WARHAMMER DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. MASS EFFECT DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. I ALMOST FORGOT TO WRITE THIS, UNTIL A SQUIG WALKED INTO MY ROOM AND STARTED CHEWING ON MY FOOT. OW.

Random thought: Biotics are like Kirkland-brand psychic/magic powers. The Force, psykers, stuff like that just seems way stronger than biotics. And while you can get biotic powers, you're just as likely to get cancer from the Element Zero. In short, biotics suck. Charge is a cool power, though.

Star-Bound

Chapter 20

Loyalty

"Numbers and fleet composition," Russ demanded calmly.

"Five heavy vessels, likely grand cruisers, and nine escorts of destroyer-equivalent; they will be within range to fire in seventy minutes."

"We need to get out of here," Shepard said. "We're outnumbered, and this ship is in no shape to fight a pitched battle."

Russ swore in Fenrisian under his breath; Shepard didn't understand it, but from the way Ragnar's eyebrows rose, it must have been impressive.

"I have to agree." Russ scowled. "But we lost our ability to travel safely through the Warp. Any jump we make would be blind, and the daemons would assail us the entire trip."

"Not for us," Shepard said. "We don't have time to plot an accurate jump, but I can shield us from the daemons."

Russ narrowed his eyes at her. "Only the Allfather possessed that sort of power."

Shepard shrugged. "Well, I'm all you got right now."

"My Lord," Ragnar said, "I have seen Shepard's power at work; she guided us to you, and protected us the entire way."

There weren't any other good options, and the Wolf King knew it. "Fine. Do what you must."

"You should tell the Howling Storm to stick close," Shepard said to Ragnar. "I've never covered a ship this big before."

Ragnar relayed the instructions to his ship, but the return message was grim. "The ship's engines were damaged fighting off the scavengers, and she is too far from the Hrafnkel. She will be overtaken before she can reach us; she will buy us time and bleed the traitors instead."

Shepard wanted to protest; there were few things she hated more than letting someone sacrifice their lives. However, not only did they simply not have time to debate it, she knew that recovering a Gloriana-class vessel—and a Primarch—was simply more important than a strike cruiser that had already deployed its complement of Space Marines anyway.

"Tell them to fight well," she said, the words bitter on her tongue. "Take as many with them as they can."

Ragnar nodded; for a moment, he almost looked ready to grieve, until he used it to fuel his wrath. "They will make the traitors bleed."

Russ turned to Shepard. "Where must you go to protect the ship?"

"No time, I'll just do it here." Shepard took a knee, and she glowed with power. "Tell your helmsman to make the jump."

Russ was about to do just that, but when he saw Shepard's wings manifest, he reached for his axe instead. Bjorn put Trueclaw between the Primarch and the Saint before he could do more.

"There is no sorcery here, my Jarl," Bjorn said. "She is protecting us all."

"Do I know you?" Russ asked. "Something about you seems familiar."

"You placed me in command of the Rout." Bjorn's voice was tense. "You left me behind ten thousand years ago."

Russ' eyes went wide. "Bjorn? You have survived this long?"

"I have, but now is not the time for such talk." Bjorn's claw opened and closed rapidly, but there were no other signs of his stress. "We must first escape the Eye."

Within his command center on Macragge, Guilliman studied the latest reports within Imperium Sanctus. A thousand changes occurred every hour, and a mortal mind would have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data, unable to make sense of it, but a Primarch could. For the second time in recent memory, the Avenging Son smiled.

The tide was finally shifting in the Imperium's favor.

With the many bulwarks established on both sides of the Shepard Corridors, the forces of Chaos were having difficulty attacking either side of the Great Rift. Help from Jonson meant that Guilliman could more easily coordinate Imperial forces on a grand scale; within the last two months alone, conflict within Imperium Sanctus had fallen by six percent. On the other side of the Rift, Corax was leading the Raven Guard and many of their successors in a shadow-war, destabilizing enemy armies by annihilating their leadership, and letting forces under Commander Dante fight uncoordinated foes.

Things were far from stable in Imperium Nihilus; for every world saved, another was lost. But the Imperium was regaining its footing on one side of the galaxy, and more troops and ships were sent to reinforce efforts on the other side every day.

Guilliman had just sent out orders to muster another hundred regiments of Astra Militarum near Catachan when he was alerted to a visitor. He had made it clear that only vital matters should be brought to him that day, and his sons had learned what he considered vital.

"Enter," he called out; the cogitator within the doors recognized his voice, and the gilded portal opened with a hiss.

Chief Librarian Tigurius strode inside at a purposeful, if respectful, pace. His force staff clicked softly against the marble floor as he walked, and Guilliman could see faint energy crackling around his eyes.

