The Wrath of Kharn
By William King, Short Story in "Let the Galaxy Burn"
‘BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD!’ bellowed Khârn the Betrayer, charging forward through the hail of bolter fire, towards the Temple of Superlative Indulgence. The bolter shells ricocheting off his breastplate did not even slow him down. The Chaos Space Marine smiled to himself. The ancient ceramite of his armor had protected him for over ten thousand years. He felt certain it would not let him down today. All around him warriors fell, clutching their wounds, crying in pain and fear. More souls offered up on the altar of battle to the Supreme Lord of Carnage, Khârn thought and grinned maniacally. Surely the Blood God would be pleased today. Ahead of him, Khârn saw one of his fellow berserkers fall, his body riddled with shells, his armor cracked and melted by plasma fire. The berserker howled with rage and frustration, knowing that he was not going to be in at the kill, that he would give Khorne no more offerings on this or any other day. In frustration, the dying warrior set his chainsword on to maximum power and took off his own head with one swift stroke. His blood rose in a red fountain to slake Khorne’s thirst.
As he passed, Khârn kicked the fallen warrior’s head, sending it flying over the defenders’ parapet. At least this way his fallen comrade would witness Khârn slaughter the Slaanesh worshipers in the few delicious moments before he died. Under the circumstances, it was the least reward Khârn could grant such a devout warrior. The Betrayer leapt over a pile of corpses, snapping off a shot with his plasma pistol. One of the Slaanesh cultists fell, clutching the ruins of his melted face. Gorechild, Khârn’s daemonic axe, howled in his hands. Khârn brandished it above his head and bellowed his challenge to the sick, yellow sky of the daemon world. ‘SKULLS FOR THE SKULL THRONE!’ Khârn howled. On every side, frothing Berzerkers echoed his cry. More shells whined all around him. He ignored them the way he would ignore the buzz of annoying insects. More of his fellows fell but Khârn stood untouched, secure in the blessing of the Blood God, knowing that it would not be his turn today.
All was going according to plan. A tide of Khorne’s warriors flowed across the bomb-cratered plains towards the towering redoubt of the Slaanesh worshippers. Support fire from the Chaos Titan artillery had reduced most of the walls around the ancient temple complex to just so much rubble. The disgusting murals painted in fluorescent colors had been reduced to atoms. The obscene minarets that crowned the towers had been blasted into well-deserved oblivion. Lewd statues lay like colossal, limbless corpses, gazing at the sky with blank marble eyes. Even as Khârn watched, missiles blazed down from the sky and smashed another section of the defensive wall to blood-covered fragments. Huge clouds of dust billowed. The ground shook. The explosions rumbled like distant thunder. Sick joy bubbled through Khârn’s veins at the prospect of imminent violence.
This was what he lived for, these moments of action where he could once again prove his superiority to all other warriors in the service of his exalted lord. In all his ten thousand year existence, Khârn had found no joy to touch the joy of battle, no lust greater than his lust for blood. Here on the field of mortal combat, he was more than in his element, he was at the site of his heart’s desire. It was the thing that had caused him to betray his oath of allegiance to the Emperor of Mankind, his genetic destiny as a Space Marine and even his old comrades in the World Eaters Legion. He had never regretted those decisions even for an instant. The bliss of battle was reward enough to stay any doubts.
He jumped the ditch before the parapet, ignoring the poisoned spikes which lined the pit bottom and promised an ecstatic death to any that fell upon them. He scrambled up the loose scree of the rock face and vaulted over the low wall, planting his boot firmly into the face of a defender as he did so. The man screamed and fell back, trying to stem the flow of blood from his broken nose. Khârn swung Gorechild and ended his whining forever. ‘DEATH IS UPON YOU!’ Khârn roared as he dived into a mass of depraved cultists. Gorechild lashed out. Its teeth bit into hardened ceramite, spraying sparks in all directions. The blow passed through the target’s armor, opening its victim from stomach to sternum. The wretch fell back, clutching at his ropy entrails. Khârn dispatched him with a backhand swipe and fell upon his fellows, slaying left and right, killing with every blow.
Frantically, the cultist’ leader bellowed orders, but it was too late. Khârn was in among them, and no man had ever been able to boast of facing Khârn in close combat and living. The numbers 2243, then 2244, blinked before his eyes. The ancient Gothic lettering of the digital death-counter, superimposed on Khârn’s field of vision, incremented quickly. Khârn was proud of this archaic device, presented by Warmaster Horus himself in ancient times. Its like could not be made in this degenerate age. Khârn grinned proudly as his tally of offerings for this campaign continued to rise. He still had a long way to go to match his personal best but that was not going to stop him trying.
