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By a Thousand Cuts

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Horus Lupercal caught his forearm and shook it warmly. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you since you were discovered. I’m glad I finally got the chance.”

Mortarion shook the hand in return. A tension he hadn’t even noticed he’d been feeling crept out of him. “I’m…glad to meet you as well.”

Horus’s smile turned into a grin and led him away. “So, have you had a chance to meet your legion yet?”

Mortarion nodded slowly. “I’ve seen them in drills. They are impressive. I’m looking forward to leading them in a real war.”

“Good. They’ll be looking forward to being led by you. I’ve worked with the Fourteenth before, they’re good soldiers, very dedicated, very serious.” He glanced at his new brother. “Will you be renaming them, then?” His voice was…calm. Nonjudgmental. Just curious. It was…nice. It reminded him of his battle brothers. Already he could feel a connection between him and his brother forming, growing like the connection to his sons had.

“I already have. They are the Death Guard, my unbroken blades.”

Horus nodded. “Named for your army of liberation. I like it. I hear your sons are doing well, by the way—your friends, I mean. Already several of them have taken to the ascension.” He frowned. “Not all of them, but that’s to be expected. It doesn’t always work out. There are always…fatalities. It happens to all of us.”

Mortarion nodded slowly, biting his lip under the cover of his rebreather. He didn’t like the mental image that had just sprung into his mind—Calas, his strong right arm, his brother in battle, lying dead on some cold operating table somewhere, those quick eyes and that sharp tongue forever stilled… Calas had been his first friend, his closest confidant. He didn’t want to lead an army without Calas by his side. “I understand,” he said softly. “All I can do is wait.”

Horus squeezed his shoulder. The sensation was…warm. In fact, “warm” seemed like the best way to describe Horus, from the way he acted, to his tone of voice, to the fire in his eyes. He was bright and welcoming. Even Mortarion’s own sons hadn’t greeted him with such enthusiasm (although if they truly were his sons, and had inherited his own reserved nature, he could hardly blame them for being taciturn at their first meeting). “You’ll do fine,” Horus said at last. “You’ll do just fine.”

Mortarion nodded, and allowed a tiny little flame of hope to light in his chest.

“I’ll introduce you to our other brothers.”

That, as it turned out, was the beginning of the end.

***

“I’ve met him before, you know,” Sanguinius said. “Well, not met. More like…seen him.”

Horus nodded. “On the Bucephalus?

Sanguinius nodded. “Shortly after our father found him. You were on campaign in the Zhao System, I was passing through on the way to the Hyperaphon system.” He shivered, his wings shaking. “It was…bad. Father was leaning over him, just worried sick. We weren’t sure if he was going to make it.”

Horus winced. “Well, he’s here now. He made it through just fine. I promised him I’d introduce him to our brothers.”

Sanguinius smiled at his favorite brother. “I can’t imagine a better person for introductions.”

Truth to tell, Sanguinius was a little nervous. Ever since Horus had invited him to the meeting aboard the Hand of Vengeance, he’d been unable to shake the image of the only time he’d ever seen Mortarion from his mind. The hollowed eye sockets and cheeks, the sickly-pale skin sucked tight over iron-hard muscles with no fat to soften his outline, the way his chest labored to rise and was eager, too eager, to fall. The hissing, beeping, sighing sound of the respirator attached to his face, forcing air into lungs that just wanted to give up. It was hard to believe that something that broken was one of his brothers. He was covered in burns and other scars, and all of his hair had fallen out all over his body—not a speck of it remained. The pain he must have been in… They’d never met back then—Mortarion had been unconscious, and Sanguinius hadn’t had time to wait for him to wake up. He’d had to move on. He’d breathed a sigh of relief when the astropathic choirs reported that he had fully recovered and was ready to fight, but he still hadn’t had a chance to actually meet the master of the Fourteenth legion, one year on.

But now he would get a chance. He was almost shaking with excitement at the thought that, just a few seconds from now, he’d be meeting a new brother.

Horus slid the door open and led Sanguinius into the lounge, where their latest brother stood at the viewport, watching the stars go past. “Mortarion, meet Sanguinius. Sanguinius, our newest brother, Mortarion.”

Mortarion turned from the viewport and Sanguinius’s heart sank. He had been told that Mortarion had made a full recovery—clearly, this had been incorrect. His eyes were still hollow, and he was as gaunt as he had been before. He was easily the thinnest of any of their brothers. When he gripped Sanguinius’s forearm, his fingers were like the fingers of a skeleton, long and thin. Everything about him was long and thin. He was nearly as tall as Vulkan or Magnus, but clearly weighed half as much as either of them. Worst of all, there was still a respirator attached to his face. It hissed, it sighed. Sanguinius swallowed a surge of horror and tried not to let the reaction show on his face as he shook his brother’s hand.

“Well-met,” Mortarion murmured.

“Well-met indeed,” Sanguinius said. He gestured to a nearby chair. “You don’t have to stand, you can rest. We’re all brothers here, there’s no need to stand on ceremony.” Sanguinius smiled. Horus squeezed his shoulder, but he brushed him off. “We don’t mind if you take as much time as you need to recover.”

Mortarion didn’t react save for his eyes flicking to Horus’s face. Sanguinius glanced at Horus’s face. It was frozen in a look of worry. Horus tried to smile nonetheless. “Yes, I think we should all take a load off of our feet. We’ve all been very busy. This should be a time to relax.”

Mortarion nodded slowly and took a seat on a couch. Sanguinius settled next to him and offered him a cushion, which his younger brother took onto his lap with slightly furrowed eyebrows as if he couldn't imagine what it was for.. “What have you been up to?” Sanguinius asked him.

“I have been training with my legion,” Mortarion said quietly. His voice was raspy, rough. Sanguinius winced at what kind of pain his throat must be in to sound like that. His eyebrows furrowed even further at Sanguinius, but he continued. “Getting to know them, their strengths, their dispositions.”

“An important thing to do,” Sanguinius said. “Very important. You don’t have to overdo it, though. The war’s not going anywhere. You can take your time.”

The eyebrows were close to meeting in the middle now and his fists tightened on the pillow.

“Sanguinius!” Horus said. “Remember the time? You first met Fulgrim and Ferrus? and Ferrus said—”

“I’m not sick,” Mortarion said.

The room fell deadly silent.

“I’m not sick. I’m not unwell.” Mortarion squeezed the cushion against his chest, then flung it off his lap. “I am better now than I ever have been.” He stood up stiffly and nodded to both of his older brothers. “If you’ll excuse me. I have work to do.” He strode from the room, his grey cape swirling behind him and the click of the closing door deafening in the silence.

It was a long time before either of them spoke. “He doesn’t like being seen as weak,” Horus said finally. “And he won’t take help to do anything. At all. It’s taken all of my diplomacy to get him to accept my aid in learning how to use his legions.”

Sanguinius bit his lip, unable to contain the pain of his sinking heart. “I didn’t know…”

Horus nodded. “I know.”

“I just wanted to help him…”

“I know you did. And I know you still do want to help him. He’s just…he’s been through a lot. The physical healing is over, as much as it’s ever going to be, anyway. The mental healing…that’s going to take a lot longer.”

Sanguinius sighed. “I’m sorry, Horus.”

Horus smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder. “It’s okay. He’s a good man, he’ll warm up to you eventually.”

