‘Capture an enemy. Hurt him. Make him suffer; make him bleed. Expose the target with his comrade’s anguish and in that distraction, strike. This is the lesson.’ — Codex Umbra Militiae
The anaemic dawn broke on the horizon, its weak sunlight barely penetrated the oily mist that smothered the ground. The motionless silence unbroken by the local fauna. Corporal Arkan was grateful, it was hard enough to keep focus this early in the day, and he needed to stay sharp after the strange reports coming in from this patrol sector. Tales of an armoured giant, assisting guerrillas in the surrounding hills, were easily dismissed by High Command as peasant folklore. The casualty rates for returning patrols were harder to ignore, as was the condition many of the corpses were returned in. ‘No human could do this’ as one chirurgeon remarked.
As they reached the first marker, the lieutenant halted the platoon, so each section of the patrol could report in. The battalion formed a perimeter, their lasguns trained on the murky nothingness ahead. Each man being keenly aware, even through their drowsiness, that whole platoons had marched into this valley and not returned. Arkan took the opportunity afforded by the respite to reflect on the previous weeks. There was a lot to consider. It had been forty-nine days since his garrison’s regimental commander had murdered the Planetary Governor and seized control of Capital Hive. The corporal’s local knowledge had placed him at the forefront of the brutal pogroms that followed. Cowed by the overwhelming violence of the rapid insurrection, most urban areas had promptly bowed to this secessionist despot. However, the planet’s hinterland remained far less compliant.
The Regiment’s campaign was now centred around smashing the countryside into submission. Arkan reminisced darkly, as the trailing smoke from his tabac stick, suffused with the memories of acrid plumes billowing from the mass graves of erstwhile citizens. He would never forget those smoking corpses piled metres into the air, Imperial loyalists that would not see reason. The coup, the occupation, and even the genocide had all made sense to him; he had mutely accepted all of it. However, Arkan could not fully silence his disquiet. This level of prolonged savagery was bound to attract attention eventually. More importantly the planet was far from meeting its annual tithes, and the Commander had no intention of paying the Corpse Throne its due any time soon. It was a dark miracle that the Imperium had not responded already. Even given the planet’s backwater location and the comprehensive slaughter of its Astropathic Choir, in the first hours of the coup, surely they would have noticed by now?
Barked orders to advance stirred Arkan from his uncomfortable musings. ‘These are dangerous thoughts, suppress them,‘ he cautioned himself silently. The patrol set off again as a staggered column of men, drowsily checking their surroundings. Freedom from the Imperial oppressor was sold as emancipation from the spartan life of Imperial Guardsmen. It was an alluring prospect that beguiled near the entire garrison into defecting immediately and supporting the Commander’s murderous gambit. Certainly, this was the earliest Arkan had been awake since the night of the coup itself. The corporal was not worried though. These men were veterans, battle hardened survivors of countless wars across the galaxy. Behind drooping eyelids watchful stares glinted, fingers expertly hovered over lasgun triggers. Boots tracked noiselessly over the wispy tufts of dry grass. If the guerrillas attacked, they were ready.
Ahead of Arkan, the scout had already trekked into the gloom. He was not envious of that role. It was well understood that disappearing into the unknown did not promote longevity in guardsmen. This mist did nothing to change his mind. At times like these, the corporal was actually thankful for the extra bulk his auspex kit entailed. With multi-spectral sensors and enhanced infrared, he was the only one who could actually hope to see through the fog. He smiled as the blank monitor reflected empty plains and clear skies for kilometres around; it was almost beautiful.
Corporal Arkan looked up from the auspex monitor, almost colliding with the man in front of him. The stammering guardsman had staggered backwards, aghast at the eviscerated torso splattered over his feet. Arkan went pale. Others had noticed the commotion, stopping, turning and freezing at the sight of their mangled comrade.
The corpse was severed at the waist, missing its legs entirely. An acrid stench of cauterised bone and flesh wafted into the cool air. It was a crimson mess, a blood spattered flak-jacket was the only thing holding it – him – together. As liquefied organs slowly began to ooze from cracks in its ceramite plates, Arkan glanced at the remnants of his former comrade’s arm. The bones had been totally shattered, and it was now awkwardly draped akimbo. It took a moment for Arkan to notice that the whole limb had been completely popped from its socket.
