Vox was nowhere to be seen. Neither on ground level, nor on the galleries.
Titus walked around with a steady tread, trying to spot him. He had just gotten uneasy enough to consider voxing him when Vox contacted him instead. The brother’s voice was so faint that he almost missed the transmission over the general noise.
“I read”, Titus answered immediately. He did his best not to turn up his speed. Staying inconspicuous was important.
“Where are you?”, he wanted to know.
“Don’t matter”, Vox said and he sounded like he could hardly speak. “Get up to the second floor.”
So much for being inconspicuous. Titus accelerated his steps and sighed inwardly. He had just crossed the middle of the lower ballroom floor. That meant he was as far away from any staircase as possible.
“There are two stairs leading further up”, Vox informed him. “Take the one with a red thread tied to the bannister. There is a row of alcoves up there. Check them. You are searching for a middle-aged man with long black hair, bound in a ponytail, clean shaven…”, Vox’s voice trailed off.
“Vox, what’s the matter with you?”, Titus wanted to know.
“Later… please, later. Are you there?”
“Climbing the last stairs to the second floor”, Titus said and oriented himself. From the smaller ballroom up here two stairs led further up. A red ribbon dangled on one of the bannisters.
“Run”, Vox breathed into the channel and Titus started to run. All the humans in sight turned around to him.
“Sergeant, what’s going on?”, Solomon hissed over the com. “Where are you going?”
“Vox found something. It’s urgent.”
“What has Vox found?”
“Assassination”, Vox slurred.
The legate cursed.
“Sergeant, you have to take at least two witnesses with you, do you understand?”
Titus grasped the arms of the last couple of humans in his way and dragged them along despite their shocked protest.
“Vox, can you give me a name?”, he asked.
“Kelrik Sterdizian of Implicit.”
“Lord Sterdizian?”, Titus called and checked the first alcove. It was empty. Most of the long row of niches turned out to be. The inhabited ones contained a man and a woman without clothing, two men with some clothing and a fresh corpse.
Titus looked down dispassionately while the man in his grasp fainted. The woman stayed active and began to scream. Actually, the scene was not very bad. There was no blood. The man on the floor had died of something that had left no obvious marks on him. Or at least on the half of him, Titus could see.
“Are you there?”, Vox wanted to know.
“I found a body who fits your description.”
“Don’t touch anything!”, Solomon said over com. “Do you have your witnesses?”
“Dread, the last thing we need is one of us being accused of murder right now!”
“That is ridiculous. I only found him!”, Titus said while Solomon stormed up the stairs. The legate stopped dead next to him.
“I hope you don’t have to find out how ridiculous politics can get.”
“So do I”, Titus agreed and handed Solomon the unconscious man. “Please, handle this, lieutenant. I have to check on my brother. Vox, where are you?”
There was no reply and the swarm of people flooding up the stairs made Titus refrain from shouting into his com right now. Having gained more space, he opened the channel again.
“Vox, come in!”
Still no answer. Titus shut his eyes for a moment and called up his memories of the recent events. Niurah Gastradés had walked over to Vox when he had left. He had not seen them while approaching the admiral and then Vox had gone. There had been people close by. Colourful dots of clothing. He looked around and spotted one of the colours he remembered. It was a woman in a magnificent green dress. He had met her during the introduction and it was a matter of a split second to call up her name. It was Alzenna Guinneth Shilder.
Titus darted through the throng and caught her by one arm. A little too gruffly maybe. She gave a startled screech and tried to shake herself free. He let go immediately. In his experience frightful humans were incoherent at best. Something he did not need on top of everything else.
“My Lady Shilder”, he said as soothingly as he could. “I mean no harm but have you seen where my brother has gotten to?”
She stared at him and then pulled herself together, dropping a curtsy. “My lord, the last I saw him, he was with Lady Niurah.”
“Do you know where they went or know who might know?”, Titus asked, trying to stay patient.
“Well…” Lady Shilder seemed uncomfortable but when she saw his expression, she declared hastily: “The minarets of house Gastradés are on the east side of the second gallery, my lord! I’m sure they retreated there!” She pointed and Titus hurried away.
The minarets were exactly the place where nobody wanted to search for anyone. They were even worse than the alcoves. All of them were small turrets and none were built for Space Marines. He could only climb the stairs sideways and had to enter the rooms beyond to be able to turn. In the end, this was to their luck. He would have overlooked Vox otherwise. His friend was a black huddle in a shadow on the floor in one of the hardly lit tower rooms.
“Vox!” Titus knelt down beside him.
The librarian lifted his head sluggishly.
“Sorry”, he breathed. “I heard you, I’m sorry… I couldn’t answer.”
