They climbed on and on through the cold winter’s air. Twenty-two Astartes treading the path that was in parts narrow for humans and sometimes broad enough that they could walk two abreast. The sky was of a bright, slightly purple blue and the sun made the drifts of snow around them blindingly bright.
It took more than two hours to reach the cave and when they did, Titus could see nothing special about it. It was just a big hole in the rock. Large enough for three of them to enter side by side with a plateau in front of it. Since Vox had mentioned daemons, he started assessing the defence positions as soon as they arrived and only after a few seconds noticed that everyone else seemed to know what was special about the cave. The two other librarians especially looked more than uncomfortable.
“You’re not going in alone?”, Corven asked, the concern in his face rippling the scars around his eye.
Vox did not answer, Helena did.
“Tradition demands that the cave be entered alone”, his guide informed him.
“Yeah. Great tradition you have there”, the epistolary growled rudely and insistent: “I’m going in with you!”
Again, Vox refrained from replying. Instead she looked at Corven with a soft, benevolent expression. Titus had never seen the grey wolf shrink back like that.
“At least take Captain Rocky with you!”, the rune priest demanded desperately.
Vox shook her head.
“I am here to find our Primarch”, she said. “You are here to hold the line if something goes wrong. That’s the deal. I leave Titus in charge and pray to the Emperor that we’ll meet again soon. Goodbye.” She nodded at all of them. On Titus her eyes lingered a heartbeat longer. Then she turned and went into the cave.
Titus busied himself and the others with organising the defence. With twenty Space Marines under his command in this terrain, he could hold off all of hell if it came to it. Hoping that it would not come to this, he took his time to assess the skills and capabilities of the Wings of War. He learned that they matched their male counterparts very closely. Champion Curia had chosen excessively well in this respect. Only Xavor and his guide Arhia wielded different weapons and Helena commanded different powers in battle than Corven. Since the flames she was able to summon were similar to her Mistress’s power, Titus filed this as a known factor nevertheless. After this, he positioned them at strategic positions around the plateau and the waiting began.
All of them showed keen discipline. Even Xavor kept his mouth shut. Somehow, this was annoying. Titus even felt a bit hung out to dry but there was nothing for it. As captain, he was the last who could let the sides down by cracking a few jokes.
The dusk already crept into the sky when it happened. Titus felt nothing but the group around him gave a unanimous groan. A moment later, half of them toppled over without further warning.
“What the hell?”, Xavor exclaimed, catching Arhia as she collapsed. The others just dropped unceremoniously while the remaining warriors aimed their bolters at the cave entrance.
“Corven, what did you feel?”, Titus demanded in a calm voice.
“Just a wave of… something”, the remaining librarian replied. “It stung a bit, nothing more!”
“Why are they dropping like flies?”, Xavor asked, guiding his guide gently to the ground.
Titus looked around. All who remained standing wore black power armour but among the fallen lay Dankwart and Ignatius.
“They’re all Blood Angels”, Titus growled. “Something happened to Vox. Grimfang?”
“You’re in charge. Stay here, I’m going in there.”
Before they could protest, he had already reached the entrance and when Corven raised his voice to call him back, only a few distorted echoes reached him.
Titus’ geological knowledge was quite limited and extended only as far as ‘the rock is of a brownish red colour’ but he was very sure that the dwindling light outside should not have reached as far as he went now. He did not get the impression that the cave itself was glowing. It just reflected the light oddly and his gene-hanced dark vision enabled him to see quite clearly.
Unfortunately, there was nothing to see. To tell by the time that had passed, Vox had probably gone in deep.
The cave twisted, widened and shrank as he walked down the path, bolter at the ready. When the whispers started, Titus heard them as if they were screaming through a wall and when the visions started, he only saw them from far off. His head was full of Vox and his desire to find her. Therefore it should not have confused him that he saw shadows and pictures of her all around. They came as a surprise nevertheless. Once or twice there seemed to be a figure there. It turned and reached its arms out but he could see the deceit clear by then. When it happened for the third time he shot it.
The sound of the bolter going off was unpleasantly harsh. As if the sound lashed back into his body. It echoed on and on for a long time. The figure flickered and winked out but after this, the whole scenery turned hostile. Telling himself that he was resistant, that they could not reach him, Titus went on but his certainty began to crack. Under the violent onslaught around him, even his defences would waver sooner or later.
He picked up his pace, only hoping that the cave would not bifurcate. It had gotten quite dark now.
When he found her, he thought she was only a mirage again. He approached cautiously but contrary to everything else, the figure on the ground seemed more solid. In a strange way more so than the rock.
She lay half on her side, her head turned away from him, her golden hair curling around her head like a corona. A kind of red and golden cloth covered her body without managing to conceal her shape. It looked like her armour had melted over her.
The shadows and whispers started pressing in on him when he knelt down beside her. Had they been distant threats before, now he felt them. They clawed into his mind and senses and under their onslaught it was impossible to detect if Vox was breathing. It got worse when he reached out a hand to touch her. Violent images left their white, screaming streaks across his mind as if his whole life of war had come to haunt him all at once. He had been victorious every time but suddenly the defeated raised their voices and their fists.
He mobilised all his power of will to push his hand towards her. The last centimetres took aeons to conquer. Every fibre of his being screamed with the agony of resistance against the forces that wanted to push him back.
His hand connected.
The red fabric burst open like a film of strange fluid, running away from his fingers like quicksilver but hovered in a circle as if waiting to engulf her again. Titus had to rest for a few seconds, his mind and body still tensed against the unbelievably strong onslaught of the strange forces. With dwindling strength and nothing here to shoot at anyway, he put his bolter away to get both his hands free. He pushed them under Vox’s neck and legs and wherever he touched her, the red matter retreated. It boiled at the edges as if enraged that it was driven off. He called up all the strength he had left and lifted her out of the puddle of foaming red.
“Vox”, he called out to her. Her face was still and pale when her head fell into the crook of his arm. He wanted to stand up but could not manage it. It was as if something still connected her to the ground. Through a slowly rising, red haze in front of his eyes he tried to think but the only thing he could dimly remember was that skin contact had been important. So, he leaned down to her face and gently touched his forehead to hers. Suddenly, she tensed.
Titus almost lost his grip on her but her hand came around, clawing into his neck and she pulled herself up to him, clinging to the patches of his skin she could reach.
Her movement seemed to spin the world into action. It began a violent dance around them. For the first couple of seconds, Titus thought they were in the eye of the storm. An area of calm around them but then he realised that Vox was squirming in pain. She had not screamed yet but her blood spilled over him when her skin was ripped open by invisible claws. He renewed his efforts to stand up and she clung to him, pressing her twisting body against his face.
From the corner of his eyes, he could see the shadows around them. No longer interested in him, they attacked the naked psyker instead.
Desperately, Titus turned his face upwards and their eyes met for a moment.
Suddenly, Vox pushed away from him. For a moment his arms locked around her until he realised that he was about to hold her down again.
He released his grip.
The cave exploded into red fire.
Not even he was able to stand the heat of it and he was forced to retreat. If to the entrance or deeper inside he was unable to tell. Vox’s silhouette was only just visible in the inferno. A blinding, burning epiphany that scooped up a sword from the dark-red puddle on the floor. While he drew bolter and sword to stand ready, she took up the fight against things unseen and untouchable for him. Wild forces swirled. They pulled at him as if running figures passed him by in devastating playfulness. A noise cut through the air as if Vox’s blade sliced it into thin layers of alternate realities. Something started to dig into his skin, regardless of the armour being in the way. His joints began to burn under the strain of movement suppressed.
And then, his memory broke off.