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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)
The Slaughter of Sanctii

The snowscape of the Northern Urshic lands stretched infinitely in a mesmerizing pattern of brilliant white, broken seldomly by jagged rocks and cresting hills. Great mountains topped with alabaster frost leered over the lands as forsaken guardians to a ruined world. A massive crevasse yawned with cragged teeth beyond them for miles on end, an immense void slept unperturbed for time immemorial. Vast blankets of roiling clouds congested the skies of Terra, thick and dark with calamitous intent. Wind snapped through the land, biting and howling as a savage beast fraught with abyssal rage. Snow, sharp as serrated daggers, rushed alongside the wrathful gusts, cutting raw skin and rock alike. An impenetrable haze of frozen madness hauntingly lingered for unknown distances. Yet one thing stood defiantly amongst nature’s wroth.

A gleaming, alabaster city with walls as tall as megastructures of old Terra reigned audaciously in the glower of the raging blizzard. Sharpened hail uselessly pelted against an invisible, shimmering aura that protected those within. Shadows of great humanoids with sleek, glowing armor stalked through the haze in short distances from the walls. Grand turrets, brimming with indescribable power, scanned the horizons for threats with an unusual intelligence. Small silhouettes floated through the air in great lengths, their sublime forms flitting about as curious wraiths in a perfect wonderland. Lights from towering monoliths, divine structures, and a thousand domiciles illuminated the encroaching darkness of Terra’s night. Lingering in the shadows of the walls slept the remains of foolish warriors, Urshic raiders effortlessly slaughtered in sprawling swathes from previous invasions. The supreme hive remained, eternally undefeated in the wastelands of their dying world.

Until now.

The first shell blossomed across the prismatic barrier in a grand explosion, waves of flames and plumes of smoke cascading to either side of the city. Night was unveiled in a glorious reveal of the surrounding area, silhouettes released of their umbral cloaks. The second shell fell far from its intended target, snow and rock exploding upwards in a geyser of destruction. Humanoids shifted with urgency, some swept from their feet in surprise. The third shell impacted forward of the city, detonating precisely laid mines in a beautiful display of combustion. A volatile web crackled across the frozen fields, ice and snow surging in several directions. The fourth shell impacted a tertiary building, jettisoning flames and metallic fragments in a cacophony of deadly noise. From that point onward, the shelling never halted once as night gave way to artificial day.

What had once been an innumerable torrent of lingering shadows over the Urshic plains, now revealed themselves to be a staggering rush of incalculable bodies. Figures clad in crimson sprinted across the landscape with the hurried gait of a fleeing herd. Fat, laboring vehicles with belching engines kicked into overdrive in pursuit of their ultimate objective. Screaming, preposterous machines on metallic wings screeched overhead from every angle. Even over the rushing sound of a raging blizzard, the howling of men bellowing orders threatened to break nature’s deafening calamity. Gigantic warriors, clad in tremendous armor, dashed with astonishing speed beside the warmachines and beyond the vast waves of red garbs. Missiles sang a dreadful dirge above as they sailed on shrieking rockets.

Panels along the walls of the city unveiled hidden defenses, turrets and spotlights reaching out into the raging frost to beseech fresh targets. Violent rays of prismatic energy danced from yawning rails, searing snow and flesh in equal droves. Humanoids in pristine armor, some towering as large as the oncoming giants, unleashed bolts of magnetic pain from the barrel of remorseless weapons. They backpedaled in a slow motion towards their city, aided by those floating machines that released hails of small, energetic lances. Enormous, gargantuan cannons across the pristine wall swiveled on their axis to dauntingly stare down at the invaders. Horrendous spheres of growing power began to coalesce on automatically-cooling rails, discharged upon completion of an unknowable charging cycle. Entire swathes of human life disappeared in an instant, red-garbed figures permanently removed from the tethers of existence. And yet they pressed forward.

War had come to Sanctii.

Aeternus watched from one of the snow-capped hills south of Sanctii’s walls. His dark eyes traced every individual that marched to their doom into the hive city’s horrific defenses. Miles of their forces stretched in an endless sprint of carnage. Lasrifles snapped beams of brilliant red, cannons howled shells of volatile incendiaries, and boltslingers barked dense bullets uselessly against the voidshield. Corpses already began to pile up wherever their forces weren’t immediately vaporized by disintegration carbines. Some of the Sanctiian protectors, he assumed, laid strewn about as they were trampled to death under a million feet. Those were few in comparison to the devastation already caused to their own forces.

An enormous, scorching ray of volcanic energy erupted from behind his position, earning a quick glance. Those that surrounded his armored form, his cadre captains, equally turned to address the source of the beam. The mammothine form of their mobile command center, the Imperialis Praetorios, vented heat through several thermal vents along the barrel of its primary armament. He turned away from their armored vehicle to address the battles as it began to evolve, though Rex already knew it was in vain. The Primarch clenched his blackened fist around the handle of his precious blade as another wave of Imperials dissolved into nothingness.

Sheer insanity.” Captain Caligula stated with no shortage of revulsion. Aeternus could hear the phlegm building in his captain’s voice, despite the fact he wore a helmet. Caestus’ weapons were already born in both of his yellow gauntlets, tightly gripped in raw anticipation.

“Discard those emotions, Caestus. This is the war that we have earned. The war that will infamize our name for eternity. In His name.” Primarch Aeternus replied solemnly, turning his attention back to the impossible stretch of the battlefield. His command earned a grumble from the veteran, yet compelled them forward deeper into the combat zone. Each step of their armored forms sent short gushes of ice and slush around them. Armored vehicles sped past them, sponsons and cannons firing with intense urgency.

“Tiberius. Status of our forces.” Rex spoke, his voice growling with the sleeping rage of a lion. The response from his third cadre captain was instantaneous.

“The Astartes that Malcador promised are nearby. The Black Hawk has reeled back to organize her ‘Stygian Talons’. The 43rd, 71st, and 88th Excertus Imperialis have engaged the wall, as you can plainly see. The God-Slayers are spread out amongst the dredges.” The monotone genewarrior coldly replied, releasing the dataslate from his left hand into Aeternus’ free gauntlet. An attached auspex confirmed the geopositions of their invasion, while the rest of the tablet sculpted information from a prewritten bank of cogitator-fed knowledge.

“And the Sanctiians?”

“Their voidshield was just as Negotiator Popov stated. It’s holding strong against even the trinkets of the Sigilite’s Vault. Squads of their protectors on the outskirts have been slaughtered wholesale, but not before taking dozens of the unaugmented with them. Everything else is as you can see. Turrets, drones, and bombardment cannons.” Captain Tiberius scoffed.

Primarch Aeternus grimaced at the dataslate in his gauntlet, dredging up the memory of the extraordinarily short conversation with the Sigilite. He will never forget the quickness in sealing Sanctii’s destruction, opening the forbidden vaults, and approving the request for reinforcements. Perhaps, to a degree, it was fated that the hive city would fall in this manner. “And what of Colonel Stavin and the Penal Legion?”

“Enroute to their objective.” The genewarrior replied, clicking his tongue in distaste. Annoyance was evident in his attitude, something that Aeternus knew would occur when their invasion was planned.

“Mind yourself. They were entrusted with this operation for a reason. Settle for slaughtering into the breach should they succeed.” The Primarch growled, chidding his superior officer. Tiberius responded with a nod, firmly sealing his lips in favor of enraging their commander. Aeternus quickened his steps, delving into a genewrought sprint as they began to approach the backline of their allied forces. Caligula, Nero, and Tiberius echoed Rex’s armored gallop with their weapons ready.

“Nero, what’s the status of the assault drills?” Aeternus asked as adrenaline cocktails began to empty into his veins. A pair of gunships careened overhead, releasing a torrent of screeching missiles before azure beams of blinding corona pierced their hull. Metal collided against metal as the gunships dove, smashing into a far-off collection of red-garbed auxilia. An explosive plume silenced their dying cries as fire ravenously ate flesh and snow alike.

“Same as the last attempt. Failed. The foundation of the city is too thick to be penetrated by our drills. What did you expect from a city as well defended as this!?” The second cadre captain replied, hefting a fallen auxilia in his left arm to use as a meatshield against a flurry of drone fire. Spikes of energy bit into the corpse, dismembering limbs and chunks of meat in seconds. A bolt round saw the drone explode in a ball of fire, allowing Nero to unceremoniously toss the body aside.

The genewarriors momentarily hunkered down behind the ruins of a battle tank, several other red-garbed auxilia using the husk as improvised cover. A vibration of raw energy began to violently hum as a ball of indescribable power landed, expanded, and dissolved several squads of soldiers twenty meters away from them. One of the auxilia dropped their weapon as their hands trembled in fear. Quicker than Aeternus had ever seen a human perform, the auxilia unleashed their sidearm and pointed it against their own skull. A splash of gore painted their fellow comrades, brain matter decorating helmet and uniform alike. None dared to pay attention in the heat of battle, ignoring the death of their companion to continue suppressive fire.

“Caligula, what status do you have on the Astartes?” Primarch Aeternus asked, picking himself up from his position to unleash a salvo of ammunition from a wrist-mounted weapon. Several drones, red-garbed auxilia, and stray protectors burst into an inferno of blue flames as the projectiles exploded. The Primarch ducked as turret fire began to pocket their position, slicing through metal with ease. Those auxilia that remained beside them were pierced, cut, and slaughtered. Without a second thought, the genewarriors swiftly egressed from their cover.

“They’ll arrive in the next wave of reinforcements! Hopefully with our fair lady alongside them!” The ancient veteran said with a grunt of effort, sliding into a half-dug trench devoid of sandbags or barbed wire. Several other of the God-Slayers remained here, their brutal bolters firing without care or coordination. Tiny explosions plumed from spots on the voidshield the bolts contacted. They ducked to reload as Aeternus, Nero, and Tiberius entered the trench.