Even now, he was disturbed by how easily the Imperium had forgotten the Edict of Nikaea; he knew how important psykers were, and that their enemies would not obey the same rulings, but there were Chapters that had more Librarians than some Legions of old did.

"My Lord," Tigurius said, and gave a short bow; he, at least, had learned how much Guilliman loathed the kowtowing he endured. "I come to you with dire news."

"I am sure, else you would not have come here," Guilliman said dryly.

Tigurius nodded. "During our meditations, many of my fellow Librarians and I experienced the same vision… no, vision does not accurately describe it. This was more like a series of images, of events that have occurred, and may be occurring now."

Guilliman frowned. "Elaborate."

"It was Saint Shepard." If the Chief Librarian noticed Guilliman's brief pause, he didn't comment. "We saw her battling the Great Devourer alongside the Space Wolves, and then enter the Eye of Terror. There, she discovered a great ship, similar to the Macragge's Honor, but with the emblem of the Wolves."

"The Hrafnkel," Guilliman breathed; he dared to let himself hope for a moment. "You say she found Leman Russ?"

Tigurius shook his head. "We could not confirm that. We did, however, see the ship in orbit above a planet, one far from the Eye… and in front of that ship, there were others, cursed plague-ships of the Death Guard. We do not know where they are, but all of us felt something momentous occurring."

Guilliman considered a thousand options and more in an instant, and came to a decision. "I want the entire Librarius committed to locating that planet. If possible, we will send reinforcements; I will take no chances if it means recovering another of my brothers."

Tigurius bowed his head. "As you command."

After the Chief Librarian left, Guilliman spared a moment to wish Shepard good fortune. She had already brought two Primarchs back into the fold, and restored a measure of hope throughout the Imperium; he could only imagine what would happen if she brought back more.

The Hrafnkel tumbled out of the Warp like a drunken boar, rolling and yawing uncontrollably. Damaged pieces of hull were torn away by the stress, and a lance battery exploded as energy rampaged throughout the superstructure.

Those inside the ship fared little better; many Space Wolves suffered minor injuries, and the unaugmented humans had it worse. Half of Sergeant Ashlynn's squad had broken bones, and one of Raffe's men had a cracked skull after he slammed headfirst into a bulkhead. Shepard herself hadn't braced properly, and was sent flying; she would have crashed badly, had Bjorn not managed to catch her at the last second, but she still felt one of her shoulders pop out of its socket.

"That… really… sucked," Shepard said, gritting her teeth as her shoulder healed.

"Yeah, not our best exit from the Warp," Hiral grunted as he pulled himself to his feet; it didn't escape anyone's notice that he had not once lost his grip on the banner.

With some help from Artin, Shepard made her way to the bridge to speak to Leman Russ. Like the rest of the ship, the command center was a mess; half the equipment was barely functioning, and it looked like some of the Wolves had been living there, if the scattered rations were anything to go by.

"We have escaped the Eye," Russ said without preamble. "But we do not yet know where we are. Our star charts are… out of date."

"Well, what's immediately in front of us?" Shepard asked.

"A planet." Russ examined a readout and snarled. "One that is under siege by the Death Guard."

"Seriously?" Shepard resisted the urge to punch something. "How did they get here ahead of us?"

"There are only two ships in orbit, and they aren't the ones we fled from," Russ said. "Mortarion's bastards are everywhere, it seems."

"Their thing is plagues, so that makes sense." Shepard couldn't look over Russ' shoulder, so she settled for peering around him. "Is there anyone on the surface who doesn't want to kill us we can talk to?"

Russ growled an order, and one of the few Space Wolves of the Thirteenth Great Company that hadn't devolved into a Wulfen nodded. A moment later, a voice was heard over the vox; the words were corrupted with static, but it was still easy to hear the panic in the woman's voice.

"To any*hiss* who can hear*hiss*, we are under attack! Heretic forces assail *hiss*ount Cleave. Most of us *hiss* dead, but the traitors seem to be *hiss*cused on the mountain. They found something, and they're angry. Please, in the Emperor's Name, Auramus needs help!"

"Auramus," Russ mused. "That was on the furthest edge of the Five Hundred Worlds."

"That means we're close to Macragge," Shepard realized. "If we can contact the Ultramarines, we could get this ship towed to safety."

"Our vox cannot reach that far, and we lost our Astropaths long ago," Russ said.

Shepard turned to Ragnar. "Don't you have some psykers?"

"Rune Priests," he corrected tersely. "And two came along with my company. They could try to send a message to the Ultramarines."

"Do it," Russ commanded. "The Hrafnkel is in no shape to fight; we will take her to the far side of the moon and enact what repairs we can." He glared at the flickering tactical readout. "But I will not sit by and let those traitors get what they want. I will take a force down to the planet and take the fight to the traitors. Whatever they are after, I will save it, or destroy it to keep it from them."

