19. Leadership

The ‘Aiolos’ was a Firestorm Class Frigate and with less than two kilometres length a rather small ship. Nevertheless, preparing for war on board was a matter of luxury. The eight Space Marines had their own meeting room, a small chapel to their exclusive use and a small but cosy mess to take their meals and maybe spend their free time in the evening in. A heavily fortified shooting range in the belly of the ship provided space for open field training and the crew was well used to Space Marines running through the narrow, complex corridors. The only people reluctant to budge when they saw Astartes storming towards them were the conservators who tried to keep up with repairing the ornamentation.
When he inquired about him, Titus learned that Casimiré Nostromo not only was a navigator able to pilot a ship through the warp, he also was a Rogue Trader.
That the rich and powerful merchant navigated the ‘Aiolos’ was unusual. He had his own small fleet, consisting of three magnificent artefact ships. In the past ten years, he had often transported Aegis to their numerous deployments and especially the long term members knew him well. By sight at least.
None of them knew how Nostromo had come to work with the Deathwatch, however. An even greater mystery was how he had obtained the right to travel to Erioch. He was the only navigator, not strictly belonging to the station, who knew where it was located. Vargov suspected that Vox might know more but inquiries would have to wait until he was awake again.
Aegis had boarded the ‘Aiolos’ early in the morning and started training right away. As long as Dankwart was busy in the infirmary, Tiberius and Titus teamed up and proved that the past two months had borne fruit. Even when Dankwart rejoined them and Titus attached himself to the other pairs in turn, there were no overly extensive adaptation problems.
After the midday meal, Titus heard Vargov preach for the first time. His first impression of the chaplain was pleasantly confirmed. Vargov was a ruthless warrior by nature. He spoke with fire in his eyes of the destruction they would bring, of the cause they would serve and of the glory they would earn for the Emperor. He preached with the vigour of a true warrior and the certainty of the truly faithful. In his presence, there was no room for doubt. To march into battle with Vargov would surely mean to march under the bright flame of faith. Titus looked forward to it.
The second training phase brought an end to his success. He hit his limit of how well he could adapt to Aegis’ strategies and tactics. This was partly due to the fact that he was missing a partner. They trained a lot of patterns where it was crucial to provide cover and give aid. Alone, he was rather useless in this. In other units, however, he found that his heritage presented a solid problem. His comrades had a lot more experience with brothers from other chapters and anticipated their behaviour better than he could. Even Tiberius had developed different ways to move and react than his fellow Ultramarine. In addition to this vexatious state of affairs, it was hard not to let his still diminished endurance show. All in all the day closed rather more unsatisfactorily than it had begun.
Vox returned for the morning prayer the next day. He looked better rested and more lively than Titus had ever seen him. Right after the prayer, he already had news for them.
“Brothers, we’ll reach our objective tomorrow. It wasn’t passing us by, it’s coming our way. I’m not sure if they know where they are headed but they certainly are Tau.”
“Then let’s choose our leader, train today and plan tomorrow”, Vargov said firmly. The brothers nodded and formed a circle.
“Tsart”, Vargov said and turned his gaze to Athuriel who was standing next to him.
“Aharran”, the Dark Angel voted.
Tsart was next.
“Me”, he said.
“Me”, Aharran said as if he agreed with Tsart’s choice.
“Carnas”, was Vox’s call and Titus’ too although, like Athuriel, he called Aharran by his surname. Dankwart and Tiberius both named Tsart. With this, the two candidates were on par. Titus was interested to see what would happen now.
They both stepped forward, facing each other. Aharran still grinned amusedly, his green eyes twinkling. Tsart looked haughty and stern, his scars rippling when he narrowed his eyes. No words passed between them as they circled each other, holding eye contact. It was Aharran who stepped back, flexing his shoulders to lose some tension.
“I’ll be busy blowing things up”, he said lightly as he averted his gaze from his opponent. Everyone nodded.
With this choice of leadership, Tsart was the one coordinating the training today. He devised two training units very well fitted to prepare them to move unseen inside the station and react to sudden attacks. Titus had to train alone for a while at the end of each session because Vox went to check on the progress of their target and rejoined them for the meals and prayers. Despite this, the two of them did so well together that Tsart found a few words of praise for Titus when they gathered for the even meal.
