sorcerer nearby with far more power, who noticed their clumsy attempts,” Draigo said, dropping the papers into a heap on the floor of the train station’s security room with contempt. Vulkan swept the Spear through the heap and they instantly burst into flames. Tu’Shan hefted his own bolter and nudged the door open, and the six men walked back into the train station.
A trio of very fast shadows raced across the ground outside, visible against the blackened concrete. A moment later, a single loud *boom* echoed across the open space. Vulkan grimaced. “Lightnings. This is getting worse.”
“Let’s go,” Draigo said, jogging for the exit. He reached one side of the main doors into the building and paused, pressing his hands against his temples for a moment. He stopped, seemingly listening for something, then turned around and kicked the doors open, running out as fast as his legs could take him. The other men followed suit, trusting Draigo’s psychic power to forewarn them of any snipers. Just as they reached the cover of the first singed train, however, a stream of lead spattered against the ground at Tu’Shan’s feet. He skidded to a halt behind an upturned bench and glanced around, looking for his assailant. The bright flashes of a heavy stubber on full automatic from one of the offices in a nearby building betrayed his location. Tu’Shan brought his bolter up to bear and fired, hosing the luckless gunner down with bolts. He flew apart at the seams, the explosion tossing his loader to the ground with a scream, several hundred feet below.
“I bloody hate this,” He’Stan grumbled. “This is the worst kind of cityfight, there’s ten thousand windows and skyways around this plaza. There could be snipers anywhere.”
“Yes, but there aren’t. We know where at least a few of the gunners are,” Vulkan came back. The two stubbers that had been firing on them before opened up again, their shots clanking off of the train. Vulkan pointed at one with his finger, and He’Stan incinerated one of them with a burst of Hellfire bolts.
He’Stan pivoted at the waist and fired at the other pair of gunners. After only a few shots, however, the chunk of the office building they had been hiding in exploded, with a massive burst of smoky rubble. A low rumbling from behind them heralded a pair of Arbites-marked vehicles, crawling across the square to retrieve the Thunderhawk crew. One was a Leman Russ, much to the relief of the squad, and its bolters were making a mess of the few gunners unwise enough to poke their heads out to target the two units. The other vehicle, a Chimera, was turning to load the injured men still huddling behind the damaged train station into its compartment.
Suddenly, the clamor of bolter shells and lasers was joined by a new, horrible sound: a krak missile launch. Vulkan traced a pinprick of grey ahead of a streak of smoke, heading straight for the tank. By a miracle, it hit the Leman Russ square on the dozer blade, instead of the vehicle itself. Vulkan took the opportunity, firing his pistol’s magazine into the office that had concealed the missile launcher. He didn’t wait to see whether his shots had any effect, instead shoving the Companions into motion, directing them both towards the opposite end of the plaza. They all reached the cover of the entrance to the nearest spire without getting hit, and Vulkan pulled open one of the massive, bronze-plated doors of the building. A few civilians inside screamed and ran off, and Vulkan waited until the other five men entered before slamming the door shut.
Draigo peered down the cavernous hallway, which seemed to stretch on as far as the horizon, filled almost entirely with people, wandering from one interconnected series of rooms and halls to another. The ones nearest the door spotted the power-armored warriors and pointed, some making the sign of the Aquila.
Fortunately, none seemed to be priming weapons, and indeed there were a few local police directing people as far from the doors as possible, no doubt reacting to the battles outside. Draigo closed his eyes and inclined his head for a moment, then glanced sidelong at Vulkan. “I sense no taint on these folk. We are still far from wherever the core of the corruption lies.”
“Good to know,” Vulkan said. He glanced around, utterly lost in the outermost edges of a hive. “How do we get ourselves up to wherever those missiles were coming from? These people don’t even seem to know what’s happening outside.”
“Yes, and I’m not surprised,” Draigo said. “Hive structures on Terra are meant to house tens of billions. The battle beyond may well not have registered here, with the walls so thick. As to your question, I have no idea. The missiles were coming from the windows of the structure, but it will be impossible to find which ones.”
“Then we don’t bother,” Vulkan said heavily. “We don’t have enough men to sweep an entire hive. We press on, as best we can.”
“We could summon another aircraft, but I doubt it will fare better than the last,” He’Stan said, glancing around. “Unless you want to charge down this hallway, we’re probably going to have to move outside.”
“Through that killing corridor? Watched by who knows how many millions of snipers? Hell no,” Vulkan said. “We’re going the fast way.”
Aboard the Neverending
Corax slid the drop pod shut with a *clang*. The Raven Guard portion of the assault force was, as it should have been, descending from above. He tapped tongue against the activator stud of the vox in his helmet. “Assault Lead, prepped.”
“Copy, Assault Lead, this is Neverending. All pods ready for deployment. We will be over the target zone in fifteen seconds. Venting tubes.” A hiss of air, suddenly cut off, and ticking of an invisible timer…and then the feeling of the world turning upside down. Corax, no stranger to drops, closed his eyes and relaxed his fingers, letting the vertiginous drop take its toll without fighting. He made the conscious effort to relax his jaw and mentally counted down. Five minutes until atmospheric breach, then two minutes of straight descent, then five more of accelerated descent…
After twelve minutes, the pod suddenly shook. The propellant tubes on the bottom and side ridges kicked on and fired, and the sudden shift of gravity sucked Corax back down. He squeezed his eyes open and watched the counter on his helmet display. Thirty seconds to impact…fifteen…five… SLAM. The pod door kicked open, letting in smog-choked sunlight and a hail of stubber rounds. Corax flexed his knees and bent forward, then fired the assault pack he mounted. He launched himself out of the pod like a rail pellet, and slammed into the heretic with the stub gun. The heretic looked surprised for a fraction of a second before Corax scraped him off on the ground, then rolled onto his back and jerked his head upwards.
He scraped his boots along the ground for a second and cut the jump pack, skidding to a halt a few meters away. Several more heretics stared at him, seemingly forgetting the weapons in their hands. Corax raised one bolt pistol and fired at the nearest one, which snapped the others out of their stupor. Even as the second heretic exploded from the impact of the stubber rounds, however, the other five Raven Guards in the pod stepped forth and opened up with their own bolters, tearing the completely unsuspecting heretics apart. After a few seconds of bolter fragments and heretic bits falling to the ground, silence reigned.
Corax slowly stood and rocked his shoulders, working the natural kinks of rapid re-gravitation loose. He glanced around himself and noted that the pod had landed on a reinforced rooftop of a large hive spire, right in the middle of the shuttle pad. He walked over to the edge and grinned. If the pod had landed a few dozen meters north, they would have fallen nearly another half a second, and slammed into the side of the building. They may well have been all right, but if they had lodged in the side of the building, they would have had the Warp’s own time getting into the building.
He shook the thought away and craned his head back, spotting several more drop pods streaming down through the atmosphere. Corax turned to the other Raven Guard, who were busily policing the weapons of the heretics, and noted that the dead bodies seemed to be covered in layer upon layer of makeup, as if they had just been on stage. Corax frowned as he saw that one of the men he had shot had been covered in cuts already, under the makeup. He leaned down and wiped the gore off the man’s torso. He squinted, trying to see the pattern under the guts, and when recognition hit, it hit like a speeding truck.
The gigantic black-armored man stood upright so fast the others looked over to see if he had been hit. He took a full two steps back from the body before sense reasserted itself, and he slowly shook his head. “I was sure I’d run into you again, you traitorous filth.”
“Sir?” one of the Raven Guards asked. Corax sighed and deliberately crushed the shredded body to bits with one contemptuous stomp of his massive boot.
“I knew Fulgrim was behind this. I’m going to kill the son of a bitch, I swear it,” he said, his voice utterly devoid of emotion.
“Fulgrim himself is here?” one of the other men asked, completely astonished. “How could a Daemon Prince be on Terra?”
“Oh, I doubt he’s here in person, but he’ll be here soon enough,” Corax said with absolute certainty. “Squad, follow me. We’re fighting our way to the skybridges.”
“Yes, sir!” the Sergeant said, directing his men into an escort formation. One man with a pair of bolt pistols took lead, with Corax and the Sergeant close behind.
“One way or another, Fulgrim, this ends today,” Corax said aloud, and hefted the bolter. He had to reach the skybridge level first, then see to the past.