“Amalasuntha will arrive, so too will these Astartes. Trust in the Sigilite’s words.” Primarch Aeternus stated, recalling the last words spoken between himself and Malcador. An enormous vehicle rolled to a halt next to their trench, smaller than the Imperialis but larger than the standard battle tank. A heavy cannon the size of a carnosaur swiveled to aim up at the wall-mounted turrets. The roar of a thousand guns echoed all at once in a single shot, perforating the sound barrier and deafening the unaugmented around it. The shell impacted the voidshield in a cloud of rippling detonations, yet failed to pierce the city.

“It would be easier to butcher them all if they would come out of their fortress! How much longer ‘till we reach the walls, Tiberius!?” Nero demanded with a roar, his ears slightly ringing from the heavy battle tank’s ineffective shot. He watched it roll forward on enormous tracks, the engine pushed to ridiculous heights to advance their assault. Several moments later, the tank exploded in a flurry of beams and plasma.

“Approximately a kilometer and three-hundred-and-seventy meters. At our current pace, we will reach the wall in thirty minutes. If we survive.” Tiberius replied, his body already moving out of the trench to scout for a new piece of rubble. He spotted it several meters away, the ruins of a building blown away by their first shelling. One of his yellow-armored digits signalled to the rest of the genewarriors, who began to follow him.

“Not if, Tiberius,” Aeternus stated as he swiftly moved to the front of their formation, pushing the third cadre captain back into the trench. Brilliant energy pierced the air in a matter of seconds, threatening to sunder the Primarch’s form in a flurry of volatile death. Power accumulated in a spherical barrier around the thunder warrior, golden light illuminating Rex as his refractor field activated. Instinctively, his gargantuan, obsidian blade was brought up to protect him. The harmful rays dissipated, reflecting away from the shimmering Primarch. The knightly helmet turned to address the thunder warriors in the trench. “When we survive. Raptor Imperialis!

As if on cue with the Primarch’s words, golden jet bikes flew over their position alongside a similarly golden clad Dropship making full haste to the walls of the city. Turret fire slammed around the vaunted fire of the custodians, who ducked and weaved, unable to give the defenders a beat on their path. The Dropship let loose an esoteric las shot that slammed into the void shield. In response, a single ray of energy impacted the Orion-class, and it seemed for a moment that the custodian vessel would fall had it not been for the flare shield roaring to life. In the moment, the Emperor’s finest turned and sped away from the walls, the defender’s resistance too much even for them to break through for the time being.
Hope In The Frost

There was something soothing about the frozen land that helped to calm his soul. When the sun jumped off the glittering snow drifts and the wind sent shimmering clouds of swirling white through the air, he could see the lost beauty that made Terra worth protecting. The flicker of hope that made Sanctii worth saving.

He stepped away from the insulated window of the meeting room and took one last chance to look over what he had painstakingly arranged for his coming guests. The room, nothing more than a conference room for the supervisors of the world engine beneath them, was sparsely adorned. There were scuff marks in the floor where a large industrial table had been removed to accommodate the finer seats that had been arranged within the room to facilitate the purported size of his coming guests. A small table of refreshments, still steaming, was set equally distant in the center of the fine furnishings, and finally a number of seemingly brand new datapads had been placed on the arms of every chair.

He allowed himself a small smile, happy that he had managed this much in the time that he had been given to prepare. Yet he was still frustrated at the location that had been chosen by the Administrator for the meeting. Was he not Stefan Popov, High Negotiator of Sanctii and Her Illustrious Holdings? Did his position not grant him the right to arrange the meeting? The menu? The venue? The seating? He chafed at the idea that the Administrator had overstepped him so boldly, and fumed that the Prime Minister had disregarded his complaints at this blatant power grab.

“Negotiator Popov…?”

Popov started, turning to face the aide with a smile as he smoothed over the frustration on his face. “Yes?”

The aide shuffled a datapad from his hands and held it out to Popov with an uneasy smile, “They’re on final approach, Sir.”

Popov nodded as he took in the auspex return of the Imperial craft coming in from the South, “Good, good. Make sure they’re not bothered, as planned. Bring them right here, not a single weapon in sight. No one speaks to them before I do, of course.”

The aide gave a curt nod and hurried off through the door, a quiet hiss following as Popove watched the door slide shut behind the young man. He sighed, took a small clear pill from his pocket and swallowed it dry. He turned back to observe the world outside the window, the billowing smoke of the world engine beginning to cast a shadow over the land as the wind shifted. He spotted the telltale signs of a blizzard brewing in the distance. He swallowed another clear pill, his pupils constricting slightly as he focused on the storm and calculated time and trajectory. He concluded it would arrive during the meeting, an unfortunate omen.

A dark, boxy silhouette began to materialize on the horizon, torrents of snow blasting behind it in a rapid advance. It contrasted harshly to the frosted wasteland of Terra’s northern territories, dull yellow and black plating covering the oncoming craft’s exterior. A great symbol of a raptor emblazoned upon one of the vessel's bulky surfaces, an unpolished eye glaring out at the planet’s sad state. Multitudes of brutal weapons mounted to the lower side of the transport while long-barreled monstrosities idly pointed from turret sponsons. The stormbird approached the tall, billowing world engine with haste. Quad engines churned black smoke out behind the craft as a platform lit up some several kilometers away to signal their landing. A silent exchange of binary communication flitted across the air, exchanging transponder codes and clearance access onto the world engine’s landing pad. Large, flat footed gears unfurled from beneath the transport as it settled down on the reinforced structure.

The platform, illuminated by austere glowglobes, groaned beneath the weight of the stormbird. Hissing mechanisms reverberated in the local area as the assault ramp began to extend down and outwards. The source of the craft’s superior weight became evident as seven individuals began to amble down in an unsorted formation. Five of their number were tall, herculean warriors covered from head to toe in powered armor, while the two others were average sized humans dressed in combat armor. The first of the arrivals was a giant in black armor, an alabaster pelt flowing behind them and a great helm worn tight against their skull. The next two were similar in size, differing only in yellow armor and styles of knightly helmet. One carried a great, whipping banner embroidered with a raptor crossed in front of thunderbolts attached to a long pole. They were followed by a woman in penumbral armor with folded, metallic wings accenting their half-covered facial features. Lastly were the standard humans, adorned in military attire appropriate for Terra’s northern lands. None of these individuals held armaments, for they were unneeded when their own strength would suffice.

Each footstep of the four, larger giants threatened to break through the platform they walked upon, their long strides allowing them to quickly cross the distance in a span of seconds. The one at the front of their procession, the black armored one, halted some distance away from an entrance into the world engine. Crimson lenses spied the hurried form of a human approaching their entourage, yet further identified a plethora of hidden defenses veiled into the austere environment. A manner of seconds passed as the human halted within reasonable distance of the arriving retinue.

Hail, Sanctiian.” The black-armored giant spoke first, a lion’s roar of a tone booming from the voxgrill installed into their great helm. A masculine voice that radiated with cool, supreme confidence. His crimson lenses stared down at the man as if he were infinitely smaller than the giant was. The alabaster pelt attached to his back whipped rapidly between frozen gusts and spinning engines. “Do I have the pleasure of speaking to the High Negotiator?” The title awkwardly rolled off his tongue, uncertain of Sanctii’s parliamentary positions.

The aide stood statue-still as the booming voice of the giant rolled over them, cold sweat beading on their brow as they searched for the right words to attend to the Imperials. He took an uncertain step backwards followed by another, far more confident one as he tore his gaze away from the terrifying monstrosity of plate and flesh. With a simple wave of his hand he gestured for the entourage to follow before hurriedly leading them down the central hall and toward the meeting room.

Popov, smiling as the indicator light over the door blinked from amber to green, spread his arms wide in welcome as his aide stepped quickly to the side of the room.

“Hail, Imperial. I apologize for my aide’s silence, they’re unfortunately not cleared to speak for such a meeting as this,” he laughed as he motioned for his aide to make himself scarce in a corner of the room, “I, however, very much am,” he offered a respectful bow of his head and motioned for the massive beings to come forward and take seats, “High Negotiator of Sanctii and Her Illustrious Holdings, Stefan Popov, at your service.”

His smile thinned as he directed his attention to the chairs. They were far too small for these mutants.

“I had arranged seating, but I must say, you’re I appear to have underestimated the requirements,” he chortled.

The humans, to the eyes of the relatively well fed and clothed Sanctians, looked decrepit. There were two that seemed to hold the same office as the giant mutants, or at least an equivalent position. The first was a man, who, to put it politely, looked haggard, decrepit, and pale. He had large, dark circles under his eyes and a gaunt, ever so slightly jaundiced look of someone balancing on the precipice of malnutrition. His uniform, while appropriate for the Urshic cold, was mismatched and of ill-repair.

“We’ll take that seat, if you don’t mind.” A female voice, sharp and clear, stated.

She was healthier than the man, tall, strong, and with pink, healthy skin, but an ugly pink scar ran from under one eye, bisecting a cheek, going through both lips, and onto her chin. She had a crude, but serviceable military bionic crammed into the eye socket where the ugly scar started. Her uniform, compared to the man’s, was intentional, austere, and stark. Black jhodpurs, black boots, a black tunic with gold frogging, and a leather stormcoat. She wore a red cap and ear shields against the cold, but the flush of her cheeks suggested that as impressive as her garb was, it did not protect against the elements the same way the man’s did.

“I am Discipline Mistress Augusta Severina.” She said, and bowed. “And this is Colonel Stavin, of… Imperial Army unit 31-3.”

The man looked sullenly at the woman, as if he detected some slight or falsehood in that statement, but said nothing.

