When silence fell, Titus found himself a bit further down the path.He was unable to ascertain whether it was deeper in or further out. He still held his weapons and dimly remembered attacking something but the memory was distorted. He was even uncertain if it was his. If it was his, it might have been an old memory, not a recent one.
He tried to orient himself and swayed in inexplicable dizziness. The fire had gone. Slowly, his senses and then his movements stabilised. He had the vague recollection that Vox was standing somewhere behind him. A bit to the left.
Under the marvel of what he saw, the consideration of kneeling trickled through his mind but he was unable to persuade his knees to bend.
Vox was naked and bleeding in a dozen places but her skin glowed as if illuminated by morning light. Her golden hair framed her face in a mysterious golden shimmer. Steam rose from her skin after the heat of the fight and her eyes glowed like a whole summer’s day over Terra.
The most noteworthy thing, however, were the giant, white wings.
Titus stared at them. He had seen them so often. Nothing more than a suggestion in the air when she had reached into the warp. Now, they had taken form and matter. They even moved with her breathing.
Both their breath condensed in the cold air of the cave, visible in the strange half-light the walls reflected. Vox stared at him and looked almost as bewildered as he was. Searching for words she moved the wings uncertainly.
“What are you doing here?”, she finally managed.
Titus recoiled from her accusing tone.
“All the sanguine blooded collapsed outside”, he explained. “I came to find you.”
Suddenly, her breath was heavy. She swallowed and closed her eyes.
“How long was I in here?”, she asked in leaden tones.
“About six hours”, he answered and the suspicion arose that it might have felt longer for her.
When Vox opened her eyes, her gaze lost itself in infinity but she said nothing else. Titus was confused about this behaviour and took a step towards her. His hand already reached out when Vox suddenly focussed and pointed her sword at him.
It happened with an incredibly calm movement and her expression was that of an eclipse darkening the clear sky.
The wings framing her in a tense arch, her demeanour was suddenly colder than the air around them.
Titus stopped dead and tried to swallow the hearts leaping into his throat. If she attacked him, he had to kill her. She had been exposed to the warp. She had come back changed. The flames around them had been tinted red like the blood of an Astartes. This had never happened before. His breath grew flat as he searched for a sign. Something about her. An expression in her eyes. Anything that would tell him that she was still Vox.
His bewilderment increased when she dropped the sword between them.
“You have come after me, bailsman”, she said icily. “So, here is your only chance. If I leave this cave, I will commit heresy against the Emperor. But here and now I will not defend myself. Judge me!”
“What?”, he managed.
“The Emperor is dying”, she said and folded her wings with a jerky movement. “He has been for millennia but he nears his true end.”
“Sanguinius told you this?”, was all Titus could conjure up.
“He showed me”, Vox confirmed. “The light flickers and dwindles and it will die soon. He is about to leave us.”
Titus stood transfixed. It was like being hit with the hammer he had seen coming all his life. The blow was all the worse because it had taken so long to arrive. He had been aware that the Emperor was entombed on the Golden Throne. He had never thought about what this entailed.
His thoughts twisted most unpleasantly at this point. The Emperor was their god. He was eternal and immortal. Saying something like this alone… Was it heresy or had it gone beyond? Was it heresy that he believed her?
Because he did believe her.
Titus felt like plunging back into the darkness. In a detached sort of way he realised that he had to kill her. She had been touched by the warp. She had returned changed. But if he killed her and the Emperor died…
It was impossible to move. He could tell himself about his duty all he liked. He could tell himself that the day had come as much as he wished. Clipped securely to his belt, his weapons were out of reach.
Titus started to shake under the strain of his duty. He was made to know no fear in the face of death. He already knew that he would find a way to die honourable as soon as he had ended her life. Not the fear held him back. Still hardly able to breathe, he realised that it was a higher duty that bound his hands.
Titus was a Space Marine. One of the Emperor’s chosen warriors. He had been made to protect humanity. If the Emperor was about to die, he had to do everything in his power to prevent this. Humanity without the Emperor was simply unthinkable.
He scraped together what he found of his composure.
“And you are not telling me this for my information but because you know what to do about it, yes?”, he croaked.
Subconsciously the two warriors had synchronised their breaths and a few more clouds condensed in the frigid air before Vox cautiously said: “There is a chance to pull Him back.”
He knew her so well, it made him ache. These nuances of speech. He had learned them by hearts.
“You didn’t say ‘save Him’.”
“I didn’t because He wants to leave”, Vox said and bitterness bloomed in her features.
“No!”, Titus burst out and even as he said it, he knew it was just something he wanted to believe. Vox averted her gaze. There was something in the way she turned her head. The unfathomable agony about the truth she had come back to tell suddenly radiated out from her and it cut into Titus’ hearts like knives.
“How long were you gone?”, he demanded. He needed to know how long she had carried this certainty already.
“I don’t know”, she murmured and slung her arms around herself. “A couple of centuries? How old was I?”
“Not yet three-hundred”, Titus replied mechanically, unable to cope with the information.
“About that again, I reckon.”
This hit him even harder. He had seen what conclusions she had come to in the lifetime he had known her in. Vox had always struggled to be the best version of herself. If she had found errors on her behalf, she had owned up to them and tried to correct them. Vox had always struggled.
And now, she stood there and he could see it even in her averted eyes: She had struggled for another lifetime. Probably harder than he did right now because she had seen and felt the full extent of what she had only told him. He could still afford to deny her words, for her the facts were unbearably solid.
“Captain, I will commit heresy”, she whispered. “I will try and remake him even though he doesn’t want me to.”
Titus took a shaky breath.
“Why would He want to die?”
Vox closed her eyes and lifted a hand to hide the tear that rolled over her cheek. There were several deep breaths necessary before she regained enough control over her voice to tell him: “Because, in his core, he has turned out to be human. He can’t stand the pain anymore. The pain of all the worlds. The pain of thousands dying to keep him just this side of death but humanity will be lost without him.”
“And how in all these worlds will you stop Him?”
She hardly hesitated but Titus saw that her fingers started to claw into her upper arms.
“I was successful, captain”, she said and stretched one wing in his direction for a moment. “I brought back Sanguinius. He is with me now and he is an exceptionally strong diviner. Far stronger than I am. With his help I can see times and places where fate might be tweaked and the future may be altered. There is a way.”
‘Do you trust me enough to let me take over?’, she had asked him on Implicit. As this memory rose inside him, it seemed lifetimes away but he realised that it was the same. When she had dropped her sword, she had given him power over herself. She had handed him the responsibility and Titus knew that he was duty bound to take it up even if it should crush him under its weight. He had come for her. She had asked his judgement. There was no going back from here. Either they ended their path here and with this cut off the chances humanity had among the stars or… They did their duty and did everything they could to prevent this.
Even though the inquisitor had shaken his faith, he had never managed to cloud Titus’ vision for his duty.
So, he took it up. He was her bailsman. He was her judge and her executioner should the need arise. Titus tensed his jaw and looked at her intently. However beautiful they were and however much they hinted at Sanguinius’ influence, these wings were warp mutations and he had never seen her use blood-red flames before.
Never averting the gaze of his grey eyes, Titus removed his gauntlet. When he was finished, he held his bare hand out to Vox.
“Show me the details”, he demanded.