The Thunderhawk Transporters and Aquila shuttles carrying the rest of Guilliman’s strike force descended more sedately, dropping the armies of Sororitas, Guard, and Astartes they carried at a more appropriate speed. Escorted by the few atmosphere-capable fighters in the assembled group, the army set their courses for Hive Lucresti, with each of the four Primarchs left on board commanding a portion of the battle group. Guilliman was leading most of the infantry Astartes, and Dante seconded to him. Jaghatai followed with the more mobile units, and the four Blood Raven Librarians. Russ oversaw the armored units and most of the Guard, which he was secretly delighted to learn drove tanks named after him. Finally, El’Jonson oversaw the more specialized units, and most of the Sororitas that weren’t under Jaghatai.
Guilliman was back on the vox, trying to raise whomever was in charge of the Arbites unit pushing towards the center of the uprising, blasting inch by bloody inch closer to the Hive. The message had come through that Vulkan’s transport, and another transport carrying two Inquisitors, had been shot down before they arrived at the Hive, and the three that had made it had barely even lifted before their troops had nearly been pinned down on the spot. The Arbites vehicles were unable to advance from hive to hive without taking coordinated fire, which confirmed Guilliman’s impression from the Emperor: the rioters were being directed.
“I don’t care if they’re engaged, we need to know that the approach lane to the landing zone is clear before we bring down any ground units,” Guilliman said.
“The PDF forces closest to the LZ report sporadic rocket and sniper fire, but they are clearing out a drop zone for you, Lord Guilliman,” a terrified Arbites vox operator replied, scrambing to find good news to relay. “Lord Corax’s drop pods are landing all over the hive itself, which should occupy the anti-air gunners, but the hives have the population capacity of a small planet, my Lord, it’s completely impossible to secure one that fast.”
“All I want to know,” Guilliman ground out, “is if I’m going to get shot on the descent.”
“Sir…” the hapless Arbites vox officer fumbled for a moment, then apparently found the words. “I have no idea. The battles are spreading to nearly a dozen different hives, now, and the one you’re heading for is in the middle of it all. I suspect that you will be fired upon on descent, yes, my Lord.”
“That’s all I needed,” Guilliman said gruffly, and cut the channel. He dropped the vox mike back into its cradle and turned to face the passengers of his transport. “Astartes, we can expect a hot landing.”
“For a change,” Dante said wryly, eliciting a grin from Corbulo. The rest of the Marines aboard readied their wargear and waited, like the seasoned campaigners they were. Guilliman looked over than and was struck by the sheer variety of them. There were Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Blood Ravens, Storm Wardens, Raven Guard, Iron Hands, Imperial Fists, and Inviolators, each represented by at least one man in his company, and yet they all seemed completely ready to follow him into battle. Perhaps it was just the knowledge that they followed the Emperor himself that motivated their unity, or perhaps it was the fact that they were on Holy Terra itself.
Ultimately, Guilliman decided, it didn’t matter. The transport leaned out of its atmospheric descent and reaccelerated, pushing towards the hive at the core of the rot. Guilliman returned to his seat and looked over at the aft of the gunship, where three Guards were sitting, staring at a dataslate they had brought. Somehow, one of the Techmarines in the Inviolators had found a way to sling a Tauros underneath the gunship in a reentry-proofed case, and would be dropping it off when the Marines were.
The Guards, he noted, couldn’t help but sneak glances over to where he was sitting, apparently overawed. He found that at once distantly flattering and mildly annoying, on reflection. Worship had never been something he felt comfortable with, even before he had been reunited with the Emperor on Macragge. Abruptly, he felt something almost like unease, as he wondered if the Emperor had even bothered to explain to the rest of the Ultramarines where he was.
The Corporal leading the small group of Guardsmen hefted the slate and walked past the row of Marines, opening the hatch into the cockpit and walking in, shooting the Primarch another glance as he did. After talking to the co-pilot for a second, he walked back, dropping his slate back into his pocket. The Thunderhawk suddenly dove, nearly launching the Guardsman off his feet.
“Troops, we’re being targeted by a surface-to-air missile, strap in. We may have to drop and dash,” the pilot said, flaring the engines. Outside, the rain of other transports and their fighter escort spread out, some slowing down, others diving and accelerating. A pair of Lightning fighters from the PDF raced ahead, trying to draw off the AA target locks. The sky outside lit up with exploding flak and the contrails of missiles. One of the Guard dropships took a missile hit to the flank and wobbled off, trying to put down outside the fire zone. It didn’t make it; four shells suddenly slammed into its damaged side, and the shuttled dropped like a stone to detonate on the cityscape below. “Where the hell…?” the pilot asked in astonishment. Two las-beams, bright as the sun, slammed into the Thunderhawk, jolting two Marines clean out of their seats. The pilot snapped out of his stupor and jinked low, trying to shake their attacker. “They’ve got a fucking Predator down there!”
Guilliman overheard the comment and grimaced. That confirmed the presence of Traitor Marines, at least. The pilot cut the atmospheric entry engines in, and the aircraft lunged forward at his command, the air around the armored hull squealing as the ungainly aircraft parted it. The huge flying box arrowed straight for the landing zone, dropping flares to discourage further attacks, and somehow, they manage to avoid them. With practiced ease, the pilot wrestled the stick back, and the huge aircraft nosed up, slowing considerably as the atmospheric engines went silent. The gunner unslung the Hellstrike missile and launched it, turning the hideously malformed Predator guarding the landing pad into a smoking wreck, as a pack of heretics with stubbers shrieked deliriously and ran forward, firing blindly.
The gunner spun the selector dial on his sticks and tapped the appropriate button, and a stream of Thunder cannon shells ripped into the heretics, eerily repeating the scene that Vulkan had lived through not two hours before. A faint *thunk* felt through the hull announced that the Thunderhawk was in position, and dropped its Tauros cargo. The rear and side hatches opened, and the Guardsmen poured out the back, racing to open their precious scout car. The Astartes, some of whom had lived through more drops than Guilliman had, leaped out the side hatches, most already seeking targets with their bolters. The Primarch himself was last out the hatch, watching as the rest of the passengers disembarked as fast as their augmented legs could let them, then leaped backwards out of the nearest hatch, landing in a crouch with his heavy bolter ready. For a moment, he missed the familiar weight of the Gauntlets of Ultramar, but the heavy cyclic bolter he had appropriated from the Blood Raven’s stash more than matched them in firepower.
“Emperor’s will protect you, warriors!” the co-pilot said into his vox as he and the pilot neatly spun the Thunderhawk around and dropped out of sight below the landing pad, clearing the way for the next transport. Landing all the transports available to the Neverending’s force on a single pad would have been ridiculously time-consuming and dangerous, so they were landing on a many pads as could be secured, and then pulling the transports back, useless as they would have been for a hive battle. The next transport to land behind them was a Guard Aquila, and the Elysian regiment it carried. The troops leaped out as the three Guards that had hitched a ride on the Thunderhawk extracted their own vehicles and started it up. Guilliman jogged over to the colossal cargo door through which the Predator had driven, and swept the dark and litter-strewn bay beyond for any hostile contacts.
They found him before he could find them, and a bolter shell exploded against his armor, knocking him back a step. He spun to face the gunner before he could retarget him, and his jaw tightened with recognition. The shooter was a massively mutated member of the Emperor’s Children. The freak opened up on Guilliman with a bolt pistol in one hand and a sonic pistol in the other, but Guilliman ducked back behind the massive door before the Traitor could hit him. He raised one hand from the huge bolter and shook his first twice, and the Guard Tauros shot past him into the bay, careening straight past the ill-concealed Noise Marine, and the driver slammed the emergency break, spinning the aft of the scout vehicle to slam into the adamantium-clad warrior. The Noise Marine recoiled, its weapons dropped in the collision. It recovered quickly, grabbing the car to toss it aside, but before it could lift, Guilliman shot it neatly through the skull.
The Elysian gunner spun the turret to cover the entrance of the dock as the rest of Guilliman’s troops scrambled in, covering the windows and corners of the cavernous room. The Elysians filtered in behind them in commendably cautious fashion, policing any useful equipment from the dead heretics outside. Guilliman marched over to the damaged scout car to speak with the crew. “Nice job. Is that thing still operational?”
