Titus used the ensuing pause to look around. With the help of his auto senses, he soon found the lead he had hoped for.
“Aegis Two, come in!”, he voxed.
“We read”, Tiberius answered him.
“On the roof of your building is a human, flanked by at least two mutants. I want that one alive!”
“Understood”, Tiberius confirmed.
It was after this exchange that Titus became aware of Vox behind the opposite pier. He still held his sword.
Titus remembered all too well what power the thing had and usually Vox put it away with his last strike. That he should have gone against this reflex, was troubling.
On top of this, new enemies closed in on them, marking their arrival by blind fire against their cover.
Titus decided that they were the lesser evil right now. Over a quickly opened private channel he ordered: “Vox, put your sword away!”
In the lack of reaction he saw that he had been right. For a moment it seemed that Vox would spring out to engage the new targets and Titus repeated his order: “Vox, get a grip on yourself and put the sword away!”
Uncertain heartbeats under the sound of gunfire passed.
Finally, with exaggerated care, Vox sheathed the sword and leaned against the mighty pillar in his back.
Titus would have liked to make sure that he had caught himself but the dense cluster of mutated cultists was about to swarm around their cover. He needed to deal with them first.
Deciding that this was worth two of his grenades, Titus was pleased to find that the enemies had not gained in courage. The explosives did enough damage to send this group running as well.
Only one maddened mutant sprang and met Titus’ chainsword coming the other way.
Having regained cover, the Ultramarine lost no further time. He put the chainsword away and, for the first time since he had met him, made ready to lift his bolter against the friend.
“Remove your helmet, little brother!”, he demanded calmly. “I want to see your face.”
Vox obeyed without a word. Even from here, the strain in his features was visible. His intense gaze lost itself in the distance but as if the removal of the helmet re-established his connection to the world, he seemed to get a grip on himself.
“Can you go on?”, Titus asked him, still using their closed, personal channel. He did not want to worry the others just yet.
“Yes”, Vox answered on the same line, his transmission sounding different now that he was sending without his helmet. “Thanks for looking out for me”, he said quietly and fiddled his microbead into his ear. “It… got a bit loud with the warp so close.”
“Leave the helmet off”, Titus decided. This would eliminate the possibility for silent communication but he was ready to exchange this for a heads-up if Vox went crazy. The tactical part of his mind supplied that it would be easier to bring him down too. As if ashamed of this thought, Titus vowed that he would not let it come this far.
It now occurred to him that Vox looked tired. This had only gone unnoticed because Dankwart had looked worse. It could only be hoped that this would turn out an excusable lapse.
“Just to be sure”, he inquired. “We are not in one of these self-fulfilling prophecies, are we? It is not you, who will rip open a stable warp gate of planet-sized proportions?”
“I’m quite sure”, Vox said and had to grin.
Titus relaxed and checked on the situation down the street. There were a lot of humans being thrown from the building the Space Wolves had disappeared into. Apart from this, it was quiet. The hostile group had fled.
“Titus, come in!”, Tiberius could be heard over vox.
“We have the human you wanted.”
“Well done. Bring him along. See that he doesn’t kill himself. Aegis, regroup on the bridge down the street! Titus out.”
It took a while until all of them had reached their rendezvous point. Hyron and Vyron scuttled up to them through the massacre of Titus’ grenades. Happy after a battle well fought, they kicked body parts aside and made inappropriate comments. Both of them had their helmets clipped to their belts but Titus let it slip. It would make Vox a little less conspicuous.
Tiberius and Dankwart met a last pocket of resistance on their way. They took their time to deal with it to ensure the survival of their captive.
When they were reunited, Titus led them down the street at an accelerated speed. After a few random turns in the maze, he chose a building that looked abandoned.
Having reached a suitable room, Vox and Dankwart retreated to the only door to guard it. The sanguine blooded said nothing, only watched while Ultramarines and Space Wolves moved about.
As soon as they had entered, the atmosphere in the room went tense. Maybe, it was because of the confined space. Maybe, because they all felt pressed for time. In any case, Titus got the distinct impression that his brothers were a lot more restive than they had been outside.
Tiberius, who was carrying their capture in his third arm, held the man up for inspection. He was alive, conscious and met the gaze of Titus’ helmet with a slightly disconcerting smile on his features.
