67. Burned

With great presence of mind, Titus twisted to shield Makkar from the blast. Surrounded by roaring flames, the man gave a shriek of terror.
Alarm bells screeched into life.
He brought both of them to their feet with emphasis. As he stood up, Titus again felt that a bolt pistol was insufficient for the developments. Decades of training had brought the weapon into his hand nevertheless and he took a moment to sight in each direction. When he was sure that no enemies were in reach, Vox was already stumbling out of the fire.
Titus admired the dramatic effect. A fire bomb was nothing devastating for an Astartes but to emerge brightly burning certainly had class. When the flames died as if switched off, he even suspected that Vox had summoned his warp flames to consume the burning substances sprayed on him.
His friend had not remained unwounded. Titus glimpsed raw skin on the left half of his face before the friend covered it with a hand. He put the pistol away and reached out to steady him.
“Report”, he demanded while he turned both of them away from the fire. Makkar got dragged along in his free hand.
Vox needed only a moment before he was able to focus again.
“No hostiles close in”, he told him.
The whimpering madam lay sprawled on the floor, a few steps away.
“What about her?”, Titus inquired.
“Nothing”, Vox gave back.
“Leaver her”, the sergeant decided.
“My lords!”, Makkar exclaimed when they passed her by carefully. He was hardly able to control his breath enough to speak. Terror poured off him like smoke.
“Please! My niece!”, he squeaked.
A glance was all it took between the comrades. Vox put his helmet on and separated from them when they had reached the end of the corridor. They went left, he went right.
Panicking people swarmed over the stairs and galleries. Titus wondered briefly where they had all been hiding. Some of them were insufficiently dressed.
“What’s going on here?”, Titus demanded of Makkar while he put his helmet on as well.
“I don’t know, my lord”, the man exclaimed. “It must be an attempt on my life. I didn’t expect them to get into my study!”
Neither adept at, nor interested in reading people, Titus nevertheless could see that the man was shaken to the core. This would make the situation complicated and his first concern right now was to keep him alive. No, he corrected himself. His first concern was to get this man in a position where he could be interrogated and for this, he had to keep Vox and himself alive.
“Please, my lord!”, Makkar wailed. “What about my niece?”
“You recognized my brother as a reader. Why do you doubt that he will find her?”, Titus asked, ice crystallizing on the syllables. He strained his senses against the shrilling alarm as he speeded up the spiral stairs. They had almost gained the corridor to the exit when the next charges went off. The explosions happened somewhere down in the building. It would not have affected them, had not most of the humans around them fallen over like game pieces. It was hard to tell if this was their attempt to seek cover. Whatever the case, a lot of them were in the way now and Titus threatened to step on them.
“Vox, status!”, he demanded, carefully wading through the throng.
“I found Aurea”, Vox told him. “She set the charges in the study but doesn’t know where the last explosion came from.”
Titus tried to make sense of this while he attempted to avoid crushing bones under his feet. He had negotiated his way to the stairs leading up to the roof and his well-honed instincts let him hesitate. He still held Makkar firmly by one arm but pushed him behind himself. Cautiously, he crept up the stairs. Regardless of this and made careless by fear, the other humans swarmed around them.
“My lord, please! We can’t leave without…” Makkar winced and shut up when Titus squeezed his arm.
The stairs ended in a small shed to keep the weather off. Its door was open.
Titus could see their shuttle from here but as soon as he showed himself outside, gunfire went up. It punched through the walls of the small chamber and the unlucky mortals around them.
Safe inside his armour, Titus made sure that Makkar was covered as well and stormed back down the stairs. Through the alarm and screams of panic it was impossible to tell if the unseen attackers drew closer. He decided not to risk it.
This time, he took no care as he made his way through the corridor. Leaving several crushed limbs behind, Titus oriented himself and chose the next staircase down.
“My lord!”, Makkar gasped. “There is a secret passage I can escape through. Let me get out that way and meet me outside!”
“No, you are staying with me”, Titus growled. New detonations went off in the entry hall far below. He could see the whole ground floor swimming in flames. Behind them their pursuers were shooting aimlessly at unprotected people.
“Look, you need me alive, right?”, Makkar went on, trying to control his voice. “And I very much want to stay alive! These must be the heretics who have found out that I’m not on their side! I know names, my lord, times, places. I’ve worked hard to learn them. The Emperor is my witness, I am on your side!”
“Do not befoul His divine name. I do not trust you and you will stay with me”, Titus informed him coolly while he shuffled options in his head. With the burning building, they were quite limited.
“But I suggest you direct me to some kind of respirator for you”, he added while checking the oxygen levels in the area. It was only a matter of time until the air would be unbreathable for a human.
