Aboard Horus' Battle Barge by Bill King
Even through the shields, impacts makes the Imperial Palace shake. With a screech of tortured stone an angel topples from its alcove high on the throne room wall and crashes to the marble floor a kilometre below. It shatters into a million pieces. Splinters of stone flash across the hall like shrapnel.
From his throne the Emperor watches his warriors mill around in confusion. This hall holds ten thousand men, seasoned veterans, and all now panicking. He knows they are more frightening by his silence than by the enemy. They look to him for leadership and he can give them none.
For the first time in his millennia-long life the Emperor knows despair. The magnitude of his defeat stuns him. The lunar bases have fallen. Most of the earth is under the Warmaster's heel. Rebel Titans, towering 30 feet high, surround the palace and are held at bay only by the desperate efforts of a few loyalists. It is only a matter of time before the palace's defences fail and the last bastions of resistance fall.
"Sire, what are your orders?" asks Rogal Dorn, massive dark-haired Primarch of the Imperial Fists. His golden armour has lost its lustre, is dented in a dozen places by bolter shells. The Emperor doesn't answer. He is lost within himself seeking answers to his own questions.
He has come at last to the dark place, the time of testing, the era hidden from his precognition vision and beyond which he cannot see. The moment he has always dreaded has arrived. Is my time over, he wonders? Is this where it all ends? Is this why I have reached the limits of my prophetic powers. Is this where I die?
He felt bewildered. Even now, the Traitor Warmaster's forces were battering at the gate, he finds it difficult to believe that he has been betrayed.
Horus was more than a trusted comrade, more like a favoured son. Of all the Primarchs the Emperor relied on him most. Not for a second had the Emperor doubted him, not even when word had come from the Savage Worlds that the Warmaster was gathering forces. He had deluded himself that Horus must have good reason to do so without consulting him. I should have been warned by the failure of my precognition, he thinks.
"Sire, what are your orders?" asks Kane, acting Fabricator-General of the Adeptus Mechanicus. He stares at the Emperor, a trick of light turning the glass slits of his brass mask into accusing eyes. Once more the Emperor does not reply. Kane's presence reminds him that not even the head of the Adeptus is to be trusted. His superior, the former Fabricator-General, has chosen to side with Horus.
On Mars civil war rages between factions of Tech-Priests. Ancient, forbidden weapons are being deployed. Viral plagues kill millions. Fusion bombs scar the earth.
So much will be lost. He thinks of the slow piecing together of the old science. The Librarium Technologicus is in flame now, ancient core data systems in meltdown. The time of re-building is over. The Great Crusade, as much a quest for lost knowledge as a war to reclaim the human worlds, is ended. The Warmaster's treachery has seen to that.
"Sire, what are your orders?" asks Sanguinius, angel winged Primarch of the Blood Angels. He gazes at the Emperor with blazing eyes, his face a mask of terrible beauty.
The Emperor knows they rely on him for guidance. They still believe in him. They think he can lead them from this trap. They are wrong.
Horus is the greatest general the galaxy has ever known. Who should know better than his creator? He is schooled by a century of warfare. There will be no way out, no loopholes, no flaws in the plan. The Warmaster would have to be mad to leave one.
The Emperor looks down on the faces of his followers, sees the trust written there, feels the weight of responsibility it brings. He knows that for their sake he must try, even if it is hopeless, He casts forth his clairvoyant sight, lets his mind drift beyond the ruined gardens of the palace, over fields where colossal Titans battle by the twisted light of the sculpted moon. He sees the whole war spread out beneath him, his pitifully outnumbered legions being mown down by the traitor hordes. He reaches up to the sky, where he senses the fleet of battle barges that rain orbital doom upon the tortured Earth. Amid those thousand glittering points he finds the Warmaster.
Hope flickers within him. The shields of Horus's ship are down. Briefly he wonders why. Is the traitor's confidence so overwhelming? Does he wish to witness the battle himself. Or is it a trap? The Emperor touches the ship and recoils from what he senses within. How could Horus have done that, made a pact with the ultimate abomination?
The Emperor comes to a decision. Trap or not, this is the only opportunity he will get. He has no option but to seize it; the position is so desperate. Even as his spirit returns to his body, the ominous thought strikes him that the Warmaster must know this.
