Titus did not know what to make of this event and Vox never mentioned it again. In the following two days, things returned to normal and they had just completed their third week on Erioch when Vox stood waiting outside the cathedral after the morning prayer. He waved for the rest of Aegis to join him and also beckoned two new arrivals closer.
Hyron and Vyron Heartrock were twin brothers of the Space Wolves who had survived the implants together. They were so alike that no one could tell them apart and they clearly enjoyed this state of affairs. Often they stood side by side, even adopting similar stances when they talked to somebody. After Titus had seen them switching positions one time when their dialogue partner was distracted, he strongly suspected that they also switched names randomly to make matters even more confusing. The two were of average height for Space Marines, had dark hair and green-brown eyes. Both had two earrings in their left earlobes and, unusually for Space Wolves, wore their long hair neatly braided and their beards well-trimmed. Titus knew from training that the brothers Heartrock specialised in heavy weapon use. If they were assigned to Aegis, it was easy to assume that they would need added firepower in their next mission.
During the prayer, the commander occupied the place of honour right in front of the chaplain. Therefore he was usually the last to leave the chapel, often talking to their preacher or a captain currently on the station. This was the case today as well. Chaplain Ecurael of the Crimson Legion, who had led the sermon, walked at his side. His staff of office clicked on the floor with each step and the commander nodded for the cluster of Aegis to follow them.
In the audience chamber Vox, Dankwart, the commander and the chaplain happened to come to stand in a line. Titus had to hide a smile. Properly lighted, they only looked like brothers but in the half-light beyond the bright cone that illuminated the desk, they could have been one and the same person, ageing as the beholder watched. Vox, the youngest among them on one end and the chaplain with his stern, noble features on the other, his long hair turned white and his face engraved with deep lines of contemplation.
Today, there was no stack of papers waiting for them. Instead it knocked as soon as they had entered and a serf ushered in a middle-aged human. He was clad in well-fitting clothes that resembled a dark green military uniform. There were no insignia on him, only a chain around his neck that disappeared under his jacket. The man had long hair, which he wore in a ponytail. A well-trimmed goatee and moustache and a severe burn scar on the left half of his face gave him a distinction of feature that suited his overall bearing and stance. His left arm was clearly mechanical. He also wore a strange, serene smile when he looked around.
“Brother Vox!”, he exclaimed in a way that could be friendly or not and Vox nodded back in the same manner.
“Solomon, how are you?”, the librarian replied.
“Still alive, my friend.”
“I’ll take your word for it”, Vox said carefully and turned to his left. “May I introduce Ferone of the Blood Angels, Master of Vigil and Commander of the Deathwatch to you?”
“My lord”, Solomon greeted the commander, bowing low.
“Welcome on Erioch, legate”, Commander Ferone bade him before he spoke to the assembled brothers. “For those of you who haven’t met him, this is Legate Killian Solomon. He is here on behalf of his Mistress Inquisitor Elaine of Angor. Legate, this here is Kill Team Aegis. I have chosen them to meet the request your mistress approached me with. I ask to sort your detailed introductions out later and let us turn to business now.”
“My Mistress sends her regards to you, my lord”, Solomon began nevertheless. “She is delighted that you have declared your willingness to provide aid to her cause and hopes…”
He stopped when something clattered to the floor.
“Oh, sorry”, Vox said, picked up his bolt pistol and put it back on its joist. The edges of Solomon’s mouth twitched and he did not continue with his speech.
None of the older sanguine blooded showed what they thought of this incident. Titus, on the other hand, had to hide his smile. The Space Wolves even sniggered. Vox certainly had found a very distinct way of interrupting someone.
“Aegis, you will have Orks”, the commander informed them smoothly before the legate could make it public if he had taken offence. “Via the channels we used, Inquisitor Elaine wasn’t ready to part with many details but she has asked my support on Corred, which is under Ork attack as we speak. The Imperial Guard has so far been able to hold the lines but something has happened. What seemed like a random raider party, has turned into a Waaagh. Inquisitor Elaine is well known to me and I trust that she wouldn’t ask for help unless she deems it absolutely necessary. Therefore, I have decided to send you, my chosen warriors. I trust that you will support her to the limit of your abilities as if I myself was directing you.” He turned to his right and looked at Vox. “Brothers, step back and be ready”, the commander ordered. “Ask the Emperor for guidance, Brother Vox.”
While everyone except Ferone himself drew back from the table, Vox fished out his deck of cards from behind his breastplate. Unlike last time, no one drew a weapon but even in the shadows encompassing them Titus could sense all of them tensing.
