It had been too late to go to bed and Aegis made use of the special permits of the Deathwatch. Being allowed to pray without a member of the Ecclesiarchy, they did so and started training.
Titus took the whole situation worst of all closely followed by the Heartrocks but none of them stayed unaffected. Had Tiberius not declared unarmed combat so they could brawl themselves into blessed exhaustion, they would probably have seriously harmed each other. This way, the only thing that happened was Titus’ lung ripping open again when Tiberius threw him against a wall. This stopped him from exactly nothing. He simply took his newly acquired helmet off and spat blood at his brothers to cloud their vision. Much later, he thought that this might have been the moment when he had settled the hierarchy with Hyron and Vyron. The wolves were certainly prepared to give someone lead who was even more bent on battle than they were.
It got no better after the midday meal and -prayer and the Emperor Himself must have held his hand over them. It could be the only reason why no one had been killed yet when Casimiré Nostromo appeared out of nowhere on their training ground. Tiberius almost trod on him and Dankwart could only just push their techmarine aside to save the navigator. Nostromo’s half mechanical face looked as excited as it could and he had to clear his throat several times before he managed: “I have just been informed that Master Vox is being transferred from the ‘Lawbringer’!”
“Is he alive?”, Titus demanded, causing stares of horror.
“He is!”, Nostromo exclaimed and hovered an excited circle.
Titus turned on his heel and ran to the hangars, the others following close behind. Nostromo’s robe trailing in the headwind revealed the cables underneath as he matched their speed.
They reached the hangar just when a thunderhawk had received docking permission.
It took unbearably long until the gunship finally opened its tailboard. When the lost brother came into view, it took no medical training to ascertain that it could literally become necessary to pick him up.
The slim figure of Inquisitor Elaine walked at his side and the librarian tried hard not to lean on the woman as he swayed down the ramp. She looked tough in her current clothing but the weight of a fully grown Astartes was nothing she would have been able to lift.
Vox wore no helmet. His bruised face was grey and tense. Sweat ran down it and his breath came raggedly. Otherwise, he looked exactly like they had last seen him. Sprayed with fragments of exploded stone, blood-encrusted, with half a dozen or so holes in his belly armour and a whole lot of dents where the plates had protected him from the rest of the salve. At least the wound in his shoulder seemed to have closed enough not to drip blood all over the floor.
Unlike the others who had halted in shock when they had seen him, Titus hurried to his friend’s side. He was just in time to catch him when he fell over in the attempt to bow to Elaine. Sadly, he was of little use. His own injuries prevented him from grabbing the brother properly. Only when the Space Wolves decided to help, they got Vox upright.
Elaine watched the proceedings with grave concern.
“My greetings, Aegis”, she said and waited to receive their short salutations.
“Ah, Master Nostromo is here as well I see”, she added afterwards. “This is fortunate. I wish to talk to you.”
The navigator bowed his consent as he hovered closer.
For the last time Elaine looked Vox up and down and real fury fleeted behind her controlled expression.
“I’ll await word from you”, she said with a curt nod. “May the Emperor protect you, Vox.”
“You too”, Vox mumbled and dangled his feet as he hung between the Heartrocks. Followed by Nostromo, Elaine turned to disappear into the thunderhawk.
Vox meanwhile twisted out of the Space Wolves’ grip and stumbled immediately. He was caught by Dankwart who had come up to them.
“Leave me ‘lone”, their librarian slurred and pushed the apothecary away.
“Do you know what they have given you?”, Dankwart asked, keeping hold of Vox’s wrists. Titus felt his stomach wanting to crumple up. He remembered all too well what inquisitors could ‘give’ to a Space Marine. Who knew what effect the substances in addition to the Eldar poison would cause? And he had left his friend there…
“Didn’t pray much attenshn to labels”, Vox declared indistinctly. With a groan he twisted his wrists out of Dankwart’s grasp. He stumbled sideways and tried to hold on to Titus when he lost his balance again. A cramp made him curl up on the floor and they heard him retch. After a moment, things subsided without result.
“Don’ worry”, Vox mumbled as he stumbled to his feet again. “Left it all on her floor already.” He took a few determined steps forward and pushed Tiberius aside even though he was not in the way.
Dankwart made another attempt to lead Vox by the arm.
