Even when flanked by his Inquisitorial retinue and an honour guard of Primaris Space Marines, composed of the two Chapters that had been sourced for the defense against the Tyranid hive fleet, Lord Inquisitor Roxtius had to admit to himself that he found the Eclipse, the fortress-monastery of the Void Stalkers, quite intimidating. It was a mobilized shard of a shattered planet, the faint curvature of what was once its surface still visible in the arch of the behemoth vessel’s spine, and he had not been able to take his eyes off it through the void-shields of the gun-cutter that ferried them there. The interior had not been any more reassuring; dark, spartan and strangely empty. No honour rolls, no bas-reliefs to memorize ancient battles, no statues of saints and heroes. Just cold, hard stone, and where the occasional image of the God-Emperor appeared as a protrusion from the stone, Roxtius felt like he was being judged.
The Void Stalkers had awaited them in the hangar with an honour guard of their own, headed by an Astartes called Asmodal, whom Roxtius understood to be the equivalent of the Captain of the First Company. The Void Stalkers were inscrutable behind the snarling faceplates of their helmets and Asmodal spoke only a few words before motioning for the visitors to follow him. The savant besides Roxtius spoke up and the Lord Inquisitor leaned over slightly to better hear the man’s rapid whispers. “No ceremonial weapons, no purity seals, no armor decorations,” he said, and Roxtius noticed that he was right. The Void Stalker escort appeared to be wearing their regular power armor, which looked quite worse for wear, and wielded bolters that were scorched and blackened by use. “Some honour guard,” the savant muttered. Roxtius hushed him to be quiet.
The light continued to fade as they went deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Eclipse. Most of the doors they passed were closed and hallways were darkened and empty, but on occasion Roxtius was able to spot other Void Stalkers engaged in sparring exercises, gear maintenance or silent prayer. Some of them were unarmored and Roxtius eagerly studied their faces as they looked up to observe the visitors, but he saw nothing useful there either -- down to a man they were pale, gaunt and as unreadable as stone. Only their eyes seemed alive.
Entering the heart of the great vessel, the vast, circular chamber where the most important audiences and gatherings were held, Roxtius’ gaze was immediately drawn to the figure at its center, sat upon a barren throne on a raised dias, purple artificer armor polished to a sheen: the Chapter Master. An iron halo silhouetted his helmet, a black cape was draped over the arm rests of the stone chair, and a massive black sword was laid across his lap. Around him, half-shrouded in the gloom, stood the rest of what Roxtius assumed to be the officer cadre. “Sixteen,” he heard one of the Marines next to him whisper to himself. The Inquisitor and his retinue stopped at an appropriate distance from the dias and he inclined his head and folded his hands into the aquila across his chest.
“Chapter Master Gorseval,” Roxtius said. “It is an honour to meet with you.” It was better to be polite and deferential, even when he couldn’t shake the feeling he had walked into a trap of some kind.
He was greeted with silence and stillness. The armored lord did not stir or speak for several moments and Roxtius felt the tension in the room grow. The Astartes next to him balled a fist, and his savants and interrogators shifted uneasily.
“Lord Inquisitor,” came the reply at last. Gorseval’s cold, high voice snaked around the room, returning and echoing in ways that the Inquisitor’s had not. “Welcome. The honour is mine. Congratulations on a well-fought victory. And hail, brothers,” he continued, moving at last to lift a hand as he gestured to the Primaris Marine honour guard. “You are most welcome here too, though you have not come in the shape I expected…”
Unsure of what to say, the Sergeant of the Marines looked sideways at Roxtius, and the Inquisitor stepped forward with a smile. “Much has changed in your… absence, my lord,” he responded. “A new breed of Astartes has awoken, to reinforce our great Chapters in this dire hour of need. The Great Rift has opened across the Galaxy, and Warmaster Roboute Guilliman has returned to lead the Imperium against the forces of the Enemy.”
Gorseval’s head tilted almost imperceptibly. “Has he?” The rhetorical question hung in the air for a moment, and Roxtius felt the hairs at the nape of his neck stand up when it seemed like the Chapter Master repeated the question directly into his ear. Something was very wrong with the acoustics of the chamber, or there was something more sinister at work. “Good. The Imperium needs its… finest leader. But enough about that,” Gorseval said and got to his feet, the cape sliding silently off the throne, and his gauntleted hands grabbing the sword across his lap. In the shifting light Roxtius could see the glittering psi-matrix that spiderwebbed across the inky black surface of the blade, and he realized it was a force weapon: the largest he had ever seen.
“Chapter Master appears to be a psyker,” the savant muttered and tapped away at a wrist-mounted data slate.
An attending Void Stalker stepped forward to take the great weapon from Gorseval with visible reverence before retreating back into the shadows. The Chapter Master’s hands went up and with a soft clink and a depressurizing hiss, he removed his helmet.
Roxtius gasped, as did many of his retinue.
A spitting image of the God-Emperor himself looked upon them. Long black hair framed a noble and powerful face on either side, with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a severe brow -- a face that Roxtius knew well, for it had been immortalized in sculpture and illustration across the breadth of the Imperium. But this face was as pale as snow, and the eyes were dark, impenetrable pools of black ink. There was nothing there but the void. Was it a hollow mockery? Blasphemous vanity? Or was it something else entirely?
