So, last post of the year. It’s been another busy one, and I feel in need of the break. The Iron Hands are proving hard to finish off (which is appropriate, I guess), so I’m burning the midnight oil again on the final sections of Wrath of Iron right now. This needs to be finished off soon for lots of reasons, not least to make room for a number of exciting new projects in 2012. One of these is the War of Vengeance sequence in collaboration with the super-busy Nick Kyme. It looks like I’ll be doing more power-armoured types before I get to my installment in the series, though I’m not saying who, when or where yet. Except that they like bikes.
In the meantime, thanks to everyone who posted here in 2011. It’s been fun, not least because this was the year I finally got to write a 40K novel – the first, I hope, of many – as well as my first novella and a bunch of other cool stuff.
Mila hadn’t stopped screaming inside, but her parched throat could utter nothing but broken gasps.
She’d stayed on her feet, hammering away with Pieter’s sword, holding back ranks of living dead. She’d broken their bones and prised their fingers from her limbs, but still they’d kept coming. She’d crushed their fragile skulls and disembowelled them with heavy, twisting lunges of the blade, but still, endlessly and with neither fear nor weariness, they’d kept coming.
She’d made it back to the site of the bonfire, right in the centre of the village, just in time to see Margrit dragged down to the earth by a gang of claw-handed assailants. The girl had fought on for a while, throwing a few of them off her, lashing out and screaming the whole time. Margrit was like all daughters of Helgag – tough as tanned hide and strong from the grind of endless labour – and hadn’t gone down easily.
But they’d got her in the end. Once she’d lost her footing, they could go for her throat. Mila had watched, still a dozen yards away, as they’d got their gaping jaws in place and had bit down.
Then they’d come for her.
No one else was left. Ever since she’d hacked and shoved her way back to the bonfire, Mila had known she was alone.
There she stood, her back to the fire, watching the space before her fill with more of the undead. They jabbered at her, and their eyes glowed.
I don’t want to die. Not yet, not like this.
The undead hung back, chattering in near-silent, deathly voices. Mila stood before them, panting heavily, holding the sword as straight as she could manage, waiting for the first one to move.
‘Come for me, then,’ she growled, speaking out to stop her mind locking in panic. ‘Who’s first?’
They didn’t respond. The chattering whispers grew a little louder.
‘Come on!’ roared Mila, swinging the sword back and forth. ‘Come and–’
She never finished. The horde of undead warriors suddenly broke, folding in on itself as if something huge had impacted on it. Their whispers became thin howls of rage. The skeletons and corpses turned away from her, consumed by something far more pressing within their ranks.
For a moment, Mila couldn’t make anything out. The dull red of the fire was dying fast, staining the walls of the hovels in shadow. She stayed where she was, looking around her in a kind of stupor, unsure what to do.
Could she make use of this? Could she get out of Helgag? Or should she stay close to the light? She felt her own breathing, hot and deep, and the sweat on the palms of her hands making the sword-grip sticky.
Then, finally, she saw him.
For the first time, alone in Helgag, half-deranged with fear and fatigue, she saw him. Days later, when the last of the fires had finished burning and the ashes had cooled, she would remember many things about that moment. She would recall the way the flames glinted from the curved plates of his armour like cascades of rubies. She would remember his eerie silence in battle, more complete and more unnerving than the undead themselves. She would remember how his mournful face reared up out of the dark, fixed in an expression of frigid disdain, his bare forehead bound with rolls of scripture and shining with sweat.
At the time, though, still locked in a vice of her exhaustion, she was only struck by one thing.
The way he moved.
He carried a huge warhammer, golden-headed, spiked and heavy. It swung in perfect arcs, cleaving chests, bursting open skulls, crunching through skittering thickets of stick-thin limbs. Mighty arms, each the girth of a lesser man’s thigh, propelled the weapon with efficient, murderous grace. A long red cloak swirled in his wake, wrapping him in a skirling halo of crimson.
Everything was in motion. He was like a whirlwind of steel and gold, spinning and striking his way through the heart of the horde. It was all so perfectly, so flawlessly balanced. Every blow found its mark, driving apart the knots of screaming horrors and fracturing their eerie unity. He was like a reaper in high summer, raging and circling, and they broke against him in futile fury.
Mila, her own struggles forgotten for an instant, watched it all unfold, her jaw slack and her hands loose.
They no longer looked invincible. In the face of that man’s onslaught, the walking dead looked suddenly fragile. The armoured figure waded through their midst, smiting down any that got close enough to feel the bite of the warhammer. His expression remained downcast. His thin mouth remained fixed in an unbending snarl of disapproval. He uttered no war-cry, though it looked like he was constantly whispering something to himself.
His dark eyes snapped up, just for a moment, from the slaughter, and he saw her. He fought over to her position, throwing corpses in either direction as he hacked a path through the horde.
‘Daughter, are you alone?’ he asked, knocking aside the grasping arms of dogged pursuers before coming alongside her and whirling around to face the rest.
Mila knew that, in the respect that he intended, she was entirely alone – all the others in Helgag must surely have died or long since fled.
But, for all that, she couldn’t answer his question in the way he’d expected. Her fear seemed to have shrunk away from her, to be replaced by a strange, burning sensation in her breast. Her sword felt light in her hands and she brandished it eagerly, looking for more targets. Her face rose, no longer disfigured by screaming, but calm and purposeful.
Hope, that most dangerous of emotions, had returned.
‘Not any more,’ she said, and took up the fight again.