89. Blood

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Vox was back the next morning. She was pale but looked lively enough. Dankwart attached himself to her on the way out of the chapel. It was the perfect opportunity to face her without Gladius getting in the way and Titus seized it. Things had to be sorted out.
“Dankwart?”, he asked as he approached.
His apothecary straightened up and radiated attentive encouragement. Having dodged the first difficult step, Titus was determined to see this through.
“Do you deem Vox capable of training today?”
Vox shot Dankwart a bewildered glance but shrugged and nodded half-heartedly when he raised his eyebrows at her.
“Yes”, Dankwart mouthed the consensus.
“Very well”, Titus pushed on resolutely. “You and Tiberius join training.”
Vox gave Dankwart a worried look but her friend patted her on the shoulder guard and left with a soft smile. The black shield stared after him with hardly concealed horror in her eyes. When she turned to Titus with this expression on her face, he did his best not to shy back from it.
“You’re with me today”, he managed and turned to walk.
“Aye, sergeant”, she replied and from the corner of his eye he saw that she put her helmet on. Titus gritted his teeth and the tension inside him made him coil his hands into fists. Nothing for it now. Today, he would not suffer himself to retreat.
They made their usual way to the armoury and kitted themselves out with weapons.
Titus chose basic weaponry. A chainsword and bolter along with a bolt pistol as side arm. Vox proved as reluctant as always in armouries. Lacking instructions from her sergeant, she refrained from exchanging her blade with a training sword and added the usual bolt pistol to her armament. He had to admit that this made her a more dangerous fighter than quite a few brothers on the station combined.
Faced with the task to find a viable way to train and still get some one on one time, Titus turned to the hunting grounds. They were sailing close to the wind with this. Even thinking of combining the training day with personal matters was stretching his authority as Watch Sergeant. He was determined nevertheless.
The tract of the hunting grounds extended far out from Erioch’s core. It was a giant structure, harbouring all kinds of artificial landscapes. They held every nasty surprise nature could offer and a few more, usually only encountered on space crafts. From quicksand, avalanches, or randomly opening and shutting chasms over shifting scenery, geysers and hot steam escaping from invisible rifts to molten rocks and deadly gases lingering invisibly in a hollow. The danger was not restricted to environmental hazards. Beasts originating from different planets haunted the area. They had built their own little ecosystem here and generally lived off each other as long as no other prey presented itself.
Previously Titus had been convinced that the time it took to reach the grounds would be sufficient to discuss any matter but when the giant gates shut behind them, they still had said nothing. If only Vox had walked at his side instead of behind his right shoulder. He had tried to let her close the gap on him but she had simply adjusted her pace and stayed where she was. The expression of her helmet was a cruel mockery to him whenever he turned his head in her direction.
Ten minutes after their entry, he had gotten so edgy that he resorted to putting his own helmet on. This way, he at least was able to get her in view via his auto senses.
Now, he could see her. Ten minutes more passed during which he ascertained that the casual glance every other second or so was of no help whatsoever. He knew he had to do something or at least say something but found no point to start.
The time had an unpleasant way of being indecisive in length. A single heartbeat took forever but the next ten minutes were gone before Titus had registered them. His eternity of irrational struggle was interrupted by a large creature attacking them.
The beast had chosen the place for its ambush poorly. Red fur stood out against grey stone and the eight long legs carrying a sleek, flexible body made it far too tall to keep hidden between the few boulders around. Despite this, Titus only spotted it when Vox passed him at a dead run.
At least his battle reflexes took over instantly. For a few precious moments the world was simple. Vox was moving swiftly alongside the animal and it twisted to bite her. Titus did not have to think about falling into the unprotected flank that presented itself to him. A mighty strike with his chainsword removed one of its legs and cut into the second. Since it had shifted its weight to these legs to be able to lash out with its claws on the other side, it collapsed in front of him. He did not let it get up again. Springing onto its neck, he forced his rotating blade downwards. The creature screamed and writhed in vain. Soon, it went still. When he was able to take in details again, he found Vox standing around in a relaxed fashion, watching him work.
In puzzlement, he took in the wounds of the creature. None had been caused by a sharp blade.
“Did you even attack it?”, he asked and wanted to bite his tongue when he heard the sharpness in his tones. It was born of uncertainty but it sounded like a reproach.
“No, sergeant”, Vox replied and stood to attention in self defence.
Just now so blessedly free from concerns, the returning considerations locked Titus’ brain instantly.
He had to say something, for Emperor’s sake! Something! Anything!
“I confirmed my bailsman ship yesterday.” He walked towards her, the chainsword still in hand.
“Vox, I made errors”, he continued when she did not reply. “I rushed into this. You were right. I still don’t know enough about you to fulfil this position. I want to take the chance to learn.”
He wanted to put the sword away but his movement was just a bit too florid and Vox stood too close. Her body tensed into the coil of deadly determination she became in battle. She ducked under the blade that had not meant to hit her in any case and gave a determined push against his elbow.
The rush of the fight still pulsed in Titus’ veins. His reflexes took over when he stumbled and once the chainsword had whirred into life, there was no going back. With a horrified kind of puzzlement, he watched his sword arm on its backswing. Far too slowly, the thought trickled through his mind that he might want to do something about this but Vox was out of his reach already and she was aiming a bolter.
