Titus found his friend around a corner under a broken street lamp. The young man knelt in the rain and was busy throwing up.
When the cramps had subsided, Vox turned his face upwards, his eyes closed. The slightly acidic rain ran over his face, washing the blood away and Titus heard him whisper something. Through the constant noise of the falling water he could only make out words when he came closer: “Whatever horrors will unfold, you lead me straight to victory. I will cross the darkest sea, struggle up each sloping hill, your warrior I aim to be, until my body remains still.”
The young man breathed in deeply and opened his eyes, just when Titus touched his shoulder guard. Vox sprang up, spun around and tried to draw his sword but after last time, Titus had anticipated this. He got a tight lock on his brother’s sword arm and pushed him back to the next wall to get him under control.
“Vox, it’s me!”, he said insistently, leaning his full weight on him. For an Astartes, another Astartes was still something, he could throw quite a distance and for a moment, Vox’s body tensed. It seemed he would fight back but suddenly, he sagged and a tremor went through him.
“I’m… sorry”, the librarian said, relaxing his grip on the sword handle. Titus allowed him to lower his arm, but still pressed him against the wall.
“I’m coming… I’m sorry…”
“Breathe, little brother”, Titus replied soothingly. “I’ve sent the others ahead. We have a minute or two.”
Vox lifted a gaze to him that felt like a stab in the hearts. There was so much pain in his gaze, so much doubt, uncertainty and despair. All the bad stuff a warrior had no use for.
Under the last smidgens of blood he could see that his friend had retained a black eye. Without thinking he laid a hand to this side of his face, carefully wiping the blood away.
There was nothing but honest concern and compassion in his features now and Vox stared into his face.
Titus paid no attention to what went on inside himself. He just knew, he felt for his brother. This man who had come for him without asking the price or shying back when it had been time to pay it. To see him as shaken as this hurt Titus in a way he was unable to express. For the sake of trying, he shifted his grip to get the friend into a careful embrace.
Hugging in power armour was difficult.
Titus did not have to ask why Vox had done what he had done. The former captain deemed himself a good interrogator but in the shortness of time he would not have gotten the relevant details out of that man. Not even if the mortal had been compliant from the start. Eating his brain would not have thrown up all the information they had gotten now. By searching the living mind, Vox had done what only he could do and he had once again brought them the tactical advantage they desperately needed.
He had put himself on the line for it.
“Thank you, little brother”, was at least something Titus found easy to say and Vox’s eyes widened for these words. Since the next light source was a bit away, they seemed even bigger and darker for this.
“We needed that heads-up.” Titus’ thumb stroked helplessly over the brother’s cheek. “But you could have mentioned what it would do to you.”
Vox looked away.
“I didn’t…”, he tried. “It’s gotten worse since…” Shaking visibly, his hands came up, rubbing over his face and he almost tried to hide behind them. “It wasn’t that bad when I…”
“When you what?”, Titus prompted and renewed the pressure of his arm around his friend. The sound of their plates grinding together accompanied this.
“When I was whole”, Vox managed a shaky whisper, from behind his fingers.
Titus found nothing to say to that. Of course, he had known that the black shield did not exactly conceal pink unicorns but Vox had kept up so well until now… A bit clumsily he pulled the friend’s head closer. Vox offered no resistance. He leaned his forehead against Titus’ cheek, curling up in his arms and held still. Only from time to time did he tremble.
Rain was the truest silence a hive could offer and they stood in the soft shadows for a while. When the moment had passed, they disentangled themselves from their embrace. Another few uncertain heartbeats went by.
“Time is short”, Vox remarked.
“Yes”, Titus agreed despite the concerns he still harboured. “Let’s move.”
They followed the street swiftly. Moving seemed to calm the friend and helped him regain focus.
“What was that you recited earlier? A litany?”, Titus asked. The moment of familiarity seemed to slip between his fingers and he felt the inexplicable need to hold on to it.
Vox looked away and swallowed once or twice before he managed: “It’s a song.”
