Kaeria did not like to be saddled. She preferred bareback flying. The saddle meant there was a mission, and missions were a bore for her. Private Jaekzon may have been on his first recon assignment since graduating from basic training, but he knew Kaeria well. He could tell it was more than that. She was…uneasy. She blew smoke from her nostrils, showing her discontentment. The young man patted her side next to the saddle as he spoke to her.
‘Come on, girl. Everything is fine. We’ll have fun after we get back, I promise.’
Kaeria groaned a deep rumble in her belly. Her lungs filled with air, and her stomach distended, making it impossible for him to tighten the saddle belt properly.
Jaekzon sighed, ‘Fine. The hard way it is.’ He pulled on the belt that held the leather saddle atop the wyvern’s back. Kaeria turned her massive head, glowing eyes dancing, amused at having won this round. Or so she thought. Jaekzon smirked at her.
The wyvern exhaled triumphantly and spread her wings. As she finished her victory dance, Private Jeakzon pulled on the belt, securing it properly to her back.
‘I’m not new at this anymore, Kaeria.’ The beast snorted unhappily as her earlier bemused expression turned sour. Jaekzon quickly mounted atop the onyx and crimson wyvern, smirking.
‘All right, girl, this should be a fast in and out, then we’ll come back here, and you can fly around to your heart’s content. Work first, play later,’ Jaekzon explained as he patted her scaly neck.
The first flight of wyverns and their riders took off moments ago. Kaeria and Private Jaekzon were on the last flight. He had to convince her to go so he wouldn’t be left behind on his very first assignment.
The mission was simple: find the blockage in the route between the Lunar Ventorii’s base camp and the hive city of Galaware. The first unit of ground troops should have made it to the city by early yesterday evening. Every effort to communicate with the team failed, and the local PDF reported no contact.
‘Flight Four, clear for takeoff. Emperor Protects.’ Corporal Querson announced. The wyverns on Jaekzon’s flight took off in formation, but Kaeria did not go. Instead, she tensed under Jaekzon’s body and pranced. He pulled up at the leads and stood in the stirrups. ‘Let’s go!’
Kaeria plopped down onto her belly and tucked her wings close to her sides. The wyvern made a cough-like sound, adding insult to injury. His mount was laughing at him.
Corporal Querson, who had been watching the recruit and his steed, laughed. Jaekzon’s face felt warm as his shoulder rose to his ears. He sat back down upon the saddle, feeling dejected.
Coming down from his saddle, Jaekzon walked over to his mount and whispered, ‘Kaeria! You’re embarrassing me. We have to go. I’ll give you treats and belly rubs when we get back, promise.’
Kaeria retorted with a snort as she lowered her head to the ground and closed her eyes as though she was going to have a nap. Querson laughed harder but caught himself.
‘Go on, Jaekzon. Just show her who’s the boss and get going!’
Jaekzon knew Corporal Querson was trying to help, but his wyvern refused to take to the sky. Throne, she can be stubborn sometimes, he thought. Sitting atop his mount, he inhaled deeply and returned to his saddle, where he tried once more to coax the stubborn beast into action.
‘Frak, Kaeria, just fly already!’ he finally shouted, digging his heels into her flanks. Kaeria protested with an angry roar. With a mighty push of her legs, she spread her crimson leather wings and flung herself into the sky.
A smile grew on Wyatt Jaekzon’s face. He felt the wind on his face and listened to the rhythmic flapping of Kaeria’s wings. His anger faded, even though he couldn’t see the rest of his unit ahead. He would catch up; Kaeria was a swift flyer, one of the fastest in his division. His shoulders relaxed a little, and he gently patted the wyvern’s side, showing appreciation for his mount.
‘Thank you, Kaeria. You’re the best partner I could have asked for.’
Kaeria emitted a soft rumbling sound deep in her throat like a purr as he spoke. He loved Kaeria so much, and she loved him too. Soaring above the world was better than he could have ever imagined. His mother once told him that happiness is fleeting and that he must appreciate every moment of joy. She had been a wise woman, supporting his dreams and believing in him, but she was gone too soon. His smile began to fade at the thought.
Sweat beaded on his brow and dripped down his face onto his lips. Wyatt Jaekzon pulled an old rag from his pocket, wiped his face, and sighed as his developing muscles tensed. Biting his lips and planting his heels into the ground, he grunted as he pushed an old wooden cart up a hill. His shoes had holes in them again, but it didn’t matter. Even though he was tired and his body ached, he had to continue. He couldn’t give up on his training.
Wyatt worked every day in the small fields adjacent to his home, and after the fields were ploughed, seeded or cultivated, he would pick up a boulder and place it into an empty cart. Then he pushed the cart up and down the hill that led to his house. He repeated this arduous journey up to ten times per day.
