Prey. A new scent on the wind. Something new walks in my woods. More sport for my claws.
I can feel their footfalls through the ground, smell their sweat and hear the drum of their hearts...
Too many heartbeats. These are not men...
They are once-men, like me.
Are they of my bloodline? Are they... kin? Or more sport?
I smile. Breathe deeply. Savour the smells of the forest, undercut by the stink of ash. Clouds billowing overhead. The birds scream, but I shut them out, listening instead to the smaller noises. My quarry.
They are clumsy. One of them snaps branches, crunches gravel underfoot. Perhaps fifty metres away.
I move towards him. Silent. Part of the forest. I reach for my dartgun, ready to strike against the first of them.
A chance sound. A stone crackles. Another would-be hunter.
Clever. This first was bait.
I must move. Escape the jaws of this trap before they close.
More careful footsteps, from a different direction. They are too near to escape my notice.
The vegetation is thick here. I tease limbs aside, ignore the barbs and thorns that pull at my fatigues and drag across my skin. I wait. Slow the beat of my hearts. Hold my breath. One of them is nearby. Movements practised, bionic eye whirring slightly as it cuts through the gloom. Can it see me? His pace quickens. Orders hissed in his comm-bead, too softly to hear words, but I can sense excitement. They think me cornered.
A third appears – I have heard nothing of him. Impressive.
I must strike now. In moments they will realise what I have done.
I leap from the undergrowth. One turns into the first phosphor-dart. It strikes him on the arm, the next rebounding from his carapace. Another dart strikes the second of them in the neck. The last of them, the one was acted as bait, runs towards me. I duck behind a fallen tree. He stumbles, glimpses movement too late to dodge the dart.
But for the birds, it would be silent.
“A clumsy ambush, Sigurd. You forgot to flank me. Where is Garrulus?”
“The shame is mine, sergeant. Garrulus was supposed to move behind you, but we lost contact with him,” says Sigurd, plucking the dart from his neck without any sign of pain.
Sigurd. The oldest of them, a single implant away from being a Space Marine. A scar fades on his neck. Progenoids implanted scant weeks ago. Soon I will give my approval and he will take the black, leave the Tenth Company. Perhaps then he will attain the glory he hungers for.
“The ash, I presume. But it teaches you a lesson nonetheless. If you are incapable of adapting your plans to changing circumstances you will not see your third decade.”
“I understand, sergeant. I will accept any punishment you prescribe.”
“There will be a penance, Sigurd, once we return to the Talon, but we will remain here for another day at least. Ample time to redeem yourself. Is the vox-system down?”
“We’re getting a lot of static. Long-range communication is barely functioning,” says Raban.
He carries himself with a quiet dignity that speaks of wisdom far beyond his years, sharing none of Sigurd’s pride and ambition. Resolve and duty the twin-beats of his hearts. He fought even after losing his eye to a spore-mine. Soon he will be seconded to the Apothecarion for additional training.
“Keep trying. He should not be far, interference or no. Sigurd, lead us to his last known location.” I turn to the last of them, a head shorter than the others. “Vidar. You broke cover to run to their aid. While your loyalty to your brothers is commendable, your wisdom is questionable. I have taught you better than this.”
“I apologise, Sergeant Tyros. It will not happen again.”
“No. It will not. Follow me.”
We walk in silence. Raban tests the vox-network. There is no response from Garrulus. Something is wrong. Instincts honed over centuries scream at me.
The air is heavy with ash and pollen, but it is not long before I smell blood. Astartes blood.
Raban and Vidar share a glance. Sigurd frowns, shame etched in his face. His hands ball into fists.
“Bolters out. Close spread.”
I unsling my rifle; Hunter’s Reach. Chapter maxims are engraved on every surface as a constant reminder of my duty. The motto of my chapter curls around the eyepiece: Victory or death.
The smell of blood grows stronger. So much blood. They can smell it too. Is it fear that speeds their hearts? Is that what quickens mine?
