68. Unravelling

Their flight was short. Not because they found the girl but because they were shot out of the sky. Concentrated on his search, Vox had not seen the rocket coming and Titus was equally unable to ascertain from which building they had been attacked. They could do nothing but pull their heads between their shoulder guards and wait until the noises had died away.
“I still feel inappropriately armed”, Titus growled when things had subsided.
“Cheer up”, Vox said as he pushed the roof of the shuttle up to peer at the front seat. “You have more arms left than the madam and Makkar between them.”
“We need to get more Space Wolves”, Titus said firmly and wiped a bit of blood from the right lens of his helmet. “Otherwise I can not stand for our humorous underachievement.”
“I’ll apply for some”, his friend promised and hopped out of the wreck.
With secure movements, Titus ripped Makkar’s head off to take along. When they both were standing in the street, the sergeant took a look around. They had crashed down quite a bit away from where they had been hit.
“That was no random shot”, he declared. “Did you spot where it came from?”
“Yes and they’re coming our way.”
“Spares us the search”, Titus growled grimly.
Vox grabbed him by the elbow when he was about to draw his pistol.
“Let me handle them, serge”, he asked. “That brain won’t get better.”
Annoyed about the events, Titus needed a moment to concede that this would be the best course of action.
“Yes, alright. See, whom you can leave alive”, he ordered.
While the friend left, Titus took cover around the corner and removed his helmet.
Carefully, he cracked Makkar’s skull open.
It bugged him that he had to let Vox go alone but there was no other way. A dead brain soon lost the few memories that could be extracted from it. Not to mention that this brain had very likely been cooked. Nothing for it, they had to take the scraps.
Or in this case, eat them.
When he had learned what he could, Titus almost threw it up again in any case.
“Sergeant, come in! Where are you?”
He had allowed himself a moment to lean against a wall in dismay and almost missed the transmission. With a practised movement he put the microbead into his ear and answered the vox. Only then did he realise that it had been Solomon, calling him.
“We lost contact to your shuttle and apparently that pillar of fire is the Makkar mansion”, the legate recounted shortly. “Where are you?”
Titus oriented himself.
“A few streets east of the mansion. There is a crashed, red shuttle here.”
“I think we passed that. We’ll meet you there!
“On my way”, Vox told him over a private line before he could call out to him.
“Thank you, little brother”, Titus said and his friend seemed to pick up on something in his voice.
“Serge?”, he asked carefully.
“Hell, Vox…”
“Come on, tell me.”
“I don’t know where to start! What a rotten individual! Makkar basically organised the civil war only to betray the sympathisers in the end and gain influence with the imperial loyalists. He even killed his own brother in law to buy house Gastradés off for his cause. A detachment of Tau has been on their way here for years. They’ll arrive in less than two months but the civil war has started tonight. Some of the sympathizers knew that Makkar was tied to most of them and he reckoned that they had come to kill him because they feared that we could torture the relevant names out of him.” Titus looked around helplessly. “He knew them all”, he stated. “He knew whom we would have to remove. But I don’t. I didn’t get enough out of this.”
Vox appeared next to him like a ghost. He carried the limp body of a woman in his arms.
“Why does this bug you?”, he asked. In the shortness of his question lay an unfamiliar edge.
“I let him die”, Titus groaned. “He asked me to let him escape but I denied and now he’s dead.”
Vox’s helmet briefly turned left and right as if he was checking the area for possibilities.
“Do me a favour and put your helmet on”, he asked. “And don’t tell Solomon until I had time to interrogate Aurea.”
Even before his auto senses powered up, Titus’ gaze fixed on the woman his friend had brought. In real life Aurea Sterdizian looked quite similar to her uncle. In the triangular structure of the face and the straight nose Titus also found a few similarities to her dead father. There was blood all over her but she herself seemed unharmed. Her presence sparked a faint hope. Maybe, she knew something that could still turn the tide.
“I can’t keep this from him if he asks”, Titus pointed out nevertheless.
“He won’t ask. Hurry.”
The shuttle came into view. Titus swallowed hard and closed the last seal of his helmet.
When the door opened, the sergeant was surprised to encounter several humans inside.
While Solomon was standing in the middle aisle, five people sat crammed on the bench opposite Dankwart and Tiberius.
Apart from Admiral Linkersky, Lady Shilder as well as Lord and Lady Anstir graced them with their presence. The other two they had not met yet.
The man, clearly an astropath, wore expensive robes and a blindfold, while the unknown woman was the only one not dressed formally. Instead she wore functional clothing in a military style that was just a little too fancy to be a real uniform. It was the style of clothing they saw on Solomon every day. Therefore Titus suspected that she was a member of one of the announced sleeper cells.
“Sergeant, Vox!”, Solomon said with grim joviality. “How was your time?”