***

He should have been ready, he should have been unleashed by now. The last of his brothers in battle had been converted into sons, he had his friends and his leadership all ready—

Then orders came in. He was to return to Terra. Alone. Something about an adjustment period. His father did not elaborate. When he arrived on Terra, the Emperor was too busy to say much to him. “You’ll be staying here for a little while,” the Emperor said. “When you’re ready, you will be united with your legion and I will send you on your first campaign.”

Mortarion bit his lip under his rebreather. “When?”

“When you’re ready.”

“And when will that be?”

The Emperor looked at him in that way he had, the way that said, quite clearly, that he was looking down, and he would brook no argument. “When I say you are.”

At first, Mortarion had been alone. Horus was off on campaign, the lucky bastard, and so were most of the rest of his brothers. The Emperor introduced him to his cat’s paw, Malcador, but the old witch was hardly a comfortable companion. He was condescending and deceitful—not the kind of company Mortarion liked to keep. Instead, he explored the palace—those parts of it he was allowed to, anyway, the parts that weren’t off-limits for arbitrary reasons only the Emperor and his Sigilite knew—the libraries, the laboratories, the forges. It was full of people, rushing everywhere they went, each of them on an errand of galaxy-shaking importance, at least in their own small minds. Some of them would bow and scrape to him, trying to earn favor with him through what they no doubt thought was appropriately sycophantic behavior. It came across as nearly as condescending as Malcador’s speech. Some of them would look up at him in silent gapes of horror and fear. Mortarion rushed past those with what dignity he could muster. He’d already seen enough fear of him to last him a lifetime. He was almost glad to see masses of faceless Custodes. Their reaction to his presence was studiedly neutral. He preferred that to the reaction of the mortals in the palace.

There were bright spots in his stay, though. The libraries were full of books and datafiles he devoured ravenously, desperate to learn more about this strange world he’d been dragged into. Better even than that, though, he’d been given his own large quarters to do whatever he wanted with during the long months of his convalescence (“soon, soon,” his father said. “Be patient, Mortarion.”). He chose to turn them into a laboratory. The palace officials were all too happy to accomodate one of the Emperor’s sons, and they brought him any piece of equipment, chemical, or reagent he asked for. Sometimes Malcador would visit, but these were rare times. Sometimes that wretched remembrancer, Lackland Thorn, would visit instead. But most of the time, it was a quiet place to hide from the interminable bustle of the Imperial Palace. People didn’t bother him here. He could hide from the huge crowds and satisfy his hungry mind in blessed solitude.

He was standing at his work bench, experimenting, when a heavy fist pounded on his door. Mortarion stared at it with a frown. Malcador and Thorn would knock politely, diffidently, as if that could butter him up. No one he knew would knock like that. “Yes?”

“Open up, brother! I want to meet you!” There was no other word for it—the man barked it at him.

Mortarion frowned and mentally went through the list of all the primarchs Horus had mentioned. Leman Russ, probably? Primarch of the Space Wolves? The Emperor’s Executioner, if he recalled correctly (which he always did). Mortarion opened the door and received a face full of tangled blond hair, broad chest, and musky fur. His brother wrapped his arms around Mortarion’s ribs and squeezed tight, making the bones creak.

“Morty!” Leman clapped him on the back. “Can I call you Morty?”

Mortarion opened his mouth to reply, but he was too slow. “Good to finally meet yah! What are you doing hiding on Terra? You should be out there in the stars, with the rest of us!” He strode into the room, practically dragging Mortarion along by the shoulder. Leman looked around the room, taking in the bare-bones furniture, the alchemical glassware, the laden bookshelves. He wrinkled his nose. “This can’t be where they’ve bunked you? This looks like a lab, not a home!”

“It is my lab,” Mortarion said. It was, in fact, the largest lab he’d ever had. He had enough space, enough equipment, to spread across most of the room. It felt almost indulgent in its luxury. He’d never had enough equipment to set up a lab of this scale on Barbarus, even when he’d been living under Necare’s thumb. Even if he had, Necare would just have broken it all to punish him for some transgression, real or fabricated, or just out of pure boredom and spite. Here, his lab was safe, and he could take up as much space as he wanted.

Russ huffed. “Lab. You could have one closer to our father’s lab, y’know. If you just asked, he’d give you lab space. You don’t have to turn your own personal quarters into a workspace. Personal quarters should be for fun!” He grinned and clapped Mortarion on the back again.

Something about Russ made Mortarion’s flesh crawl. It was in the teeth, perhaps, the long, curved fangs like a wolf’s—

—like a crag dog’s, tearing at his young flesh—

Mentally he shook off that old, bad memory. “They are for fun,” he said. “That’s why I have my lab in here.”

This time, Russ frowned. “Labs are no fun, Morty. Look at this place.” He gestured to the room, taking in the benches, the glass, the vials, the books, the precious notebooks and textbooks that he no longer had to hide from disapproving eyes for fear they’d be burned (or worse, read). “So dusty. So drab. You could have done anything you wanted with your quarters, and you fill it with this stuff?

Mortarion took a deep breath through his rebreather. “I guess I’m just boring.”

“Not just boring, yer a veritable killjoy,” Russ muttered. He shook his head at Mortarion’s paradise. “What’s wrong with yah.”

***

Galaspar lay in ruins.

The Order had refused to back down, fighting his troops until the very end. Not a single one of the tyrants survived—Mortarion made sure of that. It had been so satisfying to order their executions after seeing the oppression they had inflicted on their own people. He was uncomfortably reminded of Barbarus, the way the people had been objectified and used, turned into hopeless tools of a corrupt and evil leadership. They had drugged their soldiers into insensibility, then sent them into the teeth of a foe that had already proven themselves to be better armed, better equipped, better trained, better. Like a faint breeze trying to resist an avalanche, the armies of the Order had fallen, leaving their cowardly, pathetic masters exposed and unprotected. Mortarion allowed himself a brief moment of pity for the soldiers the enemy had thrown at them, but in truth, they had hardly been more alive than the golems of the Overlords. There was nothing that could be done to save them after what the Order had done to them. The only thing to do was to make their deaths as quick as possible, to push on, to find the ones responsible for this slaughter and make them pay.

The hive spire was crumpled, the sun blotted out by the hulk of the Fourth Horseman. Mortarion looked over the ruinous expanse, over the rows of dead rulers staked out for their former slaves to see. The monsters are dead. They can no longer hurt you. He turned his head to look at his sons, their backs straight and proud. He had promised them they would be an army of liberation, and his promise was beginning to be fulfilled.

He couldn’t be more proud.

“My lord, the lord Primarchs Guilliman and Dorn are here,” a vox op said in his ear. She sounded nervous. Mortals tended to get nervous around Primarchs, but it still bothered him that his mortal crew was this nervous. Sure, his brothers were probably here to steal all the glory or something, but he could handle them. There was no reason to get upset.

“Tell them I’m at the summit of the capital hive city,” he said. “I’ll meet them here.”

 

Mortarion recognized his brothers as soon as they stepped off the shuttles from descriptions he had received from Horus and read about in the works of remembrancers. Roboute Guilliman, resplendent in sapphire armor, crowned in golden hair and golden laurel. Rogal Dorn’s armor was a brilliant saffron, the iron halo framing his head like a king or an angel. They looked magnificent, like princes. As Mortarion understood it, that was exactly what they were—both had been emperors in their own rights, ruling their own empires that to this day remained semi-independent in the grander system of the Imperium. True sons of the Emperor, heads held high, shining like beacons of glory in the setting sun. Well, so be it. He was a son of the Emperor, too, was he not? Mortarion stepped forward to greet them, only to be met by the crossed blades of the Suzerain Invictarii and the Huscarls, who rushed to stand between the Primarchs. At his side, two of Mortarion’s own Death Shroud bristled, their scythes hefted upward into a defensive posture.

