WARHAMMER DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. MASS EFFECT DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. EXCUSE ME, I HAVE TO SMACK SOME ADMINISTRATUM ADEPTS FOR TELLING ME I CAN'T GO ON A CRUSADE.

Okay, I'm back! Games Workshop, what did I miss?

*sees Space Marine changes for ninth edition*

Oh. Quite a lot, I see.

Star-Bound

Chapter 21

Sacrifice

"Take cover!" Sergeant Ashlynn tackled one of her squad to the ground as she shouted. As she raised her head, she saw that those who had come down to Auramus were all still alive.

The same couldn't be said for the militia—calling them PDF was too generous—who were nearby. The plague-filled shell had caught half of another squad in the open, even though Ashlynn had been telling the fools to stay in their trenches all day. Hundreds had been killed by the low-flying daemon-machines the Death Guard employed; most were armed with close-range chemical spewers, or launchers like the one Ashlynn had narrowly avoided. A rare few were armed with a spiked roller, which she had seen used to horrifying effect.

"Vox, get me someone who can tell our flyers to cover us!" she ordered.

"Vox is dead again, Sarge," one of her men reported.

Ashlynn swore; whether by sorcery or other means, the Death Guard were intermittently jamming communications. "Then get a runner to deliver the message! We don't have enough firepower to deal with those monsters!"

"Look out, they're coming back!" One of her other soldiers pointed at the trio of daemon-flyers—Bloat-Drones, the Space Wolves called them—wheeling around towards the trench.

Ashlynn had a feeling she wouldn't be so lucky on this next pass. She whispered a prayer to the Emperor to preserve her soul, and aimed her lasgun; she'd be damned if she didn't at least give the thing that killed her something to remember her by.

Just before the lead Bloat-Drone got into range, a beam of golden light crashed into its side, burning through its armor and flesh. The abomination let out a screaming hiss as it crashed, though its daemonic elements were gone before it hit the ground, preventing any corruption.

"I guess it's not my time to die after all," Ashlynn mused as Saint Shepard flew overhead; she watched as the Saint led the Alexian and Sanguinary Guard in an aerial battle against the remaining Bloat-Drones, obliterating them with bolt and blade.

"Sorry I'm late," Shepard said as she and her escort landed by the trench. "We've been killing their flyers all day."

Ashlynn could believe it; she'd seen Shepard flying around the battlefield for the last five days, only snatching a few hours of sleep the entire time. As part of the Shepard Crusade, and especially the First-Blooded, Ashlynn hated any enemy that caused the Saint any discomfort. Ashlynn's own disgust whenever she saw the Death Guard was nothing in the face of her rage.

"Our thanks, Your Holiness," she said. "Sorry to—"

Shepard waved off the rest of her apology, and sat down on an empty ammo crate. "It's fine. This sector is clear for now, and Russ told me to take a break." She smirked. "He said he'd tie me down if I refused; I told him bondage wasn't my thing. I think I actually made him speechless for a second."

Ashlynn couldn't help but laugh at the idea of a Primarch being embarrassed by innuendo, especially Russ, who laughed and joked and told raunchy tales whenever there was a break in the fighting.

Shepard glanced around. "Hey, where's Hiral? He was supposed to be around here."

"He's about a hundred meters that way." Ashlynn pointed to her left. "All the militia officers are dead, so he's rallying them."

"I'll check on him in a bit. Thanks, Ash." Shepard froze, and then looked away with what might have been shame on her face.

It hadn't been the first time she had called Ashlynn that; she'd explained that Ashlynn reminded her of a long-dead friend, and the similarity between their names had her accidentally using an old nickname. Ashlynn didn't mind, but she figured that Shepard didn't want to dishonor the memory of a friend by giving her nickname to someone else; she'd probably feel the same way.

"Maybe you could check on Hiral, Your Holiness," Ashlynn suggested, trying to give Shepard an escape. "I don't think you've teased him today."

"Oh, shit, does everyone know I do that?"

Ashlynn grinned. "With all due respect, I've spent enough time around you over the last few days to know."

"Just so long as you keep it to yourself," Shepard said. "I don't need the entire Crusade messing with him." She paused. "But, yeah, I think I'll do that later."

The sound of wheezing and the unbearable smell was detected an instant before cries of alarm rang out. Ashlynn was back in the trench with her squad before she'd realized she'd moved.

"That'll have to wait, I guess." Shepard sighed and stood up. Her hands and eyes crackled with golden light, all trace of fatigue now gone. "These guys just won't take the hint!"

