Skin Deep [W40K/Silver Skulls Short]

Skin Deep

(A just-over 1,000 word short that popped into my head).

“I am ready, Ignatius. Begin.”

“Aye, Master.”

The old man settled himself down on the chair next to the inking bench and picked up his precious tool, the hand-crafted inking needle that had served him for so many years. At seventy years old, Ignatius had been the personal inker to the Chapter Master since the age of twenty four. Prior to his recruitment, Ignatius had never tattooed an Astartes. But Argentius had seen some of his work on an Imperial Guardsman and had engaged the man immediately. Since then, he had tattooed only Astartes – and mostly Argentius at that.

He had tattooed no other without his master’s permission in over forty years. It was considered a high honour for the Chapter Master to refer one of his Silver Skulls to Ignatius Wilson. A kind of reward of its own, both for human and Astartes. For the Astartes, it was a great honour to have their accomplishments retold by Ignatius’s hand. The man was an artistic genius, able to capture each warrior’s vision and suggestion within moments, reproducing it first on paper and then replicating it on their skin.

For Ignatius, he had spent all those hours in the chamber in comparative silence, relishing the hundreds of stories with which he was regaled. It was a special, private relationship between a warrior and the man who helped him tell his tale.

He was the only non-Astartes who had been granted the honour of being considered one of the chapter’s official tattooists. He, and a few other Astartes made up the tiny ranks of Custodes Cruor. He had taught at least one of those his art. But his handicraft was perfect, unique and utterly without equal.

Ignatius considered Argentius’s broad, muscular back. The olive complexion was marred by countless battle scars that caused unsightly valleys and mountains in the otherwise perfect imagery recreated by his hand. The most recent of these scars, from a wound that had torn a gash across his shoulders had practically destroyed one carefully drawn moment from the siege of Nemnor.

“How bad is it, Ignatius?”

“I can cover the worst of it, master,” the tattooist replied. “I am afraid the moment when you triumphed over that ork warboss may now have to feature a few additional orks – I will have to cover the scarring here…” He traced a finger across the Chapter Master’s back. “And here, also.”

“Lies, eh, Ignatius? Telling the world that I destroyed more greenskins than I actually did?”

“Not lies, master. Merely the correction of a gross oversight on my part not including them originally.”

“Flattery, old man?”

“Truth, Chapter Master.”

Argentius smiled to himself. He had spent many hours in this chamber, his body the canvas for Ignatius’s extraordinary talent. He had engaged in the kind of conversation with the human that he couldn’t have had with his fellow Astartes. He had enjoyed heated political and philosophical debate with the tattooist, who was a remarkably intelligent and startlingly well informed man. He had carried the old tattooist to the infirmary when he had collapsed and had been by the old man’s side when Chief Apothecary Malus had determined the cause for his multitude of medical problems. Argentius knew, as well as Ignatius did, that when the time came, he would carry out the funeral rites with as much pomp and ceremony as any Astartes would be afforded.

“How long will it take you?” Argentius focused his attention on the matter at hand. Ignatius had been outraged to see the damage caused to his work by the injury the battle master had sustained. The siege of Nemnor had been a great campaign. Argentius’s one-on-one battle with the warboss Grimtoof had been the very moment Ignatius had yearned for all these years. There were only so many times that you could reproduce scenes of planetary cleansing or space battles. He had left that hallowed space between the shoulder blades clear for years just waiting for what he called the ‘right moment’.

“Four, perhaps five sessions.” Argentius said nothing. Time was when Ignatius could have done the job in a single sitting. “That’s only if you are in residence long enough and not gallivanting about across the universe, of course.” Ignatius sniffed haughtily. “Ryllenor could finish it should I not complete the work…”

“You will complete it, Ignatius. That’s an order.” Argentius shifted slightly and turned so he was looking directly at the tattooist.

“Ah, Chapter Master, you are a great and powerful man,” Ignatius said with a wheezing laugh that brought a grimace to his face. “But even you can’t order a dying man to keep living.”

The sheer nakedness of the truth was glaring and Argentius felt the keen pang of separation begin to spear his soul. The disease that ate Ignatius away from the inside was in its final stages, so Apothecary Malus had told him. There was little that could be done for the old man other than palliative therapies that made him more comfortable.

He had never once complained. He had born the tests, the diagnosis and the treatment with astonishing grace, humbling other, lesser men with his strength and pride. This would be his last piece. It was fitting that it should be on the Chapter Master’s skin.

“Then we had better get started,” said Argentius.

“Yes, master,” replied Ignatius. “I’m trying to, but you will insist on talking. Now keep still.”

He steadied himself, focusing on the ridges in the Astartes’s skin, concentrating and drawing the ink through the needles into the big warrior’s skin. With the deft ease of decades of practising his art, he turned unsightly scar tissue into ork flesh. Argentius knew, that when he was finished, there would be a superb recreation of his great triumph there for the world to see.

Ignatius was mortal. He was dying. But in his tattoos, his heart and soul would live on. The images may only have been skin deep, but the love and dedication that went into each one went far deeper than that.

Human, yes. But he was also more than a servant. He was a friend. He had listened to the Chapter Master’s many great tales and he had offered surprisingly pragmatic counsel. Argentius would miss that friendship when it was gone.

But for now, there was a story to be told.

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