‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.’
And they shall know no fear.
The words carried in the heart of every Astartes, a creed reminding them of their place in the galaxy. The bulwarks against terror. The defenders of humanity.
What a joke.
Astartes were hardly fearless. He had seen it for himself. They may have been greater than humans, and expressed their fear differently, but they felt it all the same. He had heard their heartbeats spike whenever he would swoop from the darkness, chain-glaive flashing into a decapitating swipe. He had seen the beads of sweat form on their brows as they swept their bolters over every shadow, twitching at every noise he triggered.
It had been exquisite.
But that was several lifetimes ago. Back when he had his wings, when he had been a Raptor. Before he had fallen into the dark caverns riddling the miserable rock they called a base. He did not remember when he had lost his wings, or when he had been banished into the haunted darkness. His helmet display had been broken a long time ago, and he had never bothered to fix it.
Time had passed, blending each moment together as he scraped moisture off the rocky walls and hunted the debased things that called these tunnels home for nourishment. At some point he had stopped wielding his glaive, the weapon having become battered and chipped from his frequent hunts. The mutants were easy prey nevertheless, unable to withstand his blows, and they had long ago learned to fear him.
Their fear was nothing compared to what he had savoured before. It carried the rank stench of excrement, tinged with sweat and dirt. He needed something more. He needed the fear of his fellows. When he had been a Raptor, he had tasted the fear of Astartes. They would keep one eye on the sky, wary of him and his pack.
It was a good memory. The yearning to relive it was what had brought him this far, deeper into the caverns than he had ever dared venture. The mutants used to dwell down there, before they had sought refuge in the upper levels. Before the coming of Fear.
He had laughed when he had first heard of that. Fear itself had apparently crept up from the deepest, darkest shadows, and slaughtered it’s way through the lowest levels of the caves. Some unnamed horror spawned from the darkest pits, where the Warp tore at reality. Yet another horror coughed up from the gullet of the Immaterium, one that had set itself up as his rival.
He walked, in midnight clad, and fear was his to command. Not this… thing’s; And the temerity to call itself Fear rankled him. Only one had ever truly earned the right to be known as Fear. To be the very personification of the clawing madness that lurked between the lights of reason. To prey upon the unrealized truths and fevered dreams of the blind.
The memory of the name was a hushed whisper that echoed all around him. Now that… that had been Fear. Something monstrous, hidden in the guise of a man. Something vicious, and feral, and beyond reason, clawing at the cage that was sanity.
It had been beautiful.
He’d had a name once as well, though it dipped in and out of his recollection like a furtive bat seeking shadows.
That was it.
He was being hunted.
No, he was hunting.
His face remained expressionless, even as a thrill of excitement swept through him. He practically shivered in his armour as he felt his blood sing in anticipation. A cocktail of drugs was slowly dripping into his system, clearing the fog shrouding his mind, sharpening his senses like a stone sharpened a blade. It had been… too long since he had hunted – truly hunted – rather than merely preyed upon those lesser than him.
For millennia he had walked the stars with his brothers, bringing fear to the fearless. They had haunted catacombs and spires, terrorising nobles and wretches alike. He had watched people and xenos alike shatter and surrender to their base instincts, fleeing from the grisly displays enacted by him and his pack.
The sons of Nostramo. That is what they had called them. Yes. The scions of a lightless world, decaying and crumbling, a fetid swamp of morality and ethics. They had all been feared then.
And he had chased them all down – men, women, children; human, xenos. The distinction was immaterial as he had shepherded them into corners and dead ends, relishing in the consuming terror coursing through their veins as they watched him kill them and theirs.
Fear… was universal.
Fear was constant.
Zamaash’s footfalls echoed all around him as he loped down the tunnel, crushing bones to dust with dull cracks. Though the lower passages were shrouded in darkness, they may as well have been bathed in light to an Astartes of the VIIIth Legion. Part of their sire’s legacy. It was what had kept him alive, allowing him to stay one step behind of the roving bands of feral mutants that prowled in the roots of the Black Sepulchre. It was what allowed him to pick out the most brave amidst their kind, standing tall and proud, before he separated them from the rest.
And it was what allowed him to see the things scream and plead and piss themselves as he loomed out of the darkness to claim them. Pity their fear was always lacking. To wring fear from the fearful is nothing. It was… an insult to the talents he had honed, as a murderer and as a nightmare.
He slowed his pace for a moment as he approached a crossroads, giving himself time to… think? No… to choose?
