The Forgotten: A Horus Heresy Death Guard story
A Horus Heresy story by the No Poet
It is with bitterness that I bid you this farewell, for my body lies smashed and broken and my brothers have left me behind.
My name is Astarian. It was my honour to serve as Lieutenant of the Second Great Company. I am XIV Legion.
Once we were known as the Dusk Raiders. The fledgling Imperium calls us Death Guard. To our enemies, we are sanctified murderers, faceless executioners who kill and kill again so that the galaxy may one day become the paradise our Emperor proclaims.
As a private in the Dusk Raiders – before our Emperor, in his wisdom, reformed the structure of his Astartes Legions – I saw action from Earth to Tanith. My Legion fought and died beneath the White Crags of Ellesmere, standing beside Russ’ Wolves.
Even then my Legion was neglected by the Imperium. Hundreds of my brothers were slain duelling mighty Ice Worms, ravening horrors whose sheer size could overwhelm the sanity of a lesser man. Ignatius Grulgor of the Second was promoted to Captain in circumstances beyond my comprehension: how could even an Astartes of the Dusk Raiders continue fighting as his own body dissolved, while his company leader and most of his brothers were dead or melted within the bellies of the Ice Worms?
Yet Russ, a formidable warrior to be sure, Russ and his brethren won the laurels of that campaign. Russ is a Son of the Emperor. At that time we had no Primarch of our own, no beloved formidable Lord to lead us into death and glory; and we were eclipsed.
This – this nepotism – continued apace. Luna Wolves. Dark Angels. Even the damn World Eaters were set higher than us, though we had become the largest and most powerful Legion despite our lack of a patron.
I remember the day when he strode in to join us.
We were at a War Council with several of our brother Legions: the Blood Angels, the Iron Warriors, Dorn’s Fists. By this time we were the only Legion of this battle group which had not been united with its gene-father. We circled the world of Barbarus, every warrior – Dusk Raider or otherwise – on tenterhooks, awaiting the return of the Emperor with our Primarch. It did not take long… but it took long enough.
Three Primarchs and their equerries; twenty senior Dusk Raiders, myself included, a stand-in for Grulgor who was undergoing reconstructive surgery at the time; half a dozen mortal leaders, awed and fearful in our presence. Our conversation – mostly tactical appraisals of Barbarus and its inhabitants, with plenty of speculation regarding the possible nature of Mortarion, whom none of us had yet seen – fell silent as footsteps approached.
Dorn, the craggy general. Sanguinius, the dark and terrible angel. Perturabo, all emotion subdued beneath molten resolution. When they stood in place they were like perfect sculptures, heroic, inviolate, meaning hidden in every angle of their forms. The Emperor eclipsed them utterly. He outshone his ultimate creations as a sun blots out the light of distant stars.
What a fearsome radiance he cast upon those in his presence! I will never forget it. Now, with death so near, this shall be among my last memories.
All of us, even the Primarchs, were lost in astonishment. Every time a man sees the Emperor is like the first time. I could not look at his face for more than a moment. It was like a mortal man staring into a star. Though there are no gods in this hostile galaxy, the Emperor must be the closest thing. Forgive me for these words; they are the truth.
When we recovered ourselves, we looked for the new Primarch. We sought Mortarion.
It took me a moment to realise he was already in the room. The Emperor gave a wry smile as Astartes and humans came to this conclusion at almost the same time. The other Primarchs, of course, were already looking toward their new brother.
Mortarion was dressed in ragged, rotten armour. The poisonous swamp that was Barbarus had taken its toll on armour and flesh alike. Although a Primarch and mighty beyond the ken of the finest Astartes, Mortarion had suffered through his many decades on the planet. His skin was cracked and infected. His head was hairless, his eyes wan as though the man behind them were weary to his core.
