Short Fiction

Mark of the Beast

Mark of the Beast

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Daniel Dolgos
Reading Time: 35 minutes

The mark of the beast.

Eyes of crimson ruby. A perpetual snarl cast in bronze—a countenance as much of an angel’s as that of a devil’s.

With trembling fingers, Isaria reached out for the terrifying door knocker. A hair’s breadth from the cold metal of the loop, she hesitated. No one knew what lay beyond the sealed portal of rockrete and adamantite. Whispered stories and fearful hearsay spoke of ancient halls laden with dust, vast chambers where no living creature stirred. Except for the dark realm’s sole master. The very thought of him chilled Isaria to her core.

She pulled her hand away, doubt gnawing at her. Could her elders have been wrong to send her here? Did this mysterious figure truly exist? And even if he did, was it within his power to banish the monsters that stalked the shadows?

Howls echoed down the twilit corridors leading to the dread portal. Isaria whimpered in wide-eyed terror as she stared into the shadows. Shapes moved within their velvet embrace, drawing ever closer to their prey. Eyes brimming with hunger flashed in the spare light of the lumen globes set into the walls. An unnatural, almost animal musk twisted Isaria’s nose. She could hear the creatures’ ragged panting as they moved in slowly for the kill.

With a cry, she grabbed the knocker with both hands and pulled with all her might. She was surprised to find the door yielding with a groan. The monsters could sense their prey slipping away and made for her swiftly. Muscles straining, Isaria managed to pry the door just wide enough that she could slip through. She put her back against it and began to push. The monsters pounced with a savage roar.

The massive door shut with a resounding clang, and her pursuers howled in rage as their prey was denied them. Isaria shook from head to toe as she held herself against the cold portal, expecting any moment to be tossed aside. Yet nothing happened.

Silence settled around her like a cloak, and Isaria could finally examine her surroundings. Slender marble columns lined the walls, electrosconces casting the columns’ long shadows across the floor in a complex lattice of light and dark. A carpet of exquisite craftsmanship led from the portal to the next chamber. She dared not step on its fabric, so she edged along its length. Frequent glances behind her back reassured her that she was alone. 

Halfway through the entry hall, Isaria stopped dead in her tracks. High on the wall was a painting of such magnificence that it mesmerised her. She knew instinctively that she was looking at Lord Thybaro, the legend she was sent to find. 

Pale of skin and dark of hair, the man in the portrait was the epitome of a quiet, almost haunting beauty. Despite the splendour of his blood red armour and the massive sword gripped in one hand, Lord Thybaro looked almost serene. As if he wore his arms and armour for the sake of the artist and not because he particularly enjoyed donning them. Yet even portrayed with nothing but paint on canvas, his martial prowess could not be questioned. There was a striking duality that even a common serf like Isaria could recognise immediately.

She didn’t notice the tears streaming down her cheeks until she tasted the salty droplets on her lips. With an effort, she broke the spell enchanting her and averted her gaze from the painting. She felt that she could watch it until she grew old. But she had a duty now, and duty was first among her people.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she followed the carpet down the hallway and into the next chamber. It was a smaller room with three other doors. The one ahead was locked. Through the door on her right, she spied a gargantuan dining hall. A great table ran its full length, with chairs lining both sides. Great banners hung from the walls, showing ancient symbols and motifs revolving around what seemed like a teardrop and wings. Isaria realised that she was looking at the origin of the ancient, faded markings she had glimpsed around her tribe’s home all her life. The hall itself was mostly dark, and Isaria could feel its yawning emptiness. 

The door on her left opened onto an immense librarium. Wooden bookcases lined the walls, ancient tomes and scrolls heaped upon them as high as the ceiling. Open fire crackled in the grand fireplace carved from fulgurite and chased with gold. An armchair of the finest leather stood in front of the fire, with its back to Isaria. It was clearly occupied, although she couldn’t see the occupant. The lustrous fur of some strange, alien beast was laid out between the armchair and the fireplace. After a heartbeat’s hesitation, she stepped into the room. 

Isaria didn’t need to be a witch to know that she came into the presence of Lord Thybaro. She yearned to see the man whose likeness had stolen her breath away. She also feared this moment, for it was said that the Lord was mercurial, and she dreaded the prospect of returning to her tribe empty handed.

‘What do you want, child?’

The Lord spoke and every cell in Isaria’s body resonated with Thybaro’s deep baritone. The sensation was unsettling, bordering on painful. She opened her mouth to answer, but no sound came from her throat.

‘You entered my domain uninvited, sullied it with your presence, and now you do not answer my question. Did you come simply to insult me?’

‘N-no…’ Isaria managed, struggling to find the words.

Thybaro rose from his seat with a graceful slowness, every move as liquid as mercury. Isaria stared with her mouth open as the Lord came to his full height and towered above her. Despite being thrice as wide as her, there was a gauntness to his features, emphasised by the long dark cloak adorning his back. Dark eyes glittered above sharp, pale cheekbones. Thybaro’s thin lips revealed glistening white teeth. Firelight played across the three golden studs embedded in his forehead. 

