In the shadow of the occurrences, the debriefing was a lot less organised than might otherwise have been the case. Afterwards, Inquisitor Elaine sent her legate back to the ‘Hammer of Destiny’ with them. Solomon retired to his quarters with a cold, while Aegis found nothing better to do than to default to their training routine.
Since he was the last one to have been called something approximating a leader, Tiberius took charge. His first act of office was attuning the black helmet to Titus’ armour. Silver details to please the machine spirit would have to wait until later.
“Dankwart, did you see the face of our stricken brother?”, Titus wanted to know when they were done.
The apothecary had not finished putting his helmet on, therefore the freezing of his features was well visible.
“Yes, Titus”, he said slowly.
Titus hesitated. The brother had just used twice as many words as he usually would.
“What did he look like?”, he decided to push on nevertheless.
“Dead, brother”, Dankwart stated firmly, lowered the helmet over his face and turned away.
Tiberius, who was standing nearby, patted the former captain on the shoulder. His brows were knotted in a stormy expression but his voice was calm when he said: “Come, Titus. Let’s train. It’ll make things easier. I have a unit for us you will be able to manage despite your injuries.”
Titus suspected that the two of them knew something but he left it at that. What use was there in asking further? He had sworn to keep secrets. So had they.
They managed to pretend that everything was normal for a few hours.
Only when they went to the chapel for their prayer, the lack of their chaplain became painfully apparent again.
A human preacher held a sermon for them despite the late hour but today, it was not enough. They stayed when the man retreated and prayed for Ecurael. By repeating his name they hoped to bring it to the attention of the Emperor. They also prayed for Vox to return safely and for once, it was not Titus who brought the topic up. Hyron and Vyron started it but the others joined with great severity.
Had Vox been called to battle, they could have waited stoically. War was what a Space Marine lived and died by after all. Intrigue and scheming, on the other hand, was so far beyond their essence of being that it made them nervous.
Titus was unable to bear this state. When he departed from the prayer, he went to the bridge to borrow something to write. Being condemned to idleness, he at least wanted to devise a note to Casimiré Nostromo and ask to be informed as soon as Vox returned to the ‘Hammer of Destiny’.
Since it was almost midnight when the Space Marines underwent their free time, Titus had expected the navigator to be asleep but when he strode onto the bridge, he found Nostromo awake. The sparse remains of the man’s face suggested that he had better not been but here he was, staring out of the windows of the bridge. When Titus followed his gaze, he saw that they were turned towards the ‘Lawbringer’. Clearly visible on the starboard hand, the larger ship lay alongside the ‘Hammer’.
Nostromo was startled by Titus stepping up to him.
“Master Titus”, he said with a slightly mechanical voice. “I didn’t notice you coming.”
“Forgive me, Navigator Nostromo. I’m here to ask a favour of you.”
“Please speak freely, Master Titus!”, the man prompted.
“Could you see your way clear to inform us as soon as Vox returns?”
Nostromo’s head turned back to the ‘Lawbringer’. He hovered sideways for a moment before he swung back like the pendulum of an uncertain clock.
“I’m not certain Master Vox will return”, he said very quietly.
Titus needed a moment to cope with this.
“You can sense what’s going on?”
The navigator nodded mutely.
“I’m sorry, my lord”, he said politely after a moment. “I never was good with this kind of thing. I’ve been watching the proceedings over there for an hour now and… I don’t know what to do about them! I’d suggest breaking Master Vox out and ‘accidentally’ killing this snake on the way.” He paused and took a deep, painful breath. “But even though I’m confident that we would succeed, I don’t think we’d get away with it.”
“I’m sure that Laraise has to give him back alive”, Titus said as much to convince himself as the navigator. “But it is a comfort to me that I’m not the only one harbouring these thoughts”, he admitted uneasily. He was a warrior. A lot of problems could be solved with brute force and he had been thinking along the same line for hours now. He had entered the ‘Lawbringer’ unbidden before. Dankwart and Tiberius were with them. He was certain there would have been a way to get to Vox. Especially if Nostromo could tell them where he was… But the navigator was absolutely right. They would just get themselves and their beloved friend into more trouble. Nobody ‘accidentally’ killed inquisitors and lived.
“I’ve known young Master Vox for quite a while now”, Nostromo said after a few minutes of silence. “I know I should go to sleep instead of watching this but…” Again, he hesitated. “I can’t stand the thought of turning from a friend.”
Titus breathed in deeply. The darkness of his cell had come to haunt him since Vox had gone with Laraise. Now, in the face of the all-encompassing impotence he was condemned to he thought he had to drown in it.
“Vox is an Astartes”, he managed, trying to cling to his faith. “Whatever is happening there, he is made to deal with it.”
“May the Emperor protect him”, Nostromo said as his gaze lost itself in the infinity of space.
