Chapter 61

Tyranny 12.4

Ashes of Victory

Congratulations, Weaver, you won this campaign.

You played a key role in the elimination of Lorgar. The survivors of the Seventeenth Legion's Armada perished by your command.

In the ruins of the xenos city, it was your blade which ended the Master of Shadows' existence.

It was your prompt intervention which ensured the Chosen of Tzeentch would not be able to claim enough Transmutational Changestone to do more than secure her primary powerbase.

I could continue like this for a long time, but the conquests wait for no one.

So let's end it here and now.

You broke the King in Yellow without bothering to raise your sword once.

A part of me, the slivers which remain of my mortal self, hate you for that.

You watched us bleed and be destroyed, Weaver. By supporting the rise of Anarchy, you and the Anathema guaranteed the Second Battle of the Tyrant Star would be inefficient, cataclysmic, and a loss for every side which committed a fleet to this butchery.

But I am mortal no longer.

The slaughter you were ready to let us carry out in order to achieve your strategic goals...it was impressive.

It was War.

Glorious, limitless war.

And with a few stones of your own, you changed the course of the battle.

You broke the ambitions and the might of the King in Yellow.

And you didn't strike when it was within your ability to kill me.

I knew it before, and I am certain of it now as I am knee-deep in the ashes.

You won, and with your victories, you gave us the ashes of your triumphs.

Again, I give you my congratulations.

You will have what you sought in the first place.

For a few years, you have earned a lull in the Eternal War.

However.

Don't think this is a prelude to the absurdity you call 'peace'.

By killing Lorgar and his Legion of blind fools, you removed a major weakness from the Gods' order of battle. By breaking the former status quo, you convinced my Master to let me forge a Legion which has the potential to drown thousands of worlds in an ocean of blood. We may yet erect more mountains of skulls than the Twelfth Primarch would ever have built.

I am now the Red Angel, Weaver.

And I know that for all your efforts to avoid it, War is coming again.

The Bloodthirsters have smelled it. The Angel's Bane is preparing for it.

You feel it coming too, I think.

Not a skirmish, not a vibrant but short inferno like the one you caused when you set Commorragh aflame.

It won't be a failed campaign of extermination like the owners of the Ymga Monolith tried.

It won't be a ridiculous and predictable assault made by the Seventeenth Legion.

The key players won't be content to stay idle and play the role of spectators.

This time, entire stellar systems will be ravaged.

Starforts will fall.

Cities will be sacked and plundered.

Armies will perish.

Legions will assemble before the storm of darkness.

This is why I will raise a Blood Host unlike any which have come before within my new kingdom of the Calyx Hell Stars.

This is why you are going to assemble a new Crusade Fleet, one worthy of the Great Crusade itself.

For we both know what is coming, Weaver.

The Galaxy is going to burn.

You won this campaign, Golden Angel.

But a campaign is not the War.


Segmentum Solar

Sol System

Holy Terra

The Imperial Palace

The Forgotten Library

Thought for the day: Drink deep of victory, and remember the fallen.

0.965.311M35

Primarch Magnus the Red

For a few seconds, Magnus lamented at the exact sequence of events which had led him to this moment. At the same time, he had a mission. And this horrible rodent was an obstacle.

"You will not have these shelves to sharpen your teeth on, horrible rodent! Return to whatever dimension you came from!"

The 'Atemporal Beaver' – that the Custodes had nicknamed for its curious resemblance to the animal of Old Earth – sniffed loudly...and then teleported out of existence.

Magnus breathed a sigh of relief. No battle with this...with the Atemporal Beaver today. It was a relief, because this psychic anomaly was incredibly quick, in addition to having an urge to gnaw at the shelves and all wooden parts of his father's library. Forcing it to teleport away when it didn't want to was the kind of ridiculous quest that took hours to complete.

And no, Magnus didn't know how the 'Atemporal Beaver' was managing to enter and leave the library. Teleportation, psychic or purely technological, did not work here. There were Custodes guarding the only entrance.

Of course, this was not the only strange happening in the library. On no less than four occasions, Magnus had been able to surprise an Adjutant-Spider of Weaver tidying up some shelves and reorganising some book collections. And this despite the minor problem that all the arachnids present on Terra had long left to return to their mistress' side.

The number of anomalies running around in the library had in fact led him to the theory that, one way or another, these animal presences were echoes of the companions the 'Living Saints' his father had or would imbue with his power at some point.

If the theory was correct, the flow of time in this domain of knowledge had been seriously altered, to not use the word damaged.

It also meant his task to tidy up the entire library was doomed to failure.

But it would take more than a theory to stop him.

He was Magnus the Red of Prospero. He was-

An enormous pile of books, about five metres tall, chose this moment to try to kill him.

Only a Primarch's reflexes prevented him from being buried under a mountain of books...again.

"Magnus! Magnus! Where are you?"

"I'm here, Leman!"

Two more unstable piles chose this moment to thunderously crash.

Magnus sighed.

Had he mentioned that his father was an avid reader, but a horrible library user who never returned the books to where he had taken them from?

Well, the Fifteenth Primarch mentioned it now.

"The reconquest of the Imperial Library goes well, I see," his brother guffawed when he arrived to see what the 'carnage' was about.

"Oh shut up, Leman," the crimson-skinned Primarch rolled his only eye. "I felt it took me a year or two to clean up the mess you left on the eastern wings where the Gene-Alchemy books were hidden."

"Magnus, that was three days ago."

It didn't sound like a joke...it wasn't a joke.

"Really?"

"Really."

Magnus grimaced.

"This would support my theory this library is in a time anomaly or has been the target of some sorcery which resulted in it being plagued by time anomalies."

"An interesting theory," Leman replied...before shrugging and taking it as an unfortunate fact of life. Often, Magnus didn't know if he should be frustrated or relieved by his brother's ability to let go of his curiosity. "But that isn't what I came here for. First, I've heard news of your sons."

The total lack of smile or any positive emotions were a good hint that if there was good news, it was going to be outnumbered by the bad.

"Ahzek?"

"As the first messages from father suggested, your First Captain sacrificed himself to make sure ten thousand of your sons could escape. The greater abominations of your former slave-master are busy torturing him so they can re-enslave the Fifteenth Legion's survivors."

Knowing Ahzek...Magnus wasn't surprised. His exiled son had done exactly what he himself had done millennia ago.

"If they can escape the Eye of Terror, they have a chance."

"Yes." Leman grunted in approval. "And the problem is that that vile mass of Maleficarum knows that too. Now that the devastating war of the Calyx Hell Stars is over, the majority of the surviving Malfian sorcerers have been committed to hunting them down. Something called the Mirror Cage has apparently been cast."

Magnus scowled angrily. He had been more than familiar with that cursed ritual...it was really something bad.

"If they are determined and skilled enough...they may be able to escape."

But it was going to be a harrowing race against Tzeentch and all the Hosts sent in pursuit.

"Yes. And that's why Inquisitors in the Cadian Sector report an increase of agitators proclaiming some red-armoured and blue-armoured Traitors will be the next assault wave against the Imperium."

Damn you, Tzeentch...

"Thank you for the unpleasant news. I will just have to hope the patrols the escapees meet don't fire without first giving them the chance to surrender. Any other problems I should be aware of?"

"I am going to leave, Magnus."

This at least pushed a chuckle past his lips.

"Punishment time is over for you?"

Leman growled, an amusing sight as always when he was grumpy like this.

"No. It's just that the Captain-General feels I have to return in time for the Macragge Conference which will take place there."

"Will take place there? Isn't it already over? I was under the impression it had to take place as fast as the Warp vagaries and delegations' arrivals allowed. Or do you intend to arrive fashionably late?"

"If everything had gone according to plan, I would have arrived late," his brother admitted. "Negotiating everything for the repairs of my sons' naval assets and then the military requirements of transforming each Great Company into a Chapter took more time than I thought, and I had to oversee each of the squadrons leaving for Macragge. In addition to that, I had to be...very vocal about some things in what used to be the Fenris Sector. It was a big mess, and some of it predated the last war."

"Ah." Leman must have really, really hated all of it, like he hated reading a pile of administration books.

"Yes, ah. Fortunately for me, Weaver was delayed too. Some imbecile Governor decided that after everything that had happened, it was the right time to rebel, and since he controlled a key system in the Eastern Fringe, someone skilled had to teach him the error of his ways. As she was close, the Imperial Guard sent our good Mistress of Spiders."

"The stupidity of these Imperial Nobles is truly astounding," Magnus shook his head, before again observing the book-covered floor in front of him...it was going to take him hours to remove the result of three piles' collapse, that was for sure.

His gaze went further away. Piles after piles of books were waiting for him, a chaotic mess that no sane librarian would have tolerated for long. There were books everywhere. And since there were several levels offering themselves to his vision from this observation point, Magnus had an excellent view on different sections, which had to contain tens of thousands of books and other works into which human authors had distilled their wisdom and knowledge.

All of it was priceless. Most of them weren't unique, but they on average could be described as 'incredibly rare'.

And they were piled up in a library like it was a bazaar of no importance.

Had Magnus mentioned his father was a horrible librarian?

"What is the name of the planet, for the sake of my curiosity?"

"Ichar IV," his brother answered. "Hive World, important population and industrial centre, not far from the Imperium's borders in the region."

"Never heard of it before today," Magnus honestly admitted. "But I almost pity the rebels. They really don't have a clue about the blade that will shortly sever their fingers..."


Ultima Segmentum

Goryeo Sector

Ichar System

Ichar IV

Hive Incheon

Holy Basilica of Martyrs

4.967.311M35

Lord Inquisitor Terran Berlin Chimera

When Berlin landed, the rebellion was already over.

The Lord Inquisitor Terran couldn't say he was surprised.

If the shocked expressions of the PDF soldiers now being escorted towards prisoner camps were any indication, the majority of Ichar IV's rebels couldn't say the same.

"Our Acolytes report Supreme Marshal Kim surrendered with close to forty million men when the scorpions broke through his command bastion," Katharina Greyfax told him, her distaste obvious when she uttered the name of the treacherous PDF commander. "Though many of his men had already begun throwing their arms down when the spiders encircled his elite armoured battalions."

"And Governor Pak?"

"Dead. He apparently decided to take his own life before the Space Marines reached him."

"Good." Berlin replied impassively. "I would have preferred the traitor be executed in public, but the speed with which this rebellion was crushed and the purge of treacherous elements is an adequate substitute."

And in the end, the Traitor Governor was dead. Lady Weaver had shown in a clear and non-ambiguous manner that breaking your oaths to His Most Holy Majesty carried fatal consequences for all who tried.

"I almost can't believe she destroyed this entire rebellion in a single Terran month," the younger Inquisitor whispered.

"Technically, by the standard of the Terran calendar, she did it in twenty-six days," Berlin allowed himself this small touch of humour before frowning, "but I understand what you implied with your words."

Ichar IV was so vital in the Sectors of the Eastern Fringe because it was rare: a true Hive World which provided both the manpower and the equipment for several Sectors. It was a key industrial planet, one which provided civilian and military parts for an uncountable number of Imperial souls. It had a population of over three hundred and fifty billion...or so the latest census of the Administratum claimed. From what he had seen, the Lord Inquisitor was more inclined to think the real number was around four hundred billion.

It was an ugly world, no doubt about it. The skies were filled with acidic smoke, and the hundreds of Hives were visible from orbit, separated by the desert that many centuries of endless exploitation had created. The Rebellion had added battle-scars to the problem, of course.

A world like Ichar IV, with the sheer number of defences it was able to maintain, the endless amount of manpower at its disposal, and the gigantic Hive-fortresses themselves, could hold on for centuries if you couldn't starve it out. And even if you did starve it, what awaited you was still large amounts of ferocious fighting.

The rebellion of such an important world ending in weeks bordered on the miraculous...which to be fair, was exactly what had happened.

As their footsteps led them to the entrance of the Basilica, the flow of captured soldiers faded before vanishing entirely, replaced soon by the more familiar sight of red power armours and silver banners.

The Templar Sororitas were patrolling, escorting tank-sized spiders...unless it was the opposite, and the giant arachnids escorted the female warriors of the Ecclesiarchy.

"But if it isn't the Lord Inquisitor!" One of the eight-legged insects immediately rushed forwards. "I presume you want to meet the Webmistress?"

"I do."

The next minutes were spent confirming Katharina and him were indeed who they claimed to be, being politely escorted from checkpoint to checkpoint inside the Basilica. While at first it was the Templar Sororitas who did the screening, the troops slowly began to include more and more guardsmen, with many armours and banners belonging to regiments of the Nyx Sector.

A few minutes later, it was their turn to be scarcer on the ground, though the Fay guardsmen remained...but now they were accompanied by Space Marines.

It took fifteen more minutes and an adventure through a maze of narrow corridors, but Berlin Chimera soon arrived at one of the vast halls of the Basilica. The Lord Inquisitor could immediately say he didn't like the decoration.

It was...obscenely outrageous, decadent, and gaudy...everything looked like the decorators had decided to add more and more wealth until they deemed that it could be some 'artwork'.

"Disgusting," Katharina said out loud.

"I am in the mood to raze the Basilica, personally. It is an insult to the God-Emperor," an amused voice agreed.

The Living Saint was waiting for them, seated on a rather monastic wooden bench. As the neighbouring objects were covered in precious metals, incredibly expensive neo-leather and all sorts of luxury items, finding this one must have been difficult.

There were many spiders and Space Marines around her, though an honour guard of guardsmen and sisters leaned against the walls, ready to intervene should she give the order.

"Razing the Basilica? Really?"

The black-haired agent of the God-Emperor huffed.

"Governor Pak was so humble most of the statues supposed to represent the God-Emperor have his face on them."

"These statues are supposed to represent the God-Emperor?" Katharina Greyfax exclaimed, aghast. "I thought they were gargoyles!"

The Victor of Macragge coughed violently...as did several Space Marines. Other people cleared their throats loudly, by a strange coincidence.

"Anyway, the rebellion is over, what is left is to find the last supporters of the defunct Governor. A new Governor will be named soon, and Ichar IV will once again be a loyal and prosperous world of the Imperium."

"You are the planetary commander in charge of crushing the rebellion," Berlin Chimera commented. "Since you performed your duties in such an excellent fashion, I see no reason to change anything you have decided so far."

"Thank you for the vote of confidence," the Living Saint smiled, "of course, since you've made this no doubt long journey to meet me again, I don't think you came here just to say 'well done'."

"I didn't," Berlin admitted easily. "It is about...our mutual friends who played a decisive role in a recent critical affair. They reported success, but so far, they are really, really tight-lipped on the details. And the post-battle report has yet to be written."

"I understand. Gamaliel, Gavreel, you stay. Everyone else, leave us."

The hall of the Basilica emptied rather quickly, all things considered. Berlin knew that on Terra, this celerity would have never happened. The military forces of Weaver were efficient...and dedicated to their Lady, one could easily see the protectiveness in their eyes.

Once the golden doors closed, the star-eyed Angel didn't waste any time.

"We were extremely lucky the King in Yellow's plans were discovered too soon, forcing that hellish bag of bones to bet everything on a single cataclysmic battle."

Cataclysmic was truly accurate. The Inquisition had seen what was left of the Granithor System. It was nothing more than ruined planet after ruined planet, and debris cloud after debris cloud.

Berlin would love to say it was a graveyard, but all the corpses had been burned, ground to dust, or cast away by sorcery.

"We were. Yet the danger is not completely over. And other threats have been created by this battle."

"Yes. I would have preferred for there to be no Red Angel at all...or if not that, for the Traitor Primarch to keep the title."

"But you didn't kill her." On that, the Grey Knights had not been tight-lipped. They had also told him it was necessary...but had stopped short of a true explanation.

"Someone had to destroy the ambitions of the King in Yellow," the golden-armoured servant of the God-Emperor declared with her eyes closed, "and it couldn't be me. It couldn't be any loyal Primarch, or anyone with a loyal soul. The risks were too great, our...friends on Titan...were very clear about that. That left two outcomes: either I let a second Red Angel rise, or it was her rival the sorceress who emerged the great victor. The latter option was judged to be far worse than the former."

There were a few seconds of silence...and then the ruler of the Nyx Sector began to calmly give a retelling of the Exterminatus-level battle which had decided the fate of the Calyx Hell Stars.

It was a tale of horrors and abominations.

It was a tale of evil against evil, with the Imperium giving only nudges here and there to make sure the King in Yellow didn't achieve his unholy ambitions.

It was a warning that the Ruinous Powers, disunited and weakened for now, still represented the greatest moral and spiritual threat when it came to the Imperium's survival.

"They will return."

"Yes. They are chest-deep in the ashes of their so-called victory, with the Calyx Hell Stars only a fraction of the kingdom they hoped to conquer...and most of the survivors had to retreat to the Eye of Terror in catastrophic hurry and disorder to save their skins. But they've learned. They will return. And this time, they won't do it the stupid way like the Traitor Seventeenth did."

"Agreed. How soon do you intend to return to Macragge?"


Ultima Segmentum

Realm of Ultramar

Macragge System

Macragge

Magna Macragge Civitas

The Latium Plaza

2.200.312M35

Chapter Master Aeonid Thiel

"The tales about Macragge regularly praise its beauty. They don't mention the cold, though."

Aeonid smiled at the words of High Marshal Barbarossa.

"Our winters, as some of my predecessors said, are excellent to forge the heart and courage of a true Ultramarine."

"No true Space Marine will disagree," the Chapter Master of the Black Templars assured him. "Though I think a few of Her Celestial Highness' spiders and insects might."

This time, the Ultramarine veteran had to control himself to not laugh.

The Adjutant-Spiders and the various insect species present in Magna Macragge Civitas had answered the call, of course...but they had come with a lot of blankets, furs, and winter clothes they had somehow managed to make. One could say a lot of things about Weaver's servants, but they were quite resourceful.

A resourcefulness which apparently applied to their willingness to avoid the cold too. Their highest and biggest 'emissary of the Swarm', Lisa, had gone even further and ordered the arachnid auxiliaries to transport her to Laphis...and her 'insistence' had been crowned with success.

"No military force can be eager to fight in every weather condition this galaxy can throw at us," Heinrich Barbarossa stated philosophically. "And I will admit, without our Power Armours, the waiting period would likely not be pleasant for us either. Her Celestial Highness' campaign of Ichar IV unfortunately made sure the Bacta Conference will take place in the middle of winter."

"It's not as bad as it could have been, since we are welcoming only a warrior or two per Chapter, save a few exceptions," Aeonid reminded to the son of Dorn. The Black Templars, of course, were among those, as there had to be around four hundred of their Astartes present. They had just finished an Ork purge, tracking the remnants of the greenskins which had survived Stalingrad, annihilating their shipyards and their secondary bases. "And it gave Lord Russ the time to return."

Heinrich Barbarossa grumbled.

Aeonid smiled again.

There had been more and more ships of the Wolves arriving around Ardium...no, Nova Fenrisia, he was going to have to get into the habit. There were hundreds of Astartes who could boast descending from the Great Wolf, and unfortunately, the Black Templars were not exactly looking at them with a pleased eye. The customs and ways of life of the sons of Russ weren't exactly anathema to the religious credo of Sigismund's swords, but the cultural clash was definitely significant.

"And Her Celestial Highness didn't say why she 'requested' so many of us to be present today?" The High Marshal asked for the tenth time.

"No," Aeonid replied patiently. "She didn't say."

Aeonid, however, could make an educated guess. While all the Chapters the Lady of Nyx was aware of had received an invitation to attend the Bacta Conference, the Imperial Fists had received a private request to attend in Company numbers, and so had the White Scars. And there had been certain events at Commorragh...

But he wasn't going to spoil the surprise, assuming he had guessed correctly.

The next minutes were spent in relative silence, before at last, the roars of aerial engines were heard.

Unsurprisingly, several Thunderhawks and Guard Landers disgorged first a consequent Honour Guard, which went to stand side by side with the hundreds of Astartes already present. The second wave included the red-clad Sororitas, with some jumping from hundreds of metres up and activating their jump packs to finish the descent.

After that, there were many enormous beetles, all of them presenting a shade of blue-white. They certainly were a new asset to deploy in winter conditions.

And finally, the core of the Dawnbreaker Guard landed, and the Light of the Emperor shone again on Macragge.

Out of the golden-painted Thunderhawk – the paint and all the decorations looked brand-new, Aeonid noted – Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert, Lady of the Nyx Sector, Destroyer of Commorragh, Saviour of Macragge, and many other titles that would take a full day to recite, walked out and breathed in the freezing air of the Ultramarines' homeworld.

The sound made when hundreds of Space Marines struck their fists in salute felt like it resonated over and over from the streets of Macragge Magna Civitas to the highest peaks of their Mountain World.

And then after a couple of steps, Lady Weaver sidestepped to the right and paused.

Aeonid stopped breathing, all the while he listened to murmurs of surprise.

And then one of the other Thunderhawks which had landed opened, and a giant stepped out.

The Ultramarine Chapter Master recognised him, of course.

There were far more scars on his face than there had been the last time, and a lot more flesh looked like it had been recently healed, but the presence was unmistakably the same.

"FOR THE KHAN AND THE EMPEROR!"

The White Scars had been caught by surprise, but only for a moment. Now they were raising their fists and roared their battle-cry.

The enthusiasm was...contagious. Soon enough most of the Space Marines here were proclaiming their joy, striking their fists against their armour...or outright taking mugs filled with some alcoholic beverage offered by the Adjutant-Spiders, in the case of the sons of Russ.

Jaghatai Khan, returned from the dead, tried to speak, but no matter how healed he had been, his voice was evidently a bit too weak...and the ruckus the Space Marines and all the troops were making on the Latium Plaza was simply too much for anyone to be heard.

"I admit," High Marshal Barbarossa shouted next to him to be heard, "that the request was well-deserved-"

The words of Sigismund's spiritual successor died in his mouth, for another giant came out of the same Thunderhawk.

But this one wasn't in white armour painted according to the traditions of Chogoris and respecting the traditions of the steppes. It was not a flowing sensation making you believe the owner was going to ride the winds themselves.

No, the new Primarch was magnificent and indomitable golden armour, standing like a rock...or a wall. He was like a fortress, an elemental force which would not get out of the way if a hurricane slammed into him.

"DORN LIVES!"

The Imperial Fists stopped gaping first, while the Black Templars were still in shock and most of the Seventh Legion's Successors were still trying to shake themselves out of their stupor. "DORN LIVES!"

The sons of Vulkan were perhaps going to be a bit miffed their battle-cry had been so shamelessly copied...

Aeonid turned his head...

Nah, they were already beginning to party with the rest of the Astartes Companies assembled here.

"For a surprise, it's a surprise." Aeonid gave a sardonic grin to the Living Saint as the discipline of the parade broke down, the sons of Jaghatai and Dorn unable to stand in line for a single second longer.

"My most recent message did say I would not come to this Conference empty-handed." The mischievousness was definitely not the fruit of his imagination here and now. "And besides, everyone tries the game of 'let's surprise Weaver'. I thought I could turn the tables, just for today."

"I have to say...you did." Aeonid cleared his throat. "I hope you have brought a lot of supplies, because I think the celebration-parties are going to last a long time tonight."

"I did...though I will say you're very optimistic, thinking certain Astartes will stop feasting and partying in less than twenty-four hours."

It was...an incredible accurate statement, and the future would confirm it.


Fortress of Hera

Library of Ptolemy

2.209.312M35

Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert

"I was told the wolfish sons of my brother were horribly disappointed your spiders filled their mugs with a non-alcoholic beverage."

Taylor decided an innocent expression was the best gamble before Guilliman's gaze.

A gaze which had gained some strength since they had last seen each other. Obviously, there hadn't been time to test the same medicines her Hospitallers and Magi Biologis had tested on the Khan on him, but the Lord of the Ultramarines was looking far better than he had when she left Macragge the last time.

This had resulted in him being 'only' in his Power Armour today.

It was still a little weird, for the library around them was an oasis of calm and peace, isolated from the outside galaxy, with no chance of hearing the multiple fireworks being launched or the other celebrations happening. But it was also a reminder this galaxy was indeed a violent one.

"My spiders thought, with my express approval, that the hot chocolate we recently began to brew would be perfect for the freezing conditions we're 'enjoying' on Macragge."

"Hmm...and where did you find this delicacy?"

"It was part of a batch of plants that were supposed to be all giving medicinal supplies, but with the quirk that outside of the world, said plants couldn't be cultivated without turning toxic for human consumption." Taylor shrugged. "In the case of the cocoa plant, which gives us chocolate in the end, I think the nobles were simply too selfish to share with others what they ate and drank every day."

"I see." Roboute Guilliman nodded. "But when Russ-"

Loud footsteps echoed, as if an army of giants was on the march in the library...which was somewhat accurate, when you thought about it.

One by one, the Primarchs arrived and took their seats around the round table which had been there for countless centuries.

Taylor knew diplomacy wasn't her strong point...but given the large missing intervals, she could easily guess this table had been meant for twenty Primarch-sized seats once upon a time.

There were only twelve of them today, and three were several metres away from the table, all draped in austere shrouds of black.

Sanguinius, Hanzo Hattori, and Ferrus Manus had perished, and unless the Emperor was somehow able to resurrect them, they would never set foot upon Macraggian soil ever again.

There was another large seat set aside, one which was almost disappearing under the columns of books placed upon it. This felt like a joke at the expense of the Thousand Sons' Primarch, and the insect-mistress decided, wisely in her opinion, not to comment on it.

Her own seat around the table was a new addition, obviously. A bit higher, and she would have to use her wings...and it wasn't a joke.

Fine, it was a joke, Guilliman hadn't created a table and chairs that high.

The result, ultimately, was a table where the chair to her immediate right was empty, as the Salamander seat remained unoccupied and would stay that way today.

And to Guilliman's left, the same was true for the seating arrangement which had been reserved for Lion El'Jonson, Primarch of the Dark Angels.

It was Jaghatai Khan who opened the meeting. As always, Taylor did her best not to stare. No matter how many scars she had removed with the new medicines, it always felt astounding the Fifth Primarch had managed to survive the tortures of the Drukhari in the murder-arenas of the Webway.

"Hanzo stayed loyal, and I went to pay him my respects. May his memory be preserved for all the sacrifices he and his sons made."

One by one, the Primarchs and Taylor repeated the words, followed by the Space Marines chosen to be their security detail here.

"But while our brother stayed loyal and true, only being forgotten due to the abominable consequences of his defeat, the same can't be said about someone else. Nagash is back."

The name was uttered like a curse...and to be fair, it was perfectly justified. There wasn't any power behind it. The Veil between the realities didn't shiver. There were no dark omens to make the ground shake.

And yet, the name tasted like poison.

Taylor cleared her throat.

"He's going to be a problem in the years to come." The Lady of Nyx admitted honestly. "But we can't exactly hunt him down and slay him like he deserves. Unless I am misreading the situation badly, the King in Yellow abandoned the demonic sword he had stolen and many other prizes before fleeing so he could not be tracked by conventional or sorcerous means."

"There are other ways," Leman Russ bared his teeth, "to hunt someone."

And Taylor didn't want to learn of them, for her peace of mind if nothing else.

"Perhaps," the golden-winged Lady General Militant conceded. "But I am very wary about the idea of cornering someone that managed to bleed and cripple between seventy and eighty percent of the forces the Ruinous Powers arrayed against him. Yes, he lost the vast majority of his forces in the process. But most of them were built to be expendable, like his cursed battalions of skeletons. Those he will rebuild easily."

The galaxy, alas, had hardly a shortage of ancient battlefields from which millions of skeletons could be collected.

