The Emperor of Mankind lay dying.
His blood pooled on the ground; mixing with that of the loyal guardsman, and with that of his son. There was shouting amid motion, but for once the Emperor was not the one at the head of it all. For the first time in his life, he felt weak.
The sounds of the chaos on the ship seemed far away from the great man now. Faded and muted; he was left alone. Alone with his own thoughts.
How could he have been such a fool? Even as he though this,the Emperor was not sure whether he spoke of Horus or himself. His plan to deny the Chaos Gods worship in order to starve looked ridiculous now. It had resulted in the death of his son, and the corruption of so many others. How many more remained loyal? How many more were not at this moment dead or dying?
After all of his life; everything that he had done for mankind, was this how it was to end? This mockery? Here he lay, with the bodies of two of his most beloved sons. One who had died fighting for his ideal, the other had died trying to destroy it.
He had failed. Failed so utterly that now his empire lay in ruins around him. What would happen? Even he didn't know. He tried to reach into the currents of the future, but it was blocked to him. The Warp was chaotic, but it seethed...
The Gods thought they had bested him. He tasted it in the air; much like the crackling aftermath of Psyker powers. They had retreated when he struck at Horus, but even so he had felt the sensation.
They knew that they had won. Even if they were repulsed now, there was no Emperor to guide humanity now. No golden-armoured guardian for them to look up to, his Legions would hold for as long as they could be...
A pang of regret.
Not all of his Legions were loyal.
Regret was an emotion that he had ruthlessly suppressed for most of his life. He simply couldn't afford. In the pursuit of a future for mankind, sacrifices had to be made. Feeling sorry about them couldn't change that, so he didn't feel sorry. He directed his energy towards the future; towards his projects and his goals.
All that now had come crumbling down.
Now he lay dying and felt all the regret of the choices that he had made. Death should have been a release, but for the Emperor it was the worst form of failure. Death, yes. He was no fool. The damage he had taken, even he could not survive. He was dying, soon to be dead.
Leaving a crippled empire and a fledgling race with a potential for greatness that they would now never reach.
What a fool he had been.
"God-Emperor of Man?" a voice of the kind that so far, only he had possessed. He looked around and saw a figure; as tall as he was, though more slender. It was covered by a dark robe, which the Emperor could not seem to sense beyond. His voice too, carried no psychic impulse as far as the ruler could discern. There was nothing of the Warp about this man; if man he was. And yet there was nothing of the world to him either. It was like being confronted by a ghost; a being in the shape of a man that was not one.
"Not god." He croaked; expecting pain from the motion. There was none. Ah, he was that far along already? It wouldn't be long now. The rest of the world seemed to be fading away; his body was borne away by his troops, but he stayed there.
"Where am I?"
"You should know. You are on the bridge of the ship which until lately housed the Warmaster Horus in his attempts to finally rid the universe of the scourge you call an Imperium. His words."
"That's not what I meant." The Emperor felt a flash of anger. Emboldened, he stood up – and felt no pain as his wounds seemed to fall away from his body. Once more, he stood at the peak of his strength; his golden armour gleamed. His sword blazed.
"You are in the place between places. You are dying."
"I knew that much." The Emperor admitted. He shook his head; regret still lingered about him like a heavy cloak. Horus, why? But he knew why, didn't he? Oh yes, he'd felt it in his son's mind as he pierced, like a lance, destroying all he came across. He'd had to; there was no choice. The Guardsman who he had watched Horus flay so casually flashed through his mind.
Always no damn choice.
The cloaked figure stood in silence for several moments, waiting or something that never came. Eventually, he made a coughing sound.
"People usually have more questions for me...?"
"I am dying."
"And I won't recover?"
"People seldom do from death."
"Then there is no point in more questions. Though, there is one thing I wish to know. Why are you here? Upon death,a soul is absorbed in to the Warp so why? Why do you need to escort me for such a simply thing? Do the Gods even now fear that I will cast them down?" A smirk formed across his face. Flitting so quickly that one without sharp eyes would never even notice at all. "If they're not careful, I just might."
There was another cough; despite the lack of any features the figure almost seemed...embaressed?
"This is most irregular." It admitted at last. "It is true that usually a soul chooses where it goes after death, but its not usually this...literal."
"Explain." He regained some of his command now; resolve hardening. Perhaps he was dead, and perhaps his choices had come to nothing, but until the very maw of oblivion took him, the Emperor would do what he always had.
