With Almond getting unstable, the Mandeville Point of the system had shifted. The Fleet of Destiny now faced about a day of hasty real time travel before a warp jump would be possible. In a short meeting with Nostromo and his captains the frontier world of Pellor had been identified as the most sensible destination. There, they hoped to find enough military presence to destroy Almond.
Having handed the task over, the Space Marines were free to return to their duties. For most of them, this meant submitting to Dankwart’s care in the apothecarium.
With most of Gradus and Tiberius to require attention, Titus was quickly dismissed and he left the still badly injured Dankwart to spend his own healing duty upright and busy.
Freed from this part of his obligations, he turned to his equipment. His armour had been so badly damaged, that he was unable to tend to it himself. With scores of tech-priests on board, this was a small problem, however. Even with Tiberius out of order there were enough technical experts at hand. After the adepts of the Machine God had peeled him out of his armour, Titus used his chance to get clean. His bathing ritual was scheduled for the day after tomorrow but after a mission, this lapse was allowable. Afterwards, he found the Heartrocks in the mess, polishing weapons.
It was then that he noticed Vox’s absence. Aegis’ librarian had been pretty mangled after the mission but neither in the infirmary, nor in the halls of the Omnissiah had Titus caught a glimpse of him. On inquiry, the Space Wolves denied knowledge of his location.
Usually, Titus would have expected to see his little brother for prayer and left him alone but there had been something in the body language of Hyron and Vyron just now. A slight tensing, a minimal hastening of their movements as they readied their weaponry. The psyker missing after a day like this boded ill. Titus decided to check on him before anyone else would.
In the corridor, he met Orin Gahannen. The Red Templar was deeply sunken in thought and Titus had to repeat the question if he had seen Vox before he could understand it. Apparently, Orin had been talking to the librarian a few minutes ago but did not know where he had gone.
After a short deliberation, Titus forewent the detour to the observation deck, where the conversation had taken place, and went straight to Vox’s room instead.
When his knock remained unanswered, he tested the handle. The room was unlocked and the light was switched on inside.
“Vox?”, he asked as he entered cautiously.
Vox was sitting at his writing table and Titus knew at once that something was wrong. His friend usually radiated a serene content when he guided the quill over the paper. Now, he seemed strained. Even from here, Titus could see how much he had blotted and how tensely he was scratching the letters onto the parchment. As Titus stepped inside, Vox leaned back from what he had written, staring at the paper as if cursing it. The quill slowly crumbled between his restless fingers.
Without another warning, Vox jumped up and flipped the table, sending the ink flying in a dramatic arch. There might have been ghastly faces flashing behind the black droplets but Titus had no time to regard them. He leapt over the table and tried to push his friend backwards against the wall.
His efforts never exceeded the attempt.
Unarmed and unarmoured Titus was suddenly in the worst situation he could think of. Vox swiped his hands out of the way and made a grab for his neck. He could not evade it. Only his presence of mind made him grab the bolt pistol from the brother’s side as he fell backwards.
Bracing himself for the impact of a Space Marine in full armour on his unprotected flesh, he clawed his fingers into Vox’s throat and put the pistol under his chin.
Yet, he could not bring himself to pull the trigger. Vox’s desperately widened eyes were fixed on his face as if he could do something, as if there was a handhold he could provide. This moment of falling backwards was crammed with strange and elusive things that seemed to leak sideways, weaving tendrils of meaning Titus failed to comprehend. All he knew was that the thump of hitting the floor was not accompanied by the stinging pain of crushed flesh.
Seconds went by.
And then: Nothing.
Vox had landed over him, not on him and now, he did not move anymore. From his eyes and nose ran blood, making soft, warm little taps on Titus’ chest. Other than his own fingers that were clawed into Vox’s throat, the brother’s hands had only grasped the sides of Titus’ head. They were bare for the writing and rested there as if Vox had tried to hold on to something but lost his grip. Slowly, the bleeding eyes closed and Vox sagged onto the pistol at his throat as if it was the only thing holding him up.
Titus was at a loss. He tried to sit up, pushing the brother backwards and Vox let it happen, rolling to his back like a defeated animal. The psyker laid down, turning his palms up in submission while the unarmoured Ultramarine came to kneel on his breastplate.
Only when his little brother swallowed and turned his head away from the door, did it dawn on Titus, that they were not alone anymore. Casimiré Nostromo hovered in the door frame. Even without his armour, Titus was almost twice as tall as the navigator and he could only see him from the corner of his eyes but the man had come fast and radiated the intent to interfere.
“Master Titus?”, the navigator asked and the sheer, controlled calmness of his words was a threat. “May I ask what happened?”
Titus had not turned to him. He held the pistol firmly in place, his other hand still pressing down with force while his gaze was fixed on Vox’s features. A clear tear caused little swirls in the blood pooling on the bridge of the brother’s nose.
“I do not know”, Titus answered. Coldness welled up inside him and he loosened his grip. The muscles on the neck of an Astartes were strong and he estimated his grasp too inaccurate to have cut off blood- or air flow but he suddenly felt that Vox should not be gripped like this.
“Can you at least tell me why you didn’t pull that trigger?”, Nostromo inquired carefully.
“Because he’s still Vox”, Titus said, his voice flat with grief as he stared down at the lifeless, defeated body. He had lain like this once and there had been only one person ready to pick him up.
“How can you tell?”, Nostromo demanded.
“How can you not?”, he asked back and finally lifted his gaze to the navigator. The man was less than an arm’s length away. Titus could have reached out and touched him. Nostromo watched the silent tableau with this peculiar lack of expression on his mechanical face. The simple, dark-red robe he wore was probably a sleeping garment. Suddenly, Titus understood that Vox’s quarters were not apart from the rest of them. They were next to the navigator’s. The realisation was a cold trickle in his soul. Vox slept next to his very own, certainly deadly chaperone.
“You are the one who watched him suffer on another ship. How can you not tell?”, he demanded when Nostromo did not answer readily.
“I can”, the navigator said slowly and seemed to decide something. “Could you stay with him?”, he asked. “He sent out a strong pulse of energy and I need to go and see who died because of this.”
Titus swallowed. He had not anticipated consequences like that.
“I will”, he promised.
“Good…”, the navigator said and made to hover away but seemed to remember something. He returned, flying a tiny circle on his platform. “Master Titus?”, he asked.
“I don’t know how but he got stable again”, the man declared and hesitated before he framed the next statement: “I’d prefer it if you didn’t shoot him down unless it’s strictly necessary.”
“Don’t worry”, Titus said with a blank face behind which concern and confusion raged. “I’m not very trigger-happy when it comes to shooting my librarian.”
Nostromo nodded and left. The door fell softly shut behind him.
As soon as he was out of the room, Titus laid the bolt pistol aside.
He reached out and gently, gently wiped the tear away.
Vox did not react. He lay with closed eyes, breathing faintly and Titus was not even sure if he was still conscious.
“Damn it, little brother”, he murmured. “What have you been up to?”
The paper, Vox had been writing on, lay half hidden under the golden strands of his hair. Ink had sprayed over it but it was still readable. Titus picked it up and read:
Here I stand in darkness still.
Oh, father on your throne of gold.
I will carry out your will.
The night is long but I will hold.
Here I walk in darkness cold.
On the path you chose for me.
Whatever horrors will unfold,
You lead me straight to victory.
I will cross the darkest sea,
struggle up each sloping hill
Here the text broke off but Titus remembered what Vox had whispered in the rain and added the last lines quietly for himself:
Your warrior I aim to be,
Until my body remains still.
He looked down at the still body of his friend.
And then, he heard clattering feet outside.