The Space Marines shall fear no evil for we are fear incarnate, Hunter’s Reach hisses.
I do not fear evil. I fear that I may fail in my duty. To Emperor, Primarch, Chapter. To my charges.
The smell is overpowering. This is the place. Leaves and tree-trunks crimson-flecked. Tracks in the dirt. Lines. His body was dragged, not far, to the ruin of an ancient tree. To store it? To hide it?
Dead wood broken open. Rife with decay. He lies there. Eyes serene. Hearts still. The corpse of a boy in the corpse of a tree. Carrion birds croak at us, fleeing. His neck broken. Throat torn open. That had been the first blow. The killing blow. Something killed him before he could utter a single cry.
“This was my failure. I will submit myself to whatever penance Chaplain Korbinian sees fit.”
“No, Sigurd. I am in command. All failure and all punishments are mine to bear.”
“What could do such a thing?” says Vidar.
My eyes fall on him. So young.
He stands at almost seven feet, thick with muscle. No stubble dusts his chin.
Just a boy, a boy who would never grow to become a man...
We tell ourselves that we sacrificed our humanity for the good of mankind. To protect what we have lost. A rationalisation. A lie.
We became Space Marines because we wanted to be heroes. Left families behind to weep from pride and from loss. The little boys died, their last words promises; to visit, to send word, even to return. The mothers and fathers of Deliverance knew the truth of it. They wept with pride and loss.
Such things are not spoken of. Seldom contemplated. Not until I rejoined the Tenth Company did I even try to remember before. I remember catching Chaplain Korbinian’s eye, once. A fresh intake of nervous children shivering before us.
The Chaplains. No wonder they hide their faces behind skulls. They, alone, mourn.
I watch them throw themselves into training. Excitement and fear in equal measure. Horror hidden in their faces as their bodies change, become unfamiliar, alien and strong. Too strong to understand or control without the indoctrination that eats away at their minds. Hypno-induction, mental conditioning, training and teachings rob them of memories. Of the boys they were. The men they could be.
Many die long before then. This is the way of things, especially for the Raven Guard.
And Garrulus joins hem, long before his progenoids were even implanted. Geneseed wasted. Potential ripped at the seams. How had it happened? How was I so careless? How could I forget that these are little boys playing at being soldiers?
I whisper the chant of the dead. Their voices harmonise with mine. They look to me. It is fear in their eyes. Unmistakeable. They look to me...
“There will be no further exercises. We will rendezvous with the Talon in the morning as planned.”
“What should we do before then, sir?”
My command. My choice. To wait. To flee. To hunt.
My eyes fall upon the body. I remember a laugh that could not be silenced by the years of hypno-indoctrination.
“Vengeance must be served.”
I lick blood from my teeth.
In the blood, I can taste an echo of the man’s life. It whispers to me. Whispers secrets, hopes, fears... A name. Garrulus.
I see through his dead eyes, his smile a ghost on my lips. I see the others. Weak. Young.
Only one is truly worthy prey. Their alpha. A hunter. A predator.
His name is Tyros.
The trail leads north. Already the wind steals it.
“We can cover ground more quickly in two groups. Vidar, you’re with me. Sigurd, Raban - you go ahead. We’ll remain in vox contact as best we can.”
“Victory or death.”
Sigurd and Raban. Fire and steel. The older is consumed by ambition, the younger duty. I see myself in both of them, of course, these two facets of marinehood. A fine pairing – together they are whole, complete.
They will never be friends, but they are brothers and this is a bond that passes beyond any other.
“Victory or death,” I echo as they move ahead, disappearing quickly into the trees.
I nod to Vidar and we follow. The trees are thicker here. Thin shafts of light seep through into the darkness as the sun reclines. Tangled roots underfoot. We hunt. No tracks reveal its passing. Only blood. The smell of iron and Astartes hormones.
