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The Gray Tiger
Part 1 <> Part 2 <> Part 3 <> Writing the Story of "The Gray Tiger"
The Gray Tiger
No, I have forgotten nothing, he thought to himself. He left.
The shadows lengthened as the sun
went down. In the corner of the hovel, Sudra’s Space Marine armor—gray
and without ornamentation save a few tiger stripes on the left shoulder—hung
silently on its wooden rack, awaiting his return.
Evening came to Veda, and with it, the traditional evening meal. The handful of Fighting Tigers left behind to man the Ghuyarashtran fortress gathered in the main hall, where they joined Daksha Ram and the visiting Imperial Guard officers—all of them except Commissar Acosta.
“The Commissar has taken ill,” Fletcher announced. “He regrets that he cannot join us for dinner.”
“A pity,” Daksha Ram replied. “Please extend our sympathies to the Commissar. Should he be in need, the services of our infirmary are, of course, at his disposal.”
Should he survive long enough
to return to the infirmary, Daksha Ram thought to himself. He had a
very good idea where Commissar Acosta was, and nights on the plains of
Ghuyarashtra could be dangerous.
“Here,” Acosta said, holding the electric torch with one gloved hand and feeling along the edges of the pawprint with the other hand. “You see? The tigers came out of the lake here.” He stood, shining the light into the high grass. “And there is where they went.”
Chubb, the Ratling, chittered to him in a tongue the six accompanying Guardsmen— longtime bodyguards, not native recruits—did not understand. Acosta did, of course. “Yes, you’re right,” the Commissar replied, and the Ratling nodded, grinning.
Acosta retrieved his laser rifle
from the Guardsmen he had entrusted it to. “We’ll follow them through the
grass,” Acosta said. “Single file. Chubb first, then me, then the rest
of you. Keep close and keep the noise down. Emperor alone knows what sort
of beastly things might be out here at night.”
“So I take it we are not here to find ingredients,” Eklavdrah said. She was tall, lean, and beautiful. Her long white hair hung down to her heels and her jet-black skin bore an attractive—in Dark Eldar standards, anyway—amount of scars.
“Don’t be stupid,” Jheste replied. Among the Ozone Scorpions, only he and Lynatharr would dare to speak to Eklavdrah so, for she was quick—even for one of the Dark Eldar—and skilled with many weapons.
“Then what are we here for? I hate this place.” She had been less than overjoyed to hear that she and her underlings were to follow Jheste through the webway to Veda, but at least night had fallen. “The heat, the humidity, these damned insects. Ugh.” She tore a leaf from an azghe bush and the leaf withered at her bare touch, its green rapidly fading to brown, the edges curling like a scroll being rolled up, until the leaf crumbled to bits. “I hate plants,” she growled.
“Do stop whining,” Jheste replied, absently. They were standing on a low, grassy hill a mile or so from the Ghuyarastran fortress. Nearby, Eklavdrah’s followers waited, some of them lounging on the running boards of their Raider, some of them wandering in the grass. They all remembered Veda, of course. It had been the Scorpions’ home millennia ago, before the Fighting Tigers had come and chased them away.
Jheste adjusted the eyepieces on his viewer as he stared down at the hundreds of campfires before the fortress. At his feet was a horrid joining of Vedic rodent and gleaming Dark Eldar machinery, a twitching, twisted, furry animal with metal pseudopods for limbs and cameras for eyes. “Yes,” the Haemonculus announced. “It is good that we have come. It is as my pet informed me the other day. My suspicions are confirmed.”
“What suspicions?” Eklavdrah said.
“At Lynatharr’s request, I have been keeping an eye for some time now on our old enemies, the Fighting Tigers. I have created many of these dear little things here,” he said, pointing to the cyborg animal, “to act as my eyes and ears. And finally, I have learned something that will immensely please our Archon.”
“You’re boring me to no end,” she snapped, taking the viewer from Jheste. She peered down at the campfires. “What am I looking at?”
Jheste sighed. “If you will curb your impatience and take a few moments to study those fires, you will find that there are thousands of native Vedic men camped in front of the Tigers’ fortress.”
“Yes, I see that. So?”
“So take a look up at the fortress.”
Eklavdrah did so. Here and there, a Space Marine in yellow and brown armor paced atop a high stone wall or stood, bolter held ready, at the window of an onion-domed tower.
“So?” she demanded. If this old fool wasn’t the only one of us who knew the webway portal code, she thought to herself, I might skin him alive just for something to do.
“So no one is there at the fortress. It is mostly empty.”
Eklavdrah looked again. She could see many lights burning in the windows, but no shadows moving within. And now that Jheste mentioned it, she noticed that there were very few guards keeping watch.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Humans, even Space Marines, generate an awful lot of waste: for example, bodily excrement and trash by-products from their machinery, tools, and devices. My pets have spent a lot of time sniffing around their dumps—and for several months now, their trash heaps have not grown significantly.”