“What has really brought you here, Lord Inquisitor?” Gorseval asked, and Roxtius nearly withered under the force of the Chapter Master’s voice and the scrutiny of his gaze. It was like being questioned by a twisted vision of the Emperor. But he was an agent of the Throne, damn it -- not the chair from which Gorseval had just risen, but the real Throne, back on Terra.
He cleared his throat and straightened his back, meeting Gorseval’s gaze without faltering this time. “Your Chapter has not been seen or heard from for more than three hundred solar cycles. In that time, the opening of the Great Rift has been accompanied by Warp Storms raging across the Imperium. Entire worlds, nay, sectors, have been lost to the Arch-Enemy. Your participation in the extermination campaign against the Tyranid splinter fleet was…”
“Exemplary,” Gorseval interrupted.
Roxtius frowned and sighed. “Unorthodox. It is the duty of the Inquisiton to safeguard the Imperium against threats from without, as well as threats from… within. Therefore, with the authority granted to me as Lord Inquisitor by the seal of Terra, as an agent of the Throne, I command the following: a detachment of Inquisitorial forces will be attached to your Chapter for a time, however long it will take, to satisfy that the Void Stalkers remain dedicated and that your gene-seed remains pure.”
One could’ve cut the tension with a knife in the silence that descended over the audience chamber. Gorseval’s nostrils flared and something sinister moved in the depthless abyss of his eyes. “You dare question our dedication?”
“It is my duty to question everything,” Roxtius retorted simply.
Slowly, Gorseval sat back down on his throne, and the flare of defiance that had burned brightly within him for a moment faded away. “Yes, of course,” he said softly. “You have our full cooperation. What else?”
Outwardly stoic but inwardly relieved that it had not come to conflict, Roxtius cleared his throat. “You shall pay tithe to the Deathwatch.”
“The Deathwatch?” Gorseval repeated and lifted his gaze back to Roxtius, moving from where it had fallen in his lap. It was clear that he recognized the name, but that it had been an eternity since he had last heard it. For a moment, the Chapter Master looked around the room, before he nodded. “We, too, shall honour our vow. Yndrasil, I call upon you.”
A Void Stalker appeared to materialize from the shadows as he stepped into the light of the dias, a long cloak wrapped around his armor. Roxtius heard the Primaris Marine next to him breathe in sharply and grip his weapon tighter. “Seventeen,” he grumbled. Had the Void Stalker been here the whole time, invisible to even his Primaris brethren? The thought made Roxtius uneasy, and he stared at the armored warrior with a sense of trepidation.
“He will serve,” Gorseval said.
“Just him?” Roxtius asked, incredulous. A single Astartes was not what he had in mind.
For the first time, the Chapter Master smiled. “Just him. The Deathwatch will be satisfied. You have my word.”
“Well? What do you think?”
The empty, scoured planet that housed Watch-Fortress Jorval hung before them, suspended in the void, filling most of view from the deck.
Yndrasil glanced at the shipmaster, but said nothing.
“You must be wondering where the Watch-Fortress is. It’s--”
“The Watch-Fortress is beneath the surface.”
Astounded, the shipmaster raised an eyebrow, and reflected again on how unreadable this particular Marine had proven to be. They’d had to fetch him from the farthest possible edges of the Imperium, from a Chapter that the shipmaster had never even heard of, he’d barely spoken a word the entire journey, and now suddenly this?
“And how do you figure that?”
The Void Stalker looked at the planet again. “Because we would have done the same.”
With that, he turned around and walked away -- to inspect his gear one last time, no doubt. The shipmaster watched him go. “They’re not going to like you,” he whispered.
“Your chambers,” the emissary said. Yndrasil stepped inside and looked around -- they were not so different from his chambers back on the Eclipse, given that they contained practically nothing and appeared to be utterly unadorned. He could sense that the man behind him had more to say, and turned around to look him in the eye.
“Given… that you are one of the first of your Chapter to serve with us in… well, a long time, we have no records of particular practices or… rituals, that you might observe. So if there something lacking, please feel free to put in a request, and we will see what we can do.”
Yndrasil shrugged, almost imperceptibly. “This is fine,” he said. He spoke in short, clipped tones and with barely any inflection. The emissary shifted on the spot before managing a smile.
“Very good. You shall be summoned within forty-eight Terran hours for initial training, please do not leave your chambers until then."
The Void Stalker watched him leave and waited for the door to close behind him. Then, he turned around, stepped up to the middle of the chamber and sank down on his knees, pulling up his robe so that his bare knees touched the stone. Yndrasil clasped his hands together, closed his eyes, and…
Felt nothing. The long journey through the winding tunnels of the Watch-Fortress had made him forget. The Brand was nothing more than a small splinter in the back of his mind now. It had been for months. Without his Chapter Master nearby, his psychic guidance and presence disappeared. Yndrasil felt an all-too familiar pang of loss that he brushed aside as quickly as he could.
Prayer would have to do.
“Void Father, heed my words,” the Astartes began in a breathless whisper, “and protect me in my hour of need…”