Vidar slow and stumbling behind me. He should not be here. Too young, too inexperienced for real combat yet. A liability. He slows me and every second counts if we are to track down this beast and kill it. He snaps twigs and scatters leaves with each step. Gives us away. I realise he has never seen a forest before.
I would be better alone, this I know. But I cannot abandon him. He is the youngest. The weakest. It falls to me as sergeant to protect him. It is a regrettable fact of my existence that once my charges are worthy, men I would entrust my life to, they must leave me.
I adjust my visor, cycle between low-light and thermal vision. No sign of the attacker. Just the scent-trail and the occasional droplet of blood on the limbs of trees. It moves quickly, to outpace Space Marines.
A bust of noise. Screaming birds shocked into silence. Bolter-fire.
“Sigurd? Raban?” I whisper into my comm-bead. For a moment, too long, there is silence.
“It was nothing, sir,” Raban replies, voice heavy with contrition and shot with static. “I saw movement and fired. I... I wasted ammunition and I gave away our position. I will pay for my failure in whatever manner you deem.”
“Not now, brother. We have more pressing concerns.”
My hearts quicken. Raban. Always collected and composed, now panicked.
Hunter’s Reach growls in my hands. And they shall know no fear, indeed...
But in that moment of silence before I heard Raban speak, I knew fear. This world has been used for training exercises by countless Chapters, for time immemorial. What secrets can it still hold? What hunts in these dark forests?
My thoughts turn to Garrulus. Of the thirty taken for his cycle of recruitment, he was the only one to make it this far. Some rejected implants. Died on tables or were turned over to become Chapter serfs. Others suffered worse fates. Fused bones and osseous growths. Translucent skin and melanomas. Blood that clotted and congealed in their veins. All of it worthwhile for just one Space Marine. His was not the only death to be avenged.
“Raban? Sigurd? Brothers?”
Static is my only reply.
“They might be out of operational rage, sir.”
“Nonetheless, follow me.”
I run to the source of the noise. So far ahead. Birds scream and scatter above. Vidar behind me, young hearts pounding in his chest. I move at half speed so as not to lose him, choler rising. His weakness. His fear. They will be purged from him, in time. Now, though, they fetter me. An Angel of Death, a Raven of Corax, with clipped wings.
If I am to find this creature, I must become the hunter.
And the hunter is strongest alone.
I drag the body. Heavier than the last. Not to hide it. This one I want to be found. Not to scare the prey, not to warn them. To teach them. To teach him. Tyros.
I pull free his hearts and feast, feeling strength pour into my limbs. Resolve. Purpose. Memory flooding my being. For the tiniest moment I am Raban and I stare at my own body, into my own dead eye. He retreats within me, horrified. Swallowed whole.
I hear them approaching. For a moment I am tempted to wait, to strike again. No. The hunter must be patient.
I climb, claws digging into bark, disappearing into the gathering darkness.
Blood trickles down through cracks in ancient wood. High above, Raban hangs from a curved branch, broken, swaying in the wind. His chest a cascade of blood. Head almost loose. Neck ripped asunder, fused ribs snapped open. Hearts taken.
No carrion peck at his flesh. Perhaps they know his near-Astartes flesh is poison. The forest rejects him as surely as if it had strung him up itself.
I can hear Vidar vomiting behind me.
Sigurd is nowhere to be seen.
Two of my charges dead. One of them alone in the night. Lost in the woods.
I turn to Vidar. In his eyes I see only fear. I cannot blame him, taught as he was that for each one of us that falls in battle a thousand of our enemies will join them. Now he sees through the arrogance and bluster after a single battle. Two of his brothers dead without a single shot fired in vengeance.
Hunter’s Reach chastises me; victory or death.
A motto that has nearly destroyed the Raven Guard before, yet I must uphold it. It is my role to safeguard the Chapter’s future. Vidar’s future. Not merely his body and mind, but also his soul.
He should not see total defeat. It shames him. Disgraces me. Disgraces the Chapter. Better we all die than to allow that. Better the Chapter die than live in shame.