“I’ll bring you to the infirmary”, he declared quietly.
“Yeah, tha’s gonna happn!”, Vox exclaimed as if offended by this. “Leave me, ‘ said! I’ll sleep it offfh…”
They all stared after him as he tottered away erratically.
“Dankwart”, Titus said in a stunned tone of voice. “He’s still badly hurt.”
“I’ll treat him later”, the apothecary declared mildly.
Titus was annoyed about this. Unprepared to let his friend go off alone again he decided to let it lie, however. Instead, he followed with a mumbled sentence about helping him find his room.
Considering his condition the fugitive had managed to get quite far away when Titus caught up with him. He was leaning against the wall around a corner, shaking with the effort to fight down another attack of nausea. Several humans gave him puzzled looks as they walked by. Whatever the inquisitor had given him, it would probably have killed a small town if it was still as bad as this. Raising his head with great effort, Vox focused sluggishly on Titus.
“You creep me out”, he said bluntly. “Suddenly… You’re there!”
He turned and walked on, bumping into the wall every few steps to steady himself.
“I wear power armour and don’t try to walk silently. You should be able to hear me”, Titus noted.
“Emperor have mercy on…”, Vox started to reply but suddenly turned his head and stared at a passerby who hastened his steps when he noticed this. “That one!”, he finished.
Vox stopped to sag against the wall and Titus decided to speed things up. He grabbed his friend and dragged him over to the nearest transportation servitor. The thing was merely a platform with a bannister and a few wheels. A head dangled on a chain in front of it like a very grotesque lamp.
Vox interrupted Titus when he wanted to give it directions to their quarters and tried to talk to the thing himself. After several failed attempts of interpretation, it turned out that Vox’s room was quite a bit apart from the others.
“Good grief, brother”, Vox murmured and fell into his arms when the thing lurched. “How’d you take three years of this?”
Titus was so shocked by the question that he forgot to put Vox on his own feet again. Instead, he held on to him.
“I… don’t know”, he admitted. An unhelpful part of him reasoned that this was probably not the right time to talk about serious topics like this.
“One day at a time, I suppose.”
“At least you din’t have to get frm place to place”, Vox said despondently and leaned his head against Titus’ shoulder plate.
“That was a great help of course”, he said bitterly.
“’m sorry”, Vox mumbled. “I thought could turn this into’n complimnt… Kinda got bit out of hand I s’pose…”
“Why did you commit to that snake in any case?”, Titus demanded.
The friend took an uneasy breath.
“Din’t see her coming…”, he admitted.
“What do you mean?”
“She asked the commander for my support in the invest… inves… what’s the word?”
“Investigation?”, Titus supplied.
“Yeah. That one. On Elaine. Since we nabbed Thrax together… Asked me for the next inquisitor.”
“Was that why you testified?”
“Yeah. Was stupid of me.” Vox gave a bitter, little laugh. “Should’ve called myself prejudiced but I wanted to prove Elaine clean… Good woman that. Ruthless and fierce and… really moral for’n… Her line of work.”
“And you were required to commit yourself to Laraise for a whole day for this?”
“Yep”, his friend confirmed with inappropriate happiness. “Ran right into her trap. When I couched… Nah, vouched for you, we did it beforehand…”
Titus felt himself getting cold inside. Vox had done this before?
“Damn it Vox! What kind of person are you?”, he managed. “You endure this for someone you don’t even know?”
“Wha?”, he asked, sounding offended. “I know you! You’re mah brother!”
“No, I mean then”, Titus snapped harshly, almost shaking his friend for the thought.
“When? Oh! Then. Wasn’t so bad then. She wanned Thrax, so I got ‘way with some light questioning.”
“And this time she wanted to get to me.”
“Juss ssat sword.”
Titus looked straight ahead for a few seconds.
“How do you know about that?”
“I can read minds”, he reminded him.
“I forgot”, Titus said curtly and for once it was true. Since Vox had made it clear that he could not use this power against him, it had slipped his mind that he was able to do it in general. The sheer enormity of this ability was suddenly very disconcerting. After all, the real question was: Whose mind did Vox not read?
The servitor lurched again and Titus was glad that he had refrained from loosening his grip. Although he severely hoped that nobody would comment on Space Marines cuddling on an open transportation servitor.
