The slopes that they crested over gave way to a vast expanse of towering conifers, their branches laden with snow-clumped needles.
He clutched one such branch in his offhand now, the wood holding sturdy between his plated fingers as their path took them winding between the calloused trunks. The dormant blade he held with his other rested its flat against his shoulder as he swept the pine branch behind him in tandem with his backpedaling strides.
The synthetic flesh in his arm moved without protest, its motion having long faded into the tangled murk of subconscious and cogitator processes.
His lenses trailed over the uneven depressions that yet remained in its sweeping wake, winding gently through the snow and between the trees. Whilst certainly the firm bootprints that had been stamped into the snow were swept into obscurity, it still left a discernable path.
The mechanical rhythm of neural impulses guiding his limbs stuttered.
Once more, he became aware of the sensors bristling beneath the tattered sheet-cloak that clung to his armor. The low-hanging branches that brushed against the newly opened breaches in his pauldrons. The ice crystals grinding between the plates. The wispy breaths that blew past his helmet. The crunching snow.
He spared a glance over his shoulder, gaze fixing onto the vampire. It bobbed ever onward, cloaked shoulders hunched over with the weight of the cask they bore. The back of its hooded head offered a blank, roughspun visage, unheeding of the task that it had assigned to him.
"Good enough", was all the vampire had said, about an hour ago when he'd first started this menial duty. It had repeated the statement to him when he had requested that it re-examine the effectiveness of his work just ten minutes after that.
His head turned back around, a few frosted needles grazing over his lenses as he passed under another branch.
It seemed unlikely that its opinion would change now.
It wasn't long before he fell back into a numb rhythm of sweeping, gaze fixed downwards.
The faint awareness of the vampire's slowing pace breached the back of his skull. A sluggish wave of electric impulses washed over his nerve endings, connections between his flesh and armor fumbling to downshift his own backpedaling march to match.
His head turned of its own accord, fixing his gaze onto the shrouded creature despite being capable of judging its distance from him without doing so-
Its march had ceased entirely. A pale hand pressed against the calloused bark of a nearby tree, a needle-laden branch shrouding the unnaturally bright green eyes that peered back at him.
"I'm thinking we can spare a few minutes to rest a little," it said, its voice, unobscured for once by the wind and snow, reverberating in the confines of his helm with an icy clarity. "Seems like sunset isn't far off. I'll be able to pick up the pace again once night falls."
Silence reigned, but the vampire remained watching him- expecting a response of some sorts?
"I understand," he said flatly, a stray word latching onto his usual acknowledgement as his tongue untangled behind his warping vox grill.
The vampire nodded back with the briefest of tilts in his chin before planting itself into the snow, unslinging the cask from its back and setting it down next to it with a hollow thump. It leaned back fully against the tree behind it, deft fingers already digging through its waist satchel.
It was not long before they produced a vial of alcoholic spirit, strands of light running through the golden-amber liquid.
A stray thought slipped through the cogitated deluge in his skull, wondering if alcohol would even have any effect on a body as cold and dead as the one this vampire inhabited. As inane as it seemed to give that thought any attention over the streams of binary feeding into his mind, he found himself watching the creature uncork the vial.
A steady hand guided the now-open vessel up, until the glass met the fleshy red of its mouth. A glimpse of its teeth, unnaturally sharp, flashed into view as its lips parted.
He glanced away, an uncanny churn seeming to rumble from the pits of his belly up to synthetic nerves that laced his skull.
And yet, that errant thought remained unanswered, tingling at the back of his skull.
Not every thought was meant to be addressed. Plenty of others yet clamored for his attention.
Nutrient reserve was at 38%. He would need to seek out some form of alternative sustenance soon if he was to remain in optimal condition.
Right pauldron integrity, compromised. Significant chunks had been stripped away entirely, sizeable gaps leaving the plate metal underlayer bare. The scratch that the vampire's blade had scored across there was more palpable than ever with the icy air grazing against it-
The pauldron would need to be repaired. More than likely replaced entirely, given the lack of tools for the former. Finding a suitable substitute material would no doubt prove to be difficult, and was not something he could concern himself with immediately.
