He drifted on a vermilion sea, formless. Above, diamonds of starlight sparkled against a black satin sky. His consciousness had no memory of his body, he was merely a shadow adrift in the world between worlds – the Empyrean. How long he had been there was an unanswerable question. Time had no meaning. The sea and the sky and all he surveyed could evaporate in an instant, to be replaced with unfathomable scenes of horror, ecstasy or abstraction that would send lesser minds into madness. The realm of Chaos lay still for the moment.
I am Aegeus
That was his name, assembled from broken memories. As he remembered, untidy ripples slid out and away in the crimson sea, like a cast pebble disturbing a tranquil pond. The small waves slid out of sight into the vast reaches of the night-touched horizon. In time, the ripples hushed and the sky was mirrored in the red sea once more.
Time passed. Perhaps.
MinutE CentUry HeArtbeat Month
From the indistinct horizon came the briefest movement. A sole, inquisitive undulation slid over the sea and through his consciousness. He knew he was not alone here.
A growing sense of unease was developing. In himself. In the waters. He had remained here too long. Awareness was sometimes mutual.
Something was coming
A thought came to him of a human arm, gushing blood into a warm green-blue ocean of water. The red of the blood mingling with the crystal waters, staining them deep burgundy. The arm was not his. The water was unfamiliar. But the trail of blood resonated even here.
Blood blood blood
The dead and dying always attracted scavengers. The creatures of the sea were drawn to blood. To flesh. To weakness.
The stars began to dim and turn red. Their gaze turned malevolent as they congealed into a single throbbing orb of crimson, dominating the black soulless sky. Across the heavens raged a guttural cry, a maelstrom of barely coherent hatred.
I HAVE WAITED
Aegeus stilled his mind amid the intensifying cacophony.
Blessed Emperor, mighty jewel on the untarnished Throne of Ages, may your splendor guide me.
A warmth washed over Aegeus. He reached out with his mind…
Pain. Sounds. Lights. Blurred, insistent.
As his vision cleared, a collection of red warning runes resolved, hovering like angry insects, flashing and pixelated against his auspex. His breathing came in slower, more controlled, rasping through the life-sustaining machinery of the sarcophagus. Gears spun wildly somewhere outside, screaming shrilly. Critical machinery banged and clattered and whined, its struggles distorted through the adamantium and ceramite chassis he was grafted to.
Aegeus grunted with pain. It was an effort just to remain conscious. Waves of fatigue surged over him. And then from somewhere in the cacophony came a voice. Young, male. He sensed concern, fear, loss from the voice.
‘My lord! My lord! Are you there?’
He heard thuds and scrapes as some weight was dragged off his chassis. Suddenly, the darkness of the sarcophagus was stripped away with a cascade of dull red daylight through the narrow, armored viewport. His augmented sight adjusted to the glare instantly.
A head appeared, shrouded by a hood and gas mask. A blue rune and a double helix superimposed themselves over his vision, followed by flickering text.
Human. No taint detected. Male. Age, based on environmental factors and indigenous growth rates, approximately fifteen standard cycles old.
‘My lord?’ said the human – the boy, his breathing harsh through the mask, as he swept aside the dirt and ash from the view-port. Pressing his gas mask to the sarcophagus’ view-port, he peered intently into the shadowy interior.
‘Even in death I serve,’ Aegeus’ ancient vox-caster grated and rumbled, making the boy jump. His relief washed over the Librarian’s mind, before he darted out of view, leaving Aegeus to stare up at nothing but a dull red haze.
The boy had been looking down at him, an armored behemoth who towered over even his battle-brothers. With a mental gesture, Aegeus checked his systems and saw the inclination rune flashing, showing his chassis as being almost horizontal. He thought about moving his arms to get up, and he heard servomotors clicking and grinding against one another, but felt no movement.
Somewhere nearby, the boy yelled. ‘Lord, you are badly damaged! Please be still, we are alone. Just… stay still, if that’s alright? Every time you move you bring down more rocks and gravel. I am trying to plug that hole in your armour but to do that I have to stand on you, sorry!’