Titus dropped flat, rolled and managed to disappear around the nearest boulder, the salve an unpleasant accompaniment to this. The small warning light inside his visor was superfluous: Vox had not been carrying a bolter. He knew that she had stolen his. The bolt pistol was gone as well.
“Then here’s your first lesson, bailsman!”, he heard her voice over vox. She sounded furious. “You never come after me, you send bullets after me! You don’t fool around by letting your chainsword sleep and if I see you coming, you will not get hold of me whatever weapon you use!”
Titus tried to scrape a sentence together. Phrases like ‘I mean no harm!’ and ‘Stop that!’ would have been good additions, he was sure. Even ‘You’re overreacting!’ might have helped but before he had fumbled the words into a coherent order, she already went on: “How hard do you want it, my love?”
The acid in the last two words was so bitter on him that he hardly heard her next words.
“Did you plan to leave me alive or will you take the easy way out?”, Vox demanded.
This was all Titus could take. If she wanted the confrontation, maybe it was time to let off some steam. They were warriors after all.
“Drop the bolter and we’ll go for first blood”, he decided firmly and came to his feet.
In the clarity the fight brought, he knew he would not harm her again but there was no Grimfang here to disturb them. The onrushing beloved was not fully recovered. He would be able to steer the fight well enough, he was sure.
His certainty lasted all of two strikes.
Vox attacked in blind fury. He had seen this on her only once but back then, she had prudently dropped her sword beforehand. This time, she swung the bloodthirsty warp blade against his mundane chainsword. There was no rhythm to her strikes, just crippling force.
He had to retreat under this onslaught. Vox followed, circling him like a hungry predator and Titus knew that he could not keep this up. He took a few swift steps backwards to find a new angle. Her usual style was full of finesse, hard to anticipate and her defence was admirable. This thoughtless brutality must have its toll, he was sure. If he could only get a little distance, he surely would be able to find the openings.
He knew that something was wrong when she let him escape from her reach. Instead of following, Vox lifted her free hand and fire spilt towards him in a wide front. It was impossible to dodge. Dismissing the attempt, he dropped to one knee and brought his shoulder guard to the front. They were built for just such a purpose: To protect the head and vitals when no other shield was at hand.
The fire stripped some of the paint of his armour away but his resistance kept him safe from the direct effects. To harm him with this, she would have to heat his armour plates until they burned through the polymer.
Sadly, in this lay the next lesson Vox had in store for him: He and his armour might have been suitably resistant to the flames but the rest of his equipment was not.
She must have dropped the ammo clip of his bolter earlier. When it exploded right next to him, the blast threw him against the nearest boulder.
Through the dizziness his impact had caused, he tried to switch off the multitude of blinking alarm signals of his armour. His body already told him distinctly enough that his whole right side had been perforated by the bullets. At this range, even training ammo was dangerous. The surge of arcane substances his armour provided was not quick enough to recover him before Vox had reached him. She foiled his attempt to stand up by kicking his weapon hand from under him. In the movement, his chainsword slithered away. He was heaved around and his shoulder pinned to the ground with her foot.
With deadly accuracy, the tip of her sword found the joint between his helmet and armour.
Vox had removed her helmet at some point. Her hair snaked freely through the air and her eyes were a pair of unforgiving gems of hunger. Instead of stabbing him, she bent down and dragged his helmet off without regard for the machine spirit.
Now, he could see the daemons. They were so close to manifesting that their disgusting claws could already reach over her shoulder to pull her away.
Vox laid her blade to Titus’ throat. The merest pull would slit it open but Titus only stared at the daemons. How had they gotten here? How could he have failed so hard? He was supposed to protect her from them!
That she was about to claim his life for his sins made absolute sense to him. The Emperor did not allow the kind of weakness Titus had wallowed in since he had found out. He had lived on borrowed time in any case. If Vox was chosen to end his pathetic existence, he would have let her without resistance.
But the daemons.
He should have known how vulnerable she was, he scolded himself. She had been so careful when asking him to become her friend. In his selfish vanity he had pretended to understand why, had claimed to honour her needs.
It was all his doing. His stupid hesitation and abuse had driven her towards these creatures and now, she would be lost.
This thought cut into him far deeper than the sword could have managed. No, he could not die yet. He had to get her away from them first.
There was only one weapon in reach to drive the daemons off and without thinking about it, he wrested her sword from her fingers. It yammered and screeched in his grasp, begging for blood as he swung it clumsily around Vox.
She fell to her knees. Blood began to stream from her eyes and nose. He had never seen so much at once and his strikes were ineffectual. Leering and scoffing, the daemons piled in behind her, scratching into her essence and taking more and more form but from him, they were safe.
“Just finish it”, Vox murmured as he reared up and tried to pull her away from them, still waving the sword about without effect.
“Make an end”, she whispered into his ear.
The despair almost choked his words when he cried: “No! Please stay! I’m sorry, Vox! Please stay with me!”
Slowly, she turned her face towards him. She was very close. The wrath had fled. In her eyes stood only the deepest sorrow, mixed with a smidgen of surprise. Aeons spun past as Titus drowned in her gaze.
“Please don’t leave me”, he finally managed.
After another few heartbeats, Vox closed her eyes and let her head sink forward.

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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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