‘No? Is that all you can say?’ asked Thybaro, tilting his head to the side. Isaria felt her cheeks turn bright red and she fought the urge to just crumple to the ground. The dark master of this ancient domain was more imposing than she could’ve imagined. Black spots swam across her vision and the librarium began to tilt. Among the burning logs, she saw the faces of her elders as they invested all their hopes in a young serf girl. How foolish they had been to choose her.

No!

Isaria bit her lips so hard that blood trickled down her chin. Her fingernails dug into her palms painfully, drawing more blood. The pain cut through the fog gathering in her mind like a ray of sunshine. She focused on that agony and clung to it.

‘I apologise, Lord Thybaro,’ she said, her reedy voice gathering volume with each word. ‘I did not mean to be rude. I have come a long way to petition you for your help. Will you listen to my plea?’

‘Speak then, child,’ answered Thybaro. Closing the book he held in a hand, he regarded Isaria with a bemused curiosity one reserves for pets and simpletons.

‘Thank you, Lord,’ said Isaria. She gathered herself and recited the words that her elders made her commit to memory.

‘Bound by oaths freely given and subservience gladly rendered, we seek your aid in this dark time. Night is upon us and the Hungry Ones are among us. They come to prey upon our young and strong, leaving only the weak to perform our duties. Without your aid, we will fall behind our quota and we shall perish. The Maintenance Tribe of Subdeck One-Three implores you to lend us the strength of your arm and banish the Hungry Ones.’

‘It has been over two decades since someone spoke the ritual words,’ said Lord Thybaro. His dark eyes measured Isaria carefully. 

‘I was but a babe when the Hungry Ones came last time. They had taken my father before I knew my own name,’ Isaria said.

‘Is that why they sent you?’

‘Yes,’ she answered, voice trailing off. There was something else she wasn’t telling. Before Thybaro could press her for an answer, Isaria spoke in a hushed tone. ‘And because I’m pure.’

She couldn’t keep herself from blushing and she hated herself for doing so. Others her age had already borne children, sometimes more than four, but reproduction was forbidden for her. She had never understood that. No mutation disfigured her body and she was ready and willing to contribute to the tribe’s future. Yet no such permission ever came and her tentative forays have been strictly reprimanded before they could lead to fruition.

‘That is nothing to be ashamed of. In ages long forgotten, purity was among the highest honours for ladies of a certain age. It is curious that such a tradition still exists after all this time,’ said Thybaro. The gaunt giant stepped past Isaria and slipped the book on a shelf.

‘Why?’ asked Isaria.

‘Why what, child?’

‘Why did my purity matter when choosing me?’

‘Ahh, that. I suppose it has to do with tradition. Many tribes cleave to the notion that I only offer my protection to those pure of heart. The meaning, it seems, has twisted over time,’ replied Thybaro as he turned back towards the young woman. His thin lips pulled back and Isaria was unsure if it was a smile or a scowl. Lord Thybaro was unlike anyone she had ever met. The towering man possessed a macabre charm that both attracted and repulsed her. Biting her lower lip, and tasting blood, she cast her eyes down.

‘Will you answer our plea, Lord Thybaro?’

Thybaro gently laid a hand on Isaria’s shoulder, but she could sense an immense strength behind the feather light touch. Weird, conflicting emotions clashed in her chest and her mind went blank. Her world shrunk until it consisted of nothing else than the fingers upon her shoulders, just a layer of fabric away from her skin. She watched with shaking breaths as Lord Thybaro leaned closer, pitch-black eyes twinkling with reflected fire. His breath smelled of cinnamon and steel. 

‘Yes,’ whispered Lord Thybaro, his shadow embracing Isaria.

+++

Isaria awoke with a start. She had no memory beyond Lord Thybaro’s otherworldly features filling her entire vision. The void in her recollection frightened her. She scrambled to sit up, gripping the warm fur beneath her fingers for purchase. The fur she remembered and the pieces of her past slowly restored themselves into a coherent order.

‘You fainted,’ said Thybaro, sitting in the armchair with a vellum spread across his lap. He made a note with an auto-quill, then rolled up the parchment and sealed it with a thin golden chain. 

‘I did?’ asked Isaria uncertainly. Reaching up, she brushed matted hair from her forehead. Her mouth was dry and her skin clammy. Feeling weak and slightly nauseous, she clambered to her feet and stood unsteadily.

‘Are you alright, child?’

‘I’m… not sure. Can I ask you for a glass of water, Lord?’

‘The Lord bringing the serf water?’ asked Thybaro in a deadpan voice.

Dread suddenly gripped Isaria’s heart. Had she insulted the one whom she had come to beg for help? Had she put her people in peril simply because she was thirsty? Fearing the worst, she slowly looked up at Thybaro.

The man smiled thinly. It was the kindest expression she had seen on his face so far. Thybaro stood from his armchair and walked from the librarium, depositing the vellum and the auto-quill on his way out. He disappeared into the gloom, leaving Isaria alone.

His departure made the room feel empty, as if his presence alone could fill it with life and warmth. Despite the crackling fireplace at her back, a shiver ran down Isaria’s spine. Who exactly was Lord Thybaro? If the tales were to be believed, he had helped the tribe against the Hungry Ones way before even Isaria’s great-grandparents had been born. No man could truly live this long and look so strong and virile. 

