“Your a fool, Thorir Thorirsson,” said the Rune-Priest, Brother Lokiir. He looked each member of the little delegation in the eye, pausing just long enough so that he could get the measure of each. And with each steely gaze, his resolve wavered ever so slightly. Here were heroes, a voice inside himself said. Some of the most decorated and respected members of the legion. And yet...
“Furthermore,” continued Lokiir, frowning as he tried to muster his resolve. “To even suggest such a thing is treason. Treason of the highest sort. You understand that, heya?”
No one spoke. The allegation had been laid bare, but still no one flinched from it. All around the bare stone room there was only silence. A half dozen superhuman warriors who had collectively faced down thousands of opponents, from monstrous xenos, to rebellious humans and beyond... and for moments at a time not one dared speak.
“Heya,” said Thorir, eventually. “It is treason well enough. I have made my peace with that, though it is no easy thing.”
Voldir snorted at that, the noise distinctly bestial in the close confines of the room.
“Something to say, Hammer-lord?” asked Thorir, eyeing the larger Astartes with the same wry smile with which he approached all his business. Not that he could help it. More than two hundred years ago a close encounter with a xenos warrior had seen to that. The apothecaries had done what they could, but Thorir's face had never quite regained the same degree of expression it once had, and as a consequence he almost always looked slightly bemused by his surroundings.
As to Voldir, the Hammer-Lord, well, his expression just meant he was a sour old warrior who had been denied his comforts for too long. There was really nothing more to it than that.
Voldir the Hammer-Lord folded his massive arms and looked straight at Thorir. He, like every member of the Space-Wolves legion of Adeptus Astartes, was a genetically enhanced warrior who had dedicated his life to martial pursuits in the case of the Imperium of Man. Unlike many of his fellows however, Voldir's specialty was in leading the assault from the very tip of the spear. His cadre of Thunder-hammer wielding wolf-guard were respected and feared for this reason, both within the legion and beyond. The man himself was a veritable mountain of muscle, towering over all others in his command, and his thick, black beard was instantly recognizable even from a great distance.
Voldir's long service had also made him somewhat defeatist, ornery, and prone to fits of almost unstoppable rage. These traits were not uncommon to Space-Wolves however, and so were generally overlooked.
“If he doesn't join you know what we have to do,” said Voldir. He snorted again, the noise not unlike that of a horse. “Did I not say it? Was I unclear? This is a waste of-”
“That is well enough,” said Get, the smallest among them by far. He scratched at his unruly mop of red hair, as wild and untamed as he was. “There is no need for that talk. We all know what we're about.”
Voldir's eyes bulged and his fists clenched. He opened his mouth to speak.
“Indeed,” said Thorir, “That is enough of that talk, I think.” He looked Valdir in the eye again and the larger man's temper flared visibly. Thorir did not back down. A moment passed. Valdir looked away, calming himself internally even as he muttered something under his breath. He turned away, stomping across the bare stone floor to look out the only window of the room, a tiny slit in the stone that showed a fraction of the icy landscape outside. Thorir turned back to the Rune-Priest. They locked eyes once more. Thorir spoke, his words showing a trace of mirth.
“We are, apparently, about treason. Heya?”
If it was a joke it was in poor taste. Several members of the little congregation growled at the sheer impetuosity of the words. None there liked the word, nor what it represented for any of them. As members of the Adeptus Astartes, the very idea of turning their backs on the Imperium was as abhorrent to them as the worst abominations of Horus and his traitor legions.
Yet here they were. The words had been spoken and spoken again. They couldn't even deny them anymore. It was the very reason they were all gathered together, here, in a small, cold, room with bare stone walls.
“Let us reason this logically,” said Brother Ursine, the eldest among them, and the only Wolf-Priest. He sat down carefully, to one side of Brother Lokiir. Lokiir's cot, a simple construction of rough cloth and wood, creaked under their combined weight.
