"I was there. Not at the beginning, of course. But I know much that happened before my time, for I had ways of finding secrets. You might say it was my business. So I found the hidden beginning, ten thousand years ago. It is said that light shines brightest in the dark of night. This had been the darkest night the Imperium had faced..."
Earth. In orbit, giant tugboat ships carry out repairs on the shattered satellite defence grid. Through the clouds, shuttles speeding to and from the devastated planet. On the surface, the huge fields of battle, reduced to desolate plains of mud, not a living thing in sight. Miles and miles of ruined buildings, the largest city of the human race destroyed. In the centre, its walls shattered, its towers fallen, the Imperial Palace. Despite the damage, the imperial eagle still stood atop the central tower of the Palace, staring out over the wasteland.
Inside, a bureaucratic whirlwind. Scribes ran from room to room, computers beeped at each other constantly, adepts frantically exchanged information, sending and receiving messages from the fleets still pushing back the forces of chaos. In the centre of one large war room, a holographic map of the galaxy, showing the Imperial ships and the suspected areas of chaos dominance. Navy officers coordinated offensives in all five Segmenta, determined not to give the traitors time to regroup. The communications between the war room and the Astropaths were constant.
The bridge of the Imperial heavy cruiser Star of Mars. The captain watched the forward viewscreen as the huge ship dropped into realspace. Ahead was a planet, blue-green, earthlike. On the screen, statistical data was displayed about the planet, its climates, moons, inhabitants. An officer informed the captain that the order for Exterminatus of the traitor research station Arrax VII had been confirmed. The captain nodded.
In the Great Hall of the Palace, a thousand warriors of the Imperium stood to attention. Space Marines, guardsmen, navy officers, all those who fought in the war. In the centre was a massive construction, gleaming in the sunlight from the shattered stained-glass windows. The Golden Throne. The doors in the main archway opened, admitting Rogal Dorn, still wearing the battle-damaged power armour he had used in the final battle. He led a procession of tech-priests, medics and adepts of the arcane arts that had created the machine. On a hovering platform, covered in a shimmering white robe, lay the mortally-wounded Emperor. The procession carried him towards his life support machine. As they passed the ranks of troops, each line saluted as the leader of the Imperium glided past on his anti-grav deathbed.
The Star or Mars banked into orbit, and missile launchers on its hull swivelled to face the planet below. One by one the warheads launched, each one disappearing in a flare of light as it passed through the atmosphere.
The Emperor's body was lifted off the platform and gently placed in the moulded centre of the Throne. Automatic systems began connecting him to the machine, regulating his bloodflow, heartbeat, respiration - keeping him alive by brute force.
The warheads exploded low in the atmosphere, spreading huge clouds of green vapour across the planet. Immediately, animals started to draw deep, laboured breaths as the poison affected them. As more and more missiles exploded the rich green of the jungle world shrivelled to a dead brown, the wildlife dropping to the ground, dead.
The Emperor struggled to raise a hand, beckoning Dorn to come closer to him. Dorn leaned down to hear his words.
The traitor research station on Arrax VII was wreathed by the toxin cloud. Guards lay dead where they stood, with not even a sign that they had known what was happening. Inside, the bodies of technicians and medics were draped over the workstations. Here and there, a traitor guardsman or renegade marine, their weapons still clutched in their lifeless hands.
The Emperor's lips opened, as he struggled to speak through his shattered throat.
In the centre of the dead base, surrounded by the toxin vapour, two dim shapes loomed silently, lights blinking on and off on their sides. Two tubes, big enough to hold a person each, standing alone, connected by wires and cables to the workstations and equipment that the technicians had worked on bare moments earlier. Inside the tubes, dim shadows hung silently in baths of biogeneration liquid.
In orbit, the Star of Mars banked again, forming a gate to the warp and leaving the planet, now devoid of any trace of green, its land a dirty brown, its oceans an ashen grey.
The Emperor spoke, as Rogal Dorn leaned down, almost into the machine itself, to hear him.
"Horus," he croaked.
"Horus is dead," replied Dorn quickly. The Emperor shook his head.
The tubes swung open at the front, in unison. Liquid splashed across the floor of the laboratory. Inside each tube, something stirred.
Again, the Emperor raised his head to be heard.
"Horus... made others. Successors," he added, his strength failing. Dorn recoiled as he heard the words.
"Other Warmasters? Clones?" he asked in disbelief.
Two figures walked slowly through the base, barely visible through the clouds of toxic gas, the only evidence of their presence the vague shadows in the gloom, and the swirls they caused in the poison they effortlessly moved through.
The Emperor shook his head again to Dorn's question, and spoke one last time.
"Children," he managed to croak, before slumping back into the Golden Throne. The medics slowly drew Dorn away from the machine as its golden casing closed over the exhausted figure inside.
From the dead world of Arrax VII, a shuttle rose, forming a gate as soon as it was clear of the atmosphere and vanishing into the warp.
"That was the beginning. None knew of the births that had accompanied the Emperor's encasement in his living grave. In time, even the Emperor's words were forgotten, wreathed in myth and symbolism until they became just another part of the legend of the Emperor of Man. The Inquisition and the Ecclesiarchy sought the destruction of all those who followed chaos, the metaphorical children of Horus. No-one among us thought to take his words literally, to seek out those to whom the Warmaster had passed on his blood, his legacy. Even if we had, we would never have suspected the truth. Ten thousand years after the end of the Heresy, though, they came to us..."
