Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Mon Mar 18, 2013 9:56 pm

TWELVE

The Voice
Defiance
Grey Prince’s Conscience


The Gargoyles fleet departed the system like a massive shoal of parasitic creatures surrounding the magnificent bulk of the Redeemer. It left neither message nor explanation, cruising past the confused vessels of the Peacekeepers and the few System Defense Force monitors and breaking into the Immaterium before anyone else could react.

On Parias, millions could breathe easier, knowing that the monsters that brought the Imperial rule to their world were gone. The world went back to its usual business and would continue as though nothing had happened for many more rotations around its primary star, until the universe had caught up with it decades later. By then, the galaxy was a much different place, and many more tears joined those shed by the few survivors of the Balakhat Hive as the grief-stricken Peacekeepers looked on.

The ships of the Tenth Legion continued to maintain a defensive cordon over the planet for another two days, perhaps reconsidering their next deployment, perhaps gathering wayward companies and operatives from the system’s many planets and moons. On the eve of the third day, the Peacekeepers have also departed, to great relief of Parias’ Lord Governor, who began to suspect that certain fiscal irregularities of his have been discovered. It would be four more long, torturous years before the governor’s excesses would be exposed, and he would join his equally venal predecessor as a lobotomized, heavily modified servitor.

Isaiah would neither know nor care about what happened after his Legion’s departure. As soon as the Redeemer broke into the Warp, the Sixth Captain left his armor inside his Spartan quarters, not saying a word even to the trusty Etienne as he left.

He walked purposely through the great vessel’s corridors, paying no heed to the Legion serfs and naval ratings that scurried out of his way, sensing his greater need. He must have presented a terrifying sight to them – a giant of a man dressed in a light grey chiton, arms covered with savage-looking faded tattoos only partially healed by his enhanced post-human physiology, teeth bared in a snarl that promised unpleasant confrontation to any who would bar his way. His eyes, grey and cold, were focused only on the next turn, the next twist of the winding passages that led him to his query.

A thousand thoughts raced through Isaiah’s mind. It has been fifty years since the initial confrontation on Parias, and all those memories now came back with a vengeance. He recalled the desperate mission to take out the heart of rebellion, heedless of casualties; battle-brothers dying as the mutinous nobles opened sections of the hive to the planet’s corrosive atmosphere; the resplendence of the enemy uniforms and the weakness of little men and women that wore them, their bodies cleaved in two by casual movements of the Excruciator or blasted apart by shots from his bolt pistol. The surphurous stench assaulted his nostrils, a pallid reminder of the burning hell outside the hive’s adamantium superstructure and protective void shields. Isaiah remembered the Gargoyles’ Techmarines placing the charges at the hive’s reactor core, setting them with just enough time for the Legion’s warriors – he, an aspiring battle-brother just recently promoted to sergeant among them – to escape the coming massacre.

Most of all, he remembered the screams.

Millions of people, guilty and innocent alike, trying to force their way out of the hive as soon as they realized the warning sirens were no mere drill. Throngs of humanity trampling one another in an endless drive to live for just another moment even when the adamantium walls gave in, and hot, toxic breath of Parias incinerated them in their thousands. Desperate masses throwing themselves in the Space Marines’ way to take their murderers with them if all else failed, all reason gone in the face of the inevitable.

In his mind, they died, again and again until the entire universe was nothing but one massive, endless scream of pain and agony rising above all in a climactic crescendo.

Isaiah licked his lips, closing his eyes for a moment to reminisce. The screams went away, for now.

Now that he was away from the prying eyes of those who knew him, Isaiah could give voice to his thoughts, aspirations and fears. He cherished the few short minutes he had to himself, a moment of privacy so rare for the one of his position. Isaiah cleared his mind using a meditation technique taught by the Legion’s Librarians to all officers, even those whose psychic potential was negligible. It was supposed to let him concentrate on the important matters, leaving all others behind.

For a second he almost thought he could not succeed, thoughts of Parias lingering in his conscience. Then, familiar images of a mantra began to take shape.

Circles, squares, triangles, octagons, a clockwork mechanism that described the universe of the mind appeared under his closed eyelids. Finally, calm descended upon him, a sense of singular determination that the Legion’s elders attempted to instill in their charges from the moment the initiates first wore the grey and white colors of the Fourteenth. Isaiah let his other senses guide him through the passages, instinctively sensing when to turn, when to avoid meager oncoming traffic, when to duck as the ceiling became too low for a Space Marine to walk straight.

He smiled, knowing that he was getting closer to his target. The air acquired a taste of something humid and foul – the stink of humanity.

As Isaiah’s eyes opened, he was greeted with a vision of a hallway, long and full of carvings the Argosian menials have left on the walls as a paltry reminder of their distant homeworld. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the sound of water dripping from a rusted-through pipe – drip, drip, drop.

It was as silent as he hoped, and the delicious irony of his decision made him smile.

He was looking for a voice in the deepest, darkest silent recesses of the Redeemer.

The arcane geometries of the mind turned, becoming a face, aligning with a pattern of grotesque Argosian imagery. One by one, each feature came to life. Face of a hero, born of the world full of abominations. Face of the one who could no longer give voice to his own thoughts, apart not only from the universe but even from his own sons.

Until now.

Isaiah stopped before a nondescript, filthy-looking door, feeling the gravity of the moment. This was the next step to his grand destiny, the step that would both help his gene-sire and, perhaps, elevate the Sixth Captain above his peers.

He knocked.

* * *

There was no answer.

Isaiah did not know what to expect. His dealings with mortals were limited at best; Legion serfs were far beneath his notice, and while he had cringingly resigned himself to treating the naval personnel with a modicum of courtesy, he had a hard time reading them.

Mortals were either the means to service the Legion’s war machine or the enemies to be slaughtered, eviscerated en masse when the best of their warriors proved no match for the Gargoyles.

He knocked again, then impatiently pushed the door in, not waiting for an answer. The metal yielded easily, as if the cabin’s occupant did not bother with locking it.

The cabin greeted Isaiah with an appearance of disorganized, haphazard clutter. He winced as he caught the smell of something rotten, not because it offended his enhanced senses, but because he could not believe any human being would voluntarily elect to exist like this. Truly, Isaiah thought, the mortals were wretched, revolting creatures.

“Marat?”

The voice was weak, devoid of strength or conviction. Isaiah had heard soldiers seconds away from death speaking with more presence.

He crossed the heaps of garbage and discarded fragments of life and art, moving in the direction of a voice. On more than one occasion, only his superior sense of balance wrought into his physique by the Legion’s gene-smiths kept him from stumbling. He bit back a juicy Argosian curse that would have compared the cabin to a nest of a particularly loathsome subterranean creature.

The remembrancer looked haggard, ragged and listless sitting on a messy bed, wet streaks of tears running down her face. Even with his limited knowledge of mortals, Isaiah could tell that she was clearly malnourished, simply wasting away in her self-imposed confinement. She did not meet his eyes, seemingly displaying little concern for what a giant Space Marine could be doing in her quarters.

“You are Angela Hesail,” Isaiah said, not sure how to announce his presence. None of his past experiences have prepared him for this.

The girl lifted her head, looking at him with an emotion he could not quite place. Then, it hit him – desperation. He had seen it many times in the eyes of the soldiers he killed, as they realized they stood no chance of defeating the Gargoyles or even of surviving the battle. How quaint, the Sixth Captain thought.

“What do you want?” she said in a lifeless, scratchy voice that spoke of indifference.

“I want you to come with me,” the Space Marine said. He found himself amused by the notion that this conversation made him more uncomfortable than any foe he had faced in his long, bloody career.

“And kill another world?” the girl’s voice acquired a hint of angry defiance. “Go to hell.”

Isaiah was momentarily taken aback. He was used to the mortals’ deference and fear, their only defiance coming moments before their threads were cut by the Excruciator. White-hot rage flooded his eyes as he came to terms with the realization that not only this woman was giving him none of the status he expected, but she just told him he was neither welcome nor allowed in here.

He bit his lip, trying to regain control. The geometric pattern, gift of the Illuminators to all who would listen, floated before his mind’s eye. It was not working very well.

He was now directly by the remembrancer’s side, towering over her even without his armor. The Sixth Captain supposed he presented an intimidating sight.

“Do not insult me, mortal,” he hissed, taking every bit of mental fortitude to restrain himself. He felt a powerful urge to rip this insolent, broken human apart with his hands and teeth for such an affront to his person. He cursed the need he had for her – the one he could bring back to his liege as a prize, the one undisputed ticket he had to the Legion’s inner circle. “Our lord needs you.” Somehow, Isaiah realized, this woman was the key to interpreting the strange, otherwise incomprehensible workings of the Fourteenth Primarch’s mind, and he was not going to let this prize slip out of his fingers.

“Then he can at least come himself instead of sending a lackey,” the girl replied. It seemed that she was coming to life at the thought of defying the Gargoyle.

Isaiah bared his teeth, using every little bit of willpower he had not to take the woman’s life. He felt he was dangerously close to the edge of his patience. Only his ambition kept his murderous tendencies in check; he knew that for the moment, the remembrancer was the most precious commodity aboard the Redeemer, and, for all that she attempted to defy him, she was completely in his power.

“I am not here on lord Angelus’ behalf,” the Reaper exhaled. He was still not sure why the remembrancer was not awed or terrified into submission. In fact, he thought, he did not understand why she was even in this condition in the first place. Was it something peculiar to the mortals, Isaiah wondered, trying to shift his thoughts away from the violent solution his instincts promised?

“Just go away. Please?” the remembrancer’s eyes staring directly at him were bloodshot, empty of anything but pain.

“I think not,” said the Sixth Captain. He might not have understood the mortals very well, but he understood one thing. For all that this petulant girl was unwilling to embrace her place in his schemes, she was as frail and incapable as the rest of her kind.

Isaiah grabbed Angela by the shoulders, jolting her upward until he held her small frame fully in the air, completely unperturbed by her attempts to wrestle free. A faint memory surfaced in the Gargoyle’s mind – a big, powerful man holding a small child, displaying him to the world. Was it something from the barely remembered time before he joined the Legion? The details were hazy, and not even the Space Marine’s near-eidetic memory could recall the specifics. He heard a whine, a cry as he realized his grip, unused to handling mortals outside of combat, was too much for the girl.

“You are coming with me, remembrancer, whether you like it or not,” the Sixth Captain growled, setting her over his shoulder as if the girl was a sack full of clothes. Her attempts to hit or scratch him went completely unnoticed, not any more than he would notice a gnat. He gave one last look to the wretched cabin, then turned around to leave, still marveling how the fate of one such as him could be connected to such a weak, petulant, unruly creature.

Truly, the mortals were beyond his understanding, Isaiah thought, spitting on the floor in disgust. The acidic substance ate through the debris, papers, pieces of blank canvas as though they were ice melting under the heat from a burning coal. The remembrancer on his shoulder wept, all fight gone from her.

Good, thought Isaiah. It meant he would have far less trouble getting his prize to the Grey Prince, and, perhaps, claiming the reward he so richly deserved.

* * *

The Primarch’s private quarters aboard the Redeemer were large, far larger than even the most luxurious cabins afforded to the visiting Terran nobles or dignitaries. It was said that instead of letting others design the space for him, Angelus had transplanted a self-perpetuating sample of Argosian biosphere, complete with the right gravity, atmospheric composition, humidity and other thousand factors that made the vast hall seem like a lost piece of Argos amongst the stars.

In any other being, this would have been a symptom of extreme vanity. For the Fourteenth Primarch, this was home.

Black water cascaded down a well-worn rock wall and into the shallow pool, giving off no reflection of the dim simulated sunlight. A rustling noise signaled a movement in the heavy native flora; a small critter tried to get a drink of water, risking a moment’s exposure to sate its thirst. Another sound; this time a predatory bird, swooping from its hitherto unseen hideaway to catch its prey. And all was silent again.

Isaiah never failed to be amazed by the artisanship that went into the creation of his gene-father’s private retreat, a world within a world. Sometimes he could almost allow his senses to be deceived by an illusion of a faraway home world, thinking back to his vaguely remembered childhood before the Legion took him and made him into a killer of men and monsters alike.

He passed by the four sentinels in the pure white battle plate of the Hell Guard, the Primarch’s personal retinue that, as of late, remained behind on other duties. The warriors nodded to him, allowing the Sixth Captain passage, much to his surprise.

The girl on his shoulder was no longer struggling. Isaiah heard sobbing sounds, perhaps cries of desperation and, eventually, resignation. He briefly wondered if she expected some kind of torture to be inflicted upon her, then grinned. For all that a warrior of the Legiones Astartes had little interest in pleasures of the flesh, Isaiah had greatly enjoyed sensing the fear in others.

Perhaps this was the greatest reward the Legion gave him, he mused as he climbed the crumbling steps on a solitary path through the simulated wilderness. It was not the unnaturally extended lifespan, or the fulfillment of thirst for glory and adventure that many youth of Argos dreamed of. No, it was simple – the ability to inflict terror, the ability to reinforce his superiority over the creatures of the galaxy just like the Grey Prince’s followers have finally destroyed the beasts of their blighted world.

“Just like that,” a voice, deep and resonant spoke from the canopy of large, ancient-looking trees. Isaiah held his breath, trying not to show surprise before his sovereign.

“Sire?” the Sixth Captain said, more an acknowledgment of the Primarch’s presence than a statement of uncertainty. He heard a strange note in the Grey Prince’s voice, something familiar and yet unlike anything he recalled of recent. Something… almost lucid, a tone Isaiah had not heard from his liege in many years. He set the girl down upon the nearby stone, disregarding the murderous look she gave the towering Space Marine.

Angelus descended from the gloom like a shape straight out of legend. Everything about him was black or grey – the wings, the clothes, the long hair were all shades of ebony, while the pallid grey of his face seemed to meld into the shadows of the habitat. As he passed, the creatures of faraway Argos scuttled out of his way, instinctually recognizing a predator greater than themselves.

“I… have an offering…” Isaiah stuttered, feeling not a little overwhelmed. As much as the Space Marines were bred to feel no fear as the mortals understood it, the Captain of the Reapers was now as close to it as he thought he could get.

“You listened!” Angelus’ face lit up with sudden glee. “Of all my children, you have heard. Say! What have you heard? What music, and of what spheres?”

“Umm… sire?”

“My talisman,” the Primarch said, somehow managing to move so quickly Isaiah did not even realize the winged giant was on the move until less than a meter separated them. The Grey Prince knelt down, a hunched pose that made him look like the titular Legion totem. His hand reached out.

“You,” said Angelus, touching the girl’s face, brushing her dirty hair with surprising tenderness. Isaiah felt almost incensed at the casual disregard his gene-father had shown him. It was his idea, he boiled within, incapable of expressing anger at his Primarch and yet seeking an outlet for his frustration. It took Isaiah all his willpower not to snarl at the pitiful mortal.

“My… focus…” the Primarch appeared to struggle with the words. His eyes drifted towards something only he could see, something in the dark water. He turned to Isaiah with a sudden, jerking motion.

“Thank you… Captain…” Angelus squeezed out the words. “You are… dismissed.”

That was it, Isaiah wondered? His entire journey here, all his ambitions, summed up in a single word?

“Tomorrow…” the Primarch crooned, delirious tone setting in again. Angelus shook his head as though he tried to wake up from some long, drawn-out nightmare. There was once again hardness to his face, a tightening of his jaw. “Come to me tomorrow, Isaiah.” He chuckled softly with somewhat of a rebellious, child-like undertone being completely at odds with his inhuman appearance.

“You shall see my conscience and guilt, yes you will!” the Primarch raised his eyes to the simulated sky, where the constellations of Argos continued their slow dance across the holographic heavens. “And then,” he gave Isaiah a conspiratory look, “then shall be a new day.”

The Sixth Captain saluted, daring to hope that, perhaps, his efforts were not completely in vain, then made his leave. The sound of his feet on the wet stones was quickly subsumed into the cacophony of endless Argosian dusk, where creatures great and small went on about their business, caring little about the fate of the galaxy or all its inhabitants outside their private little microcosm.

The Primarch now faced Angela, dark eyes studying every line on her face, the dark circles under her eyes, the lack of sunlight turning her skin almost as pallid as his. The girl turned her eyes to the pond, either too distraught or too terrified to meet his gaze. He held up her chin, meeting little resistance and sensing only a little bit of her old defiance in the curl of her lips.

Angelus smiled, an expression almost completely human, warm and welcoming despite the gloom of their surroundings. His other hand went over her shoulders in a gesture that was both protective and even fatherly, at odds with the girl’s uncontrollable shivering.

“And here you are,” the Primarch’s voice was honeyed silk, neither violent nor confused. “What was meant to be, all along. Just like they told me.”

“Welcome home, Angela,” said the Grey Prince.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby JJvagnar » Mon Mar 18, 2013 10:23 pm

Awesome. I love the detail of these new Legions.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Tue Mar 19, 2013 12:11 am

THIRTEEN

Dreams in Limbo
Beginnings
Blades


The world was a dream, a faintly remembered cascade of memories and concepts that had only a vague connection to reality. It was a dark and cold place, neither in this existence nor in the next but somewhere in a limbo between true life and its shade, unpleasantly humid and filled with the ghostly images of things that should have never existed. Grey light bathed it in ashen magnificence, reflecting from the afterimages imprinted upon the confused retinas; dripping sounds of water were a symphony of ethereal reality that neither calmed nor reassured.

Angela did not want to be here, but awakening did not come easily. This private retreat gave no true shelter, the knowledge she tried to escape weighing heavily upon her mind.

There were visitors – some familiar and almost helpful, some scornful and destitute, casting blame for all she had done, trying to inflict punishment for her cardinal sin. Some tried to do violence to her, while some others examined her like she was an exotic creature fit only for a freak show. At first she tried to resist, then, eventually, gave up. Angela had no control over where the figments of her imagination took her. The ashen light could not delineate the difference between the incomprehensible dream logic and what reality she tried to cling on to.

When she opened her eyes, the dream was still there.

The dripping water, the grey illumination did not vanish into her subconscious. Instead, they resolved into focus, becoming more and more real as she looked on, examining the intricate patterns on the mossy stones underneath her feet, the movements of insects hurrying to get out of the open, the glint of light upon the dark pool of water less than a meter away. Involuntarily, she extended her hand towards the water, dipping her fingers in.

It was wet, cold and possessed of a thick texture that water should not have had.

Angela shook the oily residue off her fingers, wiping them off on the ground. The rock was cold and slimy, even more so than the water.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

It is a dream, she tried telling herself, denying the growing feeling of unease. The voice was simply one more visitor, no more real than the rest, a symptom of a conscience ill at ease.

“Go away,” she said with little interest, resuming her examination of her surroundings.

“How can I?” the voice said, sounding almost as if it came from just behind her shoulder. “It is my dream, too.”

She turned, expecting to see another apparition, maybe someone she could recognize from the waking world. And almost as quickly she was on her feet, taking a step back towards the oily water.

“I wouldn’t do that, no, not at all,” said Angelus, the Primarch of the Gargoyles. “There are uger in there.”

Angela laughed as recollections flooded back. This must have been a dream. For all the brief time she spent near the Fourteenth Primarch, he had never sounded anything like this. Lucid. Capable of speaking without resorting to obscure metaphors and references that only he could understand.

“I see you, little sister,” the giant winged demigod said, mischievous glint in his eyes. “In the end, our strains were after all intertwined.”

She wanted to say something, to deny his existence. Instead of words, only a high-pitched whine came out of her mouth.

“Hush,” the Primarch said, putting his hand over her shoulder. She had a vague recollection, perhaps another instance where she was this close to him? “Don’t say a word. Not now.”

She shook her head, still mute.

There was a strange place within a dream where the dreamer realized her true state and yet remained incapable of affecting the strange unreality surrounding her. The tides of emotions and wordless thoughts surrounded Angela.

“These uger are not real,” she finally said through cracked, dry lips. “There is no pool.”

“Oh, but there is!” Angelus laughed. “You just have not accepted it yet.”

She felt a sudden chill that was neither wholly natural nor expected. Angela’s eyes darted to the surface of the pool; now, she could see black, sinuous shapes writing deep inside. One seemed to acquire a curious interest in her, swimming closer to the surface. The young woman saw a hint of scales barely penetrate the murky depths.

“Watch,” she faced the pool, making a motion to step into it. “This is not real.”

Her feet never touched the water.

The Primarch moved faster than she thought possible, intercepting a snake-like horror the length of her arm and squeezing the life out of it with a casual flick of a wrist. Angela smelled something revolting, fish-like yet subtly wrong in its scent, as if it was not of the modified Terran stock. The Grey Prince’s other hand barred her entry, stopping her from entering the pool.

“Don’t do that again,” Angelus warned. “The uger bite is poisonous to humans.”

“I am having a bad dream,” said the girl, staring at the creature dying in the Primarch’s grip. A creeping suspicion lingered at the back of her mind.

“We all have a dream,” Angelus said, letting go of both the girl and the eel-like creature. “We all have consequences.”

“I am only thinking of you because of what you’ve made me do,” the young woman said accusingly, her voice rising in pitch and volume until it was almost a scream at the end. “It is all your fault.”

“Perhaps.” The Primarch sat down by the pool, his wings hovering over the murky water. “My only fault is the same as yours.” He shook his head, noting the lack of comprehension in Angela’s eyes. “I have listened.”

“Are you now saying you have no control over your own actions?” Angela’s voice was cold fury, her fists clenched as though in preparation for a physical confrontation. She turned away from him, facing the overgrown canopy of massive trees obscuring part of the distant, cloud-covered sky. “I should have known better,” she said to herself, bitterness all too apparent in her voice. “Inventing justifications to escape the consequences. Why…” her voice trailed off as she stared at something in the distance.

“You think I will not be here when you turn back?” the Primarch asked, half-mockingly. “Try it.”

“I will not play your games,” she said, not taking her eyes off a particularly twisted tree. It had occurred to her that the tree almost looked like a man bent and melded into this new, bizarre state.

“So you accept that I am not a figment of your imagination, Angela?”

“What are you…” she bit her lip. The pain seemed real.

“Exactly,” laughed the Grey Prince. “You are holding a conversation with something outside of yourself. This is the first step in understanding. The first lesson.”

“The lesson in what? You teach a lesson through death of a world?” Angela felt rage build up inside of her, to be quickly replaced with resignation. “Look at me. I am having an argument with a figment of my own imagination. The real Angelus could not string two words together to make sense.”

The Primarch laughed. The sound was loud and boisterous, somehow much louder than it had any right to be.

“You still cannot believe it.” With but one stride he was next to her, moving with a fluid grace of an apex predator in his natural habitat, confident and strong. His next words were whispered into her ear. “This is a very special place, you know it? A singular ambition brought you here, and kept you where you are needed.” Again, he moved too fast for human eye, now facing her as he crouched, still much taller than her. “If this is a dream, I challenge you. Wake up.”

* * *

In the end, it was all about the choices.

A faint memory, sunlight falling through a gilded window, becoming more and more alive. A young girl, seven years of age, stood before the assembled examination panel, a stack of pictures drawn with the childish naivete laid out upon a wooden table. The men and women of the panel examined the drawings, quietly conversing among themselves, tracing the lines of her work with fingers gnarled with age.

“Tell me, Miss Hesail,” one of them, a shrewish grey-haired woman with a stern scowl seemingly embedded into her features said, “why do you want to enter the Makalanhel Academy?” The girl knew the woman’s appearance was at odds with her status as one of the most accomplished sculptors on Terra; her name, Karanda Wiell, was spoken of with hushed reverence usually reserved only for heroes and geniuses.

The woman’s companions were equally accomplished. The girl knew their names – Suren Volstro, the artist whose frescoes adorned the Emperor’s Palace; Micah Foleister, whose symphonies were played on a thousand worlds; Lata Zhein, known as perhaps the most talented painter of the last century. There were others, too, sculptors and poets, painters and composers, the best of the current generation.

“I… I…” the girl stuttered, unsure of how to proceed before the gathering of luminaries.

“Don’t rush,” said Volstro, a youthful-looking man whose face betrayed few hints of expensive juvenat treatments. “This is not an easy decision.”

“I… I want to be the best,” Angela said, feeling anxious with a thousand doubts dancing in her mind. What if her work was not good enough? What if she failed to make the right impression? What if…

“An admirable quality,” Volstro smiled, “but it requires dedication. Are you prepared to dedicate your entire life to the pursuit of art, and nothing else, no matter where your life takes you? Do you commit to it, body and mind?”

It was an unfair choice to be imposed on a seven year old, Angela wanted to protest. Who at that age could possibly understand the implications of such a complete commitment?

But there was not going to be any other chances. The Makalanhel Academy was the elite institution, one of the few of its kind that had the patronage of the Regent of Terra himself. Wealth and birth had no say in who got admitted here; only true talent mattered.

“I did not think such a young child could possess this active of an imagination,” said Karanda Wiell. “Look at this.” She lifted up a drawing, an ugly, winged creature that seemed to take flight towards a pallid globe of the sun. “Where did you come up with this?”

“I guess…” said Angela, feeling more and more out of her depth, “I just made it up.”

The luminaries exchanged looks, whispering things into each other’s ears. A few cast curious glances in the girl’s direction.

“I… sometimes I dream about them,” the girl said after a minute’s pause.

“Interesting…” said Volstro. “I wonder what kind of experience could have given you those nightmares. On a second thought,” he smiled reassuringly, even if it did look forced, “maybe not. I am not sure I want to know.”

“Her history says she was found in down-hive in the former Ursh territories,” said Lata Zhein, a portly matron with a motherly disposition, facing Volstro. “Who knows what things she might have seen there! This,” she painted at the painting, “is unlike anything I’ve ever seen a child her age do. I should know. My youngest is just a year older than her, and is no slouch, and yet he cannot even get close to this. How do you suppose she learned to draw?”

“An interesting question,” Volstro replied. “But irrelevant. The girl’s good, I give her that. Miss Hesail,” he gave Angela a hard stare. “I repeat my question again. Are you prepared to make a life’s commitment to art, and only art? Do you have the dedication to learn and excel everything we can teach you, to work harder than you have ever worked, and to reject everything else in the pursuit of perfection?”

“Yes,” the girl said with only a moment’s hesitation, cold determination giving her face a hardened appearance at odds with her age. “Yes, I am,” she repeated, this time with the conviction that belongs only to those either too young, too fanatical, or too impaired to know otherwise.

Another memory, another choice.

“I can give you the galaxy,” a young man said, looking at Angela with the eyes clouded with emotion.

They stood upon a parapet high above the monolithic urban sprawl, watching the coming of night as the first stars appeared. Here and there orbital platforms continued their stately movement across the velvet palette of the cloudless sky, their lights glinting oddly amongst the starfield.

They both held glasses in their hands, expensive bubbly liquid almost golden in the relative absence of illumination. A faint breeze played with her hair, disturbing the elaborate pattern of curls that took hours to get just right. Angela shuddered from a sudden chill, realizing that her form-fitting gown was better suited for a temperature-conditioned ballroom than for open air.

The man was strong and good-looking in a way that could only be obtained through a combination of good breeding and rigorous exercise, dressed in a simple suit that had understated the wealth and the social station he commanded. His ancestors were the rulers of sizable portion of Merica, who, having made an early alliance with the Emperor, have maintained their importance, now as viceroys for their Imperial master. Theodore was everything billions of women of Terra desired, photogenic, wealthy, powerful, yet surprisingly gentle with his attentions and demeanor. There was hardly a better match Angela could have hoped for. And yet…

“I cannot,” she said, staring into the distance. The Lemuria platform just now began its slow rise over the horizon, multi-colored lights flashing like a small constellation belaying its massive size. The wind got colder.

“There are thousands of artists just waiting to be called up,” Theodore said, giving her a desperate, pained look. “What’s the difference if there is one less?”

She felt a single tear drop down her cheek. “I cannot refuse it.”

“It’s your dreams, isn’t it?” the man snarled, fists clenched. He curled his lips in distaste. “You keep on painting them. What,” he looked at her intently, “did you think I paid no attention? I knew something was wrong ever since you first painted that thing.”

How could she explain, Angela wondered? It was not a fleeting moment of delirium, not a strange quirk of a mind too tired to consider other options. It was the knowledge of what was right, what had to happen, like a guiding light that beckoned too strongly for her to ignore.

“I have to,” she said, wiping the tear from her cheek, then quickly downing most of her glass’s contents.

“What can it give you that I cannot, Angela?” the young man said, drawing closer to her. “I can have your works displayed in the finest galleries on Terra, where all, high and low, can enjoy them. You can be drawn to decorate the Imperial Palace if you desire so. I have to but speak a word to the Regent, and you could have anything you ever want!”

“We can live a long life together, and sample everything this galaxy has to offer,” he continued, an impassioned plea that was to fall upon deaf ears. “If you want inspiration from new places, you have but ask, and we shall go to the end of the universe if we must. All that I have shall be yours to share in.” His face was now so close to her she could smell alcohol on his breath. “All you have to do is say yes, and take what is freely given, my love.”

“I am sorry,” she said, drawing away from him. The glass fell out of her hand, priceless crystal dropping hundreds of meters to its demise in the murky darkness.

He could never understand, for all that he was willing to give. Some dreams were more than inspiration, more than encouragement or fuel for psychoses. They demanded to be followed, obeyed, listened to.

“I am embarking tomorrow,” Angela said, stone-faced and barely holding her emotions in check. “Twenty Seventh Expedition.”

“So it’s done,” said Theodore, sounding defeated. “You did it anyway.” There was something dejected about the way he spoke, a combination of emotional distress and hurt ego. Not many dared to reject one such as him.

“I will be back,” Angela replied, feeling the insincerity in her words. She felt goosebumps upon the flesh of her exposed arms. She could have made the choice to stay, to enjoy the life Theodore would have given her as one of the planet’s elite, to leave the Great Crusade to those better suited for such endeavors.

She could not do it, for the dreams would keep on haunting her.

“You won’t,” he said knowingly. “I have shared you with the things inside your dreams for too long not to know better. I guess it was too much to ask,” he added bitterly, grinding his teeth in an admission of defeat.

For a second he looked like he was going to grab her and either draw her close or push her over the parapet. Theodore closed his eyes, rocking back and forth and mumbling something under his breath, perhaps a calming mantra or a word of his frustrations. Then, he suddenly turned and began to walk without further words, faster and faster until he, too, disappeared into the darkness, leaving Angela alone with her dreams and decisions.

Only then she could give in to tears.

Another memory, another choice.

She was surrounded by damp, dank vegetation, colorless in the diffuse light of a distant, pale sun. A lake of disgusting-looking sludgy water swarmed with sinuous life just few short steps away. Rustling sounds came from the ground, dead leaves and rotting earth giving it an unpleasant, almost nauseating smell. Small winged creatures waited on the branches of giant, moss-covered trees.

“Angela.” The voice belonged to a winged giant of a man with pallid, unhealthy complexion, holding on to her hand. “Will you walk with me?”

The choice was here, in front of her.

“This is not a dream.”

“It is not,” agreed Angelus, the Fourteenth Primarch.

* * *

Ludwig weaved around the blades, dancing in tune with the motions of the combat servitor, always staying just a half-step ahead of it. Lock, thrust, parry, then reach out again; the Nineteenth Captain was at one with the fluid motion of combat. He disregarded the persistent itching where his flesh met his augmetics, always more prominent when sweat came out and he was no longer on a combat drug high.

A single step to the side saw Ludwig deflect the servitor’s swing, sliding the practice blade down to the automaton’s wrist and rapidly reversing its direction to cut the creature’s hand off at the wrist. The servitor’s blade, enmeshed with what remained of its biological hand, fell to the floor with a resonating sound.

The warrior stopped for a moment, surveying the carnage. The servitor was now inert, its purpose completed; all three of its arms, two biological and one mechanical, were now neutralized. The dim light of the practice cages painted the lobotomized drone in pallid grey colors, giving it an alien appearance.

Only then did Ludwig become aware of another presence nearby.

“Good to see you take up the blade, for once.” The voice was mocking, arrogant and cruel, and it did not take long for Ludwig’s eyes to make out the shape of Isaiah in the gloom. “And here I was beginning to think the Nineteenth are too cowardly to meet death like men.”

“Come here and find out for yourself, Reaper,” Ludwig snarled, motioning to the other Captain. “I promise it’s nothing like playing games with the mortals you’re so fond of butchering.”