He looked at me then, sensing my appraisal and returning his own. Those eyes – which at first I thought were dead eyes – projected a force of will which rocked me. By Terra, I nearly forgot my own name in that moment. Not dead, not tired; Mortarion’s intelligence was guarded and restrained behind a veneer of watchful silence. His whole personality was under lock and key. In that moment when our eyes met, and it was released for the first time, Mortarion’s whole being was focused like a lascannon blast.
In the next few minutes, it became clear that the Primarch of the Dusk Raiders would be forever set apart from his brothers.
“My sons,” he said to us in a voice that was quiet and dry, yet somehow carried itself as though the sound waves themselves were being lifted by some force in the atmosphere, “warriors of the XIV Legion, you are Dusk Raiders no longer. I am Mortarion and you are my Death Guard.”
My brothers and I looked to one another. Lord Typhon began to clap slowly, the dirge-cheer of the Dusk Raiders, now the welcome of the Death Guard for its patron. The rest of us joined him. There was no cheering from us. Sensing the mood – our quiet reluctance to make more of a show than was necessary – the mortals and the other Astartes in the room joined in with the clapping but did not say anything.
Sanguinius was the first Primarch to approach Mortarion. I believe the Blood Angel would have attempted to hug his new brother. Mortarion took a step back, body language tense and guarded, as though not understanding the gesture, or unwilling to come so close to another. Sanguinius seemed taken aback for a moment. It was the first and only time I ever saw that expression on the face of a Primach; then he stepped back and nodded once, understanding.
The Emperor watched all this without comment.
“So, Mortarion,” he said eventually, as the slow-clapping subsided and I wondered what would happen next. “It is time to meet the rest of your Legion.”
Mortarion turned to face the Emperor. I will never forget the sight. Unlike the other Primarchs, Mortarion seemed able to meet his father’s gaze for more than a few moments. The Emperor was head and shoulders taller than his gaunt son. It was like a moment from the ancient epics, where two great heroes meet on the field of battle, one of whom has a decisive advantage which does not cow the other in the least. I wondered what horrors Mortarion had endured in his time on Barbarus, that he could stand so directly before his father.
“I am ready, my Emperor,” he whispered.
Which Legion banished the Heretics of Peristadt? The pyres were stacked eighteen feet high as those witch-lovers burned to ash. Which Legion took the Iron Man foundries at Hesk XVIII, disabling those monstrous constructs before they could be activated, destroying the ancient and forbidden knowledge of their construction? Which Legion recovered intact the XMS Mercury, an ancient pre-Night starship, which had lain beneath the waters of Samodred VI for nine thousand years?
The Death Guard exploded across the galaxy. We outnumbered the Ultramarines, we proved more dogged than the Iron Warriors. Our Emperor threw us into the crucible of battle. The galaxy was a nightmare of ravening shadows. We brought light and flame to the darkness. We scorched the evil out of its hiding places. Without the Astartes, humanity would never have united its lost colonies; there was nothing but horror and madness between the stars.
We actively hunted creatures that had preyed on humans for millennia; we discovered fabulous treasures; we cast down the constructs of the alien and we burned the lore of the damned.
During moments of calm we helped compliant human worlds to rebuild their military. Mortarion drilled us and the humans in large-scale infantry tactics. It was practical, pragmatic, inglorious. We left worlds that could fend for themselves irrespective of the Imperial Army presence detached to planetary defence duties. There were no massed celebrations for us – the mortals seemed to understand that such would not be required – simply the knowledge that we had performed our duty, and that was enough.
Such times of quiet were rare for the Death Guard.
It occurred to me over the following years that our Legion was being worn down by increments. We fought and fought; we bled and died. Entire Forge Worlds were eventually dedicated to supplying our Legion alone. So many times we were surrounded and cut off by resurgent aliens or desperate xenos empires bent on the destruction of man. Despite our logistical support we tottered along the edge of destruction many times.
Horus and his Luna Wolves were the first to receive the new Terminator armour. My Legion has received barely a dozen examples so far. Yet we cleansed the space hulks of the galactic core clusters. So many brothers died.
