And their heralds come, three.
The scent of the Great Evil leads them here,
found on the rotting carcasses
of the ones clothed in steel.
They will know of our sins.
They will know of our taint.
To the stars they howl of the prey found,
calling their masters to the kill.
Thus, shall the Endtimes begin in earnest.
— Eltania Kivana Elis, The Negatios
The Gaussian Wall
Decades ago, the Accretians strip-mined space for light-years across in order to build the many fortresses and strongpoints that once dotted this place. The Empire brought here more than two-thirds of their Legions and navy, and their best and brightest warriors were led personally by Kesar himself.
They could do no less, since the Herodians, after so long, had finally come.
For the better part of the First Novus War, even during its most critical moments for the Empire, the Accretians stood here and died by the thousands. Their greatest losses were here, not on fated Theilanvoss. And this was also the scene of their greatest triumph. For despite the odds, the Accretian Empire managed to halt the Herodian invasion fleet.
When it was all over, the Empire hastily sent its warriors back to Novus, leaving only a scattering of sensors and automated probes amidst the flotsam of total war. Few living beings – whether it be the scions of the Alpha Adam Project or of Herodian parentage – have been through here in the decades since the end of the First Novus War.
The being, humanoid in form and features, floats half-aimlessly through the debris field. It flits to and from the scattered hulks of Accretian battlecruisers and starfighters, of warriors themselves frozen in the extreme cold of space.
If someone could see this being, it would be surprised about one glaring fact about it: this person moves through the vacuum of space seemingly without a spacesuit.
Another thing that can be observed with the being is that it appears to be… looking for something.
Here, it tarries awhile on the twisted wreckage of an Accretian warship, poking and prodding, going inside its many holes. There, it examines a floating corpse of a warrior from all angles, at one point its delicate fingers cupping an equally-delicate and pointed chin, its eyes almost to slits.
This the being does for a time. And because it is the only one moving on its own power anywhere in the vicinity, one could be mistaken to assume it was alone. But, nearby, in the shadow of a massive Accretian battleship, torn in three large pieces, were two others.
The taller of the two looks similar to the many drifting dead of Empire Accretia, although he is not one of these mostly-robotic humanoids. Its armored arms are crossed in front of its equally-armored torso, a massive cannon strapped on its back.
The smallest of the trio looks with interest at the one poring through the wreckage of the Gaussian Wall, its arms crossed above its head while leaning its body on the side of the shattered warship. Down its right side, part of a long and huge blade could be seen, gleaming with a light of its own.
“Why do you insist on this detailed survey?” the armored one asks his curious comrade.
“A good question that,” the smallest adds his voice (and one wonders how they can even speak in a vacuum). Or, rather, her. A lilting voice, as if that of a girl, its tone and manner of speech full of hinted-at mischief. “Much as I simply adore watching you move, you have been at this for the better part of an hour and I grow weary. Is the evidence here not enough for you?”
The third of the group barely misses a beat in his exploration at his comrade’s queries. “Ah, my dear, you truly lack patience, yes you do,” this third speaks in a slightly bored voice. “If Lemuria were not an irradiated plateau buried under equally irradiated sands back on Terra, their Masters would have taught you a thing or two about that virtue.”
“But she is right, brother,” the armored one said. “We have a duty to fulfill, and if we stay here any longer we might be remiss in the doing of our most sacred task.”
“Aye, what more do we need to see here?” the shortest said. “It is clear that these poor metal beings ran afoul of the Herodians. The carcasses of the warships of the Devourers have long devoured themselves, but we three, of all the beings in the universe short of our masters, can smell its taint even in a single atom.”
“Precisely why I linger,” the third one said, a glint in his catlike eyes. “I smell something.”
“And you think you can find something in these half-decayed, half-frozen corpses?” the short one said, launching from her perch to one of the floating remnants of an Accretian warrior. She casually grabs it, and breaks it in half at its midriff with a single wave and snap. “Popsicles, one and all. Even their DNA would be horribly corrupted in this graveyard.”