Mortarion raised a hand for them to stand down. He looked his brothers in the eye, and saw something he had not expected to see in them.

Rage.

“You must be Mortarion,” Rogal Dorn snarled. He gestured to the ruins around them. “Care to explain this, then?”

Mortarion frowned. “We were sent here to bring the Galaspar system into compliance. We have succeeded. The rest of the Galasparian civilization has surrendered.”

“You crashed a ship into a hive spire!” Dorn roared.

Mortarion’s grip on Silence tightened. “I rammed a ship. It is still operational, therefore, not a crash.”

Guilliman raised a hand. “The operability of the ship is not of concern,” he said gravely. “The casualties and the…tactics you employed, are.”

Mortarion blinked. “My…tactics are of concern to you?”

“Yes,” Dorn snapped. “The wholesale slaughter of the people you were sent to bring into compliance!”

Mortarion stared at him.

“We have received reports from remembrancers attached to your fleet,” Guilliman said, his voice tight. “Reports of the means by which you brought this campaign to its conclusion.” He glanced aside at the bodies of the dictators, then spoke as if he was choosing each word carefully. “The number of fatalities—”

“Were low, considering the length of the campaign and the level of resistance met.”

“That high a number of fatalities among future citizens of the Imperium is not acceptable.” Guilliman shook his head. “I understand this is your first time leading a compliance action—”

A fire burned in Mortarion’s gut. His head was buzzing. It was hard to keep eye contact with his brothers now, but he forced himself to look them in the eyes, as equals.

He had failed—

No. “No,” Mortarion said flatly. “I did what was necessary.”

“Billions of Galasparian citizens dead was necessary?! This is a hive, was a hive!” Dorn clenched his fists. “People lived here, and you crashed a ship into it!”

“Our father sent me here,” Mortarion snapped. “Not you. Not Guilliman. Not Sanguinius or Russ. He sent me here.”

“He sent you here because your troops are better equipped to survive the wastelands outside of the cities,” Guilliman shot back. “Your legion was chosen for their durability. Nothing more.”

Mortarion took as deep a breath as he dared without making it obvious, but before he could speak, Dorn interrupted. “It’s a good thing the planet is a wasteland,” he muttered. “Otherwise the damage would have been far worse considering the weapons you deployed. This…” He waved a hand at the destruction. “This is monstrous, brother.”

Inwardly, Mortarion flinched, but he showed no signs of such weakness outwardly. He counted to fourteen in his head. “Your message has been received. If you have further complaints about my conduct, I suggest you take it up with our father, the Emperor, instead.”

 

Then they actually did. Mortarion would never forget the look on his father’s face when they met again. A part of Mortarion that would always be a small child, that would always hug its knees and bury its face away to protect itself, quailed under that look.

Disappointment.

The small child within braced itself for a beating, for pain, for humiliation and death threats. The price to pay for disappointing a father.

“Not an auspicious start to your career as a legion commander,” his father said at last.

And that was it. He was dismissed, the eyes of his victorious brothers boring into his bowed back. What he had thought was victory turned out, in the end, to be defeat.

He had failed. No shining son of the Emperor like his brothers.

Just a monster.

***

Mortarion glared at the goblet of wine like it, too, had some complaint to make.

He was told it would be a dinner, not a gala. He had expected it to be a family affair, not a swirling, tumbling ballroom full of glitter and dignitaries, bright lights and noise, noise like he'd never heard before. He could spot his brothers scattered across the room. Russ still wore his furs, but dressed like a king underneath them. Guilliman’s striped mantle accentuated the width of his prodigious shoulders, and even proud, stiff Dorn looked every inch nobility with his fur cape. Mortarion, dressed in plain, undyed wool, looked longingly across the room to where Horus was chatting animatedly with some high-ranking official and Sanguinius, whose golden hair and brilliant feathers shone like beacons across the room.

It was supposed to be a dinner. He had dressed for a dinner. His clothes were clean. Not even a little stained. New, in fact. He looked like a pigeon among peacocks. A skinny, molting pigeon.

Nothing could have driven the point home quite like the vision that sauntered out of the crowd. He looked almost like an albino, his skin as pale as Mortarion’s (where Mortarion wasn’t covered in angry burn scars, anyway), his eyes a vibrant shade of violet. The stranger’s white hair had a metallic shimmer as it fell in a silky sheet down his back, contrasting magnificently with the purple silk and gold trim (always gold).

His brother flashed him a smile full of perfect teeth. “You must be Mortarion!” he said. His voice was musical, but cold. He stuck a pale, elegant hand out to shake. “Fulgrim of Chemos, master of the Emperor’s Children.”

Still a weird name for a legion. Horus had told him about the proud warriors of the third legion and their perfectionist primarch. Mortarion shook his hand. “How could you guess.”

Fulgrim shrugged, barely disturbing the wine in his crystal goblet, the movement was so smooth. “Based on descriptions from Horus. We haven’t had a chance to meet yet, y’know.”

Mortarion nodded slowly. “Been too busy campaigning, I guess.”

Fulgrim snorted, and even that sounded delicate and dignified. “Always! The Great Crusade never sleeps.” He sipped his wine. “So, what do you think?”

Mortarion blinked. “Think of what?”

Fulgrim laughed and gestured to the room. “Of all of this! This is your first banquet, I understand. I hear you grew up on an agri-world.”

“Barbarus is classed as a death world, actually,” Mortarion muttered reflexively.

Fulgrim’s eyebrows rose. “Ah, yes, excuse me. A death world.”

The Reaper of Men’s eyes narrowed. “What’s wrong with a death world?”

Fulgrim sighed and shrugged his shoulders again, this time rolling his eyes. “Death worlders are all the same,” he said. “Don’t tell Ferrus I said that, but it’s true. Get two death worlders in the same room together, it will inevitably turn into a contest of whose childhood was harder. Who was colder, who had to fight harder, who breathed in more toxins—”

“I did,” Mortarion said quietly.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, I did. I breathed in more toxins.” He was going to say more, concede the point of cold to Leman Russ and frozen Fenris, which was an ice world on top of being a death world, but before he could speak, Fulgrim laughed.

“See? Like I said! All of you! Just one big pity contest, then as soon as any of the rest of us try to share some anecdote from our world, you all have to come in moaning about how worse off you were, how nothing ever beats coming from a death world. I don’t know if it’s just ignorant pride or if it’s outright jealousy.” He sipped his wine again. “I should introduce you to Ferrus, see which one of you wins that little fight.” His eyes burned with a mischievous flame. “My money’s on the Gorgon. There’s no planet that could compete with Medusa for grim harshness.”

Mortarion’s mind caught like cloth on a nail to what Fulgrim said. He dismissed for now the discussion of the Primarch of the tenth legion. “You think I’m jealous of you?”

“Of course you are. It’s so obvious. You resent everyone else who didn’t grow up like you, especially your own brothers. So you try to tell yourself that your life was the hardest, that no one else could have a harder life than you.” Fulgrim’s gaze, already cold, turned into ice. “As if your suffering negates everyone else’s.”

Mortarion stared at him, calculating, then chugged the rest of his own wine in a single gulp. Fulgrim made a disgusted sound of protest, his face twisted into an appalled expression. Mortarion wiped his mouth with his sleeve and put the goblet down on the tray of a passing servant. “Thank you for the conversation,” Mortarion said. “But I have work to do.” With that, he turned on his heel and left the party, and his sputtering brother, in his wake.