“I’d like to hear it in full”, Titus said quietly.
“I can write it down for you”, Vox replied and Titus understood that he already offered more than he should. He patted his little brother on the shoulder plate and received a weak, sad smile.
“Of course, first we both will have to live through this”, he brought their minds back to business. “Aegis, come in! What’s your status?”
“We’ve reached the factory”, Tiberius answered. “It’s not far. We couldn’t detect any traps, you can catch up.”
“On our way.”
They broke into a run.
“Brothers”, Vox told them over the team line. “There were a few details, the man couldn’t articulate properly. From what I saw, I think there is a webway portal in this lair and the Genestealers destroyed it when Dark Eldar started to pour out. The Haemonculus must be set on repairing it. Otherwise, I don’t know why he would stay there.”
“What would he want with our brothers?”, Hyron wanted to know.
“Suffering”, Vox answered. “He will be feasting on them. Astartes can take a lot more damage before they die. For a Dark Eldar, we must be like fat meat when they only ever get porridge.”
“But we don’t suffer as much as humans”, Vyron argued.
“With the right substances, even Astartes suffer”, Dankwart provided darkly.
Titus and Vox exchanged glances. Suddenly, the suffering they had seen on each other seemed less severe. They had only faced humans, not a race living on inventive cruelty.
It had by no means been trivial. They had prevailed nevertheless. For a moment, they reached out and pressed the hand of the friend. If they sought to congratulate or comfort remained unclear. Maybe both. It lasted only for a moment in any case.
Around a few corners more their brothers stood waiting for them.
“Alright Vox, what else can you tell us?”, Titus wanted to know, while Aegis formed up around them. They all had their weapons in hand and Titus drew his bolter as well.
“I can detect three strong psychic presences down there. I’m sure one of them is Gennaro Tatius. I met him before. He must be the current librarian of Gradus. Another one must be the Haemonculus. The third one is the strongest of them and I’m sure it’s another Dark Eldar but I think it is asleep or unconscious.”
“Dark Eldar don’t have psykers”, Vyron stated flatly and Titus found himself nodding. His hypno-conditioning provided the same information.
Vox looked at them calculatingly.
“It’s not very broadly advertised”, he said slowly, hinting that he was going to part with forbidden knowledge. “But they do have some. That we should find two in one place worries me, however”, he admitted. “At least this would explain the warp leaking through. They usually live somewhere else and aren’t used to restraining their powers like we do.”
“Is this the reason they will open the rift?”, Titus inquired.
“I think so”, Vox confirmed. “I can imagine that they don’t even notice what’s going on here.”
“Great”, Titus sighed. “A world destroyed by carelessness.”
“Not the first one I’ve heard of”, Hyron said darkly and grinned when they all looked at him. “Carry on”, he suggested.
“Alright”, Vox started reluctantly. It took him a moment to sort out what he could tell them. Knowledge was power and not everyone was allowed to wield it.
“Haemonculi are old and powerful Dark Eldar”, he told them. “They can shape flesh and create abominations from body parts. Watch out for things like that. There are reports of Haemonculi using some kind of anti-grav apparatus that enables them to fly. Apart from that, no two are alike. If we are very lucky, we will get this one by surprise because he is busy torturing our brothers. We should try to get them out, by the way. If a rift occurs, they might be consumed and stabilise it.” He signalled that he had finished by turning his gaze to Titus.
“Very well”, their leader took the cue. “We’ll try to make that happen but first and foremost, we will take the two Dark Eldar down. After that we can sweep up the pieces.”
“Let me take point”, Vox asked. “I’m sure I can get most guards out of the way before they have time to announce us.”
Titus nodded and wondered whether he should let Vox put his helmet on again. Briefly, he weighed the benefits of keeping silent against spotting when his little brother got into trouble.
“Move!”, he finally commanded, deciding that he rather wanted to see his librarian’s face and maybe not keep silent instead of shooting him too soon.
Or too late.