Soon he would be old enough to be recruited as either an Angel of the Emperor or an Imperial Guardsman. He had to be stronger, faster and better.
Pain was sacrifice, his mother always said, and she knew pain. It made them both stubborn and stronger.
Wyatt finally made it up the hill for the ninth time today. He would go once more, then go home and get ready for bed.
Looking up from his cart, he saw a slender woman with dark skin and long ebony locks walking toward him. She wore a long, ragged crimson dress and a black cloak draped around her shoulders. Her gait was slow and calculated. Wyatt smiled as he recognised his mother making her way to him.
‘Wyatt, honey, that’s enough for today. You’ll be no good to anyone if the authorities come demanding your presence for recruitment and you’re injured.’
‘But mom, I need to be stronger,’ he whined. His mother smiled gently, stifling a cough as she ruffled his ebony locks.
‘I said no, Wyatt,’ she replied sternly. His shoulders dropped as he pushed the cart to the side of the road. His mother walked beside him, placing a frail hand on his shoulder.
‘Sit,’ she said as she sat down, leaning against the cart and tapping the grass beside her. Plucking the sweat-soaked rag from his pocket, Wyatt wiped his face and did as he was told. The soles of his feet and muscles burned, but it was a good burn. Not that he liked the pain, but in the sense that it meant he was getting stronger. His legs trembled as he settled onto the ground.
His mother rummaged through her pocket and produced a small square of chocolate, smiling expectantly at her son. With a shaky hand, he accepted the chocolate. What a treat! For a moment, he wondered how she had procured the delicacy.
‘Eat up, sweetheart,’ coughed his mother. She wiped her face with a handkerchief and smiled reassuringly at her son. Wyatt smiled back, though his brow furrowed with worry. He slowly bit into the delicacy, and a moan of delight escaped him. He and his mother sat together, watching the fiery sunset behind the polluted skies of Myrrhia.
Jaekzon could almost feel his mother’s presence as the sun dimmed and coloured the skies in bright oranges, pinks and golds. The wind whispered his name in her voice as the memory of his last night with his mother faded away. The familiar click of a transmission on his vox link returned his mind to focus. All he heard was static, and the transmission ended. Must be a malfunction, he thought. In the distance, Jaekzon spied a formation of black dots circling high above the ground. As they began closing the distance, Jaekzon thought he heard a bird-like cry when suddenly, Kaeria veered off to the right without being prompted. She was turning back to base.
‘Whoa, there, girl. We’re not done yet.’ Jaekzon instructed Kaeria to turn back. She did so, but she climbed higher and higher. Jaekzon squinted, searching for his unit, but they were not there. They should have met up with them a while ago. Maybe they had set down on the plains, he thought. He was too high to see the ground below.
‘A little lower girl, I can’t see from all the way up here.’ Wyatt relayed his instructions both verbally and physically. He shifted his body slightly forward in the saddle, and his boots trailed his mount’s side. The wyvern didn’t immediately respond, which was odd because Kaeria was always quick to do as she was told when she flew. Private Jaekzon repeated the instructions, leaning further forward and applying more pressure to her flanks. He could have sworn he heard her growl as she slowly complied with his request. Wyatt cocked his head and frowned at her response.
Below, the landscape was all wrong. The dataslate Private Jaekzon studied before his first scouting mission showed a verdant plain. Instead, what he saw made his skin crawl.
The plains were now a dark reddish-brown swamp. It didn’t take much imagination to guess that the contents of the newly formed marsh were caused by a large-scale massacre. As Private Jaekzon and his wyvern drew nearer, a distinct odour of decomposition and coppery blood confirmed his suspicion.
Wyatt’s heart pounded against his chest as a wave of nausea crashed upon him. He felt the cold fingers of fear and death trace his spine as the heat bled from his body.
‘Up!’ shouted Wyatt urgently. He then pulled the leads to the left and, standing in the stirrups, urgently motioned for Kaeria to turn back and climb. The wyvern was more than happy to oblige. Suddenly, a bright green light flashed through the sky. Kaeria roared and began falling. Her cry was heartbreaking and brought images of death to Wyatt’s mind.
Kaeria’s left wing was ablaze as she spiralled down to the earth. Private Jaekzon’s training kicked in as his heart sank.
Clicking the vox link open, he relayed his last known coordinates. He knew the transmission likely would never reach his regiment, but he had to try. He realised that the static transmission had come from his flight mates when they were shot down, but there was no time to dwell on that.
Activating the emergency beacon on his belt, he unfastened his harness and removed his feet from the stirrups securing him to Kaeria. Squeezing his eyes shut, he jumped away from her and prayed to the God-Emperor for a swift and painless death.
