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"The Scarus sector is a tinderbox - one spark may soon become a great conflagration. I shall light the fires."
— His Holiness Lord Xaphan, Cardinal-Astral Scarus
A world had gone silent.
The astropathic communications node on Vraks, where astropathic messages were gathered from across Scarus sector, checked, encrypted and re-routed by the cadre of astropaths that inhabited the tall censorium tower of Vraks' citadel, had stopped transmitting. The last transmission had been a garbled message, received by an Administratum office on Cadia. It was not an unusual event, astro-telepathic messages did not always make their way through the warp intact. The astropath's psychic-art was not a precise one. At first little attention was paid to a minor anomaly.
It would take the Master of the Departmento Munitorum many months to hear news of the disaster that had beset his Armoury world. Not until routine messages went unanswered would suspicions be aroused in the corridors of power of Segmentum Obscurus. Not until further investigations were undertaken, and the garbled message was eventually forwarded to the Master of the Departmento's office on Terra would the truth be known.
Vraks had fallen. The impregnable fortress and its valuable stores were now in rebel hands. How could it have happened?
At 366804M.41 Cardinal-Astral Borja died. He was a very old man. He was old beyond the comprehension of most mere mortals. His body had been kept alive for over four hundred years by the arcane arts of the Adeptus Mechanicus Biologis, with daily blood transfusions and the application of rare and expensive chemicals. Although frail he had endured to do the Emperor's work. His diocese mourned his passing. Bells tolled across the sub-sectors under his rule - although the old man had not left his Ecclesiarchal palace on the Cardinal-world of San Artorus for the past two hundred years. Borja's seat upon the Holy Synod was now vacant, and a replacement had to be found. The eventual replacement was Cardinal Xaphan, a protégé of Borja's, whose rise through the ranks of the Adeptus Ministorum had been aided by his powerful patron. Xaphan was enthroned into his new rank as the Cardinal-Astral Scarus on San Artorus, but before taking his place in the council chamber, the new Cardinal decided he would complete a pilgrimage. He would conduct a grand tour of his new diocese (for he had never seen the places he must now rule), and this pilgrimage would take in the many shrines and cathedrals of the Scarus sector. At each location he would preach the Imperial Creed and see that all was being done to protect the souls of the billions now under his charge.
The pilgrimage would take five years, and along with Cardinal Xaphan would travel his full entourage. A thousand preachers, deacons, chatelaines, servants and menials, along with a personal bodyguard of the Adeptus Sororitas. These warriors were a gift from the Abbess of the Artorus Priory of the Order of the Argent Shroud, to celebrate Xaphan's enthronement. It was a dangerous galaxy beyond the fringes of the Artorus system, and a Cardinal must be ready to protect himself and his flock with force as well as with faith.
The Cardinal's long pilgrimage took him to many worlds, where his very presence, as a chosen representative of the Emperor, whipped the faithful into a frenzy of devotion. Fanatical cults such as the Redemptionists attached themselves to his entourage. Xaphan's pilgrimage was a crusade they claimed, to rid the sector of heresy, to purge the impure and the unclean. He had been sent by the Emperor to do this holy work. Here was a man who could lead them.
On Thracian Primaris the Cardinal's sermons attracted tens of thousands of frateris. Rioting broke out just to catch a glimpse of the Cardinal himself. Hundreds died as the Sisters of Battle and local Adeptus Arbites fought to restore order. Thousands of faithful pledged themselves personally to the Cardinal's service. From world to world his entourage grew into a small army. The Cardinal's arrival had been like a spark that had ignited the fires of faith across the Scarus sector. Some extremists were even calling him a messiah.
Amongst all this fanatical devotion Cardinal Xaphan saw, perhaps for the first time, the true power that came with his new rank. On San Artorus there was much work to do, no doubt important work, but out here, amongst the lay people - the frateris, he was adorated. His words could raise an army. Surely out here he could best do the Emperor's work. Back on the Cardinal world he would spend hours debating in the council chamber, signing declarations, attending long meetings with the Administratum offices. Out here he could take real action against the doubters and heretics that threaten the Emperor's divine rule.
