Grander Victories, More Monstrous Defeats

5/5 (1)

Four months of blood had inexorably woven itself into each individual fibre of the once pallid habit Marakeen wore.

Four months of perpetual disease, decay, and death had dulled the scent of incense still dutifully coated along its threads every morning, and made foul even the filtered air she breathed through her armour.

Four months since her arrival on Khazant. Here, the constant wailing of dying men, their entrails, their refuse, their viscera, all lost upon battlefields stretching from one red-misted horizon to the other, had become an all-consuming constant to her straining ears. So deeply had those droning lamentations wormed themselves into the very essence of her being that, in the spare hours of sleep afforded to her in the Chapel bedchambers, their absence stirred within her a disquieting sense of aberrance she could not wholly escape from; until the coming dawn returned them in full force again.

On mornings like those, the young Sister took solace in the Ring of Suffrage she’d been adorned with. Kneeling before the awe-inspiring altar within the Blessed Ossiar Chapel, Marakeen would twist its gilded rim until tears welled up in her eyes. The pain filled her with its unrelenting fire; the same pain the Emperor endured to know yet another day of slaughter would befall His loyal children upon this heretical world. Her prayers complete, she would step out onto one of the Chapel’s many crenellations and survey the sea of fortresses, bastions and shattered bulwarks littered across the gutted soil of this cursed planet.

Upon swearing her oaths before the Orders Hospitaller’s palatines on Ophelia VII, that ring had carried an import as of a world’s condensed weight when placed upon her finger. In the days before her departure to this war-ravaged world, and throughout the whole journey there, she had felt the limitless zeal its very presence exuded through every waking hour, her thoughts aflame with desire to serve the Imperium as only a Sister of the Convent Sanctorum could. Every time it glistened, it was as if the Emperor’s ineffable grace smiled upon her. She had known with absolute certainty that the hand which carried it would be a conduit for His divine touch, the salve upon a wound which had, for so long, prevented the tides of war from shifting.

Now, only when pushed to its greatest degree of afflictions could that symbol of her rank induce the same passion upon her heart. Though it pained her to admit, Marakeen dreaded to think what another four months, another eight months, a full solar cycle, on this hell-scape of a planet, might reduce her spirits to.

Service necessitated action nonetheless, and so the young Sister found herself enroute to the region’s front, where megametre-long trenches were gored across the planet like the scars upon the wounded they produced. Four more of her Order, alongside an escort squad of Battle Sisters belonging to the Order of the Bloody Rose, hunkered within the dark confines of a Sororitas Rhino as it barreled relentlessly towards the sound of mortar fire and explosions that buckled the very tectonic plates upon which they impacted. She could barely hear the muttered recitations of sacred mantras and holy vows shared between her Sisters beneath the bedlam outside the carrier walls, and while it settled her pounding heart to hear their familiar words spoken with unwavering devotion, she found herself unable to utter anything similar in return.

They were, at length, vomited out at the base of a sharp declivity in the terrain, where the pitched shrieking of firepower roared like a rampaging beast across the sky. The transports of so many other soldiers orbited the same position, depositing wave after wave of Imperial Guard units to feed the ceaseless conflict and funnelling their number towards broad gaps carved throughout the ridge. Haggard faces, grim and full of fear, swarmed past her. Death was all that awaited for them on the opposite side, and so Marakeen and her Sisters followed, the gleaming red of their armour almost immediately tarnished by the dust of so many feet marching to the grave.

‘The DXLIII Battalion has reported heavy casualties about two klicks to the west,’ a captain grunted upon their arrival at the command bunker. He and his fellow officers poured over a seemingly inexhaustible list of battle reports, their faces as expressionless as the khaki overcoats trailing down to their mud-caked boots. ‘They’ve managed to repel an all-out assault on their position, but after the losses they’ve sustained, we’re not certain how much longer they can hold out. One more push from the enemy and our front will be broken. We’re currently directing forces to reinforce the line, but we need you to go in and make as many injured as possible ready to take up arms again or grant the Emperor’s Peace to the maimed and suffering.’

