The ether. The Sea of Souls. The Realm of Chaos. It was man's greatest hope and yet also his gravest peril. Humanity's link to that realm of raw emotion, the spiritual counter-universe, enabled mankind to draw upon the infinite power that lay there waiting to be exploited.
And yet his very presence in that place attracted the interest of predators born of mankind's own imperfect psyche. The seer revealed the top card. Upon it was inscribed a robed acolyte, carrying a hammer and a book. As both the astropath and her visitor watched, the image seemed to flex and ripple until it settled again, only now the image of the supplicant's augmetically enhanced face appeared on that of the High Priest.
This card would act as his talisman signifier; the card representing the one for whom the reading was being made. The astropath took up the rest of the deck again and proceeded to carefully lay out seven cards face down on the plinth in front of her, two inside a circle of five; the classic basic reading pattern. The seer inhaled deeply, breathing in the heady perfume of the incense, feeling it free her mind of the restrictions of the physical failings of her body.
Her breathing became slow and regular as she freed her spirit to commune with the warp. Psykers - the name commonly given to those with psychic talents - had appeared in the human race long before the founding of the Imperium. Psychic ability was the human race's curse as much as its gift.
Without this mutation the Imperium could not survive. Without psykers, messages could not be sent tens of thousands of light years to all corners of the Emperor's galaxy-spanning realm. Ships could not traverse the empyrean and make journeys between worlds that would otherwise take a thousand lifetimes. The servants of the sinister Officio Inquisitorum could not defend the Imperium's loyal servants from those who would pervert the Emperor's Will, and see His works undone and all creation overturned.
And the Navigator Houses of the Navis Nobilite would not have their position of privilege brought them via their stranglehold of power on the Administratum of Terra. And yet the great majority of psykers were reviled, shunned by all right-thinking people. For it was through the psyker that the Fell Powers could work their corruption in the physical universe. Thanks to the psyker, daemonic creatures, born of base unchecked human emotions, could break through into the material realm. It was they who could bring the Imperium to the very edge of destruction and then take it over into the abyss.
The astropath looked down at the cards with her astral vision. Even the intricate illuminations decorating the backs of the crystal slivers appeared more vibrant and alive with a spectrum of colours that could only exist within the warp, lit by the eerie light of non-existent stars. Through her psychic sight she could see other darting images superimposed on the mundane world that existed within the reclusium. Creatures that looked like disc-shaped sharks swam through the ether, circling her visitor, who was totally unaware of their presence.
In contrast to the uselessness of her crippled body, the warp-seer's soul-fire burned so brightly that it would normally obliterate the faint flickers of those nearby. But the cloaked figure's aura shone brightly too. Fate obviously had a purpose in mind for him as well. The warp predators circled both her and the magos, drawn to the lustrous brilliance of their souls, frondlike feelers waving in the unknowable currents of the immaterium, snapping at their glowing outlines with horribly fanged jaws. The astropath returned her attention to the cards placed with machine precision on the marble plinth top in front of her.
I invoke thee, beloved Emperor. Infuse these cards that I might attain true insight of things hidden, to thy greater glory and the salvation of humanity. The snarling face of a fire and brimstone preaching missionary looked back at her from the card, but the image was upside down.
As the astropath focused on the tarot card the picture on its liquid crystal surface swam but seemed unable to fix itself in one form. The Preacher's face continued to change from one arrangement of features to another in an unending cycle. A blasphemer who preaches a message of death and destruction, a creed contrary to the will of the Emperor.
The warp-seer turned over the second card. The double-headed turncoat Traitor. She gasped involuntarily, the fan-pump that fed her lungs whining at double speed to compensate. The supplicant watched in silence. The third card was turned. In the quadrant tertius, a quest into the unknown. The sons of the primarchs. The champions of Him on Earth.
Opposite the blasphemer in the circle. There is still hope for mankind. The seer turned her attention to the pair of cards lying at the centre of the circle. A card of the Discordia and a card of the Arcana Adeptio together? The meaning was unclear to her. The Daemon, representative of the Great Enemy itself, order overturned, bloodshed and slaughter, combined with the god-engine, the card of might and unconquerable power, but turned on its head.
It could mean the walls of the Imperium beaten down or indomitable strength in the hands of Chaos. Unnerved the seer continued. The only card remaining was the one at the apex of the star of five surrounding the Daemon and the Titan. She lifted the card from the plinth and placed it down on the cold marble again, face up.
A glowering eye, set amidst spiralling crimson-purple clouds, stared back with its baleful, fiery gaze. The astropath swallowed hard, feeling her gorge rise. Fires, like the fires of a maelstrom that would devour a whole world, blazed within the eye, its malignant gaze boring into her. But the image still swelled before her, until it was all she could see. She was like a tiny drifting speck of dust within a hurricane before the burning stare of the galaxy-sized eye, its surface burning like a sun, the swirling nebulae, the birthplace of dark stars, spinning within the vortex of the Sea of Souls.
The howling of an eldritch wind blew right through her, threatening to extinguish the brilliant flame of her soul's fire; it was the only sound she could hear. The only sensation she experienced was the stomach-knotting nausea of abject fear. In a blaze of sickly light the ruddy-bronze hull of a baroque leviathan re-entered the physical universe. After the hull came kilometre after kilometre of gargoyle-encrusted weapon decks, strike craft launch bays, baroquely ornamented weapon ports as the ancient battleship slipped smoothly from the warp.
