Something different for you, and by different I mean it's not another Black Helix Project.
Comments and criticism welcome, but please, keep it constructive.
To anyone still reading Black Helix, I promise I will finish it -- I just fancied a change.
(Before anyone asks, yes, there is a Dark Heresy quote in this passage.)
A Tale of Old Legends and Stalkers in the Night
"Well then, lads, let's see how you do."
Tarek pointed down the hill and the four youths behind him peered down at an orogi campfire, a solitary tent sitting nearby with a gaggle of three diminutive sapari crowding the lone orog as he took a skewer of meat out of the fire and gnawed at it, angrily backhanding a sapar as it tried to steal a scrap of meat. In the fading sunlight, the fire served to highlight the orog's fearsome muscles and his maw crammed with huge teeth.
"First one to score a headshot wins one of my mother's meat buns," Tarek goaded the youngsters, and as one they raised their crossbows, their trigger fingers tensing as they lined up the orog in the iron sights.
Mahisha jostled with Vinay for a prime position, neither of the boys willing to give ground as the orog beneath them continued eating. Tall and muscular, the orog's green hide was almost black in the firelight, and his piggy eyes glinted like tiny moonstones. Fangs the size of Mahisha's hand jutted upwards from the orog's bucket jaw, slick with grease from his meal. The orog wore a pair of breeches crudely stitched together from buck leather, and the shaggy hide of an ursk cub was draped over his bare torso. The orog's moccasins were falling to pieces from sheer bad craftsmanship, and a gnarled toenail was poking out of a flap of tattered leather. The orog's stink reached up the hill and Mahisha grimaced, his aim wavering.
The orog was young and alone, but by no means an easy target. Mahisha knew that even a young orog could tear a man's arm off and beat him to death with it, laughing all the while. Fully matured, an adult orog could stand even as tall as a Storm Giant, and the orogi kept growing throughout their lives, possibly reaching heights of six or seven aratni if they were strong enough to reach an old age.
Vinay fired first, but his aim was off and instead of striking the orog, the bolt impaled one of the smaller sapari instead, and it squealed as it pitched backwards off the orog's shoulder. The orog whirled around in surprise, his primitive mind struggling to make sense of what had happened, by which time Mahisha, Roshan and Vanna had loosed their own bolts and all four boys were rapidly reloading. Tarek was idly stringing his own crossbow, the master marksman letting his pupils have their fun before he would intervene and fell the orog with a single shot. The two remaining sapari and the orog were reacting to the crossbow fire, the orog ripping Mahisha's crossbow bolt out of his chest and picking up his crude stone spear, roaring as he and his attendant sapari brandished their weapons and charged up the hill.
Vinay's second shot flew wide but Mahisha's aim was true, and as the orog began to claw his way up the hill, the sapar in front of him was catapulted backwards, a crossbow bolt lodged in its skull, dead before even getting the chance to scream. The orog dodged the falling sapar, but the scrawny greenskinned runt behind him was less fortunate and the two sapari collided, falling back down the hill in a tangle of limbs.
By the time Mahisha had lined up a third shot, the orog was almost at the top of the hill and Tarek was muscling in behind the boys, his crossbow held expertly yet with a distinct casual flair. Wordlessly he released his bolt and the orog fell, rolling backwards down the hill with Tarek's bolt in his brain pan, but impossibly the orog thrust his arm out and arrested his fall, clutching onto what Mahisha assumed to be a buried rock in the hillside.
"By the Sky-Emperor," Roshan gasped. "I'd heard orogi were tough, but I've never seen even a bull ursk take a headshot and keep going."
By way of reply Mahisha fired and caught the orog in the collar, and his bright red blood trickled into his furs. The orog faltered briefly and one of the other boys fired a bolt into his face, just shy of his upturned piggy nose. Ignoring the pain, the orog let out a frightening war-shout and Mahisha felt, rather than saw, at least one of the boys crawl backwards, away from the orog as it resumed its charge.
Before it could reach them Tarek fired again, neatly puncturing the orog's windpipe and leaving him sprawled on the hillside, choking to death but somehow trying to pull himself up the hill to get at his killers. A swift boot to the head from Tarek knocked the orog back down the hill where he lay twitching, struggling vainly to draw breath.
"We need to burn the body quickly," Tarek instructed. "You do not want to see the sort of things that happen when a dead orog is left alone."
Quietly, the boys stowed their crossbows away and clambered down the hill, each one picking up one of the orog's limbs. Mahisha was quickest down and took the furthest limb, closest to the campfire, and wheezed as he struggled to lift the orog's meaty fist. Across from him, Roshan grimaced at the stench radiating from the orog's boot, and Mahisha suppressed a chuckle at his friend's expense.
When the last of the youths had taken a limb, they swung it carefully onto the campfire before tossing the sapari on top for good measure. By all rights the orog's body should have smothered the fire, but instead the flames took to its ragged clothing greedily, and from there to the orog's flesh, filling the air with a horrid stink that made Mahisha's eyes water.
