When he met Vox at the prayer next morning, Titus knew at once that, wherever black shields slept, this one had not made use of his bed tonight. Vox was pale and looked more tired than any Astartes ever should. The ability to switch brain hemispheres to stay active, come what may, was one of the most basic ones the Emperor had bestowed on them. It did not kick in if a Space Marine was confronted with some complex problem or a fight but what could have occupied his little brother to such an extent? Not only Titus noticed it. As soon as they left the cathedral, Vargov and Athuriel came to Vox’s side and spoke quietly to him. Titus was about to join them, meeting stern, calculative gazes when someone stepped into his path.
This was the moment Titus learned what a Deathwatch Keeper looked like. The Keeper was an impressive figure, his black armour heavy on the silver ornamentation. He wore a black robe over it, intricately embroidered with symbols of the Inquisition, the Deathwatch and the Imperium. A power spear was gripped firmly in his right hand and on his silver left arm sat some kind of artefact Titus had never seen before. It looked like a second, very complicated vambrace.
“Titus of the Ultramarines?”, the Keeper addressed him, his voice echoing slightly through the grille on his helmet, giving it added spin and timbre.
“Yes, brother Keeper”, Titus answered calmly. He had encountered far worse than a stern-looking Aquila helmet and a commanding voice.
“I am Allarion Cumbersant of the Doom Eagles and Keeper of Watch Fortress Erioch. I am here to guide you before the Omega Vault. Follow me!”
His deep-seated devotion taking over, Titus obeyed without giving the watching members of Aegis a second glance.
The Keeper led him with stoic severity, doors opening before him until they reached a gate that remained closed. Steadily, Cumbersant stepped up to it and knocked three times. The echoes of this spread out into the large hallway. Only after they had died away, the wings of the door swung open in majestic silence and Titus could not help but admire the solemnity of the whole scene.
His guide took a step to the right. He made a welcoming gesture, beckoning him to pass the vaulted gate while he would stand guard here.
Titus followed the corridor that lay beyond the gate with a measured stride until it bifurcated. He halted for a moment, then turned right. The corridor had a slight curve to it and not only when he reached a place where another corridor branched off to the right, did he suspect that the two pathways constituted a circle. Thus he turned right again. After a few steps, he entered a large hall, easily a kilometre across, with a huge, vaguely cylindrical structure in the middle. It was irregular and one of its geometrical faces was turned towards the corridor he had left. A door, about forty paces high, was set in it. On the door, the symbols of the Deathwatch were engraved. In the centre of it a huge omega surrounded an image of the Emperor strangling a coiling serpent and above it large words in High Gothic stated: “The Last Fortress is Truth”
He wondered what was behind the door but since two Space Marines were waiting for him to the left and right, his path surely ended here.
The warriors were Commander Ferone and the chaplain who had held the sermon earlier.
“Kneel, Titus of the Ultramarines”, Ferone intoned when Titus had reached them. “Here stand Copariel Sandris, chaplain of the Storm Wardens and Ferone of the Blood Angels, Master of Vigil and Commander of the Deathwatch on Erioch to witness your oath to the Deathwatch.”
Sandris stepped forward, solemnly handing Titus a shallow bowl to hold. The chaplain’s hands were bare and Ferone passed him a magnificent dagger. With measured gestures, Sandris accepted the weapon and cut into the palm of his hand, letting a few drops of blood run into the bowl before the insignificant wound had time to close.
“For you, Titus of the Ultramarines, blood is given. The blood of a brother, the blood of a friend. Are you ready to honour this gift?”
“I am ready!”, Titus answered.
Sandris dipped his thumb into the blood, drew a vertical line on Titus’ forehead and asked: “In darkness and death, will you take up the vigil?”
“In darkness and death, I will take up the vigil!”, Titus answered.
“Through combat and conflict, will you take up the fight?”, the chaplain demanded and drew a curved line, extending from the first one to the right.
“Through combat and conflict, I will take up the fight!”
“Within second and aeon, will you take up the burden?” The chaplain drew a final curved line to the left, completing the stylized Aquila on Titus’ forehead.
“Within second and aeon, I will take up the burden!”, he vowed.
“The Emperor guides you, humanity needs you, the xenos fear you.”
“Titus of the Ultramarines”, Ferone addressed him again. “By the blood given to you, by the voices vouching for you, by your honour, by your name and by the Emperor: Do you swear to stand against the alien wherever it presents itself?”
“Do you swear to stand with the brothers the Emperor will put at your side?”
“Do you swear to keep the secrets to burden your shoulders?”
“Then tell us what we will call you, Titus of the Ultramarines!”, Ferone continued.
“Call me brother!”
“Very well, brother”, he said and took the bowl away from Titus. “Let us speak the oath together!”
Ferone and Sandris knelt down beside Titus and they all spoke:
Imperatorem pro vivo et morio.
They all rose on the last word and thumped their fists against their breast-plates. Then, Ferone and Sandris turned and walked back the way Titus had come. The new brother followed their measured stride.
Outside, the Keeper was not alone anymore. Aegis, including one brother Titus had not met yet, had joined the silent watch. They fell in behind the three passers-by, keeping solemnly blank faces.
Again, they made their way in silence. This time, their destination was the Hall of Glory.
It was a vast structure akin to a cathedral nave, easily a hundred metres wide and certainly five times as high. Servants were walking up and down, seeing to mysterious duties. Most of the humans had incense burners with them and they all took up station as a silent guard of honour when the procession of Astartes passed them by. The fragrant fumes their instruments emitted hung under the ceiling like mild, grey clouds. Cyber cherubs flew around, sometimes disappearing into the fog. On reappearance they made the ragged, battle-scarred banners lining the nave swing softly in the draft of their passage.
Set into the walls were innumerable small alcoves and each of them contained an Astartes’ shoulder plate. Titus saw that they were all left shoulder pieces with the chapter’s insignia on it. They passed by row after row of them, the cherubs fluttering and capering around them. Finally, they reached three only vaguely humanoid figures. Clearly tech-priests waiting for them.
“We greet you, servants of the Machine God”, Ferone said.
“We greet you, servants of the God-Emperor”, came the reply.
“We bring you Titus of the Ultramarines.”
“We bring a gift, blessed by the Omnissiah.”
“We bow before you”, Ferone said, Sandris and him bowing.
“We accept”, the priests said, returning the bow.
Commander and chaplain made way for Titus to step forward. The three figures immediately took up station around him and started to beep in prayers to the Omnissiah, at some point speaking clearly enough to ask him to kneel. While he did, they removed his left shoulder guard and replaced it with a silver one, adorned by the intricately carved sign of the Deathwatch. This way, the guard matched his silver arm. All was done in solemn prayer and when they had finished, they handed Titus’ shoulder guard to two hovering cherubs. Servitors themselves, the flying babies were ghastly constructions with a lot of their skin replaced by aged metal. Their pudgy faces were no pleasanter for their cybernetic eyes. Polished brass framed stubby wings that beat fast to take the small servants of the machine god upwards. High above the group of faithful, they placed the shoulder guard of an Ultramarine into the alcove ready for it. Titus felt a pang of remorse at this point. He would never see this piece of him again. That he was allowed to keep his right shoulder guard was just frippery. In truth he was a black shield like Vox.
The new brother of the Deathwatch rose and turned when the tech-priests had finished. He sought to catch the friend’s eye and Vox looked back, nodding ever so slightly.
The commander and the chaplain solemnly took the lead of the procession again and this way they made their way out of the Hall of Glory and back to the inhabited parts of Erioch.