The third being sighed as it poked and prodded another carcass. He was nominally the leader of their triad, but he had always been a libertarian when it came to these investigations, and listened well to the inputs of his fellows. What did he expect to find in these things, anyway?
“What I need,” he murmured softly, almost to himself, “is something… alive.”
Hated as they are by their rival Races, the Accretians, or at least those who do not learn combat in Novus, cannot be faulted for being… lax.
Although there are sensors aplenty throughout the Wall, it has been the mandate by Kesar himself that a substantial enough force – around a century’s worth of elite Accretians – be kept in Battle Station Midway, a small asteroid about twice the size of Mars’ moon Phobos and on the “halfway” mark between the edge of the Wall and Imperial Space proper.
Most of the time, especially as the Second Novus War escalated, its residents were content to maintain their vigil by consulting the feedback from the millions of sensors dotting the Wall. Accreitans believe in efficiency, after all, and those things are far better in doing the job of watching the Wall than any physical presence by an Accretian squad.
Still, if the almost-careless excursion of the strange trio on the “central front” of the Gaussian Wall – and right on the spot where the Behemoth had first smashed through the Empire’s defenses – had not triggered the sensors located there, the small patrol composed of three ships from the Imperial Navy would have most certainly come across them.
Accretians can be quite the cautious things. The ones in the patrol were actually in a quandary and did not charge in on the first instance: the trio looked familiar, after all. But if that short one was a Bellato, and the tall one a Corite… how could they move about in space without space suits?
And what was a Bellato and Corite doing all the way out here on the edge of the Wall?
For that matter, what about that Accretian over there? That certainly didn’t look like any standard-issue armor, or even one of those handcrafted ones from Emperor Kesar’s time.
So the patrol contacted Midway, and they were told to “properly ascertain said Unidentified Lifeforms,” before any further decision can be made. The commander on site decided to play it smart by sending a small force of spaceflight-equipped Accretians out to… confront the trio. The Accretian commander decided to move his ships around and other assets to a crossfire position in case something went wrong.
It was at the moment the “Corite” murmured his desire to the cosmos that the lead Accretian of the squad that the commander sent reached the trio, and told them they were in Imperial Space and should identify themselves and their reasons for being here, while pointing his Launcher at them.
“Oh. We have company,” the shortest said.
“Indeed, we do,” the armored one added, now launching himself forward from where he leaned on the battleship. “And my DANA’s sensors detects three warships and several smaller objects, presumably more of these, ‘Imperials,’ around them.”
“Warships?” the shortest asked her armored comrade.
“Most likely. Cruisers, by the power output from the one at the center aiming its cannons at us head-on, and from the two vessels flanking it above and below.”
The third being remained still. Yet, minutely at first, one could discern that he was actually… sniffing. Or at least acting like he was.
“Do you… smell that?” he softly asked.
“Aye, brother,” the armored one replied, “Although these don’t look like Herodians to me.”
The shortest one huffed, drawing the massive blade from its back, “You have been fighting them all these centuries and you still are surprised to see Herodians in forms other than the ones Herodians or the Children take? They’re not all ugly as the Children, you know, although these metal monsters look little prettier.”
“True, sister, true,” the armored one said as it took from its back the massive cannon. “Its almost as if they are parodies of our blessed DANA systems. As if they spit on the handiwork of the Maker.”
“Herodians or not, one thing is clear,” the third said, materializing on its right hand an ornate staff that shone with power, “they carry the Taint, and they threaten us. Our mandate is clear. Even without that second circumstance.”
“Which ones do you want to take on, sister?” the armored being asked the short one.
“Try not to annihilate them all, sister,” the tall one said, “I want to… check something.”
“Fine, fine,” the short one said. “I’ll take on the ship in the center and its escorts, then. And that other ship below it and to the right.”
“Greedy girl,” the armored one said, with a touch of mirth.
“The other warship is yours, brother. I shall deal with these nearest to us,” the tall one said.
“As you wish, brother,” the armored one said, nodding its head in a salute to the tall being. The nozzle of the large cannon he held with one arm began to glow with familiar energies.
On the virtual representation of the bridge of the Accretian destroyer, as seen through its “node” in Command.Net’s all-encompassing domains, pandemonium was ensuing.