***

He met Ferrus not long after that, on campaign. He, Ferrus, and Guilliman had been sent to the same world marked for compliance. Ferrus, the eldest of them, had been put in charge, and he was quick to assert his authority. Mortarion and Guilliman met him on his ship, carefully avoiding eye contact with each other, distantly polite. They hadn’t spoken since Galaspar, and the news from the Absyrtus campaign had only made their relationship more strained. Mortarion didn’t look at him, instead looking forward, towards the steely gaze of Ferrus Manus, the Gorgon.

A fellow death worlder. They said he had spent his childhood fighting the undead horrors in the frigid darkness of Medusa. Mortarion gripped Silence tight, hoping against hope. They had a lot in common (whatever Fulgrim said). Surely Ferrus, of any of his brothers, would understand him. Surely he was about to meet a brother who would…well. He hoped.

“Right,” Ferrus snapped. “Listen up.”

Mortarion even liked the way Ferrus briefed—he was, well, brief, and to the point, no extraneous detail, no grand speech about the glory they would earn on this next campaign. He had a goal to achieve, and he wasn’t going to waste time getting there. The Reaper of Men had a lot of respect for that.

What little hope had grown during the briefing shriveled and died when Ferrus fixed his silver gaze on Mortarion, as cold as the icefields of Medusa. “I want to be absolutely damn clear about this,” he said. “No ambiguity, no groxshit. You will give the enemy the chance to surrender. If they surrender, you will fucking let them. This isn’t some xeno world, this is a future Imperial world full of future Imperial citizens. And there are to be no chemical weapons on this campaign. None. You will not poison this world with your chemicals and your gasses. This world must still be inhabitable by the end of this campaign. Do I make myself clear.

Mortarion wanted nothing more than to return to his ship in peace, to never speak to Manus again. He hadn’t felt a feeling of shame this intense since the end of the Galaspar campaign. He didn’t dare look sideways to Guilliman. His Macraggian brother must be smirking up a storm by now. “Perfectly clear,” Mortarion mumbled.

Manus grunted. “Good. Glad to hear it. The initial assault will land here…”

 

The briefing completed, Mortarion turned towards the hangar bay and his shuttle waiting there. It was time to return home to the Endurance to brief his sons on the role they would play in this campaign. A shout stopped him and he turned.

Manus was standing there, the light glinting off the steel and gold trim of his armor and the silver of his hands. “Brother, I was meaning to ask you.”

Mortarion sighed silently. “Ask me what.”

“Fulgrim said you fancy yourself the toughest of all of us.” Manus tilted his head and smirked. “Care to prove that in the dueling cage?”

The stupid fucking dueling cages again. “Dueling” was, apparently, a common pastime in most legions. It was like a sparring match, but both sides were trying to win, showing off how much better they were than each other. Rules were strictly enforced in the dueling cages. Mortarion hated games. People always seemed to leave out one or two vital rules when listing them. They held those rules back to trip him up, to rob him of his rightfully earned victory in the end. Necare had done it all the time, so had Guilliman, Dorn, and their father, and Mortarion was in no mood to find out what arbitrary minutiae this brother would conveniently leave out. “No,” Mortarion snapped. “I prefer to prove it on the battlefield.”

Manus frowned. “Proving it against common soldiers is hardly proof.”

“I don’t have time to play your games, Manus. I have work to do. Unless you want my troops out of position when you give the signal.” He didn’t wait for a reply. He just stormed up the ramp to his shuttle and pounded the button to close the ramp. He closed his eyes and shut out Manus shouting at him from below the ramp. Something about being a spoilsport.

Or a killjoy.

Whatever.

***

Was it possible that the Lion was the worst meeting he’d had yet with a brother? Russ and Horus were there to introduce them. “Lion doesn’t get along with most of us,” Horus had murmured in his ear before they entered the room. “He can be a little standoffish. But he’s a great warrior, and he’s just as serious as you are.”

“Surprised he gets along with Russ, then,” Mortarion muttered.

Horus shrugged. “Leman is a more complex character than most people give him credit for. It helps if you think of him as being like a wolf—playful sometimes, but deadly serious and devoted to a task at others.”

Mortarion shrugged. “Have to take your word for it.” Barbarus had no wolves. Only slinking, craven crag dogs that stalked unattended children and stole babes from their cradles at night. Horus’s words made it clear that would not be a welcome comparison, no matter how apt it seemed.

Then Russ brought the Lion into the room. From the crown of his head to the soles of his boots, he was noble, lined with strength and grace, like he had been carved from stone. It was plain to see how he had become the greatest of Caliban’s knights. And he hit Mortarion with a look that could peel paint. He looked at Mortarion like he was something he had to scrape off his boot before coming inside. That look clearly said, we are nothing alike, you and I. We have nothing in common. Do not insult me by insinuating otherwise.

Never before had Mortarion felt more like a peasant farmer covered in muck. He stuck a hand out to shake anyway. “Mortarion of Barbarus, Primarch of the Fourteenth Legion.”

El’Jonson looked at his hand like it was dripping slime, but when he shook the hand, his grip was firm, tight, even, and his emerald eyes looked imperiously into Mortarion’s. “Lion El’Jonson of Caliban, Primarch of the First Legion.”

The stress was subtle, but noticeable. Mortarion nodded. “Good to meet you,” he said. He turned to Horus. “Thank you for introducing us.”

Horus looked heartbroken. “You’re welcome,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Mortarion looked back at El’Jonson. “Good to have met you,” he said again.

“Likewise.”

Neither of them could leave the room fast enough.

***

“The worst meeting yet.” What hubris. What stupid, pathetic, childish hope that had been.

“He’s a scholar. Probably the most scholarly person I’ve ever met.” Horus grinned. “He would think your lab was fascinating.”

Mortarion shrugged. Russ’s jab about his personal lab still stung. It shouldn’t have, but under the tough exterior, Mortarion was slow to heal from emotional injury. It had been a few years since he’d first met Russ, and he still wasn’t over it.

From what he understood, the Master of Prospero was different. They both shared a love of books—that could be promising. Sanguinius was the only other scholar in the family, and Mortarion couldn’t withstand more incessant fussing. Yes. He got it. He looked like a consumptive corpse. That didn’t mean he was sick, and it didn’t mean he should be treated like an invalid. He’d proved his mettle already in this war as the best of all of his brothers at attritional warfare. If he wasn’t strong, then how the hell could he have survived all of that?

Magnus might be different. He judged on the mind, said Horus, and he reassured the Reaper that Magnus would adore him, that they could talk for hours together about books and science. He highly fucking doubted that, but he was growing desperate for that brotherly affection their cursed father had promised him. So far, it had not been delivered. Just a lot of sanctimonious horseshit about how nothing he did was right.

Horus pressed a button by the door, and a melodious chime rang out. The door opened onto a room full of lush couches and bookshelves, it was lined with bookshelves, a wealth of knowledge stored in one single room, books on every surface, scrolls unrolling on top of them, precious papers dancing in the air, orbiting around—

Too late, the smell hit Mortarion’s nose, and his heart sank into the floor.

It was a familiar old smell, one that had dogged him from mildewed towers to corpse-strewn battlefields. It was the smell that lingered over his every meal in that forsaken place, the one that tore through his nose every time he stepped outside, the one that clung to the midnight-black robes that shrouded the creature that had owned him and controlled his fate—

Mortarion backed away from the radiant, crimson figure floating in the middle of the room amongst the paperwork to Horus. He didn’t dare look the thing in the face. “You never told me he was a witch,” Mortarion snapped.

