The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Twelve
Continued from The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Eleven.
Shas’O Fap paced the control deck of the surface-to-space rail cannon angrily. The Imperial ship would be entering their orbit in under ten minutes, and the Earth Caste repair team had only just finished the weapon’s upgrade. The Imperials would be short for the world if the cannon managed a shot at their reactor or bridge, but a ship that size was never easy to hit with an unguided projectile.
The pacing wasn’t helping Fire Warrior crews manning the weapon, several of whom had cast disapproving glances back at their commander when his head was turned, or when he disappeared on one of his frequent ‘bathroom’ breaks. The moon’s population was small enough that it did not warrant an Ethereal’s presence, but a Shas’O was, theoretically, ranked high enough to open fire on an Imperial vessel in their absence. If, indeed, it merited such an attack.
“Shas’O, the Imperial ship is now close enough to hail. Shall we attempt to do so?” one of the Fire Warriors asked. The lopsided veteran shrugged distractedly.
“Go ahead, Shas’Vre, but you’ll get nothing from them but vitriol and rhetoric,” he said, “followed by orbital lasers. They’ll give us a reason to slaughter them, you just watch. These Imperials aren’t interested in the Greater Good.”
“Aye.” The Fire Warrior turned to the comm board on his console and activated it. “Attention, Imperial Destroyer. You are approaching Sen’Trek, a world of the Tau Septs. Identify yourself and power down your weapons at once, or be fired upon.”
After a few tense seconds, the comm board crackled to life. “Se’Trek, this is the Imperial Navy Destroyer Swift. We have no hostile intent towards you. We have been deposited in the system by a Warp Stream.”
The comm officer jerked around in surprise and stared at the Shas’O. Fap stared at the sensor readout of the ship as it slid ever-closer to orbit. “The Stream is completely unnavigable,” the comms officer said suspiciously.
“Yes it is. We rode it blind after we collided with something,” the human’s voice came back, resonant and guarded. The ship was indeed powering down the targeting computers for its torpedo weapons, though it was leaving the energy weapons hot and ready. The tiny number of Tau ships in orbit were closing into a loose sphere around the ship, ready to act in case they did something stupid.
Vulkan stood behind Wilcox, projected what he hoped to be an aura of stability and not just intimidation. Wilcox was trying to get the Tau to listen to their plight while Ir’Shal carefully probed the surrounding ships with the Swift’s sensors. The object trailing them had resolved into a small drone vessel, bristling with sensors and shields, but no guns or Warp drive. The other ships ranged from light freighters to a smattering of void platforms, and most worryingly, a heavy frigate. The surface was sparsely populated, by the look of it, with tiny glacial caps and a wide, equatorial ocean. The continents were focused near the poles, and connected by a wide landbridge near the largest city.
The comm signal was coming from a small collection of buildings outside the city, presumably a military base. Vulkan was staring at the city, trying to figure out where the vault of the Unbound Flame was from his vantage.
“Your ship is in violation of Tau space. What is your purpose here?” the harsh, oddly accented voice asked. Wilcox looked to Vulkan. The enormous, onyx-skinned man closed his eyes for a moment and sighed faintly.
“Tell the truth. We were going home,” Vulkan said. “Dishonesty gains us nothing here.”
Wilcox nodded solemnly. “We were returning to our home system when the vessel collided with something in the Warp,” Wilcox said honestly. “We lost control and entered the Stream.”
“Then you should not be alive,” the voice on the other side started to say. Suddenly, the voice was cut off with a faint scuffling sound. Wilcox glanced up at Vulkan, whose eyes narrowed.
A new voice picked up where the other left off. “Imperials, this is Shas’O Kes’Y Fap’Tau,” a new, deeper voice put in, “commander of the garrison here. Your vessel, regardless of its origin, is in violation of our space. Withdraw at once.”
“We can not do that,” Wilcox said carefully. “The ship’s engines are damaged. We can’t enter the Warp at the moment.”
“Then fix your ship and get out,” the new alien voice growled. “Imperial warmongers are not welcome here.”
“We’re not here to pick a fight,” Wilcox pressed as Vulkan’s shoulders tightened. The last thing they needed was a space battle when they were already damaged. “We would not be here if we had a choice. If the engines can be repaired, we’ll be on our way.”
“And if they can’t?” The alien left the question hanging in the air.
Wilcox looked at Vulkan again, nervous as hell. “Then we will signal for help, and a ship will come with the parts we need,” the officer said. “And bring more Imperial ships to my system? I think not,” the alien said, clearly done debating the subject. “If your ship is not gone within four days, local time, I will destroy it.”
“Unacceptable. I will not allow the crew and passengers of my ship to be held hostage against non-functioning engines,” Wilcox said angrily, then paled when he realized his mistake.
“ ‘Passengers?’ “ the alien asked, his voice deepening. “What passengers might these be?”
“The people I’m ferrying home,” Wilcox said, trying not to wither under Vulkan’s suddenly terrifying gaze.
“Right,” the alien said, completely unconvinced. “I’ll determine your purpose here, Imperial. By force or not.” The channel went dead.
Vulkan closed his eyes and let out a strained breath. “Wilcox…”
“I apologize, my Lord Vulkan,” the Naval officer said morosely. He sank to one knee before the looming Terminator armor Vulkan wore, head hung low. “I overstepped my bounds.”
“They would have found out eventually,” Vulkan rumbled, staring at the holomap in concentration. He’Stan opened a channel directly to Vulkan’s helmet.
“Any idea where the crypt is, brother?”
“Yes,” Vulkan said slowly. “It’s on the outskirts of a city on the river that bisects that landbridge. Getting to it will be a bastard.”
“We have a few Guard shuttles aboard,” He’Stan pointed out. “We could drop down to the crypt, enter it, remove the Flame, and be gone before the xenos know what’s going on.”
“Gone? As in returned? To our ship with no Warp drive?” Vulkan asked drily. “No, brother He’Stan. We must fix the ship’s engines before we go anywhere.”
“They want to LAND?” Fap said in bewilderment, running his hands under the faucet.
“Aye, sir, their shuttle is requesting permission to land on the moon,” the Fire Warrior at his side said. “They want to show us something.” “Show us what?” Fap demanded.
“A tomb. They claim that they can show us a tomb here on the moon where an ancient alien race interred something. They want our assurance that they can leave once they have opened it.”
“Hah! Their strident opposition to the Greater Good has never been louder, and they expect us to simply negotiate with them over some grave site?” Fap laughed, toweling off.
“Apparently. They say their ship is damaged but reparable,” the Warrior said.
“I was there for that, thanks,” Fap growled. “These Imperials are clearly lying about something. Whether it’s the Stream or their purpose here, I can’t tell.”
“Sir?” the Warrior asked.
“Why would they know of a tomb on the moon if they came here randomly?” Fap asked, rolling his eyes. “They’re deceiving us, or trying. If their shuttle undocks from the destroyer, vaporize it.”
“Tell me you can fix it,” Vulkan said, staring at the tangled mess of wires emanating from the damaged engine access panel.
“I can fix it,” Ir’Shal said confidently. “Three days tops. Two if the machine spirits are willing.”
“Then the alien’s threat will be a hollow one,” Wilcox said with relief. He had been near to tears with shame over his failure to conceal the Salamanders’ presence on his ship, but Vulkan had pointed out that their priorities had changed to the point that he would have had to have spoken out in person anyway: they needed to reach the vault below.
“He’Stan, my Brother, can you help me with this?” Ir’Shal asked, placing both hands and his mechadendrite below the panel he was fussing with. He’Stan walked over and the two of them heaved the panel back into place. Vulkan caught Wilcox’s eye and gestured to the door.
“Acting-Captain, may I speak with you for a moment?”
“Of course, my Lord,” the shorter man said, following Vulkan out of the engine room. When the two were alone, Vulkan rounded on him. “Captain, have the Tau yielded to our request?” Vulkan asked. Wilcox was still technically a Lieutenant Commander, but as the highest ranking non-Astartes on board, he would no doubt be promoted to fill his predecessor’s rank if he survived.
“No, my Lord, but their vessels are not attempting to board or destroy us, so I have to assume they’re at least considering it,” Wilcox replied nervously.
“Let me know if they come to a conclusion,” Vulkan said, the germ of a plan taking root in his head. “These Tau are pseudoegalitarian. They won’t be able to resist a healthy donation.”
Isha, the Eldar Goddess of Healing and Birth, stood at the edge of the balcony attached to her suite and stared out at the Craftworld of Ulthwé. The vast, artificial construct was alive with activity, as small craft and levitating trams darted about. The Eldar of Ulthwé were returning from the abruptly-aborted 13th Black Crusade, which had skidded to a complete halt with the apparent death of Abbadon the Despoiler and the crippling loss of Isha from Nurgle’s captivity. The Ork auxiliaries the armies of Chaos had recruited were the only ones still advancing, and free of Abbadon’s guidance, they were no more of a threat than any greenskin pack.
Isha tilted her head back and let the artificial wind of the craftworld blow over her. The few weeks that had passed since her return had been a dizzying mix of confusion, sightseeing, prayer, and nightmares. The return of their Goddess and highest Farseer had restored Ulthwé’s morale like no other portent could, but Isha herself couldn’t stay.
A Black Guardian opened the balcony door and stopped through, dropping to a reverent knee. “My Lady Isha, your message has been sent. The Exodites of Menhsamesh will await your arrival.”
“They have replied already?” Isha asked, without turning.
“No, my Lady. However, they have no reason to refuse. No true child of the Eldar would,” the Guardian confessed.
Isha turned and regarded the kneeling man. “You have doubt.” It wasn’t a question.
“I do, my Lady. Never have the Craftworlders needed you more. We teeter on the brink. Your return will breathe new life into the entire race. Why would you confine yourself to a strategically insignificant Exodite backwater?”
“Because, my child, the Eldar are not a united people. The Exodites deserve my help and protection as much as you do, and are even less able to defend themselves from the Great Enemy.” Isha turned back to the great view. “More than that, you need not know.”
“Forgive me.” The Guardian rose and genuflected. Before he could ask another question or take his leave, however, another Black Guardian shouldered his way in.
“My apologies, Lady Isha, but I have an urgent message for you from the Council of Seers,” the new Guardian said hastily. “The Emperor of Humans has specifically requested that you, Farseer Eldrad, and his daughters journey to Earth for a peace conference.”
The other Guardian stared at the messenger as if he was growing extra eyes. Isha slowly turned to face him in total disbelief. “I won’t insult you by asking if you’re joking…but what did Eldrad say?”
“Only that some debts are better paid immediately before they can collect interest, Lady Isha,” the messenger said nervously. “I’m…not sure what he meant.”
“I am,” she sighed. She glanced out at the vista one more time. “And he is right.” She turned away and walked past the two bowing Guardians. “Very well. If he goes, I shall as well. I suspect that Eldrad may actually be able to make more of a difference in the long run here, anyway.” “With all due respect to both yourself and Farseer Eldrad, he is not a god,” the messenger pointed out.
“And for the last ten thousand years, neither was I,” Isha pointed out drily. “Send my response. I must prepare.”
“Stand your ground, brothers! Hold true, in the name of the Emperor!” Dante roared, laying into the Hrud with his blade. Mephiston lay on the ground beside him, his Sus-an membrane keeping him barely alive. The Chief Librarian had managed to crawl back to his Chapter Master, who had promptly lifted him away, along with all the other surviving Marines in their contingent and as much gene-seed as could be recovered. The three prongs of the Hrud ambush had become four, as their entropic abilities had bored a hole clean through the paving of the airstrip, allowing them yet another avenue of attack. Faced with this overwhelming and brutal assault – and the destruction of his vehicles – Dante had done the only thing he could do: retreat.
Now, he was hunkered down behind a ruined chunk of retaining wall, along with the paltry survivors of his First Company and Sanguinary Guard – half! Pitiful half! – and trying desperately to hold the line, waiting for the last survivors of the Guard and Arbites to arrive and reinforce them. This was not the way of the Blood Angels, not the swooping precision attacks of the Assault Marine, but defensive war, the purview of the Salamanders and the Iron Hands. Dante was an ingenious tactician, but this was not his forte.
The ground before the collapsed wall was invisible beneath a layer of discarded clothing and melted Hrud, spent shell casings and dropped weapons. The sky was darkening overhead as night drew on, with no sign of relief in sight.
“Lord Dante, the Arbites civilian evacuation units are finished! The last shuttles are headed into orbit. They’re requesting permission to join in the assault group,” one of the injured Sanguinary Guards said, reduced to a vox-operator by his wounds.
“Thank them and accept their offer!” Dante called shortly, ducking a swinging meat cleaver and twisting his attacker’s head off.
The Terminator next to him suddenly scoffed and hurtled a chunk of masonry at blurring speeds, bowling a group of the hissing monsters over. “I’m dry, Lord. We’ve killed thousands of the beasts, but still their foul queen does not show herself.” He didn’t need to ask if withdrawal was an option: if they left then, dozens of the gene-seeds of the fallen First Company would be lost forever. Unacceptable.
Dante didn’t respond, biting down on his comments. The grey tide was not breaking. What options did he have?
A dark cloud swirled overhead, abruptly blotting out the sun. Dante glanced upwards in surprise as an unearthly tearing sound, like a thousand sheets of cloth shredding at once, echoed even over the deafening sounds of battle. The Hrud herds stumbled to a halt, gaping at the sky. Though a few Astartes kept firing during the welcome distraction, the rest craned their heads up in horror. A Warp Rift was opening above them, a great rend in reality’s veil.