The former captain used his chance to inquire why Aharran seemed to work with Vargov extraordinarily well. It turned out that it was the second time that the Celestial Lion had been assigned to Aegis. He had been with them for one mission a while back and it had been a coincidence that he had still been on Erioch yesterday. Intended to return to his chapter after having completed his vigil, he nevertheless had volunteered to join them when the commander had informed him about this emergency.
Titus had already developed a certain respect for the man who managed to convey the impression that he was stuffed with explosives and that he only smiled all the time because he was the only one who knew how long the fuse was. Hearing that he had readily stepped in to stand with his brothers made him nod in acknowledgement. Only when he did that, it dawned on him that this gesture was probably not as appraising now, it came from a brother. He had to smile about this and contented himself with listening to their conversation for the rest of the meal.
This time it was not only Vargov speaking and calling forth comments. Vox constituted a worthy counterpart to him. The two of them seemed to be well used to each other, even though they had very different modes of drawing other people into their dialogue. Vargov threw comments like spears, outright demanding participation. This often resulted in replies consisting of a single word or very short contributions before he could take over again. Vox, on the other hand, managed to create a little more space to speak in. Titus also noticed that, while none of them ever addressed Dankwart, Vox especially seemed to avoid Tsart. He had perceived it before. A careful balance, a great amount of tension delicately poised between them. Not only did they not speak to each other, they also avoided eye contact. While he wondered what had happened between them to cause this, Vargov interrupted him.
“Come again?”, was all he could ask. He had been so immersed in his contemplations that he was even unable to replay the question in his head.
“I inquired where you have gone, brother. Since you certainly aren’t here anymore.”
“I can assure you that my thoughts are firmly with Aegis, brother chaplain”, Titus replied truthfully.
“Very well”, Vargov said as if grudgingly awarding a high mark for another congruent answer. “Let us direct all our thoughts to the Emperor now”, he urged instead of pursuing the topic further.
They followed him to the chapel and knelt while he preached. Even as they stood in the circle for the last oath, thumping their breastplates, Vox fixed his smiling, blue eyes on Titus. They walked out side by side.
Like they had done it on the ‘Lawbringer’, they took a moment to get out of earshot before Titus broke the silence.
“So…”, he said casually. “We’re brothers.”
“Indeed, brother.”
“No Codex prohibiting familiarity.”
Instead of an answer, Vox shot him an amused and calculating glance.
“May I see your blade now?”
Vox burst out laughing.
“Not in public”, he said and received a push that would have been a dig in the ribs had the armour not gotten in the way.
“Come on, don’t be shy!”, Titus urged him good humouredly. “What I saw already is nothing you have to be embarrassed about!”
“Still not in public. Come on!”
He led Titus down into the belly of the ‘Aiolos’ where they entered a training hall. There were some lockers, probably concealing training props. Each lock was a skull with wide opened jaws. An ornate clock over the door showed the ship time and the wall was covered in tapestries to dampen the noise. Otherwise, this was just a large, empty space.
Vox closed the door and drew his sword. Almost absent-mindedly he let it describe an elegant arch. Then, he handed it over, handle first. Titus was completely taken aback. Like he had never supposed to be handed the tarot, he had by no means expected that Vox would yield his weapon to him. He had just wanted to look at it, not hold it. It was a gesture of trust of such magnitude that he could not fathom it at first. Reverentially he reached out and gripped the handle.
The sword was perfect.
He knew it as soon as he touched it. Its balance lay one or two fingers higher than he gripped and movement began to flow almost without his assistance.
“Be careful”, Vox warned softly and stepped aside. “It’s stronger than the cards. Don’t hold it too long.”
Titus walked into the room and made a few careful swings. He closed his eyes when the light, reflecting off the crystals, started to cause the same dizziness he had experienced with the tarot. From far away he thought he heard the blade singing. It sang of grace and honour through strength. His body rejoiced in the movement. Flowing, almost flying with it. Shadows started to appear that were ripped apart by the perfect curve of the blade, which he suddenly could see even through closed eyelids…
Vox caught his hand. The blade was swiftly twisted out of his grip and Titus was amazed that he needed to be steadied for a moment. Then, the world returned. He could orient himself and knew where and when he was. The short episode of confusion had hardly happened. But he felt stupid. Playing with a thing like that…
“You’re amazingly strong”, Vox remarked serenely. The sword had already disappeared into its sheath.