Men screamed and howled as they died. Khârn roared with pleasure, killing everything within his reach, reveling in the crunch of bone and the spray of blood. The rest of the Khornate force took advantage of the destruction the Betrayer had caused. They swarmed over the walls in a howling mass and dismembered the Slaanesh worshippers. Already demoralized by the death of their leader, not even these fanatical worshippers of the Lord of Pleasure could stand their ground. Their morale broken, they panicked and fled.
Such pathetic oafs were barely worth the killing, Khârn decided, lashing out reflexively and killing those Slaanesh worshippers who passed too close as they fled. 2246, 2247, 2248 went the death counter. It was time to get on with his mission. It was time to find the thing he had come here to destroy – the ancient daemonic artifact known as the Heart of Desire. ‘ATTACK!’ Khârn bellowed and charged through the gaping mouth of the leering stone head that was the entrance to the main temple building.
Inside it was quiet, as if the roar of battle could not penetrate the walls. The air stank of strange perfumed. The walls had a porous, fleshy look. The pink-tinged light was odd, it shimmered all around, coming from no discernible source. Khârn switched to the auto-sensor systems within his helm, just in case there was some trickery here.
Leather-clad priestesses, their faces domino-masked, emerged from padded doorways. They lashed at Khârn with whips that sent surges of pain and pleasure through his body. Another man, one less hardened than Khârn, might have been overwhelmed by the sensation but Khârn had spent millennia in the service of his god, and what passed through him now was but a pale shadow compared to the battle lust that mastered him. He chopped through the snake-like flesh of the living lash. Poison blood spurted forth. The woman screamed as if he had cut her. Looking closer he saw that she and the whip were one. A leering daemonic head tipped the weapon’s handle and had buried its fangs into her wrist. Khârn’s interest was sated. He killed the priestess with on back-handed swipe of Gorechild.
A strange, strangled cry of rage and hate warned him of a new threat. He turned and saw that one of the other Berzerkers, less spiritually pure than himself, had been overcome with the whip’s evil. The man had torn off his helmet and his face was distorted by a sick and dreamy smile that had no place on the features of one chosen by Khorne. Like a sleepwalker he advanced on Khârn and lashed out with his chainsword. Khârn laughed as he parried the blow and killed the man with his return stroke.
A quick glance told him that all the priestesses were dead and that most of his followers had slain their drugged brethren. Good, thought Khârn, but part of him was disappointed. He had hoped that more of his fellows would be overcome by treachery. It was good to measure himself against true warriors, not these decadent worshippers of an effete god. Gorechild howled with frustrated bloodlust, writhing in his hand as if it would turn on him if he did not feed it more blood and sinew soon. Khârn knew how the axe felt. He turned, gestured for his companions to follow him and raced off down the corridor.
‘FOLLOW ME,’ he shouted. ‘TO THE SLAUGHTER!’
Passing through a huge arch, the former Space Marines entered the inner sanctum of the temple and Khârn knew they had found what they had come for. Light poured in through the stained glass ceiling. As he watched, Khârn realized that the light was not coming through the glass, but from the glass itself. The illustrations glowed with an eerie internal light and they moved. A riotous assembly of men and women, mutants and daemons enacted every foul deed that the depraved followers of a debauched god could imagine. And, Khârn noted, they could imagine quite a lot.
Khârn raised his pistol and opened fire, but the glass merely absorbed the weapon’s energy. Something like a faint moan of pleasure filled the chamber and mocking laughter drew Khârn’s attention to the throne which dominated the far end of the huge chamber. It was carved from a single gem that pulsed and changed color, going from amber to lavender to pink to lime and then back through a flickering, random assortment of iridescent colors that made no sense and hurt the eye. Khârn knew without having to be told that this was the Heart of Desire. Senses honed by thousands of years of exposure to the stuff of Chaos told him that the thing fairly radiated power. Inside was the trapped essence of a daemon prince, held forever at the whim of Slaanesh as punishment for some ancient treachery. The man sitting so regally on the throne was merely a puppet and barely worth Khârn’s notice, save as something to be squashed like a bug.
The man looked down on Khârn as if the had the temerity to feel the same way about Khorne’s most devoted follower. His right hand held an obscenely shaped runesword, which glowed with a blasphemous light.
Khârn strode forward to confront his new foe. The clatter of ceramite-encased feet on marble told him that his fellow berserkers followed. In the matter of a hundred strides, Khârn found himself at the foot of the dais, and some odd mystical force compelled him to stop and stare.
