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Authors: David Annandale

Eclipse of Hope

BOOK: Eclipse of Hope
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ECLIPSE OF HOPE

by David Annandale

I stand in the middle of a field of corpses.

We were summoned, and so we have come to Supplicium Secundus. We are winged salvation, but we are a terrible, final salvation, and our wings embrace the horizon with fire. We are the Blood Angels. To confront us is to die, and death is my remit, my reality, my unbounded domain. I have known death, and defeated it, claimed it as my own. To my cost, to my strength, death is my one gift to bestow, and I am nothing if not generous. But today, my liberality is unwanted, unneeded.

Undone.

The dead on the plain are uncountable, and not a one of them has fallen by my will. I emerged with my brothers from the drop pod to be confronted with this vista. There is, it must be said, a certain perfection to it. This is no mere slaughter or massacre. This is not a battlefield where defeat and victory have been meted out. This is death, simply death. The plain is a vast one, stretching to the distance on three sides, ending in the blurry hulk of Evensong Hive to the north. The skyline is smeared not by distance, but by smoke. It is thick, grey flecked with black, a choking pall of ash. It is the lingering memory of high explosives, incinerated architecture and immolated flesh. The fires have burned themselves out. There is a meaning to this smoke. It is the smoke of
afterwards
. It is the smoke of
finished
. It is the smoke of the only form of peace our era knows, the peace that comes when there is no one left to die.

Wind, sluggish and hot, fumbles at my cloak, breathes its last against my cheek. It pushes at the smoke, making the grey stir over the corpses like an exhausted phantom. There is no sound. There are no trees to rub leaves in a susurrus of mourning. There is no tall grass to wave a benediction. The ground has been chewed into a mulch of mud. Wreckage of weaponry and of humanity is slowly sinking into the mire. In time, all memory of the events of Supplicium Secundus will vanish. Smoke lingers. It does not last.

There is no order to the dead. There is no hint of this having been a war. There is no division between armies, no demarcating line of the clash. There is only brother at brother’s throat. By bolter, by sword, by cannon, by hands, this has been the pure violence of all against all. The full panoply of Supplicium’s population lies, stilled, before me. I see civilians of both genders, and of all ages. I see the uniform of Unwavering Supplicants, the local planetary defence force.

I see the proud colours of the Mordian Iron Guard, now covered in mud.

We are here because of the Iron Guard. It was their General Spira who called out to us. His message was fragmented and desperate. We have not been in contact with him since that first cry. I look at his men who have killed each other, and doubt that we shall hear from him again.

Over the vox network, reports arrive from the other landing sites. Supplicium Secundus is a compact world, dense in composition and with a handful of small habitable zones at the equator. In each of these areas, a hive has arisen, and it is just outside these hives that our strike forces have landed, a multi-pronged attack designed to inflict simultaneous punishments on the enemy. Sergeant Saleos calls from Hive Canticle, then Sergeant Andarus from Hive Oblation, then Sergeant Procellus from Hive Anthem. It is the same everywhere: endless vistas of death. We came because of heretical rebellion. We came because the Iron Guard was overmatched. We have found only silence.

Behind me, the Stormraven gunship
Bloodthorn
sits on a clear patch of land. I am in the company of Stolas, Epistolary of 4
th
Company, Chaplain Dantalion, Standard Bearer Markosius and a tactical squad led by Sergeant Gamigin. Standing a few metres to my left, the sergeant scans the landscape with an auspex. Nothing. Frustration radiates from my battle-brothers. Their hunger for the bloodshed of combat eats at them. Their bolters are still raised, seeking absent targets. They are angry at the dead. Our standard rises above the plain, proud but still in the dying wind, a call to a battle that is long over.

‘This is a waste of time,’ says Stolas.

‘Is it?’ I say.

At my tone, Stolas snaps his head around. ‘Lord Mephiston,’ he begins, ‘I–’

I cut him off. ‘Do you know what has happened here?’

‘No, I–’

‘This is something you have seen before?’

This time, he does not try to answer. He simply shakes his head.

