‘You are men of Valden!’ bellowed Commissar Bandelroth in his most heroic, most inspiring voice. ‘Your beloved home was broken and divided by the Clan Wars until the Emperor came and delivered you. Repay the Emperor for His kindness! Do not forget your vows and what your scars represent. You are men of Valden, and I am a man of Icarus. Together, we are strong! We are loyal! We are relentless!’
We’re about to win this damn war
, I reminded myself.
It had taken six months of brutal, costly struggle, but this campaign was finally about to end. Or so Colonel Eregoth had told us this morning in one of his motivational speeches before we climbed into the cramped Chimeras and set off for the long, wide ridge aptly dubbed “the Tongue.”
The prospect of triumph exhilarated me, but there was always a shred of doubt. This foe was unlike any we had faced in the past. A Chaos host, comprised of professional soldiers calling themselves the Claws of Change rather than suicidal cultists. That made things much more difficult, but we were the Valden 27th “War Tested, Emperor Approved.” It wasn’t just a pretty nickname; it was our motto, our defining belief. Steadfast loyalty to the Emperor. As long as we had that, we would never be defeated.
We also had aggression and sometimes even recklessness, more so than most other Guard regiments. These traits manifested themselves in battle and caused some to view us as barbarians unfit for duty in a real army. Yet no one could deny Valden’s long, proud combat history. When I fought, time seemed to dilate to the point where I could experience every kill in glorious detail. In that heightened state, my Bulldog-pattern lasrifle, shorter and more powerful than a conventional lasgun, felt like it belonged in my calloused hands; my dark brown flak-armor was virtually weightless and my slate-grey fatigues were smooth and comfortable. It was like that now, deep in the arid trenches of the enemy, blasting away with my Bulldog and stabbing any Claws that got too close with a bloody, rusted spike attached to the bayonet lug.
Push, Jorgen. Push. Victory is within your grasp.
Slowly but surely, my company and I eradicated the foe. Trench by trench, we shot and sliced and impaled every filthy heretic we encountered. It’s not like they went quietly; I saw many of my brothers-in-arms cut to bloody shreds by burst of full-auto lasfire or disemboweled by swords. Their blood splattered onto me, fueling my rage. When Valdenites were like this, blood-soaked and feral with disheveled hair and bared teeth, we were at our best. None could withstand our ferocity.
Or so I thought.
This battle had been raging now for twenty minutes. Most of the broken bodies that littered the duckboards were clad in the dark blue armor and black hoods of the Claws; some were laying face-up, their beaked ceramic masks chipped and cracked. I reckoned we’d killed hundreds by now, but they just kept coming from connecting trenches, underground bunkers, dugouts, and hidden compartments. A thick cloud of choking dust thrown up by exploding grenades and enemy bomb-traps reduced visibility, and the cacophony of war deafened me. All I had to go by were my instincts.
It was, simply put, chaos.
My vox-officer, Fargrin, cried out and ran towards me. His bulky vox-caster was strapped to his back and he held the speaking horn out in front of him. I took a deep breath and snatched the horn. As I pressed it against my ear, I heard the crackling voice of the colonel.
Oh, no. He can’t possibly be serious.
‘1st Company! To me! Sergeant, where the hell are you?’ I yelled.
I barely heard Sergeant Rendelson’s reply in the commotion. The dust cleared momentarily and I spotted him sprinting towards me with his squad in tow.
‘Rendelson. About damn time.’
‘Better late than never, sir.’
‘Screw it,’ I spat. ‘Doesn’t matter. The whole thing has gone to hell. The enemy has damn psykers
, Rendelson. They popped up out of nowhere and started ripping us apart. The colonel wants to get the hell outta here.’
The young sergeant stared at me in disbelief. ‘Are you serious? After all the shit we’ve just been through?’
I shrugged. ‘Better to live and fight another day, son. You haven’t held a command rank for very long. Don’t let the bloodlust get the best of you, ’else you’ll turn into the very thing we seek to destroy.’
He looked down and nodded humbly. Controlled
aggression and recklessness, not psychotic slaughter.
‘I’m sorry, sir. You’re absolutely right. Let’s pull out before our heads explode or some other unfair bullshit,’ he said after a while.
