Calatar studied the ground. It seemed to move before him, a shroud of grey ferrocrete grime shifting flake by grain as the wind gathered at his back. His armoured boots thumped slowly over the broken terrain, kicking up dust from crushed things with every step; shattered glass, splintered plastek, cracked shards of bone. Calatar did not see or care what broke beneath his tread. It meant nothing; these things were broken already.
It might have been something once, this place he walked. It might have had meaning and a function, but it was empty now, an unidentifiable space made generic by war; pockmarked with cavities and cracks, its original purpose lost beneath a collapsed building that had fallen across it. Wearily, Calatar walked the line of a rockcrete spur elevated above the rubble, looking for a landmark to set his course by. He tested his aching shoulder and grimaced.
The sky was a dusky orange, hazy and oppressive with smoke from the burning city beyond. Flames from the promethium processing plant they had targeted reached hundreds of feet into the tortured air, and Calatar found a grin etch its way onto his face. Distant behind him for now, the fire was a living thing, ravenous, consuming everything that lay in its path. Townlands and parks were aflame too, vegetation already dry from the summer’s drought ignited by scorching lasbeams and the detonation of munitions. Ahead, swathes of billowing smoke from the burning city fanned outwards to the arid plains. Even this far from the source everything was hidden beneath the pall.
‘Such terrible retribution we have wrought,’ Calatar said, his voice a cracked whisper.
He stepped down with care and walked on, past the ferrocrete ruins of fallen hab units toppled like aged trees, and along boulevards cratered by shell and mine. In the distance, he saw the still smouldering remains of water treatment installations destroyed during the initial landings.
Small tragedies were cast, petrified in place around every corner. Here was a ground car crushed beneath fallen masonry, personal belongings strewn about like discarded children’s toys next to a mop of dust covered hair splayed out beneath the killing slab. There an open, grassy area between towering blocks used as a place of refuge by a crowd of people, until discovery. The pattern of desecrated bodies told Calatar exactly how things had ended.
There was no hesitation as he walked across that space. His tread pressed the broken limbs of the fallen into the hard, dry earth. Sometimes, they snapped beneath his weight. At others, where the ground had been soaked with blood or oil or, rarest of all, water, it gave a little and the arm or leg sank into the mud as it was pushed down. Small, wet sounds reached him as blood was forced out of severed limbs, or when a body several days in the sun ruptured and its internal gases were released. Calatar barely noticed, even when the smell worked its way in through the cracks in his mangled helm. He walked on sluggishly, one tortured step after another.
Further on, the ground was littered with broken blocks and overturned transit vehicles, the bodies of people who had tried to flee trapped forever inside, charred skeletons grinning with rictus faces. He glanced at them without feeling as he wound his way around the obstacles, the horns on his helm a sudden heavy weight, dragging his head one way then the other as his numb mind looked for threats. His axe scraped along the road, it too a weight he could barely lift.
Calatar stopped again, trying to release his grip on the shaft. He frowned when he realised his fingers wouldn’t respond. Reaching round with his other hand he prised them apart so the axe fell with a clatter into the road, then traced the outline of his arm to the wound in his shoulder. The ceramite was split, a sharp, ragged tear painful to touch, rent asunder by the diseased blade of a Nurglite champion he had ended in the moments after its weapon became lodged in his armour. But the wound wouldn’t heal, and he felt the fever sweat gathering on his face as his physiology fought a losing battle against the poisons released into his system.
A crackling sounded in his ear as he pressed on past a gigantic factory assembly building, static fizzing as the vox came to life.
‘Jovante?’ he said. He tasted ash and burnt things in his throat. ‘Jovante, can you hear me? How many got out?’
‘I’m impressed, you should be dead,’ said the vox into his ear, its cadence buzzing and fading like an irritating insect.
‘Who is this?’
‘My name isn’t important. What I did to your warriors, now that is.‘
‘You ambushed us.’
‘You were careless, legionary. Very careless.’