Deafening silence roared in Arkan’s ears. Time slowed and colour faded, as guardsmen rushed to this horrifying spectacle. Vain cries for medics dimly washed over him, as dark thoughts rooted him to the spot. ‘Who knew they were here? What could have done this? And why couldn’t I see anything on the auspex?!‘
Arkan was jolted back to reality by the arrival of Captain Tarsus. Exhaust fumes from his Chimera competed with the stench of death as he purposefully strode forward. The platoon’s lieutenants trailed behind sycophantically.
‘You! Trooper! Report!’ barked Tarsus.
The Captain was not known for his verbiage. Nor was he famous for his compassion or grace. During the coup he had been instrumental throughout the genocidal purging of Imperial loyalists, including the notorious, ‘District Rinse’ purge of the capital’s poorer hab-blocks. Once again the Captain proved himself a didactic and uncompromising man. It had only taken the faintest whiff of resistance for a citizen’s grim fate to be sealed. Tarsus had also brutally raped all fifty Palace Courtesans, but only after breaking their children’s necks before their eyes. At least, that was according to the hushed rumours currently captivating the world in their horrified reverence.
Captain Tarus was taller than average and cut an imposing silhouette in his carapace armour, newly acquired brocade glinting dully in the delicate light. A huge scar colonised most of his face, a souvenir from a power weapon strike, that had cemented his fearsome reputation. Arkan fumbled with his gear as he stood to attention.
‘Sir, we are unsure sir!’ he stammered. ‘Unknown number of hostiles, sir!’
Corporal Arkan glanced up briefly to meet the cruel stare of his commanding officer. Tarsus huffed and brusquely shoved Arkan over, snatching the auspex monitor from his hand as he fell. Arkan peered up from underneath his helmet to see the captain’s brow furrow in confusion. He prodded the display with a blunt finger and, when that failed, slapped it repeatedly into the palm of his hand. It had taken Arkan hours to calibrate the delicate internals. Doubtless they were shot now, but he dared not mention that to Tarsus. The captain’s ugly expression betrayed an utterly foul mood brewing. Whether by man or machine, he was decidedly unfamiliar with failure. Tarsus carelessly tossed the device back in Arkan’s direction. As he dove to retrieve it, Arkan thought he felt the grass behind him rustle unnaturally. Tarsus stormed back towards the Chimera, barking orders at his lieutenants to recommence the patrol.
An ear-splitting shriek rent the air.
Before Tarsus had made it halfway back, the tank exploded in a volcanic constellation of sparks and fiery promethium.
‘Contact! To arms, you dogs!’ Tarsus bellowed. ‘Firing positions! Bring up the heavy support, NOW!’
Captain Tarsus spun around to face the column, incensed at the lack of response from his troops. He goggled to find whatever it was that had blown through his tank, and had left his soldiers stunned and strewn in its wake. Many were staggering around, their hands clamped over bleeding ears, and clearly deafened by the ghostly supersonic assault. A few pitiful souls were slumped against tuffets of smouldering grass mutely fingering their intestines spilled from surgically precise gashes. None of them were capable of standing straight, let alone following orders. Tarsus’ face contorted into a grim snarl as he stared balefully into the mist. Whatever this ‘thing’ was, it was very, very fast.
Arkan, already prone when the Chimera was hit, quickly recovered his composure. Hastily sweeping burning vegetation from his fatigues, he took a knee and looked to his captain for instruction. As his gaze rose, his jaw dropped at the destruction wrought upon the forward elements of the platoon. What had he gotten himself into? His fellow guardsmen further up the column seemed to be reaching the same conclusion. They began to cluster into defensive huddles, gripping lasguns with blanched fingers. Eyes wide with terror wildly scanned the mist and totally ignored Tarsus’ increasingly vehement exhortations to form a proper firing line. A flicker of movement in his peripheral vision caused Arkan to spin round. As he trained his lasgun warily on the smoke, Arkan saw why his comrades were suicidally ignoring commands from the most vicious person in the regiment’s history.
