109. Homecoming

A grey, cold winter’s day awaited them outside. The clouds chasing over the sky lost a few snowflakes in their hurried passage and the frigid flecks hardly contrasted with the white walls of the courtyard. What did contrast with the winter scenery was the company of Space Marines in deep crimson and golden armour that stood gathered to greet them. On their shoulders they bore the crest of the Wings of War: Six wings with three swords crossed in front of them. It was framed in red. This was 3rd company. The very same company they had missed on Zenith. None of them wore a helmet or held a weapon but they were armed for war. Row after row of stern, yet curiously soft faces was turned towards them in the stinging air.
Following close behind Vox, Titus spotted the captain who stood ahead of her troops. The wind pulled on her tightly bound, long, blonde hair and he thought he saw a smile dawn on her face when she first glimpsed Vox.
Titus was taken aback when the captain gave out the command to salute. As it was echoed by her sergeants, she already issued the next. Halting in puzzlement, the Ultramarine watched the whole company drop to one knee to honour the lone figure in black and silver armour striding towards them. Vox meanwhile approached them without hesitation. She came to a halt right in front of the captain, who raised her face towards her.
“Mistress”, the captain exclaimed. “You have returned!”
Titus looked around at the brothers. Dankwart and Corven were directly behind him. Even if the others had missed this address, the open reverence for his friend worried him.
“So I have”, Vox said and reached a hand down to pull the captain to her feet. “Rise, all of you!”, she commanded and threw a glance over her shoulder. When she saw the huddle of uncertain men, an amused grin graced her features. Titus pulled himself together and walked forward, the others following on his heels. As they approached he heard Vox continue: “It is good to see you, Meriar!” Their linked hands formed a coil for a moment, which they slapped with the free hand. The smiles that passed between them over this gesture spoke of true joy to see each other again. Then, Vox turned to walk and around her the courtyard revolved. She waved for the men to follow, who made haste to close the gap on her. The lines of strange Astartes parted for them but the group of men still was pushed into a tight huddle between them. They were eyed with open curiosity but nobody stepped into their way or even asked questions. On a very slight gesture of Vox, another squad followed along. It was led by a warrior in so richly decorated armour that she could only be the champion of the company.
“Celeste is in the hall”, Vox said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Saphane?”, she asked.
“She is brought down from orbit as we speak”, Captain Meriar reported. “We informed her as soon as we picked up your signal.”
Vox gave an approving nod. Then, she said: “Send out the general order: Every engagement with Space Marines that haven’t been confirmed clearly chaotic by markings or mutations is to be dropped at once. They are to retreat to a defensible position and wait for further instructions. And call Sergeant Cephaya on her personal short range frequency. Tell her that I have returned and that I need her here as soon as possible.”
“We lost Sergeant Cephaya on Zenith almost three years ago!”
“This is a misconception I’m about to correct”, Vox declared grimly. “Call her personally and bring Remora in as secretly as you can! No mortal must know of this and as few Astartes as you can possibly manage. They are to find me with the priests. Now go!”
“Yes, Mistress!” The captain hurried off under the bewildered glances of the men. ‘Mistress?’ they seemed to ask.
Titus meanwhile had other concerns. He exchanged a worried look with Corven who walked beside him. Had they really just heard Vox give out a general order? The situation got more unsettling by the minute.
Both of them looked around. The squad of the Wings of War accompanying them matched the numbers of the men but even though the fighters of the Deathwatch were seasoned veterans, Titus very much doubted that they would be able to stand against them if anything went wrong. Irdan Yorg had been right: Vox demanded a hell of a leap of faith. Titus felt uneasy that he had not seen the magnitude of it coming. He had never imagined that Vox would walk in here like a saint descending from the heavens. The devotion of the company had positively crystallised in the air and the captain had heeded her every word like a… Well. Like a subordinate. Captain Titus swallowed.
When Vox addressed him, he almost jumped.
“Captain?”, she asked sweetly. “I must inform you that I will lay down the black shield as soon as I can get hold of my techmarines. I thought you wanted to use your chance to give me some last orders. I might even heed them”, she added with so much sarcastic delight that Titus almost felt offended.
“I don’t have orders”, he said carefully. “But would you be so kind as to tell me what the captain meant by picking up your signal?”, he inquired. “I didn’t notice you making contact with your people.”
“That’s because I didn’t”, Vox said smugly. “My armour did that for me.”
“Do you mean you have a home beacon?”, Tiberius gasped from behind. He had taken his helmet off when he had left the ‘Cornix’ and the bafflement in his features was rather disconcerting.
“What’s a home beacon?”, Xavor asked.
