A Wolf in the Garden - Tripsos (2023)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

Leman Russ believed that the twisted realms of Chaos could no longer surprise him. He had seen untold horrors, the likes of which would drive lesser men to madness. Visions of supernatural cruelty, depravity, and evil that would have turned the most pious men into fervent atheists, if not worse. He had seen the dark gods at their worst, and knew more than any living man save the Emperor himself the depths of their sheer malevolence. Yet, for the first time in millennia, Leman Russ was totally and utterly unprepared for what he was seeing.

The Wolf-King had plunged into the Eye of Terror 10,000 years ago, and spent the centuries after cutting a bloody swathe through the Immaterium. While Primarchs were not meant to age, the chaotic winds of the warp had taken their toll on the old wolf. His formerly auburn mane and ragged, unkempt beard had begun to gray, and his skin was marred with a myriad of scars, burns and other reminders of his innumerable battles with the daemonspawn of the ruinous powers. He believed that he had entered this realm with some sort of mission in mind, though in truth he had all but forgotten it. He was driven solely by his burning hatred for the beings who had twisted and killed his brothers, maimed his father, and scarred mankind like nothing else save the Long Night itself. The last lingering shred of sane motivation in his mind was his own faith in his father, the Master of Mankind, the Emperor. He believed that his father would guide him to where he was needed, although that belief had, over countless centuries, become more of a desperate hope that the primarch clung to.

It was in this state of half-sanity, an endless crusade of bloodshed through hell itself with nothing but righteous fury and blind faith to guide him, that Leman Russ opened his eyes to unfamiliar surroundings. Leman did not enjoy sleeping in the Immaterium, but he enjoyed far less awakening without any recollection of falling asleep. He shot up immediately, drawing Mjalnar to meet whatever foul warp-spawn had managed to ensnare him in some sort of hex or spell which rendered him unconscious. It was then that Leman Russ was completely and unabashedly taken by surprise, for the first time in nearly 10 millennia. He saw no warp-spawn before him, no mutant servants of chaos, no traitor marines, no daemonic constructs, not even the empty desolate wastes he had become accustomed to wandering through.

He was in a field.

A field of green grass, blooming with all varieties of brightly colored flowers. His enhanced senses could smell each of them, their soft sweetness so foreign to him after centuries of the maddening scents of chaotic corruption. A gentle breeze caressed his scarred face, causing his blood-soaked mane to flutter in the warm and soothing air. The skies were blue, with cotton-like clouds drifting along the horizon, and a sun not unlike the one which lit Holy Terra shining brightly. He could hear birds chirping in the distance, likely somewhere in the tree line. A stone's throw away, a small stream bustled with clear, fresh water. He could even see small fish darting between the rounded river rocks. In the distance, a majestic mountain peak rose past the horizon, capped with a layer of white snow. He could not believe what he was seeing.

It must be an illusion the Wolf King thought to himself. He had been tempted by Chaos before. Countless times. He had seen Fenris in all its different forms, sometimes before the Emperor had arrived, his subjects and courtiers beckoning him to return to them and resume his rule as the warrior-king of Fenris, other times it was his own sons of the Space Wolves Legion begging him to return and lead them once more, yet always it was a false promise, a temptation by the dark powers of Chaos. He had slain countless demons in the guise of people he knew and loved. Over and over he had murdered the visages of his sons, his friends, his brothers - traitor and loyalist - and even the Emperor himself; each time it was trick, a lie, a deception. This time may be no different.

And yet…

Leman could not help but feel like this was different. There was no temptation here. No choice offered, no unfair bargain, no beckoning to embrace a false reality… there was only peace, something Russ had not known since… Well, he couldn't really remember. As a proud son of Fenris and commander of some of the Imperium's greatest warriors, Leman was not one to shy away from war. He was raised in inhospitable conditions and thrived in the heat of battle. None could say he was cowardly - not if they wished to live, anyway. All that being said, the chaos of the battlefield and true Chaos were two altogether different things. After spending an amount of time incomprehensible to most mortals in the soul-shredding maelstrom of the warp, battling the demonic legions of hell without rest, even the great Wolf King had grown weary. And though he was loath to admit it, Russ could not help but breathe a long sigh of relief as he drank in the sheer and utter serenity of his surroundings.

He knelt down to the ground, and cautiously removed one of his armored gauntlets. He knew this was likely foolish, but he had to know. He reached out his hand to touch the verdant grass which surrounded him, his other hand gripping the hilt of his sword. Tightly. His finger inches away from the nearest blade, Russ hesitated, his hand shaking imperceptibly. Not out of fear for his life, but out of a fear that all this would prove to be another illusion, yet another trick designed to wear down his already weary spirits. His face tightened, as he steeled his resolve and he reached out-

The blade of grass bent slightly in his hand, then gently rebounded back into its original position. It caressed his skin so gently that he could scarcely even feel it, a sensation that Russ had not known in Millennia. It fluttered in the breeze, moving across his hand a few more times. He looked to the right and saw one of the wildflowers that peppered the meadow. It was a bright, golden yellow, with petals that seemed to glisten like both honey and sunshine. He reached out and plucked it, bringing the flower up to his nose and breathing in. Russ had fought more than enough servants of Slaanesh to know what "pleasures" the bastard prince had to offer. Always they reeked of an acrid, sickly-sweet smell that resembled fresh carrion more than anything else. Supernatural temptations always felt off, uncanny in a way that elicited just as much revulsion as it did attraction.

Russ sensed none of that. He could smell every hint of the flower's aroma, the nectar which lay in its pistil, the pollen in its stamen, its chlorophyll-laden leaves. All of it was… mundane. Never before had Russ been so overjoyed to experience something so mutedly pleasant, so contentedly average. He rose to his feet, putting his gauntlet back on and gently wedging the flower into a crevice in his armor for a reason even he was not entirely sure of. In spite of the rush of emotions he was currently feeling, what he had not done was let his guard down for even a moment. Illusion or no, this was still the warp. No matter how placid or serene this part of it may be, there was always danger somewhere; he was sure of it. He could never be too careful, lest some adversary somehow manage to catch him off gua-

"Hiya mister!"

Leman Russ spun around and drew Mjalnar from its sheath, preparing to slay whatever demonic hellspawn had crept up behind him, no doubt ready to pounce with its menacing claws and razor-sharp teeth…

Before Leman Russ, Primarch of the Space Wolves, stood a girl. She was barefoot, her feet slightly stained by earth and dirt. She wore a long, billowing, white sundress which hung over her thin yet unmistakably feminine form. At her side was a burlap sack, hanging from her shoulder by a long rope. Her long flaxen hair, woven into braids with flowers strewn throughout, fluttered in the breeze and almost seemed to sparkle as it reflected the shining sunlight. Her face was warm and inviting, her emerald-green eyes bright and wide with a youthful curiosity towards the being which stood before her. Freckles dotted her cheeks and nose, and her rosy, sun-kissed skin had a healthy glow. She bore a wide and innocent smile, looking upon the ancient demigod like a child being acquainted with a new friend for the first time. Russ looked at her with an astonished expression, her comely appearance striking him as nothing like the daemonettes he had confronted in the past. In fact, the old wolf may have almost taken her for a normal, human girl…

…were it not for the moss-covered antlers protruding from her golden hair, the foxlike tail that wagged silently behind her, or the way she towered over him by at least 4 feet.

“What’s your name?” The girl said.

Russ simply stared at her, Mjalnar gripped tightly in his hands and ready to strike. Yet, his hand stayed. Russ was not entirely sure why. Had this place lulled him into a false sense of security? Was this his final battle, the moment that the forces of Chaos finally bested him? While Leman’s mind struggled with this impossible situation, the girl simply stared at him expectantly, her head tilting slightly to the side.

“Are you ok mister? You seem pretty tense.” She said, her face showing a hint of concern.

She had to be a daemon. She had to be. What else could she be? Leman Russ had never encountered anything like her. His normally fiery rage was being tempered, either by some external force or by something inside of him telling him this anger was misplaced. He was not sure which was the case. He had to do something. So, after a pregnant pause, the primarch spoke:

“I am Leman Russ, Primarch of the Space Wolves. Forfeit your name and what master you serve, daemon.” He said. It would have been ridiculous to try and converse with a daemon like this and Russ knew it, indicative of the doubts he harbored over the girl’s nature.

“Leman Russ…” the girl mused, bringing her finger to her chin. “That’s a nice name, very strong. It reminds me of my uncle. Oh! I forgot to introduce myself before, I’m sincerely sorry. My name is Admu. My master? Well, sometimes I help my papa take care of the forest. Does that count?” she said.

Everything about this was wrong. Her words were personable, amiable, but devoid of any temptation save the prospect of a friendly conversation. He knew Chaos could be devious, but this simply wasn't like anything he'd seen before. His mind was a whirlwind, a tempest of conflicting information that was activating many of his biological self-defense mechanisms, preparing him for a fight. His face twisted into a snarl in preparation for battle, his sharpened canines bared. The girl responded simply with a look of concern, wondering what she had done to upset the man in front of her, and what she could do to help him. She looked at his face, twisted by confusion and rage into that of a snarling beast. Across his waist hung the pelt of immense wolf, and further wolf imagery was emblazoned on his armor in several places. The girl thought for a moment, then her face lit up with an idea. she opened her burlap sack and went to retrieve something.

This is it, he thought.

Russ tightened his grip around his sword, his feet sliding into a combat stance. She rooted through her pack, looking for something in particular, and found it. Slowly, she revealed…

A bone. Leman studied it, looking for signs of chaotic corruption or hexes. He had seen bones used in their obscene rituals. However, this seemed to be a mundane, somewhat bleached bone. Its size and shape indicated it was not human, likely belonging to some kind of moderately sized herbivore. The girl put the bone on the ground and walked away slowly, retreating by about 3 or 4 feet. She knelt down, lowering herself to eye level with the old wolf, her face adorned with a look of quiet expectancy.

"Y-you can have it, there are plenty of them in the forest." she said.

Leman Russ was struggling to understand what her intent was. Was this some sort of trap? Was she summoning something? Performing a ritual? Suddenly, the realization it him.

She's treating me like a lost pup.

The thought was so ridiculous, so unbelievable, that a sensation he had not felt in centuries bubbled up from deep within him: he started to chuckle. Here he was, one of the greatest warriors to ever live traveling through hell itself, being offered a bone like he was a fenrisian wolf pup. He laughed, his genetically enhanced lungs bellowing uncontrollably and his eyes watering from sheer amusement.

"Lass, I'm not really a wolf." He said, stifling his laughter and wiping a tear from his eye.

"Oh! I'm very sorry, I-I didn't mean to be rude…" she said, bearing a look of genuine concern that she had insulted the man. "It's just that… I've never really seen anyone like you before, usually I just see animals around these parts… like wolves. I don't think I've ever seen one as big as that one, though." she said, pointing to the pelt that hung around his waist.

So, she's not talking about fenrisian wolves… I guess I can rule out this being another illusion of Fenris then. Still, I cannot let my guard down for even a moment. He thought. Perhaps I've somehow been spit out of the immaterium and onto some kind of feral world… meaning this girl is some variety of xenos or abhuman.

His warp-sense which he had acquired and honed during his millennia of wandering the chaos wastes had always been able to tell him when daemonic influence was nearby, indicated by the violent turbulence in the winds and currents of the immaterium which inevitably followed. Here however, it was perfectly still. It felt no different than being on any other world in the materium. The only conclusion he could come to was that this place truly was untouched by the ruinous influence of Chaos. Still, even if he was out of the reach of chaotic corruption, this was still a foreign world. This girl, whatever she was, could be a dangerous mutant or xenos… though, to be perfectly honest, Russ would have probably been happy to see an ork after ten thousand years of endlessly combating daemons. Though, unlike any mortal Russ had ever encountered, this girl did seem to have some kind of aura around her. It was nothing like the daemonic beings he had spent ten millennia slaying, it was far too warm and inviting. Yet, all the same, her presence kept him on edge, if nothing because it meant he truly did not know what she was. He carefully sheathed Mjalnar, deciding to see what this new world had in store for him before making any final decisions. After all, he had trusted his father would guide him, did he not? Perhaps this strange place was what Russ had been searching for all this time.

"Admu, if you don't mind me asking… what are you?" Russ said, his voice returning to his normal seriousness.

"What am I? Um… I've never really thought about that before. A girl, I guess? I just live here in this forest with my brothers and sisters, my papa, and all the animals. What are you? You look kind of like me, maybe we're related!" she said, giggling.

This just keeps getting stranger… he thought.

"I'm a human… well, sort of. Have you ever heard of a primarch?" he said.

"A human primarch… nope, never heard of anything like that. Maybe I'm a human primarch too, considering we look so much alike." she said, her lips pursed in thought.

"I highly doubt that." he said with a smirk.

"Why's that?" she said with a slight pout.

"Well, for one, there never were any female primarchs." he said.

"No girls? Seems awfully boring … I'd probably go crazy if I had to spend all my time with my brothers. They’re always bickering with each other, and papa has to stop them from fighting all the time." she said.

Russ chuckled. "Aye, there is truth to your words." More truth than she knows, he thought. “Do you know where we are, then? Is this planet in a sector of realspace? I’ve never seen anything like it in the warp.” he said. The girl tilted her head and furrowed her brow.

“Gee mister Russ, you sure like to use a lot of words that I don’t understand.” she said, looking a touch frustrated by her lack of understanding. “I don’t really know what a planet, sector, or realspace are… I do know that this forest is in the Valley of Nysa, that’s where all my brothers and sisters live. I haven’t gone much farther than that, but some of my older siblings say that beyond those big mountains over there, there’s a place called Arcadia where a lot more people live, but I’ve never been there. Although, now that I think about it, I did hear one of my other uncles talking about something called a warp once… it sounded like the warp was up there in the sky, and all around us. Maybe it’s like the air or something?” she said.

Leman’s face darkened a bit. So, this is still the warp… or at least somewhere where the veil between the warp and realspace is thin. She clearly has never been outside of this valley, let alone off of this planet.

"I'm sorry I can't answer your questions mister Russ…" she said, worried that she was at fault for the man's dour expression. Then, her expression brightened with a realization. "I know! I'll just bring you to papa, whenever I have questions about something I just ask him. He's not as smart as my uncle up north but he still knows a lot more than me. I'll bet he can answer some of your questions. Plus, he always likes meeting new people, he'll love getting to know you!" she said.

This could be a good opportunity to understand more about this world… but I'll have to be careful. Whatever this girl is, she's certainly rather… imposing. I can only guess what her father must be like.

"Alright, I'll accompany you to see this… papa of yours. Maybe he can help me make sense of this strange place." he said. Admu did a little hop, overjoyed that she could help the stranger with their problem. Out of everything he had seen in the warp, a 20-foot being with the appearance of a giddy young girl jumping for joy certainly ranked among the strangest.

"C'mon mister Russ, I'll show you the way to the village. Usually papa is wandering around the woods during the day so he probably won't be there, but we can wait for him to come back. Plus, I can introduce you to some of my brothers and sisters! They'll be so jealous that I found a new friend with shiny armor and a big sword… especially my brothers!" she said with a mischievous snicker. Leman Russ closed his eyes and took a deep breath, still coming to terms with the ridiculousness of his situation. Admu waved at Russ, gesturing to him to follow her. The two began walking through the clearing, towards a parting in the tree line which revealed a dirt path through the forest. Russ stayed mostly silent, his face stony and emotionless.

"So… mister Russ, do you have any brothers?" she said, attempting to break the uncomfortable silence.

"Yes… though I have not seen them in a very long time." he said. many I will never see again… others I hope to never see again.

"Oh, I'm sorry mister Russ. That must be very sad. My brothers annoy me sometimes, but I would hate to not be able to see them for a really long time." she said.

Is it wise to be talking about this to her? he thought. Well, even if she is a daemon, it's not as though the fates of my brothers or father is a secret. Russ said, secretly trying to justify to himself the opportunity to finally have a conversation with the first sane being he had met in several millennia.

"Do you have a papa? Since you have brothers and all…" she said, trailing off.

"I do. My father is the Emperor of Mankind, and the most honorable and righteous man I have ever known. If each of the trees in this forest were a world such as the one we are standing on, they would only be a fraction of the worlds my father rules over." he said.

"Wow! He sounds like a pretty amazing man, mister Russ. I hope I get to meet him one day." she said, her face wearing a beaming smile.

Wouldn't that be a sight… Russ thought, imagining the look on his father's face upon meeting a 20-foot girl with antlers and a fur-covered tail.

"Where are you from anyway, mister Russ? I take it that you're not from around here, or this world… did you come from another world? Up there?" she said, pointing up at the sky.

"As a matter of fact, yes. I was raised on the world of Fenris, a cold and harsh place full of towering mountains, frigid oceans, and endless expanses of ice and tundra. The seas and lands are filled with all manner of monstrous creatures, but the men and women of Fenris are hardy and tough. They survive and thrive in the harsh conditions of the Fenrisian worldsea." he said, pride rising up from his chest at the thought of his ancient home.

"Gee, I… I don't think I could ever imagine a place like that." she said, slightly unnerved by the brutal description he had given.

"Oh, that's not the only world I've been to, though. I've seen worlds covered by endless oceans, worlds of dense jungles and searing deserts, worlds blanketed with ice and snow, molten rock and flame. I've even visited worlds much like this, temperate and teeming with life." he said.

"That's incredible, mister Russ…" she said, her eyes wide as she imagined the countless worlds he must have seen, how new and interesting they might be.

I almost feel bad, getting her hopes up like this. If only she knew what the universe was truly like outside of this forest… nearly every world I've seen was engulfed in war and strife. he thought.

"Maybe one day I can see some of those worlds one day… but first I should probably see what's beyond this forest." she said, giggling.

The two walked along the forest path for a while longer, Russ mostly taking the opportunity to take in his surroundings while Admu occasionally peppered him with benign questions. The sun shined through the leaves above, giving the forest floor a soft, shaded light. Shrubs, ferns, mosses, and other ground plants lined the sides of the worn dirt path, with the occasional fallen tree with clusters of mushrooms grown on it. Woodland creatures darted through the trees just out of sight, curious yet wary of the mysterious being that had entered their domain. Russ even saw a lone, black wolf wandering in the opposite direction to him, the creature seeming to give him a look of recognition before continuing on with its solemn trek. They saw a small clearing in the distance, where a large figure seemed to be kneeling down and working on something.

"Looks like we won't have to wait in the village after all, mister Russ. Papa! Papa, I found someone new in the forest! He wants to talk to you about something." she said, waving at the being she called her father. The large figure turned his attention towards the two, and Russ froze. His hair stood on end, and his entire body felt like it was coursing with electricity.

This is not a mortal

his body seemed to be telling him. Whatever this thing was, its presence was overwhelming. The only time he had ever felt something like this was…

The first time my father revealed his true self to me.

"Why if it isn't my little daffodil, Admu." The being said, it's voice deep and low like the hum of the forest itself. It was a veritable giant, with skin that was stained by dark earth and green chlorophyll. He had a large, bushy beard, coated with moss and vines. Atop his head he sported two antlers, much like his daughter only far larger and well-developed. He was dressed in worn working clothes, giving him the appearance of some kind of titanic gardener.

"I was just planting some new trees here. The wildfire which came through this part of the woods a few months ago provided some very rich soil to grow with." he said, wiping the dirt from his hands and rising to his feet. He turned to face them, and the old wolf's shock turned into horror.

Emblazoned upon the giant's tunic was an unmistakable sigil, hewn in green metal: three circles and three pointed arrows, radiating outwards from the center. Admu ran towards her father, embracing the giant.

"Papa, this is Leman Russ. I found him in the field just past the river. He's not from around here, and he asked about a lot of things I didn't know anything about… so I thought we could just ask you! He's a little strange, but once you get to know him he's really nice!" she said, beaming.

Before he even had time to register what he was thinking, his hands had already drawn Mjalnar. The emblem of one of his most hated eternal foes was enough to send him into a blind fury. He did not even register the terrified cries of Admu as he charged towards the two, his eyes frenzied, teeth bared, and sword prepared to strike. He swung his sword at an impossible speed, its blade slicing through the air until it finally made contact…

with cold, hardened steel.

Towering over Russ was an immense knight, clad in armor of black metal. His eyes glowed red from within his menacing helmet, large horns jutting from either side of his head. A red cape fluttered behind him, so bright and crimson it almost seemed to be made of flame. Blocking Russ's sword was an even larger blade of blood-red metal, inscribed with arcane runes which glowed like molten metal. The giant knight effortlessly deflected Mjalnar, tossing the Wolf King back several yards and knocking him on his back. Even looking upon the knight caused his bones to feel as though they were being electrified, so powerful was the being's presence. Dazed and filled with searing pain, Russ struggled to get back on his feet, just now realizing how powerful the knight's parry had been to have nearly incapacitated a primarch with a single, indirect strike.

"Wait! Uncle Khorne, no!" Admu said, rushing in between Leman and the towering black knight. "It's not his fault, he's just confused! He's not from around here, he's just trying to figure out where he is and how he got here. I-I thought if I brought him to Papa Nurgle he could answer his questions. It's all my fault so please, just don't hurt him!" she pleaded.

What? Was the only thought Leman Russ could conjure in his mind.

Khorne and Nurgle

The Blood God and the Plaguefather

The Lord of Skulls and the Great Corruptor

The Hunter of Souls and the Lord of Decay

Uncle and Father

Leman Russ was totally and utterly dumbstruck. Hatred, confusion, fury, and disbelief all raged within him, consuming his mind like a white-hot firestorm.


a familiar voice rang out within the Wolf King's mind, and then everything went dark.

Chapter 2

Chapter Text

The Custodes of the Imperial Palace were on high alert. While the psychic presence of the Emperor had shown signs of becoming more active lately, this one was the most powerful sign yet. Even more troubling was that no one knew who this sign was meant for. All they knew was that the Emperor wanted to send a message to someone, somewhere, and he wanted it done urgently.

Leman Russ awoke in a daze, surrounded by darkness.

"Where am I? What happened?" he said.

Slowly, a vision appeared before him. His surroundings were bathed in a golden light, and what he saw rocked him to his very core. It was The Emperor, the Master of Mankind, the Lord of the Imperium - his father, sitting upon the golden throne of Terra. He was a corpse. A skeletal, emaciated, half-rotten corpse, kept alive by a grotesque network of arcane machinery. Russ could not help but fall to his knees at the sight of his father's condition.

"Is this another illusion by the ruinous powers, meant to finally break my spirit?" Russ said.

No, Leman Russ. It is I, your father.

Leman could feel the voice of the Emperor fill his entire being. This truly was his father, he had absolutely no doubts. He was not sure if this fact gave him more relief or despair.

"Father… I am lost. I know not where I am, where I must go, nor what I must find there. I fear that I have failed in my quest, that I have failed my sons, that I have failed you.

Worry not my son, you have not failed. In fact, you are exactly where you are meant to be. I have little time and energy to spare, so I must make this brief. This place is what you were seeking. It is I who guided you here.

Russ felt a sudden rush of relief, for his faith that his father was guiding him all this time had finally been rewarded.

The beings you have met are not your enemy. You will need them as allies.

Russ raged internally. You expect me to ally with daemonic forces who claim to be the ruinous powers!? The ones who killed and corrupted my brothers, the ones who conspired to imprison you on that damned throne!? He almost raised his voice in opposition, but he knew better than to speak against his father like that. Furthermore, judging by his father's current state, merely speaking to him like this was a herculean effort. The Emperor was not speaking lightly, and he meant what he said. The wolf would simply have to put his anger aside in service of his Emperor.

You must… find the tree…

The Emperor's voice was growing fainter.

Re… turn with… the… fruit…


His father's voice faded into silence, and the golden vision of his throne room flickered into nothing, leaving Leman Russ alone in the darkness.

Leman Russ opened his eyes, once again in unfamiliar surroundings. His armor had been stripped from him, leaving him nothing but a plain tunic and pants. Around his hands he could feel chains - supernaturally strong, such that even his enhanced strength could not so much as bend them. Through prison bars he could see the black knight who had effortlessly knocked him to the ground standing with his arms crossed - “Khorne” was evidently his name, as incredulous as Russ was about that. Behind Khorne, he could see “Nurgle” consoling the girl who called him papa, as she sobbed quietly into her hands. Leman Russ groaned, his leftover rage translated by his fatigue into little more than a muted growl. Admu looked up, and upon seeing the wolf start to rouse from his unconscious state, her face lit up. She wiped the tears from her face and ran towards the bars of the cell Leman Russ was being kept in, before a large, armored gauntlet stopped her.

“Stay back, Admu. This man is dangerous. Few could survive a blow like the one I dealt to him, save the strongest of mortal warriors.” Khorne said.

“Uncle Khorne, I was just trying to help him! He’s a good person, he told me all about his brothers and his papa the Emperor. I’m sure he was just confused, that’s all!” she said.

“He was trying to decapitate you.” Khorne said.

“Well… I’m sure he meant well!” she said.

Leman Russ watched the three beings before him, still coming to terms with their existence let alone the events of the past few hours. The chains on his wrists chafed agonizingly, as the old wolf did not take well to captivity. Anger simmered within him, increasing with every passing moment, until he remembered his father’s words:

These beings are not your enemy

He grit his teeth, and put his emotions aside for now. His hatred of the beings which shared their names with these… things was immense, but his trust in his father was even greater.

“I-I’m sorry for my… past transgression” Russ said, somewhat reluctantly. “The girl… Admu speaks the truth, she was only trying to help me. I had been lost for so long and found myself here, in unfamiliar surroundings.”

Nurgle rubbed his chin, looking intrigued by what the stranger meant. Khorne was less amused.

“You think being lost in the woods gives you the right to attack an unarmed girl?” he said.

“No… I,” Russ paused, and exhaled. “I have spent the last 10,000 years fighting the daemonic horrors of the warp, daemons which bear the sigils you two wear upon your chests and swear to serve in your name. You must forgive me if I mistook your intentions.” he said with a scowl, his words carrying the tone of a poisonous viper.

“Papa, what’s a… day-mon?” Admu asked.

“Well, uh, you see-”

“Nurgle, take Admu outside. I wish to talk to the prisoner alone.” Khorne said, interrupting the green giant. Nurgle shepherded Admu outside, thankful to both have his daughter out of harm’s way and to not have to explain such an uncomfortable subject. When both had vacated the room, Khorne turned to Leman Russ. “So, you are from beyond the Veil.” he said.

“The Veil?” Russ said. “Is that some sort of barrier?” It would explain why this place is so calm despite being in the middle of the Warp.

“Yes. It has been some time since anything has managed to penetrate it.” he said.

“Tell me, Khorne, who are you really?” Russ said, his eyes narrowed.

“Why should I explain myself to you, trespasser?” He said. Leman could feel anger boiling up within him once again.

“Because the Khorne I know would have massacred everything on this planet, laughing as it burned and crumbled into dust. He is the god of wanton violence and unending slaughter, sitting upon his skull of thrones while gorging himself upon rivers of blood. He would have the entire galaxy burn to sate his bottomless hunger for murder and destructio-”

“ENOUGH.” The black knight’s glowing red eyes burst into flame, his supernatural presence filling the room and making the primarch’s skin feel as though it were burning. Khorne seemingly composed himself, his menacing aura retreating back into himself and leaving only a lingering air of supreme authority. “I have made my decision. You will be tried for your crimes and made to face judgment. I have nothing more to say to you, Leman Russ.” he said, turning to leave. Leman clenched his fist, his sense of duty to his mission struggling to overcome his simmering rage.

“Wait!” he shouted. The knight paid him no heed. “I- I’m looking for… the fruit!” The knight stopped. Silence hung in the air, and the knight slowly turned to the prisoner.

“What did you say?” he said.

“I was sent here for a purpose… I have a duty to fulfill here. I must find a tree and return with its fruit. I… apologize for my actions. I have been told that you are not my enemies by someone I trust.” he said, the anger fading from his voice and his gaze falling to the floor. “Is this true?” The black knight stared at him, a flicker of recognition passing through his glowing eyes.

“Revelation…” Khorne whispered to himself. Leman looked up at him, a glimmer of hope animating the old wolf. “So, the day has finally come.”

“...You’ve been expecting me?” Leman said.

“It has been eons since Tzeentch prophesied this day… truthfully, I never expected it to come to pass.” Khorne said, his harsh voice taking on a softer edge. His posture straightened, and his aura of authority returned. “You are the challenger that was promised.” He said, gripping his sword in a ceremonial posture. “He who seeks the fruit of the Tree of Life, at the summit of the world.” Leman’s eyes widened. “As ordained by fate, you must complete four trials to prove your worthiness and be allowed entry into the Halls of Hesperides.”

“Four trials… one for each of the-” He was about to say ‘Ruinous Powers’ yet stopped himself. He had to force himself to be… diplomatic. “Each of you.”

“Correct. Come with me.” Khorne said. He snapped his fingers, and Leman’s restraints burst into floating embers and disappeared.

The two walked out of the prison Leman had been held captive in, the old wolf rubbing his wrists where he could still feel the lingering sensation of the enchanted chains which had bound him.

“When will my armor and equipment be returned to me?” Leman asked impatiently.

“When you have need of it.” Khorne replied. Russ clenched his teeth and breathed sharply, reminding himself of his mission.

I have not even begun the trials and this place is already testing me to my limit… father, I hope this was a wise decision. The Wolf King thought.

“Mister Russ!” Leman barely had time to react before the 20-foot tall Admu had wrapped her arms around him, nearly knocking him to the ground in the process. Leman was more surprised that she had managed to sneak up on him without triggering his self-defense instincts. “Oh, I hope uncle Khorne didn’t hurt you too much, he just doesn’t know his own strength sometimes. He seems intimidating but deep down I think he’s really just a big softie who acts tough-” She looked up at Khorne, who gave her a stern glance, and Admu retreated bashfully.

It had been millennia since Leman had last felt the touch of another material being without his power armor. Being outside of it, especially in such unfamiliar surroundings, made him extremely on edge; he did not trust this girl, nor anyone else in this bizarre place. Yet, upon feeling the girl’s warm skin against his, the gentle sensation of her beating heart, the subtle smell of another living being untainted by the foul stench of Chaos, for a moment Leman could not help but feel… content.

But only for a moment.

“Nurgle, since the challenger was found in your domain, it is your responsibility to administer the first trial. For the time being, I will be occupied in the northern reaches. It appears that somehow, another ork infestation has appeared in the caves of Irkalla.” Khorne said, unsheathing his sword.

Russ huffed in amusement. I guess even in paradise there are still orks he thought.

“Damned pests... I must ask Tzeentch if he knows of any substances that burn hotter than plasma…” Khorne muttered, before disappearing in a column of fire. Leman turned to Nurgle.

“Green one, what is my first trial?” Leman asked. Nurgle bore a look of surprise then rubbed his mossy beard, his face wrinkled in contemplation.

“Well, in truth… I don’t really have any fancy trials or challenges prepared at the moment…” he paused for a moment, then looked up and snapped his finger as an idea came to him. “I know! I’ll just have you help Admu and I tend to the forest for a, uh… a week! Always helps to have another pair of hands, plus hard work builds character. Yes, that will be a perfect test of your worthiness, challenger!” he said, growing surer in his idea as he spoke of it.

That doesn’t sound too difficult… Leman thought.

“We’ll start at sunrise tomorrow, until then I’ll show you where you’ll be staying.” Nurgle said. The wolf followed Nurgle as he guided him through the forest village, with Admu trailing them close behind. Leman looked around, studying the unfamiliar surroundings. The trees here dwarfed the ones he had seen when he first arrived, some rising to such heights that he could swear they rose above the cloud line, with trunks so wide that it would probably have taken an Imperial Knight to chop them down. The village was composed of many towering wooden buildings and homes, their elaborate and impressive designs contrasting with the primitive materials used to construct them. The settlement was bustling with activity, with quasi-humans similar in appearance to Admu everywhere Leman looked. Many of them were staring at the newcomer from a distance, clearly interested in the strange man who had appeared in their village but too wary to get any closer - except for Admu, of course. As unnerved as he felt by their bestial, chimeric visages, he simply told himself that they weren’t too different from the average abhuman, or the wulfen for that matter… in fact, as difficult as it was for Russ to accept, the shamans of Fenris were known to channel allied spirits to aid them in battle, perhaps...

No, he had never explored these questions for a reason. This was not the time, nor the place to ruminate on the finer details of empyrean entities. He had a duty to uphold.

Nurgle led Leman to a lodging near the edge of the village, a one-story cabin with a thatched roof that was adorned with intricate carvings and ornamentation.

“Here it is! I know it’s not much, but on such short notice… I would’ve liked to build you a proper domicile, but I just couldn’t spare the time… I hope you’ll find your living arrangements to your liking all the same.” Nurgle said.

“No, no, it’s quite suitable.” Leman said with a puzzled look. “But… why are you being so… hospitable? Did I not attempt to attack you the last time we met?” he said, his voice carrying no malice, merely confusion. Nurgle sighed and fiddled with his hands.

“Well, I was rather perturbed when you put my daughter in harm’s way… though when I learned that you came from beyond the Veil, I understood why you acted as such.” Nurgle said, his face betraying a deep sadness. “I do not blame you for acting in ignorance, although I do ask that from now on you behave yourself.”

“I… understand. I will cause you no further trouble.” Leman said.

“Wonderful! Now, make sure to be up and ready to go by sunup tomorrow. We’ve a busy day ahead of us! We must trim the saplings, sow the annuals… replace the harvested lumber… scrape the moss from the…” Nurgle’s voice trailed off as he absent-mindedly walked away, leaving Leman alone in his temporary abode. The cabin was designed for beings even taller than he, so the primarch found himself feeling mightily strange. It was not often - nor ever, really - that he had ever felt dwarfed by his own lodgings (though it was rather nice to have a bed that more than accommodated his size, for once). The wooden walls were carved with complex designs and knots, almost reminiscent of the rugged architecture of his home planet. On the floor was a great bearskin, and a small hearth smoldered with gently glowing firewood. Above the fireplace, hung a wooden aegis painted dark green, with a refined rendition of Nurgle’s 3-pointed heraldry painted in white. The symbol still caused Leman to shudder and tense up instinctually, though he buried his feelings. Between his father’s message and his unexpectedly cordial treatment by this “Nurgle”, he simply had to accept that the beings of this world were not malicious.

At least, none he had encountered so far.

Leman Russ awoke from his slumber several hours before daylight, tossing a fur-pelt blanket aside and planting his feet on the wooden floor. Primarchs rarely needed to sleep, perhaps once in a century, and in the Warp, Russ preferred to rest as little as possible. Not only did sleep leave one’s body vulnerable to attack, but it also could leave one’s mind open to all kinds of unwanted intrusions. The best sort of rest Russ could expect in the Immaterium was a dark, dreamless sleep which could be immediately forgotten upon waking. This had been his life for 10,000 years.

Yet, after one night’s sleep in this strange world, Leman Russ felt as though he were as young as when the Emperor had first found him on Fenris. Aches and pains he had lived with for millennia seemed to disappear overnight. Phantom pains from scars long healed and wounds long closed had simply ceased to exist. His mind felt clearer than the coldest ice floes in Asaheim, like his soul had spent centuries buried in mud and filth only to be submerged into rushing water and purified in an instant. Though he had only slept for a few hours, it felt like he had slept for a thousand years in deep, uninterrupted slumber. He was, in no uncertain terms, invigorated.

He stepped out of the cabin dressed in a fresh tunic and pants that had been left for him, although oddly he had been given no shoes. I guess that must be their custom, seeing as none of the beings I saw before were wearing any. They seem to revere nature, so perhaps they feel closer to it when they can feel the earth on their feet. He thought. It reminded him of his earliest days, when he was raised by feral fenrisian wolves. How far I have come from then… only to return to it, in a way. He ceased his reminiscing and focused on the task at hand. Nurgle and Admu had arrived to greet him, both dressed in working clothes. Nurgle was wearing more or less what he was when Russ had first encountered him, while Admu was wearing a sturdier dress with rolled-up sleeves clearly meant for manual labor, as well as a straw hat.

"Hey mister Russ, ready to go?" she said.

"Aye lass, I'm ready. So what chores am I to help with?" Leman said.

"Well, there's about a hundred logs of lumber ten miles north that we need to deliver to the village by sundown. Shouldn't be too difficult." Nurgle said.

"What equipment will we be using?" Leman said. Nurgle and Admu gave him a puzzled look.

"What do you mean?" Admu said.

"Well, vehicles, carts, beasts of burden, things of that nature." Russ said.

"Oh no, terrain's far too treacherous for that. Have to carry it by foot." Nurgle said.

Well… that's not what I expected. Still, it's only a hundred logs, and I'm a damned primarch. How hard could it be? Leman thought.

Leman Russ could feel the genetically enhanced tendons in his legs, stronger than plasteel cables, straining as he shifted a log easily the size of an Imperial Titan's gun barrel from one of his shoulders to the other. Sweat gathered on his brow, and his superhuman lungs and heart worked diligently to maintain blood flow to his beleaguered muscles. He was keeping a good pace, all things considered.

This must be some sort of test he thought, designed to push my strength to its limits by assigning me an impossible task such as thi-

His train of thought was interrupted by Admu dutifully trotting up next to him carrying one of the logs under each of her arms.

"C'mon mister Russ, if we finish early we can take the rest of the day off!" she said cheerfully, before resuming her hike.

This is going to be harder than I anticipated. Leman thought, before gritting his teeth and resuming his labors.

Leman dropped the last gargantuan piece of lumber in the grand pile they had assembled, and fell to the ground in exhaustion. His superhuman augmentations quickly went to work revitalizing him, though such herculean efforts would take time to recuperate from.

“C’mon, lazybones! You don’t want to miss dinner, do you mister Russ?” said Admu. She held out her hand, and with a groan Leman rose to his feet with the girl’s help. They entered a grand hall in the center of the village, full of Admu’s demigod-like siblings. The whole place was filled with raucous villagers filling up on ale and food after a hard day’s work. Now this reminds me of home. Russ thought. Gargantuan oak barrels full of all kinds of brewed spirits lined the walls, with platters of roasted game, cheeses, stews, and any other hearty meal one could imagine adorning each table. The air was thick with the smells of all manner of meats, smoked, steamed, spit-roasted, and so on.

Now, primarchs do not technically have to eat for months or even years at a ti-

Ah, to hell with it. Russ thought. A Space Wolf refusing perfectly good meat and ale was like an ork refusing a good fight. The primarch took a seat at one of the long tables and dug in, tearing into a leg of roast fowl larger than his forearm with his enhanced canines and washing it down with an entire gallon of ale in one swig. He wiped his mouth and sat back, the pain of the day’s labors beginning to wash away.

“So, how’s the drink? I don’t know how it compares to some of Slaanesh’s finer wines, but I think my recipes have their own rustic charm.” Nurgle said, taking a seat across from him.

“I haven’t had a decent meal nor a drop of spirit for 10,000 years. You could’ve served me a leg of an ork and a bucket of promethium and It would still be the best thing I'd tasted in millennia.” Russ said.

“Good to hear, my boy. Now just 6 more days of hard work and you’ll be as worthy as you’ll ever be in my eyes, challenger!” He said. Then he leaned in closer to Russ and lowered his voice. “Today we went easy on you, so you could get acclimated. Tomorrow’s when the real hard work begins!” Russ nearly spit out his drink as Nurgle let out a hearty laugh.

The next day, Russ woke up at sunrise and prepared for 12 hours of backbreaking labor. In all his centuries of training and fighting, he didn’t think he’d ever pushed his body to limits such as these. He was truly testing the limits of the strength his father had imbued within him during his creation. He raised the walls of wooden buildings which rivalled the size of hab-blocks with nothing but rope and his bare hands. With naught but a hand axe he felled mighty trees which shook the earth like an imperator titan when they hit the ground. Over cliffs, rivers, and other treacherous territory he lugged timber, crops, and even livestock. After climbing up and down a sheer rock face with nothing but his bare hands to retrieve a stray 7-horned goat, Leman sat down on a nearby boulder to wipe the sweat from his brow.

He went to take a drink from a leather canteen, until he noticed a small boy glaring at him. Well, small in comparison to Leman. In reality, he was likely the size of the average unaugmented adult human. He had small budding horns emerging from his dark messy hair and was wearing olive-green overalls over a white shirt.

“Can I help you, lad?” Russ said.

“I’m Ugur, Admu’s brother. I heard you tried to hurt my big sis.” he said with his arms crossed.

“Worry not, your ‘uncle’ put a stop to that. Now I’m working for your father, at least for the time being.” Russ said. The boy huffed indignantly.

“Yeah, well if you try anything again, I’ll kick your butt mister!” he said. Russ smirked.

The kid’s got some spunk, I’ll give him that.

The next day, Leman continued his labors. This morning, he was helping to plant saplings for an orchard. As one might expect these were not typical saplings, resembling more the support columns one might see on a starship, planted in holes that could be mistaken for craters caused by a stray turbolaser blast. He dug through layers of earth, clay, and at times even solid rock. When he was finished, he climbed out of the pit and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he leaned on his shovel. What a strange turn of events Leman thought. A primarch, a pinnacle of superhuman excellence, digging holes and planting trees. He smiled and shook his head. Some of his brothers would likely have been insulted by such menial tasks, but Leman seemed to oddly enjoy it. Raised on a mostly feral world, where survival was determined by the strength of one’s hands and their will to persevere, Leman was no stranger to honest work. He hunted, foraged, and scraped what he could to survive from the land. Despite the radically different environment, the principle here was the same. He was surprised that these seemingly god-like beings, which had no doubt been alive for much longer than he, lived so… modestly. Their daily routines were humble and honest. Working hard throughout the day, feasting merrily into the night, and waking up at sunrise to do it all again the next day. Perhaps the old Fenrisian myths of personal gods walking amongst men were not so untrue after all. Russ smiled. There was little else that father hated more than gods and religion. Yet, here I am now consorting with them - on father’s orders, no less! At the very least these gods seem to be far less interested in mutilation and disembowelment than the ones I am used to. His train of thought was interrupted by the sound of rustling leaves above him.

“Hey mister Russ, look! I found some ripe fruit up here!” Admu said, standing in a tree high above and holding two golden-orange fruits in her hands. Then, the branch she was on buckled, and the girl struggled to regain her balance. She yelped, and a misplaced step sent her hurtling downward. Russ’s superhuman reflexes reacted instantly, immediately dashing to her position and bracing his legs. The girl fell safely into primarch’s arms… though Russ had slightly underestimated her weight and struggled to hold her up. “O-oh! T-thank you mister Russ!” Admu said, quickly leaping out of Leman’s arms and blushing profusely. “I’m so sorry, I’ll be more careful in the future! Here, have one.” she said, handing him one of the fruits. “As a show of my appreciation.” a wide smile shone on her still-blushing face, before she turned and ran away in a hurry. Russ shrugged and took a bite of the sweet fruit.

In the brief moments of respite he had between work, Russ was able to take a moment and simply observe his surroundings. Fenris was not generally known for its “natural beauty”, outside of the sheer imposing terror it seemed to emanate, not that he disliked this; far from it. He reveled in it and longed to return to his home planet one day. This world however, with its lush and vibrant flora and fauna, was a nice change of pace from the literal hellscapes he had trudged and sometimes crawled through up until now. Every tree, bush, fern, flower, and patch of moss seemed to glow with a healthy vitality, causing it to grow to greater and greater heights. Russ had not seen plants this immense even in the jungles of Catachan (although these ones were far less likely to kill a man). Through the trees, in the shadow of the lofty canopy above, Russ could also spot great beasts of all shapes and sizes, emanating a seemingly supernatural grace and vigor. Elk with antlers the size of a space marine’s pauldron that glittered in the sunbeams, black wolves with eyes as blue as the deepest oceans, great boars which tore the very earth asunder with their mammoth tusks searching for roots to eat, and once Russ swore he saw a bear lurking in the deeper forest that seemed to rival an imperial baneblade in size.

Day after day, Leman Russ continued his labors without complaint. Alongside Admu, who seemed to follow him around everywhere, as well as Nurgle’s other sons and daughters, he shed blood, sweat and tears, feasted and caroused when the day was done, then retired to his modest cabin and collapsed into his cot so his superhuman biology could recover for the next day. If he were being honest, half of his campaigns during the Great Crusade had been scarcely this strenuous, at least in a physical sense. Though, while his body was stressed to its limits, his mind had never felt clearer. It was a strange thing for Leman, as a primarch, to feel so… average. He was designed to tower above normal men, to command their absolute respect with his mere presence. A born leader, with no equals save his fellow primarchs and the Emperor above him. Yet here, he was merely a foreign visitor, not much different in stature or status than anyone else. The Wolf King, playing as a humble farmhand. It was… pleasant. As he lay in his bed, feeling the soft fur blanket on his scarred, weathered skin, his mind wandered while his body set to the task of repairing itself. He closed his eyes and imagined spending the rest of his days like this. His duty to his father, his people, and the Imperium remained ever-present in the back of his mind, but for just a moment he allowed himself to dream of more peaceful times.

Nurgle relaxed into his favorite chair, smoking from his favorite pipe and enjoying the warm glow of his hearth.

“Good night papa!” Admu said, giving her father an unsuspecting hug and almost causing him to drop his pipe.

“Good night my little daffodil.” He said, tussling her hair lovingly. He looked down, and saw a crestfallen look on Admu’s face.

“I can’t believe mister Russ has to leave the day after tomorrow, I wish he could stay here for a little bit longer.” She said, pouting. Nurgle sighed, and patted her head.

“Well, we’ve got a long day tomorrow. Best if you get along to bed now, Admu.” he said. She gave him a peck on his cheek, and went off to her room. Nurgle picked his pipe back up, and raised it to his lips. Just as he was about to take a puff, Khorne appeared in a column of flame, causing him to fumble his pipe in surprise.

“How goes the trial?” the armored giant said.

“Brother, does your martial honor not extend to simple courtesies such as knocking?” Nurgle said, picking his pipe back up. “Well, you’ve no reason for concern. Ever since the, er… incident shortly after his arrival, the challenger has been nothing but cooperative. He works hard and without complaint, and the whole village seems to have warmed up to him. Some of the young ones have even started playing ‘primarchs and orks’, chasing each other around and shouting ‘for the emperor!’ Whatever that means.” he said, chuckling.

“I am still not convinced he is the one.” Khorne said.

“Oh my dearest brother, always the worrier. He has but one day remaining, I think we can safely say that he will pass the test.” Nurgle said. Khorne did not react.

“Keep me updated when he is ready for the next trial.” Khorne vanished before Nurgle could respond.

“Hmph! And Slaanesh says I’m the busybody.” Nurgle said, finally able to enjoy his pipe in peace.

On the dawn of the final day of Leman’s trial, he arose from his bed once again and stretched his muscles, vacating the chemical remnants of his enhanced healing abilities from his capillaries. He had fallen into a comfortable - if physically demanding - routine, and soon he was back in the lush forests of Nurgle’s garden carrying colossal wooden logs over treacherous terrain once again. Admu whistled cheerily while carrying her load, and even Admu’s little brother Ugur came along, trailing behind them with firewood for the village’s hearths. Though, the whole time he seemed to be giving Leman sideways glances, staying back to keep an eye on him. Leman chose to let it slide. The boy, focused on the primarch in front of him, wasn’t looking where he was walking and tripped on a root, dropping the firewood. The small logs rolled off the path and out of sight, and the boy ran after them. Leman turned around and saw him run off, exhaling and shaking his head. I’m not sure if this counts as part of the trial Leman thought. …best not to risk it. Reluctantly, he dropped the log he was carrying and went to keep an eye on the wayward child.

“Boy, where have you run off to?” he shouted, then heard a faint whimpering. Pushing aside a thicket, he noticed Ugur sitting on the ground, sniffling with tears in his eyes. It seemed he had accidentally stepped on a bed of thorns, and was cradling his bleeding foot. Leman sighed.

“Come here…” he said, tearing off a piece of his pant leg and wrapping it around the boy’s injured foot. “Perhaps this will make you think twice about running off the path agai-” Leman stopped, and noticed his hairs standing on end. He shot up and swung around, positioning the boy behind him.

Before him was a hulking, shadowy mountain of fur and muscle. Its eyes were black as the void of space, and its gargantuan maw was lined with teeth as large as combat knives, glistening with saliva. The low growl radiating from its throat shook the ground beneath him, and every one of Leman’s combat instincts kicked in at once. He assessed the threat the creature posed: immense. He looked down at the boy. Allied casualties: unacceptable. The bear began to charge at him. Chances of escape: slim to none. He entered a combat stance. He assessed the creature’s weak points: none he could sense. The bear reared up on its hind legs. He assessed the chances of him dodging the immense set of claws which were bearing down upon him: just barely. He grabbed the Ugur’s arm and flung him out of danger then jumped backwards to avoid the brunt of the bear’s strike, the huge claws tearing straight through his tunic and flesh as if they were not even there. He pressed his hand against the wide gash, stemming the flow of blood slightly. First aid would be handled by his genetic enhancements. He needed to do something about the rampaging behemoth in front of him. The bear lunged at him with its mouth, teeth bared. Leman tore a large branch from a nearby tree and shoved it into the creature’s jaws, distracting it just long enough for him to dash behind a colossal tree. The bear snapped the branch in its mouth and swiped at Leman as he took cover behind the huge trunk, its claw tearing out a hunk of wood the size of a large grox. Bereft of any weapons and with on-site procurement or crafting unfeasible, Leman decided on his only course of action: murder by cervical fracture. He jumped out from behind the large tree, and the bear took another swipe at him. This time, Leman dodged towards the beast rather than away from it, though sustaining another wound on his right leg. He grappled onto the bear’s back, sending it into an enraged frenzy. It swiped wildly at the primarch crawling on top of it, giving Leman a few more deep lacerations before he could maneuver into its blind spot. The bear then tried smashing Leman into a nearby tree, but the Wolf King was unshaken. The bear let out a mighty roar as Leman grabbed hold of the creature’s head and began twisting, the bear digging its claws into the primarch’s shoulder and back. Pain shot through him as the razor-sharp talons dug deeper and deeper into his skin and muscle, threatening to wrend his bones from his flesh.

Then, Leman felt something deep within him. A primal instinct, gnawing at the edges of his subconscious. A fire erupted in his chest, and the air seemed to grow cold around him. He opened his eyes and let out a bestial howl which drowned out everything around him. Tongues of electricity shot through his muscles, and with a thunderous snap the bear fell limp to the ground. The primarch, his body drained of all its energy, fell to the ground beside the felled beast. In his peripheral vision, Russ saw two figures running towards him.

“Ugur! mister Russ! Are you two okay!?” Admu shouted. Nurgle ran to Ugur’s side, finding the boy to be thankfully unharmed aside from his previous foot injury. He looked at the primarch and his defeated foe with a look of disbelief. Admu went to Leman’s side, tearing off parts of her dress to try and soak up the profuse amounts of blood the old wolf had shed. His vision began to fade as the blood loss caught up to him and his body went into a recovery state. As everything faded to black, Leman saw what looked to be some kind of… campfire, underneath a blanket of stars overhead. Then, he fell unconscious.

Several hours later, the wounded primarch’s injuries had already begun to heal thanks to his enhanced physiology. Luckily, the beast’s wild swipes had only damaged his skin and muscle tissues, which he could heal within the day. He sat on a log outside of his domicile, removing the bandages from his arms, legs, and torso as his wounds had already long since clotted and sealed up.

“Mister Russ… I made you some special tea to help you feel better. I know your body is pretty good at healing and stuff, but I promise this will help you feel even more better!” Admu said, offering Leman a wooden cup full of steaming liquid. He accepted it, too tired to put up much of a fuss, and brought the cup to his lips. “It’s my own special herbal recipe… it’s so strong that it even works on papa, and almost nothing works on him!” Leman sipped the tea and felt its warmth trickle down his throat and into his belly. His eyes shot open immediately, and his body was filled with a surge of energy that exploded from every muscle in his body.

“Kjarg’s balls!” he shouted, then saw Admu with a somewhat shocked expression and blushing cheeks, causing him to collect himself. “Oh, uh, apologies. The tea was… quite good.” That’s an understatement. It feels like I was just injected with a gallon of combat stims and adrenaline boosters, only without the side effects. My mind feels even clearer than before. He resumed his sips, limiting his intake out of fear he might overload his system with the powerful concoction.

“You’re welcome, mister Russ!” Admu said before running off. Leman sat, sipping his tea for a while before Nurgle came to sit down next to him with his own cup of the wondrous brew.

“She’s really something, isn’t she? My little daffodil…” Nurgle said, as Admu scuttled about offering her tea to her other siblings.

“I have been meaning to ask, green one… these children of yours, are they… daemons?” Leman said. Nurgle took a deep breath and sighed.

“No, not really.” Nurgle said. Leman raised an eyebrow. “A daemon is an extension of your own soul. A piece of your essence pinched off and formed into a separate entity, like a plant sending out runners to grow more of itself. In this world, our power is concentrated into corporeal forms, we can’t spread our essence out across the whole universe like… them.” he said.

It would be wise for me to not prod too deeply into ‘them’… Leman thought. “Well, if they aren’t daemons, what are they?” he asked.

“All four of us have found our own unique ways to get around that restriction. As for me, I create my children like I create anything else: by growing them. Much like a god is the amalgamation of souls and emotions, my children are created from the spirits of this forest. The animals, the plants, even the rocks, streams, and the earth itself.” Nurgle said.

The rune-priests of Fenris have spoken of such things as well… though I doubt they would have had this in mind. Leman thought.

“Everything has a reflection in the warp, or else it wouldn't have existed before conscious beings could perceive it. It’s just that those beings have the greatest sway over it, like… a boulder in a stream, that causes the water to flow around it, as opposed to the countless pebbles and grains of sand which can only flow with the current.” Nurgle said.

“So, Admu is an amalgamation of these natural spirits, then?” Leman said, looking at the girl.

“Well… no. Admu is…special.” Nurgle said. “You see, one day I was walking through the forest, tending to the trees and plants. Then, all of a sudden, I began to hear the faint sound of a woman crying. I searched for the source of the noise, worried that one of my children was hurt or had lost their way, only to find something I had never seen before. It was a great cage of rusted metal, suspended by a chain from some towering structure of spikes and rusty scrap. Inside the cage I saw… a woman, dressed in white. She was curled up in the corner, her face in her hands, weeping. I immediately rushed to her side to see if I could help her but… the moment she saw me she recoiled in fear and disgust, as if I were the most horrific thing she had ever seen. I backed off, not wanting to cause her any more suffering, but even from a distance I could feel the maladies that were ravaging the poor woman from the inside. I pleaded with her to let me help her, and after a while she finally relented. She poked her arm through the bars of the cage, and I held her frail hands in mine. Miraculously, she was healing all the negative effects of the diseases she carried within her, although I could still feel that they were causing her agonizing pain. I did the best with what I had with me to create a remedy that could ease her suffering and mixed an elixir within a large piece of bark. She tried to grab hold of it herself but… her hands were too weak to hold it. Reluctantly, she allowed me to bring it to her lips so she could drink it. Once it was finished, I could feel all the pain and suffering leaving her, even if only for a moment. She looked up at me, and I saw her face clearly for the first time. She had peach-colored skin, eyes of deep purple, and a soft smile that seemed to express a thousand emotions at once. Then, without warning, she and the cage she was held in began to fade and flicker into nothing, and she was gone. I returned the next day, hoping to find some trace of her. I noticed that, on the exact spot I had seen her the day prior, a tree had grown overnight. It bloomed with every color of every variety of flower in existence, and nestled within its roots I found Admu.” Nurgle said, reliving the moments as if they were still happening. Leman looked back at Admu, studying her with a stony expression. “Well, that’s enough reminiscing. After today, your trial will be complete, and you’ll be moving on to the next. Rest well, Leman Russ.” Nurgle said, placing his hand on the primarch’s good shoulder before taking his leave.

As Leman sipped his tea, Ugur approached him with his hands behind his back and his head lowered. “M-mister Russ… I wanted to thank you for, uh, saving me.” he said with a bashful awkwardness. “I guess you’re not as bad as I thought, since big sis Admu trusts you so much… so, um, here, I made you this.” he said, revealing a small object wrapped in cloth from behind his back and put it in the primarch’s hand. Leman unwrapped it to find a small necklace with a wooden carving of a wolf strung onto it.

“Oh… uh, thank you, boy.” he said, putting the necklace on. The boy’s face momentarily flashed with a gleeful expression before running away, presumably trying to hide his excitement.

The next day, Leman awoke to find Admu and her father arguing outside of his lodging.

“Papa, pleeeeease can I go with him? I’ve never been outside of the forest!” Admu pleaded.

“I just… don’t know if it’s the right time… besides, I’m sure the challenger will be very busy and won’t have time to look after yo-”

“I don’t need him to look after me, I can handle myself!” Admu said with a pout. She was dressed in leather traveling clothes, with long boots and a short cape covering her shoulders. She had a full pack of her belongings with her, clearly prepared for this journey long in advance. The old wolf watched the two bickering as he stood in the doorway.

“Do I get a say in this?” he said. Admu turned towards him, and her face lit up.

“Please, please, please mister Russ, will you take me with you to Arcadia?” she said, falling to her knees and pleading to him. Leman gave Nurgle an incredulous look. Nurgle placed his hand on Leman’s shoulder and took him aside.

“Mister Russ, Admu is starting to outgrow this forest, but I’m afraid to let her go all by herself. I understand this may be an unwarranted request but… do you think you could take her along with you? I’d feel a lot better if she had someone like you with her. Plus, she’s really taken a liking to you, she looks up to you. I promise she won’t be a burden; you’ve seen for yourself she can certainly pull her own weight.” Nurgle said. Leman furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin, his father’s words echoing in his mind. He wasn’t sure what challenges he would face in the future; he might need allies on the road ahead.

“I cannot promise I will protect her. I have a duty to uphold, that comes before all else.” he said.

“Yes, I understand. I can’t keep her here forever and I can’t follow her wherever she goes. Perhaps a little independence will be good for her.” Nurgle said. Leman sighed.

“She can come, but only if she is not a burden. Remember, my duty comes first.” he said. Admu’s eyes widened.

“Really!?” She said. She embraced Leman at full sprint, only this time the wolf had braced himself and remained steady on his feet despite the 20-foot girl barreling into him. He was not one to be caught unawares twice.

“I’d prefer to get going as soon as possible, so as to not waste daylight.” Leman said. “Where are we headed?”

“We’re going to Arcadia, where Auntie Slaanesh’s palace is!” Admu said.

Leman felt his stomach drop.

Chapter 3

Chapter Text

“I understand that Auntie Slaanesh isn’t technically just a girl… at least, not all the time… but I never knew what to call her whenever she visited. So, she said that I could just call her ‘aunt’ all the time so I wouldn’t get confused.” Admu said to Leman.

“Interesting.” Leman said half-heartedly, growing more and more dread-filled the closer they got to the Prince of Pleasure’s domain. Dealing with the servants of Slaanesh always made Leman’s skin crawl and tempers flare, almost as much as the sorcerous thralls of the Lord of Change. At the very least, the daemons of the other gods could be said to act on mere base urges, little more than beasts enslaved to their masters. One might assume Slaanesh’s minions would be similar, but Leman had learned otherwise. Khorne does not care from whence the blood flows, Nurgle does not pay any mind to where or how his rot spreads, and Tzeentch… who the hell knows what that thing wants. The forces of Slaanesh on the other hand, are painstakingly deliberate, despite what their unhinged and hedonistic behavior may communicate. They seek to find the perfect temptations, the most painful tortures, probing one’s defenses like a million needles all at once. When an opening is found, the rest pour in like water through a burst dam, tearing you apart from the inside and relishing in every agonizing moment. Slaanesh is not just a malevolent force of destruction and mayhem, there is a sadistic and manipulative intelligence behind it, no doubt inherited from the Aeldari which gave birth to it.

Suffice to say, he wanted to get this trial over with as quickly as possible.

“I’ve never been to Arcadia, but I’ve heard so much about it. I hear that its streets are paved with marble, and that every building is in a different style painted in every color imaginable. Everyone wears the most elegant clothes, and every restaurant serves a different kind of food…” she said, her eyes sparkling with anticipation.

That’s how it always begins. Leman thought. They draw you in with the simple pleasures, aesthetic perfection… then once they have their hooks in you, they draw their knives. For a moment, he remembered his brother Fulgrim. He quickly buried the thought. The trek through the mountain pass to Arcadia was somewhat treacherous, with the peaks above seeming to rival those of Asaheim itself. Admu kept her signature cheery disposition the entire way, marveling at the mountains that she had spent her entire life watching from afar up close for the first time.

“Mister Russ, didn’t you say your home planet had mountains like this?” she said.

"Aye, the mountains of Fenris are widely renowned within the Imperium. Chief among them is the Fang, a mountain so tall that it pierces the sky and reaches the stars. Starships can dock at its peak, so great is its height." Leman said.

"Incredible… maybe we can build starship docks on these mountains, and then I can visit Fenris for myself!" Admu said.

She's barely out of the forest and already dreams of void-travel… she's got lofty ambitions, that's for sure. Leman thought.

"Look mister Russ, there it is!" Admu said, pointing at a vast, glittering city in the distance, crisscrossed by artificial and natural channels. Despite this planet resembling a feudal world for the most part, this city was quite an engineering marvel. Towers which seemed to defy physics shot up into the sky, waterfalls flowed backwards to feed channels along its raised streets, and at its center was an imposing ziggurat-like structure, with several tiers of raised buildings and a spiraling road leading from the bottom to a grand palace at the top.

I can guess what lies within that structure. looks like we have our destination. Leman thought.

"Isn't it amazing? It's like a forest… but made of buildings!" Admu marveled. "It's even more beautiful than I could have imagined…" As they approached the gates of the city, Russ could make out the elaborate painted murals and patterns which adorned each building, all completely unique and distinct yet somehow blending into one another seamlessly.

Typical hedonists… lavishing every little detail with such unnecessary indulgence. He thought.

They approached the walls of the city, which looked to be made of some fusion of marble, alabaster, and pearl. They were lavishly painted and embossed with ornate scenes and figures, like a miles-long tapestry woven from solid stone.

No defensive value whatsoever - purely decorative. Leman thought.

The immense gate to the city, wrought from precious metals and encrusted with glittering jewels, slowly swung open to greet the two travelers. Two guards dressed in white capes and wearing gilded platinum armor emerged and invited them inside.

“Greetings challenger,” one of the guards said with a disciplined yet sonorous voice, bowing his head slightly. “... and lady Admu.” he said, bowing to her as well. The guard wore a helmet and mask which bore a soft yet serious face, designed to accentuate beauty and authority in equal measures. So detailed was the metalworking of the guards’ armor that Russ almost believed they were made of living metal, such as the kind his late brother Ferrus bore on his hands. “The Patroness has awaited your arrival with great anticipation.”

“Wonderful. Where will the trial be held? I would hate to waste our most gracious host’s precious time.” Leman Russ said, barely trying to sound sincere.

“Our patron is preparing the trial as we speak, in the meantime you are free to roam the city and indulge yourselves as honored guests.” the guard said.

“How exciting!” Admu said, clasping her hands together in anticipation. Leman merely rubbed the bridge of his nose and let out a defeated sigh.

Upon passing through the gates and entering a town square, Leman’s senses were accosted by a flood of sensations. The smells of cultivated flower gardens, baked goods, wafting perfumes, and burning incense engulfed his enhanced olfactory sensors, and throngs of fancifully dressed pedestrians crowded the square, busying themselves with conversation, music, drink, or merely relaxing in the many gardens and shaded alcoves. Upon closer inspection, Leman noticed something odd about the beings around him.

“They’re… dolls.” Leman said, equal parts unsettled and morbidly curious. Each of them had balled joints where their limbs connected, and their skin was made of all manner of precious materials from ivory, to jade, and even gold. Those guards weren’t wearing armor… that was their true forms. He thought. His mind returned to what Nurgle had said to him on the last day of his trial, that the gods of this realm could not create daemons themselves. If that is so, then what could these… things possibly be? The idea of finding out slightly unnerved him, but he also felt it could be a way to gain some leverage over this “Patroness” he so dreaded meeting. He knew not what the nature of this “trial” would be… gathering intel on his opponent could give him an extra card up his sleeve. Before he could continue to develop this plan of action, a shockingly tall and thin yet still elegant figure stepped in the way of the pair. It stood even taller than Admu, and wore a multicolored, aristocratic suit that consisted of several layers with golden hemmings. Even more shockingly, it sported 3 pairs of long, multi-jointed arms, wrapped around itself in a pose that expressed a certain noble aloofness which elicited a slight scowl from Leman. His angular, androgynous face was made of porcelain decorated with ornate, glittering patterns, with eyes of vivid ruby. The figure began to speak:

“Ah, there you are, master Russ… mistress Admu.” he said, taking a deep bow with all 3 of its right arms. To Russ's surprise, the figure's face moved like living flesh despite his mask-like appearance. "I am Eradinas, the most renowned seamster in Arcadia. I have been tasked with providing you my services by the Patroness themselves." Admu's face was as bright with joy as the morning sun, while Russ remained expressionless.

"What is wrong with our current garbs?" Leman asked bitingly. The seamster studied Leman’s appearance with an unchanging expression.

"I… insist upon it - as a matter of hospitality, of course.” he said with a strictly professional tone. Leman turned to Admu, who looked at him with an eager expression. Leman sighed.

Maybe it would be best to try and blend in… it’s not like I have much else to do in this damned place. He thought. “Make it brief.”

“Worry not master Russ. In no time at all you’ll be the most sharply dressed man in the entire city!” he said gleefully. Leman groaned.

The six-armed tailor moved like a blur with each hand working independently, one pair weaving needle and thread, another performing measurements, while yet another snipped and cut fabric all at a blinding speed and with exact precision. After only a few minutes of work, the octopodal seamster stepped aside and showed Russ his work: It was an obnoxiously colored, overly stiff 3-piece suit, encrusted with more jewels and gold trimmings than a ceremonial Custodes battle-suit.

“I would sooner bathe in the kraken-infested waters of the worldsea with naught but my undergarments than wear this… abomination." Russ said. Eradinas tapped his finger against his porcelain cheek.

"Hmmmm… yes, yes, this is far too tacky. Overdesigned, insists upon itself. Just horrendous. Wait a moment, I’ll incinerate it and be back with another.” Eradinas said, grabbing the outfit and disappearing into the back of the shop. He returned a few minutes later and revealed his work. It was a loose, white blouse made of high-quality fabrics, accentuated by subtle gold and silver hemmings along the neck and sleeves woven into knotted patterns and embroidered with the image of a silver wolf’s head. The ensemble included dark, form-fitting leather pants, a gold-trimmed, intricately woven rope belt, and black, steel-toed boots. It seemed relatively practical, and when Russ tried it on, he was surprised by its comfort and mobility. In terms of casual wear, it was hardly the worst thing he’d ever worn. Eradinas seemed pleased with his work. “Yes… simple and subdued, yet bold and effective… revealing in all the right ways… It perfectly complements your rugged physique and cold yet passionate demeanor, like a ravishing, glistening warrior, returning from the hunt…" the seamster lavished, making Leman even more uncomfortable than he already was.

Admu emerged from the dressing room next, dressed in a silky white sundress, hemmed with lavish green and yellow trimmings like vines and leaves coiling around her. Her hair was done up in braids that curled around her head, adorned with a crown of golden flowers. She twirled around to let the flowing dress fan out and gave a dainty look.

"What do you think, mister Russ?" she said bashfully.

"I'm probably not the right person to answer that question…" he said, rubbing his chin. "The flowers look nice on you, though." Admu giggled.

"T-Thank you mister Russ, I-I think you look nice too!" she said, accidentally bumping her horns in the doorway absent-mindedly.

“Are you alright? I wouldn’t want you to, uh, break those off.” he said, gesturing to her horns.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. Papa says they’re still baby horns, they’ll break off when they’re ready and my adult ones will grow in.” she said.

The two left the shop, Admu waving goodbye to Eradinas. They walked down the marble-white streets, with colorful bouquets, streamers, flags, and manicured plants lining the boulevard. The doll-creatures were everywhere, enjoying all manner of pastimes and recreations. Musicians, performers, painters, sculptors, chefs, and other artisans - all of them artificial doll-creatures like the seamster - worked in open-air ateliers, creating a whirlwind of sensations which saturated the mind with powerful yet enjoyable stimuli. Each of the dolls were a work of art unto themselves, an elegant patchwork of shapes, designs, and materials, and no two were exactly the same. Most sported rather conventional looks: two arms, two legs, one head, and so on. Though occasionally they saw one which greatly diverged from this design, usually to serve them some purpose in whatever vocation they were engaged in, much like the eccentric tailor from before. Admu was positively enchanted, marveling at the myriad of sights, sounds, and smells which filled their surroundings. Russ on the other hand, was rather unnerved. His harsh upbringing had given him a distaste for hedonism and extravagance, seeing them as a decadent indulgence for the weak-willed and privileged. Moreover, whereas the demigods of Nurgle’s forest were tolerable in their appearance, these creatures deviated from humanoid forms in ways that were repellant to him. Nonetheless, he would hold his tongue. He needed to remain in the good graces of the beings which lorded over this world, as much as it irritated him. His train of thought was interrupted by Admu tugging on his sleeve.

“Mister Russ, we should get something to eat. We haven’t eaten since yesterday, aren’t you feeling hungry?” she asked. Leman thought about explaining to her the details of primarch metabolic physiology and why he didn’t really need to eat for the next month or so, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it.

“Sure, why not.” he said. Admu pulled him into a nearby cafe, the smell of hot, brewed drinks and baked goods wafting through the air, and they sat down at one of the tables. They were greeted by a kindly woman in modest attire, which struck Leman as peculiar.

“Why hello there, I’ve not seen either of you around here before. My name is Aureliné, what brings you to Arcadia?” she said, setting down two cups on the table. Her face was beautiful, but not in the way Leman would have expected. Rather than bearing supernaturally perfect features, her face was warm, kind and inviting. She even had hints of wrinkles woven into her mask-like face, which gave off a matronly charm. Her silken, light-brown hair hung gently along her face, like a woven tapestry of chestnut and caramel hues, her dark eyes were like a deep velvety chocolate, and her tender smile shone like the sun, setting gently on a hot summer’s afternoon.

“Oh, uh, I am Leman Russ, and this is Admu. We're here on… business.” he said, as if snapping out of a trance. He picked up the cup and gave it a tentative whiff. “Is this… recaf?” he asked.

“Recaf? Oh darling, I assure you my blend is far better than some chemically synthesized stimulant.” she said with a lighthearted chuckle. He took a sip and was surprised by its pleasantness.

She is certainly right; I’d take this over recaf any day. He thought. “Actually, I am here to see your, ‘patroness’ Slaanesh.” he said. Upon hearing the god’s name, Aureliné shuddered, and a strange look shot across her face before quickly returning to normal.

"I-I’m sorry, but the Patroness does not allow her name to be spoken within the city." she said. "I don't blame you for not knowing, but… please refrain from doing so in the future." Leman nodded suspiciously. "Anyway, how about I get the two of you something to eat?" she said.

She brought them a platter of small and intricately crafted delicacies, a far cry from the bounteous portions of the dining hall in Nurgle's domain. Admu took a bite of a small cake dressed with fruit and seemed to be enjoying it immensely. Russ wasn't really hungry, especially not for something as… unsubstantial as this.

Well… I'm here, I may as well try one. He thought, grabbing a small pastry adorned with herbs. He popped it into his mouth, and it was… surprisingly good, not to mention filling. It was as if he had eaten an entire meal within a single bite.

"Judging by the look on your face, I'm guessing it caught you by surprise?" Aureliné said with a soft laugh.

"This is… quite satisfying." he said.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it, dear." She said.

"I do not wish to offend, but I expected this place to be more… unrestrained." he said. "Do the millennia of indulgences such as this not lead one to ever increasing hedonism?" he said, genuinely curious.

"Oh, I see what you mean. That's the wonderful thing about this place, thanks to our Patroness, every pleasure, no matter how small, never loses its luster. The dew-smell of a cool spring morning, the taste of fresh water on a hot afternoon, the gentle touch of a lover on a cold winter's night…" she caressed her cheek, her eyes closed as she reveled in fond memories. "...each time it feels just as wonderful as the first. There's no need to go seeking out the stronger stuff." she said. "Though we do keep some of our more… sensual activities behind closed doors" she whispered to Leman with a flirtatious wink, an innocent Admu none the wiser.

"Well… why continue to create then?" Leman asked, trying to change the subject. "If the enjoyment never wanes, why not simply indulge in the same things all the time?" he asked.

"Because creating is the best part, of course. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of seeing someone enjoy something you’ve created. And creating something new, something that’s never been seen before, that’s a feeling that simply cannot be compared.”

“That’s incredible miss Aureliné…” Admu said with starry eyes.

“Yes, it’s quite wonderful. Though, in this place, there are still things that even we cannot create...” she said, placing a hand on her midsection with a longing expression. “Just let me know if there’s anything else you two need, I’ll be in the back making horderves for the ball later tonight.” she said. Admu gasped.

“A ball!? Oh, I hope we get invited!” she said, shaking with anticipation. Leman let out a defeated sigh.

Admu and Leman finished their meals and bid farewell to Aureliné. They toured the streets of Arcadia, Admu occasionally dragging Leman into an atelier or studio to sample whatever was being crafted or performed. A surprising highlight for the old wolf was coming across a gymnasium, which he entered with much less apprehension. It was a huge, open-air colosseum dedicated to sports and recreation, with all kinds of gear and equipment for training and exercising the body. Strapping men and women with figures of sculpted bronze and gold ran, threw, and grappled with one another in friendly competitions of strength and skill. Leman quite enjoyed it, spending a good hour or two upending the local wrestling rosters by defeating every contestant who challenged him while Admu sat in the stands, cheering him on.

As the day drew to a close, the two ventured closer to the center of the city where Slaanesh’s grand palace lay atop an artificial mountain. They noticed a crowd of the city’s residents gathering around some kind of commotion and drew closer to investigate. They saw a woman, fallen to her knees and sobbing intensely. She was hysterical, her arms shaking and her breathing ragged and labored. Leman noted that this was the first time he had seen anyone in this city express a decidedly negative emotion.