Private Jaekzon’s eyes blinked open.
‘Urgh,’ he moaned as the world spun around him. His head throbbed, and his muscles ached from the fall. He quietly thanked the Emperor for His protection. Jaekzon’s service to the Imperium was not over. Part of him wished he had died because he knew he stood little chance of escaping this predicament. His luck had run out, having survived the fall.
Wiping his face with his left hand, he peered at the crimson liquid, wondering how much of it was his own blood. His helmet had come off at some point during his fall, and it was nowhere that he could see.
‘Emperor protect Kaeria and me,’ he murmured as he made the sign of the aquila across his chest.
A fruity yet rotten smell reached his nose, snapping his thoughts back to the urgency of his situation. Wyatt’s eyes watered from the stench. He could taste the scent with every breath. He swallowed back bile and his breakfast ration.
‘Kaeria?’ he whispered, then waited for a low moan or perhaps the sound of movement.
With or without her, Wyatt had to move. He would surely be outnumbered if the cultists came. He was no help to anyone lying in a sea of bodies and blood. Kaeria needed his help.
Wyatt pocketed his rag and pressed his hands against the slimy ground by his sides. He grunted, pushing himself into a sitting position. His body ached, but thankfully, nothing seemed broken. The marsh around him adjusted with sickening squishing sounds. Air bubbles broke the surface and burst, splattering little droplets of ichor over his ripped uniform and exposed skin. Waves of coppery and sweet meat odours became more pungent with every movement.
He could no longer repress the urge to vomit. His morning rations splattered into the grotesque mixture of ichor and viscera surrounding him. Cold sweat and body fluids slid down into his stinging eyes. He rubbed them with the back of his hand and then swiped at his mouth, the taste and smell of vomit masking momentarily the putrid scent of death and decay.
Previously, Wyatt had tried to avoid looking directly into the marsh, but head still down from vomiting, he opened his eyes and saw another pair of terror-filled, bloodshot eyes staring blindly past him. They were lidless, set in a dull red sack of muscle and sinew. Maggots and flies were strewn across the remains. Small jagged patches of olive skin were left behind on the mangled corpse.
A terrified cry stuck in Wyatt’s throat. He pushed the body away and jumped to his feet. The flies took flight and buzzed around him. Jaekzon swatted them away as the fluids slushed around him. Eventually, most of them settled down to continue their feast. Slowly, the spinning world stilled, and Wyatt licked his lips. He gagged at the salty and coppery taste. Reaching for his rag again, he held it over his nose and mouth, hoping to filter out the smell and keep the fluids away from his mouth.
Focus, he told himself, don’t look down. Just find Kaeria and return to base to report your findings. You only need to get out and survive.
Looking up at the skyline, he saw a tall spire to the East. And so, he started trudging slowly away from it in the knee-high swamp of flayed corpses.
‘May the Emperor’s Light show me the way. May He protect me from this cruel fate. May He accept the souls of those who have died in His Name so they may live in eternity by His side.’ The words came unbidden and gave him the strength to continue pushing through the sea of jaggedly flayed bodies.
With every step, the contents of the marsh moved, gurgled and bubbled. Wyatt did not dare look down; instead, he looked in the distance, stopping next to every mound he saw.
‘Kaeria?’ he questioned hopefully, but there was no reply. Jaekzon continued West in search of his mount. With every crunch under his soaked, sloshing boots, he winced and swallowed his terror.
Suddenly, Wyatt heard a quiet moan and a familiar snort. Pocketing the rag, he ran as best he could into the marsh of decay and pushed the bodies out of the way. Flies, disturbed from their meals and nesting, took to the sky. Wyatt ignored them as a relieved smile stretched across his lips when he finally arrived at his wyvern’s side. She lay on her belly; her eyes squeezed shut.
Wyatt placed a hand between Kaeria’s eyes and gently stroked her scales. Her yellow eyes opened, and she purred softly for a moment before she moaned again in pain. Wyatt couldn’t assess the damage to her body without moving her. What he remembered of her wing told him they wouldn’t be flying out of there.
‘You were right, girl; we should not have come here. I’m sorry.’
Kaeria blinked once. Suddenly, her ears pricked, and she raised her head quickly. With a worsening sense of unease, Private Jaekzon followed her gaze. In the distance was an odd distorted light, and through it stepped out two creatures. He could barely distinguish their forms as they crept forward through the marsh. The darkness that came with them was bone-chilling as they searched erratically for their prey.
Long knife-like claws picked up body parts, bringing them up level with their glowing red eyes. One of them bit into a dripping limb, and its skeletal silhouette trembled with pleasure. The other studied a head, impaled upon its claw and cast it aside like a rotten apple. They continued their search, shrill cries piercing the sleep of the dead as they resumed their frantic search.
