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The Slaughter of Sanctii


A hazy red tinged the corner of his vision. Shapes, shadows, and unrecognizable figures passed him as he carved out a bloody path. Viscera cascaded against his armor in unquantifiable lumps. His limbs felt numb and invigorated at the same time. Every swing of his chainaxe was greeted with something, either armored or not. After that, whatever was inside of those things would explode out in a shower of gore. It wasn’t possible for him to tell what they were, who they were, or when they were killed. Their screams were muted to his ears. Every part of his body burned with the familiar sensation of fatigue and blood loss. Something heavy on his shoulders should’ve prevented him from sprinting, yet he ignored it to savagely attack whatever was before him.


He had heard his name spoken yet it was ignored. His armored greaves had taken him far from the last place that he remembered. His last vision was of him running through the snowfields with the Primarch, lunging over bodies of his comrades and the auxilia all the same. Something had obliterated their formation, forcing him to sprint away and attack an undefended position of the Sanctiian menace. After that, he couldn’t remember what had happened or how it had occurred. The walls had greeted him, covered in the hybrid lifefluid of the genewarriors. Reddish-orange vitae covered every inch of his warplate, their bodies tossed aside and torn apart like morsels to a hound. His brethren had been alongside him at that point, butchering the defenders that had hid behind their precious wall. Their cries of anguish and desperation were a fitting offering to the Master of the Lines.

Victorius Nero.

The full length of his given name buzzed in his ears. It tried to draw him back from the carnage, yet he wouldn’t surrender to it just yet. The city had fully opened up to their massacre after one of the walls had exploded. He hadn’t expected it, nearly shaking him from the bloodrage that dwelled within his veins. Truthfully, he was thankful that it happened when it did. The defenders became more desperate from that point on, attempting to fight with every ounce of their being. It wasn’t enough though, he had cut through them and tore out their entrails. His rampage had bled out into the streets of the great city as they fled from him. Less armored foes greeted him closer to the heart of Sanctii. He treated them much the same as he did the more durable ones, though he couldn’t help but feel how dull the fighting was in these sectors. Once or twice, he had seen the shadows of things that he recognized. The Astartes. He considered testing their mettle with his chainaxes, yet something deep within compelled him to ignore their presence. They either never noticed him or chose to not meddle with his slaughter.

Captain Victorius Nero.

A fist slammed against his helmet. To his surprise, it was his own. It was as if his own soul was desperately fighting to bite back the mayhem that he desperately sought. No. He rejected it with all of his mental power. He wouldn’t be shackled by the chains of the God-Slayers. His slaughter continued. He couldn’t tell how long the bloodlust had lasted nor did he care how long it persisted. All he knew was the simple and glorious battlefield. Only when he murdered through a building of the Sanctiians did he realize that only a handful of his brothers remained. They had fought tooth and nail to keep up with him. A legendary feat, one that he would remember them for. Both of his legs sprinted forward, propelling a new level of slaughter to pursue. New shapes began to coalesce as he inched closer to Sanctii’s spire, some were the size of great machines and others were large masses of terrified men. He tore them apart all the same without heed or warning. Those large boxes of metal failed to hold him back, both of his axes tearing apart plating to rip the defenders from their seats. They screamed in his face yet he couldn’t understand the words they spoke. It didn’t matter, they died as easily as they yelled.

Captain Victorius Nero, Commander of the Second Cadre.

His head throbbed with uncontrollable pain as if a tumor threatened to burst within his skull. He slammed the shaft of his chainaxe against his helmet, quelling the pain and voices in a fit of fury. The second set of walls within Sanctii had greeted him as an obstacle of stagnation. A huge mass of shadows had gathered around the spire like a horde of obsidian insects. They waxed and waned as projectiles, prismatic or furious, burst apart the swarm in horrific chunks. He understood what to do without having to think on it. Both of his chainaxes started to chop through the writhing mass, accompanied only by a daring few warriors that helped clean the tide. Their screams meant nothing to him, more gibberish jumbled with piercing yells of agony. Perhaps it was their bodies that had begun to weigh him down, or was it their entrails that decorated his hulking form that encumbered him. The thought left him as the white citadel greeted him. They were close. He could feel their heartbeat with fear as both his axes slammed into the wall. Nothing would save them from his wrath and ruin.


It finally became clear to him who had been whispering in his ear. It had been the Primarch. The crimson haze began to stir away from the edge of his vision as the last defender died in a horrific gorepile before him. The source of his fatigue became clear. He had several holes in his armor where plating should normally be. It did little to slow him down despite the vicious wounds he had sustained. He turned to face the few that dared to accompany him and found none. Their bodies had been mutilated beyond recognition with a pair of chainaxes, then torn open by something. His alabaster pelt cape had long been torn from his armor, only bloody scraps were left behind in the wake of his carnage. The Sanctiians had been cleared on that section of the wall, now beginning to flood over with the red-garbed auxilia of the Excertus Imperialis. He stared down at his viscera-coated gauntlets through his helmet. Countless thoughts raced through his mind, yet confusion was at the forefront. Without consciously attempting it, he had rampaged for the entirety of a day. Longer than any previous campaign that he had fought in. It frightened and impressed him in the same thought.

His attention turned to the citadel as white creatures began to vomit forth from entrances and exits. The auxilia around him desperately tried to hold off the beasts as they came, slicing through sinew and carapace in similar quantities. The Third Cadre Captain tightened his grip on the chainaxes, filtering fresh rage into his veins as a new horde of enemies greeted him. A hazy red tinge began to coalesce around his visions as the bloodlust took hold. He unleashed a wicked snarl, slammed his armored foot down and howled into the Urshite lands with terrible laughter. Those around Nero watched as he dove into the first wave of creatures, chainaxes tearing through sinew and chitin with blissful ease.


It was the last thing he heard as he fought through the swarm, fresh laughter erupting from his lungs. Nothing mattered anymore other than the splendid joy of slaughter. Not even the single voice of reason in the entire legion could cause him to falter. Even if the Aeternus were to stand before him, Nero was certain that he would kill him.
Slaughter of Sanctii

High Hell And Beyond

A spearhead of golden jetbikes veered overhead into the center of Sanctii, flying past the burgeoning forces of the Imperial Army besieging the spire. The dropship of the Stygian Talons berated the pillar of Sanctiian society with all manners of devastating munitions, vigorously dodging away from wall-mounted defenses and far-flung missiles from armament racks. Their success in bypassing the ancient defenses of Deep Winter fiercely encouraged the attacking forces, leading to several breakthroughs in different portions of the city. No one knew of the slaughter on both sides within the depths of the Administrator, nor would they until the end of the siege. Regardless, the Eighty-Eighth Cryxian Blades fought valiantly to maintain a steady position against the secondary walls.

Alcoves, junctions, and corridors leading up to the assaulting position of the Eighty-Eighth were cordoned off by heavy weapon emplacements. The three, enormous buildings just shy of the spire walls were half-demolished in the wake of the reinvigorated assault. Great Malcador battle tanks positioned themselves in these ruins, aided by the hulking shadows of Colossus siege tanks and smaller Dracosan armored transports. Rubble, accumulated from the mass shelling from outside of Sanctii, formed several rows of defensive lines that infantry sheltered behind. The harsh crack of lasfire echoed a hundredfold every passing second, reinforced only by the blossoming bang of bombardment cannons. The deep thumping of heavy autocannons from ruins-turned-foxholes pocketed the Sanctiian wall, while the electrifying charge of plasma cannons unleashed azure death on wall-bound sentinels. The activities of the Excertus Imperialis were many, ranging from hundreds of support personnel on skittering buggies to groups of signal officers calling in precise artillery strikes. The chaos of it all was everconsuming and Sanctii burned for every second it was besieged.

Primarch Aeternus ventured through the closest checkpoint with the God-Slayers and Thirty-One-Third in tow. Their presence easily bypassed the heavy emplacements, recognizing the genetic might and scale of the Thunder Warriors. The familiar sound of an arcing plasma ball caught his attention, noting the following aftermath of an azure plume from the Sanctiian wall. Despite the ferocity of the nearby combat, the immediate area was the closest one could find to an operations forward outpost so close to the enemy stronghold. Great auspex cogitators, vox relays, and hefty crates of ammunition combined with medical kits were spread across a wide area around a group of fifty-odd individuals. Amid their number, five stood out as God-Slayers with long-ranged weapons and large combat knives. As the Primarch closed the distance, he realized that the group surrounded a hololithic table supplied by four aides.

“... The third and fourth segment are showing continued resistance to bombardment cannons and artillery shells. Lascannons are proving efficient yet futile against the corner-bastions. The Sigilite’s aides believe that smaller, positional barriers are being rapidly deployed in an effort to slow the assault. As previously stated, the spire’s main gate is impervious to the Tyrannis super-heavy tanks. The next actions we can take are all equally suicidal, but we’ve got a solid chance at- Primarch Aeternus!” One of the officers, a young man with an augmented eye and baremetal cranial augmentation, had been speaking before noticing Aeternus’ arrival. His announcement drew the attention of the group away from the display towards the arriving group with a mixture of emotions. The Thunder Warriors in the crowd, notably Captain Tiberius and the Seekers, pressed their fists against the Raptor on their chest in salute.

Be at ease. There is no need for formalities. Simplify and repeat your report.” Aeternus loudly stated as the officers of the Eighty-Eighth attempted to bow, salute, and profess in their own way. Captain Tiberius momentarily drew his attention, aware that the Third Cadre Captain had been dealing with separate matters during the assault. Out of the gaggle of weary and ragged officers, a particularly large man with an ornate trenchcoat and smaller variant of powered armor emerged. His bald head was briefly covered by a unique style of helmet similar to a barbut with a metallic plume. Dark skin kissed the bitter, frozen air of Ursh, while a pair of earthen-brown eyes stared daggers into the God-Slayer. A one-handed power hammer swung from his left hip, while a dangerously sparking plasma pistol hung from his right. An undaunted, stalwart aura radiated from the man like a refractor field of righteousness.

Primarch Aeternus. I expected you would’ve joined us sooner.” The man, General Astaroth, stated with a voice as deep as the now-nonexistent oceans. Without inquiring on the reason for the Primarch’s tardiness, the mortal commander knew exactly why the God-Slayer had ran late of the scheduled assault. The piercing eyes of the Cryxian general bore into the members of the Damned. His lip nearly parted in a disgusted near before he righted himself. “Ah. Colonel Stavin. I see that you still live.”

Stavin looked up from his auspex, a device he had been positively glued to since he, his men, and the God-slayers had arrived. An idea had formed in his head, and he'd been messing with the settings on his personal ‘spex since, a fixation that had utterly failed to prepare him for a face to face meeting with one of the most important Army officers of the Crusade. Severina elbowed him, and Stavin saluted.

“General Astaroth.” Stavin said, “Yes sir, I still live, despite their efforts.”

The two officers were a study in contrasts. Astaroth was straight backed, noble, and imposing in his powered plate; Stavin was grubby, covered in soot and blood and grime, his only protection a flak armor vest that was worn at its diamond patterned edges. No doubt, it was not an impressive countenance. Stavin briefly wondered if the General wished for a debrief, or some other military formality, or if his reappearance was so offensive that it was enough to halt the meeting in progress.

“Primarch Aeternus found us after we managed to reach the surface.” Stavin continued, “We've got valuable intel concerning the nature of the intelligence at the heart of the city, so the good Primarch has requested-”

A white lie, as it was the opposite, but Stavin continued.

“-we accompany him on his mission. We're decapitating Sanctii's brass, isn't that right sir?”

“Colonel Stavin speaks the truth. The time has come to enact the final part of the siege. No doubt Captain Tiberius has mentioned our priority targets. What he hasn’t relayed is that the Penal Legion will be directly under my command until the mission’s success. The Heroes of Sanctii deserve that much.” Primarch Aeternus responded with a clear tone, adding emphasis to the validity of Stavin’s comment. For a second, it appeared as if General Astaroth had been shaken by the prodigious assignment. The stoic attitude returned as quickly as it had disappeared, Astaroth responding with a simple nod to the comment. His eyes dared to linger on Stavin, a mixture of disdain and envy momentarily crossing his facial features.

“So shall it be, Primarch. No doubt you understand the gravity of your new assignment, Colonel Stavin, you will likely come back with even less men than expected.” His voice was loud enough for the Penal Legion to hear, barely a decibel higher than the nonstop crack of lasguns and mortars. Without another word, General Astaroth turned away from the entourage to evaluate the entirety of the siege. An armored hand waved to the officer that had been previously speaking, who glanced between the Primarch and the General with no shortage of anxiety. One of his nervous hands reacquired the dataslate, scrolling through the contents to find the last point discussed. The two groups began to fuse together with Aeternus, Astaroth, and Stavin at the forefront of the officers.

“... As I was previously stating. We’re locked in a stalemate at the spire walls currently with the Sanctiian militants on the defensive. We’ve managed to whittle down their numbers, but their equipment is pulling through over our current arsenal. Several breaks have found purchase in the walls, yet each breach was quickly patched after their first defeat at the entrance of the hive. We will eventually encircle the spire with the entirety of our Master’s forces, but current data estimates that it’ll take skyward of several weeks before a breach appears.” He casted a nervous glance to General Astaroth, who simply shook his head in rejection of prolonged siege warfare. The officer mustered his courage by clearing his throat, adjusting his collar, and blinking a few times over. “As it was previously stated in the original planning, the Stygian Talon has engaged with the spire proper. We do not have the luxury of a lengthy siege. That has limited our next approach to a few suicidal attempts. Firstly, a mass infantry assault on the wall with mines, grenades, and climbing gear. Secondly, a mass armoured spearhead through the walls, sacrificing all of our vehicles for a single breach. Lastly, a full withdraw and delivering inaccurate, nuclear payloads on the seven bastions surrounding the spire.”

The loftier officers began to murmur amongst themselves, whispering about different tactics that could potentially offer a breach without mass casualties. The God-Slayers crossed their arms, turning their attention to the Primarch as the one true commander of the siege. Astaroth pensively held a hand to his cleanly shaven chin. The officer that had been speaking nestled the dataslate into his chest, awaiting the final word on any of the suggested operations. His demeanor clearly painted an image of a man who didn’t want to sacrifice all the people he called comrades. A pair of young, blue eyes nervously rested on Aeternus and Stavin; however, it was Captain Tiberius that broke the silence.

“The citadel itself has shown signs of exit and entry since the beginning of the siege. Although I haven’t managed to catch their Interior Security in the act, I believe there is a point-of-entry hidden from plain view. It’s possible we could rile them with alternative tactics to draw their ire, but it may embolden their defenses.” The somber voice of the Third Cadre Captain announced, pressing a rune on the hololithic table to focus on the spire-side citadel. A vague imprint of the towering structure materialized before their eyes, pointing out several points of deduced entry. At the mention of alternative tactics, Aeternus furrowed his brow in stern disappointment. A smoldering fury quietly built up around the Primarch of the God-Slayers as his fellow genewarrior spoke. Noticing the distasteful look from Rex and the inquisitive stares from the officers, Tiberius pressed on. The hints of a small, dry smile could be heard in his tone. “As my Primarch would rather me state plainly for alternative tactics, I meant that we could openly butcher their people for them to watch.”

A plethora of emotions spiraled through the group of Excertus Imperialis officers. Some covered their mouths in distaste, while others pensively nodded their heads in grim acceptance. General Astaroth, in particular, seemed inclined towards the idea with a respective nod towards the Third Cadre Captain. Aeternus flexed his hands in silent inferno of rage. He was aware that the suggestion was valid, yet Rex knew that it was offered up as a challenge to the Primarch. Caligula shook his head in disdain at the mention of such primitive methods. Curiously, perhaps sadistically, Captain Tiberius turned to Colonel Stavin.

“You are living proof of a nigh-insane operation. What would the Commander of the Damned suggest, I wonder?” The question was spoken exactly as it was intended. For one reason or another, the Colonel had been targeted. Perhaps it was a sick game for the God-Slayer’s black sheep, or was it a genuine request for the survivors to speak their mind. Intentionally or not, the officers turned to the Thirty-One-Third.

Stavin was continuing to mess with his auspex, initially unaware of the attention on him, until, again, Severina elbowed him. He held a hand back to her, as if signaling her to hold on, and she hissed at him, something very foul and very violent. Stavin didn’t react though, as whatever he had been fiddling with seemed to fall into place. He looked around at the surrounding officers, his triumphant expression turning briefly to confusion, then to a suitably serious military bearing.

“So, the key to understanding Sanctii, gentlemen…” Stavin began, wondering how he could put his inspiration into words, “...is understanding what lies at the heart of it. The lord of Sanctii is no man, or even group of men. It is an artificial intelligence, a thinking engine - that propagates itself wirelessly over the entire city, above it, and below it.”

He held his auspex up, the detection screen facing the assembly. He had it in map mode, and overlaid on it were masses of conglomerated auspex contacts.

“When I was under the city, at the flue station that caused our first breach, we discovered this feature of Deep Winter.” He cleared his throat. “Almost everything in this city is wirelessly connected to the central Winter core, and thanks to a comms operator - Trooper Grebbin, now deceased - we isolated the base frequency this control is exerted with. We used it to jury-rig a localized signal jammer, but with that freq, I’ve recently been able to devise a few new functions.”

“One of which is that we can track their troop movements.” Stavin said, his turn to look smug. “The Sanctii defense forces enjoy unrivaled coordination, but we can use that against them. Most soldiers carry some form of implant that allows Winter to monitor them. It’s that same implant data I am tracking now, in real time, on my ‘spex. It’s also what I theorize gives them access to various parts of the city. What I am proposing, gentlemen and ladies…”

Stavin walked over to Aeternus, smiling up at the demigod. “Me and the Primarch’s kill-mission can now serve a dual purpose. We’re targeting Sanctii’s top brass. One of those guys has to have clearance into the city’s inner sanctum. We get the right guy, it’s as simple as using his access to march our army in. No tanks, no artillery…”

Stavin grinned back at them. “...and certainly no atomics. We will impale the enemy upon their own technological hubris.”

The Primarch raised a surprised eyebrow beneath his knightly helmet as a grin began to grow on his scarred lips. Once again, Colonel Stavin had managed to take him by surprise. He had wondered why the mortal commander was so affixed to the auspex since they reunited with the wider Imperial forces. It all made sense. Aeternus looked down to the Hero of Sanctii and gave him a respectful nod. Using the momentum gained from Stavin’s revelation, Rex pressed forward to steal the proverbial podium.

“Colonel Stavin has devised the penultimate plan to deal with the Sanctiians. From this moment forward, we will be enacting this as part of our siege. The Administrator will be taken by surprise between Tiberius’ watch and Stavin’s revelation. Every ounce of firepower will be needed to divert Deep Winter’s attention away from the citadel’s hidden corridors. For that, I entrust General Astaroth with venting the Emperor’s fury upon the spire-walls.” If Astaroth’s voice was the boom of thunder, then Aeternus’ was the crack of lightning in this moment. Every word was a command, an order, and a statement with the authority of their Himalazian Master. He watched officers straighten reflexively and their eyes brighten with a mixture of peaked emotions in response to his words. The General of the Eighty-Eighth gave a firm, unpleasant nod before moving away from the hololithic table with new orders. Tiberius turned his attention away from Stavin to Aeternus and began to speak.

“A solid plan. I will maintain vigilance over the citadel until the moment we are ready to begin; however, how will we obtain authentication against Deep Winter?” Captain Tiberius inquired as his Seekers began to walk away to enact freshly relayed orders. A second of silence responded to the Third Cadre Captain as Aeternus seemed to glow with an unusually enthusiastic aura. He was certain that the Primarch had grown a toothy grin beneath the black helmet.

“There is only one group I can entrust such a duty to.” Aeternus stated with a warm voice, gesturing to a nearby menial and pressing a rune on the hololithic table at the same time. One of the menials, a youthful man in snow-covered fatigues, dropped to his knee as the Primarch beckoned for him. The icon of Malcador’s Sigilites blinked into life above the table. Rex turned towards Colonel Stavin as the symbol flickered in holographic form. “The stalwart stewards of the Sigilite will grant us the authority over Sanctii. Bring your auspex here, Stavin, and become the harbinger of Sanctii’s demise.”

The menial that had been called forth from Aeternus began to work at a rapid pace, connecting together a mess of vox relays with chugging cogitators that threatened to burst into electrical fires. Thick, black cables connected to the hololithic table from the ramshackle vox-network crudely assembled in short time. The electronics momentarily shuddered as different networks communicated between each other before stabilizing out. He stepped forward, offering a set of cables for Colonel Stavin as the icon of the Sigilite’s twinkled before them.

Varlet, you continue to impress.”

The voice of the Scribe-Intendant filled the briefing area before her face replaced the sigil of her, and Malcador’s, order in the hololith. She stared directly at Stavin, the sound of her stylus tapping against parchment transmitting clearly. “If the God-Slayers have found a use for you, I shall not deny them. This shall be noted,” she said, before scrawling something unseen.

Deep behind the lines, in the security of the semi-permanent Imperial command center, the words she wrote had almost nothing to say about Stavin. Instead they were an altogether more important data point, a tally in the whispered debate about what was to be done with the Thunder Warriors.

There was only a brief delay as the Scribe-Intendant was brought up to speed, the woman pursing her lips in silence as her eyes bored holes into the Colonel’s skull. “You are a clever man,” she said, voice entirely flat. “Proceed. Initiate data transfer, the data-smiths will prepare you as best they may. Take caution, Aeternus. This shall not last forever, do not forget your foe is canny.”

Stavin offered the auspex to the menial, who plugged it into the field expedient cogitator network. The amount of data that was being transferred must’ve been immense, as Stavin could hear the clunking and whirring of hard disks and gears and relays as the code was written to the auspex. Stavin wondered if his battered, Urshic copy of a Merican pattern ‘spex could even handle such a onload, but the little device survived.

On its small screen, the city emblem of Sanctii blazed in digital green glow.

“I admit, I thought we were gonna have to snatch an officer and figure out a way to copy it, but…” Stavin smiled up from his auspex. “I guess we got friends in high places.”

“I’ll double check and make sure my men are loaded up properly.” Stavin continued, “But I don’t see much reason to not get started immediately. We got a city to crack.”

A lull in the assault of the spire-walls momentarily silenced the battlefield. A nauseating quiet blanketed the areas around the last defenses of Sanctii as the Imperials pulled themselves back from advanced firing positions. Fat-bellied battle tanks wheeled away from the alabaster inner walls with their cannons facing forward. Colossus siege tanks inched backwards, retreating to the main walls with their shells muzzled. The bark and call of officers calling for a retreat saw a mass of infantry move from their foxholes into the ruins of nearby buildings. Towering, yellow-armored genewarriors vanished from the battlelines as if their presence had never been. Warmachines on metallic wings pulled away from the spire area, arcing over other areas of Sanctii that continued to fight. Whispering voices filled the repressed tones of the stifling war as the spire-wall was freed from Imperial control.

The Sanctiians allowed themselves a breath as more reinforcements began to slowly fill the gaps that dead or dying warriors left. Pocket marks on the alabaster walls revealed the wrecked remains of their advanced turrets and crushed drones. Devoid of portable turrets, the genewarriors of Deep Winter readied themselves on the spire-wall with plasma carbines, adrastite stubbers, and supernova lascannons. They knew the Imperials would return with another assault of the wall, either with fresh reinforcements or some new hell-machine to assist them. Morale was beginning to tank as every inch of Sanctii was scoured by the abominable plague of unwashed barbarians. The Administrator, however, pushed them forward in the name of preservation. They knew, without a doubt, that the future of mankind was riding on their shoulders in this battle. Valor filled each of their chests with every steady breath as they awaited the next fight.

Luckily, they wouldn’t have to wait for long. A vox blare boomed from every corner of the Imperial-controlled zones of Sanctii. Those awful noises were the heralds of war. Chaos exploded all across the spire-walls as the vox died down to a low decibel. Artillery shells, flung from Colossus siege tanks, rocked the alabaster walls protecting the Administrator. Explosive plumes harmlessly wrapped around the ethereal void shields portably placed in specific sections of the wall. Anti-armor rounds, fired forth from the maw of battle tanks, erupted against the alabaster bulwark with the ferocity of an untamed carnosaur. Lasfire barked to life as a vicious horde of mongrels across the entirety of the southern wall. Beams of brilliant red filled the air with ozone-depleting lasers in vast volleys. The rhythmic thump of a heavy autocannon resounded in the shelter of multi-storied ruins. Globs of sizzling blue plasma flew through the air, splattering against the prismatic aegis. Reality-defying rays of black-crimson snapped in lethal bursts from the few and rare disintegration weapons. None managed to pierce the sturdy barriers of the Administrator’s dominating technology.

Untapped adrenaline coursed through the veins of the defenders as the Imperials unveiled their counterattack. Sentinels fought in eerie silence as hostiles revealed themselves across their helmet displays. When a target was identified, tracked, and guided by the grace of the Administrator, the defenders unleashed a torrent from hell upon the attackers. Adrastite stubbers vomited rays of blinding white-black that cut men straight from existence. Plasma carbines vented death in waves of automatic fire, spewing a near-stream of plasmic flame against the fleshtide. Supernova lascannons unleashed all four of their maws in a brilliant dance of blue-white lasers that pierced the hardiest of Imperial hulls. Erasure grenades were tossed from the top of the walls, erupting into spheres of non-existence that claimed a myriad of souls in seconds. Supporting drones ferried batteries, automatic dispensers, and fusion cores to the warriors that needed it most. Their position was supreme, superior, and defiant against the forces of the Emperor. Yet, even mongrels had the chance to bite back.

The sky around Sanctii momentarily lit up with an eye-wateringly orange light. A beam of volcanic death pierced the upper portions of the outer-walls, melting man and metal alike in its deathly trail. Imperials rushed away in a tide of urgency as the molten ray splashed against the spire-walls in a continuous stream of malevolence. Genewarriors in alabaster plate instinctively shielded themselves from the blinding ray and nature-defying harm. The trail of ferocious gold began to die down after fifteen seconds of active punishment. As the light disappeared, the natural sky of northern Ursh peaked through the gathering clouds once more. In the distance, a lumbering tank twice the size of a Sanctiian structure smoldered in fuming agony. To the surprise of the Sentinels, their wall remained steady and stalwart against the best the Imperials could offer. One of their number, a younger warrior, cried out in triumph as they unleashed their stubber into the fleeing Imperials. Invigorated by the failed attempt, the Sanctiians cheered along with their younger soldier and followed after their example. Death returned to the fields of battle as the assault began anew once more.

Primarch Aeternus watched from far beneath the alabaster spire-bulwark as the sentinels began to murder the Eighty-Eighth again. Plasmic bullets, adrathic rays, and scorching lasfire erupted overhead as the fight continued. He turned to his left, observing the crouched forms of the Thirty-One-Third with Colonel Stavin at their head. To his right, Captain Caligula attempted to lower his hulking form with the burgeoning forms of his Destroyers. Ahead of them, Captain Tiberius pressed against the lower section of the citadel proper with his Seekers watching behind him. None remained behind him besides a trail of dead warriors from the Excertus Imperialis. Valiant souls that had made this stretch of their infiltration possible through acts of heroism.

Suddenly, Captain Tiberius gestured for the rest of their retinue to continue forward to his position. One of his yellow-armored gauntlets was pressed harshly against the pristine surface of the spire-wall’s citadel. The Seekers around him dropped to their knees, lifting their scoped bolters in preparation for an ambush. Aeternus notably turned his black helmet to Colonel Stavin and nodded with imperious purpose. Noticing the actions of their Primarch, Captain Caligula turned around and readied his weapon with the rest of the God-Slayers. From their actions alone, the Thunder Warrriors made it apparent that they would bring up the rear.

“Is this smart, sir?” Whitaker said, as Stavin took his auspex, now the most precious weapon this entire retinue possessed, out of his musette bag.

“Is what smart, sergeant?” Stavin said, “Or should I say, Lieutenant?”

Hmmph.” The promotion didn’t seem to faze Whitaker. “Make me the bloody warmaster, don’t matter to me. I’m talkin’ about goin’ in first, ahead of the God-Slayers. Is that smart?”

Stavin extended the antenna on his ‘spex, checking his wireless connectivity. “Modern war is about firepower, Whitaker. Who can put out more hurt, more quickly. How tall is Aeternus, you reckon?”

Whitaker shrugged. “Eight, nine feet? Hard to tell. Ten?”

“But big, right?” Stavin asked, “He’s not small?”

“No. I don’t see what this has to do with nothin’. Their battle-plate can take a hell of a lot more punishment than us.” Whitaker said, refusing to budge.

“Armor’s not gonna matter with what the inner circle can throw at us, and you know it.” Stavin said, “My point is, Aeternus’s crew can shoot over us. We can’t. If we’re gonna get anywhere in Sanctii’s inner ring, we’re gonna need as many guns shooting as we can.”

Whitaker thought about that, then nodded. “Right. Makes sense.”

“Trooper Raum alright?” Stavin asked.

Whitaker nodded. “He’s been shipped back to a field hospital. Apparently we rate that now.”

“Must be the same friends who gave us this cipher.” Stavin mused. “His arc rifle?”

“Gave it to Maulins in second section.” Whitaker said, “The dyke-y lookin’ one, right?”

“Yea, I know her.” Stavin said, “She’s a good shot.”

“Not like you need to be with that tech.” Whitaker said, “But yea.”

Stavin looked at the screen of his ‘spex. “We’ve got connection. We’re looking for an access duct…”

Nearby, on a nondescript section of wall, a gust of air kicked out from an invisible seam. It blew up brick dust from the rubble in the street. Two sections, machined so perfectly that their separate panels were only apparent when they were separating, parted. It was a surprisingly wide tunnel, clearly meant for trucks, or other similarly sized transports to bring supplies and materials to the inner ring.

Stavin threw hand signals to Aeternus, on his right.

‘We’ll advance inside, bring your men in behind us.’ Stavin signaled to the God-Slayers, then signaled to his own men. Forty nine souls got up, creeping from cover to cover, the first imperial troops to breach the inner sanctum of the enemy.

Captain Tiberius observed the precise movements of the Thirty-One-Third as they spread out into the citadel’s undergrowth. He followed shortly after with the scoped bolter raised and ready. The Seekers of the God-Slayers echoed the same motions as their commander. Their augmented eyes adjusted to the darkness of the long corridor as swiftly as their helmets. Where the Penal Legion were quick to find cover, weaving into the tunnel with careful strides, each genewarrior unceremoniously stalked forward with their power armor loudly roaring. The God-Slayers suddenly halted several meters into the underpass, wordlessly awaiting the Primarch and the rest of their brethren.

Primarch Aeternus saw Tiberius’ and Stavin’s group disappear into the darkness of the citadel. Carefully, he began to inch towards the safety of the tunnel as death-dealing weaponry scorched the area above his helmet. One quick look at the parapets confirmed their attention was fully settled on the Eighty-Eighth. Confidant in the execution of their plan, Rex closed the distance into the underpass with Captain Caligula following shortly behind. As Aeternus entered, he reached back to pull Apocrypha free of its magnetic shielding and lowered it into a defensive stance. The crimson lenses of his knightly helmet illuminated the darkness, outlining the sheer amount of nothing inside. The God-Slayer behind him readied their weapons, some turning around to face the portal out into the Urshic snow in preparation. None dared to speak when the final acts of the siege rested on their pauldrons.

The portal doors, as quietly as they had opened, closed seamlessly as the God Slayers in the rear kept their weapons trained on the fading light of the hellscape on the other side.

Deep within her cocoon of coolant and nano-machines, Deep Winter watched the defense of her city, and her dream unravel before her. The Imperials, damned as they were, threw themselves heedlessly at her forces. Her defenses kept them at bay, reaping heavy tolls on all that attempted to breach her inner wall. Sentry turrets and magma cannons swept the killing grounds where they still stood defiant, and her mortal companions slaughtered where her mechanical defenses had long since been silenced.

She could tally the dead with every passing moment. The unfeeling mathematics of her programming telling her that there was still a chance to save her dream. To save this dying world. To save her doomed people. To save herself.

An alert notified her that a tertiary access point had been accessed at 02:26:37 by the Assistant Deputy Director for Internal Security, Bohdan Pavlo. She silenced the command, her subroutines continuing to scour her data streams and issue commands as she gave the bulk of herself to the ever changing defense of her city.

A new subalert interrupted her strategizing, Assistant Deputy Director for Internal Security Bohdan Pavlo had just entered the Central Strategium at 02:27:12. A subroutine flagged the event and Deep Winter scrutinized the entrance log. One minute and fifteen seconds had passed between his entries. He had traveled a combined total of 1627 meters when accounting for a vertical gain of 427 meters. The trip was mathematically impossible in that time frame. Winter knew without a doubt that she had been breached. The Imperials were inside, and they’d faked a transponder code to do it. She flagged the Assistant Deputy Director’s transponder code, locking it from all access, and gave the Imperials her answer for their deceit.

As the Imperials inched forward down the access tunnel, a strange hum began to fill their ears. A number of the Damned stopped in their tracks, their heads turning cautiously to follow the sound before their eyes fell on the pristine surface of the tunnel walls.

A genewarrior in the rear, among the closest to the closed entrance, figured it out before the mortals.

He sounded the alarm with a bellow that carried his genewrought voice down to the most forward of the 31-3 with ease, “RUN,” it was the last thing the Thunder Warrior ever said.

Deep Winter watched from the hundreds of hidden viewpoints in the tunnel as the capacitors hidden behind the walls reached full charge with audible clicks.

All along the column of Imperials, tiny pinpoint pricks of molten stone became apparent running the length of the tunnel walls. Grids of miniaturized las flashing from their hidden mechanisms and punching clean through plascrete, power armor, flak jacket, and flesh alike.

A dozen Thunder Warriors fell as Deep Winter focused the majority of the power she had allotted on the gene warriors of the Emperor. Their deaths were silent and unceremonious as they simply toppled where they stood, punched clean through in hundreds of places along their bodies by the laser traps. Weapons clattered to the floor, followed by the thuds of thousand pound warriors and the thunder of power armored footsteps as the God Slayers reacted.

The toll reaped was far less heavy on the 31-3, only those few unlucky of the Damned close enough to the Thunder Warriors suffering any losses. The rest of the mortals forward of the column were left unharassed by the malevolent gaze of the AI, the cold mathematics of killing deeming them unworthy of the energy expenditure. The humming began anew.

Tiberius!” Aeternus called out with a lion’s roar of urgency. Every second counted as the next wave of miniaturized las would be upon them. He activated a rune on Apocrypha, charging the plasma on the greatsword for an overarching slice. The Primarch halted in the middle of the tunnel as God-Slayers rushed past him with suicidal determination. No longer would they cautiously stalk through Sanctii’s bowels.

Captain Tiberius wordlessly acknowledged the shout, rushing forward with preternatural speed to pick up the most important personnel of the Thirty-One-Third. Colonel Stavin was personally grabbed by him and forced to endure a sprint at an eyewatering speed. The Third Cadre Seekers echoed his movements, scooping up other high ranking members of the Damned such as Whitaker and Severina. Each of their weapons was holstered to emphasize their speed, easily passing ducking and weaving through the tunnel without further obstruction. Those that remained behind the Cadre, however, were in far more dire straits.

In His name, duck your heads!” The Primarch called out once more as the last God-Slayer pushed burst past him in a headlong sprint of genewrought might. Keen to the voice of their commander, the Thunder Warriors half-bowed their bodies in a running crouch as Aeternus lashed out with hatred. A wave of plasmic fury erupted in the form of a whirlwind assault, backed by ancient technology and genetic strength. The interior of the tunnel shook with Rex’s fury as panels, servos, and more were shredded by Apocrypha. Akkad’s Blade of Destiny screamed in agony as the microcapacitors vented heat with such intensity that Aeternus’ gauntlets began to bubble with heat. The final crescendo of chaos was a ripple of plasma jettisoning from the greatsword, superheating and warping the path forward.