“Right down that passage, my lord”, Makkar said meekly. He indicated the gallery below and Titus decided that it would be faster to carry him now.
The man led him to a small alcove that indeed held a respirator, a fire axe and a fire extinguisher. Makkar grabbed the mask and the extinguisher and they moved on. Back in the central room, Titus found dark shapes moving on the upper most floor. The angle was terrible. Suppressive fire with a single bolt pistol was out of the question. They were pinned here unless he wanted to expose the human.
He swore under his breath and opened the personal line to Vox: “Vox, come in!”, he demanded.
“Serge, we are cut off”, Vox answered immediately. “I found a fire escape. Aurea will die in here if I keep her but I’m pretty sure I can find her later. Permission to let her out?”
“Granted. Could you find Makkar as well?”, Titus asked and cursed himself. Why had he not considered this option?
“Yes”, his brother confirmed confidently.
“Alright”, Titus said curtly. “Meet me on the stairs. We’ll fight our way up to the shuttle and pick the two up later.” The exchange had happened behind their helmets. Now, Titus turned to Makkar.
“It’s your lucky day”, he informed him. “Your niece has just left the building and I’ll let you out too. Direct me to the next exit for you.”
Makkar pointed down the corridor they were occupying. The hopeful aspect of the developments was rather spoiled by the window at the end exploding inwards. Someone out there was taking potshots at the building and yet more flames licked towards them.
“Oh, Terra!”, Makkar cried.
“Pick the next one”, Titus demanded calmly.
“One story down!”, the man stuttered. “Right beneath u…” At this point, the human’s voice became an incoherent screech because Titus had grabbed him and was running. He shielded his captive with his body, always turning and seeking as much cover as the galleries would provide. The sound of the shots told him that they were attacked by humans, not Tau. So at least, they had none of the dreaded xenos on their backs yet.
“Serge, I see you”, Vox’s voice suddenly announced. “I’m on the opposite staircase.”
“Clear the area!”, Titus ordered.
“On it.”
Titus could just make out the black silhouette of his brother on the other side of the central room.
Still under fire, he flung himself into the corridor Makkar had pointed out. A single look told him that nothing was to be gained here. It was burning even brighter than the one above. The human groaned in his arms. All they could do was to wait until Vox had dispatched the attackers and make their way to the roof.
“Clear!”, Vox told him half a minute later. Titus lost no further time. In this house, built like a chimney, the fire was roaring upwards with terrible vigor. He was concerned that the heat alone would kill Makkar. The stairs and galleries were paved with stone but a lot of the understructure was wood. Flames seemed to climb over every surface by now. His senses strained, scanning for the best route, Titus speeded up.
He spotted Vox, leaning over the bannister above them when he realized that the floor rocked under his tread. He tried to reach the staircase with a jump but his foot found nothing to push away from.
In a short, weightless moment Titus managed to rearrange Makkar so that he would not crush him but debris from above buried both of them. It was only luck that the lower gallery did not give way as well.
When Titus had managed to struggle free, Vox was already by his side. Under a heavy beam they found the bloody remains of Makkar. Grunting in frustration, Titus grabbed the corpse and followed his friend back to the stairs.
At least this meant that they could drop a lot of caution. When they reached the roof, Vox flung himself out into the hail of bullets without hesitation.
Two shuttles were hovering in wait for them. The vehicles themselves were unarmed but they each carried a couple of humans with guns.
Emerging behind his friend, Titus drew his bolt pistol and picked the attackers out of one of the shuttles. The other one had made the error to circle too low over the roof. Vox was able to reach it with a leap and pulled himself into the cabin. The fight inside was over very quickly and Vox back on the roof before the shuttle had started to drift sideways. Only the blood on his armour bore testimony of the violence.
Their own shuttle was nowhere to be seen but Madam D’Equille appeared from behind one of the last remaining vehicles. She waved excitedly and they made haste to join her.
They folded themselves into a luxuriant but human-sized shuttle while the woman hastened through the rites for the machine spirit. Seconds later, they were airborne.
“Thank you, Madam D’Equille”, Titus said solemnly.
“You’re welcome my lords”, she said and her voice sounded strained. She had started to cry when she had seen the corpse of her master.
“Madam, we are still searching for Miss Aurea”, Vox told her.
“Didn’t you find her inside?”, the woman gasped.
“I helped her escape but I dread to think what will happen when she meets the people who attacked.”
“If I can be of any help, my lords!”, she offered, suddenly lively again.
“Then be so kind”, Vox said and reached over her shoulder to point the way.
With an elegant arch the shuttle dived between the buildings.

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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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