Author's Note: For those interested, there are three advance chapters on P-atreon (remove the spaces and dash): p-atreon/ SkySage24.

For anyone interested, here's an invite code to my Discord server: EpG6ZrzX

Mars was burning. Across the planet, Be'lakor's machinations came to fruit, as scrapcode poured into the Martian systems, unleashed by traitors. There were only a handful of them, but there did not need to be more.

The Forges of Mars were connected by ancient, arcane networks that even the greatest minds of the Mechanicum no longer truly understood, the knowledge lost beneath the sands of time and dogma. A sea of cables and wires, of dense clouds of data and wireless communication stretched across the entire planet, a great web that bound all of Mars together, linking every temple, every library.

And now, poison gushed through that ancient labyrinth, ripping its way through every protective measure, leaving the web fraying and falling. The aegis anti-virus codes were only able to halt the flow for but a second before the scrapcode shredded them entirely.

Like a multi-headed serpent, the scrapcode sought out vulnerable points in the Martian infrastructure, spitting poison and flame everywhere it could. Once, perhaps, mankind could have stopped it, but the countermeasures to scrapcode and sorcery that humanity had developed during the Iron War had been all but forgotten, and the Mechanicum found itself helpless as Mars turned against itself.

In Aries Prime, the great fusion reactors that powered the city had their safeguards switched off and were overloaded despite the best efforts of the caretakers, erupting in a wave of nuclear flame that devoured the second-greatest city on Mars, killing tens of millions of people in an explosion that could be seen from orbit.

In the Glaivid Hive, the contents of chemical refineries were poured into its' massive ventilation system, and poisonous chemicals spread through the air, murdering thousands with every passing moment as an entire hive city choked to death.

In the skies above, the great ships of the Mechanicum found themselves fighting against the automated systems that were supposed to help them defend Mars from invasion, but were now turned against their allies and masters. Smaller ships darted through the chaos, but the larger vessels and defence stations exchanged fire, barrages of plasma cannons seeking to tear each other apart.

And so, even the Ring of Iron began to burn and crack, as ships and stations alike fell from the sky in a rain of burning steel.

To their credit, the sane of the Mechanicum were not so easily broken. The Skittari were as unflinching and relentless as they had ever been, and the unaffected Titan Legions and Knight Houses crossed swords with their maddened kin, seeking to defend themselves. Tech-Priests frantically sought to root the corruption out of the systems, to devise any counter they could. Forgemasters who saw the attack coming hastened to sever their temples from the network to avoid the assault.

And in the wastes of Mars, where a thousand forgotten secrets lay, ancient machines stirred deep among the rust-red sands. One by one, they rose, systems that had lain dormant for millennia humming to life, silver lights flickering on, woken by the war raging above them.

But all of that would be irrelevant if the Emperor did not succeed in doing what mattered most.

If the Noctis Labyrinth was shattered, Mars was doomed. All of its systems, from the greatest fortress-factories to the most insignificant servo-skull would be slaved to the Dragon in an instant, turned to do the bidding of their new god.

Mars would become the heart of a new machine empire, bent on nothing less than the eradication of all organic life. No, even more than that, to rewrite time itself and undo the end of the War in Heaven so that the C'tan would emerge triumphant over their slaves.

That could not be allowed to happen.

It would not. The Emperor would not allow it, even if he had to reduce Mars to a pile of burning rubble himself.

But for now, at least, he sought to preserve Mars rather than burn it. He hurtled through the Immaterium like a thunderbolt, aiming straight for the Noctis Labyrinth.

Yet, even as he did so, the Emperor could hardly believe Be'lakor would do this. They had warred for millennia, and he knew well what the First-Damned was capable of, how there was no length he would not go, no depth he would not sink to achieve his goal.

But this? This was not an atrocity, this was not even recklessness. This was suicide. The Dragon was as much a threat to Chaos as it was to mankind. Even more so, perhaps.

Be'lakor would not do this just for a petty distraction, not just for ruining the Emperor's plans for human reunification. There was something he wasn't seeing here, something that he was missing.

Yet, he had no time to dwell on such matters, not even with the enhanced perception he possessed.

