Works of Richard Marsden
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By Richard Marsden
The men of the 702nd Kheldorn Imperial Guard legion hunkered low in their trenches. The enemy was near, and they were the last line of defense. To fail now, would see the world they defended fall to the enemy. Not only fall in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one as well. The men of the 702nd were not facing no rabble of xenos this time. This time they were facing an unspeakable evil. The Great Enemy itself.
Oodoras VI was a pleasant planet. It was a place of relaxation for the immensely wealthy who could afford to travel the galaxy. The remote world sported ivory hued palaces whose shining towers could be seen behind the Imperial defense line. The planet sported scholas for budding painters, singers, and writers. The sculptures produced on Oodoras VI were of such a fine quality that more than a few decorated the lavish homes of the nobility on distant Terra itself. From across the sub-sector nobles dreamed of a chance of setting foot on the world.
Colonel Rax sighed. What would the ultra-elite nobility think now of their paradise? Now that their private planet had been crisscrossed with ugly trenches and dotted with squat gray Imperial structures.
The planet, in Rax’s mind, held little strategic value. It boasted no resources that were imperative to the Imperium, nor was its population high. It was a planet of a handful of visiting nobles, and the servants they surrounded themselves with. In the endless wars humanity fought, Oodoras contributed very little. Yet, here he and his men had been sent, ordered to deny the planet to an enemy so foul, that his superiors were reluctant to explain the full nature of it.
“Safety in ignorance?” Rax wondered aloud.
Rax peered over the reinforced trench lip and looked beyond. The sight was startlingly different than the grim fortification he found himself in. A green meadow of immeasurable beauty stretched out, marred only by mounds of rich black earth, dug up by the Imperial Guard while constructing their defenses. Beyond that Rax could see the fabled Looming Gardens. They were renowned throughout the Imperium for their beauty and Rax could agree that the Looming Gardens had earned their reputation. White twisting trees with broad leaves, dotted in a myriad of colors swayed in the wind. The trees were spaced apart, but at their zenith twined together, creating a canopy of leafy color. The garden floor was no less breathtaking. Green grass and pleasant wild flowers made a fitting carpet. In Rax’s entire career, which had seen him upon over a hundred worlds, he had seen no place equal to the Looming Gardens. It was the strangest battlefield he had yet encountered.
“The wonder of this place does not make one think of war, does it Colonel?” whispered the voice of Commissar Kolos.
Kolos was a broad man, short but still imposing. While the regiment sported simple green fatigues, Kolos wore a black stormcoat. Rax had found the stout commissar a man of stern duty and faith. He would be important in the battle to come.
“I was thinking the same thing Commissar. Wherever the enemy, especially the one we face, emerges humanity must fight it. Yet I must admit I am conflicted,” Rax confessed grimly and stepped back from the trench’s lip. Rax began to walk down the trench, past the rows of ready guardsmen, patting a few on the shoulder for comfort.
“How so?” Kolos asked as he followed like a shadow.
“This planet despite its beauty is expendable. More than a few other beleaguered worlds come to mind, worlds I’d rather be at. Worlds that make sense to defend. Together, Commissar, we have defended many places from xenos horrors and worse. Yet every world’s purpose and value was clear. Elmian, Soren’s Hold, Haldrass,” Rax listed off.
“Hive-world, forge-world and Haldrass had so much promethium on it, I am still thanking the Emperor we didn’t accidently ignite the place.” Kolos responded with a small smile.
“Indeed, Commissar. And what will we say of Oodoras VI when the battle is won?” Rax raised a brow and paused in his inspection of the line.
The commissar shrugged and adjusted his peaked cap as he spoke, “We will say we defended the playground of our betters. For all we know, Colonel, behind us a noble of great importance sits in an ivory tower, counting on us to save his powdered behind.”
Rax laughed, “Indeed Commissar. Indeed. How do you find the men?”
“I believe together we have done what we can. The worst of all enemies is at our doorstep and faith is as important as a lasgun. The idyllic beauty of this place seems to be relaxing them more than I like. Bu-“
The sky above the Looming Gardens changed from a rich blue, to a vibrant purple. It was almost as if violet flames were somehow illuminating the horizon, but no smoke rose from the garden. The men in the trenches recoiled at the sudden visual effect and the sounds of lasguns being readied rippled up and down the trench system in a nervous staccato.
“They’re here,” Rax whispered. Fear tickled the back of his mind at the thought of what might be causing the sky to change hue.
“Faith, Colonel. Faith as well as lasguns. Back to the command pit?” Kolos asked and grimly peered at the altered horizon.
Rax nodded and with the commissar in tow made his way down the well built trench to a dug out clearing where his command team waited. Voxes squawked, clerks kept notes and junior officers scurried about and made notes on maps that were strewn about a variety of metal tables.
“Any reports down the line?” Rax asked as he hurried into the command pit.