The men, women, and genewarriors that had adhered to his warning felt a supernova of heat pass over their bodies. Hair, armor, and equipment were singed with the heat of Apocrypha flying over them. Panels in the path of destruction were broken, mechanisms were pierced by overcharged plasma, and optics began to crack from thermal oversaturation. As the plasmic wave began to sizzle out further down the tunnel, it exploded into an azure corona that threatened to stun the sprinting Imperials. Luckily, the God-Slayers pressed on with the driving determination that had given them their namesake. Some carried lower priority members of the Thirty-One-Third to shelter them, while others braved the explosion to fight whatever awaited them. Those that hadn’t listened to his warnings, remained behind as burnt corpses or brutalized carcasses.

Caligula!” Primarch Aeternus roared out as he dashed further into the tunnel in a unique sprint. The First Cadre captain had seen the maneuver only once before yet it unnerved him still. Their commander launched forward in a bestial lunge with Apocrypha nestled against his right pauldron like an animal. His left gauntlet was used for maneuvering while his legs were used for pouncing. As the Primarch passed him, Caligula turned to level his bolter at a disintegrator cannon of a fallen Destroyer. The rites of the fallen were whispered in his mind as a bolt was launched from the mouth of the weapon. He sprinted after Rex as the tunnel began to warp behind him.

Caestus’ post-reactive shell contacted the Destroyer’s disintegrator cannon, exploding into a torrent of supermassive energy. Those dozen warriors, many of them being Destroyers, that had been killed were immediately engulfed by expanding death. Further weapons of destruction were added to the pile of mayhem. Laser destroyers, plasma cannons, autocannons, and more expelled lethal malevolence into the detonation. The reinforced citadel of Sanctii’s spire-wall began to shudder with catastrophic force. A plume of uncontained ruination chased after the Imperials as it ravaged wall and corpse alike.

Stavin’s lungs burned as Tiberius frog-marched him through the tunnel of death - the second time in a single day - had it been only one day? His thoughts were confused, bunched up things, coming in one after the other, unorganized and diffuse. Lack of oxygen would do that.

Oxygen at this point was becoming a rare luxury. The tunnel stank of fyceline and plasma ionization. His men were slower and less well armored than the Thunder Warriors. Many simply didn’t have the initiative to duck or the speed to sprint out of the way of a murderous trap like that, but again, fortune seemed to spare most of them. Going in first had saved a majority of the Damned, who had simply had less space to cover to get to relative safety.

He checked his auspex as he and Tiberius came to a more reasonable pace, his body aching and lungs burning. Ten more souls. Twenty percent of his dwindling force had been murdered, again, by Winter’s wrath. Becoming an Imperial soldier was a slow, gradual process for Stavin, but in his later years, when he could afford to reminisce about these early, formative days, this was the moment he often came back to.

It was now that he began to hate. And hatred, as he would come to find, was an essential characteristic of being an Imperial soldier. He hated Deep Winter in that moment. He respected her, but he hated her.

She watched the cruel mathematics of her trap go to work from dozens of eyes. The las-traps cut down the Imperiums genetic prowess with ease. She began the second set of batteries charged as quickly as the first and finished, and with surety beyond reason, knew that she could take more of the brutes before they posed a true threat to her city..

A subroutine alerted her to the trouble beyond her crypt, a final data burst from her guardians depicting the situation as dire. She turned her attention to her own safety, a box transmission from the Imperials went out on their encrypted channels, and was easily decrypted by the machine sentience.

“Amalasuntha of the Stygian Talons transmitting, we are making entry to the final vault, Emperor Protect.”

She set a control line and released the command center guardians from their stasis pods, and turned her full attention to the Custodians knocking on her door.

Commander Yaroslav crouched with his head down in the lee of the fifth atrium of the command center, a medic stood over him with a bioreader and surgical gun.

“Get it over with Checkov, she’s going to catch on if you keep stalling.”

The medic gave a slight chuckle, a shaky hand stilling as he brought the surgical gun down against the base of his Commander’s neck.

“Whatever you say boss,” the medic shrugged, “little pinch.”

Yaroslav suppressed a scream, allowing himself only a small grunt as the wonder of technology that was the surgical gun excised the microchip from his neck. Hot fire shot down his spine, and he felt the warmth of blood running down his back as Checkov stepped away.

“You’re cured,” he joked as the microchip dropped to the ground with a wet slap, “you are the only one with that right?”

“The only one left still breathing, yes. Yours don’t connect to Winter, just to mine, they’re purposefully gapped, saves her processing power or so I’ve heard,” he chuckled as he stood, rubbing his neck with a smirk.

He raised a hand to the remains of his brigade, some two hundred men crouched in the darkness, and signaled for them to begin their movement.

Yaroslav cursed as he let loose a volley from his adrasite rifle, a burst of fire that erased the creature that had been sprinting down the hall on all fours at him and his command section from existence with only an afterimage left in his retina.

He motioned for the command section to keep moving as he trained an eye on his helmet mounted auspex toward the enemy markers moving through the inner wall. They hurried down the passageway toward the sound of fire from adrasite rifles and coil guns.

The command section burst into a fourway promenade in the tunnel section, and an all out fight for survival between the remains of his 51st and the vile creatures that bitch had siced on them.

As they sprinted across the promenade, a trooper went down to his left. The blur of a beast flailing on top of him the only thing he could make out before they exited the promenade into the next tunnel.

“Contact!” one of the lead troopers of the 31-3 called out as a number of Sanctiian troopers in carapace poured into the tunnel exit ahead of them, they sighted in, about to let loose with their carbine before a cooler head waved them off.

“Hold! Hold!” a newly promoted NCO urged the vanguard as they watched the Sanctiians spill into the passage.

The carapace troopers were firing rapidly back down the tunnel, their armor was rent and torn in places, as though someone had taken a can opener to them, and several were missing helmets and large pieces of their white armor.

A commander, by the stripes on his armor, pulled a pistol and the sun grew in the tunnel for a split second.

Yaroslav lowered his perdition pistol, the four armed beast with a mouth full of knives falling limply before his firing line with a molten hole through its chest.

He placed a hand on the shoulder of his closest trooper and yelled over the gunfire, “Stay alive!” he ordered before turning down the tunnel.

Sprinting with his arms raised in surrender toward the Imperials, he prayed that this unit too would take prisoners.

And he, unfortunately, was sighted by no less than Captain Tiberius of the God-Slayers and the Seekers. Colonel Stavin struggled under one of his yellow-armored arms as the genewarrior came to a complete stop. The honed senses of Curzio kicked in, his bolter raised in one hand to aim at the surrendering Sanctiian captain. Those Seekers that hadn’t died in the charge followed suit, dropping their Penal Legion escorts to equip their weapons. Scoped bolters trained in on the Sanctiian, ready to tear the man limb from limb in a scything burst of post-reactives shells. He could feel the Thirty-One-Third’s commander fume as he began to squeeze the trigger.

His eyes suddenly darted away from the Sanctiian, drawn by a thing that crawled on the walls of the tunnel. The brief illumination from Aeternus’ destruction and the oncoming Sanctiians revealed the many-limbed thing that prepared to pounce on their formation. Tiberius, however, was swifter. He dropped Stavin unceremoniously onto the ground to wield the bolter in both of his enormous gauntlets. His movement betrayed the expectation of execution, swiveling away from the unknown captain to the white carapaced creature. The tunnels thumped with the sound of post-reactive shell fire, splattering fresh vitae and gorey skin against the underpass. Further down, perhaps from the area that the alabaster commander’s came from, more could be seen creeping along the walls.

You. Remain here,” The voice of Captain Tiberius mumbled to life as the Seekers began to find firing solutions, maneuvering past the Sanctiian in pursuit of slaughter. The cowled helmet swiveled away from the splattered form of the white thing to the surrendering commander. He pointed downward with one of his blackened gauntlets, directing attention away from him to Colonel Stavin. Regardless of the strange situation, Curzio seemed agitated at the appearance of non-human foes. “And do not move from this spot. You will be dealt with by Colonel Stavin and Primarch Aeternus.”

Without another word, Tiberius followed after the advancing Seekers with his bolter exploding out in fury against the unknown things that crawled. Further behind him and the coalescing Imperials, the remainder of the God-Slayers began to appear out of the destructive plume. Many limped out with their yellow-armor stained obsidian black, similar to that of Aeternus’ plating. More began to pile in around the Thirty-One-Third as Colonel Stavin stood to deal with the surrendering Sanctiian.

“Alright, first off, we accept your surrender.” Stavin said, before Yaroslav could respond. “On this term - you fight with us out of this shit hole. We’re inbound right now, not outbound.”

Stavin winced as a long peal of bolter fire rang out. “Second term, Yaroslav - you tell us what the fuck was attacking you. Us?”

The rest of the 31-3 took up security positions. Lieutenant Whitaker moved among them.

“Safeties on the arc guns!” He bellowed. “Rad carbines only! We can’t be sure the arc won’t hit friendlies in these quarters! All arc gunners, switch to sidearms!”

Whitaker, for his part, loaded his shotgun, his radcarbine slung on his back. Instead of buck, however, he loaded the shotgun with bolt shells, not dissimilar to the bolts fired by Tiberius and Aeternus’s men. He’d held on to them for a while. Now might as well be the time. Despite the Colonel’s optimism, Whitaker wasn’t convinced they’d make it out of this.

Yaroslav would have smiled then, were the combat stims not twisting his face into a sordid frown.

“Aye, we’re ahead of you on that one,” he spoke in accented gothic as he punched a thumb back at the remains of his brigade as they unleashed fire and fury at the oncoming beasts, “as far as I know—” an explosion rocked the corridor hidden beyond the corner of the passageway.

Yaroslav righted himself against the wall and continued, “they’re some form of bioweapon, Winter, that bitch loosed them on us when it became clear we were deserting to you lot.”

He turned his gaze to one of the beasts blown open a few meters from them by the God Slayers, “Right tough bastards, Ambrose says— he’s my chief medic— he says they’ve got chitin as armor, like from bugs? Glances off some of our lighter stuff, but it’s their numbers that’s giving us a real run for our money.”

Yaroslav stopped a moment and pulled in close to Stavin

“I think she’s gone crazy if I had to guess, this siege of yours is good as won for you, but she keeps everyone dying. Can’t see the reason,” he shrugged and began to turn back down the corridor, “we’ll fill out the paperwork another time yeah?” Yaroslav smiled as he pulled his pistol from its holster.

The storm of abyssal death from the citadel entrance finally parted way as the last God-Slayers burst into the clearing. Eerie flame licked off of their armor in several places, their pelt capes burnt to a singe, and their plating dyed an obsidian hue. At the forefront, the Primarch came to a halt from his bizarre sprint. The momentum from the armored gallop was enough to shred grooves into the floor. His towering form straightened up with inconceivable ease, fuming breathes momentarily wheezing from the knightly helmet. Captain Caligula appeared shortly behind Rex with chunks missing from his pauldron.

Without warning, the Primarch stepped forward with the greatblade already swinging down towards Yaroslav. The arc of the blade radiated with a muted fury carried forward from it’s master. As Apocrypha sliced through the putrid air of the cavern, it suddenly stopped mere inches away from the Sanctiian’s neck. Crimson plasma radiating from the edge of the thunder warrior’s weapon bathed Yaroslav’s form in a red hue. Optics within Aeternus’ helmet clicked with interest as he remembered the promise that was made with Colonel Stavin. As the bloodlust died down, the plasma-field was deactivated and the sword lowered to a neutral position.

“Then an accord has been struck.” Aeternus stated as his eyes bounced between Stavin and Yaroslav. Despite the losses, the Primarch’s voice was still AS loud, vigorous, and deep as the creatures he was nicknamed after. His attention turned away from the two smaller men before him, instead gazing at the horde of things crawling down the cavern. Several of the God-Slayers, untarnished by the explosive entrance, caught his eye as they battled against Deep Winter’s monsters. Wordlessly, Rex stepped past the men with Apocrypha’s plasma-field activated again. The rest of the tarnished thunder warriors followed after him with their weapons ready.

Aeternus slowly halted, turning away from the massacre to the two warriors behind him. “Come, Stavin, we have gods to slay.” After the words were spoken, the Primarch dashed into the chaos of the under-citadel with Apocrypha lashing out at the things that plagued their path. The God-Slayers roared at the top of their lungs, plunging into the mayhem with gritted teeth and foaming lips. Sounds of tearing gore echoed from their descent, accompanied only by the cries of victory for their liege.

Credit: Aeternus/God-Slayers @MarshalSolgriev, Colonel Stavin/Thirty-One-Third @BornOnBoard, Yaroslav/Deep Winter @FrostedCaramel, Scribe-Intendant @grimely
The Slaughter of Sanctii

Descent Into Massacre

An inferno of calamitous energy erupted from beneath the great city of Sanctii, rising into the sky like a divine pillar of destruction. A portion of the alabaster wall was vaporized in seconds, disintegrating from the mass reaction of an overheating flue station below. Those that had been nearest to the wall, Sanctiian and Imperial alike, vanished in traces of smoldering ash. Night could no longer be recognized in Terra’s poisonous sky, brightened to the extent of artificial mid-day. Storming clouds that had gathered to rain nature’s wroth had dispersed in a swirling vortex of smoldering fury. The blizzard ceased to exist in grim parallel to one of the great, alabaster bastions. The shimmering shield of Sanctii’s void-barrier buckled and disappeared into nothingness, allowing a fresh wave of cataclysmic ruination upon the hive. Bombs, shells, lasers, and more connected with undefended wall, piercing where they had never penetrated before. A tide of red-garbed auxilia switched paces from tactical withdraw to reinvigorated, suicidal assault towards the breach in Sanctii. Insanity overtook the battlefield once more.

Primarch Aeternus, along with his retreated Thunder Warriors, observed the success of the Penal Legion from afar. A wave of relief crashed over his body. Colonel Stavin had been successful and the death of his brethren had not been in vain. Hope began to filter through his being as Imperials rushed past in urgent sprints. He dared to smile, knowing that Sanctii would now fall into the Emperor’s hands. As he began to turn towards his brethren, a thousand of the newly born Astartes rushed towards the gap in complete ignorance of his existence. Unnervingly, none of their number uttered a single word in their gene-enhanced sprint, nor did their Legion Mistress respond to his query. A competitive fury formed within his mind. He wouldn’t allow them to claim the glory that his God-Slayers had earned.

“Awfully silent aren’t they? At least they’re contributing to the invasion now!” Captain Caligula chortled, running up to his side in a half-gallop. Dozens of Thunder Warriors followed after him, stopping shortly behind the First Cadre commander with reinvigorated breaths. A quick inspection from Aeternus saw the truth of their sorry state. Plating broken in several places, old wounds patched over with synthskin, and degraded weapons from the relentless assaults. Caestus fared no better than they did with dried blood cascading down his helmet and fragmented armor on his left side. They were only a small fraction of the force already in the depths of the assault.

“Indeed. Our successors.” The Primarch stated, frustration quickly leaving his voice as he turned his attention to Caligula. A part of him desperately wished that they had joined in on the assault, so that he could gauge their martial prowess. Another part of him was glad that they had reserved their numbers for this part of the siege. A wise, tactical decision that ultimately kept their force fresh for the true assault. One of the Thunder Warriors, bearing a white tabard and pauldron, affixed a part of his armor with fresh synthskin and hardening foam. “But we must not wallow in defeat. Unity is before our eyes, God-Slayers, and I would see it fulfilled… or would you rather forfeit such honors to our newly arisen genecousins?”

Refreshed warriors grit their teeth at the comment, earning a few chuckles and competitive roars. Despite wearing a helmet, Aeternus could tell that Caestus himself was smiling as the ambitious spirits overtook them. His God-Slayers shook the weariness from their limbs, preparing themselves for battle with fresh applications of combat stimulants or racking their weapons with destructive intent. Support personnel, mortals that had taken to the backlines of the siege, quickly arrived to replenish ammunition in short amounts. Magazines were restored, chainweapons retracked, and batteries replaced for further confrontation. A small advantage of their tactical retreat. Even to one such as he, the Primarch felt a toothy smile grow on his lips. Hope was beginning to take hold of the First Legion and with it he would guide them to Unity.

+’Sanctii has been breached! In the name of Unity, press forward! Pay back every pound of flesh taken during this assault!.’+ Primarch Aeternus roared into the vox as his troupe began to sprint forward. The support personnel disappeared from their sight, skittering back behind the siege lines as the genewarriors sprinted into the snow. The Imperialis Praetorios loomed nearby, idling in support of the siege. A myriad of responses returned to him in short order. Noncommittal replies from his God-Slayers that still lived, swift affirmations from the nearest platoon commanders, and thinly veiled insults from the backline scribes. Only the Colonel of the Forty-Third Excertus Imperialis drew his undivided attention over the vox-reports from others.

+’Primarch Aeternus, General Astaroth of the Forty-Third Excertus, direct your attention to the breach. We’ve maintained a cohesive bulwark, but the Sanctiians are beginning to adapt to our offensive. The God-Slayers are needed to secure our path into Sanctii.’+ General Astaroth, an old and daunting man, broke through the vox with a stern voice. The blistering sound of lasfire, tank shells, and stubberfire reverberated in the background of his communication. Men shrieked, air perforated, and engines roared as the battle continued on nearby. +’We will continue the assault with the aid of the Eighty-Eigth and the Seventy-First, but the internal defenses are showing their teeth. Raptor Imperialis.’+

“Quite haughty of him to make demands at this point of the battle.” Caligula stated as they sprinted across the bloodied snow, unmolested by Sanctii’s stationary turrets or Ursh’s horrendous weather. Their retinue was closing in on the breach, identified by the sheer wave of red-garbed human flesh pouring into the wall. In sporadic clumps, individual squads with breach equipment and battery charges scaled the alabaster bastion while the main forces sped to the singular breach. Shells from the surviving artillery in the backlines shrieked overhead, blossoming against Sanctii’s beautiful architecture. Heavy ordinance exploded from the barrel of main battle tanks, while three-man crews of heavy weapons pelted the interior of the breach.

+’It shall be done. Pull back from the breach and resurge once we’ve slaughtered our way in.’+ Aeternus’ response was swift, a plan having long formulated in his mind once the alabaster walls of Sanctii were breached. New faces began to slowly emerge from their foxholes, Destroyers rallying behind them with heavy weapons swaying in tandem with their lumbering sprint. His brow furrowed in disappointment as Nero and the Second Cadre’s Despoilers remained hidden from him. Neither had Tiberius reappeared with the Third Cadre’s Seekers.

The breach unfolded before them as they crested the final batteline into Sanctii. Trenches, dug at the outset of the siege, were clogged with vivisected and dismembered auxilia. Smoldering wreckage of Cataphract battle-tanks, Colossus siege-tanks, and Aurox armored transports formed great shields of cover for the resurging assault. Snow had long melted away in huge rivers of blood, bodies threatening to claim the ground in place of dirt. Craters the size of lakes split the gaps between the corpse-piles, frozen lakes of vitae disgustingly filling the empty areas. Yet, still, the Excertus Imperialis pressed on in waves of red armored soldiers reinforced by hulking Dracosans transports. A temporary fallback line was held aloft by the Forty-Third, who relentlessly unfurled las- and stub-fire into the quickly filling breach. Enormous, humanoid giants in yellow-plated armor stood alongside mortals with bolters hipfiring into the rushing Sanctiians.

Alabaster-plated Sanctiians bitterly fought in vain against the oncoming tide of Imperials, coherent formations breaking in seconds of performing defensive actions. Despite their overwhelming, initial victory against the Imperium, the protectors were beginning to falter in this most crucial scenario. Everything that they could throw was filling the breach from sentinels armed with adrastite stubbers to quadrupedal machines with enclosed cockpits. Unfortunately, they were few in comparison to the numbers raining perpetual hell upon their defences. Even those few Astartes that could worm their way through were beginning to tighten a grip on an exfil corridor. The battle for the breach was starting to reach a stalemate as Aeternus arrived. That singular fact was enough to spell doom for Sanctii.

The God-Slayers sprinted through the entrenched lines of mortal men with power weapons ablaze, Himalazian curses on their tongues, and ranged armaments barking sheer death. At the forefront of the charge, Aeternus withstood the brunt of the counterfire with his refractor field sparking like an overclocked cogitator core. His left hand spat out salvos of azure-flame bullets from the wrist-mounted archeotech, piercing personal shields and melting nanocomposite plating in equal droves. Panic, no matter how minor it was due to their nerve stapling, began to spread throughout the Sanctiian defenders. Precise firing solutions swiftly switched to desperate hipfire as the guardians began a backwards withdrawal from the breach. It wouldn’t save them, nor could it have saved them. The yellow-armoured giants collided with the defenders as a rushing tide of behemoths, hacking and slashing with wild abandon typical for their kind.

Primarch Aeternus leapt from the front of the God-Slayers, pushing with all of his might into Sanctii’s gaping wound. One of the quadrupedal machines attempted to aim up at his descending form, yet he was swifter than the pilot’s reactions. Apocrypha slammed into the hardened cockpit of the vehicle, piercing through with the greatsword’s brilliant, crimson edge. Something from within cried a muffled scream of pain as Aeternus deactivated the plasmafield, wrenching out the blade with a gout of flying vitae. The sight was enough to break those meager defenders around him, beginning the first of the few to retreat into the depths of Sanctii. The other God-Slayers followed suit, tearing limbs from augmented humans and battering the skulls of other machine-companions with ease. He spied a few yellow-armored corpses mixed in with the Sanctiian dead, saturated with adrastite punctures and pyrite scorches. Rex merely smiled, glad that they had met their end fighting in glorious combat compared to bashing endlessly against a wall. His attention turned away to the long line of Imperials outside of the breach, one hand lifting the mighty Apocrypha high into the air.

Gloria Raptoris Imperialis! Join me and fight in His name!” The lion roar of Aeternus was heard for miles, echoing throughout the vox and in the nearby area. It drove the Imperials into a frenzy, auxilia abandoning their defensive positions to dive into the breach with weapons in hand. Vehicle commanders willed their machines forward, barking orders in furious litanies to claim their succulent prizes. Thunder warriors that had remained behind ushered forward with endless quantities of primal hollers, screams, and roars to echo their Primarch’s enthusiasm. Astartes ceded away from the surging forces, efficiently sprinting along the peripheries of the tide with singular focus.

The breach had been conquered.

Elsewhere, within Sanctii

The remains of the 31-3’s assault element crouched within the wreckage of what had been a switching substation, or a pump room, Stavin couldn’t be sure. It was something industrial, something vastly complicated that had been shattered by… something. A stray imperial rocket, perhaps, or an outbound shell that had fallen short. They had emerged from their long climb in these ruins, spending a scant few minutes to catch their breath, reload, and eat.

Stavin glanced around him, taking in his ragged coterie. There, Sergeant Whitaker was helping one of the newer influxes - Stavin thought his name was Caleb, light a lho stick. Caleb, arc rifle slung around his body, coughed as he inhaled the caustic smoke. Whitaker laughed his silent laugh, and thumped Caleb on the back.

A few feet from them, a woman with a half shaved scalp sullenly sharpened a knife. The man next to her, who sported a crude bionic eye, so blocky and ugly it looked like it had lodged there instead of been surgically implanted, chewed on a ration bar. They looked tired, worn out, and traumatized, but they had performed. Had this been any other outfit, it’d be medals and a rotation out, but cruel fate meant there was still more to do. He turned his gaze once more, and saw Severina looking through a pair of magnoculars. Her peaked cap, with the emblem of the Imperial Army’s discipline corps, had disappeared, revealing her dirty, frazzled red hair. She had it tied into a short ponytail. The rest of her uniform was also torn and ragged, and, aside from the lack of a bomb collar, she looked little different from a common trooper.

Stavin crouch-walked to her, an awkward gait, but one that kept his sight line low. He crept to her side, and, wordlessly, she handed him the mags.

Stavin put them to his own eyes.

God above!” He whispered.

“Do you see it?” Severina asked.

He sure did. Sanctii militia, in their alabaster white plate. Thankfully, they weren’t alive. But they were quite dead - horrifyingly so. They had been torn to pieces, arms from trunks, legs from pelvises, guts scooped out and thrown every which way. Blood plastered every surface, the snow, the road, the bricks on the buildings, which were similarly destroyed, walls knocked out, some even collapsed. Whatever had happened to the switching station they had climbed into had managed to get these troopers too.

“What the hell killed them?” Severina said. “No Imperials are this deep, besides us. We’d’ve picked them up on ‘spex.”

“Artillery?” Stavin asked. “Maybe a macro shell?”

Severina shook her head. “No. Artillery flattens buildings. Anything just out of the splash zone has its windows knocked out from the overpressure. And John - where’s the craters?”

She was right. John looked again, but couldn’t spot anything that looked like a blast point. Whatever had done this, did it manually. The thought of it chilled Stavin. The only beings he knew capable of unleashing that kind of ruination…

He thought of Aeternus, and of the Black Eagle that had held his life in her claw.

In the view of the magnoculars, a white leg stepped into view. Stavin snapped to the leg, which preceded a trooper of the Sanctii defense force. Another stepped into view, then another. Soon, they were in platoon strength, and that meant the 31-3 had a problem.

“Defensive positions! Stay low, and out of sight!” Stavin hissed, then fired off a series of hand signals. The battered 31-3 snapped from their reverie and moved to take up firing positions on the abattoir outside. They were at street level, and possessed no height advantage over the unwitting patrol, but they had cover and concealment. Their enemy, Stavin hoped, would pass right by them.

One of the troopers stopped. He looked up, and, in a moment that made Stavin start back, looked directly at him.

Time seemed to slow. Stavin looked from the magnoculars to his right.

Caleb, god damn him, was looking into the street with a lit lho stick. Stavin understood now - the militiaman had seen the cherry. He pulled his plasma pistol, still slow, so slow, and looked to what his target would be. Thankfully, the trooper who had seen them was even slower, but he had already started to yell.

Stavin aimed, and pulled the trigger. As the plasma bolt spat from the muzzle, time sped up all at once again. The militiaman vaporized, his trunk disappearing as the bolt struck him. The arm he’d raised, and both legs, spread out, toppling like ninepins. The rest of the militia began to fire on the pumping station, their volley vicious and sustained, chipping away at the pitted, damaged rockcrete. It was a deluge, and getting worse, their only saving grace being that it was inaccurate.

Stavin ducked back behind cover as the rest of the 31-3 opened up. Before Caleb swung up his arc rifle to fire, Stavin snatched the lho-stick from his mouth, and slapped the private’s bald head.

No fucking smoking in a hot zone! Idiot!” Stavin said, then took a big drag. He exhaled the smoke, then stuck it back in Caleb’s lip, who blinked.

Whitaker then slapped Caleb’s head. “Focus on the shooting, Troopie!”

Stavin turned to Severina, and, having to shout over the weapons fire, relayed his orders.

“Call for backup!” Stavin shouted, “See if anyone can push up to us!”

Severina nodded. “Any Imperial Unit, this is the 31-3rd! We are in hot contact in grid zone…”

Severina checked her ‘spex, and relayed the map coordinates. “...I repeat, we are in hot contact! Platoon strength of Sanctii militia, minimum! We can hold for…”

Stavin flashed two hand signals. Ten fingers, closed fist, then five fingers.

“...Fifteen minutes at most!”

Stavin nodded, then stood back up to fire. If fifteen minutes was all he had, he’d help along a few more damned souls.

War raged around Primarch Aeternus and the God-Slayers as they pressed through the breach with weapons blazing. The air perforated with the harsh crack of lasfire, the empty clatter of smoking cartridges, and the vibrating boom of heavy ordinance. Soaring engines on flaming wings sped overhead, unleashing deadly cargos from fat-bellied hulls onto unsuspecting defenders. Each inhabitant, to his surprise, fought back as bitterly as their most experienced sentinel. Civilians, clad in a distinguished mix of advanced flak and powered armor, protected their homes with drastically less deadly weapons than their military counterparts. The Imperials remained unrelenting, slaughtering their way through militia, defender, and otherwise regardless of their association to Deep Winter. Each street, every junction, and all the corridors of Sanctii’s frontal districts were burning with munitions, choked with dead men, and desperately fighting survivors. A stench of rot had begun to waft through the air with each passing second, rolled in from the five-hundred thousand corpses sticking in front of the alabaster walls.

Aeternus tore the arm off of a sentinel, utilizing his transhuman strength to shatter plate and rip sinew alike. In one fell swoop, he plunged the defender’s arm straight through their helmet in an act of swift carnage. They fell backwards against the previously-polished tiles of Sanctii, sending a ripple of fear through the nearest group of militia. Untested, ill-trained, and devoid of proper augmentation resulted in their immediate fleeing away from the Thunder Warriors. After all the brutality he felt on the walls, Rex couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the ever-evolving siege. To his immediate left, Caligula hipfired a bolter scavenged from a fallen brother. Each shot tore through a multitude of fleeing militia, exploding viscera and vitae against nearby alabaster buildings. To his immediate right, the Destroyers had momentarily hunkered down to rain hell against several hovering machines with plasma turrets. They disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, scythed through by disintegrator cannons and laser destroyers. The rest of the God-Slayers around him were busy butchering their prey, relentlessly hacking at heavily-armed defenders with plasma blades and photon shields. Each died in short order as their genemight overpowered augmentation and advanced gear in close proximity. A war in close-range with the Legio Cataegis was a short, maleficent affair.

“Do you notice it, Caestus?” Aeternus called out to his old friend, delivering a brutal stomp to a prone Sanctiian. Vitae ejected across the quickly deteriorating tile, coagulating together with the other countless dead that now clogged the street. The First Cadre Captain quickdrew his sidearm, a silver volkite pistol with three barrels, and hammered a trio of shots into the closest defender. As the Primarch approached, he half-turned his attention to Rex.

“Without a doubt! They’re pulling back from the frontlines. It’s only been ten minutes since they’ve lost the breach and started cordoning off the afflicted area. Smart and decisive. Why waste numbers on an enemy that has access to your city? They’re gonna bottleneck us at the next set of districts.” Caligula replied, holstering the sidearm in a refined pouch across his chest. A group of Thunder Warriors rallied around him, finished with their extermination of the nearest militia pocket. He reloaded his bolter, knocking one magazine off to swiftly press another one squarely into the weapon. Racking the bolt back, he turned fully towards the commander of their legion.

“Agreed. Deep Winter has decided to toss away the unmentionables to stall our advance. Do we have a read on Tiberius or Neros yet?” Rex nodded in agreement, beginning to walk forward as his wrist-mounted weapon autoloaded the next salvo with a nerve impulse. Apocrypha was hefted up and against his pauldron, deactivated and hungry for the next defender to slay. The Primarch began to press forward, followed by the rest of the God-Slayers that fought alongside him. Further away from them, Aeternus could hear the wailing and shouting of dying men, ferocious firefights, and buildings crumbling from continuous pummeling.

Caligula gestured from behind for one of the Thunder Warriors with a complex powerpack mounted on their back. An antenna extended into the air as an auspex was drawn into their hand from an unseen pouch. The familiar clicking of scanning technology and the hum of a miniaturized cogitator filled the nearby area with noise. After several seconds of silence, the God-Slayer turned towards Aeternus with a satisfactory nod.

“Captain Tiberius has been located, Primarch, along with the rest of the Seekers. They’ve already engaged the next district’s defenses along with the Eighty-Eighth Excertus Imperialis. Fifty-thousand souls have currently made it to the next segment, along with thirty-five vehicles and five-hundred ordinance batteries. Furthermore, the Forty-Third has set-up a forward relief center at the breach.” The genewarrior spoke with the promptness expected of a signal officer, consuming a tidal wave of data and processing it into a simplified format. Despite the helmet they wore, Aeternus could make out a distinct frown in the next spoken words. “Captain Nero… is well beyond the next segment, Primarch. The Despoilers have scattered all across Sanctii, engaging everything and anything that remotely resembles an enemy formation. I can’t successfully ping their vox. It seems they’ve entered their blood-rage.”

Those words nearly punched the determination out of Aeternus, enough to earn a disappointed sigh from their Primarch. The energy was felt across their immediate retinue. Caligula stepped forward and planted a firm gauntlet on Rex’s left pauldron, a solemn shake of his head was made to affirm the next course of action for Nero. The auspex loudly blipped once more, drawing attention away from the signal officer’s words back to the device in question.

“It seems the Thirty-One-Third is alive. Approximately seven hundred meters to the north-east of our position. They are in need of assistance, but none have reacted to the distress call yet. Your orders, my Primarch?” The genewarrior asked, turning away from the auspex to stare at their commander.

Aeternus never replied to the signal officer, shrugging off Caligula’s hand to begin a dead sprint in the spoken direction. His powered armor groaned against all of the genetic might that the genewarrior’s body could officer. He heard the rest of the God-Slayers follow after him, hooting and hollering with a warcry for Unity on their tongues. Rex couldn’t, wouldn’t, respond to their cries for battle. He wouldn’t let the Heroes of Sanctii die in the midst of this alabaster city. He wouldn’t let them die until they’d seen Unity together.

Militant Damir Pantelic shouldered up against the building nearest to him, raising the galvanic plascarbine against his shoulder and unleashing it into the rubble of a wrecked substation. Each shot of the rifle was a burst of plasmic death without an ounce of recoil, perfect for someone such as him. He cursed, however, as the shot sputtered out against the alloys of the station. A slap to his head jostled the half-helmet enough to recalibrate the auto-stabilizers within. Decade-old tech that had been given to militia at the outset of the siege was beginning to show its cobwebs.

Another of his platoon fell, roasted alive by a ball of plasma by one of the savages assaulting their city. He felt nothing for the man that had died. Like him, Militant Veliko Soloviev had been a minor criminal with a pardon of forgiveness granting him a second chance at life through conscription. The harsh crack of an electric rifle forced him to duck out of instinct. It saved his life, yet several of the nearby militia had been electrified to death behind him. Now prone and covered in snow, Damir pulled the plascarbine into a sharpshooter stance and breathed in the crisp air. Time slowed for him, awaiting the next moment that one of the savages popped up from their cover to kill them.

One of them, a younger looking savage with the electric rifle, edged out of cover to unleash another volley of handheld lightning into his platoon. Damir squeezed the trigger, allowing the auto-stabilizer to anticipate the recoil and trajectories through his helmet. A plasbullet pierced through the air, squarely hitting the trooper in the left shoulder and throwing them backwards into the ruins. Militant Pantelic cursed to himself in every single language that he could muster. He had aimed for the head. Why were they destined to die in the name of the Administrator?

That sole bullet was enough to earn a moment's respite from counterattack, allowing the rest of his platoon to viciously batter the ruins with a mixture of lavalas stubber and plascarbine volleys. Each militant inched forward in their half-plated powered armor, flak-trenchcoats jostling with every step. Damir pulled himself back up, turning away from the assault to reload his plascarbine. A small sense of accomplishment grew a smile on his cracked lips. Perhaps, when they managed to push out the invaders, the Administrator would elevate his status?

Incoming!” One of the militants called out in a cry of sheer terror. Militant Damir turned towards the source of distress, expecting a grenade to have been flung towards their gathered position. In truth, what entered his vision was anything but what he expected. The man that had yelled - Yannick Solvavich, he thought his name was - had burst apart into several pieces of gore. Whatever remained of him was now painting the rest of their platoon in a shower of vitae, organs, and bones. Standing in his place was a being that could only be described as a giant born from the mythos of Urshic culture. Pitch-black armor, a mighty blade like a slab of obsidian, and a cloak of alabaster pelt held the remainder of Yannick in their gauntlet. What remained, however, was a quickly dissolving pile of gore and fragmented bone.

“What are you doing, keep fi-” Their Militant-Commander, Stanek Ristovic, began to yell to affix their attention. Seconds after he began speaking, his head disappeared in a shower of blood. Everything from his shoulders upward was gone. A smoking hole of exploded flesh left the commander standing. A brisk wind forced the corpse to falter, falling forward onto the snowy tiles of their city. Damir turned away from the black-armoured giant to the source of their commander’s destruction. Ten? Twenty? Thirty? He stopped counting after that. A throng of yellow-armored giants with weapons the size of men sprinted in their direction. One of their number held a gruesome boltthrower with a smoking barrel in their hands.

He was the first to react after that. Militant Damir could’ve fired back at the charging behemoths with all the valiant pride of a patriot. Instead, he dropped his plascarbine and began to run. His helmet was thrown away to boost his speed, every inch of his soul burning with the desire to survive. As he ran, Damir could hear the rest of his platoon being butchered alive by ruinous weapons and motorized creations alike. Tears and sweat drenched his face, terrified warmth drenched his fatigues, and his brain burned with the desire to live. Pantelic just had to survive, even for just a moment longer to reach the district cordon!

