Night finally fell in the camp as the gales and various shades of rust had been driven from the sky. For a few hours the air would be clear black and the surface of neighbouring Ontahe, hanging like an enormous tapestry in the sky, would be fully visible. Tojendi found the sight worrying. The planet looked too close, as if it any minute it might come crashing down.
Treading slowly out of respect, the krogan held the bloodied and punctured body of Naromi Wavehood in his arms. He was now in the very middle of the camp. Aside from the sounds of frantic struggling coming from the Queen several metres away, the ground was serene. The girl's body was very light, as well as a great deal softer than he might have imagined. Her mouth was open, as if she were in pain. Though he had tried to close it a few times with his large, thick index finger, he had been unsuccessful and had given up out of misplaced embarrassment. Her eyes were closed and her body was straight, at least.
Frowning a little, he found the back of Qell-Bo's tent, where she had been meant to wait for him, and placed her down on the dirty floor in its shadow. The wind seemed to slow down even more, blowing only a handful of dust across her. Tojendi's cousin Casmur had died back on Ontahe, in the stolen Queen's nest where Naromi had followed them. For whatever reasons, her falling to the Rachni seemed to anger him more than Casmur's. The excitable asari ensign had been a child and a charming idiot, but perhaps that in itself was why he hated to see her dead.
Turning from her, Tojendi walked calmly around the edge of the shack and headed for the front door. He felt the familiar weight of Captain's armour, borrowed for the night from Qell-Bo. The vibrant yellow colour chosen by the armour's owner didn't sit well with Tojendi, and it made him quite visible. However, that was no problem now. Tojendi had spent the last hour and a half carefully ambushing, incapacitating and shackling every single member of what was once his team. It had angered the krogan to have to do this lengthy chore while Naromi's body lay within his field of vision with her mouth wide open. He had badly wanted to close it, but he knew knocking out the soldiers was his only option. This restraint paid off now. The camp was silent and it was his. He made his way to the front door of the tent and pulled it open. It squeaked a little.
Qell-Bo had now regained consciousness, and was struggling against his manacles, growling and breathing rage through the sides of his mouth. Tojendi strolled over to him and untied the makeshift gag he had given him.
'Men! Guar… someone get in here!' Qell-Bo blurted out, his eyes darting. In a moment, he calmed down. With laboured breath, he met Tojendi's eye. 'They're not coming,' he said to himself.
'No they're not.'
'And I s'pose you didn't kill them. Got 'em all tied up and gagged with underwear like this?'
'Not with underwear, no. That was just you.'
Qell-Bo spat on his captor's feet. 'Should have killed you myself,' he said, so quietly that Tojendi wondered if he were meant to hear it.
'Yes you should,' he replied. 'But I had help today. The asari was with me.'
'Uh-huh,' Qell-Bo said, understanding. 'Wasn't me. The bug got to her first.'
Something about the lack of fear in Qell-Bo's voice as he said this made Tojendi wonder if it were true. Certainly the nature of her wounds indicated that the Queen had been the killer, but he had assumed the Captain had thrown the girl to her. Perhaps not. Perhaps this had been the only purpose in the Queen's constant telepathic cries for help. Just simple rachni bloodlust. It didn't matter.
'Look, Var, what do you want here? I guess you still want that bloodstone, hey? You're taking my Queen away from me and killing her yourself?'
'And then what? You worm your way back into the army by turning me in? Citing the Unwritten Code all the way through a long hearing when we both oughtta be out here ridding more planets of the bugs?'
'No,' Tojendi said. 'I'm going to kill you here.'
The other krogan's eyes widened and stretched the heavy folds of skin around them. After a moment he began screaming. 'Help me! I need help in here!' he bellowed to the metal walls. Of course, nothing happened. Rather than shout again, he gave all his energy to trying to prise apart his shackles. All the while, his bulging eyes held a steady gaze with those of his perceived executor. 'I didn't kill your asari, Var! This ain't fair! This aint… ain't Code!'
At this word, Tojendi leaned in to see Qell-Bo's eyes better. 'Shut up,' he demanded with such authority that the captive actually complied. 'I know it ain't Code, tenant. I think I can live with that, just this once. But you don't have to get so scared, so calm down. Listen to me. I'm gonna untie you in a minute, and I'm gonna take off this here armour of yours so you can wear it. Then I'm gonna stand here in the corner while you suit up and get all your fancy weapons, and then we're gonna settle this like we would back home. It ain't exactly right by the army, but I reckon it's fair.'
Qell-Bo stared back at him, breathing fast.
'It's fair, ain't it tenant? I'm even letting you wear Captain's armour, which I don't think you have any right to be doing.'
'Keep the damn suit of armour,' the other spat. 'Too heavy. I fight better in my old steel.' Tojendi nodded happily and was about to speak until Qell-Bo suddenly stopped wriggling. 'The manacles,' he muttered. 'Where'd you get 'em? I used all the manacles tying down the bug.'
