'It was a beautiful war.'
The warrior's eyes never lost their focus as he spoke – owing to the transfiguration of his biology, I doubt it was possible for them to do so – but his quiet speech became less clipped. Perhaps this was as near as the Space Marine could come to wistfulness. As the silence stretched, I paused and rested my hand, wincing slightly as I eased the cramping from my penwork.
I am accustomed to reading faces. Their expressions often give me answers that my interviewees might prefer to remain discreet. Augmented and natural-born humans alike betray a great deal, their microexpressions flickering like the sun behind clouds. Even those heavily endowed with bionics, touched by the surgical knife or ritually mutilated, have tells. I am extremely well-versed in reading the human face.
Despite the length of my service, I have little experience of reading the Astartes. Indeed, I have met only two in the succeeding century. The Scarlet Blade before me was poised, balanced, like a good knife. I have seen such naked honesty as he displayed only in devotees, children, and the insane. To this day, I could not tell you to which of these groups the Space Marine belonged. He continued to look directly ahead, his steady breathing rhythmical, impossibly deep. The quills of Hjana, the executrix-graphologer to my left, never ceased twitching; recording every breath, every nuance of the warrior's posture and body language. Such details are important to me.
He repeated the statement, though whether this was to ensure that I had heard him correctly, or to reassure himself of the truth of his words, I am not sure.
'It was a beautiful war. I have never since known the purity of action that took place in the Stellae Escallopine.' At the time, I thought his slip into devotional High Gothic was intended as a poetic flourish. Now, I suspect it was more likely a relic of his battle-cant; a common tongue used to allow such an unprecedented number of armies from disparate cultures to communicate. Perhaps he simply did not know the common term for the vast area in which he had fought, only its military appellation. I find that a melancholy thought.
He turned, and fixed me with that gaze. Despite my position, I felt a flush of irrational fear; as a rodent must feel in a spotlight. He spoke again. 'You are a man.' This appeared to be a question.
'I am many things, Adept.' I responded, attempting to cover my anxiety with a mask of amusement. 'I am a writer of histories. I am an asker of questions. Now, it appears, I am an answerer of them, too.' His expression remained impassive, almost bland, as I spoke.
As he drew breath to speak further, I cut him off. 'But I suspect you are asking whether I understand war.' The Space Marine's face – terribly scarred, terribly torn – twisted into a small smile, and he nodded. 'Can anyone understand war?' I asked. I had intended to expand on this, to cover my sense of embarrassment, to obliterate that moment of vulnerability. As a paused, he cut me off in turn.
I raised an eyebrow quizzically. 'Yes,' he repeated, this time accompanying the statement with an emphatic nod. 'Fighting the orks is pure war.' His eyes were like kindling. 'If you have fought the ork, you have known every part of warfare. The immediacy of their hatred; their strong arm.' He made a curt, chopping motion with his hand to illustrate as he turned to look at Hjana. To her credit, she barely flinched. 'It applies at every level, exponentially levering itself into a greater threat with every additional warrior.' I asked him to expand on his experiences during the war. His voice built as he expanded on his subject, and he seemed somehow to come into clarity – as though talk of the greenskins had brought him into focus; made him more immediate to this place. This was beyond the scope of my investigation, but I found myself enthralled.
He continued to talk on the theme for some time, his strength of feeling and depth of knowledge lending him as much authority as his post-human body. I learnt of greenskin tactics, their strategies during the Purge, their instinctive urge to resist, reclaim and re-conquer. The Space Marine spoke at length on the aliens' biology, their physical weaknesses (few), and their resilience (extensive). I have no doubt his words were unrehearsed, but I was struck by his unhurried and matter-of-fact manner: it was concise and utterly devoid of any florid or unclear terms. While never spilling over into overt admiration of the ork, his statements on their physical virtues or resourcefulness were never followed by a hastened correction or addendum. This was in contrast to most of the Guardsmen and Imperial dignitaries I had interviewed on the Fourth Great Purge, who had near-universally stumbled over their reports, and tied themselves in fearful contradictions as they struggled to reconcile their experiences during the Great Cull with the lessons of human racial superiority each had had drummed into them from the cradle.
Nearly two hours passed as the Space Marine continued. Hjana's multiple quills twitched and skittered as she filled screeds of mnemo-parchment. I interrupted only occasionally to clarify points of fact – generally locations classified during the war, unknown to those outside the Astartes' tight bounds; or of personalities unknown to me. More than fourteen billion soldiers were mobilised during the Crusade, fighting over more than thirty star systems. Is it surprising I knew only a fraction?
The Space Marine's memory must have been near-eidetic as he recalled decades-old events and personalities with immediacy and explained them concisely and with clarity. Perhaps the administrators of the Hyppos Rusicadian Gallery of Heroes could verify the apocalyptic number of dead the Space Marine reported – I certainly found it difficult to reconcile such butchery and loss of life with the victorious results of the battles he described – but I was satisfied to let him speak as the candles further down the gallery began to gutter and die.
