The Scythes feature in ‘Orphans of the Kraken’

Sharp Edges : Author Notes from the Legends of the Space Marines story : The Scythes in ‘Orphans of the Kraken’
by Richard Williams on Thursday, July 1. 2010. (Published with his consent on originally April 15, 2011)

Back in the early 1990s, I bought a game from my local GW called ‘Advanced Space Crusade’. This was the game that rebooted the tyranid threat from the brief listing in Rogue Trader to the Great Devourer determined to consume the galaxy and every lifeform within it. That game also introduced the Scythes of the Emperor, a space marine chapter whose homeworld had been destroyed by Hive Fleet Kraken. Aside from the brief text, you could glimpse their iconography in a couple of pictures and, on a random exploration roll, the marine player’s incursion team could encounter a captured marine from that very chapter. I doubt that the Scythes were ever intended to play much part in the background; they were created to be destroyed, to give weight to the threat that the Hive Fleets represented, so great that even entire marine chapters had been lost.

Something about the Scythes, however, caught the imagination of some fans, myself included. A marine chapter, nearly annihilated, reduced to barely a single company, but refusing to die. The concept stood in contrast to the well-established ‘core’ marine chapters, who might take severe losses as part of a heroic last stand, but who never appeared to be at risk of complete extinction. The Scythes hung on in the background, their story being reprinted in the Tyranid codex when it was released, and even being expanded a little when the Tau were introduced and they were named as one of the chapters of the Damocles Gulf Crusade. But nothing more about them post-Kraken was ever established. As ever, the fans created their own stories, and the internet became home to many ideas of what had happened to this ill-fated chapter.

When I was offered the chance to pitch ideas for the ‘Legends of the Space Marines’ anthology, the Scythes were the first marine chapter on my list. Here was a chance. The fans wanted this chapter to survive, wanted it to take the fight back to its enemy. I didn’t merely want to tell a single adventure of a squad of marines, I wanted to describe the story of the whole chapter from the fall of Sotha to present. And I wanted to speak of the resulting conflict within their ranks between those who wanted the chapter to retreat and survive and those who wished to attack and end it all in a last blaze of glory. No small order for a single short story.

So was born Sergeant Tiresias, a marine fighting that very conflict within himself. It is, perhaps, not a natural thought for the rest of us. If we ourselves were part of a unit that was so nearly destroyed, of course we would think to pull back and rebuild; we do not seek self-annihilation without strong cause. And therein lies yet another difference between a normal human and an Astartes. In the background for the Crimson Fists, it details how hard their commander, Pedro Cantor, had to struggle to prevent his marines from launching a reactionary self-destructive crusade after the losses taken during the ork attack on their homeworld. The Crimson Fists had been reduced to three hundred and had held their homeworld; the Scythes were one hundred and had lost theirs, and so for them that struggle would be all the greater. An Astartes exists only to fight in the Emperor’s name; it is their worship, their reason to be. To tell one that he may not fight when the enemies of the Imperium can be reached is far greater punishment than death.

Tiresias feels that strongly, yet he is conflicted between this and the orders he receives from the new chapter master Thrasius, who, like Cantor, is determined to keep his chapter alive. To Tiresias’s mind, however, the very attempt is a betrayal of the chapter’s very spirit, its legacy. It is consigning the survivors to a tepid, meek existence, unable to fight to their fullest or place themselves at too great risk. Thrasius would have the chapter die slowly and painfully, forgoing their duties, sapping their courage and their honour in order to clutch onto existence. They may biologically be Astartes, but nothing of their spirit would be. Yet Tiresias finds himself placed in command of a squad of scouts, those very young fighters who are integral to Thrasius’s plan.

The scouts themselves, originally a relatively homogenous group, became a central means of relating events subsequent to those established. They were all drawn from the different worlds of the Scythes’ retreat: Pasan from Sotha, Hwygir from the feral world Miral, Vitellios and Narro from the hiveworld Radnar, all worlds now fallen to the Kraken. They are a living record of the Scythes’ long retreat from their homeworld, as well as demonstrating the chapter’s new diversity, the new embryonic culture it is developing, its old traditions inevitably passing. For Tiresias, they personify everything he detests about the changes his chapter master is forcing upon him and his disdain for that, alongside his resentment at having to nanny them instead of fighting as one of the battle company, fosters a bitterness towards them he is unable to completely conceal.

There are many ideas about what happened to the Scythes, some that they are reduced to a single battle company that makes commando style raids against Kraken, others that they are still fleeing the surviving subfleets of Kraken; some that they have been rapidly recruiting and have brought up a new scout company, others that the veterans have been drafted en masse into the Deathwatch to share their knowledge of fighting the tyranid foe. I tried to include nods to all of these, as well as adding my own: for if Scythe marines have been found as captives onboard hiveships, if there still are rumours of scattered remnants of companies fighting on, would not their surviving brethren be searching for them? Of course they would. This lead to the creation of the Salvation Teams; small, autonomous units given the task of traversing the battlegrounds of the Eastern Fringe in the wake of Kraken and running to ground every rumour, every indication of veteran Scythes still alive. Truly, for these teams, there are a hundred stories that could be told.

Even if nothing is ever written in a GW publication about the Scythes again, I hope this story gives those loyal fans a vision of how the Scythes of the Emperor could be taken forward.

– Richard Williams.

Trivia : A certain Scythe collector has a cameo in the fiction, Forgemaster Sebastion.
Read these thoughts here, on Richard’s own Facebook page.

There is a new review by Track of Words April 26, 2017: Here.

About Sebastian

Site owner and creator, Sebastian Stuart has been updating and maintaining the Scythes of the Emperor webpage since 1997. He is canonised as 'ForgeMaster Sebastion' by Richard Williams and LJ Goulding in the Scythes of the Emperor novels by Black Library.