‘We serve at the Emperor’s behest. Ava Imperator,’ Marakeen answered in unison with her Sisters.

It was easy to become lost in that vast network of hastily dug trenches. Their labyrinthine corridors seemed to writhe and twist as if a living entity, expanding when a brief victory allowed the Imperial forces to advance, only to contract when the newly gained ground was subsequently drowned in a sea of corpses riddled with enemy barrage, and many were the times the Sisters were required to pause in an effort to reaffirm their path. Yet their path remained true. Everywhere were the earthen avenues clogged with infantrymen, either cowering for cover or risking everything to sneak a single shot against the sustained stream of energised fire overhead. As she pressed further forward, not for the first time did Marakeen marvel as to how any kind of stratagem could be maintained or coordinated here.

Watching a plume of flame erupt in the distance and hurl the incinerated carcasses of hundreds of men into the sky, she fought to deny the heretical idea that there existed no grand design in this never-ending conflagration from gaining a foothold within her mind.

What remained of the DXLIII Battalion was worse than the captain’s dispassionate account had suggested. Upon reaching their position, Marakeen’s armour-clad feet sank into a viscous river of mud mixed with blood, excrement, and stray body parts that had been torn from their owners. Though the flash and bark of lasgun fire had lessened compared to what was hinted at earlier, the air still bristled from the heat of what had no doubt been a typhoon of concentrated energy blasts sweeping across this sliver of Khazant. Marakeen found it difficult to imagine how anyone might have survived such an onslaught. Some corridors running through the devastated trenches were so thoroughly packed with the newly rotting dead that several moments were needed in order to heave them to the side, so that the Sisters’ path could proceed ahead unobstructed. Marakeen tried not to linger upon their frozen, fear-stricken faces any longer than necessary.

Still, there were some stragglers yet clinging to life which could be found.

‘The Emperor’s light shines upon you, Sister,’ wheezed a soldier, his flak armour stained red by a wound in his chest, as Marakeen knelt beside his supine body and began applying healing stimms and recovery gauze. She gave a solemn nod, muttered a prayer – more for his benefit than hers – as she worked, and moved on once she had done all for him that she could.

The process repeated more times than she could count. Soon Marakeen and the rest of her Sisters found themselves running low on necessary supplies, though the litany of wounded men stretched on without an end in sight. She knew they would have to fall back to resupply at one point or another, and while a good many of the DXLIII’s survivors had been made more or less fit to fight again, it would not be enough to repel another attack without considerable reinforcements.

Where were the forces the captain had promised? Marakeen wondered.

The agonised mutterings of a wounded man pulled her attention back to the present. She trudged towards the sound, one of the Battle Sisters following like a stoic shadow, until they came upon a soldier clutching in vain at his left knee, which was little more than a mangled ruin of sinew and hanging viscera. He was curled pitifully over upon a battered cot, his face a shattered mask of pain, and was still whispering as Marakeen approached, a repeated string of words which sounded like names.

‘Who do you speak of so fervently?’ she asked as she gently manoeuvered him into a better position for makeshift surgery.

The man winced, his sharp features contorting further for an instant, before opening his eyes and looking towards her. When he saw the habit and red power armour Marakeen wore, reverence burned bright across his expression, quickly kindling into a hope which had, only seconds before, been utterly extinguished. ‘My family. Essa, my wife; Phirus and Lidien, my children,’ he muttered, voice trembling from either substantial blood loss, or awe in having one of the Adepta Sororitas personally treat him.

‘Do you pray for them?’ Marakeen inquired further. She knew how vital it was in these moments to keep a patient’s mind in motion, so as to not allow them to slip into that blackness waiting upon the brink of death.

‘I beg for their forgiveness,’ he answered. ‘I have failed them, just as I have failed my company, and as I have failed my Emperor.’

Marakeen paused in the process of her preparations to look upon his anguished, tear-streaked face. ‘Because you have been injured?’