I got back on the vox and relayed the colonel’s order. Now that I was calm, I noticed a buzzing in the depths of my mind and a sickly-sweet smell that mixed with the scent of blood, excrement, and energy discharge.
Resist, Jorgen. Resist. Don’t let their cowardly tricks get to you.
Grunting with disappointment, I climbed onto the nearest firestep and scaled a nearby ladder to the no-man’s land above. Along the length of the trench, my brothers did the same. At this point, it wasn’t a formal, tactical retreat. It was a full-fledged flight from the psychic monstrosities that sought our blood.
The Valden 27th, scrambling to safety and fearing for their lives.
What a damned shame.
We ran until we reached the idling Chimeras waiting for us just outside the enemy artillery’s range. I leaned against the side of the nearest transport and caught my breath. The rumbling engine sent vibrations through the metal hull and up my outstretched arm. Sweat coalesced on dangling strands of coal-colored hair and dripped onto the parched earth.
I was one of the first ones here; most of the regiment was lagging behind. I reflected upon how much I hated this dusty desert rock, Icarus, named for its erratic orbit that brought it closer to its yellow sun for half of a standard Imperial year. A backwater planet in the Segmentum Obscurus that apparently had some sort of strategic significance in the grand scheme of things. I only cared at all because it was Commissar Bandelroth’s homeworld. I suppose that’s why he was especially interested in our success.
Six months ago, the Claws’ fleet had spewed from the Warp and anchored high above Icarus. They sent small raiding parties at first, then massive invasion hosts that quickly overwhelmed the planetary defense forces. They wanted to claim the world in the name of the Raven God, but Lord General Hale would never let that happen. We were the only ones available to respond at the time, so we went in first with almost ten thousand men to protect Dalienburg, the planet’s capital. The lord general assured us that reinforcements would arrive promptly to recapture the other major settlements, but none had shown up.
Colonel Eregoth, being the life-loving teddy bear he is, agreed without question. Any opportunity to defend poor, helpless citizens from Chaos appealed to him. The more poor and helpless they were, the better.
I could understand Bandelroth’s reason for fighting; everyone should have a chance to defend their home. But Eregoth was letting his feelings cloud his better judgment.
I spun around and saw my company arriving, led by Rendelson.
‘Chop chop, boys! Get in those Chimeras! You want to be under this blazing sun all day?’ I barked.
Then again, the blazing sun is better than the suffocating confines of these death traps
, I added silently. Nevertheless, I went around back and squeezed in next to five exhausted comrades.
The ride was short and rough. No-man’s land was pockmarked with craters and incomplete trenches, and the Chimera driver had to weave and swerve to avoid all the obstacles. The rocky, uneven earth wreaked havoc on the transport’s suspension, and the top of my head hit the compartment ceiling at least three times as I bounced.
At last, the vehicle slowed to a stop and the hatch hissed open. I practically leapt out of my harness and frolicked in the fresh air. We had arrived at Command Post Primaris, the headquarters for the main line of defense. It occupied a long-abandoned fortress along the Tongue’s western slope. Roughly trapezoidal in design with the longest edge facing east towards the Claws’ encampment, Primaris was surrounded by a perimeter of stationary Chimeras and flak-board barricades. A weather-beaten but sturdy wall of massive stone blocks, with a gratuitous amount of towers and murder holes, was the main defense. Some Valdenites were patrolling the battlements, wearing simple pieces of cloth over their mouths and noses to filter out the airborne dust and sand.
Captain Arknell of 2nd Company approached with his vox man at his side. ‘Major Gethrir!’ he shouted. ‘Eregoth knows he made an unexpected decision. He wants to see all the officers in his war room. Now.’
I nodded and passed through the post’s unbarred metal gates. Arknell followed. The main avenue was unpaved and dirty, and countless side paths snaked between rows of dust-covered hab-tents. Directly ahead, in the heart of Primaris, lay the tactical command bunker.
Void-shielded and, thank the Emperor, air-conditioned, the bunker was a three-story tall octagon. Two of its levels were subterranean, but everything important was on the ground floor. I reached the heavy steel doors and pushed them open, and a breath of cool air kissed my overheated face. I sighed contentedly.