Guilliman took delivery of the Dreadnought battalion so his warriors could fight on after the near-death of their physical bodies. Our veterans who fell had no such recourse.
We, the Death Guard, destroyed the Hrud colonies of the Zsalstad cluster, while fighting Orks and Eldar throughout that same region at the same time. We did not receive upgraded Fischig-patter bolters until our campaign in that cluster was all but over. Lives were lost because the damn weapons we were using were obsolete! We accomplished all our goals through strife and suffering. We did not complain.
Perhaps it was the Harvesting which was our undoing. The Emperor did not rebuke Legion nor Primarch to my knowledge. He did not have to. Our shame was great enough that censure from the Emperor could have meant the end of the XIV.
Strange creatures of smoke and flame; gabbling monsters who split in twain, both halves cackling invective as they returned to the attack; psykers who could twist a man’s form into a mass of tentacles and heaving flesh. The Harvesting of Gestalt was like something from a fevered nightmare, a stain of the warp across the material universe.
My Lord Mortarion was right to turn the warlocks’ powers against them. In all, we rescued thirteen loyal tribes, each led by a senior Occultist. In those days we did not fully understand what such powers were or where they came from. My Primarch had seen something similar in his days on Barbarus – I gleaned as much from overheard snatches of conversation with Grulgor and Typhon – and he believed we could use this power for our own ends, by using the Occultists to engage their erstwhile kin in duels of psychic might.
Our withdrawal from that world was harrowing. The very planet was rent in two. Nearly five per cent of our Legion was lost when the planet was destroyed. Many, many more had been slain in combat with those warp freaks. Mortarion despised the psyker after that. Not for the XIV, the so-called sanctioned psykers vetted personally by the Emperor.
We were retasked to fight alongside Guilliman’s Legion. Some of us felt that we were perceived to have strayed too far; the Ultramarines, those rule-following straight-laces, were to act almost as watchdogs or custodians. We were to follow their example in combat. We, the Death Guard, still at this time the most powerful of the Legions, with more victories to our name even than the Luna Wolves… though how long will that last? It cannot be much longer, I fear. The Great Crusade is already fifty years old. We have had our time, I think, as I watch the sun set behind clouds of burning gold.
That is how I come to be here, a shattered temple to the perfection of man, lying among the smouldering wreckage of a Stormbird. All around me lies smashed equipment. I can see, if I crane my neck, the bodies of my dead brothers. Anti-aircraft fire brought us down to lie among the jagged peaks of the White Coast.
I look out to sea, seeing only clouds and sun. The Crusade force has already departed. They smashed the Orks, chased the last of their ships from this system. I heard as much over my suit vox – which can receive but damnably will not broadcast. My life-signs are too low to register on surveyor systems. My armour is dormant. I cannot move most of my body.
We fought here for eight months before I was shot down. Yet another daring, breakneck assault, of a kind Mortarion never favoured yet Guilliman imposed.
I imagine that our victory here will be recorded as “an Ultramarine action with Death Guard support”. That is how they all seem to go down these days, “with Death Guard support”. It is no wonder the Lord Mortarion so despises the Order of Remembrancers.
I feel as though my Legion is being forgotten by the Imperium it helped to forge, as I have been forgotten in turn.
I will lie here now and think of past glories. Our Imperium may choose to ignore us as its people turn their eyes to the glorious campaigns of Horus and Guilliman, spearheaded as they are wont to be by the magnificent Emperor himself.
Mortarion may choose to remain within the shadows of his kin… but remember this: the scythe which descends from the darkness will kill a man as surely as the bolter round which enters his chest.
I am the XIV. I am the Death Guard.
I am the Forgotten.
Author’s note: This story is dedicated to the British 14th Army, also known as the Forgotten Army, in memory of those who fought and those who died during the Asian campaigns of World War 2.