Finally, the con tower of the capital vessel broke through from the realm of daemons along with the ancient, power plant-sized engines, the method of their construction and even the science-mysticism behind their operation now lost across oceans of time. For the first time in three millennia, the ship that had once proudly born the name Vox Veritas, was free to continue its missionary cause, in the name of the Fell Powers, and wreak its destruction, having been lost on the capricious tides of warp space for over three thousand years.
The ancient vessel hung in the void of space, at the edge of the remote white dwarf system, its ruddy shadow blocking out the starfield beyond, just as the corrupting darkness of Chaos oozing from the warp-realspace overlap of the Ocularis Terribus would blot out the Emperor's light across the Imperium of Mankind. Then the leviathan engines fired again and the Corrupter of Colchis, as the ship was now known, angled its prow in-system and set a course for the seventh planet orbiting the distant dying star… …THE HATCH DROPPED down with a clang and with clanking, crab-like steps the daemon-engine emerged from the bowels of the blasphemous landing craft.
Six massive steel claws, each weighing-over a tonne, came to rest on the fractured mound of the spoil heap. From the oil- and slime-dripping thorax the savage machine rose to a height of twenty metres above the crater-scarred earth. The rusted outer metal skin of the baroque monstrosity bubbled with rust and suppurating ulcers oozed stinking, yellow, infected pus.
The idolatrous constaict was surmounted by a visor-eyed horned helm. Balefires burned behind the eye-slits. The turret body of the monstrosity swivelled on its waist, its possessing daemon-spirit surveying its surroundings: the jagged horizon of cooling towers and manufactory spires. The ragged standard fixed to the machine's rusted banner pole bore a blasphemous sigil formed from three mildewed circles of rot. Drifts of ash grey smoke rolled across the battlefield before the monster engine, the ruptured hulls of derelict tanks, abandoned gun emplacements and the bolter-devastated bodies of the dead appearing in the spaces between the cloudbanks.
The unholy creation became aware of tiny creatures scurrying around its feet. Daemonic senses detected impacts against its rusting iron hide, like the hot stings of giant mosquitoes. The loyal Imperialist dogs fell back from the monstrous machine as their attacks had little effect on the corrupted hulk.
The searing whine and spang of las-bolts was accompanied by the cacophony of the soldiers' screams. The dark soul of the plague-bearing engine chuckled cruelly, an abrasive laugh barking from the vox-grille of its helm, provoking further despairing cries from the fleeing Imperialist scum. Slime-encrusted mechadendrite tentacles reached for the men.
Sea And The Rhythm
Belching foul-smelling, toxic smoke from its corroded exhaust stacks the daemon-engine advanced across the battlefield with ratchetting strides, crushing unfortunate soldiers beneath its claw-toed feet, ready to reap souls for Nurgle in the name of the Warmaster… …THE GROUND SHOOK as they marched at a slow dirge-pace across the scarred surface of devastated Japheth. The dread warriors of the Tyrant of Sycorax kept rank as they marched, upright and proud, upholders of a noble martial tradition, conquerors of this world and the soul-sworn enemies of the false carrion lord of the Imperium of Man.
The world of Japheth had trembled at their arrival, been rocked by their warmongering, and would quake at their passing. They were a terrifying, awesome sight to behold, proud and darkly noble, yet with a savage, feral quality. They looked resplendent in armour, rust-brown blood stains attesting to the number of their enemy they had slain in battle, ancient favoured wargear clashing against the breastplates of their armour in a clatter of crashing metal, like the clamour of battle itself. Behind the Traitor Marines came the cultist worshippers of the Fell Powers, homicidal maniacs who would rather live the existence of the insane than die in the service of the God-Emperor of Mankind.
They came half-naked, some wearing the ritual robes of their perverted faith while others still wore the uniform of the regiments they had originally belonged to, only now the noble insignia of the Imperium were defaced and replaced with blasphemous symbols of the outer darkness. They came in their hundreds, swelling the ranks of the Chaos host. Behind those traitor Guardsmen and the insane congregations of the Chaos cults came the mutants, creatures not quite human but neither entirely animal in form, yet greater than both. And they came in their thousands. Tentacle-limbed things, hulking beasts, bellowing multi-armed monstrosities, mewling savage-clawed, insect-headed perversions of nature, scaled brutes, the warped foot soldiers of the Ruinous Powers.
No matter how grotesque these warped warriors might appear, following in their wake were indescribable writhing, slithering, constantly metamorphosing horrors. If they had once been men, then the revulsion and sheer terror they instilled in any who looked upon them was only heightened. These horrors were spine-bristling, fanged and mutated proof that Chaos was a fickle master whose gifts, as well as potentially leading to power and riches beyond measure, might also reduce a damned soul to something far less than human under its corrupting caress.
