Authors: James Swallow
'It's revolution,' she began, pushing the words from her lips like a desperate curse. She rambled on, speaking of ‘rejection' and of ‘superstition', of things a line soldier like her had never believed could be real. 'Praal has gone mad,' she growled, 'and the Warsingers are with him.'
Garro's brow furrowed at the names and his master halted the replay, providing an explanation. The noble Baron Vardus Praal is the Emperor's Designate Imperialis on the capital world of the system, Isstvan III.'
'He... She means to say the governor of an entire world broke with the rule of Terra to throw in with some pagan idolaters?' Nathaniel blinked, the idea unconscionable from a man of such significant rank within the Imperium. 'Why? What madness could compel such a thing?'
'That is what my brother, Horas, will have us learn,' intoned the primarch.
The Astartes studied the woman's face, blurred in mid-motion as she turned to look at something out of view of her picter's lens. 'The other word, "Warsinger", my lord, I am unfamiliar with it' He wondered if it were some kind of colloquial name, perhaps some sort of honorific.
'They were a local myth, according to the records of the 27th Expedition that enforced compliance here over a decade ago, a cadre of fantastical shaman warriors. Nothing but anecdotal evidence of their existence was ever found.' Garro's master was circumspect, and he tapped the hololith controls with a slender finger, letting the recording ran on.
With abrupt violence, the woman drew a heavy stub pistol, and shot and killed something indistinct at the margins of the image pick-up. She hove back into view, filling the screen, her unchained panic leaching out through the hologram. 'Send someone, anyone,' she pleaded. 'Just make this stop-'
Then there was the scream.
The sheer wrongness of the noise, the utterly alien nature of it made Garro's gut knot, and his fingers tightened reflexively around a bolter trigger that was not there. The impact of the sound beat the woman down and shredded the picter's image control, shifting the replay into a stuttering series of blink fast flash frames. Nathaniel saw blood, stone, torn skin, and then silent darkness.
'No word from the Isstvan system followed this,' said Mortarion quietly, allowing Garro to measure and understand what he had just viewed. 'No vox transmissions, no picter relays, no astropathic broadcasts'
The battle-captain gave a stiff nod. The scream had cut though him like a knife-edge, the echo of it a weapon turning to pierce his heart. Garro shook off the eerie sensation and turned back to his liege lord. Mortarion explained that by pure chance, the distress signal had been picked up by the crew of the
Valley of Haloes,
a supply hauler in service to the XIV Legion. Suffering a dangerous Geller Field fluctuation while in transit to the Death Guard's Sixth Company flotilla at Arcturan, the
had emerged from the immaterium to effect emergency repairs.
There, as the ship drifted in space at the edge of the Isstvanian ecliptic plane, the desperate message had found purchase. Data addressing the rate of energy decay, pattern attenuation and the like were scrutinized by tech-adepts, revealing that the transmission had been flung into the ether more than two years previously. Garro considered the frightened officer he had seen on the hololith and wondered about her fate. Her last, awful moments of life were frozen and preserved forever while her bones lay out there somewhere, forgotten and decaying.
'Did the crewmen of the
detect anything else of import, master?' he asked. 'Perhaps if the men aboard the transport were fully debriefed-'
Mortarion glanced away, then back. 'The
Valley of Haloes
was a casualty at the Arcturan engagement. It was lost with all hands. Fortunately, this recording of the Isstvan signal was conveyed to the
before that regrettable event.' The primarch spoke with a leaden finality on the matter that Garro felt compelled to accept.
The Death Lord placed the spool in the battle-captain's hand. 'Carry this burden for me, Nathaniel. And remember, watch and learn.'
Inside, the Vengeful
was no less impressive than it had been from a distance, the vast open space of the landing bay so wide and long that Garro imagined it would be possible to dock a starship the size of a small cutter in here with room to spare. An honour guard slammed their fists to attention in the old martial manner, saluting with hand to breast instead of the usual crossed palms of the aquila.