Aegeus focused on the status runes.
Left-arm, no signal. Right shoulder, damaged. Photon claws, undamaged. Leg stanchions, damaged. Life support, compromised. Ammunition, critical. Peripherals, intermittent. Auxiliaries, damaged. Outer hull containment breach. Corrosive gas present. Countermeasures offline. Sarcophagus integrity, 70%.
He heard the muffled footfalls and scrabbling of the boy on his supine outer hull. Even in his weakened state, the emeritus Librarian-Artificer of the Angels Luminous had no trouble reading the boy’s mind as he tried to focus on repairs. There was something else though, a concern distracting him from the work.
With a mild start of surprise, Honored Aegeus, victor of ten thousand battles across three millennia, bearer of every honor in the Incandescent host, realized his safety and well-being was only a competing priority to this human. In centuries past, half of the entire chapter had deployed to ensure his safekeeping, such was his tactical and spiritual value.
The containment breach rune dropped in intensity from red to amber. A blue containment measures symbol began to pulse weakly. ‘Corrosive gas eliminated’ flashed briefly and faded.
‘What have you done?’
The gas mask abruptly popped up in the view-port. ‘Fixed it!’ he said, muffled.
‘Child, what prayers of mending do you know? How did you repair the wound?’
‘Flak jackets and duratape.’ The figure held up a standard-issue roll of adhesive tape over the view-port. ‘Do you feel better?’
Aegeus momentarily struggled for words. ‘Yes.’
Sometimes the roughest gems contain a fine jewel.
The boy disappeared from view once again, though Aegeus could still hear him grunting in exertion. ‘I’m just… trying to get this… chunk of… ferrocrete off your arm!’
Aegeus groaned as what was left of him slumped in the sarcophagus, his strength flagging. His memories were fractured from long centuries of chemically-induced coma between battles. The psychic and physical drain of guiding this ancient war-walker taxed even his superhuman abilities. His periphery sensors, when they flickered to life, showed several fading life signs in the area, the shimmering diamond icons dimming as his brothers fell into suspended animation with grievous wounds. Even as he watched, one flickered out entirely.
We are all jewels in the hands of the master artificer. The Emperor Protects.
His venerable armour, the same that had weathered blows from daemons and xenos armed with all manner of diabolical weapons, was crumpled and torn. Whatever had brought him and his brothers low must have been truly horrific.
Focusing on his auspex, he realized he was surrounded by heat sources, at various and occasionally life-threatening temperatures. There was also scattered organic matter, in clumps and particle traces in the local atmosphere. Local topography showed a crazed collection of sharp hills bisected by valleys, though he remembered something about being in an urban center. Something about pacification duties…
‘Child, what has happened?’
‘You don’t remember? Your squads were protecting McBane’s flank as he advanced. There was an explosion. We think the cult set off the underground promethium conduits – everything is on fire or dead. The crater must be at least a kilometer wide. HQ wanted us scouts to check things out on our grav-bikes, but I was going anyway to see if my… father’s unit was still…’
Aegeus felt the anguish well up in the boy, only to be compartmentalized and pushed aside.
‘But on my way, I saw your arm in the rubble and could hear your alarm chimes. We’re next to the Old Road, which is nearly clear as it’s so wide, but nothing is standing for blocks in every direction. There, uh, are bodies everywhere lord – your men, cult, and PDF. Cult doesn’t seem to be picky about who they killed.’
‘You have done me a service child, but I interrupt your search. Let me assist. Who is your father? Think of him and he will be revealed to me if he yet lives’.
The bleeding arm flashed before his mind’s eye, and Aegeus could once again hear the raging spirits of the Immaterium as he drew his power.
Still so weak.
Weak Weak Weak Blood blood blood I have waitedwaitedwaited
In an instant, he was back in his life-giving sarcophagus, the boy his only company. Aegeus’s mind was filled with images of a nondescript middle-aged man in a well-worn PDF uniform. Honest face. Soldier’s bearing. Grey at the temples. Thin. Smiling. Smoking a lho stick on the parapet of a trench overlooking no-man’s land.
