Chapter 1

oort            It hovered in the darkness of space like the gasp of some lost god in the cold night. The Oort cloud shimmered in the black ocean, icy shards and comets twirling through the darkness in a flickering, primordial glow of spiritual immateriality. It was a cosmic dance of angelic elements; pure crystalline bodies filling the ethereal expanse and Centaurs streaking about in full gallop, flaring across the ecliptic in fiery arcs. Beyond those fading edges, past the edge of known Creation, lurked the abyss. The deep unknown. It was from the depths that they came.

            A legion of asteroids, a wandering force of stone and iron, emerged from the shadows. Their pitted, ebony faces pierced the celestial shroud as they entered the cosmic firmament. Like jet bullets, the asteroids thrust through the mystical nether regions propelling themselves toward that infinitesimal point of light at its center. The speed of their advance rendered all a blur.

            The glow of the cloud soon fell away as the Kuiper belt drew near marking the physical border of the Solar System. The asteroids slowed but did not stop in their approach to that celestial river. With little hesitation the legion went to pass over. The frozen waves of methane and ammonia crashed harmlessly against the hides of the asteroids and were scattered in their wake, the legion of stone and iron pressing on through a hail of ice that thinned with time.

            Neptune’s indigo face loomed before the asteroids, watching these invaders to its realm with feigned interest. As the legion passed, one of their number broke formation and made for Triton.

            The legion’s drive continued, circumventing mute Uranus and regal Saturn on their push inward. The asteroids soared blindly by, disinterested in the majesty of Saturn’s glittering crown.

            Jupiter would not be so easily flanked. That awesome planet’s fierce visage came to blot out the rest of existence, its great scarlet eye fixated on the approaching legion. The planet invisibly reached for the asteroids, drawing them into its gravitational clutches. The asteroids struggled against Jupiter’s grip, searing rubescent across the mottled, churning atmosphere of that ancient giant. With intense effort, the legion of stone and iron crested Jupiter’s face escaping the planet’s wrath, losing sight of the gas giant in the Asteroid belt.

shower            It was not long before Mars welcomed the legion with its presence. The asteroids seemed to bask in the crimson glow, their path passing precipitously close to the bloodied body as if to pay homage in an empyreal march before that harsh world and its two lieutenants, Phobos and Deimos. But their path did not end at that barren sphere. It continued on through the night to a verdant globe of green and blue.

            The legion took up position around Earth, settling into orbit to circle their prey. While they set up a perimeter, the largest of the pack diverted toward the Moon. Rather than slow upon its approach, this harbinger accelerated. Unrestrained by the Moon’s thin atmosphere, it mutely struck the gray surface with great force throwing up plumes of dust. Something soon stirred inside.

            Within the crashed asteroid was a series of tunnels bathed in a dim rust-colored bioluminescence. Ducts and pipes ran the length of the chipped walls like veins while a thrumming pulse vibrated through the rock. Dry and torrid within the spaces, a scent of steel and sulphur permeated the air. It was a stale and acrid smell. Skittering echoed through the tunnels as unseen creatures crawled and slithered throughout the caliginous passages. Following the source of activity, one found themselves drawn to the core of the asteroid where the burrows converged into a vast cavity.

            Cruel, vicious faces of gargantuan size stared down from the ceiling into the empty heart of the asteroid. Chiseled from the blemished stone, these demonic monuments were a fearsome sight to all who dared raise their eyes. Their features were serpentine, incapable of smile or frown or any emotion in between with fang-filled, lipless maws and lidless eyes beneath pronounced brows and sloping foreheads. Many bore scars that only served to further twist their nightmarish physiognomy. These were the Krush Primarchs, the conquerors of worlds. Etched down the length of the walls beneath each countenance were scenes from their triumphant campaigns across the galaxy. These cruel beings were the objects of worship, demigods to the Krush who inspired both fear and adoration guiding generations down a rapacious path to martial immortality.

            Below, Krush guards lurked in the shadows along the periphery of the cavern. Only the shine of their lacquered scales betrayed their reptilian presence. They hid in the searing crevices, blending with the rock as they watched the frantic activity unfolding around them.

            Strange almond shaped creatures of green metal, the laelaps, hovered throughout the vast grotto attending to various interfaces scattered about, silently receiving and transmitting information throughout the invasion fleet. No larger than the torso of a young child, they wirelessly communicated with the digital spirit of the asteroid.

