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Titandeath

Year:
2018
Language:
eng, eng
File:
EPUB, 3.57 MB
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1

The Buried Dagger

Year:
2019
Language:
eng, eng
File:
EPUB, 3.09 MB
2

Everything is fucked

Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 1.03 MB
Backlist


			Book 1 – HORUS RISING

			Book 2 – FALSE GODS

			Book 3 – GALAXY IN FLAMES

			Book 4 – THE FLIGHT OF THE EISENSTEIN

			Book 5 – FULGRIM

			Book 6 – DESCENT OF ANGELS

			Book 7 – LEGION

			Book 8 – BATTLE FOR THE ABYSS

			Book 9 – MECHANICUM

			Book 10 – TALES OF HERESY

			Book 11 – FALLEN ANGELS

			Book 12 – A THOUSAND SONS

			Book 13 – NEMESIS

			Book 14 – THE FIRST HERETIC

			Book 15 – PROSPERO BURNS

			Book 16 – AGE OF DARKNESS

			Book 17 – THE OUTCAST DEAD

			Book 18 – DELIVERANCE LOST

			Book 19 – KNOW NO FEAR

			Book 20 – THE PRIMARCHS

			Book 21 – FEAR TO TREAD

			Book 22 – SHADOWS OF TREACHERY

			Book 23 – ANGEL EXTERMINATUS

			Book 24 – BETRAYER

			Book 25 – MARK OF CALTH

			Book 26 – VULKAN LIVES

			Book 27 – THE UNREMEMBERED EMPIRE

			Book 28 – SCARS

			Book 29 – VENGEFUL SPIRIT

			Book 30 – THE DAMNATION OF PYTHOS

			Book 31 – LEGACIES OF BETRAYAL

			Book 32 – DEATHFIRE

			Book 33 – WAR WITHOUT END

			Book 34 – PHAROS

			Book 35 – EYE OF TERRA

			Book 36 – THE PATH OF HEAVEN

			Book 37 – THE SILENT WAR

			Book 38 – ANGELS OF CALIBAN

			Book 39 – PRAETORIAN OF DORN

			Book 40 – CORAX

			Book 41 – THE MASTER OF MANKIND

			Book 42 – GARRO

			Book 43 – SHATTERED LEGIONS

			Book 44 – THE CRIMSON KING

			Book 45 – TALLARN

			Book 46 – RUINSTORM

			Book 47 – OLD EARTH

			Book 48 – THE BURDEN OF LOYALTY

			Book 49 – WOLFSBANE

			Book 50 – BORN OF FLAME

			Book 51 – SLAVES TO DARKNESS

			Book 52 – HERALDS OF THE SIEGE


More tales from the Horus Heresy...

			PROMETHEAN SUN

			AURELIAN

			BROTHERHOOD OF THE STORM

			THE CRIMSON FIST

			PRINCE OF CROWS

			DEATH AND DEFIANCE

			TALLARN: EXECUTIONER

			SCORCHED EARTH

			THE PURGE

			THE HONOURED

			THE UNBURDENED

			BLADES OF THE TRAITOR

			TALLARN: IRONCLAD

			RAVENLORD

			THE SEVENTH SERPENT

			WOLF KING

			CYBERNETICA

			SONS OF THE FORGE

			Many of these titles are also available as abridged and unabridged audiobooks. Order the full range of Horus Heresy novels and audiobo; oks from blacklibrary.com


Audio Dramas

			THE DARK KING & THE LIGHTNING TOWER

			RAVEN’S FLIGHT

			GARRO: OATH OF MOMENT

			GARRO: LEGION OF ONE

			BUTCHER’S NAILS

			GREY ANGEL

			GARRO: BURDEN OF DUTY

			GARRO: SWORD OF TRUTH

			THE SIGILLITE

			HONOUR TO THE DEAD

			WOLF HUNT

			HUNTER’S MOON

			THIEF OF REVELATIONS

			TEMPLAR

			ECHOES OF RUIN

			MASTER OF THE FIRST

			THE LONG NIGHT

			IRON CORPSES

			RAPTOR

			GREY TALON

			THE EITHER

			THE HEART OF THE PHAROS / CHILDREN OF SICARUS

			RED-MARKED

			ECHOES OF IMPERIUM

			ECHOES OF REVELATION

			THE THIRTEENTH WOLF

			VIRTUES OF THE SONS / SINS OF THE FATHER

			THE BINARY SUCCESSION

			DARK COMPLIANCE

			BLACKSHIELDS: THE FALSE WAR

			BLACKSHIELDS: THE RED FIEF

			HUBRIS OF MONARCHIA

			Download the full range of Horus Heresy audio dramas from blacklibrary.com





Contents

			Cover

			Backlist

			Title Page

			The Horus Heresy

			Dramatis Personae

			Prologue

			Part One

			One

			Two

			Three

			Four

			Five

			Six

			Seven

			Eight

			Nine

			Ten

			Eleven

			Twelve

			Thirteen

			Part Two

			Fourteen

			Fifteen

			Sixteen

			Seventeen

			Eighteen

			Nineteen

			Twenty

			Twenty-One

			Twenty-Two

			Part Three

			Twenty-Three

			Twenty-Four

			Twenty-Five

			Twenty-Six

			Twenty-Seven

			Twenty-Eight

			Twenty-Nine

			Thirty

			Thirty-One

			Thirty-Two

			Thirty-Three

			Afterword

			About the Author

			An Extract from ‘Heralds of the Siege’

			A Black Library Publication

			eBook license





The Horus Heresy


			It is a time of legend.

			The galaxy is in flames. The Emperor’s glorious vision for humanity is in ruins. His favoured son, Horus, has turned from his father’s light and embraced Chaos.

			His armies, the mighty and redoubtable Space Marines, are locked in a brutal civil war. Once, these ultimate warriors fought side by side as brothers, protecting the galaxy and bringing mankind back into the Emperor’s light. Now they are divided.

			Some remain loyal to the Emperor, whilst others have sided with the Warmaster. Pre-eminent amongst them, the leaders of their thousands-strong Legions are the primarchs. Magnificent, superhuman beings, they are the crowning achievement of the Emperor’s genetic science. Thrust into battle against one another, victory is uncertain for either side.

			Worlds are burning. At Isstvan V, Horus dealt a vicious blow and three loyal Legions were all but destroyed. War was begun, a conflict that will engulf all mankind in fire. Treachery and betrayal have usurped honour and nobility. Assassins lurk in every shadow. Armies are gathering. All must choose a side or die.

			Horus musters his armada, Terra itself the object of his wrath. Seated upon the Golden Throne, the Emperor waits for his wayward son to return. But his true enemy is Chaos, a primordial force that seeks to enslave mankind to its capricious whims.

			The screams of the innocent, the pleas of the righteous resound to the cruel laughter of Dark Gods. Suffering and damnation await all should the Emperor fail and the war be lost.

			The age of knowledge and enlightenment has ended.

The Age of Darkness has begun.





~ Dramatis Personae ~


			House Procon Vi, indentured knightly cohort to the Legio Solaria

			Baravi Hanto, Baron

			Dashiel, Hanto’s servant

			Legio Titanicus Solaria, ‘The Imperial Hunters’

			Mal-4 Chrysophane, Vox Omni Machina

			Goten Mu Kassanius, Magos Principia Militaris, Archmagos Maxima Dominus Machina Dei

			Mohana Mankata Vi, Domina Princeps Bellicosa Altus Xiliarkis, Great Mother of the Legio Solaria





			Esha Ani Mohana, Princeps majoris of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple

			Fenina Bol, Moderati bellatus of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple

			Odani Jehan, Moderati bellatus of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple

			Nepha Nen, Moderati bellatus of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple

			Yeha Yeha, Moderati primus of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple

			Mephani Ohana, Moderati oratorius of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple

			Jephenir Jehan, Moderati steersman of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple

			Omega-6, Magos plasmancer of Domine Ex Venari, Second Maniple





			Soranti Daha, Princeps of Velox Canis, Second Maniple

			Jehani Jehan, Princeps of Cursor Ferro, Second Maniple

			Ophira Mendev, Moderati bellatus of Cursor Ferro, Second Maniple

			Yulia Demonsany, Moderati bellatus of Cursor Ferro, Second Maniple

			Natandi Fahl, Moderati steersman of Cursor Ferro, Second Maniple

			Kalis Nen, Moderati oratorius of Cursor Ferro, Second Maniple

			Perontius, Magos plasmancer of Cursor Ferro, Second Maniple

			Toza Mindev, Princeps of Procul Videns, Second Maniple

			Abhani Lus Mohana, Princeps of Os Rubrum, Second Maniple





			Durana Fahl, Princeps majoris of Steel Huntress, Fourth Maniple

			Akali Netra, Princeps majoris of Odercarium, Third Maniple

			Kana Gallia, Princeps majoris of Arcadian Might, Sixth Maniple

			Osha Mir, Princeps majoris, Eleventh/Thirteenth Maniple

			Kansa Rit, Princeps majoris of Broad Spear, Tenth Maniple

			Gophan Niri, Princeps of Pilum Aurae

			Legio Titanicus Defensor ‘Nova Guard’

			Guillame Ferré, Princeps majoris, Third Maniple

			Fasadian Heavy Infantry

			Bollivar, Lord general, Fasadian high commander

			Vannes, Colonel, Fasadian 14th

			Etan Boq, Line gunner, Fasadian 86th

			Suruq Reming, First watcher, Fasadian 4th

			Blood Angels, Legiones Astartes IX Legion

			Sanguinius, The Great Angel, primarch

			Raldoron, First Captain

			Azkaellon, Commander, Sanguinary Guard

			White Scars, Legiones Astartes V Legion

			Jaghatai Khan, The Warhawk of Chogoris, primarch

			Legio Titanicus Vulpa, ‘The Death Stalkers’

			Terent Harr­tek, Princeps majoris Nuntio Dolores, Maniple Seven

			Bennif Durant, Shield warden, princeps of Tenebris Vindictae, Maniple Seven

			Maklaren, Princeps of Dust of Ages, Maniple Seven

			Feydoon Bavin, Princeps majoris, Maniple Nine

			Wesselek, Princeps majoris, Maniple Eighteen

			Venedir Antekk, Princeps majoris, Maniple Four

			Peshin Clenn, Princeps, Maniple Five

			Bassack, Princeps

			Casson, Personal duluz to Terent Harr­tek

			Word Bearers, Legiones Astartes XVII Legion

			Dark Apostle Vorrjuk Kraal, Word Bearers, attached to Legio Vulpa

			Dark Mechanicum

			Ardim Protos, Magos, first disciple of Sota Nul





Prologue


			The Final Gambit





			The spires of the Phalanx formed a cityscape as glorious as any once boasted by Terra’s orbital plates, now all the more impressive for lack of suitable comparators. The plates were gone or changed as part of Terra’s transformation to fortress world. Only one remained that rivalled the Phalanx, and its beauty was much curtailed, its towers cropped back to take heavy guns, and its adornments buried beneath walls of rockcrete.

			Rogal Dorn had not set foot upon his immense flagship for months, being occupied with the fortification of the Throneworld, but the time had come to ascend into orbit if but for a while, for defence was giving way to attack. In the high orbits of mankind’s home world and about its lonely moon a vast armada was taking shape, the blood red and bright white vessels of the Blood Angels and White Scars Space Marine Legions at its core.