Lord Foulkin wasn't known for being jovial; at best, he was darkly amused, usually when he saw his victims' suffering. Over the last few days, however, his rage had become nearly apoplectic. Every attack he'd launched had been unsuccessful, either turned back or utterly destroyed; his latest attempt to bomb the loyalists into defeat had led to many of his Bloat-Drones being lost.

Maggotfather was able to avoid his lord's wrath, if only just. He had only been told to mobilize the seething mass of Poxwalkers; the fact that they had so far been unable to break the defenders' line was a failure that lay at the feet of Foulkin.

The Lord of Flux could have simply ordered his ships to bombard the Imperials from orbit; there was no defense on the planet capable of preventing such an attack. However, Foulkin's orders were quite clear—he was to bring the last remaining uncorrupted Death Guard to heel, or bring in their corpses. He couldn't convert them if they were dead, and an orbital bombardment wouldn't leave any corpses to bring in.

The only other option was to launch an all-out assault with his Astartes; the mortals stood no chance against the true Death Guard, and for all their ferocity, the Space Wolves didn't have the numbers. Massed infantry assaults had always been the Fourteenth Legion's specialty, but Foulkin had been reluctant to do so until he'd sufficiently weakened the defenders. He was normally not so cautious, but two variables were in play that put his tactics in jeopardy.

First was Leman Russ; Foulkin was many things, but he was not foolish enough to think that mere numbers could overwhelm a Primarch. The Wolf King had likely only grown cannier in his millennia-long disappearance, his ferocity tempered and his instincts honed in equal measure.

The second problem had been identified after the second day of the siege. Maggotfather had interrogated a dozen daemons before he could inform his lord that Saint Shepard was also present. Rumors of her power had spread throughout the Traitor Legions; some even whispered that she had sent Abaddon himself fleeing, though Maggotfather wouldn't risk the Warmaster's wrath by repeating them. What was confirmed, though, was that she had the power to repel, or even outright destroy, the powers of Chaos.

But Shepard couldn't be everywhere, and a mortal body couldn't use that kind of power over long periods without drawbacks. After days of near-constant assault, Maggotfather agreed with Foulkin's assessment that the Saint, the Wolves, and even Russ had been worn down enough to warrant a large-scale attack.

"My Lord, our warriors have finished digging the assault ramps," Maggotfather said with a bow; he ignored the rain of moldy insects that fell from within his hood as he did so. "Our siege engines can now reach the defenses."

Foulkin's hand now rested on the head of his predecessor. "Excellent. We will drive back the mortals with the artillery, and our brothers will keep the Wolves at bay… but I will lead the attack on our misguided kin. Once they are dead or in chains, we will leave this miserable rock; Lord Mortarion must be informed that Leman Russ has returned."

Maggotfather bowed again. "As you command, Lord."

The outer defenses crumbled in minutes; shells filled with unholy plagues landed in and around the trenches, filling them with gas that reduced men and women to choking lumps of boils and flesh that ran like wax. Shepard led the retreat back to the second line of trenches, but ranks of Plague Marines poured fire into the backs of fleeing mortals before all of them could make it to safety. The Space Wolves did what they could to protect the militia, but hundreds had been infected by fast-acting diseases; all they could be offered was a quick death.

Shepard did her best to defend her section of the trench, firing beams of light that burned advancing Plague Marines to ash, but there were thousands of them, and she couldn't be everywhere at once.

Rather than let the Death Guard charge into their lines, the Space Wolves rushed out to meet them. Howling Wulfen rampaged through squads of Plague Marines; both were durable far beyond normal Space Marines, but the former had greater ferocity, often killing three or four Plague Marines before they were killed.

But the shining moment came when two of the Imperium's most ancient warriors charged into battle. Leman Russ killed and maimed everything he touched, his axe and sword leaving dismembered corpses and shocked wounded in his wake. Bjorn stomped behind his Primarch, his assault cannon shrieking as he riddled corrupted armor with armor-piercing shells; even with its power field washing away the worst of it, Trueclaw was covered in gore in minutes.

While the Wolves were able to check the Death Guard in most sectors, there was one exception; a mass of Blightlord Terminators, even more corrupted than their brethren, smashed through a score of Space Wolves as they charged towards Brol and the Dusk Raiders.