“It’s an artefact that can be put in an armour.” Tiberius’ explanation was dramatically underlined by his waving third arm. “It sends a signal to your home fortress when you get close and deactivates all automatic defences. They are incredibly rare because they have to be integrated into the defence system of the whole fortress and they overload when the wearer of the armour dies so that no one can get close by taking a high ranking corpse to the fortress…”
“Yes”, Vox confirmed easily. “It was what brought us through the planetary defences as well.”
“What? No!”, Tiberius burst out and the clamp on his third arm spun around itself once. “Such artefacts don’t exist anymore!”
Vox refrained from replying. She just smiled gleefully.
“I never noticed it in your armour!”, the techmarine added accusingly when she kept silent.
“Of course not”, she said amusedly. “The defences are supposed to know, not you.”
“You wore a codicier’s insignia when we picked you up!”, Tiberius burst out and this time he waved his real arms.
“Yes”, she conceded happily and shot Titus an amused glance. “That was a lie.”
“Vox?”, Titus asked hoarsely. “Who are you?”
“Me?”, his beloved answered with laughing eyes. “I am Vox Draconis. Keeper of the Law and Mistress of Secrets of the Wings of War.” She grinned when this was met with more puzzlement. “The first is the rank of the highest advocate and counsel in questions of the law for our chapter and the second is approximately equal to your chief librarians”, she explained generously.
“You are what?!”, Xavor burst out.
“Mistress?”, Titus finally heard Rogan whisper behind him. He was hushed by Grimfang.
“Most chapters don’t even have one!”, the black wolf went on to protest.
“In the four thousand years since our founding, I’m only the thirtieth for us too”, Vox told them. “Although I have to admit that I haven’t been able to perform my duties until now. The tarot led me to the Deathwatch on the very day of my inauguration.”
Titus did not dare to look around at the Wings of War accompanying them. He was sure that the men looked like fools to them and he had no desire to see this in their faces.
The fortress was built to be defended, so there was no straight way to the great hall but Vox led them through the tall, echoing corridors with growing vigour in her steps. She seemed to become more and more alive with every mighty, white pillar they passed until she bubbled over with a kind of energy Titus had seen in her when a fight commenced. In front of the big double doors of the great hall two captains awaited them. They bent their knees just as readily as the other women and only rose on Vox’s command. When they were upright again, the Mistress of Secrets honoured them with the same familiar greeting she had bestowed on Meriar. While she linked hands with them and called them by name, their heraldry completed the information the men needed for now: These were Captain Annouh of 9th and Captain Haldra of 10th company. Of course, the reserve companies would be present in the fortress.
The captains personally opened the door for Vox to reveal that they had by no means come without their warriors.
Two-hundred Astartes were waiting for them behind the gate. Like in any fortress built by Space Marines, the banner lined great hall was the vast space where the chapter took meals and underwent feast days. It was the mundane centre of life in the fortress and easily able to accommodate this number of warriors.
When Vox entered and walked through the lines, they all dropped to their knees. This time, she ignored them. Her gaze was fixed on the one figure who stood up when she came in.
In the middle towards the back of the hall stood the massive and surprisingly simple chair of the Chapter Mistress. It was raised by a single step from the rest of the space and surrounded by the honour guard of the Chapter Mistress. Their armours gleamed in glorious red and gold, their raven beaked helmets were adorned by six wings each.
Like her guards, the Mistress was wearing Mark VI armour. Magnificent and ornate as it befit the head of an Astartes chapter and when she stood up, she towered over her chosen six. Almost as tall as Xavor, she took a few steps towards the newcomers. A cloak in crimson and gold flowed from her shoulders. Her blonde hair was long and oiled back carefully which made her look quite similar to Commander Ferone. Four scratch marks adorned her noble face. They ran from her left temple to her chin, having missed her mild blue-grey eye by a hair’s breadth.
As Vox strode towards her, these scars rippled under the dawn of a most joyous smile and finally the Chapter Mistress laughed as she reached out her hands to welcome her friend home.
Vox’s pace quickened yet further and when the women linked their hands, grasped the coil of their fists with the free hands and touched their foreheads to them, Titus was almost overwhelmed by his jealousy. Never had he seen this most meaningful of gestures filled with so much power and certainty.
Now he knew who had written the mantra Vox had taught Vitus Berethen on Zenith.
Her best friend was considerably taller than Vox and there was something about the women as they greeted each other. The feeling that here, in this time and space, something had just clicked into place. In a universe of eternal, unforgiving war that eroded the soul of a warrior until corruption crept on and took fighter after fighter down, a crack in the shield of humanity had just been mended. An invincible force to push back the boundaries of mankind had found together again. These two could move the galaxy. They certainly moved the Jericho Reach.
“Vox!”, the mistress exclaimed and the delight to see her long lost friend again radiated from her honest smile. “At last you’re back! But what are these colours supposed to mean? Whom have you brought with you? And why do they stand at your side instead of our sisters?”
