Tolofsson whispered his final prayer to his armour’s spirit as he twisted away the last piece of ceramite that protected his frame. Whenever he had cause to remove his protective shell, it was always this piece, enveloping his right forearm, that he saved until the end. Ever since he had shattered his ulna against a genestealer’s carapace aboard the Serpent’s Coil, so as to distract the xeno long enough to gut it with his power sword, the vambrace seemed to become tangled somehow in the mass of scar tissue that still clung to his flesh. It was rarely removed without difficulty, and never without pain.
But then no-one knew better than a space marine that old wounds never really heal. Even those from so long ago as this, received back when he still wore the badge of the Emperor’s Shield. Back when the master of his chapter wouldn’t respond to a plea for aid by asking how damp the battlefield was.
Back when those that ranked beneath you would never dare to question your orders, and had they ever done so, they’d be drowning in their own blood before they’d finished their second sentence.
Back when you could face your brother marine and not gag on the stench of chaos.
Old wounds never really heal.
Ten feet away, Tegatchi stood motionless, staring unblinking at him. Had Tolofsson not watched as the younger chaplain had removed his own armour, each piece obsidian black and with the sheen of perfect smoothness that betrayed its wearer’s innocence of the crucible of combat, he might have thought Tegatchi a sculpture. Perhaps one of the statues of the forebears that encircled Moot’s Cavern on Kringrimm before the Apostles of Minthras had come with contagion and death, or one of the images of the Emperor that honoured the surrounding cathedral before the Word Bearers had defaced them in an orgy of violent bloodshed.
No, Tolofsson realised. Not quite a statue. Whilst Tegatchi stood immobile, his eyes were working furiously, ricocheting from left to right endlessly as he tried to drink in every square inch of his foe. The effect was faintly upsetting, as though Tegatchi kept his auspex inside his skull, and even now was processing data from his vision. Compiling information. Preparing his strategy.
“He is studying you,” Orfirsson noted unnecessarily, as he took the proffered vambrace from Tolofsson’s hand.
“Counting my scars,” Tolofsson agreed. “Either he’s looking for a weak point, or he believes he can gauge my fighting style from those places I have taken most damage.”
“I confess I had not considered that,” his companion admitted. “I must be getting slow.”
“You were always slow, Alkir,” Tolofsson told his old friend. “It is simply that you are finally wise enough to recognise it.” He paused momentarily before adding: “Though not too wise to prevent this charade, I notice.”
Orfirsson shrugged absently.
“Better I lose you than I cast aside the entire chapter.”
He took a moment to cast his own gaze over Tolofsson’s impressive array of scars.
“You are more callous than man,” he judged eventually. “What clear directions could come from such a cluttered map? What is there that Tegatchi can learn?”
Tolofsson smiled, slowly, baring the edges of his teeth.“That I have fought a thousand adversaries, and I have killed them all.”
Tegatchi waited impatiently as his opponent removed his armour. He had been ready for several minutes now, standing as naked as his various armour plugs and monitor implants would allow. His hand flexed involuntarily as he resisted the urge to reach for his knife, buried in the stone floor a little distance from his foot. Watching the old man gradually strip away his protection. it seemed to Tegatchi that every plate of ceramite pulled from his opponent’s body revealed another messily healed wound. With each ugly jagged line of pale flesh, Tegatchi learned a new angle of attack. Every new second, he had a new plan, a new vision of how the battle would play out. Lunge. Strike. Parry. Stab at weakness in right ribcage ossification. Parry. Feint. Cut upwards towards jugular.
His eyes began to oscillate faster as his mind ran through ever more permutations. As one half of his artificially separated mind busied itself with evermore elaborate methods of dispatching his foe, the other watched with interest as Tolofsson’s alabaster skin began to darken, the melanochrome organ responding to its bearer’s exposure to air. He watched each ripple of colour as it burst outwards across his opponent’s torso, nodding in sympathy as the loyal organ attempted to protect its master. As it tried to adapt to new circumstances.
It was a noble effort, Tegatchi decided, and one presumably ignored entirely by its rigid, humourless owner. He felt a keen desire to see his own skin change so effectively, to prove his ability to adapt, but his skin had been far darker since birth than Tolofsson’s was even after the change. Perhaps his own melanochrome was defective, Tegatchi wondered. Or perhaps he had yet to find a situation in which pale skin would be of tactical advantage. That seemed strange, though. After all, there was so much of it scattered through the galaxy.
It didn’t matter. Tomorrow takes nothing from today, Tegatchi reminded himself, his tongue clicking subconsciously as he considered the old Caudan saying. And perhaps he was better off after all, he thought, noting with pleasure that the pale curves of Tolofsson’s scars remained stubbornly white, a map of weakness across the older marine’s body. The fracture in his solidified ribcage was even more obvious now.
At last, Tolofsson pulled away his last piece of armour, a dented, dilapidated vambrace that revealed a new patch of ugly scars, and handed the ceramite to his counterpart. They began whispering to each other earnestly. Tegatchi took a moment to consider the marines on either side of him, those born on Four Feathers to the left, and those that still enslaved themselves to Kringrimm’s memory on the right. Each one was stood still as death, waiting for what was about to happen.
In one motion, Tegatchi dropped to one knee, pulled his monomolecular-edged blade from the floor, and stood again, tossing the simplistic weapon from hand to hand. Trying not to think about the total absurdity of a genetically-enhanced warrior with access to lascannons and battle tanks choosing to slay his enemy with a piece of abnormally sharp metal, he resolved to break the silence first.
“That was certainly not over too quickly,” he called out. “I was worried old age would kill you before I could. It would have been quicker to step outside and let the ocean remove your armour by erosion.”
The older man sneered in disdain.
“Some day you will find that haste is not a luxury the Astartes can afford,” he responded, his tone no different from if he had been reading scripture in the Reclusiarium, save for an unmistakable skein of violent hatred. “Or at least, you would have, had you not chosen to throw away your life here.”
“Tomorrow takes nothing from today,” Tegatchi called back. “Only a fool gloats over a battle still to be fought.”
“This will be no battle,” Tolofsson told him. “I have killed more traitors than you have met loyal citizens. At most, washing your life’s blood from my skin will take so long it passes the point of amusement.”
Without bothering to look, Tolofsson extended his right arm, grabbed the handle of the knife Orfirsson was offering, and brought it in a short, savage arc to point at Tegatchi’s sternum.
“I was given this knife by Epistolary Svengirsson as he lay dying on Calliope,” Tolofsson informed him haughtily. “He himself received it from Brother Captain Agnisson just before they placed him in a dreadnought sarcophagus. I have watched more than four dozen enemies of the Imperium breathe their last with this blade buried in what passed for their heart.
“Impressive,” Tegatchi told him mockingly, before gesturing toward his own blade. “I took this knife from a table just before we hit atmosphere. It might even be mine.”
He allowed himself a tight smile at the look of shock and scorn that burst across Tolofsson’s face.
“You ignorant whelp!,“ the senior chaplain spluttered in outrage, “I shall carve the stories of my tribe into your bleeding chest!”
Tegatchi kept his face perfectly still in response. Then he said solemnly “I promise that when you lie dead at my feet , I won‘t let them burn your body either.”
Tolofsson’s first attack came so quickly Tegatchi didn’t even recognise his opponent had charged. It was only instinct that forced him sideways, brought up his knife to scrape along Tolofsson’s in a shower of sparks.
Grinning fiercely, Tegatchi pivoted on his left foot, and offered a lunge of his own.
It was time the Kringrimmi learned that tomorrow would not take them.