For these were the true, terrifying spawn of Chaos. And behind all this host of the lost and the damned the horizon burned, the light of the raging hive-fires of conquered Japheth eclipsing the bitter light of the sun… …THE ARID PLAIN burned under the planet's twin suns, sizzling beneath every crunching footstep of the Apostle's gore-stained ceramite boots. Ancient power armour the colour of dried blood glinted in the harsh, glaring suns-light. Edging trim that looked like riveted, sculpted bone shone like bleached skulls.
The ceramite-armoured giant advanced across the parched earth, his titanic shadow reaching out across the arid wilderness ahead of him. The dazzling light of the burning sky reflected from the glassy surface of the plain, blurring the definition between heaven and earth.
And on the distant horizon the crumbling sandstone walls of an ancient city rose out of the desert plain, a fortified citadel surmounting the jagged outcrop of a desert plateau. This was the next stop on his centuries-long pilgrimage that would ultimately bring him to the time revealed to him by the secret messengers of the warp so many eons ago. Incongruous in the torturous desert heat, draped across the giant's shoulders was the white and black-striped pelt.
Clanking chains swung from his waist. Scraps of parchment whipped the air in the hot desert wind, bearing verses and catechisms written in a faded ink scrawl. Other zealous proclamations were inscribed upon gauntlets, armoured greaves and every other ceramite plate. The crackle of flames accompanied the sounds of the desert. Fires burned in the brazier exhausts of the armoured suit's reactor; burning like the unholy zeal blazing inside his dark, corrupted heart.
The Apostle strode across the desert plain, alone, catechisms of faith hot on his tongue, and smiled with the insane smile of the zealot. The time of ascension was fast approaching. And he had waited an age, longer than it had taken for the tectonic plates to shape the planet upon which he now walked. Now that the time of waiting was almost over, he had to ensure that all was ready. The Apostle looked once more towards the distant desert city, shimmering in the scorching heat haze, his enhanced eyesight and the systems inside his armoured helm magnifying the vista so that he could see more clearly the black shapes lining the road approaching the walled citadel.
Fleeting images seemed to move within the fractured blue of the frozen walls, and behind them there was a barely visible crystalline glow. The ice tunnels wound on and down, down into the ancient heart of the glacier, down into the splintered bedrock of the planet. And there, in a vault of ice, glowing with a dull cold blue radiance stood the black stone. It protruded through the drifted snow and fallen icy stalactites, a perfectly carved octahedral pyramid.
Something about it suggested that there was much more of the ancient artefact buried beneath. The gale-force winds scouring the frozen surface of the world above found their way deeper into the ice caves and were channelled into the freezing cold cavern. As if in response, the ice and stone began to vibrate, setting up their own resonances in discordant juxtaposition to the howling of the ice-winds. The sound of the ice choir and the singing stone were unsettling, redolent with the feral voices of another time, another existence.
The whispers of the warp. The lies and half-lies of gods and daemons. All things that had already happened, that were happening even now, or that would come to pass when the fates proscribed. Something moved towards her through the shifting currents of the Sea of Souls. Something black and pitiless. The entity was as different to the soul-sharks as they were to her. The devilish creature clawed its way towards her through the ether, anglerfish jaws opening wide, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
She was utterly defenceless against it. All will perish in a firestorm that will sweep through the galaxy of man when the Eye opens again! Unnumbered daemons will feast on a billion billion souls until the end of all things. Tears of blood dripped down her face. She was raving now, her mind broken, her soul condemned for all eternity. The magos observed the warp-seer with the same unflinching gaze that he had worn ever since he had set foot inside the prison of her reclusium chamber.
Flecks of spittle flew from the woman's lips. Her gums bled. The organic part of the tech-priest's nose twitched. The acrid foundry smell of hot metal assailed his nostrils and implanted artificial olfactory sensors. He glanced away from the crippled psyker to see that the platinum, gold and silver that picked out the warding patterns set into the marble floor had liquefied, smoky vapour welling up from the molten metal. Terror shall rain upon the border worlds.
Drach'nyen thirsts and shall never be sated until it gorges itself upon the husk that lies bound to the Golden Throne. The stars shall be stained red with blood. All shall be darkness! Her reading of the tarot had opened the way for other things to cross over from the immaterium. She had seen things that no mortal being should ever have to see. And now she had paid the ultimate price, the one that every astropath risked every time they tried to read the shifting tides of the warp, despite all the warding precautions.
He realised that the astropath was lost but he was not done with her yet. She had become a conduit for entities that had no place in the temporal universe, and would have to be destroyed, but there was still much that could be learnt from such creatures. Knowledge was life, after all.
In their desperation to be unleashed upon the physical world of the senses, the things manifested from man's most primal emotions would readily reveal the secrets of the future to those who knew how to listen. Calmly, the tech-priest withdrew an exotic-looking firearm from within the folds of his robes. The ranting continued but the magos remained impassive. He checked the load of his pistol. He raised the gun.
Then the warp-seer uttered one word that stayed his hand. But the key to the prize that lies within the crucible of war shall be found upon the remaining guardian worlds. The keepers of the faith shall open the way to enlightenment, the way to the immortality of death. All shall bow before the lost gods, believer and unbeliever alike. Then her voice became a gargling wail as epileptic seizures gripped her. The magos levelled his pistol again. There was nothing more that the warp-seer could offer him and so he would put an end to the possession, and her suffering. The weapon fired with a discharge of matter-rending emerald energy and summary execution was carried out.