‘Because my death will have been in vain.’

‘Only the Emperor knows where our fate will lead,’ the response spilt from Marakeen’s lips with practised efficiency and she returned to suturing the stump that was all that remained of the man’s leg.

‘I know where mine ends,’ he said as thread wove the bloody tatters of his flesh back together. ‘The same as all my brothers and sisters in arms across this doomed world. There are no Astartes here among us. No Raven Guard; no Imperial Fists; no Ultramarines. No angels to dispense His divine vengeance upon the enemies of Mankind. We stretch from one end of the front to the other, and yet we are all alone. There can be no salvation for us here, no true rescue. We were dead from the moment we stepped foot upon Khazant; none of us will be remembered by the day’s end.’

A sustained silence took hold between them in the aftermath of the soldier’s words, punctuated only by the steady motions of Marakeen’s hands as she continued to work and the intermittent screeches of lasgun and mortar fire in the distance. Every so often, her gaze slipped to the Ring of Suffrage she wore, its gilded contours now buried and dripping beneath so much accumulated blood. She wondered how much of that same blood stained this planet on which they stood; how much of the very ground beneath their feet was merely corpses interred by the endless churning of marching feet, forgotten the moment new war engines rolled onto grander victories and more monstrous defeats. For four months, Marakeen had been weighed down by such thoughts. How long had it been since this soldier was dropped here and known the same suffering? A month? A week? A single day?

When the wound had been mended to a sufficient degree to alleviate the soldier’s pain, Marakeen remained still for a moment, before unclasping the protective breather which covered the lower half of her face. She then looked at the man with the fullness of her own face and touched his arm gently as she did. ‘Tell me; what is your name?’

The soldier’s eyes widened, and he gave a weak, sputtering grunt as if to clear his throat of surprise.

Before he could begin, however, the prevailing calm was shattered by a shout of wild panic: ‘Incoming!’

The warning came mere seconds before the barrage. Marakeen ducked instinctively, throwing herself and her more resilient power-armoured figure atop the soldier.

Like the pelting of rain, lasgun and bolter fire struck the ground just above the trench’s top, and those blasts that flew wild overhead stained the air green with energised heat. Though they remained out of reach for the time being, a heavy stour of vaporised soil was being thrown up in the air, dislodging what few metres of earth still provided cover. Her heart racing, Marakeen glanced about, trying to ascertain the best available course of action as everything around her descended into a nightmare.

Disarray and chaos overtook the surviving soldiers of the DXLIII battalion. The shrieking for orders or the wailing of pain were utterly deafened by the sustained barrage of fire. Most of the men had hunkered low in helpless fear at the intensity of the resumed attack, and those few who did dare attempt to return fire were slaughtered the instant their heads peeked out over the barricade’s protective wall. They were swiftly and succinctly being pummelled into the ground, and Marakeen watched as the front of this battle line threatened to fall.

Swearing aloud, she looked about to see if any of the other Hospitallers were still in view. Only the Battle Sister who’d initially accompanied her remained nearby, back pressed against the opposite trench wall for cover with bolter raised for the next chance to fire. The comm channel in her ears crackled with chillingly poignant static. As if to drive deeper the point of her despair, a chorus of guttural, only vaguely-human, roars erupted from the no-man’s-land beyond, and the very air they breathed was profaned by a rabble of raging and wild-eyed mutants spilling down into the trenches. The rotten patchwork hides of their armour were barely able to hide the gangrenous ruination of their corrupted bodies.

The Battle Sister unleashed a series of savagely precise shots against the oncoming horde before being hopelessly overwhelmed. Scores of infantrymen added the weight of their fire, and scores more were cut through by returning volleys. Whatever fractional line of safety had separated them from the battlefield proper had now been sheared through, leaving Marakeen with no other choice but to swipe her bolt pistol from its holster and train its sight on the nearest approaching threats.