“Harden yourself, Navigator”, Titus urged. He needed these words to be said to find comfort in them himself.
“In times like this the only thing we can do is to have faith in the Emperor and our friends. Vox will live through this and it is of no use if we stand around to suffer as well. If he knew about us, it would only add more weight to his shoulders. We must stand fast in the face of… this.”
Nostromo looked up at him. He closed his eyes for a moment, his mechanical jaw moving uncertainly. His eyebrows, the last part of expression left in his face, knotted themselves before he sighed deeply.
“You are right”, he conceded. “I thank you, Master Titus. I will, of course, inform you at once if… when he returns”, he corrected himself. Again he hovered around for a moment. This time in a circle. He seemed to find strength somewhere, straightened up on his platform and said: “May the Emperor hold His mighty hand over our friend Vox Draconis and may He also bring that forsaken individual of an inquisitor down as hard as possible!”
“Hail!”, Titus answered.
They turned to leave the bridge and Titus accompanied the navigator to the sleeping tract. The ship owner’s quarters were a bit apart from those of the Astartes. When they had exchanged wishes for a good night and Titus strode on, he heard footsteps behind him. A man in nondescript clothing came up to him without speaking.
“Who are you?”, Titus asked a little less than patiently. The man tapped his throat and shook his head. When he saw the scars there, Titus understood that the man was mute. If by accident or design he could not tell.
The human bowed again and held out a piece of folded paper.
There was something irregular in there and the paper was sticking together with a few smidgens of blood.
When he had unfolded the note, Titus needed a few heartbeats to identify the whitish, approximately round object he found. It was a fingernail. A whole one.
The writing to accompany it was luxuriant and clear: “Nothing lost yet”, it stated. “If you want him back, follow this man.”
Titus clenched his fist around the paper and struggled hard to control his anger. He wanted to scream and shake the man but he was sure that Laraise had sent a mindless minion. There was nothing to be gained here. Also, the man fled his reach hurriedly. He was dumb, not stupid. He could tell that the towering warrior was about to erupt with wrath and he was no poker-faced Solomon who took this with stoic resolve.
“Lead on!”, Titus hissed and followed the messenger.
They left the ‘Hammer of Destiny’ in a shuttle and no one tried to stop them. Titus could not believe that Laraise had managed to get an agent over here to make this happen. He also wondered how a mute person could speak the appropriate prayers for the Omnissiah to pilot a shuttle. Since they reached the ‘Lawbringer’ without incident, he marked it down as possible.
After two months of training in her bowels, Titus recognized the ship like an old friend. That it was overshadowed by the current events made it an unhappy reunion, however.
He was led to an area Aegis had mostly avoided during their drill. It was the prison tract. The mute messenger held open a door for him, bowed deeply and stayed outside.
The room was small, had nondescript, greyish walls, a table and two chairs in it. Laraise stood next to one of the chairs, waiting for him. At least her power armour was an improvement compared to the flimsy shreds she had worn during their last intimate meeting.
“Brother Titus”, she greeted him, a confident smile on her features. “I was surprised to hear that you laid down your rank.”
“Greetings, inquisitor”, Titus said coolly. He picked up on her satisfaction and could imagine why she would like this development. A Space Marine captain was practically beyond reach, even of inquisitors. Thrax had only managed to force Titus to give himself up by threatening to kill the guardsmen who had fought alongside him. A brother was much easier to get hold of. Titus felt the bitterness welling up inside him. One motive for laying down his rank had been to keep him off the inquisition’s radar, not make it easier for them to snatch him. Nothing for it now. He sat down when Laraise invited him to. The chair creaked under his weight.
“I’m happy to tell you that Vox is holding up well so far”, Laraise started and Titus knew these words for what they were: A threat. There were more than twelve hours left and Vox could be made to stop holding up well, he was sure.
“He has hardly started to ramble yet”, the inquisitor went on. “Although”, she said and made a mean, little pause. “Do you know what’s wrong with him? He seemed a bit shaky from the start.”
“He has been poisoned during the last mission”, Titus said stiffly.
“Oh”, Laraise answered, feigned concern rising in her features. “Good of you to tell me. We’ll have to take special care with him. It would be most unfortunate if he died by accident. The law covers this eventuality, of course, but what a waste that would be!”
“What do you want?”, Titus asked, sick of the games.
“I want a certain information”, Laraise said as if she had waited for her cue. “I thought Vox could give it to me but either he can’t, or he is simply unwilling to tell me. I, on the other hand, am not willing to make him suffer more than necessary, even if he is just defying me.”
Titus felt himself harden. A lie as bold as this in the face of how she had called him here… What did this woman take him for?
“I’m listening”, he said calmly. It was certainly prudent to offer her at least the prospect of cooperation.
