It took the remaining time of their day to change the colour of Titus’ armour. Tiberius had waited for him in the mechanicum and helped him with it. The brother did not aspire to call himself the best artificer available but Titus was glad of his guiding hand. His calm certainty in performing the proper rites for the Omnissiah made the whole occasion less solemn than enjoyable. Piece by piece they took the blue and golden armour plates off and changed their colour.
The last and most notable change was the removal of the captain’s insignia from his shoulder guard. Tiberius levered the skull, the laurels and the central badge off the plate. Afterwards, he turned to a machine that helped him to get a smooth surface.
Amidst the drying pieces of his armour, Titus picked up the badge and looked thoughtfully at it. It showed the crest of the Ultramarines. A white upside-down omega in a blue field. A bit smaller than the palm of his hand. Round, plain, unspectacular. Just a thing. A little additive to the ornamentation to tell of the glory he had earned. It had gotten a bit chipped by the removal.
He remembered the day that had made him a captain and regarded the pictures of his mentor falling beside him in a detached sort of way. How far he had come since then. The bloody steps of this massacre marking his way, staining his soul, weighing him down. Regarding this token of honour now, Titus had no excitement about laying down his rank left. Behind stayed the nagging feeling that, maybe, he had not been ready in any case. Maybe, it was good that it had ended back there with Thrax’s arrival. His errors on Graia amended at least.
When he drew a deep breath and looked around, he spotted Tiberius watching him. Abruptly he put the badge down. One corner of the techmarine’s mouth twitched slightly. Was that amusement?
“Do you want to keep it?”, Tiberius asked, coming over to him.
“No…”, he answered hastily. “It’s just a thing…”
Tiberius looked at him in a calculative manner and picked the badge up. He must have seen something in Titus’ face as he did so because he smiled and turned to the breastplate that lay ready on the bench. With measured gestures and words, he intoned a short ritual that left the badge secured to the inside of the plate, facing inwards.
“Right over the hearts, brother”, the techmarine said and gave Titus a gentle thump to the chest. It was a gesture of playful familiarity he had not expected from the rigorous, conscientious man and it dawned on him that Tiberius might not be as withdrawn to an equal as he had been to the superior.
“Thank you, brother”, he said wholeheartedly.
“You’re welcome”, Tiberius answered, a smile in his stern, grey eyes.
They continued their work and when they had finished, it was already time to leave for the even meal.
Titus felt odd while he followed Tiberius to the hall where the meal would be taken. He had kept the Ultramarines’ crest on his left poleyn, the ceremonial loincloth and his chapter insignia on his left shoulder. The latter would not remain for long. Tiberius had explained in detail that his oath would include laying down the chapter’s crest for the time of his service here. For now, he belonged to the Deathwatch.
Titus had to think of Vox. He belonged to the Deathwatch forever. No prospect of returning in life or death. Even worse than him. Titus at least had the chance to return in death. He wondered what had made Vox leave his chapter.
While walking through Erioch in glorious black and silver armour, Titus felt smaller but strangely lighter too. The gloomy mood from earlier eased. All the consequences of laying down his rank would probably only dawn on him one at a time but right now, he was relieved. His biggest concern, he found, was that he might not be assigned to Aegis and such a small, personal matter hardly figured in his seasoned and hardship accustomed thoughts.
Tiberius talked little. He only mentioned that the even meal would be a more extended occasion than back home on Macragge. It was a time for the exchange of war stories, field reports and a chance to share information of value if a kill team had acquired any.
Titus found nothing sensible to reply. Therefore, he just followed, inevitably memorising the pathways of Erioch.
They were greeted by a stoically nodding Dankwart when they entered the great hall among a multitude of other Space Marines. The atmosphere was relaxed. When Vox entered, he was talking animatedly to a warrior of the Dark Angels and gave Titus merely a nod in passing. Shortly after this, the commander joined them and took his place at the head of the table. To Titus’ amazement, Ferone’s presence did not diminish the noise of the about seventy talking men.
At some point during the meal, a captain of the Black Consuls stood up. Apparently, he and three of his kill teams had just returned from their last mission. He brought news about the Tyranid activity around Herisor. His words were honoured with attention but not with silence. Some people had questions or additions, the leaders of the concerning kill teams had more detailed reports. Titus was unable to make out who belonged to which squad, much less the reason why squads were here without their captains or why Captain Quiores had less than half the men he should command with him.
The Black Consul picked participants by a gracious nod and was addressed with great reverence whenever he allowed someone to speak. After an astonishingly animated discussion had been flowing for a while, he even opened the field to opinions and theories. Titus noticed that the captain looked over to Vox at some point but the librarian had visible trouble not falling asleep in his seat. He excused himself with an apologetic smile.