Xaphan voiced his opinions to his advisors, in particular Deacon Mamon, a young man who had recently joined the Cardinal's advisors on Thracian Primaris. Favoured by the Cardinal as a practical man of action, and for his local knowledge, the Deacon encouraged the seeds that were already developing in Xaphan's mind. With a leader to unite the many cults of the Imperial creed, Xapahan's pilgrimage could become a war of faith across the sector. But Mamon advised his Cardinal that he must proceed very carefully. The Inquisition had spies and informers everywhere, and the Cardinal's movements would not go unnoticed by the notorious Ordo Hereticus. One false move and the Cardinal could be arrested for breaking the strict laws that governed the Ecclesiarchy. Most importantly, the Cardinal could personally command no men under arms. This ban had been enforced ever since the Age of Apostasy, when Cardinal Vandire had rebelled and his 'reign of blood' had almost shattered the Imperium. There would already be informers and disloyal traitors amongst his entourage. These were weak-willed individuals who lacked the Cardinal's clarity of vision and his holy purpose. These spies were in the pay of the Ordo Hereticus, and they stood in the way of the Cardinal's holy war. With Mamon whispering in his ear, it seemed that Xaphan could not trust anybody. The Cardinal needed an inner circle of trusted advisors around him - reliable men who could be vetted and kept under surveillance in return, to safeguard their loyalty. The Cardinal must be very careful. If his desired war of faith was ever to come into being, he needed a safe, secluded planet on which to prepare and plan.
The place chosen by Deacon Mamon was Vraks. Vraks was a Departmento Munitorum Armoury world, a huge store house for war materiel, but it was also the site of the Basilica of Saint Leonis the Blind. Leonis had been a missionary, martyred in the 38th Millennium after having his eyes removed whilst spreading the word of the Emperor across the wilder systems of Scarus sector. A shrine had been built to inter the saint's remains and relics. The Cardinal's pilgrimage should visit the shrine and take up residence in the palace attached to the Basilica. The palace already belonged to the Cardinal as part of the estates that accompanied his position. It was maintained by a skeleton staff in case he ever had need of it, but it was also the headquarters from which the Adeptus Ministorum oversaw the pilgrims that wished to visit the shrine.
The Cardinal left the details of the arrangements to his favoured Deacon, who had to request permission for the Cardinal to visit Vraks. The system itself was a highly sensitive location, and only those ships with permission could enter the system. The Departmento Munitorum had to be made aware that the Cardinal and his retinue would be arriving. The Imperial Navy needed to provide a vessel to transport the Cardinal, and an escort to protect him. All this was eventually done through official channels. The security formalities were completed and the staff of the Cardinal Palace on Vraks were sent into a frenzy of action when an astropathic message arrived saying the Cardinal-Astral would be taking up residence in under a month. Vraks would be the seat of the Cardinal's power in the Scarus sector until he was ready to resume his pilgrimage and begin his holy war.
Few saw Cardinal Xaphan after those first meetings. He didn't make appearances in public, he sealed himself away within the palace, and only a selected few were allowed access to his Holiness. The running of the Departmento Munitorum armoury returned to normal. The pilgrims still came to file past the bones of St Leonis, the labour corps smashed and hauled rocks. The sisters of the Order of the Argent Shroud took up residence in the small priory attached to the Basilica of St Leonis and formed an honour guard to the revered saint's remains and relics. There seemed no reason for suspicion. But there was disloyalty and sedition breeding within the heart of Vraks.
Aided by Deacon Mamon, the Cardinal started to plan the first steps in his war of faith. Of course he would need a great army, although he already had its core with the followers that had sworn loyalty and service to him, it must be larger still. Xaphan would need more men, and so his Deacon planned to circumvent the ancient ban on armed men in his service. The Cardinal could not command any forces, but in times of peril the Basilica of St Leonis the Blind could raise a frateris militia to protect itself. So, the Deacon's preachers and missionaries moved amongst the pilgrims and labour gangs preaching sermons that forecast that Vraks was under threat. Rumours abounded that heretical forces were already attacking neighbouring systems and that Vraks must be ready to defend itself. The preachers recruited frateris militiamen by the thousand, and soon the Basilica had a small army of men to defend it. The mood on Vraks became one of religious zealotry. Any who spoke out against the cardinal were demonised, some were arrested and dragged off to Vraks' dungeons. The Cardinal was the planet's saviour, the mob's messiah, and he would lead them all to salvation from the heretic forces that threatened them.
Simultaneously, Deacon Mamon was also busy establishing an inner circle around the Cardinal of fanatically loyal followers. Drawn from the many frateris who had sworn oaths of loyalty during his pilgrimage, or from the pilgrims already on Vraks, Mamon instructed the Cardinal's preachers to recruit what he called, the 'Disciples of Xaphan'. These would be the Cardinal's closest supporters, men who he could trust and who would fight to the death for their master against any foe. Also into the inner circle were enticed the commanders of Vraks' garrison - the Steward of the Citadel and the high-ranking commanders of the Vraks' militia. Mamon saw the loyalty of these men as vital, and with the Cardinal's vast wealth he bought it. Where he failed to buy loyalty, Mamon soon had the leaders replaced, using the Cardinal's influence to install more amenable leaders. None of the forces these officers commanded were directly under the Cardinal's orders, so the ban had not been broken, but soon the commanders could be relied upon to do the Cardinal's bidding. In the coming holy war Xaphan would need their troops. Frateris militia served their purpose, but they were not replacements for a well-equipped and trained soldiery. The Cardinal soon had almost all of Vraks' military forces under his control. Only the Adeptus Arbites precinct remained outside his influence.