A junior officer looked up from his data pad and set down the audio box of his vox unit. “Beyond the sky turning purple? No, sir.”
Rax went to the lip of the command post and looked out across the beautiful grass field. The Looming Garden’s floor had been mysteriously blanketed with a ghostly mist, a mist that grew stronger and made the trees look like vague and twisting shapes. Straining his eyes Rax could swear the trees were moving. A strong scent then filled his nostrils. The scent was so many things at once. Fruity, sweet, sensual, sour, spicy. He placed a hand upon his head and turned his eyes away from the garden. He could see his command staff become unsteady on their feet and Rax saw his men within the trenches stagger. The scent alone had the same effect as an artillery barrage. It caused men to shift, duck, shake their heads and in general become disorientated.
“Clear your senses! Clear your minds!” Commissar Kolos bellowed out and his voice brought some clarity back to Rax.
The Colonel spat and gave a look to Kolos who in turn gritted his teeth and nodded.
Rax could see that before the battle had even started, before the enemy had even revealed itself, his men had suffered. Quickly he clambered out of the command pit and ran to the trenches, leaping over them so as to face his men, be damned the consequences of exposing himself.
Rax could smell more bizarre scents, and heard a whispering, piping tune behind him. He saw his men were shaking, and wavering on their feet, but their eyes were starting to focus on their colonel, who like a fool had left the trenches to address them.
The men needed a fool right now; a fool of inspiration. Rax and Kolos had discussed this earlier and it was agreed that the men would be more at risk spiritually in the battle to come. Words were needed; words to make the men’s will that of unbreakable steel.
Rax inhaled and spread his arms out wide to draw the attention of his soldiers and began with what he hoped was the speech of his life, “Men of the Im-“
The piping song from behind Rax increased and from the Looming Gardens a voice whispered, yet somehow that whisper came to tease all ears on the entire planet. The voice was soothing and feminine, yet at other times male and confident. It shifted in pitch and tone, but always the voice was pleasing.
“Men of the Imperium welcome to paradise. Come to the arms of your lover. Come to the embrace of pleasure. The world you sit upon is a jewel of delight and for centuries has been the place where Terra’s arrogant lords have come to bask. Now it is your time. Oh, so long you have fought. On so many worlds. Elmian, Soren’s Hold, Haladrass. So many battles. And now it is time to rest,” the perfect voice whispered.
Rax’s blood turned cold as the speech he prepared was not only interrupted, but the words somehow stolen from his very mind and twisted about. The voice sweetly speaking knew his thoughts and used it against his men. It was not a foe for lasguns. Rax saw his men stare past him towards the Looming Gardens. Their eyes wide and their jaws open as they saw something.
He dared not look behind him, and he filled his lungs with air, ready to challenge the lies of the enemy, “Stand fast t-“
“Stand fast to the promise I now offer. Hear it well. I offer bliss ever after. Bliss eternal. I am the reward you have so long sought. See me! Love me and I will love you,” the whispery voice sung, and became more feminine and sultry than any mortal words could be.
Rax shouted in anger then in terror as he saw his men leaving the trenches. They clambered out of their defensive works leaving their weapons behind. Like drunks they staggered, moving in shuffling steps towards the Looming Gardens. Without turning around Rax grabbed at his soldiers, trying to save them, trying to hurl them back into their lines. For every man he pushed back into the trench, a dozen others left and wandered past him into the meadows and the Looming Gardens beyond.
He heard the sound of a bolt gun firing. He saw in the command pit Commissar Kolos firing at his junior officers as they left their posts and drifted towards the whispered promises beyond. Kolos executed every man he could aim his weapon at, but eventually his bolt gun went empty and needed reloading. For the first time in Rax’s life he saw the look of fear in the commissar’s eyes. Dozens lie dead and gory at Kolos’ feet yet not one soldier stayed at his post. The whole regiment was advancing without orders.
Rax felt tears sting his cheeks and he tried to use his sidearm to scare the men back. When that failed, he killed them. When he ran out of ammo, he begged. The result was the same. The regiment left their trenches and wandered towards the whispering voice and piping music.
His ears filled with the song while his nostrils flooded with perverse scents. The heavy bark of a bolt gun brought his watery eyes back to the command pit. Commissar Kolos was dead; by his own hand.
“See me, Rax. Love me,” the feminine voice whispered into Rax’s ear.
Crying and broken, defeated without having fired a shot at the Great Enemy, Rax turned around to see the source of his total defeat.
The Looming Gardens were coated in mist and Rax could see his soldiers entering it, surely never to be seen again. There was something else in the mist as well. She was tall and slender, with too many arms, and too many curves. She was perfect beauty and perfect horror.
“Embrace me,” she whispered and her four jeweled eyes settled on Rax’s very soul while her serpentine tongue beckoned suggestively.
Rax stumbled after his men raising his arms up to obey her. He walked towards paradise.