The battle-captain kept pace behind the Deathshroud and Mortarion, while Garro in turn was followed by a contingent of warriors from Typhon's First Company, their lockstep footfalls pulsing like ready thunder as the XIV Legion's contingent marched on to the Warmaster's flagship. Garro could not help but glance around, taking in as much as he could of Horus's vessel, committing everything he saw to memory. He noticed other Stormbirds on landing cradles in the process of refueling for return flights, one adorned with the snarling fanged mouth of the World Eaters and another trimmed in regal purple with the golden wings of the Emperor's Children.
'My brother, Fulgrim, has not graced us with his presence,' murmured Mortarion, casually dismissing the purple Stormbird with thinly veiled sarcasm. 'How like him.' Garro peered closer and saw that the ship did not fly the pennants associated with the carriage of a primarch. Indeed, he recalled that there had been no sign of the
Fulgrim's assault ship, among the war fleet.
He found himself wondering if this was some element of the politics that his master had spoken of before. Garro frowned. He had always fancied that the primarchs were an inviolate fraternity, comrades of such exalted status that they were beyond any petty emotions like rivalry or contention, but suddenly such thoughts seemed naive. Astartes warriors like Garro and Grulgor were raised above normal men, and yet they still disagreed in their manners, more often than Nathaniel would have liked. Would it be surprising then to learn that the primarchs, who stood above the Astartes as much as the Astartes stood above mortal men, were also prey to the same differences?
Perhaps it was a good thing, Garro decided. If the primarchs were elevated too far towards godhood, they might lose sight of the fact that this was the Imperium of Man, and it was for the good of the common people of the galaxy that they served the Emperor.
With a silent member of the Sons of Horns leading their party, the Death Guard contingent moved across the cavernous bay to where a pneu-train carriage awaited to speed Mortarion to the bow decks of the
and the Lupercal's Court. Garro let his gaze turn upward, to the maze of skeletal gantries and walkways overhead, some heavy with cranes and weapons pallets, others ringed with catwalks for servitors and crewmen. It seemed oddly static up there for a working starship in preparation for a major combat operation. The battle-captain had expected dozens of figures clustering in the metal galleries to observe the arrival of the primarchs. Even aboard so illustrious a ship as the Warmaster's personal barge, it would have been a rare occurrence for parties from not two, but three other Legions to be aboard at one time. He looked hard, expecting to see men from Horus's Legion watching the proceedings, but saw only a handful, a scattering of deckhands and nothing else. Garro shook his head. Had the circumstances been reversed and the war council been taking place on
he would warrant that every Astartes on the ship would have come to see. It seemed as if something were missing.
'What troubles you, Nathaniel?' The primarch had halted at the pneu-train and was studying him.
Garro took a breath and the nagging thoughts in his mind abruptly crystallised. 'I had been told, lord, that the 63rd Fleet carried a substantial contingent of remembrancers with it. Considering the import of this day's meeting, it seems strange to me that I see not a single one of them hereabouts to record it.' He cast around with open hands.
Mortarion raised a pale eyebrow. 'Are you concerned that your heroic profile will be rendered incorrectly in some poet's doggerel, captain? That your name might be misspelled, or some other indignity?'
'No, my lord, but I had expected that they might mark such an uncommon moment as this gathering. Is that not their function?'
The primarch frowned. The Emperor's edict to introduce the army of artists, sculptors, composers, poets, authors and other sundry creatives to the fleets of the Great Crusade had not met with positive response from his sons, and despite the insistence from Terra that the endeavours of the Astartes were to be documented for posterity there were only a few in the Legions that were willing to tolerate the presence of civilians. Garro himself was largely indifferent to the idea, but he understood in an abstract way the value that future generations of humanity might gain from true accounts of their mission. For his part, the master of the Death Guard had been careful to ensure that the ships of the XIV were always engaged elsewhere, somewhere beyond the reach of the remembrancer delegations that were part of the larger expeditionary fleets.
Mortarion's character, like that of his Legion, was inward-looking, private and guarded in the face of those he did not regard. The Death Lord considered the remembrancers to be little more than unwanted intruders.
'Garro,' he replied, 'those gangs of ink-fingered scribblers and salon intelligentsia are here, but they do not have the run of the fleet. The Warmaster informed me that there was... an incident in recent days. Some remembrancers lost their lives because they ventured into areas that were unsafe for them. As such, tighter controls have been placed on their movements, for their own safety, of course.'