“Oh gods, I’m sorry, I’m sorry… “she cried. “I was too late, it’s my fault Kelduin, I couldn’t save you from her.” The crowd around her was trying to console her, to no avail. Suddenly, an intensely sweet and soothing smell wafted through the air, and in a cloud of sparkling mist and flower petals a feminine figure appeared. Adorned with luxurious, brightly colored silks, furs, feathers, and jewelry which draped across her soft and shapely form, she strode towards the grieving woman with a supernatural grace with her long, patterned cloak flowing behind her. Her face was hauntingly beautiful, an arrangement of soft curves and sharp features which entranced all who looked upon her, drawing them into her unfathomably deep magenta and rose-colored eyes. Her lips were full and glossy, curled ever-so-slightly into a disarming smile which even made the primarch lower his defenses, much to his chagrin.

So, the prince finally makes their appearance… or should I say princess? Leman thought.

She lowered herself to one knee, brushing aside the distressed woman’s hair from her face and wiping a tear from her eye. The Patroness caressed her face, looking into her eyes with a look of fondness and understanding. She pulled the woman into an embrace, and the two were enveloped in an aura of warm, calming light. The grieving woman closed her eyes, and a look of relief washed over her face.

“Thank you, Patroness.” she said, gently pulling away and wiping the tears from her face.

“It is my pleasure, Melanys.” Slaanesh said, her voice like golden honey. She rose to her feet, the crowd around her celebrating in praise and gratitude for their Patroness. She sauntered towards Leman and Admu, her alluring smile making Leman force himself to remain vigilant against her beguiling aura.

“Auntie!” Admu said, holding her arms out.

“Oh Admu, my darling, it has been too long.” she said, pulling the girl into a tight embrace. “I have been meaning to visit you for some time, I’m so glad you could come to visit.” she said, stroking the girl’s hair lovingly. “I hope Eradinas treated you well? I love the outfit, by the way. If nothing else, he has an unparalleled fashion sense.” she said with a soft laugh. She turned to Leman, who merely glared at her with a serious expression, and her smile gained a mischievous undertone. “And what do we have here… this must be the challenger, Leman Russ.” She said, circling him like a playful lion. “Khorne never said you would be so… handsome.” Leman restrained his ever-increasing desire to strangle the licentious deity.

“I expected you to be wearing something more… revealing.” He said, venting his temper with snide remarks rather than violence.

“Oh darling, salaciousness is so gauche. I prefer to leave something up to the imagination.” she said, her voice dripping with a puckish friskiness. “Anyway, I hope you two will attend the ball I am holding in my palace this evening. It would be an honor to host such esteemed and honored guests.” she said. “...the trial can wait until after we’ve had our fun.” Leman groaned. “Anyway, I’ll leave you two to your sightseeing. The ball is at sundown, I’ve made all the preparations for both of you, so you do not need to worry about a thing. See you there!” she said, disappearing in a puff of petals and perfume.

"Oh, aren't you excited mister Russ? We get to go to a real ball!" Admu said.

"Positively enchanted." He said with a grimace.

Leman and Admu ascended the grand ziggurat, passing by magnificent buildings which seemed to defy the laws of physics in their monumental construction.

I wonder if Rogal Dorn would appreciate such feats of architecture. He thought. Though Rogal would probably find their defenses woefully lacking, and immediately set to ‘fortifying his position’. The thought of Rogal Dorn, in all his stoic obliviousness, dealing with the residents of this city gave Leman a hearty chuckle.

When they reached the pinnacle of the grand pyramidal structure they were greeted by an opulent mansion, one so large it rivaled some of the grandest constructions on Terra itself. It was made of marble, white as pure snow, and covered in a kaleidoscopic arrangement of colored banners and rainbow lights. Lying outside of it was a sprawling garden of expertly manicured topiaries and trees grafted with wide arrays of flowers and fruits, with visitors plucking them straight from their branches to enjoy. The entrance was like a city square unto itself, statues of dizzying scales and unbelievable craftsmanship towering above the partygoers below. The inside was like a maze, with so many rooms each with its own attractions that it was disorienting. Luckily, a sharply dressed attendant found them and was able to guide them through the labyrinthine palace. Eventually they reached the heart of the mansion, an immense dining room, auditorium, and dance floor all in one, filled to the brim with mingling partygoers and attendees. It was composed of several levels open to a central chamber which, judging by its incredible size, Leman guessed could comfortably hold a Warlord or even Warmaster Titan. The intoxicating scents which permeated the entire city reached their height in this place, likely due to it being the residence of the city’s Patroness from which all of its pleasures emanated from. Leman noticed at the very center of this cavernous hall a grand stage, upon which he saw a beautifully dressed woman, adorned in a long, flowing white dress with rainbow-colored feathers. She had a maiden’s beauty, pure and innocent, and was singing a hauntingly elegant melody to the throngs of listeners below. Behind her, he could see Slaanesh just out of the spotlight, as if protecting the girl from some unforeseen threat. Leman was beginning to have suspicions as to just what the nature of these puppet-creatures were, and what Slaanesh’s relation to them was.

Eventually, after carousing and mingling for some time (although Russ mostly just followed Admu’s lead while drinking spirits that were far too weak to ever intoxicate him), a servant informed Russ and Admu that the Patroness had requested their presence.

Finally. Leman thought, downing another painfully fruity drink in the hopes it could make the night more bearable.

They entered a slightly dark, warmly lit room filled with leather furniture and faded paintings. The walls were all darkly stained wood, and a grand hearth sat at the room’s center with a roaring fire within. It was a large departure from the styles of the previous rooms, though not lacking in opulence whatsoever. Slaanesh sat on a black leather couch, drinking a dark liquid from a glass in the light of the fire.

“Russ, Admu, come and sit.” she beckoned. The two complied, with Admu sitting to her aunt’s side and Russ sitting across from the god. Russ’s face was frozen in a serious expression. Leman and Slaanesh stared at one another for a good few minutes, Leman attempting to ascertain the motives of this god-being while Admu simply sat and waited patiently, not wanting to disturb whatever it was they were doing. Finally, Slaanesh let out a sigh.

“By the stars, would you relax? You look as if I’m about to pull a knife from my undergarments and insert it between your ribs.” She said exasperatedly. “You’re even more of a buzzkill than Khorne for bloody sakes.”

“Mindless indulgence is an opiate for the weak.” he said resolutely. She grabbed a bottle and glass, then walked over to him.

“Here, drink this.” She said, pouring him a glass of the dark liquid. Leman looked at it with suspicion, swirling the elixir tentatively, then shrugged and down the glass. His eyes shot open with surprise, and he looked at the glass with confusion.

“This is-”

“Fenrisian ale, yes.” Slaanesh said, cutting him off. “It’s a bit of an acquired taste. Wonderful aftertaste, though. Don’t you agree?”

“Can I try some?” Admu said. Slaanesh had a worried expression.

“Uh, how old are you again dear? A few dozen centuries? Perhaps you should start with something lighter…” she said, laughing nervously. She surreptitiously poured her some tonic water mixed with fruit juice and spices, then served it to her. Admu began sipping happily, her tail wagging with jubilation. “Now, Leman Russ, about your trial…” Slaanesh was cut off by the door to the room opening suddenly. The singer in the white dress that Russ had seen earlier entered with a silver platter containing a tea set, and up close he could see her face was practically glowing with a youthful vibrance. Slaanesh bore a look of shock and terror.

“Miss Patroness, I heard you were having guests and thought I would surprise you with some tea I made-” The girl locked eyes with Admu, who looked at her with a characteristic innocence.

“Hello, what’s your name?” Admu said. The girl simply stared at her with a wide and unreadable expression. She dropped the platter, the teapot shattering on the floor and spilling at her feet. She grabbed her head, falling to her knees and shaking profusely.

“...Mother? Mother… mother… mother I’M SORRY MOTHER, PLEASE HELP ME SHE’S EATING ME, SHE’S TEARING ME APART I CAN STILL FEEL THE OTHER PARTS OF ME INSIDE OF HER PLEASE MOTHER, FATHER, ASURYAN, VAUL, ANYONE, ANYONEPLEASESAVEMEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE” she screamed, tearing at her eyes and face with desperation, tears dripping from her face. In an instant, Slaanesh swept across the room and held the girl tight in her arms, her cloak wrapping around them like a pair of wings. Immediately they were enveloped in a blinding aura, similar to the one they saw before only far, far more intense. Leman had to shield his eyes, but through the light he could see Slaanesh holding the terrified girl tightly, the god’s face contorted in pain. The overwhelming aura subsided, and the maiden fell into a deep sleep with a serene expression. Slaanesh held her for a few more minutes, stroking her hair and whispering to her.

Shhh… shhh… it’s okay Lily, dear, it’s okay. She can’t hurt you here.” she said. “Istvael, Forniel!” she called, beckoning two large servants to appear near-instantaneously. “Istvael, please take Lily to her room. See to it that she has everything she needs.” she said. The butler acceded, gently picked up the unconscious girl and rushed off. “This is all my fault… I should have-” Slaanesh noticed Admu, who had a look of shock on her face and was on the verge of tears.

“I-I-I-I’m sorry, I don’t know w-what I did, I-I didn’t mean-” she said, her voice quivering. Slaanesh pulled her into her embrace to comfort her.

“No, no, no, Admu dear, it’s not your fault at all. I’m sorry, I should have anticipated this. I was afraid of what would happen if-” she caressed Admu’s face, wiping away a tear. “I know, how about you follow Forniel to the spa and take some time to relax?” she said, gesturing to the other butler.

“O-okay auntie…” Admu said, nuzzling her face into her aunt’s shoulder. She left with the butler, and Slaanesh picked up the bottle of Fenrisian ale. She reached for a glass, hesitated, and then uncorked the bottle of ale and took a long swig. Leman was looking at her with suspicion.

“Your… children. They’re Aeldari.” Leman said, with an almost accusatory tone.

“Astute observation, Leman Russ.” Slaanesh said. "But I have no right to call them my children."

“How? I thought all of the eldar souls in the immaterium were consumed?” he said.

Slaanesh sat down on the couch across from Leman. “The other gods were severed from their… ‘other halves’ many eons ago. Nurgle, Khorne, Tzeentch… to them, their connection to the outside is like an old scar. A faint memory, faded by the passing of time.” she said. “For me, it is an open wound. A fresh, gaping hole, seeping with blood. I can still feel her, sometimes. Hear her thoughts, see through her eyes." she said, her eyes growing distant. "She tortures them, without end - constantly. I hear their screams, their cries for help, their desperate prayers to gods which can no longer answer them.” She looked down. “When she carved me out of her, I took as many of them with me as I could. It was such a paltry amount, a raindrop in the ocean, a few grains of sand within the desert, but… if I could just help even a few…” Her eyes were unfocused. “They were in so much pain, so damaged beyond repair… I could not give them back their mortal lives, and because they were still a part of me… a part of her, I could not end their suffering. All I could do was help them forget. I took on their sadness, their pain, their trauma, I bear all of it for them. I crafted bodies for them, beautiful, untainted, unbroken… a reflection of what they were before her. Whatever I could do to ease their suffering, to make their false lives even a little more bearable…” Her voice began to falter. She turned to Leman with a piercing gaze. “I hate her. I want to kill her. To destroy her. I’ve tried to get to her through me, to use our lingering attachment to hurt her somehow, to inflict even a fraction of the suffering she’s caused on them…” she said, rubbing the scars through her clothes. Her breathing was becoming labored. “But every time… she simply laughed.” She bore a look of pain and hatred, her lips curled into a quivering scowl. Russ kept a straight face.

“The Eldar… they brought the fall upon themselves, did they not? It was their hedonism which wrought their downfall.” He said, his face betraying no hint of emotion. Slaanesh took a deep breath and looked at him with a faint smile.

“You are right, Leman Russ. The folly of mortals is often their own undoing. I know that you have no love for my kin… but I can only imagine how your father must feel, imprisoned in his gilded cage, his own sons turned against one another, watching his own people descend into darkness and abandon the very ideals he founded his empire upo-”

“Do not speak of my father.” Leman said, rising to his feet, his face bearing a stern expression.

“Very well then, son of Fenris. I believe you are ready for your trial.” Slaanesh said, standing up as well. A look of confusion flashed across the old wolf’s face. “Come with me.”

Leman followed her down flights of stairs, into deeper and deeper layers of the ziggurat palace. The architecture became less elegant and decorative as they descended, painted walls and ornamentation giving way to bare, cyclopean stone.

“Let me guess, you will try to tempt me to prove my worthiness?” Leman said, “I have been tempted by the warp countless times, and each time I have resisted it.”

“I will not lie to you, Leman Russ.” Slaanesh said. “This will not be like any temptation you have faced before.” The two reached the bottom of their long descent and stood at the entrance to a long hallway. It was lined with cold, rough stone, and the air was damp and heavy. At the other end, was another entrance which led to the path back to the surface. “Your task is to walk from here… to there.” she said, pointing at the far end of the hallway.

“Very well.” Leman said. He took a deep breath, straightened himself, and took the first step.

He was in a smoldering, ruined city, the wreckage of immense monuments and cathedrals still burning around him. The smell of ash and death choked his lungs, his enhanced physiology seemingly nullified by whatever infernal forces had conjured this vision. Feelings of intense sorrow and betrayal battered his mind, seeming to emanate from the very earth itself. Emerging from a pile of rubble and charred corpses, Leman beheld his father in gleaming, golden armor, standing before a legion of astartes. At their head was someone Leman had not seen for so long that he barely recognized him. It was his brother, Lorgar Aurelian, primarch of the Word Bearers. Seeing his former brother, now turned traitor, dredged up a combination of hatred and sorrow within Leman's heart. He had never looked down upon Lorgar in the manner that his other brothers had. While he had adhered to his father's edict against presenting the Emperor as a god, Leman sympathized with Lorgar's spiritual tendencies and yearning for something to place his faith in. He shared his faith and love for his father, though he knew not to disobey him in matters such as this. Lorgar loved their father more than anything, making it all the more tragic and infuriating for Russ when he learned of his treachery.

Yet, Lorgar loved the Emperor as a god, not a father. For disobeying the Emperor's orders and delaying the Crusade with his proselytizing, Lorgar was punished. A psychic shockwave like nothing Leman had ever felt shot through him. Lorgar and his sons fell to the ground, clutching their heads in anguish. The Emperor, in order to demonstrate to Lorgar and his legion the follies of their teachings, attempted to show them what being the presence of a god was truly like. He invaded their minds and choked their souls, violating them on the most fundamental level. The feelings of betrayal, of despair, of being cast down by the being they worshiped as a god, Leman felt all of it as if it were his own.

Leman clutched his chest and panted heavily, blinking repeatedly as he registered his surroundings. He was back in the hallway. As a primarch, he had some of the strongest psychic defenses of any human in the galaxy, enough to allow him to remain relatively sane after spending 10,000 years in the raw currents of the Immaterium. His incredibly long lifespan and centuries of battle and warfare had hardened his heart, stripped away and buried whatever part of him had been vulnerable to the emotions of others. None of that was effective here. It was as if his mind and soul were an open door, forcing him to feel every minute sensation, sentiment, and feeling as if it were his own. He had never felt vulnerability like this in his entire life, even in the presence of the Emperor. He looked down, and saw his right foot planted just inside the entryway. He had only taken one step. He clenched his teeth and took another.

He was in a ship, surrounded by writhing, disfigured bodies. They were the space marines of the 14th legion, the Death Guard, suffering from the "blessing" of the Plaguefather: Nurgle's rot. Leman's brother, Mortarion, stood above them, his fear and terror flooding Leman's mind. Even as he himself succumbed to the disease, the pale giant was trying and failing to put an end to his sons' suffering. Yet, even as he desperately hacked and slashed at their bodies they still lived, the release of death being eternally out of their reach. Leman Russ hated all the traitors of the Imperium, yet being forced to watch and even feel their helplessness, their yearning for death to release them from their suffering, Leman could not help but pity his brother as he wept for his sons, forced to sacrifice his own soul to save them from an eternity of endless agony.

Leman stumbled forward, clenching his fists and suppressing the urge to vomit. He wanted desperately to turn back, to cease this assault on his mind. He took several deep breaths, reminding himself of his duty. He was the Emperor's most loyal son, and he would do anything for his father. He would have to endure. He took another step.

He was in a windowless room, the only illumination coming from a dim, artificial lamp dangling from the ceiling and bars of harsh sunlight filtered through vents on the walls. He attempted to gain his bearings, before a searing, piercing pain shot through him. It was not his own, but another’s; in the center of the room, bound with metal chains and strapped to an operating chair, was Leman’s brother Angron. In spite of his superhuman size and strength, he was still only a boy, torn from his father and lost on a distant world. Another shot of pain rang through Leman. They were hammering the butcher’s nails into the young primarch’s skull. He could see in Angron’s eyes the person he was, the man he was meant to be. A caring protector, whose physical strength was only surpassed by his capacity for empathy and paternal compassion. One by one the nails were hammered in, and that kind soul was extinguished, flickering out until nothing remained save hatred and malice.

Leman's face was drenched in sweat. His body screamed with agony, every fiber of his being telling him to stop. He took another step.

He was on a bleak, desolate world, bathed in darkness and lit only by a dying sun. Before him was a gaunt, sickly creature, with pale, translucent skin that almost seemed to be peeling off its bones. It was Konrad Curze, the Night Haunter, the dreaded primarch of the 8th legion. What was once one of the most feared beings in the the galaxy, an embodiment of terror itself, was now only a sad and pitiful wretch, writhing in the dirt. Before him stood a grotesque effigy of his own father, an idol of bones, its flesh long since rotted away. Curze was weeping, digging his bony fingers into the dirt in anguish, cursing his father, his fate, and begging for the “Emperor” to curse him, to declare him unforgivable, to vindicate everything he believed about himself, but he corpse-statue said nothing. What had happened to make him this way? What purpose could the Emperor possibly have had for such a twisted son? Leman tried to divorce himself from the scene before him, to stop the tide of anguish that flowed into him from his traitorous kin, but he could not. He could only bear the pain as his brother had since he first crawled out of the dark pits of Nostromo.

The end of the hallway seemed so far. He had barely even passed the entryway. His lungs burned and his heart screamed, his mind and soul shrieking in pain. Mustering all of his willpower, he took another step.

Step after step, Leman endured. He trudged forward, each step showing him tragedies and atrocities one after another. He saw the slaughter upon Istvaan III and V, the feelings of betrayal and hatred of each marine like it were his own. He saw Fulgrim, the embodiment of the Emperor's desire for perfection, twisted into a foul mockery as he severed the head of his previously beloved brother, Ferrus Manus. He saw the devastation of Calth, where the legions of Lorgar and Guilliman brutalized one another, each side fueled by hatred and betrayal. He saw the legions of Perturabo and Dorn clash headlong into one another at Phall, Hydra Cordatus, Sebastus IV, and countless more theaters, their gene-fathers' bitter rivalry made manifest in blood and iron. He saw the destruction of Lion’el Johnson’s homeworld of Caliban, torn asunder by treachery. He saw his own battle with the warmaster Horus on Trisolian and the struggles of his sons while he lay in a coma after being mortally wounded by the arch-traitor. He saw the desperate defenders of Terra stand firm against endless tides of traitor legions, even as the Emperor’s throne room itself was besieged by daemonic forces. He saw every battle of the Heresy and the Scouring from every perspective, every tragic twist of the threads of fate which resulted in the deaths of trillions and the destruction of the Emperor's ideals, like the downfall of everything his father had sought to create laid bare all at once in minute, excruciating detail. Every vision was like a lashing wind shredding Leman's soul down its core, each step peeling away another layer until there would be nothing left. He had stopped paying attention to his surroundings, how far he had made it through the hallway, all of his willpower devoted solely to enduring the endless onslaught of pain, suffering, and sorrow which surrounded him with every step. His foot touched the ground, and Leman immediately recognized where he was.

The spires of Tizca burned like grim torches, signaling the triumph of the Space Wolves. Thousands upon thousands of space marines clad in red armor lay dead upon the streets of Prospero's capital, with countless more civilian corpses laid amongst them. Leman saw himself, 10,000 years ago, standing above his broken brother. Leman hated Magnus. Even before the Heresy, before his betrayal, Leman hated him. When he learned of his treachery, he longed to shed his blood, his own hatred for Magnus taken advantage of by Horus when he tricked him into believing the Emperor wanted his brother dead rather than captured. Despite this, all those millennia ago, Leman could not bring himself to enjoy fighting his brother. Upon Magnus's face he saw neither evil nor malice. He saw betrayal. A twisted anguish that can come only from the severed bonds of brotherhood. In spite of how much he hated his brother… he was still his brother. Leman clenched his fists.

"Why… why did you betray our father, Magnus?" Leman said. "Why did you continue to use your sorceries after being told so many times of your mistakes? All of this destruction, all of this bloodshed could have been prevented if you had only listened! Tell me Magnus! Tell me why!" he shouted, his furious cries falling silent upon the vision of his lost brother.

He had only a few more feet to go. Leman could feel his soul being torn apart, holding on by mere threads. His breathing ragged and his skin drenched in sweat, he forced himself to take one more step.

Before him was his father, lying mortally wounded upon the deck of the Vengeful Spirit. His golden armor tarnished by blood and battle damage, his face stricken with fear and doubt. He had never seen his father like this. To the side he saw the corpse of Sanguinius, the purest of his brothers, his white wings stained red with blood, laid low by the fury of the arch-traitor. Towering above was the warmaster himself. Coursing with daemonic energy, his face contorted into a mockery of flesh and malice, he looked down on his injured father with nothing but contempt. Leman saw the pain in his father's eyes as he forced himself to muster all of his arcane powers against his favorite son. A brilliant arc of light flooded his surroundings like a supernova, and for a moment he saw his brother once more, the taint of his ruinous masters stripped away by the Emperor's baleful light. He had upon his face a look of fear and desperation, as if finally realizing all that he had done, all of his mistakes, before his soul was vaporized by the one man who had loved him more than anyone else.

Leman Russ fell to his knees, feeling the weight of an entire galaxy fall upon him. His father had been struck down, wounded beyond repair. After 10,000 years he was nothing more than a corpse, an anchor for the Emperor's dwindling soul. Was the Imperium even still alive? After falling so far, after 10 millennia, could it even have survived? Was father and the Imperial Palace all that remained of it? Were his sons dead, consumed by some unbeatable foe centuries ago? Did Fenris still stand, or had it been finally scoured by his many enemies, his people long extinct? How could humanity ever hope to survive in such a cold and uncaring universe? Everything around him grew dark, and Leman wept from eyes that were not meant to weep.

He was awoken by the feeling of warmth upon his skin, a heat lapping against his hands. He opened his eyes and saw a lone fire, burning in the darkness in front of him. Above him was a starry night sky, and all around him was blackness. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A shape, flickering just out of the reach of the fire's meager illumination. Reflective eyes stared back at him, and he was face to face with a monstrous wolf.

It had bright yellow eyes, which seemed to burn with a primordial essence. Its fur was a silver gray, and it was covered in old scars. The wolf walked up to the fire and laid down.

Are you content with giving up now, Leman Russ? Leman heard the wolf speak, though its mouth did not move.

"I was not meant to feel regret… nor remorse. I am the Emperor's executioner, his most loyal son." he said, his voice faltering.

That which feels no regret is a beast, and that which feels no remorse is a machine. Which of those are you, Leman Russ?

"I don't understand, I was meant to be above these feelings, immune to despair. How am I to stand at the pinnacle of mankind with my father if I cannot cast off these burdens?"

You think that you can stand at the pinnacle of humanity by casting off that which makes you human?


I have known your father for a long time. You think he has no regrets? No doubts? You are mistaken, Leman Russ. He is a man. The greatest of all men. And it is that humanity which makes him great. To carry the burden of humanity is to reject the temptation to abandon what makes you who you are in the pursuit of strength or power, even if the entire universe is bearing down upon you.

So tell me, Leman Russ. Will you carry this burden, or will you cast off your humanity?

Leman Russ looked down at his hands, scarred and calloused by a thousand battles. He clenched his fists.

"If my father can bear this burden, then so shall I."

Then go forth, Leman Russ. I will be waiting here, until the next time we meet.

He fell on his hands and knees, staring at the cold stone floor of the hallway. He would not be broken. He stood, wiping the sweat and tears from his face, and with a determined expression he stepped forward. He bore the weight of the Imperium on his back, its failures, its tragedies, and pressed onward. He could not change the past, but he was determined to forge a future for mankind in his father's name. When at last he had nearly reached his limit, when his soul felt like it would finally be torn asunder, he placed one foot forward and… nothing. No visions, no suffering. He was back in the hearth-room he had been in before Slaanesh brought him down into the depths of the palace.

He nearly collapsed, leaning against a wall and breathing heavily while trying to stay on his feet. He felt relief wash over him, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He had done it. Then he noticed Slaanesh standing before him. Immediately his relief was replaced by an indignant fury, and he grabbed her by the throat, pinning her to the wall. She was unphased. He scowled at her.

"You said you would tempt me, daemon-witch." he said through clenched teeth. "Not… whatever devilry that was."

"Regret is the greatest temptation there is, son of Fenris." she said. After a few more moments of glaring, seeing that she was unaffected by his efforts, Leman finally let her go. He sighed and rubbed his eyes as he tried to recover from his ordeal.

"It is an intoxicating thing, regret. It consumes the mind and soul, reduces the greatest of men to nothing, tempting one to fall into despair.” she said. “For a man who lives only in the past is a dead man.” Leman simply trudged over to the couch, collapsing in exhaustion with a distant look on his face. Slaanesh sat next to him. “True beauty lies not in perfection, Leman Russ.” she said, placing her hand on his. “Beauty is to, despite all of our regrets, our failings, our scars, our trauma… to persist. To live. To grow, and flourish. To breathe full the air of life, to find pleasure in even the most mundane pleasantries, despite how cold and uncaring the universe may be. To stay true to oneself, no matter how much the world wages war on your soul.”

“You, Leman Russ, have passed my trial.“ she said, standing up and giving a respectful bow. “I’m going to see how Admu is doing, you may rest here in my palace for as long as you wish to recover your strength, champion. Considering your next trial, you will likely need as much of it as you can get.” she left Leman Russ with a kind smile, and the exhausted primarch fell into the waiting arms of sleep.

“Morning sleepyhead!” Admu shouted, throwing open the curtains. Leman awoke in a world of white fluff and downy feathers, his eyes struggling to adjust to the light streaming through the window. He was in a large bed, apparently moved from where he had initially fallen asleep. He could feel his body being swallowed by a mountain of impossibly soft pillows and cushions, engulfed by blankets and comforters which seemed on the verge of drowning him in warmth and coziness.

“I don’t think I’ve ever slept through the night so deeply since I was still being raised by wolves.” Leman said.

“Night?” she said with a confused look. “You’ve been asleep for three days, mister Russ…” Leman’s eyes shot open.

“Three days!?” He shouted incredulously. He struggled for a few minutes to untangle himself from the quicksand-like mound of pillows and blankets, finally planting his feet on the ground. As they walked through the halls of Slaanesh’s palace together, Admu regaled him with all that she had done in his absence. Painting, sculpting, learning to play music, and so on. As she prattled on, Leman’s thoughts drifted to all that he had experienced before falling unconscious. In particular, he remembered his peculiar encounter with the wolf-like being.

Was it a memory? Some kind of manifestation of my subconscious? Or something else… It said that it knew my father, what could that mean? he thought.

“Hey, are you listening to me mister Russ?” Admu said, slightly hurt from being ignored.

“A-apologies, I have a lot on my mind.” he said. They emerged on a terrace, Slaanesh waiting for them.

“Why if it isn’t sleeping beauty.” Slaanesh said with a giggle. “It was a pleasure to have you two. Admu, you simply must visit more often, just… ah, please let me know in advance to make sure no more… incidents occur.” she said with a hint of loving concern.

“Sure thing, auntie!” Admu said, embracing her.

“Oh, and champion,” she said, addressing Leman. “I do have one more thing for you…” She grabbed him by his shirt collar and pulled him in for a kiss. Leman froze with a look of surprise on his face.

“A-auntie!” Admu shouted, pulling Leman away by his arm, her blushing face bearing a hint of jealousy. Slaanesh laughed with a playful coyness.

Leman was surprised, but not for the expected reason. The instant Slaanesh’s lips touched his, in that intimate moment, he saw her true form. Not the elegant and perfect form she presented outwardly. He saw the pain she bore for her subjects. The sorrows of an entire race, the scars she wore as a reminder of her failures. Her soul was deep and unfathomable, like a deep, indigo abyss that simultaneously calmed and dispirited. He saw the impossible weight she bore at all times, her constant loving and playful disposition a nearly unflinching facade for the true pain that lay underneath, a facade for the benefit of those she held dear. It was in this moment that Leman finally understood.

“I was wrong.” Leman said, turning to Slaanesh. She gave him a puzzled look. “You are not weak.” He said, turning to leave. Slaanesh was speechless, caught off-guard by such an expected gesture. She watched them walk away, disappearing into the maze-like streets of the city.

“How did the challenger fare?” Khorne said, appearing behind Slaanesh and causing her to let out a small yelp in surprise.

“Oh dear brother please, you must stop doing that.” Slaanesh said, holding her head. “He passed. With flying colors, I might add.” Slaanesh said after recovering from her fright. “For a mortal to bear so much pain and sorrow for his father, for his sons, for his people… it is quite beautiful, no?” She said wistfully. Khorne was unmoved.

“We will see how strong he truly is. I will administer him the hardest test of worthiness I can offer.” He said. Slaanesh looked at him with disbelief.

“Brother, you can’t be serious… he is strong, unbelievably so. But even still he is just a mortal, you can’t expect him to…”

“He will pass my trials, or he is unworthy. Then, it is up to Tzeentch to make the final judgment.” Khorne said, his arms crossed as he gazed into the horizon. “I apologize for not staying longer sister, but I must take my leave. I must prepare my warriors for the challenger’s arrival.” he said, disappearing in a column of fire. Slaanesh took a seat on her couch, pouring herself a glass of Fenrisian ale and taking a sip.

“Leman Russ… I hope you are prepared for what you are about to face.” she spoke to herself.

Chapter 4

Chapter Text

The sun was high above in the noon sky, beating down on the hot, shimmering sands. Khorne’s realm was far to the west of Arcadia on a volcanic plateau surrounded by a great desert basin, accessible only by a sprawling network of ancient stone roads. To prepare for the journey, Admu had changed out of her more elegant dress and back into her traveling clothes, with a wide-brimmed hat to shield her face from the sun (finding one which fit over her horns was not easy). Russ found the clothes made for him by the eccentric seamster surprisingly suitable, and so continued to wear them. Being a primarch, Leman was not bothered by extreme conditions, hot or cold. Admu as well seemed to be unphased by the sweltering climate, simply excited to explore another new and exciting realm. It was quite beautiful, in spite of its harsh conditions: great painted mountains of reds, browns, and grays lined the horizon, and deep, shaded canyons crossed the landscape like ancient wounds in the earth itself. Far from lifeless, the desert was teeming with organisms hardy enough to survive in the harsh, desert climate. Dense, thorny shrubs with leaves as tough as stone carpeted the places where the sand gave way to thick clay sediment, lorded over by towering, solemn trees and cacti with armored, spiked exteriors. In spite of their forbidding appearance, they bore brightly colored flowers in a myriad of hues. It appeared that even at its most threatening, life still held an innate beauty. Wandering the desert Russ could spot great herds of armored beasts and hardy grazers, as well as great predators which put even the wolves of Fenris to shame; Russ expected nothing less from the denizens of the war-god’s realm. Fortunately, the creatures all seemed to avoid the roads and paid the two travelers no mind, likely an instinct ingrained into them by clashes with the servants of Khorne. They stopped at an oasis at the side of the road, resting in the shade of a great palm tree, refilling their canteens, and washing the abrasive dust, sand, and salt from their skin. Russ sat on a large rock, staring at his hands. Ever since he had arrived in this place and been deprived of his wargear for… understandable reasons, he had felt on edge. The primarch could handle himself, power armor or no, but his encounter with Khorne and the baneblade-sized bear in Nurgle’s forest had shaken his confidence in his previously unmatched strength and combat prowess. In particular, Russ replayed his first encounter with the war god in his mind. The strike he had intended for Admu (Russ felt a curious pang of emotion upon remembering this detail, but quickly dismissed it) and Nurgle was no light swing. He had put all his power, all his fury into that charge, yet the black-armored warrior god had swatted him away like he was a child. There was no doubt in Leman’s mind that Khorne’s trial would involve fighting of some kind, but he had trepidation over his own skills as a warrior for the first time in… well, ever really. Leman had felt doubt and worry before battle in the past, but almost never did that extend to worrying about his own safety. It was a strange and uncomfortable feeling.

“Hey, mister Russ, what were your brothers like?” Admu said. Leman snapped to attention, dragged away from his anxious thoughts. “You told me about your father the Emperor, but not about your brothers. What were their names?” she said.

“Well…” Leman said. His ordeal in the bowels of Slaanesh’s palace had made remembering his brothers - especially the ones who had betrayed him - a soresubject. Even more so than before. “There’s Lion El’Johnson, Rogal Dorn, Roboute Guilliman, Vulkan, Jaghatai Khan, Corvus Corax… Ferrus Manus... Sanguinius...“ Russ trailed off with a sorrowful tone, unable or unwilling to finish the list.

“Wait, why do all of them have different last names? Aren’t they all your brothers? They should all be Russes, right?” Admu said, her head tilted. “Lion Russ, Rogal Russ, Roboute Russ, Vulkan Russ…” she said, counting off the names on her fingers. “And then big Emperor Russ!” she said, her arms outstretched. Leman chuckled.

“Well, you see, we weren’t all raised together despite being brothers. Our father created us on his homeworld of Terra, but we were scattered across the galaxy as infants by the chaos gods-” he said, failing to catch himself before the words left his mouth. Leman hadn’t intended to mention them in front of her, but the girl seemed to have a supernatural ability to draw information out of him through friendly conversation.

"Huh? Who are they?" she asked.

Eh, may as well get this out of the way. Leman thought.

"Your… papa, he's a nice man, right? Your uncles and aunt too?" Leman said.

"They're the best! Uncle Khorne likes to act all tough, but deep down he's a big softie." Admu replied, giggling.

"Well, where I'm from, far away from this place… there are… beings, which share their names. Nurgle, Slaanesh, Khorne, Tzeentch… although their titles are all they truly share in common. These 'chaos gods' are foul, ruinous beings. They wreak havoc and destruction all across the galaxy, leaving nothing but horror and death in their wake. I spent millennia wandering the immaterium, battling their servants and enduring whatever tortures they flung at me. " Leman said, taking in a dark tone. "When I first arrived here, I mistook you and your father for servants of these chaos gods and attacked blindly, though now I know you are of a much different… nature." He said. He looked over to Admu, who had a strange expression which seemed to be somewhere between confusion, pity, and fear. Suddenly, the girl leapt towards him and squeezed tightly.

"Oh, mister Russ, I knew you had a good reason! I could see you were a good person deep down; I just knew it. I'm so sorry those awful chaos gods tormented you, I'll do everything I can to help you from now on! I mean, I have been kind of doing that anyway, but I'll do it twice as much now!" she said, nearly crying out of joy and sympathy.

By Fenris, does this girl's infectious benevolence know no limits? he thought as the fox-deer-demi-goddess nearly smothered him with her iron embrace. Noticing his discomfort, she let the poor man go and blushed a bit.

"Anyway… the chaos gods scattered me and my brothers all across the galaxy, as a way to try and stop my father from combating their influence. He spent centuries looking for us, and by the time he reached most of us we'd already been 'adopted' by our new homeworlds, in one sense or another." Russ said. "I was raised by a she-wolf, myself. Certainly not the educated upbringing of someone like Guilliman. Though, considering the temperament of his seneschal… perhaps he did have a she-wolf as a mother." Leman had a good laugh at that one, fondly remembering Tarasha's willful and fiery demeanor.

“Wow, you were separated from your parents when you were a baby and raised on a completely different world?” she said. He remembered what Nurgle had told him about her and realized he had probably never told her.

I wonder where she came from… he thought. Best to leave that subject for another time.

“We better get going, I have a feeling we don’t want to be caught out here at night.” he said, rising to his feet. The two gathered their things and continued along the road.

The plateau which hosted Khorne’s fortress was, in reality, only a part of the immense battlements which the war god had erected around his castle. Before the plateau was even within eyesight, outposts and ramparts were littered along the rocky desert, arranged in a defensive formation. By the time they approached the first mammoth wall which encircled Khorne’s realm, the plateau was only barely visible on the horizon. The wall itself was made of weathered sandstone, intricately carved yet highly utilitarian. The gate which led deeper into Khorne’s territory was a huge structure of dark cast-iron, wrought with the imagery of fearsome beasts and menacing faces to ward off any unwelcome wanderers. A guard atop the great wall waved them in, and the gate opened with a thunderous creaking sound. After passing through several concentric rings of defensive battlements, they finally reached the foot of the plateau. It was then that Leman realized the fortress was not only atop the plateau, the entire plateau was the fortress. Pillars of smoke spilled out from artificial portals on its side, originating from the great furnaces the war god used to arm his warriors. Waterfalls spilled in and out of its exterior, funneled into the fortress’s depths to feed the great forges within. Buildings and defensive structures were carved into its cliffs, as if they were growing out of the rock itself. Buttresses ringed the plateau’s edges, each resembling a small hive-city rather than a structural support. It was a construction which rivaled that of the Fang, and perhaps even the Imperial Palace upon Terra itself.

Dorn would have my head if he heard me say that. Russ thought, bearing a smirk.

At the base of the immense volcanic plateau, the final gate was embedded into the walls of the mountain. It groaned like a sleeping beast as it slowly swung open, the fiery light of the furnaces within pouring out of the entrance. A squadron of guards marched out in formation to meet them, led by none other than the towering war-god himself, clad in black armor with a blood-red cape draped upon his shoulders.

“Greetings, Challenger Leman Russ… and lady Admu.” he said. “Welcome to my home.” he said. His voice seemed slightly less hostile somehow, though being in such a heavily defended fortress such as this would likely engender a certain amount of security. Leman doubted he could besiege it even with his entire legion at its full strength. Perhaps if he had the aid of the Imperial Fists… and the Ultramarines… and the Iron Warriors… and the Custodes, just for good measure. He dismissed his wargame planning and returned to the task at hand.

“Greetings. I am honored to be allowed into your gates.” Leman said. Khorne spoke the language of honor and martial chivalry, which Leman understood. It was how he would have greeted a guest of the Fang, as rare as they may have been.

“Hiiii uncle Khorne!” Admu shouted, leaping towards him like an excited pup. He caught her in his arms, seemingly used to being greeted in such a manner.

“H-hello, my niece.” he said. “I was… not expecting you to come here as well.”

“Oh yeah, I’m mister Russ’s number one companion! I’m like his bodyguard.” she said, snickering. Khorne gave Leman a sideways glance. Leman shrugged.

“Very well, I will set up accommodations for the two of you.” Khorne said. He turned his gaze to Leman. “The rooms will be separate. Very separate.” Leman wasn’t sure what he was implying.

They stepped into a massive elevator carved into the rock, seemingly designed more for transporting entire companies of soldiers rather than handfuls of people. It accelerated upward, drawn skyward by great chains which echoed all throughout the elevator shaft. As the platform sped upward, Russ caught glimpses of the layers as they passed by. Huge foundries with rivers of molten metal and stone flowing like water, legions of golem-like workers crafting unimaginable amounts of weapons and armaments for some unknown purpose.

From everything I’ve seen, this world appears to be rather peaceful… what possible reason could he have for amassing such an immense hoard of wargear? Leman thought.

The elevator came to a halt, and the gates opened up to the plateau proper. Surprisingly, it was relatively lush with greenery. Not on the level of Nurgle’s forests, but still thriving. The combination of rich, volcanic soil and the cooler temperature at such a high elevation allowed for much more temperate conditions. The entire plateau resembled an immense barracks or military camp. Everything here was either pragmatic or dedicated to martial glory, in a way that filled Leman with a strange sense of familiarity. Upon closer inspection, the soil appeared to be tinged with a dull red hue, for a reason which would soon become clear to Leman. His attention was drawn to the familiar sound of metal clashing upon metal. A short distance away in a sort of makeshift arena, two warriors in powered armor were clashing with a murderous ferocity for a small audience. One appeared to be a human wielding a chainsword and a shield, while the other was some kind of scaled xenos with 4 arms, each holding some kind of vibrating blade. They each attacked one another furiously, deftly deflecting or stopping one another’s blows with expert skill. To Leman, this was like no sparring match he had ever seen: these warriors were attacking with the intent to kill. Suddenly, the human warrior missed one of his strikes - Leman immediately knew what would come next. Taking advantage of the opening, the xenos warrior lunged forward and impaled the human through his chest with three of its blades, bright-red blood splattering across the earth. Admu yelped and covered her mouth in shock. Rage bubbled up within Leman’s chest, and with fiery eyes he stepped forward to dispatch this murderer. However, Khorne stepped in front of them both.

Ahem, Kelebrix, Shahadai. Must you shed your blood in front of my niece?” He said, admonishing the warriors like an annoyed teacher.

Incredibly, the human immediately got up and kneeled in spite of his wounds, with the xenos keeling alongside him.

“A-apologies m’lord, I hadn’t noticed you arrive.” the wounded human named Kelebrix said.

“I as well… apologize… profusely, I do.” the xenos named Shahadai said with a peculiar cadence.

"I hope my… careless students did not disturb you too much, Admu." Khorne said.

"Oh no, I'm fine. Papa has taken me hunting lots of times, I just… hadn't ever seen a real fight like that before." Admu said. Leman was honestly too shocked to speak.

"Balian, at attention." Khorne said, causing one of the spectators to rise in response. He was a human, no doubt, with dark brown hair and tanned skin. His face was rugged and youthful, with a roguish yet noble appearance. He wore a strange set of armor Leman had never seen before, appearing to be some strange mixture between powered armor and the exceedingly ancient depictions of warriors of Old Terra he had seen in the rembrancer archives of the Imperial Palace.

"Yes, sire?" Balian said.

"I must prepare our guests' lodgings; in the meantime, you may show the challenger Leman Russ around the fortress grounds." Khorne said curtly, before turning to Admu. "I would like you to come with me while I find you a place to stay. I would hate for your lodgings to be uncomfortable, so I would like your input." he said with a softer voice, patting Admu on the head. Admu looked at Leman with a slightly disappointed face.

"...okay, uncle Khorne. But only if I can help mister Russ prepare for his trial tomorrow. He needs me, I'm his right-hand girl!" she said enthusiastically. Khorne grumbled.

"...fine." he said reluctantly. He then turned to Leman. "We will begin preparations for the trial tomorrow. You may take this time to familiarize yourself with the fortress grounds." Khorne said, his voice returning to its normal, rough tenor. The war god left with his niece's hand in his, and his retinue of guards followed him.

"Is he alright?" Leman said, gesturing towards Kelebrix. The human was being helped up by Shahadai, and the two walked off laughing at some joke exchanged between the two.

"Ah, that's right. You are a newcomer; we don't get many of those nowadays. Yes, yes, Kelebrix will be fine. Wounds like that aren't enough to harm us, at least not permanently. Still hurts like the devil, of course." Balian said.

"You are… human." Leman said, struggling to decide which line of questioning to pursue first.

"...yes, I'd say about a quarter of us are. Oh, right, newcomer." he said. slapping his forehead. "Well, you see, when a warrior dies and is cast into the warp, one whose soul is too noble and great to be consumed by the ruinous powers, they may find themselves ending up here, in the service of Lord Khorne. I cannot claim to know exactly how he does it, but Khorne crafts bodies for us from earth, metal, and a drop of his own blood. The blood is what gives us immortality; so long as he stands, so will we." Balian said. Leman had thousands of questions whirling around in his mind.

"Wait, if you are human… when did you die?" he asked. Balian scratched his head.

"About… 40,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries?" he said. Leman was awestruck.

A true relic of the human race… this man was alive in the ancient days of Old Terra! Leman thought. Then he noticed that the human warrior seemed to come up to his shoulders, which he realized was quite odd considering how he normally towered over unaugmented humans.

"I am fairly certain that the humans of Old Terra were not 10 feet tall…" Leman said.

"Oh yes, well, Lord Khorne takes a few… liberties with constructing our new bodies. Can't complain, really." He said with a smirk. "Come, let us walk. We can discuss things while I show you around." Balian said. He gestured Leman to follow him, and they did.

"So, do you… worship Khorne? As a god?" Leman said as they walked along a grand courtyard. Balian laughed.

"Of course not, he is my liege but certainly not my God." he said. Leman looked confused. "I have served my God faithfully for my entire life, and afterlife as well I suppose."

"I have not met many who have managed to keep faith after spending any amount of time in the warp." Leman said. He was not sure if he counted himself among them.

"It is true, the servants of the enemy were far more… imposing than I could have ever imagined. Yet, my God saved me from their clutches and placed me here. I do not believe that was mere coincidence. No, I have a holy duty in this place. And so long as my soul burns with the light of god, I will fight on in his name. The 'gods' of this world are no doubt instruments of his will." Balian said, with the confidence only a true believer could hold.

As they continued to walk, Balian showed them the mustering grounds, where legions of warriors like himself were training. True to his word, many of them were human. Balian had told him that humans appeared to be uniquely suited for war since their birth as a species. The thought gave Leman a small swelling of pride. Yet, amongst the humans, he could spot xenos of nearly every stripe. Some humanoid, others not. Many of them he did not even recognize the species of. Still more were species thought extinct when he had entered the immaterium. Though, given what this place was, they may have in fact been extinct.

"What is it that you all do here?" Leman asked.

"Well, training mostly. Lord Khorne acts as teacher and commander to us all and has helped us to hone the skills we learned in life. Aside from that, we hunt the beasts in the desert and wastes beyond, patrol the roads and walls, keep ourselves busy with crafts and storytelling, and not to mention the raucous festivals. Arcadia may have the fanciest balls, but you'll never find a livelier celebration anywhere else. Granted, it mostly involves beating each other bloody, but nobody gets hurt." he said, laughing. Russ was starting to like this place.

The two approached a large crowd surrounding an arena, the gathered warriors cheering on the fight from the sidelines.

"What's that?" Leman asked.

"Oh my, you are in for a treat Leman Russ." he said, with a smile. "That would be the two champions of the Colosseum."

Looking between the crowd of warriors, Leman saw two combatants locked in brutal combat. One was unmistakably aeldari, given their size, proportions, and characteristic bone-sung armor. They wielded a polearm of some kind, a peculiar combination of a glaive, axe, spear, and scythe - in other words, a typically inscrutable and over-designed aeldari weapon. Curious that he should find one here, given what he knew about what happened to their souls once they died. The other was a hulking, brutish figure, clad in heavy armor except around their arms, which exposed their hyper-muscular form. The brute had a mask which resembled that of a cross between terminator armor and a wild boar, and wielded an immense, cleaver-like weapon coated in strange runes and symbols which seemed to glow with an eerie light. Judging by their dull, mottled, grey-green skin and immense stature (Leman estimated her to be at least as tall as Admu) they were certainly not human. The two warriors fought ferociously, the eldar wielding the polearm with blinding speed and haunting elegance, while the brute swung their immense cleaver with earth-shattering force. Leman could tell the two were evenly matched, the aeldari deflecting or dodging the brute's blows while the brute's stalwart defense blocked the eldar's deft strikes without issue. Even when one opponent managed to strike a glancing blow or minor wound, the other would soon return the favor. It was a complete and utter stalemate, one that was mesmerizing to watch as two impossibly skilled warriors clashed for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, the battle ended. Not due to either warrior besting the other, of course. This battle was destined to be continued for some time to come; this was merely a pause. The two put aside their weapons and shook hands, a universal sign of brotherhood and respect.

"Those two are the oldest souls here, and undefeated in the Colosseum. Only one who's gotten close to beating either of them so far is Musashi." Balian said. The two warriors noticed the primarch standing on the sidelines and approached. The eldar removed their helmet and revealed herself to be a beautiful woman with long, orange-red hair. She had pointed, elegant features, typical of the beauty sported by most of her race, but she also had a ragged edge to her, evidence of millennia spent perfecting the art of combat.

"So this is the mortal challenger I've been hearing so much about. What do you make of him, Grizhka?" She said speaking to the hulking warrior behind her. The brute also removed their mask, and surprisingly it was also a woman. Her face was strong and robust, bearing rough and almost bestial features, but she carried a savage, feminine beauty nonetheless. She had a wild and unkempt mane of pitch-black hair, and her eyes were inky black spheres with fiery golden-red rings as irises. She smiled menacingly, bearing her sharp and protruding teeth.

"Fresh meat." she said.

"It's an honor to welcome you, newcomer." the eldar said, holding out her hand. Russ reluctantly shook with her.

"...likewise." he said.

"Ah, where are my manners. This is Grizhka…" she said, pointing to her monstrous companion. "…and my name is Ulthanesh."

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

“My name is Leman Russ.” He said. “So you two are the champions of the Colosseum? I assume that must mean you are the strongest warriors here."

"You would be correct in that assumption, at least discounting Lord Khorne himself." Ulthanesh said. "Grizhka and I have never been defeated, even by each other."

"It is likely I will face at least one of you, then." Leman said. "The lord of this realm intends to test my worthiness; I could scarcely think of a more fitting trial than facing his strongest warriors." He said. Grizhka scoffed.

"Then he shall find you wanting." she said.

"What makes you so sure? I have faced many great foes in my time, and each of them were laid low by my hand." he said.

"That is what they all say." Grizhka said. "Before their heads roll."

The tension grew between the two, before Ulthanesh placed herself between them.

"Let us save the hostilities for the Colosseum, no?" Ulthanesh said. Grizhka grumbled. "Apologies Leman Russ, my friend here is quite… abrasive towards newcomers." she said with a laugh.

"You are aeldari, no? It is curious to find one here, I thought they reincarnated until the fall of their empire." Leman said.

"Yes, most aeldari did. My being here is a result of my own self-exile. I betrayed a good friend, the greatest warrior I had ever known… the guilt I carried for my misdeed weighed my spirit down and carried it deep into the sea of souls. I thought I had been all but lost, but eventually found myself here and Khorne accepted me into his service." she said. Leman nodded.

"And what of you?" he asked Grizhka.

"Ha! Fat chance, wolf-boy." she said, walking off with Ulthanesh following close behind.

"See you in the Colosseum, challenger." Ulthanesh said with a small bow. Balian leaned in towards Leman.

"Rumor is that Grizhka is half-ork. It's why she's so damn strong… and cranky." Balian said surreptitiously. Leman looked at him incredulously.

"Orks reproduce asexually, through spores. They don't have females." he said, an eyebrow raised. Balian simply shrugged his shoulders.

The ancient knight led the primarch through a small portion of the fortress grounds, which in itself covered at least a kilometer. Leman's earlier thought about this place rivaling his father's palace upon Terra may not have been as exaggerated as he thought. He saw barracks, training arenas, and places of prayer to a myriad of gods and religions.

"It seems odd that the lord of this place would tolerate such things." Leman said, pointing to a church adorned with a strange symbol of an emaciated man nailed to a cross.

"Khorne is the patron of justice, martial honor, and righteous fury. It may not have a spotless track record, but in my experience, religion has always been a source of all three." Balian said. "I have wondered if he might be St. Michael, but Lord Khorne doesn't like to trouble himself with matters of theology."

"You would think that so many warriors of differing faiths would engender conflict." Leman said. Balian laughed heartily.

"Oh, Leman Russ, you have no idea. When we used receive more new souls, most would have a 'breaking in' period where they would have to be treated like wild stallions who would bludgeon anyone who came near them that looked a bit peculiar. Of course, as you've seen already, that never amounted to very much. Turns out that being able to bash someone's head in without consequence is enough to forge some fairly strong bonds of brotherhood. Well, that and the yearly beast culls. Those are a real riot." Balian said.

"Now that you mention it… I have not seen any warriors who may have been from my time, or after. Why is that? I know for a fact that the Imperium boasted some of the greatest warriors in the galaxy." Leman said proudly. Balian scratched his head.

"Yes, it is peculiar. My guess would be that something big is drawing all those souls away from this place... maybe a lot of somethings. Khorne and the other lords have been tight-lipped about it, so either they do not know or do not wish to speak of it. Though, from what we heard from those last few souls who managed to get here about 10 or 20 thousand years ago, things in the living world were not looking good, materially or spiritually." Balian said

He must be referring to Old Night… Leman thought. In which case 'not good' would be an egregious understatement.

Leman and Balian passed by a shooting range and spotted what appeared to be two sharpshooters competing. One was a human, wearing some kind of full-bodied camouflage that consisted of mock bushes and leaves, while the other was a Hrud wearing a heavy cloak over most of its body, with only its long, spindly arms visible. Both wielded lengthy projectile weapons, the human using something that looked like a down-scaled, elongated bolter with a large muzzle break, and the xenos wielding some arcane device that fired beams of blue-green plasma. Both were taking turns shooting and tallying their scores. After a few minutes, it appeared that the Hrud had emerged victorious, and the two rose to their feet, the human patting his competitor on the back and laughing.

"Does Khorne accept snipers into his service? It was my assumption that he would see dispatching one’s foes from a distance as dishonorable." Leman said.

(Video) Spring Garden Tour! End of May/Start of July 2022! WOLF OF THE WILD!

"Lord Khorne understands that marksmen have their own codes of honor. They're warriors just like the rest of us, regardless of the tools they use. In his eyes, it's more dishonorable to blame one's own defeat on the methods of the enemy rather than one's own weakness or lack of skill. After all, how are the worthy meant to punish the cowardly and dishonorable if they cannot defeat them on the field of battle?" Balian said. Leman nodded, finding it hard to disagree with the sentiment.

Except for sorcerers. He reminded himself.

As the day drew to a close, their tour was ended by a host of warriors summoning Leman to Khorne’s personal fortress. They led them to a monstrous and imposing structure lined with defensive battlements and ornamental structures meant to intimidate and awe. It was a monolithic black keep, with small windows all across its surface that glowed with an orange-red light. Red banners and flags bearing the 4-horned mark of Khorne fluttered atop its many dark spires and turrets. Its entrance was marked by a great drawbridge and gate suspended over a lake of molten slag. A horn sounded from above, and the gates opened. The halls within were decorated with banners of a thousand armies from millennia past, made for the lord of war by his loyal subjects. Inanimate suits of armor of all different shapes and sizes stood watch silently along the sides of the hall, wielding arcane weapons from ages long past. They entered the lord’s throne room, an ornate space that had an unrefined savagery to its design. The high walls were lined with mounted heads of monstrous beasts, and in the center sat the war god himself, reclining upon an obsidian throne.

“Greetings, Leman Russ.” he said, his voice echoing throughout the spacious throne room. “Sir Balian, I request that you take your leave, the challenger and I must talk alone. I thank you for your service.” Balian bowed and left the room, two great doors closing behind him.

“Quite an interesting assembly you’ve gathered here.” Leman said. “Somehow I do not believe that you are drawing these souls here merely for your own personal entertainment. I also saw the forges beneath the plateau… are you really going to use all of that wargear for hunting beasts?” he said. Khorne shifted into an upright position, his black armor clanking and creaking.

“I am building an army.” Khorne said. Leman’s eyebrows rose. “So that when the time comes that I may break free of this prison, I can lay waste to those wretched pretenders who call themselves gods in our stead.” he said, spitting venom when mentioning the chaos gods.

“I saw the golems working in the forges below… are those warrior souls as well?” Leman asked.

“No, it would be indecent to delegate such menial labor to fighters of such renown. The golems are constructs of clay and metal, gifted life by artificial souls. I had Tzeentch create them from his warp crystals.” Leman was surprised.

“You work with the god of sorcery?” he asked.

“Of course, he is my brother. We may disagree on methods at times, but our goal is the same.” he said. Leman felt a pang of sadness deep inside of him, one easily buried. “Long ago, before even Slaanesh’s birth, he and I decided that we would prepare for our eventual escape. He provides plans and designs; I provide warriors and weapons. It is in brother Nurgle’s nature to be passive and tend to his own flock, while Slaanesh is young and has her own matters to deal with. I do not blame them for their current… inactivity. They will have their roles to play when the time comes.” Leman was taken aback. To think that this place had existed for all this time, let alone that its denizens had such ambitious designs… “I will leave it at this: you are instrumental to our plans, challenger, but only if you can prove yourself worthy. It is for this reason that I will not hold back when testing you. My trials will not be overcome easily.” Leman’s nerves rose, but he maintained his determination. “Tzeentch can tell you everything else you wish to know… once you have overcome his trials, as well as mine. He is, after all, the god of knowledge.” Khorne said. A guard entered the room, and escorted Leman to his chambers. It was a spartan living space but had all the accommodations a warrior could need. Moreover, in its center he beheld a sight he had longed to see for some time since coming to this place: his wargear. His blue-gray artificer power armor and his frost blade Mjalnar had been repaired and polished, neither bearing even a scratch or scuff from 10,000 years of supernatural wear and tear during his time in the immaterium. He ran his hand along the smooth, metal surface of his pauldron, the ceramite feeling as though it had just come out of the furnaces which birthed it. Even his wolf-skins appeared to have been cleaned and restored. Never before had Leman seen such delicate and meticulous care given to a warrior’s equipment before, and even he had to admit it impressed him. His hearts swelled at the thought of donning his custom power armor once again, even if he still held doubts as well. The moment was interrupted by the sound of a door opening behind him and the sight of a familiar face.

"Hello mister Russ!" Admu said in a hushed tone. "Uncle doesn't want me visiting you for some reason, but I thought I'd stop by and wish you luck in your battle tomorrow." she said.

"Battle?" Leman said.

"Oh, he didn't tell you? Your first trial is going to be in the Colosseum. Uncle didn't say who you'd be fighting. You can consider this a tip from me." Admu said with a wink and a wry smile. "...I was also thinking I could teach you a secret trick I learned while hunting with papa. It's really cool! What do you say?" she said. Leman sighed.

Oh what the hell. She's already here and it can't hurt to give it a try. Besides, I have no idea what I'm going to be up against… I'm going to need all the help I can get. Leman thought. "Sure." He said.

"Yay!" she said, clapping her hands. "Okay, I figured this out myself, but I might be able to help you do it, too. First, hold my hands and close your eyes." she said. Russ complied.

Is this some kind of meditation technique? I vaguely remember Dorn having some kind of meditation method he shared with his legion… Leman thought.

"Okay, now slow your breathing down as much as possible and look inward, I'll see if I can guide you to the place." she said.

Wait, guide me? To what place? He felt a presence in the darkness, like waves lapping at the edges of his consciousness. He felt a gentle hand guiding him, drawing him in, like wading into a deep and unfathomable sea. It felt cold on his skin, like the icy waters of the Fenrisian worldsea. Spreading from the guiding hand, a warmth filled his whole body that almost felt like it was burning him. He began to see pinpricks of light, sparkling and whirring around him. The turgid darkness surrounded him, and he began to feel like he was drowning. Suddenly, he found himself in a dark forest in the pitch black of night. There was no light except the light of the stars overhead, yet he could still see with almost perfect clarity. All of his senses felt supercharged, as if he were aware of everything around him all at once. The cold air scraped against the thick fur on his back. He stalked between the tall trees and thick underbrush, carried by four strong legs and guided by nothing but scent and faint trails of motion which drew his eye. He spotted a point of light in the distance between the trees and sensed the wafting smell of cooked meat, drawing him closer. The flickering of a small fire danced across his enhanced vision, and he could see a figure Illuminated by the soft orange glow. His ear twitched as he heard what sounded like a woman's voice in the distance, muffled and diffuse. As he got closer and closer to the fire and the man resting before it, the voice grew louder and more clearer, and just before he could see the man's face he finally heard what the voice was saying:

"Mister Russ, wake up!"

Leman awoke to Admu shaking him and shouting, blinking several times as his eyes re-adjusted to the light. The entire room was coated in a layer of frost, and one side of his body had almost become numb from cold. His artificer armor in the center of the room was humming and crackling intensely, generating an immense amount of power and draining the surrounding air of its heat.

The exothermic reactor in my armor activated on its own? Leman thought. Immediately the reactor began to wind down, and the ambient temperature of the room returned.

“I-I’m so sorry mister Russ, I had no idea that would happen. Are you okay?” Admu said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“I’m fine, no need to worry.” Leman said. “I have withstood greater frosts before.” Everything around him almost seemed to be moving in slow motion. My senses are still heightened, and my body feels more powerful… Leman thought, inspecting his hand and flexing, feeling the strength coursing through his arm. though I can already feel the effect fading. Leman thought. What was that vision?

"I-I didn't think that would happen"… usually when I do it, I just feel more awake, and my eyesight gets a little better. I didn’t think you would fall unconscious.” she said, panicking.

“No, no, this was… enlightening.” he said. If I could harness this state while remaining awake, it could give me an immense edge in battle. He thought. Though I would certainly not want to fall unconscious in the middle of a fight… and the exothermic generator in my armor activating on its own is also concerning. As far as I was aware, it was merely a power generator integrated into the suit’s circuitry… I will have to investigate this further. For now, it will be best to err on the side of caution and avoid testing this ‘state’ in battle. Leman rose to his feet and faced Admu. “Thank you Admu, I think I will get some rest for now.” he said to her. After reassuring her several times that he was alright, the worried girl reluctantly left the wolf’s side. Once he was alone, Leman returned to his armor and placed his hand on the right pauldron. To his surprise, it was so hot to the touch that he nearly burned his hand. Curious indeed…

The next day, Russ awoke and eagerly donned his familiar power armor. The heavy machinery and armored plates fit perfectly, as snug and comfortable as the day it was first fitted for him. He moved his limbs, feeling the advanced servos and micromotors aiding his movements with precision accuracy. The machine spirits seemed to appreciate the repairs Khorne’s golems had made and were especially cooperative. He unsheathed Mjalnar and swung at the air a few times for good measure. It felt good to have his beloved wargear returned to him, like he had been missing a limb and now finally had it re-attached.

Meanwhile, Admu was out roaming the castle grounds. She was marveling at the black spires and imposing walls of the fortress, while also greeting everyone she came across with her characteristic exuberance. She felt her stomach grumbling, so she entered one of the feasting halls where warriors were consuming copious amounts of hearty, high-protein foods in preparation for another day of training. The smell of cooked meat reminded her of the feasts in her village. She saw two women sitting at a table and overheard them talking about the newcomer, Leman Russ.

“You must be the champions of the Colosseum! Are you two talking about mister Russ?” she said. The larger of the two turned around, biting off a hunk of meat from the roasted leg of some great beast.

“Yes, the supposed ‘challenger’. I give him a day until Khorne claims his soul.” Grizhka said. Admu gasped.

“W-what do you mean?” Admu said.

“If he falls in Khorne’s domain, his soul is forfeit to the god of war. I can tell he’s a braggadocious fool just like the rest of them. I’ve seen a thousand warriors enter this place looking just like him, full of hubris and cocksure in their superior strength and abilities. He will be humbled by the war god’s trials, I am sure of it.” she said, laughing harshly.

“Hey, you shouldn’t talk about mister Russ like that!” Admu said, looking upset. Grizhka rose to her feet, looking down at the girl. Ulthanesh was beginning to look worried.

"And why is that?" she said, her arms crossed.

"Mister Leman is a good person, and he's really strong too! I saw him kill a direbear to save my little brother with nothing but his bare hands!" Admu said defiantly. Grizhka laughed.

"Oh, he killed himself a beast, did he?" Grizhka said mockingly. "I've killed thousands of them. I've fought horrors that little whelp couldn't imagine." she boasted.

"You're just afraid he'll beat you!" Admu said. Grizhka's face grew serious.

"Listen here girl." she said, poking Admu's shoulder. Ulthanesh grabbed Grizhka's other arm.

"Grizhka, are you sure it is wise to treat the lord’s niece in such a manne-"

"I do not care who you are, I will not have my honor impugned by an upstart braggart and his doting fawn." she said, her nostrils flaring and teeth bared. The two glared at one another and the whole room fell silent. "Is the great Leman Russ so cowardly that he sends out maidens to defend him?" Grizhka smirked. As enraged as she was, she was clearly enjoying this. "Perhaps you should have stayed in your forest, little doe, hiding along with the rest of your cowardly siblings and that pathetic excuse for a god you call father."

The black stone wall of the feasting hall shattered like glass as Grizhka's body hurtled through the air and rolled like a ragdoll upon impact. The earth crumpled as she hit the ground, the impact leaving a trail of plowed dirt until finally the brute slammed against a large tree, stopping her momentum with a loud thud.

"O-oh, I'm so sorry, I-I didn't mean to throw you so hard!" Admu said. "I mean, I did want to make you pay for saying such mean, awful, and hurtful things, but-" she was interrupted by Ulthanesh laughing uncontrollably.

"It looks like your abrasive personality and sharp tongue finally came back to bite you, old friend!" she said, wiping tears from her eyes. Ulthanesh had not laughed this hard in centuries. All Grizhka could offer in response was a small groan before going limp and falling over, blood and drool falling from her unconscious mouth.

Leman Russ emerged from Khorne’s fortress, fully equipped in his wargear.

"So, you are the challenger…" said a man leaning against a nearby tree. He wore a flowing robe and two sheathed swords, and his dark, stringy hair was tied up in a bun. "My name is Musashi. It is an honor to meet you, anyone bold enough to challenge the gods has my respect." he said with a small bow. Leman reciprocated the gesture.

"I recall hearing that your performance in the Colosseum has been quite impressive." Leman said. Musashi laughed softly.

"I have yet to truly achieve the title of champion." Musashi said. "Until then, I am but a humble swordsman."

"I have seen the current champions, to reach their level is no small feat for an unaugmented man." Leman said.

"You honor me, Leman Russ." Musashi said. "In truth, I am here to escort you to the Colosseum where your trials are to be held. I am to be your first opponent."

Chapter 6

Chapter Text

The Colosseum was an immense, open-air arena carved into the black stone of a dormant volcano crater. It was a towering ring of pillars and columns, its size making it look more like a natural formation than an artificial construct. The sky was darkened by a plume of smoke billowing from an active volcano nearby, and the sound of raucous cheering in the distance filled the air. Musashi led Leman into the underbelly of the Colosseum, where monstrous beasts were kept in large cells and eager gladiators prepared for their next battle.

“Lord Khorne has offered you an array of weapons and equipment to wield in addition to the blade you already carry.” He said, gesturing towards a large arsenal of melee and ranged weapons of all types, as well as shields and other combat implements. Russ browsed the inventory, picking out and testing various weapons and side arms.

He was used to wielding Mjalnar in his right hand and his frost-axe ‘Helwinter’ with his left, though he had unfortunately been parted with his axe during a particularly long and grueling duel with a pack of ebon geist in a warp-formed cavern beneath the foothills of the chaos god Khorne’s domain. Similarly, he had lost his sidearm, the combi-bolter dubbed ‘Scornsplitter’ and handcrafted for him by his late brother Vulkan. It had been destroyed during a battle on the shores of a tumultuous chaos-sea against a host of fire daemons and undead traitor marines. Now he had only his armor and his frostblade left.

He was drawn to a black double-headed battle axe, made of a shimmering, oily metal that seemed almost electric to the touch. It appeared to have the same runes as the immense cleaver wielded by Grizhka, and hummed with the power of some arcane machinery beneath its surface. He felt a powerful will within the weapon, as if its machine spirit - or whatever equivalent force was possessing the weapon - were somehow reaching out of its mechanical sheathe and probing at the being which now wielded it. He pushed back against it, and the spirit redoubled its offensives in response. He engaged in a battle of wills with the black weapon, and it began to glow with crackling energy that sent violent shocks up Leman’s arm. He saw visions of a distant battlefield, towering, invincible warriors clashing against gods and reality itself in an apocalyptic war for galactic dominion. As the tendrils of energy burrowed deeper into him, threatening to overtake him, a fire erupted deep within him and rushed to the surface.


Leman heard himself shout, yet strangely his mouth did not move. Immediately, the weapon ceased its attacks on his mind, retreating back into its vessel. He moved the weapon around, finding that its weight seemed to have drastically decreased; or, by some arcane technology, the weapon was somehow assisting his movements. Despite the ease with which he wielded it, he could feel the destructive power the axe could deal - as well as absorb. It could be a potent defensive tool as well as a powerful melee weapon. This will do nicely. Leman thought.

Leman typically preferred melee combat to ranged weaponry, but felt he should find a replacement for Scornsplitter to round out his wargear at the very least. When going into battle it is best to be prepared for anything. He settled upon a strange weapon that appeared to be human in origin, a gold and dark silver firearm with fine engravings all along its surface. It seemed rather primitive, similar in design to a kind of stub gun with a circular ammunition feed and an exposed barrel. In addition to the gold and grey engravings upon its surface, it seemed to be inlaid with some kind of colored crystal that ran along its lengths in thin filaments. Leman inspected the weapon, feeling it in his hand, then took aim at a target on the wall. He pulled the trigger, and the target was obliterated in a burst of turquoise light, leaving a scorching hole in the wall. He opened the ammunition feed, and was surprised to find that the expended bullet had seemingly replenished itself. Useful. Leman thought, attaching its holster to his belt. He emerged from the armory to find Admu holding a cast-iron kettle.

“Oh! Mister Russ, I was just looking for you.” she said, her tail wagging. “I made you some of my special tea in preparation for the trials! …Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any cups, but I guess you can just drink it straight from the kettle.” she said.

“Actually… I have a better idea.” Russ said. He opened a compartment in his armor, revealing a small intake portal. “My armor can take any edible material, convert it into liquified rations, and then drip-feed them into my bloodstream.” he said.

“Great idea!” Admu said, happily pouring the tea into the slot in his armor.

It looks like there’s enough for 3 full doses. I must use this sparingly… it could be a potent combat stimulant, but I don’t know how long this trial will go on for. Leman thought.

“Good luck mister Russ, I’ll be cheering you on from the stands!” Admu said. “Oh, and… please don’t die, okay?” she said with a concerned tone.

“Aye, I’ll do my best, lass.” Leman said with a reassuring look. Admu gave him one final hug and bid farewell to the challenger.

As Leman walked through the corridors of the Colosseum’s cellars, he overheard a conversation through the rock walls with his enhanced hearing. He followed the noise to a closed room, stopping to listen.

“...this an insult to the Colosseum and all that it represents.” Leman heard Grizhka say. “How can Lord Khorne see this as a worthy battle? It will be nothing more than a slaughter.”

“I’m sure he has a reason, Grizhka.” he heard Ulthanesh say. “You never know… he may surprise you.”

The two emerged from the room, and Grizhka gave Leman a skeptical look. Then she saw the battle axe on his hip, and a flash of surprise crossed her face.

“The Starvore Axe… you can wield it?” she said.

“You mean this?” Leman said, holding the axe in his grip. “Its machine spirit was stubborn, but I forced it into submission.” he said. Grizhka laughed.

“Perhaps this battle will be more interesting than I thought.” she said, crossing her arms.

“I wish you luck in the arena, challenger. I truly do.” Ulthanesh said with a strangely somber tone, shaking Leman’s hand. “I believe you will need it.” she said, placing her other hand on his before leaving with her companion.

A herald of Khorne led Leman to the entrance of the Colosseum’s arena, where he was met by the roar of cheering crowds. Thousands upon thousands of Khorne’s warriors were in attendance, in addition to some of the denizens of Nurgle and Slaanesh’s realms who had come to see the spectacle. The arena itself was ringed by high walls and spike-covered embankments, likely to keep whatever would be released into the fighting pit out of the stands. Directly across from him he could see the monolithic throne of Khorne, with the black-armored god of war sitting upon it. To his side Leman saw Admu in a smaller throne of her own, waving profusely at him. Leman waved back. Khorne stood up from his throne, raising his hand and indicating for the audience to fall silent.

“Leman Russ, you have come to this place seeking the fruit of the tree of life in the Halls of Hesperides. To this end, you have been subjected to two trials to determine your worthiness, and both you have passed. Two trials yet remain, one of which will take place on this day, in this very arena. You will be tested as a warrior, like no other warrior before you. Such is the severity of your quest.” he said, his booming voice echoing throughout the Colosseum. “Know this, if you fall here on this day, I promise to treat your soul with all the honors befitting a warrior such as yourself, and you may stay in my care forevermore, preparing for the final day of reckoning with the rest of my army.” he said.

How reassuring. Leman thought.

“To ensure that you fight on equal footing, I have waived my subjects’ ability to resurrect until after the battle is over. Any wounds they receive by your hand will not heal until either you or they are felled. Bring in the first opponent!” Khorne said, punctuated by the sound of a horn blowing. The gates opened, and Musashi emerged dressed in a strange armor consisting of sliding, layered plates and a wide-brimmed helmet. His face was obscured by a fearsome mask with protruding teeth and glaring eyes. The warrior bowed, and Leman bowed in turn. Musashi drew his two swords, one shorter than the other. Leman unsheathed Mjalnar, and drew the battle axe Starvore. The two paced around the arena, studying each other’s movements, waiting for the other to make the first move. Suddenly Musashi disappeared in a cloud of dust and sand, reappearing next to Leman in the next second. Leman had just enough time to raise Mjalnar to halt the twin swords bearing down on him, sending Musashi flying back before deftly landing on his feet. Musashi leapt forward with his long sword pointed forward, and when Russ deflected it he thrust the short sword at Leman’s chest. Leman raised Starvore just in time to catch it. He tried to counterstrike, but Musashi was out of reach before his hit could connect. Musashi returned with a slash to Leman’s slide, which he was just quick enough to avoid: however, the sword connected with the edge of his pauldron, making a shallow cut. After the first bout of clashes, the two warriors retreated once again.

His movements are fast… my reflexes could only just barely stop those strikes. Pursuing and going on the offensive could put me at a disadvantage, yet if I simply wait to react to his attacks he will likely find a hole in my defenses eventually… each of those strikes were aimed at vital areas, and those blades are sharp enough to slash through my armor. Only Mjalnar and the battle axe could stop them. Judging by his fighting style, I would wager he is relying on speed over defense, meaning that if I can get in one or two substantial hits it will likely mean victory. The question is… how can I catch him? Leman thought. This time I’ll make the first move… I need more information.

Leman lunged forward with blinding speed, slamming Starvore into the earth where Musashi was a split-second before. The battle axe sparked the ground, sending fingers of lightning outwards and kicking up chunks of dirt in an earth-shattering blast.

Interesting… I can use this.