Horus blinked. “He’s a psyker, yes, one of the best I’ve ever met—”

“You were bringing me before a damned witch, and you didn’t fucking tell me?!”

“What’s wrong with being a ‘witch’?”

Mortarion turned to glare at Magnus the Red. He towered in the room, even taller than Mortarion. His crimson hair was like a halo, and his eye blazed with power. “What’s wrong with my powers?” Magnus said again, his voice low.

The Reaper snarled. “I told the Sigilite from the beginning. I will never fight alongside witches.” He shoved Horus aside and stormed from the room, shaking with rage.

 

“You told me he’d be different.”

“I know, Magnus. I thought the idea of having a friend who likes books and learning would outweigh his animosity towards psykers.” Horus sighed. “I was wrong, Magnus, and I’m sorry.”

Magnus slumped in a chair. “Does he know?”

Horus settled in a seat opposite him. “I was going to ask you the same thing. I don’t think he knows. He can’t possibly know.”

Magnus worried his lip. “Typical. Fucking typical. We finally get another psyker in the family, not just a dabbler like Sanguinius or Perturabo, but an actual, honest to the Great Ocean psyker, and he turns out to be a self-hating one.” Magnus closed his eye. “What did I do this time?”

Horus sighed. “Nothing. Mortarion’s…”

“An asshole?”

“Complicated.”

Magnus snorted. “You say the same thing about Russ.”

Horus shrugged. “All of you are complicated. There’s nothing simple about any of you.”

Magnus sighed. “I guess I’m just doomed a lifetime of solitude, I guess.”

Horus smiled. “Aw, don’t feel so bad, Magnus. At least Sanguinius, Fulgrim, and Perturabo like you. Even Leman likes you most of the time.”

Magnus huffed.

I like you,” Horus added. “I’m sure the next brother will like you.”

“What, are you psychic now, too?”

Horus chuckled. “Nah. I’ve just got a good feeling about it.”

 

There had been a time when he hadn’t hated witchery the way he did now. He knew that. When he was small and awed by it. People with power, like his father, they were witches. Nothing ever hurt them. They were the ones who did the hurting. It was what made them more powerful than those low creatures in the valleys below. Witchery was what separated the Overlords from the Lessers.

But then he’d met humans, and he’d heard their voices. He heard their stories, and their fears, and he’d realized what damage had been done—not only to these strange creatures he felt instinctively drawn to, but to him as well. What had he been threatened with, each and every time he acted out? When he’d been beaten or starved? That his father’s cutters could keep him alive for years with their powers, while they slowly pulled him apart, finding whatever tiny grain of his body was worth keeping alive. He’d learned to smell it, and he realized it was in the very smog of Barbarus, in its rising mists and its shambling monsters. He’d seen the way it killed people, as witchfire rose from the ground or firespears rained down from the sky.

Mortarion’s hands were shaking. What he’d smelled in there, what he’d felt, it was unimaginable. Only their father felt that powerful. That creature back there could have wiped the floor with Necare and all of his kind. Witchfire? Killbeasts? Children’s toys to someone with that power. And there was nothing, nothing he could do about it. Strength was useless against such powers, the constitution that had kept him alive for so long could do nothing against the powers of witchery. If Magnus decided to attack, to tear him apart, there was nothing he could do about it—nothing any of his brothers could do about it. Only their father could bring him down. But would he? They say he’s one of our father’s favorites…

He took a deep breath, willing his breathing to return to normal, his vision to stop blurring at the edges. He was, he was fri—

No. He was not. He was the Reaper of Men, Mortarion, Primarch of the Death Guard. He was not afraid of his brother. He was not afraid of anything. Magnus was supposed to be largely benevolent (more benevolent than he himself was, anyway, but apparently that didn’t say anything). Sanguinius liked him, didn’t he? And according to Horus, Sanguinius would never associate with someone who was as evil as the Overlords had been.

They say they were like humans once. Like us. But the power they courted from beyond warped them, changed them into what they are now. He shuddered. Did the same fate await Magnus the Red? Did he even know about the dange—

A fist slammed his face into the wall. He pushed back to meet his attacker and saw a hulking, seething mass of grey armor. The face of what he could only assume was another brother was stormy with rage, and he took another swing at Mortarion. The Reaper took the blow to the side of his face but didn’t react. What the fuck now.

His brother didn’t hesitate. He lunged for Mortarion’s throat with a hamlike fist. Mortarion caught his wrist, and caught the second hand as well, but the brother turned and threw his weight onto him. He was one of the bulkier primarchs, and though Mortarion was taller, he was a hell of a lot skinnier, too. His brother threw him into the wall and pinned him against it, his deep blue eyes almost burning with hatred. “How dare you,” he hissed. “How fucking dare you.

Mortarion shifted his grip to his brother’s arms. “Who are you, and what are you bitching about.”

“I am the Lord of Iron, and you will apologize to our brother.”

Perturabo, then. As to which brother— “I have done no wrong to Magnus.”

His brother snorted. “You called him a witch, you rotten son of a whore,” Perturabo snapped. “I don’t know what that means in the shithole you wriggled out of, but I will not tolerate you insulting our best brother.” He didn’t so much drop Mortarion to the ground as try to throw him.

Luckily, the Reaper caught his feet before he could be thrown to the ground. “But insulting me is apparently on the table.”

Perturabo sneered. “Get someone else to fucking defend you. If you can find someone—no one fucking likes you.”

It stung, but Mortarion knew…it was true. No one would care if he was insulted or shamed. Well, except for— “Horus likes me.”

“Horus is currently with Magnus comforting him after you fucking attacked him,” Perturabo growled. “I wouldn’t exactly expect him to come rushing to your rescue right now.”

Mortarion clenched his fists. “I don’t need anyone to rescue me—”

“Of course you don’t.” Perturabo snorted and gestured at him. “I know all about you and your brutes. I know what kind of wars you fight. You’re a blunt instrument. Just a mindless killer, too ignorant and savage to use real tactics in a fight. You just rush in there, heavy-handed, relying on your armor to protect you. You don’t even know how any of your equipment works.” He glared at Mortarion. “I know your type. I grew up surrounded by bastards like you. Fuckers like you don’t understand intellectuals. You hate us because you know, deep down, that we could run circles around you and your barbarians. Oh. Excuse me. I meant Barbarans.” Perturabo spat on the floor and stormed away.

Mortarion stared at the spittle for a long time.

When he slowly turned away, his footsteps were heavy back to his ship.

***

Magnus was here again, and Mortarion was avoiding him like a plague. He didn’t want a repeat of last time, especially with Perturabo on the other side of the room, glaring daggers at him. His soulless automaton bodyguards stood in a wall between Mortarion and their sorcerous brother, as if daring the Reaper to attack.

Whatever. He waited until Perturabo had turned away, then slipped behind a pillar and fished a flask out of a hidden pouch in his tunic. He’d anticipated the usual dandy drinks at this party, and he’d come prepared. Agent Magenta and all her saucy friends spiced up a drink quite nicely. He just had to make sure that none of his brothers caught him enjoying something. Never show anyone you enjoy something, that was the first thing he’d ever learned. Once they know you like it, they’ll take it away from you—or take away your enjoyment of it. Too risky. The only way was to play it safe, hide what you love, never let them see that they get under your skin. He’d promised Horus he would stay here for an hour. In another fifteen minutes, that hour would be up, and he could return to the Endurance and drink in private.