And she was running for her life, for her very soul. The fabric of her dream-world was rapidly being consumed by the spreading infection of Chaos. The flocktail grass withered and died. Then, with an unholy roar like the screams of a daemon choir, fire burst across the heavens and the sky began to burn.
The meadows were gone and all around her were endless plains, drenched in blood and sown with the skulls of countless millions. The last thing the seer saw - the image filling the fiery sky beyond the horizon - was that of the daemon-lord, the Warmaster of Chaos, blasphemy personified. A cloud-washed blue-green world was held in his crushing claw, the very crust of the planet fracturing in his grasp, boiling magma - its life blood - leaking from the broken sphere.
Thunder rumbled across the burning sky above her. No, not thunder. The hellish noise echoed inside her skull; it was the last sound she heard. A spear of white heat sliced through her brain and her world exploded into oblivion. The Iron-Father was coming one step closer to eradicating all weakness from his physical form. Strong in mind, strong in body: that was the way of the sons of Ferrus Manus. Two Space Marines of the Iron Hands' Chapter stood silently in the darkness of the chirurgia-annexe, while the Iron-Father's servitor bodyguard stood motionless as statues at the entrance to the apothecarion, their pallid flesh a deathly grey in the low light of the operating theatre.
The chamber was lit only by the soft torchlight from the walls, the focused beams of the flitting servo-skulls and the Apothecary's operating spotlight. Brother-Apothecary Caduceus's gleaming white armour picked up every speck of light and reflected it back into the chamber. Its brightness was a stark contrast to the black and grey armoured suit worn by Iron-Father Gdolkin, lying on the operating slab.
The one way in which it did resemble Gdolkin's was in the clan marking borne on its left shoulder plate. The symbol of a polished taloned gauntlet, on black, stood out like silver in a seam of carbon, whilst on the right shoulder plate there was etched the winged prime helix that was the emblem of the Apothecaries. The bright blood-red design represented not only the sacred gene-seed of the Chapter, the protection and perpetuation of which was the Apothecary's prime duty, but also the sacrifice that every Marine was prepared to suffer to ensure the Chapter's future survival.
Around and above them, carved into the stone cornicing or cast into the adamantium walls, were the cog-toothed, lightning strike, winged helix and claw-handed symbols of the Cult Mechanicus, Vurgaan clan, Apothecarion and Iron Hands' Chapter respectively. There were also the memento mori skulls and eagle-winged insignia of the Imperium of Mankind, ever-present in the architecture and ornamentation of that ancient galaxy-spanning realm, adorning every surface, every jutting buttress and bulkhead door, practically every rivet of the chamber.
The damage the Iron-Father had suffered whilst cleansing the Chaos-infected derelict space ship could be clearly seen now that the mangled wreck of his gauntlet had been removed. That his flesh had failed him angered Gdolkin. It reminded him of his own humanity. He was still mortal after all, and that angered him also. Oh for the holy perfection of the dreadnought, to live like the Emperor upon his Golden Throne, enshrined within an immortal body of adamantium and ceramite. That was the dream of any Space Marine, to continue the fight for the Imperium even after his death.
And it was even truer of the techno-venerating Iron Hands' Chapter, and amongst them this attitude was epitomised in Iron-Father Gdolkin. It was his one desire, after that of serving his Emperor and laying waste to the enemies of humanity, to become a leviathan of legend, a dreadnought war machine in the eternal service of his Chapter, his primarch and his Emperor.
The Iron-Father's right hand was a mangled pulp. The fingers were gone and only the thumb remained, half hanging off, now that it did not have the support of the metal sheathing glove to hold it together. Bone gleamed in the cold halogen light. There was little bleeding, however, since the Larraman cells that had been released into his bloodstream when he was injured had formed a skin-like layer of scar tissue over the injury. His right hand had lasted two hundred years longer than his left. Space Marines of the Iron Hands' Chapter had their left hands removed on joining the brotherhood and replaced with an entirely augmetic replica, in honoured memory of their primarch, Ferrus Manus.
But Iron-Father Gdolkin was different. He had lost his left hand before he had ever been chosen as an aspirant by the Iron Hands of Medusa.
Although flesh might at times prove weak there were still organic parts of the Iron-Father's bio-engineered body that he would find hard to do without. The adapted part of his brain that was the sus-an membrane was such a one. The genetically manipulated augmentation would allow him to dislocate his mind, reliving past experiences in another zone of consciousness, so as to leave behind the pain his body would be subjected to as the surgical procedure was undertaken.
Already slowing his breathing to help him enter the trance-like state he would enjoy whilst the surgery was being performed, Gdolkin took the laurel-leaved talisman of his Mechanicus Protectiva in his bionic left hand. The Mechanicus Protectiva was the sacred badge of office of an Iron Hands' Iron-Father and a potent device in its own right. In the same way, the Mechanicus Protectiva combined the rosarius worn by the Chaplains of other Chapters with the force-field technology granted to those Marines who studied under the Priesthood of Mars - red planet of the Machine God and the resting place of the Omnissiah itself - as part of their induction into that branch of the Adeptus Astartes.