Khârn did not doubt that he was face-to-face with the cult leader. The man had the foul, debauched look of an ancient and immortal devotee of Slaanesh. His face was pale and gaunt; make-up concealed the dark shadows under his eyes. An obscene helmet covered the top of his head. As he stood, his pink and lime cloak billowed out behind him. Tight bands of studded leather girded his naked chest, revealing lurid and disturbing tattoos.
‘Welcome to the Heart of Desire,’ the Slaanesh worshipper said in a soft, insinuating voice which somehow carried clearly across the chamber and compelled instant, respectful attention. Khârn was instantly on his guard, sensing the magic within that voice, the persuasive power which could twist mortals to its owner’s will. He struggled to keep the fury that burned eternally in his breast from subsiding under the influence of those slyly enthralling tones. ‘What do you wish?
‘YOUR DEATH!’ the Betrayer roared, yet he felt his bloodlust being subsided by that oddly comforting voice.
The cult leader sighed. ‘You worshippers of Khorne are so drearily predictable. Always the same tedious, unimaginative retort. I suppose it comes from following that mono-maniacal deity of yours. Still you are hardly to be blamed for your god’s dullness, I suppose.’ ‘WHEN KHORNE HAS DEVOURED YOUR SOUL, YOU WILL PAY FOR SUCH BLASPHEMY!’ Khârn shouted. His followers shouted their approval but with less enthusiasm than Khârn would have expected. For some reason, the man on the throne did not appear to be worried by the presence of so many armed men in his sanctum.
‘Somehow, I doubt it, old chap. You see, my soul has long been pledged to thrice-blessed Slaanesh, so unless Khorne wants to stick his talon down Slaanesh’s throat or some other orifice, he’ll have a hard time getting at it.’
‘ENOUGH OF THIS PRATTLE!’ Khârn roared. ‘DEATH IS UPON YOU!’
‘Oh! Be sensible,’ the cultist said, raising his hand. Khârn felt a tide of pleasure flow over him, like that he had felt from the whip earlier but a thousand times stronger. All around him he heard his men moan and gasp.
‘Think! You can spend an eternity of pleasure being caressed by the power of Lord Slaanesh, while your soul slowly rots and sinks into his comforting embrace. Anything you want, anything you have ever desired, can be yours. All you have to do is swear allegiance to Slaanesh. Believe me, it’s no trouble.’
As the cult leader spoke, imaged flickered through Khârn’s mind. He saw visions of his youth and all the joys he had known, before the rebellion of Horus and the Battle for Terra. Somehow it had all looked so clear and fresh and appealing, and it almost brought moisture to his tear ducts. He saw endless banquets of food and wine. For a moment, his palate was stimulated by all manner of strange and wonderful tastes, and his brain tingled with a myriad pleasures and stimulations. Visions of diaphanously-clad maidens danced before his eyes, beckoning enticingly.
For a moment, despite himself, Khârn felt an almost unthinkable temptation to betray his ancient oath to the Blood God. This was powerful sorcery indeed! He shook his head and bit his lip until the blood flowed. ‘NO TRUE WARRIOR OF KHORNE WOULD FALL FOR THIS PITIFUL TRICK!’ he bellowed.
Suddenly the rest of the berserkers were upon him. Khârn found himself fighting for his immortal life. These were no mere Slaanesh cultists. Newly tainted though they might be, they had once been worthy followers of Khorne, fierce, deadly and full of bloodlust. Mighty maces bludgeoned Khârn. Huge chainswords threatened to tear his rune-encrusted armor. Bolter shells tore chunks from his breastplate. Khârn fought on, undismayed, filled with the joy of battle, taking fierce pleasure every time Gorechild took another life. At last, these were worthy foes! The body count swiftly ticked to 2460 and continued to rise.
Instinctively Khârn sidestepped a blow that tore off one of the metal skulls which dangled from his belt. The Betrayer swore he would replace it with the attacker’s own skull. His return stroke made good his vow. He whirled Gorechild in a great figure-of-eight and cleared a space all around him, sending two more traitors to make their excuses to the Blood Good. Insane bloodlust surged through him, overcoming even the soporific influence of the Heart of Desire and for a moment Khârn fought with his full unfettered power. He became transformed into an unstoppable engine of destruction and nothing could stand against him.
Khârn’s heart pounded. The blood sang through his veins and the desire to kill made him howl uncontrollably. Bones crunched beneath his axe. His pistol blew away the life of its targets. He stamped on the heads of the fallen, crushing them to jelly. Khârn ignored pain, ignored any idea of self-preservation, and fought for the pure love of fighting. He killed and he killed.
