The fate of their missing brethren was not hard to imagine now.
Commander Jesus Havalior of the Imperial Hounds, the oldest of the Commanders here and one of the most venerated heroes of the whole Empire, right up there with the greatest Coronals, rose to his feet.
“Where have our dead been taken, Contessa Rantha?” he demanded for everyone present.
“We are not certain, even after over a billion man-hours of data-scouring. The bodies were transferred to the undead fleets of the Emperor, and any records kept by them died when we vivified the Cemetery Worlds. However, we found no hints of Legionnaire-grade power armor in any of the barrack-tombs, nor have we found any sign of them in any of the destroyed Forge, Crown, or Throne worlds.”
His scarred fist popped, the cybered one crinkled. His head turned down to it, then back up to me.
Behind me winked up a display for Legionnaire-class prosthetics. It peeled back and up from TL 15, to 16, 17...
He stared at the Runework glowing there.
“If you remove that right now, there is going to be a Necroic Event triggered across the galaxy instantly,” I said softly.
His flesh hand, dipping towards the ancient Psychic Sword that was the Weapon of all the Commanders of the original Legion of the Hounds, stilled, and mighty emotions worked across his handsome face.
There were whole Battalions of Legionnaires who were cybered, in addition to the random members of other Legions. They typically were noted as Armored, Iron, Steel, Stone, Bronze, and other such epithets, signifying cyberization to a large extent.
The cyber-implanted Legionnaires all looked at one another, abruptly aware that they were on a ticking time clock that could literally blow up at a thought from the Emperor.
Turning them into His undead minions...
His fist popped again as he stared at the glittering metal fist on his arm with loathing flaring in his eyes. The eyes of all the Commanders were hugely grim as they pictured what could happen so instantly to their Orders.
“Can you stop this from happening?” he asked again, once again for all of them.
“Yes, but there will be a price,” I replied softly.
All of them groaned at the news. Commander Havalior stared at me, willing me to just give him what he wanted, and I stared back and stared him down.
His golden eyes closed as he calmed himself. “What is your price?”
“One: You will be Marked, and embrace thunder and the power of your bloodline... remember that it stems from the Emperor from when He was alive, not when He was the thing sitting on the throne. That thing has never been The Emperor.”
His jaw worked. “I agree to this,” he finally conceded.
“Secondly, you will declare for the Corunsun.” The whole room tensed. “I do not expect you to fight against humans in the Archduke’s name. The Archduke can handle political problems. But I want any attempt to garner your support cut off at the knees. He is already basically supplying your Battalions with what supplies you are getting now, and he did so without asking for anything from you.
“Whether you like it or not, you are going to be a political force in whatever happens if the Emperor falls... or you will be undead in His service. Your mandate has always been to protect humanity and the Empire, and those Legions that are here are because they swore to that mandate over their bloodline. We fully expect that mandate to continue in the future... because the future that is coming is going to be very different than the past, for good or ill.
“We want that right out there in the open; no hemming, no hawing, no playing political games. The Corunsuns are the only force that can possibly take down the Emperor at this point.”
He regarded me grimly for a long moment, going through scenarios in his head, as were all the other Commanders. “You do not seem to think the Fallen Princes have a chance to defeat him?”
I began to laugh slowly, but there wasn’t the least thing humorous about it. Even they felt their hackles rise.
“Do you know how many ways He had to kill off entire worlds, and leave the bodies behind?” I asked in a low voice. “The soylent additives? Do you know all the Underspire families have the same kind of necroic markers that you do? And a virus in the soylent scribes the same onto anyone who eats it?
“The brainpurgers that will mindwipe anyone under the Pstatic generators? The memetic viruses in the telepathic broadcasters? The decay accumulators under the sewage treatment centers? The soul harvesters in the torture and dissection prisons? The heartworm eggs in the water purifiers? The nanite fogs in the air systems? The Black Coding in the Boole? The ravager Bactra in the drug supplies? The coagulators in the cafee filters and dispensers? The fleshsynthesizers in the cloud seeders? The amount of necrofiers built into seemingly common cyberware?
“I don’t even want to go into the genestrains He built into most of the common pets out there for latent triggering...
“Come now. Do you think He doesn’t have a method for dealing with the little princelings who have lost their way and are making their way back to dear dead dad?”
They were all staring at me, finally, finally feeling that overwhelming sense of dread and fear coming down on them at the power and foresight of the Emperor...
And how many of those methods had we found, and were doing something about?
They were just blunt instruments, point and tell to kill. They couldn’t do anything about any of the things I had just mentioned. If the bony bastard hadn’t wiped out half the human planets out there, and I hadn’t had a whole lot of kids and Tens under me, neither could we.
If we didn’t have the single largest, most powerful, most skilled, and most coordinated bunch of Nulls, Sources, and psions of all stripes in the galaxy, it just wouldn’t be possible.
“How do you think the Emperor will kill them?” he had to ask... softly. The Demon Princes had been boogey-men haunting the honor and history of the Legions for thousands of years. To hear them talked about so dismissively was... rather belittling of the hate and fear the Legions had for them and their servants.