“I detect weapons charging, sir!” the sensor drone screamed to the small squadron’s commander. “That Accretian seems to be carrying a superbattleship-class Launcher!”
“Sir! The scout squad reports it has been engaged by the Corite!” another drone, the one who coordinated the attached compliment of warriors and starfighters of the flagship, also screamed.
“By Kesar’s Flaming Blade, what the hell is going on here?!” the commander screamed back to his subordinates. “All forces, weapons free! Engage the hostiles! We’ll just confirm who they are through an autopsy!”
“Sir! We’ve lost contact with the Bellato!” the radar control officer screamed.
“What?! What do you mean you’ve lost contact with the midget?! She was just floating in front of our squad a second ago.”
“Sir!” the sensor drone screamed again.”The Accretian’s firing!”
Seconds after that statement, an explosion reverberated through space from what would to the right and above of them.
“Sir!” the radar officer screamed, shrilly this time, “the Razorblade is gone!”
“What?!” the commander screamed back. A single shot had taken out an Imperial warship. How can that be? Not even the Corite’s Shadowspears could do that.
“Sir! Our forward squad is getting wiped out! Other squads are requesting permission to engage!”
“I ordered them to engage five minutes ago! What are they tarrying beside our ships for?!”
“Sir! We’ve found the Bellato!”
She stepped through the spaces between dimensions, and in the blink of an eye reappeared in the middle of a squad of these DANA-like things.
Almost on instinct, the short one swung her massive sword in a great circle around her.
And before the gathered Accretians could even finish registering the fact that something other than one of them was in their midst, all ten of them had been cut to pieces.
“That was no fun,” the short one said, a pout on her face. She saw the side of the Accreitan warship looming in front of her. She smacked her lips.
“Well, now here’s something I haven’t tried in centuries.”
The short one flew above the warship and hefted her sword high above her head.
In seconds, it was all over, and all that’s left of the small squadron of Accretians were additions to the floating debris of the Gaussian Wall.
“Yes, no fun at all,” the small one said, sitting on a floating rock and removing pieces of metal stuck in the serrations of the sword’s blade. “Just one slice and that vessel was cut in two. Why aren’t ships in this sector of the galaxy made any tougher? No wonder the Herodians beat them this badly.”
“You’d rather fight a flotilla led and crewed by Vanguards, sister?” the armored one asked.
“Any day, brother, any day. At least, that’d be far more interesting than this.”
While the two exchanged banter, the tall one was looking over one of the newly-dead Accretians. He was sniffing, once again.
“Found what you were looking for, brother?” the small one asked.
In response, the tall one put both hands out. Suddenly, wicked claws appeared from his fingernails, and he stabbed onto where the spine of the Accretian should be, as well as the back of its head unit. With one heave, he tore out its spinal column and brain, whole. And before the cold of space could freeze it, he put a protective shield around it.
And then, the tall one passed the whole, dripping thing across his nose.
The girl put two fingers on the dripping spinal and cranial fluids, and put the fingers to her tongue.
The armored one simply stood there, as if listening, and watching.
“I taste the Taint of the Devourers,” the shortest one said, licking her lips with her tongue clean of the spinal fluids of the dead Accretian.
“I hear the echoes of the Taint of the Devourers,” the armored one intoned.
“And I… smell the Taint of the Devourers,” the tall one said.
The three looked at each other. And then, in unison, howled into the vacuum of space.
Thousands of lightyears away, another commander wrinkled his nose, as if to get rid of an unsavory smell. His uniform had the insignia of the Taurian Alliance, and his epaulets were adorned with the mark of a Vanguard of Commander Rank.
“Sir?” his subordinate asked, behind him, as the commander and his staff looked on at the strategic planning holo display. “Are we waiting for something?”
“Do you want to go and charge them all by yourself?” the commander asked with exasperation to his subordinate. “Then, by all means young man, please do so. But please commit suicide on your own.”
“Sir, ah, I… didn’t mean any offense,” the young Vanguard said. “It’s just that… people are dying down there.”
