Those Who Remain

4/5 (1)

A few days ago the trap might have worked. It was simple, well hidden, and completely lethal. But Tanii had learntfast since she’d fled into these woods. She scoured the damp foul-smelling ground until she was confident she’d identified the mechanism, then stepped with care over the tripwire. Praying there was no secondary trigger, she pressed her small body close against the twisted trunk of a role-nut tree and held herself as still as a gravestone. She took a moment, steadied her breathing, and fixed her gaze on the figure who sat at the campfire in the clearing ahead.

The owner of the trap did not appear to be a large man, though it was hard to be sure. A vast grey coat covered much of his body, tattered at the edges and patched at the elbows. He sat hunched on a fallen log, staring into the small fire he had built. His back was to Tanii, just as she’d planned, and she watched him for a long time, waiting for any sign that he had heard her approach. Occasionally he poked at the the fire with a stick, and she saw his hands were covered in dark gloves that ended at the knuckle. His hair was long for a man, and the colour of age was starting to take hold. He made her think of a thresher machine at the end of its life, rusting and blunt. Yet even an old thresher could chew up your arm if you weren’t careful. 

The fire sat in a small pit, and stones were piled carefully and deliberately beside it in a way that she recognised from her grandfather. Warming them for later. Beyond the flames she could make out the outlines of a small shelter – it looked well-built and sturdy, if temporary. The edges of the clearing looked clean too. Swept clear of the rotten leaves that gave cover to danube beetles and other pests. And then there were the traps. The one she’d just avoided was only the last of them. She’d had to negotiate her way around three others before she’d even noticed the flames of his camp through the undergrowth. For all his rundown appearance, Tanii felt an edge to this man. A hardness at his core that remained even where all appearance suggested he had forgotten it himself.

The fire called to her cold body though, and the faint smell of something cooking on the hot stones sent spasms through her stomach. The twisted forest was a dangerous place – and she was no hunter. She wouldn’t survive long out here as she was. Tanii stared at the hunched figure, and weighed her options.

The man by the fire shifted himself upright, and stretched his arms out for a second. A soft grunt of fatigue escaped him, and the girl sank deeper into her hiding place. He spoke without turning.

‘Well, do you want some, or not?’

She was just a slip of a thing. He watched her in silence as she ate. So small, though he wondered if that was more due to her diet than her actual age. She stayed crouched, devouring the chunk of charred meat like an animal fearing competition. Her eyes never left his.

Her clothes were ragged and torn, perhaps by razor-root, but perhaps not. The marks on her arms and face weren’t natural, he knew that much. He wondered how much of her body was covered by scars and bruises. The injuries were recent, but he doubted she’d got them in the forest. 

She saw where his gaze was, and after a moment she paused eating long enough to speak from the side of her mouth.

‘They’ll come after me, you know.’

He nodded slowly, and she returned to her meal, apparently satisfied that she’d done her part in warning him. 

‘The village in the gorge?’ he asked to be sure. She paused, tense, then nodded.

He’d been there a few days ago. Good ale at the tavern. Stayed as long as he could, but eventually he’d moved on. As he always did; he didn’t remember much else about the place beyond the haze of alcohol. But it was the only settlement for miles. He watched her eyes, and decided not to ask more. 

He sat back and shifted his gaze. The sparks of the campfire danced through the dark night air upwards to where the stars shone through the gap in the canopy. For a few happy moments he let his mind drift towards them, then, like every time, he pulled himself back to the ground. To the fire, and the coming storm he felt on the air. It was a strange night, and he was more relaxed than he had been for weeks. Even so, when he began to speak it surprised even him. 

‘This place used to be a paradise. Or as close to it as I’d ever seen. Vast rolling plains of mega-grain. Vineyards of grapes, fat and healthy.  When I first came here it was still beautiful. Even with the taint that had taken hold at the root’

She hadn’t stopped chewing, but her eyes were fixed on him. He sighed. 