The attackers soared down in massive waves, hundreds of their number being shattered by the streams of explosive shuriken discs, but with thousands more taking their place. Behind the waves of biopods, the huge Tyranid warships continued their relentless advance towards the stricken Eldar craftworld of Zaran. Its gleaming hull now scarred by blasts of acid, its shield walls buckling against the strain of the thousands of tiny ships slamming against them, the Eldar seemed no longer to be able to postpone their defeat. One by one the shield walls collapsed, and the biopods flew through the gaps, boring into the wraithbone hull to release their deadly cargo of warriors.
Over the constant whirring of the shuriken cannon batteries, Luther heard the crash as another biopod breached the craftworld's hull. Ahead, the giant holographic viewscreen showed the Tyranid mothership, slowly closing in, the hail of cannonfire bursting harmlessly on its outer skin. He glanced again at the screen to his side, but the image was unchanged: the webway portal remained closed, its iris shield locked in place. There would be no help for Zaran now. Hearing the sounds of combat from across the skybridges, Luther gripped his shuriken pistol and prepared to meet the enemy.
Again and again he joined his fellow officers at the portals leading to the bridge complex, his pistol running dry of ammunition countless times, forcing him to pause for a second while he slammed another cartridge into place. There seemed no end to the terrible creatures swarming across the bridges. Turning back to the battle after reloading for what seemed like the hundredth time, he saw a new enemy emerge: standing tall over the hormagaunts and genestealers were towering warriors, their claws clutching unnatural living weapons. Luther aimed at one, feeling some satisfaction as its head was cut off by the spinning metal discs, but already another one was firing, and he felt the impact as the blast shattered the outer bulkhead. He opened his eyes to see the lifeless body of the Admiral, the old man's head torn from his shoulders by the impact.
A strange calm descended on Luther as he realised that he was now the commander of the craftworld. He reached down, picked up the Admiral's blood-splattered comms unit, and attached it to his uniform. Instantly, he saw tiny representations of the defences, heard the shouted orders and cries for help. A part of his mind reeled in distress, but his training took over: find our strengths, he heard his instructor's voice, drive them at our enemy's weakest point. His eyes flickered over the displays that the command unit projected into them, even as he turned back to the portal and sent another hail of shuriken fire towards the monsters clustered across the bridges. His eye came to rest on one of the tactical displays, and with a thought the image enlarged, filling his vision. The craftworld's main energiser sail, soaring up from the nose of the giant ship, had been damaged beyond repair; troops has evacuated and sealed off the portals leading to it - and beyond the darkened sail, the bulk of the Tyranid mothership, still advancing with the slow inevitability of a planet.
A desperate plan formed in Luther's mind, and he sent the orders for its execution flying across the communications channels before he had a chance to decide it was insane. He felt, in his mind, the surge as the craftworld's engines fired to full power, felt the burst of power as it leapt forward. Concentrating all his mental strength, he took control of the ship's guidance thrusters, forcing himself to do the thousand calculations that were needed, compensating for those jets that had been damaged, manually adjusting the structural fields that were straining to hold the scarred ship together under the sudden burst of speed. He saw, with a final moment of satisfaction, the mothership begin to bank, but it was too slow. As he felt the impact, he blacked out.
The giant, abandoned energiser sail tore through the mothership's hull like a hot blade through butter, as the craftworld flew by, mere metres between its hull and that of the stricken Tyranid vessel. To a chorus of deafening metal groans, the entire sail was sheared off the top of the craftworld, its momentum burying it deep inside the mothership. Fluids leaked from a thousand gashes in the ship's organs, as within the craftworld the millions of Tyranid creatures screamed at the sudden interruption to their group-mind. Emerging from the expanding cloud of fluid and gas, Zaran flew beyond the reach of the Tyranids, leaving the devastated mothership in its wake. Safely hidden in the warp, a dozen Imperial battlebarges watched the Eldar make their escape.
"Nevertheless," continued the droning voice, "the Tyranid attack represents a clear threat to Imperial worlds in several surrounding sectors." A thousand sectors from the scene of the recent battle, the High Lords of Terra had been locked in debate for what seemed like hours. Above them a holographic map rotated slowly, a red stain showing the latest reports of attacks.
"Your anxiety is premature, Lord Administratum," interrupted the Grand Admiral of the Imperial Navy. "In over twenty engagements, our star cruisers have driven off the aliens with minimal damage. I hardly think we need be concerned with them overrunning us." He sat back in his chair, as the Lord of the Administratum sat back down, glaring across the table at him.
"Twenty engagements," said another of the Lords, wearing the blue robes of the Astra Telepathica, "out of how many reported advances along the alien frontier? My sources tell me that alien fleets have been moving into Imperial sectors on over a hundred fronts."
"If they advance, Lord Astra," replied the Grand Admiral coldly, "we will destroy them. That much we know."
"Oh really?" The Lord of the Astra rose from his seat and touched a set of controls, swinging the holographic map around and enlarging the section of it where the red zone was located. Fleet information was overlaid at the points where the frontier was slowly being pushed inwards. "I invite you to look at these, Grand Admiral. Your precious Navy has done battle with approximately two hundred alien ships, only five of them classed as capital ships. In the advances you have not, for some reason, moved to intercept, there are over a thousand capital ships alone! You may well be able to maintain your illustrious image of your fleet by nipping at the aliens' heels, but the fact remains that you do not have the resources to even delay the main advance. A thousand capital ships, and those are only the ones we can see! The Astronomicon and the telepathic intruder web are being forced back every day!"