“What are you drinking?”

Mortarion started and looked down in the direction of the voice. Lorgar Aurelian was shorter than most of their brothers—the shortest, in fact, so far as Mortarion could tell. He hadn’t paid much attention to Aurelian, to be honest. He knew that Magnus had taught him the art of war (never a good start), and that his campaigns of compliance were slow and sedentary, a far cry from the Death Guard’s practice of staying on the move.

In short, he and Aurelian had nothing in common.

“Just a home brew,” Mortarion murmured. “Just to get me through this interminable ordeal.”

Aurelian frowned. “What ordeal?”

Mortarion gestured at the grand ballroom in front of them. Everyone was here tonight. El'Jonson, stiff-backed, with a Russ who was acting impossibly drunk (how?! None of them could get drunk!); Fulgrim shrieking in laughter, gossiping about something no one else really cared about, Ferrus at his back like a taller, bulkier Phoenix Guard; and the Emperor, their father, lording over them all like his very presence was a gift from a higher power. Ironic. The one thing we can agree on is that no higher powers exist, no matter what Necare’s books claimed. “This…party. All these people.” He sipped his adulterated drink, taking a moment to appreciate the heady warmth that spread through his face, chest, and stomach with the poison. It was trying to claim him—how cute. He tucked the flask away for later. “I’m not staying for much longer.”

“I see.” Aurelian nodded, then looked out across the room to take in the same vista. “You don’t like it here, then?”

Mortarion leaned against the pillar. “I don’t belong here. That much has been made amply clear.” He thought about Perturabo and Dorn, but kept his face still, impassive.

Aurelian shook his head. “But you do belong here, Mortarion.”

The Reaper blinked. “I do?”

“Yes, of course you do. We all do. If you didn’t belong here, our father would not have invited you here.”

Mortarion sighed. “I think he just sent an invitation to all of us without thinking.”

Aurelian frowned. “The Emperor of Mankind does not do anything without thinking,” he said softly. “He is our careful shepherd, keeping watch over us all. Nothing is beneath his notice, no detail too small to discount. He wanted you to be here, Mortarion.”

Mortarion thought of the look on his biological father’s face, that look of disappointment. He thought of the Emperor’s annoyance in his workshop on the day Mortarion had claimed the Lantern. He thought of his imprisonment on Terra, or the look on his father’s face when he admitted that he had deliberately sought to humiliate him on Barbarus. “I guess a party wouldn’t be complete without entertainment,” he said with a shrug. “Should probably lead before his Custodes drag me out for the main attraction.”

He didn’t know what he had expected, but it certainly wasn’t the look of annoyance and disapproval that flitted across his brother’s face. “Mortarion,” he said, and he sounded disappointed, too. “Do not speak of our father like that. Just because you do not understand what he means for you does not give you the right to slander him.”

“It’s only slander if it’s untrue,” Mortarion snapped. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find someone to talk to who won’t make me gag.”

 

His time was almost up when Horus grabbed him by the arm. The look on his face was cheerful, but there was something off about the look, something Mortarion could not identify. Desperation? Anxiety? What was going on? “Yes?”

“Mortarion, you haven’t met Vulkan yet.”

Mortarion counted to fourteen in his head. “No, I haven’t.”

Horus grinned, a look of relief on his face. “Don’t worry, Mortarion. Vulkan is the nicest person you’ll ever meet. He loves everyone. You’ll love him too.”

The Reaper closed his eyes. “Will he love me too?” He felt like some part of his soul was dangling from the question, holding on with just its fingernails.

“Of course he will,” Horus said. “He’s Vulkan!”

 

Vulkan was engaged in a pleasant discussion with a diplomat from Macragge when Horus tapped him on the shoulder. Vulkan turned to his brother and smiled while the diplomat excused herself. “Yes, brother? What can I do for you?”

“Vulkan,” Horus said. “I’ve got someone I’d like to introduce to you.”

Then Horus stepped aside to reveal a corpse.

He didn’t scream. He might have….shouted…a bit…silenced the whole room…but he didn’t scream, Ferrus. That…wasn’t the way Vulkan would have described it, anyway.

But how else was he supposed to react? To skin drained of blood and the emaciated face of a cadaver? One that had been thrown in acid, to judge from the scars on its face and throat. It was tall and thin, like a nightmare that crawled out of the shadows. Were the long limbs for snatching up children? Sometimes the raiders on his homeworld would come with monsters to capture their latest victims, monsters with once-human faces—had Horus brought one of these creatures for a practical joke? Vulkan reached for Dawnbringer, and only Horus’s desperately thrown-out arm and the look of alarm on his face spared the revenant.

In the silence that followed, the monster drained its cup and threw it over its shoulder. “My hour is up,” it rasped. “I’m going home. Nice to meet you, Vulkan.” It walked away, its ironclad footsteps echoing in the still ballroom.

No one in the room moved.

“That was Mortarion, wasn’t it?” Vulkan said.

Horus sighed. “Yes,” he said. “And I told him you were nice.”

***

+++Message from the Vengeful Spirit+++
+++Sent 865.M30+++
We have a new brother, Jaghatai Khan of the Fifth. Would you like to meet him?

+++Message from Endurance+++
+++Sent 865.M30+++
No.

+++Message from the Vengeful Spirit+++
+++Sent 865.M30+++
Understood. Hope to see you again soon, brother.

***

The simplest thing to do after all of that had been to stay seven steps ahead of the rest of the Crusade. True, he’d had to share campaigns with his brothers’ troops, but only rarely did they insist on pairing him with someone else. One-Five-Four-Four had been one of them—it hadn’t ended well. After all the shit he’d given Mortarion about not using chemical weapons and “poisoning” the world they’d been sent to conquer, Manus had let Vulkan off the hook for creating a nuclear winter that would take centuries to clear, and burning off much of the oxygen in the atmosphere to boot. But apparently poisoning some bare rock on a continent that couldn’t be farmed anyway was a step too far.

Honestly, at this point…fuck this family. Fuck them all.

He stayed in contact with Horus. Horus was still good to him. Horus still treated him like a person. Didn’t call him a monster or tell him he hadn’t handled something properly—though looking back on it, he shouldn’t have lost his temper at Magnus. Ever since their first meeting, Magnus had been just as contemptuous and mocking as the rest of them. Best to just avoid brothers all together, if he could.

So when Horus contacted him to inform him that he would be on assignment with Konrad Curze, Mortarion hid a sigh of frustration and did his research. He hadn’t been paying any attention when Curze was found—he’d been busy with other things. Important things, like conquering worlds for their ravenous father’s endless appetite for conquest, dodging the words of his brothers, hunting xenos of every stripe because no one wanted him near a world full of humans, future citizens of the Imperium, anymore. He had no idea what Konrad Curze was like, other than he had been tutored by Fulgrim, which was not a good sign. (What would have been a good sign? Being tutored by Horus, obviously. So far no one had wanted to risk a new brother being irretrievably corrupted by making Mortarion his tutor, so he was at least safe from babysitting the baby of the family.)

The more he read of Curze, however, the more intrigued he was. He had grown up on a dark world, had conquered it, liberated it, in a twisted way. His troops fought with terror—most times they could get a world to comply just by showing up in the system. Just like Galaspar, or Absyrtus. The majority of the Galasparians and the queen of the Absyrtans had both surrendered based on his reputation. Apparently, the Night Lords were achieving similar ends. And with, Mortarion was interested to note, just as many complaints against him as Mortarion himself had received. When he talked to his sons, he found out that just as his own legion had become the by-word for brutal, graceless war, so too had Konrad’s become a by-word for terrorism and fear.

