(the Conclusion of this story)
The rain stopped just as the first shovel full of dirt hit the thin, cloak wrapped form at the bottom of the ditch. It had taken Alarielle four more days to die. During that time Rybal had guarded her and watched her bearers while the Guard Colonel carried her two year old tucked into the crook of his powerfist.
The young villager watched as Stinson and his two cronies continued to shovel the earth over her frail remains. The look of anger and hatred on the elder’s face was frightening. Next to the lonely hole, Alarielle’s son sat on the muddy loam with tears running down his round little face. Rybal figured that he didn’t really understand what was going on but he seemed to know that his mother was down in that hole and wouldn’t be coming out again. Once her body had been covered completely with about a foot of dirt, the guardsman motioned the gravediggers back. He knelt by the hole, the slime adding to the filth on what had once been white trousers. As he began to say some kind of litany quietly under his breath,
Rybal noted the fearsome space marine who stood like a statue at the rear edge of their small gathering. He had his helmet off and his ancient face was set like stone, expressionless save the dark eyes which glittered with understandings that Rybal would never comprehend.
The Colonel finished his quiet chant and raised his voice for all to hear:
“We commit this woman to this earth in the hopes of a better place in the Emperor’s grace for her soul. While I didn’t know her, I saw the determination, the dedication and the commitment in her efforts to save herself and her son from terrible and undeserved death. Her fight against the injustice done her was both noble and correct. Don’t let her death be for nothing.” He turned on the crowd of villagers, “Each of you saw what was done to her. Each of you remained silent out of fear. How many of you did she once consider her friends? Where was the friendship when she really needed it?
“I’ll tell you where. Hiding behind your fear. Better not to get involved, you said to yourselves. It’ll all work out you assured each other. And now a noble and brave woman is dead. Her husband murdered, her child orphaned. And you –stayed safe! How can you live with yourselves? I see you hang your heads in shame! You are nearly as bad as this filth here,” he gestured at Stinson, “well let this be a lesson to you. Your behaviour is unacceptable. You have a responsibility and you have been shirking it all your miserable lives. Each of us has a duty to each and every one of the others. Not just here but everywhere in the galaxy to decent folk on every world. You shirk that each time you ignore an injustice.
“NO MORE!” The Colonel roared. His next words fired from his mouth one after the other like carefully marked shots from a battlecannon, “No longer will you do this or by the Carrion Lord of Mankind I will personally come back here and kill each and every one of you! Do you understand me? This is your last and ONLY chance.” His fury started to run down and his last sentence was nearly inaudible under his breath, “For if you don’t, it will come back to you. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but someday maybe long after I’ve left your world, they will come for you,” he pointed out a nervous man at the edge of the group who looked down at his boots, “and then for you,” a tense looking girl of about 16, “and then for you,” one of Stinson’s cronies. “And when they do that, each of you will want to say ‘They’ll never come for me, it’s just him or her’ Just keep thinking that. Because the next time it may be for you. If you don’t stand together, you will die alone.” He gestured toward the lonely grave, “She did.”
The Colonel stepped back from the grave as the space marine appeared at his side. His shattered voice still cut through the silence of the clearing like a knife as he knelt by the hole. “Veritas, Dignitas, Fidelitas.” He said, dropping a handful of dirt into the depression. “You fought for what I fight for in your own way. I salute you Alarielle, and will tell your tale of bravery to Void Phantoms as yet unborn that they may know the truth of your struggle. Of our struggle.”
He stood and looked over at the guardsman, “Colonel, I believe that we can now dispose of the murderer. Would you like the pleasure?”
The guardsman stiffened a bit at that and then sighed. “It isn’t really a pleasure, milord. Just a necessary, if filthy duty. But it must be done.” He drew his pistol, snapping the power on. “Stinson, stand forth.”
The elder tried to step back amongst his three toadies, but they quickly moved away from him. He hissed something at them under his breath but it was no good. They faded into the crowd of villagers, leaving him standing alone.
The Colonel gestured over toward the grave with his pistol. Stinson began to move toward it, slowly, clutching his entrenching tool like a weapon. “You won’t get away with this!” he spat. “It will not matter. They are coming for you! Even now, your graves are already dug. The servants of the father await only my word. You will never stand against them!” He raised the spade in triumph. “You are doomed!”
