A Horus Heresy story by NoPoet
They gathered on the hill, looking to the sky as the sun tried to burn its way through dust-clouds. The last Death Guard on the planet was dead; and with them, they had taken the ecosystem.
Derius tried to say something. He realised that he lacked the words. The Ultramarine disguised it as a gruff clearing of his throat.
His brothers of the XIIIth looked to him, hoping for words of leadership. Yet Derius was just a sergeant, used to commanding a squad of nine other warriors. He avoided meeting the eyes of those Legion brothers standing on the turf in ordered, under-strength squads. Instead he watched the sky.
The dust clouds were blowing west. He couldn’t feel the breeze through his armour. It registered only as part of the environmental read-out in his tactical heads-up display. He could also see it tugging gently but insistently at the clothing of his human followers.
Over eight hundred of the Ultramar 2nd Infantry Cohort, mortal soldiers belonging to the Imperial Army, variously stood, sat or lay on the scrubland around the Astartes. Some people spoke quietly among themselves, or conversed with the more amenable Space Marines. Most of the humans had as much to say as sergeant Derius, which was nothing at all.
Derius looked down into the crater before him. The hill they stood upon overlooked a four-kilometre bowl of dust and fused, glassy ground. He’d finally ordered his rag-tag fleet to launch torpedoes at the Death Guard position, destroying it utterly, reducing traitor Astartes warriors, human rebels and six god-machines to oblivion. It had been a costly victory. Scarcely a warrior among the victorious Imperials was uninjured or untired by the six-week campaign. The Death Guard had fought furiously and victory over them had never been certain.
The Imperial fleet – what remained of it, after months of disaster and retreat – had sustained further damage in its torpedo attack, which Derius had ordered in a kind of defeated desperation. It had cost the Imperials an important listening outpost which might have made a staging-post for punitive attacks against the traitors.
Guilliman would be displeased. In fact, he would probably be furious. Capturing the Death Guard position, no matter the cost in lives, would have changed the theoretical – guesses about enemy movements and the location of friendly forces – into the practical – hard knowledge and the ability to communicate.
Derius had abandoned any semblance of tactics in an effort to save human lives. That gambit had worked. Many hundreds of men, women and Astartes were alive today who would certainly have been killed by an attack on the Death Guard listening post. Still, they had lost the objective rather than losing lives.
I could not order anyone else to their deaths, he thought, bitterly. There are too few of us. What good is a victory when no-one remains to see it?
“Sergeant,” a gruff voice said from behind him.
Derius turned from the crater to regard the green-armoured warrior who stood, helm under one arm, looking for all the world as if he were on a parade ground presenting himself for inspection.
The Nocturnan’s face was a patchwork of scars. His eyes were pure red, the contrast against his black skin creating a sinister effect which Derius was still adapting to. The man’s armour was a blasted and torn mess. Dust was draped over his Legion colour.
He was brave. He’d taken the loss of his Primarch with an almost shocking lack of emotion. Vulkis, whose name translated as adopted son of Vulkan, had held the remnants of his Legion together. Nobody had actually seen their Primarch die. Nobody knew how many of their Legion had escaped the slaughter.
Derius couldn’t begin to imagine the sense of betrayal. It was still a distant thing to him, a new feeling, weaker than a cry on the wind. He’d fought Astartes before: he’d faced a number of ravening World Eaters in their fighting-pits, he’d trained against Imperial Fists, but those had not been fights to the death and the warriors in question had not been his enemies. How could the Legions turn against one another? Worst, most disgustingly of all, how could they turn against the humans they were created to protect?
How much courage did it take to gun down screaming, terrified soldiers and civilians who were unenhanced, carrying weapons that couldn’t penetrate power armour?
How much honour was involved in shooting your brothers in the back, while they still regarded you an ally?
It was painful beyond belief to imagine losing Guilliman. He was everything Horus was not: a ruler who wasn’t a tyrant, a demigod who was still a man, a strategist who could win unequal battles without having to wait for overwhelming superiority. Anyone could win a campaign with overwhelming force – unless they were a fool. Horus was lauded as the greatest. He didn’t deserve that accolade. Guilliman. Sanguinius. Dorn. Even the Lion. They could all lay claim to being the best of the best.
The Ultramarine Primarch was often regarded as dispassionate, lacking in character or even humanity. This was so wrong. Guilliman was an innocent. He sometimes seemed to lack compassion, or warmth, because he did not know how to show them. That supreme being, that shining beacon of human achievement, the Master of Ultramar, relied on an old woman and his closest warriors to connect him to the people around him.
Guilliman missed his dead step-father every day. Derius regarded Vulkis anew, admiring the man’s courage. Vulkis also knew what it meant to lose a father.
