The Orphans

My first day in the Deathwatch is nearly my last.

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Thrusters spool down to silence. White light floods in from the opening rear hatch revealing Astartes of many colours: blue and gold Ultras, blood-armoured Angels, bearded, grey-clad, axe-carrying Fenryka and half a hundred others.

Penitent, my own armour is stained wholly black, Chapter markings scourged away.

These are men of honour, answering the call to serve; great men come to do great deeds. 

I am not such a man.

+

Crystallised vacuum-condensation mists off the transports hull as we disembark. Boltguns and blades of various patterns are clipped, clamped, slung or strapped to our armour. Deck lights march us through a pressure hatch to a stark chamber with a single occupant. 

His armour is the black of the Deathwatch, his right pauldron silver and gold, the markings of the legendary Knights Militant of the Ordo Malleus: he is – or rather, was – a Grey Knight. 

His broad face is split in half by an ugly diagonal scar from left temple to right jaw, left eye a silver bionic; a Nemesis force spear is held at ease by his side.

“Welcome, brothers,” he rumbles. “I am Inayom. You may remove your helmets.”

We comply without words, as is our way.

“Names first – No deeds yet, please.” An old Astartes joke.

Each warrior speaks, then it is my turn; aware of Black Shield rituals, I shake my head.

The butt of his Nemesis spear strikes my torso plate, driving me back a step; combat reactions drop me into a fighting crouch as he is upon me, reversing his weapon and driving the un-powered blade toward my head.

My crescent-moon half-sword comes out and under-hooks the Nemesis spear to deflect. He steps back to disengage as per the ritual, but in the heat of the moment I disconnect the under-hook, grip-reverse and whiplash my blade at his face.

He barely moves his head to avoid my blade, then the air turns glacial as he hits me with both Nemesis spear and his warp-elevated voice:

“Stand down, Brother!”

I slam backwards into the bulkhead, seemingly impaled by the frost-rimmed Nemesis spear. There is no pain, only silence. 

The air temp starts to rise and I realise the Nemesis spear has not punctured me; instead, the blade has slid deftly under my arm, and it is the cross-guard jamming into my torso plate that pins me to the wall like an insect specimen. 

Such precision – he could easily have killed me.

“Our new penitent brother defends Black Shield traditions.” Inayom’s low rumble fills the silence. “Though he is perhaps a touch… enthusiastic.” 

Inayom withdraws the spear sharply, spins it into low guard, and steps back. Humbled, I stay where I am, blade still in hand. The stench of warp-craft fades.

“Quick to anger, quick to strike; we shall call you Snake, I think.” More ritual.

He points at the weapon in my hand; I reverse it and he takes it by the long, leather-wrapped haft. “What is this weapon? I have never seen the like.”

The crescent blade shines like the moon of its long lost home-world. “I would have been surprised if you had,” I say.

It is a decade before I give him the real answer.

+

I have no trouble locating an armour-smith to repair the damage to my torso plate. Implants cover a third of the smith’s flesh. He works efficiently, grinding the edges of the split, inserting a ceramite backing piece before laser-welding the crack closed, intoning placations to the armour’s machine spirit. The torso was always bare of an Aquila, so he merely sprays the weld matt black.

“Better than new,” he says as he smooths a hand reverently across the plate. “This is very old; relic plate, well maintained,” he says approvingly. “A gift, perhaps?”

“Aye,” I grunt. “A gift.” 

I remember the Astartes who gifted me the torso plate, the look of utter disbelief on his face as he died in my arms. 

I take the torso plate and leave.

+

Training begins.

We spend ten hours learning the elegantly brutal hand to hand combat arts of the Eldar; at the end of it there are twelve broken bones and a ruptured eyeball amongst the group.

Inayom considers it a passable session.

+

We train until our transhuman muscles ache and our triple lungs burn. 

We train the skills necessary to survive on any known world, to kill one hundred and thirty-nine known xenos species with and without weapons, to fight in high-g and zero-g.

As weeks pass we are divided into groups for specialised training: heavy weapons specialists, armed with ancient Relic Era or xenos weaponry that can bring down Titans; snipers, able to fire a mass-reactive round across four thousand metres and hit a human head; and a very few become scouts, trained in clandestine infiltration and close-in termination – it is not so different from my original combat training but I keep that to myself.

I am unaware at the time that an Inquisitor named Kallatar has taken an interest in me.

+

Missions: so many missions that run together in my head like pooling blood.

Alone, infiltrating a water-world stronghold to disembowel a xenos king with my crescent-moon blade; without his leadership the world falls into bloody civil war for the foreseeable future, and bothers the Imperium no more.