"I agree with Lady Weaver there," Corvus Corax had arrived during the party...when exactly, she couldn't say. Today he had chosen to attend in a very simple black toga with the silver raven of the Raven Guard as its sole ornamentation. "The traitor has fled somewhere he will feel safe to plot and regain his strength. Cornering him there could lead to a great victory, but more likely it will result in the forces committed trapped and killed, before being raised to be enslaved in death when they refused to obey him when alive. And let's not forget that while many of his Space Marines were permanently dealt with, some of his lieutenants were dispersed, not eliminated."

"The theoretical is still that we will have to face the King in Yellow once more," Guilliman declared at last, before looking at her. "Unless the other Traitors will do us a favour and rid us of him while we watch the spectacle?"

Taylor shook her head regretfully.

"I would love to believe they can, and the Four Ruinous Powers and their slaves certainly have the motivation. Alas, I don't believe it prudent to base any plan on their ability to actually pull it off. I must note that the Traitors needed our indirect assistance several times to prevent the rise of the King in Yellow as an ungodly abomination of Eternity. They could have failed. Wisdom advises we prepare for the worst: that they will fail to stop the Undead Lord...or that they won't bother, if Nagash's next plan doesn't threaten Chaos directly."

"Then I will lead the Extermination Force the next time," Leman Russ growled. "He managed to trick me once, I will make sure he won't walk out of our second battle."

"I advise you," Rogal Dorn spoke, his tone akin to a block of granite being granted sentience, "to not make the mistake of thinking Nagash will be the same opponent as before. While he is not Magnus, his sorcery and vicious schemes make him incredibly redoubtable."

"I will bring the Anathema Psykana with me, brother. I am eager to separate his skeletal head from the rest of his bones; I am not going to do it in a stupid way."

"Good." The Primarch of the Imperial Fists said bluntly.

"Or not so good, given the old and new enemies we're now facing," Jaghatai Khan of Chogoris commented with a slight smile. "The Tyranids. The Necrons. It seems we were really optimistic at the Triumph of Ullanor saying we would not fight against anything more dangerous than the Rangdan and the Orks."

"We were extremely lucky," Dorn told them, as always in a no-nonsense tone. "If the Necron Dynasties had risen up in large numbers while the Legions were busy with the Orks, be it during the last years of the thirtieth millennium or the War of the Beast, the Imperium would have lost extremely badly."

"You are right," Corax agreed. "And let's not speak of what the all-devouring Tyranids could have done while we were distracted by Horus' treachery or some other conflict."

"The Eastern Fringe would have fallen," Roboute Guilliman declared bluntly, "and then they would have launched their attacks deep inside Ultima Segmentum, opening a war on a thousand fronts."

Assuming the Great Devourer didn't try to bypass all their major strongholds and rush towards Terra for a decisive battle, of course...Taylor winced internally. Still, it was better to not overestimate the enemy, so far the Tyranids didn't show macro-strategy skills on a galactic scale, or a capability to make traps involving thousands of fleets dispersed across a hundred thousand light-years.

"This is why I defend the idea we must remove the poisons that are slowly but surely killing the Imperium from the inside." Taylor began to explain her point of view. "My new economic advisor gave me a long and detailed financial analysis of the Imperium in general terms, and the reality is that Terra is bleeding us dry. It is a black hole in terms of food, military firepower, and so many things I can't possibly count them in a single meeting. At the same time, the Imperium has to guard the frontiers of the Eye of Terror, the Maelstrom, and maintain its vigilance on other quarantined zones. No matter how many Battles of Macragge we win, we're slowly reaching the limits of the Imperium's logistical abilities when it comes to waging war against greater threats."

"And what kind of military operation would you have in mind, if the means were available?" Corax asked her politely.

"The Maelstrom," the stars-filled-eyed parahuman replied. "I want to close the Maelstrom, and erase the threat it represents to the trade and military logistical lines of the Imperium forever."


Fortress of Hera

Temple of Correction

2.212.312M35

Sergeant Gavreel Forcas

If one wanted to see a sign of how high his Lady had risen, Gavreel knew there would have not been a better indicator than a thousand Space Marines standing and applauding as the Lady of Nyx made her grand entrance.

Obviously, this was not a thousand Chapters cheering and announcing their support; while the Sergeant of the Dawnbreaker Guard didn't have a full account, there had to be around four hundred of them represented in the Temple of Correction.

"Thank you, swords and shields of the Adeptus Astartes." Today, their Lady had not come in Power Armour, but in a long winter robe of red and gold. For this summit, it seemed to embellish her smile and presence even more than it already was.

There were a few greetings, salutations, and introductions...and then the Shield of Angels went directly on the offensive.

"While the First Bacta Conference, organised directly under my aegis at Nyx, ended in a satisfying manner, I would be lying if I said there weren't potential sources of trouble waiting in the shadows."

A lot of transhuman warriors suddenly did their best to not look in the direction of the Ultramarines and Space Wolves who occupied a good part of the assembly.

"Yet we are all servants of the Emperor," Lady Weaver continued, "and the consolidation of the Imperium is far too important to lose it in petty grudges. As such, I am officially voicing my support to make Macragge one of the Bacta Depots of the Imperium."

There was no loud sigh of relief, but there was a lot of applause and plenty of smiles.

But as Gavreel knew, this was far from the entire proposal.

"Don't misunderstand me," the mistress of the Adjutant-Spiders said calmly, "with the High Lords giving their support to the Weapon Depot which will be based here, and the importance of a system now hosting two Chapters of the First Founding, Macragge is destined to be the anchor of all military efforts in this part of the Eastern Fringe. And in case there is any doubt about what I'm warning you about, yes, I am convinced the Tyranids will make another attempt to devour this system."

This, naturally, was a strong incentive to return all the Space Marines to a more serious mood.

After a few seconds of silence, an Imperial Fist Astartes stood.

"The principle is sound. But one Depot is nonetheless going to result in a...dispersion of the logistics."

"The dispersal is, unfortunately, inevitable," their Lady agreed quickly. "But it is necessary. And it won't be one Depot, but two."

This time, there were definitely whispers of surprise.

An Imperial map was summoned into existence, and one by one the stellar location of the current Depots appeared.

"As I said before, the First Bacta Conference proved satisfying in many regards. But as compromises added to compromises, several flaws on the strategic level have become evident. For readily apparent reasons, Mortikah VII and Talus IV have been forced to supply their stocks to the Chapters operating against the Traitor Marines and the rest of the heretics unleashed from the Eye of Terror's pits. It is exactly what the Emperor and I expected from them. But it leaves Segmentum Pacificus, recently reunited to the Imperium, with a lot of problems. This must change. And this is why I propose the Adeptus Astartes Homeworld of Sanctum, fiefdom of the noble White Templars, be granted the honour and duty of guarding a new Bacta Depot."

Naturally, Thomas, the White Templars battle-brother serving in the Dawnbreaker Guard, was the first to cheer, followed by nearly all Imperial Fists and Black Templars.

Actually, looking at all the sons of Dorn, Gavreel wondered with amusement if his Lady wasn't trying to make the sons of Dorn as loyal to her as the sons of Sanguinius and Vulkan...

After several minutes of improvised celebrations, it was the turn of the Dark Angel representative, as was proper, to damper a bit the enthusiasm.

"I have no objection to Sanctum playing this role," the Captain of the Unforgiven spoke, "the Formidyre System is a crucial bastion which is connected to half a dozen major Warp routes allowing Crusade-level expeditionary forces to rapidly deploy into the depths of Segmentum Pacificus. However, I question how the stocks will be allocated. As the recent Black Crusade proved, the existing stocks were absolutely vital to return our battle-brothers to their fully operational status."

"A completely rational question," the golden-winged insect-mistress nodded, not even giving a glance to Guilliman and the other Primarchs watching the spectacle from their seats behind her. "And one which will be answered by two measures. The first is going to be the increase of the Bacta production. Several interesting measures have been proposed to me, and they will be implemented once I return to the Nyx Sector. Obviously, the production increase will not happen in a single day, but I believe that within a decade, not only will the pre-Black Crusade levels have been restored, the Imperial Bacta Depots will be able to count on more Bacta doses to sustain the pace of Astartes operations."

"But the percentage granted to the Depots won't change?" While one couldn't say the tone was anxious, the grim-faced of the representative of the Deathwatch was betraying a certain...nervousness.

"It won't change. As an exceptional gesture, and in exchange for several favours that the Adeptus Mechanicus and the Adeptus Astartes will be oath-bound to, Nyx will decrease its part from twenty percent to twelve. The noble Chapter Masters of Nocturne and Chogoris have also agreed to decrease their stocks of Bacta to six and seven respectively."

And they were all going to receive a bounty of weapons, raw resources, schematics, and other valuable things in return. Gavreel knew Baal had proposed to decrease its part too, but given how far the home of the Blood Angels was from the other Depots, it simply wasn't wise to decrease the strategic Bacta reserves of the Blood.

"This measure will free ten percent of the Bacta production for these two new Depots. The strategic importance of these locations being fairly equal, I suggest Macragge and Sanctum being granted five percent each."

This naturally resulted in more applause and cheering. The party – which had already been lasting several days so far – was showing all signs of resuming here and now.

"I will also during the next several days discuss the opportunity for all Apothecaries of each Depot to be trained in the handling of new medical substances I intend to introduce. As the first 'tests' have been successfully concluded, per the agreement of Primarch Jaghatai Khan..." the Fifth Primarch made a gesture towards the astounding number of wounds which had been fading away with every day, "we will supervise more tests with the blessings of the Archmagi Biologis of the Adeptus Mechanicus and Lord Guilliman of Ultramar."

At this point, it was a good thing the Temple of Correction was built very solidly, because a minor earthquake rumbled as an overwhelming majority of Space Marines manifested their joy.


Assassin Elena Kerrigan

The ambiance was rather festive when Elena arrived and began to move on the peripheries of the large groups of transhumans listening to the speech of an Imperial Fist about something that sounded like a doctrine of stronghold fortification.

Of course, the Angel of Shadows wasn't fooled.

There were over a thousand Space Marines in the Fortress of Hera, and more waited outside, manning the rebuilt fortifications and the anti-orbital defences, supported by millions of men and women. For all the celebrations and the good humour, the agent of the Officio Assassinorum was sure that if an alert came, the crystal glasses would instantly be cast aside and the lethal fury of the Adeptus Astartes would turn on the suicidal enemy who dared challenge them in the heart of Macragge.

That didn't count the twelve massive Adjutant-Spiders. The giant arachnids were all pretending to discuss the merits of hot chocolate, tea, and other drinks, but Elena saw their eight eyes and the radiance flowing from them to their mistress.

Anyone that didn't belong here would be stopped by them...or by the many insects waiting out of sight behind the marble pillars and reinforced arches.

Elena prepared herself as she took the empty seat to Weaver's left.

One could only hope-

"So...nice tattoos, Elena."

The shadow-wielding parahuman rolled her eyes in exasperation.

"This is war paint, not tattoos!" she retorted defensively. "And they weren't my idea in the first place!"

"So you say..."

"I was forced to prove myself in a series of challenges to the...population of Kush. The contests were about proving my worthiness to defend Kush...and when I changed to this appearance," which was to say, dark-skinned and dark-haired to have better camouflage in the dark jungles of Kush, "they painted my body with this white paint! I didn't think much of it at first, but the next time I changed my appearance, the paint didn't fade away! It must have some psychic component, because it isn't going away even if you try to remove it with soap, water, or anything else I tried."

And of course, Taylor Hebert giggled.

"Stop laughing!"

Naturally, the other servant of the Emperor didn't make a pause in her giggling...

"Were a few clowns present at any point, just out of curiosity?"

"Yes," Elena grumbled before shaking her head. "Wait, do you think-"

"It certainly has all the characteristics of one of their jokes, yes." The golden-winged parahuman made a sound of gloating that gave Elena the urge to punch her before giving her an expression of amusement. "When you leave, I will ask Artemis to escort you. She will lead you to the Enterprise, I have a few things that should make the paint fade away. In case it isn't a joke and the...the local population expects you to return with white 'war paint' applied, my Adjutant will make a copy of the...not-tattoos so you can reapply them quickly."

"Thanks," the simple word made her grit her teeth...but she wasn't going to walk around with that, it would make stand out in crowds, and that was something an Assassin had to avoid at all costs!

"You're welcome." Of course, a baby Frostlion having been covered in Umbralshroud chose this moment to jump on Weaver's lap. The goal was absolutely to obtain food and caresses, and it was successful...though the big spiders hissed and grumbled at the sight. "How did things go with Arranoc?"

"The Umbralshroud Veil is in place." Elena reported formally before shifting to a more ironic tone. "And it has been done without the Imperium being involved, by the way. Some old psy-automatons will do the mining and send it to an abandoned world where the Mechanicus will wait for the deliveries."

"I was a bit too optimistic." There was definitely a twinge of embarrassment in the Angel of Sacrifice's voice. "Or rather, I underestimated how much Anvillus wanted to exploit these worlds. I had to give them...I had to exchange a few precious things to keep them happy. Still, the Cromarc Wyldyr System is protected by Umbralshroud, and we get the Noctilith we want from the Night Hawk moon. This is the optimal outcome, no matter how long the negotiations I had to endure."

Elena didn't argue against that...and she didn't want to say she would have done better: for all her attempts to learn the Eldar language, she didn't have even the basics down so far. Plus they were the Eldar, which could pass as your best friends one moment, and then a second later talked to you like you were their mortal enemy...

"The projects?" the Angel of Shadows inquired.

"Dragon is in charge of them," the other Living Saint shrugged. "From what her latest messages reported, things are going well, especially since some Raven Guard Techmarines arrived to support her Tech-Priest Artisans. The Power Armour for your 'Umbra Sororitas' is the most advanced project, of course. For the rest, we're very much at the preliminary stages."

"Of course," as much as she wanted to order brand-new gunships, a brand-new void ship for herself, and everything with undetectable stealth to make sure the Enemy never saw her coming... Elena knew the weapons and assets weren't ready, and wouldn't be ready for years to come. It took years to build the smallest Warp-capable warships, and most of them were of relatively simple designs compared to what the Officio Assassinorum had commissioned the Nyxian shipyards to build. "And the Ecclesiarchy?" Elena asked hopefully.

"Sorry, for that one you're on your own." Suddenly, the golden-winged parahuman was very, very interested in caressing the feline on her lap...

"Coward," the assassin grumbled.

"I wouldn't want to deprive you of the joy of negotiating with the Synod and its Cardinals."

If the smile was more vulpine, the ex-vigilante would have wondered if Tattletale, that antagonising bitch, had not reincarnated into her friend's body to infuriate the entire galaxy...and herself.

"Coward," she repeated.

"And more seriously, the Ecclesiarch has to meet with you. We Living Saints are extremely different from each other. Our respective roles are, politically and militarily, very much opposed. And astropathic messages are poor substitutes to meeting someone in person."

"I...I don't like it, but I understand."

"Good. Now stand and smile, I have to formally introduce you to the Primarchs."

Elena Kerrigan, Angel of Shadows, killer of Word Bearers and various Traitor Marines...groaned loudly.

"Can't I stay in the shadows?"

"No." The little mewling feline was given back to his large mother who was waiting patiently in front of the Adjutant-Spiders. Weaver must have felt her deep reluctance, because she decided to add more carrot. "And I will introduce you to the representatives of the Obsidian Jaguars after that. They are a Chapter descended from the sons of Guilliman, but you will like them, I think..."


Nova Fenrisia (formerly Ardium)

The Fang

Hall of the Great Wolf

2.221.312M35

Wolf Lord Olav Direbear

The feast had been both joyous and sorrowful.

Joyous, because all the sons of Fenris who had not yet gone to the Halls of the Allfather were gathered here, before their father.

Sorrowful, for soon one Great Company would leave them forever.

But it would not be said the Vlka Fenryka shied away from throwing a proper farewell feast.

Mjød barrels had been opened by the hundreds. Honey and many sugary goods had been bought by the tons to transform the soft Macraggian wine into something properly drinkable. A lot of groxes and other prey animals had been acquired, prepared with traditional Fenrisian cooking, and then roasted before arriving on everyone's tables.

For several hours, the sons of Russ didn't think too much about the end of the feast, and more about savouring the present, with the spirit of Fenris and their Primarch fondly watching over them.

But the hours passed too swiftly, and soon the fires dimmed. The barrels were totally emptied, and the bellies were so filled even the biggest eaters of the Vlka Fenryka stopped savouring lest they be told to run a thousand kilometres in the snow to lose some weight.

And the Lord of Wolves rose.

"Dragoneye! Come forwards! Don't force me to drag you here before everyone like a stubborn pup!"

Wolf Lord Erik Dragoneye immediately abandoned his conversation with his brothers and rushed to his father's side under cheers and bombastic hurrahs.

His Great Company followed in good order...nah, Olav was kidding. It was an undisciplined column, with the Blood Claws reminded to take their place behind the Long Fangs by vigorous blows to their heads.

Judging by his grin, their father was not going to train them hard to correct this. The pups and the Long Fangs had no idea what they had been chosen for...

"We stand ready to depart for Hishrea, father!"

"Keep that stupid smile off your face, young pup!" Leman Russ growled. "The greatest merit I found to choose you was that your Great Company had near one thousand sons of mine!"

It was sudden and unpredictable...it was like they were facing a mountain of Death, the blade of frost and primal winter.

They were standing in front of the Emperor's Hunter, and he wasn't pleased with them.

"Thanks to Lady Weaver, the Imperium graciously accepted to let us resettle Hishrea with the brave families of Midgardia and the refugees of the now dissolved Fenris Sector. The Heiress to Sanguinius also used her administrative miracles to transform most of the bounties earned at Cadia into the resources we need! You will not endanger this stable and secure situation, antagonise the Governor of the system, or refuse to defend your future Einherjar! Are my words too difficult to understand?"

"NO JARL! I UNDERSTAND!"

"Good," Leman Russ growled, and the aura of death and danger decreased, his anger visibly...not forgotten, but almost expended...for now. "I will be ruthlessly fair: by the time this conference and all the political shenanigans are over here, I will visit Hishrea and make sure you follow my recommendations. Don't make me regret choosing you...my son."

"Yes, my Jarl...father!"

The son of the Allfather looked at the entire Hall with an emotion Olav wasn't able to decipher.

Then he returned to staring at Dragoneye.

"And of course, don't try to build your Chapter to Legion numbers! I've heard enough complaints from the bureaucrats for a lifetime! One thousand Blood Claws, Grey Hunters, and Long Fangs! Five hundred specialists; Rune Priests, Iron Priests and Wolf Priests plus all the others I am not going to list there!"

"Yes, father!"

"Take your mutts out of there, and prepare your Axemasters to ride like the sky chariots of our legends!" Leman Russ howled. "Let's hunt together one last time!"

"FOR RUSS AND THE ALLFATHER!"

And all the sons of Fenris howled, followed by the thunderous acclaim of all the Fenrisians who would see them sally out of the Fang.

By the time the sun would set again over Asaheim, one Battle Barge, three Strike Cruisers, two Nova-class Frigates, an entire Squadron of Hunter-class Destroyers, along with the nine hundred and eighty-four members of the Tenth Great Company had left Nova Fenrisia behind them.

The bards would sing of it in their sagas. It was the day the great saga of the Winter Sharks of Hishrea began.


Macragge System

Battleship Enterprise

2.224.312M35

Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert

Taylor didn't have the seer abilities of the Emperor, and she was glad for it, to be honest.

Every time she had met a Dark Angel Space Marine lately though, the Lady General Militant had thought it was a good thing to not have precognitive powers...just to avoid knowing how big a disaster the sons of the Lion had been busy creating for themselves while the Imperium wasn't watching them.

Alas, saying it out loud would certainly be a bit...undiplomatic.

And it took her a good minute to prepare a question that wouldn't sound like an accusation.

"You told me there was some good news. Something about discovering how the Night Lords were able to infiltrate the Rock?"

"Yes, Lady Weaver," the Captain, who had presented himself as 'Master Imamiah', answered. "It appears the Traitors somehow were able to infiltrate the construction workers teams when the Rock was transformed into a proper void fortress, and commission a tunnel that would show on no maps. Then they placed a blasphemous xenos artefact near the exit, one which would mentally compel even a member of the Adeptus Astartes to believe that this corridor's section had already been cleared. And to make sure our technological instruments wouldn't find the problem, they used a relay of augur-befouling systems that provoked temporary glitches in our defensive system."

That was definitely...interesting. It wasn't the kind of thing the Night Lords were famed for. Assuming these piratical Astartes had the will to use artefacts like those, they assuredly didn't have the means.

"The Alpha Legion was involved in this operation from the very beginning, it seems."

"That is the opinion of the Supreme Grand Master too, Lady Weaver."

"What a pity we weren't able to capture the important officers," Isley and Pierre together may have been able to extract some extremely vital information from them...but since so many had been eaten by Tyranids or reduced to bloody paste, all that remained was hypotheticals and guesses. "But at least you have closed this avenue of infiltration. I don't think they would be so naive as to come back to repeat their crime, but it's better to remove that weapon from their hands."

"Yes," the Dark Angel officer agreed. "If they want to attack the Rock again, we will be glad to welcome them with all the batteries at our disposal."

You didn't need to be a General to know that the welcome was going to be explosive...and deal with the Traitors in a very permanent fashion.

"If they are so stupid as to try, I will request you send me the vids of their annihilation." Taylor frowned. "But it doesn't solve the main problem."

"No," Imamiah acknowledged. "Luther is gone, and we don't have a single idea of where he could have fled to."

"The same is true for myself," the insect-mistress replied honestly. "Truthfully, with the databases and other sources of information available to my forces, we really believed Sevatar had been the only one of your prisoners to successfully escape. There were no Space Marines of the Great Crusade-era aboard the ships involved in the Cataclysm save those who had already been there for centuries or millennia. It's always possible he was aboard the Heavy Battleship of the Dark Mechanicum or the Alpha Legion vessel, but those hulls were too far away from the Rock to receive a Thunderhawk in so little time, and you would have noticed teleportation flares."

And now Luther, the very knight who had been the Lion's adoptive father, was free.

Unlike the Night Lords, the Imperium didn't even have a vague clue on how to start investigating his disappearance.

"It's always possible," Master Imamiah began slowly, as if he found his own words unconvincing, "that one of the ships which stayed in the Fenris System managed to rescue him before making a desperate Warp Jump."

"Most of said ships were reported annihilated, some by the guns of your Chapter," Taylor reminded him politely. "That's why I am thinking there is a far worse possibility. One which would unfortunately work very well with this Traitor's apparent ability to trick anyone into believing he's saying the truth, while staying alive for so long, stasis field or no stasis field."

"And this possibility is?"

"Luther of Caliban is, in all likelihood, a powerful Sorcerer, sworn to one or more of the Ruinous Powers of Chaos." The Lady of Nyx declared. "One powerful enough to escape through the Warp or some other malefic method."

"You...you may be right, Lady Weaver. But if that is true, then he might be in any Segmentum by now. And no battle-brother of the Dark Angels has any idea about his ambitions."

According to the stories Gavreel had told her, the ambition four millennia ago had clearly been to build his own Legion.

But the Dark Angels had been scattered across space and time, reuniting them was certainly going to be the next best thing to impossible...

And ambitions changed. People changed. It was entirely possible the ambitions of Luther would change in accordance with the loss of his powerbase.

Nonetheless, having such a high-ranking Traitor unleashed across the galaxy was not a good thing at all...


Macragge

Magna Macragge Civitas

Secundus Hall

2.227.312M35

General Nikolai Rokossovsky

For the life of him, Nikolai didn't understand why everyone was so bothered by the Macraggian cold. On Vostroya, this would have been considered lukewarm, and anyone who covered him- or herself in furs would have been laughed at for weeks!

Unfortunately, the Vostroyans were largely outnumbered, and though some Macraggian citizens and military personnel shared his amusement, it was maybe not a good idea to laugh too loudly. Not when one of the souls miffed by the Macraggian winter was Her Celestial Highness Lady Taylor Hebert, Lady General Militant of the Imperial Guard.

"Congratulations on your superb encirclement at Ichar IV, your Celestial Highness," the Vostroyan General began as a column of spiders made noises of relief as they entered the Hall of Scipio and began to remove a small mountain of furred clothes from their large bodies. "The reports I've read make for impressive reading."

"It helped that the opponent had not read the Tactica Imperialis and practically invited me to do an encirclement of his forces," the Mistress of the aforementioned spiders huffed, "I'm not going to complain, it made it considerably easier to end this campaign. But I'm sure that if you had been there in command instead of me, you could have achieved the same."

"Possibly," Nikolai agreed, before making a significant addendum to the assessment, "in all likelihood however, I would have needed a lot more time to arrange the conditions by which said encirclement became possible."

It was the panic that spread thorough the PDF troops of Ichar IV after they encountered the first Scorpiads and Baalite Scorpions which had created the first decisive rout. Optimistically, elite Guard regiments could have created the same effect, but not in so little time.

"Hmm...on one hand it was good news for this campaign, but it is also bad news using a long-term perspective." A concerned expression appeared on the Lady General Militant's face. "Just imagine what a Tyranid invasion would have done to the defences of Ichar IV if it had been said xenos instead of my Swarm."

Nikolai grimaced. That was a scenario that he would prefer not to imagine, by the God-Emperor and all his Saints.

"But let's not discuss dark possibilities for now. I was told the Primarch of the Ultramarines gave you some homework while I was away?"

"Yes, Lady General." Nikolai smiled, glad to be back in his field of expertise. "As one can expect from the Auxilia's performance when the Word Bearers attacked, the Lord of Macragge was unimpressed by their exploits...or rather how few of them there were for the absurdly high casualties they suffered. Therefore on his recommendations, we conducted several real-life grand manoeuvres and major exercises."

"And the outcome?"

The Vostroyan General shrugged.

"Pretty much what I expected. Any regiment of the Auxilia which had not fought on a true battlefield with its current batch of officers and enlisted personnel had regressed to the level of PDF troopers. In no particular order, I would say the officers were scandalously passive, completely underestimated modern artillery's lethality, and are in dire need to learn what a parade uniform is and the differences between it and a proper BDU...just to begin with."

The stars-filled eyed showed no sign of surprise.

"Continue."

"Chapter Master Valens and his officers supervised the manoeuvres for several military districts, but the Auxilia regiments chosen for this honour were often the same. While in the districts the sons of Guilliman weren't watching, the great yearly manoeuvres were utterly unrealistic. The war games on hololithic boards were so rigid they had no practical value. Most of the officers consequently never developed the tactical thinking the Guard considers to be absolutely necessary, the warrant officers left their regiments for more competent formations, and of course most of the sub-par training they did was done with understrength companies, rarely mustering the reserves except in times of emergencies."

Needless to say, this had made sure the Traitor Astartes were able to inflict devastating casualties upon the Ultramar Auxilia. A Chaos Marine was already a formidable opponent, but when the enemy in front of him had on average a couple of weeks of inadequate training per year, it couldn't have been worse than the events which destroyed most of the Pharsalus Auxilia regiments.

"Well," Her Celestial Highness commented after a few seconds of silence, "at least the Guard regiments we trained do not have those kinds of problems." The not anymore went unsaid.

"We're certainly not at the point 'stay on the road, no matter what happens' is heard," Nikolai agreed with a smile, before sobering up. "That is not to say I have not found flaws. There was a certain amount of...arrogance I had to stamp out, especially for the forces which fought here. Fortunately, the events on Ardium against the Tyranids were a big help deflating some heads."

"That's all?"

"Not quite...there's sometimes a...an unacceptable amount of aggressiveness, from your Swarm to the Nyxian guardsmen, and from the Sororitas to the other special detachments. While I agree with the principle that under the correct conditions, proper offensive mindsets and some bloodshed will spare more blood later, it requires perfectly organised combat operations and a good idea of what you're facing. And sometimes, in the fires of battle, some of our officers tend to forget that...and because they lead from the front, they tend to suffer completely unacceptable casualties."