“Well, my Lord Guilliman, I doubt it would be any use in a hive structure, but I can get it going, no problem,” the driver said, testing the engine. It hummed back to life at once, and the secondary gunner patted the console fondly.
“That’s a good lass. What do you need us for, Lord?” he asked, as the driver folded down the gull-wing door over the driver’s side.
“Nothing, right now,” Guilliman said. “Just keep any more hostiles from following our transports in, and watch those cargo doors for enemy air.”
“Air, sir?” the driver asked in surprise. “With all due respect, sir, the enemy is inside the hive.”
“They ‘were’ inside the hive, soldier, and I’m sure most of them still are. But look,” Guilliman said impatiently, pointing at the oozing Noise Marine. “We’re fighting Slaaneshi cultists now, and they have Traitor Legionnaires now. We’d be foolish to expect they don’t have air units available, especially since we already know they have tanks!”
“Of course, my Lord, forgive me,” the driver said, paling. “We’ll be vigilant.”
“Of course you will,” Guilliman said, hefting the heavy bolter and moving forward. The gunner spun the turreted grenade launcher to cover the door as Guilliman reached Dante at the door.
“Lord Guilliman, we stand to your order,” Dante said, hefting the Axe Mortalis.
“Very well. Standard pattern urban clearance, Marines,” he said, raising his voice and opening his helmet’s external speakers up. “Remember, the enemy will be using sonic weaponry, and they’ve already managed to get a tank up here through the cargo lifts. Don’t sling your heavy weapons until you’re fighting in such close quarters that you can not move them.”
“Acknowledged, my Lord,” the Imperial Fists Brother-Lieutenant said, hauling out his heavy flamer.
The Raven Guard point man kicked the door in front of him open and swept in, moving along the wall behind him to make room for Corax. The Primarch stormed in, bolter held level, and scanned the room. Nothing. The black-haired warrior lifted the barrel of his bolter to the ceiling and moved into the room. “Clear. Pack it in, men, we’re nearly to the manufacturing levels.”
“Sir…” the point man said, slowly walking towards the middle of the room. “Did you see this?” He stooped to pick up a small box, packed with empty bolter shells.
“No, I didn’t. Does it have a print on it?” Corax asked, stepping over the remains of the door into what had probably been a nice apartment before the heretics had tainted it. The Marine looked over the box for the stamp of a Forge World, and found a twisted mark.
“Yes, sir. This is the stamp of the Dark Mechanicum,” he said, pointing to the sign of the warped cogwheel.
“Thought so. Good eye, Marine. Fall in, we’re skipping the rest of this hab section and moving straight to the manufactoria,” Corax said, turning to leave. “Maybe we’ll find that traitor first, maybe not. Either way, we’re getting closer.”
Down at what passed for a ‘surface’, the armored columns were unloading and surrounding the massive hive structure. Though in truth it was just another layer of buildings onto which they were dropping, their roofs were sturdy enough to hold the vehicles, much to Leman Russ’s relief.
“All right, lads, listen up!” he called through his vox as the first wave of vehicles landed. “Our orders are to take and hold the sky bridges and cargo trams from one hive to the next, to cut off enemy movement and patrols. We’ve received confirmation from Lord Corax’s drop troops that we’re up against the Noise Marines. That means you keep those helmet filters SEALED!” he barked, though few men would be stupid enough to breathe Terra’s unfiltered air anyway.
Guilliman’s team wasted no time in sending the Guard to secure as many of the hive’s mid-level rooms as possible. This may have been one of the wealthiest hives in the galaxy, but that just meant that the upper crust was filthy rich, and it said nothing about the average hive denizen. Still, the evidence of the heretic’s presence was everywhere now. The more doors they kicked down, the more haphazard barricades they swept away, the more obvious it became that the taint had spread deep.
“How many of these bloody heretics are there?” one of the Guardsmen who had tagged along with Guilliman’s diverse Astartes team grumbled. He slapped a new power pack into his lasrifle and stepped back to allow Corbulo to lean past him and scan the next hallway. A hail of stubber rounds pattered off the corner, and Corbulo jerked his head back.
“Too many. The people out there aren’t wearing Slaaneshi colors or using anything more potent than simple self-defense gear.”
“Brainwashed by the taint, no doubt,” Dante replied, sidling up to the corner. The hallway narrowed beyond the turn, becoming barely wide enough to admit a Terminator. Dante dropped to a knee and spun around the corner, firing the Perdition Pistol at the entrenched heretics. The beam washed over them, incinerating the middle of the group and setting the clothes of the outer ones aflame. Rather than roll and extinguish the fires like a sane person would, they gasped joyously and sprinted forward. Dante brought up the Axe and stood, leaning into the blow. The first heretic split neatly down the middle, giggling like a fool.
The next leaped over his friend’s body and tried to grab the Axe away from Dante, but the ancient Marine was far faster, and brought the pommel at the end of the haft up in a swift blow that sent the man reeling back, then joined his friend on the floor in pieces when Dante cleaved him apart.
Guilliman nodded. “Well done, Blood Angel.”
Dante didn’t acknowledge the compliment, staring in complete disgust at the heretic bits on the floor. “My Lord Guilliman, look. They’re just normal citizens. These people are wearing sleeping clothes and nightgowns.”
“Indeed. I admit it’s rare for any person to fall to the depredations of Chaos so quickly, but…” Guilliman trailed off, prodding one of the corpses with his boot. “Well, Fulgrim always was the thorough type.”
“Fulgrim himself is here?” the Guardsman’s eyes went round as teacups.
“I’d stake my life on it,” Guilliman said coldly, stepping around the corner. “Fall in, men, single file, and check those doors.” The hallway they were in was little more than an access tunnel, passing through the various hab blocks and waste processors that filled the innards of any hive. The tunnel was completely level, to allow cargo servitors and small groups of people through, with yellow-marked doors into the hab and maintenance blocks every sixty meters or so.
Guilliman took point this time, his huge bolter allowing him to cover the entire hallway, as it stretched far into the distance. The group of ten passed the first few doors in silence, before Corbulo, fourth in line behind Dante, the Guardsman, and Guilliman, raised his hand for silence. “Wait. Do you hear that?”
An unholy noise, like the sound of a hundred people screaming in unison, echoed faintly from the hab block above them. Guilliman raised his eyes to the ceiling and turned on his advanced auspex gear, but the incredibly durable materials of the hive structure blocked any sort of readings. Guilliman looked around for a cargo lift that would ascend them to the next story, but found nothing. “Damn. Anybody spot a cargo lift on the route back?”
“Negative, Lord, but…LOOK OUT!” the Guardsman screamed, an instant before being thrown back against the wall. The door they had stopped next to burst open in a hail of shrapnel, taking a chunk of the walls on either side with them. A grotesquely-decorated Noise Marine, drenched in the ichor of some creature or another, charged through the gap, firing his sonic blaster in the cramped hallway. The Guardsman took the first blast, his body ripped to shreds in the blink of an eye. Guilliman tried to tug the massive heavy bolter around, but the weapon was too cumbersome to turn quickly. The twisted Marine pivoted and fired again, blasting a gaping crater in the wall next to the Ultramarine, and peppering him with bits of the dead Guardsman.
Dante stepped forward in one quick motion, grabbing the sonic weapon by the barrel and twisting. The Noise Marine reacted by thrusting the weapon upward, breaking the grip and leveling it straight at the Blood Angel’s head. Before he could pull the trigger, though, Guilliman dropped the bolter and reached forward, grabbing the Marine’s helmet and twisting. His aim spoiled, the Marine’s sonic weapon fired again, knocking Dante back as they fell, but achieving nothing but caving in the ceiling. Huge chunks of rubble collapsed out of the overstressed structure, crushing the Noise Marine. Guilliman scooped up the bolter and jumped backwards, separating himself from the others. As the rubble cleared, Guilliman tried to open a vox channel to the others.
“Dante, report! Are you uninjured?”
“I’m still here, Lord,” the Blood Angel said, shaken. “Our friend here is dead. We’ll double back and try to reach you.”
“Don’t bother, brother,” Guilliman said. “I’m proceeding. Try to find an alternate path to the manufacturing levels.”