Shepard and her honor guard were also near Brol's part of the line, and added their firepower to the Dusk Raiders'. Bolts, lasers and streaks of plasma smashed into the Death Guard, but even the best shots only staggered the elite warriors. Even Shepard, whose power could burn away the corruption, had more trouble dealing with the heavy armor. As the Terminators got closer, they unleashed their own firepower; militia fighters were reduced to chunks of steaming meat from bolt shells, while others were left choking to death from the shells of blight launchers.

The most terrifying of the Death Guard was their leader; swollen with power, he towered over all of his warriors. Rather than a gun, he carried a monster of an axe in both hands; each of its three circular blades spun in anticipation, spitting toxins in all directions.

"Centurion!" the monster, who had to be Foulkin, shouted. "Garask Brol! Come and face me! You will kneel, or you will die—no other outcome is possible!"

"Go back to whatever hell you crawled from, traitor!" Brol roared back. "I swore my allegiance to the Master of Mankind, not your bastard father!"

"He is your father as well, brother." Foulkin chuckled; it was an ugly sound that made all who heard it want to retch. "And he will be merciful if you—"

He was cut off when Shepard hurled Liberator into his face. It only made him stumble, but it cut off his monologue, and Shepard could admit that it felt good to hit him.

"Fall back!" Shepard yelled over the roar of battle. "Fall back into the ship!"

Even the Wulfen were able to comprehend the order; the loyalists had known that they couldn't hold the Death Guard off for long, so their ground forces had planned to withdraw inside the ship once the outer defenses fell. Unfortunately, the innards of the ship were a last stand, and everyone knew it.

The few militia left, only about two hundred strong, along with about two thousand civilians who were too young or too old to fight, were covered by the Space Wolves and Dusk Raiders as they ran for the ship's hatch. Russ, Shepard, and their respective honor guards held the line until they were sure that everyone had made it through, but the Death Guard were moments away from reaching them.

"Shepard, look out!"

Shepard had been busy helping the last of the militia through the hatch, and didn't see the axe coming, and the Alexian Guard had just led a countercharge to buy a few more seconds. Only one saw the danger in time, and moved without hesitation.

Artin caught Foulkin's weapon on his storm shield; two energies clashed, as did the transhuman warriors behind them. For a moment, it looked like Artin would hold back his opponent—then, there was a shriek of overloaded machinery and tortured metal, and Foulkin's plaguereaper cut through shield, armor, and flesh. Artin let out a cry of anger, denial, and then pain as his arm was severed, and then the rest of his body at the waist. Before his top half could hit the ground, Foulkin caught him by the collar and held him up.

"See how your allies fall, Centurion!" Foulkin laughed. "This could have been avoided, if you had just—"

"Get your fucking hands off of him!"

Shepard didn't try to hit Foulkin with her weapon; instead, she smashed her fist into his helm with all the strength in her Emperor-blessed body. There was a flash of light, and Foulkin was sent flying back; Russ howled as he hacked apart the nearest Terminators, and Brol dragged Artin's top half with him as they fought their way into the ship. Shepard had her hands, haloed in golden light, on the fallen lieutenant before the hatch had finished closing.

The corruption from Foulkin's weapon was burned away, but there was nothing she could do for a man who had been cut in half. Russ called over a Primaris Apothecary, but there was little he could do but ease the pain.

"If we could get him to an apothecarion," the Apothecary muttered, "we could stabilize him long enough to get him into a Dreadnought sarcophagus. His will is strong, but his body will not last much longer."

Brol stepped forward. "We could use the stasis pods below. They are all empty now, and there should be enough power to sustain him."

"They lasted ten thousand years, what's a few more hours?" Shepard wished she could ask Artin what he wanted, but he was unconscious. "Let's get him there, and hope that we don't have to wait as long for someone to help us."

Foulkin was in a better mood than he rightfully should have been; many of his warriors were dead, and his skin still burned where Shepard had punched him, even though his armor had withstood the blow. However, as the rest of his men fought their way into the crashed ship, they slowly gained ground.

"Stay out here," he told Maggotfather. "Command the rearguard, and bring in our gunships to pull us off of this accursed world. We will return as soon as we have Brol and his men."

"Understood, lord." Maggotfather bowed his head, and then paused. "Might I offer a word of caution, though?"

"If you refer to the Wolf King, I have no intention of facing him."

"Not that." Maggotfather looked up at the sky. "I sense a disturbance in the Warp; it is possible that Imperial reinforcements are on their way."

