Mossy Toes: Remembrance
The Thudd artillery guns roared again, laying down their barrage as the Vostroyans advanced. Lights flashed in the corner of Corporal Vonsky’s eyes and he turned-
Nothing. It was nothing. Just memories again. There was nothing here but the vast, flat, frozen expanses. Vonsky stumbled forward, the air bitterly cold through his scarf. Shrapnel had destroyed his rebreather, or he would have been using it for protection from the cold.
There had been tears, he was ashamed to admit. Tears at the loss of his brethren and his forced flight. They had frozen to his face, leaving harsh red weals after crackling slowly off.
His footprints stretched out, long and lonesome, behind him. The only proof he was making progress; the only evidence he saw of human life. This was his end, he knew. He would die here, he would freeze. The last survivor of the 114th Vostroyan Firstborn.
The last survivor—because he had fled. Another shame, far greater than the previous. After the commissar had died, though—after the defeat had turned from a rout into a wanton slaughter—they had all tried to run. He, Corporal Vonsky, and his brothers in arms. And he was the only one who had gotten away, that he knew of. Now a thousand miles of barren ice plain stretched out in front of him, and only the hope of the operations base on the far side to sustain him.
A false hope. A bitter hope. No food, no supplies, nothing but a broken lasgun. He was as good as dead.
That noise, that breeze—it seemed almost to be calling his name. He shuddered and shook it off, attributing the sound to his battered psyche’s imagination. Men were not supposed to see the things he had seen in that battle.
The Vostroyans had crushed every army the Arch-Iconoclast had sent at them, marching steadily toward his frozen throne. Every army until the final one—the Arch-Iconoclast’s personal Praetorii, his elite honor guard, sent forth in a last ditch attempt to halt the Emperor’s vengeful hammer.
The Vostroyans could have fought men. They had bested every regiment of fallen PDF this miserable, frozen wasteland had thrown at them, outnumbered many times over in every major battle. The 114th could have defeated men—but the Praetorii were only the Enemy’s opening gambit.
They had come carrying great masses of teeming slaves and captives—tens of thousands of bound Imperial citizens. The tactical analysts had deemed those a low threat priority, at worst chattel to be driven forward and clog the 114th’s guns. The early strikes and opening moves had been against the Praetorii, a force equal in size and training—if not sheer grit and experience—to the Vostroyans. At last, the men had assumed, a level fight. No more underhanded tactics. No more horrors and atrocities. One last foe to best, then to stake the Arch-Iconoclast’s head upon a pike. Had they but fought men…
Vonsky, where are you?
The corporal froze, twisting around to look for the source of the voice. Nothing. The bitter wind lifted faint sprays of snow that swirled in vortexes, but no speaker manifested. The horizons remained uninterrupted, except for a faint black smudge where smoke rose from the battlefield.
The battlefield, oh horror of horrors. The Praetorii had stopped marching, digging in, the tacticians assumed, to erect earthworks. They were a threat that had to be quashed by the Vostroyan column, or face it harrying them from the rear for the rest of the way to the city.
But they hadn’t been building defenses, no, not so much. Sure, they’d set up a handful of snow berms, weapons emplacements, and prefab bunkers…but the vast bulk of their preparations had been spent on ritual. Foul designs had been carved deep into the permafrost, then those trenches had been filled with the lifeblood, viscera and intestines of the prisoners.
The arcane, forbidden symbols, hundreds of meters across, had carpeted the field. A perversion, to be sure, but not a threat. As the battle had commenced, however, the disgusted Vostroyans closing on their debased foe, the symbols had...opened.
I know you’ve changed, Vonsky. I can’t see you anymore. Where are you?
A woman’s voice. A voice that echoed from the past.
But there was nobody there. Nobody at all. He was alone. He was the only one that had survived.
He clutched his uniform closer around himself, cursing his numb and fumbling fingers. He’d been out in the snow long enough that his gloves no longer offered protection from it; the cold had seeped right through.
This was a place of savage elements. Vonsky knew cold. He was a Vostroyan, raised in a hard and frigid land, and he recognized this bone-chilling freeze. This was the deep cold, the blue cold, the killing cold that stole the breath and frostbit one to death. This was the cold so dangerous as to tempt a man to lie down, to allow the numbness to steal away one’s resolve to keep moving...
