The first week must be the hardest, though Antonius as Captain Dakota of the Azure Flames 6th company briefed him on the resupply schedule of the Strike Cruiser Honor.
“The Munitorum just now has sorted out all of the requests from Imperial Navy vessels that have stayed behind to mop up the Ork forces in the Julius system. We can finally resupply, and I can see that the Honor has the most stores of any ship in the fleet. I need to be able to swap out supplies to refresh the stocks of His Hammer II, which saw the most action of any ship during the entire Chasma Spica conflict.”
“Sir…” Antonius began before Dakota interrupted him with a chortle.
“Sir? You haven’t called me that in a long time.” Dakota said with a smile.
“You have quite a short memory, it was two months ago.” Antonius retorted.
Dakota dismissively waved his hand. “That was when you were a mere Battle Brother, Captain Antonius. Besides, it has been a long two months.”
“That’s an understatement. Feel free to take anything we have, Captain. We are all brothers here.”
“Thank you, Antonius. I’m sure that once we have a more complete survey of all the planets in…” Dakota cut off as a faint noise emanated from his earpiece. He touched it, and a microphone deployed. “Dakota. Yes. Understood. I’m on my way.” He turned his gaze back to Antonius. “Come, Captain, we have a Thunderhawk flight to charter. There is a meeting of the full Senior Staff aboard His Hammer II in the main conference room.”
“A full meeting? But we have just secured Iperin as our homeworld! We have not even begun pouring foundations for the Fortress Monastery. We can’t be going on another crusade.”
“If the Emperor has need of us, then we go.” Dakota replied in a dour tone. “Let us hope that no Imperial power wishes to challenge our right of conquest to Iperin.”
Antonius suppressed a shudder. Without help from Inquisitor Voltman Kalmsan, The Azure Flames may well have come to blows with the Adeptus Mechanicus over the quarantine of the Menelaus during the Chasma Spica conflict. If those delicate assurances had crumbled…
“Let’s go.” Antonius said. Dakota nodded.
Antonius and Dakota strode into a darkened hallway, lit only by candles. The faint aroma of incense wafted from censers on either side of the hall. Near the end was a door with several bands of plasteel securing it. Next to the door, a servo skull hovered above an autoscrivener with a roll of aged parchment that rolled up from the floor. As Antonius and Dakota approached the skull scanned them with a red laser.
“Who comes? Who comes? Who comes?” The skull croaked in a mechanically augmented voice.
“Zeraf Antonius, Master of the Marches, Captain of the Strike Cruiser Honor.” Antonius replied as tradition said he should.
“Come in remembrance, and leave with purpose.” The skull intoned as the doors slid open.
“What?” Antonius exclaimed. The skull did not answer. “That isn’t the normal greeting.”
“No, it’s not.” answered Dakota. “Go inside, I’ll be there in a moment.”
Antonius went through the door into a small antechamber. He knelt before a small statue of Vulkan and offered a short prayer of devotion. As he rose, Dakota came in behind him and repeated the ritual. Antonius picked up a small padded mallet and rang a small gong hanging by the door into the main chamber three times.
“Enter.” A voice called. Antonius carefully opened the door and went into the conference room. A large table with data displays inlaid stretched from one end of the long room to the other. Around the table were fourteen large steel benches, built to accommodate power armour. At the far end, a larger, more ornate throne held the bulky frame of Perseus, the new Chapter Master, clad in his Terminator Armour, armed for war. Around the table, most of the spaces were taken by the other captains of the ten companies of the Azure Flames. To Perseus’ right was Chaplain Alexsandr, the Master of Sanctity in his black armour. To his left, Ory-Hara, the Chief Librarian, clad in a blue hood and a mask that hid all but his eyes. At the opposite end of the table sat Senior Apothecary Luiz and Jelnac, Master of the Forge. Several of the other captains were seated in the places they took by tradition, but many seats were still empty. Antonius took his, nodding to Perseus. Perseus did not acknowledge the gesture.
He knows Antoinus thought. Only someone who knew Antonius’ secret would give him that look of both trepidation and admiration. Antonius turned to Apothecary Luiz who gave him the same look. One week ago, on the day of his promotion to Captain, Luiz had told Antonius that he was the only gene-son of Atrus, the former Chapter Master and the man who saved the Azure Flames. Atrus’ visions from the Emperor gave the chapter a new purpose. Now, with Atrus gone, Antonius felt that he had lost a father. Again.
