The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Thirteen
Continued from The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Twelve.
“Well, if you wanted to do so, I assure you that the first thing I would have done is approve,” Leman Russ said, looking over his restored quarters. “Not that I can blame you for holding off.”
“Restoring your quarters in absentia would have given false hope, I think,” Grimnir said, watching the servitors drop off the last of the boxes from cold storage.
“True.” Russ stepped down into the restored room and dropped his meager kitbag on the floor, kicking it in the general direction of his wardrobe. The room was the exact opposite of the rest of the Fang. Every inch of the walls was obscured under a mess of junk; trophies, flattering portraits, books and scrolls, holos of distant places, and, naturally, enough weapons to outfit a full Blood Pack.
Russ smirked as the memories the trophies recalled filtered back…conquest after conquest. He glanced over the colossal, fur-covered bed, and continued his recall of rather different conquests.
The far window looked over the endless expanse of the Fenris ice fields. The scouring wind was propelling a shard-storm over the plain. That would mince any of the nomads that got caught outside.
Russ hefted the featureless black case next to the nearest pile of weapons, and clicked the simple combination lock open. He reached in and extracted the battle-scarred Power Claymore from within, grinning broadly as it caught the light of the room. “An old friend, my Lord?” Grimnir asked from the door.
“Indeed, Grimnir, an old friend.” Russ twisted his wrist suddenly, driving the blade down to the floor and back up in an arc. It looked oddly small for the Primarch, Grimnir noted.
“I drove this through an Ork Warboss and out the other side, then left it in there,” Russ said, setting back in the box and closing it. “The Warboss lived through it, and even kept fighting until I kicked his legs out from under him and he fell on it. Bjorn thought it was the funniest thing he had ever seen and made a point of retrieving it.”
Grimnir smiled half-heartedly at the mention of their venerable brother. “My Lord…as long as we’re here, I have to ask. What do you think of Bjorn’s complaints thus far?”
Russ pulled a face, thinking over what little he had seen in the two days he had been back. “Well-grounded. If, perhaps, tainted with regret. He doesn’t just see something wrong here, he sees it as having been his fault for preventing it.”
“You could, of course, change things as you saw fit,” Grimnir pointed out, masking his displeasure at the thought.
“Oh, yes, yes I can,” Russ said flatly. “In fact…” he said, turning to face the shorter man with a tight, strained grin. “Bet on it.”
“Well, that’s encouraging,” Grimnir said. Russ went back to rooting through his piles of crap.
“Don’t take it personally. Honestly, I don’t see too much to be wrong here. Just a few…edges need trimming. We’re going to be called upon to take to the field soon again anyway.”
“You’ve heard from the Emperor, then?” Grimnir asked.
“Nope, he’d be damn stupid not to try to capitalize on the gains we made against Abbadon in the Black Crusade.” Russ pulled two wooden doors in the side of the room open to reveal the suit of prototype Mk.7 armor he had worn before beginning his penance. “And we won’t be the only ones.”
Two hundred thousand Guardsmen and PDF coming to attention at the same time is not something you hear very often, even when you’re the ruler of a pocket empire. Roboute Guilliman savored it. He had a lot of work to do, and wouldn’t be likely to hear it again.
The assembled troops were arranged by company, with the entire plaza packed nearly solid. The few hundred Ultramarines – including Dreadnoughts – present on Macragge had assembled around the plaza at intervals, save Calgar himself, who was standing on the marble stage at the front of the plaza. The center of the plaza was filled with a metallic statue of himself, Guilliman noted with wry amusement. THAT hadn’t been there when he had seen the place last.
Calgar was leading a ceremony to welcome him back formally. Guilliman noted that the gaping hole in the roof of the temple, wherein he had resided for ten thousand years, was already partially fixed. They certainly hadn’t wasted any time in the month since the Emperor had blasted it open.
He heard his name mentioned for about the fiftieth time since the speech had begun, and grimaced with distaste at the words that had preceded them. “Spiritual Liege.” Damn it, he had known the moment he had said those words, over ten millennia ago, that they would have become the “Peace in our time,” no matter how long it had been since he had said them. Sometimes you just can’t outrun bad decisions.
Ah well. Calgar was bowing out, and the time for introspection was over. Guilliman stepped up to the podium, feeling the eyes of over a fifth of a million soldiers on him. That never got old. The PDF Sergeant-at-arms at the edge of the podium puffed himself up. “Ten…HUT! Heyes…front! Chest…out! PRE-sent…HARMS!” The troops present – even the Ultramarines, Guilliman noted – followed the instruction with commendable precision. Guilliman nodded curtly to the Sergeant, who continued his bellowing. “Ultramar…at…EASE.” The ranks of soldiery dropped back into file, those whose hands weren’t occupied clasping them at their backs.
Guilliman slowly exhaled and stepped up to the vox, marshaling his thoughts. It always distantly bothered him when he didn’t have time to practice his speeches. “Thank you, Sergeant,” he said, nodding at the man again. Without waiting for a response – like he would have gotten one! – he cast his gaze out over the crowd. “My friends. Before I say anything else, I feel I must establish…it is very good to be home.” He paused a moment to let the smiles work their way across the faces of the troops assembled below, many of whom were either weeping openly or on their way there. The Primarch let the silence build in potency for a moment before moving on. “I know that the means and timing of my departure a month back were disconcerting at best. I assure you, had I been conscious to witness it, I would have been just as confused as I’m told you were.” A ripple of sycophantic laughter echoed through the assemblage. The buzzing cloud of servo-skulls and pictcaster drones over the crowd wobbled in the faint evening breeze as they broadcast the signal to every living person with access to an antenna or psychic powers within a hundred light-years.