“Was your power at your Elevation that to state the obvious? Of course we know that!” the commander said. “But in case you didn’t notice, she alone just destroyed two companies’ worth of Vanguards! If I had known she was there, I wouldn’t have sent those in the first place and waited for, oh, ten times that many!” and now all those dead brothers and sisters are on my conscience, too, the Commander thought.
The subordinate was sufficiently cowed by now and kept further comments to himself. Vanguards were the leading edge of the spear of the Alliance, their most elite warriors. True, few remain of the old cadre, the Terrans who could use the DANA systems in full, but the new breed since the loss of Ancient Earth were still formidable opponents, a match even to the Herodian’s vile Children.
But the Plagues were on that planet. And formidable as the Vanguards were, they were hopelessly outmatched.
For that matter, not just any Plague was present on the dying world below.
She held the Vanguard by its neck above her, effortlessly. One would think that such thin arms could not carry so much weight, but there she was, holding this fully-armored warrior aloft with nary an effort showing on her face.
“Why?” she asked the struggling form. “Why do you stand in the way of our holy work?”
“Murderer!” the Vanguard defiantly shouted back. “The Herodians had only landed a small force of their warriors on one island on this planet! One island! Did you have to devastate the entire world?!”
“Can you not understand?” she said, “The Taint… it is now everywhere. And we must eradicate that Taint, down to the last atom. And nothing, not even you Vanguards, will stand in our way.”
Her eyes glowed, and power flowed up her arm. The Vanguard screamed, and inside his battlearmor, he died a painful, agonizing death.
She drops the corpse in front of her and considers the Alliance fleet in orbit. A hundred warships, and more coming, perhaps even a Hastatum or two in tow. This will be a bit of a battle, if this whole fleet decides to interfere with what was left of their work on this planet.
Then, she hears something in the very fabric of the cosmos. A sound. A call.
“My lady,” a tall man with a gigantic sword strapped to his back walks up to her and kneels reverently at her feet. “That is the Call, yes?”
“Yes, my Champion, you have heard right,” she says, placing a loving hand on the head of the Plague called Blood. “Our Hounds have found the Taint again, and this time in great numbers.”
“Shall I gather the brethren, then?” Blood asked.
“Yes, my Champion, even if our work here is unfinished; this takes precedence,” she answered. “But just the ones here: I shall Call the rest.”
Blood bowed once, and proceeded to call to him three more beings.
Behind him, the Queen of the Plagues, Lady Death herself, closed her eyes. And sent out a call.
From all over the Taurian Alliance and its border with the Herodians, five other beings heard her summons. And shifted time and space, to where she was.
The Vanguard commander sat on his chair now, fingers massaging his broad, bony forehead. He still had around three companies of Vanguards in the hold of his flagship, and they were seething with the news of their dead comrades, and the dying planet below.
Four of the Plagues, and the Queen herself.
Not even the Champion, wielding the legendary Kingspear, could defeat them. He was there, a young Vanguard newly Elevated to the elite. He remembers their battalion being wiped out by the Plagues, until the Champion arrived. They thought that was the end of the Plagues, for who could withstand the power of the Kingspear, and he who wields it?
The Champion barely held his own, the Plagues only leaving because their Hounds had found a planet with a bigger concentration of the Herodian “Taint.” The Champion had only enough strength to stumble to a tall, burly, man who watched on the sidelines, and died in that being’s arms.
Today, the Commander’s force did not even have a Vanguard with half the Champion’s power, and the Zele-Kingesriche was lost that day.
“Sir, I’m getting spikes all over the dimensional sensor arrays,” one of the crewmembers said.
“What now? Is that our reinforcements?” the commander asked. The commander hoped.
“The warp isn’t manifesting on the La Grange point, sir. It is coming from inside the planet.”
The commander momentarily looked confused. Then, his face sank, and he didn’t care whether his staff saw the horror and despair on his face.
“May the One preserve us,” he intoned. “That’s the other Plagues arriving.”
She looks at her fellows, nine in all. Some floated in the air of this dying world. Some stood, surveying the area. Blood knelt in front of her. Delirium, the youngest of the ten (or at least the youngest looking), clung to her legs, a smile on her childish face.
