The building turned out to be Shilder Maner and the lady in green led them inside.
Aurea awoke when they moved. She was badly concussed and generously poured the contents of her stomach over Titus’ breastplate before he could hold her away. When she started to scream and writhe in his grasp, Vox thankfully relieved him of his burden. The girl managed to fall to the ground before the psyker got a firm grip on her but once she was captured, she could struggle all she wanted.
Of course, body fluids of all kinds and descriptions were a common coating for their armours. Looking dignified in the circumstances was still a challenge. Titus rose to it stoically and requested a separate room to interrogate the captive.
Lady Shilder very politely inquired if they required any special furnishings for this. Since Titus denied the offer, things moved on quickly.
Leaving her other visitors in a cosy meeting room, the lady personally accompanied them through a few richly decorated corridors. After a short interlude of servants offering to clean Titus, they reached an empty guest room.
The sergeant was uneasy about Solomon having attached himself to them but he could do little against his presence.
Their host assured them that the room was quite sound-proof and the furnishings easily replaceable. She was about to withdraw graciously, when Vox put Aurea down so that he needed only one hand to control her. With the other, he reached for Lady Shilder’s hand and bowed down to kiss it.
“My lady”, he purred. “What pleasure it is that you should…”
He was interrupted by Titus who dragged him inside forcefully. Solomon scuttled in after them and the door fell shut.
Titus spun around to his friend.
“Vox, if you don’t stop that…”, he began hotly.
The Ultramarine suddenly found himself unable to continue because his mouth was hanging open. His friend meanwhile used the opportunity to turn to Solomon.
“Remember the cards?”, he asked the man curtly.
“I was to remind you that you don’t wish to repeat this experience.”
Solomon turned and left the room without another word.
“What?”, Vox asked with a defensive shrug when he saw Titus’ expression. “He didn’t say when he wanted to be reminded.”
Titus held the determined stare of his friend out of sheer confusion but under his gaze, Vox seemed to shift and thaw as if he had suddenly remembered himself.
He broke eye contact and instead looked at Aurea.
“Still want me to stop?”, the librarian asked quietly.
“No, not for her”, Titus decided after a quick glance downwards.
Hardly in possession of her self control in any case, the girl started to scream again and tried to pull out of Vox’s grasp. To her surprise, the grip around her wrists was released and she fell backwards. She grovelled on the floor, backing away as quickly as she could but when her wild gaze fleeted over the librarian’s face, she froze. The gentle clicking of Vox’s gauntlets being released was a dark promise in the sudden hush.
Titus retreated to the door and kept quiet while he watched his brother work.
What he witnessed might as well have been an act of love instead of violation. Vox took his gauntlets off and extended his bare hand to the woman. She let herself be pulled to her feet. Nothing of unrest was left in either of them, only a careful tension like it might persist between dancers. Connected by their hands as well as their gazes, they stood motionless for a long time. Their faces were alive with fleeting expressions, their lips framed unheard words but no sound passed between them.
At some point, Vox retreated to the bed and sat down, coming to eye level with their captive. Shortly afterwards, she started to cry. Her breathy, little sobs were all that could be heard.
Finally, Vox stroked gently over her face, closing her eyes in the motion like shutting the eyes of a corpse. For a moment, his eyes searched her features. Then his hands moved to her throat. Titus nodded his agreement when the brother’s gaze wandered over to him. There was an ugly crunch when Vox broke her neck. The brother caught Aurea’s corpse and reverentially carried it over to a corner of the room. In death, she had wet herself and the distinct smell of a newly killed human filled the room. Titus had smelled it once already today. In the alcove where he had found her father. A line extinct. A strangely tragic thought even in the circumstances.
Vox returned to the bed to sit down again and Titus followed his example.
“Well, serge… For once we have a bed we might both fit into”, the young man said. He turned to throw the piece of furniture a calculating look but there was no lightness in this. The gesture was dark and full of dismay.
“What about, we snuggle up and pretend that interrogating takes a while longer?”, he tried nevertheless.
Despite his lack of enthusiasm, he had managed to hit the nerve: “Vox, you really unsettle me today!”, Titus burst out. “And if you say you’re the psyker, it’s your job, I’ll push you straight off the bed, just so you know it!”
Vox sighed and sank into himself, seemingly getting smaller as he did so.
Softened by this, Titus patted his head clumsily.
“Will you be alright?”, he inquired.
“Yes”, Vox assured him. “As I said, it’s not as bad when I can take my time. There are ways to get them compliant.”
