Upon arrival on Erioch, the first step was to break the news to Commander Ferone. Aegis was present when Vox explained the situation but they agreed later that they must have missed out on a whole lot of subtext in this conversation.
However it had been arranged, all of them underwent a few hours of light questioning by Chaplain Loor, the ranking chaplain currently on the station. He was a member of the Angels of Absolution, a Dark Angel successor chapter of great renown. He afterwards required their implants to be monitored for mutations, whereupon he declared them as currently free of corruption.
It was an incredibly good start and enabled all but Vox to function as witnesses.
A less pleasant interrogation by the Inquisition followed. It was short, however. As if crammed in before the hearing itself began.
The trial of the white fire was held in the chamber of vigilance.
The vast, circular space, more than two hundred paces across, was the place for councils of war on Erioch.
Altogether, there were ten figures gathered under the domed ceiling. Crystals above them broke the rays of the dying star they circled to bathe them in a pale light. Incense burned in braziers on the walls, two servo skulls hovered around to record the proceedings. There were no chairs here. All of them remained standing. The round table was better suited for a meeting among equals and Titus wondered why the commander had chosen this room for a court.
Vox was standing alone, facing the commander directly. To the left of the judge stood Aegis with Tiberius closest to him, Titus, Hyron and Vyron in the middle and Dankwart closest to Vox. To Ferone’s right stood Inquisitor Zork, Lord Bereveau and Chaplain Loor.
Inquisitor Zork was a permanent inhabitant of Erioch. He was the current Inquisitor of the Chamber. The Deathwatch, as the militant arm of the Ordo Xenos, relied on him to inform them where their forces were needed most. Where they went was still a matter of the commander’s discretion, however. This circumstance caused a delicate political balance between the institutions that was hard to spot for outsiders.
Zork was tall for a human and broadly built. His black hair was short, complemented by a well trimmed goatee and moustache. He was quite young for his position. It had been him conducting the interrogation this morning. Titus had not taken to him.
Lord Bereveau was a human psyker, slightly elderly but unremarkable between his neighbours. In the absence of Ferone’s trusted adviser Epistolary Corven, the lord took the place of counsellor to the commander in the questions of the warp.
The two men were dwarfed by Chaplain Loor in his glorious black and silver power armour. His right shoulder plate displayed the black wing and skull of the Angels of Absolution. The row of fresh oath scrolls framing his heraldry marked him as the active and frequent leader of a kill team.
It was a remarkably small convocation.
Zork was the last to enter with a bundle of papers under one arm. He wore a pompous style of clothing, all black and silver. His cloak trailed over the words of the Codex Astartes that were inlaid in the black marble floor.
When he had laid down his papers, the commander shortly introduced the matter at hand.
“Brothers, Lord, Inquisitor”, he addressed them. “I have gathered all of you here to assist me in judging Vox Draconis. In his capacity of battle psyker for Kill Team Aegis, he has shown powers of hitherto unknown might and effect. I yield the floor to Inquisitor Zork for the questioning of Vox Draconis.”
The inquisitor busied himself with unravelling the events back on Almond first. Somewhere in the interrogation the notion had sprung up that Vox and Titus had spent time in a warp rift and had returned without this matter having been investigated. Titus learned to his surprise that he had played a quite active role in their escape. By grounding himself on him, Vox had retained enough reality to find the way out of the rift. The explanation never got clearer than this and the inquisitor abstained from detailed questions. If by accident or design was hard to tell. The discussion turned to Gradus’ involvement so quickly that there was no time to dig deeper.
In accordance with the rules, Gradus had been interviewed when they had reached Erioch and Loor was ready to confirm that the protocol of these proceedings substantiated what Vox had testified so far. Titus was astounded. Not once was the matter of an unstable episode on their psyker’s side touched upon. In no document had it been recorded. Zork tried his best to uncover inconsistencies by comparing the protocols with Vox’s report but without success. The paperwork was impeccable.
Visibly dissatisfied with his results, the inquisitor finally turned to the matter at hand.
“Lexicanum Draconis”, he addressed his opponent. “I have already spoken to your comrades. I would like to hear from you how the power in question manifests.”
“It shows itself in the form of white flames”, Vox answered collectedly. He gave the impression of a competent fighter who knew that the battle was not over.
“How do you control it?”, Zork wanted to know.
“Similar to the normal flames I command in battle”, Vox explained. “I can give it spin and direction or form patterns if I concentrate. Sometimes, I use the motion of my hands as focus.”
“Where did you learn the concerning power?”
“I never learned about the white flame. It’s an instinctive power that came to me in dire circumstances.”
“And what circumstances were these?”
Vox seemed to sink into deep calmness when he replied: “I must inform you that your question directly violates the rules laid down for the black shield. Do you wish me to answer nevertheless?”
The inquisitor glanced at the commander for a moment. It was a nervous movement and remained unanswered, since Ferone kept his thoughtful gaze fixed on the accused.
“Yes, answer me, Brother Draconis”, the inquisitor demanded and just when he did, a smirk crept across Ferone’s face. It was gone in an instant and Titus would have missed it, had he not been looking at the commander by accident. He was uncertain what to make of this and Vox’s voice distracted him.