“ATTACK THE HRUD!” Dante suddenly roared, inspiration striking. He suited actions to words, cycling the power cell in the Perdition Pistol and opening fire, melting a Hrud Fusillor and bolwing his companion over. “THIS IS IT!”
“Lord Commander?” the injured Sanguinary Guard asked in perplexity. “What’s happening?”
“Something I hadn’t thought of, and probably won’t survive seeing,” Dante hissed, scooping a discarded bolter up and balancing it on the rubble, adding its fire to that of his brothers.
A ray of light pierced the Rift, impaling the Hrud mass. The aliens tried to scatter, but their momentum was unstoppable. The sheer volume of Hrud pressing forth from the hangar, pipe, tower, and gap in the runway was forcing them closer, even as simple instinct forced them to flee.
The light bent and scattered as it struck the filthy ground beneath the dying aliens. The air around it warped, as if whatever was directing it had a specific place of arrival for it, and would accept no detours. Some of the Hrud must have noticed, because they leaped for the barrier, perhaps thinking the Space Marines offered more sanctuary than the light.
They found little. Dante’s words, underscored by the kind of urgency only a thousand years of service can impart, had spurred the Blood Angels on, and they fought with renewed vigor, driving the Hrud back. The rip above them continued spilling out its eldritch light, twisting and burning.
Abruptly, the gap widened, until a Terminator could have passed through it unobstructed. The light rippled and faded, blocked by something huge on the other side. An armored figure flew forth, held aloft on vast, blood-drenched wings. The apparition swooped low, cleaving the masses of grey alien vermin with its glowing blue glaive. Dante and the other surviving Blood Angels toned up their optics, to prevent permanent damage from the brilliant glare.
“Hail the Sanguinor!” Dante roared, watching in apprehension and awe as the golden being landed heavily, casting paving blocks and soaked robes into the air. The Sanguinor it was: the apparition that all Blood Angels knew of, though few survived the battles where it had made appearances. The Hrud obviously didn’t know: while half scurried to escape, the other half threw themselves forward, laying into the Warp being with their peculiar mix of cutting-edge and primitive weapons.
It didn’t work. The golden man swept his glaive about at waist level, carving a path through the grey-skinned filth, as Dante and his few survivors added their own contributions from the flank. Within a quarter hour of the Sanguinor’s arrival, it was all over bar the clean-up. Dante slowly walked up to the golden warrior, the dying gurgles of the last few Hrud that had dared to exit the underground after the Sanguinor arrived fading around him. The Sanguinor was slowly lowering his blade, as the viscera that clung to it sizzled and evaporated.
“Lord of Hosts, I thank you for your deliverance,” Dante said cautiously, coming to a halt a few meters from the Warp entity. “We could not have won without you.”
“No,” the Sanguinor replied, his voice oddly muffled. “You could not. Fare thee well.” Without another word, he took flight, beating his wings and lifting off from the ground.
“Wait! Wait, I am not finished!” Dante called, inspiration striking. The Sanguinor paused above the Chapter master, moments from reentering the Warp Rift that still hung in their above them.
“What do you wish?” he asked.
Dante set his teeth, choosing his words carefully.
“I want you to meet someone.”
“Hell no,” Eldrad said flatly.
“Farseer, I do not need your approval,” Isha said wearily. Taldeer shifted uncomfortably behind them both, caught in the middle of their verbal sparring match.
“It’s not a matter of approval.” Eldrad rubbed his eyes, marshaling his thoughts. “We can’t risk losing you again, not now.”
“In stark contrast to losing you, who are entirely expendable,” Isha said drily.
“Compared to you, yes, Lady Isha, I am,” Eldrad said doggedly. “I can go alone. I’ve coordinated with the Mon-k…humans before,” he added, noticing the psychic blank slate that was LIIVI in a room nearby. Taldeer bristled.
“Father, Lady Isha, I could go in your stead. I possess rather more working knowledge of the Imperium than either of you, at this point.”
Isha grinned faintly at the mental images floating through Taldeer’s head at that statement. Eldrad slowed until Taldeer caught up with him. “My daughter, I am no more willing to send you alone into the heart of the Imperium than I am-”
“Father.” Taldeer interrupted, coming to a halt and spinning to face him. “Enough. Even if you were up-to-date on the state of the galaxy right now, you’re still mentally and physically exhausted by your trials. I’m going.”
Eldrad stared down his stubborn daughter for a few more seconds before relenting. “Very well. On your own head be the consequences if this goes poorly.”
“Good.” Taldeer resumed her march down the hall to where the rest of the delegation was waiting. “Since the Emperor of humans already knows about LIIVI and Lofn, there’s minimal risk involved for them anyway.”
“ ‘Them?’” Eldrad echoed, catching up to her and blocking her path. “You can’t be considering bringing them with you.” Taldeer smirked proudly. “I am. And you will see exactly why.”
Vulkan reclined against the wall of the Aquilla, resplendent in his Terminator armor. He had decided that theater was more important than modesty for this venture. Tu’Shan hadn’t disagreed.
“Lieutenant Commander Wilcox, you are to resume repairs of the Warp drive and Gellar field as soon as we’re clear; our ship will attract more of their attention. Does the ship’s targeting computer have a feed from the sensorium yet?” he asked quietly.
“Affirmative, my Lord. We’re picking you up five-by. Your armor’s sensorium is breathtaking,” Wilcox’s Chief Enginseer replied for him, tracking the tiny shuttle on the ship’s many sensor suites. “We have been unable to acquire the location of the crypt, however.” “As was expected. Is the package en route?” Vulkan asked.
“It is. Against my very specific, respectful request, my Lord,” the Enginseer said carefully.
“Noted. Vulkan out.” Vulkan slowly walked back to the ramp of the shuttle, a few of the ship’s surviving Naval Armsmen accompanying him, riot shields opacified and helm guards locked in place, polarized to max. Both stood with shock mauls and assault shotguns prominently stowed, the stocks of their shotguns and sidearms jutting out from their slings, ready to be drawn and fired from the hip in microseconds. Neither man would ever fire a single shot except by Vulkan’s direct order, of course, but they were there for show anyway.
“Warriors. Thank you for your escort. I will take it from here,” Vulkan said. Both men nodded, stepping back from the ramp with respectful salutes. They assumed parade-ground guard poses at the top of the ramp as the engines went silent, and the airframe shook as it settled down. The ramp slowly lowered with a faint hiss of hydraulics, revealing a small cluster of Water and Fire caste personnel beyond.
The effect of the Primarch’s sudden appearance was immediate and satisfying. The cluster of Fire Warriors immediately went for their railrifles, and the Water diplomats took at least two steps back a piece. Vulkan wasted no time, striding down the ramp slowly, as the two armsmen locked their person shields in place at the very top of the ramp, obstructing the view of the interior, not that anyone was looking at them.
“Representatives of T’au?” Vulkan asked, when he was a few paces from the bottom of the ramp.
One of the Water Caste diplomats retrieved their wits. “Yes…yes. I am Por’Ui Ses’teeg. Shas’O Fap’Tau has requested that we liase.”
“But not to make promises on his behalf?” Vulkan rumbled, putting a little venom in his voice, and fire in his eyes.
“Well…no,” the diplomat conceded. He shifted nervously, trying not to stare at the gigantic man with apprehension. “You mentioned a trade?”
“Trades are bidirectional, Ses. I will not negotiate with someone who can not authorize actions on their leader’s behalf.” Vulkan pulled his helmet off and glared at the fidgeting Water Caste speaker. “Go get Fap, or bring me to him. I’ve got all the time in the world.”
“I can not allow an alien soldier to simply speak to our interim leader directly without learning more of him first,” the diplomat said gruffly.
Vulkan took a long step forward, towering over the small alien by nearly a meter. “I’ve got all the time in the world,” he repeated. “Do you?”
“How did you even talk me into this?” LIIVI asked angrily. Taldeer elbowed him discreetly. “Just asking. Diplomacy isn’t my thing.”
“Nor mine, to be honest,” Taldeer said faintly. The eldritch glows of the teleporter-suppressant field reactivated around them, and a pair of completely uninterested-looking Custodes stepped forth, shooing off the techpriest operating the teleporter.
“Lady Isha, Farseer Taldeer, Assassin...and guest,” their leader said, pausing for a moment when he spotted Lofn hiding behind her mother’s leg. “You’re expected. The Emperor awaits your presence in the Hall of the Throne.”
“Very well,” Isha said, inclining her head slightly. “Lead the way.” The Custodian turned and walked out of the little tech-shrine, down the halls of the Palace. As they walked, Isha briefly tuned her mind to Taldeer’s. ”Farseer, why is your daughter here? This is no place for a child,” she thought.
”You’ll see, Lady Isha. She has a gift I couldn’t afford not to bring to the table,” Taldeer thought back. Further exchanged were prevented by the sudden arrival of another Custodian, this one in the layered leather and folded adamantine tunic of a Companion in formal, non-combat uniform. He had doffed his tasseled helmet, tucking it under one arm.
“Madams, sir. Your arrival is punctual. The Emperor and the available High Lords are awaiting you. Please, this way,” he said, gesturing at a gilded door set into one wall.
“I was told we would be meeting with the Emperor himself, “ Isha said, following the man into a small conference room.
“And so you shall, Lady Isha, but He decided that a full meeting of the High Lords in his presence would be impossible while so many are involved in the repairs of the Hives damaged in the uprising, and the restructuring of the Imperium He has directed,” the enormous Custodian said politely. He held the door open for the four of them, glaring raw hate at the Assassin as he passed. The Custodian stepped out, closing the door behind him.
Isha walked slowly to the head of the conference table and suppressed a smile. Before her sat sixteen of the angriest people she had ever seen. They were modified, most of them; augmetics and bionics covered them from head to toe, at least a few. A few were mutants, or looked the role, and one was clearly a Navigator. Among the others, their uniforms were so encrusted with ornamentation and gildings that they looked to have been fused to the furniture.
One seat near the head of the table was empty, with a small iron Fleur-de-leis sitting on the seat cushion. A small hologram of the Imperial Eagle hovered in the center of the rectangular table. The Emperor, notably, was absent, save for another small hologram of the icon of the Throne. The hologram was echoing in the auditory and psychic tones of the Emperor; clearly it was more than just a projector.
“ISHA, SO GLAD YOU COULD MAKE IT,” the icon said. “FARSEER TALDEER, LIIVI. WELCOME BACK TO TERRA. YOU’VE BEEN BRIEFED?”
“Naturally,” Taldeer said. Isha took the seat at the head of the table, nearest the door, with Lofn at her left and LIIVI at her right, with Taldeer sitting protectively between her daughter and the others. Lofn was looking more than a little apprehensive, but kept quiet. Clearly, she had no more idea why she was here than anyone else.
“LET ME BEGIN BY SAYING THAT I’M GLAD TO HEAR THAT YOU AND FARSEER ELDRAD ARE WELL ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY,” the hologram roared. “AND THAT I’M SORRY THAT I CAN NOT JOIN YOU IN PERSON. THE RECONSTRUCTION OF AN ENTIRE CLUSTER OF HIVES IS SOMEWHAT TIME-CONSUMING. WHO MIGHT I ASK IS THE CHILD NEXT TO YOU?”
“It is my daughter, Emperor,” Taldeer spoke up. “You’ve met.”
“RIGHT, ON ULTHWÉ. WELL. YOU KNOW WHY YOU’RE HERE, SO I’LL CUT TO THE QUICK. HUMANITY AND THE ELDAR HAVE HAD VERY, VERY SERIOUS GRIEVANCES WITH ONE ANOTHER, BUT THAT NEEDS TO END. NEITHER OF US HAS THE MANPOWER, OR DARE I SAY, FREE TIME, TO ENGAGE ONE ANOTHER IN OPEN WAR ANY LONGER.” “Agreed,” Isha said calmly. She let the pause carry on a moment, then serenely gazed over at the cluster of angry High Lords and Ladies at the far end of the table. “Well, that was easy.”
“FUNNY. WE’RE HERE BECAUSE WE WANT TO ENSURE THAT ANY PEACE BETWEEN US IS SUPPORTED BY THE ENTIRETY OF BOTH GOVERNMENTS. A TREATY BETWEEN ULTHWÉ AND THE IMPERIUM IS WORTHLESS IF BIEL-TAN, ALAITOC, ET CETERA, DON’T WANT TO PLAY BALL. YOU, HOWEVER, BOW TO NO CRAFTWORLD. IF THERE ARE ANY SPEAKERS AMONGST THE ELDAR THAT CAN CARRY OUR MESSAGE TO ALL OF THEM AT ONCE, IT’S THEIR GODDESS AND THE DAUGHTER OF THEIR MOST FAMOUS FARSEER.”
Taldeer acknowledged the Emperor’s argument with a slight nod, considering its implications. She was fairly sure that Ulthwé would be willing to halt any future incursions against the Imperium given how frequently they sided together against Chaos, and Alaitoc was surrounded by Necron tombs and still reeling from the Imperium’s utterly botched invasion four hundred years prior, so they would welcome the time to recover. Saim-Hann and Biel-Tan, however, however…
“I’M NOT EXPECTING AN ANSWER RIGHT NOW, OF COURSE,” the Emperor said, no doubt sensing their hesitation. “OBVIOUSLY YOU SHOULD CONSULT WITH YOUR SEERS FIRST. BUT THE IMPERIUM HAS FAR MORE PRESSING ENEMIES THAN THE ELDAR, AND YOU CAN HARDLY AFFORD TO WASTE FURTHER RESOURCES ATTACKING OUR COLONIES.”