“That said, the Emperor sends his best, to the legions of troops who held the line against the predations of the Tyranids. Give yourselves the credit you and your predecessors deserve for that accomplishment.” Guilliman inclined his head a fraction as the few Tyrannic War Veterans present – only four, plus Calgar – nodded to acknowledge the applause. When it ended, Guilliman resumed. “I must say, it pleases me to no end that Macragge is held alongside Terra as one of the beacons of the Imperium. Ten thousand years gone by, and Ultramar stands.” He paused again to let the roar of adulation and approval wash through the plaza. He timed his next words carefully, to cut across the last second or so of sound. “I look forward to, once again, leading the Realm in its protection, expansion, and enrichment of the Imperium. I know that when the time comes, I will be able to count on every single one of you to assist me in that most noble endeavor. I hope that the faith the rest of the Imperium holds in the martial prowess and unshakable economic strength of Ultramar will be justified by our conduct. I look forward to it, in fact. I will call upon you soon, my battle-brothers, to once again purge the Imperium of the heretic, the mutant, and the alien.” He aimed that comment at the entire crowd, not just the Marines, and smiled to himself at the sight of the mortal warriors in the crowd swelling with pride at being included in such heady company.
Guilliman raised his gaze over the crowd to the walls of the city beyond, and the still-damaged temple. “The times the Imperium has faced over the last ten thousand years have been trying, I know now. And I know, not all of the battles we have fought in the Emperor’s name have ended with the triumph we deserve. But now, together, with our Emperor restored to his proper position at the head of Humanity, and with myself and my brothers beside him, we can begin again, and make this Imperium strong.” He placed as much emphasis on the last word as he could, to underscore his trust in the troops, and they responded with another round of applause, as the Ultramarines thumped their gauntlets against their breastplates. “For that, my friends, my fellow warriors of the Imperium of Man, I thank you.” He nodded once and stepped back, gesturing below the podium to the Sergeant. The man took a step forward and addressed the plaza.
“Ten – HUT!” The Guard and PDF snapped back to attention as Guilliman dismounted the back of the stage, not looking back. “DIS…MISSED!” the Sergeant bellowed. The ranks of troops filed out by company, as the Ultramarines either returned to the vehicles that had borne them there or wandered across the plaza towards the temple. As soon as he was off the podium, he angled straight for the awe-struck Calgar, who was waiting for him.
“Well said, my Liege,” Calgar said quietly, as Guilliman disengaged the vox from his armored gorget.
“Thank you, brother Marneus,” Guilliman said, dropping the vox into the waiting hands of a Chapter serf. “And, please, don’t call me that.”
“Liege? My Lord, I mean it only as a sign of respect,” Calgar said in genuine surprise.
“Of course you do. But our Liege has risen from His Throne once more.” Guilliman climbed into the compartment of the Ultramarine Land Speeder parked behind the stage. “I shouldn’t take that from him. Now, come. We have a great deal to discuss.”
Lofn was getting a little sick of this. She had been brought along to the conference day after day, and nobody ASKED her anything! At least Mom had said that this was going to be the last day. This time, there were only four people at the Imperial end of the table. Three of them were shiny, but one was the scary hollow man from before. One of the shiny men, with the third eye, was complaining. Again.
“I know the Eldar do not use the light of the holy Astronomican for navigation, as I and my kin do.”
“We don’t need it,” Mom said. The Throne icon at the end of the table suddenly flickered as the loud guy started talking.
“IT’S NOT, IF YOU’LL ALLOW SOME CANDOR, LIKE WE CAN STOP YOU FROM USING IT.”
“Right. Then, if we are done?” Mom asked, standing up. Dad and Lady Isha stood too.
“I THINK WE ARE. MIND IF I SEND THE TRANSCRIPT DIRECTLY TO YOUR SHIP?”
“Go ahead, by all means,” Mom said. The shiny man with the huge letter caved into his arms was glaring at Lofn for some reason. She stared back, wondering what she had done this time. As soon as the little recorder in the corner bleeped off, he started talking.
“Farseer, now that we’re done, I think we deserve to know. Why in the world did you insist your daughter come here?” he demanded. “She’s far too young for politics.”
“I didn’t bring her here as a representative,” Taldeer said drily. “Your Emperor, Lady Isha, and I have discussed this.” The bald man got angry.
“What are you not telling me?”
“Are you addressing me, or the Emperor?” Taldeer shot back. The man immediately shut up.
Lofn sighed aloud, then regretted it. Everyone in the room looked at her. The empty man smiled at her, and looked like he might have actually meant it. “Something to add, Lofn?”
Well, there wouldn’t have been anything to say, but after several days of this, she was out of patience. “I’m just…” she didn’t say ‘bored.’ She really wanted to. “I don’t know why I’m here either.” Dad closed his eyes for a moment, and Lofn felt his frustration. Mom smiled, though. “Well, now that we’re done, I can tell you when we get home, OK?”
Lofn shrugged under the uncomfortable formal dress she was wearing. “All right.”
The golden security guard opened the door, and Lady Isha walked out without a word. Mom took Lofn’s hand and walked her out of the room, with Dad behind her. On their way back to the suites they had been assigned, Dad walked up next to her and leaned over.
“Sorry this has been so boring, Lofn.”
“It’s…pretty boring, yeah,” Lofn allowed. Lady Isha tilted her head to the side as somebody soul-talked to her, then shook her head. “I wanna know why so many of the humans here hate us.”
“Oh, Lofn,” Mom said sadly. She shook her head too, staring at the floor. “We have so many reasons. I don’t want to tell you about them yet.”
“I WONDER HOW TALDEER’S GOING TO EXPLAIN TO HER DAUGHTER THAT THE ONLY REASON SHE’S HERE IS TO ACT AS A PACIFIER?” the Emperor said in Isha’s head.