Then he found his world going sideways. A confused gasp whispered through his lips as the ground met his view. He couldn’t feel his legs, his arms, or anything at all. He tried to scream, cry, or emit any kind of noise that affirmed his survival. He didn’t want to die, he couldn’t! Damir tried to refocus his eyes around the scene, only to shortly realize that he hadn’t been staring at Sanctii’s beautiful tiles. A charnel house was what it could best be described as his fellow militiamen were brutalized in that killzone. Men were brutalized, maimed, and battered to beyond recognition in the ambush. One of the yellow-armored giants, a warrior with a malevolent axe and a brutally blocky sidearm, slowly walked over to him. His last moments were spent watching the warrior lift up his gigantic boot and pressing it against his skull. A sharp, crunchy crack was the last sound he heard.

Cease fire!” Stavin roared as the Thunder Warriors stomped to their aide. “Cease fire!

Friendlies in the hot zone!” Whitaker added, “Stop shooting!

Medic!” A trooper called, pressing a bandage to Caleb Raum’s shoulder, the arc rifle trooper who had gotten them spotted. The last surviving medic, the sullen looking woman with the half shaved head, ran up and began properly dressing Caleb’s shoulder wound.

The trooper, the stub of a lho-stick still in his mouth, tried to look at the wound, but the medic kept pushing his view away.

“Colonel, can ye dump some morphia into him?” She growled, “He’s squirrely.”

Stavin nodded, and kneeled next to Caleb. He bent down, peering at Caleb’s discipline collar, and thumbed a blue rune. A slight hiss, and the wounded trooper relaxed.

“He gonna make it?” Stavin asked the woman.

She shrugged. “He’ll survive this. The plas-bullet went straight through, didn’t dump any energy into his body. Just a hole, boss. He’ll be able to walk in a few minutes once the drugs settle in.”

Whitaker laughed. Stavin looked relieved. He looked down at Caleb, and pulled on the younger man’s cheek, like an uncle.

“What’d we learn, Raum?” He asked.

“No smoking in a hot zone.” Caleb said, groggy.

“No more hangin’ around Whitaker, he’s teachin’ you bad habits.” Stavin said, looking to the wiry old sergeant, and winking. Whitaker belted out another laugh as he reloaded his radium carbine.

Stavin stood up, and beckoned to Severina. When she approached, he started walking.

“I think that’s Aeternus and his lot who bailed us out.” Stavin said, pointing at the plate of the nearby thunder warriors, “Their armor looks similar to his. I want to find him and turn us over to his command.”

Severina raised an eyebrow. “They’ll be in the thick of it, Colonel, are you sure?”

Stavin nodded. “Everyone’s in the thick of it. Think about it Sev - we have rapport with Aeternus. He won’t throw us away like some dick head Imperial Army colonel would. Hell, his men wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t blow the wall open.”

Stavin stopped walking after he’d finished his reasoning, looking bewildered.

“Did you just express concern for our well-being?” He asked, floored.

“Not at all, Colonel, merely expressing my wishes that the 31-3 survive long enough to fulfill our objectives.” Severina said smoothly.

“Right.” Stavin said, and looked for the largest, bloodiest Thunder Warrior to report to.

And Stavin managed to find him in a matter of seconds once the last of the militia had been pulverized into paste by the associating God-Slayers. He stood in midnight black with Apocrypha nestled against his right pauldron. The gorey mess in his left hand was flung aside, the residue of human filth dying the armor in a dark scarlet. Aeternus turned towards the Colonel as Caligula ambled up to his left side. A similar mess of vitae had painted the Imperial yellow of the Thunder Warrior in varying crimson hues. The barrel of the bolter in the First Cadre Captain’s hands was still smoking from the gnarly ambush. A twitch in his movement spoke volumes of the cocktails filtering throughout his body.

“You’ve survived, Colonel, and many more of the Penal Legion,” The Primarch stated without prompt, a strange tone in his voice conveying a level of neutrality. Thunder Warriors of the First Legion began to move around them with freshly relayed orders, none of which required speaking. Pairs of genewarriors took to the edge of alcoves, causeways, and junctions throughout their immediate area. The heavily armed Destroyers planted down nearby the rest of the Penal Legion with their armaments pointed to the skies. Aeternus lowered the great, obsidian blade with the tip pointed to the ground and relaxed his pose. “You have my utmost respect for accomplishing what was considered impossible. Know that, if we are to survive this siege, then I will herald your Legion as the Heroes of Sanctii. Your crimes forgiven and forgotten, if it is within my power.”

The statement was delivered with a swift change in his tone. One of genuine respect from one warrior to another. Captain Caligula notably turned his head towards Aeternus in muted surprise. Echoing the astonishment, some of the closer God-Slayers half-turned their helmets while maintaining some level of attention towards would-be attackers. To further their astonishment, the Primarch gave a slow and deep salute to the vastly smaller man with his fist pressed against the Raptor on his chestplate.

Stavin stood, astonished at the reception. He’d expected something more utilitarian, a ‘fall in’ and an immediate return to the business of erasing one of the strongest bastions of resistance to Unification, but it appears he had underestimated the humanity of Aeternus. An easy mistake to make. Just months ago, monsters like him had torn apart Stavin’s mercenary company, leaving only him and the few men psychopathic enough to crawl out of hell alive. Now…

Well. War had always made strange bedfellows. He looked to Severina, who just nodded at him, like he would know what to do. Stavin supposed that, if he were a proper officer, he would.

He snapped to attention, returning Aeternus’s salute the Army way, fingers pointing at the eye, hand turned slightly inwards. It was the smartest salute he’d ever given, and would ever give. History would prove surprisingly kind to Stavin; he would give many more salutes, in many more dignified settings, but none would ever match the solemnity of that gesture given in good faith to the transhuman soldier of the God-Slayers.

The moment passed, and Stavin’s hand dropped. Still, there was business to conduct.

“Primarch, it’s… I never thought I’d say it, but it’s good to see you.” Stavin said, surprised at himself. “There’s fifty of us, and if you’ll have us, we’ll help you push through the city. We can keep up pretty well, especially if we spike Frenzon, so don’t worry about us slowing you down.”

He swallowed. “We- I’ll be honest, Primarch. You know us. You know what we can do. If we report back to Army command, they’ll put us in another meat grinder. You guys are going into the worst of it, we know, but we can help, I think. We got arc guns, they can kill whatever Winter throws at you, and we’ve killed her best. She’s got power armor guys, like you. They’re lethal, and they’re packing tech as good as yours. We’ve killed them, and we can help you kill them.”

Captain Caligula gave a short bark of laughter typical for his demeanor. It stretched on for only a moment before he bubbled down to a low chuckle. He stepped forward and clapped Colonel Stavin on the shoulder with minimal force.

“Rex, I’ve only met this man three times but I like his gall! Can you imagine a normal, unaugmented person performing the impossible and then requesting to do even more after that!?” The First Captain cackled aloud once more with a tone that boomed with righteous joy. Caligula’s voice was optimistic, older, and as lively as one could be for a brutal, bloodthirsty genewarrior of the Imperium. Despite the fact he wore a helmet akin to Aeternus, there was no doubt that a wide smile had grown on the elder warrior’s lips. He released Stavin as Aeternus dropped his own salute, returning Apocrypha to it’s natural rest against the Primarch’s left pauldron.

“I can. I would imagine they were either the proudest fools I’d ever met, or the bravest warriors to grace the Emperor’s Unification. Luckily, Colonel Stavin fits into the latter.” Aeternus responded in a playful tone, turning his attention away from Stavin to the rest of the Penal Legion. He had noticed Severina standing behind the Colonel some distance back, encouraging the man to perform as a proper officer of the Excertus Imperialis. Behind her was a throng of the surviving fifty, a ragtag group of soldiers with weapons that defied their stature. After a quick scan of the Thirty-One-Third, his eyes lowered to their commander once more.

“I wouldn’t dare to dishonor you by rejecting your offer to join us.” The Primarch spoke with overwhelming confidence, gesturing to one of his God-Slayers without turning his attention away from Stavin. A Thunder Warrior with a hefty voxpack walked up to the side of Aeternus, kneeling down to deploy a girthy auspex before the two commanders. A wide display of the siege unfolded to reveal their current position, the placements of their enemy, and the rest of the Imperial forces. A circling ping gave brief, seconds-long updates of the evolving siege as they observed the auspex. One of the primarch’s black-armored fingers pointed closest to the central spire. “It goes without saying that our name - the God-Slayers - indicates our objective. We aim to decapitate and maim the enemy.”

“This was explained well before the siege began, but after your Legion had started their prepwork for the infiltration. Their military headquarters is the single bastion that prevents access into the Spire proper for the wider Imperial forces. Lady Amalasuntha and her Stygian Talons, however, will be bypassing this objective in pursuit of Deep Winter.” Primarch Aeternus momentarily paused to allow the information to sink in with Colonel Stavin. His eyes switched between the Colonel’s expressions and the genewarrior-mounted auspex. He noticed the distinct lack of Astartes on the map, aware that their presence was obscured for a specific reason. “Our targets are nothing short of butchering their entire chain of command. If Prime Minister Yurij Arturovych Yarov is present in the bastion, then he, too, will die to our hands. Our priority target is Supreme General Aleks Sergeev. Of all our established targets, the Supreme General must die.”

A handful of the Thunder Warriors at the junction furthest from their position began to shuffle, moving forward with their hefty weapons raised for hipfire. Seconds later, the barking echo of bolter fire lit up the alcove and the mulching squelch of splattered vitae muted the sound of pained screams. Primarch Aeternus continued to speak regardless. “The Eighty-Eighth Excertus Imperialis - the Cryxian Blades - will support our advance towards the Spire. You’ll have a chance to resupply there before our assault. Any questions?” With the explanation of the assault finished, Aeternus rested his gaze on Colonel Stavin.

Stavin said little, his expression open and vacant as Aeternus spread the map and explained the situation to him. As the giant warrior finished, Stavin blinked a few times, as if coming from a trance. Just as the thunder warriors may’ve thought the Colonel may’ve been struck dumb by combat trauma, Stavin spoke.

“I know we’re not in the business of taking prisoners, Primarch.” Stavin said, “But the 31-3’s had its fighting strength well obliterated. We’ve got plenty of men left, but they’re mostly fit for manual labor and other menial tasks. The four thousand plus men we lost… well, they were the real soldiers.”

Stavin looked out over the ruins, watching the direction where the chest-thumping reports of the God-Slayer’s bolt casters punched the air.

“Any prisoners we take - I want them for the Damned.” Stavin looked back. “I’ve made lots of requests from you, but after this, I wanna make sure I still have something to lead. And Sanctii…”

He took a deep breath. “These people don’t deserve this butchery. They’re paying for a bill Deep Winter racked up. Putting them with me is a different hell, but… just because the - our - emperor has consigned them to the dustbin of history, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a chance, however slim, to prove themselves.”

“If I speak offense, I’m sorry. But you, Primarch, you’re more human than most people I know. You must understand where I’m coming from.” Stavin smiled. “If you can’t make that happen for me, forget I said anything. We’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Caligula shared a look with the Primarch. An unspoken word was passed between the two of them. Had Stavin known the two for longer, then perhaps he could’ve deciphered the silent language of the God-Slayers. After several seconds passed, Aeternus began to speak. “If it is within my powers, then I will promise you the surrendered Sanctiians as part of your contributions; however, make no mistake, those Sanctiians that do not surrender will die to our assault. This enemy is strong. We cannot afford to hesitate, even for a second. Is this comparable, Colonel Stavin?” The question was genuinely spoken, though Aeternus wondered if the man would take it as such. In the seconds that passed, he’d attempted to think of a perfect way to grant their wish without hindrance to no avail. Even the God-Slayers would need to replenish after the siege.

“I understand. It's a strange request to make of you, Primarch, for I have survived the work your men do.” Stavin said, “It is not wise to ask a thunder warrior for mercy. But nevertheless, I thank you for your honesty. We won't hesitate either.”

As the two began to wrap up their discussion, one of the God-Slayers that had disappeared into the junction reappeared covered in sticky chunks of vitae. Each step by the genewarrior was taken leisurely without an ounce of urgency. As they closed the distance with Aeternus, Caligula split away to accept what he could only interpret as a report from the squad lead. A brief moment passes as the two speak out of earshot. Shortly after, the God-Slayer leaves back down the junction and the First Cadre Captain returns to the Primarch’s side.

“The Eighty-Eighth is preparing a breakthrough at the next wall, Rex. Squad Salathiel murdered the last wandering militants in the local area. Should give some breathing room for Fortunate Fifty while we’re making our approach.” Caligula quickly reported, chuckling at the given nickname for the Thirty-One-Third. The auspex supplied by the kneeling genewarrior pinged once more in accurate presentation of what had been reported. A large mass of the Imperial Army had been massing at the rim of the Spire’s outer walls. The next phase of the siege was preparing to begin.

“Then let us waste no more time. Unity awaits us all.” Primarch Aeternus quickly stated, gesturing for the genewarrior with the heavy auspex to stand. Captain Caligula placed his helmet against his skull, swiftly removing it from the protruding spike. The God-Slayers at the edge of the plaza left ahead of the Primarch, while the rest gathered in a protective clump around the Thirty-One-Third. Rex, in particular, waded out in front of Colonel Stavin with the First Cadre Captain at his side. The sounds of reinvigorated fighting welcomed their short journey to the spire walls.

Credit: Aeternus/God-Slayers @MarshalSolgriev, Colonel Stavin/Thirty-One-Third Penal Legion @BornOnBoard
The Umbral Jihad

-Thiry-Four Years After Arrival-

Lances of graviton beams pierced through the shields of a nearby cruiser, scything through the ablative plating with ease. The vessel began to collide inward as graviton particles permeated throughout the interior of the warship. Metal crunched, snapped, and twisted until an explosion ultimately declared the death of thousands. Those starfaring vessels that watched their comrade suffer catastrophe turned away in a retreat. To the surprise of the attackers, those ships were swift in their withdrawal despite the impressive size of the defenders. Several bastions of metal, wide enough to fit on a continent and long enough to cover an ocean, successfully ran away with their engines burning at maximum capacity. The silvery-green rays of malevolent energy failed to reach their targets, falling short of their intended targets. Resigned to a slow slaughter, the carriers of such weapons followed after in sluggish pursuit.

A behemoth of immeasurable proportion hunted the fleeing prey through the void. The being was incomparable in shape to those of its class with long stretches of reinforced metal, swathes of weapon mounts, and a spear-shaped battering ram on the prow. Six great antennas extended on the bottom and top of the warship, reaching out into the abyss to grasp star streams with elongated talons. Thirteen voidsails dotted both sides of the vessel’s edge, emphasizing the size and boosting engine capacity for maximum speed. Despite the irrelevance of fabric in space, innumerable amounts of banners with the Pandjoran symbol of a sword and dusken sun whipped across the titan’s hull. The prow of the vessel, although fitted with a fearsome spear, dragged downwards into the darkness like a scythe into fresh meat. Disgustingly, both sides of the ‘scythe’ were sharpened to monomolecular edges.

Within the gargantuan holds of this behemoth, the Pandjoran clans scrambled with every absence of oneness in their minds. Telemetry data was secured, transferred, and forwarded to the correct stations. Munitions platforms were refueled with synthetic graviton-density capsules. Legions of duskborn warriors and their lesser non-Pandjoran mamluk readied their weapons with malevolent intent. Hafiz ambled through the corridors with their censers high and their litanies loud. Menials chaotically dashed with secular purposes, wandering the vast halls of the warship to fulfill obscure duties. The chaos on this vessel was only a fraction of the discord felt throughout the Umbral Armada. It was felt more thoroughly on the command bridge of the titan as voidsman coordinated concise instructions out to an expansive fleet.

A singular being of supreme purpose observed from the command throne. They wore the continuously evolving Pandjoran-pattern powered armor with a magnificent serpent silk hood drawn over their head. Talon-tipped gauntlets frustratingly tapped against the arms of the throne. Glaring, orange eyes with serpentine pupils stared out at every soul on the bridge from within their cowl. Beneath the shroud, the deity’s expression was difficult to read, yet it radiated an aura of distaste. The bickerings of the bridge ground to a halt as the voxmaster slowly approached the being. The ever-observing orbs focused entirely on the mortal as it awaited recognition.

Malik Zaphariel, Umbral King of Pandjoras, the request for a response from the Krakkarin System Alliance has been approved after their last attempted assault. They refused to submit a subject, noting it was only for the ‘commander of the invading empire’.” The voxmaster, a Bahamutian voidsman, bowed their heavily augmented head towards the Malik of Pandjoras. His orange eyes momentarily disappeared into the darkness, closed to seemingly meditate on the issue. In truth, he had grown tired of this mess. Wordlessly, he waved one of his talon-tipped gauntlets towards the voxmaster, submitting to the communications with Krakkarins.

Seconds passed before the hololithic table at the center of the ornate bridge burst to life with an ethereal display. Several humans appeared in digitalized format, obscured by the capabilities of a short-range transmission on a holographic projector. All of them wore bulky armor with hefty pauldrons, long tabards, and militarized respirators over their jaws. A slurry of augmentations dotted their complexions from mechanical eyes to temple-implanted datafeeders. Each aspired to machine supremacy in one way or another, yet every member of their transmission appeared old and stubborn. A consistent wheezing in the background confirmed their overwhelming reliance on millennia-old augmentations to support their ailing bodies. The first one began to speak, an elder man with a brand of a cross burnt into his forehead flesh.

“You seem to have won out in our last engagement, but we refuse to back down and submit to the likes of the Star Sultanate! Your original messenger affirmed our fears, spared us the dance of feigned diplomacy, and awakened our battle song! We will not negotiate terms with the duskborn, unless it is in regards to a full surrender and subsequent retreat from our systems!” His voice was heavily synthesized between age, augmentation, and general garbled communications over vox. Despite that fact, he displayed a fierce stance of ferocious pride and stubbornness. Every passing second the man made an aggressive swing of the arm or a deepening of his furrowed brows to emphasize a point.

“We’ve already discussed this, Governor-Commander Alexos. The actions of Emir Saladin Gallos were delinquent. Our Star Sultanate has no wish to stomp out your culture nor does it wish to override the millennia-old traditions of your worlds. You know the reason I am calling is for a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. Without fear of retaliation from both sides, we can settle our differences on neutral ground without-” Zaphariel ibn Varranis began to speak in a calm tone, gently explaining the situation to the Governor-Commander as he had before. He locked eyes with the hologram, ensuring that his intentions were displayed with confidence. Alexos, however, had different plans and abruptly interrupted the Malik of Pandjoras.

It is futile, Malik! We will not be treated as more minor lifeforms in your rigorous class system! We won’t be pawns in a play for supremacy during the birth of a young stellar empire! We have survived for millennia without aid, supremacy, and atrocity! Your vassal revealed the darkest truths of the Illuminated Star Sultanate of Pandjoras and we have found it wanting. Let this be the last communication between us, belligerent cur.” Governor-Commander Alexos spat every word with the fury of a thousand and one ancients. If his mouth had been free of a respirator, then Zaphariel rationalized that spittle would be flying across the screen. A slam of a nearby terminal on the other side of the transmission was the knife in the heart of their negotiations. The connection ended as abruptly as it had begun. A long sigh escaped the lips of the dusken deity.

The bridge of the Umbral Armada’s flagship, the Dawn of Pandjoras, was deathly silent. Each voidsman had turned away from their meticulous work to either listen or watch the response from their prophet-king with a vested interest. Some held a silent fury for the insults delivered, while others gleefully awaited the given orders to march upon the System Alliance’s worlds. The voxmaster swiveled from the hololithic table’s cogitator to the seated form of their supreme ruler. They only found saddened, frustrated eyes in the darkness of the serpent silk hood.

Two-hundred worlds brought into the fold through peaceful integration, accepting circumstances, and limitless aid. Not a single world has rebelled against Sultanate rule in the history of our birth. Nearly a thousand warships patrol every corner of our governed space. All nearly forsaken for the ambitions of a single man.” The Malik of Pandjoras stated aloud. He knew well that Saladin Gallos had been an absurdly ambitious individual. To what extent did he think he’d gain from such an underhanded ploy such as this? The thoughts rattled around in his mind for longer than he would’ve liked. He turned to address Shipmaster Sahir, who patiently stood beside him with his hands royally clasped behind. “Did he think I wouldn’t notice? Is he a fool? Over a million souls have pledged their service to me and I have not betrayed their expectations once. Hundreds of thousands of hassan, scattered to the edges of known space and he tried to venture out past our journey?”

The disbelief was evident on the thirty-year-old ruler’s face, twisted only by minor disgust and mental exhaustion. Sahir had watched for the past fourteen years as Zaphariel grew into a proper padishah, yet even he was surprised at the sudden breach of confidence. Something toiled from within him as the gargantuan deity struggled to handle obvious betrayal. He carefully selected the next words as he spoke them. “It was betrayal, my Malik, simple and clean. Ambitious fools are surprisingly common on our planet, yet you managed to weed out the majority of them. Only one more remains. There is no question about the punishment that he should face. If fate is fortunate, then he will perish in the conflict with Governor-Commander Alexos.” Sahir responded with a neutral tone just as he had previously on separate occasions. It earned a simple nod from the Malik of Pandjoras, supplemented by a raised talon in the air.

“An intentional mistake, my friend, for I knew his daughter would reel in his ambitious tendencies. I was mistaken to think that Saladin cared for his daughter. Upon the apex of Pandjoras’ greatest achievement, I battled with myself for thirteen days and thirteen nights about Saladin Gallos’ fate. Ultimately, I chose a bloodless option to allow Miska a life with her father. Now, we pay the price for a decision I should’ve made two decades ago.” Zaphariel explained with a hint of mortal compassion playing on his lips. The thought of Miska brought a coolness to his frustration, easing the temper that threatened to flair were it not for his oneness. A spark of fury, however, wormed through his speech. “His demise, however, is correct. I will feed his skull to Falak and let his body nurture a hibernaculum for her offspring in the bowels of this warship.”

Shipmaster Sahir felt his throat tighten in fear. The Malik of Pandjoras never feigned punishments throughout the Sultanate. In this instance, the man that was known as Saladin Gallos ceased to exist. He shared a look with the voxmaster, who replied with a simple nod and began to relay fresh orders to different conduits. Some of the voidsman had turned away in fear at the thought of their bodies being used as void serpent fertilizer. Others cracked small, sadistic smiles for the fate of a betrayer in their stellar empire. The former ashen raider, however, dismissed any notion of persuading Zaphariel from his actions. Instead, Sahir turned to the next discussion with a direction transition from the original.

“Understood, Malik Zaphariel, your will shall be done. There is another matter besides the fate of Saladin Gallos. We are now in open war with the Krakkarin System Alliance. They’ve chosen to fight a war of attrition from their fifteen worlds spread across three sectors. As you know, we’ve stationed blockades at every orbital dock, Empyrean lane, and sector edge. The hassan have exercised restraint in bringing each world to their knees, awaiting your final order to execute their clade orders.” Sahir pointedly spoke with a dataslate in one hand and the other behind his back. He glared over the specific information meticulously scrubbed, translated, and presented through the Umbral Armada. It was widely known, even to the Malik, that the Pandjoran legions were prepared to fight an overt war if necessary. Only a simple matter of execution was required to begin the process. He didn’t wait long for a reply from the dusken deity. It appeared that Zaphariel had already decided before their conversation began.

“Execute the leadership on every world, every fleet and every army save for their homeworld. No matter the fact that it was our failure that resulted in this war, Pandjoran blood has been shed for a misunderstanding on a minute level. We have no use for an obstinate culture to survive in the Sultanate. Unleash the legions upon Krakkaris Prime, dismiss Sultan Tassassar of the First Conclave, and ready a vox-wide transmission to the planet. If we can avoid a complete genocide, then I would rather gamble the chance to force an old dog to prostrate instead. If the populace refuses,” The Malik of Pandjoras stated without a hint of remorse, aware of the orders that he had issued. He watched voidsman scurry to transmit fresh communications on top of the previous ones. Zaphariel noticed a glint of anticipation in some of their eyes as if a fire had been lit in the duskenborn. His next words felt like the fanning of a flame as he spoke them. “Then cull them into compliance. It is time to announce the Umbral Jihad.”

As if promethium had been ignited, a thousand and one different actions took place in seconds. An umbral jihad had been announced across the Sultanate. The young stellar empire had never waged war on a supreme scale as the old world wars of the cataclysm. Now that one had been announced, the thousand and one skirmishes with xenos raiders and minor rebellions were coming to fruition. Posts, largely ceremonial in value, were activated in the Armada and prepared for large-scale conflict planet-side. Vehicles of war, fashioned from Bahamutian tech and reversed-engineered machines from vassals, were brought out of stagnation to fight. The Lessons of Hassan, ceremoniously sung by the skull-masked hafiz, switched to the Lessons of Dusk and anointed fresh recruits with the Tears of Pandjoras. Overt war was a rare thing in their culture, yet the Pandjorans were ready to deliver death if necessary.

Malik Zaphariel watched the command bridge become a blur of activity for a moment longer before standing. Shipmaster Sahir bowed his head in respect, then supplanted the place where his master had sat seconds before. There was no ceremonious call to attention, nor were instruments played as the Malik of Pandjoras departed. The heavy cloak of a grave burden clung to the dusken deity’s shoulders as he entered into the ship-wide maglev. As the doors closed, locking away his view from the command bridge, the prophet-king allowed himself a tiny, devious smile. Saladin Gallos had been a thorn in his side for twenty years and the Sultanate hadn’t participated in any great wars. His orchestration of fate had been perfect. All it took was a slight push from one of his many agents to rile the Nazim into action. He felt the want to laugh in celebration of the fruits of his labor, but he stifled his expressions for a mask of grim neutrality. Everything had gone just as planned, the same as it had before and after every single event.

Krakkarin Prime. A wasteland of a planet that spun around a pair of stars slowly combining in a death spiral. Poisonously green lakes dotted the surface in sporadic patches, while huge clumps of civilization blotted the sky with black clouds. A choking, orange landscape poked out from wherever the Krakkarin populace was least established. Devoid of verdant life, Krakkarin remained a testament to mankind’s willpower to harness the harsh mistress known as nature. Several space stations with a plethora of miniature dry docks orbited around the black-orange sphere in slow circles. Warships of small to medium caliber docked with these, refitting their bombardment cannons and point defense silos in a rush to meet the oncoming invaders. A trio of moons lingered around the world, each covered in a mess of dotted civilizations and surface-to-space defense weapons. They had been prepared for war from the start of their existence as if the universe plotted against them.

The outriders of the Sultanate fleet emerged from the Empyrean with tendrils of lilac licking off their scarred plating. Daunting frigates with scythe-like prows ventured into firing proximity of Krakkarin. Ballistic salvos from the Krakkarin fleet, the point-defense stations, and the horrendously armed moons bellowed death into the void. Pointed slugs the size of armored vehicles raced across the abyss in a race to welcome annihilation. The Pandjoran warships met the attack with reinforced shields, boosted by the psionics of Urahlian seers and Bahamutian repulsor-barriers. Farflung fighter-sized bullets bit into the protective shells, each threatening to buckle under the sheer amount of firepower absorbed. One of the Pandjoran frigates’ lost its shielding, buckling under the intense wave of the preliminary attacks. Piercing ammunition punctured hull-plating to such effect that the frigate began to crumple, resulting in a short explosion of cataclysmic energy. Krakkarins cheered over the general vox as they scored first blood against the invading forces of the Star Sultanate.

Until the arriving frigates returned fire with the malevolent force of a newborn god. Prow-mounted gravitic lances erupted in short, controlled bursts that pierced the shields of an archaic civilization. Outlying defense stations, corvettes, and lesser frigates were promptly destroyed in the counterattack. Each graviton lance delivered mayhem on every successful target, forcing hull plates and bulwarks to crunch in upon themselves in twisted death. On the upper platings of the Pandjoran frigates, ballistic hatches slid open to launch a plethora of devastating missiles screaming into space. As slow and lumbering as torpedoes, each payload would’ve been destroyed if launched at the beginning of combat; however, the Krakkarin fleet was now wounded by the initial graviton lances. To the surprise of the defenders, those screaming projectiles smashed into unshielded defenses. Moon-based turrets, military space stations, and blockading vessels disappeared in blossoms of eerily green-tinged plumes. Despite the initial victory against the Pandjorans, the System Alliance suddenly realized their folly.

As the frigates pressed forward with their annihilation, another wave from the Umbral Armada emerged in close proximity around the planet. Each came as a devastating cluster of warships primed for annihilation. Where one set would come from the system’s southward position, the next would come from the northward, and then the eastward, and so on until the arrival of the Sultanate’s most prestigious vessel. The Dawn of Pandjoras cut through the Empyrean like a leviathan being born from the myths of ages past. Aided by a trio of heavy cruisers, the dreadnought lumbered from the southward position with its myriad weapons of destruction ready to devastate. The Krakkarin war fleet, however, had been decimated by the outriders of the Sultanate. Proud warships that had seen the birth of their civilization drifted into the void as crumbled wrecks or burnt husks. Pandjoran voidships patrolled nearby, adhering to the will of the Malik and refraining from orbital bombardments. The heavier vessels drifted closer on perpetual motion, adjusting with maneuverable thrusters to deliver a thousand and one transports unto Krakkarin. The first part of the invasion had begun as fat-bellied dropships, heavy haulers, and titanic transports descended upon the black-orange regions of the wasteland planet.

The vox-channels of the System Alliance were flooded with panic as the first Pandjorans landed in their wastelands. Strings of encrypted messages rapidly reached every Krakkarin commander who could listen. Orders were rushed, defenses were mustered, and the disparate cities were ready to combat the invaders. Nothing had prepared them for what came next as the vox-channels were decyphered, broken, and opened for the Sultanate to speak into. The warm, soothing tone of the Malik of Pandjoras pierced through the divided channels.

+’I am the Malik of Pandjoras, Zaphariel ibn Varranis, and I have come to your world to right the wrongs of your leaders. We did not want to fight a war and usher in chaos across the System Alliance, but your leaders have forsaken you. Many Karrakin will die for the sake of stubbornness; however, the Sultanate will show clemency to those who are willing to live. For thirteen days and thirteen nights, the duskborn will not invade your cities or descend upon your armies. You may come to us and we will welcome you with open arms as friends, allies, and comrades seeking a greater future together. Join us in our pursuit of destiny! Glory unto Pandjoras!’+ His voice was the most solemn it had ever been, filled with duty and grief. Each word was spoken with the weight of a king’s promise, emphasizing the righteousness and compassion of the Sultanate’s actions. The vox-channels exploded in a flurry of activity as the message reached all edges of Krakkarin Prime. A thousand and one different opinions were hurled between laypeople, governors, and persons of order. Encrypted transmissions saw the most diversity as many commanders dangerously lingered on the verge of desertion. Worst of all was the grave violation of rights executed by Governor-Commander Alexos, who silenced all transmissions with a final grim order.

+’Kill every single member of the Sultanate that you greet. If you wish to join their side, then strap a bomb to your body and run into their camps. We will not surrender, we will not withdraw, and we will not bow to the Pandjorans. Should any of the populace show signs of resistance, then execute as you see fit.’+ The words were as morally draining as they were disappointing. Crisp silence blanked the vox-channels in an oppressive film.

For thirteen days and thirteen nights, not a single soul escaped from the entrenched cities of the Krakkarin System Alliance.

Zaphariel observed the affair from a nearby cluster of rocks far from the citadel-city of Karthos. He had watched the city that Governor-Commander Alexo commanded the entirety of the System Alliance from for fourteen cycles. Shrieks and shouts of rebellion filled the silence of the passing days as Krakkarins rose in defiance of their ineffective leaders. Their insurrections were short-lived as Krakkarin ballistics were turned on the people they swore to protect. The Malik of Pandjoras could taste the fear of the Alliance commanders as they hid within the safety of their metallic castle. None had dared to confront his legions of duskborn in the time they had given, yet the same was true that no one had managed to reach the safety of the Sultanate forces to escape the carnage. He briefly considered on the tenth day to send the hassan to finish the task, yet Zaphariel was firm in his conviction to allow his enemies their grace period.

A period of time that had passed. The Malik of Pandjoras turned away from the burgeoning, triple-layer walls of Karthos and towards the legions of warriors that hailed from the dusken world. Thousands of duskborn awaited his words, clad in the powered armor of their homeworld and armed with the weapons that could slaughter void serpents. Harvester dropships, heavily altered to fulfill new roles in the Sultanate, hovered nearby with macro-graviton pulsars and wing-mounted missile racks. Bulky, armored vehicles on low-intensity gravity shunts waited far behind the walls of infantry with insidiously large gravitic cannons. Immortals, warriors in enormous juggernaut warsuits, lumbered over the regular infantry with heavy monomolecular lances and body-sized claws with graviton-spraying talons. Noble hafiz with skull-shaped masks in midnight blue robes walked through the formations with censers spilling Pandjoran incense in one hand and serpent tooth scimitars in the other. Urahalian warseers quietly mediated amongst their number in dusken shrouds, each gripping runes in their talon-tipped gauntlets. At the edges of their legion, the serpent-tamers calmed their vicious ophidians with soothing songs of the penumbral planet. Finally, the most fearsome of all, the great serpent Falak coiled nearby with her eyes lingering on Zaphariel.

One of the duskborn approached him. A warrior in Pandjoran-powered armor, serpent silk shroud, and a half-skull helmet. As the distance was closed, the soldier offered a respectful salaam and a bowing of their head. A monomolecular blade swung from a sheathe on his left waist and a graviton pistol hung from a holster on his right side. Zaphariel returned the gesture with his own, dipping his head forward to receive the genuflection. The warrior rose once more, straightening his posture in the presence of his liege.

“Malik Zaphariel, the First Conclave is prepared to fight when you are ready. The rest of the legions have confirmed their readiness across Krakkarin. If we should need it, then the Umbral Armada has loaded a thousand and one shells to fight should you request it. The Conclaves will not fail you, my Umbral King.” The man’s voice was rough and solemn, leaving little room for pleasantry outside of his dialogue with Zaphariel. The dusken deity felt a commanding aura from the warrior, born from a lifetime of war and doctrine. He smiled beneath the hood of his dusken shroud, forcing some discomfort from the warrior-leader.

“You’ve grown up well, Tassassar, I can smell the fragrance of Neu Maccos in your blood. Emir Tayyeb has raised a strong son to lead in the Umbral Armada. No doubt, you feel you’re on the verge of greatness here,” Zaphariel responded in a soothing tone, each word laced with dripping honey. The reverberations spilled out of his tongue, echoing the sentence several times over. Tassassar appeared to visibly relax and hungrily await each word spoken by the Malik. He cursed his inability to completely control his serpent’s song. Nevertheless, he pressed on. “However, you will have to forgive me for stealing away that glory to lead our people. One day, I will compensate you for the fables told today. You and your sister both will receive what is rightfully yours.”

A moment passed as Tassassar processed the words, awkwardly adjusting his stance to deal with the sudden influx of emotion. Zaphariel was certain that he had been mesmerized before the Tuturian properly replied to him. “There… is no issue with this, my Malik. The honor of my sister joining hands with House Varranis as your wife is more than enough. You would continue to honor me by watching over her. Now, shall we drown them in dusk?” Tassassar managed to finally respond, bowing his head to the overwhelming form of the Umbral King. As he moved out of his genuflection, Zaphariel nodded his head in affirmation. Wordlessly, the half-skull helmet of the Sultan turned towards a group of kneeling duskborn behind him. He raised his talon-tipped gauntlet into the sky and swung it downwards in a chopping motion.

The war began in earnest after that singular gesture from the Sultan of the First Conclave. A thousand and one voices speaking the harsh language of the dusken world rallied Zaphariel’s legion into a controlled frenzy. Louder than ever before, the hafiz began to guide the warriors of Pandjoras in a fervent song of the Void Valley. The mamluk responded in crude Pandjoran, clearly inexperienced with the tongue of the umbral planet. Harvester dropships lifted high into the air, retaining a moderate altitude to defend the advancing Conclave from arcing artillery. Hovering tanks in the far back began to anchor themselves with a mixture of gravity tethers and serpent-hunting hooks. Graviton cannons were pointed to the sky charging with a thousand and one particle-cells. The serpent-tamers whispered an incoherent dialect of Pandjoran mixed with ophidian hisses, coaxing them into a hunting mania. The duskborn warriors clumped together in tight squads stalking behind the larger packs of mamluk.