Dakota entered quickly after Antonius, and the room was silent again. Other Captains eventually filled the room until all fifteen members of the Senior Staff were present. Perseus stood and spoke in a loud, clear voice.
“Let all who have come here speak not outside these walls of our counsel, save for the one voice in which we all speak. Let loose words not in hatred, save for the alien, the mutant, the heretic. Fear not your own voice, for here it is all you are armed with. Do you so swear?”
The room answered as a chorus. “On our honor, and by the teachings of Vulkan, we so swear.”
As soon as the echo of the group’s reply faded, Perseus sat. “We are not going to war.” he said. Puzzled looks came from all but a few.
“Then what did you call us here for, old man?” shouted Leonidas, Captian of the first company. His green gauntleted fist pounded the countertop. Antonius briefly reflected on Leonidas’ livery; he was a living reminder that the Azure Flames had once been the Sons of the Salamander, and he took the duty of being that reminder very seriously.
“I have called you all here because we have all lost something.” Perseus answered.
“Yes.” the monotone mechanical voice of Edgard of the 3rd Company spoke up. “I have my revenge against the successors of Victor Kalan. I slew dozens of aliens and heretics for each of my brothers that were taken from us by the Alliance. Yet now there is only emptiness. We have no purpose.” Edgard was slouched over in sorrow, and Antonius heard the servos in his torso actuate as he corrected himself and sat up properly. Edgard had survived the worst injuries imaginable, but he seemed to be in real pain now.
“We have a purpose.” Khalil of the 8th company retorted. “Atrus told me just before he died. He said that a true hero fights until his dying breath, knowing only what is in his heart.”
Jelnac, Master of the Forge, muttered “I still cannot believe that Atrus did not let his Techmarine bodyguard go with him.” Though he was almost too quiet to hear, the anger in his voice was palpable.
“No one doubts the resolve of any of our brothers, Khalil.” Perseus said as if Jelnac had not spoken. “We will live up to the memory of the man who shaped our chapter. However, without his vision and drive, we must re-assess the purpose of the Azure Flames. We sought to banish the darkness in the vision that Atrus had so long ago, and we did so with honor. But now we must find a new purpose.”
“What is the purpose of any Space Marine chapter?” mused Zhuang of the 2nd company. “We fight the enemies of the Imperium, and vanquish foes that give ordinary men pause. We must simply adapt to this new role.”
A memory floated up, unbidden in Antonius’ mind. It was pervasive; he could not dismiss it.
***Antonius looked out through someone else’s eyes. He looked on as a younger version of Zhuang in Scout Armour lay broken and bleeding on the floor of a dark room. Apothecaries came in to tend him, but he righted himself, pushed off of his knee, and stood. Bright crimson blood ran from his mouth, nose, ears, and eyes. He walked out of the room and the vision faded.***
As Antonius looked around the room, the rest of the council seemed to refocus their eyes, recovering from experiencing the same memory. All but Ory-Hara, who stared daggers at Zhuang.
“Is this why you stood after the Final Trial of Brotherhood, Zhuang?” Perseus’ tone was almost accusatory. “To join ‘just another chapter?’ No. You are the only member of the Azure Flames since Atrus created that trial to walk out of the Black Room on your own two feet. Are you content with mediocrity, Zhuang?”
“No, my lord.” Zhuang answered.
“Nor should any of you be.” Perseus continued. “Atrus is gone. We will all mourn him in our own way. But he did not leave us only to have us turn our backs on all that we have built.”
“I have taught all of you, save Perseus and Alexsandr.” The rough, gravelly voice of Daniel, captain of the 10th company, was so nostalgic to Antonius that his Power Armour seemed far too big for him. “With those two exceptions, I watched you all fire your first Boltgun. I saw you go into battle for the first time. I watched you grow, and I personally made the recommendation to Atrus, and before him Chapter Master Logain, to promote you all to full Brotherhood.” He turned to Perseus. “My lord, you are my oldest friend. Know that I mean no disrespect, but you know as well as I that no one in this room would ever turn their backs on Atrus, the Chapter, or any of our history.”
Perseus sighed. “You are right, Daniel. Zhuang, I apologize.”
“No, the fault is my own.” Zhuang replied. “I was avoiding thinking about the future, because I do not know what we are to do.” He paused for a moment before adding: “Atrus always knew what to do.”