This all served to make the Mechanicus Protectiva a powerful arcane piece of equipment. The blessings of the Emperor and the Omnissiah were channelled through the amulet to protect the Iron-Father from the assaults of the Emperor's enemies in battle. Gdolkin's Mechanicus Protectiva hung from the breastplate of his armour on a strong iron chain, the red gem set at its centre glowing with an unearthly light as he made his prayer, and the air around it crackled with mystic energies.
Blades flashed in the beam of Caduceus's suit light and a saw-toothed disc began to spin up to speed. Gdolkin triggered the sus-an membrane, entering a self-induced trance-like state. The wet, slicing of the blades and the high-pitched whine of the saw faded away, and the hot stink of cauterised flesh and burnt bone left him as well, and his mind slipped away to another place, another time.
But how many days? It might even have been weeks; he found it hard to keep track of time. The youth looked up at the threatening, ever-overcast canvas of the smoggy heavens and for the umpteenth time wondered if he would ever complete the challenge he had undertaken. Medusa was a cruel parent. The planet took an exacting toll on all its children and was even tougher on the young men who strove to become initiated as sons of the primarch, to be born again as the elite warriors of the Eternal Emperor.
Anatolus Gdolkin, a youth still, barely turned sixteen standard years, adjusted the pack on his back and trudged onwards towards the jagged silhouette of the horizon. His body, his mind, his very soul, ached with tiredness, despite the fact that his upbringing on this harsh world meant that he was already strongly built, his frame tall and muscular. He had slept when he could or when the tempestuous climate demanded he rest, sheltering in rocky overhangs, pulling his tarp-cloak tight around him over his head. But sleep did not come easily on the cold, hard rock, the numbing chill leeching the heat and strength from his tired body, and with the dust storms howling and gritty mica particles skittering across the exposed frozen granite.
The wind worried at the oilskin he wrapped about him and fitful moans had him imagining all sorts of horrors riding the wild currents of the blustery sky. Every clan-child learnt at their parent's knee that the ghost-spirits of their people roamed these uninhabited ranges, and the dead did not rest easy. The crawler-trains never came this far north into the mountains, the terrain was simply too treacherous.
The landscape was one of glacier-carved valleys, rent asunder by unimaginably terrible tectonic forces working away beneath the surface of the planet, huge boulders littering the scarred, grey wastes. In truth, Anatolus only really slept when exhaustion finally took him or when he had managed a kill and his belly was full with yoryx meat. The flesh of the hardy little herbivore, which gnawed the lichen from the rocks of these mountain places with its evergrowing chisel incisors, matched the temperament of these creatures: it was tough and bitter.
But at least it was meat. So Anatolus slept whenever his body demanded it. Up in these windswept icy highlands the days were as cold as the nights so it made little difference what time of day he travelled. He had been alone now for… How long was it? Time had become fractured for him by this inhospitable place, just like the icy mountain summits and earthquake-fissured, sheer-sided valleys, and it no longer had any meaning for him.
Thunder rumbled across the mountain peaks. The storm giants were angry, Anatolus thought, casting anxious glances at the ragged snow-dusted crags around him. His epic journey had taken him from the temporary, tented barter town, where his family's crawler had stopped to refuel and trade ore, further than he, or anyone else in his clan, had ever been before. There had been another mining-clan caravan hauled up at the edge of the town too, belonging to the Granislatt clan.
And there were others preparing for the testing. Half a dozen boys on the cusp of manhood from among the Granislatt were readying packs and weapons to make the journey into the wilderness. They too were seeking to prove themselves to the ever vigilant eyes of the Iron Hands that they were worthy to join them aboard their mighty fortress-monastery' leviathans. Talk of good omens and the favour of Medusa looking down upon them inspired youths of the Scarrabrae to take up arms and prove themselves able of passing the test too.
And at their fore was the determined Anatolus. He could remember the beginning of his journey more clearly than what had occurred since. But now Anatolus was more interested in how would it end. Would it have the conclusion he desired? He no longer felt so certain that it would. Did he even really care any more? He just kept going for there was nothing else now. That was his world, his life, his one purpose. He would keep walking until matriarchal Medusa decided how his journey would end, one way or another. As he had left the barter town, his father's bolt pistol heavy in its holster at his side, amidst the scurrafur hides, he looked back on his clan's caterpillar crawler.
The Aes Metallum was practically a mobile town, manufactorum, mining operation and processing plant in itself, and easily large enough to carry the whole family. The Aes and the crawler of the Granislatt clan, squatting next to the tented haggle-town, looking like two suckling hogs, disgorged smoky exhaust fumes into the already darkly polluted atmosphere.
It was at that moment that he knew that whatever else happened he would never see his family again. Either Medusa would claim him, his carcass scoured clean by the dust winds and acid atmosphere, or he would achieve his goal and the Sons of Ferrus Manus would take him to be counted among their number. At first the two parties of youths, those of the Scarrabrae and the Granislatt clans had kept their distance.
On only the second day the two rival gangs of aspirants came to blows and two young men died. By the fifth day - the memories came more clearly now - the Granislatts and the Scarrabraes shared a bond closer than friendship, closer even than kith and kin. Then there had come the deaths from exposure, the fatal falls negotiating the icy cliffs, the catastrophic rockfall. And now only he remained to complete the task, against all odds. At least he still had his bolter and four full clips of ammunition.