“The Imperium,” he began, his voice taking on the same airs of both plodding recitation and fiery passion that marked all his oration, “we can all agree, I think, is a great and powerful thing.”
There were murmurs of assent from all those present.
“That being said,” he continued, “None here would imagine for a moment that the Imperium is without its flaws.”
A slight pause, each member of the conspiratorial congregation unsure how exactly to respond to that. Eventually, like any good leader, Thorir spoke for all of them.
“Heya,” he said. “There are problems well enough.”
Brother Ursine continued.
“We are, at this very moment, bearing witness to the exploitation of those same flaws,” he said, emphasizing the last word distinctly. “It is a particular, brutal, and terrible time for our beloved Imperium... but one not without precedent. Indeed, while one can lay blame on certain individuals for the state we are now in... it did not become such a way without other, underlying causes that need to be addressed. Problems that, if we were each being honest, we will not see solved anytime soon. The one of which I refer knew this, surely, and it aided in his decision to do terrible things. That does not mean that the root of the problem lies with his evil... but rather that the evil has existed within our shared society for some time. He is a symptom, my brothers, not a cause.”
There was a moment of silent reflection all around. Brother Ursine folded his hands carefully, his logical mind working hard under a thick mane of brown hair that covered almost his entire head and face. His real name was not Ursine, of course, but after many years none bothered to refer to him by anything other than the battle-name he had earned.
“You know, of course, whom I speak of,” said Brother Ursine, casting his gaze from one man to the next. None would meet his eyes at first, each considering for themselves whether they really wanted to be counted in the same infernal roll as the Arch-Traitor himself.
This sort of forced reflection had been a tool used by Brother Ursine for centuries. As a Wolf-Priest it was his duty to attend to the psychological well being, development, and stability of his brothers. He had many such tools for this of course, from talks exactly as this one, to roaring sermons of extreme volume and almost palpable violence. On the whole he found that he preferred to engage the hearts and minds of his brothers with logic, reason, and the sagas of noble lineage they all shared.
For this, and other reasons, Brother Ursine was regarded as strange by his fellow Wolf-Priests. He didn't mind though. For Brother Ursine, the Imperium was always supposed to be an expression of humanity's noble intent, and to him that meant that the intent had to be honored. Petty praises of the Emperor, the Imperium and its accomplishments he regarded as beneath him. When Brother Ursine spoke, he wanted it to be because he had something to say.
For this reason, Brother Ursine had been the very first person that Thorir had come to. It was he who helped Thorir find all the others, for better or worse.
“Horus,” said Get, turning to spit on the hard stone floor. “Your talking about Horus.”
“Do I come to your quarters and spit upon your floor, my brother?” said Brother Lokiir, glaring at the youngest conspirator.
Get looked embarrassed at the admonition, and hastily wiped at his mouth.
“Sorry Rune-Priest. I didn't think.”
“What does the arch-traitor have to do with your proposed treachery?” asked Lokiir of both Thorir and Brother Ursine. “You don't wish to follow-”
“Of course not,” interrupted Thorir. His face twisted slightly in disgust. “This has nothing to do with that.”
The others nodded or growled their agreement from their places around the room. Not Brother Ursine however, who had a thoughtful look on his face.
“Not necessarily,” said Brother Ursine, raising a single finger in counter-point. “Horus' betrayal, and that of his kin, provides us here and now with something of an... opportunity.”
Several bristled at that, but Throrir knew his old friend. He knew exactly what he was talking about. He should, the two of them had spent months discussing it before ever speaking to another soul. At this point, Thorir felt the old Wolf-Priest was as much responsible for their planned treachery as he was himself.
Brother Ursine tapped the side of his head.
“You know me, heya? I've learned the sagas. I've read the texts. I've seen... four centuries of service to the all father now. By the stones that's a long time. I'm no pup is all I'm saying.”
He looked around again.
“None of us here are whelps, wet behind the ears and eager for their first kill.”
Get grinned foolishly.