Had Foulkin's face not melted into his helmet centuries ago, he might have scowled. "Then we will redouble our efforts, and only take what we can. Once we return to orbit, have our ships bomb this mountain into dust—not even Leman Russ can survive that."

"If only we could watch as he dies," Maggotfather said with a sneer. "The rewards we will receive…"

"Save your ambitions for after we win," Foulkin snapped as he stomped towards the breached hatch. "Follow my orders; I have a battle to win."

The battle within the Pale Shroud was a slow, grinding affair. The winding, half-collapsed hallways prevented the Death Guard from utilizing their superior numbers, but their unnatural resilience meant that many could power through the ambushes set against them. There was also the problem of not being able to escape the plagues unleashed by the Death Guard; rather than fighting, Shepard was forced to run from one group of Imperials to another to cleanse them of Warp-tainted disease.

What the Imperials did have on their side was Leman Russ. His millennia of experience, and the raw power that came with being a Primarch, meant that any Death Guard he fought directly were utterly crushed. Bjorn often followed him into battle, only staying behind when Russ journeyed into the more cramped corridors. Ragnar had been elected as Russ' second, and he led his best packs of Space Wolves in reckless charges, inspired by their Primarch. Losses were high, but the defenders weren't fighting for victory; rather, they were buying time in the hopes that reinforcements were on the way.

With Russ leading the counterattacks, and Shepard focused on keeping as many people alive and uncorrupted as possible, it fell to Brol to protect the civilians and those too wounded to fight. He led the Dusk Raiders, Shepard's honor guard, and those Space Wolves who hadn't been caught up in fighting alongside Russ. Some of those who had learned of Brol's origins were still suspicious, but over five days of fighting, the Dusk Raiders more than proved themselves. Brol himself fought without a single moment's rest, cleaving Death Guard apart with his power scythe, or using Artin's power sword when there was no room for such a large weapon. He only paused when he was struck by corrupted weaponry, and only so that he could be purified by Shepard.

"This is madness," he commented as Shepard removed the blight from a cut on his arm. "The Fourteenth Legion prided itself on pushing through the worst battlefields, but they now fight like they do not care if they live or die."

"I don't think they do," Shepard said. "They've had ten thousand years to be pissed off at the universe. At some point, they probably just decided to take as many of us with them before they go."

"Then they'll be disappointed." Brol stood up and stretched out his arm, nodding when it moved as it should have. "How are the civilians?"

Shepard sighed tiredly. "What civilians? We've got maybe two hundred left, and only the youngest; everyone else gave up their food and water to them and the fighters."

Had Brol been a mortal, he might have winced; he had been fighting nonstop, so he hadn't realized that most of the two thousand people he'd been trying to protect had died of thirst or starvation. His only response was to grip his power scythe tightly.

"Understood." He nodded at the handful of Space Wolves guarding the makeshift infirmary, those too wounded to even join him on the defensive line. "Then we will make sure that they did not die in vain."

Boredom was not something that came often to Space Marines, regardless of their loyalties. There was always something to do, especially in a warzone. However, Maggotfather found himself without a task to be performed; he and the Death Guard assigned to the perimeter waited rather impatiently to do anything, but days passed without even hearing the echo of fighting from within the Pale Shroud. Even the Space Wolf aircraft had been destroyed or driven off, unable to fight due to lack of fuel.

It was on the fifth day, as Maggotfather meditated in an attempt to commune with the powers of Nurgle, that something happened. It wasn't an explosion or Foulkin contacting him over the vox, but a telepathic message; it didn't come from the few lesser sorcerers among Foulkin's force, and Maggotfather didn't recognize the mental 'voice'.

'You are in danger.'

'Who are you?' Maggotfather demanded. 'What danger? Why should I believe you?'

The voice laughed. It was not a pleasant sound in his mind. 'I am called Amalgamation, and if you cannot sense the fleet that is nearly upon you, then you are too weak to be of service to me.'

Maggotfather bristled at the insult; he was one of more powerful sorcerers among the Death Guard, and had fought in wars since the Great Crusade. 'And what do you want in exchange for this warning? Surely you did not hand it out for nothing.'

'Of course not. Nothing in this, or any, universe comes free.' Amalgamation paused. 'The Ultramarines are less than an hour away. You do not have time to withdraw all your forces; take who you can and meet me at the Maelstrom.'

'You want me to serve you? You would have me betray Lord Mortarion?' Maggotfather laughed in his own mind. 'I sincerely doubt you could protect me from his wrath.'