“Tactfully,” Isha said shortly. It irked her to no end that he had used those words. “What do you want?”
“WELL, YOU SAID EARLIER YOU MIGHT BE VISITING AN EXODITE WORLD. DO YOU KNOW WHICH ONE?”
“Not by any name you’d recognize, no. I need to visit Ulthwé first, also,” Isha pointed out. “Why do you care? Our negotiations have concluded.”
“YEAH, BUT OUR ROGUE TRADERS SOMETIMES GO DECADES WITHOUT CONTACTING THE IMPERIUM. YOU MIGHT ENCOUNTER ONE WHO DOESN’T KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENED HERE.”
“Oh? And what would I tell them?” Isha asked tartly. “What message would I give that would carry your authority?”
“EASY: INVOKE THE WRIT OF TRADE THAT THEY CARRY. HELL, SOME OF THEM I SIGNED, PERSONALLY, WHEN I STARTED THE CRUSADE. JUST SAY THAT I’VE INSTRUCTED THAT THE WRIT BE EXTENDED TO EXCLUDE TERRITORIAL CLAIMS OVER EXODITES AND THEY SHOULD LEAVE YOU ALONE. IF NOT, LET ME KNOW. I CAN TAKE CARE OF IT.”
Vulkan paced his cabin on the Swift, thinking the last few eventful days over. The Unbound Flame was safe in his hands once more. Ir’Shal had promised him that the ship would be capable of making the jump home, now that they knew where they were. The Gellar field was holding. So why did he feel a sense of unease?
Certainly the ship was in poor shape. Fully a tenth of the crew was dead or insane, thanks to their brief inundation with the Warp. Now, even as they were on the way to Nocturne, they were far from out of trouble. The absence of a Navigator meant slow going, especially with the absence of the Emperor’s wake to speed their journey. Perhaps, then, it was the journey that caused him his discomfort?
No. He knew. Vulkan sighed and ran his hands over his eyes, trying to figure out what to say when he got home. It was Nocturne. Would he find something to be proud of? Or would he find himself ashamed? Certainly Tu’Shan was confident that whatever he found would live up to Vulkan’s standards.
“WELL, THAT WAS PRODUCTIVE,” the Emperor said drily. The Senate of the High Lords had all but disbanded for the day, leaving only the Lord Commander Militant and Captain-General of the Custodes present in the Throne room. “I TRUST, LORD COMMANDER, THAT YOU CAN SEE TO THE CORRECT DISPERSAL OF INSTRUCTIONS TO THE GUARD AND NAVY?”
“Yes, my Liege,” the man said, wondering how best to phrase these peculiar orders. The Cadian regiments would take it best, he suspected. Perhaps the Tallarns, and the planets they’d settled, would be receptive.
“IN THE MEANTIME, GENTLEMEN, I THINK IT BEST IF I TAKE MY LEAVE, FOR A TIME,” the Emperor announced pensively, throwing the two much smaller men a shock.
“What? Ah, my Liege, but you just returned to us!” the Lord Commander said.
“YEAH, BUT WITH FULGRIM DEFEATED, I HONESTLY DON’T THINK I’M NEEDED HERE IN PERSON. HONESTLY, I THINK I’M NEEDED ELSEWHERE RIGHT NOW.” The Emperor looked into the distance, as if seeing his destination in his mind. “SPECIFICALLY, THE ROCK. THERE’S SOMETHING OF VITAL IMPORTANCE I NEED TO DISCUSS WITH LION.”
“As is your prerogative, my Liege,” the Captain-General said. He was taking far better than the Lord Commander was, at any rate.
Azrael stared at the document on the table before him, letting its implications sink in. He knew he had to sign it. Still, it felt like he was abdicating more than his position. It felt like he was abandoning his responsibility.
Lion El’Jonson had been specific in his careful appraisal of the chapter’s status after he returned from Terra. While he had been impressed both that the chapter had overcome so many obstacles in its path, and the fact that nearly two thirds of the Fallen were accounted for, he had been astonished and enraged by Azrael’s conduct during the opening weeks of the 13th Black Crusade and Gothic war. Both times he had been asked to help by the Imperial commanders leading the counteroffensives, and both times he had refused only until it was mentioned that Abbadon had Fallen among his ranks. El’Jonson had informed him in no uncertain terms that outright refusing calls for help when it was desperately needed was contrary to the standards to which he wanted his officers held; certainly when his refusal of the second request had stemmed solely from a desire to avoid the presence of Logan Grimnir.
That said, he had understood that Azrael was simply living up to the standards and procedures of his predecessors going back to before the end of the Heresy. As such, he had done no more than “request” that Azrael accede his position as Chapter master and Keeper of the Truth back to its rightful Primarch.
Lion had probably not meant to outright censure him, but that didn’t take the barb out of the order. Still, what choice did he have? With a heavy sigh, he penned his name at the bottom of the document, formally resigning his position as head of the Dark Angels.
El’Jonson himself was not present to witness his officer’s dilemma. He was busy staring into the depths of the cell at the bottom of the unsealed portions of the Rock. Lying on the cot inside was a withered husk of a man, chained to about a dozen different medical machines, which were clearly the only things keeping him sane and alive. It was all he could do to look at the former Astartes. They were once among the best of friends. He was Luther, formerly the second in command of the entire Legion, and the only living Space Marine to have survived the entire history of the Imperium without internment in a Dreadnought.
Luther craned his head up a fraction to stare at El’Jonson, hovering outside the cell door. After blearily focusing on the Primarch outside, he sank back onto the pillow with a whimper. “It’s…about…time…”
“It has been a while, Luther,” El’Jonson said faintly, gazing down at the prisoner through the cell door. He turned the key in the lock and slowly swung the massive metal slab inwards.
