During the slightly pointless guard earlier, Vox had instigated Titus to take a surreptitious nap. By leaning against the wall and stiffening his armour joints, the Ultramarine had accomplished a refreshing pause without anyone commenting. On the properly planned way back, the higher speed allowed them to outrun most of their Ork encounters. Therefore, Vox took the opportunity to catch up on his desperately needed sleep as well. While he slumbered in the chariot, Titus kept an eye on him.
To stay inconspicuous, they were travelling last in their convoi.
It happened when they entered the large hall of another imperial ship. Vox suddenly jerked awake. While his helmet turned upwards to the vaulted ceiling he croaked: “Incoming!”
The warning came too late.
A dozen Genestealers were swarming in the shadows of the ceiling and several dropped onto the first servitor only a split second later. Even Tiberius and Dankwart, so accustomed to their librarian, had no time to react.
Titus saw their apothecary go down under two of the xenos at once while Tiberius managed to fling himself off. The Space Wolves up ahead left their servitor to keep their distance and brought their weapons up. Beating out their staccato rhythm, the heavy bolters tore one Genestealer to shreds and wounded a second. What they mainly accomplished, however, was to mark out the twins as prime targets. The beasts were swift and cunning, fully capable of ganging up on a dangerous opponent. The ones remaining on the ceiling were already headed in the right direction.
The enemies had used their surprise attack to the fullest. Only Titus and Vox had none of them in their backs yet.
Retreating to the corridor they had left earlier was the only sensible option. Therefore, it took Titus wholly by surprise when Vox grabbed him by one arm and pushed forward with his jump pack. The servitor toppled over under their movement. It made enough trouble for the Genestealers that landed on it shortly afterwards, to buy them valuable seconds.
Vox amplified his voice and cried for all of them to hear: “Forward! Out of the hall!”
Titus twisted in his grip and wanted to roar the counter demand. In a situation like this, running into the confined space of an unexplored corridor was the worst thing they could do but he never got the words out.
Having already passed the wolves by, Vox used their momentum to throw his partner in the direction he had chosen for them.
Titus crashed into a Genestealer, conveniently freeing Tiberius who had been brought to the ground by it a heartbeat ago.
Being used as a living projectile actually was one of the few things their training had not covered. In the circumstances Titus had his work cut out to come to his feet again. A claw strike made a deep scratch into his shoulder guard before the Genestealer was knocked aside by Tiberius’ third arm. Curiously unconcerned with engaging the foe, however, their techmarine followed Vox’s order and example. He grabbed Titus and dragged him forward at a dead run.
They reached the corridor and automatically took station to the left and right. The wolves joined them moments later.
Only now was it possible to ascertain what was going on.
Vox was the only one still outside, busy dodging the beasts. Titus had anticipated that he would take the xenos on by himself like he had attacked the daemons, or fall back to them to shield them with his flame power. Instead he ripped his helmet off and hurled it into the face of one of his attackers. In the little breathing space this gave him he darted sideways and headed for the fallen Dankwart, most of the Genestealers on his heels.
Titus felt his stomach crumpling up. Trying to save a dead comrade was never worth risking a second death. It was one of the most fundamental rules of warfare. What was his little brother doing?
They saw Vox shaking his hands, throwing his gauntlets off in the motion. Then, he crashed into the single Genestealer, still sitting on the apothecary’s chest.
A heartbeat later, the world exploded into white flames.
Around Titus the surviving comrades shrank back with cries of surprised pain.
He glanced around at them in astonishment. All he felt was a hot wind.
Had he been able to see anything, he would have left by now, trying to help. Yet, even with his auto senses dimming the roaring inferno, there was nothing to be made out in it.
It lasted seconds.
Aeons by the measure of a fight.
When it finally subsided, they all blinked in the effort to ascertain the situation and take steps.
There were no steps to be taken. No tactics required. No target to find. The hall was innocent of Genestealers. Only their psyker knelt next to Dankwart at a little distance. Small white flames still licked over both their bodies. The other four stared in disbelief as Vox pulled the fallen brother into a sitting position.
They all heard the whisper: “Dankwart!”
The ever so silent word echoed and danced through the hall like surf washing back and forth on the shore.
On the edge of his vision, Titus saw a movement. The tension inside him sprang loose. With force, he kicked Hyron into Vyron and stormed towards the friends in the hall. He crossed the distance with a few mighty leaps and reached Vox just in time. Crashing into the friend, he took the bullet aimed for his head in the back.