            At the center of the chamber a wan shaft of light streaked from the floor to the ceiling forming a diaphanous pillar. Towards that column strode a creature that could only be likened to a titan. He was Akkad, leader of the invasion fleet. Covered in glistening scales of a sallow shade, he lumbered with a slight hunch brought about by his massive upper torso and wide hips, the knuckles of his formidable hands nearly scraping the floor. He stalked forward, flexing his broad shoulders as the talons of his feet clacked on the stone. Akkad swayed with each step, letting the weight of his seven foot tall body carry him forward while his tail served to balance his mass on his short, thick legs. Something akin to a purr crackled in his throat when he neared the pillar of light. Within the ghostly glow floated a crude holographic image of the Earth represented by a collection of orange lines. That image shined in his oily black eyes.

            Akkad went to cup the world in his gnarled claws casting shadow on the gleaming sphere. “Soon shall I prove myself upon your shores,” he whispered in the hoarse hisses, whines, and shrieks of his language. “You will know my name. Call me…conqueror.” A tiny blip appeared just outside his grasp on the holographic display. “What is this?” Akkad turned to a nearby laelap, his hand slipping from the light. “What is that?” he repeated, jabbing a claw at the anomaly.

            The laelap approached the pillar of light. It silently ran a diagnostic, communicating with the sensor array. The Earth faded from view and the blip was magnified. A disc floated before them in the light. Its calculations completed, the laelap began to emanate an emerald aura. This aura expanded until it became a vaguely humanoid silhouette subsuming the body of the laelap within it. The silhouette turned to Akkad. “It would appear to be a spacecraft, primarch.”

            “A spacecraft?” Akkad stared at the disc while clicking his serrated teeth together. “I thought this world had not yet attained extraplanetary capability.”

            “It has not, primarch,” the laelap curtly replied in its monotone voice. “All data points to this truth.”

            Akkad leaned in menacingly close to the laelap’s silhouette. “Then where did it come from?”

            “Point of origin is difficult to ascertain. It does not match any known design.”

            Akkad traced the outlines of the disc. “Why didn’t we pick it up when we entered the system?”

            “Apparently it was hiding in the corona of this system’s star.”

            The primarch swiped at the disc. “An ambush.”

            “I do not believe so, primarch. It has powered up no weapons systems nor has it taken any aggressive action.”

            “Yet,” Akkad spat. “I want a full scan of that ship.”

            “Yes, primarch.”

            As the laelap hovered away, a blazing particle drifted into the cavern unnoticed. The size of a grain of sand, the radiance it possessed burned brightly in the dim confines buffeted by some unknown force. It twirled through the arid confines eventually reaching the center of the vast chamber. Then it exploded. Brilliant white light burst through the chamber flooding every crack and crevice with a searing luminosity that dissolved all shadow forcing Akkad to cover his achromatic eyes and stagger back a step. The damnable shrieks of the serpentine guards grated throughout the cavern, many fleeing into the bowels of the asteroid in fear. The exalted effulgence quickly receded, coalescing into a figure who floated a foot above the cavern’s floor. Clad in intricate robes of gold and silver stitched with glyphs that shined brightly, he seemed made of fire with tendrils flaring around him like billowing samite which served to make his indiscernible frame, possibly no larger than that of an average adolescent, appear larger and more awesome. The intensity of his glow granted the figure’s face an opaque, almost negative quality rendering his features impossible to discern. He said nothing as he hovered there surrounded by the Krush, instead silently surveying the realm into which he had materialized.

            From the periphery a squad of Krush guards charged toward the intruder. Despite their girth, the guards lunged with lithe precision, sprinting forward on all fours like wildcats toward the enemy. The being did not flinch in the face of this approaching danger. With a wave of his hand, an invisible force threw the guards back violently slamming them into the lithic wall with great force. Another pair sprung from the tunnels and rushed the fiery figure to avenge their comrades. The figure extended both his hands and gripped them into fists before lifting them skyward. The two guards found themselves pulled from the floor in his telekinetic grasp, suspended and flailing pathetically. With the flick of the figure’s wrists, the two guards crashed into one another and dropped limply to the pebbled, rubble strewn deck. When Akkad heard the skittering of others preparing to join the melee he raised his hand. “Stop!” the primarch commanded. He then turned to the being of light.