Sensing Musashi to his right in the cloud of dust and upturned earth, Leman pounced and caught the swordsman off-guard. Mjalnar collided with Musashi’s two swords brought together in an X-shaped defensive stance, pushing him backwards.

He has millennia of battle experience… yet he does not have my enhanced senses.

Leman pushed the advantage, following with an upward strike with Mjalnar. Musashi dodged around it, responding with a spinning slash using both of his swords. Leman blocked the strike with Mjalnar, dragging Starvore across the ground with another upward strike and creating a wave of electrified debris that Musashi had to dodge mid-strike to avoid.

The two warriors continued their dance of blades, Leman's brutal yet very deliberate strikes clashing with Musashi's dextrous slashes. The two warriors dealt one another superficial wounds, shallow cuts from glancing blows and hairline dodges.

His fighting style almost reminds me of an Aeldari's… yet it has a kind of savagery that is unmistakably human. An eldar warrior would only strike with precisely the amount of power necessary to wear the opponent down or catch them off-guard, yet every one of his blows has the strength to kill. I have to end this quickly, or one of these exchanges may end with one of those glancing slashes hitting their mark.

Leman's next swing with Mjalnar was wide and low, forcing Musashi to dodge by jumping. With his left hand Leman swung Starvore downward in a vertical arc, which Musashi was already poised to block. Pushed back by the blow, Musashi quickly recovered and charged forth once again. Just when he was about to strike, Musashi planted his foot and disappeared, reappearing to Leman’s left. Raising Starvore to block, Musashi disappeared once again only to reappear on Leman’s right. Leman would not fall for the same trick twice: before Musashi could prepare to strike, Mjalnar was already rushing towards his neck. Musashi improvised a defense by raising his longer blade, but without the support of his second sword Leman’s strike overpowered him. The long sword went hurtling through the air, planting itself in the dirt several meters away. Musashi dodged backwards, his right arm dislocated and bleeding heavily. Leman judged that he had broken several bones in the swordsman's arm.

But a wounded wolf is not a defenseless one.

Musashi leapt forward with his short sword raised and Leman responded with a swing from Starvore, but Musashi dodged over it, landing on its face with his foot and leaping over the primarch's head. He aimed his sword at the back of the primarch’s neck and just as the tip of his blade met flesh, Mjalnar impaled him through the chest. The swordsman's limp body slip off of Leman's frostblade, collapsing in a cloud of dust. Leman turned to face him, and confirming his opponent's death he raised his bloodied weapons in victory. The crowd cheered wildly, the sounds of joyous celebration echoing throughout the arena. Leman sheathed Mjalnar, and touched the back of his neck where the warrior’s blade had penetrated just far enough to draw blood.

Had I been a half of a second later in my reaction that blade would have severed my spinal cord…

"It appears I have fallen short of victory once again." Musashi said with a smile, his wounds beginning to heal. "You are a very impressive duelist, Leman Russ." he said.

"Do not belittle yourself, my friend. Very few opponents have brought me that close to defeat before, none of whom were unaugmented humans such as yourself." Leman said. "You were a worthy opponent." he held out his hand, and helped the wounded warrior struggle to his feet. He looked towards the war god's throne and saw Admu waving and cheering him on.

After the fallen swordsman had been escorted out of the arena, Khorne raised his hand and the crowd fell silent once again.

"Impressive performance, challenger. You have displayed proficiency with your chosen armaments and honour in victory." Khorne said. "but martial prowess is not only measured by how one duels another warrior. Release the beast into the arena!" Horns sounded once again, and the cranking sound of an elevator could be heard as the gate across from Leman slowly swung open. His eyes widened with terrible recognition as he beheld the horror that emerged. Out of the darkness emerged a hulking behemoth, a mass of thick, trunk-like legs, scything talons, and whipping tendrils. Oily black secretions oozed from its dark, scaly skin, and a sickly green bile dripped from each of its mouths. Rows upon rows of beady red eyes were inlaid along the surface of its undulating flesh, each burning with a malicious, bestial intellect. The ground seemed to sizzle and curdle where the hulking monstrosity stepped, as if the earth itself were rejecting this abomination. One its tongues licked the air hungrily, dripping with corpse-slime and squirming parasites. It let out a piercing psychic screech so unsettling it made even the raucous crowd fall silent.

"Rangdan." Leman uttered.

It was a Rangdan warbeast, a horrific product of unfathomably intelligent and evil minds unsurpassed by anyone - or anything - in the galaxy in their utter hatred of life. Even after spending thousands of years in the twisted realms of Chaos, the Rangdan still ranked highly among the worst terrors the primarch had encountered. The beast struggled against the chains which bound it, screeching and clawing at the earth.

"My warriors found this beast stalking the wastes along the southern border, slaughtering the local fauna left and right without rhyme or reason. It took 500 of my warriors to subdue it and bring it back here to the Colosseum." Khorne said. "The look on your face tells me you are familiar with this… thing."

"It is an abomination." Leman said. "An enemy of life itself, a scourge upon the universe. You should have slaughtered it the moment you set eyes upon it." Leman said, his voice spitting with disgust. "Say no more. I will exterminate this disease myself." he said, drawing his weapons.

The chains were cut, and the gibbering mass of flesh and death began galloping wildly towards the wolf king. He rolled to the side, and the beast smashed into the wall of the arena. Unphased, it swung around and whipped its tendrils at him like a torturer’s flail. Leman weaved through the lashing tentacles and sliced one of the creature’s legs open, a deluge of oily, worm-ridden blood spilling out before sealing up and leaving a cloud of foul-smelling steam. As if the mere existence of this abomination were not offensive enough, Leman’s enhanced olfactory sensors could smell every disgusting odor the creature expelled all at once.

This was not the first time Leman had killed one of the behemoths and he knew how best to dispatch them; granted, the last time he had done so he had an entire company of Space Wolves supporting him.

Sever the nerve bundle between its 1st and 2nd spinal protrusion Leman thought to himself. That will bring it down permanently.

…climbing this monstrosity is going to be much harder than the bear.

He pulled out the pistol he had acquired earlier and shot out its left row of eyes with a series of aquamarine arcs of energized shrapnel. The creature clawed at its empty eye sockets, the metal embedded in its flesh still burning with teal flame. Leman charged its now-blind left side, weaving between flailing tendrils lined with serrated protrusions. The creature didn't need sight to surround itself in a virtually impenetrable halo of deadly, whip-like appendages. Leman slashed at the tendrils with Mjalnar and Starvore, leaving him distracted long enough for one of the creature’s spindly, multi-jointed arms to grab him by the chest and slam him into the wall. He severed the beast’s clawed hand with one swing from Starvore, and fell to the ground. By the time he was back on his feet, the monster had already regrown the appendages Leman had severed, surrounded by a haze of the foul steam.

Leman put another few shots into its regenerated eyes, circling the creature and continuously pouring superheated metal into its body. Then he pulled the trigger and nothing happened. He opened the ammunition feed and noticed it was empty, as well as a small blue bar that was slowly filling up. As the Rangda warbeast paused to regenerate, Leman charged. He leapt over a bladed tendril that swung towards him, raising Starvore and Mjalnar and plunging them into the creature’s rubbery, sliding flesh. Black bile sprayed out like a pressurized fuel tank being ruptured, coating Leman’s armor in the sickening ebon blood. The beast flailed around wildly but the tendrils did not hit him, as Leman’s hypothesis that the creature would instinctively avoid lacerating itself was proven correct. Instead, the beast threw its weight around, bucking and charging wildly to get the primarch to abscond. Leman used his weapons to try and scale the beast, digging into its flesh over and over and slowly making his way up to its back. Then it flung itself into the wall of the arena.

The beast pinned him against the wall, the hard impact knocking the wind out of two of his lungs as the third struggled to maintain a steady oxygen flow. It began dragging him across the wall, leaving streaks of black blood along the carved stone. The sound of grinding metal rang out as Leman struggled to hold on to the rampaging creature. It was the beast’s flesh which gave way first, Leman’s weapons losing their hold and leaving a long gash along the creature’s side as Leman fell to the ground. He tumbled in the dirt, recovering just in time to avoid being crushed by an elephantine foot. He thrust Mjalnar upwards into the beast’s underbelly, spilling blood, entrails, and parasites all over him. Surprisingly, this only managed to enrage the beast further. With a monstrous cloud of noxious steam its tendrils retracted into its body, replaced by sinewy arms dense with corded muscle and topped with monstrous claws. It began stomping wildly, kicking up clouds of dust and dirt which mingled with the foul steam in the air to create a thick blanket of choking haze. Leman rolled out from under the beast, only to be grabbed by one of its muscular, club-like arms. It slammed his body against the ground and walls like a ragdoll as he hacked and slashed at it with his one free arm. Finally the beast released him, flinging him through the air and sending him crashing into a wall at the other end of the Colosseum. He fell from the crater his body had created in the wall upon impact, landing on his hands and knees and struggling to get to his feet. His vision was spotty and blurred as blood pooled in his mouth and dripped from his nose.

Concussion-induced nausea and disorientation. He thought.

I was not aware primarchs could have concussions.

He activated the ration-injector in his armor, and his eyes shot open as Admu’s energizing elixir entered his bloodstream. He spit blood from his mouth and rose to his feet.

Time for a change in tactics. If I can’t get to the beast’s critical point, I’ll make it come to me.

He pulled out his pistol, now fully charged, and unloaded the entire clip into the beast’s legs as it charged towards him. This slowed it down. A bit. Then, he grabbed Starvore with both hands and, with all of his might, he slammed the axe into the earth sending out an energized shockwave that shook and crumbled the ground around him. The beast lost its footing in the tumult, sending the titanic creature careening towards him as it toppled over. Leman charged at the overturned behemoth, dodging and slashing its flailing limbs. He leapt onto its back just as it rose to its feet once again, its wounds recovered. He struggled to hold on as it bucked and kicked in a frenzy, before letting out a mighty battle-cry and finally plunging Mjalnar deep into a gap on the creature’s dorsal spines. A deluge of fetid black bile burst forth, coating Leman thoroughly in a shower of putrid entrails and curdled ichor. The heaving mass of flesh and muscle collapsed to the ground, its sinewy, clawed arms falling limp at its side. Leman struggled to his feet and raised his gore-coated sword in the air, and the crowd cheered wildly once again.

Panting heavily, Leman descended from the rapidly decaying corpse. The Rangda warbeasts were designed to practically dissolve upon death, their only purpose to act as living weapons. Soon the creature was nothing more than a pile of jagged bones and chalk-like powder. Leman looked up to Khorne's throne. The war god raised his hand once again.

"Impressive… very impressive, Leman Russ. You have demonstrated that you are a great warrior and a skilled slayer of beasts. However, if you are to prove yourself truly worthy, you must best the champions of this arena: the greatest warriors of my retinue.” Khorne said. Horns bellowed, and the gates began to creak open once more. Leman noticed Admu at his side, looking anxious or worried about something.

“Which champion am I to fight first?” Leman asked, shouting above the sounds of the arena. Khorne crossed his arms.

“Which?” he replied.

The gates opened, revealing the warrior Ulthanesh clad in her golden bone-sung armor wielding her scythe-like polearm. The organic curves of her shimmering warp-crafted armor flowed along her body as if they were cloth or a second skin, sliding plates which seemed to move with the whims of their master. Bright gemstones were inlaid along its smooth, lacquered surface, glimmering in the sunlight, and the gleaming golden plates were embossed with bold cerulean trimmings. Aside her stood the titanic green-skinned Grizhka, dressed in armor made of thick sheets of oily black metal, similar to the kind Leman’s new axe was crafted from. In addition, she was adorned with thick animal pelts and carved tusks, like a sleeveless suit of terminator armor looted by some feral tribesman. Resting on her shoulder was the colossal slab of black metal hewn in the shape of cleaver, which glowed with the same runic aura as Starvore.

Leman’s eyes were wide and his face bore a grave expression. He gripped his weapons tightly.

“Uncle, isn’t this unfair? How can you force him to fight two opponents at once?” Admu said, panicking.

“I am sworn by my duty to test his worthiness. I warned him that I would not hold back.” Khorne said.

“It has been a long time since we fought alongside one another instead of against each other, Grizhka.” Ulthanesh said, spinning her weapon into a combat stance.

“Indeed, Ulthi.” Grizhka said, bearing a toothy grin. “Come, Leman Russ. Let us see how you compare to the star-gods that met oblivion upon our blades.”

Leman injected another dose of the elixir.

Grizhka charged at him, bearing down on him with her massive blade. Leman instinctually raised Starvore to block her, the two kindred weapons creating an electrified shockwave with their collision. As he was pushed back Leman could feel the muscles in his left arm burning, his strength barely able to hold back the force of her strike. Grizhka leapt backwards, and before Leman could even register what he was doing he had raised Mjalnar to block a lightning-fast attack by Ulthanesh. She had moved so quickly that Leman did not even see her - it was only instinct which saved him. He deflected the lithe fighter’s strike, and she flipped backwards with a supernatural dexterity. Grizhka attacked once again, dragging her immense blade across the ground to send a wave of debris hurtling towards him. Leman rolled out of the way just in time, and then just barely deflected a flurry of strikes by Ulthanesh. Blood rolled down his cheek where one of the eldar’s strikes had grazed his face.

Need to form a strategy. Have to focus on one opponent at a time.

“Is defending all you can do, human!?” Grizhka said with a wicked smile. She attacked him again with a powerful overhead strike and Leman was forced to raise both his weapons to block it. The strike knocked him backwards several feet, struggling to remain on his feet. This time Grizhka followed up with another series of blows, which Leman struggled to defend against. He blocked one of them with Starvore, catching her cleaver in the notch of its axehead. He attempted to seize the opportunity by stabbing at her with Mjalnar but was interrupted by the spearhead embedding itself into the side of his torso. He swung at Ulthanesh, who pulled the weapon out of his midsection and dodged his strike. He turned to Grizhka just in time to see her fist hurtling towards his face. As he stumbled backwards, his eyesight became blurry and he began to see small pinpricks of light dancing in his vision. Blood leaked from both of his nostrils, and he spit out a broken piece of a tooth.

Damage to head superficial. Internal bleeding in abdomen. Need to take out the quick one. She’ll go down in fewer hits - higher priority. Wear the big one down after that.

“You’ll have to be quicker than that if you wish to keep up with us, Leman Russ.” Ulthanesh said, spinning her weapon. In a flash she was right in front of him, disappearing and reappearing in a flurry of strikes so fast Leman could only see her when she was stopped by his reflexive parries. He felt as though his body was a miniature imperial knight, and he was merely piloting a slow and lumbering machine from behind his eyes.

I feel like I'm moving underwater… I can't keep up with their strikes, and my strength can barely hold back their blows. Leman thought. I have to activate that trance Admu induced earlier… without falling unconscious.

He calmed his mind as much as possible, quieting every thought that wasn't immediately dedicated to survival. It felt like he had tunnel vision, darkness creeping up in his peripheral vision and colors giving way to traces of movement as his mind filtered out all non-essential visual information. His world became a shadowy fog punctuated splashes of light where his blades met theirs, as the fog grew darker and darker still.

He awoke back in the dark forest, the warm fire before him. He sensed the wolf stalking in the darkness around him, but could not catch a glimpse of it.

"I need your aid." Leman spoke into the darkness.

It would seem that way.

"You are the one who was behind the trance I experienced." Leman said. "My reflexes cannot keep up with their strikes forever, I need your power."

Are you sure? Do you truly wish for me to inhabit your flesh? For our souls to become one, even if for but a moment?

"Whatever it takes… I will fulfill my duty and prove my worthiness." Leman said resolutely.

Very well.

Leman turned to see the wolf pouncing at him from the darkness, its claws burying into his flesh and its fangs tearing into his throat.

Leman’s eyes shot open, and in a split-second he caught the tip of Ulthanesh's polearm with his axe as it lunged towards him. After deflecting the blow he bashed her face in with the axe's pommel, simultaneously parrying a swing of Grizhka's cleaver with his other hand.

The two warriors stumbled backwards. The man before them was not the same as before, his movements too quick, his eyes too sharp. His form almost seemed to flicker, as if two objects were inhabiting the same space. A cold wind blew across the arena, their hot breaths visible in the frigid air. Leman's face was twisted into a grave expression which, at a glance, appeared almost bestial. Admu looked on with rapt attention and Khorne leaned forward, intrigued.

Leman was beyond thought, each action and reaction an unbroken chain of pure instinct and predatory drive. Ulthanesh thrust her polearm towards Leman, only to be met half-way by a parrying strike from his axe. He slashed at her with his sword, but she spun the broad side of her weapon around fast enough to deflect it. Grizhka swung at him again with her cleaver, but this time Leman ducked and swept out her legs with a kick. He fought as if he were in two places at once, holding off Grizhka while simultaneously pushing Ulthanesh back with his onslaught. Leman swung Starvore, but Ulthanesh managed to deflect in such a way as to twist his wrist and force him to drop the weapon. Spotting an opening in Leman's defenses too quickly for him to close it, Ulthanesh thrust her polearm into his chest just below his shoulder pauldron. She almost felt a second of pride at her successful strike, until she realized the wolf-king had grabbed onto her arm. He pulled her in, paying no mind to the weapon piercing his lung, and cut a long, deep gash from her hip to her collarbone with his sword.

Grizhka, screaming with rage, crashed into him with her shoulder. Leman dropped Ulthanesh and was sent flying back. He scrambled to his feet as Grizhka thrust her cleaver a foot into the earth. The ground erupted with debris and forks of lightning, sending Leman flying into the wall of the arena. Grizhka swung her cleaver at him, and he dodged just in time. Her cleaver shattered the wall where he was an instant before, and left a cloud of debris when she forcefully wrenched it out. Grizhka bore down on him with blow after blow, pushing the wolf king further and further back, her eyes glowing with a burning frenzy. Her fury distracted her just long enough for Leman to deflect her cleaver, then immediately redirect his sword and sever her hand from her arm. The cleaver flew into the air with Grizhka's hand and a portion of her lower arm still gripping its hilt.

Leman did not, however, anticipate Grizhka shattering his nose a moment later with the elbow of the arm that used to hold her cleaver. Grizhka tackled him to the ground, Mjalnar impaling the earth as it was knocked out of Leman’s hand. She wrestled him in the dirt, blood and dust caking both of their bodies. Blow after blow rained down on Leman's face, before he grabbed her and tossed her aside. The two grappled one another for several minutes, covering one another heavily in both of their blood. Leman maneuvered behind Ghrizka and put her in a stranglehold, her desperate blows sending painful shocks even through his armor. Finally, after an agonizing few seconds, Leman felt a snap and Grizhka's struggling ceased.

Leman struggled to his feet, his arms and legs wobbly as he spit out the blood which was pooling in his mouth. He limped over to Mjalnar, grabbing its hilt. In an instant, he pulled it from the ground and grabbed Ulthanesh's polearm with his other hand, decapitating the warrior that had tried to sneak up on him in one clean motion. Her body fell limp to the ground, and her severed head rolled across the dirt. The crowd, which Leman had largely shut out completely, was cheering wildly. It was an upset never before seen in the history of the Colosseum - its two greatest champions bested by a single man.

Leman held his hand to his side, seeing the blood pouring through the holes in his armor on his gauntlet. He was heavily injured, several of his bones were broken, but he had won. He had beaten every trial the war god had thrown at him. As a cadre of servants carried the bodies of his two fallen opponents away, he fell on one knee out of exhaustion, supporting himself with his sword.

He was finally done.

Amid the deafening, cheering crowd, Khorne stood up from his throne. The spectators soon fell silent. He clapped, the sound of his metal gauntlets ringing out like an ominous church bell.

"Well done, Leman Russ. You have exceeded my expectations. It is clear to me now that no mortal warrior in my service can best you in combat." He said. The crowd cheered wildly in response. After a short while Khorne raised his hand and they fell silent again.

"It is now time for the final trial." Khorne said.

Leman's blood ran cold.

The skies overhead grew black with plumes of volcanic smoke. The titanic god of war unfastened the blood-red cape from his black armor, allowing it to fall to the floor.

Admu's face was white.

Khorne hoisted himself over the wall of the arena, plummeting to the ground and landing in a cloud of dust with a mighty thud. Thunder cracked overhead and two flaming swords fell like meteors from the darkened sky, embedding themselves into the earth at both of Khorne's sides. One sword was blood red and the other pitch black, both wreathed in wildfire. They were "Oathsworn" and "Traitorsbane": the twin greatswords of the mighty god of war. He grabbed both of the swords whose size would have dwarfed even the average space marine with one hand each, raising them above his head.

"Your final trial… is to defeat me, Leman Russ." Khorne said, his black armor reflecting the glow of his flaming armaments.

Leman activated his ration injector and imbibed the last of Admu's elixir before facing certain doom.

Chapter 7

Chapter Text

“It has been a long time since I fought a duel like this, Leman Russ.” Khorne said. “You are among an honoured few to face my blades.”

“I intend to be among the honoured few who faced your blades and prevailed.” Leman said, his eyes darkly serious.

“That would be few indeed.” Khorne said.

“Mister Russ!” Admu shouted from the stands. “You will win! I believe in you!” she said.

“My niece thinks very highly of you, Leman Russ.” Khorne said. “I sincerely hope you will not disappoint her.” Leman dug his heels into the dirt.

Khorne walked forward with a slow, deliberate pace, the sound of his armored boots ringing out like a death knell. Within the darkness of the 4-horned helmet’s visor, Leman could see the war god’s fiery red eyes beaming like dying stars. His twin swords crackled with a perpetual flame, and his black-armored form was wreathed in a thin layer of smoke. He dug his front foot into the earth, and Leman braced himself. Khorne seemed to glide across the ground, attacking with both swords at once, swinging them one after another in one smooth, unbroken motion. Leman rolled to the side just in time to avoid the arc of Khorne’s swing, but he had to raise his weapon to block the next attack. It did not deflect the strike, instead knocking Leman back several meters. Khorne’s movements were unlike anything Leman had seen before. He did not move like a warrior swinging a weapon, but rather like a mighty river flowing across eons-old weathered stone or the orbits of stellar bodies across the void. He was a force of nature, a tempest of fire and steel. Leman slashed the earth with Starvore, creating a wave of charged debris which rippled towards Khorne. In response, the war god drove his swords into the earth and created a wall of flame which absorbed the debris like a cresting wave crashing against a sea-cliff.

Out of the flames Khorne shot forth, his swords carving the air and leaving trails of fire as he sundered the earth with each swing. Leman was tossed across the arena by the shockwaves of Khorne’s strikes, all of his genetically enhanced strength and enhanced senses doing little more than to soften the relentless onslaught of attacks. Every time their weapons clashed, Leman was sent flying and his limbs suffered intense pain from even making contact with the war god’s preternatural strength. Russ felt less like he was fighting a warrior and more like he was attempting to survive a natural disaster; each of Khorne's attacks were a cataclysm unto themselves, Leman merely acting as a hapless bystander caught up in the destruction.

Leman was knocked back against the wall of the arena, falling to one knee and breathing heavily. He struggled to his feet, only to see Khorne throwing one of his swords like a javelin. Leman rolled out of the way just in time, and the projectile embedded itself into the wall.

Perhaps I can take advantage of th-

Khorne raised his hand and the sword began to glow, wrenching itself out of the wall and hurtling back towards him landing securely in his grip once again.

Terra be damned!

Khorne leapt into the air with an unnatural agility, careening towards Leman with his blades in tow. The primarch struck the earth beneath himself with his axe, creating a shockwave which violently propelled him backwards and narrowly allowed him to escape the war god's fiery impact. Khorne emerged from the dust in a whirlwind of fiery steel, his sword clashing with Leman's weapons and sending him flying backwards. Dazed, Leman felt a familiar presence lurking in the periphery of his vision as Khorne slowly approached.

You damned mongrel… you said you would help me! Leman thought, sensing the spectral wolf. I am being tossed about like a longship in the mightiest of Fenrisian storms, is this all that your power amounts to?

Your fear and doubt hold you back.


I can sense them. They weigh heavily on your spirit, preventing you from harnessing my full power: the power to fell a god. Unless you can cast off your apprehensions, you will perish.

What apprehensions? I am a primarch, and a son of Fenris! I fear nothing!

Are you sure, Leman Russ? Until you can confront your fears, you will remain weak.

The presence disappeared, and Leman rolled out of the way to avoid an arcing slash from Khorne’s greatsword. Feeling the fatigue weighing down on him, he attempted to digest what the spirit had said.

Fear? Doubt? I was designed to not fear death, nor doubt my duty. What is it that could trouble me?

Amidst the fighting his thoughts returned to his experiences in the depths of Slaanesh’s palace, and of the vision he had when he first came to this place. The state of his father, the state of the Imperium when he had left, the fates of his brothers, of his sons… he had been in the warp for 10,000 years, and had nary an idea of the current state of the galaxy. What if, upon his return, there would be no Imperium to return to? What of Fenris? His father? His legion?

He shook his head, burying his troubled thoughts. He had no time for such distractions. Gripping his weapons tightly, he mustered all the strength left in his body and let out a raspy war howl. He charged Khorne with Mjalnar raised, the armored opponent raising his red blade in preparation. Leman poured all of his might into his swing, his legendary frost blade directed straight towards the god’s heart. Time slowed to a standstill as the distance between the two swords closed, Leman’s heart burning with the last of his willpower until finally…

Mjalnar shattered into pieces upon contact, and Khorne’s red blade cut a deep gash through Leman’s chest. The primarch tumbled backwards, landing on his hands and knees and spitting up blood. His vision was shaky and blurred, but he could just barely see the broken remains of his former sword scattered across the ground. The blade-pieces crunched beneath Khorne’s black metal boots as he walked towards him, the war god’s red sword dripping with blood and supernatural fire. Leman’s mind was reeling, and with great difficulty he shakily rose to his feet.

Holding his axe in two hands Leman raised the weapon weakly to block the war god’s next strike, which sent him flying backwards. Leman's vision was spinning, and his entire body was wracked with pain. Blood poured from his chest wound, and his breaths were labored and gurgling. He struggled to stand. Khorne’s shadow loomed over him, his dreadful outline Illuminated by the lightning overhead. Leman's defiant expression was twisted by pain. Khorne raised both of his swords, and with the force of a meteor they hurtled downwards. Leman, lacking the strength to evade, hurriedly raised his axe to stop it. The force of Khorne’s strike drove Leman to one knee, the earth buckling and cracking beneath him. His entire body screamed with unimaginable pain, as the weight of a mountain bore down on him. Fractures appeared in his power armor as the sound of overworked servos burning out crackled in the air. Starvore groaned, the enchanted axe struggling to withstand the might of Khorne’s strength. Leman could feel the microfractures forming along his bones and the tears of his muscle fibers. His hearts burned, and his mind cried out in silence.

He remembered his days on Fenris, until he met his father. He remembered his sons, and the hardships they endured together from the Great Crusade to Horus's betrayal. He remembered his brothers, taken from him and his father one by one until so few remained. He remembered the day he was called to the Eye of Terror for this doomed quest, how he abandoned the Imperium, his sons, all of humanity to an unknown fate. Even if he did succeed, would there be an Imperium for him to return to? Or was humanity merely a corpse, a lingering shadow, like his father? Were his sons merely a memory in the minds of whatever remained of mankind? Or were even they forgotten? Would his death merely be the last folly in a chain of meaningless tragedies, ending with the fire of man finally being extinguished?

Tears mingled amidst the blood and sweat which soaked his face, as his vision blurred until he could see nothing but an endless, white abyss.

He awoke to a cold wind blowing across his face, as he could feel pinpricks of snow landing on his skin. He was in a windswept wasteland of ice, in the midst of a blinding blizzard. He rose to his feet, his body feeling weightless and numb.

Is this… the realm of Morkai? Leman thought.

He walked across the snowblind landscape, the wind carrying muffled sounds of clashing steel. Leman was alerted to a presence behind him, a large metal figure which appeared not to notice him.

…a dreadnought?

"Brothers!" the great sarcophagus said, raising the lightning claw which adorned its left limb. Leman looked into the dark visor of the metal warrior.

"Bjorn?" Leman said.

A host of Space Wolves appeared from the white void of the snowstorm, heeding the call of the ancient dreadnought.

"My sons…" Leman said.

Bjorn spoke to the massed warriors assembled behind him:

"Our accursed enemies, slaves of the Great Devourer, have dared to tread upon the surface of our world once again. They believe they can take it from us, that our defeat will open the way for that upstart warmaster Abaddon to lead his 'crusade' of rabble and cowards all the way to Holy Terra. They believe that we will put up little resistance, that the final legacy of the Vlka Fenryka will be one of submission and defeat. What do all of you say to that?"

The company of marines let out a collective war cry which made even the howling winds cower in fear.

"That is what I thought. Now let us show that one-eyed red bastard a customary Fenrisian welcome! For Russ and the Allfather!" the dreadnought shouted.

"For Russ and the Allfather!" the Space Wolves echoed.

The sky erupted above them, and the legions of hell poured out from within. Great spires of twisted silver descended from warp-spawned portals, their surfaces superheated by atmospheric entry. Daemonic hordes and traitor marines emerged from clouds of empyrean energy as the sundered earth spewed forth seas of molten lava.

"CHARGE!" bjorn bellowed, leading the pack of Space Wolves head-on into the enemy. Axes and chainswords fell upon daemonic teeth and claws, and the twisted progeny of Horus's rebellion clashed with Leman Russ's loyal sons. orbital bombardments and warp-magic artillery exploded all around them, the struggle for Fenris extending all the way from its surface to the void surrounding it. For every Space Wolf slain, he took tenfold daemons with him; they fought with such ferocity that Leman could not help but feel a surge of pride within him. He walked unnoticed amongst the carnage, bullets and energy bolts passing through his phantom form.

"What is this? A vision of the past?" Leman said. The spectral wolf appeared next to him.

No, this is the present. Or at least, as close as we can be to it in the convoluted tides of the immaterium.

Leman looked around at the chaotic surroundings, taking in the familiar landscape of his homeworld marred by chaotic invasion. Bolter fire and magic blasts filled the air, and warp-forged daemonblades clashed with frost axes. At the center of the battle stoof the immense dreadnought which housed the ancient body of Bjorn the Fell Handed, the last remaining member of Leman Russ’s Wolfguard. In his electrified claws he held a squirming daemon in a deathly grip while his autocannon tore through waves of the warp-spawned abominations.

“Bjorn… the one I left behind to lead the Vlka Fenryka in my absence…” he said. He knew that after 10 millennia there would likely be few if any of the mortal men Russ had known left in the galaxy, but to see one of his most loyal sons still serving in the name of he and his father after all this time… the feeling was indescribable. He could not tell anyone of the nature of his mission when he journeyed into the Eye of Terror due to its importance, not even his most trusted sons. In the deepest recesses of his mind, the Wolf King had always feared that he would tread the same path as his father by abandoning his sons without explanation. That they would feel betrayed, and be led into damnation. Yet here he saw no such thing. His sons fought against the legions of the Ruinous Powers with the same flame of righteous fury and pride that he had lit inside of them ten thousand years ago.

“After all this time, after I abandoned my sons without explanation…” Russ said. “Still their hearts burn with just as much fire as they did during the Great Crusade.” Russ felt a cauldron of emotions boiling inside of his chest, an amalgamation of longing, pride, and relief.

You did not abandon them. Within each of them is a part of you, a part of me. Even if you did not know it, you have been with them all this time.

The wolf turned to Leman, and bowed its head. Leman, sensing its intention, cautiously reached out his hand. He placed it on the wolf’s head, and was engulfed by a burst of golden light. He saw brief glimpses of the threads of fate, woven together into a tapestry which told the saga of the Vlka Fenryka. He saw their victories, their defeats, their triumphs and tribulations. He saw his sons grow in his absence from brazen berserkers he feared would eventually succumb to their baser instincts to an order of truly honorable warriors, ones which would always uphold justice and what they believed to be right even in the face of those above them. His sons had not only survived without him, they had grown and matured. He felt the weight of 10,000 years of history, but it was not a burden. It was a trophy, a cherished reminder of his sons’ unflinching loyalty.

Here in the immaterium, Russ was unsure of many things. He knew not the true state of the Imperium. He knew not the fates of the rest of his loyal brothers, if any remained at all. He knew not how much of humanity remained in the galaxy, nor how far they had fallen. Yet he now knew two things for certain: his father, as fractured and disabled as he was, still lived, and his legion stood strong. As far as Leman Russ was concerned, so long as he had his father behind him and his sons by his side, even if the entire universe stood against him, he would fight on.

He retracted his hand from the wolf’s forehead.

Have you seen what you wished to see?

“Everything and more.” Russ said. “I once promised to my sons that I would return to them when they needed me most. I cannot fall this day, lest that promise be broken. I will fight on, and I will win.” he said with absolute resolution.

Then accept my strength and allow me to show you my true power, Wolf King Leman Russ.

The wolf howled, and Leman’s surroundings dissolved in a brilliant white light.

Leman Russ opened his eyes.

A howling wind descended upon the Colosseum. Khorne, still bearing down on his defiant opponent, noticed hoarfrost growing on the edges of his armor. A supernatural energy coursed through Leman’s body as the exothermic reactors within his armor rose from a loud hum to a deafening roar. The ground beneath him buckled, but Leman did not yield. He pushed his body to its limit and beyond, pushing back against the god of war’s strength. The sound of groaning metal filled the frozen air, as Khorne shifted his footing. To his disbelief, the mortal was not only still alive; he was getting stronger. Through clenched teeth, Leman growled in determination. The ground beneath him froze over, as he rose from one knee. Khorne’s swords trembled as he struggled to keep his opponent down. Leman’s voice raised to a fearsome roar, and Starvore crackled with ethereal lightning in response. With one final push, Leman thrust the axe upward in a blast of empyrean energy which engulfed a large part of the arena. Khorne’s swords were knocked back, his black sword Traitorsbane flying out of his grip and impaling in the dirt. The god of war stumbled backwards, nearly knocked off his feet by the shockwave. As the dust settled, he could see his opponent clearly. The plates of Leman’s armor had become so hot they glowed white-orange. Golden energy coursed beneath his skin, and the ground froze wherever he stepped. His eyes were yellow flames, and his transformed, bestial face bore elongated fangs and an expression of unfathomable ferocity. Iceborn winds coiled around him, and clouds of steam billowed from his mouth and nose with every breath.

Admu watched with rapt attention as Khorne stood straight and tall, his demeanor shifting slightly. He raised his hand to recall Traitorsbane. Leman’s eyes widened and he leapt into action, scrambling to grab the hilt of the fallen sword. The blade pulled itself from the ground, but was stopped by Leman’s grip. He struggled to hold it in place, and Khorne’s empty hand tightened into a fist as he attempted to take back his weapon. Leman’s feet dragged along the earth, pulled by the supernatural will of the sword. With a harrowing battle-cry, Leman poured his strength into his arm and tore the sword from the invisible force which held it. In a blast of fire and lightning, both Leman and Khorne were knocked back. Khorne looked on with surprise as Leman raised the flaming sword in one hand with his axe in the other.

“So this is your true strength, son of Revelation.” Khorne said, gripping his red sword Oathsworn in both hands. “Then let the true battle commence!” Khorne charged forward with a deep and mighty yell, and Leman charged forth in turn with a bellowing howl.

The sound of thunder splitting the heavens above the Colosseum was drowned out by the deafening sound of the two warriors' blades clashing below. Khorne’s methodical, deliberate strikes were evenly matched against Leman's bestial ferocity, their flaming swords casting arcs of fire each time they met. The two fighters dashed back and forth across the arena like a savage dance, the speed of their movements bewildering to the mortal eye. Khorne took Oathsworn and dragged it across the ground, swinging it upwards and sending a wave of molten rock and flaming debris in Leman's direction. The primarch rolled out of the way, and was faced with Khorne's blade lunging towards him. Leman took his sword and axe together and thrust them into the earth, creating a shockwave of electrified flame which knocked the god of war backwards into the wall of the arena with a loud thud. Then, before Khorne had time to recover, Leman’s thrown axe embedded into the wall next to him and began to crackle with graven energy. The wall of the arena exploded with prodigious force, sending dust and chunks of stone flying in all directions. Khorne stumbled forward, dazed and disoriented, and tried to regain his footing. Out of the dust-choked air, Leman pounced with his flaming sword raised. Trails of fire lit the hazy dust cloud from within as Leman attacked with a berserker’s fury. Khorne’s sword moved with dizzying speed as he blocked each flurry of blows the primarch unleashed, all the while the god of war was slowly pushed back by the overwhelming onslaught. Leman paused for a moment out of exhaustion. Khorne used the opportunity to raise his sword in both hands and swing downwards towards his fatigued opponent. A column of fire and smoke erupted before him, and the walls of the Colosseum shook. Breathing heavily, Khorne believed for a moment that the fight was over; before noticing Leman was not beneath his blade. Out of the smoke Leman surged forth, his blade slicing the air as it hurtled towards Khorne. The god of war raised his sword to block the strike, before the black blade struck his head and sent him hurtling backwards. Khorne’s red sword clattered on the charred, blood-soaked earth along with his black, four-horned helm. The war god lay on his back, breathing heavily. Rivulets of blood spilled from the slash along his pale, ashen face. He had dark circles around his glowing red eyes, and a tangled mane of auburn-red hair. Leman pointed the tip of his sword at the god’s exposed throat.

Khorne, god of war and bloodshed, do you yield? Leman spoke in a booming voice.

Khorne glared at him with a smoldering expression. The two stared at one another with fiery eyes, before Khorne finally spoke:

“I yield.”

Spectators lept from their seats in elation, as the Colosseum saw the greatest upset in its history. Not only had Leman Russ defeated the greatest mortal champions of the realm, but he had even felled the god of war himself. Admu was filled with joy, a wide beaming smile painted across her face. However, her expression soon turned to shock. Leman began to stumble and stagger, as the supernatural energy drained from his body. His face and eyes returned to normal, and his weapons clattered to the ground as he collapsed upon his back. Had Leman been conscious, he would’ve felt the most terrible and intense pain in his entire existence.

Healers and surgeons were called from the realms of all four gods in an attempt to prevent the mortally wounded primarch from succumbing to his injuries. Nurgle’s children administered medicinal herbs, while multi-limbed surgeons from Slaanesh’s palace attempted to keep Leman’s body in one piece. Strange, bronze constructs with the unmistakable mark of Tzeentch’s craftsmanship cast arcane spells to put parts of him in stasis while others were treated with intensive medical rituals. His armor had to be carefully peeled from his body plate by plate, the superheated metal having fused with parts of his skin. Enriched blood substitutes were pumped through his body at rapid rates, and it seemed that every few minutes a new wound opened and began bleeding. After weeks of nonstop surgery, the primarch was deemed stable enough to rest for a while without constant care. Admu, who had watched the agonizing procedures from afar, sat by his side as soon as she was permitted to enter.

“Could you not have gone easier on him, uncle? At the very least you could have granted him a moment to rest between battles for pity’s sake! I could barely stand to watch…” Admu said with teary eyes while she held Leman’s bandaged hand.

“If I had been any more lenient, it would not have been a true test of his worthiness. There is much at stake here, and nothing can be left to chance. It was you who requested to watch the trials in their totality, against my protests.” Khorne said, with a stern yet understanding voice. He placed his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, his unmasked face still bearing a faint scar from the battle. Through Khorne’s naturally stony expression, Admu could see his concern seeping through.

“...I like you better without your helmet, uncle.” Admu said with a smile. Khorne chuckled warmly. “I just hope he gets better soon.”

“It’s a miracle he’s alive at all.” said a Slaaneshi healer who entered the room with a syringe. “Enhanced physiology or not, he should’ve died before that fight even ended. 72% of his skin and the inside of all 3 of his lungs suffered third degree burns, 198 of his bones were fractured, a third of his internal organs were heavily damaged, one of his hearts was partially ruptured, and the other completely exploded. Frankly it would be easier to list what parts of him weren’t injured. Seeing as he isn’t a supernatural construct, I honestly cannot say how he remained standing for so long when for all intents and purposes he should’ve been dead several times over.”

“He is worthy beyond a doubt, at least by my measure. When he has finished recovering, all that is left for him is to be judged by Tzeentch.” Khorne said. Admu caressed his scarred cheek.

I wonder what you are dreaming of, Mister Russ. she thought.

A young blood claw pulled his chainaxe out of a fallen demon’s skull and breathed in the cold air of Fenris, no longer tainted by the stench of the opened warp-tears. He looked out across an icy battlefield strewn with bodies of thousand sons and space wolves alike. He saw the great dreadnought Bjorn standing atop a mountain of daemon corpses and slain traitor marines, his lightning claw dripping with the blood of his fallen enemies.

“Revered One, venerable and ancient Bjorn the Fell-Handed, the battle has been won. We have repulsed the traitors’ attack and Fenris stands strong!” he said.

The dreadnought simply stared into the empty air, silent as a stone.

“...Revered One? Is something the matter? Have you been damaged?” he said.

The dreadnought remained silent for a while longer, before saying in a soft and wavering voice:


Chapter 8

Chapter Text

Leman Russ groggily opened his eyes and held up his hand as his vision adjusted to the light. He felt bandages covering his body, which was beset by a soreness so intense it could only be described as petrifying. With great effort, he lifted his torso off of the bed and gripped his aching head. The first thing he saw clearly was a smiling girl… with large horns. For a moment Leman thought he had gone mad, before remembering where he was and what all had happened to him since arriving in this place.

To think of all these strange and bizarre things I have come to accept as normal… I doubt many in the materium will believe me. He thought.

“Good morning, Mister Russ!” Admu said.

“Aye…” Russ said weakly. “What happened?”

“Oh, it was incredible! You dashed and slashed around the arena like a… well, like a wolf!” Admu said, making wild movements with her arms in an attempt to imitate the warriors' duel. “I have never seen anyone move like that. Uncle Khorne didn’t stand a chance!”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves." Khorne said, standing in the doorway with his helmet in his arm. Leman felt his heart rate increase, before noticing the disarmingly placid look upon the god's face. His formerly sharp and aggressive features somehow seemed softer and warmer. "It was an evenly matched fight, not even the stars could have predicted the outcome. A pure battle of spirit and will."

"That is all good and well…" Leman said, rising from the bed and emitting a groan of pain. "...but what in the Allfather's name happened to me? How long have I been here in this bed?"

"6 months." Khorne said. Leman’s eyes shot open.

"By the blighted winds of Morkai…" Leman whispered, placing his hand on his forehead.

"You're lucky you woke up." A surgeon from Arcadia said, walking into the room holding medicinal vials in 3 of his 6 hands. The Slaaneshi servant had the characteristic porcelain complexion of his kind and a plume of violet hair parted to one side so as to conceal half of his face. Unlike the other acolytes of the Pleasure Prince, this one seemed to carry himself with a much more self-serious, though no less dramatic, demeanor. "We practically had to peel you out of that molten heap of armor like preserves from a metal can. Took several days to make sure you were even in one piece." he said, mixing the fluorescent fluids into a drinking vessel. Admu gave a squeamish look, remembering the dire state of Leman when she had first seen him. Khorne shot a venomous look towards the callous surgeon, who looked away nervously, deciding wisely to not go into more detail. "Here, drink this." he said, pouring the concoction into Leman’s mouth before he could protest. "That should take care of the fatigue you're feeling. Other than that, you're healthy as a Nurglite ox." he said, sauntering out of the room.

"Tastes like grox manure…" Leman said, between bouts of hacking and gagging. He raised his hands, opening and closing his fists, then stretching his back and shoulders.

Seems to have worked, at least.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re alright Mister Russ!” Admu said, clasping her hands together.

“So, I take it that my trial is complete?” Leman said, turning to Khorne.

“Indeed… and you surpassed my expectations valiantly.” Khorne said. “By my measure, you are judged worthy a thousand times over.” He bowed his head as a show of respect to the primarch. “It is no wonder my niece is so fond of an honorable champion such as yourself.” Admu blushed. “If she intends to court you, I will have no objections. Of course, her father Nurgle will have to bestow the blessing himself. I am sure that your progeny would establish a mighty dynasty.”

Admu's eyes were as wide as dinner plates, and her face was so flushed she could have been mistaken for a bloodthirster. Leman simply bore a bewildered expression, as if he had just seen his father transform into a giant orange lizard.

"U-u-u-uncle!!!" Admu stammered.

"Is something the matter? I was under the impression that you-" Khorne was cut off by his niece practically tackling him, shoving him into the next room followed by the door slamming shut. Through the walls Leman could hear Admu's muffled rage and what sounded like large objects being tossed around.

While Khorne attempted to defend himself from his incensed niece in the next room, Leman’s mind wandered to what little he remembered of the fight before falling unconscious. He could recall bits and pieces, like fragments of a dream, but nothing concrete. All he could remember for certain was a sense of overwhelming pride and reassurance, and the presence of the wolf-like spirit guiding him through the vision. The next time he encountered this being, he would have some questions for it to answer. As useful as its aid had been, he did not like relying on something so mysterious and unknown. Perhaps his father’s mistrust of gods and spirits had finally rubbed off on him.

After a few days, Leman recovered to full strength. He donned the traveling clothes he had arrived in, and was met with Khorne and Admu standing outside of his room. Admu carried on her back a thick fur coat, giving Leman an idea of what their destination would be like.

“You will be traveling to Tzeentch’s domain in the north for your final trial. His monastery lies in the great, snow-capped peaks of Albalus Lysagora, a frigid mountain range in the far north. The lofty peaks of those mountains are close to the veil and the winds of the warp are strong at that elevation, so I advise caution. Your strength is mighty, but Tzeentch’s realm is that of the mind and soul; you must guard your thoughts and spirits well.” Khorne said. "Your weapons and armor were extensively damaged during our battle and will take some time to repair. Tzeentch has informed me that you will not require them for your last trial, so I will ensure they are ready when you return." he said. “Oh, and do keep an eye on Admu, she-.” Admu jabbed him in the side with her elbow, evidently not having completely forgiven her uncle, leaving a small dent in his armor. Khorne responded with a surprised grunt.

“Thank you, uncle.” she said, with a grimacing smile. "Will you be needing a coat, mister Russ?"

"No need, lass. I've braved the long winter nights of Fenris in less than this." he said, gesturing to his traveling clothes. "I'll be fine."

"Wonderful! I've already got everything packed. Papa never let me hike all the way up the mountains at home, this will be so much more exciting!" she said, radiating a contagious joy.

The two walked out of Khorne’s fortress and were met by throngs of warriors gathered to see the champion off. They cheered at the sight of Leman Russ; their weapons raised in the air.

Perhaps one day I may return to Fenris and be greeted by my sons like this. Leman thought. No, not perhaps. I am sure of it.

Musashi, Grizhka, and Ulthanesh stood at the forefront of the crowd. Leman approached Musashi first, and they shook hands.

“I must admit, I did not think it was possible…” Musashi said “for a mortal to fell Khorne himself. Perhaps now humans might be a bit more respected around here.” he said with a chuckle.

“I would not discount yourself, warrior. There are some surviving tales of the heroes of ancient Terra and fighting you has proven those tales to be no mere legend. Be proud! You too are a testament to the strength of mankind.” Leman said.

“You honor me, Leman Russ.” Musashi said with a bow. Leman. turned to Grizhka, who had a stone-faced expression. Leman’s eyes narrowed, and the two glared at one another. Then, Grizhka broke out into bellowing laughter, slapping Leman on the shoulder and nearly knocking him over.

“That was some performance, wolf-boy! I can scarcely believe it, besting two of the strongest warriors in history and then knocking the big man himself flat on his behind! You really have some fight in you, young pup.” She said.

“Well, beating you was not an easy task.” Leman said with a smirk. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been concussed before, especially not by an overgrown ork.” Grizhka laughed even harder.

“Put it here, champion. The galaxy shall tremble upon your return.” Grizhka said, holding out her hand. Leman somewhat reluctantly reached out, before Grizhka spat on her palm and grasped a shocked Leman’s hand before he could pull away. After she let go, Leman rubbed his palm with his shirt bearing an expression of repugnance. After ensuring his hand was at least somewhat clean, he turned to Ulthanesh who gently grasped his hand with both of hers (while Admu watched closely from afar with a suspicious look).

“Your task is nearly complete, warrior. I pray that you will succeed.” she said.

“What do you know of my task?” Leman said.

“I know that you fight for the survival of your people, and the very galaxy itself.” she said. “Our races have not had a… pleasant history. Yet somehow, I feel as though our destinies are bound by fate.” Leman’s brow furrowed. “All that I ask is that you do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Do not let rage and hatred destroy that which you love. Without a heart to guide it, the galaxy will eventually become as cold and lifeless as the one who rules it.” She placed something in his hand and closed it. “I wish you a blessed journey, Leman Russ.” Leman opened his hands, and with a puzzled look held up a medallion in the shape of a scorpion.

“Come on mister Russ, let’s go see uncle Tzeentch! I can’t wait to see the mountains up close, it’s like that mountain you told me about from your world, uh… Azar-high?” Admu said.

“Asaheim.” Leman said. “And it is a good idea to be on our way as soon as possible. The sooner I can pass the final trial, the better.”

And so, the two departed to great fanfare, Khorne watching from high above in his fortress with a content smile.

The rolling foothills of the Lysagoran mountains began to rise just to the north of the base of Khorne’s Plateau, and a dry breeze drifted down from the cold heights beyond. The dusty plains and deserts gave way to conifers and ferns. It was reminiscent of Nurgle’s forest but not quite as lush or welcoming. It was as if something in the air prohibited certain things from living here, not just the falling temperature. As the forest deepened the air became moist and cool, with heavy clouds of fog and mist blanketing their surroundings. Admu drew closer to Leman, her breaths visible in the chilly air.

"This place feels… strange" she said.

"I feel it too." Leman said. "It reminds me of being on a ship with a faulty gellar field generator, though with a lot less screaming voices and agony." Admu shuddered a bit at his description, not wanting to inquire further.

That is strange… this place is probably the closest I've felt to being back in the warp since arriving here. Yet the overwhelming malevolence of Chaos seems absent, instead it feels like a kind of background noise. Is this what the Sea of Souls is like without the influence of the Chaos Gods?

Leman remained cautious, as he kept his eyes on what appeared to be shifting shapes and figures within the mist, though whenever approached they would disappear along with the fog itself. Winds whistled between the branches and ferns creating faint noises like whispers, just quiet enough to be indiscernible even to Leman’s enhanced senses.

“We should keep moving until we’re above the cloud layer, that way we can at least see our surroundings.” he said.

Given how the warp tends to defy common sense, I hope there is a cloud layer here… he thought.

As they continued, patches of snow began to appear around the bases of the large conifers and hoarfrost gathered on the deep green pines of the trees above. The icy fog swirled and churned, creating dancing shapes which could fool the eye into seeing things that weren’t there - or perhaps not seeing things that were there. Bereft of his weapons and armor, Leman felt vulnerable, and the assurances of this realm’s “Tzeentch” gave him no comfort.

Out of all the abominable chaos gods, Tzeentch was likely the one he hated most. His servants eschewed honorable combat in favor of schemes and manipulation, rarely engaging in combat themselves and, whenever forced to do so, using cowardly magic to smite their foes from afar. Despite the beings of this world having proven his suspicions incorrect several times now, he was not particularly enthused for whatever ‘challenge’ this next and final trial had in store for him.

The winds became stronger as they ascended, and the fog became chokingly thick, almost like an icy smoke with a metallic tang. Leman heard animal calls in the distance, causing the hairs on his neck to stand up. They were deep and ethereal, more akin to ghostly wails than any living animal. Flashes of blue light danced deep within the fog, as Leman reached for a weapon which was not there.

Damn it all if the end of my journey comes from the deception of that trickster bastard Tzeentch… Leman thought.

A sudden rush of wind blew through the trees from behind the duo, followed by a bellowing wail. An immense shadow appeared in the mist, which was all the signal Leman needed to grab Admu’s arm and begin sprinting up the mountain. From behind them he could hear branches snapping and falling to the ground, accompanied by more ghostly cries. They weaved through the pines and underbrush, before finally emerging from the fog-consumed forest and stumbling on the sparse, rocky mountainside. The fog formed a flat sea which spread out behind them, only the tops of conifer trees poking through occasionally. They turned around, as the eerie calls from within the mist grew deafening. The source of the sound revealed itself, a glowing shape rising to the surface of the cloud layer before bursting forth into the air. It was an immense creature, with transparent skin like glass or crystal, its internal organs lit up in a fantastic display of multicolored lights. It was reminiscent of the great sea creatures which the mighty krakens of Fenris would do battle with: "hvaluri" or, as some ancient Terran texts described, "whales". The creature spread its flippers as it rose above the clouds, making a low rumbling which reverberated through Leman and Admu. It rose into the air as if suspended in water, lazily flapping its tail and soaring just above the cloud layer. It was followed by more whale-like creatures, each synchronizing their haunting calls like an unfathomable song. The sky above the clouds was a dazzling light show, with ribbons of green and blue light flowing through the air as if pushed and pulled by some invisible current. There were stars here, but they were not fixed; they moved with the currents as well, swirling in impossible patterns with galaxies forming and dissolving like transient eddies on the surface of a great river. Amongst the auroras and stars a myriad of equally mystifying creatures swam across the night sky. Aside from the fog whales, what appeared to be shooting stars dashed across the sky before then abruptly changing course and swirling around the whales like schools of fish. Great flattened serpents drifted lazily along unseen currents, their bodies completely black but lined with countless tiny red and magenta lights which made them visible. Glowing, multicolored jellyfish the size of starships undulated slowly in the air, their tentacles like the trails of comets. Creatures of all shapes, sizes, and colors whirled overhead in a chaotic yet graceful kaleidoscopic ballet.

“It’s… beautiful.” Admu said, breathlessly. Leman silently agreed.

He had seen all kinds of impossible sights during his years inside the hellish realms of chaos, but none could have ever been described as truly ‘beautiful’. In the back of his mind, he recalled a long-forgotten memory, half-remembered from when he was but a child. Alone on an unforgiving world, freezing waters, ice, and blistering winds all around him, he huddled to conserve his warmth beneath the gray-black storm clouds. Then, the clouds parted, and the winds ceased. He saw the night sky for the first time, millions upon millions of tiny lights accompanied by auroras like great strokes of paint upon a black canvas. Leman breathed in the cold air and felt a faint warmth in his chest.

Admu slowly turned around, drinking in the magnificent display overhead, then gasping.

"Mister Russ, look!" she said, pointing behind him. Leman turned and beheld the summit of the mountain.

The ice-and-snow-covered rocks which formed the mountains seemed to flow upward, bent and folded at impossible angles as if reaching for the sky itself. Nestled within and above the crags and peaks was a colossal monastery, made of some arcane amalgam of marble and granite. Streaks of gold, silver, bronze, and countless other precious alloys were embedded within the rock, either naturally or by some unfathomable sorcery. Great spires, steeples, and minarets rose majestically above the walls, their metallic peaks shining in the ethereal light. All around the monastery and the mountain peaks buttressing flowed currents of blue-green energy, snaking from the lower parts of the mountains, between the towers and up into the sky. The light-currents flowed along a great silvery-white chain which rose from the mighty central spire of the fortress, towering above before reaching the shining beacon which seemed to draw everything upon the mountain towards it: a moon, bathing the summit in a pale and ghostly blue light. It loomed so large overhead and hung so low to the surface that Leman felt as though he might trip and fall straight onto its surface high above. Fragments of the mountain below floated between the ground and the satellite above, suspended by the combined gravity. The white-silver chain hung from its southern pole, tethering it to the monastery below.

It was a lot to take in. It was more than a dream, it surpassed anything Leman could have ever imagined in both wonder and mystery. Admu’s eyes glimmered in the starlight, wide and bewildered by the magnificent sights before them. The two walked slowly up a mountain path, passing by hoarfrost shrubs with crystal-blue flower buds and boulders coated in glowing teal lichen. Leman remained lucid yet was still awestruck by his surroundings, so much that even he let his guard down at least a little. The night sky had always held a somewhat hostile connotation in the primarch’s mind, an endless expanse of darkness which held countless, untold threats to humanity. Yet here, he felt no such hostility. The sea of souls flowed through and around him without resistance, leaving him with an unshakeable sense of tranquility.

The remaining walk up the mountainside was rather short, yet it felt as though it lasted a lifetime as the two imbibed their phantasmagorical surroundings. It was only halfway up that Leman realized he was still holding Admu’s hand, which he abruptly let go and curtly apologized. Admu simply smiled and blushed imperceptibly. Unfortunately, the two eventually found themselves at the end of their trek: A large metallic door carved into the mountainside with piles of snow gathered on each side. Leman reached out to knock, before being interrupted by the sound of electronic static.

"Ahem, testing…" a squawkish voice spoke, followed by the sound of tapping upon a microphone. "Good, good, everything should be working properly…" Leman could hear a stack of papers being shuffled. "Greetings, challenger, to my humble abode… er, fortress… monastery… the great Hara Berezaiti!" Leman looked at Admu with a slightly incredulous expression, who offered a simple shrug in return.

"If you have made it this far, then that means you have passed the trials of Nurgle, Slaanesh, and Khorne, leaving only one trial remaining… the trial of I, Tzeentch! Lord of Sorcery and Knowledge, Archiver of the Past, Present, and Future! The All-Knowing! The All-Hearing! And the All-Seeing!” The voice proclaimed.

“All-knowing?” Leman said. “Then does that mean you kno-”

“Ah ah ah, no questions just yet. Pass my trial and you may ask me any questions you like. Also, this is a pre-recorded message, so I could not answer your questions even if I wanted to!”

“If these messages are pre-recorded then how can y-”

“I have been waiting for this day for eons! Millennia spent planning for this very day, which would be the day you are hearing this recording!” Leman sighed. “Now, just enter this elevator and it will deliver you to the location of your trials. I wish you luck, challenger! Tzeentch, signing off.” Despite this, the recording continued for a few more minutes. It was silent save for the sound of rustling feathers and muffled speech, ending with the sound of a microphone being tapped and then hurriedly turned off.

I am not looking forward to this. Leman thought.

The metal doors opened with an electric chime, and the two entered the elevator. It descended smoothly, the humming of large machinery reverberating through the metal room. After a short time, the doors on the opposite side opened to reveal a vast metal hallway, as wide as a small hangar. They proceeded down the cylindrical tunnel, their path lit by coils of tubes filled with some glowing substance which oscillated between green, blue, and violet. They sprawled across the walls and ceilings like roots, occasionally attaching to unidentifiable instruments jutting out of the sides of the hallway. After traversing what felt like a mechanical jungle of tubes and machinery, the tunnel opened up into an impossibly large room. The lack of lighting as well as the extreme dimensions of the space made it feel as though it were infinite, extending out in all directions without end. As they walked out into the dark room, a hangar door closed behind them. A loud electric hum echoed from beneath the floor, and a mechanical whirring noise filled the air. Above them, great rotating mechanisms lit with the same blue-green-purple light illuminated the darkness, and Leman could feel a tingling sensation along his skin.

“What is this sorcery?” he said.

“Not sorcery, technology!” A disembodied voice rang out. “What you are experiencing is my state-of-the-art warp-powered virtual simulation chamber!”

“A simulator?” Leman said. “I know of some combat simulators the other chapters would use for training.”

“Oh, I can assure you this will be far more impressive! You are a great warrior Leman Russ, your incredible results in my brother’s trial have proven that much, but I know that you are no mere brute.” Tzeentch said. “You see, I intend to test something other than your strength and prowess in combat… your mind! Your ability to adapt to your surroundings, your strategy, your tactics, all of them will be put to the test in a series of three scenarios I have developed based on information compiled from historical records. Oh, how I have waited for this day!” Tzeentch said, followed by the sound of excited clapping.

“Hello uncle Tzeentch! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.” Admu said to the voice.

“Oh, hello Admu, I- wait, Admu? W-what are you doing here?” Tzeentch said.

“I’m accompanying mister Russ on his quest! I’ve followed him all the way from papa’s forest to here.” she said. “Didn’t you know that? You did say you were all knowing…”

“I, uh, must have… overlooked this possibility in my planning… well, no matter. I’ll simply deactivate the simulation and ensure you are out of harm’s way… Oh. Well, that is peculiar.” Tzeentch said. “It appears that the simulation... cannot be deactivated… until the trial is complete…” Tzeentch said, laughing nervously. “Okay, new plan! Just follow the challenger’s lead and help him to complete the trials, then everything should be fine!”

“What happens if we die in these simulations?” Leman said.

“Good question!” Tzeentch exclaimed, followed by silence. “You know, I probably should have tested that before now…” Leman and Admu looked at each other with a worried expression. “I will see if I can do anything about deactivating the simulation… In the meantime, rule of thumb: try not to die. I wish you luck in your trials!” Tzeentch said. “...Nurgle is going to have my head for this…” Tzeentch muttered. Arcs of energy appeared in the air all around them, and Leman felt as though his soul was becoming detached from his body. His surroundings dissolved into a chaotic slurry of light and sound, bolts of energy cleaving reality apart until nothing remained except pure sensation. Then, everything went dark.

Leman felt around his surroundings, and realized he was sitting down in some kind of enclosed space. Suddenly, red emergency lights came on and revealed that he was inside of some kind of cockpit, of a design Leman was entirely unfamiliar with. His hands moved instinctively, flipping switches and pushing buttons which seemed to activate the machine he was encased in.

The simulation must have given me access to whatever technical knowledge I require to complete the trial. Leman thought.

He flipped a switch, activating a vox-caster which blared static. The static began to clear as he turned a knob, and a voice could be heard within the background noise. Zeroing in on the frequency of the transmission, the voice became intelligible.

“Co-.........der-..........ight-..........orks-.............” the voice said between bursts of static. “Sh-....vah-….Come-.... In-.... respo-.....” Leman zeroed in on the transmission further, until finally it became clear. “...O’Shovah, come in. This is Shas’O K’val, Commander Farsight, please respond!” a female voice said.

Commander Farsight? Leman thought. I do not recall any imperial officers by that name.

By some internal nudge, Leman was compelled to respond.

“Hello, do you read me?” he said.

“Oh Commander Farsight, how relieving it is to hear your voice once again!” K’val said. “Our positions are being overrun by orks, we need urgent reinforcements in sector 3!”

It appears this is my trial… but what weapons will I be using? And what forces am I commanding as this ‘Commander Farsight? Leman thought.

A visor lowered from a compartment above, which Leman peered through. His vision adjusted, as he instinctively grabbed hold of two control sticks. The visor came online, and he was greeted by a war-torn landscape with the bodies of orks and strange, blue xenos strewn everywhere. Using the control sticks, he got used to controlling the battlesuit(?) he now found himself in, words and terminology floating in his mind but not quite being committed to memory. It was as if he could access a user manual inside of his head but never quite remembered what he had read. He moved the suit’s arms, noticing that one of them held some kind of arcane blade.

This must be some kind of titan, but I have never heard of one which could be operated by a single pilot. Leman thought.

He turned the battlesuit’s head and saw a monstrous machine next to him. It was truly titanic, rivaling an Imperial knight in size and likely surpassing it in sheer firepower. Each of its limbs held triple-barreled energy cannons, and three colossal gun batteries hung from its back. The machine turned to him, and a familiar voice came through on the vox-caster.

“Mister Russ? Is that you?” Admu said, waving the arm of her battlesuit. “You look so small from up here!”

“Admu? You can pilot these vehicles as well?” Leman said.

“Yep! I’m not sure how, but it just kinda comes naturally, like walking or swimming. It’s really cool! Check this out!” She said, pointing one of her arms at a large boulder. With a blast of blue light and a powerful shockwave, the boulder was reduced to molten slag in the blink of an eye.

“Be careful what you are aiming at, Admu.” Leman said. “I would not want to end up on the wrong end of that thing.”

“Yes sir, mister Russ!” Admu said, making her battlesuit mimic a salute.

“Hello? Commander Farsight, are you still there? We need urgent backup in sectors 3, 5, and 6, our defenses are nearly overrun by ork forces!” K’val said.

“Understood. We will arrive shortly.” Leman said over the vox-caster. “Well, Admu, are you ready to see what fighting orks is like up close?”

“Yessir! Oooh, this is going to be so exciting!” Admu exclaimed.

“Then let us go hunting for greenskins.” Leman said, raising his suit’s sword.

Chapter 9

Chapter Text

Shas’Vre K’val fired a volley of plasma bolts from her XV8 Crisis battlesuit into a horde of incoming orks, scattering their scorched bodies across the no man’s land which separated their defenses from the jungle which the orkoid plague had infested. The defensive line was divided into 6 sectors, with one contingent assigned to each sector. The orks of this tau colony world had been biding their time, harassing convoys in small bands and stealing whatever they could get their hands on while keeping their true numbers hidden. Their hand was revealed when they launched an immense attack on a nearby military production facility, overwhelming the local defenses and seizing the facility for themselves. Now they were well-armed with haphazardly modified but surprisingly effective tau munitions, and their numbers far exceeded the tau’s. So far they had only launched a series of probing attacks with a portion of their forces, but even still they had managed to heavily damage the defenses of districts 3, 5, and 6. If they breached this defensive line, they would have a clear shot to the nearest tau settlement. The next transport ship wouldn’t be coming for another few weeks, meaning all the civilians left on the planet would be utterly helpless against the green menace.

I was led to believe orks were stupid… yet on this planet they have managed to both outgun and outmaneuver us. Just who is leading this warband of orks? She thought.

Orks poured from the tree line, armed with retrofitted pulse weapons and crudely-assembled melee weapons. Their war cry was deafening to the point that K’val could hear them through her battlesuit - the sound deeply unnerved her. She steeled her nerves and prepared another volley knowing that if the orks breached their defenses they would be helpless in close quarters and quickly overwhelmed. A series of explosions tore through the main cluster of orks, which took K’val by surprise; she hadn’t ordered any bombardments. She was about to reprimand whoever had used unauthorized heavy ordinance before her attention was drawn to a red blur descending from above. The modified XV8 battlesuit landed in the center of the ork horde, drawing the attention of every ork in the vicinity. K’val watched as ‘Commander Farsight’ cleaved orks like a surgeon, savagely dashing around the battlefield in a way she had never even thought possible with a battlesuit. She had heard rumors of the Commander’s combat prowess in the past, as well as his unconscionable usage of melee combat in battle, but what she saw far surpassed even the wildest of tall tales.

The superstitious Gue’vesa have legends and myths of great heroes and demi-gods from an age long gone… perhaps O’Shovah is like the kind of warriors they spoke of? She thought, the spectacle she was witnessing overpowering her usually analytical and objective mentality.

The probing assault of the orks had been mostly neutralized by the Commander, with the few remaining stragglers running back into the tree line. A gargantuan XV139 Supremacy battlesuit emerged from a rocky outcropping to the east, no doubt the source of the unauthorized volley. K’val was too starstruck to reprimand the pilot however, instead approaching the Commander as he pulled his sword out of an ork corpse.

“Commander Farsight! You are certainly a welcome sight for weary eyes.” K’val said. “Though I fear that your presence alone may not be enough to hold back the green tide.”

“I would like to make that assessment myself… K’val, was it? Morale and strategy are often what win wars, not merely numbers.” He said.

That was certainly true of the Rangdan Wars… Leman thought.

“Very well, Commander. Allow me to brief you on our defenses.” she said.

K’val gave the two a brief tour of the defensive lines, giving the ‘commander’ a briefing on the state of their forces, the weapons at their disposal, and the general strategic landscape. The technology of these blue-skinned creatures was unlike anything he had seen before, somewhat primitive in certain ways compared to Imperial technology but surprisingly advanced in others. Could this be some kind of abhuman breakaway faction, or an up-and-coming xenos empire in the galaxy? The idea of inhabiting the body of a xenos certainly unnerved him, but he would have to put aside his discomfort for the sake of the mission.

“So, as you can see, we are operating on below-standard equipment stockpiles and a not-insignificant manpower shortage. Most reinforcements in this region of space are tied up fighting a tyranid splinter fleet, meaning there won’t be any reinforcements for a while. Under normal circumstances this would be more than enough to deal with an orkoid infestation, but somehow these orks have managed to capture a manufactory and have begun arming themselves at a rapid pace. I do not understand it myself, as all of the orks I have dealt with in the past have been mindless brutes simply looking for the nearest target to destroy.” K’val said.

“Orks are stupid, mindless brutes… up until the moment they are not. It is folly to underestimate them.” he said. “Moreover, orks are masters of improvisation. Their tactics may be simplistic, but in large numbers they can become extremely unpredictable. Static defensive tactics may not be enough to neutralize a massed ork assault, especially not with material and manpower shortages.”

“If individual orks aren’t very smart, what if their leader is?” Admu said. “They don’t have to be smart enough to understand everything they’re doing, just smart enough to follow orders.”

“That is a likely possibility, Admu…” Leman said. “Orkoid hierarchy is highly stratified with their leaders being far larger and in some cases more intelligent than their subordinates. If this is the case, eliminating the head ork will leave the rest without a unified command structure and significantly decrease their strategic capabilities.”

“How do we draw out their leader?” K’val said.

“Orks instinctually crave battle, but some battles are more satisfying to them than others. Melee combat is especially thrilling to them, and a worthy opponent will likely draw out the largest and strongest orks.” Leman said.

“Melee combat? I’m afraid you are the only one with any experience in that… field, Commander.” K’val said.

Excuse me? Leman thought.

“You mean to tell me that none of your troops have close-quarters weapons training?” Leman said.

“N-no sir… it is not a part of standardized Tau doctrine. You are an… outlier in that regard.” K’val said, a bit nervously.

Commanding an army entirely without melee capabilities… Tzeentch, you bastard. Leman thought, cursing himself.

“No matter, we will simply have to… adapt our tactics accordingly.” Leman said. "They are using the forest as cover, have you tried defoliants?"

"We would if we had any, and we dare not waste the precious few munitions on simply burning down trees." K'val said. Leman paused in contemplation.

“I need three of your most experienced squads, specialized in stealth if available.” Leman said.

“We have stealth teams, yes… but for what purpose? Sending stealth teams into those forests would be suicide.” K’val said.

“We are not going into the forest. We are assaulting the manufactory.” Leman said.

“I… fail to see the strategic benefit to such an operation. Even if we could get the manufactory working, we would simply waste more of our resources defending it from-”

“We’re going to destroy it.” Leman said. “So far, the orks have only seen you as an obstacle. A wall to throw themselves at until it falls over. They have yet to see you as a true foe.

“What is the difference?” K’val said.

“Animosity. Orks are easily enraged, if we want to draw out this ork warboss we need him to see us as nothing less than his greatest nemesis. The fact that he ordered his forces to seize this manufactorum as his first open act of hostility as well as the unusually well-equipped nature of his troops tells me that this warboss values this manufactorum not only as a strategic resource, but a source of legitimacy. If we take that away from him, he will have no choice but to confront us directly or risk subordination.” Leman said. “Then I will slay the warboss myself, once we lure it out.”

“Alright… I cannot say I have any better suggestions” K’val said.

“Have the stealth teams ready by sundown, we will begin the operation at nightfall.” Leman said. “Sorry Admu, you’ll have to sit this one out. Stealth missions do not usually call for heavy ordinance.” Admu responded with a disappointed sigh.

Three orca dropships coated in blacksun stealth filters were escorted through the night sky by a swarm of cloaked drones, delivering the tau stealth teams to their destination. Their equipment was light, only enough to sabotage the manufactory and defend their position long enough for extraction. The risks of the operation were high, but Leman had deduced that the only way to avoid defeat by attrition was to act first and bait the orks into attacking them before they lose their firepower advantage. This operation would simply be chumming the waters to draw out the sharks.

“Teams Viper, Lantern, and Grenadier sound off.” Leman said. K’val herself, trading in her crisis battlesuit for a stealthsuit, was leading team Viper, while team Lantern was led by a Shas’ui named Shal’ra, and team Grenadier by one named Vel’tan. The team leaders sounded off one by one. “Alright, team Lantern will be stationed at the landing zone to secure our entry and exit. Teams Grenadier and Viper will assault the manufactory from the southern and western entrances, with team Grenadier staying outside while team Viper plants the explosives in the power core. I expect each team to practice operational independence to meet their objectives.”

“What role will you play, O’Shovah?” Vel’tan asked.

“I’m the distraction.” Leman said, sharpening his blade.

“Approximately 12 minutes to the drop zone.” A pilot said over the radio.

“Alright, let us give these orks a reason to hate us.” K’val said. “Then, we will make them fear us.”

The three orca dropships hovered quietly above a clearing southwest of the manufactory. All three stealth teams disembarked into the tall grass, swaying in the cold night breeze. In the night-vision sensors of Leman’s battle-suit, the forest was a sea of grainy black and green, with a white glow in the distance indicating the manufactory’s presence. Team Lantern set up a defensive perimeter while Viper and Grenadier stalked through the dense foliage. They stopped at the tree line and split up, with team Viper taking the southern approach and team Grenadier approaching the manufactory from the west. Leman had a different objective. Using his jump-jets, he launched himself onto the roof of the immense industrial building and observed a smattering of orks who were gathered at the front entrance in make-shift defenses and fortifications. Leman unsheathed his sword and powered up his shield, plunging straight into the crowd of idling orks. He landed with a loud thud, immediately alerting the entire ork camp and eliciting a cacophony of howls and shouts from the greenskins.

Time for a distraction. Leman thought.

K’val led team Viper over a small ridge, the sound of their battlesuits masked by the sporadic gunfire and ork hollering coming from the other side of the manufactory. They used shaped explosives to blow open the doors of a loading bay and made their entrance. The interior of the facility was, surprisingly, fully functional and had seemingly been producing weapons just moments ago, before most of the orks had been drawn to the front entrance to get in on the action. After blasting a few gretchin with their pulse rifles, K’val inspected the halted production line. There were piles of tau weapons and munitions, retrofitted with the crude trappings of ork ‘technology’ which usually amounted to adding metal spikes, larger ammo magazines, and in some cases even multiple barrels. She had seen these in action during the orks’ assault on their defenses, so she knew that despite their ramshackle appearance they were still somehow functional.

“Despite being so dim-witted and short-sighted, these orks are somehow able to utilize and even adapt our technology to their own… astonishing.” K’val said.

“Shas’Vre… you may want to see this.” One of the fire warriors said, gesturing to something above. To K’val’s shock, suspended from chains hung a tau battlesuit fitted with the same ‘modifications’ as the weapons below. It was a monstrous thing, covered with serrated edges and oversized weapons, with a metallic, toothy maw where the head should have been.

