Titus had not lied when claiming that he would rather have done without Gladius. Despite his initial reservations, he granted that the commander had been right to listen to Vox. A small team, able to move fast was the best chance they had. Gladius on the other hand, was fitted for heavy resistances, not stealth.
At times he convinced himself that he had to order Aegis to leave them behind as soon as trouble loomed. Other times he knew he would never abandon comrades like that. For now, they marched.
Their wounded had problems keeping the pace. One among them proved especially troublesome. It was Vitus Berethen, the other librarian.
Grimfang had ordered the young man to his side from the beginning. Wherever the terrain allowed for more than single file, they talked quietly.
This had been going on for a while when Grimfang raised his voice.
“Eh, Vox. Come here, will you?”
Vox had been marching somewhere behind Titus. Now, she overtook him to follow the request.
“See, the boy is struggling somewhat”, Grimfang explained. “As a fellow crazy person, can you buck him up or something?”
Vox eyed Berethen for a moment.
“Probably not even if we moved a few letters down the line”, she estimated drily.
Titus almost choked. The others needed a second or two to work this out.
“Seriously though”, Vox managed to gurgle among the sniggers. “I can teach you a mantra if you want:
Take me, hold me, guide me,
I’m your weapon to command!
Take me, break me, try me,
I will die if you demand!
Take me, aim me, thrust me,
I will strike with strength you grant!
Take me, make me trust you,
Faith in you inside me plant!”
This painted a smile on the pale features of the other psyker.
“I bet that gets you focused”, he said appraisingly.
“My best friend wrote it for me”, she rasped and Titus felt himself freeze over. He had not written this, so there was another best friend out there somewhere. Again, he had to think about Space Marines in Mark VI armour between red rocks. Attacking brothers of the Deathwatch on sight. Where were they now?
“Come on. Let’s put helmets on”, Vox suggested meanwhile. “In my experience, this annoys the hell out of the others after the five-hundred’s time or so.”
Since Vox’s helmet was still damaged, it could not fully dampen all the sound. Titus heard her choking voice and the occasional cough well enough. In vain he tried not to synchronise his steps to the rhythm of her words whenever it was her turn to repeat the mantra.
They were lucky enough not to meet further resistance before they reached their objective. Night was falling when they espied it from one of the hills they were traversing at this point.
Like Vox had described it, the shrine complex resembled enormous spheres stacked into one another. Some of them were open to the sky as if crystallised in the act of bursting. It was built of the red rocks from the mountains and around it, a ring of greenery prevailed. The Tyranids had not been able to come close enough to consume this remnant of life.
Despite this promising outlook, they were cautious in their approach. Fortunately, it proved unnecessary. All they encountered were gently curved, featureless walls. They gained the outer courtyard without incidents.
“We keep left”, Titus informed their companions as they passed the first wall. When she had wandered here, Vox had discovered a system to the place. Walking along the left wall, doubling back at deadends, eventually led into the central chamber. Back then, she had not known how to open it or what might slumber inside. This knowledge had come with the documents rescued from Zenith after the Hive Fleet had arrived. A crazy spasm of fate that had brought them here.
Their path was long and curvy.
That there should be sentry guns only became apparent in the outlines of the panels in the walls. Not seeing the defences in action was no source of disappointment, however.
Sometimes, they encountered guard servitors. The Space Marines were used to the slaves of the Machine God but these were strange even by servitor standards. They were mostly organic. More walking mummies than anything else. Only a very close look revealed wires and outlines of metallic plates under their dead skin. Presumably, their appendages were able to unfold and reveal weaponry underneath.
Titus was unwilling to take another close look after the first female servitor had schlepped past. The clothing of the things had not been as long lasting as they were and the males had been bad enough. Going forward, he had his work cut out not to shoot them when one appeared like a ghost.
Haunted by these silent creatures with the wind moaning forlornly above them, the shrine seemed to grow into the tomb for a whole world as they proceeded. Unthinkingly the Space Marines adapted to the atmosphere. They moved quietly, spoke only when necessary and even that in hushed voices. All were straining their senses as if a threat would be waiting around the next bend.
Therefore they heard the noises start far off.
“What’s that?”, Grimfang wanted to know. Shrugs and shaking heads were his response. They had reached the closed parts of the labyrinth a while ago. In here, the muffled crashing in the distance seemed to shake the whole building.
Titus increased their speed. It was tempting to break the pattern and head straight towards the thudding but getting lost in the maze was too great a risk.
The featureless corridors made orientation hard enough. In time and space alike. It was difficult to tell how long they still needed to reach their destination.
The noises had stopped only a short while ago when their arrival was heralded by writing on the walls. Tiberius stayed behind for a moment to study the text. Since it was written in binary, he was the only one who possibly could.
Titus in the lead, had his mind on other things.
He drew his weapons. Careful movements among the brothers told him that they followed his example.
Vox stepped up to him, ready to take her accustomed place at his side. For the first time ever, Titus could not stand her there.
She had removed her helmet somewhere along the way and he regretted that he was not wearing his. This way, she caught him staring at her when she shot him a glance. She shook her head slightly to tell him that she sensed nobody ahead.
In the middle of a spherical room, a smaller sphere mimicked the outer form of the building. It looked like a bubble frozen in the act of bursting.
The wall on the far side of it had an impressive hole.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Vox frown.