Of course, she knew about His Angels, but every bedtime story described them as living in the heavens of the Upper Decks. None from her tribe had ever ventured that far, not in life at least. Isaria suspected the Blood Angels to be myths, something to keep the hope in their breasts aflame through the darkest hours. Now she wasn’t so sure. Perhaps Lord Thybaro was an Angel himself, but then what was he doing down here, among the serfs? And who would be powerful enough to cast out one such as him?

‘Drink,’ said Thybaro.

Isaria yelped in surprise and almost slapped the crystal glass from her host’s fingers.

‘Be not afraid. It is pure water, untainted by sewage,’ Thybaro continued, as if her fright welled from the surprisingly transparent liquid in the glass and not from his sudden return. Had she been so lost in thought that she didn’t notice him enter?

‘Thank you, Lord,’ she mumbled, accepting the glass and holding it gingerly. She sipped hesitantly at first, then drank it all in one go. It was indeed pure, so clean and clear that it felt like drinking frozen air. It was the most exquisite drink she had ever had in her entire life. An appreciative moan escaped her lips.

‘I am happy you approve of the taste,’ said Thybaro, the hint of a smile lurking in the corner of his thin lips.

‘It is…, said Isaria, voice trailing off as no word could ever truly describe the sensation. Thybaro gently plucked the empty glass from her fingers.

‘Morning shift is upon us. We will return to your tribe and I will vanquish the Hungry Ones come night shift,’ said Thybaro. Isaria only just noticed that the Lord had donned a different outfit. The long black cloak remained, but now he wore a form fitting crimson bodyglove. She couldn’t help herself as her eyes hungrily followed the contours of perfect muscles. At his midriff, she noticed the hilt of a sword. A blood red ruby formed a teardrop, haloed by wings.

Wings! Wings! So Lord Thybaro was indeed one of His Angels! 

Isaria sprang to her feet with renewed vigour and grinned from ear to ear. 

‘Come, Lord, I’ll show you the way!’

Enthusiasm only carried Isaria until the entrance of Lord Thybaro’s domain. The great portal stood sealed, the way she had left it the night before. The thought conjured memories of flight and fright, of slavering beasts and fathomless shadows.

Thybaro must have sensed her reluctance, for the Angel stepped past her and opened the gate with a hand. Last night, it took her all her might to open it a crack, yet the Lord easily opened it wide. A low mist drifted in from the corridor outside.

‘Come now, child. There is nothing to be afraid of while you are with me. The Hungry Ones do not hunt during morning and day shifts. The night shift is the realm where they strive.’

Isaria nodded and slipped out into the corridor. It was deserted, the susurration of the air purifiers the only sound. Through the soles of her feet, she could sense the plasma engines’ vibration. They were cycling up. The ankle-high mist was a by-product of the sudden rush of boiling water meeting with the coolants. The vapours coalesced in the Subdecks by the start of every morning shift.

‘This way, Lord Thybaro,’ said Isaria and led the way down from whence she came. Her heart was beating faster, expecting the howls to start anew, but nothing happened. His very presence guarded her.

Isaria had to stop after an hour to make sure they were headed in the right direction and to catch her breath. Lord Thybaro seemed unfazed, not sitting to rest or drinking to quench his thirst. He just stood there, facing the retreating shadows as the intensity of the lumens grew by mid-morning shift. Soon, they were on their way again.

They passed massive hydro-reclamation chambers, where sewage falls spun turbine wheels on their way to the chemical purgatory below. Hydroponic gardens offered a breath of fresh air, but the rapidly growing vegetation had always disturbed Isaria. The slow undulation of spreading creepers and vines seemed unstoppable, and more than once, she awoke from a nightmare where they had strangled her. Air purifier chambers breathed in and out like gargantuan iron lungs, scrubbing carbon dioxide and pumping back breathable oxygen into the ship’s closed atmosphere.

‘Is it always empty down here?’ asked Thybaro. Neither servitor, nor serf had passed them during the past hour.

‘Depends on the work schedule, Lord. But I must confess, this is indeed quieter than normal. I suspect the terror of the Hungry Ones affects the other tribes as well,’ said Isaria. She had seen the smallest signs of activity: the unfastened lock of a service hatch; the crumbs of a hastily devoured ration pack; the doused lumen of a maintenance closet. She knew the armsmen wouldn’t notice these signs, but she was unsure about the Angel. Isaria decided it would be rude to inquire directly. 

‘Then we best hurry. No matter how great a ship is, it cannot function if the subdecks remain unattended for long,’ said Thybaro.

‘By your will, Lord,’ replied Isaria by rote, but her heart fluttered. Lord Thybaro, one of His Angels, held their work in such high regard. Her tribe’s elders had told them as such, but hearing it from the lips of an Angel was entirely different. She knew that even if she died tomorrow, she would die gladly, for she knew that her labours had never been in vain.

‘A dead end,’ said Thybaro, surprising Isaria from her reverie. The end of the corridor was indeed sealed, even though it was open when she passed here last time. She glanced around, checking the bulkhead numbers and corridor tags. She didn’t get them lost; the route changed. 

Stepping to the closed bulkhead, she keyed her tribe’s access code into the clockwork numpad. The cogs began to whirr, then suddenly ground to a halt with a squeal. As if in response, the corridor’s lumens flicked off one by one, until only a single strip flickered above her head.

‘Are you lost, little daughter?’

