“The day of interest began with Aegis being sent down on Veren”, Vox started. “It’s a feral world in the Jericho Reach.”
“Where are we, by the way?”, Titus interrupted. He had not known where he was since he had left Graia.
“We are close to the Jericho Maw Warp Gate on the Jericho Reach side. We met with the ‘Fall of Angels’ here. Out here, the Emperor’s Beacon on Terra is too far off to navigate by. We’ll make our way to Erioch via several calculated jumps.”
“Ah. That’s why you spoke of the third jump.”
“Well done, captain.”
“Far away from home then”, Titus said.
“Yes”, Vox replied after a moment’s hesitation and Titus thought he saw soft compassion creep over his features.
“Back to Veren”, the librarian urged. “Veren is right next to the Tau cluster in the Reach and strategically relevant because it’s quite close to the Mining World Oertha. There’s a Watch Station on Oertha and they always have fun with the Tau when they try to come over. If the xenos take Veren, this will probably cease to be funny. Luckily, there isn’t so much going on on Veren. Most of it is just dead rock and the habitable zones are all quite close together around the equator. Aegis was sent down there at the request of Inquisitor Laraise. She wanted to get hold of a number of artefacts a Tau delegation had gotten their blue digits on. We were to retrieve or destroy them. Back then, we consisted of the three of us you have met, our other three active members, plus Lucian of the Black Consuls and a Black Shield called Markus Leandros.”
“Aegis has three more members?”, Titus asked.
“Yes. The commander conceded to my request to be put on this mission but he required that no more than three of us are bound by it. Actually, he only agreed to three after I told him what I expected Laraise to pull off. I asked Dankwart because I suspected that you would need his aid and Tiberius because he is the best of us when it comes to getting in and out of ships. They did me the honour of following me without question.”
“And Leandros wore the black shield?”
“Certainly”, Vox said and there was a tinge of bitterness in his features. “His captain had told him that he had failed his true test to be a Space Marine. What else was he going to do?”
Titus was surprised. He had indeed said this to Leandros when Thrax had come to claim him for heresy. That there should have been any effect surprised him, however.
“He told you about this? Despite the black shield?”
“Yes. Leandros had talked to Laraise before we went down to Veren and I noticed him suddenly attracting daemons.”
Wild anger flared in Titus’ face.
“He was corrupted?”
Vox lifted a conciliatory hand.
“Calm yourself”, he said placatingly. “Let me explain. Daemons feed off emotions. When emotions become severe enough, the daemons can creep into the mind and start to alter the behaviour. That is what we call corruption. Leandros was only just attracting them, he wasn’t corrupted yet. Although I have to admit that he was about to take the quickest route to hell I’ve ever seen. Lucian led us back then and he decided on going down in a storm raven instead of a drop pod. We got hit and had to jump while Tiberius brought the ship down.”
“A bad call, then”, Titus estimated.
“In hindsight, I don’t think so”, Vox said slowly. “The damage wasn’t that bad. Tiberius was able to repair it and this way we found out that the Tau were monitoring our communications. Lucian could order us radio-silent and we made it to the ground in one piece each with the xenos losing track of us. We, on the other hand, had coordinates for a Tau fort in the forest where we could regroup. Things might have looked different in a stricken drop pod.”
“Alright. A lucky call then.”
“Can’t say for sure”, Vox said with a shrug. “Lucian was higher-than-average with his luck. As you might have noticed, I have extensive assault training and went down with a jump pack instead of the parachutes the others used. I followed Lucian who acceded to my request to go and see to Leandros.”
Titus thought for a moment. Vox seemed to spot this and gave him time for a comment.
“Another thing I’d have decided differently”, he said.
Again Vox shrugged.
“Why?”, he asked with a look around the room. “We were scattered over quite a large terrain, had no means of communication, no time to spare for a brother running amok and if things went badly, at least only I would be lost.”
“Lucian and you were great friends, weren’t you?”, Titus asked sarcastically.
Like on the ‘Fall of Angels’ Vox just let this slide off him and answered earnestly: “’Friend’ implies liking. I’m not sure how it was between us in that respect but, as his specialist for matters of the warp and general craziness, Lucian trusted my word enough to send me off into the forest alone to maybe kill a brother. When I left him, I suggested to shoot Leandros on sight, should he turn up alone. I’m quite certain that he would have done so.”
“But, since you are sitting here, I suppose it was your finger on the trigger.”
“You underestimate me, captain”, the librarian said with a faint smugness in his features. “I found Leandros and talked him away from the things.”
“You were able to ‘talk’ him away from daemons?”, Titus asked, making no attempt to hide his disbelief.
“Sure”, Vox replied unfazed. “It’s a straightforward technique. Although it’s a lot more dangerous than it sounds. I had to change his emotional state and I had to do it against the daemons already trying to amplify it.”
“How did you manage that?”, Titus demanded.
“Hard to explain”, the young man said and looked away for a moment before he sought out his gaze again. “I started by making him tell me what was going on. I got out of him what had happened on Graia and that he had word from you via Laraise. He still proved difficult though. I only got him stable when I promised him that we would get you out. Well. Leandros died during the mission but, afterwards, I talked to Laraise and learned that she had found irregularities in Thrax’s report. She already wanted to go after him but hadn’t gotten the relevant information out of Leandros. Emperor knows how she found out about his connection to the story at all. Makes you doubt the black shield. Anyway. We joined forces. I found proof and she got hold of the traitor.”