“In my fifth winter, the village I grew up in was attacked by a neighbouring tribe. I remember my mother falling into the snow, hit by a spear. She bled into the white. When a blade cut open my back and I fell next to her, the screaming pain grew into the white fire. I burned the man who had attacked us. I remember wishing my mother whole again and that the flames engulfed her to grant my wish. That is the last I remember of this day. The fire broke loose. It drove away the attackers but took me as its toll. Without intention I gave my life for my mother and my tribe.” Vox blinked slowly, seemingly shifting his thoughtful gaze on the pictures of the past.
“I don’t know how much damage I did. When I awoke, I learned that I had been in a coma for more than a month. The disturbances in the warp had called the armoured angels from half a world away and they had descended from the heavens to take me with them.” There was so much he could have said now. The life he had led since then seemed to wrap around him like a shadow but the black shield covered it over. Vox would not give away more.
“Thus I was saved”, was all he said. “And lifted.”
The whole room stared at the son of Sanguinius. His blond hair fell around his shoulders as if to remind them of the angel of yore. His blue eyes sought each of them out, slowly pulling them back from this incredibly intimate journey. Titus could not believe the tactlessness of the inquisitor when the man asked: “How old is your fifth winter in standard years?”
“That is rather young for such powers to unfold.”
“Not unknown”, Vox countered unfazed, taking up the beat flawlessly.
“Tell me more about this power”, Zork demanded. “How does it work?”
Vox cocked his head and thought for a moment.
“Can you tell me, inquisitor? Why has fire been cultivated by humanity since ancient times?”
The inquisitor was taken aback by the counter question. Surely, he answered it out of confusion rather than intent: “It gave warmth and drove the shadows away.”
“As long as it could consume something, right?”, Vox prompted.
“Now think of fire. What is it?”
“A burning process?”, Zork answered, apparently getting annoyed by the riddles.
“Right”, Vox agreed calmly. “But since humanity has started to harness it, it has also become an idea in innumerable heads. Today it is a symbol in countless ways. The two aspects you named are always the same: Something that gives but also consumes. As long as we find something for it to burn, we can take something and direct it somewhere else. In the case of the white fire the thing to be consumed is integrity. As long as I find something whole to burn, I can renew what is broken. It works only on living things, while I can take from non-living things as well if I must.”
“You mean, you can heal?”
“Explain!”, Zork demanded.
“The fire does not exactly heal. It shifts the state of being, inquisitor”, Vox heeded his wish. “As long as a body remembers another state, I can reinstate it. And bodies have long memories.”
“I see… You said, you were the toll for the flames. What did you mean by that?”
“I stand on the destructive side of the fire.”
“Could you clarify this?”
“The circumstance has several effects. One of them is that I cannot heal myself.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s hard to explain”, Vox replied calmly. “It has something to do with keeping the balance between wild forces.”
“But you can heal anyone else?”, the inquisitor asked.
“Except for my brother Titus. His resistance comes with a price in this regard.” Vox shot Titus a long glance while the Inquisitor rummaged in his notes.
When Zork re-emerged, he turned to the incident at hand.
“The witnesses said that you threw off your gauntlets and helmet when you summoned the white flame”, he stated and Vox answered his unspoken demand without hesitation.
“Yes”, he said confidently. “The circuits interfere with my vision, and I once burned a helmet this way.” He earned quite a few raised eyebrows for this and Titus started to suspect that this was the reason why Vox never wore a psychic hood.
“As for the gauntlets”, his little brother continued. “For the healing I require skin contact. It is impossible to make the fire understand whom to heal and whom to burn unless I can distinguish them by touch. I never managed to heal more than one person because of this.”
Zork made a few notes.
“Of course, throwing off parts of your armour without the appropriate rites is an affront to the Omnissiah”, he said and only then looked up. A repulsively winning smile graced his features.
“Indeed, inquisitor”, Vox replied without wavering. He even returned the smile. His was a lot further on the confident side.
“I call as witness my brother Tiberius, techmarine of the Ultramarines.”
Tiberius gave a grave nod.
“My armour is fitted with special clamps for my gauntlets which I can release at will”, Vox stated. “The rite to remove them takes about a second. After that, I can simply shake them off. The rites for taking off a helmet, on the other hand, are only strictly required if I intend to put it away for longer. If I don’t power down the auto senses, I may just take it off. Brother, will you confirm that this is true?”, Vox asked.
Tiberius repeated his nod.
“My brother Vox speaks true”, he said. “I know about the unusual mechanism for his gauntlets and I trust that he took off his helmet with the intent to put it on immediately afterwards. It wasn’t his fault that I almost shot him before he could.”
The inquisitor’s gaze rested on Tiberius for a moment. Displeasure showed itself in the slight narrowing of his eyes. Titus, on the other hand, rejoiced to hear the facts bent like this. Vox had made it abundantly clear that he had expected to be killed. The helmet surely had figured nowhere in his plan.