"I'm going with you," Shepard said. "I won't just sit here and do nothing; besides, it's my job to bring you back to Guilliman, and I don't want to be the one to tell him you got killed by some shmuck in his own backyard."

"Roboute lives?" Russ cocked an eyebrow as he registered what she'd said. "I am no invalid in need of assistance."

Shepard shrugged. "I don't know, Corax told me a few stories…"

Russ' eyes went wide. "Corvus? You found him as well? Who else?"

"The Lion." Shepard almost laughed at Russ' expression. "Yeah, you're the third Primarch I've found. I didn't have anything to do with Guilliman, though."

"Perhaps this is the right time to rejoin the Imperium," Russ mused.

"The galaxy is split in half, so I'd say so; then again, maybe you shouldn't have left in the first place." Shepard didn't know what it said about her that she could be so snarky with a being who could kill her a dozen different ways before she could blink, but it probably wasn't healthy.

Russ sighed. "This would not be the first time I was scolded for following my own path."

"I'm sure your brothers will give you worse, but we should take care of the Death Guard first."

"Agreed." Russ turned to Ragnar. "Show me that the Vlka Fenryka still has teeth."

Mount Cleave lived up to its name; from the air, it looked like an impossibly huge giant had taken an axe to the highest peak, creating a huge gash in the ancient stone. It was this geological wound that the Death Guard was attacking—specifically, the thin line of humans that barely held them back.

It was among the humans that the Space Wolves landed; gunships flew over the Death Guard lines, strafing them and throwing them into disarray long enough to deliver their passengers. Wulfen savagely attacked the huge mass of Poxwalkers—disease-ridden zombies that spread their curse to those they killed—and created enough space for the Primaris Marines to sweep aside many more with waves of bolter-fire.

Shepard landed shortly after Leman Russ himself; she watched the Primarch hack his way through the Poxwalkers, until he encountered a squad of Plague Marines. Once noble Astartes, the warriors of the Death Guard had surrendered themselves to Nurgle; their armor rusted, bulged and cracked from the pressure the rolls of diseased fat exerted, while other parts of their armor, their weapons, and their bodies were covered in weeping sores and pustules. Their disease-ridden bodies rendered them nearly immune to pain, and capable of withstanding damage beyond what even a Space Marine could survive.

That meant nothing to the Wolf King. His sword split the first Plague Marine in half, and his axe severed another's head from his shoulders. He moved like lightning, an unstoppable force that left carnage in its wake.

With Russ as a one-man army, and supported by his Wulfen and the Blackmanes, the mob of Poxwalkers was destroyed, and the Plague Marines killed or driven back. It was a small victory; tens of thousands of Poxwalkers remained to assault the mountain, and if the Wolves' estimates were correct, well over three thousand Plague Marines were readying for another attack.

Shepard and the members of her honor guard who had been able to go with her were stunned. Most of them had seen the Wolves in action against the Tyranids, but even the fiercest of them was nothing in the face of Russ and his champions. It wasn't a battle, or even slaughter; it was like watching destruction itself given physical form. Shepard hadn't actually seen a Primarch fight before, but she now saw why they had such legends about their fighting abilities.

She shook her head and tried to focus; right now, there were people who needed help.

"Who's in command here?" she asked a nearby defender—he wasn't a soldier, that much was obvious from his civilian clothes, and the clumsy way he held his autogun.

The man managed to tear his gaze away from Russ and looked at her. "Can't say for sure, ma'am. Those freaks down there keep killin' anyone brave enough to lead."

"Well, can you give me an idea of the situation, mister…?"

"Lim, ma'am." The man, Lim, glanced over the lip of the hastily-dug trenches and at the seething mob beyond. "They came a few weeks ago, they did. It started with the flies—so many, you couldn't see the sun some days. Then people started gettin' sick; nothin' worked to fix 'em, and they died, but then they came back as those things. Then the big ones came, and killed anyone who weren't sick. Some of the priests said we should go to Mount Cleave, 'cause the legends say that was where the Emperor's Angels slept, an' if'n we prayed hard enough, they'd wake up to save us."

"Only Astartes are known as the Emperor's Angels," Artin said, the low, distorted nature of his voice making Lim step back in fear. "Are you saying that Space Marines are on this mountain, yet they do not fight?"

"C-can't say for sure, milord," Lim stuttered. "S'far as I know, the door's never been opened."

"Interesting." Shepard cracked her knuckles. "Looks like we've got a mystery on our hands. I love a good mystery. Lim, show me where this door is."

Poor Lim only got more nervous when Russ joined their party; he was also intrigued by the local legend, and with the Death Guard content to wait them out for now, there was time to investigate.