"Hmm...we have to encourage the offensive spirit, though. Too often, an army that doesn't have the mental strength to go on anything but the defensive is rarely going to hold for long."

"Agreed." Nikolai answered. "But further training will have to make some of our stubborn men and women understand that elite infantry and cavalry is a precious resource, and attacking at the correct moment is important. We will also have to retrain some people, because last time I checked, bayonet combat is a last resort for close-quarters, and we don't need to use it every time an officer wants to try out his new chainsword."

"Yes...yes, that we must absolutely discourage. Anything else?"

"That's it for the bad points. As for the good news, the overwhelming majority of the regiments we committed showed initiative, rarely panicked more than a few seconds despite facing elite xenos armies, and the officers used the terrain and the resources allocated to them with maximal efficiency. The war games with your Adjutant-Spiders and the Space Marines of the Nyx Sector proved an excellent investment; while many regiments had never seen fire before, they were quite often capable of inflicting devastating casualties to an enemy possessing far more experience and tactical knowledge than them."

The golden-winged Lady General gave a thin smile.

"I'm almost hearing the 'but' coming..."

"But," Nikolai obliged her, "we badly need some new equipment if we're trying to decrease the killed in action's numbers we took against the Necrons, the Tyranids...and the heretics. For sure, these are just the preliminary recommendations-"

"You have earned my trust, General. Speak frankly."

"We need to better protect our reconnaissance regiments and all the scouts we have," the Vostroyan began bluntly, "the Sentinel is just a death trap against the Necrons, the Tyranids, and other serious enemies. Too many times good soldiers did everything right and yet still got slaughtered all the same, bringing back the information we needed at a cost that they shouldn't have paid. The Salamander scout vehicle has proven better in that it can scout and run away, but it is way too loud and too easily detected."

Nikolai took a deep breath.

"We need to give better armours and weapons to the Guard infantry in general. The morale stayed high from Volga to Macragge, but too often the men had to use the more weapons of the armoured vehicles alongside them because what they had couldn't put down a Necron for good. A new model of grenade, for example, would be a must-have for future campaigns. The men also need better communications, the enemy too often was able to jam them or cause vox-distortions that caused major issues. On the bright side...we correctly identified that self-propelled artillery is the future for our batteries. No matter how fast you are able to take a cannon towed by a truck from Point A to Point B, the static guns are way too vulnerable to counter-battery fire unless they're protected by shields or some amount of heavy armour."

"That's encouraging, given what I've heard about the new 'Archers'...though I must note no one seems to find grace in my naming conventions."

"Different cultures, different names for the favourite weapons, your Celestial Highness!" Nikolai admired his superior, but he wasn't going to tell her out loud, and in presence of a dozen Adjutant-Spiders, that often her name choices were...poorly inspired. "But having reviewed the main battles of Operation Stalingrad, I am sure of one thing above all."

"And that thing is?"

"We need drones for our regiments. Thousands of drones, and preferably far more than that."

Nikolai received an ironic smile immediately.

"You're not the only one to think so..."

"Really?"

"You might have missed the announcement, but Archmagos Lankovar arrived this morning. Under my authority, he made the first exhaustive inspection on the Tau military manufactorums."


Macragge

Fortress of Hera

Library of Ptolemy

2.230.312M35

Primarch Roboute Guilliman

Archmagos Desmerius Lankovar, Roboute admitted, was a typical member of the Nyxian Mechanicus on two key points: his loyalty to Lady Weaver was absolute...and he was instinctively annoyed by Cawl's presence.

Still, the high-ranked Tech-Priest was enough of a professional to answer when Cawl asked a question, unlike some Magi and Archmagi the Primarch had met since his return.

"Yes, we gained the knowledge how to create this alloy from the Tau. Obviously, Mankind had already discovered and classified it in the past as 'Type IR-101011111001'. But the secrets of the alloy and the STC itself describing the process to create it were lost long ago under troubling circumstances. It was only by the Omnissiah' will we were able to notice the strong similarities between Type IR-101011111001 and the alloy used to build the Battlesuit XV8-02 'Crisis Iridium'."

"And the process does not involve any particularly problematic or proscribed metallurgy operations?" Lady Weaver asked neutrally, but the Thirteenth Primarch was sure she already knew the answer. The Lady of Nyx wasn't going to gamble in front of an audience of hundreds of Tech-Priests and potentially cause one of her followers to be accused of tech-heresy.

Heresy. It was a word which always left him ill at ease, a reminder how much the Imperium and the Mechanicum...the Adeptus Mechanicus had changed since the Great Crusade.

"No, Chosen of the Omnissiah. The metallurgy and the chemical processes can largely be carried out with the existing infrastructure of Nyx. The main problem with verifying the Taus' words came from the high quantities of pure iridium and rare resources involved in the project. But as the Nyx Power Armour Project is of utmost priority, I deemed the acquisition process to be more than justified."

"It was, and you did well to take the initiatives you did, Archmagos." The insect-mistress approved, taking a data-slate handed by one of her spiders. "Does anyone have other questions?"

No one did, and thus Roboute cleared his throat.

"I think no one does, so let's turn the next subject of importance...drones."

In the aftermath of the battle, it had really been a lesser concern, but then some Tech-Priests and guardsmen had begun to 'play' with what they called 'long-range extended servo-owls' and a few of the heavily modified xenos toys that had been 'borrowed' from the blue-skinned xenos, and this time, it gained the utmost attention.

"The tactical benefits of introducing drones into our order of battle are obvious, Lord Primarch," Archmagos Desmerius Lankovar began laconically, "and once you make sure not to include an Abominable Intelligence like these reckless xenos did, building a drone is rather simple. When it comes down to it, a drone is just a servo-skull or a servo-owl used for military purposes, but with more range, cogitation capacity, and of course more information-gathering technology. All the processes to create one are well-known to the Mechanicus. The chief obstacles to a drone being used have always been the logistical support needed to keep the drones in the air on a long campaign, the repair and maintenance needs in high-intensity operations...and doctrinally, the concept of sending machines ahead to spare more flesh dying on the battlefield."

Roboute didn't need to be an Archmagos to know which of the points had made sure that in the dimension the Tau had come from, the Mechanicus had blocked them from reaching the Guard regiments in significant numbers.

"The commands to pilot such a drone?" Belisarius Cawl asked, not hiding his excitement.

"There have been several enthusiastic attempts which are currently being investigated..." Lankovar's voice trailed off, and Weaver coughed a single name...'Leet'. "But for the 'tactical drones' that would be deployed much like those of the xenos, the first approved patterns will be at worst months away."

"The proper safety measures have been taken?"

"The proper safety measures have been taken, Chosen of the Omnissiah," Lankovar assured his benefactor and mistress. "I myself personally delivered the draconic fire-extinguishing foam, the helmets, and the other equipment the Tau seemed to have disregarded completely in their mad insistence their 'Greater Good' would protect them."

There was some fierce grumbling from different Nyxian Tech-Priests wondering how the blue-skinned xenos had managed not to blow themselves up for so long...

"I am very impressed," the Thirteenth Primarch admitted out loud. "Congratulations, Lady Weaver, you seem to have gained a rich reward of technological bounty, though of course all of it will need to be properly analysed and monitored before it can be completely reverse-engineered to its full potential."

"Thank you, Lord Primarch."

Yes, Guilliman was impressed...and while he wasn't really worried per se, there was the not-too-comforting feeling that even with Cawl and thousands of other gifted Tech-Priests obeying his commands, Nyx was soon going to be one or two generations ahead when it came to operational battlefield technology.

"Would you be willing to consider a technology transfer?"

"It would depend on the price and what the exchange of technology would look like, Lord Primarch." Yes, in hindsight, it was not a surprising answer...at least it was better than what he would have gotten from Mechanicus-only sources. In the last year, Roboute Guilliman had learned the hard way how secretive and uncooperative many Magi and Archmagi could be.

And the Primarch of the Ultramarines winced internally, because both his personal funds and Macragge's treasury were not in a good state these days.

"Assuming the price would be dealt in one way or another," he added diplomatically.

"Assuming that," Weaver glanced at her spiders, who clearly gave her some information via telepathy, "the answer will be yes, there are only so many projects Nyx can develop and allocate funds to at any given time. What would you use said technology transfer for?"

"An APC program," Guilliman replied without hesitation. "I don't know how much your own officers insisted on it, but my sons' after-battle reports convinced me we must protect our well-trained infantry, and to do that, the solution is simple...better personal armours...and better armoured vehicles. The production of Rhinos is too low to my liking. It will be increased, and many thousands of them will find their way to the Macragge Depot, after the holes in my sons' Chapter arsenals have been filled."

"Please continue, Lord Primarch."

"The Rhino, alas, is only a stop-gap measure." With him no longer strapped to various medical monitoring devices, Roboute could use some measure of his charisma and leave his seat, and oh did he exploit it. "The merciless battles fought in the Eastern Fringe and elsewhere proved that without Ion Shielding, the survival of a particular military unit very much relies on luck. I dislike that."

The Mechanicus audience agreed with him, he could see that. They all believed in the law of probabilities, not luck...but it made no difference on the battlefield in the end.

"It is my opinion that the future of the APC for Astartes, as a consequence, needs a significant increase of its capacities...with Ion Shields, of course, but also an anti-gravity capability to move."

The Lady General Militant in front of him stayed still and silent for about ten seconds, before turning her head and nodding once at Desmerius Lankovar.

"And the old Rhinos? If the program is successful, that's potentially tens of thousands of Rhinos that the Adeptus Astartes won't need anymore."

"If the program is successful," Roboute promised, "I will urge my father to repeal the millennia-old Edict allowing only the Adeptus Astartes to use the Rhino assault transport."

Though in many ways, the Edict had always been ignored by the Ecclesiarchy, courtesy of it not existing at the time and thus not being included in the list of organisations which were forbidden from deploying it. Many Sisters of the Order of the Silver Rose had fought with red-painted Rhinos at Macragge and Ardium.

"That would be a powerful move, one which would earn you the support of the Imperial Guard," the Lady of Nyx didn't mince her words. "I suppose Archmagos Cawl will be the chief coordinator of the project?"

"He will."

Many Tech-Priests were...not exactly enthusiastic, to say the least.

"There will be a Martian and a Nyxian overseer to this project," the Lady General Militant faced Cawl, and her voice made clear this was non-negotiable. "And you have a deadline of twenty years to present a prototype with the resources and the technology transfers which will be required for the program...do you have a name for the program, Archmagos?"

"I do, Lady Weaver. I intend to name it 'Project Gaius'."

Seeing the expression of the young woman soften, Cawl's choice had been good...when he tried, the Archmagos was surprisingly good at gaining support when and where he wanted.

"As for the conditions of the transfer mentioned earlier...one of my economic advisors is mere days away. I think we can wait until she arrives to open the negotiations on that subject."


Fortress of Hera

Library of Ptolemy

2.245.312M35

Vicequeen Marianne Gutenberg

"I will make you pay for that, your Celestial Highness. Vengeance will be mine."

"I have no idea what the hell you're talking about, Lady Vicequeen."

The innocent tone didn't fool Marianne. Besides, the Lady General Militant had not even bothered trying to lie convincingly this time.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about."

"I don't know why you're so unhappy...I can assure you there are people who are waiting months to have an audience with the Primarch these days...and they don't get one in private."

"And you did make sure it would happen the moment I landed just to see the expression on my face," Marianne replied without anger. "Here I thought you appreciated my body..."

Her lover kept her eyes directly towards the entrance guarded by two Ultramarines. There was, however, a large smile on her face.

"I appreciate both your body and your intelligence...Marianne. And I wouldn't have done it if I thought you couldn't handle it. Or if my Adjutant-Spiders hadn't assured me you were over-prepared."

Marianne huffed. Of course the dedicated arachnids had warned her telepathically...

"Vengeance will mine nonetheless."

"I'm shaking in fear." The Living Saint answered drily as they entered the Library.

Instantly, being admitted into such a beautiful monument to books and written documents of Mankind forced a respectful silence.

The Library of Ptolemy had been built in a simple but beautiful Macraggian style, with long and wide avenues, distinct marble statues and High Gothic numbers to orient yourself, while above you and on the walls, there was a profusion of mosaics.

It was a combination of the old and the new: ancient rolls of vellum were protected by brand-new stasis fields which must have been replaced this year.

It was, in many ways, a memento of the Imperium-that-was, of a time when the human species was reunited rapidly and the Master of Mankind walked among his subjects.

And as if thinking it had summoned him, the Primarch appeared at the end of an alley, flanked by two Ultramarines carrying large pile of books. The Astartes were smiling in resignation, that much was obvious.

"Ah Lady General Militant Weaver, Lady Vicequeen Gutenberg..." the Primarch's expression looked like he had been lost in his studies, but his blue eyes proved this was a dangerous false impression. The Emperor's son was a dangerous negotiator. Good...it would be boring otherwise.

"Leave us." The Space Marines bowed, and left...maybe with some relief, for while the books wouldn't be heavy for someone with transhuman strength, studies on the other hand may be a chore the Space Marines were glad to avoid.

They took each a seat around a desk that had to be a copy of a Terran creation she had seen in the Imperial Palace once.

It took...quite a few seconds to adapt. Even staying motionless, the Primarch was the kind of magnificent presence which made you feel so small and tiny...fortunately, while the sensation was different from a Living Saint's, it had its similarities, and Marianne Gutenberg adapted.

The courtesies were murmured, and the real business could begin.

"I'm sure you're wondering why I agreed to Lady Weaver's request to bring you here so quickly, Lady Gutenberg?"

"No," the Speaker for the Chartists Captain's daughter replied truthfully. She had been told bluntness would be appreciated, and all her instincts were screaming at her to not play games with Guilliman. "Macragge is in a bad state economically, and you probably can't pay the entire bill for ensuring it is rebuilt and regains the technological and military superiority it took for granted in the last millennia."

There was a flash of...not surprise, but it was difficult to describe it...

"Indeed." The Avenging Son admitted. "I'm not going to pretend the situation is catastrophic, because it isn't, and exaggerating would serve no purpose. Thanks to Lady Weaver's ants and other...auxiliaries, the work to remove the Word Bearer's destruction will be fully completed by the end of the decade. But the ability to project military power and rebuild the logistical system I feel will be necessary for future military operations...that is an entirely different matter. It requires a significant amount of resources, and these resources aren't there. I rule over thirteen systems, not five hundred...and I was told that politically, rebuilding my old kingdom would not be appreciated by the High Lords of Terra."

Judging by the direction of the stare and the amused expression, it was a certain insect-mistress who had warned him...Marianne's respect for Taylor grew further. Saying that to a Primarch required courage, no matter how many accomplishments you already had under your belt.

"I let my brother's wolves have their Nova Fenrisia," Guilliman continued with a shadow of...not anger, but perhaps sorrow? "Unfortunately, the world of Shiloh is far too young to play the same role, assuming it will eventually become a Hive World in the future. And of course, the Inquisition has ordered the Illyrium District is to stay permanently empty for a thousand years. I agree with their decision, but it was a significant blow, combined with the destruction of Pharsalus."

The Primarch could have continued for a long time, but evidently he wanted to test her.

"You also lost most of your shipbuilding capacity at Ardium and Macragge, with only Mortendar remaining intact. Laphis made sure some of the old families are dealing with considerable problems of their own...and of course, the pilgrimage's importance did not abysmally collapse, but you still lost a large percentage of the income associated with it."

When your capital was in ruins anyway, you could hardly in good conscience let religious men and women rush into a warzone.

"Yes, those are indeed the practical facts Macragge...and I are forced to deal with." The Avenging Son watched her like a...bird of prey, or something incredibly inquisitive...and it was hard not to shiver. "And so I am searching for creative solutions."

"I presume conventional creative solutions are not an option?" the Vicequeen inquired after clearing her throat. "Since I don't think you need House Gutenberg or anyone from the Chartist Captains to demand loans and other financial expediencies."

"Correct," Guilliman replied with a nod. "Obviously, I could do it, but if another war comes to the gates of Macragge in the near future, I will have saved the present of the Ultramarines only to bankrupt their future."

Yes, no wonder the Emperor's son didn't want to go down that road unless there was no alternative.

Well, unconventional solutions it was. Thankfully, she had come prepared.

"I see. Since one of the problems is linked with Macragge...attractiveness from a Segmentum's perspective, I believe there is a solution, one which would be playing to Macragge's strengths, and would likely involve less religious issues than the one involved with the Shrine of a dead Primarch."

"And this solution is?" the Primarch asked with evident amusement at her choice of words.

"You allow House Gutenberg and House Weaver to finance the creation of a modern winter sports resort on Macragge."

This time, Marianne knew, she had definitely managed to surprise the Primarch.

"A winter sports resort...I admit it is quite a novel idea that didn't occur to me."

"But it would solve quite a few of your problems." Marianne insisted. "Let's be honest, Macragge is covered in mountains, and the climate is cold. No matter how much money you invest into it, it will be difficult to turn Macragge into an Agri-World. If you want to preserve the beauty of the world, heavy industry is out of the question if it's not in orbit. And economically, plenty of worlds have that anyway. But visiting the home of the Ultramarines and being able to spend money in a winter resort for entertainment and health reasons? This is an idea with a strong economic potential."

Clearly, as parties involved in the project, Marianne and her golden-winged partner would also earn a lot of money in the process, which was always useful and would give them influence in the Macraggian System without being rudely obvious about it.

"I suppose you have at least thought about a potential location?" If Guilliman had made a decision, he hid it well.

"The District of Alpae Sequania," the Vicequeen replied. "The main mountains are covered in snow year-round, though obviously when the climate is at its worst the upper mountains are extremely dangerous. But one only needs to invest in a transport axis straight from Macragge City, and the average aircar will be able to reach the theoretical station in three hours."

"Plus the creation of a major bridge," the Primarch amended, but he was now thoughtful. "Yes, the idea has merits. The beauty of Macragge would have to be preserved, however. I wouldn't allow the great mountains to be sculpted or any of the ridiculous things I'm aware the Ecclesiarchy and secular Planetary Governor do on too many words."

"You are the Lord of Macragge," Marianne replied with all the courtesy she had.

The Avenging Son chuckled.

"So I am. I suppose you have other surprising ideas to propose?"

"Yes, of course. One of them involves the insects of Her Celestial Highness here. You see-"


Battleship Enterprise

2.247.312M35

Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert

"You think then Roboute Guilliman will accept the winter sports resort proposal?"

"I'm almost certain he will, yes," Marianne gave her an amused glance as she dealt with all the bureaucratic duties which seemed to pile up despite her best efforts and the Adjutant-Spiders assigned to them. "Let's face it, everything that includes ceding some of the Lord of Macragge's privileges to organisations tied to the Adeptus Ministorum, like a fortress of the Templar Sororitas on Laphis, was never going to be accepted this year."

Taylor considered the Vicequeen's point...and then shrugged.

"You're certainly right about that. As for the other proposals...well, the idea of letting my ants 'colonise" Thulium would certainly deliver a lot of medical supplies and resources, but it would be an unacceptable loss of sovereignty."

"Even with your Adjutant-Spiders sworn to obey his orders in your absence?"

Taylor gave the daughter of House Gutenberg a sarcastic smile.

"There's a difference between obeying someone's orders and having someone's undying loyalty, Lady Gutenberg."

"I suppose that is true. But yes, I think he will go ahead with the idea of a winter sports resort. He needs the resources, and unlike all other proposals it is a purely economic exchange, with no military clauses involved. And once the fifty years are over, the government of Macragge will own it, though our share in the business will remain, meaning considerable benefits all year long."

Marianne gave her a large smile.

"I will, of course, give you a detailed plan of the winter sports resort I have in mind."

This felt like the beginning of one of those 'let's surprise Her Celestial Highness!' things. But since the Lady of Nyx admitted she hadn't the faintest idea what 'tourists' would like to have in a winter sports resort beside the incredibly obvious, well...

"I delegate this particularly important plan to you, if you're so willing to tackle it." Taylor paused. "And I note you didn't ask the Space Wolves to host this grand plan of a winter sports resort."

"Of course not," Marianne shook her head. "While the Angel of Shadows appears to have tamed the Frostlions, the rest of the Ardium-that-was is now filled with incredible lethal fauna, big and small. Unless your main goal is to eliminate the people visiting the winter sports resort, I don't think 'Nova Fenrisia' will ever be a place you want to visit for pilgrimages or holiday reasons."

For a couple of seconds, Taylor contemplated the idea of sending some annoying highborn there to teach them lessons in the guise of a 'winter holiday'...regretfully, she swiftly abandoned it. The political consequences weren't worth the amusement, no matter how tempting it was to throw a Vandire or two to a 'Fenrisian wolf' to suffer a tragic accident.

"Besides, they don't really need it. They got part of the bounty of Most Wanted Sixty-Four, Drecarth the Sightless. Sure, the four planets they got are all Ice-Death Worlds which will be used to settle their Successors, they got one orbital defence grid instead of two luxury stations, but Adept Harpagon released a cash reward of about one hundred and ninety Trillion Throne Gelts. They also got some lesser traitors like Apostle Kor Daradan, so once you add up all the bounties, the sons of Russ got largely enough to compensate their losses and make the break-up of their Legion a clean process. It is going to take some time, because Mars can't build Battle Barges in a day and creating Space Marines is a time-consuming process, but they will be able to do it on their own terms."

Although naturally, the Primarch of the Space Wolves owed her a big favour, because she had accelerated the bounty reward process considerably for him. If she hadn't, the Wolves would still be busy waiting for the first Throne Gelt a hundred years from now.

"This is really a profitable business you've set up here." The Vicequeen of Solingen whistled in appreciation.

"I think the missing word here is dangerous." The Queen of the Swarm snarked.

"I'm told certain bounties were claimed by your Adjutants while you were millions of kilometres away."

"True," the Lady General Militant admitted, "but that's why I made them formally part of my command staff; as they're directly acting per my will, it stands to reason I am their commanding officer. And there were limits even to that. As the internal fighting between the Traitor factions was intense, I certainly got no reward when the heretics slaughtered each other."

Which was certainly a pity, because Kor Phaeron's bounty had been bloody enormous, as befitted his title of Thirteenth Most Wanted. It would have also settled the problem of discreetly transferring several assets to the Ultramarines.

But Lorgar had killed Kor Phaeron in front of many, many witnesses, and the Adeptus Almitas was not going to reward her for being in the same system when it happened.

"And?"

Taylor finished dealing with her last bureaucratic duties before looking up.

"And I got the reward for the Vile One: five Quadrillion Throne Gelts. Of course, since I didn't do it personally, a good part will be spread across the entire order of battle of Operation Stalingrad, but as its commanding officer, I'm entitled to a significant percentage...and most of it will be invested in Mechanicus creations, rare resources, and everything I need for Nyx and the Sector around it."

The only thing she had yet to find a solution for was the 'Sector Overlordship'. Taylor certainly didn't need it, one Sector was already enough work, thank you very much.

"Obviously, the Assassinorum got a lot of bounties, partially or totally, as well." Paristur, Mothac, Ekodas...the Angel of Shadows had really been a busy bee during the battle of Macragge. "But Ancient Rylanor got the bounty for Lucius the Eternal, meaning the White Thunderbolts will be able to request a lot of resources for their expansion. And of course for Operation Stalingrad as a whole, Lisa's bombardment killed Jarulek, and the trench fighting outside Macragge City killed Vorrjuk Kraal. That's trillions of Throne Gelts I'm going to place in the Pension Fund of my Guard regiments."

A Pension Fund which had not finished delivering significant amounts of money to Fay, Wuhan, and every world which had troops involved in Operation Caribbean...well, at least, this time, the number of troops to be rewarded was far larger, and spread across many famous Guard recruitment centres of the Imperium. The Vostroyans had certainly been ecstatic about the amount of money they would be able to send home.

"If everyone is getting so much money, why did the Ultramarines seem so concerned about dwindling resources?"

"That's the problem, the 'everyone' does not include the Ultramarines. Most of the bounties were earned by Operation Stalingrad's forces, acting on behest of the Imperium. It naturally doesn't involve the Space Wolves and the Ultramarines. If the sons of Guilliman had been able to kill a big bounty by themselves...well, Guilliman kind of did, but Lorgar's bounty was cancelled around the 32nd millennium, when the Inquisition was sure he was an unholy abomination impossible to kill." Taylor shrugged. "Guilliman and his sons got some Throne Gelts and resources from the bounty rewards, don't get me wrong. But nowhere near the amounts they really needed to rebuild and launch a modernisation program at the same time."

"Unlike you."

"Unlike me." Taylor huffed. "Don't get me wrong, I would not have a big problem funding Macragge's rebirth, but...politics."

"Politics," the High Lady's daughter agreed. "Giving so much when the Ultramarines did nothing to deserve it before Operation Stalingrad came to Macragge would be seen as a sign of weakness."

"Yes. Whereas the creation of a winter sports resort which will earn a lot of Throne Gelts in exchange for a technological transfer will be seen as good trade opportunities."

"I feel there's more to that."

The insect-mistress grunted.

"I did not lie to you or anyone when I said that Nyx doesn't have the billions of Tech-Priests it needs to work on all the military and civilian programs the Imperium needs. In fact, I'm not sure Mars has all the Artisans and other specialised Archmagi and Magi that Dragon would require in an ideal galaxy. Some things have to be delegated...and Cawl, for all his radical ideas, is certainly competent enough to successfully complete a program of that complexity. His chief problem is that he tends to never finish a project as long as he's not satisfied..."

"Thus the deadline you gave him."

"Thus the deadline I gave him," the female parahuman confirmed, before sending away the last data-slate in a cloud of beetles and sighing in relief. "There. Done. I'm free for a few hours. Do you have something in mind to visit on the world below?"

"No, but I'm sure we can arrange something," the blonde-haired beauty purred while moving around her desk.

And on the other side of the door, Gamaliel knocked.

"Your Dawnbreaker Guard has a gift to knock at the worst possible moment," Marianne complained.

"For once, they can't be blamed. An emissary with long-ears and a sense of humour I don't find funny chose this moment to arrive unannounced."


Somewhere in the Eastern Fringe

Craftworld Iyanden

8.250.312M35

Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert

Unlike what had been promised, when she stepped out of the Webway Gate, Taylor saw no one to welcome her.

"This may be a trap, Webmistress!" Artemis immediately declared as she followed on her heels.

"I doubt it," Taylor was using her 'Aeldari Empress' persona now, and she wasn't able to see or hear anything that might indicate a trap. "No, it just feels...empty. Majestic, but empty."

The hall she and her two Adjutant-Spiders had arrived in was clearly a nexus for Webway Gates. It was also monumentally tall, with the pillars and everything supporting it sculpted to resemble trees, in a splendour even the members of the Blood interested in the art would struggle to reproduce.

It was radiant and filled with flowery Aeldari Runes. There were many real trees seemingly randomly placed in the different alleys, though when taken as a whole, they formed a pleasant floral sigil.

"At least we are in the right Craftworld, Webmistress," Solaria commented at her side. "The Rune of Iyanden is everywhere. But so much empty space..."

"This isn't like Nyx, I will admit. It isn't like Macragge...or Baal." And the less said about Commorragh and the dark pits of the monsters purged by the armies of the Imperium, the better. "It feels more like the world of Arranoc I recently visited. But ancient...and empty."

On that world, everything had been bird songs, Eldar songs, dances, and, well...there had been life everywhere.

What she could see of Iyanden was beautiful, absolutely. But it was also devoid of any living presence. Yes, the Craftworld was immense, but not a sound of life was...unusual.

"Where to, Webmistress?"

"Since no Webway Gate is activating to show us the way to our real destination... I think I'm hearing something like water in the distance, and there are large golden stairs in that direction. Let's go see where they lead."

"Yes, Webmistress! We're going to explore the lair of the long-ears!"

"You realise, Artemis, that for today, I am one of these long-ears, right?"