Karthos did not wait for the First Conclave to close the distance. As if the citadel-city had awoken from a deep slumber, the rigid thumping of artillery and the harsh snap of ballistics echoed throughout the wastelands of Krakkarin. Enormous, blocky vehicles with two sets of wings emerged from within the city. Racks of missiles, heavy cannons, and quad-barrel turrets turned their attention to the Sultanate’s invading forces. Heavy machines on fat treads sallied out of the gates with their topside cannons aimed at the duskborn. A plethora of men in dense, slow-moving armor lumbered in tandem with the machines. Multibarreled weapons were carried by these warriors, their armor bolstering their height and strength several times over. The blast of a horn blared across Karthos as the first battle began.

Zaphariel observed the arcing shells flying through the sky from unseen artillery. He smiled as the harvester dropships unleashed a responsive payload from their missile racks to intercept. The missiles collided with the artillery, cascading plumes of explosives across the sky in wide swathes. His serpentine eyes turned towards the battle on the ground as the mamluk and duskborn evaded salvos of ballistic death. A crew of lumbering Krakkarin’s sprinted towards the exposed flank of a wandering squad. They were quickly intercepted by duskborn in similarly large powered armor, torn to shreds by monomolecular claws and spears of enormous proportions. The first of the System Alliance’s tanks exploded in a gout of flames as a gravitic cannon pierced through the primitive hull with ease. Void serpents hunted through rock, stone, and metal on ethereal leashes, diving into tanks and bunkers alike to feast. The Malik of Pandjoras could see the tides of war churn ever in their favor as the System Alliance’s soldiers began to retreat, withdraw, or surrender. He clicked his tongue in disappointment. His eyes turned away from the battle to rest upon the leviathan form of Falak.

“Go and hunt. Return to me when you are finished feasting.” He stated with a commanding voice, walking forward to place a talon-tipped gauntlet on Falak’s head. Even now, he could see his bodily proportions changing as a single fist was as large as the elder serpent’s eye. Her scales pulsated beneath his touch, reacting in an unfathomable form. The great serpent of the void pulled away from his touch, diving through the soil of Krakkarin to hunt. Her form disappeared, lost beneath a thousand and one grains of blasted dirt. To his surprise, Falak reemerged at the edge of the city to bite into one of the heavy hovercraft of the System Alliance. The behemoth machine was pulled into the far-off wasteland, exploding into a great, nuclear plume. Unphased by the actions of his pet monstrosity, the Malik of Pandjoras ambled down towards the quickly falling city of Karthos.

Duskborn unleashed waves of gravitic bullets into the Sultanate’s enemies, reinforced by the enhanced stubbers of the mamluk and the overwhelming defense of the Pandjoran juggernauts. Overhead, the harvester dropships vented fury into densely packed artillery formations with macro pulsars. The gravity tanks, satisfied with their initial engine kills, had begun to drift forward to acquire a new firing position. As a stalemate began to fester at the eastward gates, Zaphariel emerged from the seams of reality with tendrils of dark lilac lightning coursing off of his dusken shroud. Each step of the dusken deity was as light as a grain of black sand and launched him several meters closer. The malevolent guns of the Krakkarin’s attempted to target the dusken deity to no avail. He danced across the wastelands with each hypnotizing lunge, clawing through flesh and metal in microseconds during the macabre caper. Monomolecular talons pierced the tank hull, ripping apart tread as easily as he tore through sinew. The First Conclave watched in awe as their Malik murdered his way through Karthos’ defenses with inhuman ease, despite wearing the powered armor of Pandjoras. The phantom form of the prophet-king settled by the closed gates of the citadel-city. Their Umbral King breathed in once, gathering the wisps of unreality around him.


The gate crumpled as the words of reality began to fester through the ethereal veil. Metal as thick as an elder serpent's body was long began to crunch within itself. The threads of the world answered his call in ways unfathomable. The destruction of the crumbling portal halted as the bolts began to crack and warp. Zaphariel closed his eyes in disappointment, hiding the planet from his view for a solitary moment. Oneness surrounded him in a silent web of concentration. As he opened his serpentine eyes, the Malik of Pandjoras pulled a strange blade from a scabbard dangling off his right side. A beautiful, curved blade with a monomolecular edge hummed with power at the press of a Pandjoran rune. The dusken deity raised the blade and swiped downwards in a slow, curving arc. The barrier shattered into several blocks with the precise, inhuman strikes of the prophet-king. A thousand and one cheers in the Pandjoran tongue echoed behind him as they rushed forward. Despite the victory, he felt despondent regarding his abilities. Never working when mustered, but always performing against his will. He ambled forward into Karthos as the blade was sheathed once more.

Although he had broken apart their gate like the crashing waves of an umbral tide, Zaphariel knew that victory was still a short way off. Duskborn poured into the city with their mamluk allies at the forefront. Warriors ranging from different worlds across the Sultanate, like the long-eared Idratharians, bestial-faced Monolokians, or the lizard-people Zteklokians. They fought with the fiery and fire of one hailing from Pandjoras and more. The Malik of Pandjoras grinned at the surprising efforts of the mamluk and began to reconsider their role in Pandjoran culture. An unnerving stomp drew his attention away from the flooding duskborn. The duskclad juggernauts walked in a half-circle before him, each bearing their weapon in a defensive pose to shield him. Their impressive size was a boon to the Sultanate, but they were easily dwarfed by his inhuman height.

The Malik of Pandjoras softly laughed, forcing their lumbering forms to regard him with inquisitive looks beneath the plating. Zaphariel raised a hand to halt their oncoming question as he adjusted himself. “I apologize, good friends! You honor me with your endurance, but I do not require protection. Go, protect your less armored brothers and sisters. Your Malik of Pandjoras will be fine.” His voice was surprisingly energetic, regardless of the self-imposed defeat from moments ago. He could feel them strain the warsuits to kneel in an attempt to honor him, yet the Umbral King laid a hand on one of their pauldrons. A single look from beneath his shroud was enough to invigorate their leviathan physiques. The one that he had touched raised the monomolecular lance into the air, ushering in a fresh charge through Karthos.

As the last of the first wave passed into the citadel-city, Zaphariel turned his attention to the tallest structure around. The Malik rationalized that Karthos wasn’t a hive city, yet understood the universal importance of a spire. A great, jagged shape that cut the clouds and loomed over everything that it deemed ‘lesser’. One such building existed within these walls, yet it paled in comparison to the towering heights of Idrathar III or Pandjoras’ gravity palaces. A stout, flat-roofed tower made of staunch-white concrete rose like a finger over Karthos. Weapon emplacements belched torrents of bullets from heavy weapons off parapet-balconies. The dusken deity narrowed his eyes to hone in on a motionless transport at the top of the tower, clearly used in the most dire of circumstances. Defensible, utilitarian, and as ugly as the badlands that it lorded over. He knew without a second thought that the Governor-Commander hid at the peak of it.

A plethora of shadows ducked and weaved in sparse groups around him. Zaphariel could keenly feel the presence of the hassan even as they spread out to slaughter. One squad remained in proximity to his form, protecting against anything that could harm him. Regardless of the frustration, the Malik of Pandjoras felt a sense of pride that every duskborn would so valiantly rally to his side. He flashed a toothy grin in their direction, unnerving those bound to the shadows of Krakkarin. Perhaps, after having been easily noticed, the hassan disappeared to execute a different mission. The thoughts left him as the sounds of battle reignited once more. New firefights had cropped up as the First Conclave pushed through Karthos’ concrete labyrinth. The dusken deity leaped from his position, eschewing the observative stance he had taken to view the battlefield.

As his armored feet landed on top of a concrete building, he stared into it with his eyes narrowing. Serpentine pupils adjusted to see radiant heat signatures within. Unsurprisingly, he only saw the dim warmth of dead bodies filled with plentiful wounds. He had known that the quest to liberate Karthos was altogether vanity, yet the dusken deity had hoped to achieve some form of forgiveness for his actions. Zaphariel released the razor-sharp focus of his orange eyes and turned to the closest alcove below him. Duskborn warriors fiercely battled the grey-armored Krakkarin militants. Pandjoran monomolecular weapons ferociously tore into human flesh, easily piercing through the System Alliance carapace. Bursts of gravitic bullets warped the wounds inflicted on the Krakkarin’s, forcing them to their knees or crumpling their body from within. It was a scene that was playing across the entirety of Karthos as the war waged on. Artillery no longer filled their ears with shrieking shells, nor did their hovering behemoths harass the Pandjoran assailants. The Malik of Pandjoras wondered if there was even a point to his intervention as he deftly leaped to the next building. Each step brought him closer to the ugly Krakkarin spire.

Governor-Commander Alexos worriedly observed the battlefield from the uppermost balcony hanging over the spire. The Krakkarin military spat death onto a tide of black-orange warriors from the Sultanate, each Pandjoran corpse quickly replaced with another in an unending torrent. Other abhumans mingled into the mess of their enemies, such as disgusting beastmen and inhumanly tall individuals with gangly limbs. His eyes scanned the city in a desperate attempt to locate the rest of the System Alliance forces. It was a vain effort as the Sultanate was swiftly sweeping through the defenses they had prepared during the grace period. He hadn’t expected their frontal gate, the very symbol of their ingenious defenses, to crumple at the hands of the Malik. Sweat beaded down his forehead as the situation appeared grim.

Alexos slammed his fists against the parapet, threatening to crack the stone beneath his powered gauntlets. Anger burned in him as a festering wound in a dying body. Everything was displeasing to him, even the people who had lived in Karthos were disappointing. He turned away from the despairing sight of the siege towards the gaggle of officers surrounding a hololithic table. An image of Krakkarin rose as a digital entity in real space. His ears picked up their discussion as he approached.

“... And Mundas Ire has already fallen to the Sultanate. Commander Yavros was reported as deceased at the time of their assault. No doubt it was the work of the legendary Pandjoran hassans. Seventy-five percent of Karthos’ zones have already been lost to their advance as well. We need to start looking at an exit stra-” One of the officers, a tall man with a thin beard and slicked black hair, had been speaking at a rapid pace to the rest of the group. As the final words left his mouth, Alexos closed the distance and delivered a fierce punch to the officer’s face. The man fell backward onto his back, clutching the wound on his face from the strength-enhanced punch of the Governor-Commander. His place at the table was quickly replaced by the assailant.

There will be no retreat or exit strategy. We cannot lose to an empire of sandborn savages from the furthest reaches of space. The System Alliance has prevailed for five thousand years even when the void storms began to darken our nights. We are the last bastion of humanity left in the universe. Falling here would mean the demise of humankind as it was.” Alexos’ face was bright red, darkened with furious emotions emphasized by the brooding tone in his voice. The officers listened with a mixture of awe and fear as their leader silenced the dissenter. The Governor-Commander straightened himself out and pointed toward the bottom of the spire on the hololithic map. “It is time we unleashed the witches of the wastelands upon the invaders. If they cannot win out against the Sultanate, then we will resort to the nuclear payload from our ancestors.”

Each of the officers began to pale at the thought of the things that had been kept locked away since the darkest nights. Creatures of legend, monsters of folktale, and beings of malevolence were sealed in a cell of impossible creation below the spire. The men and women in the room cautiously looked at each other with desperate eyes. Alexos, of them all, held the darkest expression as he rationalized the release of cataclysmic beings upon Krakkarin. He knew it was the price for victory, yet he wasn’t certain how it would ultimately turn out.

An explosion rocked the core of the spire, turning their attention away from the discussion and toward the source of destruction. Alexos hurriedly walked out onto one of the three balconies, staring down at the mass of Pandjoras below. Heavily armored warriors in impossibly large plating charged through a mess of Krakkarin infantry, pulverizing those in their way into a fine paste. As they closed the distance between themselves and the spire gates, a hot blast of volcanic hatred vented down upon their lumbering forms. The Sultanate’s heavy infantry screamed out in agony as their bodies disappeared in flashes of bright orange. A temporary retreat was sounded on the invader’s side. Black-orange dots ran away with their abhuman allies covering in vain. The Governor-Commander grew a smile on his lips as their most advanced warsuits stepped out onto the battlefield. Leviathan suits of metal on quadruple legs with a living pilot at the center bore a pair of huge armaments on either side of the cockpit. Five of them sallied out from the spire, unleashing waves of destruction into the most dense group of duskborn.

Satisfied, Alexos turned back toward the officers with a relieved look on his face. A small chuckle bubbled up from their group, easing the rising tension that had begun to spread like a virus. One by one, they all returned to the hololithic table to begin their war planning anew. A vox-shriek from a nearby console pulled their attention away. The console was interacted with by one of their guards, armed with a powered saber and holstered slugthrower. After several seconds of discussion, the sentinel turned to address the officers.

“One of the frontline commanders is coming, Commander Alexos, how would you like to proceed?” His voice was muffled by a vox-filter built into a square helmet. Crimson lenses settled on the squat, frustrated form of the Governor-Commander.

“And deprive our frontlines of a necessary officer? Hardly. Deny access to the commander and inform them to return to the battle with haste. We cannot spare any more time or resources than we are currently expending.” The response was swift, uttered in a fraction of a second after the guard had inquired. The soldier respectfully nodded before leaning back down to the console with a vox-device pressed to his throat. As he completed the request, the guard returned to sentinel duty by the ascender leading up to their conference room. “Now, as I was beginning to say about the witches in the-”

The portal into the chamber exploded outwards with both of the doors flying off of their sliding hinges. Each guard attempted to turn towards the assailant, yet lost their heads in mere seconds of the attack. Vitae gushed from their bodies as a dark shadow began to push through the room. Officers reached down to grab their holstered weapons. The first of their number was picked up with blinding speed and flung through one of the open-air balconies. The second was torn in half by a claw-like weapon that vivisected their body in milliseconds. The third and fourth scrambled to pull the hololithic table up as cover, but their assailant had kicked the furniture against them with such force that their bodies were pasted against the walls. The final officer, reeling from Alexos’ punch, struggled to pull his weapon free. A swift, precise kick to the stomach was enough to render them unconscious. All that remained was the Governor-Commander.

He raised his fists with malice, arcs of electricity dancing across the enhancing gauntlets of his warsuit. The shadowy thing began to meld out of the chaos, swathed in Pandjoran-pattern powered armor and dusken shroud alike. Talon-tipped gauntlets dripped with fresh ichor from the defeated Krakkarins, while a small grin flashed beneath a dark hood. Their size was absurd as they towered above him as a monolithic deity of old Karthos. Alexos knew without a doubt that the Malik of Pandjoras had invaded his chambers to slice open his throat. Strangely, the dusken entity waited for him to act first.

“You’re a fool, Malik! You cannot simply walk into the spire and leave with your life! Do you court death with your vain wishes for your blasted homeworld? Can you not fathom the hopelessness of your forces against the might of the Krakkarin System Alliance!?” Alexos spit out as he lunged forward with his right fist raised to strike the Malik of Pandjoras. He watched as the Pandjoran easily evaded the attack, walking past him without an ounce of fear. As the Governor-Commander turned to fight back, he realized that his right forearm was gone. Cut perfectly at the elbow, vitae bubbled up and spilled out of the wound with urgency. The Krakkarin fell to his knees as pain overwhelmed his senses. His eyes turned away from the injury to the dusken deity with eternal hatred. The prophet-king uttered a small laugh as he looked down on Alexos.

“For someone who thinks they are a player in the great game, I’m surprised you didn’t realize how you merely played as a pawn. Thanks to you, Alexos, you’ve given the Pandjorans an endless supply of confidence for millennia to come. Any future war that we wage will be done so with ease. Thanks to you, I can finally remove a venomless serpent from my conquest of the stars. There is much that I have to thank you for, dear enemy,” Zaphariel finally spoke, each word graced with an increasing smile that quickly grew into an unnervingly toothy grin. He stepped forward towards the kneeling form of Alexos, who tried to shuffle backward on shambling limbs. There was some part of him deep down that enjoyed watching his prey scuttle in fear. Effortlessly, he lifted the man by his armpits as he walked out onto the balcony. Now face to face, the Malik of Pandjoras could discern every disgusting feature on his imperfect edifice. “But one of the best things you could’ve for me was given plentiful justification to enact every part of this war. As we close this chapter, my friend, I will unleash your witches and cut them down before my Pandjorans. They will weep tears of gratitude and wipe your culture from the annals of history. Your people will become nothing but cosmic dust in our great quest for the Star Serpent.

Held aloft in his arms like a child, Alexos began to hyperventilate and sob. His eyes screamed for mercy in their wet stare. Each sob caused his body to struggle in his claws, yet Alexos still managed to slip out a string of meaningless words. “S-Saladin was right! You’re a monster in human skin! You are the bane of your people! You will usher in darkness upon the galaxy for millennia to come! You are a daemon given mortal form!” The words caused something to stir inside of the Malik of Pandjoras. He had never truly considered the last words of his enemies, yet these expressions filled his soul with an indescribable emotion. For a moment, it appeared as if the Umbral King would spare the enemy that he had fought against. A small puddle of hope began to formulate inside of the Governor-Commander.

Zaphariel snapped back to him with a sad smile, both of his serpentine eyes lingering on the shivering form of the Governor-Commander.. “Indeed, dear Alexos, but with minor adjustments. I will drown the galaxy in a dusk that allows the brightest souls to illuminate it. A new dawn will rise over Pandjoras to free her from the vestiges of darkness eons after I have perished. If becoming a serpent in human skin is what it takes, then I would gladly wear umbral scales to welcome my ideal future. Destiny is within my grasp and I will mold it to my will for my people. Now, my friend, your time has come to drown in dusk.” He replied with a confidence that broke through his perpetual masquerade. Each word was spoken without alteration, allowing his foe to witness his true convictions without shame. A simple toss saw the Governor-Commander of the Krakkarin System Alliance drop from the top of the spire. His screams echoed throughout Karthos as a macabre durge. Many of the warriors fighting in the city turned towards the source with peaked interest. Those closest to the spire witnessed Alexos erupt into a pile of gore as the ground met his plummeting body. No sooner had the lord of the world been defeated did the disparate forces slowly surrender to the might of Pandjoras.

The Malik of Pandjoras breathed in deeply at the serene scene of his enemies surrendering en masse. Their war for Krakkarin was swiftly closing in with satisfactory casualties on the side of the Sultanate. For their first war in nearly a century, Zaphariel considered the quasi-experiment complete as he turned away from the balcony. One test yet remained to be completed. One final push to truly usher destiny’s vestiges into his claws. One last atrocity on Krakkarin to fully deliver the remnants of independence to the Umbral King. As he closed the distance to the hololithic table, his movements began to grow slow and hesitant. Did he truly wish to unleash those supposed witches upon the Pandjorans and Krakkarins? Was it necessary to orchestrate the great quest for destiny? What was the point of the journey if it meant betraying his people? Each thought raced through his head as the hologram of the cells beneath the spire spun before him.

Glory,” Zaphariel ibn Varranis said with a grim frown, pressing one of the runes on the table to activate the cells. The hologram began to blink red with several activation warnings spreading across the display. A thousand and one vocal tones erupted from nearby vox-relays of their impending doom. Another statement appeared before the eyes of the Malik, demanding affirmation of his actions. Without any further hesitation, he pressed the rune once more to accept the demise of those closest to the spire. The inner workings of the spire began to rattle as the horrors of the Old Night were unleashed. He lashed out at the table with a talon, permanently enabling the unlocking procedures. One foot followed the next as Zaphariel grabbed hold of the unconscious officer. A tool that he would use as a scapegoat for his actions. He turned back to view the table as he entered the ascender, glimpsing the blinking runes in holographic tint. “Unto Pandjoras.

The Dawn of Pandjoras was awash with celebration. Banners of freshly woven serpent silk hung from walls with new tales etched within. Instruments of the two hundred worlds blared in different sections of the ship, echoing into a beautiful orchestra of majestic nature. Men and women frolicked in Pandjoran dances, celebrating their survival and fulfilling promises of future endeavors. Duskborn warriors enjoyed the fruits of their labor on mulled serpent blood and lavish meats from across the Sultanate. The myriad mamluk abhumans mingled together with their legionnaire counterparts, happily discussing the next pivotal moments of their life outside of the First Conclave. Hafiz wandered the black sand-covered halls with delightful scents pouring from their censers, and boastful words of victory spilled from their skeleton masks. Menials that had supported the offenses reveled in the glory of new accolades, gloating about different parts of the invasion they had assisted. Even amongst these numbers, there were still more that relished the once-in-a-century accomplishments. Those officers, commanders, and higher-ranked officials who succeeded at Karthos gathered in the largest section of the warship: the Palace of the Malik.

A wide, oval-shaped chamber as wide as thirty harvester dropships and as tall as thirteen elder void serpents rested at the center of the dreadnought. Divided only by the entrances and a small alcove for a bed chamber, the Palace of the Malik was a lavish replica of a gravity palace. Everything was hued in marvelous orange, midnight blue, vibrant purple, and abyssal black. A thousand and one serpent-sculpted glow globes mounted the gravitic stone walls, while wide rugs of ornately decorated serpent silk blanketed the tiled floors. Great pillars rose to support the chamber, chiseled with every tale told on the umbral world. Marvelous murals dotted the walls, each depicting the greatest achievements of the Sultanate in superb detail. Dusken chairs, meditative pillows, and low tables in resplendent glory lined the room in sparse clumps. A graviton particle fountain, carved in a reproduction of the Valley of the Void, lingered at the near center of the room. Built around the fountain was a table beyond imagination, inscribed with the prophetic tale of the Umbral King. Slick cogitators hummed beneath it as orange holograms danced across the decorated surface. Thirteen ornate seats with effigies of the Houses surrounded the table with a final seat replaced by a gorgeous facsimile of the Varranian Throne.

Upon this throne, Zaphariel ibn Varranis happily watched the joy of his people indulge in the lavishness of victory. The great Sultans of House Tuturan and Korvaix drank with one another, pledging oaths of friendship and mending ancient grudges. Mamluk commanders marveled at the sheer size, scale, and majesty of the chamber they’d been permitted to enter. The Hakims of the Hafiz, their spiritual hierarchs and hierophants, meditated closest to the tiny graviton rivers that flowed through the Palace. The immortals, those warriors that wore juggernaut warsuits, loudly laughed with one another as they engaged in martial challenges. Envoys from recently joined cultures across the Sultanate relished the peace and joy they felt in the chamber. Many and more of the highest profiles from the empire wafted through to enjoy the extravagances of the Malik. Mingled into the mix of attendees were twelve of his wives, each dressed in a mixture of House color and Sultanate decor. To his imperceivable joy, even some of the Emir had journeyed to the expanses of space to revel. Of note, however, the dusken deity spied the grown form of Miska al-Gallos in attendance with the prestigious Emir Saladin. Their arrival heralded the beginning of many celebratory nights.

The Malik of Pandjoras rose from the throne with a thin smile on his lips. In the environment of his choosing, Zaphariel had long ago doffed the powered armor of war and instead donned the robes of his ascendancy. An exquisite, void-hued robe fashioned from elder serpent silk and embroidered with his prophecy in ocher colors fit his form. A midnight cloak hung from his shoulders, cascading down his body past regal gloves with talon-tipped rings and imperial balagha with metallic tips. A marigold laurel complimented a crown of eight horns split in even distances, decorated by thirteen, eye-shaped gems topped by a dusken halo lifted by a miniature gravity engine. All eyes turned to the immaculate form of the Sultanate’s Umbral King, pausing amid their conversations or activities to address the dusken deity.

“You all honor me with your attention, attendance, and time in joining our celebration against Krakkarin’s tyranny! I know many of you have traveled far from Pandjoras or further out towards the Serpent’s Tail. I hope that you have found your accommodations acceptable and your drinks filled.” Zaphariel momentarily paused as a brief chuckle erupted like a wave through the attending officials. His orange, serpentine eyes wandered over the crowd as they began to quiet themselves down once more. “As is the tradition of our dusken world, our celebration will last for thirteen days and thirteen nights. Ours is a tradition born from the lessons of the hassan, which encourage us to celebrate every occurrence in which survival is a question and not an answer. These days, we are allowed to drink deeply and express our gratitude to those who protected our lives. One of my favorite lessons that I learned growing up in the halls of Neu Alamut; however, I wish to personally honor those that made the Second Umbral Jihad as bloodless as possible.”

The immortals, who had once been indulging to their heart's delight, maneuvered away from the affairs and rose up to stand beside the throne. Each member was duskborn, donned in a dusken shroud and ornate bodysuits fit for celebratory events. One by one, the warriors claimed different boxes, chests, and storages of varying sizes and decorations. They returned to a tight-lined formation with gifts in each of their arms, outstretched for a recipient.

“What would a celebration be without gifts aplenty! I would honor those who journeyed far with boxes of jewelry, those who fought in the Sultanate with chests of trinkets, and those who claimed accolades from destiny with trunks of Pandjoras’ finest! Come forth, my beloved Pandjorans, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!” Zaphariel announced with a voice that reverberated several times over, willing reality into an uncontrollable frenzy. The attendees burst into an adorative fervor, proclaiming a thousand and one different promises of worship or oaths for the Umbral King. Each immortal stepped out into the throng of Pandjorans, delivering the gifts that their Malik had promised with determination and joy. Regardless of their joy, he observed every gift delivered with intense interest. Their emotions, their attitude, and their personalities were recorded deep within his mind for later usage. His lips curled further into a joyful smile as he reclaimed his throne once more with his head resting against one of his hands.

The gift-delivering process took the better part of the occasion as each box was a particular prize for a specific individual. Many received their physical award, offered a cheer in his name, and left after several minutes of conversation with other attendants. Others, primarily the Emir, received their present with a mixture of gratitude and confusion. They, and their attending heirs, remained behind as the guests slowly filtered out of the Palace. Slowly, as if understanding the gravity of the situation, those Emir that had arrived or their representatives began to find their seat at the great table. Of their number, the only Emir of name that arrived were Jerciho al-Nathaz, Saladin ibn Gallos, Azahar ibn Urahal, and Zarmira ibn Gallax. As the final guest was ushered out of the Palace, the immortals closed the entrances into the abode of the Malik. Zaphariel’s temperance changed as his warriors sealed away the chamber from the rest of the warship.

“It is good to see your faces. I’ve dreamt a thousand and one times of each moment we had spent together during the Unification. I will never forget what each of you has sacrificed to make our dreams a reality, nor will I forget the promises I made as a young sheik.” He spoke in a solemn tone, reminiscing on the memories of a younger Pandjoras. Zarmira warmly smiled, bowing her head in appreciation. Jericho tipped his head forward in gratitude. Azahar grinned and gestured in an archaic signaling language from Old Pandjoras. Saladin dapped his forehead with a piece of cloth, nodding his head in thanks. “It is my duty, however, to recognize those that have achieved much and more in our culture as the Malik of Pandjoras. Today, I wish to honor that duty for one who is present.”

His attention fell upon the heiress of House Gallos, Miska, who momentarily appeared stunned as the table turned towards her. To the throng of Emir and Sheiks, Miska was as ordinary as an aristocratic duskborn could be. Dusken skin with orange, serpentine eyes complimented soft and fierce facial features. Long, black braids decorated her scalp, while thin freckles darkened the minute Gallosian sigils inked across her cheeks. She donned a serpent silk robe in dawn hues, aided by a shoulder cape of umbral jakaal fur. Regardless of her status, Saladin’s heiress wore minimal jewelry other than a thin cluster of void pearls that covered the outer edge of her ears. The surprise passed as she closed her eyes, bowing her head in respect to the Malik of Pandjoras.

“Many of you are unaware of her feats and why this pertains to the Second Umbral Jihad. She has quelled a thousand and one minor houses across the Sultanate, integrated cultural aristocrats into the house system, and linked our journey through the Star Serpent at every step. Her achievements are many, but the mamluk are one of her greatest suggestions to appease the minor houses. Without her, the Umbral Armada would not be what it is today.” Zaphariel stated with a smile while reaching down to activate a Pandjoran rune on the ornate table. A hololithic display of her achievements in statistical form appeared before the gathered Houses of Pandjoras. Each entry was small, yet there was a sheer quantity to the work she had orchestrated across the Sultanate. Even Saladin, her father, gazed in awe at what his heiress had achieved. The dusken deity saw through the awe, though, and witnessed the beginnings of a bubbling rage. His smile grew ever so slightly wider.

“You honor me, dear fri- my Malik. Everything that I’ve done is in the name of the Illuminated Star Sultanate, Pandjoras, and you.” She bowed her head once more, dipping it towards the members of the table. Her voice was as soft as her face, yet each word was backed with purpose and determination. He noticed the intentional establishment of importance in her last words. Clever, he thought to himself, ever since the days you were a young child. Miska decidedly chose not to speak further, allowing the data to talk on her behalf. The Emir were pleased as they spoke amongst themselves, all except Saladin. The wobbling man fumed with frustration, clearly expressing an aura of betrayal. He wiggled out of his seat in an undignified rush of vexation, then turned towards his heiress with a raised finger.

Traitor! You steal the glory that I had forged for our House! Do you have no shame, child of mine!? Do you feel-” Saladin ibn Gallos began to scream at the heiress of his House, each word spoken with a mixed tone of ferocity and disappointment. Miska, docile as she had been raised, lowered her head in controlled fear. She submitted to the verbal lashing from her House Emir, father, and guardian. An aura of imperceivable rage forced the man’s lips shut. He felt compelled to kneel, cower, and sing praise all at once. Whatever anger had smothered his soul was extinguished by overwhelming fear.

The source of the aura was found at the facsimile Varranian Throne. Zaphariel ibn Varranis stared with an intent to kill at the wobbling form of Saladin. Each of his orange, serpentine eyes glared unwaveringly down at his person. Every Emir, Sheikh, and Immortal in the Palace of the Malik began to uncontrollably flatten themselves into a bow or kneel. One of his claws flexed hard enough to crumble one of the arms of his throne. As the last members prostrated from his intense aura, the Malik of Pandjoras closed his eyes to enter oneness. A calmness slithered through the chamber, releasing those enthralled by the wordless spirit with gasping breaths and shaky limbs. Emir Saladin gripped the edge of the table with hazardous gasps as the dusken deity opened his eyes once more.

Enough.” The Malik of Pandjoras stated with a solemn tone, waving a hand over the holograms to clear the table. Each piece of data revolving around Miska disappeared, replaced with numerous different strings of information relating to Saladin. Chief amongst them was a log detailing the events that led up to the Krakkarin System Alliance’s call to war. A confession from the Warlord of Carnage, the officer who had unleashed the nightmare witches, spoke volumes of their first interaction with the Gallosian Emir. Several other cases of ushering minor house revolts, stealing away commerce from different planets, and inciting publications against the lessons of the hassan were provided. The man began to grow pale in fear at the sights before him.

“I have allowed you to live despite everything you have done for twenty years, Saladin. I respected you as one of the Great House Maliks and I valued you as a shrewd merchant-king of the umbral sands. I acquiesced to your demands at the Unification thrice fold, I observed every action you took against me in the great journey, and I allowed your survival for the sake of Miska.” Zaphariel spoke once more with a sad tone, hints of frustration were evident in his voice yet it was superseded by disappointment. One of his hands brushed against his face, slicking down the groomed beard growing along his lips and chin. He cast a look at Miska, who caught his stare and grimly nodded in acceptance. Satisfied, the Malik of Pandjoras continued. “No longer. You have forsaken your allegiance to me. Before the eyes of the Thirteen Houses, as is my privilege as the Malik of Pandjoras, I cast you from your position as Emir of House Gallos and forfeit your rights to life under the dusken sky. In your place, Emir Miska al-Gallos will lead the Great House forever more until the day of her death.”

Rage blinded the senses of former Emir Saladin ibn Gallos as a flush red washed over his face. He stood up with all the willpower that he could muster, gritting his teeth in huffing anger. A finger was pointed at the seated form of Zaphariel, words beginning to spill forth from his quivering lips. “You are a monstrosity born from the dusken sands! Everything you’ve achieved can only be described as mystic and wyrd! You must’ve formed a blood pact with Falak and gained powers unimaginable to aspire to such heights! I raised you, Sheik Zaphariel, and I know you! Whatever you are, whatever you may be, will bring about the damnation of Pandjoras! I swear upon a thousand and one grains of black sand that the fruit of your great quest will spoil and rot! Nothing will-” Saladin’s intense words were suddenly halted as blade slashed across his throat at lightning speed. He stumbled forward against the table, leaning upon it with his great weight. Panicked eyes regarded Zaphariel with anger, yet found that he hadn’t moved from his throne. The Pandjoran turned to his daughter, who had slid a monomolecular dagger back into a hidden sheath. A gurgle from his throat pushed out a puddle of blood onto his person as tears flooded his eyelids. Both of his orange eyes were closed to the world, forever shut to never achieve ambitious dreams again.

The Malik of Pandjoras observed with a mixture of interest and sorrow. He had intended to decapitate the Emir of Gallos himself, yet Miska had performed the deed faster than he had. His rage that had been felt before the events on Krakkarin fled away as grains of black sand in a gravity tempest. The other Emir remained stalwart after the incident, yet some of the representatives seemed shaken by the affair. Regardless, each would have to accept the actions before them. Zaphariel turned to one of the immortals, softly gesturing for them to handle the bleeding corpse of Saladin. They were swift in their task, carrying the carcass away and wiping the table clean of Pandjoran blood. No sooner had the immortals finished their tasks did Miska take the seat of her late father. She sat proudly amongst the Thirteen with her head held high. No doubt, he thought, she was prepared to do this.

“Bring his body back to Pandjoras to rest in Neu Alepp when the celebrations have concluded, Emir Miska. Ensure that his sarcophagus is sealed with black sand and a splash of liquid from the Valley of the Void.” Zaphariel commanded, responded only with a simple nod from Miska. Falak would grow hungry tonight as he had promised her the body of Saladin, yet it was a simple thing to feed the void wyrm. The remainder of those in the Palace of the Malik awaited the next words from the dusken deity. He wouldn’t disappoint them any further than they had been with the affair. “I will not threaten you with this fate, dear friends. What has occurred here was a consequence of my mercy and I will atone for that in my own ways. The first of which is renewing the pact of allegiance with House Gallos.”

Miska al-Gallos, Emir of House Gallos, Shah of the Minor Houses, shall become my thirteenth and final wife. She will preside over all of her ilk as the First and Last. From this moment forward, all heiress’ of House Gallos will have a claim over this position so long as I live and after her demise.” His words were as soothing as they were dominating. A ripple of fresh smiles burst through the heavy atmosphere at the elated news. The final promise of the Unification had been fulfilled with Miska taking the last spot in his harem. Emir Zarmira shook her head in defeat, clearly wishing for a different outcome. Emir Azahar laughed loudly and joyfully at the sudden change of pace. Jericho nodded in approval, silent as ever. Miska beamed with controlled delight standing from her seat and offering a heartfelt bow in acceptance. Little did the other Emir know, Zaphariel and Miska had spoken of this for years in the shadows of her activities.

“With this conclusion and the Houses once again free of reckless ambition, the Sultanate will proceed forward to claim dominion over the Star Serpent. A hundred worlds remain on the charts of Old Pandjoras with the last two at the tip of the Serpent’s Tongue. Each world will be personally sought to and integrated into Pandjoras with my presence. House Gallos will remain here to cleanly quell the tides of war from the System Alliance as a show of good faith.” The Malik of Pandjoras demanded, spreading one of his hands out once more to clear the holographic displays. New worlds orbited in dense clusters above the table, loosely tangled together in the long stretch of space known as the Star Serpent. Names appeared over each system, each was then assigned a House to govern said territory. Sensing the end of their time in the Palace of the Malik, the House Emir and their representatives stood up from the chairs. Zaphariel continued with a toothy grin growing on his lips. “Now go and enjoy time away from administration and lordship! Drink deeply, eat heartily, and bask in the gifts you’ve been given. Glory unto Pandjoras!

