A shadow sprang into his field of vision.
With two swift strokes Vox hacked the claw into pieces. He lifted his free hand to throw fire into the face of the creature and immediately powered up his jump pack to drive his sword into the same spot. Shaking off the leaden feeling that death reaching for him had left, Titus came to his feet.
Dankwart and Tiberius were closing in, no smaller creature was left in sight. The sergeant fell back, drawing his bolter to give what aid was necessary but the Hive Tyrant collapsed already. Maybe not for good but probably for long enough.
Emphatically Titus indicated the direction they would retreat to and was surprised when Dankwart slung Vox around his shoulders on his way past.
There was no time to inquire. They had to get out of reach immediately. This had been an isolated swarm. If more of the creatures arrived, the mission would end here.
With only two jump packs between the four of them, they could not make very long jumps but they were faster than without them. When they had gained distance, Titus wanted to opt for a light run but Dankwart ducked into a shallow cave close by.
The apothecary intoned his first rite before he had even finished laying Vox down. Titus forced himself to gather his thoughts. He had not seen how Vox had been wounded but if Dankwart worked on him now, he might be able to revive him enough to go on. Since Titus was unwilling to rule that Vox was to be left, he convinced himself that they were sufficiently out of reach. If the friend had entered suspended animation, this decision would weigh heavy enough on his hearts.
Titus was about to turn and stand guard at the entrance when Dankwart stopped mid sentence.
It was like a blow to the stomach. Titus had never witnessed any apothecary do that. It got worse when Dankwart suddenly moved very fast.
He took Vox’s helmet off without a rite. As it clattered to the ground, Titus could see that it had been split open by the sniper’s bullet. To survive something like that had been sheer luck.
Dankwart fiddled the librarian’s shoulder plates aside and started to remove the breast plate when Tiberius tried to pull Titus around to the entrance.
“Come on, let’s stand guard”, his techmarine suggested nervously.
“You’re the one with the auspex”, Titus said flatly as he stared at the proceedings on the ground. “You stand guard.”
“Sergeant…”, Tiberius began, renewing his tug.
“Indeed”, Titus answered with an icy glare. He shook the brother off to turn back.
And stopped dead.
Dankwart had just peeled back the finger thick mimetic polymer and exposed Vox’s under armour. And with this he revealed what had been under the black shield all along.
Without rational thought behind the movement, his bolter appeared in his hand. At the very next second, he was hit in the face with an enraged Dankwart. The unexpected onslaught brought Titus to his back and the apothecary placed two painful punches before Tiberius managed to pull him away.
“Damn it, Dankwart!”, their techmarine hissed, trying to keep the noise down.
“The commander vouched for him!”, Dankwart declared aggressively but in the same suppressed tone. Whatever was happening, they did not need Tyranids on top of everything else.
“You are not to touch the black shield!”, their apothecary insisted.
“That’s still assault on a superior officer!”, Tiberius growled.
“Whatever! Remember what he risked to save me?”, Dankwart snarled and gave Titus a half-hearted kick. “Now, get up and give me a hand, damn you! And you stand guard!”, he snapped, pointing at Tiberius.
Titus came to his feet. Blood ran into his eye from where their gentle healer had caused the brow to burst open while Dankwart positively dragged him back to Vox. Titus had never seen him so angry and in such a hurry.
“Lift his right shoulder out of the back plate!”, Dankwart demanded.
Titus’ fingers shook as he tried to shove them under Vox’s body. He was still unable to cope with what he saw.
He had noticed that his friend had a slender neckline but never would he have expected it to flow down into two astonishingly well-defined collarbones and further into an upper body that was nothing like a Space Marine should look like.
Still far stronger built than any mortal and with the contacts for the armour in the right places, Vox nevertheless was betrayed by her shape now.
Titus had to get his gauntlets off to carry out what Dankwart had asked. He hardly noticed what he was doing. The sensations drowned in the insistent repetition of ‘this is impossible’.
Touching her shoulder, brought his mind back to the present with burning precision. The heat of her skin through a thin layer of cloth was almost too much to deal with. Only when Dankwart reached out, was Titus able to understand what was wrong: The Hive Tyrant’s claw had wedged itself between Vox’s neck and where the shoulder plate had been in the way.
His breath faltered.
She had taken the strike for him.
Dankwart pulled the evil, barbed thing out. It was more than a cubit long.
“If you ever aim at my patients again”, the Blood Drinker threatened in a low voice while he threw it aside. “I’ll be sarcastic about it, I swear! Now, hold him down!”
Dankwart gripped Titus’ hands and manoeuvred them to Vox’s sternum. They came to rest right between…
“If he moves, he dies, do you understand?”, the apothecary impressed on him. Somehow, Titus managed to nod and shift his position to her side to get a more sensible angle. Vox was held almost upright by the jump pack on her back. He leaned his weight on her, watching the proceedings with dull horror.
The apothecary pulled her under armour up, exposing white skin. Only now, did Titus become aware of the more than hand long cannula Dankwart had taken from his narthecium.
“Pray, brother”, the apothecary said quietly. “If I hit anything but the heart, we can move on directly.”