“This is no animal. It hunted him preferentially. Made no attempt to store this body.”
“Where is Sigurd?”
Words catch in my throat.
“We cannot be sure.”
I know Sigurd. The eldest, his former life a distant dream. So full of ambition. A thirst to prove himself worthy of the geneseed within him, to attain glory and rank... Not the purest of motives perhaps, but I was like him once. Now I am driven by revenge and shame, I realise with a smile. Are these nobler?
Perhaps something stirs within them, though. A word alien to the Astartes, bred for war, built to kill and trained to die.
We are a brotherhood, a fraternity. Fraternity. Love. What is the difference, truly?
I try the vox again. Filter through the static until it resolves into sounds.
Two shades whisper their secrets in my ears. Lead me to my next kill. This one the eldest of them; the scouts, the cubs. He stands atop a fallen tree, a chink in the canopy above. Luring me.
The prey, setting a trap for the hunter. Remote charges in place of snares.
He did not notice when I took his brother until too late. Now he does not expect me to climb as high, does not look.
I crawl across branches that shudder with my weight, moving above him. Garrulus and Raban scream warnings, rattle the tooth- bars of their cage. My jaws.
Silence my only company now. The prey listens intently for the slightest noise; the shifting of leaves, the hint of a breath.
The birds have stopped cackling.
He looks up and I drop, snapping branches as I fall.
I slam into him, rake his face with my claws as we roll into the undergrowth. This one is faster, stronger than the others. He fights me even as my claws bite into his flesh, tearing through muscle and sinew. His hearts pound and the sound fills my being as surely as the rich stink of his blood.
I ignore his cries and his clumsy blows, digging my claws into the meat of his arms and pulling them down, away from his face.
“Sigurd? Sigurd? Damn it, where are you?”
A flash of pain – a knife in my leg.
My jaws close.
I taste his soul, cut free, and I swallow. I know him, now. The flavours and textures of his dreams. The memories he buries out of fear dragged into light.
I care little for it; his life, his soul. He is not the one I want.
I feast on his flesh, not for pleasure or for sustenance, but for knowledge. This one was older. I taste his determination, the ambition that drove him to my claws as surely as any trap I could lay. This one knew Tyros well.
He saw the pain in his Tyros’ eyes, pain at the loss of his pack.
I feel kinship.
I could have saved him. If I had left Vidar behind, I could have been here in time. Vidar would not have been safe, but Sigurd would have had a chance to live, to become something more. He lies spread-eagled across a fallen tree, eyes staring at sky above. I know, even now, that the sound of his death will haunt me. Vidar, too. No psycho-indoctrination could erase that.
Sigurd was ready to take the black, I know. I test my scouts to destruction, train them to the highest standards, and I will admit after years overseeing their training I am loathe to let them go. I would have trusted Sigurd with my life. He was an extension of my will, the Chapter’s will.
But I am stronger alone.
The creature has torn through the neck and ravaged the chest cavity. Destroyed both progenoid glands.
This was no accident. This is no beast. This monster knew what it was it hunted. How Astartes think. The strengths and limitations of our bodies.
I know what it is.
“I have seen many aliens, many creatures of nightmare in my years of service. And yet I can think of only one creature that has the strength and cunning to do this.”
Vidar says nothing, but I can see the question in his eyes.
“A traitor, brother. A Space Marine.”
“A chilling and insightful thought, brother, and the possibly must not be discounted. Both murders were done by the same man, however. I could smell him on the bodies, and now I can smell the bodies on him.”
“He practically bathed in Sigurd’s blood,” Vidar spits.
“And that’s how we’ll find him.”
The beast fled to a stream. Hiding the scent. I can see bloodied fur scraped on the skeleton of a tree... I remember whispered rumours. Hearsay. And yet...
“We cannot afford to wait until the traitor strikes again. If we cannot hunt it down, we must find a way to draw it out, fight it on our terms for once. Sigurd tried to set a trap for it, and he was right to do so. The hunter must become prey.”