Terror coiled around Wyatt’s body like a venomous snake, threatening to immobilise him. His body tingled painfully as his vision tunnelled, and his feet felt like lead. The two creatures raised their arms and slashed through the fabric of reality with their long claw-like fingers. Kaeria moaned quietly, shaking him out of his paralysis.
Eyes still locked on the threat, Wyatt reached for his laspistol and grasped the weapon with trembling hands. It was slick, dripping with viscous, crimson and brown fluids. The laspistol slipped from Wyatt’s grasp into the swamp. His eyes grew wide in panic as he crouched low and dipped his hand into the viscera, searching for his weapon.
‘Frak,’ he exclaimed under his breath. His hand closed around something. It was not a weapon. It might have been a leg or an arm bone. With a small yelp, he pulled his hand out of the gruesome pool and stumbled backwards. Then, he lost his footing, crashing into Kaeria’s side. The wyvern let out a low groan. Scrambling back up, Wyatt scanned the vicinity. Nothing. They were gone.
‘Come on, girl; we’ve gotta get out of here!’ Wyatt whispered to Kaeria, eyes in constant motion, searching urgently for the threat that could appear out of thin air. She shuffled slightly, trying to stand, but her breath came shallow and fast. The wyvern glanced up at him with pleading, yellow eyes. What he saw in her gaze was a familiar sadness and pain that came in the final moments of life—a loving look that begged for mercy.
‘Oh Kaeria, I’m so sorry,’ said Wyatt. If they had not come, if they had turned back, if they had gone around the deadlands…
His laspistol was lost. All he had was a sword, and he didn’t have the strength to pierce Kaeria’s scales.
A sudden darkness weighed down upon him. His eyes jerked away from Kaeria as the enemy reappeared, closer this time. Their glowing red eyes honed in on him. Squeezing his eyes shut, Wyatt dove into the sludge. He could feel Kaeria shift beside him. The wyvern attempted to protect him with her body as he crawled around her. His clothes clung to his body, making it hard for him to move. A fire burned in his lungs as fear and lack of oxygen forced him to return to the surface. Wyatt gasped for a clean breath but remained crouched behind Kaeria.
How could he use Kaeria like this? How could he use her as a shield? He was a terrible friend.
Wiping the sludge and fresh tears from his eyes, he crouched low and peaked over Kaeria’s side. The enemy vanished, but he knew they would be back.
A sudden wave of bodily fluid drew his attention, and he turned to face West. From afar, the xenos predators were creatures that inspired fear and dread but up close, as he was right now, they were worse than he could have imagined.
Their slender metallic bodies were covered with mismatched patches of skin from their victims. Blood dripped down their immobile jaws, onto their ribs. The streams of crimson slid down their slender legs and blended into the marsh of blood. The frenzy of their search and how they slunk slowly toward him destroyed any hope of survival. Wyatt could feel their hunger for flesh – his flesh. He was as defenceless as a rat in a barn filled with felines.
Watching their hunched, twisted and ghoulish approach, Wyatt understood that he could do nothing but accept his fate. The foul xenos would wear his skin as they wore that of the people in these deadlands; of his flight mates.
Wyatt recognised a green and onyx wyvern tattoo on a patch of skin hanging loosely off the xenos that would end his life. His blood would mix with that of the other victims and Kaeria. He whimpered when the first terrifying creature loomed upon him as the second began his frenzied flaying of Kaeria.
Wyatt reached for a frag grenade, keeping his terrified eyes on the predators. Kaeria squealed, moaned and squirmed, thrashing in pain as the savage xenos slashed at her and bit into her scales. The one standing over Wyatt hungrily honed in on him and raised its razor-sharp claws. Wyatt pulled the pin from the grenade and retreated deep within his mind. He was no longer aware of the deadlands. The vile creatures that would take his skin and Kaeria before his next breath no longer mattered. The savagery and pain inflicted upon him faded as he slid away from his physical body.
Wyatt’s consciousness was home, in his happiest moment. He was sitting in the long grass with his mother to his right. He leaned against the wooden cart. Wyatt’s mother ruffled his ebony locks.
The soles of his feet and muscles ached and burned as though a knife had sliced through his skin. His body trembled, but his smile remained as he watched his mother rummage through her pocket, producing a small square of chocolate. She smiled expectantly at her son.
‘You made your mother proud, sweetheart. I love you, my guardsman son. You can rest now,’ she said. He accepted the delicacy and placed it in his mouth. Laying his head on her shoulder, he received the warm embrace of death.
About the Author
Geneviève is a mother of three and a French Canadian military wife. She enjoys writing fanfiction and original dark fiction short stories. She also likes to homebrew Warhammer, mostly Sororitas and helps others in their writing journey.