            The figure bowed his head in a respectful manner of greeting before speaking. “I am Pol, and I mean you no harm.”

            Akkad’s fanged mouth hung open in bemusement. “You speak our tongue.”

            “I speak many tongues.”

            “You also speak lies. You invade my command, attack my guards, and expect me to believe you come peacefully?” The primarch surveyed the crumpled forms of his men. “But they did provoke you did they not?” Akkad clicked his teeth together. “An impressive display. You show much courage coming into my den. You have earned my interest, though not my mercy. We shall see whether that shall be the case. Why have you come?”

            “As I have said, I am Pol. Of the Theria.”

            Akkad’s tail thumped the floor excitedly. “The Theria. I have heard of your kind in legends across countless worlds. So many spoke of you as if you were the Creators of all things. So many called to you when we found them.” The primarch’s hand passed through the pillar of light and Earth once more floated before him. “But you did not answer. And now those worlds bow to us. Your absence was enough to convince me that what truth there may have been to your kind had faded into myth. And yet here you stand.” Akkad extended his arms and made a mock bow, his eyes never leaving Pol. “What have I done to draw the interest of the gods?”

            Pol floated toward the shaft of light and the Earth it held. “You have come to this world with plans of invasion. I cannot allow that.”

            Akkad rounded his shoulders, flexing the muscles in his great arms. “And why is that?”

            Pol’s attention turned to the holographic Earth. “My reasons are my own.”

            Akkad waived that answer away. “The vague whims of a god cannot stop that which the Imperator has commanded. This world has been marked for annexation to the Imperium, an honor I have been bestowed to accomplish in the Imperator’s name.”

            Pol looked up at the primarch. “There is no honor in what you plan. To crush a world incapable of defending itself-”

            “I will admit there is no great honor in this.” Akkad’s tongue flicked out. “To crush these weak creatures shames me. I prefer challenges. But I will not defy the Imperator. Perhaps through us these creatures may learn strength. If they are found worthy of further existence. If.”

            “That is a lesson you yourselves do not understand. There is more to strength than physical power.” The flames around Pol increased in intensity. “Do not force me to teach you.”

            Akkad’s tail thrashed about behind him. “That sounds dangerously like a threat.” The primarch’s fists tightened and his knuckles cracked in preparation. “Do you mean battle?”

            The light about Pol dimmed. “How simple your mind works.”

            “Simple?” Akkad stomped forward, a guttural, bubbling rasp escaping his maw before he halted. His jaw tightened. “It is you who have not given the situation serious thought. How do you intend to stop us? Our sensors show you have but one ship versus our fleet. Even a god cannot defend against the onslaught of my forces.”

            Pol cocked his head. “If I could penetrate your most secure defenses, what makes you think I could not destroy your entire fleet just as easily?”

            Akkad turned his back, crossing his arms. “Then why bother with this useless diplomacy? Why not simply scatter our ashes across the system? Perhaps you question your superiority.” The primarch pivoted at the hip to look back at Pol.

            “I abhor violence-”

            “Yet you stand between a predator and its prey,” Akkad thundered, wheeling around to march toward the Therian obscuring the shaft of light and the Earth with his bulk.

            Pol put out a hand to stop him. “I prevent you from shaming yourself through massacring those upon the surface. This is not battle. This is slaughter.”

            “Then maybe I should give the command to open fire upon your ship before gutting you.” Akkad bared his sharp teeth. “Who knows what glorious surprises may await. Maybe there I will find a true challenge. Enter legend as a killer of deities.”

            “You’d risk battle in the void? That is a blasphemy to your people.”

            Akkad let slip a vulgar hiss. “I tire of this dialogue. You have entered the field of battle by intervening in our invasion. It is dishonorable to do anything less than fight.”

            Pol gazed into the dark eyes of Akkad. “I do not wish bloodshed.”

            “Then why bother coming here making demands like the Imperator himself? Fight or retreat. There is no other option.”

            “You are a crude, blunt breed,” Pol harshly retorted. “So rigid in your views. Yet even you are more flexible than you realize. I have watched your people for some time. You are cruel yet honorable.”

            Akkad focused on the primarchs above. “We are what we must be. We seek challenges to prove our worth spreading the philosophy of the strong.” He motioned to the scenes upon the walls. “We are warriors.”

