Vox’s description of her friend the chaplain still lingered in Titus’ Memory and when he saw Chaplain Saphane for the first time, he had to admit its accuracy. Had she been the one to come to the Deathwatch, she would never have stayed under cover had she tried. Vox had a handsome face but it was of an aloof, gamine beauty and could be mistaken for that of a young man if that was what you expected to see. Saphane, on the other hand, could never pass as anything but female. In addition to her regular, soft features, her brilliant, light blue eyes, her astounding smile and her silky, golden blonde curls, she had a beautiful, vibrant voice and the cathedral, where the even prayer was held, had the most dazzling acoustics the men had heard for a long time. The litanies, which were only roughly familiar to them after four-thousand years of isolation, carried easily to the last benches where the human population of the fortress had gathered. For the prayer, their guides had accompanied the men to the first row and left them there in a sombre, black and silver line among the crimson and gold coloured sisters.
The cathedral was built to accommodate about half the chapter. With the three companies present, it could not be called crowded but it was adequately used. There was very little ornamentation here. Instead, the nave won the beholder over by its clear-lined architecture that led the eye to three images of the Emperor and Sanguinius at the ceiling and behind the altar. These frescos were held in simple shades and pleasing colours and told the story of how Sanguinius had been raised to the stars by the Emperor.
Standing before them, Saphane preached with fire in her eyes and vigour in her voice. She called the sisters to battle, elegantly weaving in field reports and news between the litanies but not mentioning the return of the Mistress of Secrets, Titus noticed. For an even prayer, it was rather animated and almost resembled an exciting story of what was going on in the world. It was far from what the men were used to but easy to remember and when he glanced sideways, Titus noticed that especially the Space Wolves were hanging on Saphane’s lips with eager smiles.
He remembered the saga Corven had sung with them. This was probably very similar to how Space Wolves recorded their history. A piece of home, far away from home.
The gathered sisters were clearly used to this way of information flow. There were cues to which they responded, providing a powerful echo to Saphane’s enchanting tones.
The men felt quite out of place in the middle of this. Even with the variety of chaplains they had seen in the Deathwatch, none of them had ever encountered anything remotely similar. Titus only hoped that their lack of reaction in the appropriate moments would go unnoticed or at least uncommented.
When everyone in the cathedral knelt for the final prayer and Saphane called down the blessing of the Emperor on her flock, the great double doors behind them opened quietly.
The chaplain actually stumbled over her words but quickly righted herself to end the blessing. Instead of dismissing the convocation however, she laid her hands on her breast plate in the sign of the aquila, smiled radiantly and said: “Sisters! May He guide us through the darkness!”
A general rustle told the men that everyone followed her example, returning the aquila. They did as well but were too baffled to follow further when the chaplain started to tap her fingers on her breast plate. The distinct clicking sound was taken up all around. It was a rhythm, fast and demanding. Like the quickening steps of the advancing army.
The warriors rose to their feet.
A whisper sprang up, following the rhythm: “Guide me through the night, guide me through the darkness, guide me through the night, guide me through the darkness!”
The men looked around and stopped when they saw what was going on: Down the aisle came Vox and Celeste walking side by side. Behind them followed the honour guard, who had taken their helmets off in reverence. All of them were covered in blood and obviously in good spirits. The whisper in the hall got new overtones from Celeste’s chosen six now. They half sang, half spoke to support the common plea. “Guide me!”
The six spread out, taking up station in a half circle around the three figures meeting in the middle. Celeste and Vox reached Saphane.
They must have done it a thousand times before, Titus thought. The way they formed up, Vox in the middle, Celeste to her right, Saphane to her left. Vox’s laughing eyes danced over to him for a moment when she drew a deep breath.
And then she started to sing.
She exploded into the rhythm, carrying it, dominating it and with growing surprise, Titus recognized the words:
Here I stand in darkness still
Oh father, on your throne of gold
I will carry out your will
The night is long but I will hold!
Here I walk in darkness cold
On the path, you chose for me
Whatever horrors will unfold
You lead me straight to victory!
I will cross the darkest sea
Struggle up each sloping hill
Your warrior I aim to be
until my body remains still!
When he had read them and Vox had told him that it was a song, he had imagined a sombre choral, carried by a lot of voices. Never had he anticipated the rhythm, the drive and the power of her solo voice. It carried through the hall, answered by the pervasive whisper.
Vox. The voice. Suddenly, her name gained a whole new level of meaning.
Saphane joined her in a second voice when she started over and Celeste chimed in for the third round, the three of them together even mightier and more demanding and when they came to an end, silence fell like a cleaver while everyone let their hands drop to their sides. In the silence, Vox’s voice alone rang out, clear and powerful, repeating the first verse, ending on a high note and when this trailed off, the whole hall banged their vambraces together in one, final clang.