“From what I understand, Eldar attacks on colonies of other races are usually motivated by more than simple land grabs, though, Emperor,” Isha said coolly. One of the High Lords stirred.
“Worlds that the Eldar have never claimed as part of their Empire, now or in the past, have been laid barren by Yme-Loc and Biel-Tan. What could motivate those craftworlds enough to butcher entire populations without warning or mercy, pray tell?” he asked bitterly.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Isha said honestly. The High Lord – they hadn’t introduced themselves, Taldeer noted – settled back in his seat, fuming.
“THEN LET ME CLARIFY: I’M NOT PROPOSING A MUTUAL NONAGGRESSION PACT. I’M PROPOSING A CEASEFIRE. THE WAKING OF THE NECRONS AND THE IMMINENT ARRIVAL OF WHO EVEN KNOWS HOW MANY MORE TYRANID HIVE FLEETS ARE A HUGE PROBLEM. FOR BOTH OF US. TWO CRAFTWORLDS HAVE BEEN ALMOST COMPLETELY DESTROYED BY TYRANIDS. I’M TOLD ALAITOC IS DECLARING WAR ON EVERY NECRON THEY ENCOUNTER. DO YOU REALLY THINK THE ELDAR CAN AFFORD TO SPEND PRECIOUS LIVES DEFENDING THEIR COLONIES FROM US WITH SO MUCH ELSE GOING ON?” The Emperor directed the question specifically at Taldeer.
She shrugged uncomfortably, a myriad of possible futures racing through her mind. “I can’t disagree unless I know more of what you propose.”
“A mandated cessation of hostilities and an oath to ignore each other’s colonies, exploration fleets, and other habitations zones,” one of the High Lords said. “The Eldar leave us alone, and we do the same. If that works and we both make some headway against our mutual enemies we couldn’t have made at war with the other, we extend the treaty even longer.” Isha looked over at the High Lord, as if noticing his presence for the first time.
“And what role do your enforcers play, Grand Provost?” she asked pointedly. He looked a bit disgruntled that she had known his name without prompting, but answered.
“I would be responsible for ensuring that Arbites deep-space anti-pirate forces leave your ships alone unless they keep raiding our convoys, in conjunction with our Navy. How did you know who I was?”
Shas’O Kes’y Fap’Tau was not a patient man, as anyone who had ever walked in on him practicing his favorite pastime could attest. When word came from his diplomatic team that the Astartes that had apparently been leading the expedition in secret the entire time had demanded his presence, he was incensed. “Those Imperials actually said they had all the time in the world?” Fap demanded, slamming his gargantuan fist down on his desk, denting the material and shaking something loose from the underside.
“Yes, sir,” his aide said, trying not to look at the floor. “We have few options here. The Cobra is not a powerful ship, but with the railgun off line and most of the ships keeping their distance, it would be able to inflict some damage before we destroyed it. However, we do have a few ships in orbit that could destroy it one-on-one.”
“If we have to. I’ll be honest,” Fap said, looking at the desk as it if had betrayed him personally, “I’m actually a little curious as to why they’re here at this point. Looks like that Space Marine was the ‘passenger’ the ship’s CO mentioned, at least.”
“He mentioned several passengers,” the aide reminded him. “There may be more Marines aboard.”
“I don’t know very much about Imperial command structure, but I’m all but certain Marines don’t command the Navy,” Fap said, standing up. “They don’t. It may be a Marine ship, though, sir,” the aide supplied.
“Whatever. Where is the Marine now?”
“Still waiting at the landing site, quiet as you like. This shuttle has returned to the ship. He’s just standing there.”
“I’ll head out and meet him,” Fap decided. “Deception or no, this needs to stop.”
Soon enough, the hovercar the Fire Warrior commandeered had deposited him at the landing site, escorted by a team of Crisis Suits. Vulkan hadn’t moved an inch in the entire period between the Water Caste diplomat leaving and Fap’s arrival. The Promethian Way allowed such centering of balance, and he knew it would unnerve the flightier Tau.
As soon as Fap arrived, the Crisis Suits deployed to flank the Terminator, taking up symmetrical covering positions to allow Fap a clear line of retreat of Vulkan did something aggressive. He had no such inclination. Fap marched right up to the Salamander and started to speak. “What is your business on our world, human?” he asked shortly.
“At the time we arrived, precisely nothing. Now? Escape,” Vulkan replied in the same tone. He noted with distant amusement that Fap was trying to look taller than he actually was. As if it made a difference when compared with the vast size of a Terminator-clad Primarch.
“Escape? From me, or my system?” Fap demanded.
“Hah! Ahh ha ha ha, ohhhh, that, that was good,” Vulkan said, laughing aloud. “Escape. From you. Yeah, that’s great. No, we just want to leave the system and go home. We collided with something on our Warp travels that ruined our Faster-Than-Light maneuvering ability. Once it’s fixed, we’re gone.”
“And you expect me to believe you?” Fap asked, angrily, poking a massive hand at the Terminator.
“Obviously,” Vulkan said, still chuckling. “What could I possibly gain from a lie?”
Quite a lot. Even as the Fire Warrior and the Fire-Born were debating, Forgefather Vulkan He’Stan was clinging for dear life to a tumbling ball of wreckage. “Wilcox, I’m away, armor holding, advise,” He’Stan managed, the undampened effects of gravity cutting his words short.
“You’ve cleared the hold and are on course, Lord. Emperor’s fortune be with you,” Wilcox said, cutting the direct-beam transmission. Below, He’Stan clung to the handles of his coffin, wondering just why he had agreed to this scheme. It had been Vulkan’s idea; since only he could find the location of the crypt and the ship’s sensors couldn’t detect it, he would provide He’Stan the coordinates of the entrance, and allow He’Stan to simply arrive there. Wilcox would eject a large amount of trash and debris in an arc towards the planet’s surface, disguised as nothing more than a normal purge of the ship’s garbage and biological waste. Inside the blobs of trash, however, would be a small metal box, proofed with heat-shielding taken from the damaged primary Warp drive, and a guidance system from a stripped dropship. The rig was completed with a pair of tiny maneuvering rockets and a larger ion pulse rocket from the same dropship, all of it covered in a combination of frozen grease and heat-absorbent foam, meant to burn off in the atmosphere. The vessel would kill any human that tried to ride it into re-entry…but He’Stan was not human.
The tiny vessel, which Ir’Shal had helpfully named the “Uninspired,” was nudged into the correct course and dropped by the Swift as it orbited the moon. Because the Tau would be expecting any objects ejected by the Swift to be ballistic, the timing had to be perfect; though the Uninspired had engines, overusing them would have lit up every high-orbit sensor around the moon. Fortunately, Ir’Shal had learned his trade well, and the launch was perfect. The Uninspired was tumbling along at the right angle to enter the atmosphere without exploding.
He’Stan had forgone the equipping of the other Artefacts here, as Vulkan had assured him that they were unnecessary: the defenses around the crypt were meant to keep out grave robbers and vagrants, not the greatest living Salamander warrior, who was supposed to find it eventually anyway. The only things he had brought with him were a normal Mark Six Godwyn bolter and a satchel of drum magazines, along with a chainsword and a small bag of upgrade parts for the bolter, which Vulkan had insisted He’Stan bring even if he never saw fit to use them. ‘For surprises,’ Vulkan had said.
Along with those things, a single piece of electronic hardware from the ship’s simple armory was tucked in a padded case at He’Stan’s waist: a man-portable vox-caster. Though vastly simpler and cheaper than the vox built into the Salamander’s helmet, its range was significantly greater, and could be powered by the generator at He’Stan’s back, along with a bag of copper disks.
The pseudo-assault pod dropped vertiginously through the atmosphere of the planet, spinning wildly. The temperature inside would have been unbearable for anyone but a Salamander, but He’Stan had weathered worse. A faint whistling noise of atmospheric passage sounded from every corner of the pod as the heat-shielding reacted to the atmosphere, and the coating of junk on the outside burst into flame. He’Stan kept his eyes glued to the countdown timer on the HUD. Five minutes until stratopassage, then the re-entry rockets could fire without triggering the sensors. A true assault pod would have been much better, of course, but if they had used one, the Tau would have assumed it was a prelude to an all-out war.
He’Stan gripped the metal handles on the inside of his impromptu ship as hard as he dared without breaking them, and prayed that it would not become his coffin. Three minutes to stratopassage.
A small number of Tau on the planet below lived near the spot where He’Stan was supposed to land. If they had looked up to the sky, they would have seen nothing yet. The pod was so small that it barely left a trail, and it wasn’t coasting for a smooth landing like a ship or a fixed-wing aircraft. The pod slammed into the stratosphere seconds before He’Stan fired off the primary engine, and the pod slowed massively, nearly crushing He’Stan against his armor. The venerable Salamander checked the guidance system, dazed. He was still on course. The secondary rockets fired, righting the pod, as the craft slowed yet further.
The pod lit up, all three engines flaring up, swerving the pod towards the crypt entrance. The guidance system suddenly switched from passive guidance to active, and He’Stan released his death grip on the handles, grabbing the control stick. The stick jerked and bucked, but He’Stan’s power-armoured hands stayed steady, guiding the pod through the low-lying clouds over the crypt entrance. From above, it looked like nothing more than a long-dried tidal trough, but He’Stan knew it to be much more.
The pod dropped to a mere few hundred meters, its bottom aflame. The ship continued to decelerate, plummeting towards the ground, until it finally collided. The impact speed was enough to instantly mulch a human. Again, He’Stan wasn’t troubled.
The Salamander kicked the door of the pod off once the bolts had fired, launching the metal plate away from the smoking metal block. He ran out, pausing only long enough to trigger the pod’s self-destruct meltabomb. The blinding light behind him erased the pod completely, deepening the crater the pod had made and filling the bottom with molten metal.
He’Stan ran up to the well-concealed cave that doubled as the crypt’s entrance. Pausing only to sweep the cave mouth with his sensors to look for anything out of the ordinary, he pushed ahead, readying his bolter.
Lofn sat in the leather chair at the conference table, taking in everything being said around her. The collection of shiny people at the other end of the table hadn’t spared her a glance once they had returned from the ship. The other Eldar had been angry that Isha had promised anything at all, but Lofn understood why: they didn’t trust humans. The last thing they needed, they said, was more obligation. She didn’t know what they meant.
In fact, she didn’t even know why she was there. She had wanted the Imperium and the Eldar to stop fighting, of course, but why didn’t anyone else? One of the people at the head of the table who wasn't shiny at all was saying something.
“Lady Isha, do you have any idea what that would do to our forces in the field? Not knowing whether or not a Webway gate might open right next to them and spit out some aliens that may well decide that they have more right to be there than the forces themselves? That sort of morale distraction could be fatal.”
“In stark contrast to knowing that we can do that already and as it stands, are almost CERTAINLY enemies? I fail to see how that’s better,” Taldeer shot back on Isha’s behalf.
“I don’t recall inviting your input, Farseer,” the man said coldly.
“Listen anyway,” Lofn suddenly said. She was done being quiet.
Instantly, every single set of eyes in the room aimed straight at her. She tried not to show how scared she was by that.
“Something to add, miss?” an empty man the end of the table said into the frigid quiet. It was the first thing he’d said all day.
“Yeah. You should stop hating other people’s ideas because they thought of them first,” Lofn said unhappily. A very small smile quirked Mom’s lips.
“I didn’t say anything about her idea,” the empty man said softly.
“YOU didn’t.” Lofn was getting a little mad now. “But I don’t think you needed to, you know?”
The man very slowly stood up. Dad’s hand was at the empty holster at his side so fast even Lofn couldn’t see it move, but the man was already sitting down, smiling at Dad. “Do continue, Lady Isha.”
The Goddess looked down at Lofn and smiled at her for a moment before picking up where she had been before the shiny man interrupted. “As I was saying, neither of us are willing, nor allowed, really, to commit our forces to future engagements together. I don’t think that should change, publicly.”
The shiny people and the Eldar group kept talking for a while after that, and the hologram talked too.
But the empty man never stopped staring at Lofn. And he didn’t look angry any more.
Bjorn the Fell-Handed was nervous. Interred in his Dreadnought shell, he was all but impervious to simple battle damage, and secure in the knowledge that he had fought for over ten millennia in his Emperor’s service, he knew neither doubt nor terror.
But he was nervous.
“Bjorn, old friend, enough. You’re going to wear out your joints,” Great Wolf Logan Grimnir said, staring pointedly at the fidgeting Dreadnought.
“Yeah, well, what do you expect? I have no idea what Lord Russ is going to do when he gets here, after what I said,” the Venerable Dreadnought said nervously, waving his stubby little arms.
“You meant every word, didn’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah, I did.” Bjorn finally settled down and faced forward as the huge gates of the Hall opened. The Space Wolves within were abuzz with activity; many had just returned from Cadia and were catching up, but many others had only just heard the news of the Emperor’s return, isolated as Fenris was.