Calatar spat a stream of curses, only stopping when his throat became constricted by dust, and he began to cough. The vox crackled again as laughter, cruel and cold like the void, filled his ears.
‘I thought Eckremun had killed you. You are to be commended for still being upright, he was immensely proud of his war toxins.’
‘He is dead.’
‘Yes, he is. Another martyr for the cause,’ said the voice. The remnants of its earlier laughter surrounded the words. ‘I should have fought you myself and forgone this conversation.’
‘It will take more than you to put me down.’
‘Perhaps it will, at that.’ The voice paused for a long moment, and Calatar thought the other might have gone. ‘You see, I know who you are, Calatar of the Black Legion. You’re the man who claims he killed Rogal Dorn.‘
Calatar felt the laughter beginning again before he heard it. He could visualise it; the indrawn breath, the fetid air sucked in over sharpened teeth and rotting tongue, held for a split second before being let loose in a torrent.
‘Do not mock me, thinblood. You weren’t there,’ he said. ‘He fell on my blade. I felt the blood come out of him as I twisted it.’
‘Half the old legions claim they were there the day Dorn fell.’
‘How many say they killed him?’
A pause. ‘Not as many as you’d think.‘
‘Believe me or do not. It makes no difference.’ said Calatar.
‘Convince me. Tell me the story of how you slew a Primarch, legionary.‘
‘Why would I?’
His breath was ragged. He felt his right leg give, and it was only damaged servos locking against the sudden movement that prevented him from falling. He stumbled, all the same. Skulls and chains at his waist clattered and clanked at the unexpected shift in his gait. One of the thinner chains fell apart as he stretched his leg and the armour lock released. As he held the broken length of chain in his gauntlet, he noticed it was rusted, and he felt an unnatural burning in his muscles. He swore under his breath and continued, now with a slight but noticeable limp.
The voice came again. ‘Because we have nothing better to do. My warriors are gutting what’s left of your warband, and you’re walking into a desert to die.’ The voice changed then, shedding the barbs, becoming conciliatory. ‘Besides, I am curious. I would learn of the legend if I could.’
Calatar spat more curses and closed the voxlink.
The physical wounds would have rectified themselves, given time. Bones would knit, burns heal, punctures fill with rejuvenated flesh and suturing scar tissue, provided warp exposure and capricious patronage didn’t invite mutation. Astartes physiology should have been able to deal with those kinds of hurts, pumping his body with internally-generated stimms to keep him as combat efficient as possible while the background work of permanent repair went on. None of that was happening. If anything, the wound in his shoulder was festering, becoming more painful and slowing him further as the minutes and hours ticked past.
That there had been poison on the blade, or that the flakes of rust on it had harboured some form of contagion, was beyond question. His arm and shoulder burned hot, yet the flesh felt cold and puffy to the touch. Where the saw-toothed edge had cut him, there was no feeling at all. For the first time in years, doubt came stealing into his feverish mind, a clear notion in amongst his increasingly muddied thoughts.
He might die in this place.
He stumbled then, his arm thumping into the ground as he went down onto one knee. A surge of pain lit his shoulder and despite himself, he gasped. He stayed there for a moment; his breath ragged.
The vox voice came again, emerging from nothing to fill his ears. ‘You sound tired, Calatar.‘
‘I’ll survive,’ he said, growling the words out.
‘You might, you might not. I’d wager the latter if I were inclined to do so. This may be the last chance you have to tell the story of how a Primarch fell on the blades of mortals. How you killed him.’
Calatar opened his mouth, the obscenities already gathered to spit out.
‘I’m not mocking you. We’re past that now, I think. I’m interested.’
Calatar stood and leaned his head back. Black and grey ribbons were laid against an auburn sky, carrying away the destruction of all things. When he tilted his head forward, the world wavered.
‘Very well,’ he said as he moved on again. Talking would focus his thoughts at least. It struck him that this avenue, wide and linked on either side to the rails of mass transit systems, might be the way out of the city. He might yet find somewhere to rest. ‘There’s not much left to lose now. Where to start?’