“I knew…my patience…would be…recognized…” Luther managed.
“’Recognized?’” El’Jonson asked. “What exactly did you think I was going to do here?”
“Not sure…now,” Luther croaked, a little life returning to his pallid skin as he tried to move. “You…came back…before…”
“Yes, for a few days.” El’Jonson walked in, leaning on the wall and staring at his bed-ridden friend. “Things were rather hectic.”
“Excuses,” Luther managed.
“I have to wonder, old friend, what you hoped to gain. Why did you think your betrayal would be rewarded?” El’Jonson asked.
“Rewards?...no…improvements, Lion,” Luther rasped. “Chaos offers much…”
“Was it worth it?” Lion asked coldly.
“Of course…not, Lion…”Luther said. He struggled to lift one atrophied hand, pointing out, beyond the walls of the Rock. “But it…was not I…who shattered…our home…”
“It was you who made it necessary,” Lion said, condemnation dripping from his voice. “Was it guilt over that act that brought you to live over ten thousand years? Hmm?”
“I sought…only…an end…” Luther said painfully.
“Lies,” Lion said. “You could have killed yourself long ago if an end and an end alone is what you sought.” He leaned forward, a cruel smile twisting his lips. “You fear what awaits you on the other side of death, should it come for you in the absence of my forgiveness.”
“Fear…death? You mistake me…Lion,” Luther said, anger coloring his reedy voice.
“Do not lie to me again, Luther.” Lion walked over to the medical machines, staring at the readouts.
“You lied…to the Emperor,” Luther said bitterly. El’Jonson cocked his eyebrow.
“You waited…with your ships…to see if Horus would win…before committing…at Terra,” Luther accused, his eyes burning.
“Foolishness.” El’Jonson ran his hands over the life-support equipment.
“Why else…brother?” Luther snarled, the task of speaking so much clearly taking its toll.
El’Jonson paused his inspection, appearing to think over the question. “A reasonable question.” He turned to the withered old man, measuring his words with greater care. “I knew…Horus and Father would meet. It was unavoidable. Completely unavoidable. Horus would have hacked and cut his way through ten thousand Custodes and a million Army men to reach father. And Dorn and I both understood that Terra was the fated place of their meeting, and no fortification on his part would prevent that.” For a moment, his eyes turned down, in recrimination or anger.
“Sanguinius, for all his foresight, did not. He was determined to prove that that arrogant fool Horus was salvageable.”
El’Jonson walked back to the door and closed it, still lost in thought. “But I knew. I think Jaghatai didn’t see it. Dorn did. Ferrus would have.” Lion turned to Luther and pierced him with his stare. “I could have arrived sooner. But what if I had? What if Leman, Vulkan, Corax, Roboute, and I had all arrived, with the fullest strength of our armies and our ships and our killing machines? What then, Luther? How would it have ended?”
“You tell me…brother,” Luther said coldly.
“I will.” Lion turned back to the machines, carefully examining each one in turn. “You see, Horus, for all his Chaos-fuelled rage, was not without strategic foresight. He knew what the full strength of our legions arriving would have meant. That, I understand, is why he lowered his shields to allow Father, Dorn, and Sanguinius aboard. He knew he had a material advantage. But…with Fulgrim exercising his depravities below, Perturabo off trading blows with Dorn, and Magnus out of commission, he couldn’t really exercise it. He had to end it. Then and there. Kill the Emperor or die trying.”
“All the…more reason…for you to…speed your way…there, liar!” Luther said vindictively.
“Still prattling about how I am the traitor, here, eh?” Lion said. He stared at the blank stone floor for a moment. “If I had arrived early, before the Emperor had a chance to kill Horus, then both sides would have lost less…but Horus would have lived. And ultimately, the resources it would have taken to kill him would have depleted the Imperium to such an extent that Lorgar and Perturabo would have simply conquered it whole. As it is, they have done nothing…NOTHING…for ten thousand years. Abbadon’s Crusades accomplish little save scarring the face of Cadia. Omegon’s twisted little schemes have hurt the Imperium, to be sure, but without his brother’s wisdom, he’s half of a whole.”
“That’s IT?!” Luther managed, face colored with rage. “I waited…ten thousand years…for that? Excuses and ass-covering? Our…Emperor rots on…his Throne…because you…you wanted to see…them kill each other?” El’Jonson stared at the machines, refusing to look Luther in the eye. “It was…all of this…was just as you wanted? Just…as planned?”
“OF COURSE NOT!” El’Jonson roared, his quiet rage boiling over completely. Luther recoiled at the sudden change in his former apprentice’s demeanor. “Do you think I WANT the Imperium to be a crumbling monolith of inefficiency? Do you think I WANT Dorn and Sanguinius to be dead? Do you think I planned YOU putting me in a bloody coma? Do you think I foresaw a betrayal BY MY OWN FORCES?!”
“Why not?” Luther managed, his own anger lending him strength. “You forgot us here! You left us…to claim the glory…of the Crusade for yourself!”
“I forgot NO ONE,” El’Jonson said, his voice dripping ice where fire had been. “And if you had not turned to Chaos and nearly slain me, the Imperium may well have weathered the madness of the Heresy unscathed. Or did you not think that perhaps several thousand of the oldest Dark Angels suddenly turning to Chaos, would have had ill effect? Your actions betray your claims.”
“I did what I had to do…to punish your betrayal, or so I thought,” Luther said, his anger fading to bitterness and remorse.
