Four seconds into the duel, and Tolofsson knew he was in trouble.
Tegatchi’s blade moved almost too fast to follow. Each glittering blur cut closer to Tolofsson’s flesh than the one before.
There was no time to find an opening, almost no time to even realise that that was what he was meant to be doing. Tegatchi was simply too young, and too quick.
Tolofsson trusted to instinct. Deflecting another brutal slash at his ribs, he leant to his right, continuing the course of his knife towards his enemy’s shoulder. Tegatchi’s own weapon was already waiting. A heartbeat before the impact, Tolofsson yanked his arm upward, smashing his elbow into Tegatchi’s jaw. There was a satisfying crunch of bone, followed by an even more satisfying cry of pain as Tolofsson straightened his arm, flicking his knife point along his opponent’s chest from hip to sternum.
Tegatchi staggered backwards, one step, then two. The third step saw him firmly planted again. Tolofsson noted a new wariness in his eyes.
“First blood is mine,” he said, trying to keep the relief from his voice. “And why, boy? Because speed is nothing without experience.”
“Simply a scratch, old man. Your knife will rust away before you kill me with such wounds.”
Tolofsson cursed under his breath. His foe might be a fool and a traitor, but he was also right; the cut was long but thin, essentially superficial. Tegatchi didn’t even bother to glance at his wound before he brought his blade up again, and lunged.
Wrenching his head to the right, Tolofsson felt as much as heard the knife-tip that whistled past his ear. Almost instantly he aimed a brutal punch at where his opponent’s neck had been an instant before.
His fist hit only air.
Spinning around, Tolofsson brought his knife around in a long, desperate arc. With Tegatchi behind him-
His blade sighed as it passed over his foe’s head, as though disappointed. There wasn’t even time to slow his swing before his enemy sprang from his crouch, slamming his body into Tolofsson’s torso and lifting him from his feet.
Scorched skeletons shattered beneath him as Tolofsson hit the ground hard. He grunted with pain as bone splinters lacerated his back, heard the tortured screech as more shards forced themselves inside his vertebrae sockets in miniature fountains of blood and machine oil.
His knife was gone, lost in the fall. No time to find it. Reaching out, he crushed more bones, powdering them in his hands as he pulled himself upwards.
He almost made it before Tegatchi was upon him. The younger marine barrelled into him with enough force to knock the air from his chest. Once again, he fell into the pile of blackened bones. New wounds opened upon new shards; he had to bite his lip to avoid crying out in pain. Closing his fingers around a broken skull, Tolofsson slammed it into his opponent’s temple. Tegatchi’s head whipped sideways, blood flying out in a crimson curve, but he kept hold. Pinning Tolofsson’s’ right arm with his left, Tegatchi brought his knife down towards his foe’s ribcage.
Dropping what remained of his impromptu weapon, Tolofsson made a desperate grab for Tegatchi’s arm. The rest of the cathedral seemed to telescope outward into infinity as his entire world became about the fractional changes in the height of that blade.
That height kept slowly decreasing. Tegatchi wasn’t just young and quick, he was strong. He was smart, too, Tolofsson realised, it was clear the knife-point was aimed at the centre of the star of shatter-marks that were all that remained from an Ork Mek’s attempt to disembowel him a century earlier.
The knife slipped downward another half-inch. Stopping that blade was a battle Tolofsson could not hope to win, any more than he could have hoped to win this duel. He was quite simply outmatched on every level. Speed, strength, agility. All he had was experience, and at that moment it seemed even that counted against him. All experience really meant was that he had taken more damage, and borne more pain.
Something was scratching at the back of his mind.
What had he told himself?
Nothing without experience.
He had borne pain.
Suddenly, without warning, Tolofsson let go.
Tegatchi’s knife plunged downward, into his chest. The blade penetrated a little over an inch into the thick wall of his ossified ribs before he grabbed hold of his foe’s arm once more.
The younger chaplain’s surprise was splashed all over his face. For a sliver of time he slackened his hold on his knife hilt.
It was enough. Rather than continue his doomed attempt to keep the knife aloft, Tolofsson twisted his entire body sideways. The knife followed his roll, or tried to, and broke in half against his stone-hard rib bones as a result. Aiming a savage kick at Tegatchi’s left knee, and feeling the kneecap give way with a sickening crack, Tolofsson rolled off his bed of broken bones and scrambled to his feet.
Gritting his teeth, he grabbed the knife blade still buried in his chest, and pulled it out in a shower of blood.
“Not far enough in, whelp,” he announced coldly. “My heart is buried deeper than that.”
Tegatchi was back on his feet as well. He was still quick, even though his stance made it clear he was favouring his right leg with as much weight as possible.
In his hand glinted Svengirsson’s knife.
“Never mind. I can always just drive this through the other one.”Tolofsson let his strategy drown in his hate, and charged forwards, screaming out everything left within him.
