Based on Fantasy Flight’s Deathwatch, set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 30,000
The universe is cruel. It is unjust. To bring justice is to impose an unnatural order. That is, in and of itself, a cruelty.
When I heard Conrad Kurze speak those words, they rang true. They spoke to the experiences of my battle-brothers and I. I had often heard praise heaped upon other legions for their heroism, for bringing the Emperor’s light into the galaxy. If anyone spared a thought for our deeds, it was to whisper in disgust. But that was because they did not understand. We brought justice in the Emperor’s name and to do so, we brought cruelty. We never spread the Emperor’s light, but we did spread his darkness.
* * *
“Move it, Lexicanium,” came the harsh, gravelly voice of Captain Berross. Dressed in his midnight-blue power armor, he towered over the half-dressed form of Roose Bale.
The librarian nodded in acknowledgement and hurried his preparations, shaking off his chronic lethargy.
“I want all units in the drop bay in ten minutes,” the captain announced as he backed out of Bale’s cell. “I don’t need to remind you about what happens to soldiers who disappoint me.”
Bale frowned, careful to keep his back to his commander. There was a time when he had respected such threats. Discipline was paramount to the effectiveness of a fighting force and needed to be maintained by any means necessary. But in recent times, the means were no longer justified by the end, they were their own justification.
Bale had been on the receiving end of Captain Berross’ corrections often enough to keep his head down. He finished donning his power armour and checking his equipment. Slinging his Stalker-pattern bolter around his shoulder, he headed out of his cell and down the corridor of the Nightfall. As he passed a neighboring cell, he noticed an astartes loading a bolter clip.
“Zandon,” Bale called out. “Leave it, you’ve plenty of ammunition around your waist already.”
“No such thing as too much ammunition,” was Zandon somber reply. “Especially today.”
“We’ll be the last two to reach the drop bay at this rate,” Bale insisted. “Let’s go!”
The other marine dropped the half-loaded clip on his bunk in resignation and grabbed his bolter. The two of them jogged down the corridor, their boots clanging loudly against the metal flooring. As they moved, Bale reflected that there were few astartes besides Zandon that he would be comfortable having at his back. The two had been together since they had been pulled from the prison sinks of Terra, in a time so far removed from their current existence, it seemed almost a fantasy. Despite the fact that Terran and Nostramon recruits had both been born into lives of darkness, death and crime, the cultural divide between them was often wide. And that was on top of the fact that trust was in limited supply among the VIII legion to begin with.
They stormed into the drop bay and joined the hundreds upon hundreds of their battle-brothers waiting for the order to board their drop pods. Captain Beross paced back and forth in front of his company impatiently.
A hush fell across the midnight-clad killers as the towering form of the Night Haunter walked in. He wore his battle plate, with a red cape trailing behind him. His rank, black hair hung over his pale face. With a sneer, he addressed his assembled sons.
“Long has this moment been coming,” he began. “Never have you known what it is to dwell in the Emperor’s light. But what do you need with light? You are the masters of the dark! You are the Night Lords!”
Bale cheered along with his brothers, but something in the back of his mind protested. He ignored it and focused on his father’s words as he continued.
“The Warmaster has called us here, to Istvaan V, to join his crusade. This will be a new beginning, the greatest moment in our legion’s history. No more will we toil in the name of my father’s failed empire!”
The Night Lords cheered again, calling for blood, eager to unleash carnage. Some drew chain swords and revved them in the air. The primarch walked off and the captains of the various companies led their troops aboard their respective drop pods, with little semblance of order.
Bale and Zandon took seats next to one another, with captain Beross climbing in behind them. The marines strapped themselves in and prepared for planet fall.
“Nice to drop without getting shot at, for a change,” Zandon remarked on a private channel with Roose.
“Yes,” the librarian replied noncommittally. “But doesn’t something about this feel wrong to you?”
“What, the slaying of our fellow Astartes when they trust us to reinforce them?” Zandon answered drily. “Why should that feel strange?”
Roose did not reply, struggling in his mind with uncomfortable thoughts. The pod began to tremble as it pierced the thin atmosphere of Istvaan V.
“We’ve murdered, skinned and tortured uncounted millions before this,” Zandon continued. “It’s what we do, what we were bred for. We’re monsters, brother. It’s never bothered you before.”
“But it was always for a purpose,” replied Bale with a passion that surprised himself. “We were the boogeymen that kept the Imperium in line. We were a necessary evil. Now we forsake the Imperium? Where does that leave us?”
“Free!” Zandon replied, clapping the librarian on the shoulder pauldron.
Bale said nothing, his mind churning like never before.
The pod landed with a heavy thud and slammed open. The Night Lords released their restraints and stormed out, weapons drawn.
“Fan out,” came Captain Beross’ voice across the company vox channel. “Hold your fire, let the enemy come to us.”
Bale and his battle-brothers took up position, joining others from the Iron Warriors and Word Bearers lining the North ridge of the Urgall Depression. Below, Bale saw carnage at a scale unlike anything he’d experienced before. The fighting between the loyalists and the Warmaster’s forces had clearly been legendary.
He watched as battered ranks of Salamanders and Raven Guard approached, their guard down. The vox crackled with requests for medical aid and resupply.
“Make no answer!” Beross commanded. “Make no contact before the Warmaster’s signal.”
Bale peered through his bolter’s scope, observing the approaching victims. His brothers, come to deliver justice to the Warmaster’s traitors.
* * *
What was I thinking as I watched my brother Astartes approach, knowing the trap that was set for them?