			Terra’s battered orb gleamed before the oculus of Lord Dorn’s personal observation deck, high upon a tower of the Phalanx’s spine. In a few precious places, the fragile signs of rebirth engineered by the Emperor clad Terra’s tired greyness in a fuzz of green, and the blue mirrors of infant oceans painstakingly coaxed back into being reflected Sol’s light.

			The sun shone as it always had, and would for a billion more years. Man had little purchase upon its fiery orb, but the world that was Earth had suffered under mankind’s dominion, and what little reparation had been made was at risk.

			‘My father’s work is under threat as never before,’ said Dorn to Malcador, the sole other occupant of the chamber. ‘This is the moment the enemy dare the walls. My brother Horus is at Beta-Garmon. He is at the outermost gates of the city. The end is near.’

			The deck was wide, circular, with an unbroken window the height of several men making up the majority of the wall. So clear and perfect was the glassite compromising it that if the bronzed plasteel dome was ignored, it seemed that the chamber was open to the naked void.

			‘Your fondness for siege metaphors has never been more apt, I am afraid to say,’ said Malcador.

			‘How you manage to maintain a light spirit in all this is your greatest gift,’ Dorn said. ‘We all do as we are, old man. I was a castellan long before I was a praetorian. Beta-Garmon is the gateway to Terra. If Horus takes the subsector,’ he paused, and drew in a deep, weary breath, ‘when Horus takes Beta-Garmon, the way will be wide open. The race reaches its conclusion. Guilliman comes from the east. The Lion lays waste to the enemy’s holdings. Horus must make his move soon, or he will fail. He knows this, and so he will rush. Then he will make mistakes.’

			‘If only he could be stopped before he reaches Terra,’ said Malcador.

			Dorn looked down at the Sigillite.

			‘We both know that he will come here,’ said Dorn. ‘The question is when. The task is not to stop him, but to slow him. We can weaken him at Beta-Garmon. If he can be brought to a halt before the walls of the palace, my brother will come, and trap him.’ Dorn gestured out at the cancerous smear of the Imperial Palace, clinging to the highest mountains of the world. ‘Horus’ forces are as battered as ours. Though greater in number, they abandon discipline for the barbarism of their new gods. They fragment. Sanguinius says Roboute’s Legion remains close to full strength, and his other forces are numberless. Not even Horus can resist the Ultramarines. His grip on my traitorous brothers’ egos will last only so long. If Horus is delayed, then he will lose, even if he breaches the walls of the palace itself. The calculation is then what damage will be done, and what can be prevented.

			‘We will win. I will not consider the possibility of defeat. It is the manner of victory we achieve that troubles me.’ He walked closer to the oculus, turning away from Terra to the armada of ships gathering around Luna. ‘Sanguinius and the Khan are ready to depart. The Great Muster is under way at Beta-Garmon. Thousands of ships, hundreds of regiments, dozens of Titan Legios. Forces loyal to my father gather from all over the Imperium. They will ensure that Beta-Garmon is Horus’ final victory.’

			Malcador walked to the primarch’s side, his staff tapping quietly on the granite floor.

			‘We will pay a heavy price for this action,’ he said. ‘We will lose many resources in challenging Lupercal, and it is regrettable that the cluster will be ruined in the process. The number of Titan Legios present there alone guarantee devastation to every world. The realm of Beta-Garmon has proven most useful to the Emperor, these last centuries.’

			‘Every planet lost is a despicable shame, but this is total war,’ said Dorn. ‘Beta-Garmon sits upon a confluence of stable warp routes. A blessing for five thousand years, they are a curse to those worlds now. They offer the fastest route to Terra. The Garmon Cluster is the key to victory to whoever holds it. It is already lost to us, but in attacking it Horus has no room left for manoeuvre. He has no space to outwit us. We know where he is. We know what he is doing. His options are limited, so his genius for strategy is a lesser advantage. He must come through Beta-Garmon. If we can hold the core system, retake Nyrcon City perhaps, the front will be stabilised, not forever, but the longer the better. Sanguinius and the Khan must buy Roboute time. I would gladly sacrifice many more than the worlds of the Garmon Cluster for that. Many, many more.’

			He looked to the gathering fleet.

			‘The armies of the Warmaster attack the Garmon Cluster with unmatched fury. He pushes at us.’ Dorn’s eyes narrowed.

			‘It is time the Imperium pushed back.’





Part One


							Into the Fire





One


			The First Huntress





			There was wind upon her skin.

			The breeze was a memory, but it felt real all the same. Life in the tank blurred the past into the present. What was and what had been existed in the same moment for her. Her life had become one long book to be browsed at will, so it did not seem so very strange to smell the animal scents of the mega-herds on the breeze, even though for over a century all she had smelled, tasted and felt was blood-warm amnion. At one and the same time Mohana Mankata Vi was entrapped in the skull of Luxor Invictoria, and she was astride her mount, Hamaj, and she was a sleeping child. She was telling the story of the day the Legio was born to a class of her daughters on Tigris. She was young. She was old.

			Memory bled into dream when Mohana Mankata Vi slept. In what lesser minds regarded as the present, her naked body twitched feebly in the fluid that gave her life, her arms brushing against the network of feeder tubes, data tethers and synaptic linkage cables cocooning her.

			She did not feel them. She did not see the tiny confines of her bubble world. Her body was imprisoned, but her spirit roamed free.

			The wind carried fertile dust off the steppes, depositing it over the forest lands of House Vi. As the wind nourished the trees, so it blew vigour into Mohana Mankata Vi’s soul.

			Sunlight blazed through hazy air, and she remembered other sensations long denied her. The trees shushed and roared as the breeze blew gently then strong. The flavour of mare’s milk lingered in her mouth. It was spring weather, hot and cold at once; the sun was warm on her face even as the raw iron of cold air burned her lungs. She panted lightly. Her face tingled, her body thrilling from her ride to the top of the bluff. Her fingers were numb about the leather of the reins, though she would never let them go. Her grip was too practised for that.

			All these details were pin sharp, perfect beyond a human being’s ability to note them in the moment, dredged up to be relived from the patterning of her organic engrams and rebuilt by her Titan’s immense cogitators.

			Hamaj pawed the bluff’s flat top impatiently. His metal shoes drew sparks from the rock. His blue-black coat rippled with muscle. The banner of his mane whipped around Mohana’s arms, soft yet coarse. He could already smell steam and fire on the racing air. He wished to join the chase.

			The memory was important, and she had relived it many times, for this was the day the Legio was made; not the moment the great adamantium bones of the Titans were cast, or when the reactor of the first machine exploded into life, but another day, a day as significant as the forging of the machines of war. A Titan was metal, but it was also flesh and blood.

			This was an instance of the flesh.

			This was the day the hunters were chosen.

			In her years of youthful incarnation Mohana’s vision had been renowned among the women of Procon. She was, they said, a natural choice to join the priestesses of the huntress godess Pahkmetris. Had things been different, she might indeed have gone to the temple, and risen to the position of high priestess as had many first-born women of her house. But those times were in the past, before the outland men came from the stars and told her people the gods were nonsense, first suggesting they be abandoned, then commanding it be so.

			The Imperial Truth was the price and blessing of compliance, and although the civil war that came decades afterwards had proved the Emperor’s creed to be a story like all the other stories, at the time it had been compelling. Under the Emperor’s truth the old ways died so fast that Mohana’s faith would certainly have perished completely, were it not for other men with another story, and another god.

			After the rogue traders had marked the world of Procon for compliance, the iterators arrived to speak their honeyed words. Then came the priests of Mars.

			The lies of men flow so freely from their lips they forget they are not speaking the truth. After the iterators denied the existence of the divine, the priests in red told them of a deity of mechanisms and knowledge. In the space of five years there were two delegations with one ostensible master, delivering two divergent narratives. Wonder became cynicism. Faced with this contradiction, and the covetous way the men who made it eyed her home, Mohana Mankata Vi vowed not to forget Pahkmetris, no matter what the iterators or the tech-priests said.

			The day she sat upon the bluff – the day the Legio was born – was the day the houses of Procon competed for the favour of the god of machines. She could not take part in the chase herself. The path of the women of Procon was laid differently to that of the men. She could, however, watch.

			From her vantage Mohana Mankata Vi had a fine view over the final stretch: a long tongue of late summer grass cut into the forest, dividing one line of hills from another and marking the borderland where the trees’ dominion gave way to that of the steppe. The finishing post was on the plains a few miles further on. The Knights would come that way, she was sure.

			She was not the only huntress to have guessed so. Branches rattled at the tree line fifty metres away. A second horsewoman broke from the forest and urged her mount up to the summit of the ridge, expertly guiding the horse around clefts and traps of rock.

			Galiana Atum came to a breathless halt at Mohana Mankata Vi’s side. The two were cousins of distant degree, linked by blood ties woven over a thousand years of intrigue. They were not friends. Though they were related, Galiana’s house was not Mohana’s house. Galiana’s father was a duke, Mohana’s was the king, and there was rivalry between the daughters as there was between the fathers.

			‘Any sign of them yet?’ Galiana said. Rarely did they bother with formal modes of address. Both were adepts of the huntress. The ways of the temple mattered more than lordly custom.

			Mohana Mankata Vi gave a barely perceptible nod. She pointed to the woods.

			Galiana frowned and shaded her eyes. ‘I see nothing.’

			‘Then you are blind,’ said Mohana. ‘Watch.’

			The movement of the trees became perceptible to both of them. Branches whipped back and forth, cracking loudly, perturbed by the passage of something large through the forest. A tree crashed down in a thrash of shattering wood. A cloud of birds and leaves burst upwards, chased out by a roil of smoke that belched from the canopy and blew on the wind towards the bluff. The damp, hot smell of steam washed over them. The horses’ nostrils flared. Hamaj tossed his great head and whickered. The line of destruction was heading for the open land, and gathering speed.

			‘Is that…?’ began Galiana.

			‘Yes,’ said Mohana. ‘They are here.’

			The trees at the edge of the tongue of grass parted in an explosion of splinters. A lumbering bipedal machine burst out, revealing itself as an ancient, mechanised warsuit five times the height of a man. It was a Knight, a relic from the long-ago years of settlement, carefully maintained down the centuries and piloted by the scions of Procon’s noble houses. The Knights were the protectors of Procon, and the reason the world had weathered the horrors of Old Night when so many others had perished.

			The Knight’s left hand was a giant, hydraulic fist that swatted away the last branches clawing at its chest. The right arm bore a lance mount filled by a simple shaft of metal without the explosive tip it would carry into war.

			Against the weapon’s conical guard rested the day’s favour, a tilting hoop large enough for a warsuit lance to snag from a target hook. It was made of brass and toothed like a cog. Whoever carried it to the finishing post would win the greatest concessions from the machine priests in the coming negotiations.

			Galiana stood in her stirrups and let out a cry of delight. Brightly painted armour proclaimed the heritage of its rider. The Knight bore the badge of House Atum – her house. The personal heraldry of her brother Agali was emblazoned on its right shoulder guard.

			‘He has it!’

			Mohana Mankata Vi scowled at her. ‘The day is not done yet.’

			The engines on the machine’s back chuffed with effort. Exhaust stacks vented clouds of white steam and alcohol vapour. The Knight accelerated into a laborious run. Pistons hissing, engine roaring, feet thumping dully into hard turf, it headed down the bight of grassland out towards the open plain, where the forest drew back in surrender to the fields of gold, and the wide open spaces of the world began. The land dropped sharply not far beyond.