“Certainly the hottest time in a brothel I ever had”, Vox answered drily, causing several jaws to drop. Including that of Titus. It got worse when he handed Aurea to Titus and removed his helmet. Some of the humans seemed to have recognized their captive and had already drawn breaths to ask questions. They kept silent when they saw Vox.
On the left half of the brother’s face, the burn had developed into a field of evil looking blisters. The eye could not be opened fully, what was visible was bright red. Vox took a smiling look around, probably scaring the humans half to death and then nodded at Dankwart who came to him without a word.
To compensate for the swaying of their vehicle, they knelt down in the middle and everyone watched them in horrified fascination. Dankwart intoned his rites with solemn vigour and exclusively used those which required answers from the patient. It dawned on Titus that this elongated the procedure considerably.
The effect of the performance was astounding. They dominated the small, crowded space, drawing all attention with ease. No chatter, no questions, not even questing looks were forthcoming as long as Dankwart worked.
An unseen smirk stole itself into Titus’ features. This was how he had gotten to know his brothers. Ages ago on the ‘Lawbringer’ when they had been trying to stop him from training.
Unfortunately, their flight took a while longer than Dankwart found things to pray for. When he had drawn all registers and stood up, Titus braced himself for normality catching up.
Vox meanwhile remained kneeling. On the outside, not much had happened to him. A clear gel had been applied to his wounds. It made them glisten oddly and he kept his left eye shut now. Slowly, almost ceremoniously, Vox took his combat knife out of his calf sheath, curled his burnt and frizzled hair around one fist and cut it off close to the neck. Everyone stared at him in breathless wonderment. Especially Titus. Apart from the question of what the friend was doing, he had never seen Vox’s combat knife before. Like his sword, it was a magnificent work of craftsmanship as far as he could make it out between the brother’s fingers. He glimpsed the design of six wings etched into the blade and the thing had just cut through a whole bundle of hair in one go. Casually, Vox stuffed the cut-off coil of strands into his helmet, shook out the remaining hair and smiled at the woman they had not met yet. She returned his smile and fished something out of a pocket.
“Much obliged”, Vox purred in a tone like black velvet when she held it out to him. With careful movements, he tied his hair together with what the woman had given him. Only then did he stand up.
The shuttle was high enough for Solomon to stand upright. Vox had to bend considerably. This way, he was able to look down at the mortals with a benevolent expression on his face.
Lady Shilder cleared her throat.
“Sometimes, the fight for the Emperor demands sacrifices”, she remarked solemnly.
“Do not worry, my lady”, the admiral said in equally severe tones. “The Adeptus Astartes are our elite warriors. They have access to the very best bionic implants.”
Vox laughed pleasantly.
“That is true, admiral”, he said in a friendly fashion. “But this will not be necessary in my case. Astartes heal much better than humans. Since I can still see through the eye, all I need is a little time. In a few weeks, there will be only scars left and in a few years not even those.”
“Shame”, the woman, who had given Vox the hairband, said. “I like scars on a man.”
Vox grinned at her.
“Scars are the mark of a warrior. Man, woman, what does it matter as long as we have something to show?”
Titus was eternally grateful that he was wearing his helmet. This way, he could make stupid faces behind it all he liked. The words his little brother had used were not insinuating as such but the tones were practically an invitation to undress. To tell by the way the woman returned Vox’s gaze, she was about to comply. Titus had never seen his brother like this. Sleek and charming and suggestive to the extreme. That was the man who blushed for sexually explicit jokes, for Emperor’s sake! What was going on here?
Vox meanwhile continued to make sure that Solomon had his mind on other things than inquiring about Makkar.
“Lieutenant”, the librarian addressed him. “Will you not introduce us? There are two people here I haven’t met and I will consider it my lucky day if you haven’t introduced the others to my brothers yet.” He bowed slightly to Lady Shilder. “I remember your face, my lady but I heard a lot of names tonight and I would think it a waste if I didn’t learn yours again.”
Titus sighed inwardly. He remembered all the names even though he did not care to.
To his surprise the lady seemed flustered even though she had been forgotten.
“There must have been five-hundred people in that room, my lord”, she said and blushed under her make-up. “That you should remember me at all, honours me!”
Vox gave her one of his radiant smiles that should not have worked around the evil wound on his face.
Pressured by their apparent expectation, Solomon saw himself obliged to start another round of introductions. It turned out that the astropath was called Anamar Ekyrian and the probable sleeper cell woman Mira Av’Llahr. Titus lifted an eyebrow when he heard this name and automatically scanned her for similarities with Lieutenant Mira. There were some but Mira Av’Llahr was younger, lighter and louder in her demeanour than the warrior he had met on Graia. Becoming aware that he had no idea where this train of thought should lead, he stopped it.
Vox artfully elongated the conversation by asking careful questions. To Solomon it surely looked like the librarian was simply double checking the loyalties of the group. Whatever was the case, he kept silent long enough for the shuttle to finally sink down.

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Guide Me Through the Darkness by Julia M. V. Warren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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