She had watched him take off the gauntlet with a strangely blank concern in her face. Now, bewilderment rounded her eyes before a steep crease of fury between her brows heralded her understanding of what he offered.
“Captain!”, she exclaimed. “You must be the most incompetent, reckless bailsman of all times! I am capable to reduce your brain to putty! How can you expose yourself like this?”
She stopped when a bitter smile crept into his features.
“Believe me, my angel”, Titus said. “I’d have shot you had you so much as leaned forward.”
They were still standing several paces apart. Titus could have had his bolter up and rounds flying before she had reached him.
A breathless moment went by.
“Damn it all”, she finally gasped and suddenly everything unfamiliar fell away. What was left was Vox retreating to the icy wall where she slipped to the freezing ground.
“I’ve been here for aeons”, she said. “And suddenly you show up and… haven’t changed at all!”
“I told you, you were gone for a few hours.”
She stared at him resentfully.
“Yes and time in the warp isn’t a fucked up, twisted bitch at all!”
Seamlessly Vox curled up. She slung her arms around herself and her wings came around to transform her into a soft, white huddle on the floor that glowed in the shadows of the cave as if illuminated by morning light.
Titus walked over to her. Gently, he touched her neck with his bare hand and stroked over what he could reach of her back.
When she lifted her face to him, he thought he had to break under the pain in her eyes. Silent tears ran over her cheeks and as if their sheen reflected what he needed to see, he became irrevocably sure that she was Vox.
“This is too big”, she whispered when he reached out to stroke some of them away. “Sanguinius screams into my ears what I should do but this is too big for me alone… I can’t… And I can’t not! Acting is unforgivable. Not acting just as much! Captain, what should I do?”
Titus felt like melting inside. She asked his counsel. There were no words to give expression to the honour and gratitude flowing into him.
He had by no means shrugged off what she had told him. He had hardly fathomed the magnitude of it but the certainty inside him solidified: She was Vox.
She was the woman who worked every day to remember what it was all about. Who made the world around her move to her convictions and who re-examined her beliefs until they withstood her own judgement. She was Vox.
And for Vox, his trusted adviser in questions of general craziness, his beloved friend and admired lover, he had a simple answer to this question: “Call me by name.”
“Come on. Say my name. Pull me close.”
Her blue eyes stared up at him and he could see the turmoil in her mind dancing over her face. It took her a long time to draw the breath that finally carried the two syllables: “Titus.”
The whisper seemed to drag her across the threshold back into the world. She reached out for him and pulled herself up to press her face against his. He let it happen, stealing a kiss from her lips before she drew back.
“Damn, your armour is cold!”, she said and wrapped herself into the wings again as she drew back. Only now did it dawn on Titus that Astartes might be able to survive in space but nobody had ever said that about naked, not hibernating ones.
“What happened to yours?”, he asked. They looked down at the strange red and golden pattern on the ground from where he had lifted her up. With a lot of imagination, they could still make out the rough shape of the armour and the molten insignia that had adorned her right shoulder piece. Her deck of cards lay untouched right in the middle of the patch.
“I’m not sure.” She shrugged and her wings moved too.
“You said it was attuned to you. Why are the sword and the cards untouched?” He looked at her and when she shrugged again, he made a decision. This was not important right now.
“Alright”, he said. “I’ll file that under ‘warp’s a fucked up twisted bitch’ as well. Let’s get you out of here and then we will sort this out.”
She nodded uncertainly and collected cards and sword.
Meanwhile, Titus busied himself by ripping the ceremonial loincloth from his armour. When his inexpert attempt to tie it to her failed, she handed him the cards and sword and took the two pieces of cloth from him in return. With one of them knotted around her hips, she stared helplessly at the other for a moment. Then, she handed it back.
“Wrap Soon in it”, she said. “You shouldn’t touch it directly for too long and I would like you to carry it.”
Titus lifted his eyebrows.
“It finally told you its name?”
“When I took it up just now.”
“At least now I understand why it laughed when you told it that it would get to kill things soon.”