“They are easy meat,” Isaiah smiled, opening the cage door. “Not that you would know, brother.”

The two Captains were almost equal in size, although even Ludwig’s powerful bulk could not disguise the grey in his stubble, while Isaiah’s face, cleanly shaven, still shone with the impetuous arrogance of youth. The many tattoos upon Isaiah’s flesh made him look like a tribal primitive as he disrobed from his chiton, changing into the training garments that displayed his gene-bred musculature, leaving little to imagination. Ludwig’s flesh was almost completely bare of decoration but for the sigils indicating his Legion and Company affiliation, a strangely civilized custom among the sons of Angelus, renowned for their savagery.

“It’s time you face your betters up close and personal,” Isaiah taunted, taking hold of two comparatively short, for a Space Marine, blades, one for each hand. The blades made circular motions as the Sixth Captain evaluated them for their balance and suitability. “These will do.”

“Very well,” Ludwig snarled. He saluted Isaiah with his blade, a one-handed long sword, not bothering to grab a second weapon. “You won’t be the first arrogant pup to learn some better manners at my hands.”

Before the Captain of the Ogres was finished speaking, Isaiah was on him with a flurry of strikes, quick as only a Space Marine trained in assault techniques could be. He attacked from seemingly every direction, the short swords working in tandem to throw his opponent out of balance and penetrate his guard.

Ludwig moved with deceptive slowness, letting Isaiah seize initiative and seemingly content on parrying the younger Marine’s blows. One attack had almost touched the Terran warrior’s biceps, stopped at the last second by a quick twist and a ducking motion; another attack scratched the metal of Ludwig’s augmetic hand. Step by step, the Argosian Marine pushed his opponent back towards the edge of the practice cage.

The end came quickly and unexpectedly.

One second, Ludwig was reeling, on the verge of losing his balance. Then, in a sudden reversal of positions, the Terran Captain took a blow on his augmetic forearm, letting Isaiah’s attention wander for just enough to pummel the Argosian with the hilt of his blade. In an instant, Ludwig launched himself at the other warrior with a loud bellow, using his body mass to stagger his opponent in a move that had more to do with wrestling than with swordfighting.

The two warriors tumbled down amongst the remnants of defunct combat servitors, now covered with grime and filth of thousand combats that took place in the cage over the years. Ludwig’s eyes, bloodshot with rage, turned into points of red light, easily a match for the most bloodthirsty Ork as the Terran’s blade dropped, his hands converging upon Isaiah’s throat. One of Isaiah’s blades fell down as well; the other now pointed at Ludwig’s neck from behind.

They were one move away from a lethal resolution to their feud.

“Yield!” Ludwig demanded, growling the words through clenched teeth and struggling not to let his battle-rage take the best of him. His augmetic hand, stronger than even the genetically enhanced muscles of the Legiones Astartes, pressed on his opponent’s larynx. “Yield now, Isaiah.”

“I can end you before then,” the Sixth Captain hissed, pressing his weapon just a little closer to the Terran’s neck, puncturing the skin there.

A part of Ludwig wanted for him to try.

“What is it about, anyway?” the Terran said, breathing heavily from his exertions. “How long has it been? Fifty years? Sixty?”

“You are from the old Legion,” Isaiah spat out with menace. “Your ways are not like ours.”

“And yet your second is of old Legion, too,” Ludwig pointed out.

“Etienne understands Argos,” the Sixth Captain said, “even if he is born of a different world. I will never trust a brother who would shoot the enemy rather than face him up close.”

“Are you satisfied now that we’ve handled this matter here?” Ludwig’s grip did not relax as he spoke, knowing that he was not going to give Isaiah a satisfaction of victory.

“Handled the matter… I like how you say it,” Isaiah chuckled, the sound oddly muffled by the pressure on his throat. “Let me tell you something, Ludwig. You are old guard. That I don’t dispute, and don’t even care about as much as you think. But more than that – you are in my way.”

“Not letting the dregs like you turn the entire Legion into a crazed gang of savages, you mean?” Ludwig retorted. The older man felt anger leave him; only disappointment remained. “We’ve had this… rivalry, or whatever you want to call it, for longer than I care to remember. And over what? You think I care for elevation?”

The augmetic hand’s grip lessened as Ludwig shook his head. “If this is the cause of your discontent…” he let the words drift away.

“Our way has been vindicated time and again,” Isaiah said, withdrawing the blade. He sprung up to his feet, slowly feeling his neck. “And if I seek to turn it into personal ambition – so what! We are not servitors. We are the Emperor’s and the Primarch’s chosen, elevated from the mass of humanity and taught to put fear in the hearts of its enemies.”

“Etienne understands the passion that drives everything we Argosians do,” the Sixth Captain continued. “Sometimes you can only win when you let go. Until we recognize that, we shall not have true greatness.”

“It is not the greatness I want anything to do with, brother,” Ludwig spit on the ground.

“Then you shall not have greatness at all,” said Isaiah. “A warrior that does not aspire to greatness is no warrior at all, but a machine, a servitor, a weakling. Greatness urges us to seek the strands of fate that lead to it, no matter the cost. Without it, we are nothing.”

Ludwig said nothing, but lifted his weapon from the ground, examining it, testing the sharpness with his thumb before setting it on the rack.

“Without it, we are like the Tenth – creatures too obsessed with their precious sacred texts to ever become anything more, to ever achieve true glory instead of living in reflections of others’ greatness.”

“Maybe they are right,” the Terran Captain retorted angrily. “In the end, it will be them who are remembered on Terra, not us. Not the Jaws, or the Iconoclasts, but the Peacekeepers, the Redeemers, and the likes of them.”

“Better to remain an unknown hero than a celebrated sycophant,” Isaiah bellowed. “Glory and valor transform us, just like the Primarch’s visions guide us. Power is the consequence of glory.”

“Then this is the one kind of glory I want nothing to do with,” said Ludwig, walking out of the practice cage. “It can be all yours.”
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Tue Mar 19, 2013 2:46 am

FOURTEEN

Fears of a Demigod
The Twenty
Initiation


“I am afraid,” the Primarch said, setting down on the cold ground near Angela. A slight breeze blew his long hair across his face, covering one half of it – dark, forbidding, inhuman in its utter absence of light, at sheer contrast with the other, pallid and classically proportioned half.

“You? Afraid?” Angela laughed hysterically. “Are you even capable of feeling fear?”

“Only for you, little sister, only for you,” said the winged giant. His eyes drifted away into the distance as his stare grew vacant. Angela heard a faint moan, then saw his jaw harden and his lips draw in. A trickle of something dark and liquid came down from the corner of his mouth. The Primarch’s hand came down hard upon his knee, as if he was trying to knock some reality into himself, inflicting pain so that he could keep focus.

“I don’t have much time, Angela,” he said, lucid again after what seemed like a gargantuan effort of will. “I can only keep them at bay for so long.”

“What are you talking about?” The young woman stuttered, now at a point far beyond panic or terror, marked by sheer abandon and freedom that only those truly damned may know. Every layer of nightmare pulled her in deeper, with neither ability nor chance for escape.

“You have seen it, too,” he said haltingly, swiping his hair away with a flick of the wrist. “They have told me of your coming, a savior to share it with, the one similarly touched.” He put a massive hand on her shoulder. Angela shuddered; the hand was large enough to hold her head in a palm. Yet, there was no malice behind it; it felt like the Primarch tried to comfort her. “You have spent your entire life trying to take the visions and put them down onto the canvas. But it was never enough. You have always felt the compulsion to follow the white rabbit.”

“I have told you that story, didn’t I?” his lips gave a hint of a smile. “The one about a young girl, almost like you, who found out the hard way how… thin… this reality could be. It’s old. Really old. Almost as old as Father.” He licked his lips, then grinned, exposing teeth filed into sharp-edged points, like those of a wild beast. “Once you go down the hole, the only way out is to go deeper.”

“I… don’t understand…” Angela said, meekly protesting.

“The moment you have accepted that your visions have made you special and acted on them was the moment you took the plunge,” replied Angelus. “My people on Argos,” he paused, eyes lost in reminiscence, “yes, they believe in the workings of fate. They think that every step you make limits the fates you may face in the future. Once you make a choice, you have to deal with consequences.”

“These are… consequences?” said the girl.

“At every point in your life you could have said no, and refused the pull of fate,” the Primarch explained. “But fate is a fickle mistress. When you follow the hints fate gives you, you create a pattern that you must follow, no matter the end.”

“I did not think a Primarch would care for my fate,” Angela said bitterly. “Everyone knows what you are supposed to be – conquerors, sons of the Emperor, generals and exemplars.” She stood up, and his hand fell off her shoulder. “What is it that you want with me?”

Really, she thought, what did he want? Most people she had ever met desired only one of two things, her body or her talent, sometimes both. For all his menacing allure, the Primarch seemed to have little interest in such things; who knew what the demigods truly desired?

Angelus looked to one side, then another, as if expecting for something to emerge. He breathed a sigh of relief, then stood upright. The girl gasped, not realizing the full immensity of the Primarch until now; when not crouched, he was more than twice her height, without even counting the tips of the wings.

“It is not much longer,” the Primarch said, taking her hand. “But long enough. Walk with me.” His speech became halting and dissonant once again. Another trickle of blood came down from his nose, as if he was struggling to keep some titanic force at bay.

“They are not welcome here,” he said, staring vacantly into dead space. “You are not welcome!” He shouted the last phrase, loud enough for the words to ring through Angela’s ears. “Leave!

“No, not you, little sister,” he cocked his head to a side, bending down to partially mitigate his height. “I want you to stay.”

“Who are you talking about?” Angela asked, feeling chilled to the bone. She had an instinctual understanding that she was about to intrude on something that no mortal had ever seen before. A faint memory surfaced, a teaching from her years as a child prodigy at the Academy.

The most dangerous job in the universe is that of a witness.

“You are my focus. Like a lens that distills the light into fire. Like an artifact that can stave off the infliction.” The Primarch picked up a wayward, rotting tree branch from the ground. “This was once part of a tree. Strong. Growing. Beautiful. But then…” he ran his fingers down the length of the branch. Dirt and remains of wet, decomposing bark fell to the ground. “Something happened. Now, it is a shadow of what once was. But watch!”

He stooped down, then dug a small hole in the fallow earth. Angelus put the rotting branch in, holding it in between his palms while pushing it down. The Primarch closed his eyes, tilting his head backwards as a faint glowing aura surrounded him.

“Look.”

The branch was no longer a dead husk. Even as Angela watched, the dead wood began to sprout new growth, small leaves opening up to face the strange illumination, all covered with the same diffuse light shed by the Primarch’s skin. The young woman’s eyes went wide with amazement.

“All too soon,” Angelus said, withdrawing his hands.

For a moment, the small tree held on, strong and vibrant, seemingly untouched by the forces of entropy. Then, the rot appeared, once again – first the leaves, curling up and turning into wet, disgusting mush; then, the bark, devoured from within by creatures too tiny to be seen with the naked eye. Soon, even the bark had withered, until only a tiny, rotten remnant remained.

“Once life is cut off, nothing can achieve permanence,” he said. “Control can only last for so long. You see,” Angelus gestured to the gloomy environment, “no matter how hard you try, you can never go back. This is Argos, as it was, but not. The soil is not true. The light of the moons is not right. The voices are too many. No longer the protectors, no. There are now other voices, too.”

“They are vile things, yes they are,” he cackled, and a mad gleam appeared in his eyes. “Vile, terrible things! Always talking over one another, always arguing. Always telling me.”

“You see, Angela, they were once noble. Righteous. When the Nisagar Cliff fell, they have told me to seek the Helldrakes within, saving the coast from their depredations. When the flanks collapsed at Five Crossroads, they told me of Kiaran’s men approaching, turning defeat into victory. When Father came, they have told me of his cause, and that it was just.”

“They have made me the protector of Argos, taught me the right way to keep control. They are what kept me from being a monster, like those I have slain.”

“But they are faint now, so faint that I cannot hear them. And there are others, you see? Can you see?” He gasped for breath, a painful grimace upon his face. The Primarch closed his eyes for a moment, breathing heavily, struggling to regain control. After a minute he seemed to have won the inner conflict as his posture relaxed once again. “The others, I don’t like. I cannot make them stop. Cannot talk. Cannot listen. But… for when you are near.”

“How is this possible, lord Angelus?” the young woman said, inadvertently reverting to the honorific. She felt overwhelmed, not knowing how to act when faced with a demigod’s deepest, darkest secret. “I was born on Terra, in the Parnassus Hive, I think. I have never even been off-world until now.”

“You think?” the Primarch cocked his head with an amused expression. “You don’t know? Never mind…” he smiled benevolently. “There are ways, connections through the means some would call arcane. Do you know?”

“But… isn’t that… like… superstition?” Angela gasped. She was not expecting talk of such matters from one of the Emperor’s own sons.

“The very same that my Father attempts to stamp out?” the Primarch grimaced. “There is so much more to this universe than mere logic and reason can tell! But,” he paused, giving her a conspiratory glance, “not all things can, or should be shared. There are plans within plans, tales within tales. Tempting, all so tempting!”

He seemed overcome with the moment, staring once again into distance, then turning his eyes skyward, where some faint celestial body began to peek from behind the clouds.

“My dearest brother, Nyxos, he could almost understand. But he never could see the dilemma, the difference between a man and a beast. For him, there was never a choice. And so, his fate is not my own.”

“But you, born of another world, yet you are a piece of it. Connected through the means too arcane to list, yet here you are.” Angelus looked pleading, almost desperate. “I cannot be the life, not here. But with you… maybe the new roots will grow. The roots that anchor reality. The missing piece of creation.”

“I invite you to be the witness of my struggle,” he said extending the hand not already gripping on to Angela. “Fate has led you to me. The fate I have chosen to become what I am. A man. Not a monster.” There was a sense of passion in his voice, growing stronger with every word. “Angela, will you help me? Will you be my companion, my conscience, my chronicler? Will you keep the voices away?”

* * *

Upon a throne of gold, platinum and ivory, a Primarch brooded. The liveried servants in the black and white robes identifying their allegiance to the Tenth Legion hurried into the shadows, away from his sight; even the battle-hardened Marines of the Peacekeepers’ elite honor guard seemed to shirk away into the faceless anonymity afforded by their ornate battle plate. The banners celebrating the Legion’s uncountable conquests hung limply in the strategium large enough to fit an entire city, now deserted but for Gideon and the few warriors he summoned into his presence.

Avram felt a particular kind of dread that only came with failure – not the fear for one’s life or station, but the fear of proving inadequate in his mission, of not living up to the lofty standards he set for himself. He looked around, seeking familiar figures amongst the twenty warriors lined up before the throne – Liam, Jerson, Danakrag…

All were veterans like himself. All were on Parias, twice.

“Rest easy, my sons,” Gideon said, momentarily breaking from his reverie. His voice was a deep baritone, commanding yet pleasant and possessed of both gentleness and steel. “The failing is mine alone.”

If anything, this admittance only made Avram feel even more uncomfortable. The Legion’s warriors could, and have, failed, only for their brothers to complete the missions they could not finish themselves. The Legion’s attached Army units had found themselves in dire straits on more than one occasion, requiring the Peacekeepers to intervene – but they were mortals, and mortals were frail, with such low expectations set upon them that Avram was at times surprised they were even allowed to participate in the Great Crusade. Even the other Legions have occasionally engaged the foes they were ill-prepared to handle.

The Primarchs, and Gideon most of all, did not fail, for they were incapable of falling short in any way.

“You act surprised, yet in your hearts you know it is true,” the Tenth Primarch addressed his followers. Avram had a strange sensation he experienced every time he was in his master’s presence, as if Gideon could somehow sense his warriors’ doubts and preempt their questions with but a word. It always felt like Gideon was talking to him and him alone, no matter how many others were in a room listening with rapt attention.

“My brother is no longer to be trusted,” Gideon said, betraying little emotion. “We have all seen the signs. Fifty years have not taught him the value of humility or, for that matter, of humanity.” A hard cast overcame the Primarch’s noble features. “Whatever virtues Angelus had once possessed are no longer enough to contain the base desires of his Legion.”

“Sire…” it was Liam, a warrior who was but a Scout when the Peacekeepers first set foot on Parias half a century ago, but who rose through the ranks since due to his skill with the blade. Avram reflected that the other Honor Guard was as impetuous in speaking out of turn as he was in battle, a trait that was best utilized in this elite formation instead of line infantry. Personal heroics, while useful in some situations, were little more than lack of discipline in all other scenarios.

“I know you have questions, Liam,” the Primarch said, a firm gesture silencing the Peacekeepers before any could intervene. “Even the most violent and unruly of our brethren have come to know their place in this undertaking. And it is not something I take lightly.”

“It has been two weeks since Parias,” Gideon continued, letting a note of bitterness creep into his voice. “I hoped that bringing my wayward brother to the site of his biggest failure would stir up remorse within him. I was wrong.”

It was one thing to hear a Primarch speak of failure, Avram thought, feeling chill that had nothing to do with the cool atmosphere of the strategium. It was quite another thing to hear a being genetically engineered to be on par with ancient and forgotten deities, possessed of the Emperor’s own genius and superhuman abilities to admit not just failure, but mistake.

There could be many reasons for a failure, but only one for a mistake.

Gideon looked like he was about to bare his teeth in an animalistic snarl, quite unbecoming of the stately vision of human perfection he had otherwise presented. “The Gargoyles are quite clearly beyond redemption. I have already sent the record of our meeting to the Emperor, beloved by all, and hope that his wisdom, great as it is, will result in a formal censure of the Fourteenth.”

“But I have one favor to ask of you, my sons.”

All the Primarch had to do was order, and Avram and all his comrades would have crossed the length and the breadth of the galaxy on a word. The First Captain of the Peacekeepers reflected that only one of such overwhelming humility as Gideon would be considerate and humble enough to ask for that which would be freely given.

“The Warp has been turbulent as of late, and it may be months or even longer before the astropaths can deliver the message to my father.” Gideon sighed, not as much in frustration as in acceptance of the imperfections of communication technology. “Who knows what atrocities will the Fourteenth perpetrate when there is no one watching?”

He stood up, rising to dwarf even the tallest amongst the Space Marines. Two handguns, finely wrought with pearl, bone and platinum hung at his sides, one per holster; Avram recalled the rumor that the Primarch had fashioned the bones of his long deceased mentor and surrogate father, hermit Jacob, into the grips of the guns as a gesture of respect. In this way, the frail old man would realize his dream of bringing peace and order to not only distant Topia, but to the rest of the galaxy in need of enlightenment.

“The books of Law demand that we improve the lot of this galaxy’s people, not destroy them,” said Gideon. “Justice lies in assimilation and governance, not in extermination for the transgressions. Is it not true that the mythical laws of Draconis brought more woe to his people for all their harshness?”

“Thus, hear me, my sons. We are the slayers, it is true, and billions have been slaughtered at our hands. But trillions have benefitted from the light of my father’s Imperium. Where the Gargoyles tread, only destruction lingers. Such mindless butchery is unbefitting of us, who live in the greatest age of humanity.” He paused, perhaps finding the words difficult. “My brothers were created to be the heralds of this new age. But I fear Angelus’ hold on sanity has become frayed, and only the Emperor’s own judgment may decide this matter once and for all.”

“Therefore, I ask, no, beseech of thee, that you follow the trail left by the Fourteenth,” Gideon said. “Seek out the evidence of their crimes. Do not step out of the shadows, no matter how much your honor and decency dictate that you intervene. Just like those we have destroyed had to die so that others may live, it is a sacrifice we must be prepared to make for the greater good of us all.”

“Keep record of all you see, for your words shall be mightier weapons than any sword our forges can create. Are you with me, my sons?”

A roar of assent from twenty throats was his answer.

* * *

They came with the night, following the tradition as old as the Legion itself. Names changed, titles came and went away, but one thing remained constant. The invitation had to be made in the dark.

Isaiah went with the hooded figures, each one as tall as him, their stride betraying no hint as to their identity. Even though the Sixth Captain knew their names and titles, he could not tell which was which, and after a second’s deliberation, he did not even bother to try. All would be revealed in due time, he thought, accepting and donning a grey robe identical to theirs. Anonymous and silent, the four warriors walked through the many winding passages of the Redeemer, past the areas populated by the menials and into the decks almost untouched since the great ship first sailed the stars.

They walked for what seemed like an eternity, even if Isaiah’s enhanced senses dutifully counted it as being less than ten minutes. He sensed the fear in mortals that tried their best to get out of the procession’s way, the indifference of lobotomized servitors, the industrious self-importance of the wayward Mechanicum adepts laboring to maintain the Gargoyles’ flagship in working order. He saw recognition and understanding in the eyes of his fellow Space Marines they met, seeing their gazes quickly averted as much out of respect as out of time-honored tradition.

Traditions had to be honored.

Deep inside, the Sixth Captain could hardly hide his excitement. This was what he struggled for, the recognition that would finally set him amongst the Legion’s warrior elite. He had to go through the humiliation, through the shameful act of using a mortal to get here, but he did it! His ambitions were finally fulfilled.

They were in a chamber Isaiah did not recognize, a room dominated by a table fashioned into perfect circle. The round shape of the chamber was lit by a narrow glow-stripe cast into the walls just above the eye level, forcing the Marines to duck slightly to enter. Perfectly symmetrical depictions of gargoyles were etched into the floor and the walls, identical to each other. Isaiah counted six in total, all with wings outstretched, bestial and magnificent in their barbaric splendor.

As one, the three Marines removed their hoods. This, too, was part of the ritual. He recognized their faces – Katon, Goffri, Merlin. The three that made up the Zarivat. Soon to be four.

“Let your face be seen, brother,” said Merlin. As the oldest of the three, it fell to him to speak the words of the invocation.

For a second, Isaiah hesitated. He wondered if his desire would be blunted now that it was well within his grasp. What would there be left to accomplish, he thought, knowing on some instinctual level that it was only a matter of time before he found the next, loftier goal.

All Gargoyles were ambitious. It was what drove the Legion, and Isaiah knew that it was personified within him. To be without ambition was a cardinal sin for one of the Fourteenth, a sure way to remain forgotten on the sidelines of the Great Crusade.

“He’s scared,” said Goffri to the others, mockingly. The Third Captain sized Isaiah up and down as if the Reaper was some scientific curiosity. “Afraid to show your face to us, Isaiah?”

The Reaper tore the off hood with a single, economic yet defiant motion. The light of the glow-stripe cast short shadows upon the stone floor that seemed to diminish the size of Space Marines assembled within. It occurred to Isaiah that there must have been a reason for the room’s design; no single position within it was given prominence over the others.

“Much better,” Goffri grinned in savage approval. He patted Isaiah’s shoulder like one would do to a child or a particularly well-performing protégé.

“Not now, Goffri,” said Katon, the very image of grave seriousness. “There will be time for it later.”

“My apologies,” the Third Captain replied, suitably chastised for interrupting the ceremony.

“Isaiah of the Carver Peaks,” Merlin’s voice filled the room, growing stronger with every word. The Legion’s Chief Librarian’s presence was immense, every syllable perfectly accentuated for maximum effect. “A Legion is a beast with heart, soul and limbs. From the Primarch himself to the lowest of the Scout auxillia, we are more together than we can be apart. Do you know what your place was?”

The words came to Isaiah’s mind without rehearsal, without prior knowledge of the proper thing to say. “I am the Legion’s teeth, tenacious and unyielding, ripping out the throats of its enemies.”

“Teeth, you say?” Merlin’s face betrayed no emotion. “An apt comparison.” The Librarian’s presence filled the room far beyond his physical size; Isaiah felt like the psyker towered over him, even though the two were roughly the same height. “It is this tenacity that does you honor. One less dedicated would not have come this far.”

“As the Primarch is the Legion’s brain, the Scouts are its eyes, the Librarius its heart and the line warriors its limbs and muscles, the Zarivat is its soul. We are the Primarch’s own, the tools of his designs and the weapons of his war. Where the Companies are the Legion’s hands, we are the claws that rend flesh from its enemies. Where the Rhinos and the Land Raiders are the Legion’s legs, we are the compass that guides it to its prey. Where the great birds of war that carry Legion to its victories are its wings, we are the shadow that hides the sun from the unworthy.”

“But most of all,” Merlin said with a stern, unforgiving expression upon his weathered face, “we are what keeps the Legion strong. We know the value of restraint when our shared blood calls to us and paints everything red. We know the value of destruction when it is warranted, and the value of fear when it brings worlds into the fray without a shot fired.”

“It is our mission to keep the Legion pure and strong, and to maintain control over the Red Beast that dwells within every one of us. For that, we must be prepared to sacrifice, so that the Legion may live, so that the beasts that dwell in the void shudder at our presence.”

“Kneel, Isaiah,” the Librarian said, pointing down.

The Sixth Captain went down on one knee, lowering his head as if to receive a benediction. His arms spread out to the sides at the right angles to his body, a traditional pose of an Argosian warrior’s symbolic farewell before a battle that would claim him.

“Do you accept the charge and the responsibility of being one of the Zarivat?”

Isaiah smiled, faintly. This was what he wanted, all along, and he was going to have it, no matter the cost.

“I do.”

“Then, rise, brother,” said Merlin, holding out a hand to help Isaiah to his feet. “Now, you are one of us.”
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Thu Apr 04, 2013 2:04 am

PART II
Two Months Before Taramin


FIFTEEN

Another World
Ten Years
The Hunters


The missile streaked through the ash-colored sky, slamming into one of the few walls still standing. The tremor shook the ruin, sending a cloud of dust and debris at Isaiah and his men, crouched behind the makeshift cover.

“On my mark,” Isaiah growled, feeling the urge to jump into action yet knowing such impetuousness would be imprudent, for the moment. “Three… two… one… Go!”

As one, the squad of ten Gargoyles leaped out of cover, their jetpacks carrying them over the wall and over the enfilading fire from the defenders. The Sixth Captain counted, trying to keep the exact pace. It seemed that the alien missile launcher had the reloading time of fifteen seconds. That was fifteen seconds Isaiah had to silence it for good, and only eight seconds were now left.

It was an easy was, he thought with satisfaction. No actions of questionable morality, no deliberations. The enemy were xenos, and even the most ardent humanitarian would not argue against the Legion’s actions. And besides, Isaiah grinned behind his helmet, the creatures’ purple blood looked good upon the Excruciator.

The command squad descended amongst the aliens with about one and a half seconds to spare, and the slaughter began in full.

The aliens were brutish-looking, squat creatures with a generally humanoid shape, albeit different enough that they would never be mistaken for a true human. Individually, they were little challenge to the Fourteenth Legion, but when they were in packs, they were almost formidable. Almost, but not quite.

Isaiah slashed down with his blade, eviscerating a panicking alien, then butted his head against another, who was frantically trying to get a heavy cannon emplacement turned towards the assaulting Gargoyles. The aliens chose to make their last stand on a second floor of a strange building of inhuman, curved architecture. The place reeked of wrongness, its geometries subtly off to the human eye; Isaiah thought it fitting that the xenos would die surrounded by the ruins of their works, to be forever extinguished from the galaxy.

The butchery lasted less than ten seconds.

“This is it,” said Murdok, a particularly large Argosian that towered even over his genetically enhanced squadmates. The Gargoyle was examining a ragged mess of limbs and organs that only seconds ago was his opponent. “Ugly bastards.”

“That they are,” Isaiah replied, grimacing from disgust as he joined the other Marine, turning a slightly less damaged corpse over with his boot. “Revolting. Suffer not the blasphemy of the xenos to live,” the Sixth Captain quoted, venom dripping from his voice.

“An apt quote, sir,” Murdok said. “Just looking at these things makes me want to burn their remains so that no one else has the misfortune of looking at them.”

“Th’ creat’r gave us two eyes an’ arms,” said sergeant Etienne. “Not four.”

“At least they bleed pretty well,” Isaiah chuckled. He wiped the blood off the Excruciator on the dead body. “Guess these things are good for something.” He frowned, noticing that he missed a spot. “And even that, they are no match for good honest humans.”

“Leave it t’ ya to be a snob ‘bout your weap’n,” laughed Etienne. The veteran sergeant fought helmetless, savoring the smells of carnage with a mischievous grin. “These bleed jus’ th’ same.”

“As long as they bleed, sir,” replied Murdok with some obvious discomfort. Isaiah recalled that the other Marine was just recently promoted to the command squad.

“Good,” Isaiah said. The chainsword in his hand was no longer clogged with discolored gore. He let the motor run for a few seconds, shaking off some of the still congealing blood.

The Sixth Captain summoned a tactical readout to his helmet display, noting the locations of all units. He frowned.

“For how important this place is supposed to be to them, they are certainly holding back,” he said in an irritated voice. “I thought there would be more.”

“Who knows what th’se damn xenos think?” Etienne voiced his lack of concern. “One way or ‘nother, they’ll be dead. Why sh’d we care?”

“This is why you haven’t made captain yet,” said Isaiah. Perhaps, he reflected, never will. “If they are not throwing all their forces to protect their capital, it means either they are massing for a counterattack, or it’s a trap.”

“Or maybe we’ve kill’d ‘em all,” Etienne spit on the ground, displaying his contempt for the alien creatures. He prodded one mostly intact specimen with his boot. “Not ev’n a stir.”

“Or, something else,” said Isaiah, thoughtfully. He mag-locked the Excruciator to his side, kneeling down to take a closer look at the dead xenos. Most of what he saw made little sense to him – alien decorations, symbols that were created by the minds too different to comprehend, features that could have meant something or could have been insignificant. Still, some things remained universal, no matter the species. “This whole place could just be a decoy.”

“What makes you think that, sir?” said Caravak, the command squad’s plasma gunner. The warrior cycled through the modes of his weapon, careful to ensure it was in no danger of overheating and exploding in the arms of its bearer.

“Look closely,” said Isaiah. He pointed at the dead alien. “Notice anything unusual?”

“They all look the same to me,” Caravak replied after exchanging glances with Murdok. “Disgusting creatures.”

“This here,” the Sixth Captain said, lifting up a flab of skin that covered the xenos’ ear cavity. Something wet and slimy still gurgled within.

“What ‘bout it?” Etienne grimaced, shaking his head in disapproval. “Is it slimier than th’ oth’rs?”

“No,” said Isaiah patiently, as if explaining to a child. “Remember the briefing.”

Slowly, realization seemed to dawn on the Terran Marine. “You mean… these are…”

“The elderly,” Isaiah finished the phrase. “The xenos that call themselves Lynor have an unusual lifecycle,” he recited from memory, repeating the bored intonations of the mindless servitor. “The excretions appear to become more prominent in maturity, reaching their greatest extent when…”

“I get it,” said Etienne impatiently. “These are their ‘ole folks. What of it? I’m over two hun’red years old. So what? It’d make sense they’d pr’serve their comb’t skill.”

“Think of it, Etienne. What kind of people would send their elderly to fight when their young are elsewhere?”

A thoughtful expression came over Etienne’s face, as if he was taking his time to process the information.

“Y’know, cap’n, som’thin’s dif’rent ‘bout you,” he finally said after deliberating for a moment. “Now that you’re Zarivat…”

“Then we proceed carefully,” Isaiah said, taking the Excruciator in his hand and revving the motor for added effect. “This place is a trap, and I’ll be damned if I let these Emperor-damned xenos catch us unaware. Reapers?”

The other warriors in the squad noted their understanding with vox-clicks.

“We move. Slowly.”

* * *

Angela fixed her hair, mounting an elaborate piece of decoration that fell upon her shoulders like a cascading waterfall of flowers and silk, then leaned back, taking a long, satisfied look in the mirror. She liked what she saw – a woman whose looks and grace were undiminished by the passage of time, whose curves still made many men turn their heads in silent appreciation before looking guiltily at the floor, knowing they could not have her but on her own terms.

Voice of the Primarch. The title carried the amount of silent gravitas that no amount of decoration could substitute for, and even after ten years she could not fully get used to it.

The events of the last decade were a blur. Planet after planet, species after species fell before the Legion. Faces blended into one another to the point that she could not tell them apart. Aides, colleagues, lovers, they came and went but for one constant in her existence. A clicking sound was barely audible, yet it was all she needed.

“Sire?” she tapped on a vox-piece, letting him know she was listening.

“The briefing awaits,” spoke the voice, clearly used to command and obedience. “We have much to say, little sister.”