When they caught sight of the Chapter’s two greatest living heroes, though, the room grew quiet, with most snapping to a salute or some approximation of it, as injury and inebriation permitted.
“Hail, Great Wolf Grimnir! Hail, Venerable Bjorn! Returned from Cadia!” one of the nearer Wolves called out, and the room echoed with their approval.
Grimnir saluted the group, leaning towards Bjorn’s aural sensors. “You can’t tell me you didn’t miss this reception.”
“A little, maybe,” Bjorn said dismissively.
“A little. Right. Well, when Lord Russ arrives, we’ll see what he thinks,” Grimnir said, walking down to the nearest table and dropping down on the steel bench wearily.
“Do we even know when that’s going to happen?” Bjorn said, following him over and looking longingly at the food on the scratched wooden surface.
“Nope. We’ll find out when he gets here,” Grimnir said, digging into a steaming rack of beef.
“I can hardly wait,” Bjorn grumbled, plodding off to the armory.
“It wouldn’t be fair of me to assume that you HAD to be here for conquest alone,” Fap said, crossing his arms with some difficulty. “Certainly with one tiny ship. And yet, Astartes are Space Marines, not Space Diplomats. So why were you on that ship?”
“Why I was there is tangential to the topic at hand,” Vulkan said patiently, watching Fap with the practiced ease of a veteran. Fap had none of the optimistic naiveté that Dante had said colored the Tau’s every move. He was acting like a cynic. “Besides, what difference would it make? I’m stuck here now.”
“And yet, once more, you are a warrior. On a ship that normally would not travel alone or have Astartes aboard if it did. So why were you there if not to fight?” Fap pressed.
“You will not get an answer from me that you trust. Why ask?” Vulkan said, suddenly on the offensive. “Now I have a question for you. How long have the Tau been on this world?”
“Long enough to construct a surface-to-space siegebreaker rail-cannon, which will reduce your ship to powder should it attempt to fire on the surface,” Fap said, smirking behind his helmet.
“And yet, having been here for over a day, we have not fired a single shot at the surface or your ships,” Vulkan pointed out, digesting the words and considering their implication. “Your argument makes no sense.”
“You spoke of a tomb before,” Fap said suddenly, changing his tone in an attempt to throw Vulkan off-balance.
“Yes. There is an alien crypt here on the surface that I visited once, very long ago,” Vulkan said, undeterred.
“You expect me to believe that?” Fap said derisively. “This moon was completely uninhabited when we got here.”
“As it was when I visited the tomb,” Vulkan said.
“Then why were you here?” Fap demanded. The Water and Fire caste personnel around him all suddenly reacted to something, something Fap apparently didn’t notice. Vulkan leaned back on one heel and planted his hands on his armored hips.
“Something to share, Fap?”
Fap glared behind his expressionless mask. He didn’t want to admit it, but acting without the direct oversight of an Ethereal in a matter of such importance was, while permissible, discouraged. An Aun from Sekka was on her way, but until she arrived, he was on his own. And the Space Marine was getting to him. Acting as if he had absolute and complete control of the entire discussion. Why? What did the human know?
“Shas’O,” one of the Fire Warriors said faintly, tapping Fap on the shoulder and gesturing at his helmet. Fap silently switched his radio back on with a blink.
“Shas’O Fap, please come in. Shas’O, please respond immediately,” a voice on the other side said urgently.
“What the hell do you want?” Fap demanded. “I’m speaking to the prisoner!”
“Sir, the rail cannon is armed and ready to fire. The ship in orbit will be in range in thirty-seven minutes,” the voice on the other side said.
Fap nodded, turning his gaze to the ground and smiling. “Good. Good. Lock on as soon as it comes in range and let me know when you do. Fap out.” Fap cut the link and glanced up with a smirk.
The smirk vanished. Vulkan was only a handspan away, having moved in total silence, and with such speed that not one of the guards had raised their weapons in time. Fap tensed, his hand dropping to his knife.
“ ‘Prisoner?’” Vulkan hissed, his voice so low and angry that Fap took a step backwards from the sheer force of it. “I was a ‘prisoner’ for ten thousand years, alien. I am a ‘prisoner’ no longer. I am the scion of the Emperor’s will, and the living force of the Salamanders. I am no man’s ‘prisoner.’”
Vulkan’s rage was very, very real. Fap felt his blood run cold. The human’s eyes were solid red, he noted in fear. They were so bright that they were actually emitting heat and light, enough to actually return on his helmet sensors.
“How did you even hear me?” Fap asked uncertainly.
Vulkan’s eyes flashed horribly. “I hear much. And know this: if your railgun fires on my ship, even in show, I will reduce you to blue-colored fertilizer before you can so much as breathe – I SWEAR it.”
Fap stared at the massive warrior, noting for the first time the darkened metal around the tiny hole on the back of the left gauntlet: a flamer. A very small one, but a flamer nonetheless.
“Now…I believe we were discussing what happens here next,” Vulkan said, his homicidal impulse fading. He straightened up as much as his suit would let him, the Mantle billowing in the rising breeze.
“Yes we were,” Fap said, suddenly feeling a lot shorter.
His radio blared again. Fap hastily turned the volume down with another flick of the eyes, and acknowledged the hail, this time in his own language. “What is it?”
“Sir, the Imperial vessel is powering its active sensors on and off in bursts. We have no record of Imperial vessels behaving this way, sir, not with active sensors. Their regional comm system is also pulsing, sir, but there are no other ships in range.”
“And the human’s not wearing a helmet,” Fap said softly. Vulkan tilted his head and smirked cruelly.
“Something WRONG, Fap?”
“Not at all. Why is your ship pinging the moon with its active sensors?” Fap asked, in Gothic.
“Don’t rightly know,” Vulkan said, grinning, his eyes flaring again. “Surely it’s not causing you problems? With all that…fancy wargear?”
“Your ship is still here, Human, only because I allow it,” Fap said, but the moment he said it, his throat tightened in regret.
“You have thrown nothing but vitriol and suspicion at us since we arrived, Fap, which I understand completely,” Vulkan said, tilting his head back. “You have no idea what to do with us, do you?”
Fap stared at the Astartes in silence for a long moment, then spoke…very carefully. “You landed here to talk. You wanted to trade. You speak of tombs and navigating Warp Streams. Enough posturing. I want honesty. Why here? If you were just deposited here by the Warp Stream and your intention was to leave as soon as possible, you would have turned your ship around and burned vacuum for Imperial space waiting for rescue in the void. So enough threatening. Why…are…you…here?”
Vulkan stared at the expressionless white mask before him, then slowly donned his helmet. “I spoke the truth. I set foot on this world ten thousand years ago. I explored an ancient alien crypt. I left. I knew it would still be here. I do not know exactly where it is now, with all your construction-”
“There is no way that can be true,” Fap said, gesturing at Vulkan. “No human lives that long.”
Vulkan sealed his helmet back in place, noting the complex display of data from the orbital link. “I am Fire-Born.”
Fap sighed tensely. Why was there never an Ethereal around when you REALLY needed one?
He’Stan ducked the thin rock beam that crossed the narrow hallway in the crypt, standing up and bracing his arms against the walls, lifting his armored boots as the second beam swept under him. As soon as it cleared, he dropped down and sprinted for the end of the narrow corridor, as the rods continued to cycle behind him, oblivious. He’Stan paused at the end of the tunnel, looking back at where the rock rods were, noting how they were moving. The rods were in a loop, like a conveyor set in the walls; not so far apart that they could be bypassed, but fast enough that you had to wait for one to move before you could clear the other. They hadn’t stopped him, though; he had fought his way through an entire Webway city to rescue Elysius and his Sigil, no cheap movie prop would stop him.
The hallway branched into a T-junction, though the left branch had collapsed. The right twisted deeper into the hillside, and the hall broadened out, with clear seams between each block of alien stone. He’Stan closed his eyes and thought for a moment, willing the memories forth. This looked all too familiar…
After a moment, it clicked. The design was familiar because it was a Slann Magehold crypt, left behind as the original builders of the Webway decayed into complete indolence and sloth. He had fought through them as part of the Titan Recovery force of General Sylth’s First Brigade, back as a mere Brother-Lieutenant of the Forth Company. The tombs were scattered across the entire Segmentum Tempestus, most of them almost as old as the Eldar.
He’Stan grinned tightly at the hallway. The Slann may have been a pitiful, decayed form of their glorious progenitors, the Old Ones, who had crafted the Webway and who knew what else, but they weren’t completely without knowledge. The hallway was probably laced with traps, not to keep men out, but to trap them in.
He’Stan tapped his helmet. “Swift, He’Stan. Pulse, active, record, close.”
“He’Stan, Swift, pulse.” Wilcox cut the comm feed and nodded to the sensor officer, who burst the sensors at full strength at He’Stan’s location, recorded the data, and just as fast sent it down to He’Stan, using as little time as possible. You could never know who was listening in.
He’Stan watched the data pipe down to his helmet with interest. There was an active power source on his level and an inactive power source one level down. The nearer source was linked to a small machine behind one of the walls of the crypt. The machine was set behind the wall, on the south side of the room. The Forgefather gauged the floor, and didn’t spot any obvious pressure plates. He carefully stepped down the very center of the passageway, where the most wear from passing feet had wiped the floor clean, millions of years ago. To his relief, whatever mechanism the power source controlled did not activate, and he reached the end of the hallway unimpeded.
The hallway ended with a precipitous drop, going at least fifteen feet down, with no means of climbing back up. He’Stan jumped the distance, landing heavily on the weathered stone. The rumble of his landing echoed away in the underground corridors, leaving nothing but silence. He’Stan strained his augmented ears, but if the landing had damaged the integrity of the tomb, he couldn’t hear it.
He took a few more cautious steps forward, then paused, looking at the ground. The wear on the ground was continuous. There was no interrupt in the pattern at the base of the drop. How had the builders of the tomb reached the top of the gap?
For that matter, why was there wear and tear at all? The Slann worshipped death; they wouldn’t have taken the offense of violating the tomb with cross-traffic lightly. So why was the floor worn down? He’Stan pondered the mystery before putting it temporarily out of his mind. He would have to come back this way with his prize; he would solve it then.
The lower section of tunnel was smooth-walled, with a thin metal strip, like a track for lights, running along the ceiling, from which ancient, corroded metal hooks, no larger than a bolt cartridge, hung, their purpose inscrutable. The short segment of tunnel dead-ended at a wall, with the marking of the Slann defaced and scoured, as if by a powerfully intense heat. He’Stan ran his armored hand over the burn, noting its remarkably clean cut. The Spear had done this, he was certain. This, then, had to have been one of the very first Artefacts to have been hidden, if others had been used in its placement.
He’Stan pressed against the door, trying to ascertain its resistance. He could just knock it down if he had to, of course, but if it was thick enough he would have to use his bolter, and he didn’t want to risk a cave-in. The door was split across the length, with very faint grooves on the sides that indicated that the two halves were supposed to rise into the ceiling and retract into the floor. The mechanism to open it had been gouged out with the Spear. In its place was a hole, with a few runes of the Nocturnean earth-shaman language carved in. Silently, He’Stan blessed his decision to heed Tu’Shan and Velcona’s advice regarding learning its script before departing on his quest for the Song of Entropy.
The runes were carved into the molten rock left behind by the Spear. He’Stan turned his helmet illuminators on and read them. “Carving, Mechanism, Overcome, Flood.” The Forgefather tapped his finger on the runes in thought. “Well, one way to find out.” He thrusted both hands into the gap left behind by the Spear, and forced the rock apart, placing all his strength behind them. With a muted rumble of rock grinding against rock, the door groaned open, parting before the venerable Salamander’s strength. The rock slid into the ground and ceiling and locked in place, as they caught on the latch Vulkan had left intact, ten thousand years prior.
He’Stan walked in, wringing his hands. There was a large, black block on a pedestal in the center of the room, with another set of Nocturnean runes carved on its top. He’Stan stared at them, translating them aloud. “Carving, Mechanism, Overcome, Flood. Again. What is the meaning of this…”
“Well, my brothers, I have to ask,” Leman Russ asked casually, “did you miss me?”
The sound of seven thousand Space Wolves roaring their approval met his question, as Russ pumped his fist over his head, grinning ear to ear. Grimnir and Deathwolf, along with the eight other Wolf Lords present, knelt at the bottom of the steps leading up to the gate of the Great Hall. “Welcome home, Lord Russ, Wolf Father,” Grimnir said loudly, before lowering his voice considerably. “Like what we’ve done with the place?”
“Not so much,” Russ said sotto voce, eliciting a few nervous glances from the other Wolf Lords. Russ raised his voice again. “Brothers, I do indeed look forward to greeting you all, but as it is I’ve been fighting and travelling for weeks, and am in need of quartering. Where shall I reside?”
A pair of serfs nearly jumped to their feet, stumbling over to where Russ was standing, kitbag on his shoulder. “Honored Wolf Father, this way, please, Lord Grimnir has set aside a guest suite until yours can be unsealed,” one said, nearly in tears of joy from the honor.
“Thank you, lad,” Russ said, before turning to Grimnir. “ ‘Unsealed?’”
“Well, you never did specify when the Wolftime would be,” Grimnir said awkwardly, “so we put a stasis projector in there to seal it off until you came back. It’s just sort of…complicated to disarm.”
“Right.” Russ struggled to find words, then gave up. He turned back to the waiting serfs. “Show the way then, lads.”