He had been this way before. Yes. The right hand passage led to a winding path through some natural vents before terminating in a dead end brought on by a quake approximately three months ago. Taking the path on the left would only lead him upwards towards the vaults of the Sepulchre. Heading forwards would lead him to another intersection after ten minutes, and closer to the warrens.
The thrill of the hunt was what kept him lucid, sparking sanity amidst the endless chaos of his mind. He felt less and less like some rabid beast as he increased his pace again, moving swiftly through the darkness. He could sense it: Fear.
Some great god-beast to the mutants of this maze. Nothing more than a misbegotten warp spawn dragged into existence by the XVIIth during one of their many rituals. It was following him, he knew it. Even as what few sensors in his armour still worked continued to stubbornly inform him that there was nothing behind him, he knew it was there.
Sniffing. Scratching. Tasting.
The warrens were an area of the catacombs infested with mutated outcasts from amongst the menials and slaves that worked in the shadows of the Black Sepulchre. Once, it had been a fastness… a lair? No… not to the Word Bearers. To them it had been a temple. Zaamash and his brothers had wrested control of it away from the crazed zealots some eight centuries ago.
He remembered little of the battle, except the systematic rising and falling of his flensing knife, its surface decorated with streaks of blood and reflected candlelight. He remembered catching sight of his own reflection amidst the blood, though whether he had been laughing or screaming forever escaped his memories. He and his brothers, a loose collection of killers, not even worthy of being called a Claw back when the Legion had been whole, had snuck their way in and proceeded to butcher every last legionary not in midnight clad. They had then strung up the corpses amongst the fancy chandeliers in the main hall, to show the mortals their former masters were well and truly gone.
They had made the Sepulchre their own, tearing apart the shrines and offerings to the so-called gods and erecting worthy monuments in their place. Now when mortals died in the Black Sepulchre, it was not for anything as meagre as glory or power – no, it was purely to reiterate the one Truth the Night Lords had known since their formation:
That fear was everything.
It was drawing ever closer.
The warrens were emptying at its approach, the pitiful things that dwelled there scurrying away down tunnels and shafts, leaving behind their young and old and sick. Zamash paid them no mind, crushing them underfoot as he ran.
It was coming. he could actually hear it:
The whisper-scrape of claws on stone. The rustling of leathery wings. The hissing breath of hunger.
He had guessed correctly. It was like him. Having survived on the scraps of fear from the mortals in the depths for so long, it was ready for a greater feast; and Zamaash knew nothing better to lure it out of it’s dark domain than the fear of an Astartes.
And so, for the first time in millennia, he had allowed the small, stupid, bestial part of his mind to take over. A small thing. A thing that the genesmiths of the Corpse-Emperor himself had been unable to excise from the human genome. And so he had run, panic trying to grasp at the edges of his reason, and Fear had followed.
Followed him to where it had no knowledge.
He reached a point in the warrens, one he had memorised long ago, and the hypnotic suggestion he had induced in himself slammed into the panic trying to root itself in him, fed by the ever-present fear all creatures shared. He turned left, and went deeper, his mind barely processing the order.
It happened again and again, every time he reached a branching path or passed a tunnel mouth. He was but prey, seeking to get to safety, as he could not draw away from what was chasing him. So down and down he went, until his own senses could barely make out where he was, and all he could hear was the rasping and growling of Fear behind him.
Then, deep near the heart of the rock on which the Black Sepulchre stood, he stopped. Information sparked in his mind as he suddenly remembered who he was, and what he was doing. The fear that had been clouding his mind and ruling his senses was driven to a corner and caged beneath steel bands of discipline and anger.
Zamaash dived forwards as a bony claw gently reached out to tear his head from his shoulders. Metal scraped against stone as he rolled, yanking his flensing knife out of it’s crudely stitched leather sheath. ‘Too slow,’ he taunted as he regained his footing, facing the tunnel he had come from. He could just make out a hazy shape lurking there, just beyond the range of his senses to see any detail. Fear did not reply, though Zamaash knew it had heard him. ‘Come now, you misbegotten nightmare! I’m right here!’ he declared, splaying out his arms as if in greeting.
The creature stayed utterly still, even as the Night Lord sneered at it beneath his broken helm. It was probably confused, he reasoned. The delicious emotion it had been tracking had been diminished with the return of Zamaash’s reason after all. The marine sighed in frustration before launching himself forwards, knife raised. The thing before him twitched at the sudden movement, it’s skeletal bulk shifting and growing clearer to him as he drew nearer.