"That is not the same thing, Webmistress!"

They walked away from the Webway Gates, and the impression confirmed itself: Iyanden was ancient, really ancient. Thank to her improved vision, Taylor could also see it had been repaired several times. It would have been impossible to distinguish for a mortal eye, but the psychic materials employed in the tree-like pillars, walls, and everything that was the Craftworld had clearly received several cycles of repairs and redecoration. Half a dozen times in different eras, though it was only a guess of hers.

After several minutes, they were able to hear sounds of life again. First, there was indeed the unmistakable sound of crystal-clear water flowing. Then there were birds calling their companions. Insects, big and small, began to answer her call, giving her extended vision, though the Queen of the Swarm decided to let them work on their daily activities.

Soon enough Taylor entered a vast structure which made her Nyxian palaces look ridiculously small, and it was apparently a mere gateway to an immense plaza...or perhaps not a plaza, for it was half-submerged in water, as a river looked like it had its riverbed here. It was clearly artificial, for there were two cascades flowing over the walls in some ethereal feat of architecture, and everything had clearly been superbly arranged to merge the 'riverbed' with its green surroundings.

And unlike the rest of Iyanden seen so far, it was filled with life.

There were clearly animals living the good life in this paradise, but the river was filled with scenes of joy where...sixteen Eldar souls were playing with each other.

And not just any Eldar.

They were all children, and though Taylor couldn't say how she knew it...they 'tasted', for lack of a better word, really, really young.

They were young, joyful, playing with resin-made balls that made them look extremely similar to any children of their age...and no matter the colour of their hair, be it black, white, red, golden, blue, or green, they had a common point.

They were all golden-skinned.

"Webmistress, they are trying to copy your magnificence!"

Taylor chuckled.

"No, Artemis...let's just say Sacrifice imbued them with a measure of my protection, as long as they stay...innocent."

This explained too why the Queen of Blades' ex-apprentice had taken its golden appearance when Khorne released her soul and she had to patch up the scarred parts. When the Asuryani and their cousins were corrupted, their skin would reflect this. When they swore themselves to Atharti, it was red, blue, or green, reflecting if they wanted to go to Passion, Moderation, or Harmony.

What would happen when a soul was too young to make a choice or unable to make up his or her mind yet stay...loyal, for lack of a better of word, however? It had been an interesting question she had discussed with Dragon before she left Macragge.

Today, it seemed she had her answer.

"But Webmistress, we can't protect all the long-ears for eternity!" Solaria grumbled. "As long as we don't scour the impurities of the soul, at least, like you did with the red-haired menace Bellona is busy watching..."

The golden-winged parahuman laughed.

"You're completely right, Solaria. The protection of Sacrifice, my protection, fades away in time unless an Eldar swears himself or herself to me completely, so that the purifying power the Emperor gave me can burn everything. But that's why a certain Goddess of Symbiosis exists. Before they can succumb to temptation, they have another protection shielding them from the evil of the Four. All it requires is a choice."

Evidently, the sixteen children playing in the river were very far from that choice. Years at the very least, and this made Taylor realise she didn't know how long it took for an Eldar to grow into adulthood...

"Look up, Artemis! There is a furball ruining the moment!"

Taylor closed her eyes while grinning.

"That is a Gyrinx, Solaria."

The resemblance with the cat species was impressive. This one, save the gem just below the neck and the shape of the ears, really wouldn't have raised an eyebrow on Earth. It could have passed effortlessly as a ginger cat. A lazy, large ginger cat.

The children noticed it soon, and in a heartbeat, they began to shout their joy, and their acclamations were clear: they wanted the psychic feline to play with them.

The ginger-furred Gyrinx, who had stayed at a reasonable distance from the cascades and water in general, of course did nothing of the sort.

Camped like a Sphinx of Antiquity, the Gyrinx looked at the Eldar children like they were unworthy of his – or her – time.

"By your will, Webmistress?"

Taylor sighed, reading effortlessly the intentions of her loyal Adjutants.

"Let's be clear, you are utterly forbidden to do that with the Mainz Cats. They are not psychic, or as resourceful as a Gyrinx."

"Of course, Webmistress!"

One might have believed the Craftworld-born feline would be able to perceive the approach of a tank-sized spider, but Artemis and Solaria were really stealthy when they wanted to be, having taken lessons from Pierre recently.

And they had also received new long-range silk-launchers.

The Gyrinx was utterly surprised, mewled in confusion when it was captured, its particular pathetic escape attempt failing in a heartbeat...and then of course Artemis threw him from the top of the nearest cascade.

Naturally, the children below all cheered and communicated their joy, before swimming and rushing to play 'Capture the Gyrinx!'

Despite a desperate resistance, the ginger feline, looking pitiful, betrayed, and offended at the same time, was captured and...properly received the 'attention' of sixteen enthusiastic children.

Bah, it would survive.

Maybe.

"Mission accomplished, Webmistress! Oh...and the High Priestess is behind you..."

"I know. I heard her coming while you were busy with your 'mission'." Taylor replied serenely.

"You seem to have a gift for making children happy, my Empress."


High Priestess Aurelia Malys

"You seem to have a gift for making children happy, my Empress."

When she had heard of the clowns' latest joke, it had been a miracle Aurelia had not strangled Cegorach's emissary.

Sending their Empress to an unknown Webway Gate when nothing of the sort had been planned was just asking for unprecedented trouble and devastation.

Atharti be praised, for the moment the joke did not seem to have backfired...or Cegorach had a grudge against Gyrinxes. One did not exclude the other, damn the Great Trickster and his inscrutable plans.

"They are young...and innocent. Let them enjoy their cycles of childhood while they can."

The Aeldari tongue was spoken orders of magnitude better than Aurelia had hoped for. The symbiosis between Muse and Empress had been a visible success.

"Webmistress, she's trying to seduce you and convince you to lower your guard!"

"We have," the High Priestess of Atharti sweetly replied, "many extraordinary meals and drinks prepared for this audience, and those are always available for the servants of the Empress."

The golden spider's many, many eyes stared at her with suspicion...and Aurelia stared back without flinching.

"Refreshments would be lovely!" The great arachnid was the first to break, "sending the furball into the water made me quite thirsty!"

"Your desires will be fulfilled," Aurelia didn't gloat, it would be behaviour unworthy of the High Priestess of Atharti. "Since the circumstances have changed, my Empress, where do you want the meeting to proceed?"

"If it's not too much trouble for the representatives of each Craftworld and the other emissaries," the eyes filled with star looked fondly at the children playing in the water while...taming the Gyrinx... "here."

"I shall send the summons immediately."

Fortunately, the Hall of Long Rivers and Young Souls was rather well-situated to move both servants of Atharti and the Iyanden-made food and drinks into.

In less than a thousand heartbeats, the majority of the invitees had gathered, all the while Eldrad had cast a Veil of Silence to make sure the children continued to play, remaining blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the events playing out near them.

For it was a Council the likes Iyanden had never seen in all the cycles of its existence.

There were fifty-five delegations of Craftworlds, and yes, for all that five was the sacred number of Atharti, Aurelia often felt it was a dream that they had been able to get so many of them to agree to come.

The delegations of their cousins who had chosen to bond with the World Spirits until recently were of even greater importance. One hundred and fifty-five Kings and Queens had sent ambassadors...or come in person. The sovereigns of the Ybaric Cluster, proud allies of Iyanden, accounted for thirty-three groups alone.

And of course there were fifteen Corsair Fleet Princes and Princesses...though of them, five had not sworn their oaths to Atharti, and as a result had been escorted by several prestigious warriors.

But it wasn't towards the latter that the Empress moved fluidly once the introductions were concluded.

It was Iyanna Arienal, representative of Iyanden, who had most of her attention.

"My Empress," the prodigy of House Arienal kneeled, "I-"

"You have sworn yourself to the First Temple, haven't you?" there was no accusation in the Angel of Death's voice...just fascination. Fascination...and a bit of sadness.

"Yes...this was a dream more real than all the dreams, and I was clad in armour-"

"That felt more real to you than any armour." The Empress finished. "You have not chosen an easy path. So close after Atharti's birth, I influenced it without intending to. There will be Sacrifice."

Aurelia shivered, and many of the representatives did far more than that.

"Iyanden is my home, and Atharti is my Goddess." If anyone here needed it, this was the confirmation that for all the 'gentleness' and 'tolerance' of Harmony, the green-skin of those who embraced this Aspect of Atharti were certainly not fragile or afraid to fight. "If I have to walk this Path of War and Peace, so be it."

"Then rise, daughter of Iyanden. Rise and become a Spellsinger."

Iyanna Arienal seemed to become taller. No longer were her robes yellow or blue, but indeed a verdant green, trimmed with imperial gold.

A heartbeat later, she vanished. Atharti had called her to her Temple.

"My apologies for this unplanned choice," the golden-winged Empress took the seat which had been prepared for her, flanked by her two enormous spiders, who were busy sipping red-coloured drinks with small sounds of satisfaction. "As I'm sure all the delegations have many questions, let's not wait any longer. The delegation of...Mymeara can begin."

A great warrior of teal and blue advanced, and saluted the Empress.

"Everyone heard your command, oh Burning Angel governing the Cycle of Entropy. But there have been many rumours which spread across the tunnels of the Webway by now. So many whispers and contradictory statements the Spectres of Mymeara know not what to believe. We learned by the wisdom of Irillyth to stay away from other races. Will you change it, Empress of War and Death?"

"No," Weaver replied immediately. "If you know what I have accomplished, you know I do not need the armies of your Craftworld to carry out my will, be it in times of war or peace. I do not need unwilling warriors for my campaigns, be they short or long. What I want is for the sons of the Emperor and the spiritual descendants of Eldanesh to stop the bloodbaths between the two species which benefit no one but the Primordial Annihilator. You do not wage war against the Imperium of Mankind. I in return do my utmost to keep the Imperium away from the Craftworlds and all the worlds where worship of Atharti protects you from the baleful power of the Enemy. I also can initiate channels which will let you acquire the Umbralshroud to hide your homes from the predations from potential enemies with. High Priestess Malys and King Adanhu will confirm this is within my power to provide. And yes, I will still be able to see through the Veil of Umbralshroud afterwards."

The message was as pure as crystal: do not think about reneging on an oath once you got what you wanted.

"And in the case it is humans who succumb to the lies of the Primordial Annihilator?"

"An embassy will be opened on my home of Nyx exactly for that purpose," the Empress replied to the semi-accusatory tone of the representative of Alaitoc coldly. "Construction began recently, and the High Priestess and Atharti herself are personally overseeing the work, I was given to understand. Should a Craftworld or any Atharti-loyal force encounter a problem which involves the Ruinous Four, you send a message explaining the problem to your ambassador, he or she requests an audience, I learn of the problem, and I do my best to correct it before it blows up in two species' faces. The reverse course can of course happen if I am informed by Inquisitors, Space Marines, and other parties that there is a problem with the followers of Atharti, naturally."

"But..." quite clearly, for a follower of Passion, the representative of Alaitoc was vigorously searching for excuses. "The Primordial Annihilator isn't the only threat. There are the old enemies, the Yngir's slaves, the-"

"Call them the Necrons, please." Weaver rolled her eyes in annoyance. "It is their race's name, let us do them the courtesy of using it, even if none of them are here. Yes, the Necrons can be a problem. But I have an accord signed with the Nerushlatset Dynasty. All the Dynasties obeying the laws and rule of Phaerakh-Cryptek Neferten will ignore the worlds and forces obeying Atharti's edicts and mine, as long as you do the same in return."

"Those are not the entirety of the Dynasties. The Stormlord-"

"Overlord Imotekh, the dreaded Stormlord, has been placed in charge of a research group whose goal is to prepare all races for the coming Tyranid threat," Weaver interrupted the Alaitoc representative again. "As long as you do not do something stupid like attacking the worlds he's visiting in order to kill him or besiege the worlds of the Sautekh Dynasty, who now under Phaeron Zahndrekh is pledged to the Nerushlatset Phaerakh, you will be fine."

The powerful eyes filled with stars felt like they were all piercing the heart of every follower of Atharti present...and more.

"I am not making fun of your fears where the Necron threat is concerned, Ambassador. The Nerushlatset Dynasty is reasonable. There many other Necron Dynasties which are definitely insane, nihilistic, and bent on exterminating all life. The increasing and worrying trend of the shattered Star Gods to return to an active state is something I do not like either. But as long as we fight each Dynasty smartly, and we keep them divided, I believe the threat is manageable. Whereas the Tyranid threat is something that will annihilate us all if we aren't prepared for it. While we can't negotiate with all Necrons, there are some we can talk with, forge accords with that will be respected. There will be nothing of the sort with the Great Devourer. The war against this unending tide of monsters began at Fenris and Macragge, and there will be no negotiations. There will be no surrender...because we are food to them. We will win, or we will be devoured."

No one opened his or her mouth to tell the Empress she was exaggerating. Everyone among the different delegations had been given psychic flashes of the tide of fangs and claws that the humans had had to fight against with some minor help from Cegorach's Harlequins to redeploy their armies. If more Tyranids were coming, it was going to be a fight to the death.

On this point, there would be no arguing-

"This is all harmonious and moderate," an arrogant voice broke the silence, "but what about our freedom to sail across the stars?"

"Princess Saarania," the Aeldari Empress addressed the blue-haired Corsair Princess who had decided the moment was right to steal all the attention. "No longer of the Void Dragons, I see."

"I decided," the unbelievably arrogant void commander drawled, despite a certain Lugganath Autarch making brief panicked movements behind her, "to follow your suggestion: the Void Dragons have been thereby renamed the Sky Serpents."

Aurelia Malys groaned. She was only one of many to do so.

Oh Atharti save them all...she had decided to reuse the name of the Corsair Fleet of Sliscus the Serpent?

Was Saarania aware that...oh, who was Aurelia kidding? Obviously the Princess knew Sliscus had met his end by the blade of Weaver...

"Because he was your genitor?" The Empress asked.

Wait...WHAT?

Even Saarania blustered and suddenly grew far more hesitant.

"I don't know-"

"Please," this time, the Queen of the Swarm was definitely amused...as were her spiders, which had stopped asking for refreshments and were chatting excitedly. "I met Sliscus. If you think dyeing your hair blue and adding some tattoos is enough to hide the resemblance, I can assure you it's not. While I didn't meet him for long while he was alive, my forces recovered a lot of images and videos from the ruin of the Empire of Sin. Some of it was destroyed and never watched, but there were enough to have a good idea of who he was and how he disguised himself."

"You destroyed him, him and his entire fleet."

"And I would do it again without hesitation to open the gates of the Port of Lost Souls and do what I did."

Saarania...exploded into laughter.

And to the shock of practically everyone, she kneeled.

"You are my Empress. And my Passion will be my oath."

It was like a raging fire and waves of lust focused in one great blast...and when it ended, the daughter...no, let's not think about that...the Corsair Princess had changed. She was now red-skinned, and with long black hair.

To Aurelia's amusement, the glance Saarania sent Ulion Lakadieth, Hero of Lugganath, was really...ahem...hot. That promised...a lot of amusement...for everyone.

"The Sky Serpents will follow-"

"Yes, yes, everyone heard your pledge. Now go seduce someone else, there are important negotiations going on here."

Usually, anyone who would have spoken to the Corsair Princess like that would lose his head before the next sunset.

But Saarania was the first to turn her head, and it was an expression of fear which appeared on her face.

It was totally justified, for the lethal voice belonged to a crimson-haired monster currently playing with some berries. Berries she ate arrogantly like they were her due as a Goddess.

There were only two daggers in scabbards tied to a black belt, and she had not come in armour today.

But everyone knew her.

"Her Supreme Excellency Aenaria Eldanesh, also known as Lelith Hesperax, Supreme Mistress of the Arenas, the Queen of Blades," exceptionally and only once, it was the Empress herself who played the role of Herald. "I hesitate to ask, but I have to know: is my arena irreparably damaged, or there is any hope I can salvage something?"

Incidentally, the fact Weaver was not panicking like many delegates did was giving her quite a boost of adoration from certain ambassadors and Corsairs...

"The arena is fine," the old monster assured her. "You might have to close it a bit for...minor repairs?"

The insect-mistress wasn't convinced. Neither were her spiders, to be honest.

"Bellona is going to need a bigger budget for the next decade, Webmistress!"

"Next decade, Solaria? Webmistress! We must plan for a triple increase of the Arena Fund for the next millennium, period!"

"Your spiders' ridiculous assertions aside," the Queen of Blades purred, and the arachnids immediately went silent, "I just made a detour before going back to training the new generation to inform you I have decided not to kill her. There were some painful moments for her, but she will have recovered enough to serve in your Imperial Guard once you return to your capital...my Empress."

And then the Ancient Aeldari vanished once more.

"One has to admit," an Ambassador murmured, "she really knows how to make an entrance."

"Absolutely." Weaver agreed unconsciously, making said emissary take an expression of humility. "Thank you for the pledge, Princess Saarania. Now we must speak of a greater issue. We must speak of what happened during the Second Battle of the Tyrant Star and the effects it will have for the galaxy as a whole."


Macragge

Fortress of Hera

2.259.312M35

Primarch Leman Russ

There was a saying on Fenris that you should beware boasting about your survival from a Wrath-badger attack as long as a year and a day had not passed since the incident.

Like most Fenrisian proverbs, it understated the danger of Wrath-badgers, which were perfectly capable of passing on grudges from generation to generation and ambush you five years after you 'offended' them.

And no, Leman wasn't going to reveal how he had learned that piece of wisdom.

The moral of the story, however, was obvious: don't count on something until you are really certain of it. It applied to your safety as well as military agreements, apparently.

"Rogal," the Lord of the renamed 'Nova Fenrisia' world growled, but in a restrained manner so it was more of a small grumble, "please help me convince her."

"No."

"Please help me...brother."

"No."

The Great Wolf of the Vlka Fenryka sighed.

"I am serious."

"I know." Dorn, for once, was smiling. Given the precedents, Leman knew he wasn't going to like the reason for this expression. "But Lady Weaver has valid points. Expecting the Forges, manufactorums, and other artisans' creations of Nyx to deliver Volkite Blasters and Power Armours for the Depot is common sense. One is already produced in respectable numbers, and the other will be when the armour project will be completed. Expecting her to give you Thunderhawks and other heavy weaponry just because you asked nicely is delusional. And so is asking her to help you circumvent the restrictions the High Lord placed on this 'Armament Depot', and then lie about it."

"I wasn't asking her to lie! I just wanted her to...creatively interpret was could be sent to Macragge and Nova Fenrisia. And to not inform Terra of certain weapon deliveries."

"I know. That's why I called it lying."

Leman Russ huffed.

"You haven't changed, brother."

"I return you the compliment...brother."

It wasn't a compliment, and they both knew it.

The two Primarchs observed the scenes in the vast hall below their observation lounge in silence for long minutes. The atmosphere was...loud. There were a lot of debates and vigorous exchanges of points of view. It was very different from the celebration ambiance which had engulfed everyone when the Bacta Depots had been discussed...

Obviously there weren't quarrels and demands to settle matters in duels of honour, but the festive times were really over.

"With the benefit of hindsight," the Sixth Primarch began in a meditative voice, "the eagerness of Lady Weaver to cede a significant part of Nyx's stock capacity several days ago makes much more sense now."

Leman's eyes found her easily in the crowd, despite the numerous Space Marines of Jaghatai's gene-line who surrounded her right now. The Lady of Nyx had come in a simple golden dress today, without the pomp she would have been completely within her rights to add to her clothes, but it made her stand out even more, in the middle of the fierce sons of Chogoris.

"Ah, you noticed."

The wolfish Primarch scowled.

"I can play the game of politics when I want to, Rogal."

"I know. But you're not that good at it."

"Funny words...for someone who is worse at it than I am." If there was a loyal Primarch who was guaranteed to fare more badly than Leman did in the great game of political intrigue, then this Primarch was undoubtedly the Lord of the Imperial Fists.

For some reason, trying to never lie on a constant basis was really, really not something the politicians and the bureaucrats liked. Not when his brother did his utmost to encourage the same for all his interlocutors...

"The difference, Leman, is that I never tried to play the games you did." The Praetorian of Terra retorted. "I know I'm horrible at it. Everyone knows it. So I don't play the game."

"Even if it's in your best interest to play?"

"Is it?" Rogal asked seriously. "I owe a lot to that young woman, brother. My life, to begin with. A rather refreshing perspective on how much the Imperium fell from the hopes and dreams everyone had for it, for another. Weaver also didn't abuse the authority I entrusted her with after we met at Commorragh, if anything she was...extremely cautious with it. And to return to the subject at hand...the Phalanx already serves as an Armament Depot in addition to a Bacta Depot for my sons. We just didn't make it official. For all these reasons, and many others, I don't really have any interest in 'playing the game', as you described it."

Leman growled...again.

It didn't help his mood that as the sons of Jaghatai temporarily stepped aside, Dorn's crusaders and fortress-builders replaced them. By the sounds of it, there were discussions on an extremely interesting range of subjects...Including the topic of fortifications to protect Depots.

"I suppose the meeting we agreed to, and which is supposed to begin in a few hours...it will be more interesting than I expected."

"In other words," Dorn remarked mercilessly, "your hopes your sons would be able to solve this with cups in their hands and riding their furry companions is doomed. You're going to have to properly negotiate in their name...again."

"You really intend to have fun watching as my plans are thwarted, don't you?"


Library of Ptolemy

Primarch Roboute Guilliman

There was something extremely funny, Roboute would admit, about someone telling Leman Russ 'no' ten times while all his brothers around the table did their best not to laugh or show their amusement...and failed.

"But you told me yourself your spiders reported the corruption on Terra is appalling and that you were displeased by it!"

"It is, and I am. But that is of no importance for the next decades, and I have allies among the Senatorum Imperialis. I am not going to break my word to them."

"And the Imperial Navy? It is-"

"No."

"The High Lord of the Navy is not of one of your allies, and never will be."

"But I need Kar Duniash's support," Weaver replied neutrally, "and their delegation should arrive soon. I am not going to begin a conversation with them by telling them I have decided to renege on all our agreements."

"You're missing several great opportunities."

"I don't think so. Besides, Nyx remains a very local shipbuilding centre for now. Why are you so insistent on asking me when there are plenty of other big shipyards in Ultima Segmentum which can do the job?"

The question was voiced in a tone that proved the Lady of the Swarm already knew the answer very well.

Most of said shipyards were Mechanicus or Navy-owned, and would alert their respective High Lords the moment a Space Wolf arrived for 'negotiations'.

"Practical:" Roboute decided to intervene, as his raven brother was having difficulties controlling his laughter, "we have spent enough time on this subject, Leman. Lady Weaver was courteous enough to let you make your case, but if she does not want to send aerial assets and starship parts to the Depot or the Chapters of your sons, we will respect her choice."

Leman, of course, grumbled. In a way, Guilliman understood the problem his brother was facing. Unlike his Ultramarines, who had the yards of Mortendar and Galatan repurposed for the construction of brand-new Strike Cruisers, the Wolves did not have any alternative but to ask Mars for capital ship replenishments, and the Red Planet's Ring of Iron was very busy these days, unable and probably unwilling to give too much of an industrial priority to the sons of Russ.

It meant in return that the enormous pre-Black Crusade fleet of the Sixth Legion, active and mothballed units all taken into account, really was a thing of the past, especially as each new Successor Chapter created would take void assets before leaving for a new home.

"I agree," Jaghatai went on to voice his support. "I am more interested in the idea that the Adeptus Astartes should have a representative on Terra."

Yes, Roboute wasn't surprised by that opening...and it made him wince for a lot of reasons.

"Theoretical: the Space Marines not having a seat among the High Lords ensure that they are removed from the legion of intrigues and political machinations that the upper classes of Sol live for."

"Oh, please," the Great Khan of Chogoris rolled his eyes, "that argument was stupid during the Great Crusade, and it's even stupider today. The Council of Terra didn't have a single Space Marine among it in the old days. That didn't stop us from sending several of our sons to the Imperial Palace to make sure our voices were heard. Malcador and his subordinates didn't always listen to our pleas and suggestions, but at least they knew when we encountered problems, like a war we couldn't finish with just a single Legion."

"As far as I could see from my spider's eyes," the golden-winged heroine who had saved Macragge explained calmly, "the Space Marines might as well not exist...well, save the sons of Russ guarding House Belisarius of the Navis Nobilite. But the High Lords were never happy about their presence...and they still aren't happy, because many stayed to this day."

Leman for once was really, really satisfied by what Weaver told them...which was not really a good thing.

Roboute turned his head towards Rogal...and the Primarch of the Imperial Fists had his emotionless face ready.

"The War of the Beast, the Pale Wasting, the Black Crusades," the Praetorian of Terra listed the disastrous conflicts which brought the Imperium to its knees while the Primarchs gathered in this very room were not there to defend it, "the Adeptus Astartes is not an Adeptus, but tiny isolated lights in a galaxy far too big for them. How can they raise the alarms when their strategic vision is often limited to the Sector they protect and a few other worlds they're oath-sworn to defend when the enemy rears its ugly head?"

Roboute grimaced deep inside his mind.

"I understand, and your analysis of the problems this brings is correct. Yet I would regardless prefer for no Space Marine to be elevated to a seat among the highest levels of the Senatorum Imperialis, unless it's a question of life or death. Father wanted humanity to govern itself, I won't go against his wishes...and honestly I believe the High Lords would use all their influence and might to prevent such a thing from happening in the first place."

The pause after his words clearly proved none of the participants of this conversation thought him wrong.

"This isn't the only thing that needs to be changed," Leman of course resumed his charge on the political battlefield, "the Chapters are too small!"

"First divide your sons into several Chapters, brother," Corvus drawled sarcastically, "then you will have the right to complain."

Both Weaver and Jaghatai chuckled loudly at the Ravenlord's remark.

Leman growled...but no one came forward to support him.

"More practically, what were you planning, brothers?" Roboute asked with curiosity. "For obvious reasons, I don't think stationing a representative of every single Chapter in existence on Terra would be a good use of the existing resources granted to the Adeptus Astartes."

To say nothing of the fact the Throneworld and the Sol System were already so massively fortified that keeping the equivalent of a Great Company of Space Marines felt like a monumental waste. The Imperial Palace already had the Custodes, and reinforcements could be dispatched in mere days, courtesy of the Astronomican.

Many eyes stared at each other.

"A theoretical," Corvus suggested, "would be to select a badly understrength Chapter having accomplished great deeds as the representatives of the Adeptus Astartes. That way they are able to rebuild their numbers, courtesy of the prodigious industrial and genetic support offered by Sol. And we make it clear it is for a limited number of years, say twenty or thirty. This will ensure we don't have a Chapter staying idle in the heart of the Imperium."

That...could work. The Chapter being selected for past deeds, along with Aethergold testing, would indicate the Space Marines would be chosen for their actions, not for their ambitions. And when they were rebuilt to their Codex-approved strength, they could let the High Lords know they were ready for new deployments, leave, and let another Chapter take the 'seat'.

"Of course you would have to somehow pass it through the High Lords," Leman added perfidiously with a large grin.

Weaver snorted.

"Unlike some Space Marines I won't name, the new representatives will certainly be busier training their Neophytes and rebuilding their Companies rather than devastate the taverns every week."

Even Rogal smiled...

"It is in many ways not that different from what the Imperial Fists are doing with the Phalanx right now," the angelic-looking Lady General Militant continued. "We're just asking for a representative component to be added to it."

Evidently, there were a lot more details to discuss, and most of those would have to be debated by all the Chapters who presently had a representative on Macragge. But it was a framework they all could work with.

And now for the last point, one had had to do a lot of research before today...

"Some of you," Roboute looked at Jaghatai and Leman, "have made clear how much you think my 'generalist approach', as you called it, weakened Chapters of your gene-lines. The argument, I believe is that if the foe is hyper-specialised in one domain, it might be able to completely surpass and annihilate a Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes incredibly quickly."

