Flame and Damnation
Having received some birthday money from a relative through the post, I went hunting for some great Warhammer fiction to read as I undergo a prolonged period of self-isolation due to being diagnosed with Coronavirus. What I discovered is that if you’re a canny reader and dig through the deeper recesses of the Black Library website, then you can actually find some really good deals for ebook collections. There are a few of them that are on my radar for future purchases, but one that I absolutely had to have was the Flame and Damnation collection. Released in 2015, it collates together all six of the Legion of the Damned-themed short stories released in 2013. They don’t seem to feature much, if at all, in the current Warhammer 40,000 setting; and that’s a real shame, because I have a real soft spot for the Legion. The spectral remnants of an Astartes Chapter that got lost in the warp, they appear on battlefields across the Imperium where all hope seems lost, and strike at the heart of the enemy forces before fading from view. It’s a deeply intriguing concept, and one that has a great deal of potential for deeper story-telling. There was a Space Marines Battle novel featuring them, appropriately titled Legion of the Damned and written by Rob Sanders; but while it was an excellent novel, the Legion really were only extended cameos that appeared late in the narrative. As such, I was hoping that this collection of six stories might provide some more insights into the Legion, alongside the usual fast-paced action and grimdark setting.
Votum Infernus by Nick Kyme opens the collection, and follows a Vostroyan Imperial Guard squad as they flee through the shattered ruins of the the city of Kaeros, enveloped by an unnatural, alien fog that has deadly creatures lurking in it, picking the soldiers off one by one. Kyme does a masterful job of creating an atmosphere of terror and paranoia as the surviving guardsmen are hunted by the xenos raiders, with some truly grim and even disturbing imagery that prefigures his later Warhammer Horror work, such as the newly-published Sepulturum. It’s an atmosphere that perfectly suits the antagonists, the cruel and vicious Dark Eldar, as well as the inevitable appearance of the Legion of the Damned, both sides lurking in the shadows as the guardsmen cower in fear. There’s some delightful symmetry in the narrative as the Dark Eldar, the ultimate predators who specialise in hunting, are stalked in turn by a shadowy opponent they can’t outmanoeuvre. It’s a great look at just how terrifying the Legion can be to even the most hardened killers, and has a twist towards the end that caught me completely unawares.
We then come to Josh Reynolds’ contribution, Remorseless, which takes us to the shrine world of Wayfarer, besieged by the Chaos Space Marines of the Iron Warriors, as well as a host of lesser mutants, renegades and heretic Imperial Guard regiments. Interestingly, Reynolds makes one of these lesser beings his viewpoint character: Skaranx, a Chaos Champion of sorts, a scarred mess of a man who has faced Astartes in battle before and even killed them. We don’t often get to see things from the viewpoint of Chaos chattel and traitor Imperial Guard, making for a thoroughly engaging story, especially as Skaranx is a rather unique protagonist – a mortal soldier raised up by the Iron Warriors to be an Astartes killer, and utterly proud of the fact that this raises him above his other mortal brethren despite also making him a target on the battlefield. Reynolds then deftly ties Skaranx’s role into one of the more interesting facets of the Traitor Legions – the need for uncorrupted geneseed, and how the desperation for it drives entire campaigns for the Iron Warriors. As the narrative progresses, we also get to see another side of the Legion – their focus on vengeance and retribution, with some genuinely chilling moments as Skaranx hunts and is, in turn, hunted through shattered ruins. It’s an atmospheric piece with some great characterisation, and a surprisingly poignant ending that gives a rather startling insight into the Legion’s existence.
C Z Dunn then gives us Ship of the Damned, with another surprising and unique protagonist – a Sister Dialogous of the Adepta Sororitas who has become a combination preacher-teacher on a pilgrim ship slowly winding its way towards Holy Terra. Dunn gives some fascinating insights into what life in one of these painfully slow and overcrowded ships might be like, as well as the religious fervour that would occur if an actual Sister joined its voyage for a short while. It provides a fertile backdrop to the main story, as the Sister frantically attempts to translate a strange distress signal that the pilgrim ship suddenly encounters, and the cryptic and sinister message it contains. The role of the Legion in this story is sudden and unexpected, and yet entirely fitting with the themes Dunn builds into the narrative, creating yet another unique take on the spectral Astartes and their mysterious nature.
Animus Malorum by LJ Goulding finally brings us as readers into the mindset of the Legion of the Damned, allowing us to see why the Astartes fight as they do, and not just witness the terrifying manner in which they kill the foes of mankind. Interestingly, we get to see the reaction of a normal Astartes to a member of the Legion, and it is equal parts fascinating and disquieting to see Captain Erices experience fear – supposedly bred out of Astartes – as he comes into contact with the Legion. It demonstrates just how strange and unearthly the Legion are even to those they once were, and makes the rest of the story all the more effective as a result as the true cost of the Legion’s existence is revealed.
In The Dark Hollows of Memory, David Annandale once again demonstrates his affinity with both Warhammer 40,000, and the more subtle elements of horror that can be teased out of the setting. Gosta is a scribe descending into the depths of an ancient and venerable Librarium, walking through layers of physical memories in search of a mystery that calls to him. That sort of thing never bodes well in a universe with Chaos, the Warp, and the things lurking in the darkness, especially on the world of Mnemosyn; not only beginning a season of perpetual fog and mist, but also being invaded by the chaos warband known as the Company of Misery. In just a few pages Annandale blends together multiple fascinating concepts, each one alone worthy of a separate novel, and creates something extraordinary as a result. Akror, the leader of the Company of Misery, is a classic Chaos Space Marine villain with a great line in pontification about memory and truth, and fun to follow along as he chases after Scribe Gosta, who in turn is chasing the secret calling to him. With intense, atmospheric and often lyrical and poetic writing, Annadale serves up a must-read story of memory, secrets and the nature of witnessing history that stands out as the best in the collection, a feat even more impressive given the overall quality of its other stories.
Graeme Lyon closes out the collection with the very short but action-packed From the Flames, which sees the Legion of the Damned aid an assault on an Eldar Craftworld and face off against an Avatar of Khaine. You don’t often see micro-fiction published by Black Library, but this is an excellent example and obviously took great skill in order to condense into just a few hundred words while still remaining true to the setting and its characters. It also makes an excellent ending for the collection as a whole.
It’s a real shame that Flame and Damnation has disappeared from view and can only be found through careful navigation of the Black Library website, because it’s a brilliant set of short stories that really do justice to the concept of the Legion of the Damned, fleshing them out as a faction (pun intended) and providing some deeper insights into how and why they operate. They’re all written to an incredibly high standard, and packed with bolter-blazing action if that’s your thing; but what truly makes them stand out is the unique angle on the Legion that each story takes, making it a memorable and high-quality collection that deserves to be on the (virtual) shelf of any Warhammer 40,000 fan.