What do the Emperor of Mankind and a Lich have in common? The answer is: more than you’d think…
Let’s talk about the Undead in 40K. No, not the Necrons (aka space Tomb Kings), though they do play an important part of this discussion, nor even the Vampire Counts, who are hanging out LARPing as Vampire Robert Plant in Space. No, I mean honest to goodness(?) Undead. You know, reanimated corpses, legions of soldiers culled from former mortals… and more importantly, Liches. Now I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for many a year, on either side of the screen, so trust me when I say I know a Lich when I see one. And friends, the Emperor of Man is a Lich.
Hold on, put away your torches and pitchforks (for now)– I’ll no doubt be executed for heresy soon enough–but until then, hear me out. After all, what is a Lich? A powerful spellcaster who has transcended mortality through an arcane ritual that transforms them, into an undead being of terrible power and that binds their soul and intellect to a powerful artifact. And unlike typical undead, a Lich keeps its memories and personality and powers. And, to borrow a quote from Eldritch Wizardry:
A Lich’s most valuable resources are its vast intellect, its supreme mastery of sorcery and limitless time to research, plot and scheme.
Sound like anyone we know? After all, during his lifetime, the Emperor of Man was a powerful Psyker. Aha!, you might be screaming at your monitor, monocle dropping from your eye into your cup of tea, the Emperor was a Pysker, not a magic-user. Well, fish out your monocle and clean it off, because I think we both know that, in the worlds of Warhammer, magic and psychic powers are one and the same. They draw on the power of the Warp (mostly), often to disastrous effects–how many Psykers have gone rogue, become daemonhosts and blown themselves up? And then how many bright wizards have blown themselves up?*
Artillery craters, or former Bright Wizard Colleges, you decide…
At any rate, the Emperor was a powerful Psyker who extended his reach across the stars themselves, seeding an Empire that would outshine even the stars in the heavens! The Emperor dared to do what other races either only dreamed of or cautioned against. And while he lived, humanity enjoyed a Golden Age of expansion and unification. But since his death, shadow and death and doom have fallen upon the galaxy, which lives under a pallor of grim darkness.
And towards the very end of his life he came up with a Great Work that, in his mind, would be the ultimate triumph. But it was one that was ruined by the whole Horus Heresy thing that everyone knows. This resulted in the Emperor being mortally wounded and interred in the Golden Throne, where now he rests–supposedly in stasis, kept “alive” by the arcane machinery, while his will keeps the Imperium going.
I put it to you that when he knew he was dying, the Emperor enacted an arcane ritual to become a Lich. I mean, we all know the common story: he was mortally wounded and dictated the process by which to modify the Golden Throne into its current “life-sustaining” state. But nobody understands exactly how it works, and even when the Emperor was alive, I suspect he was the only one who really understood it. This device is clearly pwoerful. It killed Malcador, after all. What if the alterations made it into something like his phylactery? After all, what is a phylactery but an item of immense power that the intellect and soul of a powerful mage are bound to in order to sustain a Lich?
And what is the Golden Throne but a powerful item that sustains the intellect and soul of the Emperor? I mean they even say he was “interred within the Golden Throne.” It’s adorned with skulls and arcane runes. It seems pretty clear to me. But wait, there’s more. Leaving aside the fact that he literally drinks the souls of powerful
wizardsPsykers to sustain his great work and keep his empire hanging on, there’s another pretty clear case for what an undead being looks like in 40K terms.
Oh… right. Hey they don’t look all that different.
As you’re no doubt racing to the comments to point out, they’re actually the minds of the Necrontyr that have been transferred to immortal bodies. Buuuut in the process the Necrons lost their souls. Basically making them undead. From Lexicanum:
Promising them not only victory in the War in Heaven but also the immortality every Necrontyr craved, the Silent King and the Triarch eagerly agreed to an alliance [with the C’tan], and so forever doomed their race. […] The weak flesh of the Necrontyr was replaced with immortal bodies of living metal. The C’tan drank off the torrent of cast-off life and energy and grew stronger as Szarekh, now in a machine body himself, realised he had made a terrible mistake. The Necrontyr may now be immortal and unified, but they had lost their souls in the process. Thus the soulless machines known as the Necrons were born.
Immortal, unliving beings that literally keep themselves in tombs and crypts and pyramids. Their bodies are skeletal and they cloak themselves in the trappings of death. An undead by any other name, right? So that’s what a 40K undead looks like…a being whose body has passed on, and who is bound to machinery or some kind. Now sure, ithe Emperor’s life essence is still around (probably), but I think that very clearly falls under the whole, “mind and soul bound to the phylactery,” clause we talked about earlier.
Now consider some of the Emperor’s most powerful servants. The Dreadnoughts. These are great machines (and probably the Emperor’s first experiments with techno-necromancy), that have a corpse (or a soon-to-be corpse, anyway) interred within them so that they can fight on eternally. They’re even contained in a sarcophagus.
Quick, get the cleric to try and Turn Undead, it’s the only way to know for sure!
Not enough for you? Well then, consider that in many fantasy scenarios, the undead are often opposed by various gods of death, who see the existence of the Undead as cheating. D&D has gods like Kelemvor and the Raven Queen that fulfill this function. 40K has Ynnead–who was instrumental in actually resurrecting one of the fallen Primarchs. Guilliman is actually alive in the flesh and blood and soul and everything. He’s basically a Paladin. And a Paladin who recently battled his way back home, shocked by the state of affairs, determined to change them–until he met with a Lich. Look at him now, he’s basically sort of towing the party line–while he figures out what to do next. I think it’s a real interesting wrinkle, and maybe one that could ultimately play out with the Heresy repeating itself, only instead, this time it’s Guilliman who takes the fight to his fallen father and either redeems or frees him somehow (to make it like a heroic version), which then repays the debt the Emperor incurred when he turned on his sons.
Okay, that’ll probably never happen, but it would be very literary if it did.
At any rate to sum up, the Emperor is a powerful spellcaster, sustained by an eldritch artifact, who devours the souls of other wizards, and commands a legions of undead. I don’t think the Emperor set out to be a Lich–I think he knew he had no choice after his fight with Horus. And that even knowing that he was dooming himself, it was a worthy sacrifice if it meant he might have a chance to see his great work completed. After all, he wanted the Webway to be around so that he could “show them, show them all…” (don’t try and tell me the Emperor wasn’t at least a little arrogant, look at his plans and it’s all there). And now after 10,000 years of plotting and planning and scheming, the Aeiouldar god of Life and Death has set things in motion with the resurrection of a Paladin Champion.
“Life” is about to get interesting for the Lich Lord of Terra.
If nothing else, it would explain all the skulls…
*All of the ones I tried to play in FFG’s various Warhammer RPGs. Perils every time man. Every time.