He’stan had it. The symbols on the cube and the symbols on the gate had been the same words, and in the same order, but the cube had been facing away from the gate when he crossed it. With careful deliberation, he rotated the cube to face the open gate, aligning the metal block precisely. He placed his hands on either side of the block and waited.
Very gradually, the block peeled open, seams appearing the featureless metal. The side fell off, pulling the lid down, as the alien material sloughed away. Inside was a mess of interlocked metal tubes, armor plates, and a bewildering array of sheathed hoses and electronics. He’Stan looked at the mass of equipment in bewilderment. The box that had contained the Song of Entropy had looked nothing like that.
Suddenly, the entire room sank. He’Stan adjusted for balance, his hands clutching the adamantine wargear as it shook. He looked up at the gate in alarm: the room had sunk nearly a foot, with the threshold of the gate now jutting into the air. He’Stan didn’t wait for the other metaphorical foot.
The Forgefather scooped up the Unbound Flame and sprinted for the exit, easily hurdling the gate. The floor seemed stable for now, but that wouldn’t last. Nobody rigged devices to destroy their own crypts unless they were meant to be used only once. He’Stan charged down the short, smooth tunnel, slamming his ceremite boots into the blank, fifteen-foot wall at the end, with all the force he could muster. The impact carved a crater in the wall that he sank his foot into, nearly two feet off the ground. He rammed his hand into the crumbling stone, punching another foothold, levering himself up, distantly wondering how in the world Vulkan had done it.
Suddenly, the stone block shook violently. Forewarned, He’Stan dislodged himself from the wall, throwing himself backwards as the entire room rose, sliding back into place. Feeling distantly foolish, He’Stan took the opportunity, running back to the T-junction.
As he passed the rough, jutting blocks of stone, however, a problem arose. The blocks began shooting forward from the walls as if propelled, slamming into the opposite walls and each other like bullets. Jets of seawater propelled them forward, flooding the entire corridor in moments. He’Stan tumbled to his feet, the water buffeting him around like flotsam.
As abruptly as it started, the water jets ceased. Cunning mechanisms behind the loose stone walls revealed themselves, the complexity and sinister nature of their device betrayed by their appearance. This was no mere crypt.
The torrent of water poured down the halls, filling each chamber they passed until they reached the ends. The mechanisms weren’t done, however. A second set of nozzles, concealed by the first, suddenly started spraying their own payload, coating the surface of the knee-deep water with slick, oily promethium. With an inaudible click, a hidden spark ignited the promethium, sending a wall of flame down the hallway, engulfing He’Stan completely.
He was not greatly concerned. Salamanders master fire as a nature of their being. No oil fire was going to stop him. He waded through the burning oil, feeling the heat on his armor and ignoring it completely. The Unbound Flame, whatever it was, he held over his head, protecting it from the fires.
At the end of the T-junction, he spotted the spinning rock rods, still turning above the flames. Only now, they were turning faster, spinning around on their conveyors behind the walls like the treads on a tire. He’stan charged through them as fast as he could. The thin stone rods splintered on his armor, but he wrapped his arms around his precious cargo and bulled on through, shattering them.
He’Stan cannoned down the last stretch of hallway, noting that the water and fire were only still present because another stone block had risen up at the end of the hall, cutting off the water’s flow. Rising several feet up from the ground, the burning water licked at the sides of the sandstone block, caking it black.
He’Stan vaulted the stone block, slowing his pace as he escaped the flames. The last, flickering bits of oil on his armor burned themselves out as he walked back through the cave, already paging the Swift. “Swift, He’Stan, package retrieved, pickup, acquire.”
“He’Stan, Swift, negative on pickup, contacts blue, assume hostile, close on you,” Wilcox said urgently. He’Stan’s head snapped up, noting with urgency that no fewer than fifteen contacts had appeared at the edge of his helm’s expanded sensor suite. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and snapped into the radio.
“Swift, override restrict, lift, lift, lift.”
“Lift.” As soon as the word left his lips, the world ended. All around him, unthinkable horrors swirled and laughed and screamed, pain like nothing he had ever felt ripped through him. After a heartbeat, it ended, and the familiar interior of the Swift’s hangar greeted him. He’Stan fell to his knees, cradling his prize in his hands, as the ship’s teleportorium powered down.
“Brother!” Ir’Shal said in surprise, having walked past him on the way back to the engine room. “What are you doing here?”
“Celebrating a triumph, brother,” He’Stan said weakly. “An Artefact is ours.”
“Would you care to tell me why a piece of my coastline just burst into flames and collapsed, Marine?” Fap demanded, having listened to the scout team’s reports over his helmet feed.
“No. What I will say, however, is that I have quite enough of you. I am leaving.” Vulkan took a few steps back from where Fap was still standing, and tilted his head back to look at the blank, green sky.
“You are going NOWHERE,” Fap said, his courage increasing proportionally with his distance from the enormous Terminator. “Far to the contrary.” Vulkan looked back down and spread his arms wide. “Know this, Tau: this was the last chance any of you will ever have received for the Emperor’s service,” he said, his voice amplified to fill the entire landing pad, where the various diplomats had been standing, some in pain from having held still for so long. Without another word, he pointed the Gauntlet at the ground and triggered it, bathing his feet in white-hot fire.
Fap leaped forward, jumping over the fire and wrapping his gargantuan arm around Vulkan’s waist, just as the teleport homer in Vulkan’s suit triggered, and Vulkan was sucked back up to the ship.
A few meters away, Ir’Shal and He’Stan reacted instantly, raising their bolt pistols and leveling them at their erstwhile guest. Vulkan shook Fap off of him, staring down at the trembling alien in amusement. “It’s not often my enemies take themselves prisoner to save me the trouble.” He glanced up at Ir’Shal with a cruel smirk behind his gold helmet. “I brought you a present.”
“It was just sitting in the cube, Lord,” He’Stan said, sitting at the table in his quarters with Vulkan, staring at the Unbound Flame. The assemblage of tubes and plugs had been meticulously cleaned by the two men once both had shed their armor.
“I left it there. I trust the Slann traps didn’t give you too much trouble?” Vulkan asked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“Piece of cake. What got me were the Tau scouts. How did they react to us so quickly?”
“They must have better orbital sensors than we thought,” Vulkan said. “They must have detected the Uninspired after all.”
He’Stan nodded in silence. “And how do you propose that we deal with our new captive? It could take centuries to travel back to Imperial space in the absence of the Navigator. Tau do not live that long.” He’Stan’s casual question belied his host of questions about the other problems that being out of contact with Terra for so long would create, not the least of which was the death of every non-Astartes on board. “It will not take that long,” Vulkan said with confidence. “Recall that I have visited this system before. I can tell the helmsman what course to set even in the absence of the Navigator. His presence is not needed to maintain the Gellar field.”
Their conversation was cut short by the arrival of Lieutenant Commander Wilcox, who knocked on the door of He’Stan’s quarters. “Sirs, if I may?” he asked.
“Speak,” Vulkan said beckoning Wilcox forward.
“The Tau frigate is on our tail, sir, chasing after us as fast as it can. Without FTL, we will be unable to evade them forever…however, sir, Lord Ir’Shal had an idea.” Wilcox made the gesture of the Aquilla and sat in the chair Vulkan indicated. “The Warp Drive is reparable, sir, and he is almost finished with it, as you know, but he thinks we may be able to use it to escape the Tau.”
“How?” Vulkan asked.
“Sir, he says that if we shut down everything but life support, sensors, and the sublight drives, and divert the power of the deactivated systems to the active cooling systems for the main sublight engine, we may be able to accelerate past our normal maximum speed by as much as 18%. That would put our velocity as significantly higher than the Tau ship, sir, faster than even a Falchion radier.”
Vulkan nodded. “Then why have we not done so?”
Wilcox nodded respectfully. “Because both you and Lord Tu’Shan would have to approve, as well as me. He has my authorization, of course, my Lord, but…well, there is also the matter that decelerating once we escape the star’s pull to the speed we need to enter the Warp and escape would also take longer. The Tau may catch us on our way out.”
“Then maneuver down from the plane of the solar ecliptic,” Vulkan said, thinking it over. “We will escape the combined gravitational pull of the system’s gas giants and star faster that way. The Tau will be closer to us when we escape, but we can Warp out faster.”
“As you will, my Lord Vulkan,” Wilcox said. “I will pass along your approval and suggestion. As for the prisoner…he is demanding to be released to the Tau pursuing us.”
“Of course he is, but he is the only thing keeping them from firing on us,” Vulkan said dismissively. “Feed him and ignore everything he says.” “Aye, sir. Ah…sir,” Wilcox said carefully. “The Tau doesn’t seem to know your name?”
“Indeed, I never told him,” Vulkan said. “He didn’t seem interested,” he added with a smirk.
“Very well.” Wilcox stood. “Then I shall leave you, my Lord, unless you have a message for Lord Tu’Shan?”
“Thank him for accepting a side-lined position during this mess,” Vulkan said.
“Yes, my Lord,” Wilcox said, genuflecting and closing the door.
He’Stan had never stopped staring at the Unbound Flame. “Brother…you said this was some kind of upgrade kit?”
“Yes, brother, it is. The plugs here, here, and here,” he said, gesturing at the kit, “fit into the power generator of a Terminator Suit. The brace here folds around the wrist mount for the Song of Entropy, while this fits around the Gauntlet…here.” Vulkan slowly unfolded the mess of adamantine equipment, slotting components together. “Finally, the piping here actually…replaces the secondary fuel line for the Gauntlet.” “So…when assembled, what does it do?” He’Stan asked, staring at the contraption.
“When attached to a Terminator armor suit with all the other Artefacts installed, it dramatically enhances the heat output of all thermal weapons, and doubles the range of the Song of Entropy.” Vulkan said back, looking at his handiwork. “You know, if you recovered the Artefacts in order, this would have been the last.” He looked up at He’Stan and smiled. “Glad we could save the time.”
LIIVI sat in the chair outside the suite the Eldar delegation were using. He hadn’t bothered bringing any sort of weapons with him to Terra; he had known the Custodes would have just taken them anyway. He had chosen to wear an Imperial formal uniform in the meeting, before, but now he was in his old Assassinorum uniform, complete with death’s head mask. He was expected, by his old master, no less, and it wouldn’t do to look unprepared.
Without a sound, he stood, facing down the corridor. His master was coming. He could FEEL it. The man’s aura preceded him, more literally than LIIVI had realized when they had first met. He had known that the man was a horrifyingly dangerous killer, to be sure, but he was also a psyker, something he had only found out from Isha.
The Grand master of Assassins glided down the corridor, resplendent in his black-and-red robe. He halted a few meters from LIIVI, staring him in the eye. “Vindicare. Your return was unanticipated. Why are you here?”
“To complete my mission, Master,” LIIVI said. The Master cocked his head, with an air of strained politeness.
“Your mission, LIIVI, was to kill Farseer Taldeer of Ulthwé. Yet here you are, fathering her child. Why is that?”
“Do not misunderstand me, Master,” LIIVI replied. “My mission is to protect her. That is all I have had, since I saw her eyes through the scope.”
“You are flawed, LIIVI. Damaged. You can be repaired.”
“I am more deeply flawed than a man, and less so than the machines you build,” LIIVI said. “I am content with that. Now…let us discuss this no further.”
“Have you somewhere more pressing to be, LIIVI?” the Master said placidly.
“Yes.” LIIVI opened the door to his suite. “Lofn needs to get tucked in.” He closed the door to the suite behind him, leaving the master in silence.
“SO I TURN TO THE GUY AND SAY ‘NO, HE ALWAYS HAD NO ARMS.’ I THINK I SCARED HIM A BIT TOO MUCH, THOUGH, I HADN’T REALLY LOOKED IN A MIRROR SINCE, WELL, YOU KNOW,” the Emperor roared.
“I can’t imagine the poor Sergeant was content with that,” the Lord Commander Militant said, slowly flipping his stylus between his fingers as he read the report on the table before him.
“WELL, CREED LOCKED HIM UP TO MAKE SURE HE WASN’T TAINTED WITH THE WARP – SMART MAN, FOLLOWS PROTOCOL – BUT I PUT IN A WORD FOR HIM AND LUSTIG’S BACK ON DUTY,” the Emperor said.
“Good.” The Lord Commander finished the report and sat back in his chair, trying not to visibly avoid eye contact with the Emperor’s monstrous new form. “Well, the report states that the last of the Chaos Titans on Cadia have been evacuated by the Dark Mechanicus fleets, and are heading back to the Eye.”
“YEAH, I’VE TOLD CLENDEN AND QUARREN TO CHASE THE TRANSPORTS AND SHOOT THEM DOWN, IGNORING THE WARSHIPS IF NEED BE. TITANS ARE A GOOD BIT HARDER TO REPLACE THAN SIMPLE DRONES AND CONVERTS.”
“A rational decision, my Lord God,” the Lord Commander said. He stood and saluted smartly. “If I may, sir, I must compose a response.” “BY YOUR LEAVE, LORD COMMANDER, AND SEND CLENDEN, QUARREN, AND CREED MY PERSONAL THANKS AND CONGRATULATIONS. THAT’S ANOTHER BOTCHED CRUSADE BY ABBADON OUT OF OUR COLLECTIVE HAIR.”
“Of course. Your Liegeship,” the Commander said, bowing low and leaving the room. He nodded at the Grand Master of Assassins on his way out. “Sir.”