An unfamiliar voice asked from the darkness, followed by sniggers. Three serfs stepped to the end of the light. They were naked from the waist up, their muscled torsos criss-crossed with scars and service tattoos. 

Engine jocks. Notorious for taking things by force. Rations, liquids, folk. Isaria would’ve been fine prey any other day, but this time, she was escorted by Lord Thybaro. No harm would come to her.

Except he was no longer standing next to her. Lord Thybaro had disappeared like the morning mist. There was no trace of His Angel. Isaria tried to swallow her sudden fear before they could sense it.

‘Oh, don’t look so worried,’ the one in the centre said.

‘That’s right, we’ll take good care of you,’ the left one added.

‘It’ll be the best day of your life,’ the right one said, and they all laughed. 

Isaria stared at them, eyes wide with terror.

‘You can scream, if that helps,’ their leader grinned.

‘You may do the same.’

Thybaro’s face emerged from the shadows above them. They turned and looked up, stupefied. The shadows coalesced into the Angel’s towering form. Opening his arms wide, midnight cloak fluttering behind him, he said to Isaria:

‘Close your eyes.’

Isaria did as she was instructed. Trapped behind her eyelids, she could only imagine what was taking place by what she could hear.

The wet snap of bones breaking beneath meat. Screams of pain. The sickly pop of eyeballs rupturing. Whimpers of terror. The whistle of metal as it cuts air and flesh alike. Death rattles. The rustling of cloth across cold rockrete. 

Silence, long and empty.

‘You may open your eyes now,’ said Thybaro.

She was afraid of what she would see, but she could not resist his command. His deep voice compelled her.

‘Oh,’ said Isaria, surprised. The corridor’s lumens were lit again. There were no bodies, no blood, no nothing. As if no altercation had taken place just moments ago.

Thybaro wiped the corner of his mouth and frowned in disgust.

‘Such barbarity is unbecoming of this most glorious vessel.’

‘Yes, Lord,’ whispered Isaria. Did she just dream the whole thing? Did she inhale some fume that made her see things that weren’t real? Was there any way of telling?

The single thing that felt real was Lord Thybaro. He seemed to draw the light into himself, distorting everything else around him. He was the focal point of reality, turning the corridor into a flimsy background.

‘Try the code again, if you please,’ said Thybaro kindly. Isaria was surprised to find it working as the bulkhead slowly rolled out of their way. She stepped through, glad to put as much distance between herself and what supposedly took place just moments ago.

+++

Isaria’s heart broke as she realised she was too late.

The barracks of the Maintenance Tribe of Subdeck One-Three lay devastated around her. Hastily re-arranged workgroups were trying to clean up the remains of the raid during last night shift. One group took to the walls and floor with industrial scrubbers, trying to rid the surfaces of bodily fluids spilt across them. Another was stacking the deceased in mass corpse conveyors while an anointed priest of the God-Emperor gave the departed their last benedictions. Some stood sentinel by the makeshift barricades, erected from bunk beds and reinforced with coldiron spikes hastily welded to their frames. These were bent out of shape, having offered scant resistance when the Hungry Ones came.

‘Glad to see you’re still alive.’

The rasping voice made Isaria turn. Odalwa looked a decade older when Isaria left the tribe’s barracks just two cycles ago, and even then, she had been ancient. Bleached skin hung loosely from her skull, tufts of grey hair sprouting between patches of acid-scars, but the look in her cataract-ridden eyes was not unkind. A small herd of terrified children gathered by the hem of her dirty robes, sobbing and sniffing.

‘I have failed us, matrona,’ said Isaria. She was on the verge of joining the children with tears and snot. 

‘Did you not find the Lord? I see him not,’ said Odalwa. 

‘I did, but we were too late.’

Odalwa gently patted Isaria’s hand.

‘As long as any of us draw breath, you weren’t late. You braved the night shift, found the Lord and returned with him. No one could have asked for more. But where is he?’

‘Beyond the gates. He said he would not enter unless invited. Have you seen the Senior Chieftain?’

‘Aye. He was all over the place after the Hungry Ones left. Now Kordyn is in charge,’ said Odalwa, nodding towards one of the men hauling bodies into an open conveyor.

‘Thank you, matrona,’ said Isaria and left the old woman to tend to the children.

Despite the grim predicament of her tribe, Isaria found her folks going about their regular business. She could smell the spices of the nutrient broth boiling away in the kitchen’s primary cauldron. Hammer blows tolled from the machine shop as the tribe’s senior blacksmith put her back into repairing as much of their equipment as she could. There were rotation quotas to be met. 

Kordyn did not look up when she approached him. Moving stiffly, he hauled the earthly remains of loved ones into a featureless steel box as Father Grigoij murmured passages from a timeworn copy of holy scriptures. Blood covered the synthex gloves covering his hands and lower arms. The empty, haunted look on his face promised little sympathy.

‘Kordyn,’ Isaria called to him when he continued to ignore her. The tribesman tossed a severed arm into the conveyor and finally looked up at Isaria.

‘You’re back,’ said Kordyn in a deadpan voice. The young woman nodded, averting her eyes from the carcasses lest she recognised them.

‘Aye, and I have brought Lord Thybaro with me. He waits outside the gates,’ said Isaria.

‘Much good does it do us now.’