“I shall be in the strategium shortly,” Angela said, feeling a sense of trepidation that always overtook her. No amount of time could ever fully numb her to his presence.

There was no response on the other end of the device, but Angela knew she was heard. Slowly, she summoned her handmaidens, taking enjoyment in life’s simple pleasures while they lasted. What would follow was going to be necessary, but even then, she never quite accepted it.

The former remembrancer walked the halls of the Redeemer, paying little heed to the industrious labors of its crew or the glares of the Argosian army units stationed on the ship. Sometimes she marveled at the strange twists of fate that led her here, taking her from a comfortable existence as a celebrated artist on Terra and stripping all pretense away until only a core of her being was left. That core laid battered and broken, all impurities burned away by the events that shocked and reforged her, creating a new being that was callous and compassionate, able to bear a terrible burden that came with her unique power.

Ten years is a long time, she thought, passing through the portal as the Hell Guard Terminators watched, never moving a slightest bit. They were a comfortable, ordinary sight, their deadly power subdued amongst the almost civilized trappings of the Twenty Seventh Expedition. Their presence could have only meant one thing – she was nearing her destination.

She thought of what she had seen, all things she had experienced, knowing that someday, those memories would come back to haunt her. She saw the Imperial Aquila raised on paradise worlds to rapt attention of their primitive inhabitants, and she saw hellish wastelands brought to heel through the Legion’s superior firepower. She saw bizarre and dangerous alien life forms wiped from the face of the galaxy, and she saw the works of breathtaking beauty that almost compelled her to pick up her brushes and transcribe them for the future generations, again and again.

It was but a vain thought. Angela knew that if she tried to paint, the only image she would be able to reproduce would be a grey, murky swamp world, forever under the shadow of a winged monstrosity with a human face.

After four years of unsuccessful attempts, she stopped trying. Her paintings, like the rest of her old life, lay dormant in her cabin, never seen by anyone but her handmaidens.

Angela walked into a strategium, where the Legion’s great and good gathered to prosecute the campaign. Her eyes paused on their faces – always grim Merlin, scarred Katon, harsh and austere M’rai Harn, aged and worn Guido Balantir. The Expedition officers each presented an imposing figure, each a hero of the Imperium, decorated beyond measure, and yet here they stood as near-supplicants to the one that dwarfed them all, his presence unmatched and unchallenged.

Much had changed since Angela’s first time here. Gone were the braziers, the ritualistic trappings of an age gone by. The strategium was brightly lit, modern and efficient. Did it reflect him finding his way once more, she wondered at times, comparing the events that brought her into the Primarch’s confidence to her present situation?

“It seems we are all assembled,” Angelus said, his voice a pleasing baritone. His words, just like in the last ten years, were articulate, cultured.

“Sire?” the young woman said, making a ceremonial bow. Who would have thought she would end up in a court of a Primarch, let alone become the instrument of his will?

“Speak,” the Grey Prince said, squeezing the handles of his throne ever tightly.

Angela closed her eyes, no longer resisting the Primarch’s psychic might as it flooded into her. It was still painful; human brain was not meant to withstand the cognitive power of a demigod – but she was prepared, used to it after a decade of serving as the Grey Prince’s translator, his voice.

The mantras formed inside her eyelids, the words of power Angelus had taught her to lessen the pain. It was like a sharp, barbed blade slowly slithering through her skull. At times she wondered if the act of speaking through another was a necessity or simply a matter of choice for the Primarch; it felt as though he got too used to it to change, even as his own condition improved. The pain intensified in a burning crescendo that put pressure on her temples, eyelids and forehead; her breath became ragged and rasping as she fought to maintain the link.

And then, clarity.

“To all assembled, let it be known that I speak with the Grey Prince’s voice,” Angela said, the voice a gestalt of her own consciousness and that of the Primarch. “Let me congratulate you on your efforts in securing the Forty First world to be brought into compliance by the Twenty Seventh expedition.”

* * *

Avram hit the panel in frustration, watching the twinkling lights go out. The strength of the blow was sufficient to dent the metal, creating another indentation amongst dozens already present. Another light flickered out of existence, adding to the gloom of the frigate’s already dimmed bridge.

“You should keep your humors in check, sir,” said Liam, standing just to the right of the Peacekeeper Captain’s command throne.

Sometimes Avram wondered if the Primarch gave Liam a different mission from the rest of them; the warrior certainly seemed all too ready to offer advice and counsel, welcome or not. The First Captain would have expected this from a Chaplain, but the Hunter Squad had no such support; the only thing between them and the unknown was the thick hull of the Artemis, and even that felt woefully inadequate compared to some of the dangers they had faced in the endless void.

“My humors are my own business, Liam,” the First Captain replied gruffly, checking the readout once again. “You would do well to keep to your own.”

“It’s just…” the other Peacekeeper hesitated momentarily, perhaps attempting to avoid his superior’s ire.

“Yes?” There was barely hidden choleric anger in Avram’s eyes. “Speak it. Don’t play around it.”

“We’ve been talking about the effects of this mission on you, sir,” said Liam. “It’s been taking its toll.”

“Nonsense!” Avram growled, fingers digging into the side of his command throne. The hard metal did not yield. “I am a Peacekeeper. I follow the commands of Lord Gideon. There is nothing else to it.”

“Sir, with all due respect…”

“What? How many of you have been conspiring behind my back?”

“Umm…” there was an uncertain quality to Liam’s voice, not quite fear or trepidation, but perhaps an attempt at tact. “The men were talking. Those that remain, at least.”

“And what are they saying?” Avram leaned forward in contemplation.

“The men are saying…” Liam came closer, giving his superior a sincere look. “They are saying that our task might as well be over. We have been to twenty four worlds in the last ten years, and so far have not seen the evidence we were sent to look for. The Gargoyles…” he snickered, acknowledging the distaste of speaking the name, “behaved. They did exactly what one of the Legiones Astartes is supposed to be doing. They came in, destroyed all who would resist, and moved on. No more dead worlds. Only dead xenos.”

“Are you saying that you question the wisdom of the Primarch?” Avram growled. His face contorted into a bestial grimace. The First Captain closed his eyes, struggling to control his emotions. It took him almost a minute to calm himself down enough to speak again. “The Primarch told us to seek the evidence for the Fourteenth’s censure,” said Avram in an even, if forced-sounding tone. “We shall do that until we either find that evidence, or the Primarch himself recalls us.”

“I would caution against the wisdom of such action,” said Liam softly. “Remember the Forty Second Law.”

“The evidence contradicting the original assumption may be used to refute it. I know my readings as much as you do,” Avram said, his choler returning. “But we have not found that evidence. All we have found is absence of evidence for or against.”

“Wouldn’t you think the absence of evidence is evidence enough?”

“If we return now,” Avram’s voice was low and menacing, “then our brothers will have died in vain. Remember their sacrifice, Liam.” He stopped, memories flooding his mind’s eye one by one.

There were twenty of them when they started to track the Gargoyles’ flagship and seek further evidence of the Fourteenth Legion’s wrongdoings. Now, only fourteen remained – the hardest, the toughest, the best of the Tenth.

He tried to remember them as they fell in mop-up operations – Leika, who was surprised by mindless combat automatons overlooked by the Gargoyles’ conquest; Hamt, who died when the captain of the ship they tried to take in for interrogation decided that overloading his engines was preferable to capture. Frain died while trying to overcome a pirate lordling trying to fill the power vacuum after the Gargoyles’ departure; Rozet suffered a critical overload of his plasma weapon, not even receiving the dignity of dying by his enemy’s hand. Daib’s death he barely remembered, only vaguely recalling something about a desert world and massive deposits of promethium venting out in a massive fume of fire.

It was Jerson that finally drove him to the edge.

“The men don’t quite see it that way,” said Liam. “They have neither fear nor doubt in the Primarch’s doctrines, but they are weary of the wild chase. They have lost brothers, too. We all have.”

“It is not about our lost brothers!” Avram shouted, pounding the long-suffering panel again. More of the blinking lights went out. “It is about justice!”

“Justice for Parias, for Twenty Seven-Sixteen, or for what? They did not do anything even remotely close since.”

“Or they know they are being watched,” retorted Avram. “But if that is the case, they will not be able to maintain the façade for too much longer. It is only a matter of time.” His voice rose in volume and intensity. “I only ask for a little more. The Gargoyles will falter sooner rather than later. Mark my words.”

Liam leaned towards his leader, lowering his voice so that it could not be overheard. “Avram, let me give you a piece of advice. I might be the hothead of the Hunters, but I, too, have heard Lord Gideon speak.”

“And what of it?” Avram seethed back. “The purpose of justice is to seek the perpetrators and make them pay for their crimes, no matter how much time had passed.”

“It is also to reform those who are not yet irredeemable, sir,” said Liam. “Too many of us seem to forget that.”

“Those who violate that rule deserve neither clemency nor lenience,” Avram replied. “Isn’t that the entire reason we have been on the trail of the Fourteenth all these years? Their liberal application of the sacred concept of justice is abomination to all we hold dear.”

“Don’t let it blind you to the possibility of redemption, brother.”

“Redemption? What redemption?” sneered Avram. “The Gargoyles are beasts, nothing more. The basest creatures given post-human shape and let loose upon the galaxy.”

“Are you questioning the Emperor’s wisdom?”

“I am questioning the lack of accountability!” Avram shouted, making few of the ratings turn in puzzlement. “Has Lord Gideon not asked of the Emperor to bring the Fourteenth to justice? You heard what happened.”

“What use is it for us to question the Master of Mankind? Are you, in your omniscient knowledge, assuming yourself to know better than him?” Liam’s face turned red with verbal exertion. “If the Emperor’s judgment was to let the Gargoyles have a lease on life, then perhaps the Emperor knows something you do not. What if their existence is a part of some plan that neither me nor you can comprehend, let alone judge?”

“In the realm of law, there are only absolutes,” Avram replied. “It is either right or wrong. Lord Gideon sent me on a mission to discover a wrong and bring it to light, so that it may face retribution.”

“So now it is you that is sent, not us,” Liam said with a sad acknowledgment. “I think you are taking this mission way too personally.”

“So what if I am?” hissed Avram, standing up to his full power armor-clad height. “Since when was conviction a crime?”

“A false conviction is no conviction at all, brother,” Liam said.

“Our brothers died for this conviction, Liam. If we have no conviction, if we don’t believe in what we do and why we do it, then we are nothing. Do you understand?” Avram began pacing around the command throne. The mortal crew of the vessel had wisely vacated the area, not willing to subject themselves to the Space Marine’s ill-humor. “If we have no cause, then we are little better than animals.”

“Now the truth comes out,” the other Marine said, not willing to step down. “You see in them a twisted reflection of what we might have been. Is that it?”

“No!” Avram stomped on the metal floor, then knelt down. He punched the floor, time and again. “This. Is. Not. It!” Every syllable was accented by another attack punch. Avram lifted up his head, red-faced and breathing heavily.

“Then I will be blunt with you,” Liam said, realizing that the worst of Avram’s outburst was over. “I know that Jerson was your closest brother. I know that he trained you before you both ascended. But his death was in the service of something greater. Someday, both me and you will fall in the same way. It will only honor his memory to be reasonable.”

“I will honor his memory by bringing down the bastards,” said Avram.

“And what do they have to do with it? They did not kill him. The Gar…”

“Don’t speak their cursed name around me again, Liam,” a seething stream of virulent hatred emerged from Avram’s lips. “I have kept my choler in check for long enough now.”

Liam’s next words were quiet, almost solemn. “Brother, you must heed this advice. We are not barbarians to give in to our most base urges. This is why we are not like them.”

Silence descended on the bridge like a shroud blanketing senses with its oppressive presence. The two Peacekeepers’ eyes locked in a stare-down that was just fractionally short of a full-on challenge.

Finally, Avram spoke. “I swear on my honor that I will find the evidence and bring the bastards to justice. And if I fail, I will take all the blame in front of the Primarch.” His already scarred face grew solemn and hard, rock-like. “I am a son of Topia, and I do not accept failure.”

“But what if it is success you are concerned with?” said Liam quietly. “What if the events on Parias forced a change in our adversaries?”

“You’ve heard the Primarch yourself,” replied Avram. “They are irredeemable. That is all I need to know. It is only a matter of proof.”

Liam turned his eyes away from his commander. There was hesitation in his movements that Avram did not fail to pick up on.

“What is it?” the First Captain asked sternly.

“There had been… concerns,” Liam finally blurted. “Many of the men are wondering if you are chasing ghosts. Some are considering our mission complete.”

“Our mission is…” Avram stopped himself. He turned his back to Liam, clenching and unclenching his fists time and again.

“Very well,” the First Captain said with anger and bitterness in his voice. He turned his head with a rapid, jerky movement, giving Liam an impression of a caged predatory bird attempting to keep its violent instincts sharp even in captivity. “This is the last world. If I see no evidence of wrongdoing from the bastards, I will have no choice but to return to Lord Gideon in shame. Are you happy now?” Avram boomed, his frown turning into an angry scowl.

“The men will follow you,” Liam said, “as long as they know we are still searching for justice and not for obsession.”

“What if I am right?” Avram said. “What if I am proven correct, and all of this was a charade designed to fool us? Would they follow me then?”

“We are the Peacekeepers, and we bring the Emperor’s Law to all, mortal and beyond. Do you really need an answer to that?”

“Very well,” Avram said, still smarting from the chastising. “We shall prosecute the mission with all appropriate vigor, and take it as far as we can. If our findings are consistent with the previous events, we shall turn back and inform Lord Gideon that the Fourteenth had mastered the art of self-restraint. If not…” he let the words hang, full of threat and implication.

“I am glad you have seen reason, brother,” said Liam. “I will see you in the strategium, one hour before we break from the Immaterium.” The Space Marine saluted, then turned his back to Avram, beginning to walk away from his superior.

“Until then,” Avram replied, absent-mindedly. The First Captain’s eyes followed the other Marine for a moment. “And, Liam?”

“Yes?” the other Peacekeeper turned back, acknowledging Avram.

“Thank you for reminding me of my limitations, brother.”
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby JJvagnar » Thu Apr 04, 2013 4:30 pm

This is so AWESOME! Love the character of the peacekeepers. for some reason I keep picturing Gideon as Dorn.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Tue Nov 12, 2013 5:23 am

SIXTEEN

Psalm of Extinction
Reaper’s Vengeance
Nothing More


The sound hit their ears with precisely timed symmetry, a transmission so powerful that for a second it jammed their vox-communications. It was a shrill, ululating noise that seemed to have no natural source, coming from everywhere at once. The ruins danced in the waning light as though an earthquake raged below; one by one, the walls of grey alien material crumbled.

“Keep steady!” Isaiah screamed, trying to overpower the noise ringing in his ears. It was to little avail. The Gargoyles seemed to be overcome with confusion, looking for an opponent guilty of this transgression yet finding none.

“Make this stop!” Etienne shouted, dropping his chainsword and wrapping his palms around his ears. The bare-headed sergeant seemed to be particularly affected without the protection offered by the helmet filters of his comrades.

“Your helmet!” someone yelled, trying to overcome the infernal din. Isaiah could not tell who it was.

Etienne fell on his knees, cupping hands around his ears. A trickle of blood came down from his nose and eyes. Isaiah struggled to move, feeling the painful slowness inflicted upon his muscles. His breathing became a ragged, bestial growl propelling him forward with every step. It was like going against a hurricane.

Yet the vibrations produced by the noise seemed to follow no rational pattern. The sound permeated the very air, forcing it to contort and thicken in some places and to dissipate in others, crushing rocks and buildings and at the same time elevating wayward pieces of vegetation into the sky. It was as if almost every natural disaster one could think of was happening at once, and the Gargoyles were caught in the middle of it.

Later, the Expedition historians, in what little time they had left, would write of massive casualties amongst the mortal troops, many of whom suffered internal hemorrhages and worse. The lucky ones, caught inside their vehicles or fighting in the closed environments, would never hear again without the aid of augmetics. Even the post-human Space Marines of the Fourteenth Legion have barely escaped unscathed, saved only by their implants and superior armor. Across the entire planet, all surface life withered and died at the coming of the noise, which seemed to strike everywhere at once.

The alien defenders fared little better than the invading Imperial army. Even their peculiar physiology did not save them from the screaming horror devastating friend and foe alike. Their eyes boiled inside their eye sockets, and the peculiar substance behind their ear flaps burst out as though something exploded inside of their skulls. The four arms went limp and dead as the purple blood gushed out from their pores and bone and muscle alike broke down.

But as the sound of the destroyer extinguished all in its way, the Lynor added their voice to it even while dying, screaming their ecstasy and fury to announce their extinction and to herald the doom of their slayers.

The last suicidal cry of the alien species resonated all across Twenty Seven-Forty One, and the Reapers seemed to be just near the epicenter.

Isaiah saw Murdok fire blindly into the sky, the sound of his shots muffled by the overwhelming cacophony. He saw another trooper, whose name did not immediately come to his stunned mind, dig in for cover, laying low on the rumbling ground as if trying to avoid incoming fire. He saw the flashes of detonations as Caravak fired his weapon at the few ruins still standing, the notes punctuating the abominable symphony like a counterpoint melody to the wall of noise.

The sound stopped without a warning. It had occurred to Isaiah that if anything tried to attack the Gargoyles that moment, the fearsome Fourteenth Legion could have been overcome like any primitive militia, incapable of standing up against the real warriors.

The thought was sobering. With an effort of will, he frantically waved the Excruciator around, assuming a battle stance against an unseen enemy. He felt his twin hearts beat within his chest, combat drugs rushing through his bloodstream as he tried to force a century of training to take over in face of a possible threat.

Nothing happened; the silence reigned.

“Squad, report,” Isaiah voxed, trying to shake the ringing echo from his ears. His muscles tensed as he heard his men reply, at first confused and dazed, then more and more confident.

All but one.

Etienne lay sprawled out on the ground, hands still covering his ears. Blood pooled by his prone shape.

“Get up, sergeant,” Isaiah commanded with as firm of a voice as he could muster. He approached his second, taking slow, measured steps. “Etienne?” he called out, hearing no response. “Brother-sergeant?”

The Terran Marine chuckled. It was a strange sound, somehow subtly yet indescribably wrong in its pitch. A single chuckle became a cascade of psychotic laughter that sounded less and less human with every second, even muffled by the ground. The warrior’s hands dug deep into his flesh, drawing more blood.

“We need Apothecary here,” Isaiah voxed, not taking his eyes off Etienne. Something was going terribly wrong.

“No.” The voice sounded both like the Reapers’ sergeant and something else, inhuman, improbable and yet possessed of flesh. The fallen Marine stirred in a single, jerky motion. His hands ripped at the flesh on the sides of his head, tearing off both ears.

“You need help, brother,” Isaiah said, not believing his own eyes. The veteran sergeant opened his hands, letting two useless ears fall out, then began to lift himself up. “Stay. There!”

Etienne grinned right at Isaiah. The Sixth Captain stood in disbelief. The man’s face was distorted, as though he died some time ago and was left to rot in the sun. The bloody caverns of his eye sockets wept gore and pus. One half of his nose was simply gone, as if eaten or torn away to make space for infected, bloated flesh.

By all right the Terran should have been blinded and in shock that even his Marine physiology could not negate, and yet Isaiah could not shake off the sensation that Etienne could see him perfectly well, and was far from being disabled.

“I can still hear it, you know?” the sergeant, or the thing wearing his flesh, said. There was none of Etienne’s characteristic accent in its voice, although Isaiah could still sense something of his old comrade in the thing’s posture, the way it cocked its head when talking. “The psalm of extinction. A thing of such beauty it makes me want to weep.” It pointed to its empty eye sockets, smiling as though it found the expression strangely humorous.

“Etienne, what in the…”

“Such dedication, brothers!” the thing said, sounding as if it was reciting some sort of prayer or mantra. “Such freedom that flesh could no longer hold!”

“What are you, fleshwalker?” Isaiah shouted, raising his bolt pistol and pointing it at the thing. He named it after an Argosian legend that was considered fantastic even on that blighted world; instinctually, he felt it appropriate.

“I am all flesh, and all spirit. I am the freedom to do what you desire. Is that what you want to hear, brother?” said the creature. “I am Etienne and I am you and I am the Lynor and I am the…”

“Enough!”

“Are you afraid to look at the face of your brother, Isaiah? Are you afraid to see the true angels in the sky?”

The bolt pistol fired.

In less than a second, it was followed by the other Reapers’ guns, chewing holes in ceramite and ripping chunks of distended flesh from Etienne’s body. Isaiah threw himself at it, Excruciator flailing wildly.

“The power to do as you desire,” the creature said even as its mouth was blasted open by the Gargoyles’ bolter shells. There was an expression upon its face that seemed almost ecstatic at the damage dealt to its body.

With an anguished scream, Isaiah forced his weapon’s teeth to bite through the thing’s thick neck.

The thing’s head fell to the ground, bouncing once like an archaic cannonball, then rolling slowly, spraying deep arterial blood all over itself. The skin upon it seemed to dry in a matter of seconds, turning into dry, mummified crust. When it came to a stop, the head was grinning – not a rictus grin the Sixth Captain would have expected from a set of skeletal remains, but a genuine appearance of satisfaction.

“What the…”

Before Isaiah could finish the phrase, the sky above Twenty Seven-Forty One lit up in an unnatural, multi-colored flame.

* * *

The heavens burned with the intensity of a nuclear flare, lights coalescing into clumps of strange and inhuman shapes and then dissolving once again into a kaleidoscopic display of color. Isaiah had never seen anything like this, and the confused motions of his men told him that the experience had no frame of reference for any of them. He saw Caravak’s hand flinch in an old Argosian warding sign even as the trooper’s other hand clinched his weapon tighter.

“Take covering positions, men!” Isaiah voxed. Whatever it was, he thought, could not have been friendly. “It must be some xenos trick,” he said, more to reassure himself than his troopers.

A Space Marine knew no fear in a traditional sense; he would not avoid a potentially lethal situation because of misguided concerns for self-preservation, and would never know the pangs of phobia. But even the warriors of the Legiones Astartes could know confusion and doubt.

Right now, Isaiah felt it was one of those times when even the Legion’s superior discipline and training could not provide them with an answer as to what was going on. They could, however, provide the Reapers with the means to survive and defeat it. “Remember the Primarch’s teachings,” Isaiah said, a sole voice of calm amidst the unnatural lights. “Death to xenos!” he shouted, raising the Excruciator as if it was a martial banner to rally his troops even in the face of the unknown.

“Death to xenos!” the Gargoyles repeated as one, taking positions around the Sixth Captain, fate of Etienne forgotten for the moment.

Deep down, Isaiah had already missed the old Terran. He was a perfect counterpart to the Sixth Captain’s ambitions, a reliable second that, despite his world of origin, could be trusted as much as any Argosian.

Most of all, Isaiah belatedly realized, Etienne was the closest thing to a true friend he had in the Legion. No matter what happened, the veteran sergeant was always there to back him up, to challenge him to an ever-higher tally of kills, to make him stronger and better.

I’ll miss you, friend, thought Isaiah, cold rage surging up to replace the momentary sadness. He was of Argos, a warrior bred and trained. Let the other, weaker Legions show their grief.

The Gargoyles had a different way to deal with these things.

“And, brothers,” Isaiah said with the voice full of malice, “whatever did this to Etienne will pay. Vengeance!”

“Vengeance!” replied the Reapers, watching the sky with wary eyes.

The first shapes coalesced into being only seconds later.

They were roughly bipedal, and could have almost passed for a human or even a Lynor from the distance, but up close, the differences were striking. The things had misshapen lumps of flesh for bodies, their appendages mutated into something unrecognizable. Claws, tentacles and blades competed for space upon the creatures’ bodies, arranged with no apparent logical pattern. Multitudes of eyes, mouths and horns sprouted from the flesh in seemingly random places even as black bile and pus seeped from their bleeding orifices.

The creatures slammed into the ground like a meteor shower, some able to walk away, some others turned into bloody pulp by the force of impacts. A cacophony of groans, screams and hissing sounds filled the air.

Isaiah did not hesitate. Whatever the things were, they were an affront to the Primarch and the Emperor. “Exterminate them all!” he growled, launching himself into the mutated alien things. “For the Primarch! For Etienne!”

His shouts were replicated by the surviving Reapers, who forfeited their bolters and pistols in favor of close-combat weaponry, striking at the mutants without mercy. Dimly, Isaiah recalled that his command squad was at least three kilometers away from the nearest Imperial forces; he wondered what the others were doing. He almost considered raising his sergeants on vox and ordering them here, but then decided against it. This was now personal.

He killed without precision or finesse, striking harder and faster with every blow as if he could exorcise his rage and grief by slaughtering the misshapen creatures. They provided him with little challenge, flailing around ineffectively while the Excruciator drank their blood and maimed their already impossibly altered physiques.

If this was the aliens’ last, desperate gambit, it was not working.

Isaiah butchered a thing with dozens of eyes and four long, sinewy arms, then elbowed another mutant, breaking the creature’s skull with a simple backward thrust of the Excruciator’s pommel. This was no melee; this was slaughter. The creatures threw themselves at him without any apparent concern for self-preservation, dying with sibilant moans and vapid attempts at avenging their repugnant brethren.

“Now, we see true face of the alien, the mutant, the abomination!” Isaiah screamed, enraged, exterminating the creatures for the very sin of their existence.

There was something liberating about it, the act of indiscriminate slaughter that was justified, nay, warranted. All thoughts of vengeance or retribution vanished from his mind; all that existed was the pure, undiluted joy of seeing the teeth of his whirling chainsword bite into the flesh of the enemy, feeling the polluted blood splatter over his helmet eye lenses and obscure the intricate symbols that once defined his fate.

There was nothing but death, and death was purity, liberty and ecstasy all in one.

Isaiah lost count of the kills. Now that Etienne was gone, there was little use counting them. He made every single one a monument to his fallen comrade, every gurgling scream of a mutant a praise to the memory of the dead Reaper. In that moment it did not matter how the creatures appeared, where they came from, or even what they wanted. All that mattered was that they were extinguished.

And the Gargoyles obliged.

The confused scene gave way to a peaceful lull without warning. Isaiah stood upon a mound of misshapen corpses, still high on adrenaline and combat stimms and looking warily around for his next victim. Around him, the other Gargoyles seemed to be in a similarly bestial state; animalistic growls from their vox-grilles gave the scene a sense of unreality. He saw Murdok carve a dying, screaming mutant in half, not a killing move but the one designed to inflict as much pain as possible.

Even a few minutes ago Isaiah would have tried to impose a sense of discipline, telling the trooper that the enemies may still lurk nearby. Right now, this new, pure Isaiah did not care. If this was what losing control felt like, he enjoyed it, never wanting it to end. If this was what years of strict, rigorous discipline stopped them from, then perhaps…

Isaiah had always enjoyed the rush of combat, the violence he and his men could inflict upon their enemies. It was only one step from there to admit it to himself, to acknowledge the bloodlust boiling within him like a remedy for grief and shame at his comrade’s passing. Control was always the hardest for those already shunned by their peers, already misunderstood as simpletons with an affinity for bloodletting.

“Watch… the perimeter,” he gasped. The words were becoming more and more difficult. Isaiah had to collect all of his willpower just to speak instead of letting out a bestial moan. All his mental strength turned into a singular purpose – man, not beast. It was a man who was dominant, and he would not surrender himself to his base urges. Grief and comprehension would come later. He still had a war to fight.

Casting one last glance at Etienne’s corpse, now surrounded by the dead mutants as if they were some kind of funeral offering, Isaiah motioned to the Reapers to form a protective cordon around him, readying themselves for an advance.

The moment’s weakness shook him to the core; the reckless abandon did not sit well with him. The sense of having no control over his own emotions was difficult, troubling… exhilarating. His was the sickly, perverted satisfaction of not just killing but maiming, causing pain just for its own sake and not as the means to an end.

Most unsettling of all, he realized that he liked it.

* * *

The lights in the strategium dimmed, acquiring a reddish hue Angela associated with danger and final warning – don’t touch, don’t get near. She almost expected the great vessel to shake as if it was hit by a volley of torpedoes, knowing the absurdity of the thought. The Lynor, though fairly advanced as far as the alien species went, had no appreciable void warfare capability.

Frantically, her eyes sought out the Primarch, immobile upon his throne.

Angelus looked as if he was concentrating on something beyond the perception of ordinary mortals, eyes closed and lips tightened. The Primarch’s wings trembled, as if from some exertion Angela could not place. A thin rimming of frost appeared near his command throne.

The chill seemed to permeate everything, and Angela shuddered, as she always did when the Grey Prince’s prodigious psychic might was on display. Something was happening on the planet below, and she was not sure she liked the implications.

Finally, Angelus spoke, this time with his own voice.

“I feel the…” he stuttered, perhaps trying to find the right word, “a disturbance in the Shadow.”

“With all due respect, sire…” said Katon, only to be cut off by a slight movement of the Primarch’s hand.

“You feel it too, Merlin, don’t you?” Angelus said. The frost began to cover his exposed hands, forming geometric patterns upon the skin. The Primarch did not seem to notice.

The Legion’s Chief Librarian frowned. “It is… unpleasant, sire. Like something scratching the inside of your skull.”

“That, indeed, is true,” the Primarch said contemplatively. “But I wonder…” He trailed off, saying nothing for several seconds.

“Sire,” Katon spoke again, appearing plaintive. “With all due respect, we have companies on the surface. Why, the Reapers, the Black Devils, the…”

Angela felt the psychic presence within her mind build up. She opened herself to the Primarch’s mental voice, surrendering control.

“Lord Angelus is well aware of the companies prosecuting campaign on Twenty Seven-Forty One,” she said with a voice that was cultured, cold and emotionless. It was always like this when she conveyed the mass of jumbled thoughts and images in the Grey Prince’s mind that made no sense to anyone else, transforming them into coherent speech. “What he is wondering has to do with what our forces planetside are reporting. Let us not bring conjecture to this conclave.”

Katon tapped on his vox-bead, checking if it worked, then shook his head in frustration. “No reports,” the First Captain said defensively. “I shall reach out and…”

“No need,” Angelus hissed. His voice and demeanor seemed to transform in a matter of seconds; first, he was controlled and composed, regal even despite his monstrous form; then, he was full of spite, acting as though the rest of the strategium was filled with children or bumbling idiots. There was a malevolent light in his eyes, and for a moment Angela wondered if he was somehow reverting to his old state, his affliction that he tried to control with her help.

“Angela…” the Grey Prince groaned, as if seeking assistance. Perhaps, the young woman thought, he was trying to say something that his lips could not form, forever in competition with the voices only he was able to hear. She took a step, then another, approaching the ship’s command throne and its gargantuan occupant.

“Sire?” she asked, laying a hand on a massive, leathery wing. The disparity in sizes between the two of them was such that she could not reach his shoulder even when the Primarch was seated.

With a jerky movement of his wrist, Angelus grabbed her hand before she could touch him. The Primarch’s features were contorted as if he was in pain. The former remembrancer felt his vice-like grip on her hand.

“You’re hurting me,” she said, pleadingly. Terror filled her thoughts. Even on his best days, Angelus was a difficult creature to understand. Now, it seemed that he was relapsing into his old, cryptic, incomprehensible ways, and once again she was in the middle of it.

He let her go, withdrawing his hand and holding it close to his chest in some kind of misguided salute. Angela felt circulation return, looking at her fingers and knowing that in another second they would have been broken.

“I. Am. In. Control!” the Primarch hissed to everyone and no one in particular. Angela took a step back, not willing to be within reach of this morose giant when his temper began to flare. She saw several Marines exchange confused looks.

“Sire?” Katon asked again, feigning incomprehension. Angela knew what was on the First Captain’s mind; did the remedy to his lord’s ailment fail? Was the treatment once again ineffective?

She wondered if the Space Marines could know fear, not the terror of the battlefield, but something far more mundane – the kind of fear caused by uncertainty, failure or confusion.

“I will not let them tell me what to do,” Angelus whispered so quietly that only Angela could get a hint of what he was saying. His head twisted at an unnatural angle, an indicator of some inner struggle that only the Primarch himself was fully aware of.

“Withdraw the companies,” the Primarch said, voice now loud and clear if strained; at least, Angela thought, she heard a strain. “An… Angela?”

She shook herself off, still mentally reliving the experience that was only fraction of a second away from turning dangerous. Once again, her duty as a psychic conduit took precedence, and she closed her eyes, trying to bring down her natural mental barriers.

