They had missed the morning prayer and were further delayed by Vox going hungry again. Space Marines usually needed no food in the morning. Their armour provided them with nutrition. Since the purveyors of food in the fortress were accustomed to being asleep at this hour, this was complicated to remedy.
When they finally entered Celeste’s working chamber, they found the chapter mistress alone. Apparently an advocate of creative chaos, her desk was scattered with layers of paper. A scroll had rolled open a bit too far and interfered with the holographic projector in the middle of the table. The three dimensional star chart of the Jericho Reach it was displaying, had an ominous partition cut out of it.
Like Inquisitor Elaine, Celeste paid the artefact no heed unless she needed it. At the moment her reports had her full attention.
Seeing her leaned over her desk was like looking at a well-composed painting. This chamber probably had served all the mistresses before her as the centre from where to rule the chapter. She fitted into its colour scheme perfectly. The imperialis on her chest was taken up in the ornamentation on the wall, the crest on her shoulder was mirrored on all ten richly embroidered company banners. Table, chairs and cupboards were made of red wood, delicately inlaid with golden ornaments.
“Emperor’s light shine on you”, Celeste greeted them as she looked up from her papers. A benign smile lit up her eyes.
“May He guide your way”, Vox answered for them.
“I had an eventful night”, the mistress started with a whimsical tone to her words but lost her easy manner when she got nothing in response than a blank nod from Vox.
“I went through the reports and updated the current locations of our companies”, she informed them and rolled the unruly scroll up to show them the whole picture. “I will need to know whom to draw and whom to leave. Also, I wanted to talk to you about our engagement with the Deathwatch again. Do you have thoughts on how we can still meet that?”
“By going against the Codex”, Vox said without hesitation. “We will expand the chapter to over a thousand Astartes nominally. Since most of us will be away, this will not matter. Should enough of us make it back, we will stop recruiting for a while.”
Celeste shot both of them a glance.
“That’s a way I hadn’t considered”, she admitted. “You are expecting heavy resistance on your way to Terra then?”
“If we are taking more than one ship, we have to go at full strength.”
Suddenly, Celeste looked uncertain.
“So, taking us along is actually a burden?”
“No.” Vox shook her head emphatically. “Our chances to succeed have improved.” She fell silent and turned her attention to the star chart in which the positions of the fleet were marked with gentle glows. Celeste and Titus exchanged a careful glance.
Vox’s wings flicked slightly when she spoke next.
“We will use two rendezvous-points. One is close to Erioch about here” She pointed to the approximate middle of the slowly rotating picture. “And the second one is right at the Jericho Maw Warp Gate, somewhere here.” She pointed to an empty spot. “I will speak to the navigator for the exact coordinates.”
Celeste marked the spots she had pointed out.
“Can you give me a radius for them of no more than seventy days of travel?” Vox nodded curtly when Celeste complied and let her eyes search over the map. “Sixth on Jove’s Descent is too far out”, she said. “We don’t have time for them to rejoin”, she said, pointing at the concerning marker. “What are they doing?”
“Fighting Tyranids”, Celeste told her. “The Hive has arrived but we have established a relay point to communicate with them.”
“Then, they wouldn’t make it in time anyway.” The others nodded. No one engaged a warp jump from under the shadow of the Hive.
“Pull them out”, Vox ordered while Celeste made a few notes. “Check in with the Deathwatch if they have someone still down there and order exterminatus. They will rebuild the chapter and train the new recruits while 9th and 10th take over in the most urgent defence positions. Do we have enough armours?”
“Not yet but our main production site for armours is Vathor”, Celeste informed them. Titus had seen this name on a star chart once. It was a system close to Ynnen and, as far as he was aware, contained at least one penal world.
“When we had that chaos invasion fifty years ago, they were able to adjust their production within a few days”, the chapter mistress went on. “This means, of course, that there will be practically no artefact armours left for the chapter.”
“Until we have casualties”, Vox said evenly. “What is Fourth doing on Sora?”, she asked without segue.
“Also fighting Tyranids but the Hive Fleet hasn’t arrived yet”, Celeste managed to take up this change of direction.
“Same as with Sixth”, Vox decided. “Get them out of there before they are cut off, have them perform an exterminatus and send them to rendezvous one. Next is First.”
“First was sent to deal with an Ork infestation on Corred and has reported additional Eldar activity recently”, Celeste summarised.
“There are still Orks on Corred?”, Titus wanted to know.
“Yes, plenty”, Celeste confirmed. “They’re having a Whaaag.”
“Strange”, he said quietly. “We’ve been to Corred and thought we killed their warboss. The situation had started to stabilise before we left.”
“Then, they found a new warboss”, Celeste said with a shrug. “Happens sometimes. I sent First to make sure they get crushed fast.”
Vox said nothing, just threw Titus a glance. He had been standing quite close to her. On this signal, he stepped aside. She had informed him beforehand that he would interfere when she wanted to glimpse the future.