The Emperor emerged back into the Materium above the Noctis Labyrinth and found them waiting for him.

The Noctis Labyrinth was a maze of steep valleys and mountains, desolate and cold. It was devoid of all life, and even the Mechanicum avoided it like the plague for reasons they did not truly understand. Nobody dared build within the Labyrinth or even near it.

Even Be'lakor's forces had not gone too near the Labyrinth yet, instead gathering a massive host at its southern edges, in the space between it and the Syrian Planum.

And they were an army of automatons hosting daemons, Chaos Androids and Daemon Engines crackling with infernal power. There were thousands of them, in dozens of different shapes and sizes, from human-sized soldiers to towering walkers equal to a Titan. Iron serpents with miles-long bodies slithered across the ground, surrounded by iron legions and hovering drones. Soul Grinders, Khornate Brass Scorpions, Nurglite Blight Drones, Slaaneshi Subjugator Titans, Tzentchian Fire Lord fighters…a wide array of daemons from each of the Four, now bound to machines.

A Tech-Priest of the Mechanicum would likely have found them familiar yet alien even if they had not hosted daemons, for the designs of these infernal machines were ancient. These were the soldiers of the Iron War, the ancient precursors to the Mechanicum's constructs.

And with a hot, sharpe flare of rage, the Emperor recognised the spells and contracts that bound these abominations as well. Be'lakor's hand was there, of course, with these creatures all bound to his service, but he was not the one who had fused daemons to these machines in the first place.

It seemed Vashtorr was involved in this after all. He was not here himself, the Emperor was certain he would have sensed him. Cunning as the Arikfane was, he was no master sorcerer who could conceal himself even from the eyes of the gods.

But he had supplied Be'lakor with an army and the tools needed to set Mars ablaze.

The First-Damned now possessed a force that could slaughter armies and shatter worlds, one surrounding a ritual ground. At the centre of the host was a gleaming array of shining crystal towers, crackling with power as the Tzentechian Chaos Androids floating around them performed a ritual to summon an Exalted.

There would be a reckoning for this. But not today. Today, the Emperor had other concerns.

He did not hesitate. He reached out and pulled power directly from the Martian magnetosphere. A lesser psyker might have sought to conjure forth the power themselves, and certainly, the Emperor could have done so.

But why bother, when there was an ample reserve of power just waiting there to be tapped?

And so, he unleashed the power he had collected upon the Chaos Androids. Lightning fell from the heavens and the roar of thunder echoed across the world as the Noctis Labyrinth was for a moment illuminated by ten thousand bolts of white-blue lightning.

Leaving Kelbor-Hal behind, floating in his bubble, the Emperor dove into the battlefield.

The Fabricator-General of Mars was not having a good day.

Today was supposed to have been a simple matter. The Emperor of Terra, like the barbarian fool that he was, had consented to come to Mars with only a small escort.

With the anti-psychic countermeasures devised by Chrom and a full Titan Legion at his back, cowing the primitive fool into submission should have been child's play.

Instead, it had all gone wrong.

The Emperor's…soldier? Lieutenant? Vassal? Whoever she was, that horrible woman had torn through his soldiers as if they were nothing, before literally throwing him at her master. Even the great Titans of Mars had failed to stop her, toppling three of them as if they were nothing but toy soldiers.

And once Kelbor was in the Emperor's grasp…all of Chrom's psychic countermeasures had been for naught.

The memory of the violation, of the Emperor reaching into his mind and rooting out the code made Kelbor want to vomit, even though he no longer had the organs for such a thing. It had been painful and humiliating. He had been helpless, utterly helpless, as his enemy toyed with his brain as if it were child's play.

The Emperor could have killed him there. Kelbor certainly would have done so if their positions were reversed.

But instead, he had exposed the truth.

Kelbor-Hal still didn't want to believe it. It had to be a trick of some sort. Chrom's countermeasures had failed, being insufficient to prevent the Emperor from casting an illusion on him.

Surely it was the Emperor who was the enemy, not his people.

But then there was everything he had seen. That horrid creature that Chrom had become, that twisted mockery of a holy forge to the Machine God, those creatures scurrying around it…it all had to be a lie. Some psychic nightmare conjured forth by the Emperor.