Aegeus could not locate the psychic trace of the man. His skill in this regard was infallible, even in his reduced state. ‘He has earned the Emperor’s Peace, boy. It is a gift. You will come to think of it as such, in time,’ he revealed.
‘The Emperor p-protects,’ the boy replied, his voice breaking.
‘Indeed. The greatest treasures are measured by the grief of their loss.’
Aegeus felt the boy’s grief become shrouded once more in the vagaries of the human heart. He chose to read no further.
The boy wandered back and sat on a pile of rubble next to his chassis.
‘I am private Daar. Daar of Gul, great one.’
‘I am Aegeus.’
A moment passed in silence. It had been centuries since he had last indulged in idle conversation. Nearly a millennia, he realized. It had been so long since he had last conversed with a regular human and not a battle-brother of the Angels Luminous. Time was a strange creature. It had slipped past, like a receding tide, but he had barely noticed.
‘I must rise,’ the vox-caster grated, as Aegeus gathered his will. He brought the dreadnought’s systems to his mind, and shuddering vibrations rocked through the blackened ferrocrete rubble as tonnes of wreckage began to rise. Servomotors groaned in protest.
In the sarcophagus, red runes erupted like streams of lava. Alarms bayed at the punishment. Aegeus slowly angled himself up, every mighty gear grating, each ancient seam and weld groaning yet holding, a testament to the chassis’ long-dead artificer and millennia of dedicated maintenance.
It was neither dignified nor swift, but the venerable dreadnought at length stood upright in a fresh cloud of ash and dust, surveying the battlefield.
Memories flooded back into Aegeus’ consciousness. The once-grim canyons of hab-units were unrecognizable. What had been intersecting roads were now rivers of fire and rubble. The Old Road cut through all of it, the ancient thoroughfare mainly clear of debris. Everything was shrouded in a hellish gloom as fires feasted on flesh and wreckage.
His sensors, which had clinically detected organic matter and molten metal, had failed to accurately convey the slaughter that Aegeus surveyed. Bodies were naked, mangled. Some were missing limbs. Others heads. Even at this distance, the explosion’s thundering claws had torn life from what had been living flesh.
Even the Emperor’s finest warriors, the space marines, had been bowed by the awesome and horrible power of unconstrained physics. Ceramite armour had shattered and splintered for those hit by near-supersonic debris. Aegeus counted enough limbs and torsos to make up at least several squads of the Incandescent Host. A terrible loss.
We are jewels in the hands of the Master Artificer. Through the Untarnished Gate, the light of the Throne shines through us, revealing the glory of the Emperor through every facet. The Emperor Protects.
His mind recalled the sacred words had heard chanted for over three thousand years. Such a loss would surely register with the Chatoyance patrolling in orbit. In time, reinforcements would come from above, or from the Chapter Monastery on Solitaire Prime. For the moment though, there was only the boy and himself.
Fresh runes, weak and intermittent, ghosted into life at the periphery of his vision. What forces the Cult had left in the area were advancing.
‘Daar of Gul, the enemy will be upon us soon,’ he stated. ‘I stand to protect my brothers and fulfill my duty to the Emperor, illuminated in the eternal light of the Golden Throne. May you, Daar of Gul, and the glorious dead bear witness to my oath.’
The solemn words hung in the air, echoing the oaths he and his battle-brothers had taken back on board the Chatoyance. With a groan of machinery, the dreadnought began to turn towards the distant threats.
‘I will stand with you, my Lord,’ the Daar said, standing up from where he had sat.
Aegeus paused, before slowly swinging his chassis around so he could see the boy through his view-port. He could sense the resolve burning in his mind. ‘…what are thy words?’ the Librarian asked.
‘…victory through sacrifice,’ Daar said as if remembering, looking at his feet. ‘The battle won easily is never held dear. It is only through the weight of sacrifice that true victories are measured. The cost may be a man, a world, or even a principle… but do not doubt, for great songs are never sung for the warrior that strove little for gain.’ The boy looked back up at the war machine. ‘My Da told me that, and may he bear witness to it’.