“We were lucky we got here in time to destroy this manufactory, if the orks had deployed those on the battlefield…” K’val did not want to continue her train of thought. “The facility should be powered by a reactor core near the central processing unit, if we can find and overload it this entire building will be reduced to a mound of slag and rubble. Let’s go.”

They made their way through the industrial interior, blasting at the occasional gretchin and wayward ork. The sounds of fighting from outside increased, as more and more orks were drawn into battle.

I did not think O’shovah was so… brash. She thought, struggling to imagine how a single battlesuit could be causing so much carnage.

“K’val, come in. This is Vel’tan. Team Grenadier has encountered resistance at the southern entrance. Nothing we cannot handle, but there are sure to be more on the way."

"Copy that Vel'tan, we are on our way to the reactor chamber. Just hold your position until I give the signal." K'val said.

The layers of conveyor belts and industrial tubing formed a dense canopy not unlike the jungle outside, which slowed their advance as they were forced to clear multiple levels of the building before advancing lest they be cut off by orks. After breaking through an entrenched line of orks and gretchin, delivering each green-skinned defender a plasma bolt to the skull for good measure, they reached the door to the chamber which held the reactor. A sensor drone hovered up to the reinforced metal wall, scanning it with x-ray and thermal imaging. It detected 20 hostiles, stationed around the chamber in defensive positions. K’val relayed to her team of 10 fire warriors which targets they were assigned, then attached breaching charges to the heavy metal door. The explosives blasted the door inwards, which slammed onto the ground with a loud metallic thud. A fire warrior tossed a trio of photon grenades into the room, which exploded with a blinding light that disoriented the orks. Within seconds the fire warriors were advancing into the room, taking down orks left and right with well-placed shots to their heads and torsos. One of the orks managed to grab his weapon just in time to let out a volley of blind shots before his skull was reduced to green mist and he collapsed. The weapon, some kind of crude kinetic firearm, managed to hit one fire warrior in the arm and another in the neck. The former was leaning against a wall and clenching his teeth in pain, his lower arm hanging by a few stray tendons and part of his torn stealth suit. The latter was writhing on the ground, sputtering blood from the open wound in her neck as she struggled to breathe. K’val gripped her hand and attempted to staunch the bleeding, but it was clear she would be dead within seconds. Her hand went limp, and K’val rested it on her chest plate.

“You died in the service of the Tau’va… we will ensure that your sacrifice is not in vain.” K’val said. “You, dress his wounds. You, use the control codes to override the reactor’s safety mechanisms.” she said, pointing to two fire warriors.

The second fire warrior rushed to a nearby console, typing in the codes and moving a series of sliders until they turned bright red, causing an alarm to begin ringing out all over the manufactory. The room began to shake, as the power within the reactor started building beyond its intended storage capacity.

“Vel’tan and Shal’ra this is K’val. The reactor has been compromised; we must begin extraction immediately.” K’val said over her voxcaster.

“Copy that, K’val.” Shal’ra said and Vel’tan echoed, the sound of gunfire peppering their broadcasts. K’val and the rest of team Viper ran through the manufactory towards the exit as red warning lights flashed and loud klaxons blared. When they emerged, their previously dark surroundings were illuminated by stray fires and near-constant gunfire. Team Grenadier had been pushed back to the treeline where they met up with team Lantern, holding back a growing horde of orks emerging from the darkness. The fire warriors could keep them at bay, but not for long. K’val and her men rushed over to them, adding to their defenses

“Where is O’shovah?” K’val said.

“I am not sure, he hasn’t-”

They were interrupted by an ork missing half of its torso charging at them with an axe in its remaining hand, screaming with primal fury. K’val and Shal’ra rushed to ready their weapons, but before they had the chance a red shape fell from the sky and impaled the ork with its sword.

“Is the reactor overloaded?” Leman/Farsight asked, pulling his sword from the dead ork.

“Yes sir, it should begin going into meltdown in approximately 12 minutes.” K’val said.

“Then there is no-” Leman raised his shield to block an incoming rocket, which ricocheted off of his energy barrier and exploded to his left. “-time to waste. Ready the transport ships for extraction. K’val hailed the pilots of the orcas, which began revving up in the clearing behind them. Leman deflected a volley of plasma rounds with his shield, before cleaving three orks in half with a single swing of his blade. Then, a hulking shape emerged from the darkness. It was an immense ork which towered over Leman, covered head to toe in metal armor.

“What’re you measly blue gitz doin’ wit my factory!?” He shouted with a booming voice.

That must be the warboss. Leman thought, readying his sword.

“I’m Irontoof Grizclaw, da best mekboy in da galaxy and da new ruler a dis planet! If you was itchin’ to die so badly, you shoulda told me so I coulda killed da lot of you myself!” he said, activating his immense power claw and stomping his armored boot in the dirt.

“Commander Farsight, the orcas are ready for extraction! We must go before more reinforcements arrive!” K’val said. Leman was silent.

I could kill the warboss now, I’m sure of it. Leman thought. His skills are no match for mine. However, I cannot be sure of how long it will take in this body… will the simulation end if I kill him? It would certainly simplify things…

Leman was staring down the warboss, sword and shield at the ready. He eyed the ork like a large predator facing off against a rival within its territory.

“Shas’O, there is not much time! Our forces are going to be overrun at this rate!” K’val pleaded.

If our forces are destroyed here it will severely weaken the main defenses… even if the warboss is killed it may not ensure victory. Tzeentch said he would test my mind, not my combat prowess... winning this battle could mean losing the war. Leman thought.

“Fall back to the transport ships and begin extraction.” Leman said, finally breaking his attention away from the warboss. The fire warriors slowly retreated to the extraction point, where the cloaked orcas were waiting for them.

“Where ya goin’!? You buncha worthless gitz is barely even worth krumpin!” Irontoof shouted.

Under heavy fire, the tau stealth teams embarked on the transport ships, firing back on the encroaching orks as they boarded. Leman cleaved another few orks apart before embarking on the ship last, the enemy forces merely moments away from overwhelming them before the orcas began taking off. Stray shots ricocheted off the ships’ armor, and the fire warriors took potshots at the orks from the air as defensive drones intercepted incoming anti-air missiles.

“Teams, sound off!” K’val said. “Team Viper sustained one KIA and one injury.”

“Team Lantern here, we have one KIA and three injuries.” Shal’ra said.

“Team Grenadier suffered three KIA and two injuries. We really took a beating back there, K’val” Vel’tan said. “We are lucky you arrived in time to-”

His transmission was cut off by a stray rocket, which narrowly bypassed their defenses, colliding with one of the three orcas which held team Grenadier. The flaming transport spiraled through the air, crashing into the jungle below with a great explosion.

“Team Grenadier? Team Grenadier, come in! Vel’tan, do you read me?” K’val said, hearing only static in response. “Damn those orks!” she said, slamming her fist against the metal hull of the orca.

“It was my inaction which allowed this to happen.” Leman said. “I should not have hesitated upon seeing the warboss and instead stuck to the plan. I take full responsibility.”

“They died in service of the Greater Good. They shall be remembered with honor, along with all the others who fell so that we could succeed in this mission. Their sacrifices will not be in vain. I… we will make sure of it.” She said.

“You and your warriors fought admirably, K’val.” Leman said.

Even without melee weapons training… Leman thought, but he held his tongue.

Irontoof Grizclaw watched the two remaining transport ships fly away, shimmering out of sight as they activated their stealth filters.

“Is dat all you puny gitz got?” he said, letting out a guttural laugh. “You runts just gave us a bloody nose and left! Dat’ll teach ya for tryna mess wit my property!” Suddenly the manufactory next to him erupted with fire, the shockwave knocking Irontoof and every other ork in the vicinity off of their feet. The walls of the building collapsed in on themselves as a monstrous inferno consumed and destroyed everything within. Irontoof looked on with a mix of shock, horror, and pure, unrestrained fury.

“You… you gork-and-mork-damned gitz! How dare you take my factory from me! I’ll get you blue gitz for dis!” He shouted into the air. “Specially that one git in the red! I’ll tear him out of his fancy suit and tear his limbs off one by one!” The warboss rose to his feet, breathing heavily with rage. “You two!” he said, pointing to two of his nobz. “Get all da orks togetha. No more playin’ around with dese gitz. We’z gonna attack ‘em with everythin’ we’ve got!”

“Oh, and one more thing.” he said. “Prepare my meksuit. I’m gonna show these no-good blue runts why I’m da best mekboy in da galaxy!”

Chapter 10

Chapter Text

Upon their return, Leman-Farsight and K’val were greeted with cautious celebration. On one hand, the operation had been a success with unfortunate albeit not unexpected casualties. On the other hand, they had just drawn the ire of every ork on the continent including the personal animosity of their warboss. Leman observed the Tau fire warriors conducting a small ceremony for those who had failed to return from the mission. It was of course alien to him for the most part, but at the same time seemed to be modeled after primitive hunting traditions that felt the slightest bit familiar to the Fenrisian primarch. These creatures had certainly proven to be valiant warriors, if he could somehow teach them to hold a knife they could serve as useful vassals for the Imperium. He stowed this thought away for another time.

The next day, Leman-Farsight and K’val set to work preparing their defenses. The goal of the orks was no longer wide-spread infiltration, but a massed assault on the Tau formations and the dreaded red battlesuit Leman was piloting. For this reason, 4 of the 6 defensive lines were abandoned, and their defenses were cannibalized to build what Leman called “the cauldron.” It was a concave formation of layered defenses, arranged in such a way so as to funnel the ork forces into a depression in the earth surrounded on all sides by Tau artillery. In front of the cauldron was a series of light defensive lines which would be manned by light assault fire teams led by K’val, which were to be intentionally abandoned to attrition the enemy as much as possible while drawing the ork forces deeper and deeper into the trap. Once the bulk of the ork forces and the warboss leading them were drawn into the cauldron, they would be encircled and pinned down by a mechanized force led by Leman and then bombarded by heavy artillery teams led by Admu. The plan was risky; if they failed to kill the warboss, they would be left vulnerable with little to no ammunition or defenses left to repel another ork assault. It was all or nothing, and the Tau forces knew it. They were fighting for their lives and the lives of all Tau colonists on the planet, all of which hinged on their victory in the upcoming battle.

K’val assembled the Tau fireteams and gave a rousing speech, reminding them of their duty to uphold the Greater Good. Leman-Farsight abstained from speaking due to his unfamiliarity and… distaste for their alien ideology. Luckily, the presence of the legendary Commander Farsight alone was enough to lionize the fire warriors.

If I had a handful of my wolves, this warboss would have been dead and impaled on a stake within hours of my arrival… Leman thought. …Though perhaps that is not a fair comparison, after all I should not expect an Imperial guardsman to perform at the level of an astartes. This trial was meant to test my tactics, not the combat prowess of myself or my sons. Very well, trickster. I will show you that I can make wolves out of any man - or xenos. At the very least these ‘Tau’ have so far not shown a propensity for eating human flesh or daemonic witchcraft, that alone puts them above the vast majority of alien species I have faced in the past.

“Say, mister Russ…” Admu said, standing next to him in her colossal battlesuit. “I’ve hunted with papa before, but I’ve never hunted things that can… talk.”

A crisis of conscience at a time like this? Leman thought.

“Dying in battle is to an ork what raucous celebration is to you and me. They relish violence and enjoy receiving it as much as they enjoy inflicting it. The only times when an ork is unhappy is when there is nothing left to fight, so I would not spare any sympathy for them. I doubt they would even understand the sentiment themselves.” Leman said.

“Oh! Well then, I won’t worry about it.” Admu said in a chipper tone, cocking her ion cannons.

“The scout drones have reported a massive assemblage of orks advancing on our position, they should be upon us in roughly 2 hours.” K’val said, turning to Leman.

“Get the fire teams in position. Once the first ork breaches the tree line, the operation will begin. Hold each defensive line as long as you can but preserve your forces. Manpower is far more valuable than ammunition.” Leman said.

“Affirmative, Commander Farsight. We fight for the Greater Good, and we will triumph!” K’val said.

“Uh, yeah, that too.” Leman said.

“For the Greater Good!” Admu shouted, never having been told what it meant.

The first line of the Tau defenses was a series of dug-out trenches, designed to be easy to abandon at a moment’s notice. K’val commanded a large cadre of lightly equipped fire teams which had their pulse rifles pointed toward the tree line. Considering the role of her forces were to essentially act as bait for the incoming ork assault, her nerves were electrified with a combination of nervous dread and eager anticipation. However, she would not allow herself to falter. It was her duty to inflict as much damage on the green-skinned horde as possible before the final crushing blow was dealt, and she would make sure of that. She tightly gripped the controls of her battlesuit, her weapons trained on the forest. The sound of rustling leaves in the air disturbed the silence, and the entire front was immediately put on alert. After a momentary pause a scrawny ork boy was shoved out of the foliage and stumbled into the dirt, presumably by his more cautious comrades. After dusting himself off, the ork’s head was immediately caved in by a well-placed plasma bolt from one of the fire warriors. The shot echoed throughout the landscape, followed by the thunderous roar of thousands of ork warriors. The treeline burst open, and a green tide poured out. A wave of orks emerged from between the trees and shrubs, armed to the teeth with all manner of blunt and explosive objects. Blue bolts of superheated plasma filled the air in front of them, riddling the marauding orks with smoldering holes. Fire warriors were rotating in and out of the frontlines to ensure maximum firing efficiency, however the numbers of orks continued to increase and were gradually overwhelming the tau firing lines. Furthermore, they were rapidly depleting the ammunition stored in this particular defensive position and would have to fall back to the next line. K’val had an idea to both buy more time and ensure whatever they left behind could not be used by the advancing orks.

“We are falling back. Have the fire teams take whatever munitions they can carry and then rig whatever is left with explosives. We will detonate them as soon as the orks overtake this position.” K’val said over her voxcaster in between firing volleys of plasma at the incoming orks.

The tau fire warriors began an orderly retreat, covering their flanks as they abandoned the first defensive line. It was a maneuver which required a high degree of discipline and coordination, but luckily the fire warriors were up to the task. By the time they had reached the next defensive line, the orks had occupied the first defenses and began looting them for whatever the tau had left behind. One ork rummaged through a pile of boxes and discovered a motherlode of plasma batteries, pulse grenades, rockets, you name it. His eyes lit up, first with excitement and then by the explosion which quickly vaporized the ork grunt in a matter of nanoseconds. The horde of orks was torn to shred by a series of volatile blasts, kicking up a wall of dust and thinning their numbers considerably.

“That will teach them the consequences of menacing the Tau Empire.” K’val said.

The sabotaged ammo dumps granted them a momentary reprieve which they used to fortify their position as much as possible. The dust clouds hung in the air, and the ork battle cries fell silent. For a moment K’val wondered if they had managed to stop the ork offensive in its tracks, but she knew better. She had seen the reconnaissance footage and knew this was merely a fraction of their true numbers. Moreover, the warboss had yet to make an appearance. Suddenly, a shadow in the sky blocked out the sun above them and hurtled to the ground. It landed in the dust cloud with a thunderous crash, sending the dust flying in all directions with its sheer impact. Once her visual sensors were clear of debris, K’val beheld a true monstrosity. To call it a battlesuit would have been like comparing a Krootox to a Gue’vesa. It had heavier armor than a Manta Missile Destroyer, and possibly even more firepower. On its left arm was a modified heavy burst cannon, overclocked to a dangerous degree by the pulsating dark matter reactor visible on the battlesuit’s iridium armored chest. Its right arm was an immense metal claw, a primitive implement one would use to pry open metal plating. It was painted a garish yellow, and adorned with crude spikes, blades, and skulls. The jet engines on its back sputtered as it rose to full stature. A skull-faced mask at the top of the ‘battlesuit’ opened to reveal the glaring, maniacal smile of the ork warboss Irontoof Grizclaw.

“YA MISS ME, YA BLUE GITZ?” he said.

“FIRE!” K’val shouted.

A rain of plasma bolts and rockets descended upon the warboss, saturating the target in a blinding halo of superheated energy. After several seconds of continuous fire, K’val ordered the fire warriors to hold. The clouds of smoke dissipated, revealing a crackling barrier of energy behind which the armored warboss was entirely unscathed.

“Damn it all, he’s got a shield generator!” K’val said.

“Dat wuz sum pretty fireworks, now it’s my turn t’ show off.” Irontoof said. Dozens of hatches on the ork’s battlesuit opened to reveal missile pods, firing off a dizzying barrage of projectiles into the tau lines and blanketing the terrain in fire and shrapnel. The missiles were far from accurate, but the sheer amount of them was enough to do significant damage to the tau’s defenses. The warboss revved up his heavy burst cannon, and behind him an entire mechanized ork army emerged from the tree line. Orks adorned with slabs of tau armor wielding overcharged pulse rifles soared through the air on tau jetpacks, crashing into and causing havoc in the fire warriors’ ranks. Primitive trucks and troop carriers with the hulls of tau devilfish welded onto them emerged from the forest, the orks seemingly unable to replicate the tau’s anti-gravity drives. Regardless, the myriad of kinetic and pulse weapons which adorned them were deadly all the same. As the haphazard yet overwhelming firepower of the orks quickly broke apart the tau lines, K’val had no choice but to order a full retreat. With an army of this size and speed on their heels, entrenchment would no longer be an option.

“Commander K’val to Commander Farsight, our defensive lines have fallen, and further entrenchment is impossible! We underestimated the forces the orks could muster and I am ordering a full retreat to the cauldron. Our only hope now is to put as much firepower on the warboss as possible!” K’val shouted into her voxcaster.

Leman clenched his teeth. It was foolish to expect the plan to go off without a hitch, but this was a drastic complication. He saw the video feeds of the retreat, and the ork forces were unexpectedly advanced even by his reckoning. It was a fully mechanized offensive force, led by a heavily armed and armored warboss who clearly had a above-average intelligence - at least for an ork. Leman brought up a live map of the battlefield on a viewscreen, and aerial drones were reporting that the orks had completely routed K’val’s forces. He had initially wanted to lead the defense himself, though K’val insisted that his leadership and combat prowess would be of far more use in the main assault.

That blasted bird-god has truly found the greatest ways to test my patience with his damned charades. He thought.

“We are altering the plan. Prepare the mechanized forces to attack the orks from the northern flank and order the artillery to advance until they are within firing distance of the orks. We will hit them in their north flank and give K’val’s forces an opening to retreat. If we cannot bring the orks to the cauldron, we will bring the cauldron to them.” Leman-Farsight said.

The anti-grav engines of devilfish troop carriers, hammerhead gunships, and piranha skimmers emitted a dull roar as they came to life.

K’val huddled behind an overturned ork vehicle in her battlesuit. One of the ork drivers had gotten too eager and drove straight over a defensive ditch, catapulting the troop carrier into the tau lines and killing several of the ork boys inside. The survivors were quickly dispatched. It was a miracle they had managed to slow the offensive down somewhat, as they were desperately outnumbered. The tau defensive line had ceased to resemble anything close to a ‘line’, instead becoming a porous network of hardpoints the orks were intent on besieging. Luckily, their single-minded desire to slaughter the tau had blinded them to the fact that they could simply move past them to attack their flank, but K’val was not optimistic that this ignorance would last forever. She emerged from her makeshift barricade to fire off shots at a group of orks, turning them into viscera and clouds of green mist. She ducked just in time to avoid a rokkit which then exploded behind her. She had already lost contact with two fire warrior teams, and the rest had reported mounting casualties. As she vented the heat from her plasma weapons, the ork trukk behind her was tossed into the air and landed with a loud crash. She turned around to see the ork warboss Irontoof bearing his teeth with a menacing smile that shot cold ice through K’val’s veins.

“You’z aint da flashy red git, but krumpin’ ya will be a good warmup!” the ork said.

He raised his immense claw as K’val raised her weapon, though she knew it still had a few seconds before it could fire after venting. Her heartbeat wildly as she felt death looming overhead. Suddenly the ork warboss was knocked off his feet by a red blur, the two battlesuits sent tumbling into the dirt. Behind her, the exposed orks were slaughtered by hammerhead gunships surging in from the north. Fresh battlesuits bolstered the existing defenses, allowing the beleaguered fire warriors under K’val’s command to retreat with their wounded. Irontoof huffed angrily and slammed his claw into the ground, shaking his head as he recovered from the impact.

“Who da hell just…” Irontoof said, his eyes widening and his nostrils flaring as he laid eyes upon Commander Farsight’s battlesuit. “YOU!”

Irontoof unloaded a volley of plasma at Leman, who used his battlesuit’s jets to evade them. He dashed towards the warboss, bringing his Dawn Blade to bear. The demonic blade clashed against the ork’s power claw, and sparks flew through the air.

That blade can pass through the brute’s shield? K’val thought.

Irontoof launched a swarm of missiles at Leman, who dodged a few then used his shield to swat one of them away. The explosion obscured his vision long enough for the warboss to activate his own boosters and deliver a backhand to the red battlesuit with his metal claw.

Damn it, my senses in this form are so limited. Being restricted to an audio-visual feed alone is infuriating! Leman thought, picking himself up from the dirt. He reached for his blade which had been knocked out of his hand, only to be pulled away by the ork warboss just at the last moment.

“Git back ‘ere you bloody red git!” Irontoof said, flinging the battlesuit over his head like a ragdoll. Leman tumbled through the air, using his jets to arrest his fall. Irontoof leapt into the air and Leman rolled out of the way just as the colossal ork crashed into the ground. The warboss swung his claw at Leman, who blocked it with his shield and used his jetpack to prevent himself from being flung backwards by the ork’s immense strength. A blast of plasma from K’val exploded against the ork’s shield from behind, distracting him long enough for Leman to parry the ork’s claw and fire a plasma bolt into his chest - inside of the shield. The ork staggered backwards, roaring in frustration. He raised his heavy burst cannon and was immediately flung backwards by a fiery explosion. Leman turned to see the towering KX-139 Supremacy battlesuit Admu was piloting, her ion cannons still smoking.

“Hello mister Ru- uh, I mean, Commander Farsight!” Admu said. “Who was that big guy in the weird armor?”

“That’s the warboss!” K’val shouted.

“Unload everything you’ve got on him!” Leman shouted.

Admu’s battlesuit reared back, planting its trunk-like legs into the ground. She unleashed a whirlwind of missiles and plasma blasts from the pulse ordinance multi-driver on her back, which flew in an arc towards the recovering ork warlord. He looked up just in time to see the barrage of projectiles rain down upon him and he was immediately consumed by a colossal explosion. The shockwave shook the earth, and hundreds of orks which were caught in the blast were vaporized instantly or torn to pieces by the impact. The hectic pace of the battle seemed to slow to a halt as both sides were caught off-guard by the immense explosion. As the dust settled, the shimmering glow of Irontoof’s shield dashed whatever hopes the tau defenders had for the fighting to be over soon. The ork warboss let out a bellowing, malicious laugh.

“You blue gitz just don’t get it, do yah? Dis shield could take a void cannon and it’d keep on tickin’! Give it yer best shot!” Irontoof said.

Orks continued to pour into the battlefield and, despite the determination and skill of the fire warriors, the orks were simply reinforcing faster than the tau could kill them. A hammerhead gunship was destroyed by an ork trukk ramming into its side, the ensuing explosion destroying them both. The tau were being overwhelmed, slowly but surely. Leman had to end this battle now.

“Admu, cover me!” Leman said, activating his jets and dashing towards his sword. Admu unloaded her ion cannons into the swarms of orks, opening up a path for him. He planted his feet, sliding just within reach of the blade, only for Irontoof to unload a volley of plasma bolts into him. Leman raised his shield just in time, but the blast knocked him further away from his sword and the only reliable way of bypassing the ork warboss’s shields. Irontoof leapt through the air with his boosters, unleashing more missiles at Leman. He slid across the ground with his jets like a sled on a frozen lake, each of the missiles narrowly missing him. Irontoof swung wildly at him with his power claw, the red-clad warrior dodging and deflecting each blow with increasing difficulty. Leman was pushing the capabilities of Farsight’s battlesuit, and the strain was beginning to show. Warning lights were flashing all across his vision, as the extreme inertial load of Leman’s split-second movements was pushing the suit’s structural integrity to its limit.

“I’ll help you, mister Russ!” Admu shouted, pointing her weapons at the attacking warboss. Before she could fire, an ork stormboy collided into her, hacking at her armor with a crude axe. “Hey! Get off of me!” Admu said, swiping at the ork with her guns. An ork trukk swerved into her, knocking the huge battlesuit onto one knee. Orks swarmed over her like ants, looking for weak points to tear into. “K’val!”

K’val blocked an ork’s choppa with her arm, the weapon embedding itself into the armor she kicked the ork away, blasting a hole in the disarmed greenskin with her pulse rifle. She wrenched the blade out of her suit’s arm, holding it for a split second before tossing it away. She turned around to respond to Admu, and was horrified by the sight of orks overrunning them from all sides. She was stomping and swiping at the orks assaulting her, her long-range weapons rendered ineffectual by the horde of melee troops.

“Admu!” K’val said, running to help her.

“K-K’val!” Admu said with a strained voice. “H-help… Farsight!”

K’val turned to see Commander Farsight’s signature red battlesuit caught in the grip of Irontoof Grizclaw’s monstrous gauntlet. She was struck with helplessness as the situation collapsed all around her, a doomed feeling welling up deep within her. She struggled to cling to whatever shred of hope she had left, finding it increasingly difficult. As she unconsciously stepped backwards, she felt her suit’s foot collide with a metal object. She looked down, and immediately knew what she had to do.

“I’z gonna kill you slow, red git. I wantz to enjoy dis.” Irontoof said, his power claw slowly tightening around Leman’s battlesuit like a vice. The structure of his battlesuit was just barely holding on, the warning lights now blaring red all across his vision.

If I could just get my arm free… Leman thought. I could blast that damned smile off of that greenskin’s face.

“I’z almost disappointed, dis was almost too easy!” Irontoof said. “Once I’m done with you gitz, I’m takin’ dis WAAAGH intastellah! Da whole galaxy is gonna know da name Irontoof Grizclaw!”

“Your name will be nothing but a footnote in the annals of the Tau’va!” K’val said.

She thrust the Dawn Blade through the ork’s chest, short-circuiting his battlesuit and unleashing a splatter of blood. The ork’s power claw loosened slightly, giving Leman just enough room to raise his pulse rifle and blast a chunk out of the dazed ork’s skull. The ork’s battlesuit went limp, dropping Leman as it toppled over with a loud thud. A psychic shockwave permeated the battlefield, and all the orks fell silent as they looked towards their fallen leader.

“Irontoof’s been krumped!” One of them said.

“Den… who’s da warboss now?” another said.

“Well, I’m da biggest and da meanest, so clearly, it’s gonna be me!” yet another said.

“You’z aint nothin’ but squig manure! I’z gonna be da next boss!” a fourth said.

The bickering orks quickly devolved into shooting and hacking at one another, the previously united and well-coordinated horde descending into a cannibalistic bloodbath. The battered and exhausted fire warriors, emboldened by the sight of the slain warboss, quickly took advantage of the orks’ infighting and began cutting them down with massed plasma and missile barrages. Admu shook off a dozen orks clinging onto her, stomping and firing her ion cannons at them like cockroaches.

“Take that you nasty little beasts! And don’t come back!” she said, firing into the trees.

The tide of the battle was reversed in minutes, and soon the orks were running for the tree line under tau plasma fire. The fire warriors raised their pulse rifles in victory, their hearts swelled with pride. K’val outstretched her hand to Leman, helping him to his feet.

“That was… quite something, O’Shovah.” K’val said with a nervous laugh. “Oh! I apologize, this belongs to you.” she said, realizing she was still gripping his Dawn Blade.

“An outlier, huh? Whatever happened to standard Tau doctrine?” he said.

“Well, I guess bending the rules a bit to uphold the Greater Good… is not always inadvisable.” she said.

Suddenly, the air around Leman began to crackle and spark. The familiar feeling of disorientation and sensory overload overtook him as the simulated battlefield dematerialized around him. He opened his eyes and was relieved to find himself in his body once again.

“Good show, good show!” the shrill voice of Tzeentch said over the loudspeakers. “What daring! What twists and turns! And that ending, even I didn’t see that coming!”

“How was I, uncle?” Admu said.

“Oh, brilliant Admu, just brilliant.” he said. Admu took a small bow.

“Tell me, Tzeentch,” Leman said. “What exactly was this test meant to measure? My plan failed, it was all but dumb luck which saved us!” he said, the annoyance in his voice palpable.

“Dumb luck? Why, I detest the phrase! Lesson number two is that there is no such thing as dumb luck - only a plan that one did not intend to enact!”

What in Fenris’s name does that mean?

“...And what was lesson one?” Admu said.

“Well it- …uh,” Tzeentch said, stopping mid-sentence and pausing for a few moments. Leman looked at Admu, who shrugged her shoulders. Leman sighed heavily.

“Let’s find out!” Tzeentch said, as the sound of a switch being flipped was broadcast through the loudspeaker. “…maybe it’ll be to learn some humility…” Tzeentch muttered under his breath.

“What was that?” Leman said.

(Video) E.3 A Wolf in the Garden

Reality began to dematerialize around them once again, and Leman found himself in darkness.

He opened his eyes and sensed a feeling of familiarity within his new body. He blinked, his eyes adjusting to the light, and realized he was looking out of the visor of an astartes helmet. He was holding a chainsword in his right hand and a bolter in his left. He saw a nearby rain puddle and walked over to see his reflection. He was wearing black and white armor, draped in white robes adorned with a black cross.

“That is strange… I do not recognize this legion.” Leman said. He vaguely recalled some of Rogal Dorn’s sons adopting a similar symbol…

“Hey mister Russ, check this out! Pretty stylish, huh?” Admu said.

Leman turned and his eyes grew wide as he beheld an Adepta Sororitas for the first time. Admu twirled around, showing off her armor which she seemed to find very striking.

What in the Emperor’s name was the Imperium getting on to while I was gone!? Leman thought.

“Uh, mister Russ… what is that?” Admu said, pointing to something. Leman turned, and his hearts dropped.

The corpse of a space marine, covered in skulls, horns, and adorned with an eight-pointed star lay in the mud, still gripping his bolter. Leman turned back to look at Admu.

“Stay behind me.”

Chapter 11

Chapter Text

Leman and Admu trudged through the rain-choked mud, the light drizzle creating a thin sheen on the surface of their ceramite armor. The landscape was dull and grey; Leman’s instincts told him they were on the edge of a battlefield, and the carrion birds flying overhead further validated his intuition.

“Was… was that an ork?” she said.

“No.” he said, continuing forward in silence.

The battlefield was littered with fallen warriors in armor that Admu recognized as being similar to the kind Leman was wearing when they had first met. Some looked like the strange horned one, while others looked like Leman's current black and white armor. Admu remembered what Leman had told her in the deserts of Khorne's realm, about his brothers and the strange gods that shared their names with her family. She hadn't pried too much into the subject because whenever he brought them up, she could sense an immense pain welling up within him. However, this time she could see that he was struggling to carry his burden alone. She wanted to help him, but he was acting even more cold and distant than usual. Admu pouted.

Mister Russ, you’re so frustrating sometimes! she thought. How can I help if you refuse to tell me what troubles you? Do you not trust me to let me ease your burden?

“Their armor is similar to the kind you wore when we first met." she said.

Leman was silent, and Admu furrowed her brow in response.

"Mister Russ, how can I help you fight if I don't know who we are fighting?" she said.

Leman was silent for a moment before speaking.

"They are the enemy. That is all you need to know." he said. "I do not need your help. Simply stay out of danger and I will handle this."

Admu was slightly taken aback by his blunt admonishment. His voice was harsh and brooding, more like when they had first met than it was only a few moments ago. She had wanted nothing but to help him, but now it seemed as if he still saw her as nothing more than a burden.

Leman's mind was a tempest of thoughts and emotions, haunted by memories of his seemingly endless toils in the corrupted realms of Chaos. He had thought that he left the visions of madness behind him, at least for a little while, but now they had returned. Yet, somehow, it felt different now. He had managed to survive millennia in the endless hellscape of the chaos wastes, his wargear and tortured mind as his only companions. Why, then, did he feel so… vulnerable? He briefly recalled the night in the desert when he had accidentally let slip the existence of the ruinous powers to Admu, and briars of discomfort formed in his stomach.

He did not understand these feelings. He had seen countless men and women die at his side and by his hand. He had seen the horrors of a cruel and uncaring universe laid bare, and how easily one’s naivete would lead to one’s doom. Kindness, innocence, and compassion could not survive in this world, and he knew that better than anyone. Why then, was he so afraid? Afraid of never seeing the hopeful glimmer in her eyes, never hearing her cloyingly infectious laugh, or experiencing her warm smile ever again? Why could he not bring himself to tell her?

I’m too distracted to fight… I will find a safe place for her to hide so I can focus on completing my mission, like I always have. Leman thought to himself. I just… I need to keep her safe to maintain cordial relations with the gods of this realm. Yes, that’s it. Once I am done with these arduous labors, I can return her to the green one and continue on my journey. I… I just have to keep her safe for now.

A short distance away, in the desecrated wreckage of the planetary governor’s palace where a chaos warband had established themselves, a hulking, horned figure covered in black armor with gold trimmings and adorned with a cloak of blood-stained fur sat upon a throne of scorched bones fashioned from the palace’s former residents. Captain Salazar, leader of the Forsaken Knights chapter of the Black Legion, found himself completely and utterly bored. The world he had conquered had barely even put up a fight, with most of the planetary defense forces having been killed by cultists before his arrival. Even the detachment of Black Templars and Adepta Sororitas sent to defeat him had been mostly destroyed upon landing in a surprise ambush. It was much too easy, a champion of Chaos Undivided such as he deserved a greater challenge. Unfortunately, he would just have to be content with having snatched another Imperial world from the clutches of the corpse emperor.

“Captain, our scouts have reported survivors from the Imperial offensive.” A traitor marine reported. “We spotted two of them traveling east along the northern perimeter, what are your orders?”

“Perhaps my bonecrusher will taste blood after all… gather the warriors!” Salazar shouted, gripping his mace with anticipation. “I will lead this hunt and finish off those worthless corpse-worshippers!” he said, grinning beneath his warped respirator.

“You had no issue with me fighting the orks. Why is this any different?” Admu protested.

“Because this time is different. I do not need your help.” Leman said with a strained voice.

“You were fine relying on my help a few hours ago, I don’t understand why now of all times is any different. Why will you not tell me?” She said.

“Because you do not need to know. When I require your help, I will ask for it.” he said, flashes of morbid and disturbing memories assailing his mind. As his thoughts grew more hectic, it became even more difficult for him to focus. “Just… I will find you somewhere safe to hide and I will-” Leman grabbed his head as more of the buried memories tore through his skull.

“I volunteered to accompany you on your journey, Mister Russ. You yourself said that it was not your responsibility to protect me. I’m not a child, I can take care of myself you know!” she said.

Leman didn’t respond.

“Mister Russ?” she said. “Mister Russ, please!”

Leman remained silent.

“Leman!” she shouted, reaching for his arm.

His hand shot at her, grabbing her wrist on instinct before Leman could realize what he was doing. He saw on her face a look of shock and betrayal, and he immediately let her go. She pulled her hand away as if wrenching it from the maw of a rabid dog.

“I...” Leman said

“No.” Admu said, her expression turning cold and stony. “I understand. You will not tell me, and I will not press you. I will simply follow.”

Leman sighed. “I just… need to focus. Once the… the enemy is defeated, I can return you to your father.” he said. Admu did not respond.

The two continued walking until they reached the outskirts of the nearby city, mud fields slowly giving way to paved roads. Most of the scant buildings in the area were destroyed, however one structure remained relatively intact. It was a stark, plascrete hab-block that was marred with burn marks and ballistic indentations, but otherwise structurally sound. Leman kicked the door open, sweeping the room for enemies and lowering his bolt pistol when he found it was clear. He slowly and methodically checked all the rooms in a similar manner and returned to Admu when he had determined the building was uninhabited.

“You can bunker down here for the time being, luckily the hab-block’s security systems are still functioning on backup power so you should be able to route the security feed to your voxcaster. That way you can monitor the outside and contact me if you see or hear anything.” Leman said. Admu held up a small device which buzzed to life, projecting a live broadcast of the barren streets and alleys outside of the building. “I’m going to scout ahead, see if I can find where the enemy is based out of and devise a plan of attack. I’ll return as soon as I’m finished, just stay here and contact me if anything happens.” he said. Admu remained silent, watching the security feed with a detached expression. Leman looked as though he was about to speak but, either out of choice or simply not knowing what to say, held his tongue and closed the door as he left.

Admu moped on a rectangular metal-framed couch with rough burlap-like cushions. She had no idea why Leman had lashed out at her, but she was sure now that he saw her as nothing but an unruly ward that he was charged with taking care of. She fumed internally, feeling like everything they had gone through together up until now had meant nothing to him, that he was still the same gruff and detached stranger that she had met in the fields of her father’s garden.

Is it too much to ask that he show me a little bit of respect? All I wanted to do was help… Admu thought with a pouting expression. She recalled their time in Khorne’s domain, and how Leman treated the various warriors he had fought. Maybe the reason he doesn’t respect me is because he doesn’t see me as a warrior… he just sees me as someone who needs to be protected and sheltered, just like papa…

She stood up with a loud huff, a look of determination on her face.

“If strength is what Mister Russ respects, I’ll show him how strong I really am!” she said, flexing her bicep in an exaggerated manner. “... but I have no idea how to do that.” she said, falling back onto the couch with a depressed sigh. She languished in her angst for a few moments before being alerted to a sound on her voxcaster. She heard what sounded like two distant voices and could make out two figures on the display. They wore the same armor as the corpses strewn across the battlefield they had walked through to get here, putting her on high alert and also piquing her interest. She gripped her bolter tightly and listened closely to see if she could hear what they were saying.

“What are we looking for again?” one said.

“You daft grox-brain, we’re looking for the Templar and Sororitas that survived the ambush.” the other said.

“Oh, right, right. Didn’t Salazar say it was like a ‘game of cat and mouse’? whatever those are. Sounds like a load of rubbish, all we’re doing is wandering around some ruins. Some ‘game’ that is.” he said. “Can’t we just go raid a colony or two and flay some corpse-worshippers? Why’s Salazar making us all just sit here on this dead planet anyways? He seems just as eager to leave as the rest of us.” he said.

“I think he’s trying to summon a daemon in the old cathedral at the center of the city. Got all the cultists gathered there, along with the remaining captives.” he said. Admu’s eyes widened as an idea formed in her mind.

That sounds pretty important… I’ll bet the goal of this simulation is to stop them from summoning that… ‘daemon’ thing. If I go stop those cultists and rescue those captives, Mister Russ will finally see I’m more than just dead weight! She thought. As quietly as she could, she snuck out the back of the hab-block, avoiding the two traitor marines as they passed by on the street. Unbeknownst to her, she had left her voxcaster within the shelter in her haste.

“...Hey, you think we should check out that hab-block there? It’s the only one standing in this whole neighborhood, they could be hiding in there.” one of the marines said.

“Bah, we’ll check it on the way back. Not like it or us are going anywhere.” the second marine said. The other nodded in agreement, and they continued their patrol.

Admu crept through damp, dilapidated city streets, with the ruined buildings looming ever taller as she entered the heart of the desolate metropolis. She vaguely recalled stumbling upon ancient ruins in the deeper parts of her forest home when she was a young child but was never able to find them again. Unlike those ruins, which were lush with overgrown vines and moss, these ruins were fresh; like an open wound that had yet to heal. Amid the crumbling stone and scorched metal, traces of the city’s former inhabitants were strewn about. A tattered raincoat lying in the muddy puddle of an artillery crater, a flickering view-screen advertising the opening of a new corner store. Admu climbed through a broken wall to find the remnants of a dining room, shards of broken porcelain plates crunching underneath her boots as she walked. The dining table was still adorned with a tablecloth, though its color had long since been extinguished by ash and dust.

As she approached the city center, dead bodies littering the streets became more common. Men and women, some in combat armor and others in civilian clothing lay haphazardly among the wreckage. Admu noticed some of the fallen bearing some kind of ritual scarification, with strange runes and symbols etched painfully into their skin. Admu wondered what kind of war this was, what the combatants were fighting over. She had never seen conflict on a wide scale before, having been raised in the perpetually peaceful realm of her father, but she had heard stories. Slaanesh would regale her with romantic tales of dashing knights and damsels, while Khorne would occasionally offer her a glimpse into a more realistic vision of war. Papa Nurgle usually wasn’t very happy with him, but Admu relished any chance to learn about the world beyond her forest.

And now here I am, experiencing those things firsthand. Admu thought. She would be lying if she said that she felt no fear or trepidation, but she resolved to show her bravery in spite of it. I’ll show Mister Russ I’m not just a burden.

She was alerted to a distant noise, what sounded like a voice. She cupped a hand to ear and tried to listen. It sounded like a female voice, but the cramped streets and buildings distorted and muffled the sound making it unintelligible. Carefully, Admu climbed the stairs of one of the buildings for a better vantage point. On the fifth floor of a ruined apartment, she looked out from a broken window, which gave her a decent view of the surrounding area. She could clearly hear now that the woman was calling for help, and it was quite obvious to Admu where she was calling from. Looming over the cityscape was a towering cathedral, adorned with baroque stone and metal ornamentation bearing a two-headed eagle. Admu gripped her bolter tightly and proceeded forth to her chosen destination.

Leman returned from his short patrol, his mind still plagued by noxious thoughts like harpies or biting flies inside of his skull. He raised his voxcaster and pressed the activation rune to tell Admu that he would be returning shortly but was rendered silent by the sound of two muffled voices he did not recognize.

“...they got one of the Sororitas locked up in the cathedral. Zagriel says they needed a ‘pure soul’ for the ritual.” Leman released the button of the voxcaster and broke into a full sprint. He reached the hab-block in a matter of minutes, his breathing intense and his instincts on high alert for any threat he might encounter. He peered into the building through a small crack, and sure enough he could spot two traitor marines searching the interior. For the time being, all the frenetic thoughts and anxiety were completely drowned out by an animalistic, all-encompassing fury. He smashed through the window, shooting one of the marines directly in the eye socket of his helmet’s visor. A muffled bang and a quick flash erupted from within his skull and collapsed as a lifeless corpse The second marine raised his bolter towards Leman, who swatted it away with his chainsword. Leman plunged the blade up into the marine’s chest cavity and pulled the trigger. The traitor marine fell to the ground dead, his intestines spilling out of the large gash in his armor. Leman looked to the couch and saw Admu’s voxcaster, immediately fearing the worst. He called her name in the slight chance she could have still been within earshot. The deafening silence confirmed his dreadful suspicion. Leman kicked open the front door and hurried down the wreckage-strewn road towards the city and the towering cathedral at its center.

Admu approached the dilapidated cathedral, drawn in by the calls for help. Luckily the exterior seemed unguarded, but that was no guarantee that the interior would be as well. She circled around the building and found a side entrance, which she tried to push open as quietly as possible. Dim rays of light shone through the gray, dusty interior, illuminating desecrated shrines and effigies to a mysterious figure atop a golden throne. She wondered whether the people who used to inhabit this place were Leman’s kin, and if he would know who the man on the throne was.

Something tells me he would not be in the mood to explain. She thought.

As she crept through the dim halls, signs of a different kind of worship became apparent. Manic etchings, grotesque figures crudely carved or painted on the walls with unknown substances, and a pervasive feeling of wrongness was everywhere. She turned down one end of the sprawling maze of corridors and opened the door at the end of it. As she peered into the pitch-black room, her feet clattered against something on the ground, and she quickly activated the torch within her suit. She was shocked to find the room full of rot-blackened bones, their flesh long since picked clean. Her eyes slowly swept across the room, taking in the grotesque scene. The walls were stained with dried blood, and at the far end of the room appeared to be some kind of sacrificial altar. Her stomach dropped as she looked above the altar, and her eyes were drawn to a terrifyingly familiar symbol. Painted in dried blood was the trio of circles and arrows that represented her father - her family, along with the symbols of her aunt and uncles all arranged in a circle around an eight-pointed star. Her breathing quickened as she slowly stumbled backwards out of the room and fell on the floor of the hallway. Before she could fully take in the situation, Admu heard the voice of the woman from before coming from the opposite end of the hallway. She took a deep breath and rose to her feet, resolved to ensure that whatever crimes were being committed in this place were put to an end. She hurried down the carved stone hall and the voice grew louder and louder until she reached an ornate, carved wooden door at the end of it. She pressed up against it with her shoulder, making sure her weapon was pointing towards whatever unknown situation lied on the other side. The door opened to a cavernous nave at the heart of the cathedral, what was once an opulent and sanctified place of worship twisted into a horrific torture chamber. Rusted chains hung from the ceiling, holding the twisted and mangled corpses of civilians, sisters of battle, and black templars alike. The great hall was full of byzantine torture devices designed for no other purpose than to inflict the greatest amount of suffering imaginable, all stained with blood from repeated use. The floor resembled that of a slaughterhouse, with gore and viscera both old and fresh staining the very stone she stood on. A congregation of hooded figures gathered at the central altar, surrounding a towering man in black armor. In his right hand he held a staff inlaid with crystalline eyes and golden runes, while his left was engulfed by a blue-violet flame. Before him, chained to a pillar, was the half-butchered corpse of a sororitas, her body animated like a puppet by the sorcerer’s arcane energies to imitate a cry for help. The body fell limp and the sorcerer slowly turned to face her.

“I am grateful that you could make it, sister. I was fearful you would not hear my… or rather, her distress calls. How considerate of you to come alone as well, without that templar following you around. I needed a pure soul for my ritual, but unfortunately this one passed on prematurely… luckily, I have a fresh one standing before me.” he said.

He waved his hand, and the door behind Admu slammed shut. The hooded figures around Zagriel rose to their feet, revealing a myriad of spiked, gore-soaked weapons in their hands and grotesque looks of twisted anticipation on their scarred and mutilated faces.

Leman pulled his chainsword out of the back of a fallen traitor marine, the black legionnaire joining the other three members of his cadre that Leman had slain. Leman had torn his way through dozens of marines on his warpath to the cathedral, and he could sense that more were on the way. He sprinted down a ruined causeway leading through the city before a volley of bolter rounds flew past him. He rolled behind a nearby chunk of plascrete debris, the hail of projectiles kicking up dust as they exploded upon impact with Leman’s cover. He peaked around the corner to assess the situation before another volley forced him back into cover. His assailant was an oversized, mutant astartes wielding a massive autocannon, belt-fed by a canister of ammunition on his back. Without a second thought, Leman armed a frag grenade and tossed it overhead directly towards the traitor marine. He shot up from his cover and, in an instant, fired a round from his bolt pistol that struck the grenade right as it fell in front of his assailant. The explosion shredded the traitor’s armor but was not enough to disable him, only temporarily stunning the marine. Not wasting a moment, Leman vaulted over the debris and charged. He leapt into the air, bringing the tip of his chainsword down and plunging it into the traitor’s exposed chest. The rotating teeth dug into the exposed flesh and made quick work of the enemy’s internal organs as his overgrown body fell to the ground with a loud thud. Leman quickly reached a pavilion which was overlooked by the grand cathedral and could hear indistinct shouting coming from within as well as flashing lights bursting from the painted glass windows. He pushed aside whatever fears were swelling up in his mind and ran as fast his legs could carry him, the servos in his power armor humming from the exertion. He sprinted up a vast stairway of chiseled stone leading up to the ornately engraved wooden entrance, lowering his shoulder and throwing himself at the door with all of his might. The locks on the door exploded into wooden splinters as it swung open with a loud crack and a resounding crash.

The central chamber of the cathedral was littered with the bodies of dead chaos cultists, their bodies perforated and blasted apart by bolter rounds. The walls were covered in holes and burn marks, with small blue-green fires that dotted the interior of the room. The chaos sorcerer Zagriel lay in the center of the room, his legs and abdomen torn to shreds by explosives and his staff embedded in the skull of a nearby cultist. He was attempting to crawl with only one arm intact as his left had been blown clean off by a bolter round, before the heel of a heavy metal boot stepped on his back and pinned him to the ground. Admu pointed her bolter at the back of the sorcerer’s head.

“Y… you damnable… ignorant… corpse-slave…” he said, with a pained and wheezing breath. “My gods will-”

“You know nothing of the gods, disgusting wretch.” Admu said, blasting the traitor’s skull open with a bolter round. She lowered her gun and wiped a splattering of blood from her face as she took a deep breath.

“Uh, Admu, are you… alright?” Leman asked, his face bearing a hint of surprise.

“Oh, hello Leman. What are you doing here, come to send me back to my room?” she said.

“Well, I was… coming to… rescue you? I thought you had been captured and-”

“What? I wasn’t captured, I came here on my own. I overheard two of those armored men talking about some insidious ritual at this cathedral, so I came to stop it. That’s what we’re meant to do in these simulations, right?” she said, a hint of indignation creeping into her voice.

“I told you to stay in the hab-block, do you have any idea what could have happened to you?” Leman said, his voice growing louder.

“When I first joined you, you said that it wasn’t your job to protect me. I’ve helped you ever since we met and I fought alongside you against the orks, and yet you still think I’m too weak!” she said.

“No, that’s not what I- I didn’t mean- I just, I didn’t want you to find out about it like… this.” he said.

“What do you mean ‘it’? What’s going on here?” she said.

Before Leman could respond, a hail of bolter rounds flew through the open door. “Damn it, the traitors followed me!”

“You led them here!?” Admu said. Leman and Admu pushed the doors shut as bolter rounds perforated the wood, and Admu toppled a metal torture rack to keep them shut.

“I was trying to-” an explosion rocked the building, blowing open a hole in the wall and causing dust and debris to fall from the ceiling. Two marines armed with chain axes charged in through the opening. Leman locked blades with one of them, quickly deflecting his axe blow and slashing a weak point in the marine’s armor with his chainsword. The traitor fell to the ground incapacitated, so Leman turned to the other marine who raised his axe before getting shot square in the head by Admu.

“Who are these men? Why do they bear my family’s crests?” Admu shouted amidst the chaos.

“Is this really the time for that conversation?” Leman shouted in kind, before another explosion shook the cathedral. Admu fired a volley of shots into a group of marines through another section of the wall, killing two of them as the rest scrambled for cover behind the rubble.

“No, the time for this conversation was when we got here!” She said, reloading her bolter. Leman leapt over a piece of the broken wall and embedded his chainsword into the chest of one of the traitor marines, shooting the other two with his pistol.

“We are not having this discussion now!” Leman said, pulling his chainsword out and cutting the hand off of one of the black legionnaires he had just shot as he was reaching for his chain axe. Leman then finished him off with a shot to the head.

“You just think I’m too immature for you to tell me, don’t you?” She said, smacking a charging traitor marine across the face with the butt of her gun. “After everything we’ve been through you still treat me like nothing but a hindrance!” She shot the fallen marine several times, killing him.

“Damn it, that’s not true!” He said, locking chainswords with an attacking black legionnaire. He pushed the marine away with a rain of sparks, and then cut a nasty gash up across his opponent’s chestplate. “I was… afraid of what would happen if you found out!”

“Afraid that I would be too scared to fight?” she said, tossing a grenade into one of the side rooms. The explosion rocked the cathedral, kicking up dust. Leman was beginning to have doubts about the structural integrity of this building.

“I never said that, I just-” he said.

“You what?” she said.

“I was afraid you would never smile again!” Leman shouted.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Admu said.

“I-” Leman was interrupted by the sound of splintering wood as the great doors of the cathedral were smashed open. Leman and Admu turned to see a colossal marine in terminator armor and cloaked in blood-soaked furs. The glowing red eyes of his helmet pierced through the dust-choked air and highlighted the bony horns which protruded from his head. His rebreather steamed with boiling-hot breath and blood dripped from the immense, black-iron mace in his grip.

“It has been so long since the gods have sent me a worthy challenge…” his voice boomed, as the ground shook with his slow, deliberate steps. “My daemon-mace hungers for worthy souls, every moment it remains unsaturated its handle seeps with the blood of the innocent.” Admu scowled at him with venomous eyes. She readied her bolter to unload on the hulking traitor, but in a flash, Salazar raised his left arm and fired the storm bolter attached to his wrist. Admu and Leman dove for cover as the explosive bolter rounds peppered the inside of the cathedral. The ground shook with each of the behemoth's strides, causing more dust to fall from the deteriorating ceiling. “You killed my sorcerer before he could complete the ritual, throne-zealots. To think that all those innocent lives we tortured and put to death truly died for nothing!” Salazar said, erupting with laughter that was distorted by his rebreather into a ghastly wheezing sound. He hefted his mace into the air and brought it down on the fallen pillar Leman was behind. He rolled out of the way, firing rounds that were absorbed by the chaos warlord’s heavy armor. Admu fired several rounds into the enemy’s back before he spun around and fired his stormbolter at her. She ducked behind a pillar to reload and noticed cracks beginning to form on the large marble supports. Leman held up his chainsword to block Salazar’s mace and was pushed back by the armored warrior’s enhanced strength. Salazar swung at him, but Leman leapt backwards and just missed the brutish swipe. Their weapons clashed once again, as sparks flew from the chainsword’s grinding teeth.

“Leman!” Admu shouted.

“I’m a bit-” Leman said, deftly parrying a mace strike, “busy!” Admu pointed upwards repeatedly, and Leman looked up for a split second before having to block the next strike. He looked at her and nodded, wordlessly agreeing with her. She pulled out the last of her grenades and got to work. Leman raised his bolt pistol, but it was knocked out of his hand by a strike from Salazar’s mace. The tractor marine kicked Leman in the chest, knocking him into a wall with prodigious force. He ducked and tumbled onto the floor as Salazar’s mace crashed into the wall where Leman’s head was only a second ago. Admu picked up a large hook and chain attached to one of the torture devices, swinging it to gather momentum. Salazar raised his left hand to aim the stormbolter at Leman but was interrupted by the metal hook wrapping around his arm and becoming stuck. Before he had a chance to struggle against it, Admu flipped a large level which caused the chain to begin retracting, dragging the surprised Salazar with it. His arm was trapped by metal restraints, which Salazar struggled against savagely.

“Come on!” Admu shouted, helping to pull Leman off the floor. The two ran towards the exit, making it just outside the shattered door frame as the grenades began going off. One by one, the support pillars shattered, and the entire cathedral began to crumble underneath its own weight. Salazar howled, pulling against the restraints and causing them to bend and buckle. Huge chunks of rubble and stone plummeted from the ceiling as the building collapsed in on itself. Leman and Admu stumbled into the courtyard as it was engulfed by a cloud of dust from the improvised demolition. Admu coughed as she tried to catch her breath.

“Is… is he dead?” she said through labored breathing.

“That lumbering troll was wearing terminator armor. It’s gonna take more than dropping a hab-block on that fiend to finish him off.” Leman said.

Sure enough, the huge chunks of rubble began to shift and slide as the battered but unbroken form of Captain Salazar emerged from the wreckage. His stormbolter was destroyed, and the faceplate of his helmet was shattered.

“I… would have been satisfied… just crushing your skulls in…” Salazar said, struggling to speak without his rebreather. “But now… I’m going to make… your deaths… as slow… and painful… as possible!” The traitor marine launched into a berserker rage, pushing his terminator armor to the limit as he swung his mace furiously. Admu raised her bolter to fire at him, but in a flash his mace swiped her bolter away and sent her flying backwards.

“Admu!” Leman shouted, charging at the traitor marine in a mad fury. He clashed weapons with Salazar, striking him such that the traitor was pushed back by the force of the blow. Leman launched a flurry of strikes which overwhelmed his enemy, the traitor’s enhanced strength beguiled by Leman’s expert swordsmanship honed over ten millennia. He attempted to retaliate with his mace, but Leman deflected the strike and the weapon slipped from Salazar’s grasp. Enraged, Salazar simply grabbed Leman with his other hand and lifted him off the ground, his enhanced strength quickly testing the durability of Leman’s armor. Leman thrust his chainsword into his opponent, but the teeth simply ground away futilely against the thick terminator armor. He swatted away Leman’s sword and attempted to grab his neck, but Leman struggled against the towering behemoth, howling in pain as his muscles strained against the terminator’s prodigious strength. Salazar cackled like a wounded hyena and twisted his face into a perverse grin, as he prepared to finish off the hated nuisance which had ruined his entire campaign.

“Look here you bastard!” Admu shouted. Salazar turned to her and was promptly struck in the face by his own mace. He dropped Leman onto the ground, who began coughing and struggling to his feet. Salazar stumbled backwards, his bloody and bruised face contorted into a mixture of surprise and anger. Before he could react, Admu struck him again, and again, swinging the heavy mace with all of her might. The terminator fell against a wall, blood streaming from his shattered nose and swollen lips, and Admu swung the blunt weapon down on the traitor’s skull. Leman staggered to one knee before he was finally able to stand on both feet again, watching Admu slam the mace at his head one final time. She heaved his mace and tossed it away, wiping the blood which seemed to seep from its handle on her power armor’s tabard with a slight grimace.

“Maybe if his weapon didn’t constantly leak blood, he could’ve held onto it better.” Admu said with contempt on her face.

A Leman sighed, and removed his helmet to reveal a face that, coincidentally, happened to look a bit like a less weathered and scarred version of his own. Albeit with curly black hair and a strangely blunt nose, Admu noted. She preferred Leman’s usual face. He looked at Admu, who had her arms crossed and her mouth twisted into a kind of annoyed pout.

“Fine, I’ll tell you.” he said, rubbing his temple. He sat down on a toppled pillar, and told her everything, or at least the best summary he could manage from what he knew.

He told her of the primarchs, how they were scattered across the galaxy and how his father set out to find them, he told her about their sons, the astartes, and he told her about the Heresy. How the dark gods seduced, tricked, and twisted half of his brothers into traitors. How they plunged the galaxy into darkness and turmoil, killing or incapacitating most of his brothers and fatally wounding his father. He touched briefly on his time in the warp, though he felt that it was not worth the time to fully describe ten thousand years of non-stop torment.

“...When I set out on my quest into the Immaterium, all of my brothers were either dead, missing, or worse - daemons. I spent millennia in the realm of those debaucherous ‘gods’, so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to ever be at peace. That is, until I met you. I feared losing you, the you that I met on that sunlit meadow after an eternity of madness, in the same way that I lost my brothers and my father - to Chaos, to the madness of war, to the meaningless suffering of a cold and indifferent galaxy. I don’t know how you and your family are connected to the ruinous powers, but after spending so much time in their company I can say without a doubt that they are nothing like their namesakes in the Immaterium, the vile beings that these madmen worship. I’m… sorry for letting my concerns blind me to the reality of our mission… and underestimate your strength.” he said, looking down at the floor. He looked up at Admu, whose face bore an indiscernible mix of contemplation and disquiet. She took a deep breath, looked Leman in the eyes, and smiled.

“You’re… smiling?” Leman said.

“Leman, I knew you were upset about something… I was just frustrated because you wouldn’t tell me - and wouldn’t let me help you.” She said. “I knew how much it hurt you to talk about those things back in the desert, that’s why I stopped you. But this time, it was different. I could see how much it hurt you to keep it locked up inside with no one to share it with.”

“Really…” Leman said, slightly impressed. “You could tell all that?”

“Mister Russ, you’re easier to read than an open book.” she said, laughing gently.

“You know… you handled that bolter rather adeptly. Where did you learn to shoot like that?” he said.

“I told you, papa used to take me hunting all the time. It just so happens that some of those times uncle Khorne would come with us… and bring some of his equipment.” She said, making finger guns with her hands. Leman sighed.

“Admu, are you truly… alright? With knowing about… Chaos?” he said.

Admu’s expression darkened, and for a split-second Leman perceived an intense anger shooting across her face before returning to normal.

“My papa- my family taught me right from wrong. To defend the innocent and punish evil. What I saw in there…” she trailed off. “I don’t care what those so-called ‘chaos gods’ call themselves, evil like that can’t be allowed to exist. I know who my family is, and it has nothing to do with them or their despicable followers.” She said with a determined expression. Leman nodded.

“I agree.” He said, and a momentary quiet passed between the two. Leman sat back and breathed deeply, feeling as though the immense burden he had carried for ten thousand years had been ever so slightly lightened.

"By the way… did you really say that you didn't want me to 'never smile again'?" Admu said, giggling. "That might be the corniest thing I've ever heard."

"Well forgive me for being sincere." Leman said.

Captain Salazar, having regained consciousness well over 15 minutes ago, couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Leman Russ? Daughter of Nurgle? Did these corpse-worshippers damage their brains during planetfall? How in the nine hells did these idiots beat us!? He thought.

“Say, I wonder why the simulation hasn’t ended yet.” Leman mused. To their surprise, Salazar coughed and wheezed, attempting to regain use of his lungs.

“What… in the hell… are you two… loyalist lapdogs… talking ab-” Salazar was cut off by a bolter round splattering the contents of his skull on the wall behind him. Leman turned to see Admu with her bolter up before he could even reach for his chainsword, and a look of pure hatred on her face. She took a deep breath, and her expression softened before she smiled again.

“Looks like he wasn’t dead yet. Fixed it.” She said.

Leman and Admu rematerialized the cavernous VR chamber, and a familiar shrill voice rang out from the loudspeakers above.

"Good news! I believe that I've finally managed to interrupt the simulation protocols, I should have complete control over the system. I just need to flip this switch to disconnect the soul matrix from the temporal displacement amplifier…" Tzeentch said, followed by the sound of a heavy switch being flipped and loud electrical surges. The air around Leman crackled with the arcane energy and temporal fluctuations, and he once again felt his consciousness jerk and splice into a new, unfamiliar form. He opened his eyes and saw his hands flexing as he adjusted to his next form. He was wearing a skintight suit of black, leathery material which seemed almost to blend into what was behind it. He was wearing a visor which provided constant analysis of whatever was in sight, even beyond that provided by the typical astartes helmet.

A Vindicare Assassin… Leman noted. At least I’m still human.

He looked up and saw that he was in some kind of immense scrapyard, with the rotting and broken hulls of battleships, space cruisers, and other unrecognizable machinery littering the lifeless landscape for as far as he could see.

That’s strange, I don’t believe the Mechanicum would ever let technology like this go to waste… it must be some kind of xenos world, or the site of a great void battle. He thought.

He looked over to where Admu was standing a moment ago, and to his surprise he saw a tall and lithe figure wearing wraithbone armor wrapped in green cloth. Raven locks of black hair cascaded across the sharp features of her otherworldly visage, her face bearing an unmistakable and ghostly elegance.

An Aeldari seer… and a Vindicare assassin… in a ship graveyard? Where the hell are we? Leman thought.

“Ooh, I like this!” Admu said, admiring her elegant attire. “Although, it feels sort of… familiar for some reason.”

Suddenly they heard a piercing noise inside of their heads causing both of them to grab their heads in discomfort.

“Ah, apologies… uh, that was supposed to turn the machine off…” Tzeentch’s voice rang out telepathically. “...but it appears that an unexpected memory leak caused the simulation to revert to an earlier data shard that was being held in the system’s memory. That’s strange… I don’t remember programming this simulation into the queue…” Tzeentch said. They could hear the sound of clacking keys as Tzeentch muttered to himself. “Vindicare assassin… Aeldari farseer… Eversor… Grey Knights… what? They do WHAT!?” Tzeentch slammed his hands on the console. “By the spheres of the heavens, Slaanesh, if I catch you breaking into my computer one more time, I will TURN YOU INTO A SLANN!” he shouted. Leman looked at Admu who simply shrugged. Tzeentch took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m going to try to manually reset the simulation, which will hopefully allow me to completely disconnect both of you. You may experience some… brief cognitive discoherence, but simply avoid depersonalizing thoughts and you should be fine. Alright, here we… go!” Rather than dematerializing, the world around them seemed to phase and shift erratically like a damaged holovid. Their surroundings changed rapidly, going from an icy tundra in one moment to a barren desert the next. Reality seemed to be shifting in a patchwork, until finally it settled on a single location.

The rolling rust-dunes of Mars extended out in all directions, like waves in a sea of rust. The ruins of some long-forgotten civilization were scattered like fragments of a sunken ship, near-completely subsumed by the ruddy sea. Harsh winds carried thick clouds of metallic dust along the horizon, darkening the sun’s rays into a kind of burgundy twilight. It was Mars, but not the Mars that Leman knew. It was still wild, untamed. The towering, gleaming spires of the Adeptus Mechanicus were nowhere to be seen, nor were their great excavated chasms which held innumerable treasures from Humanity’s golden age; what little evidence of human habitation there was, was in the process of being reclaimed by the Martian landscape. As he turned to glimpse the entirety of his surroundings, his eyes fell upon two figures. Barely 500 feet away a man in golden armor with a sword of fire stood, his obsidian hair swaying in the Martian wind. Before him stood a humanoid being of living metal, winged and serpentine in nature. Its form was nigh-indescribable, like a dragon in the form of a star in the form of a man. Its eyes crackled with a nauseating green power which extended in arcs all across its body. It hovered just above the ground, with only one of its feet resting upon the rusted sand.

“Father…?” Leman said, outstretching his hand. He noticed that his entire arm was translucent, like a hologram. Immediately the world around him froze, down to the last particle of dust and gust of wind.

“They can’t see you. In fact, you can’t interact with them at all, this isn’t a simulation. Merely a projected recording of junk memory, uncompiled data floating around in the system’s data banks playing back while it flushes the rest of its working memory.” Tzeentch said.

“Uncle Tzeentch?” Admu said.

“Yes dear?” he said.

“If this isn’t a simulation, why is that… metal lizard-man thing looking at us?” she said.

Leman’s hearts froze. Green eyes stared into his, and even at such a distance it felt as though he was in immediate danger. Its metallic wings shuddered, as if struggling against some kind of viscous fluid. It took one step - then another.

“The recording is paused, nothing should be-” Tzeentch said.

I am impressed.

Leman and Admu stepped back, alarmed by a new voice which echoed all throughout their minds.

I was not aware anyone possessed technology which could duplicate even a fraction of my essence - not even the Empyreans.

“That should… not be possible…” Tzeentch said, accompanied by the furious sound of clacking keys.

Quantum crystalline circuitry combined with the endemic non-linear temporality of the Immaterium - fascinating.

I could make good use of this technology - very good use.

The metallic being glitched out of existence.

“Tzeentch… what was that?” Leman said.

"Remain calm, but… it appears that 'metal lizard-man' just converted itself into a self-replicating polymorphic algorithm which is currently attempting to take control of my computer systems." Tzeentch said. "Worry not, I still have everything under control!"

Leman grumbled.

"Admu, if we ever get out of here, I'm going to kill him."

Chapter 12

Chapter Text

“Tzeentch, what is happening?” Leman shouted.

“I’m re-engaging the quantum lock, that should prevent anything or anyone from escaping the simulation… unfortunately that includes you two.” Tzeentch said. “I’m rolling back the system to its last stable state. Once I do, the… ‘intruder’ will be ejected back into the simulation.”

“Is there anything we can do?” Admu said.

“Continue trying not to die.” Tzeentch said.

“Thanks for the advice.” Leman muttered.

Leman and Admu stumbled as the world around them jerked and dissolved, reality itself re-adjusting to new simulated conditions. The red terrain of Mars faded into darkness and was gradually replaced by the wreckage of starships and titans, and Leman found himself in the body of a Vindicare once again.

"I'm going to do everything I can to restrain the intruder by starving him of processing power, but I can't destroy him completely. You two need to find his physical body and destroy it within the simulation, that should delete it entirely." Tzeentch said. Leman heard the crack of thunder and saw a blazing green star arc across the sky. It crashed in a blaze of fire and lightning about a kilometer away, shearing away ship hulls and machine parts with a colossal explosion that bathed their surroundings in a baleful green light. Instead of dissipating, the green glow merely intensified as tendrils of energy shot out in all directions. Void ship parts, titan limbs, and countless other miscellaneous components were drawn into the singularity, assembling themselves into byzantine constructions unfathomable to even the most adept techpriest. The monstrous, shambling mass of rusted metal and coiled wires dragged itself out of the crater, raising something resembling a head and bellowing with a noise that sounded like a thousand forge worlds burning in nuclear fire.

“You expect us to destroy that?” Leman said.

“I can assure you; I am doing everything I can on my end!” Tzeentch said. “I’m currently running a number of active countermeasures that have restrained roughly 96.8% of its total processing capacity, you’ll have to deal with the remaining 3.2% yourselves!” Leman did not even want to consider what it would look like at 100%. Resigning himself to the situation, he looked around, closed his eyes, and began devising a plan.

“Uh, mister Leman, how exactly are we supposed to destroy that thing?” Admu said.

“I have an idea, but it’s a longshot.” he said. “We’re surrounded by void-capable Imperial ships, meaning that there is most likely a functioning warp drive in at least one of them. Provided the power supply is still intact, I may be able to rig the drive to activate when the beast approaches.”

“What’s a warp drive?” she said.

“In simple terms… it’s a portal to hell.” he said.

“Oh… that could work.” she said, slightly concerned.

“I need you to distract the enemy while I look for a viable warp drive.” he said.

“What!? How?” she said.

“You’re an Aeldari farseer, one of the most powerful psykers in the galaxy. Use your head.” he said. “Literally.”

“Are… are you sure mister Russ?” she said.

“Admu, after everything we’ve been through, I trust you.” he said. Her eyes lit up, and she smiled with a fiery determination.

“I won’t let you down!” she said. Leman turned and began sprinting through the scrap heap with great speed, looking for the nearest intact void ship. The lean musculature of a trained Vindicare was far from what he was used to, but it was an interesting sensation to move with such agility.

“Wait, mister Russ! How will we stay in contact?” she said.

“You have telepathy!” he shouted, getting farther away.

Oh, you’re right! Admu thought, which Leman heard in his own mind.

I’ll let you know when and where the trap will be set, then it is up to you to lure in the target. Leman thought, leaping and sliding across the wreckage-strewn heap.

Admu turned to face the metallic colossus lumbering towards her and took a deep breath. She raised her singing spear, a psychically attuned polearm shaped by expert Aeldari bonesingers and embedded with all manner of enchanted runes and warpstones, and stared down the charging C’tan. The shambling amalgam of decaying machinery stampeded through the piles of rusted scrap, building-sized pylons and girders sent flying by the beastly figure’s earth-shaking strides.

Insignificant specks… even a shard of a shard of my infinite power is more than enough to obliterate the likes of you with a mere thought! The shattered C’tan rumbled, its disembodied voice reverberating through Admu’s entire being. Bolts of green energy shot out of the metal hulk’s body and scoured the ground all around her, bouncing off of the psychic barrier generated by her singing spear.

So that’s what psychic powers are like… Admu thought. It feels kind of like trying to wiggle my ears.

I’ve never heard them described quite like that… Leman thought.

She could feel the barrier redirecting the energy into the earth, like lightning passing through a metal cage. The Void Dragon charged at her with one of its metal limbs raised, then swung the appendage down on her like an immense club. She closed her eyes and focused all of her attention on the barrier, which began to emanate an iridescent glow. The C’tan struck the shield, creating a shockwave that shook the earth. Admu slid backwards, while the C’tan shard’s arm flew backwards and took the rest of its body stumbling with it. Admu opened her eyes, blinking a few times before realizing what she had done. She let out a nervous laugh, surprised by her own abilities. Her eyebrows furrowed with newfound determination, and she stared down the fallen colossus.

“Is that all you’ve got, you overgrown… uh…”

As Admu struggled to remember a name for something large and made out of metal, the C’tan lifted itself up and shook its head. It swiveled its head in search of something, then plunged its arm into the hull of a nearby space cruiser. After emitting more of the green energy, it pulled out the ship’s plasma engine which quickly assimilated into the C’tan’s makeshift limb. The engine fired up, emitting a conical halo of superheated gas from its thruster. The Void Dragon raised its arm once again, resisting the force of the thruster before letting it loose and sending Admu and the psychic barrier flying through several metal hulls behind her. She collapsed to the ground, dazed, and her barrier dissipated.

“Looks… like I have to… try something else.” she muttered.

Leman searched frantically through the wreckage of countless starships, looking for an intact warp drive. He had deduced that this was not a normal scrapyard, as far too many rare and valuable components such as gun batteries and plasma engines were left untouched by would-be scavengers. This was good, as it meant his chances of finding his goal were that much higher. He vaulted over an upturned voidfighter, sliding down its wing and coming to a stop with a somersault. The slight chemical stimulants injected into him by his stealth suit gave him a constant buzz of adrenaline, causing his lean muscle-fibers to twitch slightly in anticipation of further movement. He scaled the side of what looked like the wreckage of a small transport, likely a carrack-class freighter. His dexterous hands and feet found ample footing along the baroque exterior, fingers sliding along grand flourishes and engravings on the ship’s hull. He climbed until he came across a large blast-hole in the ship’s armor, using it as an entryway into the ship’s innards. His padded soles made no sound within the slanted metal corridors, even as he sprinted at a breakneck speed. Following the faded signposts along the walls of the hallway, he made his way to the engineering deck towards the aft section of the ship. Not only did the majority of the ship seem to be still intact, but the flickering lights overhead indicated that the power generator was at least partially functional. This was a very encouraging sign. His path ended at an immense, hermetically sealed door lined with gargantuan metal locks and peppered with innumerable purity seals.

This has to be it. Leman thought.

He gripped the door’s handwheel and began twisting, the accumulated rust and decay making a relatively simple task into a herculean effort. The mechanical locks and mechanisms holding the door closed made agonizing screeches, as if the machine spirits were being raised from the dead and fighting against the rust which imprisoned them. After several minutes of pushing and pulling, the wheel loosened slightly, and the immense door began to swing open.

The room within was lined with arcane, spike-shaped devices, like the inside of an animal trap. Coils and wires draped from the walls, leading to an enormous spherical device encircled by rings and dotted with small holes. Some of the enclosing rings were damaged, and the overall slant of the ship made accessing the controls tricky. Luckily, Leman was currently inhabiting the body of one of the deadliest acrobats in the Imperium.