"Your intruder web," answered the Grand Admiral, "is inadequate then, by your own admission, and yet you tell me ship numbers you supposedly see with it. How many ships are there really? Do you even know? A thousand, you say, well, how can you be so sure, if your almighty intruder web is being dismantled so effectively?"
"Our Oracle probes report similar numbers, Grand Admiral." It was the Lord of the Mechanicus who spoke, his voice hissing slightly as tubes fed oxygen into his throat. He cast the sight of his electronic eyes across the table, taking in all those present. "Are we forgetting the point, possibly? The aliens continue to advance. The Navy's efforts, successful though they may be, are not causing any significant delay in the loss of sectors. This is not the time to argue over who is to blame. We must act, now, while we still have an Imperium to protect."
"What would you have us do, then?" asked the Lord Astra. The Lord Mechanicus fixed him with a stare, the ceramic irises closing to let only pinpoints of light emerge from his eyes.
"I have received a proposal that may assist us in this matter. In the past, Marine chapters have formed crusade armies to eliminate specific targets: a chaos warband, an Ork force, any military group who have angered the chapters in question. These crusade armies have been very effective in achieving their objectives."
"Of course they have, they're marines," the Lord Administratum interrupted.
"Even accounting for the increased combat proficiency of the marines, the crusade armies have a vastly superior ratio of results to resources. We would use them more often, but they have the drawback that they are organised to attack and defeat one enemy alone. A crusade against a chaos lord would operate below standard efficiency in combat against Orks, or Eldar."
"We know all this," interrupted the Lord Administratum again.
"What I am proposing," the Lord Mechanicus raised his voice slightly, ignoring the interruption, "is that an entire chapter be formed into a crusade army to combat Tyranids. Given the resources of the Administratum and the Mechanicus, this chapter's command hierarchy and equipment could be converted to specific anti-Tyranid purposes within two years."
There was silence for a moment as the Lords digested this. Finally the Lord Administratum spoke up.
"It would take at least a year even to formulate the directives for such an operation." The Lord Mechanicus nodded.
"The directives have been formulated, as have the structural reports and procedural analyses. They reside in your databanks now. I suggest you study them at your leisure. Our logic engines predict a ninety-six per cent probability of success. I believe your procedures will indicate a similarly favourable result. With your leave, I propose we adjourn, and return in a week to decide whether this proposal will be accepted."
"One thing," said the Lord Astra, as the Lord Mechanicus rose to his feet. "You said this proposal was received by you: who sent it?"
"The individual in question has the highest credentials we ascribe to those outside the Mechanicus itself," replied the Lord. "I am confident in this individual's abilities in this area. I attach the Seal of the Mechanicus to the proposal as validation. I do not believe any further assurance is required."
Later, Lord Augustus, Master Fabricator Lord of the Adeptus Mechanicus, slumped into the padded chair in his office and waited. He did not have to wait long. His hand leapt out and slapped the control almost as soon as the communication console before him signalled.
"I'm here," he said, without looking to the screen. He knew he would see nothing anyway.
"I know," said the calm, dispassionate voice speaking to him across the light-years between them.
"I did what you asked. The proposal has been..." he began to say, but he was cut off.
"I know. I have been monitoring the council. Your debt is repaid, Fabricator Lord. I need not remind you that this must remain a secret. Be assured that I act with the best interests of Terra at heart. You will not be contacted again." With that, the console shut down. Augustus closed his eyes and tried to fight off the headache he could feel setting in. He pushed a button on his wrist, and felt a soothing serum flow into the implant at the back of his neck. He knew that no-one who attained high office within the Imperium did so without making deals, playing politics, and inevitably owing favours here and there. Blackmail and extortion were well known to be the determining factors in the careers of most planetary governors, but this was different... a marine chapter... Augustus knew he had had no choice, knew that there were many good reasons why this should be done, as well as the centuries-old secrets that had been used against him... he offered up a silent prayer to the machine god that the universe knew what it was doing. He pressed another button, releasing a sedative. His last thought, before drifting off to sleep, was 'this could go so wrong.'
Tigrus looked around him. His brother marines were preparing to leave the hiveworld Lethe. Just as well, he thought, this world had not been kind to them. They had arrived fifteen days earlier, in response to a signal indicating the presence of a chaos warband. The message had said seven hundred, maybe eight.
Veteran Sergeant Tigrus, of the first company of the Imperial Marine Chapter the Furies, now knew there had been over two thousand fallen marines on Lethe, waiting for them. The fighting had been horrific, especially in the Primus hive, where the dark lord's retinue had been and where the Furies' Commander had led the attack. Both were dead now. All of the renegades were dead, unnumbered thousands of civilians with them. Almost three hundred loyal marines had fallen to protect this world. But it would be the loss of Commander Malachite that would be felt most severely in the months ahead. He had been the best of them, the most courageous, most loyal, most devoted - he had never walked away from a fight in his life. It had been the death of him, in the end. He had attacked the chaos lord, alone, while the lord was still surrounded by his elite warriors. Malachite had fought like the Emperor himself - they had found the bodies of the chaos veterans later - but it had not been enough.