‘Odalwa thinks otherwise. She said the Hungry Ones would be back the next night shift. We still need his protection,’ said Isaria. She cast a furtive glance above her shoulder and lowered her voice. ‘He is one of His Angels. He will protect us.’

Kordyn stopped mid-motion and a semblance of life returned to his eyes. Hope was a powerful drug indeed. Pulling his synthex gloves, he ordered the others to continue and waved Isaria ahead.

Together, they walked back to the gate where Isaria had last seen Lord Thybaro. For a fleeting moment, she feared that he would no longer be there, having melted away like the shadows and mist do during morning shift. Thybaro was an Angel, after all, a being as ephemeral as he was real.

The towering man stood statue still in the exact spot Isaria had last seen him. His dark cloak billowed in the draft blowing from the barracks’ air heaters. The tribespeople assigned to sentinel duty watched the stranger with naked suspicion, gripping their billhooks in sweaty palms. They knew they couldn’t stop him if he wished to enter, but duty bound them to stop intruders even at the cost of their lives. The previous sentinels were a testament to that, having already been stacked in a mass corpse conveyor. 

Kordyn lost his initial momentum upon seeing Thybaro and came to a halt next to the two sentinels. His empty fingers grasped the air feebly, as if searching for something to arm himself with. The hint of a smile crept into the corner of Thybaro’s thin lips.

‘Lord Thybaro, this is Kordyn, the new Chieftain of the Maintenance Tribe of Subdeck One-Three,’ said Isaria.

‘A pleasure to meet you, Chieftain Kordyn,’ said Thybaro. It was the first time anyone else besides Isaria had heard him speak. The Angel spoke with the voice of the vessel’s massive plasma hearts, deep and rumbling and all powerful. One of the sentinels whimpered. Kordyn took an involuntary step back, cold sweat beading his forehead. Isaria politely hid her smile behind a palm and faked a cough.

‘Lord Thybaro came to fulfil our ancient pact, to protect us from the predation of the Hungry Ones,’ Isaria explained, in case Kordyn could not recall her mission.

‘Indeed, for I am a man of my word. And I shan’t be found wanting when it comes to manners,’ said Thybaro. Isaria’s face turned red in embarrassment as she recalled entering his domain uninvited.

‘As the Chieftain, it is tradition that you invite him in,’ said Isaria to Kordyn. Thybaro looked amused as she nudged the unresponsive Kordyn. The man eventually shook his head and cleared his throat.

‘You can come in,’ mumbled Kordyn. Thybaro arched an eyebrow and Isaria fervently whispered into Kordyn’s ear. 

‘I mean, uh, Lord Thybaro, by ancient pact and unbroken tradition, I beseech you to enter our barracks, so that you may protect us from the creatures of the night shift,’ said Kordyn, reciting the words of tradition as Isaria instructed.

‘I accept,’ said Thybaro ceremoniously, and with one long stride, he was past both sentinels and barricade. Kordyn yelped in surprise at the Angel’s frightening speed. Even Isaria was surprised, for she only suspected his swiftness, yet had not witnessed it first hand before.

‘He’s bloody terrifying,’ muttered Kordyn, trembling in barely contained dread. 

+++

As the day shift dragged on and the members of the tribe attended to their allotted tasks, Isaria tried to stay on the Angel’s heels. It was difficult, for Thybaro never got tired. He inspected every nook and cranny of the barracks, from the mess hall through hab-blocks to ablation and sanitary alcoves. Isaria found Thybaro even peeking inside ventilation ducts that were too small for children. Those few tribes folk still within the safety of the barracks quickly departed when Thybaro came their way.

‘Why is everyone scared of him? He is our saviour,’ said Isaria to Odalwa. The old woman was trying to calm the children under her care, but without much success.

‘Do you not see it?’ asked Odalwa after studying Isaria’s face for signs of deceit.

‘See what?’ replied Isaria, suspicious.

‘The mark,’ breathed Odalwa. ‘It is upon him, but your emotions cloud your eyes.’

‘What mark?’

‘The mark of the-’

‘Isaria, attend me,’ interrupted Thybaro as he suddenly appeared a few feet away from them. Many of the children began to cry and wail. Muttering an apology, Odalwa ushered the little ones away. Isaria tried to guess what the matrona was about to say, until Thybaro said her name again.

‘Apologies, my Lord,’ said Isaria, lowering her head in contrition.

‘Do not tarry like that again, unless you wish me to leave your tribe to your own, laughably inadequate devices.’

‘It won’t happen again, I promise!’

‘Good. Now, gather your kin, for I have words to share with them,’ said Thybaro.

Isaria did as she was told and hastily assembled everyone with the help of Kordyn and Odalwa. It wasn’t difficult, for the end of the day shift was drawing closer, and the tribespeople returned from their tasks with all possible haste. No one wanted to be outside the barracks when night shift began.

‘Twilight bell in fifteen,’ said Kordyn, looking at the wall mounted chrono in the mess hall. The survivors of the previous shifts stood and sat around the hall, keeping as much distance between themselves and the tall stranger by the food dispensers. Even though more than half their numbers were missing, the hall felt oppressively full; such was Lord Thybaro’s presence.