Shortly after this, the comments started to repeat themselves and Quiores stopped calling brothers forth to speak. On cue, Ferone stood up. The solemn, reverent hush Titus had expected all along in the Blood Angel’s presence, settled over the group while everyone followed the commander’s example.
Slowly, they all left their places, sorted themselves by rank and two by two marched to the cathedral. Tiberius came to Titus’ side, Dankwart walked right in front of them. Vox was probably behind them somewhere. Titus snuck a glance when they turned the corner into the cathedral and saw that the librarian was walking alone at the very end. The black shield, he corrected himself, after he had wondered about this for a moment.
The cathedral was a magnificent structure close to the core of Erioch and he remembered seeing it from the outside already. It was even larger than the cathedral back home, richly ornamented and gloriously emblazoned with banners and religious icons. Like everywhere here, the seventy or so Astartes almost got lost in the space. They all knelt before a chaplain of the Storm Wardens who preached and prayed with a deep, deliberate certainty in his voice, speaking the litanies slowly and distinctly, ending with the now-familiar oath, which all of them spoke together.
Afterwards, the convocation broke up, dispersing in small groups of talking brothers.
“We have free time now”, Tiberius informed him. “Anything you want to do, brother?”
“Nothing specific”, Titus admitted.
“If you want to meet people, go talk to Vox”, the techmarine suggested. “He’ll introduce you. Our quarters are sorted by chapter. I can pick you up later and take you there.”
“I’d appreciate it, brother.”
“See you then.”
“Thank you. Until then.”
Tiberius left him with a nod and he looked around. Vox was easy to find. He was chatting to four brothers close to the entrance. Dankwart was one of them, another was the Dark Angel, he had already seen. When Titus approached them, Commander Ferone and Captain Quiores just passed them by.
“I did my best to leave them in one piece”, Titus caught the captain saying.
“I appreciate it”, Ferone answered. “I have a new assignment for them already.”
Then, they were out of earshot. Vox looked after them before he spotted Titus and started to grin broadly and tiredly.
“Hello, brother”, he said and Titus had to laugh at the way he emphasised the ‘brother’.
“And how did you know that?”, he wanted to know.
“A lucky guess”, Vox answered brazenly. “Brother, I’d like you to meet the rest of Aegis. This is our chaplain, Sergei Vargov of the Imperius Ravers. Our devastator Athuriel of the Dark Angels and our specialist for urban warfare Tsart of the Destroyers. Brothers, meet Titus of the Ultramarines!”
Even with the black and silver armour they all wore, the three brothers could hardly have been more different from each other.
The Imperius Ravers were a successor chapter of the Ultramarines well known to Titus and Sergei Vargov shared the grey eyes many of their brothers bore. His face was thin, light in tone with a distinct, sharp nose. Not quite like an eagle’s beak but close enough. He wore his head bald but had cultivated a well-trimmed full beard that was streaked with white at the temples. His expression was that of the benevolent killer welcoming a comrade to the hunt.
Athuriel wore his white-blonde hair short and his eyes were of a green so bright, they seemed to glow far more brilliantly than the lighting conditions should have accounted for. He had thin lips and a pale complexion similar to that of the two sanguine blooded standing next to him, but his face was more harsh than handsome and there was no smile to be made out. Instead, he looked back at Titus with a calm, bottomless severity.
Had he not been able to place the Destroyers as a successor chapter of the White Scars in the first place, Tsart was without a doubt a son of the Khan. He had the black hair, bound in a high ponytail, the tanned skin, the typical almond-shaped eyes and, most importantly, the ritual scars, which gave his parent chapter its name. Tsart had three of them, all running over his right eye. Two from the left of his forehead down to the right cheek, the third crossing them at a right angle.
“Welcome to the Deathwatch, brother”, Vargov greeted him. He had a voice, suitable for a chaplain. Resonant and full of expression, although not very deep for a Space Marine. The other two merely nodded in quiet acknowledgement.
“Vox already briefed us that we should inquire about your time with dear Inquisitor Laraise as soon as we meet you so that you’d be sufficiently embarrassed and won’t notice him slipping off to conspire with one of his fellow librarians. Did I do it right this time, Vox?”
“Sergei”, Vox replied with a tired smile. “No one could match you in ironic remarks about subversive scheming in social situations. I knew I could rely on you and thank the Emperor that He saw fit to reunite us. Now, be nice to our new brother, I’m off. See you tomorrow!”
“May the Emperor guide your steps, brother”, Vargov called after him and was answered with a nonchalant wave.
