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Made in eg
Keeper of the Adeptus Arbites Flame

Cairo, Egypt

The Long Rise of Lord Blackridge
“I Shall Return in Triumph”

++The Personal Journal of Lord Blackridge++
++Part the First: Slave++

Over the last century or two the name Blackridge has become a legend across the sub-sector and beyond.
My more obsequious biographers make wild claims, my personal favorite being the epic poem that claims I was a demigod sent from the heavens and blessed with Herculean strength. It calls me the strongest man in the universe, a claim I hope is never tested.
My more libelous critics have called me everything from a merciless killer from a barbarian world to a Mechanicus automaton sheaved in human skin.
The plaque on my statue in the Via Sacra has a list of dates and offices held culminating in my current role as Lord of Urula Dorada, Master of its Seven Colonies and Protector of this World in the Name of Him on Earth. The date and place of birth listed are, I imagine, the fantasy of some scribe or mason. They never asked me for that information, and I certainly never provided it.
It also includes the phrase “I shall return in Triumph” a phrase I am perhaps best known for, but actually never said. It was attributed to me in a dramatization of one of my battles, where I preach to my troops in rhyme and meter, to stand fast in the face of the enemy and know no fear. In the last line I warn the foe ‘Hide in your bunkers, yet it shall never be enough, weep your tears now, for I shall return in triumph’. It’s quite a speech, and certainly the highlight of the drama, but it is not something I, or anyone else, could ever have extemporaneously delivered in the heat of battle.
Shortly thereafter I, or at least the version of myself on stage, emerges from the armory bedecked in a shockingly large amount of weapons and proceeds to single-handedly defeat the enemy in a very impressive show of destruction. Rows of foemen die as my oversized gun draws a line of death along them, whole buildings explode as though someone had replaced their mortar with explosives, and, most impressively, an armored flying gunship is brought down by a single pistol shot as I bid them farewell in a low Gothic dialect.
The truth was slightly less impressive. We were besieged by enemies on all sides and defenses were failing so I and the other officers were spirited out of the battlefield in a fast-moving shuttle. My farewell to the troops consisted of a muttered vow to be back as I ducked through its hatch.
I actually never came back. The Navy chose to bombard the site from orbit so as to be certain of the enemies’ destruction. But that story would make for a bland drama.
Yet here, in my personal journals at least, I shall allow the truth.
My birthname was not Anois Blackridge, nor I was born to a humble and pious family living on a farm among the pastoral hills. My father was not an officer in the Planetary Militia and was not wounded fighting a siege on the Eastern Front. He certainly was not a war criminal responsible for civilian massacres as some have alleged.
My name was Ornid, and I was a slave.
I should clarify I was not born a slave. I was born the son of a blacksmith in the village of S’vagonor. At least I think that was the village’s name. It may have been the name of the valley, or the land, or even the world. Maybe it was merely a local nickname that never appeared on a map. Or a child’s half-remembered, mispronounced bastardization of the real name.
I once covertly asked a savant try to track down S’vagonor, but after months he found nothing matching my descriptions. He couldn’t even give me a likely world. But among the million worlds of Man, and the uncountable numbers of town, villages and valleys that’s hardly a surprise.
Does it matter now?
I was seven, or perhaps eight, when the raiders came. Riders dressed in black under the sign of a serpent they rode in killing all who stood in their path. My father was cut down, his body torn apart by dogs. My mother… she was… she died as well.
And I, along with the other young men of the village, became a slave.
I remember the ride in the iron cage, joining a caravan, being sorted and sorted again. Mixed, selected, divided, sold and traded. Fed occasionally. Until, hungry and weary, I and other captives from dozens of tribes and nations were gathered on a dusty field. We could barely understand each other and were far too worn down to even try. So we sat, chained neck-to-neck and waited.
That was when I got my name.
Needless to say, my memories are jumbled, the half-formed thoughts of traumatized and ignorant young boy. I remember a man, a lord I assumed though I now know he was probably a mid-level tradesman, and that he had two heads. In retrospect the second head was probably just a tethered servo skull scanning and recording the prospects as he moved down the line, but to a boy he was a terrifying troll, ten feet tall, two-headed and garbed in lavish purple followed by a small train of servants and scribes.
The two-headed lord pointed at me and spoke to the overseer at his side, his language was sophisticated, beyond my learning. I couldn’t understand a word. At his request the overseer asked for my name and I replied Ornid. The two-headed man tried to repeat it and laughed. No doubt my village’s tongue sounded crude to his refined ears. The overseer asked what the priests called me. There’d been a robed preacher who wandered a circuit of our valley speaking of the Sky Father. The previous summer he’d dabbed me forehead with the blood of a grox and called me Anois, so I repeated that. A scribe behind the two-headed lord made a note. The overseer demanded the name of my village and then gave another word to the scribe – Blackridge. Was that the proper, Imperial name of my home? Did he make it up on the spot to spare the two-headed man my harsh cant? Again, it hardly matters now. Anois Blackridge I was called, and Anois Blackridge was branded into my arm. Ornid of S’vagonor died then, forgotten and unmourned. They moved on to the next boy on the line.
After four or five nights in the field we were awoken by an unearthly howl as blinding lights descended from the sky and great metal beast stirred up a storm of dust as it landed before us. With pain goads and curses we were herded into its belly and felt it rise into the sky.
Terrifying hours passed as the metal best shook and roared, the walls became cold to the touch and we wailed to all the gods for salvation. At last it ended and the creature’s mouth opened again. We moved from the shuttle (as I now know to call it) to a warren of cages and cells on a ship. I recall my image at the time was of one of the wooden river boats I’d seen on market day. I wondered briefly if I could swim to freedom. How small my world was then.
Once aboard we were tested, probed, measured and sorted again. Blood and hair were taken, questions were asked, and groups were divided and merged until I’d gone days without seeing one face I knew or hearing my village’s tongue. The other prisoners were just as adrift. No doubt because this made us easier to control. A hierarchy or order would start to appear among us but then be shattered by an infux of newcomers or the disappearance of some of the would-be leaders.
But masters have little use for slaves who do not understand them so lessons started. Robed men led us reciting words in Imperial Gothic. At first I recognized perhaps one word in ten, but bit-by-bit the meanings became clear. The prisoners and our new language skills were put to work. We scoured ducts, moved carts of ore, chipped paint, applied paint and did a thousand other menial tasks. The work was dirty, dangerous and exhausting. Discipline was quick and harsh. I tasted the lash more than once, and I was one of harder workers. Were these jobs essential to the ship? Make-work to keep us busy and tired? A test to see who would be compliant? I know now they were a mix of all three. It is honestly, how I would have done it. And how I have done it.
It was on the ship that I killed my first man. Well boy really. Just a few years older than me but big enough to snatch my merger rations and dismiss me with a kick. But he made the mistake of turning his back to bite into my loaf without confirming I was properly humbled. So I brought a metal pipe down on his head two, three times until he crumbled, then a dozen times more until he stopped moving. I looked at the other slaves in the pen, none met my eye. One of the older men took the pipe from me and tossed it down a shaft. He called a guard and reported that the older boy had fallen and hit his head. The older boy had not been too popular and was not missed.
I learned a lesson then. I’d killed animals before, hunting with my father, but never a man. And I learned that fighting, real fighting, is not honorable or glorious. And never fair. If I’d made a sound, issued a challenge or let the older boy see me I would have lost. Perhaps he would have killed me if he sensed I could not be cowed.
And I was lucky. If he’d had friends, I would have swiftly followed him to the Emperor’s Side, or where ever it is we go. But he didn’t, so I lived. No one in that pen bothered me again. Until a few days later when I was shifted to another group.
Time passed much like this. Then one day I was pulled out, put in a new group and we were herded into shuttle. I’d been on that ship… months? Possibly a year? No one told me and I had no way to keep track.
By then I knew I was a slave on a starship and we were embarking onto a new world. I could feel the change in the gravity, even the smell of the air. I knew I would never see my home again. We marched unto a prefab rockcrete building and within days I was purchased as part of a lot of twenty for a mining camp.
While the men were sent down into the mines the boys were given various menial tasks cleaning and fetching, a fact that saved my life.
After the deliberate churning and culling of slave bands in the ship it was relief to find myself in one place for a time. There was a chaotic period when we had to establish a hierarchy and carve out a place for ourselves among the boys already in the camp, but once that passed without too, too much bloodshed, things fell into a bit of a routine. There were a dozen or so of, the number swelling with the arrival of new slaves or shrinking when we were culled.
After some months a few of the bigger boys were deemed big enough, or the need for strong backs dire enough, and sent down to the mines. A few months later a few more got that ‘honor’ and I found myself the largest lad left among the ‘boys’. I was by then perhaps eleven or twelve years old.
I wish I could boast of my iron will, or how I defied our masters at every turn, meeting their oppression with a animal growl or a look of contempt. I cannot. The thought of being sent to the mines terrified me as nothing else had, I knew it was a certain death. The miners worked, ate and slept in the darkness. The only time they came up was for the weekly services which included funerals for miners killed, suffocated, buried or lost in the pits. At each service an aging overseer put on priestly robes and proclaimed how pleased the Emperor was with our sacrifices and how the blood we shed, the lives we lost and the ore we mined was for the greater glory of the Golden Throne.
The effect was terrifying. Seeing the hollow-eyed miners, blinking in the sunlight, and staring blankly at the bodies (or mementos) of their comrades horrified me and strengthened my resolve. Whatever happened, I would not join them!
So I redoubled my efforts to please the overseers. I made jokes, I put in extra effort, I smiled, I shined shoes, anything to prove my worth, stay in the camp and avoid the fate of the mines. I might have been the largest of the boys who fetched and cleaned and served, but I would be a scrawny, tiny miner and not last long.
The efforts paid off, when they next culled some boys for the mines I was passed over and three smaller youths were selected. I knew them, we were friends insofar as any slaves can be friends, but I thanked the Emperor and all the gods the day they were dragged away and I was not. Months later an overseer, one I’d ingratiated myself with, told me and another boy to clean the privy pits, a foul, disgusting job usually reserved as a punishment. I wondered what infraction I’d committed and cursed him the whole day. But when I returned, covered in gak and smelling like death I learned there’d been another culling while I was gone. And once again I’d been spared.
That was when the trouble began. I was still the largest of the boys but it was a matter of inches, not exactly an overwhelming advantage. My luck and efforts had saved me so far but doomed others to the mines. And some of the boys sent down had friends.
The first beating was not meant to kill me, or even hurt me severely, but to put me in my place and remind me not to avoid my fate any longer. There were five or six of them and, my legions of fans will be sorry to hear, I stood no chance. Even if I did fight them off, it would not have mattered, we all worked, ate and lived together. They’d get me eventually.
So I took my lumps and learned to shy away from appeasing the overseers too overtly. In any case the mines’ appetite for strong backs was insatiable, and I was big enough now that all could see my days in the sun were numbered. And a few weeks later I got a warning of sorts. As I returned his shinned boots an overseer said I was a good worker and that he’d miss me.
I spent the next few days in near-panic. Perhaps in a proper biography I would spend those days preparing my clever escape plan under the very noses of the overseers and my fellow captives. No doubt it would involve purloined cleaning supplies, a secret tunnel and perhaps a barrack house demolished by stolen blasting charges. And certainly my fevered imagination came up with hundreds of such plans, none of which were remotely feasible. So, in truth, when the day of my culling came, I was just as unprepared as I was when I was ‘warned’.
We were lined up for inspection and some of the younger lads chuckled and looked at me. If they understood their day would one day come, they certainly didn’t show it. There were three men, two overseers I knew and a more senior headman one who was new to me. The newcomer walked up and down the line. I slouched to look smaller. It didn’t help.
The headman walked up and down twice before selecting two boys about a year younger than I, and one much younger boy, one of the ones who’d chuckled at me. Then he turned his back and headed for the door. I let out an audible sigh.
Then he stopped, turned and told an overseer to take me as well.
A moment before I’d been resigned to my fate, terrified of it, but resigned to the inevitable. But now, after one second of relief, I vowed I would not go down to the mines. I would die first.
I let loose a scream that made everyone in the room shudder and leapt at the overseer. He was bigger than me, but flabby and tired. Just last week I’d been washing his socks and now my boney knee hit is crotch like a hammer, and he doubled over. I grabbed the knife from his belt. He drew his pain goad, the tips crackled. I looked to the sides, the other slaves had backed away, no help was coming. But the other overseer and the headman stood back watching. So no help for him either.
I parried his first two attempts to shock me. He was bigger than me and had a longer weapon but was slow, slow and nervous. I wondered when he was last in a fight. A real fight.
I tried to strike, but the knife was small, more a utility knife than a weapon and he easily stayed out of my range. We circled, the onlookers gave us space.
He thrust again and this time connected with my shoulder. I screamed but, almost unbidden, my free hand seized the goad and didn’t let go. I took a step forward and drove the knife into his jerkin and then into his belly. He dropped the goad and staggered back. The wound bled would not be fatal, but it bled and was frightening and painful.
I picked up the goad and circled him. He croaked something to his friend but the headman held the other overseer back.
I shot the pain goad into his knee and he stumbled. I touched his other leg and he fell on his stomach. I touched his spine and he screamed. I lifted the knife and…
That’s when the other overseer jabbed me and it was my turn to scream. First a few touches of the pain goad to drive me to the dirt, then the overseer and a few of the boys started kicking and bludgeoning me. As my vision swam, I saw the overseer draw his knife and expected the end.
Now obviously I didn’t die then and there. Even my most flattering biographers would not accord me with the ability to speak from the grave. But I expected to die. Welcomed it even, to die in a fight rather than crushed by a rock or choking on poisoned air.
I sometimes wonder how or if those days in the camp changed me, informed me. Now that I hold an office so lofty the headman in the camp or even the owner could not dream of crossing me, has this former slave changed anything? Certainly during my career I’ve hardly been known for excessive mercy. Maybe the only lesson I learned is always make sure that it’s my hand holding the whip.
That would be a shame.
In any case, I lay in the dirt expecting a knife across the throat but still grateful for a clean death in the sun. But then the headman said no. He had a use for me.
And then it went black.