“Mad” the Colonel sighed as he lined his heavy laser pistol up with the elder’s head.
The noise of a boltgun ripped through the silent forest like thunder on a clear day. One explosive shell smashed into the guard Colonel, lifting his body and throwing him into Alarielle’s grave.
“The Servants of the Father have come!” Screamed Stinson. “Embrace them, my people and be saved.”
He looked over at Rybal, “Resist and be destroyed!”
More bolter rounds ripped through the crowd and another pair of villagers fell. The others instinctively dived for cover, a few of the men having the presence of mind to return fire with their Void Phantom bolters.
“Do not flee, my people!” Stinson cried. “Do not fight. Father Nurgle will protect us from these filthy Imperials. Run to them, my people, and be saved!” In the woods, dark figures could be seen moving. They were easily picked out by the muzzle flashes from their weapons. Tall beings, their bodies and armor grossly distended and running with corrupted fluids, punctured by greasy cables. Ancient weapons clutched in their diseased hands, still barked out their messages of death.
With the first salvo of rounds, Rybal had gone into a deep crouch next to the grave. Beside him, little Brennan was screaming in terror and hot metal filled the air with its song of ending. One of the filthy man things approached, raising its weapon. The young villager fired in panic, stitching high explosive shells up the being’s armored carapace. The plague marine reeled under the concentrated fire, staggering backwards until a shot managed to punch through the corroded armor near his neck. There was a dull thud of the round going off within, and the stained crystal eye sockets on the helm blew outward into a thousand tiny pieces as the ancient thing fell, never to move again. “They can die.” He said to himself, surprised. Then louder, “They can die!!!” he screamed as he began to fire furiously at the sickening things.
Then a burst of his fire went wild into the air as he was grabbed from behind and yanked into the grave.
On the other side of the villagers, Lord Liche saw the Colonel fall. Gritting his teeth, he pulled the force axe from his belt and felt the unholy power of the warp pulse through it.
He raised his pistol and fired calmly into a nearby plague marine, his shots as carefully placed as though he was on the firing range. Each one drilled into a stained area of armor on the traitor’s left breast. Repeated impacts weakened the degenerate point until a round punched through, blowing off pieces of the marine’s torso. It turned toward him and raised its bolter. Liche could hear the hissing laughter through its ruined voder. The boltgun drew into line – and Liche suddenly wasn’t there. The Chief Librarian of the Undying heard the thing that had once been one of the Emperor’s own hiss in surprise as he materialized behind it. His step from the warp had been timed with the swing of his axe and the downstroke cut the plague marine completely in two, his armor of no more help than paper.
Bolter rounds rang off his sturdy armor and he charged another pair of marines nearby, drawing on the warp for the powers of prescience. He could see their moves, now and ducked to avoid where their bolter rounds were going to be aimed as he closed. The axe swung. The traitors died. He turned toward another group that were now menacing the villagers.
“Veritas! Dignitas! Fidelitas! For the Emperor!” he hissed in his shattered voice with all the force he could muster as he rushed the unclean beings.
Rybal landed hard on his back and tried to bring his gun around in a panic before being firmly grabbed by the red and white powerfist of the Danikan Colonel. “Whoa, son. Careful with that thing!”
“But Colonel, you were shot!”
“Yeah,” he nodded at the oozing wound that had punched through the armored rerebrace on his powerglove, “hurts like a sonofabitch, too. Listen, when you are in a firefight, you take cover. Never stay in the open when you’ve got a trench, capisce?”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Good lad. Now watch young Brennan, here. I’ve given my word to keep him safe and I’m not going back on it.” For the first time, Rybal realized that he hadn’t been all that the Colonel had dragged into the furrow. The screaming toddler was also present. Tracer rounds ripped across the top of the grave turned trench. “I’m depending on you, Rybal.”
“I won’t let you down, Colonel.”