A long pause followed the order. “Are you…certain, my Lord? We could catch up with you in minutes.”
“I’m sure,” Guilliman said, steeling himself. “I’m advancing. As the newly-arrived troops catch up, dispatch them to clear and hold the Hive, room by room. Remember that the more populous areas will be the first place the cultists attack, hoping to capture as many innocents as possible to use as human sacrifices.”
“Acknowledged, Lord. Be careful,” Dante said, his voice grim.
“Always,” Guilliman said. He readied the bolter and proceeded down the corridor.
Vulkan tilted his head back, impressed. The group had hiked across an entire hive outcropping, into areas where people who had probably never seen the sun lived, the halls fortunately emptied by the order to lock down, provided by the Arbites. After nearly three hours of hiking, they passed through the outcropping into the core, where the huge amounts of goods needed by the population of the hive were made. Vulkan was immediately at home with the huge rooms full of machinery, though they were obviously more for civilians than actual soldiers. The room they were in now looked more like a cathedral than a factory, with huge artificial lights that stretched to the ceiling like columns, and rows of assembly benches arrayed like pews.
The servitors that manned the place trundled on, abandoned until the lockdown was over. Vulkan looked over the room and spotted what he had been looking for. A door lead out of the huge room into the access halls that one could take to nearly anywhere in the core hive building. Vulkan lead the group across the massive room, Tu’Shan and He’Stan especially seeming impressed with their surroundings.
Draigo, on the other hand, seemed worried. “Lord Vulkan, the taint of the Ruinous ones is… very strong here. I suspect that whomever is leading those cultists we fought before is here, in this manufacturing block.”
“Can you tell who it is, yet, master Draigo?” Vulkan asked, peering through the door. The short corridor ahead of them was caked with the grime, no doubt the passage the workers in the manufactoria took to return to their homes.
“A sorcerer of Slaanesh, a powerful one. Who, specifically? I can not say with any certainty,” Draigo said, running down the corridor with the Companions hot on his heels.
“He must have been horrifyingly powerful if he could evade detection here on Terra long enough to create whatever ensorcelments he has created,” Tu’Shan said, taking up the rear in the column.
“Or he flew in from elsewhere, more likely,” Draigo said. He reached the branch at the end of the corridor, neither way being marked, of course. “Lord Vulkan, I can not tell which way we should go here.”
“Then go left, with the Companions. I will lead the other party right,” Vulkan said. He started to proceed down the hall, when Draigo’s hand on his pauldrons stopped him.
“Lord Vulkan, you will not be defended from the Warp-sorcery of the Slaanesh-worshippers in my absence,” he said, his voice composed, if resigned.
“And if we all go the same way, we stand the risk of missing the enemy entirely,” Vulkan said. “We can always rejoin later if need be.”
“Will you even know where to go without me to guide you?” Draigo asked carefully. “You can not sense the taint as I can.”
“Draigo, I am giving you an order. Move out,” Vulkan said with finality. He stuck his massive hand out, and Draigo, hesitantly, took it and shook once. “Warrior’s fortunes.”
“The Emperor Protects,” the Grey Knight intoned. He hefted his Nemesis Pike and ran down the left corridor, both Companions following in silence. Vulkan took a few steps back from the T-junction, but made no move to follow, instead prying off his helmet and pressing his ear to the grimy tile wall. When even his Primarch’s senses could detect the running men no more, he slid his helmet back on and turned to the others.
“Lord Vulkan?” Tu’Shan asked, displaying remarkable restraint. “Shouldn’t we be going?”
“No,” Vulkan said heavily. He walked sedately down the left-hand tunnel in Draigo’s wake. “We’re about to enter a battle I have no place in.”
“What do you mean, Lord Vulkan?” He’Stan asked in confusion. “We must root this disease out from the heart of Holy Terra. We have every right to be here.”
“Every right to help, sure, but this isn’t my fight,” Vulkan said, walking along the tunnel. “I know who’s waiting for us here. I know who’s going to be at the end of this maze.”
“Whom, my Lord?” Tu’Shan asked, falling into step behind his Primarch.
“Fulgrim. There’s nobody else it could be,” Vulkan said. Tu’Shan stiffened.
“Then…why did you let Draigo run ahead?”
“Because he can’t possibly get to Fulgrim before Roboute and Corax do, if I’m not there to help him,” Vulkan said. “He’s a gifted fighter, no doubt, but he’s no more entitled to fight Fulgrim than we are.”
Two thousand feet above, Guilliman was preparing to do just that. The towering Primarch had nearly exhausted the ammunition for his heavy bolter now, and was forced to rely more and more on surprise, waiting for the cultists and Noise Marines he encountered to be caught off-guard before laying into them with the bolter. Ahead of him were two Noise Marines, clearly having the time of their lives, laying into a pack of civilians with their horrible poison blades. Guilliman squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then made up his mind, rounding the corner and opening up, cutting one of the Marines down before they even knew he was there. The other dropped his knife and unslung his sonic blaster, but Guilliman nailed him with the last few bolts on the chain before he could fire.
The surviving civilians screamed and tried to run, no doubt convinced he was another Slaaneshi Marine, but he ignored the ones who ran. Others scrambled to drag injured loved ones away from the spreading pools of toxic blood oozing from the downed Chaos Marines, and yet more just huddled on the ground, catatonic. Guilliman dropped the bolter and drew the two bolt pistols he had slung, chambered rounds for both, and replaced their magazines from the pouches the Emperor’s Children had carried. The remaining civilians scampered back into their apartments, and Guilliman jogged over the twitching Noise Marines, keeping an eye on his auspex. It didn’t really seem to be helping with all the civilians about, but it was far easier to spot an Astartes than it was to spot a normal-sized person anyway. He reached a massive staircase, covered in the ichor of some incredibly unlucky bystander, and glanced up and down, trying to find his bearings.
The distinctive sound of a bolter firing made him jerk his head back, and duck back into the cover of the stairwell, but no bolter shells came near him. He cautiously edged back out, tilting his head back to follow the sounds. The stairwell lit up for a brief moment as someone several dozen stories up cooked off a flashbang, and that was all he needed. Being careful to stick to the outside wall, Guilliman ran up the stairs, cursing the time spent on each landing, checking the hallways out for ambushes.
The person at whom the flashbangs were thrown was having a much harder time of it. Corax took the few steps above him at a dead run, keeping the wall to his back, then stopped dead and raised his bolter, trying to draw a bead on whoever was trying to blind him.
Another grenade clattered onto the stairs at his feet, and Corax swept it up with his free hand, squeezing the dead man switch and waiting. After nearly ten seconds had passed in silence, Corax grimaced. They knew their shit, whoever they were. Corax took two fast steps forward and hurtled the grenade as high as he could, then jumped back into cover as some more bolter shells and a rippling wave of air tore through the railing. The grenade detonated, nowhere near his attackers, but that wasn’t a problem. He had their locations now, and he sprinted farther up the stairs, the bolters and sonic blaster shredding chunks of the steps. Finally, he saw the steps the Marines were standing on come into view, and fired. The bolts blew the steps to metal shrapnel, and the first Noise Marine fell through, flailing for a grip on something. Corax blasted another several rounds through the Traitor’s midsection and jumped backwards through the door behind him.
The other Noise Marine leaned over the gap Corax had made and fired, his sonic blaster chewing the metal and ceramic at Corax’s feet apart. Suddenly, he keeled backwards and collapsed, denting the stairs beneath him, as the rest of Corax’s squad, nearly ten stories down, finally managed to get a line on him and opened up with their own weapons. Corax breathed a sigh of relief and stepped back into the mangled stairwell. “Hold up, squad, I’m headed back down.” He jumped over the gap in the landing and plummeted down the open center of the stairwell, firing his jump pack to slow his descent towards the landing the Noise Marines had so kindly stripped of its railing before.
He landed and looked up in surprise, noting a new addition to the squad. A colossal man in Ultramarine armor stood there, securing the landing behind his own men. He cleared his throat to catch the Astartes’ attention. “Ultramarine? Report.”
“Good to see you still in one piece, Corax,” Guilliman said. Corax’s eyes widened behind his helmet.
“Ah, Roboute, good. What happened to Dante?”