“Maybe they’ve found a new way to dispose of their garbage. They’re awfully clever for mon-keigh, you know.”
“Space Marines also conduct a lot of training. They’re very obsessive about it. Yet for quite some time, my pet here has heard very little bolter fire on the Tigers’ practice range. And that’s not all. No maneuvers, no exercises, no drills, nothing.”
Eklavdrah had to admit that perhaps the doctor had something here. “So they’ve gone off somewhere.”
“Yes. And they’ve been gone for some time.”
She turned her attention back to the campfires. “What are they doing there?”
“Who knows?” Jheste shrugged. “My pets saw them arrive in dribs and drabs a few days ago. Perhaps they’re some kind of reinforcements. I notice that many of them have Imperial laser rifles, but they have no tanks or heavy support weapons.”
Jheste took the viewer from Eklavdrah and tucked it back into his Ork-hide pouch. “All I know is that there are thousands of lightly-armed mon-keigh camped in front of a fortress that would be no defense against us. Imagine how happy our Archon would be to not only snare himself a very large dinner, but to do it right on the doorstep of our old enemies.”
“And who knows?” Eklavdrah mused. “If the fortress is mostly empty, then it should be easy to take. Perhaps we could arrange a very unpleasant homecoming for the dear, sweet Tigers.”
The two turned as Vhlondryll, Eklavdrah’s partner, approached. “Come quick,” she said, and they followed her behind the parked Raider, where the rest of the Dark Eldar were looking down the other side of hill. Two faint lights were approaching.
“Before we go back and tell Lynatharr
what we’ve found, Doctor,” Eklavdrah said, “we really ought to have some
Sudra froze. He had been walking for several hours now, crossing the dark plain with his long strides, his sandals making no noise. Something was moving up ahead in the high grass. Something that was trying to be quiet.
He put down his sack and slipped off his waterskin. He drew the stone knife he had carved with his hands and waited in a fighting stance. It was useless to run: the animals of Ghuyarashtra were swifter than any man, even a Space Marine. He recalled the ancient tale of how Shiva Nagordarika, the first Chapter Master of the Fighting Tigers, had slain an attacking tiger with naught but a knife. Vishnu preserve me, he thought, but I am not the warrior that Shiva was.
He heard the low rasp of the tiger before it appeared. It padded out of the grass, eyes blazing in the moonlight, and stopped. It was a male—it had to be the same one Sudra had seen earlier today, for tigers were territorial, each pair claiming an area of several hundred miles, and they allowed no others to roam their hunting grounds. It had blood on its jaws and forepaws.
The female, ghostly white in the darkness and similarly bloodied, emerged. Sudra relaxed and stood still. The tigers had recently fed and so long as he did not provoke them, he had little to fear. Tigers occasionally preyed on lone humans but usually did not consider them as intruders to their territory. The tigers looked at him, mouths agape to better catch his scent, then padded off.
Mindful of what he had been taught as a Scout about the behavior of Vedic tigers, Sudra stood still for a long time until he was certain they were gone and not merely watching him from cover. Finally, he gathered up his things and set off again, lost in memories of his days as a Scout. Suddenly, two lights appeared out of the darkness.
How careless of me to be caught so, he cursed. Again I fail. He dropped his sack and drew his stone blade again. Voices. Human voices, in a language Sudra didn’t recognize at first, for it had been over 80 years since he had used Imperial Gothic and the speaker had a strange accent. Still, Sudra could understand most of what was said.
“I asked you a question: what is your name?” a voice demanded. His eyes adjusting to the light, Sudra could see that the speaker was a short, fat man with a severe crewcut and almost no nose. He was dressed in dark fatigues. One hand held an electric torch, the other a lasgun. Hiding behind him was a greasy-nosed Ratling with filthy bare feet.
“You are to hide yourself from all humankind,” Sudra remembered Chaplain Daksha Ram telling him. “If you are seen, you are not to speak to anyone. For what you have failed to do, you are forbidden to communicate with anyone, ever again. You are harijan, untouchable.”
Sudra hung his head and said nothing.
“I don’t think he understands you, Commissar,” another voice said. “Looks like a local.”
“Yeah,” another voice agreed. “But a damned big local. What have they been feeding him?”
“Something a lot better than what they’re feeding us,” a third voice grumbled.
“Quiet,” Acosta growled. He handed one of the Guardsman his weapon, wiped his brow with a handkerchief, and approached Sudra. “Look at me,” he commanded.
Sudra kept staring at his sandals.
Acosta reached out to lift Sudra’s chin and the disgraced Space Marine leapt back, hands out. With a cry, the Guardsmen raised their lasguns. Acosta waved them off.