‘You’d be too young to remember any of this. It started in the lowlands to the north. Just people going missing, to begin with. The Arbites got involved, but it was just an inconvenience really. The real trouble began when they found the ones that disappeared. Horrific things they found. No reason for it either. Just senseless, impossible violence. The Arbites did their job of course, and they found the criminals. But when they found them, they didn’t find crazy people, no lunatics with knives. Just normal people, who’d had a single, intense moment of madness. They didn’t know why they’d done it. Probably would never do it again. Just in one single moment, they’d lost control, and as soon as they did, something took over. Something that carved itself into every body they killed.’

He shrugged to himself, and wondered why he was telling her this. Perhaps it was just too long since he’d told it. Either way, the words kept coming.

‘Eventually all those cuts added up. The bodies added up, and something broke loose. Overnight, entire towns turned on each other. Cities fell into mayhem. It was too much for the Arbites. So the Imperium sent us. They sent the Guard.

By the time we got there, there was almost an army to face. Cultists with knives and sickles, farming implements mostly, but enough of an army that it felt like any normal war to start with. But they’d got into the Arbites stations too, and taken whatever weapons they could carry – and in any case, this was their land, they knew it well. It was guerilla tactics from the start. They’d appear without warning from the long grasses, slaughter a patrol then melt away. So, we did what we had to. We burned the grasses down. Scorched the earth, drove them back. Those locals who’d stayed loyal, who’d stayed sane, they tried to stop us, but they were easily dismissed. They’d let a rebellion grow in their own community. Their words weren’t worthy of attention.

So we kept going, kept burning, kept killing; and they kept pulling back, withdrawing to whatever cover they could find. Until eventually there was nowhere left to hide. We wiped them out. Then we celebrated our victory, mourned our dead, packed our transports, while the locals started trying to recover the land.’ He paused and gestured to the dark, twisted trees that surrounded them. ‘And this, this was what they got. Instead of plains of beautiful swaying crops, they got this. A world growing out of blood soaked earth. Everything grew wrong after that. While the damned Imperial Guard gave ourselves medals, and sailed away.’

He turned to look at her. ‘It doesn’t go away. The taint. We came here to kill monsters, but in the process, we killed your world.’ His eyes found her scars. ‘And maybe we didn’t even manage to kill the monsters’.

They sat in silence after that. She didn’t say a word. Clouds slid by, and hid the stars, and he watched their shapes flow and change. Eventually he glanced over at her. She was asleep where he’d left her, by the warmth of the fire, stomach full of meat. He watched her for a long time, until the fire burned low.

She woke suddenly and leapt into a crouch.  The fire had burned low and the wind was cold – but that wasn’t what had awoken her. The man was awake also, standing across the remains of the fire from her. He was staring out into the forest. She followed his gaze. The darkness beyond revealed nothing, but she could hear it. The soft tread of careful footsteps. Footsteps of men approaching who knew the forest, who moved deliberately, without excess noise. 

She was moving before she even knew it, but the man was suddenly beside her, and his hand was on her shoulder. The force in his grip froze her, and she looked up at the hard planes of his face.

‘You can’t run forever,’ he said.

She shook herself free of his grip, then paused, panting with effort. Then she was gone. Vanished into the darkness, nothing but a blur of motion between the trees.

The man sighed and watched her for a moment. Then he returned to the fire, and took up his seat again on the fallen log, and waited.

There were three of them. They edged into the circle of the dying firelight cautiously, with the instincts of hunters. He didn’t recognise any of them from his time in the village, but he recognised the clothes. The coarse old sackcloth, covered by a hard leather tunic to protect from the thorns and brambles of the forest. Hunters. All three held battered but serviceable weapons. Scavenged lasrifles of a pattern he was well familiar with.

‘Hello friends.’ The man had a good smile, he knew that. Though, these days, that smile never touched his eyes. He knew that too.

The first to speak was the shortest of the men, in the centre of the three. The other two scanned the small campsite.

‘You’re the one they call the Marshal.’ Ah. They remembered him from the village then. ‘We’re looking for my daughter’

‘I know.’ The Marshal saw no reason to lie. ‘She was here. Ran off a short while before you came.’

The short man didn’t break eye contact. The other two started moving though, casting out towards the edge of the camp, searching for the trail to continue their search. He was nothing to them, like all good hunters they had eyes only for their prey.