“Cut off from him by a collapsing tunnel, but unharmed. Jaghatai and Leman are holding mega-trams and monorails out of the hive, as we planned.”
“And what of Lion and Vulkan?” Corax asked. Guilliman shook his head.
“No idea about Vulkan, but his transport went down a far distance from the hive itself. He’s supposedly unharmed, but he’s nowhere to be found. Lion, I don’t know. He should be securing the main civilian bridges with the Sororitas and Arbites forces, and pushing in on foot, but that’s miles below our position,” he said, glancing around himself. Corax nodded and jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“I spotted another stairwell back there,” he said, pointing down the hallway his Marines were securing. “It should let out above the part we just destroyed.”
“All right. Let’s head out,” Guilliman said. “Are you sure we should be going up, though? The wealthier cultists that started this catastrophe probably live up there, true, but…”
“I’m open to suggestions, brother,” Corax said drily. “Where do you think we should go?”
“If anything, I think we should head down,” Guilliman said. “The sorcerer commanding these thralls could be anyone, but where are these Noise Marines coming from? They couldn’t have been here all along. And where are the tanks being stored?”
“Tanks?” Corax asked. “What bloody tanks? We haven’t seen any.”
“Well, you landed on an ornithopter pad on a spire, recall,” Guilliman said reasonably. “There’s no way to park a Predator up there. We got hit by one coming in, and one of the Guard shuttles was hulled by the damnable thing before our gunner splashed it.”
“So, vehicles, and Traitor Astartes…” Corax’s voice trailed off and he looked to the side a moment, lost in thought. “They’d need a hell of a lot of storage space…the manufacturing block?”
“Maybe, but I doubt it. They’re constantly packed with working machinery, and the Enginseers who oversee them would be the people in the hive most capable of putting up a fight, or at least raising an alarm,” Guilliman said. “I rather suspect the hive’s cathedral.”
“Hmmm…I see where you’re going,” Corax said. “It’s certainly large enough.”
“It’s closer than the manufacturing block anyway, brother. Shall we go?” Roboute asked, gesturing down the stairwell.
Corax nodded and turned to his squad. “Take the rear, men. We’re moving out to the cathedral.”
“Acknowledged,” the Sergeant replied, clenching his fist and pumping it once. His men abandoned their search of the hallways and fell in behind the Sergeant in a rearguard formation. Corax took point, clearing his own weapon and reloading. He glanced back to see Guilliman was sporting only a pair of bolt pistols instead of something more effective.
“Lose your main, brother?” he asked.
“Out of ammo,” Guilliman replied. “These seem sturdy enough.”
“Right,” Corax said drily. “Sergeant, relinquish your secondary to Lord Guilliman.”
“Aye, sir,” the Sergeant said, unbuckling his Power Sword and handing it to the Primarch of the Ultramarines. Guilliman clipped it on and nodded his thanks.
The seven men proceeded down the stairs. The impromptu fire team descended deeper and deeper into the hive’s guts, closer to where Guilliman was convinced the core of the problem lay. More and more frequently, the group found themselves encountering groups of Noise Marines and cultists, some of which were so deeply entrenched that they had had to abandon the stairwell and find a way around them. At one point, Corax had had to stop and call a medic, after an ambush by, of all things, an Obliterator, which managed to kill two of Corax’s squad and injure a third. Corax left his men behind to guard the wounded Raven Guard, and proceeded towards the cathedral. The two were able to avoid most of the more obvious traps, but a few of the roving Slaaneshi warbands had to be engaged, and dispatched as fast as possible, since they would be able to bring reinforcements first.
As they approached the outside of the hab block containing the cathedral, Corax signaled for silence. The pair halted their advance and waited. Moments later, a pair of gibbering, deranged cultists, both draped in the finery of the Terran nobility, scampered past.
Corax rose to his feet and followed, Guilliman trying to stay silent in his wake. The cultists were lugging around cheap-looking stubguns, both clearly too far out of their minds to be able to use them, but the coatings of blood on their hands made it obvious they hadn’t resorted to using them wherever they had been coming from anyway. The cultists moved into the hab block, completely ignorant of their pursuers.
The corridors around them were growing more ornate, Guilliman noted, with bronze Aquilas and lightning bolts engraved nearly everywhere. The usual profusion of skulls that so frequently accompanied signs of Imperial worship decorated the walls, and the damage to the hab units was growing worse as they passed them. Just as Corax, still on point, started to wonder how close they were getting to the cathedral, one of the two heretics suddenly noticed the massive power-armored men following them. Both dragged their stubguns up to fire, but before they could get a shot off, Corax, who had had his guns trained on them the whole pursuit, dropped both. The sound of the bolts detonating would draw the other Noise Marines like sharks to blood, and both Primarchs knew it. Guilliman shouldered past Corax and sprinted, both fully aware of the inherent danger of engaging who knew how many enemy Astartes without backup, but fully aware of what could happen if they didn’t.
The cathedral wasn’t merely tacked on to an existing hab block, but rather a block unto itself, complete with artificial light sources behind stained glass on the outside, stretching up to the heights of the block. The symbols of the Emperor were desecrated, the symbols of Slaanesh carved into the concrete and metal in their stead. Huge arcs of blood and pits in the wall decorated spots where captured Imperial citizens had been harevested, and piles of corpses had been dumped on the corners of the indoor streets that surrounded the structure. Corax pulled up short of the building, his eyes searching for concealed marksmen. To his complete surprise, he saw none. No guards at the doors, no snipers at the highest outer portions of the building, and from what he could see, no vehicles except a few burning cars. The entire building may well have been deserted.
Guilliman’s vox buzzed. “Lord Guilliman, respond. This is Lord Dante. Come in.” Guilliman opened his own vox and let Corax in with a glance.
“Lord Guilliman here. What’s your situation, Lord Dante?”
“We’re approaching the cathedral. We suspected that it may be the center of Slaaneshi activity, but we’re not seeing any hostiles.”
“Likewise,” Guilliman said. “The only other possibility is that the hostiles are coming from the manufactories, but I don’t see how they could be.”
“Where are you, my Lord?”
“We’re on the…southern side of the cathedral, looking at the main entrance,” Guilliman said, consulting his HUD. “There’s a lot of bodies here, but nothing’s moving, inside the building or out.”
“Acknowledged, Lord Guilliman. Please direct your attention to the paving tile below you,” Dante’s voice said. Guilliman risked a glance downwards, and saw a bright red dot on the ground between his feet. He looked up, trying to find the source, but saw nothing.
“We’re clean on the other side of the building block, Lord,” Dante said. A very small icon appeared on Guilliman’s HUD, between large building edifices.
“We stand ready to advance on the cathedral on your order, Lord Guilliman,” Dante said over the vox, after the Ultramarine activated his own transponder.
“Affirmative, Dante. Advance your men towards the nearest entrance to the building,” Guilliman said. Matching his own instructions, Guilliman broke Corax’s cover and ran to a wrecked car, scanning the area for anything trying to line up a shot on him. Failing to see anything, he signaled for Corax to advance, which he did, making it all the way to the corner of the building. Corax paused, then signaled for his brother to follow. Dante and his own fireteam – now reduced to a mere five Marines and Terminators – advanced as well, running alongside the building to Corax’s location. For agonizing minutes, both teams crossed the open streets separating them, which felt almost alien after the cramped conditions elsewhere in the hive. Somehow, not a shot was fired as the two teams reunited at the gate to the cathedral itself. Dante had been through the grinder by the look of him, Guilliman noted, his armor pocked with shrapnel damage. The Inviolator Terminator behind him was even worse off, one arm trailing uselessly, and the Imperial Fists Veteran following him was coated in a thin sheen of blood, nearly from head to toe, though he himself didn’t look injured. Corbulo and the Dark Angel Deathwing Company Assault Terminator following him looked completely uninjured, which only served to highlight the damage the other men had suffered.