The door was truly massive, and it looked like part of the mountain had collapsed around it, but the rocks blocking the door had long since been excavated away. Of course, calling it a door was correct in only the loosest of terms; as soon as Shepard saw it, she recognized it for what it was.

"Am I crazy, or is that a docking hatch?"

"It is," Russ said. "It fits one for a ship of cruiser size. And there is power still within its frame."

"No way." Shepard looked at the Primarch, and then at the buried starship. "It's been here for thousands of years, and it still works?"

Hex-9-Alpha bobbed its head. "The Lord Primarch is correct. This holy machine still thrums with energy."

"But I doubt that it could ever fly again," Russ added. "It is indeed incredible that anything still functions." He paused, eyes narrowed. "I wonder…"

Russ muttered something in Fenrisian into his gorget. A moment later, the ancient doors screamed as they slowly opened—rather, only one half of the door fully opened, as the other half ground to a halt after only a few seconds.

"It seems that my ident codes are still valid," Russ noted.

"Yeah, that seems to be a trend." Shepard glanced at Lim, who looked ready to pass out, and smiled kindly at him. "Could you pass on a message that we'll be back soon? We're just going to see what's inside."

"My Wolves will hold the line," Russ added. "The enemy will not pass."

Lim couldn't muster up the will to respond verbally, but he nodded and hurried off.

"Poor guy," Shepard said as they made their way into the vessel. "He's gonna be telling stories about this forever."

"Assuming he lives," Hiral pointed out.

Shepard gave him a look. "Were you always this much of a downer, or is today special?" She grinned. "Oh, wait, you just miss your lady friend, don't you?"

Carolya made a show of looking thoughtful. "I do recall that Sister Rychelle was upset about something. I hadn't realized she was going to miss Hiral so much."

Hiral went so red that he could have blended in with the Skitarii. "In front of a Primarch? Really?"

"Keep going," Russ said, his voice full of amusement. "I haven't heard anything remotely funny in millennia."

The laughter died as soon as two heavy bolters slowly emerged from their cradles and aimed at them. At first, Shepard thought the rusted and unmaintained weapons wouldn't even try to fire, and she was half-right; one seized up and didn't move further, but the other fired a stream of heavy-caliber rounds at them. Artin and the Bladeguard rushed forward to create a wall of storm shields; they deflected the bolts long enough for Tempestor Raffe to sever the heavy bolter from its ammo feed with a well-placed shot from his rifle.

"I provided the standard access code for a Primarch," Russ said as the echoes faded. "It seems that that was only enough to get us through the door, but not disable the internal defenses."

"Hey, only one of those guns actually worked," Shepard pointed out. "That's a good sign that we won't have as much trouble finding out what this ship is hiding."

"Speaking of which," Artin said, looking around, "whose ship is this? I don't see any heraldry or designation."

"Every Legion had elements in their ships that made them unique," Russ said. "Even if it was just adding or removing decorations."

"I don't see any decorations," Shepard noted. "Do you know which Legion this ship belonged to?"

Russ shrugged. "I can't be sure; it could have been recently constructed when it crashed. Then again, this planet was part of the Five Hundred Worlds, so this was likely a ship of the Thirteenth Legion."

"I'm sure that Lord Guilliman would appreciate anything from the Great Crusade that we recover," Artin commented. "Especially if it is from his Legion of old."

"And I can rub it in his face," Russ laughed. "We've been out of the Eye for a day, and I found something lost within his territory."

Shepard sighed. "Oh, this is going to be a fun family reunion, I can tell."

The journey into the bowels of the ship lasted almost an hour, as they hunted for the strongest source of power. They were attacked by internal defenses twice more, but the guns were barely holding together, and posed little threat. Finally, they found their prize—rows of stasis pods, each containing a Space Marine.

"I'd say that this was impossible, but Guilliman was like this for ten thousand years," Shepard said as she tapped the outer shell of one pod. "So, who are the human popsicles?" When Russ didn't answer, Shepard looked back at him. "Hello?"

"We need to kill them," Russ growled, his earlier humor gone. "Not one of these mongrels can leave this place."

"Whoa, hold on!" Shepard hurried over to him. "Why do we need to kill them? We don't even know who they are yet!"

"Oh, I know who they are." Russ pointed to one of the stasis-locked Astartes, visible behind a transparent shell. His armor, pale as bone, with dull-green shoulders, was marked with a XIV.

"They are of the Death Guard." Russ' eyes blazed with hatred. "They are traitors from the darkest days of Horus' betrayal."

"Okay, maybe that's true," Shepard said, "but can we at least learn a little more before we start murdering people in their sleep?"

Russ didn't agree, but neither did he argue; he merely stepped back and glared at the frozen Death Guard.