‘The Sword of Sacrilege?‘ asked the vox. It crackled, faded out.
‘No, before that. Were you there I wonder, among the faceless mass yearning for freedom? No, I doubt it. The first Black Crusade was such a glorious release; unless you lived through it, you cannot imagine what it meant to us. An end to the dislocation of our existence, a chance to purge the shame… There was a time, thinblood, when it was accepted wisdom that passing into the Eye was the end. But we survived long years in there, in amongst the madness of that blighted realm, and when we had finished butchering each other over any excuse we could think of, eventually we found purpose. Abaddon led us out. Out of hell, towards revenge.’ he paused, the half-remembered images of things long past flicking through his mind.
‘They weren’t prepared. Not all of them…. We fell upon worlds grown rich, and fat. Those that still hadn’t adjusted to their new Imperium. Every planet and station and void borne rock we could reach, and when we’d taken what we wanted, we burned every single one we could.’
‘These stories I know.’
‘Of course you do,’ snapped Calatar. ‘Even for the likes of us, the past bears remembering. Without it, we are no better than animals who can work a trigger.’
The voice said nothing.
‘You have to remember, the Imperium thought us gone. Hundreds of years had passed since Horus’s last gambit failed. We were legends only half believed, and when we returned, we went at them like a pack of wolves into a flock of sheep. Only Cadia stood. Cadia, and the Imperial Fists.’
He was still walking, plodding through waves of pain and nausea, but he was getting weaker by the minute. For the first time he could remember, his armour felt heavy. Some of the power cables had been severed in the fighting, and there were servos grinding together like an Iron Warriors frontal assault formation, but becoming aware of the weight of it was disconcerting.
‘It was him that marshalled them. Dorn. He stopped defeat becoming a rout. It was him that gathered their defences together, striking back where it was possible to do so. Our hubris was exposed, our vengeful arrogance turned from a strength into a weakness. Imperial ships started to appear in the skies of worlds we conquered, shredding our own before disappearing back into the void. They never committed, but they bled us, stalling our advance. And then…It might have been old grudges, or frustration, or any one of a hundred excuses. It does not matter. Fighting started amongst our own….’ he laughed then, the sound bitter. ‘We can’t help it, can we?’
The vox clicked and crackled with acknowledgement.
‘It is a failing,’ agreed the voice.
Calatar barked out a laugh. ‘Yet we pressed on, eager, maddened by battle and blood. It was a hunger that refused to be sated, an addiction once we had a taste of it. Maybe even Abaddon was affected by the sheer joy of it, but regardless, that madness made fools of us all. We didn’t see a pattern until it was too late. The lone strikes, the hit and run tactics, it was all to buy time until the Imperium’s reinforcements could be brought to bear.’
What might have been a sigh came though the vox. Ahead of him, Calatar saw that the road had been severed, cracked apart by the fall of what could once have been a troop transport. Its ruins filled the depression its fall had created while the fires of its destruction flickered behind twisted plasteel girders, filling the air with the reek of spilt promethium.
Calatar slowed, looking for a way around the destruction. His helm sensors were damaged, and smoke was thick in the air, clouding his own enhanced vision. Disorientation gripped him, his head swimming. He tasted bile somewhere at the back of his throat.
Strangely, the voice brought a measure of clarity, and he noticed a gap between two partially collapsed buildings. There was little choice; to turn back would be to make a likely death certain.