The guardsman nodded and rolled up the sleeve of his battle jacket. He had a wristwatch like thing on his right wrist, Rybal noted. Gritting his teeth in anticipation, he pressed a small stud on the thing with the finger of his powerfist. Grunting in obvious agony, his eyes rolling back into his head for a moment before settling down. He nodded one last time at the village boy, “Covermelad!” he burst out like a broken recording machine, his voice sped up to a ridiculous level. Then he leapt clean out of the grave with one bound and rushed a knot of attackers with inhuman speed. His sword flickered out like a snake halfway to them and then he was there, the blue light of his active powerfist striking like summer lightning in sheets across a lake. In seconds the plague marines were smashed apart and he was on his way to the next group. Rybal hadn’t even had time to fire a single covering shot.
He raised his weapon as was firing into yet another group of marines when the world suddenly went dark and filled with stars and pain.
Liche fought on alone. The marines came and came, realizing that he was the greatest threat. They ignored the villagers and came after him and he heaped their fallen bodies like wheat at harvest time on his nearly forgotten homeworld. Red blood and grey fluids stained the trees, the ground, his borrowed armor and still he fought on. He could hear the bark of bolter fire and the cries of the dying, but his fury had taken hold and he was reborn Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.
He did not know how long it was before his senses returned. He could feel the muddy loam beneath his head, which seemed cracked like an egg and strangely fragile. His weight was on his back. One foot was twisted so uncomfortably that it rivaled the dull throbbing in his skull. The smooth grip of the marine boltgun was still in has hand. His vision was a blur of fire and blood. Much to his surprise, his hearing was nearly perfect. He could hear the world around him with crystal clarity. The voice that was nearest him, there was something familiar there.
“Ahh, little one. So much pain you have seen and endured. Can you feel it young one? He is close. So close. Only one more death required. Only one to bring one of the great fathers amongst us. You are for him, child. Can you feel it, boy? Can you?”
“I wan my mommy!”
“Soon little one. Very soon. I am sending you to your mommy. I dedicate this life to father Nurgle. Innocent and helpless, take this and bring your child among us, father!”
Rybal managed to pry open a blood soaked eye. From a thousand miles away he saw the entrenching tool coming down on the toddler’s throat. He heard the Colonel’s voice, “I’m depending on you, Rybal.” As if with a will of it’s own, the Phantom boltgun barked in his fist as the darkness slammed down on him once again with a weight like a thousand dropships.
Liche felt it as much as saw it when it happened. The purple flames of the warp colouring the trees with sickly light. He saw the thing and felt its horror as the remaining plague marines drew back. There had been enough death and a Great Unclean One had come.
The greater daemon strode through the portal into the world of men accompanied by the foul stench of decay and death. Flies and tiny nurglings swarmed over its rotting carcass through which organs that had never had any true function oozed. It shambled toward him, giggling horribly, like a little girl, surrounded by the more man sized plague bearers. The thing came for the Librarian, who consigned his soul to the Emperor and prepared to die as a Void Phantom should.
The plaguebearers closed first. Liche quickly enwrapped himself in psychic force, a protective bubble like he had used on the guard Colonel in their first meeting. The plaguebearers couldn’t hurt him now. But they could tie him up and allow the daemon it’s chance. The thing closed, its childish giggle filling the clearing. Horror swept through him, but he stood firm. It raised its arms to strike as the smaller daemons struck at him with their swords in a futile attempt to bring him down. He hacked right and left, destroying daemon after daemon. The great thing rained blows off his psychic shielding and vomited horrible things over both him and the nearby villagers. He was injured with one of the greater daemon impacts.
And then again. Plaguebearers fell around him, fading away as they hit the forest floor.
He could hear the thing, gibbering in his mind, “Come now mortal,” it said in its little girl voice, “there is no need to die. There is power in the love of the Father. He can make you whole. Give you immortality. You will live forever. Longer than the Emperor, longer than humanity, you will watch the stars as they burn out and new ones are born! You are a creature of the warp! We are one, brothers. There is no need to die.
“Join me! Join us!”
For the tiniest second, the idea was attractive, seductive. But he clamped his iron will down upon that weak part of his soul. Veritas, Dignitas, Fidelitas.
“But you will die, alone. Unremarked. And no one will know your ending. No one will tell of your final stand. There is no reason. None Liche. None. Join with your brethren of the warp. Join with me!”
“No!” he screamed with the last measure of his determination. Through his link with the creature, he felt its frustration. Its anger. And he knew as it raised its arms for the deathstroke that even with his own death he had won!