"That is correct," Corax answer for them all.

"In that case, my practical proposal is that we...we force an evolution of the Astartes' doctrinal strategy, by amending the Codex so it recognises three great sub-categories. The numbers of battle-brothers stay the same per Chapter, specialists non-included among their numbers, but the equipment will be adapted to suit the specialty. Using the past wars on Old Earth, there would be the Limitanei, the Comitatenses, and the Jovian Chapters."

"Continue, brother," well, Roboute definitely had the full attention of the Khan, at least...

"The Limitanei, as their name indicates, would be the troops on the walls, at our frontiers. They would guard the Fortified Worlds we can't afford to lose at any cost, with the zone of protection extending from a few planets to an entire Sector. Practically, they will require a lot of siege weapons to fulfil their duties. The Comitatenses, by contrast, would be rapid and mobile, not assigned to any world. Theoretically and practically, the Imperium has already innovated in this domain: there are many fleet-based Chapters which are fighting their wars from the bridges of Battle-Barges and Strike Cruisers. What we need is a recognition of status in their case, and adapting the equipment to their needs. They don't have to defend a particular Sector, but they must react to Alpha-class threats across the galaxy to support them in their campaigns. And the Jovian Astartes...in many aspects, these Chapters would secure Sectors as recruitment bases during times of relative peace, but would muster in significant numbers when a threat too powerful for any single Chapter attacks the Imperium as a whole."

Many of his brothers appeared...thoughtful once he stopped talking. Which was...well, to be honest, better than Roboute had hoped for. Weaver's meditative expression was not bad news either.

And then Leman, of course, broke the silence with a howl of laughter.

"You do realise you're going to need a lot more of Weapon Depots for that, brother?"


High Orbit over Macragge

Victory-class Battleship Brünhild

2.267.312M35

Lord High Admiral Reinhart von Lohengramm

"Smile, husband, the Living Saint is not going to eat you."

"I wasn't worried about that," Reinhart answered truthfully. "I know Her Celestial Highness has her spiders and other insects for that."

One had been playing the role of Logistician for the little reception that they had just left temporarily, and the Lord High Admiral of Kar Duniash would lie if he said that he wasn't impressed. The arachnid was huge, to the point she had required her own transport to arrive aboard Brünhild.

Yet more important than the size was the intelligence in the eight eyes.

The 'Adjutant-Spider' was incredibly smart, and there was zero doubt that anyone not considered loyal would be eliminated before he or she became a threat to the Living Saint.

"I was more worried about what our daughters were up to."

"You will be able to threaten that roguish young man when we return to the reception, don't worry."

Reinhart sighed.

"Et tu, Siegfried?"

"There are two Primarchs and plenty of Admirals," his childhood friend and chief of staff replied with amusement. "The chances of inappropriate things happening are quite low, I think."

Fortunately, the private conference room he had prepared wasn't far from the reception hall, meaning this depressing conversation came to an end quickly.

His guest, obviously, was waiting for him.

"Lord High Admiral von Lohengramm."

"Your Celestial Highness...or do you prefer Lady General Militant?"

"Since we're going to speak about military matters, I think a 'Lady General' will be sufficient." The Chosen of the God-Emperor spoke courteously but with steel in the surface.

"As you wish...Lady General." This enormously simplified things, for at least with these ranks, they were both extremely important figures of different Adepta, contrary to the Living Saint which involved the 'divine' status and...suffice to say, it made everything more complicated. "I read your reports about the different tests of the new devices ready to be installed on your new class of Battleship. They seem to be promising."

"Archmagos Sultan is considered a genius in her field for a reason," eyes filled with stars stared unflinchingly at him, "and we tested as many systems on ships taken from our mothballs to be sure of their reliability. It took several more months than last years' schedule allowed for, but the construction will officially begin at the end of this year. Construction schedule is that the ship will take between thirty and forty years to be built."

Reinhart frowned.

"Are you sure, Lady General, that you're not rushing things? As you may know, there was an Admiral only recently who decided to ignore that haste in naval construction planning is paid in blood later."

"I am aware of von Kisher's stupidity, Lord High Admiral. That's why I requested overseers from Mars and Ryza, along with all the manpower and resources I negotiated for with them. And they pledged their support last month. Obviously, it is a very conditional support, and they will be quite loud if any problems emerge. But they agree with Archmagos the construction of the first new-model Nyxian Battleship can begin at the end of this year."

The message was quite clear: Mars and Ryza were willing to wait and see if the Battleship construction kept its promises, and if the answer was positive, build their own patterns of this Battleship class a decade later down the line.

"I see. And how many do you intend to construct this decade?"

"The current fund allocation is enough for four, including the lead ship of the class. It is quite likely Samarkand will provide the funds for one more."

Five new Battleships. Even by the standards of Kar Duniash, that represented an enormous amount of tonnage and firepower.

"I presume you will want an answer as to whether the Segmentum shipyards support you or not before this year is over."

"That would be preferable."

"Any other...significant requests?" Reinhart asked, counting deep inside how many Admirals he was going to have to convince, assuming the latest set of documentation and vids on the Battleship Program lived up to its high promises.

"One, but it has nothing to do with the Battleships themselves...more a new strong and polite request to guard the mothballed fleets of the Imperium." For once, something like displeasure flashed on the face of the young woman. "I have spent enormous efforts destroying the Traitor Armada, and so did billions of loyal souls. I would be very angry if the Traitors were allowed to rebuild their strength because the Navy didn't protect its old hulls."

A request that was perfectly legitimate...but which was facing some difficult obstacles in practice.

"I will do what I can, Lady General. But I have to warn you, my authority may not be enough to neutralise this potential threat. The primary mothballs of Kar Duniash are in the same system, and those are heavily guarded. Obviously, the heretics didn't steal warships from them. The same was true of the primary reserve fleets, like Ryza and other key shipyards. The Traitors are dangerous and serve evil powers, but they're not devoid of brains. I await further reports, so it is only based on guesses and intuition, but I wouldn't be surprised if the ships committed for the last Black Crusade were stolen on secondary and tertiary mothballed fleets, maybe some as old as the Scouring. Kar Duniash won't admit it, but we too have suffered catastrophic losses of archives in the last millennia. And of course...the job to guard mothball fleets is hardly a glamorous duty. If the deactivated ships are within an inhabited system, it can be tolerable...but it hardly pleasant."

Worse, even if he generously acknowledged there were some dedicated individuals among the watchers of those fleets, their loyalty wouldn't be enough if the assault force which came to steal the warships included Chaos Marines.

And looking at the Living Saint of the God-Emperor, the blonde-haired Admiral could see that she was aware of it too.

But the problem had to be raised...a solution had to be found. But as he had explained seconds ago, it wasn't going to be easy.

"Speaking of lighter subjects, your Admiral Reuenthal informed me you wanted more observers for new weapons about to be tested."

"Yes, Lord High Admiral. As you've no doubt heard, we fought against new enemies and discovered plenty of xenos races which don't believe in the Imperium's naval doctrine."

"I've heard of it," Reinhart commented laconically, taking great care to not look at Siegfried Kircheis. His friend had been very amused by the refusal of the Tech-Priests to give him ships capable of deploying Kane Particles. "You intend to develop more starship programs?"

Nyx was a world which was rewarded for the many exploits of its Lady, but there had to be limits...

And as if to answer his doubts, the golden-winged officer of the Imperial Guard shook her head.

"Not as such, no. For the time being, all my Admirals are trying to assimilate the lessons of the Black Crusade and Operation Stalingrad, while working on tens of thousands of tactical simulations with many Magi and Archmagi. The launch of the new class of Imperial Battleship was decided first, given the time it takes to build one...and the reality that sadly, many of our current classes are not up to the task."

If anyone else told him this, Reinhart would likely have labelled him a defeatist...but this was the Victor of Macragge and Commorragh speaking. Weaver had won those battles...and the butcher's bill justified her conviction the M34 and M35 Battleships were not enough.

"But I'm sure you have a few ideas."

"I do," the commanding officer of the Battleship Enterprise confirmed. "One measure we've taken is to temporarily halt the construction of several Hecate-class Heavy Cruisers."

"A curious choice." Siegfried decided to interject. "It is a good class. It has no great strengths, but no significant weaknesses either."

"We're studying the possibility of transforming them into all-Railgun warships."

"Ah." It wasn't every day someone managed to silence his friend with one sentence...

Soon enough the time agreed for this private conversation arrived at its end after a few other updates on what the Nyxian shipbuilders were up to, including void-capable drones.

"There is one other matter," the Lady General mentioned idly, "though it isn't urgent: the Aeronautica Imperialis."

"I really hope," Reinhart said drily, "it is not an attempt to suggest the Aeronautica must be transferred to become part of the Imperial Guard. My lord Admirals won't tolerate it...and the answer will probably the same as it was every past millennium: if the Guard wants fighters and bombers so much, they have to train the pilots and cover all the expenses."

"No. Based on my own battle-experiences, my personal, professional opinion is different. In terms of efficiency, priorities, and recruitment, it would likely be better for the Aeronautica to become independent."

Hildegard chuckled next to him.

"I like your proposal very much, your Celestial Highness...did I mention I am a former pilot?"

How quickly his own wife was to abandon the Navy's honour...

"Yes, the name of Imperial Air Force would be absolutely fantastic!"

Siegfried had the gall to betray him too. Traitors, traitors everywhere...


Admiral Miranda Lawson

If she was to be honest, Miranda had hoped to make a spectacular entrance once she arrived at Macragge.

But as it had turned out, her luck was not that good. Her ship had experienced several problems in the long journey to the Eastern Fringe, and the result was that she had arrived mere hours after Lord High Admiral von Lohengramm.

Between an Admiral in disgrace who didn't currently have an assignment, and the Lord of the Segmentum Fortress deciding the great deployments for Ultima Segmentum, there was no contest.

At least it had allowed her to watch as a grumpy father was busy threatening Rogue Trader Lord Wolfgang Bach as subtly as he could in public...which was not very. And though the 'crime' had never been mentioned, with the two von Lohengramm daughters being present to support the aforementioned Rogue Trader it did not require a lot of logic to add one and one together. Or was it one and two?

It lasted only a few minutes, but Miranda was sure the gossip was going to spread across the entire Macragge System and far beyond.

But it would stay on the level of gossip. Probably. The pretty but fierce wife of the Lord High Admiral escorted all parties involved to a more discreet location, and soon enough the usual conversations resumed.

And suddenly everything felt more...luminous, the world seemed to be afire...and there was a lot of radiance.

"Ah, Admiral Lawson. I heard you were asking for an audience?"

"I did, your Celestial...General? I mean-"

"Lady General will be fine, that's the rank that was written on my invitation letter to reach the Brünhild tonight." Eyes filled with stars watched her with amusement. "You seem in need of refreshments? Solaria?"

"Here you are, Webmistress!"

The drink tasted good...and after a few seconds, the female Admiral felt she was getting used to the formidable presence of the Living Saint.

"Sorry about that, Admiral. Many people around me are not that bothered about my powers these days, so I tend to...not be as cautious as I should be."

"That...it's fine." Miranda cursed her temporary moment of weakness, giving a thanks to the enormous arachnid and giving her back the empty glass. "It surprised me. I was a bit too far away during the first hour, and I'm afraid that left me...unprepared for your aura."

"Some other Admirals said the same thing," the Lady General Militant of the Imperial Guard noted with a thin smile. "So, Admiral, what reasons do you have to visit Macragge these days? By virtue of almost removing a Vandire from this galaxy, I suppose I can give you this short audience."

Miranda knew Paul von Oberstein had told his subordinate exactly what happened, and the Living Saint knew she knew, but they had to play the game, didn't they?

"By the fault of that arrogant backstabber named Rudolf von Goldenbaum, I find myself on half-pay as far as Battlefleet Sol and the authorities of the Imperial Navy in the Sol System are concerned. Since von Goldenbaum allied himself with Vandire, and you are one of his enemies, I thought I would use the free time to come here and offer my services."

"An interesting proposal," the woman who had attained galaxy-wide fame as Lady Weaver answered, "that said, I have received a significant amount of requests for Battlefleet Nyx lately...Solaria?"

"Six hundred and twenty, just for the rank of Admiral, Webmistress! But none have tried to kill a Vandire! That has to count for something, right?"

The Lady General Militant chuckled.

"Thank you, Solaria. Please go to Isley, and tell him about what we discussed a few minutes ago."

"Right away, Webmistress!"

It was kind of funny to see all the participants, many of them quite important Admirals, be forced to move aside, for the spider was really, really big...

"So," a single word, and the seriousness of the matter returned. "You want a position. As my spider said, what happened at a certain court-martial speaks well of you, as it does for the two other officers who spoke in favour of killing that incompetent grox. That speaks well of your honour. It doesn't say anything about your competence when it comes to other battlefields."

"If you've read my career file, Lady General, you will know I'm not requesting a battlefield duty. I have men and women I commanded who left their yards and Navy duties because they refused to obey someone like von Goldenbaum. I could have kept my mouth shut and stayed out of sight of the great movers and shakers of Terra. But I didn't. I believe the Imperial Navy must build the best warships it can afford to, and those artworks of weaponry and advanced technology must then be commanded by Admirals every crewmember of a Battlefleet will trust with their lives, so that their short life-expectancy won't be wasted in useless political schemes! And that won't happen if the current imbeciles in charge are allowed to keep doing what they've always done."

Lady Weaver stared at her thoughtfully for a few seconds, though it felt far longer from Miranda's point of view.

"You realise," this time the voice was lowered to be barely above the level of a whisper, "that I am currently not ready to confront Vandire. It will certainly be decades before I'm ready."

"There is a saying," Miranda replied, "revenge is a dish best served cold."

"Yes, though there are other proverbs when it comes to vengeance." The black-haired woman shook her head. "Warship schematics? Trained ship-builders? Adamantium and other highly valuable metals?"

"They can all be found if the stakes are sufficiently high."

The Lady of Nyx watched her glass for a second before raising it to her lips and emptying it in one gulp.

"Very well. I'm willing to give you your chance, Admiral Lawson. You will report to Lord Admiral Müller and Archmagos Sultan. They will give you several things to work on, and the length of your trial period. Prove you are worthy of your rank and reputation, and the next time we will meet, I will ask you to present me the shipbuilding projects you're willing to sponsor and how many Throne Gelts it will cost me. If you fail...well, to be honest, I will likely keep you a seat for the day I will deal with Ormuz Vandire and Rudolf von Goldenbaum."

"I intend to be more than a seat-warmer, Lady General. I want to build the future of the Imperial Navy."

The other woman bared her teeth.

"I always like to have Admirals who don't lack in competence and motivation. Nyx will welcome you, Admiral Lawson."


Archmagos Prime Gastaph Hediatrix

"What do you think about her, Archmagos?"

"A very driven woman, Chosen of the Omnissiah." Gastaph replied. "I can't speak of her competence, of course."

"Of course."

"But her willingness to be in competition with other Admirals and naval officers...or should I say her eagerness? Yes, her eagerness speaks well of her. And it proves she doesn't lack in confidence."

"No, she doesn't. And that gives me hope."

"Chosen of the Omnissiah?"

"For all the political feuds which led to an Admiral like Miranda Lawson leaving the Sol System, there are still a lot of players outside of Mars who believe in worthy goals. No matter how much damage the Vandire Clan and several other greedy and self-interested factions have wrought, there remain many people who are trying to return the Imperium to its former glory."

"Yes...indeed a great source of hope, Chosen of the Omnissiah," the Voice of Mars agreed truthfully. "On a completely unrelated topic, I can inform you your commands have been obeyed to the letter. The wrecks of the Traitor Armada have all been thrown into nearby suns, along with as many big parts as we could detect and collect."

"No problems when it came to the other Archmagi?"

"There have been a few," Gastaph admitted, "but in most cases, showing them what the inside of an Infernus-class Battleship looked like was sufficient to stop the protests. Save a few Radicals – who are all under investigation, I assure you – all representatives of the different Forge Worlds agree with you that purifying those...those heretek abominations would be an extremely wasteful use of your Aethergold."

"Yes." The Lady of Nyx affirmed tersely. "I understand why the temptation was there. Though it would likely have cost as much as a brand-new ship to restore each of these void colossi, I can acknowledge the opportunities it would present. But even if purified completely, the Infernus class was designed and built by souls which had already succumbed to Chaos, and that I will never ignore. No matter how much they're purified and sanctified, I am ready to bet a few trillion Throne Gelts that the Infernus and the other Traitor patterns have major flaws within their systems or their internal architecture. It might be as obvious as a weakness in their Gellar Fields, or some poison coursing through the hydroponic sections...I simply don't know. And since I don't know, I am unwilling to take the risk."

"As I said, Chosen of the Omnissiah, the majority understand it...though they are eager to study the captured Ark Mechanicus and the damaged Legate-class Heavy Battleship that you didn't order to be thrown into the nearest sun."

The groan which came in the next few seconds was particularly impressive, for all the respect Gastaph had for Lady Weaver.

"I'm sure something can be arranged for the former. The Technologiae Potestas Est has been completely purified, as you well know...as for the other 'prize', we will see. The Heracles Wardens have carried out the purification part together with the Brothers of the Red, but there are still many problems to deal with inside."

The grin which followed was genuine.

"I hope you don't have too many more of these suggestions today to complicate the political waters, Archmagos. I already have had to deal with over-excited spiders..."

"Your Swarm's Adjutants are on average...in exceptional good cheer, Chosen."

"And today they are in an even better mood. The Tau engineers were so eager to please one of my Adjutants that they forged an armour for her...and it was so successful Archmagos Lankovar was unable to block the move until the enthusiasm had spiralled completely out of control."

Gastaph Hediatrix thought over the matter quickly, and decided to answer...prudently.

"I am not familiar with the matter, but I believe it makes sense, Chosen of the Omnissiah. In any future confrontation, a future enemy is sure to target the 'officers' of your Swarm with priority, as many Traitor Marines attempt decapitation tactics against the loyal servants of the Machine-God. Armouring your senior arachnids makes sense...as long as they've stopped growing, at least. No matter how creative the mechanical process, I doubt anyone can afford to build ten different sizes of armour to account for various stages of growth."

"I know. And yes, the concept makes sense. If anything, it might convince some enemies to go after my Adjutants while in reality the targeted arachnid is a Helspider. But their excitement is...contagious. And of course, a large majority of Adjutant-Colonels are busy writing a tactical treatise of How it is necessary to armour the Adjutants or some other fancy title, and naturally, Ishtar was not discreet enough, meaning the Space Wolves heard about it..."

"Ouch," Gastaph reacted. "I mean, I sympathise with the difficulty of your position, Chosen of the Omnissiah."

"I'm sure you do, Archmagos, I'm sure you do. Now what was this issue we had with the Rogue Traders this time?"


Magna Macragge Civitas

The Pavia Gallery

2.272.312M35

Rogue Trader Wolfgang Bach

The most incredible part about the Pavia Gallery, almost certainly, was that it existed in the first place.

Especially as it wasn't a priority to begin with!

When Macragge City was left in ruins by the Word Bearers' invasion, naturally, everyone who mattered, from the Primarch Guilliman to the simplest soldiers, had other things to think about than artwork paintings and redecorating Macragge.

There were hundreds of thousands of people left homeless, no, millions, and on the eve of a season of 'winter' that Wolfgang preferred to call 'frozen hell' now that he was given the opportunity to 'enjoy' it no less.

The level of the food stocks had also been rather concerning, if he remembered correctly.

Order had not collapsed, the presence of a well-disciplined army had helped with that, but...the situation hadn't been great by any means.

The devastation had been massive, and when he had looked at the first hololithic pict, the young Rogue Trader's thought was that the homeworld of the Ultramarines would take decades to be rebuilt.

In this aspect, he had been utterly wrong. One year of rebuilding effort, and Macragge rose from the ashes like a...okay, maybe it was better to avoid references to a phoenix here.

But the reconstruction effort, unprecedented and on a planetary scale, had achieved near-unbelievable results.

Obviously, the Macraggian architects and their Primarch master had an endless army of ants to compensate for the construction machines which had been destroyed.

It had progressed so well, and there were so many artists and Imperial propagandists eager to sculpt, paint, sing, or weave the victory of Lady Nyx, that naturally something was agreed upon – it helped many of these artists had been involved in the aftermath of Operation Caribbean and were thus in semi-employ of Her Celestial Highness Weaver now.

The final result outside was a tall blue-and-white piece of Macraggian architecture, with rows of five elegant columns, the foundations and tops sculpted to represent moths, ants, spiders, and various insects.

It was easy to admit it was the least impressive part of the artistic display, for the moment you entered, you were dazzled by the profusion of golden paintings, great battlefield scenes – which had likely never happened, Wolfgang was sure – tapestries proclaiming the glory of the Primarchs, and other artworks.

And since the Macraggian nobles were eager to reward the woman who had saved their planet, there were gifts of all sorts. The Pavia Gallery – which despite its simple name, required a guide and some three hours of free time to fully view at a near-running pace – clearly didn't contain all of these presents, but Lady Weaver had decided to showcase some first-class pieces here, from ceramics to silverware between the artworks praising her for the defeat of the Tyranids, Necrons, and Chaos Marines.

One naturally couldn't miss that the first two enemies, being xenos species, were represented far more often than the latter. Macragge or not, the Inquisition and many other organisations preferred to let the heretics fade into oblivion.

"I'm told," Wolfgang began with a conspiratorial tone to the Rogue Trader by his side, "the offer to include Nyxian architects to build this museum was firmly but strictly rejected by the Architect Guild of Macragge."

"I heard the same rumour," Magdalena Orpheus replied, in grand uniform for today's occasion. "I don't doubt it has a kernel of truth. The Macraggian people know that nothing is the same anymore, yet there is a strong feeling of...returning to the previous age of glory by a different path, shall we say?"

The formula was not very catchy for propaganda, but it had the merit of being extremely accurate.

"Congratulations on your survival, by the way. We were not sure you were going to escape that little soirée on the flagship of Battlefleet Kar Duniash with your life."

"It was never going to be that bad, and you know it," Wolfgang tried to present a brave facade...which didn't fool the female Rogue Trader. "Any outstanding proclamation in the last hours?"

"None," the owner of the Star Galleon answered cheerfully, "I suppose this summon is about to remedy that."

As they passed through more fantastic decorations and war paintings – one of them was superb, with a flight of Dragon Armours tearing apart the distorted but very recognisably reptilian Traitor Titans – Wolfgang conceded it was true.

The hall chosen for this gathering could have served as a throne room or something equally grand...and of the hundred-plus men and women assembled here, the profusion of expensive clothes, military medals, and other exotic objects was so high one could have easily bought a few blocks of Macraggian land with them effortlessly.

Most of these Lords and Ladies had nothing in common. There were turbans and scimitars next to powdered wigs. There were a few men having donned cowboy hats that Ancient Pierre would love for his collection, next to women in scandalous dresses and high-heeled shoes dressed like they were about to go to very unsavoury establishment.

Yet there was something that united them: like Magdalena Orpheus and Wolfgang, they were the legitimate owners of a Warrant of Trade, and had a ship to enforce it.

A few more arrived after them, bringing the participants to a respectable number approaching hundred and thirty, and then the doors behind them closed after several Space Marines in crimson armours went to take their positions.

A few seconds later, the doors at the opposite side of the hall opened, and Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert, Lady Weaver, Lady of the Nyx Sector and Basileia of the Nyx System, entered the not-throne room, radiant in her golden Power Armour, equipped like she was ready for war.

"Well," someone whispered next to Wolfgang, "things are going to get interesting..."


Rogue Trader Magdalena Orpheus

Magdalena had not suggested anything to the Living Saint ruling Nyx, but if she had, it would have been to state the obvious: plenty of Rogue Traders never respected anything but military might and the God-Emperor. And in the latter case, it was best to check through the power of Aethergold.

Thus the need today to arrive in battle-gear and ready like you were able to begin a war, flanked by Space Marines.

"Many of you, owners of Warrant of Trade," the woman blessed by the Master of Mankind began after concluding the courtesies in record time, "desire to serve me in some capacity. Some of you in this hall proclaimed it within the boundaries of the Baal System, while others arrived more recently at Macragge. This willingness to accomplish great deeds is something that has not gone unnoticed from many eyes. Which is why I directly asked the noble sentinels of the Adeptus Custodes to confirm several things that have faded from Imperial memories. It took time for them to direct several Adepts to the libraries containing the lawful precedents, but it was successful. I can confirm that by the will of the Master of Mankind, a Peer of Terra has the authority to write a Compact under his or her own name."

There were plenty of excited whispers. Most of the Rogue Traders Magdalena saw showed expressions of satisfaction as well.

"However," Lady Weaver continued while watching all the Rogue Traders like a bird of prey staring at a potential dinner, "that the lawful precedent exists is not an excuse to do everything you might fancy and outrageously ignore any and all consequences. I am not a tyrant, but I believe in Order. Bringing you under my protection will give each owner great benefits, as several Rogue Traders among this assembly can attest."

Magdalena curtsied and nodded with a large smile, as many of her peers turned their head in her direction.

"The shipyard of Nyx called Jaghatai's Celerity, in honour of the Primarch just returned from long and extraordinary adventures, has been dedicated to the maintenance, repairs, and construction of Rogue Trader starships, along with those of the allies that go into exploration duties and other perilous missions with the owners of a Warrant of Trade."

That was, as the Living Saint was known to repeat with her chief advisors, the carrot. The owner of the Arica Orpheus had a feeling the stick was not going to wait long before making an appearance.

"But as I said before, having been granted the liberty to sail through long-distant and unexplored regions is not an excuse to do reckless and moronic things. I can promise all of you that if someone is stupid enough to try to smuggle Chaos artefacts, allow their crew to be tainted due to idiotic moves which were completely predictable to begin with, or do something that results in corruption claiming loyalist souls by your fault, you will beg to be granted a quick death by the time I am done with you. A Warrant of Trade is a privilege, and heresy is a sin that revokes it. The only reason I would ask the Inquisition to not burn you on a pyre immediately would be because I want to use Aethergold to show you the magnitude of your damnation. The Ruinous Powers are one of the Greatest Enemies of Mankind, and there is to be no alliance with them, no stupid attempt to use their power for your own gains. This road leads to the pits of corruption, and the damnation of uncountable souls. Have I made myself sufficiently clear?"

The statement was heard and understood by everyone, of that Magdalena was sure.

As her wings unfurled and the radiance was not restrained in any way, the female Rogue Trader acknowledged the long-ears had a good point when they called the Living Saint an 'Angel of Death'. The servants of the God-Emperor certainly made beautiful figures, great allies when you were able to secure an alliance with them...but you couldn't forget that they all promised that betrayers and oath-breakers were going to burn.

"Now let's move to a different and more pleasant subject of conversation. Yes, Rogue Trader Guts."

The other Rogue Traders who had seen him had really not lied: the black-armoured man was truly a giant. How was it possible the Adeptus Astartes had missed him during its recruitment drives?

"A friend who couldn't be here today," the warrior-looking giant grinned carnivorously, "wondered if the rewards included planets...and Sectors. He mentioned something about Atlantis not having a ruler, if I heard correctly."

There were several chuckles, and Lady Weaver seemed more amused than exasperated.

"You can tell Rogue Trader Griffith," ouch, being called out like that was a 'touché' that was going to leave marks, "that first, I don't believe his excuse for finding himself elsewhere..."

The muscled woman who stood side by side with Rogue Trader Guts giggled loudly.