‘We had grown tired of being stung month after month, our strength fraying at the edges as Dorn and our own nature took its toll on our forces, so the fleets gathered, marshalling for a strike at the Imperium’s heart. That was what Dorn had been waiting for. While our armies mustered, they hit us with a surprise attack, aiming to cripple us before we became too powerful. They tore into our formation of ships, their fury every bit as hot as our own had been when we left the Eye.’ Calatar paused, and his voice grew distant. ‘It was magnificent… Starships burned in the void like necklaces of diamonds, lit by internal explosions. Fire blossomed in the frozen emptiness, brief flowers of beautiful destruction. Strike and counter strike, no quarter asked, and none given. Thousands died; spilt into the merciless cold of space when their ships ruptured; split by blade and bolter and las blast… I don’t know how long we fought, but eventually the battle teetered on a precipice. Our numbers would have counted for more than their anger, in the end, and there was nothing else between us and Terra but that fleet… how close we were to breaking them… Then he came.’
‘It was a desperate act, a final throw of the dice. The Sword lay at the centre of our formation, and it was to it that Dorn carried the battle. Only a handful teleported over, it must have been all they could spare, but he was amongst them, and he counted for hundreds. It was like witnessing the arrival of an angry god.’
Calatar fell quiet again. He had to concentrate to think now. The side street had led somewhere, but he was no closer to anywhere that would do him any good. This area was nothing but grey and black and red ruin, pockmarked with shell craters. His arm was completely numb, though his chest and back burned and his muscles spasmed as the poison worked its way through his post human physiology. Somewhere inside he knew he was becoming less lucid as his organs failed, but part of him wasn’t there at all. It was back at the culmination of the first Black Crusade, living through half-forgotten memories.
‘We attacked, though it did us little good; he slaughtered us like corralled grox. We took a toll on his companions, of course we did, but we were nothing compared to him. He cast us aside in contempt, cutting his way through us.’
‘How did it end?‘ asked the voice. Calatar might have been mistaken, but through the clicks the voice sounded rapt. A sick smile forced its way across his face.
‘We could have detonated the engines then, taken him down into hell with the ship, but our arrogance got the better of us… Did we sense a vulnerability as his last few Astartes died? Maybe we did, but by then we were maddened, blood crazed as we had never been before… Our reason was gone, and as he neared the bridge, those of us that were left rushed him, as desperate as he was.’
Once again, his voice grew distant. He walked down into a shallow depression and ascended the other side. He was cresting the lip, wondering without focus why he found breathing so difficult when he felt his right leg give way, collapsing fully this time. The damaged servos seized again as he reflexively tried to adjust and he toppled over, saving himself with his good arm. He stared at his armoured fingers splayed in the dust.
‘Nearly done, Calatar,’ said the voice softly. A series of clicks followed in its wake. ‘How did Dorn die?‘
‘We met him before the bridge,’ said Calatar. His whole body burned, and his voice was a rasp. ‘Bolters were no good. He was too quick…. so fast we couldn’t see him all the time. He was wounded by then, blood on gold…scarlet… scarlet on brass… We were heaped everywhere, broken men, sundered armour… But we were slowing him. His chainsword was useless, clogged with the meat of dead Space Marines. He staggered, and more blades came in. I heard him cry out, in pain, in anger. Such wrath… I never saw the like of it. His face was a snarling mask of crimson. I stabbed at him, felt the blade find a weak place in his armour… he threw me aside. I…I lost consciousness I think, and when I came to, he was on one knee, and everyone else was dead. I didn’t think. I took my blade and charged. It took him in the side, and as I twisted… he looked at me… I’ve never seen an expression like it. So much…. hate… so much despair…’
His head felt light, and his words dried up. For a second or two, he stayed like that, kept stable by the weight of his armour. Then slowly, thought fled into darkness, and he pitched forwards into the dust.
Calatar felt warm air on his face. Soft grey flakes fell everywhere, and for a moment he thought it might have been snow, until he realised it was only the ash of burnt things falling back down to earth. He blinked and tried to move but there was no feeling in his limbs. He lay at an awkward angle, propped half up by his power pack. Above him a silhouette held his helm by one of the horns. In the background, beyond his sight, he could hear movement and voices. A guttural laugh sounded somewhere close.
“Where am I?”
“At the end,” said the figure. It went down on one knee in front of him, placing the helm on the ground beside it. Calatar couldn’t make out details, but the figure’s face was as corpse grey as the gently settling ash; its features distended and laced with a spiderweb of black veins in places veins had never evolved to be.