			Agali’s Knight got some way, far enough for Mohana to grow concerned House Vi would lose the contest, until whistles hooted from both sides of the strip of grassland. Two more Knights erupted from the forest, one bearing a pair of massive claws, the other a broadsword and a rebated lance.

			Both wore black and silver plate, and the blue eagle badges of House Vi. The claw-armed Knight was that of Mohana’s uncle Vakrian, the lancer her brother Shunji.

			Mohana’s uncle smashed into the side of Agali’s machine in a high tackle. The clamour of metal striking metal crashed over the landscape, scaring up flocks of avians from all over the forest. The impact damaged both Knights. The shoulder guard of Vakrian’s machine ripped off, showering splinters of metal and paint over the ground. Half of the shoulder plate folded itself around Agali’s Knight’s arm and was dragged off, tangling Agali’s movements. Vakrian peeled away on an unsteady arc, steam whistling from a burst leg piston. Agali’s Knight stumbled, ran on a few paces before tripping on a broken locomotor shaft dangling from its hip. It fell hard, tearing up a long stripe of turf and exposing the dark soil beneath. His lance bent and sheared off. The cog trophy bounced free. Shunji deftly speared it and raced on, the prize glinting from the base of his upheld lance.

			Now it was Mohana Mankata Vi’s turn to grin.

			‘Oh no,’ said Galiana. ‘He dropped it!’

			‘My uncle Vakrian dropped him,’ said Mohana. ‘No one will catch my brother now. He is the finest Knight in the realm.’

			More and more Knights were emerging from the woods. Some came through the gap Agali had forged, others attempted their own ambushes, but few could pilot a Knight as well as Shunji. His Knight leapt as deftly as an athlete of flesh and blood around the swiping attempts to grab him. Suddenly there were a score of the machines on the grassland, jostling and fighting with each other. At the back of the line a sprinting Knight plunged its foot into a hidden bog, and down he went in catastrophic impact. Bits of machine flew everywhere. The head came free and bounced down the meadow like a hurled ball. The pilot floundered out into the mud moments before the Knight’s fuel tank exploded, sending a blue ball of fire woofing skywards.

			Hunch-backed armour suits loped across the prairie to join the stream of metal pounding after Shunji. The running of the Knights trembled the ground, a persistent tremor like the hoofbeats of the wild herds during migration time. It was rare to see so many of the nobility in the field at once. The engine-smiths of every hold had laboured for weeks to prepare the ancient machines for this event. Their pride was at stake. They wished to show their craft was good. They wanted to demonstrate they were worthy. They had as much to prove, if not more, than the Knights they served.

			Glory would go to the victorious house, but the Mechanicum’s knowledge would go to its smiths.

			Galiana’s face was a picture of dismay. Her brother’s war engine heaved up onto one knee but could not rise. Wood alcohol running from a rupture in the fuel tank ignited on the scalding boiler. The Knight clanged back down. The salvator hatch blew off, and Galiana’s brother threw himself free. His helm was half over his eyes, plumes sodden from the leaking engine. He looked ridiculous and Mohana laughed. Her brother Shunji had outpaced his pursuers and he was almost at the open prairie.

			‘I told you. I told you!’ said Mohana Mankata Vi gleefully. She let out a long, wild ululation and urged her horse off the bluff towards the chase. Hamaj plunged fearlessly down the steep scarp, his legs splayed to brake himself, hooves scraping up showers of stones. Then they were off the slope, leaving Galiana blinking at girl and horse’s shared audacity as they raced away into the trees.

			Hamaj careered nimbly around the trunks without direction from his mistress. An exhilarating few moments later, they were out onto the grass. Hamaj lengthened his stride and held his head up as if he wished to show the galaxy what he could do. The world flew by Mohana. The trees were a dark green streak, the grass a golden ribbon.

			Mohana Mankata Vi laughed. Pollen rose in clouds around her. Hamaj shot past the slumped wreckage of Agali’s Knight and Agali stood and shouted something after her as she thundered past. She did not hear, but leaned forward, urging Hamaj towards the Knights running ahead.

			The Knights were fast, but Hamaj was faster. His legs blurred as he galloped into the midst of their mechanical violence. Always, Hamaj was without fear. The great beasts of the plains did not daunt him, nor did the Knights of steel.

			Mohana rode between the sons and fathers of the houses as their machines shoved at each other. Metal fists hit plangent blows. Steam whistles of many pitches shrilled. A lesser mount would have bolted, but not Hamaj. He tossed his head and ran faster towards the leading edge of the Knightly pack, where Mohana’s brother Shunji set the pace.

			Mohana raced past a Knight as it tripped and fell, its heels curling over its back so high it came close to completing an awkward roll. Shouts from broken cockpits and downed Knights pursued her, challenging her, demanding she turn back.

			She laughed at them all.

			Shunji’s Knight was ahead, close enough now she could see the flex of his warsuit’s mechanical claw-toes as they lifted from the ground. Close enough to smell the hot oil and the rich scent of burning alcohol, and to see the pistons gleam as they slid in and out of greased sleeves.

			She drew level with her brother. He must have seen her, for his Knight let out a long, hooting war call through its bank of whistles. Hamaj flicked his mighty head in reply. Mohana smiled so wide her face hurt. It was a moment of perfect triumph, her house ascendant, brother and sister side by side, that seemed to last an eternity. It did every time she recalled it. In truth it was fleeting, and cruelly snatched away.

			The flanged head of a steam harpoon punched through the chest piece of Shunji’s Knight with a sound like a smith’s hammer hitting a bell. Steam geysered in every direction from severed feed pipes. The suit lost power instantly and sagged on depressurising pistons. Heavy feet dragged at the ground. The enemies of House Vi were not yet done. Before Shunji’s Knight completed its fall forwards, the cable attached to the harpoon twanged taut.

			Shunji’s Knight was yanked backwards off its feet. The effect on the harpooner was as devastating as it was on Shunji’s machine. The harpooner’s arm was wrenched free, unbalancing the warsuit, and the Knight pitched face forward into the dirt. Shunji’s Knight was ripped apart.

			Mohana ducked a piece of flying armour plate that would have decapitated her. Jets of scalding vapour blasted from both wrecked machines, showers of hot water and oil raining all around.

			The glorious run was over. Mohana hauled Hamaj to a sudden halt. Knights were gaining on her fallen brother. In their eagerness for the prize, two more collided and tripped over the wreckage of Shunji’s attacker. One flipped over the smoking ruin; the other bounced off and staggered into the path of a third charging war machine. The clash of tonnes of metal hitting metal thundered over the world.

			Whistles shrieked. The Knights slowed, ponderous heads seeking out the fallen prize with primitive autosenses.

			Mohana saw it first. It bounced over the short grass like a live thing fleeing a predator. She watched it hit a lump in the ground and take off, toothed edges flashing in the sun.

			Before she knew what she was doing, she set Hamaj into motion. The stallion lunged towards the prize. The cog was rolling along the ground, leaning over, about to come to a circling stop.

			Mohana swung low off her saddle. Rushes whipped her face. She reached out and grabbed the cog. It was almost too heavy for her to pull up, so she twisted, sending Hamaj veering sharply to the right, and used his momentum to sling herself back up into her seat.

			She hung the cog from her saddle pommel and leaned into the wind.

			‘Fly, Hamaj, fly!’ she breathed into the horse’s ear.

			Her steed opened up his stride. Behind her, outraged war machines cried shrieks of steam.

			The ground shook behind her. Ahead the sky drew near, a false horizon where the land dropped to the plains proper. She was at it in moments, and heading down the long, gentle slope into the sea of grass. A kilometre out from the slope, a vast geometric design had been carved from the vegetation, and the ground beneath fired as hard as clay. At the design’s centre, in the shadow of a vast metal voidship, was a golden arch large enough to accommodate a Knight, and beyond that a dais bearing the king and his court.

			A war machine came jogging after her. It approached the ridge too fast, lost its footing and tripped. It tumbled head over heels down the slope, scattering components and armour plates. Hamaj dodged a bounding lump of wreckage. The horse was faster than the machines, but they were tireless and he was not. She urged him on, using the advantage his four sure feet gave on the uneven ground while they had it.

			She was winning. She was not supposed to.

			The bottom of the declivity came soon. The ground levelled out into a series of gentle, swelling rises that rolled on into infinity. She pounded up and down each of them, the giant ship always in sight. They knew of voidcraft on Procon, but rarely saw them. Occasionally, the Knights of the houses would have to fight off an invasion, or an itinerant merchant might set down on their world to sell wondrous goods, but none of those other craft, whether human or xenos, could compare to the majesty of the ships of the Mechanicum of Mars.

			The craft was bigger than House Vi’s fortress, a hundred metres high, its sloping sides emblazoned with the off-worlders’ strange heraldry. Most prominent of all was the divided skull they bore on all their gear and clothing, stamped into the panels on all sides of the ship. Its machine smell was acrid, far less welcoming than the warm scent of the steam engines that powered the Knights. And yet she raced for it with total abandon. She had crossed a line. There was nothing else she could do but see her actions through to the end.

			The rattling-pounding of Knight footfalls drew closer behind her, too late. She flew under the arch and drew up her horse before the dais, in front of the great ship.

			On the loftiest throne sat her father, King Rahajanan. Seated next to him in a metal chair made to the exact size and weight as the king’s was the representative of the machine priests. Her father was unreadable to most, but she recognised the signs of fury in his eyes. The priest’s face was hidden by his cowl. Mohana had an impression of metal and old flesh in the shadows. Long, banded tentacles, like snakes, danced around his back. She suspected he looked monstrous under his hood, like one of the iron men from the old stories, whose rampage had cast down the realms of the ancients. The three highest lords of Procon sat on the level below the king. They were the heads of the three major houses, lesser only than House Vi itself. A crowd of womenfolk and minor male courtiers were seated in a box on the lowest tier. Around the Mechanicum representative were a group of outlandish men-machines, constructed rather than born, like a collection of badly judged statues.

			Mohana lifted up the heavy cog in both hands and showed it to them all.

			‘In the name of House Vi, I claim the patronage of the Mechan­icum of Mars, and the favour of the forge world of Tigris.’

			She threw the cog down onto the bare, baked earth. She might as well have dropped a bomb.

			Her father’s position was compromised. He could not rebuke her, because he would throw the whole contest into doubt, but if he backed her actions, he disrespected his dukes. Either way, the honour of House Vi was at stake. His cold stare promised terrible punishment. The royal court was aghast. They goggled in disbelief and muttered behind their hands.

			The blank metal and flesh visages of the Mechanicum delegation could not be more different to those of the court of Procon. Blends of machine and man observed her clinically. Lights blinked in place of eyes. Lines of text streamed over glass displays set into chests.

			‘Interesting,’ said the representative.

			The king looked to his guest, unwilling to make the first move.

			‘This contest is void,’ said the duke of House Kandaj. ‘This was to be a display of the skill of the Knights, not of horsemanship!’

			‘The Knights’ skill was lacking. The huntress has won,’ said Mohana. She could say nothing else. She was terrified. She should not have run with the Knights. Her split-second decision to take up the prize would cost her life.