Brother Ursine smiled at him.
“Okay, perhaps one of us is still a whelp.”
Thorir cuffed the smaller man playfully and Get yipped like a wolf cub in response.
“My point is this,” continued Brother Ursine, “We have each seen what the Imperium has had to offer. We have witnessed, in our time, all the blood, the pain, and the sorrow that it gives its citizens as their daily bread. We have borne witness to atrocity after atrocity, often-”
“It is our place as warriors,” snapped Brother Lokiir, his face torn by emotion. The room suddenly dropped in temperature, Lokiir's latent psychic power manifesting itself at his words. “Do you not see?! You fools. We serve-”
“We serve for what?” said Brother Ursine softly. The Rune-Priest opened his mouth to speak, filled with righteous fury, then he hesitated. The psychic cold dissapated, just as quickly as it had come.
“Do we receive pay?” asked Brother Ursine. “Perhaps thanks? Are we now sitting by a warm fire, with a contented woman by our side, and a glass of mead in our hands? No? Perhaps we then have a pup or two to watch frolic at our feet. Heya, a stake, as the humans call it, to plant in the ground and declare that our lot is the same as the Imperium's. Heya, do any of us have that? Voldir? Iberio perhaps? Surely your machines have given you something to look forward to in the future- nay, in our shared future...”
Iberio did not respond. The Iron-Priest's mechanical eye moved on its own accord, focusing and un-focusing silently as his face remained impassive. None of the others spoke either, so Brother Ursine continued.
“And yet, we here have all, at one point, lived as men live. Heya. You all remember that surely. Thorir, did you not once live as a man?”
Thorir nodded silently.
“Get, young brother, the time in which you were mere flesh must still be fresh in your mind surely?” asked Brother Ursine.
“I've been here more than half a century, you old coot... but, yeah, I still remember.”
Brother Ursine smiled back at him.
“Then we remember, do we not? The very struggles and triumphs we once enjoyed. We remember when our lives were more than a parade of endless atrocities. We remember, and, it is my firm belief, it is this memory that allows us to understand the need for... something else. Something better...”
His voice faded for a moment. Suddenly he whirled around to face Lokiir again, his voice suddenly faster, louder, and less measured.
“Tell me, Brother Lokiir, do you believe that when the Emperor crushes the Arch-Traitor, that all will be well? Heya, do you believe that our task will become easier after nearly half of our brother legions have been led along the path to damnation?”
Lokiir could not meet his eye. Still, to his credit, he gritted his teeth and he answered anyway.
“No,” was all he said.
Brother Ursine nodded at that. When he next spoke he was once again measured in tone.
“Heya, no is correct... But let us talk of something else. When the humans serve, just as we serve, in the defense of the almighty institution of the Imperium... does anyone here know for how long they must continue their service?”
Lokiir spoke up.
“That's not the same,” he said. “A human's life is short. They cannot be expected to-”
“You are correct, of course, my brother,” said Brother Ursine. “Yet, still, are they expected to spend the remainder of their living life in service to our cause?”
Lokiir shrugged, slowly.
“Many die. Heya, I've seen it. We all have. The Auxillia-”
“The human Auxillia spends between twenty and twenty five years in service to the Imperium,” said Thorir. He met Brother Ursine's eye. There were advantages to having had this conversation many times, across many months.
“That is correct Thorir Thorirsson,” said Brother Ursine. “Furthermore, when they complete such a term, as dangerous as it is, they are given a pension, a plot of land to call their own, and a writ excusing them from all further service. They are often thanked, and many of their fellows greet them as heroes forevermore.”
“That's a bit idealistic,” he said, flashing a smile that almost instantly conveyed something of his hive-world upbringing. “Your forgetting the arbites, the gangs, the-”
Brother Ursine held up a hand and the young wolf stopped.
“I concede that point,” he said. “But would say that, in context, it only furthers to strengthen our greater argument.”