All too soon it was over, and Khârn stood alone in a circle of corpses. His breathing rasped from his chest. Blood seeped through a dozen small punctures in his armor. He felt like a rib might have been broken by the last blow of that mace but he was triumphant. His counter read 2485. He sensed the presence of one more victim and turned to confront the figure on the dais. The cultists’ leader stood looking down on him with a faint expression of mingled disbelief and distaste on his face. The throne pulsed enticingly. ‘It’s true what they say,’ the man said with a delicious sigh. ‘If you want anything done properly, you have to do it yourself.’
The insinuating voice drove Khârn’s fury from him and left him feeling tired and spent. The cultist strode down from the dais. Khârn felt almost too weary to parry his blow. He knew he must throw off this enchantment quickly. The runesword bit into his armor and a wave of mingled pain and pleasure passed through Khârn like poison. Summoning his last reserves of rage, he threw himself into the attack. He would show this effete fop who was the true warrior here.
Khârn hacked. Gorechild bit into the tattoos of the man’s wrist. Gobbets of flesh and droplets of blood whirled away from the axe’s teeth. The rank smell of hot bone filled the air as the hand separated from the arm – and began to crawl away with a life of its own. Khârn stamped on it and a rictus of pain appeared on its owner’s face, as if the hand was still attached.
Khârn swung. The cultist’s head separated from its shoulders. The body swung its blade, a puppet still controlled by the strings of its master’s will. It bit into Khârn and the wave of sensation almost drove him to his knees.
‘NICE TRICK!’ roared Khârn, feeling the hand squirm beneath his boot. ‘BUT I’VE SEEN IT BEFORE.’
He brought his chain-axe down on the head and clove it in two. The body fell to the ground, a puppet with its strings cut. 2486, Khârn thought with some satisfaction.
The Betrayer advanced upon the throne. It pulsed enticingly before him. Within its multiple facets he thought he saw the face of a beautiful woman, the most beautiful he head ever seen – and the most evil. Her hair was long and golden, and her eyes were blue. Her lips were full and red and the small, white fangs that protruded from her mouth in no way marred her perfection. She looked at Khârn beseechingly, and he knew at once he was face to face with the Daemon trapped within the Heart of Desire.
Welcome, Khârn, a seductive voice said within his head. I knew you would triumph. I knew you would be the conqueror. I knew you would be my new master.
The voice was thrilling. By comparison, the cult leader’s voice had been but a pale echo. But the voice was also deceptive. Proud as he was, mighty as he knew himself to be, Khârn knew that no man could truly be the master of a daemon, not even a fallen Space Marine like himself. He knew that his soul was once more in peril, that he should do something. But yet again, he found himself enthralled by the persuasiveness of a Slaanesh worshipper’s voice. Be seated! Become the new ruler of this world, then go forth and blast those meddlesome interlopers from the face of your planet.
Khârn fought to hold himself steady while the throne pulsed hypnotically before him, and the smell of heavy musk filled his nostrils. He knew that once he sat he would be trapped, just as the daemon was trapped. He would become a slave to the thing imprisoned within the throne. His will would be drained and he would be a decadent and effete shadow of the Khârn he had once been. Yet his limbs began to move almost of their own accord, his feet slowly but surely carrying him towards the throne.
Once more, visions of an eternity of corrupt pleasure danced in Khârn’s mind. Once more he saw himself indulging in every excess. The daemon promised him every ecstasy imaginable and it was well within its power to grant such pleasures. He knew it would be a simple thing for him to triumph on its behalf. All he had to do was step outside and announce that he had destroyed the Heart of Desire. He was Khârn. He would be believed, and after that it would be a simple matter to lure the Khorne worshipers to ecstatic service or joyful destruction. And did they not deserve it? Already he was known as the Betrayer, when all he had done was be more loyal to his god than the spineless weaklings he had slaughtered. And with that the daemon’s voice fell silent and the visions stopped, as if the thing in the throne had realized its mistake, but too late.
For Khârn was loyal to Khorne and there was only room for that one thing within his savage heart. He had betrayed and killed his comrades in the World Eaters because they had not remained true to Khorne’s ideals and would have fled from the field of battle without either conquering or being destroyed. The reminder gave him strength. He turned and looked back at the room. The reek of blood and dismembered bodies filled his nostrils like perfume. He remembered the joy of the combat. The thrill of overcoming his former comrades. He looked out on a room filled with corpses and a floor carpeted with blood. He was the only living thing here and he had made it so. He realized that, compared to this pleasure, this sense of conquest and victory, what the daemon offered was only a pale shadow. Khârn turned and brought Gorechild smashing down upon the foul throne. His axe howled thirstily as it drank deep of the ancient and corrupt soul imprisoned within. Once more he felt the thrill of victory, and knew no regrets for rejecting the daemon’s offer. 2487. Not his personal best, but still a good days work.