Vox toppled over under Titus’ weight and several more shots went off before silence fell again. Titus lay curled around his little brother, waiting for the noise to subside and the pain to get through the battle drugs. When it went quiet, he found only the initial bullet providing a burning point of agony in his back.
Cautiously, he looked around.
Dankwart was kneeling over them. He had brought his storm shield up to give them cover.
Silent heartbeats went by. Then, Dankwart stood up.
Proud and tall like they had never seen him, the apothecary faced the brothers who came out of their corridor. He wore no helmet. Blood encrusted his blonde hair.
Titus saw that Tiberius was still aiming his bolter and that all three comrades stared at the Blood Drinker. The Space Wolves in open, helmetless disbelief.
“Back off, brothers!”, their apothecary demanded while Titus’ almost perfect memory insisted that he had seen the Genestealer bury a claw up to the elbow in Dankwart’s ribcage.
“I could count your organs!”, Tiberius said accusingly.
“No, you had no time for that”, came the unmoved reply. “I saw you go down as well before Vox killed them.”
“Are there any more Genestealer here?”, Titus wanted to know. He was desperate to get their minds on other things. When Dankwart turned around, however, he had to admit that Genestealers seemed less of a headache.
The whole front of Dankwart’s armour had been ripped away. Underneath, unscratched skin stretched over bulging muscle bundles. The apothecary was covered in blood but unharmed.
At least the Space Wolves managed to shake off their surprise and moved out to secure the area.
Regardless of Tiberius, Dankwart pushed Titus off Vox. The young brother lay with his eyes closed. For a terrible moment, the Ultramarine thought him dead but Dankwart began to work with the utmost possible composure.
“Titus, are you alright?”, he wanted to know while he extended something on his narthecium.
“I’m the one still moving”, Titus pointed out reproachfully.
“Just wanted to make sure”, the apothecary gave back and began his rites.
Titus took his helmet off. As soon as he had lowered it, he got a kick in the face that sent him over backwards.
When he checked, he found himself pinned to the floor by the considerable weight of their techmarine. The muzzle of a bolter was aimed at his head.
“Give me one reason, not to shoot you!”, Tiberius growled and Titus knew without explanation what he meant. He had saved a psyker about to be shot by one of his comrades. When he thought about it, he was astounded that Tiberius had stopped his attempt at all. Maybe it had been because nobody had fought back. A lack of resistance was perplexing for someone who was used to knowing who the enemy was.
That there should be a question instead of the next bullet was a hopeful circumstance. Not least because Titus had found the answer to this one, shortly after Almond. He held the helmet’s gaze calmly.
“I am resistant to the warp”, he replied.
Behind the techmarine’s helmet he could see no features twitch but to tell by the silence that followed, he had hit the nerve. Breathless seconds went by before Tiberius lowered his bolter. His foot remained on Titus’ chest, however.
“You are blinded by your affection for Vox, brother”, he started.
“No, Tiberius”, Titus interrupted as calmly as he could while looking up at him. “The contrary is the case. I’ve watched all of you. You are blinded by the forces Vox calls up. Whenever he reaches into the warp, you get nervous. While Vox commands the forces he calls, you get trigger-happy. I, on the other hand, remain unaffected. Whatever he pulls off, I can still judge whether he is a danger or not and I tell you here and now: He is not and he was not the whole time!”
“I can detect no kind of mutation”, Dankwart provided from the side.
Infuriated, Tiberius’ head snapped around.
“What did he do to you?”, he demanded hotly.
“He healed me”, the apothecary answered with a strange, intense calmness.
“I’ve never heard of any Space Marine healing anyone!”, Tiberius snapped.
“I have met human psykers who can”, Titus pointed out. “And who knows what his chapter teaches?”
That was the wrong comment.
Tiberius brought his bolter around. This time towards Vox.
Calmly, as if he had seen it coming, Dankwart drew his own bolt pistol and took aim. He had the weapon in position first.
“Don’t aim at my patients”, he demanded. Only now did he raise his piercing stare to their techmarine. There was something in his face he had never displayed since Titus had met him. Dankwart was a warrior as were they all but violence usually was something he did. Not something he was.
“Have you gone nuts?”, Tiberius asked flatly.
“No, but I might in a minute”, the apothecary stated. The sheer calmness of his voice was a threat. This was not the quiet Dankwart who was content in silence. This man clung to his composure by the tips of his fingers.