This message was edited 3 times. Last update was at 2022/01/21 11:52:53

Made in us
Stealthy Warhound Titan Princeps

Woot! More top notch fiction. Hey, wait, that guy looks like.... ...torn apart by dogs........
Made in eg
Keeper of the Adeptus Arbites Flame

Cairo, Egypt

 kestral wrote:
Woot! More top notch fiction. Hey, wait, that guy looks like.... ...torn apart by dogs........

What's that you say, Ornid of S’vagonor resembles someone?

No! (Grasps pearls!)

And yeah. It's gonna get a little worse.

I always wanted to read a 40k rags to riches story and finally decided I'd have to write it. Well the most famous rags to riches story in pulp fiction is Conan, from barbarian to slave to king.

And the most famous guy to play Conan? Who also rose from penniless teen body builder to biggest movie star in the world to #$%^ing Governor of California? (Did I just imagine Governor Swartzenegger? Did I make it up? It seems like a dream)

Conan meets Arnold meets all of Arnold's characters IN SPACE! The story practically writes itself!

Made in gb
Veteran Inquisitorial Tyranid Xenokiller

Watch Fortress Excalibris

Well, Arnold does mean 'Eagle-Lord', so obviously he's the Emperor in our version of reality.

A little bit of righteous anger now and then is good, actually. Don't trust a person who never gets angry. 
Made in eg
Keeper of the Adeptus Arbites Flame

Cairo, Egypt

 Duskweaver wrote:
Well, Arnold does mean 'Eagle-Lord', so obviously he's the Emperor in our version of reality.

Hold @##% does it!? Well that gets added to his titles right away!

Made in eg
Keeper of the Adeptus Arbites Flame

Cairo, Egypt

The Long Rise of Lord Blackridge
“I Shall Return in Triumph”

++The Personal Journal of Lord Blackridge++
++Part the Second: Gladiator++

I spent a few days in the hot box, about a meter cubed, in the sun. I was granted no food, water only when I begged pitifully enough, and nothing to do but wonder when and how I would die.

There’d been a few attempted escapes and mutinies before, and the rest of us had been treated to the public executions of the wrenched failures. If there were any successes, we never heard about them. I imagined they were just waiting for the weekly services to make an example of me. At least I would die in the sun I supposed.

But then one evening I was taken out, fed, watered, given a chance to wash myself, dressed in some rags that approached an outfit, and bound with enough chains to bind a charging Thunder Hoof. I was taken to an isolated corner of the camp, there the headman conversed with an outsider, a grizzled trader with a line of cage carts. I heard him praise my speed and ferocity, to hear him speak I’d fought off five men and only captured when I stopped to tear out a man’s throat with my teeth. To support his claim he passed the trader a glass screen where a fuzzy vid of my fight played. The trader nodded, not yet convinced, and turned to me. I recognized my last hope.

“Me mighty warrior” I proclaimed. “Me kill mighty Land Snark with spear!” By then I spoke low gothic fairly well but I played up my off-world accent to appear more fierce and wild. I gave him a scowl that would have earned me a beating from an overseer. The trader walked around me, squeezed a shackled arm and inspected my teeth. I assume he was pleased, because then the haggling started.

I sold for thirteen ducats, a fine but hardly extravagant price.

For the next few weeks I bounced in a cage, travelling from mining camp to mining camp. I wondered if I had traded one death in the dark for another. Other slaves entered and left at each stop until the caravan turned downhill and we left the mines behind for the lowlands.

I don’t think I have ever been happier.

We passed through two or three towns until arriving in what seemed to my young eyes a vast city. Funny. How little of the worlds I’d seen. There, I and two other lads were sold as a lot to a training stable for 48 ducats, a tidy profit for a few weeks work. We were taken to a circular building with tiers of seats and a white sand ring in the center. The ring was being cleaned of broken weapons, dead animals and dead men. Apparently my act of defiance impressed someone. We were to become gladiators.


There were three of us as I said, and arriving together we became fast friends. We were of course the lowest of the low (well with one exception, which I will get to). As in the camps, I fetched and carried and mended and cooked and washed. Only now instead of looking forward to a terrible death in the mines, I looked forward to glory in the Arena. At first our lessons were infrequent and informal, mostly a matter of one of the older gladiators calling us over to show a technique or practice against us. Other times one of the instructors would let us watch as they taught the gladiators some new technique.
We soon fell into our roles.

Hazai was a funny guy, always joking, always with a smile on his face. The stable masters had him pegged for a mid-card joker who would make the crowd laugh before the real fight.

But he died of blood worms our second winter.