When Titus took his helmet off, he was greeted with an imputent laugh.
“Oh dear, please, I yield!”, the mortal exclaimed. “I can’t stand this torture! Put your helmet back on and I’ll tell you anything I want!”
Titus took this calmly. The man’s hand protruded under Tiberius’ clasp. He extended his gauntleted fist and squeezed down. The captive winced as his bones ground together.
“Let’s start with a few niceties”, Titus suggested when he was sure he had his attention. “What’s your name?”
“Miguel”, he snapped. “And yours?”
“I am Titus of the Ultramarines.”
“Very pleased to meet you”, the man managed between gritted teeth.
“Damn it, brother!”, Vyron cut in at this point. “You heard what Vox said! We don’t have time! Let’s just crack his brain open and eat it if you wanna know anything!”
Titus saw fear flicker in the man’s eyes. Vyron’s cue was not too bad. A little early maybe but he still could use it.
“I’m ready to take votes on this as soon as I find my friend Miguel here too uncooperative for my liking.” He said it while still holding gaze and hand of the mortal firmly. Certainly, the man would have started to talk at this point had Tiberius not pulled him away suddenly.
“Brother, I agree, we don’t have time to waste…”
Titus felt the anger flash in his face.
“Brothers, I will not take insubordination like this!”, he growled.
“Since we are brothers, you will not be able to make this charge stick”, Tiberius said excitedly.
“You confirmed me as your leader and swore your oath under me!”, Titus snarled.
“We swore an oath to crush our enemies, not talk to them!”, Tiberius insisted, testily gesticulating with the man in his third arm.
“Brothers!”, Dankwart cut in from the door.
“You shut up!”, Tiberius burst out, spinning around, stabbing a finger towards the apothecary. He shook the human while he did it and, to tell by the man’s groan, squeezed him as well. Titus was confused by this. For some obscure reason, his fellow Ultramarine suddenly seemed at the brink of panic, ready to transform into blind wrath.
“Don’t think, I can’t hear you being silent!”, Tiberius roared and with this, he threw the human down in front of Vox.
“There”, he said with a voice, suddenly so quiet, that it was the worst threat he could have made. Disgust oozed from this single syllable as if he had rather spat than spoken.
Suddenly, it was silent.
Vox stood leaned against the wall, his arms folded. He had watched the proceedings calmly and his eyes wandered to Tiberius for a moment. Whatever passed between them remained a secret. Afterwards, their librarian turned to the human who froze in the act of struggling to his feet.
In Vox’s calm, slightly sad gaze stood no menace but they all felt it: The looming shadow of an unspoken threat so all-encompassing and incomprehensible that it chilled the air. The atmosphere certainly was a lot more portentous than Titus had managed to make it.
He was not surprised when their captive tried to flee. What did surprise him, however, was Dankwart’s reaction. Their apothecary was guarding the door. He caught the man in an almost gentle manner and pushed him carefully back towards Vox like a child he took pity on.
Tiberius had turned away. He was looking out of the only window in the room with the determined demeanour of someone unwilling to notice anything short of the house burning down.
Titus was utterly bewildered by the development. There was no sense in the behaviour of his brothers. Had it not been Vox they had called into action, Titus probably would not have kept silent. This way, he just exchanged puzzled glances with his Space Wolves. They shrugged in reassuring confusion.
Vox pushed away from the wall. He shot Titus a short glance leaving it uncertain whether it was supposed to be a request for approval. Aegis’ leader frowned and kept quiet. Carefully, their librarian placed one massive hand under the chin of the man.
A change came over the mortal as soon as the two had eye contact. Dankwart let go of him and turned away as if to guard the door again. Only this time, he looked out towards the corridor.
For a moment, everything remained still. The man just stood and stared up at Vox.
When he started to speak under the glare of the clear, blue eyes, it was in a hasty, strained voice.
“I’m Balvar, father of our tribe”, the mortal wailed. “We have lived here until our two lords came to us twelve years ago. They have defended us against our rivals and made us strong and we have given them children of their own.”
So, the cult had already developed fully grown Genestealers, the last stage infested brood creatures spawned.
“How many?”, Tiberius demanded without turning around.
“Three!”, the man gasped as if Vox had squeezed the answer out of him. Blood started to run from the librarian’s right eye.
“We were safe here!”, their captive went on. “But five weeks ago, we were ambushed by strangers and driven from our lair.”