‘Mordian has slain Mordian,’ I point out. ‘
All
the Mordians are slain. That gives me pause.’ I turn from Stolas, losing interest in the reprimand, refocusing my thoughts on the madness before me. And madness is what it is, I realise. Insanity. There is no logic, and this is the flaw in the tapestry of mortality. My eyes range over the infinity of bodies. The perfection I see is, in truth, only the perfection of abomination. ‘We are not wasting our time,’ I say, speaking more to myself than to Stolas. ‘There is a mystery here, and it bears the mark of Chaos.’

Something flickers in my peripheral vision. I look up. Movement in the smoke. A figure approaching. A man.

His movements are jerky, random, yet purposeful in their energy. He cuts back and forth, advancing in no clear direction
until he catches sight of us. Then he runs, pounding towards us over the backs of the fallen. He pistons his legs with such force that I can hear the snap of bones beneath his feet. His arms are outstretched as if he were running to embrace us. He emerges from the smoke. His teeth are bared. His face is red, his tendons popping. He is snarling with incoherent rage. What manner of man would charge, so unhesitatingly, and so completely alone, against the Adeptus Astartes? And what manner of man would do so unarmed? Only one sort: a man completely in the grip of madness.

He leaps on Sergeant Gamigin, biting and clawing and spitting. The man cannot possibly hope to break through the Blood Angel’s armour. Gamigin stands there, bemused. After a minute, he hauls the man off and holds him out by the scruff of his neck. The snapping, feral creature is a Guardsman. His uniform is in tatters, but enough of it remains to identify him as a colonel.

With a sudden clench of his fist, Gamigin snaps the man’s neck and hurls him to the ground. He stomps on the officer’s head, smashing it to pulp. Over his helmet’s vocaliser comes a growl that is growing in volume and intensity.

‘Brother-Sergeant?’ Chaplain Dantalion asks.

Gamigin whirls on him, drawing his chainsword.


Sergeant
.’ I use my voice as a whip. Gamigin pauses and turns his head. I step forward and hold his gaze. The lenses of his helmet are expressionless, but mine are the eyes without pity or warmth. I see the taint of the warp gathering around Gamigin like a bruise. The madness that has descended upon him is not the Red Thirst. It is not the manifestation of the Flaw, though our genetic curse may create an increased vulnerability. The tendrils of the warp bruise are deeply tangled in Gamigin’s being. There is no salvation for him except what he wills himself. ‘Give us space,’ I tell the others. ‘Take no action.’ I do not draw my blade. ‘Gamigin,’ I say, then repeat his name twice more.

The growl stops. His breathing is heavy, laboured, but suggesting exhaustion, not frenzy. He sheaths his chainsword. ‘Chief Librarian,’ he says. He shakes his head. ‘Forgive me. I don’t understand what happened.’

‘Try to describe it.’

‘I felt disgust for the officer, and then a blind rage. All I wanted to do was kill everyone in sight.’

The silence that follows his statement is a heavy one. I have no need to point out the implications. The madness that killed Supplicium Secundus still lurks, seeking purchase now in our souls. I let my consciousness slip partially into contact with the everywhere non-space of the warp. I anatomize the energies that flow about me. I find the mad rage. It is a background radiation, barely detectable, but omnipresent. The planet is infected. The disease that killed its population has a pulse, an irregular beat like that of an overtaxed heart. I pull back my awareness back to the here and now, but now that I have seen the trace of the plague, I can identify its workings. It scrabbles at the back of my mind. It is an annoyance, barely there but never absent, scratch and scratch and gnaw and claw. It wants in, and it will work at us until, like wind eroding rock, it has its way. It is in no hurry. It is now as fundamental to the planet as its nickel-iron core. It has forever. If we stay here, given enough time, we will all succumb. This is not defeatism. It is realism. A Blood Angel can and must recognize inevitable doom when it is encountered. The doom we face, coded into our very genes, is just as patient, just as certain of its ultimate victory.

The difference is that we can leave Supplicium Secundus and its disease behind. I am loathe to do so without discerning a cause, however.

Then a voice sounds in my ear bead. ‘Chief Librarian?’ It is Castigon, captain of 4
th
Company. He is aboard the strike cruiser
Crimson Exhortation
, which awaits us at high anchor.

‘Yes, captain.’

‘Do you concur with the other reports? There are no survivors?’

I glance at the dead colonel. ‘That is now the case, yes.’

‘Is it possible for you to return to the ship?’ Castigon does not give me orders. He would never be so foolish. But his request is not unreasonable.