“Indeed, but we are bereft of his advice.” Valerien, captain of the 9th company answered. “We shall always remember the past, but it is our duty now to look to the future.”
“There’s always a choice…” Antonius surprised himself as those words left his mouth. Everyone turned to him, and he felt the closest thing to fear that he had felt in a long time.
“A choice, Antonius? We have no choice. We must carry on, as we always have.” Valerien said.
“That’s not what I meant, but I can’t…” Antonius trailed off. He knew what was right in his heart, but the words would not come. Suddenly, he felt inspiration flow through his mind like a bolt of lightning. “Ory-Hara, I need to share a memory with everyone. Can you help me?”
Ory Hara nodded slowly, and stood. He walked behind Perseus, and came down Antonius’ side of the table. Antonius leaned his head back. Ory-Hara’s gauntleted hand hovered above him. With a click, a rectangular compartment opened in Ory-Hara’s palm. As the armour opened, Antoinus saw the rubbery surface of the Black Carapace. In the middle, was a small, circular hole about 2.5 centimeters across, exposing the pale flesh of a human palm. Ory-Hara lowered his hand to Antonius’ head, and Antonius quickly went through the meditation techniques he learned to empty his mind of all thought. A candle appeared in his mind, sporting a bright, blue flame. Into this flame, Antonius pushed his hesitation, his excitement, and his pride. He floated in nothingness for a fraction of a second, and then let himself remember.
***Antonius walked into the chapel of the Strike Cruiser Honor. All of the sergeants were there, as well as Antonius’ predecessor, Captain Ganendra and Chaplain Hakan. Captain Ganendra formally ordered him to take command of the 5th Tactical Sqaud. Chaplain Hakan distributed devotional wine, and everyone drank.
Except Gehn. Gehn stared.***
As the room once again shook off the effects of Ory-Hara’s memory sharing, he heard someone spit. A small plume of acrid smoke emanated from the plasteel countertop in front of Leonidas.
“GAAAAH! Antonius, you dare to soil our council devoted to the memory of a great man by remembering that… TRAITOR?” Leonidas shouted.
“We have to remember Gehn.” Antonius answered. “You see, Gehn had a choice. He could have let his jealousy and anger go. He could have remembered that his oaths to the Emperor were stronger than his own ego. Instead, he chose to let that jealousy and anger consume him, and turned to the Ruinous Powers.” Antonius stood as he gained momentum. “We can choose to fade into the background. We can take this system and build a fortress that rivals The Fang, and forever cut ourselves off from an uncaring galaxy. We can be just like every other chapter that squats in their Fortress Monasteries and deigns to bless the battlefields with their presence. Or…”
Antonius looked around, suddenly a bit self conscious. Chaplain Alexsandr’s harsh Valhallan accent split the room. “FINISH, boy!” Antonius suddenly felt himself full of confidence.
“Or,” Antonius continued “we can make Iperin our home. We can turn this world into a bright candle that banishes the darkness. We can share our home with those who have had their homes and families taken from them, like mine was. Like Ory-Hara. Like Edgard. Like so many of our brothers. Even Atrus himself.”
“Seek not to put yourself above mankind, for from whence you came, so you must serve.” Chaplain Alexsander intoned.
“The words of Vulkan.” Everyone around the table said as a chorus.
“Atrus gave us a quest.” Antonius continued. “He led us on a crusade, never settling in any one place, so that we would be ready to face the darkness he saw. Our quest is over. Now we have a choice. Do we let our grief consume us, or do we let it drive us? We should start a new quest. To defend those who cannot protect themselves. To avenge what cannot be protected. And to bring light to those plunged into darkness and despair.”
Another memory rushed into Antonius’ mind.
***Once more, Antonius saw through the eyes of another. The huge bulk of Atrus in his Dreadnought body was standing next to him as they gazed upon the smoking but intact silhouette of Tenkath Hive. “A great victory.” a voice from behind Antonius’ eyes said. “The shields held, and the traitors have been purged.”
Atrus sighed. “Yes, it is a great victory.” His tone, even through speakers, was grandfatherly and regal, but tinged with sadness. “But so many will be trapped in this dark place. You fought along its streets, Ory-Hara. You saw the living conditions these poor souls endure. This place is no Releeshahn.”
“What does that mean, my lord?” the voice that was Ory-Hara’s inquired.
