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Their chant ended and the Tiger of Varuna—what other Chapters would call a Chaplain—that had led them in prayer bid them kneel as Raja Khandar Madu entered the stone chamber.
She was young and beautiful, with her long, flowing red hair, and like the other women her armor was glistening black, the shoulder plates, greaves, and backpack white with black stripes. She stood, as she had so many times, before the Great Pyre and invoked the goddess:
“Great Mother of All, when these daughters before you were firstborn their mothers praised your Light and beseeched you to keep them safe and teach them to love and bear children. But now they have been reborn to your Dark and I, their dark mother, beseech you to teach them to hate and kill the children of our enemies. I beg you now, Great Mother of All.”
She turned to the women and as they kowtowed before her she continued the ritual. “I am Raja Khandar Madu, ruler of Mahaduyana, co-regent of the Fighting Tigers of Veda until such time as our master, Maharaja Shiva Nagadorika, returns from nirvana and resumes his rightful command. I tell you this as it was told to me and as it was told to her who told me, and when I die you shall tell it to other daughters of Kali.
The news coming over the vid-screen was bad, of course. It was always bad lately. Not two weeks ago eight troopers had died investigating a space hulk that had crashed in a remote section of the jungle, leaving Raja Surya Ashoka, co-commander of the Fighting Tigers of Veda, with 218 Marines to patrol and defend the dangerous and mostly uninhabited continent of Mahaduyana. Then the main gene-seed depository had burned to its foundations; estimated rebuilding time: 17 months. And today, Surya thought to himself, as he read the report on the vid-screen, my best Tiger of Tvashtri has lost both his legs, his right arm and several internal organs testing an apparently faulty Land Speeder.
He turned to one of the comm-slaves. “Get me Red Tiger at once.”
The little bald man bowed and bent over his controls. Within moments the vid-screen mounted on the chamber wall flickered and produced the image of Raja Shrendi Vashtar, Surya’s counterpart, ruler of Ghuyarashtra and the 238 Fighting Tigers stationed there.
“Greetings, Red Tiger."
“Greetings, Green Tiger.” Static from the nearby Maelstrom distorted Vashtar’s image for a moment. The comm-slave adjusted the controls and the image stabilized.
“You have, I take it, received the latest report on the incident we had here at Site 11 an hour ago?”
“Indeed. Will Patel live?”
“I believe so, but I would like to send our initiates to Mars at once to begin the Techpriest training in case he dies.”
Vashtar nodded. “As ever, a wise decision. Yet I sense this was not the reason for your call— especially on such a secure frequency.”
“As ever, you are discerning. Loath as I am to admit it, our recent setbacks—and the discovery of Hive Fleet Ravana—put our Chapter in considerable jeopardy.”
Vashtar smiled grimly. “The Tigers,” he said, “could not stop a Gretchin scavenger hunt at the moment, let alone the Tyranids.”
“You jest about our extinction,” Surya cautioned.
“Nevertheless, I am fully aware of the situation. And it is perilous.”
Surya was silent for a moment, lost in thought. The vid-screen flickered again and the comm-slave swore under his breath as he adjusted the image.
“I perceive two problems,” said Vashtar. “The first, and most crucial, is our lack of personnel. Though we have increased our numbers since the attack of the Warband Bloodcomet, we are still greatly understrength.”
“That is obvious, but I see little recourse. My Tigers of Savitri have undertaken an enumeration of the native populations here and throughout the system. Zgorch and his followers wiped out 60 to 80 percent of the men on every inhabited world. It will take at least a century for the populations to return to their pre-war levels.”
“The situation is even worse than I believed. Why have I not received this report yet?”
“It is in the verification phase, but I believe the percentages will hold up,” Surya replied. “What is the second problem you perceive?”
“The new troops we have suffer from insufficient training. My Veteran Tigers have reported their concern at the newer recruits’ lack of achievement in many areas, particularly tactical knowledge. There are several causes.”
“Zgorch’s initial bombardment destroyed most of our training facilities here in Mahaduyana.”
“As here in Ghuyarashtra,” replied Vashtar. “And many of my Veteran Tigers were lost in the war.”
“As were mine,” Surya said, remembering the sight of his own instructor, Mehul, exploding into thousands of wet gobbets when a Chaos Marine autocannon shell caught him in the chest. And he’s right about the troops being undertrained, Surya told himself, shaking off the memory of Mehul’s death. The Marines he had sent to investigate the crashed space hulk had panicked, unintentionally killing two of their own when the ghathii lurking within had attacked.
“The accelerated training schedule we agreed upon to bolster our forces has left our new recruits ill-prepared to defend Veda or engage an enemy on another world,” Vashtar said.
“We knew that might happen, but we agreed to take the risk.”
“Indeed,” replied Vashtar. “But what shall we do to alleviate this problem?”
Surya thought for a moment. “We must swallow our pride and ask for help in rebuilding our Chapter.”
“I have anticipated this and have already taken the liberty of sending inquires to the Dark Angels. So far they have not responded.”
“I recall Britannicus remarking to one of his aides, shortly before they returned to Macragge, that the Dark Angels seldom reply to correspondence,” Surya said. “What do you know of the Space Wolves?”
“Very little, but I have heard that once they agree to something they do not rest until the deed is done. And that they share our antipathy with the Ultramarines,” Vashtar said, smiling faintly.
“I shall begin communications with their Chapter Master.”
“Agreed. Red Tiger out.”
Raja Surya and his bodyguard found the Space Wolves in the village near the math, the Fighting Tiger fortress. Despite being warned not to venture out after dark, the pale warriors apparently did not fear the dangers of the surrounding jungle. “Sabretoothed tigers, eh?” Lord Keric Quicbrand had sneered. “You should see the choppers on the wolf pups back home—never mind the adults!”