“Sir.” The Grand Master waited until the Eternity Gate slid shut before facing the Emperor and taking the Lord Commander’s seat.
“GRAND MASTER, WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?” The Emperor roared.
“Replace the Eldar delegates immediately,” the Grand Master said promptly. “The little one in particular.”
“OH? ALREADY? AFTER LESS THAN TWO DAYS OF TALKS?”
“The little one is an abomination,” the Master said.
“YOU MEAN THE HALF-AND-HALF. YEAH. THAT GETS ON MY NERVES A BIT TOO.”
“It is not her heritage that fills me with revulsion, my Liege,” the Master said disgustedly. “It is her power.”
“YOU THINK SHE’S A LATENT, LIKE HER MOTHER?” the Emperor asked.
“She is. Her power is…astounding. A Primaris could fall to her might, if it manifested fully. But it is not her psychic potential that troubles me, but her mutation.”
“MUTATION? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”
“During the conference, she spoke up in the middle of an argument. She said something to me and to the Chancellor of the Estate. Do you recall?”
“The moment she spoke, I sensed something emerge from her. A psychic tendril, not consciously controlled. The moment it touched the Chancellor, his mind weakened. His attitude changed, I could feel his psychic imprint tune to hers.”
“MIND CONTROL? FROM A CHILD?”
“Not control. Influence. She overrode his hostility.”
“TROUBLING. ARE YOU SURE?”
“I am no Astropath, my Liege, I do not see the Warp as a fold of cloth, but I do have strength enough to see influence. I am trained in it myself, you recall.”
“YEAH. ALL RIGHT. I’LL SPEAK TO ISHA. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON HER?”
“Isha?” The Master thought for a moment. “She is…unnerving. I have never felt her psychic imprint before.”
“YOU’VE NEVER SPOKEN TO A WARP GODDESS BEFORE,” the Emperor said drily. “SHE SURE DOESN’T LOOK LIKE OTHER ELDAR IN HER SOUL’S RECESSES, DOES SHE?”
“She didn’t seem to have a soul, in the conventional sense,” the Master said, feeling an unfamiliar chill run through him. “She…was a soul. One gigantic, shallow, ageless soul.”
“LIKE I SAID, WARP GODDESS. SHE IS THE ASPECT OF THE ELDAR PSYCHE THAT DEALS WITH REBIRTH. REMEMBER, BEFORE THE FALL, ELDAR WERE REINCARNATED UPON DEATH; HER ASPECT AS A GODDESS OF REBIRTH REFLECTS THAT. I’LL SPEAK TO HER AS SOON AS WE RECONVENE. UNTIL THEN, DISMISSED.”
“Very well, my Liege,” the Master said, collecting himself and standing. “Oh…I should mention that I spoke to Vindicare LIIVI.”
“Utterly without regret or internal conflict. He’s as focused now as he was before.”
“Yes. Only now, protecting her.”
“I MET THE MAN ON ULTHWÉ AND HE CALLED ME OUT. THERE’S NOT MANY EVENTS IN MY LIFE I WOULD DESCRIBE AS ‘HUMBLING,’ BUT…” the Emperor trailed off. “I SHALL SPEAK TO HIM TOMORROW AS WELL. AND THIS CHILD…LOFN. IF HER MOTHER BROUGHT HER ALONG TO ACT AS A PASSIVE MIND CONTROL DEVICE, I WANT TO SEE IT FIRSTHAND.”
“As you wish, my Liege.” The Master bowed low and left the room, leaving the Emperor to his thoughts.
After a good night’s sleep, Leman Russ felt like a new man. The Wolf Father had taken the opportunity to go for a stroll on the roof of the Fang, where the laser cupola arrays stood vigilant for the enemies of the Space Wolves, the Inquisition, or both. Russ had found a few empty food wrappers and even some contraband porno slates in the drifts when he arrived; clearly this was someone else’s favorite hangout too.
He stood on the edge of the Fang, watching the snow drift from the roof down the edge of the mountain, and reveled in the freezing wind on his bare face. He was home. After too many thousands of years, endlessly fighting his evil, sorcerous brothers Lorgar and Magnus, he was home.
The tears in his eyes were not from the wind chill.
A sudden scuffling noise behind him alerted him to the presence of others. Russ quickly stepped behind a narrow chimney and listened. “Russ! Russ himself! Can you believe it?” one surprisingly young voice asked.
“I know! I half-expected old man Throlga to pitch a bitch when he saw him,” another said excitedly.
“Of course, half the Rune Priests are convinced this means the Wolf Time is here, and the end has come,” one said, much closer.
“Oh, don’t be a stick, they’re never right,” the first said derisively.
“They successfully predicted which of us would survive the Cup of the Wulfen, brother,” the second said.
“You should listen to the Rune Priests, my sons,” Russ said, stepping around the chimney and leaning on it casually. Three Blood Claws stood stupefied, watching agape. “They’re even better at eavesdropping than I am.”
The Claws recovered quickly. “My Lord Russ, our apologies. We did not mean to intrude,” the first said, kneeling. The others followed suit, dropping in reverence.
Russ turned his back on them and stared out at the glacier field. “Lads, the view up here stretches for a very great distance. Do you come up here to look at it, in awe and wonder…to scout out potential enemies…or to find solitude?”
“Uh...” none of the men answered, and Russ closed his eyes in frustration.
“Do not think of the answer I want, give me the answer you have.”
“My Lord…for solitude. It is peaceful up here,” the second said.
“Indeed. See those basalt pillars over there?” Russ asked, pointing at a very distant spike of grey rock on the far-off plateaus of the mountain range.
The Claws hesitantly stood and walked over to Russ, staring out at where he was pointing. “I do, my Lord.”
“Good. Look upon it now, and listen.” Russ crossed his arms. “Ten thousand years ago, a palace stood there. It was a grand thing, by the standards of our forefathers. Four levels, a well, two fields under a shelter to keep out the ice storms, a fence of metal – metal! – for the wolf pens. I was a king. A god. I ruled this world, or at least all I could reach on foot.” He turned and skewered the young men with a cold glare. “And I was brought low. My father came to me dressed as a merchant, and challenged me.”
“He challenged me to a battle of feasting and drinking. Naturally, I won without effort. I was quite proud of myself.” Russ cracked a thin smile at the memory. The Blood Claws looked at each other askance. “I was so boastful, so full of arrogance. My father, the Emperor, then called me a glutton and a drunk. He called me shallow and vainglorious. I called him a bitch.”
“You called the All Father a bitch?” one of the Claws asked, completely astounded.
“Yep, sure did. So, he put on a metal glove and smacked me so hard my ears rang. Well, that was THAT. I dragged his ass out to the proving ring and we beat the shit out of each other for…oh, twelve hours or so? Finally, he got me with a cheap shot. Ran a charge through that glove of his and put me in a coma. When I woke up, he had shed his disguise. He was standing there, radiating his true power. He had held back the whole time, letting me wear myself out.” Russ grimaced. “So, when I woke up, I decided that this guy probably had his shit together better than I did, and swore fealty to him.”
“If I may, sir, why did that change your mind?” one of the Claws asked, completely confused.
Russ stared at him for a long moment, before smiling faintly. “Why did I decide to follow the Emperor? Isn’t it obvious? The man held back and let me win a few challenges, let me think I had a chance of beating him fair and square. That’s why the Rune Priests let Initiates and Short Fangs die in the initiation. It’s one thing to mold a man into a killer, to make him a soldier. It’s quite another to make a soldier into a Space Marine.” He took a step forward and stared at the Blood Claws, levity gone from him completely. “There’s no room for doubt, weakness, or hesitation in my pack, Blood Claws. The Emperor beat the pride out of me. The Rune Priests let Initiates die because it shows you your own, inevitable fate, should you let pride replace common sense.”
“So what sin of pride did you commit, my Lord Father? All you did was challenge someone prideful enough to challenge you first,” one of the Claws observed. Russ nodded.
“I did. His challenge to me was grounded in the certainty that I was who he knew me to be: his son. He knew what I had in me, what I could do. I thought his challenges amusing, not something I should take seriously. I think, in hindsight, that if I had thrown everything I had at him from the get-go, challenged him to battle right away, instead of fucking around with food and drink, he would have taken it easy on me. Tell me, how many Initiates and Short Fangs died in your batch because they let their newfound strength cloud their judgment?” “Four,” one said.
Russ nodded slowly. “You lost four brothers. I lost twelve brothers, and a kingdom. Reflect on that.”
Vulkan tapped a fist on the hololith display to conceal his anger. He wanted to punch clean through it.
Apparently, Wilcox had been wrong about the top speed of the Tau frigate. The damn thing had been riding their ass since they left the moon, and had been gaining on them even with Vulkan’s and Ir’Shal’s modifications. Ir’Shal and He’Stan were desperately readying the ship for battle, but it wasn’t enough. The frigate and raiders trailing it would be upon them in under an hour. They needed two to escape.
Vulkan had spent his time outfitting his Terminator with the Unbound Flame. The suit was now as powerful as human science could make it, barring a few Grey Knight trinkets.
Lieutenant Commander Wilcox stood and saluted when Vulkan entered the bridge, but Vulkan hadn’t noticed. He had made straight for the holo display, staring at the Tau blip as it caught up with the Swift, which was infuriatingly incapable of living up to its name.
Worst of all, Ir’Shal had informed him mere minutes before that the Warp engine was operational and ready for deployment.
Wilcox walked over to where the Primarch stood and stared into the hololith as well. “Lord Vulkan, if I may?”
“Speak,” Vulkan said.
“We could give the frigate one hell of a pounding if we had to, sir. They won’t take us without a fight, if it comes to it.”
“They’re not looking to destroy us, Commander, they’re looking to board us,” Vulkan said angrily. “We were within range of their prow guns when we were leaving orbit. They didn’t fire because the alien was aboard. They’re trying to retake him.”
“And since the first thing they’ll be able to hit is the engines…”
“They may as well capture the rest of us when they get a chance, yes,” Vulkan growled.
“Well…sir, we may not have to destroy them to elude them,” Wilcox said.
Vulkan peered down at the Naval officer, his curiosity piqued. “What do you mean?”
“We do have a teleportorium aboard. We could teleport a warhead aboard their ship if we get their shields down,” Wilcox said.
“Or something even more destructive,” Vulkan said, as Wilcox’s statement kicked off a new idea.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Ir’Shal said, staring at Vulkan as he re-donned his armor.
“You’re frakking crazy.”
“Sir, we have NO IDEA what the layout of the enemy ship is. For all we know, we could teleport you into a solid wall.”
“Also true, but consider,” Vulkan said, as a pair of armor servitor clipped the vambraces of his armor into place. “They have to have a hangar somewhere. And we know my teleport homer works from the surface of a planet to orbit. So there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t work here.”
“And yet, sir, you will be alone. It nearly damned He’Stan to teleport outside of Terminator armor, and it was one-way. Teleporting you three times in one day-”
“After ten thousand years in the Warp, brother, nothing in a careful teleportation worries me,” Vulkan snapped. “Now return to the bridge and remove the safeties of all torpedo weapons. When I give the signal, bring their shields down and make for the Oort cloud. When you reach the point where you can jump out, teleport me to safety and jump.”
Ir’Shal stared at Vulkan, struggling to find words. None came. “Aye, sir. May the Emperor’s grace be with you.”
“I’d settle for his raw firepower,” Vulkan muttered.
“Shas’Vre, the Imperial destroyer is very rapidly decelerating; their torpedo volleys have drained our forward shields to minimum,” one of the bridge officers called out. The ship’s commander leaned forward in her seat and squeezed the armrests.
“All batteries, fire for effect on my mark, target the Warp drive. We will recover Shas’O Fap.”
“Acknowledged, Shas’Vre,” the Gunnery Officer said, starting in on the targeting computer. The ship’s Shas’Vre smirked.
“I don’t know what Fap was thinking when he followed you, Imperial, but we’ll get him back.”
“Really?” a horrifyingly deep voice asked. The Shas’Vre started and tried to rise, but-
A lancing pain in his chest halted his rise. The Shas’Vre looked down in stupefied astonishment to see a blood-drenched spike erupt from his torso. He looked at it dumbly before it glowed an acrid blue, and then there was agony, darkness, what-
The Gunnery Officer scrambled for his sidearm, leveled it at the intruder, but the leviathan raised one empty hand, his fingers twitched, the world was burning-
A pair of security officers at the back of the bridge leveled their pulse carbines and fired, but they may as well have been spitting at the giant, because their shots vanished in his scaled cloak; he withdrew the spike from the back of the Shas’Vre’s chair and pointed it at the two men, and there was screaming, the sound of a million daemons, metal shearing, and the end of the world-
“Counter-boarders to the bridge! Counter-boarders to the bridge!” the comms operator screamed, vaulting his console for cover, but the monster wasn’t done; it leveled its arms and blue flame leaped forth-
Vulkan lowered his arms and surveyed his devastated surroundings. Flames were eating away merrily at bodies and computers around the bridge, and the chair in front of him was a carbonized wreck. The sound of bridge activity had died away to nothing. He nodded. A good day’s work, unfinished.
“Swift, this is Drake. The bridge is secured. Cease fire, all batteries, and divert all power to engines, teleporter capacitors, and shields. I will be along presently.”