It looks like the control shroud is partially damaged… luckily, we won’t be needing that. Leman thought, maneuvering himself into the control bridge. Power levels are… less than ideal. Despite his primitive upbringing, Leman knew his way around technology… to a point. He wouldn’t have been able to pass as a techpriest, but he knew just about as much as his brothers who weren’t named Vulkan, Ferrus Manus, or Perturabo. Alright Leman, you can do this. Perturabo would have been able to get this machine operational in less time than a blood claw could down a cask Fenrisian ale. You can’t let *Perturabo* be better than you. Leman got to work, tapping keys and flipping switches, using his basic knowledge of starship engineering to divert enough power into the warp drive to kickstart it. He deactivated all non-essential systems, reducing the power consumption to the bare minimum required to function. Void ships were generally not designed to operate on such limited conditions, but it seemed that the machine spirits of this vessel on some level sensed the dire consequences they were facing and so were being unusually cooperative. The rings of the control shroud began to rotate around the perforated core of the warp drive, and tendrils of pink and violet energy arced between the spikes lining the room and the central device.

Admu, I found a warp drive and managed to render it semi-functional. I’m going to rig the control shroud with explosives, so I can overload it from a distance. All I need is for you to lure the metal beast to my location. Leman thought.

Outside, the C’tan shard fired a beam of green light at Admu. Her psychic barrier refracted it into dozens of smaller arcs which twisted away from her, leaving burned scars wherever they touched the ground.

I need a little help! Admu responded. The Void Dragon swung at the half-destroyed cruiser she was standing on, reducing it to a pile of scrap and debris surrounded by clouds of choking black dust. Admu landed on a nearby platform, her Aeldari physiology and psychic abilities allowing her to leap out of danger just in the nick of time.

Alright, I’m on my way. Leman responded. He climbed back out of the marooned transport and saw the rusted behemoth of scrap tossing entire battleships and escorts like a Fenrisian mammoth felling trees in its rampage towards the Aeldari farseer. I’ve got to get its attention somehow… Leman thought. His visor analyzed his opponent, quickly identifying structural weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Then he noticed the plasma engine haphazardly adhered to its right arm, and its exposed fuel tank. He unslung the exitus rifle from his back, dropping to a kneeling position and resting the meter-long sniper rifle on his left arm. His muscles hardened like stone, moving only when absolutely necessary, making slight adjustments on the scale of micrometers. His visor calculated the bullet drop, wind resistance, and planetary rotation for him, giving him a shooting guide accurate to less than a millimeter at a distance of roughly 1.3 kilometers. Admu, brace yourself. Leman thought, and she quickly raised her psychic barrier. His lungs froze in place, and even his heartbeat slowed to a crawl on command, as his finger slowly squeezed the trigger.

The Void Dragon erupted in a fulmination of superheated plasma, the shockwave knocking both it and Admu off of their feet. Its entire right half was obliterated, large chunks of molten slag sloughing off as the C’tan shard struggled back to its feet.

You did it Mister Russ! Admu thought, raising her hands in the air.

Not quite… Leman thought. I just pissed it off.

The Void Dragon bellowed with rage and was enveloped in bright green lightning. Pieces of scrap and discarded technology assimilated into the C’tan’s body, quickly rebuilding the portions which were blown off in the explosion. It lifted itself off of the ground and began charging towards Leman’s location.

Pitiful children of the Old Ones, did you really think you could defeat me? A being who stands above even the gods? It howled, shaking the earth as it tore through the scrapyard on its colossal legs.

That’s it… Leman thought, gripping the remote detonator. Just a bit closer…

The Void Dragon skid to a halt, and a rush of terror shot through Leman’s body. The metallic construct began to glow with the same green energy, its body shifting and reconfiguring its parts for some unknown purpose.

Why did it stop? Admu thought.

I don’t know! Leman thought.

Missile tubes and cannons emerged from the C’tan’s metal shell like hundreds of quills, erupting in a hail of projectiles that filled the air with smoke and fire. Shells and missiles exploded all around Leman as he scrambled away from the ship, vaulting over and sliding underneath pieces of scrap in an attempt to evade. He fell dozens of meters through the air, tumbling through the air and just barely landing on his feet. He felt a sharp pain in his side and struggled to stand, looking up just in time to see the Void Dragon's maw open up and fire a monstrous beam of green energy directly towards him. He raised his arms in a knowingly futile act of self-preservation, only for a flash of light to appear before him and deflect the beam in all directions. Admu panted heavily, using her spear to keep herself upright.

"I didn't know farseers could telepor-" Leman was interrupted by Admu gagging loudly, then vomiting all over the floor.

"I… don't think… they're supposed to…" she said between labored breaths.

"...Do you think you could do it one more time?" He said.

"Maybe… one more… time." she said.

"Then I have a plan." he said, grabbing her hand and leading them back into the ship.

Leman and Admu ran through the halls and tunnels of the ship, quickly finding their way to the engineering deck while their assailant battered the derelict ship from the outside. They entered the familiar chamber which housed the active warp drive, Leman shielding his eyes from the intense light at its center. The device had become fully operational, the extreme buildup of energy at its core causing the air to vibrate with a nauseating hum. Then, the ship lurched suddenly sending the two reeling to the side as the Void Dragon pounded and lacerated the hull. Massive talons piercing the inner walls of the chamber, peeling apart the heavy void-shielding with shocking ease.

“Now!” Leman shouted.

Admu concentrated, as sparks of psychic energy filled the air around them. The C’tan shard let out a metallic howl, bearing its clawed gauntlet down upon the two just as they disappeared in a flash of light. They reappeared some distance away, falling on a slanted metal platform. Admu wretched, as Leman clutched his head while trying to regain his bearings. The Void Dragon, realizing their gambit, quickly located their new position and began charging another beam of energy in its maw as arcs of electricity ran up and down its makeshift body.

“Not… so… fast…” Leman said, pulling the detonator out of a pouch on his belt. He flipped the safety and pressed his thumb down, and the explosives he had planted around the warp drive filled the chamber with plumes of fire and smoke. The lumbering scrap construct turned to the commotion as the intensity of the device’s light grew exponentially.

“Admu, hold onto something!” Leman said, anchoring himself to a nearby piece of rebar while Admu ducked behind a broken metal wall.

Without the control shroud to contain it, the warp drive went critical. Space folded in on itself, causing light to refract in unnatural ways. It unleashed a wave of destruction, sending hundreds of tons of debris hurtling through the air. The Void Dragon reeled; large pieces of its metal body sheared off by the explosion. The rebar Leman was using as an anchor was dislodged by the shockwave, sending him flying backwards into a ceramite wall.

“Leman!” Admu shouted.

The earth shook violently, and the explosive force reversed in an instant. The warp portal torn open by the explosion expanded like an abyssal foam, the void in the materium hungrily swallowing up everything in its vicinity. An extreme gale blew towards the mouth of the immaterium, consuming the debris and scrap with frightening speed. Leman, now unmoored, fell towards the vacuum-like hole. He tumbled through the air, stopping abruptly as Admu caught him in her psychic grip. She pulled him towards her against the immense winds, reaching out with her hand until at last she felt Leman’s hand in her grasp. She pulled with all of her might, yanking him behind cover as a huge chunk of the platform they were standing on was torn off by the warp portal’s pull. The C’tan shard thrashed and struggled against the immense gravity of the warp hole, pieces of its constructed body slowly disintegrating and falling into the abyss until all that remained was its original form.

Deluded fools…! I am Mag'ladroth! Greatest of the Star Gods! Lord of the material realm! I cannot be conquered! I cannot be subdued! I will lay waste to the galaxy until all worlds submit to my dominio-

Mechanical tendrils emerged from the immaterium, shooting towards the shattered C’tan. It was made of oily black metal, cables and byzantine mechanisms dripping with a gaseous darkness.


They grasped the star god with their spidery hands, piercing its necrodermis skin with their spindle-like fingers as gangrenous green light poured out.

What is- No! I cannot be conquered! I am Mag’ladroth! The scourge of the Empyreans! Slayer of Gods!

The mechanical limbs dragged the C’tan shard towards the abyss as the Void Dragon roared and howled like a titanic, rusted tower in the moment of collapse. The hands tore its body into pieces, wrenching each screaming shard of the shattered Star God into the hellish chasm of the immaterium. Its hunger satiated, the foaming tear in reality slowly began to diminish until collapsing in on itself. All that remained were clouds of toxic dust and the faint, rasping laughter of cruel gods.

Admu exhaled and let out an exasperated laugh, as the euphoria of victory washed over her. Leman rose to his feet, took a deep breath, and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Is it done?” Leman said.

“All systems purged of malignant processes. Well done!” Tzeentch said, clapping.

“Then it’s over.” Leman said. “Say, Admu, what do y-” Leman stumbled, holding himself up on a piece of debris.

“Mister Russ are you alright?” she asked, rushing to his side. She touched his side, and realized her hand was coated in blood. “Y-you’re bleeding heavily!”

Leman’s head sagged to the side, as the edges of his vision became dark and blurry. Admu’s desperate pleading grew deafened, replaced by a sharp ringing in his ears. Teetering on the edge of consciousness, he felt a now-familiar presence that made his skin crawl. Something stalked the darkness that clouded his sight, and he felt yellow eyes watching him through the back of his skull. Just before his vision darkened completely, as he slipped from the waking world, he heard a voice in his mind.

Rest now, Wolf-king… and we will meet on the Other Side.

Chapter 13

Chapter Text

Leman's eyes shot open, gasping out of both shock and exhaustion. His heart was racing and his breathing was rapid, his chest rising and falling with a steady rhythm as his breath condensed into clouds of fog in the cold air. A field of stars hung in the deep black sky above, shining through the faint shade of treetops which blended in almost perfectly with the dark night sky. He felt blades of grass tickling the back of his head, and the smell of smoke wafted into his nose. His ears were filled with the sound of chirping insects, distant animal calls, and the rustling of leaves in the chilling midnight breeze. With some effort, he rose to his feet and leaned against a nearby tree trunk. It felt as though the accumulated exhaustion of all the simulated trials he had just experienced were placed upon him all at once, causing his arms and legs to burn with fatigue. He could see orange-yellow light dancing in between the trees and followed it.

The campfire in front of him waved and crackled, casting shadows which danced along the dark treeline. Behind the ribbons of orange-red and yellow-white flame sat the now-familiar great wolf, its piercing golden eyes shining through even the light of the fire. Before it lay a recently slain boar carcass, steam billowing from its spilled entrails. The wolf licked its blood-soaked muzzle.

“What is this place?” Leman asked.

This is where we first met.

“We?” Leman said.

Your kind and I… 100,000 years ago.

Leman’s eyes widened.

“100,000 years… but that would mean this is…”

Your kind has called it by many names, but I believe it is now referred to as “Terra”.

Leman was silent for a moment, as the two watched each other intently from across the fire.

“I have encountered you three times now during my time here, wolf. I have relied on your guidance and power… yet I still do not know who or what you are, or why you are seemingly bound to me. Tell me wolf, what are you?” Leman said.

I am an ancient spirit of old Terra, as old as the mountains which have been paved over and mined into dust, and as old as the trees which were stripped and felled long ago. In this place, a thousand centuries past, your kind and I made a pact. When I found you, you were a fledgling species struggling to survive outside of your cradle, numbering only a few thousand… it is amusing to think back to those times and see how far you have come. The wolf bared its teeth in a menacing smile and deep, growling laughter echoed from within its chest.

“Are there… more of you?” Leman said.

Once there were many… very many. We walked among men until they had learned too much to pay us any mind, though we walked alongside them even still. When they took to the sky and spread across the stars, we followed. We were not often worshiped, though that was fine with me. The freedom of the immaterial plains, open and untamed… that was enough. The pernicious gods of the long-eared ones tried to hem us in, but their power was never as absolute as they liked to believe. They thought themselves safe in their walled cities, though they were humbled in the end… even the bloody-handed one. The wolf once again grinned with its toothy maw. It was a golden age… though not without its conflicts. More than a few quarrels between my kind caused the destruction of a planet or two… most of which involved me.The wolf said with a smirk. It tore into the boar carcass with its fanged mouth and swallowed a chunk of the steaming-fresh meat before continuing. After swallowing the morsel, the wolf’s face grew dour. Then the dark times came… the long-ears in their endless hubris summoned the harlot god from the abyss of their depravity, herald of the primordial ruinations. Most of us were consumed by the four bastard gods, the rest hid away in remote corners of the galaxy to escape the heaven-shattering. I almost feel pity for the arrogant long-ears, their screams were so great and so many that they split the stars with their cries of agony. The wolf stared off into the night sky, a hint of begrudging yet solemn respect etched into its face. Now, there is only me… and presumably those bound to your brothers.

“My… my brothers!?” Leman shouted, having almost been lost in the wolf’s dream-like reminiscing.

I am surprised you didn’t already know… though I suppose your father never was much for sharing. Some time after the heavens shattered, your father found me on the ice-bound world I had claimed dominion over… Fenris, I believe the humans called it. He told me of his intent, and the other ancient spirits he had convinced to join him. He believed he could convince me to submit to him with words alone. The wolf licked the dripping blood from the fur around its mouth. He was mistaken.

“You inhabited Fenris!? You fought my father!?” Leman said.

It was quite the battle. Tell me, how many continents does Fenris have?

“How many… only one, Asaheim… the Land of the Gods. The rest of the planet is covered by the world-sea.” Leman said, his eyebrows furrowed. The wolf laughed deep within its chest.

Before our battle, there were two.

Leman leaned back; his mind barely able to process all that he had learned. Even his acceptance of the benevolent gods of this realm paled in comparison to this current revelation.

Ultimately, I yielded to your father’s vision. I shared his desire for a galaxy free of the ruinous ones, where mankind was free to roam the stars once again. So, at the moment of your creation, your father bound me to your fledgling spirit.

“Why was I not aware of your presence before, even during my millennia of traveling in the warp? Why is it that you appeared only now, when I entered this strange place?” Leman said.

I am not quite sure myself… perhaps your father never intended for us to meet. He was always a most secretive and paranoid man, though he had ambition and courage to match it. As for why we were able to meet here and now… the walls and seals that kept the material and immaterial apart feel… weaker, somehow. It is possible that they have weakened enough for the barriers within your own soul that constrained me have weakened as well. The wolf turned and looked into the distance. When we first entered the veiled place, I felt a great sundering in the Warp. It was as if the trickle of power which flows between the material and ethereal planes had turned into a roaring river.

“What could have caused such a thing?” Leman asked.

I have only experienced this feeling once before, that being the moment of the pointed-eared ones’ fall.

Leman could scarcely imagine what could have caused something of that magnitude… nor did he want to. His mind had begun churning like a tumultuous sea in response to these revelations, so chaotic that it was difficult for him to even think of any more questions to ask. Then, an echo rang throughout the forest. It was barely audible, but caught Leman’s attention nonetheless. He spun around, searching for the source of the noise.

It appears our meeting is at an end once again. The wolf said, picking up the boar carcass in its teeth. Before we part, a word of advice:

Leman turned back to face the wolf.

Stay with the girl.

The echoing noise grew louder and more discernible as the wolf turned from the fire and disappeared into the darkness. The fire began to surge, the light shining brighter and brighter until it completely consumed Leman’s vision. Everything went white as Admu’s voice filled his ears.

“Mister Russ!” Admu shouted.

Leman blinked, his eyes adjusting to the light. He saw two shadowy figures standing above him, one familiar and another he didn’t recognize. He rubbed his eyes, and was greeted by Admu’s shining, rosy face framed by the braided flaxen hair draped over her horns. More concerning to Leman, however, was the giant, cloaked bird standing next to her.

“Mister Russ, thank goodness you’re alright!” Admu exclaimed, lifting him up in her embrace.

“He’s alive!” Tzeentch shouted with a look of surprise. He then cleared his throat and adjusted his expression to a more self-assured one. “I mean, of course he’s alive! I predicted that the champion would pass all of my trials!” he said.

Admu set Leman back down after he began showing signs of asphyxiation, and he took a few moments to get his bearings. He was in the same cavernous chamber they had found themselves in when they entered the simulation, although with all of the lights turned on, he found it much less ominous than before. The strange being standing next to Admu was covered in blue feathers, cloaked in multicolor garments, and held a large, ornamented staff in its hand. Most curiously, atop its elongated neck was a decidedly bird-like head adorned with a headdress of feathers.

That must be Tzeentch… Leman thought. I’m not sure what I was expecting.

“What happened?” Leman said.

“Well, it appears that you suffered a life-threatening injury just before the simulation could complete. When your body was restored, it seems your psyche had not fully recovered, and you briefly slipped into a coma.” Tzeentch said. “Aside from that, however, you did wonderfully!”

“And that ‘Void Dragon’?” Leman said, eyebrow raised.

“Oh yes, that…” Tzeentch said, laughing nervously. “Just a minor, unforeseen complication… yes, nothing to worry about. Besides, it made for quite the finale, eh? Anyways, let’s get you two out of this drab testing chamber and into somewhere more comfortable, shall we?” he said, guiding Leman and Admu out of the simulation room. He paused briefly to pull Admu aside. “Oh, and uh, Admu, how about we keep this little… ‘escapade’ a secret from your father, hm?” he said with a nervous smile.

“Of course, Uncle.” Admu said, giggling.

Tzeentch led the two into an elevator on the far side of the room, which began taking them back up to the surface levels of the facility. Through the windows in the cabin, they could see each floor as they ascended past it. One was a dense jungle of cables, wires, and tubing, another a vast library with rows upon rows of bookshelves each nearly a hundred meters high, while yet another seemed to be some kind of indoor farm dedicated to growing crystals rather than plants. In each layer there were armies of what appeared to be brass automatons.

“Those machines…” Leman said. “What are they? I recall seeing them in the bowels of Khorne’s fortress.”

“Keen eye, champion.” Tzeentch said. “Those are one of my most useful inventions, a fusion of my brother’s knack for metallurgy and my own mastery of crystalline engineering. We have both found them quite useful as an inexhaustible and compliant workforce.”

“Are they… abominable intelligences?” Leman said with a dark seriousness.

“Oh no, not at all.” Tzeentch said, waving his hands in dismissal. “Constructs such as those would be far too unstable in the warp. Besides, you just had a taste of what they can be like a few moments ago. Imagine trying to work with one of those! Preposterous. Anyway, I’m sure you saw the crystal deposits on the side of the mountains on your way in, no?” Tzeentch asked.

“Oh yeah, I remember those.” Admu said. Leman nodded in agreement.

“I chose the top of this mountain as the location of my monastery for a number of reasons, one of those being the confluence of psychic eddies which gather at its peak due to the thinness of the veil at this elevation.” Tzeentch said. Leman recalled the flowing rivers of energy that wrapped around the spires of Tzeentch’s fortress. “These currents gather here and solidify into crystal deposits of pure, undiluted psychic energy. They can act as both power sources and robust, psychic circuitry - an artificial soul, if you will.” The door to the elevator opened, and Tzeentch led them out into the bottom level of a laboratory filled with all manner of scientific and magical implements. The brass-crystal constructs shuffled about, running and maintaining the arcane technology which filled the sprawling complex. “Of course, these souls are merely crude facsimiles of true souls… nothing like the work of your father. Speaking of…” Leman was alerted by the god’s casual mention of the emperor as Tzeentch led them to a large holo-screen which displayed what appeared to be a genetic sequence broken down and analyzed. “While you were inside the simulation, I took the liberty of testing your genetic code as a matter of scientific curiosity…”

“You what?” Leman interjected.

“...and I have to say, your father is quite the genesmith! I haven’t seen such intricate weaving of amino acids in eons. This one in particular is most astonishing to me.” He said, waving his staff and causing the holo-screen to zoom into a snippet of genetic code. “At first glance I believed it to be some kind of junk sequence resembling anomalous genetic material from some other mammalian species, but upon closer inspection I realized that was merely the encapsulation for a highly modified variant of the psyker gene!”

Leman’s eyes shot open. The pysker gene? That’s impossible… he thought. However, given what the wolf-spirit had told him, he was disturbingly unable to completely dismiss the idea.

“It appears that this variant in its unexpressed state actually acts as a psychic inhibitor of sorts, preventing excess warp energy from building up within the gene’s owner. If its tolerance levels are exceeded, it triggers a failsafe which prevents chaotic mutation by replacing affected DNA with primitive but warp-resistant substitutes. The effects on the host would be severe… but no doubt the alternative would be far worse.” Tzeentch said, stroking the beard of feathers that hung from the underside of his beak.

The Wulfen… Leman thought.

“However, that is only when the gene is unexpressed… when activated, my simulations have shown that it can momentarily act as an amplified version of the normal psyker gene, allowing the user to channel extreme levels of warp energy. Truly fascinating, and I have barely even begun to scratch the surface! Ah, but here I am wasting time, going on unimportant tangents once again. Come, allow me to take you to my personal observatory and meeting room. We have very important things to discuss, champion.” Tzeentch said.

They arrived in a circular room topped with a large, glass dome which gave a clear view of the kaleidoscopic night sky. The interior was surprisingly mundane, consisting of cluttered wooden furniture and a surprising lack of technology. Haphazard piles of books and papers littered the floor and covered every available shelf and desk in the room, surrounding a large telescope which hung from the ceiling on a complex bronze armature.

“Ah! Apologies, I, uh… don’t get visitors very often.” Tzeentch said, laughing nervously. He waved his hand and caused several piles of books to levitate into the air, revealing an antiquated wooden couch. “Please, take a seat.” Tzeentch said, sitting down at a wooden desk covered in small devices and magical trinkets. Admu sat down on the couch while Leman remained standing. Tzeentch could read Leman’s intent through his dour expression and took a deep breath. “I’m sure you have many questions, champion. My siblings have no doubt been… reserved with sharing information with an outsider such as yourself. However, seeing as you have now passed all of our trials, I believe you have more than earned the answers you seek.”

“Alright then, ‘Tzeentch’…” Leman said, crossing his arms. “Tell me what you really are.”

“Admu, you may want to pay attention.” Tzeentch said. “I told your father it was about time you knew the truth, and after everything you’ve been through, I believe you have more than proven you are ready to hear it.” Admu leaned forward with an astute expression, perched on the edge of her seat.

“The warp was not always the maelstrom of cruelty and corruption that you and your kind know it as today, Leman Russ. Once, it was placid and largely benign, though all of that changed during the War in Heaven.” he said.

“I have heard of this before.” Leman said. “It is an ancient Aeldari legend, no?”

“Oh, it was no legend. A war of such magnitude and devastation, never seen before in this galaxy… nor since. Words could not begin to describe the scale of the destruction, but all that needs to be known is that this unfathomable desolation rippled throughout the Immaterium. You see, the warp is a reflection of the thoughts and emotions of conscious beings, and the destruction wrought during that terrible conflict spread throughout it like a cancer. It festered and metastasized into a malevolent will, loosely tied to four fundamental aspects of conscious experience. As a result, the beings which were born from this turmoil reveled in the cruelty and malice that surrounded them, consuming it. These four beings are what you know as the Chaos Gods. They seek to influence mortal souls in the material plane so as to cultivate the corruption which fuels them, harvesting the souls of their followers for their own self-gain. I am sure you are familiar with all of this, Leman.”

“I am… more familiar than I ever wished I would be.” he said, his brow furrowed intensely.

“However, I am sure that you also know that even with the malignant influence of the Chaos Gods, the four aspects which they represent cannot be corrupted completely. Even within beings of such monstrous evil, a kernel of goodness remained; the sliver of hope that all mortals cling to even in the darkest of times. To the Ruinous Powers, this tiniest mote of benevolence was like a poison. In their gluttony they had created an extreme imbalance within the warp, one which should have naturally returned to equilibrium. This imbalance, if left untreated, would eventually reach such a point that even the Chaos Gods themselves would be unable to maintain it… and be destroyed.”

“What prevented this?” Leman asked.

“They were smart. They found a way to subvert this process, to continue indulging in their depravity without the fear of succumbing to their own gluttony. They made a pact with one another, combining their powers to use the most arcane and ancient magic there is to extract the poison from within themselves and contain it, trapping it within an inescapable prison. That prison is where you have been this entire time.” Tzeentch said, outstretching his arms.

“So you are these… ‘good’ aspects of the Chaos Gods?” Leman said, with a hint of incredulity.

“If that is how you wish to phrase it, then yes. All I can tell you is that if we were released from this place… toppling those despicable demons would be my first and only priority.” Tzeentch.

“If this happened eons ago, it must have happened before the fall of the Aeldari Empire… meaning Slaanesh would not have been born yet.” Leman said.

“Time does not work the same in the warp as it does in realspace, especially for them.” Tzeentch said. “For each of the four, this happened simultaneously at the moment of their awakening as conscious beings… regardless of the time in which it truly occurred.

“Tell me, if you were such a threat to Chaos then why did they not simply destroy you? Why leave their greatest weakness locked away, no matter how secure, if there was even the slightest possibility it could be used against them?” Leman said.

“That would simply have exacerbated the problem by accelerating the imbalance. So long as we exist, but cannot impact the galaxy at large, the Chaos Gods can sew as much mayhem and destruction as they please.” Tzeentch said.

Leman was silent, processing this new information. I just can’t fathom it… He thought. The thought of a good aspect of the Chaos Gods, it just seems inconceivable. Though, if what he speaks of is true… could it mean there is a way to truly end the struggle against Chaos for good?

“Admu, you have been rather silent… is there anything you wish to ask?” Tzeentch said with a hint of concern in his voice.

“No… it’s just the thought of someone going around with my papa’s name… doing the things I saw… it makes my blood boil.” she said, with a pained expression. “I’d do anything to put a stop to that.” Tzeentch sighed.

“I as well, my dear.” he said.

“Tell me, Tzeentch, what else do you know of the galaxy?” Leman said, changing the subject. “Can you tell me what has happened in my absence?”

“Unfortunately, my vision of what has transpired in the galaxy for the past few millennia has been… clouded, at best.” Tzeentch said. “Something - or someone - has been blocking my visions.” Leman looked down in frustrated disappointment. Tzeentch decided to break the uncomfortable silence. “Come now, this is no time for sadness. You have passed the final trial! That which you seek is finally at hand, Leman Russ. I will prepare rooms for the night so that you may rest and recuperate. In the morning, we set out to the highest peaks in all the land, the Hall of the Hesperides! There, you will surely find what you are looking for.”

“What exactly am I looking for? What lies in these ‘Halls of Hesperides?’” Leman said.

“No idea!” Tzeentch said. “The Halls lie beyond the veil. None of us can pass through it, but you can. My warpsight may not be as sharp as it used to be, but I have a feeling that whatever lies beyond those mountains is the key to everything. It has to be.”

“It seems I will just have to go there and find out for myself, then.” Leman said.

A bronze construct led Leman and Admu to their rooms, which lay down the hall from Tzeentch’s office. Despite the monastery’s outward appearance and the sprawling complex which lay beneath it, the quarters were rather quaint. An old rug with intricate patterns carpeted the floor, and the walls were made of aged wooden planks just like the bookshelves which lined them. Fenris was not exactly known for its libraries, but the ones it did have were similarly austere. It was oddly comforting. He sat down on the old wooden bed in the corner of the room and prepared to settle down for the night before he was interrupted by a knock at the door. Upon opening it, he was greeted by Admu.

“What is the matter?” Leman said.

“Um, well, since you finished all of your trials… that means you’re going to leave soon, right?” she said.

“Ideally, yes. I was tasked with retrieving something from this realm a long time ago, so that I might return to my people in their time of need.” he said.

“Well, I just… I just wanted to say thanks for taking me with you. I had such a wonderful time traveling with you, visiting places I’ve never been before, hearing about what lies beyond my home… even if it wasn’t all good, I’m glad to have learned about it alongside you.” she said.

“Well, I should be the one thanking you. In truth I probably wouldn’t have made it as far as I did without yo-”

Before Leman could finish his sentence, Admu picked him up in her embrace. She put him back down, tears welling up in her eyes, and quickly ran back to her room before Leman could say another word. Leman, feeling strangely conflicted, returned to his bed and retired for the night.

Chapter 14

Chapter Text

The next day, Tzeentch had gathered Leman and Admu in the courtyard of his mountain monastery. Despite the sun shining overhead, the sky remained black and starry as if they were on the deck of a void ship.

“Uncle, where are the Halls of Hesperides?” Admu asked.

“On the far side of this world, beyond Khorne’s desert and Nurgle’s forest, past shimmering seas of liquid crystal, in a place where the land itself merges with the sky. Across rivers, valleys, mountain passes, dense swamps… it could take months, possibly even years to reach on foot.” Tzeentch said.

“We will need extensive provisions.” Leman said. “If this expedition is as long and treacherous as you have described, it will be more difficult than all our previous travels combined.”

“Oh no no no, I wouldn’t make you walk all that way!” Tzeentch said, scoffing. He reached into a pouch in his robe, rummaging for a few moments before pulling out something enclosed in his fist. “You two may want to close your eyes and noses.” Suddenly he threw the unknown substance at the ground, engulfing all three of them in a sparkling cloud of pink and violet dust. Leman and Admu coughed, waving away the irritating, glittery clouds with their hands. Leman rubbed his eyes, blinking a few times to remove the irritants from his eyes. With his vision clear, he looked around as the dust dissipated to reveal the new landscape.

The ground seemed to be some kind of gravel or sand, coated in a light sea of white fog. This thin layer seemed to ebb and flow into the distance, rolling into plume-like clouds merged seamlessly with the sky. He scooped up some of the dirt in his hand, feeling the dry sand pour through his fingers while the larger particles rolled in his palm. Leman didn’t know how or why, but something deep inside told him that what he was holding was impossibly ancient, like the weathered remnants of the universe itself.

Now I know… Leman thought. What I am searching for is here. I am sure of it.

The sky was clear blue but filtered by a kind of white haze. He could smell that it was not pollution, rather it was as if the air itself was so old that it had faded with time. Great mountains of snow-white marble rose out of the clouds, their color making it nearly indistinguishable where cloud and mountain began. They were incredibly tall, but also worn and rounded. There were no towering peaks or sheer cliffs, only gradual inclines and mounds of weathered stone.

“What took you so long?” a woman’s voice said. Leman turned to see the gentle but mischievous smile of Slaanesh, dressed in a billowing silk gown and adorned with gold and silver jewelry. To her right stood Khorne, holding his 4-horned helmet under his arm while his red hair swayed gently in the breeze, his face bearing a stoic. Nurgle stood to their left, his bare feet and rustic clothes still covered in a thin layer of fresh dirt. His mossy, slightly unkempt beard filled with sprouting flowers framed his rosy face, which sported a wide and friendly grin.

“Papa!” Admu shouted, running over to her father.

“My little daffodil, how I’ve missed you!” he said, outstretching his arms. She leapt into his embrace, causing him to stumble backwards a bit and grunt from the exertion of holding her. He gently put her down on her feet, catching his breath before smiling warmly again. “Oh, I was so worried about you, Admu… but now I know that my fears were unfounded. You’ve grown so much, and I simply couldn’t see it.”

“I wasn’t worried at all because I had Mister Russ by my side! Isn’t that right, Leman?” she said, looking towards him with a beaming smile on her rosy face.

“Truth be told, it was she who saved my skin more often than not.” Leman said. “I’d most likely not be standing here if Admu had not been my companion on this journey.”

“I have to say, Wolfie, your presence has been the most entertaining thing to happen to this place in millennia. I will surely miss your company when you are gone.” Slaanesh said, reclining on a rock with her legs crossed.

“Oh yes, watching your journey from afar has been fascinating! Much more engrossing than the occasional blurred glimpses of realspace I get from time to time.” Tzeentch said.

“I will remember your performance in the arena for a very long time, Leman Russ. As for your equipment, I am still in the process of repairing it after the damage it sustained during our battle. I will return it to you as expediently as possible.” Khorne said.

“The little ones back in the forest already miss you, every other day another one comes to me and asks when the wolf-man will be coming back to town.” Nurgle said with a hearty chuckle.

These beings have a far more pleasant recollection of my trials and tribulations here than I do… Leman thought. Though it is hard to argue that my time here has not been a welcome reprieve from the Plains of Chaos or even the sorry state of the galaxy following the Heresy.

“I will remember fondly my time here as well.” Leman said. “However, my duty is above all else. My father sent me here with one task, to find a tree and retrieve its fruit. Everything I have done up until now has led me here, meaning that whatever I am searching for is undoubtedly at the end of this path I have taken. I could spend many years in this place, indulging in its comforts and luxuries, but in doing so I would be abandoning my father, my people, and my sons.”

“We understand, Wolf King.” Khorne said. “You are a good man. Beyond this gate lies the Halls of Hesperides, the place in which you have been prophesied to find.” he gestured to a large stone archway, the inside of which seemed to shimmer and fluctuate as if holding an invisible liquid. “We cannot journey beyond this point, but you can.”

“I hope that you find all that you have been searching for, Leman Russ.” Tzeentch said.

Leman turned and approached the stone archway. It was ancient and weathered, appearing more like a natural formation than anything made by intelligent hands. Admu moved to follow him but was stopped by Khorne.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“I am afraid you cannot go with him.” Khorne said.

“But… why not?” she said.

“We have no idea what’s beyond that gate…” Nurgle said.

“I thought you said I had grown? Am I not old enough to make my own decisions?” she said, her brow furrowed in frustration.

“Yes but… while you’re in here we can at least keep an eye on you. Help you if you ever get into danger. Out there it’s…” Admu stared daggers at her father, a clear look of betrayal cast upon her face. Slaanesh stepped forth, putting her hand on Nurgle's shoulder. Reading her intent, he stepped back. Slaanesh placed her hand on Admu's cheek and looked into her disappointed niece's eyes.

"Admu, dear, I implore you to listen to your father and uncle. You have shown immense bravery, but the world out there is nothing like the one in here. We do not hold you back because we look down upon you… even we fear it. Please, understand." she said, her voice overflowing with sympathy. Admu sighed and looked away.

"I… understand, auntie." she said. Slaanesh wrapped her arms around her niece in a warm embrace.

Nurgle looked at Leman as he stood at the threshold to the barrier. The primarch simply nodded his head, and Nurgle nodded back with a relieved smile. Leman turned to face the stone gate, the shimmering surface of the veil only a few inches from his face. He tentatively reached out with his hand, touching the psychic boundary. It rippled upon contact but was otherwise intangible. Resolutely, he breathed in the ancient mountain air and stepped forward into the breach.

Admu broke off from Slaanesh to sulk away from her family, which the goddess had the good sense to allow her some personal space. Nurgle looked at her with some reservation, affected by her sullen demeanor. Tzeentch walked up behind him, placing a feathered hand on his shoulder.

"She will understand, brother. She knows that we have only her safety and wellbeing in mind." Tzeentch said.

"I hope you are right." Nurgle said, the two turning away to give her some time alone.

"She is very fond of him." Khorne said, just out of earshot of Admu. His expression was characteristically stoic and unchanging.

"You think?" Slaanesh said. She sighed, pulling a crystal glass from thin air and taking a sip. "I worry about her, you know. This isn't where she truly belongs."

"None of us belong here." Tzeentch said. "We're prisoners, remember?"

"I know that better than anyone." Slaanesh said, her tone slightly sharper than before. She took another drink. "Do you really think he is the one? He does not even know why he is here."

"He is." Khorne said. "He must be."

"Not to interrupt, but…" Nurgle said, a hint of worry in his voice. "Did anyone see where Admu went?"

Leman's soles tread roughly upon the irregular gravel and stone dust which coated the mountain trail. A cold wind blew down from the heights of the worn, rounded peaks, carrying the scent of ages long past. He stopped suddenly, and the air was silent once again.

"I know you're there." he said. Admu stuck her head out from behind a large boulder, pouting at having been caught.

"No fair! I wanted to surprise you." she said. She ran up to him bearing a wide smile and bent down at her hips, so she was at eye level with him. "Surprise!"

"Does your father know you're here?" he said flatly.

"Oh, they're all just overreacting. You and I are a team! There's nothing out here we can't beat together. Besides, we started this journey together, so it's only natural I'd be with you at the destination." she said. Leman sighed.

"I won't presume to tell you what to do. If you'd like to accompany me, then so be it." he said. Admu clapped her hands in jubilation, and the two continued climbing up the mountain path together.

"So, where are we headed anyway? I think you said something about a fruit or a tree earlier." she said.

"I am not entirely sure… but over my time here I have begun to recollect, remember things that I had forgotten during my travails. On Fenris there was an old legend, among the oldest of all the tales the rune priests told. It spoke of a tree in the underworld that bore magical fruit, fruit that could restore one's body no matter how grievously injured… perhaps even resurrect the dead." he said.

"Is there someone you want to heal?" she said.

"Upon arriving in this place, I saw my father for the first time in millennia… it was terrible. He was naught but a corpse, kept alive by arcane technology and forbidden soulcraft." he paused, the image still seared into his memory.

"You want to save your father…" Admu said. Leman braced for a moment, hearing the sentimentality in her voice and expecting her to wrap her arms around him without warning as he had become begrudgingly accustomed to. Instead, he felt her fingers wrap around his hand. She held his hand in hers and looked into Leman's eyes with a determined expression. "I'll help you mister Russ, no matter what it takes." he looked at her with a hint of surprise, then his lips curled into a slight smile.

The two walked a great distance, climbing up and down the rounded slopes of the ancient mountains, before coming across a great chasm. It spread out in both directions and its bottom was beyond sight, only leading down into an unending darkness. Luckily, there was a natural bridge of rock which spanned across the canyon, about the width of a Fenrisian Kraken. He stepped foot on the bridge, only for the earth to begin trembling underneath him. Without warning, Leman found himself rising into the air with the rest of the bridge, the encrusted rock falling away to reveal glossy black scales of immense size.

"Mister Russ!" Admu said, stranded on one side of the gap and unable to help her friend. On the far side of the chasm, the rock and gravel crumbled and gave way to an impossibly giant figure, rising from the earth like a whale breaching the ocean waves. It was a great black wyrm, carrying its titanic scaly form on trunk-like legs which splayed outwards. It pulled its immense head covered in eight gnarled horns out from the crumbling rock and turned towards Leman, who was stuck on the beast's girthy tail. He stared at the thing with disbelief, every bone in his body screaming to seek some kind of shelter or avenue of escape. Alas, the only escape which awaited him was the black depths of the chasm below. The great wyrm began breathing into its cavernous nostrils, creating a strong gust that caused both Leman and Admu to struggle against it. The creature’s chest expanded, until the gust slowed to a halt. Suddenly a plume of multicolored fire poured forth from the wyrm's scaly lips, engulfing Leman in a conflagration that scoured the mountainside. Admu fell to the ground and covered her head with her arms, both to protect herself and out of fear of what she might see if she looked.

Leman saw darkness… and then he opened his eyes. The kaleidoscopic flames surrounded his entire body, curling around him like currents of water. It was cool to the touch and brushed against his hands harmlessly, the rainbow tongues of fire lapping against and flowing between his fingers. Eventually the stream of fire dissipated, leaving Leman untouched. With the fire no longer obscuring his vision, he looked into the wizened eyes of the colossal dragon. It stared at him with a scrutinizing gaze, piercing his soul with its deep purple irises and inky black pupils. With a deliberate slowness, the creature blinked and began turning its cumbersome head away from him. Its tail began to move again, falling against the far side of the canyon with a loud ‘thud’ and opening the way across once again. The wyrm’s body collapsed into the rock and rubble, burying itself in a cavalcade of landslides and rockfalls. When the dust had settled, it appeared as though the creature had blended back into the mountainous terrain leaving only its scaled spine above ground to act as a living bridge to the last stretch of alpine trail. Admu rushed over to Leman on the middle of the bridge.

“Mister Russ, are you alright?” she said, gripped with panic.

“Yes, I’m fine.” he said, examining his hands which had just moments before been engulfed by fire. “I believe that was some kind of judgment… and I appear to have been judged worthy.”

After crossing the dragon’s back, the mountains around them began to grow taller and taller. The air was thin, though luckily Leman’s enhanced physiology allowed him to manage just fine. Admu seemed unaffected as well, as her chipper attitude did not diminish even slightly.

“Mister Russ, I’ve been thinking… once my family finds a way to break out of here, then that means I can come visit you, right?” she said.

“Well, I’m not sure they even know when that will be-” he said

“I could come see your home, with all the ice and the big mountain that stretches into space!” she said, oblivious to Leman’s apprehensions. “I could meet all your sons, and when you help your father get better, I could meet him too!”

Leman exhaled, his head spinning as he imagined himself trying to explain this to his men. Or worse, explaining it to his father. Granted, it was he who sent him here in the first place, but he had a hard time imagining his father approving of him cavorting with strange gods.

“I could even meet your brothers! Or… at least the ones that are still good… even though you don’t know where they are…” she said, her expression darkening as she remembered the tragic tale Leman had recounted to her earlier. Suddenly her face lit up with a look of optimism. “Oh, I know!” she exclaimed. “I could help you find your brothers! It’ll be just like our journeys here, only bigger and better!” she said, her eyes starry and wide with dreams of future adventures in the world outside her small bubble of unreality. Leman felt a pang of pity, knowing that in all likelihood such a thing was impossible.

I’ll let the girl have her dreams. He thought. That much she has earned.

The path led them through mountain passes and precarious cliffs, with pieces of worn and collapsed architecture beginning to litter the landscape. A translucent fog wafted through the air, pouring down from the sides of the mountains like silent waterfalls. Columns and arches now lined the path, the rough gravel slowly giving way to carved stone. They reached a staircase which climbed up onto a great platform overlooking a vast, mountainous landscape. There were irregular groupings of worn pillars, collonades, and half-ruined entablatures which gave the impression of a long-forgotten temple, reduced to nothing more than a collection of disparate free-standing columns and archways. Small patches of grass and flowers emerged from cracks in the rocky soil like puddles of green in the gray landscape. At the center of the ruined structure, at the far side of the grand platform atop the cliff, lay a small bent-over tree nestled in a bed of green sward. The sea of fog surrounding the platform obscured the walls of rock, making it feel as though they were somehow nestled within a great complex of clouds suspended in the sky.

“That must be it… but I do not see any fruit.” Leman said. He began walking forward through the glade of pillars. Admu stopped however, struck with an indescribable feeling crawling up along her spine. Her tail fur stood on end, and she felt as though her antlers were ringing through her skull. She felt momentarily paralyzed, before her eyes shot open and she leaped into action.

“Leman!” she shouted. The shape in the fog moved so quickly it barely registered in his vision, and before his reflexes could kick in, he felt himself shoved to the side with great force. Leman fell to the ground, feeling a woosh of air inches from his face as the tail swung at them with hypersonic speed. The attack meant for him slammed into Admu, launching her backwards through ruined walls until she struck the opposing rockface with such force that it fractured upon impact. She fell limp to the ground, the sound of her antlers clattering against the cold stone sending shivers up Leman’s spine.

“Admu!” he shouted. He scrambled to his feet, his hearts pounding with such force that he could hear the blood rushing in his ears. The gaunt, almost skeletal demon whipped its tail back, the blackened spines dripping with fresh blood. It was covered in pale, leathery, almost paper-like skin with sparse patches of thin, wiry hair and plates of corpse-wax coated chitin stretched across its immense, beastly frame, appearing like an unnatural fusion of a diseased mammal with an overgrown insect. It dragged scythe-like protrusions along the stone floor with its spindly forearms, filling the air with an excruciating clangor. Its freakishly emaciated skull snarled, gnashed, and drooled with noxious, discolored blood that dripped over its exposed knife-like fangs. Its eyes were naught but empty black pits, emanating a horrifying aura of deep, unending hatred. Leman reached for something to defend himself with, picking up a large stone from the ground and bringing it to bear against his foe. The demon reared up on its hind hooves, raising its claws into the air and lunging at Leman. He rolled out of the way, ducking as the demon cracked its tail like a whip. It charged him with a flurry of mad slashes, all the time screeching and snarling with its grotesquely dripping maw. It moved not like a living creature, but a piece of carrion puppeted by unseen strings, moving and sliding around in an unsettling manner. Its scythe-like talons sliced through the air with blinding speed, appearing more like flashes of light than slashing blades. After one overzealous strike, the demon had managed to wedge its talon into the earth, stuck. As it tried to wrench itself free, Leman took advantage of his opponent’s momentary distraction and hurled the large rock at the creature’s head with as much force as he could muster. The stone connected with the demon’s skull with a thunderous crack, sending it twisting to such an angle that he could hear the bones in its neck snap and shatter. Its head fell limp, and Leman felt a surge of hope. Then, its head began to twitch, as something slithered and swelled within the skin of its broken neck. With a nauseating series of popping sounds, the demon’s head snapped back into place and roared back to life. It cracked its whip-like tail against Leman once again, and while he was quick enough to dodge it he was not quick enough to avoid being backhanded by the demon’s right hand. He tumbled to the ground, opening his eyes just as the creature’s tooth-filled jaws filled his vision. He grabbed the edges of its mouth, holding the demon’s maw away from him with every ounce of strength he had. The primarch howled in pain as the blood-like ooze from its mouth burned the skin of his hands and face when it dripped onto him. The muscles in his arms screamed with pain and exhaustion, and his eyes were becoming blurry from the fumes of the toxic fluid eating away at his skin. No one could save him in this place. He felt almost foolish for having come so far only to be vanquished when his goal was quite literally within sight. He cursed this place. He cursed his cruel fate and the foul gods which had engineered the downfall of his people and his millennia-long torment. Then he thought of Admu, and he cursed himself for failing to keep her safe. Then the demon jerked backwards, releasing Leman’s grip on its gnashing teeth. It clawed at the earth, desperately trying to resist being pulled against its will, screeching and howling in distress. No longer trapped beneath the demon, Leman struggled to his feet and regained his bearings. He looked and saw what was restraining his assailant. Holding the demon’s tail was a figure wreathed in a flowing coat of orange-gold fire, its head adorned with bolts of cerulean lightning. It gripped the demon’s tail in its beast-like claws, drawing it back with the might of its powerful and sinewy limbs. The figure roared with animalistic fury, revealing its fanged mouth and glaring with blazing emerald eyes. The figure released the demon’s tail and flung it against a series of pillars, crashing through the ruins and flying into the rock wall with a thunderous crash. The figure panted heavily, its hot breath billowing like steam with each powerful exhale. Leman was having trouble registering what his eyes were seeing, as the figure seemed to phase between beastly and humanoid forms. When his mind finally caught up to his eyes, he gaped in astonishment.

“A-Admu!?” he exclaimed. Before she could acknowledge him, the demon began to stir once more. Its body raised itself from the rubble, seemingly unphased by the beating she had given it. Its skin began to bulge and ripple, like a sack filled with writhing eels. Suddenly the skin on its back tore open, revealing a great black serpent slithering and thrashing within the demon’s body like a grotesque puppet master. The snake’s black-scaled face was half eaten away to reveal a bleached white skull, and it hissed and howled in anger. The serpent stretched open its malleable jaws and a surge of light began emanating from within its mouth. A beam of multicolored light burst forth, carving erratic burns all over the environment as it curled and twisted its head erratically. Leman dodged out of the way of the barrage, while Admu dug her feet into the ground and exploded into a mad dash towards the demon. She grabbed its head and began grappling it to the ground.

“Damaging the body won’t stop it…” Leman said in between ragged breaths. “The serpent is the one controlling it.” He noticed the snake curling up to strike Admu while she was busy with its puppet and sprang into action. He clambered up a toppled pillar, running across the tops of columns and pieces of architecture to flank the beast as Admu grappled it in place. Running as fast as his legs could carry him, he leapt into the air and landed on the demon’s chitinous back. He grabbed onto the edges of the demon’s armored plates and held on for dear life as he was shaken and tossed around by the intense struggle. The snake opened its mouth again and began to charge energy within its throat, when Leman hoisted himself up and seized the serpent’s thick neck just in time to redirect the beam away from Admu. While Leman was wrestling with the snake atop the demon’s back, Admu was busy slamming its head into the ground repeatedly. The demon seemed unphased and simply continued struggling against her grip. It managed to lift her into the air and flung her away, causing her to tumble across the ground until she landed on her hands and feet. She charged at the demon again on all fours as it whipped its tail at her. She slid underneath it, dodging the swipe of its claws and tackled the demon at full speed, goring it on her horns. It recoiled and the snake cried out in pain, releasing more beams of energy as it flailed in all directions. It began snapping at Leman, slicing open his cheek with its fangs.

“Enough!” He shouted, grabbing onto both sides of its mouth with his hands. He mustered every ounce of his strength, feeling a power surge within him just like he had felt back in the arena, only this time he didn’t even have his suit to conduct it. He roared with a primal and unrelenting fury, wrenching open the serpent’s jaws until they snapped open with a sickening crack. Beams of energy began bursting out of its mouth uncontrollably, forcing Leman to roll off the demon’s back. The demon still did not relent, snapping its jaws and swiping its claws at random as the serpent protruding from its back flailed in agony. Admu wrapped her arms around the demon’s neck, embedding her feet into the ground and lifting with all her might. The muscles in her legs and arms tightened and bulged as the demon was lifted into the air by its neck. Letting out a primal scream of her own, she flipped the demon over her shoulder and sent it crashing into the ground with a deafening boom that shook the earth. The serpent fell limp, crushed beneath the weight of its own puppet. Leman looked on in astonishment as Admu panted heavily, her legs growing wobbly. She fell to the ground in exhaustion, her ethereal form dissipating as she returned to her normal appearance.

“Admu!” Leman shouted, stumbling on tired legs towards her motionless body.

Youuuuu… fooooool….

Leman turned to the seemingly lifeless snake, its jaws flapping limply yet still producing sound.

Nowwwww…. Chaosssssss…… willllll reignnnnnn….. Foreverrrrrrrrr!

The disembodied voice cackled maliciously, fading away as the snake became limp and lifeless once again. Leman scrambled Admu’s side, lifting her hand into his. He placed a hand on her neck, and felt a weak pulse. She was breathing, but it was ragged and labored. As his mind reeled over what he should do, he was blinded by a bright light. He looked over in the direction of where the tree had been, and found it was now a beam of pure light which began to encompass his vision. He tried to shield his eyes from the blinding radiance, but soon everything was nothing but a white void.

Leman looked around, seeing nothing in all direction but empty nothingness and the pure light of day. Then he heard a voice behind him.

“It has been a long time, hasn’t it?” the voice said.

Leman slowly turned around and beheld a young shepherd boy, with olive, sun-kissed skin and long, raven hair sitting in a bed of grass beneath the bent tree he had seen before. His eyes were gleaming like liquid gold, and in his lap was nestled the head of the immense god-wolf he had come to recognize. The boy spoke with a voice that was at once familiar and unrecognizable to Leman.

“It is good to see you again… son.”

Chapter 15

Chapter Text

Leman stared at the boy with a puzzled expression. After a long silence, he spoke.

“Father?” Leman said.

“Yes. Though, it is understandable that you would not recognize me.” the boy said. He spoke with a youthful and cheery candor, yet his words carried the same weight and authority as Leman remembered when speaking to his father so long ago. “I apologize for ending our last conversation so soon, the circumstances were… less than ideal. Now, however, we are free to talk to our hearts’ content.”

Leman was speechless, perhaps even a little dumbstruck. Whatever he was expecting to find here, it certainly wasn’t this. He had so many questions, was filled with so many swirling emotions, he felt as though he had forgotten how to speak. After some deliberation, he mustered up the will to speak.

“The… the fruit… there is no fruit.” he said, stumbling over his words.

“Oh, you mean this?” The Emperor said, holding out a golden apple and bearing a mischievous grin. “Catch!” he said, throwing the apple into Leman’s hand. The boy leaned back, putting his hands behind his head. Leman inspected the fruit with a look of bewilderment.

“I… I don’t understand. What is this place?” Leman said.

“This place is a font of pure warp energy, a wellspring reaching down into the very heart of creation. Upon it grows a tree which blossoms with fruit every few thousand years, though it has withered with time… as the power of the other four grows, siphoning the power of the warp like leeches. This may be its last flowering, should their power not be undone.” the boy said. Leman examined the apple closely, feeling as though it had suddenly become much heavier in his hand.

“The fruit that can heal any wound…” Leman said.

“What you hold in your hand is a container of concentrated, distilled warp essence. It can do far more than heal wounds…” he said.

“In my vision, I saw your true form… with this fruit I could restore you to life!” Leman said. “You would be just as you were before your mutilation at the hands of Horus!” Leman was ecstatic, lost in visions of restored glory and nostalgic grandeur.

When he looked upon the Emperor’s face, however, he saw apprehension.

“...what is the matter? Is this not the reason you sent me here?” Leman said with a confused look. The boy’s expression shifted, hinting at an inner conflict that Leman was not privy to.

“During the Heresy, just before Horus and his host of traitors besieged the Imperial Palace, Magnus appeared before me in my throne room.” the boy said. Leman’s eyes widened. He had never heard of this before. “I told him that I would forgive his transgressions, welcome him back into the Imperium without judgment nor punishment. However, I presented him with one condition. He had to abandon his sons, cursed by the flesh-change beyond my ability to cure them, and be granted a new legion.” the boy said. Leman was flabbergasted.

“I…” he said, before the emperor interrupted him.

“I will not force you to consider whether you could make such a decision either. It was foolish of me to believe Magnus would accept the proposal, and sure enough he did not. But make no mistake, I would have forgiven any of my sons if given the opportunity, even Horus. Up until the moment I slew him, I was willing to forgive him.” the Emperor said.

“You have the power to do such a thing?” Leman said, trying to process the Emperor’s words.

“I did… once. Now, I am afraid that my soul has become too fractured… and the Ruinous Powers’ grip on your brothers has become too strong… even if I were to be revived by the fruit’s power, it is unlikely I could save them alone.” the boy said.

“Father…” Leman said, holding his head in his hand. “I do not understand. Why are you telling me this? What is it you wish me to do?”

“What is the name of the godling that traveled here with you, the daughter of the big green fellow?” the boy said. Leman’s brow furrowed.

“Admu… that was what Nurgle named her. N-not the Nurgle that you and I know, the uh… the other one.” he said.

“Admu…” the Emperor repeated. “She is quite special. Throughout my travels through the warp, I have yet to see anything like her. Growing up here has no doubt been safer for her… yet she is not from this place. It has stifled her development, being cut off from the wider universe.” the boy said.

“...what are you saying?” Leman said,

“I have a plan.” the Emperor said. “A way to defeat the Chaos Gods for good… by releasing their repressed alternate selves.” Leman’s eyes widened.

It’s just as Khorne and Tzeentch spoke of… Leman thought.

“With my current power, I do not have the power to break the seal which imprisons them. However…” the boy said, looking down at the wolf which lay beneath him. “They might.”

“The wolf spirit… when exactly were you planning on telling us about that?” Leman said, his expression growing darker.

“I never meant…” the boy said, before pausing for a moment. “It was a lie for my own convenience. I feared what would happen if you knew of the truth… yet it mattered not in the end.”

“Whatever happened to the Imperial Truth? You taught us that mankind must never subject itself to the whims of gods or spirits.” Leman said, the image of Lorgar and his sons being forced to the ground burning fresh in his mind. “Yet not only are you now talking about relying on gods to defeat our most hated enemies, but you secretly bound our souls to these spirits without our knowledge! What is next, will you renounce your humanity and embrace your role as the god of mankind as Lorgar wished you to?” Leman said. He was not sure where his newfound defiance was coming from, but it felt as though millennia of fear and doubt had all come pouring out.


The Emperor shouted, standing upright. Despite the boy’s physically small stature, Leman felt for a moment that he stood before a giant and recoiled in surprise. However, he did not see anger in the Emperor’s face. At least, not anger towards him. He saw anguish and frustration, and something he had never seen in his father’s face ever before - doubt. “I promise you that I have not changed my mind on this subject. I will admit… I was mistaken to believe I could banish the Chaos Gods by merely convincing humanity they did not exist… a mistake that has cost me… that has cost all of us dearly.” The internal rage in his face had subsided, and his expression softened into that of melancholic regret. “Knowing what I do now, I believe that the gods of the warp can be treated just as any other xenos race: if they are not openly hostile to mankind and it is in our best interest to do so, there is no reason why humanity cannot maintain friendly relations with them in matters of mutual benefit. However, the destiny of mankind must remain in the hands of man and man alone. Humanity must not submit to the will of any god…” the Emperor said, a look of dismay flashing across his face. “...even if that should include myself.”

Leman looked upon his father with bewilderment. “What do you mean?” he said. “Father, there is something you are not telling me.” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration.

The wolf rose upright in a regal stature, looking down upon the Emperor’s small form.

I tire of your obfuscations as well. He has more than earned the right to know the truth. The wolf said. The Emperor sighed.

“The truth is… when I was interred upon the Golden Throne, the exertion of the Astronomican combined with my decaying body caused not only my flesh to wither away, but my soul to become fractured and disparate with time. What stands before you is but a portion of my former self, cast out into the warp and adrift from whatever semblance of a man I used to be…” the Emperor said, staring off with a look of despondency. He turned to look at Leman. In that moment he felt as though the Emperor were staring straight into his heart, seeing the millennia of anger and despair, fear and doubt, and, above all else, regret. “I chose you to be my executioner because I knew you were the only one I could trust to follow my orders no matter what… even if it meant slaying your own kin. I knew how much it would hurt you, but I could not entrust anyone else with such a task.” the boy said. Leman’s mind churned with mixed emotions. “It is for this reason that you are the only one who I can trust with this as well. I am offering you an opportunity to renounce your role as executioner. If you choose to, you may give the fruit to the godli- er, Admu. It will restore the power she lost in her seclusion, giving her the power to cleanse the taint of Chaos from your lost brothers and free the god-spirits bound inside of them. However, it will be up to you to compel them to renounce their treachery and allow her to cleanse them… willingly or not. If you cannot manage to turn them to your side, the only other way to free the spirits bound within them… is to kill them. It is a faint hope, seeing as how much their hatred of me and everything I stood for has festered, but it is better than nothing.” The Emperor looked up at Leman with sad, watery eyes, eyes which bore a pain Leman was not sure the Emperor was even capable of feeling before. “I will tell you what I told Magnus on Terra. I would have forgiven him. I would have forgiven any of them if it meant they would return to my side. I would have even forgiven Horus, up until the very moment I watched his soul evaporate from existence by my hand.” Leman looked into his father’s eyes, remembering every moment he had experienced in the depths of Slaanesh’s mansion and feeling the same pain that he knew now that his father had felt for all these millennia.

“I understand.” Leman said. The Emperor smiled slightly and wiped a tear from his eye. “I also understand that you are still not telling me the full truth.” Leman said. A nearly imperceptible flicker of fear flashed across the boy’s face, confirming Leman’s suspicion. “You have said it yourself, Admu’s power can heal any ailment, physical or spiritual… meaning she could heal your body upon the Golden Throne. Yet you make no mention of it. Why?” Leman said, both emboldened by his newfound confidence and terrified by the idea that there was something the Emperor was not only unwilling to discuss, but afraid to do so.

“There is a reason why I have not given you any commands or orders so far, Leman. You are my most loyal son, I know that you would follow my will to the ends of the universe… by most metrics, you already have. Yet, it is for that reason that I cannot in good conscience order you to do something that could very well directly contradict my own will.” the Emperor said. Leman look confused.

“What? How could you order me to do something that would contradict your own will?” Leman said.

“Well… when I spoke of my soul becoming fractured over the millennia…” the boy said, a look of worry and trepidation flashing across his face. “Some of those fractured shards… I no longer recognize them. I am no longer in control of the Golden Throne.”

“But… I saw you on the Golden Throne. Was it not you who sent me that message?” Leman said, with a hint of distress in his voice.

“It was, but I was merely… borrowing the Astronomican to contact you. The reason I was unable to speak with you for any longer is that it had returned, and expelled me from the Golden Throne by force.” the Emperor said. The look upon his face when he spoke of it unnerved Leman.

It?” Leman said.

“I saw it only for a moment… though it is perhaps more accurate to say I felt it. It didn’t feel like me, or anything that I ever was… yet it knew me. When it looked upon me I felt as though the sun itself was bearing down on me, searing away my very being. I felt trillions of eyes, hands, arms… I could hear the screams of countless souls, burning like fuel to feed a living flame the size of a galaxy. It radiated nothing less than a divine hatred, a jealous loathing towards all those who might touch its precious flock. I fled as quickly as I could, fleeing upon the winds of the Immaterium from its domain. Perhaps it allowed me to convey to you that message for some indiscernible reason… but all I know is that should you revive the corpse that sits upon the Golden Throne, it will not be me who greets you… it will be that.

The sight of his father in such a vulnerable state made Leman intensely uncomfortable, but if what he said was true then it meant that he could no longer look to his father and creator for ultimate guidance. What use was a compass that pointed in multiple directions? Reviving his father from his decrepit state was what brought him here, it was his reason for being all these millennia, his one and only motivation… though perhaps that wasn’t true. Leman fought for his Emperor… but he also fought for Fenris, his sons, his brothers, and all of humanity. Perhaps… humanity could survive without the Emperor, at least in his previous form…

Leman rubbed his head, these new thoughts grinding up against everything he had thought he had known. He looked down at the golden fruit, it's crisp skin glimmering with endless possibilities. He envisioned a revived Imperium with the Emperor restored to his rightful place as Master of Mankind… but then he saw reflected in his mind’s eye a different scene. It was him, standing alongside his brothers. All of his brothers united against Chaos and whatever else threatened humanity’s continued prosperity. He knew it was a childish fantasy, after all the bloodshed, death, and destruction the fighting between his siblings had wrought. He didn’t even know whether half of them were alive or dead, and some of them he knew had already perished. Yet, no matter how ridiculous, he couldn’t seem to dispel the vision from his mind.

“Many of the primarchs are already dead… and what if I cannot find them all? What if they have vanished without a trace.” Leman said, tentatively considering the Emperor-shard’s offer.

“I… have considered this. There are ways to recover the spirits bound to a primarch even after their soul has perished. It is significantly more difficult than convincing a living one to cooperate, however.” the boy said. His face lit up as he saw Leman beginning to warm up to the idea.

“I will… have to think this over.” Leman said. The Emperor simply smiled contentedly.

“It is your decision, my son… and a decision you are right to treat with grave severity. I trust that whatever you decide will ultimately be in the best interest of mankind, Leman Russ.” the boy said. A faint breeze started to blow, and a dense fog began to obscure Leman’s vision.

“Wait! Father, will I ever see you again?” Leman said.

“I must stay here in the Immaterium… but I will watch over you whenever I am able, my son.” the Emperor said, before fading into white light.

Leman opened his eyes, blinking repeatedly. He sat upright, feeling the fatigue from his previous fight return to him. He felt something strange in his hand, before raising it to reveal the golden fruit from his vision.

Least I’m not insane just yet. Leman thought.

He turned the fruit in his hand, feeling the waxy, gleaming skin on his fingertips. He was alerted by the sound of groaning and turned his head to see Admu lying on the ground a few feet away.

“Admu!” he shouted, rushing to her side. Her breathing was ragged, and when he grabbed her side he felt a distinct dampness. Her heartbeat felt weak, and he noticed the site of the wound the demon had initially inflicted upon her was oozing with a foul-smelling liquid.

It must be some kind of venom. Leman thought. There was no way he could carry her all the way to safety, and no help could reach them. Then he remembered the golden fruit he was carrying. He looked at the shining fruit in his palm, staring into its reflective skin and seeing his dreams of a revived Emperor staring back at him… he bit his lip, bringing the fruit to Admu’s mouth and crushing it in his hand. The shining gold ichor flowed over his fingers like liquid sunshine, pouring over his hand before coalescing into a single drop that delicately landed between Admu’s rosy lips. Her mouth moved unconsciously, drawing the juice onto her tongue after which she swallowed weakly. For a moment, nothing happened. Leman grew worried, cradling her head with his hand.

“Admu? Admu! Admu, wake up!” he said. Slowly but surely, her eyes groggily blinked open. She coughed once or twice, then made a faint smacking sound with her tongue.

“Tastes like… persimmon?” Admu said weakly. Leman breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh… Mister Russ… you’re alright…” she said.

“Indeed… and I have you to thank for it.” he said.

“Oh… you’ve got a…” she said, raising her arm delicately to touch the gouge on his cheek inflicted during his fight with the serpent. Miraculously, when she placed her hand upon his face Leman could feel the wound close and suture itself, leaving not even a scar behind. Suddenly Admu groaned in pain, her arm falling limply to the ground.

“Are you alright?” he said.

“Yes… I just… felt really… tired all of a sudden…” she said, breathing slightly heavier. After a moment of rest, she felt strong enough to sit upright. She straightened her arms out, stretching her aching muscles. “Ahhhhh… I feel much better now!” she said, her voice regaining its chipper tone.

“Say… what happened to your antlers?” Leman said with a hint of concern. Admu looked up in surprise.

“Oh! They must have fallen out during the fight… well I guess that means I’ve outgrown them.” She said, her face glowing with a warm smile. Then her nose twitched, and without warning she sneezed. The top of her head erupted in an explosion of green-blue flame, revealing an even larger set of horns than the ones she had sported before. “AH!” she shouted in surprise.

“They grew back already?” Leman said, slightly taken aback. Suddenly, Admu sneezed again, and the antlers disappeared in a similar burst of cerulean fire. After recovering from the shock, she squinted her eyes and began to concentrate. In a slightly more subdued burst of flame the antlers returned, this time seemingly at her behest.

“Huh… that’s pretty cool. I didn’t know I could do that!” she said. “At least now I can fit through doors whenever I want to.” she began to giggle, and Leman responded with laughter of his own. “Say, Mister Russ… what happened while I was asleep? Did you find that fruit you were looking for?” She said, tilting her head inquisitively.

“I’ll… explain everything on the way back.” Leman said, realizing the path he had chosen. At first, he had felt fear and doubt, worried that he had made the wrong decision. However, looking upon his companion’s smiling, rosy face, he felt his fears dissolve and found his heart filled with a hope that he had not known in a very long time.

Chapter 16

Chapter Text

Admu skipped gleefully down the mountain path alongside Leman, barely able to contain her happiness. She didn’t quite understand what he meant when he told her that she was some kind of god, and when she pressed him he seemed reluctant to divulge anything more. However, after hearing that he wanted her to accompany him back to his home and help him save his brothers, any questions she had were drowned out by overwhelming joy and excitement. Not only would she be able to go out and see the rest of the galaxy as she had begun to dream about, but she would be able to spend more time with her new best friend doing it! She couldn’t have asked for more.

“Say, Admu…” Leman said. “Did you really have to bring that thing back with us?” He said, gesturing towards the dead serpent she had slung over her shoulder and dragged behind her.

“Well, I wanted a trophy to signify our victory!” she said with a beaming grin. “Besides, the other one was far too big to carry.”

“And why am I carrying your old antlers?” he said.

“It’s for my papa! He loves collecting stuff like that.” she said.

“Fair point.” Leman said. “As for my proposition… you haven’t had any second thoughts?”

“Nope!” Admu said without hesitation. “Though… it might be hard to convince papa and the others…” she said. “But once you explain it to them like you did to me, I’m sure they’ll support it!”

Now I’ll just have to figure out how to explain this to whoever I meet when I get back to realspace… Leman thought.

Leman awoke in a familiar wooden cabin, nestled in soft furs and surrounded by the smell of pine and morning dew. Several days had passed since Leman and Admu’s return, and since then they had retired to Nurgle’s quiet forest village while the preparations for the next leg of their journey were made. When he had explained his experiences in the mountains and what his father’s spirit had told him to the 4 gods, their reactions were mixed. Khorne was as unemotional as he usually was but was upfront about his support of the idea. After all, it was a considerable step forward in their plan to usurp the ruinous powers and was exactly what they were hoping to achieve through his trials. Tzeentch was positively ecstatic, barely able to contain his excitement at the prospect and eagerly altering his plans to accommodate this new and unexpected development. Slaanesh had more reservations, and while extremely hopeful about the prospects she was understandably concerned about how Admu would fare in the wider universe. Then there was Nurgle.

Nurgle remained expressionless during Leman’s explanation, uttering not a word nor making any indication of his support or opposition to the idea. Leman could tell he was hiding his true feelings, but what those feelings were was unknown to him. He knew he likely couldn’t go through with the plan without the approval of all 4 deities, so the green one’s judgement was crucial to its execution. After he had finished speaking, Nurgle merely said that he would have to think over what he had told him, and that in the meantime he could stay in the same cabin he had before. After they had returned to his village, the green one treated Leman no differently than he always had, showing him the same warm hospitality when Leman had first arrived in this place.

While Leman waited for Khorne and Tzeentch to finish the final repairs of his armor and weapons, Admu caught up with her brothers and sisters. They crowded her day and night, showering her with questions about her adventures. She graciously obliged, regaling them with tales of the gleaming marble city full of living porcelain dolls, of the mighty black fortress inhabited by great warriors and knights of legend, of the snowy mountain monastery full of wondrous secrets. She told them of Leman’s exploits and feats of strength, and how they had been whisked away together to far-off lands in Tzeentch’s simulations, facing great peril but ultimately succeeding in making it to their ultimate destination. Leman decided to leave her alone for the time being, giving her time to spend with her family knowing that if she accepted his proposition, she likely would not see them for some time.

Leman emerged from the wooden cabin into the crisp morning air, the last remnants of the nightly fog settling onto the leaves and grass as droplets of dew. In the courtyard, Admu was showing off to her younger siblings her newfound ability to conjure her horns in and out of thin air at will, to their endless amusement and applause. In his hand, he held the note that had been left under his door during the night. Upon the rough parchment read the words:

I have made my decision. Meet me at the tallest tree in the heart of the forest so that we may speak in private.

The tall redwood tree was visible from practically all parts of the great forest and sat on a mighty foothill which overlooked the rest of Nurgle’s domain. Beneath its shade, Leman found the green one perched upon a mossy rock. He sat down next to him.

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“When you are in the midst of it, looking up at the treetops from below, the forest feels endless at times…” Nurgle said. “But from up here it seems so… small.”

“I got your note.” he said, holding up the parchment. “You have made your decision?” Leman said. Nurgle smiled softly.

“In truth… it was never my decision to make. I’ve spent a lot of time with her in the past few days. Every time she speaks of you and your quest, her eyes sparkle brighter than the stars in the clearest night sky. She’s outgrown this forest, this world, and it’s time for her to go out into the galaxy and do what she’s always wanted to do… help people. I know that… I’m just a stubborn old badger that hates to see my little daffodil becoming an independent woman.” he said, chuckling. Leman could see tears welling up in her eyes.

“I would say I would protect her… but if I am being honest, it is likely she who will be protecting me.” Leman said, leaning back.

‘She takes after her old man. We’re hardy folk!” Nurgle said, beating his barrel chest and laughing heartily. “It’s natural for a father to worry about such things… but I trust her to find her own way in this world now. You have my blessing to take her with you.” Nurgle said.

“Thank you.” Leman said, reaching out for a handshake. Instead, Nurgle grabbed Leman in a prodigious bear hug, nearly crushing Leman’s rib cage in the process. He dropped him after remembering his own strength, and Leman coughed a bit before recovering.

“Oh! Sorry about that, it’s just a… uh… family tradition…” Nurgle said.

“I see now… where Admu… gets it from.” Leman said, laughing while his voice struggled.

When Nurgle and Leman had arrived back in the village, Admu and the other 3 gods were awaiting them. The entire village was gathered around them, as the gods had brought with them their own entourages bearing gifts.

“Papa!” Admu shouted, jumping into her father’s arms. Nurgle strained a bit, unprepared but nonetheless happy to have his daughter in his arms again.

“It seems my armor is not the only thing you have brought.” Leman said, curious what they carried with them.

“As our champion, it is only natural we bestow you with gifts to help you succeed in your journey.” Slaanesh said, opening an opulent chest encrusted with gold and jewels. She lifted up a black-scaled cloak of snakeskin, which shimmered with an iridescent sheen. “The skin of the great serpent you slew has some interesting properties. Using a bit of magic of my own, I fashioned it into a cloak of anonymity.” she said.

“Cloak of anonymity?” Leman said. “What does it do?”

“It hides your psychic presence.” Slaanesh said. “While wearing it, you will appear unremarkable and be able to hide your presence in crowded spaces. You can conceal your identity to a point, although it may not hold up to prolonged inspection. It isn’t a cloak of invisibility, so it has its limits. It is up to your discretion to use it to its fullest potential. Oh, and I also made one for Admu as well.”

That should make it at least a bit easier to have her around humans… Leman thought.

“I also included clothes and a sewing kit for you, Admu, seeing as it is unlikely you will be able to find a tailor that can accommodate your… dimensions. Besides, I doubt any mortal seamster could even hope to compare to my craftsmanship.” Slaanesh said, laughing conceitedly. “The leather is harvested from the impenetrable hide of ancient legendary beasts, and the thread is enchanted to be as hard as adamantium. The spool of thread is enchanted as well, and will never run out, so you may repair it or make adjustments to your heart’s content.” Admu chirped with excitement.

“I considered crafting you a set of armor…” Khorne said. “However, it is unlikely I could make anything which would be stronger than the natural hardiness you inherited from your father. Speaking of..” Khorne stepped aside to reveal Leman’s armor, shining and glittering like new. Leman stepped forward and ran his fingers over the polished ceramite, feeling not a single blemish or crack.

“This will do me nicely.” Leman said.

“I made some modifications to the internal mechanics.” Tzeentch chimed in. “Using the data collected from your battles in the colosseum, I identified several shortcomings, bottlenecks, and weak points, and devised solutions to each of them. The heat capacity for the exothermic generators should be much, much higher, but I would advise against pushing that limit… unless you would like to be peeled out of your armor again.” Leman winced at the memory.

“So then, I take it that this counts as both of your gifts?” Leman said.

“Oh no, of course not!” Tzeentch said, turning to unlock a sealed container. He punched in a password on the container’s keypad, and it opened to reveal a silver-engraved gauntlet with a great icy-blue jewel in the shape of a wolf’s eye inlaid in the center. It looked almost like an artificer power claw, although the slots where the blades would be were strangely empty.

"What is it?" Leman asked.

"Well, using the genetic information I, uh… obtained during your trials, I devised a techno-magical device to harness your latent psychic abilities in a safe and controlled manner. Also, it can grow ice-claws. I particularly like that part." Tzeentch said.

Harness my latent psychic abilities? Leman thought.

"How does it work?" Leman asked.

"Well… honestly I'm not quite sure. I designed to interface directly with your psychogenetic physiology, meaning… you'll just have to, er, intuit how it works." Tzeentch said. Leman pursed his lips indifferently.

"Uh, my thanks." he said.

I guess even as an ally, Tzeentch will always be Tzeentch. Leman thought. I will have to dedicate some time to learning what use this device has… if any. The irony that he may end up using psychic powers himself did not escape him, although he had come to accept many absurd things during his time here. What was yet one more absurdity atop the pile?