“What do you suggest, sergeant?”
“We set a trap of our own. I will... I need you to be brave, Vidar.”
“You want me to be the bait, don’t you?” Vidar replies. A tremor in his voice.
I must defeat this creature. Honour demands it. To be defeated, outfoxed, by a monster with the blood of initiates on its hands... Sentimentality cannot stay the hunter.
Fear, though. Fear in Vidar’s eyes.
“I will have my rifle trained on you and we will remain in constant communication. I’ll know when the heretic is near and so will you.”
“What if it targets you instead, sir?”
“Then believe me, boy, it will not live to regret that decision. I have no fear of this traitor.”
I place my hand on his shoulder.
“Besides. I know you’ll be watching me.”
I filter out the hissing and cackling of the birds. Listen to the ash-scented breeze and draw it slowly into my mouth. Tasting the substance of it. I doubt the traitor will be so foolish as to attack from upwind.
I slow my heartbeats. Both of Vidar’s race. His lips move, something barely more than a whisper passing them. A litany, perhaps, a chant against fear.
I watch Vidar shiver down the scope. So weak!
A unworthy thought.
Something has changed... It takes me a moment to recognise it. The birds have fallen silent.
“Above us. Coming closer. Southwest. Pretend you haven’t noticed and remain silent.”
The hiss of moving leaves. Out of time with the breeze. Does the enemy sense me? Does the wind betray me as it does Vidar?
The crack of a twig. Vidar stepped on one, deliberately. Luring the beast in...
A whirr of wings. Bird flee. I will have only a moment, but a moment was all I will need.
Victory or death, Hunter’s Reach reminds me, gently, as I press my eye against the scope.
My finger tightens around the trigger.
An explosion of light and pain steals my sight. I bite back a cry. Blink the darkness from my eyes.
A phosphor grenade, no doubt taken from Sigurd. I underestimated the prey, and Vidar will pay the price of my mistake...
I hear his muffled cry. This is no time for hesitation; I fire at the source of the sound.
Something snarls. Through the haze of pain and light I catch a glimpse of a shape. Dark. Suggestive. It disappears into the trees.
A ragged gasp. I break cover and run towards him, heedless of the danger.
He lies prone. Face and arms cross-hatched in crimson. Red fingers clutch at his neck.
“Let me see.”
The wound is shallow, blood thickening already. He will live.
I can the traitor’s footfalls. Cowardice. The prey will not escape the hunter!
“You will live, Vidar,” I say, already running. “Stay safe. I will find you when this is done.”
The beast is fast and it knows the terrain, bounding from boulder to branch, over stream and through twisted bracken, but I am faster. A smile warms my lips.
Vengeance fills me like heat. This creature will not rest until we all lie dead. I will not allow it to escape. To strike again. Alone, without initiates to protect, to cosset, I can be the predator. Already the beast is outpaced. I hear it slowing ahead.
Hunter’s Reach crows from my shoulder. To admit defeat is to blaspheme against the Emperor!
It knows the futility of running. It hides, cowers in the undergrowth. I know it now. How it thinks. It hides only to ambush me. Vidar’s blood betrays it. Its hearts beat a tattoo in its chest.
“You can’t hide anymore, beast! I can hear you...”
A patch of shadow resolves itself into a creature born of nightmare. Stooped, fur lank with blood and filth.
It wears the broken remnants of powered armour over a withered frame. Even through the filth I recognise the insignia.
A Wolf. A lost son of Russ.
It steps into the light. It has lost an eye. Two talon-fingers haven been torn away. Fur peels from pale skin. Were it anything but an Astartes it would have died long ago and that that would have been a mercy.
It moves with a predatory grace in spite of its disfigurement, but I see it favours one leg. Sigurd’s doing, I realise with a rush of pride replaced all too swiftly by hatred.
In its remaining eye I can see only madness.