The bunker’s interior was basically a massive strategium, comparable to a large amphitheater with tiered seating. Countless cogitators along the upper tier’s walls hummed and chattered, lighting the faces of their servitor operators green. Tacticians and intelligence officers murmured and argued over the best strategies for defending Dalienburg. In the center of the room, a circular machine in a round pit projected a quivering holo-display of Icarus’ northern hemisphere, with enemy and allied positions etched onto its surface. Stairwells in the far left and right walls led down to the maintenance levels and the network of twelve bomb shelters. Each vast chamber could withstand any amount of artillery and could hold up to three hundred men.
The air was charged with tension. The greatest minds of the Imperial Guard gathered in places like this to wage war on maps and charts, and their success or failure would determine the fate of the men fighting on the ground. Minor mistakes were often costly.
Colonel Eregoth stood in the pit with his arms crossed behind his back, studying the holo-display intently. Some called him the exemplary Valdenite: jet-black hair tied neatly in a ponytail, a trimmed goatee and crystal blue eyes that could display both compassion and hatred, and a perfectly aligned division scar that ran vertically down the center of his face. All Valdenites possessed this last characteristic; it was a solemn symbol of the mayhem and slaughter of pre-Imperial Valden.
Strength through unity, loyalty through strength, victory through loyalty.
If we ever forgot that lesson, our scars would remind us.
The colonel spotted Arknell and I as we approached and smiled. ‘Major Gethrir, Captain Arknell. Welcome.’
‘Greetings, colonel,’ I replied, then looked around. ‘What of the other captains?’
Eregoth shook his head. ‘Not here yet. The last Chimeras are rolling in now, though.’
Arknell crossed his arms and glared at Eregoth. A veteran of five years with plenty of victories under his belt, the short, bullish man was arrogant and ignored the advice of most others. His command philosophies often clashed with Eregoth’s, but he respected the regiment more than the man leading it.
Captain Vorrir of 3rd Company was the next to enter. He was the steady guide amongst the officer cadre; level-headed and smart, he discouraged rash action and always presented another way, an alternate strategy to achieve a cleaner or quicker victory. I knew Eregoth valued him greatly.
Captain Bardfel of 4th Company, a friendly giant with a distinct braided beard and shaggy brown hair, accompanied Vorrir. Bardfel was the glue that kept regiment together; he discouraged in-fighting and kept the peace by the threat of his fists. He’d served since the founding eight years ago, and without him, I suspected my more radical brothers would’ve overthrown Eregoth a long time ago.
Captain Mendelhal arrived last. He was a younger version of Eregoth in appearance and mindset, but he lacked the colonel’s social aptitude. While he could yell orders with authority when required to do so, he preferred to speak quietly and politely. He kept to himself and none of us really knew what his true personality was like, but he’d proven to be a tactical genius.
Bandelroth, clad in a leather stormcoat and slate-grey fatigues that covered his dark skin and rippling muscles, emerged from a small annex and joined us. His peaked commissar’s cap was tucked under his arm.
Once we’d all gathered, Arknell had the honor of speaking first. ‘With all due respect, that was a horrible decision, sir. We had the Claws on the ropes. If we’d kept pushing, we could’ve finished them off. Psykers be damned – we would’ve killed them eventually!’
Eregoth held up his hands diplomatically. ‘Captain, I understand your frustration, but you
must understand that I wish to leave this world with a regiment left to command. You severely underestimate the threat these Chaos sorcerers pose.’
‘Colonel’s right, Ross,’ Bardfel said in his booming voice, addressing Arknell. ‘My company was hit hardest by those freaks. We killed some of them, but it wasn’t easy. If we’d stayed, we would’ve all died.’
‘I must agree with the colonel on this as well,’ Vorrir said. ‘Emotionally, it was a tough pill to swallow, but tactically it was the only realistic course of action. I have a feeling we’ve not seen the last of these sorcerers, but in the interest of the regiment’s survival, we must avoid confronting them.’
Arknell sighed and ran a hand through his hair. ‘I know, you guys are right. I just don’t know what I’m saying. Sir, ever since those monsters were unleashed, I’ve been feeling uneasy. Confused, angry, rebellious. It must be the damn aura that surrounds them. But we’re miles away from them now, and I still feel the same way. I think these freaks are very, very powerful.’
Resist, Jorgen. Resist. Don’t let their cowardly tricks get to you.