With two other scouts, investigating an incursion on an Imperium world; we spend a week reducing a fifty-Necron unit down to thirty with our blades, ghostly assassins in the dark. In confusion over their losses the survivors close the portal behind themselves, leaving that world alone

With a twenty-man heavy weapons kill-team and four scout-triplets, dropping onto an Ork world where three-quarters of a million Imperial Guard are foundering in defensive trenches. We slaughter a wedge into Ork territory – that allows the Guard regiments to flood in behind us – though our true objective is a relic-cache we defend while Mechanicus artificers retrieve as much of the ancient hardware as possible; a quarter of a million Guardsmen, twelve Deathwatch Astartes and an estimated two million Orks die in those three days.

+

Inayom and I form a friendship that solidifies into brotherhood. 

His story is as old as time, the great warrior who finally met a foe greater than him – in his case, a fire-wreathed daemon-spawn that tore a third of his face off with the first swipe of its black talons, then stooped to gorge on the Knight’s psychic power. Not quite dead, Inayom spat blood straight back in its face then cut it in half diagonally from left hip to the top its head with his Nemesis spear.

He spent a year on Titan recovering and under observation for warp-taint, which is where Kallatar found him. Less than a month later he left his brother Knights and joined the Deathwatch permanently. 

His skill with the Nemesis spear is unrivalled and he remains one of the deadliest killers I have ever met.

A decade passes.

+

My last month in the Deathwatch.

Sent by Kallatar to a Dark Eldar world with a ten-man kill-team to steal a webway Key, we are barely on the surface a day before the Wraiths discover us and we start to die. We fight our way to the webway-portal, find the Key and set up a strongpoint to hold them off until the drop-ships arrive. On extract, one of the drop-ships carrying half the kill-team out is brought down; the team in the second drop-ship can only watch as the swarming xenos drag the survivors from the wreckage and crucify them to machines that slowly skin them alive. 

I am told later our screams could be heard all the way into orbit. 

+

Unwilling to risk any more battle-brothers – and against Kallatar’s orders – Inayom returns alone to the surface. 

Kallatar later tells me they exchanged harsh words and Inayom came close to striking her.

Inayom crashes the drop-ship deliberately, falling clear with a jump-pack as the ship becomes a missile, detonating close to the skinning-fields to clear an LZ. He falls amongst them, an avenging angel who murders everything in his path to get to us.

He is too late for any except me.

Half-skinned and punctured by multiple knife wounds, Inayom carries me out, expending all the ammunition for his storm-bolter in two hundred and eleven seconds as he fights back to the LZ. For twenty-two minutes more minutes he stands over me, forming a pile of Dark Eldar bodies with the Nemesis spear and receiving thirty-eight wounds himself until we can be retrieved.

Kallatar herself pilots a shuttle down to collect us.

+

On the way back into orbit, I can feel my life bleeding out onto the cold deck.

Inayom kneels beside me. His armour is pierced and punctured, barely intact, his own blood wet against the Deathwatch black; somehow, he has my half-moon blade in his hand. He presses the haft into my hand, the gesture of one warrior to another.

“I have to tell you something,” I say through the black blood in my mouth.

“Not now, brother.” 

“I must.” I hold up the crescent moon blade. “This… is a falxe*. It comes from planet ten thousand years dead.”

And then I tell him my true name.

Inayom stares at me for a moment, and I think he is aghast with the dreadful betrayal I have just admitted to. Then he starts to laugh deeply like thunder, and I cannot fathom why he finds humour in this moment.

As I fade back into darkness, I hear Kallatar laughing too.

+

A month later – on my last day in the Deathwatch – Inayom and I return to the Dark Eldar world via the webways; it is a wretched way to travel. 

Together we stalk and slay Dark Eldar and recover the precious gene-seed of the five battle-brothers who died on the skinning racks. Inayom personally feeds the clan-leader to his own skinning-machine. 

We jam the webway-portal open as we depart and launch the Key into the local sun; for a week a tiny star burns where the planet once hung. 

Exterminatus.

+

Kallatar recruits me to her cause.

She recites a tale of a Chaos god not seen for twenty thousand years, ascending toward our universe; of her century-long plans within plans within plans to build a force capable of slaying this god; of her search for a warrior like Inayom and an infiltrator such as myself – one who has seen Chaos from the inside. 

Of course, they had known from the very beginning who I was – which makes me question whether even my decision to desert my Legion was somehow manipulated by this devious, audacious Inquisitor?

Orphaned and beholden no longer to Legion or Chapter.

My name is Alpharius.

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* Falxe concept borrowed without permission from Horus Heresy: Legion, by Dan Abnett

** Feature image borrowed without permission by Beksinski

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