“Above everything…there is victory.”
A formative story from one of Black Library’s early fan favourites, Ben Counter’s Words of Blood pits Black Templars against Chaos cultists on the abandoned world of Empyrion IX. With only thirty Marines at his disposal, Commander Athellenas must find a way to stop an army thousands strong and led by the Manskinner, a powerful Chaos champion able to twist the souls of those around him to Khorne’s will. The consequences of failure are terrible, but Athellenas knows he has the tools to succeed. To do so however, he faces opposition from his own men as well as the enemy.
Marines often fight fire with fire, but here we see Athellenas using his experience and wits to out-think the Manskinner, despite the pushback from his men who struggle to see past ingrained doctrine. It’s a satisfying depiction of the Marines’ strength, demonstrating how a small but powerful force can triumph against the odds, and combines suitably visceral action with enjoyable, engaging dialogue from two contrasting perspectives. There’s little in the way of development for any of the characters, but the narrative is easily strong enough for that not to matter. It’s a perfectly formed little story, evocative and cleverly done.
A few of the recent Forgotten Texts stories have focused more on individual characters and event taking place away from the battlefield, but this brings us right back to the heart of what most of us think of with 40k stories. It’s a classic match-up to pair Space Marines against Chaos, but it was a clever choice to go with Black Templars – some of the most zealous and aggressive Marines, whose natural impulse might not be to use their enemies’ strength against them.
Let’s take a look, as usual, at how well this stands up within the wider 40k canon as it is today…
Right from the off there’s an interesting question about the Black Templars, considering what we know about them now. In the current background they’re a crusading chapter, operating from ever-moving fleets and always on the front foot, but back in 2000 were they quite so developed? There’s a sense from reading this that these Black Templars at least are not quite the crusading zealots that we know today, especially with references to Terra as an implied base of operations, so it’s possible that the way they were written wasn’t quite in keeping with the modern setting…but on the other hand, they work perfectly well under current assumptions. Even if they weren’t written with it in mind, today’s depiction fits nicely in this story, especially with the tension between Athellenas and his subordinates.
With the exception of those occasional references to Terra, there’s very little here that feels overtly out of place in relation to modern-day 40k stories. The action, the dialogue, the description of how the Marines fight and operate, the way the Chaos cultists’ rage is both a powerful strength and a crucial weakness…it’s all relevant. It probably helps that Ben Counter is one of the few authors who has carried on writing pretty much consistently throughout the whole time from when this published up to nowadays. There’s certainly a sense of familiarity here for anyone who’s read Counter’s work – especially his earlier work – before.
It also fits tonally, as you might expect from the title. All the usual hallmarks are in place – the bleak sense of overwhelming odds, the darkness of characters whose entire souls have been overtaken by bloodlust, even the setting – a long-abandoned city left to ruin, battled over by two armies of religious fanatics. It’s not as dark as some stories – there’s more attention paid to Athellenas’ tough task controlling his men than the inner workings of the cultists’ psyches, for example – but while it doesn’t delve too deep or throw unexpected light on any of the characters, it’s still a powerful story in its own right. I could absolutely imagine this being re-released by Black Library without much, if any work needing to be done to bring things up to date. After all, everyone loves an antagonist with man-sized shears in place of an arm…right?!
As with so many of these Forgotten Texts stories, this first appeared in Inferno! magazine, in this case issue nineteen (the same as Ancient History) from back in 2000. A fair few copies of Inferno! pop up on ebay if you’re of a mind to do a bit of digging, but if that’s not your style then you’ll need to keep an eye out for one of two anthologies in order to find this story. It was included as the title story in 2002’s Words of Blood alongside stories featuring Eisenhorn, Uriel Ventris and the Last Chancers, and then subsequently re-published in the Let the Galaxy Burn anthology in 2006 along with MASSES of other great stories. Either way you’ll need to look out for a second hand story, but either one would be a great find. Alternatively – and I know I suggest this a lot – it wouldn’t hurt to drop Black Library an email and ask them to reprint this (and all the other great stories from back in the day) as an ebook!
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of Forgotten Texts. If there are any classic Black Library stories that you would like to put forward for a review, please do let me know, and likewise if you’ve got any comments or feedback. Check back next week for the next instalment where I’ll be taking a look at another story from the Black Library archives.