At this Tojendi indulged himself with a deep smile. 'Same manacles. I reckon if we're going to fight nice and fair, here, then she should have the same luxury. She's in a few ropes but it won't take her long to get free. I thought it would be appropriate if she fights the winner.'
'Wh… appropriate? What?'
'Rall-Rallak,' the older krogan explained. 'Winner stays on. And four Queens to take the whole pot.'
'You lost your hakhing mind, Tojendi!'
'That's not so. Just wanted it to be fair. Now I'm going to unlock your cuffs, and you're going to get all your gear on. I swear by my ancestors I won't move before you draw your weapon, but by the same oath, no-one leaves this tent 'till the other's dead.'
The older, thinner krogan drew a key from the small table by his side and freed his prisoner. In silence, and with constant eye contact, the larger soldier retrieved his standard-issue steel plates and threw them on. Very carefully, he then tied his scabbard to his side and tapped a button on the blade's hilt. Finally, a shotgun seemed to leap into his hand.
Tojendi wondered if this meant he was ready, but found his answer when a blast of shotgun pellets embedded themselves in his leg and pale underbelly. He yelped as the pain took him by surprise, dropped to his knees and pulled a shotgun of his own. Trying to test the strength of his leg as he put his full weight on them, he aimed the gun. A sharp twist of pain in his leg skewed the shot, however, and the blast only hurt Qell-Bo's arm.
At least he had won some time. Through sheer determination he leaped up and blew two rounds of ammunition into the traitor's hand. He tried to fire again but a sudden, sharp, biotic yank tore the gun from his grip. The weapon skidded across the floor, cutting a tiny, silver line in the shrieking metal, and more shells were fired, this time aimed for Tojendi's face.
A simple duck allowed the huge ridge of his complex armour to absorb the impact of the pellets. He felt one of them land and bounce off his head, then pulled his sword.
Qell-Bo actually laughed at this movement, and drew his own sword, taking the time to move the gun into his left hand first. From beneath his armour, Tojendi could still see the red glow from the weapon's edge, creeping across the floor to threaten him. Quietly the old warrior cursed. He had wanted to avoid swordplay as much as possible. That blade was deadly, and it would slice through his bulky armour with ease. Nonetheless, better to fight with an inferior blade than try to dodge a shotgun in close quarters. He charged.
The curved dome of the armour punched into Qell-Bo's belly, knocking him loudly against a wall, but Tojendi knew this move had exposed his back. Sure enough, before his could move he heard the searing cleaver squealing with psychotic delight as it melted through his armour. When the glowing edge finally found soft flesh beneath the layers of artificial and natural plating, the old warrior was forced to discover new reserves of strength.
Straightening up and ignoring the pain and smell from his burnt back, Tojendi forced his opponent to withdraw the heavy weapon. Taking advantage of this time, he deftly cut through available space to embed his thin, long blade in the traitor's left hand. The wound was deep and, judging by the reaction, painful, which ought to keep that shotgun out of the rest of the fight.
Defending against Qell-Bo's blade, however, would be more than enough of a challenge by itself. Quicker than Tojendi had allowed for, it reappeared and struck against his own sword, which he tried to lift into a more useful position. After a few quick, poorly aimed slashes were exchanged, the two found their blades locked, pressing against each other in a simple, old-fashioned krogan test of strength. Their wide faces were inches away from each other now, with only the swords in-between.
'I didn't kill your hakhing asari!' Qell-Bo screamed. Drops of spittle landed on the older fighter's face, warmed by proximity to the hot cleaver.
Tojendi was pushing too hard to divert attention away from the fight to answer this, so he merely continued pressing against the usurper. Perhaps this gave Qell-Bo the intended message, that this went beyond Naromi's death, or perhaps not. It didn't really matter.
Finally Qell-Bo's strength pushed the other away, making him retreat a few steps. As he steadied himself and positioned his own sword, he realised that it was seriously damaged. Melted in three places, maybe deliberately.
Primarily as a means of stalling for time, Tojendi spoke. 'You know why I didn't come find you before you left on Ontahe? Why I didn't get to you before you took my ship and my men?'
Qell-Bo did not reply. As if answering the question, the red cleaver reared into sight.
'Not because of the Code,' Tojendi continued, his voice flat. 'Not because I was too tired and not 'cause of your magic spells or your ability to turn cowardice into strength. I just didn't wanna deprive the war effort of that fine blade. But I ain't going to do that. Just going to deprive it of a thief.'