"And second, that my rewards are always proportional to the services someone renders. If one planet is a just reward, I have no problem facilitating the bureaucratic measures so that someone can become the Planetary Governor in his or her lifetime. I just want to make it clear that I won't deliver you a seat of planetary autocrat if I feel you're utterly incompetent in handling your gubernatorial duties. Wealth, a lavish lifestyle, regular sources of income, all of it can be yours provided the achievements are there and you stay away from heretical temptations. I have just ended a rebellion on Ichar IV where the ruling dynasty accumulated the sins of incompetence, sloth, greed, disloyalty, and undeserved arrogance. I am not going to enforce replacements only to acknowledge a decade later that the new Governor is worse."

This was more...problematic, at least from the perspective of the Rogue Traders assembled in this hall. Two-thirds or so of the men and women were completely unbothered; whether that was because they had no planetary ambitions – many Rogue Trader fleets had existed since there was an Imperium, they were not going to abandon their void armadas for a mere world – or because they felt they could earn the reward through sheer talent alone remained to be seen.

Some had such emotionless faces nothing could be determined about their thoughts or opinions. But about a tenth of the assembled owners of Warrants of Trade were clearly displeased. They had come salivating and anticipating a bottomless purse in exchange for vague promises, and this audience suddenly revealed there were some significant obstacles on the way.

"There are more questions, I see. Lord Draik, the floor is yours."

"My thanks, your Celestial Highness," a tall man clad in baroque armour of bronze and gold ornamentation saluted like an old soldier...and definitely he had the scars on his face to be one. "I was wondering about the policy of the Compact you will enforce when it comes to xenos trade. I am familiar with some old Compacts, due to my family history, and I know they tend to have extremely different approaches when it comes to this...dangerous and profitable trade. Some Compacts utterly forbid it, going so far as to order xenocide following the destruction of all technology ever used by a newly discovered race. Others are more...flexible."

"A good point, Lord Draik." The Living Saint owning the Enterprise began. "As a rule, I do not permit automatic xenocide unless the species in question is already tainted beyond redemption by the foul powers of the Warp or its behaviour deserves immediate annihilation. As for the technology, while the recovery of STC technology is the priority for obvious reasons, I think..."

Magdalena did her best to not show surprise or excitement when a large beetle flew next to her before entering her pocket and depositing an object. It looked like this audience was not the only important meeting she would be given the privilege of being invited to today...


Macragge

Somewhere in the Pharsalus Military District

2.274.312M35

Lord Inquisitor Odysseus Tor

There were many days as an Inquisitor of the Ordo Malleus when you felt the galaxy had thrown each and every last horror it could at you, yet you still stood and emerged victorious for the glory of Him on Holy Terra.

Today was not one of those days.

In fact, Odysseus Tor wondered somehow if the old Founders of the Holy Ordos had not been exaggeratingly optimistic.

Because there had been some optimism the human species and its abhuman cousins were not going to destroy civilisation in displays of raw stupidity!

"Did I just hear correctly," the old Lord Inquisitor hissed angrily, "that your Bastion's leader had the gall to sell advanced weapons to the greenskins?"

It hadn't been three days since he had accepted delaying his retirement after receiving some extensive medical treatments, and this was the first 'gross stupidity' case he faced. Heretics would say the God-Emperor was sending him a message. Odysseus preferred to think the Duardin being cut off from the rest of the galaxy had led them onto a path which was more and more dangerous the longer they stayed isolated from Mankind.

"Err...that is...they had prisoners. And they were willing to exchange them for weapons." Side-note: evidently, the average 'Squat' negotiator could sweat profusely.

"That position of yours," Odysseus seethed, "reveals a total lack of intelligence."

"Duardin life is precious!"

"The Orks do not respect any law save the one of 'might makes right'," Lady Weaver interrupted in a voice that was akin to the snow storm raging outside the building where this not-so-gentle conversation was taking place. "If the Ork leader had not plunged directly into a wormhole, and this wormhole had not spat him out near the Calyx Hell Stars, I can guarantee you all the Plasma weapons you gave him would have been turned against your Bastions."

"Ahem...that's a lot of 'ifs'..."

Odysseus did not need any coordination to glare ferociously at the stout abhuman who had come dressed like a businessman.

Next to him, Lady Weaver and Rogue Trader Magdalena Orpheus visibly shared his feelings, for their glares were determined...and particularly threatening, even by Inquisitorial standards.

"You are going to go back to your leader," the golden-winged Queen of the Swarm did not shout, though the words seemed to be chasing away the elements themselves, "and tell him that if dares to sell weapons to the Orks again, I will personally come to his Bastion with an army of Space Marines. And I will make sure his fate will be whispered across the galaxy in the same fearful tones as what I did to Commorragh."

"This...Duardin do not..." the golden aura grew, and with it came a furious song. It was almost sad...but it burned. "We do...not like threats." The Duardin managed to finish lamely.

"That wasn't a threat," Weaver corrected coldly, "that is what is going to happen if you repeat this stupidity. The Orks are dangerous enough, we don't need to increase their capacity to wage war! The one you just 'traded with' has managed to get out of a realm of the Damned and steal a Space Hulk transformed into a starship, before sacking several military outposts and disappearing into the Halo Stars!"

Yes, and this was one of the many reasons Odysseus wished Rafaela was still here. This kind of shenanigans should be the duty of the Ordo Xenos...alas, her replacement's arrival had been delayed, and the junior Inquisitors present at Macragge were very, very busy analysing the Necron and Tyranid threat, two subjects no one had known much about before they blew up in the Imperium's face.

"I will...I will relay the message."

"Oh, you will." The Angel of Sacrifice smiled. "Magdalena?"

"Yes, my Lady?"

"Do you think the Arica Orpheus can go through the Golgotha Straights and enter the Galactic Core?"

"Of course," the elegant woman answered, her assurance coming from her long and distinguished lineage coming to the fore. "But I will need a few of the...upgrades we discussed while on our way here. And I would prefer taking two or three new Navigators aboard, the difficulty of the navigation in that turbulent area requires a rotation to avoid exhausting the representatives of the Navis Nobilite."

"I will discuss it with Chancellor Achelieux. But you think your Star Galleon can do it?"

"Nothing is certain when it comes to such dangerous uncharted paths," the black-and-white-clad woman told her benefactor, "but provided that the aforementioned requests are fulfilled, I believe the risks are manageable...compared to the potential gains."

"Hey! We don't like foreigners...err..." in hindsight, maybe the Duardin were just stupidity incarnate...it certainly took a respectable amount of idiocy to make three pairs of eyes glare at you in the same second.

"I am going to send Rogue Trader Lady Magdalena Orpheus to your Bastion once her ship has been modified to her wishes." Lady Weaver told the abhuman. Nobody could miss it was a command, not a suggestion. "She will act as my emissary, and will deliver several letters and pieces of official correspondence bearing my seal. If your Bastion Masters have any sanity left in their heads, they will listen to her."

No 'or else' was uttered, but Odysseus was sure the Duardin could hear it loud and clear. After all, he and his cousins had seen the Space Marines on their way here.

It didn't take much imagination to have a nightmare or two about what a Battle-Barge filled with Black Templars would do to a Bastion of the Squats, no matter how modern and fortified.

By the Golden Throne, they already were going to have to downplay the weapon sales in public for now, otherwise there would be a lot of angry Battle-Companies charging towards the Core...trading weapons with greenskins was a heavy crime in every Sector of the Imperium, and for good reason.

"Now let's speak of the so-called 'rare metals and gems' you brought..."


Fortress of Hera

2.277.312M35

Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert

Contrary to the new Bacta accords, which barely lasted two hours only because every Chapter representative needed to sign, the final document for the Weapon Depot negotiations was the result of many compromises.

As with every compromise, this meant it left most of the parties displeased by one point or another.

Not all the parties, though.

The Inquisition representatives chosen by their fellow Inquisitors to oversee the Depot – three Inquisitors and a small army's worth of Acolytes – look rather satisfied.

To be fair to them, they had reason to; they were officially the first members of a completely new Ordo, the Ordo Pharsalus, whose goal was to make sure the Depots functioned as intended and no Traitor ever managed to gain control over them.

Ironically, this attempt to exploit the heavy propaganda around the Battle of Pharsalus was resulting in the 'Weapon Depot' often being nicknamed the 'Pharsalus Depot' in the last forty-eight hours.

It was definitely ironic, because the Pharsalus Military Depot was not going to be built in the district bearing this name, by the way.

"Lady Weaver?" Guilliman politely called her.

"Nyx will support the document. One percent of all Astartes personal weapons annually produced by Nyx, like Volkite Blasters and Plasma Guns, will be transferred to the Pharsalus Depot." And this in exchange for several favours, both for the automatic loader of the artillery guns and other concessions...

"We will deliver to the Ordo Pharsalus," the insect-mistress continued while nodding at the Inquisitors, "five percent of all Astartes Power Armours manufactured within our Forges. In terms of equipment, forty Rhinos, forty Predators of three different patterns, forty Hunters, and forty Archer self-propelled guns will be delivered. Assuming the technological transfers prove as successful as everyone hope them to be, the moment the Nyxian production lines reach a production of fifty Fellglaive super-heavy tanks per year, five will be sent to the Pharsalus Depot."

As Tigrus had made the same promise for the Fellblade when she had involved them, Taylor felt confident to say the storage facilities were going to receive a lot of firepower and metallic tonnage.

Obviously, it remained far under what the Forge World of Konor and the Industrial World of Firestorm, home of the Aurora Chapter, would deliver. But those planets had few commitments aside from supplying the Ultramarines' Depot.

Nyx, on the other hand...even not counting the Space Marines present inside the Sector, the Basileia knew she had a lot of other orders coming in from all Ultima Segmentum.

What mattered was that Nyx, like a lot of worlds, would play its part when it came to the fortification of the Eastern Fringe and this critical logistical hub.

When the Tyranids came, they were going to receive a hellishly-hot welcome.

There was some grumbling coming from Leman Russ, who had not fully 'digested' the failure of his efforts to acquire more air and void assets via many indirect means...though the Lady of Nyx was near-certain that by now he was playing up the image of 'Barbarian King' just to annoy everyone.

"Any other arguments? That we haven't yet heard, Leman..."

"No," Rogal Dorn replied for everyone around the very, very large table everyone had seated around. "I think everything has been covered."

And when loopholes were found, as they unavoidably would be, it would be the duty of the Ordo Pharsalus to analyse them and find solutions.

The atmosphere grew less tense and more jovial as the signatures were added one after another onto the high-quality vellum specifically brought in for the occasion.

It was not a short process; every Space Marine felt it was the end of the Conference, and felt the need to give some short speech or offer his own perspective. Those were interesting moments, and not just because many had fascinating interpretations of what the Adeptus Astartes should be.

Several times meals and refreshments were ordered, while conversations having nothing to do with Depots and weapons resumed between the different gene-lines. For quite obvious reasons, this was why the Dark Angels and their Successors were as far away from the Space Wolves as humanly possible. And yes, the Raven Guard had drawn the short straw when it was vigorously debated who had to sit next to the boisterous Fenrisian warriors.

The Inquisitors of the Ordo Pharsalus rose and saluted her and the Primarchs. As the 'signature time' ended, the majority of the documents were sealed within stasis fields, where they would be displayed in very secure rooms of the Fortress of Hera.

"AND NOW," Bjorn the Fell-Handed, legend and Dreadnought, "THE CEREMONY FOR THE DAWNBREAKER GUARD!"

Taylor blinked.

"The ceremony for-" no one had informed her of that, not even-

The angelic-looking Lady General Militant turned to suspiciously glare at her protectors behind her.

"Was there per chance something you 'forgot' to tell me, Gavreel, Gamaliel?"

"THERE IS!" Pierre confirmed. "WE WANTED IT TO STAY A SURPRISE! SURPRISE!"

"Traitor," most of the Space Marines of the Dawnbreaker Guard gritted between their teeth.


Seraph Gamaliel

It went without saying their Lady tried to protest.

But the surprise had robbed her of any preparation time to prepare her arguments, that much was obvious.

Furthermore, once the moment of surprise was over, the Adjutant-Spiders had announced their desire to gift everyone spider silk parade attire.

And finally, it was really, really difficult to resist the Khan once he embraced you.

The latter point resulted in Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert turning an interesting shade of pink, by the way.

"Err...I suppose I have to accept. I mean, I will be honoured to accept, Lord Khan."

"Better," the Primarch of the White Scars laughed. "Obviously, due to the lack of time, my sons have not had the opportunity to gather and select their Champions for your Honour Guard. This unfortunately means that today, the candidates are unable to recite their poems and sing with the winds and the snow of Macragge."

It was still impressive, for one after another, eight Space Marines of the Fifth Legion's gene-line knelt one by one, supporting the words of their Primarch.

And those were impressive names.

Obviously, the Dawnbreaker Guard already had the original Founding Chapter in the person of Stormseer Uriyangkhadai, but their Successors assembled in front of Lady Weaver had gained much renown in the last millennia.

From left to right there were the Destroyers, the Marauders, the Rampagers, the Mantis Warriors, the Solar Hawks, the Iron Talons, the Jade Scorpions, and the Storm Lords. Eight ferocious sons of the Khan would join the Dawnbreaker Guard, and Gamaliel had no doubt they would be worthy additions which would bring a lot of new perspectives and battle-knowledge to the heart of Nyx.

Oaths were made. Cups were raised, and Space Marines roared.

At last, the Khan made a few steps back...letting his raven-haired brother advance.

"You too, Lord Corax?"

"I promise this will be less dolorous than my brother," the Ravenlord promised, under the chuckles of the assembly. "And you already convinced one of my sons to choose light over the dark."

"You know, I am right here, father." Kalyan Gowtham complained theatrically in a very mournful tone.

"I know." The Eighteenth Primarch replied drily, generating more chuckles. Corvus Corax let the hilarity run its course before returning to a more serious approach. "The discovery of Aethergold and Umbralshroud in significant quantities has changed many things, I am not going to pretend otherwise. And since I am not a hypocrite, I won't try to lie and say we will choose Aethergold before Umbralshroud. That is not the case. My sons have inherited my strong affinity with the shadows. We are attracted by them, our fighting style is complimentary with Umbralshroud. But not everyone will use it among my sons."

"And," Weaver added a second later, "you have not forgiven the Traitors responsible for Isstvan."

"And I will never forgive those bastards for what they did at Isstvan, the dreams they shattered, and the slavery in damnation they intended for all of Mankind. I have asked my sons, and three will join you within a Terran year."

As it had been said, three Space Marines came forwards to present their blades.

It was an interesting mix between the old and the new.

The Black Guard and the Hawk Lords were old Chapters, from the 2nd and the 3rd Founding respectively, if Gamaliel wasn't mistaken. But the third Chapter, the Seraph knew, was the recently created Chapter of the Death Spectres, the sons of the 13th Founding.

It was, the Blood Angel knew, a curious combination...but both the Primarch and the Chapters must have had their reasons.

There were a few seconds of silence and inactivity when the Ravenlord withdrew.

Maybe the five Primarchs had wanted to give the opportunity for the sons of Ferrus or the sons of the Lion to commit themselves – everyone knew the Space Wolves would have loved to, but they were punished and would not be permitted until Leman Russ was satisfied with their 're-training'.

Also, unlike the others, the entire Dawnbreaker Guard wouldn't accept Fenrisian wolves or bears with a delirious enthusiasm. They even had the vibrant support of the Adjutant-Spiders to defend their position!

In the end it was the Primarch of the Ultramarines who stood, legend of the Great Crusade in cutting-edge Power Armour, son of the Emperor returned from the dead once more, Lord of Macragge, Avenging Son...the list of titles could have been recited for many, many days.

And behind the Master of Mankind's Thirteenth Primarch, fifteen Astartes each drew their Gladius.

"The Ultramarines will pledge themselves to your Honour Guard, if you will allow them to." The former Lord of the Five Hundred Worlds announced. "The majority of the Chapters wished to send someone, but it is the Dawnbreaker Guard, not the Victrix Guard."

"It will be an honour, Lord Guilliman."

One by one, they all knelt.

Ultramarines. Aurora Chapter. Brazen Consuls. Crimson Consuls. Genesis Chapter. Inceptors. Iron Hounds. Iron Snakes. Nemesis. Patriarchs of Ulixis. Scythes of the Emperor. Sons of Guilliman. Sons of Orar. Tome Keepers. White Consuls.

Thousands upon thousands of victories stood gathered here, and with them, the inheritance of a Legion which had almost been destroyed at Calth and Macragge.

"My secrets will be your secrets. My victories will be your victories." Their Lady began. "I won't promise it will be easy. I won't promise it will go without great Sacrifice. But we will fight together, and we usher the Dawn upon the Imperium. AVE IMPERATOR!"

"AVE IMPERATOR!"

The next half an hour, naturally, was a succession of applause, cheers, enthusiastic and bombastic proclamations, those of Bjorn the Fell-Handed being among the loudest...and then Roboute Guilliman raised his hand, and like that, all the attention returned to him with the blink of an eye.

"There is one last matter to speak of."

Gamaliel almost burst into laughter seeing the face of Lady Weaver. You could almost hear her groan...and listen to her thoughts.

Which had to be something like 'another one'?


Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert

This time, Taylor was ready to admit defeat.

Her attempts to turn the tables back in her favour and play the game of 'let's surprise everyone!' had...clearly not worked.

But it was not her fault.

She had been betrayed by her own Dawnbreaker Guard. Damn their odious machinations behind her back.

These backstabbing Astartes would suffer for that, oh yes. The insect-mistress was going to devote an incredible amount of resources to transform that idea into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"A last matter, Lord Primarch?" Taylor tried with an innocent expression...which naturally triggered plenty of chuckles from the Astartes by her side. They were clearly determined to aggravate their punishment...

"Oh just a small matter. I was given to understand you were granted the privilege to invite several Chapters into the Nyx Sector, yet you have not exerted all the authority which was given to you."

It did not take someone really smart to know where this was leading...

"Yes, I was given the privilege of inviting as many as ten Chapters into the Nyx Sector."

"Ten?" the blonde-haired Primarch raised an eyebrow. "I was given to understand it was nine."

"There were amendments and conditions to the number nine," Taylor explained after clearing her throat. "The 'nine' proposal was valid as long as a certain High Lord didn't try to meddle in my affairs and push for some outrageous tithes. Since this bureaucrat clearly couldn't help himself, I see no reason to respect the other part of the deal. Though as you said, I deliberately chose not to invite the maximum number of Chapters I was authorised to, for several reasons. After the annihilation of Commorragh, the industrial capacity to equip the Chapters settling in my Sector was already strained. Another potential source of trouble was that I was unsure how well the Chapters involved would work with each other. And lastly, just because I was allowed to do something didn't mean it was wise to do it. The number of Planetary Governors eager to welcome battle-brothers of the Adeptus Astartes wasn't that great then."

"That was over a decade ago, I assume the situation has changed."

Newly discovered problem: when face-to-face with a Primarch, it was nearly impossible to lie to him.

"In that regard, the situation has improved." The Basileia of Nyx answered formally...and truthfully. "Since you have approached the situation in such a...surprising manner, may I presume you have candidates volunteering for the honour?"

"We do."

And now the Khan was entering the dance too. Wonderful...this was a day filled with surprises...why oh why were they all thrown in her direction?

Once again, the Space Marine Captain representing the Chapter of the Storm Lords, in his immaculate half-red, half-white armour stood at attention. Unlike last time, however, a large roll of vellum that looked to be a chronicle on its own was carried with reverence until it stopped before her.

"My sons, the Storm Lords, have been a fleet-based Chapter for many centuries. I would be remarkably thankful if you could give them a home and recruitment rights after the heavy battles they fought against the Word Bearers of the Maelstrom."

"I am going to study their candidature with the attention it deserves." The support of a Primarch was a powerful gesture of which there were few equivalents, but aside from the name and a few tales heard at Macragge, Taylor didn't know much about the Storm Lords. Obviously, since they were Successors of the Fifth Legion, the White Scars, it was guaranteed they favoured speed over other slower tactics and strategies. But it wasn't enough to base her judgement and a decision of such magnitude.

"That is all I ask," the scarred Primarch nodded, before letting his Macraggian brother enter the political minefield, so to speak.

And as the Avenging Son faced her, the Space Marine who followed him did not come from one of the son of Guilliman's formations which had pledged a Champion for her Honour Guard. The Chapter in question had its power armour painted a dark blue, though the pauldrons were painted bone white.

"Like my brother the Khan, my own sons, the Angels Revenant, have fought and emerged victorious as a fleet-based Chapter for most of their existence. As supporters of both the Codex Astartes and the Imperial Creed, I would be greatly pleased if you could give them a home and the ability to raise a new generation of battle-brothers within your domain."

Naturally, a second roll of chronicles and advance hovered in her direction. Obviously, Artemis and all the Adjutants present were very, very pleased. Her spiders loved it when they were given the opportunity to read some battle-reports and legends of the Adeptus Astartes with her.

"I am going to read the documentation and the act of candidature with the utmost attention."

"That is all we ask, Lady Weaver."

Of course, it was...Taylor wasn't naive. Since they had come so prepared, the two Primarchs wouldn't have tried to present Chapters which would be unacceptable in her eyes...in a totally unrelated subject, the Dark Angels and their Successors were in a sudden hurry to leave this hall.

Curious, wasn't it?


A Derelict World somewhere in the Eastern Fringe

2.283.312M35

Phaerakh-Cryptek Neferten

"With all due respect, Phaerakh, your ceremonies are...well, a bit too long for races of flesh and blood."

This was neither the first nor the last time this remark would be made, Neferten thought. But the truth had to be revealed first.

"Many of these ceremonies were as long as this one when we were beings of flesh and blood, Lady Weaver."

"Oh." This time she had managed to surprise the golden human leader, she knew. "But...didn't you have a massive problem with your life-expectancy before the biotransference? With all the respect I have for your Dynasty, of course."

"We did," the Phaerakh-Cryptek of the Nerushlatset Dynasty confirmed. "But the traditions were stronger than everything, including our physical frailties. In the small parts of my pre-biotransference life I remember, the customs could be as binding as the command protocols the Silent King enslaved us with."

"That sounds...cruel."

"It is that," the Necron noble answered. "Especially when you consider that no ceremony which involves more than fifteen great nobles of a Dynasty above the third rank can be interrupted under any circumstance."

"Under any circumstance?" Lady Weaver was intelligent; she reacted immediately to the way the message had been delivered. "But...let's say a Phaeron just died...and his replacement was too old to endure a year-long ceremony. Surely-"

"Before the C'Tan came, it was incredibly common for potential Phaerons and Phaerakhs to die during their own coronation ceremony, yes." And when it wasn't of old age, it was often of particularly ingenious assassinations.

Nor did it account for the days when particularly ambitious Heirs had stormed the coronation halls and ended the lives of their siblings or parents to claim the throne.

"I will be honest, I find this description rather depressing, Phaerakh."

"There is a reason that despite the slavery, many of my fellow Phaerons and Phaerakhs thought the biotransference was a good thing. For the first time in our history, we were not at risk of dying of old age in the middle of a victory ceremony, or some grandiose visit from the rulers of our race. And when it came to assassination, eliminating us for more than a few hours also became terribly difficult."

"The rulers might have thought so," the golden-winged ruler of Nyx remarked. "I think the Heirs and Heiresses to a Dynasty's throne might not have been so pleased."

"They weren't," Neferten confirmed. "But the opening moves of the War in Heaven were so destructive it left plenty of openings ripe for the taking. And as the war wiped out many Dynasties, there was a need for replacements. The situation in that aspect was more or less stable before the Silent King turned against the C'Tan. After it...I suspect the Great Sleep did cause plenty of resentment, and in the millennia to come, I might hear of plenty of feuds every time a Necron world awakens."

"And the Sautekh do not have such...quarrels?"

"They live for these political quarrels," Neferten clarified. "This is why I found several lawful precedents which confirmed Phaeron Zahndrekh was perfectly justified in becoming my vassal. And I ordered all his opponents to search for counter-examples the old-fashioned way, without Crypteks."

"How long this is going to keep them busy?" Weaver asked with amusement in her voice.

"The first phase should take them...around two hundred thousand of your years, if they are sufficiently motivated. I reserve the right to create entirely new procedures once they have found the appropriate counter-precedents and finally manage to form an unstable coalition. Or they will be sent to a war of importance, and their own internal feuds will force them to restart everything from the beginning."

"Complicated, but smart. How-"

"Another great day to collect valuable historical pieces!"

Whatever Weaver had been able to say, it was interrupted by Trazyn, who was rummaging through the piles of objects the metal-changed humans in red robes of the Mechanicus had brought to this meeting.

"May I know how you were able to acquire such a mass of human-made artworks and historical remnants of old human civilisations on such a short notice?"

"I had plenty of explorators and wealthy people desperately requesting an audience with me," the Destroyer of Mandragora replied immediately. "Among them were many Rogue Traders, who are noted to be the amateur Trazyns of our species. I informed them I was willing to buy some of their pieces, as long as it didn't involve any psychic artefact and they could be described as 'valuable but inoffensive trinkets'."

"Interesting." Neferten curtly declared, as the Archaeovist of Solemnace touched, examined, and studied the large chests and piles of human-made treasure. "I hope it wasn't too expensive for you."

"I am a very wealthy person now," Weaver reassured her. "My fortune can tolerate these expenses, as long as I don't do it every day. And...well, I did it today with the firm intention of having a return on my investment. A technological bounty, if I want to be accurate and truthful."

"I'm taking everything! Everything! Overlords, prepare to send everything to the new galleries!"

The Necrons of Solemnace which had come with her former lover obeyed, of course. But you could feel the resignation in their footwork, their curtsies, and the moves they used to prepare the 'collected items' for transport.

"Thank you, my friend! Thank you!" Trazyn vigorously shook the arm of Weaver...fortunately, the Basileia of Nyx was strong enough to handle it. "A little gift to show you my gratitude!"

From a Tesseract cube, a medium-sized object of black colour materialised. At first sight, it was roughly of the dimensions of the 'desks' the humans used so often in their private quarters for their personal bureaucratic chores.

The resemblance was nothing more than superficial. This human-made artefact here was made of metal, and had a lot of primitive technological circuitry going in and out of it – primitive from a Necron point of view, it went without saying.

"It was a pleasure, Trazyn. Concerning certain jewels a certain Aeldari Queen wants-"

"I hear the laughter of unfound collections calling for me! Farewell, my friend!"

And the Archaeovist of Solemnace teleported away before anyone could order him to stop.

Weaver made a loud sound that Neferten was unsure how to interpret.

"Well, I tried. It will be up to the Queen of Blades to 'convince' him to return some of his ill-gotten collections, I guess."

"Truer words have never been spoken." Neferten agreed. "I suppose Solemnace is going to have to move away from the Eastern Fringe very, very fast and hide for some time."

"True."

"Is this the artefact you were seeking?"

"I think so," Weaver replied, touching the large black object, the 'STC' she had spent so much to acquire, with unfeigned reverence before giving a nod to her red-robed subordinates. With a dignity and coordination that even a Necron could find commendable, the mechanical humans advanced and began to prepare the human artefact for its long journey to Nyx. "The Custodes were sure Trazyn had it, of course, and the description matches the archives which survived the Long Night from several famous Terran archeotech-hunters. To be sure, however, the STC will have to be activated in a safe environment. Since the war is over, this safe place happens to be Terra Cimmeria and its ateliers, in the Nyx System."

"The benefits?"

"Immense. Since I gave your Dynasty a formal Embassy, I think I will be able to show you the first pieces based on these STC schematics in a few years."

"I will await this moment with great interest. May your plans successfully prosper, I will prepare the formal treaties for both the Imperium and the long-ear...supplicants."

Then and only then did the Phaerakh-Cryptek depart by teleportation. What a pleasure to have a conversation with humans...there was no day-long ceremony of departure to endure for each step of her travels.


Lady General Militant Taylor Hebert

Taylor was really proud of the Tech-Priests. The STC relic they held in their hands was of phenomenal value for the Cult Mechanicus and their Forges, but they escorted it away with superb professionalism.