‘Your father was wise,’ stated Aegeus. ‘Then clear your mind, Daar of Gul. I will lead you to the tools we need to bring retribution to the enemies of the Emperor.’
The cult’s armored column trundled down the Old Road. A pair of looted Eradicator-pattern Leman Russ tanks led them, crude icons haphazardly daubed in blood and standard-issue white marker paint on their sides. Poorly kept tracks groaned in suffering as gearboxes whined and crunched. Cracked searchlights flickered with a jaundiced, otherworldly fire. Cannons stared down the road with soulless black eyes. The tanks’ machine spirits had long since turned malevolent.
Behind them came a motley collection of transports. Several open-topped trucks, carrying dirty, bloody fanatics outfitted in gas masks and light armour. Some sat, some stood, some leaned out off the sides of the vehicle. Avaricious eyes squinted through the masks, scanning the destroyed hab units for the glint of valuables among the ash and dust. Foot soldiers kept pace at a light jog, their formation loose. It was clear that all those who would have opposed them were dead – even the near-invincible Angels Luminous.
The tanks rumbled past Aegeus’ partially buried chassis. It had not taken much effort for Daar to make the once-proud war machine appear as lifeless as when he had discovered it. The rubble and bodies had been moved back to partially cover the slumped form without actually trapping it. Smears of ash and oil and blood hid Daar’s hasty repairs.
As they approached, the first and second trucks pulled out of formation and rolled to a stop. Seeing this, the leading tanks slowed and stopped, roughly idling as masked men swarmed over Aegeus like scavengers on a carcass.
‘I’m claiming it.’
‘Get frakked, there’s enough here for everyone. Give us a look at those bloody jewels!’
‘Get into it boys.’
Greedy hands went to work on prying loose Aegeus’ sacred bloodstones. When that failed, a heavy lasrifle butt would bash against the finery, hoping to dislodge one of the precious aged gems.
Aegeus reached out and touched Daar’s mind.
A hissing roar rasped through the air. The last truck in the column exploded. A ferocious conflagration of steel, bodies, and stored ammunition roared out, hungry tongues of flame devouring all. Those that survived the blast became shrieking pyres, careening about in agony as they were consumed by fire.
There had been much in the way of weapons strewn throughout the ruins of the cult’s ambush, and Daar had stockpiled as much as he could find with Aegeus’ guidance.
High above the column, Daar had dropped one of the salvaged launchers before the rocket had even passed midway, turning and running along the ridge of ruined hab units. His hands shook, but his feet were sure, bounding over the dusty ferrocrete, rubble crunching underfoot.
The next launcher tube was propped against a twisted beam also overlooking the column. He snatched it, brought it to his shoulder, and aimed. Unclenching his teeth, he depressed the trigger. The rocket disappeared in a cloud of white smoke roaring down into the next vehicle, some kind of squat supply carrier. Promethium ignited, blowing out armored glass and maintenance panels, liquid fire bursting from vents and doorways, consuming the next truck in the convoy. Fresh screams and shouts echoed up to Daar’s ears.
The element of surprise gone, stubber and lasgun fire began to lance up towards Daar as he once more scampered along the rooftops. Stubber rounds whizzed past his head as lasbolts left trails of ionized air in their wake.
Unable to stop and aim, Daar quickly loosed the bandoleer of frag grenades he had improvised with a sticky length of duratape and tossed it towards the cultists. It was a hurried throw, but the bandoleer seemed to almost float just far enough to reach. Another roar shook those below, scything shrapnel gathering a harvest of blood and limbs.
Vehicle engines surged and revved as the remaining transports tried to scatter, the drivers panicked. Over the sounds of war came the mechanical, methodical hum of murderous machinery. In unison, with slow and deadly grace, the Eradicator tanks turned their turrets to track Daar, cannons elevating.