"You have two choices." The figure almost seemed to sigh. "Nether of them I particularly like, but then no one consults me on these things." He said this with the air of one who had been long-suffering indeed. "In the future, mankind will come to believe that you are a god. Belief has power, do you know?"
"I'm no god." He snarled; remembering the cult that had been growing up around him despite his attempts to cull it. He despised such things; for they represented the very irrationality that he had fought against. The laziness of belief that required greater forces to exist, because it nullified one's own choices in fate. You can't win because you're fated not to, you didn't get the prize because the Gods liked someone else; the Emperor hated such thinking. All it took was a willingness to step forward despite the odds.
"Belief makes gods." The figure seemed to shrug. "Even if you're not one now, you can be. Belief is strange in how it operates. People in the future believe that at this point in time, you ascended and became a God of Order so at this point in time, you have that choice. Very few do."
"How much belief does that take?" The Emperor most certainly was not boggled at the sheer amount of power it would take to warp reality to such an extreme. His plans to build a Psyker-human race sprang fresh to mind. Even in his wildest dreams, he'd never thought that they could have such power and now he was being told that people even now could do that?
"The belief of billions of humans for more than thousands of years. Like grains of sand."
The figure reached for his robe and pulled out what looked like an hourglass. It was wrought in fine gold, and each end bore the snarling head of an eagle. Somehow, the Emperor knew that it was his.
The top half was almost empty. Barely even a dozen specks of sand remained.
"Almost empty." The figure said. "But there is power in it yet. Like grains of sand, the belief of mankind rises around you; it doesn't matter what you said or did, what matters is that they believe in you. You won't be entierly like a Chaos God, you'll be something else. What, I am not entierly sure. There has never been a being like you."
"Time to make your choice." The figure tapped one end of the hourglass; the empty one chimed. "On one end, death. No second chance, no return. Perhaps reincarnation at some point."
The figure turned the glass around.
"On the other end, ascension. You will leave this plain and become like the Chaos Gods. Perhaps you will direct your believers from afar, but you will not be able to interact with this realm again."
"Unacceptable." The Emperor frowned. The image of Terra aflame was still fresh in his mind; the Imperium had been torn asunder by the actions of his son, and now he was dead and unable to guide mankind? He found that he couldn't leave. Not now.
Once more, he saw the guardsman who had come to his aid. He had seen a battle between gods; the clash of the Emperor and Horus. He had watched and known that the Emperor was unable to harm his own son; and yet that man, that brave man, had come to his aid. Knowing that death was certain; knowing that his fate would likely fail to tip the balance. But he had done it anyway because he was a Guardsman and his duty was clear.
The Emperor too had a duty. A duty to mankind that he would never abandon. That guardsman had followed his duty to death itself, and now the Emperor would do it beyond.
"No, I will make a third choice."
"There isn't always a third choice." The figure said patiently. "You of all people should know that."
"That is where you are wrong." The Emperor's mind was racing; he had to find some way out of this; some loophole that he could exploit. He had never been modest about his abilities, the Emperor was in many ways a genius. Right now, he was applying all his intellect to the problem at hand, while in the back of his mind, the even that would come to be Horus Heresy was waged anew.
Battles fought, so many lives lost. His own sons betrayed and turned to darkness. All for nothing if it came to this; mankind lost and alone amongst the stars; predatory gods closing in like a school of sharks.
"Belief is the key." He said aloud. "In the future, you said that the belief of billions is what is fuelling my ascension? In that case, belief is non-linear, in which case, I should be able to effect now what only comes to be believed later."
"An interesting philosophical point." The figure allowed. "But it won't work, see. If it was going to, it already would have had to have happened. " He paused, aware of how strange that sentence may seem to a being of linear time. "Trust me, you don't want to go into that."
"Belief needs a focus." He continued. Talking aloud, he found, was helping him grasp the concept, and the occasional comment proved to be useful as well. "Which is me, in this case. However, if that was true then I would already have ascended...so another focus, it only shifts to me once I let it..."
His eyes locked onto the golden hourglass. His hourglass. A mad idea formed, insane, illogical, but somehow so tempting. If he was alive, he never would have tried it, but he was dead and had nothing left to lose.
Well, why not? It wasn't like anyone would know if he tried and failed.
In this place, his body was only the memory of flesh. There was no real reason why, here at least, he was any stronger than a strong-willed human. However, it was the memory of good flesh, and he acted fast.
