It was the first time I saw an Astartes fight, and I must admit it frightened me.
The two warriors stood opposing each other and even stripped of their iconic armour it was like watching the chiselled likeness of two might gods. Their share size took my breath away, the perfection of their physique and the strength inherent in every limb unlike anything I had witnessed before. As they stood thus, crude, black cudgels crossed and awaiting the sudden ferocity of the duel I also understood the truth in old Artebalus’ words. There was a savage and brutal side to all men, but in the Astartes these qualities had been nurtured and cultivated. Perhaps less angels then and more like savage warrior-kings from a long forgotten age of barbarism and high adventure.
The pict-recorder barked with its staccato snapping sound as I fired off a few quick picts. Nothing out of the ordinary to be sure, now that I behold them with the gaze of hindsight. The likes of Miss van Draken would hardly have bothered with such, let alone comment upon such feeble attempts at capturing the glory of the Astartes. But to me it none the less seemed a moment worth immortalizing.
The man on the right was the tallest of the two dualists, light of build as such things go amongst the Astartes, but with the speed and skill at arms to make up for it. It was said of Legionary Leoniz Ricin, for such was his name, that he was more like a son of the Angel then that of Death himself, and as I looked at him I understood why. His face was finely drawn with strong, regal lines, high cheekbones and a broad, clean forehead, indeed reminiscent of Raphael Vidal’s wonderful fresco of the Primarch Sanguinius. His blond hair too, cut high at the temple and left long at the top, was reminiscent of the master of the 7th legion rather than that of his own, youthful and wholesome. Only his eyes, steely grey and cool, spoke of his true sire.
His opponent was as different too him as night was day, and indeed, even now as I look upon Gangrene Vandal I cannot help but tremble. The Marshal of Ordinance was far shorter than his opponent, of the heavy, broad-shouldered and resilient build so typical of the Barbarusian stock. Of body he had all the strength and vitality of a warrior, but his face…. it was the face of a man long since dead. His skin, the little left too him, was pallid and drawn like a dying mans, but in truth little remained. The left side of his face was but a gleaming skull, patches of ruined flesh still clinging to it in places, and of his nose and mouth there was nothing left but twisted scar-tissue and charred flesh. It was a terrible visage, summoned from some fevered dream, as if a dead man had risen from the grave. And yet, it was not his ruined visage which caused me to tremble, rather it was the mix of callus brutality and deathly humour that caused me such distress.
Hardly had I snapped my first pict-recordings however before the two warriors exploded into sudden action. Ricin proved the quickest, darting forward and fainting with his cudgel in order to deliver a thundering strike to Vandal’s midsection. The next few strikes came almost too quick to follow, blows traded back and forth with a ferocity that would have laid low any lesser man. It struck me immediately that all the glorified swordplay I had so often read off were of little interest to these warriors. Indeed, it left me awestruck and terrified all at once, for their duel was war condensed down to its most primal and savage. Yet perhaps combat between Astartes could be nothing but, mankind brought back to its ancient, brutal roots. Ricin suddenly made it into Vandal’s guard, his left fist hammering his opponent’s midsection before the cudgel was brought up to strike across the Marshal’s jaw. Vandal’s head snapped back, but before I knew it he brought it back, head-butting his opponent with bone-shattering force. As Ricin staggered the Marshal threw himself into the attack, his cudgel breaking across his opponents temple, followed by three solid blows to the face.
Legionary Ricin stumbled and a swift kick to the shin brought him crashing down, the Marshal halting his assault to stand above him. It was only then I realized that nearly every sound in the training chamber had died down, the roar of bolters and whirling of training-automata having ceased. The four other warriors previously at work within the high domed chamber had paused too watch, much like myself, several of them grinning as the duel came to an end.
A heavy, almost violent sound tore through the air from besides me as Marshal Vandal slowly extended a hand to his fallen opponent who grasped it in a warriors grip.
“Well fought… But I believe that makes it two out of three in my favour.”
The voice was a hoarse, electric rasp of vox-aided speech, laced with course static, but the haunting grim across his lips was shockingly genuine.
“Well fought indeed old friend! I concede, and too a worthy opponent at that,”
The voice of Leoniz was youthful and clear, surprisingly hale for one who had just received such a savage beating. Wiping blood from his eyes and temple as best he could the young warrior turned in my direction.
“Sergeant Iscariot! Now you must have a go! Surely this slight to our reputation cannot stand, and besides Gangrene will soon be so prideful as to challenge one of the 3rd at this rate.”
I snapped around, for enthralled as I had been I had almost forgotten who I had come here to meet. Standing near to the door was a row of simple metal posts, encased in solid flak cocoons like a man’s abdomen. Few of the men bothered with such simple devices, preferring the rigour of the training cage, but as I turned there stood still First Sergeant Aster Iscariot. I would not lie if I said he was the largest man I had ever seen, for the Sergeant of the First Squad dwarfed even his fellow superhumans. His dark, almost ruddy skin glistened with sweat as he half turned to his second-in-command, his right hand closed like a vice around the heavy blade of a massive trench knife. His voice as he spoke was like the distant rumble of thunder, distant yet forceful and inevitable.
“You know I have no interest in your games Leo, nor in humouring Marshal Vandal’s pride… It might be better if he did challenge one of the Pheonix’s sons, for such wargames is their way, not ours,”
The Sergeant turned away, his knuckles whiting around the grip of his knife as it was once more brought to bear upon the flak-clad post. I noted to my astonishment that he had hacked it almost down to the metal, each slow, heavy swing of the trench knife biting just an inch deeper. Upon seeing this I almost involuntarily took a step forward,
“What then, is your way?”
How I found the courage to speak my first words to Sergeant Iscariot I shall never recall, but as they rang out across the room I suddenly felt as if they all saw me for the first time. The feeling was an odd one, terribly difficult to place, but it was as if I had crossed some unseen and unmentioned boundary. The Sergeant turned to face me, bringing a pair of deep-set and perfectly black eyes to bear. For a long moment they rested there, and though his face remained perfectly still I suddenly noted the fatigue in the depths of his eyes. There was a terrible weight behind it, and a pain which I found hard to fathom.
“We are the Death Guard and we have no need for the elegance of our brothers in the 3rd, nor the skill of these newcomers of the 20th.”
His thunderous voice pronounced the name almost like a curse and once more, he turned to the post, knife hefted and then brought to bear.
“One man alone can murder a world of thousands. All he needs is a blade, and the will to wield it again,”
“Until Death’s work is done. Such is our way,”