Raed was the more pious of us, always clutching the small carved Aquila he wore on a many-knotted cord. A keepsake from his home world, I assumed. We were all off-worlders.

He was gored by a thunder-tusk in our third fight. He survived but could not walk and wasn’t considered worth augmentations or cellular regeneration. They gave him simple tasks, collecting tickets and such, before he disappeared. We were told he’d been sold to a farm in the highlands but we knew he’d been euthanatized, no longer even worth his food and care. Or perhaps because his presence was a grim reminder of the risks we took and dragged down morale.

That left me.

As I said before I’d already learned that fighting was a dirty, honor-less task where the only goal was to make sure you still stood when it was over. Whether you accomplished that by stabbing someone in the back, killing them before they knew there was a fight, or just running as fast as you could didn’t matter. Only survival mattered.

In the gladiator stable however I learned the other way. Fighting could be glorious, thrilling and even fun. So long as everyone knew who would win and that no one – no one important – would be hurt. We learned to twirl our swords like they were toys, to leap in the air and vanquish a foe with a mighty swing, to pose dramatically with our weapons held high, to bellow taunts and threats at each other. We wore impractical armor and ran into battle with bare chests and perhaps a single shoulder pad for protection. We used tridents, nets, industrial cutters, and absurdly over-sized hammers. We spun like dancers, leapt like acrobats and tumbled like clowns. Basically, we did all the things that would get us killed in a real fight. And the crowds loved it.
Gladiators, you must understand are an expensive investment. At least trained ones. If the crowd just wanted blood we could throw anyone in the pit, but the fights would be short, ugly and dull. The crowds wanted a show and we were trained to give them one.

In addition, there were the augmentations. Beginning with some drug treatments for the young gladiators like me, but the older ones had vat-grown muscle implants, bionics, and even partial reconstructions. Some were barely human anymore and completely dependent on the stable’s docs to keep them in fighting shape. They were almost invincible in battle, but cut off from the stable they’d be dead in days.
Which is one way they kept us enslaved.

The risk in gladiatorial games is that you’re training and arming slaves, who, generally speaking, are not always fond of their masters. When we arrived, I noted all three of us were off-worlders, in fact every gladiator was an off-worlder. I wondered at that, were off-worlders better fighters? More exotic? More popular? Finally one of the older fighters explained. He pointed to the stable gates, they were open. A deliver boy was unloading sacks of gruel. We could walk out right then. But go where? Our looks, our accents, our ignorance of the local ways would mark us as off-worlders. We had no family, no clan, no kin, no one to aid us. We’d be hunted down and recaptured in hours.

The only time locals were sent into the arena was for the Blood Fests. Once or twice a year the Baron would round up undesirables – hill folk, members of apostate faiths, street children, intellectuals, criminals, debtors, you know the types. They’d be dosed full of war drugs and set lose on the gladiators. Those fights were real. There were no quips, no boasts, no showy moves or exotic weapons, just fighting and blood. They would die of course, at our hands or blasted by the gun turrets on the upper decks, but several gladiators would fall as well. It was the most popular event of the year.

I hated them.


After two or three years my star began to rise. My body filled out with thick muscles, I showed my talent at playing to the audience. I remember once spearing a club-tailed lizard then shouting “He got the point!” The crowd roared with laughter. Such jokes became my trademark. Along with my strength and propensity for violence. My face started to appear on posters and fliers.

One day I headlined a battle for the first time. I was put against an aging cyborg named Oli Serg, current champion of our stable. He was eight feet tall, one arm a chainsaw, the other a spiked mace, and he was covered in armored plates. I’d fought against him a few times, usually taking a blow to my buckler – which would shatter dramatically – and falling to the sand. At the last Blood Fest he’d saved my life, fought his way through a dozen drug-crazed berserkers when I was cornered and cut off. But off the field, he needed a tech adept at all times just to keep him running, and two menials to handle such things as feeding and fetching for him. A titan in battle yes, but one utterly dependent on others. And now I was going to supplant him.

I wonder how he felt about that? To my face he was fine, when we rehearsed he said it was just show business, he’d surely be back on top soon enough. Maybe he even believed it. At the time I was just under 6 feet, perhaps 20 years old, certainly no younger than 18. The fight was billed as the battle for the title of Battle Master of the Galaxy, one of the less hyperbolic titles we competed for.

As planned, I danced around his clumsy swings for a while, insulting him and calling him old man. Finally, as planned, his chainsaw connected with my cloak dragging me off my feet. His mace smashed my buckler and axe with a single swing and he lifted me by the cloak to the jeers of crowd. He was a showman as well and knew how to impress them. He waved me back and forth a few times and asked the audience what he should do. Their suggestions were as vulgar as they were imaginative. Yes it seemed Serg would win another victory.

Until the thick cloth of my cloak jammed the teeth and his chainsaw-arm exploded. A few bits of shrapnel hit me, giving me some real wounds to impress the crowd. Serg howled, one arm now a smoking ruin and stomped forward to crush my skull with his mace. I lay in the dirt as if stunned and dazed, which was not far from the truth. But as he lifted his weapon high I drew a power dagger from my boot. It glowed and crackled with power, I waited a second or two so the crowd could see, then jammed it into the exposed machinery that had replaced his guts. Sparks flew throughout his body, smoke from within his workings. I remember admiring the work the mechs had done to make it look like he was in real trouble. And then he exploded.
Deafened and bloodied by the shrapnel, I could barely rise to my feet and accept the victory laurels. I couldn’t even hear the crowd.

They told me later there’d been some fault in his mechanisms, some power conduit had worn through its insulation, or some gear was out of alignment, so a weapon that should have merely incapacitated him, killed instead. It was just one of those things.

Besides. He was near the end of his useful life anyway.

And so I became the Battle Master of the Galaxy. A few days later a poster – four stories high – greeted the crowd. It was me dressed in little more than a furry loincloth and bronze bangles posed dramatically over the bodies of my foes while a half-dressed wench wrapped her willowy arms suggestively around my mighty thigh. Beneath it, the words Strong Oak: The Barbarian Off-Worlder.

I assume Anois Blackridge was not considered sufficiently intimidating.

A year or two later I was crowned the Ultimate Warrior of the Universe. And soon after the Destroyer of Kings. The youngest ever to hold those titles, at least in this particular stable. And more remarkably, I was still almost entirely human. Devoid of any apparent augmentations or replacement parts other than the occasional drug treatment.

With success came rewards. Feasts, accolades, processions, trips to other arenas, women, even money. While I was still technically a slave there was enough gold in my cell to be the envy of many freemen.

Some Gladiators took advantage of that. As their star faded, before they were injured and became too dependent on machines and the stable’s tech adepts to live, they bought their freedom and walked away from the fame and glory. But my star had risen too high, and I could not have afforded my own freedom. Even if I wanted to walk away.

Then the news came. Stephan The Reaver was coming. You must understand that for all the grandiose titles and claims I was still just the champion of the third-ranked stable in a mid-sized city. Stephan The Reaver was the planetary champion. He was as strong as a Cud Bear and as fast as a Razor Horn. I’d watched the vid of him wrestling and killing a Gold Hide with nothing but his bare hands. He had enough champion belts and golden medals to buy a moon. He’d fought for the Governor and even off-world. He’d been a gladiator for almost a century and was still nearly human but for a few minor augmentations and rejuvenations. And he was coming here. To fight me.

But there was a catch.

He wanted my arm.

Oh I’d make him pay a fair price, maybe even give his rock-hard abdomen a scar, but in the end the plan was he would chop off my right arm and I’d fall screaming to the sand.

Then a dozen buxom courtesans would run out, surround me and beg piteously for my life which he would spare after selecting two to come with him. Meanwhile I’d be spirited to the chirurgeon who would save me from bleeding out and fit me with my new limb, a pneumatic hammer. In a few days I would be back.

It would be a great show they promised.

I managed to hide my horror.

As I rose in the ranks, I’d never forgotten Serg’s death. Or lost consciousness of the shambling man-machines lurking the shadows of the stable, utterly dependent on their tech adepts and menials. And soon I’d be joining them.

In just eight weeks.

He arrived with a parade, thousands, if not millions lined the streets. Bands played. Women threw flowers. He rode at the head on a towering Mountain Tusker followed by a train of acrobats, dancers and lesser gladiators. Above us, was a black-liveried skimmer from which his manager watched the proceedings.

I waited for him on a balcony at the entrance to the arena. We taunted each other in rhyme and verse, our words peppered with mild vulgarities and rude imagery. The crowd roared with each clever line. Our exchange ended when Stephan let out a clever insult directed at my mother. As scripted, my fellow gladiators held me back from leaping from the balcony and attacking him on the back of his beast. I was dragged off screaming curses and obscenities while the champion laughed.

It was quite an opening.

Our battle came the next day. The arena was packed, a single seat sold for almost a hundred ducats, funny to think of how one seat for one afternoon was a nice multiple of what the stable paid for me ten years before.

The opening matches went as planned. A group of youth, not unlike me ten years before, fought Stephan’s Mountain Tusker. Two or three were trampled before their up-and-coming beast master managed to climb it and ‘tame’ it. The cyborgs were unleased on a sea of drugged prisoners, turning the white sands red. The dancing girls provided an all-but-indecent show. An older gladiator from Stephan’s stable demonstrated his ‘inebriated killer’ style, drunkenly dodging attacks and turning stumbles into deadly strikes. The crowd roared with laughter.

Then it was our turn.