“We are the ranking Imperial Army presence for these talks.” She continued, seemingly oblivious to her comrade, “And most importantly, we are here to be a human face. Our regent understands that the Thunder Legions and Custodians can be intimidating fellows.”

She reached out, briefly touching the closest Thunder Warrior’s gauntlet, and the winged custodian’s.

“You’ll forgive me for saying that of course.” She said to the other members of the Imperial delegation. “But we must be open and honest, no?”

Though Severina couldn’t possibly see beneath the great helm of the blacked armored giant, she could certainly feel the unpleasant aura forming when her hand touched his vambrace. Instinctively, as if feeling their leader’s discomfort, the other two yellow armored warriors stepped forward with a couple of trudges. An obsidian gauntlet raised up from the dark one, waving off their small amount of worry. He took a step forward to position himself directly across from Negotiator Popov, crimson lenses carefully observing the stature of the man.

“Mistress Severina speaks correctly, but know that we are no less human than any other. I am Primarch Aeternus Rex of the First Legio Cataegis, the God-Slayers, agents hailing from the Master of the Line and his dominion. I have known many names in my time, but only refer to me as this. Behind me are a pair of my Thunder Warriors, Captain Caestus Caligula and Vexillarius Gaius Felix.” The primarch gestured with one of his gauntlets to the warriors behind him. The one named Caligula, a yellow armored giant with a crest upon his knightly helmet, gave a short chuckle and nodded his head. The other thunder warrior, Felix, responded with a short nod while gripping their beautiful banner tightly in one hand.

Although hesitantly, Aeternus understood the necessity for an even playing field between negotiation forces. A pair of black gauntlets reached up to his helmet, unsealing the atmospheric protectors and lowering the great helm to his side. Bronze skin marred with a plethora of aging scars met the quickly adjusting temperature in the chamber. Dark orbs as umbral as the void stared down at Popov while strands of black hair complimented a rugged, charismatic face.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, High Negotiator Stefan Popov. I will be the primary negotiator for our liege and his dominion in these talks. Our secondary negotiator may interject at any time she wishes as she sees fit, as is her duty. The tertiary negotiators, as Severina has previously spoken, are granted a level of interjection as was decreed by the Master of the Line. Firstly, though,” Aeternus began to speak, his voice as commanding and dominating as a lion upon his pride. He slightly cocked his head in the direction of the final member of their cohort, motioning for the black armored knight to come forward and speak. “We have one last member of our entourage. One of the highest importance.”

Amalasuntha, one of the Emperor’s chosen Custodians. I have come to oversee that all goes in the Emperor’s best interests,” the Black-Hawk said, her voice harsh and cold as she looked over the humans, her eyes carefully watching those of the Imperial Army before stepping back. That was all she needed to say and nothing more would be pried from her, such was the nature that Aeternus and any of his Thunder Warriors would know. The Ventarii maintained her grip over her Lance, before her gaze shifted back to carefully watching over the gene-warriors she had sworn to watch over, no longer concerned with the humans.

Popov waved a welcoming hand toward the chairs for the Discipline Mistress and her Colonel before turning his full attention back to the two mutants before him, “Of course, Primarch Rex, do correct me if I should use the full name for I may be unfamiliar with your proper use of formal title and name,” he said with due deference.

He turned his gaze toward the Custodian, a feeling of revulsion rising in his stomach at the way she had so confidently declared she was here to ensure things went “the Emperor’s” way. He gave her a respectful nod and a curt smile, “I have heard much of the Emperor’s vaulted Custodians. It is an honor to make the acquaintance of two of the mightiest warriors on Terra.”

Popov moved his attention back to Aeternus, and with a hint of curiosity on his face offered an open palm, “Forgive me, Primarch Rex, but it was the Imperium that requested this audience, and while I am more than honored to hold it, I must admit that your side was not exactly… forthcoming, with the details of why,” he shrugged, allowed himself a small laugh and continued, “Though I am rather certain why you would wish to seek this negotiation, I must ask that you voice your goals aloud.”

Primarch Aeternus internally prepared himself for the political battlefield laid out before himself. He couldn’t help but feel as it if were an actual battle amidst a brutal war, something that he was aware wasn’t the correct mindset for peaceful negotiation. A simulation of the possible events had been conducted beforehand with the Colonel and the Black Hawk, though it paled in comparison to the actual series of events. Nonetheless, he was ready to deliver whatever his master required, no matter what may come of it.

“Then allow me to be forward with my Master’s ambitions. He has seen that the great city of Sanctii is a bastion of humanity in a sea of chaos and lauds it from His domain. The Master of the Line - the Emperor - would see humanity unified to claim our birthright amongst the stars. In lieu of His goals, He wishes to create everlasting ties with the great city of Sanctii as an ally in pursuit of unification.” Aeternus momentarily paused to allow Popov a chance to digest the words he spoke. Rex lowered his usual lion’s roar of a voice to much more calm and deep level of speech. He physically controlled each movement of his body in such a way that the genewarrior’s demeanor balanced out between solemn and domineering. An effective gift from one of the Emperor’s Ephroi.

“Yet he does simply ask for an alliance without reparation. He has sent His Legio Cataegis - my Thunder Legion - of the God-Slayers to assist in dealing with the Kalagann of Ursh. No doubt you’ve heard of our accomplishments in middle Terra,” An obvious two-faced statement. It was equal parts a threat and a gift for those with the ability to understand the nuances of negotiation. Aeternus’ form failed to radiate a threatening aura, nor did his speech pattern alter to allude to a dire warning. He continued to speak, aware already that their promise of intervention wouldn’t be enough to fulfill the negotiations. “But it has been told by our Master’s favored companion that the great city of Sanctii has no want for superior forces. To allay any disparity for lack of commitment, the Emperor has given His approval to a technological agreement.”

The Primarch felt as if he had expended a lifetime's worth of diplomatic flair in a single conversation, something that the thunder warrior was nowhere near proficient in. He had wondered if it was a test set by the Sigilite in cruel mockery, or perhaps it had been a trial to gauge Rex’s abilities by the Emperor. It loomed on his mind just as each of his own words possibly hung over Popov’s musing form. Regardless, Aeternus’s black orbs never fell away from the negotiator nor did they blink once during his entire speech. Those endless pits of darkness now awaited the Sanctiian’s response.

Colonel Stavin sighed as the thunder primarch stated the purpose of their coming. It was as simple as that. Join or die. But he had spoken himself hoarse at the tactica and strategis meetings before this diplomatic intervention - it would never work. Stavin was half Urshic. He knew of Sanctii. They were proud, but they were naive. Sheltered. A dangerous combination.

Insulated as they were from the rest of Imperial conquest, and so convinced of their enlightenment, they'd never acquiesce to the requests of a butcher like the Emperor. That's what he was, after all. A butcher. A mass murderer. But only he could see it, only he, a damned soul, trapped in the interstice of Imperial truth and Imperial violence.

It was the highest irony that not only did he have to usher the other souls of the damned, his penal soldiers, to their dooms, but now one of the oldest bastions of learning and civilization as well.

He decided to speak. In Urshic, rusty and halting, to make his point.

"Bratya Popov." Stavin said in the lowborn thieve's Urshic of gutter criminals and soldiers, "It is in your best interest to say yes."

Popov would know of the Urshic criminal cant. That phrase was well known amongst the Urshic people, it was an almost comical cultural touchstone. The stereotypical threat of a vidscreen extortion, by the old mafiyas. It was so trite as to be almost humorous, and never said in anything but jest.

That dissonance might give Popov the hint of what this meeting really was; murderous extortion, with Sanctii as the Emperor’s prize - that refusal was no option at all. It was Stavin's only throw of the dice to avoid what he knew would happen with certainty.

Popov had known it was coming, anticipated it. The Administrator had warned him, along with just about every other sitting member of the Council. And yet, it was still a shock to hear it from the lips of the Emperor’s dog before him. He suppressed a snicker at the primarch’s insistence that some sort of technological exchange would benefit Sanctii as much as it would the Imperials, an easy task given the amount of focus drugs pumping through his system, and was about to speak when he found himself genuinely surprised by the Colonel’s rough criminal cant. He sneered in disdain at the realization of what such a thing meant from a Colonel, but went no further to engage with the gutter scum.

He felt a haptic implant pulsing in his neck and raised the datapad in his hands just enough for only him to read the text beginning to scroll across the screen. He suppressed further anger, easily washing over the emotion with overwhelming calm as he read the Administrator's words.

“Primarch Rex, I am sure that an alliance would benefit both of our states, but Sanctii will not, under any circumstances, share the technology vital to our survival. For reasons of security, it simply can not be arranged,” he nodded solemnly, “An alliance may benefit us yet, but our technology must remain ours.”

The hulking leader of the Thunder Warriors muled over the words spoken by Popov. He refused to acknowledge the Colonel’s statement in the brutish tongue of the Urshites nor would Aeternus really need to. An armored gauntlet from the First Cadre Captain, Caligula, had been carefully placed on the Colonel’s shoulder mere moments after the words left his mouth. A stern look was given by the genewarrior, Caestus’ ugly smile growing wide across an already repulsively scarred face. Rex had felt the movements behind him as they happened, silently thanking his geneson before beginning the next part of his practiced speech.

“That is rather unfortunate, Negotiator Popov, but it is His will that our alliance be on even footing. The Sigilite will have that conversation with your leader at a later point,” Aeternus began to speak, an initial air of disappoint surrounding his form before returning with renewed energy. Perhaps if his original orders had been to kill and claim, then negotations would’ve broken down there yet he persisted with the Emperor’s wishes regardless. “But you have no qualms with a military alliance against Kalagann of Ursh, is that correct? You said it yourself that we are the mightiest warriors on Terra, would it not be beneficial to deal with the Urshite threat together?”