Bandelroth placed his cap on his shaven head. ‘Sir, if you’d like, I’ll investigate. I will not let anything jeopardize our chances of victory here,’ he told Eregoth.
‘Thank you, commissar. Despite my decision to pull out, I can assure you we hit them very hard. So hard, in fact, that their only remaining options are to withdraw off-world or attack one last time with everything they’ve got. If it turns out to be the latter, which we should expect, we must exercise extreme caution against their psykers.’
I cleared my throat. ‘They will need time to regroup. We can’t expect them to come at us in the next couple of days. How should we prepare?’
‘Fortify this command post as best we can,’ the colonel replied. ‘It’s pretty solid now, but a few extra defenses can’t hurt. The sun will soon set, gentlemen, and we’ve had a rough day. For now, get some rest. Our work will start tomorrow.’
Arknell had spoken the truth.
As I lay in my hard sleeping roll that night, foreign images disturbed the calmness of my mind, like soft ripples on a still lake. I sensed they were there, but couldn’t discern exactly what they were. They felt like shadowed phantoms, harbingers of a dark fate. At the same time, incomprehensible whispers slithered through my subconscious. It was tremendously disquieting.
Even worse, I was also haunted by inescapable guilt from my past. Vivid memories resurfaced: my wife and children on Valden being tortured and killed by a rival crime boss while I watched, restrained, unable to stop him. Accounts of the horrible things I had done in the name of profit and greed. My attempt to redeem myself after my family’s murder by joining the Guard. My unacceptable failures during my first years of service and the long road of sacrifices it took to become a sergeant.
A few hours of sleepless torment later, I rose from my bedroll and hunched over a small table in the corner of the dark hab-tent. Cold sweat coated my brow and neck. I sincerely hoped my men were faring better.
The enemy psykers were trying to undermine me, sap my will to fight.
Resist, Jorgen. Resist. Don’t let their cowardly tricks get to you.
The next morning, the real test began. I rose early and dressed only in my fatigues. The command post was bustling with activity; men ran to and fro, carrying flak-boards, sandbags, hammers, and other construction materials and tools. I helped erect simple sheds with firing slits and bunkers among the hab-tents while others barricaded certain paths to channel the Claws into kill-zones. The enginseers, who normally serviced the Chimeras, welded additional armor plating onto vulnerable structures such as the infirmary.
The unceasing mental corruption of the enemy withered away at us all day. Tensions rose. The men snapped at each other over petty things, argued and fought, and defiantly announced how much they loathed this place. Bandelroth kept one hand on his holstered bolt pistol all day. He didn’t want to shoot anyone, but if things escalated, he would have to. The corruption extended to some of the captains as well, particularly Arknell and, surprisingly, Mendelhal. They started to criticize Eregoth about anything and everything, even controversial decisions he’d made years ago. Supported by Vorrir and Bardfel, I tried to maintain order, but by dusk the men were at each others’ throats.
The images and whispers only got worse after that.
The second night was the same as the first, and the third day was hell. I realized I was no longer exempt from the taint after I yelled at and nearly shot one of my men for a minor infraction. The colonel decided to oversee progress, which had slowed considerably, himself. The commissar openly carried his pistol at all times, and I heard its resounding boom more than once. As a regiment, we were ready to snap. I didn’t know how many freaks the Claws had or their psychic affinity levels, but they were winning.
By the end of the fifth day, the colonel had had enough. He ordered everyone to gather in the vast cargo storage lot behind the command bunker, adjacent to the spacious, corrugated steel warehouses.
Bulky vox-caster units with broadcasting speakers were seeded throughout the crowd of almost two thousand. Eregoth climbed onto a pile of storage crates and spoke into a microphone that relayed his voice to each unit. The captains and I stood in a stoic line in front of him.
‘This has gone far enough,’ Eregoth declared. ‘Have you all forgotten that victory was within our grasp just two days ago? Now we’re playing right into the Archenemy’s hands. We’re destroying ourselves like they want us to do. Have you forgotten who we are? Look at your brothers’ scars! Look at them and remember what happens to those who are divided. Strength through unity, loyalty through strength, victory through loyalty! If we do not resist this taint, we will be destroyed. We didn’t come this far to fail like this.’