Guilliman poked two fingers at the tasteless wrought-iron-coated gates and Corax reacted, planting his hands on the gate and pushing, not hard enough to open them, but testing their yield, seeing if they would budge. To his surprise, they did, and Guilliman and the Deathwing Terminator took opposite positions, each leaning against one door. Guilliman counted down with his fingers, and when he reached ‘one,’ both pushed on the gates with all their strength, and they flew open. Corax and Corbulo stormed in, sweeping their weapons ant shoulder height, looking for targets. Guilliman and Dante were next, the other three men filing in behind covering their rear as trained. The light in the cathedral was distorted, shifting red and orange, and there was nothing in the entry chamber beyond the doors themselves, which hung from their hinges, bent by some force from inside. The door was just high enough to admit the Predator Guilliman had seen earlier, and tread marks were visible on the shredded carpets.
Guilliman took Corax’s place at point, and ducked through the doors of the entry chamber into the main hall of the cathedral itself. He dragged his bolter pistols over his field of view, checking the corners of his vision, as instinct and centuries of experience demanded, then allowed his eyes to be drawn to the thing that had captured his attention the moment he entered the room, the thing he had feared would be there since the moment he had landed.
The entire room was full of people, some moving, most not. The floor was carpeted with bodies, and some reveling in the kind of debauchery that would make, but most were completely still. The other Astartes filed in behind him, fanning out on the wall of the building, but not even Dante could tear his eyes from the sight of what was on the floor, and what was hanging above the altar.
A ragged, shimmering cloud of smoke, nearly reaching the ceiling wavered above the altar, pulsing with an incomprehensibly terrible glow. A woman in scraps of silk and little else was standing before it, arms in the air, and completely motionless. Every few seconds or so, one of the surviving revelers, who seemed to be cultists and civilians in equal measure, would scream and die, and the cloud would grow clearer. Occasionally a tendril of the smoke would reach down and touch a corpse on the floor, and it would suddenly distort and grow. An entire Noise Marine, armor and all, would erupt from within its flesh, and after kneeling before the woman, would walk over to the side of the room, staring up at the cloud.
Guilliman clenched the muscles in his neck and tore his gaze from the sight. The group of Astartes walked paced forward, making as little sound as the Terminator-clad men among them could, though Corax and Guilliman could probably have set off flashbangs at once and nobody would have noticed. Dante looked up and recoiled, seeing that the intricate stained glass portraits of the Emperor and Saints had been defiled, smeared with something black and viscous.
Corbulo reached the back of the pews, and the group slowly turned, taking cover behind the wooden benches. All seven leveled their weapons at the rows of Noise Marines, but the Traitors seemed just as entranced as the surviving humans, their helmets locked on the smoke. Corax sighted his bolter on the back of the woman seemingly leading the ritual and focused. The sight was transfixing, her body silhouetted against the glowing smoke, but the Raven Guard Primarch sighted the bolter on her back with an effort. With one slight tug on the trigger, a spray of viscera appeared in the middle of her torso, and she staggered forward. The revelers all went silent and still as one, and Guilliman and Corax looked at one another in grim resignation. They both knew exactly what was going to happen next.
The woman turned around, the hole in her torso knitting itself back together, and with a flick of her wrist, the surviving debauched partiers screamed in unison, their souls ripped from their bodies. The woman flew backwards, her own soul ripped from its housing, and the smoke grew almost transparent. The tendrils that had been extruding Noise Marines suddenly withdrew, and the cloud coalesced, slowly taking form.
Guilliman let his head hang for a moment, his stomach churning with disappointment, then raised it back up. The cloud had taken the horribly mutated form of their own brother.
Fulgrim, Primarch of the Emperor’s Children.
None of the assembled Space Marines was fool enough to wait. All seven opened fire, three on the Noise Marines, still staring enraptured at Fulgrim, four on Fulgrim himself. The Noise Marines reacted instantly, diving for cover, but the only cover to be found was the altar itself, which Fulgrim was blocking. The Inviolator downed one with his storm bolter, and Dante neatly incinerated the other two with his Perdition Pistol, turning his aim to Fulgrim himself.
An unholy wail, like a million people singing a hymn off-key, echoed from the street outside. Unseen to the men indoors, the hundreds of Noise Marines and thousands of entranced aristocrats that had scattered throughout the hive abandoned whatever they had been doing, dragging their bewitched civilian cohorts with them back to the cathedral. They ran as they retreated, merging groups where roads and tunnels connected, following whatever daemonic order Fulgrim had given them.
Guilliman emptied both of his pistols and stopped to reload, cursing his timing. Corax’s storm bolter clicked dry, and he charged his power fist, ducking back down behind his pew.
Fulgrim didn’t even seem to be registering the hits, simply looking around himself with lazy contentment. He glanced over his winged shoulder at the pretty pattern of holes the bolter shells were blowing in the wall behind him and smirked, turning back to his brothers with a shrug. Guilliman raised his clenched fist. “Hold! Bolter shells are passing through him!”
“Are you calling me shallow?” Fulgrim said, his voice nearly the same as Corax remembered it. Guilliman snarled and vaulted the shredded pew, landing in the aisle and drawing his loaned power sword.
“Rot in hell, traitor!” he bit off, slashing his sword at the serpentine daemon’s stomach. Fulgrim effortlessly parried, then lashed out with the flat of one of his four scimitars, catching Guilliman across the shoulder and forcing him back a step.
“I missed you, Roboute. How’s the neck?” Fulgrim taunted, sheathing one blade. His now-free hand started to shimmer, and Guilliman, seeing it coming, closed his eyes and thrusted his sword into the floor. Fulgrim’s sorcerous power leapt forth, enveloping his brother in a haze of sparks. Guilliman groaned in agony, his joints locking up. Fulgrim threw his head back and laughed, redoubling his attack.
Suddenly, a huge black object object cannoned into Fulgrim bowling him over. The attack on Guilliman ceased, and he looked up, gasping for air.
Corax had pulsed his jump pack launching himself into Fulgrim, and punching his brother square in the chest with his power fist. Fulgrim sprawled onto his reptilian back, stunned but not out yet, as Corax awkwardly rolled away in his Terminator armor. Guilliman tugged the power sword out of the ground, and hissed in disappointment as he saw that the cell had been depleted by the electrical attacks. “Guilliman!” Dante barked, tossing the Axe Mortalis to the Primarch. Guilliman caught it and spun it to guard. Dante rose to follow his weapon when the iron gates they had passed through before suddenly swung back open, and a small army of screeching cultists poured through the door. Dante assessed the situation in an instant, redrawing the Perdition Pistol and firing into the crowd. A channel opened down the middle, dozens of the tightly packed people exploding as their tissues superheated. The Terminators at his flanks pivoted at the waist and opened up with their own weapons, reaping waves of the cultists and bewitched civilians. Corbulo took a more direct approach, sprinting to the door to the antechamber with a wooden pew in his hands, and slammed it against the gap, knocking the next group of cultists clean off their feet.
Corax struggled to rise in his ungainly armor, before Fulgrim could recover and strike him down. “Not so easy, traitor,” he managed, levering his arm off the floor and rising to his feet.
“Bah!” Fulgrim scoffed, beating his daemonic wings. They should never have lifted his huge body off the ground, but somehow they did, propelling him back up, just as Guilliman swep the Axe where he had been lying a moment before.
Outside, Draigo and his Companions, battered and exhausted but still mobile, watched in astonishment as the small army of Noise Marines that had made it through before Corax had stopped the summoning and the legion of cultists that had called them raced for the cathedral, clustering around the main entrance like a depraved ant colony. The Companions looked at each other askance, but Draigo set his jaw and followed, mindful of the rows of people still charging out of the access tunnels. He lined his storm bolter up on the nearest Noise Marine and cut loose, hosing the man down with bolts. The Noise marine exploded, showering the closest other cultists with tainted meat and ceremite. The cultists stopped their headlong charge and raised stubbers and laspistols, and one of the Companions nailed both with fire from his guardian spear.
Thus distracted, the nearest clusters of Marines and cultists charged at the Grey Knight, who began backpedalling, seemingly realizing what he had triggered. When they grew close enough to actually hit him with their ranged attacks while running, however, he suddenly halted, grabbing the Liber Daemonicum copy around his neck and hefting it high. “Imperator sanctimonia tersum totus!” he roared, casting his psychic might forward in an arc. The shockwave bowled the cultists back, most bleeding from the eyes and ears. They writhed on the ground, reveling in the experience, and Draigo ran back over them with contempt. “Weakminded fools…” he muttered, making for the cathedral.