Glory unto Pandjoras!” The room quaked with the universal phrase of the Sultanate. Each of the House Emir offered their thanks, bowing and walking out of the Palace with a mixture of emotions. Emir Zarmira had to be dragged from the table by her subordinates, feigning crying for more time in the presence of Zaphariel. Emir Jericho grasped forearms with the Malik, swearing new oaths and revealing new details on upcoming projects. Emir Azahar loudly professed small prophecies of victory, glory, and conquest in the Umbral King’s name as he left. Each of their responses filled the dusken deity’s heart with fragments of joy, erasing the frustration of Krakkarin’s campaign. Only Miska al-Gallos remained behind, refusing to speak until the last person in the chamber had left. A look from the prophet-king dismissed the immortals, who quickly left after a moment of silence.

Finally, twenty years of scheming have concluded. Will you forgive me, Zaph? Another thirteen days and thirteen nights of his life and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I know you intended to claim his head, but I couldn’t let you accept that burden. His life… was my duty to take.” Her words were softer than his, more frail than Zaphariel’s soothing tongue. Despite Miska’s acceptance of Saladin’s fate, tears flowed freely from his orange eyes. A hand, light as silk and as large as her back, lightly touched her shoulder. The Malik of Pandjoras’ steps had been silent as falling sand as he moved from the throne to her side. She had never realized before how inhumanly quick he was. He kneeled beside her and brought the small woman into an embrace. The newly crowned Emir felt her entire body swathed in the dusken deity’s warmth.

“I will always forgive you, wife of mine, but will you forgive me for what I must do?” Zaphariel asked as he ran a hand down her braided hair, unimaginably comforting her beyond reality’s breath. Without another word, Miska serenely nodded in his arms. There was no hesitation in her actions as she, and most Pandjorans, submitted to their prophet-king. Satisfied with her response, he looked away from her shoulder and to one of his many serpent sculptures in the Palace. The hand that had delicately stroked her hair froze as he imagined wicked, fleshy talons as replacements. He clenched his digits into a fist, accepting the illusions, and continued to speak. Raw confidence spilled through his masquerade, each word reverberating with the echoing affirmation that reality shivered. “I am the monster of Saladin’s warnings, Miska, and I am going to drown this galaxy in dusk for Pandjoras.
Lessons of the Hassan

-Twenty-Two Years After Arrival-

Restless is the coiled serpent in shadowy pools, yet equilibrium rewards the viper with salvation’. A phrase that Malik Zaphariel ibn Varranis recalled from the Old Man of the Mountain. To him, in this moment, it felt like a mantra to temper the roiling dunes within his soul. He had sat here amid this world, Idrathar III, listening to their council people speak endlessly for thirteen days and thirteen nights. No, Zaphariel had listened to them for beyond that amount of time. Many had renowned him for limitless patience, especially when it came to negotiations; however, there was a limit to everything. The Idratharians were beginning to push the limits of his peace. Even now, he stared with a faux smile and pleasant demeanor at the current speaker of their assembly.

“... Thus do I propose a grateful share of our exports in exchange for a steady four percent increase to our current deal. Idratharian silks are renowned across the settled worlds for their texture and length! Each set of silk comes with a promised delivery of Idrathar’s premium jewels, fashioned from the pearls of our oceans! Not only that, but our jewelry can be found embedded into the great works of armor found in our military! No doubt, the Great Malik of the Illuminated Star Sultanate has found these things pleasing to him.” One of their councilmen, Mahannan o’Iluzan, spoke like a merchant and a diplomat all in a single breath. His movements were fluid, lush, and filled with the appropriate eccentricity for his role. He spoke from across a long, oval table with enormous amounts of filigree and ornate embellishments. Each resounding word the man spoke saw small waves of colorful light dance across the table, carefully tailored to his speeches.

The Pandjorans that sat to either side of him watched with meticulously sculpted masks of emotion. Each one of the four delegates that he had brought was hand-chosen by him, less for their necessity in the negotiations and more to further test House Abdullahar’s abilities. He’d remember well to reward their efforts for sitting through this relentless tirade of useless gibberish. One of the delegates, at the mention of the Malik, leaned forward as if to speak on behalf of Zaphariel. A quick look from his orange, serpentine eyes was enough to silence her attempt. He stood to his full height from the ornate seats, now taller than any man on Pandjoras and reaching absurd lengths for a mortal man.

“Why, yes! Quite well, you’ve unveiled my shroud and found me wanting for the procurement of your silks! The quality of such goods couldn’t be found in a thousand and one grains of black sand! My greatest weavers would weep at the mere touch of such sophisticated works!” Zaphariel began to speak with a mouth full of honey, dripping with a sickening sweetness that could nauseate any victim. He weaved a light, optimistic tone into his Pandjoran trill, forcing every word to become a blissful melody. A typical tactic of his design, one that saw the shattering of plentiful defenses. Even those words were enough to visibly melt those around Mahannan, yet it wasn’t enough to break his will. He needed to push the man harder. “Yet, do you not find the great works of Pandjoras to your tastes? Our uniquely woven serpent silk, specially crafted from compressed void serpent scale, is a rare exotic found only on the dusken world. I have yet to come across the same quality of good in our thirty-world Sultanate.”

An attack had been made against Mahannan, a bait and strike that could deliver lethal blows to their reputation if answered improperly. Zaphariel inwardly smiled, enjoying the taste of a verbal hunt. He watched the Idratharian slightly tense at the subtle rebuke. A small bead of sweat, invisible to all except him, began to formulate on his pale skin. The head delegate returned a fashionable smile, combing a hand through his long, silver hair in a return to confidence.

“You honor my people with every word you speak, Malik Zaphariel! We would never downplay the eternal qualities of Pandjoran products, rivaled even by the aelves! The Idratharian people value it to such an extent that it’ll quickly become a staple of our everyday luxuries. It isn’t a simple matter of comparing qualities, but a matter of introducing something so fundamental to our lives! That, dear guest, is the depths to which we appreciate the dusken world’s superb gifts. Perhaps, then, an increase of four percent in overall trade would suffice the Malik’s desire for Idrathar’s illustrious goods?” Mahannan carefully deflected with overbearing enthusiasm. An indulgent amount of compliments had tied to a return to the original discussion. A spry smile gingerly spread across his sculpted lips.

A proper deflection. Zaphariel felt the Abdullaharian-Pandjorans imperceptibly shift to either side of him. Regardless of how he could word it, the Pandjorans had been insulted by a direct return to agreements without consolidated change to the original deal. To a minor degree, the Malik of Pandjoras admired the gall, shrewdness, and willpower of Mahannan. No doubt, he was elected to the position of Delegate Primus for this particular reason. A dark desire began to circulate through the dreamer. He wanted to claim this Idratharian and raise him up to heights undiscovered. For now, however, the dusken deity wouldn’t allow the man his victory.

“Your words are like a fresh drink of mulled serpent blood on a frozen night, Delegate Primus! To think that our dusken world has integrated so far into your society in less than thirteen cycles! The Conglomerate must be enthusiastic about the possibility of integrating into the Sultanate as much as you are, dear host. Shall I accept your words as promised allegiance for such an outstanding display?” Zaphariel replied, spinning words into silk as a supple response for the Idratharian before him. A deflection responded with a piercing assault. His final words were intentionally spoken with a diamond-tipped edge, worded perfectly in sync with the desired reaction. The delegates before him, though, unconsciously shifted into a defensive stance. He could feel their uneasiness as a rodent would feel the lingering eyes of a serpent. Mahannan’s left eye narrowly twitched in the Malik’s reinforced verbal siege. The Malik of Pandjoras could feel their conversation coming to a close, just as it had in the last thirteen days.

“The Conglomerate has been thrilled about the arrival of a stellar empire such as the Illuminated Star Sultanate! Your people, your products, and your culture have blown us all beyond the edge of the veil! As trade allies, I can imagine the eons of peace and prosperity throughout the known galaxy! Though, I digress, to begin our alliance in truth, it would require the complete agreement of the Conglomerate Cabinet.” Mahannan replied with a wide sweep of his arms in a fluid, graceful motion. Certain words in his reply rang louder than the rest, emphasizing certain desires for his galactic union. The delegates behind him eased their built-up tension, disguised fear seeping away from their seated forms. Zaphariel raised a hand to his stubbled chin, stroking at the hairs with talon-shaped rings on each finger. The faux smile never left his face, even as he was once again deflected against his desires.

“Of course, Delegate Mahannan! I understand the complexities of a stellar bureaucracy with such a long history of integration and trade. To taste even a sip of the Idratharian Conglomerates' wisdom in this regard would awaken a new path of ascendancy and learning in the Sultanate! Our discussions have been enlightening and I do so desire them each day we spend upon Idrathar III. Perhaps, then, tomorrow will see the fruits of our labor made manifest upon a thousand and one grains of black sand.” The dusken deity responded, verbally relenting to the perpetual stagnation of their previous discussions. He felt their triumph as an almost palpable substance, relief flooding their bodies through small shifts of their facial features. Mahannan, of them all, bowed deeply to the Malik of Pandjoras. Zaphariel returned a bow of his own, less deep and more appropriate for someone of his stature.

“Then, as promised, we will once again meet in this room with the hope of a blossoming alliance! Soon, my dear friend, our long-lasting talks will grow into the branches of the greatest stellar expanse that mankind has ever seen! To you, I wish you a wonderful day and a pleasant stay upon Idrathar III!” Mahannan spoke with intense vitality, bearing the social badge of a successful negotiation. His long, beautiful robes of alabaster silk swept with each graceful movement as he left the table. Each of the delegates that accompanied the Primus, eight in total, bowed their heads respectfully before exiting the room in haste.

As if beginning to remove the bindings on a wound, the relief of the Idratharian presence was felt by the Pandjorans. One of the Abdullaharians to his left, Kashaak, nearly slammed his fists against the ornate table out of frustration. He rectified himself immediately, aware that he was in the presence of the Malik. In truth, Zaphariel held a similar desire to vent his frustrations about the willpower of the Delegate Primus; however, up until this point, he had never wanted to solve this with bloodshed.

“Your frustrations are felt, kin, it wouldn’t usually take this long for a world to submit before Pandjoras. Even I am surprised about Mahannan’s iron-clad willpower. A ruthless enemy to be sure, but he’d make for a powerful ally.” The Malik of Pandjoras spoke once again with a calming tone, sharing in the emotions seething from his people. He turned away from the table, beginning his short journey to the diplomatic annex at the top of the spire. The slow shuffling of chairs behind him rewarded his ears with the knowledge of the following entourage.

The Malik of Pandjoras and his associates advanced through the beautiful, gilded corridors of the Idratharian spire. Great murals of tidal waves, spiraling towers, and soaring avians were plastered on every wall across the halls. Satin rugs spread out evenly spaced on metallic tile, while golden chandeliers with glow globes illuminated their way. Fortunately, the buildings were spacious enough for the likes of Zaphariel to easily walk through without needing to slouch. He’d wondered if the design was intentional or perhaps it had originally been built for taller individuals such as himself. The dreamer crossed the threshold into the diplomatic annex, denoted by a wonderful arch made of a strange, alabaster stone that danced with fluorescent lights of many shades. In the Idratharian tongue, one that he had managed to easily acquire, it stated:

[Perseverance, Friendship, and Alliance]

Their words were sophisticated squiggles that branched into the next sigil with plentiful dots to emphasize particularly strong vowels. To a degree, Zaphariel enjoyed their language and how beautiful it appeared. It contrasted heavily with the sharp, harsh, and fluid sigils of the Pandjoran tongue. He made a mental note to introduce a new sigil set to the Pandjoran alphabet in the future. Regardless, he passed under the archway leading into the chamber they called home for the past thirteen cycles.

A wide, oval-shaped room opened up before the Malik of Pandjoras with a single, ornate window leading out into a sophisticated balcony overlooking the Idratharian ecumenopolis. A multitude of tables, chairs, sofas, and more populated the room that could easily fit up to fifty men of his size. Lithe doorways at either edge of the room led to private chambers, while a pair of utilitarian portals closest to the entrance opened up to restrooms. A terminal directly next to the door hummed quietly, awaiting any command should it be utilized. The Pandjoran delegates split away from their master, seating themselves against the satin-rugged floor in a meditative posture. Zaphariel, however, strode across the room out onto the balcony overlooking the city of Draathar, the system capital of the Idratharian Conglomerate.

Magnificent spires rose sharply into the sky, supported by a thousand and one strands of twinkling gold that spiraled around the base of the structures. Great canals of prismatic water split the cityscape into several sections, connecting different parts of Draathar through elegant land bridges the size of a Pandjoran dune. Gleaming vehicles brightly shone below on the ecumonopolis’ metallic foundation, illustrating the daily lives of an average Idratharian citizen. Exquisite crafts of resplendent material glided on biomechanical wings through the artificial ravines of Draathar. For the past thirteen cycles, he drank in the sights of this city with every bit of his soul. Zaphariel desired to sculpt these sights into a chunk of gravitic stone to forever cherish the memories. He breathed in deeply, ruminating on the scents of purified water and pristine atmosphere. His trance was softly broken as a presence made itself known behind him. The Malik of Pandjoras had been aware of the hassan in the annex, yet hadn’t paid them a thought until they kneeled in his vicinity.

“Speak freely, kin, don’t worry about breaking my oneness. I’ve enjoyed this world long enough to commit it to memory.” Zaphariel said with a smile, turning around to address the kneeling form of the hassan. Garbed in Pandjoran-pattern power armor of their homeworld, the individual appeared entirely out of place with Idrathar’s alabaster architecture. A shroud of dusk complimented their form, passively sucking the natural and artificial light around them in a coalesced ball of shadows. Monomolecular scimitars hung from jet-black scabbards on either side of the hassan’s waist. Their cowl hid most of their facial features, save for the slim respirator that appeared as a half-skull mask. “Tell me, what have my Thousand-Faced Hassan discovered while I entertained this world’s diplomats.”

The hassan dipped their head forward once, affirming the command, and stood up to properly address the dusken deity. Their full height was taller and broader than the usual Pandjoran, assisted by the continued improvements of duskborn-powered armor. Their talon-tipped gauntlets reached up to pull the cowl back, revealing the typical serpentine eyes of their homeworld. All parts of their skin up from their skull mask were painted in pitch-black pigment, including all the flesh on their exposed scalp. They were the hassan specifically trained by him, warriors that could skein the fates and survive the roiling tides of Pandjoras. His Thousand-Face Hassan.

“The Idratharian Council has aligned their interests with the Illuminated Pandjoran Star Sultanate, save only for the Delegate Primus who currently abstains. Reports of minor skirmishes between two factions of the Idratharians have been observed in the shadows. A Pro-Allegiance and a Pro-Alliance faction. As you originally guessed, Master, your arrival and declaration for peaceful allegiance have been met with factional resistance. The Pro-Alliance forces are quickly dwindling between our interference and the Pro-Allegiance embargos. Our most high-profile reports state that the Pro-Alliance faction is preparing a wide-scale coup in the next twenty-four cycles.” Their voice was a thousand and one different patterns of speech all at once. It was as if their vocal cords were split between a thousand people in the same moment. Individuality ceased to exist all for this secular type of agent. “It is as you surmised, Master, the Delegate Primus is stalling your presence to achieve the Pro-Alliance ambitions.”

The Malik of Pandjoras never shifted expressions once during the report, fully aware of what was happening on Draathar. He recalled the nigh-sycophant response of the Idratharian populace when they first arrived in the system, restored their dwindling food supply, and slaughtered the xenos raiders that plagued their Conglomerate. Four of their five worlds had already professed allegiance to the Illuminated Star Sultanate, even before their current diplomatic quagmire on Idrathar III. Perhaps, he wondered, they should’ve let this world burn a little longer under the fires of the pale-skinned nightmares that haunted them. Zaphariel never did understand what a ‘mon-keigh’ was while he examined their spiky armaments, but he certainly did enjoy the fruits of their labor.

How disappointing. I expected much more out of those that governed this beautiful world. Maybe we should’ve decimated their council and installed the duskborn, then perhaps we would’ve been well on our way through the rest of the Star Serpent.” Zaphariel idly stated, nonchalantly describing atrocities without a shift in pace. He didn’t enjoy the immediate installation of a new regime, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’d done it in their journey. He turned away from the Thousand-Faced Hassan, drinking in the sights of the Draathar once more.

“What would you have us do, Master?” The hassan asked in a reverent tone, committing the illustrious form of the dusken deity to memory. To the surprise of the Pandjoran, Zaphariel turned back towards the hassan with a calm, soft smile plastered across his supple lips.

“I think I’ll take a brisk walk through the city.” He stated with a soft chuckle. All of the color seemed to drain from the hassan’s exposed skin. A thousand and one thoughts ran through their mind as the dusken deity walked past the Pandjoran. As he walked by, the hassan could hear their Malik humming a warm tune of an old nursery rhyme from Neu Alamut. Pandjoras had no gods to speak of, but the hassan prayed to whatever cosmic force remained that their Master’s target was dealt with quickly - for their own sake.

Delegate Primus Mahannan o’Iluzan politely laughed along to one of his fellow delegates’ jokes. Several minutes had already passed since they left the audience chamber with the ruler of the Illuminated Star Sultanate. He couldn’t believe how foolish someone of his stature, size, and overwhelming presence could be. No one in their right mind, in his opinion, would allow themselves to be stalled for thirteen whole days! He desperately wanted to laugh aloud with the others, but refrained from overexerting his victories. They passed beneath the archway heading towards the central courtyard of the Draathar Prime, their greatest spire of the ecumenopolis.

“... You could surely see it on their faces! Their frustration was almost enough to turn their dark skin to beat red!” One of his coworkers, Kallath o’Tlannon, said with a hearty chuckle. Mahannan always regarded him as a student, perhaps that’s why he made such outlandish comments publicly. The rest of the party, himself included, laughed along with Kallath’s joke.

“And the way that their bodies would twitch whenever Primus Mahannan casually deflected the Malik? Unbelievable! They hold so much zeal for a man that can buckle like him.” The next spoke, Illoia o’Skloan, an experienced woman who held the careful balance between the Chapel of Ancestors and the Council of Diplomats. She was as zealous as the Pandjoras were, except towards their ancestral aelves and not to a strange, oversized man. Mahannan nodded along with a ginger smile on his lips, adjusting his robes as they swayed in the overhead breeze.

The courtyard was a perfect balance of modern, ancestral, and artistic that saw the culmination of their beautification on Idrathar III. Several statues of the ancestors, extraordinarily tall and pale beings with pointed ears on long faces, danced silently in their gilded stillness. Each stood atop a lovingly tended fountain that drained water into the center of the paved field. A gargantuan effigy of an aelve in sleek war plate watched over their walking forms, protected by a deep lake of sparkling water in a gilded basin. Tiny, metallic bridges linked the small areas between each statue and ended in a thin brick-laid coast around the central sculpture. At the furthest end of the yard was a plethora of raised platforms where curved transports remained idling in a silent hover. They walked now towards these vessels with cheers, laughs, and smiles on their tongue.

“Despite the brute’s size, he had a certain draw to him, yes? He managed to keep pace with Mahannan, Fifth of the Council Primus’. Perhaps if he were thinner, lighter, and more delicate, then he would’ve won out.” Another delegate spoke, Nallanon o’Paoliaa, an extraordinary woman of fiendish acclaim. Her businesses were what kept entire parts of Draatha afloat, including parts of Mahannan’s private enterprises; however, she was a voracious beast beneath the porcelain skin. The Delegate Primus clicked his tongue in distaste, earning a short scowl from the delegate.

“Contain yourself, Nallanon, our perfection of the bloodline is exactly why we have maintained such a coherent Confederacy for time immemorial. Don’t even think of polluting the work of the ancestors.” The Primus politely scolded with an icy tone, pushing away even the barest notion of working with the Pandjorans. Many of the delegates nodded their heads in agreement, each as wise and stoic as he was.

“Primus Mahannan has a point! We cannot allow these Pandjorans to invest in our world for much longer, otherwise, we’ll have to move to more extreme options for our alliance. Let them crawl back to the dustball they call Pandjoras.” A man by the name of Ullonnon o’Lotholloc interrupted. He was easily explainable as a radical with plenty of connections, shares, and ploys within the Conglomerate’s military. They had worked hand-in-hand for the past fifty-seven years and shared a heavy amount of ideologies. Mahannan planned to continue that partnership until either one of them perished.

The delegates finally found themselves at the foot of their respective platforms. Idratharian escorts in slick, alabaster war plate emerged to safely escort their protected diplomat. Mahannan, of course, awaited the sizable crew to exit the hovercraft and array themselves before him. Warriors slightly taller than him were outfitted in snow-white war plating with golden trims and helmets with polished wings. Quarterstaves with ethereal blades on either end were held aloft in one hand, while the other appeared to be nothing save for a ringed gauntlet. Mahannan’s chest swelled with pride upon seeing the Council Sentinels once more.

“Until tomorrow, Primus! I look forward to what you will do to stall the Malik of Pandjoras next!” The final delegate to bid him farewell was Moxxil o’Yniros, the freshest addition to the delegate team and upcoming star player for the Council. Mahannan knew that with the right mentoring, Moxxil could rise far above his station and raise the Conglomerate to new heights. The young man waved at him with a bright smile on his lips. Mahannan gave a quick wave back before stepping into his shuttle, seating himself against the lavish seats built into the interior.

A soft penumbra had begun to blanket the sky in a warm coat of lavender and azure as his shuttle lifted off from Draathar Prime. The seven moons of Idrathar III slowly circled into view as they glided through the artificial ravines of Draathar. He leaned against the glass panes of the vessel, admiring the beautiful spheres that populated their wondrous world. The magnificent dusk faded from view as they circled a spire not far from the central spire of the ecumenopolis. Mahannan always enjoyed the appearance of the councilmen's residential spire, slightly smaller than the core tower and more lush in appearance than the rest of the city. Cultivated gardens hung from a plethora of banisters, balconies, and open-air archways. Gilded veins of structural support rose with clinging life in the form of long, curated flowers. Each level of the spire was a different flavor of verdant vibrancy. It was a place that he called home.

A soft ping alerted him that they were descending towards his section of the upper spire. A group of three platforms greeted his vessel, two of which were topped by slick vessels similar to his. Mahannan couldn’t help but shake his head at having to do more work at the end of his long, arduous day. He already knew who had come to his home, but the Delegate Primus would welcome them regardless of their business. As the vessel finally touched down, the Council Sentinels would step out first to ensure exquisite protection against wanton lookers and would-be assassins. Their left hand was raised as he exited, the ringed gauntlet activating to make a prismatic shield out of sheer energy. Despite his best intention not to wish it, he found himself desperately wanting one of those gauntlets for his own.

The courtyard of his home welcomed him back. A large, oval-shaped patio the length of fifty Idratharians awaited him with huge stretches of emerald grass and magnificent ponds filled with exotic aquatic beings. Sculptures of the ancestors stood vigil over his property, resplendent in sculpted wargear with powerful spears that seemed to sing on approach. As he grew closer to his home, the Council Sentinels split away from the Primus towards a secluded area of the property. No doubt, he thought, they were attending to the other warriors that journeyed with his guests. He closed the distance between the platform and the patio portal in several, pleasant seconds.

Inside of his own home, Mahannan felt all of the day’s exhaustion slip away into the ether. He could hear the sweet humming of his wife, Tollassi, and the giggling of his child, Iogranan, in the next room. The marvelous scent of freshly cooked food filled his nostrils with delight, forcing him to hasten his disrobing of official attire before stepping into his residence. He offered a short prayer to the ancestors before hanging up the Primus robes in a personalized stasis chamber. A warm, less official robe of shorter length was shuffled onto his shoulders as he passed through the portal of his home.

By the Ancestors! You’ve returned at a decent time tonight, Mahannan! Iogranan and I were planning to eat without you if you had taken even a thirty-sixth of a cycle longer.” Tollassi said with a playful tone, moving away from her gilded counter to greet him. She was smaller than him, thinner, and wore her hair in a fashion that the ancestors used. Her attire was similar to his with a short, soft robe hewn with pearlescent jewels and dyed in contrast to Idrathar III’s canals. Seconds later, his daughter ran through with the explosive force an Idratharian pulse calaver.

“You came back on time! You completed your promise, father, and thus our deal is finished!” She spoke with the faux assertiveness of a proud diplomat striking her first negotiation. Mahannan laughed aloud, booming with radiant joy as he crouched down to accept her into his arms. They softly collided in a bundle of warmth, the Primus lifting her for a singular spin before placing her back down.

“And with that, our negotiation is complete. Junior Delegate Primus Iogranan, you’ve accomplished a great deed for the Idratharian Conglomerate!” He responded, offering a playful salute common for their system’s military. The three began to chuckle anew as Mahannan turned to address his wife. “The Malik was most generous today, offering defeat on a plate for the Conglomerate. A few more days and I think we’ll have an impressive alliance with the Star Sultanate. Thank you, Tollassi, for waiting so long.”

Before Mahannan could press a kiss against her forehead, a stiff grunt interrupted their intimacy. At the furthest right side of the kitchen, a man stood with his arms crossed and a sly grin growing on his bearded face. His attire was that of the Interior Security, a jet-black bodysuit with a gilded robe flowing over his shoulders and torso. The silver hair of the man was tied behind him in a short warrior’s braid. No visible weapons adorned the man’s body, but Mahannan knew better than to assume he had none.

“Ah! Rotholov o’Uronoc, I hadn’t expected to see you this fine part of the cycle. Is it possible that you came here for dinner, humbly made by my dear Tollassi?” The Delegate Primus asked in a playful tone, offering a mocking bow to the man he had known for many years. It earned him a brief chuckle from the seasoned veteran of the Conglomerate.

“As much as I do love your wife’s cooking, Mahannan, we both know that I’m not here for that. You’ll have to forgive me for the intrusion, but your presence is requested.” The man, Rotholov, spoke in a rough voice. Every word was blunt, deep, and echoed a warrior that had fought for countless years. His pristine, azure eyes reflected an infinite sorrow beneath, yet held a dazzling fire beneath the surface. He gestured with one of his arms towards the alcove that he emerged from.

Mahannan returned to Tollassi, finishing the deed of a well-placed kiss on her forehead. The two separated no sooner after, allowing the Delegate Primus to journey through his home with Rotholov. As they walked down the hallway into his own, private audience room, Mahannan couldn’t help but feel an incredible chill on his body. He glanced at the apparatus on his wrist, affirming that the temperature of his residence was within the desired parameters. The sliding of an automatic portal alerted him away from the device, the rougher Idratharian gesturing for him to enter.

Unsurprisingly, several other members awaited him in the audience chamber. A single glow globe illuminated the area above a circular table decorated with motifs of Idrathar. The chamber seemed to stretch infinitely in the passive darkness that cloaked the edges of it. He knew, though, that it was wide and long enough to comfortably fit twenty men. Five individuals in total already sat in their assigned seats. The last two armchairs were left vacant for Rotholov and Mathannan. One of the individuals gestured for them to sit.

“I assume you understand the reason for our urgency, Mahannan. This meeting is crucial to our survivability as a faction.” One of the individuals began to speak, a man with a vastly mature voice bedecked in a flowing robe dyed an illustrious alabaster. The symbol of an eye in a triangle with shining rays denoted him as the Grandmaster of the Ancestors, Iolon o’Malloneus. His face was lined with age, a trait that extremely few Idratharians managed to achieve. Sharp, emerald eyes stared impatient hatred into Mahannan’s being, while barely wrinkled digits dug at the edge of his table.

“Yes, of course, I’m aware that the rest of the Council has been making plenty of moves to eradicate what’s left of our ideology. The Trueborn of the Ancestors cannot - will not - bow to some far-off empire that has no place amongst our people. I’ve managed to successfully stall the Malik, but I cannot promise more than that. Every ounce of extra funds that I can spare has been going to you and Rotholov.” Mahannan quickly replied as he sat in the comforts of his custom-ordered seat. The Grandmaster scoffed in response, waving his hand indignantly to the response of the Primus.

“I don’t think you understand how close we are to being routed, Primus. Our faction isn’t being eliminated by just Idratharians. Something else has been routinely aiding the others and slaughtering our own. I’m inclined to believe it’s the Pandjorans, but it isn’t possible with their current technology.” The next individual spoke with a sense of logical urgency. He wore a utilitarian robe with the least amount of embellishments, aside from the single yellow ribbon denoting him as a member of the engineering sects. The Worldsinger of the Shapers, Wohlahannan o’Motlocc, graced their presence with a deep insight of rationality to counteract the Grandmaster's zealous opinions. Although the two often argued, Mahannan knew for certain that their ideologies remained the same. “There is a possibility that the Pandjorans are treading the edges of reality, vaguely touching the Empyrean and summoning magicks to their employment. If that is true, then they must’ve realized by now that the Empyrean has little to no hold over Idrathar III with our current defenses.”

“I concur with the Worldsinger. If it is truly the Pandjorans, then they skein the fates with magicks unknown to us. I’ve felt the tug of the Empyrean ever since their arrival.” A new voice joined the others, a woman who wore plentiful Idratharian runes beneath her deep hood. The Illuminator of the Sanctioned Skein, Helossios o’Uronio, was a troubled member of their faction with a foothold in their Conglomerate’s psyker divisions. She, in Mahannan’s opinion, was the best scryer in the last century to bless Idrathar. “Perhaps I would’ve been able to ascertain their rituals if you hadn’t shuttered the world from the raiders. It is precisely that fact in which our Conglomerate is crumbling.”

The tension grew heavier at the Illuminator’s reminder of the recent raidings. He closed his eyes to the world for only a second, desperately attempting to forget the harrowing cries of his allies and neighbors as the World-Shield activated. In truth, the Pandjorans were the only reason that the Conglomerate survived to this day. If not for their intervention, then the raiders would’ve eventually broken through the shield of the Ancestors. Many had called him a coward, but he knew that he made the right call.

“Regardless, the time has come to take overt action. The Conglomerate is crumbling. The Idratharian hold on the other worlds has diminished greatly with the arrival of the Star Sultanate. We either need to sabotage their ‘umbral armada’ or divert their attention away from the five worlds. In the time that we get from such an action, we will reel in control from the Council.” The final individual spoke out. A man in a jet-black war plate similar in complexity to Rotholov’s wargear sat rigidly amongst their number. A plethora of scars dotted his face from a lifetime of war, yet his face was cleanly shaved and inscribed with ancestral runes. His voice was the boom of thunder, the scream of a rocket, and the clashing of blades all at once. He was Commander Yothov o’Torron of the Conglomerate Military.

“You act as if that isn’t what we’ve been trying to do, Commander. The Pandjorans, despite their technological differences, have extraordinary security the likes I’ve never seen. They appear and disappear like wraiths, they hum mantras to bend sand to their will, and they step as silently as darkness incarnate.” Rotholov finally spoke up, responding to Yothov’s question in particular. The response rewarded the Interrogator of the Interior Security with a grimace from the seasoned combatant. Their arguments remained only on the field of battle, yet their ideologies remained the same just as everyone else’s was in this chamber. Mahannan released a deep sigh from within his person.

“I see and understand your complaints. We cannot afford to linger in the shadows any longer. Tomorrow, during the peace conference with the Pandjorans, we’ll begin the grand scheme to take power from the Council. The Malik of Pandjoras, Zaphariel ibn Varranis, will die at the hands of the Four Worlder Faction. I trust only you with this, Rotholov.” Mahannan solemnly spoke with a dangerous certainty to his voice. His oldest friend merely smiled and nodded, understanding exactly what he needed to accomplish to make their dreams a reality.

A decision had been made. The rest of the council visibly eased now that their meeting was as fruitful as every single one had been before that. A few of their number pulled out alabaster slates, noting new information down to begin the next phase of their operation. Rotholov quietly spoke with Mahannan over the particular actions needed during tomorrow’s operation. Helossios offered a prayer together with Iolon, hoping that the Ancestors were watching over their blessed partnership. Only Yothov grumbled to himself on a private slate, idly staring off into the distance to avoid interacting with the non-military members of their Council. As the darkness began to grow on his old eyes, he realized something was lingering in the shadows of the room. He blinked once to affirm whether or not his old eyes were playing tricks on him. He blinked twice to confirm that there was a piece of furniture that Mahannan had custom-ordered in the back. Unfortunately, he blinked a third time and whatever color remained on his alabaster face drained away in sheer terror.

In the next moment, his view of the world had shifted sideways in an unnatural way. Yothov reached up to adjust the tilt of his head, yet suddenly found a peculiar lack thereof. He slumped against the table with a dull thud as fresh vitae quickly ejected from his body. The Trueborn members attempted to rise to their feet one after another in a wild attempt to escape an early death. Rotholov was the first to react after Yothov’s demise, trying to pull the weapons from his scabbard to no avail. His head rolled quicker than he could’ve ever predicted. A waterfall of crimson gushed over Mahannan’s still-seated form. The Illuminator began to open her mouth to speak into the Empyrean, only to find her mouth forced shut by the same forces she wielded. Her decapitation came soon afterward. The Grandmaster started to spit out insults in the forgotten language of the Idratharians at their assailant, chiding fate and cursing their damned souls. He never managed to speak the first word, his elder skull exploding into a series of ultrathin slices. Finally, the World Singer started to sob and begged for his fate to be spared in repentance for their crimes. Mahannan thought, at that moment, that Wohlahannan’s death was the least cruel as a flying dagger impaled the World-Singer’s heart. Only the Primus remained with his back turned towards the assassin in question. How many guards were there at the residence? How many tracking devices were there in the area? How could someone be swifter than Rotholov, Hero of the Sanguine Gulf?

“They’re dead, they’re disabled, and he was ill-prepared for the unexpected.” A voice, smooth as the softest silk imaginable, replied to the thoughts rattling his brain. He heard the Pandjoran trill on the tip of their tongue and knew who had come to deliver their fate. A harbinger of the stars in true form had blessed his home with wanton bloodshed and hatred. Mahannan witnessed monomolecular-tipped talons on either side of him, dripping with the life of his former comrades. The being lingered above him like a predator eyeing their bleeding prey. The shadow that it cast was far larger than any that he had encountered. The Primus understood now that his death would be at the hands of a dusken world hassan.

Mahannan felt himself start to hyperventilate, fear suddenly catching up with the rampaging thoughts throughout his body. Each breath was a husky drag of air in a frozen chamber. His body demanded to close each of his eyelids to shut out this horrible reality. He mustered what courage he could, licking his lips to prepare himself for a single utterance. “What do you want?”

A soft chuckle replied to his inquiry, both of the monomolecular talons leaving his sides to disappear into the darkness. His assassin came into view for the first time since the carnage began. Truthfully, it didn’t appear to be the one known as the Malik of Pandjoras. The person before him was draped in shadowy rags that sucked the light from above. A hood heavily masked his features in the artificial abyss, while the outline of boxy plates confirmed powered armor beneath their robes. A pair of glowing orange eyes with serpent-like pupils peered out from beneath the cowl.

Allegiance. Destiny. Retribution. I want for many things, Primus Mahannan. Purpose. Glory. Immortality. I wish to see my people prosper in the stars, unhindered by prejudice and adversity for millennia to come. I desire for every world to become a reflection of Pandjoran society, balanced by the traditions established by their people.” The man stated, pulling out the chair furthest across from the Primus. The dagger was torn from the World-Singer’s chest as his body fell from the seat. His assassin firmly planted themselves into the furniture, despite their overwhelming size in comparison. The posture of the assassin appeared to relax, crossing a leg over another and linking gauntlets together in a thoughtful half-lay. “But then I come across worlds with ruling castes that shy away from a prosperous future for stagnating decay to suit their status quo. It always ends the same.”

Now that the darkness was growing more comfortable for Mahannan, he began to notice the outline of the assassin’s face. Terror funneled through his system as he realized that his suspicions were true. The sculpted, immaculate features of the dusken deity were firmly planted on his killer’s body. As if sensing the rise in terror, the Malik of Pandjoras leaned forward to allow his features to be better observed. A toothy grin was plastered across his lips, revealing fang-like canines separating a normal row of human teeth.