Eight other Salamanders stood together some distance away near the rows of waiting Ultramarines. Their stance was alert. None of them betrayed their grief or shock.
Few Imperials who had survived this far would ever lose the anxious tension they felt now, that sense of enemy snipers hiding behind very rock, every wall, every window. It didn’t matter that this planet was dead and deserted. None of them, not a man, woman or slave, would feel safe anywhere in the galaxy, not even for a moment.
Worse, most demoralising of all, were the black-armoured Astartes of the X Legion. The Iron Hands were largely disconsolate, standing apart from each other. They were aware that their Primarch was dead. Some sat, some stood on guard, others looked at the sky or the ground. They would react to danger within a millisecond and they had fought like bastards, but now that there were no enemies in sight, melancholy drowned most of them.
Derius couldn’t begin to imagine their grief. His sense of isolation from his own Primarch was a shock of dislocation. A strange, Segmentum-wide warp storm had blown up. Derius had been part of the 122nd Expedition Fleet, returning to Ultramar from Segmentum Pacificus for rearming and reinforcement, when the storm erupted. They’d lost twelve ships – twelve – of the thirty-six in their flotilla. Six Dreadnoughts, a hundred tanks, two thousand Astartes, more than ten thousand human soldiers and starship crew, all torn apart by the things that Derius knew for a fact lived within the warp.
The 122nd, still suffering and sensor-blind, had encountered a fleeing gaggle of Imperial ships bearing the idents of Imperial Army regiments, Iron Hands and Salamanders, being pursued by a combined force of Death Guard, World Eaters, Word Bearers and Sons of Horus.
There had been a terrible but brief period of indecision. Both sides had called the other traitor. Surely the Sons of Horus, the Warmaster’s own Legion, an honourable and proud Legion, would not lie. Yet the desperation of the fleeing starship captains and the Astartes officers on board had been compelling.
The pursuing warriors had shown little of their expected nobility. They were arrogant, vicious, spiteful, a parody of themselves. The Death Guard and Sons of Horus ships had almost begun shooting at one another in an argument over who was in charge of their fleet: the overbearing, assured Sons of Horus, whose Primarch was lauded as the greatest of the eighteen, and the numerically superior Death Guard whose ire was slow to build but inextinguishable once roused.
Recalling the moment Captain Dour of the Iron Hands had told them of the great betrayal was… difficult. Just the thought of it made the Ultramarine want to put his head in his hands. He didn’t know if an Astartes could cry. What purpose would it serve? They weren’t truly human any more. Let the normal humans, the men and women who made up the Imperium, release their emotions, cope with their grief, in that way. Let the Astartes remain strong so that they might protect those humans while they were vulnerable.
The fleet action had been atrocious. Vicious. The 122nd had barely brought its surveyors on-line before the Death Guard attacked them. The traitor Legions – for this was proof the betrayal had occurred – showed no regard for the humans of either side. They seemed to take a special delight in chasing down and boarding ships crewed entirely by mortals.
Derius had taken command in the eighth day of the fleet action when all those senior to him, whatever their Legion, were dead. His vessel, the Light of Ultramar, was a scarred battle barge bleeding plasma fire, atmosphere and a glittering silver trail of human bodies. He’d led several Iron Hands escorts right between the Death Guard and Sons of Horus capital ships Barbaran Poetry and Finishing Touch, blasting them into scrap with some genuinely good and extremely fortunate shooting, ending the manoeuvre by ramming the World Eaters vessel Terra’s Bloody Claw, destroying the smaller traitor cruiser. It had seemed to Derius’ fleet that he had been seized by violent inspiration. They’d surged against their enemies, destroying or disabling one ship after another with heroism bordering on insanity until the surviving traitors disengaged.
In reality, Derius had found his position hopeless and he’d been trying to go out in glory.
That was something he’d never told anyone else.
“Sergeant,” the Salamander said, dragging his thoughts from the gloomy past to their uncertain present. “We need to go.”
“I agree, Vulkis,” Derius said. They were his first words in hours. “But where?”
Vulkis pursed his lips. He wasn’t given to long speeches. Yet at this moment, he couldn’t even put together a sentence.
“We are still cut off from the Imperium,” Derius added. “We have been unable to find a navigable route to Macragge. Throne, Vulkite, we can’t even tell where it is in that… that mess.”
He indicated the violet light in the sky. It distorted the amber sunlight, struggling as that sunlight was to breach the dun-coloured wall of dust blowing away from the Imperials.
“Agreed,” the Salamander said in his deep, calm voice. “But the Death Guard will have reported our presence here. We cannot assume we blocked all their communications. Theirs is one of the largest and strongest Legions. We cannot stand against all of them. Especially if they bring Mortarion.”