Quicbrand and his men were outside, in the center of the village, lolling on plush velvet rugs the villagers kept only for special guests. The villagers—simple, deferential people, eager to please—had prepared a feast of rice and breads, pork and lamb for the Space Wolves. They poured great bowls of their spiced beer, their best musicians played, and their prettiest girls danced for the warriors’ pleasure. Raja Surya knew that this feast would wipe out almost all of the village’s food stores for weeks, until the monsoons came, but he also knew that the villagers did not care. They had noble visitors who must be properly welcomed and entertained. It was their sacred duty, their dharma, to do so.
The music stopped for half a beat as Surya and his bodyguard entered the firelight and then resumed as he nodded to the musicians. Keric looked up and beamed. “Ah, you must be the old man himself!” he called, in his strange, sing-song accent. “Glad to meet you at last. The lads and I thought we’d take a walk—and look what we found! What a wonderful land you have here! Look at all this food! This spiced bread, this pork in hot red sauce, this beer that makes your throat sting! Gods! Much better than that bland stuff we have at home. And the people! These wonderful natives. How happy they are,” he added, spreading his arms and seeing only smiles.
They smile, Surya thought, because it is their dharma to do so. They would not want their guests to know about the Bloodcomet Massacres eleven years ago, or the famine three years ago, or the cholera epidemic eight months back. They will smile and offer more food and keep their troubles to themselves—at least for tonight. Just as I will.
“I am glad to see you like Veda. I hope it is not too hot for you?”
“Nonsense,” Keric replied, biting into a pale green gourd. Surya inwardly winced. Purwa gourds are eaten in small pieces mixed with rice and other bland vegetables or, as they were tonight, are left whole along the rim of a platter as a garnish. Eating a whole one, as the Wolf Lord did, was like firing off a meltagun in one’s mouth. Still, Keric seemed to take it well, finishing the purwa with a few deep breaths and a huge belt of spiced beer.
“I am sorry I have not had the chance to welcome you since your arrival. Urgent business,” Surya said, sitting down beside Keric. The Fighting Tiger Veterans stood nearby, eyes on the jungle foliage, bolters ready for any intruders. “I hope you did not take offense.”
“Nonsense,” the Wolf Lord replied. “Hello, what’s this?” He noticed a round, brown insect, about the size of an infant’s fist, crawling up the greave of his power armor. “Nasty thing,” he growled, squashing it. “All the bugs around here that big?”
“Some are much larger,” Surya said. “Your accommodations; are they adequate?”
“Oh, yeah. Nice barracks. Mostly we stay outside, you know, after all that time penned up on the ship. When do we start working with your Tigers?”
“Tomorrow would be best. I’m interested in what you plan to teach my men, because I have always heard that to fight as well as a Space Wolf, one must be a Space Wolf. It can’t be taught.”
Keric’s men cheered and threw back their heads in ritual barking laughter, startling the villagers. “Nonsense!” Keric snorted. “All right, so I can’t make your men into Space Wolves, but I’ll bet you a whole keg of this spiced beer I can teach anybody to fight almost as well. I can teach you, or those lads there,” he said, pointing at the little boys watching from behind their mothers’ skirts. “Or that old man with the flute—or even those dancing girls!” The Space Wolves roared with laughter.
Dancing girls. Surya almost snickered. But then an idea occurred to him. He thought about the roughly two million native men, armed with spears and iron swords, who had been butchered eleven years ago by the Bloodcomet. And then he thought about the cholera epidemic that had killed off almost as many native men before the Tigers’ Apothecaries could stop it. Looking around, Surya noticed that there weren’t many men in the village, but there were lots of women. Women who had survived war and disease, women who dug in the fields, hauled the crops, raised new houses and barns, guarded the village at night with gong and firebrand to scare off predators. Women who did the work the men had done before most of the men had died.
Madness, he said to himself. Worse than madness. Heresy, perhaps. What would Quicbrand say? And what would Vashtar say? But he was Raja, and it was his dharma to save the Tigers if he could.
“And I’ll bet each of you sots a keg I can!” Keric bellowed to his men, who howled and laughed and jeered their commander. “Buffoons,” he growled, then jostled Surya’s arm. “Hey, what’s this stuff?” he asked, sniffing at a bowl of red vegetables.
“A whole keg?”
Surya replied, watching the girls dance. “Very well.”
“At first Quicbrand and his men refused, but relented when Raja Surya allowed them to hunt and skin a rogue maneater that had already claimed hundreds. Mighty was the maneater—18 feet from nose to tail—and so fierce that it killed three of the Blood Claws and severed Quicbrand's hand before his blade found its brain.
“Twelve and twenty years did Quicbrand and his men stay on Veda, and taught the first daughters of Kali to raise the sword and fire the pistol, to hunt and slay the alien and the infidel and the traitor. And after the twelve and twenty years were done, Quicbrand returned to Fenris, the Wolf-Home, and many years later had need of the Tigers of Kali to aid him against the enemies of the Emperor Brahman, the Sleeping God whose dreaming gives shape to the universe.”
Raja Khandar Madu motioned for the new Tigers of Kali to rise. “We fought and killed on that day. We fight and kill today. We shall always fight and kill. It is our dharma, our sacred duty, to do so.
“I tell you this as it was told to me and as it was told to her who told me, and when I die you shall tell it to other daughters of Kali.”
character of Keric Quicbrand was created by Patrick Eibel
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Kilgore, January 2000
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