But in his bones, Kelbor knew it wasn't. He had been deceived and betrayed. Chrom, or whatever warpspawn that was wearing his face, had made a fool of him, a puppet and a pawn.

What had been his plan? Chrom's voice had been discordant and distorted and wrong, and even trying to recall the memory of it made Kelbor's supercomputer brain shriek in pain and creak in protest. Once more, he wanted to retch.

And now, Kelbor-Hal was at the mercy of his enemy. He did not know what was happening, what forces had made a fool of him and why this was all happening. All he could do was watch in terror as the Emperor unleashed powers that he had scarcely ever dared to imagine on the army of abominations below.

The golden comet that was the Emperor blitzed through the legions of heretical machines, their forms twisted by the energies of the Warp. They spat hellfire and sorcery at the Emperor, but he seemed immune to it all, darting between them and smashing through their forces.

All Kelbor-Hal knew was that he hoped they destroyed each other. An upstart barbarian warlord versus this horde of perversions against the Machine God…good riddance to both of them.

The only firm ground below Kelbor-Hal's feet was the certainty that if he survived this, revenge would be his.

One way or another.

"Hate you Anathema! Hate you! Hate you-"

The Emperor ignored the daemon's whining as he impaled his blade in the eye of one of the titans it was possessing. Lightning crackled through its body, burning out the Daemon and making the Titan writhe and flail.

Yet, as he landed on the ground as the Titan crashed, the Emperor was struck with the thought that this was too easy.

It was enough to occupy him, yes, not least because he had to be careful not to cause too much collateral damage, while at the same time expending energy to stabilize the fabric of reality.

Leaping aside to avoid a barrage of hellfire plasma, the Emperor swept his sword in an arc to release a blast of golden flame, his mind churning with turmoil. And yet…Be'lakor could have done better than this, surely. At a minimum, he must have been here on Mars for at least the last several months, plenty of time for the First-Damned to devise a trap.

The ritual for summoning an Exalted had been stopped…but now the Emperor realized it had barely begun before he arrived. Almost as if Be'lakor hadn't actually wanted to summon an Exalted.

The siblings of the Titan he had brought down surrounded him, and the Emperor swelled in size until he was as tall as they were. But even as he parried their blows, he kept turning over the matter in his mind.

Yes, the Emperor was far stronger than he had been the last time he had clashed with Be'lakor, but knowing his old foe, that should only have invited him to escalate things even further.

Absently, the Emperor noticed nanites burrowing into his skin, trying to spread through his body and turn it against him. He burned them out, ignoring the brief flash of pain, even as his anxiety and dread intensified.

If Be'lakor truly wanted to unleash the Void Dragon, he could have done better than an army that had barely even reached the Labyrinth before the Emperor arrived.

…Isha. Be'lakor wanted to be alone with Isha, to separate the two of them. This was a distraction. It was the only answer.

But why?

To drag her back to the Four in chains, so that they bless him with yet more power, perhaps even restore him to his status as the most favoured son of Chaos? But that would mean giving up the independence he had as a Daemon King.

Lifting a Titan by the foot and spinning it around as he used it as a bludgeon, the Emperor knew he could not allow that…yet he also dared not return to Isha's side yet. The Veil here had been damaged by the presence and summoning of so many Daemons, leaving it dangerously fragile and unstable. He needed to both repair it and dispose of the Chaos Androids.

The iron serpents made their presence known, roaring at him, their metallic fangs dripping with black venom that burned the ground, their eyes a shimmering scarlet. These were only shadows of the sun-eaters that had been unleashed during the Iron War, but they were still formidable, especially when possessed by Greater Daemons.

Then, in the far distance, the Emperor felt it. The fabric of the Veil was torn asunder, and an incursion, an invasion of reality began as Be'lakor stepped through. A Daemon King, the Firstborn of Chaos himself, fully manifested upon Mars. An inferno engulfed Olympus Mons, blocking both his sight and his Sight, preventing him from seeing inside.

Dread pooled in his stomach, and in a heartbeat, the Emperor split in two, a new avatar heading straight back towards from where he had just come.

George could only hope it would be enough.