El’Jonson stared at him furiously. “Azrael tells me that you have pled for mercy and forgiveness – by my hand – for ten thousand years, Luther. Tell me, what part of your little diatribe there was supposed to lend itself to my favor?”
Luther glared at his student, their argument hanging in the air between them. Finally, he sagged down on the bed, his temper failing him. “I waited ten thousand years for your verdict. Deliver it.”
“Very well.” Lion stood over the ailing Luther, looking levelly into his eyes. “I think you’ve suffered enough for one life.” Luther’s hazy eyes went wide. “I assure you, ten thousand years ago, I would have cleaved you in half for your foolishness, conspiracies, and weakness. But…” El’Jonson looked remorseful for a long moment. “Well…I was asleep the whole time, you know. In the Rock, below us. I had no idea what was going on out here. Ten thousand years of rest…compared to what Jaghatai, Corax, Russ, and Vulkan went through, that’s a vacation.”
“Time taught you mercy…Lion?” Luther wheezed.
“Oh no, no,” Lion said. “not at all. But…they suffered for ten thousand years, Luther. So did Father. I wouldn’t, even retroactively, wish that on my worst enemy. You.”
“Mercy tempered with vitriol,” Luther croaked.
“Something like that.” El’Jonson extracted a few small pieces of metal and glass, setting them down carefully on the medical equipment. Luther looked on with confusion. “Vulkan was sucked onto a daemon world and tortured for ten thousand years. It never quenched his flames, his love of life. Russ fought a losing battle in the Eye itself. It never broke him. Corax was forced into Fulgrim’s amusements. It didn’t shatter his mind. And Jaghatai…he was prey for the most wicked depredations of the Webway chronovortices for ten millennia. It never weakened him.” Lion slid the glass vials into the metal tube and screwed in another metal piece as a wicked-looking syringe began to form.
“I was asleep. Embraced in repose of slumber. While my brothers and friends killed each other by the armful above. While the Imperium eroded…perhaps for my absence. If I ever needed a reason to deny you your forgiveness, there it is. But like I said…” he noted, finishing his assembly, “you’ve suffered enough…in this life.” El’Jonson paused for a moment, then glanced over his shoulder at his former friend. “I don’t know what happens to those who repent their willingness to embrace Chaos after they die. But for what it’s worth…I think it would be right for me to forgive you.”
“You do.” Luther said flatly.
“Yes. Luther…I forgive you your transgression.” He tapped the tiny glass vial and ran the acceptor of the needle into it, flooding the chamber of the syringe with a sickly orange fluid.
Luther sagged back into the bed, reeling. “I thought I’d feel better after hearing that…”
“Let me help.” El’Jonson rammed the syringe into the catheter that bled its alchemical mixes into Luther’s shriveled arm. The mix of potent painkillers and narcotics in the vial was used to put Dreadnought occupants into comas that lasted up to a thousand years. For Luther, it was enough to kill him fifty times over. “Now go find out what the Chaos gods do to those who abandon their services…brother.” Luther’s eyes opened wide in shock, before slipping closed in impossible relaxation and pleasure, then his muscles went completely slack.
El’Jonson watched dispassionately. “If only this stuff wasn’t so potent, it might have been possible to salvage your geneseed, Luther.” He shrugged callously, disassembling the syringe and dropping it into his pocket. “Oh well.” He turned off the medical equipment and lights in the room, leaving the door open. The Watchers who had maintained his body for ten thousand years would disassemble it and repurpose the room, with none save Azrael the wiser.
In the Great Hall, the air parted and folded, with a rush of purple mist. The Emperor’s massive form appeared, stepping out nonchalantly. “AZRAEL. GOOD TO SEE YOU. IS LION ABOUT?” he asked the kneeling Dark Angel.
“He is, my Liege…and as per his request, I have acceded my title of Chapter master back to him,” Azrael said, hoping the Emperor wouldn’t hear his displeasure with that change.
He did. “I SEE. WELL, THEN. TO WHICH POSITION HAVE YOU MOVED?”
“Lord of the Deathwing, my Liege,” Azrael said.
“AN HONORABLE ROLE. I’M SURE YOU…AH. LION. GOOD TO SEE YOU AS WELL.”
“Father,” Lion said, nodding his head respectfully. “What brings you here again?” He closed the door of the Hall behind him, making his way over to the Emperor.
“BUSINESS, I’M AFRAID. OUR TREATY WITH THE ELDAR IS SIGNED. ASSUMING ELDRAD BUYS IN. WHICH HE WILL. I’M HERE BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO LEAD OUR COUNTEROFFENSIVE AGAINST THE CHAOS FORCES THAT HAVE SWOOPED IN TO FILL THE GAP LEFT BY ABBADON.”
Lion concealed his surprise well. “I would be honored. Our little excursions to Zargh and Terra were fine exercise. Tackling the Black Legion would be a fitting challenge.”
“GOOD. ROBOUTE IS ALREADY BEGINNING THE ECONOMIC AND LOGISTICAL GROUNDWORK, AND THE FORCES WE DEPLOY WILL STAGE FROM NOCTURNE. VULKAN’S BEEN ACCOUNTED FOR, THANKFULLY.”
“Oh. That’s…quite a relief, actually,” Lion said gratefully. “Did you manage to augur their Astropath?”
“NO, SANGUINIUS DID.”
Lion stared at the Emperor. “What?”
“LONG STORY SHORT: HE FOUND A WAY BACK THANKS TO A MEMBER OF HIS GUARD WHO SACRIFICED HIMSELF AND SORCERY. IT WOULD BE HYPOCRITICAL OF ME TO BITCH ABOUT.”
“Such times, these,” Azrael muttered.
