32. Leader Down

Titus stood, scanning the canyon, listening for more enemies. Only when he found everything dead, including the bulky form of the brother in black, did he allow himself to kneel down beside Vox and check on him. The friend lay on his back, the upper half of the dead witch on his chest.
He had cut her clean in two and managed to bring her between himself and the shot. Unfortunately, an unarmoured body provided little protection against an Eldar bullet. The passing shell had splattered him with witch blood and still ripped an impressive part out of the left side of his neck. Vox’s eyes were half open and Titus was relieved beyond belief when he fixed them on him.
“Vox, Titus?”, they heard over com. “Do you read?” It was Hyron.
“Affirmative”, Titus answered, coughed and spat blood. “Where are you?”, he managed in a choked tone.
“Almost at your position. What’s going on? The shooting has stopped!”
“We had Eldar”, Titus informed them curtly.
“Dankwart?”, Vox could be heard, sounding weak.
“I read”, their apothecary replied.
“Get a move on, I need you here”, their leader managed just loud enough to be heard.
“On our way!”, Dankwart confirmed.
Titus frowned and leaned closer.
“You alive?”, Vox asked him quietly. Titus felt that this was unnecessary. After all, he was the one still upright who had not just called for the apothecary to hurry.
“Quite”, he answered. He pushed the dead Eldar off his brother and reached down to the wound on his friend’s neck. It seemed that the main artery was intact but there was a worrying amount of bright red blood running into the water nevertheless. He pressed down.
“Have you been hit by a bullet?”, Vox wanted to know.
“Just ice”, he gasped and coughed blood again.
“Solomon?”, Vox called out before Titus had settled down enough to inquire why he had asked after the bullets.
The legate peered around the corner. He was as pale as the rock.
“I found you some xenos technology if you want to tarnish your soul with it”, the librarian said and waved a hand at the dead Eldar whose weapons lay scattered around them.
“How very considerate of you”, Solomon replied sarcastically and came up to them. Titus was relieved to see that Vox’s blood at least stopped oozing between his fingers. He did not dare to release his grip yet but the bleeding seemed to slow down.
“Who was that?”, Solomon inquired, giving the dead witch a kick.
“The damned blank spot in the tarot”, Vox answered. “An Eldar witch that was able to cloak the presence of her whole squad in the warp.”
“Was that why you ran into their shots?”, Titus wanted to know.
“Yes”, Vox said and his voice threatened to crack. “I was expecting our brother, not them.”
It was at this point that they could hear the welcome sound of running feet. The rest of Aegis had regrouped a canyon away and now closed in at speed. Titus resorted to his vox to make sure they heard him when he called out to them. He had no desire for them to shoot at sight.
Afterwards, he tried to retrieve his hand to get out of Dankwart’s way. This turned out to be tricky since the fabric of his gauntlet had clotted itself into Vox’s congealing blood. He ripped the wound open again just as Dankwart dropped to his knees beside them.
“Hey”, Vox greeted their apothecary weakly. “Good to see you again. My left side is numb and the eye on that side stopped working too.”
Titus froze. That sounded like poison.
“What?”, he snapped. “Why didn’t you say?”
“And what would you have done?”, Vox inquired calmly. His eyes moved sluggishly.
“I would have found the projectiles by now so Dankwart can check which poison they used!”
Titus scrambled to his feet and stumbled over to the last Eldar he had shot, while Dankwart gave their librarian a calculating look and connected his narthecium to the stricken brother’s armour.
“When did the shots hit you?”, Dankwart wanted to know, looking at the readings on his tool.
“About… maybe two minutes ago or so”, Vox said quietly and closed his eyes.
The weapon that had caused the wound on his little brother’s neck in one hand, Titus returned at accelerated speed. Dankwart sat without moving and watched figures on his narthecium scroll by.
“You might want to hurry”, he said quietly without turning, while Titus struggled to get one of the bullets out. He cursed at the wretched xenos technology until Solomon stepped up.
“May I?”, the legate asked politely. He weighed the gun in his hands for a moment and turned it around. With a complicated twist of his wrist, he removed the magazine and fished one of the bullets out of it. Titus withheld comments. If Solomon dabbled in heretic xenos technologies, it was Elaine’s problem, not his.
Dankwart wordlessly held his hand out for the bullet and put it in a small container in his narthecium. Again he watched the results move by on the small monitor and then, without comment, he started to perform a rite on Vox. Only his slightly hastened words told Titus how bad the situation was.
Titus could not bear standing still. Instead, he started limping around impatiently. Hyron and Vyron had taken up guard positions on both ends of the canyon without prompting and Tiberius had disappeared into the ruin.
Hyron was keeping watch right behind the last fallen xeno and turned around to Titus as he came close. He pressed the power axe, Titus had lost in the water, into his hands.
“Here. Found that lying around. What’s with Vox?”, he wanted to know immediately.
“Thanks. Poisoned”, Titus answered, putting the axe away.
“We seem to have a rather high wear and tear on leaders”, Hyron said drily. “Who’s up next?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just hope, we don’t need him”, Titus said and limped back to Dankwart.
“How is he?”, he wanted to know.
“Still bleeding from the shoulder. Do you know what caused it?”