Tigrus's eye fell on a small figure boarding an orbital transport. His eyes narrowed as he recognised her: the assassin. He had been told the day after Malachite had been killed that the chaos lord had been eliminated by a Callidus. This must be her. Liela was the name he had been told, but assassins were known to call themselves whatever suited their mission. She turned in the outer airlock of the ship, looking back across the devastated hell that had consumed three hundred of the Emperor's finest warriors. Her long hair, braided and ending in a slim steel buckle, curled around her leg as she turned. The poisoned needles on her thigh glittered in the morning light. From her belt hung the bulky Shredder, the weapon of choice of her temple. The gauntlet containing the phase blade she fought with was still around her forearm. She wasn't wearing her mask - Tigrus knew that Callidus assassins seldom bothered. During a mission, they would transform themselves totally, becoming the person they wanted to replace - polymorphine had made disguise obsolete, and the Callidus alone among the assassins knew how to use it, and so they alone needed no mask to hide themselves. Tigrus wondered who she had been. Had this slim young woman been a chaos marine, to get close enough to the dark lord to kill him? One of the elite? He frowned. Had she stood by and watched, as Malachite died by their hands? Her eyes caught his for a moment, and she gave a mock-salute. He glared as she spun on her heel and boarded the transport. This, he thought sourly, was not how warfare was done.
Lord Talvarus attached his ceremonial seal of office to his robes and stood, ready to face the Council. As he strode towards the door bearing the yellow seal of the Adeptus Administratum, they opened, and someone else came in. The two came face to face, and Talvarus found himself looking into a face he had not seen in sixty years.
"You!" he exclaimed. The figure nodded. "How did you get in here?"
"I never had problems before," replied the intruder calmly. Talvarus scowled and turned back to his desk.
"You haven't aged much. I see you're still as arrogant as ever."
"Arrogant? There's a difference between that, and knowing one's abilities. Besides, have you forgotten already? This face is just a mask. A fašade, if you'll forgive the pun. Would you be more comfortable if time had been as unkind to me as it has been to you?" The stranger tapped a button on a bracelet set with several such controls, and Talvarus saw lines of age creep across the rugged face he had come to know and despise. The man knew too many tricks. Talvarus remembered him claiming that the mask was the envy of the Callidus temple of assassins. He had reason to believe it.
"Don't try to impress me, I've seen it all before. What do you want?"
"You're going to vote against the proposal to reform the Furies."
"They're the chapter that will be the subject of Augustus's experiment. He'll receive word in several hours that their commander has been killed in action. You did read the proposal, at least?"
"Wait, are you telling me you want me to change my vote? I know we've had arrangements in the past, but this is the Council!"
"You will vote for the proposal. This will give it a majority. In return, all the materials I have relating to your family will be destroyed."
"Everything. For your vote. Is it agreed?"
High above Earth, a small transport was completing its docking at a giant orbital station. The ship backed into the docking clamps, its pilot facing back out into space. Only the passenger airlock made contact with the hull of the station. There were no lights, no viewports, only the faint glimmer of starlight reflected off the black metal. With a low thump the ship docked and the airlock slid open. A figure emerged inside the station, and immediately the docking clamps released and the transport ship was detached.
Liela made her way through the docking area of the orbital base that housed the Officio Assassinorum. She was waved through the various security stations, barely glancing at the dark-armoured guards who watched her pass. Only once did she stop, to place her hand on a bio-reader. The machine whirred, then a green light blinked on and the portal in front of her opened. She entered the central operations chamber of the Callidus temple, which occupied an entire branch of the base. She stood in the centre of the chamber and waited.
A doorway to her side opened and a robed figure stepped through. She turned to face him. His long, dark robes marked him as an Inquisitor, the badge of office trailing from his neck confirmed this. He walked quickly to her and stood before her, reaching up to remove his hood. The face beneath was not particularly old, but its expression made it seem so. The Inquisitor wore his hair short, and his face bore a thin beard. His nose was a little too pronounced for his features, and he seemed to maintain a constant sneer, as if in contempt of the universe. His left eye squinted slightly, his right was obviously sightless, a blank white expanse that the assassin guessed would be unnerving to most people. She was rarely unnerved herself.
"I am Inquisitor Lord Julius," he said. "I have been reviewing your reports, including your latest mission on Lethe." He stopped, seeming to think that this would draw a response. Liela stared at him, her features immobile, and he eventually continued.
"I am concerned at your lack of performance in regard to the mission objectives of the battles you participate in." He stopped again, and this time Liela answered.
"I do not participate in battles. I carry out assassinations. If my targets are engaged in warfare, that is of no consequence to me."
"I would draw your attention," the Inquisitor continued, seemingly oblivious to her words, "to the details of your last mission. Your target, the renegade warlord, was surrounded by a bodyguard of considerable size. You surely could have disposed of them as well. I am told they fought for some time after the death of their leader at your hands. They had to be dealt with by forces which would have been better engaged elsewhere in the battle." Again he stopped. Liela stared directly into his eyes, making sure she had his full attention before answering.
"As I said, I do not participate in battles. My target was the warlord, and I killed him. My mission briefing did not specify any actions towards his bodyguard, and I found it unnecessary to take any such actions in the course of completing my mission." Julius opened his mouth to speak, and Liela found herself intensely irritated with his presence. She cut him off before he could get a word in.