“NO KIDDING. I EXPECT ANGRON HIMSELF TO BE IN CHARGE OF THE ASSAULT. FULGRIM’S LITTLE STUNT PROVED THAT TERRA WAS STILL VULNERABLE, EVEN WITH MY RETURN, AND HE’LL BE QUICK TO ONE-UP THE BROTHER HE ALWAYS HATED.”
“Probably,” Lion said. “I have to wonder what Jaghatai and Leman will be doing.”
“JAGHATAI’S BUSY REBUILDING THE RATHER SEVERE LOSSES THE SCARS SUFFERED AT ARMAGEDDON. RUSS IS BACK ON FENRIS, PREPARING THE WOLF BROTHERS FOR AN ALL-OUT SORTIE. I FEEL AWFUL ASKING HIM TO HEAD RIGHT BACK INTO THE EYE AFTER HE SPENT TEN THOUSAND YEARS THERE, THOUGH, SO I THINK HE’LL JUST BE SECOND WAVE.”
“We’re hitting the Eye directly?” Lion asked in genuine surprise.
“NO NO, SORRY, THAT WAS MISLEADING. YOU AREN’T GOING ANY-DAMN-WHERE NEAR IT. YOU’RE TAKING ON THE DARK MECHANICUS FORCES ABBADON LEFT BEHIND TO SPREAD THE OBLITERATOR VIRUS. THE ONLY ONE GOING NEAR THE EYE IS ME. ALSO I KIND OF PROMISED ISHA I’D HAVE TO KEEP ONE EAR OPEN FOR ROGUE TRADERS PUSHING THE EXODITES IN THE REGION AROUND TOO MUCH.”
Lion nodded, digesting that. “If I may, Father, I have another idea that may benefit the Imperium.”
“If I understood Dante’s report correctly, there is another force in this galaxy that very seriously threatens the human race, in a way that Chaos doesn’t.”
“OH, THE NECRONS? YES, IT’S A VERY SERIOUS THREAT, BUT SADLY I CAN’T DETECT THE SOULLESS VERMIN UNDERGROUND ANY BETTER NOW THAN I COULD BEFORE.”
“No, Sire, not Necrons. The Tyranids. If we fail to stop them, all the victories we could ever wish for over Chaos will be meaningless,” Lion said carefully.
“TRUE. WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE?”
“Well, though it pains me to say it, Roboute and his Ultramarines would probably be best for battling them. Apparently they did a good job of it before.”
“YEAH, THEY DID. ARE YOU SAYING I SHOULD GO HANDLE IT MYSELF?”
“The only thing stopping the Guard and Astartes from beating them now is a simple lack of territory. The xenos occupy and strip every single planet they encounter, yes?”
“RIGHT. WE’RE LOSING AVAILABLE BATTLEFIELDS FASTER THAN SOLDIERS.”
“Right. If you were to go and, say, provide your personal leadership and power to the Guard forces fighting them now, you could tip the scales.”
“ESPECIALLY WITH SAIM-HANN AND BIEL-TAN STOPPING THAT SCORCHED EARTH GARBAGE.” The Emperor thought it over. “GOOD CALL, LION. ALL RIGHT THEN. AS PER MY AUTHORITY, YOU ARE HEREBY BREVETTED TO WARMASTER OF THE COUNTER-DARK MECHANICUS TASK GROUP IN MY ABSENCE. I WILL RETURN WHEN NEEDED.”
Lord General Lokris of the Segmentum Ultima was a busy man. More than just battling the foes of the Emperor, he had to cut his way through the mountains of paper that seemed to be all that constituted the thinking the Departmento Munitorum did these days.
So when one of his oldest living friends, Commissar Ciaphas Cain, and that guy who followed him around, arrived at Segmentum Command, fresh from their victory over Warmaster Varan, and informed him that he had felt “the need to return to duty” (which was a code for ‘the Inquisition’s making me do it’ if Lokris ever heard one), the last thing he felt like doing was objecting.
Indeed, the timing was perfect. Lokris had just caught wind of some extraordinary happenings on Terra, including what sounded like a thwarted invasion by the legions of Slaanesh. Rumor had it the plan had failed because of the personal intervention of the Emperor Himself. Personally, Lokris didn’t hold any beliefs in that sort of nonsense. The Emperor would never stoop to appearing in daemons.
Sitting in the holo-conference room of the Just Accounts, the command vessel of the Segmentum Tempestus fleet on loan to the Ultima Command for fighting Leviathan, Lokris’ worldviews were changing rapidly. He watched the holomessage from Terra, regarding the Emperor’s…peculiar resurrection, his mind reeling. Were things so desperate that a move like that was truly necessary?
As the General was having his mind blown, Cain himself was relaxing in one of the battleship’s lounge floors, his own experience allowing him to digest the news perhaps a bit faster than the General’s. Certainly, he reasoned, he had encountered his fair share – or more – of inexplicable things in his life. And they had all turned out to his favor, albeit with some prodding and luck.
The lounge was all but deserted as the troops on board were scheduled for midday meals. Only a few officers and ships’ senior staff were present, all of them gabbling about the news as well. The noise was quite bearable, however, thanks to the almost literal bubble of free space around Cain, afforded him by the presence of his aide Ferik Jurgen, whose combination of Blank status and lack of hygiene repulsed most healthy humans around him.
The ship was at anchor in orbit above the planet of Colburne, awaiting its clearance to deploy. The fleet’s deployment orders to kill of Tyranid bioships on their way to Octarius had been postponed, as the news of the Emperor’s return filtered through the Imperium. Clearly the message was supposed to be a signifier of hope, that the Emperor had risen from His Throne to guide His children once more. In reality, of course, it wasn’t that simple. Nobody liked the idea of the Emperor taking up residence inside a daemon, least of all the faithful.