            “And like all warriors, you have a code of conduct.”

            “Enough damn talk!” Akkad thundered. “Stop trying to seduce me with words. What do you want?”

            Pol circled around the primarch until the Earth once more came into view. “You seek a challenge. A worthy challenge for your species. Something this world could never offer you. I offer you a trial, a true test to measure your race by.”

            A purring cackle gurgled in Akkad’s throat. “What would that be?”

            “The rite of Shaka Ri.”

            Akkad chortled a flinty laugh. “War by proxy? That right hasn’t been used in centuries and only between those of the Krush. Few races have proven worthy of invoking it and none have dared.”

            “I dare,” Pol challenged bringing an end to Akkad’s hacking guffaws.

            “What right do you even have to declare it?”

            “I claim this world for my own. Even you must understand the only way to seize it is to take it from me for I shall not surrender it peacefully into your vicious hands. But there is no need for war between our forces. Let a duel of fate settle this matter. Should I win, you will retreat. Should I lose, I surrender this planet to your forces and your conquest may commence unimpeded.”

            The Earth hovered between Pol and Akkad as the primarch licked at his fangs. “This interests me. Great honor may be attained. Warrior versus warrior. The true measure of worth. And if the tales are true…you shall be a great adversary. To add this to the chronicles of conquest…” Drool dripped from Akkad’s mouth as he savored the possibilities. “Shall it be you and I battling for this world? Unlike my guards, I shall not be so easily brought to heel.”

            “I had others more fitting in mind.”

            Akkad’s tongue flicked out in query. “Who?”

            Pol’s attention shifted to the Earth. “I believe it only fitting that this planet provide our proxies-”

            “Never.” Akkad shook his head, spitting in disgust at the prospect. “These primitives are unworthy of our code. For one of their kin to represent the Krush is a blasphemy. There is no honor to be had by Shaka Ri without worthy champions. These…creatures offer none.”

            Pol looked upon the Earth. “The destiny of any world should be decided by its children. It is they who have the most vested in the destiny of their planet. They who would fight the hardest for it. It is more than a battle for them. It is the fate of their species.”

            “That is not enough to make them worthy champions. Even beasts struggle fiercely for their den. That alone does not make it a noble conflict. The test of wills. That is the noblest aspect of battle. To push beyond one’s stamina. To knowingly face death in pursuit of victory. Victory. Not for land, treasure, or power. To test one’s very core. To test their soul in combat. These creatures,” Akkad pointed at the Earth, “are no better than beasts. They lack nobility and fight for nothing of true value and are incapable of battle worthy of their world.”

            “Then we shall make them worthy,” Pol countered.

            Akkad’s teeth chattered together as he shifted his stance. “I do not understand.”

            “Genetic modification,” Pol clarified.

            Akkad snorted. “Why bother? I do not understand why we do not choose from our own broods.”

            “Who else would fight harder over this world than two who come from it? Yet one shall be Therian and the other Krush. A pure battle where the essence of who we are is tested. It is more than a battle of men or worlds. It is a battle of species on neutral ground. A true test of what we are by blood.”

            “To trust one of these creatures with Krush blood…” Akkad once more looked to the primarchs above.

            “A native bonded to you through blood may prove beneficial should you win,” Pol offered. “They could aid you in your conquest being an inhabitant of the world in question, offering you insights you could never have.”

            “And being Krush, the honor of victory would still be ours.” Akkad nodded but soon stopped. “How do you know we possess the technology to accomplish this?”

            “I have been watching your species for some time. I know you possess the means to craft your champion.”

            Akkad turned and motioned for a laelap to approach. The mech hovered to its master’s side. “Is this true? Can it be done?”

            The laelap took mere picoseconds to compute and test the hypothesis a thousand times over. “It is possible, primarch,” the mech stated conclusively.

            Akkad’s attention returned to Pol. “How can we be sure our proxies will find one another?”

            “It is the way of all things. Great power attracts great power. They cannot escape the cycle.”

            Akkad let his eyes drift to the amber, holographic Earth. “Great honor may be gained by this. A Krush defeating a Therian followed by the conquest and annexation of another world to the Imperium.” Akkad reverently gazed at the primarchs above. “My campaign would be legendary.” He nodded to himself before turning to face his adversary. “I accept your challenge. May this world quake with the battle to come.”

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