A half dozen blows after Tolofsson reached him, and Tegatchi knew he was in trouble.
Perhaps he had made a mistake in enraging his foe. There was no doubt it had been a mistake to allow him to all but break his leg in two. Apparently he’d be taking something from today after all.
If he lived that long. Being a knife up and a leg down wasn’t really as fair an exchange as it might have sounded. It meant he was forced to hold the weapon in his left hand, the better to protect his shattered knee.
He knew how to fight with both hands, of course, but against a sparring partner as experienced and determined as Tolofsson, he couldn’t afford even a modest reduction in his fighting prowess. Nor did guarding his leg make it easy to shield his already badly damaged jaw.
Tolofsson clearly intended to take full advantage. For every lunge at Tegatchi’s face, there was another short, stabbing kick at his crumpled knee. For every low sweep of a leg, there was another savage elbow jab. Most of them were deflected, and none truly connected, but each glancing blow sent another pulse of agony along Tegatchi’s strained and protesting nerves. It wasn’t as though they needed any encouragement. The pain in his leg was already unbearable, and it grew still worse every time he gave ground across the cracked and bloodstained flagstones, which seemed to be happening with almost every blow.
Any thought of fighting back had evaporated. The best he could do was try to angle the knife into his Tolofsson’s attacks, in the hope the older man might actually drive himself onto the blade in his fury. It was a vain hope, but hope nonetheless. Certainly, it was only Tolofsson’s rage that prevented him realising he could now easily outdistance his opponent and search for a new weapon. He might even have pulled the shattered knife tip from his chest and attacked with that; even that feeble approximation to a weapon would-
Something was scratching at the base of his mind.
A new weapon.
Still falling back by inches, teeth clenched almost to the point of fighting each other against the agony, Tegatchi allowed himself to turn himself on his wounded leg. His eyes darted from side to side between each of Tolofsson’s increasingly vicious strikes. He risked glances at his fellow marines, each one just as still as when this battle had begun an eternity ago. He took in both Tolofsson’s Kringrimmi and his own supporters, all but indistinguishable from each other, mirror images across a broken hall.
The search grew harder as his pain grew worse. Spots of light began to swim behind his eyes, obscuring his vision, draining his hope. Tolofsson dodged inside his guard, fingers entwined, and pushed forward into a sledgehammer uppercut to Tegatchi’s neck.
The blow itself blinded Tegatchi as the spots of light burst first into stars and then into supernovae. The force of the blow almost lifted him from his feet. Instinctively he took a step backwards to steady himself, only realising his mistake a split second before his full weight pressed itself upon his left leg, which immediately conceded defeat with a hideous snap.
His eyesight began to swim back into focus as he fell, only to be snatched away once more as his skull made contact with the cold stone of the cathedral floor.
“Here we are again,” he heard Tolofsson say contemptuously. “I must confess, the appeal is more obvious from this perspective.”
Run, the voice in his head pleaded . Get away!
Running was out of the question, but the point was well taken. Blinking furiously in the hopes of regaining his sight, Tegatchi tried desperately to crawl away from the sound of his opponent’s voice. The blackness began to break apart as flickering yellow and green lights began pushing their way through the cracks.
When Tolofsson brought his foot down upon Tegatchi’s broken leg, the agony was so overwhelming that it took him a second or two before he could gather himself enough to scream.
Sadism brought more than simple pain, however. It brought clarity. In the eye of the storm of screaming neurones and crumbling bone, Tegatchi realised not every light dancing before his eyes was a trick of his damaged, violated body.
Something was shining in the wreckage ahead.
Punching his teeth together as though sheer force was the only thing ew require to neutralise all the pain our flesh has capacity to process, Tegatchi began to drag himself forwards.
Tolofsson responded by digging his heel in still further. The spots of light infecting Tegatchi’s vision began to grow, pulsing in time with the avalanches of agony running through his body, but he refused to give his opponent the satisfaction of a second scream.
“Hah!” Tolofsson barked. “I like determination in my enemies. But nothing about hopeless defiance is more important than the fact that it is hopeless.”
It appeared to Tegatchi as though the world was retreating from him. With each new handful of splintered bone and crumbled masonry, and each long scrape of his torso against the stone, it seemed the gleam of metal he sought was further from him, as though the universe had concluded that he would die here, and soon, and wanted to flee from the act of witnessing his final breath.
He's right, he old himself. This is hopeless. Better to roll over and face death.
No, some other part of his mind responded urgently. Move. Move!
Tolofsson twisted his foot again, inciting fresh paroxysms. Dimly, Tegatchi wondered whether he was screaming again. His senses didn’t seem to be working in concert anymore. Someone was screaming, he thought. Or whispering. It was hard to tell.
Above him, Tolofsson grunted with his own pain.