“I apologize for taking you away from the work,” the Queen said. “But our Hounds have sent out a Call of such intensity that I believe we must heed it.”
“My Queen, it sounds quite from afar,” the Plague called Pestilence says, “Shall we abandon the work here, allow the Herodian Taint to grow?”
“I believe, brother, that we have been thorough enough to have slowed the spread of the Taint throughout the Alliance enough for the Vanguards to contain it,” the Queen said. “Let them do their duty. And I grow weary of dealing with their interference again and again. We were not born to kill the servants of the Shining Ones, after all.”
“All who stand in the way of our work must step aside or perish,” Despair said, in her deadpan voice.
“Are you talking back to Mother?!” Delirium shouted back at Despair.
“Hush, child, I’m sure your sister did not mean anything with that, but simply meant it as a reminder of our mandate,” the Queen said to Delirium, ruffling her hair.
“And I remind you of it, too,” the Queen continues. “We were born to eradicate the Herodian Taint anywhere it may be, down to the last atom. This is our sacred charge from him. If the Herodians have put roots in a distant corner of the galaxy far from the influence of the Shining Ones, should we allow it to grow unchecked? Nay: we must seek it out, and destroy it to the least and last.”
The other nine nodded as one.
“Then it is settled, brothers and sisters,” the Queen said.
Delirium looked up to the Queen. “Shall I open a Gate now, Mother?”
“Yes, please, my child,” the Queen said to her sister/daughter with a smile. “Bring us to where our Hounds found the Taint.”
With undisguised glee, Delirium ran up to a nearby hill. And on top of the corpses of Vanguards, she tore open a rift in time and space.
“This will still be a long ride, my Queen,” Blood said as the first of the Plagues entered the warpgate. “That was indeed a Call from very far away.”
“True, but we still must go there. And even more reason to leave posthaste, yes, my Champion?”
“Aye, my Queen,” Blood moved to step inside but paused. “I realized that the Call appears to originate near Lord Leon’s last known location. Do you think he is there?”
The Queen paused a bit. At the mention of the old Grandmaster Forger’s name, something in her stirred. But, like with all similar instances in the eons since she has existed, the Queen can’t seem to place what it was with Leon that evoked such reactions from her.
She brushed such thoughts aside. Their mandate is clear, and not even their Maker has the authority to gainsay it.
“If he interferes, then he dies,” the Queen said, before stepping into the warpgate.
“Sir? I don’t read the Plagues anywhere on the planet, or even the sector, for that matter,” a sensor operator said, on the bridge of the Vanguard flagship.
“Scramble the EMTs! I want a full rescue and recovery effort down on that planet ten minutes ago!” the commander shouted. “Second and fifth companies on escort duty! If the Plagues return or their Myrmidons appear, you are to hold them back long enough for the rescue units to retreat!”
“Sir… I don’t understand,” the commander’s subordinate said. “Why did they leave?”
The commander looked out of the bridge’s viewscreen to the stars beyond. “Because, young man, the Plagues have found a bigger concentration of the Herodian ‘Taint’ out there.”
“And may the One have mercy on the souls of anyone who lives where that ‘Taint’ was found.”
On the Gaussian Wall, the three floated in the vacuum of space, eyes closed, as if waiting, listening, for something.
The tall one was the first to open his eyes. “The masters come.”
“Aye, brother, although it will not be for quite some time, this far we are from the Alliance,” the armored one said.
“So are we to wait here for their arrival?” the smallest one asked.
“We are their Heralds, sister,” the tall one said, turning his head to the direction from where the small Accretian squadron came from. “We must go to where these beings live, and tell them of their Fates. It is the least we can do for them.”
“Aye. So they can at least make peace with whatever gods they have, if any,” the armored one intoned.
“It is settled, then,” the smallest one said, almost cheerfully. “That way, right?” she asked, pointing towards the direction leading into Imperial Space.
“Aye, sister,” the tall one said, opening a rift in time and space as he answered. “let us go visit this… Novus.”
And in the blink of an eye, the Hounds of the Plagues departed, leaving nothing but silence and death