Brother Ursine turned to Iberio, who had remained nearly silent throughout the exchange.
“Brother of the Iron,” said Brother Ursine formally, “Tell it plain, in the ranks of the Mechanicus, what awaits a mortal who has worked for twenty, thirty, a hundred years in loyal service?”
When Iberio spoke, his voice was scratchy and distinctly mechanical. Like most of his body, his throat had been replaced years ago after a plasma-cannon overheated at nearly burned him to a cinder. It had been an ironic injury, some had said, and proof that the machine spirits did not suffer the likes of mortals to tinker with their internal workings.
Iberio, when he had heard this for the first time while still contained on his sick bed after the accident, had nearly died from laughing. To him, as a former adept of the Cult Mechanicus and now a Space-Wolf Iron-Priest, there was nothing more ridiculous than those who continued to cling to the absurd notion that the machines of the Imperium could not be understood or replicated. This minor heresy, of which he was well known, had kept him from further advancement within the Mechanicus. An act of almost suicidal bravery had temporarily changed his fate, and allowed him entry into the ranks of the wolves. But that was more than two hundred years ago.
Time had only served to make him more bitter.
“The Cult Mechanicus rewards its followers with rejuvenation treatments, bionics, replacement limbs and organs. It doles out accolades and luxuries for those willing to adhere to its tenants. It treats its fellows well... provided they do not deviate from the proscribed limits of their purview...”
None then present needed the Iron-Priest to elaborate further, and so Brother Ursine continued after a moments reflection.
“Do you hear that?” he said. “Even the priests of the Mechanicus, whose senior members no more resemble the common human than ourselves, even they are given luxury, reward, and an easement from pain.”
He looked around again.
“Do we not deserve the same? A simple rest for our troubles? An easement to our burdens-”
“We can bear more!” hissed Lokiir. His eyes were downcast, his mind considering. “We must. It is our purpose to... to...”
Brother Ursine touched Lokiir on the shoulder. He waited until the other man was looking at him once more. When he spoke it was soft.
“And is the purpose of our loved ones to suffer as well? Tell me that true, my brother. If it is our purpose to bear the most terrible burden, why then are our loved ones left out... freezing, in the coldness of the night...”
Lokiir looked confused at that, but Voldir drew in a long breath. He folded his arms across his massive chest and lowered his face into his beard. Brother Ursine looked at him, slowly.
“I am sorry, my brother, to dig up old wounds. I do not wish to cause you pain, but we need Brother Lokiir to understand our cause. ”
Voldir said nothing, but his head gently bobbed in understanding. Brother Ursine turned back towards the confused psyker next to him on the cot.
“There are those among us... who once had such a thing as family, as kin. Who were respected and loved in their communities. Who thought that to enter the service of our legion would be the highest honor, and would better the Imperium as a whole...”
He slowly turned back towards Voldir. Lokiir's gaze followed his.
“My brother...” said Lokiir, hesitantly. “Tell me please, of what does this man speak?”
Voldir could not meet the Wolf-Priest's gaze, nor the Rune-Priest.
“He had a family, long ago. He had children, seven, I think-”
“Nine,” said Voldir. He did not look up to meet the gaze of his brother.
“Nine then,” said Thorir. “And he had a good wife. When she died, Thorir was heartbroken. He was lost. In his loss he turned to the recruiter for solace. The recruiter, a man now long since dead, promised that if a man as mighty as he were to join the wolves... that surely his family, his kin, would be provided for.”
“The Imperium protects its own,” said Voldir, with bitterness. He breathed deep and slow.
“Heya,” said Thorir, nodding. “That was the phrase for it. So Voldir took the trials, he took to the training, and of course he succeeded. How could he not? Have you seen the man?”
There was a slight smile on Voldir's lips, and Thorir allowed it to dwell before he continued.
“After the training had completed, and Voldir had been blooded, he was allowed dispensation to return to his village, his hall, and see what had become of his kin.”