I came out alone, fully armored, with a shield on one arm, a mighty chain axe in the other. On my belt throwing knives and a stabbing gladius. On my back a huge power sword. My knees, elbows and left shoulder had vicious spikes, large enough for the crowd in the highest decks to see. Horns on my helmet added a foot or two of height. An Astares in full plate could not have looked as impressive.

All that was just for show of course.

My stable had negotiated one cut across Stephan’s belly. Deep enough to draw blood, but not deep enough to do real damage. That was all I would be allowed.

Apparently our stable manager was old friends with Stephan’s. One or two of our fighters had even made their way into his employ. This fight was a favor to us, and to me. After today Strong Oak: The Barbarian Off-Worlder would be able to claim he was among the few who’d faced Stephan the Reaver, tasted his blood, and lived to tell the tale. What more could a gladiator in the third-best arena of a mid-sized city ask for?
He came out dressed in simple leather breaches and a white open shirt, carrying only a silver scimitar and small buckler. He bowed to the crowd and accepted their applause and thrown flowers. I got only boos and taunts. When I charged him, unsportingly before the arena master declared the fight’s beginning, it was with genuine anger. If I was to be a villain, then I would be one.

We fought… well ‘fought’ for the better part of an hour. As scripted I stuck and struck never quite connecting. He danced around me, his quick blade severing the haft of my axe, then chipping at the straps and buckles of my armor so that it comically flew off piece by piece. The loss of my loin guards got a particularly good laugh from the crowd. I have to admit he was good. He dismantled my armor with absolute precision, barely scratching my skin but irritating me to greater rage. Soon my blows were not missing on purpose. I tried to connect with each strike, failing each time.

Until at last I stumbled with genuine weariness and he broke my nose with a hit from his buckler, knocking me on my back. He kicked the sword from my numb hand. It was then I struck with a dagger. He danced away a second too slow, getting a thin scar across his belly. Just as negotiated.
The crowd held its breath.

Now he struck with genuine anger, hitting my forearm with his blade, the impact knocking the dagger from my hand. Only a bronze armlet saved the hand. A blow from his buckler stunned me and a kick put me on my back. He raised his sword to sever my arm.

Only to be shocked when, ahead of their cue, two of the dancing girls ran onto the sand to cover me and beg for my life. One of them put something heavy and ugly in my hand. Behind me I could hear the stable masters hissing for the girls to return.

Stephan hesitated, unsure of how to react to this error.

He was even more shocked when I took out a small snub-nosed pistol and shot him three times.

One of the dancers shot him as well just to be sure.

We ran for the gates.

Behind us, the pyrotechnics arranged for Stephan’s victory exploded prematurely in their launchers blinding crowds and stable masters alike and creating chaos. Smoke bombs exploded in the stands sending panicked crowds rushing in every direction.

A dozen or so gladiators overwhelmed the guards and cleared a path for us.

The gun turrets on the towers swiveled towards us but nothing happened. It seemed that some menial had unloaded their ammo.

We reached the black-liveried skimmer, the pilot greeted us and we shot into the sky. He was a former gladiator himself, from our stable. Now acting as a pilot and bodyguard for Stephan’s master.

And just like that, the score of us were free.

One of my fanciful biographers could not have written it more perfectly.


When I was a frightened slave boy in the mines, a plan like this would have been impossible. I doubt I could even have dreamed of it, much less executed it.

But I wasn’t a frightened child. I was a famed gladiator, with friends throughout the circuit, and money in my purse. Even then, well it was not easy. And success was never guaranteed, but obviously it worked.

One dancer who had become an… intimate companion, knew of a black market arms dealer. Several of menials and gladiators feared they may die in the arena and were honored when someone of my stature approached them with an offer of freedom. The pilot/bodyguard was the riskiest person to include since we never met in person, but two of the older instructors vouched for him. If he had not come through, we also had a stable boy with several Thunder Hooves waiting, thankfully we didn’t have to risk an escape overland. Looking back, I’m amazed that out of the score of conspirators no one betrayed us, but in the arrogance of youth the idea never occurred to me. Thankfully our owners were none too kind and had made it clear they considered us disposable. That did a lot to make things easier.

Stephan survived. Our bullets didn’t even penetrate his sub-dermal armor. Apparently, he was less human than I believed. And that again worked to our benefit. Had he been murdered by an escaping slave, his masters and their friends and allies, including the governor, would never have stopped looking for us. Instead this was merely an embarrassment and the full weight of the blame fell on our masters at the arena. They were so busy bowing and begging and paying anything Stephan’s masters asked they has little time or resources to hunt for us.

Thus, we were free.


In a moment of hubris, many, many years later I revised the arena, this time as an honored Hero of the Imperium. My staff were surprised at the choice, they’d recommended a much larger arena in the capital, but I explained how the visit showed my connection to the common man. I even went into the stable and shook hands with the gladiators themselves. If anyone associated the honored Lord Blackridge with a faded poster for Strong Oak: The Off-Worlder Barbarian, no one mentioned it.

If you are reading this you may note I have been coy about where these events occurred. And rest assured the few names I used are useless to you. The tech-adept swears that an entire planet of cognators would need a century or more to de-encrypt this account. Even so I see no need to put weapons in the hands of my enemies.

A few years later it occurred to me that I was still legally a slave and a fugitive. I had my barristers write a proclamation of absolution and manumission so narrow and so heavily clouded in legal chicanery that it freed me, I sincerely doubt anyone else would even qualify even if they could locate it deep within an agricultural funding resolution, and in such a way no one would ever connect it with my life. Even if they knew the truth.
So ended the life of Strong Oak the Gladiator. And so began the life of Roward the Barbarian.

Made in us
Stealthy Warhound Titan Princeps

Outstanding! I need to work on my gladiators a bit more.
Made in eg
Keeper of the Adeptus Arbites Flame

Cairo, Egypt

The Long Rise of Lord Blackridge
“I Shall Return in Triumph”