			The dismay of the court grew. Knights were coming to a stop around the arch, steam roaring from overheated engines. Cockpit hatches slammed back. Warriors tore the interface cables of their thrones from their necks to stand proud in their cockpits, and condemn her from on high.

			‘My daughter shows great courage, and resourcefulness,’ said the king. ‘She has shown us all up!’ He laughed indulgently, though any that knew him well would have seen his humour for a lie.

			No one else laughed. A heavy silence fell, subduing even the wind.

			Strange machine chimes and the rattling of mechanisms sounded from one of the Mechanicum delegation. A disturbing twittering, similar to but horribly unlike that of birds, passed between several of them.

			The representative was the first to speak human words. ‘I say she has taken the token, and she has won,’ he said. ‘I proclaim House Vi victorious.’

			From their expressions, the nobility had expected the Mechan­icum to cry foul, but the machine priests did not seem in the least perturbed.

			Mohana was a princess. She was well versed in statecraft, trained for the time she would enter the third era of life when her children were grown and she become barren. Old women spent their time smoothing and shaping the planet’s byzantine politics to suit their houses, never openly, always behind closed doors.

			She saw now what she had done. If the representative deemed the competition fairly won, it would set all the other houses against House Vi. Her house would be the first to gain the Mechanicum’s promised knowledge, and have the honour of fighting the war in the stars, but they would be left at the mercy of the other houses for generations. She had made her family reliant on the Mechanicum for protection.

			But her father was no fool either. A sly expression entered King Rahajanan’s eyes.

			A second, worse realisation hit her. She saw, in that moment, in that look on her father’s face, that she had doomed herself forever for the sake of a moment of pride.

			King Rahajanan opened his mouth to speak.

			<Great Mother,> boomed an emotionless machine voice. <It is time to awaken.>





Two


			Vox Omni Machina





			While in transit Luxor Invictoria’s head was kept separate from his body in a soaring naoz. The removal to the chapel was done not for respect for the Warlord Titan, but for the machine’s permanent occupant, Luxor Invictoria’s princeps and his human soul, Domina Princeps Bellicosa Altus Xiliarkis Mohana Mankata Vi, the Great Mother of the Legio Solaria – or the Imperial Hunters, as the order was called in the vulgar tongue.

			Luxor Invictoria’s head was altar, holy relic and war machine in one. His glowering face, forged in the likeness of a great helm, stared down from a cradle that dominated the naoz’s apse. His emerald glassite eyes took the place of stained glass windows. His red, angular visor was a part of the chapel’s architecture. His soul was the conduit for the divine. Through him, the Machine-God was immanent.

			Princeps Majoris Esha Ani Mohana could practically taste the holy oil of the deity’s blood.

			A dozen cyber constructs hovered over Luxor Invictoria’s domed skull. Four cyber cherubs supported a thick cloth canopy bearing the mottos of the Legio and the roll of its victories. Less baroque creations moved in regular, precise patterns over the head, jetting polish and lubricants onto the gleaming metal. A servo skull fashioned from the remains of one of the Legio’s fallen heroes moved around the armour plates, the large pair of polishing discs mounted in place of its jaw buffing constantly. A second, equipped similarly, cleaned and polished the bronze panel trim in ceaseless rounds. Billows of incense puffed from auto censers. Fragrant lubricants steamed in wide bowls. A choir of servitor torsos mounted in high galleries sang hymns praising the glory of the machine. Devices hummed. Gas exchange pipes hissed. Bundled cables swayed in draughts vented from the mouths of atmosphere cycling friezes. The chorus was that of machines at work, but humanity was present there also. Red robed enginseers worked discreetly behind fretwork screening off cloisters full of banks of blinking lights. There was a sense of anticipation, as if something miraculous was about to happen, as profound and calming as the last moment before sleep.

			All was peace. Neither the turmoil of the warp buffeting the Tantamon nor Horus’ war impinged upon the sanctity of the naoz. Only the Warlord Titan’s head and its revered mistress mattered there. The Machine-God commanded it.

			‘Invictoria cannot begrudge having his head removed, if it makes the Great Mother sleep better,’ said Princeps Soranti Daha. She made to joke, as was her way. Her tongue was as swift as her Warhound Titan, always eager, but her words came out as a whisper, and she cringed slightly as they echoed off the marble and iron facings of the temple.

			Six of them stood on the footway that rose from the naoz floor, Esha Ani Mohana and her subordinate princeps of the Imperial Hunters Second Maniple. Unconsciously they took the position their machines did when they walked: Esha at the front; her second, Jehani Jehan to her right; and then the rest, Toza Mindev, Soranti Daha and Abhani Lus Mohana, arrayed either side in wings that curved inwards, so that Daha and Abhani Lus were closest to the granite balustrade. Princeps Majoris Durana Fahl of Fourth Maniple was also present, slightly apart from the others, although she had fought with Second for three years now.

			The women were of similar physical appearance, olive-skinned, dark-eyed, all but Lus black-haired. Lus’ reddish braids set her apart a touch from the others, but only so much as sisters look a little different. They were a family. All had the same straight nose, the same narrow face bearing the same grave expression. They were handsome women rather than pretty. Their similarity was accentuated by the dress uniforms they wore of dark green, heavy cloth with knee boots and tall, stiff collars. Esha and Durana Fahl’s collars were red and decorated with rank pins cast in the shape of Reaver Titans’ feet; the rest wore black displaying the splay-footed imprints of Warhound scout engines. Hung about their necks were bronze ceremonial gorgets stamped with the Imperial aquila superimposed on the machina opus of Mars. They guarded these vestigial pieces of armour carefully. They were the sign of their faith with Terra, and the Fabricator General in exile.

			The footway raised the women up in height so that they might stand level with the eyes of the dormant machine. Esha’s Reaver Titan Domine Ex Venari was not so mighty as Luxor Invictoria, but they were forge siblings nevertheless, called forth from the same lakes of molten metal on Tigris, and Esha Ani Mohana felt a powerful kinship with the god-machine.

			Although it was somnolent, and bodiless, the head of Luxor Invictoria radiated potency. All Titans had a sense of danger, even when shut down, the same way a sleeping predator of flesh and blood would were it magnified ten thousand times – and there were no killers of any kind, flesh or steel, greater than an Imperial Battle Titan.

			The fragment of Domine Ex Venari’s soul that Esha carried in her heart recognised Luxor Invictoria’s superiority, and urged her to kneel before the head. All the others of Second Maniple would feel the same. Their machines were lords of war, but they stood in the presence of the king.

			Not one of them did kneel. The six of them were sister-bonded princeps. They knew full well what it was to bridge the worlds of machine and man. Although Luxor Invictoria’s eyes gazed unblinking and imperious upon them, and the machine-spirit’s might hummed around them, they were not cowed. A Titan’s soul was a being to be worshipped as the scriptures of Mars insisted, but it was also something to be dominated. One should never show weakness before a god-machine, no matter how imposing. A princeps could have no fear of any Titan. To show fear risked losing their own engine’s respect. A loss of respect equalled a loss of control, and a princeps with no control was no princeps at all.

			So they stared the head down. Confidence born from commanding its brethren gave them the will required.

			Mohana Mankata Vi was another matter. She they did fear, and love. If she were stood before them, outside the head and the amniotic tank she dwelled permanently within, they would not have been able to meet her eyes.

			‘One hundred and twenty-four years ago she entered the cockpit for the final time, never again to leave. Imagine that,’ said Toza Mindev in awe.

			‘Imagine,’ said Esha. ‘She is the first of the Legio. She was there the day the first engine walked, and the day its colours were granted. She has served in our ranks since the beginning, and commanded for fifteen decades. This is why we come to pay our respects.’

			‘She is your mother,’ said Mindev breathily. She looked to her leader adoringly. ‘You are blessed.’

			‘She is far more than that,’ said Esha.

			In battle Mohana Mankata Vi’s presence filled the comms waves of their Legio, linking them all so closely they could feel her breath on their necks. After so long in transit, they felt the need to be near to the Great Mother again, and being outside the disconnected head of Vi’s command Titan was the closest most of them would get to her in person, ever.

			Mohana Mankata Vi awed them where the machines did not.

			Abhani Lus knelt and marked the sign of the holy cog over her forehead.

			‘Mohana Mankata Vi, watch over us. Use us well in the coming war,’ she whispered. ‘You are most praised, most exalted, bonded to the Machine-God by your mind, body and soul. Watch over your Legio, Great Mother. Bring us victory.’

			‘She can’t hear you,’ said Soranti Daha. Again, she meant her words to tease, but they came out unbelieving, and quiet.

			‘You don’t mean that,’ said Lus. She rose and brushed at her knees, although the naoz was as clean as it could possibly be. ‘She can feel our presence. We are all her daughters. She knows we are here.’

			‘Maybe she knows you are here,’ said Mindev. ‘Granddaughter, mother and daughter. A trinity worthy of the Omnissiah!’

			‘Silence,’ said Esha crossly. Mindev was devout, and her constant reciting of the Mohana line irked her. ‘You demean yourself with your envy. We are all daughters of equal worth to her, myself and Abhani Lus Mohana included. Not one of us is more important to the Great Mother than the others.’

			They stood to attention in silence. The hum and whirr of machine life took the place of human noises.

			The low ring of a bronze bell reverberated around the naoz. The spell broke. Esha turned around on her heels as the second chime sang.

			‘Your holiness,’ she said, and inclined her head in respect.

			The others turned at her words, and seeing who approached, knelt.

			‘We offer our greeting and respect to you, Magos Mal-Four Chrysophane, deimechanic, who is Vox Omni Machina, talker to machines, and keeper of the secrets of the interface,’ said Esha.

			Chrysophane walked tall on three stilt legs. Their length lifted him high over the heads of the women and the six neokora acolytes walking behind him. Though he lurched unsteadily on his tripodal feet, he moved very quietly; indeed, all his motions and his manner were quiet and thoughtful, for his role was communicator with the machine-spirits. He was a direct auto-oracle, a speaker with and for the machines. As each machine-spirit was a fragment of the Machine-God, his work was so holy it demanded he have the greatest respect for the devices he joined with and make no unnecessary noise in case he miss the subtleties of their speech. The clamour of industry was a holy song to their god, but he went on quiet, rubber­ised feet. His was a difficult but crucial role.

			The Vox Omni Machina was hunched, with heavy diagnostic augmetic systems integrated directly into his spine. His red and white robes – the colours of the forge world of Tigris – were split along the back so the artfulness of the flesh machine bond and the blessed extent of his bionics were on display for all to see. Aged skin stretched under bonding pincers. Polished bone showed in his open back, enmeshed with wires. His head, by contrast, was wholly obscured by his hood. Though Esha had known Mal-4 Chrysophane for decades, she had seen his face uncovered only a handful of times. Beneath the crimson and cream he retained human ears and scalp, and hair which had turned from brown to grey and thinned over the course of their association, but his face was covered completely by a steel mask. Round green lenses had replaced his eyes, and a smooth rebreather unit his mouth and nose.

			Esha knelt and held out her hand for his blessing. A mechadendrite tipped with an interface plug snaked down and stroked her upturned palm.

			‘May he who is three yet one bless and keep you in knowledge, Princeps Majoris Esha Ani Mohana.’ Chrysophane’s legs hissed and shortened, bringing him down to a more human level. Further mechadendrites moved from beneath his robes, until he was surrounded by a dancing crowd of metal tentacles. They caressed the hands of the princeps as he blessed them all in order of seniority.