Vox gave him an insecure look.
He sighed and put the deck of cards into one of his belt-pockets to get his hands free.
“Yes, it did.”
When he met her gaze, she suddenly smiled. Titus was relieved to see it, even though the smile was quite a bit on the desperate side.
“Did I mention that you being covered in blood doesn’t make things easier right now?”, she asked.
He laughed. Even the worst joke would have made him laugh, just to lose some of the crazy tension that had built up inside him.
“It’s your blood”, was all he could find to say while he finished wrapping the sword into the cloth.
She looked down bashfully.
“It’s much more tempting on you”, she mumbled and then her smile dwindled. “It’s so strange having a body again”, she said and let her hands wander over it. “Why does everything hurt, Titus? What happened to me?”
He stared at her in bewildered concern. He knew about the wounds she had suffered. That they were still painful had not occurred to him.
“Um… Long story, I’m afraid.”
Vox hardly seemed to notice the response. Instead her wings moved as if to explore the space around her.
“I’m cold”, she stated then. “And hungry.”
That had not crossed his mind either. Among a lot of other things their armours provided them with nutrition in the field.
“Come on. Let’s move”, he urged her.
“Yes. Let us get outside and see which millennium it is. Maybe we don’t have to bother about the Emperor after all.”
“Could that happen?”
“With you as anchor probably not”, she said flatly.
Titus engaged his com.
“Aegis, Gladius, come in!” There was only static on all frequencies. “Probably the crystals in the rock”, he mused. “Let me go first in case someone is trigger-happy.”
“Oh, I remember. We left them outside in case of daemons, yes?”, she inquired.
“Well… None of us could foresee what would come out of this cave…”
The dispassion in her voice worried Titus but at least they moved now. His memory was worryingly unclear about the length of his way in. The journey back was very short in turn.
It had gotten light outside already. He called out to their comrades when they reached the entrance and Grimfang answered him. When he stepped into view without anyone shooting, he deemed this a good start but when he saw the traces of a battle all around, he estimated that maybe, nobody was able to shoot anymore. There were chips in the stone, bolter-shells everywhere, burn marks from explosives and blood on the ground. Their twenty warriors all stood, hefting their melee weapons and there was none of them unscratched but at least everybody was alive and upright.
“Where’s Vox?”, Corven growled, gripping his axe grimly but Titus saw immediately that he would not have to answer this question.
Vox had stepped into view behind him.
Partly staring, partly averting their gazes, the sanguine blooded sank to one knee in silent worship.
Only Dankwart dared to raise his voice: “Mistress, you are hurt.”
“First and foremost I’m cold”, Vox replied. She had stretched her wings for the moment she stepped out of the cave and a harsh wind pulled at her feathers. “Now, rise all of you”, she ordered impatiently and let her gaze fleet over all the astonished faces.
When she looked at Xavor, he spoke.
“Vox?”, he exclaimed.
“You’re a girl.”
Everyone turned their stares around to him.
“Yes”, Vox said slowly and folded one wing to shield her from the wind. “A woman actually. Hence the term ‘Mistress of Secrets’.”
“I was wondering about that”, the young Space Wolf said and turned to Grimfang. “You a woman too?!”, he asked.
The sergeant needed a moment before he managed to point at his face.
“Beard”, he said in his defence.
Now, all of them turned to Dankwart and Ignatius who were somewhat lacking in facial hair. The sanguinary priests exchanged a short glance. Both lifted their narthecium and started to extend something at the end of it but before it even became apparent what it was, the multitude of warriors loudly and unanimously declared that they could stop now and that their gender would not be questioned further.
“I will meet you in the village”, Vox informed them when they had sorted this out and started to turn but Xavor ran after her to hold her back. She raised an affronted stare to him when he grabbed her by the wing. Bravely unabashed, the black haired Space Wolf pulled the wolf pelt from his shoulders to give it to her. Surprise drove away the disapproval in her features as she took it with stiff fingers. Corven came to them and donated his own, fur-lined cloak. Together they managed to tie the things to her.