“What did you find?”
“A lot of personal details”, his librarian said. “A lot of rage and pain. She didn’t know much of Makkar’s games until her mother died because of them. After that, she spied on him for the Tau sympathizers and collected what little information he left lying around. As I said, she set the charges in his study. She knew a few names and faces. One of them I already killed when I went to fetch her.”
Titus nodded despondently. Then he took a deep breath and stood up. “Alright. That’s a start at least. We’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. I know a few names and faces as well, we can work our way along.”
“We could”, Vox agreed. “But we won’t.”
Titus turned frowning
“Sit down, my sergeant. I have to show you something”, the librarian said in leaden tones.
While Titus did, Vox rummaged in the pockets of his belt for a piece of paper which he handed over. Titus unfolded and read it in growing confusion.
“Vox, that’s a dispatchment order for us.”
“I know”, the librarian answered laconically.
“Where did you get that?”, Titus demanded in excitement.
“Didn’t you wonder about the scroll the commander gave me before we left?”
“He gave this to you and not me?”, the sergeant asked in astonished offence.
Vox looked at him. He had opened his wounded eye during Aurea’s interrogation. The eyeball was still bright red. With his blue iris in the middle it looked like the sky had been set on fire. His gaze was very disconcerting this way.
“I’m sorry”, was all the young man said.
Titus read the first passage again. It was addressed to Vox and stated clearly that these orders were to be kept secret until the missions for Inquisitor Elaine had been completed.
“But the mission isn’t over!”, Titus said half to himself.
“It is, sergeant”, Vox replied softly. “Remember what the Tarot said? If we take too much time down here, we are going to get ourselves killed. We’ve reached that point.”
“No, we can’t have!”, Titus exclaimed and Vox caught him by the hand when he wanted to stand up again, pulling him back on the bed.
“We know names, Vox”, Titus insisted excitedly. “We can still turn this, the planet doesn’t have to fall to the damned xenos! We just have to find out where these people are and work our way along. We can still turn it!”
“That would take months”, Vox argued patiently. “Until then, the Tau will have arrived and we will be drawn into the war with them. You know how war works, serge. We will be a major target for any sympathizers and some of them will get lucky. And did you read these orders?”, he asked, pointing at the paper in Titus’ large hand. “We don’t have months, we have days at best. Zenith has been under Tyranid attack since before we met. Every moment we stay here, our mission there will get more difficult.”
Now, Titus sprang up.
“Vox, did you listen?”, he snapped. “I let the man, who could have prevented this, die! I can’t turn my back on this planet now! I screwed this up!”
Vox stood up and grabbed Titus by the sides of his head.
“Look at me!”, he bade him, just like Titus had done it with him less than two hours ago. “You are not to blame”, Vox told him. “The house was under attack, letting Makkar out of your sight would have been his death sentence too. The man was simply fated to die. That he perished in your arms was great luck. We can provide the loyalists with a few names to help them out. This war has started and a single kill team isn’t meant to fight a war.”
“Vox…”, Titus said, his thoughts still in utter turmoil. “What about you? There are legal follow-ups to a failed mission with the Ultramarines. Isn’t it the same in the Deathwatch? Zork will get us in court again. What will become of you when I have to answer for this failing? I let you out of my sight several times!”
“I didn’t consider that”, he breathed flatly. Then he sagged, his hands slipping down Titus’ breastplate.
“And that’s why you should have stayed off his radar!”, he wailed and stepped back.
“I’m sorry I pulled you into this…”, Titus said, his gaze wandering unsteadily through the room.
Vox waved a hand irritably.
“Forget about me. He can’t get me for more than a re-examination.” He rubbed the intact half of his face and looked around just like Titus did as if the walls could tell them what to do now.
“But the penalty for a failed bailsman is death”, the librarian managed between gritted teeth. “And you have been in the custody of an inquisitor before. Damn it, captain! What were you thinking?”, Vox asked, spinning around to him like a snake about to bite.
“I just wanted to protect you”, Titus said, not meeting his gaze.
“But I don’t need protection!”, Vox snarled. “And I don’t know where to find enough for you, now… Oh, Terra! I told you to stay clear of the Inquisition!”
Titus looked down.
“Yes, you did”, he said softly.
Vox stared at him as if shocked by these simple words.
“You’re gone already, aren’t you?”, he gasped. “You’re just standing there, giving in.”
