The spring flood crashed into them with such force that it knocked Titus’ helmet off. Water gushed into his lungs, reducing his oxygen intake by at least half.
Breathing water was uncomfortable but not dangerous for Astartes. Titus’ third lung strained but kept him functional. The real danger lay in the speed and force with which they were carried away. He felt Vox pulling them closer together as they were spun through the canyon and slammed against the walls at every turn. The two of them curled around each other as best they could. After half a minute of watery hell, they got stuck in some crevice or other. The current pressed them firmly between a couple of rocks.
They unfolded themselves and started to work their way up. Since Titus was uncertain about where up was, he left it to Vox, hoping that he could still make use of his auto senses. Indeed, his little brother started to move determinately in one direction, pulling him along.
When they reached the surface, Titus coughed and spat water.
“You’re bleeding a little”, Vox remarked dispassionately.
He said it just before the blood ran into Titus’ left eye. Dipping his head under water to wash it off was no use. The stream was back immediately. Titus decided to live with it for now and just closed the eye, relying on the other instead.
They were quite high in the rocks, the edge only just out of reach but the pressure of the water kept them neatly in place. It was easy for Titus to find a few additional handholds. This stabilised him enough that Vox would be able to climb up on him. His friend understood without words and pulled Titus after him when he had reached the top. The head wound had closed enough until then and he could wipe his eye clean to look around.
He realised that Vox had lost his jump pack in the turmoil and quickly tested his own. It still fired up.
“At least one jump pack between the two of us”, he said. “Could have been worse.”
Vox raised his hand to his sword. It was gone. A short and depressing check of their weaponry revealed that apart from their well secured kombat knives, they had only Titus’ bolter left between them.
“Alright, that’s bad”, Titus stated but was interrupted when Vox looked around in alarm. Titus followed his gaze.
The terrain was still hard to oversee. The rock formations all around were by no means on the same level. Beyond the canyon they had climbed out of, they spotted Solomon who was just turning a corner at a dead run. Right behind him, a group of Orks followed.
The human wasted no breath screaming for help. He just ran as fast as he could but the greenskins gained on him.
“Come on!”, Titus demanded and sprinted forwards, Vox following at his side. He grabbed his little brother in mid-run and fired up his jump pack to span the distance. Solomon had spotted them and turned. Unfortunately, the change of direction brought him in reach of the clubs of the Orks. Having landed safely, Titus dropped to one knee, drew his bolter in a hurry and felled the first Ork just in time. Vox meanwhile, had not reduced his speed and threw himself right in the middle of the enemies, moving and dodging around the xenos. They stopped their pursuit of the human to attack the unarmed Space Marine.
Solomon slithered to a halt right next to Titus and hid behind his broad back while the gene-hanced warrior calmly shot Ork after Ork out of the throng. They had not been able to see how Vox had done it, but he had found one Ork wielding a sabre and wrested the crude weapon from it. Now, he was dealing out merry hell among the xenos. Solomon cried out in surprise several times until the group was dealt with and Titus wondered if he had never seen Vox in combat before. They rejoined and performed their after battle check. Maybe out of reflex, Vox had sheathed the rusty sabre in place of his sword. The tip protruded from his side because the blade was curved, unlike Vox’s own weapon.
“Where are the others?”, Solomon asked. “And shouldn’t we find cover?”
Vox held up a finger to signal them that he was concentrating.
“Aegis, come in!”, he demanded after a few seconds via vox.
“Titus”, Titus answered. This was a call to tell all of them who was still alive. It was of no consequence that he was standing right next to the one who had sent it out.
“Tiberius”, they heard over Titus’ exposed speakers.
The rest kept silent.
“Heartrocks, if you read, try to climb upwards!”, Vox ordered. “Dankwart and Tiberius, your position is odd. Why are you so low?”
“We were washed out of the canyons”, Tiberius reported. “But we see each other. There’s one tunnel without water. Probably a dead end. We’ll take cover there and try to find a way up to get to you.”
“Just a moment, brothers. I need you to pick up our chaplain. Ecurael, do you read?”, he asked, waiting for an answer. “Come on, wake up! Damn! Alright, Tiberius, Dankwart if you face the rocks, he is somewhere to your left and there is a whole lot of Orks headed his way. Hurry!”
“Voksssss?”, they heard. The transmission was bad.
“Yessss… watzss… wrong. Sssss… bottled… are you?”
“Hyron, I don’t read you, what’s going on?”
“Vox, where are the next Orks in relation to them?”, Tiberius wanted to know.
“About two-hundred metres west but there should be several walls between them.”
“Maybe they got in reach of a jammer?”, their techmarine suggested.
“Heartrocks!”, Vox commanded. “Move east! Confirm!”
“Let’s hope that does the trick”, Vox said to the air in general.
“Where is our insane brother?”, Titus wanted to know.
“Somewhere there.” Vox pointed in a seemingly random direction. “It’s not as if we can communicate without our chaplain.”