She tore holes through a handful of deformed and mutilated chests before the screeching blast of a lasgun rang out alongside her pistol. The legless soldier she’d been treating had hauled his weapon up and joined in her onslaught, screaming in defiance as he sought to aide his battalion in its last faltering line of defence. When a lull in the assault fell on this section of the trench, he grabbed hold of Marakeen’s shoulder and drew her close.

‘Run!’ he shouted above the sustained fray still swelling all around. ‘Save yourself and get away from here! There’s no way we can hold them until reinforcements arrive!’

Several more of the mutants shambled into view from a bend around the corridor. Before she could react, their weapons screeched with staccato flashes of fire and Marakeen felt the full force of the barrage slam against her.

She staggered, nearly toppling over, armour reeling in defiance from the assault. With support systems crying out with each and every point of structural damage taken, Marakeen managed to regain her footing. The answering blasts from her pistol eviscerated the oncoming mutants into a smouldering pile of gore.

Returning to the soldier’s side, she clasped his arm and looked him squarely in the eyes.

We will get out of here!’ she answered, hoisting him up before he could protest and providing support as his balance wobbled for the first moment standing on a single leg. ‘You have my word; I will not have you die in vain this day!’

Newfound resolve burned in the man’s eyes and he gave a quick, adamant nod.

The going was slow at first, manoeuvring through the ongoing carnage was made even more arduous by the soldier’s injury. Soon, however, a rhythm built between the two, and the dual intensity of firepower they were able to unleash cut a path of retreat through the endless sunken passageways. Her companion, despite his desperate and debilitating condition, kept his aim true and deadly as foes threw themselves into the trenches, while Marakeen proved as proficient in dealing death out as staving off its insidious touch. The further on they pressed, the less concentrated the fighting around them grew, until they reached a long stretch leading back towards a previously won position, and against which the current raging offensive had not yet reached.

Yet as resilient as they proved, neither could escape the overbearing enemy of exhaustion as it crept into their muscles and ate away at their strength. With her power armour damaged, supporting the soldier’s weight took its toll on Marakeen more than she was initially willing to admit, so that her limbs burned from the strain and she was soon gasping for breath at every subsequent step. He too had begun to slog, adrenaline no longer keeping his lasgun upright, nor his eyes fully opened as copious blood loss took its toll. Worse still, they eventually reached a block in the trench system, their only way forward denied by the abandoned wreckage of a Griffon Artillery Tank, its armour-plated bulk having spilt into the declivity and wedged itself firmly in opposition to their path.

The pitched din of combat still raged at their backs, growing closer by the second, and Marakeen tried to steady and clear her thoughts as she searched for a plan to continue their retreat. Neither of them were fit to return back to the battle proper in their current states, and attempting to climb up out of the trench’s protective cover and go around the tank would be an immediate death sentence. Meanwhile, there was no telling how long it might take for reinforcements, if any were actually on their way, to reach them were they to try and hold their position here. Marakeen knew they would more than likely be utterly overrun by the approaching mutants, whose numbers and raging fervour would smash aside even the most valiant defence they might put up.

‘There!’ the soldier gestured ahead, to where the body of a more heavily armoured infantryman – his head a collapsed ruin of carbon-fibre, bone, and grey matter – lay slumped against one of the tank’s lines of tread. Unsure of what her companion had seen, Marakeen then noticed the jump pack still attached to the trooper’s back. Hope roared alive in her heart, where once it had been nearly quelled.

Marakeen guided them towards this new hope, before gently setting the soldier down so she might see to the jump pack’s current status. Mercifully, the equipment seemed undamaged from whatever had felled its wearer, and so she heaved the thing off the dead man’s back. Bringing it back towards the soldier, she was surprised when the man answered her approach with a curt shake of his head.

‘Not for me,’ he said, voice failing, though with none of its previous resolve yet lost. ‘The jump pack can only carry one, so it must be you.’

‘I swore I would get you away from here,’ retorted Marakeen. ‘I swore I would not let you fall in vain.’