‘Thank you, Chieftain,’ said Thybaro. His left hand rested on the pommel of his enormous sword, projecting a fierce martial pride. His cloak was thrown above his shoulder, revealing his crimson bodyglove and perfectly chiselled body underneath it. Isaria tried to avert her gaze, but it was drawn to his body like a moth to a flame.

‘The so-called Hungry Ones shall come for you tonight once more. They will not rest until every last one of you is taken. But I will stop them and for that, you have my oath. I have inspected your dwelling and after careful assessment, I would advise you to hide within the storage space where you keep your equipment. It will be uncomfortable as there’s little air, but you must bear with it. I will stand guard by the entrance. None shall get past me.’

‘How do we know we can trust you?’ asked Odalwa. A couple of recently orphaned children lingered by the hem of her robes. There were nods and murmurs of the same sentiment.

‘Lord Thybaro has listened to our plea and came! He is one of His Angels! He saved me from the Hungry Ones and a pack of Engine Jocks!’ proclaimed Isaria, stepping past Thybaro. ‘What more do you need?’

‘Proof,’ said Kordyn uneasily.

‘Proof of what?’ asked Isaria. Kordyn could not answer.

‘That he is not one of them,’ whispered Odalwa, making the sign of the One True Angel across her chest. 

‘Tick-tock,’ said Thybaro, pointing up at the chrono. Twilight bell was nigh and when it rang, night shift would come swiftly. 

‘Lord Thybaro’s right. There’s no time for superstitions. If you want to live, go to the storage space and hide. The Lord will handle the Hungry Ones,’ said Isaria.

The tribesfolk were still undecided, but their fear of the Hungry Ones outweighed their distrust of Thybaro. They began filing out, heading for the location designated by the terrible outsider and would-be saviour. Odalwa herded the scared children, casting but a single suspicious glance over her shoulder. Kordyn watched his people depart, before turning to Thybaro. Isaria hovered by the man’s side, unsure if she should seek shelter or stay by his side.

‘You left us no choice,’ he accused Thybaro without passion. ‘So uphold your promise, Angel.’

‘If I hadn’t, your tribe would have long since perished,’ said Thybaro with a condescending smile. ‘Insult me any further and that might indeed happen.’

‘Apologies,’ said Isaria as she stepped past Thybaro and stood protectively in front of Kordyn. ‘The Chieftain meant no disrespect.’

‘I’m sure he didn’t,’ said Thybaro, but the glint in his dark eyes told a different story. Kordyn staggered under the weight of that gaze, almost soiling himself. ‘Now be a good little boy and move along before I change my mind.’

Kordyn turned with a lurch and shambled away with a confused look on his face. Isaria watched him go, concern writ across her delicate features, but she did not move to assist him. Her place was next to Lord Thybaro.

‘You should go as well, Isaria,’ said the Angel to Isaria’s wide-eyed surprise.

‘Me too? But I thought I-’

‘No, child. What comes next is not meant for mortal eyes. Now go swiftly, for the twilight bell is upon us,’ said Thybaro and gently turned the stunned woman in the direction of the storage space. Isaria obeyed, for what else could she do?

+++

The storage space had been meant for cleaning supplies and general maintenance equipment, not for half a tribe’s worth of people. Breathable air depleted with alarming speed. Isaria pushed her body against the cold metal of the wall and gasped hungrily at the cool air wafting from between a bundle of cables. Other bodies pressed against hers, longing for puffs of air that didn’t taste of barely suppressed fear, drying tears and unwashed bodies.

With the lumens doused, the passage of time felt surreal in the darkness. Having lived her whole life confined within these walls, she could tell the passage of time by the vibration of the ship’s heart through the soles of her feet. Not now, not with half a dozen men and women breathing and gasping next to her, only thin fabric separating them. The time since the door had closed felt like hours, yet she was also sure that so much time could not have passed.

Every fibre of her body screamed at her to move, to leave, to escape. Facing the Hungry Ones and the swift death at their claws and fangs would have been preferable to getting slowly crushed by her kin. Besides, she had to help Thybaro, didn’t she? That was the very purpose of her existence beyond her daily duties. If she failed him now, she would fail the tribe and all those years preparing for this ordeal would have been for nought.

‘I … must … go,’ grunted Isaria as she began to squirm her way along the wall, towards the single entrance of the storage space. The void she left behind herself was immediately taken by another. 

The going was difficult, for she had to force herself between bodies that had been squeezed against each other, creating an unyielding wall of flesh. Pleas, nails and elbows helped her make progress in the claustrophobic darkness. Each metre cost her precious oxygen and stamina. Despite the darkness, bright stars circled in front of her eyes without illuminating a path. 

‘Isaria. Is that you?’ asked a familiar voice from a great distance.

‘I must… get out… Thybaro… needs me,’ gasped Isaria. Hands grabbed her and pulled, dragging her the rest of the way. She found herself able to breathe easier as her face pushed against the frame of a door. ‘Let me… out.’

‘Thybaro told us,’ said Kordyn, struggling to speak. ‘To wait here.’

‘Shut up… and open… the door.’

There was sudden brightness as Kordyn opened the door, and Isaria fell out, sprawling across the mercifully cold rockrete of the passage leading to the storage room. Eyes brimming with terror looked back at her from the darkness she had just departed. She saw Kordyn by the door taking a deep breath of the sudden rush of air, then he pressed his palm against the locking mechanism, and the door slid shut again.