“Tell us more about these strangers!”, Tiberius ordered, still not looking at what was happening. But Titus did. Vox’s face, wet from the rain in any case, ran with sweat. As he watched, blood stole itself into his left eye as well.
“They came out of nowhere and attacked us”, their captive squeaked. “And killed three of our lords before we could retreat. Their leaders look like humans but are sleek and pale of skin with large eyes and pointy ears, beautiful and terrifying.”
“Eldar?”, Hyron guessed.
“And their troops”, Balvar continued and writhed as if in pain. “Are of disgusting appearance, with many limbs and strange deformities. They are terrible fighters, strong and fast and ruthless, not content in killing their foes but torturing their victims even mid-battle.”
“Dark Eldar”, Tiberius said.
“Where is your old lair?”, Vyron wanted to know.
“Beneath the old gun factory”, the man gasped. “You can’t miss it. Just walk towards the closest tower from here! There are signs directing you towards it everywhere. When you get there, just make your way into the cellars.”
“Alright, let’s go”, Titus said but Vox held up a finger for him to wait.
The man started to tremble, twitching uncontrollably, yet still desperately remaining upright as if gripped in a vice. The air in the room suddenly chilled.
With a cracking, shrill voice, their captive blurted out: “There was a group of men like you, a few days ago! They came to kill our lords and the strangers came to our aid and brought them down with some kind of shock weapon! We don’t know why”, he moaned. “We tried to retake our lair several times and they were hostile up until then!”
“Where are the men now?”, Titus wanted to know.
“We don’t know!”, the man yelped. “They took them away with them! They were still alive, I’m sure!”
Vox’s features had gone violently tense. His lips were pressed together, sometimes twitching as if they tried to repeat the words he made the man say.
And then, the walls started to bleed.
“Vox, we have enough”, Titus tried but the librarian once again intensified his grip around the mind of their prisoner while his breath condensed in the air. Blood everywhere. On his face, running from the walls, building puddles on the floor. All Titus could do was to hold up his hand emphatically when he heard both of their Space Wolves draw their bolters.
“Stand down”, he muttered between gritted teeth.
“Beware their leader!”, the mortal shrieked. “He is the worst of the deformed. He flies over the battlefield, thin as death and pale and horrible… With arms and shreds of darkness clothing him…”, his voice trailed off in a gurgle and he twitched.
Now, Tiberius turned around.
In his grey eyes stood a quiet terror, made worse by the fact that he completely ignored the bleeding walls.
“Vox, he’s talking about a Haemonculus, isn’t he?”, their techmarine asked in a flat voice that conveyed all the horror an Astartes should never feel. When Vox looked up at him, their prisoner fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, sobbing, drooling on the floor.
‘I freak them out’, he had roared at Titus after the Tau station had been destroyed.
He stood before his brothers now.
The blood on the walls started to evaporate as if it had never been. Left were only the smears on the young brother’s face but that was of no concern. Titus could feel how much he freaked them out. The worst part was the man on the floor. In a stupid way, it did not matter that this bastard was the progenitor of a whole tribe of Genestealer offspring. What had been done to him could not be lessened by mere facts.
Vox could do something like this to a conscious being.
Titus felt the unsettling terror creep up and just at this moment, Vox looked over to him. He knew immediately that something had shown in his expression. Some flicker of uncertainty. Maybe, just worry about the way the situation developed.
His friend turned and ran out of the room, pushing Dankwart aside. Titus wanted to follow but this impulse ran up against his sense of duty. As the leader, he had to sort a few things out first.
“What’s a Haemonculus?”, Hyron wanted to know while they all stared after their innocent, terrifying librarian.
“You don’t want to know”, Tiberius said darkly. “But you will see you poor bastards. Titus”, he said, turning to his fellow Ultramarine and intense determination replaced the horrified disgust he had displayed until now. “We need Vox”, the techmarine announced insistently. “There is no way we will get through this without him.”
Titus nodded. He had not even considered leaving his little brother behind, he had just needed a moment to think.
“You go on ahead and find that factory”, he ordered as calmly as he could. “Don’t engage, just scout the perimeter, we’ll catch up as soon as we can.”
On their way out, Dankwart shot the man on the floor without ceremony. While the others disappeared down the street, Titus searched for Vox.