‘Even were I to be the one to survive, what use would my continued life be? What is one more boot on the ground when the ground itself is a slaughterhouse, its appetite unending? My life has already proved spent, there is no changing that. But if I can get you away, then my death will have meant something after all.’

Then, he looked over at the downed behemoth of steel that was the Griffon tank. ‘The mortar canon should still carry some unspent shells in its battery,’ he continued. ‘If I can get in and detonate one of them, then the chain reaction should leave this spot a smouldering ruin that might stall the mutants long enough for reinforcements to arrive. The resulting cloud of ash should provide you enough cover in the air to get a safe distance away without being shot.’

A shot of searing energy flew past Marakeen’s head, and she swivelled to see a mutant lopping towards them down the trench. She loosed her bolt pistol in return, even as several more tumbled into the corridor in an attempt to overtake them. When no further attack was forthcoming, she grabbed the jump pack and quickly affixed it to her shoulders.

‘Do what you must then,’ she said, reloading her magazine as the sound of approaching roars swelled closer.

Marakeen provided cover as the soldier limped towards the tank, using his lasgun as a make-shift crutch. The barking fury of her pistol seemed to act as a beacon for the advancing enemy, as with each passing minute more and more of their mutilated number stormed down the narrow trench, weapons raised and mouths opened wide in fearsome battle cries. With each one killed, she knew two more would arrive to take its place and that, sooner or later, she would be unable to hold back the oncoming tide.

‘It’s ready!’ the soldier shouted.

Throwing herself against the tank beside him, Marakeen glanced over at the man, his arms vanished inside a panel along the vehicle’s side. He looked back at her, face grim but unwavering in the decision he’d made, and nodded.

‘I’ll wait until you’re clear before triggering the explosion,’ he said. ‘Aim straight above and don’t let up on the thrusters. With any luck, the blast won’t disrupt your trajectory too much.’

‘It doesn’t have to be this way,’ she tried once again, though she already knew what his answer would be. ‘There is a chance the jump pack might carry us both to a safe distance away from the fighting.’

The soldier shook his head. ‘This is my duty. My purpose. Now my conscious can rest easy, knowing I will perish in glorious fire for my Emperor. Of that, my family has reason to be proud, at least.’

The names he spoke earlier – Essa, Phirus, and Lidien – echoed in Marakeen’s ears. Then the sudden realisation came that she still did not know his name. Before she could give voice to this, however, a furious spray of lasgun bolts flashed around them. The instant of calm had passed.

‘Go!’ the nameless soldier screamed.

Knowing she had no other choice, Marakeen gave a solemn nod, then activated the propulsion system of the jump pack.

Like a missile launched from its silo, she hurtled into the sky. The raging gusts of wind that flew past brought tears to her eyes as she squinted against its fury. She found herself at the mercy of whatever fuel remained in its tank, able only to pray that no stray bursts of energy from below would find her. The battlefields which had been the whole extent of her world for the past four months disappeared into an ugly smear across her vision and, for the briefest of moments, the sudden erasure of all other noises behind the wailing air brought a strange sensation of peace.

That feeling was shattered by a roar beneath her, and a subsequent shockwave striking her like monsoon waves crashing against a shoreline. The previously vertical arc the jump pack had taken her on was thrown askew, and she fought desperately to keep herself from tumbling hopelessly about through the air. Daring to look down, she beheld a seething pillar of flame where the tank had once been, its vast ashen plume spreading up and out across the sky to provide her with the veil of cover she needed to escape, just as the soldier had said it would.

The reinforcing line of the Imperium found Marakeen several minutes later, sprawled out in the mud and dazed from the fall she’d taken. Though the jump pack had gotten her clear of the immediate fighting, too many metres had still separated her from the solid ground by the time its fuel reserve had depleted, and only the emergency stabilisers had prevented her from plummeting to her death like a meteorite. Whether it was a slight concussion or merely the wind knocked from her, the jarring impact had nevertheless left her temporarily immobilised. She lay there, staring up at the flashing lights of the ongoing orbital battles above the atmosphere when she heard the rumble of artillery engines approaching and the marching armoured feet following like flies in their wake.