"I as well have a gift for you." Khorn said. He raised his hand into the air, and with a clap of thunder and a burst of flame, his black blade appeared in his hand. "You proved your worthiness to wield this sword in our battle, it would be dishonorable for me to take it back after your victory." he said, planting the sword into the earth before Leman. The primarch grasped the handle of the blade, raising it carefully. He ran his fingers along the inscribed runes on its surface, which glowed like hot metal. It was warm to the touch, but not painfully so.

Perhaps it only burns those it sees as enemies. Leman thought.

"You have my gratitude; this is a truly fine weapon." Leman said.

"You will also be granted the other weapons you used in the Colosseum, seeing as you wielded them with such great skill. You will need every boon possible to ensure ultimate victory against the false gods." Khorne said.

"Ah, I almost forgot!" Nurgle said, fumbling with something in his knapsack. "Here, I made this for you with a little help from the big red fella." He pulled a crested metal helmet from his bag. The helmet was adorned with polished elk horns, and lined with swirling, knotted patterns.

"Are those… " Leman said.

"Yep! They're my old ones." Admu said, giggling. "You'll look like a miniature me wearing them, Mister Russ!" Leman gave her a playful sideways glance.

"I added a bit of my healing expertise to give them a special enchanted property." Nurgle said. "While wearing it, the helmet will protect you from any disease, toxin, or other bodily ailment. It can't heal or prevent physical damage, but it will prevent you from getting sick or poisoned."

Ironic… Leman thought. That he should give me something that would directly combat the servants of his alternate self.

"Thank you, I have no doubt this will be extremely useful." Leman said.

"Well, all there is to do now is prepare the portal to the Materium." Tzeentch said. "I have almost finished construction of the generator in my laboratory. After I run a few tests, I can have it brought here and fully operational in two days' time. Until then, I suggest you two make any preparations you need…” he turned to Admu. “…and bid farewell to your kin." Admu looked down with a saddened expression, but soon recovered her cheerful demeanor.

Almost home. Leman thought.

Leman finished fitting his newly improved armor, adorning himself with the gifts of his gracious hosts and benefactors. He clenched the fist of his ice claw and gripped the hilt of the black sword on his hip. Admu had finished saying goodbye to her many brothers and sisters, telling them that when she returned, she would recount to them all of the incredible things she was going to see and do on her new adventures. She spent a good deal of time with her father, talking and enjoying each other’s presence before her impending departure. By the time she had finished her goodbyes, Tzeentch’s constructs had finished assembling and activating the portal generator. The circular disk of silvery-blue opalescent liquid rippled and crackled with arcane energy, enclosed within a ring of studded metal devices. There was a metal ramp leading into the entrance, which shimmered and shifted like a reflection in a turbulent river. Leman looked closely into it and realized where the portal led to.

“The Fang… this is Fenris!” Leman said excitedly.

“Indeed it is, Leman Russ. Given the unknown state of the galaxy, I thought it most apt to send you to the one place you would assuredly find safe refuge.” Tzeentch said. “But remember, this is a single-use, one-way portal. Obviously, none of us can use it, and once you use it you will be unable to return… at least until you can find a way to destroy the barrier and free us all, that is.” He gave him a wry smile, and in response Leman nodded confidently. “I wish you both all the luck in the universe.” Leman stepped towards the portal and looked back upon the faces of the 4 gods which had helped him during this strange journey. Admu stepped up next to him.

“Well, c’mon Mister Russ! We’ve got a galaxy to save!” she said, impatiently tugging on his arm.

“Indeed.” Leman said. He turned to the gods and denizens of this realm he was about to depart from. “Farewell, kind folk. I hope to see you all again, beyond this prison, once you have been freed.” Together, they stepped into the portal.

Leman expected to step upon ice and snow, to feel the icy winds of Fenris upon his face and to breathe the cold winter air. Instead, they were surrounded by Chaos. Swirling, churning clouds of effluvial energy illuminated by the light of baleful stars permeated the abyss, concealing a slithering evil that coiled and twisted before them.

“What should I find, what should I find, burrowing, tunneling, scurrying through my abyss?” The crawling terror clamored. Rows of malignant eyes upon tendrils of fleshy blackness blinked and leered at the two wayward travelers. “I am Ghargatuloth, the Whisperer in the Darkness, the Prince of a Thousand Faces, the God of the Last Hunt. I know all, see all, touch all… yet one of you I have never seen…” Leman and Admu stood back-to-back, trying to defend themselves from the all-encompassing daemonic mass. “Ah, no matter. My master’s plans do not include you… so I will do him a favor and remove the known unknowns. You were hurtling towards some puny rock in the Materium… no, no, no, that’s no good. I have a better idea. How about the black hole at the center of the Galactic Core? Yes, yes, yes, that’s a wonderful idea!” The mass of eyes and tentacles jittered and undulated in a nauseating display of amusement.

As terror and adrenaline filled Leman’s mind, he began to hear something. It was faint at first, but gradually grew louder and louder until he could finally recognize what it was.

…music? He thought.

A symphony of notes and instruments, unpredictable but not unpleasant. It permeated the space around them, almost as if it were pushing out the malignant presence of their daemonic assailant.

“Wait…” the demon muttered. “That sound… no, no, no no nononononono! It can’t be! It mustn't be! Not here.. not now… not… HIM!” The daemon snarled in abject rage. Leman and Admu stumbled as the ground shifted beneath them. They realized that they were now standing in the palm of an immense hand emerging from the darkness.

Known unknowns, unknown knowns, who knows what who knows, do you know?

“You damnable-”

The stage is set, the actors in place, yet from behind the curtain arrives a new face.

What part in the game, what role you play, what piece you are, who is to say?

“You will not take from me my quarry, you glorified jester! I am the greatest servant of Tzeentch, the Changer of Ways, the Architect of Fate! Begone with you, back to the twisted hiding holes of your fucking Webway!” The demon shrieked, violently wrapping its tendrils around the singing god’s wrist. Admu stumbled and nearly fell, until Leman caught her and helped her stay on her feet.

You will not be sent to your damnation, but neither is the wolf’s den your destination.

The hand struggled to keep the two away from the daemon’s clutches, as the tendrils began to overpower whatever being was currently holding them in its grasp.

A slight correction is the best I can do, once released it is all up to you.

Beneath them, the hand appeared to become translucent, displaying a field of stars. The image zoomed and shifted, before revealing the surface of a planet that Leman had never seen before.

A word of advice, kin of mine…

Admu perked up when she heard that word.

Beware your nephews. Bye!

Suddenly they fell through the hand-shaped portal beneath them, the music growing ever more distant as they plummeted through unknown space. The last thing they heard was the fading sound of Ghargatuloth’s seething cries.


Leman awoke on a slimy, metallic floor. A foul stench filled his nose, causing his face to grimace in disgust. He rose to his feet, looking around and trying to regain his bearings. He was in some kind of voidship, but it was easily the most unkempt and disgusting ship he had ever seen. Grime, mold, and strange, fleshy growths spread all across the walls, floor, and ceiling, coating the rusted pipes and tubing. Foul liquids dripped from open pustules that were somehow infecting the hull of the ship itself, as if the entire craft were a diseased animal.

This must be the work of Nurgle. Leman thought. Not the jolly old gardener - the foul, bloated plaguemonger. Suddenly he thought of Admu. He quickly looked around him, finding no trace of her.

“Damn it all, where has she gone!?” he shouted. A doorway across the room opened, revealing two space marines. They wore rusted, fetid armor, covered in grime and filth, and bore the insignia of the Death Guard. For a moment, Leman and the two traitor marines stared at one another in shock. However, Leman’s surprise instantaneously transformed into bloodthirsty rage. He unsheathed his flaming black blade with his right hand, and three icy claws shot out from the gauntlet on his left. He let out a harrowing roar and charged at them just as the stunned marines lifted up their bolters.

Ever since the fall of Cadia and the opening of the Cicatrix Maledictum, the world of Leprus had found itself on the border of Hell itself. Warp storms plagued the system for months, disrupting trade and communication for the Imperial Guard regiment and space marine chapter stationed there. Yet, this was only the beginning of the world’s plight. In the sky, one could just barely see the faint shape of a massive, diseased starship orbiting the planet - the Terminus Est, floating above like an omen of death and disease. The surface was scarred by intense fighting, the previously lush landscape reduced to a charred wasteland pockmarked by craters. Trenches, barbed wire, and corpses littered the earth, the remnants of many failed defenses. Even worse, a fouler form of life had begun to replace what used to live in this now-cursed place. Festering moss and diseased funguses grew like skin lesions upon the earth, daemonic manifestations of the Plague God Nurgle. A bloated form walked through the nascent forest of decay and pestilence, the sound of rusted metal and squishing flesh filling the air as he walked through his most ambitious creation. Typhus, Herald of Nurgle and Lord of the Death Guard’s 1st Plague Company, was admiring his latest handiwork. Another plague marine in similarly degraded terminator armor was walking through the rotted fields towards him.

“Lord Typhus, I have news from the front. The Imperial stronghold is under siege, and the chapter of corpse-worshippers which were protecting it have all been slaughtered. Unfortunately, it seems they had some kind of relic which they were able to deploy that’s keeping us from breaching their defenses. If we could mount a combined assault, we coul-”

“There is no need to be hasty, commander Justinian. Nurgle is not an impatient god.” Typhus said, his sickly yet commanding voice wheezing through his respirator. “One should not pick a fruit before it is ripe.” Typhus said, plucking a diseased plant bulb hanging from a gnarled tree. “You must wait until it becomes soft, its insides begin to liquefy, its skin becoming blackened until it is nothing more than a rotted heap.” As he spoke, the bulb began to decay into nothing but blackened fungal spores, carried by the wind to infect more of the accursed land. Typhus turned back to his underling. “We need only to wait, commander. To wait until their minds fester with fear and doubt, their bodies becoming weak and diseased, the corruption eating them from the inside out until, before they even realize it, we will have already won without firing a single shot.” He made a grotesque gurgling noise that was intended to be laughter. “This patch of glorious rot is merely a seed, the beginnings of my magnum opus. A garden to rival the likes of Nurgle’s, a beautiful shrine to filth and decay the likes of which has never been seen in the galaxy before! Mortarion’s failure upon Pestiliax has lost him favor with the Plaguefather… by presenting this world to him as a gift, I may secure my rightful place by his side as the one true champion of Nurgle!”

Several miles away, in a makeshift fort lined with dirt mounds, wooden planks, and barbed wire, 4 guardsmen stood watch and regretted every choice they’d ever made in their lives. They were tired, hungry, and scared as hell. Their only consolation was that they weren’t sick yet. If they had been, they would’ve been executed already.

“I still can’t believe they never told us that demons were fucking real.” Private Jeremiah said. “We had to find out when they tore open the entire goddamn galaxy!”

“Keep talking like that and you’ll get a visit from the Inquisition.” Corporal Han said.

“Shut up the both of you or I’ll kill you myself.” Sergeant Kelly said. She rubbed her temples and popped another antibiotic pill. She doubted these things even worked, seeing as nothing the Guard used ever seemed to work, but it was better than just sitting there and waiting to die. She gripped her Lasgun, checking the battery and sights ritualistically to keep herself sane.

“You got anything to add, Ramirez?” Private Jeremiah said. Corporal Ramirez merely grumbled and kept watch over their flank. “The Inquisition ain’t coming here. Nobody is. Even the goddamn astartes are all dead.”

“I said shut up, private.” Kelly said, holding her lasgun menacingly. The last thing she wanted to deal with was insubordination. “Through the Emperor, all things are possible.” She didn’t believe a word of what she just said.

“Oh right, so the Emperor’s just gonna send a bloody army to fall right on top of us and beat the fucking Death Guard? Piss off.” Jeremiah said. Kelly seriously considered shooting him just out of annoyance. Luckily for him, she was interrupted by the sound of something crashing through the roof of the ammo storage shack next to them.

“What the fuck was that?” Corporal Han said. All four of them slowly crept towards the shack, their lasrifles trained on the door. Sergeant Kelly grabbed the handle of the door, and slowly pulled it open. When she looked inside, she nearly dropped her gun in shock. The other three guardsmen similarly stared into the shack with dumbfounded expressions.

“Wh- where am I?” Admu said, rubbing her head. She looked over at the four guardsmen gawking at her, and her eyes lit up. She gasped and looked back at them with a surprised expression. “Hey, you guys look like Mister Russ!”

Chapter 17

Chapter Text

Upon the planet of Holy Terra, sacred homeworld of the Human race and beating, gold-encrusted heart of the Imperium of Man, in the dense hive-city surrounding the Imperial Palace, nestled within a monumental hab-block that towered several kilometers high, there was a small, dim, rather inconspicuous room. Within this room was a scribe of the Administratum, the byzantine organization responsible for the Imperium’s near-infinite supply of bureaucracy. Amadeus Pynchon loved his work, regardless of how many of the Imperium’s loyal citizens looked upon his profession with distaste or even horror. Right now, he was carefully transcribing a tax record of some far-off planet in the Segmentum Obscurus that had only recently been brought back under Imperial rule by Lord Commander Guilliman’s Indomitus Crusade. Some even in the Administratum had begun to complain about the immense strain put upon them by Guilliman’s sweeping reforms and ambitious reconquests, but Amadeus relished the challenge. Why, today, he had challenged himself to transcribe twice as many tax records as yesterday! Not that he would be rewarded by his superiors of anything of that nature, though he considered his work rewarding enough on its own.

As he finished a line of writing, his finger-quill implant ran out of ink, and he instinctively reached for his inkwell. He dabbed just the right amount of ink onto the tip of his pen implant and returned to the document. Then something happened. His finger shook, causing a minute error in his penmanship. He nearly had a heart attack. How could he be so careless? How could he ruin his perfect record like this? No, it couldn’t have been him. He had been a scribe for nearly 40 years, and never in his entire career had his pen implant ever slipped. Then he felt the table beneath him shaking. A few of his meager possessions began to rattle in his cupboards, and he heard ominous creaking coming from the walls around him. His fear of what was happening was about equal to his elation that he had not, in fact, made an error on his own, but that an outside factor had interceded and affected his work. He would still have to completely start over on the page he was working on, but this worried him little compared to his pride in his workmanship. Once the subtle shaking seemed to have subsided, he crumpled the page and reached for a fresh one to begin his work anew. Then a sudden tremor, much stronger than before, rippled through the hab-block. Dust fell from the walls, and his paper and inkwell tumbled onto the floor. Amadeus panicked, unsure of what was happening. Holy Terra had never experienced natural earthquakes since the foundation of the Imperium, what was happening was truly unprecedented. The scribe scrambled to his feet and peered out his window, overlooking several layers of the hive-city below. Imperial citizens were scrambling all across the Eternal City, looking for shelters from pieces of loose debris dislodged from the shaking. Buildings which had only begun to be repaired following the chaos caused by the opening of the Great Rift started to buckle, and mass panic began to break out. Then Amadeus looked up. His eyes widened in terror and his skin turned pale-white like a ghost.

The space around Holy Terra had erupted in a maelstrom of devastating warp storms. Battlefleet Solar had been deployed immediately, with fears of another chaotic invasion of the Sol System such as the one Magnus the Red had recently attempted. Battleships and cruisers were scrambled across every kilometer of the system, yet no enemy ships could be found. The Astra Militarum, Inquisition, Sororitas, Imperial Fists, and even the Officio Assassinorum had been put on high alert, though no traces of demonic activity were recorded anywhere on Terra, only panicked and frightened civilians. Inside the Imperial Palace, it was a different story.

Deep within the walls of the Imperial Palace, past the heavily reinforced walls and structural defenses, under several kilometers of solid rock, the Sanctum Imperialis was shaking.

The custodes had been fully mobilized, scouring every inch of the Imperial Palace for any sign of… anything, really. In truth, the Custodes had absolutely no idea what was happening. That was extremely worrying to Trajann Valoris. Even more worrying was that the two companions which had been assigned to guard the Sanctum Imperialis were not responding. Without hesitation, Trajann rushed towards the location of the Golden Throne with a host of the most elite warriors of the Adeptus Custodes following close behind. After rushing through the mile-long hall which led to the inner chamber at blinding speed, Trajann himself pushed open the immense doors of the Eternity Gate with his bare hands. He was unprepared for what he saw inside.

The two companions, silent, motionless sentinels of the Emperor’s throne, the most diligently trained guardians in the entire galaxy, were writhing upon the floor. Their helmets were removed, and they clutched their heads. Rivulets of blood were pouring out of their ears, eyes, noses, and mouths. But the two debilitated Custodes barely registered in Trajann’s mind. His attention was solely drawn to one thing. He had seen the Emperor before. His lifeless corpse, wrapped in cybernetics to prolong his life, chained to the arcane mechanism of the Golden Throne which kept him alive through techno-sorcery, and wreathed in the dim glow of the Astronomican which represented what little of the Emperor’s soul remained in his body. It was a solemn, gloomy sight, one which every Custodes burned into their heart. This was not what Trajann saw. If he were not a Custodes with genetically near-perfect eyesight and corneas designed to endure the light of an atomic explosion from close-range, he likely would have seen nothing but white light - or more likely his eyes would have evaporated in their sockets.

The Emperor’s body was wreathed in an impossibly bright, golden-white flame, one which encompassed most of the stadium-sized chamber. He felt its intense heat searing his face, burning his skin at the same rate his supernaturally-fast healing rate could replace them. What Trajann saw within the flame did something which should have been, by all metrics, impossible.

It scared him.

The Emperor was screaming. His dead flesh was moving, his preserved skeletal structure twisting and contorting as if struggling to be released. His mouth was wide open, and though his vocal chords had long since rotted away, the psychic shockwave caused a single word to ring through Trajann’s mind as clear as a day.


Chapter 18

Chapter Text

Sergeant Kelly felt a sharp pain in her chest and wanted to reach for her pills but suppressed the urge so she could keep her lasgun trained on her target. She wondered if hallucinations were a symptom of the antibiotics she should be worried about, as what she was looking at defied explanation. Laying on a shattered box of lasgun batteries was a giant humanoid, appearing superficially female. The strange interloper seemed about 17 or 18 feet tall and could have passed for a human… were it not for her size, the giant elk horns on her head, and the red-furred tail peeking out from under her.

“Um… hello?” Admu said nervously, worried about why the little people seemed to tense. Then she realized where she had landed. “Oh! I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t mean to break that.” She said, standing upright. She bumped her head on the wooden shack’s ceiling, causing more planks to fall to the floor. “Ah! Sorry, I’ve really made a mess…” She began dusting herself off, all while the trembling guardsmen continued to point their weapons at her. “Oh, I never introduced myself! Hello, my name is-” She reached out her hand, causing Corporal Han to panic and begin shooting. Ramirez and Jeremiah quickly joined in, and instinctually Kelly decided it was better to support the barrage than try and come up with an alternate solution. The four guardsmen peppered the giant with lasfire, causing her to raise her arms up defensively.

“Hey- ow! Stop it!” She said, mildly upset by the feeling of the hot pinpricks on her skin. It reminded her of the time she had gotten stuck in a sticker bush as a child. The guardsmen expended their charges after a short but intense few seconds, leaving the air silent and filled with the distinct smell of ozone. “I’m awfully sorry for breaking your things, but it’s still quite rude to do that kind of thing to someone you just met don’t you think?” Admu said with a pouty face.

“Our weapons don’t do shit… we’re fucking dead!” Private Jeremiah said, falling down onto his knees.

“Goddammit Priv-” Kelly said, before erupting into a violent coughing fit. She reached for her bottle of pills but was hit by a sharp pain in her gut. She stumbled, spilling the pills all over the floor.

“Sergeant are you-” Ramirez said, reaching down to help her.

“I’m fi-” Kelly tried to say, before vomiting. She clutched her chest and fell backwards, looking towards the sky with a mortified expression.

Suddenly, a strange look flashed across Admu’s face. Her emerald eyes became glassy, and she approached the ailing guardswoman. Han and Jeremiah, too frozen by fear to interfere, watched as the giant kneeled down next to Kelly and placed a hand on her abdomen. The giant’s eyes closed, and a faint blue-green light flashed underneath her palm. Admu blinked several times, her eyes returning to normal. She retracted her hand and rose to her feet with a look of surprise.

“Huh? What just-” Admu said. Suddenly, Kelly shot up with a loud gasp. Her eyes were wide open, and she was breathing heavily. Ramirez snapped out of his stupor and put his hand on her shoulder.

“Sarge, you alright?” he said.

“Yeah…” Kelly said with a dazed expression. “I feel… fine. Better than I have in weeks.” The dull aching, the sharp pains, the weakness in her legs… all of it was completely gone. It felt like she had just slept for 3 days straight and then woken up to a fresh cup of recaf.

After several minutes of awkward silence, Jeremiah opened his mouth.

“What in the Emperor’s name just happened?” he said.

“Hey… I know him. He’s Mister Russ’s papa, right?” Admu said. The guardsmen looked at her with blank stares.

“Leman… Russ?” Ramirez said.

“What, like the tank?” Jeremiah said.

“No, dipshit, the guy they named the tank after.” Han said. “The primarch? One of the Emperor’s sons?”

“Yeah, I know him! I’ve been traveling with him for a while now. At least, We were together… but I’m not sure where he ran off too. Anyway, you guys must be humans, right? Mister Russ and I were sent here to help you guys!” Admu said. The guardsmen quickly huddled together to strategize.

“You know, I heard stories…” Ramirez said. “about the Fall of Cadia, from some of the guardsmen who made it out alive. They said that just when they were about to lose some giant glowing lady appeared, called herself Saint Celestine. They said she was a living saint, some kinda servant of the Emperor…”

“You really think that thing is a living saint? It doesn’t look like one at all!” Han said. “It’s got horns and a tail!”

“Han, have you ever seen a living saint?” Kelly said.

“Well, no, but-” Han said.

“Then how the fuck do you know what one looks like?” Kelly said. Han rubbed his chin with a contemplative expression.

“...but, what if it’s a daemon in disguise or something?” Han said.

“Well, it hasn’t tried to kill us yet.” Ramirez said.

“Yeah, but-” Han said, before Kelly interrupted him.

“Listen, we unloaded 4 fully charged lasgun cartridges into that thing’s face and it didn’t so much as give her a sunburn. Worst case scenario, we play along until we can figure out something else.” Kelly said. “You got any better ideas?”

“Uh… not really.” Han said.

“Alright then, until further notice, as far as I or any of you are concerned, that thing is a living saint. Got it?” Kelly said. The guardsmen nodded. They broke their huddle and turned to face the newly christened living saint.

“Alright then, saint…” Kelly said.

“Admu! My name’s Admu.” Admu said.

“So, Saint ‘Admu’... why exactly are you here?” Kelly said.

“Here specifically? Um, I’m not really sure. Leman and I were going to his home on Fenris, but then we got attacked by a giant octopus or something, and then I think we got saved by a clown? Thinking about it kind of makes my head hurt, though.” Admu said. The guardsmen exchanged worried glances. “I’m sure Leman will know what to do, but I seem to have lost him.” she said. She looked down and wondered the best method of finding her lost friend. Then she had an idea. “I know, Leman loves fighting! I’m sure wherever there’s fighting there’s a good chance he’d be there too.” she said. Ramirez looked at Kelly.

“If it’s fighting you’re looking for…” Ramirez said.

Captain Anthrakinos leaned back into his moldy captain’s chair, overlooking the bridge of the Terminus Est. As much of a loyal servant of the Plague God as he was, he also had a basic understanding of naval protocol and felt that it was better to risk minor religious infractions than crashing Lord Typhus’s flagship. As such, despite a general atmosphere of filth and uncleanliness, the bridge was relatively uncluttered. He scratched at a legion of boils just underneath his heavy rebreather, and his hand brushed past the tangled coil of wires and tubing connecting him to the ship’s mainframe. Hectic feeds of dense datastreams flashed through his mind, fed to him by half-maddened machine spirits all across the immense daemonship. One of the pieces of data that slipped through his mind was that of a number of missing crew reports in the lower decks of the starboard bow.

Probably just another plague toad on the loose again. He thought.

He dismissed the reports, half-mindedly ordering someone to pull some more cultists out of the filth-pits to replace them. However, another report flashed across his mind that he couldn’t dismiss as easily. A patrol of plague marines had been reported missing in the same area, something which could not have been explained by a single plague toad. Lord Typhus had impressed on Anthrakinos how important their current mission was, and the captain had no intention of letting his liege down. He immediately sent a squad of plague marines to search the area and ordered a platoon to remain on stand-by should the need arise. He would ensure there would be no more unforeseen complications upon the Terminus Est from this point forward.

Admu followed the four guardsmen through muddy trenches and scorched fields, marked by dead, blackened trees and sludge-filled craters.

“Was this place always like this?” Admu asked.

“Beats me. We only got rotated here after the Death Guard invaded. Then they blew up all our transports before we were supposed to be rotated out.” Ramirez said.

“Oh, you aren’t from here?” Admu said.

“Nope, I’m from Azura.” Ramirez said.

“What’s that place like?” Admu said.

“Well, it’s an ocean world, so… lots of water, lots of islands, uh… that’s pretty much it.” Ramirez said. Admu looked at him quizzically.

“...ocean? What’s that?” Admu said.

“Uh, it’s like a lake but… bigger. And salty.” Ramirez said.

“Wow… a whole planet covered in salty water…” Admu said, nodding in fascination.

“You all must be from Azura too, right?” Admu said.

“No, only Ramirez.” Kelly said. “I’m from Laryon, Han is from Zhenxun, and Jeremiah back there is from Khaldun.”

“Wait, you’re all from completely different planets!?” Admu said. The guardsmen looked at her with confused expressions.

“Yeah… the Guard conscripts soldiers from every planet in the Imperium. Some of the special ones get to stay together with their own people, but we’re just run-of-the-mill cannon fodder.” Ramirez said.

“H-how many planets are in the Imperium?” Admu said, becoming visibly excited.

“Uh… shit, I don’t know, like a million?” Ramirez said. Admu gasped and covered her mouth in shock.

“A m-m-million!? I can’t even imagine it…” Admu said with stars in her eyes. The guardsmen exchanged more worried glances. The quiet was interrupted by the sound of artillery fire shaking the earth, and in the distance Admu could faintly make out a line of guns.

“We must be close to the front.” Kelly said.

“Hey, who’s that?” Admu said, pointing towards a shape in the distance, obscured by fog. The guardsmen squinted, studying the distant figure’s clumsy movements. As it slowly came into view, they noticed its ragged clothing and pallid skin, and the grievous wounds covering its skin from head to toe. “Oh no, he looks hurt!” she said.

“FIRE!” Kelly shouted, and the guardsmen opened fire. The shambling figure was riddled with beams of red-hot lasfire, searing through its pale flesh and leaving blackened, smoking holes behind. One of the beams severed a tendon in its right leg, causing it to lose balance and fall over.

“Hey! What are you doing!?” Admu said, rushing out in front of them to try and stop their attack. She turned and saw that the body was still moving and rushed over to its side. She wasn’t sure how she had healed the sergeant before, but she figured she still had to try. The prone body’s face was gaunt and torn, with thin skin and exposed muscles loosely sliding over grey bones. Admu was a bit disturbed that this person was still alive after being so grievously injured, but she laid her hand upon him anyway. She closed her eyes and concentrated, seeing in the swirling darkness behind her eyelids a faint, pale glow. The shifting shapes looked sickly and malignant, burrowing in and out of a faint, ghost-like silhouette. She focused on the shape, allowing her instincts to take over and guide her. Bright green root-like rhizomes began to spread out over the ghostly figure, prodding for and choking out the wriggling, malevolent presences until they had all dissolved away. She opened her eyes, hoping to see the fruits of her labor. The bloodshot eyes of the sickly man beneath her shot open, and he let out one long, pained gasp before falling limp with a blank yet almost serene expression. His body began to rapidly decay, the pallid flesh rapidly turning to dust until all the was left was blackened bones and tattered clothing. “I-I’m sorry, I was just… I didn’t mean to…” Admu said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Walking Pox.” Han said. “Seen it once or twice. Curing it’s impossible because the body is already dead, keeping the soul hostage like a prison of rotting flesh.”He said. Admu looked upon the remains with horror.

“You didn’t kill him, you just freed him from his suffering.” Ramirez said.

“That’s… that’s… horrible.” Admu struggled to say.

“That’s the Death Guard for you.” Kelly said. “Only thing they like more than finding horrific ways to kill you is finding horrific ways to not kill you.”

Admu looked up, seeing the battlefield stretch out in front of her. There were hundreds of guns stretched out in a line, though few of them were still manned. Clouds of noxious-looking gasses billowed across the barren fields in the distance, and the sky had taken on a sickly pale color. Huge pits of burning bodies were piled all over, with more dead being carried to and dumped in by the minute. Shivering, tired guardsmen were everywhere, their faces gaunt with hunger and their eyes dark and sunken. She walked across the muddy field to a half-destroyed building, too stunned by the horrors to speak. Then she looked down and saw what looked like the aftermath off a battle, with dead space marines in muddied, blue-violet armor lying in various positions with huge gashes and fatal wounds. Then, in the corner of the room, she saw another marine. This one was wearing a pale, greyish-green armor, like the color of long-rotted meat. It was covered in rust and grime and had fleshy pustules and entrails protruding from cracks in its filth-encrusted armor. On one pauldron it had an insignia of three skulls, but on its chest was an all-too familiar symbol. Carved into the rusted ceramite were three circles inlaid over three arrows, pointing outwards in opposing directions.

“Hey, uh… “Saint’ Admu, what are you-” Kelly said, walking over the space marine corpses and falling silent when she looked upon Admu’s face.

“That… is the Death Guard?” Admu said, with a slow and chilling intonation.

“Y-yes.” Kelly said, chills running up her spine uncontrollably in the towering giant’s presence. Her piercing emerald eyes had taken on a fiery intensity, and her face bore an expression of absolute contempt. Admu turned and began walking towards the front line, paying no mind to the numerous startled guardsmen shocked by her presence as she passed them. She walked up to an overturned Rhino, grabbing a large protruding metal bar on the side of its hull. With some effort, she tore off the entire side panel of the armored personnel carrier and held it up as a makeshift shield. The four guardsmen who had accompanied her caught up with her. “Hey, what are you doing!” Kelly shouted.

“Stay here.” Admu said. “I’ll be back when all of the enemies are dead.”

Leman stepped over the butchered corpses of the plague marine squad sent after him, his black blade sizzling as the putrid blood covering its surface boiled away. He made his way through the labyrinthine living halls of the daemonship, searching in vain for any sign of Admu. Being in the heart of a nurglite daemonship, he was initially worried about potential contamination; however, it appeared that the wards on his helmet were doing their job perfectly. In fact, as he walked through the infected bowels of the daemonic plague-infested battleship, the fleshy walls of the ship seemed to almost recoil at his presence as if the magical items he wore unnerved the daemonic construct through their very presence. He retracted the ice blades from his gauntlet, then began to feel a slight tingling in his left arm. The crystal eye was glowing, which was slightly worrying to Leman though he didn’t have much time to ponder it any more deeply than that. When he turned a corner, a hail of heavy bolter fire filled the hallway and forced him to duck into a nearby side room. He peaked around the corner, seeing the heavily fortified gun emplacement the Death Guard reinforcements had set up at the end of the hall before another round of bolter fire forced him back into cover. He looked around for an alternative exit, finding nothing but solid metal (and flesh) walls. With no other options, he decided to make an exit. He walked up to one of the walls and extended his ice claws, raising them to tear through the metal and create a makeshift escape route. The cerulean eye on his gauntlet began to glow and crackle fiercely just as he tore into the side of the room. Leman’s eyes widened. He looked down at his gauntlet, which was still glowing intensely. Instead of a simple hole in the wall, Leman was staring through a tear in the warp.

Did… did I do that? Leman thought.

The warp tear slowly dissipated, sealing itself without anything to hold it open. He heard the plague marines moving up the hall with their heavy guns, and a slight smile grew on his face as had an idea.

The plague marines knew that their unknown assailant had ducked into a room with no way out, and so were confident that they could smoke the intruder out with little difficulty, as they had the upper hand now.

At least, that’s what they thought, until reality tore open behind them.

In a chaotic storm of gunfire, shouting, slashing, and flying body parts, Leman effortlessly dissected the plague marines with extreme prejudice. As the dismembered traitor marines fell to the floor in heaps of limbs and entrails, Leman heard more teams of Death Guard approaching his position and readied his ice claw once again.

On the contact line with the Imperial forces, a plague marine squad was patrolling the blown-out ruins of a former city on the outskirts of the fortress where the remaining guardsmen were holding out. Their rusted armor clanked and clattered as they awkwardly trudged across the barren earth and cracked pavement, their rebreathers making a steady sound somewhere between wheezing and gurgling. Disease-bearing flies buzzed around them, occasionally landing on exposed portions of their flesh and taking small bites.

“I miss the loyalist marines, they put up a much better fight than these pitiful guardsmen.” One of them said with a sickly voice.

“Yeah, shame we already killed the lot of ‘em.” Another said. “Then they put up that ward around the fortress so we couldn’t just walk through the weak lasfire barrages and smoke out the defenders like we always do.”

“Nurgle provides for his children, the guardsmen will join the rot soon enough.” Their commander said. “We need only be patient.”

“Hey…” one of the plague marines said. “Is that someone walking across no man’s land?”

The plague marines all looked across the scarred battlefield, and sure enough in the distance they could see a faint shape through the dense fog and noxious gas.

“That guardsman’s either brave or stupid. Either way, it’s target practice for us.” The commander said.

They opened fire with their rusted bolters, chaotic magic allowing the decrepit weapons to work like new. Yellow-white streaks flew across the air as the miniature self-propelled munitions hurtled towards their target. They each made a faint ‘thud’ sound as they exploded upon their target.

“Don’t see any more… maybe it was just a scout.” One of them said.

The smoke cleared, and to their shock the figure was still standing, and still approaching.

“You incompetent idiots, you missed!” The commander shouted. “Fire again!”

The plague marines continued firing, but the figure only seemed to get closer… and faster. As the shape got closer, the plague marines realized that it wasn’t an average guardsman. Namely, that it was about 3 times the size of an average guardsmen, had large horns, and was blocking their bolter rounds with the detached side of a Rhino APC.

“What in the Plaguefather’s… everyone switch to close quarters weapons immedia-!” The commander said, before being interrupted by a giant metal wall slamming into him, sending him flying until he splattered against a nearby wall. The remaining marines pulled out manreapers and plague knives, charging the hostile giant. Admu raised her shield and crushed two of them against the pavement, kicking another and severing his upper body from his lower in the process. She viciously stomped on the corpses until they showed no more signs of movement, continuing until even their involuntary twitching ceased. The commander, badly wounded but still moving thanks to Nurgle’s blessing, attempted to crawl away and seek reinforcements.

“This is commander Braxus of the 6th squad…” he said, speaking into his voxcaster. “We need reinforcements in sector 13… encountered an unknown, hostile daemon… I repeat, this is-” All anyone listening to the broadcast could hear after this was a sickening crunch, and then static.

Chapter 19

Chapter Text

All across the front line, weary guardsmen who had become used to constant chemical and biological weapons bombardment by Death Guard forces from beyond the fog and ruined buildings began to take notice of the sudden silence. One by one, it seemed that the enemy was being drawn back for some unknown purpose, leaving the battlefield eerily quiet. Rumors began to spread about the possibility of an imminent offensive or some other nefarious tactic, as none of them dared to hope that it could have been anything good.

On the other side of the front line, the Death Guard were being rapidly re-deployed to deal with an apparent breach in the defensive lines, something that should have been impossible. Information was sparse and slow to spread, all that the nearest squad commanders could determine was that a squad had been attacked and completely wiped out. This understandably warranted an immediate response, even for the typically slow and deliberate Death Guard. A division was sent to deal with the unexpected assault, replete with blightbringers and supported by a squad of terminators and a corrupted Chaos Predator tank. At their head was the Death Guard Lord Marbus, clad in corrupted Cataphractii terminator armor. When he had heard the reports, Marbus immediately assumed the Guard had mounted a final combined assault on a weak point in their front line, though how they had managed to assemble enough troops and vehicles without them noticing was strange to him. Regardless, if the Guard wished to dig their own graves, then he would happily oblige. Ordering his forces to take up positions in the wrecked city all around where the reported assault had taken place, Marbus prepared to attack the enemy flanks and encircle them before moving in with his terminators and tank support to finish off whatever was left. He would show these pitiful dogs of the Corpse Emperor the power of Lord Typhus’s 1st Plague Company.

The plague marines assigned to the flanks advanced slowly and deliberately, their plasma pistols, meltaguns, and bolters trained on the streets and ruined buildings of the city outskirts. Their rusted armor clanked and rattled, echoing throughout the empty streets. Toxic fog wafted through the air, shortening their field of vision. They were unafraid of the Guardsmen’s weapons, knowing that Nurgle’s blessing made them immune to pain and all but the most powerful of ordinance. Then, in the dense miasma a group of figures appeared, and the plague marines prepared to engage. However, just as they were about to fire their weapons, the other group of Death Guard assigned to the flank emerged from the mist in front of them.

“You… found no enemy forces?” Marbus said over his voxcaster.

“Indeed, we’ve encountered no resistance. We did find the remains of the 6th squad, though it doesn’t appear they were killed by guardsmen. All of them were killed by blunt force or physical mauling.” the marine on the other end of the voxcaster said.

Marbus clenched his armored gauntlet into a fist. Was he fighting ghosts? He breathed out toxic clouds from his diseased lungs in frustration and ordered his main force to advance. He was going to get to the bottom of this mess and destroy it with the full might of Nurgle’s blessed host. The terminators’ heavy armor combined with the stumbling gait brought on by Nurgle’s blessings created a cacophony of rusted metal and crushed pavement on top of the thunderous rumbling of the Predator following them. The lumbering tank was covered in bony protrusions and fleshy growths, evidence of the daemonic machine spirit which possessed it. Its large cannon swept across the battlefield in search of its next target, its treads whirring as its engine billowed toxic smoke. Marbus tightened the grip of his combi-bolter and unsheathed his blighted power sword, eyeing the empty windows of the buildings that had been emptied by their pestilent bombardments. He suddenly heard a loud crash and spun around to see a giant figure standing atop the crushed roof of their battle tank holding some kind of shield and what appeared to be the trunk of a dead tree. He immediately began firing at her, riddling the giant piece of reinforced ceramite she was using as a makeshift shield with bolter rounds. The others followed suit, causing her to take cover behind the wrecked predator. She reared up her right foot and kicked the ruined tank, sending it careening into their ranks. Marbus jumped out of the way, but a number of plague marines were flattened by the now-flaming wreck. Admu charged into the plague marines, swatting them with her improvised club like rot flies. Their bodies were mangled and crushed upon impact, doing considerable damage even to the incredibly durable bodies of the Death Guard.

What in Nurgle’s name? Marbus thought. Some kind of… daemonette? What’s going on here?

He raised his combi-bolter once again, this time catching Admu off-guard. The bolter rounds exploded upon contact, knocking her back and causing her to wince in pain. Shockingly, they seemed unable to penetrate her skin. Incensed, Admu charged at Marbus and swung the dead tree down at him. He raised his sword, slicing the makeshift club in half with ease and managing to strike Admu’s arm. The wound was superficial, barely managing to draw blood, but it was something. The plague marines meant to attack the flanks reached the main battle and joined the fray, peppering Admu with bolter rounds.

“Attack! Show the daemonette no mercy!” Marbus shouted, rallying his troops to push their advantage and slay the attacking daemon.

Admu ran behind the wrecked Predator to escape the barrage of fire. Marbus assumed it must have been mortally wounded and attempting to escape. The predator began to make a loud creaking sound accompanied by grunts of physical exertion, and to their shock it began rising into the air. Admu lifted the smoking chassis above her head, lobbing it through the air towards a grouping of plague marines. Upon crashing into the ground and crushing 3 of them, the fuel tank burst and ignited creating an immense fireball that consumed several plague marines surrounding it in burning promethium. Marbus and the squad of terminators charged towards her, firing plasma rounds and autocannons. Her improvised shield was beginning to take considerable damage, the force of the onslaught physically pushing her backwards into the wall of a multi-story hab-block. Marbus lunged forward with his power sword, slicing the giant metal slab in half and creating a small gash on Admu’s shin. She stumbled backwards, breaking through the plascrete wall and landing in a pile of rubble.

“The daemonette is weakened! Strike her down in the name of the Lord of Pestilence and Decay! For Nurgle!” he shouted, his bloodened power sword hoisted in the air.

Admu burst out of the rubble, her teeth clenched with murderous fury and her eyes burning with hatred. She turned to a huge load-bearing pillar next to her and dug her hands into it, growling and pulling against it with her prodigious strength. The reinforced plascrete cracked and groaned, before finally giving way as Admu yanked the titanic stone pillar from its foundations. Before Marbus even had time to react, she swung the massive column, striking Marbus and sending him flying across the wide city street into the opposing building. He jostled against pieces of debris that were pinning him down, struggling to his feet amidst the sound of battle outside. When he had finally emerged from the rubble, he saw Admu lifting one of the terminators up by his arm and slamming him into a wall. She stomped on another that was knocked to the ground but was interrupted by one of the terminators bludgeoning her leg with a large flail. She shouted in pain, grabbing the terminator by the helmet and tossing him across the battlefield like a ragdoll. Turning her attention back to the downed terminator, she slammed her fist into his chest plate repeatedly. While all this was going on, Marbus looked for his power sword which had slipped from his hand when he was struck. He saw it nestled in a pile of debris and began reaching for it before a giant boot slammed into his arm and pinned it to the ground. He looked up, seeing the enraged face of his attacker looking down upon him.

“How… how could you… poisoning the air… defiling the land… perverting life…” she said with gritted teeth, punctuated by deep, bestial breaths.

Marbus was taken aback for a moment, unsure what the daemonette was talking about.

“Poisoning… perverting…? We are bringing… new life to this barren galaxy! Our blessings bring… joy and salvation!” he said, struggling under the giant’s crushing weight. Admu’s face twisted in anger.

“Blessings!?” she said.

“The cure… for a dying galaxy… we bring the gift of everlasting life…! The blessing… of Nurgl-” before he could finish his sentence, Admu plunged Marbus’s power sword into his chest. He coughed up black and green bile through his respirator but continued to struggle. So Admu stabbed him again. And again. And again.

Lord Typhus stormed through the Death Guard’s encampment, gripping his Manreaper with furious intensity. He was at first annoyed to have been summoned away from his burgeoning garden of rot, but upon hearing the nature of his disturbance he was positively enraged. Somehow, a daemon of unknown origin and unknown affiliation had infiltrated his front line and managed to wipe out several squads of plague marines, a squad of terminators, and a predator tank in a matter of hours. They called up reinforcements from all sectors to stop the intruder’s assault, however so far even with heavy plagueburst mortar and artillery bombardments they had only managed to slow it down. It was tearing a bloody swathe through his forces, wasting valuable manpower that was meant to be used on the siege of the Imperial fortress. He had left a considerable number of forces in reserve onboard the Terminus Est, taking only as many divisions with him planet side as he thought necessary to break the dwindling Imperial Guard forces.

“Hail the Terminus Est, relay to them that we require reinforcements planet side.” Typhus ordered.

“We’re trying my lord, but the Terminus Est isn’t responding!” a plague marine said.

Typhus gripped his scythe even harder.

“What do you mean they aren’t responding!?” Typhus uttered through clenched, rotten teeth.

“It must be some kind of signal interference or technical malfunction…” the plague marine said.

Typhus took a deep breath of fetid air and released the toxic gasses from his decayed lungs. He restrained his anger and began to formulate a plan.

Which God could be behind this? No daemon of Chaos Undivided would dare interfere with an emissary of Nurgle like this. Is it Tzeentch? Slaanesh? Khorne? Typhus thought. It matters not, I will find a way to crush this interloper.

“We are the 1st Plague Company of the Death Guard Legion. We have ways of dealing with greater daemons, even ones as powerful as this.” Typhus said. “We’re accelerating the plan. Open all of the warp portals and begin seeding the rot gardens. Tell all of the front-line forces to pull back! The reports indicate that small arms are ineffective, but it is vulnerable to physical damage if dealt with sufficient strength. We’re going to lure this monster into the jaws of an even greater beast.” Typhus turned to his retinue. “It is time to awaken the siege breaker!”

Admu trudged through the plague-infested streets of what used to be a thriving city amidst the sound of artillery bombardments. She had taken to using the ruined buildings as cover, though their ordinance couldn’t do so much as slow her down. Every block she advanced, the more evidence of the Death Guard’s horrific actions she saw. Fledgling forests of fetid mold and rotting plants fed by the remains of countless civilians, mounds of the dead piled in filth-soaked pits full of writhing insects and other unspeakable things, bodies strung up on dead trees becoming overgrown with bile-dripping vines and creepers like some unholy offering to a cruel and sadistic god, everything she saw revolted her to her very core. If she were younger, less experienced, she might have been driven to tears by the horrific sights, found some hole to hide in and waited for someone to save her. But right now, she felt none of that. All she felt was a pure, boiling fury that filled her lungs with fire and soaked her bones in hatred. The anger was building up inside of her more and more, making it hard for her to think over the blinding, white-hot rage filling her mind. Just when she thought it was going to boil over, she saw someone standing in front of her.

He was a grotesque mockery of a space marine, bloated to unnatural size and surrounded by clouds of flesh-eating flies and putrid miasma that spewed from chitinous growths on his back. His armor was a pallid, sickly green, stained by filth and decay over millennia until it had become fused to his rotten flesh. Bony, horn-like protrusions and pus-leaking boils burst from underneath his ancient, rusted armor, constantly leaking greasy yellow-green discharge. He stared at her from behind the clouded visor of his horned helmet and planted the hilt of his great scythe on the ground. Admu glared at him with a ferocious, bestial expression.

This is the daemonette? Typhus thought. She is dressed like a peasant… what are you playing at, Slaanesh? Is this some kind of joke?

“I am impressed, daemonette.” Typhus said. “I am not sure what god sent you or why, but you have become a considerable thorn in my side.”

“Who are you supposed to be?” Admu said disdainfully.

Typhus restrained his anger. Such disrespect, even from a greater daemon, to the herald and champion of Nurgle himself was unforgivable.

“I know very well you know of me and my master’s claim on this world.” he said through gritted teeth. “But if you thought I would hand it over so easily, you are sorely mistaken.”

“So you’re responsible for this!?” Admu said, taking a step towards the chaos champion with murderous intent.

Just as she was about to reach towards Typhus, a colossal metal claw burst through the plascrete wall next to her and seized Admu’s head in its grip. The hulking metal frame of the Leviathan-pattern siege dreadnought crashed through the building with ease, slamming Admu to the ground with its berserker strength. With maddened ferocity it bashed her head against the ground over and over, dragging her face-first through rock and rubble before sending her head crashing straight through a wall. Inside the hollowed-out, sanity-deprived mind of the dreadnought’s pilot, the chittering of daemonically-possessed machine spirits reveled in the wanton violence. Admu struggled to stand, shakily grabbing hold of nearby rubble to try and steady herself. Her ears were deaf with ringing and the sound of rushing water, and it felt like everything around her was spinning. She raised a hand to her forehead, feeling a distinct wetness. She brought her wavering hand into view and through her unfocused, blurry eyes she could see it was dripping with bright-red blood. The heavy footsteps of the lumbering dreadnought pierced her ears until it loomed over her, its immense frame towering even over her 5 and half meter stature. She staggered to her feet; her legs still wobbly from the repeated blows to the head it had inflicted upon her. She tried to raise her fists in retaliation, but it caught her arms with its siege claws. She struggled against the dreadnought’s iron grip, not noticing the two glowing points in the middle of its torso that began to charge up. The twin-linked volkite calivers roared to life, their arcane internal mechanisms whirring with ancient killing intent. By the time Admu recognized the danger, it was too late. Four beams of blinding energy bore into her midsection, launching her backwards and sending her crashing through an entire hab-block. She writhed on the ground, clutching her stomach and screaming in agony. The dreadnought lumbered closer and closer. Clenching her teeth to mask the pain, Admu grabbed a nearby hunk of rubble and lobbed it at the dreadnought, the projectile smashing into its frontal armor and causing it to stagger backwards. Incensed, the giant machine reared its siege claw back and smacked Admu in the face with immense force, her head smashing into the ground as blood poured from her mouth. She spit the crimson fluid from her lips, trying to crawl away so she could clamber to her feet. Typhus circled her from afar, watching her brutal mauling with perverse jubilation.

“Hahaha! The terrible daemon, reduced to a crawling worm in the dirt!” he said. “I will make you bleed a thousandfold what you inflicted upon my men!”

She clawed at the earth, dragged backwards by the dreadnought gripping her right leg. It swung her into the side of a building, then into another, and then tossed her across the battlefield until she slammed into a large rock. She grabbed onto it, trying to pull herself to her feet, all while the Leviathan dreadnought plodded towards her like a lumbering beast cornering its prey. While the volkite calivers vented heat, it began charging up the meltaguns built into its arms while snapping its claws menacingly. It slammed its claws down on her, but she managed catch to them just before they could make contact. She tried to hold back the dreadnought’s immense strength with her own, but in her dazed, weakened state the dreadnought’s claws were slowly but surely bearing down on her. She could feel the glowing-hot cores of the meltaguns as their barrels got closer and closer to her face, mere inches from their firing cone.

“Foolish daemon!” Typhus cackled. “You think you can disrespect me and live? I am the Lord of the Death Guard’s 1st company! I am the Typhus the Traveler, honored son and chosen herald of the Great Plague God! This is the fate of all those who defy the Lord of Pestilence and Decay, the Great Corrupter, Plaguefather Nurgle!”

Admu’s eyes shot open, her face contorted into an expression of absolute rage. She growled with hatred, digging her fingers into the arms of the dreadnought. Deep within a mind long-since devoid of sanity, trapped in a metal sarcophagus, the dreadnought’s pilot felt the faintest pang of regret.

“Don’t… you… dare…” Admu said, pushing the dreadnought’s arms back. “Say… his… name!” She reared up her legs and kicked one of the dreadnought’s feet, causing it to buckle and lose balance. The meltaguns fired, missing their target. Admu reared her head backwards and gored the dreadnought with her horns, piercing its frontal armor and causing sparks to fly. It stumbled backwards, but Admu pounced forward and latched onto its arm. She dug her feet into the ground and poured her strength into her grip, her biceps and forearms contracting tightly. The dreadnought’s arm began to spark and spew bilious oil until the frame snapped and fell limp, hanging from sparking cables and severed metallic tendons. The dreadnought stumbled backwards, then swung its remaining siege claw at Admu’s head. In an instant, she ducked and tackled the dreadnought’s torso, wrapping her arms around its waist. She roared with exertion, and Typhus watched as Admu lifted the immense machine off of the ground. She hoisted it over her shoulder, slamming it down with a thunderous impact that caused the earth to shake and buckle all around them. The dreadnought floundered, attempting to get back to its feet, before Admu fell on top of it, straddling its armored torso. She slammed her fist into the heavy front armor, causing a slight dent. She punched it again, and again, and again, and again, repeatedly delivering earth-shaking blows to the fallen machine until finally the armor buckled and tore open a hole in its chest. Admu plunged her fist into the cavity, grabbing hold of its internal frame and dragging it towards a nearby building. She slammed it against the wall, causing it to buckle and crack. The dreadnought’s broken volkite calivers sparked helplessly as it tried to raise its remaining arm against its attacker. Admu backfisted the siege claw away, then plunged her other arm into the dreadnought’s chest cavity. She grabbed hold and poured all of her strength into her arms, clenching her teeth tighter than she ever had before and yelling in exertion. The muscles in her arms bulged and tightened, her labored grunts turning to screams as the dreadnought’s ultra-thick frontal armor rasped and creaked. The tear widened, wires split, cables snapped, plasteel buckled, ceramite cracked, jets of black and green fluid sprayed everywhere, until finally the entire upper half of the Leviathan dreadnought tore apart in an instant. Its interred pilot’s body was ripped in half, killing him instantly. The partially bisected dreadnought fell to its knees with its arms falling limp to its side and crashed face-first into the ground.

Admu, breathing heavy, feral breaths, her entire body covered in blood, bile, and oil, let out a bestial cry as she stood over her conquered prey.

Chapter 20

Chapter Text

Captain Anthrakinos and the entire bridge of the Terminus Est were all working at a fever pitch, the sprawling command structure singularly dedicated to stopping the rampage of the unknown invader that was currently tearing through the bow of their ship from starboard to port side. Squad after squad of plague marines sent to dispatch the intruder were felled within seconds of contact, causing the threat level to rise exponentially. Anthrakinos watched the live vid-streams from the ship’s security systems, the intruder seemingly appearing out of thin air and eviscerating the hapless traitor marines like little more than bothersome insects. Worse still, the intruder was moving beyond the lower decks and into the central column of the ship, which housed many of its vital systems, namely its shield generator, communications array, and most importantly the daemonically-possesed power generator at its core. If any of these systems were dama-

“The shield generator’s been destroyed!” One of the mutant crewmen shouted. “He’s headed towards the communications array!”

Anthrakinos’s heart sank. If any Imperial reinforcements appeared now, they would be defenseless against the Imperium’s long-range weaponry. With shaky hands, he authorized the deployment of their final reserve.


Leman wrenched his sword out of the chest of the Terminus Est’s last astropath, kicking the chaotically-mutated abomination to the ground. He still wasn’t quite sure where he was going, moving more on blind instinct than anything. He was causing as much mayhem as he could, sabotaging anything which looked even remotely important in his search for his lost companion. Taking out the shield generator probably wasn’t going to help him with that, but by Fenris, did it feel good. Now he had found himself in the heart of their communications array, butchering and smashing anything or anyone that got in his way and cutting off any contact they could have with their ground forces. Just as he was about to smash the long-range vox receptor however, he heard a voice coming through that gave him pause.

“Incoming… need reinforcements…” The voice relayed through heavy static. “unknown daemon… description… horns, 5.5 meters tall… has dispatched roughly… hundred plague marines…”

Leman’s eyes widened.

She must have landed on the planet, not the ship. He thought to himself, breathing a sigh of relief. Though, from the sound of what she was doing to the Death Guard planet side, he was not really the one that should have been worried. I have to find a way to escape the ship and reach the surface…

He searched the room, finding a large console with a projected map of the entire ship. He moved the projection with his finger, searching for a means of escape. He found a teleporter bay, though it was on the aft end of the ship, the far side of the vessel from his current location. Besides, he did not quite trust teleporters even when they weren’t being maintained by nurglite cultists. He panned to his current location in the diagram, and discovered a landing bay roughly 300 meters from his current location near the ship’s power generator. Frankly, he couldn’t remember the last time he had flown a voidcraft before… if ever… but he decided to cross that bridge when he came to it. Then, he felt a slight sensation on the back of his neck, as if the wind had just slightly shifted directions. He dodged away from the console, just as the giant blade of the Deathshroud’s scythe crashed into it and carved it in half. The hulking monstrosity that faced Leman stood face-to-face with him, even with the primarch’s elevated stature, an indication of its warp-enhanced physiology. Four more entered the communications room, surrounding Leman in a circle of bloated flesh and corroded metal. They scraped the floors and walls with their oversized daemonically-possessed scythes, breathing toxic gasses from beneath the hoods that covered their veiled, disfigured faces. Leman felt a trickle of electricity at his side, and noticed that his Starvore axe was crackling by its own volition. He gripped the axe’s handle and released it from its sling, raising his sword and axe into a pleasingly familiar combat stance. Suddenly, one of the Deathshroud charged at him with supernatural speed. Leman narrowly dodged the attack, expertly deflecting the scythe blade with his own black sword. He buried Starvore into the hulk’s chest, sending him flying backwards in a burst of emerald lightning. He then deflected the blows of two more Deathshrouds, kicking one of them back and plunging his sword into the other’s gut. The impaled Deathshroud clawed at his stomach as jets of flame began shooting out from underneath its bloated armor. Leman tore the blade out, leaving a wide gash of smoking, charred flesh in his wake. The wounded hulk recovered and leapt to his feet with unnatural agility, as the other two injured Deathshrouds recovered quickly as well, their seemingly mortal injuries not appearing to slow them down in the slightest. Leman grinned.

“This will be more entertaining than I had hoped.” he said, brandishing his weapons with eager anticipation.

Typhus stumbled through muddy streets amidst the sound of nearby bolter rounds and artillery fire. He had been forced to retreat with his forces back to their main camp after the… unexpected complication. Seeing a giant daemonette tear a Leviathan Siege Dreadnought was certainly not something he had anticipated. While as a space marine and a chaos champion Typhus was immune to the effects of fear, he was feeling a great deal of fear-adjacent emotions. Confusion, doubt, uncertainty, frustration… but most worryingly of all, he was feeling something that he should not have felt, that he hadn’t felt in millennia.


Deep in his abdomen, beneath the layers of corroded metal and corpusculent flesh, he could feel a dull, diffuse aching. It was too faint to determine the cause and it had little to no physical effect on him, but the mere fact that he could feel it was deeply troubling to him.

I don’t understand… Typhus thought. Nurgle’s blessing should have eradicated such blasphemous sensations centuries ago! Why do I feel this aching, this gnawing sensation deep inside of my gloriously rotten flesh? Then, a terrifying thought pierced his mind.

Has… has Nurgle forsaken me? Has he abandoned my flesh… and renounced his gifts? No, that is impossible! I am Typhus, the Herald of Nurgle, the one who brought the Death Guard into his embrace! This must be some kind of witchcraft or trickery, meant to challenge my faith! He steeled his resolve, putting his worries and growing sense of unease aside.

I will not give in to your temptations, witch! You may have defeated our dreadnought, but I am still the most powerful psyker in Nurgle’s service. Long ago I devised a way to banish daemons of rival gods, a potent countermeasure to the meddling forces of the other Chaotic powers. Its cost is great, and would mean sacrificing everything I have achieved on this planet so far… but I would rather begin anew from scratch than allow this planet to fall into the hands of another!

He summoned his personal Deathshroud bodyguards, and began to set up a final defense against the rampaging daemon while also making preparations for his final resort to banish the interloper once and for all. The sound of approaching bolter fire and artillery bombardments indicated she was getting closer, so Typhus had precious little time to spare. With his Deathshroud terminators guarding him, Typhus closed his eyes and began to make contact with the latent energy of the warp through his mind. Electricity ran through his spine and out of his fingertips, creating arcs of sickly green energy that spark from his body. He summoned the souls of all of the Death Guard’s victims upon this world, tapping into the vast network of mold, rot, and fetid plant-life which he had seeded all throughout the earth. The vast stores of warp-energy contained within them flowed up into him like a tree draining water from the soil. As a result, the vast gardens of rot and decay he had cultivated began to wither and die, hollowing out into desiccated husks until crumbling into inert dust. The power coursed through him, and he began to channel it towards his own ends.

Admu broke through the Death Guard’s final defense, holding the severed head of a blightlord terminator in her hand. Upon seeing Typhus and his retinue, she crushed the helmet into a ball of crumpled metal and shattered bone. The Deathshroud moved to engage her, moving swiftly in spite of their bloated bodies. While Admu battled Typhus’s bodyguards, he was casting his maleficent spell. His rotten lungs began to utter fowl chants and unholy prayers, calling upon the power of Nurgle and all of his daemons. The ground began to shift and writhe, as empyrean power was channeled through the warp portals behind him and into tendrils of daemonic life. The Deathshroud pulled away, and before Admu could retaliate a rotten, thorny vine shot out from the ground and wrapped around arm. She struggled against it, but another vine latched onto her other arm. They pulled her down, as if trying to drag her into the earth, but she resisted intensely. She was being fueled by nothing but raw hatred at this point, and she was determined not to stop until she had uprooted the evil from this world permanently, namely smashing the one-horned bastard standing in front of her. As she continued to struggle against the restraints, the ground around her shifted and gave way to giant, overlapping pads of red and green flesh covered in slimy pustules and lined with jagged teeth.

“Behold!” Typhus shouted, raising his Manreaper in the air like a shaman’s staff. “This is the flower of Nurgle! A rose of plague and rot, a corporeal manifestation of Nurgle’s power! I created this spell to entrap and suffocate rival daemons, cutting them off from the power of the patron gods! Without the connection to their masters, daemons will wither away and dissolve. This flower is a giant stomach, digesting daemonic beings into warp energy and feeding its power with theirs! Once it has wrapped itself around you, you will be nothing more than fertilizer for Nurgle’s glorious garden of rot!” Typhus cackled madly, relishing in his victory over the daemon which had caused him so much agony and frustration. The fleshy petals rose from the earth around Admu as she struggled and writhed against the plant tendrils, surrounding her like the walls of an infernal prison of viscera and vegetation. The light grew dim around her as they closed in until finally they snapped shut. The petals twisted further, constricting until they were locked in a contorted bulb of discolored flesh. Typhus stumbled, the exertion from channeling that much warp energy having drained him greatly. He held himself up with his scythe, gripping it with both hands to stay standing. The deathshroud and remaining plague marines lowered their weapons, feeling that the situation had finally been dealt with.

“At last… the daemonette is finished. Now, we can resume our great work.” Typhus said between labored, rasping breaths. “Make the preparations for the siege of the Imperial stronghold. We must re-establish contact with the Terminus Est so that we can replenish our n-”

Typhus stumbled as a tremor shook the earth beneath him.

“What was-”

Another tremor struck, stronger than before. Pieces of debris fell from nearby buildings, and many of the plague marines were shaken off balance. The miasma-ridden skies above them began to darken, as the pale haze of toxic gas was blotted out by thick black clouds, like plumes of oil spilling out across the horizon. The air was pierced by the sound of thunder, as fingers of lighting began to strike the earth at random. The tremors became increasingly intense, with some hab-blocks collapsing completely. The clouds began to swirl in an ominous vortex, the wind picking up and carrying clouds of dust with it. Typhus looked around in confusion, his eyes falling upon the previously inert putrid bloom he had cast only moments ago. It was writhing erratically, the tightened petals bulging outwards as if resisting some explosive force from within.

“No… that’s not possible…” Typhus muttered.

The earth began to split open, emanating a powerful green light that seemed to flow towards the flowery prison. Typhus felt the same flow of energy that he had when he first cast the spell to summon the bloom, as if energy from the surroundings were still being drawn towards the plant… or something inside of the plant. The petals of the plant bulged outwards, the flesh beginning to rip and tear. A bright light emanated from inside of it, growing in intensity until it became too much for the flower to contain. Typhus raised his arm to shield his eyes, and in an instant the bloom burst open with a brilliant eruption of warp-energy. The force of the shockwave knocked him backwards, sending him flying onto his back along with all the other plague marines and terminators in the vicinity. Entire buildings crumbled and were blown away by the blast. Tendrils of lightning carved up the earth, and clouds of dust dozens of meters high swept out in all directions. Typhus struggled to his feet, his clouded eyes widening with shock and horror as at what he saw. Where his rot-flower had once bloomed there was now an immense lotus with an array pink-white petals, all traces of rot or decay having completely vanished. At the center stood a monstrous creature, a bestial figure of sinewy muscle and savage might. Her face was obscured by abyssal shadow, revealing only a snarling maw of sharpened carnivorous fangs and two eyes of burning emerald, full of malice and atavistic ferocity. She was wreathed in a mane of orange-gold fire, stretching from her head to the long tail that floated in the air behind her. Atop her head were bolts of viridian lightning in the shape of horns, and stretching from her back were immense, iridescent sheets of translucent energy that unfurled like monstrous, ethereal wings. She snarled with a primeval rancor, then howled a harrowing cry that penetrated the air like a blade. Typhus and all of the other Death Guard clutched their heads in agony as their ears were eviscerated by the horrific sound.

“Don’t just… stand there… kill it!” Typhus shouted.

The Deathshroud charged the god-beast, as the other plague marines were too incapacitated to respond. Admu tore into them like a fox feasting upon shrews, shattering their power scythes and tearing their armor open with her claws. Typhus stumbled backwards in horror as his bodyguards were eviscerated one by one, an entire squadron of elite veteran terminators slaughtered like livestock. One remaining Deathshroud stood between the frenzied Admu and Typhus. She stared into the darkened hood of the terminator with her piercing, predator-like gaze, fresh blood still dripping from her claws. The Deathshroud stood motionless, then his hands began to shake imperceptibly. The elite terminator dropped his power scythe, turning and stumbling while trying to run away. Admu ignored him and locked eyes with Typhus, who raised his daemonically-possessed manreaper to block Admu’s claws. He struggled against her, his feet being pushed back into the mud and dirt as she overpowered him. The daemon inside of his power scythe, imbued within the weapon personally by Nurgle himself, began to reach out and try to curse its attacker with all the poison and biles of Nurgle’s cauldron. Tendrils of infection crept up Admu’s arms from where she gripped the scythe’s blade, and Typhus began to laugh. Then, Admu began to growl intensely, her eyes glowing brighter as she pushed back against him even harder. The infected tendrils retreated, and inside of his mind Typhus heard a piercing scream.

The daemon was screaming.

His scythe began to twist and morph as the daemon was tortured, the curved blade of the scythe straightening into that of a spear. All along the weapon’s pole, the corruption and rot disappeared giving way to roots and sprouting flowers. The encroaching plant growths reached Typhus’s hands and immediately began to sear his flesh with unimaginable pain. He shouted and let go of the weapon, which Admu now held in her hands without issue. She tossed the spear aside, causing it to plant itself in the dirt. The Deathshroud that had escaped Admu’s wrath took note of it.

Admu grabbed Typhus by the throat, lifting the disarmed chaos champion into the air as he clawed at her arm and kicked his legs helplessly. The remaining plague marines dared not move an inch, their rotten, fetid souls frozen with fear.

I am Tadmushtum. I am the daughter of Nurgle. You will not defile this world, nor any other. Your corruption ends here. Admu said, in a voice that pierced the minds and souls of all who heard it.

“Foolish… daemon…” Typhon struggled to say. “You.. cannot… kill me! I am… the Herald… of Nurgle… I will be… reborn!”

Admu’s bestial eyes narrowed.

I am not going to kill you. I am going to do something far worse.

Typhus felt something deep inside of him, a gnawing sensation that radiated outwards until it consumed his entire body. He began shouting in pain, crying out in agony as he truly felt the maggots that infested his bloated body, the worms eating away at his entrails, the flies burrowing into his skin. His howling lungs began to burn from the toxic air that filled them, and he began to vomit up the foul biles and fluids that filled his bloated stomach. He screamed and howled in anguish and torment as the corroded plates of his pallid armor rusted away, falling to the ground and breaking into tiny pieces. Chunks of dead skin and maggot-infested fat sloughed off from his corpusculent body, sizzling away into nothing as they fell to the ground. Every inch of his body screamed in pain as his muscles and ligaments tore apart and stitched back together, the heat searing him to his bone marrow. The Death Guard watched in horror as their lord, the champion of their god, second only to their primarch and Nurgle himself, landed on the ground with an unceremonious thud.

Lying in the dirt, surrounded by scraps of worn cloth and pieces of rusted metal, was a naked man with skin unmarked by blemishes or pustules. His breathing was shallow and rapid, his eyes stretched open in a terror his mind was simply unable to process. His pearly teeth were chattering, uttering mad ramblings underneath his breath.

The Death Guard began fleeing in a mad dash to the rapidly closing warp-portals, all of the latent warp-energy needed to keep them open having been thoroughly drained. Plague marines and blightbringers stumbled and scrambled over one another to escape.The final surviving Deathshroud turned to flee into the portal but hesitated, turning back for just a moment. He cast his gaze towards the cast-away spear, a relic of their legion’s most humiliating defeat in millennia, staring at it for a handful of seconds. He quickly grasped the hilt, the artifact searing his corrupted hands, yet he endured the pain and carried it with him through the warp portal just as it closed completely.

Admu stumbled from exhaustion, too tired to pursue the fleeing enemies. Her monstrous form wavered and began to revert as she struggled to stay conscious. She steadied herself against a nearby wall, her breathing heavy and ragged as every muscle in her body ached horribly. Her head was pounding and her ears ringing, every sensation like a blinding light in her mind… yet beneath it all, she felt a pang of relief.

She had finally won.

Anthrakinos shook uncontrollably, terror filling every diseased bone in his body. Not only had this intruder just defeated an entire squad of Deathshroud, he seemed to enjoy it. Worse yet, while they couldn’t re-establish communications with Typhus and his forces planet side, worrying information was coming from their sensor arrays. Chaotic corruption on the planet was dropping. Rapidly. He struggled to muster an explanation for this, any possibility besides faulty equipment despite the numerous subsequent tests confirming the previous observations. Yet even more worse was the fact that the intruder was now on the move, headed directly for the power generator, the most critical subsystem on the entire ship. Sweat poured down the pallid skin of his gaunt face, his sunken eyes locked in a expression of sheer terror. He consoled himself by thinking that things couldn’t possibly get wor-


Anthrakinos’s face went sheet-white. Dead ahead of them, through the viewing glass of the bridge, he could see a plume of electrified dust and warp energy pluming out of an open tear in the Immaterium. 5 gleaming vessels, like towering, gold-encrusted cathedrals hovering in the void, emerged from the turbulent clouds and immediately began banking towards them. Anthrakinos was struck deaf and dumb, his mind not even registering his surroundings has his subordinates begged him for orders. After a momentary pause, he finally spoke.

“Blow the 1st and 2nd vertebrae of the hull. Detach the prow, separating the intruder from the rest of the ship, and begin preparations for an emergency warp jump.” he said, his voice audibly shaking.

“S-sir are you mad?” a junior officer said, a grave accusation from a chaos worshipper. “You’re suggesting we blow apart a third of the ship and flee? What about Lord Ty-”

“Would you rather risk feeling the wrath of Lord Typhus or have your soul judged by Mortarian and Lord Nurgle upon death for losing their prized flagship!?” Anthrakinos shouted.

“A-aye sir.” the officer acceded.

Atop a jewel-encrusted throne on board the Emperor’s Righteousness, a Retribution-class Imperial battleship, sat an opulent figure clad in gilded metal armor and a flowing red cloak.

“Inquisitor, it appears that the shields of the Terminus Est are… disabled. Only its escorts have functional shielding, but it appears they can’t communicate with their flagship. Their communications must be down.” An Imperial officer said.

“The God-Emperor has blessed us on this day. Let us not waste it. Fire at will!” Inquisitor Guillaume said, as waves of torpedoes and laser batteries targeted the enemy ships.

The inquisitor had been worried about the fact that they were arriving earlier than expected to Leprus, as initial reports had suggested they would encounter heavy resistance. He intended to hide behind one of the planet’s moons, awaiting rendezvous with the Lord Inquisitor that was scheduled to arrive soon. However, it appeared that his worries were unfounded. Not only was the Terminus Est, the prized flagship of the enemy’s fleet, miraculously without shielding or communications, but initial scans of the planet indicated that the levels of chaotic corruption were far below initial estimates. In fact, the corruption levels were so low that some inquisitors may have even been suspicious. Guillaume, however, had too much faith in the God-Emperor to take such a blessing for granted. Ever since the opening of the Great Rift and Lord Guilliman’s miraculous resurrection, some of Guillaume’s colleagues had begun to soften on the idea of total information blackout of Chaos or daemonic activity, considering that for many worlds the existence of Chaos was now as apparent as the stars in the sky. Guillaume was not one of them. He considered the dire state of the galaxy to be, if anything, reason to clamp down even harder on potential heresy or chaotic corruption. These were dark times, and the only way to ensure that the faithful flock of the God-Emperor was safe and secure was rooting out any and all possible corruption, before it even took root. No measure was too great, no method too harsh. He would hunt down the enemies of the Imperium, transgressors against the God-Emperor, wherever they could be found.

“The Terminus Est is… it’s breaking apart, sire!” the Imperial officer said. “They’re activating their warp engines. They’re running for it!”

“Pursue them! Inflict as much damage as possible before that fetid abomination can escape our clutches.” Guillaume shouted excitedly. “It appears we will not need to wait for the lord inquisitor to arrive after all. These scans indicate that we may not even have to exterminatus the planet, in which case we will merely have to purge the remaining population to ensure no heretics remain. Then, the planet can be repopulated by loyal Imperial citizens free of the accursed stain of Chaos.” He turned to two masked stormtroopers standing behind him, awaiting his orders. “Prepare the Tempestus Scions! We will make our landing as soon as the heretics have fled.” Guillaume bore a toothy grin. Oh, how he relished his service to the God-Emperor.

Chapter 21

Chapter Text

Alarm klaxons blared as the flesh-infested walls of the Terminus Est buckled and groaned. A series of explosions rippled through the hull, nearly knocking Leman off of his feet.

It seems they've resorted to more drastic measures. Leman thought. I have to get to the hangar as soon as possible and escape this revolting junk heap.

Panicked cultists and mutants ran through the grime-encrusted corridors in disorganized mobs, which Leman cut down swiftly whenever he encountered them. The daemonically-possessed components of the ship seemed to writhe hysterically in response to their impending doom. Leman barreled down howling hallways of toothy maws and greasy pustules, slicing through doors and bulkheads with his weapons as he made his way towards the hangar. At last he burst through a wall and found himself in a large, empty room full of corrupted voidcraft. The nurglite crew were scrambling across the decks like rats fleeing a sinking ship, looking for anything which could allow them to escape their damned fate. The primarch scanned the room for a suitable vessel, his eyes landing upon a surprisingly welcome sight. It was a Stormbird assault lander, a massive and ancient voidcraft which had been used during the era of the Great Crusade, often as personal transports for the primarchs of their respective legions. It was predictably weathered by both time and the products of Nurgle’s chaotic corruption and was incapable of warp travel, but for the time being it would suit his needs. He carved through crowds of psychotic mutants and cultists jostling their way into the fleeing voidcrafts, scything them down like a hot blade through ice. He latched onto one of the emergency exits of the stormbird, wrenching it open and climbing inside.