This accomplished, Vox turned without further ado and let herself drop over the edge of the cliff. They all rushed to the edge to stare at her as she glided down the side of the mountain.
“Somehow, I feel I should have seen that coming”, Titus mused. “Move, people!”, the captain commanded a heartbeat later and pulled himself together. It was important to be real again. “What’s the time?”
“About nine-hundred local”, Grimfang informed him. “Sun’s risen half an hour ago.”
Titus nodded and led the way down. He ordered the sergeant to his side to hear his report.
The unconscious Blood Angels had awoken only a few minutes after Titus had gone into the cave. Being at full strength again had been to their luck because daemons of all kinds had started to spill out shortly afterwards. There had been so many that they had gotten stuck in the entrance from time to time, giving them short periods of respite in which to coordinate themselves. Even though he did neither boast nor emphasise on it, Titus’ expert ear easily picked up on the tactical finesse and farsightedness Grimfang had displayed in the fight. He had split his troops and made one half rest while the other fought. The chosen cycles of exchange had been rational and very well coordinated. This way, they had managed to stand through the roughly fifteen hours the night had lasted. Considering that they had soon run out of ammo and explosives but endured the fight without casualties was remarkable. Their four apothecaries had certainly contributed to this extraordinary success but Grimfang gave a short recap of the achievements of each of them without envy or ever touching on his own accomplishments. Titus saw them woven into the report nevertheless. Careful questioning unearthed that the Space Wolf had been about to switch from two to three shifts to get longer resting phases for his warriors when the stream of enemies had subsided. There was a lot more careful questioning necessary to reveal that Curia had urged to return to the fortress for reinforcements and that most of the warriors had supported her. When it dawned on Titus that Grimfang had not budged against this force of persuasion for the simple, stubborn fact that his captain had told him to stay there, he was impressed. For the first time, he was able to appreciate the man’s skills in battle and acknowledge his unyielding loyalty. Whatever he had thought of him before, he had to admit that Vox had made a good choice in her friend.
After the captain was brought up to speed to his own satisfaction, Corven tried to get out of him what had happened in the cave. Titus, however, knew restricted knowledge when he gained it and kept the rune priest at bay with all the insignificant details he could remember. For once, the set was not complete, he felt.
They were spotted by the villagers long before they reached the valley and a jittery, restless detachment of them met them a bit up the path. There was a lot more bowing and scraping than yesterday. The word ‘angel’ swirled in the confusion of accents, even though the leader pronounced it ‘ahnchel’. Titus could imagine what Vox landing in the middle of the village had caused among the population.
When they approached, she was sitting next to a bonfire in the middle of the small village square. She was clothed in an unorthodox assortment of cloth and furs. Two women were busy braiding her hair, artfully weaving pearls into it while she stared at nothing and chewed on a piece of meat.
A cluster of children were hiding behind one of the tents and jostled for space to catch a glimpse of the woman who had been so approachable only yesterday.
One of the little girls lifted her face to Titus as he passed them by and he stopped when he saw the tears streaming down her face. It was a strange picture. Her eyes were wide but other than that, only the running droplets spoke of her distress.
When the captain stopped to kneel down for a moment, the children fell silent and backed away.
“What is it, little one?”, he asked softly and extended one hand but the girl turned and fled. Not very sure of their position in any case, most of the others followed her. Only two of them kept their stubborn stations, eyeing the giant warrior with defiant interest.
The distress of the child had a strange resonance inside Titus and when he stood up, it felt like he had to lift a lot of weight on his shoulders. As his gaze wandered over to Vox, he realised that he needed no explanation why anyone would shed tears when they saw her. The angel by the fire radiated a kind of exhausted sorrow that seemed to echo through every sharp edged snowflake around her.
While he approached, the women had finished tending to Vox’s hair and withdrew respectfully. Absentmindedly she handed the wolf pelt and cloak back to their owners. Titus’ loincloth stayed hidden for now.
She bade the tribespeople farewell in simple, short words. Then, the Astartes followed her back to the thunderhawk in a disturbingly silent guard of honour.