By the close of the 41st Millennium the influence and imagery of death has pervaded to every level of Imperial society. Whole worlds are given over to vast mortuaries and every family on every planet, from spire-top to sump, has lost sons and daughters to war. Even the immortal God Emperor himself is said to now be more corpse than man.
Yet death is a dangerous mistress, and should not be embraced or challenged lightly. Trade in the bones of martyrs sees the glorious dead robbed of their Emperor-given rest. Disreputable physicians challenge the edicts of the Genetors by pulling corpses from fresh graves to conduct their unsanctioned experiments. Maddened cults seek to hasten the end, uniting themselves with the sleeping Emperor through cataclysmic acts of destruction, or worshipping ancient, forbidden forces of entropy and despair. In the deepest shadows lurk those who would use a saint’s bones for the most depraved and unholy purposes of all, for the Chaos gods offer great power to those who can tempt them with a worthy sacrifice.
It is through these gloomy depths that the inquisitors of the Ordo Mors must walk. Grim and morbid to the last man their charge is the protection of the Imperium’s glorious dead from the depredations of the rapacious living.
So, after number false starts, my warband for the Chapel has started to gain traction. For those unfamiliar with the Chapel it’s a story-driven collaborative project, spearheaded by Mark of HeresyOfUs so head over there to get the latest. Over the last couple of months I’ve started and discarded a number of different possible projects from scrap harvesting Cult Mechanicus outcasts to knightly crusaders to scheming Tzeentchian saboteurs. None, however, quite stuck so I decided to take things back to basics. The heart of Inq28 and its various feral children will always be the Inquisition and so that is where I headed. Rather than take on one of the better known branches however I decided to cut my own path, partly so I could stretch my wings creatively and partly so I didn’t have to worry about finding myself in the shadow of anyone who’d tackled the Ordo previously.
Having discounted the obvious choices from Inquisitorial factions I started to think about what other areas of the Imperium would merit a dedicated branch of the Inquistion, rather than just being something that the Arbites could deal with. Enter the Ordo Mors, the Inquisitors dedicated to the protection of the Imperial dead.
Even a quick look through a 40k codex or rulebook reveals the Imperium’s all pervasive obsession with death. Today, in the west, the vast majority of deaths occur in hospital. Our population ages, child mortality reduces and great wars do not swallow up whole generations, for now. For most of us who can afford to enjoy Games Workshops products and who have the luxury of time to play with their weird and grubby worlds they create, death is more of an abstract, less a constant companion. That is not to say that death has been eradicated, far from it, or that the population has become so psychotically nihilistic that we no longer fear it, simply that we have been afforded the luxury of distance. Indeed whilst meat-grinder wars exert a powerful, and understandable, fear they also provide the opportunity for lots of bold talk about heroism, honour, patriotism and other things which tend to lose meaning quickly as one lies in a trench trying to hold one’s guts in. However at least those things provide a context through which we can relate to the idea of wholesale slaughter. Not so nuclear armageddon, which is utterly impersonal and dehumanising, and doesn’t even offer the opportunity to write maudlin poetry. There’s no standing in a shield wall with your brothers for us, no thunderous charges of brightly armour knights, not even the industrial cruelty of the trenches. If you’re looking for glory and comradeship in a nuclear war you’d better fit it in quick because most of your time will be spent sitting under your kitchen table spitting your lungs out.
In such circumstances who can blame us, the people of the west, for turning our faces to the wall, and pretending it’ll be all right. We don’t think about death in the way that we used to because it’s either too big and horrifying to face, or because it’s too unlikely. After all no-one is really going to unleash nuclear war are they? And with modern medicine I’ll probably keep living whilst scientific breakthroughs keep extending the human lifespan. Of course such discoveries will probably be the property of the rich to begin with but never mind eh, that’ll be me too soon. After all the American Dream has spread itself around like the filthy disease it is and so, as a temporarily disenfranchised billionaire, I’ll soon be able to afford it. After all death and taxes need not be inevitable, and the very rich have given avoiding both a good go. Just so long as I don’t end up getting killed whilst taking a selfie or crushed to death by a vending machine in the meantime that is…
Historically however death was much more part of the public consciousness. Ordinary people devoted their whole lives to facing the hereafter, often at the expense of their own biological imperatives or the wellbeing of their social peers. Elaborate rituals were called upon to appease angry gods. Victorian women had a strict dress code that allowed one to tell, at a glance, not only that they were mourning but how long it had been since the loved one had died. Walk around an old cemetery and you’ll see all kinds of elaborate statues fetishizing death, grief and mourning. Likewise the art of 40k reveals death to be everywhere, both on the battlefield and in the ritualistic trappings of society. It seemed only natural, then, that a culture so obsessed with death would employ inquisitors whose sole focus was this area.