Eradicators were built for such warfare – urban, close quarters. They had been made to slay the heavily entrenched defenders of strong points. A boy on top of a mountain of rubble seemed barely worth the effort.
The looters had promptly forgotten about their prize, now using the chassis as cover, taking wild shots up at their assailant. Among the panicked minds, Aegeus had no difficulty finding the weakest will. Traitorous, faithless, fearful – a burly tattooed cultist who quailed internally at the fire all around them.
With a thought, Aegeus turned them on the others. They jumped from cover, screaming as their autogun rattled out a spray of slugs into their comrades. Shrieking, eyes wild, they turned and ran towards the madness on the Old Road, firing wildly, gibbering and screeching, until a random lasbolt felled them.
Aegeus’ sensors pinged. Apparently, the spray of autogun slugs had caught his chassis, and one had been caught in the blanket of flak-jackets that Daar had unceremoniously attached to him with duratape. In the dark of his sarcophagus, a small smile crept across Aegeus’ ruined face.
Saved by duratape.
The ancient war machine groaned and shuddered as its engines roared to life, rising out of the rubble. On straining legs, warnings blaring, Aegeus closed the distance to the first Eradicator, its turret aimed up and away at Daar.
Aegeus swung his stiff arm forwards as he slammed into the tank, jamming it into the tracks. Snarling in effort, he mustered his flagging might and pushed, flipping the tank up onto its side.
A chime echoed in the sarcophagus. The impact had jarred something into place. With a hiss, the photon claws deployed, bright arcs of plasma erupting from the mangled stump of his fist and stabbing deeper into the tank.
He slashed upwards, through the Eradicator. The energy blades passed through its reinforced armour with the mildest of checks as they turned it into glowing slag. Flesh and fluid turned into acrid steam as the crew was vaporized. Severed tank tracks fell to the ground, useless. The shredded corpse of the tank rested on Aegeus’ arm for a millisecond before its engine and armaments exploded.
A storm of promethium and ammunition raged around Aegeus. Detonations rocked the dreadnought as he turned away to shield the rent in his armour, his only real weakness. A flimsy shield of duratape and faith would not survive combusting reactors at such close range.
The tank’s rear magazine of ammunition detonated against the second Eradicator tank, tearing the turret off its partner and bludgeoning the crew to death inside with the sheer concussive force.
Internally, Aegeus’ systems were blaring, frantically showing the litany of malfunctions. The heat of the explosion had turned the Old Road soft around his feet, sinking him partially into the quagmire, broken arm still caught in the burning wreckage.
Sarcophagus containment runes were counting the moments until his life support failed. The dreadnought dismissed them and turned his auspex towards Daar. Fatigue washed over the Librarian, fraying the connection in his mind. Despite the heavy barrage of fire, Daar’s rune could still be seen, topography showing he was exposed and running towards Aegeus’ end of the demolished intersection.
A departure from their plan.
Calculations had shown he would be safe if he disengaged now, and they had agreed to it. The cultists were retreating, many of their number dead or dying, and yet the boy came, running above the Old Road towards a precipitous drop. The bleating of the alarms began to fade into a jumble of disconnected sounds as Aegeus’ grip on reality began to fade.
What is the boy doing?
With a thundering eruption, a mountain of debris directly opposite Aegeus exploded across the Old Road, the blast sweeping it clean. The dreadnought suddenly found himself face-to-face with the third Eradicator, its cannon a mere fifty meters away, practically point-blank range, and aimed at his vulnerable chassis.
An unmissable shot.
His armour was compromised. His systems were damaged beyond repair.
Aegeus stared at death.
The Emperor’s Peace is mine at last.
Time slowed. The auspex chirped a different set of tones. Above him, Daar’s rune was moving too fast to the cliff.
Canyons drew out between the passing seconds.
Aegeus saw the boy leap off the edge.
For a moment, he flew like Sanguinius himself, blonde hair whipping in the burning winds, arms outstretched. He wore no mask. No imperfect eyeglass would distract him.
The hungry earth pulled him down.