It was a monster, wreathed in mist and black smoke from the burning Chimera, its enormous wings flexing outwards. But then it vanished. Men were frantically pointing at shadows, before emptying power cells at nothing. The monster reappeared from nowhere, but as soon as the apparition seemed corporeal, it disappeared again into the shadows. Every predatory sweep around the battalion whipped the panicked soldiers into greater levels of hysteria, and they abandoned any semblance of formation. The heavy bolter team unwittingly sprayed half the battalion, in a frenzied attempt to ward off this phantom. Their accidental victims popping in staccato bursts of crimson, as the mass reactive shells vaporised their fragile bodies. The last casing fell to the ground and a hundred men lay dead, yet the terrifying apparition remained unscathed, its location unknown.
The hapless heavy bolter crew was promptly swept up from behind, screaming and flailing into the mist. Red flashes from their side-arms, revealed the armoured silhouette of their winged tormentor. Their corpses, mangled and lifeless, dropped abruptly into the midst of the transfixed guardsmen; and the men scattered in all directions like cockroaches, tripping and stumbling in their haste.
It was hell.
Arkan had never seen his comrades like this before. Men who had faced down the vilest xenos were now slumped over choking and retching, vomit slowly crusting over their soiled fatigues. The bravest men he knew had been reduced to quivering children. Tears streaked their dirty faces, as they clung to each other like rabbits in the long grass. Despite its antagonist’s nightmarish size and the thousands of rounds unloaded at it, there was nothing to show for the battalion’s frantic efforts but the mist, smoke and corpses of their own.
Momentarily forgetting his treasonous hatred, Arkan instinctively muttered a prayer to the Emperor. His earlier convictions from the morning were starting to melt away, and the price for betraying the Carrion Lord felt steeper by the moment. This feeling of clarity started to blot away the inky stains of his treasonous rationale. And as the final desperate lasgun shots cracked into the gloom, a leaden silence blanketed the valley.
The excruciating tension proved too much for one guardsman. His wail pierced the still air, and he slumped forward, sobbing uncontrollably. This was all Tarsus needed. He marched forward towards the mewling wretch. Steely hateful eyes burned into the quivering helmet, and he raised his bolt pistol. However, as Tarsus strode towards his victim, Arkan noticed something very odd about the thick grass surrounding the prone trooper. It had been flattened out where the Captain would arrive to mete his retribution. Arkan had not noticed it before, but the patch seemed too consistent for animal activity. He craned his neck to try and make sense of this bizarre detail. His new perspective brought the flat patch into sharp relief, accompanied by a fresh swell of horror. Realisation surfed through Arkan’s body on a wave of nausea. It was a perfect circle, drawn well prior to the battalion’s arrival. Glancing between the disparate clumps of terrified guardsmen only confirmed his suspicions. The appearances of the battalion’s shadowy tormentor had not been random. From their current positions no guardsmen could support their captain, effectively defend each other, nor retreat. That was assuming they were not utterly petrified in the first place. The only means of rapid escape was reduced to a smoking ruin and with it, the only Vox-link strong enough to call for reinforcement. The still flaming ruins of the Chimera cast a flickering hellish pall over this grim spectacle. They had been herded like cattle with diabolical precision. ‘You bastard. So this was your endgame,’ Arkan mouthed soundlessly.
‘Very good, little one.’
Arkan went rigid. His tabac stick fell from trembling lips as his wide eyes rolled upwards. The sharp profile of a skull-capped helmet loomed from the shadows behind him. The black metal of a visor, wrought into a stylised but wickedly sharp beak, covered most of the skull’s lower features. The nightmarish visage seemed to meld with the shadows, absolutely ethereal yet tangibly lethal. If he squinted, Arkan could perceive huge rounded pauldrons. One was inscribed with an unknown avian insignia and the other bore a single Gothic numeral. Those ghastly claws were now retracted into sleek housings, built over ceramite gauntlets. The wings, that clicked, folded and moved with elegant precision, were actually mechanical and attached to a baroque jump-pack. Could it be? Could it really be one of “them”? Everyone knew the stories. Everyone had heard the rumours of “their” many terrible powers. Some could disappear at will. Some could eradicate a full regiment, or tear an Ork in half, bare handed! Was this really an Angel of His divine wrath? Was Arkan really set against the might of a legendary Ast-? The gentle voice continued, pulsing cold shivers of dread through the corporal’s paralysed body, sweeping all thought before them.