"What are your orders, Sire?" Sanguinius asks again. The Emperor's eyes snap open. His voice is full of authority. "Prepare to teleport. We will take the battle to the enemy." The men smile confidently. They now have a purpose. While he inputs the teleport co-ordinates they move, without question, to obey.
A flash of light, a feeling of coldness. They have teleported into the Warmaster's ship. The Emperor takes an instant to re-orientate himself and realises that something has gone wrong. He stands in a vast, warped chamber with only a few Marines in attendance. The Terminators and Primarchs are not present. How is this possible he wonders. Could Horus have disrupted the teleportation beam? Is he so powerful?
Insane voices gibber madly inside his skull. There are figures trapped in the stone walls of the vast room. Hands reach out for him, grasp at him with rock-like strength. He shrugs them off easily. His comrades are not so lucky. Bolters chatter and flash as the Marines attempt to fight off their demonic assailants. A man screams as he is drawn into the dark and slimy walls. As he vanishes, ripples spread from his point of disappearance. The Emperor's sword lashes out, severing limbs, freeing trapped Marines. He summons his psychic energies. A nimbus flickers around his head as he unleashes his power. A tidal wave of destruction rips through the daemons, leaving his own men unscathed.
He scans about him, seeking the Primarchs but the walls of the Warmaster's Battle Barge are resistant to his mindsight. He gestures for the surviving Marines to follow him.
They wander through the ship distorted beyond all recognition by the warping power of Chaos. Great sphincter-doors distend from walls of flesh-like stone. Transparent veins bear rivers of blood along conduits in the floor. Carpets of mucous cover a road of tongues.
Winged and distorted things that might once have been human flit through the archways of bone and perch on ledges of rib. The Marines gasp in horror. He exerts himself to calm them, psychically soothing their fear of this dreadful place. All the while he scans the area looking for the spoor of Horus. He knows now the nature of the pact the Warmaster has made and the dreadful consequences of his victory.
They pass pits that gape like glistening gullets in the floor and echo the beats of a distant giant heart. They are showered by waterfalls of stinking yellowish liquid that cascades down cliffs of carved cartilage. Sometimes they hear weapons fire but when they arrive at the source they find nothing.
Mists of rainbow vapour drift across their field of vision, obscuring corridors of carnivorous stone. Clouds of insects swarm over their faceplates and choke the extractors of their airpipes. They switch over to internal oxygen supply.
They are ambushed by scuttling skull-faced things in the armour of Marines. They fight hoardes of mutated beasts. One by one they die. In the end the Emperor stands alone. Then and only then is he allowed to enter the presence of Horus.
The Warmaster bestrides the body of a broken angel. Behind him the tortured earth fills the viewport, a bauble for Horus to seize with one clawed hand. Corpses of massacred Marines lie everywhere.
Face glowing with internal bloodlight. Horus speaks. "Poor Sanguinius. I offered him a position of power in the new order. He could have sat at the right hand of a god. Alas he chose to align himself with the losing side."
The Emperor stands transfixed, trying to force frozen words from his tongue. In the end he can only whisper, "Why?" Mad laughter rings out. "Why? You ask me why? Have all those millennia taught you nothing? Weak fool, your timidity prevented you from binding the forces of Chaos. You shied away from the ultimate power. I have bound it to my will and will lead humanity into the new age. I, Horus, Master of Chaos."
The Emperor looks at his former friend and shakes his head. He sees the trap that has ensnared Horus. "No man can master Chaos," he says quietly. "You have deluded yourself. You are the servant, not the master."
A look of rage transfigures the Warmaster. He stretches out a hand and a bolt of force leaps forth. The Emperor screams as agony wracks his body. "Feel the true nature of my power then tell me I am deluded," roars Horus, in the voice of an angry god.
Beads of sweat stand out on the Emperor's forehead, he steels himself against the pain. "You are deluded," he says.
Once again Horus gestures and lances of pure poison sear through the Emperor's veins. "I let you come here, old friend, so that you could witness my triumph. Kneel before me and I will spare you. Acknowledged the new master of mankind."
Desperately the Emperor summons his power and lashes out. Lightning flickers between the combatants. The stench of ozone fills the air. The Emperor leaps forward, sword raised. Weapons clash as battle is joined on every level: physical, spiritual, psychic.