Something they shared in common. The contempt of their brothers. And a willingness to use their enemy’s fear against them.

Maybe…maybe he would have a kindred spirit here.

I’ve thought the same before. I was wrong. I don’t need another Manus or worse, another Magnus.

He arrived at the briefing early, and was already sitting, waiting patiently for his brothers, when they arrived. He was startled when he saw Konrad. To his shock, it was like looking at a younger version of himself. The same pale skin, the same long, dark hair, greasy with dirt or long-dried fluids. Konrad’s eyes were dark, though, black from rim to rim. It was a spooky look. But I know something about looking spooky, don’t I. Vulkan’s shriek still rang in his ears sometimes.

Konrad tilted his head at Mortarion. “Reaper,” he said in the voice that calls your name from the empty darkness. “We meet at last.”

Mortarion went still. His oldest men—the sons who had once been his brothers in battle—still called him Reaper sometimes, but only in private. He had confessed parts of his past to Horus, sure—but never before had he told the Lupercal about how much he loathed his own name. The one that Necare had given him, the name that referred to the corpses and the blood spilled in a deadly battle over which monster would get to enslave an orphaned baby—no one outside of his legion knew that, and only the ones who had known him before the Emperor arrived and stole his victory and his peace, knew that he preferred to be called by the the kind of weapon he wielded, the weapon that was not a weapon at all, but a tool to feed hungry mouths and tame the darkness.

And this new brother, the one he hadn’t even considered before this campaign, knew that name.

“It’s…the Night Haunter, isn’t it?” he said hesitantly, remembering the stories of how Konrad Curze had reacted to his given name.

The Night Haunter grinned, showing off a mouth full of pointed teeth like a shark’s. “Yes!” he said. “I am the Night Haunter.”

Mortarion nodded. “It’s good to meet you, Night Haunter.” He turned to Horus. “What now?”

Horus was staring, goggle-eyed at them both. But at Mortarion’s question, he snapped out of it. His voice, which had slowly grown weary in conversation with Mortarion over the past years (yes, he’d noticed that, Horus), was full of warmth again, like the first time they’d met. “The campaign! Perdition is proving a hard nut to crack.” He tapped a button on the holo screen and a projection of the planet appeared.

The Night Haunter glared at it and hissed. “Too inured to fear,” he snarled. “Nothing’s working.”

Mortarion nodded slowly, an idea coming to mind. Perdition wasn’t exactly the kind of planet he was normally sent to subdue, so he hadn’t been sure why he was called here—until now. But how to introduce the topic without insulting the Night Haunter? He’d just made a positive impression—he didn’t want to ruin it now by suggesting that the Night Haunter’s troops were inadequate to the task. “Then…we make them feel fear again. Give them something to…appreciate your works.” He tapped his fingers against the rim of the table. “Perhaps…a gas that activates their fight or flight response? Prime them for the Night Lords’ attack?”

The Night Haunter grinned. “He said you were clever, didn’t you, Horus? I like this plan. We’ll do it.”

***

The meeting with the Night Haunter had Mortarion cautiously optimistic. At last a meeting with a brother had gone well! The Night Haunter wasn’t the kind of friend Mortarion usually sought out. He wasn’t as fond of gore as his younger brother was. But they were both of them, frankly, freaks. They were both strange and off-putting people to the outside world, both misunderstood. Mortarion was a creature of numbers, and as frightened as the populations subjected to the Night Lords’ assaults were, the casualty rates were dramatically lower on ninety percent of the planets they were sent to. Like Galaspar, the Night Lords’ victims submitted to the Imperium without a single drop of Imperial blood spilled. Quick and efficient, even if it was messy. The rest of their brothers disapproved, but that just cemented things in Mortarion’s mind.

So when news came out that a brand new brother had been found, close to Ultramar, Mortarion had been hopeful for the first time in a long time. The more he heard, the more hopeful he was.

Horus was quick to quash that hope. “He’s dangerous. He doesn’t want friends. He will attack you.”

Mortarion shrugged. “We’re all dangerous. We were made to be dangerous. So what’s new?” He adjusted his cloak on his shoulders. “He’s a revolutionary, Horus. I’ve waited a long time for a revolutionary. For a freer of slaves. For someone like me .” For someone else who was a slave.

Lorgar is both of those things,” Horus said, arms still crossed.

“Lorgar practically worships our father,” Mortarion snapped. “He only freed the slaves to convert them to his church. Whereas rumor has it Angron told the Emperor to go fuck himself. I admire that in a man—especially in a brother.”

Horus sighed. “Not in so many words, but yes, he did. That still doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for you to meet him.”

Mortarion glared at him. “I’m going to meet Angron,” he said. “I have to meet Angron. And I’m not going to let you stop me.”

 

Horus leaned over him. “So, how did meeting Angron go?”

Mortarion extracted himself from the dent in the floor with a grunt. His whole body ached after being thrown so many times into the wall and floor. He’d thought he was tough. He wasn’t sure that Angron had any sensory nerves at all. No pain, no flinches, no reaction to punches to the solar plexus or even below the belt. Nothing. Just rage and hatred. “I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Fuck this family.”

Angron never remembered this incident. Mortarion never forgot. Shared life experiences didn’t mean shit. Horus was proof of that, the Night Haunter an anomaly.

Fuck this family.

***

“Just as a head’s up, we have another new brother.” Horus moved his navigator across the board.

Mortarion grunted and countered with his rook. “I don’t want to meet him.”

Horus nodded. “I know. Just so no one can say I didn’t tell you, his name is Corvus Corax. Nineteenth legion.”

Mortarion grunted again.

“From Deliverance.”

Grunt.

“Freed the slaves there.”

“Good for him. Has Angron pounded him into the wall like a dull screw?”

Horus surveyed the board and moved another piece. “Not that I’ve heard. Give him time, though. I’m pretty sure Angron is going for a record.”

That brought out a snort. “He would.”

There was silence between them for a long time, but it was a tense kind of silence. Mortarion looked up at Horus. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Horus took a deep breath. “He’s, ah, already lodged a complaint against you.”

Mortarion stared at him, then looked away. “He hasn’t even met me.”

“I know. But he was going through old battle reports, I think as some sort of security exercise, and he and Roboute have lodged a formal complaint about you to our father.”

“Mm. Am I a brute with no tactics and no brains?” he said bitterly.

“No.” Horus fidgeted with one of Mortarion’s pawns he’d captured earlier. “They’re worried…they’re worried that you’re more loyal to me than you are to our father.”

Mortarion stared at him for a second, then snorted again. “What horseshit.”

Horus quirked an eyebrow. “Is it not true, then?”

“Of course it’s true. But why should it matter? You’re still loyal to the Emperor, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am!”

“Then why should they worry about it?” Mortarion moved his queen to put his brother in check. “Loyalty to you is loyalty to the Emperor, isn’t it? It’s not like you’re going to order me to attack his troops.”

“No, I suppose not.” Horus smiled. He lowered his head as if to examine the board, but his eyes were surreptitiously still on his brother. “Maybe he’d feel more confident if he met you?”

Mortarion bit his lip. “No. He would not. None of them ever do.” He sighed.

“I’m sorry.”

Mortarion shook his head. “It’s not your fault. You can’t order our brothers to like me.”

“Sometimes I wish I could,” Horus sighed.

The Reaper shrugged. “Wishes are no use to anyone. Actions, those are all that matter, in the end.”