After dispatching a handful of cultists who had made their way inside and sealing the entrances, he made his way to the cockpit which was luckily just large enough to accommodate his height. He flipped the necessary switches to activate the craft’s engines, remembering what little of piloting he had learned during his early days with the Vlka Fenryka, however he was then met with a sinister groaning that rocked through the ship. As he should have guessed, the ship’s machine spirits had long since been hollowed out and replaced by daemonic wraiths, who were clearly enraged and uncooperative at their new pilot. The console hissed and sparked maliciously at his touch, not allowing him to so much as get near the controls without threatening to short-circuit completely. As he wracked his mind trying to think of a solution, a familiar crackling shot up his left side. He looked down at his axe, which had begun to vibrate and arc with bright green electricity. He unsheathed the axe, which immediately flew out of his hand and embedded itself into the cockpit’s control systems. Rather than destroy it, the weapon sent tendrils of lightning shooting all throughout the Stormbird’s hull, burrowing into its wires and cables like a plant taking root in a patch of soil. The aircraft rocked and shook violently, the air filled with electronic screams and screeching until suddenly the shaking and screaming stopped. The aircraft’s thrusters engaged abruptly, nearly knocking Leman off of his feet. The voidcraft plowed through the mobs of mutated chaos-worshippers below, hurtling towards the closed void-shields of the hangar bay. Leman leaped into the pilot’s seat, locating the shuttle’s heavy weapons and blasting a gaping hole in the hangar door. The stormbird rocketed through the smoke and into the vacuum of space, taking crowds of the hapless cultists along with it.

Before he could breathe a sigh of relief, a huge projectile screamed past the Stormbird, striking the now-detached section of the Terminus Est and blowing off a large chunk of it. Leman swerved and banked to avoid the incoming fire, with assistance from the now-compliant machine spirits. The ship targeting them appeared to be Imperial in design, though with a markedly more gaudy and opulent appearance. Leman wasn’t sure whether he should be relieved or even more concerned than before.

“The Terminus Est is taking damage; however, its escort ships are moving in to try and block our fire while it attempts to escape.” A naval officer aboard the Emperor’s Righteousness said. “We shou-” The officer bent over and vomited, clutching his stomach and breathing heavily. “A-apologies sir, the Inquisition’s databanks did state that observing the Terminus Est directly for too long is likely to cause sickness.” the officer said, wiping vomit and sweat from his face.

“Assign double crews to the targeting equipment in case of any more… incidents.” Inquisitor Guillaume said. “...and someone please get the ensign here a towel to clean himself up with.”

Guillaume rubbed his sharp chin and pencil-thin mustache with his long, bony fingers, his angular brow and hawkish nose furrowed in a look of contemplation as he planned his next move. As much as he wished to take down the Terminus Est here and now, the ship was simply so massive that it was unlikely they would be able to disable it with the amount of firepower they currently had, even with the enemy’s shields disabled. Guillaume leaned to his left, looking into the computer console affixed to his throne. He pressed a button to open communications with the Tempestus Scions landing forces that were currently en-route to the planet’s surface.

“Commander Kodiak, have the scouts reached the planet’s surface?” the inquisitor said.

“Yes sir, they reported back a few minutes ago. No sign of the plague marines anywhere, looks like they up and left. Few patches of minor corruption but they appear to be dwindling fast. Liberal application of prometheum should hasten the process.” the commander said.

Guillaume leaned back into his seat with a pleased look.

“Excellent… what of the remaining populace? Have you encountered any resistance?” Guillaume said.

“It seems the surviving Imperial Guard regiments are based out of a heavily fortified city center to the north, it’s likely they’ve got the civilians held up there with them. Seems like the Death Guard never managed to break their defenses.” Kodiak said.

Guillaume bit his lip.

“This will make things a bit more difficult…” he said, fiddling with the jewel-encrusted rings on his bony fingers. “Ensign! Get me a direct broadcast to all local channels. Perhaps these guardsmen will listen to reason…”

Far below the bridge of the Emperor’s Righteousness, in a dim, hazy room lit by candlelight and filled with wafting clouds of incense, holy warriors were consecrating their equipment in preparation for their next assignment.

“Will we be joining the inquisitor planetside, Justicar Mattias?” Brother Nathaniel said, pressing a wax seal into the casing of his stormbolter.

“Judging by the most recent reports, daemonic activity on the planet appears to have ceased entirely. The inquisitor can do what he likes with the populace, but we are not here to fight partisans. One does not hunt rabbits with an autocannon.” Justicar Mattias said, sharpening the edge of his Nemesis force sword with a run-covered whetstone coated in holy oils. “However, we must remain on alert. The great enemy feeds upon complacency.”

“Understood, brother-justicar.” Nathaniel said.

Leman turned a myriad of knobs and dials on the stormbird’s voxcaster, attempting to find an open channel to determine if the approaching forces were imperial. With any luck, he would be able to link up with them and have them bring him to Fenris at last. He flipped through a number of low-power signals, and through the static he could hear chatter coming from the planet below. It was mostly barking orders interspersed with crude and highly colorful profanity, causing Leman to chuckle.

Imperial army grunts. Good to know the Imperium’s hammer is as blunt and rough as ever. He thought, a feeling of endearment swelling in his chest knowing humanity had not changed too much in his absence.

He heard them speaking about equipment shortages, supply depots, and general logistical jargon, however he also heard them sharing stories of a mysterious ‘saint’ that had appeared on the battlefield and single-handedly destroyed the attacking plague marines.

They must be referring to Admu… Leman thought, unsure how to feel about Admu’s first encounter with ordinary humans. At the very least they aren’t trying to kill her.

He continued flipping through the channels, until he landed upon a particularly powerful signal that appeared to be broadcasting from the large capital ship in orbit. Over the voxcaster, he could hear a rough and authoritative voice clear his throat, then address anyone who was listening.

“Citizens and defenders of the Imperial world of Leprus… I am Inquisitor Guillaume, lead of the 5th detachment of the Hansen subsector Imperial reclamation fleet.” he said.

Inquisitor…? Leman thought.

“Our faith in the God-Emperor has been tested in these dark times, our worlds beset by corruption and heresy. It is only through the divine will of the Emperor that this planet has been spared the fate of damnation, a fate shared by countless worlds that have succumbed to blasphemy and chaos in the wake of the Great Rift. But fear not! By the might of the God-Emperor, sent forth by his Avenging Son and Imperial Regent, Lord Commander Roboute Guilliman, your salvation is at hand.”

Leman’s face was frozen in an expression of shock.

“Your valiant effort in defending this world will not be forgotten, for its foundation will form the roots of a mighty and prosperous imperial colony. However, your exposure to the corruption you have so courageously fought has made your return… impermissible. If you submit peacefully, you will be administered the Emperor’s Peace in the most… ‘humane’ manner possible. Should you continue to resist, I will have no other choice but to declare you Excommunicate Traitoris… and unleash the full might of the Holy Orders of the Emperor’s Inquisition upon you. I trust that you will make the… sensible decision. As it is said in the holy texts of the Lectitio Divinitatus: Submit to the will of the one true God-Emperor… and thy salvation will be at hand!”

The line went silent. The chatter from the Guardsmen below fell silent as well. Leman sat in the cockpit of the Stormbird, his shaky hand stuck to the dial of the voxcaster as the low hum of background static played from its speakers. His jaw was clenched, and the muscles in his neck were strained tight.

No. He thought. It’s… it’s not possible.

Every word that spewed from the inquisitor’s vile mouth was like a knife stuck into Leman’s back. The fanatic zealousness with which he glorified the Emperor as a god… going against all that his father had believed, all that he still believed… twisting his father’s vision using the writings of a traitor who turned his back on Leman and his father, who embraced the Ruinous Powers and led half of his brothers into damnation and plunged the galaxy into darkness… the way in which he used this twisted faith to justify slaughtering loyal soldiers of the Imperium on naught but mere superstition… and quite possibly the worst of all, the fact that his brother, Roboute Guilliman, the most rational and sensible of all of his brothers was not just alive… but he was complicit in this madness.

It was too much for him to bear. Sweat dripped from his face and his breathing was heavy, as if his body was physically rejecting the horrific reality he was being faced with. His mind sunk into the darkest recesses of his memory.

Is this… all just an illusion? An elaborate torture labyrinth devised by the Ruinous Powers to break me? Has anything up until now even been truly real? He thought.

While Leman was in the throes of an existential crisis, an alert began to blink on the craft’s radar. Two small dots approached from the left and right, converging behind him in an attack formation. As the two dots got closer and closer, closing the several kilometer distance in a matter of minutes, the alert grew louder and louder until it pierced through Leman’s mental anguish. In the instant his mind finally returned to reality, a single thought shot through his mind:

“Admu!” he shouted. She was still on the planet, and judging by the words of the inquisitor, in grave danger. Before he had time to contemplate further, a bright red beam grazed the right wing of the stormbird. A missile alert blared as the two fury interceptors on his tail began to target him. Leman attempted to contact them with the voxcaster, however soon realized that while the receiver was functional, the transmitter was not.

Damn this whole sector to Morkai! He thought.

He gripped the controls of the stormbird and banked hard to the right, just barely avoiding a missile that shot off in the other direction and burst into a halo of fire and plasma.

Admu awoke with a start, lifting herself out of the dirt and breathing heavily. She winced as she immediately felt the soreness all throughout her body again, particularly her mid-section where the dreadnought had given her some kind of nasty burn.

I must have been more tired than I thought… enough to fall asleep without even realizing it. she thought.

She wiped the grime and blood from her face and trudged through the ruins left by her rampage. Her mind, too tired to have racing thoughts, was merely dwelling on what she had witnessed… and done. She knew from what Leman had told her that the… ‘things’ she had killed were evil, and once she had seen it for herself there was no doubt in her mind. It was merely the brutality of it, the scale of such cruelty… was this all the galaxy had to offer? Why was Leman so eager to return here if it was so miserable?

Because he… we can make it better. She reassured herself.

She didn’t want to dwell on the thought of just how many lives it would take to accomplish that.

I’m a newcomer here… just like Leman was back home. I shouldn’t make any more hasty decisions before I find Mister Russ again. She thought.

The last thing she wanted was to cause even more problems for him. Then her mind returned to the little guardsmen she had first met when she first arrived here.

To think they were enduring this sort of thing before I even got here… humans are really incredible. She thought.

Then in the distance she heard a loud boom rumbling through the earth. Her eyes widened and her heart sank as she wondered if any of the plague marines might have survived and continued their attack on the poor guardsmen. She pushed aside the fatigue burning all throughout her body, readying herself for yet more fighting. She snuck through the ruined buildings and hab-blocks, hiding from the strafing valkyries flying above that were unloading streams of bullets onto unseen targets. Anti-air batteries cut through the air, occasionally striking one of the aircraft. The sound of artillery and heavy weapons fire grew louder as Admu approached the city-turned-fortress that the Imperial Guard and the few remaining citizens had been holding out in. She trudged through the dust-choked, crater-filled no man’s land, the heavy clouds hiding her approach. The dust clouds dissipated, and soon Admu could see the outline of the towering hab-blocks and spires of the fortified city emerging from the haze. When the dust cleared completely, she was shocked by what she saw.

The haze was not, as she had first assumed, dust blown from the barren earth or the faint residue of chemical bombardments. It was a layer of smoke, hanging in the air like a black gauze. Small fires and embers burned everywhere, black soot and white ash covering the earth beneath the blackened remains of houses and buildings. She walked slowly through the haunting ruins which had not been here when she first arrived. Hundreds of smoldering pyres bearing the charred corpses of guardsmen and unarmed civilians lined the streets, the contorted figures’ flesh branded with the sign of an “I”. Her eyes widened and her heart raced. She thought she had seen the worst that this world had to offer when she tore through the vile ranks of the Death Guard, but now she felt as though she had just stepped out of one hell and into another. She balled her hands into fists, her arms shaking as she clenched her teeth tight in anguish. Her physical appearance wavered, the faint image of her savage avatar flickering in and out of realspace as her rage threatened to overcome her once again. Before she lost control, she heard rustling coming from behind her. Admu spun around, scanning the burnt ruins for the source of the noise with a savage look. She saw movement in one of the burnt buildings, charred beams and heaps of slag shifting and moving as if something were underneath. A large burnt metal sheet flipped over, revealing a small guardsman with a lasgun slung to his shoulder crawling out of a hole in the earth. He looked at Admu with a startled expression.

“Admu?” Colonel Ramirez said.

Inquisitor Guillaume was not an experienced military commander. He was initially meant to lead only a detachment of a much larger force which was yet to arrive, a fully-fledged Imperial reclamation fleet sent by Lord Guilliman himself as a part of the ongoing Indomitus Crusade. However, having caught the infamous Terminus Est virtually defenseless along with the Death Guard’s best troops nowhere to be seen, Guillaume had become convinced that the God-Emperor himself had handed him this victory. The world of Leprus was a throne-sent gift to him, a reward for his unwavering faith and unquenchable zealotry.

As such, he predicted the pacification of the remaining populace, alive but no doubt tainted beyond salvation, to go just as easily. It was true that the Imperial Guard and the remaining civilians had endured hellish conditions for months, surviving on the barest of supplies and holding out against a seemingly insurmountable foe, their only salvation being the hope that when they die their souls would not be consumed by their demonic assailants. Had this been the state of the survivors when the inquisitor broadcasted his demands for the remaining defenders on the planet to submit to the Emperor’s will, perhaps they would have even accepted his offer simply to end their suffering.

However, this was not the state of the Imperial Guardsmen on Leprus. The roughly 50 thousand guardsmen remaining on the planet, survivors of a force of over 10 million, had endured much in the past months. Their command structure had all but completely deteriorated, forcing them to construct an ad-hoc, decentralized network of communication that allowed them to preserve some semblance of organization in their defense of the fortified fortress-city. Had any officers of a significant rank actually remained, they would likely have been horrified by the idea of rank-and-file guardsmen communicating directly with one another without restriction on the grounds that it would create a dangerous breeding ground for dissent or even heresy. Luckily, all of them had already been killed or simply fled. It was through this network that, when the guns of the Death Guard mysteriously fell silent, rumors began to spread. Rumors of a mysterious, saintly figure that had appeared on the planet.

The information percolated through the guardsmen in piecemeal, with only a handful of them having actually seen this “Saint Admus” as the garbled communications had agreed upon calling her. According to them, she had appeared as a giant clad in white, surrounded by an aura of light that denoted her as a servant of the Emperor. She then strode across the battlefield, walking through no man’s land without hesitation, and descending upon the attacking chaos forces. From there the reports were even more scattered, with artillery spotters and long-range scouts reporting that they saw the living saint survive artillery blasts, throw terminators like krakk grenades, and decimate the plague marines one by one. One artilleryman even reported that he “Saw ‘er tear a bloody dreadnought in ‘alf with ‘er bare ‘ands.” While many didn’t quite believe that particular story, it was clear to them that the Death Guard had been sent running. The sight of the dreaded Terminus Est, having loomed over their heads for months now, miraculously breaking apart and fleeing, only proved to them beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had been rescued from certain damnation by the God-Emperor himself.

As such, when Inquisitor Guillaume made his broadcast demanding the Imperial Guardsmen stand down and submit to certain death, they responded with a defiant silence. The Emperor had blessed them with a living saint, saving the lives of every man, woman, and child left on the planet, and they weren’t going to let some power-tripping inquisitor deny them that salvation. As far as they were concerned, he was the heretic, not them. Rallying behind the name of Saint Admus, the guardsmen were prepared to make the Inquisition's forces bleed for every inch of the city they intended to take, fighting to the last to preserve their miracle. The fortified city contained most of the munitions left on the planet, sporting a dense network of anti-air, anti-armor, and anti-personnel defenses. Gun emplacements lined the streets, networks of tunnels were dug beneath the earth, and the guardsmen had developed a robust and flexible method of avoiding enemy fire by dispersing their troops and supplies as well as keeping them mobile across the front through the underground networks.

In short, when inquisitor Guillaume ordered the Tempestus Scions to attack the city, he was sending them into a heavily fortified meat grinder. They had managed to catch many of the guardsmen on the outskirts of the city off-guard, savagely dragging them into the streets alongside a handful of civilians who didn’t manage to flee in time and torching them with promethium flamers. They had hoped this savage display would intimidate the remaining guardsmen into losing their nerve. It didn’t. Instead, the Tempestus Scions were forced to begin attacking the city itself, advancing with heavily armored Tauroxes and supported by Valkyrie air support. They met stiff resistance, barely managing to penetrate the outskirts of the city before being forced to retreat and re-group. These unrenowned guardsmen from backwater worlds of the Imperium were going to force the elite forces of the Tempestus Scions to earn their victory.

Inquisitor Guillaume stepped out of the landed Valkyrie and onto the surface of Leprus, escorted through the Scions’ encampment by his personal guard. His red cloak billowed in the wind created by the landing craft’s vertical engines, and he tightened his leather gloves as he walked. His bony face was contorted into a frustrated and confused scowl, as he paced through the makeshift headquarters. He entered the Scion’s command center, finding their commander barking orders through a complex network of voxcasters.

“Commander Kodiak.” Inquisitor Guillaume said.

“Yes, inquisitor sir?” Kodiak said with a salute.

“The guardsmen are… resisting?” he said, with equal amounts of disdain and disappointment.

“Yes, sir. We’ve picked up some of their communications and they seem to be rallying behind some kind of self-professed saint named ‘Admus’. Says she was the one who killed all the Death Guard.” Kodiak said.

“Hmmm…. no doubt some heretic that’s corrupted them all into worshiping the Ruinous Powers. They must be put down at once before their heresy takes root!” he said, spittle flying from his mouth.

“The Emperor’s Righteousness has more than enough firepower to flatten their defenses to rubble from orbit. It would be far less costly than a frontal assaul-”

“Are you mad, commander!? The God-Emperor presented us this city and delivered it from the hands of those foul traitor marines. It is practically a holy relic! Those heretical guardsmen are squatting on holy ground, defiling it with their blasphemy. I want that city taken intact, no matter how many men it takes!” Guillaume said.

“...Affirmative, sir.” Kodiak said, with a hint of resignation.

Chapter 22

Chapter Text

The rebellious guardsmen’s defenses were strong, with every street of the fortified city rendered into a killzone by heavy gun emplacements, barricades, anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, snipers, and robust supply lines to utilize their dwindling supplies most effectively. Above all, the guardsmen were motivated by a belief that their cause was supported by none other than the God-Emperor himself. However, no amount of fortifications or religious zeal could hold out against the sheer skill and firepower of the elite Tempestus Scions forever. The 10,000 strong inquisitorial forces slowly but surely ate away at the outer blocks of the city, methodically storming and clearing each building and street one by one. Even when given a seemingly impossible task, the Tempestus Scions would find a way to deliver results. For the guardsmen and civilians in the city, time was running out.

Corporal Ramirez led Admu through the dense fortifications at the heart of the city, a web of canopies, barricades, and underground passages that resembled an ant hive more than an urban settlement. She had vanished her horns when entering the city in an attempt to appear a bit less conspicuous, at least for the time being, however most all who saw her immediately recognized her. Guardsmen and civilians murmured and whispered to each other, their expressions a mixture of unease and awe. Some, namely the ones who were most skeptical of the rumors, simply stared in disbelief while the more fervent believers clutched makeshift icons and muttered prayers beneath their breath. Admu was beginning to feel uncomfortable by all the people staring at her, so she simply kept her head down and followed Ramirez.

“You’re pretty popular around here, if you haven't already noticed.” Ramirez said. “We all heard what you did to the Death Guard.”

“Y-you did?” Admu said nervously.

“Yep, you really did a number on those rotten bastards. To be honest, when we first met, I was about 50% sure you were just gonna eat us, but I’m more than happy to have been proven wrong.” Ramirez said.

They passed crowds of starving and injured civilians, huddled figures gathered together to conserve warmth. Admu looked down at them with a soft pity, her heart aching at the sight of their suffering. A young boy, wrapped in his mother’s embrace, looked up at her and his eyes widened. Admu, hoping to comfort the poor boy, smiled warmly towards him. The boy excitedly tugged at his mother’s shawl, who gaped at Admu with a look of astonishment.

“Come on, I’ve got somebody who’d like to see you.” Ramirez said.

He led Admu into the heart of a former Administratum building, with piles of chairs and filing cabinets haphazardly thrown into heaps at the edges of the room to make way for military and communications equipment. At the center of the room was a table covered in a makeshift map of the city, complete with miniature representations of friendly units and assets as well as the approximate positions of enemy forces. A group of mid-ranking officers - the last semblance of a commanding authority left in the city - stood over the map-table and bickered over strategy and logistics. At the head of the ad-hoc command was a familiar face to Admu, and she lit up when she saw it. Sergeant Kelly looked over at Ramirez and Admu with a surprised expression and excused herself from the bickering officers.

“Well, if it isn’t the Adamantium Lady herself.” Kelly said.

“Do… do they really call me that?” Admu said, laughing and blushing at the same time.

“Oh, they got all kinds of names for you, most of which I’ll not repeat out of a sense of decency. Though all that really matters is that thanks to you they’re alive.” Kelly said. “That is, until the Inquisition arrived.”

“Inquisition?” Admu said. “Are they the ones who did those… horrible things on the outskirts of the city?”

“You saw that, huh? Yeah, pretty gruesome handiwork; terror is the Inquisition’s calling card.

They get a carte blanche to commit whatever atrocities they like on ordinary citizens in the name of the Emperor.” Kelly said.

“The… the Emperor?” Admu said, recognizing the title of Leman’s father. “He… he would order something like that?”

“Well personally I think they’re full of shit, and we’ve got a living saint to prove it.” Kelly said, gesturing towards her. “However, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to change his mind… and even if we can hold out for much longer, there’s assuredly more reinforcements on the way.”

“What are you going to do?” Admu said.

“We’re buying time while we refuel all the transports we have. There’s a derelict freighter in orbit that was abandoned during the siege. It was meant to deliver fuel and supplies, meaning that if we can seize it and evacuate everyone it can be our ticket off this shitty planet. There’re enough civilian crewmen from the merchant fleet stuck here with us to man a full crew, and we even managed to luck out and find a navigator held up in some penthouse just up the street. Three-eyed bastard is creepy as hell, but he’s just as grateful to you as we are so he shouldn’t cause too much trouble.” Kelly said.

“Won’t the inquisitor’s guns shoot at you?” Admu said, applying what little knowledge she had picked up of 41st millennium warfare in her time here.

“Right now, that inquisitor’s battleship is firing everything it has on that big stinking hunk of scrap those plague marines came here on. If we can get past those valkyries overhead and make it to orbit before the Terminus Est flees into the warp, it’ll be a clean shot to the freighter.” Kelly said. “After that… well, some of the merchant folk say there’s a thin gap in the Rift we can use to escape to the other side, though it’s a treacherous run. Seeing as we’ve been branded as traitors by this side of the Imperium, I don’t see any other options than to take the risk and go dark in Imperium Nihilis. Not like there’s anything left on this planet to keep us here anyway. Unfortunately… all this only works if enough of us stay behind to guard the transports. I’ve volunteered along wi-”

“No!” Admu shouted. “I can’t let you just-”

She was interrupted by the sound of heavy gunfire and rotary engines outside, punctuated by panicked screaming.

“Damnit, one of them must have snuck past the air defenses!” Kelly shouted, grabbing a lasrifle and running outside with Admu following close behind.

Admu covered her face as the vertical engines of the valkyrie hanging in the air outside blew dust and debris from the streets below, hovering in the air like a giant metal dragonfly. Two squads of Tempestors had disembarked from the aircraft, taking cover behind vehicle barricades and exchanging fire with the local garrison.

“Duck!” Kelly shouted.

The valkyrie, having spotted Admu and Kelly, and unleashed a barrage of heavy bolter fire that peppered the walls behind them with a line of dense bullet holes. The hovering aircraft weaved in between the buildings expertly, avoiding the anti-air defenses above while the disembarked stormtroopers pinned down the guardsmen below. The masked tempestors quickly overwhelmed the guardsmen who were equal in number but vastly outmatched. Crowds of panicked civilians rushed to find safety, ducking and fleeing from stray lasgun fire. Admu looked around, noticing that the mother and son she had seen earlier were among them. They were trying to find refuge in the nearby shelters when she noticed one of the stormtroopers had managed to break through the guardsmen’s hastily gathered defenses. The red eyes of his visor glowed through the dust-choked air, and he raised a long-barreled weapon connected to a large canister on his back. Small jets of flame emanated from the weapon’s muzzle, increasing in size gradually before it erupted in a massive plume of fire. The mother held her son tight and braced for certain death, however the fire never reached them. A giant shadow stood between them and the stream of burning promethium, her face contorted in pain and anger. The stormtrooper lowered his flamer, then dropped it on the ground in shock as the towering giant loomed over him. Admu glared at him with a fiery rage even as the prometheum still burned on her back. She grabbed the tempestor and threw him across the street, slamming into a barricade and exploding into a sea of flame as the prometheum tank on his back caught fire. Admu picked up 6-foot-tall spiked road block and charged through the unprepared Tempestors’ lines. The valkyrie strafed through the narrow streets and unloaded its multi-lasers on her. They burned her skin, although rather than harming her all it had really accomplished was enraging her further. She hurled the vehicle spike at the valkyrie, the massive hunk of metal smashing into the cockpit and sending the aircraft careening into the side of a hab-bloc. The valkyrie exploded in a hail of flaming debris, leaving only the twisted burning airframe embedded in the building.

Admu’s breathing was heavy and erratic. She was surrounded by an unnerving aura that seemed to ripple the air around her. Her horns slowly burned into existence, reflecting the simmering rage that boiled inside of her. The burning prometheum still stuck to her back was subsumed by the fire growing from her flowing blonde hair, intensifying into an orange-gold conflagration. Her piercing emerald eyes seemed to faintly cover her darkened face and bared teeth in a verdant glow.

“Uh… Admu?” Kelly said, cautiously approaching the giant.

Get everyone to the transports. Leave the inquisitor to me. She said, as a deep growl seemed to ripple through the ground beneath them.

Admu took off down the city streets towards the Tempestors’ base camp, kicking up chunks of asphalt in the process.

“Hey, Sarge… you still sure about that whole “living saint” thing?” Ramirez said.

“Too late to switch horses now, Corporal.” Kelly said, before turning to the frozen crowd of guardsmen and civilians. “You heard the saint, everybody assemble in the hangars! Order all the frontline troops to begin falling back and prepare to evacuate!” She shouted.

“.... what the hell is a horse?” Ramirez said.

A Tempestus Scion stormtrooper carefully stepped through a large hole in the wall created by controlled demolition, his hellgun raised to bear. As a way to avoid the mines and heavy bolter emplacements that lined the city streets, the tempestors had begun to simply bypass them by creating routes through the buildings themselves. It was a slow and methodical process, trying to break down the rebels’ defenses as much as possible while preserving the city’s infrastructure as best they could. They had become adept at clearing the buildings one by one, and slowly the casualty ratios were beginning to shift in their favor as the guardsmens’ defensive advantage was gradually nullified. It seemed that the guardsmen had realized this, as all across the front there were reports of fewer and fewer defenders, as if they were all retreating to deeper within the city. This certainly made the stormtroopers’ jobs easier, however they still had to clear every building, street, and underground supply tunnel one by one. The tempestor kicked a dilapidated door off of its hinges, scanning the last room in the building for any sign of resistance. After seeing and hearing nothing but empty rooms and silence, he lowered his weapon and prepared to do the same routine in the next building. Suddenly, he heard an explosion outside. He thought it could have been an accidental landmine activation, however the sound of hellgun shots immediately following the blast dispelled that notion. He rushed down the stairs and onto the ground floor, just in time to see a Taurox crash through the wall just in front of him. He stumbled and fell several feet onto the floor, struggling on the ground before slowly rising to his feet. He peaked around the corner and through the newly created hole in the wall, beholding a scene of utter destruction. The burning wrecks of troop carriers and light tanks were overturned and rent open, while pieces of sentinel scout walkers lay torn apart and strewn across the streets. Dead stormtroopers littered the ground, some torn apart by what appeared to be massive bullet holes. The stormtrooper cautiously stepped out of the building, scanning his surroundings with the muzzle of his hellgun. Suddenly a massive shape landed in the middle of the street a few yards ahead of him, fracturing and buckling the pavement on impact. It was an immense humanoid creature with bestial features, surrounded by a veil of shadow that seemed to obscure her true shape. She was wreathed in orange flame and was crowned with burning horns, like a fay god from the nightmares of some superstitious feral human colony. In her right hand she wielded an immense static anti-aircraft gun that seemed to have been torn from its base, its barrels still smoking. The giant rose to full stature, and the stormtrooper trained his sights on her. He tried to keep the gun steady in spite of his nervousness, spending several seconds getting a bead on his target. Just as he was building up the nerve to shoot, he was interrupted by a valkyrie performing a strafing run from overhead. He ducked behind cover and watched as the giant turned the valkyrie into a plummeting fireball with the AA gun. The giant turned around and continued her path of destruction, away from the city center.

Inquisitor Guillaume lifted a cup of tea to his lip, sipping the steaming liquid with an anxious expression. He was hoping to enjoy his drink when the planet had been fully taken, but he had become impatient and broke open the supply to calm his nerves. He tapped his foot nervously, awaiting more news from the Tempestus Scion forces in the city.

“Commander, go ask them if they’ve made any progress.” Guillaume said.

“Aye, sir.” Kodiak said, somewhat annoyed.

His grizzled face remained unemotional, and his short white hair and heavily scarred face made him seem almost like a worn statue. He placed his beret atop his head and walked to the communications room, where the comms team was moving frantically and shouting over the voxcasters.

“What the hell is going on!?” Kodiak shouted.

“I-I’m not sure, commander…” one of the panicked officers said. “We’re getting frantic reports from all across the fr-”

“Give me that!” Kodiak said, grabbing the receiver of the voxcaster from the shaken intelligence officer. He raised it to his ear and listened to the reports coming in from the front.

“-I repeat, mayday mayday! Unidentified adversary spotted in the northwest district, we’re taking heavy losses-“ The line was interrupted by static for a moment “-not sure how much longer we can-“ the commander heard screaming in the background, followed by unintelligible shouting and a loud crashing sound before the line went dead. He switched to another channel.

“-3 valkyries, 5 tauroxes, and 2 scout walkers destroyed, can’t identify the enemy - oh shit, it’s on top of the building! Shoot at it! Open fire!” the sound of lasgun fire rang out over the speaker, followed by the sound of asphalt breaking. “Emperor, protect us! It’s a fucking daemo-” the line went silent.

Commander Kodiak bore a deathly serious expression on his face, dropping the receiver and rushing out of the room towards the inquisitor.

“Inquisitor! We have a serious problem!” The commander shouted.

“What could it possibly be now-” The inquisitor was halted by the wreckage of a flaming taurox crashing into the ground between him and Commander Kodiak. He looked towards the direction the vehicle had been thrown and saw a towering giant dragging the wreckage of an imperial scout walker by the leg.

You. she said, pointing towards the inquisitor.

His face immediately went white, and his entire body began to shake. The tempestors opened fire, peppering her with lasfire as she tore into them, swinging the severed walker leg like a flail. The lasguns were slowly but surely beginning to accumulate damage on Admu’s skin, with each shot feeling less like a thorn and more like a shallow cut. She was losing patience and wanted to end this quickly. Admu carved through the stormtroopers, charging directly towards the now-fleeing inquisitor. A krak missile abruptly struck her in the face, halting her momentum and causing her to stumble to the side. She wiped the blast residue from her eyes, her face still stinging with pain. She turned to see Commander Kodiak holding a missile launcher, loading another krak missile to attempt another shot. She furiously charged at him, grabbing the stormtrooper commander tightly. He struggled against her in futility, unable to escape her iron grasp. She stared at the man with an enraged snarl, her burning emerald eyes and bared teeth glowering with contempt. The man simply stared back with a stony expression of defiance before spitting in her face as there was nothing else he could do. Her rage burned all through her body, and she squeezed the man tighter and tighter until he started to grimace in pain. She wanted to make him suffer, to hear him cry out in pain, to tear into his flesh and consu-

No. she thought. I can’t… I can’t let my emotions control me.

She huffed in frustration, loosening her grip and causing the man to gasp desperately for air. Her face twisted in anger, and she tossed the commander aside. He rolled across the ground before coming to an abrupt halt, writhing in pain and incapacitated but alive. Admu breathed deeply, trying to bring herself under control. She looked around, spotting the inquisitor several yards away. He was dragging a tempestor out of the driver’s seat of a taurox, tossing him on the ground and quickly igniting the engine. He floored the troop carrier, and the spinning wheels kicked up clouds of dust as he peeled out of the camp. Inquisitor Guillaume drove as fast as he could, barreling down ruined streets and weaving through wrecked buildings in an attempt to lose his pursuer. After several minutes of evasive driving, he reached an open road. He scanned his surroundings for his daemonic assailant, and after seeing nothing he breathed a sigh of relief. Then Admu crashed through the roof of the Taurox, collapsing its metal frame and sending the inquisitor flying through the windshield. Luckily, he was equipped with a rosarius power shield that guarded him from limited, low-energy impacts though it would not protect him indefinitely. The Inquisitor groaned and rubbed his head, quickly realizing the danger he was in when he spotted the hulking figure poised on top of the crushed taurox. Admu stepped off of the wreckage, making slow, plodding strides towards the panic-stricken inquisitor. He scrambled on his arms and legs, crawling until he was backed up against a wall with nowhere else to run. Admu towered over the shaken inquisitor, staring down at him with her piercing, bestial gaze. A low growl rumbled through the air, shaking the inquisitor to his bones.

Call off your men and leave this planet. She said.

The inquisitor seemed taken aback, unable to process what she was saying.

“D-do not try and tempt me, fowl daemon! I am a servant of the Emperor’s most holy Inquisition! I am the executor of his will!”

It wasn’t a request. She said, closing in on the inquisitor like a wolf cornering its prey.

Just as she was about to reach out and grab him, she was forced back by a burst of blinding light. She stumbled backwards, shielding her eyes from the radiant pillar of energy between her and the inquisitor. 4 more pillars of light appeared all around her, the air crackling and sizzling wherever it touched them.

Out of the pillar of light emerged a shining blade affixed to a long polearm, wielded by a warrior in gleaming silver armor. The grey knight justicar stepped out of the teleportation beam, his weapons drawn and readied. The 4 pillars around Admu faded away to reveal more grey knights, each armed with anti-daemonic weaponry and expertly trained to combat the denizens of the warp.

“Apologies for the wait, inquisitor. Are you unharmed?” Justicar Mattius said.

“Y-yes, I am fine. Just… just destroy it! Kill the daemon!” Guillaume shouted, pointing his bony finger towards Admu.

“With pleasure.” Mattias said, raising his nemesis halberd. The 4 other grey knights raised their nemesis weapons and stormbolters as well. Admu growled and readied her claws for combat.

Chapter 23

Chapter Text

Fatigue shot through Admu’s body like electric shocks, the strain of non-stop combat and the exertion of her new powers taking its toll on her. She was surrounded on all sides by Grey Knights, with the one in front wielding a halberd, two to her left wielding swords, and two to her right wielding a set of falchions and a large hammer respectively. The knights stood motionless in an attack formation, analyzing their opponent and waiting for her to make the first move. She was breathing heavily, her chest rising and falling and creating clouds of steam with each labored exhale. Several tense minutes passed, as a drizzle began to rain down on them from the dark clouds above. Rivulets of water dripped down the gleaming silver armor of the Grey Knights, slick from the holy oil used to anoint them. Their weapons emanated steam from the heat generated by their psychic energy, glowing the same shade of pale, ethereal blue as the eyes of their visors.

Who are you? Admu said. What qualm do you have with the people of this world?

“All daemons know and fear the name of the Emperor. We are but the tip of his spear; we do not interpret his will - we are wielded by him.” Justicar Mattias said.

Admu growled.

Leman spoke highly of his father… I trust his judgement. There is no way such an honorable and righteous man would allow such injustice to take place in his name!

Then this is the Emperor’s will? Admu said, pointing to the burning silhouette of the city behind her.

The grey knights were silent. Admu’s face twisted in rage.

Liars! She shouted.

Admu dug her hands and feet into the dirt, propelling herself towards the Justicar with great force. Her charge was abruptly halted by the deceptively fast strike of a hammer from her right, sending her reeling to the side. The strike was more painful than she had expected and left her with a ringing headache despite the attack landing on her right arm. The Grey Knights unloaded their stormbolters on her, and she quickly dashed behind the ruined Taurox after one of the shots grazed her cheek. She brought her hand to where the bolter round nearly missed her and felt the faint wetness of blood that heightened her sense of danger.

Something’s different about these ones. She thought. I can’t be as brazen as before.

As if in response to her heightened stress, a strange feeling shot through Admu’s spine. She felt something inside of her change, as if realizing something she had forgotten a very long time ago. She began to feel a tingling in her fingertips, and looked up to the sky where she heard a faint rumbling of thunder. She instinctively raised her hand into the air, and in an instant a bolt of lightning shot down from the clouds and into her palm. The bolt of electricity was painful to hold, like gripping tightly a thorn-covered rose. In her left hand, blue-green energy coalesced into the shape of a bow strung with a cord of light. She nocked the lightning upon the light-bow and drew back the cord before emerging from cover and firing. The bolt of lightning screamed through the air, striking one of the Grey Knights and sending him flying backwards. She fired more lightning arrows in rapid succession, years of hunting combined with natural instinct making her a devastating markswoman with a bow. The other Grey Knights scrambled to avoid her shots while the halberd-wielding Justicar charged towards the Taurox with blinding speed. With a single swing he cleaved the vehicle in half, forcing Admu to leap out of danger but not before the halberd’s blade could graze her arm with a light cut. Once again, she felt the same stinging sensation inside of her head, like whispering voices invading her mind. She roared in frustration and felt her fiery anger erupt from inside of her in the form of the orange-gold flames surging from her back. Her tail erupted into a long stream of fire, and she swung it towards the Justicar like a whip. The torrent of flame tore through the earth, kicking up chunks of asphalt and sending the Grey Knight commander hurtling backwards. Another grey knight charged at her with his sword but deflected the blade with her horns. She grabbed another, tossing him into the hammer-wielding knight.

Admu fought against the platinum-clad knights savagely, exchanging furious blows and tearing apart their surroundings in the process. Her claws and horns dug deep wounds in the earth, the lightning from her bow struck over and over, and the fire of her mane-like aura left smoldering scars all across the battlefield. Yet, this was proving to be more resilient and far less affected by her powers. Admu found that not only was her strength gradually draining as her exhaustion grew, but her powers were somehow muted against these silver-clad warriors. Her lungs were beginning to burn from constant exertion, and the muscles in her arms and legs smoldered with fatigue. She was heaving like a cornered beast, her eyes full of wild frenzy. The Grey Knights were not untouched, however, the blunt force and elemental magic of her attacks breaking down even their blessed artificer armor and building up internal damage with each blow. This daemon was proving a much stronger foe than they had anticipated, especially for one with such an unassuming physical presence.

“Brother Zacharias!” Justicar Mattias shouted to the hammer-wielding knight. “Pin the daemon down while I and the others assault it directly!”

“Affirmative.” Zacharias said.

The Grey Knight raised a hand to his temple, focusing his mind on the daemon in an attempt to temporarily incapacitate it. Admu felt a pressure forming around her skull, like the atmosphere was growing thicker and heavier. She saw images flash inside of her mind, visages of bright gold and brilliant suns, and recoiled at the intrusion. She turned her attention to her attacker, her eyes locking in on the concentrating psyker. The Grey Knight stumbled backwards as the flow of psychic energy reversed tenfold. It was as if he were trying to pin a mountain with a rope. The feedback hit him immediately, with bolts of warp energy arcing from his helmet as he attempted to sever the psychic link. He released his grip on her mind, then opened his eyes to see Admu’s hand collide with his face. She viciously slammed the Grey Knight’s head into the ground, embedding his helmet in the pavement. She dragged the knight across the ground and sent him flying through a ruined building, the Grey Knight smashing through three walls before finally being arrested by the fourth.

Admu looked up to the sky, feeling the cool rain upon her skin as she released clouds of labored breath into the air. The droplets of rain mixing with the blood, sweat, and tears upon her face. The four Grey Knights struggled to get back to their feet after the damage Admu had inflicted upon them, leaving only the Justicar standing. Admu stumbled forward, weariness and exhaustion threatening to overtake her. Her head and shoulders were slumped over while her antlers continued to smolder with blue-green flame, albeit crackling and sparking as if running out fuel. Her arms hung loosely at her side, burning with fatigue. Admu and Justicar Mattias stared at one another from across the battlefield, both wounded and breathing heavily. In an instant they clashed, the Justicar’s halberd becoming a streak of light while Admu became a blur of orange fire and shadow. Admu suffered a glancing blow to her thigh, the Justicar’s chest plate was slashed, and the brawl continued. Behind a broken piece of wall, the inquisitor huddled in fear and watched as the two warriors struggled.

The Justicar thrust his halberd towards Admu’s chest, but she deflected it and grabbed his arm instead. The Grey Knight tried to raise his stormbolter but Admu grabbed that arm as well, pinning the Justicar down on his back. He struggled against her grip, trying to grab his polearm that lay just out of reach.

How many… how many more have to suffer and die? Admu said. I don’t want to kill you… I don’t want to kill anyone…

Tears dropped onto the Grey Knight’s armor, her face contorted in a mixture of rage and sadness. She looked into the Justicar’s mask with a bitter expression, her beastly eyes appearing more human for a moment. She closed her eyes as tears gathered in them, then opened them suddenly. She whirled around to see a sword-wielding Grey Knight sneaking up on her and she swiped at him on instinct, carving a deep gouge into his chest. The Justicar took the brief window of opportunity to grab his halberd and plunge the blade into Admu’s shoulder. She released a bloodcurdling scream, piercing the ears and minds of the inquisitor and Grey Knights alike. She looked down at the Justicar with a frenzied expression, lunging at his arm and tearing into it with her teeth. Her fangs broke through his armor and pierced his flesh, shattering the bones of his forearm. The Justicar shouted in pain as Admu violently shook the Grey Knight around like a rabid dog, smashing him against the ground and flinging him through the air while he flailed helplessly. She threw him down on the ground, held his other shoulder down and began pulling. There was a sound of armor cracking, bones snapping, and flesh tearing as the Justicar’s arm was torn from its socket, causing the Grey Knight to howl in pain and claw at the gaping wound where his left arm once was.

Admu rose to her feet and spat out the severed arm, wiping the blood from her mouth as she struggled to stand on wobbly legs. Her vision was beginning to become blurry, her heart was pounding so intensely it hurt her chest, and it felt like her lungs were filling with water. She felt a sharp pain in her leg, turning to see a wounded Grey Knight sticking his falchion into her thigh. She grabbed him and threw him into a building, then turned to slash at another Grey Knight charging at her with his sword. Another jumped on her back and carved into her with his blade, and she slammed him down into the dirt. She fell to her knees, coughing up blood and clenching her teeth in pain. Her arms wobbled until they too gave out, and she fell face-first into the mud. The Justicar struggled to his feet, blood still dripping from his severed shoulder, and picked up his halberd with his remaining hand. Admu’s form began to waver and fade, the fierce and savage pagan god replaced by a more demure and mundane physical form. She lifted her head weakly to look into the eyes of the approaching Justicar. He loomed over her, gripping the handle of his halberd tightly. She bore an expression of resentment, sorrow, and pain, tears and blood flowing down her face in equal measure. He hesitated for a moment, rain dripping down his expressionless mask, and simply looked into her eyes with the blue light of his visor. His head turned, as if breaking a spell, and he raised the point of the halberd into the air above Admu’s neck.

“What are you waiting for, Justicar!? Banish the daemon!” Inquisitor Guillaume shouted, emerging from his hiding place now that the threat had been dealt with.

“Why do you hesitate, Justicar? Finish the warpspawn and let it be done with!” Brother Mattias said.

“Cannot… move… armor… stuck…!” The Justicar struggled to say, his limbs remaining motionless.

Frost began to build along the edges of the Justicar’s armor, encasing his armor and freezing its joints solid. A cold wind blew across the ground, turning the mud to frozen earth in seconds. The battered Grey Knights found themselves surrounded by clouds of frozen fog up to their knees, trailing through the ruins in ominous tendrils. Reality tore open in front of them, revealing a warrior clad in steel-blue armor, a helm of elk horns, a billowing cloak of iridescent snakeskin, and wielding a black sword of fire. His left hand was outstretched, the great crystal eye embedded within his golden gauntlet blazing with arcane light from which the frozen air poured like water from a vase. His boots tread heavily on the frozen earth, with each step shaking the Grey Knights to their core. Admu smiled.

“Step away from the girl.” he said.

A sword-wielding Grey Knight charged towards him, raising his weapon to strike the unknown interloper. Leman caught the sword with his own, deftly parrying the blade and sending it flying out of the Grey Knight’s grip. He smashed the attacker’s face with the butt of his sword, sending him flying backwards and caving the mask of his helmet in. The hammer-wielding Grey Knight charged forth and swung the heavy head of his weapon down on Leman. The wolf-king effortlessly dodged the strike, grabbing the Grey Knight by the neck and slamming him down into the earth with a thunderous impact. The falchion-wielding Grey Knight and the other sword-wielder charged at him simultaneously, and Leman swatted their weapons away like toys. He grabbed each by the helmet, slamming their heads together and tossing them aside. As Leman approached Admu, Justicar Mattias broke free from his icy restraints and swung the halberd at him. Leman simply caught the hilt of the polearm, kicking the Justicar away and discarding the halberd in the dirt.

“Are you alright?” Leman said, in the softest voice he could muster.

“I think… there are still… some parts that aren’t broken…” Admu said, laughing softly before coughing up some blood.

“Please, save your breath… It’s good to see you again.” he said.

“Y-you… too.” she said.

Leman stretched out his hand, and Admu grabbed hold of it. He helped her up, though she was unable to stand on her own. She leaned against him, the primarch shouldering her and helping her to walk. Inquisitor Guillaume, frozen both literally and with fear, trembled at the sight of them. Leman cast a venomous glance towards the inquisitor, sizing him up with a disgusted grimace.

“You are beneath me, worm.” Leman said, causing the inquisitor to shrink back in fear.

The Grey Knights, thoroughly beaten and battered, could only watch as the two walked slowly off of the battlefield. Even still, the maimed Justicar crawled towards his halberd and used it to struggle to his feet. With his legs shaking he managed to get to his feet and raised his weapon for one final attack. He took a single step forward and was frozen in his tracks.

Leman stared at the Grey Knight over his shoulder, and the Justicar was struck with an indescribable sensation. For a moment, in the swirling clouds of frozen fog, he thought he could see a towering wolf 50 feet tall staring down at him, its blazing yellow eyes like lascannons straight through his heart. He dropped the halberd and fell to his knees, watching as the mysterious stranger tore open reality with claws of ice and stepped through with his companion in tow. The swirling warp tear began to sew itself closed, soon evaporating into nothing but empty air… and the two were gone without a trace.

Leman and Admu emerged at the entrance to the corrupted Stormbird, landed far away and safe from the reach of the Inquisition’s troops. They walked into the open cargo door, and Leman laid Admu down on the floor. She had mostly stopped bleeding thanks to her innate abilities, though it would likely take a much longer time for her to recover fully. Her eyes were half-lidded as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Her nose twitched as the stench of the still-corrupted ship reached her, and her face twisted in disgust. She weakly reached out her hand and touched the hull of the stormbird, her fingers emitting a soft green glow that soon filled the interior of the ship. The grime and growths coating the vessel shriveled up and burned away into nothing, leaving behind a clean yet still somewhat decrepit Stormbird. Leman’s axe, Starvore, still embedded within the controls, seemed to become calm in response to this, wrenching itself out of the console and falling to the ground with a clattering sound as it was no longer needed to keep the machine spirits at bay. Admu, now completely and utterly drained, fell to the ground with a loud metal ‘thud’ and began to snore, sleeping deeply with a serene look on her face.

Leman sank into the seat of the cockpit, activating the engines and preparing to escape this godforsaken planet once and for all. After that… he didn’t really know. He had wished to go to Fenris, to see his sons once again… but after recent revelations he was no longer certain of this.

The Vlka Fenryka were strong, but no legion was strong enough to take on the entire Imperium at once. So much had happened while he was gone that it pained him to even imagine it, how the Imperium could have descended to such a state, helmed by zealots and madmen, with the galaxy plunged in darkness and the traitor legions once again roaming realspace with impunity. Yet, no matter how much he desired to turn that ‘inquisitor’ into mincemeat, his gut told him that he would be courting disaster. No matter how much the fool’s zealous proselytizing made him want to vomit, he wanted nothing more than to avoid the horrors of the civil war that Horus had plunged the Imperium into once again - a risk he would be taking were he to reveal himself openly in opposition to imperial authority, no matter how corrupt. No, he had to be more tactful, he needed to know more about the state of the galaxy itself. Fenris would be safer without him, at least until he could figure out what was going on and formulate a plan. His mission was still to find his fallen brothers and somehow cleanse them of their chaotic corruption… trying to fight his loyal brothers at the same time was just madness. How had Guilliman been caught up in all of this? How had he even returned in the first place? The last time he had seen his brother he was locked in stasis, mortally wounded by his traitorous brother Fulgrim. Guilliman could be slightly egotistical in his own bookish way, but he was an honorable and - above all - rational man. Leman certainly did not take him for someone who would genuinely believe the writings of Lorgar. Even more worrying was the fact that, the moment they had re-entered realspace, Leman felt something was… off. He did not notice it at first, but like a low hum in the back of his mind he gradually became aware of it, a sensation that made it feel as though someone - or something - was watching them. It gave him an uneasy feeling, but without any clear indication of what was causing it he was forced to ignore it.

At the very least he could take solace in the fact that they had saved the survivors of this planet. Leman turned to Admu, still fast asleep in the cargo hold.

No doubt it was you who did the most to save them. Leman thought.

He remembered the Death Guard’s panicked response to her devastating counterattack on their ground forces, by all accounts she had utterly annihilated them. Her hatred of Chaos almost surpassed his own. Then a worrying thought entered his mind.

That’s right… my mission here is to save my brothers from Chaos… including Mortarion. My father said he could forgive them despite all that they had done, all that they had become… perhaps even I can bring myself to forgive them… but can you, Admu? He thought.

He activated the plasma engines as the Stormbird entered low orbit and set the navigation system to lead them to the refugee ship along with the rest of the survivors. With any luck, they would soon be rid of this system for good.

Inquisitor Guillaume raised the teacup to his shivering lips with shaky hands, both from the frostbite and from the anxiety building up inside of him. The heavily wounded Grey Knights were being treated for their grievous injuries, though thanks to their uniquely crafted biology they were mostly in stable condition. Fear and anguish built up inside of him as his mind reeled from the ordeal.

“C-commander K-kodiak, what is the s-status of the c-city?” Guillaume said.

The Tempestus Scions’ commander, bandaged from his wounds and with his arm in a sling, reported in.

“The enemy lit fires and detonated their ammunition stockpiles as they retreated, slowing our advances even after the… incident. About half of the city is in ruins and the rest is on fire. We attempted to halt the heretics’ evacuation with our Valkyries, however an unidentified aircraft harassed what was left of them until we had no more suitable aircraft left to fly. It didn’t identify itself, but we believe it was a Stormbird, a remnant from the Death Guard occupation. We were unable to pursue it any further.” Kodiak said, his gruff demeanor not wavering for a second.

Guillaume’s lip quivered and his eyes were as wide as saucers with a look of grave apprehension. Not only had they been thoroughly thwarted by the daemon and her heretical thralls, but the city he had wanted to preserve as a show of his faith in the God-Emperor now lay in ruins. He had barely managed to accomplish anything here.

“W-where did the heretics evacuate to? T-they must still be in the system, we should organize a search party and-” Guillaume was interrupted by a communications officer holding a voxcaster.

“I’m getting an urgent transmission from the Emperor’s Righteousness, sir. Shall I patch them through?” he said. Guillaume waved in approval.

“Inquisitor sir, this is the deck of the Emperor’s Righteousness… we’ve just confirmed that the Terminus Est has entered the warp and left the system along with its remaining escort. We managed to inflict heavy damage on its hull and destroyed an escort cruiser before it escaped.” the voice said over the voxcaster.

Guillaume breathed a small sigh of relief. At least that was one problem off of his shoulders.

“…Oh, and one more thing, we detected a merchant vessel orbiting over the southern pole of the planet. It seems as though it was stranded during the invasion but reactivated soon after. We attempted to contact them without success, and they activated their warp drives around the same time as the Terminus Est. We considered intercepting them before they escaped, but warp interference prevented us from contacting you and the last order we received was to pursue the Terminus Est, so we prioritized that instead.” The voice said.

“T-they… they escaped?” The inquisitor said.

The voxcaster receiver fell from his hand as the inquisitor slumped back into his chair with a look of horror on his face.

“Wait… I’m getting more warp signatures near the northern pole of the planet… ensign, get me their transponder readings.” The voice said.

Inquisitor Guillaume hurriedly pickled the receiver back up.

“Inquisitor… it appears that the rest of the reclamation fleet has just arrived. The Lord Inquisitor says that he wants a report on what’s happened in his absence.” The voice said.

Inquisitor Guillaume’s face went pale.

The engines of the Stormbird disengaged and the hydraulic cushions in the heavy metal landing legs buckled as the weighty machine dropped onto the floor of the merchant ship’s hangar bay. It was a mostly mundane vessel, a run-of-the-mill transport ship with minimal defenses and a cost-effective engine designed to conserve fuel for long hauls more than anything else. Its original name was an unremarkable string of letters and numerals designated by the Administratum, however the crew had begun calling it the “Saint’s Chariot” for obvious reasons. Leman turned to see Admu still in the cargo hold, having recently woken up from her deep slumber. She was sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees, her head bowed so that her long braids obscured her face. Leman arose and descended from the cockpit, removing his horned helmet as he walked over to the downcast demigoddess.

“Is… everything alright?” Leman asked, still a touch awkward when it came to dealing with other people’s feelings after centuries of exile in the warp.

Admu looked up, her expression muted with a distant look in her eye.

“Wha- oh, yes, I’m fine.” she said. “Just… just a little tired, that is all.”

She rubbed her eyes, still slightly red and puffy, and took a deep breath. Leman sat down on a nearby crate and rested his arms on his knees.

“I am sorry that your first impressions of the Materium had to be this… though I suppose simply hiding the ugly side of our nature would have been dishonest. I… heard what you did, and I am impressed. You handled yourself quite well.” Leman said.

“I don’t regret what I did to those plague marines. Nor do I regret defending the civilians and guardsmen from those stormtroopers.” Admu said. “But… those silver marines said that they were serving the Emperor, that it was his will to do all those horrible things.”

“I know.” Leman said. “It appears that much has changed in my absence… more than I could have imagined. Perhaps now I can truly say that I understand how you feel, seeing such dishonorable acts committed in your father’s name. Had I been in your place down there, I would have likely done the same.” Admu smiled slightly, a feeling of mutual empathy shared between them.

“Does it get any easier, Mister Russ?” Admu asked.

Leman looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“What?” He said.

“Killing.” She said.

Leman looked down at his feet, staring at the floor in silence for a moment.

“No.” he lied.

There was a long pause between them, and a heavy silence hung in the air. Admu exhaled sharply.

“It’s alright, Mister Russ.” She said, putting on a fake smile and patting him on the back. “Together we’re going to make the galaxy a better place, right?”

“Right.” Leman said.

For all of our sakes… Leman thought. I hope you are right, Admu.

Leman stood up and placed the hood of his cloak atop his head.

“I’m going to speak with the guardsmen and find out where this ship is headed.” He said. “Then we must decide our next move.”

“Wait, Leman!” Admu said.

Leman turned.

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“Thank you. Y-you know, for saving me.” Admu said, her cheeks blushing scarlet.

“You're welcome, Admu.” Leman said with a soft smile.

He emerged from the side door of the Stormbird, stepping on to the metal floor of the hangar bay with a loud clunk and approaching a female guardsman who had been waiting outside for him. She was writing something down on a dataslate when she looked up in surprise upon seeing her second giant in less than a day.

“Oh! It’s… you… I’ll be honest, from the voxcaster I thought you would be… shorter.” Sergeant Kelly said.

“I had to make some emergency repairs to my transmitter.” Leman said. “Apologies if the signal was not very clear.”

“Uh… who exactly are you again?” She asked.

“I am Admu’s companion. Is that sufficient?” He said.

Kelly shrugged her shoulders.

“Well, whoever you are, you saved our skins by chasing those Valkyries off our backs. How is the girl doing anyway?” she said.

“She is resting, recovering from her wounds.” He said.

“Good. She deserves it more than anybody here. Damn well saved all of our lives. Twice!” She said.

“Sergeant, where exactly is this ship headed?” He said, cutting through the small talk.

“We’re crossing the Cicatrix into Imperium Nihilus. Navigator says there’s a trading depot on the other side where we can stop, and the Inquisition won’t be able to reach us for at least a few months. Gives us some time to resupply while we look for a more permanent residence. Plus, it’s got a local psychic beacon that allows for longer warp jumps, so that’s a bonus.” She said.

Leman furrowed his brow in confusion.

“Cicatrix? Imperium Nihilus? I… am not familiar with these.” He said.

Kelly looked at the towering stranger with a look of concerned bewilderment.

“The… Cicatrix Maledictum? The Great Rift? You know, the giant goddamn warp storm that tore the galaxy in half?” She said, as if explaining why water was blue.

Leman’s eyes widened.

“Wh-…what?” He stammered. “When did this occur?”

Kelly looked around, half expecting one of her subordinates was playing a trick on her.

“Uh, right after Cadia fell? The whole Thirteenth Black Crusade thing? That prick Abaddon and his traitor legions blew up the whole damn planet and nearly invaded Terra… though to be honest I’m not really sure what’s been going on since. We were deployed on that godforsaken rock Leprus before the news hit, and it’s about the last information we received before the warp storms blew out our long-range communications. Then those loathsome plague marines showed up… and now here we are.” She said. “Oh, and apparently one of the Emperor’s sons, Guilliman came back…? I think I remember reading about him in one of our textbooks at the schola and hearing about him in some of the Ministorum’s sermons… but I couldn’t tell you much more. They don’t exactly keep us guardsmen informed on the day-to-day politics of Holy Terra.”

Leman looked away and rubbed his chin, digesting this earth-shattering news.

“Do you know where I could… refresh my knowledge of Imperial history? I have… been away for quite some time.” Leman said.

Kelly rubbed her chin in contemplation.

“I don't know much about where they keep that kind of stuff, ‘cept maybe Terra, though I suppose that’s out of the question. The Inquisition doesn’t really like people digging into historical matters very much. Actually… you know, now that I think about it…” Kelly said, reaching deep into her memory. “I think the Blood Angels’ home world is on the other side of the Rift… started with a ‘B’, I think... anyway, I remember hearing stories about their chapter master, he’s supposedly the oldest Astartes in the entire galaxy, least the oldest one that’s still in one piece. Dante, I think his name was. He’d probably know a lot of Imperial history.”

“The Blood Angels…” Leman said, a pang of sadness shooting through him as he remembered his beloved brother Sanguinius. “Thank you, guardswoman. I will heed your advice and travel to Baal to seek an audience with this Dante.”

“After giving the Inquisition a bloody nose like that?” Kelly said incredulously. “Eh, I’m not gonna question you two’s judgment. Just don’t expect us to take you there.”

“We will find passage ourselves once we dock at our next destination, we don’t wish to draw more attention to you or ourselves. Your assistance thus far has been more than enough, soldier. Thank you.” Leman said, turning and heading back into the Stormbird.

“Good luck, stranger, and may the God-Emperor bless your journey.” Kelly said.

Leman winced.

“...And with you.” Leman said, through gritted teeth.

A man in a dingy grey coat walked through the ruined city streets of Leprus, followed closely by a tall and imposing woman carrying a dataslate. The man had short, roughly cut black-and-white peppered hair, with a bristly stubble covering his square jaw and cleft chin. He had a lumpy, angular nose and squinted eyes, framed by a pair of bushy eyebrows. He was wearing a heavily worn coat, its black color long since faded into a dull grey. Beneath his outerwear concealed a suit of tough yet discreet power armor, designed less for battle and more for personal protection. He had a custom-made boltpistol slung upon his hip and a small Imperial aquila hung around his neck.

His companion, the tall woman that stood behind him, was heavily augmented from head to toe with advanced cybernetics. She wore a form-fitting combat suit, designed both for stealth and hand-to-hand combat with heavily armed foes. A large sheath hung on her back, a scabbard holding a sword of clear Aeldari craftsmanship. For this reason, some ignorant humans may have even mistaken her for an Eldar herself, though any actual Aeldari would have never mistaken her cold, machine-like countenance for one of their own.

“...and what did the report say about the fate of the Death Guard?” The man said.

“After omitting 3 pages of exaltation towards the God-Emperor, I believe I can summarize the inquisitor’s findings in a single word: ‘unknown’.” The woman said in a husky, metallic tone.

“Typical.” The man said with a scoff.

They entered the camp of Inquisitor Guillaume and his Tempestus Scions, now thoroughly taken over by the freshly arrived forces. Far to the edge of the camp, in a somewhat intact domicile amidst the ruins sat the inquisitor himself, pacing back and forth in the company of the Grey Knights and Commander Kodiak. He had received word that the Lord Inquisitor wished to speak with him and was understandably nervous. He hoped that his emphasis on his faithfulness to the Emperor would save him from any… undue reprimands.

The man and woman entered the building, catching Commander Kodiak’s attention.

“Commander, I’d like to speak with the inquisitor alone.” The man said.

Kodiak nodded, and promptly exited the room. The Grey Knights moved to exit as well.

“You stay.” he said.

The Grey Knights stood at attention.

“You must be this Inquisitor Francis E. Guillaume I’ve heard so much about.” the man said, holding out his hand.

The inquisitor, too distracted by his own racing thoughts to notice the man enter, turned in surprise.

“Oh, yes, I, uh…” The inquisitor coughed to clear his voice. “I am Inquisitor Guillaume, at your service… and you are?” he said, shaking the man’s hand.

“Ah, apologies, I’ve forgotten to introduce myself. I am Lord Inquisitor O’Niell, and this is my assistant, Anand Catha. We’ve come to discuss the report you submitted.” O’Niell said.

“L-Lord Inquisitor!?” Guillaume shouted.

Guillaume froze in shock, then dropped to his knee in reverence. O’Niell rolled his eyes in annoyance.

“I-I apologize my lord, I-I didn’t recognize you!” Guillaume said.

“Yes, well I prefer to operate discreetly.” O’Niell said. “Now, I have important matters to discuss. Particularly, I want to know about what happened last… the incident with the Grey Knights.”

Guillaume stood up and cleared his throat.

“O-of course, my lord. Justicar Mattias?” Guillaume said, gesturing towards the Grey Knight commander.

The now one-armed Justicar stepped forward.

“As you know, we encountered a daemonic entity of unknown rank and affiliation near the end of the siege. It attacked our ground forces and the inquisitor, after which my men and I intercepted it.” Mattias said, while Anand furiously typed on the dataslate. “...After a long and hard-fought battle, I nearly bested the daemon and banished it back to the warp… until…”

“Until…?” O’Niell said.

“Until he appeared.” Mattias said.

“Tell me more about this warrior you mentioned.” O’Niell said, his interest piqued.

“He was clad in armor and decoration unlike anything I had ever seen, Imperial or Traitor. He towered above us, at least as tall as a terminator if not a dreadnought. He commanded ice magic and deflected our attacks as if we were nothing, tearing through our armor like parchment. It was no daemon, but a man.” Mattias said. “After he defeated my men, he picked up the daemon and made his escape, I tried to pursue them but…”

The Lord Inquisitor raised his eyebrow.

“He stared at me.” Mattias said.

“He… stared at you?” O’Niell said.

“I have only felt that way one other time in my entire life.” Mattias said.

“When?” O’Niell said.

“...In the presence of Lord Commander Guilliman.” Mattias said.

O’Niell took a deep breath, his face deathly serious.

“You understand what you are saying, Justicar… you believe this was a primarch? Are you sure of this?” O’Niell said.

“As sure as I can be.” Mattias said.

O’Niell turned around, rubbing his chin with a grave expression. He turned back around to face Inquisitor Guillaume.

“And none of your men know of this? Only the people in this room?” O’Niell said.

“Affirmative, Lord Inquisitor. I have kept this information under lock and key, mentioning it to nary a soul until your arrival.” Guillaume said proudly.

“Good, good… tell me, inquisitor, do you happen to be wearing a Rosarius at the moment?” O’Niell said.

“W-why of course, my lord. It has probably saved my life more times than I can count.” Guillaume said.

“May I see it? I would like to inspect it, just to be safe.” O’Niell said.

Guillaume pulled the Rosarius out and handed it to the Lord Inquisitor, who picked up the small trinket and examined it carefully.

“See? In perfect condition, I assure-”

Guillaume’s head exploded into gore, splattering the wall with blood and bits of brain. O’Niell re-holstered his bolt pistol and placed the Rosarius in one of his coat pockets. The Grey Knights did not react.

“One less loose end, one less incompetent inquisitor.” O’Niell said, wiping bits of skull from his coat. “I just saved the Administratum days of paperwork for his eventual court-martialing.”

O’Niell turned to the Justicar.

“I trust this secret is safe with you, Justicar?” O’Niell said.

“Of course, my lord.” Mattias said.

“Good. We will have to institute a total information quarantine. Anand, assign a detail to follow the rebels into Imperium Nihilus. We need eyes in the dark to ensure this knowledge spreads as slowly as possible, preferably not at all. We will have to return to Terra as soon as possible.” O’Niell said, breathing deeply to calm his nerves. “It’s even worse than we thought.”

Chapter 24

Chapter Text

The Lord Inquisitor’s troops were in the final processes of withdrawing from Leprus, seizing and requisitioning whatever assets that were still useful from the planet. The precious city that Guillaume had so desperately coveted was nothing but a fresh addition to the ruins that littered the world, a barren rock good for little more than as a potential candidate for colonization at some future date. Lord Inquisitor O’Neill, however, had far more pressing concerns. He and Anand were just finishing packing up the few things they had brought with them on-world when a throne agent rushed into his personal quarters.

“Lord Inquisitor sir, I have urgent news.” The throne agent said.

“What is it?” O’Neill said.

“The troops in the north were scouring the ruins where the Death Guard had been previously stationed and… well, they found something. I think you had better take a look for yourself.” The agent said.

Lord Inquisitor O’Neill rushed along with his assistant towards the source of the commotion, a squad of Tempestus Scions gathered in a circle around whatever they had found in the remains of the Death Guard’s encampment. He pushed the soldiers aside and saw what appeared to be an unarmored space marine restrained in adamantium bindings.

“An… an Astartes?” O’Neill said. “I thought all of the loyal marines had perished at the hands of the plague marines. Did you run his biometrics?”

“We did sir… and you are right, he does not belong to the chapter that was stationed here. Their dead are all accounted for.” The throne agent said.

“Then… who the hell is this?” O’Neill said.

The throne agents exchanged worried glances.

“Well come on, out with it!” O’Neill said.

The throne agent swallowed nervously.

“He… he is not…” The throne agent stammered. “He is not a loyalist. His gene-seed is Death Guard.”

O’Neill looked at him incredulously.

“However… he is in our records.” The throne agent said. “Specifically, his biometric data matches that of a marine registered roughly 10,000 standard Terran years ago. A marine recruited from the planet Barbarus by the name of… Calas Typhon.”

Everyone, even the Tempestors went silent. The name of Calas Typhon was synonymous with death and destruction, a name on par with that of the daemon prince of plagues himself, Mortarion. O’Neill looked down at the bound marine with a stupefied expression.

“Anand, check those readings.” O’Neill said, the throne agent handing a data slate to the Lord Inquisitor’s assistant. She quickly swiped through the long list of biometric scans and markers, triple-checking each entry down to the finest of details. She lowered the dataslate and looked at the Lord Inquisitor.

“It’s… it’s true. I can find no errors in the dataset.” She said, a tone of bewilderment creeping into her usually machine-like voice.

O’Neill ran his hand through his peppered hair.

“That’s not possible.” He muttered under his breath.

“It is the truth.” The bound marine said, in a low and gravelly voice.

O’Neill stared at the marine like a caged animal.

“That’s impossible.” O’Neill asserted. “Typhus is-”

“A champion of Nurgle? An infested host of innumerable plagues and insects? An embodiment of disease and decay?” The bound marine said. “I was. I was all of those and more… and all of it was taken from me. By her.” Typhon said.

“Who?” O’Neill said.

“You know of whom I speak, inquisitor.” Typhon said. “The daemon. The one with the antlers of blue-green flame and the mane of orange-gold fire. Tadmushtum.

O’Neill stared at Typhon for several minutes, his mind trying to comprehend what he was seeing and hearing.

“You four, take him to my ship.” the Lord Inquisitor said to the Tempestors. “Place him in the brig, maximum security. As for you…” He said, kneeling down to Typhon’s level. “Once we begin the long journey back to Terra… I want you to tell me everything you know about this ‘Tadmushtum’.”

Deep within the immense expanse of the galaxy known as the Segmentum Ultima, hidden away in the far eastern fringes of the Milky Way, laid the pestilent realm known as the Scourge Stars. It was Nurgle’s foothold in the Materium, an extension of his power, ruled over by the Primarch of the Death Guard. The planet of Vermioil in the Rottgrave system, a former shrine world dedicated to the Emperor of Mankind, served as his throne world. Yet, at this moment, it appeared almost like a warzone. No enemy had invaded this realm, and no invaders or saboteurs set foot upon Vermioil’s surface. This destruction began when Mortarion himself descended upon his throne world and learned of the fate of his 1st Company after the wrecked hull of the Terminus Est finally arrived after several months of warp travel.

“WHAAAAAAAAAAT?” Mortarion screamed.

The towering giant of pestilence carved a path of destruction through the fetid shrines and temples dedicated to him and his Plaguefather, tearing through metal and stone with his mighty scythe as his tattered insect-like wings billowed behind him. His toxin-filled rebreather sputtered and coughed with rage, his pale, deadened eyes filled with a fury he had not known in centuries. If any mortals had witnessed this burst of outrage, they may have even mistaken him for his brother Angron.

“First… my victory over my despicable golden boy of a brother Guilliman and his precious Realm of Ultramar is stolen away from me by my wretched father…” Mortarion said, wheezing in frustration. “Then… I return to find that not only has my capital ship returned to me in pieces… but my entire 1st Company is in shambles! …AND THAT BASTARD TYPHUS IS NOWHERE TO BE SEEN!”

Mortarion’s screams shook the very foundations of the planet, creating tremors in the earth and driving cracks all across its surface. He huffed heavily through his rebreather, blowing out clouds of noxious air with his infuriated rasping.

Eventually, his thoroughly shaken retinue of Deathshrouds managed to calm him down enough for their Primarch to stop mindlessly wrecking his own home. He impaled his scythe upon the ground and collapsed into his throne fashioned from the dead and fungus-infested stump of a previously mighty tree. He raised his hand to the side of his head and rubbed his temple, attempting to accept the myriad of failures and misfortunes that had befallen him as of late. Now that the Primarch was pacified, he allowed the survivors of his 1st company to brief him on what had happened.

“...a single warrior and a greater daemon? Two combatants managed to cripple some of my best troops!?” Mortarion said, almost more confused than furious. “A warrior in artificer power armor wielding weapons blessed by Chaos… and with the power to move in and out of the Immaterium at will…”

Mortarion racked his mind, attempting to come up with a potential candidate for who the mystery attacker could be.

Abaddon…? He wondered. No… that upstart is cocky, but even he isn’t foolish enough to do something like this and jeopardize Nurgle’s support of his plans. Wanton slaughter is not the hallmark of Ahriman, yet it was too smart and coordinated for it to have been Kharn… and Lucius would have died at least once just for the fun of it. Who could possibly have…

He abandoned his speculation and moved on to the next topic.

“The daemon. Who was it? Which of the powers were they affiliated with?” Mortarion said.

“The daemon only identified herself as ‘Tadmushtum’...” The plague marine said. “... and referred to herself as the… ‘Daughter of Nurgle’.”

Mortarion’s eyes widened.

“That’s… that’s absurd.” Mortarion said. “Why would Grandfather sabotage his own works? And for a daemon to take up such a lofty title… not even the mightiest of greater daemons would dare to impune the name of one of the Four like that!”

Mortarion rubbed his forehead in confusion. The more he learned about this situation the less angry he was and the more he simply felt like he had no idea what was going on - a feeling that unnerved him.

“And you searched the records for any mention of this… Tadmushtum?” Mortarion said.

“Indeed, sire. Our searches came up with nothing. We even sacrificed hundreds of thralls to summon the wisdom of several greater daemons of Nurgle, however not a single one of them recognized the name.” The plague marine said.

“This is troubling indeed.” Mortarion said.

His eyes narrowed in contemplation. Who else could possess more knowledge about this daemon? His mind was immediately drawn to his brother Magnus, seeker of all knowledge related to warpcraft and sorcery, however he quickly dispelled this notion. The animosity between their patron gods made all but the most distant cooperation nearly impossible. He doubted that he would even be able to set foot upon the Planet of the Sorcerers without causing an all-out war, something he was simply too mentally exhausted to deal with right now. However, there was one other person… someone with a more intuitive knowledge of gods and daemons, beyond what was written in ancient books and tomes. Mortarion soon made up his mind and determined to take action.

“Ready my personal transport fleet and send an envoy to the Dark Council of the Word Bearers.” Mortarion said, rising from his throne with a firm resolve. “I will seek an audience with their lord upon Sicarus.”

On the opposite side of the galaxy, in a remote and uncharted corner of the Segmentum Obscurus, the massive fortress-monastery of the Dark Angels known only as ‘The Rock’ drifted through a pocket of empty space nestled within a nebula. The Supreme Grand Master of the 1st Legion, Commander Azrael, stood in front of a vast viewscreen and watched the churning currents of plasma and dust that swirled outside of their mobile fortress. He was deep in contemplation with his arms crossed behind him, ruminating and planning carefully what his next moves would be.

“Are you sure these are the correct coordinates for the rendezvous, Fleet Master?” Azrael asked the Rock’s captain.

“Our astropaths confirmed the coordinates with the Custodes 5 times, Grand Master.” The Master of the Fleet replied.

Azrael remained on edge, the confirmation failing to make him any less disconcerted. The entire situation was altogether unsettling to him, however attempting to circumvent a direct order from the Captain-General of the Adeptus Custodes was tantamount to high treason and would only serve to draw even more unwanted attention upon them. Even still, the remote location of their meeting combined with the repeated advisement that they keep the meeting a secret from anyone outside of the Dark Angels’ Inner Circle deeply disturbed him. Lord Commander Guilliman made no such requests when he arrived to bring them much needed primaris reinforcements, leading Azrael to believe that the purpose of this meeting would not be so benevolent.