“You certainly made it easier for us this time! You locked your planet away for thirty cycles while your people were butchered on four other worlds. You allowed the murder of countless Idratharians across this expanse, yet you still cower in your towering hovels of metal hubris!” The being that had calmly slaughtered all of his comrades rose from their seat with a start, growing more aggressive with each word spoken in controlled anger. “Did you not want to die, Delegate Primus, or did you wish for the Ancestors to answer your prayers from within the godless void? You could’ve invited the raiders to your home and slaughtered them in the towering ravines. You could’ve converted a thousand and one gardens into missile platforms to save your people. You allowed your Conglomerate to fall to pieces, simply by your decisions to ignore your people. How can you be surprised that they welcomed the Pandjorans with open arms, rallied to our banners, and spread the words of the hassan from simply arriving in the system?”

The Delegate Primus buckled down, trembling as a wounded animal to a lumbering predator. His eyes were wide with fear, wet with tears, and twitching with extreme anxiety. The man known as Mahannan could no longer answer for himself, terrorized to the point of shock. Zaphariel shook his head in disappointment to one that could stand equally with him on the diplomatic fields of battle. The Idratharian would never be the same, he knew it well within his heart. They never were once his prey had seen him in action. He weighed the decision to finish this now with a strike of his talons or barter his life for him as an effective pawn. The Pandjoran turned away from the man, eyeing the portal out into the residence proper.

“You have a wonderful wife, a loving daughter, and a home to call your own. You’ve claimed a life through your efforts, trained your skills to the limits, and boasted five world’s worth of political power in your palms. I feel nothing but pity for the man who had stalled me for thirteen cycles. If you have any ounce of courage left within your trembling flesh, then decide at this moment.” Zaphariel plunged the dagger through the table, puncturing ornate metal and gilded iconography alike. The hilt remained upright as the weapon left the dusken deity’s taloned gauntlet. A single digit pointed to the blade.

Join me as I conquer the stars and force every god to submit to Pandjoras,” The Umbral King offered, his tone growing more powerful and booming as he spoke to the shattered form of Mahannan. “Or watch with trembling limbs as I butcher everything you love before your inevitable demise.

A spark of reason ignited within the tearful eyes of the broken Primus. He gazed at the handle of Zaphariel’s inhumanly-sized dagger with fearful awe. A glimpse of his family, Idrathar, and the Ancestors flashed through his mind. The Malik of Pandjoras watched with interest as Mahannan began to move once more, emboldened by his powerful words. His fingers flinched, flexed, and jerked as the decision tore apart every piece of the Idratharian’s soul. Emerald eyes bounced between the hilt, the dusken deity, and the door leading into the residence. Mahannan’s outreaching hand steeled itself for a final decision...

The vibrant streets of Idrathar III were alive with celebration. Varranian banners unfurled from the top of gilded spires, great hovercraft in the orange-black of the Illuminated Star Sultanate glided through artificial ravines, and the Umbral Armada orbited overhead in a tight formation over the ecumenopolis. An enormous tempest of multicolored strips filtered through the air, showering from the top of recolored Conglomerate vessels. Hordes of the Conglomerate populace from the five worlds rushed through the cityscape to watch a worldwide parade float through Draathar’s canals. Pandjorans from the Sultanate mingled with the local population, excitedly revealing every tidbit about the stellar empire to the masses. The military of the Sultanate, armored in orange-black Pandjoran-pattern powered armor, walked along the edge of the canals with their graviton rifles holstered and their monomolecular scimitars drawn to the air. Hafiz in skull-shaped masks swung censer balls of Pandjoran incense in sway with their midnight blue robes.

Floating at the center of the celebrations, an illustrious vessel the size of several elder void serpents hovered over the canals. To the eyes of the Idratharian, it was a bulky machine vomited forth from the sandy wastes of Pandjoras. To the dusken worlders, it was the next marvel of technology formulated by the great mind of their prophet-king. A square platform with quadruple grav-shunts rising as a miniature gravity palace, complete with bulbous domes and Pandjoran effigies. At the top of the hovering structure, an open-air throne was visible to the populace of the Conglomerate. Magnificently sat a replica of the Throne of Varranis was none other than the Malik of Pandjoras, Zaphariel ibn Varranis, bedecked in the vestiges of a galactic king. An exquisite, void-hued robe fashioned from elder serpent silk and embroidered with his prophecy in ocher colors. A midnight cloak hung from his shoulders, cascading down his body past regal gloves with talon-tipped rings and imperial balagha with metallic tips. A marigold laurel complimented a crown of eight horns split in even distances, decorated by thirteen, eye-shaped gems topped by a dusken halo lifted by a miniature gravity engine. He happily observed every Idratharian, treating them to a genuine smile and wave to their utter delight.

The miniature gravity palace delightfully drifted down the canals, joined by a myriad of other hovercrafts from the Conglomerate and Sultanate. The hordes of celebrating Idratharians chased after the parade, each section carefully guided by the accompanying Pandjorans. The same scene would be painted across Draathar, culminating in a great summoning at the apex of ancient Idratharian culture. Their journey hadn’t led them to Draathar Prime, the central spire of the ecumenopolis, but instead into a plaza the size of a voidship. Resplendent columns of eerily white material inset with sparkling rubies surrounded a plethora of enormous statues hewn from the same rock. At the center of the plaza was the largest statue among their number, a dancing woman with flowing robes holding a beautiful spear in one hand and lifting the other hand to the stars. Each of the other corresponding effigies was similar in appearance, typically a man or woman with pointed ears in elegant robes holding some sort of ritualistic weapon. All of the canals appeared to spiral into the center of the plaza, marking it as the penultimate landmark in Idratharian culture.

A great noise erupted from all corners of the ecumenopolis, ringing like a chiming bell and singing like a wondrous vocalist. The hordes of celebrating citizenry slowed to a standstill silence as the last hovercraft began to descend into safer areas. The accompanying Pandjoras steadied themselves at the edge of the plaza in front of the Idratharian citizens. Zaphariel’s gravcraft lightly touched the ground, unfolding a plethora of boarding ramps from all four sides of the vessel. Similarly, five other crafts of magnificent design began their disembarking procedures surrounding the plaza. Each figure that stepped off was an individual of worthy note in the Conglomerate, save for the Malik of Pandjoras. Outside of the ringing sounds, only their footsteps could be heard across the area as they journeyed to the central statue. There, before the eyes of their ancestors, the Councilmen of the Conglomerate assembled before the Umbral King.

“It is here, under the eyes of the Ancestors, that we gather the Sultanate and the Conglomerate to reveal the results of our negotiations! Over the past fourteen cycles, the Pandjorans have proven themselves to be worthwhile allies, stalwart companions, and magnificent entrepreneurs of innovation! Were it not for their timely intervention, then the Conglomerate would’ve fallen to otherworldly raiders. Many of us can agree on this, but we will never be able to fully repay the life debt we owe to them.” The first of the Councilmen began to speak, his voice amplified by a device hovering below his chin. An Idratharian of tall stature, bedecked in ornate warplate and alabaster robes with swirling runes. Lines driven into his long, pale skin proved his stature as an elder of their people. If Rotholov had been a hero to the Conglomerate, then Mensethelsev o’Yuoroaa was a savior to his people as their Supreme Commander. “It is with great honor that I allow the one Idratharian who made this negotiation possible to unveil the fruits of our labor.”

Mahannan, Delegate Primus of Idrathar III, stepped forward from the shadows of Supreme Commander Mensethelsev. He held his head high with pride, a warm smile plastered across his sculpted lips. Although bags were extremely evident under his eyes, the Primus’ general optimism was radiating from his very soul. The small device that had amplified the previous speaker’s voice gently floated toward the next speaker.

“A simple alliance is not enough to repay the Illuminated Star Sultanate for their kindness, generosity, and tolerance for the Conglomerate.” Mahannan briefly stopped to look over at Zaphariel, who offered a smile and nod of approval. “I can vouch for the Malik of Pandjoras, knowing him these last thirteen cycles has enlightened me to the reality of our situation. We cannot pursue the grandest reaches of space without the assistance of those greater than ourselves. The Ancestors had previously guided our civilization into the realm it is today, but the Sultanate will guide us into the realm of tomorrow. Beginning on the next cycle,we will become the thirty-first world to join the Malik of Pandjoras in his journey for the Star Serpent!

The crowd surrounding the plaza burst into a joyful raucous. Hovercraft that hadn’t been part of the Councilmen’s retinue released a storm of streamers, flags, and reflective paper to celebrate the negotiation’s success. Zaphariel ibn Varranis stepped forward, shaking hands and nodding in gratitude to the other Councilmen. He stopped at Mahannan, gripping the Idratharian’s forearm in a welcoming of brotherhood. The two laughed with each other, separating away to allow the Malik of Pandjoras his time in the limelight. Once more, the hovering device began to circle towards the next speaker. Curiously, the dusken deity refused the device in confidence.

“Hear me well, Idratharians of the Five Worlds! I welcome you now as Pandjorans of the Illuminated Star Sultanate! Where once before we were strangers dancing in the sands of the void, we are now brothers and sisters in a quest for destiny! You will join our fleets, improve our technologies, and bring life to worlds across the stars! We will bask in the combination of our cultures and enjoy umbral bliss! Today, on the day that the Conglomerate has joined the Sultanate, I announce- no - I demand that you celebrate for thirteen days and thirteen nights! Glory to you, Idrathar! Glory to Pandjoras!” Malik Zaphariel’s voice was the crescendo of a celestial orchestra. His words reverberated with the power of an immeasurable angel, reaching the steepest spire in Draathar and the lowest habitation unit beneath the ocean. The reception of his speech was borderline zealous. Pandjorans, trained in the art of oneness, were riled up to scream their fervor for the Sultanate. The Councilmen nearby clapped with vigor, restraining themselves before the wider populace of their governed planet.

The Malik of Pandjoras stepped back from his position, offering a short bow of his head, and raised his talon-tipped hands to address the crowd. The simple gesture was enough for the entirety of Idrathar III to begin their celebrations. For thirteen days and thirteen nights, Draathar was consumed by a joyful, hedonistic festival.

Idrathar III and the orbiting seven moons were quickly vanishing from the viewport of the warship that Zaphariel sat upon. A mighty command bridge embellished with all of Pandjoras’ tidings surrounded him. Terminals in Pandjoran sigilic rune, columns of gravitic stone, and great effigies of void serpents decorated every inch of the vessel. The black sand of the dusken world shifted with the swaying of the starship, jumbling a thousand and one grains across an immeasurable distance. An enormous, hololithic table at the center of the bridge revealed the sheer size of the Umbral Armada. Three hundred blips on the holographic display chimed with signature codes in Pandjoran, many identified as lesser corvettes and destroyers. Ten massive icons on the outer edges of the formation revealed the markers of their strongest voidcraft. Battleships, heavy cruisers, and dreadnoughts from the Ring of Muahad made up the bulk of their armada. Only the vessel he stood upon, the Dune-class Dreadnought [Dawn of Pandjoras], was a unique addition. Each world that entered their Sultanate added a new piece of technology, hull-plate, or revision to it. The Malik unveiled a toothy grin beneath his hood, enjoying the sheer ingenuity of his warship.

Shipmaster! We’ve managed to resecure a faint trail on the raiders that we had previously followed. It appears as if they’re following the same path through the Star Serpent, or at least what we can predict from their unpredictability. We lose them from time to time, their warships seemingly disappearing from reality entirely.” One of the voidsmen called out, a House Nathazian scryer, with a report that he had previously processed. The news was received by the Shipmaster, Samrih Nathaz, as he gestured for the dataslate. He was a grim veteran of recent void-engagements, climbing swiftly through the virgin ranks of voidsmen that had previously been harvester dropship operators.

“So it would seem. Have we received confirmation from the Urahal seers? Have they skeined the whereabouts of these plunderers? What of the hassan, scouting in the furthest reaches of the armada?” Shipmaster Samrih’s voice was as deep as Muahad’s yet held a peculiar version of the Pandjoran trill. It was easily identifiable to Zaphariel as an ashwaster’s dialect, commonly procurable for ashen raiders in Pandjoras’ north-western hemisphere. His movements on the command throne confirmed it with repetitive drops of his foot or rocking of his hands in time with an imaginable beat. The voidsman was quick to reply.

Skeinmaster Immamis Urahal reports that the tides of unreality are muddied regarding their current location, but she confirms their previous locations are in line with our own. Clademaster Shamka’il’s last report details their disappearance from real space, but carefully awaits their emergence from the last known location. Glory unto Pandjoras!” The voidsman firmly stated, dipping their head in a quick bow before leaving back to their station.

Shipmaster Samrih deeply sighed, no doubt about the news delivered to him. Malik Zaphariel wondered if his presence was a bane to the command bridge as he watched happenings unfold. His attention was caught by the sharp, orange eyes of the Pandjoran. “As you’ve heard, Zaphariel, the raiders we’ve chased for the last four systems have managed to escape through our talons again. What kind of penance would you have us seek for this insolence?” The question was equal parts a joke and a serious inquiry. He had been traveling with the Nathazian for nearly a decade by this point, routinely promoting him to a close position due to outrageous merits. These raiders, however, have left a black stain on the Umbral Armada.

None. Continue to allow them to escape and rough their edges with our graviton lances. Their warpath drives us further along the Star Serpent with plentiful benefits for their sadistic actions. Once their usefulness runs dry by the Serpent’s Mouth, then we will encircle their relocation point to bombard them for eons to come.” Zaphariel stated with a toothy grin, grimly aware of how morbid the order was; however, it was necessary for the future of Pandjoras. It earned him a dark chuckle from the Shipmaster.

“Are you certain you weren’t born a raider yourself, my Malik, or is this one of the Lessons of the Hassan?” Samrih quizzically asked the dusken deity.

Anything and everything is a weapon, Samrih. From a trembling, frightened man to a band of raiders to the dazzling spires of a far advanced world. If properly used, then the smallest tool in your arsenal can achieve greatness.” The Malik of Pandjoras responded, offering a knowing look to the Shipmaster. Samrih returned the look with a thoughtful stroke of his beard, mulling over the words in his mind. His eyes suddenly widened as Zaphariel’s words were slowly decrypted. The flash of realization was palpable on the Nathazian voidsman’s face.

“Correct, Shipmaster, it was just as planned.”
The Bronze Scorpions

The Siege of Nabatae

Yasif watched the dark sands of his homeland from atop the bronze perch overlooking the bastion he called home. To his eyes the sands stretched on perpetually for miles that not even he, or perhaps even the masters, could count. Dunes as tall as hab-blocks, jagged rocks as jaded as fabricatum metal, and sandstorms as wicked as the hive’s boiling sewage filled the vast emptiness of the wastes. The harsh clap of thunder drew his attention to the cloud-clotted sky as darkness descended. Short shrieks of lightning momentarily brightened the landscape around his home, while small breaks in the clouds allowed Luna to drown the wastes in alabaster light. He cursed in his native tongue, damned to suffer another storm on one of his shifts compared to his counterparts. His attention swiveled away from the bleak badlands to the rising monoliths of the bastion-hive.

Great structures akin to gargantuan monoliths of bronze loomed overhead Yasif’s domed guard tower. Unlike other hive-cities that he had heard about, Nabatae was a bastion of metal refinery and nocturnal worship. Only once in a season did all of the hab-blocks allow their lights to illuminate the dark sands of the wasteland. Although he was educated, Yasif wondered if their eternal penumbra was the reason why they were never invaded by those outside of the wastes. He then wagered that if it wasn’t for concealment, then perhaps it was because of their leviathan wall that stretched across the hive. A smile grew on his lips beneath the carapace helmet, knowing that it was nigh impossible that one would assault their home so far into the wastes.

The sound of muffled footsteps began to echo from the stairwell behind him, muted only by the crash of lightning above his post. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion, a chronometer displaying the present Terran time within his helmet. Approximately twenty-three minutes before shift change. Yasif quickly claimed his chainglaive, wielding it expertly in one hand and a lascycler in the other. A swift glance at his wargear allayed his fears as the bronze-reinforced exosuit moved in perfect unison with each movement. For a single moment, he considered sending out an alert across the hive at a potential intruder. Ultimately, he decided against it to stand in the face of peril for the sake of Nabatae.

Each footstep drew another difficult breath from Yasif. He audibly swallowed back in fear of what was to come. A thousand ideas of the assailant rolled through his mind all at once. A murder from within the city? A mercenary from the upper hive? A helot from the masters? A crazed marauder from Ursh? One of the insane supersoldiers from the Himalazians? Yasif tightened the grip on his glaive, readying himself to deal with whatever dared to harm their city. A shadow began to form as the being crossed the threshold into the tower.

“Yasif, I’m here to- By the Masters! Easy, easy! You wouldn’t skewer your old friend, Omar, surely!?” A warrior in bronze carapace appeared before him, his voice as scraggly and desperate as the shaky weapons in his own hands. The man, Omar, was bedecked similar to himself in a powered suit of armor with a chainglaive and lascycler. He arrived helmetless, the angular headgear neatly clipped to one side of his leg. A dark, aged face with a long, groomed beard stared blankly at him.

Ah. Omar. I had forgotten that you tend to turnover twenty minutes earlier than the scheduled time.” Yasif said with a sigh of relief, setting the chainglaive aside and holstering the lascycler on his left thigh. His body slumped up against one of the tower’s pillars, the bronze carapace groaning in protest against the reinforced limestone. Omar’s shoulders drooped in similar respite, slinging the chainglave over his shoulder from its shaft-long attachment.

“You are quite jumpy tonight! Worried about your wife, Ysret?” Omar said with a reinvigorated smile. He stopped momentarily by the cogitator in the center of the platform, tapping at several runes to authorize his identity and acquire shift-change synchronization. Once completed, the wizened sentinel leaned against one of the rails opposite Yasif.

Of course! Wouldn’t you be worried if your spouse was in the middle of having their child? The overseers couldn’t afford a replacement for me in the requested timeframe.” The younger sentinel replied with a saddened tone. He began to clip off his helmet, turning it sideways to disengage the seals before removing it from his head. A tangle of black hair drooped across his forehead, quickly disappearing as Yasif pushed it back into his sweat-slicked scalp. Delicately, the headgear was placed onto one of the two tables in the tower. “I wish I could summon the same amount of respect as you, Omar.”

“It takes time, Yasif, give it another year or two and the elders will see about making you a lead sentinel. Besides, you would miss me once you left this assignment!” Omar said reassuringly, turning away from Yasif to draw a stick of synthetic tobacco from one of his chest-strapped pockets. He snapped his fingers together, drawing several sparks to ignite the tip of the parchment. A swift inhale and exhale released a wisp of smoke from the elder’s lips. The younger sentinel shook his head in disapproval.

“And how much longer before you rise to become one of the Master’s Ghaizietti? Assuming you manage to keep yourself from stealing away banned narcotics.” Yasif joked, picking himself up from the slump to cross the tower towards the cogitator. He eyed the chronometer, awaiting the precise moment to initiate turnover with Omar. Approximately five minutes until the stroke of midnight for their approved transition of authorities. One of his gauntlets tapped against the terminal, preparing the machine for a swift and easy transaction. It beeped in response, another chronometer set to alert them of the time whenever it came.

Omar chuckled in response, coughing as smoke choked his lungs mid-drag. He turned his pale eyes to Yasif, raising a knowing finger at the younger sentinel before turning back to the wastelands outside of Nabatae. “I’ll always be a grizzled, old sentinel on the wall, Yasif. What you should be thinking about is what you’re going to name your child!”

“You’ll be surprised to know that Ysret and I have already chosen names.” Yasif said with playful tone, stepping away from the cogitator. He leaned against the opposite rail of Omar, a fresh smile beginning to grow on his lips. Omar tilted his head to the left, inclining to listen to this ‘surprise’ from the younger sentinel. One of his gauntlets flicked embers away from the synthstick. He closed his eyes to momentarily enjoy the peacefulness of Yasif’s married life, longing to have a wife himself.

“If it’s a girl, we were thinking Rabia, and if it’s a boy… we were thinking about naming him Omar-” The last word was puked from Yasif’s mouth in a combination of pained gasp and crying moan. Every chronometer began to chirp in distress as the alarms began to sound at the designated time. A stroke of lightning stabbed into the wastes outside of Nabatae. The grizzled sentinel dropped the smoldering stick in one of his gauntlets as he turned to the younger’s crying voice.

A knife- no, a blade was buried deep into Yasif’s back and through the bronze carapace that protected his chest. Thick vitae exploded forth from the young sentinel’s mouth, tears welling at the edge of his reddened eyes. He was lifted by a being much larger than him, armored in grey plating unknown to Omar. The blade was unceremoniously ripped out of Yasif’s chest, his body tossed aside like a doll to a child. The older sentinel reached down to claim the lascycler from his holster, but suddenly realized that he no longer owned a left arm. His body began to shudder, horrendous pain welling up from the precisely delivered dismemberment. Before he could scream in agony, a grey gauntlet grabbed his face from behind.

“Know that your sacrifice for humanity is for the best.” A voice said from behind. It was heavily altered behind a helmet, yet it was a deep and angry tone that granted no peace in his fate. A blade tore through his back, splitting apart the bronze carapace and appearing out of his chestplate. Darkness began to filter through his vision as tears stained the grey gauntlet. In his last moments, Omar thought that he would’ve liked to meet Yasif’s newborn child.

Zameel tossed aside the sentinel that he killed, an older man who had been smoking some sort of synthetic substance. The cadaver clattered across the tower’s floor, a lascycler spinning away under one of the assorted tables to be forgotten for time immemorial. A pair of chronometers chirped nearby, one from the cogitator and another from the cadaver that his brother had slain. Two steps brought him to the terminal, disabling the timed alarm and finishing the guard transition. The other warrior with him, Ahrim, crushed the skull of the younger sentinel under his boot and smashed the helmet to silence it.

“Any witnesses on the lower floors?” Zameel asked, flicking the power sword free of blood before sheathing it for more overt combat. Similarly, Ahrim slipped his dagger back into a frontal sheath strapped to his chest plate.

None. Nusair and Muhannad have dealt with the mid-segment guardians. Nathiz and Abdul are maintaining vigilance on tertiary walkways. Everything is as instructed, Praetor.” Ahrim responded, a young man’s voice erupting from through the knightly helmet he wore. Voxgrills on the slopped portion of the faceplate boomed the response, yet the words remained audible only to Zameel. The praetor nodded firmly, bending down on one knee next to the cadaver of the elder sentinel.

The elder warrior removed his helmet, momentarily setting it aside to handle the bodies of the Nabateans. Ahrim, the younger warrior, echoed his movements with the younger sentinel that had slain. Zameel pressed his taloned digits into the skull of the sentinel, digging out quickly decaying grey matter with precise strokes of his fingers. Sticky strings of brain were brought to his mouth in lumps, pressed inside to digest the raw information provided by the cadaver. The other warrior began to perform the same movements with less precision, ripping apart the upper half of the youthful defender’s head with the carelessness of an inexperienced pawn. Immediately, the praetor could feel a surge of knowledge course through his body and supplement what was already known to them. At that moment, he knew everything he needed to know about Nabatae.

Omar. You were lucky enough to die early compared to what is to come.” Zameel solemnly spoke, wiping saliva and grey matter from his lips. Retrieving the helmet beside him, the praetor picked himself back up and descended into the tower’s interior. Ahrim followed closely behind, shaking off the experiences that now plagued his mind. He observed the younger warrior pick up one of the chainglaives unconsciously, wielding it in both hands during their descent. The clade member, noticing that he was being watched, released the chainglaive from his grip.

“I apologize. The other sentinel’s memories were vivid. Yasif had a very keen anger within him. It will not happen again, Praetor.” Ahrim said with a slur in his speech. No doubt he reeled from the experience of freshly eaten brain. Zameel smirked to himself in response, fondly remembering the first time he was forced to endure the gruesome affair.

The interior of the tower was sparsely painted in fresh vitae, complimented only by torn limbs and propped bodies of other Nabatean sentinels. More of the grey-armored warriors appeared in his descent, identifiable only by their specific armor and numeral-painted pauldrons. Zameel nodded in satisfaction of his personal clade, their performance was beyond expectation and executed flawlessly. Each of the clade members followed after their leader, holstering dagger and sword alike in favor of deadlier weaponry. Bolters, hulking bolthrowers comparable in size to a heavy stubber, were unslung from their powerpacks to be wielded in both hands. They approached the bottom of the tower, where the final members of their clade awaited in perpetual silence with daggers and bolters drawn. Their clade now numbered ten with the arrival of the praetor and his apprentice.

“Issues, Casildo?” Zameel asked as the clade began to disperse across the ground floor, readying their equipment for the next phase of the invasion. The warrior he asked, Casildo, turned away from his watching position at the tower’s open doorway. He appeared exactly like the rest of the clade, knightly slopped helmet and burdensome powered armor all in grey. Only a single numeral on his left knee identified him apart from his brethren.

None, Praetor. The guard turnover was completed exactly as planned, no further reinforcements or intermediaries from the lower- or upper-hive.” Casildo responded in a quick voice, suppressing any needless detail from the report. Satisfied with the report, Zameel nodded for the other warrior to continue his duties. Another of the clade members entered his view from the stairwell, making the sign of the raptor over his chestplate before relaying his words.

“Praetor. The eastern towers have been dealt with.” The warrior, Ehsan, spoke promptly before turning away and beginning to jog back up the stairs to other parts of the wall. Zameel didn’t appreciate having to assign runners for the sake of the operation, not when their combat prowess could be better utilized for murder and infiltration. He reasoned with himself that it was necessary for the mission and key to their invasion of the Bronze City.

“Finally. Reactivate your encrypted voxnets. Communications silence is over. We will begin the second phase of the invasion in the Emperor’s name.” Praetor Zameel ordered across their clade’s voxnet, several affirmations clicked within his ear that the command was received. Several members of his squad racked their bolter, readied their melee weapons, and swiftly inspected their grenades after the approval decree of phase two. An ugly smile creeped over his lips at the beauty of a perfectly planned ambush. He turned away to address a separate voxnet, activating it with a blink of his eye.

+’Zaid, towers Echo-One through Echo-Five have been dealt with. Clade Zameel is ready for phase two.’+ He spoke into the vox, expecting nothing in return other than a single click of affirmation from the receiving end. The response was all that he needed to know that their operation was on track. Now, he awaited the moment to begin their hours of coordinated slaughter into Nabate.

High Overseer Mimmun sat at her enormous cogitator with several ceramic mugs within arms reach and a vast ashtray for synth-tobacco sticks in flicking distance. Her eyes glazed over many terminals linked to the cogitator, at least one for every single tower along Nabatae’s gargantuan wall. Her left hand felt in constant motion, continuously pressing runes to repeat the same command for every single transaction on the defense network. Turnover, equipment requests, lower overseer reports, and more were promptly dealt with by her trained precision. All of it had been dealt with by her lonesome in the sole command tower of the Bronze City. None, save for her spare assistant or rarer drone from the masters, entered the defense core without their upper-hive overlord’s permission. In truth, she loved the isolation away from the masses of the hive and her lower subordinates. With that thought in mind, she reached out to the closest container only to find it empty.

“Shillan, dear, could you bring me another pot of coffee from storage? I still have another hour left to fulfill the reports for our masters.” She said in a disappointed voice, one of her index fingers holding down a specific rune on her console. There was an audible crack of noise from a nearby sound machine, and a fresh voice from a younger woman began to hurriedly respond. A smirk grew on her parched lips, enjoying the moment of chaotic dismay that she routinely threw at the assistant.

Of course, ma’am! I-I’ll return in a few minutes for your beverage!” Shillan, her assistant, stated with no shortage of stress in her voice. The response nearly drew a fit of laughter from Mimmun, a fresh burst of energy revitalizing her until the younger woman returned. She enjoyed her company as much as she reveled in her misery.

The overseer continued her work while she waited for Shillan to return with fresh brewed beverages to push her to shift completion. Her aged eyes scanned over the rest of the towers, watching each turnover happen in real time. Some had initiated their authentications earlier than expected, while others completed them on time as instructed. She tapped away at the runes on her console, digitally inscribing several notes for docked pay or issuing overtime for those who deviated from the shift change hours. Mimmun recognized one repeat offender, in particular, Tower Echo-Three, led by High Sentinel Omar and Overseer Kaklan. A note now resided in their directories for another week of censer and hypno-indoctrination. That’d teach them a lesson for going against her scheduling.

She smiled in satisfaction, bringing one of her tertiary arms up to suck upon tobacco-wrapped parchment. A plume of smoke spilled out from her pursed lips, tumbling into the light haze that filled the room. Her body reclined backward in the cushioned seat, a moment of respite filling her otherwise extraordinarily busy day. It was these calm periods that she enjoyed best. Luckily, she was far enough away from the other towers to keep her peace and close enough to the bastion-hive to arrive home within fifteen minutes on an ascender without encountering the master’s hounds. Chronometers on each of her terminals ticked in sync with each other, all of them swiftly approaching midnight. One more hour and some change until she would be home in her own bed.

A rhythmic tapping on the portal into the control chamber nearly jolted her onto her feet in panic. Usually, Shillan would call from her desk to announce her journey to the chamber. The high overseer began to worry until she remembered that the poor girl had sounded rushed and desperate. Mimmun cursed herself for teasing the assistant too much, overextending the joy she sought in harassing the younger woman. Groaning as she left the seat, the elder woman began to slowly move towards the only entrance in the chamber. A set of tertiary fingers tapped at a console on the nearby wall, inputting specific runes known only to her.

“A moment, Shillan, I wasn’t expecting you to arrive without calling. I do apologize for the trouble, but I-” Mimmun began to speak, weaving a lie into her dialogue as the doors began to automatically open vertically. She had prepared herself to deal with a sobbing woman as Shillan usually did when scolded. Instead, the high overseer of Nabatae’s control tower froze in fear at the sight before her.

A man several sizes larger than her in austere, grey-powered armor as bulky as an excavator unit stood in front of her. In one of his taloned gauntlets, the decapitated head of her assistant hung from a torn spinal cord. In the other, a grotesque chainaxe decorated with dripping ichor. A knightly, slopped helmet split ornamentally down the middle stared down at her with orange lenses. Streaks of crimson painted the warrior from armored foot, to dark tabard, and up to the numeral on his right pauldron. She took a fearful step backward, only for him to calmly step forward by ducking under the doorway. Any words that she could muster were stuck in her throat, tears beginning to form at the edge of her eyes. Mimmun knew what was to become of her without it being spoken. She would die here.

The head of Shillan was swiftly tossed aside, Mimmun’s throat was grabbed in the claw that had held her assistant. She hadn’t been able to see the warrior’s movement even with her augmented eyes. The air was being choked from her decaying lungs in his spartan grip, taloned digits beginning to dig into her soft flesh. Saliva flew forth from her lips, bubbling foam forming at the corner of her mouth. His grip tightened unexpectedly as the last of her life began to flee in the face of overwhelming strength. She listened to the only thing she could comprehend at that moment, a final epitaph from the warrior who killed her.

“I must thank you, High Overseer. Were it not for your impeccable scheduling, then we would’ve had to resort to bombarding the city from afar. You, personally, have secured your city's fate for the Thirteenth and the Emperor. Enter the end knowing that you doomed your city.” The being said in a voice that was equal parts soothing and tormenting, a deep and booming crescendo of Achaemenidian charisma. She choked, gasping for one last bit of air to respond to the warrior. Sensing the attempt, the man grumbled and swiftly twisted his wrist in disappointment. Her life was extinguished in a haze of smoke.

Zaid ibn N’dar allowed the chainaxe to dangle from the handle, a chain attached to the hilt refusing to let it touch the ground. With a new hand free, the warrior angled his talon-tipped gauntlet into a piercing shape to plunge into the woman’s flesh. Her head was torn from the neck down, viscera and ichor splattering across the carpeted floors in disgusting clumps. The man, no longer afflicted by her feeble weight, removed the upper surface of the skull to reveal a mess of grey matter within. Delicately, he dug out specific pieces of her shattered brain to feed into his slightly raised helmet. A warm, mushy taste entered his mouth that would’ve revulsed him were it not for the genetic stapling of certain receptors.

Isha Mimmun. What a pathetic life you’ve lived.” Zaid spoke aloud, feeding in on every single part of her knowledge and memories in a fleeting moment of repulsive experience. The structural layout of the hive, the guard placements, the cogitator stacks, and every other important location across the city fed into his intellect. Unlike others of his kind, he could filter the raw data from the flesh and consume exactly what was required. None of the one named ‘Isha Mimmum’ remained for him to witness. The head was tossed aside like a piece of trash discarded by a common person. Orange lenses fell upon the cogitator, scanning each and every display that held any amount of significance.

The geneknight started to press runes in a certain sequence, beginning the second of the planned phases for their invasion. Already, he could hear the buzzing in his helmet from the other warriors across the legion. Each clade had completed their assignments, each warrior had performed exactly as expected, and every action taken was as silent as a thousand and one grains of black sand. He furrowed his brows at the analogy, fresh memories woven in from another that their legion called to. A low chirp affirmed the successfulness of his task, several towers on each display beginning to rapidly blink in a strange pattern. A toothy grin grew on his cracked, scarred lips.

It was time to execute the second phase of the invasion.

+’Warriors! Astartes of the Thirteenth Legion! Begin the second phase of the invasion! Communication ban has been lifted, weapon silencing has been lifted, and stealth has been nullified. Let them know the price for rejecting our Master’s benevolence. ’+ Legion Master Zaid, the Warmaster of the Thirteenth Legion, commanded across their voxnet. Sigils on each of the terminals grew bright crimson as a hostile takeover took place. Gates along the wall opened, automated turrets fell silent, and remote drones suffered shocking fates. Nabatae was now laid bare to the genewarriors of the Emperor. +’Kill them all.’+

His command was absolute as if spoken by the Emperor himself. Already, Zaid could hear the familiar tone of bolter fire, volkite rays, and roaring chainweapons beginning to slaughter through the defenses of Nabatae. He tracked their aggressive, tactical movements on the high overseer’s terminals. The teams of ten on the walls - the clades - killed with extreme prejudice enroute to their next assignments. Many more of the Astartes flooded in from the four Bronze Gates of Nabatae. The invasion was now in full swing, a product produced only due to their genewrought might and cunning. Soon enough, the Imperial Army would arrive to pick up the pieces of their assault. Until that moment, the Bronze City was their grounds to hunt.

The sound of shouts, stomping feet, and clattering wargear drew his attention away from the enormous cogitator. The guardians of Nabatae had finally noticed his intrusion. Zaid flexed his wrist, snapping the chain upwards and flinging the motorized axe into a talon-tipped gauntlet. He pushed the helmet tight against his skull, reconnecting the pressurized seal with the power armor’s environmental system. The body of the overseer was then lifted in his free hand, gripped in such a way that it was easily tossable. If he could not terrify the arrivals into submission, then Zaid settled for being able to throw the cadaver to break their spirits.

And so they arrived, a squad of the bronze sentinels of Nabatae from the ascender in the nearby corridor. He admired their suicidal gall to some degree, recklessly charging in with their meager carapace and bronze exosuits. Most carried their typical, curved chainglaives in one hand and a lascycler in the other. One particular Nabatean held aloft a blade that crackled with uncontrolled electricity. That specific warrior, however, wouldn’t be enough to calm their nerves.

“In the name of the Masters, who- Oh sweet deliverable gods! High Overseer Mimmun!” One of them spat out before doubling over in a heaving fit, bile spilling out of their mouth. His tactic had worked as anticipated, yet something told him there was more that could be done. Anything is a weapon. A phrase that hadn’t been taught to him, but it was a passage that he certainly agreed with. Zaid hurled Isha’s defiled body at the group with every ounce of his genewrought might. The first warrior crumbled under the assault, crushed within his suit of armor by the combined weight and momentum of the cadaver. Her body exploded into a fit of ichor, blinding and terrifying the other sentinels.

The Astartes lunged immediately after the cadaver was thrown, engaging the throttle-paddle on the chainaxe to dig into the second sentinel. Reinforced teeth chew through bronze and carapace quickly, their body cleaved in half through raw power. They began to scream, either scattering back to the ascender or flailing in shock. Zaid crushed the third defender’s skull with a punch, then effortlessly flung their corpse towards the ascender to fumble their companions. He refused to allow a second of recovery, kneeing the next Nabatean and plunging them down onto their own chainglaive. Shrieks of agony filled the air as much as vitae began to mist the room in a crimson haze. The last three defenders couldn’t hold their faculties, nor muster a defense against the Astartes.