Then, just as the arm came down, a slime covered gold chased sword deflected it as a red and white figure darted in under the thing’s long arms, killing a pair of lesser demons as it did so. The Colonel’s powerfist smashed deep into the daemon’s innards causing it to howl in anger and in that moment, Liche regained his feet.
The Librarian cleared the area around him, slaying the last plaguebearer. He ducked under Colonel Senekal’s furious strikes as the guardsman tore great ripping sheets off the thing and hurled them around the clearing.
The daemon was no longer giggling. It lost its footing as Liche hacked off a leg with his axe. It howled when the Colonel tore off an arm. And the Chief Librarian of the Undying saw fear in its eyes as he brought his axe down in a killing stroke upon the thing’s greasy braincase.
“Back you go, Hellspawn,” he whispered in his shattered voice as the thing’s giant corpse faded away into the warp.
The shattered clearing was silent, with only the wind soughing through the tree branches to mark it as part of the world. The dead villagers lay strewn like jackstraws amidst the corpses of the plague marines. Only the guardsman and the marine still stood amidst the carnage. Liche could hear his friend, the Colonel, mutter quietly under his breath. It surprised him that he would suddenly think of this normal human as his friend. But he could not doubt the truth of that feeling. His enhanced hearing easily picked up the words of the Colonel’s muttered poem:
“Who shall pay the butcher’s bill
That fierce, heavy cost.
For all this burned and broken meat
That remains of friends we’ve lost.”
With that, the guardsman simply keeled over, his body twisting in a tortured retch as his collapsed form vomited forth bile and dark blood.
* * *
Sister Benaxus dlen Moratir of the Order of the Bloody Rose started from her guardpost as a form materialized out of the morning mist. She raised her bolter and carefully trained it while broadcasting over the tacnet, “This is Sector 1 – 3, I have movement at perimeter point five. Request backup immediately. I will not proceed to investigate until Seraphim support is on site.”
The Sister turned towards the form in the mist. It was misshapen. Perhaps not human. “Stand and Deliver! You approach Imperial Post 161.”
The form ceased movement. “Identifier code Alpha Zero Seven Niner,” it whispered in a shattered voice that might or might not have been human. She checked her codes.
“That identifier is for the Void Phantoms Chapter for this day,” she said, “We are not expecting any Void Phantoms in this theatre. What do you want here and why do you use the Phantom’s ID Code?”
“I am Lord Liche. Chief Librarian of the Void Phantoms, called the Undying. I request clearance to enter this post. I have a comrade who is in need of medical treatment,” the form whispered in its tomblike diction. “You keep me waiting at your peril!”
Benaxus turned off the external voder on her armor before activating her comlink, “This is 1 – 3. The target identifies itself as Lord Liche of the Undying. Authentication codes match.”
The response came quickly, “This is Superior Corrella of the Seraphim, 1 – 3. Keep to your post, we will be present momentarily. We do have a report that Liche was reported as missing, but this could be a trick.”
“Affirmative Superior Corrella. I will await your arrival.” She turned her voder back on, “You there! Stand firm and wait. I will summon aid for your comrade, but come no closer or I fire!”
The voice was clearly unimpressed, “I will wait, but if he dies…”
“Then he dies. If you are truly the Lord Liche you must understand that duty comes first. I will have no trick penetrations of my sector,” she tabbed the radio, “1 – 3 to base we need medical on site. It appears to be an emergency but follow in Seraphim reinforcements. Do not bypass. This could be a trap.” She needn’t have worried about the speed of the medicos, however. In a roar, the Seraphim arrived.
An hour later, Liche was still cooling his heels in the courtyard. The promised apothecaries had not arrived. At his feet, the Danikan Colonel twisted in the throes of delirium, occasionally vomiting black blood. His eyes were squeezed shut and ran with foul fluids. His left arm was swollen and thick with strange swellings, the boltgun wound on his upper arm a sickly shade of red mixed with tints of unhealthy green. The entry wound for the corruption that now ravaged his body. He moaned and raved. And still no one came.
Lord Liche had had just about enough. Gently lifting the body of his friend he strode toward the doors of the command post where Inquisitor Varley laired like a venomous spider. As he approached, the two Seraphim at the doors stepped in his way. It was not the first time.