- The Liar and Other Stories.
- an iron hand.
- The Lost World of Bletchley Park: The Illustrated History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre.
- The Bully Vaccine.
- Free Fall (Elite Force).
There had been no tears as Anatolus's father gifted him with his own precious bolter, for that was not the way of the people of Medusa, only pride. There was no room for sentimentality in a world where daily survival against the elements was a constant battle. The gun felt heavy with age in Anatolus's hand. The bolter had been handed down throughout the generations, father to son and heir, throughout each generation, just like the name Anatolus. It had been given to his father when Anatolus's grandfather had set out on his last journey into the absolving elements, the sulphur-rot having taken hold deep in his lungs: better to die while some strength was still in him, than to die a feeble weakling, like a mewling babe-in-arms again, coughing and puking on the discharge of his own lungs.
Weakness and infirmity could not be tolerated in a society that relied on everyone being able to pull their weight, for the survival of the entire clan. A man who could no longer fulfil his function within the group had no place in it any more. As Ferrus Manus had taught the people of Medusa, all those thousands upon thousands of years ago, infirmity was a plague that threatened to destroy mankind. In the same way that sickly infants were offered to appease the elements and so as not to place an unnecessary encumbrance on the rest of the community, the honourable thing for the infirm to do was to face their death with honour intact.
Although his father had not openly stated it, Anatolus knew that he was proud of him and what he intended to do. It would have made any man proud that his son should wish to undertake the gruelling, near impossible, quest to prove himself worthy to the star warriors, to become one of the chosen of Ferrus Manus and the great Emperor. The Apothecary watched the servo-skull intently, its silvered insect legs twitching as it deposited the bloody lump of flesh in a gleaming kidney-shaped dish on the brass instrument table next to the operating slab.
The mess of tissue and bone that had once been a part of the Iron-Father looked like a discarded bloody glove, lying in the chrome bowl. The hand that had failed Gdolkin in battle would not fail him again. Instead, the weak flesh would be replaced by a far superior bionic augmetic that would forever be a reminder of the battle honour the Iron-Father won fulfilling the edicts of the Scriptorium of Iron and the tenets of the Iron Hands' Chapter. A moment later a second cyberneticised skull hove out of the gloom of the chamber, the flickering red sensors of its eyes being the first things Caduceus saw, its prehensile servo-spine coiling and uncoiling organically.
In its pincer limbs it held a polished ceramite gauntlet, as gleaming and new as the bionic Gdolkin - like all new recruits - had been given on his induction to the machine-venerating Chapter. The Apothecary's attentions were abruptly drawn back to the trance-bound Iron-Father as the servo-arm projecting from the top of his armour twitched spasmodically.
But Iron-Father Gdolkin remained unaware, his suspended mind reliving the different experiences of another life, another time. It cut its way deeply through the barren wilderness for as far as he could see under the perpetual gloom of the pollution-ruined sky.
It seemed that it stretched right up to, and possibly even beyond, the jagged teeth of the distant mountain range beyond. He breathed in deeply, detecting the bitter, oily taste of the unhealthy atmosphere on his tongue, despite the breather-mask covering his nose and mouth. Under the hood of his tarp-cloak, the skin of his face stung in the acid air. It seemed to Anatolus that there were greater levels of pollution in the air of this dead place.
The blanket of cloud obscured the sky even more darkly, as if it was in perpetual shadow. Anatolus had fought his way across the wastes, battling against not only the elements but also the vicious indigenous, and ever-hungry, rock salamanders. Now, having climbed at least a thousand metres, as he travelled ever north - or so his lode compass told him when the unsettled tectonic flux of the planet wasn't sending it haywire - he now found himself descending towards this great chasm, before it rose up sharply again to the ragged folds of the glowering peaks on the serrated horizon.
He had feasted well on the carcass of a salamander that had foolishly thought it could get the better of him. He still had his father's bolter safe at his side although it seemed to weigh more heavily in its holster now. However much he did not want to admit it, the epic journey Anatolus had undertaken was taking its toll on his body. He was weakening and he hated himself and his body for that very reason.
Having come so far, he suddenly felt certain that the end of his quest lay at the end of the boulder-strewn path of this darkly shadowed chasm. He had pushed his body to the limits of its endurance. His muscles might ache and his body felt sore to the bone, but it could not fail him now. And the fact that his mind even gave credence to the thought angered him further. If hethought he could fail, then he would fail. There was no place for such thoughts in one who would aspire to be an Iron Hand, who wished to follow in the footsteps of the warrior-god Ferrus Manus.
Taking a deep breath, he physically tried to shake his tiredness from himself, and took his first faltering steps along the monolith-strewn path into the bottom of the gaping gorge. Their number was few but it was they that held the Emperor's enemies at bay. The iron gauntlet that would now forever take the place of the hand that the Iron-Father had been born with, more than two centuries ago. It might look brand new, but it had in fact been in the Chapter for over two thousand years since its initial creation by the legendary Mars-trained Iron-Father Menestus, during the days of the Dark Crusade.