Of course, it helped that the Lady General Militant had informed them ahead of schedule of what she had come to negotiate for today.

And Taylor wasn't going to bet on them being reasonable in their prayers and general behaviour once they returned to the Battleship Standard Template Construct orbiting the planet.

Nevertheless things had gone well.

Trazyn had accepted her gift...she wasn't going to call it a bribe. That wasn't a dignified word, no matter how true it was.

One part of the insect-mistress wished she had been able to 'liberate' more archeotech from the galleries of Solemnace, but as Neferten had warned her, Trazyn remained...well, Trazyn. His gratitude went only so far before his 'collection obsession' returned and became his one and his sole focus.

To be honest, Taylor could live with that.

Just claiming this STC relic of Mankind's advanced past would no doubt lead to considerable improvements of the Nyxian Mechanicus' technological understanding...to say nothing of the boons it would give to Nyx itself.

Obviously, long negotiations were going to be her bread and butter in the short and long-term future, but the advantages, in this instance, were several levels of magnitude higher than the drawbacks. No doubt several special projects would become just a little less impossible-

Taylor stopped walking away from the site where she had gathered the Rogue Traders' trinkets.

In appearance, everything was ruins and devastation. The world had belonged to the Five Hundred Worlds once, but the treachery of the Word Bearers had resulted in untold butchery, and finally its abandonment after the fires of the Heresy abated.

There wasn't anyone left alive here, this was one of the reasons the Necrons and Humans had agreed quickly to host their talks here.

Nonetheless, someone was observing her.

"I can feel your presence," the Angel of Sacrifice spoke.

There was a long and discordant laughter.

Ten seconds or so later, the temperature of the planet began to drop.

The frost wave hit her like a caress.

Taylor wasn't fooled; it was powerful enough to freeze any 'normal' being not equipped with a void-sealed Power Armour.

Yet it wasn't an attack.

Something that became clear as blue lights appeared from nowhere.

Finally, the C'Tan came.

Today, the Star-Devourer had taken an almost-human appearance.

Almost.

It was taller than any Primarch Taylor had ever encountered, and the Necrodermis 'body' was too perfect, in many ways. And the eyes of the C'Tan...it was like a fire colder than the very void itself, the essence of frost, the physical reality of 'hell has frozen over' on a plane of existence difficult to understand.

"Hsiagn'la," the winged parahuman saluted.

"Weaver," the C'Tan replied, "here you stand before me, forever young, forever anchored to this galaxy by Sacrifice."

"I did what I had to do." The words of the C'Tan were both poison and salvation, as befitting the species which had led the Necrontyr to becoming the Necrons. "Defeat would have meant extinction. Ascension is far more preferable."

"Yes." Frost engulfed everything, and the C'Tan which had been called the Helfrost turned away, looking at something her senses did not perceive.

Cold winds swirled, the elements forced to obey the Star-Devourer.

"Yes," the Voidsong repeated, "but as I said before to your Swarm and your essence, avoiding defeat is not the triumph your worshippers want to believe it to be. You have prevented the Szarekhan Dynasty from resuming their old war. You have avoided the fangs and claws of the Tyranids. You ushered an Age of Disunion for the tumours created by our Old Enemies."

"And I will light the fires of Dawn," the Basileia of Nyx swore, "so that the darkness is kept at bay."

The C'Tan laughed. It felt...genuine, for some reason, and yet for some reason, gave a dark sense of foreboding.

"There is a path to victory, but contrary to what your ally believed, it only leads to more war."

"With the Szarekhan Dynasty defanged and the Sautekh-"

"The Deceiver is watching you from afar."

The words...Taylor didn't feel fear easily these days, but this single sentence made her shiver.

"What does...what does the Deceiver want? Is one of his goals to kill me?"

Laughter shook the world, and the frost erupted in improbable cascades of crystal.

"No, Angel of Sacrifice. Had one of his goals been your death, you would have never Ascended."

Some part of her felt offended...and the other part was really, really scared. Because the C'Tan's words...they resonated with an implacable truth.

"He schemes. He frees more and more of his Shards which were imprisoned in places of great importance to him. He manipulates. He pushes every one of his agents to discard all their mental and physical limits before remoulding them into his chirurgical blades. And when the Deceiver strikes, it will be to incite strife, lies, and terror."

The Voidsong looked at her with something...if the C'Tan weren't incapable of pity, Taylor would have said that was its emotion.

"Prepare yourself for the battles to come, Weaver, or your species will be broken by the same twisted tools the Necrontyr civilisation was."

"I will prepare." The Lady General Militant. She had always intended to...there was 'just' a malicious C'Tan to take into account. No big deal.

The Basileia sighed internally. When did her life begin to involve fighting Star-Devourers, by the way?

No, better to not think about that for now. There was one more important question to ask.

"What do you want Hsiagn'la?" Nothing had forced the C'Tan to warn her or even meet her once the chains keeping it trapped inside the Ymga Monolith had broken. Nothing. The Necrons technically had the power to subdue it again, but in practise, they had other priorities.

"I want the War in Heaven to end."

Taylor's eyes narrowed in incomprehension.


Laphis

2.290.312M35

Arch-Cardinal Winston Marlborough

Laphis had suffered a lot, but it remained a beautiful planet.

The air was pure and a balm to your soul, and the population had this eagerness to rebuild what had been destroyed that was sadly not all that common across the Eastern Fringe.

"I'm told the reconstruction advances well, your Celestial Highness."

"It does, it does, your Eminence...unfortunately we don't see it much from where we are. Ravenna is...going to be the construction site of hundreds of thousands of men and insects for the next year. And maybe the year after that."

Winston nodded in understanding. The problem, as the Living Saint had informed him, was that while Macragge had been left in a worse state than Laphis, Macragge had fortifications which had nonetheless proved their worth, in contrast to Laphis. Some modifications had been necessary for the former, but with a Primarch in charge, the reconstruction had proceeded quickly. Any heretic or xenos who wished to attempt an invasion today would regret it.

Laphis, on the other hand, had had no fortifications or military defences, and it had paid for it dearly. But now that it was being rebuilt, there were political and cultural reasons to ensure the beauty of a Macraggian Paradise World would coexist with adequate defences for centuries to come.

As a result, the debates when it came for the final plans of the new Ravenna and its approaches had been...quite vigorous. To stay polite.

"You will forgive me, your Celestial Highness, if I told you I regret a bit that the Primarch didn't sell you these lands so that Ravenna could become an Ecclesiarchy enclave."

"Of course I forgive you, your Eminence," Winston was granted a humorous smile in return. "But in my honest opinion, there was no way the Primarch would accept such a loss of sovereignty with a smile on his face. Which is why he preferred Mainz and Nyx investments in a winter sports' resort. It's a far more...secular activity."

"You can say non-religious, I won't be offended." The Arch-Cardinal said in a peaceful tone.

"Non-religious, yes," the Saviour of Laphis gave a glance to the many, many construction sites around them before continuing her narration. "I am honestly very pleased by how calmly the Primarchs accepted the new Imperium has changed from the one they left several millennia ago. I am sure I wouldn't have reacted so well in their place."

"True," the Arch-Cardinal of Ultima Segmentum replied, "there are many Cardinals who were, let's shall say...a bit anxious. For all the doctrine proclaiming them above canonized Saints, Ophelia VII has extensive archives, and some describe in extensive detail how the sons of the God-Emperor erased religious cults during the Great Crusade. A few of my opponents were even whispering behind closed doors that they would attempt to return to...a very 'secular' state of affairs."

"Now that would have been very short-sighted of them," the Living Saint noted laconically while petting one of her spiders. "I think that after the Scouring was over, all the surviving Primarchs realised they needed something to hold the Imperium together. They probably didn't even acknowledge it out loud right then, but they knew it deep inside. They are very smart, your Eminence, no matter Russ' efforts to dress up as a Barbarian King. They know the Imperial Truth was based on the Faith the Imperium of that time had in Mankind's brotherhood, the faith all technology could be re-invented with enough dedication and motivation, the hope Mankind would be free of distrust and betrayals. And they were there when it all ended in ashes and ruins."

"Thus the trillions of souls afterwards pleading, praying for spiritual deliverance."

"Yes. And that is why the Ecclesiarchy's support for the Golden Throne will be absolutely vital in the years to come."

Winston raised his hands in a theatrical manner, making plenty of Astartes escorting the Living Saint cough or clear their throat to show their amusement.

"We are, of course, all Faithful servants of the Golden Throne." Answering otherwise would be heresy, after all. "But the kind of support you hint at, your Celestial Highness, is not going to be without peril."

"You told me an hour ago the Cardinal-Emissary would reach Nyx shortly after my own return."

"This is the kind of support we agreed after your miraculous victories of the Caribbean Campaign, not Stalingrad, your Celestial Highness."

This time, the golden-winged Angel chuckled in good humour.

"Very true. What are you thinking about?"

"An expansion of the Templar Sororitas." Winston answered seriously. "You would retain all teaching and training privileges for the Order of the Silver Rose's Battle-Sisters, but Ophelia VII would dearly wish to increase their numbers. Their proficiency in battle and their splendid devotion to the ideals of the God-Emperor did not go unnoticed, and the Ecclesiarch himself has given many sermons praising their victories."

"But the Frateris Templars are also in the process of being disbanded, and His Holiness would feel more secure with more Templar Sororitas active."

"Yes."

The saintly eyes, filled with stars, grew...thoughtful.

"What were His Holiness' exact proposals?"

"I have brought several vellum messages with me. May I?"


The Banana Glades

Legate Galatea Dumas

The Holy Celestial Moth Lisa was, as always, a model of cooperation and eagerness to serve the Imperium.

If you managed to say that three times without laughing, Galatea was willing to buy you a drink.

Because the correct way to describe things was: when Her Celestial Highness was in range, yes, Lisa was a model of cooperation...sometimes. Feeding her increased the inclination to obey, it had to be said.

"They told me you were a very, very bad Moth."

The titanic insect made an outraged sound and turned her head around, as if to see if there were any other Mosura Moths in the vicinity to pin the blame on.

Alas for her, there weren't.

"You are going to resume a regimen of serious physical exercises once we go back home. And don't give me that look! You know you need it. You have spent half a year gorging yourself on sugar and fruits. Holidays are over, Lisa. We return to Nyx!"

The moan which followed could have been translated as 'but I love Laphis and my worshippers here!'

Nevertheless, after this last sonorous complaint, the Titan-Moth obeyed Lady Weaver's instructions and flew towards the Spaceport, where many Templar Sororitas and Magi Biologis waited to transfer her to orbit.

"Someone really enjoyed Laphis."

"To be fair, your Celestial Highness, she's not the only one." Galatea commented. "There is a certain...softness, a pleasure to breathe and enjoy life here...now that we have completely removed the taint of the Traitors, it's really peaceful and serene...it's bad for military discipline, I know, but I really enjoyed staying on this world."

"That's good to know." The Basileia nodded. "But now that the Arch-Cardinal and I have spoken, there's no reason to remain on this planet."

"Was the discussion fruitful?" The Legate almost grimaced afterwards, as it could be considered a bad pun, given how they were walking in a field of fruit remains that Lisa had for some reason or another declared unworthy of her palate.

"It was. We spoke about the Order of the Silver Rose, actually."

"Really?"

"Really," Her Celestial Highness assured her. "He thought an expansion of your Order might be necessary."

"In that case...may I be so bold as to suggest an expansion of the existing infrastructure? We were beginning to see the limits of the current facilities when you formally launched Operation Stalingrad."

"Not an improvement of the equipment?" The Angel chuckled. Galatea found she liked the sound of that laughter. Since the end of the Cataclysm, Her Celestial Highness was...smiling more. No one was going to accuse her of being soft or less redoubtable, but she was smiling and laughing more. There was a lot more joy and other positive emotions radiating from her.

"That may come in due time, but I have absolute confidence in Lady Dragon's ability to resolve the problems in that direction. Infrastructure, however...the facilities to expand the training of my future sisters won't be built in a few days. As you told me yourself, the planning, logistical issues, and construction materials alone require many months to be resolved."

"Very good points, Legate, very good points..."

The next hundred or steps were walked with a lull in the conversation.

And when the ruler of the Nyx Sector did speak, it was on a completely different subject.

"I have an important meeting on the Zar-Quaesitor to attend before we leave. Please arrange an escort of ten Sisters for a Blue Bacta delivery. Artemis has been informed, she's waiting for you."

"By your will, it will be done." Galatea saluted. "But we made a Blue Bacta delivery to Archmagos Cawl a few days ago..."

Her Celestial Highness raised an eyebrow with a smug expression.

"I have no need to know, you are about to tell me."

"As a matter of fact, the paperwork I was forced to sign myself was...significant. And I have no idea what it is about, really. But Guilliman vouches for Cawl...so that must be promising."


Ark Mechanicus Zar-Quaesitor

2.299.312M35

Chapter Master Aeonid Thiel

The procedure, Aeonid thought for the tenth time in ten minutes, was really disgusting to watch.

It was also extremely bloody.

Though to describe it as a 'procedure' might give a false description.

It was butchery, pure and simple.

Gaius Pompeius had given his approval, of course.

But then the former Captain of the 1st Company of the Ultramarines had been left crippled by Lorgar, may his name be forever accursed until the stars of this galaxy grew cold.

Between staying crippled for life, and having a chance to return to the duties of a Space Marine, the choice was not that difficult.

Even if it involved being carved open from your head to your heels.

There had been much screaming.

Cawl had been very insistent that for the first phase, the regenerative abilities of an Astartes had to be neutralised.

After what felt like days, Gaius Pompeius was more than dead than alive. Mercifully, the Captain was unconscious when Cawl began his procedure. While the exact specifics were beyond Thiel, it was easy to see which parts the Archmagos was working on: the heart, the brain...and the tendons along with the ligaments.

For obvious reasons, the last part was the one which took the longest.

Then, and only then, the devices of the Adeptus Mechanicus began to inject Blue Bacta into the crippled body of Gaius Pompeius.

All of it was observed in complete silence. Neither Lady Weaver nor the Primarchs had said a single word since the procedure officially began.

"The heart," Cawl ordered.

A large electrical device was brought forwards, and after a flash, the heart of Gaius Pompeius began to beat once more.

Though it remained bloody and absolutely gory, for the first time, there was something which could be described as...fascination in several gazes.

Because if nearly everyone present had seen Bacta work upon the flesh of a Space Marine at some point, Aeonid couldn't say he had ever watched the miraculous medicine act on the insides of an Astartes...and the same had to be true for all the other observers, save perhaps Lady Weaver.

"The organs are successfully implanted and respond perfectly," Cawl proclaimed. "Level of hypersteroids satisfying. Corticostimulants level rising. Ribcage healing is proceeding per expectations."

Somehow, Aeonid had the feeling that for some part of this phase, the use of Bacta was merely accelerating a regeneration which would have happened regardless.

But with it, the chances of survival were increased by an order of magnitude, on that Cawl had been very clear.

The Tech-Priests working alongside Cawl hurried to finish their work as organs began to return to full functionality, the damage to bones and muscles was erased, and the flesh began to return to life.

A few more doses of Bacta were injected, and the body was once again returned to an almost-normal transhuman appearance.

The butchery stopped. The regeneration was accelerating.

And finally the machines surrounding the inclined operating table were withdrawn.

Aeonid Thiel saw Gaius Pompeius open his eyes...and a scream came through the throat of the Ultramarine.

"RRRAAAAARRRRGGGHH!"

The scream didn't last long, fortunately. Gaius stopped a few seconds later, and looked...disorientated.

As it had been agreed beforehand, the Primarch stepped forwards.

"Gaius Pompeius, my son..." there was genuine concern in Roboute Guilliman's voice...after all, the procedure had not been attempted before today. "Do you recognise me?"

"Yes, father...yes, I remember...everything."

Relief surged in the room, no matter how much everyone would deny it afterwards.

"How do you feel, Captain Pompeius?" Cawl asked.

"Weak," the Ultramarine answered with a twitching of the lips that could have been a smile. "Very weak...I feel like I slept for an eternity and...I feel thirsty."

"Give him water," the Martian Archmagos told his assistants, "a few drops for the next couple of minutes, for safety. Lady Weaver?"

"Yes, Archmagos?"

"The equivalent of fifty doses was used in this procedure. Please note that I employed the Bacta in larger quantities than may be required, as the entire procedure required a testing of the proper dosage."

"Duly noted," the angelic-looking woman nodded, radiant in her golden Power Armour. "I think that I can speak in everyone's name to say it was...impressive to watch."

"It was." Rogal Dorn agreed a moment later as Guilliman helped Gaius Pompeius stand on his own, before leading him to a medicae seat where the Captain was able to rest the time to recover some measure of strength and mental clarity. "A question, however."

"Yes, Lord Dorn?"

"As everyone here knows, Bacta doesn't work on psychically-gifted individuals. I can thus safely assume you wouldn't be able to inject any Bacta if a heavily wounded Librarian must be given this procedure to be restored to full health."

"Regretfully, that is the case, Lord Dorn." Cawl admitted.

"How dangerous is this procedure without Bacta, theoretically?"

"My simulations indicate a seventy-three point two per cent possibility of failure if Bacta is not employed, given the knowledge and scientific tools available to my assistants and myself."

"I see."

This was when Aeonid turned his head again towards Gaius Pompeius...and noted something his mind hadn't let him acknowledge the first time. The First Captain was tall. Not as tall as Guilliman, obviously...but far taller than Aeonid. Far taller than he had been before being wounded during the Cataclysm of Macragge.

And by the looks of it, the other Primarchs and Lady Weaver had not missed it either.

"I see," this time it was Leman Russ who grunted and spoke the words. "Very well, Archmagos. We are going to leave you with Chapter Master Thiel and Captain Pompeius, it is time for you to conduct your post-procedure tests. My brothers and Lady Weaver are going to return to Macragge. We have...many things to discuss."


Macragge

Fortress of Hera

Library of Ptolemy

2.300.312M35

Primarch Roboute Guilliman

"This might be the procedure which makes the Dreadnought obsolete, you realise."

Roboute was very amused by Leman's growl, but the Lady General Militant had asked to speak first.

"This is a one-time procedure, you realise." Corax countered.

"Oh, I know." Weaver replied serenely. "But before this procedure...this Rubicon, as Archmagos Cawl called it, was a factor, the Apothecaries were capable of healing between ninety-one and ninety-four percent of the wounds, traumas, and other debilitating problems a member of the Adeptus Astartes might suffer. With this Rubicon procedure, this percentage will rise ever higher. I don't think we will ever be capable of reaching one hundred percent, the battlefield is hell and this galaxy simply too dangerous. But if we can save a Space Marine from dying immediately, we will have a near-certain ability to return him to his duties, between Bacta, cybernetics, and the Rubicon procedure. In turn, this will mean an even larger decrease of candidates for Dreadnought interment."

"I agree with this reasoning," Jaghatai said thoughtfully, stroking some of the scars on his cheek as he did so. "And to be honest, I have no problem with it. No offense brothers, but I have felt trapping one of our sons inside those machines forever was not a fate to be envied. I will of course praise those of my sons who made this dolorous choice every time they fight by my side, but...it isn't life. You are supposed to ride the winds, cross the stars laughing, feel the torrential rains of the storm season wash your face. You have to be able to leave your armour and enjoy a good meal around the campfires. When you are a Dreadnought...you can't. The Dragon Armours helped, but...is there any chance we can apply this Rubicon procedure to our Ancient sons?"

Corax sniggered, and even Rogal allowed them to see a smile on his face.

"No offense taken, Jaghatai," Roboute had to...temper the Khan's enthusiasm. "And I'm afraid Cawl didn't make the Rubicon procedure viable for Dreadnought veterans, whether they were from my gene-line or not."

"What a pity," the Primarch of the White Scars shook his head in obvious regret. "And I think I've said what I wanted to say."

"Lady Weaver?"

"The cost in Bacta is steep," the young woman replied seriously, "but even if Archmagos Cawl doesn't find a way to decrease the Bacta cost down from the fifty doses he used for Captain Gaius Pompeius...I would pay the price gladly. A veteran Space Marine returning to duty is priceless, for even if he doesn't go near a battlefield for another decade, said Astartes can impart his incredible experience to the Scouts of his own Chapter. We also avoid the morale problems which always exist when a military force has to watch one of its veterans remaining crippled and unable to fulfil his duties every day. I assume there's more benefits we will discover in due time...but just the ones I see are obvious."

"I completely support this vision." The Ravenlord of Deliverance went on to support Weaver's words.

So far, it was going well...alas, given the storm brewing on Leman's face, Roboute felt certain it wasn't going to last.

"Yes, Leman. I know you're dying to speak."

"Are we supposed to ignore," the Lord of the Vlka Fenryka growled threateningly, "that your Radical Archmagos created an entirely new breed of Space Marine?"

The accusation echoed loud and for a long time across the shelves of the Library of Ptolemy.

Rogal was the first to clear his throat.

"Practical", the Praetorian said in his usual implacable voice, "it isn't an entirely new breed of Space Marine. Otherwise no one, not even Father, would have been able to turn Gaius Pompeius into one with a single procedure."

"Rogal? You can't be serious!"

"I counted two new implants and a reinforcement of all tendons and ligaments, plus of course the Bacta, which guarantees not only accelerated healing and a shield against corruption," the Lord of the Imperial Fists replied sternly, showing that yes, he was very indeed serious. "Thus the 'new breed of Space Marines' accusation seems exaggerated."

Leman growled again.

"I read and studied the genetics of the ancient Thunder Warriors, Leman," Corax interjected, surprising them all. "Believe me, you couldn't have changed one into a Space Marine. They were completely different templates. In comparison, the Rubicon procedure seemed to give a significant physical boost to Captain Pompeius."

"Obviously," Lady Weaver smiled, "Mars is not going to be pleased once they realise Cawl obeyed your commands and dabbled in Space Marine genetics. But it isn't like it will be the only scandal our good Archmagos was involved in across the centuries...or they really intended to elect him as Fabricator-General of the Adeptus Mechanicus."

"And thank the steppes, the sky and the sea for that," Jaghatai didn't even try to whisper this reaction, making everyone, including Russ, chuckle.

"We might have a problem for the Space Marines who will go through the Rubicon procedure, however." Rogal told them. "I'm sure that for a single Space Marine or two, the Techmarines and the Archmagi can craft an Artificer Armour of superb quality, but if dozens can go through it to return healed to their battle-brothers, there will be equipment issues."

"It might be a problem," Roboute sighed, having a good idea of what was to come, "because Roboute's Archmagos certainly worked on creating new Space Marines with this procedure!"

"Lord Russ," the black-haired Lady of the Dawnbreaker Guard let her fingers play an imaginary tune upon the Macraggian wood of the table. "Where would Cawl find the gene-seed in the first place? Last time I checked, he was not given the authority to enter the gene-vaults of the Throneworld. He would have to find-"

Then the ruler of Nyx looked at him...and sighed.

"Do I want to know just how extremely resourceful Cawl can be?"

"No," the Avenging Son answered. "You don't."

"You see?" Russ didn't gloat, but he wasn't far from it. "He forged a Legion and-"

"So far, I didn't see an armed Legion on the doorstep of Terra...or Macragge, for that matter." Jaghatai interrupted his brother. "Let him speak, Leman. I want to hear what he has to say in his defence before making my decision."

"Thank you, brother." Roboute took a deep breath. "You all know how dire the situation was at the end of the Heresy. The Throneworld was ravaged. All Legions, including mine, had lost many of their best elements, forcing us to rely on desperate measures to replenish our ranks lest we wanted to face the Traitors with a few hundred Space Marines. We had lost father. Confidence in the Legions, the Space Marines, and the Primarchs was at an all-times low. We would have needed Sanguinius to give a new hope to the Imperium, but Sanguinius was dead. And though the nine Traitor Legions fled into the Eye of Terror, there was always a possibility the monsters they had decided to worship would let them return one day. Or that in long-abandoned stations, under fortresses spared from the vengeful counter-offensives of my sons, the last of Horus' followers prepared a new Legion of Traitor Space Marines. Or there would be new threats, some born from Chaos' monstrous plans, other involving xenos. The current generation of Space Marines had proven its limits. Which was why I gave Cawl his mission. I wish I could have overseen his actions afterwards...but the Naga nearly killed me, and the knowledge of Cawl's experiments was forgotten."

"And this...new generation of Space Marines?" Leman asked, distaste clear.

"Not as useful as I would like," Roboute admitted honestly. "Archmagos Cawl was forced to act with the utmost secrecy, so their training is mostly done by hololithic simulations, indoctrination, and other methods which don't involve deployment to a warzone."

Corax laughed.

"You mean hypothetically your Archmagos has an army of Astartes with the combined battle-experience of one of our Neophytes? That's...hilarious, brother."

"Hypothetically speaking..." the Lady of Nyx grimaced, "should this new generation of Space Marines exist, it would represent a possibly grave source of internal strife. I don't need to be a Seer to see Lord Russ here doesn't like the very idea they represent. I can assure you most of the Chapters of the Blood won't either. And I would prefer to avoid a civil war among the Adeptus Astartes, thank you very much."

"The outcome of the Rubicon procedure didn't result in any problems."

"The Space Marines here know Captain Gaius Pompeius, Lord Guilliman. They served under him, they trust him, and they can feel it is him after the Rubicon transformation. The informal seal of purity implied by the role Bacta played is also a major help, of course."

Since everyone around this room could follow a reasoning to its logical conclusion, the solution was simple. The 'old' – or unaugmented – Space Marines would all have to go through the Rubicon procedure; that way the assimilation of new recruits would result in fewer cultural problems.

It was, as the theoretical said, simple.

Roboute Guilliman didn't believe it would be easy, and the expressions of his brothers and Lady Weaver around the table proved they thought the same.

Corax was perhaps the one who had the least reservations of them all, and one didn't need to be a behaviour analyst to see his brother had massive reservations. Jaghatai, Rogal, and the winged Lady General's concerns were bigger, and they wouldn't give their approval. And Russ...Russ was calmer now, but also utterly against the idea.

"We would be extremely thankful if we had the assurance you couldn't unleash these new Space Marines without our unanimous approval, brother." The Khan spoke in their name. "I think, and I don't believe anyone will argue against it, that for the moment, these...these post-Rubicon Marines must be considered a weapon of last resort."

"In that regard, I can definitely alter the contingencies I had in place. Until now, a full activation required my approval, in addition to Cawl's. It will take some time to change the procedures for five more 'keys', but it can be done."

"Good," his brother smiled. "In the meantime, would the Artisans of Nyx volunteer for the effort of equipping the Space Marines after they go through the Rubicon procedure?"

"There will be no problems on that front," Weaver assured them. "Of course, I will be forced to keep these Space Marines out of sight. Any project involving equipment in large quantities where they are concerned...it will necessarily be a very black project."

"I don't believe any...mass production and titanic industrial effort will be necessary," Leman growled, irritation clear on his face. "We all agreed before this meeting to improve the inter-Chapter coordination. We can easily rally our sons, and the Imperium has the resources of several million worlds to rely upon. If an enemy tries to challenge us, I will personally decapitate them and raze their insignificant Empire down to its foundations. I don't believe we need a new breed of Space Marines, brothers. We can win with our sons, martial skill, and overwhelming force!"


Macragge

Achaea Military District

Aquis Villa Baths

2.303.312M35

Vicequeen Marianne Gutenberg

"We won't say anything bad for a week, Vicequeen! Even if you bring more furballs to Nyx! Praise the Webmistress!"

Good self-control or not, Marianne couldn't help but laugh at the sight of five massive Adjutant-Spiders basking on inflatable pillows, enjoying the heated atmosphere around the pool.

When she had reserved the entire Aquis Villa Baths for the entire day, the blonde-haired Vicequeen had been more interested in offering Taylor a moment of relaxation before they left the planet.