“No one may see you,” he remembered Daksha Ram telling him. “No one may speak to you. No one may touch you. May Vishnu have mercy on you if you fail in this, as well.”
“We’re not going to hurt you, my friend,” Acosta smiled. “We’re out looking for tigers. You know—tigers?” Acosta cupped his hands to his head to simulate ears, then did his best to impersonate a tiger’s roar. The Guardsmen and the Ratling chuckled. Sudra looked away.
What is he talking about? Sudra wondered. Does he recognize what I used to be?
“Two tigers,” Acosta insisted, holding up two fingers in front of Sudra’s face. “A male and a female. Two. Two. Have you seen them?”
No, he doesn’t recognize what I was. Not yet, anyway. But they are hunting sacred animals— somehow I must send word to Raja Shamshir about this.
The Ratling chittered something but the Commissar ignored him. Sudra turned away and picked up his things again.
“Hey, I’m not finished with you,” Acosta said, and grabbed Sudra’s arm. Sudra pulled away and held his hand up in front of the Commissar.
May Vishnu have mercy on me, he thought, and said, in broken Imperial Gothic: “Please, let me go.”
“How ‘bout that?” one of the Guardsmen said. “The local can talk.”
Acosta’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you? What are you? Why are out here all by yourself?”
As a Fighting Tiger, Sudra had fought Orks and Chaos Space Marines and had known fear, but not fear like this. He did not know what I was, he realized. But he is beginning to suspect. Bad enough to be a Gray Tiger. Worse that others should learn what a Gray Tiger is.
“Get him!” Acosta bellowed. The Guardsmen lurched after him through the high grass.
They shall not catch me, Sudra vowed. And they would not, for he was still a Space Marine and could sprint for hours, long after they, mere humans, would tire. And he knew the land. Like a tiger, he sprang almost silently through the grass that grew almost as tall as he did, while the Guardsmen crashed and stumbled along after. He could see in the dark but they could not. He smiled grimly and spared a glance back. He had already lost them.
Then there was a screeching whine and suddenly the moon was blotted out above him. Something blue and silver somersaulted out of the sky and stabbed him in the chest with a blade. He crumpled—from close by, he heard the Guardsmen scream in terror as laser fire burst through the air. The blue and silver shape pounced on Sudra. Roaring like a tiger, he reached up and snapped its neck before it could finish him off, then dragged himself and the corpse deeper into the grass.
The wound was high, up by his clavicle, but it was not bad. The blue and silver shape was a Dark Eldar Warrior, his neck bent grotesquely, his red eyes staring sightlessly up into the moon. But he was no ordinary Dark Eldar: his skin was jet-black, and his hair snow-white. On his armor was a blue insectoid rune.
An Ozone Scorpion. Our ancient enemies. Here on Veda.
He stood, half-crouching, and looked through the high grass. The Dark Eldar had found Acosta and the Guardsmen and were butchering them. Slowly. It had been many years since Sudra had heard screams like that.
He looked down at the corpse of the Dark Eldar. It was already dissipating.
Sudra ran. And ran. And kept running.
Dr. Jheste’s mouth left the withered Guardsman’s and the Haemonculus sighed contentedly. As he stood, the shriveled corpse—that almost an hour ago had been a young man running through the high grass—crumbled to dust. “Eklavdrah,” he said, replacing his silver mask, “sometimes, you have excellent ideas.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” She was reclining next to Commissar Acosta. Recognizing him as the leader, they had stunned him and stripped him, stretched out his ample flesh and driven stakes through it to fasten him to the ground. One of Jheste’s concoctions kept him awake. Another kept him from bleeding to death. A third was enhancing the sensitivity of every nerve ending in his body.
Acosta shuddered. Though the Ghuyarashtran night was sticky and hot, he felt cold and shivered uncontrollably.
Eklavdrah ran one long fingernail along Acosta’s chest, drawing blood. She lapped it up with her tongue, the flesh where her tongue touched him dying and turning gray as she absorbed his life essence. He moaned.
“I’m jealous of your new lover,” Vhlondryll smirked. She and Nethyalyn were amusing themselves with the bound, squirming Ratling.
“My relationship with him is purely physical, my love,” Eklavdrah replied, and they laughed.
Jheste looked around. The other Dark Eldar were cleaning their weapons or finishing the last Guardsmen. “Where is Tormyll?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Eklavdrah replied. “He jumped off first.”
“He saw another mon-keigh there in the grass,” Vhlondryll said.
“And he’s not sharing with the rest of us,” Nethyalyan pouted. Casually, she cut the tip off the Ratling’s nose and he shrieked.
“I think perhaps we should go look for him,” Jheste said.
“You go look,” Eklavdrah said. “I’m
eating.” She looked down into Acosta’s face and smiled.
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