“Sisters?”, Titus heard someone gasp behind him, followed by an indistinct reply. He was little surprised. It had taken him far longer to come to terms with these facts after all. As long as they just asked the same questions over and over again, he saw no problem. Meanwhile, the chapter mistress eyed the men with a mixture of curiosity and doubtful interest.
“Celeste”, Vox said, turning around to them again and finally waving a hand for the assembled warriors to stand up. “The path I have walked led me to the Deathwatch. As history tells us it is a noble endeavour to join the ranks of the Ordo Xenos and this is what I have done. Now, meet my brothers of the Deathwatch.” Vox earned a raised eyebrow for the word ‘brothers’ but Celeste withheld comments. Instead she listened attentively while the curious visitors were introduced to her. Vox radiated confidence and generous power while she spoke but there was something about her. A tension that was about to spring loose. It worried Titus to the bone.
“I greet you, warriors of the Deathwatch”, the Chapter Mistress addressed them when Vox had finished. “I am Celeste of Jericho Keep, Chapter Mistress of the Wings of War. It is my pleasure to meet you in the company you arrived in.”
“We thank you, Mistress”, Titus answered for all of them, scraping as much of his manners together as he could find. “Our path was well worth walking to meet you here.”
“Vox?”, Celeste asked after a benevolent nod towards him. “What are your plans now?”
“I will tell you in a moment”, Vox promised. “First, may I suggest a guide for each of our guests so that they may walk freely in our domain?”
“Granted”, Celeste approved without hesitation. “Anyone special?”, she inquired.
“I want Meriar for Captain Titus as soon as she’s back from the endeavour I sent her on and Codicier Helena for Epistolary Corven.” Vox waggled her eyebrows at Corven who gave her a look. “Curia, you take Sergeant Grimfang for now”, she ordered the champion. “Sort the rest out! Each shall have a guide according to his rank and speciality.”
“Yes, mistress!”, the champion confirmed and made the sign of the aquila to Vox in salute.
“See to it that our guests are treated well and find a narthecium for Ignatius”, the Mistress of Secrets added before she turned to the delegation of the Deathwatch. “Brothers”, she addressed them and never had this word declared more distance between them. “Your guides will accompany you on your way. They will answer your questions, so feel free if you have any. During your stay here, you will discover that we have certain rules you are not used to and I must warn you about one of them: Should you find yourself disagreeing with another Space Marine, both of you are entitled to speak the Challenge to Dispute. This is an open event and a few duties are suspended for this so that as many as possible may attend it. If your dissent cannot be settled satisfactorily during your Dispute, each of you may challenge his or her opponent to a duel. This is usually fought to first blood but can, if one of the combatants wishes it, be extended to a duel to the death. I invite you therefore to think about how far you want to push any point.” She smiled. “I also wish to remind you that, here, you are the deviants. Apart from this, you have freedom of movement wherever your guide is allowed to go. May the Emperor watch over you, brothers! We will hopefully meet later.” She nodded at them before she and Celeste turned and left towards the back of the hall. The honour guard followed on their heels.
Titus stared after them.
“What just happened?” Of course, it was Xavor, who asked the obvious question.
“Damned if I know”, Corven growled.
They all looked around. The ten of them surrounded by two-hundred and ten Space Marines in crimson and gold. Titus had seen none of this coming.
In his utter confusion, he had trouble focusing on the saluting champion who had stepped up to him.
Curia introduced herself again and inquired politely about the specialities of all of them. She paired a few of the brothers with warriors she had with her and took Grimfang under her own wing. The captains of 9th and 10th courteously stayed in the background. By choosing Curia to sort out the guides Vox had made it quite clear that she wished them to be chosen from 3rd company. Titus was sure that this was a way to honour them. The Space Marines in the reserve companies were fully trained Astartes but apart from the sergeants and captains they were young and inexperienced. By choosing 3rd, Vox had made sure that the brothers of the Deathwatch had battle hardened equals as their counterparts.
Titus was impressed at how stoically the two present captains bore her choice. They could easily have taken this as defamation. Instead, they parted with a few polite words to the visitors and led their companies back to training.
Curia meanwhile, had contacted a few people, her captain among them. Now, she led the men out of the hall.
From here on, everything went so smoothly that Titus felt unable to cope with it. The champion hardly explained anything to the warriors she had called to meet them. Third had watched the men arrive together with the Mistress of Secrets and this alone seemed to make them honoured, albeit curious, guests instead of abominations to be fought.
As he almost staggered through the fortress, Titus finally understood why Vox had been on the brink of self destruction several times. Coming to the Deathwatch had been a fall for her, far harder than his own. Being detested and taunted as openly as she had described it. Scorned and humiliated, forced to humble herself before men junior to her… Like himself. He was very uncomfortable with this thought.

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Guide Me Through the Darkness by Julia M. V. Warren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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