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This is, I was suprised to find, the first story I've posted on this forum. It's kinda odd for various reasons, not least that normally I'm a fantasy writer and rarely venture into 40k (or 30k as the case may be). Besides, this story is a bit different to what I usually write.
Anyways, I thought I'd post it anyways. Hope y'all enjoy.
The bikes roared over the wide, grassy plains, speeding over the ground far faster than the fastest horse. The herds of animals that wandered the steppes stampeded to avoid the pack of strange metallic monsters, fearing the ungodly noise and unnatural stench that filled the air. On another day, the White Scars would chase down and herd up the wild creatures, just like they had the animals of their home world, but for today they had another purpose. They rode in a sombre silence, their eyes fixed on the sloping, grass-covered hills in the middle distance that slowly rose to towering peaks of sand-coloured rocks.
This was a good world.
Through the centuries, the Khan had dreamed of the plains of Chogoris, so many millions of miles away, lost in the past. He had talked with the new recruits, asking them how the tribes were doing, how the beasts of the plains fared, if the worship of the Sky Father still prevailed –in secret, of course, under the noses of the Emperor’s appointed scientists and teachers. He had never returned, though.
He didn’t need to. This war, this Crusade, as it was called now, was the greatest war of all history. Where else could he find such freedom? Like the horsemen of old united under his leadership and took their oppressors with fire and steel, his Legion took world after world in the name of his father.
He still dreamed of his home, though.
The wide open spaces of this world, shunned by those who dwelled in the great cities of steel and concrete, reminded him so much of Chogoris that it was almost painful.
He had united the tribes through force of will and the strength of his arm, fought against those who hunted and enslaved them, and carved out an empire of his own, so none again would dare to think they could cage the wolves of the plains. All he longed for was a good horse under him and the open steppe before him. That was true freedom, the freedom to take what he wanted, when he wanted, from those who hated and feared him.
Back there, behind him, were billions upon billions of newly-enslaved humans, bowed by the warriors of the White Scars, now united in the purpose of the Emperor of Mankind. Like thousands of worlds before them, they had thought they stood a chance against the men of Chogoris.
It had taken them only a few months to defeat the city-dwellers.
And yet it had not all gone their way. The Khan felt no anger as he considered the body that lay on the litter attached between two of his warriors’ bikes. Subeitie had known that every time he mounted his bike could be his last, as did all of the Astartes of the White Scars. He had died for a good cause, a cause he had believed in and fought for.
And yet, the Khan still felt sorrow. Another link to his past like was cut forever.
And now, on a world that had reminded them so much of their home, they would honour the great warrior, one of the Khan’s oldest friends and comrades, by dealing with his body as they would of the greatest heroes back on Chogoris.
The mountains were closer now. The bikes barely slowed from their break-neck speed as they started the ascent of the hills, heading for the summit. The Khan knew they would have to dismount eventually, to find a spot as high as possible from which Subeitie’s soul could fly.
As a child—though he had grown fast, far faster than any of his adopted father’s other sons—he had climbed the holy
mountain of his tribe, an impossible feat according to his brothers, to capture a wild bird as a gift for his father. When he had reached the summit and found their nest, he had found himself unable to enslave such a wild, free creature. Instead, he had cast his eyes around, taking in the endless expanse of plains, and knew that one day he would have to go beyond.
That had been the day his father had died. He had only survived because he had spent the night at the peak of the mountain.
The mountains loomed over them now. He could see the birds circling at their peak—strange animals, as different from those of his homeworld as his homeworld’s were of those of Terra, but he could see the fire in their eyes and the sharpness of their beaks and knew that they would do.
His warriors were still in silence. They were all those of Chogoris, not from great Terra, and knew the need for their Khan to do this. Though none were old enough to remember the conquest, as children they had all heard the stories. They knew of Subeitie from a hundred songs, knew his great and noble deeds by heart, as they knew the greatest heroes of their own tribes, as they knew the Khan’s history.
“Great Khan.” One of them dared to break the silence and pointed backwards to the far horizon. They were going slower now, carefully guiding their bikes up steep and dangerous slopes as the grass gave way to rough rocks. The Khan looked backwards to see what the young Astartes had noticed.
There was a black dot on the far horizon, akin to a bird but obviously far larger. Even the supernatural senses of the Primarch couldn’t make out what it was, though he had his fears, so he activated his helmet’s zoom.
He could just make out the shape of an Imperial aircraft. The animals of the plains fled before its shadow, probably driven out of their minds by the roar of its mighty engines. He scowled and turned his attention back to the summit.
“Onwards,” he growled, and the bikes roared into life once more.