Like all Astartes, I was trained to resist fear. But perhaps the closest approximation of what I felt at that moment, was fear. Fear of failing in my duty, regardless of how I chose to act. I felt as trapped as those Salamanders, Raven Guard and Iron Hands below us.
* * *
A lone flare shot skyward from inside the black fortress where Horus had made his lair, exploding in a hellish red glow that lit the battlefield below like a madman’s vision of the end of the world. Bale watched it fly and gritted his teeth.
And all around him, the fire of betrayal roared from the barrels of a thousand guns. The librarian took aim at a Salamander and pulled the trigger, watching his round strike true. The sight of the green-armoured marine toppling to the ground failed to bring him the customary pleasure that he felt after a successful kill. He took aim at another adversary, a Raven Guard, but his finger would not pull the trigger.
His battle-brothers began a charge down the slope, overtaking the black field and their loyalist prey. Bale slung his rifle and drew his force sword, sluggishly following his brothers, his mind reeling. He hung back, watching as the forces clashed at short range, the intensity of the fighting like nothing he could have imagined. Bale stood with his sword raised, his brothers fighting and dying mere metres away, paralyzed by indecision.
Suddenly, a handful of loyalists broke through the line of Night Lords. There were two Salamanders, dragging a third, obviously grievously wounded. A Raven Guard and an Iron Hand followed them.
“Don’t let any through!” Captain Beross bellowed over the vox. Location runes for the pocket of resistance appeared on Bale’s helmet display and a group of Night Lords fell back to engage them. Bale advanced on the position, his sword beginning to glow with blue flame.
The knot of loyalists spotted their approaching doom and braced to meet the charge. Something in Bale’s mind snapped. He stopped short and spontaneously reached into the warp. Screaming with cathartic rage, he unleashed a devastating lightning storm on his fellow Night Lords. The Salamanders, Raven Guard and Iron Hand seized the opportunity and opened fire, launching bolts and promethium into the suddenly embattled traitors. Furious moments later, the Night Lords were dead.
Bale opened a short range, tight beam channel to the Salamander Apothecary that seemed to be leading the group. He pointed his sword uphill as he transmitted.
“This way! We can seize a ship and get out of here!”
“Who are you?” came the suspicious reply, with a thick Nocturnean accent. “Why did you turn against your brothers?”
“It’s all very confusing,” Bale replied in a tone that was equal parts complaint and chuckle. “Just come with me, if you want to live. Or don’t.”
He began retracing his steps up the incline. The loyalists followed him.
“Bale!” Beross shouted across the vox. “Those loyalists are still moving. What happened? Report!”
“Uh…” Bale hesitated, feeling completely out of his depth. “They’re right behind me!”
“I can see that, you idiot,” Beross spat angrily. “Turn and face them, you coward. Delay them until Squad Xaren can catch up.”
“Unable to comply,” Bale answered, scrambling. “Relocating to higher ground.”
Every second brought him and the loyalists closer to escape.
“Damn it, Bale, you’re practically on top of the drop zone! They might be able to–” the captain cut himself off and his tone suddenly darkened, dripping with loathing. “You spineless turncoat!”
“I may be many things Beross,” Bale retorted, his thoughts finally coming into focus, “but I am no traitor.”
He saw a Stormbird just ahead and didn’t wait for the soldiers guarding it to question him. He pounced into their midst, slicing them apart with his sword.
A hail of bolter fire greeted the loyalists as they reached the ship. A squad of Iron Warriors had broken off from their positions and were closing on them. Bale took aim and fired into the attackers, wounding one, but doing nothing to slow them down.
“Let’s get off this rock,” he shouted and rushed aboard the Stormbird.
One of the Salamanders collapsed as he spoke, blood spraying from a hole in the back of his helmet. The Raven Guard and Iron Hand briefly returned fire, covering the apothecary as he dragged his wounded companion aboard. Then they too followed.
“Take off,” Bale ordered as he burst into the cockpit. The two pilots looked at him in surprise.
“My lord?” asked the pilot, as he listened to orders coming over the vox.
“This ship is taking off in three seconds,” Bale barked, drawing his sword. “You’ll either be piloting it or dead.”
The two humans exchanged a brief glance and immediately began preparations for take off. Three seconds later, the craft lifted off, continuing to get peppered with bolt shells. They pushed hard for orbit.
Bale joined the loyalist survivors and took a seat. The Iron Hand and Raven Guard had also taken seats, but the Salamander apothecary was on the floor. He had pulled the helmet off of his companion and was working furiously to stabilize him.
“Welcome aboard the Muffled Cry,” said Bale to the others. “Probably the worst Stormbird in the Night Lords’ arsenal.”
“You joke at a time like this?” answered the Iron Hand, his voice full of cold fury.
“It’s either laughter or madness,” Bale answered calmly. “Which would you prefer?”
The apothecary sighed loudly, ending the conversation. He leaned back, staring at the ceiling.
“He’s dead,” he said quietly.
No one spoke, watching numbly as the apothecary extracted the gene-seed of his fallen brother and then took a seat.
* * *
As I listened to the sound of bolt shell explosions hammering the Stormbird, I wondered whether it was about to explode and kill me. I think I hoped for death, in that moment, as it would shield me from having to come to grips with my actions, with the events of the day. But the whine of the engines grew louder, the ship vibrated and I knew we would reach orbit.
Which meant I would have to contemplate a new life, short though it was likely to be in these dark times. A life where I was not only apart from my former brothers, but against them. While the entire galaxy burned around us.