It was skeletal, a part of his mind noted. His blade would do little actual damage. His grip tightened as he swung the fist holding the knife in an arc, smashing aside the chiropteran jaws lunging out for him. The creature’s head snapped to one side, exposing a long neck of bone and rotting meat.
Zamaash dug his knife into the exposed neck, feeling no resistance as the chipped blade slid through the dead flesh and hit nothing beneath. He snarled in annoyance as he maintained his momentum, falling to his knees and rolling beneath the monster as it swung its head back, trying to pin him against the cavern wall with its neck.
Dry cracks echoed around him as bone met stone.
The creature gurgled wetly as he crouched beneath it’s chest cavity, stabbing upwards blindly. Now and then he felt a jarring impact travel down his arm as the knife hit bone and earned another notch. But once or twice he hit something soft, and heard it tear and spill. Droplets of dark liquid pattered down onto his armour as the beast twisted and turned, trying to bring its talons to bear on him.
He crawled as best he could, staying just beyond the thing’s reach. Until it snarled and surged down the tunnel, its clawed feet sending him tumbling along the ground with a grunt. Zamaash slammed his free hand down to stop his errant rolling and forced himself to look up. His vision swam momentarily before making out the faint form of the emaciated bat monster flipping onto the ceiling of the tunnel, glaring back at him. A pained hiss escaped from amidst its rotten fangs as it scuttled forwards, towards the Astartes.
Once more Zaamash charged, roaring more like an angry drunk than any kind of warrior. He leapt upwards as the monster’s maw yawned open to seize him, the stupid creature anticipating him rolling beneath again. Primitive thinking.
He may have been diminished, but he was still an Astartes!
Zamaash’s knife came down, slamming into the forehead of the bat-faced beast. With a grunt, he put the palm of his free hand on the pommel of the crude weapon and shoved down with all of his augmented strength.
Rotten skin split and dry bone cracked apart, and with a jolt the knife sank in up to its hilt.
A grin split Zamaash’s face as the beast screeched, its pain echoing through the tunnels. It thrashed about, seeking to slam him against the surrounding rock, but the Night Lord swung himself around, straddling its neck and maintaining his vice-like grip on the embedded knife. His world became a blend of swirling darkness, flashes of bone and necrotized skin, accompanied by an orchestra of pain and noise.
And then, with a pitiful whine, the creature the degenerates of the tunnels had believed to be Fear collapsed. Hearts hammering in his chest, Zamaash refused to drop from the beast, feeling the faint vibrations of life beneath him, such as it was. He reached out, gripping the eyehole of the thing’s skull and hauling himself over, flopping over into what he assumed to be its line of sight.
‘You are not Fear,’ he spat into the face of the chiropteran nightmare. ‘He who was Fear has died, and there shall be none to replace him!’
The monster twisted it’s head, some faint spark of life visible deep within the eye socket that regarded him. It hissed through broken fangs, though it stopped after Zaamash delivered a thundering crack to the top of it’s skull with his fist.
It gurgled and slumped to the ground again.
As it should be.
He was a Night Lord. He was a master of fear. Real, imagined, it did not matter. No one knew fear better than a child of the VIIIth. How to sow it, cultivate it, and then reap it. They were unmatched.
Zaamash felt his eyes narrow as memories stirred. Of hunting. Of flying. Of bringing fear to those who declared themselves beyond its reach. Not scurrying through dark tunnels like the other mortal refuse. A slow and lingering death born of… fear.
His brothers. His own. Fear of failure. Death.
‘You are not Fear,’ he repeated, looking down at the best he had triumphed over. ‘But you… you can spread it. Direct it. Inspire it,’ he muttered to it and himself, crouching down. ‘Like a true brother. You just feast on it in a far more literal way, don’t you?’
The beast growled pitifully – no, in fear.
It feared wasting away further, he knew. It was like them, in that way. Something terrible, consigned to the dark and forgotten about, and mayhaps even dismissed as a mere nightmare.
A cold and feral smile formed on Zamaash’s face.
The VIIIth had always been talented in bringing nightmares to life…
About the Author
Lukasz Furmaniak is a freelance writer based in London. A long-time creator of content for tabletop games, he has contributed to the creation of Dystopian Wars and 1879, as well as being a play tester for Shades of Vengeance. He has also branched out to podcasting, organising The Tritone Gambit, an actual-play RPG podcast set in the grim darkness of the Warhammer 40,000 setting using the Dark Heresy RPG system.