Bolts of force flicker as mortal gods clash, balancing the fate of the galaxy on every blow. Runesword and lightning claw ring against each other with a sound like thunder. Energies potent enough to level planets are unleashed.
A backhand buffet from Horus knocks the Emperor through a stone bulkhead. The counterstroke tears a supporting column out of the ceiling as the Warmaster ducks.
In the warp the Emperor hears the Chaos Powers howl as they feed their pawn more power. The Lord of Humanity stands alone against their massed might and knows that he is losing. Somehow he cannot bring his full force to bear on the Warmaster. Horus shows no such restraint.
A lightning claw cuts the Emperor's armour as if it were cloth, sheers through flesh and bone. The Emperor ripostes with a psychic stroke intended to disrupt the Warmaster's nervous system. Horus laughs as he deflects it.
His claws take the Emperor across the throat, opening windpipe and jugular. Another blow severs the tendons on his wrist, causing the sword to drop from nerveless fingers.
Insane laughter echoes round the chamber. Horus breaks several ribs with an almost playful punch. A surge of energy seers the Emperor's face, melting the flesh till it runs, bursting an eyeball, setting his hair alight. The Emperor stifles a whimper, wonders how he can be losing. Blackness threatens to engulf him.
Horus grasps his wrists, splintering bones. Blood pumps from the Emperor's throat. Horus lifts his foe above his head and brings him down across his knee, breaking his spine.
For a second the Emperor knows only darkness then a flare of agony brings him back to consciousness as Horus rips his arm from its socket. The Warmaster howls with bestial triumph.
Suddenly the battering stops. Through his good eye the Emperor sees a solitary Terminator has entered the room. The Marine charges towards the Warmaster, stormbolter blazing. Horus looks at him and laughs. For a moment he stands triumphant, allowing the Marine to see what he has done to his Emperor.
The Emperor knows what is going to happen next, sees the gloating triumph on Horus' face. There is no trace of his friend left there. There is only a daemon driven by insane destructive fury.
Horus turns his burning gaze on the Terminator and the Marine's flesh flakes away to reveal his skeleton, then even that is gone, reduced to dust.
The Emperor sees the trap that has been set for him. He has been restraining himself, trying not to hurt one who had been as a son to him. Now he sees that there is no trace of his trusted comrade left. He knows that he must stop this semblance of his former friend and avenge the fallen Terminator. He must strike one deadly blow. He will get no other chance.
He gathers every particle of his power, focuses it into a mighty bolt of pure force, more coherent than a laser, more destructive than an exploding sun. He aims it as Horus, a lance of power destined for the madman's heart. Horus senses the upsurge of energy and turns to face the Emperor, a look of horror on his face.
The Emperor lets fly. It strikes the Warmaster. Horus screams as destruction rains down on him, twisting and writhing in titanic agony. He strives frantically to counter the Emperor's deathblow but his struggles become more feeble as the lethal energies play over him.
Driven by all the force of his rage and pain and hatred the Emperor wills Horus's death. He senses the forces of Chaos retreat, disengaging themselves from their pawn. As they do so sanity returns to the Warmaster. The Emperor sees realisation of the atrocities he has committed flicker across Horus' face. Tears glisten there.
Horus is free but the Emperor knows he himself is dying and that the Powers of Chaos may once again possess the Warmaster and he will not be there to stop them. He cannot take that risk. Horus must die. Yet for a second, looking into his old friends face, he hesitates, unable to do the deed. Then he thinks of the slaughter that still goes on outside, may go on forever. Resolve hardens within him.
He forces all mercy and compassion from his mind, empties it of all knowledge of friendship and coimraderie and love. His eyes lock with Horus and see understanding there. Then with full cold knowledge of what he is doing the Emperor destroys the Warmaster.
Rogal Dorn enters the chamber. Horror fills him as he sees the mutilated form of the Emperor and the shrivelled husk inside the Warmaster's armour. He curses himself for taking so long to fight through the Chaotic hordes, He knows now why their attacks ceased and why the ship is reverting to normal.
He rushes to the Emperor's side, detecting the faint pulse of life. Perhaps there is yet hope. Perhaps the ruler of the Imperium may live.
Rogal Dorn will do his best to ensure it.