"Let's get back before another orog finds what's happened to his friend," Vanna suggested, "unless anyone has an urge to watch the fire."
Nodding their assent, the youths hurried back up the hill and along the winding forest trail that had led them to the orog. Night was falling and they risked drawing the attention of the forest's predators if they lingered.
On the other side of the forest, however, was something far worse.
"By the Sky-Emperor!" Roshan gasped as he looked down from the low promontory on which they stood. "What is happening? Tarek, tell me, what is happening?"
Tarek got down on his belly and wriggled to the lip of the promontory. They overlooked a wide river, its banks teeming with life and normally attended by dozens of men and women from the various settlements along its length. Directly below them, a village burned, one light in a chain of glowing devastation stretching along the river.
To Tarek's horror, orogi cavorted and danced among the blazing huts and houses below them, dragging men and women out into the open and slaughtering them at their leisure. The few fighters that retaliated were swiftly cut down by the brutish orogi, casually shattering skulls with giant clubs of stone and wood, or impaling bellies on crude spears. Tarek forced himself not to watch, wrenching his eyes away from the horrible sight for long enough to assess the devastation.
"I'd heard that there was an orogi chieftain rallying the tribes, but I'd thought nothing of it," Tarek admitted, trying his hardest not to weep. "The orogi aren't normally this powerful and we see them off at every turn, by the Sky-Emperor's grace. This is... I have no words for it. It's too horrible to comprehend."
"Has the Sky-Emperor deserted us?" Vinay queried. "Have the Storm Giants vanished?"
"The Sky-Emperor is always with us, Vinay," Mahisha snapped. "But it does us no good sitting here. Tarek, where is our village? Is it burning too?"
"We're further upstream than the orogi," Tarek answered, relief creeping into his voice, but as soon as he lifted his head to look across the river, his mood suddenly worsened once again and he swore.
"What is wrong?"
"We're next," Tarek wept, "and the orogi are already moving."
Instantly Mahisha drew his crossbow and bolted, sprinting along the promontory with Roshan and Vanna close behind. It took Vinay a few seconds to rouse Tarek, but soon the old hunter found himself being strung along by the youths under his care and eventually they reached their village mere moments before the orogi charge hit.
Mahisha should have felt afraid, but clearly the Sky-Emperor was with him and in the place of fear, there was only the desire to protect his settlement, to kill the orogi and defend his people. Already they were amassing an army to meet the orogi. A hundred men and boys, and as many women, brandished whatever weaponry they could find, from well-made spears and crossbows to simple pans, heavy and unwieldy but just as effective at bludgeoning an orogi as any club or hammer. Somewhere in the press of bodies were Mahisha's family, but he supposed he should have been grateful that he never saw them.
The front ranks of orogi warriors struck, lashing out with their weapons and slaughtering the villagers before they had a chance to defend themselves. Blood sprayed and severed limbs flew high into the air as the orogi waded in. A trio of giant green-skinned brutes towered above the villagers, shrugging off axe blows and ignoring spear strikes as their own weapons claimed lives with each swing. Smaller orogi were less resilient and fell with crossbow bolts puncturing their hides, but for each orog that fell, another five rose to take his place.
To Mahisha, it was a simple massacre as the invincible orogi razed his village and hacked its people apart. Within seconds, the orogi had turned the settlement into an abattoir for almost no loss of their own, and already the orogi were picking up logs from the open wood fires and lobbing them into houses, cackling with glee as the buildings caught fire and burned.
A body thudded down by his foot and Mahisha looked down to see Roshan, apparently having impaled his own throat on one of his crossbow bolts rather than face the orogi. Tarek had fled, and Vinay and Vanna had gone with him, leaving Mahisha alone against a horde of rampaging orogi, with no help in sight.
Suddenly Mahisha caught sight of the orogi leader, a big dark-skinned brute riding a tamed ursk that slavered and drooled as it bent down to feed on dead villagers. The nearest orogi were giving their chieftain and his ursk a wide berth as they snarled and snuffled, barely distinguishable from one another. The orog chieftain was draped in all manner of furs and hides, and he carried a massive club that looked like it might once have been a small tree. The orog had strapped a captured spear to the back of his ursk's saddle, and the heads of dead men from other villages were mounted, five in all, along its length as grisly trophies.
A fourteen-year-old boy such as Mahisha should have quailed in fear at the sight, but by the will of the Sky-Emperor his resolve held by a thread, and unnoticed by the orogi, he raised his crossbow, praying to the Sky-Emperor to guide his shot as the ursk raised its ugly head to grunt and roar at the orogi around it.
What followed was nothing short of miraculous as Mahisha fired, his bolt flying straight into the ursk's eye and piercing its brain. Bellowing in agony, the ursk bucked and the orog chieftain was tossed from the animal's back as it flailed about, its claws goring any orogi unfortunate enough to be near it. The chieftain tried to rise but was swatted by the ursk's massive paw, and he fell awkwardly into his cronies, the burly orogi staggering under their leader's weight as the ursk groaned one last time and collapsed, the crossbow bolt in its brain robbing it of its life at last.