Connig Gulden gazed out of the viewing portal of the aircraft, trying to fight down his impatience. Couldn’t this damned machine go any faster? The thunder of its engines made it impossible to concentrate and the constant jolting meant he was always being thrown back and forth. He held onto the hand-rail for dear life and tried to make out any details of the score of motorbikes far ahead of him.
He knew that the Khan and an apparently random selection of warriors had set off from the city three hours ago. He had no idea of their purpose, but he had a sudden feeling he should take this risk. He had demanded the use of a plane, using his weight as a Remembrancer to convince the pilot that his work was necessary. He felt guilty about that, but he had spent months with the White Scars and was yet to get even an interview with the Khan or any of his high-up commanders. He had had to make do with talking to the generals of the Imperial Army, and while he had found out much that way, it was nothing that would have him immortalised amongst the ranks of his fellow Remembrancers. He’d entertained himself by reading every work of philosophy, morality and science he could get his hands on out here on the very fronts of the Crusades. He’d spoken with the scientists and teachers assigned to the fleet and helped them persuade the newly-conquered Imperial Citizens to forget their old gods. The thought of a universe blighted with superstition made him sick. On his world, the churches had prosecuted any free-thinking, any original thoughts, any science that contradicted their view on the world. When the Imperium had came, promising enlightenment and freedom from oppression of thought, he had been entranced with their view of the world and had volunteered himself at once. Though he was woefully ignorant compared to their great minds, he had asked to contribute in any way he could, and had eventually found his way onto this fleet to record the thoughts and deeds of the great Astartes who shaped history with their very actions.
And yet now he felt trapped, here amongst these dour men who only seemed truly alive on their bikes in the midst of battle. And when he debated about new ideas and new technologies with human engineers and scientists, he was always far out of his depth. He had tried so hard to expand his mind; he had spent hours poring over the works of the Imperium’s greatest minds; but he still couldn’t understand them like his friends could. And while they did their own experiments and formed their own theories, fulfilling their place in this fleet, he tried in vain to get access to the Khan. He knew the primarch disapproved of the Remembrancers; he was amongst the few in the fleet, and the only one who could even talk to an Astartes, even if they would never answer his questions.
Yes, he was trapped here. While in his world people had fought and died in the vain struggle to overthrow the churches, here he had no-one to fight for—and it was such an insult to those brave people in his homeworld that now, when there was no great enemy to stop the minds of humanity, he could still do nothing to justify their sacrifices.
He clenched his fist. Well, he wouldn’t miss this chance. He would at least stand face-to-face with the primarch and then…
Well, at least he would try. He didn’t know how the great warlord would treat him, even if he would notice him—but he had to try.
They were passing over hills now. They were catching up to the bikes, who were moving slowly up the winding passes and along the towering cliffs. “Will we get to the peak before them?” Gulden asked into his voice-piece, the only way he could be heard even if he were standing over the shoulder of the navigator.
“Negative, sir,” the man replied, his voice distorted and mechanic over the vox. Gulden cursed and tightened his grip around the rails.
The bikes could go no further. Even the expert riders of the White Scars couldn’t get them up almost-vertical slopes. They’d have to go on foot from now on. The Khan didn’t say a word as he leapt up and grabbed onto tiny cracks in a cliff-face, the sheer strength of his fingers widening the hand-holds until he could hang on comfortably. With one hand, he reached up and pulled off his helmet. It felt good to feel the wind on his skin again. He tossed the piece of armour down to one of the Astartes below before reaching out and pulling himself higher.
It would be a long climb, but he was equal to it, as were the warriors he had brought with him.
The sun was setting by the time they managed to pull themselves over the ledge and stood at the highest peak of the mountain. A layer of sweat covered the Khan’s skin, but he didn’t feel exhaustion as a normal human did. He just felt fierce joy as he cast his eyes out on the world around him. The wind tore at his face and stung his eyes, but he fought against it and stood as still as a statue. High above, a bird of prey screeched and plummeted to the plains many thousands of feet below, its eyes—more acute than even those of a primarch—fixed on some small creature in the long grass.
He could make out the blur of smoke on the horizon from the city they had set out from, speaking of the thousands of factories worked by millions of slaves, now united in the need to arm and supply the Crusade. They would work until they dropped dead, and they would be replaced by their sons and daughters, and they would die too, eventually, and be replaced; and even a hundred generations later, the Khan knew, the Crusade would not be finished, and its guns would need ammo, and its warriors would need arms and armour, and its heroes would still be out there, fighting for eternity, until every single world—every single one, every last one of the untold billions waiting out there—bowed to the Emperor of Mankind.
And the Khan would be there, and his White Scars with him, and they would never see their home again.
