Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Kraken's Dance: Part Three (Of Three)

When Tolofsson awoke, his enemy had gone. So had the cathedral.

And so, of course, had his left arm.

The first thing his rheumy eyes allowed him to focus upon was his brother Orfirsson, who stood over him with a steaming censor in one hand and a whirring narthecium in the other.

“Where-” Tolofsson began, but stopped himself. Something was wrong with his right cheek. It felt too tight, as though he had been burned. Every movement of his jaw threatened to split the skin .

Besides, he could feel familiar vibrations through the bench upon which he lay, travelling up through his body, shaking his teeth and sending lances of pain through his wounds.

“A Thunderhawk?” he asked Orfirsson. It was not a request for conformation. There was no doubting where he was. What he didn’t know was why.

“We’re en route to the Intractable" Orfirsson told him, guessing his meaning. “The duel is over. It did not go well for you.”

Blinking back tears from the heavy censor smoke, Tolofsson winced, more from humiliation than pain. In response, Orfirsson brought the clicking, trembling narthecium down towards him.

“Keep that damn thing away from me!” Tolofsson exclaimed, knocking the device aside with the stump of his arm (which he noticed was now cleaned and bandaged). “If I’m going to be poked and prodded, I’d rather it be by a professional.”

“That would be less than entirely wise,” Orfirsson told him coolly. “There are currently three apothecaries across the chapter, each of them born on Four Feathers.”

“And you don’t trust them?” Tolofsson asked tetchily, not particularly wanting to think through the implications of Orfirsson’s caution.

“Not right now,” his comrade told him. “And certainly not with your life.” He paused briefly, as though finding it difficult to speak his mind. “This is not the first time you and I have sat in a Thunderhawk and asked ourselves whether we were all that remains of our chapter.”

“Isn’t that a little melodramatic?” Tolofsson asked. “I still have three other limbs, after all.”

Orfirsson’s face grew darker than the pale crimson light strips that just barely allowed Tolofsson to see around the deck.

“How much do you remember of the duel?” he asked.

“Enough,” Tolofsson grunted disconsolately. “I remember letting that disobedient pup stab me, and taking away one of his legs in payment. I remember standing over him whilst I pulled out his own knife from my chest so I could kill him. I even remember losing my arm, though only distantly. I had hoped to find it only a dream.”

“Not a dream,” Orfirsson assured him. “Most certainly not a dream”.

He paused again, as though screwing up his courage. He took a long, deep breath, perhaps to buy more time.

“Blade of the Emperor,” Tolofsson exclaimed. “Will you spit it out? You make a blind Eldar seem hasty.”

Orfirsson didn’t reply. Instead, he held the narthecium out for Tolofsson to take. The intricate patterns of reflected light that the device produced danced across Tolofsson’s vision, and he realised his friend’s hand was shaking.

“If I won’t let you use that thing with two hands and no head injuries, then how likely is it that I’m going to want to try and repair anything myself?”

“The blades are polished adamantium,” Orfirsson replied. “A ghost could use the reflection to shave himself.”

“Check your face.”

There were undercurrents in Orfirsson’s tone that unsettled Tolofsson far more than he would ever admit to. Gingerly he took the medical device in his one remaining hand, and, trying to seem unconcerned, lifted it to his face.

A vicious purple stain lay across his right cheek like a Ymgarl boneleech. Its shape it was identifiable as roughly blade shaped, but that central outline was broken up by a hundred tiny tendrils of black capillaries that crisscrossed his face. A few of them ended in ugly purplish blisters, as though his face had been painted and then a part of it burned until it bubbled and ran. Unconsciously he opened his mouth in horror; the motion once again sent pain through his cheek, and several of the blisters began to weep a nauseating yellow-black pus.

“I assume Tegatchi wanted to prove beyond any doubt that there had been absolutely nothing stopping him from killing you,” Orfirsson explained. “That’s why he hit you with the flat of the blade. A blade from a sword he pulled from a mound of dead traitors.”

“A Daemon weapon?” Tolofsson asked, almost to himself, unable to tear his gaze from the horrific atrocity marking his skin. He knew it was simply a perverse subdivision of his imagination, but he couldn’t help thinking that the wound was gradually expanding as he watched.

“Or something so similar as to make no difference,” Orfirsson agreed. “What remains of your arm is not any prettier, I assure you.”

“I don’t care!” Tolofsson lied. “A Daemon weapon? Tegatchi has condemned himself. Surely not even his Caudan lapdogs can be blind to his treachery now.”

“It is not so simple,” Orfirsson said sadly. “Whatever else might be true, there is no denying that you lost the duel.”

