I watched the ork blood dribble down the Governor’s chin as he savoured the mouthful of green flesh.
‘I like my meat rare,’ said the Governor, gesturing at us with his fork, ‘in both senses of the word. Grox, ambull, aeldari, I’ve eaten it all!’
I swallowed and cast a glance at Sarge. He stood impassively, gazing evenly at the Governor. The Lord of Erysichthon dabbed at his mouth with an embroidered napkin and then sat back in his ornate chair. He looked perfectly at home, a spider in his web. I felt completely out of place in this grand hall, the grime of the Prodigum Os front still under my fingernails. I was a speck of dirt on a fresh linen tablecloth.
‘Thank you for indulging me while I finished,’ he said, ‘but I simply had to meet the last survivors of the Erysichthon 38th.’
Piotr, Trenton, Lexi, Askvig, Mika, Sarge and me. We were all that was left of the regiment. I tried not to think about the ghosts that stood behind us.
‘You did your duty, one score years in the Astra Militarum, then back to Erysichthon and the Homestead Promise.’
The Promise was what we had all lived for, in more ways than one. A patch of land to call our own in the northern wilds and the resources to make a go of it, all provided. Lexi and Askvig were going to start a family. Sarge always talked about breeding spas-goats. I liked fishing. Fishing and forgetting.
‘We will keep that promise,’ the Governor continued, ‘but there is one last thing Erysicthon would ask of you. One last thing I would ask.’
I felt my guts tighten. No one had said anything about a catch. But no one ever did.
‘Who do you want dead, my lord?’ asked Sarge. The Governor laughed, clapping his hands together.
‘Straight to the point! I like you, Sergeant,’ he said with a smile. ‘Spot on too. There is an old watch station at the system’s edge, derelict, and haunted by the most terrible beast. Help me reclaim the station and the homesteads are yours.’
‘Help you, my lord?’
‘Yes, I take a personal interest in this matter. The watch station would be an asset to system defence and, well, rumour has it the creature that inhabits it is a singular beast. You know what they say: waste not, want not.’ The Governor made a pantomime of patting his belly.
‘What about your household bondsmen, my lord?’ asked Sarge, nodding at the ornate guards standing silently around the room.
‘Pah! These toy soldiers?’ said the Governor, gesturing dismissively. The bondsmen remained unmoving behind their reflective visors. ‘No, I need men and women worthy of the task. The Imperial Guard are the blood and bone from which the Imperium is made. You have value!’
I swelled with pride at these words – despite the Homestead rug pull – and I could see the others swelled too.
‘So, will you do this for me?’
We watched from the window of the Governor’s aquila lander as the station drifted closer, a dagger of obsidian against the diamond stars.
‘I had no idea this was here,’ whispered Lexi over my shoulder. She had been a hauler pilot before.
‘Few do,’ said the Governor quietly. ‘It is a relic from another age.’
The landing was painless. An ancient integrity field fizzed as the lander burned through on approach, but all other systems seemed dark. Our boots clanged on the deck as we fanned out. Sarge split us into two fire teams: me, him, the Governor and Lexi – we were going left. Askvig was leading Piotr, Trenton, and Mika to the right. It was a simple plan. I liked it.
Two flanking teams, force the creature into the centre and back out into the open docking bay where we cut it down. Whatever ‘it’ was.
‘What sort of beast are we hunting exactly?’ I asked, before hastily adding, ‘My lord.’
‘The rarest sort. An eater of men,’ said the Governor in hushed tones. That struck me as odd. What wasn’t an eater of men in this galaxy?
A few minutes later, Sarge realised the second fire team hadn’t checked in. This wasn’t like Askvig. The comms channel was dead, the reserve channel too. Lexi gritted her teeth and blinked into the darkness. I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
‘Vox fault?’ I said. The words rang as hollow as the corridors. What could have bested a veteran fire team without them getting a warning out?
Already on alert, I was now hyper aware of our surroundings. I was expecting to hear scuttling in the air vents, or see ghosts on the edge of the auspex. I did not expect confident footsteps striding down the corridor towards us. We trained our weapons on the sound instantly, Sarge pushed the Governor behind us. Emerald eyes glowed in the darkness and then the beast emerged. I saw what it was and screamed. A needle pierced the back of my neck and I…
…I woke up at the Governor’s table. No, not the Governor’s table. It was similar, but made for much larger diners. The Governor was there though, dwarfed by his huge chair and speaking nervously.
‘…and with this offering of Erysichthon’s best, we ask for your protection for another generation, my lords.’ The red-armoured space marine leaned forward, burning emerald eye lenses focused on the Governor. The iconography of a hungry maw leered at me from its pauldron.
‘The Flesh Eaters accept your offering, in the name of Sanguinius and the Emperor. With the meat and bone of the Imperium, our pact is sealed. We will stand sentinel and Erysichthon will be protected for another score of years.’
I looked at Sarge, Lexi and the others bound and trussed on the table beside me. I looked down at my own silver platter. I wept silent tears as I realised our true value to Erysichthon and the Imperium.
About the Author
Chris Buxey is a writer, laser safety officer and occasional Tony Stark impersonator. He lives in southern England with his wife and two children. Chris has been travelling the Warhammer 40K universe for nearly thirty years and has so far managed to keep his heresies hidden from the Inquisition.