“I am?”, he wanted to know in bewilderment.
“You held it for Twenty-two seconds.”
Titus cocked his head in faint amusement. He wondered how a lexicanum had come into the possession of a weapon like this.
“What did it say?”, Vox asked casually. The brother let go of him and slightly turned his black shield between them. Grudgingly taking up the hint, Titus refrained from phrasing the question.
“It…” He felt awkward for saying it. “It sang. Of honour and victory.”
Vox nodded as if this was the normal behaviour of a weapon.
“It likes you then.”
“If you say so. Does it have a name?”
“I don’t know. It hasn’t told me.”
“I must note that we sound quite crazy talking like this, little brother.”
“We’re talking about a warp blade. What did you expect?”
“I don’t know”, he had to admit. “So, your sword might have a name but it hasn’t told you about it?”
“Yes, maybe I’m not strong enough to impress it sufficiently.”
“And you talk to your sword?”
“Of course”, Vox grinned. “It’s not overly intelligent conversation I have to admit. It’s more on the lines of ‘I want to kill stuff’ and me saying ‘soon’. Then it usually laughs.”
Titus laughed too.
“Thanks for the experience. I don’t wish to repeat it.”
“Right you are, brother.”
They left the hall and wandered idly through the corridors of the ‘Aiolos’, slowly making their way towards their quarters.
“May I inquire what’s up with you and Tsart?”, Titus asked politely.
“Tsart and me? Oh, we are great friends”, Vox replied with a smile. “Considering how much he likes psykers I’d say I’m definitely his favourite one. He hasn’t even tried to kill me yet.”
He shot Titus a calculating glance.
“I’m amazed that you picked up on that.”
“It was hard to miss.”
“You know? For someone who has so very little connection to the warp you are incredibly empathic. I wonder how it works.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wonder how you learned that. I for my part couldn’t help it. I’m positively buried under emotions from all sides all the time. For me, it’s pure self-defence to learn to tell them apart. I can’t understand what motivation you could have had.”
“Well, there was a time when I was young and small and human. It just so happened that I wanted to survive among people.”
Vox looked him up and down. Twice. Then, he grinned.
“You know? I’ve been meaning to tell you that you can keep outclassing yourself as much as you like but when you have passed everybody else by, the distance doesn’t matter so much anymore. You can afford to slow down a little.”
“I appreciate being counselled by a true expert in not trying to surpass himself”, Titus said and grinned when he saw Vox blush on having been called out like that.
“Alright, have it your way”, his little brother said nonplussed.
“Indeed I do”, Titus declared. “I see, we have already reached my corridor.”
“Yes, with all the fighting tomorrow I thought we should go to bed early. I heard that a good night’s sleep is helpful in situations like that.”
“I heard that too. Why didn’t you sleep yesterday?”, he wanted to know when they stopped in front of his door.
“I was in the library, checking on these sightings. It took me, I don’t know, ten hours or so, just to find out what we might be dealing with and then, I had to get our briefing material together.”
“I was impressed with that”, Titus admitted.
“Knowledge is power”, Vox said, shrugging noncommittally. “Erioch guards it well, you just have to know where to find it.”
“What did you put in your report?”
The librarian’s amused smile betrayed that he knew what Titus was getting at.
“What do you mean?”, he asked nevertheless, trying to seem innocent.
“You said no one can apply for Aegis. You have to be chosen by the commander. So, what did you put in your report that the commander would choose me?”
The brother took his time before he answered, searching Titus’ face with his eyes. Only when the elevator door beside them opened to admit the others, his smile deepened.
Vox turned and left towards the end of the corridor while their comrades walked around them, entering their own rooms. Some looked at Titus in quiet astonishment for the pride radiating off him.

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Guide Me Through the Darkness by Julia M. V. Warren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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