“Out of my way!” the psyker hissed.
“We have been through this before, milord. You have been denied entry. When the Inquisitor wishes to see you-”
“Now!” hissed Liche. “My friend is dying and Varley sits behind these doors.” The marine looked down at the small woman. She barely came to the middle of his breastbone, “If you do not stand aside, I will move you from my path. The force used will be – appropriate – to the resistance offered.” He carefully shifted Senekal’s motionless form so that it would not interfere with his right arm. The one with the force axe.
The Seraphim’s eyes grew hard. “Then you will kill me, milord. For I will NOT abandon my post!”
Liche’s eyes hardened. The axe came up. His dark eyes gleamed with power. The young Seraphim drew herself up to her full height and began to make her peace with the Emperor as her Sister began to flank the psyker while quickly calling for help on her link.
And Liche vanished.
Inquisitor Varley’s office was dim, with hard edged shadows like black knives. Faint accents of gold and red gleamed here and there in the darkness. And suddenly, the center of the room was filled with a giant Void Phantom in stained ivory armor, force axe in one hand, the limp form of the Colonel cradled in his off arm like a child.
Varley looked up from the report that he was reading with a look of simple annoyance. “What do YOU want?”
It was all the Void Phantom could do to suppress his anger. He had waited as a good man died while this BEAST read reports. Liche could make out the one on Varley’s desk. It was a status report on waste recycling systems. It was the last straw. His teeth bit down on his lip drawing blood. Centuries of patience were overcome by the stress of the last couple of weeks. His anger surged as, without a single word the axe came crashing down on the table, cutting report and desk clean in two. Varley, with a lap full of desk, looked up at him in annoyance as one might examine a yapping toy poodle.
He clucked his tongue, “Manners, Liche, manners. That was a fine piece of furniture you just ruined. I am a busy man, what do you want?”
Gently setting Senekal down on a velvet divan, Liche stepped quickly forward and smashed away the remains of the desk with the flat of his axe then stepped forward to tower over the handsome Inquisitor.
“You know why I’m here!”
“Ah, yes,” Varley’s nose wrinkled at the reek from the Colonel’s recumbent form. “The Guardsman.”
“Yes!” the psyker hissed with all the low menace he could muster, “the guardsman!” Varley simply leaned back in his chair, unperturbed.
“Really, Liche. I don’t know what you were thinking of. I really gave you credit for more intelligence than this.”
“Of Nurgle’s rot, yes. I know. I could hardly miss the smell,” he made a moue with his beautifully sculpted lips, “even when he was OUTSIDE.” He carefully fished a scented handkerchief from his vest pocket and covered his mouth and nose.
The marine’s jaw dropped. “You know?” Varley nodded, eyes raised to the ceiling over the silken cloth. “Then DO something!”
“WHAT!” Liche roared. For the first time in centuries, his passion pushed his ruined voice into a true shout. Had he been thinking of it, he would have been astonished. “No? You must! You can’t just let him die!”
The Inquisitor sighed with the air of one who has been given much too much work to do one too many times. He gave the scented cloth a look of disgust and carefully refolded it, clearly deeming it useless. “Of course I can’t, Liche. That would be highly inappropriate. We both know what happens to those who succumb to the rot.” He casually got up and walked around the astonished space marine to a sideboard where he poured a drink into a fine glass. He looked over his shoulder, “Sherry?”
Liche stared, unbelieving. This could not be happening. Yes, the Inquisition could be harsh. Even cruel, but THIS?
Varley continued through Liche’s silence, “No? Well suit yourself. It is an excellent year.”
“The Colonel!” the marine reminded him.
“Ah, yes. As I said, I really gave you credit for more sense. Why do you think I allowed you to remain with him. He’s your friend, yes?” Liche nodded.
“Then it only fits that you should be the one to give him the Emperor’s grace before chaos takes him. In truth, I’m surprised he’s lasted this long. He must have an amazingly strong will. Too bad, really. He’d likely have made an excellent Inquisitor or Assassin.”
The marine couldn’t help muttering, “Personally I doubt that.”
The Inquisitor just shrugged, “Nonetheless. I would recommend that you take THAT and head back outside where you can do the right thing. Before the divan is so badly penetrated I have to have it burned.”