From the outside, there was little to see. A soft shimmer like daylight wandered over the white feathers of her wings. Then, she was back.
“We’ll need to go in to pull them out”, she declared. “I can’t see the details clearly yet but there will be too many losses if they disengage on their own. So, our first stop is on Corred. Next. Seventh on Implicit.”
“There is a company on Implicit?”, Titus interrupted again. “Since when?”
Celeste shot him an amused glance.
“Since Vox contacted me about military help for the loyalists there a few months ago.”
“Is this relevant?”, Vox asked irritably. Titus stared at her and realised that she had no memory of what had happened on Implicit. So, this was what she had been able to do. After his failure to keep Makkar alive, she had called upon her chapter to unmake this mistake and save the planet that might otherwise have fallen to the xenos. His renewed gratitude and devotion knew no bounds until they crumbled under the crushing despair that Vox did not remember. By the sound of her just now she did not even care about this anymore.
“It is relevant for me”, he said quietly. “Maybe we can talk about it later.”
“What’s their status?”, Vox asked after a brief nod.
“They are sweeping up the last Tau forces. My reports indicate that they are practically ready to move.”
“Draw them to rendezvous one as soon as possible”, Vox ordered.
“Understood”, Celeste nodded and continued to write down what she had to do.
“Fifth on Teliph”, Vox continued. “Tyranids?”
“Genestealers”, Celeste informed her.
“It’s too close to Erioch to leave it”, Vox said quietly. She took a deeper dive into the future this time. The air wavered around her and her hair moved slightly as if blown by an unfelt wind.
“We’ll go in there too”, she said absently, her eyes still fixed on things only she could see. She shook herself. “I’ll need to check the details later. After that, we’ll rendezvous with Fourth and travel to Erioch. I don’t want discussions about secret warp points so, we’ll take only the ‘Primarch’s Bride’ in…” She stopped and looked up. “How very fitting our flagship has been named. I only now realise it.”
Celeste grinned but this faded when Vox turned back to the matter at once.
“Erioch will not take us long”, the angel declared and moved on to the next company: “Second on Oertha.”
“Tau”, Celeste provided curtly.
“Titus, isn’t there a watch station there?”, Vox asked, trying hard to remember these details.
“Yes”, he supplied. They had gotten help from this watch station on Oertha when they had been stranded on the Ghost. He got worried when he realised that his Deathwatch hypno-conditioning provided this information. If she had lost access to that as well…
Vox’s frown interrupted his train of thought.
“Can you magnify this?” She asked Celeste and pointed at something next to Oertha. The picture zoomed in until the moons of Oertha became visible.
“There”, Vox whispered. “This one.” She poked her finger into the image of the smallest of the satellites as if to check its solidity. “We’ll have to postpone Erioch…”, she breathed in sudden dread. Rapidly blinking, she tried to shake the trance that had befallen her without warning.
“Let me think”, Vox said hastily. “Where are we? We just fetched Fifth… No, we’ll have to postpone Fifth as well… The Tau are doing something here, I can’t see it clearly yet. We need to deal with them or we’ll lose Second all together…” It dawned on Titus that something was going wrong. Her eyes flitted through the room without finding something to rest on and she leaned on the table for support. When her fists began to curl, Titus returned to her side and laid a gauntleted hand on her shoulder. Only then did she manage to catch herself. A few deep breaths later, she patted his fingers to remove them.
Celeste watched this silent dance concernedly.
“Very well”, Vox said. “What did I say?”
“We’ll leave Sixth behind to rebuild the chapter, order exterminatus for Fourth and draw them from Sora, draw Seventh from Implicit and fetch First from Corred. Then we’ll make haste to Oertha to get Second out. Afterwards, we’ll fetch Fifth from Teliph and travel to Erioch”, Titus recounted with patient attentiveness.
Vox Sanguinius nodded and focused on the map again.
“That leaves only Eighth, because Third is here, right?”
“Yes”, Celeste and Titus answered in unison.
Vox’s blue eyes searched the stars for the appropriate marker.
“They are on Rheelas. Wait a minute”, she said and narrowed her eyes in concentration. “I think these three systems have been put under quarantine by the Imperium.”
“Why?”, Celeste wanted to know.
“I forgot”, Vox answered curtly. “What is Eighth doing there anyway?”
“Fighting Tau”, the chapter mistress supplied.
“Then maybe because of Tau”, Vox reasoned. “Getting them out of the quarantine might pose a problem. We’ll need Ferone for that. We’ll negotiate for Eighth to get out when we reach Erioch and draw them to rendezvous two.”
Celeste went through her notes again.
“May I suggest that we fetch second first, then travel to Erioch, then to Teliph and then to Corred?”, she said. “Because if Second is on a schedule in any case, it’ll be shorter to start there.”
Vox rubbed her face and made an effort to focus again.
“Yes”, she finally decided. “Second, Erioch, Fifth, First.”
