Like many writers, I’m sometimes inspired by things within my own life. ‘Despair’ is not just a birthday story – which should be obvious – but was also somewhat cathartic, being written at a time when I was going through a very nasty rough patch personally. I poured some of how I was feeling into Senekal, taking from him his lover, killing some of the Bloodcoats and so forth, leaving him a rather unhappy character. The story itself was written for my best friend Christian, a Space Wolf player and someone I can always depend on, even if it’s just to tell me sometimes I’m being an idiot…
The Aquila transport wrenched, turned and spun in dizzying movements as it darted back and forth through the polluted sky. Things smashed against the windscreen and upper dome, some bouncing off, others disintegrating into smears of yellowish goo with a faint splat that could be heard even through the armored hull.
“The ride’s gonna get rougher – hang on back there!” the pilot yelled over his shoulder as he dodged the craft through larger and larger clouds of malevolent lifeforms. There was distant thunder as the few guns of the transport roared out at the larger creatures just before the plane went into a gut wrenching Immelmann turn and dropped toward the ground like a rock.
“This is gonna be rough and I ain’t staying on the ground long. As soon as I dust, you get your rumps out of my plane!”
“Affirmative, Flight Officer Coriel. We’ll do as you ask.”
“Make sure you do. I don’t know how I got talked into this…”
“You didn’t. You owed Inquisitor Coriolis a favor. He called in that marker. I do not imagine you would wish to cross the good Inquisitor Lord.”
“Damn right I don’t.”
“Good. Then do as you are –“ he was cut off as the transport grounded with a spine smashing slam, the landing gear squealing with the strain. “Go!”
They went. The Aquila’s engines roared as Coriel blasted for the sky almost before they’d cleared the doorway.
One hour earlier…
The shell cases fell in the trench like rain as the grey/blue armored Astartes blasted downrange at the oncoming horde. Chittering insectile carapace in red tinged black vied with pale blue flesh in a seething carpet that began only meters in front of the Astartes line and reached over the hills in the distance to the horizon. The ground in front of the marines was a hill of bodies, some still twitching under the lash of the hivemind.
Angerald Whitewind walked the line behind the Grey Hunters of the Space Wolves First Great Company. His armor was scratched and chipped from a litany of recent close combats, the fingers of his powerfist unable to close completely, so thoroughly caked with ichor was the mechanism. His men, his tanks, he himself, were all covered with grime and effluvia. Some of it the pale yellow/grey of tyranid blood, some the brilliant crimson of their own.
Stopping behind one of his men who was wrenching at the charging lever of his bolter, he cast his eyes down the firing line. More than a few of the Wolves were now snapping off single shots or very short bursts rather than the long sprays they had begun with. Ammo was low, and getting lower. “Problem Olafr?”
The Space Wolf’s voice was tinny through the voder of his Mk VII helmet. “Aye, milord. It’s been jamming continuously for the last quarter part.”
“I will send an Iron Priest if I can find Silver Arm or one of his cronies. Has its spirit failed you?”
“It’s getting there. I think the spirit may be offended by all the gunk in it. Happens if you jam it right into the skull of a gaunt before firing. Sadly, no time to clean and reconsecrate it right now.”
“Indeed. Stay to it Hunter.”
“Always Lord Whitewind. For Russ!”
“For Russ!” the Wolflord smiled back, hearing the grin in the Hunter’s voice.
Down the line the words echoed, “They come again!”
And the horde crashed against the Space Wolves for the seventeenth time that day.
Whitewind and Bjorn watched as the aquila touched hard and then lifted again, barely staying motionless for a few seconds. The last man out had to leap a few feet to the ground as the plane rose. Several of the filthy men began spraying the air with plasma fire in an attempt to beat back the winged gaunts which had driven the last few Wolves into the three surviving bunkers. The other two bent to set up some kind of mechanism, each stopping to cap off the occasional shot. The gaunts got the worst of it for a few minutes although one guardsman went down to bio-plasma from a creature dying on his sword. He was carried by the others as they ran for the bunkers.
Up close, the men were beyond filthy and well into encrusted. All wore elaborate cuirasses, and one the peaked cap of an officer. None had shaved in days and their faces were masks of mud and blood and grime. The officer nodded to the Wolflord, without the usual deference or outright fear that the Astartes was used to from a guardsman. “You’ll want to pull your men in from the firing pits in exactly four minutes, Lord Whitewind. They’ll need to be inside.”
Angerald’s eyes widened slightly at the voice. The man was so filthy he had not recognized him. “Colonel Senekal! I’ve not seen you in long and long. Not since waves crested ice it seems.”