'I serve directly under the Warmaster.' There was no haughty tone of Amalgamation's voice, only cold fact, and it made Maggotfather freeze. 'I am gathering forces to counter Shepard, the so-called Saint. You have been fortunate to have survived against her for so long; few can claim to have lived more than a day after fighting her. Come to me, join my inner circle, and help me destroy the greatest threat to Chaos since the Emperor Himself.'

Maggotfather considered his options—either wait for the Ultramarines that he knew were close and fight to the death, or throw his lot in with this Amalgamation for a chance of life and glory.

Really, what choice did he have?

"Withdraw to my ship," he commanded the warriors around him. "We must escape before enemy reinforcements arrive."

"What about Lord Foulkin?" A Plague Marine asked. "He will not be able to get out here in time to escape."

Maggotfather glanced back at the breached entrance to the ship; it could have been his imagination, but he thought he heard the howl of wolves.

"His fate is in Grandfather Nurgle's hands now."

When it became clear that the Imperial defenders were making their final stand, Shepard left the civilians to their Space Wolf guards, and took her escort to where the fighting was heaviest. She couldn't find Russ, but she did meet up with Bjorn, Brol, and the Dusk Raiders. Over the course of the battle, the latter had taken casualties, and less than eighty still lived. Shepard felt a pang of guilt; she had woken them up after ten thousand years, only for them to die at the hands of their own traitorous brothers.

"Hello, Shepard," Bjorn greeted, even raising Trueclaw in a brief salute. "Come to join us in slaughtering these bastards?"

Shepard forced a grin. "Hey, I'm always up for killing people who deserve it. Also smelly people, and these guys are both."

The banter was just for show, and they all knew it.

"Hey, Bjorn?" Shepard glanced up at the Dreadnought. "You mentioned a little while ago that you had something you needed to say to Russ, but then you had to go fight. Since we're probably about to die, can you tell me what you wanted to say?"

Bjorn's arms shifted, the closest he could get to a shrug. "Oh, that? I want to punch him."

Even the stoic Sanguinary Guard did a double-take at that.

"You want to punch your Primarch?" Shepard almost laughed, but she realized that Bjorn was deadly serious. "Why? I thought you were glad to see him."

"I am, but he also left me behind for ten thousand years." Bjorn leaned in close, and his synthesized voice turned even more menacing. "Getting punched by me is the least he deserves for abandoning his oaths of loyalty and leaving me in this damn coffin."

Shepard didn't know what Russ had to do with Bjorn's entombment in a Dreadnought, but he'd had ten millennia to think about every little grievance he might have with his gene-father. It was entirely possible that he'd taken a few leaps in logic.

"Well, now I really hope we live through this," Shepard said. "If only because I kinda want to see you try."

A wet gurgling sound could suddenly be heard, along with the uneven footfalls that heralded the Death Guard. Gunfire rang out, echoing through the winding corridors, but it sounded close.

"How about it, kids?" Shepard twirled Liberator around before resting it on her shoulder. "Ready for one more dance?"

Carolya brought her sword up in a salute, and then kissed the flat of the blade, a motion repeated by the other Alexian Guard. "We stand with you, Your Holiness, as we stand with the God-Emperor."

"For the Angel and the Saint," the Sanguinary Guard chanted solemnly.

"We will make the traitors bleed for every step," the leader of the Bladeguard swore.

Hex-9-Alpha blurted something in binary; Shepard didn't understand, but the other Sicarians raised their taser goads as enthusiastically as she'd ever seen.

Tempestor Raffe and his surviving Scions saluted. "You won't find us wanting, Your Holiness."

"You've carried us this far, Your Holiness," Ashlynn said, smiling despite her exhaustion. "It'd be a shame for it to end here. I say we kick those heretics off this planet!"

Shepard grinned back, and then looked at Hiral; her banner-bearer met her gaze, and the light coming off her was reflected in his eyes.

"There's nowhere in the galaxy I'd rather be," he said.

Brol glanced at Bjorn. "Does she always inspire such devotion?"

"I have not known her as long as them," Bjorn admitted, "but I have learned that she fights as much for her followers as anything else. She would die for them, they know it, and it drives them to fight even harder to prove they deserve such treatment."

Brol nodded, and eyed Shepard speculatively. Leaders like her had existed among the Legions of old, but they were few and far between in the Death Guard, where attrition warfare meant that warriors were often sent on suicidal missions, and some only came back because of their incredible endurance. Brol pushed those thoughts away, though; he had quickly come to loathe every memory he had of the Death Guard, and he only found happiness when he thought of killing them.