‘I saw the bruises’ 

All three men froze. Slowly the other two turned towards the Marshall, but he didn’t take his eyes off the smaller man in the middle, the father. 

‘Been a long time since I saw someone do that to their daughter.’

At the edge of his vision he saw the men’s hands grip their rifles a little tighter. The father seemed to chew his words carefully before spitting them out. 

‘Don’t see that’s any of your business’

The two men stared at each other for a long moment. The Marshall saw fear, rage and self-loathing. He couldn’t even guess what the father saw in his. Eventually the smaller man turned and spat into the ground by the fire.

‘What, you think you’re any better? Alone out here? Bet you’ve done some things in your time.’

‘I’ve done some things,’ the Marshal agreed.

‘We’re starving back there. Starving everywhere these days. But right now, it’s us that’s starving, and the winter’s coming in. The weak won’t survive. Only the strongest are going to last through this one. The girl’s weak. Better for her if it ends now, better than letting the winter get her.

And better for you. Better if her body feeds you through the winter to come’. 

The Marshal knew now. He could see the truth in the father’s eyes. Slowly, he closed his own and shook his head, refusing to acknowledge the pain that welled up. When he opened his eyes, the father’s rifle was pointing at his head. The two other men were alongside him – alert, but not aiming. 

‘Sorry fella. Seems to me there’s more meat on you than on her any ways’.

The Marshal nodded sadly, then his foot lashed out fast. A cloud of sparks kicked up high into the air as he dived sideways, the shot from the father’s lasrifle crashing into the stump where he’d been seconds ago. He hit the ground and rolled, bringing up his laspistol from its holster hidden deep within his greatcoat. He shot by instinct, and with a cry the father fell, the bolt round blowing a hole deep into his chest. The other two, slower to react, had their rifles up now, so close they couldn’t miss. Then the fire exploded. The handful of boltcartridges the Marshal had kicked into the fire blew outwards with a massive sound, showering the campsite with debris. 

One hunter got his shot away anyway, firing wildly, instinctively, and the Marshal grunted hard as the shot took his shoulder. He loosed off a return volley, and was rewarded with a tight scream from the other side of the smoke cloud where the fire had been. 

Then through the smoke came the final hunter. Sparks of flame clung to his beard and clothes, and his face was a mask of rage. Rifle abandoned, he had drawn a long hunting knife; and crashed hard into the Marshal, as he struggled to rise. The laspistol flew from the Marshal’s hands, and they crashed to the ground together, both lashing out, wild and desperate. This hunter was a big man though, and he was on top. He had the Marshal pinned, the knife now moving inexorably towards his throat, despite the older man’s failing effort.

This was it then. This was how it ended. The Marshal had long ago made peace with that.

The girl came out of nowhere. One moment the two men struggled in their deadly embrace; the next the hunter was rearing back with a roar of pain, the sharpened stakes of one of the Marshal’s mantraps sticking from his spine. He threw the girl aside, and she fell to the ground hard. The hunter struggled towards her, his face a mask of rage burning through the pain of his wound.

The Marshal saw it, and threw himself after him, hands catching on the wooden stake and pushing it harder in. The hunter roared again, as the Marshal shouted to the girl. 

‘The gun!’

She stared for a second then moved, scrabbling over the rough ground as the men wrestled by the fire. The hunter saw what she was going for, but too late. She grabbed for the bolt pistoland spun round. The shot rang out with a bang that echoed from the trees, and all was silent.

The Marshal rolled free from the body of the last man, and forced himself into a seating position. He spat blood and broken teeth onto the earth. The girl stood stiff by the firelight, his pistol still loose in her hands. He watched her scan the bodies, scattered around the camp, the blood pooling beneath her father, and the other two men. He tried to speak, but the breath wasn’t there. It was her who broke the silence.

‘Were they the monsters?’

He stared at her in confusion. She stared back.

‘Were they the monsters? The ones you came to kill?’

He understood then. 

‘No,’ he forced out. The pain in his voice was not just from his injuries. He looked at the bodies and felt an old sorrow deep in his chest. ‘These are the ones we created.’

About the Author

Benjamin Joseph is a 40k fan, and writer, based in Dubai and trying to find the Grimdark in eternal sunshine.