The left pauldron fared a little better, still serviceable. Some of the damage bled over to his vambrace, but it likewise would still hold.
For now, at least.
His gaze inevitably wandered back to the vampire, its face having relaxed into a pale mask of serenity as its head leaned back against the tree. Its inhumanly bright eyes were hidden behind closed eyelids, its teeth obscured by a shadow of a smile. Its hand, no longer grasping the vial, rested over the rough cloth of its satchel, clutching the bag to its stomach. It rose and fell with its breaths, in a slow and ponderous rhythm.
Its wounded arm rested on the far side of its body, gently propping its hand up in its lap. Yet again, he found his cold-lensed glare fixating on it. Tracing a path that was hidden by layers of cloth, a jagged fissure that cut through flesh down to bone.
He found his neck tensing suddenly, coiling with such a violent impulse to tear away the very gaze that it had forced onto that wound moments earlier.
His teeth clenched, forming a loose mirror of the metal snarl that concealed them. Wood crackled in the tightening iron grip of his hand. Stubbornly, he willed his gaze to remain, eyes narrowing beneath the static lens of his helm.
Those eyes were no stranger to wounds.
Why was this such an anomaly?
"Strike my blade."
He heard the vampire's words ring out in his helm again, but its lips remained sealed.
A metal snarl tinged that memory, conflating together with the raw and booming tone of the vampire.
His grip on the sword he clasped tightened, the chain cast over it bristling. Its chiming jingle rang in his ears, drowning out the quiet wisps of wind. Its cleaved ends sat palpably against the plating of his knuckles, as though they were still raw with the sear of plasma. As though the blade they wrapped around was still heavy with the steam of xenos blood.
He breathed in, the tinge of ice that filtered through his helm enough to make his grip slacken again, let his shoulders fall, his teeth unclench. He blinked, eyes seeming to only then re-register the frigid branches of sage-green needles and the bloodless drifts of snow around him.
But the vampire remained centered in his vision, its wounded arm still burning a gash through his lens.
This time, he did not fight the urge to look away.
The sun set over the course of what felt like hours, its light hanging in the snow shrouded clouds beyond the frosty canopy. The chronometer ticked numbly at the back of his skull. The trees around them stood silent, even the wind muffled within the dense stalks of striated bark.
Flickers of movement scanned by his lenses every so often, sending needless tension down to his limbs. Small avians flittering between the branches, lone canids slinking through the snow- he caught mere glimpses of their fleeting forms before they disappeared into the forest. None posed any assessable threat. All gave both him and the vampire a wide berth.
Perhaps his vigilance was unwarranted, but given how that apparition on the mountains had taken them both by surprise, it was better to be overly cautious than not sufficiently so. Regardless of how safe the vampire seemed to think these woods were.
Something pricked at his ears through his helm- a wispy wail, carrying through the trees. The branches remained still, needles unshaken by the passing noise.
Not the wind.
Cloth ruffled against bark and snow behind him, and he turned to meet the vampire's waiting gaze.
"You heard it too?" It asked.
The noise came again before he could answer, louder this time. Clearer. Shrill, quivering with a panicky adrenaline that cut through the forest- a voice. A word.
The vampire shot up to its feet, body surging out of its languid perch and slinging the cask over its back.
"It's coming from further down south." A stony firmness in its jaw carried those words off its tongue, the glimmer of fire amongst the sickening green of its eyes making its intention clear. "Let's move. Stay close."
"Understood," he said, a thoughtless instinct slipping the word off his tongue. It was the same instinct which drove him to drop the branch he held in his off hand and steady Mortis' former blade with it, the same instinct which had him rushing after the vampire barely seconds later.
Pine needles, shorn loose in the creature's wake, fluttered around him like snowflakes. Wood splinters plinked against his ceramite carapace, the cascade of impacts muted by the thump of his boots.
Their passage churned up clots of snow, tore down hanging branches. His gaze remained fixed forward.