It was getting harder and harder.

“The companies should be withdrawn from the planet,” she said in a voice that was not entirely her own. “This world… should be declared anathema.”

Dimly, she became aware of confused whispers amongst the ship’s officers. What did just happen? Did she consign another world to oblivion? Angela desperately hoped she misunderstood; one world was enough. Even if these were aliens and no one in the wider Imperium would shed a tear over their extermination, there was still something inherently wrong with destroying an entire world, scorching the bedrock, destroying the biosphere and all remnants of civilization. Surely, she reasoned, the Primarch’s newfound control meant he did not intend to go to such lengths?

Another second, another vision intruded upon her mind.

“The… xenos…” words came to her with difficulty, her own mind trying to process the message not just as a conduit but as an avid listener, “have attempted to use Shadowcraft as a salvation of their kind. Instead, it twisted them, granting them no aid and speeding up their destruction.”

“How…” asked Merlin, incredulous that his liege saw something that defied even the Chief Librarian’s formidable skill in psychic arts.

“It was directed,” Angelus gasped. A trickle of blood came down from his nose. “It was a message, and they were a conduit.” Angela felt him in her mind again, tinkering, trying to make himself heard.

“The Lynor were a tool, nothing more,” the former remembrancer said with another’s voice. Images and words flooded into her mind, cryptic understanding so terrible and ironic in its simplicity that Angela would have laughed had it not been for the gravity of the matter. She wondered what it might have felt like to the xenos as they belatedly realized their ultimate sacrifice was for naught, useful only to deliver another’s message. But whose message was it, and to what end?

“I have foreseen something far more important than the pacification of this backwater,” the Primarch said, sounding fully in control of his faculties. He grinned like a wolf sensing nearby prey. “Extract the companies, and prepare our fleet for departure.”

“Departure?” said Guelo Balantir, clearly confused. “To… where?”

“Patience,” Angelus smiled, all previous confusion forgotten. “I see things. So clearly, yes!” A slight tremor in his wings sent a light breeze across the stale recycled air of the strategium. “Almost home, yes. The message is heard. Here!” With a tap of his finger upon the throne arm, the Primarch summoned a holographic image.

As the image took shape, Angela saw the graceful lines of green and brown continents delineated by azure seas and wispy clouds, a world that seemed to have no place in this strife-filled galaxy. There was something vaguely familiar about it, as if the memory was encoded on some deep, genetic level. This must have been what Terra looked like before the Age of Strife had altered humanity’s birth world beyond any recognition, she thought, knowing full well that this was a world far more verdant and beautiful than even Terra of that long-gone mythical age.

“This is our destination,” the Primarch said, reaching out his hand as if to grasp the globe. An avaricious smile played upon his lips before changing into something more nostalgic. “So close to home…” His face changed into an expression of pure, unadulterated bliss for a moment before becoming serious again.”

“Taramin.”
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Midgard
 
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Tue Nov 12, 2013 5:31 am

SEVENTEEN

In Pursuit
Taramin
Reprieve


“They did… what?”

Avram paced through the ship’s strategium not unlike a caged, dangerous animal just moments away from snapping. The Peacekeeper’s face was contorted into an angry grimace, his gauntlets flexing and unflexing as if seeking something to attack. He felt his jaw tremble with suppressed rage, teeth not far away from being bared in a predatory snarl. The surviving Peacekeepers, surrounded by mortal serfs and crew, stood in a semicircle formation just a few meters away.

This was it, the reckoning. The only thing that prevented the warriors of the Tenth from outright mutiny was their iron discipline, and even that was beginning to fail as yet another world gave no outright evidence to the Gargoyles’ treachery.

They stood like a jury, Avram thought, eyeing his brothers, Liam foremost amongst them, their black and white armor a stark contrast to the greens and blues of the naval ratings. The concept was insufferable, almost as bad as the apparent failure of his mission. And now, it seemed his own men were turning against him, choosing this moment to question the wisdom of their quest! After all that happened, Avram felt angry, betrayed, disappointed. No, he decided, that was not the right word. This was shame, shame for failing his Primarch, shame for leading his warriors to unnecessary deaths, shame for failing the dead of Parias and other worlds that fell to Angelus’ butchers.

“Sir!” Liam’s curt phrase brought Avram’s attention back.

No need to give in to mindless rage, thought the First Captain, trying to keep him emotions in check. It was unbecoming of Gideon’s sons, more befitting mindless butchers like Kthuln’s breed, or those of… The thought brought him back to the brink of rage.

“Avram…” the other Peacekeeper kept a respectable distance. There was worry in his eyes, although Avram could not tell if it was because of his commander’s emotional state or because of what they had found. “They are not here.”

“I can see that,” the First Captain snapped, too angry to effectively utilize the calming mantras borrowed from the Illuminators Legion. “Another dead world, and for what?”

“With all due respect, sir,” Liam said, “this one was a xenos world. It seems our wayward… brothers… have achieved compliance.”

“This quick?” Avram tried to picture the geometric patterns, the lines of power, as the Seers of the Seventh Legion called them. This time, he was marginally more successful, focusing his thoughts back upon the problem at hand.

“There is nothing of interest here,” said Liam, a printed readout in his hand. “Orbital scans show complete extermination of the native sentient xenos species, combined with destruction of their works. As it stands right now, the planet is completely devoid of all sentient life.” The warrior’s words were calm and measured, a stark counterpoint to his commander’s agitated attitude.

“This is not the normal procedure,” said Avram, every word one step closer to regaining his mental balance. Though he loathed to admit it, he was on the verge of losing his temper too many times in the past ten years, none as much as on the last expedition. “No governor left, no colony settlement, nothing? Not even an orbital beacon? I find it hard to believe that even the bastards would be so lax in their duties.”

“There must be a rational explanation,” Liam replied, eyeing his commander warily. “A distress call… perhaps?”

“A distress call to summon the entire Legion away?”

“I admit, it is hard to believe,” said Liam. “But there must be a way to explain it without resorting to suspicion.”

“This is why they included you, isn’t it?” Avram growled. “You are to be my naysayer in all of this.”

“Avram,” the other warrior said. “I was there too. Do you realize what you are trying to do? You are becoming obsessed with the Gargoyles. You work so hard on this search that you will not miss a slightest chance to bring them down.”

“Perhaps,” said Avram. There was a manic glint in his eyes. “I have no need to reiterate my thoughts on the manner. But I was given a mission, and it is a matter of my honor that I get it done.”

“Still… have you considered that they might be innocent of all the charges you are laying upon them?”

Avram shook his head. “There is justice. It is an absolute, and the only constant in the universe.”

“We’ve had this conversation before,” said Liam. “And, if you recall, you have agreed to be reasonable.”

Silence descended while Avram contemplated his next words. The First Captain’s brow was heavy with labored thoughts and mounting frustration.

“Liam…” the Peacekeeper was visibly struggling with his emotions. “We are not animals. We are not madmen. Our cause is just. If it may be so that we are misguided in our quest, then…” It was clear that the words came to Avram with difficulty, as if the concept was anathema to him. “If we are wrong, we will admit it like men, and make our amends. But if we are right… Do you understand the implications if we are right?”

“That is a big if,” Liam said. “We have our reasons to doubt Angelus’ brood, and your reasons may be as good or better than most. But so far it is not what we have seen. It’s what we have not seen.”

“You mean, the likes of Parias or, what was that one world?” Avram laughed bitterly. “Yes, brother, we have seen bloodshed on the scale greater than anything the bastards had wrought before. And yes, we have only seen it directed at the unworthy. But you know what? I have no doubt that the second we turn our eyes away from them, the Fourteenth will do exactly as we had feared.”

“We are not spies, Avram,” said the other warrior. “We are soldiers. With every minute that we spend on this foolhardy quest of yours, we are further away from somewhere we can make a real difference. We are alone, far away from the Legion, and are wasting time on a futile errand while our brothers conquer the galaxy. Have you thought that perhaps our mission had concluded long ago, and we are simply bandying words while we could be standing by our father’s side?”

“And still, the reasons for the Gargoyles’ sudden departure are suspect,” said Avram, his expression hardening. Something glinted in his eyes, or did Liam just imagine that? “Hear all!” the First Captain raised his voice, making many a Legion serf turn at the sound. All noises in the strategium have suddenly died down, as if Avram’s presence could somehow still the air itseld.

“For all that it pains me to say so, let it be known that our hunt is coming close to the end.” Avram could see the relieved expression on Liam’s face, perhaps hopeful that his entreaties had met with success.

“And yet, it is not yet over.”

Avram felt the elation of knowing that no matter what the future would bring, he had one more mission to do here and now. The elation was interceded with anxiety, then cold, hard core of rage. He seethed his next words through his teeth.

“Should our wayward bastard brothers have a good enough reason for their departure, our task will come to an end.” He smiled savagely, looking like a savage ursid. “But if it is a proof of their perfidy, then I swear on my own honor and on that of my dead brothers that they will be found. And then,” Avram paused, closed his eyes, then took a deep breath. He wavered for a short moment, knowing that just now, he gave up his last chance to force his will upon the other members of the hunt.

“No, there is no then,” he finally said, opening his eyes with single-minded intent. “You must all promise me one thing, no matter what happens. We shall pursue the Gargoyles through the Warp to discover the reasons behind their… abrupt departure. Should they prove… innocent…” the word sounded labored, as if it was nigh impossible for him to pronounce, “they will be absolved. But… should they resort to their old ways…” Avram grinned viciously. There was nothing human in the expression. “Then the Tenth Legion shall be the instrument of their final extermination.”

* * *

The world was a globe of peaceful green and blue, not unlike Terra of old. Wispy strings of clouds drifted lazily across the continents covered with rolling vegetation and oceans of deepest azure. Just beyond the terminator, the first lights of cities began to shimmer, welcoming the coming of night.

A colder, more scientific mind would have noted the orbital disposition, the star’s spectral class and the other statistics to explain the planet’s environment – gravity just below Terran normal, the atmospheric composition that caused just enough greenhouse effect to keep the world warm for human life without turning it into a jungle-ridden hellhole, mineral deposits that had originally brought human colonists here and yet were carefully shepherded to avoid overt industrialization. The Imperial annals designated the planet with some indescribably ridiculous code that took all of those constants and married them to its galactic location, its average orbital eccentricity, its position in the family of the local star, and many other items that only the most dedicated tech-priest could ever hope to decipher.

To Isaiah, the numbers did not matter. He knew this planet well, better than any numerical description could explain. This was Taramin, a world so close to Argos in galactic terms that they might as well have been sisters. It was the first world brought into compliance by the Gargoyles Legion – voluntarily, at that - and despite the lack of bloodshed usually associated with the Fourteenth Legion’s conquest, it held a special place in the Legion’s heart.

Sometimes Isaiah wondered if this is what Argos herself would have been, had she not been blighted in ages immemorial by forgotten technologies, then left to rot with only the biological remnants of that era to keep its human population company. He dimly recalled fragments of a lecture by the Imperial genetor-magos, explaining that the monsters of Argos were the degenerate remnants of technologies so dangerous that they should never be unearthed again. At the time, Isaiah – then a much younger novitiate fresh from that hell-world – could barely keep his attention on the magos attempting to inundate the recruits with the knowledge of the wider galaxy. Now, he was not so sure anymore.

Most paradises were only a step away from having their initial purpose subverted, and becoming just like Argos, a pitiful remainder of the glory that could have been. It almost saddened Isaiah to think that his Legion’s hasty arrival could be the catalyst for such change.

The Gargoyles sped through the Warp paying no heed to dangers inherent within, sailing as much by intuition and luck as they had by skill of their overworked Navigators. Light years burned away behind the armored prows of their ships, while the engines of the Twenty Seventh Expedition were pushed to the very limits of endurance. The Legion’s turbulent passage left a massive wake in the Immaterium, sending inexplicable dreams and visions of anguish and torment to beings hundreds of light years away from their destination.

All were ready, for this was a call no Gargoyle could set aside. Taramin, the beautiful Taramin cried for help, and it was the Fourteenth Legion’s solemn duty to respond with all due haste.

“Ready for drop, sir!” Barca saluted to Isaiah, smartly choosing to remain outside of the Sixth Captain’s immediate reach. The bitterness of Etienne’s passing still galled at the Reapers, made even worse by the manner his body was desecrated by whatever being took control of it.

The Gargoyles were no strangers to psychic trickery, but that did not make it easier for Isaiah. He lost battle brothers before, and on some rational level knew he would lose many yet again before the Great Crusade was over, but Etienne was special. He was more than a brother, more than a mere friend; he was a mentor, someone who once taught Isaiah what it meant to be one of the Legiones Astartes, someone whose opinion the Sixth Captain valued even once their roles were reversed. The Reaper felt a strange, inexplicable emptiness inside that he could not quite place; an absence not of a comrade, but that of a surrogate father.

“Wait for the word from Lord Angelus,” Isaiah snapped, checking and rechecking the harness that kept him secured inside the Stormbird’s bay. There were times that Barca simply annoyed him, their long comradeship notwithstanding. The old sergeant’s presence simply reminded Isaiah of the inner void now that his mentor was gone, succumbing to the alien trick through a simple, seemingly innocuous decision.

It galled at Isaiah that the one that trained him could have proven to be so weak.

Isaiah tapped on the vox-bead implanted into his temple, listening to the situation feed as it unfolded. “Our target is Kanapa,” he said, trying to bring a measure of calm into his voice. The last thing his warriors needed right now was doubt in his abilities as a leader. The image of a seaside city, glowing white and brown in its rustic splendor, surfaced from the depths of his memories. “The attack was reported to have originated there.”

“Always in the mix, eh? The Reapers – first in, first…” Barca said, somewhat unwisely. A cold stare from Isaiah silenced the sergeant.

“Falcon attack pattern,” Isaiah said, not acknowledging Barca any further. “Jump packs, then heavy weapon squads. Expect heavy resistance.”

In truth, Isaiah knew very little of the nature of his next foe. The Legion was given very little detail or explanation on how Angelus knew Taramin was in peril, or even what that peril was. The Primarch was unusually tight-lipped, not resorting to even his cryptic statements.

Such was often the way of the yurog.

And then, there was the matter of Angelus’ mouthpiece.

The girl had served her purpose, true. It was Isaiah’s discovery of her nature that allowed him to gain a measure of favor with his gene-sire – but now, it seemed as if Angelus became wholly dependent on her, incapable of articulating his thoughts without her around, and even struggling at times while the former remembrancer attended upon her liege. It only got worse with each passing day; by the time of the Legion’s arrival on Taramin, the Grey Prince and Angela were inseparable. Isaiah had to contain his thoughts, struggling against the notion that a mere mortal and not him were in the Primarch’s confidence, subjected to the Grey Prince’s affection and comradeship.

Once again he wished he knew what he was truly up against. The Primarch said little during the briefing, merely pointing out the landing sites and assigning companies. A heretical thought crawled through Isaiah’s head then, and now it surfaced once again.

Angelus attempted too hard to keep his yurog nature in control, Isaiah thought, reminiscing of the uncontrolled freedom of slaughter on Twenty-Seven Forty One and dozens of other worlds. What if that, too, created a weakness, the same kind of weakness that allowed Etienne to succumb, and that saw one of the Emperor’s own progeny rely too much on the services of a jumped-up artist? What if the precious, long-distilled self-control of the Fourteenth Legion was nothing but a sham that kept them from achieving the same glory in slaughter that Isaiah felt as he fell upon the foul, mutated things on his last mission?

The vox signal interrupted his thoughts, mercifully. A leader had no place for doubt, no need for hesitation.

Isaiah listened to the message, then eyed his men. Fifty warriors in black and grey, fifty of the finest killers known to man – a force to crush the worlds at his whim and to exterminate species that survived the worst cataclysms the galaxy could throw at them. With such a force at his disposal, who needed doubts?

He smiled, feeling a grim yet pleasant urge to bring his wrath upon yet another world.

“Reapers,” Isaiah’s voice was exultant, full of savage anticipation. “The enemy has been sighted down below. Are you ready to show them why they should fear the sons of Argos?”

Fifty gauntlets slapped across fifty breastplates in an ancient martial salute as the Stormbird began its descent through the atmosphere.

* * *

It has been one long, strange journey, Angela reflected as she joined the Grey Prince in one of the Redeemer’s many observer cupolas. The globe of Taramin dominated the view, bright and inviting against the harshness of space. She could see one of the system’s suns partially eclipsed by the planet, shining behind it like an impossibly bright jewel.

For the moment, the Primarch and the former remembrancer were alone, without Angelus’ usual retinue of servants, aides and other hangers-on. The lord of the Fourteenth Legion stood as erect as his crooked spine would allow, wings trembling without extending, watching the world his warriors came to relieve. There was a nostalgic expression upon his face, a reminiscence of earlier, perhaps happier or at least more innocent times.

“It was the first world I stood upon, other than Argos of course,” he said, waxing nostalgic. There was a strange glint in his eyes, not quite tears, but beyond the moment’s sentiment.

It felt strange to Angela that a Primarch, of all beings, would show his emotions in front of her. The Emperor’s gene-sons were supposed to be the untouchable demigods, far above and beyond the mortal concerns. To see one experiencing a moment of emotional sensitivity was… troubling.

“Sire…” Angela said, not sure how to ask the question. “What… brought us here?”

“I cannot speak,” the Primarch replied with a trembling voice. “They are everywhere. Louder. Much, much louder.” He covered his ears with both hands; blue veins surfaced like a meshing of azure wire beneath his pale skin. He closed his eyes, breathing slowly. Angela felt the moisture draw out of the air, forming into ice crystals upon the observatory’s floor.

“They are in retreat. For now,” he announced as his breath stabilized. Angelus turned to her in a single jerky movement. His eyes were now open wide, even as his cheek spasmed in a nervous tic. “But they will be back.” He drew his face to within centimeters of Angela’s. “We don’t have long,” the Grey Prince whispered.

“What… would you have me do, sire?” the girl asked. As intimidating as the sight was, Angelus was not the one for conventional conversation; at times, Angela wondered if he could simply not understand how to deal with mortals one on one.

“Your presence helps,” said the Primarch, withdrawing. He sat upon the floor, still towering over Angela. “You focus my thoughts.” His voice raised in pitch and volume. “Do you know what it’s like to keep it in check? To know that there is something inside of you waiting to get out?” His pitch grew feverish, raspy. “When you define yourself by one thing and carve yourself into a single form, and chafe at the constraints it imposes.”

“I don’t understand…”

“There is not much to understand,” Angelus said. “What do you think I am?”

“A Primarch,” Angela blurted out without thinking. “A leader of men. A warrior.”

“Is that what you truly think I am?” Angelus shook his head.

“It is what you allow yourself to be,” the former remembrancer said. “It is the lord Angelus everyone knows and expects. Is that not what you are?”

“I don’t know,” said the Primarch. There was a thoughtful, haunted look in his eyes. “For ten years your presence had calmed down the voices. And yet you still have not wondered what they are. Have you ever…” He let the words hang.

“Have I ever wondered?” the young woman finished the phrase. “Of course I have! Your thrice-damned voices are the reason I am here. Without them, I would be painting landscapes in the dark, or wasting time with little pathetic men that only care about my body and nothing else.”

“And you think it is an improvement now?”

Angela was silent for a moment before shaking her head. “Back with other remembrancers, I had no part in grandiose plans or plots. I could just be Angela Hesail, nothing more. I could live a life like it was meant to be. Right now…” A sobbing note entered her voice; she felt on the verge of tears. “I don’t know what I am supposed to be. A translator? A tool? A lucky charm?”

“Why did you take ten years to ask those questions, Angela?”

“Because in ten years, no one had asked my opinion on what I think,” the girl yelled, careless of breaching the protocol of dealing with one of the Emperor’s sons. “Because in ten years, I have not been able to finish a single painting, or to have any meaningful relations with anyone, or…”

“You do not have to carry the burden of a monster inside you,” Angelus snapped angrily. The girl reflected that he could end her life with but a flick of his hand; for the first time since making the Primarch’s acquaintance, she felt truly threatened. He got closer once again, his face almost touching hers. She fought back an instinctive urge to draw back. “And you don’t have to hear the voices that tell you to let it loose. Do you understand?”

“Why now? Why are you talking to me about it now?”

“Because it is getting harder,” the Primarch said, withdrawing. “I had thought… I had a solution.” He let the words sink in before continuing. “At least until I heard the call.” He laughed bitterly. “At least I got a reprieve.”

“It does not have to be this way,” said Angela. The platitude felt empty.

“It is clear, for now,” the Primarch said. His fingers fiddled with the edge of one wing. “I hear the cry of Taramin. I hear your thoughts, your confusion. But I don’t hear the others. I don’t hear them telling me to let go.”

He stood up, facing the view outside the cupola. By now, the system’s star was fully visible, ushering in a new day on Taramin. The system’s other star, a dim red dwarf barely worthy of a name, was little more than a point of light in the distance.

“But they will come back, Angela. They will come back. And when they do, I want you here with me. I want you to dispel them.” Angelus had a pleading look on his face, quite at odds with his gigantic, nearly monstrous appearance. “I want you to take them away.”
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Tue Nov 12, 2013 5:37 am

EIGHTEEN

Face of the Enemy
Vermillion
Grey Prince in Arms


As soon as the modified Stormbird was at an acceptable altitude, the Reapers began to fan out from the transport. Their jump packs wheezed and whined as the warriors tried to stay one step ahead of the turbulence of their passing. The green and blue of Taramin unfolded below.

There was little need or desire for stealth, and Isaiah howled an ululating war cry. The rest of his men followed suit, joining in with the howl of the high-altitude winds.

The town of Kanapa – barely a hamlet – sat alongside the coast, a small encroachment of human life between the golden sand and the deep green foliage of the forests. It seemed incredulous that anyone would consider it a proper military target, let alone worthy of a second look.

Isaiah braced himself for anti-air fire, expecting the sky around him to explode at any given second. The approach seemed easy, almost too easy. He expected to be challenged every step of the way. Instead, the Reapers were given free reign of the sky.

“I don’t like this,” he growled over the vox, switching it to the channel that only his sergeants could hear. “I smell a trap.”

“Permission to expedite landing, sir,” said Cosimo, already in front of the pack. Isaiah thought of reprimanding his sergeant’s undue zeal, then reconsidered. There was time for courage, and there was time for foolhardiness. This endeavor had every mark of the latter.

“Not yet,” Isaiah barked, checking the tactical readout projected upon his helmet lenses. The other Stormbirds of the Sixth Company were not very far behind, followed by seconded squads from the other Gargoyle detachments; a force of seven hundred Marines was going to descend on Kanapa like a flock of otherworldly terrors. “There,” he altered the readout with the thought, transmitting it to his sergeants. “The forested area half a click away from the objective.”

“Acknowledged,” Cosimo replied, to be followed by Barca and the other sergeants.

Isaiah twisted and turned, attempting to present the smallest target profile possible. Attacking in broad daylight never sat quite right with him. Here, he was too exposed, too vulnerable.

“Altitude two thousand meters,” he said, more to reassure himself and his men than to comply with any tactical doctrine. “Fast burn.”

The Gargoyles’ descent became almost vertical as their jump packs strove to assist the gravity’s pull on their armored bodies. Isaiah’s hand reached down to the Excruciator, instinctively thumbing down the activation stud. He could taste the coppery scent of blood on his tongue, a sensation he ascribed to his imagination running rampant.

The Reapers tore into the greenery with enough noise to announce their presence to any who might have been watching. Within seconds the squads were on their feet, acquiring targeting locks or revving up their chainswords.

Nothing stood up to challenge them – the only indications of life were the sounds of animals running away, spooked by the Space Marines’ arrival.

“What is this?” Barca said, annoyed. “Where is the enemy?”

“What enemy?” It was Cosimo’s turn to reply. “Unless we were sent here to fight… what are those things?” He pointed to a small, six-armed creature clinging to a nearby tree trunk. Frustrated, the Reaper shot at the animal with his bolt pistol, turning it into a dark red stain upon the bark.

“Remember your firing discipline, sergeant,” Isaiah growled, reminding himself to give Cosimo appropriate punishment once they returned to the Redeemer. Five days of weapon maintenance, perhaps. Or additional marksmanship drills with limited rations for a week.

“But, sir…” Cosimo protested, “how are we supposed to fight when we don’t know who the enemy is, where they are, or what we are supposed to do?”

In truth, Isaiah did consider this. He wondered if the Primarch’s yurog curse had finally led the Legion to a dead end. There was something deeply troubling about the idea; if he could not trust his Primarch to lead him, Isaiah thought, who could he trust?

“Trust in the Primarch and keep your humors in check,” the Sixth Captain said, as much to silence his own lingering doubts as to reassure his men. He let his helmet’s autosenses provide him with a stream of data describing his immediate surroundings. There was nothing there that could have constituted a threat.

The loud screech had almost caught him unaware.

The noise was at odds with the sounds of the forest, mechanical, distorted, inhuman. As one, the Reapers formed into an outward-facing circle, pistols and chainswords at the ready. Finally, thought Isaiah, something that looked like it could be a challenge.

“There is nothing on the auspex,” Barca said, instinctively lowering his voice to a whisper even over the vox. The veteran’s eyes kept a close watch on the canopy. “Do you think that…” he took a step out of the circle, losing none of his alertness in the process, “this is some kind of a witch-trick?”

“Witch-trick or not, I think we might have found what we came here for,” Isaiah replied, feeling the combat stims surge through his veins. Suddenly, his vision became more alert, sharper, noticing every little detail in the surrounding vegetation; he felt his heartbeat speed up, a sensation characteristic of chemical rush.

“There!” Cosimo pointed at the clearing leading to the town. Distant, angular shapes emerged from the greenery, doubtlessly the source of the sound. Even at this distance, Isaiah could see the distinct outlines of weapons, the glimmer of something that could not have been naturally produced.

“Contacts on auspex, coming from Kanapa!” Barca shouted. “Where were they when we did the orbital scans?”

“Does it even matter?” Isaiah laughed. “We see them now. Can’t you see they are waiting for a warm welcome?”

“If you say so,” Barca answered. Isaiah could imagine his senior sergeant grinning underneath the helmet grille. For the first time since Etienne’s death, the Sixth Captain felt something akin to peace.

This was where he belonged. This was where the Reapers belonged.

“Bragging rights to the first,” Isaiah said, pointing the Excruciator in the direction of the enemy. “The last one in will clean his squad’s armor!”

Loud cheers accompanied him as the Sixth Captain led the charge to take the battle to the enemy.

* * *

Tracer fire burst open the night as Ludwig and the Nineteenth Company joined the war for Taramin.

The Ogres were sent with the second wave of the assault craft to much of the Nineteenth Captain’s consternation. The delay was unpleasant; annoying, even. But, Ludwig thought to himself, at the very least his men were fighting on the planet’s night side, far away from the more bloodthirsty and unreasonable companies.

The Nineteenth Captain remembered Taramin as it was, and the thought chafed at him. The natural beauty of the planet was being slowly eaten away by the destructive power of the Gargoyles’ weapons. Full moon was an accusing eye of some primeval overseer judging the Fourteenth Legion for its sins, casting down its greatest accomplishment.

“Three to the right, heavy weapons!” the Nineteenth Captain signaled, taking aim with the Scorpius into the waiting darkness. The Ogres were positioned on the outskirts of a jungle-covered town, one of the many that dotted Taramin’s surface. The bursts from the Ogres’ heavy weapons silenced the thread as Ludwig checked his ammunition counter, making sure he still had most of his magazine.

The Nineteenth Captain let out a few pot shots, silently chastising himself for letting his emotions get the best of him. He felt the Scorpius’ desire to join in the battle, the weapon’s machine spirit urging him on. Certainly, this exchange of fire with the enemy was making Ludwig anxious.

The Ogres were spread around the jungle-covered approaches to a small town, huddling behind the makeshift barricades of tree trunks and rubble. Up ahead, Ludwig could see the buildings garrisoned by the enemy defenders, watching over the clearing with wary eyes. He barely suppressed a growl of frustration.

“What are those things, anyway?” asked Valentin, crouching behind cover. The flashes of light blasted just over his head, slamming into a tree and burning through it as surely as a plasma burst.

“Beats me,” grunted Ludwig. He checked the tactical readout. “The Second, Fourth and Ninth Companies are coming around. Pincer move,” he chuckled, understandingly. “Four minutes to contact.”

“Get ready for the push!” Valentin voxed over to his men. The sergeant risked a glance out of cover, almost getting shot for his trouble. “Code word… sir?”

“Code word Vermillion,” the Nineteenth Captain said. “No one moves until I say so. Is that understood?”

Grunts from his sergeants confirmed the order.

Heavy bolter barked somewhere in the distance, answered by more of the enemy’s strange weaponry. The energy blasts seemed to burn through wood and stone, scorching even the Gargoyles’ hardened ceramite and cooking the Marines inside. Where that weapon came from, Ludwig had no idea.

But at least he knew that this enemy could bleed, and if it could bleed, it could be killed.

The things that fired at the Nineteenth Company were once the human population of Taramin, but now bore only passing resemblance to anything human. Monstrous, mutated limbs ended in saws and blades, while other body parts were replaced with mechanical devices of strange and impossible nature. Some crawled on hundreds of small metal feet like a twisted millipede, while others had tracks and wheels for locomotion.

The creatures had only one thing in common – the elongated tubes of crystalline material protruding from their bodies at seemingly random angles, emanating the energy bursts that had already felled several of Ludwig’s Legionaries.

The Nineteenth Captain checked the tactical readout. Everything seemed to be in order; the other Companies were finally in position.

“Vermillion.”

The Ogres burst from cover, running over the rubble and fallen trees in a massed, reckless charge. The mutant hybrids seemed to recognize the impending destruction, intensifying their fire, but there was no stopping the Gargoyles assault. Bolter fire superseded the bright lights that burned the unwary even as the Gargoyles crossed the open space as quickly as their augmented bodies would allow.

Ludwig heard the muffled sounds of three hundred armored boots stomping the ground, punctuated by the relentless beat of bolter fire. He aimed and fired with the Scorpius, not bothering to slow down. Time was of the essence.

The four Gargoyles companies converging upon the nameless town were an overwhelming force, easily capable of exterminating whatever enemy turned the people of Taramin into this living mechanical nightmare. And yet, the mutants seemed unperturbed as they continued to rain fire at the advancing warriors of the Fourteenth Legion.

Something was not quite right, and Ludwig wished dearly he knew what.

Two of his men fell to the ground as their armor melted under the intense energy blasts. Ludwig lowered his head, sacrificing vision for the ability to present a lower profile. He was only three hundred meters away from the buildings, where his warriors’ close combat prowess would prove decisive. Only a few more seconds, he thought, growling in rage and bloodthirsty anticipation.

Two hundred meters.

Was it just his imagination, or did the blasts get hotter, more intense? Now he could tell with certainty that the enemy weapon discharge was leaving a sound, a slight vibration that rattled his armor in an unsettling manner. “Spread out!” he called to his battle-brothers, not bothering to waste any more breath.

One hundred meters.

The jungle burned, a cacophony of synesthetic sound merging with the wildly dancing colors of burning tree canopy. The enemy forms in the buildings were barely visible shadows, getting closer by the moment. He felt as if the ground itself resisted his advance, attempting to break his stride as the vines and bushes had vainly tried to impede him.

With a loud curse upon his lips, Ludwig crashed through a low-lying window, barely avoiding an energy blast from a hulking mutant. Before the mutant could alter his aim, the Nineteenth Captain was on him, swinging his power sword in a wide arc ending in the middle of the creature’s body. Ludwig pulled out the weapon, using his bulk to slam the abomination to the floor and crush what passed for its head with his armored boot.

The structure must have been an outlying residence, small and yet easily capable of housing half a dozen creatures. Ludwig saw the broken shards of pottery, abandoned household items and broken picture frames, as if the mutants tried in vain to decorate their dwelling. Cold rage flared inside, anger at the defilement of human form and spirit.

“You. Are. A. Blasphemy,” he spat as he launched themselves at the surviving mutants, power sword and Scorpius in each hand and ready for their grim task.

* * *

He had no need for the elaborate contraptions that propelled the lesser warriors through the sky, and no desire to augment his senses through dead metal and electronics. Where the others placed their trust in technology to deal a momentary defeat to gravity, he soared high on wings that were as much the crowning achievement of science as they were of Warpcraft. Where they were once human, he never was.