“What did she want with the sword?”, he asked to distract himself from this thought.
“Just tempted, the woman”, Vox mumbled. “Still telling herself that she’s doing it all for the best and the Emperor… and such like.” His head lolled against Titus’ breastplate. “But give her n little more time and she wants daemonhood.”
The servitor stopped, its ghastly skull dangling from its chain as it came to a halt. Titus renewed his grip on Vox and manoeuvred them both down. He opted for dragging the friend to the closest door, suppressing a feeble curse as he did so. The wounded limbs gave him far more trouble than he liked to admit. His armour did not provide painkillers for old injuries unless a fight ensued. How the machine spirit distinguished these cases was a mystery to normal people and the techmarines and -priests never parted with the secret.
“And Elaine got you out of there?”, Titus asked.
“Yeah, you should have seen Laraise’s face when she was announced.” Vox sniggered and fell against the door, which he utterly failed to open. It was at this point that Titus got aware of the fact that he had seen this corridor before. Nostromo had entered the room right next to this one only a couple of hours back. Instead of sleeping apart from his brothers, Vox slept next to the navigator.
Titus might have inquired about this puzzle if Vox had not fallen into the room at this point. The cabin was unspectacular. Apart from a writing table the exact counterpart to Titus’ own sleeping cell. He sighed and managed to drag the brother to the bed.
It took their combined effort and several false starts to get Vox onto the narrow slab a Space Marine occupied during his short nights. When this had happened, Titus was assailed by a whole flood of most unpleasant thoughts. The memory of the fingernail he had received. That Vox’s hands had been bare on the pict capture. How he had moved and failed to operate said hands since he was back.
Gritting his teeth, Titus searched for the way to take the brother’s gauntlets off. He felt slightly guilty about ignoring the machine spirit in this but did it anyway. There was a slight click and then, the gauntlets slid off.
Vox lay on his back. He looked at him calmly, without flinching while Titus glared at the sight that offered itself. Vox’s hands were cut open and there were so many patches of burned flesh that they overlapped in places to form several huge blisters. Everywhere else the skin was raw as if peeled off and parts of it had probably been left inside the gauntlet. To his horror Titus saw that, not only was every single fingernail missing, they had actually stabbed through Vox’s hands several times.
“Don’t do any stupid”, Vox said very quietly when Titus gently lifted one of the mistreated hands to take in the full extent of the devastation. He had seen many wounds in his time. A small part of his mind insisted that he should hardly notice these but what he saw here was more than a wound. It was testimony that Vox had taken a blow for him. Laraise had wanted to get him and Vox had been in the way.
And the only words he had heard from him had been the means to ensure that Titus was safe and stayed that way.
“There must be something we can do”, Titus growled menacingly.
“Not like this”, Vox managed.
“What do you mean?”, Titus demanded furiously.
“Can’t fight her with force”, the brother said, starting to shake softly. “Sh’ kept in the rules.”
“And that’s all it takes for her to get away with this?”, Titus snarled.
“Look”, Vox slurred and tried to push himself into a sitting position, reaching his mangled hands out for him. He laid them painfully on his shoulder plates and Titus sat down to steady him. Vox fixed his blue eyes on him intently. From one moment to the next, something changed about his brother. He seemed to regain his focus and control.
“There are things Laraise doesn’t know”, he said very clearly. “She doesn’t know that Dankwart provided me with a powerful antidote against the bullets and that I’m able to control the flow of that. So, in the crucial moments, I was never as drugged as she needed me to be. This goes especially for the last substance that should have left my mind so scrambled that I wouldn’t remember anything clearly. She doesn’t know that I can read minds. Usually, I wouldn’t have gotten anything anyway. Inquisitors are extremely hard to read. They get something that’s called ‘Bastion of the Mind’ but that simply crumbles away when someone is as angry as she was when she came back from that little interlude with you. Laraise also doesn’t know how fond Elaine is of me and how fond Ferone is of Elaine. The commander will share my full report with her, which he isn’t required to do for anyone but the Inquisitor of the Chamber if he asks.” Vox sagged and Titus understood that his friend had used the remains of the antidote to tell him this. It was wearing off again already.