The voice came again, slicing through the deluge of noise with a frantic sharpness that urged his twin hearts to beat faster. His pace remained steady, firmly locked in behind the vampire as it angled its darting trajectory slightly to the left, following that plea for help.
The cask jerked around on the pale creature's back, the weight briefly rocking over to its wounded shoulder. It did nothing to slow its momentum.
Its good hand grasped the handle of its sword once more, unsheathing the gleaming black blade with a deliberate firmness between its bounding strides.
A flurry of life signs danced between trees in the distance, his lenses painting their faintly human silhouettes in luminescent highlights. One stood out amongst the others, barreling through the forest with a clumsy and frenetic energy, the faint outlines of a human face visible beneath the fur hood cast over its head.
"Objective sighted. Multiple contacts in pursuit," he intoned, the words that boomed forth from his voxcaster conjured up from a strangely assuring instinct- one that was abruptly interrupted when he remembered who he was reporting to.
His teeth grit together, his pauldron battering aside a stray branch that the vampire had swiftly sidestepped just a second before.
"Human woman, pursued by unknown humanoids. Approximately nine hundred meters directly ahead. It is likely she is the source of the disturbance we detected."
He caught a glimpse of the vampire's gaze as it twirled around a listing tree trunk, its sharp green eyes drawn narrowly beneath knitted brows. It did not respond to him by the time it cleared that obstacle.
Bark splintered beneath his left boot as his thundering advance grazed past the same trunk.
Barely a moment passed before the woman's voice came again, rippling out with icy clarity from a breathless maw that heaved with each uneven step of her body.
"I see her," the vampire replied at last.
It surged forward, pace quickening to a strangely comforting rhythm that his armor was all too eager to match.
"I can't make out much of whoever's chasing her," it said over its shoulder, a tinge of frustration palpable in its voice. "Can you see any clearer?"
Figures fluttered quickly between the trees and branches, shadowy limbs lingering in sight for bare fractions of seconds. The splotches of color that his thermal sensors superimposed over their fleeting forms did little to help discern what they were.
"Dammit. If it happens to be more vampires this'll get ugly fast."
"Presence of thermal signatures suggests they are not."
"Can't say I know exactly what that means, but that's a little relieving, if true."
A mere four hundred meters remained between them and the fleeing woman. A splotch of blood stained her coat and ran down to the bared, snow-dusted skin of her right hand, but she bore no wounds of her own.
Suddenly, she stopped, boots skidding in the snow, eyes widening as they met his cold-lensed gaze. Her mouth seemed to freeze mid-breath, a wisp of steam slipping out between stiffened lips.
"It's okay!" The vampire called out from in front of him, casting its voice through the trees with a stark firmness. "We're here to help!"
Brown pupils darted between him, the vampire, and the flurry of movement in the trees beyond. Just two hundred meters away now. Her unseen pursuers were closing quickly, though he could not gauge whether they would reach her before he and the vampire did.
"Get her behind you and guard her," the vampire called back, grunting as it leaped over a tangle of roots. "Don't stray away from her, and don't attack her pursuers unless they make a move first."
A frown creased behind his snarling vox grill. A knot of gnarled wood splintered beneath his boots.
"They have the advantage in numbers," he said, metal-tinged words still holding evenly as his jaw tensed. "It does not seem sound to let them have initiative over us as well."
"It's less sound to me to dive into a fight we might be able to avoid," the vampire bit back.
His lips pressed together, tongue falling still as they closed to a mere one hundred meters.
The woman ahead took a step backward, boot slipping in the churned snow. A stray strand of straw-colored hair dangled over her forehead as she caught herself on a tree.
"It's okay," the vampire repeated, lowering its blade and raising up an open palm with its wounded arm. "Don't run. We can protect you." Its fingers curled, beckoning with a tranquil gentleness even as its other hand grasped the handle of its sword.
Seventy meters. The woman's knees buckled, coat sleeves scraping against bark as she sunk down to the snow.
His step faltered ever so slightly, the vampire surging up ahead of him to close the remaining distance between them and this… civilian. This non-combatant.