'I see,' replied the captain. 'For the best, then.'
'Indeed.' Mortarion entered the carriage. After all, what we discuss today will be its own record. There will be no need for scribes or stonecutters to immortalise it. History will do that for us.'
Garro took one last look around the bay as he ascended the boarding ramp, and from the corner of his eye a swift movement drew his attention. He glimpsed the figure only for a moment, but his occu-lobe optic implant allowed Nathaniel's brain to process every facet of the moment with pin-sharp clarity. It was an elderly man in the robes of an iterator of some senior rank, quite out of place in among the steel stanchions and rail tracks of the landing bay. He was quick and furtive in motion, keeping to the shadowed places, intent on some destination that he seemed fearful of ever reaching. In one of the iterator's hands was a fold of paper, perhaps a certificate or a permission of some kind. The old man was puffing with effort, and almost as soon as Garro registered him, he was gone, ducking into a companionway that disappeared within the depths of the warship.
The Death Guard grimaced and boarded the tram, the curious moment adding more definition to the sense of ill-ease he had felt from the moment he had arrived on the
What should one think of a place that was named the Lupercal's Court? The title had great vanity to it. It seemed to come with a sneer on the lips of the Sons of Horus, as if the chamber were in some manner a pretender to the grand court of the Emperor on distant Terra. Garro marched in at his rightful place, his chest stiff inside his ornamental cuirass from expectant tension. He did not know what to anticipate before him. The battle-captain had seen the Warmaster in the flesh only once and that was in passing, as he led the Seventh Company in review by the stands during the great parade after Ullanor.
But there he was, seated on a black throne upon a raised dais, beneath gales of sullen, uncommon banners. There were other people in the room, he was sure of it, but they were dim reflections of light and colour off the blaze of presence that was Horus. Garro felt a curious twinge in his legs, as if almost by muscle memory he felt the urge to kneel.
The Warmaster. He was indeed every iota of that, a perfect sculpture of the Astartes ideal on the stone chair, handsome and potent, radiating chained power. Robes laced with cords of white gold and copper pooled around him, cascading over the basalt frame of the throne. He wore armour of a kind Garro had only seen before in artworks, intricately worked plates of emerald-tinted flexsteel with vambraces made of black carbon.
Pieces of Horas's battle gear resembled elements of the older Mark HI Iron Armour and the current Mark IV Maximus type, while some parts were more advanced than anything used by the Death Guard. An exotic pistol that appeared to be fashioned from glass nestled at the Warmaster's hip in the folds of an animal-skin holster. If anything, Horus seemed barely restrained by the bonds of ceramite and metal he wore, as if one mighty flex of his shoulders might split and throw them off.
Even at rest, the Lord of all Legions was a supernova made flesh, ready to detonate into action in an instant. The gleam of the slit-pupil Eye of Horus glared from his chest, catching the brooding glow from drifting glow-globes. With a near-physical effort, Nathaniel tore his gaze away from the being before him and pressed down the churn of emotion he felt. Now was not the time to be awestruck and unfocused, addled like some neophyte noviciate.
Watch and learn,
Mortarion had ordered. Garro would do just that.
His eye line crossed that of another Astartes on the dais in the new green livery of Horus's renamed
Legion, and he nodded in brief greeting to Garviel Loken. Garro had once shared a bunker with Loken and some of his men, during the prosecution of the ork invasion of Krypt. The Death Guard and the Luna Wolves had fought together for a week across the frozen plains, turning the blue ice dark with xenos blood.
Loken gave him a tight smile and the simple gesture served to ease Nathaniel's tension a little. Nearby he saw the other members of Horus's inner circle, the Mournival – the warriors Torgaddon, Aximand and Abbadon – and an odd thought struck him. The body language of the four captains was subtle, but not so understated that Garro could not read it. There were lines of stress drawn here, Loken and Torgaddon on one side, Aximand and Abbadon on the other. He could see it in the way that they did not meet each other's eyes, the lack of the easy camaraderie that Garro had come to think of as a key characteristic of the Warmaster's Legion. Was there some concealed enmity at large within the Sons of Horus? The Astartes filed the information away for later consideration.