"I am an assassin. My business is the death of individuals. If you would like large areas of an army to be demolished, may I suggest you enlist the aid of heavy weapons. If you have a valid complaint," she stressed the word 'valid', knowing it would annoy him to have his words scorned, "then I suggest you file it with my temple officers. As I am aware of no business you have with my temple at the moment, this conversation is concluded."
Liela turned on her heel and marched quickly out of the chamber, through one of the twisting corridors through which the Inquisitor knew he would not be allowed to follow. He stared after her for a moment, then left through the portal she had entered by.
A ripple appeared in space, a ripple which opened to a gaping hole into a realm of shifting colour. From this hole, a dark shape emerged, glowing faintly with reflected light from the nightmare it was leaving.
The Imperial transport closed its warpgate and settled into orbit. Below it, the planet Semnai slowly rotated, its green continents slipping into the light of its distant sun. Its seas, deep blue and radiant in the new light, glistened faintly. The transport turned slightly, and fired several thrusters on its leading edge, cutting its speed.
The fortress-monastery headquarters of the Furies stood out in stark contrast to the lands around it. Above green hills rose grey steel and stone towers, their highest points nearly touching the low clouds that drifted in from the nearby coastline. On a normal day, it would have been alive with activity: new recruits training in the expanses of jungle enclosed by the high defence walls, sentries patrolling the miles of perimeter fortifications that separated the base from the rest of the world. Today, the only movement outside the walls of the fortress was the fluttering of pennants bearing the winged fury symbol of the chapter, and the double-headed eagle of the Imperium.
Just over seven hundred warriors stood in perfect formation in the great hall, the huge central chamber of the largest building in the fortress. From galleries above, unnumbered support personnel watched, scribes, clerks, administrators, observers. At the front of the hall, a figure in power armour nodded to a technician, and stood back. The figure was Octavian, the lieutenant commander of the Furies. His armour gleamed in the morning light that filtered through the high windows of the hall. Icons on his shoulders told a tale of many campaigns on a hundred worlds. By his side hung an ornate power sword. His armoured hands flexed as he watched the technician work the teleport controls, then relaxed as a shimmer of light appeared on the dais in front of him. Slowly, vague shadows in the light formed into people. The light died away, leaving three figures in front of him. To the left was a Navy officer, whom Octavian assumed to be the captain of the transport. To the right, an administratum official. Standing in the centre was a figure in armour - not power armour, but a less bulky variant, a silver suit that covered its wearer completely. Smooth protective plates slid noiselessly against each other as the figure turned to look out across the assembled ranks of marines. Octavian approached the visitors.
"I am Octavian. You may call me lieutenant commander. I have been instructed to prepare the chapter for the arrival of out new commander."
The armoured figure stepped forward. Octavian guessed he was a rogue trader; it would explain the exotic armour, and his presence with the landing party. Octavian stood half a head taller than the trader, who stood in front of him and addressed him directly.
"I wonder how you feel about an outsider being placed in command," said the trader. Octavian noticed his voice was carefully neutral, and a little flat; he guessed that some sort of voice synthesiser was being used. He decided to be civil to the stranger, despite his impatience to get on with the task at hand.
"The Furies have not held a crusade for many centuries. If the High Lords believe that a leader from another chapter would be better suited to lead us now, that is their will. I serve the Emperor, and his will is mine."
"Admirable," said the trader, with a slight nod of his armoured head.
"Does the Commander require any preparations to be made before he teleports down?" asked Octavian.
"No. I am your Commander," said the trader. Octavian blinked, then rallied.
"You have the seal of the High Lords?" he asked. He found himself making a closer inspection of this stranger who, it seemed, would be their leader. He was not lacking in stature, for a human. Octavian had fought alongside traders before, and had found that there were some of them deserving of his respect. It was not unknown for a trader to be given field command of a marine force, for a particular mission. For one to be given rank, though... Octavian wondered what the High Lords knew about this strange person, that they would allow him to take command of a chapter.
The trader produced a thin scroll, bearing the elaborate seal of the High Lords of Terra. Octavian took it and read it carefully, then looked back at the trader. He bowed his head and saluted.
"By your orders, Commander." he said. The commander returned the salute and Octavian lifted his head to stare into the expressionless green eyes of the silver suit. He turned and followed as the commander walked down the steps towards the ranks of marines. As they neared the front of the ranks, one of the marines, a Terminator, blocked their path.
"I am Tigrus, Sergeant of the first company," he said, standing at his full armoured height. "I have served the Emperor for two hundred years, and I have never seen a trader who could fight as well as a marine. You are not one of us. I say you are not fit to lead us." He folded his arms and stood defiant.
"Sergeant," barked Octavian, but the commander raised a hand and the lieutenant commander fell silent. He found himself admiring the trader as he stood toe-to-toe with the massive sergeant. If nothing else, he carried himself like a marine.
"Then we have a problem, Sergeant Tigrus. I am your commander, and a commander cannot be doubted by his troops. It seems I must prove myself to you. What would you suggest?" Octavian wondered if the trader knew what he was doing. Tigrus was sure to suggest a duel, and Octavian knew for certain that the veteran sergeant had not been beaten in a duel since he had left the tenth company and become a full-blooded marine.
