A collection of short stories all focused on that enigmatic Space Marines legion, the Legion of the Damned, from some of Black Library’s best up-and-comers and a couple of not-quite-old-hands. The Legion are a peculiar addition to the WH40k lore. I remember when they first made models for them (they were a custom job by one of their professional modellers, if I remember correctly). Since then, there’s no doubt that they’ve fleshed out the background and the story of who and what the Legion is. Sadly, I haven’t been keeping up-to-date with more than the fiction set in Games Workshop’s science fiction and fantasy systems for well over a decade. As a result, these six stories contained some interesting new detail. I still don’t have a full picture of how the Legion ‘works’, but by no means does this bother me. These authors have done a great job of writing tales that tap into the horror and menace of the Legion of the Damned, and their mysterious appearances on the battlefields of the 41st millennium. I’ll deal with each of the stories individually, below…
I read the stories as individual short stories on my Kindle, so I have no idea if I read them in the order that the collection is compiled. I’ve listed them in the order I read them.
David Annandale, THE DARK HOLLOWS OF MEMORY
The sinister limbo of winter is falling on the Imperial archive world of Mnemosyne. A great fog rolls in, one that will not dissipate for months. With it comes unimaginable hell for the planet’s citizens as the Chaos Space Marines of the Company of Misery stage a brutal invasion. But as the defenders of Mnemosyne fall before the Traitors, something moves in the mist. There are phantoms abroad, warriors of darkness and flame. The Company of Misery is now confronted by the Legion of the Damned, and the terrified scribes of the Librarium find themselves caught in a war between the armies of horror and terror.
This was a really good story. It’s peculiar, atmospheric, well-paced and very well-written. I also liked the battle in the library-feel to it. Just right for a short story, I think. A tricky story to write about without ruining the ending. Needless to say, the Legion of the Damned and their aesthetic and tactics are perfectly suited to Annandale’s skills and style of writing – he does a great job of evoking the sinister-spookiness of the Legion. The author continues to impress, with each new piece of fiction. I’ll have to bump his latest Space Marine Battles novella, Stormseer, up the TBR (e-)mountain.
Josh Reynolds, REMORSELESS
After a gruelling siege, the Iron Warriors scent victory over their eternal enemies the Imperial Fists. Alongside their grand battalions is a host of Traitor Guardsmen – Skaranx is unique amongst their number, a killer of Angels. As he stalks his singular prey, he encounters Space Marines the likes of which he has never seen before. Remorseless, these warriors are beyond life and death. They are damned and so, he realises chillingly, is he...
This story didn’t start as slickly as I’ve come to expect from Reynolds. It certainly improved tremendously and quickly as the story unfolded, though. The antagonist, who is also the narrator, is sufficiently brutal and twisted. The near-claustrophobic urban battlefield setting is well-written and presented, and adds to the frantic combat and atmosphere of chaos. I imagined this could be filmed with close-focus handicam, all shaky and intense (like a baroque, military sci-fi version of the Jason Bourne movies). By the end of the story, this has turned into a very good, engaging cat-and-mouse battle. If the mouse was a genhanced killing machine, and the cat was just a creepier, more efficient killing machine…
L.J. Goulding, ANIMUS MALORUM
Fighting against ork invasion, Fourth Captain Erices and his few surviving warriors are prepared to sell their own lives dearly in the name of the Imperium. However, when dark legionnaires led by the mysterious Brother-Sergeant Centurius emerge from the catacombs to aid in the defence of the city, it becomes worryingly unclear what exactly they might expect in return...
This story takes on a very interesting aspect of the Legion of the Damned’s presence in the WH40k universe. Specifically, what happens after the battle? It’s a nice alternative approach to the Legion: after all, they are only usually presented on the field of battle. I had never read any fiction or background text that discussed what happens next. Animus Malorum is a well-written tale, with a superb, sinister twist at the very end. I didn’t see that coming. Very cool indeed.
Graeme Lyons, FROM THE FLAMES
Battle-brother Seoc of the Invaders is alone. With his brothers dead around him, killed by the avatar of an alien war god, he prepares to sell his life dearly and join the Emperor in eternity. Until something emerges from the flames… Spectral Space Marines, their black armour adorned with symbols of fire and death, move to engage the enemy, but can Seoc survive the battle between the bloody-handed horror and the terrible revenants?
This was more a micro-story, really, but it is nevertheless a pretty good one. It’s a very quickly-paced battle scene, which offers an interesting and inspired way to deal with a burning enemy (Eldar Avatar) and what that means for burning saviours (the Legion of the Damned squad that does the battlefield equivalent of a drive-by). It was a very good decision to keep this short, as it gave the story more punch.
C.Z. Dunn, SHIP OF THE DAMNED
Far from home, Sister Agentha travels aboard an ancient pilgrim vessel, providing a sacred light in the vast darkness of the void. However, on answering a mysterious distress signal, she soon finds herself with far more to contend with than the ignorance of children as plague zombies flood the decks and wreak bloody havoc on the faithful. Trapped in the belly of the ship with death on all sides, Agentha’s only hope is a mysterious black object taken from a group of refugees... but will it send help, and what will be left of them when it does?
I really liked that this story was focused on a female non-combatant: Sister Agentha, who is effectively a teacher (although, one with considerable faculty for violence, seeing as everyone from her order is still trained to battle the foes of the Emperor). She confiscated a shiny metallic ball from one of her students, something he picked up after the shuttle he was originally on was left adrift, dropped by space marines in black armour. The pilgrim vessel the characters inhabit answers a distress signal that proves to contain… plague zombies! It’s been a while since I read anything about those gribbly beasties. The story is atmospheric and tense. Good stuff.
Nick Kyme, VOTUM INFERNUS
Fleeing in the aftermath of a terrible defeat, troopers of the Vostroyan Firstborn are being hunted by dark eldar. A pair of wyches, a brother and sister, plan to make brutal sport of the mon'keigh. But as the mists thicken a strange figure appears on the battlefield, one clad in armour of blackest night. Who are “the Damned” and what do they want with this world and the souls upon it...?
What happens when warriors who employ and embody fear are faced with an enemy more terrifying? This is a pretty interesting story. Sometimes, the description went a bit further than necessary, creating tautologies, but it’s still a solid addition to the collection. It’s perhaps not Kyme’s best, but does the trick. In addition, the twist at the end was unexpected and pretty cool.
There is a slight feeling of repetition, if you read all of these stories together. This is neither the fault of the authors, nor me saying that the stories are all the same (just see what I’ve written, above). Rather, the nature of the Legion of the Damned and how they “work” in the WH40k setting means there are only a limited number of ways to describe (particulars aside) their appearance on a battlefield and also their physical aspect (for example, from Lyons’s piece, “Hulking black shadows wreathed in witchfire, they are of sinister aspect, ebon armour decorated with arcane sigils made of what looks like bone” – this tells you everything you need to know, and is a variation on what’s to be found in all these stories – and probably the Space Marine Battles: Legion of the Damned novel, too...). Overall, though, I enjoyed reading these stories. If you’re looking for short stories set in the WH40k universe, with a slightly more dark, horror-feel to them, then this collection should suit perfectly.