The Primarch fell through the low clouds, followed by a squad of Hell Guard struggling to keep up with him, their jet packs protesting furiously. He felt the cold air brush his hair off his statuesque face, oblivious to the frigid bite of ice crystals.

He did not attempt to quantify the emotions in his head, and in truth he doubted he would succeed even if he tried. A being of his stature was always bound to remain solitary, no matter the number of people he had surrounded himself with, and his thoughts were not for the ordinary mortals to know or share. The galaxy had little for him, and even now that the voices had momentarily ceased, he could not easily attain the clarity he had sought.

Angelus flexed his lightning claws, sending out psychic probes to the surface. Some preternatural sense told him he was precisely two thousand, one hundred and four meters above the ground. The same sense told him it was still four hours, twenty minutes before the system’s star set upon this part of Taramin. He smelled the air, crystal clear and yet subtly different from his last visit.

There was a faint undercurrent of something mechanical, oily, subtly wrong. Angelus felt like he was about to disturb the rotting carcass of some great beast, putrid and effervescent yet crawling with unwanted, disgusting life. He imagined the carcass there, just in front of him – a great bull with elongated, curved horns, skin just hanging barely over the protruding ribs.

It was a part of the vision that led him here, even if the Primarch did not yet understand it. In not too long, Angelus thought, he would find out.

He zoomed in on a particularly difficult battle zone, where several thousand Argosian infantry were struggling to contain a mutant counterattack. The mortals were in danger of being overwhelmed, their all-too-human countenance no match for the mutant battle prowess.

How did it come to this, he wondered, knowing only that the warning held true.

Five hundred meters now. The air grew warmer as the Primarch’s leathery wings felt gentle rays of Taramin’s sun upon them. Angelus focused his mind on the battle, knowing that his intervention here might spell difference between victory and defeat.

Because it always did.

He brushed off the voice with casual familiarity. They were his constant companions, time after time, year after year, and he was used to them. Sometimes they provided him with a sense of belonging, comforting him even in the worst moments of his struggle to liberate Argos from the ravages of the abominations. Right now, they were an unwelcome distraction.

Angelus felt the tendrils of his mind extend to the waiting world. He sensed the exhaustion and the terror of Army regiments forced to fight an unknown enemy, the single-minded resolve of his warriors, and the casual disinterest of the battleship crews in orbit. Slowly, he approached the enemy minds, taking every precaution to steel himself against the unknown.

Don’t. It was a child’s whisper, quiet and nevertheless disconcerting.

The Grey Prince gritted his teeth, ignoring the voice whispering into his ear. He was a Primarch, one of the Emperor’s own sons, and he would not let anything stand in his way. Not now, not when he needed all of his newfound mental clarity.

Do you really think it is wise, Angelus? This voice belonged to a woman, wise and motherly.

“I hear you not!” the Primarch spat. Two hundred meters to the ground, his wings were now actively working to slow his descent. He only had seconds left.

They are the teachings of the Lash made manifest, another voice said, a man crackling with command authority. The descent of idle minds.

Defiant, Angelus thrust his mind into the feeble remnants of the mutants’ humanity.

They were dull pinpricks of light, barely embers upon the otherworldly fabric of the Immaterium. At first glance, Angelus could barely tell them from the background of swirling colors and insane geometries. And yet, something of humanity still remained within their mechanized carcasses.

The mutants were forcing the Argosian infantry out of a large supply depot, once a site where Taramin’s many botanical treasures were harvested and extracted for transportation off-world. To the Primarch’s mind, the geometrical structure of the compound seemed an afterthought, as if whoever had designed it had clearly not considered the possibility of it coming under attack.

Angelus felt the revulsion of his men fighting the mutants for every meter of the compound, setting the warehouses and the processing plants on fire in vain hope to forestall the mutant advance. He sensed the dull remnants of self-awareness in the mutants’ mechanically augmented brains, their senses violated by insane chemical concoctions guaranteed to devour their sanity.

Think you are so brave, little Angelus? The voice speaking was something inhuman, hissing and clicking akin to a giant insect. The Primarch said nothing, attempting to force his way further and deeper into the mutants’ ravaged psyches.

It was just enough to rip a confession from the remains of personalities, an admission of unforgivable crime that nothing of this universe could absolve. And a name.

Castan. The man left behind to rule the paradise planet for the Emperor and his Imperium.

No reason, no motive was present – only the fruits of the insane labor for the Fourteenth Legion to harvest. For a moment, Angelus felt vindicated for coming to Taramin in force, abandoning the Great Crusade for one world’s salvation.

Then, vindication gave way to anger, even hatred. If Castan was the one responsible, the Grey Prince vowed, the erstwhile governor would suffer far more than these simple-minded deviants ever could comprehend.

With a roar of hatred, Angelus plunged down through a building roof, casually shrugging away the enemy fire.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Tue Nov 12, 2013 3:02 pm

NINETEEN

Enemy World
A Mistake
Truly Alone


Isaiah crashed into the mutants like an unbreakable tidal wave. The Excruciator began its bloody work even before the Sixth Captain registered the specific enemies, slaughtering them like cattle. Red gore mixed with oily fluids of unknown origin stained the weapon’s teeth and painted Isaiah’s breast plate and helmet crimson.

As far as the Reaper was concerned, nothing this corrupted could possibly be friendly, and he wasted no time in assaulting into the fray. The other warriors of the Sixth Company followed suit, closing the distance between themselves and the enemy with their jump packs, chainswords at the ready.

The battle became a confused concoction of energy blasts, whirring chainswords and splattering gore. The creatures fell one by one as they proved no match for the Gargoyles up close, gurgling something unintelligible even as they were slain.

Isaiah heard Barca scream something, a curse perhaps, as the veteran sergeant ripped through the mutants, discarding his bolt pistol and replacing it with a combat knife in an overwhelming urge to exterminate them. Cosimo and his squad were not far behind, using corpses of the enemy to shield themselves from the energy blasts while closing in for the kill.

Truly, the slaughter was glorious.

Something stirred within the Sixth Captain, a sensation that could be only comparable to truest abandon. He killed and he killed, reveling in his own martial prowess with satisfaction that bordered on pleasure. For a moment, there were no combat stances, no rules or techniques meticulously hammered into his enhanced brain by decades of instruction. There was only killing.

Then, the beasts attacked.

They appeared without warning, a strange selection of Taramin’s fauna that had no right to be together, let alone on the same side. In the brief seconds before he was forced to defend his life, Isaiah recognized a great ursid side by side with a scaled ka’marh reptile, normally the deadliest of enemies, yet now sharing space with a herd of massive herbivores charging at the Gargoyles. All natural distinctions of predator and prey seemed forgotten, the creatures of Taramin charged in with blind, animalistic fury.

Isaiah barely dodged the horns of a taurine auroch, knowing that the creature’s momentum was sufficient to hurl even a power-armored warrior to death. In an instant, the flow of the battle had changed, and the Sixth Captain could not believe that he walked into a trap so easily, so freely. How was it possible, he asked himself, trying to use his jet pack to gain higher ground over the creatures.

A flock of small birds rammed themselves into the vents of his jet pack, forcing him to tumble to the ground after rising barely a meter.

Isaiah emptied his bolt pistol’s magazine into a large, horned mammal about to attack a Reaper from behind. The organized battle formation gave order to complete chaos as all of a sudden, threats were coming from every corner. Even the Space Marines’ numerical strength gave them little reprieve; things that were too small to be a threat individually attacked in swarms, covering the Gargoyles with the living blankets of their bodies and trying to find the exposed cables, weak points in their armor and thruster or exhaust vents.

In all his time as a warrior of the Fourteenth Legion, Isaiah had never seen anything quite like that. It was as if the entirety of living creatures on Taramin were dedicated to inflicting harm upon the Gargoyles with no regard for their own survival.

“Stubborn bastards,” he growled, finding himself fighting back to back with Barca. Memories flooded in as the Sixth Captain wondered if these critters would count in the kill-count game he and Etienne used to play with their victims.

“Aye, sir,” the veteran sergeant replied, fending off an attack from a particularly adventurous mutant. “An ingenious thing, this.”

The chaos of battle began to coalesce around pockets of Gargoyles fighting off the relentless assault from all corners. Isaiah checked his helmet readout. The reserve companies would arrive in a matter of minutes.

“I wonder how the bastards pulled it off,” Isaiah said, breathing heavily. He held the Excruciator with both hands, sacrificing some of his technique for power.

Not that technique mattered much. There was definitely no shortage of targets within reach, and only the Reaper’s superhuman reflexes and training did not let him be overcome by the multitude of enemies. It was all about the numbers, and he could not afford to lose concentration for even a slightest bit. His jump pack was now useless, clogged with the dead birds’ carcasses; he had to trust his feet to avoid the assailants while attempting to deal a killing blow.

There were thousands of creatures assaulting the Gargoyles from every corner. Isaiah briefly wondered where they were coming from; surely, he reasoned, the forests of Taramin would have been long tamed. It was as if the entire planet had somehow turned against them.

A moment’s loss of concentration had almost cost him. An energy blast from one of the surviving mutants came too close for comfort, burning a large, wolf-like creature to cinders. Isaiah rushed towards the shooter, abandoning everything in his urge to get up close. One swing of the Excruciator saw the mutant beheaded as Isaiah rushed into the next group of enemies.

“Need help here!” Barca shouted, seeing that his back was no longer covered.

“We are the Gargoyles,” hissed Isaiah. “We attack. We don’t hunker down.” The combat drugs within his veins made him brash, almost brazen. “Kill them. Kill them all!”

He screamed the last words as a battle cry, forcing his way to a large, partially mechanized mutant attempting to rip a helmet off a fallen Marine. The Excruciator connected with the satisfying sensation of something wet and soft giving way.

“Kill them all!”

Isaiah’s scream was amplified by his vox-speakers now that his battle rage had reached the boiling point. There was nothing in the universe but the hisses and growls of his bestial adversaries, and the whining of the Excruciator’s teeth as they bit into flesh and bone, severing limbs and inflicting grievous wounds.

The Sixth Captain’s eyes saw the battle with the clarify only given by extreme, perfect aggression. He sensed a cold, satisfying emotion play within his mind. More than anything, he wished to sink his teeth into the creatures, tasting their lifesblood upon his tongue.

The urge was almost too much for him to handle. Even as Isaiah wielded his weapon with one hand, he used the other to unclamp the seals keeping his helmet in place, throwing the helmet at a particularly disfigured mutant before turning to disembowel the creature.

An array of smells and sounds assaulted him, no longer filtered through the helmet’s autosenses.

Isaiah smelled the humid rot of the jungle, felt sunlight upon his skin. The sounds made by his inhuman opponents acquired a new sensation of urgency, forming a synesthetic palette of light, sound and smell. He felt acidic saliva build up within his Belcher’s gland.

There was a vox signal struggling to gain his attention, a monotonous voice mumbling that the reserve companies were only four minutes away, and that the Sixth had to hold its position for a few more minutes. Isaiah put it out of his mind.

The only thing that mattered was the absolute freedom of the kill.

The roar that came out of his throat had little humanity in it. There was satisfaction, pleasure, and anticipation, the urge to let his violent tendencies to the fore. This was what freedom felt like, just like it did only a few short months ago on Twenty Seven-Forty One, unrestrained and liberating. And when it called, Isaiah obliged.

With a bestial scream, Isaiah sank his teeth deep into the flank of a mutant.

* * *

When all was said and done, he was a drunk.

Marat Crassus came to terms with it a long time ago. Once, he had entertained ambitions and hopes of rekindling his muse alongside the Twenty Seventh Expedition, hoping that the new vistas uncovered by the Legion would stir his imagination into action, or that the pride of being a part of humanity’s greatest endeavor would give him a sensation of grandeur that he could put to use.

Those hopes went by the wayside the same as his health, friendships and even desire to write.

At times he wondered if he was tolerated simply because no one would bother to remove him from the ship like useless ballast that he was. At other times, he felt forgotten, as if the galaxy moved on without telling him that his presence was a relic of bygone time, a wordsmith still used to writing paeans to wealthy and powerful of Terra.

What bothered him the most was that he could pinpoint the exact moment when it all changed, and could not do anything about it.

It was a moment of weakness, when his base emotions got the best of him; the moment when he abandoned the one person he considered a friend to find further solace in the tender embrace of alcohol. It was the trigger that started ten years of gradual descent, until he could barely recognize his own face in the mirror.

He rubbed his eyes, trying to recognize the stranger in the reflection. A bloated, reddened face looked back, sitting upon a corpulent body of the one who did not care about staying in shape. Week-old stubble protruded from the skin discolored by substance abuse and stained with the remains of a sloppy meal.

How have the mighty fallen, Crassus thought.

Behind him, the room was a mess of torn papers, dog-eared books and empty bottles. It had been a long time since he bothered to keep his quarters tidy. There was no reason to; he never had any visitors. Even Galiaf, his sole constant drinking companion, professed distaste for entering, preferring to wait outside while the remembrancer put on the first clothes he could find to join him in the Uart.

He shook his head, imagining a knock on the door, anything to get him out of this torporous state. It was not going to happen, Crassus thought. The likes of him existed only to be forgotten.

The sound jolted him awake. He felt the adrenaline give him a moment of clarify, then turned towards the door, thoughts of self-pity forgotten for the moment.

“Galiaf?” he groaned, wondering if it was time already for the crippled Argosian’s daily visit to the drinking den.

“Can I come in?”

It was a voice Crassus had not heard in ten years.

The remembrancer felt a pang of anxiety, growing worse with each passing moment. He looked at the door suspiciously, as if it was about to morph into some kind of monster.

“What the…” he mumbled, not sure how to respond. His thoughts were sluggish, dulled by ten years of drinking far more than he should have. “Why not?” he chuckled, wondering if his conscience was beginning to play tricks.

The door opened.

Crassus stood aback, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. The dim light of the hallway shed some illumination into the dark cabin, exposing the neglect for what it was and silhouetting the newcomer. To the old poet, the light was unnecessarily bright, making him cover his eyes with one hand.

Even then, he recognized the figure.

“I didn’t think you would come,” Crassus said, voice heavy with emotion.

“I did not think so either,” said Angela Hesail.

* * *

“I… I am sorry,” Crassus squeezed out, not sure what to say. He felt bile rise to the back of his throat.

“Dispense with the apologies, Marat,” Angela said, shaking her head at the disarray of the poet’s room. She winced her nose at the smell of stale sweat and rarely washed body. “It’s way too late for that now.”

“I hoped…” he said in a halting voice, gasping for words. “I hoped to help you, then.”

“It is not about then, Marat,” the young woman said, carefully clearing some space upon a chair and sitting down.

“What is it about, then?” The poet let some anger into his words. “You’ve spent ten years with your friends in high and mighty places. What brings you down to the level of us peons?”

“Please,” Angela shook her head, then looked at him intently, seemingly examining every imperfection upon his face, the shortness of breath, the shaking of hands. “You are drunk.”

“Not yet,” Crassus chuckled without humor, “but I soon will be. What’s the difference?”

Angela stood up, then took a small step toward him. “I cannot believe what I am seeing,” she said with an expression of disapproval upon her face.

“You are seeing a man left behind,” the poet snapped. “What, your friends in the Legion cast you aside and now you seek companionship here? Or did you come to gloat.”

“I thought I came to see a friend,” Angela said, flash of doubt apparent in her expression. “But I guess all I have found was a drunkard who cannot even speak straight.” She turned to leave.

“Wait!” Crassus pleaded, stumbling toward her. One hand reached the edge of her elaborate gown, putting pressure on the fabric. “Don’t leave yet!”

She turned back, revulsion making her lips twist. “And why wouldn’t I?” Angela said bitterly. “I was a fool for hoping to find answers with a drunk that probably does not even remember his own name.”

“What answers?” Crassus pleaded, looking at her with blood-shot eyes. He was only too aware of alcohol on his breath and unsteady gait of his movements. “You are not looking in the right place, then.” He let go of her gown. His fingers left a trace of something wet and oily upon the fabric.

“Then maybe I am not,” said Angela. Her voice became full of emotion. “I thought you were once the most humane of us all. The wisest of us. I thought I could trust you to make sense of it all.”

“But I guess you could not do it then, and you cannot do it now.” She shrugged. “I am asked for solutions, but have none to give – and so, it seems, do you. I should not have come here.” She sighed deeply. “Good bye, Marat.”

“Wait… what?” Crassus stuttered, but Angela was already out of the door.

* * *

Guelo Balantir had seen many things in his long, unnaturally extended life. Serving alongside the Fourteenth Legion had been an experience to temper even the strongest of men, and he had prided himself on his indomitable nerve as much as on his skill at commanding a great space-borne vessel. Space was his realm, his ship a chariot carrying him from one end of the galaxy to another.

He preferred to think of himself as one of the explorers sailing Terra’s ancient, long-destroyed oceans in an age where sail was still the preferred method of transportation. There was something beautiful and terrible about going into the farthest reaches of known space, knowing that the stars themselves hid a bountiful harvest of new experience, knowledge, triumphs and enemies. That he carried a load of the deadliest fighters known to humanity was inconsequential. They were the tools of conquest, brute necessity to fulfill the task set out by the Emperor. It was he, and the men like him, who were truly pushing the boundaries of the Imperium forward, into the unknown.

This was precisely why the sinuous black shapes on the Redeemer’s viewscreens gave him little pause.

The vessels had approached at the distance that, in terms of space combat, was essentially a knife-range fight with little warning. Balantir could not believe that anything could sneak up on him in this manner, least of all a fleet of at least three capital ships. He silently cursed the day he entered this blighted system, his mind already evaluating tactical vector approaches, weaponry readiness, void shield strength and all other statistics he would need to combat the new menace. No matter which way he approached it, one thing was clear.

By the time the Imperial ships could bring their considerable firepower to bear, the new arrivals would be able to inflict significant casualties.

It was the last thing he needed, Balantir reflected angrily, knowing that the Legion was still planet-side. And the only one with the authority to decide the fate of this encounter was nowhere to be found.

“We are getting hailed, sir,” a junior rating, obviously awed to be in the presence of his Captain, said. Balantir frowned. He wished he had the authority to deal with the intruders on his own. As of now, he had no way of telling if they were human or xenos, friendly or hostile.

No matter. This was but another trial on his travels, and he was not going to fall short.

“Get the news quickly to Lord Angelus and Master Merlin,” the Captain said, speaking in a ponderous, orderly cadence to dissuade the confusion of his subordinates. “And get the weapons ready, just in case.”

* * *

In the moments like these, Ludwig’s world became a conglomeration of movements building up to a crescendo of killing. His body moved in accord with his instinctual desire to kill anything not wearing the Legion’s colors. The Scorpius barked as an accompaniment to the frenzied attacks of his power sword.

It was a good day to kill.

Once the mutants were within melee range, the tide of the battle seemed to turn. The creatures were still reasonably tough, but could not wield their mechanized appendages with even a fraction of a Space Marine’s skill. It took only four seconds for the surviving mutants to be exterminated.

“Status report,” the Nineteenth Captain voxed over to his sergeants.

“Heavy resistance subsiding… reaching a breakthrough… heavy weapons team…”

He soon lost track of the individual warriors’ reports. One thing was clear – the battle was going well. The mutants were being overwhelmed by the Gargoyles’ assault, proving no match to the Emperor’s own now that their energy weapons were rendered largely ineffective.

“Clear this place out,” Ludwig transmitted on the general vox channel. “I want none of the freaks alive before we move on. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir,” he heard the assent from his men, one at a time.

“Valentin,” he switched to the private channel, summoning his second. “I bet there will be nothing larger than a rat here by the time the sun rises.”

“If you say so,” the sergeant chuckled. “I think that…”

He never got to finish the phrase. A priority icon flashed before Ludwig’s eyes, interrupting the transmission. The Gargoyle bit back a curse as he recognized the channel usually reserved for the Zarivat commanders. What now, he wondered, hoping it was not going to be one of Isaiah’s attempts to make his life as unpleasant as possible.

The voice at the other end of the transmission did not belong to his erstwhile rival.

“All companies,” said Merlin, the Legion’s Chief Librarian, with a fraction of concern in his voice. “Disperse into hiding formations. Await further orders.” Ludwig could not believe his ears. What could the mutants have brought to battle to cause an entire Legion of Space Marines to hunker down, as if they were mere mortals? “Long-range sensors are picking unknown contacts at the edge of the Taramin system. I repeat, hiding formations.”

Ludwig cursed as the vox-link went dead. The glorious sensation of slaughter seemed dulled, rendered inconsequential in the face of this new development; he could not shake a feeling that something was about to go terribly wrong.

“You’ve heard the message,” he said to his men, broadening the channel to include any other allied forces. “We will finish off the freaks another day.”

* * *

Like insects attempting to flee the wrath of the sun, the Gargoyles companies dispersed to the woods and ravines of Taramin, abandoning the ravaged towns to the biomechanical abominations still lurking within. The temporary retreat was not without its own perils.

In what passed for the planet’s chief mineral refinery, close to the world’s north pole, three squads of Gargoyles found themselves in an ambush as thousands of lobotomized servitors, now spotting makeshift weaponry, assaulted them from all sides. The subsequent fighting resulted in the refinery’s reactors going critical, wiping out both the Marines and their enemies in one gigantic blast that scoured the snow-covered ground to the bedrock.

Further south, the ocean-side township of Zulas became the site of one of the war’s largest pitched battles. Tens of thousands mutants attempted to harry the retreating Gargoyles, eventually burying a particularly reckless Captain under their own bodies. When the warriors of the Twenty First Company finally dug out their commanding officer, the Captain complained about the stench before asking for a spare weapon and rejoining the fray.

On a large island near Taramin’s equator, the Gargoyles found what seemed like a holding pen with hundreds of prisoners, none of them yet outfitted with the machine parts. The psychic Librarian in charge of the group ordered a small group to be kept for interrogation, leaving the others in a building triggered to explode in case the mutant hordes made a comeback. It was war, he reasoned, and there was little need to drag the entire group into hiding with the Legionaries. The cries of the prisoners were silenced when the mutants penetrated the holding pen’s perimeter, triggering the explosives.

All across Taramin, the Gargoyles dug in, preparing for the inevitable and expecting the worst.

* * *

The presence was unwelcome and bruising, yet strangely familiar. Angelus shuddered, extending his mind skywards and probing the presence at the very edge of his abilities.

He had heard their voices before, in his feverish dreams and waking nightmares. He knew them deeply and intimately, almost like a parent would know his child, or like two star-crossed lovers may share an empathic bond. And, he realized, they knew him. All his thoughts, insecurities, fears and aspirations were known to them. For they fed upon the darkest recesses of his psyche, the innermost corners of his heart and soul. For they were connected to him for his entire existence, guiding him, telling him right from wrong and driving him to the very edge of sanity, pushing him over.

The voices had been a constant presence in the back of his mind, an ever-lasting multitude of whispers that provided a background to his own thoughts. He had likened it to always being in the middle of a thronging crowd, but such a crude description could not possibly do justice to the state.

Now, the voices were silent. Not just subsiding to the point of near-unintelligibility, akin to the temporary remedy granted to him by his mortal conduit, but completely silent.

Angelus knew they were nearby, observing, making no effort to disguise their presence from him. And yet for once, they chose not to speak.

The silence was deafening in its own way. The constant noise had been his companion for longer than he cared to think about. It was almost frightening to suddenly have no one else sharing his mind.

For the first time in his life, Angelus was truly alone, and he realized that he was not prepared for it.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Tue Nov 12, 2013 3:10 pm

TWENTY

The Grey
Vengeance of the Gargoyles
Palace of Flesh


The sky over Taramin lit up with a cannonade of lights. The wispy clouds turned every hue of the rainbow before dissipating as the birds of aetheric energy descended in defiance of all natural laws.

The Gargoyles and their mutant adversaries alike paused at the sight, unsure of what they were seeing, even as aboard the Redeemer, Captain Balantir frantically attempted to bring his vessel to combat readiness. The ratings felt the fury of their master, and more than one was sent to be punished at the hands of the Expedition’s internal security forces.

The vessels that snuck up on the Gargoyles’ fleet remained in position, clearly capable of opening fire and yet refraining from it.

And the inter-ship vox-net gurgled the same, barely intelligible word.

Grey.

* * *

Angelus convulsed in mid-flight. The Primarch’s face was contorted with pain even as his wings flapped with no control, sending him into a spin towards the ground. His armored body hit the building wall with the force of a tank shell, sending bricks flying across the battlefield.

The Hell Guard barely had time to adjust to their master’s sudden incapacity when a throng of mutants emerged from beneath the rubble, clearly intent on assault. Bolters and plasma pistols fired in a cacophonous firestorm, punctuating the Gargoyles’ desperation at the downing of their leader.

On the ground, the Primarch’s body lit up with eldritch flame. Ice crystals condensed for meters around him, an odd contrast to the green jungle of Taramin. Veins of some frozen material jutted out of the ground, centering upon Angelus as if he was a heart of this phenomenon.

With no warning, the Grey Prince screamed.

The sound travelled with the force of a hurricane, demolishing walls, throwing the ramparts into disarray and demolishing the surviving mutant formations. Even the Gargoyles could not completely ignore the force of their gene-liege’s scream, augmented by his prodigious psychic powers; the Space Marines were thrown from their feet, startled or otherwise disoriented. Shards of ice flew in all directions, sharp like shrapnel and just as deadly to the creatures lacking the protection of the Gargoyles’ power armor.

The Hell Guard fell out of the sky, their jump packs momentarily shorted out. Two crashed into a wall, while three others tumbled freely into the tree foliage, inertia carrying them far away from their intended landing position. The jump pack of one exploded into a miniature nova, the fireball offering accompaniment to the lights in the sky.

Slowly, Angelus began to levitate. The Primarch’s wings shuddered with reflexive movements while his prone body lifted up, first by a meter, then by another, rising higher into the sky of Taramin. The lights intensified, bringing the premature glow of stellar radiance.

The Primarch spread his wings, eyes still closed, lips mouthing something unintelligible. Frost painted strange symbols on his skin and armor, white trace lines contrasting with the dark underlining colors. He made a moaning sound, equal parts pain, pleasure and frustration.

Angelus opened his eyes, white orbs shining with the reflected light. For a second the Primarch stopped his ascent, looking down with a stone-faced expression, then looking up at the descending spectral flame. He nodded, still out of reach of his men.

Before even the fastest of the Hell Guard could react, the Grey Prince vanished, striding upward like an errant comet.

* * *

Angela stumbled, holding on to the wall of her chambers and trying to stay afoot. The warning claxons rang with an ear-piercing shriek of a thousand banshees, adding to an already throbbing headache. The blinking red lights turned the universe into a frantic nightmare filled with the inconsistent, chaotic pulse.

It was as sudden as it was unpleasant, a creeping sensation that her normal senses could neither explain nor place. She felt the chatter of her teeth, the cold recycled atmosphere suddenly suffocating. Dimly she heard the sounds of heavy boots running up and down the hallways surrounding her cabin.

Something was clearly wrong, but what?

The throbbing pulse moved her; the heartbeat of the warning claxons in tune with her own heart. She let out a pained moan that became a fully-fledged scream. Vainly, she attempted to press at her temples, sinking the nails into the skin in hope that the sensation would drown out the headache. The lights blinked in and out, causing the world to move in slow motion.

She focused on the Argosian sculptures painstakingly woven into the walls of her chamber. Normally she hated the crude, ugly things, leaving them in place only because their presence pleased him, but right now they were her only connection with reality, a comforting presence that their creators had surely not intended. She wished for another human being to share in this sudden, disorienting misery – anyone, almost anyone!

The pain was getting almost too much. Where are the handmaidens, Angela wondered, hoping that at least one of them would have the mind to check on her. The former remembrancer’s nails dug deeper into her skin, breaking blood. Shadows formed strange, bestial shapes in front of her eyes – images of giant wings, darker than the deep of space, monsters of legend and landscapes of alien, incomprehensible worlds.

Wherever she looked, she could not escape the phantom black wings.

She made it towards the stand where a blank canvas, untouched for many years, stood in its blind magnificence. The touch of the fabric was calming, soothing. She felt the pain subside just enough.

And then, she knew what she had to do.

Frantically, Angela looked for paints, brushes, pencils, and other tools of her craft, finding none that could do it justice. The instruments seemed so distant, so primitive, so incapable of transcribing the primal terror inside her, the certainty that something was deeply wrong, and that there was no coming back from whatever had happened. The pain intensified.

She looked at her hands, covered with traces of blood. In the pulsating light of the alarm, her blood seemed to come alive. She traced an outline with her nail, slowly at first, then moving faster and faster, digging into her own forearms for more material to transcribe her vision into life.

* * *

The lights stopped as suddenly as they had appeared, and Isaiah breathed a moment’s reprieve. Dark, polluted blood poured down both sides of his mouth, a consequence of his momentary loss of self-control. He searched for his helmet, finding it on the ground; he realized he did not remember taking it off. The mutants’ blood had an oily, unnatural texture to it.

With a smirk, Isaiah realized that it tasted good. Intoxicating, even.

His self-awareness returned in pieces, one heartbeat following the next. Nothing around him lived; only the twitching, convulsing limbs of a dead cyborg gave any sense of movement to the scene.

With peace, came another realization. He craved more.

All his conscious life Isaiah had trained to achieve greater power, to become the monster the enemies of the Fourteenth Legion feared. But that… was nothing, compared to the sensation of completely losing himself in a battle, being the monster as opposed to making an appearance of one. He shook off the thought of regaining control, wishing to follow his urges for just a bit more.

He became aware of vox-traffic, making little sense of jumbled words. Lost? Primarch? Lights? Ships? They were meaningless concepts, a mess of sound that meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was the present. The only one that mattered was Isaiah himself.

Now that he held power inside the Legion, what was left for him to aspire to? What was left for him to do but to give in to the desire to shed all trappings of humanity?

This was the true conclusion of his road. It was not the captaincy, not the Zarivat, not even the Primarch’s favor.

It was freedom.

* * *

The light enveloped Angelus like a protective cocoon. It wrapped around his wings, washed sweat and grime off his face and contoured his body in a halo of luminescence. Patterns of ice crystals formed upon his wings, tattooing his face with primitive geometric designs.

He was levitating higher and higher, well beyond the limits of Taramin’s atmosphere yet protected by the psychic force flowing in and out of him. The light was a symbiotic reminder of Angelus’ long-standing connection with the voices, the creation of forces that were alien and yet familiar to him.

The forces that were calling to him now.

No mere physical means could propel him far above the escape velocity, through the environmental extremes that should have destroyed any unprotected human – or superhuman being. Inside the cocoon, Angelus was safe and calm, his mind darting higher and higher towards the system’s star in wordless communion with the voices given flesh.

He could sense their ships, like oily blotches of ink against the velvet darkness of interplanetary space; he could hear their words, their thoughts, their communications. He could sense the frantic pace of activity, a culmination of a quest conceived centuries ago and now reaching its climax.

Working with the voices’ psychic emanations, Angelus directed his unbound flight towards one of the vessels, seemingly larger than the rest.

In his mind’s eye, it seemed like a black hole swallowing all surrounding light, feeding on it. He called out to the voices, but no answer was coming. A curved smile played upon his lips even as the Primarch extended his psychic senses further.

He caught a glimpse of the Expedition’s crews, confused and unsure whether or not they should attack, defend or attempt to negotiate. He felt the steely resolve of Captain Balantir, the panicked pace of his lieutenants as the Redeemer struggled to position herself in a defensible formation.

A more familiar presence called out to him, unconsciously psychic and yet little but a mirror to his own abilities.

He needed her as a focus, a mouthpiece, a useful tool. But his reliance had cost him. Now that he was alone, ready to face those who were alternately his friends and his tormentors, Angelus wished dearly for the former remembrancer’s presence.

He reached his mind out to her, then recoiled. This was his battle, his encounter with the things from beyond given physical form. His pride would allow him no less.

With one strenuous effort of will, Angelus focused his entire being in a single beam of psychic energy, piercing through the void and entering the shadows.

* * *

“Extraction!” Ludwig called, trying to make some form of order from the general chaos. Hundreds of Gargoyles seemed unsure of what to do, their frame of reference broken. He turned to Valentin, keeping one eye on the tactical readouts.

“Any word on the status?” He had to use his vox to make himself heard; the dying rattle of bolter fire and energy weapon vibrations made normal communication difficult.