Isaria lay on her back, simply enjoying the liberty of breathing and unoccupied space around her. Not that she could do anything else, for her eyes were streaming with tears as she struggled to suddenly readjust to the brightness of the lumens. She never suspected the lights were so strong, even during night shift.

Her frantically beating heart gradually calmed, and its pounding rhythm receded from her ears. It took her several seconds to notice that the off-beat drumming she was hearing came from somewhere else in the distance. Isaria gathered herself slowly, wondering about the noise’s nature, when a chilling howl passed down the hallway, echoing eerily through the vessel’s tight confines.

The Hungry Ones were upon them! 

Still slightly dizzy, she broke into a run towards where she’d last seen Lord Thybaro. The Angel had to be warned about the danger, lest it takes him by surprise. Pins and needles assaulted her feet with every step. She fought through the pain, but still she stumbled, bouncing from unyielding metal wall to chilling rockrete floor. The overbearing need to warn Thybaro prompted her to scrabble ahead on all fours. She had to make it in time!

Reaching the end of the passage, she clambered to her feet holding the frame of the door leading into the communal areas. Her heart leapt with joy at the sight of Lord Thybaro standing in the middle of the open space. A single lumen shone upon his magnificent figure as he stood in the middle of the space emptied of furniture. He was closer than she had hoped and her warning could be delivered swiftly.

‘My lord, they’ve come!’

As if in response to her words, the Hungry Ones emerged from the shadows surrounding Thybaro. Wicked claws extended; they came at the Angel from all directions. Thybaro snorted in derision and walked towards Isaria as more than a handful of the monsters lunged at him. Isaria wanted to scream, but they were faster than her lungs. Not even her imagination could keep up.

Steel flashed and Thybaro’s sword weaved an impenetrable wall of death around him. Each graceful step carried him past grasping claws and maws filled with glistening fangs. The Angel of Death lived up to his name, killing the beasts with a poise and grace no earthly being could aspire to. The Hungry Ones were repelled, thrown across the room in crumpled heaps.

Thybaro stopped in front of Isaria and lowered himself to a knee.

‘Isaria, I told you to stay with the others,’ he admonished her with a kindness that felt surreal from someone who just murdered fearsome beasts.

‘I… I…,’ Isaria stammered, unable to say anything beneath Thybaro’s dark gaze. Her heart beat even faster than before. It was triggered by terror. And something else. Something she could not understand immediately.

‘Stay by my side and I will protect you. This, I swear,’ said Thybaro and Isaria could do nothing but nod. Her every fibre wanted to stay by the Angel’s side despite the danger and she was jubilant that he had asked her to stay.

‘Aye, my lord,’ she breathed, her eyes wide and her cheeks flushed. 

‘Good,’ Thybaro smiled and rose back to his full height once more. Isaria could see the Hungry Ones were not yet defeated. They rallied for another attack, rushing Thybaro while his back was turned.

The Angel spun around, driving the pommel of his sword into a jaw. Thybaro stepped past the staggered beast and drove the rest back with a lightning fast horizontal slash. His first opponent regained its senses, but not before a downward cut floored it. Blood seeped from a horrendous gash across the thing’s skull.

The next one broke both of its arms against an aggressive block before getting kicked back. Isaria winced at the hideous sound of bones breaking. From the corner of her eyes, she noticed one of the Hungry Ones slipping past Thybaro and coming for her. It was upon her in a heartbeat. Warm, foul smelling blood sprayed on her face as the tip of the Angel’s blade burst from the creature’s chest. With a flick of his wrist, Thybaro sent the impaled beast flying before driving back a fresh assault from its brethren.

Wiping the swiftly clotting gore from her eyes, Isaria only caught glimpses of the unfolding battle. Thybaro stood as impenetrable as a voidshield, each attack broken and dissipated before they could penetrate his defences. However, the Hungry Ones came at the Angel relentlessly. He cut them down, one by one, but they were wearing him down. A slash to the abdomen, a bite to an ankle, a cut to the arm. Small things that did not slow Thybaro down, but Isaria thought she could see them taking their toll on him.

Could the undisputed Lord from all those bedtime stories fall today? Would he succumb to his accumulating wounds and the beasts’ insatiable hunger? Thybaro still retained his inhuman speed and ignored wounds that would’ve felled a regular human. But the Hungry Ones would come back again and again from lethal blows. The one with the punctured chest came again at Thybaro, only to get kicked aside unceremoniously. Yet for each one the Angel repelled, another took its place, hunger and madness driving it into his blade’s silver path.

Isaria lost track of time. The battle raging before her was beyond anything she had ever witnessed. She doubted – and hoped – that she would never see the like of it again. Her mind was overwhelmed by the disquietingly swift clashes. She now understood that no matter what preparation they would’ve taken, it wouldn’t have been enough against the Hungry Ones. The beasts had to be fought by a champion that was beyond their equal. It took an Angel to defeat these devils.