Liche carefully noted the door opening off to his right. The red armor and white robes of the Order of Purity of the Bloody Rose gleamed in the darkness. Varley looked up, amused.
“After Liche’s little scene outside the doorway, I rather expected you to be a herd of your Seraphim Canoness Althea.”
“They were certainly of a mind to burst in, milord Inquisitor. I trust I do not intrude?”
“Not at all, my dear. Liche and his companion,” the word was a sneer, “were just leaving, weren’t you Liche?” The marine simply had no reply. It was the first time in centuries that he could remember being truly speechless. The arrogance! The brash cruelty! This man was a servant of the Emperor? It was unbelievable.
The Colonel moaned quietly, drawing the attention of the Sororitas. “The man still lives, Varley.”
“Amazing isn’t it? I was just commenting on his stamina to the Chief Librarian, here.” He made a little dismissal wave to the psyker. Liche simply stared at the strange tableaux.
The Canoness turned to him. “If I may ask, milord, how long has he been like that?”
“Two days,” Liche whispered. Shock and disbelief flooded the woman’s features.
“Varley, you can prevent us no longer. Clearly the Emperor’s hand is at work, here!”
“Sorry, my dear, you know the rules of the Administratum. Guard soldiers exposed to chaos are to be,” he paused for effect, “expunged. And that’s only chaos, my dear. This man has fought with daemons if Liche, here is to be believed.”
“Yes,” Althea returned, “and he has not died of the rot in what amounts to an unprecedented time. You can prevent me no longer, milord Inquisitor.” She moved toward the muttering guardsman, her right hand going into a pouch at her belt.
But Varley was not done. “I can and I have, my dear. You will do precisely nothing. If Liche, here hasn’t the courage to end the man’s life than your troops will send his risen remains to the warp where he belongs.” He turned to the Librarian, “The choice is yours, you know. How could you possibly condemn a man to such a fate? Best hurry. I’m sure he cannot last much longer.”
The head of the force axe hit the floor with a heavy thud. Liche turned to the Canoness, “Milady Canoness, do you mean to tell me that there is a way that this man might be saved?”
Althea looked down at the floor, withdrawing her hand from her pouch. A tiny crystal vial glittered between her fingers. “I can make no guarantees, of course but – there might be a way, yes. It was my thought to try to save the man as his battle with the daemons that try for his soul is extraordinary to say the least. But I have been,” she glared at Varley, “prevented.”
Liche was stunned. His loyalty, his beliefs, his honor and all he held dear were on the line. Challenged in the most frightful way. In a way the daemon could never have touched. Now he was faced with the most terrible choice of his life, so far. Remain true to his friend or remain true to the Emperor in the avatar of this foul man. He tore his eyes from the angry yet sorrowful visage of Canoness Althea to the mocking smirk of the Inquisitor Lord.
Where was truth? Where was honor? Where was Loyalty? Where were any of the things that he had lived for his entire life. How could he decide? If he acted to save the man who had twice saved his own life was he then a heretic? A traitor? Was this the choice that Night Haunter once faced? Magnus the Red? Alpharius? Where did loyalty truly lie when all paths seemed treachery? He wanted to cry out. To rage against the universe for its treachery. But he knew from too long a life that that would avail him nothing. Action was needed. Now.
“Veritas. Dignitas. Fidelitas.” He muttered under his breath, a part of his mind remembering flashing grey green eyes peering through a narrow hole, a red and white form diving into a battle against the most fearsome creature there could ever be to save him. Who would pay the butcher’s bill? His friend? Or this thing masquerading as a man?
The air in the dim room was ripped by the resounding crash of bolter fire as bright muzzle flashes briefly lit the room with the brilliant actinic flash of rocket fire. As the thundering echoes faded away into the ringing of his sensitive ears, Liche looked up at the Canoness over the smoking muzzle of his bolt pistol. Her right hand clutched the vial, her left the grip of her plasma pistol, half out of its holster. Her eyes were filled with tears. His were dry and as hard edged as diamonds.
Both were careful not to step in the steaming remains of the Inquisitor as they moved to do the only human thing that had ever been possible.
Veritas. Dignitas. Fidelitas.
(by Mike Major – 2000)