I hesitate, thinking still that perhaps some revelation might await us in the abattoir of the hive before us. ‘Is this a matter of urgency?’ I ask.

There is a pause. Then: ‘Possibly.’ I sense no deliberate vagueness on Castigon’s part. He sounds genuinely puzzled. From his tone, I would say that he has chosen his answer carefully. After a moment, he speaks again. ‘We have found the Mordian fleet.’

Found
. The fleet should not have needed finding. It should have been in constant communication with us. But there was none when we arrived in the system, and no immediate sign of other ships in orbit around Secundus. ‘There is an ominous ring to your words, captain,’ I say.

‘It is in the nature of this day, Chief Librarian.’

The Supplicium System is perched on the edge of extinction. This is nothing new. It is its very nature. There was once, against all sense, a colony on Supplicium Primus. The small planet is perilously close to the sun, but its gold deposits are vast. Its rate of rotation is the same as its revolution, and one face burns in an eternal day, while the other is forever trapped by night. Along the band of its twilight, a temperate zone permitted habitation until six centuries ago, when a solar storm of terrible magnitude stripped Primus of its atmosphere.

Secundus and Tertius, larger, more distant, and with stronger magnetic fields, weathered the storm, preserving their atmospheres and their civilizations. But here, too, humanity’s grip is precarious. The orbits of the two planets are very close, but fall on either edge of the range of temperate distances from their star. Secundus is arid, Tertius frigid. But the Imperium is filled with worlds far more hostile, and they are held for the eternal glory of the Emperor. The Supplicium system has called for help. It must be heeded.

It was. Help came.

And failed.

Aboard the
Crimson Exhortation
, I stand with Castigon in the strategium. There are many tacticarium screens offering information, but our attention is focused on what we can see through the great expanse of armourglass at the front of the bridge. The hololiths and readouts render the meaning of the view clear, but there is a terrible majesty to the unfiltered, uncatalogued, raw vision before us.

The Mordians were but one system over when Supplicium Secundus cried out for help, and so they came. Now their fleet is dead. Its ships move, tumbling past each other along mindless trajectories. Some have collided. Even as we watch, a Sword-class frigate, turning end over end with slow grace, slams into the flank of Lunar-class cruiser
Manichaean
. The smaller ship breaks in two. Its halves float away, shedding debris. The
Manichaean
has taken a solid blow amidships, but continues its sluggish momentum, its course barely altered.

There is no flare of engines anywhere in the fleet. There are no energy signatures of any kind coming from the ships. This is why the fleet was invisible to us at first. It has become, in effect, a tiny belt of iron asteroids. I look at the tacticarium screens. There is evidence of inter-ship combat. Some of the hulls show signs of torpedo hits and lance burns. Not all, though. In truth, very few. What killed the fleet took place inside the ships.

Castigon despatched squads aboard the
Crimson Exhortation
’s Thunderhawks and Stormravens with the mission to board ships, where practical. The warriors engaged in this task know what we found on the surface of Supplicium Secundus, and they know about the ongoing risk of the plague. They will steel themselves against the temptations of anger. They will hold themselves in check. As the reports come in to the strategium, however, the caution begins to seem excessive. Though the background whisper of rage is ever present, basic discipline is enough to hold it at bay because there are no triggers. The fleet is empty. No troopers have been found. The Mordian army, to a man, descended to Secundus to slaughter itself. All of the bodies on the ships belong to the naval crews, the slaves, and even the servitors. The doom is so powerful, even the mindless succumbed to killing frenzy. As below, so above. Each vessel boarded unveils another tale of mutual carnage. There is nothing left in planetary orbit but dead flesh and dead metal.

‘I have never seen the like,’ Castigon confesses.

‘Neither have I.’ The deaths of worlds and entire fleets, yes, I have seen such things. I have been instrumental in bringing about the annihilation of heretical solar systems. But this massacre is different in kind. The only weapons involved appear to have been those borne by the servants of the Imperium, who turned their arms on each other. We have not seen the smallest hint of an opposing force, which makes the enemy all the more dangerous. There
must
be an enemy. What we have seen cannot be due to chance. A warp-thing very like a disease has been spread across Supplicium Secundus and the intervention fleet. I cannot bring myself to believe that it arrived spontaneously. It was brought here. It was unleashed.

BOOK: Eclipse of Hope
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