Vox looked around. This cathedral, however magnificent it was, had always seemed like a doll’s house for grotesquely overgrown puppets to her. Everything was human-sized. Except for the crimes committed here. They were easily daemon sized and it was all the more disgusting that they had been committed in good faith.
“When I left twelve years ago, I travelled to Pellor where I met Imperial Guardsmen who brought me to the Deathwatch. The Deathwatch, as our history teaches us, is the militant arm of the Ordo Xenos. We have been told that these forces didn’t prevail in the Jericho Reach when it was cut off and that we were the only chapter left behind. This is not the case. The Deathwatch has been here with us all the time and for several hundred years now, the Reach is open again and forces of the Imperium of Man populate it in the Emperor’s name as we speak.”
She looked around in anticipation and really. Helgard of Nor raised his frail, old voice: “Please, my child. Is this all you bring? Stories of times long gone retold as lies?”
“No, I brought a few things more”, Vox said calmly. She refrained from pointing out that she, the immortal Astartes, fated to die in battle but never of infirmity, was easily three times his age. Instead she separated a few papers from her stack.
“The centre of the imperial endeavours is the Iron Collar because the Jericho Maw Warp Gate is located there and the centre of the Deathwatch is Erioch, which lies between the Strike, the Obliery and the Marvels Death system.” With this, she had given Celeste an orientation where the story she was about to lay out was going to take place. The friend knew their territory even better than Vox herself.
The Mistress of Secrets had decided to start her tale with a rather insignificant prelude but it would carry all the more weight if Celeste came to believe her later.
“In the year of our founding a comet we call the Ice Herald crossed between Uhnaga, our former homeworld, and Samech”, she said and handed Celeste two types of documents, dealing with this event. “I have found such an event mentioned in the files of the Deathwatch”, she continued while her friend skimmed over the papers to compare them. “From their point of view, an asteroid that fits the description of the Ice Herald crossed between the Magog and the Samech system. Unfortunately, everyone but us is convinced that this has been about a hundred years after the Reach has been cut off. Considering that it marks the year of our founding, this was a little late to still get the permission for this from Terra.”
Bertram of High Guard raised his voice: “You return after twelve years under false colours to call your own chapter heretic?”
“Our founding has been unauthorised”, Vox said calmly. “Some may call this heretic already. What intrigues me, however, is that we have been isolated from the other imperial forces in the Reach without the Astartes knowing it. As Mistress of Secrets, I have access to knowledge even my beloved Chapter Mistress must not glimpse and I didn’t know of this until the tarot pointed me to our comrades in arms out there.”
“I accuse you of having fallen to corruption by strange forces!”, Lorrin of Blacksea snapped. “Nobody ever confirmed the movement of friendly forces since the last outpost of Imperial Guardsmen was destroyed over three-thousand years ago.”
“The lord of Blacksea is right, Vox”, Celeste said. This short sentence was harder on her than anything the priests could have said but she took this blow and steadied herself. A weak prelude that would gain momentum later. Disbelief at the beginning was only natural.
“My Mistress”, Vox said patiently. “May I present to you my copy of the Codex Astartes?”, she asked and held it out to her.
“This is not yours”, Celeste said and Vox heard the distrust in her voice without listening to the swirls in the warp.
“Indeed”, she confirmed. “I distinctly remember, leaving my former copy to you when we parted and the version you have was considerably slimmer. Please, do look through this one. I have marked out the passages I didn’t know or knew in altered form.”
“Which is about two thirds”, Celeste said, thumbing through it quickly.
“Yes”, Vox confirmed slowly. “Among the men I have brought with me are two Ultramarines. Direct sons of Lord Guilliman who wrote the Codex. My brother Tiberius let me copy his text which he has brought from his chapter.”
“I reject that this should have any weight here”, Helgard of Nor, the oldest of the tribunal, could be heard. His blind eyes were turned where he heard Vox talking and his lips trembled in excitement. “I have no notion of whom or what you brought to the Keep, Mistress, but should they pose a threat to us, you are responsible for their crimes! Strangers have no place here and neither have their heretic writings!”
This time, Celeste said nothing when Vox looked at her. She had seen the men only for a few minutes but scorning visitors who had acted friendly and unobtrusive was the first bad move the high priest had made. Vox heard in the swirling emotions around the two others that they picked up on his mistake and she continued while they thought about how to make leeway again. It was hard not to get drawn too deep into the whispers she heard around her. Several priests had started to pray silently and they were terrified.
To pull herself together, she dampened her senses a little.
“Mistress Celeste”, she took up again. “You asked me why I stand before you without the five sisters you sent with me. Back then, we travelled to Pellor as the cards had bidden me and there we met a company of Imperial Guardsmen. We had been set down by drop pod and moved through an abandoned village when we were attacked. We fought for a short while and then, we got a visual on the attackers. They wore beige uniforms with imperial signs on them and as soon as we realised this, three of us went into Black Rage.” Vox looked Celeste in the eyes while she said it and she paused to let the full horror of her words sink in. Ferone had only hinted to Titus of the flaw of the Blood Angels but Celeste, like every sanguine blooded, knew what the full extent of it was. They called it the Red Thirst. The lust for blood and the desire to drink it could drive a descendant of Sanguinius into a frenzy and if this state became permanent, the warrior had irrevocably fallen to the Black Rage. Usually, this process took centuries of the gruelling life of a Space Marine. It did not happen from one moment to the other and Celeste had never allowed anyone at Vox’s side who showed the first signs of permanence. The chances that Vox resonated with them were too great a risk to take.