"Artin, Alpha, can you guys help me find anything useful?" Shepard asked. "Everyone else, keep an eye on the pods, in case one of them decides to melt a little early."

It took some searching, but Hex-9-Alpha found a working cogitator that contained records of what had happened. Some of the records had degraded over ten millennia, but it was enough to give them all a sense of what had happened.

During the last century of the Great Crusade, the Pale Shroud had suffered a malfunction during a Warp jump, and had made an emergency stop. Power had fluctuated wildly, and life support was gone; the mortal crew had died within minutes, and the Astartes had gambled on placing themselves in stasis until possible rescue. They had activated the ship's distress beacon before entering stasis, and then waited. The ship had apparently drifted into the outer edge of the Ultramar Empire, was caught in Auramus' gravity, and crashed. For some reason, the stasis pods had never woken up their inhabitants, leaving them to sleep for over ten thousand years.

"Wait, if I'm reading this right," Shepard said, "then this ship was lost before the Heresy started. It's possible that these guys had no idea what was going to happen."

"What are you suggesting?" Russ asked.

"We could, I don't know… open one of the pods and ask?" Shepard shrugged helplessly. "I just have a feeling about this."

Russ was silent for a long moment. "Fine. But if I suspect even a hint of treachery, I will kill them all."

"And if that's the case, I'll help," Shepard promised.

It was decided that they would release the commanding officer of the Death Guard and interrogate him. He wasn't hard to find; his was the only pod to also have an enormous power scythe inside, a mark of prestige within the Death Guard. At first, Shepard tried to deactivate the stasis pod, but the controls didn't respond, so Russ just smashed the machinery until it turned off. The door of the pod popped open with a hiss, and the Legionary stumbled out; he clawed at his helm for a moment, then tore it off and gasped for breath.

Shepard took a moment to study the man. He would never win a beauty contest; the right half of his pale face was covered in scars, and his scalp had several sockets implanted. However, he was perceptive, and he took a moment to look at everyone around him before speaking—specifically, to Russ.

"Lord Russ?" The Death Guard smiled. "I wasn't expecting to be rescued by the Sixth Legion, much less its Primarch."

"I'd be a little more polite," Shepard said mildly. "He really wants to kill you."

The Death Guard blinked. "Why?"

Russ loomed over him. "You don't know, do you, fool?"

"Know what?" The Space Marine was big, almost Primaris in stature, but Russ still towered over him. "What has happened?"

Shepard would have explained, but an alert on her vox got her attention. "This is Shepard, go ahead."

"Shepard, we need you out here," Ragnar said tersely. "The enemy has deployed Warp-powers to weaken the line, and my Rune Priests are outmatched."

"Understood, we're on our way." Shepard turned to the Death Guard. "What's your name?"

"You're a demanding mortal, aren't you?"

Russ' hand reached out and lifted the Astartes by the armored collar. "Show some damn respect and answer her!"

The Death Guard took a deep breath after Russ put him down. "Garask Brol, Centurion, Third Company."

"All right, Centurion Brol, you're getting a crash course in history," Shepard said. "You need to see what's happened to your Legion since you've been gone, and then you and your men will have a choice to make."

Shepard had never seen a Space Marine have a mental breakdown before, but Brol came close. When he first saw the swollen and diseased Plague Marines that were marching up the mountain, he thought they were some kind of mutant or a splinter empire's failed attempt to make their own version of Space Marines. Russ informed him in no uncertain terms that this was the Death Guard of the modern era, corrupted physically and spiritually.

"Impossible," Brol whispered. "Lord Mortarion would never give in to this… disease!"

"That's funny, because disease is his thing now," Shepard said, breathing slightly heavier. The Death Guard—the traitors, at least—had unleashed swarms of fat flies to harass the defenders and cover their advance, but Shepard had vaporized the Warp-spawned insects with waves of power.

Brol peered down at the nearest Plague Marines. "My Legion has become… monsters."

"Not all," Russ said, finally relenting when he saw how devastated Brol was. "A few refused your father's madness and stayed true to their oaths. Battle-Captain Garro, for one."

"Garro? He still fights for Terra?"

Russ shook his head. "That was a long time ago. He died defending Terra from the traitors."

Shepard blinked. "Oh, shit, we didn't tell him how long he was frozen."

Brol turned to face her. "I… I assume it has been at least a century, if Lord Russ' appearance and the new marks of power armor are any indication."

"Did he just call me old?" Russ asked.

Shepard ignored him. "Yeah, it's been… over ten thousand years. Sorry."

Brol stared. "How has one Legion remained alive for so long? The rest of the Imperium would have crushed them."

"Your father had help," Russ said darkly. "Half the Legions spat on their oaths, along with many Titans and much of the Imperial Army—all led by Horus."