‘Although, you are only half right. This is only the beginning. The Emperor’s Light will shine blindingly from the deepest nights. Behold the gift of Its majesty and attend closely, little soldier.’
A light flickered on in Arkan’s mind. He rose quickly, expertly turning and firing in one fluid motion. But the retort from his lasgun fizzled into nothingness before him. The only trace was that skull helmet’s inscrutable Cheshire cat grin and bottomless eyes, fading into the gloom. He was gone. Questions again began to race through his mind. ‘How did he know what I was thinking? What, by the Throne itself, did he mean by “just beginning”? And why can’t I see him on the damned auspex?!‘
The answers came too late. Arkan moved as though underwater, his hand outstretched to Captain Tarsus, as he strove to shout a warning. But words barely reached his lips before a charcoal blur hurtled down towards the spot where the unsuspecting man would step.
An ear-splitting shriek rent the air.
Blue lightning coruscated across those foot long claws as their transhuman wielder plummeted towards the ground at hundreds of kilometres per hour. The captain looked up, horror replaced colour as it drained from his face in slow motion. There was a blinding flash and Tarsus’ right side evaporated in gore. Clouds of vaporising blood steamed from throbbing stumps of gristle and jagged exposed rib. His arm and most of his shoulder had vanished in a blur, the only trace of his foe’s existence was the destruction left in his wake. Tarsus’ shocked eyes silently pleaded with Arkan, as he swayed transfixed. Tarsus fell stiffly as his body finally acknowledged the overwhelming damage. Arkan ran.
‘This had better be worth it.’
The Garrison Commander snipped tartly, as he picked his dainty way through the smouldering wreckage of the Chimera, and around sporadic huddles of irreparably traumatised men. All this fuss and drama for a measly few thousand casualties. Although mostly still alive, the entire battalion was catatonic, responding to the slightest touch with screaming. It was neater for the Logistics Corps to count them amongst the dead. The Commander’s embarrassment was further compounded by some pathetic trooper having gone insane. He had sprinted back to the capital, gibbering about an angel devouring his entire battalion and eviscerating the indomitable Captain Tarsus. He had then prostrated himself very publicly before a ruined statue of the Carrion Lord in the cathedral plaza, kissing its feet and begging forgiveness. Hundreds had witnessed the Commander’s guards drag the wretch away, biting, kicking and screaming his devotion to that detestable fossil. Granted it was a scandal, but the incident itself was inconsequential. The trooper had disappeared onto one of the steel racks now adorning the Governor’s Chamber and life in the Capital would settle back into compliant banality. As the mutilated survivors of his “artistry” could attest, the Commander had managed controversy, since well before the coup.
The Commander realised this was the first time he had sullied himself with actual work, since butchering his predecessor, and it did nothing to improve his mood. It was the first time he had left the decadent confines of the Governor’s Citadel, he was more than content to have Tarsus lead the dull rural pacifications. There was little glory in mindlessly slaughtering recalcitrant farmers, and the Commander only ever acted for his own deranged amusement. It was the plight of Captain Tarsus that had stirred the Commander from this insular and perverted existence. Tarsus had always been loyal, in a blinkered simplistic sort of way. It was the closest thing to a friendship either man was capable of.
Yet the Commander could not help shake the niggling sense of inadequacy and inferiority felt towards his childhood companion, and still resented his subordinate’s acclaim. He might command those men, but the bombastic and martial Tarsus would capture their hearts. No matter how fearsome the Commander’s reputation became, it was always overshadowed by the legend of Axel Bloody Tarsus. Like any maladjusted human, the Commander had quietly allowed this to seethe away into a concentrated bile of noxious hatred. It was energising to feel its corrosive influence flood his body, blinding him to everything except the opportunity to finally crow superiority over Tarsus’ shattered body.