“His own sword.”
Dankwart sighed. It was probably the worst noise Titus had ever heard him make. Even worse than the quiet request to hurry earlier.
“What now?”, Solomon asked, tense fear in his voice. Titus had never been sure how Solomon and Vox stood towards each other but here and now, he was sure that the man was concerned for a friend.
“Let me think”, Dankwart demanded calmly. After a few seconds, he nodded and intoned another ritual. He worked for several minutes more.
Tiberius had re-emerged from the ruin when rumbling Ork voices started to echo through the canyon.
The brothers exchanged concerned glances. That was all they needed now!
It was impossible to detect from which direction they were closing in, so Titus and Tiberius each joined one of the Heartrocks.
Shortly afterwards they found out that it had been impossible to determine because they came from both sides. Both teams yelled “Contact!”, within half a second of each other and started to fire into Orks coming around the next bend.
The first wave of enemies was dealt with quickly but, to tell by the sound, there were a lot of Orks here this time. Gunfire and explosions went up and when three Ork rockets hit the canyon above Titus and Vyron, they had to retreat, lest they were crushed by falling stones.
Titus was surprised when he did not step on Eldar corpses as they were forced back. A short glance over his shoulder showed him that Vox had stopped lying around as well. Dankwart was just disappearing into the ruin, carrying dead xenos. He was puzzled about this until he remembered the reason they had been forced to blow up Ecurael: All technology the Orks got to loot made them even worse in the long run. The fallen Space Marine in all black had already disappeared into the ruin.
Over the racket of the attackers, it was impossible to hear the door shut but Titus saw that it had been closed when Vox appeared behind him. He reached his arm out between him and Vyron and Titus just knew that he was planning to throw fire again.
He forced his own, injured arm up to grab the brother’s hand and pull it down. With a reproachful look, he threw two of his plasma grenades into the throng of Orks that wanted to close in.
“A’right”, Vox conceded, leaned heavily on Titus to steady himself and tapped Vyron on the shoulder. “Relieve Tiberius!”, he ordered. The Space Wolf stepped back and was replaced by Dankwart immediately. The apothecary brought his storm shield up and gave them cover against the enemy fire.
“You two, fall back and stay close to the Heartrocks!”, Vox demanded of Titus and Dankwart. They did without question. Tiberius meanwhile, had been released by Hyron and came up to them.
“Tiberius, look after Solomon”, Vox ordered. “And request a pick up beyond the canyons northwards!”
Another rocket exploded in the canyon over their heads. Moving backwards all the time, they now were back to back with their Space Wolves. Vox turned around to the twins and laid his hands on their backs.
“Move!”, he commanded.
Something changed. The two of them, usually crouched and defensive behind their heavy bolters, straightened up and started to move forward. Their pattern of fire changed as well. The steady hammering of bullets was replaced by sporadic, controlled bursts.
They positively strode through their enemies, felling an Ork with each shell and within five minutes the constant stream of xenos from the front ebbed away while they pressed in from behind more and more.
“Now, run!”, Vox ordered and did his best to follow his own command. Even though his arm still was limp, Titus was up to a run again. Vox on the other hand could not hold their pace. Tiberius did not hesitate when he saw their current leader stumble. He threw Solomon into Dankwart’s arms, grabbed their librarian instead and ran on.
“Vox? Melta charge?”, their techmarine suggested.
“Great idea!”, Vox replied, dangling his arms limply around Tiberius’ torso. “Set to three seconds and wait for it!”, he commanded a little unsteadily.
“Armed!”, Tiberius replied after a few, practised movements.
To their luck, the fastest moving Orks were Ork Boyz, armed with clubs and nothing else. The Shoota Boyz had trouble keeping up. Probably because they stopped and tried to shoot something sometimes. As it was, the Space Marines managed to keep ahead of them until Vox shouted: “Drop it!”
Tiberius obeyed readily and all of them accelerated to get out of the blast radius. Vox had chosen well. They were passing through an area of impressive overhangs and when the charge went up, the canyon collapsed, barring the way. Suddenly, there were only half a dozen measly Ork Boyz left.
“If I may be so bolter!”, Titus said, turned and shot them down. He was a little ashamed of the pun but proud that he needed one bullet each as well, even though he had no psyker at his back.
They did not slow down much, only dropped from a sprint into the brisk stride, they could keep up for hours. This way they needed less than ten minutes more until they reached their rendezvous point with their pick up. It was located on a plane beyond the rocks.
Before the marvellous, starry sky, the thunderhawk sank down. It had waited in reach somewhere and its tailboard opened for them to simply storm in. When they came to a halt inside and looked back, they saw that an impressive amount of greenskins just swarmed out of all the adjacent canyons they had not been able to collapse on their foes. Hyron and Vyron busied themselves with shooting at them but the ship rose quickly. It aimed to leave the reach of the inaccurate weaponry of the xenos and soon brought them out of reach as well. They were uncertain if the captain wanted to do them a favour or just be smug about it but he left the door open for them to watch the bombardment, he started now. Since the bombs dropping into the milling Orks somewhat warmed their hearts, they were inclined to suspect the first.

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Guide Me Through the Darkness by Julia M. V. Warren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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