He told me of the first three years of easy victories on the opening fronts – of the actions of giants like Captain Armo of the Hammers of the Emperor; Seeker Neobas of the Chapter Castellan, and the Three Heroes of the Ishilites. He kept the same candour and even tone as he talked of the mid-war period, which saw the three Great Fronts bogged down by the cunning of the greenskins and the strange events of the Year of Miracles. Even when he came to talk of the shameful retreat from Fungushold, and the Five Month Defeat, his voice remained uncoloured by emotion. At no point did the Space Marine give personal opinions, or express regrets. He was masterfully focussed, rooted in the practical. Through all this, I had no sense of this being a confession.
I learnt of the Genyx Landings, where the Stars of Dorn burned a continent to flush out the Bloodeater King. I was told of the Kilsnik Gore Pits, where the Sons of Spectra lost four of their Brother-Captains in their stubborn refusal to fall back; and of the Carcharadons' Silent War above the Stellar Wells. The Space Marine spoke of the increasing demands of Abattol, Lord Commander Ultima in the third year of the war; the opening of the Fourth Front near Sunder; and – without bitterness – of the Hot Gates Defeat at Oligorkia. I struggled to take in all of the information. In my vanity, I have eschewed all augmetics. In my private moments, I ponder the wisdom of my assertion that this keeps me closer to the Emperor's ideal. Certainly I now bitterly regret having no personal record of the last Blade's words.
All these things he told me, and more. At length, as the Space Marine detailed his last sighting of Master Kanati before the ill-fated Nine Chapter Alliance at Skarbad's Star, Hjana emitted a low whine. The spool of parchment on her lap had developed a broad pink stripe down the centre. Impatiently, I excused her to retrieve more. She stood, and left the gallery with a clatter that broke the spell. As the door shut behind her, the Space Marine spoke again, quietly. His voice had lost some of the directness he had adopted to give his report, instead adopting the softness I have since come to associate with those gifted with the Lyman's Ear.
'In this, I understand war, Inquisitor Veck.' He paused and looked down. The silence stretched uncomfortably. The candle on the wall to his left flickered, depositing a puddle of wax on the floor before it died, with an final defiant wisp. In a still quieter voice, he murmured to the floor, 'I have not told you of the actions of the Scarlet Blades.'
'I... had not asked...' I ventured, unsure of his meaning.
'And even if you had, could I have told you the truth?' He said, his voice peculiarly neutral, unsettlingly inhuman. Was he still addressing me? Accompanied by a cold feeling down my spine. I had the unwelcome realisation that I was alone in a room with a very strange being. A child, bred and brutalised into a posthuman and ageless god of battle, and tempered in an eleven-year crusade against aliens that could match him and his like in almost every particular, he and his fellows had found themselves tested and met at every turn. I wondered, icily, what effect that would have on a being taught that he was invincible.
I had the sudden treacherous feeling that the Space Marine was more akin to the aliens on which he had expounded than to me or the others on this ship. My neck prickled. Still looking down, he began to speak once more. His voice was still more quiet; its bass thrum almost robbing his words of meaning as I strained to hear. 'The orks were the perfect foe, Inquisitor. They were the mirror against which I and my brethren had realised perfect warfare.' He looked up, and his eyes shone like a predatory felid in the red darkness. 'The Scarlet Blades did not break.' I swallowed heavily, unsure of his meaning.
'Seven hundred and fifty-four Blades died to the greenskins on the hills of Gogshuv, in the final year of the war.' His voice was strangely toneless as he told me of the death of his Chapter. 'Six of my brethren – including myself – were all that emerged from the Crucible. We waited to hear from the companies of our remaining brothers, deeper in the Stellae Escallopine, but they never emerged.' In the silence that followed, another candle guttered out, and we were left illuminated only by the one flickering behind his head. He was thrown into sudden disquieting silhouette. 'It is my belief, and that of my Chapter, that such a passing goes not unseen by the Emperor.'
'Take this prophecy for your records, Inquisitor. It need not be written down – but you must remember this and pass it to those who can put its warning to good effect.' He leaned forward conspiratorially, which did nothing to put me at my ease. Up close – and peculiarly, I remember this detail most clearly of all – he smelled incongruously of freshly-crushed mint. His face, so scarred, so human, was rendered strange by its size and proximity. 'The Great Cull of our Generation was a prelude. This was told to me by my brother Ierusalas; who was told it in turn by Petramas, last Codicer of the Librarium.' His voice was clear, loud. 'It was he told me to seek you out. It was Petremas who meant that I alone left the surface of Gogshuv.' His expression was unreadable, there in the dark. 'Four thousand years in the future, in the dying days of the forty-first millennium, the Imperium must be ready for blood.'
I have lived for a very long time. In my vanity, I have forgotten much. Praise the Emperor, I have never lost sight how glad I am to remain – at core – human. The final candle guttered, making the shadows dance across his face, mere inches from mine. At that point, alone with the Space Marine, I felt being just a human was the last thing I wanted to be. He spoke again, 'That lies in the future, my Lord Veck. There is much to be prepared.' He spoke towards the floor, and I recovered some of my composure.
'I need to know how the Fourth Great Purge began, Adept.' I swallowed, my voice felt thin. He looked up and smiled, a chipped wet tooth catching what little light remained.
Above all else, I have never forgotten the moment as the last candle flickered out, leaving me in the dark with the Scarlet Blade.
'Very well. Let me tell you how it began...'