			As maniple majoris, Esha was permitted to rise first. She did, and looked into the green glass eyes of the Vox Omni Machina.

			‘You have come to awaken the Great Mother?’

			‘Your mother wakes already, mistress Esha Ani Mohana.’ Chrysophane’s voice was human sounding, but synthesised, and it rasped on the sibilants. ‘The fleet has made good speed through the immaterium. Battle calls us. Great Mother Mohana Mankata Vi will be brought to full functionality today so she may lead Legio Solaria once more.’

			‘You have begun already?’ said Esha. She looked back at the Titan head. ‘Rousing her takes longer every time.’

			‘A precaution, huntress,’ said the priest. ‘She is old. It is best all should be done correctly, according to the precepts of scripture and manual, than to risk one so honoured as the Great Mother through haste.’

			Esha gave him a querying look. ‘Taking that into account, I calculate not enough time has passed for us to have reached the core worlds of the Garmon Cluster, even given a fair warp current. We are not due to leave the warp for another four days. Has her condition deteriorated?’ Despite her pledge to remain distant, she asked the question with a daughter’s concern, not as an officer of the Legio.

			‘We arrive soon at Theta-Garmon,’ said Chrysophane.

			‘When?’ asked Esha in surprise.

			‘One day, perhaps two.’

			‘But we were bound for Beta-Garmon itself, at the centre of the subsector. The capital system! Why have we changed heading?’

			‘New orders,’ said the Vox Omni Machina. He sounded regretful. ‘You have not been informed?’

			‘No,’ she said. ‘I have not.’

			‘For that I apologise.’

			‘You can tell me now, your holiness. Surely.’

			Chrysophane gestured in agreement, a strange tentacular, mechanical shrug. ‘We have been diverted to the shipyards of Theta-Garmon Five. A major attack is under way. There is much glory to the machine in the shipyards and hydrogen harvesters that ring the world. These works cannot be sullied by those of the False Mechanicum.’

			‘Only the Great Mother has the authority to change the target, yet she sleeps,’ said Esha. ‘Why was she not consulted? What is Magos Principia Militaris Goten Mu Kassanius doing?’

			‘In the absence of a Grand Master’s guidance, it is usual for the Magos Principia of a Legio to interpret commands and decide upon the best course of action,’ he said smoothly. ‘As well you know, princeps majoris. The orders came from Terra. They are the words of Lord Dorn himself.’

			‘We are a Legio Titanica of the Mechanicum. We are not beholden to a distant primarch’s whim.’

			Chrysophane’s disturbingly false voice smiled as he spoke. ‘No longer the Mechanicum. We have entered a new iteration. We are the Adeptus Mechanicus, and the orders sent to us are ratified for all forge worlds by the psy-stamp of Zagreus Kane, true Fabricator General, lord of the Senatorum Imperialis of Terra and ruler in exile of most holy Mars, so if you prefer, our orders come from the highest possible authority. If you have any concerns, raise them with the Magos Principia Militaris. I am sure he will hear you out, honoured daughter of the Great Mother.’

			‘That I shall,’ she said.

			‘Now, please, I beg you. I have work to attend to. You must depart.’ Chrysophane gestured politely but firmly towards the rear of the chapel.

			The twin doors opened and a solemn procession of chanting priests filed into the naoz. All had their heads cowled over with halved red and cream robes. Though the colours of Tigris remained as they had for centuries, new sigils and devices spoke of the change of regime rippling throughout the Martian empire.

			‘I don’t like it,’ said Jehani quietly to Esha. ‘Mars has given up too much for a seat at the Terrans’ table.’

			Esha silenced her deputy with a look, before returning her gaze to the Vox Omni Machina. ‘You should have awoken the Great Mother,’ she said to Chrysophane. ‘It was her choice to make, not the priesthood’s. She is Bellatrix Altus. The Legio is her command.’

			‘She decides the war, whereas we should only look to the spiritual and physical needs of our engines?’ said Chrysophane, somewhat patronisingly. ‘If only the Machine-God had seen to set the mechanisms of the Machina Cosma to a lower complexity grade, but life is not so simple. Would you have the Legio defy the lord commander of the entire Imperium and the Fabricator General because of protocol?’

			She stared back at him.

			‘I understand. You have divined that under normal circumstances, she would have been awoken. In this instance, I decided it was better to let her sleep. She is fine, I assure you. I took precautions because of her age, and meant no disrespect.’

			‘If she is ailing I should have been told,’ said Esha. ‘And I should have been told of the orders. While the Great Mother is asleep, I am determined Second, and was elected princeps seniores of this Legio before the voyage.’

			‘Princeps seniores is a battlefield rank of brevet status. It has no standing in the determination of Legio deployment,’ said Chrysophane.

			‘It is the best we have. I should have been consulted.’

			‘There was no need. She is fine,’ repeated Chrysophane firmly. His telescopic legs extended, taking him up into the air. He began directing his minions with databursts and gestures of his supplemental limbs. ‘Now, we really do have work to do. Please do not lapse into argumentative mode again – you are close to modus unbecoming.’

			‘I am not a tech-priest,’ Esha said.

			‘You are a servant of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and therefore subject to its laws,’ he said.

			The priests took up station around the room, some swinging censers, others relieving the more junior enginseers from their stations in the cloisters, who bowed and departed silently. Devices were wheeled in and hooked up to machine banks and struck with golden spanners to the time honoured rhythms of good function. The pitch of noise in the room changed. The harmony of machine song was disturbed. Peace retreated from the room. Luxor Invictoria’s steely wrath took its place.

			‘I’ll be lodging a formal article of dissatisfaction about this,’ Esha said.

			‘Forgive me for saying, but it is not for you to decide anyway,’ said Chrysophane.

			Esha stepped down from the walkway. Instinctively, her maniple sisters reformed around her, spreading out along the walkway as if they were machine-bonded to their engines and providing covering fire from high ground.

			‘You are wrong,’ said Esha.

			Chrysophane was not insensible to Esha’s concern for her mother, and wise enough in the ways of baseline humanity to see that her fear caused her behaviour more than the potential break in the chain of command. He bowed in conciliatory fashion. ‘Well. Soon we shall see. When awoken, the Great Mother of the Legio will have her say. That really is the last of it, for I must terminate our discourse and communicate directly with Luxor Invictoria.’

			The chanting grew louder. Servitors strode in bearing heavy metal boxes. A whoosh of methalon blasted from a venting pipe behind the Titan’s neck ring. Metal creaked as it contracted in the cold. Lights in the head blinked in rapid sequence.

			‘Very well,’ said Esha. She bowed and clicked her heels together. ‘Your holiness.’

			‘Princeps majoris,’ said Chrysophane.

			A klaxon blasted twice. A machinic whine built. Mechanisms engaging beneath the floor shook the naoz. Flashing lumens blinked into action around the rear of the chapel. The back wall cracked along hidden seams and swung open upon the drop-ship hangar bay behind the naoz where the First Maniple god-engines stood bathed in an orange sodium glare. The air in the engine hold was stale and carried the gunpowder stink of the open void. Compared to the rich interior of the naoz, the hangar space was miserly in decoration, all bare plasteel and plain undercoat. The jewel-box glory of the temple was diluted by its utilitarian vastness. The holy became mundane, more of a factory than a fane, though both were places of worship to those of the Cult Mechanicus.

			The other princeps came off the walkway, except Toza Mindev, who tarried and craned her neck to look into the hangar. Klaxons honked as Luxor Invictoria’s head slid backwards on rails revealed by the chapel’s transformation.

			‘Princeps Mindev, we are leaving,’ said Esha. ‘We should not disturb the Great Mother’s final moments of peace.’

			‘One more minute, please, princeps majoris,’ said Mindev. ‘I wish to look upon the myrmidons a moment. It has been too long since I bonded with my own engine, and the god-engines of First Maniple are the exemplars of our Legio.’

			‘No. Now,’ said Esha more forcefully. ‘You will see the gods of war walk soon enough, and through Procul Videns’ eyes.’

			‘Yes, princeps majoris,’ said Mindev contritely, and came down. Esha waited for her to get into line with her comrades, before turning smartly on her heel and ushering her maniple out of the chapel through the bustle of priests awakening the Grand Master of the Legio Solaria.





Three


			The Way to Theta-Garmon





			Mohana Mankata Vi bathed in a liquid warmth so different to the caress of sunlight on bare skin. She was blind, and for a moment did not know where she was. She opened her mouth to speak. Liquid moved around the aching stub of her tongue. It was already in her lungs. She was drowning without dying, but she did not panic. Many thoughts were coursing through her mind. One came to prominence, and expressed itself as a line of text across the darkness of her mind.

			<Item: Where is the sun?>

			Disembodied chatter answered Mohana Mankata Vi. A hundred voices, human and machine, all gabbling at once.

			<Item: Where am I?>

			There was no soft breeze, no sensation but that conveyed by alloy skin and wire nerves. No taste but the aseptic amnion that filled every cavity of her body. No cold air to rouse the lungs. Her flesh was soft with years of immersion. Her environs were precisely the same heat as her internal temperature, blurring the boundary between her body and the medium she floated in. She kicked her legs. They were feeble, and she realised she could not have walked were she free. She lifted a hand before her. Its outline was a blur in the thick liquid. She clenched her hand into a fist, and let it open. Her fingers were withered sticks.

			<Query: Where is my strength and beauty?> She asked a question every old woman who had once been a girl asked herself. <Query: When did I become so old?>

			Her heart raced. A second voice answered her, exactly the same as the first.

			<Item: I was dreaming. The dream is over. Item: I awake.>

			Outside the tank a chime rang, the first external stimulus she processed. Although the noise was muffled by armourglass and the liquid, as soon as she became aware of the chime other sensations reached her, conveyed by waking machine senses and the motion of the liquid she floated in. The head of Luxor Invictoria was moving. She drifted through the liquid, belatedly changing direction as the head shifted. The head came to a stop, and she carried on moving into the tangle of hardlines jacked into her spine, brain and the remnants of her gut. She knew where she was. After the false veracity of her machine memory, her condition came as a shock all over again.

			<Item: I am Grand Master of the Legio Titanica Solaria. Item: I am permanently installed in an amniotic tank in the head of the Tigris-pattern Warlord Titan Luxor Invictoria.> The voice was her voice, a part of and yet separate from her. Similar voices spoke from other scripts, detailing external change, systems readiness, and a myriad other things. Many of the voices chattering in her head were her own.

			She did not wake like a woman any more. So much of her being was meshed into the war engine’s soul that she was already processing multiple strands of data before she was fully conscious. The effect made her feel like a passenger in her own skull, and that her consciousness had been reduced to some glitchy artefact in an enormous mechanism. She was becoming data-lost, close to being one with the Machine-God. The feeling excited and appalled her equally. At no time was it stronger than when she awoke.

			She sorted the incoming information. Logistics chattered in her mind. Data screeds rolled down the fields of her coopted imagination. Vox emanations sounded in her mind. Machine voices competed with them. From these she isolated the voice of her primary data font and consigned the others to temporary oblivion.

			<Item,> the data font stated emotionlessly. <Warp exit in three hours, fourteen minutes subjective.>

			This troubled her. The chronographs of Luxor Invictoria suggested an arrival four days later, though of course any projected journey time in the warp was at best a guess.