“Drake, Swift here, acknowledged. Well done, my Lord. According to our sensors, there is a large contingent of Fire Warriors, including a Crisis unit, approaching your position in a cargo lift on your deck. You’ll have to move quickly to evade them.”
“And if I wanted to greet them?” Vulkan asked, walking off the bridge.
“You would continue down this corridor as far as you could, until you encountered two large, pressed-steel doors set into the bulkhead with a control panel next to them, and wait about eighteen seconds, my Lord.”
Vulkan sprinted down the corridor, as best he could in Terminator armor, the Mantle billowing behind him. “On it. It will feel good to kill something that doesn’t respawn.” He skidded to a halt at the end of the corridor and primed the Song of Entropy.
“Twelve seconds…four seconds…” the Swift’s comm officer read aloud.
The door sprang open, and a group of Fire Warriors within started to fan out, before realizing that the threat was right there in front of them. Vulkan was more prepared, engaging the Song. Instantly, the nearest few Fire Warriors flew apart at the seams, casting the inside of the lifts blue with their cobalt blood.
A Crisis suit shouldered its way past the carnage and opened up with its pulse gatling, but it was too close in for anything but a spray of fire, no room for precision, and Vulkan sidestepped its clumsy attack to drive the Ballista into his neck.
The last few Fire Warriors had more sense, diving out of the lift and to the ground, firing from the floor. Vulkan incinerated one with the Gauntlet, before unclasping the Spear and turning to the other, sweeping it through the unfortunate alien.
“Lord Vulkan, all contacts in the lift neutralized. Are you injured?” the Swift comms officer asked.
“My armor is singed at the left knee joint, but operational,” Vulkan said, checking his HUD. “The Unbound Flame is undamaged and functioning properly.”
“The lift you are facing can reach the deck with the shield generators, we believe, but they will have locked it down,” the officer reported, no doubt glancing at an intelligence report on the Tau starships.
“Not a problem,” Vulkan said, lifting the severed arm of the Fire tem leader and pressing it against the panel in the lift. The doors slid shut and the lift cage began its descent. “I have a volunteer here.”
“…Aye, sir. The lowest level is your destination.”
“Acknowledged, I’m on my way.”
“May I make a recommendation, sir?
“Affirmative,” Vulkan said, eyeing the hologram of the elevator shaft to observe his progress.
“Stop one deck early and blow your way down, through the deck plating. I can tell you approximately where the security teams are massing, and if you use explosives to blast through the deck above them, you’ll kill most without a fight.”
“Wise advice. I’m getting out in four decks. I will have to improvise on the weapons.” Vulkan hit the button for the deck above his destination. “Any crew on this deck?”
“Many. Mostly Air Caste engineers and crew, by precedent.”
The doors slid open silently, and their single startled guard was quickly dispatched. A few startled crewers in the distance saw the commotion and ran for cover, though a few brave souls drew service sidearms and fired on Vulkan as he advanced. Vulkan triggered the flamer, sending gouts of flame down the corridors at his attackers, and most scampered back into cover. Vulkan’s HUD suddenly lit up with a data burst from the Swift, highlighting optimal placement of the breeching charge, if he could find one.
Vulkan glanced around the corridor, noting it to be mostly crew quarters and a few equipment lockers, though one door looked promising, marked as it was with a pictorial fire. Vulkan walked over to the door and pried it open, smiling at the bounty beyond: a rack of compressed oxygen tanks and a welding frame.
Vulkan wasted no time, conscious that the entire crew of the ship was probably on their way to reinforce the defenders around the vital systems. He grabbed the welding frame and two oxygen tanks and dropped them on the decking above the Tau ambush, then unceremoniously stabbed the decking with the Spear, carving a hole around them. They dropped down amongst the Tau warriors below, scattering with a horrendous crash. Vulkan aimed down the hole and hosed down the pile of welding kit with the Gauntlet, igniting the welding propellant. The explosion cast a wall of oxygenated flames over the densely packed group of defenders, killing most in seconds. Vulkan followed the trail of fire down, landing heavily on the scorched deck plating, and casting about with the Spear.
A pair of Fire Warriors setting up a portable barricade at the entrance to the shield generator room dropped their burden and opened fire, scattering pulse rifle shots over Vulkan’s armor. Vulkan took one round across the helmet and snarled, his attention dragged away. A quick assessment of the threat revealed that they were too far away for even the enhanced Gauntlet to reach, so he dipped his hand into a pocket and yanked out a frag grenade, primed it, and tossed. The two Fire Warriors ducked back behind a lowering bulkhead into the shield generator room, and the grenade detonated harmlessly against the metal sheet. Vulkan polished off the last standing Fire Warrior at his feet and charged at the metal wall, slamming into it like an autocannon round. The blast wall buckled and bent at the site of impact. Vulkan snarled and drew back, slicing through the metal with the Spear, carving a line across it above his head. He drew another line just in from the walls, weakening the metal again, then reared back and slammed in again, barreling through.
The shield technicians and the Fire Warrior guards stared at the monster that had just demolished their last defense in shock, then reacted, opening fire on Vulkan from all around the room. Some clung to catwalks in the multideck room, firing down from above, while the closer ones scrambled for cover and others yet ran for the exit, trying to make it past Vulkan on his way in.
Vulkan, however, wasn’t interested in merely trading fire with the crew. Instantly his eyes were drawn to the generator itself, a blue, disturbingly organic-looking machine in the center of the room, with a single, massive power conduit running into it from the ceiling. The machine was surrounded by a serpent’s nest of smaller cables. Vulkan didn’t take the time to be deliberate, merely charging through the center of the room, hosing down anyone who got close enough with the Gauntlet, keeping a wary eye on the fuel counter.
A sharp shriek of ion jets suddenly split the noise of battle. Vulkan looked up to see a pair of large Crisis Suits drop from the ceiling, landing between him and his objective. One sported a pair of pulse gatlings, but the other was different: it had a brace of huge rail cannons on its back, and was clamping its feet onto the ground for stability as soon as it landed.
Cannons that size could threaten even a Terminator. Vulkan changed course, running behind the nearest console, then slamming his hands down on its sides to halt his momentum and leaping over it, just as the larger Suit discharged its cannons into the terminal, blasting it apart. Vulkan tossed a krak grenade from his belt over to where the Crisis Suits stood, and the one with the gatling pulsed his jets, lifting several meters off the ground and backwards, nearer to the generator.
The other did not manage to disengage his foot locks in place and exploded, casting bits of himself and his machine over the room. The gatling one suddenly flared his jets again and launched forward, landing atop one of the catwalks overhead, raining fire down on Vulkan.
But now Vulkan’s path was clear.
The Salamander Primarch dropped the spear and leaped, his power-armor enhanced muscles propelling him almost a meter upwards, and he triggered the Song of Entropy. The wave of sonic destruction rippled forth, washing over the metal of the catwalk and rending it. The Crisis suit tumbled off, the pilot desperately firing off the jets, but too late. Vulkan landed heavily and extended the Thunder Ballista, impaling the Crisis Suit neatly in the middle. The pilot’s scream of horror and agony ended suddenly as Vulkan discharged the Ballista, lighting the suit on fire and electrifying it. With a heave, Vulkan tossed it into the huge generator and triggered both of his ranged weapons, howing down the massive generator with sound and flame.
Gouts of electric sparks erupted from the power conduit as a blast from the Song shredded it, and the generator shuddered, shutting down under the relentless attack. Vulkan didn’t hesitate a moment longer, reopening his comm. “Swift, Drake here, lift lift lift!” The world outside his armor bent and twisted, as Vulkan crossed the tiny distance to the destroyer in the Warp, and landed on the deck of the hangar, where Tu’Shan was waiting expectantly.
“My Lord?” he asked, eyeing the battle damage to the suit.
“Mission accomplished,” Vulkan said shortly. “Swift, jump us out of here!”
“And the prisoner?” Wilcox asked, as the sound of the Warp drive filtered through the ship, and reality took a break outside the Gellar Field.
Vulkan looked down at the hole the Crisis Suit had punched clean through his armor when firing from the catwalk, and at the clotting blood it had drawn. “He can walk home.”
“Affirmative,” Wilcox said grimly.
Fap sat against the wall of his cell, fuming. They had jumped. His ships had failed to rescue him, and now he would be a ‘guest’ of these savage apes’ Inquisition? He resolved to die before he let that happen.
At that moment, the guard outside his cell stirred, listening to the feed in his helmet. He nodded and murmured something into his vox, then chuckled. He turned to face the Tau prisoner. “All right, ‘sir,’ you can go.” Fap blinked.
“Yes, we’re done in this system. You’re free to leave,” the guard said, opening the cell door.
“Well, that was unexpected,” Fap said, bemused. “Perhaps you Imperials understand something of compassion after all.”
“Really?” the guard asked lightly, suddenly lashing out with the butt of his rifle. The stock slammed into Fap’s jaw, knocking him cold.
Fap stirred against the cold metal of the room, his mind reeling. The Imperial trash had DARED to hit him? He would show them…where was he?
Fap slowly stood, taking in his surroundings. He was enclosed between two massive metal doors, with warning symbols scrawled on them in the human tongue. He looked at them, bewildered. “Where the hell am I?” he asked under his breath.
Actually, that was more or less an accurate appraisal. With no warning at all, one of the doors suddenly lifted into the ceiling, and the air rushed out of the room, sucking Fap with it. Fap flailed, losing his footing, sucked out of the ship…into the Warp. For an instant, the ship flickered by, then he was out of the Gellar field, in the raw stuff of the Warp itself. Something huge and sinuous slithered around him, grasping him by the waist, and Fap screamed. A voice, more terrible and arousing than any he had ever felt , whispered in his ears. “Ooooh…look at that arm. My goodness, I can put that to use…”
“GET AWAY FROM ME, DAEMON!” Fap squealed, struggling against the thing’s sensuous touch.
“Are you sure you want that?” it asked, giggling coquettishly.
“Well…no, actually…” Fap’s voice trailed off, as an impossible pleasure floated through him.
“Good…we’re going to have so very much fun together…” the creature giggled, staring into Fap’s eyes…and suddenly there was nothing left of Shas’O Kes’Y Fap’Tau.
“So, may I ask you something, Emperor?” Isha said, sitting in her usual place at the conference table. Most of the High Lords were absent today, preparing for something or other elsewhere, something to do with moving supplies for the reconstruction of the lost hives.
“SURE, WHAT IS IT?” the Emperor roared.
“Whose idea was it to forge this treaty?” Isha asked, glancing over the other people at the table.
“Because none of your Senators think it’s a good idea except the ones who stand to profit from it personally,” she said, glaring coolly at the Inquisitor and Commodore Rhodes specifically.
“WATCH YOUR TONE, PLEASE, ISHA, WE’RE TRYING TO LAY A GROUNDWORK OF RESPECT HERE,” the Emperor roared reprovingly.
“Respect?” Isha stared at the Throne icon incredulously. “Very well. Then, in that spirit, I think we should move on to a topic that so far, we’ve all been assiduously avoiding.”
Taldeer nodded grimly. “The Exodites.”
“OKAY. WHAT I’M PREPARED TO OFFER IS THAT ANY AND ALL INQUISITORIAL AND MECHANICUS TEAMS WORKING TO COLONIZE OR EVICT MAIDEN AND EXODITE WORLDS WILL ABANDON THE PROJECTS, AS LONG AS THEY ARE GIVEN TIME TO WITHDRAW CLEANLY, WITHOUT SACRIFICING MEN OR EQUIPMENT…BUT THAT IS RECIPROCAL. NO MORE CRAFTWORLD COLONY FLEETS SHOWING UP TO DEMAND HUMANS ABANDON THE ONLY WORLDS THEY HAVE EVER KNOWN, NO MORE CORSAIR RAIDS ON UNDEFENDED COLONY SHIPS, NOTHING.”
“I suppose a cessation of conflict over colony rights would benefit us both,” Taldeer said, “but that would require that we give you the coordinates over every single Maiden world and Exodite world. Can you understand my recalcitrance in that regard?”
“OF COURSE I CAN. I ALSO UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE EXODITES WHO ARE ACTIVELY OPPOSED TO CRAFTWORLD ELDAR. I WOULDN’T HOLD YOU RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.”
Isha nodded slowly, casting a glance at Taldeer, who had steepled her fingers and was clearly lost in thought. “Then perhaps we could adjourn, while Farseer Taldeer discusses this with the rest of the Farseers who have convened on Ulthwé?”
“SURE, LET’S TAKE AN HOUR. OH, AND ISHA, IF WE COULD SPEAK FOR A MOMENT?”
“Very well,” Isha said, as the other delegates filed out. As soon as the door closed, the hologram of the Throne icon switched off, and the Emperor spoke directly into her mind.
“ISHA, WHY IS LOFN HERE?”
“Good question,” she thought back. “I suspect that her mother wants her here for her power to play its role.”
“SO SHE KNOWS. AND YOU KNOW.”
“I didn’t when I got here. I suspected. Now I know for sure.”
“AND WHAT ACTIONS WILL YOU TAKE?”
“To what end should actions be taken? She doesn’t even know what her power is. Furthermore, it seems harmless. She passively soothes souls around her, removing hostility.”
“IS THAT WHAT IT IS? REALLY? INTERESTING. I KNOW OF NO SUCH POWER.”
“Nor I. But her mother is a Farseer, and her father has known some of the greatest traumas a human soul can know and function still. I am not surprised.”