With a grace Titus had never seen in Hyron or Vyron, Grimfang moved up to the hole and threw a glance through it.
“At least that explains the noises”, the sergeant stated. Someone demolishing the walls certainly would have made a sound like they had heard. The debris was mostly scattered outside. Whoever had been here, had arrived via the corridors and then left in a hurry.
Titus, Vox at his side walked forward, dropping all caution. A terrible suspicion screamed through his mind, shaking him by the throat for attention. He stepped up to the hollow, spherical structure in the middle and found it confirmed: The shrine was empty.
Heartbeats went by and Vox started to turn to him, drawing a breath to say something.
Titus was faster.
He crashed into her, shoulder first. Taken by surprise, she lost her balance and he slammed her down, dropping on her chest with his full weight. It was the work of a split second to put the bolter to her head.
“Astartes can walk in here!”, he roared. “Was this the price? Was this what you paid for Gladius? Their location and a key in exchange for the STC?”
She had no time to answer. His vision clouded by anger, Titus had overlooked the shadow moving up beside him. A well placed kick not only ruined his aim but also flicked his bolter into his face. Immediately followed by a blow to his side, the attack catapulted him off her.
“Thank you, sergeant”, Grimfang growled menacingly and crouched down next to Vox. “I’ll take over from here.”
Titus rolled, landed on one knee and spun around instinctively. His hearts hammered, his hand tensed around the bolter and the burning fury inside him set his blood aboil. It took all his self control not to attack.
Vox lay where he had left her but her face was turned to him. Her eyes were wide with horror and pain. Suddenly, the righteousness of his anger wavered. Doubt drove a knife into his soul instead.
Had she betrayed them? Were the crimes of a traitor hiding behind these blue eyes? And what was her history with this accursed Grimfang?
“One of your favourite Space Wolves?”, he growled, numb for the agony inside him.
Vox shut her eyes as if he had hit her.
And then they all learned why she had not tried to explain herself: Blood bubbled out of her mouth and nose. Titus had ruptured her lungs again.
He wanted to close his eyes and did not manage it. He wanted to look away and could not turn. He wanted to run and did not know where to. He wanted to find a corner to cower in and mourn that he had lost his little brother. Shame wove itself through his doubt, cutting into him like hot monofilament wires.
Vox had warned him. She had clearly and repeatedly pointed out that she was a psyker and a black shield combined. Questions were unthinkable, answers a rare gift of trust if they happened at all. All Titus had ever been allowed was to take a leap of faith but right here and now, his faith failed him. He was back where she had found him a lifetime ago.
In the darkness.
Bereft of hope and faith.
Fallen, broken, defeated and this time the hands that had picked him up would not reach out for him. They were busy holding on to someone else.
Vox twisted around painfully and Grimfang held her until the coughs had subsided.
The sight of this was beyond anything Titus had ever thought he could bear. The gentle patience with which the other sergeant tended to her cut into a place inside him he had no concept of. Unconcerned to touch her, the cursed Space Wolf helped her to kneel upright and turned her face to him. With a gesture tender and caring he wiped away the blood running over her lips.
“Talk to me, little brother”, he said softly. “Titus thinks that you bought us free by sending our jailers here?”
“And they are your chapter?”
Her lips framed a soundless “How?”
“What a stupid question from someone so clever”, Grimfang chided gently and gave her a playful pat on the cheek. “Our door opened for you, you had a key to our shackles and you told me that you found us under your black shield. How much brain do you need for that? I take that as a yes then. Now. I know Titus is wrong because scouts don’t go through walls as thick as these. What we heard was a thunder hammer at least. By the size of these holes I’d say someone in terminator armour wanted to pass through, but I need to know where they are.”
Titus caught her whispered “Headed off planet” even from here. Grimfang was less adept at it. To compensate for this, the other sergeant leaned forward and pressed his cheek against hers so that she could speak in his ear.
It was at this moment that Dankwart stepped between them and Titus. He had to tend to Vox and mercifully blocked Titus’ line of sight while the quiet dialogue between the Space Wolf and the black shield went on.
Tiberius moved nonchalantly into a guarding position at Dankwart’s side and Titus realised how wrong he had been in thinking that things could not get worse.
They were guarding her from him. Titus had promised to guard her from the world and now, the comrades formed a bulwark to protect her from him.
An outstretched hand appeared in his field of vision. He had gripped it mechanically and been pulled to his feet before he knew what was happening.
Ignatius, the wounded apothecary, stood before him. Being shorter, he had to look up at Titus but there was a certain kind of strength radiating off him. When the Ultramarine’s agonised gaze wavered over to him, he returned it steadily. So calmly that it could not register as an attack, he took Titus’ bolter away and put it on its appropriate joist.
“There you go, brother sergeant”, he said in a soothing voice. Through the numbing pain he dimly perceived how similar to Dankwart and Vox the Angel Vermillion was. Darker hair, sterner eyes but soft features without a beard.
Titus turned and walked away. He had no aim in mind. Just somewhere not here. Trapped in the maze in his head, he might as well get lost in the labyrinth out there. Should he find his way out, there was a whole planet full of Tyranids waiting for him.
Grimfang’s voice stopped him only a few steps later.
“Alright, fall in! You too, sergeant! We’re going to hunt down whoever stole that thing. Vox, you’re with me! Move!”