			<Query: Destination.>

			<Item: Destination Theta-Garmon, Beta-Garmon cluster.>

			<Query: Destination change. By whose command?>

			<Item: Command issued by Magos Principia Militaris Goten Mu Kassanius, Archmagos Maxima Dominus Machina Dei, Legio Solaria.>

			<Query: Why?> The data font was a simple-minded thing, a conglomeration of semi-sentient systems and a sliver hived off from Mohana Mankata Vi’s own intellect. It could be annoyingly obtuse, and needed frequent prompting.

			<New orders received.>

			The boom of metal clamping on metal rang through the hull, quivering the thick preservative amnion of the tank. Mohana’s ancient body felt the head being lifted high.

			<I am being reconnected to Luxor Invictoria.>

			<Correct,> responded the data font.

			<Query: Why was I not woken to receive the orders?>

			The chattering data font gave no reply, but churned out a mess of numbers describing the head’s movement through the air.

			<Why was I not woken?>

			<Unknown. No reason given.>

			<Query new order source. Relay order content,> she demanded.

			<New orders received, astrotelepathic communication, primary/sole relay duct Carthega Telepathica, Beta-Garmon Three. Origin point Imperial Palace, Terra, Imperium capital world. Message coherency plus/minus ninety-two per cent. Translation accuracy aestimare ninety-eight per cent. Receptor Astropath Prime Apparani, message interpreter Astropath Prime Apparani. Message cleansing, Adept Chin Sa. Secondary message corroboration Astropath Jaikwon, Adeptus Astra Telepathica. Date stamp 832.013M31.>

			<Order content,> she repeated.

			<Order content as follows,> stated the data font. <Legio Solaria to break warp at earliest opportunity for Theta-Garmon. Defend Garmon shipyards, Theta-Garmon Five. Siege breaking under way. Enemy void assets alpha-plus threat grade fleet. Legiones Astartes presence minimal. Main ground assault assets demi-Legio traitoris, Legio Vulpa, Legio Fureans. Other assets: unknown/unsubstantiated. Primary objective: hold traitors. Blunt advance. Take and hold forward base for eventual reconquest. Theta-Garmon must not fall under complete control of the enemy, at any cost. By order Imperial Lord Commander Rogal Dorn, primarch, Legiones Astartes Seventh Legion. Mission specific data appended. Psy-stamp appended, Zagreus Kane, Fabricator General, Adeptus Mechanicus.>

			<Hold,> commanded Mohana Mankata Vi.

			The opening message was short and terse. The more complicated the message, the more likely the content of whatever vision the astropaths exchanged would be incorrectly translated. This one seemed to be accurate. The Legio’s astropaths were of the highest grade, and an astrotelepathic temple-relay of the Carthega’s size guaranteed message-visions would come through with clarity. Secondary corroboration meant it was reliable. A long stream of psycho-cyphers and inviolacy coding that ran through Mohana’s mind afterwards suggested it had not been intercepted or altered by the enemy.

			<Do you wish to hear mission specifics?> asked the data font.

			<Supposition: Message is genuine. Statement: Orders received are to be acted upon. Item: Magos Principia Militaris acted without proper authority.>

			The last she noted in her log as an act of defiance. She was bound to be sidelined eventually. There were two possible reasons: betrayal, or imminent death. She discounted the first. The Imperial Hunters and their Mechanicum priests were loyal to the core. That meant the latter. They would never tell her she was about to die, but if the priests were beginning to usurp her authority she probably didn’t have long left in this life. She could feel her mind fragmenting. At some point in the near future, they’d disconnect her from the mind impulse unit after action, and her consciousness would not return from enmeshment with Luxor Invictoria. To all purposes she would be dead, her body inconvenient organic waste fouling the cockpit.

			<Do you wish to hear further mission specifics?> repeated the data font.

			She ignored it.

			<Query: Estimate remaining lifespan, this biological unit.>

			There were a few seconds of silence. The flow of data input grew physically noticeable as an electrical tickle at the top of her neck. Luxor Invictoria’s cogitation systems were performing calculations in concert with her brain. The two systems, machinery and mind, worked indivisibly as one.

			<Estimate of continued life of Mohana Mankata Vi: ten months, six days, forty-seven minutes. Mental overlap increasing. Comingling of machine and organic spirit at thirty-seven per cent and rising. All hail the machine.>

			All hail the machine indeed, Mohana thought to herself, although there was not really such a thing as ‘herself’ any more. Luxor would hear the bite in her thoughts. She was glad he had not woken fully.

			<Item,> she thought. <Set reminder, three days’ time, begin succession planning.>

			<Confirmed.>

			She shut the data font off and paid only cursory attention to the information streaming through her cortex, but she saw that no ships were lost in the warp. The great Ruinstorm had weakened further while she had slept. The Astronomican shone brightly once again and the passage had been smooth compared to the horror jumps of the last few years. The empyrean had calmed. All this gave her hope.

			The smaller movements of Luxor Invictoria’s head were barely perceptible to her human senses, but she felt every motion though the Titan’s sensorium. The sensations grew in intensity as the machine’s animal sentience stirred. He was being brought to life by the ministrations of the priests as they prepared to resocket the head in the gargantuan body. Luxor Invictoria had a minimal sense of touch and only a crude grasp of pain, but other senses took place of these inferior human faculties. She felt everything he did. How could she not? She was Luxor Invictoria.

			As the head swung out high over the deck of the drop-ship hangar where the Titan’s body waited, her mind went back to the plains of Procon, and Hamaj. The sensation of commanding a Titan was akin to riding a horse – at least, the feel of two minds responding to each other was similar. The machine bond was more intense, deeper, more intrusive. The mind of a princeps and her god-engine meshed in a way that no other partnership could match. Unlike riding a horse, it was a cold intimacy. There was nothing of friendship in the bond with the Titan. It was a marriage of convenience in which both sides bickered for dominance.

			She reengaged with the flow of information coursing into Luxor Invictoria’s manifold from the Legio infosphere.

			<Relate mission specifics,> she commanded. She might not have long, but she could make her last days count.

			As the data font began to lay out the details of the battle plan, a momentary feeling of what Mohana had been overwhelmed her. She looked at the rueful contrast between herself then, and herself now. What she had become was the direct result of that reckless moment two hundred years ago, when she had taken the cog from the men of her house and held it up in defiance of every constraint placed upon her. The clean-limbed girl with clear eyes and strong bones lived only in her mind. For pride, Mohana had condemned herself to a life of a kind she could never have imagined, yet in doing so she had gained power beyond the dreams of the most ambitious Knight of House Vi.

			The gods of war walked to her command.

			The bounds of reality stretched. Space inflated. Fixed points of stars became circling smears, their light dragged out by a dimensional singularity of uttermost black. A crawl of multi-coloured lightning jagged from fringes of the null-point, limning the darkness with lines like the radial muscles of an iris surrounding the pupil of an eye. With a sucking roar that defied the airlessness of the void, the pupil swelled and burst, opening up a vista on the howling madness of the reality just beyond the awareness of mankind. For a moment the rift billowed, threatening to swamp everything with lights of no natural hue before it stabilised.

			Opposite the rift, the inky blackness of the materium stood immutable. The innumerable stars of the Machine-God’s great work shone steady and true away from the corrupting effects of the warp-void interface. Burning brightest of all the stellar lights was a vast field of stars and gas. A nebula largely done with childbearing, it provided an ordered mirror to the disorder of the immaterium roiling on the other side of the hole in space and time. It was an adornment on the machine of creation, a jewel wrought by a god with an eye for beauty. Luminous gas clouds fixed in predictable, cellular patterns of fractal dispersion operated to the sacred laws of physics. A few stars were still forming at the points of the greatest remaining mass, but though wreaths of gas arced gracefully over the central part, in the main the core was fully wrought from the cosmic clay of dust and light. There, the curls of matter, though captivating to look upon, were mere afterbirth of the dozens of fully-fledged systems glowing in the wide black gaps, where, aeons ago, the nebula had collapsed into life. This rich, globular star field went by the name of the Garmon Cluster, and thence the Legio was bound.

			Through the heaving gap a mighty fleet proceeded. Ship after ship poured from the warp rift. Dozens of metallic glints raised by immaterial storms and hard starlight scintillated on the angles of their hulls, multiplying by the second as the Legio Solaria made its translation from madness to order.

			As the Legiones Astartes had their fleets, so did the Legios Titanica. Titans were the galaxy’s most potent fighting machines, but they were of no use if their wreckage was scattered to the void before they set down upon the battlefield. Any enemy commander with a modicum of sense would do his level best to ensure they never reached the warzone, and so to get where they were needed, Battle Titans required protection of the most powerful sort.

			At the centre of the fleet were two giant conveyors of Titans, the Tantamon and the Artemisia: huge, unlovely craft, more akin to the cargo hulks of the chartist captains than the sleek glories of Imperial warships. Their permanent structure was spindly; most of their volume was taken up by maniple drop-ships. The Titan conveyors carried six of these detachable craft apiece: long, hexagonal transporters that were little more than giant engine arrays clustered around echoing hangars and stores, their undersides bulky with grav impellers and retro thrusters. Enormous amounts of power were required to bring Titans down to a planet’s surface, and nigh on incredible amounts to deliver an entire maniple as these ships were designed to do; therefore each drop-ship had a reactor of a class more usually installed upon a frigate, squashed into its upper parts by cunning engineering.

			When the drop-ships were deployed, the conveyors were left as bare skeletons shaped like letter Hs. The command superstructure projected from the bar of the H dorsally and ventrally, extending far enough out that the sensor clusters mounted atop its spires could see over the drop-ships while they were still attached.

			Because they were designed to deliver the mightiest ground weapons available to mankind into zones of intense warfare, the conveyors were heavily armed. Both the upper and lower surfaces of the sticks of the H were equipped with castle walls, behind which the giant robotic infantry of Knight warsuits could shelter and add their weapons to those of the ship during battle. Many gun­towers bearing powerful energy cannons interrupted the walls’ length, while across the bar of the ship, angled batteries of macro­cannons pointed fore and aft.

			Around the Tantamon and Artemisia swarmed a great support fleet. Smaller conveyors stacked with one-Titan coffin ships flew in their shadow, as did supply barques, the void-castella of the Legio’s auxiliary Knightly house, and troop transports. An entire battlegroup escorted them, with seconded Imperial vessels supplementing the formidable power of the Mechanicum vessels permanently attached to the Legio. A battleship, cruisers, frigates, corvettes… Together, it was a collection fit to rival a subsector fleet.

			The final element of this armada, and perhaps the most powerful vessel of all, was the Ark Mechanicum Metallo Mutandis. Innards crammed with equipment provided manufactory potential greater than that of many worlds, all necessary to keep the Legio in the field, while the esoteric weapons bristling on the hull meant Metallo Mutandis was as well suited for destruction as it was for creation. The warp seemed to recognise the value of this prize, and only reluctantly let it go. The ark’s Geller fields shimmered against squirming lashes of otherworldly energy, the reaction between the two generating short-lived horrors of luminous corposant.

			Metallo Mutandis lumbered free of the rift. The Geller field blinked off. Plasma drives engaged, and attended by its own flock of subsidiary vessels, the ark joined the rest of the armada.

			When the last escorts passed from the unlight of the warp, the rift trembled, disrupting the formation of the fleet with eddies of perturbed reality.