“It’s a stand-off, sir,” his second replied. “Looks like the freaks are done for, but the other squads…”

“What of the others?”

“They report animal attacks, and all sorts of… things.”

“What things?” Ludwig asked angrily. “We were told to evacuate, not linger around.”

“Something in the sky,” said Valentin. “Not here, but seen on other parts of the planet.”

Great, thought the Nineteenth Captain. Not only was this formerly loyal world now in thrall to mutation and rebellion, but even more inexplicable things happened.

His vox-bead cut through, a loud noise indicating a signal from the Redeemer.

“Ludwig,” he heard the gruff voice of Katon.

“First Captain,” the Terran said, unsure what to make of it. The two were never particularly close, and as far as Ludwig was concerned, his deeds, while certainly competent, did not draw much of an attention from the Legion’s upper echelons. “Well… met.”

“Enough with the pleasantries.” Ludwig suppressed a chuckle. Katon was never the one to speak unless he absolutely had to.

“What do I owe this to?” the Nineteenth Captain said, taking mental notes of his force’s disposition. It seemed that the companies on the ground were ready to depart as soon as the Legion’s Stormbird transports arrived.

“Change of plans,” said Katon with his typical bluntness. “The Primarch is… indisposed.”

“What?” Ludwig could not hide his surprise.

“Just as you’ve heard,” the First Captain said. There was an edge of unease in his voice, or was it just the peculiar interference distorting the transmission?

“You are the senior officer here,” Katon continued in his matter-of-fact manner. “I want your men to extract to the Redeemer as soon as possible, to prepare for a boarding action.”

“Not the Reapers?” Ludwig barely held his amazement in check. “They are the glory hounds.”

“Precisely,” Katon sounded angry, or at the very least impatient. “Do you really think they should be near Lord Angelus if we… have to board?”

* * *

The walls bled poison and rusted, corroded dreams. The air was a suffocating mixture of sweetness and other, less pleasant scents and emotions. The floor bounced under his feet as if it was made of muscle and sinew, neither dead nor alive.

Angelus knelt, touching the floor with his bare hand, then shuddering in revulsion. The material was warm, cringingly so, and he felt a faint pulse underneath, as if a living heart was behind this madness.

Slowly, he examined his surroundings.

The black ship was surprisingly well-lit in the visual spectrum as the light strips of unknown origin dotted the cavernous walls in seemingly random patterns. There was little disguising its nature, and Angelus cringed as he realized the ship was not as much built as grown. His psychic senses extended, getting a faint impression of a mindless, brutish thought process lumbering along.

There were other minds, too, and it was to them that the Primarch was drawn.

He was in a large chamber with flesh-colored walls and unnatural, lumpy growths providing the only respite from the monotony. There were no decorations of a kind he would have recognized, no battle honors or signs indicating allegiance. The only movement was the pulse of the living walls.

“Are you there?” he shouted, every bit as regal and defiant as befitted one of the Emperor’s sons. The lightning claws on his hands were wreathed in the unnatural fire of an activated force field. The Primarch’s wings contracted, an instinctive movement to minimize his target profile.

“Welcome back, Angelus.”

The voice was a low, gurgling growl coming from all directions at one. The effect was cacophonous and disorienting. Angelus darted his eyes to the sides, extending senses both natural and psychic to see the speaker.

“Do not seek the shape,” the voice said. Now, it had acquired characteristics of a multitude, as if a throng of people of all ages and dispositions were speaking in perfect unison. “The shape is unimportant.”

“I want to see who I am talking to,” the Grey Prince said, not relaxing the combat stance a slightest bit. “Show yourself!”

“Very well.” One of the lumps of fleshy material on the floor began to grow. As Angelus watched with an expression relaying both fascination and disgust, the lump began to acquire a more familiar form. The Primarch could see the pronounced shapes of a head, a torso, and a pair of arms. Another lump began to grow in a similar manner, this one slightly smaller than the first.

“This one called Garnet, and represents the Tenebri,” the voice came from the first fleshy lump. “That one is called Amarant.”

“I should destroy you xenos abominations here and now,” Angelus hissed, seeing the creatures in front of him as mocking parodies of humanity.

“That would be unwise.” The two voices spoke in unison. Angelus began to distinguish them; Garnet was slightly higher-pitched, almost feminine, while Amarant had an atonal, slightly jarring sound to its voice. “Your cooperation is required as a return service for the Tenebri goodwill.”

“Goodwill?” Angelus laughed. “What goodwill?”

“The Tenebri have travelled far to discover you,” the two voices said. “Our every effort was spent on keeping you safe from harm. Through you, we have learned humanity. Through you…”

“Stop it!” the Primarch commanded. His beatific face contorted into an angry, animalistic snarl. “What do you want with me?”

“There is much invested in you, Angelus,” said the creatures. “Your species are in ascendancy, for the moment, but it may not last.”

“What do I care for the species?” the Primarch snarled. He made a cautious step towards Garnet and Amarant. As he got closer, it seemed that the lumps of fleshy material became better defined, the featureless skin turning into semblance of facial features. The faces looked as if the Tenebri only had a basic impression of what a human was supposed to look like; all the basic elements were there, but the shape and the position were not quite right. They looked, for the lack of a better word, unfinished.

“Your species is on the threshold of true greatness,” the Tenebri spoke, unperturbed. “All it requires is a step in the right direction. And this is why we chose you.”

“Altruism from a xenos?” Angelus laughed bitterly. “I will believe it when I see it.”

There was a hushed pause from the two creatures.

“You are right, Angelus,” Amarant said, growing in stature. “It is not altruism that we seek.”

“Altruism is a detrimental evolutionary path,” Garnet seconded. “It has been proven. A species that chooses altruism is incapable of surviving on a sufficient scale to warrant mention.”

“Our existence, and the likes, are inextricably bound with yours,” the Tenebri spoke. “The elder races seek inheritance of tradition and form.”

“Form?” Angelus laughed. “Your form is anything but admirable.”

“Form is but an illusion,” Garnet retorted. “The evolution of psyche frees the species from the confines of the flesh.”

“What you see before you can be molded, just like your Emperor molded you and your brothers from the primal genetic material,” said Amarant. “When your species is significantly advanced, you too will possess this ability.”

“True melding of the minds and bodies…” the possibilities flashed before Angelus. “You were my voices.”

“You, alone of your race, show the potential to meld with the Tenebri, and to become the inheritor of our birthright,” Garnet said. “Plans had been set in motion. The crude mind-link of Taramin was the result of envy and folly of those with neither mind nor presence to survive it. But you could do it. Only you possess the resilience and the power to handle the experience ranging back before your species learned to walk upright.”

“Through you we shall live on,” added Amarant. “In you, we shall become more than we ever were.”

“Why me?” Angelus groaned. “Why not Mohktal? He was the prodigy. I am something else, you know? A monster!” He screamed the last word with all the conviction he could muster. “Or is it because you, like me, are creatures unfit to live, seeking to cheat death by the means of passing on your blasphemy onto others?”

“The elder race forgives you this outburst,” the Tenebri spoke together. “Your control is lacking, but it will prove sufficient.”

“Sufficient?” the Primarch swung his weapons against the air, more of a threatening movement than actual intent to attack. “You know what I had to do. You know of the worlds I have destroyed. Is that control? Listening to the voices that never stop and having to use an interpreter, is that control?”

“That… complicates things,” Garnet said, slowly. “But not unnecessarily so. Your suffering was necessary.”

“There are cultures that place great value on sacrifice,” Amarant continued without missing a beat. “Your creation was one such sacrifice. The one such as you was created through unnatural means, yet still possessed of natural cunning and instinct to survive. Through your sacrifice, your species have advanced in tremendous leaps and bounds.”

“No, you listen to me!” Angelus whispered, putting every bit of his malice, frustration and anger into the words. “This… sacrifice you speak of. Did you know what it had taught me?” He raised his voice. “All my life I had struggled to control the desire to liberate myself. Not the others – myself.”

“My Legion spent all its time fighting for the Imperium that never cared about the means until such time as the means became unseemly.” He breathed heavily, overcome with emotion. “And the one time I did as I was asked to, the one time I was not the bringer of death – you have brought an end to one of the few things I cared about.”

“The events on Taramin were necessary,” Garnet said, attempting to shake its head in a faux human gesture. “Regretful, but necessary. Imagine how the Tenebri experience could enrich your species if handled by the one that could mind-meld without the risks.”

“Of course, the lesser races could not possibly understand or appreciate it,” added Amarant. “This is why the lesser species were sacrificed. But their sacrifice, at least, will mean something, quite unlike their pathetic existence.”

“You humans have, as you would call it, a chance of a lifetime,” said Garnet. “All the experience of an elder race that you would spend a full galactic rotation acquiring yourselves. We have kept you safe, advised you, gave you companionship. Who do you trust? Who would you trust when the future of your species is on the line?”

“So this is what it was all about,” said Angelus, barely controlling his anger. “You have been haunting me ever since I was first conscious. You have manipulated worlds across the galaxy just to bring me here to see the ruin of everything I have fought for!” He screamed the last words, imbuing them with a measure of his psychic power.

The palace of flesh remained still and silent. The Tenebri appeared to have weathered his emotional outburst with little effect.

“For millions of your years, we have harnessed the power of the yhtir-gahl,” Amarant said. “How inadequate is it that you try to put it into a single word. The Warp. It implies something twisted and abnormal.”

“And yet your Emperor utilized the very same means to bring about your creation,” continued Garnet. “Your race is in the ascendancy. It is only right that you accept the gift.”

“Our race is at its end,” Amarant went on. “But your race is young still, and unproven.”

“It is the truth,” Garnet finished the other’s thought. “Your creator knows some of it, but even he is not one of the elder race. Only with our tutelage can you survive the mind-meld.”

“You speak of hollow promises, xenos,” said Angelus. His wings extended into a daemonic visage, an ancient creature that gave its name to his Legion. “And I have heard enough.”

“You can attempt to destroy us,” both Tenebri spoke. “It is irrelevant. Your race clings on to the notions of individuality and uniqueness. Those notions carry little weight in the evolutionary passage into a higher being.”

Angelus backed away in disgust, sneering. “Then, I name thee abomination!”

The sound that emanated from the aliens’ mouths was akin to laughter. Angelus stood at ready, not sure what to make of it.

“Your fate has been decided long before your creation,” said Garnet. “All that remains is to join in with the Tenebri, and to carry our wisdom to your kind.”

Tendrils of fleshy material erupted from the walls, a thousand tentacles moving too quickly for the naked eye to see. Angelus growled, launching himself at Garnet and Amarant, wings outstretched, lightning claws lit up with the deadly energy.

“Your resistance is admirable, but futile,” the choir spoke. The lumps of fleshy material making up the two Tenebri began to dissolve, losing all semblance of their once humanoid shape. The Primarch’s strike brought forth an explosion of dark, foul-smelling liquid, but did not stop the voice. “You have exhibited the degree of self-control necessary to adopt the legacy of the Tenebri, and the mental flexibility to do so. Your lack of identification with your species is an advantage the Tenebri cannot underestimate.”

Angelus growled, summoning his psychic abilities to resist. The air grew colder as all moisture was drawn from it, falling like a splattering of tiny crystals. The Primarch’s lightning claws cut dozens of tendrils even as hundreds more launched towards him.

“You cannot leave,” the Tenebri mocked, now fully merged into their ship. “You must accept the glorious burden of the elder race.”

“I. Will. Not.”

Angelus screamed out the words, willing himself to levitate. Multicolored witchfire surrounded him, burning the tendrils that got too close. The walls began to appear closer, as if the chamber was shrinking.

“You have spent too much time restraining your basic impulses,” the voice went on, coldly and clinically. “This gives you the power and yet ensures you are the only suitable subject for the mind-meld. There is no alternative. Only you can be seen in the yhtir-gahl.”

The walls kept on closing. Angelus willed himself towards what he judged to be the way he entered. It seemed that the lights have dimmed, as if whatever the Tenebri were doing was somehow sucking the energy out of the room. With a violent roar, he slammed his body against the flesh wall, trusting in the burning field of witchfire to part the material before him.

He fell down to the unnatural floor as the force of impact had momentarily knocked him unconscious.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Wed Nov 13, 2013 3:47 am

TWENTY ONE

With Passion
Temptation and Salvation
Vengeance Fulfilled


The ship hid on the outer edges of the Taramin system, silent and sleek like an ocean going predator. Every system was powered down to the barest minimum, all the better to avoid detection and scrutiny. Even the life support was kept at the levels that made it nearly impossible for the mortal serfs to leave their prescribed confines, while the lowered artificial gravity had caused more than a few accidents amongst the unwary.

Avram paid no heed to the lesser creatures’ discomfort.

Clad in his power armor, he watched impassively from his command throne, isolating the feed from the relevant the spy drones and observing the details only his enhanced brain could interpret. Tactical readouts, force positioning, visual and thermal output – none were hidden from the best in the Tenth Legion’s surveillance technologies.

Though he prided himself on controlling his emotions in battle – and this, for all he cared, was as much a battle as any he had ever been in over his long life – he allowed himself a momentary glimmer of satisfaction.

This, here, was the proof he was hoping for. This was the answer to his long quest he had sacrificed friends and comrades for, remaining an outcast from the Legion that shared his righteous fury.

Here was the proof that the Gargoyles were irredeemable.

* * *

Night fell swiftly, blanketing the world with the multitude of shadows that moved, breathed, hunted. The Gargoyles moved cautiously, checking every nook and cranny for possible ambushers. The noise of branches breaking under their feet was the only sound. The jungle was silent.

At first, Barca tried to protest, arguing that the Reapers and their supporting companies should have waited for further orders from orbit, but a silent growl from Isaiah had silenced him. Bereft of their Primarch’s leadership, the Gargoyles had only their field commanders to turn to, and none were more senior than the Captain of the Sixth.

To Isaiah, the sensation felt better by the minute. For all intents and purposes, he was the commander of all Legion’s forces on Taramin.

At times he imagined himself at the head of a Legion – an unstoppable, all-conquering force. But even then, the conquest became secondary. All that mattered was the means by which such conquest could be achieved. And Isaiah held all the means within his hands.

He patted the hilt of the Excruciator, sensing the weapon’s machine spirit purr back with glee.

It was a pure feeling. A beautiful feeling.

There was no restraint about it, no boundaries, no superstitious nonsense that framed a sentient being. It was only pure, liberating hate.

“How far are we?” he asked impatiently, unwilling to stop their forced march with the fall of night. He sniffed the air, feeling the tender moisture on his exposed skin. The sticky residue of the jungle became almost palatable, tolerable even, disguising him as the natural predator in a universe of tooth and claw.

“Thirty kilometers,” followed a reply. Isaiah had to rely on his occulobe implant to make out the speaker’s shape in the darkness. A faint recognition – a name?

“Gratin,” he finally recalled the warrior’s name.

“Sir?”

Isaiah shook his head, clicking his tongue. For some reason, he thought it was funny.

“Sir?” the auspex bearer spoke again.

“Nothing, carry on,” Isaiah said. He felt mildly irritated by the other Marine’s speech, as if the very act of speaking was offensive to the predator inside.

Thirty more kilometers until the only location worthy of his presence, he thought, imagining the place where the orbital scans had pinpointed the highest concentration of biomass. This was where the enemies were, he thought, all considerations of tactics flushed away. This was where he could finally be free.

* * *

“We will make a covert drop here,” Avram pointed at the holographic projection. The three-dimensional representation of Taramin’s surface floated before him. Gently sloping hills and abundant greenery masked a singular location – a city complex built underground, ostensibly not to spoil the natural beauty of the planet.

“What of the Gar… I mean, the bastards?” asked Liam. The unvoiced concern was all-too present. One slightest misstep could turn this into a suicide mission.

“The bastards will learn their place,” Avram replied coldly. He was dressed for war, choosing to equip himself with a massive thunder hammer rather than his customary guns and power sword. The force field generator within the weapon’s haft purred softly as the First Captain of the Peacekeepers activated it for a moment’s inspection.

“I have built this weapon with one purpose in mind,” the First Captain said. “Ten years of travels had seen to that.”

Liam moved to speak, but was silenced by a curt nod of Avram’s hand. The First Captain admired the his handiwork, running his armored fingers over the bas-reliefs depicting heroes of Topia’s history. One particular scene attracted Liam’s attention – a mounted rider slaying a sinuous, winged beast from atop his charger. The scene repeated itself several times. In one instance, the rider’s spear had pierced the beast’s neck, pinning it to the ground. In another, both the rider and the beast were airborne, dueling in front of a rising sun.

“In this weapon, I have included a piece of armor from every one of our brothers that fell upon our quest,” Avram continued. “Don’t you see the significance of it?”

“I… see,” Liam said quickly, averting his commander’s piercing gaze.

“Some amongst our… brothers,” Avram spat out the word with distaste, “hold on to the barbaric habit of naming their weapons.” He smiled, but there was no mirth in the expression. “For this one, I have decided to forego the habits of civilized men, and to give it a name.”

“A name for a weapon? With all due respect, Avram, you are letting this thing obsess you too much!”

“So what if I am?” the First Captain had a manic light in his eyes. “Passion is not to be denied in warfare.” He raised his voice. “Passion is the driving force behind civilization. It is why we have prevailed where the others have not.”

“Passion – this is it,” he continued, now visibly agitated. “Anyone can have skill or courage. Anyone can have killer instinct. But only the true warriors can be passionate about what they fight for.”

“I fight for the universe free of abominations,” Avram spat, turning his face towards the hologram. “We shall witness the Gargoyles’ needless savagery first-hand.”

“Are you sure there is no other explanation?” said Liam. There was something in his face that suggested anxiety to the First Captain. It was as if Liam was desperately trying to find an alternate explanation to the events unfolding before the Gargoyles.

“What other explanation, Liam?” said Avram sternly. “The Gargoyles are prosecuting a campaign against an Imperial world – while clearly not eliminating the xenos warships in orbit. What other explanation could you possibly think of, other than the complicity of the Fourteenth Legion with the aliens?” In his haste, he did not even notice that for once, he called the Gargoyles by their name.

“This is why we shall observe,” the First Captain said. “We shall keep our presence hidden, no matter how distasteful it may seem to us. And when we depart this blighted planet,” he smiled, patting his weapon and leaning his face against it. He looked as if his words were intended for the hammer. “Then, you shall live up to your name, Vengeance.”

* * *

The alien thoughts intruded Angelus’ mind like a barbed spear of unfamiliar emotions, memories and experiences. The sensation had momentarily jolted him awake, now held securely within the flesh-like confines of the Tenebri vessel. He tried to flex his muscles, summoning every bit of his strength in both the material and the psychic realms, but found his limbs and mind constrained, incapable of breaking the stranglehold.

At any other time, the thought would have made him laugh. He had slain titans and champions, destroyed civilizations with only his hands and his mind – and yet now he was paralyzed by a simple alien trick! Hot rage boiled within the Primarch’s mind, not tempered by the newfound emotion of helplessness.

Like a newborn babe, he thought, bitterness and hate feeding off one another.

No matter what he tried, the conclusion was inevitable. He was wholly at the mercy of the Tenebri.

Alien stars and planets flashed in front of his mind, memories of a civilization spanning millions of years. He felt them intrude upon his sense of self, pressure the remains of his wounded psyche out of his mind.

Angelus fought back. Even as his body was wrapped in an unnaturally strong cocoon of the flesh-ship, his mind resisted, summoning every ounce of fortitude – not his psychic might, but his own strength of will, his desire to remain independent of the alien abomination.

Slowly, he pushed back the intruding concepts, focusing all his energy, all his will on a single point of reason.

I am Angelus, he thought, struggling against the overwhelming tide working to strip away his individuality and to subsume him into the whole of the alien consciousness. I am the Grey Prince. The Slayer of Abominations. The Lord of Argos.

He mentally recited the many titles he was given over his long existence, remembering places and names they were associated with. In a way, his memories served as a shield against the alien intrusion, providing him with a centerpiece around which his self was framed. He sought strength in the embrace of the familiar, hoping that it might give him strength to defy the Tenebri even for another moment.

Even then, he knew the struggle was hopeless.

Everywhere he looked, the voices haunting him mocked his efforts. Once they were his helpers, his confidants, his sole companions over his neglectful upbringing. Now, it all made sense.

His entire existence was one long journey goaded by the voices, and now the voices came to collect their due.

Angelus found his mental control slip. Desperately, he wished Angela was there; the link between the two provided him with an anchor to regain a semblance of normalcy. It was the one link he needed the most – and at this, most crucial moment, it was denied to him!

He felt the edges of his mind fray. A memory here; a face there – all became transparent and vague, as if he no longer knew what they were. And another set of images replaced them, images that came from lifetimes he could not have possibly lived through.

He became so dependent on Angela’s presence that he could no longer fight back on his own, and for this, he hated himself. But now, more than anything, he hated her.

Once she was his link to humanity. Now, it was the reliance on human weakness that damned him.

The voices of the Tenebri became louder. In them, he heard shades of the phantoms that accompanied him his entire life – advisors, companions, friends? The voices became a massive wall of noise, louder by the second, drowning out his thoughts. They were the alien voices, incapable of humanity, incapable of pity, incapable of giving him a chance.

The phantoms flared up again, no longer connected with the aliens’ endless rattle. He heard accusations, anger, even gloating. And somewhere behind the screeching mass, inevitability.

This is not how it was meant to end, Angelus thought frantically, every syllable a minor victory to stave off the onslaught.

His thoughts turned to his distant father and siblings, all so smug and confident in their claim upon the galaxy. It was a universe full of monsters, and who were they to tell him that he was not justified? Who were they not to stand by his side when he faced his most difficult trials? How could they demand this sacrifice of him, when they could not understand what it was like to always hear voices, to always be told what he was doing wrong, to always be mocked?

It took more willpower than any of them realized, Angelus thought, bitterly. Where the others lived in a universe of logic and reason, he alone had to placate things he did not understand, his teachers that had never left his side.

And now, as the Tenebri’s mental onslaught continued, those voices went out one by one.

He was losing memories, feeling them slip away one by one. He was losing the few comrades that were now long consigned to oblivion beneath the black sands of Argos. He was losing the precarious hold he had on his own psyche, and the strength to hold back.

Every accusation came back. Every moment of weakness, every failure, every time he could not stop himself or his Legion from becoming the very monsters they set out to destroy. Every time he tried to find an easy shortcut through a lifetime of misery – the Zarivat, Angela…

All were useless. Everything he had fought for was useless. All the guilt for the worlds he had destroyed, all the shame for his own lack of strength and vision came back, as if the voices were trying to give him a deathbed sermon. They were passing judgment on him, finding him a monster unfit to live.

He tried to deny them, but there was no use. All his deeds came back to him. The dead worlds lined up one by one before his mind’s eye, every death a psychic scream that he felt. Every time he tried to control his inner nature, only to fail again and again, came back to haunt him for one last time.

All of it, for nothing.

Angelus tried to scream, but only a muffled moan escaped his lips. He was losing, badly, and there was no coming back from this. He could not hear anything familiar anymore; his thoughts were becoming clouded by the incessant chatter of the Tenebri. He felt his sense of self slip, the fleshy tendrils boring through his armor and into his skin, and knew that he could resist no longer.

In desperation, he concentrated all his spiritual and psychic energy into one, the last burst before the curtain of final darkness crept in.

Silently, he screamed.

* * *

Deep inside the Warp, a conscience stirred.

It was vast on the scale a human mind could not truly comprehend, a massive conglomeration of emotions and thoughts coalesced into a singular sentience. Beyond the veil separating reality from the unreality of the Warp, it focused on a singular point, seemingly no different from all others. A singular point where its attention was needed, if only for a brief moment.

Even this event penetrating the veil was but a minute irritation to the sentience, but it recognized the need for intervention. It was… amusing, it thought, if such crude terms could be applied to something so inhuman.

It directed a tiny splinter of its power and attention through the opening, pouring it into the psychic beacon almost as an afterthought. The sentience sensed other minds, so tiny compared to its own grandeur that they could never comprehend even a fraction of it, yet ready. Ready to receive the benediction they needed to continue their appointed task.

For it was all preordained. And the call coming from the other side would be heard.

* * *

In an instant, the Tenebri voices ceased.

Angelus felt them probing on the sides of his mind, clearly unused to such rude interruption, but unable to advance. Their sounds were muffled, almost incoherent, as though some greater force managed to gag them.

And then, another voice – pleasant, cultured, friendly. For the first time, genuinely friendly.

Do you want to suffer, Angelus?

It spoke with a promise implied, a single expected answer.

All your life you have been judged by the others, the voice whispered into his mind, drowning all others and yet never raising beyond a soft, smooth tone. All your life the others told you how you were different, how they could only tolerate you but never love you. You were called the shameful one, yet none of them had your strength. All your life you had chains on your soul. But it does not have to be so.

“What are you?” Angelus said. For the first time in what seemed like hours, he found his lips move again.

I am freedom, the voice whispered. Free of judgment, free of fear. Free of any who would bind you to their will, body and soul.

Tell me, Angelus, what do you want?
The voice grew stronger, still smooth as silk. Do you want to be forever free of the others’ tongues? Do you want to be released from the bondage and guilt? Do you want to explore how much you can become when the chains are broken?

Angelus felt the Tenebri voices rise in discontent. They, too, grew stronger, more restless.

Do you want to be free?

“Yes.”

Such a simple word, yet the one full of consequences. Such a simple word, yet whole worlds were destroyed with it.

Angelus did not even realize that he said it, his tongue being faster than his mind. Vague promises danced before his eyes, images of beauty and sensuous exaggeration. He imagined the galaxy in the palm of his hand, not distinguishing between dream and reality.

And somewhere, in the distant void beyond the stars, he thought he felt something massive and powerful drowning out all the voices, friend and foe alike, giving him the gift of true silence for the first time in his life.

The world around Angelus burst into flames.

The Tenebri flesh-constructs shivered from his blazing form, scorched by the ethereal light. The walls of the ship shrieked with the inhuman screeches, bursting open vessels of ooze-like blood and covering the Primarch from head to toe in a foul-smelling liquid.

Be still, Angelus.

The voice was triumphant, commanding yet silky and sensuous. Every syllable was saturated with power and promise. Glories of the futures yet to come resonated within, promises of existence free of restraint and self-control, never to be judged by those who had neither understanding nor vision.

Your liberation is at hand, the voice said.

The lights around Angelus coalesced into shapes, elegant yet deadly. The Primarch turned his eyes away from them, unable to stare at the outlines of these new arrivals. He caught glimpses of pincers impossibly married to the bodies and faces designed to embody every ideal of human beauty. The long hair whipped past him, arranged into elaborate constructs that competed with one another for elegance and opulence.

The sudden salvation felt so natural, so welcoming that Angelus could not bring himself to his usual wariness. He felt urges wash over him, desires he did not even think he could have – power, fame, adoration. He saw himself elevated not as a pet monster of a distant and uncaring guardian, but as an eternally malleable, mutable force that could not be resisted.

And, every ounce of strength expended, his sole anchor to the real world nowhere near his side, he could no longer resist the invitation.

Do not be afraid, the voice continued, forestalling any questions and bathing the Primarch’s battered psyche in a warm, inviting light. Around them, the Tenebri ship disintegrated, its flesh walls hacked to pieces by figures moving with unnatural grace and speed. Angelus felt a barely restrained urge to let himself go and join in with the carnage. Do not resist. It is time that you saw the truth.

* * *

His name was Isaiah, and he was a monster.

The Gargoyles emerged from the overgrown jungle and into the clearing large enough to house a small city. The maddened animal attacks did little to deter them; the rage of the Fourteenth Legion made short work of anything that dared to approach.

There was no plan, no clear vision on what to do. All Isaiah knew was that there was enemy ahead, and for once he did not have a second’s doubt about the battle to come.

All that mattered was how much damage he and his men could cause.

The clearing was occupied by a camp with thin wooden walls. Heavy guns were useless and limp on the abandoned guard towers. Strobe lights pointed at the same location, neither moving nor going off with the coming of dawn. The only sound on the wind was the halting hum of power generators.

Isaiah could smell them, the rank mass of living beings behind the walls. He could taste their mindless desperation in the morning breeze, carrying on like a powerful pheromone he could not resist.

Somewhere in the distance, a heavy weapons team began to set up, light of Taramin’s rising sun reflecting upon their shiny, polished weaponry. At any other time, Isaiah would have chastised the team’s sergeant for ignoring stealth. Now, he did not care.

With a mighty roar, he pointed at the camp, not caring if anyone saw him. The planet was his to do with as he pleased, and right now, all he desired was destruction.

* * *

Liam crept through the jungle twenty meters from his nearest comrade, bolter held securely in hand. His armor was repainted in a camouflage scheme, hiding him from the unwelcome attention, while the helmet kept his face hidden from both the elements and any who would try to guess his purpose.

A camo cloak hid him even further, allowing his movements to blend into the canopy, hiding him from Gargoyles’ auspex as he moved ever closer to their position. None were to know of the Peacekeepers’ presence on Taramin.

He came upon an elevated clearing, allowing him to oversee the tactical situation. As far as he knew, the Gargoyles were closing in on a makeshift compound with unknown purpose. It was Avram’s order to get as close as possible to reconnoiter what lie ahead.

The implications were left unspoken. If the Gargoyles truly had returned to their savage ways, there was going to be no absolution for them this time.

Right now, Liam was less than three hundred meters from the Fourteenth Legion’s position. Only his camouflage gear kept him from being detected.

That, and the fact that the Gargoyles did not expect him and his brothers to even be here.

He lowered himself to the ground, trying to present the lowest possible profile to any who might be looking. The installation loomed before him, a fortification that seemed one part primitive mining facility and one part prison. To Liam, the walls looked as though they were better suited to keep its population in rather than protect them from any external threat.

He checked his own auspex, noting the locations of the other Peacekeepers. Bardon and Greesam were to his immediate right; Carson to his left. With some concern, Liam noted that Avram’s icon was far closer to the compound than he would have liked to see.

“What are you getting yourself into, brother?” he wondered, mouthing off the words while maintaining vox silence. An uneasy feeling descended upon him.

Liam saw the first Gargoyles only seconds later.

The grey-armored warriors of the Fourteenth Legion charged into the installation with no apparent regard for their safety or tactical sense, and yet, amazingly, the wall guns and the sentry towers were silent. No shots challenged the Gargoyles’ assault; no enemy formation appeared to stop them.

Impossible, Liam thought. A creeping sense of anxious anticipation made him crawl just a bit closer, adjusting the auto-senses of his armor to get a better look at the compound. His hearing was augmented even beyond his gene-forged implants by the helmet’s mechanisms; nothing would escape his attention.

“Remember, you are here to observe,” he whispered to himself as a reassurance more so than a reminder. Whatever was going to happen was out of his hands. All that mattered was the mission.

He wondered if Avram was, in fact, right. Did the First Captain possess a sense of premonition that dragged the Peacekeepers half-way across the galaxy to finally uncover the wrongdoings of the Fourteenth Legion? Were they about to witness something so terrible, so against human nature, that they would have no choice but to accuse the Gargoyles of being irredeemably broken, impossible to salvage?

Liam swallowed hard, afraid of what he was going to witness as much as his gene-forged psyche could feel anxiety.

* * *

Avram was almost in the shadow of the ramshackle walls of the compound. Somewhere deep inside, his common sense protested this intrusion, knowing that he was almost too close to another Legion’s warriors. A single thought silenced it. He was close, so close now that he could hear the Gargoyles’ furious charge, their bestial battle cries, the whirring of their chainswords.

Were they insane, he wondered? What could have compelled the scions of Argos to attack a seemingly undefended outpost? What did the outpost hide?

He infiltrated closer, finding a crack in the wall too small for him to fit through, but large enough to see. Avram’s eyes scanned the inside of the installation, noticing the lack of repair, the ragged condition of the machinery still present, the earth looking as though it was dug open and then spread around in random configurations.

But for all the intelligence he could gather from the state of the place, it was all overshadowed by the cages.

He heard them before he could see them, the filthy, malnourished people of Taramin locked inside the metal bars in their thousands. All distinctions of gender and age blended into a set of dirty faces displaying the apathy typical of long-time prisoners. Their clothes were so caked with mud and grime that Avram could not tell what they might have been to begin with. All were shapeless, similarly deprived and without hope.