"Tell me something," he said as the sound of approaching Death Guard grew closer, "do they still shout 'for the Emperor' in this age?"

"They do," Bjorn said. "Far more than they used to."

"Good." Brol made sure his borrowed power sword was secure at his side, and then hefted his power scythe. A gift from Mortarion it might have been, but Brol was determined to redeem the weapon in the tainted blood of his fallen brothers. "For the Emperor!"

The battle quickly became a confused melee, and lives were claimed almost immediately. Ashlynn fired a dozen times into an approaching Plague Marine, but her las-bolts barely singed his armor, and for her trouble, she was split in half by a fluid-dripping axe that looked partially organic. The rest of her squad was butchered almost as fast as she was, and the Scions were gunned down by a Terminator. As they tried to make a fighting withdrawal to Russ' position, Hex-9-Alpha and the other Sicarians were torn apart by Blightlord Terminators—Alpha in particular had their head ripped off and crushed, while their body was stomped into bloody paste and metal scraps.

Shepard, Bjorn and Brol eventually led the surviving fighters to Russ, but the Wolf King's position was almost as untenable as theirs. The Death Guard had managed to separate the defenders into dozens of smaller engagements, and were now finally overcoming their tenacity with their own.

"I figured that if I were to die on my quest, it would be aboard a ship," Russ admitted by way of greeting. "I just assumed it would be in the void, not a crashed wreck!"

"I'd rather die outside," Shepard replied as she used Liberator to violently separate a Plague Marine's head from his neck. "It'd be nice to see the stars."

Russ laughed, but even he sounded tired. "Maybe we can fight our way out of the ship, and you can get your wish."

"If it was just soldiers, I'd try, but we still have civilians down here." Shepard staggered when a bolt round ricocheted off her shoulder. "As long as they're here, I won't leave them."

"Defending the young, eh?" Russ kicked a Death Guard into Bjorn's path, and the Dreadnought crushed him in his iron grip. "You've the spirit of a wolf in you, Shepard."

Shepard briefly thought back to her time in the Empire, when her armor was sculpted with wolves; Ahuila and the Amazons had even called her the Three-Headed Wolf. "I've been told that before."

"Well, let's make these bastards work for their prize!" Russ brought his axe down, severing a Terminator's arms at the elbows, and then finished him off with a quick thrust to the head from his sword.

An agonized scream caught Shepard's attention; one of her Alexian Guards was dead, her torso shredded by a brutal weapon. She recognized that weapon, and the Death Guard holding it; he was the same one who had nearly killed Artin; if she recalled correctly, he'd been introduced as Foulkin. Three more of the Alexian Guard tried to fight him, but their power swords couldn't pierce his corrupted armor, and each woman died in quick succession.

The Lamenters and Necropolis Hawks tried to assist, but they were tied down by more Terminators. Hiral bravely attempted to interpose himself between Foulkin and Shepard, but even with her power driving away the Warp-fueled plagues, the smell was so overpowering that he had collapsed, and it was all he could to do keep the Shepard Banner raised.

Shepard raised Liberator to block the first swing of the plaguereaper, but her strength had been drained from days of constant effort, and she barely kept her grip on her weapon. The second strike cast her to the bloodstained deck; the third cut her legs off at the knees, and her scream could be heard even over the fighting.

Before the final blow was landed, Bjorn was there, and he knocked Foulkin back with a glancing blow from Trueclaw. Shepard was in too much pain to notice the lull that suddenly appeared in the fighting, nor did she notice that Foulkin had stumbled into one of the worst opponents he could have faced.

Not that he really processed that, since he was too busy staring at the enormous, fiery sword that sprouted from his chest.

Roboute Guilliman lifted the Emperor's sword up, easily slicing through armor, flesh and bone, and Foulkin fell apart in several smoking pieces. Behind the Avenging Son, Ultramarines spread out to engage the Death Guard.

"Kill the traitors." Guilliman's words were calm, but they could still be clearly heard. "Let none survive."

The wrecked ship soon echoed with savage fighting once again, but with fresh reinforcements attacking them from behind, and their leader slain, the remaining Death Guard would soon be wiped out.

Russ, who stood on a pile of dismembered Plague Marines, wearily raised his sword in greeting. "Roboute, you can never lecture me about dramatic entrances ever again."

Guilliman strode over to his brother; he wore a helmet, but there was a hint of amusement in his aura that suggested he was smiling. "I thought you would approve, brother."