“That wretched traitor,” Derius said without meaning to. It felt good to unleash his spite. That in itself was a warning sign. He’d always considered himself noble, thoughtful, not given to outbursts. Was this how the traitors had started on their road to infamy? By something as simple as letting their guard down?
He unlocked and removed his helm with a hiss of escaping oxygen. The smell of burning reached him as the two Astartes looked at one another.
“I’ll kill him myself if he comes,” said Derius, unable to contain the emotions he’d let out. “He’s a weakling among Primarchs.”
“He did not look weak, scything his way through my brothers while bolter fire bounced off him. Mortarion is a son of the Emperor. It requires a Primarch to kill a Primarch, and we are already three Primarchs down.”
There was silence except for the wind in their ears, which their genhanced senses tuned down to a murmur.
“Forgive me,” the Ultramarine said. “I should have been more tactful. “
“I am not troubled by your lack of tact; rather, your underestimation of our enemies. Their destructive potential is unrelated to the number of remembrancers writing poems about them. If it was, Mortarion, Perturabo and Kurze would have been created as nursemaids, rather than warlords and bringers of merciless death.”
Derius was shamed and made no reply.
They heard approaching footfalls, lighter than the clumping of an Astartes, and turned to see two humans heading their way. One was male, the other female. Their faces and clothes were dirty. Both of them wore black flak armour, with helmets, over blue fatigues. She carried a lasgun, he a bulky melta. His knuckles were white.
Derius thought the man looked distraught, though he hid it well. He seemed slightly younger than the woman, who by her lapels was ranked major. They moved with a semblance of the arrogant swagger mortals wore when they’d personally killed Astartes. Derius had only ever seen that recently, among crew members and soldiers of the Light of Ultramar who’d managed to repel a small contingent of World Eater boarders with Ultramarine assistance.
“There you are,” the woman said to Derius. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“I have been standing on this hilltop, skylined and unmoving, for nearly an hour.”
“We thought you were a tree,” the man said, attempting humour. It fell flat. The betrayal of the Legions had broken his spirit.
“How can I help you?” Derius asked the major.
“Magos Blumnit sent us. One of the Mechanicum vessels in orbit has reported something.”
“Why did they tell you and not me?”
“They didn’t. One of my vox operators got wind of it. He’s been monitoring fleet communications. I ordered him to break all cyphers being used among our ships, just in case anyone was up to no good.”
“Wise,” Derius said, drawing a nod of agreement from Vulkite. “What have you discovered?”
“Nothing much,” the major said, breaking into a smile. “Just a way back to Macragge.”
“What?” the two Astartes said at almost the same moment.
“It looks like Lord Guilliman’s found a way to call us home. They say Macragge just ‘lit up’ – their words. They can plot a course and take us there.”
Derius looked from Vulkite back to the woman.
“Are you sure this is genuine, Major? We must base our actions on practical knowledge, not theory.”
“The Mechanicum verified it a few minutes ago. They were confused about what happened.”
“Apparently,” the man said, reluctantly meeting Derius’s eyes, “Lord Guilliman is using some kind of xenos tech.”
“He’s using what?” Derius asked, aghast.
“Er… yeah,” the man replied. He took a step back.
“Xenos tech? Lord Guilliman’s using it?”
Vulkite also took a step back. He made to reach for his bolter, but stopped himself.
“Whatever madness this is,” the Salamander said, “it bears investigation. I do not believe Lord Guilliman could turn renegade any more than my own Primarch might.”
“Thank you,” Derius said distantly. He hoped the Salamander was right. The Ultramarines Primarch was an innocent man. His character was unsullied. He was a good man who believed in the Imperium.
Could the Primarch have been seduced by some kind of xenos power, as his colder, crueller brothers must have been? Or was he merely obeying his own rule of the practical over the theoretical? Macragge was cut off from the Imperium: the status of the wider Imperium was purely theoretical. It looked like Guilliman had found a way to convert theory into pract, by giving everyone a way to meet him, tell their stories, add their might to his.
The decision was made. In a galaxy of disloyalty, the Ultramarines would remain loyal; in an age of doubt, they must trust their Primarch. Perhaps this was how the traitor Legions had fallen. Derius doubted that. They had been cruel, calculating. Their betrayal had clearly been planned in advance. The Ultramarines were using whatever means they could to save the Imperium; the traitors used whatever means to tear it down.
Weren’t the Astartes supposed to sacrifice something so that Mankind might survive? In this case, they were sacrificing their dignity, some of their honour, by using xenos technology for the greater good.
Derius thought of his flagship and smiled at the irony of its name.
“Signal the Light of Macragge. Tell them to ask our Mechanicum friends if they’ve anything to tell us.”
The Ultramarine replaced his helm, locking it back into place.
“Derius to all loyalist forces,” he said into the vox. “Prepare to return to orbit. We’re going home.”