The memorial was old, and almost no one came to this section of the Martyr's Plaza anymore. There were more interesting sights to see elsewhere. A few kilometers away the Obelisk of Champions had been recently erected, commemorating the hard-won victory against the Great Heretic of the Cyprean sector. Not too much further down the Hero's Path (where every brick bears the name of one of the Emperor's fallen sons! the guides declared) was the magnificent Illumati, a promethium flame reaching one hundred feet into the air. It changed form every hour on the hour, taking on the shape of an Imperial Eagle, or the insignia of one of the Chapters Astarters, or the beatific faces of the Imperial Saints commonly worshipped on the shrine world of Olixander. Right next to the Illumati was the Pool of His Holy Tears, where pilgrims could toss their imperials into the fountain in order to speed their loved one's passing to the Emperor's side.
The memorial was much different from these. It was made of stone as dark as obsidian, standing ten feet high and stretching for nearly a quarter mile. While the other monuments were surrounded by cryers shouting out the names of great heroes and battles, the memorial was silent.
It had taken him quite some time to make his way through the crowd. Most of them were offworlders, and were so eager to see the sights that they could hardly be bothered to make way for an old man and his cane. He had been knocked to the ground at one point by the bodyguard of a highborn woman, having inadvertently come too close to her in the press of bodies.
"Stay out of the way, grandfather," the guard had snarled as he rose slowly to his feet, dusting himself off. The guard's shouts and insults followed him as he simply continued on, heading for the outskirts of the crowd.
It was all worth it now, as he had almost reached the memorial. His cane tapped lightly on the cold floor of the plaza. What the cryers said was true; once, every stone had been carved with the name of a Guardsman who had died or disappeared in battle. Over the years, the constant trafficking had worn the stones away. The names had vanished. Now there was nothing, not even a groove left to show that once each brick had contained a memory.
He finally stood alone before it. The crowd was far behind him now,a dull murmur leading out into the larger sections of the great square. His breathing came in labored gasps; he pulled a dusty handkerchief from his pocket, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. "Another year," he muttered. "It seems like I was here just yesterday."
He stepped closer to the memorial. He could see the reflection of a frail old man in the polished black stone. The golden writing that was once bright upon it had begun to fade, but not so much that he could not find the names he was looking for.
His fingers paused when they reached the first one. "Rorch," he said softly. "Alexander
Rorch!" He pulled a spare battery out of his kit, quickly tossing it to his squad mate. "On your left!" He took aim at the hormagaunt, blasting it to pieces as it leaped for the other guardsman.
Rorch whooped loudly, slapping the battery into place on his rifle. "Great shot, Elias!" He yelled, sliding into the cover of the wrecked Leman Russ. "I'd say I owe you, but we're never going to make it out of here alive."
"We'll make it!" Mansfeld shouted over the bark of the autocannon. "The Emperor hates us too much to just let us die!"
The old man walked further down the wall, leaning on it for support. He reached another name, pausing for a moment to catch his breath. He traced it, whispering
"Thomas Mansfeld, you bastard," Taymon swore as the others roared with laughter. "If the sergeant finds out you've stolen that stupid hat of his again, we're all going to be catching the Commissar's bolt."
"He won't find out," Mansfeld had replied, grinning like an idiot. "I promise. Would I lie? I wouldn't lie." He turned back to the others, continuing his best Sergeant Perkins impersonation. After only a few words he had them completely in stitches. The horror of what they had just seen disappeared for a moment, their laughter drowned out by the rumble of the Chimera as they headed for the next battlefield.
It was another twenty meters before he came to the last name. It was faded, almost illegible. But he remembered. He remembered
standing shoulder to shoulder as the Carnifex came at them, raising their voices in defiance above the shriek of their lasguns, nearly pissing himself in fear but refusing to break, prepared in his terror to die with the three men standing beside him as their world came crashing down.
His trembling finger traced it slowly, lovingly. He spoke
Taymon's name, barely able to hear over the ringing in his ears. "You can't leave me!" He said, the roar of the battle drowned out by his sorrow. "You have to keep going, damn you! I can't be the last of us! I can't!"
Taymon laughed, choking on the blood that splattered on his lips. "You always were a silly bastard Elias," he said weakly. "Rorch and Mansfeld never left us. They're with us still." He leaned his head back in the alien soil, eyes open to the sight of a thousand Astartes drop pods falling through a crimson sky. "Remember me, Elias. I'll meet you on the other side."
The old man wept, tears spilling down his wrinkled face. "I remember." He leaned his head against the cool stone of the memorial. "I remember. I miss you all so much. I'm sorry it wasn't me. I'm sorry I'm the one that lived."
The ache in his soul wracked his small frame. He had tried explaining it to others before; well-meaning family members too overcome with joy at his survival to understand his sorrow, the guilt he felt for being the only one to return. Coming here was the only way to make up for that. Coming here was the only way to keep them alive.
After a minute the man fell silent. He caught his breath and composure. He sniffled, wiping his noise on his handkerchief before tucking it back into his pocket. He would not let the crowds see his sorrow; they would not understand it even if they did.
As he turned to go, he saw a strange reflection in the darkness of the memorial. Four young men stood behind the golden lettering. Their kits were as filthy as their faces, but their wide smiles spoke of a relentless courage born from their brotherhood. Where his own reflection should have been stood a young man in Guardsman fatigues, surrounded by his friends.
He raised a shaking hand. The reflection of the soldier he had once been did the same, smiling. The others pressed close around him, each of them placing their hands on his shoulders. For a moment, he knew that if he turned around, they would be there, laughing and shouting and cursing as they always had in life. He knew they were with him, just beyond reach.
They had always been there. They always would be.
The reflection was gone a moment later. He blinked, seeing nothing in the memorial but the reflection of the crowd that was slowly moving his way. He straightened his back as best he was able and slowly made his way through the pilgrims, heading back towards the distant station that would take him home.
The crowd made way for him this time, respectfully parting as he passed through. Right as he made it to the railway, a heavyset woman wearing the shawl of a pilgrim stopped to bless him for his service. He thanked her, then climbed up into one of the railcars. As the train slowly pulled away from the station, he found himself wondering how she had known about him.
Had you asked her yourself, she would have laughed. "It was good to see four young Guardsmen on leave," she would say. "And I wanted to thank them. Oh, the looks on their faces...well. You could tell they've been through hell and back together. That's the sort of friendship that will never fade with time."
"In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war, an eternity of slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods. I'm telling you man, this is a really shitty time to be alive." -Primarch Stan Wolkowski, Sons of Stan
Last edited by SonOfStan; 09-26-13 at 03:24 PM.