“Did he say anything to you?”
“Is it you… I’ve been speaking to?” Calatar asked. He could barely talk at all now. Each word felt like it might be his last. Every part of him was tired beyond endurance.
The figure inclined its head to one side then bent closer. As the light behind it was blocked out, Calatar saw it clearly for the first time. The black veins on his face were staccato pulses of unlight, tracing down across his neck to disappear beneath his armour. Thin red scars marked any patch of skin not covered by them, so the effect was of two different checkerboards laid one on top of another. Narrow pipes lifted from beneath his gorget to disappear into folds of flesh at his neck. When he spoke, light caught on silver teeth filed to points.
“We killed all the others. You’re the last.”
Calatar nodded. Every movement burnt fatigue deeper. “You tracked me while we spoke.”
“I enjoyed the story. How did you escape?”
“I didn’t …. I must have lost consciousness again. When I woke, Dorn… was gone, the ship was in the warp.”
Calatar nodded once. His voice was nearly spent.
“Did you see what happened to him, at the end?”
Calatar managed to dredge up a laugh from somewhere. It was a thin, uncontrolled thing, for there was no breath left in him for anything else. He heard an echo of it somewhere but couldn’t tell where it came from. His sight was narrowing now, his peripheral vision edging to black, and he realised that the burning sensation was gone.
“I’ll take some secrets…with me,” he said and laid his head back.
“Well? Did you get the end of it?”
The speaker was whip thin for an Astartes, clad in armour that seemed too big for his frame. The skin across his face was stretched parchment thin so that every muscle, vein, and tendon was visible beneath it, as if he had been freeze-dried and made transparent. Every expression or turn of his head resulted in his skin tearing slightly along the lines of his bone structure and then rapidly healing, so that minute trails of blood and clear liquid were constantly being created on his face.
“Not one that made sense,” said the black-veined warrior. He stared at the dying man for what seemed like a long time, then stood, frowning slightly. Calatar’s breath was a whisper, and wherever he was, he wouldn’t be coming back.
“Lies,” said the thin man.
“What makes you think it was lies?”
“Most tales I’ve heard say it was the World Eaters that killed Dorn.” The thin man bent and lifted Calatar’s head. “No nails.”
The black veined Marine grunted. “I wouldn’t believe those mindless lunatics if they told me day was night. If they’d killed a primarch, they’d still be shouting it through every vox system in the Segmentum.”
“Would you rather believe a random Astartes claiming they slew a Primarch? Besides, no-one really knows if Dorn even fell in the first Black Crusade at all. That story’s as much of a legend as anything from those days. Ekremun’s blade was poisoned. This fool was fever dreaming.” The thin man snorted and turned away. “Leave him to die, Vorlesh. We still have to secure what we’ve won before we move on.”
The black-veined Astartes didn’t reply, instead staring down at the dying warrior. The chances were that Calatar had been lying all along, or that his fever had sent his mind to a place where not even he was sure of where the truth lay. But still.
“Someone delivered the final blow,” he said quietly.
If Calatar had been telling the truth he should have been lauded as one of the greatest heroes of the Long War, though as none of them knew if Dorn had actually died aboard the Sword of Sacrilege it was perhaps a moot point. Yet there was a delicious irony in the idea that the slayer of a demi-God would in turn be killed by a cut from a poisoned blade in a minor skirmish on a backwater world. No more bitter illustration as to the pointlessness of their conflict.
Yes, that would be a fine jest, one perhaps to make the Gods themselves chuckle. And in the end, perhaps the truth was simply the version of the story one chose to believe.
A smile tugged at one corner of his mouth, lifting it to a sneer as he drew a bolt pistol. The crater echoed to the sound of a single shot, and without a backwards glance the black-veined Astartes walked away through the still falling grey flakes that covered them all, living, and dead.
About the Author
Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.