Vox watched Titus’ frozen features carefully. The captain found no words. General craziness really seemed to be Vox’s forte. Anyone else would have shot Leandros on sight and Titus would have died in his cell. Crippled and humiliated.
“Why?”, he asked, even though he had already received an answer for this and without willing it, he opened his hands in a helpless gesture. “Why did you come for me?”
“Who else could have come, captain?”, Vox said, reaching out and grasping Titus’ left for a moment. The captain felt the gentle pressure through his gauntlet. A gesture of familiarity after they had only just established that the Codex prohibited this.
“Leandros is dead, Laraise’s favourite word is ‘exterminatus’, nobody else knows. I was the only one.”
“You could have let this lie.”
“True”, Vox conceded, leaning back again. “But I still have to spend time with myself, and I don’t want to live with a treacherous coward.”
Titus felt humbled by this. The sheer effort that had been put into getting him to safety. The exertion, the risk. All this done for a single man and a stranger on top of it.
“And you think you were right to do this?”
Vox gave him a long, serene look.
“You’re still considering that change of career, captain?”, he asked at last and smiled.
Titus grinned sheepishly.
“I’d be the worst bathing maiden ever.”
“Why? You wouldn’t even need a ladder. Very convenient.”
Titus still was unable to shake off the humiliation. He had been accused of heresy. He had broken under the torture. But the man who had seen him at his weakest just looked steadily at him.
“You’re here now”, Vox said, catching his gaze with his blue eyes and somehow catching Titus with this as well. “The Emperor tested you and you passed. You held out long enough.”
Titus stared at him and remembered the tears. Wiped away, hidden from anyone else. Thrax had never seen him waver. Instead, someone who was prepared to pick him up had found him lying broken. Maybe, this counted for something. But he desperately needed to change the subject.
“Tell me how Leandros died”, he asked as soon as he had halfway gotten a grip on himself.
Vox drew a deep breath and leaned back on the bench. Suddenly, he looked shifty.
“We… disagreed on tactics when we entered the Tau fort to get the first artefact. As I told you, I was equipped with a jump pack. None of the others was. We’re no regular assault squad but Aegis is nevertheless heavy on movement in tactics. Leandros opted for a different pattern than I did.” He fell silent for a moment.
“So, one of your reasons for coming here is guilt?”, Titus asked softly.
“A little”, Vox admitted. “It wasn’t our fault really. The pattern he chose demands that we move side by side, while I attacked a cluster of Tau holding Tiberius and Lucian under fire. I thought Leandros with our chaplain, who had been cut off instead. I didn’t sense him in the battle before I had taken off. Usually, we call out to our comrades when we team up with them. That’s what radio silence does for you. With the information we had, everything we did was logical and sensible. Just fatal. He was cut down by enemy fire when he changed direction to follow me. Nobody’s fault”, he said very quietly. “Sometimes things just go wrong. But that doesn’t stop me thinking. I could have watched out for him.”
They were silent for a while.
“You collected his gene-seed”, Titus said then.
“Yes. Dankwart did me the favour to cut it out without asking. Then, I just had to gnaw the commander’s ear off to send him home.”
“You said, a black shield was lost to his chapter for good.”
Vox nodded and explained: “In rare cases if the wearer has taken up the black shield because he saw a failing in his deeds to his chapter, he may renounce this decision if he and the Watch Commander agree that his failing has been paid for or amended.”
“And you came to make amends…”, Titus remembered.
“Yes”, Vox said quietly and there was no smugness in his features this time. Not even pride. Just a faint sadness. “The ‘Life of Blood’ was cleared for its way to Ultramar as soon as you stepped out of your cell.”
Titus was quiet for a long time. He tried to think through the fog of exhaustion and merge what he had heard with what he remembered. Vox gave him the silence he needed now. He was grateful for this. Even more so for everything else the brother had done.
When he looked around as if emerging from a dream, Vox suddenly said with quiet insistence: “Please forgive him, captain.” This took Titus by surprise and Vox continued: “Leandros wasn’t corrupted or evil. There was just a fundamental error in his understanding of the warp and its ways. Headed to Ultramar is a vial with two little organs. I would like to send the message after them that he has been forgiven.”
Titus felt burned out. He was devastated in body and soul and in desperate need of sleep. Yet somehow, this last request seemed to close a circle in his life.
“Tomorrow”, he said slowly. “I would be honoured if you found time to help me compose a message to Leandros.”
“It will be my pleasure, captain!”
“For now, I must sleep.”
Vox nodded and stood up to switch off the light.
“I’ll be right here when you wake up”, he said, giving him a last, gentle smile before the darkness fell around them.
“Wake me when it’s time for prayer”, Titus instructed him as he laid back and listened for the brother’s movements. Vox did not return to his creaking bench but seemed to kneel down somewhere.
“Dankwart forbade me to do that”, he heard him mention casually. “When you wake, it will be time for prayer. Not the other way around.”
“A captain can overrule healing duty”, Titus impressed on him, finally getting annoyed with the insubordination.
“You know well that carrying ranks over between chapters is very tricky, captain”, Vox said jovially. “It grants me a lot of room for creative misapprehension, deafness or, in times of dire need, a complete lack of understanding.”
Titus had to chuckle despite himself.
“You have a quick mouth on you, brother.”
“Thank you for indulging me, captain. Now, will you sleep already?”
“Yes, good night.”
“Good night, captain. May the Emperor guide you through the darkness.”
“And you, brother.”