‘This wouldn’t be the first time Tarsus has “ahem” broken the men,’ He chuckled mirthlessly, ‘And speak of the daemon…’
Amazingly the Commander’s erstwhile friend seemed to have survived his ordeal. There was little a few days in surgery and extensive bionics could not solve. Indeed, the chirurgeons surrounding him were astounded that, despite the ferocity of the attack, none of his major organs were seriously harmed. However, as the med-packs strewn around him proved, the Captain was still in excruciating agony. Tarsus was on the edge of life. When the med-team relayed this to the Commander, he snorted approvingly. He could spare the expense of Tarsus’ recovery; after all he was a useful instrument. Nobody quite matched the Commander’s appreciation for the finer points of enhanced interrogation like Tarsus did. Although there was something about the haunted look in the man’s eyes that unsettled the Commander slightly. He had only seen it once before.
‘Well, well, well, Tarsus. What a fine mess we find you in,’ sneered the Commander. ‘Come on then, give me your report. Explain to me why you have chosen to ruin days of meticulous planning with this little stunt.’ He sighed, ‘I suppose trying to upstage me is second nature to you by now.’
His cruel eyes narrowed and his lip curled with disgust as Tarsus gasped thick spots of congealing blood over the hem of his exquisite ceremonial robes. Tarsus’ battalion had been expected to clear out this provincial rabble and signal the death knell of opposition to his new rule. The entire regiment had been assembled, in their newly garnished dress uniforms, to parade in celebration of the Commander’s total domination of the world. It had been painstakingly choreographed, so the triumphant Captain would march back to Cathedral Plaza, at precisely midday and present whatever captured rebel leader to the Commander, for him to demonstrate the bloody cost of disloyalty. The whole Regiment would then march past, saluting his balcony and stroking his purring malformed ego. Instead, they had stood at attention in total silence for two hours, before that gibbering lunatic brought news of the battalion’s destruction to an enraged Commander.
Tarsus brushed aside the chirurgeons trying to placate him and grasped the Commander’s leg with his remaining hand, soiling his finery further still with blood and dirt. The Commander shuddered, primly tugging the robe back with both hands.
‘This had better be good,’ he hissed venomously. ‘You well know, I spent thousands on these clothes.’
Struggling between tortured breaths, Tarsus continued, his wild eyes darting erratically.‘My lord…in the dark…there’s a monster! Everywhere, but-but f-fraking nowhere! It’s an angel my lord! An angel of retribution…and…death. My lor-’
Tarsus’ neck convulsed and a fresh gout of blood billowed from his mouth, his reward for such prolonged effort. Further, attempts to speak simply resulted in gurgling chokes, blood dribbling from his lips, as he slowly drowned in his own viscera. The Commander’s eyes narrowed. He could not allow his triumph to be ruined again, not by Tarsus, not by anybody.
‘Get on with it, damn you!’ spat the Commander impatiently. ‘Every member of your regiment is here to witness this pathetic display Tarsus! I will make sure this is what they will remember of you! This is the zenith of your disgrace!’
Fighting the chirurgeons’ increasingly desperate attempts to restrain him, Tarsus stretched his hand outwards towards the sky, his face a pallid rictus of pain and fear. The Commander irritably traced the dying man’s gaze behind his shoulder. He squinted up into the warm afternoon sun, now blazing far overhead. He theatrically cast a leery gaze back to meet the Captain and a malevolent smile contorted his face into a mask of ghoulish delight.
‘Are you really still attempting to fight me? I have won Tarsus.’ The Commander delivered a swift kick to the crackled blackened flesh of the bewildered Captain’s torso. ‘Everyone shall see now, yes they can see. I am the greater man!’