Popov smiled as the Primarch updated his terms to fit squarely within the Administrator’s boundaries. He brought his shoulders back in confidence and nodded respectfully, “Indeed, to quell and even stomp out the Urshic hordes would be beyond beneficial to us. Though Sanctii holds no ambitions beyond our small collection of territories, to remove the Urshite raiders threat for good, would allow us to focus more on our greater tasks, such as the purpose of this world engine we meet on tod—” Popov’s haptic pulsed painfully in his neck, and he once more raised the dataslate to his eyes.

He bit his tongue as he read the scrolling text, cursing the Prime Minister for allowing the Administrator so much control over his negotiation. There was supposed to be none higher within Sanctii, no other that could agree or deny terms today… and yet.

“I apologize, Primarch Rex, but my lords change their moods once more. I’m sure you can understand.”

Popov shifted where he stood, casting a glance back in the direction of Sanctii, its walls obscured by the storm outside the windows.

“There can be no troop deployments from Sanctii outside our borders,” he took a breath and turned his gaze back to the hulking mutant that called itself a man, “we will be able to offer no direct support in the conquest of Ursh, I am afraid.”

Finally, Primarch Aeternus narrowed his eyes in inquisitive disapproval. One of his black armored gauntlets raised to his own mouth, stroking at the scarred flesh in thought. He felt that his words had reeled in the High Negotiator, even going so far as to decline one of his Master’s directives to ensure their alliance. Rex felt something was amiss. His black orbs glanced down to the dataslate that Popov held to himself, watching every glance between the Sanctiian and the pad from then on.

To the surprise of the Sanctiian, the Primarch audibly sniffed the air and breathed deeply of the surrounding area. He closed his eyes in a moment of silence. Perhaps it appeared as if he were frustrated by their dialogue, but in truth, he had simply tasted the air for faint hints of the wyrd. Disappointingly, he failed to taste any amount of the sorcerous energy that afflicted their species. He opened his eyes once more to stare down Popov. He still had ammo in his satchel to fight with, but it would be a stretch to throw such a bone. Rex already knew that Amalasuntha would react to his next words, internally preparing himself for the eventual berating.

“I see. No sharing of your precious technology and no mustering of your garrisons against Kalagann. You’ve pushed me into a corner, Popov, something few are able to do.” The Primarch flashed a surprisingly charismatic smile at the Sanctiian, offering a slight chortle to deescalate the rising tension. “Very well, if you cannot directly support the destruction of Ursh, then perhaps the great city of Sanctii can offer indirect assistance. If your leader requires proof of skill to acquire their approval, then we shall orchestrate an all-out assault on all of the Urshite warbands harassing Sanctii’s outskirting territories. Then, perhaps, your leader will be more forthcoming to an alliance.”

Popov breathed a silent sigh of relief as the Primarch opened his eyes and continued with his amicable mood. He had been convinced that the mutant was deciding on the best way to dismember him, having seen the picts from Memphos and across Gyptus, he was well aware of what the being before him was capable of if given a good reason to perform.

“Support could certainly be arranged I believe,” Popov stated with certainty. He had the city's food and industrial earnings report pulled up on his pad, and with a simple flick of a finger sent a curated version to the datapads before the Imperial delegation. He offered a grin, happy his head remained on his shoulders, and motioned to the dataslates.

“I’ve provided a select view of Sanctii’s output, and would be more than willing to negotiate the more boring discussion of tonnage, shipping, and compensation now if--” his haptic stung painfully, and the dataslates before the Imperials chimed horridly once and cut to red screens at the same time.

He brought his own dataslate up to his eyes, reading the words scrolling by with disbelief.

Acting on his previous suspicions, Aeternus glared with extreme focus on Popov’s face in an attempt to gleam even the slightest hint of information. His dark orbs observed every detail off of the Sanctiian’s sculpted face from how open his pores were to the molecular hair on his face rising in ire. He carefully watched every shadow that passed beneath the Negotiator’s eyes, scrutinizing every single hurried glance.

//CA_062 “”DW””

Primarch Aeternus felt ire rise from deep within his person. He considered every single avenue that could possibly be taken in preparation for these negotiations. An Ephroi had personally taken their time to equip a genewarrior of his low stature in accordance with the Sigilite’s will. Had it all been for nothing? One more push, he thought to himself, simply one more before we orchestrate His will in a different manner.

“All support to Imperials denied, Negotiator Popov?” The Primarch’s voice shifted several decibels lower, losing the facade of diplomatic favor for one in exchange for one relying on intimidation. A disappointed, angry look crossed the facial features of Aeternus, yet it wasn’t the emotion that was played off by the genewarrior. It was the look of someone betrayed. In accordance with his Master’s will, Rex dared not move to commit violence on the grounds of diplomacy, yet he balled his fists hard enough for the servos to audibly whine in protest.

What is the meaning of this?

Popov, a man who had risen through the cutthroat politics of Sanctii’s ruling class from a simple diplomatic aide, found himself stunned. He physically reeled at the Thunder Warrior’s change in tone, the focus drugs barely allowing the so-very-human Popov to remain in some modicum of control.

“I assure you--” his haptic stung painfully, he ignored it, “I wish only the best for both our peoples, But Deep Winter--” his haptic stung so painfully that Popov brought a hand up to the spot in his neck it had been surgically implanted on the day of his birth.

“The Administrator--” he fell to a knee as the pain spread beyond the known bounds of the small device just beneath his flesh.

Around the room the dataslates came to life once more, green text scrolling across the reflective screens for all in attendance to read. Popov let out a whimper as he clutched at his neck, reading the text through tears of pain.

//CA_062 “”DW””

Popov’s ears rang as he fell fully to the floor, blood weeping from his eyes and nose as he convulsed on the cold faux carpet of the world engine, so far from the Sanctii he loved.

An unease entered every organ in Aeternus’ augmented body. He understood what was happening even before his brain could fully compute the truth behind the events. Internally, in the brief seconds that mattered, he cursed himself for allowing treachery and deceit to befall him. Perhaps it was to be expected. Regardless, the Primarch and his warriors began to move in sync with eachother. Rex crossed the room in seconds, scooping up Negotiator Popov and slinging him delicately over his pauldron. Caestus swept the Colonel under one of his armored gauntlets and then echoed the action with the Mistress. The final thunder warrior swept the banner in a low motion, aiming the adamantium tip of the polearm at the portal that they entered from.

Each of their voxbeads, voxcasters, and voxrelays crackled to life with the urgent voice of the stormbird pilot. “Emergency egress! Oncoming heat signatures from several locations, unknown source and unknown designations! Lady Black Hawk, Primarch Aeternus, we need to leave!” She screamed into her helmet-mounted headset, the sound of engaging engines in the background echoing throughout her communication.

Almost instantaneously, the custodian began to dart - not waiting for the door to open and instead cleaving it with her lance and sending it across the hall. “Be quick, Aeternus!” Her call came as she sprinted down the way, her pack activating and propelling herself forwards to expedite her retreat.

Stavin cursed as he was scooped up, apparently valuable enough now to not sacrifice as a rearguard for the Imperial withdrawal. Sanctii was as good as leveled. He knew it though. He knew it would play out exactly like this. No one listened, but why would they? He was Damned, after all, and the moaning of the damned was something that was to be ignored, if you could help it.

But it was as he feared. Sanctii, in their hopeful naivety, had created an intelligence to run their city-state. That is why it was a verdant, learned, civilized paradise. And no matter how benevolent this ‘Deep Winter’ was, the Emperor would butcher everyone in the city to stamp it out.

He strained to look past the armored figure holding him, looking forlornly at the last bastion of real learning on Terra. Sanctii was a techno-utopia, one of the last verdant places on Terra. No more. No more. He closed his eyes, and allowed himself to be carried into the future.

A hundred different thoughts chased through the synaptic nodes in his brain as he sprinted down the austere hallways of the world engine. Defeat was amongst the foremost of these. Failure was rare for the God-Slayers, majority of their campaigns in the pursuit of Unification ending in his Master’s satisfaction. This, however, was a forlorn feeling that ate at the edge of his consciousness. Aeternus felt as if the odds had been stacked against him at every angle, no matter how hard he had prepared to ensure glory for the Master of the Line. Fearful and confused, Rex tuned out his deepest thoughts to replace them with the current matters. One of his gauntlets slammed the great helm from his belt atop his head, pressing the seal into activation with a twist of his wrist. Crimson lenses glared out in hidden fury as they pressed further out of the world engine.

None plagued their urgent sprint through the halls, genewrought might pushing their enormous forms through miles of corridors in minutes. The unconscious body of Popov’s aide was swept up by the banner-bearer, an unspoken command by Aeternus for later usage. Each reinforced door that threatened to block their escape was cut aside by either Amalasuntha or the banner-bearer with ruthless efficiency. Every screen they came across repeated the same message by the infamous Administrator, green text floating in an infinite loop on each digital surface. Eeriness crept like looming darkness in every alcove devoid of human life. It was if each stride of their armored figures was watched by an otherworldly entity unknown to them. And it wished for their death tenfold.

The final door onto the landing platform was blasted off of it’s sliding hinges by the black armored form of Aeternus Rex, who sprinted out of the world engine into the biting blizzard. Both of his thunder warriors followed after with a sense of urgency in their step. All four engines of the stormbird were loudly whining, flames jutting out of the spinning turbines with an eagerness to launch. The assault ramp was lowered to the frosted platform, a pair of crimson-garbed auxilia crouched on either side with lasrifles actively firing at unveiled defenses. The Primarch suddenly stopped, shifting Popov into the banner-bearer’s grasp before turning to ensure no member of their cohort was left behind. Rex then proceeded as the last member of their team entered the craft. Both the Colonel and the Mistress were released the moment the thunder warriors crossed into the vessel. The defending soldiers followed shortly after the last turret was melted into slag.