Cain was more pragmatic about it. If he kept his head down and showed due devotion when called upon to do so, he’d live through it all, just as he had been doing for ninety years: by staying as far from actual combat as possible.
The commbead in his ear buzzed for his attention. He hastily set down his drink and responded to the hail. “Cain here.”
“Commissar, the representative of the Astartes contingent has docked. All regimental Commissars’ and Psykers’ presences are required immediately.” Cain frowned into the teacup. The presence of so many psykers effectively precluded Jurgen’s presence.
“Acknowledged. I’ll be along presently. Please begin in my absence if I’m tardy.” He had found that saying such things enhanced his reputation considerably; Cain the Hero was never immodest or unpunctual. Without another word, he tossed off the last of his tanna and glanced over at Jurgen, who had been discreetly listening in.
Jurgen coughed deferentially. “I’ve remembered some pressing documents from the other Commissars aboard I really should see to, sir.”
“Then please do, Jurgen. I’ll swing by when this meeting is over.”
As Cain made his way down to the docking bay, the Astartes delegate stepped forth from his Thunderhawk to greet Lokris’ staff. A small group of the Space Marines had elected to join the expedition commander personally, to keep them appraised of the Astartes’ parallel actions, and to advise. Leading them was Chaplain Elysius of the Salamanders, freshly returned from Armageddon. The ship’s Captain bowed reverently before the towering black-armored Marine. “I am honored by your presence, Lord Astartes. Welcome to the Just Account.”
“It is good to be here,” Elysius rumbled. The accoutrements of his office clanked against his armor and the glimmering black-and-gold Power Fist he had fitted over the stump of his left arm. The Sigil of Vulkan, a relic of Vulkan’s first foray into the galaxy hung from his belt, alongside his Crozius and Recompensor.
“If I may, Lord Astartes, many of our men are curious to know…what is YOUR reaction to the rumor and speculation regarding the Emperor’s…ah…apotheosis?” the Captain asked, leading the small Salamander delegation forwards.
“My reaction?” Elysius asked. “My reaction is that the Emperor understands better than any man ever could the meaning of what it is to sacrifice. If that is what he had to do, then he was right to do it. The return of our own Primarch is of much greater concern.”
“So the rumor is true? Lord Primarch Vulkan himself has arisen?” the Captain asked in awe.
“Not ‘arisen.’ He never fell. He has simply returned to us,” Elysius said with grim satisfaction. “I had a feeling I might live to see it.”
“Then…I would understand if you wished to return to your homeworld and greet him in person,” the Captain said.
Elysius was touched by the gesture. “No, thank you, Captain. The trip from here to Nocturne is over four months. By the time I arrive, he would probably have already left to rejoin our brothers in the field. My place is here, assisting your own men in overcoming the xenos filth,” he said, placing quiet loathing emphasis on the last word. The Captain nodded respectfully.
“I am honored once more.” Before they arrived at the exit, however, the door opened, and the various Regimental advisors of the four Guard units stationed aboard came through. The Captain slowed his pace and stuck a hand out to introduce them individually. “May I present the leaders and advisors of the Guard regiments stationed with us?”
“Indeed,” Elysius replied, inclining his head slightly to them. The Captain dutifully rattled off their names and designations, stopping on Cain, who was last to arrive.
“…and Commissar Cain, currently attached to the General’s staff.” To the surprise of all, Cain stuck his hand out for the Marine to shake. Elysius blinked under his mask, but took it in stride, returning the gesture.
“I look forward to serving alongside you, Chaplain. Though I fear my role here is an advisory one,” Cain added with all the wistfulness he could fake.
“Understandable,” the Chaplain replied. He addressed the Captain with his next question. “Captain, have you collected all of the forces to be aligned with us on our assignment?”
“We have, my Lord Astartes. However, the General thought that the news from Terra might have been severe enough to warrant a delay,” the Captain said, carefully hiding his disgust. It was HIS bloody ship, after all.
“I concur,” Elysius said blithely. “The entire expedition could well be called off.”
“Let us hope our journeys were not wasted,” the Captain said. He made to reopen the pressure doors into the interior of the ship, when a sudden blast of air nearly bowled him over. The light around him tinged purple as something massive and orange suddenly appeared on the deck behind them.
Elysius spun on his heel, Power Fist charging up, but the sight he beheld was completely unexpected. A colossal daemon had emerged from thin air, a wall of fading purple mist surrounding it like a halo. The huge creature stared around the bay as if searching for something, until its beady eyes settled on the Salamander contingent.
“OH WOW, HOW DID YOU GUYS BEAT ME HERE?”
Elysius pulled the Crozius from his belt and ignited it, charging at the daemon without another word. The daemon seemed to sigh and slammed one massive hand into the deck plating, sending the black-armored Salamander sprawling. “YEAH, YEAH, KNOCK IT OFF, I’VE BEEN THROUGH THIS ALREADY WITH HELBRECHT.” Elysius rolled to his feet, scooping up his weapon, and made to resume his charge, when he suddenly hesitated. He glanced at the Crozius in his hand, completely agape. It hadn’t extinguished when he dropped it. He stared up at the still-immobile daemon as the Guard advisors drew their own weapons.
“Your…Holiness?” Elysius managed. The various Guard personnel slowed their charge as the massive daemon chuckled.
“TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH.” The Crozius extinguished in Elysius’ hand. The Chaplain lowered his weapons, staring up at the Emperor’s new form. “My…my Liege…" Elysius dropped to a reverent knee as the moment overwhelmed him. The psykers amongst the Guard group – the sane ones, anyway – followed suit, as the Commissars, for the most, looked confused, unable to read the Warp as the others could.