Tiberius finally shrank back. He even put his bolter away and removed his foot from Titus’ chest.
“What Titus says sounds logical to me, brother”, Dankwart stated and put his bolt pistol away as well. “I’ve also noticed that we get nervous when Vox uses his powers. I suggest that we hand the matter of when to shoot our librarian over to our specialist with warp resistance. What do you say?”
“Dankwart, you freak me out!”, Tiberius burst out instead of an answer. “If you utter one more coherent sentence, I will shoot you down and then proceed with the other two!”
“No, you will not. Shall I tell you, why?”, Dankwart asked and pulled Titus upright to check on the wound in his back.
“No, please don’t”, Tiberius refused. “That would include more words from you.”
The Heartrocks came back from their perimeter search. Their arrival gave the background a well guarded but slightly sheepish feel.
“How about you help me patch up my armour and then I take the wolves out for a little hunt?”, Dankwart suggested. “You two can take Vox back to the ‘Hammer’ in the meantime.”
Tiberius took his helmet off. He did it without the appropriate rites. He lost not a single word about it. This was unsettling on a whole new level. They all stared at him in silence.
“I will accuse Vox of unholy dealings with the warp”, he stated firmly.
Dankwart nodded approvingly.
“Good idea”, he said. “Let the commander deal with him. Now, will you help me with my armour?”
“I should accuse you too.”
“Do that but let me go and kill things first. I’m sure the Heartrocks count as guards.”
“Oh, whatever!” Tiberius snapped, throwing all his arms in the air. “Help me find what’s left of your armour then!”
While the four of them dispersed, Titus dragged Vox over to the wall. If anything happened, he was easier to defend here.
Sinking down beside him, the former captain fished the list with Vox’s powers out of his pocket. He was quite sure that he remembered the concerning section correctly but he wanted to double-check. The paper was a bit hard to unfold since it had gotten wet in the spring flood on Corred. Drying out inside the pocket had not improved matters but it was still readable.
“Little, sneaky bastard”, he murmured and put the sheet away. In his list of powers, Vox had truthfully marked down the white flame. Casually, he had noted that it shifted the state of being. Titus remembered that he had thought this odd but it had been a cryptic line among others. It had slipped his attention back then.
The sheer innocence of the words on the paper was a mockery of the mighty weapon he had just seen in action. A dozen Genestealers dead, three servitors burned to neat piles of ashes, a mortally wounded brother unharmed…
The Space Wolves sidled over to them.
“Thank you for not shooting, guys”, Titus addressed them. “I don’t think I would have survived a salve from you two.”
“Next time, you don’t kick us aside and we’ll get Tiberius down before he pulls the trigger”, Hyron grinned.
Titus looked at them in surprise.
“I wasn’t sure after last time”, he said cautiously.
“Nah, you convinced us, Titus”, Vyron assured him. “We talked about it after Almond and agreed that you should know best with your resistance and all.”
“Looks like we’re going to find out what happens if anyone accuses anyone after all”, Titus mused. They all looked down at Vox.
“I’ve never seen such a crazy person”, Hyron murmured. The others nodded.
A moment later, Tiberius called on the twins to accompany Dankwart who was leaving the hall with a determined stride. The techmarine himself collected Vox’s scattered armour pieces. Carefully as if he was handling scared children, he placed the gauntlets in the raven beaked helmet.
When he had joined the brothers by the wall, he shook his head.
“You too”, Titus answered calmly. “So, what happens now?”
“We return to Erioch and hand Vox over to the concerning authorities.”
“You mean you’ll throw him to the Inquisition?”, Titus asked, a threatening edge stealing itself into his tones.
“That’s even worse than throwing him to the wolves!”
“O really?”, Tiberius snapped testily. “That’s good because as far as I heard it just now, the wolves would only cuddle him! Someone has to uphold the law around here!”
“Yes”, Titus agreed and tried to steady his shaken composure. “Vox.”
“You expect him to shoot himself?”, Tiberius demanded, displaying his growing prowess in matters of irony.
“Not unless he’s corrupted”, Titus replied, demonstrating his mastership proudly.
Tiberius stared at him and opened and shut his mouth a few times. When he found nothing to say, he shifted his gaze to the unconscious librarian. His shoulders sagged.
“Come on”, he said hopelessly. “Let’s get him back.”
They had a short squabble about who would carry the psyker. The argument that the wounded man should never be the only one ready to fight carried the point and Titus considered himself the winner.