++The Personal Journal of Lord Blackridge++
++Part the Third: Barbarian++

Ninety percent of banditry is showmanship. This is an undisputable fact.
Yes, there are times when other skills are called for. Leadership, planning, intelligence gathering, stealth, violence, assessment and escape. All of those are necessary skills for a successful bandit. But showmanship, more than any of them, is what separates a bandit king from a corpse in the mud.
People do not want to give you their things. That is a fact.
People also do not want to die.
Convince them that a minor compromise on the first principle will prevent a major compromise of the second and you will succeed.
That is the lesson I learned in the hills.
We’d stopped a three-car land train travelling between the district capital and a shoreside town, my friends at the nearby road house assured me it was carrying well-to-do idle rich on their way to the shore for a holiday. And I was happy to provide them with a story to tell around the supper table.
The train stopped when they were confronted by an apparent landslip that had blocked the road ahead. The crew stepped out to fume and debating whether to try and clear it or add a day’s travel by backing up and trying another route. Thus they were oblivious when my men snuck up on them and escorted them to the woods. After removing their weapons and instilling a bit of terror, my boys gave them narco-sticks, traded jokes and ultimately offered to give them some lumps and bruises to lend some credibility to their tales of defiance once we left. It was those little things that helped remind them it wasn’t worth getting your throat slit for the wages they were paid.
Then the passengers. We blasted a hatch open and stormed in. I fired a few rounds into the ceiling. Most of the passengers - merchants, traders, doctors and the like – were cowed. One rose to his feet with a momentary delusion of heroism, I broke his nose with a punch and he curled into a ball on the floor. Some boys circulated among them collecting wallets, jewelry and other valuables. Other men tore apart the luggage car, snatching the payroll boxes and other valuables. I made a show of returning a woman’s wedding ring and reprimanded a boy for taking it. Then I bowed, thanked them and we were gone. The victims had their lives and a good story to share at dinner parties for years to come. No one was dead or seriously hurt. No one of great importance was robbed, so there would be no cries for vengeance nor resources mobilized to hunt us.
And we moved on.
Another time I was alone in the woods hunting Twist Horns for supper when I came across a dozen or more Baronial Guard camped in a clearing. It was too tempting to resist. I fired a couple of shots with my rifle, ricocheting rounds off of trees to make them seem like they came from different directions. Then I strode in bold as brass claiming they were surrounded by my band. I took their weapons, bound their hands and walked right out, telling them to lie in the dirt until sunrise. One of them had a heavy Vostroyan laspistol as his sidearm, good reliable piece, I used it for years.
A little confidence can go a long way.
That was the art and the showmanship.
Bu there was no show without planning. A wise showman can improvise, but never counts on improvisation for success. We had to find targets rich enough to be worth robbing, but not so powerful they could hunt us down. We had to avoid people with local roots who would poison the well for us. In my days as a bandit chief I knew, two, maybe three gangs that made that mistake. They would ride into villages like conquering warlords and demand money, weapons, drink and women. Until a village hired some unemployed mercenaries to ambush them, or poisoned those drinks they were demanding. Or told them tales of a fat caravan filled with gold which turned out to be an Imperial Guard troop convoy bristling with guns. I can’t be sure that one was a deliberate betrayal or a mistake though.
In any case, when Roward the Barbarian rode into town with his band of ner’do’wells we rode to the tavern, spent money freely, took nothing that wasn’t for sale and made sure to drop a bag of coin at the steps of the local shrine. I also made sure to hire some local minstrels to spread the good word of how Roward the Barbarian lived for adventure and bring justice to the oppressed people of the hills. The Ballad of Roward spread far and wide and did much to ensure a warm welcome for my band when we moved into a new territory. I remembered the first lesson of survival, always make sure you have the most friends. It doesn’t matter how a great a warrior you are, a child can slit your throat when you sleep. All of this was expensive of course, but many a bandit chief died with chests of gold buried in the hills. I preferred to live with just a few coins in my boot.
Of course it turns out not all the minstrels I paid actually worked for their coin. I remember in one town hearing the tale of how Roward aided a red-haired sword maiden in her quest to defeat the evil witch queen, and then relieved her of her maidenhood. I’d heard the same tale years before as a gladiator only it was a different warrior and a different maiden.
Many years, and many worlds later I heard a group of guardsmen singing a familiar song, the story of how the captured hero tore at his chains, but even his mighty strength could not break them. But finally the wood they were bolted to splintered, and he then used his chains to beat to death the friend who betrayed him. It’s an exciting story, and one of the highlights of my career as a bandit, but now it was attributed to Zorbo the Legendary and not Roward the Barbarian.
In the end Roward was just a role I played and when I left it the role and its tales were passed on to younger actors. No doubt some other mightily muscled lad is playing the role of a dashing and heroic bandit king of the hills today.
Roward the Barbarian got his start in a tiny village whose name escapes me. One of the dancing girls hailed from there and her return bought us the goodwill and silence of the inhabitants. The flier we stole in our escape was cut up and its parts sold, probably for a tiny fraction of its worth. Some of the menials and gladiators decided to make their home there. A few of the more metalized escapees found a rogue tech priest in the mountains and offered to serve him in return for life-sustaining maintenance. But still and handful of us had no desire to become farmers nor thralls to a half-mad cog-boy. So we became bandits.
In the years after we set out members came and went, some found a place to make their home, others struck out on their own, and of course some went to meet the Emperor. I had to send four of them myself. Discipline is just as important in a bandit band as any army.
But there were always lads (and the occasional lass) to replace them. Outcasts, criminals, or just dreamers looking to take on the world. I remember one young buck arriving and challenging me, claiming the Code of the Bandits required me to wrestle him for chiefdom. I shot him in the head and we all had a good laugh.
There were bad times too. Huddling under a tree in a rainstorm, holding one of my men as he bled out, stuffing my bandana in his mouth so his screams didn’t give our location away. Running a full speed from an exceptionally well-armed caravan as they cut down bandits to my left and right. Begging a rival bang for mercy when they caught us with our pants down. Those moments never made it into any songs or stories.
This went on for the better part of a decade. There’s a legend about a leviathan in the seas of ancient Terra who had to always swim forward eating lesser creatures, if it stopped moving forward it died. Being a bandit is a lot like that. We had to keep moving after the next target, the next big score and away before anyone hunting us could catch up.
But I was smart, I was skillful and I was lucky and survived more than ten years in hills. And I thank the Emperor for that.
By the time my last days as a bandit came, my party had dwindled to just a handful. Which was fine, I had grown to prefer a small group of trusted and skilled companions to a large band of questionable quality. There was Shah, a coward and a braggard who could climb like Snake Tail and open any strongbox I gave him. Grayz, a former gladiatrix who still wore her skimpy leathers like a dare to any many who wanted to touch her smooth dark skin. Matsu, a foreigner who was either a psyker of some skill, or the best conman I have ever met. And myself of course.
We were “invited” to Baron Sydow’s keep to discuss a job. The invitation consisted of a dozen riders armed with webber guns and the trip there was not gentle. So I was surprised to be brought to Sydow’s personal chambers rather than a dark oubliette or hellish interrogation chamber. There, in his surprisingly Spartan quarters we spoke as equals. Like me he was an off-worlder, once a gladiator and thief as well. But by skill, determination and luck he had earned a position among the mighty. He controlled hundreds of miles of land, several towns and villages, over a thousand fighting men and enough wealth to keep him comfortable for many lifetimes.
And he was dying.
His oldest son, Maximillian, had been raised in the Capital becoming a foppish dandy. His younger daughter, Olivia, was the apple of his eye. Beautiful, kind, generous, beloved by the people and to his mind she his proper heir. But she had been kidnapped by the self-proclaimed Sorcerer King, Atrik, no doubt for rites too terrible to contemplate. And we were to rescue her and return her unharmed and… how did he put it? Unsoiled.
Personally I thought the odds of his virginal daughter maintaining her purity after days of captivity were low, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
In return for his daughter, our freedom, a pardon, commissions in his personal guard and… for a kindred spirit like myself, possibly more. His daughter after all would need a husband.
The alternative was the aforementioned oubliette and eventual beheading.
Needless to say, we agreed.
Our band of four was augmented by Vilt, a massive brute of man standing a head taller than myself. He was a captain in the Baron’s guard and would make sure we upheld our half of the bargain.
We rode out the next day.
There were challenges of course, an ambush by howling mutants and having to sneak through an old mine inhabited by some deraigned cult. Then there was the spectral bird half composed of mist that fell upon us one night. Vilt aquitted himself well in these engagements and we came to accept him as one of our band. In the end we five arrived at the shore of the lake. There Atrik’s castle of ice seemed to hover above it surrounded by fog. A rotted rowboat waited by the shore, seemingly an invitation for us to enter, and we accepted.
Once inside there were tricks and traps. A hallway that seemed straight but kept brining us back the same spot, we could even see our own backs in the distance. We defeated that one by using one of Matsu’s explosive charges to blast through the ceiling and ascend.
There were creatures of smoke that our weapons passed through harmlessly but which drained warmth and strength when they touched us. Even mighty Vilt was powerless against them, one minute he was swinging his power maul, then he collapsed to the floor weak as a child. I, myself, nearly collapsed from their touch dragging him back. Thankfully Matsu’s chants repelled them and Grayz’ quarter staff dispelled them. Perhaps it was the pagan charms she had wrapped around it, or some quality of the wood, or just her own ferocity but the smoke creatures too were overcome.
After that esoteric threat, a den of Ice Claws were little match for my shotgun, Vilt’s heavy laser and Grayz’ stub gun. Even Shah’s needle pistol and Matsu’s hand flamer scored kills.
Shah’s uncanny (and sometimes over-active) sense of danger warned him to stop. He examined the floor and disarmed a pressure plate which would have unleashed a volley of deadly darts.
Later Matsu stopped us and dismissed a mystical ward with a gesture and a harsh word. Or at least he said he did. He may just have been lying to show his worth.
A hallway began to collapse but Vilt acted as a living pillar to buy us time to escape. Then he sprinted a hundred meters to safety as stones pleated him.
Finally we reached was had to the final chamber. It was a thirteen-sided room, each side a mirror except the doorway we stood in. In the center, among some mystic runes stood Atrik himself smiling. I strode in first and behind me a mirrored door sealed the room cutting me off from my friends. I spun to catch the door but Atrik gestured and after a moment of vertigo I realized I had no idea which mirror they were behind. Atrik advanced. I drew my Vostroyan laspistol and fired. A few feeble sparks flew from it. Atrik gestured again and the heavy pistol crushed into a ball, my hand would have been crushed as well had I not released it. I drew the sword from my back and circled him.
My sword had a story of course. It was a heavy two-handed weapon made from some ceramic substance harder than steel and never lost its edge. I told people I’d found it the tomb of some lost king deep in the desert after battling a literal army of skeletal beasts. In fact I’d won it in a dice game a few years ago. But maybe the former owner got it after battling the undead so I regarded the story as mostly true. I’d used it for years, I could twirl it impressively like the gladiator I had been or strike and kill quickly like the warrior I was becoming. I didn’t mess around. I stabbed Atrik through his center with enough force for its ceramic tip to pierce any armor.
It went through him like mist.
His fingernails elongated and he clawed me. The claws did not pass through me, they were quite solid and draw thin lines of blood even through my armed vest. Even worse they sucked strength from my body like the creatures we’d fought before. Oh for Grayz’ staff or Matsu’s (supposed) mystic might. But I was alone.
Atrik paused to lick my blood from his fingers. I stabbed him three times, each hack and slash passing through his form like I was fighting fog. Then the slim and aged sorcerer picked me up and hurled me against a wall with enough force to crack the mirror I hit.
A light cut appeared on his arm.
As he advanced, I slammed the pommel of my sword against the mirror behind smashing it. His cut became a gaping wound and he howled.
I spun and smashed the next mirror with a powerful kick, stabbed another with my blade. In the center of the room the sorcerer screamed, his dark robes now stained with blood. I moved like a dancer striking each mirror in turn until only two remained. Atrik charged me like a wounded animal, I raised my blade to throw it at one of the two remaining mirrors, only to turn and hurl it at the other one. The mirror shattered and the Atrik I had been facing blew away like a cloud of mist. From the ruins of the shattered mirror another Atrik stumbled, my blade embedded in his heart. He walked three more steps and fell to the ground. His robes were filled with nothing but broken glass.
The last mirror exploded and my companions arrived. They demanded to know how I’d realized Atrik’s secret, how I’d managed to hit the correct mirror.
Shah chalked it up to luck and maybe it was. I was hardly an expert on sorcery, but I kept my eyes open, my wits about me and acted fast. Sometimes experience makes its own luck.
We stepped through the shattered mirror to find palatial quarters and there in a bed the size of cottage lay the missing Olivia. Hey pretty eyes fluttered and she stirred, apparently unaware she had been anywhere but her own room. Vilt lifted her and the entire castle groaned. Dust fell from the ceiling, cracks appeared in the wall, the floor shook. We started to run, following our path as best we could, blasting or smashing through walls and floors as needed and boarding the leaky boat just as the entire castle collapsed into a pile of dust and disappeared into the lake.
I hate magic.
We celebrated that night with a bottle of spirits Matsu produced from somewhere. Young Olivia was as charming as we’d been promised, listening to our tales and vowing to reward us greatly upon her return though as far as she could remember she’d gone to sleep in her own bed and awoken in the new one. She never even saw Atrik. As the night wore on Olivia fell in with Grayz, fascinated by the idea of a woman warrior, Grayz gruffly but not ungently showed the young noblewoman how to use her staff.
My pride, or perhaps my jealousy led me to intervene and demand Oliva learn handle a real weapon, my sword. I laughed as she struggled to even lift it and fell in a heap trying to swing it. Even the young noble woman laughed at her own weakness.
She was still dressed in a flimsy white sleeping gown, having shed the fur cloak I gave her during our escape. We hadn’t thought to bring more appropriate attire on our rescue mission, chivalry was never a highly valued skill for bandits… Her beauty could be easily appraised through the think cloth. And she was clearly interested in me, and enjoying the feel of my body against hers, my strong hands one her slim arms as I showed her how to handle a sword. She suggested I show her more, perhaps somewhere more private.
Which is when I saw Vilt’s look and his hand on his pistol. Whether it was my promise to her father, the promise of riches, Vilk’s dilligence, or just the hour and the drink but I declined and stumbled off to my bedroll.
The betrayal came the next day.
We were riding through a canyon, the Lady Olivia riding with Vilt on his Thunder Hoof. Normally she rode with Shah, the smallest of us, but Vilt had insisted she ride with him on his already over-burdened mount. That should have warned me. But we’d won, we were returning in triumph, and I was already counting the money and wondering if the attentions of Lady Olivia might get me more.
Then we were charged, a dozen or more riders descending from the slopes as Vilt’s mount shot ahead disappearing around the bend. They wore no uniforms but carried the weapons of the Sydow’s Baronial guard.
No doubt the attackers were told to refrain from firearms lest they hit the girl, but we were at no such disadvantage. I shot two and bisected a third with my blade. I yelled for the others to cover me as I rode after Vilt. My steed quickly closed the gap between with him. He dismounted and shoved Olivia behind some rocks barking an order. As I rode up he turned to face me, his power maul in one hand. Sportingly he didn’t reach for his pistol, neither did I. I dismounted and we faced off from several meters. There was so much I wanted to ask. Why did he do it? Was it Baron Sydow’s orders? Or was he working alone? Was it the promise of riches? Or the innocent flirtation between Olivia and I?
But we said nothing. His maul struck my blade and sparks flew. Behind us I could hear Olivia screaming for Vilt to stop, but she had no other aid to offer me.
He was a head taller than me and several stone heavier. My blade was sharp and strong but his was energized and could shatter mine with time. I was a gladiator and a bandit, used to fighting to impress or cower people, he was a killer. I could hold my own, barely, but not for long.
Then Vilt gurgled, stumbled and fell to the ground. Behind him I could see Shah smirking, his small needle pistol in hand. He walked up, put his boot on Vilt’s back and smiled as for an unseen audience. He had saved the day.
We had won.
We gathered and conferred on our next course of action. We expressed our opinions… vigoriously, with many gestures and use of colloquial language, the parts Olivia understood made her blush. Shah favored heading immediately for the hills and then a cargo train that would take as far from here as it could. Grayz demanded we return at once to Sydow’s castle and dispense justice for this treachery. Matsu advised caution and I regretfully responded by questioning his manhood, ancestry and sanity.
It was finally Olivia who settled things. With a newfound determination she said she would ride for her father’s castle and demand answers. We were to accompany her as retainers. And then she was gone. A few minutes later I found myself riding after the young lady, following her like the leader she was born to be.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. We barely spoke and barely slept, constantly on watch for more assassins. So it was a pleasant surprise when we arrive at the town with no further resistance. There Olivia rode in, as beautiful as a queen despite her town gown and filthy cloak. People fell to their knees seeing their beloved lady had returned from certain death. Crowds cheered us as we passed. The spectacle caused me to miss the lowered banners and black bunting that should have alerted me to what had happened. But we learned soon enough.
Sydow was dead. He had died just hours after we left and his foppish son Maximillian had assumed the throne. He greeted us cordially, though it was obvious he was somewhat taken aback by his sister’s survival and our expectation of riches. Nonetheless we were assigned quarters befitting heroes of realm and enjoyed hot foot and warm beds for the first time in a while.
That night Matsu visited me and said he was leaving. He explained he had no desire to take his chances with the Imperium’s commissars and inquisitors. I asked him what he meant by that but he just turned to go. When I reached for my own pack he told me to stay, there are great things ahead for Lord Blackridge. Without even questioning I lay back down. It wasn’t until I awoke the next day that I realized I’d never told him my true name.
There’s an old saying about the promises of kings, I forget exactly how it goes but it boils down to they don’t mean gak. If a king breaks his promise what can you do?
The next day once again showed the wisdom of that saying.
To begin Maximillian again thanked Shah, Grayz and I for saving his sister. If he noticed Matsu was missing, he didn’t mention it. Gesturing to a departing shuttle he explained that Olivia was bound off-world to the asteroid Convent of Eternal Purity to recover from her harrowing ordeal.
As for us, he had good news. The Emperor had issued a call for warriors and we, along with several hundred soldiers, vagrants and criminals, would have the honor of answering the call.
Our troop shuttle departed within the day.
We were to become soldiers.
While this is a dramatic moment to leave the narrative, I feel I should append some details on our fates.
Shah talked his way into a cushy job as a supply clerk and eventually a chief quartermaster. Several years and several worlds later he deserted with enough money and black-market goods to live comfortably for the rest of his life. Alas he never learned how to keep his mouth shut and within a few months was hunted down and killed by bounty hunters for desertion.
Grayz fell in with an all-female unit. She entered a warrior sisterhood of some form and eventually disappeared from my sight. When I last saw her she seemed happy with her new role.
As far as I can find out Olivia never returned from the Convent of Eternal Purity.
Maximillian lived for another century and nearly bankrupted his house. He was eventually assassinated by several of his sons who tired of waiting for the throne.
As for Roward the Barbarian? He realized that joining a military unit composed of people who, until a week before, had been hunting him would be bad for his health. In the sparse time allowed to gather his things, he shed his long locks and burned his leathers. His trademark sword was dropped down a privy pit where it may well sit to this day. And so it was that a clean-shaven Anois Blackridge reported for duty in non-descript fatigues. The newest humble trooper in the Emperor’s armies.
But that is a tale for another evening.

Made in us
Stealthy Warhound Titan Princeps

Nicely done! Makes me remember the good points of the 2nd movie, though I am primarily an aficionado of the first. That Matsu, sneaking off like that - jeez, he could have been a chronicler.
Made in eg
Keeper of the Adeptus Arbites Flame

Cairo, Egypt

Well if he didn't think of escaping then, he wouldn't be much of a psychic would he?

Made in us
Stealthy Warhound Titan Princeps

I like how the "bad guy" wins in this version.
Made in us
Regular Dakkanaut

St. Louis, MO

Very entertaining. This story and your last have both been fun reads.
Made in eg
Keeper of the Adeptus Arbites Flame

Cairo, Egypt

So yeah, that didn't take too long did it.

The sad thing is I had this like 90% done a year ago.


The Long Rise of Lord Blackridge
“I Shall Return in Triumph”

++The Personal Journal of Lord Blackridge++
++Part the Fourth: Soldier++

What is there to be said about the life of a soldier?
Mud, terror, blood, mud.
Mud, terror, blood, mud.
Mud, terror, blood, mud.
I was inducted into the Imperial Guard along with several hundred men and women in a field outside Lord Maximillian’s castle. We boarded a Roq 50 cargo shuttle and were lifted to a troop ship where we joined several thousand people from our world. We were then mixed with units from a dozen other worlds to refresh their numbers.
So I became Trooper Blackridge of the 331st Company of the 65th Battalion of the Ustereik Light Infantry Corps. C Platoon. I’d never heard of Ustereik before and to this day have never laid eyes on the world but I can still sing its anthems and drinking songs and recite the Emperor’s Blessing for the Sons of Ustereik.
Life is strange sometimes.
Like the other newcomers there were weeks of hazing and menial tasks which I accepted with good humor and occasional bursts of violence. My squad members soon learned to respect the brawny newcomer who could outfight most of them. Over the next few years I walked, marched, drove and crawled through a dozen or more worlds. I fought in trenches, in marshes, on hills and in cities. I killed with a rifle, a rocket launcher, a knife and, for almost a year, a Leman Russ Main Battle Tank.
I learned that on a battlefield there is no room for showmanship. No Ork will be impressed by your swordplay, no tank driver will pause to admire your clever quips. The job of a soldier is to kill them as quickly as you can without dying yourself.
There still was a place for the skills I learned in the arena and in the hills. But that place as the barracks and the troop ship. I became a skilled storyteller, embellishing or just inventing my accomplishments on the field but always being careful to praise the men around me too. I got a reputation as the most reckless card player in the regiment. I would rack up some early winnings only to lose it all on a single hand late in the evening. No one seemed to notice that I only seemed to lose to higher ranking troopers.
I became something of a star and rose from trooper, to corporal, to sergeant to warrant officer. Eventually my skills at infiltration and ambush were noted and, almost a decade after I entered the service - I ended up heading my own scout unit – Blackridge’s Buccaneers.
It was still the same job of mud, terror and blood, but at least now I had a say in where and how I would face them.
It was a good time, as good as any wartime can be. We fought well, killed some enemies and saved a lot of lives. There must be a hundred or more vid-dramas about this period, if you want to track them down. Some of them are even accurate.
It was around that time that I got my first rejuve treatment. Even I’d seen a lot of horrors in war, still it was disquieting to see a vat-grown homunculus - grown from my own skin scapings - drained of blood and vital fluids as they were pumped into me. Watching my own face wither and die was an apt reminder of how my life depended on the sacrifice of others. I threw up halfway through the process. It’s still disturbing, but over the years I’ve gotten a bit more used to it.
One time we were summoned for an urgent mission, a dozen of us were dropped from an Arvus Lighter into the foothills of some random world to reinforce a vital bunker. We hit the ground several clicks from our objective, buried our glide-chutes and marched double-time to reach it. We found it empty and dark. We had to use las-cutters to get through main hatch. Inside we found crates of ammo, shelves of rations, a working vox, and not a single soul or body. I notified the troopship of our situation and got a response to hang tight.
So we did.
A week went by. Then two. Then three. Then the troopship stopped responding to our hails. We reread our Infantryman’s Primers. When we went through the rations, we took up hunting, fishing and trapping. The hills were bare of human or other hunters and rich with game. We ate well. We swam in the river, sang songs, and wrote vulgar messages on the walls of the bunker.
Our tech, Specs found a way to ferment some of the local flora but I had to shut it down after I found the scout Landham drunk off his ass when he was supposed to be on guard duty. It wasn’t a popular decision but the men were mature enough to understand.
Nine months went by like this when the vox cracked back to life. We had just hours to hike to some clearing in the forest and be extracted by shuttle. We barely made it and were lifted back to the same troopship just as it left orbit. Was it a mistake? Were we lucky? Did my biceps intimidate the enemy, leading them to pass us over? Even today I don’t know. And honestly it’s a mystery I never tried to solve. It was a good nine months and I still remember them fondly.
It was my last quiet moment before it all went to hell.
A few months and just one or two worlds later, the troopship arrived around another world. The six of us were called to the upper decks for a meeting with Major Strongarm. At that point in the war the green-skins had been beaten back largely and now our regiment was dealing with the various recidivist and terror-cults that sprang up in their wake while Imperial and Planetary authorities were otherwise occupied. We were to drop into a tropical forest, move overland to a rebel encampment and retrieve some hostages for extraction.
I immediately objected. This was a new world and, per standard procedures, we needed a week or at least to acclimate, learn the terrain and prepare before a combat mission. Anything less and we’d be babes in the woods, unready for whatever unique challenges that world had. I skirted the edge of insubordination.
But my objections fell on deaf ears, it seemed the orders came from far above the Major’s office, from an office of a “highly inquisitive” order that did not tolerate dissent.
And that was that. Not much room for negotiation or objections once our inquisitive friends were involved. May as well ask an icon of the Emperor to come down off the shelf and give you a hand.
We were at least to be joined by an experienced operative with local knowledge. I expected some gaunt walking corpse dressed in shadowy robes but was surprised to be met by a beefy soldier in worn fatigues. And even more surprised that I knew him. Creed was his name, a smiling, talkative veteran who’d led a scout unit like mine. We’d crossed paths a few times, I remember once racing his unit to be the first to take a hill full of green-skin artillery. His boys made it first but my squad cleared out the last nest of green-skins on the hill. So I still believe we won despite his objections. Apparently he remembered and respected me and had asked for us by name.
The bastard.
Within an hour we were aboard an unmarked shuttle crewed by anonymous men in full face helmets descending towards an unknown jungle.
There were seven of us in all. Barely a half squad. But we were well-equipped and as good a commando unit as you’d find in the subsector. I’ve led a lot of men in my years, many, sadly to their deaths. And most I’ve forgotten, but these guys I remember like it was this morning.
My second was a dark-skinned sergeant by the name of Duke. He was one of those veterans who’d turned to faith for comfort as he faced the horrors of the galaxy. I wasn’t much of religious man then, or now, but I respected it and knew we could always be counted on Duke for some words of comfort or courage.
Corpus was a big man, a beast wrangler from some heavy G world in the outer systems. His weapon of choice was a massive rotary cannon I could barely lift, even without the batteries and ammo that went with it. He was a braggart with a personality that matched his size. Tiresome sometimes, but still his tales of sexual conquests livened up our drops. Years later I actually met the governor of his world, he could have been Coprus’ brother so strong was the resemblance. No doubt a function of the small genepool on those frontier worlds.
Landham was our knife man, armed with a pair of blades the claimed were blessed against any forces of darkness. I don’t know how true that was, but he was damn good at his job, able to slip in and quietly dispose of any inconvenient sentries.
Specs was our vox-man. Besides his metallic eyes, he had a few implants jutting from his skull making him a full technomat – with information literally burned into his brain. The sheer amount of facts burning through him made him an odd conversationalist. Sometimes he’d speak at length on some bit of trivia his implants fed him whether or not anyone was listening. Other times he seemed to regress to childhood, forever rereading some picture mag with an idealized tale of heroes at war. But he was our link to rest of the force and there’d be no assistance until he called for it.
Finally we had Chaves, the man was quiet but an artist with a grenade launcher, firing in graceful arcs and planting explosives where ever he needed them. One time when I was fleeing down a path chased by green-skins, Chaves managed to plant a round just a few steps behind me, spattering the green-skins but just knocking the wind out me. I threatened to kill him if he tried it again but he swore he meant to do just that.
Then there was me of course. At the time I carried a suppressed las-carbine for quiet work and a sickle-mag bolter to use once things got loud. It was a stripped-down version, a fraction of the size and weight of an Astares weapon, but with enough shock and awe to suppress most foes. Most human foes that is. The green-skins however actually seemed to enjoy the noise and explosions even as it tore them apart.
We were also carrying enough ammo, grenades, explosives, sidearms, knives and pointy sticks to equip a small army, but that was just a best practice when heading into a new situation.
It was a far cry from the days when the quartermaster would issue each of us one lasgun and bayonet for the course of a campaign.
Creed was no slouch himself with a hellgun and plasma pistol. One arm was covered by a massive powerfist. He may be serving a new master, but he still had his old habits and skills. At least I hoped he did. During the trip planetside he laughed and joked along with us but it felt a bit forced. He never mentioned his masters and we didn’t ask, but we could feel the presence of eyes behind his shoulder. We skirted certain subjects, some stories were edited for content, some of the more blasphemous oaths omitted. It was like trying to have a casual drink with a commissar. I had to remind myself to swear by the Emperor’s sword, rather than say Horus’ gonads. Despite his efforts to be friendly, Creed could sense our discomfort. His smile was sometimes as forced as our conversation. He wasn’t another trooper, he’d moved beyond us and could have us all condemned to death with a word. Today, with centuries of hindsight I realize his forced smile hid loneliness. He thought he could return to our world, be just another trooper for a while but listening to us he realized he could never come back.
I sympathize.
The rebel encampment was deep in the jungle. We were inserted in an abandoned logging camp two days march from the rebels. We’d go in on foot to avoid detection and catch them off guard. Creed had fought on this particular backwater world before and filled us in on its hazards and quirks. We made good time. It was the morning of the second day and I was consulting the maps, guessing how much farther it was when Landham told me I didn’t have to bother.
The tangy smell of smoke hit us before the carnal stench of death. An unknown force reached the rebel camp before us. And killed everyone. The attack had happened days before, scavengers were already feasting on their bounty.
We proceeded with caution, whoever did this might still be around. But it soon became clear that the butcher’s work had been concluded.
Creed pulled a cover over his mouth and nose and headed into the blood-splattered command hut. Rooting through it he found data crystals and cognator wheels. Whoever had attacked hadn’t touched the valuable information. Or anything else for that matter. Duke emerged from another hut with a handful of local scrip and currency. Corpus helped himself to a box of cigars left on a table. Chaves found a handful of incendiary grenades. The entire encampment was untouched, but for the corpses.
It was Landham who found her. A young woman hiding under a tarp, when he raised it she screamed and started babbling in the local pidgin. Creed spoke a bit of it and it was close to a dialect I’d learned a few worlds ago, but what we could follow made no sense. She claimed the jungle had come to life and killed the rebels with fire and claws. It sounded like superstitious drivel and she kept repeating it along with pleas to get out of these now. With some effort we finally got her name Lapidia. Was she a rebel, a servant, a prisoner? She didn’t say or if she did we couldn’t understand. We decided to bring her back for questioning.
Then Specs cried out screaming like a sheltered scribe rather than a seasoned vet. He’d found a half dozen flayed corpses hanging from a tree a few hundred meters from the rebel camp. Besides the stench and the flies something else made them impossible to miss. His vox set was picking up Imperial transponders. We cut the bodies down and Specs confirmed it, each had an Imperial transponder implanted his neck. They Tempestus Scions, elite troopers, but with their unit number and names blanked.
We turned to Creed and demanded answers.
Reluctantly he admitted that we were not the first team sent after these rebels. A team of Inquisition troopers had been dispatched over a week ago. We were sent when they stopped reporting back.
So we were the second wave and no one had bothered to tell us. All professionalism and fear of Creed’s presumed masters broke down.
Under a torrent of abuse and complaints Creed muttered something insincere about being sorry it worked out this way and we finally moved on. It was a two-day hike back to the extraction point.
I think it was Specs who mentioned it, while the rebels were killed and left the rot, the dead Scions had been butchered skillfully and hung with care. It was an ominous sign. Whoever did this had enough skill and contempt to not just kill, but kill artfully, taking time and care. And it showed our foe didn’t care if we knew it was out there, quite the opposite, it wanted us to know.
Despite the situation calling for speed and silence, the men whispered and gossiped as we headed back. What could have done that, why, and how do we stop it, were the main points. Duke even whispered the word, the one word you never said, or even thought too loudly, in the presence of our Inquisitive friends. I hissed at him and pointed at Creed. The men shut up for a while.
It was a few hours into the hike, with sunset approaching when we heard the fall, and shout and the breaking branches. Creed’s prisoner had made a run for it. I told the men to split up after her. Petty vengeance might have felt nice but we were professionals.
We heard Spec’s scream and ran. We arrived to find Lapidia curled into a ball, splattered with blood. Specs’ corpse lay in front of her, headless.
Duke almost killed her when he arrived, screaming and slamming her against a tree he pulled out his knife. I ordered him to stop, repeating it two or three times until training took over and he let her down. I carefully explained that the girl had not killed Specs, could not have killed Specs, and we had to find out how did. He nodded a few times and caught his breath. Disaster averted.
The girl began to babble but all we could get was something about the jungle came alive and killed him.
We all thought the word but Duke actually said it.
I lost my own composure and screamed at them to shut up. Then looking at his body I saw something else, his vox was gone. We were deaf and dumb. I ordered them to fan out in pairs, we had to find that vox. And Specs’ head if possible.
We found what was left of the vox set fairly quickly but never found Spec’s head. The technomat was always an odd one, prone to telling dirty jokes that were almost, but never actually, funny. Like someone had taught him what a joke was but he could never put all the pieces together. And now he was gone.
I was looking at his corpse when I heard the unmistakable din of Corpus’ rotary cannon followed by the whip-crack of a plasma weapon. As we ran we heard the rotary cannon fire again and it was joined by the barks and cracks of other weapons. We emerged and joined in, our lasers, bullets, grenades and shells clearing a strip long enough for a shuttle to land. It was a pretty impressive display.
Finally we stopped, more out of a shortage of munitions than anything else. We took stock. Corpus was dead, a hole burned clear through his torso. Duke still clutched his now-empty rotary cannon, its hot barrels still spinning, aiming at a target none of us could see. He’d found Corpus already dead and seen… something a shadow, an outline something and opened fire. Inspected the burned jungle we found no corpse but a small patch of vivid blood. He’s hit something, and hurt it. And I knew that if it bled, we could kill it.
By then the sun was setting and were isolated in a strange jungle. Even without a monster hunting us, our little ejaculation of firepower made enough noise to announce ourselves to any rebels remaining in the area. Though with luck it had also scared them away.
I made the command decision to continue. Yes tromping through enemy territory at night while being hunted was a bad idea, but there was no defensible position available for us to fortify and the sooner we got to our extraction point the better. I still say it was the right call, even after everything that happened.
Creed kept trying to interrogate the girl Lapida. All he could get out of her were stories from her grandmother about daemons who come when summer is hottest and hunt the strongest.
That word again.
That word was going to get us all killed.
If the daemon didn’t kill us first.
Duke died next, we never even saw it. One minute he was muttering under his breath about the mission, about our inquisitive overseers, about Creed and about that word we don’t say in mixed company. The next his head rolled from his shoulders. We opened fire of course for all the good it did. A half hour later, once it was obvious our stalker was done for now, we wrapped Duke’s headless body in his pancho and Landham, like Duke a man of faith, said a few words. Then we incinerated Duke with a plasma grenade. And then we moved on.
We never found his head.
We made good time through the jungle, even as we backtracked, created false trails and left booby traps behind us. It seemed our stalker scared off any local predators as well as the rebels we’d been sent to fight. Even the insects barely bothered us. The sun was rising when we reached the river. It cut a broad gully through the jungle, cliffs a hundred meters high led to the river below. The only way across was a narrow bridge made from a fallen tree. A tactics textbook could not have provided a better choke point.
Sure our hunter may have a skimmer or jump pack but the foliage was far too thick for it to follow us that way. It had to be tracking us overland, using the foliage for cover. Well that would end here.
Landham took one look at the bridge and smiled. He gestured for us to go on. Creed tried to argue but I cut him off. One thing I’ve learned in this business is that when a man expects to die, there’s not much point in trying to stop him.
I looked back after crossing and he had drawn his two silvered combat blades. He’d told me once they’d been blessed by some Cardinal or Hierophant on some cathedral world or another and blessed against the Xenos and the Daemon. I sincerely hoped it was true and not just another soldier’s tale.
But more than that, I hope he died well.
We were a few miles down the path by then when we first heard his war cry, and then his scream, and then nothing else. Now it was just Creed, Lapida and I. And at least a day’s march to the pick up.
We could feel it getting closer, like a breath on your shoulder. We abandoned any pretense of an organized march and just pushed forward, silent except to consult our maps and confirm our course. Then we reached the clearing.
It was a perfect circle, the underbrush brush burned to ash. And in the center a pile of heads. Some unknown to me, but with the heads of Specs, Corpus, Chaves, Duke and Landham topping it.
The hunter had already passed us and had time enough to leave this message. Creed and I looked at each other. I saw him glance at a tree, his gaze lingered for a second too long. I understood. We both turned away as if to return to the woods, then we spun and fired, expending whatever ammunition we had left, vaporizing the top third of the tree. I could see something, a prism of colors, move and fired again at it. There was a flash of light from the tree line and Creed fell dead, a smoking hole in his chest. I ran and reached the trees just as another flash of light burned a smoking crater in the dirt.
Through all of this Lapida stood in the clearing stunned into silence.
And still the unarmed girl was unharmed.
Afterall there was no sport in hunting toothless prey.
“Run! Go! Get to the shuttle!” I commanded. “Move!” I gestured a direction. And finally she ran.
In my haste and fear my native accent must have been strong. ‘Shuttle’ no doubt came out ‘shutta!’ but she got the point and ran. I met her years later, married to some mid-level Imperial functionary and mother of eight children. No doubt some of them went on to serve as I did.
More shots came from the forest, one striking me in the back and setting my flak vest alight. I cut the straps loose and tossed it away, my remaining grenades blowing another hole in the green. Unarmored, unarmed but for my blade I leapt into a river and was swept away.
I emerged miles away and hiked into the jungle. I was without illusions. The explosion and my disappearance might lose the hunter for a brief time but it would look for me and without a charred corpse, and especially without a head, it would continue to search.
I used the time well. I carved sharp stakes, I set traps, I prepared the battlefield and myself. I would never make it to the shuttle. I would die. I knew that. I was no superman, no better than my squad, no smarter than the storm troopers and rebels who’d already fallen. Just luckier. All I wanted from my remaining luck was to take the bastard with me.
By the time night fell I heard something, leaves rustling over the camp, branches breaking. In the past the hunter had been silent, perhaps we’d wounded it, or maybe it was just cocky. It landed in my camp in a blur of color and looked around. Its gaze crossed over me twice without stopping. It stared at the small fire I’d built.
I sprung.
I’d covered myself in thick mud and lay against a hillside almost invisible, even to heat-sight and other tricks. And the fire, normally a dead giveaway in enemy territory, was a distraction blinding night vision.
Ok. Maybe I was smarter than the others. I will give myself that.
My knife struck the center of the hunter’s body and my charge took it off of its feet, we rolled down a hill in a deadly embrace as my knife rose and fell into its body.
The halo of colors that hid it faded. It was revealed as a woman-like body, white as a corpse and stretched like the victim of a rack. Her face was angular and pointed, like a knife in human form, even the ears were like blades, and the long white hair like a bale of barbed wire. She was beautiful in some ways, but alien and repulsive at the same time.
She gave as good as she got. Almost.
One arm had long claws, they entered my side, I jerked my arm down and held it as I struck with her elbow with the knife twice until her forearm was cut free. She jerked back hissing and clutching the wound. More vividly colored blood fell on the jungle floor. We circled each other warily. She still had one arm and an unknown number of tricks. I was still on my feet but would fall to blood loss soon.
She miss-stepped. Her foot caught on a vine, a bent branch swung outward and three sharp spikes impaled her stomach. Proper preparation of the battlefield had proven its value again! I rushed forward and drove my blade deep into her breast, she slumped to the ground.
And then she laughed.
She held up her arm, a gauntlet blinked with alien runes. The runes changed. Rapidly.
Despite the wounds and blood loss I ran. As fast as I possibly could.
I heard the thunder of the explosion, I felt the blast wave carry me off of my feet, the world went white.
The blast cleared nearly a half mile of jungle fusing the earth into black glass. The blast wave knocked down trees and killed small animals. It was visible from orbit.
And that is how Warrant Officer Blackridge died.
Though it was hardly the end of my story.

This message was edited 1 time. Last update was at 2022/05/15 07:54:11

Made in us
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