He pushed the needle into Vox’s solar plexus.
There was surprisingly little blood for a few seconds and then, it oozed out of the cannula in a steady flow. It was quite dark for Astartes blood and Dankwart seemed to relax.
Vox, on the other hand, moved. The impressive muscles on her belly bulged, her upper body heaved against Titus’ hands. Shakily, she fumbled for the resistance she encountered and tried to push it aside. When this failed, her unsteady gaze wavered around to him.
“Don’t cough”, Dankwart instructed her insistently.
“And don’t move”, he added softly while he connected his narthecium to the armour duct on her left side torso. As she relaxed, her hands fell lifelessly to her side. Dankwart caught one of them. He shifted his position so that she could hold on to his thigh while he worked. It was a gentle, protective gesture and brought Titus’ attention to the pressure he still applied to her chest.
Vox had closed her eyes and was trying to keep her breath under control. Astartes had strong, overlapping ribs to shield the inner organs but they still needed their ribcage to move to draw a breath. Her flat, irregular gasps fought hard against his additional weight.
He removed his hands. Helplessly he sought for things to do. Finally, he dared to support her head that was lolling backwards over the jump pack. Her hair curled around his bare fingers.
‘This is not possible’, he thought under the sensation. ‘This is not happening.’
Dankwart still watched the readings of his narthecium. As if counting under his breath, he laid a hand to the needle in Vox’s chest, waited for the right moment and pulled it out.
“Turn him round!”, he ordered. Suddenly, Vox was in Titus’ arms. She lay across his thighs, coughing up all the blood that had pooled in her lungs. Titus tried to steady her without getting hit in the face by her jump pack.
His mind had gone numb.
So, today was the day he regretted becoming her bailsman. What had he been supposed to remember?
He couldn’t think straight.
Her firm, strong body was the thickness of the under armour away from one of his hands.
Titus remembered well how aggravating an injured lung was and Vox seemed to be far worse off than he had been.
Dankwart had done something with her hearts.
She had taken that strike for him.
This was impossible.
The train of thought came to a screeching halt when Vox went still in his arms. For a moment, she sagged but then she moved determinately. He could feel how hard it was for her but she mobilised all her strength and pushed herself away from him. Titus stood up and failed to fathom what happened inside him at this moment. It was as if blood had started to drip from his vertex right on his brain.
The first movement she tried to achieve and she moved away.
It hurt him so badly, he hardly realised that pain was happening inside him. He just dimly perceived that something went wrong.
Dankwart helped Vox to steady herself in a kneeling position. When he lifted her breastplate to cover her up, her tarot cards spilt from their compartment.
Vox stared at them as they scattered in the puddle of blood she had left on the ground. Gently, she pushed Dankwart aside. While their apothecary moved away, Titus looked over her shoulder.
A card lay turned he had never seen before. It showed a blonde, naked woman, holding a magnificent sword with six wings making up the guard and six crystals set into the fuller of the blade. Her hair flowed through the picture and tangled in the shadows behind her. The suggestion of wings could be made out in them. Shining behind her head like a halo were another six wings, this time with three swords crossed in front of them. Around her free hand flames danced.
Titus stared at the face of the woman and he knew he was blushing for the rest of her. The line of nose and eyebrows, the calm gaze of her eyes.
He would know this face anywhere.
The card was called ‘The Voice’.
It had fallen in the centre of a lot of others. ‘The Devourer’ showed the hideous form of a Tyranid. On a planet full of the wretched things, this was probably the least mysterious omen. ‘The Angel of Death’ was another one and ‘The Missionary’ upside down, ‘The Remembrancer’, ‘The Witch’, ‘The Galaxy’, ‘The Golden Throne’, ‘The Tech-Priest’, ‘The Soulless’ upside down, ‘The Explorer’ and ‘The Sister of Battle’ upside down, all fallen in a complex, confusing pattern.
Vox drew lines between the cards in her own blood, linking them seemingly at random while Titus watched. Some cards had fallen on their faces. She included them too. Then, she started to draw new connections between the lines themselves, weaving a web of blood and meaning, only she could see. She did it with the certainty of the trance and when an unfelt wind brushed through her blood-encrusted hair and the shimmer in the air showed the transparent white wings, it was so unmistakable whom the card in the middle showed that it made Titus dizzy.
Who was she that she had her own card in the Emperor’s Tarot?
Slowly, it dawned on him that she had never used the cards without permission before but he found nothing to say. Who had the right to veto when the Emperor sent a sign like this?
Finally, Vox breathed in deeply. This made her cough again. She collected the cards while trying not to spill more blood on them.
Shakily, she managed to put them back into their compartment.
From here on, she suddenly was in a rush. Foregoing her helmet, she was on the move as soon as her armour was reassembled. Beckoning them to follow, she stumbled out of the cave. Tiberius and Dankwart exchanged a worried glance through their helmets. Then they made haste to disappear as well. Losing sight of them, finally brought Titus to his senses. He hurried after them.
While he tried to put on his gauntlets again, he noticed that her blood was on his fingers.
This was impossible.