His hand shoot out, moving so quickly that even the robed figure was taken by surprise. Perhaps he thought that the Emperor was preparing a blow, if so, he was disappointed. The Would-Be God of Man only snatched the Lifetimer out of his skeletal fingers.
As soon as his hand closed around the cool glass; a feeling of intense pain boiled across his arm. Agony, untold raged across his soul as the Emperor desperately tried to sort the roaring current of belief that washed up around him.
Dear Emperor, please protect my brother and all his friends in the regiment. .
Strike them down, My Emperor! I beg you! Heretics and scum, there's nothing worth saving!
Emperor, help me!
In the Name of the Emperor, we Purge this world!
God-Emperor, the pain! Please! I didn't stray! I swear, they've got the wrong man!
The belief boiled across his mind; pulling and twisting him in a thousand different direction; a wrathful god, an avenger, a defender, a mentor, a guardian. All these things and more. He felt his soul grow rich and fat upon the feast of faith; his powers began to grow, and he knew that to continue would be ascension. What could he do with that power? Could he strike against the very gods themselves?
Yes, but it wouldn't work like that would it? He'd destroy the Gods, but he would become worse. A god does not stand alone; but is shaped by Warp itself. Even if he was not a Warp God, he would be corrupted slowly...
Eventually, just another one of the Four.
Maybe he'd destroy the old Gods, but only so that he could become the first of the new. No! He would not take that path; not ever.
But there was another! Oh yes, a third path that should not have existed; but riding high on the current of faith, the Emperor could see it. It wasn't an easy one, in fact, in some ways it was the worst one. He would not be able to act directly, but he could still guide events. His presence would still be felt, even if it meant giving in to the one of the things that he despised. Even if it meant less than a half life, there was still hope.
He focused; drawing on the golden power which he had called into existence. The belief tried to shape him; tried to morph him to fit the picture.
He was no pawn; he fought back. With mind and soul aflame. He wielded duty like a sword, his memories like a shield. Mankind would suffer. He would suffer. But that didn't matter in the long run. What was it he had said earlier? He had never had time for regrets?
Well, after this he would have all the time in the world.
With a final surge of psychic power; the very universe itself was altered as the Emperor mastered the power which sought to turn him. With his will alone, he forged a new path and turned a new destiny.
It was done. He was tired now. So tired. The world around him began to fade, and soon he would return to the realm of pain.
The robed figure was impressed. He inclined his head.
"I hope you know what you have done."
"I do." Was all the exhausted Emperor could say. A thin tether of light had sprung into existence, tying him back to his body on Terra.
"Why not?" The Emperor echoed. "Because of the wars that my sons fought, and the wars still to come. Because of a lone guardsman who stood up when he knew that he would only die, because of everything I saw when I grasped that power. Because sometimes, you need miracles and someone has to provide them."
"God-Emperor of Man." The figure said, repeating the greeting he had used.
"Yes." The Emperor seemed to sag. "I suppose I am now."
Death inclined his head. "We shall meet again when the time is right."
The Emperor faded away, his last words almost inaudible.
"When the time is right, I shall welcome it."
After that, there was silence. Death stood motionless. Waiting for some sign, perhaps. If he was, he eventually got it. There was a ''pop'' of displaced air. What came into existence was similar to himself, at least in initial impressions. It was a tiny robe, that seemed to be filled out by some form that went yet unseen. It floated in the air in silence and then...
We do not understand.
It didn't speak; it merely changed history so that it had.
You offered the choice.
"He choose differently."
He should not have been able to. There are rules, rules and duties. What you just did...
"I don't believe I know what you're talking about."
You know full well what I am talking about! He was either to ascend or to die, not live like that! You could have stopped him, even now you could still sever the link!
"Shall we simply say that I sympathise with his position?"
You...you unprofessional! There was a burst of flame as the figure became engulfed with fire, and then quickly burned to ashes. Soon another one would take its place, but for now Death was on his own. He regarded the ash pile for a second.
"I like doing that." He said to no one in particular. "But you are incorrect. He did not dodge the choice. He merely delayed it. While his body lives, he is tied to it. His power tethered in place. Perhaps he is right and he can make a difference; perhaps the future I have seen is the one in which he did just that. I cannot say for sure, but I do know this."
His scythe gleamed. Its edge which seemed to stretch on forever was eager.
"As I said, in time, I shall see him again."