The chaplain turned to Titus and his smile changed. All soft honesty evaporated, leaving a mask of amused menace.
“Hear he, hear he!”, he exclaimed. “He bids me be nice! Has he forgotten whom he is talking to?”
“I don’t know”, Titus said in a relaxed manner. “Maybe he has never heard about Sergei Vargov, Susurrator of the Stormbringers.”
A whole number of expressions crossed Vargov’s face before he settled for another unfriendly smile.
“I’m honoured that you should have heard about me, brother.”
“Your reputation precedes you, brother chaplain”, Titus gave back and deliberately left it unclear which part of Vargov’s reputation he knew about. Actually, it was the good part. Vargov was one of the renowned 2nd company of the Imperius Ravers, called by the nickname of the Stormbringers. When Titus had been 2nd captain of the Ultramarines, the two companies had met once and he had overheard two sergeants talking about Vargov. Altogether, they had spoken highly of the brother who had only just become a chaplain back then but when one had told his comrade about Vargov’s new pet-name, there had been the definite hint that the new chaplain, although respected among his brethren, could be a little difficult at times.
“I would like to hear what brought you to the Deathwatch”, Titus added.
“Honour, brother. What else could bring me here?”, the chaplain said, his intense gaze locked on his new brother. “What brought you here?”, he inquired.
“Honour, of course, brother”, Titus answered lightly.
“What a coincidence!”
“Yes! Brother Tsart, what brought you here?”, Vargov suddenly switched targets.
“Honour”, Tsart said curtly, clearly used to the chaplain’s sudden attacks.
“How very honourable!”, Vargov mocked him. “Athuriel? What about you? What brought you to the Deathwatch?”
“The prospect of growth”, Athuriel said. His tones were careful and calm, not especially resonant, but there was an impression about them that he had to struggle to keep it like this. As if he rather used his voice for bellowing over the battlefield than for polite conversation.
“Hark at that, brothers!”, Vargov cried with a dramatic gesture. “Here is someone from whom to learn!”
Titus tuned out a little after this point and contented himself with silent observation. Vargov seemed to be capable of carrying a whole conversation by himself with ease and the others readily left him to it. They paid him only casual attention unless he demanded their participation directly. It was notable that Dankwart was never called upon, even though Vargov sought eye contact with him at regular intervals. After a while, the Ultramarine got the strong impression that this was their usual way of conversation. Further observation brought the feeling that the elegantly constructed sentences of the chaplain, often superficially offensive, were carefully balanced on deep-seated respect and, even better, friendship.
Titus’ thoughts started to wander. He would have liked to talk to Vox, trying out a conversation without the barriers of rank but the librarian had disappeared from view.
When Tiberius joined them, Vargov greeted him like a long-lost son. The techmarine let this wash over him with a non-committal smile. Afterwards, he nodded at Titus. It was time to go. They all followed, Vargov still talking. A few servitors brought them to their quarters together with most of the other Astartes on the station. It was a rather gruesome armada of vehicles that carried them, but Space Marines got used to servitors early on. They hardly paid attention to the dead faces, pale skin and bony remains of human bodies among the mechanical parts of them.
As Tiberius had mentioned, the brothers of the Deathwatch slept sorted by chapters. Athuriel, Dankwart and Tsart headed into another tract, bidding them a good night, while Vargov accompanied the two Ultramarines for a little longer. He had stopped talking, just walked seemingly deep in thought and spoke a short prayer over them before he departed.
There was another Ultramarine on the station at present, who walked with them. He returned their muten nods and eyed Titus a little suspiciously, but remained silent. The green rim around his shoulder guard told them that he was a member of 4th company. Maybe he had recognized Titus, maybe not. If he had, he did not tell.
A servant waited patiently outside one of the rooms and Tiberius stopped in front of him.
“My lord Titus of the Ultramarines?”, the man inquired. He had an incense burner in one hand and a scroll under the other arm.
“Yes”, Titus answered.
“Welcome to Erioch, my lord! For your time here, this is your designated sleeping chamber.”
“Good night, Titus”, Tiberius said at this point and disappeared towards his own room which they had already passed. The servant invited Titus into the cell, walked around the small space, solemnly waving the burner and recited two prayers in High Gothic. One to call the Emperor’s general blessing down on it and one to ask the Emperor to watch over the sleep of the inmate and ensure his recovery from anything. Afterwards, he bowed out.
Titus was done examining the room quickly. There was a sleeping slab, a small washstand with a single shelf over it and that was it. He switched off the light and lay down, alone again for the first time in two months. The darkness, of course, held no fear for an Astartes but it certainly had been more pleasant with a little librarian in it. He wondered where black shields slept. They probably had their own tract as well.