With a prolonged screech, Qell-Bo rushed forward, wildly slicing the unstoppable cleaver left and right in the air. A barely-aimed biotic push shot out of his aching, bleeding left hand and smashed the thin aluminium door from its hinges. The empty space revealed the sight of the immense Queen rachni, free and stood in the centre of camp. It had not yet begun a rampage but simply stalked the grounds, its mighty head darting left and right and various feelers twitching excitedly. For a crucial moment, Qell-Bo was frozen by the sight. Tojendi dropped down onto his injured leg and grabbed his discarded shotgun. A second later, his former lieutenant was dead, and the cleaver lay burning a small channel in the floor.
The victorious krogan took a moment to breathe hard and feel the intense agonies he had been ignoring. Finally he dropped his heat-twisted, battered sword and gripped the shining hilt of his fallen opponent's weapon. The weight was more than he was used to, but it would not be hard to adjust.
Summoning all his will, Tojendi pulled himself to his feet and turned to the door, suddenly noticing the hulking insect Queen. In that instant his pain evaporated and blind rage poured into him, mixed with feverish anticipation. Despite it all, he waited. Seventy seconds exactly, he told himself, while he calmed himself and contemplated his attack.
He fired a shotgun blast into the air. It caught the Queen's attention and she heaved her huge thorax and sharp, hard legs over to face him. Not wanting to wait, the krogan began a stride to meet her halfway.
Just as before, in his fight with Qell-Bo, the first attack came early. The Queen threw her body forward and launched a flexible, spear-tipped arm in his direction. At first Tojendi thought she had missed, but then it snapped backwards and whipped the krogan's back hard. He fell down and a second arm tried to stab his front. This time she really did miss, and just pounded her claw against the side of his armour. As the long, powerful arm recoiled, Tojendi was able to hack at it with the heat-edged cleaver. The first powerful swing cut right through her flimsy organic limb and buried the blade to its hilt in the ground.
The surprise stopped Tojendi's movement for a moment, but the rachni was too busy shrieking to take advantage. After yanking the entombed blade from the hard clay, the krogan ran forward again.
Enraged but not hindered, the Queen thrust her head forward, snapping at Tojendi with her thick, beak-like mandibles. Again the blade flourished and two of her great teeth cracked in half. Again she wailed in pain and stumbled backwards, tripping over her long, angular legs as she retreated.
Struggling to stifle a laugh, Tojendi marched forward, making up the distance. As he prepared a fresh cut to her front, she butted him, one of her great snapping jaws cutting a deep, vertical trench into his armour. Immediately, she jabbed him again, this time breaking through the armour and stabbing his chest. The wound was not deep, but the teeth came out bloody and clapping together in celebration.
Three fast blasts from Tojendi's shotgun managed only to distract her, barely breaking the skin, so he abandoned the weapon and hurled himself forwards. With a roar he brought the cleaver over his head and straight into hers. This was his strongest blow so far. The blade cracked her brittle, hard exterior and sank deep into the front of her face, between the eyes. Again she cried out and this time made a sound not unlike gasping as the blade continued to cook the muscle surrounding it.
When the damage was done, he struck again and again, hacking into her skull like a woodcutter until he felt his good leg crack under a tremendous force. With a mighty claw the Queen had grabbed hold of the leg and sharply snapped the shinbone in two. Tojendi fell, realising neither of his legs could support him, and waited for her next move.
After a few moments darting back and forth, the rachni tried a killing blow. Her arm jabbed Tojendi's exposed chest in the same spot where she had hurt him before and lifted him into the air. As she prepared to slam him down, the warrior dissected the arm. He fell to the ground, the claw still embedded inside him and attached to a length of her tentacle-like limb. Once on the floor he found himself crumpled, bleeding profusely and paralysed with pain from both legs and his chest. But he had landed right beside her neck.
Finally, both of them remained still and silent. The peace that the deep, calm night had tried to bring to the krogan camp finally appeared. Both of the Queen's arms were severed and her weak, malleable skull was cut and burned. Tojendi tried hard to lift the blade once more but found he simply couldn't move. Throughout the fight the Queen had screamed her shrill cries almost incessantly, but now it was Tojendi's turn to howl.
He was so damn close. But he couldn't move. He found himself very tired. He just wanted to put his head down. Come to think of it, aside from bouts of unconsciousness in the cramped sick bay on Athame's Edge, he hadn't slept since before he landed on Ontahe.
Tojendi was no fool, and he knew that if he closed his eyes he would collapse, and if he collapsed he would die, but he wasn't sure he even cared. The death of Naromi had truly shocked him, and he was yet to really accept that she was gone. As a Captain he had lost countless krogan under his command, but still it was impossible to believe that although that little blue mouth was still there, still open no less, and although she was hiding behind the tent like he told her, he'd never hear that annoying voice again.
The girl was dead and the army had rejected him. His legs were broken and he just couldn't move. What was he fighting for at this point? Even if he could earn his place at the head of this squad, the bloodstone just didn't hold the same appeal to him now. It just didn't matter. And it was probably the girl's fault. She talked too much. She was probably talking right until the moment she died.