Meanwhile, Vox shuffled the cards. The light from above shimmered on the sparse silver linings of his armour. He laid down the first card. It was upside down and so Titus, who was standing opposite, could easily read it’s lettering: ‘The Spy’. Next came ‘The Emperor’, equally upside-down, followed by ‘The Unclean One’ on its head as well. He recognized the card. It had not improved since last time. ‘The Soldier’, ‘The Ecclesiarch’ upside-down and ‘The Greenskins’ completed the pattern. Vox frowned. He whispered under his breath, touched the cards again one after the other, then shook his head and laid down two more cards next to ‘The Emperor’. They showed ‘The Sanctioned Psyker’ and ‘The Custodian’ upside-down. Again he shook his head and added two more cards next to ‘The Ecclesiarch’. They were ‘The Captain’ upside-down and ‘The Lord Militant’. Blood started to drip from his eyes, he wiped it away distractedly. First from his face, then from the desk. Titus heard someone drawing his bolter and tensed.
Like burdened with an enormous weight, Vox started to collapse over the cards before he steadied himself and returned from his trance. All the brothers were hidden in the shadows, only Ferone was visible and he waited with an unreadable face until Vox looked him in the eyes.
“Tell us what you saw, brother”, the commander urged patiently.
“I can’t”, the psyker had to admit after an uncomfortable pause. “Something eludes me.”
Titus could see his gaze fleeting to the two clusters of cards he had added later.
“There is a huge blank spot in my foretelling. The cards do not reveal their whole meaning to me.”
“And what do you suggest?”, Chaplain Ecurael wanted to know from the shadows. He had a gruff voice that nevertheless was so calm and powerful that it seemed to want to carry beyond the small room.
While Ferone gestured for the others to return to the table, Vox calmly picked up the cards.
“I suggest that you let me lead”, the librarian answered and looked over at Ecurael who smiled softly.
“Ask your brothers, young one”, the chaplain said. “I have my hands full, I won’t challenge you.”
Vox looked around.
“Brothers, I ask to be put in charge of this mission.”
Titus and Dankwart nodded readily but Tiberius and the brothers Heartrock shook their heads with firmness.
“Sorry, Vox”, one of the twins said. “You know we like you but we’ve seen librarians lead. They usually lead to hell.”
“Liking or not has nothing to do with choosing a leader”, Tiberius said firmly. “I will not accept you as leader in a mission involving battle.”
“Accept our brother Titus then”, Vox tried.
“Stop being political, Vox”, Tiberius demanded and shook his head impatiently. “Titus is a good leader”, the techmarine admitted, while he stroked an escaped strand of hair back. “But you are relying on his friendship to gain influence. I will put my trust in Chaplain Ecurael for this mission.”
“Me too”, both Space Wolves made themselves heard.
Vox nodded mutely, Dankwart said nothing. Titus likewise refrained from raising objections but he withheld his approval as well.
Chaplain Ecurael exchanged a long look with the commander then, he nodded.
“I accept the leadership Aegis honours me with”, he declared. “And I name Vox Draconis my second in command”, he added with a strange, calm benevolence in his eyes before he continued: “Brothers, there are things you don’t know yet. For one, another brother will join us.”
Titus’ gaze was drawn to Vox’s hands leaning on the table. They were coiling into fists.
“A terrible plague has befallen him”, Ecurael continued meanwhile. “He is out of his mind but since he is still willing to fight and give his all for the Emperor, we will guide him to his last battle. He is my obligation alone and you will not see him before we descend to Corred. Stay away from him. Don’t try to talk to him. Anything might spark his rage. Let the xenos feel his anger and at least let him go in honour.”
“Any questions?”, the commander asked when the chaplain had finished this most unsettling revelation.
“Yes”, Titus said, shooting Vox a quick glance. The sudden tension of his friend concerned him.
“Brother chaplain”, he asked. “I would like to know why you named Vox your second. Don’t get me wrong”, he added immediately. “I trust and support my friend but three of us have made it clear that they will not like him in charge.”
Ecurael’s smile deepened the creases in his pale face and he looked around at them.
“As you can probably see, I’m a bit older than you”, he said. “I’ve seen more than a millennium and with all the shit I’ve waded through, I find myself agreeing with our techmarine: Choosing a leader isn’t about liking. You may not like it but Vox knows more than you do and since I’ll have my work cut out to manage our stricken brother, I need a second I can rely on. Of course, you may always shoot him, should you suspect corruption but you better be really sure before you pull that trigger, my boys.”
The quiet, confident menace in his words was met with stoic faces all around. Even Killian Solomon managed to keep calm. Titus reflected that, for a human, watching Astartes argue must be like hearing volcanos rumble. The mountains would still be there after the outbreak but any human unlucky enough to be in reach would end up as insignificant smear in some tectonic layer or other.
“I have no further questions, thank you”, Titus said politely.
“Anyone else?”, the commander wanted to know. Since none were forthcoming, he again turned to Solomon.
“Legate, my correspondence is with you?”
“Yes, my lord!”, the man confirmed.
“Then bring my men and my regards to your mistress. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, my lord!”, Solomon replied with another bow and turned to walk out.