As one, the orogi horde seemed to turn to face Mahisha, all hooting and shouting crude curses as they charged, intent on retribution. Mahisha tried to run away, but stopped dead as four shapes shot off of the promontory, landing in the middle of the orogi and flattening a dozen of them with a phenomenal crunch. Powerful roars resounded around them as the shapes resolved themselves into gigantic warriors, riding metal steeds with wheels and heavy armour plating that shimmered in the firelight. The warriors were clad in white armour that glowed orange against the reflected flames, and blood-red lightning flashes speared upwards along their greaves and their shoulderguards.
Their breastplates were embossed with the golden symbol of the two-headed eagle, sacred crest of the Sky-Emperor's warriors.
Even as they tore into the orogi, their wheeled steeds churning the ground beneath them, Mahisha recognised the warriors from the legends of his people, immortalised in song and dance as the sacred protectors of the Sky-Emperor's realm, and knew that he was looking upon four of the holy Storm Giants themselves. They'd been too late to save his village, of course, but even one Storm Giant was more than enough to shatter the orogi warhost and avenge the countless villages that they'd pillaged and put to the torch.
Mahisha watched, his face a comical parody of amazement, as the orogi literally screamed and tried to flee. The bigger greenskins tried to enforce a semblance of control, bashing errant orogi warriors with club butts and herding them back into battle, but they were sorely outmatched from the start. The closest Storm Giant to Mahisha squeezed something on his steed's reins and a pair of ornamented boxes on the front of his steed roared into life, belching smoke and fire at the orogi, who were literally torn apart on the spot as the power of the Sky-Emperor smote the vile monsters where they stood. Another Storm Giant raised his sword and bade it ignite with blue fire, cleaving one of the orogi leaders in half at the waist with his magical blade and chasing down any who dared to flee. The greenskins' clubs and ugly spears hammered down upon the Storm Giants but not a single one could even damage their armour, the clumsy weapons snapping as the holy warriors retaliated with their own weapons, forged by the Sky-Emperor's own smiths and in every way superior to anything Mahisha had ever seen. They surpassed even the legends at which Mahisha had once laughed, thinking such things impossible; yet here they were, invincible Storm Giants proving the stories correct, and more than correct.
One of the Storm Giants shouted something in his holy language and threw his arm out at the orogi, and his fellows turned their heads as a pillar of fire exploded in the midst of their enemies. The Storm Giant's spell broke the nerve of the orogi and they turned to flee, even their hulking chieftain unable to stand before their fury. The same Storm Giant bade his comrades follow them, and his steed spat its curses one more time as the other three Storm Giants raced after the orogi, chasing them down without mercy.
The Storm Giant dismounted and Mahisha suddenly became acutely aware that the warrior was looking at him.
"Come closer, child," the Storm Giant beckoned in the mortal language, and Mahisha found himself stepping forward in obedience, even though his mind urged him to give in to his terror and run away.
The Storm Giant squatted down to Mahisha's level, his armour hissing slightly as he lowered himself down.
"I saw what you did," stated the Storm Giant calmly. "Your bravery impressed me greatly."
"I didn't do anything," Mahisha croaked, forcing the words out through his terror, and overcome with amazement at having apparently survived against impossible odds.
"No. You did what entire villages could not. You stood firm in the face of certain death, and the Sky-Emperor guided your hand. It takes supreme bravery to stand up to one of those monsters when it comes seeking your destruction," the Storm Giant told him, "and great skill to throw one like their chieftain from his steed. You have earned my respect."
Mahisha stood dumbfounded, scarcely believing what the Storm Giant was saying. A lowly youth earning the respect of an immortal warrior of the Sky-Emperor was almost impossible in his eyes, and yet impossibility was somehow becoming reality.
His mind whirled, and Mahisha wondered if he was dreaming. Everything was too surreal, too far-fetched to be true, and yet somehow it was.
"I apologise for not saving your village," the Storm Giant admitted solemnly. "My brothers and I had been following the greenskin chieftain's trail along the river for two days. We only just caught up with him here. But it was truly by the Sky-Emperor's grace that we found him and eliminated him. And you show promise, child, and you have the Sky-Emperor's favour."
There was a pause, the silence broken by the crackle of the fires as Mahisha's village blazed.
"I will make you an offer. I will take you with us, away from the death and destruction, and away from the simple life of the villages. I know of your people's legends about us, about the Storm Giants. I will show you that all of your legends are true. And when you have learned all of this, I will see to it that you receive the true favour of the Sky-Emperor, and join the ranks of the Adeptus Astartes themselves," declared the Storm Giant.
He was no longer in a crouch, but had drawn himself up to his full height, towering fully three heads above Mahisha and staring down at him like a god.
"You will never know fame nor reward," he continued, "yet if you stand resolute, your deeds will be whispered to the God-Emperor of Mankind, and your name will be revered for millennia."
Emotions rampaging through his mind, Mahisha finally allowed the full force of his awe and terror to overcome him and he fainted, collapsing into the Storm Giant's arms.