Having run into a dead end, Zork took up a new direction: “You have never shown this power before. Why?”, he asked.
“It’s an instinctive power, inquisitor”, Vox explained patiently. “I can’t call it up at will. I am able to quell it but the spark has to spring up by itself. It only does in dire need.”
“And what made the circumstances dire?”, Zork inquired.
“You have to know that I’m a diviner”, Vox said. “My foresight showed me four of my brothers dying within the next ten seconds and one of them was down already.”
Titus knew he was not alone in staring at the librarian for this revelation. He had not mentioned this before.
“So, you didn’t see your own imminent death?”, the inquisitor demanded.
“No”, Vox confirmed. “I could have lived through this by other means and I’m sure that this is true for my brother Titus as well.”
Aegis exchanged mute glances. Their expressions said it all. Vox had put himself on the line without a second thought. Not just for Dankwart, for the others too.
“Why did you choose this cause of action then?”, Zork wanted to know. It was the first question they all greeted with enthusiasm.
“Were you not aware of the consequences?”, the inquisitor added nastily.
“The future is decided in a split second, inquisitor”, Vox pointed out. “I was prepared to face the consequences whatever their nature but I hadn’t thought them all through, no.”
“Speaking of consequences: Your brothers would have been required to kill you immediately”, Zork said almost sweetly. “Only your techmarine tried. The others, however, did not only fail to act in this way but also impeded the one who stood up for the law.”
Titus felt the shock of this accusation run through all of them. Drawn breaths assured him that he would not be the only one to protest loudly but Vox held up a hand.
“Let me stop you there”, he interrupted calmly. It remained unclear if he meant the inquisitor or his brothers.
“All the rules concerning this matter, require us to fight chaos”, Vox stated confidently. “In the situation in question, I had prevailed in my struggle against it. My brothers took the time to ascertain this instead of killing me needlessly. They satisfied the law by speaking their accusation. All of us have been declared free of current corruption in the cause of this trial. Now, I beg you to consider that killing a brother without reason is an offence we call murder. It is a crime against the Emperor Himself. By choosing their actions appropriately, my brothers have remained free of fault. Their honour is unblemished.”
Aegis shone with pride and gratitude in the light of these words. The inquisitor meanwhile had not finished.
“What about you, Lexicanum Draconis?”, he demanded. “Why did you fail to tell your superiors of this power?”
“The body of law laid down for the black shield does not require me to do so”, Vox told him. “I have to yield a list of my powers if a direct superior asks for tactical reasons. Anything else you might have heard about, are unwritten rules.”
“Are you trying to direct the blame to your superiors?”
Titus gritted his teeth and wanted to slap the human for such a stupid and offensive question. He admired that Vox still kept his composure.
“I ask you to note that I took up the vigil eleven years ago and have been deployed in the specialised Kill Team Aegis for the last ten”, Vox recounted shortly. “Captain Quiores, whom I served under in my first year, never required me to lie my powers open since we never went into battle together. Aegis, on the other hand, is made up of equals. The only superior joining us in battle since then asked for the list and got it.”
“Who was he?”
“Me, inquisitor”, Titus interrupted. He was almost relieved to channel the built-up tension into these words. They dripped with disgust for the creature who tried to bring down the most honourable and loyal man he had ever met.
“Among the Ultramarines, I was captain of second company.”
“So, you knew of this power?”, the inquisitor asked. It was strange how calm Titus suddenly felt. The inquisitor turned to him. He had survived inquisitors. What he was unable to bear was the threat to his most trusted and beloved friend.
“Yes”, he confirmed.
“Why did you fail to tell your superiors?”, the inquisitor wanted to know.
“No one ever asked.”
“Captain”, the man began distractedly.
“That’s brother now, inquisitor”, Titus interrupted with satisfaction.
“Brother then!”, Zork corrected testily. “A power of this magnitude is nothing anyone has to ask after!”
“I beg your pardon, inquisitor”, Vox cut in and the face Zork made was most satisfying. “This is not laid down in the rules. It is one of the unwritten ones I mentioned. It seems logical but is not supported by the body of law.”
“As the defendant in question, you are exceeding your competence, Brother Draconis!”, Zork snapped.
“I am not”, Vox answered, still as calm and soft as velvet. Titus meanwhile had trouble keeping his temper. By no means did he want the inquisitor to turn back to his original target.
“I’m the only librarian in the room and therefore it is my duty to uphold the law”, Vox declared confidently.
“Commander!”, Zork tried and spun around to Ferone. Titus had a very good view of the commander’s face when he turned it to the inquisitor. It was far from surprising that the man shut up and started to rummage in his papers.
“I want to see this list of powers”, he finally managed in a meek little voice.
Ferone directed his steady, deadpan gaze to Titus and it thawed a little.
“Brother Titus, do you still have the concerning list?”
For a heartbeat, Titus thought about denying but Vox gave him a very deliberate and very visible nod. So, he fished the paper out of its pocket and carried it over. Wordlessly he returned to his place. When one of the servo skulls hovered in his path, he pushed it aside a little harder than strictly necessary.