Horus nodded slowly. “I just…it would have been nice for more of our brothers to see you the way I do.”

What do you mean? He wanted to ask. He wanted to know what Horus meant, what Horus saw in him that even the brothers famed for their open-mindedness did not. But he didn’t dare ask. He didn’t want to seem needy.

Horus took a deep breath, as it coming to a decision, then smiled at Mortarion. “I should probably do something about that queen there, shouldn’t I?”

“Not necessarily.” Mortarion’s eyes softened with humor. “You could always surrender.”

Horus laughed.

***

+++Message from the Vengeful Spirit+++
+++Sent 981.M30+++
+++Received 981.M30+++
+++Read 981.M30+++
New brother found, Alpharius Omegon, Twentieth legion. You don’t have to meet him, just letting you know.

***

Thousands lay dead. The stench was unimaginable. Blood tainted the air, squeezing out all life from it. Packs of half-mad World Eaters prowled the heaps of piled dead. He was pretty sure some of them were eating the dead. He’d had his sons remove their own dead from the battlefield as quickly as they could, both to harvest geneseed and to keep them safe from Angron’s blood-maddened sons. Those nails hadn’t done them any favors, in the end. Mortarion shuddered. The rumor was that the World Eaters had submitted willingly to the mutilation, the same mutilation that had ruined their father. They wanted to court his favor, so they hammered those damned nails into their heads for the tiniest shred of affection from him. They debased themselves before their father, and for what? He’d turned on them again as soon as the blood clotted. He had no love for them, none at all. So far as he was concerned, they were just corpses that hadn’t laid down yet. Stubborn corpses.

Mortarion shuddered. How could he have ever hoped to find kinship with Angron? With any of them? Screams of agony from captives and howls of delight from traitors echoed from the Emperor’s Children camp, where Fulgrim held court with Manus’s severed head. Angron attacked anyone who got close to him, ally, foe, or corpse. Aurelian’s sons had erected altars and were sacrificing some of the last loyalist survivors to their dark gods, erasing, gallon of blood by gallon of blood, all shameful memory of Monarchia. Iron Warriors and Night Lords fought each other over the spoils of war, stripping enemy corpses bare for trophies and treasures. The Night Haunter, the only brother other than Horus who actually liked Mortarion, had grabbed Vulkan’s body and dragged it away to the bowels of his ship, giggling and gibbering all the way.

Mortarion drew his cloak close. His allies. Sparks of witch light sprung up from the altars and Fulgrim’s orgy. He frowned at them. “I thought you said there would be no witchcraft,” he said to the shadow behind him.

Horus sighed and put a hand on Mortarion’s shoulder. Horus was growing taller lately. Something was swelling his body, making him taller, broader, more…full. Not fat, just…full. Of something. It was unsettling to see their handsome brother’s body start to mutate. He was almost as tall as Mortarion was now. “Mortarion…Mortarion, Mortarion, Mortarion…Do you see all of this?” He gestured at the battlefield. “This is victory. A victory over the Emperor’s ‘unbeatable’ warriors. One of us even died today. Who could have known that would happen?”

“That one of us would die today, when eight of us clashed against three?”

Horus appeared to think about it for a second, then shrugged. “Or that we could die at all.”

I did. I knew that we would someday die. I lived with that inevitability all my life. “What’s your point?”

“My point, brother, is that we have started an unconventional war, against a very, very unconventional enemy. An unconventional war and an unconventional enemy require…unconventional weapons. New ones. Bold ones. There’s no need anymore to stick to our father’s ideals. No need anymore to shackle ourselves by his beliefs. It’s time to embrace everything we can be. It’s time to embrace the power he hid from us.”

Mortarion shook his head slowly, pulling his shoulder out of Horus’s grasp. “No. No, Horus, we cannot do this.”

Horus turned his head slowly to look at him, head tilted. “Why not?”

Mortarion bit his lip under his rebreather. “We’re supposed to be the liberators. I joined this army to save humanity from a tyrant, not damn it with another. How can we be liberators if we use that power? I’ve seen what it’s capable of. It strips the humanity from those that attempt to harness it. It corrupts people. That’s why I’ve been against witchery from the beginning. To save us. To keep us…” He struggled for words. “To keep us pure.”

Horus stared at him, then slowly smiled. There was an alien light in his eyes. They seemed to glow from some infernal fire within. Mortarion took a step back. This…this was no longer the brother he knew. This was not Horus Lupercal. This was something else. Something that thought it was his favorite brother. “To keep us weak, Mortarion,” he said gently. “You keep on denying it, brother, the gift in your blood. But someday, someone will help you unleash that power. And you will see how good, how sweet it is. You will see how weak you were now, here, on this day, on this battlefield, to deny the powers in the Warp.” He locked eyes with Mortarion.

“You…promised…”

Horus nodded slowly. “I know.”

Mortarion swallowed. “Did you know…?”

Horus nodded again. “What we would need to do to win? To defeat the godling that calls itself our father? Yes, Mortarion. I lied to you.” He turned to face the battlefield once again. “It’s time to grow up, Mortarion. Grow up…or get left behind.” With that, he walked away, leaving Mortarion alone in the darkness, watching Horus walk away, and knowing, in his hearts, that the brother who had loved him was dead.

 

The Night Haunter consumed with sadism, Horus consumed by the Warp, the rest of the Emperor’s spawn no more than allies or enemies to him, not a single one of them to be trusted.

But Mortarion had another brother. A brother he’d known for far longer than he’d known the sons of the Emperor. One who had stuck with him through victory and defeat, one who had known him and cared about him when no one else had.

Mortarion walked back to their camp, to his shuttle waiting patiently to take him back to the Endurance. Waiting at the foot of the ramp was a familiar silhouette, and under his mask, Mortarion’s face broke into a smile.

Calas Typhon.

Calas Typhon, who had convinced him to take his destiny into his own hands with just a simple question. Calas Typhon, who had guided him through a world he still struggled to understand with quick wit and quicker eyes. Calas Typhon, Clever Typhon, who fought every battle at his side. He complained, sure, and he questioned orders, but Mortarion rarely minded. There was a bond between them, a connection, one that had formed long before he’d ever learned the truth of his heritage, long before they’d been bonded by Mortarion’s geneseed. That connection had lasted throughout the Crusade, and even now, through the chaos of the battle of Isstvan III and the grind of the Dropsite Massacre, held strong, held steady.

Typhon may have been a Death Guard, may have borne Mortarion’s blood, but he was no son of Mortarion. He was the Reaper’s brother, the one who had never flinched from him, who had always told the truth.

You were the first person to tell me my life had value. You were the first person to tell me I mattered. I can never repay you for that.

But as Mortarion approached the foot of the ramp, he could see something was…off about the way Typhon stood. Mortarion stopped in front of him. “What’s wrong?” he said softly.

Typhon looked away. “I’m going away, Mortarion.”

The Reaper stared at him.

“I have a lot to think about. Questions that need to be answered. Not my loyalty.” He shook his head. “You saved my life. I will be loyal to you, always. But there are things I need to sort out. And I cannot do that at your side.”

Mortarion swallowed. “Will you be back?” he said, voice deceptively calm.

Typhon shrugged. “Someday. When I’ve sorted things out.”

Mortarion nodded slowly, his eyes and throat stinging. “Very well. Come back to me, Typhon. When you’ve found the answers you seek.”

Typhon nodded and clapped a fist to his chest in salute. “Someday,” he said again. “I promise.”

Typhon, his first brother, his last brother.

Mortarion would never see him again.