“Aye,” the guardsman nodded, “it’s been awhile, milord.” His voice was weary, near exhaustion.
“While it is always a pleasure, Colonel, I think you may have erred in coming. Over two thirds of the company is destroyed. We will need to initiate many new Blood Claws – even if we survive at all.”
“To die on a day such as this would be karmic, but unseemly milord. To exit the world on the anniversary of one’s arrival in it.”
“I’m amazed you remembered such a thing, Colonel. Few do. I have some wonderful ale that I’d set aside for this day. Seems a shame that I’ll not be able to share it with you. The Devourer closes. I do not think any shall survive their next wave.”
The colonel checked his timepiece. “Two minutes, thirty milord. You’d best tell them.”
The Astartes looked the much smaller man in the eye, saw he meant it and began giving the orders to fall back. He remembered well from the old days – Arcturan Senekal was no suicide, and nothing if not resourceful. Minutes later all were in the bunkers, still firing from loopholes at the bugs which now closed around their bunkers like a sea of death.
Then, in the distance, a high pitched keening wail, and the noises of explosions far off. Then closer. One of the guardsmen yelled “Cover and down – Incoming!” Together, marine and guardsmen hit the floor as the world outside turned white and red in sheets of flame and the horrid reek of fyceline. The barrage went on long and long. It seemed an hour before the blasts stopped assaulting their ears and became merely very loud. Then receded further. The Imperials got to their feet.
“Anyone hurt?” the Wolfpriest’s voice boomed through the chamber.
“Here. Asgrim,” a Wolf called from where his leg was pinned beneath fallen rockcrete. “There is a guardsman beneath as well. Senekal dashed to his man as did marines and the Priest. Three of the Astartes lifted the table sized chunk of wall. While the marine had his leg looked at the others looked at the remains of the guardsman. No one needed to check to see if he’d been killed. His skull was smashed like a melon.
Senekal knelt over the remains of the Bloodcoat and pulled the dead man into his arms, indifferent to the gore from his head. “Ah – my old friend. You will be missed, Bucky. You will be missed. Tears cut clean runnels through the crud on his face as he laid the man down again and composed the body as though resting. He took the dogtags from the dead man’s neck, pocketing one and placing the other between what was left of the Bloodcoat’s teeth. One of the other guardsman knelt with him, clapping his hand to the Colonel’s shoulder. “May the Emperor take him to his home. Long has he labored.”
“God-Emperor take him,” Senekal replied in a whisper.
“Russ look after him,” Whitewind rumbled.
“Russ?” asked another guardsman, a quite young man in the back of the room.
“Aye. I’ve seen Bucky in combat many times. He would have made a fine Wolf.”
The rumbling noise of short two-cycle engines finally rose above the distant blasts and a stacatto tapping came from the door. One of the guardsmen gave a counter tap, which was returned before opening the door. Together, the remnants of the dazed Space Wolves and the four remaining guardsman stepped into air filled with smoke which turned the setting sun into a dull red giant, squatting on the horizon. A small squad of Danikan troopers on Raehaniv quad ATVs mounted with heavy stubbers were just dismounting, looking tired.
Whitewind walked across the corpses of tyranids to look out to the west. Where there had been a sea of Xenos, there was now blasted wasteland, troubled here and there by a limb or piece of carapace. Right and left, giant transports squatted, bracketing what had been the tyranid approach zone down the depths of the flat bottomed valley. The tanks of the 4th Danika were lined up in gunlines just in front of the carriers. He could see the muzzle of an Executioner still glowing dully from the starhot plasma it fired. Hydra Anti-air mounts scythed flying gaunts from the air, as did the AA mounts on the giant transport landers.
Senekal joined him. Tears still flowed from his grey eyes, but his face was impassive.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Whitewind said quietly. “Your gamble and your loss saved my Company. The Space Wolves owe you this day.”
“No, milord,” he replied quietly before turning to face the marine. “I have little left these days. Osric slain. Ariel, now Bucky. My life is in tatters, my wounds catching up with me and perhaps slowly killing me. All that is left now to me is my regiment and one thing else. My friends. Outside of those, my life is a hollow shell. No dreams, no achievements. Naught but death. Let a friend die? I think not, even should it cost me my life. Particularly not on such a special day. Happy Birthday to you, Lord Whitewind. I have little left to give. But my friendship, that you have always until death takes me. It is all that I have left to offer, what little it may be worth.”
“It has always been worth more than you know, Colonel. I wish you would realize that.”
Senekal shrugged and turned to the blasted field between them and the sun touched horizon. “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my works ye mighty and despair!”