Inside of the wide deck, Aeternus trudged his way into the cockpit with several dozens questions nearly vomiting from his lips. The pilot, a woman of average stature and hidden features beneath augmented helmet, was rapidly preparing countermeasures for their immediate escape. “Are they so willing to kill us that they risk destroying their own infrastructure? How many signatures are you reading? Do we have identification codes? What is coming our way and would the most venerable Amalasuntha be able to intercept?” Each word was a booming command from the gullet of a lion, nearly deafening the mortal in a fit of pain. She clenched her teeth together as all relevant information was thrown onto one of the several screens in the cockpit.

“Unknown. At least several dozen. No identification codes, but trajetocries similar to any Terran intercontinental ballistic missile. I theorize that Lady Black Hawk could slaughter several of them, yet they would crash into the installation all the same. We must leave, Primarch Aeternus, to carry on the word of the Master!” Her voice was a shrill of logical defiance. One that Rex hadn’t expected as she closed all external access ramps into the stormbird. The stormbird began to shake with the familiar jostle of retracting landing gears.

What in His name happened!?” Aeternus asked to the gathered members of his entourage, red lenses turning to regard Amalasuntha, Colonel Stavin, and Mistress Severina. Perhaps if he had taken longer than a second to consider the situation, then the answer would become apparent to the genewarrior of the First Legion. It was clear, at least to the Black Hawk, that the Primarch was in a mindfog the likes of which dulled his mental capacities.

Stavin wiped his mouth as he was set down, along with the discipline mistress.

“The rumors were true, Primarch.” Stavin said, “Sanctii is governed by automated intelligence. Do you remember when Popov said ‘Deep Winter’? It caused an automated haptic response. A pain response. Popov said too much.”

“You can’t mean-” Severina said, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. “Abominable Intelligence?”

“Right. I suppose that’s what He calls them.” Stavin said, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes in front of three people who had the right to kill him with little recourse, “I’d bet good money it was Deep Winter that told Popov to cancel all ties with the Imperials. It is as I feared it would be. As I said it would be, in fact. There will be no allegiance with Sanctii because the AI that runs it knows the Emperor will murder it.”

“And murder it we shall! For the Emperor and Imperium, we will destroy Sanctii for this blatant treachery! Aeternus, contact the Sigillite and tell him what has been revealed,” her words came out harsh but determined, turning away from the thunderous Primarch as she willingly ignored his mindfog. Yet, her piercing gaze fell onto Stavin, a massive talon reaching out to grasp the human, as gingerly as she could, and lifted him by his throat. The words that came from her mouth reverberated with a thick malice that she had since only reserved for mindless thunder warriors, “You will reveal all you know of Sanctii, lest you make your love for the Intelligence known to me now.”

“Your- Our Emperor," Stavin began, seeing the harsh glare Severina gave him, even as the custodian threatened to flense him, “Compelled me into his service after I surrendered. I was a mercenary in pay to an Urshic castellan in one of the border forts. I don't remember which one. Doesn't matter."

Stavin cleared his throat, gasping for air, then continued. “He told stories, this castellan. I dunno if they're true. He was from Sanctii, or was a visitor. He said that at the center of the city, Winter slept. She dreamed of a green terra. She ordered the men around her like pawns on a chessboard and was dreaming a machine into reality that would rend the fallow ground green."

“When Popov said ‘Deep Winter' it reminded me of those old stories." Stavin said, “And you people, I mean, us, we live in a rational age, right? What else could ‘sleep in the center of a city' except an AI idling away in a massive cogitator bank?"

Enough.” Aeternus finally spoke after the mindfog had cleared from his head, listening in on Stavin’s words and Amalasuntha’s threats. Even if he hadn’t arrived at the conclusion first, Rex eventually managed to piece the puzzle together between the four of them. The Primarch trudged forward, gripping the Custodes’ forearm with one of his black armored hands. Though she couldn’t see beneath his great helm, she would certainly feel the piercing orbs of the Himalazian knight.

“Stavin, Severina. Remove yourselves to the bay and see about tending to our guests. We need to gleam whatever we can from them, no matter how that happens. Use the tools at your current disposal to handle it, otherwise wait until we’ve returned to the Imperialis Praetorios.” The Primarch said, momentarily turning away from the Black Hawk to address the two mortals. He could sense their fear, even if they didn’t show it. No doubt facing one of the Emperor’s personal guardians was a fearsome task, yet Rex had never felt fear around them. Perhaps it was Amalasuntha’s influence. “Release the man, Amalasuntha, we have more pressing matters to deal with… and we have a war to wage in His name that will require Stavin’s cooperation.”

Rightfully ignoring their conversation, the pilot had been gracefully tracking each and every signature that locked in on the world engine. She had guided the Stormbird away to an acceptable distance, yet she gritted her teeth in disapproval as they would feel the concussive force of the oncoming missiles. A multitude of measurements appeared on each monitor, indicating the time until impact. She didn’t feel the necessity to call them to brace, unwilling to interrupt their important conversation for something that wouldn’t affect the genewarriors.

The custodian relinquished her grip, not by Rex’s word but more from her own need to do something other than threaten meaninglessness drivel. She did not speak, but her blackened form shuffled back, away from the mortals. “His majesty will not be pleased by this,” her words came in a still coldness, speaking the obvious before her head tilted to the side for a moment, thinking.

Stavin fell to the ground in an unceremonious heap, hands grasped at his throat in protective instinct that was both too late and unnecessary; even if the ‘Black Hawk’ had decided against sparing him, there would have been little protecting his own throat could’ve done.

Severina’s heels clacked on the diamond-etched plasteel. The discipline officer held a hand out, and Stavin took it, her only acknowledgement of his near-death experience. Augusta’s strong arms easily pulled him up from the decking, though for pride’s sake he had assisted the process as best he could. He stood up, brushing himself off, forcing himself to be okay with one of the Butcher’s creations coming within a hair’s breadth of killing him.

He didn’t like to admit it, but the lower he fell, the more afraid of dying he became. Paradoxically, when he had been a successful mercenary commander, he thought nothing of crossing swords with the worst Terra had to offer - it had all been a game back then. Now though, as a dreg commander of a dreg outfit for a man (god?) he, on his best days, feared, and on his worst, hated, he found the idea of death deeply terrifying. There was a legacy in his younger days, a reputation that would survive him, even if it was only until the next amasec sodden pub crawl his former men took part in.

Now? Who would mourn him? Curse his name? No one. His name would be crossed off in a ledger and he would sink into anonymity just as surely as ants do when their hive perishes. The Black Hawk had swooped low, and plucked him from the river he swam in. Only luck had preserved him, and now he had to continue swimming upstream knowing at any moment it could happen again.

He straightened his ushanka, and nodded to Severina.

“As you order, Primarch Rex.” He said, in his best military voice, some sand back in his craw, “We will begin advanced interrogation immediately.”

Another nod to the discipline mistress, and the two mortals went to their duty.

Behind the turmoil aboard the Stormbird, an array of lights streaked across the sky in lazy arcs. Each missile was tracked by the Stormbird, an array of datapoints and analysis streaking across the pilot’s screen as the missiles made their terminal burns at the helpless world engine.

A number of the smallest missiles, the Stormbird tracking as low-priority threats, made their impacts first. Rolling explosions, orange, and firey red, ripped across the outer buildings of the complex. Entire warehouses went up in flames as warheads of unknown yield gutted them from within. The pilot trained her attention on the exterior pictfeeds, whistling as a particularly small building simply evaporated in a flash of orange.

The Stormbird’s machine spirit selected a missile from the next incoming volley, throwing an alert at the pilot even as she managed twenty other tasks at once. Her hands didn’t stop flowing over the controls even as she read the highlighted warning.

“Radiation alarm,” she stated cooly over the Stormbirds troop compartment intercom, “strap in.”

The Stormbird’s engines, already roaring at high power pitched into afterburner as the machine spirit took some level of control from the pilot. She banked the aircraft into a steep dive, unsecured boxes and items flying through the compartment at the sudden change in direction. Behind them, the Stormbird diligently tracked the missile in a highlighted angry yellow. The Stormbird ripped across the tundra, the pilot making a straight line for a massive canyon to their front, all as she continually checked the missile’s position.

Behind them a star blinked to life above the world engine, a roiling ball of plasma over a hundred million degrees flashed the snow and ice into steam in the blink of an eye, the dark of night around the Stormbird blazing like the Gyptian midafternoon. The pilot gritted her teeth, registering the stark shadow of her own aircraft as they ripped into the canyon just ahead of the shockwave from the atomic detonation.

Thunder filled the ears of the occupants as the venerable craft was buffeted by hurricane-force winds, but the worst was above them, outside the canyon. The howl of the engines subsided as the Stormbird stopped its desperate run to safety. Behind them, a mushroom cloud began to peak over the edge of the canyon, the pilot couldn’t help but think that was an ill omen for the coming compliance.

Credits: @MarshalSolgriev (Aeternus/God-Slayers), @BornOnBoard (Colonel Stavin/Mistress Severina), @FrostedCaramel (Negotiator Popov/The Administrator), @Lauder (Amalasuntha)
The Urshite Threat

-Fifty Years After The Invasion of Memphos-

Gusts of freezing wind snapped ferociously at rock and stone alike amongst the Himalazian mountains. Extraordinarily tall peaks covered by snow dominated as far as the eye could see. Sporadic clumps of ruined vegetation dotted across frosty ridgelines, momentarily brightening the dark majesty of the range. Silhouettes of large, furred creatures on multiple limbs swiftly darted between abundant patches of snow, baleful snarls and feline roars echoing throughout the frigid corridor. At random intervals small buildings made of unknown material jutted out as impromptu platforms where earthen slabs would normally rise. Dim, crimson glowglobes illuminated a soft, repeating light at each corner of the metallic stages. Veiled, malicious turrets stood several meters away from these on their own separate towers, forever hidden and quick to tag incoming objects. Icy bastions of indescribable stone rose beneath the towers, stretching for untold miles in both directions. Few called this inhospitable area their home for far fewer could prosper in such an environment.