Titus realised that he was staring with his mouth open. The three women in front of the altar seemed to glow, Vox brightest of all. So much vigour, so much force of life and so much willingness to give all of this to the Emperor. No wonder Vox had referred to herself as not being whole while she had been with the Deathwatch. Titus had tried to be a friend to her but how could he ever have made up for any of this?
Seamlessly, Vox and Celeste switched places and the Chapter Mistress started to speak. She welcomed the Mistress of Secrets back into the ranks of the Wings of War, earning calls and welcome cries all around and then she told all of them why they had turned up covered in blood.
The men had been warned about this already, nobody else had seen it coming: Vox Draconis, Keeper of the Law and Mistress of Secrets of the Wings of War had returned to reveal the treachery of their priesthood and those who had been found guilty had been executed on the spot.
Celeste was an excellent spokesperson. Like Saphane had done it, she told tales to be remembered. She took the chapter on the horrible journey that had brought the priests to fall and called for responses or reacted to spontaneous outbursts in her audience with ease. There was no warrior in the room who disagreed with the death sentence she had spoken and probably even most of the humans in the background agreed that this had been at least necessary, if not deserved. Only a handful of them ran out of the cathedral in concern. Of course, the dead priests had left relatives and friends behind but the majority of the crowd stayed, hypnotised by Celeste’s speech.
“What we have learned after so long, shattered our priesthood”, Celeste told all of them. “But I tell you now, that it will not shatter us! The Wings of War stand at a turning point. We were deceived and we will have to make amends for crimes we did not commit but whatever they have done, we have not fallen! We will rise and stand with our brothers of the Deathwatch, with our mortal kin of the Imperium and we will keep watch over the Reach like we did since our founding. No longer apart but joined to our comrades in arms we will take the fight to humanity’s enemies. For the Emperor!”
“For the Emperor!”, came the many-voiced echo back from around them. Celeste nodded into the room and with this, the prayer was over.
Movement came into the crowd. The three present captains came to their Chapter Mistress to discuss details. Vox and Saphane greeted each other and the guides of the men unobtrusively joined their protégés while everyone else flowed out of the door.
The men looked at each other in puzzlement.
“Well”, Corven said, scratching his grey mane. “So much for negotiations.”
“I’d say you did exceptionally well”, Titus said distractedly because the group of women in front of the altar came towards them.
Saphane took her time to greet the visitors and to their common surprise, it was Celeste who introduced them to her. They all were delighted that the Chapter Mistress should have memorised their names after hearing them only once and they took their time to exchange a few niceties.
Vox meanwhile used this pleasant interlude to talk to Corven’s guide, Codicier Helena. The woman was a bit shorter than her mistress with white-blonde, short hair and bright green eyes in an angular face. She looked even more like a boy than Vox. Whatever their exchange had been, it was over quickly and immediately afterwards, Vox waved for Titus to step aside with her.
They brought a bit of distance between them and the others and for a moment were uncertain what to say.
“Mistress”, Titus finally managed. It could have been a greeting or a reproach.
“Captain”, she answered, choosing to leave this pending.
Titus had to laugh bitterly.
“Why did you even take us?”, he asked. “It’s not as if you needed us.”
“Oh, I did need you”, she corrected him.
“Visual aid!” She grinned again when she saw his face. “Male Astartes, captain! You’re impossible!” She took a small step closer. “I also wanted you”, she said softly.
“All of us?”, Titus teased her, too annoyed with how things had gone to allow the pleasant shiver to run through his core.
Vox cocked her head, the smile dwindling a little.
“When have I been so hurtful that you should make this up to me?”, she scolded him and Titus actually took a step back.
“Mistress, forgive me.”
For a moment, she watched him in a calculative manner.
“Before we have another fight on our backs, I would like to point out that finding out new things about a person doesn’t change the person.”
“You mean, you’re still Vox and I’m still Titus?”, he inquired and had to smile sheepishly.
“I sincerely hope this to be the case, my captain”, she replied softly and offered a hand to him. By the way she held her fingers, he could see what she wanted to do and they linked their hands by the thumbs, encompassed them with the free left and lifted the coil of their fists to their foreheads for a moment.
What a beautiful gesture it was, Titus considered. Strong and gentle at the same time. He had to laugh for the joy and relief of this.
“So, you’re home then?”, he asked when they let go.
Vox smiled even more radiantly.
“Yes!”, she said with conviction.
“Amazing singing”, he added abashedly and this made her laugh. Titus wondered if he had ever heard her laugh like this. She had always been playful, impish, mischievous and sometimes insinuating but she had never been as happy as this.
“I missed the singing!”, she admitted. “And this song is part of one of the most epic stories I was ever privileged to witness!”
“I’d like to hear it”, Titus said, sinking the gaze of his grey eyes into hers.
“I have a few things to sort out”, she told him. “But I would like to send for you later. Is this alright with you?”
“I would be honoured!”
“Just honoured?”, she teased him.
“No”, he admitted and knew that he was blushing.
Her eyes never left his face.
“Good”, she said firmly. “See you then.”