"Honourable combat holds no fear for a marine. I challenge you." Tigrus held his hands before him and clenched them into fists, in the ritual challenge. The commander copied the gesture, accepting the challenge.
"Shall we begin," he said, backing to the regulation starting distance for personal combat. Tigrus looked at him incredulously.
"Do you not require a Terminator suit to fight me?"
Tigrus nodded, a hint of respect creeping into his eyes. The two circled each other warily, closing in slightly with every step. Octavian watched from one side, wondering if their new commander really could hold his own against the massive armoured warrior. He had fought the sergeant himself, several times, and found him an unnaturally fast opponent. Octavian nodded as he noticed Tigrus tense, in preparation to strike. The trader hadn't noticed it, it seemed.
There was a sudden rush of movement as the Terminator lunged forward, one arm sweeping around at head height, the other making the strike, just below chest height. The trader hardly seemed to move, but Tigrus's hands passed through nothing but air as he stumbled forward. The commander, as Octavian was starting to think of him, had somehow bent around the blows, evading them by fractions and allowing the massive warrior to pass by. He stood, waiting for the next attack. He did not have to wait long.
This time Tigrus grappled with the commander, trusting the power of his armour, augmenting his own impressive strength. The two stayed immobile for a moment, hands locked around each other's arms, then the sergeant pulled back and twisted his body, his intent obviously being to throw the commander to the ground. The smaller warrior waited until it seemed he would be thrown off his feet, then leapt, passing over Tigrus's head and landing behind him. Without pause, he leapt again, this time using his own body weight as leverage, throwing the terminator backwards and landing with barely a sound in front of him. Tigrus nearly lost his balance, but regained it, and charged again.
This time there was no delay, no testing of each other's abilities. Tigrus threw himself forward, kicking out viciously as he reached his target. His armoured boot missed its mark by a fraction, but he followed it with a fist, which slammed into the commander's stomach. His second blow was aimed at the head, and Octavian fully expected it to end the combat. Instead, it was stopped an inch from the face of the impassive silver mask. The commander had taken the blow to the body without apparent effect, and now held the Terminator's fist in his hand, resisting the power of the warrior and the ancient armour. Tigrus paused for a split second, then the commander's arm swung in a low arc, connecting with the ornate chest-plate of the Terminator's armour. The marine was hurled away from his opponent, landing on his back with a crash that seemed to shake the floor. Octavian noticed the stone beneath the sergeant had cracked.
The commander was before his fallen opponent. He held out a hand to Tigrus. The marine looked at it for a moment, then grasped it and was pulled to his feet. He stepped back and saluted smartly. The commander nodded and turned to Octavian, who had approached once it was evident the combat was ended.
"The first company lacks a captain, does it not?" he asked. Octavian nodded.
"Captain Lucien and his lieutenant both died in the final assault on the Primus hive."
"I see. Sergeant Tigrus fights well, and his record is exemplary. He will make a fine captain." Octavian nodded again. The commander stood before Tigrus, who met his stare, but without his earlier defiance.
"You are a fine warrior, Tigrus," he said. "Lead your company with the spirit you showed today."
"Yes commander," replied Tigrus smartly.
"Many people in your position might have taken Captain Tigrus's actions to be insubordinate in the highest degree," said Octavian later, following the commander along one of the twisting corridors half a mile beneath the surface, where most of the fortress was located. The commander nodded.
"I've studied the records of all of the ranking marines in the chapter," he answered. "Tigrus is a warrior, first and foremost. He has considerable strategic skill, but in a crunch he will trust his strength above statistics. Exactly the kind of man who should lead the Terminators. I'd expected him to challenge my leadership."
"But not me?" Octavian asked, somewhat surprised that he voiced the thought. He had noticed that his new commander made no effort to prevent debate, and had decided to test him in this regard.
"No, not you. You are a tactician, then a warrior. Tigrus is the other way around. You will observe me, over the next few weeks. Decide if I am able to fulfil my duties as commander. Your challenge to me is the running of this chapter. If I fail, then you will let me know about it in no uncertain terms." Octavian couldn't dispute any of this. After a moment they arrived at the ornate door to the commander's quarters, located near the command centre of the fortress. Octavian stood by the doorway as it opened, and the commander looked inside.
"Brother-commander," he said after a pause, "if I may ask, the orders concerning your command, and the authorisations from Terra, do not carry your name." The commander turned his head, and Octavian thought he saw a glimmer of amusement from behind the glassy eyepieces of the silver mask.
"Yes. I have my reasons for that. Brother-commander will do fine." Octavian nodded and saluted. The commander returned the salute and disappeared through the doorway. The lieutenant commander stood for a moment, waiting for the door to close, then turned and walked back towards the command centre, shaking his head. He had wondered what the effect would be on the chapter of being assigned an outsider as commander. It seemed it would be interesting.
Luther Aranthiel, Farseer Admiral of Zaran, waited. The watchers of the webway portal had received the signal two hours ago, and had summoned him immediately. The first thing that had caught his attention was the power that was being drained into the portal. He guessed that the gateway it was generating was spanning almost a quarter of the galaxy now. The other thing had been the single rune that had accompanied the initiation signal. It was one not used often, and never used without need. Luther looked again at the screen by his side, which showed a tiny image of a bird, rising out of a fire. He shifted his gaze back to the portal, which was almost glowing now. One of the Phoenix Lords would soon be here.