There were rocket tubes slung across his back. Another bandolier of grenades over his shoulder. A single melta bomb was tied around his torso. Through the toxic clouds of ash and debris, the bomb’s green ignition primer pulsed down.
Take care of yourself, Lord Aegeus. I’m going to see my Da-
The threatening tank exploded like it had been smashed by the Emperor’s own fist. Aegeus’ was slammed into the back of his sarcophagus, the pain and fatigue falling upon him and stealing away his consciousness on shadowy wings.
Brother-Artificer Marban mumbled the litany as he lit each candle in the array. He was torn between finishing his duties quickly and making sure they were done correctly. It was the beginning of another busy day, and any other brother-artificer could have been assigned to this duty. Even an acolyte can light a candle after all.
His responsibility was usually the Ancient Brondenmar. Not quite as old as Honored Aegeus, the artificers of old had built his chassis to last, but that didn’t mean it was maintenance-free. Ancient Brondenmar still needed more care than there were hours in the day. If the Chapter had to choose between them, it was Ancient Brondenmar that was more likely to awaken, according to Chaplain Argyle.
Marban stood back to survey his work. Candles and incense burned low in their banks of holders, casting warm light and soft shadows against the hard lines of the resting chassis. Articulated pipes hung from the shadowed ceiling, feeding the hulk in the center of the room that was Aegeus. His power supply lanterns pulsed faintly in readiness.
Such was the age of the dreadnought that the sarcophagus was not easily removed from the chassis, and as a result, stayed as a single unit. It mattered not to the Honored one, as he had slept undisturbed in this rotation for six and a half centuries. There was even a chance that he would never be roused again.
Marban took a moment to gaze over the venerable war machine. He had never actually had a chance to closely inspect it. On the rare occasion he had been required in this chamber, there had been a Master overseeing a host of acolytes. All had been preoccupied with cleaning and chanting the prayers of mending, rest, and recuperation.
Some young battle-brothers, a mere century into their service, would come to meditate with the silent Librarian-Artificer, hoping perhaps to hear a psychic word in passing from the revered warrior within.
Aegeus was only known by reputation by most. Generations of Angels Luminous had passed through the Untarnished Gate without ever seeing Aegeus leave their Fortress-Chapel on Solitaire Prime.
But Marban had read the last record of battle, entered by Librarian-Artificer Cabochon some six-hundred years ago, when the war machine had ended a rebellion on Tonemau on its own. The Angels Luminous had found him near physical death as he waged an unrelenting psychic war in the Immaterium against a daemon acting as a focal point for the cancerous cult on the planet. Aegeus’ eventual victory in the Immaterium had sent such profound shock waves into realspace that the heretics were consumed by gibbering, suicidal madness at the loss of their patriarch. Loyalist forces claimed an easy victory the next day.
To have cleansed a cult on a planetary scale was a feat that had no equal in their histories. Some had feared the esteemed Librarian-Artificer lost to the Rage that haunted all the Sons of Sanguinius, not surprising considering the staggering losses the Angels Luminous had suffered in that campaign. Yet upon recovery, the Honored Aegeus had been… subdued.
Marban activated one of the control levers and the artificial lighting grew in intensity, turning from the soft warmth and sanctity of a chapel into the harsh cold appraisal of an examination dock.
He drew close to the towering, boxy sarcophagus, his keen eye noting ancient repairs, welds that had split and been fixed over the millennia. The bloodstones had been polished and anointed, their facets glowing in the light. He murmured in approval. It was fine work. Purity seals of the finest wax and ribbon adorned Honored Aegeus’ shoulders, a testament to Oaths of Moment made long before generations of Marban’s ancestors were born.
The Brother-Artificer paused and blinked when something off suddenly became clear to him. Directly on the sarcophagus, below the dim viewport and in a place of honor, surrounded by precious gems and inlaid gold, was affixed a waxen seal mirroring an Oath of Moment, but in white, not red, and the ribbon was made from… duratape?
Curious, he drew closer, his augmented eyes picking out the crude words written in Low Gothic.
The seal simply read: