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The Gray Tiger
Part 1 <> Part 2 <> Part 3 <> Writing the Story of "The Gray Tiger"
The Gray Tiger
(Part 1) Original
concept by Thom White
He woke before dawn and silently made his way out of the one-room hut where he lived alone, a few miles from the village. He went to the edge of the lake and slipped the wooden boat into the cold, dark water. He paddled to the same spot as he had every day for 13 years. He lowered his nets. And he waited.
As the boat gently listed, he began his daily prayer ritual to the Vedic gods. He thanked the Brahman, the Sleeping Emperor, for his dream that continued to shape the universe. He thanked Dyavaprthivi for bringing order to the earth and sky. He thanked Ushas for the coming dawn, Ganga for the water of the lake, Annapoorneswari for the fish that would soon be gathered in his net. He thanked Vishnu the Preserver for allowing him to awaken this morning, and he asked Ganesha to show him the Path to Enlightenment. Lastly, he prayed to Varuna, the god of oaths:
Please forgive me for what I have failed to do.
The net was small, only large enough for his needs. It did not take long to fill. Sudra hauled in his food for the day and began paddling back to shore. As the daystar Regulus began to rise over Veda, he looked across the water at the village. With his keen eyes, he watched the people emerge from their homes and begin their daily tasks. None came, as he had, to fish: the people of this village, like their ancestors, were strict vegetarians according to the ancient belief of ahimsa, living without violence, followed in many parts of the continent Ghuyarashtra. Sudra, however, did not follow the practice.
But then, Sudra was not one of the
villagers. He was harijan, untouchable. He was not allowed
to live within the village. He was not allowed to be seen or spoken to.
And as the sun rose higher and he neared his hovel along the shore, he
could not bring himself to look across the lake at the gleaming white fortress
where he used to serve as a Fighting Tiger Space Marine.
The sun rose higher as the day went on.
“By the Emperor, it’s hot,” Commissar Acosta growled. “I have traveled to 67 worlds in my career,” Acosta told the Fighting Tiger beside him. “None of them were as hot as this one.”
“The Commissar has unfortunately arrived at the height of the dry season here in Ghuyarashtra. The monsoons will not come for another eight weeks at least.” Outwardly, Daksha Ram, Tiger of Varuna, oozed sympathy. Inwardly, the Fighting Tiger Chaplain was pleased at Acosta’s discomfort.
The two men and their aides stood on a balcony of the Fighting Tiger fortress and watched thousands of native men—newly conscripted into the Imperial Guard—drill under the blazing sun. Acosta and his ships had come eight days ago with orders to raise the First Vedic Regiment. Within a few more days, after all the requisitioned supplies had been gathered and loaded, Acosta and the recruits would be off to serve on Armageddon, where Ghazghull Thraka’s Orks had fought the Imperium to a standstill. Similar circumstances existed on Auros IX, where the majority of the Fighting Tigers were at a stalemate against the greenskins. With his superior, Raja Shamshir Talatra, off-world, Daksha Ram was in charge—and had to tolerate Commissar Acosta for the time being.
A large, black, hairy, flying insectoid landed on Acosta’s neck and bit his pale flesh. Acosta winced and crushed the four-legged pest with his black-gloved palm. He wiped off its bluish-green ichor on a handkerchief. “Another of those vile things. What did they feed upon before humans came to this godforsaken place?”
“I can only hope that the Commissar received all the proper inoculations before his arrival. Those mahisasura flies are known as carriers of several fatal diseases.”
If the thought upset Acosta, he did not seem to show it. He was a short, fat man, middle-aged, most of his nose shot off long ago. The sweat poured down his ugly face from beneath his black peaked cap. Like all the other Commissars Daksha Ram had met, Acosta was meticulously tidy, his black uniform fully pressed and buttoned all the way up despite the searing mid-day heat.
Beneath his white turban, Daksha Ram’s shaved head was sweating as well, but the rest of him, of course, was cool inside his yellow and brown armor. Daksha Ram stroked his short graying beard thoughtfully. “Perhaps the Commissar would care to reschedule the training exercises for later in the day, when the heat is less severe. It is traditional at this time of day—”
“No,” Acosta snapped. “I’ve had enough of these natives of yours lazing about. The Emperor has no patience for idleness. There’s a war on, damn it, and these men are needed right away.”
“As the Commissar wishes, of course,” Daksha Ram replied.
For Daksha Ram, the Commissar could not leave soon enough. Like most Fighting Tiger Chaplains, Daksha Ram had enjoyed a life of solitude and contemplation, suffering little contact with off-worlders save on the battlefield. Dharma, sacred duty, forced Daksha Ram to welcome Acosta and serve him to the best of his abilities, but he still had great difficulty feeling anything but revulsion in the Commissar’s presence. Fortunately, Daksha Ram had much more patience than his hot-headed Raja.
“What are those?” Acosta snapped. Daksha Ram followed the Commissar’s gaze across the fields, past the thousands of Vedic men marching, exercising, or training with their new weapons, down to the edge of the lake. Not far from the native village was a herd of animals approaching to drink.
Daksha Ram struggled for a moment with the Imperial Gothic he had learned long ago. “Cattle, Commissar. Vast herds of these animals are found throughout the land.”
“Excellent.” He turned to Fletcher, his aide-de-camp. “I want hunting parties formed. Bring along some of those horrible Ratlings too. I want men out at all time of the day and night. Free up some Sentinels if you can. I want as much beef as you can harvest. Gods! Perhaps I’ll come along as well. If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s a good hunt.”
“Please re-think your order, Commissar Acosta. I cannot permit the harming of those animals,” Daksha Ram said.
Acosta looked at Daksha Ram incredulously. “What?”
“Those animals are sacred according to ancient Vedic tradition.”
“Twaddle,” Acosta replied. “There’s a war on. These men—and the men already serving on Armageddon—will need to be fed. You see sacred animals. I see supplies.” He turned back to Fletcher, who was standing there, hesitant. “Carry out the orders.”
“The native people in this area do not eat meat, Commissar Acosta. They would sooner put excrement in their mouths than the flesh of the gae.”
“They can suit themselves. There are plenty of men already on Armageddon who will be happy to eat what you Vedics don’t want.”
Inwardly, Daksha Ram fumed. Acosta was one of the many who mistook politeness for weakness. So be it, Daksha Ram thought. I must follow my dharma.
He nodded to his bodyguard and, as one, they inserted fresh magazines into their bolters. “There will be no harming of the gae, Commissar. Not so long as the Tigers rule Veda.”
Fletcher blanched. “Commissar, may I suggest…”
Never taking his eyes off Daksha Ram and the other Fighting Tigers, Acosta raised one black-gloved hand, silencing Fletcher. “I would remind you, Space Marine,” Acosta said, as if the title was somehow derogatory, “that my orders are to take any measures necessary to recruit and supply men for Armageddon. My orders come from very high up within the Administratum. Very high.”
“My orders come from the gods of Veda, Commissar. As I am what you would call a Chaplain, it is my sacred duty to carry out the will of the gods.”
No one said anything for several moments.
“Fine,” Acosta said, at last. “Keep your cattle. Make a note of this incident, Fletcher. I shall see to it that a report is submitted to my superiors. Ancient traditions have their place, Daksha Ram, but not when millions of men are dying for the Emperor.”
“The Tigers of Veda have defied the Administratum before to preserve their traditions and way of life. If necessary, we shall defy the Administratum again.”
“Quite.” Still coolly eyeing Daksha Ram, he said, “Frequency and duration of rest periods for the recruits will be halved. Rations will be reduced by one-third…” He turned to his aide. “Fletcher! What are you staring at?”
Fletcher suddenly snapped to attention. “I’m sorry, Commissar. There was something strange moving down there by the cattle.”
“Where?” Acosta took the monocular from his belt and looked through it. “Show— wait, I see it. Magnificent. What is that?”
With his enhanced eyesight, Daksha Ram needed no monocular. The great cat padded toward the lake, ignoring the gae. The tiger—its pelt a yellowy tan, its stripes medium brown—was lean, its legs and tail long, built for running. It waded into the water and drank. The cattle slowly moved off.
“That is a male Ghuyarashtran tiger,” Daksha Ram answered. “Few animals can match its speed. It is also sacred and may not be hunted.”
“These tigers—do they hunt the cattle?” Fletcher asked.
“They do,” Daksha Ram answered. “Indeed, there is no animal in Ghuyarashtra they do not prey upon.”
“Why is the tiger ignoring them, then?”
“The tiger has sense enough not to hunt during the heat of the day,” Daksha Ram replied. “Look,” he said, pointing to the high grass. “There is its mate.”
A female tiger, smaller, with white fur and brown stripes, appeared. It sniffed the air, regarded the men drilling a few hundred yards away, and decided they were no threat. It joined the male in the water.
“The female’s eyes are red,” Acosta said.
“That is correct, Commissar,” Daksha Ram replied. “Do you care for animals?”
“No,” Acosta replied. “I despise animals. But I enjoy hunting.” He put away his monocular. “However, Daksha Ram, I shall see to it that my men and I do not violate any of your quaint Vedic traditions. We shall finish our task here and be off as soon as possible.”
“As the Commissar wishes.”
“Indeed,” Acosta replied. Daksha
Ram did not care for the smirk on the Commissar’s face.
The hot summer day went on. Sudra sat naked on the edge of the lake, washed his clothes with a stone, then hung them to dry on a limb of a nearby kalpaka tree. For a while he looked across the water and watched two tigers, one male and one female, sport together in the lake. They roared their pleasure when they finished, then loped off into the high grass.
Across the water and to his left was the fortress where the Vedic men—many of them from the village nearby—trained. Never before had an Imperial Guard Regiment been raised from this planet. Until recently, there had not been a large enough male population to warrant such an undertaking. For a moment, Sudra wondered why it was happening now. Perhaps it is a sign, he thought.
He seated himself on a large stone outside his hovel, crossed his legs, and began to meditate, whispering verses from the Rigsamayajur Ghuyarashtra, the sacred book of prayers and lore. He let his mind go blank, and soon he was deep in contemplation, oblivious to the searing heat, the lap of the water against the shore, the faint voices of the fighting men across the lake.
Sweat poured down him and once, a mahisasura fly tried in vain to pierce his leathery skin. He sat, perfectly still, for hours. He was no longer a Fighting Tiger but he was still a Space Marine. He stirred at last as the daystar Regulus was sinking in the sky. Sudra stood and donned his clothes, a simple set of linen breeches and a short, loose-fitting tunic, both a light tan color.
He fought to quell his excitement.
His meditations had offered him some hint. Tonight he would set out for
Meru, the sacred mountain that lay to the east, where he would fast and
meditate some more. And perhaps, if he proved himself, then Krishna, god
of mercy, would show him what he needed to do.
Lord Syryx Lynatharr, Archon of the Kabal of the Ozone Scorpions, drank deeply from the stone bowl. He finished the thick, purple elixir, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and handed the bowl back to the naked, emaciated human slave boy who attended him. The boy bowed deeply before Lynatharr and carried the bowl away, deeper into the caves where the Dark Eldar made their lair.
“That was awful,” Lynatharr said. Like all the other Ozone Scorpions, his skin was jet black, his hair icy white, his eyes a burning, ghoulish red. Exposure to strange radiation deep within the area of space known as the Maelstrom had mutated all of the Scorpions, but especially Lynatharr: when he spoke, his forked yellow tongue, coated in purple spots, lashed over thousands of needle-like teeth. Some of his braver followers whispered that he concealed other, more loathsome mutations beneath his blue and silver armor.
“Yes, just awful, awful, awful,” Lynatharr agreed with himself. Even under the influence of Dr. Jheste’s calming elixirs, Lynatharr often rambled and repeated himself. The master of the Ozone Scorpions leaned back in his stony throne and began rubbing his hands together. “One day, I shall have you flayed alive for making me drink such vile glop,” he said to his chief Haemonculus.
“Doubtless you shall.” Underneath his silver facemask, Dr. Jheste sighed.
“You’ve made me take your nasty medicine,” Lynatharr whined. “Now go away.”
Lynatharr’s Warrior guards, seated at his feet on the floor of the cave, laughed. “Go away, Doctor, go away,” sang a female Warrior with one breast—the other had been hacked off years ago by an Ork choppa. “We’ll send our payment later,” she added. She finished her own drink—a clear liquor made from human spinal fluids—and threw the stone bowl at the Haemonculus. He sidestepped nimbly.
“I have tarried this long to inform you that I shall be going away for a few days, great Archon.”
“Why?” Lynatharr demanded. “Who said you could leave me?”
“I must gather more ingredients for your next dose of elixir, Great One. I regret that I have exhausted my supplies.”
“How dare you? I should have you slowly devoured by sand mites,” the Archon snapped. He pondered this for a few moments, nibbling on one of the seven fingers of his left hand. “Well, go on then,” he decided. “Leave your toy here and—”
“The way is dangerous: I shall require my Talos, my lord.”
“I SAID LEAVE IT HERE!” Lynatharr shrieked. He leapt to his feet and pulled a barbed knife from his belt. His guard stood; some drew their weapons, others waited, smirking. “DID YOU HEAR ME? I SAID LEAVE IT HERE! I SAID LEAVE IT HERE! I SAID—!”
“Yes, yes, Great One, as you wish,” Jheste replied, soothingly. Lynatharr threw himself back into his throne and began rubbing his hands together again. The Warriors sat down again, some of them softly chuckling.
“Have Eklavdrah escort you,” Lynatharr added, calm again. “Find your ingredients and come back quickly, Doctor. I would be lost without you.” Genuine tears welled in the Archon’s eyes.
“Of course, my lord,” the Haemonculus
assured him. “There, there.” For a long time, Dr. Jheste held the sobbing
Archon, murderer of thousands, until the medicine took effect.
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