“WELL SHE DOESN’T KNOW SHE HAS IT AND SENDING HER AWAY WOULD ANGER HER PARENTS…BUT I DON’T LIKE THE IDEA OF A PERSON AT THAT TABLE THAT HAS A POWER THAT CAN CONTROL THE OUTCOME OF ALL THIS.”
“That is not under your command,” Isha supplied.
“WELL, YES. UNDERSTAND THAT I FACED OPPOSITION FROM MY OWN SONS OVER THIS. I DON’T BLAME TALDEER FOR GUESSING THAT THE NOBLES WHO RUN THINGS WHEN I’M AWAY TO BE EVEN MORE HOSTILE. BUT I WILL NOT TOLERATE SUCH SUBTERFUGE. I HAVE GONE TO GREAT LENGTHS TO ENSURE THAT MY SENATORS DO NOT APPROACH THIS TREATY UNDER FALSE PRETENSE. YOU SHOULD NOT PERMIT LESS OF YOUR OWN PEOPLE.”
Isha didn’t like hearing that, but chose the diplomatic response. “I agree. I will speak with Taldeer.”
“THANK YOU.” The Emperor severed their link and stewed over the information he had been given. “SPEAK WITH HER. RIGHT.” He briefly debated reaching out to Lofn, but decided against it: if she really didn’t know about her power, he didn’t want to frighten her.
Lord Dante sat in the smallest chapel of his ship and thought. The encounter with the Sanguinor had been almost as stirring and terrifying as serving under the Emperor Himself, and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of his own behavior.
No man lived to his twelfth century through rash and impulsive behavior. What in space had possessed him to call out to it like that?
“Much has changed, since the last time the Blood Angels were in such peril as to merit the Sanguinor’s presence in combat,” Dante muttered, cradling his head in his hands.
He had spoken at length to the great angel of blood, and begged its attention on Terra. Now, in the time of the greatest tumult since the Harrowing and the Heresy, when the Emperor had ascended and Abbadon crushed, and the Primarchs had arisen once more…surely the Sanguinor would abandon its mysterious ways, come forth, and reveal itself to the Emperor?
“WELL I APPRECIATE YOUR CONCERN, FARSEER. I DON’T WANT YOU TO COME AWAY FROM THIS THINKING THAT ALL HUMAN CORSAIRS ARE UNDER OUR CONTROL. BUT LAST TIME I CHECKED, MANY ELDAR CORSAIRS ARE IN FACT LOYAL TO THEIR CRAFTWORLDS, AND WILL RETURN TO SUPPORT THEIR NAVIES IF CALLED UPON TO DO SO,” the Emperor said.
“Very true, just as human privateers and raiders will sometimes help harass the vessels of those attacking human planets,” Taldeer shot back.
“YOU CAN HARDLY COMPARE THE TWO. WE KILL HUMAN RAIDERS WHEN WE SEE THEM AND CONFISCATE THEIR LUCRE. ELDAR PIRATES WHO SUCCESSFULLY RAID HUMAN SHIPPING LINES GET A PAT ON THE BACK.”
“As they wash the blood of my men from their hands,” Commodore Romes said bitterly.
Taldeer skewered him with her glare. “And as stated: if this treaty is signed into law, it will stop.
“Good faith will only take you so far-” the Commodore began.
“WHOA!” the Emperor suddenly yelled.
“What?! What is it, my Liege?” Romes asked worriedly.
“NOTHING…NOTHING THAT NEED CONCERN YOU. PLEASE CONTINUE, A VERY, VERY IMPORTANT GUEST HAS JUST ARRIVED.” The Throne icon reverted to the symbol of the Aquilla, and the High Lords looked amongst each other worriedly.
The Emperor stared at the Warp Rift opening mere meters from him in complete shock. The Custodes abandoned their vigil and ran for the Rift, all drawing weapons.
“STAND DOWN, MY LOYAL FRIENDS, STAND DOWN…THIS IS NO FOE.”
“My Liege? It is a Warp Rift!” one of them pointed out, glaive leveled and ready to fire. “Who knows what kind of daemon…could…oh…” he trailed off at the sight of the being emerging.
A golden, winged human stepped forth, clad in gleaming armor, with a massive two-handed sword hanging from his belt. The Emperor stared at the apparition, jaw hanging open. “IT CAN’T BE.”
The Rift sewed itself shut behind the angel, as the Custodes uncertainly aimed their weapons.
“I am,” the angel said, his voice thin and muffled.
“HOW? I NEVER SAW YOU, EVEN ONCE, ALL THIS TIME…I WATCHED YOU DIE!”
“Death is a filter, my Liege, separating the strong from the weak. For the weak, it is a barrier that can not be crossed. For the strong, it is a mountain, which can be climbed, overcome, and conquered.”
“…DID DANTE SEND YOU?” the Emperor asked, trying to come to grips with the man facing him.
“WHY DID YOU COME NOW? IF YOU WERE THE SANGUINOR THIS ENTIRE TIME, WHY DID YOU NOT COME FORTH BEFORE, WHEN THERE MIGHT HAVE BEEN TIME TO HALT AND REVERSE MY DECAY?”
“What could be done? I am more than the sum of my components, but even I can not reverse time,” the angel said, its voice brimming with regret.
“WHAT WAS DONE TO ME WAS NOT DONE BY TIME. WHAT WAS DONE TO ME – AND YOU – WAS DONE BY TREASON, BETRAYAL, AND FOUL CHAOS.”
“True. But I am here. Now. When things…change so much. I have seen a great crossroads in my visions, yes…but never have we been so close to it,” the angel said earnestly.
“A CROSSROADS…INDEED. WELL…THEN I MUST KNOW, IF I AM TO TRUST THESE VISIONS. IF YOU REMOVE THAT MASK, WHO WILL BE UNDER IT?”
“A face. That face hides two souls. As it must.”
“SUCH SACRIFICE…NOW AND THEN,” the Emperor said, suddenly flooded with a sadness he could not conceal. The angel’s gaze dropped, and the Custodes looked at one another uncertainly. “YOU SHAME ME.”
“Do not be ashamed. We have both made catastrophic mistakes, my Father.” The man unclamped his mask and removed it, revealing a face marred by brutal and vivid scarring.
“WHOSE BODY DO YOU INHABIT, MY SON? HE IS CLEARLY A BLOOD ANGEL.”
“In my original service, he was my greatest warrior. He was Azkaellon. He was my Herald and my Bearer,” the man said, the scars over his mouth twisiting the words and muffling them.
“YES…I REMEMBER HIM. HE WAS EVER YOUR FRIEND. HE WAS A GREAT AND GIFTED WARRIOR.”
“He would be honored to hear you say it, Father. When he was dying, his soul met mine, and he gladly gave his broken and ruined body to me, to sustain me in some form,” the angel said, gesturing to massive, red-tinged marks on the gleaming metal of his armor. The damage was long gone, but its remains were clearly visible.
“TWO SOULS IN ONE BODY…I AM AWARE OF THE MADNESS THAT CAN BRING, MY SON. I AM GLAD YOU HAVE OVERCOME IT.”
“Yes, and I am glad that yours does not seem to bear any trace of the THING you now inhabit.” The scarred angel frowned. “Surely you do not need to stay in that body?”
“I ACTUALLY DO, FOR NOW. FEAR NOT. WHEN MY IMPERIUM HAS STABILIZED ENOUGH THAT MY ABSENCE FOR NINE MONTHS WILL NOT DESTROY IT, I WILL DIE AND BE REBORN.”
“That’s reassuring. I don’t know how long I could bear that visage,” the angel said wryly. He smiled through his damaged face. “It’s good to see time has not eroded your humor, Father.”
“NOR YOURS, SANGUINIUS. WELCOME HOME.”
“Then I suppose that is that. Once the Emperor signs off on the final instruction to formalize the treaty, then you will bring it to the Councils of the various Craftworlds?” the Lord Commander Solar said wearily, rubbing his eyes.
“I shall,” Taldeer said, looking over the data slate in front of her. “Lady Isha, may I ask that you do the same for the Exodites?” Taldeer continued staring at the slate for a moment longer, before looking up at the goddess. “Lady Isha?”
Isha was gripping the armrests of her seat, eyes wide in shock. The High Lords glanced over curiously. “Taldeer…do you not feel that? There is something…terrible in the Throne room.”
“What?” Taldeer closed her eyes and concentrated, sensing Lofn and the psychic High Lord surreptitiously doing the same. She cast her thoughts over the Throne, looking past the obvious, blazing radiance of the Emperor, and found…something.
“That is unusual,” Taldeer murmured. “I presume it to be the ‘guest’ of the Emperor.”
“A daemon, playing the guest to the Emperor in a daemon,” Isha said, an uncharacteristic note of bitterness in her voice.
“It can not be,” the Master of Astropaths whispered, his face slack with shock.
“You know this being?” the Master of Assassins asked.
“We’ve never met, but I have felt it, when I was receiving a message on the Blood Angels’ behalf,” he said shortly, standing. “Inquisitor, you had better get down there.”
The Inquisitorial representative cocked an eyebrow and stood. “The Sanguinor?”
“So it would seem,” the Astropath hissed.
“WHAT DO YOU INTEND TO DO NOW, MY SON?”
“Well, much as I’d like to, I can’t remain here and would you KINDLY point that elsewhere?” Sanguinor asked, glaring at a Custodes Terminator who had been menacing him with a Triple Assault Cannon from the moment he had arrived.
The Custodian jerked his head back, looking to the Emperor for approval. The Emperor nodded. “STAND AT EASE, MY CUSTODIANS, HE IS NO THREAT TO YOU.”
“As I was saying,” Sanguinor said, nodding, I can not stay. “Though it would please me to no end to do battle against Abbadon’s filth alongside you and my Angels once more, my…pact with this body is tenuous, as is its grip on this dimension. I can remain only an hour more.”
“THEN I INSIST, MY SON, STAY AS LONG AS YOU CAN, REARM, AND LISTEN TO THE STATE OF THINGS,” the Emperor said, as the Custodes slowly drifted back to their posts.
“Lord Dante was kind enough to explain the bizarre state of the galaxy to me when I spoke to him on Rordek, Father. Incidentally, have you heard of the catastrophe that has befallen him? Fully half the Sanguinary Guard and First Company, downed by a disastrous Hrud ambush.”
“UNFORTUNATE. I’M SURE HE’S EAGER TO RETURN TO BAAL AND REBUILD,” the Emperor said. “AND NO, I HAD NOT HEARD.”
Suddenly, a loud creaking from the hinges of the Eternity Gate announced another visitor. The Inquisitorial representative of the High Lords charged in, running for the Emperor.
“My Liege, be warned! There is a…oh.” He came to a bashful halt. “I…guess you already know. All right then…I’ll take my leave,” he mumbled, turning back to the door. The Emperor watched him go with bemusement.
“WHAT A STERLING AND INSPIRATIONAL EXAMPLE OF THE CEASELESS VIGILANCE OF THE IMPERIUM.”
“Well, in fairness, Father, I AM a daemon, technically,” Sanguinor said, shrugging his massive wings. The Custodes shifted uncomfortably. “The Inquisition has been trying to capture me for millennia.”
“They thought it was a sign that the Blood Angels were harboring Khorne-worshippers. Having blood and warfare be the symbols of the chapter didn’t…help disavow them of that belief.”
The Emperor chuckled, an odd sound from such a massive creature. “WELL, MY SON, I WILL SEE WHAT I CAN DO IN THE REGARD OF ALLOWING YOU TO STAY LONGER. HOW LONG BEFORE YOU CAN RETURN TO TERRA AGAIN?”
“The Warp is a tempestuous place, Father, as you well know. A month? A thousand decades? I do not know,” the Sanguinor said regretfully.
“THEN DO STOP BY BAAL NEXT AND INTRODUCE YOURSELF FORMALLY. ACTUALLY, I HAVE TO ASK: WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THAT ALREADY?”
“Because, Father, I confess that I felt a sense of shame. I failed miserably in my duty. Azkaellon felt that he had, in turn, failed me. Returning to Baal…would have been humiliating. Dante was humbling in his request that I come here at all,” Sanguinor admitted.
“DID YOU KNOW HE REINTERPRETED YOUR PROPHESY?” the Emperor asked.
“Yes. I can not speak to the accuracy of his interpretation; certainly mine was wrong.” Sanguinor looked around the room in sudden dismay. “It seems I will not have time to help myself to your armories after all, Father, for my grasp on this dimension wanes.”
“I UNDERSTAND. IT DID MY HEART GOOD TO SEE YOU HERE, MY SON,” the Emperor said ruefully. “DO ME A FAVOR…TELL ME; CAN YOU SEE VESSELS AS THEY TRAVEL THE WARP?”
“IF YOU GET THE CHANCE, CAN YOU TELL ME IF VULKAN IS ALL RIGHT? HE WAS ON HIS WAY TO NOCTURNE AND COLLIDED WITH THE CARCASS OF A VOID WHALE.” “Well…that’s a bit vague, but I can look into it if you wish,” Sanguinor said, thinking it over.
“I’D APPRECIATE IT.” The Sanguinor’s form wavered for a moment, and he nodded.
“I’m afraid my time is up. Farewell.”
“FAREWELL, MY SON. I LOOK FORWARD TO OUR NEXT MEETING.”
Continued in The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Thirteen.