Guilliman swung the axe to block Fulgrim’s withering assault, his arms screaming in protest. No matter how quickly he moved, the accursed duelists’ four arms made the difference, each holding a blade that could flicker around any guard he raised. Were it not for Corax’s help, Guilliman was sure he’d be lying on the floor with yet another hole in his neck at that very moment. Corax was dodging and ducking behind his traitorous brother’s serpentine back, lashing out with his power fist, trying to land a solid blow on Fulgrim’s rear, but whatever sorcery had summoned him here granted him preternatural senses as well, and Fulgrim effortlessly dodged every crippling blow.
Suddenly, Fulgrim changed tactics, lashing out with two blades on each side, sweeping them forward towards the middle. Exhausted, Guilliman barely managed to leap backwards, the blades stabbing through the spot he had vacated. Fulgrim released the four swords and they flew past each other in mid-air, catching each in the opposite hand and continuing the movement in one effortless arc. Caught completely off-guard, Guilliman lurched backwards, his chest plate rent clean open, though thanks to the extra layer of ceremite between his carapace and the inner armor layer, the blades missed his flesh.
“Dear brother, I can’t be killing you yet!” Fulgrim said, mock-taunting. “You need to linger, and taste the joys of eternal life, as dear brother Corax did!”
“YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU DEGENERATE FREAK!” Corax screamed, his usual placid demeanor completely gone, forcibly reminded of the millennia he had spent trapped in the Living Labyrinth. He swiped his free hand down and scooped up the powerless sword Guilliman had dropped, stabbing it towards his brother’s back.
Fulgrim giggled hysterically, throwing his huge body sideways with a flap of his wings. “Aw, did I hit a nerve?” he said coquettishly. “If you didn’t like the Labyrinth, all you had to do was say so! I would have put in an art gallery, or a nice gazebo! Maybe a dark room for you to brood in, I remember how much you like doing that!” he teased.
Corax gritted his teeth and lunged forward, then slammed his heels into the ground and ducked, the swinging Axe Mortalis nearly taking his head off as Guilliman tried to account for his enemy’s new position. Guilliman paused, panting, as Fulgrim slowly circled the two. “Surely we don’t need to do this,” he wheedled. “All I really want is for Corax to come home where he belongs, you know. I suppose having the richest people on Terra become my loyal slaves is nice too, but at the end of the day, the place just doesn’t feel the same without him.” He lunged forward suddenly, sweeping his four swords grandly. Guilliman twisted, bringing the Axe’s spinning teeth forward to slap against the guard on the nearest blade, making Fulgrim’s arm spring backwards from the impact. Fulgrim grimaced in surprise, which turned into a gasp of agony as Corax took advantage of the opening in his attention and slammed the power fist down on his brother’s wrist. Fulgrim dropped one of his blades and flew backwards, preventing further damage.
“Not bad, brother,” he said, looking at his ruined hand with detached disinterest. The destroyed flesh started to gradually knit itself back together, as the Raven Guard Primarch followed up with a headlong charge, sliding to a knee at the last second. He hauled off and punched his power first forward, trying to hit Fulgrim below his armor, but Fulgrim swept his three blades laterally and nearly took Corax’s hand off at the wrist.
His attack wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, though, the energized hand slammed into Fulgrim’s scaled body, and the Daemon Prince snarled, his mask of disinterested arrogance slipping. “Did you think I came here, where our possessed father lives, just for the souls of a miserable hive of like-minded aristocrats?” Fulgrim asked cruelly, lashing his blades across Corax’s armor, slicing through the ancient ceramite like wood. Corax slammed the heels of his boots against the ground and rose suddenly, bringing the dagger in his non-mangled hand around and slicing the back of Fulgri’ms lower left hand. He instantly released the blade and triggered his jump pack, flinging himself backwards at the head of its engine. He cannoned into the rows of wooden pews and the stained wood shattered, casting clouds of splinters into the air. Fulgrim ripped the dagger out and tossed it casually into the wall behind him.
Fulgrim grinned broadly. “Do you think you’d come back into the Labyrinth if I painted it black?” He nonchalantly turned and advanced on the Raven Guard Primarch, fanning the blades in his hands. “Ah, well. We’ll have all the time in the galaxy to discuss it when you’re back where you belong.”
“Not a chance in hell,” Guilliman snarled, driving the Axe clean into Fulgrim’s back. Fulgrim screamed in shock and pain, thrashing his tail. The sweeping tail swept Guilliman off his feet, but the damage was done, the Axe’s teeth bit deep into Fulgrim’s flesh, shredding the tainted sinew and muscle. Guillman scrambled back up, wrapping his hands around his brother’s arms and heaving him to the ground. He stamped his armored boots down on Fulgrim’s flailing shoulders and grabbed the Axe’s handle, lifting it high. Fulgrim watched the display, pure hatred etched on his face.
“You deserved, worse, daemon,” Guilliman said, and sliced Fulgrim’s head off.
The headless corpse spasmed and shook, vile purple ichor splattering from its wounds, before disappearing entirely. Guilliman stumbled to his knees, dropping his borrowed Axe and heaving, blood oozing from the cuts on his shoulder. Corax walked over, one hand dangling at his side, blood-soaked and useless, and offered the free one to Guilliman. The Ultramarine took and stood slowly.
Corax shook his head slowly. “It’s the stupidest thing in the world, but…I half expected him to try to appeal to us.”
“I know,” Guilliman said, drawing his pistols and jogging over to the door. “So was I.”
The fight at the doors seemed to be over. Dante sat with his back to the door in a pool of blood, some of it different colors. Corbulo was tending to him, while the Fists Terminator was down, holding his stump of a left hand, both weapons missing. The Inviolator and the Deathwing walked around the near calf-high wall of bodies, occasionally firing a bolt into some part of it that was moving. Draigo picked his way through the heaps, walking into the cathedral with a look of vague surprise on his face. The Companions followed, one missing a chunk of his left leg and swathed from knee to ankle in bandages.
“Looks like we were too late, Lords, I apologize,” Draigo said, staring at the completely destroyed furnishings and piles of bodies scattered throughout the entire room.
“Think nothing of it,” Guilliman said with all the modesty he could summon. “Fulgrim is dead. That’s what matters.”
“So it is, then” the Grey Knight said, making the sign of the Aquila and bowing his head. “I sense no more daemons in the area, though I think some Noise Marines may still be at large, and Emperor only knows how many cultists are left.”
“Indeed,” Corax said, his composure restored. He clamped the wrist seal on his mangled hand down as tight as he could to staunch the bleeding, looking around as he did so. “Did Vulkan’s team ever arrive?”
“No, Lord Corax,” Draigo started to say, when a new trio of blips appeared on Guilliman’s auspex.
“Lord Corax, Lord Guilliman, come in. This is Lord Vulkan, do you copy?” their brother’s reassuring tone asked.
“Right here, brother,” Guilliman said, leaning back against the wall. “Fulgrim is dead.”
“I see. Well done,” Vulkan said, his contact icon appearing at the edge of the square around the cathedral and moving closer. “Do you need further assistance?”
“Medical,” Corax said, gingerly digging through his small equipment pack for something to wrap around his lacerated arm.
“Acknowledged, the Arbites are on their way. The top seven hundred levels of the hive are all but secured, at this point. When they get the cargo elevators online, they can medevac you,” Vulkan said, his contact icon reaching the cathedral. The echoing sounds of his massive footfalls grew louder as he rounded the corner and made for the main entrance. “There’s a lot of cultists out here. Draigo, did your fireteam encounter any difficulty?”
“Some, Lord Vulkan, but we made it,” Draigo said, easing the wounded Companion down beside Dante, who was clearly in very bad shape. “Lord Dante, are you mobile?”
“Not really,” Dante said, his voice surprisingly clear. “Two of the augmetic impulse relays in my back have been destroyed, and I can’t move my legs. One of the Noise Marines got me square in the back.”
“All right,” Draigo said, joining the two Astartes at the door, watching for any more movement among the buildings.
Vulkan slowed to a halt in front of the gate, casting a critical eye on the sorry assembly of warriors. “Lord Corax, your hand…was the blade poisoned?”
“I have no idea,” Corax ground out, “and I don’t want to find out the hard way. How long until the Arbites medicae get here?”