“Also known as Tau, politics, Tyranids, Orcs”, Titus provided.
“Oh dear, I dread Erioch already”, Celeste commented flatly.
“You’ll like Ferone”, he promised.
“Anything else?”, Vox interrupted them.
Celeste thought for a moment.
“Is there anyone I shouldn’t leave behind?”
“Saphane and… What was the name of our Mistress of the Forge again?”
“Jebilla…?”, Celeste provided with an uncertain glance to Titus, who nodded surreptitiously. That Vox still knew any names was an inestimable achievement.
“Yes, that one”, the angel confirmed. “Don’t leave her. All our librarians will stay here. They must sort out this mess with our priests and handle the data transfer as soon as we have established contact to Erioch. Anything else you need?”
Celeste shook her head.
“Can I reach you if I have further questions?”
“I’ll be in the library today”, she said absent-mindedly and straightened up as she took a step back from the table. “Just contact Titus.”
“Can I follow you in a moment?”, Titus asked on cue.
“If you find the way.”
“I will”, he promised.
Vox nodded and left without another word while Celeste and Titus read worry of the other in their eyes. They both sagged with a deep sigh when the door fell shut. Titus found himself rubbing his face for a moment. When he met Celeste’s gaze again, he saw his own concern mirrored there.
“She’s hardly herself anymore”, the Chapter Mistress said leadenly.
Titus shook his head.
“No”, he disagreed. “The problem is that Vox is herself. But herself after two- or three-hundred years of being alone.”
“What about Sanguinius?”, Celeste asked. “Vox said, she carries him. Can’t he help?”
Titus looked around uncomfortably and tried to avoid mentioning that Sanguinius was a major part of the problem.
“I don’t know the whole story”, he started to stay truthful. “But as far as I understood it, Sanguinius is ten times worse off than Vox. He has spent even longer in the warp and not even he has emerged untouched. The two of them are not a good mix.”
“What should we do?”
The right hand of Vox Sanguinius shrugged helplessly and was surprised when gauntleted fingers landed on his.
Softness crept into Celeste’s eyes as she said: “Then let’s remember for her.”
“Yes”, Titus agreed and managed to return her gentle smile. He pressed Celeste’s hand for a moment and they let go again. In the pause, the matter of Implicit came back to him.
“Say”, he inquired. “Did Vox contact you at any other time except on Implicit while she was away?”
“No”, Celeste replied and stroked a strand of her long hair back. “Before she left she insisted that I won’t reach out to her and that she only contacted me in dire circumstances. The cards had told her that anything else would be too dangerous. What happened on Implicit?”, she inquired. “You were surprised when you heard about Seventh.”
“Yes, we were on Implicit to investigate the Tau sympathies there”, he told her. “But we were rather late and couldn’t prevent the civil war anymore. I have to admit significant failings on my part.”
“I’m curious if you are willing to tell me.”
Titus smiled weakly.
“I let a man die who knew the people we would have needed to get rid of. Vox said I shouldn’t blame myself for this but…”
Celeste laughed her pleasant, deep laugh.
“Vox always says things like this”, she said. “You can screw up as hard as you like and she still blames it on the divine plan and then she goes and works miracles… Well”, she continued in sudden despondence. “She used to.”
“I’m sure we’ll see a few more miracles from her”, Titus said darkly.
They both stood and nodded at nothing for a moment.
“Vox read the future just now, didn’t she?”, Celeste asked.
“Yes”, Titus confirmed. “Sanguinius was a diviner too and he was powerful enough to do it without the tarot.”
“What happened when she talked about Oertha? Did she get lost in the visions? You pulled her out.”
“Um. Yes. How…?”
An amused smile met his surprised glance.
“She mentioned that you are a spot of calm and I wondered how that worked.”
“I admire your way of communication.”
Celeste’s smile slowly drained from her face.
“I suspect that will decline now…”, she said quietly. When she returned her musings to the presence, she straightened up. “Aegis, how did she get so cold?”, she asked.
Titus thought his answer through before he gave it.
“She told me”, he finally started. “That you sometimes referred to her as a sword sheathed in velvet.”
“Yes”, Celeste confirmed.
“Well”, he said slowly. “She has been drawn.”
They were interrupted in the profound pause that followed by Saphane stepping into the chamber.
“Am I intruding?”, the first chaplain asked, concernedly looking from one to the other.
“No”, Titus answered with a short smile. “I was just about to leave.”
“Aegis”, Saphane stopped him by stepping in his way. Her golden ringlets flowed over her crimson armour and tangled in one of the oath scrolls that were sealed to her shoulder guard. “I was hoping to find my lady Vox here. She hasn’t come to confess since she has returned. After her long absence and her contact with the warp, I am concerned about this.”
“I will remind her”, Titus promised.
“I know well that this is all you can do, Aegis”, Saphane said with a quick bow. “The Emperor himself may command His saints. It is not up to us.”
With a nod to the women, Titus left.