"Look around you, Initiate."
His gaze remained fixed forward, but he saw the shelled-out husks of hab complexes in his mind's eye, the dirtied and bloodied dregs of their former inhabitants.
"What do you see in their eyes?"
Though the body curled and shirked away from him, those brown eyes remained splayed open wide, their unblinking gaze fixed firmly on him. Staring into the cold red lens of his helm.
Twenty meters away, his listing march lumbered to a halt, his eyes only half-watching the vampire slide down to its knees beside the woman.
The answer dangled loosely in those brown irises, swirling formlessly behind a blank glaze.
Pale, lithe fingers grasped the woman by the arm, the vampire slinging her limp limb over its shoulder. Her boots dragged in the snow as the fell-creature pulled her closer towards him, the meaninglessly soothing words that spewed from its lips as lost on his ears as they seemingly were on the woman's.
"Answer the question."
No pity. No remorse. No-
He blinked, finally registering the vampire when it was mere steps away from him.
It unslung the woman, the gentleness of its motion as it eased her down to the snow beneath him contrasting sharply with the rapidly closing movements in the trees beyond.
A steely glint in green eyes caught his gaze as the vampire rose back up, its lips pressed tight, its grip firm on its sword. Three words were all it spoke to him, but they rang clearer than all the murmured nothingness he'd heard from its lips in the moments prior.
"Keep her safe."
It began to turn, eyes disappearing behind its hood. His lenses counted just over a half-dozen heat signatures in the forest beyond, surging ever closer.
"If they initiate hostilities-"
"Then I need you here to guard her. I can see archers in their ranks, somebody needs to be here to shield her from arrows. Between the two of us, you're better suited for that."
"That is not my purpose," he stated, a rare surge of clarity booming through his vox grill. From the corner of his eye, he saw the woman in the snow flinch.
The vampire paused in its stride, a tense second passing as its fingers flexed around its sword handle. Its head turned back, fixing him with but a single eye.
"What is your purpose then? I thought we were clear that we're here to save her. You want to charge into an enemy we can barely even see and leave her here with nothing but trees to protect her?"
"The most effective way to ensure her safety is to eliminate the encroaching threat."
"And I say the most effective way of eliminating the encroaching threat is to talk them down. Not slam into it headfirst and let it batter your already damaged body even further while leaving the person we came here to save fend for herself."
His grip tightened, the chain cast over Mortis' sword bristling with a quiet fury.
In the wake of his teeth-grit silence, the vampire continued.
"I don't need you to like me. I don't even need you to trust me. But you look back on the past few days, and you tell me where you'd be right now if you hadn't listened to what I'd said before."
His helm tilted down instinctively, casting his gaze groundwards. Though he found reprieve from the emerald glare of the vampire, his lenses once again met the woman's wide-eyed stare.
"And why do you suppose, Initiate, that they fear us?"
"I don't know," he said, mirroring the motion of his mouth as he remembered it, standing under a sky of golden flames in a cradle of shattered rockcrete.
The vampire's sigh was punctuated by a cascade of footsteps snapping branches and crunching in snow. He heard the creak of bowstrings being drawn, the quiet scrape of metal blades against leather.
"Well they're here now anyways. So you can throw any notions about getting the first strike in on them out the window. And they aren't attacking yet. So may as well let me try and talk to them."
His helm turned back up, but the weapon he grasped remained at his side. The vampire held his gaze with a single eye, seemingly unheeding of the half-dozen bows aimed towards it.
The figures holding those bows – with their pointed ears, slanted eyes of ruby red - would've had him reaching for a boltgun in any other time, any other place.
But as it was, he had no boltgun. Only the blade of a dead Sword Brother.
And the vampire- once again- spoke undeniable truth.
"I will guard the woman."
His jaw remained tight as his words warped out from his snarling vox grill.
It was only a brief gesture that the vampire could spare as it turned back to face the Xenos, but the halfhearted nod that it sent his way seemed to bear more approval than he'd ever seen from Brother Guillame.