Thorir approached Voldir warily, as one does an animal that has not been tamed. He tentatively placed a hand on the massive shoulder of the larger man.
“He made the journey easily now, of course, and could not wait to see the pride reflected in the eyes of his children...” His voice became softer. “But I'm sure you all know that didn't happen.”
Thorir looked into the eyes of Voldir, seeing the sadness that had never dissipated there.
“Almost as soon as Voldir had left, a rival clan had raided and conquered the holding. Voldir's home was taken from him. His children? They were... cast out... into the cold.”
“Needless to say, they didn't last long there.”
No more needed to be said. Each then present knew well enough how harsh and unforgiving the Death-World on which they lived could be.
“Voldir killed the rival clan of course, and burned down their hall, the very same that had once been his.”
Thorir suddenly slapped the larger man on the back.
“But that wasn't enough for our Voldir!” he chuckled and others chuckled too, though they did not know why. “The big man wasn't satisfied with simply a little revenge. He went to the former home of those who had killed his family and he made them regret their decision... or at least he would have.”
He winked at the large man who seemed almost embarrassed now.
“What was her name again, my brother?”
“It's not important,” said Voldir, actually blushing slightly as he pushed Thorir's hand off his shoulder. Thorir only laughed. Brother Ursine felt it was the right time to steer the conversation once more.
“It is important, but perhaps not to our larger point,” said the Wolf-Priest. He turned back to Lokiir.
“The larger point is that, amidst the rubble and ruin of his life, our Voldir found someone and something new to love. I shall not say more, for fear of my own safety to say nothing of the embarrassment of my Brother, but, eventually, when this became known: the relationship itself was declared anathema,” said Brother Ursine nodding. “And in this case things were resolved in a less... extreme fashion. The woman was taken to a new world. The mead hall that... someone, built with his own two hands was given to a loyalist friend of the Legion.”
“And we must be content with this... imperial justice, as it stands.”
Voldir closed his eyes and turned back to the window. Brother Ursine got the message.
“Other examples are less extreme,” he said, turning towards Get.
“And while they too have injustices, grievances, ambitions...” He smiled at the younger Astartes again. “Perhaps even punishments meted out unfairly? A harsh world made ever harsher because of-”
Get couldn't contain himself.
“It's not fair!” he said, sounding even younger than his years. “The Xanu-Root has been cultivated and used by the inhabitants of Cordellia for thousands of years! Normal humans metabolize it for decades without almost any long-term effects. Why, when I was a ganger we would-”
“You are right,” interrupted Brother Ursine. Get stopped in mid tirade. “The ruling was unfair. A warrior deserves his comforts. None here would disagree with that, I think.”
None spoke, and so he continued, once more looking from person to person, wolf to wolf.
Until at last his gaze came to rest on Lokiir.
“Some, it can be said, have more... grievance, than others.”
Lokiir exhaled loudly. He looked at Thorir.
“You broke your word?”
“He didn't have to,” said Brother Ursine. He smiled softly. “I am a priest of the wolf. It is my duty to know all that happens to my battle-brothers... including those secrets that some would have... buried...”
Lokiir drew in another breath. He looked around the room again. Eventually he looked down.
“I will say it,” he said. “My... my genetics are... not of Fenris. I am of Ultramar. My gene-seed does not bear the mark of the great wolf.”
Some were surprised, but others had suspected for some time. It was Voldir who moved first, his heavy footfalls echoing on the stonework. He slowly and deliberately placed a heavy hand on Lokiir's shoulder.
“Brother,” said the giant of a man. “Listen, please. What Brother Ursine speaks rings true. Listen to it... as a true brother wolf would.”
Lokiir took another deep breath. He turned back to the Wolf-Priest.
“They aim to send me back,” he said. “As soon as we are no longer needed in the fight. I shall... become an Ultramarine once more.”
The Wolf-Priest shook his head slowly.