“Svengirsson’s blade would not have snapped like this,” he said, apparently to himself. He must have been pulling the remains of Tegachi’s knife from between his ribs. As he did so, he released his foot long enough for him to kick Svengirsson’s knife from Tegatchi's hand.
Tegatchi seized on the brief release his disarmament gave him ,and brought his agonising blood-stained crawl to an end.
The glinting object he had given everything to reach proved to be an ornate hilt, apparently of burnished gold, with its pommel carved into a leering skull. Whatever blade was attached lay hidden under an oozing pile of massacred cultists whose bodies had been tossed there after the Krakens had taken the cathedral.
It was a weapon, and Tegatchi grabbed for it. Though it was all but impossible not to lunge desperately forwards and start slashing for his foe’s innards then and there, Tegatchi fought to remain composure, reaching for the hilt as though he were simply attempting to crawl away by a few more inches, using his hand to shield the weapon from Tolofsson’s sight. As his filthy, bleeding fingers closed around the hilt (which surprised him with how warm it was), he turned his head upwards, attempting to see his foe’s face.
Tolofsson had indeed pulled the knife shard from his chest. Thick dark blood was running towards his legs, hardening even as Tegatchi watched as the genetic modifications in Tolofsson’s circulation system burst into hyperactivity.
As Tegatchi watched, Tolofsson stepped away from his wounded leg, allowing Tegatchi a full view of his would-be executioner. Tolofsson held the broken blade between his fingers, like the claws of a predator, it too was covered in blood already solid, but there was little doubt the edge could still cut Tegatchi’s throat without any appreciable effort.
“This is unfortunate,” Tolofsson said, indicating his improvised weapon. “I know you’ll be just as dead this way. But one does get attached to one‘s own weapons.”
There was the slightest hint of a shrug, and then Tolofsson was diving forwards and down, his arm outstretched, the fragment of knife screaming as it tore the air.
Tegatchi span himself onto his back, bellowing at the pain it caused, and pulled the hilt of his stolen weapon outwards and upwards in a long arc to meet his incoming foe. Striking at the only hope he had left.
It hadn’t occurred to him until he swung the hilt that he had no idea whether there was a blade attached.
There was. With a crackle of unfathomable energy and a burst of cold blue light, a savagely serrated glowing blade cut through the air like it was vacuum, and Tolofsson’s left forearm like it was wet paper.
In the end, Tolofsson was too surprised to even scream. All that could be heard was the muffled thud of his severed arm hitting the ground, and the hideous wet pulsing of his life blood as it cascaded from the stump. For a moment or two he stood there, swaying slightly, staring at the fountain of crimson liquid as it gushed from what remained of his limb. He might have been willing the coagulants to do their job, or perhaps he was simply waiting for the signals from his eyes to correlate with what his brain was prepared to believe.
Whatever was passing through his mind, it didn’t make any difference. After a few seconds shock kicked in full force, and Tolofssson toppled in a cloud of grey masonry dust and darkly glinting gobbets of blood.
Gradually, by inches, gritting his teeth so hard he became certain he would shatter them, Tegatchi drew himself to his feet. The effort once more set motes of light dancing across his vision. In fact, the entire world was fading out at the corners again, but this time it didn’t concern him in the slightest. Quite the contrary. This wasn’t death, it was purpose. The universe now consisted of exactly three things: Tolofsson, and the sword, and himself.
As he hobbled over to his fallen enemy, Tegatchi could just about register shouts of outages. He ignored them. The shadows that flitted through the world outside his foe and his weapon were moving again. He ignored that too.
Tegachi dragged the twisted remnants of his leg over to the prone form of his foe, and watched the arterial flow as it continued to weakly pump blood onto the floor to thicken the dust into dark, viscous streams.
Eagerly, Tegatchi raised his sword. This time he could swear it sounded less like the blade screamed as the air flowed around it, and more as though it sang.
The shouting was getting ever louder. The sharp bark of bolter fire suddenly added itself to the din. Still Tegatchi ignored it. Tolofsson, the sword, and himself.
Kill him. KILL HIM!
For a moment, Tegatchi paused. Had he not already won? Tolofsson could no longer threaten him. He could kill the old man any time he chose. It was no longer a battle, it was a formality. How did the Krakens, both his Caudan fellows and what remained of the sullen Kringrimmi, gain from the death of their seniormost chaplain?
NO! KILL HIM NOW! You cannot set aside your task! It must be complete!
Tegatchi took one final look at Tolofsson, laid as though sleeping peacefully in the spreading pool of his blood. He took one final look at the sword, viciously jagged and glowing coldly. And he took one final look at himself, at who he was, and what he was, and what he might be tomorrow.
This time there was no doubt. When he brought the blade down to strike Tolofsson’s face, the blade was unquestionably singing.