When the shadow of a soldier fell upon her, his arm extended out for her to take, Marakeen imagined against all rationality that it was her soldier who had stopped to help. Her soldier who had somehow survived the explosion and had somehow found her again against all the odds. The face which greeted her as she was pulled to her feet was, of course, a stranger’s, with all its gruff and pockmarked features staring back with equal unfamiliarity before he continued on with the rest of the mobilised forces. They stretched on without end on either side of her, slogging towards the very place she had only just escaped, a procession of utterly unknown and nameless offerings being brought out for sacrifice so that the front which had been forfeited might yet be reclaimed.

Standing there, amidst their league-spanning numbers, Marakeen felt suddenly aware of just how alone she truly was. How alone each face that passed her by was. Her soldier had been right. Her soldier who’d had no name in the end. Just like none of these soldiers had names. Just like she had no name to them.

But there were names still echoing in Marakeen’s ear. Three names she carried as she began the long march against the oncoming tide of war, all the way back to the reserve line and the Blessed Ossiar Chapel. Three tiny embers burned ablaze in her thoughts, nearly lost to the illimitable oceans of darkness crashing down on all sides, and which, were they to be snuffed out, would forever be forgotten now the voice that had first kindled them within her could speak them no more.

‘Essa. Phirus. Lidien.’

With reverential care, Marakeen continued to sound out each name as she went on. They repeated like a mantra from her lips, circling around again and again, until they were as much a part of her as her own name. Instilled upon her being, a newfound strength suddenly blazed where before had been nothing but nauseous, heretical doubt. Her fists clenched together, placing one foot in front of the other, she crossed the kilometres worth of terrain with only those three solitary names for company.

‘Essa. Phirus. Lidien.’

After many gruelling hours, she at last came to the outskirts of the reserve line, where landing shuttles emptied of fresh-faced combatants waited to relaunch back into orbit, while the soaring spires of the Ossiar Chapel rose like titanic tombstones against the horizon. Marakeen paused. She had come across something she’d never noticed before on this furthest perimeter of the mobilising zone, her usual placement within various Sororitas Rhinos on departure from the area relegating it outside her scope.

It was a shrine, as far as she could tell. A memorial site for those of the Astra Militarum fallen in battle, made up of millions upon millions of dog-tags piled up into a veritable mound. Whether it had been here for the entirety of the campaign on Khazant, or if it was but a recent addition to this sector of the war, she could never have hoped to guess. All Marakeen knew as she stared up at the towering slope of glittering metallic shards, its summit no less than double her own height, was that she too had something to offer unto its pile.

The mud-caked and bloodied Ring of Suffrage was heavy with a poignancy it had not borne since her arrival on Khazant, those four long months ago, as she removed it from her finger. And yet, extending her hand over the shrine’s nearest slope, she somehow knew she no longer needed the weight of that band any more, nor the pain it was able to produce, in order to find her meaning. The names she carried flared bright within her as her offering fell atop the countless other names piled up there, bouncing several times before at last coming to a silent stop.

‘Essa. Phirus. Lidien.’

For a moment, the band glared starkly out of place among its new brethren, its shape, colour, and intent all wrong in comparison to the solemn slivers of grey. Then, in a single blink, Marakeen lost its place within so vast a dedication of death, as if the shrine itself had seen fit to swallow the thing up whole. It was gone. But she was still there. Her, and the memory of the names it was now her duty to keep alive.

About the Author

Chase A. Folmar is a writer of all forms of speculative fiction. The central philosophy behind much of his work can be expressed most eloquently by weird fiction author Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote, ‘Only the impossible has any real charm; the possible has been vulgarized by happening too often.’ A graduate of English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, he currently lives in Virginia with his wife and their horde of rescued pets. He is an Associate Editor for Witch House: Amateur Magazine of Cosmic Horror.