Louder! Let your fellow Nabatean hear your shrieks so that they may yet live in His name! Praise the Emperor with every ounce of your revolting body!” Zaid screamed at them, knowing that he’d receive exactly what he requested. The sentinels cried out as loudly, harshly, and desperately as possible. They slobbered fresh praises to the Emperor and pleas to spare their lives. He frowned in annoyance, pushing aside one of the broken defenders to enter the ascender. His last sight of the overseer’s chambers was one perfectly described as charnal house of intense macabre.

Commander Ismaal el-Mahdavi watched the Bronze City of Nabatae burn with his own eyes. He had been born here, grew up here, and defended this home for forty-five years. His sentinels had pushed back the technobarbarian corsairs of the Nordafrik Conclaves, culled the Gyptian reavers, and purged waves of gangrel mutants for twenty-five years. He had known war, trained in it, and considered himself a master within the walls of the bastion-hive. All of his vocal cords had been bruised from the amount of screaming he conducted, spreading orders and commanding the warriors under him. Every muscle in his body had been trained, bio-enhanced, and engineered for the relentless persecution of his enemies. Every Nabatean warrior knew his name, understood his legacy, and refused to route under his visage.

Yet, everything that had just occurred belied any sort of war that he participated in. They appeared from seemingly every corner of the hive, precisely firing into the crowds to slaughter warriors that he had personally trained. Each bullet had seen their body explode into showers of gore, shattering the resolves of his sentinels. He had tried to rally every soldier, citizen, and mercenary that he could muster against those killing machines. They ran faster than he could speak. The commander noticed that the invaders hadn’t been slaughtering citizens, only defenders with extreme prejudice. In all of his years, Ismaal considered surrendering outright and pleading for his life with the rest of his soldiers. Pride wormed into his veins, disallowing such thoughts to take hold within his body.

And so he waited at an artificial strait towards the noble hab-blocks, a sentinel station impeding the way forward. To either side of him, men and women of Nabatae shivered in silent fear of the things that hunted them. Their chainglaives idly revved in anticipation, lascyclers fiddled with, and their armor rising high only to lower in quick succession. Ismaal gripped both handles on his lightning cleaver, a two-handed melee weapon confidently crafted by their masters for aspiring champions. Behind him, the commander could hear the chanting of the priests as they summoned their wyrd. Biomechanical monstrosities of flesh and armor protected those of the clergy, looming in the post like wrathful knights of the gods. Confidence began to brew within him, a feeling of certainty for victory settling across their defense.

It was all in vain. While he had been hunkered down in the sentinel post, the enemy had begun putting their beloved city to the torch. Those who hadn’t surrendered were slaughtered, burned, maimed, and decapitated in such quickness that he hadn’t heard their death cries. They, the grey armored ones, had noticed their outpost and began to stalk it like wild animals to wounded prey. It wasn’t until one of their kind openly stepped out to address them that he truly began to feel fear.

“A mighty fortress, protecting the noblemen that have already likely abandoned you. Your Masters have rejected the Emperor’s vision of Unity before, but that doesn’t have to be your ultimate fate. Walk out, praise His name, and join the quest for Unity. I promise you on my name as Consul Raamiz of the Thirteenth.” The grey-armored giant, Raamiz, had stated in a soft and warm voice. His voice reverberated, echoing several times over in a pleasant crescendo. Ismaal couldn’t believe how alluring the warrior sounded. He was more ornate than the other warriors beside him, bedecked in chain and tabard. Ten other austere knights stood around him with their orange lenses upon the sentinel post.

Before Ismaal could properly respond, five defenders had left their posts to kneel down before the one named Raamiz. As promised, one of the austere knights guided them safely away from the warzone. Three more began to shift in a movement to leave, yet found themselves assailed by the priests behind him. They screamed in a tongue that the commander couldn’t comprehend, murdering the defenders that had attempted to leave with purple lightning. None of their number dared to leave after that, yet the grey warriors were not so kind as to wait for more deserters. Nabateans were brought forth from an unknown area, forced to their knees, and ripped to shreds by the invaders. Some were offered a quick death with a slash to the throat, while others were maimed by chainswords or slowly decapitated by their taloned gauntlets.

Bodies had begun to pile up some distance away from the sentinel post. Ismaal watched with reddened eyes as more of his defenders were murdered by the grey warriors or gutted by the Master’s priests. The confidence that he had initially built up began to wane as every minute passed. Every moment his home burned, his people died, and his culture slowly eradicated. The puppets of their forlorn overlords did nothing, perfectly content to wait while Nabatae was purged. Fresh wrath bubbled within his stomach, angry that he couldn’t change fate no matter how hard he tried. Wrath gave way to despair until the one named Raamiz returned once more to speak.

“I understand now, sentinels. You are stuck between two walls, yet there is a way out of this. Open the doors, welcome us inside, and we will flay the pair of witches that torture you.” Raamiz spoke from across the hab-strait, his voice as smooth as freshly harvested honey. The ‘witches’ that he spoke of turned their attention away from ritualistic chanting to witness Ismaal’s reply. The commander stepped forward, making himself evident in the post’s wide-slitted viewports. He saw now that Raamiz was armed with a spear in one hand and a strange bolthrower in the other. Ismaal knew that this was their last chance, either side with this ‘Emperor’ or remain loyal to the Masters.

“Will you promise to spare every sentinel that we come across, so long as we fight beside you?” Commander Ismael called out, a deep and serious voice that belied any amount of cowardice. As the question was asked, he thought that he could feel Raamiz smile under his helmet. The grey warrior brought his spear upon his chestplate, half-bowing in a strange form of gesticulation. It sufficed for an answer, Ismaal turning around to angry priests behind him. Their monstrous knights huffed in preparation, raising their fists to fight against the commander and his sentinels. Warily, his companions readied their chainglaives to combat against their former Master’s servants.

I, Ismaal el-Mahdavi, pledge my life, and the lives of all Nabatean sentinels, to the Emperor and Unity from this moment onward!” He called out at the top of his lungs, yet the aftermath of his defiance to the Nabatean masters was felt immediately. The wall that had been behind him crumbled into nothingness as those austere knights charged through with insane timing. Their weapons were already firing, gunning, and powered to fight in relentless close-quarters combat. Consul Raamiz arrived last with his spear lowered and a quickness to his feet.

“Well said, Ismaal! Glory unto you!” Raamiz laughed, lunging forward with an unknowable energy enhancing his movements. Ismaal watched the spear ignite with a powerfield, pierce the first priest in the heart, and explode the second priest with a point-blank shot of his firearm. The other ten austere knights easily cut down the Master’s monstrosities, their own form equally towering the bioenhanced servants. He never knew that the Emperor had such power, nor did he know that the Masters could be dealt with so easily.

Ismaal fell to his knees as the Consul flicked the boiling blood from his spear tip. The lightning cleaver fell from his grip, and both of his hands were brought together in a prayer. He dipped his head in fervent faith towards the man who had saved their lives, offered them solace, and guided them to a glorious future. The other sentinels began to do the same. The commander looked up only to ask a single question. “Are you all vengeful angels?”

The comment drew the ire from the other grey warriors who had defeated their master’s puppets. Raamiz laughed loudly and happily, stepping forward to kneel in front of Ismaal. One of his titanic hands, now free of a firearm, was delicately placed on the Nabatean’s shoulder. Ismaal’s green eyes peered into the orange lenses of the Emperor’s warrior with anticipation.

“No, Ismaal, we are the Emperor’s Astartes.” Raamiz said with a warm smile.

Alim ibn Sharif, Consul of the Thirteenth Legion, observed the disastrous siege that halted their invasive progress into bastion-hive Nabatae from atop a sentinel post. The forsaken technosavants that had called themselves ‘masters’ holed up in the final vestige of resistance. An enormous, bronze palace at the center of the hive stood in the way of their conquest. A singular bridge as wide as a mountain connected the hive to the palace through the noble’s district. Ghaizietti, the ‘perfected’ genewarriors of Nabatae, desperately held the crossing regardless of whatever was thrown at them. Completely armored in bronze, buffed to the size of Thunder Warriors, and wielding savage power claws of monstrous size was what awaited them. Several of the Thirteenth had died attempting to murder the genewarriors, butchered by sheer strength seen only by the Emperor’s Thunder Warriors and Custodes.

A thousand and one different plans formulated in his mind of how to deal with the imperfect genethings that they fought. He ruled out all options that would cost the Emperor a fruitful assault, then ones leading to mass sacrifice of captive Nabatae, and finally ideas that would garnish unacceptable casualty factors for the Thirteenth. Ultimately, he decided on a plan that would utilize the best and worst of their strengths. Just as he had begun to expand on the idea, the Legion Master appeared behind him on feet as silent as sand.

“You appear troubled, Alim, how do you plan to take the bridge by simply thinking?” Zaid chided, placing a reassuring gauntlet on Alim’s pauldron. He couldn’t help but feel belittled, yet it did little to sway him from the momentarily melancholy of a failed assault.

“The Ghaizietti are like Thunder Warriors, Legion Master, I don’t think we’ll get out of this fight without necessary losses.” Alim responded in a monotone voice, both responding to the question and defending his actions as a field commander. It earned him a sneer from the older warrior, who now watched the carnage wrought by the genewarriors. Fresh reinforcements of deserter sentinels stormed the bridge, wildly firing their lascyclers while others wheeled in multilasers on hovering platforms. They disappeared as quickly as they appeared, one of the Ghaizietti lunging animalistically into their battalion.

“Then we need only slaughter them before they slaughter us.” A new voice stated, Praetor Zameel emerging from the depths of Nabatae with a pair of clades following behind. The swordmaster inclined his head towards Zaid first, then to Alim after a swift gesticulation from the Legion Master. The Praetor found a comfortable viewing distance on Alim’s left side, eyeing the monstrosities tearing apart the sentinels with ease.

Incomprehensible. We would sustain heavy casualties on this lone assault. Victory is achievable without it.” Alim responded with a hint of anger, yet retained the majority of his monotone voice. Often, it felt like he couldn’t comprehend what his comrades were thinking. He thought much more different from the Thirteenth Legion, honed in on different details that fled their minds. Zaid turned to him now, his posture displeased with the discourse between his warriors. Zameel simply shook his head in response, perhaps thinking him a coward instead of a tactician.

“Then what do you suggest, Alim?” Zaid pointedly asked, hints of familial anger growing on his tongue. It was a tone that the Consul despised, yet it granted him the room to vent a more formulated plan to his comrades.

“The Ghaizietti must bleed, preferably profusely but more viably in several minor cuts. After watching them for several minutes, I’ve ascertained the majority of their enhancements. They do not possess regeneration such as we do. We pull back the sentinels, fight only with Astartes, and utilize hit-and-run tactics to bait the genethings.” Alim said with a small hint of pride in his voice, defeated once more by the monotone. The Legion Master nodded his head in satisfaction, approving of it with a familial slap on Alim’s pauldron. Zameel tapped the hilt of his blade against his chestplate, offering a small warrior’s salute.

Death by a thousand cuts, is it?” Another voice, Consul Raamiz’s, joined in with their small strategic meeting. More of his brethren followed behind the arriving Consul, stray sentinels mingling in amongst the power-armored warriors. One of the mortals held aloft a peculiar weapon that caught Alim’s eye, yet his attention was stolen as Raamiz spoke again. “Even I would’ve suggested that. If I hadn’t been slaughtering my way through the noble’s district, then perhaps I could’ve broken through the stalemate.”

“Your arrogance knows no bounds, Raamiz. If you are so eager to prove your strength, then venture out and slay the Ghaizietti.” Alim challenged, squaring off against the prideful Astartes. Tension filled the air between himself and Ramiz for only a moment. Zaid snapped the chain attached to his chainaxe, forcing them to glance in the direction of their Legion Master. Fury was beginning to fume from the slopped helmet of the elder warrior.

Enough talking. The Emperor demands Nabatae. We will deliver. Fight together or die together.” The Legion Master commanded, turning away from the rest of his warriors. His power-armored form disappeared into the depths of the tower they stood on, venturing forth into the battlefield that calls to them. Alim shared a look with Raamiz and Zameel before descending with Zaid. The rest of the Astartes followed shortly after, their arguments laid to rest and their lust for glory raised.

The battlefield of the bridge stretched out before Alim and his brothers as a corridor of shattered bodies. Broken, maimed sentinels were spread in every chaotic direction covered in freshly spilled blood. Rare Astartes were amongst their number, ceramite armor torn and rended apart by the bestial claws of the Ghaizietti. Those hyper-enhanced Nabateans stood in a staggered yet coherent line on the bridge, awaiting the next attempt on their master’s life. Now that Alim was closer, he could finally understand exactly why they had pushed the Thirteenth back.

Bronze plates covered every inch of their body in hyper-dense powered armor. They stood slightly taller and wider than the Thunder Warriors that he had seen on the battlefield. Great reservoirs of bubbling purple fluid on their backs hooked into several ports across their body. Blank helmets with industrial respirators hooked to the reservoirs covered their smaller proportioned skulls. Gruesome claws of five powered talons were permanently fused to their hands, serrated for maximum damage against armored foes. Short arcs of strange lightning danced against their metal plating, grounding out at their clawed greaves.

Consul Alim stepped forward first with his thunder hammer in one hand and a plasmic rifle in the other. He hadn’t realized that his greaves brought him forward, but the Astartes felt a keen draw to those powerclaws. It wasn’t simply fascination that drew him towards the Ghaizietti. He wanted those talons for himself and the Legion. Not even he could comprehend where this desire bubbled up from. His sloped helmet turned to swiftly regard the Legion Master with a sense of urgency.

“Zaid, I want those powerclaws for the Thirteenth. I believe I could fashion a great number of them for future operations. Though, I confess, I do not know where this desire draws from.” Alim spoke with a tone of fascination, dimmed only by his dull voice. The comment drew the Legion Master’s attention with peaked interest. Instead of responding to him in a proper manner, Zaid simply nodded his head in affirmation of the Consul’s request. He beamed with muted delight, tightening his grip on the thunder hammer.

The Ghaizietti, sensing a dangerous array of opponents, began their attack before the Astartes could sprint forward. Each Nabatean menace galloped forward on all of their limbs, barreling towards Alim and his brethren like wild animals on the hunt. Despite their cumbersome galloping, the genemonstrosities uttered no sound as if their mouths were sown shut. It did little to perturb the Astartes, who had since readied their array of weapons. Both sets of genewarriors met in a clash of genewrought might.

Alim swung his furious hammer into the first Ghaizietti with all the force of a minor deity, crunching the chestplate of the Nabatean supersoldier. Utilizing his enhanced reflexes, the Consul unloaded an uncharged point-blank shot from the plasmic rifle into the brute. Reinforced plating immediately cooked hot enough to sink into the genewarrior’s chest, yet it only suffice to push the being backwards for it to recuperate. Raamiz followed up on Alim’s assault, lunging forward with accelerated speed to pierce through the Ghaizietti’s sunken chest. Both of the reservoirs were punctured along with it’s heart, cutting the lifethreads of the genething. It slumped forward, defeated under the rapid assault of the Thirteenth.

The consul turned to face new foes, yet found his brethren similarly successful if not employing unique strategies in their duels. Legion Master Zaid, swift and deadly, parried strikes from the powerclaws to deliver gruesome swings of his chainaxe. Once behind the brutes, the elder Astartes unleashed a jet of flames from his firearm. Promethium-enhanced fire cooked the genebeasts from the inside, boiling the vats of enhancing-fluid into solid mass. The Ghaizietti he fought began to audibly choke as vat-sludge clogged his respirator. Zaid wasted no time in his assault, allowing the flamer to dangle from a chain and delivering a sidewards punch against the genething’s helmet. As it stumbled sideways, the bloodthirsty chainaxe cleaved upwards to catch the Nabatean’s throat. Blood, meat, and gore cascaded downwards in disgusting clumps against Nabatae’s palace bridge. The Emperor’s angel of death left to engage another Ghaizietti, allowing the one that he fought to choke and die.

Satisfied with his commander, Alim sprinted towards the next Ghaizietti that danced with Zameel. The blademaster of the Thirteenth slashed, cut, and pierced the genebeast several times over. His mastery of the powersword was unnatural to Alim’s eye, one that hadn’t been indoctrinated into their psyches. Every step of the Praetor was weightless, precise and deft. It appeared as if Zameel was stepping on glass or gliding across sand with each fluid strike of his blade. Each strike of his powersword found gaps in plates, cut arterial tubes, or opened fresh gashes in exposed skin. To the Consul’s surprise, the Nabatean had already significantly slowed to the blood loss it suffered. Eventually, the genething ceased to move and slumped to the ground after a dozen rounds of bloodletting.

Several other Astartes followed in from behind, engaging with those that Alim hadn’t yet collided with. Perhaps they had watched the Thirteenth’s best warriors closely, echoing movements that the four of them exhibited. In a sense, the consul understood why this was the case. They were all of the same genecode, trained all in the same underground halls, and raised up to be the Emperor’s greatest weapons in the same arts of war. He clenched his thunder hammer tighter, a new emotion beginning to pulse throughout his being. Brotherhood. They shared something even more profound than their upbringing, visions buried beneath their genetic modifications that bonded their legion together. Those thoughts were buried as Zaid rushed forward with Raamiz and Zameel, Alim following shortly behind with the palace doors in full view of their assault.

The Legion Master stepped over the corpse of a Ghaizietti, bloodied and mauled by his Astartes. A slaughterhouse painted the bridge behind him filled to the brim with injured Astartes, slaugheterd Nabatean genehorrors, and desecrated sentinels. The fighting had ended some moments ago with the final genething laid low at the entrance of the palace. His chainaxe still dripped fresh ichor from the chunks of meat ripped from the fight. Their armors no longer remained an austere grey, brilliant crimson decorating every surface of their powered plating. Only the numeral of ‘thirteen’ remained visible on their right pauldron.

One final step saw Zaid arriving at the foot of the palace doors. They rose up as monoliths of carefully curated culture, forged from the pits of the hive to house the affluential beings that controlled it. He felt ire creep on at the sight of such vile designs depicting their isolated history in the desert wastes. Disregarding any want for theatrics or ceremony, the Legion Master lifted one of his armored greaves up and slammed it against the doors. At first, it refused to give and instead buckled under the weight of his gene-wrought might. As he began to lift his foot for another point-blank kick, the doors slowly fell backward in a dreary descent. Both clattered against the palace floors, shattering tile and echoing destruction for several miles across the hive.

Inside, the Master of the Thirteenth could truly see the abominable forms of Nabatae’s true overlords. Bronze plinths, columns, and braziers decorated the interior, while strange arcane devices ominously hummed nearby. The genewarriors of Nabatae, the Ghaizietti, floated unformed in tanks of poisonously green liquid. A vast array of cables snaked along the ground to the back of the palace. A wide, spherical room attached to the main corridor opened up to reveal a great device of impractical design. Five upright cryogenic chambers linked to a central cogitator the likes he had never seen. Chilled humans, thawed yet cooled, seemingly rested in peaceful slumber inside each of these frozen beds. As Zaid began to approach the cogitator, he began to hear a rumbling like that of an enormous, crackling voxcaster.

+’Insects. Tools of the Emperor. Scorpions. You who have delayed the advancement of civilization by hundreds of years for invading our hive. Nabatae was to be a shining ecumenopolis isolated in the desert wastes. It is now ruined and you will pay for your transgressions.’+ The voice, a myriad of several being that spoke all at once, reverberated across the palace. All the Astartes turned to regard the cogitator at the center of the palace, inferring that it was the rightful speaker. They spoke with a level of confidence that belied their situation as if they knew nothing of the events. Zaid felt the temptation to throw a grenade and be done with the ordeal, yet he had a different fate in mind for the Nabatean masters.

Scorpions? An apt description, don’t you think?” Raamiz called out from behind, walking in tandem with Zaid with his powerspear clanking against the ground. Zameel and Alim turned to regard the consul, shaking their heads in protest to being regarded as such.

“Indeed. We are His instruments of vengeance and destruction. We are a skittering legion on the sands, persecuting unification through claw and stinger.” Zaid began to speak in a dangerous tone, inching closer to the cogitator stacks with his chainaxe raised. The Nabateans may not have displayed it, but the Legion Master could taste their fear on his tongue. They knew that no one was left to defend their glorious ideas. All that was left was death.

He slowly walked around the cogitator, stopping at the first cryogenic chamber to its immediate left. A flick of his wrist saw the chainaxe decapitating the first of the masters through their cryogenic chambers. Ichor splattered across the palace’s floors as Zaid murdered the being that rebelled against the Emperor’s idea. A howling cry of pain resounded through the palace on the vox, one of their number dying to a savage genewarrior.

+’Do you not feeling nothing for the loss of sacred technology!? Does your master not wish to preserve our minds for the glory of the future!?’+ The voices began to plead through their synchronized voxcaster, desperation becoming extremely evident as the first of their number died. The Astartes punched through the frail glass of the chamber, tearing the Nabatean out and throwing him against one of the pillars. He moved to the next, aiming the chainaxe against the following master of Nabatae.

No. Your arrogance hinders His ideals. Accept death and drown in umbral sands.” The Legion Master calmly stated, furrowing his brows at the final words spoken. More unknown phrases that continued to seep into his being, spoken in a tongue not known to him. The thought was disregarded as gripped the paddle-throttle on the chainaxe, burrowing the gruesome weapon through the cryo-chamber to feast on Nabatean flesh. Harsher shrieking thronged through the palace, nearly forcing the structure to buckle in on itself.

+’This hive will die without our guidance! Nothing will operate, the refineries will die, and the walls will buckle! The Emperor needs us to rule Nabatae!’+ The voices pleaded with utter despair as they were cut down one by one. Those beings that had been quietly ‘sleeping’ in their chamber were now wide-eyed in perpetual fear. Zaid drew closer to the next one, his orange lenses meeting the terrified eyes of his next target.

“He does not need you. There will be others that are less cowardly, more befitting the Emperor’s guidance.” The Legion Master responded, gunning the chainaxe once more to bite through glass and flesh in tandem. Gore spilled across every inch of the cryogenic chamber, gushing out in horrible chunks on the palace grounds. The body within slumped as a mutilated corpse. The shrieking had quieted after three had died, leaving only two to cry their lungs out in vain. They were isolated, forgotten, and discarded by the Nabateans who pillaged their own city.

+’You must understand! We could gift the Emperor a greater legion of gene-warriors the likes he has never seen! Great beings that could rival the machine-men of the Old Night!’+ Their voice was split between a man and a woman, still synchronized but weakening with every death. Terror etched into their pleading tone, hoping for the barest sliver of persuasion. It only served to earn a chuckle from the Astartes.

“The Emperor has already created his great legions of gene-warriors, ones that you will never live to see.” Zaid stated with a toothy smile, swinging his chainaxe against the glass and gunning the trigger once more. Sharpened, metallic teeth bit into the flesh of the man within. His voice rang out in a cacophony of maddening pain, desynchronizing from the great host that they had been tied to.

+’Please-’+ The last of their voice, a woman’s tone, began to plead out. The Legion Master of the Thirteenth wasted no more time on the matter, smashing a fist through the cryogenic chamber to drag the woman out of her artificial shell. She gasped for air, forcibly unplugged from the machine that likely vitalized her. Amniotic fluid spilled out of metallic holes in her skin as she dangled from Zaid’s grasp.

Die with some dignity, cur.” He flexed his grip on her throat, bursting flesh and organs alike in his malevolent grasp. Her head split from her throat, the mangled body dropping to the floor in a disgusting splash of ichor. Disinterested, the Legion Master tossed the crudely decapitated head aside to join the rest of his brethren. They had remained a distance away to watch the affair. Each knew what it meant to allow their leader to perform the final cut on the master of an enemy army. It was their sign of respect.

“Get the Imperial army on vox. We’re finished here.” Zaid commanded, walking through the main corridor of the palace with his armor stained in Nabatean gore. As he began to cross the threshold between the master’s abode and Nabatae proper, the Legion Master halted to look back at the great cogitator. He considered some unknown fascination for a second before beginning to speak again. “Inform the Sigilites that we have a gift for them.”

Legion Master Zaid waited on the sands outside of Nabatae as the fresh morning son began to crest the horizon. The storm that had plagued their initial invasion had dissipated into nothingness, revealing the massacres on the bronze walls. All of his brethren over a thousand strong stood nearby in perfect formation, their weapons sheathed and their grey armor cleaned of Nabatean blood. Some of their number had taken trophies from the bastion-hive, such as the lightning cleavers of the elite sentinels or the powerclaws of the Ghaizietti. It reminded him that the most loyal of the deserters, Ismaal, stood nearby with his own group of sentinels in a traditional formation. A part of their invasion had been successful because of his efforts. An honor that Zaid would never forget.

His attention was suddenly drawn to a great flock of descending silhouettes in the sky. Stormbirds, Lighters, and Karmis transports began their landing sequences some distance away from the bronze city. Each bore the symbol of the Raptor, yet the Stormbirds retained an additional numeral for the Thirteenth. Their caretakers had arrived to replenish their numbers, repair their gear, and move to the next warzone to push unification. Similarly, he recognized the pattern on the Imperial transports as the Tenth Excertus Imperialis. A legion of mortals that either followed or prepared their insertion into congested battlefields. The Legion Master watched as the first of the Imperials began to disembark from their fat-bellied aircraft, hordes of red-garbed auxilia and utility crawlers unloading supplies. Already, Zaid could pick out their Lord-Commander from the grunts, accompanied by veterans and a cadre of Sigilites from the Himalazians.

As they approached, the Legion Master pressed his fist against the Raptor on his chesplate in salute of the Tenth’s Lord-Commander. The motion was responded to with a crisp, traditional salute from the mortal before he stepped closer. Zaid had forgotten how brutal and battered he was. A tall man in black dress uniform padded with plated-carapace from Europa walked up to him. One of his eyes was replaced with a glaring, red augmentation, while the rest of his face was scarred from combat or strained from age. His thin lips curled slightly upwards in what could pass as a smile for him.

Legion Master Zaid.” The Lord-Commander stated, sharply clicking his heels together in a straightening pose before the Astartes. Both of his arms were crossed in front of his chest, a greatcoat billowing behind him in the desert waste’s uneven breeze.

Lord-Commander Crucias.” Zaid responded, dropping the salute and returning to a neutral stance before the glaring eyes of the mortal.

“Another successful assault added to the tally of the Thirteenth. The Emperor will certainly know of your victory, considering how you managed to rally the majority of the hive against itself and maintain low margins of collateral.” Crucias said, his voice a mixture of mature and prompt. Their conversations always began the same, starting with debriefing and working towards specifics meant for one-on-one conversations. Auxilia of the Tenth Excertus Imperialis had formed a red sea by this point, hauling their supplies and vehicles through the open gates of Nabatae.

“A great many factors played their parts. Offer ample rewards to the Nabatean commander, Ismaal, for his service in the name of the Emperor.” The Legion Master said, gesturing to the formation of sentinels closest to them. Ismaal echoed Zaid’s movements, placing a fist against the Raptor on his chest plate and bowing to Crucias. The Lord-Commander offered a wave and a thin smile, then returned his piercing eyes to the Astartes soon after.

“And the technology previously mentioned in the report?” Crucias asked, gesturing for the Sigilites to step forward to listen in on Zaid’s personal report.

“In the central palace, past the noble district. A cogitator tied to the Nabatean masters in chilled chambers of glass. The stack is left undamaged, but the overlords were destroyed. Too unworthy to live in service to the Emperor.” The Astartes stated, a smile beginning to form under his helmet. The Sigilites nodded in response, speaking amongst themselves before disappearing away from the Lord-Commander. Crucias dipped his head in respect as they left to gather their own equipment.

“Excellent. Nabatae is in the Emperor’s hands and our unification progresses. We’ve already received reports that our next war is in Abyssna. I wish you luck, Master of the Thirteenth-” Crucias spoke, beginning to already deliver their next assignment to the Astartes. Zaid held up a taloned gauntlet to halt him from further speaking. The action earned a patient, confused look from the Lord-Commander, yet the movement hadn’t startled him like other mortals.

“We have spoken amongst ourselves. The Legion has tread the shadows of Terra without a proper name for too long. It has been decided.” The Legion Master said, earning a surprised look from the Lord-Commander. The thin smile on the mortals lips grew at the thought of his long-lasting friend’s achievements. Crucias folded his arms behind his back.

“And what would your Legion be known as, old friend?”

The Bronze Scorpions.”
Slaughter of Sanctii

The Wail of Cocytus

Sanctii Catacombs

Gathering the survivors of the advance up the thermal flue was a muted, sober prospect. Stavin found that his count of the auspex’s active collar signals had, in fact, been optimistic. The auspex, after all, only counted collars that could detect a pulse.

And, as Stavin knew, having a pulse didn’t necessarily mean you were combat capable. Some men had concussed themselves in the drop. Others had sprained ankles, shattered legs, cracked ribs. Some had scorched hands, down to the bones. Others were psych-cases, so undone by shock or trauma they simply froze up. In any case, all had to be put down. Severina carried out this grim duty, and in a perverse way, Stavin was grateful to have the discipline mistress for this, if nothing else.

They were in the sharp end of combat now, the very tip of a brutal struggle for survival against an implacable foe. The normal rules of civilization did not apply. The normal rules of etiquette did not apply. Just as he was grateful that Severina was executing the men and women who could not carry their own weight, he could see the other legionnaires were grateful that they would not have to lower their own chances of survival dragging around the unfit.

No one would say it, of course. But they all felt it. They distributed the kit of the fallen, with particular care given to the photon flasks for the arc rifles, which were light, simple matrices that carried conductive metal in a thin film encased within a light sheet metal canister. Arc riflemen could carry enough ammunition for several wars on a belt. The radio-isotope slug clips of the radcarbines were the next priority, ensuring the rest of the war party wouldn’t run out. Then, food and water.

Duly equipped, the now one hundred strong assault party advanced into the catacombs of the city, their only guiding light the soft blip of the projected location of the thermal flue operating station.


Sergeant Whitaker and Caleb advanced into the darkness, Whitaker checking the auspex, shotgun slung over one shoulder, Caleb scanning the darkness for targets for his arc rifle. They had been walking for quite a while, inside a cavern that was only partially tamed by Sanctii development. Indeed, the only real use for this space was as pressure proofing for the city’s intricate thermal exhaust, with Imperial tacticians figuring that there would be minimal security or defense, if any. Indeed, there was no historical evidence a Terran hive had ever been undermined in such a way.

These facts shot through Caleb’s mind like hot tracers from a stubber, stitching into his grey matter, kicking up little rivulets of dust in his mindscape. Anything to keep his mind off the gnawing fear that ate at him every time he let his mind touch the full, awful reality he found himself in. It was his coping strategy, he decided.

If he lived, he decided, he would write an account of this action. Then history would know it was possible to breach the walls of a hive in such a way. There would be some memorial for the sacrifice they had made, he decided. If it was his book, then good. If that didn’t work out, then he’d settle for strangling the highest ranked Imperial citizen he could find with their own entrails.

Such thoughts would have horrified him, but that was a past Caleb. A dead Caleb. What dead Caleb thought about the world no longer mattered. Dead Caleb was dead wrong, and Alive Caleb would make sure he didn’t suffer the same fate.

Whitaker’s hand shot up. His Auspex began to flash, dots suddenly appearing behind the advance party.

“We’ve got company, Troopie.” Whitaker growled.


Stavin saw the advance element, Whitaker, call a halt. He relayed the order, having the assault element hold in place. Team leaders checked auspices, and saw the same information that had stopped Whitaker in his tracks.

“Get me eyes on these contacts.” Stavin said into his microbead. “Only shoot if they’re obviously hostile. I don’t want our cover blown because one of you gun apes decided to light up a crustaecid.”

Severina’s bolt pistol was in her hand. Stab lights on weapons swayed back and forth across the darkness, revealing nothing behind the assault element.

“Above us.” Severina hissed.

Stavin looked up. He could see a veritable horde of skittering, chitinous-looking bodies crawling across the ceiling. They easily outnumbered the assault party, but they didn’t seem to notice them. They were deep-cavern crustaecids to be sure, or maybe some kind of deep-ground arachnaed, obviously displaced from their homes by the queer geological vibrations caused by the chaos above.

Stavin was about to key his microbead, when, in the center of the horde, one crustaecid stopped. Despite their small size, it was easy enough to see, as the rest of the horde crawled around it, creating an image not unlike a small rock in the middle of a river.

A red light on the body of the crustaecid lit. It was then Stavin knew that Deep Winter had found them.

They weren’t crustaecids at all. They were some kind of drone.

“Open fire!” Stavin said. “Above us!”

The guns of the damned began to shatter the night.


“Troopie!” Whitaker bellowed. “You heard ‘em!”

Caleb swung his arc rifle up, pressing the trigger in anger for the first time. The gun hummed, lighting up along the vanes in the boxy barrel assembly. Caleb thought the gun might not be functioning at f-


The report of the arc rifle was like lightning, but inches from the face. The bolt of electricity, so impossibly bright and fast, slammed into the horde of crustaecid drones, frying what must’ve seemed like hundreds in a chain-lightning light show that put any thrash band to shame. The ceiling was illuminated in eerie red as the drone’s bodies all lit up, stopping their patrol to maneuver themselves to where they could -

One dropped onto a trooper. The trooper cursed part in pain, part in fright, grabbing at the drone.

Son of a bitch!” He wailed. “Get it o-”

Whitaker and Caleb were thrown to the ground as the trooper exploded. They scrabbled to their feet, backing away, firing with wild abandon at the ceiling now.

“Sergeant, they’re gonna fucking kill us!” Caleb shouted, and received a whack on his helmeted head.

Stow that, you bastard!” Whitaker yelled. “Keep fucking firing! Keep fucking shooting or I’ll scrag you before these bloody things could!


Stavin watched in horror as the sight Whitaker and Caleb saw repeated itself several more times.

Colonel!” Severina shouted. “Orders!

Stavin shook his head. So what if an all-powerful AI knew they were here? What was that against the murderous god that sent them into these horrible depths? Into hell itself?

Who knew hell better than the Damned?

“Advance to the objective! Bounding! Your collar lights will be set to green and amber!” Stavin bellowed into his microbead, hammering the commands into his auspex. “Green advances! Amber covers! When Green is past, reverse! Do it, by the numbers people!”

Order was immediately restored. Relief surged through Stavin as he realized he had made the right call at the right time. Like clockwork, the soldiers of the Damned poured fire into the advancing horde of crustaecid-drones, never letting them drop to the ground where they could grab a soldier and detonate.

The arc rifles were doing the greatest work; punching great gaps in the horde of automatons that even their ceaseless numbers had trouble refilling. The radcarbines were less effective, but they added weight of fire, and with the numbers opposing them the Damned could hardly miss.

Slowly, they advanced towards the objective. Slowly, the Damned purchased the progress that would grant them victory.

A man cried out in agonizing pain as Aeternus’ searing great blade bisected him. The plasmic edge of his weapon cut cleanly through personal shield and ivory armor in milliseconds. Their harrowing howling was cut short by Rex’s boot, firmly shattering the defender’s helmet. Brain matter and vitae ejected outwards from his armored soles, coating the Imperial black in crimson-pink fluid.

He slid forward, arcing his blade and cleaving into another group of Sanctiian protectors. Their defenses, despite the technological differences, fell short to his genewrought might and Apocrypha’s ancient plasmic nullifers. Surprise, horror, and anger shrieked forth from their helmets as their bodies slumped into an expanding pile of carcasses. The primarch swept his left arm out, venting hatred through the forearm-mounted weapon at nearby defender clusters. Explosions riddled the areas in which he fired, detonating into great balls of cobalt flames. Each burst of flame consumed bodies, unlucky auxilia, and unfortunate sentinels alike in uncontrolled fury.

One of the God-Slayers roared out as a trio of Sanctiians stabbed elongated, glowing spears into their opponent’s body. Helmetless, the thunder warrior grinned in delight as he threw himself back off of the wall. The defenders fell with him, shortly falling to their death along with their suicidal enemy. Aeternus had seen the same scene occur over and over again during this assault on the wall. How many of his warriors perished in this siege, he asked himself in a small moment of clarity. The thought diminished as another group of sentinels emerged from their towers, followed only by skittering swarms of malevolent drones.