Brol grabbed the lip of the trench to steady himself; if Shepard didn't know Space Marines better, she would have thought he was about to pass out.

"There are a lot of details you should know," Shepard said gently, "but we don't have that kind of time. Right now, we have to hold out until reinforcements get here." She glanced at Russ, and made a decision. "I won't force you to fight your brothers. If you can't do this, lock yourself and as many of the civilians as you can into the ship until this is over."

Brol was still for a long moment; then, with a gruff roar, he snatched up his bolter and emptied the entire magazine down the slope. The Plague Marines were still out of the weapon's effective range, but the gesture was there.

"I swore my oaths to the Imperium long before we met Lord—before we met Mortarion on Barbarus." He glared hatefully at the enemies below. "Some of my men came from that world, but if any of them even consider joining that filth down there, I'll kill them myself." He turned to Russ and held one fist against his breastplate. "Lord Russ, I swear to you that I will fight until the end against the enemies of the Emperor."

Russ raised an eyebrow. "We have some time before the next attack. Awaken your men, Centurion—let us see if they are truly as loyal as you."

Like Brol, the other Crusade-era Death Guard had trouble believing what they'd been told, until they were brought out of the ship and shown the truth. Some looked ready to weep, and others raged, but they buried their feelings and took up their weapons, ready to fight off any attackers. Russ allowed them a place on the line, but ordered a portion of the Space Wolf force to fight near them, and deal with them if they turned out to be traitors.

As it turned out, the next wave didn't come as expected; instead, a single figure trudged up the rough mountain pass. Like the other Plague Marines, his armor was bloated and twisted; he wore tattered crimson robes over his sickly green armor, and a pair of ragged wings, like those of a fly, rested on his back. In one hand he carried a gnarled staff, topped with the tri-lobed symbol of his god.

"I come with an offer of mercy, followers of the Corpse-Emperor," the Death Guard wheezed. "You stand between that which belongs to my Legion, my Primarch, and my god. Stand aside and allow us to claim it, and you shall be granted a swift and painless death."

Shepard and Russ shared a glance, but the Primarch shrugged and turned his attention to discussing strategy with Ragnar, leaving Shepard to answer. She knew she needed to stall; every second gave potential reinforcements time to arrive.

"You want those other Marines, right?" she called out. "What's so important about them?"

The Plaguecaster scowled beneath his hood—at least, he appeared to scowl, but his pocked and bloated face crawled with oversized maggots, so it was difficult to tell.

"Our Legion was promised to Nurgle in its entirety; all of us who would reject his gift will be brought to his Garden, and if they will not be turned… they will be destroyed."

Brol stomped forward, until he stood next to Shepard. "And who are you, traitorous monster?"

The traitor Death Guard smiled, showing blackened teeth. "My original name has left my memory. Now, I am Grislus Maggotfather, in service to Pusgrath Foulkin. We know of you, Garask Brol—we will claim your soul, or your flesh, one way or another. It is only a matter of time, brother."

Brol gave his answer when he fired his bolter directly into Maggotfather's head; there was a puff of diseased flesh, but what would have certainly killed a normal Space Marine only made him stagger.

"You are no brother of mine," Brol hissed. "Send your friends up here, and I will give all of them the same answer."

"Very well." Maggotfather let out a wheezing laugh as he made his way down the mountain.

"My apologies," Brol said as he lowered his bolter. "You were our representative in this parley. I should not have interfered."

"Hey, if I had to keep staring at his ugly face, I was gonna shoot him myself." Shepard chuckled, and then slapped his arm. "Come on, we've got work to do."

"I see they refuse to give in," Pusgrath Foulkin, Lord of Entropy, wheezed as his sorcerer returned.

Even Maggotfather's swollen form was nothing compared to Foulkin, whose Cataphractii Terminator armor let him tower over all others in his service. In one hand, he carried a plaguereaper, an unholy fusion of an axe and three jagged, circular blades. His other rested on one of the three rotting heads tied to his belt. Each head represented a different aspect of his current mood, though Foulkin's voice never rose above a monotone, so it was hard to tell which mood he was actually in.

At present, his hand rested upon the head of a human woman; her skin was puckered and withered, but her stitched-shut eyes still wept tears of purest water, and her hair glistened with unnatural health. She had been a prophetess of Slaanesh, and the blessings of the Prince of Excess were obvious, even in death. The other heads were of a Space Marine Chapter Master, killed almost a thousand years ago by Foulkin's own blade, and Foulkin's predecessor, whose skull still spewed maggots from the stump of his neck.