“I can’t even calculate how much of the modified Imperial Infusion has made its way into the hands of the Warp over time, so that they can grow new Legionnaires of their own. It’s all contaminated with Necrus Markers.
“The odds his kids the Princes have not indulged in some in celebration via drinking blood or eating flesh when they acquire it is infinitesimal. The second they did, they are one thought of His away from dead, and then one more thought away from being necrotized into His service once more.
“At short range, say, within one star system, not even the Warp will be able to do anything about it. Just like it’s total suicide for you to even think about fighting Him right now. Indeed, I don’t know why all of you aren’t undead already, and harvesting your Marshal Worlds for Him. Distraction, possibly, catering to a false sense of security that without the Mechanists and the Beacons His threat and reach are done...”
The Commanders swallowed, despite everything. The Emperor... truly was the Emperor. Could a mortal man possibly defeat Him? He was basically waiting for the Princes, and the forces dominated and controlled by the Fallen Legions, to come in and deliver themselves to Him... and then He would take everything they delivered to Him.
To say it was blood-chilling was anything but an understatement.
“Can you beat Him?” Commander Havalior asked, fist clutched so hard his nails were piercing his palm and blood was falling, coagulating before it hit the ground as rubbery pellets.
“Probably.” I smiled winningly. “Unlike you, we have a great edge in that He can’t use Prescience to arrange a perfect solution to what we do before we do it. So, for the final fight against Him, ideally none of you will even be in the Sector, or He will snuff you and take you.”
That sensation of being useless was very unfamiliar to them, and they didn’t like it a bit.
Another Commander rose to his feet: Chestaro Felin, Commander of the Imperial Lions, both great rival and great peer of Havalior. “Then what task would you have of us?” he demanded in a powerful voice. “We cannot sit idle while the Empire is destroyed about us!”
“First you need to save your Battalions. That means you must be Marked, Embrace Thunder by Opening your gift, return home, and rid yourselves of the gifts of the Emperor that will kill you and your men.
“That will mean that you are going to be largely weaponless, armorless, and unable to trust the special ships, technology, and everything else the Emperor has provided for you.” They all flushed despite themselves. They had been set up to die at His whim for ages, and now they were caught in the middle of it all.
“There will have to be mass Regenerations. We have to get you new ships, new Armor, new Weapons, and these must be yours, and yours alone. If you think that the Corunsuns can just drop a full equipment kit for a Legion out of nowhere, hah!... You are wrong, we can.”
They all flinched, despite themselves. The fact we could do that meant we had planned it, and probably planned it for a very long time.
“Unfortunately, we can’t make it all highest-tier right off the bat. You will have to grow the Armor yourselves. But if you do, it will truly be your Armor and Weapons, each unique, each Named, and each will bear the mark of those who wear it who come after you.
“If you are willing to do all that, then it is time for you to organize properly, and not this random-ass scattershot approach to troubleshooting that was inflicted on you to break you up and limit your ability to defend humanity.
“If you are going to be humanity’s defenders, it is time to step up and take the role, instead of having it determined by pslaves controlled by crystal bones on a crystal throne.”
The Hound and the Lion glanced at one another, and the Hound lifted his artificial hand slowly, giving it the same look he would give a traitor begging for his life at his feet.
The Lion looked around slowly. “Brothers?” he growled, the decision before them the obvious one to make.
Huge warriors in apparel of many colors and decorations slowly rose to their feet in support. The Hounds and Lion Battalions were the first, of course, but the Bulls were scarcely slower, and the Falcons and Panthers soon followed.
All eyes turned upon the Serpents, and the cunning, calculating eyes of Sethimul, the Commander of the Imperial Serpents, and one of the most feared men in the Empire.
His dark eyes with red slits opened, his face as cold, calculating, and unemotional as always.
“There is only one path forward I can see that might lead to victory.” His voice was low and disturbing, and the other Serpent Commanders nodded slowly around him. The eyes fixed on him. “Contessa Rantha, this lack of empathy, this alienation from the humans we are meant to protect... you say this was inflicted upon us?”
“Then it is a weakness that must be expunged. If I must be a merciless killer, that will be my choice, not that of a scientist in a bottle. I will make that choice, and live with the honor or dishonor of it, not disregard it as irrelevant. I will finally understand things I have long forgotten and discarded.”
“You need only Embrace Thunder, Commander, and that process will begin,” I said calmly.
He hove to his feet. “Up, brothers. Take back your will!”
Silently, smoothly, the Serpents rose to their feet, and the Six Legions of the Empire were standing facing me...
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- Auburn, Michigan
Bio: Editor of online webnovels, mostly at Webnovel and Wuxiaworld. Also edit Ebooks. Long time video gamer, former MMO player, lifelong [email protected] fan and RPG guy, fan of both science fiction and fantasy. Don't ask me to choose between Trek and Wars, I love all the Stars.