Tojendi stood up.
The salarians liked to claim that the greatest strength of the average krogan soldier was his ability to shrug off injuries and get back on his feet, just at the moment the rachni swarms were convinced he was dead. The more poetic among them said the krogan were gifted with 'a second life.' When Tojendi's unit had first heard this, they found it rather insulting. As if the krogan were a new weapon with a fabulous new surprise attack. Nonetheless, it was the durability of the krogan that had earned them their 'cultural elevation'. It was their resilience that had earned them the nickname of 'the Immovable Army' and that same resilience that had saved thousands of asari and salarian lives on hundreds of worlds. The strength of the average krogan soldier was the sole reason the tide of the Wars had turned, after a century. It was the reason the asari and salarians would live on, the reason their giant space station would never fall. It was the reason Naromi would be avenged. Tojendi believed it had something to do with the krogan army's system of honour, as well. It was the forging the army that had truly 'uplifted' them. The loyalty of the Captains and the value of the Code.
His eyes only half open, Tojendi summoned the strength to drive the searing, wide edge of his blade deep into the rachni's neck. Unsatisfied, he pulled it out and struck again, harder. And again, this time crashing through the cartilage at the centre of her neck. Face first, the huge head dropped onto the floor. It gently rolled back and forth for a while until it was still. The warrior started walking.
It was another half hour before Tojendi found Hallas by the lookout post and removed the gag in his mouth.
'Jendi?' the soldier asked, in complete surprise. 'This was you? You're alive… what…?'
Covered in healing fluids, dressed in nothing but clean linen and with a makeshift splint lashed around one leg, Tojendi smiled at his old friend. It was good to see him again. 'Qell-Bo tried to kill me and took the Queen on Ontahe. I came back to take this one.'
It took a moment for Hallas to take this in. Tojendi took the time to fully untie him. 'Sorry I had to knock you out, friend,' he said, smiling. 'I wanted the Queen to myself, so I had to make sure no-one was in my way. The other boys are all in the barracks, tied to the struts.'
Hallas just laughed, as he did so often. 'And is our new Captain tied up too?' he asked, grinning at the thought.
The injured krogan shook his head. 'He's dead. It was a fair fight, Hallas.' At this, his friend looked grave. 'It was a fair fight,' Tojendi said again, and Hallas smiled.
'A fair fight is more than he deserves. I take it you will be resuming command?'
'No. You'll be getting a new leader. I just killed a Captain. It just ain't right for me to serve with the army anymore.'
With his usual energetic enthusiasm, Hallas began protesting. It lasted a few minutes with no opportunity for Tojendi to interrupt, so finally he stuffed the improvised gag back into the officer's mouth. Today he was in no mood for Hallas' manner.
Spitting it out again, his friend chuckled. 'You're really leaving the army?' He knew there was no changing Tojendi's mind, but he sounded more fascinated than disappointed.
'Yes. By the way, I took some of your medical supplies. Sorry 'bout that. And I'll be needing to take a body bag.'
'What, for Qell-Bo?'
'No.' They both left it at that. Tojendi started to back away. He walked stiffly and it was clear from his face he was in pain. 'I'll be leaving soon,' he said. 'Give me a few hours to get away from here before you untie the others.'
'Yeah, no problem. And what am I going to tell them about our dead Captain and the headless monster out there?'
Tojendi paused. This was something he simply hadn't considered. 'Tell them the truth,' he said finally. 'I don't want you lying. Tell them the truth, Hallas.'
Though he tried to hide it, the officer looked a little relieved. 'You won't get your bloodstone,' he said solemnly.
'Yeah. Hakh it.'
Hallas could see Tojendi was eager to leave, so he nodded his head as a mark of respect. 'Where will you go?' he asked as the former Captain turned around.
Tojendi turned back. 'The asari Citadel, first. That should be an experience. After that, I'm going for a fifth Queen.'
With a nod, Tojendi left his friend forever and headed back to the Captain's tent. A little later, he set off walking back to his shuttle and carrying a light load. His body offered heavy resistance to the hike, but he persevered. The sooner he got to the shuttle, the sooner he found his fifth. Then the sixth. He had a bag, but he wanted a double bag. Maybe even a full rack in a few years. With his new blade, it wasn't an unreasonable goal, and he would probably move faster without a squad to look after.
The nights were short on Altahe. After a while the contented black sky gave way to a merciless sun and dirty orange mists. After this the subdued winds started to pick up again. Eventually the storm was back to full force, hurling dust and stones all over and making vision nearly impossible. It all just made Tojendi walk faster.
If you read this far, thank you very much. This was my first attempt at writing an action/adventure story (actually my first fanfic not to be some kind of parody), so I hope you enjoyed it!
Also- if you spotted the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' references I planted in there, you stand to win a special prize!