Russ laughed, but it quickly died out when he saw Shepard on the ground, cradled by Hiral. She whimpered in pain as her legs reformed from golden light, while the severed limbs vanished from within the damaged pieces of armor.

"So, Shepard has brought another of us back into the fold." Guilliman waved over an Ultramarines Apothecary, who knelt by Shepard and administered aid. "With you returned, that makes four; I should start expecting the impossible at this point."

"You do not know the half of it, Roboute." Russ gestured to Brol and his surviving men; they had dropped their weapons, and were surrounded at gunpoint by dozens of Ultramarines.

As a Primarch, Guilliman quickly understood the situation, without even needing to be told. "This… could change things. It will have to be discussed, but not now. Let us go to Macragge, so that you and everyone here can recover."

Russ shrugged. "I could use some food and drink—none of that fancy wine you like, Roboute. You'd better have some mjod somewhere, and if you don't, I'll go straight to Fenris and get some before we talk!"

Guilliman chuckled. "It is good to have you back."

Shepard rested fitfully aboard the Macragge's Honor; she was too tired to do much of anything, but she had too much on her mind to sleep. The battle on Auramus had been close, and it was only after it was over that she had an idea of what it had cost.

Of the fifty million citizens who'd called the world home, only two hundred survived, and only because they had been too young to lift a weapon. From what Shepard's exhausted mind could recall, the oldest of them had been eight years old; the youngest were still babies. Everyone else had died to the Death Guard, either by their plagues, or their weapons.

Those who came to Auramus aboard the Hrafnkel—now being towed back to Macragge with heavy escort—had suffered terrible losses as well. There had been just under two thousand Space Wolves present, and over five hundred were now dead. Some of them were veterans of the Great Crusade, and Russ had sworn that he would write the sagas of each of the fallen himself. While Shepard hadn't seen it, Ragnar had been badly injured in the fighting, losing a hand and an eye in the final minutes of the battle.

Shepard's honor guard had been decimated. The only members of Ashlynn's squad to survive were those who had remained on the Hrafnkel, the Sicarians of Hex-9 and Tempestor Raffe's Scions were wiped out, and only two Bladeguard and Sanguinary Guard had survived. While those losses hurt, it was the deaths among the Alexian Guard that cut deepest for Shepard. Four were dead, including two of the original ten; only Carolya and one other could claim to be among the first Alexian Guard.

At least Artin still lived; thanks to the stasis pod he'd been placed in, there had been time to move him to the apothecarion aboard the Macragge's Honor, where he would remain in stasis until he could be returned to the Necropolis Hawks. It would fall to his Chapter whether or not he would become a Dreadnought.

Of all those rescued, it was the fate of Brol and the Dusk Raiders that were the most uncertain. While Russ and Shepard's word had been enough to prevent their outright execution, Guilliman had not budged on keeping the loyal Death Guard disarmed, stripped of their armor, and kept in cells until he was sure they could be trusted. A few of Brol's men had grumbled, but Brol himself had knelt at the foot of Guilliman and vowed to accept whatever judgment the Primarch deemed necessary.

The thought of the Dusk Raiders was the tipping point. Still restless, Shepard rose from her cot and put on the blue fatigues the crew of the Macragge's Honor had given her—she would have worn her armor, but it was still being repaired by the Ultramarines' artificers. It also needed to have her blood washed out, so she wasn't too keen on wearing it yet.

With a pair of Ultramarines as escorts, Shepard went to Guilliman's chambers aboard the ship, where she found both Primarchs deep in conversation. Well, Guilliman was trying to have a conversation, but Russ was shouting.

"They fought with honor, Roboute," the Wolf King snarled. "I would think that would mean something to you, since your Ultramarines shout about it every chance they get."

Guilliman sighed. "I haven't had them executed, Leman. I just don't know what to do with them yet."

"But you took their weapons and armor; that's no way for warriors to be treated."

"I'm guessing you're talking about Brol and his men, unless we've got more prisoners I don't know about," Shepard said tiredly and took a seat in the corner. "Sorry for coming in unannounced."

"It is fine, Shepard." Guilliman waved a hand, and a floating servo-skull carried over to her with a tray of refreshments. Shepard noted that they were all portioned with regular humans in mind; Guilliman must have set that up whenever he had guests here. "As I said, our guests will not be sentenced to death, but I do not yet know what their fates will be."