“What happened? Where is that woman?”
Vox closed his eyes.
“Gone off to kill herself.”
Titus had to swallow.
“You can do that?”, he asked hoarsely.
“Sure”, he said laconically and then explained: “She had suicidal tendencies during adolescence. I just pulled them forward.” As dispassionately as Vox sounded now, Titus remembered all too well how hard that man on Almond had affected him. In one of their long nights, when they had been brothers together, Vox had mentioned almost casually that the worst thing about mind reading was that he had trouble remembering who he was afterwards. The other consciousness left echoes of itself inside him and when you had just mind raped a conscious being to the point where it wanted to kill itself, you better remembered that you were not this person or you were in trouble. In the dim, soft light Vox looked like he was in trouble.
“I’m so sorry, serge”, Vox continued after a moment. “I didn’t know what else to do about her.”
Titus resolutely shook his head and tried to make his friend focus on something else.
“What did she know about the assassination?”, he demanded.
“Nothing. Just where and approximately when… She was a damned heretic, serge”, he almost wailed. “Convinced that the Tau are the salvation of this planet. I didn’t know how to get rid of her otherwise. So she wouldn’t tell anyone, I mean. I couldn’t just throw her out of the window, I have been seen with her, I’m sure… Solomon said we mustn’t be accused of murder and I think he is right. Have you picked up on the tension everywhere? This is a civil war waiting to happen. If someone, who is clearly loyal to the Emperor, kills anyone or tries to accuse anyone…”
“Alright, alright, slow down”, Titus interrupted soothingly. “I heard you when you read the cards but even the tarot said we might still have a chance. Let’s not abandon it just yet, yes?” He laid a comforting hand on his friend’s arm and Vox tried to return the gesture.
It was as if his grip slipped at this point. Suddenly, the young man wanted to curl up and bury his face in his hands but Titus would not let him. He pulled him upright, laid a hand under his chin and demanded: “Look at me!”
Vox opened eyes that seemed black in this dim light. A single, clear tear shone for a moment on his cheek.
“And now listen!”, Titus insisted. “You are no teenage girl who has gone off to kill herself! You are no mortal stuck on a doomed world! You are a brother of the Deathwatch, a mighty warrior, a fighter for the Emperor! You are the strongest psyker I have ever met, Vox. You and me, we have stood through worse than this and we will continue to do so. For the Emperor, for humanity, against the alien we stand together, little brother.”
Vox stared at him, a second tear shimmering on his cheek.
“Please…”, he begged. “Let me hold on to you.”
Titus pulled him into his arms. He pressed him to his breast plate and let him lean his head against his cheek. To the accompaniment of their armours grinding together, they whispered prayers to find a footing for the psyker. They had less than a minute before Solomon contacted them.
“Where are you?”, he inquired politely without naming any of them.
“In one of the minarets”, Titus answered.
“Could you please meet me on the northern bridge?”
They unfolded but before they could wedge themselves down the stairs, Vox held Titus back. He looked terrible in the dim light. Deep shadows under his eyes, pale. The touch of death still lingered about him.
However hard he searched, Vox found nothing to say. Only his widened eyes wandered helplessly over Titus’ face and the sergeant felt this cold loneliness in his gaze reach out for him. It chilled him to the bone. How was it that this connection had been built, he wondered. Never had Titus been as attuned to anyone as he was to this little librarian. He felt he could read him like Vox read other people and for this, he shared the distress of the friend to an almost physical degree. With a deep furrow of concern between his brows, Titus lifted a hand to the side of Vox’s head and returned his gaze as steadily as he could.
“You’re not alone”, he stated. “I’m here to protect you.”
Vox grasped his hand. It seemed that he wanted to pull it away but instead he held it in place.
“I don’t need protection”, he said.
“I know”, Titus replied. “You need support but I wish for you to have more than the bare necessities. Now, come.”
Titus turned away. This way, he missed the expression on Vox’s face. How could the Ultramarine know what he had just done to his librarian? How could he imagine this cold, desolate place in the heart of every psyker? How could he have been made to understand how much pain he had eased and caused alike? There were no words to describe it and even the attempt had to stay buried under the black shield. Titus was not to be told. There was nothing to be done but to follow him and carry on with the mission.
As they made their way down, they picked up on the hysteric tension in the building. In addition to the events upstairs, something had happened in the main hall. People stood clustered in jittery groups but left a wide berth around the buffet table. The two gene-hanced warriors could smell the large puddle of blood from up here. They exchanged a glance.
Apparently, Niurah had opted for a dramatic exit. Titus patted Vox’s shoulder when he saw his jaw muscles tensing.
“One heretic less”, he murmured and moved on.
No one tried to stop them on their way out.