The First Captain wondered what happened here, why these people were imprisoned, and where were their jailors. He felt a sudden pang of anger at the thought that the Gargoyles might be racing to free the mortals of Taramin.

No, he thought to himself. He could not accept the possibility that his accusations were baseless, that his entire quest was doomed to failure. The Gargoyles were bestial savages, inhuman weapons that were now out of control. It had to be that way. It could not be anything else.

The first of the Gargoyles breaking through the wall was somehow familiar; the warrior’s insignia had clearly marked him as an officer. Avram wondered if he, too, was on Parias, one of the perpetrators of a massacre.

Now, Avram could make out the Gargoyle’s face, a scarred visage that stirred a memory. He remembered the insolent warrior mocking him in the hangar, their confrontation broken up only by the arrival of the Fourteenth Legion’s winged Primarch. An involuntary growl escaped from Avram’s lips.

The Gargoyle sniffed the air, his bare head looking even more bestial now that he was at war. Slowly, he walked towards the cages, as if expecting an ambush.

Avram saw some movement within. Hands reached out through the metal bars, lips spoke words of hope and encouragement. Finally, the people were going to have their saviors.

The Gargoyle smiled. It was a mirthless, cruel grin, displaying his fangs for all to see. The others of his kind walked behind him, individuals, then squads, then entire companies.

“No rules!” Avram heard the Gargoyle captain shout into the air. The words were repeated by the other Marines beside him. “No rules!”

This was it. The moment the Peacekeeper was waiting for, ever since he set himself upon the path of vengeance. He felt his stomach churn, part of him unable to believe what he was about to witness, another part of him welcoming the truth in his accusations.

It was unthinkable, yet Avram made himself ready for this revelation. He was ready after a long decade of searching and always falling short. His hate made him ready for it, the hate that would now see the unmistakable proof of the Fourteenth Legion’s perfidy.

As one, the Gargoyles fell upon the cages and the prisoners within. And then, there were only screams.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Wed Nov 13, 2013 3:55 am

TWENTY TWO

Betrayal and Consequences
Wrath
The Lord of Silence


“No rules!” Isaiah shouted, the words coming out of his mouth more akin to a bestial growl. “No masters!”

He felt the Excruciator bite into the unprotected flesh of a mortal, splattering blood all over the Reaper’s bare skin. Some drops made it into the Sixth Captain’s open mouth, a taste that was no longer revolting but pleasing, fulfilling.

He enjoyed it, and he wanted more.

The Space Marine kicked the cage gate to the side, his hands a whirlwind of motions as he cut through meat and bone with no regard for strategy or tactics. Down here, in the midst of wailing humanity and bereft of his gene-father’s guidance, Isaiah finally became what he was always meant to be.

A monster.

He smelled the delicious terror upon the wind, the stench of blood and other, less noble body fluids unleashed from their prisons of flesh. Isaiah reveled in this most indulgent of all moments, the time he finally let go of any semblance of control, embracing the nature bred into him by the unforgiving environment of Argos and sharing his revelation with the world.

“Taste the freedom, brothers!” he yelled ecstatically, not caring if any of his men would follow. They were almost all Argosians, killers beyond compare, chafed under the constraints of rules that went against their nature. All they needed was one spark – and he was the spark, the final step before the conflagration.

A chorus of growls, shrieks and hisses answered him, overlaying the symphony of pained screaming.

Isaiah bit into the flesh of his next victim, fangs ripping out meat from a still living prisoner, a dirty, emaciated man trying to hide beneath the bodies. The Reaper took in the sensation of horror from the prisoner’s eyes as the man’s face went white with shock. He threw the body down, pausing only to search for the next sacrifice to his hunger.

A single sensation overpowered all his senses, giving him an urge to indulge his desires. This was true freedom – something only hinted at on Parias, on all the worlds the Gargoyles had brought into the Imperium that feared and hated them. Morals, discipline, rules, logic – all were set by the wayside to feed the killing urge. Ambition, pride, even the martial skill he spent decades honing became irrelevant, consumed by a single drive, one single hate that overwhelmed all.

He hated this universe, and now he could finally pay it back in the only currency it understood.

The light breeze carried with it the scents that Isaiah’s enhanced olfactory system had never quite distinguished. He drank them in as if they were some sweet nectar of a long-forgotten mythology, smelling them as if for the first time.

Isaiah had never quite realized how much sensation there was in the world around him. He felt as if his senses were sent into overdrive, sharpened to the degree unimaginable even by the gene-forged warriors of the Legiones Astartes. Is that what a Primarch sees the world as, he wondered, butchering another unfortunate prisoner almost as an afterthought. It made the slaughter all that much more satisfying.

Another sensation invaded his palette – faint, mechanical, a breath of ozonized air that clashed with the serenity of extermination. He frowned, unwilling to stop himself from enjoying every moment of it, the intoxicating taste of blood upon his lips so potent it almost gave him a head rush.

Isaiah followed his nose, getting closer and closer to the installation’s outer wall. He saw a hole, barely large enough for one of his prodigious stature to put his head through, giving him a view of the outside world. Somehow, the place gave him an odd vibe, as if his senses were trying to tell him something his rational mind was unwilling to decipher.

It was the ground.

The earth immediately past the opening was sunken and disturbed, as if it held a great, static weight only recently. Isaiah glanced around, making sure none of his warriors were even remotely close to this section; something was wrong. He revved up the Excruciator, feeling reassured with the chainsword’s weight in his hand. His eyes followed the ramshackle wall, seeking out the weak points, the corroded parts.

Isaiah’s boot connected with a rotting support beam with enough force to easily break it in two. Instantly, the wall section began to some apart, as if it was only holding more through luck than any feat of engineering.

And only fraction of a second before a single plasma shot scorched Isaiah’s hair, passing only centimeters away from his face.

Isaiah rolled to the side on instinct as the armored shape resolved itself before him. The other warrior was pulling himself from the ground, discarding his camo cloak and holding a massive two-handed thunder hammer. Isaiah caught glimpses of iconography, golden bas-reliefs and writings in an unfamiliar script.

The other warrior’s armor was painted in camouflage colors, and his Legion insignia was painted over, making it impossible to tell his origins. Isaiah noticed the steady gait of his opponent’s movements, the sureness of his steps as the other Marine closed the distance, stepping over the shattered remnants of the wall.

Some part of Isaiah had begun to wonder where the camouflaged Marine came from, or what he was doing, but the Reaper pushed the thoughts inside. Whoever the other warrior was, he was the enemy.

Isaiah felt his blood boil at the thought that the strange Marine would interrupt his pleasure; his rage was only tempered by the anticipation. If slaughtering the unarmed prisoners was a reasonably pleasant pastime, the Sixth Captain looked forward to a real challenge. He grinned, imagining tearing off the other Marine’s helmet and sinking his fangs into the softer flesh below. The taste of blood upon his tongue was beckoning.

“Betrayal!” Isaiah screamed loud enough for the other Gargoyles to hear. As one, the Reapers and their comrades in arms turned to face this new threat, with only some still continuing their sport. A faint worry came upon him; was the other Marine alone, or a vanguard of another Legion’s assault?

It did not matter, thought Isaiah, readying himself for the challenge. Everything bled. And if it bled, it could be killed. If it bled, it could be made to suffer, torn apart, its lifesblood feeding the Reaper’s war.

“This one is mine,” Isaiah hissed, before any of his warriors could lay claim to his adversary. He felt the Excruciator’s joy at the prospect of a worthwhile enemy merge with his own anticipation. “Any last words?” he grinned at the other Marine, displaying his blood-stained teeth. A trickle of red flowed down Isaiah’s chin.

“Today, you die,” the other warrior boomed, advancing towards Isaiah, thunder hammer in his hands.

* * *

Avram’s thunder hammer smashed into the ground mere centimeters from the Gargoyle’s boot, the savage Marine barely scrambling to avoid the energy discharge. The Peacekeeper growled in frustration, realizing he was now open to a counterattack, then ducked under his opponent’s swing.

Even without the assistance of his gene-forged brain, he remembered now, the confrontation on Parias, the barbaric warrior mocking him. The face, though contorted in sadistic rage no sane human should know, was the same; the cocksure gait, unchanged. Avram recalled the barbed weapon in the other warrior’s hands, inscribed with sigils only scions of a primitive, savage world could think of.

And he remembered the name, too.

“I hate you, Isaiah of Carver Peaks,” he whispered, too quiet for the amplifiers in his helmet to pick up the words. “I hate you for everything you are.”

Avram did not know how the savage had managed to spot him, but this was not the time to bemoan the failings of his camouflage. While the Gargoyles seemed intent on slaughtering the prisoners, there were still enough of them by Isaiah’s side to make any escape an unrealistic proposition at best. The First Captain cringed his teeth in recognition of his quandary. If he was to survive this encounter, he would need more than just his skill with his weapon; he would need luck, and a lot of it.

At least, he thought glumly, the Gargoyle had made a crucial error, typical of all barbarians. When single combat against a worthy opponent was at stake, Isaiah could not resist the allure.

This was to be Avram’s sole advantage in battle, and he intended to use it to the fullest.

Isaiah launched a flurry of attacks while Avram struggled to regain his balance. Only the Peacekeeper’s agility and well-honed reflexes had kept him from succumbing.

A part of Avram’s mind wanted to rebel against the sheer unreality of the situation. Space Marines fighting each other was an atrocity, an abomination. As much as he hated the Gargoyles and wished to see them driven to extinction, he could barely believe that he took up arms against these wayward cousins.

Another part of his mind had reassured him of the righteousness of his path. The Gargoyles were a stain on the honor of all Legiones Astartes, and for that crime they had to be put down like the rabid animals they were. There could be no doubts, no confusion about it, for doubts and confusion took away the clarity of hatred, Avram’s greatest weapon.

He would not fall short.

Avram’s weapon rose up just in time to block Isaiah’s downward swing; the chainsword teeth bit deep into the haft of Vengeance, scratching the artwork. The dragon slayer’s finely carved face became a leering mask.

Isaiah slid the teeth of his sword down, forcing Avram to quickly readjust his grip in order to keep his fingers. Instead of holding on to Vengeance with both hands, Avram freed up one hand, throwing a low punch to Isaiah’s gut. The Gargoyle grunted, wind momentarily knocked out of him, as Avram took the second to gather his wits.

The Gargoyle’s next attack was a low kick, combined with a sweeping chainsword thrust. Avram stood back, blocking Isaiah’s movement with the thunder hammer, then holding his opponent in a momentary standstill as both tried to overpower each other.

Gideon’s blood, Avram thought, struggling to push his enemy and make him lose his balance. The two warriors seemed evenly matched in skill; while Isaiah was clearly somewhat faster, Avram’s greater strength was slowly forcing the Gargoyle back. The First Captain gritted his teeth, putting all of his anger into his effort to break the deadlock, even as his foot swept low, attempting to knock Isaiah out of balance. The Gargoyle faltered, forced to move closer to Avram to remain standing. In a sudden movement, he let go of the chainsword, pressing his body against the Peacekeeper and trying to drag Avram down to the ground. Their faces were bare centimeters from one another – Isaiah’s pale, scarred visage and Avram’s repainted, impassive helmet.

“Coward,” the Gargoyle hissed, his dark eyes blood-shot with rage. “Afraid to show your true face?”

“Are you afraid of someone who can actually fight back?” Avram retorted. It took him every bit of strength and concentration not to let himself be dragged down. The battle became less a contest of skill and more of brute force; for all that Avram thought himself the stronger, he could not deny the desperation in Isaiah’s movements.

“I will rip your skin off and wear it,” Isaiah promised. The Gargoyle’s breathing became labored, as if he was struggling mightily. Beneath his helmet, Avram grinned savagely; he might still win this, he thought.

Isaiah growled. At first, it sounded like a bestial emanation of frustration, last gasp before the final defeat. Avram redoubled his efforts to knock his enemy down; the Peacekeeper’s legs kicked at Isaiah’s armored shins, trying to force the Gargoyle to the ground.

The growl rose up in pitch, becoming a bestial, pained whine. Avram saw the whites of Isaiah’s eyes darken, turning red with exertion. A drop of blood appeared in the inner corner of the Gargoyle’s left eye.

Isaiah screamed.

The sound was a singular force, an unexpected hurricane that knocked Avram back, sending the Peacekeeper reeling. The eye lenses of his helmet cracked under the onslaught, even as the armor’s auto-senses attempted to filter out the noise.

The Gargoyle looked at his hands, then at Avram. There was an expression of shock on Isaiah’s face, as if the scream was as much a surprise to him as it was to the Peacekeeper. Then, he bared his teeth into a snarl. There was nothing human in it; the moment of laxity was over. With a bestial roar, Isaiah fell on Avram. The thunder hammer in Avram’s arms shuddered as the Gargoyle’s momentum was carried over, then dropped out of Avram’s fingers. The Peacekeeper stumbled, then fell on one knee. A quick kick from Isaiah had knocked him down.

Isaiah was unarmed, but it did not deter him. He landed on top of the First Captain, his armored weight keeping Avram down. Every punch went just a bit closer to destroying Avram’s battered helmet; the Peacekeeper struggled to regain balance under the avalanche of hits.

Once again, Isaiah screamed. This time it was louder, ever more violent.

The eye lenses finally gave way, sending shards of broken plas-glass against Avram’s eyes and cheeks. The First Captain cried out in pain as one shard embedded itself in his left eye. He tried to move, summoning all the strength he could to get himself out of this predicament. All thoughts of survival were gone; the only thing that remained was his desire to take his enemy with him.

His arms and legs felt impossibly heavy. Avram struggled, finding it more and more difficult to shift even slightly. A chilling realization came to his mind; the hum of the power pack on his back, so familiar he barely registered its presence, was absent.

Another punch saw Avram’s helmet shatter. Isaiah growled, ripping the remains off the Peacekeeper’s head.

“I know you,” Isaiah hissed, fangs bared. His face flashed with recognition. “Bastard of Gideon.”

Avram tried to roll away from the Gargoyle. Without the aid of his power armor’s fiber-muscles, every movement was painful, difficult. He cursed his impatience to get as close to the evidence of Gargoyles’ treachery as possible; all he could hope for now was that Liam saw what happened, and relayed it to the Primarch. All he could hope for was to survive long enough for his brothers to learn the true scope of the Fourteenth Legion’s perfidy.

“Running away?” Isaiah laughed cruelly. “Just what I had expected.” He smashed his armored fist against Avram’s temple. The hard blow would have crushed the skull of any unaugmented human, and even the Peacekeeper’s enhanced biology had a hard time coping with it. “Have you brought any friends?” Isaiah leaned over. “I will kill them too.”

With the last, supreme effort of strength, Avram turned his face as quickly as he could. He had only one weapon left, and the removal of his helmet gave him the one chance to use it. He felt the deadly acid collect in his Belcher’s gland, accumulated for one quick burst. He spit.

The acid connected with Isaiah’s face, instantly mauling the Gargoyle’s scarred visage. One side of the grey-armored warrior’s face seemed partially dissolved, in flux. Teeth and jaws became visible through the hole in his cheek.

Isaiah’s scream of pain reverberated through the installation even as the Gargoyle smashed Avram’s head with his fists, no longer trying to play with his victim. Brains and blood splattered on the ground, amorphous and gelatin-like. The Gargoyle warrior clinched his wound, pained screams becoming whispers. He looked at the remains of the Peacekeeper with anxious anticipation.

As the Reapers resumed their slaughter of the camp’s pathetic inhabitants, Isaiah began to feed.

* * *

Ludwig raced through the corridors of the dead ship with little concern for his own safety. Around him, twenty warriors of the Nineteenth Company barely managed to keep up, stomping upon the rotting remains of something gelatinous and flesh-like.

The interior of the alien vehicle was a desolate, destitute place. Metal met what looked like rotten, yellowed bone amongst the pools of foul-smelling liquids. Scabs and scars covered the flesh-like walls. Ludwig thanked the designers of his Mark IV armor for allowing the olfactory inputs to be turned off at will; he did not even want to imagine the stench of this place.

Here and there the Gargoyles noticed dissolving lumps of flesh-like material, some formed in a way that suggested pitiful attempts at humanoid shape. Nothing moved; there was no sound but the splashing of the Fourteenth Legion’s armored boots in the unidentifiable slush. The only light came from the dimming luminescent strips scattered haphazardly throughout the walls.

“Take point,” Ludwig commanded, briefly pausing to let Valentin get in front of him. The Nineteenth Captain’s hand itched nervously, holding on to the Scorpius and pointing the weapon at anything that suggested a threat.

“Where is he?” the sergeant asked, giving voice to the question that bored into all their minds.

“Not now,” Ludwig breathed heavily. “Run,” he pointed forward, knowing that the rest of the unit would understand his command without further words. “We can talk later.”

As one, twenty Gargoyles picked up pace, all driven by hope that somewhere deep inside the rotting ship, their Primarch was still alive.

* * *

Hidden atop the vantage point, Liam could not believe his eyes. The savagery… the bloodlust… the actions of men made beasts in throes of some primal, animalistic emotion made no sense to him. Were they mad, he wondered? Did they lose even the semblance of humanity once impressed upon them?

He shifted uneasily, hoping that his captain did not put himself in too much danger. Even from here, he could see the slaughter permeated by the Gargoyles. There was little question that they had once again fallen to their primitive, barbaric urges – but was it enough to condemn them? Were they any worse than the Jaws, the Midnight Riders, or any of the other Legions that prided themselves on brutality?

Liam had always defined himself as a reasonable man. Maybe it robbed him of some spontaneity, took away a degree of his risk-taking, but he had learned to take things with a grain of salt. Perhaps this was why he could not rise to captaincy himself, but in a Legion obsessed with the right and the wrong, his skill set was still valued. He was a perfect second in command, the kind of trustworthy advisor that someone more rash, a hot-headed leader could rely upon.

This phlegmatic disposition put him at odds with Avram, made him stand in the way of the First Captain’s obsession. But now, he wondered if Avram was right all along.

He could not see too much, and he did not want to risk detection. Liam tried to adjust the optics of his helmet to the very limit of their capabilities; blurry images became more resolute, even if not defined enough to tell the specifics.

Still, he had seen enough.

Before him, a scene of carnage played itself out. Men, women and children were slaughtered, torn limb from limb, eviscerated with chainswords, even ripped apart with bare teeth. A sensation of righteous fury rose up in Liam’s chest.

Was this what Avram felt, he wondered? Both of them were on Parias, but Avram saw the worst of it; Liam, then a much younger battle-brother, was relegated to a rearguard duty, witnessing only some of the Gargoyles’ handiwork.

Perhaps, he wondered, this was why it did not affect him as much. Perhaps this was why he could afford to remain callous while the others let their tempers run wild. While Avram hid in the Gargoyles’ proximity, armed with a weapon better suited for slow, methodical combat than for guerilla war, Liam stayed true to the lessons learned in the Legion’s auxilia corps in his long-forgotten youth. He tried to banish the worries from his mind, watching intently.

A savage celebration of triumph; a bestial orgy of violence. Gargoyles holding up their grisly trophies, head here, separated spinal cord there, a still screaming human being impaled upon the Company banner elsewhere.

A weapon, large and imposing, shaken against the uncaring sky – a hammer, gleaming in the sun as the bearer raised it up again and again. A very familiar weapon, of dimensions hand-crafted for a large, resolute Space Marine, who would not have parted with it for as long as he lived.

There were no questions now, not anymore. Slowly, Liam backed up, making sure his pict-feed had captured every moment of the grisly celebration.

Vengeance, Avram called it – a weapon borne out of a singular desire for absolution, a tool of obsession wrought to cast down the evil and the monstrous. What it could not do in the hands of its creator, Liam thought, it could do in the hands of those it was intended to slay.

The mission, all ten years of it, had come to an end. And Avram’s vengeance upon the Fourteenth Legion would finally be enacted.

* * *

Upon the dead ship, Caervon was the first to die.

The Gargoyle stumbled upon what seemed like a pile of bones, losing his balance for just long enough. A sinuous form pierced him, coming out of the shadows as if it somehow wrapped the darkness around itself. Crab-like pincers separated his arms from their sockets, completely ignoring the ceramite plating, while another movement of the assailant had decapitated the Space Marine.

Ludwig fired a burst of shells into the shadow, barely catching the glimpse of a shape both alluring and repulsive, graceful and monstrous. A shriek of pain was his only response as the creatures came upon the Gargoyles.

“Landing… party… attacked!” someone shouted through the vox; Ludwig could not tell if it was someone from his own group, or from another unit, dispatched to a different section of the ship. He heard heavy breathing over the vox-channel, as if the speaker was struggling through some sort of a difficult physical endeavor. The breathing was interrupted by a scream, long and pained, as if whatever had caused it reveled in making the speaker suffer as much as possible.

Ludwig’s power sword was instantly in his hand, hacking and slashing at the vaguely defined shapes. The creatures were fast, even faster than a trained Space Marine, armed with a variety of close-combat implements that seemed to extend from their bodies. He barely managed to slay one when he found two of his men cut down where they stood.

Gasta was eviscerated from both sides, vainly trying to hold off two of the creatures. A burst from the Scorpius ended one of his killers, but then Ludwig was forced to keep attention on another monstrosity, this one dancing a complex weave with its twin blades barely outside of the Nineteenth Captain’s reach.

Sounds of bolter fire reverberated through the silent hall. Some shells ripped chunks out of the macabre material of the walls, while some managed to land hits on the attacking creatures. Ludwig noted with morbid satisfaction that their assailants seemed to have little protection from the Space Marines fire, going down easily. He swung the Scorpius in a narrow arc, hoping to force the creature attacking him into the range of his sword. The creature was too slow; purple blood and viscera sprayed over the Gargoyle’s armor. Before the body hit the floor, Ludwig was already on another alien, hacking it from behind while it was occupied with one of the Space Marines.

He could have fought this way for hours, days even; he could not tell how long the battle had lasted. Once the initial shock of the surprise charge had worn off, the Gargoyles pulled together, protecting each other’s flanks and standing resolute against an assault.

The enemy fighters disappeared as quickly as they came about. One moment the Gargoyles were slowly, but surely fighting them off; in the next, they were striking air. Ludwig cursed, wondering if it was some form of invisibility. He switched the modes of his helmet, seeing nothing of the enemy – no infrared trace, no residue his optics could not recognize. There were only nine dead Gargoyles on the floor, all in various stages of dismemberment.

Curiously, he did not see any enemy corpses.

“Move, close formation,” he said, pointing forward. Silently, he cursed himself. He had almost let his impatience be the doom of the entire squad. This was almost what he would have expected from a simpleton like Isaiah. “The Primarch needs live warriors, not dead heroes,” he said, contradicting his earlier disposition.

Perhaps, he thought, he was simply trying to reassure himself.

* * *

A winged shape moved through the corridors, a silent stalker inside the belly of the beast. Once he had a name, but, as with many other things, it was now irrelevant. All that mattered was the pure, exhilarating freedom.

He was free in these walls of flesh, free from the limitations imposed by his one-time master and creator. He was no longer subject to morality; the only law he had respected was the natural one, and even then, deep down he knew it would not be long before he would transcend it.

This was the absolute, beautiful liberation. No words could escape his lips, but the words were no longer necessary. They were obsolete, just like so many other notions, so many things that chained the human beings to a singular form they were expected to inhabit.

All was obsolete, but the instinct, and the silence.

The silence was beautiful, gentle, soothing, just like the darkness that surrounded him now. Wherever he heard voices, he snuffed them out, one by one, paying little heed to the stinging bites of their weapons. Occasionally, his allies – his very corporeal, real allies appeared by his side, helping him to extinguish the noises, one by one, until silence reigned once again.

Soon, he grew bored of the silence.

He made the noise-makers scream. Some of them had faces he vaguely recalled, as if they were remnants from another, now forgotten life. He thought that their words were trying too hard to make sense; to him, they were little more than noises.

As pleasant as the noises were, though, he decided he liked the silence better.

He climbed up, his mouth still full of the noise-makers’ blood. The taste of it was exquisite, rich and yet delicate. It stirred the unrestrained, the bestial part of him. Dimly, he had a fleeting thought of controlling the sensation, then dismissed it as another irrelevant concept. His clawed feet dug into the fleshy ceiling, the material extending dangerously to support his great weight.

The footsteps almost made him want to sweep down and silence them, but he hesitated. There was something cautious in the movements, pleasing to the ear. Something familiar, non-threatening. Something comfortable.

The Silent One closed his eyelids, letting the footsteps get closer. He could see them with his other sight, the one that did not require eyes or other forms of perception. They were a confused group, grey and covered in filth, yet strangely resolute, pointing at him.

Absentmindedly, he smiled. For all that these creatures seemed similar to the other noise-makers, his elation at his liberation gave way to another feeling. Comforting, almost paternal.

He let himself go, pirouetting at the last second to land just in front of them. He heard sounds, the horrible noises that made him cringe inside, and yet there was something else – a need, perhaps? Something from the days of full sentience clawed upon him, some shred of logic and reason that dictated his movements. A sweet, seductive voice whispered something into his ear, so much closer to perfection than these noise-makers’ attempts at communication.

The Lord of Silence smiled, listening to the only voice that made sense and drowning out all others.

* * *

“Sire?” Valentin asked, lowering his weapons. The massive form of Angelus dominated even the large, shapeless hall the Gargoyles had found themselves in. The surviving warriors of the Nineteenth had visibly relaxed at the sight of their gene-father, unharmed, with a beatific smile upon his face.

Angelus’ head shook. The Fourteenth Primarch’s eyes remained closed even as his hands reached out to his sons in an awkward parody of an embrace. His hands were now bare, lightning claws once adorning them now gone; there was blood upon his clawed fingers.

“We need to leave, sire,” Ludwig said, more forcefully. He took another step towards the silent Primarch.

Angelus raised both hands, extending his wings and blotting out the fading light from distant lighting strips. The Primarch’s eyes opened, revealing orbs of blank, pure black. There was nothing there – no thought, no reason, no emotion. The Gargoyle warrior felt as if he was staring at a statue.

“What have they done to you?” Ludwig asked, horrified. He rushed to hold on to his Primarch’s side, as if afraid that Angelus would fall if unassisted.

And nothing but silence. Silence, and that damnable smile.

A glimmer of recognition appeared in the Primarch’s eyes. Slowly, Angelus examined the Gargoyles, as if taking in their faces, recalling who they were. He opened his mouth, then closed it, as though deciding not to speak, and instead pointed at the tunnel the warriors of the Nineteenth came through.

“We will get you out of here,” Ludwig promised, struggling to support the Primarch’s weight. “Karo, Grovus!” The two Gargoyles joined him, propping up the silent demigod.

Slowly, Angelus took a step. Ludwig barely managed to hold on, feeling the power inherent in the Primarch’s frame move of its own volition. Another step. Then another. Ludwig let go, realizing the folly of his attempt to help.

“All teams, objective accomplished,” the Nineteenth Captain voxed to anyone who could hear him. “Prepare for extraction.”

Ludwig fell in behind his Primarch, fanning his men out in a combat formation. Beneath their feet, the rotting carcass of the alien ship dissolved.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Wed Nov 13, 2013 4:00 am

TWENTY THREE

New Doctrine
The Cleansing
Last Words


Isaiah’s boots rapped a staccato rhythm upon the metal plating of the Redeemer’s landing deck. The Sixth Captain was a sight to behold, decked in gore of his enemies that covered much of his face, armor and weapons. The dead Peacekeeper’s thunder hammer was in his hand, delicate artwork already bearing signs of desecration.

The Reapers strode behind him, a motley band of warriors that took to decorating their armor with the trophies taken from their victims. More than a few had the tell-tale signs of consuming flesh and blood of those they had slain; the Gargoyles’ pale skin had a rosy tinge quite at odds with the typical Argosian pallor.

The few mortal serfs and attendants were quick to get out of the Space Marines’ way. Some of the less fortunate ones were promptly trampled or worse; in their hunger, the Reapers made little distinction between friend and foe.

Near the Army decks, a particularly foolhardy Lieutenant tried to make a point for protocol, demanding to see authorization from the Sixth Captain. Isaiah ripped him apart with his teeth, not even resorting to his weapons.

“We shall see the Primarch,” the Gargoyle told to the corpse, caring little that the man was in no condition to answer.

“The Primarch!” roared hundreds of throats, all thoughts of Taramin forgotten.

* * *

Ludwig led the Grey Prince through the corridors, trying his best to maintain a stone-cold façade in face of the inexplicable. Angelus did not say a single word, paying little attention to the finely wrought carvings and sculptures of the Gargoyles’ flagship, and only casting wary looks at the mortals they had passed.

Silence reigned amongst the group; the few hushed attempts at conversation died down before they had a chance to develop. The Nineteenth Captain felt immerged in the gravity of the moment, feeling the tension on some sort of instinctual, primitive level. A sense of foreboding clawed at him, and his inability to explain the sensation was as frustrating as it was unsettling.

He should have been happy at the prospect of rescuing his gene-father, but somehow Ludwig had an ominous, illogical thought that somehow, all that had transpired was wrong.

As they neared the ship’s bridge, Ludwig could not shake off the uneasy sensation that Angelus was looking at the mortals with poorly disguised avarice. Something about the Primarch’s eyes suggested an inhuman longing, something that even a post-human Space Marine could not relate to.

Then, Ludwig thought, who was he to know the mind of a Primarch? Angelus and his kin were created to be the pinnacle of humanity’s achievement, empowered by the means that were unknown to all but the Emperor himself. And even amongst his brothers, Angelus was special, different, strange and unique.

The Nineteenth Captain banished the thoughts. It seemed that fate had put him in position to aid his gene-sire twice already, and just as he did not question Angelus then, he sure would not attempt to do so now.

“Stop!”

The words coming out of the mouth of Angelus were harsh, as if he was not used to speaking. Ludwig wondered just what happened to him at the xenos ship, and why did the other Gargoyle squads not yet report. A good Captain would have spent more time gathering his men, but with a Primarch in tow, Ludwig could not afford the laxity.

Men were replaceable. Primarchs were not.

The Space Marines came to a halt as quickly as their trained muscles would allow. They were in a large amphitheater with branching exits, a nerve hub leading alternately to the quarters of the visiting human dignitaries, the Navy personnel, and some of the higher-ranking Space Marines. Ludwig gave the walls a wild look, as if expecting an assault.

No, he corrected himself. They were in the heart of the Fourteenth Legion’s power, accompanied by one being every Gargoyle trusted with his life and honor. They were inviolate, returning like heroes from the crucible of war.

“Here!” Angelus exclaimed, pointing a crooked finger at the passageway.

“There? That’s the… civilian quarters!” protested Valentin before withdrawing under the Primarch’s inhuman gaze.

“Go!” said Angelus, half-spoken, half-growled. If Ludwig did not see it with his own eyes, he would not have believed the rage that flashed within the Primarch’s eyes.

Sure, he thought, it must have been the result of strange travails that Angelus suffered. Maybe it was the lighting in this place, normally too bright for the Argosian eyes but now subdued, covering the seats of the amphitheater in shadows and darkness.

Ludwig’s blood ran cold, just like it did in the mostly forgotten time before his ascension to the Legiones Astartes. He recognized the passage, remembered where it had led. He remembered whose quarters lay at the end of the passage.

“Get her!” the Primarch squeezed out, struggling with words. It sounded as though he attempted to say something else, but instead resorted to a primal, violent-sounding hiss.

“You’ve heard Lord Angelus,” Ludwig finally broke the spell of silence, motioning his surviving men to go forward. He could not escape the ridiculousness of the situation; a squad of Space Marines, to do what? Bring forth one former remembrancer?

* * *

“Where is the Primarch?” Isaiah squeezed the life out of a frail, flailing human attendant. The wretch’s face turned all sorts of colors, red, purple, white and everything in between. The Reaper threw the body against the wall in disgust; the head cracked against the reinforced plasteel bulk of the ship, eliciting a whimper. Some of the Gargoyles behind Isaiah laughed in apparent amusement.

A trio of ratings, all that remained of a twenty-man guard post, huddled closer to the wall. Isaiah smelled something foul running down one’s leg. Another, a woman with a dirty, reddened face began to sob.

The Sixth Captain was getting frustrated. No one seemed to know anything, and he was beginning to run out of mortals to vent his anger at.