“Ah, yes.” Atrus turned to face Ory-Hara. “Releeshahn is a legend from my old homeworld. It means ‘city of light’ in our old tongue. Releeshahn was a fictional city where none suffered, and there was light and music and happiness.” Atrus turned to Tenkath Hive again. “Every human life is worth saving. I just wish we could give them better than… this.”***
Perseus stood. “All of you know that I took the mantle of Chapter Master reluctantly. I felt that I could not do justice to the legacy of Atrus. That reluctance is now gone. We have a new quest that will drive us. For every world that we save, we will offer asylum to those whose lives have been destroyed by war. For every world we lose, we will salvage what can be saved. Our Fortress Monastery will be the capital of a shining city of hope. And we will call it Releeshahn.”
Everyone rose and cheered. Except Ory-Hara, who remained silent.
Jelen awoke to darkness, as she had several times before. Her throat was raw and dry from shouting. She shifted from the jagged piece of plascrete that was her bed and once again began to feel around the ruined chamber she was trapped in. Nothing. Again. She began to sob.
“I want my daddy…” she repeated again and again.
Suddenly, from outside the rubble, noise. The bad bugs had come back to kill her. All sound in her throat died. Her chest tightened, and she began to shake.
“STAND BACK!” came a voice, loud despite being muffled by the debris. The words snapped Jelen out of her shock. She scooted back away from where the voice had come. A brilliantly shining blue axe head appeared. It disappeared and returned faster than Jelen had ever seen something move. As it widened a hole in the wall, Jelen heard shouting with each stroke. Dark blue gauntlets reached through either side of the newly formed hole and ripped the wall asunder. Standing in the light was an Angel.
“Are you all right?” the Angel said.
The events of the past weeks all flooded into her at once. The sirens. The war. Her daddy running out to draw the spores away. That awful sound. The collapse. Being trapped for days in the ruins. She ran towards the Angel and held on to his greave. Horrible sobs wracked her chest.
“Majeed? Antonius.” The Angel spoke in hushed tones. “Bring me some water and a blanket from the emergency supplies.” He paused. “Yes, I know. Hurry.” The Angel gently patted her filthy hair with his dark blue gauntlet. “It’s alright, you’re safe now. We will not let the aliens come for you.”
“My…” Jelen hiccupped incoherently. “My… My… daddy… is… he…”
“What is your name child?” the Angel asked.
“J… Jel... Jel… Jelen.”
“Hello Jelen. I am Antonius. The Emperor sent me and my brothers to protect you.” As the Angel said this, a vehicle appeared from behind a ruined building. It plowed rubble out of its way with a forked blade on its prow. It was the same deep blue of the Angel’s armour. It was boxy with a sloped font, clean lines, and a wicked looking turret with a long barreled cannon and two smaller glowing guns flanking it. As it approached, it slowed. Another Angel disembarked through a rectangular hatch on the side, emblazoned with a bright blue flame symbol.
“You had to drive here?” Antonius said.
The other Angel smiled. “You said to hurry, my lord.” He handed Antonius a blanket, which Antonius wrapped around Jelen. He lifted her and took her into the vehicle. The inside was cramped, and full of other Angels. Counting Antonius, there were six total. All blue except one which was white. She sipped water from a canteen the other Angel gave her.
“Brothers, this is Jelen. She is the only one we’ve found. We must fall back and relieve Captain Edgard and the remaining defence force of Ifan III. Make this girl’s safety your first priority.” Jelen’s howl of grief managed to drown out the growl of the engine as the vehicle jerked into motion.
“I… I… lost my daddy.” she sobbed.
“I lost my father, just like you did.” Antonius said. Jelen was so shocked her crying immediately ceased.
“But, you’re an Angel.” she said.
“Before I was an Angel, I was little, just like you. How did he die? It’s alright if you don’t want to remember.”
“Daddy was carrying me down the street. We saw those spore things. There were lots and lots. Daddy put me in the storage room, and told me not to come out. I heard him run away. Then there was a big boom. The wall and ceiling fell down. I couldn’t get out…” She trailed off.
“Your father was very brave.” Antonius said.
“How did your daddy die?” Jelen asked.
Antonius looked down at the floor.
“It’s alright if you don’t wanna remember.” She said, patting him on the greave.
“Tell her, my lord.” The white Angel said. Antonius looked up at him for what seemed like a long time. His face, taut with anguish, softened slightly.
“Alright. I’ll tell you how he died, saving me and all my brothers.” He turned to her. “His name was Atrus, and he was a great man.”