“I tried to be your shield. If I break for the blow while you stand, I’ve served my purpose.”
Vox was right. Something had happened to him. A door had closed in his head, cutting off the light and sealing him in darkness again. There was nothing inside him anymore and nothing around him.
His friend took a step closer, grim determination and wrath flashing in his eyes for a moment but then, he closed them. These eyes, one healthy, one bright red. Both of them blue like the summer sky.
When Vox took a deep breath and opened them again, he said: “May the Emperor protect and guide you, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines. I am Vox Draconis of the Deathwatch serving with Kill Team Aegis. I need to speak to you.”
Only slowly, Titus recognized the first words Vox had ever spoken to him. This was how he had addressed him back in his cell.
“What do you want, brother?”, he asked, mesmerized by the sudden clash of memories. The friend reached down and took Titus’ hands in his. As the Ultramarine watched dispassionately, they linked their right hands at the thumbs, laid their free left ones around them to encompass and protect the coil of their fingers.
“I came for you, captain”, Vox said, giving gentle pressure. “I crossed the Jericho Reach to find you. I put myself in harm’s way to keep you safe. You were worth it, brother”, Vox said. “You were worth every step on the way, every prick through my skin and I would do a lot more for you. But there is one thing I can not do for you.” The eyes of his brother wandered over Titus’ face as if searching for words. The injured one could hardly follow.
“And that is to leave the darkness behind”, he whispered. “That, you have to do for me. Will you?”
Titus stared at his friend. The question how this could be done was unphrasable but Vox’s features went soft as if he had heard it nevertheless.
“Just let go”, he breathed. “And hold on.” Vox lifted the coil of their fists, gently touching his forehead to it and when Titus mimicked this movement, he suddenly felt that he got some kind of grip again.
“Trust in the Emperor”, Vox whispered. “He sent me to you and He will guide you through the darkness.”
“May he guide us together”, Titus mumbled.
They stayed like this for a long time and when Titus drew back and looked into his friend’s eyes, it was as if a light shone from them. It penetrated even the injury in his face and it was a beacon to navigate by. Vox held the door open for him. Somehow, Titus had suddenly passed through this invisible gate. He was on the other side, safe with his friend, standing in the light of the devotion and friendship Vox bathed him in. Suddenly, he could breathe freely because something had fallen away behind him and Vox smiled softly, his bare hands giving gentle pressure which Titus could feel through his gauntlets. His little brother watched him attentively while Titus slowly managed to return to the present. The damned present where their world was tilting towards disaster.
“Serge? Do you trust me?”, his beloved friend asked quietly.
Titus felt himself stiffen.
“Vox”, he managed hesitantly. “The last time you asked me that…” He broke off.
Vox looked puzzled.
“When was that?”
“On the ‘Lawbringer’ when Laraise was torturing you…”
His friend tilted his head and frowned while he thought.
“My memory seems a bit patchy there…”, he remarked.
“Not surprising, my friend”, Titus said darkly and he found himself reaching out, laying a hand to the intact side of his brother’s head.
Vox smiled. It was a strange, soft smile.
“You’re a rather nice man, you know that?”, he asked. He mimicked Titus’ gesture to pat him on the side of his neck while their right hands stayed firmly intertwined. Then, he turned serious.
“And you’re not beyond my reach yet”, he said quietly. “There is something I can still do. Do you trust me enough to let me loose and not ask what I have done afterwards?”
Titus stared at Vox. His friend was a more than formidable fighter, he knew. A mighty warrior, an accomplished hero on the field of honour and law alike but he had always respected Titus for his tactical prowess and leadership qualities. Since the day they had met, Titus had continuously found new abilities in Vox, one crazily mightier than the other and still, his brother had handed him the leadership at every turn. He had relied on his counsel, valued his opinion, had assumed that Titus would be the one with the plan.
And now, here he stood and had found Titus broken again. Bereft of plans and tactics, out of time and options and instead of spitting on him, he had taken the trouble to open himself to the distress of a friend and make it dwindle. How had this even happened? Who else could he trust but the Emperor and his beloved friend? In whose hands would he lay his fate now?
“I do”, Titus heard himself say.
Vox did not smile.
He moved not a muscle in his face. Titus only felt the gentle pressure when he tightened his grip for a moment.
“Then, be so kind as to write down everything you know from Makkar”, Vox asked him, pointing to the desk in the room. “I will go and speak to Solomon.”
The building turned out to be Shilder Maner and the lady in green led them inside.