“You killed my boys,” I spit.
You outwitted me.
“The weak,” it snarls, muzzle ill-suited to speech, “must be culled so that the pack can remain strong.”
The wolf paces as it speaks. Unwilling or unable to keep still in spite of its injuries.
“They were initiates. Striplings. Children. You’ll suffer for them, traitor.”
“Traitor? No. I betrayed... no-one. No oaths broken. The pack must survive. The weak must be removed, for the good of the pack.”
I raise my pistol. Time to end it all. Something in its voice makes me pause.
“You were abandoned by your ...pack, weren’t you? Abandoned here, on this training world...”
“The weak must leave so that the pack remains strong.”
“You left them?”
“The pack must remain strong! I was wounded. Infected!”
“I became the lone wolf. The alone wolf. Howling my loneliness into the black, waiting for death but... too strong for death. Became the hunter. But... alone. Then you. Raven-black. The hunter-carrion. Sensed something in you. Kinship. No more alone wolf! New pack. Others... had to die. So you could see too.”
The bolt pistol roars my response. The wolf leaps, faster than its limping suggested. Bolts split trees to splinters. It slams into me. Bears me to the ground.
Fist meets fang, knife meets claw. I am cut and sliced again and again, and though I grace it with similar wounds, I realise I cannot defeat it like this. The wolf needs only a moment of weakness, a single opening, to tear out my neck.
I force my knife under the chest-armour. A space between fused ribs.
I push. Twist. The wolf’s claws scrabble on my armour. Blood pours down my arms.
It hardly notices breath hot on my face. Its jaws slide open, impossibly wide. Inside them only darkness.
I throw my fist into the gaping maw, crying out as the jaws slam shut. Twist. Tearing through flesh, sinew and bone.
Through the haze of pain, I seize the opportunity. Stab the remaining eye. A backhanded swipe sends my knife flying away. I clutch at my arm. Use the other to pull myself away.
The wolf rages. Staggers towards me. Swipes at the air with its claws. Pauses.
Now it listens to the twin-beat of my hearts and my ragged breaths. I have no weapon with which to finish it.
Victory or death, Hunter’s Reach whispers from my shoulder.
Why not both?
I pull a frag grenade from my webbing, clutching it tight in my remaining fist.
Let it bite this hand.
The wolf rears above me, screaming its fury. I respond in kind.
Claws rake my face, my throat. I am blinded by blood.
I hear a blade strike flesh. The wolf screams. Vidar towers above us, driving his knife down into the wolf’s neck. Grabs matted fur. Pulls. Flesh meets steel, again and again.
Howls collapse into gasps until the only sound is the knife biting into flesh and bone.
Vidar lets the body fall. Disgust clear on his blood-speckled face.
I am holding my neck together as best I can with my hand. I know even my Larraman’s cells cannot save me.
“I’ve had worse,” I lie, my voice a whisper
“What... what was it, sir?”
“It was a traitor and it was insane. Killing it was as much an act of mercy as it was justice.”
“It seems so... wretched now. Hard to believe it killed them all.”
“We are all small in death, lad. Whatever it became, it was once an Astartes and even the least of us is not to be underestimated.”
We share a smile. Teeth pink with blood.
“At least we avenged them.”
The world is growing darker. I am dying.
I try to reply, achieving only a hollow croak.
Panic in his voice now. I reach with my remaining hand and he clasps it with both of his.
“Victory or death, Vidar. Those words are more than just bravado, and this is the truth of it.”
“But you can’t...”
“I am. Tell the Chaplain what happened here. Carry me... Carry your brothers to Deliverance...” I say, smiling as only a dead man can.
I fix my dimming vision upon the broken corpse. The wolf who had lost its pack. The prey too strong to die. I know what it had tried to explain to me.
I look and see the soul of a Space Marine behind the face of a young man as everything around it fades into light.
“Vidar... We Astartes are brothers in blood, and we fight as one. No hunter is strongest alone.”