The Khan remembered a time, so long ago, when the entire world of Chogoris had been under his control, and he had nowhere else to conquer, and he and his warriors had turned around and went home, back to the steppes.
There would be nothing like that with the Crusade.
He looked back at the shroud-covered figure of his oldest friend, Subeitie. He had been stripped of his armour and the
great gaping wound that had killed him was visible for all the world to see. The Khan looked up. Drawn by the smell of slightly-rotten flesh, the great black birds started to circle.
The hum that was gradually becoming a roar made him look out. The plane was far closer now; he could make out the colours and markings which showed it as an Imperial Army vehicle. He sighed and shook his head. Maybe it was passing over by coincidence and had no business with the warlord of the White Scars.
His warriors took up positions around the body of the fallen hero. They sat stock-still; they were as statues, and may as well of been carved out of the mountain’s stone for all the movement they made. The Khan’s face carefully showed no emotion as he gazed at his old friend for a moment. He muttered a prayer to the Sky Father, the only prayer needed to free his soul so he could wander the steppes forever more.
He had still been breathing when he’d been brought in, his armour rent and his chest gaping open. He’d looked at the Khan with pain-filled eyes before his body took over and shut itself down to conserve energy and stifle blood-loss. Medics had closed in then, trying to save his life, but the Khan had seen many wounds over his years and knew that it was now far too late.
They’d begged him to have the warrior entered in the sarcophagus of a mighty dreadnaught, so he could fight in the Crusade for ever more, until he fell and died for the final time on some world far from here, and even further from Chogoris.
The Khan had not shouted, but the force of his rage had been apparent to all. What cruelty was this, that the reward for a lifetime’s service was to be interred in a metal coffin, never to feel the wind on his skin, never to have his soul set free? The Khan had shot down any talk of it. He knew his brothers, scattered far and wide across the galaxy, had their friends imprisoned in these monstrosities when it was their time to die, but he could not bring himself to deny his oldest and most trusted friend rightful rest.
Now his soul was free, far freer than it had been in life, forced to fight and fight and fight once more in the name of the Emperor, taken far from his home to enslave world after world in the name of science and progress.
The first birds began to land, not hazed by the Astartes who refused to move. One of them pecked at Subeitie’s body, taking a small piece of flesh.
Back on Chogoris, they had left the body for the birds, not watching as it was ripped apart by the Sky Father’s messengers so the soul could be set free. Now, however, they could all sit without the slightest movement for hours on end, and watch the Sky Father do His work.
One of the birds looked up and screeched horrifically. There was a low rumble, and more and more of the birds looked up. Then one cast off into the air, beating its great wings, and suddenly the air was full of birds. The Khan stood, his face expressionless, and turned around. The plane was slowing overhead. Its engines turned as it hovered to a stop.
The Khan watched as a human-sized figure stepped out of a small hatch on the side and grabbed onto a rope hanging from one of the vehicle’s many wings.
Gulden felt a flutter of fear as he landed on the ground and stood before the primarch. The Khan was huge, taller even than his Astartes, and wasn’t wearing any helmet, so the full force of his gaze pierced the Remembrancer like arrows. For a moment, Gulden shivered and quailed under the glare, but then he remembered all of the times he had been denied access to the primarch and stepped forward, matching the warlord’s glare.
The amber eyes of the Astartes’ helmets were fixed on him, unreadable; but none of them had their weapons out, which he took as a good sign. He bowed, carefully, and said, “Great Khan, I have travelled many miles to speak to you.”
The Khan was silent. Gulden tried to control the fear building inside him. Eventually, he had to break eye contact with the primarch. He looked around and noticed the corpse lying at the centre of the loose circle of White Scar warriors.
It had been ravaged with battle, but he was shocked to see how many tiny wounds there were all over his body. He must have been caught without his armour on to suffer such grievous wounds…
And then he remembered the way the birds had been gathered around this spot and had been driven off by the arrival of his plane. He bent down besides the body and, yes, it had been ripped apart by razor-sharp claws and had strips of flesh torn off by beaks. He felt slightly ill, but forced himself to think things through.
What were the White Scars doing here?
He couldn’t guess. He stood back up and turned around to face the Khan again. “Great Khan, may I ask what you are doing here?”
There was silence for a long time, broken only by the howling of the wind, the cries of the birds, and the distant hum of the plane as it circled around the mountain peak.
Gulden was about to ask another question, hating himself for coming out here, when the Khan finally spoke.
“His body is an offering to the Sky Father. When it has been consumed by the Sky Father’s messengers, his soul will be free to wander the Steppes.” His voice was deep and powerful, and his words were short, precise and factual.