Yet, he called it home. Aeternus’ crimson lenses stared out of a stormbird’s eastward viewport, lingering on every shadow that passed their craft. He swiveled away from majestic nature to grim reality within the gunship’s interior. Several other entities languished in uncomfortable bucket seats, rocking as their vessel lurched under freezing gusts. A pair of yellow-armored warriors sat directly across from him, Captains Caligula and Tiberius. One held a concerned smile on their ugly face, while the other remained nonplussed as a wooden board. Observing them like a hawk nearest to their side was Lady Amalasuntha, her dark armor nearly blending into the interior. Several other of her kin remained close, their black visors lasered in on any and every movement that the God Slayers took. It would’ve been a discomforting leer were it not for the Black Hawk’s persistent guardianship of their Thunder Legion. Rex felt their tension even without his and his companion’s weapons, the Custodians less afraid and more prepared in case of an emergency.

As the stormbird flew in silence, save for the occasional jostle, so too did the inhabitants remain voiceless amidst their journey. The Primarch stewed on the events leading up to their current predicament during their brief moments of tranquility. A recall on a level such as this, immediately after the fall of the Ethnarchy, was cause for distress. Daunting dropships bearing golden raptors had interrupted their armored convoy’s resupply in Ururatu, demanding his presence for an immediate announcement in the audience of their liege. Oddly, the Black Hawk was additionally requested to join their voyage as if they were attached at an indescribable level, or perhaps He simply wished to see one of His many creations again.

A soft klaxon rang throughout the bay as the stormbird initiated a landing descent, pneumatic pistons audibly hissing as landing gears unfolded from far beneath their greaves. Crimson warning lights flashed across the gunship’s interior to alert those within of their voyage’s end. Gene warriors rocked in their bucket seats as they finished descending onto one of the few available platforms. The ringing klaxon muted itself, the lights cut, and the assault ramp dropped as quickly as a hydraulically driven system could in a frozen environment. The Primarch shared a look between Caligula and Tiberius before wordlessly unbuckling to clamber out of their craft. Both shortly followed after their commander, stalked by those Custodes that had accompanied them from Ururatu onward.

Blizzarding snowflakes coated the God Slayer’s helmet in swift, uneven clumps as he marched out of the stormbird. Black gauntlets reached up from his side, removing the great helm to admire the freezing temperatures. A small smile grew on Aeternus’ cracked lips, pushing a plethora of scars further up his admirable face. His dark eyes swiveled from the beautiful, Himalazian mountains to a pair of leviathan doors guarding the sanctuary of his master. Sentinels in ornate, midnight armor stood as eternal guardians over the gateway, snow blanketing their forms and melting in the same moment of contact. Those warriors that defended their liege’s realm allowed their entry with a simple activation of a hidden rune.

The Master of the Line’s abode sprawled for countless miles, enormous pillars of reinforced stone rising from floor to ceiling along ornate walls depicting endless eras of humanity. Scribes and data savants paced the labyrinth interior, a single tracked focus driving them deep within the Himalazian bastion. Custodes in dark armor proudly patrolled the halls carrying brutal spears with ranged armaments at the tip. Great glowglobes hung overhead as long, fluorescent illuminating devices that brightly shone over the width of their master’s alcoves. Grand, crimson rugs fashioned from material of Terra’s past covered carefully laid foundations beneath their greaves. Tapestries of unknown events clung to blank surfaces in specific intervals, positioned in a chronological pattern yet known to several onlookers.

The procession of thunder warriors and custodes marched on throughout their master’s astonishing abode, servants and savants splitting away in droves to avoid their gait. Dark lenses all equally fell on a single destination furthest away from their arrival point: a gateway etched with an enormous raptor and thunderbolts. Those genewarriors that had accompanied Aeternus, save for the Black Hawk, separated into a different corridor with practiced ease. Himself and Amalasuntha pressed on as if the waltz through His domain had been performed an innumerable amount of times. Midnight clad knights that awaited their arrival allowed their entrance, turning to speak softly into their helmet and activating the portal’s activation runes.

A wide, spherical chamber opened up before Aeternus’ eyes with several gateways leading into it. His eyes fell to an enormous, magnificent circular table sat at the center of the room. Rows of ornate seats sized for beings of greater stature than his own nestled along the rim. Hololithic images swirled overhead, casted by a projector at the table’s center and illuminating part of his armor in a blue hue. He noticed sculpted glowglobes etched into several pillars lining the room’s edge as he pressed forward, Amalasuntha following close behind him. None of these drew Rex’s attention insomuch as those that had already been inhabiting this location before him. A grin broke his tensed lips.

Several giants in armored suits similar to his own loudly bickered from their seats. Aeternus counted five of them in total from least deafening to most thunderous. All of them bore some manner of their liege’s yellow armor combined with heraldic colors of their own. Few of them wore capes or cloaks as he did, while others donned hardened leather tabards or chainmail hauberks at their waist. None wore their helmet or had their weapons present for such a gathering. A plethora of different hairstyles defined their rugged, ugly features as they intensely spoke with one another. Rex lingered only a moment before he was spotted entering the chamber with Amalasuntha.

“By ash and flame! Aeternus Rex! It’s been nearly a decade since we last fought together on the Jermani hills!” The most gregarious one lurched from his seat in a feat of bundled joy, a pure and ugly smile permanently plastered across his homely facial features. Dull red and ashen gray locks spilled around an unevenly shaped skull of the warrior, a thin beard scissored by crisscrossing scars amplifying his image. A cloak of forged scales clinked across his armor, yellow coating half of his plating and scarlet the other amount. The Raptor was proudly displayed on his chest, while an emblem of a phoenix blazed across his left shoulder.

“That it has, Primarch Alexamandes! Glory upon Unity, it is good to see you alive!” The two, great thunder warriors approached each other and embraced with enough force to shatter a mortal man’s skull several times over. They split away from their exchange with a hearty laugh echoing from deep within their breasts. Aeternus noticed the Black Hawk edge away from the event to stand next to more of her kin.

“To see you alive is a boon, Aeternus. Our Unification greatly prospers from your survival.” Another spoke, picking themselves up from the table to approach the pair of Primarchs. Their tone was nasally and deep as if their nose and throat were clogged with bullet shells. A gaunt knight with raven hair tied in a warrior’s knot linked arms with the God Slayer, a thin grin growing on their cracked lips. Aeternus admired the midnight blue, talon tipped gauntlets of the other warrior as they separated. A mechanical eye darted across Rex’s armor, scanning and consuming data in expedient droves. Flattened feathers loosely fell from a dark, plumed cloak that billowed behind their back. A sigil of a moon and a raptor hid itself well upon his left pauldron.

“You honor me, Primarch Corvinius, but do not sell yourself short of achievements. That coup in Franc would never have been as successful if I were commanding the legions there!” Aeternus said, wildly gesturing as if he were displaying a map before him. Corvinius snickered before moving away from the other Primarch, returning to his seat to renew a conversation with Alexamandes.

The God Slayer, finally free of distraction, began to find his seat before he was ambushed by another of the guests within the chamber. A woman wrapped Aeternus in a familiar headlock, threatening to choke the life out of him were it not for his own strength. Rex broke free from the headlock with a quick jab behind him using one of his armored elbows. Tension released from around the armor protecting his neck, swinging his body around to address his assailant.

“You’ve grown more timid, Rex! Any further deviancy and I’ll need to have a word with our Master about your lackadaisical attitude.” Her voice boomed, roaring akin to the likes of a Terran ursidae. She rose as a behemoth of meat and muscle beneath a suit of yellow armor and verdant green. A strong jaw set with fresh scars blended up into a half-shaven head of gray-blonde. Where one part of her face was deeply etched with wrought facial tissue, the other half was a mess of freckle and dried paint. Emerald eyes stared down at his slightly shorter form, yet his own dark eyes glimpsed at the antler-horned raptor on her pauldron. A chain hauberk hung between her armored thighs, shaven skulls hanging from silver hooks.

“Perish the thought, Primarch Bodiciia, I would like to avoid the Butcher of Europa’s wroth if I could help it. I will simply have to train more earnestly with Amalasuntha to live up to your expectations!” Aeternus spoke with a hint of rivalry in his tone, a challenging smirk revealing an array of sharp teeth beneath the other Primarch’s lips. Bodiciia returned to her seat beside Alexamandes, a heavy hand weighing upon the auburn-haired warrior's pauldron.

“It would do you some good to learn from her, God Slayer, perhaps then you’d be able to uphold our Master’s plan more efficiently and claim more territory for Him.” Another voice remarked with a boastful tone to his immediate left. The moment that their lips had opened, Aeternus knew who finally awaited him at his end of their meeting. A rogue in partially yellow, partially amethyst powered armor sat beside Rex with their elbows propped up and their hands clasped. A man with the least amount of facial defects for a thunder warrior peered back at him, gray orbs boring holes into his skull and full lips drawing his ire. A leather cloak faintly dyed in a dark, purple hue clung to their back, complemented only by the lilac hawk set in laurels etched on his left pauldron.

“Know that my achievements are worthwhile to Him, Primarch Gilgemenses, but I do greatly appreciate yours and Bodiciia’s concern for my success. Your kind regard for my accolades is worth a thousand blades.” Aeternus shot back with a playful tone, earning a spurned glare from the Primarch sat next to him. The gathered warriors, with the exception of Gilgemenses, exploded into laughter as Aeternus finally took his seat. “Where are the other legion commanders? I’d imagine Hannibal of the Caged Dogs and Ushotan of the Fourth would certainly be here.”