He had been standing, motionless, for so long that he was caught momentarily off-guard when the giant portal shuddered into life. He glanced at the monitoring stations, where the watchers maintained their vigil over the ancient technology. He saw the holographic displays, showing the gateway latching onto its opposite at the other end of the webway, intertwining with it and forming a stable bridge between two points thousands of light-years apart. He again looked forward as the portal spun, locking its thousands of tiny elements into place, then opened like an iris. Light spilled out of the circle, and in the light, shadows moved.
Two figures stepped lightly out of the portal, moving quickly to take up guard positions by either side of it. They were followed in quick succession by another pair, and another, each one taking up its position in the webway chamber. Their armour was finely crafted, inlaid with patterns of wraithbone that shone in the reflected light from the portal. The fluid black liquid-metal of the aspect armour was covered by ghostly-white armour plates, which seemed to float on its surface. Jewels glimmered from their belts, and red capes flowed from a single clasp on one shoulder, in which was set a brilliant red gemstone. Their hands held ornate pistols, lighter and more lethal-looking than the weapons used by the craftworld's warriors. From their belts hung slim swords, seemingly fashioned from silver but for the spiderweb-thin network of conductor crystals that covered each blade, and would project the disruptor field if the power weapons were used. From each blood red helmet flowed a black mane, each one contrasted with a white braid on each side. The eyes of their masks glowed green. The Exarchs moved with a steady grace, supremely sure of themselves, elegant but nonetheless deadly in the extreme. Seeing them, Luther had little doubt who was about to emerge from the portal.
A final figure stepped out of the light, and the portal shut off. Luther blinked, his eyes adjusting to the sudden return of normal light, and then he saw his visitor. Her armour glowed, the black metal catching the light and returning it in shades of blue and purple, the red plates along her legs and left arm shining, the reflected light flowing across the subtle patterns carved on them. She walked directly to Luther and stood before him. He realised it was up to him to welcome her formally.
"Phoenix Lady, we are honoured by your presence," he began. He knew the traditional welcome, and was about to continue when a slight nod from the Phoenix stopped him. She raised her hands, and reached behind her head, through the white mane that cascaded over her shoulders. Luther heard a click, and then the helmet was lifted away, its curved spires folding in on themselves, the mane disappearing into its back. One hand hung the remaining mask on her belt, then Jain Zar smiled at the dumbstruck Farseer and spoke.
"Your welcome is appreciated, Farseer," she said in a voice that was low, carrying with it a complex mix of undertones that seemed to suggest many voices speaking at exactly the same time, and also a husky little harmonic that hit the ear with the same power her appearance projected. She was beautiful. Her dark hair flowed around a face that was at the same time imposing and full of expression. Her eyes shone a clear crystal blue, a reminder in the vision of bronzed beauty that she was one of the deadliest beings in the galaxy, for they seemed to look straight into Luther's soul via his eyes. He found himself momentarily without words. The Phoenix's lips quirked into a lopsided smile.
"Forgive me if I ignore tradition for a moment, but I don't have much time. I have a message for you, Luther. You must know that you are approaching a choice, one which could affect our entire race. We have always seen the future laid out before us, our path to armaggeddon has been clear. This does not have to be our fate. An unexpected branch has appeared in the workings of the future. Watch carefully. Grasp that branch, and hold it with all your strength. Avoid the fall beyond it." She paused, and turned to one of the Exarchs, who responded to her barely perceptible hand motion and approached. Jain Zar turned back to Luther.
"You will need help. This is Solari. She is the most accomplished of my chosen ones. I will return when I am able to do so. Until then, she will help you." The Exarch bowed to Luther and then held out a hand, palm down. Luther immediately unsheathed the slim witchblade at his waist and held it to her, the blade horizontal between them. Her hand rested on the blade.
"On your honour," he said, and she nodded and withdrew her hand. The formality complete, she stepped away from the Phoenix and stood by Luther's side, facing her. Jain Zar glanced at her, then looked back at Luther.
"I wish you success, Farseer. For all our sakes," she said quickly, then turned, her mask folding out in her hand, forming the helmet by the time she had raised it to cover her head. The portal flashed open an instant before she stepped through it, and she disappeared, followed by the bodyguard of Exarchs. Luther watched the portal close, then turned to the one remaining by his side.
"I thought Exarchs couldn't remove their armour," he said. In response, Solari nodded, and motioned for them to leave the webway chamber. She followed behind him.
"Aspect warriors dive into the path of the warrior," she said, as they passed through the labyrinthine passages of the craftworld. "It is possible to lose oneself in the path, and then the armour is as much the warrior as the body. All aspect warriors fear losing themselves, but it is a risk they take for the good of their people. Exarchs are powerful warriors, totally devoted to the protection of their homes. But the most powerful are those who could lay down their weapons, but recognise that they must fight to protect what they believe in. This can happen. Sometimes, when a warrior is lost, it is not forever. Some of us find ourselves again."
"Us?" said Luther, turning back to face Solari. Her helmet under one arm, she looked back at him with a crooked smile.
"It can happen," she said. "Sometimes."
Five seconds, Octavian decided, until he sent a message over the fortress comm-net summoning the commander. He began to count. After three seconds, he heard the door behind him open, and turned to see the commander enter. He knew that the commander's quarters had information links to every system in the fortress, and guessed that they were not going unused. The commander seemed to know whenever he would be needed anywhere, and turned up just as someone was about to summon him. It showed a commendable dedication to duty, in Octavian's mind, to keep such a watchful eye on chapter operations when it would be months, at least, until they were again placed on active duty.