The hand, which in some texts was referred to as the Gauntlet of Menestus, or the Fist of Iron, had survived the centuries intact. This was the hand that had felled the archheretic priest of Statholos. Since the fall of Brother Telamon at the Battle of Occas Hive, the bionic hand, which was still infallible in its operation, had lain in the armoury of fortress-monastery Weyland, until the day when it had been selected to be bonded to Iron-Father Gdolkin.
When the cybernetica droid had completed its work, the chirurgeon medicae servo-skull would move in again and staple the cauterised flesh of the Iron-Father's lower arm to the gauntlet interface. For a moment, Brother-Apothecary Caduceus fancied he saw the fingertips of the hand twitch. It must be an automated response to the test electrical impulses being triggered by the servo-skull.
Lost within the dreams of his trance-state, the Iron-Father slept on. He would have gasped if he still had the strength. He had emerged from the ravine into a new and wondrous place. The wind-sculpted skeletons of once towering edifices projected from the ash-dust covering the ground in great drifts as far as the eye could see under the roiling sulphur-streaked cloud, crackling with incandescent lightning bursts. He could see corroded red-iron towers in the shadow of the looming, ice-crowned mountains.
A gust of wind blew a flurry of grey acid snow into Anatolus's cowled face. He blinked away the stinging, caustic flakes. He did not know for certain where he was or what he was surveying, but he had his suspicions. In all his sixteen years he had never seen anything bigger than a land-train ore-crawler, other than the ageless mountains, but he could tell that these structures were ruins on a vast scale. A hundred land-trains could have got lost within their crumbling avenues and ash-swathed chasms.
What he did know, however, was that he was weary to the core: it was only his relentless stubbornness, refusing to admit that he was spent, that kept him on his feet. Could it really be? Had he really reached his long sought after goal? Was this the place spoken of in the legends of his people, in the most famous heroic story of He Who Broke the Darkness, the Light-Bringer, Ferrus Manus? Was this really the fabled Land of Shadows? Whether it was or not, it was a fearful place. The skeletons of the long-dead structures - surely signs that someone, or something, had once dwelt here - filled him with a sense of ominous dread.
The chill wind moaned through the wide basin valley, the gaping holes in the stone structures creating resonating, booming harmonics that made Anatolus think of the wailing of storm giants. The sound of the wind only served to make the place seem even more dead and empty of life than if there had been utter silence. For a moment he doubted the decision he had taken to make the arduous, mind- and body-testing trek to find the land of the ancients. What could there be for him here other than a slow, lingering death, from exposure or starvation, in the toxic, abrasive cold?
Almost immediately he mentally berated himself for the lapse of his resolve. Such thinking was weakness. He had made it this far. The hard part was behind him. Surely he had proved himself worthy already? He would face whatever awaited him here and see whether he was judged worthy or not by the Sons of Ferrus. Boldly ready to meet whatever fate would throw his way, Anatolus strode into the dead city.
At first the noise was no more than a slithering susurration, like a rock-viper gliding over the sand. Then he heard the clicking of claws. Anatolus went no further, his father's bolt pistol now held firmly in his hand. A monstrous spectre of gleaming metal bones burst from the drifts in front of him, frozen ash cascading off its parts. The construct rose high above him on a segmented body of silver coils.
Its skull-face darted snake-like from side to side between hulking shoulders of adamantium. A distant rumbling lightning burst strobed across the gleaming surface of its body, pock-marked by the degrading march of time. The long-dead clan-chiefs of this place had left their unsleeping servants to protect their decaying realm.
The death's-head grimace fixed Anatolus with a cold, emotionless stare. It was an inhuman thing, a silent killer, its sole purpose at this time, in this place, to take what little of his life remained. His bolter gripped tight in his hand, Anatolus felt his heart pumping faster and the narcotic kick of adrenaline coursing throughout his body. The metallic guardian would not find his life so easy to take, on that matter he was resolved. The chiming of the monitoring logister made the normally calm Apothecary start and the surgical servo-skulls to describe nervous figures of eight over the operating slab.
Caduceus swiftly checked the monitoring medicae-auspex with a trained eye, decades of experience reading the instalments at a glance. The Iron-Father's hearts-rate had momentarily doubled, his blood pressure rising dramatically with it. The Apothecary's own pulse had quickened fleetingly then as well. He could not lose the Iron-Father now, not during such a routine operation. Gdolkin had served the Chapter for over two hundred years, the two metal studs implanted in the bone of his skull attesting to that fact, recording it for posterity. What experience was the Iron-Father reliving that could cause provoke such a psychosomatic reaction in a superhuman warrior, a man who had spent the last twenty decades of his life confronting and overcoming some of the most unspeakable horrors - human, alien, and otherwise - that threatened the Imperium across a dozen warzones, in a thousand battles on a hundred worlds?
A moment later the panicked bleeping subsided. Caduceus looked again at the medicae-skulls' work. The chirurgeon servitors darted away from the Apothecary as he moved in to assess their work. The procedure was complete.
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Caduceus would allow his patient some hours' rest and then a stimulant adrenal-shot would need to be administered. But for now IronFather Gdolkin could rest. But for the time being he did not need to open his eyes, not just yet. Anatolus tried to remember what had happened, how he had managed to stop the death's-head daemon droid.