“Hours at least, brother. This is a hive, remember?” Vulkan said, trying not to provoke his brother more than he already was. “Can we wait that long?”
“I don’t plan on dying if I can help it,” the Fists Terminator managed, clenching his wrist seal as tight as he could.
“Likewise,” Dante said, his voice sounding absolutely calm, somehow, despite the small pool of blood around his legs. Perhaps less of it was his than he had thought at first glance, Guilliman thought wearily. He leaned back against the pitted concrete walls of the building and stared at Vulkan.
“Brother, we haven’t had a chance to talk since we got here to Terra. When did the Emperor get to you?”
“Several days ago, actually,” Vulkan said, taking the place of one of the Companions at the door. “I’ll be happy to talk to you about it when we get back to the palace.”
“Very well,” Guilliman said wearily. “I wonder how things are going there…”
Still outside, Jaghatai stood beside Russ and stared at the massive hive structure, stretching high into the smog-choked atmosphere. “Can’t say this is my desired battlefield, Leman.”
“No kidding,” Russ echoed, glancing over the idling rows of tanks. “Jaghatai, did you know they named those things after me?”
Jaghatai sighed. “Yes.”
“I can’t get over it,” Russ said, smirking. “I’ve been dead to the world for ten thousand years and they still have tanks named after me. I have to see if there are any in the Space Wolves armory when I get back to Fenris. Although,” he added, thinking, “maybe I shouldn’t rush to do that if what Bjorn was talking about was true.”
“What’s got you nervous, Leman?” Jaghatai asked, coming to the point. “You haven’t shut up since we got here.”
“It’s like being back with those Hospitallers on Zargh 3,” El’Jonson groused over the shared vox.
“Well…I guess I’m just wondering how Vulkan is doing,” Russ confessed. “Shouldn’t we have heard from him by now?”
“He’s a big boy, he can take care of himself,” Jaghatai said dismissively. “He was with two Chapter masters and a pair of Custodes, he’ll be fine.”
“I guess you’re right,” Russ started to say, when a new voice broke in.
“All Imperial forces, this is Judge Gershwin. Armored units, air units, stand down. The rift has been sealed. Medicae and specialist units, secure the wounded and lock down the enemy survivors,” it said. Jaghatai’s shoulders sagged, their tension released.
“That’s it, then,” he said. “Listen, the Arbites and Sororitas can handle the mop-up, we should go and report to the Emperor.”
“Agreed,” Lion’s voice said. “I’ve already signaled for a transport.”
“I AM GLAD TO HEAR OF IT,” the Emperor said tiredly, his voice echoing in the ears and minds of the six Primarchs who stood before him. “WHERE THE WARP IS CONCERNED, DEATH IS A TRIVIALITY, BUT EVEN SLAANESH CAN’T DENY THAT FULGRIM ACCOMPLISHED BASICALLY NOTHING. I DOUBT WE’LL SEE HIM AGAIN FOR A WHILE. CORAX, HOW’S THE ARM?”
“It hurts like nothing I’ve ever felt,” the black-haired Primarch managed. “Oh, hell, it’s like it’s melting off with the nerves attached still,” he said, his eyes narrowed to slits and teeth clenched in agony. A Salamanders Apothecary had injected Corax with painkillers, but nothing could stop the poison. Guilliman’s hunch had borne true: one of Fulgrim’s blades had been poisoned, and though he had been lucky enough to personally avoid getting hit by that blade, clearly Corax hadn’t. He was out of his Terminator armor now, wearing the carapace plate of his suit, and cradling his hand. The arm was turning black at the site of the cut, oozing even under the bandage. Guilliman’s own wound, when he fought Fulgrim long before, had been far more grave, and had been nearly beyond the help of the Eldar when the Emperor brought him to them. Corax, by contrast, was nowhere near as badly injured, but he lacked the benefit of stasis fields.
The Emperor had turned quiet at the news of his son’s injury, waiting for the six men to tell their stories. After hearing that Vulkan had delayed Draigo and the others from reaching the fight, he had been outwardly angry, but admitted to himself that he wasn’t sure he would not have done the same.
While Corax and the Emperor pondered Corax’s wound, Vulkan found himself gazing around the huge hall of the Throne. Aside from the dust on most surfaces, which a group of cleaning servitors was scrubbing away, the place didn’t honestly look all that different from the way it had when he had last visited, just nine and a half thousand years prior. The assortment of crates and shipping pallets had been cleared away, and no doubt carefully sealed in some protected storeroom somewhere, but the obvious difference was the absence of the Throne itself.
Jaghatai was having the same thought, it seemed. “Father, what’s keeping the Webway Gate behind the Throne sealed? The Throne’s gone.”
“INDEED IT IS, JAGHATAI. I SEALED IT SHUT MYSELF, WHEN I RETURNED HERE A FEW WEEKS AGO. THE TUNNEL BEYOND HAS COLLAPSED ENTIRELY, NATURALLY, BUT THE OMNIPRESENT THREAT OF THE WARP LINGERED. THAT WAS HOW I SUMMONED THE DAEMON I NOW CONTROL, IN FACT,” he replied.
“Right, but how is the Gate sealed? The Throne acted as a lock, if I recall correctly,” Jaghatai pressed.
“I FORCED IT SHUT, JAGHATAI, USING THE DAEMON’S OWN POWERS. THAT WAS THE FIRST THING I DID AFTER RETURNING, IN FACT, IN THE MOMENT BEFORE I TELEPORTED TO CADIA,” the Emperor explained.
“Can we discuss this later?” Corax asked his face taut with suppressed agony. “Father, is my poison that of the Warp? If so, I need to see a sanctionite, not an Apothecary.”
“I GENUINELY DO NOT THINK SO, SON,” the Emperor said, returning to the more pressing matter.
Draigo stood and walked over to Corax, who struck a stoic expression and stuck out his mangled hand. Draigo examined the hand critically for a moment, before nodding sagely and turning back to the Emperor. “It can be cured, my Lord, though I myself lack the…refinement of ability. I do, however, have a number of Apothecaries and Librarians in the Knights who could handle it.”
“EXCELLENT. ARE ANY OF THEM HERE ON TERRA?”
“Most, my Lord God,” Draigo responded. “The Knights who were summoned to protect the Palace while the Custodes were dispatched to the Hives to restore order are here still.”
“VERY WELL, SUMMON ONE. IN THE MEANTIME, MY LOYAL SONS, WE MUST DISCUSS THE FUTURE,” the Emperor said, as Draigo walked off, speaking urgently into his vox. “I KNOW THAT SINCE YOU ALL RETURNED, IN ONE FORM OR ANOTHER, I’VE ESSENTIALLY HAD YOU ALL ON OVERDRIVE. BELIEVE ME, IF ANY PEOPLE IN THE GALAXY DESERVED A VACATION, IT WOULD BE YOU SIX MEN.” Vulkan suppressed his grin.
“I THINK, HOWEVER, THAT IT WOULD BE MOST FITTING FOR YOU ALL TO RETURN TO THE FORTRESS-MONASTERIES OF YOUR CHAPTERS. THE IMPERIUM WAS NOT, AS I INITIALLY FEARED, DESTROYED FOR OUR ABSENCE, THOUGH NEVER HAS IT BEEN CLOSER THAN NOW. IN THE COMING YEARS, I SUSPECT THE IMPERIUM SHALL ENTER A NEW AGE OF RE-EXPANSION AND THE TIMES WILL BE BLOODY. I KNOW THAT I CAN COUNT ON ALL OF YOU WHEN THE TIME COMES. UNTIL THEN, FOCUS ON REBUILDING YOUR CHAPTERS,” the gigantic orange Emperor concluded.
“As you say, Father,” Russ said, his mind already back on Fenris, looking forward to the task.
“Aye, my Liege,” El’Jonson said, thinking about the trip already, and wondering what he would say to the Angels when he arrived.
“Yes, Father,” Vulkan said, anticipating the reunion on Nocturne.
“Yes, Sire,” Guilliman said, grinning wistfully at the thought of returning to his beloved Macragge.
“Yes, Sire,” Jaghatai echoed, wondering if he could convince the Mechanicum to restart Jetbike production.
“Yes, my Liege,” Corax said, cradling his hand. “It’ll be good be home.”
Continued in The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Eleven.