“You will not,” said Brother Ursine. “You will listen... for what I have to tell you is a betrayal, but you have been betrayed already. Listen instead to hear how we, true brothers of the wolf that we are, will make things right.”
His words seemed to echo within them all. He looked around the room for a moment. His gaze falling naturally to Thorir.
“Wolf Lord Thorir, if you would please explain, once more, as to your sacred vision?”
Thorir stood tall and proud. His jaw as set. He was not overly large for a member of the Adeptus Astartes, nor was his face scarred or marked by the horrors of war. Yet for all this: there were none there present that could stand against him in battle. Wolf Lord Thorir was a living terror and embodiment of the very spirit of the Space-Wolves. After serving for more than five hundred years: he had to be. Long ago, Thorir had lost count of the number of enemies he had personally slain in the name of the Imperium. Long ago, Thorir had mastered the savage fury of his kind, overcoming the genetics of rage that so often overwhelmed those new to the order. He was known as a thinker, a warrior, a cool-headed commander and a slayer of monsters.
Yet for all that, Thorir knew that there was something missing in his life.
The campaigns and victories of the wolves under his charge had become routine over the long years. The words spoken in praise of Imperium and God-Emperor had become hollow. There was desire in his heart, a certain yearning he could not place. Those who knew him well had been aware of it for some time, but it was only in recent years that the desire had begun to gnaw away at him.
Then the dreams had begun.
They were terrifying at first. Night after night, Thorir would awaken not knowing who he was, where he was, feeling alien within his own flesh. Naturally, he first went to his most sacred companion and confessor: Brother Ursine. The dreams continued. Thorir consulted with psykers, priests, and lords of his Legion. None could give him the cause for the dreams, nor the solution away from them. Eventually, Thorir simply came to accept them. After that, the years growing ever longer, Thorir saw them as a great gift. A unique gift, perhaps.
When Thorir dreamt he saw himself living across a hundred different lives. He would often appear as warrior certainly, but also sometimes as father, husband, farmer or builder. He saw himself killed in these lives by the very horrors he had himself slain, a disinterested Imperium shrugging its shoulders and ignoring his death, just as it had with so many others. Still the dreams persisted. He ran as an innocent man, pursued erroneously by the Arbites in a stinking hive-world. He begged for his life as a bartender, while Commisariate cadets kicked him and laughed. He was a prosperous merchant at once brought to ruin, a young boy drafted straight to his death at the hands of imperial negligence, a medico on a fringe world accused of heresy and tortured until his heart gave out. He was all of these men and none of them.
And so it was that a seed was planted within the great warrior. A seed watered by dreams.
Thorir wanted more. He needed more. He, and his kind, didn't they deserve more? Did not all citizens of the Imperium, nay, all humans deserve more than their lot under the rule of an uncaring bureaucracy? Given time, years passing in a flash, he grew to think so. Gradually it became more than a thought. Gradually it became a plan.
When he finally worked up his courage enough to speak his thoughts to Brother Ursine, the Wolf-Priest had listened with interest. He said that he needed time to think it through. Less than a week later: the Wolf-Priest became his first convert. After that things began to pick up steam. Tentatively at first, but gathering momentum as it continued. Now, when the dreams came, Thorir reveled in them, explored them, and awoke refreshed in mind and purpose.
He knew what he had to do. He knew what must be done. Thorir Thorirsson was a born leader, a slayer, and so much more.
He spoke, and those around him listened.
Now, once more, it was time for him to speak again.
“We shall form our own society,” he said, the words leaving his lips never to be undone. “A society based upon the belief that humanity deserves better than what the Imperium has to offer it.”
He looked around, gauging the reactions of those in the room. Some were grimacing, wrestling with the concept of turning their backs on all they had known. Still, none had recoiled or turned away. That was good, that was a start.
“And furthermore,” continued the Wolf-Lord, Thorir Thorirsson, “I know exactly how we shall escape. Where we shall go, and how it is that we never be punished by those we leave behind.”