Recollection seeped back into his mind, vague and unclear, memories the consistency of half-remembered dreams on the moment of waking. He remembered the confrontation in flashes, as though he were reliving the battle once again. He remembered the lightning-fast reflexes of the serpentine guardian, the arching body twisting and turning, flashes of striking silver. He remembered the glass-sharp blades closing around his left wrist, scissoring through flesh and bone and gristle, the hot-cold feeling of the blood spurting from the surgically precise amputation.
He remembered numb shock seizing his exhausted body, the anger flaring through the pain, the kick of his father's gun in his other hand, the bolter shell exploding in the creature's neck, the electronic screaming of the construct, the violent epileptic spasming, blue-white electricity arcing between its overloaded systems, and the lashing of its long segmented tail.
The odds had been overwhelming that he, a mere boy, could defeat one of the guardians of the Ancients, a soulless creature created by long-dead masters of technomancy, but then the odds of him ever getting so far had been overwhelming to begin with. So in its own illogically logical way, it seemed to make sense that he should have succeeded. Ferrus Manus had been looking down on him that day indeed.
If it was his fate to die here and now, at least he had proved himself a man, a true child of Medusa. But now he just wanted to sleep. His heart beat loudly inside his head, a repetitive thud, like marching feet. The marching sound grew louder, became more distinct. He heard voices. Anatolus struggled to open puffy, swollen eyes. Darkness pulled back and the roiling billows of smoggy cloud, under-lit by dazzling lightning bursts, lay above him, like a shroud covering this dead land.
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A face loomed over his, a horrific mess of twisted flesh fused with half a gleaming metal skull, so like the guardian he thought he had destroyed. His heart rate quickened again. Then pain was all he knew and oblivion rushed in on him, a black void swallowing his senses as unconsciousness overcame him.
Silver flashed in the darkness… Metal ghost faces came at him out of the night… Pincer claws bit, steel jaws snapped… The rattle of thunderbolts pierced the darkness… Skeletal creatures of iron loomed out of the darkness, their voices incomprehensible distorted vox-static. They reached for him with grasping hands, their faces inscrutable metal masks… Bong… bong… bong… Anatolus was aware of a distant tolling, like that of a funeral bell.
The knelling became louder, more invasive. Iron-Father Gdolkin slowly opened his eyes, the recollections of his distant youth fading back into memory. He looked around him, taking in the apothecarion from Brother Caduceus's operating slab.
He was still on Medusa but now he was back inside his clan company's land-behemoth fortress and not in the frozen, necrotic wastelands of the mythical Land of Shadow. More recent memories resurfaced from the seething depths of his mind, like bubbles rising to the surface of a dark pool, and he looked down at his right hand. The bloody mess of tissue and bone had been replaced by a gleaming metal augmetic.
He tested his new hand, flexing the tension-sprung digits. He rotated his wrist as he did so, taking in the details of the ancient gauntlet's manufacture: the hammered armour pieces, the embossed Imperial aquila on the back of the hand, the finely-crafted finger joints, every metal knuckle joint worked to resemble a glowering skull. He recognised the augmetic for the highly revered antique it was and smiled inwardly with satisfaction.
If he were honest, Gdolkin was more than satisfied. This replacement would serve him so much better than the flesh and blood original. Even now he felt a momentary stab of anger as he recalled how the frail appendage had failed him. This attitude was a reflection of how he and all Iron Hands' Space Marines ultimately felt about the physical form. But this hand wouldn't fail him, Caduceus had seen to that. Thanks to the Omnissiah, and the skill of the Machine God's servants, his right hand would never have the chance to let him down again.
Standing in the doorway was a stooped figure wearing a robe very similar to those worn by the servants of the Machine God, only where the adepts of Mars favoured robes of a deep red hue, the one worn by this man was black, matching the colours of the Iron Hands' Chapter. Also, hanging on a chain about the minion's neck was not the half-skull, half-cyborg symbol of the Opus Machina but the gunmetal grey gauntlet of Ferrus Manus's First Founding Chapter.
It had once been a mighty Legion, but ever since the arch-betrayal of the Horus Heresy it had been split into Chapter-strength forces, each no more than a thousand warriors strong. When the Iron Hands march into battle they do so alongside a profusion of war machines and battle tanks.
Iron Hand battle-brothers consider it a great honour to crew one of their Chapter's venerated war machines and interface directly with their vehicles through bionic implants, their heart beat becoming the thrum of powerful engines and their war cries the roar of heavy gunfire. Given the atypical nature of the Iron Hands' Chapter dogma, it is not surprising that they espouse a highly divergent form of beliefs.
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To the Iron Hands, the duties of both roles are intricately intertwined. The Iron Fathers oversee the Chapter's spiritual health, but they also guide the Battle-Brothers in their journey from a being of biological weakness to a warrior of rage and iron. In the minds of many Iron Hands, the machine is the ideal. This hatred of all human weaknesses is harnessed and focused by the Iron Fathers for use in battle, where the Chapter will fight with renowned intensity and determination, regardless of the opponent.
These bitter Astartes will advance in a machine-like and relentless fashion, throwing themselves violently at the enemy.