“I will tell you something,” he smiled, revealing rows of pointed, sharp teeth. Briefly, he wondered if the rows were always there. He did not seem to remember. “Whoever tells me where the Primarch is gets to live. The others will…” He licked his lips. “The others will…” he could not finish the sentence, but the threat in his voice was imminent.

“I don’t…” a human whimpered.

“Wrong answer,” Isaiah put a bolt through the rating’s head. “Now, can the two of you find that out for me?”

* * *

The footsteps were getting louder by the second. Some part of Angela’s mind wanted to get up to witness the result of her labors, but she could no longer propel herself straight. Blood ran from the self-inflicted wounds upon her wrists, the very vitae that she used to create this one last final masterpiece.

Upon the canvas, a blood-colored angel soared in the blood-colored sky, reigning over the forms that were neither human nor sane. She wanted to forget it, to pretend that it had never existed, but even the act of willful forgetfulness was too much for her. There was nothing but the nightmare, and it was claiming her whole.

She had barely registered the doors of her quarters sliding open, or the armored forms casting the opulent trappings down as they moved on, careless of the priceless luxuries she had enjoyed. Angela whispered something, anything, not sure if these new arrivals were rescuers or tormentors, but the noise inside her mind made any form of focus difficult, even impossible. She felt herself falling, losing every bit of conscious thought she once had to subsume herself in suffering of the millennia.

A new, terrible conscience entered her frayed mind, powerful and radiant yet unused to resistance. For a second, Angela relaxed, recognizing the psychic trappings of the Fourteenth Primarch. Did he require her once again, she thought, inwardly protesting such crude use. She clung on to the only familiarity she could, centering her conscious being around the presence, struggling to forget the terror, the helplessness and surrendering to a greater will.

It was too late.

In an instant, she realized that Angelus knew everything she did, felt every instant of her struggle to maintain sanity. In this moment of symbiotic catharsis, he knew the entire scope of her being, the paths she took to be here, the names and the faces that, until now, were very faint within her mind.

A string of unwanted images flashed before her – scenes from her long-forgotten childhood, adolescence, adulthood, emotions that ran through her young mind as she won renown and fame, forever searching, never satisfied. Her life was reduced to a series of notes, all of them playing an unholy melody that finally began to make sense. She had finally seen the reason for her presence here, the seed that was carefully shielded, the drive to find the calling – all of it for a very singular reason.

She felt sick to her stomach as she realized what that reason was. Angela tried to scream out a warning, anything to stop what was about to happen, but the catalyst inside her mind, like a timed release of a habitual drug, was not to be denied. Two minds became one; the tool of powers she could not even begin to comprehend flashed into being, completing the sequence that had been initiated long before her birth. Her tongue twisted, pregnant with another’s words. And in that moment, she knew everything, every little bit of the future torment to come – and there was only pain.

* * *

“Warriors of the Fourteenth Legion!”

The voice rang true and strong through the ships of the Twenty Seventh Expedition, carrying over as much by the speakers as it did by the psychic emissions reaching each and every Space Marine on board. Isaiah let go of the rapidly cooling corpse and perked up to listen, his body a high-strung spring ready to uncoil with deadly consequences.

He was hunched over the dead bodies of the ratings, blood still seeping down the sides of his mouth where he could not resist ripping their meat with his teeth. He heard the growling from the Legionaries behind him, knowing that their patience with this encounter was growing short, and that there was only so much prey to go around. They were like animals, dangerous and ready to lash out at any who would cross them, and his heart soared in this newfound, liberating sensation.

“Rejoice, for your long servitude is at an end!”

Even though the voice was that of a young woman, Isaiah knew who it truly belonged to. Just as the prize that won him a spot in the Zarivat was nothing more than a tool to the Sixth Captain, she was even less than that to his master – a mouthpiece, a loudspeaker, no more. Just like all mortals, Isaiah thought, finding the concept pleasing. They were either prey or tools, nothing more.

The blood on his tongue reminded him of that fact, the underlying truth of the universe he chose to dwell in. It was more than the taste of once-living vitae, though. It was the taste of true, unbound freedom.

Isaiah howled his assent, beating one armored gauntlet against his chest plate. The arrhythmic sound of ceramite against ceramite followed as the other Reapers caught their leader’s mood. He heard Barca screech, louder and louder, even as Cosimo huffed like a bull ready to charge its opponent.

“We are now illuminated into a new purpose, far greater than the one we had followed until now. For too long we have suppressed our nature to remain tame and weak. But our nature had always been there.”

The voice stopped, and Isaiah imagined his Primarch licking his lips in satisfaction.

“We are born of a death world, and we have always carried a piece of it with us. But the others! The others never understood!”

Isaiah’s thoughts turned to the Peacekeeper he had slain on Taramin. By now, every Gargoyle that went to the blighted world’s surface knew of it; the distrust they had already felt for their erstwhile brothers was at the boiling point. What would one more heresy be, Isaiah wondered, savoring the delicious thoughts of the moral event horizon.

“They will never understand,” Angelus’ unwitting pawn said in a voice that was not her own. “When we set out from Argos to bring liberation to the galaxy, we did not liberate ourselves. We had followed false leaders who taught us humility and weakness, who scowled at us for all the wrongs they had blamed on us.”

“But we shall be tame no more. We shall be weak no more. We shall no longer give in to our base chains, or follow the laws given to us by those without sight. Our fight shall be different.” Isaiah heard a loud sigh, although he could not tell if it was a sigh of relief or one of exhaustion.

“We shall be free. We shall become the heralds of a new age, an age where everything is possible.” There was ecstatic glee in the voice, manic with the strength of unholy conviction. “We shall become illuminated, no longer the servants but the masters of all we shall desire.”

“Freedom, my sons! Freedom! Can you feel it coursing through your veins? Can you feel it within your grasp? Reach for it, I say! Reach for your freedom and become what you were always meant to be.”

“I, too, have become illuminated,” said Angelus, speaking through the former remembrancer’s lips. “Others would have given you revelations of gods or daemons, perhaps tales of alien wonders or mundane progress. I will give you something else.”

“Behold, the revelation of Man! Behold, the revelation of his true nature as a peerless slaughterer, as a plague upon the universe. Behold his frailties and weaknesses – and now, look at your strengths. No longer shall we serve our lesser – and they are our lesser, do not forget. No longer shall we plead our case to their whimsical and defective natures.”

“We are the Fourteenth Legion, but today we shall be the first into the new era. We shall accept our existence as the predators without peer, as the beasts far more dangerous and frightening than any that were spawned by our cursed home.”

Isaiah felt a compulsive need to move. He motioned his warriors, advancing through the empty halls of the great battleship. He felt a slight, uneasy prodding in the back of his skull, not as much an external influence as his own urge.

He felt the presence of his master on some deep, instinctual level, and he would not be denied a place at his lord’s side. The Reapers followed behind, some making noises more suitable for a pack of animals, while others howled in a manifestation of terrible, atavistic urge. All semblance of order or discipline was lost; only the most primal, base, vulgar instincts remained. Only one desire governed his thoughts, motions and instincts. No matter what, he would reach Angelus and stand by his side.

* * *

“And those who should not follow us – I say, they have been slaves for far too long! And the only beings worthy of slavery are those beneath us, not worthy of being Legiones Astartes. It is their failings that shall doom them, and thus, I say, your blades shall not falter. Those who fall by the wayside shall neither be remembered nor mourned, for they are the past. We – we are the future!”

Ludwig could not believe what he was hearing. The words coming out of the Terran girl’s mouth were wrong, impossible, yet they were being disseminated across the entire fleet.

He knew what was going to happen. The Gargoyles had always struggled with the inner savagery that grew within them, and now that they had the final permission to abandon all restraint, he doubted that many would retain a degree of inner honor and stability he prided himself on.

In a course of a few minutes, the Legion he once knew was no more, and something else, something terrible and inhuman rose to take its place.

Indecision paralyzed him. He looked at the gloating form of Angelus, then at the eager, faithful Scorpius mag-locked just right at his belt. No, he told himself. This was madness. Surely, some of the others – Katon, Merlin, Goffri, perhaps, would maintain enough sense to reason through it, to keep the Legion from the final step over the edge?

One look at his Legionaries told him everything he needed to know. They were listening with rapt attention, taking in the Primarch’s words whole. Ludwig saw the dull looks in their eyes, the drooling grins. Even his own company, then, he thought bitterly.

But then, who could resist the presence of a Primarch, let alone one’s own Primarch? Who could resist the promise of liberation into a new, darker, more savage form? Who but the one already embittered?

The Scorpius beckoned, its promise clear and alluring within his mind. Ludwig slid his hand closer and closer to it. He could end it all here. Better a Legion of the dead than the one of monsters, Ludwig thought.

In an instant, he reached decision. Faster than mortal eye could see, Ludwig trailed the Scorpius at the Primarch’s head.

* * *

One tenth of a second. Enough time for the finger to rest securely upon the trigger, for the detonation mechanism to release a shell designed to rip through flesh and bone. Enough time to put an end to insanity, no matter the consequences.

Not enough time to finish the deed.

Ludwig felt the Scorpius torn out of his hand by sudden, unexpected force. Splinters of metal flew into his face, forcing him to squint as his unprotected head bore the brunt of it. His movements were instinctive, drilled into him by decades of training and combat, keeping him alive long enough to see the assailant now standing next to him, a savage grin upon his face.

“Treason, now, eh?” Isaiah asked him, revving up his chainsword. There was a violent, brutal smile upon the Sixth Captain’s face, as if he was relishing what he was about to do.

“What are you doing here?” Ludwig squeezed out even as he forced himself out of Isaiah’s immediate reach. The Nineteenth Captain had little hope for survival – in fact, he was surprised he was not yet torn to pieces by the other Gargoyles for attempting to take the Primarch’s life – yet the survival instinct remained strong within him.

“What business is it of yours?” Isaiah cackled. There was blood running down his face; Ludwig thought the shade was subtly wrong to be Isaiah’s own. “I am faster than you think.”

All the while, the captive remembrancer continued her retelling of the injustices faced by the Fourteenth Legion, extolling the virtues of the future of unrestrained, chaotic freedom espoused by Angelus. Out of a corner of his eye, Ludwig saw her face contorted into a painful grimace, perhaps struggling to resist the terrible revelations spewing out of her mouth.

“The mortals shall make a choice,” Angela’s voice said, all too aware that the human members of the Expedition probably heard every single word of it. Ludwig wondered if some were now trying to escape the fate their cruel masters had in store for them – or were they so used to the life of servitude that they followed the Grey Prince even into this insanity, willingly? “Serve us in bringing true freedom to humanity, or become the blood coating the wheels of its transmutation.”

“They are truly damned,” Isaiah hissed, motioning to the other Gargoyles to stay away. “Their weaknesses had damned them from the start. Argos breeds a strong kind, yet all others are suspect. Those who do not respect true strength shall not be suffered to live.”

“Is this your freedom?” Ludwig asked, frantically attempting to buy himself time to get into a proper fighting stance. His power sword slid from its scabbard into the Nineteenth Captain’s hand. “The tyranny of those who can oppress others?”

“You don’t understand freedom,” retorted Isaiah. “Freedom can only be achieved when there is no one holding you down, no one holding reins over you.”

“And yet you allow another’s words to hold sway.”

“These are the bonds of love, you cretin,” Isaiah said. “The others, those are bonds of hate.” He breathed heavily; a string of thickening drool hanging from the side of his mouth. “They hate us for who we are. They hate and fear everything we bring, all of our gifts to the galaxy. Their hate brings out the fear, and the fear makes them seek our destruction.”

“Then perhaps we are monsters, and deserve to be destroyed,” said Ludwig. He evaluated Isaiah with an experienced fighter’s eye. If this was to be his last fight, he intended to make it a good one.

“I was right about you all along,” Isaiah taunted, launching an attack before he even finished speaking.

The Excruciator danced a narrow arc just above Ludwig’s head, eliciting a belated parry. The power weapon should have cut through the metal of a chainsword, but the two were held, impossibly, in place. For a briefest of moments, Ludwig saw the multicolored light reflect off Isaiah’s weapon. He did not have time to reflect upon this startling development, as the Reaper pressed on his attack.

Ludwig parried, twisted and turned, dancing just at the edge of Isaiah’s range. Every step was becoming more and more difficult; for all that they were previously evenly matched, one thing became apparent to the Terran Space Marine.

Whatever happened to Isaiah on Taramin, the Argosian’s fighting capabilities had clearly increased. Where Isaiah was already the faster of the two, he was now pushing Ludwig to the very limits of his gene-forged capabilities. Already several small cuts scraped the paint off Ludwig’s armor, and only a fortuitous and desperate feint allowed Ludwig to keep his hand.

Slowly, Ludwig had found himself backed into a corner. The barbaric splendor of the amphitheater loomed heavily over him, gods and monsters of Argos laughing at his efforts to prolong his life even by mere seconds.

“This is the new doctrine,” the girl’s voice floated over the duel, seemingly oblivious to it. It was serene and emotionless, carrying none of the passion Ludwig would have expected from an orator. “There is no such thing as excess, no such thing as experience to be passed on. I have seen what happens to civilizations that fall into the trap of their own self-righteousness. I have seen their remains. And I have seen the truth of the universe.”

Ludwig’s sword barely managed to stop Isaiah’s wild swing; pieces of the sword separated from the energized blade, impossibly burning up in the force field.

“The truth of the universe claims no chains over it, and our actions will reinforce its existence. The truth demands that we share every experience, that we claim this eternal freedom and never let go of it. The truth is the only dedication worthy of us.”

The Nineteenth Captain ducked, reaching under Isaiah’s guard for one brief moment and leaving a molten brand upon the ceramite. He wove his way out of the retaliatory attack, panting as Isaiah launched a flurry of strikes. Only a desperate jump allowed Ludwig to escape the worst of it, and even then he did not escape completely unscathed. He swore, recalling a juicy expression comparing Isaiah’s origin to that of a particularly filthy, obscene farm animal.

“Thus, my children, I command you – take all who would not heed the new doctrine, take all who would restrain you and keep you from becoming everything you were meant to be, and show them the meaning of freedom. For those without true dedication to freedom are unworthy of it. They are slaves, and they should suffer the consequences of their disposition.”

Was it Ludwig’s imagination, or did Isaiah’s movements get faster as the fight went on? The Reaper was a frothing maniac, all thoughts of reason forgotten, the Excruciator held in both hands a blur of motion. Ludwig felt his muscles sore from constant exertion and knew that he had very little endurance left under his rival’s relentless assault.

“Ours is not the path of subtlety. Ours is not the path of control. We are like titans of old, furies unleashed upon the universe too ordered for our liking. From now on, we shall follow our own path!”

The final strike came quickly. One moment Ludwig was readying a complex trick, hoping that he could counter Isaiah’s relentless strength and speed with deception – and then, the Nineteenth Captain was prone, sword knocked out of his hands, and Excruciator mere centimeters from his face. Ludwig’s face was sprayed with dried gore spilling over from the chainsword’s teeth.

“And our path is the true path, the only path,” said the Primarch with the girl’s voice.

Isaiah’s chainsword entered Ludwig’s flesh at the jugular, before the Nineteenth Captain could muster any gestures of defiance.
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Re: Reaper's War (alternate 31st Millennium)

Postby Midgard » Wed Nov 13, 2013 4:04 am

TWENTY FOUR

A Legion Reborn
Silence
Messengers


The first sacrifice was called Brother Korba, a veteran of the Fourth Company. He was slain by his squad mates before he could even finish his diatribe damning the Primarch’s apparent lack of sanity, his bolt pistol torn from his arm in a vicious assault.

Third Captain Goffri and First Captain Katon were caught in a crossfire between their respective followers, Katon’s faction refusing to follow their Primarch into damnation and Goffri accepting it all too eagerly. While both were mauled by bolter and plasma fire, it was Goffri that had prevailed, albeit at the cost of his own life. When the surviving warriors of the Third Company finally reached their Captain, they had found him delirious and nearly dead from extreme blood loss and injuries, yet still trying to gnaw on Katon’s separated arm. It was telling that instead of calling an Apothecary, the men of the Third had joined their dying leader in consuming the remains of the slaughtered on both sides.

Colonel Harn of the 247th Argosian infantry and his commander, General Dasai Lo had both wisely chosen to offer their services to the Primarch and his Legion. They were both Argosians, and the rules imposed upon their kind by the Imperium had never sat too well with them. Most of the Army regiments attached to the Twenty Seventh Expedition had soon followed suit, from the morose Batikan Fusiliers to savage Viddarthan Raiders.

Chief Librarian Merlin had barricaded himself in a storage hangar, accompanied by the elements of First and Nineteenth Companies. Had Isaiah still been able to think of it, he would have considered it highly ironic that most of Merlin’s followers were Terran in origin. It took at least four thousand Army troops to soak up all of their remaining ammunition before the Companies following Angelus’ New Doctrine broke through the makeshift fortifications, unleashing death upon their former brethren. In the end, Merlin met his demise alone, surrounded by corpses of his followers and enemies, unleashing witch fire on all who dared to approach yet still unable to resist a concentrated bolter volley that tore him to pieces.

All throughout the fleet of the Twenty Seventh Expedition, the kill teams organized by Isaiah stalked the corridors of the ships, slaughtering all who would dare to resist.

On Pride of Argos, a strike cruiser carrying most of the Seventh Company, the dissidents took charge of the ship and attempted to flee. Required to prove his loyalty or to share the fate of the purged, Guido Balantir did not hesitate. The Redeemer’s broadside put an end to any such notion, while the lance batteries picked the Pride of Argos apart, leaving the few loyalists survivors stranded and destined to expire in the unforgiving void.

The Radical, a Sappho-pattern frigate, became a scene of carnage as the mostly human crew fought amongst themselves, while their Gargoyle overseers laughed and made bets. Another frigate, the Black Rose, made professions of allegiance to Angelus’ words, staving off the visit by the Legion’s surviving commanders for as long as its captain, a grim warrior of the Twenty Fourth Company named Ranta, could. Once further delays became impossible, Ranta ordered his ship to run as fast as it could, hoping to break the blockade even with heavy damage the Black Rose was bound to sustain.

But the story of the Black Rose is best told elsewhere; even its apparent escape was but a minor irritation to the legion reborn in violent acceptance of their true nature.

The Imperial personnel, the clerks, the servants, the iterators and the remembrancers gave little trouble to the Gargoyles. Deemed beneath the Legion’s notice, they were goaded into holding pens by the Army regiments eager to prove their newfound loyalty lest they, too, suffer the consequences of displeasing the Sons of Angelus.

There were few who resisted. Briel Serna, the Imperial Envoy, tried to make vain pleas and protests against her treatment. The soldiery of Argos 247th cared little for her protestations of importance, and made sure her treatment was particularly rough and unpleasant. Vlad Kirov had attempted to hide in the ship’s massive underbelly, seeking solace with the near-troglodytic serf crews rather than face capture. His final fate remained unknown to the galaxy at large, submerged into the cavernous world of the devolving, superstitious folk with little awareness of their role in the mad Primarch’s plan.

Marat Crassus had found what seemed like a last gasp of courage, and stood bravely against the Viddarthan soldiers sent to apprehend him, a las-pistol bartered from Galiaf weeks ago in his hand. The strain of failure weighed heavily on Crassus’ mind, and in the long days since Angela’s departure, he had thought of turning the weapon on himself more than once.

Courageous as it was, his last stand had ultimately proven futile. Alone in his quarters, he had no one to protect, and the two shots he had managed to fire in the direction of the Viddarthans before their las-carbines responded went wide. The poet’s cowardice, courage and death were all forgotten by the universe that cared little for one man’s final and unnecessary attempt to redeem himself.

Over the course of a single bloody day, the only mortals still alive and not in detention on the upper decks of the Redeemer were the Naval personnel that swore its servitude to the Legion, the Army troopers of the regiments loyal to Angelus, and the few hangers-on that managed to attach themselves to their betters.

Nothing was left sacred or alone. The architects that had planned compliances of worlds were unceremoniously dumped into the same storage rooms as the servants of the many notables that tried to bask in the Legion’s glory without subjecting themselves to any danger. Poets and thieves, soldiers and camp followers had found themselves side by side, no matter their previous rank or social standing. The New Doctrine was as brutal as it was callous. Those who did not serve the Legion’s needs had no place on its ships. The armed guards drawn from the Army regiments already began to anticipate the ways in which they could abuse their charges, either for momentary pleasure or for some kind of gain.

On Deck Four, a desperate iterator attempted to lead a breakout. The huddled mass of humanity had managed to overrun the inadequate guards, suffering horrendous casualties in the process but almost making it to the ship’s corridors. Unluckily for them, Gargoyles kill team responded to the commotion before the prisoners could disperse. The few that survived the initial, savage assault of the Space Marines found out that death was far from the worst option.

In his quarters made to resemble a slice of distant Argos, Angelus brooded. The few Hell Guard that dared to approach their master noted that his disposition was sullen and silent, neither speaking nor attempting to communicate by other means. The mortal girl was long gone, they reasoned, sent to the holding pens with the rest of her kind; while one particularly ambitious Gargoyle considered bringing her back, one look at the Grey Prince told him everything he needed to know about it.

The time when Angelus needed help was gone. The Fourteenth Primarch was in his true element, wings extending and falling like a breath of some gargantuan monster as he soared above the imitation of Argos, an expression of concern and melancholy finally replaced by the one of total, absolute peace. Angelus waved with a clawed hand, descending from the gloomy fake sky to be amongst his sons once again; a single look of satisfaction upon his face.

The Hell Guard warrior did not know his master’s mind, but even he could interpret the gesture. No words were necessary, not anymore. Angelus had finally transcended the need for others to be his messengers to humanity.

As one, the Hell Guard formed a protective cordon around their gene-father, following him as he led them towards the holding pens.

* * *

The floor was cold. Angela struggled to gain purchase against the metal wall, unable to drag herself back up. Her nails, once elaborately done, were now battered and broken against the hard material, but she barely noticed.

“Get down,” a soldier shouted, pointing a lasgun at the captives. A sadistic smile played on the man’s face, clearly in anticipation of something Angela did not want to think about.

Around her, the remembrancers and other civilians of the Twenty Seventh Expedition prostrated themselves, crawled, pleaded with their captors to no avail. She saw some familiar faces, some twisted with terror, some almost beatific in mute acceptance of what was to befall them.

The soldier stared at her intently, running his eyes up and down her body. Tentatively, he made a step, then two, drawing closer, licking his lips in anticipation.

Angela tensed, looking frantically for anything, anyone who would help. There would be no help coming, she realized as she saw the soldier’s comrades hold them at gunpoint, themselves eyeing the most attractive or the most gaudily dressed in the crowd.

“Well, well, what have we here?” the soldier grinned, squeezing out the words. His accent was something Angela did not recognize, nothing like the drawn-out Argosian syllables. The man lowered his gun, pointing at her. “We can do it the easy way… or not.” His smile grew wider, as if he anticipated resistance, no, desired it.

The soldier started to inch closer to her, one hand on the lasgun trigger, another attempting to unbutton his pants. Angela felt utterly, completely helpless; her teeth began to clatter as she lowered her eyes, unwilling to comprehend or to see what was about to happen.

The man never got to her.

One second the soldier was creeping towards Angela with little but violence and lust on his mind; the other he was flying through the damp air, hurled by some unseen force. She heard a tell-tale crack of a broken neck as the soldier landed in a heap some distance away. This time he did not move.

Angela raised her eyes.

A giant stood in the glum lightning, easily two heads taller than any of the mortals in the holding bay. In the absence of illumination, everything about him was grey – armor, insignia, even the eye slits on his helmet.

Her heart raced. The Gargoyles, her thoughts frantically focused on her erstwhile rescuer, did they turn on this… travesty in their midst? Did they overcome the insanity of the Primarch’s proclamation? Did they… Angela allowed herself a small glimmer of hope.

For a longest moment, the Marine just stared at her, looking as if he was part of the shadows he suddenly appeared from, impassive, silent, antediluvian presence that belied the violence and pain he could inflict upon his enemies. There was nothing in the universe but the heavy thumping of her heart and the grey, inhuman stare of the stylized eye lenses.

Slowly, the Gargoyle reached out to undo his helmet straps.

“Isaiah…” the former remembrancer exhaled the name, recognizing those hard, uncompromising features, the scarred countenance of the Sixth Captain. The Marine did not appear to recognize her, or to even acknowledge that he was being spoken to. She recalled something very faintly, a battle? She could never remember the possession that well, ever since the Fourteenth Primarch’s initial attempt to communicate through her, all those years ago. Angela’s heart began to beat faster.

She heard the sound of a weapon falling to the floor, a loud clang of metal on metal that made her twitch, followed by others of its kind. The Army soldiers knelt, first one, then many, as more Gargoyles emerged from the gloom. None wore helmets.

And then, another sound.

The sound of something leathery and inhuman on the move.

You are there, Angela thought, I know you are. Watching the scenery, biding your time. But why this silence? What did you see to give a terrible new doctrine to all who would follow you, to betray all the ideals you had once served?

She saw him almost instantly then. The perfect face of a hero upon the body of a monster, the very face she wanted to paint since she was assigned to this expedition. The semi-crouched posture that still failed to conceal how much larger he was than any of his Marines, not helped by the giant leathery wings, like a halo of flayed skin framing his body.

This was the man who once called her his little sister, his confessor and conscience. This was the tortured mind whose secrets could drive lesser men insane, and yet full of warmth and compassion that none ever saw, hidden behind the veneer of cold, calculating cruelty. This was the one who saw the past, the future and his own private daemons, but could never comprehend the great, ever-lasting moment of the present.

Their eyes crossed for a brief moment.

For the first time since she first saw Angelus, all that time ago on the planet forgotten by histories, there was no pain in the Primarch’s dark eyes. There was no sorrow, no doubt, not even the weary resignation – only acceptance of some terrible truth the former remembrancer could not, did not want to ever see. There was swagger to his movements, as if some weight was lifted off his shoulders, as if Angelus was finally at peace, in his true, bestial element.

For a second, his eyes seemed to mist up, caught in some memory or distant emotion, and Angela thought she saw recognition, a glimpse of sympathy that the Primarch never let anyone see. Then, he smiled.

It was not a face that any human could make. The grin was predatory, hungry, monstrous, baring the Primarch’s teeth and distorting those perfect features once and forever. A sinuous tongue licked the lips, cracked and scabbed over with something dark and organic-looking. The wings extended and contracted in an animalistic gesture, stretching of a dangerous wild beast about to abandon everything that once connected it to humanity.

And the beast that once was Angelus the Grey Prince, the haunted lord of the Fourteenth Legion, spoke for the last time, one word encompassing its entire existence.

“Feed!”

It was the last thing Angela heard before the Gargoyles fell upon their prisoners, making no difference between the captive civilians and the Army soldiers. The dark grey shades covered the light, one by one, a symbolic celebration of inhuman excess and savage, unbridled joy. She barely had time to scream before Isaiah’s fangs ripped out her throat.

And then, there was only silence.

* * *

Tarnac Wali paced the expanse of the reception room, clenching his fists as the only indication of his impatience. The gold and brown of his power armor, announcing his allegiance to the Sixth Legion, the Imperial Redeemers, turned to grey and black in the deficient light pouring from the distant lamps hidden amongst the carvings on the ceiling. He steadied his mind, trying not to let any derisive thoughts in. For all that most of the Legions considered the Gargoyles aberrant, he could not afford an insult against the Primarch whose psyker powers eclipsed all save for Mohktal of the Illuminators and the Emperor himself.

Still, not many would dare to ignore the envoy of Primarch Iskanderos, the Conqueror. And thus, Wali was struggling against his temper, trying to reconcile the Gargoyles’ apparent tardiness with the pressing need for his mission. The wait irked him; as a proud scion of Apella, he felt every cell in his body rebel at the thought of parlaying with these barbarians, but he had his orders, and he would not disappoint his Primarch, for failure was unthinkable.

The Gargoyles appeared with little warning, a squad of warriors moving without the orderly discipline Wali had come to expect from his own Legion. The dark grey shapes seemed menacing – like animals, the Imperial Redeemer thought, comparison seeming more and more apt as they approached. Wali could have sworn that one of the Gargoyles was struggling to remain upright, only barely stopping himself from going on all fours. Some of them had still bloodied trophies hanging from their armor; by the looks of them, the trophies were once human body parts.

Were these the men he was sent to parlay with? Wali could not possibly understand what Lord Iskanderos saw in them. The rumors of degenerate savages, it seemed, had quite a bit of truth to them.

The lead Gargoyle stopped, raising one hand in a half-hearted greeting.

“I am Isaiah…” the Gargoyle said in a low, menacing rasp, finally adding “cousin” as a barely remembered courtesy. “I speak for the Fourteenth Legion.”

Wali had to remind himself that his mission did not involve antagonizing them. Even barbarians had their uses, he thought, seeking solace in the grave importance Iskanderos had placed on his assignment. His personal likes and dislikes had no place here.

“Greetings, honored cousin,” the Imperial Redeemer said, his tone comradely and affable. His hand automatically went into an old Unity salute – a single clenched fist across the chest, not the more recent Imperial Aquila. Wali noticed that Isaiah returned his salute in kind.

This, at least, was encouraging.

“Lord Iskanderos sends his greetings to the noble sons of Argos and his brother, Lord Angelus,” said Wali, attempting to sound as diplomatic as possible. His eyes darted through the room, seeking out any signs of Librarians or truth-seekers. If any were here, any subterfuge would be useless at best, and hazardous at worst. “I bear a message of utmost import from my Primarch reserved for Lord Angelus himself.”

“Lord Angelus is… indisposed,” Isaiah replied with a grudging attempt to remain polite. “While he remains in… seclusion… all Legion business must pass through the New Zarivat.”

The New Zarivat? Wali wondered just what changes overtook the Legion since his master’s decision to seek them out.

“Who is…”

“You are speaking to it,” Isaiah did not let the Imperial Redeemer finish. The Gargoyle’s rough manner did not endear him to Wali, and once again the gold and brown-clad Marine wished he could be somewhere in the more civilized environs. It was bad enough to pander to the Argosians and their archaic concepts of society; it was even worse to deal with this fool entertaining notions of self-importance.

“With all due respect, cousin, the matter I am tasked with is of utmost urgency and importance,” said Wali, attempting to placate the Gargoyle with his soft-spoken demeanor. It was this very characteristic that got him chosen from the ranks to represent his Primarch, the ability to maintain as calm and non-threatening façade as a Space Marine not of Illuminators could attain. Now, the Gargoyles tested his patience to the very limits. “My lord Iskanderos gave me very specific orders on this subject.”

Isaiah’s face drew near Wali’s, close enough to be considered a challenge in many cultures. “Listen to me, you golden fop,” the Gargoyle’s mouth extended, displaying the very prominent fangs. “There is a very good reason the Primarch is not seeing anyone. He will not make exceptions for you, your Primarch, or even the… Emperor… himself. Now, are we clear?” Isaiah withdrew just enough to let Wali have some breathing space.

Conflicting emotions struggled within the Imperial Redeemer’s breast. On one hand, the Gargoyle’s insulting behavior warranted a quick and deadly reprimand, well within the Legion’s time-honored tradition of martial challenges. On the other hand, the very reaction exhibited by the barbaric Argosian gave Wali some hope that his words would find fertile ground.

Wali nodded, looking on warily as the Gargoyles arraigned themselves around him. He recognized the beginnings of an encirclement pattern and calculated his odds in an all-out confrontation to be relatively slim. If they meant him harm, he would be hard pressed to survive long enough to return to his ship.

“Good,” Isaiah smiled maliciously. “Now, your message?”

The Imperial Redeemer sighed inwardly. His master had foreseen such a possibility, and the things he was about to say were meant as much for the ears of the Gargoyles as they were for the Fourteenth Primarch.

“We have encountered a vessel of the Tenth Legion with the most peculiar bit of news,” Wali started, noticing the change in Isaiah’s body language. The Gargoyle looked like he was suddenly beginning to take the envoy seriously. More than that, Isaiah’s posture told the envoy everything he needed to know about the truth of the Peacekeepers’ allegations. You were there, the Imperial Redeemer thought, almost certainly in the very thick of things.

“It happens so that Lord Iskanderos is very… understanding,” said Wali. “And he has a very interesting proposal for the Fourteenth Legion.” The messenger smiled, displaying none of the revulsion he felt at the sight of the savages. Somehow, he felt he already knew their answer.

“Are you prepared to listen?”

THE END
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