The battle was approaching its end, even Isaria could tell as much. The Hungry Ones’ numbers dwindled, their onslaught faltering as Thybaro kept banishing them back to the shadows. The Angel’s attacks were more reserved, drained of its initial flare and pared down to the most direct, basic attacks. It did not diminish the lethality of his strikes. A feint followed by a reverse cut almost bisected a Hungry One, before its toppling body was shoved into the last one’s path. Its way blocked and its attention diverted, Thybaro stabbed it through the throat. Clutching at the wound, blood seeping between its fingers, the Hungry One fell back, melting back into the shadows from where it came.

Thybaro stood victorious. He raised his blade and light glinted from its blood drenched length. Lightning briefly played along the weapon’s length, vaporising the beasts’ vitae from its sacred metal. Isaria knew that as long as she was alive, she would never forget the Angel with his haloed sword held high. The sight was glorious and magnificent, a moment taken straight from the holy scriptures. 

Sheathing his blade, Thybaro turned around and smiled at Isaria.

‘It is done. I have fulfilled my promi-’

Seeing the Angel stagger and slowly topple to the ground turned elation into utmost horror with shocking speed. Isaria yelped and ran to Thybaro’s side. With an effort, she managed to put his head into her lap, but he did not stir. Tears welled in her eyes.

‘My lord! Please don’t die! You’ve saved me and my kin! You cannot die!’

The Angel lay unmoving. She ran her fingers down his cheeks and sobs shook her body. Her unbidden tears pattered on his pale skin. 

Thybaro’s eyes fluttered open and the Angel groaned. Isaria couldn’t make out the words, so she leaned closer.

‘Please, my lord, speak to me! What can I do to help you?’

 ‘Give yourself… to me,’ whispered Thybaro.

Isaria was taken aback and she looked into the man’s coal black eyes. A desire unlike anything burned in those unfathomable depths. Suddenly, she could neither hear nor sense anything besides the staccato rhythm of her frantically beating heart. A tiny voice in the back of her mind screamed at her to refuse, but her world narrowed into two pinpricks of blackness as she stared back into his eyes.

‘Aye, my lord…’ sighed Isaria as Thybaro rose from her lap to take her. Unsure of what to expect, she continued looking into his eyes.

Eyes of crimson ruby. Beneath it, a perpetual snarl cast in pale flesh. A countenance as much of an angel’s as that of a devil’s.

The mark of the beast.

Cold, thin lips brushed against her skin. Fangs sank into her flesh. Pain and pleasure intertwined as her blood gushed from the wound. She tried to get away, but Thybaro held her fast. He sucked greedily, gorging himself on her lifeblood. Her world turned to grey and strength fled her limbs. Darkness beckoned.

+++

‘This concludes our live exercise,’ said Thybaro to Captain Archo, looking at the neophytes standing abreast in front of them. They bore their hideous scars proudly, mementoes of fighting the Scout Sergeant. The exercise chamber was empty save for his charges.

‘Very good, Scout Sergeant,’ said Captain Archo and turned to the neophytes. ‘You have all learned a valuable lesson during this training. How to scout settlements, identify weak points and carry out hit and run tactics. However, you seemed to have encountered a problem. Scout Santinus, explain what went wrong.’

Santinus stepped forward, the discoloured synthskin patch across his throat indicating the type of damage he had taken.

‘We did not contain them in time and they managed to summon reinforcements,’ rasped the neophyte, casting a venomous glance at Thybaro.

‘Do not blame the Scout Sergeant, Santinus,’ chided Captain Archo. ‘His interference is a calculated part of the scenario.’

Thybaro could smell the sudden elevation of adrenaline in the neophytes’ blood as insult was added to physical injury. They became agitated, reason barely keeping their base urges in check. If they wanted to become proud members of the Blood Angels Chapter, they would have to endure far worse in the future.

‘You have all become strong, far beyond anything baseline humans can achieve,’ said Thybaro when prompted by the Captain. ‘The exercise first pits you against civilians so you can measure yourselves against them. I believe none of you had any reservations when demolishing their barracks. But it is important that you be prepared to face an opponent that outclasses you. Because whenever we are summoned, we go to fight the wars the Astra Militarum cannot. Therefore, you must always expect resistance beyond your expectations.’

‘What was that with the girl?’ asked one of the neophytes, Corradin.

‘Only speak when you are spoken to, Scout Corradin,’ said Thybaro in a deadpan voice. There would be punishment later for speaking out of turn.

‘Answer his question, Scout Sergeant. After all, it is a vital part that they be made aware,’ said Captain Archo.

‘As you command, Captain,’ said Scout Sergeant Thybaro.

‘The baseline humans are livestock. We protect them and in exchange, we take what we are owed. But unlike some of our unruly cousins, we do not resort to barbarism. It is important that we keep a good relationship with our charges. Make them not just understand, but feel that we are their protectors. And when they do, they will feel obliged to give us what we desire. For we only take what is offered to us willingly.’

Eyes burning with insatiable hunger met his own. Barely restrained snarls pulled at the corners of lips—the mark of the beast, hidden beneath the mask of every angel. 

About the Author

Daniel was born on a sunny, peaceful spring morning in Budapest, Hungary. He preferred watching television over reading books. That changed when his school took him to the public library and everyone was forced to pick a book to read. He chose The Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Despite his initial disdain, our hero devoured the book in a few days and hasn’t stopped reading since. If you got this far, please send help, his budget (and shelves) can’t handle more books! Oh, and he occasionally entertains the idea of being a writer. The fool.

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