“So the Cathedral is still uncleansed?” Tolofsson asked incredulously. “On the whim of a man who fights his battles with the blades of the Warp?”

“In truth, I could not swear he knew what he was doing,” Orfirsson said. “Perhaps he needed a weapon and he found one. Certainly, that is his telling.”

Furious, Tolofsson threw the narthecium across the bay to shatter pathetically against the bulkhead.

“The traitor claims no treachery, does he? How my hearts soar to hear the news! Where is he, Orfirsson? Carella‘s Maze? The fleet? Answer me! We need to find that blasphemous heretic and toss him into the flames we make when we burn that damned chapel to the ground.”

“No,” Orfirsson said, and his voice layered with the infuriatingly placatory tones he used whenever he thought his old friend was being painfully obtuse, “We cannot afford to challenge Tegatchi directly.”

“Do not play the diplomat now,” Tolofsson growled, “It never became you, and it’s especially stupid now. Tegatch is tainted, and he must be dealt with. Immediately.”

Eager to demonstrate his resolve, he tried to rise. The process was more complicated than he’d realised. His brain kept trying to do it by pushing off the bench with his hands, and the instinct was too deeply ingrained for it to be easily overruled.

Without warning Orfirsson lunged for him, pinning him back against the bench. The abandoned censor hit the deck with a sharp crack and rolled away, spewing incense and ashes.

“Will you listen?” he hissed urgently. “Take another look at yourself.”

“I smashed the narthecium, Alkin.”

“Fine. Then I’ll look at you. You know what the first word is the sight brings to mind? Infected.”

“You dare?” spat Tolofsson, trying to struggle free from his friend’s grip.

“Stop that,” Orfirsson admonished. “As you said, I have two hands and no wounds."

“If we move against Tegatchi, if we insist to all that can hear that to hold a Daemon weapon is to become tainted by it, then his first move, his very first, will be to argue that wielding a blade cannot be nearly so dangerous as losing an arm to it.”

“You can’t believe that!” Tolofsson said. "The idea I might be tainted?"

“Whether I believe it is very much beside the point. Others will. The Caudans, certainly. Perhaps even a handful amongst our own ranks. This one incident would blossom into civil war. And all this is to say nothing of any outside interference.”

“Outside – “ Tolofsson began to parrot, until realisation hit. “The Inquisition”.

Orfirsson nodded slowly, and released Tolofsson to sit back on the ammunition crate he was using as a chair.

“Inquisitor Gellial is already in-system,” he said.

“Gellial!”. This was quite some way from being good news. “She’ll burn the whole planet over what we’ve left at St Varakus’.”

“Almost certainly.”

“Damn Tegatchi! We could have saved the whole of Carella’s Maze!”

“Perhaps,” Orfirsson allowed. “Though even with St Varakus’ Cathedral cleansed, there is no certainty of that. Gellial has destroyed more over less. But the fate of Vestan Prime isn’t my concern at present. It’s what happens to you when Gellial learns what has happened."

“She will learn nothing,” Tolofsson said dismissively. “It pleases the Inquisition to think theycan issue us orders, but they cannot *control* us. They know only what we wish them to.”

“Ordinarily,” Orfirssom admitted. “But that requires that we tread carefully. If another confrontation breaks out whilst Gellial is snooping around, then she will learn of it, and I would give very little for your chances. Even if you survive, an Inquisition death mark would simply hand more ammunition to Tegatchi. All of which is actually the best-case scenario. We don’t have the strength to resist for long if Gellial decides to declare the chapter Excommunicate Traitoris.”

“This is cowardice, Alkin!” Tolofsson roared.

“This is prudence, Gossan,” Orfirsson replied in the same even tone. “To force a confrontation will cost you your life, and possibly destroy the chapter, either from the Inquisition’s interference or by our own hands. Stay your hand, and we live to fight on.”

“Fight on for what?” Tolofsson asked. “If we can’t even cut out the rot amongst our own ranks, can’t maintain the purity of a chapter that has served with honour for three millenia, whatever our name might be today, then what is there left to fight for?”

Orfirsson cocked his head, like a predatory bird considering which rodent to pounce upon next. “The future,” he replied simply. “Tegatchi has won this battle. But he has not won the war. And by returning to the fleet, we ensure that the war can continue in methods beyond us all simply throwing off our armour and trying to stab each other to death.”

“A war without blades?” Tolofsson scoffed. “What kind of war would that be?”

Orfirsson smiled, for the first time since Tolofsson had awoken. Or, now he thought about it, since as far back as he could remember.

“The kind that I can win."

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