Maggotfather had seen his lord speak to that last one as if he were still alive, and the Plaguecaster had used the smashed remains of the maggots in various rituals. Both only occurred in the direst of times, such as just before the invasion of Auramus. Mortarion himself, enraged at the idea of any of his sons outside of his influence, had sent them to this backwater to collect the wayward centurion and his men and bring them to him—whether it was as brothers once more, in chains, or in pieces, it mattered not.

"I remember Garask Brol," Foulkin mused; his voice was a dark echo, a stark contrast to the wet gurgles that accompanied most Death Guard. "I was but a line legionary when his ship vanished, but I saw him in battle several times."

That was news to Maggotfather, though his memories of that era were muddled at the best of times. "What is he like, my lord?"

"Direct, like we all were in that age." Foulkin's fingers drummed against the Slaaneshi skull; each tap made its tears drip faster. "He was not a brilliant leader, and he was Terran, so he lacked esteem in our father's eyes… but by Grandfather Nurgle, he was thorough in the destruction of the enemy. Wherever he fought, he reduced the enemy to naught but bones and blood, if there was anything left at all."

"Such a potent warrior…" Maggotfather coughed and spat out rancid fluid before speaking again. "If he could be turned, instead of destroyed…"

"An interesting notion, but unlikely." Foulkin shook his head; the rusty blade that sprouted from the top of his helm scraped against the protective socket of his Terminator armor. "He always made a point to declare his loyalty to the False Emperor first, and Lord Mortarion second."

Maggotfather sneered. "A fool, then; I will enjoy watching him squirm in agony before he dies."

"As will I." Foulkin hefted his plaguereaper and pointed it at the defenders above. "Kill them all."

"My lord, what about the Wolves?" For the first time, Maggotfather sounded concerned. "The accursed Russ stands against us—"

"He may be a Primarch, but he is old, and will fall." Foulkin slowly ran his other hand along the haft of his weapon. "No matter how they howl, all things will fall."

The Death Guard began their attack with waves of Poxwalkers; the wheezing half-dead creatures shambled up the slope in huge waves. The civilians and surviving PDF had fought them off before, and were even more willing to stand their ground with Space Marines and a Primarch standing with them. Las-beams, autogun rounds, explosive bolts and waves of plasma rained down on the Poxwalkers, cutting down many—however, like their masters, they were unnaturally resilient, and many who should have died stood back up and continued their march.

Ragnar's Great Company didn't use much of a combined-arms approach; the Blackmanes preferred to overwhelm their enemies with reckless ferocity in close-quarters combat. Intercessors armed with chainswords and heavy bolt pistols leapt out of the trenches just before the Poxwalkers reached the line and killed hundreds before withdrawing, covered by packs of Incursors, Aggressors, and the few Hellblasters Ragnar had.

In other parts of the line, Russ led his most experienced Wulfen into the largest groups of foes, ripping them to shreds without even pausing. Bjorn followed after them, stomping on anything still moving, or sweeping his assault cannon over the fallen enemies.

Like Russ, Shepard also acted as a quick-reaction force, leading the Alexian and Sanguinary Guard from the air and landing wherever the mortal defenders looked to be overwhelmed. While the people of Auramus hadn't heard of her before, it quickly became clear that she was a Living Saint; whenever they saw her, they shouted prayers to the Emperor and fought with renewed vigor.

Those of the honor guard who couldn't fly remained with the awakened Death Guard—who, because they didn't want to cause confusion, had renamed themselves the Dusk Raiders. They had also taken combat knives to their own armor, carving out any symbol or heraldry that identified them as Death Guard. Nearly a third of them were Terran, and had taken to destroying their Barbaran identities with a grim joy.

Brol worked with Artin as his second to repel any foes that came near their part of the line. When the Death Guard proper attacked, the Dusk Raiders flung them back with barely-controlled rage. One Dusk Raider had used a meltagun to cut off a Plague Marine's limbs, but the Death Guard continued to inch forward; rather than waste another shot, the loyalist grabbed his traitor brother's head, which had fused to his helm, and twisted it around until it popped clean off.

"Do not stay near your brothers," Artin warned the Astartes, who was now covered in foul liquid and gore. "The corruption will spread to anything you touch. I will call Saint Shepard, and she will remove the taint before it claims you."

Despite their fury, the Dusk Raiders conducted themselves professionally, and the infected man stood away from the others to avoid contaminating them. Shepard arrived a few minutes later, and brushed off dust that clung to her armor after she landed.

"Where is he?" she asked without preamble, and Artin guided her to the contaminated Space Marine. "Don't worry, I'll take care of this."

The Dusk Raider held still as Shepard bathed him in golden light. The infected viscera hissed like a living thing as it was burned away. Even though it had clung to him for a short time, the Astartes' armor was still pitted and worn, as if it had seen days of constant battle, not a few short hours.

"You're gonna need to get that fixed," Shepard commented.