“More are coming, commander! We’ve already lost squads Didact and Raziel, Nero is forsaken somewhere in the city, and Tiberius has already left the wall!” Caligula stated as he chopped into another protector, who bitterly fought back with equal genestrength. The first cadre captain rammed his helmet into the Sanctiian, momentarily stunning them and using the momentum to bisect them with his powered blade. “We’ve lost the wall! Any longer and we’ll end up losing you, Rex!

He knew better than most the futility of assaulting the wall, yet it had taken its toll on the defenders as much as the invaders. Many of the airships had been dealt with, some of the large-scale bombardment cannons had been silenced, and whole platoons of the Sanctiians had been defeated. Aeternus gritted his teeth in a mixture of emotions, threatening to break his own jaw in frustration. If only they had more time, more men, and more thunder warriors to deal with the invasion. Rex silenced the intrusive thoughts by accurately firing into the oncoming groups of defenders.

“Then it seems we’ve lost our edge as deity-annihilators, Caestus! Keep fighting, killing, and slaughtering to stall their advance.” The primarch demanded, raising the flat of his obsidian great blade to block a hail of magnetically-driven slugs. Each bullet melted on contact with the sword’s plasma-field, followed shortly by another spattering of wrist-mounted death from Aeternus. Those arriving sentinels backpedaled as their drones burst into flame, falling back into the cover of cadavers or broken turrets. “Temper your expectations and hope that Lady Amalasuntha is feeling particularly generous today!”

As the defenders fell into their cover, Aeternus removed a peculiar grenade from his belt and launched it high into the air. An explosion of crackling light mixed with clouds of phosphorus erupted from the device. In a synchronized effort, the thunder warriors on the Primarch’s portion of the wall began to coalesce around their commander. Bolters, disintegration carbines, and lasrifles bit out against the encroaching forces of Sanctii. The signal had been sent, clear even through the harrowing blizzard that tormented invader and sentinel alike. A signal that filled the invaders with hope and frustration in equal amounts. It was a call for retreat.

Aboard another of the airships, this time flanked by two other Venatari, Amalasuntha stalked through the cramped and short halls of the vehicle. They slaughtered near all the crew on this one, and yet it continued to spit death as if crewed by ghosts. The trio made their way to the command bridge, once more dispatching those stationed to fight them. There was no chance for them to save themselves as the venatari stormed the bridge, slaughtering its defenders to a man.

The Black-Hawk walked towards the view port, casting her gaze as the others planted Melta charges behind her. Her crimson gaze watched the walls of the damned city, knowing that it would fall no matter the cost for no abomination could be suffered. Yet, her head slanted ever slightly as she made out the form of a massive beast fighting in the wall like a Lion. She knew him, Aeternus, the only of his ilk to earn her respect for his loyalty and honor to the burgeoning Imperium. She watched as his plasmatic blade carved through a man - but his assault was futile as the defenders surged forth with renewed vigor once more.

“Shield-Captain, charges are set,” came the low voice of one of her compatriots, wordlessly exiting the room as if already knowing his future order. Amalasuntha went to turn but she caught a glimpse - Aeternus turning from the wall and abandoning his assault. Yet, he had overextended, she could tell in that moment that both he and his men were threatened with a most gruesome death.

No, Aeternus would not die here under her watch for the Emperor still had use of him and his legion. She spoke clearly to the vox, a voice clear of emotion, “Gunship Axium, turn to Wall Segment 8-A2, ensure that Aeternus has cover in his retreat.”

“Do you wish to dispense those waiting for landing or extract the Primarch?” The pilot asked, unhesitatingly.

“Negative, you need only give him cover,” Amalasuntha stated, turning away from the viewport to stalk out of the room. Her claws danced along one of the control consoles she passed, half-tempted to attempt to turn the guns of the ship on the city. Though, she already knew she didn't have the time or the means to properly do so, knowing she’d likely have to overcome whatever safety mechanisms the intelligence had thought to install. As the Hawk moved to rejoin her companions, she decided to relay a message to the Primarch, “Cover incoming. Retreat and regroup.”

One kilometer behind Imperial siege lines

The reserve force of Astartes, fewer in number after the withering bombardment they had endured, continued to stand as still as statues as they awaited the order to advance. While the gene warriors had scattered for cover upon being alerted of incoming fire from the enemy’s airships, nothing could have prevented every loss.

Here the superiority of the finished product told, more than one proto-Astarte having been a second too slow, reacting with an instant of delay that their siblings were not burdened by. Malformed secondary hearts took an extra beat to hyper-oxygenate the blood, minds dulled by the pain of extraneous bone perpetually digging into flesh were slower to process the warning. They were beyond anything human, but they were simply not good enough.

A full tenth of the First Legion’s advance force perished in the rain of archaeotech explosives, and of that number, half were of the older generation. The Legion Mistress processed this information dispassionately as she reviewed her smaller force, the arms of the dead having been stripped to match the proclivities of those under her command, inasmuch as any of them could be said to have personality. They were of the new imperial breed after all, and all that truly mattered to them was victory.

Standing in formation amidst their own dead, they waited to bring just that. They had been born and bred for this day, if not this mission, and if the thought that so many of them had fallen without having even seen the enemy gave them pause, they did not show it.

Thirty kilometers behind Imperial Siege Lines

While nominal operational command of the Sanctii theater had been entrusted to the Primarch Aeternus, certain concessions to practicality had to be made to coordinate as vast a force as was besieging the city. Especially with the situation having drawn the personal attention of Malcador, and through him, the Emperor. Over a million and a half souls had been dedicated to the effort, and that was only counting combat personnel, which meant that a great mass of humanity needed to be equipped and sustained through the grueling horror of grinding war.

Dwelling within a hastily erected command center well behind the auxilia’s artillery batteries, and protected by puissant void shields of ancient design, the minds that kept the operation functioning - greasing it with blood and rations as the situation dictated - held their court. Sigilites all, it was they who had conveyed the vast treasures of vaults best lost forgotten to this warzone, and it was they who kept a careful watch over the military commanders whom they had reposed such potent forces of destruction in. The Imperium, after all, only needed the one warlord.

“Life-sign losses among the 31-3 are congruent with a thermal exhaust event,” one of the junior scribes reported, having been ordered to determine the root cause of the sudden vanishing of so many so quickly some time ago. “Secondary losses most likely correspond to elimination of non-combat-viable elements.”

The Scribe-Intendant who he was reporting to pursed her lips slightly as she took in the news, her eyes gazing round the collection of robed scholars. “The time table was exact, attrition rates among the 31-3 were projected under the assumption that the majority would pass the flue. Explain.”

“It seems that our calculations of thermal exhaust events were…. Inaccurate. I have taken the liberty of rerunning the numbers, and the original estimate did not take into account the increased power draw prompted by the siege.”

Her lips pursed tighter, vanishing into a single thin line. “The scribe who provided the initial calculations shall be flogged once per instance of relic destroyed by this extreme negligence,” she said flatly before turning her attention to more important matters. “The worst case scenarios had similar attrition rates, based around the possibility that a sizable protection force was waiting in ambush at the flue exit. Presuming that this is not the case, the mission is still viable.”

“I would concur. The current rate of attrition suggests incidental, rather than intentional, opposition.”

“Very well. We will not initiate extirpation protocols yet, and instead hope that the remaining relics are retrievable.”

The surrounding scribes all bowed deeply as they went back to their work, cogitators humming as the mission trackers updated their assumption set. None seemed perturbed by the horrifically low survivor count, reassured by the soothing news that it was likely the majority of such losses would not permanently damage any relic weapons.

Credit: @MarshalSolgriev (Aeternus/God-Slayers/Sanctii), @Lauder (Lady Amalasuntha/Stygian Talons), @grimely (Legio I Astartes/Scribe-Intendant), @BornOnBoard (Colonel Stavin/Thirty-One-Third Penal Legion), @FrostedCaramel (Sanctii/The Administrator)
Slaughter of Sanctii

Blazing Assault

Sanctii AOR, Inside Thermal Flue A00034/76B

Five thousand souls trudged down the gigantic flue, each step kicking up a cloud of ash and carbon. Each member of the 31-3’s assault party wore a rebreather to protect them from the bad air quality, which the tacticae scribes assured Stavin they would definitely clog the lungs of an unaugmented human in seconds. They illuminated their way with high-lumen lamp packs, the beams cutting back and forth across the darkness.

Twenty minutes had passed, which was good. It meant they were five minutes from their designated exit points, a gap in the flues that allowed excess pressure and carbon build up to void into the cavernous space below the hive without stressing the walls of the flue. It was also why they simply couldn’t block the exit to the flue to get the same result - such gaps were spaced every few kilometers. You could strike the exhaust path with orbital lances, atomics, missiles, it simply wouldn’t affect it.

The flue, like all of Sanctii, was a marvel of engineering.

Stavin’s auspex began to beep at his hip. He unhooked it from his pistol belt, and peered at the screen, holding his lamp pack to it. The air temperature had raised. Ambient humidity had dropped sharply. The air began to smell charred as the carbon particles in the air gathered heat.

Stavin’s eyes widened. His body broke into a cold sweat. He was aware of the stink of it, trapped in his rebreather, which suddenly felt as claustrophobic as a casket.

Their estimate for thermal purge - it was flawed. He realized that now. He and the scribes had estimated this most critical detail based on the average geothermal power load of a hive the size of Sanctii.

Tell me, John, he thought. Is a city firing defense batteries and powering an entire defensive grid in wartime constituting the average geothermal power load?

He cursed, and keyed his vox as he began to run. Severina followed him.

“Colonel?” She shouted. “Colonel, what is it? What does the auspex say?”

All elements, double time!” Stavin shouted, “Go, go, go! Get on you bastards!

Shit!” Severina said, her legendary facade of bravery cracking. “Shit! I thought we had ten minutes!”

“We would if the city was at peace, Augusta!” Stavin shouted. Soldiers began to scramble with them, kicking up huge clouds of ash as they began to run for their lives.


When Whitaker and Caleb heard the vox command, they began to run as fast as they could.

Other soldiers jogged, some even just speed-walked. What was the hurry? The colonel could sprint ahead and get a medal if he wanted. They jeered as Whitaker and Caleb passed them.

Only a few troopers took the Colonel’s warning seriously - they were running too.

“Never you mind them, Troopie!” Whitaker yelled, “They won’t be laughing when Sanctii turns the burner up!”

Caleb saved his breath. He would need it - wearing the rebreather felt like breathing through a straw. They shot from the middle of the pack to the front of it, and suddenly, the Colonel’s warning made sense. The tunnel, which had previously been quite dark, suddenly had a very bright light at the end of it, kilometers distant, but was putting out enough light to render everyone inside clearly. The air, still, began to move in a fetid breeze.

“Oh fuck!” Caleb shouted. “Oh shit! The vent! I thought we had-”

“We don’t anymore, Troopie!” Whitaker yelled. “Push on!”

Caleb, who had been flagging, felt fear surge adrenaline through his body. Tired limbs, stressed lungs, none of it mattered. His body had made its decision, and it wanted to live.

Other soldiers, that had jeered, or jogged, or lollygagged, now cursed or shouted or begged or pleaded in fear. A relatively ordered advance disintegrated into a pell-mell dash for safety, the pressure gap that for the slowest soldiers was a klick away, with only a minute or so to get there.

Not all were gonna make. Not even close to all. The tunnel began to get very hot. The breeze turned into a full on gale. The wind was hot, drying his eyeballs with the heat and pressure. The insanity of the plan now fully dawned on Caleb - they were not meant to survive at all. The assault party was 5,000 strong - a ridiculous number for a stealth raid - because they knew, they knew, that after the flue the amount of people left would be enough for the job.

The cruel insanity of the Imperium. The empty platitudes Caleb had filled his pamphlets with, those dry, stolid refutations of the Imperial Truth, of Unity, suddenly burned bright and hot in him. They made sense now. They mattered now. They were the truest things he’d ever said.

And to live, he’d have to discard all of those human sentiments. He would have to become as insane as the Emperor .

He and Whitaker were close now. They reached the gap and jumped, not even looking what was beneath them. Fortunately, they landed on worker’s gantry not ten feet below, a jarring impact that knocked the breath out of the both of them. They had landed on their packs, however, and their spare uniforms and rations had soaked up the blow. Others climbed the access ladders down, and some lept, landing on the gantries sometimes, sometimes missing, screaming into the caverns below.

When the flue vented, it was sudden. A roar with no buildup. A pillar of fire burned through the gap that Caleb had just exited. There had been men on the edge of the gap - gone now. So utterly destroyed not even ash remained. Men still on the ladders going down to the gantry suffered a similar fate, their torsos and heads caught in the incredible heat and pressure, burning up just a fiercely, though a millisecond or two slower.

The soldiers on the ladders, but not in the path of the flames screamed as the metal they held superheated in seconds. They let go, falling, landing badly, breaking legs, knees, necks. Some joined the ones that missed the gantry in the first place, falling into the depths. Caleb had never seen so many people die all at once. He closed his eyes against the horror, curling up and covering his ears as the 31-3 suffered their first, terrible casualties.


The slaughter seemed to go on and on, but when Stavin checked his watch after the flue’s heat dissipated, it had only been thirty seconds. The longest, most dearly paid for thirty seconds of his miserable life.

He checked his auspex, slapping the thing to get the display to show clearly. He switched it from atmospheric detection to collar signal detection. He cursed.

Of five thousand souls, about one hundred and twenty had made it. One company.

But they were in.

The alabaster walls of Sanctii stood before them as a mountain of otherworldly metal, yet the world around them remained consumed by the combined calamity of war and nature. The Urschic lands refused to bow to mankind, relentlessly whipping into a furious blizzard unlike any other. Where men and women hadn’t died to the vicious torrent of Sanctii’s defenses, the bitter cold and diamond-sharp hail sank through auxilia thermals and exposed flesh alike. Some fell mid-sprint as they finally succumbed to wounds, frostbite, and exhaustion. Others persisted through lakes of dead bodies, their uniforms caked in vaporized ash and blood. Their endurance had paid off as hundreds of thousands of auxilia still battered limb and rifle against the Sanctiian bulwark; however, it was in vain as the void shields prevailed against any and all attacks.

The primarch observed an entire squad of auxilia tossed from the top of the wall, slamming into the snow in a geyser of blood and ice. Several more individuals fell in a continuous rain of warriors, each dying either during their descent or on landing. He noted that none of the carcasses were his God-Slayers, perhaps they had managed to establish a foothold atop the Sanctiian defenses. Those useless thoughts were discarded from his mind, and replaced with the current situation at hand. Caligula had remained near him along with fifteen other gene-warriors they had rendezvoused with. Tiberius disappeared once they had successfully integrated with the frontline, venturing off to accomplish some unforeseen task. If the third cadre captain had been unreliable, then Aeternus would’ve cursed his name for such cowardice. Luckily, he knew what his fellow genewarrior was capable of.

Several red-garbed auxilia and thunder warriors roared in strained effort, a jury-rigged battering ram hefted amongst their number. It was a disgusting thing of precise, rudimentary engineering. A super-heavy battle tank’s primary cannon with several plasma cores, grenades, and rockets attached to the front end. The group ran forward in a suicidal attempt to breach the wall for good, cheers from other nearby soldiers driving them to further heights. The culmination of their efforts was rewarded with a beautiful explosion that quaked the nearby area. A hundred men began to swarm the area, believing that they had actually created their godsent relief.

Horror awaited them as the wall held strong against the improvised weapon of mass destruction. Hints of the shimmering shield only further drove their assault into new levels of despair. Wall-mounted turrets and Sanctiian protectors fired down from their positions, slaughtering those that had attempted to penetrate into their beloved city. Men cried, meat squelched, and armor broke in a cacophony of death. Aeternus refused to avert his dark eyes from the mass murder that occurred several meters away from his position. It sickened him that he couldn’t defy all of the odds set against them, but perhaps their deaths would mean something once victory was attained.

Aeternus! We’re ready to climb the wall. Tiberius reports success in attaining some degree of foothold, several other of our kin are with him. Fortunately,” Caligula began to rapidly speak as another group of thunder warriors joined their party. Archaic grappling gear was passed from their hands into the climbers awaiting gauntlets. Genewarriors swiftly affixed their armor with the components, assisting where necessary, and began their climb in earnest. “The path is clear for us due to a bloody wake, most likely made by Nero and his Despoilers. It is a calming thought knowing that he thought this far ahead!”

“Then let it begin.” The joke was hollow at best, and haunting at worst. Aeternus knew that he would one day have to deal with Nero’s affliction, but Rex was content with utilizing his genewarrior’s rage to achieve his goals. He affixed one of the harnesses to himself, a titanium tactical web of hooks, tethers, and diamantine spikes. Several footholds, cracks, and other embellishments in the walls became clear to him. Past attempts to scale the bulwark in the past hours had led to the continual success of their siege. The primarch turned one last time to witness the nightmare behind him before beginning his ascent.

The golden dropship of the Stygian Talons danced in the sky against the airships, while several jet bikes circled in flanking strikes with guardian spears and andrastite lances. His Destroyers, those that ambushed the aircraft from the ground, continued to shatter and break voidshields across the emerging fleet. Even as they died to blinding beams of supernova energy, those thunder warriors refused to falter in their perpetual onslaught. Hundreds of thousands of auxilia continued to rush from the backlines, pushed on by mortal commanders and great lines of battle tanks. It was an endless horde of onrushing flesh, marshaled by the greatest commander in humanity. The thought nearly brought a smile to his scarred lips, yet it was forgotten altogether as he began to climb the wall.

They fired on his position and those beside him as they climbed. His great obsidian blade, Apocrypha, seared with plasmic furry as he ascended the alabaster bulwark. Every inch that Aeternus climbed felt like a mile of mire-trudging as his refractor field sparked over and over again in protest. Other warriors, fellow wallclimbers that defied destiny, were not as fortunate as him. Beams of energy, disintegration rays, and iridium slugs annihilated those on either side of the Primarch. Wrath, fresh and hot, spilled into his body as his genewarriors unceremoniously died. He raised the weapon attached to his wrist, unleashing a storm of infernal rounds that detonated flesh and metal into cobalt flames. Even if momentarily, they were allowed to scale the wall with minimal resistance.

Credit: @MarshalSolgriev (Aeternus/God-Slayers/Sanctii), @BornOnBoard (Colonel Stavin/Thirty-One-Third Penal Legion)
Slaughter of Sanctii


Above the cacophony of esoteric weapons discharge, iridescent bolts and solid rounds, above the shriek of the void shields as artillery shells fell upon it in vain, a war horn blared. So deafening was the horn that amongst the attackers and defenders, heads turned to the direction of the noise. An incongruent shape, cast in the shadow of the hive, began to rise from behind the curtain wall as another horn blared some distance from the first, followed by several more.

Above the battlements, a wing of six airships rose to their combat heights. The crafts were clad in platinum armor, each were as tall as a habblock and several times as long, cutting lazy paths through the air as Imperial gunnery crews hurriedly trained their sights upon them.

A lance of redhot energy spat from a superheavy tank at the first of the airships, the beam connecting with impressive precision on the central structure of the vessel. An explosion ripped across the hull obscuring it from view as Imperials cheered at the kill.

A moment later, from within the black cloud, a searing beam so bright that it simply blinded any unlucky enough to have been looking in its direction, lanced out of the smoke at the superheavy tank. The cheers ended as the airship revealed itself once more on it’s ponderously slow track above the killing ground, the superheavy that had struck first now merely two melted tracks with no sign of the machine that once existed between them.

The airships, now at combat height, unleashed salvoes of energy weapons fire at the foot of the curtain walls. The remains of Imperial units that had been lucky enough to make it that far, mortal and Thunder Warrior alike, were converted into superheated vapor as the beams traced across the bloodied snow in beautiful hues of blues and reds.

Out further from the wall, the beams began to track through the advancing Imperials, and salvos of missiles were let loose from the airships. Sparingly, the missiles overflew the masses of armor and infantry approaching the curtain wall, instead targeting the artillery outside the voidshields and the masses of Imperial forces mustering to join the carnage at the foot of the venerable city of Sanctii.

It was at this in which the the perfected warriors of the Imperium turned back to the fight - sensing a use for their might in this battle. Jetbikes roared upwards, the ancient ship of the custodians lowered its ramp as it flew closer to the airships and out slipped eleven of the Emperor’s finest. The Stygian Talon moved as one, yet their electronic signatures became distorted as cogitators that tried to find the gene-warriors became filled with blight-codes and malign falsehood. Rounds slammed into the Orion, its flare shield coating the vessel an eclipsed black.

“Aeternus, vacate your position lest you wish these beast land upon you,” came the spark of Amalasuntha’s vox, sounds of beams screeching past her could be heard faintly in the background. Yet, any who looked up could see that the Venatari looked like gnats approaching these ships, almost two each. The Jetbikes flew circles around the guns of the airships swooping beneath their void shields to spit death through las and cannon upon the weapons of the airships.

Meanwhile, the venatari began forcing their way into the airships, ripping open hatchways or even using their lances to break through the viewports. Amalasuntha, for her part, unleashed her blade and carved through the boarding hatch of the lead vessel. Alarms blared and automated defenses attempted to offer resistance, but she moved much too fast. A turret dropped from the ceiling only for her blade to cut the connections, many were simply unable to properly target her as her personal arae-shrike confused their systems and made her impossible to locate. Putrid gene-warriors awaited for her at the door to the command room. Three fired an array of lightning whilst the others stood at the ready with horrid blades drawn.

Unable to dodge the lightning, the custodian’s refractor field sprung to life, absorbing the energy as she sped towards her combatants. The Black-Hawk rammed her shoulder into the first warrior to meet her, blade flashing to slice another in two. In her other hand, her misercordia came to life, stabbing upwards to tear out another warrior’s throat. She danced between blades, her opponents unable to find her as she met the three who dared fire upon her. One turned to run, but her deft movement saw her sword plunged through his back, leaving it there as she lobbed the head off another. The last of them fired his ancient weapon into her, even managing to breach her refractor field. Were it not for her masterfully crafted armor, she would have been grievously injured. He could not let loose a scream before her talons wrapped around his head to crush it.

Amalasuntha wasted no time, retrieving her blade before she began carving through the doorway. She heard panicked screams inside, orders being barked. Before any help would come she was already in the command room, throwing forth a Melta bomb before she ducked out. The explosion rocked the ship, the bridge had been ripped asunder and the blizzard found its way in through a massive hole where the officers once were. The ship began to lurch and Amalasuntha wasted no time as she flew out of the new hole she had just made and back to the Dropship.

Aeternus heard the screams from across the voxnet even before the Sanctiian airships had began their genocidal retaliation. A hundred-thousand men cried out as they died, slaughtered by magnetically driven slugs or deatomized by rays of horror. He felt nothing for their loss, each soul having given their lives in pursuit of Unity. They knew what they fought for, nothing could deter their Master’s goals. Nothing ever would. Rex watched as entire columns of sprinting, red-garbed auxilia disappeared in a manner of milliseconds under crimson beams of man-made calamity. Vehicles, support personnel, legionnaires, and more ceased to exist in their assault of Sanctii. And he felt nothing short of disappointment in their inability to climb a wall.

A ripping, tearing sound drew his attention back to the world around him. One of the Sanctiian protectors, a genewarrior in resplendent armor, had been desperately crawling away after being launched from the wall. Nero had found him first, hefting the warrior up and ripping him in half with his barehands. The second cadre captain screamed in delight, succumbing to the madness of combat and evicting himself from their cover. He disappeared into the battlefield, followed by four other God-Slayers. Caligula had tried to stop him, but Aeternus held him back to allow their friend to rampage. Tiberius sprinted from their already-faltering cover, eyeing the shattered remains of a bisected superheavy battle tank. The primarch, first cadre captain, and three other God-Slayers followed with all the speed a geneforged giant could muster.

A flurry of missiles arched in a hunting pattern overhead, aiming for the vulnerable backlines of their offensive. Aeternus calmly listened as the Forty-Third’s artillery platoons cried out in terror over the voxnet. Their howls were silenced moments later as a wave of explosions erupted with enough force to momentarily shake the entire battlefield. As their small formation of genewarriors found cover under the bisected wreckage, the familiar humming of shields emanated from the backlines. The primarch listened as the Imperials cheered, saved by technology courtesy of Malcador and their long campaigns across Terra. A short-lived joy, the airships tore through a plethora of the deployable shields. The artillery continued sending salvo after salvo in suicidal fury.

“... Aeternus! Where are these ‘Astartes’!? Why haven’t they joined the battle!?” The sound of Caligula’s angered voice drew his attention away from the voxnet. His tone was filled with frustration and betrayal as if the Astartes had personally offended him. Rex felt his ire rise at Caestus’ suggestive tone. They were the Master of the Line’s thunder warriors, what did it matter if the Astartes joined now or later?

“The Sigilite has given them a different mission. They won’t be contributing to the assault until the walls are breached. Trust in our Master’s plan, Caligula, for he has always steered us to Unity.” Aeternus roared, his voice as commanding as a waking lion’s. It was enough to silence his first cadre captain, but Rex knew that his old friend would fester on it. Tiberius made no comment, perhaps he understood the necessity of high-quality reserves in a prolonged siege. The Primarch’s helmet turned to address Tiberius in the same breath. “Give the order. We’ve waited long enough for our Destroyers to unveil the machinations of the Old Night. Once that is done, we’ll move forward three-hundred more paces.”

The third cadre captain didn’t respond, his hooded helmet dipping away to speak into his helmet-mounted voxcaster. Aeternus turned his attention away from the wall to several predesignated positions across the battlefield. Although many of them had already been claimed by the crimson beams, many more still survived to hear the call of their commander. Several groups of thunder warriors, three in each grouping, stood from their positions armed with an array of heavy, nightmarish weapons. Lascannons, laser destroyers, plasma cannons, disintegration rails, missile pods, handheld atomic mortars, and more unleashed a hellscape of munitions into the sky of Sanctii. Where the golden hovercrafts of the Custodes couldn’t reach, the God-Slayers could with an overwhelming amount of concentrated fire. Craftborn voidshields broke in a matter of seconds from the surprise attack, several more of the vessels sinking from the sky in blossoms of explosive furry.

Do not falter! Do no let the dredges of the Old Night batter your spirit! Fight in the name of the Emperor, fight in the name of Terra, and fight in the name of Unity! Raptor Imperialis! For the Emperor!” Aeternus picked himself up, pressed an armored foot against the tank wreckage, and kicked it a hundred meters forward with the force of an unhinged titan. His cohort lurched forward, sprinting in the shadows of the flying wreckage as it careened towards the wall. Turret fire, mugshots, and scything pulsar beams cut into the debris long enough for the Primarch and his team to advance closer to the wall. He heard the response of his cry over the voxnet, a near-million people shouted in unison to his call-to-arms.

For the Emperor!” A million people and more cried out in their suicidal advance.

Credit: @MarshalSolgriev (Aeternus/God-Slayers/Sanctii), @Lauder (Lady Amalasuntha/Stygian Talons)
Slaughter of Sanctii

Operation Winter Phoenix

Sanctii AOR, Outside Thermal Flue A00034/76B

Stavin checked his watch from the stubber-cupola of the centaur prime mover he rode in. If the deep-scan auspex and Imperial tactical planning had been correct, the next exhaust dump would be in 5 minutes. They had made excellent time, the 31-3’s assault element using the cover of the blizzard to advance their motley collection of tractors, trucks, prime movers, and yes, even some armored personnel carriers, to an exhaust port several klicks from the hive itself.

Taking the thermal flue station had been simple. As predicted, there was only a skeleton crew guarding it, a platoon of the city’s militia, armed with adrasite rifles and carapace. Those fifty men perished under the hail of radium slugs, bolts of lightning, and good old fashioned steel core solid shot from the stubbers of the 31-3’s motley motor fleet. It had been a textbook assault of superior numbers against an under-defended position. No, far stranger was the mission itself.

In all, it had been the strangest operational work-up Stavin had ever experienced in his brief time of being an Imperial soldier. He had not just been ordered, but invited to tactical meetings, asked for his counsel, even politely requested to repeat the fairy tales he had heard about the Deep Winter construct by important looking administrative officials. He had eaten with other officers, and, in what felt like a fever dream, had measurements taken for a new dress uniform.

His men, the ones he had selected along with Severina and her cadre for the assault, had been fed, deloused, issued state of the art flak armor, and issued, one for every five of them, a boxy, ribbed barrel weapon that Stavin had initially mistook to be plasma guns. In fact, they were something far more dangerous; arc rifles, weapons capable of frying a man at lasrifle ranges. More to the point though, the ancient weapons were far more effective against delicate circuitry. A boon against such a technologically advanced enemy. The other eight men in each squad were issued guns Stavin had never heard of, nor in his most violent and cruel moments, even imagined; radium carbines, baroque looking weapons of brass and steel that shot radio-isotope impregnated solid shot. They were armed to the teeth. They would have to be - the mission promised to be brutal.

In a truck half a klick from Colonel Stavin, Caleb Raum squatted on the truck’s hard, uncomfortable bench, his arc rifle between his legs, heavy and unfamiliar. He had initially been issued a slightly rusty, manual-action rifle that shot big stubber cartridges, the biggest he’d ever seen, but before this mission it had been snatched away. This gun made that rifle feel as outdated as a stone spear - part of Caleb was relieved that his first taste of combat would be with a weapon he was confident could kill whatever he hit squarely.

Across from Caleb, Sergeant Whitaker cleaned his shotgun, looking at the driver’s cab in annoyance whenever a bump in the rough terrain interrupted the reverie of cleaning the weapon. Whitaker was a scary man, whipcord thin, tall, and scarred. Caleb, however, was slightly grateful to the old soldier - being assigned to Whitaker’s squad came with an understanding you were not to be fucked with. At the cost of all of Caleb’s lho sticks and the good parts of his (rare) rations, Whitaker made problems disappear. A legionnaire, feeling her oats, had attempted to extort Caleb early in his career in the 31-3, and Whitaker, hearing that someone was muscling in on him, disappeared that night.

The next day, Caleb’s would-be racketeer was found dead in her bunk, her head twisted all the way round.

“You know what we’re doing, Troopie?” Whitaker yelled to Caleb.

“We’re going to advance down the thermal exhaust line.” Caleb said, “Then, using Auspex, find the vent control console, close the port, and destroy the console.”

“They make it sound so bloody simple, don’t they?” Whitaker yelled.

“...It’s not?” Caleb asked.

“It’s gonna be a mess. Trust me. When we get in that thermal flue, you book it. Stay behind me. Don’t let any other cunt get between you and me. Kill ‘em if you gotta. I ain’t gettin’ stuck in that flue when the city decides to vent again.”

Caleb imagined what would happen. It didn’t take much mental sweat. Anything caught in the flues when they vented would be, in short, obliterated.

“And after?” Caleb asked.

“Same shit, Troopie.” Whitaker said, racking the shotgun. His radium rifle was slung over one shoulder, but it was clear he preferred the shotgun, an old, battered thing he’d clearly carried for a long time. “The first one that gets to the cogitator stack to disable it stands the best chance of living. We get pick of the places to hide when it goes nova.”

“And brings down the gate…” Caleb said, finally understanding. “...Sarge, are we meant to survive this mission?”

“No Troopie, but I intend to anyway.” Whitaker said, spitting a thin stream of lho-dip onto the deck. “Safest place in this mob is behind me, so stay there.”

Stavin checked his watch, again. Severina looked at him in clear annoyance. Stavin had been checking that piece of shit chronometer every thirty seconds for the past five minutes.

“Checking to see if it grew extra hands, Colonel?” She said.

“No, discipline mistress, I’m just trying to be efficient.” He growled. “There’s a mean woman who will shoot me if I’m not.”

She laughed, her laugh surprisingly pleasant and tinkly for a woman of such hard musculature and scars.

Then, there was a loud, whirring noise, then a clank, then a thump so violent it shook icicles from the rockcrete surrounding the exhaust flue. A whoosh. Fire so intense, so hot, that briefly it warmed the faces of everyone looking at it so quickly that sweat broke out over their entire bodies. Stavin blinked sunspots from his eyes, his skin feeling slightly sunburned. He cursed, as now the pain of the icy winds was extra evident. The flame went on for minutes, eventually dying out with a sputter.

Stavin keyed his vox. “Alright everyone. Rebreathers on. Dismount. We’ve got thirty til the next vent, and five til the vents close. Only one way out of this. Get it done.”

He let the handset hang, and jumped down, helping Severina down, then the rest of his command squad. They began, along with the other five thousand damned souls of the assault element, to double time towards the exhaust opening.

One kilometer behind Imperial Siege Lines

One thousand power armored figures stood in perfect lines one hundred by ten, arms and armor still unmarred by conflict. The sons and daughters of the First Astartes Legion had barely tasted combat, kept in the rear of the Conquest of Ursh by the taunting command of the Thunder Primarch Gilgamenses.

So swiftly had they been sent to the front that they had not been equipped with their full wargear, only a tenth of them given full Thunder Armor. The Legion had endured the indignity of Gilgamenses’ castoffs, their ready wargear consisting only of gleaming chainswords untouched by blood or battle. When the order came, the newborn Astartes had dropped the lasrifles and slugthrowers in great heaps before the Thunder Warrior’s command tent before taking their leave.

Malcador himself had given them the order to make for Sanctii with all due speed, and they had obeyed. Lacking any mechanization, the thousand warriors with powered greaves had charged out of camp as fast as their legs could carry, running without pause for over eighteen hours. They had stopped only to accept a shipment of fresh arms from the Terra-Watt Clans, heavily laden snowskimmers disgorging horrid Volkite weaponry freshly stamped from the forges.

Onward they had run as the remnant of the Legion followed far behind in their wake, rushing ever faster at the first sound of guns off in the distance. At last they fell in, Calivers braced across their chest, as the Mistress of the Legion Vairya Kurus took their measure.

Nine hundred, Vairya herself included, were Astartes in truth, the perfected fruit of the genecrafting process, warriors who could be mass produced without fear of degradation. The remainder of her advance force were her elder siblings, the First Hundred, failures so close to what they ought to be that they had been granted the dignity of a glorious death in their creator’s name. These proto-Astartes were already visibly ragged from their exertions, not-quite-right organs failing to fully sustain them through the hellish march they had undergone to enact the Sigilite’s will. She paid them little heed, for they would do as they were bid in the end. All would.

Though their armor was painted in conscious imitation of the God-Slayers, the First mirroring the First, they made no move to support them - or any other element of the Emperor’s forces. Instead they simply stood, stock-still, within sight of the walls, beyond the fury and fire of the assault and artillery. They knew their mission, and they would not permit anything to delay it. The Thunder Warriors and auxilia were distraction enough for the moment from the true strike force, and it was only if and when the condemned penal soldiers succeeded that the Astartes would take the field.

Merlon 2295-B, Curtain Wall

Insanity fell well short of describing the slaughter taking place on the other side of the curtain wall. The Imperials, damned be their souls, had simply appeared out of the blizzard in fully formed battle lines over a million strong. They’d advanced upon the curtain wall with what Commander Yaroslav could only define as wreckless abandon, throwing themselves to be butchered wholesale at the hands of his brigade and the many others beginning to join the original defenders at their battlements.

Yaroslav turned to a compact holodeck of the battle, scoffing at the shear size of it all. He’d seen Sanctii through more combat than he cared to admit, but this, this was beyond his wildest imagination.

“Merlon 2112-A, reports Imperial troops at the battlements, they request aid from adjacent Merlon’s for fear of being breached.”

Yaroslav brought up a live holofeed of the merlon in question and was surprised at the group of Imperials taking up what cover they could against his wall. He did not see any of the genewarriors of the self-proclaimed Emperor, and thanked the stars for that.

“Is that the only battlement with Imperial rats at their feet?” he asked pensively as he surveyed the battle taking place outside.

“Negative,” the professional voice of the vox operator came back, “Imperials advance on most of the battlements Sir, there are reports of genewarriors attempting to scale the walls in nine different locations.”

Yaroslav cursed and brought a hand to his own voxbead, “Captain Lebedev, I assume that your Wing is ready for combat?”

The voice on the other side seemed distracted as it answered, “On your command.”

“Take to the killing field Captain, burn the rodents from the foot of our home and push them back, the wall will assist, as always.”

Credit: @grimely (Legio I Astartes), @BornOnBoard (Colonel Stavin/Thirty-One-Third Penal Legion), @FrostedCaramel (Sanctii/The Administrator)
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