“No”, Celeste uttered in flat horror.
“Just like that”, Vox confirmed again, knowing full well that the weight of the memories was showing on her own face. “Stephania was cut down in an instant and Beryhal died defending me. She killed Sesteasse before she fell to Marannha’s blade and I killed Marannah and Tjenna.” She swallowed hard. “Five sisters dead”, she declared the merciless truth. “Their geneseed lost. This was how my journey began and do you know what I found just now?”
“What?”, Celeste asked, unable to resist being drawn into the dreadful vision Vox created for her.
“Their files are missing from our archives.” She paused for effect. “As is mine.”
“We mourn your loss, Mistresses”, Lorrin of Blacksea cut in and tried to display compassion behind his long, white beard. “But as much as we do, what does this tragic story have to do with the trial here?”
“Firstly: I accuse you of having tampered with our archives and keep a separate one hidden from us. Secondly”, she added and her gaze and voice gained considerably in nasty sharpness. “I know for a fact that my three stricken sisters came to see you before we left, while the rest of us turned to one of our own chaplains.”
“Then your word stands against ours”, Bertram of High Guard said calmly. He had the deepest voice of the three. “We conceal nothing from the Astartes we have been appointed to watch over by the Emperor Himself.”
“And without the files, we cannot prove anything”, Vox completed his defence. Her eyes wandered over to Celeste. The judge said nothing but Vox heard the intrigued surprise swirling in her mind. Absent files of six individuals who had gone missing in the same incident might have been misplaced, not hidden. The possible involvement of the priests had registered with her, however.
Vox gave a very small nod and separated the next bundle of paper from her stack to hand them to the Chapter Mistress.
“After the death of my beloved sisters, I joined the Deathwatch as a black shield”, she continued. “My file there looked like this. I have attached a note to explain the nature of the black shield.”
Celeste let her gaze sweep over the first page and then started to go through the rather large pile.
“The other files”, Vox continued meanwhile. “Detail the names, pictures, reports of service and dates of death of twenty-six other black shields that have joined the Deathwatch in the last four-thousand years and have died there. I was able to match some of them with files from our own archives. Our records state dates of disappearance for these warriors. Not death.”
“Mistress Celeste, put down these works of heresy!”, Helgard of Nor cried and in his blind, old eyes stood unmistakable concern. “What treacherous ways have been walked to produce something like this? Do not jeopardise your mind and soul by laying eyes on them!”
But Celeste’s eyes steadily swept over the pictures of the warriors. She took in their blonde hair, blue eyes and smooth, angelic features. When she found a matching pair, she compared them carefully. Her demeanour was cold and hard to read when she laid the papers down on the altar but Vox would not have needed to listen in to her thoughts to know that the scale started to tip. The matching records, which she had picked up only a few minutes ago, were impossible to fake. Forging the records of the Deathwatch would have been possible but some of them were more than three thousand years old and looked the part. That they were real was a little more likely than not.
Still, the fight was not over. Vox turned to the next papers.
“About ten years after I had become a black shield”, she went on as she handed them over. “A kill team of the Deathwatch found a Space Marine in red and golden corvus pattern armour on Sora. The warrior was out of her mind, wandering through a forest there. The team had a chaplain of the Crimson Legion with them who recognized a warrior fallen to the Black Rage and brought her back to Erioch. I happened to be there at the time and, of course, the commander knew my crest and colours.” Vox looked down. “I recognised her as sister Mevida of fourth company and I knew that she was less than two-hundred years old.” It was unnecessary to explain that this was far too young to have been befallen by the terrible Black Rage. “There was nothing to be done for her”, Vox said bitterly. “So, we changed the colour of her armour to pure black and took her along to our next mission. She died on Corred.” For a moment, Vox’s gaze lost its focus on the present. The memory of baring the dead sister’s head to take her helmet for Titus came to haunt her. It had been a gift from the Deathwatch in any case because Mevida had turned up without one. It still had hurt to take this away from her sister.
“She fell against a group of Eldar and I had to leave her behind without honour and markings, her gene seed lost. And when I returned today I found her file.” Deliberately, she let the threat hang in the air for a moment. “As you know, we keep track of any incidents related to the Thirst and Mevida had only four on record. No signs of the Black Rage by a long way. What I did find, however, is that she is reported MIA on Sora.”
Celeste’s features had gotten cold as she looked down at the concerning file and there was a telling twitch in her stern features when Lorrin of Blacksea gave a dismissive snort.
“You will have to do better than pose untenable accusations, Mistress of Secrets. Nothing you have said so far has any reliable source to support it. For all we know, you could have made this up.”
“Yes. All you have seen so far is paper”, Vox replied smoothly. “It is time to hear of the living.”