Tarsus howled in pain and clutched at the stricken area, vainly attempting to stem the new tide of blood. His feral growl dropped to a whimper as he clenched his jaw so hard that fragments of molar joined the sticky blood regularly being spat from his slack lips. Redoubling his torturous exertions, Tarsus looked up into the Commander’s flinty eyes. Tears began to roll from his own, and he fought to muster every gasped word.
‘No. My lord – Lucien, run a-away.’
The Commander hesitated. Tarsus had used his name. Lost in introspection for a moment, the Commander stirred and lazily gestured at his gathered adjutants. He was decidedly unused to interacting with any of his men directly. The Commander found the ordeal tediously irritating and much preferred to delegate everything to the Captain.
Instead, the start of his leadership had been a hedonistic blur of indulgence, in the dolce vita of an Imperial noble, and in his own sick predilections. It had taken all this time merely to have serfs adapt the Governor’s Chambers to his own taste. Its previous occupant had been a pedestrian character, more interested in contemptible frivolities like statecraft and piety. To indulge his replacement’s twin passions of sadism and spectacle, the Governor’s Chamber was converted into a studio where, in decadent comfort, the Commander could pursue his psychopathic compulsion to morph human beings into sickening works of sculpture.
This was also a prudent move, for the Commander possessed an ever-growing portfolio of enemies. The abduction and subsequent “beautification” of one rebel would inevitably spawn two more. However, the citadel itself was heavily defended by his elite bodyguard and no expense had been spared on security. With all the larger threats to his tyranny either dead, or dying on their armatures, the Commander was untouchable within its vast walls. The limit of his governance extended only to ordering his enemies rooted out and incarcerated in the bowels of the Citadel, to meet his insatiable appetite for art materials. It had been Tarsus who organised that defence. It had been Tarsus that rooted out the Commander’s victims. It had been Tarsus that did everything. For a brief moment, a shaft of realisation pierced the clouds of delusion and paranoia and the Commander felt chillingly exposed.
‘The men of this Regiment do not run, nor do they falter,’ he glibly replied to mask his growing discomfit. ‘Have the Regiment form into marching columns. Prepare them to take the valley.’
Grovelling sycophants to the bone, the adjutants responded in a chorus of affirmatives, belied by the puzzlement in their eyes. One particularly foolhardy officer voiced his confusion.
‘The regiment assembled behind us my Lord?’ He questioned apprehensively, ‘The regiment in full dress uniform and with no armour support?’
‘Well yes, of course! It will simply aid the artisans in capturing the magnificence of my victory,’ the Commander retorted haughtily. He continued to nobody in particular, ‘Have this heap transported back to the Palace. Fear not gentle Tarsus, I will never abandon you. Perhaps I’ll have you fashioned into a lovely servitor, my loyal mutt for eternity.’
As the jovial tone of those words hung in the air, the horrified adjutants scurried away issuing rapid streams of orders. The Commander’s grimace had settled into a subtle leer, his pursed lips now flecked with blood from one of Tarsus’ more violent coughing fits. A delicate gloved finger dabbed it away, sharp nostrils filled with the clear country air. This planet was his. The guerillas be damned and the Carrion Lord be damned. The Captain’s “shadow monster” be damned too. The Commander spat the coppery taste of his friend’s blood onto his ruined chest. The witless Imperium would never disturb his burgeoning paradise, and he could finally complete his masterpieces in any luxury imaginable. The anticipation of imminently realising his darkest ambitions was intoxicating. One last push, one final bout of drudgery and violence, and he was free to rule his kingdom supreme. Everybody would know him, everybody would fear him; surely then, “they” would finally notice him too. Those whispering voices might finally be content. As fifty thousand men formed up behind him to rush into glorious victory, the exhilarated Commander closed his eyes and savoured the moment, far from the stuffy confines of the palatial Citadel. He raised his head to enjoy the balmy rays of the sun from high above.
An ear-splitting shriek rent the air.
About the Author
Originally trained as an architect, Ainslie is relatively new to writing fiction. However his passion for the rich tapestry of Warhammer 40,000 lore stretches intermittently over fifteen years. His project draws on a diverse array of interests and knowledge to probe the darkest corners of this universe.