“But…” Gulden was amazed. “But…” He struggled to find words. He had spent endless hours rebuffing and undermining the superstitious, limited beliefs of the peoples of the newly-conquered worlds, and here was one of the grand leaders of the Crusade, no better than the most ignorant peasant on the most backwards of feudal worlds.
The Khan was still staring at him, his eyes unreadable.
Gulden knew he had to say something. He felt ill. He had spent years of his life with the fleet, trying to contribute in any way he could, and yet it had all been in vain—those in command were as superstitious and blinded as those they fought. He felt himself hyperventilating, trying to suck down as much of the oxygen-deprived air of the mountain peak.
The Astartes watched, silent and unmoving, as he struggled to bring himself under control.
These people were imprisoned by ignorance. It was his duty to set them free. A thrill of fear shot through him, but he stood up taller. He was still only level with the primarch’s chest, but he arched his head back and looked the Khan in the eyes.
“You are wrong,” he said. And, on the top of the world, surrounded by heroes amongst men, he talked. He talked of the light of science, and how it had been obscured by fear and ignorance. He spoke of how religion was used, as a brutal and horrific tool to keep the lower classes under control, whether through promises of heaven or threats of hell. He spoke of his own experiences, how his people had been enslaved by their priestly masters. He spoke of the future, and how the Imperium’s greatest minds would make life better for untold billions of people, and how a secular universe would be free of greed, hatred and corruption. He, a mere human, talked for hours to the primarch, victor of a thousand battles, slayer of a million men, warlord of the White Scars and champion of the Crusade.
Eventually, he stopped. The Khan waited until it was certain he wouldn’t talk again, and then said, “But if the Sky Father does not send his messengers, his soul will never be free.” Again, his voice was flat, not showing anger or uncertainty, as if he was stating a blank fact.
Gulden was too involved to give up now. “He has no soul, Great Khan. He lives on in the legacy of his deeds, which will last for a hundred thousand years, but he has no soul.”
For the first time, the Khan’s face showed the slightest sign of anger. It was just for a moment, but it shook Gulden to his very core. He was suddenly aware that with one backhand blow the primarch could send him tumbling to his death thousands of feet below. He’d probably die of blood loss before he hit the floor.
“This is your freedom?” the Khan asked, his voice calm and yet underplayed with furious menace. “A universe ruled by laws and certainties, facts and figures, with humanity trapped like soulless robots in an eternal machine that runs on our blood and our sweat and works us until we drop dead? A universe where even death will not grant us freedom? A universe where we will eternally fight onwards, like little toy soldiers, never to return home, never to feel the joy of ultimate victory, forever trapped in a cycle of blood and death?” Gulden quaked under the primarch’s anger. “I will fight when I have to, and I have killed more times than I can count, but I will not have my warriors fight and die because they have no choice. Each man should be free to choose his own fate.”
“And all those you have enslaved in the Emperor’s glorious name?” Gulden barely dared to voice the question.
“If they had the strength, they could choose their own fates. If they had fought harder, they could of stood before us like true men, true humans. And they are free now, with whatever gods they worshiped.”
“But the Emperor—” Gulden started, but he couldn’t finish his objection. For the merest moment, there was a hint of vulnerability in the primarch’s eyes.
“We are all pawns to my father,” he breathed. “All of us will play our part, no more free than the components of one of your machines.” He looked up at the sky. The birds were still circling. “And yet,” he said, louder now, “we are here, and this is now, and I will honour the soul of my oldest friend. May he be free for ever more.”
Last edited by fergo; April 12th, 2010 at 20:36.
Very good, I paticularly like the parallels to Genghis Khan with the eagle etc.. Reminds me of Conn Iggulden's "Conqueror" series. I really like the tribal depiction of the Khan, the section involving Gulden and his science is very interestingly done, and is reminiscent of Genghis Khan's scorn of books becase they "trap words".
I'm not too hot on White Scars fluff, only what I've read in the old Index Astartes article and the Marine 'dex, so don't shoot me down if this is actualy part f the fluff anyway.
I'm not much of a writer, so don't feel like I can offer much in the way of critique, but I very much enjoyed reading this. I thought it was excellent, good flow and evocative descriptions without getting bogged down. Really good, thanks for sharing.
Thanks for commenting guys.
Corrigan, Conn Igulden's books were my number one influence while writing these stories (i.e. any interesting idea in here, I stole from him). The Remembrancer character is named after him (Connig Gulden).
The ideas about Dreadnaughts is actually part of the cannon.
Again, thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed.
Ok, I didn't know that, so thanks for filling me in on that. I wondered about Gulden, but didn't like to ask. Oh and I meant to say, +rep for you. I have my own work floating around here, so feel free to look and comment.