The men were silent for a long moment. The colonel appeared dismayed and I saw him clenching his fists. What had happened to us? The disciples of the Raven God were insidious and manipulative, but we could never let them prevail.
Resist, Jorgen. Resist. Don’t let their cowardly tricks get to you.
‘Strength through unity, loyalty through strength, victory through loyalty!’ I cried with all my heart. Eregoth looked up and grinned. I repeated the battlecry over and over as the other officers joined in. One by one, my brothers broke the foul spell and added their voices. Once we were all chanting in unison, two thousand warriors of the Imperium declaring their defiance to the Ruinous Powers, we let out a mighty roar and clapped until our hands were stinging red.
‘Fear us, Claws of Change!’ Eregoth bellowed over the victorious cry, pointing to the east. ‘We will not bow!’
We slept peacefully that night. I’d like to think that our little display convinced the enemy psykers that we would not submit to their filth, but the little shred of doubt said they were simply planning something else.
On the sixth day, diligence was our watchword; we completed the extra fortifications with renewed vigor and teamwork. That evening, the officers met once more. It was fairly uneventful. Eregoth had received a battlefield projection from one of his tacticians that suggested the Claws would attack within the next few days; they’d had enough time to regroup.
A blaring alarm woke me just before dawn on the seventh day. I sprung into action, hastily putting on my armor and grabbing my Bulldog before sprinting towards the main gate. Outside, the unmistakable whistling of falling shells preceded fiery explosions that lit up the sky. Not surprisingly, the Claws were targeting the Chimeras first; the carriers provided fearsome fire support with turret-mounted multi-lasers. No one had expected a night attack, and the enemy used their advantage of surprise wisely.
I rallied any of my men I passed and ordered them forward. Together, a good chunk of 1st Company and I reached the gatehouse and entered its twin towers, running up the internal spiraling staircases and streaming onto the battlements. I slid behind the nearest crenelation, gripping my lasrifle so tightly that my knuckles turned white. As I poked my head out of cover to survey the scene, blinding lasfire heated the air around me. In the confusion caused by the bombardment, shadowy figures were creeping towards the wall. Some were carrying ladders and other scaling devices. I lifted my Bulldog to my shoulder and responded with a tight burst of amber las-rounds, felling some of the heretics. The men at my side did the same; we slew dozens, but the foe was undeterred.
The first ladder-carrying Claws reached the base of the wall and slammed the bottom of their ladders into the loose earth, vaulting the hooked tops up to clasp the parapet. They climbed towards us one at a time.
I shot the first heretic that reached the battlements and stabbed the next through the chest as he charged at me from a ladder to my right. One foolish Chaos soldier tried to decapitate me. I ducked under his whistling blade and knocked him off the wall. He fell a good fifteen feet before meeting the ground with a sickening crunch. My next opponent was more skilled with a blade, and he parried my thrusts with ease. I fired point-blank, but he ducked and knocked my legs out from under me. While I writhed on the cool, hard stone in pain, he prepared to transfix my chest.
Captain Bardfel burst onto the balustrade through the rectangular doorway of the gatehouse tower and pierced the Claw through the spine from behind. I got to my feet and grinned at the giant.
‘Having fun, Jorgen?’ he asked while fending off a heretic swinging wildly with a crude handaxe.
‘Of course. They sure seem eager to die, though! Feels like we’re fighting a completely different opponent. If they had fought this poorly in the beginning, we’d have been done in two weeks.’
The battle on the ramparts lasted a while longer, but we killed all the marauders who were foolish enough to fight on the wall. The rest were forced to retreat into the glare of the rising sun. All the while, the enemy guns kept firing, and a few wayward shells decimated sections of the unshielded wall. One lucky hit struck a tower, tossing burning bodies and chunks of stone into the air.
I scrambled off the ramparts as quickly as possible, nearly tripping over the corpses and slippery blood of the enemy. Surrounded by like-minded brothers, I bolted down the main avenue towards the command bunker and the entrance to the bomb shelters. Explosions shook the earth all around me, and debris and clods of dirt rained down.
Once we reached the safety of the shelter, the barrage seemed to abate. I retraced my steps back to the top of the wall and stood next to Vorrir, who was staring absently at something on the horizon. I was cautiously optimistic; it felt like the Claws had run out of men. Perhaps we had finally defeated them.