“OH GET UP. I’M HERE BECAUSE I UNDERSTAND WE HAVE WORK TO DO.” Elysius stood, his human hand shaking.
“I…we are at your service, my Liege.”
“GRAND. HEY, WHERE’S GENERAL LOKRIS?”
“Reviewing the holomessage that described your…ah…transformation, my Lord God,” the Captain said, the subtext of the conversation dawning on him at last. At the holy title being spoken aloud, the others seemed to catch on to what was happening.
“ALL RIGHT. WELL, THEN, I CAN TELL YOU ALL NOW. I’M HERE BECAUSE I’M ASSUMING COMMAND OF THIS EXPEDITION.” The entire contingent erupted in consternation, alternating between the shock and revulsion most were feeling at the Emperor’s new form, and the joy his announcement caused. “OF COURSE I’VE NEVER ACTUALLY FOUGHT TYRANIDS BEFORE, CERTAINLY NOT IN SPACE. THEREFORE, I WILL STILL NEED YOUR ASSISTANCE.”
“And I will be honored beyond belief to provide it, my Liege,” Elysius said, slamming his Power First against his pauldron. “However, I must point out that I am not the only veteran of the Tyrannic Wars present. I am sure the counsel of the General’s other advisors would be of great benefit.”
Cain, already agape at the spectacle before him, glanced at the Chaplain in sudden, horrified realization. Before he could say a word, however, the Emperor asked the obvious question. “OH? GOOD TO HEAR. WHOM DO YOU HAVE IN MIND, ASTARTES?”
Elysius gestured at the group of Guard advisors, singling none out. “I did not. I simply wish to state that we are all at your disposal in this effort, my Liege.”
The Emperor’s eyes raked across the group, lingering on Cain for a terrible moment. After the longest second of all time, he looked away, and Cain nearly passed out. “I’M SURE.”
“CAPTAIN, WHEN ALL YOUR SHIPS ARE ASSEMBLED, LET ME KNOW. I HAVE…OH, NICE OF YOU TO JOIN US, GENERAL.” Lokris came charging in, skidding to a halt when he saw the massive Emperor.
“Y…what the HELL is…” Lokris managed, staring at the daemon in front of him. He looked wildly from side to side, trying to find a single soldier shooting at it, before the Captain cleared his throat.
“Lokris. You’re a bit late.”
“This…why is there a daemon on the ship?!” Lokris yelled.
“That would be the Immortal God-Emperor of Mankind,” the Captain said. Lokris’ eyes went wide as dinner plates, staring up at the Emperor, who managed to restrain his impulse to wave. The General regained his composure remarkably fast.
“…All right, then.” He bowed formally, before rising and repeating Elysius’ offer of assistance. “How may I serve?”
“EXACTLY WHAT YOU WERE GOING TO DO BEFORE, BUT I WILL BE DIRECTING YOUR FORCES IN PERSON. THE TYRANIDS ARE SIMPLY NOT PERMITTED TO OVERWHELM THE IMPERIUM ANY MORE THAN THEY HAVE ALREADY DONE.”
“Our standing orders are to engage the bioships heading for the brewing conflict in the Ork empire, my Liege,” Elysius said carefully.
“THAT’S GOOD. WHAT I’M SAYING IS THAT I WILL BE LENDING PERSONAL ASSISTANCE. ON THE GROUND. I CAN’T HELP YOU WIN THE SPACE BATTLE.”
“I see. I speak for all our warriors when I say that we are honored,” Elysius said, bowing again.
The Emperor’s eyes darted back to Cain for a moment. “I KNOW.” His eyes returned to the Captain. “SIR, IF YOU WOULD TAKE US OUT AS SOON AS ALL SHIPS ARE ACCOUNTED FOR? I WILL…MEET YOU THERE.”
“Honored, my Liege,” the Captain said, beaming. He tapped the commbead in his ear and issued orders, whispering urgently. The Emperor vanished with a CRACK of displaced air; again, nearly bowling the assemblage over.
As soon as he was gone, most of the Guard officers gave in to their failing knees, with several leaning on bulkheads for support.“That was…new,” Lokris muttered, running his hand over his brow. “I guess that puts the rumors to rest, at least.”
“Then we must ensure we depart as soon as possible,” Cain said, stilling his own discomfort.
“Yes, yes of course,” the Captain said briskly, shaking himself back to reality. “Bridge, take us out as soon as the last few transports are accounted for.”
Elysius straightened, slowly shaking his head, Vulkan’s Sigil tapping against his armor. “That was…I will never forget this moment.”
“Indeed,” Lokris said. “I wonder…what role will he take in the ground battle?”
“Whatever he chooses,” Cain said, relying on humor, as ever, to cover up his shock. “I expect we’ll be hard-pressed to keep up when the shooting starts.”
The commbead in Lokris’ ear crackled for a moment. He pressed it, listening, as Cain and Elysius surreptitiously tuned in. “General, Captain Varas, the Warp around is shifting rapidly,” the Navigator said urgently. “A Warp pathway is forming, between us and the rendezvous point.” “The Emperor’s might clears our way,” Elysius rumbled. “We should obey, and follow him into battle.”
“I wonder if, given that his presence will so dramatically tip the scales, he might elect to divert some forces elsewhere? Perhaps broaden the net, so to speak?” Cain asked aloud. “We can target more parts of the hive fleet’s ground forces, in more systems at once, if the Emperor Himself is reinforcing us.”
“I hope not,” Lokris said. “We’ll be stretched thin enough as it is. Besides, several worlds in the cordon are still quite retrievable. Smaller forces, should they be pinned down, will be more likely to call down Exterminatus on a losing battle.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Cain said, his hopes of eluding yet another battle against the Tyranids fading away.
Continues in The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Fourteen.