One of the things that has struck me most about the Chapel project so far is the profusion of ghosts Mark has produced. From the terrifying lash-banshee to the almost-innocuous wisps, the Chapel is a place haunted by a profusion of spirits. The sort of place then that an Inquisitor of the Ordo Mors would inevitably be drawn for the Imperium is a place of crushing order and no line is as inviolate as that which marks the boundary between the living and the dead.
The insufferably arrogant book ghoul can provide travellers with priceless information, it’s just a shame he’s so condescending.
The woeful Lady Marisa who’s haunting undoubtedly obstructs the orderly working of the Imperium!
The gruesome and terrifying revenant boy – for those who weren’t planning on sleeping tonight anyway…
Working on this project also got me thinking about the question of ghosts in the 41st Millennium. Most other fantasy archetypes have been ported across to 40k, making it far more a setting of “fantasy in space” than the science fiction it is sometimes purported to be. The orcs and elves were transferred across from one setting to another almost exactly and once upon a time there were dwarves as well (before the monstrous fangs of IP-control closed over them and the tyranids of legalese gobbled them up). Other crossovers were a little more subtle; vampires became Blood Angels, werewolves became Space Wolves and the trudging hordes of the undead were reinvented as Necrons. Ghosts however don’t get a look in, barring a couple of notable exceptions. Sanguinius, or possibly his loyal bodyguard Azkaellon, may be haunting the Blood Angels in the form of the Sanguinor and the Legion of the Damned may be the ghosts of dead space marines (or equally they may not). The Eldar dead get to enjoy a partial existence in the wraithbone infinity circuits of their craftworlds with occasional ventures out to pilot various war-machines and hang out with the newborn god of the dead Ynnead. For the citizens of the Imperium however it seems to be a fairly uncomplicated process; you live, you die, your soul is devoured by daemons and everyone you knew believes you’ve been taken into the God Emperor’s grace until it’s their turn to die and be feasted upon in turn.
It doesn’t leave a lot of room for ghosts, yet the above examples show that the ground work has been laid. Mark’s excellent ghosts fit into the 40k universe seamlessly but I liked the idea of the restless dead being found far beyond the boundaries of the Chapel itself, whilst a whole Inquisitorial Ordo works in the shadows, banishing them and covering up their existence.
Imagine yourself as an Imperial citizen finding yourself, at the moment of your death, cast from your mortal flesh through the veil of reality and into a sea of hungry daemons. Most would be consumed instantly but a few would attempt to dart back, preferring a liminal existence in the material universe than the eternal torment that waits for them beyond. Knowing what awaited it such a creature would resist banishment with truly desperate viciousness. Even if only a tiny number were able to return in this way of humanity’s teeming billions over ten long millennia the cumulative number of unquiet spirits could present a serious problem for the orderly Imperium.
This however would be nothing compared to the panic if word got out of what awaits on the other side. If word was to spread of the fate that truly awaited one upon death the scale of the chaos that ensued would bring the Imperium tumbling down overnight. Nihilistic dread would bring all work to a halt, armies would not march for fear of death, no-one would breed lest they pass on their curse to future generations, and the demand for rejuvenates and other life extending technologies would see even the most docile rabid with desperation. Meanwhile Chaos cults would proliferate, for only through the – still near unobtainable – boon of princedom could one hope to endure within the Sea of Souls.
Those who are aware of this threat to humanity know it dwarfs the combined might of every xenos species combined. For the Imperium to endure knowledge of what awaits must be suppressed – at all costs and by any means.
Of course this is only a philosophical ramble and may not, if given full consideration, fit into the established cannon of the world. However there is another, very compelling, reason for the Imperium to want any ghosts silenced. The cornerstone of Imperial culture is the idea that the past was glorious. Nostalgia for the magnificent past is everywhere. The present may be grim and dark but it is a temporary hardship that must be overcome if we are to return to the glory days of history. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this reminds you of any current real-world political situations but it certainly makes me think of one or two… Of course what we don’t want is any spirits running around telling people that the past was actually pretty bleak and horrible as well and ruining all our efforts at effective propaganda.
Finally any sensible Inquisitor encountering a ghostly spirit should start by asking themselves, is this really a daemon? Those who cross the veil do not return untouched and, once possessed, an individual can wreak untold havoc before they are banished. Best to smite first and ask questions later.
At this point it would probably be appropriate to show you a miniature or two but of course that would involve having something to show. Fear not however, tonight – all being well – I’ll finish assembling my inquisitor and we’ll be able to get our first look at the man who goes in search of the Chapel’s restless dead.
All photographs used are mine, barring those of the ghosts which – like the spirits themselves – are the work of HeresyOfUs.