Not Even in Death

Pain was the first sensation. So in birth, alike in rebirth. It clung to wakening like babe to mother, surged electric through phantom limbs and breathed fresh life into the cooling embers of burnt-out nerve clusters. Memories of fists clenched in quivering agony smashed their death-grip against the cage Agacellus found himself in. The last of the animal in him tried to panic, but it was a long-broken, castrated thing, and its wild howls choked on the chemical amniotics that embalmed him. Aga peeled its instincts from his skull, and as his superhuman physiology overcame the sedatives in his blood, he remembered himself. What he was. War was coming.

‘Venerable elder, we seek your counsel.’ The words were ritual. They came with oils Aga could no longer feel, incense he could no longer smell; pageantry aimed primarily at his sarcophagus. Its machine-spirit hum reverberated up along his spine, joined with him at the base of his skull. He stepped forward.

The Conclave had begun without him. Each awakening took longer and less of him returned – the weight of experience was crushing, and long-carried. Of all assembled, he recognised only Ancient Kadda before him. It was strange that the eldest of all the chapter’s dreadnoughts had arrived first.

A pale-skinned captain stepped forward and inclined his studded head. ‘Elder brothers, you honour us. I am Captain Ebarbas.’

‘We do our duty.’

Agacellus’s eye narrowed. Even distorted by the vox, it was clear that the speaker was not Kadda, and that another now occupied his sarcophagus. When had his brother fallen? They had survived together the burning of Seustra, cleansed the Onnox moons, fought on… on… 

Kadda had been his oldest friend, the last brother Agacellus had known in flesh. Now dead, replaced, and Aga could not remember his passing. Each time too, there was less of the galaxy he remembered.

‘We have been petitioned for aid. The madness of the Rim has leaked past the Arrowheads, and war has come to the inner sector. There is word of the Archenemy.’


‘Speculative. We believe they are here but know not where.’

Agacellus nodded to himself. ‘So, you wait to commit lest by committing we invite them to strike elsewhere?’

‘There are a number of petitions, and much of our strength is already in the field. We have only my company uncommitted.’

‘And they are of equal merit?’

The Captain inclined his head slightly to the side. ‘No, in truth there is only one worth our attention. Yet, beyond our wariness that the enemy is yet to show their hand, the manner in which they have petitioned us has caused hesitation.’

‘We have guarded these stars for millennia. They have not shown the proper respect!’ Not-Kadda bellowed. It was not a point his predecessor would have deigned to make. Perhaps it was not merely Agacellus who had declined with age, but all of his geneline. Perhaps this whole future. It would be better they die in battle than wither in these halls.

‘I have seen the face of our father, at this chapter’s founding. I do not remember it. I remember war. War is eternal, and if we do not chase it into the dark it will fall upon us from the shadows. Let us fight.’

His voice had swayed them. Drop pods fell like rain, and the floodwaters were rising – yet, still ignorant of their end, the enemy lashed out in death throes. 

The pod in front of Agacellus had arrived in smoking ruin. It was a cruelty of fate that the foe had pierced it in its descent and painted it red and black in the viscera of its occupants. All except for its most important one.

Aga turned from the dwindling patter of fire as the apothecary dragged Captain Ebarbas from the wreckage. What was left of him, one-armed and legless, his battleplate cracked open and scored worse than the pod that had borne him. Ebarbas had served the chapter with distinction for centuries. They both knew what came next.

Unasked, the apothecary spoke. ‘He can be saved.’

Agacellus held a different understanding of the term, one that he thought Ebarbas might share. The Captain’s lolling gaze fell from his brother to Aga, then slowly back. ‘No.’

It was a wet, weak sound, muffled by blood, ceramite, and pain that even their enhancements could not suppress. Agacellus knew the sound. It was a memory lodged in his bones, deep enough that neither his millennia of service nor stasis could unbind. Had his own lips spoken so?

But an Astartes did not beg. His service did not end. 

And with the Captain incapacitated, there were other words to speak. 

‘Brothers,’ he began, though the word no longer sounded right to him. ‘The Captain has fallen, but our duties are unchanged.’ 

The enemy had regrouped, and now heavier arms opened up on their position, turning the trickle of fire to a torrent and carving notches into the cover of the pod they had merely rebounded from before. Marines returned fire, but their number was too few. The foe surrounded them, and in a game of time, weight, and calibre, Agacellus knew the Astartes were not going to come out ahead. A round pinged from his chassis.

‘The Militarum have been stalled at the city’s edge. It falls us to return this place to the Emperor’s light.’ His powerfist and lascannon alike hummed with power, mirrored the electricity in the air. The promise of glory. The break in the pain. ‘Will you follow me into the dark?’

Their roar split the air, a company of superhuman voices in unison as they leapt from cover and into the fray.

War had come, and this world would know its price.

Pain was the dark and the light. It meant war, and so war meant it, in a cycle unending and without mercy. 

‘Venerable elder, we seek your counsel.’ The words were ritual.

 Ebarbas could not scream.

About the Author

UK-based writer L. James Elliott is a longtime Warhammer 40k fan and general fantasy/sci-fi nerd, recently turned to amateur 40k author, with one published short story thus far. When not struggling to write a bio, he aims to bring a fresh voice and new directions to the darkness of the far-future.