“The last I’d heard from Hannibal and the Fifteenth was from their push into the Midafrik Hive Polity. Ushotan, damn him, was previously seen assaulting the southern border of Nordyc with his Steel Lords. All of the other legion commanders are spread out thin between garrison duty and dealing with daily insurrections.” Corvinius’ dour voice replied, responding to Aeternus as if he were reading from a dataslate. Rex always knew that he was a brilliant, capable warrior, yet it still surprised him in the brief moments they spent time together.

“The First Legion? Concerned? The Dragon of the Himalazians, the Scourge of Northern Indoi, the Black Knight, the Gyptian Menace, the Great Blade of the Raptor, the Ururtanian Ruiner concerned? Perhaps we were doomed from the outset if Aeternus Rex grows worrisome for others.” Gilgamenses scoffed, venom dripping from his words in heavy clumps.

The throng of hyper augmented gene warriors exploded in a fit of discord, throwing insults and threats across the table at Gilgamenses. The amethystine Primarch responded in kind with similar slurs and gibes. Only Aeternus did not participate in the shouting match, his elbows propped and eyes staring down Amalasuntha as if to request for an amount of assistance. It was not his place, nor his duty to silence those outside of his responsibilities. As Rex awaited intervention from his bloodbound Custodes, his ears perked as mighty footsteps of unknown origin resounded further down one of the great many doors built into the chamber.

Sensing another entity coming, Amalasuntha slammed the butt of her spear into the ground three times and three times did the noise reverberate around the grand hall. The noise drowned out most of the explosive arguments, but the Black-Hawk did little to speak to the bickering gene-warriors for they were beneath her. Unlike Aeternus, they did not garner the respect of the Custodian and how they acted would ensure that she never would. Others continued to argue, bringing her predatory gaze to them. The roar of her pack destroyed all other sound, her blackened form looking down from them from a ledge just big enough for her to stand on. Only when the last looked at her did she make it clear, “You are within the Emperor’s halls. He, nor the Sigillite, shall listen to bickering children.”

That other entity was likely very underwhelming to what the Black-Hawk believed it to be. It was, instead, Theadon Red, Commander of the Eighteenth. Theadon was thick and broad. His aged face was riveted with pockmarks, and the right side was plagued with patches of where a recent fire left a wound upon it. Though somewhat intact, his right arm had piecemeal mechanics holding it together and supporting it. The rest was under armor, and a thin black cloak, with small bits of red and purple highlights underneath the thin sheet that wrapped around most of his body. Helmet and plume tucked neatly at his side, the warrior just stared at what was the rabble he had heard walking towards the procession, but now he saw the scene as it was. He was thankful that none under his command but for a few underlings decided to make the journey; if another had come, it would have turned into a bloody brawl. His eyes went up to the woman and her staff, then back towards the rabble.

"While I thank you for the entrance, I hope I am not late as usual," Theadon said calmly with a slight smirk, looking up to the ledge above one last time before making his way toward the seat he assumes is his.

Aeternus released a breath of relief as Theadon’s arrival and Amalasuntha’s intervention was enough to either stupify or pacify the other Primarchs from further provocations. He watched as Bodiciia and Alexamandes stared daggers into the custodian, while the remainder turned their attention to the late arrival of the Eighteenth. Rex nodded his head thankfully to the Black Hawk before opening his mouth to speak with the final legion commander.

“It’s good to see you alive, Theadon. I grew worried that you’d get chewed out by the Sigillite if you took any longer.” The God Slayer remarked with a small smile flashed in Theadon’s direction. He reached up with one of his gauntlets to rest it upon the Eighteenth Primarch’s shoulder in such a way a long friend would. He silently thanked fate that the other commander had arrived in time for he still sensed another, mightier presence approaching their council. “Though I hate to admit, you are as late as I am.”

The sound of his staff upon the ancient stone rang louder than any bell of doom, for all present had seen the fury that its master could unleash. He seemed frailer than at the last such grand council, the all too human form vanishing into the folds of his robes such that only the fire of his eyes and the gnarled husk of his fist about his staff were still visible. And yet, when he sat at the throne at the right hand of his master’s, he still seemed unbent and undaunted by the mighty weight of his years. Standing behind him, rendered almost invisible by the scale of his presence, was a severe woman in a pressed blue uniform adorned with a triple helix.

“Amalasuntha,” Malcador said softly, his voice somehow carrying throughout the hall, “you have my thanks, but you need not worry about such things upon my account. Though my Master has long disputed it, I can think of nothing better to retain my youth than to hear the cries of children,” he added with a soft grin, the Sigilite relaxing slightly upon his throne. “But she is right, she is right,” he continued with a wave of his wave. “We have work to do, children, that which you were best made for.”

At some subtle gesture from the man, the hololith suddenly redirected its focus, the image of the wartorn world’s surface rendered down to a single front. One that every soul in the room knew all too well. Ursh. The vast realm stretched across the breadth of the world, poised above the Emperor’s own domain, fat and hungry.

“Now that Kalagann has destroyed Xozer and overthrown their wyrds, fear has come into our hearts that witchery shall compound witchery. His realm must fall, his covens destroyed, and their lore burnt, before they can do lasting damage to the great work. You may bid amongst yourselves for positions amongst the fronts, with one exception,” Malcador said, his eyes turning to Aeternus. “I have special need of the God-Slayers.”

Aeternus’ gentle demeanor fell as the Sigilite addressed his legion. An uneasy chill descended over his body as their liege’s closest advisor bore into him with eyes that could strip away any mental resistance. Several of the aforementioned Primarchs bit their tongues after a quick dismissal, Alexamandes and Bodiciia in particular silently fuming. Rex rose from his oversized seat, bowed his head low, and opened his lips to speak. Long strands of silky, black hair similar to the Master of the Line’s draped across his lowered forehead.

“It is an honor and a privilege that you would require us, Lord Sigilite,” Aeternus spoke in a humble tone, dark eyes glued to the table as a sign of respect. He feared nothing in physical form, yet the Sigilite’s burning orbs never failed to force him into some notion of dread. Others glared daggers into his fur-cloaked back, Gilgamenses, in particular, radiated some level of envy. Thus Rex never falters in his genuflection until responded to. “We will conquer and kill for Him and Unity, where would you have us slay?”

“Enough of this petty jealousy,” Malcador whispered wearily, slouching into his throne at the immediate sense of being slighted by the Thunder Primarchs. “I give the bulk of you honor and glory, blood and war! Is this not what your hearts bay for? Is this not what you have come to this council in the name of? You shall have your pick of Ursh, and neither I nor my Master shall stand against the biddings of your murdermake. Is that not enough? Is the Raptor no longer enough? Shall I gift to each of you a trinket, so that you may think yourself beloved by your father?”

“Foolish children,” the Sigilite said with a bone-weary sigh, lifting his face out of his robes and for once appearing every day of his nigh thousand years. “You wish to know why I have called Aeternus to my side? It is for no errand any of you shall care for, and there is far less glory in it than you shall gain by bringing to my Master one of Kalagann’s battle standards. I require the God-Slayers to engage upon a mission of peace. Now silence this pride, and leave me to my business, Aeternus and I must speak of Sanctii.”

The Primarch of the God-Slayers raised his head after the Sigilite’s remarks, turning a pair of dark eyes to his kindred. A small amount of pity flitted through his orbs before he turned away and stood apart from the gathering, awaiting the moment when Malcador would call for him. Aeternus would watch as a smaller feud began to break out between the gathered throng of bloodthirsty legion commanders, beginning with the largest of their assorted rank.

“The Raptor is plentiful, Malcador! I do not require trinkets. Those will be taken from those that will be slain in the southern city of Kaspia.” Bodiciia rose from her seat, planting her fist on the table and grinning wickedly between the Sigilite and the hololithic projection. A voice that threatened to shatter even those gene-altered around her boomed with each and every syllable. The thunder warrior raised a finger to the southwestern part of Ursh’s fringe territories. “The Verdant Raiders of the Second Legion will prevail in the name of Unity, our Master, and for Mankind!”

The next of the genewarriors moved with a swiftness, Primarch Alexamandes echoing the Fourth’s overexaggerated movements with his own. A great laugh thundered from deep within his breastplate. “As the Butcher of Europa said, blood is enough, Sigilite. I would rather have waged war with the great Aeternus Rex, but I will claim Monggol Tertius! I expect you ‘lot to see the red and gray of the Tenth’s Infernal Phoenixes in southern-central Ursh!” Alexamandes blared, a pair of nearly manic eyes swapping between the remaining thunder warriors. One of his dull, red gauntlets directed the precise location of his assaulting target before the legion commander backed away from the table with Bodiciia.

A brief moment of silence filled the air as the remainder of the Primarchs, those that had spent longer than a fraction of a second to think, considered their own plans. Corvinius’ eyes darted between several suitable locations marked across the hovering hologram, especially lingering on the southeastern portion of Ursh’s great territory. Gilgamenses idly spoke to himself as his own orbs drifted to the western territories of the Khaganate. Both shared a look between each other before finally beginning to speak, the raven haired thunder warrior voicing his target first.

The Ruined Hive of the Asiatic Dustfields will be conquered in the name of the Master. We would never expect Him to grant us trinkets, only that He understands that we will use our enemy’s weapons against them. The Thirteenth’s Obsidian Crows will plunge into the depths for Unity.” Primarch Corvinius calmly stated, affixing their wargoal on the hololithic map with a single, midnight digit. The gaunt thunder warrior offered a short bow of his head, a light tap of his gauntlet against his chestplate, and backed away from the table’s edge. The amethystine knight nearby rose as he began to speak in earnest.