"I'm sure you have some thoughts on that," Shepard said.

"I do," Guilliman admitted. "I have called for Archmagos Belisarius Cawl to join us on Macragge. Many years ago, he proposed something to me that has relevance to this situation, and I rejected it out of hand. While I do not believe he went ahead behind my back, I am also certain that he did not destroy them as I commanded. This… could be a chance for him to prove me wrong."

"You're being cryptic." Shepard brought one leg up to her chest so that she could rest her chin on her knee. Her fingers drummed against her calf; while her new legs looked exactly like her old ones, an irrational part of her mind was still coming to grips with her regenerated limbs. "Lord Russ, is he always cryptic?"

"Not unless he's uncertain about something." Russ glared at his brother. "Or he's doing it to be an ass. With him, it could be either."

"Well, the Dusk Raiders were quite clearly against the Death Guard." Shepard leveled a gaze as strong as her exhaustion and Guilliman's own aura allowed. "As far as I'm concerned, they're under my protection now. If they do turn out to be a problem, I'll deal with them myself."

Russ looked mildly impressed, while Guilliman chuckled. "Considering how highly Corax speaks of you, I'm willing to let that disrespect pass."

"I'll care when I'm not tired." Still, Shepard changed the subject to a safer topic. "How did you know we were on Auramus?"

Guilliman's smile was proud. "Thank my Librarius; they shared a vision about you, and combined their efforts to locate you. According to them, it was no small endeavor, and several Librarians were rendered unconscious for days afterward."

"I'll need to thank them." Shepard closed her eyes and tried to remember anything else she needed to say or ask. "Oh! I need to send word to my Crusade and let them know where I am. We went into the Eye of Terror, and ended up on the other side of the galaxy."

"Stranger things have happened," Guilliman said. "Fear not, I have already ordered my Astropaths to contact your forces."

"Thanks."

Russ snorted. "Careful, he'll call in a debt of honor one day."

Guilliman gave his brother an exasperated look, and then turned back to Shepard. "Is there anything else you need?"

"Probably." Shepard tried to laugh, but it sounded pathetic to her ears. "We're going to be up for a long time, aren't we?"

Russ looked at an empty goblet mournfully. "And no mjod in sight. These are dark times indeed."

And that's where we'll end it for this chapter! Shepard and company held out for as long as they could, but they were outnumbered, outgunned, exhausted, and low on supplies. They would have fallen eventually, if not for the arrival of the Ultramarines. As much shit as the community gives them, the Ultramarines are usually where they need to be to save the day.

And Amalgamation is making moves. We'll see Maggotfather again, along with a whole bunch of other baddies.

If you're mad that Shepard was beaten so easily, remember that she was fighting nonstop for five days, using her powers nonstop for five days after that, and before coming to Auramus, she'd been holding back the Eye of Terror from eating the Hrafnkel. Cut her a little slack.

So, another Primarch is back, which is good for the Imperium. However, the existence of loyalists from a Traitor Legion will raise an interesting issue for next chapter, and the Imperium at large. Mostly the nature vs nurture debate, which I enjoy. I mean, before Angron showed up, the War Hounds (their name before becoming World Eaters) were fierce warriors that cherished brotherhood. They might have been brutal, but I would bring your attention to the Space Wolves.

Oh, sorry, going off-topic for a moment, but I'm excited about this: Salamanders finally got official Successor Chapters! It only took eleven thousand years in-universe, and a good couple of decades IRL. They're all Primaris, and they're all kind of weird. The Dragonspear chapter are cannibals, the Black Vipers are possible traitors (they may or may not have killed a Salamander Chaplain), the Dark Krakens remind me of the Space Wolves, and the Covenant of Fire are basically pre-Lorgar Word Bearers. I mean, their heraldry is almost identical.

Anyway, please consider buying my book, Alpha Sanction, by Josh Gottlieb. You can find it on my website (link in my profile) or on Amazon as an eBook or physical copy. I'm trying to finish the next book, but back-to-back personal tragedies have made writing difficult.

If you've already bought my book (if so, thank you very much), or don't want to buy it, but want to support me anyway, please consider donating on P-atreon (link in my profile). Every little bit helps me in my personal goal to one day have my own fortress monastery, complete with a thousand superhuman warriors to keep me safe while I write fan fiction.

I also want to thank the following members of the Adeptus Muffinicus:

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 fate of the Dusk Raiders is decided, and Shepard meets the greatest genius in the Imperium…

The fated Muffin approaches…