			As impressive as the arrayed Battlegroup Solaria was, it had once been mightier. The conveyor Rule of Arrows had been lost during the battle for Paramar, its Titans stranded and felled over the months of fighting that followed the landing. Half the Mechanicum ships the fleet had boasted at the end of the Great Crusade were no more. The Imperial Navy escort replacing them was a patchwork formation of differing liveries. Although both major conveyors retained their full complement of drop-ships, two of Artemisia’s were empty of Titans, and several lesser conveyors had gaps in their coffin ship stacks. Every element of the fleet had suffered the effects of treachery and war.

			A convulsive shudder passed along the length of the Tantamon as the warp rift collapsed. Esha’s hands gripped tighter behind her back. For a ship of its size, the Tantamon had a small, cramped bridge, and she and her fellow princeps kept to the side, out of the way.

			‘Warp translation complete,’ said the watch officer. ‘All vessels have reported in. None lost. No major incidents. Omnissiah be praised, Battlegroup Solaria sails with the Machine-God’s blessing.’

			‘He moves aside the obstacles to victory, and guides our hands to the hilts of our weapons,’ intoned the transmechanic premidius. There were a large number of magi in the crew, most of them so enmeshed in the controls of the subsystems they commanded that they rarely left their posts. Few of the ship’s personnel were baseline humans. The majority were servitor cyborgs slaved directly to the wills of the transmechanics. The rest were adepts of the Machine Cult to a man.

			‘Raise void shields. Engage long-range augur sweep,’ commanded the fleet Navarchos, Charl Coimon. As Legio Command vessel, the Tantamon served the fleet as the flagship, although Metallo Mutandis was a more powerful craft.

			‘No returns on auspex – the way is clear. We arrive unanticipated,’ reported an augury transmechanic.

			‘I’ll believe that when I have the evidence of my own eyes,’ growled Coimon. ‘Open the shutters. Let’s see what’s waiting for us here.’

			The Tantamon’s shipmaster was a gruff soul. Unusually for a senior vassal of a forge world, Coimon was mostly flesh, his augmetics restricted to a single input port in his right temple and permanently embedded hard points for the haptic command glove he wore while on duty. Although he was born of a Mechanicum-tied void clan, he was stout and heavy-boned, the beneficiary of life on a ship with functioning gravity plating. He was bald, white-bearded, clad in a uniform similar to that of an officer of the Imperial Navy, though his allegiance to Mars rather than Terra was clear from his cog and skull badges and his uniform’s crimson cloth.

			The oculus shutters slid back section by section. Warm light from the Garmon Cluster crept across the bridge as dawn moves around an open door. The forward three drop-ships stretched away from the command deck, their bland, orange exteriors giving little hint at the majesty of the god-engines they carried. Ranging ahead were the crenelated glories of the Tantamon’s escorts. A hush fell over the assembled princeps. Esha felt their awe. The sight of such a fleet made them all feel invincible.

			‘Lo, we are the mighty, for we carry with us the knowledge of all things,’ quoted Toza Mindev from Tigrian scripture. ‘The knowledge of motion, the knowledge of might, the knowledge of the gun.’

			Esha nodded slowly, enjoying the spectacle of the Machine-God’s power laid out for her.

			‘I’ll take the gun over the blessing,’ said Jehani Jehan flatly. ‘This will be a hard fight.’

			‘One worth fighting. The Machine-God is generous. We will be victorious. In not so many days, the Legio will walk again for the purpose it was made,’ Esha said. She spoke respectfully but without warmth. Relations between her and Jehani had been strained for years. ‘This war will not last forever. The traitors will be vanquished, and the damage undone.’

			‘By the will of the three who is one, so it shall be,’ said Mindev.

			‘This war is not yet done, mistress princeps,’ Coimon said loudly. ‘Though by every member of the trinity of Omnissiah, Machine-God and Motive Force, I pray you are right. We have our orders from Magos Principia Militaris Goten Mu Kassanius, now ratified by the Great Mother herself. All ships are to make full speed to Theta-Garmon Five immediately. Perhaps there you can hasten the end of this heresy personally.’

			The Garmon Cluster was popularly known by the name Beta-Garmon. An astromancer would point out that Beta-Garmon was but one star in a subsector of several dozen systems blessed with inhabited worlds, but names spring from power.

			Following the collapse of the first great stellar empire of mankind, the second planet of Beta-Garmon had come to be the capital of the region, thereafter the seat of government for some hundred inhabited planets, moons and outposts, and so the name stuck.

			There were many remarkable things about the Garmon Cluster. Most significant was that its worlds had survived the Age of Strife with much of their technology and population intact. Their nearness obviated the need for warp travel in all but the most pressing of circumstances, and when it could not be avoided the journeys were short. When the warp was inaccessible, as it had been for lengthy periods during Old Night, then real space transit could be made between the nearest systems within a few years or so. Furthermore, Beta-Garmon sat upon a confluence of stable routes through the warp that remained relatively calm while tempests raged across all the immaterium. Sheltered from the worst that terrible era inflicted upon humanity, the cluster remained a haven for millennia.

			When the Imperium arrived early during its great outward expansion, the Garmonites reached compliance without a drop of blood shed. They were enthusiastic adopters of Imperium, and were repaid mightily for their loyalty. Throughout the Great Crusade, the Garmon Cluster’s warp routes meant it stayed a major ­staging post for the Imperial war machine, and riches consequently flooded into the sub-sector. Its merchants prospered. Its worlds were transformed. Its rulers enjoyed considerable influence in segmentum government. Their voices were heard on Terra, in the Navy, and in the armies of the Imperium at the highest level. A golden age beckoned.

			No longer. From the bridge the cluster looked peaceful, but Beta-Garmon was the single largest warzone in the entire galaxy.

			Not even the most destructive wars of mankind could perturb the cosmos; all the species’ violence was swallowed up by the immensity of space and made insignificant by distance. The shipyards of Theta-Garmon V were three days travel sunwards. At the far remove of a system’s edge a sun appears only slightly larger than its sibling stars. Theta-Garmon’s worlds were glints in the void arrayed across the firmament in an ecliptical line. All grew quickly as the fleet gathered speed. The diamond chips of worlds burgeoned into bright coins of albedo shine supplemented by the twinkles of plasma weapon fire, the blink-and-miss-it pulse of las-blasts, and the firefly glows of reactor explosions.

			Battle awaited the Legio.

			Esha Ani Mohana longed for it.





Four


			Lord Dorn’s Call





			The Legio gathered in the briefing hall at the rear of the Tantamon’s strategium deck. Half the room was occupied, and brightly lit by warm yellow lumens. The half opposite was shadowed and as yet empty but for priests working over the hololithic arrays to ensure the transmission quality the Great Mother demanded. Full spectrum comms integration had been ordered by Mohana Mankata Vi.

			In the lit half, Second Maniple waited, Durana Fahl with them as always. Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Maniples were all in their own groups, with the mixed unit of Eleventh/Thirteenth Maniple at the end of the line. All units stood to attention in two short ranks behind their princeps majoris. The deimechanics and plasmancers of the god-engines were also present, gathered with their own kind in a loose crowd behind the Titan crews, and finally the strategos of the Legio, their officers and their subordinates forming a block of dun coloured uniforms near the gates to the strategium proper.

			The Tantamon, Artemisia and the lesser transports moved into closer proximity with one another to ensure perfect data pulse exchange. At the prayers of the machine priests, the communications matrix fell into perfect alignment. Hunter routines spread out from digilymph nodes to swim code streams flowing through the networked cogitators and servitors supporting the fleet infosphere. They passed over the void into each others’ territories, their sub-routines emitting warding cantrips at every data portal. Lessons had been learnt from the enemy’s assaults on Calth and elsewhere. No enemy could penetrate the infospheric network surrounding the ships, not by technological or sorcerous means or any combination of the two. Unauthorised entry would be quickly isolated and shut down.

			The Tantamon’s strategium was large and ornate throughout. Its briefing hall was as finely decorated as a prince’s ballroom, oval in shape, and clad with polished serpentine. Statues of the founding mothers filled niches around the hall’s circuit. The largest, depicting Mohana Mankata Vi, stood at the oval’s vertex opposite the gates. Loin banners of fallen Titans hung from the ceiling. Inscriptions commemorating victories filled embossed panels, while battle scenes etched in copper covered the floor and sections of the walls. The machinery of the hololithic projectors was hidden behind all this art, ordinarily out of sight, but the priests had opened up various bits of the decoration to get at the workings. Large circuit racks protruded from odd places all over the room.

			Esha Ani Mohana found the untidiness of the revealed guts added to rather than detracted from the hall. It put her in mind of the Machine-God at work behind the glorious facings of the Machina Cosma. All the universe was a mechanism. Any beauty it had was a mask. With the access panels open, she felt she was seeing the mechanical truth of reality revealed.

			A huge set of metal gates embossed with likenesses of the Legio’s first Titans led out from the briefing hall. On the other side was the business end of the strategium deck, where tacticaria, choirs of servitors, cogitators and all the paraphernalia needful to the Legio’s management were situated. Currently, this was powered down and dark but for ready lights. The Legio’s strategia were effectively separate from the vessels they were located on. Each was heavily armoured and could theoretically survive the destruction of the ship itself. There were several throughout the fleet. Multiple redundancy ensured a Legio’s survival, so the old tenet maintained.

			Final authority rested with the Great Mother, who commanded her forces from her Titan in the field, but a Titan Legio without remote tactical support would find itself broken into its component parts, isolated and destroyed, while no princeps could hope to govern the vast web of supply needed to keep the great machines fighting. As quotidian as the rooms with their muttering tacticians were compared to the majesty of engines striding the battlefield, Esha saw these chambers as the beating heart of her order.

			Some infospheric impulse passed between the priests. In eerie synchronicity they finished what they were doing, closed up the access panels and departed, leaving only three of their number to oversee the hololithic arrays. Dutifully, the members of the trio sang their psalms of activation and commenced their sacred task. The deimechanics ignored them. As ministers to the god-machines themselves, they were far exalted over their lesser brethren.

			Lenses conjured figures from nothing, which coalesced, hazy at first, in the dark half of the hall. To begin with they were true phantoms, with eyes that were hollow spaces beneath the peaks of their caps. Their limbs were curves of mist. Loop projectors thrummed in the walls and the figures gained definition, drifted in and out of focus, then leapt into glowing verisimilitude. Suddenly, the rest of the Legio was in attendance. So advanced was the technology available to the Legio that each person it projected seemed to be really there. There was no artefacting to their projections, no trace lines from the beams of light drawing in their presence or interference jagging on their outlines. Only a faint glow about them, evident solely because of the darkness of the hall, marked them out as projection ghosts. Third, Twelfth, Fifteenth and Eighteenth Maniple joined the rest of the full-strength maniples, along with ad hoc groupings made from undermanned units and the clade leaders of the Legio skitarii and secutarii contingents. Now all the strength of the Imperial Hunters was present, except their leader and her myrmidons of First Maniple.

			A bass note resounded through the hall. The assembled Titan crews knelt. Priests of all ranks emitted data blurts in praise of the Omnissiah.

			Above the doors, the head of Luxor Invictoria coalesced into view. The princeps’ myrmidons shimmered in beneath it, their feet hovering a metre over the floor. Mohana Mankata Vi’s maniple consisted of hard-faced women, veterans of a hundred battles. Many were the granddaughters of the Companions, those other women who, along with Mohana Mankata Vi, had formed the initial crew intake. The note blew again, announcing the telepresence of the Great Mother of the Imperial Hunters.