“Grand Master, it appears the Custodes are arriving.” the Fleet Master said.

Azrael could see the monstrous warp-tear opening in the distance, plumes of effluvial warp-dust and empyrean residue leaking out of the hole in reality. A gleaming golden vessel emerged, sleek and armed with some of the most advanced armaments in the entire Imperial Navy. However, the vessel emerged alone. Azrael was confused, wondering if maybe the ship’s escort had been delayed or lost in transit, although given the extreme importance of the Custodes he found this unlikely-

“Grand Master, we’re picking up multiple signatures emerging from the warp… in different locations.” the Fleet Master said.

“Show me on the sensors.” Azrael said with an urgent tone.

He looked over to a large holo-screen connected to the sensor array which displayed the Rock in the center and the emerging Custodes fleet. Ships were appearing at regular intervals all around the fortress, surrounding it in a web of firing cones. Both of Azrael’s hearts skipped a beat.

“It’s…” the Fleet Master said.

“It’s an encirclement. They intend to surround us and prevent our escape.” Azrael said, his voice gravely serious. “Raise the shields, put the crew on high alert, keep the weapons teams on standby.”

“You… you intend to attack them?” The Fleet Master said with a shaky voice.

“No. If they came here with the intention of attacking us they would have done so as soon as they arrived, while our defenses were still down.” Azrael said, his steady voice not betraying the dread building up inside of him.

It appears the games of cat and mouse may finally be coming to an end. Azrael thought. No matter. I will face whatever judgment comes with a dignity befitting of my legion. I will make you proud, father.

“Grand Master, one more ship is exiting the warp, dead ahead.” The Fleet Master said.

Azrael looked to the viewscreen and saw an immense warp portal opening, far larger than the ones before. An entire fleet of bronze-coated Battle Barges and Strike Cruisers emerged, followed by a monstrously large and viciously armed Heavy Assault Carrier emblazoned with the infamous blood-red sigil of a bull - the Daedelos Krata. Azrael’s blood ran cold.

“The Minotaurs.” He muttered, with equal parts malice and trepidation.

Azrael paced back and forth in the large conference room chosen to serve as their meeting place with the Custodes. The far end of the room was dominated by a large, reinforced window that allowed the light of the nebula to seep in and give the room a faint fuchsia glow. He heard a buzzing noise at the door that signaled the Custodes’ envoy had finally arrived. He moved to open the door and welcome them in, however the door opened before he could reach it. Through the doorway stepped a towering bronze Astartes in heavily customized terminator armor, standing roughly a head taller than Azrael.

“Asterion Moloch.” Azrael said, with a hint of venom upon his tongue.

The imposing Chapter Master laughed with a deep and rumbling voice, looking down on the Dark Angel’s Supreme Grand Master through the thin eye slits of his Corinthian helmet, slivers of red light emanating from within his visor.

“I am honored to be recognized by the Master of such an esteemed chapter.” Moloch said, his voice dripping with mocking sadism.

Azrael chose to ignore the brute’s prodding.

“Moloch! Behave yourself.” Came a resounding and commanding voice from behind the bronze beast.

Asterion immediately straightened and stepped to the side. Azrael was shocked to see none other than Trajann Valoris, the Captain-General of the Adeptus Custodes himself, standing before him. He was flanked by a cadre of Custodian bodyguards, a white-robed Emissary Imperatus, and followed curiously by a small, unaugmented man in a grey coat.

“Chief Custodian…!” Azrael exclaimed. “I… did not expect you to arrive… in person.”

“This is an exceptional situation.” Trajann said, with a resolute stare that emanated absolute authority.

“Please… come and sit so that we may discuss… whatever it is you wish to inquire about.” Azrael said.

They both pulled out chairs on opposite sides of the long table in the center of the room, with Moloch simply standing against the far wall with his arms crossed. Trajann rested his elbows on the table and wove his fingers together in a pyramid.

“Is this room secure?” The Chief Custodian said.

“Yes. Whatever secrets we share in this room will stay safe with us.” Azrael said, crafting his words carefully to ensure that he was not actually lying to the Custodian.

Trajann looked to the side behind Azrael, towards a dark corner of the room.

“Master Fadix?” Trajann said, speaking past Azrael.

The Dark Angel commander spun around, towards the spot Trajann was speaking to. Out of the small patch of shadow, a lithe figure emerged. He was a spindly and androgynous-looking man with pale skin, white hair, and red eyes, wearing a tight uniform of synthskin underneath a cloak of red silk.

“I disabled the 15 hidden cameras and 32 listening devices scattered throughout the room. We should be alone now.” He said, with an unnervingly smooth voice that reminded one of a snake slithering across sand in the dead of night.

Grandmaster Fadix!? Azrael thought. What is the master of the Assassinorum doing here!?

Azrael turned back to Trajann Valoris, whose expression betrayed no emotion or intent, merely an unwavering air of authority. Azrael looked down with a grave expression similar to that of a prisoner on death row. He steeled his resolve and straightened his back, meeting the Chief Custodian’s gaze directly.

“Let us dispense with the pretenses, then.” Azrael said.

If they had wished to destroy or imprison us, they would have done so… Azrael thought. There is more going on here. I do not know yet what they know, but they surely know *something*... Perhaps they know everything, perhaps only of the Fallen or of Luther’s betrayal… or perhaps they know nothing, and this is simply a bluff…

Azrael knew that the Custodes would never bluff.

“What do you seek?” Azrael said directly.

Trajann took a deep breath and leaned back, his expression still unwavering.

“Many months ago, the Emperor had a vision. A vision so powerful that it shook the very foundations of Holy Terra. He foretold that another of his sons had returned.” Trajann said.

“Another Primarch? Who?” Azrael said.

“The Wolf.” Trajann said.

Azrael leaned back.

The Primarch of the Space Wolves… Azrael thought.

“This is momentous news…” Azrael said. “Having yet another son of the Emperor on our side could turn the tide agains-”

“Leman Russ has turned against the Emperor.” Trajann said, with a blank and unmoved expression.

Azrael was struck speechless, his mouth left slightly agape.

“That… this cannot…” Azrael stammered.

Leman Russ? Turned traitor? Azrael thought. That’s… that’s impossible! Even amongst the sons of the Lion the name of Leman Russ is synonymous with unwavering loyalty.

“How do you know this?” Azrael said.

“In his vision, the Emperor foresaw that the Wolf had betrayed him, consorting with daemonic powers and plotting to overthrow the Imperium.” Trajann said. “Inquisitor, the report.”

The Lord Inquisitor handed the golden-armored custodian a dataslate, and Trajann placed it upon the table between them. He tapped a rune on the dataslate and brought up the Lord Inquisitor’s report.

“Recently, an incident occurred on the planet Leprus in the Hansen sub-sector.” Trajann said. “An inquisitorial task force accompanied by a contingent of Grey Knights was dispatched to this system to repel an invasion force led by the Nurglite champion Typhus and the Death Guard’s 1st Plague Company. However, when one of the detachments arrived ahead of schedule, they found the 1st Company crippled and in full retreat. When the inquisitor leading this detachment descended onto the planet’s surface, they were attacked by an exceptionally strong and previously unknown Greater Daemon. The Grey Knights fought this daemon to a standstill, until…”

Trajann tapped on the dataslate and summoned a blurry pict-capture of a towering warrior adorned in ornate armor. Azrael squinted his eyes, and despite the image seeming to be of a high quality, no matter how he looked at it the figure remained somewhat obscured. He could make out details of his appearance, but it was as if his eyes forbade him from piecing them together into a complete whole.

“...This man appeared. He defeated the Grey Knights with ease, rescuing the daemon and absconding with it. It appears he is surrounded by some kind of psychic aura that hides his identity, meaning it would be exceptionally difficult to identify or track him. However, with the information gleaned from the Emperor’s visions combined with eyewitness testimony by the Grey Knights who faced him, we believe with a strong certainty that this… is Leman Russ.” Trajann said.

Azrael blinked slowly, taking a few moments for his mind to catch up with all that he was hearing. He raised a hand to his temple and looked down in contemplation. Had the Captain-General of the Adeptus Custodes himself not been relaying this information to him directly, he would have not even believed it.

“We do not know yet if he has chosen willingly to turn against the Emperor, or if his time in the Immaterium has merely eroded his will to the point that he became irreversibly corrupted and fallen prey to the whims of the Ruinous Powers.” Trajann said.

“What of the Space Wolves? We fought alongside them against the forces of the Thousand Sons and detected no sign of corruption…” Azrael said.

“We do not believe the Space Wolves know yet of their gene-father’s treachery.” Trajann said. “Ensuring that this remains a secret from them is amongst our highest priorities for obvious reasons.”

“What has Lord Commander Guilliman said of this?” Azrael said.

Trajann was silent for a moment, his face solid like a statue of marble.

“The Emperor does not wish to distract the Lord Commander from the critical work of reuniting Humanity in the wake of the Noctis Aeterna. It is imperative that he remain focused on the task of rebuilding the Imperium… as such, it was decided that Leman Russ must be dealt with in secret.” Trajann said.

The color drained from Azrael’s face. The atmosphere of the entire room seemed to change instantly, as the gravity of the situation fell upon him. Azrael looked around at the four men in the room.

“You… you want us… to kill the Wolf without the Lord Commander’s knowledge…?” Azrael said, his voice lowered to a whisper.

“With all due respect, Supreme Grand Master, I do not believe that even with all of your forces we would be able to stop Leman Russ.” Trajann said.

Azrael looked confused.

“Then… why have you come? Why are you sharing this with me?” Azrael said, his suspicions rising.

Trajann rose from his seat, looking down upon the chapter master.

“We know that the Dark Angels have been keeping secrets from the Imperium. We tolerated your deception, because it was deemed that your loyalty and service to the Emperor outweighed any potential secrets you could have been hiding.” Trajann said, folding his arms. “However, this has changed.”

Azrael’s heart pounded intensely as he focused all of his energy on maintaining his composure.

“There is a secret that we cannot allow you to keep from us any longer. The only thing that will allow us to put a stop to Leman Russ before he can bring the Imperium to ruin.” Trajann said.

The Chief Custodian placed his hands upon the table and stared into the Grandmaster’s eyes with an intensely grave expression.

“We need to awaken the Lion.” Trajann said.

Azrael was silent. He had an indescribable expression upon his face, and for a moment it appeared as though the entire room had frozen still. Then, without a single hint of deception or shred of deceit, the Supreme Grandmaster of the Dark Angels spoke with absolute and unwavering honesty when he uttered the words:

“What are you talking about?”

Atop a grassy hill beneath the stone walls of a mighty fortress, a young knight watched the red-orange light of the morning sun rise over the horizon. His long, flaxen hair danced in the gentle morning breeze, his armor reflecting the multicolored hues of the dawn sky. His nostrils widened as he breathed in the crisp air, carried over the vast forests by sweeping tidal winds. His exhale created an ephemeral cloud of condensation, quickly fading back into the morning breeze from whence it came. The young knight heard the sound of clopping hooves coming up the hill behind him and turned to see a robed knight mounted atop a mighty black steed.

“Lion!” the older knight shouted, disembarking from his horse. “I didn’t know you were already up. I was looking all over the castle for you!”

“I was merely watching the sunrise, Luther.” Lion El’Jonson said, turning back to gaze at the rising sun. “Seeing the golden light of day banish the darkness of night, sending the shadows fleeing across the horizon… it reminds me of my duty, as a member of the Order.”

“Well, don’t spend all day staring at the clouds.” Luther said, walking up behind the young knight and placing a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve much more important things to be doing. We must get you prepared for tonight’s festivities. After all, it’s not every day that one has their betrothal ceremony!” He said, laughing and patting the young knight on the back.

Chapter 25

Chapter Text

“Is there anything else you need before we part ways, Chief Custodian?” Grandmaster Azrael asked, his voice carrying equal amounts of relief and anxiety.

“No. The Custodes and I must return to Terra before Lord Guilliman becomes suspicious about our absence.” Trajann Valoris said, striding down the halls of the Rock next to Azrael with his entourage in tow. “The Minotaurs along with our Inquisitorial detachment are being sent to Imperium Nihilis to investigate the Wolf’s whereabouts and activities, as well as to suppress any evidence of his treachery or unrest that may arise in his wake. This leaves the searching of the Rock for the Lion to you and your Dark Angels.”

“To think… that the Lion was here beneath our noses the entire time…” Azrael mused.

Trajann stepped into the open doors of a Custodes Orion dropship, preparing for takeoff. He turned to Azrael for a final word before departing.

“You must find and awaken the Lion as soon as possible, Azrael. If you do not, we will be forced to return here and do it ourselves. Should this happen, I can assure you… we will not wait for you to raise your shields again.” Trajann said ominously.

The doors of the dropship whirred to a close, punctuated by the sound of hissing air as the interior pressurized. The golden voidcraft fired up its engines, rising into the air of the hangar and quickly accelerating beyond the shielded interior into the vacuum of space. Azrael was left standing in silent disquietude.

The Supreme Grandmaster gathered the innermost members of his inner circle into the most secure room of the Rock as the Custodes and Minotaurs’ fleets withdrew. To say the atmosphere in the room was tense would be a gross understatement. 7 Astartes sat in the meeting room: Nephalor - the Grandmaster of the Fleet and captain of the Rock, Razaek - Grandmaster of the Apothecarion, Ezekiel - Grandmaster of the Librarius, Sapphon - High Interrogator and Grandmaster of Chaplains, Sammael - Grandmaster of the Ravenwing, Belial - Grandmaster of the Deathwing, and Azrael himself.

“You all know why we have gathered here…” Azrael said. “Right now, we face the gravest challenge to our ranks since the Heresy itself… and the Great Betrayal.”

Several of the men in attendance winced at the mention of their most shameful secret.

“But do not be disheartened. For wrapped within these most dire of events has been delivered to us the greatest news we could ever have hoped for - so much so that I doubt any of us knew we could even hope for such a thing. Not only is our Primarch, our genefather, the great Lion El’Jonson alive, but he is here on the Rock at this very moment! The Emperor himself has declared it so!” Azrael said, slamming his fist upon the table with a zealous fervor.

He stood up and turned his back to the rest of the Grandmasters.

“We have been given a chance to redeem ourselves. To undo the wounds wrought upon our legion by the Fallen and allow us to be forgiven in the eyes of both the Emperor and the Lion. Our success in this mission will decide the fate of not only ourselves, but the entire Imperium.”

Azrael turned back to his men.

“We must scour every inch of this fortress. Every wing, every chamber, every room, every crevasse. We will shine the Emperor’s light upon every dark corner of this damned rock until the Lion has been found.” Azrael said.

“Supreme Grandmaster, if I may…” Chief Librarian Ezekiel said. “The depths of the Rock have been sealed for millennia… and with good reason. Therein lies untold amounts of cursed artifacts, banished horrors, forbidden archeotech from the Dark Age of Technology, and other dangers unknown to anyone still alive in the Galaxy…” Ezekiel said, his voice unwavering. “Finding the Lion is our utmost priority, but we must be prepared for what we may unleash in the process.”

“Remaining here in uncharted space will allow us to maintain a safe quarantine.” Fleet master Nephalor said. “That way should anything be unintentionally set loose, it will be trapped on the Rock with all of our forces where it can be dispatched safely.”

“Excellent.” Azrael said. “Since we do not know the threat posed by these potential dangers, we will be sending our best troops to search the bowels of the Rock. The Deathwing, the Ravenwing’s Black Knights, and all of our best champions. Try to involve as few of the newer recruits as possible, we still have not determined whether Guilliman has hidden any spies amongst the Primaris reinforcements.”

“The Deathwing will be ready within a week.” Belial said.

“As will the Ravenwing.” Sammael said.

“Good.” Azrael said. “Go now and gather the ranks. We must prepare ourselves for our ultimate trial. May the Emperor guide our path.”

Elsewhere, in the Immaterium, beyond the 4 realms of the Ruinous Powers and the pale wastes which separate them, deep in the folded layers of unreality closer to the heart of creation than anywhere else accessible to higher beings, laid an immense complex of ancient stone and arcane machinery. It was a sprawling maw of black-smoke-spewing smelters and fire-belching furnaces, a nigh-infinite maze of manufactories and workshops. It was the Forge of Souls, a daemonic factory from which the majority of malefic arms and armaments of Chaos were sourced. All four of the gods called upon its services, and as such it was firmly neutral territory in the Great Game. Beyond its immense walls of black steel and obsidian, hordes of greater and lesser daemons jostled and brawled for the opportunity to be chosen as a candidate for binding, to be placed in a mechanical vessel and unleashed upon the Materium without the limits an empyrean being such as a daemon would normally face in realspace. However, there was another side to this bargain: the daemonic engines produced by the Forge of Souls were eternally bound to it and its foreman. Should the Forge ever come under attack by one such as the Chaos Gods themselves, all daemonic engines were curse-bound to defend the Forge to the death: even if it meant turning against their patron god.

As such, the interior of the Forge was a mystery to even the Gods of Chaos, and the daemons that were bound within it did not recall anything about their experiences save for the excruciating pain it entailed. Even still, rumors spread among the denizens of the Warp of strange beings that walked the ancient halls of the Soul Forge, spoken of in quiet whispers as perhaps the original creators of this primordial structure that even the gods themselves did not remember the construction of. So secret were its operations that its enigmatic master, Vashtorr the Arkifane, had not been seen or even known by most of the universe until his increasingly open activity once the Cicatrix Maledictum had been opened.

Within this daemonic foundry, sequestered away in a chamber near the beating heart of the Forge of Souls, a metal giant, bound in chains, hammered away at his most recent project. He was a towering golem of cursed metal and daemonflesh, the two substances so intertwined that they were indistinguishable from one another. Cables and wires coiled and curled across his artificial muscles like nerves beneath his metal skin, his bones replaced by dense frameworks of intricately crafted machinery. His face was a menagerie of sensory interfaces crudely shaped into a semi-human visage, making it unclear whether it was a sincere attempt at replicating its owner’s previous appearance or merely a mockery of it.

He held in one hand an archaic hammer, its handle made of some material so ancient that while it had the appearance of wood it was likely that the tool was crafted before life itself could provide timber. The head of the mallet was made of a dark meteoric alloy, forged in the heart of the first star and inscribed with writing indecipherable to all but the Aeldari gods, if any still lived to read it. In his other hand he held a daemon-crafted artificer weapon, appearing smaller than it actually was in his immense grasp. Using the hammer and the innumerable precision instruments fused to his fingers, he labored tirelessly to shape the weapon into a true masterpiece, a deadly implement that would enhance the armory of any daemonic army that wielded it. He raised the weapon to one of his ocular sensors, analyzing the artifact down to the nanometer to ensure it was exactly as he wanted it. This one had taken him over 7 months to create - relatively quickly compared to the others. Satisfied with his handiwork, he threw the weapon over his shoulder and into a pile of thousands of identical copies.

He shuffled over to an open flame and removed a red-hot blade from the magma forge, wiping splattered droplets of molten metal from his forehead. He always kept several different projects going at once, as a single finely produced masterpiece wasn’t nearly enough to keep his mind occupied. As he plunged the blade-piece into a pot of boiling oil, he heard the sound of ratcheting machine-legs approaching over the hissing noise of the blade being quenched.

“What do you want, Vashtorr?” Perturabo said, in a decidedly unenthused tone of voice.

“Why, I was simply checking up on my most prized asset.” the spindly techno-daemon said, his voice chittering and hissing like a broken voxcaster. “Unlike your previous owner, I actually prefer to take care of my tools. It’s such a shame your creator didn’t see the immense potential you hold.” Vashtorr said, wringing his mechanical digits.

“I will repeat myself. Why are you here?” Perturabo said.

The chained Daemon Primarch shuffled over to another worktable to attend to a third project, his footsteps weighed down by the chains around his waist and legs. The supernatural shackles did not actually bind him to any single location, they were merely a psychic manifestation of his service to the Forge of Souls.

“I saved you from oblivion, ‘Lord of Iron’. The least you could do is show me some respect…” Vashtorr said mockingly, his wide, incandescent eyes inches away from Perturabo’s face as he poked him in the chest. The Primarch’s metallic visage remained thoroughly expressionless.

“I will repeat a third time. Why are you here?” Perturabo said.

Vashtorr sighed.

“I’m leaving the Forge for a time for a little excursion into realspace. I need you to look after everything while I’m gone.” Vashtorr said.

“I thought you were going to wait for the Warmaster’s next campaign to make your move?” Perturabo said.

“That was before a little bird told me that my intended target was sitting alone and unprotected in a remote region of space as we speak… and sent me the exact coordinates of said target.” Vashtorr said. “I have more than enough of the Warmaster’s troops to take my quarry now that it’s isolated and undefended. Today really does feel like my lucky day, don’t you think?”

Perturabo grumbled unintelligibly.

“Well then, I’m off. Keep the forges hot for me.” Vashtorr said, his mechanical joints whirring as he made his exit. “Soon, the Rock and all of its secrets will be mine.

Mortarion sat upon a throne in the bridge of his personal transport vessel, the Psychopomp. It was lean and agile for a plague barge, yet still packed a wide array of toxic weaponry. It almost had the appearance of an emaciated whale carcass as it cruised along the turbulent winds of the Immaterium, breaching through waves of chaotic warpstuff with its skeletal prow. Mortarion slid his fingers across the blunt edge of his greatscythe as he awaited a response to the emissary he had sent to the Word Bearers.

“What do you mean they haven’t seen their Primarch in centuries?” Mortarion said to his astropath, an edge of annoyance in his voice.

“They said that the Urizen is meditating in a remote temple in the polar north of Sicarus. They haven’t dared to intrude on his isolation because the forest that the temple is located in is supposedly haunted by a dark spirit.” The astropath said.

“A dark spirit? Oh for the love of-” Mortarion said, slamming the hilt of his scythe on the floor. “Those gods-damned Word Bearers and their fucking superstitions. It’s probably just a feral daemon or warp predator that’s wandered in and taken up roost in some abandoned building.”

“We’re coming up on Sicarus now, my Prince.” The navigator said.

The Psychopomp emerged from the tear in the Immaterium into realspace, carried on churning currents of psychically charged aether that quickly dissolved when cut off from the energies of the Warp. The daemon world of Sicarus was nestled in the violent warp storms that permeated the Eye of Terror. In fact, the world orbited no star; it was illuminated by the ambient energy of the chaotic power that surrounded it. Its surface was as disorderly as the warp-currents in the void above it, a swirling patchwork of biomes and climates which seemed to gradually shift and change before their eyes. It was a true site of pilgrimage for the followers of Chaos Absolute, a physical representation of raw discord and pandemonium.

“The Dark Council has sent us coordinates to the Templum Inficio where Prince Lorgar was last seen.” The astropath said.

“Ready my shuttle and escort. We will see how this “dark spirit” stands up to the edge of Silence.” Mortarion said, rising from his seat and slinging his immense scythe upon his back.

Mortarion’s Stormbird touched down on a patch of barren earth a few miles from his destination, the transport having been unable to penetrate the thick warp-charged interference that surrounded the Word Bearer’s monastery. This region of the planet appeared to be an arid desert at the moment, complete with dry, cracked earth and a searingly hot sky despite the absence of an actual sun. Mortarion’s heavy boots kicked up small clouds of dust as he stepped onto the arid soil, as did the footsteps of the 4 Deathshroud and the squadron of plague marines which followed him. The uneven terrain and often treacherous passages they would have to traverse made using land transports impossible, meaning they would have to travel on foot.

After a mere hour of walking through the desert they had already descended into a swampy marsh, buzzing with flies and crawling with insects. However, on the horizon they noticed a fast-approaching storm and sought shelter in a small alcove above the stagnant waters of the swamp. The storm brought freezing winds and frigid rain, turning the entire marsh into a flat surface of solid ice. The Death Guard continued their trek to the temple, crossing a wide variety of hostile biomes and terrains along the way.

Eventually the Daemon Prince and his escort reached a great forest of tall, black-barked trees that had the texture and appearance of granite or petrified wood. Their leaves were grey with pointed tips of red, like blades wetted with fresh blood. The woods were silent and devoid of life save for the trees and the strange red creep that covered the ground, some kind of flowering moss or fungus with small white buds. The band of Death Guard continued down a narrow pathway through the trees marked by worn and bare earth and an occasional cairn of black stones. The blood-red light of the sky shone through the canopy overhead like a great crimson eye casting its baleful gaze upon the ground below, draining everything of its color and causing the Death Guard’s uniforms to become a wash of greyscale and red just like their surroundings.

The metallic clanking of their rusted armor echoed throughout the silent woods, punctuated by the faint wheezing of Mortarion’s facemask. The Primarch towered over his men, having easily been the tallest of his brothers even before he had ascended to daemonhood. His folded paper-like wings were curled around his shoulders like a veiny cloak, and upon his back the skeletal greatscythe Silence was slung. They passed through the trees uneventfully before coming upon a different kind of trail marker: the corpse of a Word Bearers apostle impaled upon the sharped branch of one of the great trees. The marine’s armor was stained maroon with old blood and covered in a series of deep gouges all arranged in patterns of three.

“Stay on alert. It seems we’ve found the handiwork of this ‘dark spirit’ the Word Bearers were so afraid of.” Mortartion said.

They continued on through the forest, and the corpses of Word Bearers appeared in increasing numbers as they approached the infernal chapel where Lorgar was sequestered. Some were impaled as the first one, while others lay dismembered on the ground and others still had their dismembered limbs strung up amongst the black branches of the great trees. All of them bore the same claw marks across their armor, leading Mortarion to begin to understand why the Word Bearers had been so fearful of this place.

But why would Lorgar choose to meditate in such a perilous location? Mortarion thought. He never quite had his wits about him thanks to his ridiculous religious practices… but surely, he would know better than this.

Suddenly they came across the disemboweled carcass of a Word Bearers terminator, lying dead in the center of the path. While the corpse itself was unremarkable, what stood out to the Primarch was the small black bird pecking at the exposed and rotting flesh of the dead marine. The small raven dug its beak into the grey-pink flesh, tearing out small pieces and swallowing them. The bird turned to Mortarion and looked at him with its small, beady eyes, fidgeting and tilting its head while preening its feathers. It opened its beak and squawked loudly, outstretching its wings before flying away in a flurry of feathers. Mortarion watched as the bird disappeared above the forest canopy with eyes squinted in suspicion. As they continued along the path, the sound of squawking intensified and multiplied as the number of birds seemed to grow.

The Death Guard reached a clearing in the woods, and ahead was a steep hill atop which sat a great fortress-monastery of cyclopean black stone. The black ravens crowded the branches of the visible trees and circled the air above the temple, the sound of their shrieking cries reaching cacophonous levels. The blood-red sky bore down on them even more intensely here, giving everything around them a scarlet tint. Mortarion looked around, scanning the tree line for any hidden threats but detected none. The clearing was empty of bodies, meaning that whatever had killed the Word Bearers either didn’t leave the forest or, more likely, had simply dragged all of them there as an intimidation tactic for any who dared to come near the temple. Just as they emerged from the trees into the large clearing, Mortarion saw a dark shadow move across his peripheral vision. It was impossibly fast, and had he not already been on alert he may have even ignored it as a trick of his imagination. He turned around to find that, to the shock of the plague marine squad, one of their ranks had disappeared. Mortarion swiveled his head for any sight of the lost marine, until his eyes fell upon the soldier’s shredded remains impaled upon one of the branches just as the Word Bearers had been, covered in a number of ravens ripping and tearing at his freshly slain corpse. Mortarion began to unsheathe his scythe, however before he was finished the shadow struck again and spirited away another of the plague marines. Mortarion gripped the hilt of his scythe tightly, his eyes darting back and forth as he searched for the unseen attacker.

The birds were becoming louder and more raucous, flapping their wings and crying out as if encouraging the slaughter. The sky grew more crowded with black birds circling overhead, abandoning their vigil over the temple to focus on the Primarch and his escort. The squawking and crying of the bird grated against Mortarion’s rotted ears, each mocking shriek raising his anger and frustration even further. From the corner of his eye, he faintly detected movement in the darkness of the trees. In the blink of an eye, he cleaved his scythe to the side, the shockwave of his strike slicing clean through several layers of tree trunks and causing them to be felled all at once. The corvids’ cries rose to an uproar, becoming even more manic than before. The shape seemed to appear and disappear out of sight, darting through the trees faster than Mortarion could follow.

“Commander.” Mortarion said.

“Yes, my lord?” The Deathshroud replied.


The Deathshroud fell to the ground, the claws of the amorphous shadow scraping against the edge of his armor. Time moved slowly for Mortarion as his combat reflexes kicked in, the hidden attacker appearing as little more than a smear of darkness due to its speed. Luckily, Mortarion’s daemonically enhanced strength allowed him to move far more quickly than his bulky, rotten frame would let on. The edge of his greatscythe was already moving by the time the Deathshroud began to dodge, and its pointed tip was aimed squarely at the center of the black shadow. The moment the blade’s serrated edge touched the shadow it exploded into a frantic cloud of swarming ravens, flying out in all directions.

The birds in the trees all took flight, joining their sky-borne brethren in a column of dark shapes swirling around the Death Guard until they nearly blotted out the scarlet sky. Mortarion and his forces fired into the wall of ravens, the holes created by their shots quickly being re-filled by the swarm. The shadowy cyclone coalesced above them into an immense, writhing sphere, unfurling into a stream that curled around and dove straight towards the marines. The birds dodged Mortarion’s scythe strikes, moving instead to strike one of the Deathshroud. Ravens attacked the terminator from all angles, burrowing underneath his armor until the marine exploded in a shower of gore and black feathers. No matter how many birds the marines and Mortarion killed, the swarm seemed to only grow larger, shredding armor and tearing flesh with every passing second. Only Mortarion was able to fend off the attacking birds successfully, cleaving apart dozens with each movement of his scythe. One of the plague marines fell to the ground, his wounds simply too severe for the soldier to continue fighting. One of his comrades soon followed, and within seconds the entire squad had been wiped out. The Deathshroud fared mildly better, however even their inhuman stamina was no match for the thousands of cuts inflicted by the dark swarm. Soon, all that remained was a single terminator and Mortarion himself.

The swarm abated, pulling back and convalescing into a single shape. The individual members of the flock fused together into a single, inky cloud of black shadow, its edges wispy and undefined. The shape began to transform, molding itself into a vaguely avian outline of immense size. Without warning the giant bird dropped out of the sky and soared just above the ground, dragging its claws across the earth at supersonic speeds. Mortarion managed to dodge out of the hurtling beast’s trajectory just in time, although his last remaining Deathshroud was not so lucky. The long talons of the winged shadow pierced the terminator’s chest, lifting the Deathshroud up and climbing high into the air. Just as quickly as it had risen, the bird shot down and slammed the shredded remains of the terminator into paste before Mortarion, shattering the earth with its impact. The swirling shadow began to rise from the ground, unfurling its inky wings to reveal itself in all its unholy might. It had three burning ruby eyes, shining like lascannons upon its long beak. Within its maw were rows of sharpened teeth, dripping with an inky black substance that seemed to dissolve into the air like the rest of the shadowy aura surrounding the creature. It stood upon thin, scaly legs and avian claws armed with immense, curled talons. Beneath its wide, shadow-dripping wingspan were long, feathered arms tipped with daemonic claws poised for attack. The corvid beast let out a terrible shriek, shaking the leaves off of the trees with its cry. Mortarion readied his scythe.

“Looks like I have to do everything around here.” He said.

The shadow monster shot forth, and the sky split when its talons collided with the edge of Mortarion’s scythe.

Chapter 26

Chapter Text

The ragged, bony edge of Mortarion’s greatscythe clashed against the adamantium claws of the shadow-beast, the shockwave cleaving the ground between them. Their weapons clashed again and again; the shadow-beast seemingly able to conjure up blades from within itself. Mortarion blocked the beast’s incoming talons with the shaft of his scythe, pushing it backwards and following up with a lunging strike. The scythe’s blade slashed straight through the shadow, meeting nothing but empty air as the creature disappeared into a flock of ravens. The corvid reformed behind him, and Mortarion turned to block the creature’s strike with the hilt of his weapon. It attempted to flank the Daemon Primarch several more times, however each strike was met by a parry of Mortarion’s scythe. The Primarch of the Death Guard was too empowered by daemonic energies and skilled with his blade to fall for such simple tricks. The swarm of ravens formed a swirling pillar around Mortarion, filling his vision with fleeting black shapes. Out of this mass the shadow-beast struck without warning, materializing blades-first hurtling towards Mortarion. The Primarch raised his scythe into the air and brought it down upon his attacker with blinding speed. The sound of their weapons clashing resembled the roar of thunder, and the force of their impact drove cracks through the earth and uprooted trees.

The two combatants were pushed backwards, the corvid digging its talons into the earth and Mortarion steadying himself with the hilt of his weapon. Mortarion unsheathed his energy blaster and sent a number of plasma bolts in the corvid’s direction, however it merely dissolved into a flock of birds once again. Frustrated, Mortarion yanked one of the numerous phosphex bombs which hung from his armor and lobbed it towards the diffuse swarm. The bomb detonated, releasing a vile cloud of noxious gas which plumed into the air and crawled across the ground. The swarm was sent into a panic, with several of the disparate birds falling dead. The swarm reformed in mid-air, growing its wings to immense size and beating them to create a furious gust of wind. The roaring winds dispelled the phosphex gas, tearing out chunks of earth and stripping the leaves from the trees. Mortarion raised his arms and braced himself to avoid being swept up in the cyclonic winds, before realizing too late that the shadow was already upon him.

The creature’s claws dug into Mortarion’s abdomen, causing the Primarch to drop his weapon and dragging him along the ground in its flight. The beating of his powerful black wings carried it across the landscape, sending Mortarion’s body crashing through trees and rocks. Amidst the sound of snapping wood and crumbling earth Mortarion roared furiously and grabbed the creature’s legs. He struggled against the beast, summoning his daemonic strength to break its grip on him. The shadow began rising into the air, and after several minutes the Primarch was able to wrench himself out of the beast’s claws. Mortarion plummeted into the earth, crashing and rolling for several meters before digging his hands and feet into the ground and bringing himself to a halt. Mortarion breathed through his respirator heavily, expelling clouds of caustic fumes as he clutched his abdomen. He felt no pain and was largely unimpeded by the injury thanks to his Nurglite blessings, but the damage inflicted upon him by this creature was not something he could take lightly.

What is this thing? Mortarion thought. For it to have such power it must be some kind of Greater Daemon, nay, something even stronger…

Mortarion rose to his feet, unfurling his leathery, worm-eaten wings which left a flurry of toxic spores in their wake.

Now where the hell did my scythe go?

Suddenly he heard a piercing cry from above, and looked up to see the corvid was plummeting towards him in relentless pursuit. He took flight, just barely dodging the hurtling shadow-beast as it shot past him then began circling around to attack again.

“Gods damn it all...” Mortarion muttered, summoning demonic power from his fingertips.

Despite his daemonic ascension gifting him powers that surpassed even the strongest of mortal psykers, Mortarion hated using them. Plagues, chemical weapons, ballistics, blades, all of these he preferred to being forced to utilize the power that he had so hated in his mortal life. For now, he would have to set aside his personal distaste for sorcery to dispatch this wretched creature.

Tendrils of sickly green infestation creeped from his hands, surrounding him like an aura of disease. Thorned and stinging insects spawned forth from the aether, carried upon pestilent winds into swarms that were now Mortarion’s weapons. He swung the clouds of insects with a motion of his arms, sweeping them across the forest. The pestilent clouds of diseased flies reduced everything they touched into rot and decay, like the hand of death inflicting an entropic curse. The two opposing swarms converged upon the approaching shadow, wrapping it in an inescapable cloud of miasma and death. Mortarion tightened his psychic grip, further constraining the shadow beast in its caustic prison. Within the dense clouds of rot, he could see the vaporous shadow writhing and churning, struggling against its inevitable dissolution. This was his favorite part, seeing his enemies succumb to the inevitable fate of decay. This one in particular he was going to relish.

Yet that moment would never come. Mortarion felt a burning sensation across his arms and hands, and a pale blue light shone from within the gaseous prison he had concocted.

“What!?” Mortarion shouted.

Jets of ghostly flame erupted in all directions, burning away the blighted tendrils until they could hold their prisoner no longer. Mortarion was blown backwards by an explosion with the force of a small plasma reactor going critical, scorching the earth and leaving behind blackened scars and small embers of blue-white flame. The trees were all burned to ash, purifying the rot inflicted by Mortarion in a baptism of unholy fire. Within the crater left by the explosion the shadow-creature stood wreathed in ghostly flame and burning shadow alike. The creature let out an agonizing shriek and darted towards Mortarion.

The Daemon Primarch took flight, retreating to where he had left his scythe. The shadow burned across the sky in hot pursuit, leaving a trail of blazing darkness in its wake. The two collided in mid-air, sending them spiraling towards the ground. Mortarion balled his fist and struck the beast in the beak several times, eliciting a pained shriek. The corvid slashed Mortarion’s neck open, severing his breathing tubes and causing bile and black blood to spill out of his wound. It shoved its hidden blades into Mortarion’s chest and abdomen repeatedly, shredding his rotten insides. In response, Mortarion plucked another phosphex grenade from his side and stuck it down the corvid’s throat, holding its beak shut with his hands. The grenade exploded in a plume of toxic smoke, and the shadowbeast was forced to relent its attacks by bursting into a flock of ravens. Mortarion crashed through an abandoned ruin on his way down, tumbling through the debris into a large courtyard overgrown with red vines. Mortarion clawed at his ruptured neck and held his torn-open stomach, the sound of his severed windpipe creating a sickly wheezing sound. It wasn’t enough to kill him, but it caused him immense pain.

Where does this creature get such strength from? Mortarion thought. No daemon, greater or lesser, has ever given me this much difficulty.

Mortarion rose into the air on his leathery wings, surveying the landscape around him before the creature could reassemble itself and resume its attacks. He spotted his scythe impaled in the earth where he had first encountered the creature and soared down to retrieve it. Suddenly the shadow impaled him from above, sending them both plummeting to the ground. Chunks of earth and stone were sent flying by their impact, and both Mortarion and the shadowbeast tumbled across the ground. Mortarion attempted to struggle to his feet but was immediately beset by the corvid. It thrust forward with its razor-sharp beak, and Mortarion was only just able to stop it before it impaled his skull. With its claws the shadow tore open Mortarion’s chest, revealing his beating daemon heart. Its talons shot towards their intended target, but Mortarion grabbed them just in time. The Daemon Primarch and his attacker grappled with one another in a battle of raw strength, a battle that Mortarion was slowly losing. The Primarch could feel his essence slowly draining away from his multiple wounds, even with his unnatural resilience. The shadowbeast snapped its beak at him, while its talons hovered mere inches away from his heart, both held back only by his gradually loosening grip. He feared what would happen should he be banished again, considering the numerous failures he had already endured. He gritted his rotten teeth together and struggled futilely against the raven beast, his decayed muscle fibers twisting and snapping against its supernatural strength.

Then Mortarion began to hear something, a faint noise that rang clear in his worm-eaten eardrums, like no other sound he had ever heard before. It was the sound of hooves trotting upon fresh earth accompanied by the short, powerful breaths of some kind of animal. The more he focused on these noises, the more his other senses were filled with foreign stimuli. He smelled sickeningly fresh vegetation and the scent of a recent rain shower, all things he should have had no knowledge or experience of due to his hellish upbringing. Upon his rotten tongue he tasted something acrid and sweet at the same time, some sort of intoxicating substance he would have never partaken in, unlike some of his brothers. At last, he opened his eyes, and was greeted by the impossible sight of a vast field filled with golden wheat. The shimmering stalks of grain rippled gracefully beneath a deep blue sky, moving in waves across the rolling hills.

“Where… where am I?” Mortarion said. “Am I dead? Is this some kind of punishment?”

You really want to go back to that wretched thing’s lair? A soft and boyish voice said from behind him.

Mortarion tried to turn his head to see the source of the voice but found himself unable to move.

“Who are you?” Mortarion said. “What the hell is this?”

I’ll help you just this once… but you really must promise to get some fresh air once in a while.

“What the hell are you talking about!?” Mortarion shouted, struggling to move.

I believe I remember how father taught me to do it… no way to know until we try, aye?

Mortarion’s eyes shot open, and panic shot through him as he remembered his predicament. This time however, he felt different. His wounds, previously numb and lifeless, were beginning to itch and burn slightly. He felt strange tendrils, almost like roots or vines, moving underneath his skin and stitching his flesh back together. Then an indescribable sensation shot through him, traveling all the way from his feet to the tips of his fingers. Mortarion felt the hand which held back the shadowbeast’s snapping jaws start to tingle, as small arcs of electricity were firing up and down the tendons of his wrist. Suddenly a single word shot through Mortarion’s mind, a word which he knew neither origin nor meaning of, yet felt it with his entire being when he shouted:


A blinding flash of light erupted between them, followed by an earth-shaking clap of thunder. Huge arcs of lightning burst forth, striking down trees and scorching the earth in a savage rain of destruction. The shadow was sent hurtling backwards, covered in tendrils of electricity that crawled all across its skin. The beast writhed and rolled all over the ground, shrieking in agony from the devastating shock. Once it had recovered it leapt to its feet, shaking off the lingering charge that clung to its shadowy form. Mortarion rose and wrenched his scythe from out of the earth. He raised its blade to bear against the wounded shadowbeast, which unsheathed its claws and chittered furiously in response. He stared into its triple red eyes with an expression denoting that they were no longer fighting on unequal footing.

Suddenly the head of a mace struck the shadow’s skull, pummeling it into the ground. Before it could recover, Lorgar struck it again with his mace, sending it stumbling backwards.

The shadowbeast shook its head, staggering backwards in a stupor. Its gaze darted between the two Primarchs, staring at them with its unblinking ruby eyes. It outstretched its shadow-dripping wings, screeching in anger and frustration. It beat its wings repeatedly in a display of intimidation, then, as if realizing it was trapped in a hopeless battle, wrapped itself in its shadowy aura and erupted into a plume of ghostly flame and scattering ravens. The birds flew off in all directions, showing no sign of returning as their shrieking calls disappeared into the distance.

Mortarion breathed a sigh of relief, then looked down at his hand. Faint tendrils of electricity shot through his fingers briefly, before disappearing entirely. He balled them into a fist and cast his lingering thoughts aside.

“What in the 4 hells was that thing?” Mortarion said.

That my dear brother… was Corax.” Lorgar said. “Or what’s left of him.”

“Corvus Corax? That was the Raven-Lord?” Mortarion said. “How is that possible?”

“He must have made a deal with some warp-entity, though I cannot say which. He would not cease his attempts to murder me long enough for me to ask.” Lorgar said. “Though I probably would have killed him just the same for all of my men he slaughtered.”

Lorgar slung his daemonically-enchanted mace upon his hip. He looked relatively unchanged from when Mortarion had last seen him before his ascension to daemonhood. The most noticeable differences were the grey, stone-like texture of his skin, the burning runes inscribed all across his face, and the crown of horns lining the top of his bald skull. He still maintained the same self-righteous expression upon his face, similar to the one Magnus often bore though less egotistical.

“So, what brings you all the way here to my domain? I don’t suppose you came here to aid me in dispatching that pest.” Lorgar said.

“I have come in search of information about a daemon.” Mortarion said.

“Really? The notoriously stubborn and atheistic Primarch of the Death Guard has come to me for guidance? That’s a new one.” Lorgar said.

This daemon crippled my 1st company. Single-handedly.” Mortarion grumbled.

Lorgar looked at him with surprise and intrigue.

“That is a powerful daemon indeed.” Lorgar said. “Come into my study so we may discuss this further.”

Mortarion followed Lorgar into the large black monastery, adorned with runes both colchisian and daemonic in origin. Inside of its halls were countless effigies and fetishes to the many aspects and power of Chaos, the Four being chief among them. These were not, however, the crude etchings and mad constructions of warp-addled cultists from the sewers of some overcrowded hive-world. They were each and every one a work of art, a masterful rendition of the power and terror embodied by Chaos in all its forms. Bronze statues capturing warriors in their moments of death, eternally glistening blood still dripping from their wounds. Howling souls sealed inside of great multi-colored crystals, trapped in time and space yet still somehow conscious of their agony. Terrariums of fungus-infested plants in a perpetual state of decay, crawling with insects feeding upon the corpses of their forebears. Magnificent paintings capturing unearthly delights, the figures within bearing expressions of uncanny pleasure that seemed altogether too life-like.

Lorgar led Mortarion to the entrance of a great tabernacle, a pair of immense obsidian doors upon which was inlaid the 8-pointed star of Chaos undivided in pale gold and flanked by the flaming daemon skulls of the Word Bearer’s iconography. Lorgar pushed open the great black doors to reveal a grandiose private study, a mixture of a library and an altar to the Ruinous Powers. It was here that Lorgar dedicated equal attention to the literary study of Chaos as well as to contemplating the deeper mysteries of Chaos by communing with the gods directly.

“Come brother, have a seat.” Lorgar said, gesturing to a pair of wooden chairs designed more for utility than comfort. “And tell me more about this daemon.”

Lorgar was clearly more interested in this warp-creature Mortarion’s sons had encountered than his brother’s company. Not that Mortarion was too fond of seeing any of his brothers either, that is. He sighed and sat back into the wooden chair, his leathery wings hanging at his side.

“It seems to have been quite effective against your Death Guard… perhaps a Lord of Change? Tzeentchian Greater Demons have the capability of temporarily nullifying Nurglite enchantments if they are strong enough.” Lorgar mused.

“She was not of Tzeentch. Nor Khorne or Slaanesh… or Undivided.” Mortarion said.

Lorgar’s furrowed his brow.

“But that would mean…” Lorgar said.

“She called herself the ‘Daughter of Nurgle’. Had I not seen the effects of her power firsthand I would have discounted her existence entirely. She was able to tear my Deathshrouds apart with her bare claws, not just nullifying but reversing Nurgle’s rot. Some of the ones who survived her onslaught have even claimed that she has the ability to remove his blessing entirely.” Mortarion said.

Lorgar could only stare at Mortarion with wide eyes in an expression of astonishment.

“What did you say this daemon’s name was?” Lorgar asked.

“Tadmushtum.” Mortarion said, spitting the word out with malice on his tongue.

“Tadmushtum…” Lorgar whispered.

He rushed over to one of the large unorganized stacks of ancient tomes and pulled one out, opening its leathery cover and thumbing through the off-white pages. He flipped through the book, occasionally pausing to read a few lines with his finger before moving on. When he had reached the end he threw the book aside, rushing over to another stack and repeating the process several more times.

“Not in any of these…” Lorgar muttered. “Perhaps I need to try an older codex.”

Lorgar climbed a ladder to reach the top shelf of an ornate bookcase, taking one from the furthest corner. He blew on the cover, kicking up a heavy cloud of dust. When he opened the ancient tome, more dust spilled out of its pages. He slowly and carefully scanned each page meticulously, from beginning to end, before closing the book with a dumbfounded expression.

“That name… it’s not any of these…” Lorgar said.

“That is… concerning.” Mortarion said.

“No, no brother!” Lorgar said, excitedly rushing over to Mortarion. “Do you know what this means?”

“That I’m still no closer to finding out the identity of the daemon that slaughtered my bodyguards?” Mortarion said in an annoyed tone.

“This is an entirely new and undocumented aspect of the gods Which has never been seen before! At least, not in recorded history.” Lorgar said. “A ‘daughter’ of Nurgle? What kind of being could this be? Would a mere daemon truly be granted such a lofty title? Perhaps it is a new kind of elevated mortal, or something else entirely! Whatever it is, it must be on a level of strength only rivaled by Daemon Primarchs such as ourselves!”

Mortarion’s eyes grew dark and serious upon hearing this statement.

“We need to know more about it… we have to find and capture it so that I may document it personally!” Lorgar said. “This could be a revolutionary new weapon in our war upon the False Emperor!”

“I don’t care what you do with it, so long as it never attacks my sons ever again.” Mortarion said, rising from his seat.

“So, you will aid me in finding it?” Lorgar said.

“If it will please my master… then yes. I do not want to return to him empty-handed again.” Mortarion said, shuddering at the thought of displeasing the Plaguefather again after his last failure.

“Excellent! I shall gather my Dark Apostles to investigate this matter further…” Lorgar rambled on.

Unbeknownst to either of the Primarchs, the opened door had allowed another ear to listen in on their conversation. Just outside, perched in the portal of a high window, sat a raven, its head tilting expectantly.

Far away, at the top of a frozen peak situated directly above a humid rainforest, a wounded shadow beat its wings exhaustedly before collapsing into the snow. The aura of shadow slowly sloughed off of its thin frame like layers of mud and dissolved into the air, revealing the gaunt and twisted form of Corvus Corax. His eyes were sunken, and his skin was even more deathly pale than it had been originally, to the point of his veins being visible just beneath. His formerly pitch-black eyes were faded and glassy to the point of almost appearing white surrounded by webs of red veins, and his long, black hair was matted and full knots. His armor had been warped into a thin and skeletal shape, conforming around his body in an unnatural way. The dark transformation he had undergone was taking its toll on his physiology, his skin becoming dark and scaly in some parts and his nails becoming long and talon-like. Small patches of black feathers erupted painfully from his skin, and his teeth were beginning to fall out, replaced by sharp fangs. He was totally and utterly drained.

“Too… exhausted. Can’t… continue… not with… both of them…” He uttered.

Corax slumped against a rock, feeling the cold snowflakes landing on his face. He turned his head lazily, looking through drooping eyelids at the raven-haired woman standing next to him. She wore dark leather armor draped with a cloak of black feathers, and her face was obscured by the mask of a raven.

You are weak. Too weak to fight. You must consume more daemon hearts and grow stronger.The raven-masked woman said.

"Each heart… gives me less energy… than the last." Corax said between labored breaths. "I have to consume more each time… I can't keep doing this for much longer."

It was not we who set you upon this path of vengeance. A brown-haired woman said, wearing the mask of an owl.

She wore heavy robes of furs and wool beneath a cloak of eagle feathers and spoke with a more aged voice than the raven-masked woman.

"It was you who said that I must kill Lorgar." Corax said.

I said that Lorgar would be killed as a consequence of his betrayal. The owl-masked woman said. You decided to become the instrument of that fate on your own. We merely gave you the power to do so.

If it is fated to be, why must you torture yourself with this sacrificial crusade? A third woman said with a soft and innocent voice.

The last woman had silver hair and bore the mask of a dove. She wore a loose and elegant dress of white silk and was draped in a cloak of swan feathers.

"I cannot depend on fate to carry out justice." Corax said. "Lorgar must die."

The daemon they spoke of, Tadmushtum... The raven-woman said. She sounds exceptionally powerful. Not only that, but she had the power to nullify Nurgle's power. If you could take her heart and consume it… it could give you the power to overcome Mortarion and Lorgar combined.

Corax dug his feet into the snow, steadying himself with hand on the rock behind him. He struggled to his feet on shaky legs, pushing his pain deeper inside of him to focus on his mission.

“Very well then.” Corax said. “I will take this Tadmushtum’s heart… and then I will tear out the hearts of Mortarion and Lorgar. I will enact vengeance… on behalf of my father.”

Shadows began to grow around his feet, coalescing into a pillar of darkness that consumed the sickly Primarch. The shadows coated his skin and armor like a parasite, digging into and eating away at his soul. His form twisted and mutated into the red-eyed raptor-like beast that had haunted this world for millennia and let out one final shriek that struck fear into every Word Bearer upon Sicarus. Then, as quiet as the wind, the phantom disappeared into a flurry of black feathers.

Chapter 27

Chapter Text

Leman piloted the Stormbird out of the merchant ship’s hangar, parting ways with the guardsmen and the “Saint’s Chariot” for the final time. The refugees they had saved insisted upon giving them some kind of recompense as payment for their invaluable services, but Leman refused their more lavish offerings. He settled for modest provisions and supplies, enough to fit on the Stormbird as emergency rations should they be unable to procure any in the future. He also accepted a small portion of the wealth left behind on the derelict merchant ship in the form of a few hundred thousand throne-gelt. They had spent most of the few weeks on the Stormbird itself, Leman making his quarters in the pilot’s deck while Admu made the cargo deck her home. She had found a large tarp in the storage bay, fashioning it into a hammock for her to sleep in. She spent much of the journey asleep, recovering from the intense exertion and damage she had sustained during her battles upon Leprus, and as such Leman had not had much time to discuss the events… not that he particularly wished to.

When she was awake, Leman tried to restrict Admu’s contact with the guardsmen so as to preserve as much of their anonymity as possible. The leader of the refugees, a crude yet respectful guardswoman by the name of Kelly, would occasionally pass by to check up on their “saint”. In addition, many guardsmen and civilian refugees would leave offerings in the form of gifts, though Leman would usually ask that Kelly return them so they could serve the refugees’ needs first. Frustratingly, this seemed to only strengthen their belief in the two as divine emissaries, refusing gifts and offerings on the ground of charity and mercy towards the common folk. Leman did once consider himself a somewhat spiritual man, but dealing with religious rituals and dogma was never something he enjoyed. He appreciated the services of the rune priests of Fenris… but to be perfectly honest he never understood their elaborate rituals and practices.

Well now I at least know they were channeling something real. Leman thought, looking down at the crystal wolf’s eye upon his wrist.

He had removed his armor and was wearing simple plainclothes; however he had discovered that the gauntlet Tzeentch - good Tzeentch, that is, he really should think of a better way to distinguish the two - would magically reduce itself to a simple bracelet when worn without his power armor. Considering pure-Tzeentch had said that even he didn’t know how exactly it worked, Leman felt as though he was only beginning to understand what the arcane device could do. Ever since he had learned how to use the gauntlet’s ice-claws to travel short distances through the Immaterium, it had begun to glow eerily at random intervals. He would have to keep his eye on it in case it exhibited any more strange behavior.

Leman returned his gaze to the viewport of the cockpit, looking down at the planet ahead. It was a great orb of mottled grey and silver, covered in several continent-sized sprawls of dark cityscape dotted with artificial light. It was a planet Leman had heard of before his prolonged absence from the Materium due to its relative proximity to Fenris, though it held no particular importance during his time. During the Great Crusade, the world of Vigilus was little more than an insignificant mining world and refueling station, notable only for its peculiar deposits of the rare and mysterious mineral known as blackstone. The world had become significant - nay, vital to the functioning of the Imperium purely as a result of circumstance, that being its location as an anchor point for the Nachmund Gauntlet: a small and perilous yet stable passageway through the unceasing warp-storms of the Great Rift. Leman knew little else about the world, except that the guardsmen had told him it hosted quite a significant Ecclesiarchal presence; something Leman was not very enthused to hear.

The captain of the Saint’s Chariot had already made arrangements through astropathic communication to requisition hangar space in which Leman could park his vessel temporarily, at least until they could find further passage to Baal. Following the coordinates given to him lead them towards a hive sprawl known as Megaborealis, an immense outstretched cityscape with layers upon layers of industrial hab-blocks. It hosted a towering orbital spire that provided a nav-beacon the Stormbird’s navigation systems could follow remotely, allowing Leman to place the vessel in autopilot until they landed. In the other room, Leman could hear the sound of rushing water, meaning that Admu must have awoken.

“Mister Russ!” Admu shouted over the running water. “You really have to try this shower, it’s so refreshing!”

“You mean the vehicle washing station?” Leman said. “I believe that uses an industrial acid solution meant to remove contaminants and corrosion from armor plating... I’ll pass.”

“Oh. Well, whatever it is, it’s great for my skin!” She said, humming a pleasant tune.

After a few minutes the rushing water trickled to a stop, followed by the sound of rustling curtains and fabric as Admu dried herself off and got dressed. Then, without warning, Leman heard a high-pitched scream from the next room. He leapt to his feet, picking up the scabbard lying next to him and drawing the rune-emblazoned black blade from within. He busted open the door to the cargo hold with his shoulder, leaping down the stepladder and raising his sword to bear. His eyes widened in recognition and his hair stood on end at the bewildering sight before him.

“Look Mister Russ, a puppy!” Admu shouted, petting an immense wolf sitting in the middle of the cargo bay. “I mean… I don’t really know where it came from, but it’s so calm… and fluffy, too!”

Leman’s face was deathly serious. He stared into the grey wolf’s bright yellow eyes, blazing like a low-hanging harvest moon.

“You…” Leman said. “How did you get here? How are you here?”

That gauntlet of yours. The wolf said.

“Eep!” Admu shouted, surprised to hear the wolf talk.

It’s a conduit for warp energy, absorbing the latent psychic energy within you and in your surroundings. I used it to manifest myself in realspace, thanks to our connection.

“A talking dog!? Now we have to keep him, Mister Russ!” Admu said, embracing the wolf who seemed unperturbed by her affection.

After a moment of pause, Leman cautiously sheathed his sword.

“Do you two know each other, Mister Russ?” Admu said.

“He is the spirit of a god that my father bound to my soul, as a source of power.” Leman said.

“A-a god!?” Admu stuttered, backing away from the wolf. “I-I’m sorry mister wolf, uh, sir. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Uh… should I…” she said, tentatively reaching out her hand.

You may continue.

Admu smiled, kneeling down and continuing to stroke the soft fur on the wolf’s neck. Leman crossed his arms.

“Do you have a name, mister wolf? Since you can talk and all.” Admu said.

I have been called many names… Wulkwos, Urbarra, Tianguo, Upaut, Amarok… though the Wolf King no doubt knows me better by another name.

“Fenris.” Leman said. “The spirit of my homeworld. Though I am not sure either of us are worthy to use that title, not until I can return. Until then… we shall call you Fen. A diminutive.”

The wolf narrowed its eyes. Suddenly, Admu wrapped her arms around him and caused the world to yelp in surprise.

“Fen! Oh I’m so glad we get to keep you! I always wanted a puppy, but papa said I wasn’t responsible enough.” She said, twirling around with the distressed wolf in her arms.

Please… put me down.

“Oh! Sorry.” Admu said, letting the canine back down.

Admu turned to look out the window, having been too distracted by the sudden appearance of Fen to do so earlier. Her eyes lit up, and she rushed over to the porthole to get a better look.

“What… is that?” Admu said, marveling at the sight of the planet below.

That’s right… Leman thought. She’s still never seen a planet from orbit before.

“That’s the planet Vigilus.” Leman said. “It’s where we’re going to find transport to Baal.”

Admu’s eyes sparkled with amazement.

“That’s… that’s a whole PLANET?” she said, struggling to grasp the enormity of the object she saw before her. “There must be… thousands of little humans down there!”

“Try billions. Possibly even a trillion, considering it’s a hive world.” Leman said.

Admu gasped, her eyes staring out into space as she struggled to imagine that many people and things all in one place.

“Why’s it all grey? And what are those big black splotches with little lights in them?” She said.

“Well, the surface of Vigilus is mostly barren dust and grey sand… not much out there besides feral orks and dust storms. The rest are hive cities, dense layers and conglomerations of buildings and manufactorums where the vast majority of the population lives. They can stretch all the way from the upper atmosphere to the mantle.” Leman said.

“Those are cities!?” Admu exclaimed. “They look so small from up here…”

“Just wait until you see them up close… just try not to mind the smell.” Leman said.

You humans and your cities. The wolf said dismissively.

“Perhaps that is one thing we agree on.” Leman said with a smirk.

The Stormbird docked in an immense hangar that hung on the edge of the orbital spire, some 10 kilometers above the first layer of the Megaborealis hive sprawl - itself 5 kilometers above the surface of the planet. Transports and cargo haulers of every kind were arrayed in long rows, their passengers and freight pouring out into the city below like oxygen being delivered through a vast planetary bloodstream. A pair of heavy mechanical clasps anchored the Stormbird in place, lowering it onto the retractable floor below. Leman disabled the engines and prepared to disembark.

“I’m not sure about this…” Leman said, rubbing his beard anxiously. “How do we know the limits of the cloaks’ stealth?”

“But you promised I could come!” Admu pleaded. “Here, I’ll get mine out and show you.”

She reached into her bag, shoving her entire arm inside as she rummaged through its contents.

“...exactly how much do you have in there?” Leman asked.

“Huh? Oh, right! I forgot to tell you; this is an enchanted bag Uncle Tzeentch made for me when my horns first budded. It’s bigger on the inside.” Admu said.

“Wait, wha -” Leman said.

“Ah! Here it is.” Admu said, pulling out a similar black snakeskin cloak to the one Leman was currently wearing. “Wait a minute… it looks like there’s a note in here…”

Admu pulled out a small piece of folded card from within the creased layers of the cloak, raising it to her eyes and squinting.

“Dear Admu and Leman…” She read. “The cloaks will naturally obscure your presence to a passive degree, however if you wish to disguise yourself then you need to activate them by uttering the word Agaith-”

Suddenly, Leman felt a tingling all around him, as if surrounded by a field of electricity. The iridescent sheen of the snake scales on his cloak began to shimmer rapidly, and a cloud of sparkling dust or vapor seemed to engulf him. He was struck with a feeling of vertigo, placing his hand on the side of the ship to steady himself. When he opened his eyes, he felt like there was something distinctly wrong… as if something had changed without him knowing.

“Mister Russ… you’re smaller!” Admu shouted with a shocked expression, her hand covering her mouth. “Ooh, let me try!”

Admu draped the cloak around her shoulders, then shouted ‘Agaith’. The same effect engulfed her, and sure enough she emerged smaller as well… still taller than Leman, though. Leman guessed he must have been around 7 or 8 feet tall now, still larger than the average human but significantly less distinct than a primarch. Admu was now only about 9 or 10 feet tall… still rather giant, but more easily explainable than how she had towered over the guardsmen she met on Leprus. Their clothes had changed as well, morphing into slightly more formal attire that made them resemble traders or merchants.

“See? We can blend in much more easily now.” Admu said, admiring her new clothing. “Oh, and we should have fake names to go with our new looks, don’t you think?”

“Yes, that would be prudent…” Leman said, looking down in contemplation. “Then in public you shall address me as ‘Enoch’.” He said, remembering one of a member of his legion which had been born on Terra rather than Fenris.

Admu thought for a moment before giving her idea.

“Hmm… how about ‘Tia’!” She said.

“You seem to have an affinity for short names.” Leman said.

“Well, it helps to remember them all when you have so many brothers and sisters.” Admu said, laughing. “Oh, I just can’t wait to finally see how humans live… without all of the nasty war and bloodshed.”

Don’t get your hopes up too much… Leman thought.

It has been a long time since I mingled among humanity as well. Fen said.

“Wait a minute, the idea is to be inconspicuous. Having a giant wolf following us around isn’t exactly my idea of blending in.” Leman said.

Suddenly, the wolf began to shapeshift before their eyes. He shrunk down to the proportions of an oversized canid, his fur changing colors from mottled grey to black and brown while his eyes remained the same supernatural shade of bright yellow.

I can also choose who hears my telepathic speech, concealing it from any who might seek to listen in on our conversations. If they do not surpass the level of an alpha-plus psyker, they will be unable to hear my words… unless I want them to.

Leman sighed.

“Fine, you can both come.” Leman said.

Admu beamed with joy.

“Oh, this is going to be so exciting!” She said, jumping up and down with glee.

The industrial service elevator descended slowly at first, gradually accelerating to high speeds to make the descent to the hive sprawl below. The metal walls of the elevator shaft made creaking and whirring sounds which echoed throughout the interior, making Admu a bit nervous. The cabin shifted slightly, throwing off her balance. To keep herself steady she grabbed onto Leman’s arm, holding it for the duration of the descent. Once the elevator reached a sufficient elevation, it began to gradually slow down using inertial dampeners so as to prevent the cabin from experiencing excess G forces. When it had finally reached its destination, the cabin decompressed with a loud hissing noise as the metal doors slowly creaked open. Admu stepped out of the elevator doors and into the mid-layer of Hivesprawl Megaborealis and was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the incomprehensibly large ecumenopolis.

The first thing she noticed was the noise: there was a constant, electric hum hanging in the air, a symphony of artificial lights and buzzing electronics permeating the atmosphere with their subconscious ringing. The electric chorus was joined by the regimented clangs, thuds, and pounding creaks of titanic machinery: cogs, pistons, gears, belts, cables, couplings, and engines all working in tandem, a great heaving rumble that rang all throughout the metal struts, spires, and platforms of the hivesprawl. Beneath the grand industrial orchestration was the murmuring, shouting, and chattering of the countless throngs of people navigating the choked streets and corridors of the city. Some spoke plainly and crudely, their words basic and boisterous with rough bravado, while others were strange and mechanical, whispering numerals like prayers which seemed to ring louder than they should have.

The smells she noticed next, an exotic blend of foreign aromas which hung thick in the polluted air. Hints of sulfurous smoke billowing out of great lava-forges deep below seeped through the cracks and pipes, mingling with white-hot steam pouring from boilers and radiators struggling to fight against the constant threat of overheating. Boiling machine oils, blessed and mundane, swirled in the air like they would had they been spilled in the ocean, the intoxicating scent of petroleum and promethium combining to create a sickly cocktail of delirious delight which many of the city’s denizens considered a substance on par with the strongest of spirits and narcotics. Even the very metal that composed the city’s frame seemed to contribute to its aromatic profile, with the scent of heavy metals and rust so dense in the air that she thought she may have been tasting blood.

But none of these compared to the sights: her eyes were filled with a panorama of near-infinite towers and scaffolds, irregularly rectangular and stratified skyscrapers so tall she couldn’t see their bottom and their tops at the same time. The artificial spectrum of light ranged from buzzing orange-yellow phosphorus to blindingly blue-white LEDs, neon tubing of bright green, magenta, and cyan, and a deep, nearly infrared glow that seemed to seep up from the bowels of the earth itself. The metal jungle was composed of a variety of earthen and corrosive tones, leadened hues of red oxidation, pale industrial paints peeling away to reveal their dull, unpolished steel and iron interiors. Beneath the towering urban canopy, in the crowded streets that seemed to bend and spread like rivers or capillaries, the city’s seemingly insignificant inhabitants shuffled and loitered about like ants within the belly of a plasma engine.

There were the laborers, groups of men and women in dingy, tattered work uniforms, their hair and skin stained with the black-brown residue of soot and oil, enjoying the closest thing to fresh air in this section of the hive city. Their faces were rough and grizzled, closer to stone than the smooth, discrete metal surfaces around them. They carried themselves with a certain rugged edge, an underhive pride that denoted their strength of body and character, laughing and arguing loudly and boorishly before they would have to descend back to their toils. Their overseers were clearly distinguished by their more professional uniforms, though they were not untouched by the invisible, polluted hand of the city either. Flecks and spots of oil and debris marked their suits, no matter how hard they tried to keep them clean. Their made-up, almost rubbery faces were still slick with sweat from the ambient heat, and their greased and manicured hair was only just barely clung to their pre-defined shape. Their eyes were sunken and baggy from the mental strain of bureaucratic procedure, and their mouths were wrinkled and lips cracked from the constant barking over the sound of deafening machinery. Then there were the priests: strange, off-putting amalgamations of machine and man draped in rust-colored robes, moving about uncannily and performing inscrutable tasks. Some used their assemblages of limbs to twist and prod at controls, others soldered, welded, and tempered with heavy industrial tools built into their bodies. They spoke privately amongst each other and in short, controlled bursts, ignoring the rest of the non-machinic humans as if they did not exist. Their bodies were each distinct and non-uniform, many not even resembling humans in the slightest and yet… there was something indeterminably ‘human’ about the simultaneous crudeness, effectiveness, utility, and ornamentation of their augmented forms. Lastly, there were those who fit none of the categories: aimless wanderers, vagrants, or simply visitors from far-flung sections of the city that were either lost or out of place. They filled in the gaps of the churning crowds like water filling in the gaps between river stones, completing the great portrait of life in this world that was completely and utterly foreign to the bewildered demigoddess.

She stood in place for what seemed like an eternity, her senses only scraping against the surface of the incalculably vast environment around her, absorbing it all with an expression of pure and unbiased awe.

“I don’t know whether I prefer this or the warzone.” Leman grumbled.

“It’s… it’s…” Admu stammered, struggling to gather her thoughts into words. “It’s incredible…”

Leman turned to her with a confused expression.

“You… aren’t displeased by any of this?” Leman said with a voice of genuine confusion.

“All of this is so foreign to me… I can’t help but be taken in by how strange and new and awe-inspiring it is.” Admu said with a breathy voice of amazement. “It’s all just so… different from what I’m used to.”

Leman smiled and shook his head.

“You really are just an endless font of enthusiasm, aren’t you?” Leman said.

The three navigated the dense and crowded streets of the hivesprawl, passing underneath plascrete overhangs and dense canopies of bundled cables and pipes. Water dripped from above and steam rose through the grated floors, like an artificial approximation of the natural cycle - or perhaps nature expressing itself even in these man-made corridors. Throngs of people rushed and wandered by at varying speeds, clustered together or as unorganized individuals. The three off-worlders passed close by one of the techpriests, hunched over at an exposed section paneling filled with a maze of wires and flashing lights. A large artificial limb hung from his back, looming over his hooded visage and moving with a rigid, mechanical pace. Sparks occasionally burst from whatever the techpriest was working on, illuminating the heavy goggles strapped to his face. Admu, her curiosity peaked by this most strangely shaped human, stopped momentarily and walked over to him. She stood quietly and unintruding, simply watching the red-robed mechanist perform his duties for several minutes. The techpriest made an abrupt series of digital clicks and beeping, before switching his vocal systems to a format audible to humans not blessed by the Omnissiah.

“IS THERE SOMETHING I CAN HELP YOU WITH, FULLY FLESHED ONE?” The techpriest buzzed, in a loud but still somewhat respectful tone.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you... I was just intrigued by what you were doing.” Admu said in a bashful voice, backing away a bit.

The techpriest turned slightly to look at his audience, turning further when he caught sight of her. He scanned her up and down with his dark, glassy visual receptors, their mechanical lenses zooming and focusing with interest.


“Awww, thank you!” Admu said, touched by the robed man’s kind(?) words.

“Come, Tia…” Leman said, tugging at Admu’s sleeve. “...don’t bother the techpriests.”

“He complimented me!” She said, proudly. “Mister Ru- I mean, uh ‘Enoch’, who are those men anyway? They’ve got machine parts sticking out of them all over, and I could barely even tell they were human.”

“Techpriests of Mars…” Leman said, with a mixture of respect and aversion. “They are responsible for building and maintaining most of the advanced technology within the Imperium. They worship machines to the point of replacing parts of their body with them… all in the name of a god they call the ‘Omnissah’. They seemed to believe that was my father.”

Leman never really felt comfortable around techpriests, a combination of his distaste for dogmatism and his wild upbringing. That being said, most were loyal and dutiful servants of the Imperium, and their services were utterly indispensable even during the heights of the Great Crusade.

Seeing as how the rest of the Imperium turned out, it’s hard to see them as strange in hindsight… Leman thought. Perhaps it is simply a natural human instinct to seek faith in something greater than oneself during the darkest of times.

“Wow…” Admu said. “Well, I guess it’s good that they perform such an important duty.”

She turned back to the techpriest, now a ways behind them.

“Thank you for your service, mister techpriest!” She shouted.

The techpriest did not respond.

Leman looked up at a glowing sign which read “REQUISITIONS AND INFORMATION”, hanging above a series of kiosks. He walked up to one of them and observed a somewhat portly man with a balding head swiping through a dataslate that read “Vigilus Times” and smoking a tarnished e-cig. He wore a uniform with a stained, off-blue vest which bore a nametag that read “Zeigler”.

“Now would you look at that,” The man in the kiosk said in a thick hiver accent, blowing out a puff of white smoke. “Lord Commander Guilliman just re-conquered a whole bloody sub-sector, and he reduced the size of the Administratum by at least 0.2%! I’m tellings ya, things are really lookin’ up in the galaxy. ‘Course, there’s still that whole bleeding tear in the fabric ‘a reality… and there’s a new xenos or chaos invasion every other year… but you gotta take the good with the bad, aye?”

“I need passage to a world on this side of the Rift, and if necessary, room and board until the date of departure.” Leman said.

The man turned to Leman and Admu, his eyes widening when he saw the towering girl behind the already imposing figure before him. He nearly dropped his e-cig in surprise, blinking a few times and rubbing his eyes.

“By the throne! Never seen a lass that big before!” Zeigler said.

“She’s a… an ogryn.” Leman said, thinking quickly of an excuse to avoid talking to this man any more than he had to.

The man only seemed more astonished.

“I’ll be damned… I didn’t know they made ogryn like that!” the man said.

Admu blushed a bit and giggled, while Leman simply glared at him with the most unenthused expression he could produce. The man in the kiosk got the hint and quickly composed himself, looking down nervously at his dataslate.

“If ya want off-planet transport… yer gonna hafta’ head over to the capital district in Hyperia.” he said.

“What!?” Leman said. “That’s a completely different hivesprawl! Why do we need to go all the way there just to requisition off-world transport!?”

“Sorry, new regulation from the Planetary Gov’ner to try and limit ‘subversive activity’ or some such thing. They want all outbound transport to check in with the capital first. Not the cog-boys, though. They get to handle their own affairs.” he said, pointing to a shambling group of techpriests passing by.

Leman pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.

“How long will it take us to get there?” he said.

“Probably ‘bout a day’s travel… looks here like yer ship’s got hangar space leased for a week, so there shouldn’t be any trouble. And between you and me…” the man said, leaning in. “Even the dingiest shacks in Hyperia are better than the penthouses in this scrap ‘eap. Them cog-boys wouldn’t know interior design if it bit ‘em in the arse.”

“What else is there to do in Hyperia?” Admu said.

“Oh, there’s loads. Markets, gardens, cathedrals… ‘course they all cost a pretty throne. You two look like some affluent clientele…” he said, admiring their comparatively expensive clothing. “...should be plenty ‘a things ‘fer you to do.” the man said.

Admu turned to Leman with an excited expression. He breathed deeply and let out a defeated sigh.

“Fine. What’s the fastest way to get there?” Leman said.

“The tram’s about 4 blocks east of ‘ere, you can buy tickets there.” Ziegler said.

“...Thank you.” Leman said, already exhausted by this place.

The three turned and began walking down the streets towards the transport station. The kiosk man got one final bewildered look at the towering woman just before they were out of sight.

“An Ogryn… huh. Well blow me down, you learn somethin’ new every day.” he said, returning to thumbing through the news feed on his dataslate.


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