No. So long as he survived, the 114th persevered. For the honor of his regiment, he had to return and report their failure. To disappear so ignominiously would be a mark of deepest shame upon their record, worse even than their failure. He had to remember them, his brothers, to the scribes. He had to tell the galaxy, to tell Vostroya, how bravely his regiment had fought and fallen, facing hell itself. Never, in Saint Nadalya’s name, had he seen such one-sided carnage.
They had spilled onto the battlefield from the new-formed gateways the raw stuff of nightmares, daemons from the darkest and most shunned of all tales. Bloodthirsty beasts had ripped through the 114th, tearing men limb from limb like toys; had bathed them in mutating fires; had strode unharmed among mesmerized victims to revel in their deaths; and had shambled onward, in all their rotten horror, shrugged off wounds that would have lain a Space Marine low.
Vonsky had seen men rot and wither to dust in the space of seconds. He had seen single, dancing beauties cut through entire platoons like unstoppable whirlwind dervishes. Shrieking mantas had plucked men from the ranks to play with and shred a hundred meters in the air.
And still his brave companions had fought. True to their ancient debt, they had stood against the impossible, capering tide. Against this daemon apocalypse, this end of all days, as the sky warped and vomited multi-colored insanities above them, they had borne arms.
Until the daemonic masters had come forth. Good Emperor, their masters! The greater beasts, come forth only once enough blood had been shed; enough thousands of men had been slaughtered. Those had been the true horrors. The braying, blood-soaked god of warfare that had strode the battlefield, resplendent in its savagery. The rolling, massive ball of rotten pus that had gobbled men up like a gluttonous child would sweets. All of them, all too horrific to bear remembering.
Remember me, Vonsky. Come to me. Please...
He recalled a girl from his youth. Young, so young—they both had been. But he had been a firstborn child. A Firstborn. Payment for the ancient debt had been demanded, and it had been his duty and joy to go. The only pain had been to leave her. She would be older now. Older, and having known other lovers. Having married another man.
The cold air shimmered up ahead. He payed it no heed, clumping forward one slow, deliberate footstep at a time.
She would be older now. She would have forgotten him.
But, he saw, she now stood in front of him, beckoning. He stopped, shaking his head against the cold, which had crawled into his brain, making sluggish and confusing his thoughts.
“Vonsky, where have you been?”
She was older, now. The harsh Vostroyan life, working in the factories to produce materiel to feed scores of warzones, had etched lines in her face. A puffy scar trailed along her breastbone to vanish beneath her gown. Incredibly, in spite of the cold, she was barefoot. She wore only her dress, nothing more.
“Come along, Vonsky. You’ll catch your death out here in the cold.”
“Why-” he croaked, his unused voice cracking. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for you, Vonsky. Here to take you home. Come to me, Vonsky.”
Her voice was warm and inviting. It promised blankets and a fireside. It promised forgetfulness.
He staggered into motion once more, shuffling through the snow toward this long-lost memory. He followed her as she trailed ahead. She stepped lightly, glancing wistfully back to watch his progress. He followed, but his joints were unresponsive. His balance was poor. He fell to his knees and pushed himself, painfully, up again.
Forward. For deliverance and memory. Forward. Step. One foot after another. Step. Step. Step.
A pocket of snow collapsed under his foot and he fell again, toppling awkwardly onto his side.
He looked up. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore. She loomed there above him, glowing, all-enveloping.
“Vilenya...” he wheezed, an arm twitching toward her. But he was too tired. He could not lift it...could not...move...
He froze there. It was a slow death, but it was not, at least, painful. With him died his regiment’s honor and remembrance; with him ended the memory of a young girl, grown older now.
The entity watched the man’s life-spark ebb with curiosity and interest. It was not a daemon, but rather the faintest shadow of one. An echo. An errant whorl of chaotic energy, escaped from the playground behind.
When the end came, it left the body alone. It lacked the strength to move flesh, in any case. The man’s soul, however...
That it could devour with savage glee.