			‘My sisters of the hunt,’ she said. The projected head of Luxor Invictoria remained unmoving, but the Great Mother’s voice was passionately modulated, still human after all the years of her confinement. ‘From Terra, the Lord Commander of the Imperium sends out his decree. We are to defend the shipyards of Theta-Garmon from total conquest.’

			A large scale hololithic view of the gas giant Theta-Garmon V flickered into being. Banded clouds of azure and green striped its full belly, eddies at their boundaries hinting at the supersonic storms tearing around its circumference. There was little notable about the planet. Such were common throughout the galaxy, and like every other of its kind, it was uninhabitable. But tens of thousands of kilometres of shipyards, habitation rings and hydrogen refineries surrounding it made it valuable. Unlike the Ring of Iron around Mars, the facilities did not encircle the planet completely, but together they caged its waist, and suckled from it. Theta-Garmon V was infested by humanity.

			‘The battle for this world has been ongoing for the last three years,’ the Great Mother told them. ‘Rival factions within the facilities have been making war on one another, with varying amounts of outside help, for little gain. Until recently this situation was common across the cluster, but the strategic outlook is changing. There is disunity among Imperial command. The Warmaster is attacking numerous worlds simultaneously in an effort to tip the individual conflicts here in his favour. He has launched a major assault on this world.

			‘We are but one of dozens of Legios called. I do not wish you to focus on the size and majesty of Lord Dorn’s Great Muster, or to dwell on the importance of the actions being undertaken on all of the cluster’s worlds. You must focus upon your task, your role, and accomplish whatever mission is given you no matter how arduous it may seem.’

			‘Why is she telling us this?’ Soranti Daha hissed at Abhani Lus Mohana. ‘This is always the way.’

			‘The Machine-God has sent difficulties ahead to test us,’ said Toza Mindev. ‘The banalities of briefing are a cant to themselves, to program the mind with calm before battle.’

			Esha Ani Mohana risked a glance back to glare at her underlings. ‘Quiet,’ she said. ‘The Great Mother speaks.’

			The princeps of Second Maniple fell silent.

			‘The situation around the Garmon Cluster is problematic,’ the Great Mother continued. ‘Since our arrival we have been attempting to attach ourselves to overall theatre command. We have been so far unsuccessful. We can find no legitimate central authority. There are hierarchies, but none worthy of fealty. So far we have identified eight different organisations claiming operational seniority.’

			Others in the crowd of princeps murmured. Esha kept her eyes forward. There had been a time when she would have whispered during her mother’s briefing, but she had changed since the birth of her own daughter, more since the start of the war. This occasion demanded respect.

			‘Elements from all over the Imperium are flooding into Beta-Garmon. If one command hierarchy is established, then we shall have the difficulty of renegotiating when another challenges it. There are no loyal primarchs in the entire subsector,’ Mohana Mankata Vi said. ‘Without them, my prognosis is that this situation will not stabilise. We lack the unity Horus’ leadership grants his armies. We do not have time to dicker over rights and roles. It is therefore my will that the Legio Solaria and its support group fight alone, until such time as a commander we might respect be appointed by the Emperor of Mankind.’

			Maybe one already has been, thought Esha. It would be impossible to tell.

			The news sat ill with the officers. They had expected a primarch. No one else could make this war a success.

			‘All is not lost!’ said Mohana Mankata Vi. Her raised voice silenced her Legio. ‘Although we do not have an indication from Lord Dorn’s summons who we should follow, we do have the luxury of orders from the Throneworld itself. It is my hope that we are not alone in this, and that the Lord Commander exerts his will from distant Terra. It is a poor second best, and we shall see if it is effective, but for now, we at least have a target. We have our orders. We shall not stint effort to fulfill them until asked to do otherwise.’

			The tactical hololith zoomed into a constellation of orbital docks clustered about one of Theta-Garmon’s moons. Scores of stepped cavities like inverted ziggurats were gouged deep into the rock. Between these macro-mines hundreds of lesser shafts stared out blackly upon the universe. The scars of levelled mountain ranges shone with a painful, reflected light. No longer a sphere, the moon was faceted as a lump of coal. The activities of mankind had eaten into it like a cancer, hollowing it out to such a degree it could not have been far from collapse. Its circumference was marked on the tacticarium as five thousand kilometres, a small world easily confined by mankind’s artifice. Wide, artificial rings where manufactoria clustered like parasites imprisoned it wholly. The moon still turned, pulling the rings with it. They were medical supports to counter the moon’s infirmity, the cure and the cause of the disease.

			A number of points of interest were highlighted around the moon, tagged and spectrum-coded with threat levels and markers of tactical importance. All the complex variables of war boiled down to a handful of colourful runes.

			‘This is Theta-Garmon Five-One,’ the Great Mother said. ‘It is commonly referred to as Iridium by the inhabitants of this system for the metalloid mined there. Somewhat unimaginative, but that is what we shall call it, for the sake of convenience.’

			The view zoomed out. Several nearby orbitals were shaded red.

			‘These facilities are held by the enemy and directly threaten the moon. The Warmaster has committed large numbers of god-engines to this system, and to this world in particular. The lack of bombardment by voidship suggests he wishes to keep the shipyards intact. This factor is in our favour. War decrees this will be an engine battle. Conflict continues within the interior of the facilities as it has for months. The traitors wish to end this siege, and it is on the surface, engine to engine, that the struggle for Theta-Garmon Five will be decided.’

			Esha studied the tacticarium display. Horus’ forces had most of the orbitals in their hands. There was no way a single, understrength Legio could turn the tide of battle there and retake all of Theta-Garmon V’s orbitals, let alone the system. Her eyes flicked over the situation. They were going to be tasked with a stand and hold mission: take the moon, await reinforcement.

			Mohana Mankata Vi confirmed her assessment a second later. ‘We cannot win this on our own. Our role is to take and defend Iridium against the Warmaster’s Titans. The facilities include alpha grade processing plants, ship component assembly lines and crew training collegia, but its true worth is in this infosphere node here.’

			A pull-out pict of the construct in question blinked into the air.

			‘This is one of a dozen similar cogitation nexus relay stations situated around Theta-Garmon Five.’ The relay shone brighter than its surroundings in the hololith. ‘This one, however, is different. Without this one in particular, the coordinating machine-spirits within this entire quadrant of Theta-Garmon Five’s orbit cannot communicate with each other. If this nexus is destroyed, the ship yards will suffer a drop in productivity of thirty-four per cent until such time as it can be replaced. This is our hostage against the traitors’ attacks. We are to secure this moon. Once it is entirely in our hands, we are to evacuate all high ranking Adeptus Mechanicus personnel from other facilities to its sanctuary. We hold it until further forces join us. This area will be cleared by the fleet.’ The red-shaded, graphical representations of the orbitals disappeared. ‘We will cede the majority of the territory to the enemy, then strike back in force. Iridium will be the bridgehead by which Theta-Garmon Five shall be reclaimed.’

			The strategy was sound. There were not enough of the Legio Solaria to take so large an area, but more than enough to hold the moon.

			‘Enemy assets include two demi-Legios,’ the Great Mother continued. ‘Legio Fureans is present in large numbers, estimated ninety-six god-engines.’

			More murmured noise from the crowd.

			‘Our own strength is eighty-two engines operational. Fureans’ allies increase the odds against us. Twenty-four engines of war support them.’

			A queasy feeling wormed its way through Esha’s guts. She knew before her mother could say it who the second Legio was.

			‘Rejoice my kin! We have the opportunity to remove a stain on our honour,’ the Great Mother said. ‘Imperial Hunters, it gives me such bitter pleasure to inform you that the Legio Vulpa fights at Theta-Garmon Five.’

			Murmurs were replaced by roars of outrage. Second Maniple chattered. But for Esha sound receded. Her ears rang, deadening the shouts of the rest.

			A chant was starting up around the room, issuing from mouths of steel, flesh and light.

			‘Unto the hunt! Unto the hunt! Unto the hunt!’

			‘Terent Harr­tek,’ Esha said, her mouth dry.

			‘The Death Stalkers! The damned Death Stalkers!’ Abhani Lus was saying. There was a depth of hatred there that disquieted Esha.

			Jehani gave Esha a sideways look. ‘This war has a few gifts for us after all,’ she said. ‘I trust it will not prove difficult for you.’ She laughed loudly, a hideous, mirthless eruption of sound. It was a rare occurrence for her. Jehani and her blood-sisters were serious creatures.

			‘The Machine-God delivers us the chance for vengeance!’ Mindev whispered. ‘Rejoice, sisters!’

			‘Remember, if he is present,’ hissed Jehani Jehan in Esha’s ear, grabbing her shoulder. ‘Legio first!’

			Jehani let her go, leaving Esha staring straight ahead, alone in the vengeful crowd, thinking of the man she may have to face again.





Five


			The Walls of the Tantamon





			By the time Theta-Garmon V had grown from a glint in the heavens to a pregnant curve of green, weapons fire was already incoming to Battlegroup Solaria. The fleet spread out so that the larger ships were screened by a host of smaller craft. Las-beam strikes raised a colourful bow wave of void shield displacement flare from the armada. Several hours later, the first serious attack came as a storm of mass projectiles. Solid munitions peppered the fleet in an attempt to collapse their shields for the torpedoes coming behind.

			The battlegroup opened fire as soon as the machine-spirits of the torpedoes awoke and made solid target locks. Short-range particle beam and laser cannon fire crossed the void, shooting down missiles before they could deliver their payloads. Controlled plasma explosions took out the densest clouds of unguided projectiles. It was tit-for-tat fire. The defences of Theta-Garmon were unlikely to bring down any vessel at such an extreme range, while Battlegroup Solaria did not open fire with its big guns to avoid damaging the prize. The enemy Legios’ fleets hung back on the far side of the gas giant. Their warships, like Solaria’s, were tasked with defending their Titan conveyors. Constant auspex scans assured them there were few other vessels in the sub-system. There were many vessels throughout Theta-Garmon, but they had no coherency. Without fleet support, Mohana Mankata Vi and her shipmasters assumed the enemy would not trust their transport ships to the sole protection of the Theta-Garmon defence network.

			Many Imperial forces had come this way recently, and though Theta-Garmon V virtually belonged to the Legios Fureans and Vulpa, the rest of the system was hotly contested. By hasty agreement, allied fleet elements duelled with the traitor flotillas guarding Theta-Garmon’s other worlds, tying them up while Legio Solaria approached the great shipyards.

			In void war, timing was all. The battle sphere was system-wide and riven with uncertainty. Unlooked for reinforcements could appear for either faction from any quarter. The battle was a patchy mess of skirmishes and was likely to stay that way, with no commander daring to leave his holdings open in case they were attacked. Threat and bluff were the orders of the day, and that allowed Legio Solaria’s approach.

			Disunity on the side of the Imperium was expected. The Great Mother was surprised to see the traitors equally disorganised. Even so, Battlegroup Solaria was not allowed to approach unchallenged.

			The call to arms klaxons blared in the Tantamon’s Halls of Communion. In each one, a dozen thrones mechanicum waited under red spotlights, shrouded with sterilising gases. They clung to polished steel rails, ready to release their holding clamps and drop into the warsuits at rest in the Galleries Transcendent,