“I want to be honest with you”, Laraise said and Titus kept his poker face. “I have encountered a few problems in the interrogation of Thrax. He hasn’t confessed yet. I have accused him and the evidence we have found so far, together with your friend’s testimony, is enough to take his status as inquisitor from him but not for the death sentence.” Laraise smiled softly. “I’m sure you of all would want to know the man condemned, wouldn’t you?”
Titus allowed himself a very weak smile. None of them had set out to do it but his time with Vox had honed Titus’ ear for the nuances of speech. Laraise had said ‘know him condemned’ not ‘know him dead’. He waited.
“I need to know what Thrax has made you do”, Laraise finally told him. “As soon as I know that, I can leave Vox alone. I have to keep him here for the stipulated time”, she admitted. “But there is no law that prevents me from letting a friend go and talk to him.”
Titus said nothing for a while. Thrax had made him fetch a sword from some daemon planet but he did not know where it had gotten to. What he did know, however, was that Laraise was straight out lying about the consequences. She wanted to accuse Thrax of heresy and as soon as Titus told her what she wanted to know, she was easily able to call him complicit in the traitor’s doings. What she really asked was that Titus exchanged himself for his friend. Still, the whole setup was strange. He was not very adept in the law but he was nevertheless sure that she could have called him as a witness in court instead of this cloak-and-dagger operation. In that case, there would probably have been no consequences for him. Why would she put him under so much pressure to get him to confess if she had a rather uncomplicated legal way to achieve her goal? Unless she wanted to gain something other than a legal outcome, of course.
“I want to see Vox”, Titus said.
“Of course”, Laraise answered. She took a pict capture from a pocket and laid it on the table.
“You insult me, inquisitor”, Titus said calmly. “Apparently there is no law to prevent you from letting a friend go and talk to him. So, why this?”
“Because I haven’t reached the goal of this investigation yet”, she answered calmly. “As soon as you testify, you may see him.”
Titus almost laughed. He could very well imagine that he would see his friend while they switched places. He gave the picture on the table a cursory glance. It showed Vox’s black and silver shape strapped to a bulky chair. His hands seemed to be bare. The resolution was bad and it was hard to make out details but this struck Titus as odd. When Thrax had started his investigation, the first thing he had taken away from Titus was his armour. Why did Vox still have his?
“Please, clarify something for me”, he asked, tired of this game. “Vox is in your care because he has testified for Elaine. By what law can you hold him here to find something against Thrax?”
“Very easy, Brother Titus”, Laraise said confidently. “As inquisitor, I am required to take any advantage for an investigation as long as I don’t break the law. Vox withholds information from me, I am sure. All I have to do is to get him to confess.”
Titus wanted to argue but he remembered the strange meal with the inquisitor. He was not versed in the art of seduction but he considered himself an intelligent onlooker in the strange game of love. Laraise had aimed to get him talking back then. He recognized the same attempt here.
“I want to speak to Vox”, he said and clarified immediately: “In person.” His friend was probably drugged and irrational, but he still was the only librarian he could call upon and Titus needed some help against this daemon of a woman. If he gave himself up, he at least needed to be certain that Vox walked free in return.
Laraise looked at him calculatingly.
“I can not give you that”, she said slowly. “But I can arrange for you to talk to him over vox.”
Titus nodded and Laraise left the room. While she was gone, he checked if their own vox was functioning but the private line to Vox felt dead. He had experienced this kind of disruption many times. His brother was being jammed. Opening a line felt different when he was the one unable to send. He was certain that he would be monitored for sounds at least, maybe someone was even watching him. Silently he blessed the gift of the black carapace. It enabled him to come to this conclusion without noise or gesture whatsoever.
After a while, a tech-priest brought in a vox caster. The artefact trailed cables and the priest performed a few rites over it, sprinkling it with machine oil in the process and burning the rest of the liquid in a small bronze bowl. The Omnissiah seemed pleased by these offerings and the machine spirit of the caster awoke. Titus knew how to use a vox caster but he endured the lengthy instructions of the tech-priest as patiently as he could.
When the man had finally left, Titus engaged the device.
There was a noise that could be interpreted as speech and probably meant something like “Who is there?”.
Titus swallowed. His little brother had difficulties getting a sentence together and this line was certainly bugged. If he gave something away in this state, matters were about to become even worse.
“It’s Titus”, he told him.
There was a pause and suddenly Vox came in clear.
“Where are you?”, he wanted to know.
“On the Lawbringer.”
“Did you tell her anything?”, the friend asked insistently.
“Not yet”, Titus said cautiously. “Vox, I wanted…”
“Brother?”, the librarian interrupted him.
“Do you trust me?”
Titus hesitated for a moment.
“Yes”, he said then.
“Enough to leave without another word?”, Vox demanded. There was a short pause before he added: “I’ll see you on the ‘Hammer’, I prom…”
And then the line was dead.