The commander persisted with the silver helmet, but had otherwise taken to wearing the artificer armour that was traditionally the uniform of the chapter master. It had taken several days during which the commander spent most of his time in consultation with the chapter's finest engineers to complete the suit. It was a combination of red and black, the black with a slight hint of blue, the red shining as if it were alive. Golden patterns crossed the flat surfaces of the suit, swirling around, complimenting the natural shapes of the armour. One shoulder bore the Fury icon of the chapter, the other a complex pattern of armour and decoration. Octavian had guessed that the armour was built so as to protect mainly from the right, although when the commander trained, both with ranged weapons and at close quarters, he seemed to have no dominant side. He crossed the command and control chamber and stood beside Octavian.
"You have something unusual on the long-range probe satellites?" he said. Octavian nodded.
"This entered range of our surveillance systems several minutes ago. We just received clear images of it now." He pushed a button and a screen flickered from a starmap display to show a starship. It was large, according to the scale information that was being displayed alongside it, almost the size of a capital ship, but it was not bulky. Two slim engine nacelles extended from its sides, glowing a faint green. Octavian recognised a standard fusion drive on the rear of the ship, in front of a downward-projecting communications tower. The front of the ship was streamlined, similar to the cruisers of the Imperial Navy, but where they had been designed to absorb or deflect damage with their long, curving bows, this ship looked as if it had been built for speed. The commander nodded thoughtfully and tapped a button on the communications console, connecting the system to the audio equipment in his suit.
"This is Semnai, Adeptus Astartes homeworld. Identify yourself." The response was almost immediate, an indication to Octavian, who rarely missed that sort of information, that the ship was carrying sophisticated transmission equipment.
"Semnai, this is the free trader vessel Thunderchild. Our captain requests permission to enter orbit and teleport down."
"Permission granted, Thunderchild," replied the commander. "Good to see you again." He closed the link. Octavian turned to him.
"You know this ship, Brother-commander?"
"I've seen her once or twice. I know her captain. There's no security risk. They'll be teleporting down soon, we should meet them." Octavian followed his commander out of the C&C chamber towards the teleport chambers.
They entered one of the chambers that was kept on standby, and the commander touched a control, lighting up the teleporter's interface console. Octavian set the console to automatic, and turned to see the usual columns of light. When they dimmed, a single figure stood on the teleport dais. Octavian blinked in surprise.
The woman standing on the teleport dais was clearly the ship's captain, just from the air of authority she broadcast without any apparent effort. She wore a black jumpsuit that would have looked like leather were it not for the small silver connectors at her waist, which Octavian recognised as standard links for a pressure suit. She was not armed, but an empty pistol holster rested against her hip. The commander approached her.
"It's been a while," he said. The woman nodded, and extended her hand, which the commander took.
"Aren't you going to introduce me?" she said, stepping off the dais.
"Of course. Lieutenant Commander Octavian, my second in command."
"Hello," she said, shaking Octavian's hand. "I've heard of you," she continued, "you led the Daran expeditionary force, yes?"
"Yes, I did," he answered smartly.
"That was an impressive piece of work, especially against the Black Legion. They aren't often forced to give ground."
"Thank you, Captain..."
"Captain Warfield," said the commander.
"Callee," added the woman with a smile.
"I've arranged for the crew of the Thunderchild to assist us over the next month," continued the commander. "We have a lot of work ahead of us, especially on the fleet, and Callee has some of the best engineers outside Mars. I've prepared a schedule for diagnostics and preliminary structural work on the cruisers, and we'll start working on the combat equipment once everything's settled."
"Yes Commander," said Octavian.
"Return to C&C, I'll send Captain Warfield along to help coordinate personnel and equipment landing when we're done." Octavian saluted and left the teleport chamber. The commander and Callee followed him, but turned into another corridor, heading for the commander's quarters.
"I like the armour," said Callee.
"I used that matrix element we developed. It works surprisingly well."
"A new mask?"
"Yes, the old armour took a beating on Cordan last year. I rebuilt it once I got off the planet. Not so much plating, I don't need it with the power armour."
"You're using a voice synthesiser."
"Not much choice, really. I had it built in just before I went to Terra. It's a variant on the type I used in the chameleon field. I had to use that on Terra, but I don't think it would have held up for this long. Hence the mask. It gets tedious after a while, but there's really no other option. Here," he added, as they drew level with the door to the commander's quarters. The door opened and Callee stepped inside, followed by the commander. The door sealed behind them.
"Engage Alpha security," said the commander. A soft beep and a red light on the door indicated that the rooms were secure. The commander tapped a button on the power armour's wrist, and the silver mask retracted smoothly. Callee smiled at the familiar face.
The commander of the Furies chapter let her hair down and put it into a loose ponytail, allowing her power armour to disengage itself. When the suit had connected to its support systems in the room's back wall and the chest plates had slid open, she pulled her arms out of it and lifted herself free of the suit's legs, dropping lightly to the floor. She unclipped the silver band around the neck of the grey outfit she wore under the power armour and handed it to Callee, then stretched her arms.
"Power armour's all very well for the battlefield, sister," she said, "but day-to-day, it badly needs redesigning."