“She killed two of our brothers and I couldn’t get her for that”, the librarian whispered. “I’ve been trying to get at her ever since and when she came in yesterday, I finally got what I needed. Because of your resilience. Do you understand?”
Titus could do nothing but nod.
“I promise you, brother”, his beloved friend vowed. He started to shake again and slowly curled up. “As soon as I can pick up a quill again, I will bring that bitch down so hard, she won’t be able to hear the smack.”
The last of his strength drained from him and Vox sank forward. Titus caught him as gently as possible with both of them in armour.
“She’ll never come fh… you again”, Vox muttered leaning on Titus’ shoulder plate. “You’rrhsafe. I get revenge. Worth it.”
“Vox, you’re an utterly crazy man!”, Titus exclaimed.
“I’m the psyker”, Vox said, turning his head and pressing his forehead to Titus’ cheek for a moment. “It’s my job.”
There really was no answer to this. Titus hated the helpless feeling welling up inside him. It was so akin to what he had felt back in his cell, but this time it was even worse because it was his little brother who had suffered.
And he had suffered for him.
Vox sank back on his sleep slab, still looking at him with half-open eyes.
“You honour me, brother”, the librarian whispered.
“Vox, you’re rambling”, Titus said gruffly, trying to swallow all the strange emotions that made him shaky and jittery and probably unreasonable.
“No, ’m not”, his friend disagreed and blinked sluggishly, not managing to open his eyes again. “You could’ve done something. You could’ve given in, but… you stood fast”, he said with closed eyes. “’t didn’t come easy to you I know, but for that, ‘vrything worked out. We’ll get revenge. We’ll get that w’man out of the galaxy. Because you put trust in me. I’m honoured, brother. And I thank you.”
Titus looked again at Vox’s mistreated hands. Even though the mere sight of them made him livid, he had to admit that, from a rational point of view, they had gotten off lightly. The effects of the drugs would wear off and Vox had lost no digits. His hands would heal. Titus, on the other hand, would not have survived.
Vox gave a little grunt.
“Why didn’t they take your armour away?”
The librarian actually managed a snigger.
“My black shield prrtects mah body. ‘m entitled to fight anyone who tries to takes… armour away from me.” He laughed happily. “Only F’rone can order me to take it off and guess whose order she didn’t get!”
“So, they made do with your hands?”
“Snstive things, hands”, Vox muttered. “An’ all these veins for injectng… stuff.”
Suddenly, Vox tried to fight himself back through his dwindling consciousness.
“Brothr?”, he managed and his breath heaved, giving testimony of how much he had to strain himself to stay awake. “Do me a favour?”
“Anything”, Titus said, leaning down to his friend to catch his words.
“Could you… stay clear of ‘quisition? Keep safe, so I don’t have to… Cause y’know… You can save me from xenos and so on, but on… field of law, I’m the one with a weapon… so, it’s me… I must protect…” His voice trailed off.
“I’ll try”, Titus said quietly.
He realised once again how badly hurt his beloved friend still was. The holes in his armour were ugly reminders that he had to cope with more than whatever Laraise had given him. When Vox had fallen utterly silent, Titus stepped outside and opened a private vox channel.
“Dankwart, come in.”
“I read”, the apothecary replied immediately.
“Vox would be holding still for treatment now.”
“I think so.”
“Then let him and come back.”
Titus gritted his teeth.
“Dankwart…”, he started.
“No, Titus”, the apothecary interrupted and Titus was completely taken aback. Dankwart never did something like this.
“There’s a reason, I’m with Aegis”, he made clear. “If I say leave him, you leave him. Do you understand?”
Titus stared at the opposite wall, his mouth open.
“I… understand”, he managed. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to offend you”, he added hurriedly.
“It’s alright. Now, come back. Dankwart out.”
Titus gritted his teeth and the first sentence of the Codex Astartes sprang to his mind: “They shall be pure of heart and strong of body, untainted by doubt and unsullied by self-aggrandisement.”
Well, so much for that. He swallowed hard on his injured pride. Keeping in mind that he was fallible had certainly been a far nobler thing to do when he had still been a captain. As a brother, it mainly was humbling. For the first time, he felt truly degraded.
He got a grip on himself, checked on Vox’s breathing once more and when he found it flat but regular, he went back to training.