The librarian took a moment to remove his helmet and clasp it to his belt.
“We continue on”, he said, but he looked Titus in the eyes when he did so. There was the slightest suggestion of a question in there. Titus nodded his approval as faintly as possible. With Ecurael apparently unconscious, Vox was the leader for now. Titus felt honoured that he asked his tactical opinion and he did not want Solomon to pick up on it. In fact, the legate was so jittery that the two of them probably could have expressed their little exchange in dance and he would not have noticed.
“This way”, Vox said when this was worked out and led them purposefully in a certain direction.
They wandered in a surreal terrain as confusing as it was beautiful. It had certainly been easier to navigate down in the canyons. Here, fantastic rock formations barred the way at every turn, not to mention the now water-filled rifts everywhere. They crossed the canyons by throwing Solomon over and flying together after him. The legate did not like it but Vox was too heavy to be thrown instead. They already needed a good run up with the two of them hanging on the same jump pack and the thing made enough noise to be heard over the still roaring water. It was prudent to use it only once per jump unless they wanted to attract yet more Orks.
After about ten minutes of this, they heard a transmission: “Aegis, come in!”
It was Ecurael.
They all answered at once, even their Space Wolves were halfway understandable again.
“Where are you?”, their leader wanted to know.
“Tiberius and Dankwart are en route to you”, Vox informed him with an intense urgency in his voice. “You just have to hold!”
In the young, beardless face Titus could see a certain kind of hopelessness rising. What followed did not come as a surprise.
“No, turn back”, Ecurael replied. “I’m bottled in here. No need to waste three lives. Vox, you’re in charge. May the Emperor guide you well, my boys.”
They all felt him switch off the line.
“What’s going on there?”, Hyron or Vyron demanded hotly. It was impossible to tell them apart with the interference they still had.
“Tiberius, do you still have your rocket launcher?”, Vox wanted to know instead of an answer to this.
“Then give it to Dankwart. Dankwart, you are only a few hundred metres away. Get up high and see if you can still get him out. You heard him, don’t risk direct interference but do as much damage as you can. Go!”
“Affirmative”, both of them answered at once.
“Heartrocks, turn left as soon as you can. We’re close to the ruin. Vox out.” Vox stood and stared at nothing for a moment.
“Do you have any ideas?”, he wanted to know then, his face contorted in hopeless agony.
“No”, Titus said, shaking his head sadly. “You bent everything as far as you could.”
“Won’t be enough”, Vox remarked hopelessly. He turned away and the distress he had displayed so far transformed into open pain. As he walked up and down, Titus’ concerned gaze followed him. Ecurael had ended up facing the Orks alone. He had ordered them to fall back. There was no way they could help him, even if they had been in reach. Vox was left in charge. From here on, he was responsible for the mission to find a satisfactory end.
Titus could see that the imminent death of another friend was no small burden on his little brother but there was a consideration he could not spare him: “Vox, Ecurael is wearing an iron halo and a plasma pistol”, he said insistently. “If the Orks get to loot that, we are facing trouble.”
Vox nodded mutely and seemed to think for a moment.
“I’ll do something about it”, he declared then. “But now we move on.”
They had just thrown Solomon over the next canyon and made to take their run-up when Vox collapsed at Titus’ side. He fell to his knees, hardly supporting himself on shaking hands. Without pushing himself up again, he activated his vox.
“Dankwart, come in”, he said in leaden tones.
“I read”, the Blood Drinker replied.
“Do you have a missile left?”, Vox wanted to know.
“Alright, listen closely my friend”, Vox said carefully and Titus already knew the general outline of what would follow now. “Ecurael is dead. Aim the missile at him and destroy his equipment so the Orks don’t get to loot it. Confirm.”
“No!”, Dankwart insisted. “Vox, I can see him moving!”
“Not by himself. Do it, that’s an order!”
It took a whole second before the answer came in.
Titus gritted his teeth. That their quiet apothecary had answered back showed how shaken he was by the loss of their brother chaplain.
Five seconds went by in which Vox pushed himself upright and so Titus could see the sudden surprise in his face just before he said: “That was a rather large radius.”
“His plasma pistol must have exploded”, Dankwart confirmed.
“Praise the Omnissiah”, several voices came in over vox.
“Dankwart, draw back”, Vox ordered. “Regroup with Tiberius and move north.”
“On my way.”
Titus laid a hand to Vox’s shoulder plate.
“You alright?”, he wanted to know quietly. Solomon watched them nervously from beyond the gushing water.
“I’ll be fine in a minute”, Vox answered just as quietly. “Sensing friends die is just…” He shook his head. “I’ll be fine.” He took a deep, ragged breath. “At least he didn’t take as long to die as Sergei…”
Titus gave him a concerned glance but found nothing to say. When Sergei Vargov had died, Vox had indeed been worse off than now. Their new leader pulled himself together and then, they ran and jumped the canyon to the hovering Solomon.