“I will not share the same sentiment as other commanders, Lord Sigilite, our Master would do us a great justice if he threw a bone or two to our feet. A relic from your treasury, a platoon of more dignified warriors there, or another fresh batch of newly crafted genewarriors.” Gilgamenses voice dripped with venom, carefully tiptoeing the line between subservient and defiant. His last words rang closer to an accusation rather than a request for reinforcement. Gray eyes glared at the feeble form of Malcador then turned to glower at the God-Slayer. “The Sixteenth’s Amethyst Tridents will plunge into Khaganate territory and starve Ursh of their grasp on the Terrawatt Clans. Perhaps then some of us will gain proper recognition.” The amethystine Primarch pushed himself away from the table after annotating his wargoal over the tribute state of the Russ Khaganate.

Theadon looked up and down the map, but his eyes looked towards the north. “My warriors will enjoy the eternal nights in the north… I will tell them to move Europa at once before meeting them, we will do what we do best and cut a line of fire through their heartlands until we reach the eternal night of winter in the Siber Ice Plains .” His good eye turned towards Gilgamenses and then back forward at the map. He rolled his shoulder letting it pop quietly as he just stared at the map. “But temper, temper, Gilgamenses, you have renown… You have prestige, your warriors are fine, I just hope that I can finish gutting the heartlands out from the north before the Urals are flattened.”

Amalasuntha had been gazing down at the Thunder Warriors, content to let the Sigilite deal with their bickering and savagery until the end of the meeting. That was until Gilgamenses had spoken, his voice grated her ears like nails on chalk and her anger swelled with each passing word. The Black Hawk would have descended upon him in a fury, but her eyes merely burned into his head even as Theadon spoke. She could not resist, her own brand of venom spilling across the room as she spoke, “Worry about glory is a fool’s errand. Asking for relics, many beyond your control, is a death sentence. Make do with what you have, barbarian, just as Aeternus and his God-Slayers do.”

Her words were not as diplomatic as Theadon’s and she certainly did not hide her hostility, everything from her posture to her gaze held only resentment. The Black Hawk was prepared to pounce on Gilgamenses further had he dared speak against her or Malcador, only being content with him being brought back into place. The Venatarii’s lance remained hummed with deathly life as she made her threat to the Thunder Warrior clear. Though, it could be construed that her words were meant for all but the God-Slayers for their future desires and wants of the Imperium.

Malcador paid little heed to the bidding of the Thunder Warriors, the Sigilite’s attentions upon far more important matters than which of his Master’s princelings would raise the Raptor over the ruins of Kaspia. His thoughts were upon Sanctii and its promise, and the strange role he was thrusting upon the God-Slayers and how best to send the men of Thunder upon a mission of peace. That is, until, the most impudent and boastful of the Primarchs raised his voice, and the old man’s eyes were lit with an inner flame.

“You wish for new genewarriors, Gilgamenses? The freshest weapons from our lord’s forge? Why, I had feared none would volunteer for the honor,” the Sigilite said, clutching his staff tightly with a soft grin. “Amar,” he added, in a far kinder voice, to the woman who had stood behind him unnoticed and unremarked. “Ready your Firstborn, they shall march with the Amethyst Tridents. I trust that they shall prove their quality.”

With a wave of his hand, Malcador closed discussion upon the topic, his decree having been made. The true concern for this meeting had been ignored long enough. “Aeternus, I know I give you an unusual task. You shall be equipped with what information I have in my power to grant you,” the old man said to the First, settling back down upon his throne. “From what my agents have been able to glean, they are a prime candidate for Unity. They have kept the flame of civilization alive through the long terrors of Old Night, and have avoided the depredation of tyranny and strife, with a strong gene-stock free of mutation. They have maintained some semblance of democracy, though the details elude us as yet, with decisions made collectively by some sort of council. Many Standard Template Constructs are evident within their city, though it is unknown if they still possess the means to construct more.”

“Intriguingly, they have also maintained several voidships, including a venerable destroyer nigh on a kilometer in length - though for some reason they currently have established a lunar cordon. To take the city by force would be a slaughter, one that neither I nor my lord are keen to partake in, for their strength is vast and their treasures would surely be despoiled - to say nothing of your own losses. They maintain a military from among their citizenry, genehanced with arms and armor to rival and surpass your own. In addition, they have constructed a vast wall about the entirety of their city, inset in which are void shield generators.”

“As such,” Malcador said, staring the Thunder Warrior directly in the eyes, “it is the decision of the Emperor that they should be peaceably allied and brought beneath the auspice of the Raptor without bloodshed, as was done with the Achaemenids. This is your task, Aeternus Rex.”

The Primarch of the God-Slayers waited to respond as those beings similar to him began to leave in total. His dark eyes catch the seething form of Gilgamenses casting several proud, angry glares at members of their conclave before leaving. Bodiciia clapped Aeternus on the shoulder before taking her leave, followed only by Alexamandes gesturing to Theadon in a way that suggested the two will be drinking. Corvinius shared a knowing look with Rex, nodding to the God-Slayer before exiting the chamber. A small smile was shared with Theaddon as he left, hoping to once more fight alongside the Nightbringers.

Theadon stood and slowly raised his hands towards the two, “I hope to see you both soon, I have traveled far and although this was a brief meeting. I am glad to have seen you Brother.” He started making his way from the room, exiting the way he came in and disappearing into the halls.

Once the last of his kindred had left, leaving the chamber eerily quiet, Aeternus would return to the table’s edge that he had previously sat. His eyes fell on Malcador’s intense gaze, an indescribable feeling building up in his frame as he mustered a response. Within the frame of his mind, there was no doubt that he would ever reject such a calling, for Unity was all of their desires. The question was not in how, but why the God-Slayers with what afflicts them?

“It shall be done, Lord Sigilite, Sanctii will fall under the Raptor. No matter the cost.” Aeternus solemnly stated, bending down on one knee and placing his fist against the Raptor affixed across his breastplate. The Primarch inclined his head once more before standing back to full height. With the acceptance of his task, Rex began to speak again in a quieter tone. He expected no small amount of retaliation for his next statement and prepared himself for Malcador or Amalasuntha’s fury. “If you would allow me, Malcador, then I would beseech you for further knowledge. Absolute victory must be achieved in His name.”

The Sigilite arched a brow at the Thunder Warrior’s request, his full attention upon the man. “Did you think I would withhold a weapon of any sort from one of my master’s warriors? Upon so dire a quest, to achieve so needful an aim? I have spoken what pitifully little we know of Sanctii to you already. Now go, be about your business, unless there is some other light of knowledge you wish enkindled.”

“There is one thing that I must ask, Lord Sigilite, yet it is not for additional information on Sanctii. That city’s fate was sealed the moment the order was spoken.” Aeternus began to speak, his voice steadily rising to a stalwart tone. He carefully chose the next words that were spoken, aware of the potential insinuations that could be picked apart from it. The warrior steeled himself nevertheless.

“My warriors suffer relentless afflictions, deviations that have been steadily handled between senior members of the First Legion, myself, and Lady Amalasuntha. Unity will be achieved regardless of our lives, but if there were a way to alleviate their flaws, then we could more efficiently execute our Master’s plans. These are the answers I seek in pursuit of greater victories.” The information requested was accompanied by a bowing of the thunder warrior’s head to the Sigilite. Never before had he asked such a thing. Aeternus had always pursued the wishes of their Master with brutal, relentless efficiency. Something in his ambitions had changed.

The ancient man’s face softened at that, something resembling guilt passing over him as he slumped down upon his chair. “You, and all the Thunder Warriors, are children born of need. I will not deny this. Shortcuts were, are, taken in the process of your creation - a brutish transfiguration that cannot be considered to have the nobility of science. We cast ourselves as barbarians in the atrocities committed to make you, and for that we cannot be forgiven.”

“The process is refined, of course. Strength is set aside for stability. Mass applicability for ideal candidates. The Astartes. You will never be them. You are far more than they can ever hope to be, but at a terrible price that they need never pay. I have had… thoughts considering what may be done for my lord’s first and truest soldiers. I wish I had something more for you, Primarch.”

A flicker of a saddened frown passed across Aeternus’ lips before returning to a tightlipped straightness typical of his stoic demeanor. His eyes reflected a buried grief behind a curtain of stalwartness. He had received his answer, regardless of whether it had been one that he ached for or one filled with empty platitudes.

I understand. I hope that our creation has, at the least, helped our Master achieve all that he wishes. Thank you, Malcador, for your candor. Sanctii will soon see the Raptor fly over it’s walls.” Aeternus raised his head once more, pressing one of his blackened gauntlets against his chestplate in a salute. He stepped back from the table, beginning to turn away to exit the chamber. Before the Primarch pressed the helmet over his head, he turned to regard Malcador once more.

“Perhaps, once Unity has been achieved, our Master will find a cure for our afflictions. It will be a glorious day when it arrives.” The Primarch of the God-Slayers said with a sad smile, promptly fitting the knightly helmet over his skull.

“Aeternus. Know this. Nothing my lord has wrought could last without your sacrifice.” As Malcador spoke, the weight of years hung heavily upon him, and he looked every day of his thousands of years of life.

Amalasuntha looked to Malcador, hearing his words, only to look back towards the Primarch with an indecipherable look of pity. It was not an emotion she was precisely known for or one that she knew she could feel, yet she felt it. Warm, yet cold words, came from the custodian, “The deeds of your progeny will be echoed far into the future, Aeternus. Our Emperor would be sure of it.”

Credits: @MarshalSolgriev (Aeternus+Primarchs), @Lauder(Lady Amalasuntha), @grimely(Malcador), @Jamesyco(Theadon)
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