Of course, there was always that shred of doubt.
A brief gust of hot wind blew through my hair, and a massive cloud slowly materialized in the sky to the east. It was dawn; the wind should be cool. Clouds did not randomly form. It had to be supernatural.
‘Vorrir, what do you think that is?’ I asked. My voice was tinged with fear, though I tried my best to hide it.
The captain didn’t speak. He simply turned and stared at me with a gaunt face and forlorn, empty eyes.
I had never seen such an expression of dread on a man’s face. Why? What had affected him so profoundly?
Without warning, the morning air trembled with a piercing, inhuman scream. An invisible storm of terror fell upon Primaris, and the images slammed into my mind like a freight train. I knew what they were: snapshots of the future in a galaxy ruled by Chaos. The whispering came back as well, but now I could hear what it really was: worship of the Raven God, a mind-destroying chorus of dark praise and demented litanies. A sickly sweet stench burned my nostrils and throat as I breathed it in.
I fell to my knees under the psychic onslaught, squeezing my eyes shut and covering my ears in a vain attempt to preserve my sanity. My brothers, grizzled veterans and innocent neophytes alike, sobbed or wailed or shit themselves. The horror was paralyzing.
Then, a recent memory disrupted the torment. A scene of two thousand Valdenites gathered in a dusty cargo lot, chanting a powerful battlecry and freeing themselves from the grip of the Ruinous Powers. It brought me back. With clenched teeth and tears of effort streaming down my cheeks, I forced myself to stand and point to the east.
‘Fear us, Claws of Change! We will not bow!’
Those words triggered the same memory in my brothers, and they slowly, painfully rose as well. The effort had nearly killed me, but I had spat in the Archenemy’s face. It felt great.
Until the ultimate harbinger of the Raven God revealed itself.
In a bubble of lustrous light, it fell from from the dark cloud and threw up a mushroom cloud of dust as it landed. The monstrosity could only be described as a fusion of avian beast and corrupted man, though it seemed to tower over us. It carried a gnarled, ornate staff adorned with burning runes and a matching scepter. It was clad in dirty, torn robes, but obscene markings and stars of Chaos were carved into its grey skin. It suddenly made sense to me why the psykers had fallen silent. They’d been conserving their strength to summon this abomination; even so, the ritual probably claimed their lives.
Reality warped around the warp-spawn. Sand and grit driven by hurricane-force winds enveloped it in a spinning cyclone. It screamed again, and a second psychic shockwave hit us hard. This time we resisted, shielded by the stark realization that death was now inevitable. The power seeping from this abomination left no hope of survival, but we would not succumb to its corruption in our final minutes. We would die as steadfast servants of the God-Emperor.
‘Praise be to Tzeentch! Witness his glory and behold the future of the universe! Die now by the hand of Mal’denai!’ it cried in a voice like a thousand screeching birds. The air around it vibrated and sparked with ethereal lightning. Chunks of arid earth in its vicinity broke free and levitated, suspended by a telekinetic aura.
Mal’denai, Lord of Change, raised the gilded staff and the skies above Primaris darkened. Purple lightning sparked and lit the seething clouds for a split second before streaking down and vaporizing anything in its path.
It lifted the scepter in its other hand and a wave of iridescent warp-fire spread across the clouds. Seconds later, three columns of conflagration touched down, incinerating everything in a broad radius. The command bunker, with Eregoth inside, did not survive the apocalyptic strike.
This was the ultimate destruction. This was beyond comprehension. The Warp had manifested itself on Icarus to annihilate us. I felt cold and alone; I watched my brothers and my company reduced to ashes by baleful lightning or consumed by unholy flames. The Valden 27th was finished. So much suffering, so much preparation, all undone in a matter of minutes. Mal’denai steadily drew closer, glorifying its foul master and shaking the ground with each slow step.
Rage burned in the depths of my soul.
In my final, defiant moment, I shouted praises to the Emperor and unleashed my Bulldog on full-auto. The beams of light didn’t hurt the daemon, but I didn’t care. Before my body was obliterated by the Lord of Change as easily as a man would swat aside a fly, one final thought crossed my mind.
We had failed this test of war, but not the tests of faith.
I prayed the Emperor still approved.