But the bureaucratically-gifted spiders being in her debt was certainly not something she was going to forget. The arachnids were extensions of Taylor's will, only an idiot would disregard that, but they also had their own personalities, so being on their good side would bring huge favours.

"Webmistress! We must build one in the Nyx System!"

"First we will repair the environmental damage, Ishtar." Taylor Hebert said as her body half-disappeared inside the jacuzzi. "I want most of the water problems of Nyx to be dealt with before I authorise something as extravagant as these immense pools, spas, and jacuzzis."

"You're taking your duties very seriously, Lady Basileia." Marianne affirmed as she let her legs plunge into the heated water. After two hours of exercise in the cold, it was indeed heavenly.

"Why thank you, Lady Vicequeen."

"And I have a feeling you needed it. You looked really, really tired yesterday evening."

The yawn which was made right after Marianne spoke was theatrical, they both knew it.

"I had several animated debates with the Primarchs."

"No big trouble, I hope."

"We didn't have to be thrown out of the Library of Ptolemy because we were making too much noise," the golden-winged insect-mistress noted with a smirk. "But there's no denying we had some...strategic differences in opinion. Which is unsurprising, really. The sons of the Emperor are all different...and wanting the best for the Imperium doesn't mean you share the same definition of what the 'best' actually is, nor the methods you need to reach that goal in the first place."

"Somehow," Marianne commented with a good dose of humour, "the Ecclesiarchy failed to mention that in their day-to-day sermons."

"I'm sure it was a minor issue they will correct in due time," the Living Saint replied while closing her eyes. "But when you think about it, it's not really a surprise. They weren't raised together. The Master of Mankind discovered them decades apart during the Great Crusade, so they weren't taught together. And since the presence of two Legions of Space Marines in the same theatre meant something big and nasty needed to be exterminated very quickly, they didn't fight together most of the time either."

Marianne made a shrugging motion.

The Primarchs excelled at everything she had seen them do so far, but the Vicequeen couldn't deny they had a...unique military mindset. Unsurprisingly, the Primarch who seemed to have the best grasp on trade and the negotiations tied with it was Roboute Guilliman. The ones after him were Jaghatai Khan and Rogal Dorn. Yes, the former had surprised her too, but it happened the Chogorian Primarch was eager to barter for everything and nothing, and around the home of the White Scars, there were several minor trade lanes. None of them were exactly the kind of thing which attracted the attention of a big Chartist Fleet, but there were Chogorian traders. And they made a tidy profit, as they dared operate near the Maelstrom and the Core.

As for Rogal Dorn...well, the Praetorian had not fortified countless worlds without understanding how they secured supply convoys and kept the Imperial economy running.

Not that the two other Primarchs disdained trade and everything which came with it. It was just that Leman Russ and Corvus Corax had prioritized other fields...and at least for the Lord of 'Nova Fenrisia', he protected his sons' traditions and independence ferociously.

"How much did the last few days change the plans you confided entrusted me with?"

"Very little," Taylor did not bother reopening her eyes.

"Really?" the Gutenberg Heiress asked her lover. "I would have thought the announcement your Triumph would take place on the year 350 of the 35th millennium would force a few adjustments to your medium to long-term goals."

"Fine, you're right." The stars-filled eyes once again became visible, and a smile accompanied them. "It changes things. Given the time schedule, I will have to deal with some backstabbing High Lords before launching any new grand military campaign. In theory, I could try to launch a major offensive in less than thirty-eight years. But that would mean no Nyxian-built Battleships, and probably also an insufficient number produced in the shipyards of Mars and Ryza. The armies would likely not be trained to the standards we want, and the new weapons arming them would be flawed. The pacts with other factions would not be solidified and reinforced. Plus of course after the effort they made trying to stab me in the back while Operation Stalingrad tried to neutralise the Ymga Monolith, I don't believe for a second Vandire and his cronies are going to stay idle if I announce I go to war to achieve something equally ambitious as the last operation."

"This indeed sounds realistic." Marianne answered. "But if you don't announce a serious military operation soon, Taylor...a certain High Lord of the Administratum is financially corrupt, but he's not stupid when it comes to his self-preservation. He will know you're going to try to remove him from his High Lord's seat."

"I know." The Angel of Sacrifice grimaced. "Unfortunately, I can't exactly make fake mobilisation plans, muster some armies, and then years later tell the rest of the Astra Militarum that it was a joke. I am a Lady General Militant, not a member of the High Twelve...and even the latter don't pull that kind of jokes. Or if they do, I have never heard of it in the last decade."

"I didn't hear about any of them doing something like that without having a tragic accident afterwards," the blue-eyed Vicequeen confirmed. "That means he and his accomplices will not only have the time to acknowledge this problem, but also have the time to imagine a counter."

"Yes," the Queen of the Swarm gave her an unamused expression. "I don't know how they're going to react, but I have a feeling I am really not going to like it."


Segmentum Solar

Sol System

Between Pluto and the Kuiper Belt

The Casino Belt

Casino-ship Renaissance of Dreams

0.499.312M35

Star-Lord Cadorno Ferraci

The majority of the men and women aware of it called it 'the Casino Belt'.

It was not shaped like a belt, of course.

And it had nothing to do with the nearby Kuiper Belt, or the other asteroid belts to be found in Segmentum Solar either.

No, the Casino Belt consisted of starships.

All of them were of sizes which, by Imperial standards, could be properly considered gargantuan.

The smallest, the Temple of Games, had been supposed to be completed as an Universe-class Mass Conveyor, but the bankruptcy of the Rogue Trader financing it had ensured it remained incomplete. Private investors had bought it and ensured it was recommissioned into a star-faring casino.

It was, not to be too insistent, the smallest game establishment of the Casino Belt. And it was twelve kilometres-long.

Furthermore, to ensure certain audacious schemes remained impossible, the regulations imposed on them required that none of these starships were to be Warp-capable. Meaning each and every one of these casinos had even more room than hulls of their size would regularly have to satisfy the players frequenting their establishments.

Many High Lords who had visited one or more of said casinos had been heard to remark this was in plenty of aspects another pilgrimage which ensured Terra effortlessly remained the heart of the Imperium. Though they generally had the good sense to not say it out loud when the Ecclesiarchy and Inquisition High Lords were present...unless said members had been known to visit the Casino Belt too.

For the majority of the time, Radical and Puritan Inquisitors were for once united in the opinion it was better to let the Casino Belt exist than to close it. Setting aside the support the games and entertainment had within the Ordos, many among the one hundred and fifty-six establishments of games and luck had places where the Inquisition met informants and sources who would refuse to meet them on Holy Terra. The proximity of the Khthonic Gate allowed travellers to come and go swiftly, while at the same time remaining one of the most secure places in the galaxy. The Casino Belt was always on the move in the outer Sol System, but money and support in high places had made sure there were three medium-sized Starforts to protect against any conventional attack. Former members of the Imperial Guard were regularly hired to be part of the small private army whose sole purpose was to defend the lives of the employees and clients, and of course to make sure nothing untoward happened to disturb the flow of fortunes gained and lost here every day.

The Hour of the Emperor's Judgement had been one of the rare events which had shattered the 'tranquility' of the Casino Belt. The Inquisition had descended upon the Mystique and the Purple Flamingo in a vengeful mood, as the deaths that occurred aboard them were certainly too many for anyone to believe a random group of heretics had just happened to be visiting. Where those two casino-ships had ended up, no one in the Casino Belt knew, and nobody was stupid enough to ask.

Thus there were only one hundred and fifty-four casinos left, though a few quadrillionaires of Sol and beyond were already spending large amounts of favours and all sorts of Imperial currencies to make sure the Casinos of the aforementioned 'Belt' returned to their original number.

For after a few fears, everything had returned to normal in the Casino Belt. You could play every game of luck which happened to catch your fancy. You could enjoy the most luxurious suites and live like a High Lord for as long as your accounts supported the strain. You could eat in the most delicious restaurants. You could gamble on everything. You could get married. You could organise a swimming competition – the Palace of Neptune had a one kilometre-wide artificial lake specifically for that. You could change your appearance through gene-surgery, you could sell priceless artefacts – though the Inquisition was always watching, of course. You could do...anything.

Humanity being humanity, it was natural clients, employees, visitors, and curious souls wondered which the best casino-ship out of the one hundred and fifty-four was. Mankind was always competing against itself, and the Casino Belt, travelling within the Sol System, received some of the wealthiest and most ambitious elites of the Imperium on a constant basis. Obviously, there was going to be a ferocious competition there too.

As always, there was no definite answer. But the holo-ads often described the Renaissance of Dreams among the top three, no matter how much they were bribed to say otherwise.

It was truly one of the holiest sites for people who wished to spend their money on games, entertainment, and leave with memorable images of their free time...as long as they paid their debts.

The Renaissance of Dreams accepted your payments in Throne Gelts, Crowns, Ducats, Thalers, Pounds, and many other Imperial Currencies. But any loss had to be paid at some point...and the Starforts ensuring the security of the Casino Belt had very secure cells for some roguish souls unwilling or unable to honour their debts.

Nonetheless, the Renaissance of Dreams enjoyed an excellent reputation.

Something that pleased Cadorno Ferraci immensely, it went without saying.

For it was his House, the peerless House Ferraci of the Navis Nobilite, who owned the casino, and he had been given the privilege three years ago to oversee its operations.

"They have all arrived?"

"Yes, Star-Lord. They are all waiting for your arrival in the private room."

"Excellent."

Cadorno had to activate a series of millennia-old devices, hidden in the decoration of an empty gambling room, in order for the opening leading to the 'private lounge' to reveal itself.

And yes, all these private lounges, private game rooms, and entertainment lodges figured on the plans. How to access them, on the other hand, was never revealed to the average client. Or even the hyper-wealthy clients. To be granted access to the cheapest of the private lounges, it was better to have several trillion Ducats or Crowns just to be taken seriously.

But as Cadorno Ferraci, second highest-ranking member of House Ferraci in the outer Sol System, entered the very secure lounge, there were no games won or lost, no money changing hands, no screams of excitement or rage which came with the activities the Renaissance of Dreams offered to its clients.

There were many men and women around the table, though in many ways, counting Cadorno in his persona of House Ferraci's and Navis Nobilite's representative, only twelve really mattered.

"This council is thereby opened."

And Cadorno sat down, wise enough to know that when a member of the High Twelve wanted to speak, you let him do it.

"The Senatorum Imperialis has decided the date of the Triumph." Xerxes Vandire, Master of the Administratum, began in a tone where anger coexisted with spite. "It is in 350M35. We have a date. We must act."

"I agree. She must be stopped. And the sooner, the better." Of all the important figures present, Supreme Hierophant Teutonic was the only one to be affiliated with the Ecclesiarchy in any way. His presence here was absolutely not a surprise for Cadorno or for anyone else. Unlike many of his brethren in the Ecclesiarchy, Teutonic was the highest-ranked commander of the Frateris Templar who had vociferously objected to the Templar Sororitas' existence.

His hatred for Weaver knew no bounds, at the risk of stating the obvious.

"But the Assassinorum is not going to be unleashed in the numbers you'd need." Unlike every other person, the owner of the voice was not seated, but submerged inside a casket filled with green liquid. No one had dared mock him, however. The presence of an Eversor Assassin, especially one having over sixty successful operations under his belt, was no laughing matter at all. "Eversor will stand with you when the moment comes to bleed Weaver and the Callidus betrayers."

For a few seconds, no one spoke after the being who had introduced himself as Danton, Master of Rampages.

"The cogs will grind everything to dust." Archmagos Zeta Sigma-Sigma, notable conservative figure of the Adeptus Mechanicus, spoke in a tone so metallic you wouldn't believe you spoke to someone born human. "The abundance of STC was suspicious, and now the hereteks are revealed. Cawl and all those who supported him must perish."

"I don't like the influence of the Aethergold and everything she has done so far!" barked Adept-Astra Icarion, representative of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica, to pledge her assets to the cause. "We were functioning perfectly, and now the lesser Adepts want...reforms."

"Justice must triumph!" Grand Provost Marshal of the Adeptus Arbites Tudor Brezhnev, second and last member of the High Twelve to be present, proclaimed with a snarl. "Plebeians and reformers must be reminded that all their attempts to destabilise the status quo and force a collapse of the Imperium's holy social structure will be crushed with an iron fist!"

"There are many Governors in Segmentum Pacificus who will rejoice hearing the cancellation of certain disastrous policies," the mysterious hooded Emissary from Hydraphur approved. "I think the promised funds and support I was able to secure speak for themselves."

"Yes, they do, Voice Cy Pher." While Cadorno had had some reservations about the Emissary, Lord Inquisitor Oscar B. Marat didn't seem to have any. "We will use them well to crush that irrational woman who threatens to destroy the Imperium with her radical and semi-heretical changes!"

"I approve of the spirit these wise words were spoken with," Governor-Treasurer Elgin Brutus added, the fabulously wealthy Head of the Brutus Chartist Fleet had not stopped smiling since the council began, "but could you please explain in detail how you are going to proceed? For while I think we all have our reasons to be very afraid if Weaver takes power after her Triumph, I don't believe I have heard a coherent plan to stop her, or the Primarchs which will unavoidably come behind her."

"There is a simple plan!" Ormuz Vandire, recently kicked out of the Imperial Navy, interrupted forcefully. "As the bitch enters the Sol System, we lay a trap with all the squadrons of Battlefleet Sol and annihilate her! She will not expect it, and her lackeys and fifth-rate Admirals will soon abandon her!"

The next ten minutes were indeed the presentation of a 'plan'. Assuming you were so generous as to refer to it with such a grand name. Cadorno Ferraci was a Navigator, not a member of the Imperial Navy, but he was almost certain most of the tactics described by Ormuz Vandire didn't have a single chance in hell of working. Most of it seemed to rely on...err...let's say over-optimistic assumptions. As the chief target had just earned a Triumph by pulverising a Black Crusade and uncountable xenos horrors, this sounded like a very bad idea.

Fortunately, before he could open his mouth to present some counter-arguments, one of the other senior figures did so.

"This is completely stupid." Lord Admiral Rudolf von Goldenbaum of the Imperial Navy interrupted the rant, and Ormuz Vandire gaped like he had been slapped in the face, hard. "We can't create a trap for Weaver within the boundaries of Sol. Do you have any idea how many supporters she has here? There's no way we would be able to keep it a secret before her arrival."

"One must also point out," Cadorno Ferraci added carefully, "that destroying the infrastructure of the Throneworld might seem...extremely counterproductive when it comes to our respective goals."

"Exactly," the Lord Admiral nodded. "We must also acknowledge that while we have spies inside the Imperial Guard, we have no famous General or Marshal on our side. If the battle doesn't fare as expected, Weaver can always let her warships stalemate us while deploying her armies on Holy Terra itself. And given the reports we have of Ardium, Macragge, and Mandragora, she will almost certainly win a conventional planetary campaign."

"I disagree with this defeatist-" Ormuz Vandire began before being interrupted...again.

"Then you have no place at this table, you simpleton," Rogue Trader Fabius Maestrich-Nova snapped from his seat, his glimmering purple-gold armour giving him some strong resemblance to legendary figures of the past millennia. "If you want to end your life devoured by a spider as big as a tank, so be it. But the rest of this council will not follow you into the maw of the Swarm. Please continue, Lord Admiral."

"Thank you, Lord Fabius." Rudolf von Goldenbaum cleared his throat before continuing. "We can't forget there is a strong political component to the actions we intend. A defeat of the military forces each member of this council can muster would certainly sign our death warrants. It is thus my opinion a void battle at a respectable distance away from the Throneworld is our best option."

"How would you proceed?" Lord Inquisitor Oscar B. Marat asked, while Xerxes Vandire did his best to conceal his rage.

"My staff has prepared several plans," Rudolf von Goldenbaum activated the hololithic display at the centre of the table. "So far, our most promising idea is Plan Sea Wolf. It is divided into four phases: Scout, Bombardment, Harassment, and Action. In basic terms, the future void battle would begin by our warships picking off Weaver's scout elements when her Battlefleet enters the stellar system where we want to ambush her. Then, if it is agreed that part of the plan is proceeding satisfactory, we launch long-range bombardment from as many platforms as possible to neutralise the Aegis-class Battlecruisers and as many special platforms as we can. Priority targets after these fleet shields will be of course the Enterprise, the Gloriana-class ships present, and the repair units of the Mechanicus. During the Harassment phase, we go after the wall of battle itself with several task forces of Battlecruisers, Carriers, and other classes we know will be able to outrange the enemy fleet. From Battleships to Cruisers, the goal obviously will be to cripple the most dangerous classes Weaver will have with her. If they are disabled and unable to maintain their place in the wall of battle, the gaps will be significant and the opportunity to begin a major fleet-to-fleet engagement will present itself."

"And if the plan goes...poorly?" Elgin Brutus inquired. "If Weaver, or whoever is in command of the fleet, fights far better than your forces and manages to inflict more damage while limiting his or her own losses?"

"Then we don't begin the Action Phase at all," Rudolf von Goldenbaum shrugged. "As long as Battlefleet Sol's heaviest elements are intact, they represent not only a military threat but a cornerstone for our political powerbase. It is one thing to execute a Planetary Governor or two, quite another to issue death warrants when more than fifty Battleships are ready to wage a void war if you decide to go for the throat of your enemies. Weaver has many allies in the Sol System, beginning with Mars...but so do we."

"I find this plan interesting," Archmagos Zeta Sigma-Sigma canted mechanically. "We avoid a decisive battle as long as the probabilities are not in our favour, preserving the holy machines and playing to the strengths the Machine-God expects us to."

"There is still a big problem with your plan, I think," Teutonic really looked like a fanatical Pontifex with his dark eyes and his shaven head where several scars were quite prominent. "Weaver will come with many Space Marines. Somehow, I don't think they're going to stand idle while you battle their ally's Battlefleet. And as every xenos and other enemies of the Imperium learned the hard way, most of the time when the Angels of Death board a spaceship, the owners of the hull tend to die in extremely large numbers while inflicting negligible losses in return."

"Indeed," Rudolf von Goldenbaum agreed fast...too fast. "This is why I believe we invited Lord Fabius Maestrich-Nova to this council, I believe. Lord Rogue Trader, we were told you could be of assistance in this matter."

"Yes, Lord Admiral, I believe I can. The process by which Space Marines are created is something my House has long been interested in. And I, more than any of my predecessors, have been able to achieve great successes in that field..."


6th MOST WANTED BEING OF THE IMPERIUM OF MANKIND

DEAD ONLY

FABIUS BILE

'THE CLONELORD'

'THE PRIMOGENITOR'

'THE FATHER OF ABOMINATIONS'

'THE LORD OF THE MUTANTS'

'THE SPIDER' [REMOVED BY THE WILL OF ADJUTANT-COLONEL SOLARIA FOR GRAVE INSULT AGAINST ALL ARACHNID SPECIES]

FORMER CHIEF APOTHECARY AND LIEUTENANT-COMMANDER OF THE THIRD LEGION

INSANE AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS

EXTREMIS-ALPHA CORRUPTIVE THREAT

EXTREMIS-OMEGA MORAL THREAT

EXTREMIS-OMEGA GENETIC THREAT

EXTREMIS TRAITORIS

ANYONE WHO AGREES TO A DEAL WITH BILE, LETS THE TRAITOR EXPERIMENT UPON HUMANS, OR PURSUES GOALS IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE WHIMS OF THIS ABOMINABLE HERETIC WILL BE BURNED ALIVE, WITH A TENTH GENERATION DEATH SENTENCE BEING ENFORCED ON THE ACCOMPLICE'S GENE-LINE

CRITICAL INFORMATION: THE ACCURSED TRAITOR HAS CREATED SO MANY CLONES OVER THE LAST MILLENNIA WE BELIEVE THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF FABIUS BILES AT LARGE IN THE GALAXY; ONLY BY TORCHING HIS NETWORK OF GENE-LABS WILL HIS DEATH BE CONSIDERED CERTAIN

REWARD: 20 QUADRILLION THRONE GELTS, 1 SECTOR OVERLORDSHIP, 1 OVATION FROM ALL SEGMENTUM AUTHORITIES, TITLE OF 'CHAMPION OF MERCY' AWARDED, 1 MEDICAL-PURPOSED STARFORT, 1 GREAT TREATY OF FRIENDSHIP FROM ALL FIRST FOUNDING CHAPTERS, 1 CASINO STARSHIP, 20 PALACES FUNDED BY THE ADEPTUS TERRA, ETC...


Close to the Khthonic Gate

Ambition-class Bane of Mediocrity

Fabius Maestrich-Nova...aka Fabius Bile

"I look ridiculous, father."

"You look ravishing, daughter," Fabius did not have to look in her direction to know Melusine was making a horrible grimace to mock him. "The perfect union of Selenar traits and Emperor's Children lineage."

Something which, of course, had given him great authority when it came to explaining his theories to this amusing conspiracy of High Lords and other human parvenus.

"I look ridiculous."

"You look beautiful with your white hair and irisless black eyes, daughter," Fabius replied serenely as he watched the approaches of the Khthonic Gate through the armaglass of his observation deck. "This new body suits you."

"You're only saying that because you were able to convince this band of imbeciles that, I, Melusine Azrael, was the long-lost descendant of the last Selenar Matriarch." His daughter replied peevishly. "And don't think I didn't notice how much pleasure you took in trampling the Selenars' legacy."

"Perish the thought," Fabius snickered. "Though I must admit I indeed took far more pleasure than I thought in discrediting their genetic capacities. After the cults almost destroyed the Third Legion and forced me to jump from rotting body to rotting body, this was...particularly cathartic, I must say."

Melusine growled. Given her new athletic appearance and the shimmering silver robe espousing her body, it was rather a good thing the two were alone, for the effect in public would not be the one her daughter wished it to be.

"You didn't tell me how you were able to usurp the identity of the owner of the Maestrich-Nova Warrant of Trade."

"Let's just say the last owners of said Warrant were experiencing dire financial difficulties after one of their members swore himself to Slaanesh about two millennia ago, daughter. I was only too happy to help them...though sadly they didn't appreciate my efforts to their rightful value. I had to take their ship as payment, along with some genetic samples."

"Something that allows you to operate on the doorstep of Terra itself."

"Yes." Fabius smiled before returning to a more serious expression. "Though it was a stroke of good luck everyone was so willing to meet in the Casino Belt. No matter how much I bio-engineer these bodies, I don't think we would have been able to reach Neptune without the trick being revealed. The Astronomican really shines like it never did this millennium. But everything went as I predicted. We are going to have a lot of fun in the next few years."

"Father...Cypher was there. By the destroyed Circles of Pleasure, he was right next to you at the decision table!"

"Yes, daughter, I am neither blind nor stupid. I know that was Cypher. There aren't exactly that many Fallen around who manage to escape the sons of the Lion for centuries."

"And..." his daughter, clearly was trying to decide if outrage or shock should win in her throat. "And you don't think he's going to betray you?"

"Melusine," the former Chief Apothecary chided patiently, "what is Cypher going to say? His credentials are already nebulous enough, he's not going to denounce me, not when the main argument behind an accusation would be that he's a traitor too. Somehow, I don't think our hosts of the Renaissance of Dreams would be very amused by his past actions."

"I...yes, I suppose that is a good point. But it is still dangerous, father."

"I don't intend to have hundreds of meetings like this one, daughter. The Imperium has fallen from glorious heights, but there are a lot of opponents, the Custodes to name one, which will notice and try to kill us if we make such visits a habit."

"And Weaver? Many in the Sea of Souls are afraid of her."

"For good reason," Fabius agreed. "This is why I have several gifts for her...and in case they fail to calm her, I will be far away, leaving our good friends Xerxes Vandire and the other pitiful conspirators to be on the receiving end of her wrath."

"Some of them sounded rational to me," the white-haired daughter he had created argued, "I won't say any of them are geniuses, but many sound at least reasonably competent within their limited domain of expertise."

Fabius inclined his head.

"Not a bad description of them, daughter. But I think you underestimate the bloodthirsty jackals they have in their conspiracy. Men like Elgin Brutus and Rudolf von Goldenbaum might think this is just a variant of politics spilling into the military sphere, but it's not. Our good Master Danton, for example, is a bloodthirsty beast. In fact, given his accreditation and knowledge, I wouldn't be surprised if he is the Clade Master of Eversor. And I can tell you he's not going to be satisfied with a void skirmish and some half-hearted purges. This Assassin wants blood and murder on an industrial scale."

And he wasn't an isolated case.

Terra really bred all sorts of...fascinating sociopaths, these days.

It would be intriguing to see who was going to trigger the first explosion. The Eversor? The religious fanatic calling himself a Hierophant? Perhaps the Lord Inquisitor, who seemed to believe fear was the one and only weapon his Order should wield to punish traitors?

Or maybe the man convinced in the incomparable greatness of his Clan and not-so-humble person, the pillar of arrogance...Xerxes Vandire himself.

Exploit of all exploits, the son was even worse, it had to be said.

By the secrets of genetic manipulation, Fabius had never seen such a specimen before. It was really fascinating to see how low this vermin had been able to sink...and as far as the former Lieutenant-Commander had been able to discover, Xerxes Vandire was not and had never been a worshipper of the parasites. Neither was that imbecile of an ex-Admiral, for that matter.

"I suppose this means we have a lot of work ahead of us. A Legion isn't built in a day, after all."

"Nor in ten," Fabius snorted.

"Have you decided which gene-line you are going to use as a template?"

"Yes, of course." The Lord of Urum smiled. "But please, daughter, try to figure it out using your own intellect."

"Well...you're not going to use Blood Angels progenoids. It would be very unwise for the continued survival of both of us."

"Very unwise, indeed."

"Most of the Legions inside the Eye are out of the question," Melusine continued, deep in thought, and ironically really looking like the perfect gene-mistress as she walked between the luxurious furniture of the observation deck. "Too many of the Consortium's assets are in the Eye, and while some Daemon Primarchs would tolerate it, most warlords won't. The only ones that would be relatively risk-free would be the Night Lords, the Emperor's Children, and the Word Bearers, and they're all unsuitable for one reason or another."

"Continue, daughter," Fabius replied, feeling very pleased.

"There are now five Primarchs in the game on the Anathema's side of the board." Melusine mused. "All of them are unsuitable for the short-term, as a result. The Salamanders gene-line has always been problematic, from your own admissions. The majority of the Tsunami Sabres' gene-stocks are out of your reach...I suppose we're not even thinking about using the Unspeakables' gene-seed?"

"I don't want to even touch something tied to the Unspeakables." Fabius confirmed darkly. "They were already making me ill-at-ease when they were called the Witch Hunters, but the moment half of the Eleventh bent the knee in front of him...let's just say that compared to them, Lorgar was salvageable."

"True...then that leaves only the Dark Angels and the Iron Hands, I suppose." Melusine blinked and then realised what she had just said. "Oh."

Fabius Bile bared his new perfect teeth.

"Yes, oh. Any other questions before we use the Khthonic Gate and go visit the future installations our dear allies placed at our disposal?"

"Just one, father."

By all the mysteries of science, Melusine was clearly a marvel when she tried to show an innocent expression like this one...

"What are you going to call this great project?"

"Now that is a very good question, daughter. I was thinking about calling it...Project Minotaur."


Author's note:

It is here, dear readers, that Ashes of Victory ends. It also concludes the Tyranny Arc, by the way.

Next Arc, we will return to Nyx. There is a lot to do and to prepare for, as the next storm is gathering...

The other links for the Weaver Option if you want to support or comment on my writing:

P a treon: ww w. p a treon Antony444

Alternate History page: www . /forum /threads /weaver-option-thread-3-the-5th-black-crusade-story-only.506948/

TV Tropes: tvtropes pmwiki/ / FanFic/ TheWeaverOption