The Dusk Raider nodded, and then picked up his meltagun. "It will serve for now, and I can still fight."

"Good man." Shepard lightly punched his shoulder, then turned away. "Sorry, I've gotta get back in the air and see where I'm needed."

Brol stared as Shepard's wings manifested, and then turned to Artin as she and her escort flew off. "Is she a psyker? Her abilities—"

"She does not draw on the Warp for power," Artin corrected sharply. "She is no psyker, but a conduit of the Emperor's light."

"You say that as if He is a god." Brol shifted uncomfortably. "What happened to the Imperial Truth?"

"What indeed?" Artin looked over the edge of the trench, at the Death Guard who were massing for another attack. "I was taken for the Primaris Project during the days after the Great Heresy… the one in which your traitor father participated. My memories of that time are fragmented, but I still remember the Imperial Truth being bandied about. When I awoke from stasis, the Emperor had been declared a god. Is He? I don't know. I do know that He bolsters the spirits of mortal men and women so that they can fight against impossible odds, and their belief has allowed the Imperium to endure for over ten thousand years. Even if the Emperor is not a god, He has given humanity strength; that may be all that matters."

Brol turned away, ostensibly to reload his bolter, but he had much to think about. He still didn't know what these 'Primaris' Astartes were, only that they were bigger and stronger than any Space Marine he had seen before—but he understood enough of the context to ponder Artin's words. There was, however, one thing he had to correct.

"Mortarion is not my father," he said. "If he truly leads that horde of monsters, then he deserves nothing less than a blade through the heart."

Artin knew just how much effort it took an Astartes to say something like that. When he had laid eyes on Corax, he had felt an instinctive sense of loyalty to his gene-father, one that would have had him fall on his own sword if he'd been asked. He knew, down to his very bones, that he lacked the will to defy the Raven Lord. Brol, however, could defy the Death Lord, and even if Artin didn't trust the now-former Death Guard, he certainly respected him.

Brol sighted down his bolter. "They're coming again."

"Less of the chaff this time," Artin noted. "More Death Guard."

"Good; every one of them dead is one less stain on my honor."

Two days after his previous visit, Tigurius returned with fresh urgency. "My Lord, we found her."

Guilliman looked up from another report; his gaze was even, as always, but the speed with which he moved betrayed his concern. "Where?"

"Auramus," Tigurius said without preamble. "She fights against a horde of the Death Guard."

The Avenging Son rose to his full, imposing height. "Have every Ultramarine available ready for deployment. I want us at Auramus with all haste."

Tigurius' eyes crackled briefly, showing that he had sent the Primarch's orders telepathically. "Us, my Lord?"

"I will leave nothing to chance," Guilliman said, his tone grave. "I am going there personally."

Oh, shit, people! That's right, the Lords of Ultramar and Fenris are gonna be fighting together! I'm already excited for the next chapter!

As for Brol and his loyalist Death Guard… well, it's not without precedent. I mean, look at Nathaniel Garro and the crew of the Eisenstein. Those guys were as loyal as they come, and they'd served with Mortarion for far longer than Brol and his boys. What does this mean for the Space Marines as a whole, and for these relics of the Great Crusade? You'll find out, just not now.

Oh, and I don't think Auramus exists in canon, but it's not like they've named every one of the Five Hundred Worlds. And even if it does, it would not surprise me in the slightest if some worlds shared the same name. Similar things have happened, like when two Chapters of Space Marines were both named the Celestial Swords—and had the same colors and heraldry. Both Chapters are dead, BTW. Damn you, Abaddon, for destroying Space Marines with such a cool name!

As always, please consider buying my book, Alpha Sanction, by Josh Gottlieb. You can get it on my website (link in my profile), or on Amazon as an eBook or physical copy. Money is really tight right now, especially since I haven't had a sale in over a month, and I'm still looking for work.

If you want to support me without reading a full novel, you can also donate on P-atreon (link in my profile). If you donate at a high enough tier, you also get chapters early, and max tier gets a free PDF of my book anyway!

Thanks to the following Patrons, whose glorious support has kept me from sinking into the depths of despair (and probably an Inquisitorial dungeon):

Serious Muffins: SpaceEmperorSpar, Nimrod009, Anders Lyngbye, Matthias Matanovic, ChaosSpartan575, John Collins, Red Bard, Aaron Meek, Shaolin Khalil, killroy225

Incredible Muffins: RaptorusMaximus, michaelb958, Crazyman844

Ultra Muffins: Adam Costello, Matthew Bunting, RangersRoll

Next Chapter: The siege of Auramus continues, but even with the mightiest of the VI Legion at her side, can Shepard hold out long enough for the Ultramarines to arrive? And even if she can, there will be a price to pay…

Stay safe out there!

Blessed is the mind too small for Muffins.