Whilst the Cardinal remained secretive, his gospel was spreading like wildfire amongst the repressed and hopeless of Vraks' labour gangs. These penal workers lived a wretched existence, building the underground storehouses, defences and road networks for the Departmento Munitorum. On Vraks there were millions of indentured workers, poor souls dressed in ragged overalls, chained together and under constant guard. Xaphan's preachers brought a message that gave them some hope - the Cardinal could redeem them of their crimes and allow them to join his coming crusade. There was hope of an escape from their brutal and short lives. That hope lit the fires of rebellion.
The Cardinal's message also reached other ears. Deacon Mamon had been right, the Inquisition did have many informers and news of his preachings alarmed the Ordo Hereticus. Theirs was a sacred duty to guard against heresy within the Imperial Cult, to monitor and police the Imperium against the enemy of corruption within. The Ordo Hereticus had seen it before - Cardinals whose personal power led them to stray from the Emperor's light. Powerful men who began to believe that they themselves could be worshipped like the Emperor. Decisive action had to be taken. Secret orders were issued to end Cardinal Xaphan's short reign.
The sniper-assassin had been lying in wait for his chance for many days. He had infiltrated the Citadel disguised as a pilgrim visiting the relics of St Leonis and, under cover of darkness, avoided the guards and climbed to the highest tower above the basilica - from where he could see most of the Citadel grounds. And on a narrow ledge, camouflaged by his stealth suit, the sniper patiently awaited his chance to strike, carefully watching the Cardinal's palace, the movement of guards, the arriving guests and departing officials, for a clear shot.
A single shot rang out acros the Citadel. The heavy penetrator round punched clean through a decorative pillar before hitting the Cardinal. In a bright flash of energy Xaphan fell backwards, but his rosarious-mounted refractor field had saved his life. His guards leapt to surround him, and two died instantly as accurate following shots took them clean through the head. Blood was splashed bright across the mosaic floor of the palace, but the sniper's one clear shot had failed. Quickly the sniper reloaded his rifle and jumped back through the thin vent that had allowed him access to the ledge. Inside the ancient tower it was dark and dusty. His mask compensated for the near darkness and he made for the narrow spiral staircase. He already had his escape route well planned and committed to memory.
Below, the courtyard of the Citadel was suddenly alive with panicking pilgrims and running guards. At the bottom of the stairway the sniper emerged through a narrow arched doorway. A young acolyte preacher stared in awe at the lithe black-clad figure. It was the last thing he saw as the Exitus rifle fired from the hip hit him through the chest. The assassin made for a side door, shot the lock away and kicked it open. There was no longer any need for stealth, just a headlong rush to escape - and death for anybody who got in his way. Rifle now discarded for extra speed, pistol in hand, the sniper ran, swift as his own speeding bullets down a dim high-vaulted corridor. Citadel guards were clattering in behind him. Firing blind over his shoulder two guards fell bleeding. The sniper dodged into a side alcove, and rapidly fired more pistol shells down the corridor to keep the guards back. From the far end of the corridor more guards appeared. Desperately the sniper looked for an alternative escape route.
Rolling across the corridor he found another sealed doorway, and blasted away the hinges. Beyond was an old stairway down into the basilica's ancient vaults. He rushed down into the musty darkness, but into a dead end. Here lay the grim sarcophaguses of ancient holy men, as well as the scattered remains of the many pilgrims that had passed away whilst visiting Vraks in past centuries. The guards were soon coming down the steps behind him, and the first through the stairs' archway died to another well-aimed pistol shot. But the guards now had the assassin cornered. Nowhere left to run. Grenades were hurled in, and the mortuary chamber began to fill with dust and smoke. More grenades followed, then in rushed the guards, weapons blazing. His last two pistol shots killed two more guards before the cornered assassin died, riddled with bullets. His body was dragged up to the surface to parade before the faithful. Here was the traitor that had tried to kill Xaphan.
Traitorous forces had struck at the Cardinal, attempted to kill their messiah, so spoke Xaphan's preachers. News of the assassination attempt sparked rioting in Vraks starport as the pilgrims ran amuck, fearing that the assassination attempt meant that the enemy forces long forecast were about to attack. The frateris militia raced to arm themselves and the guards of the armouries were ordered to stand aside and allow them in. The looters plundered weapons and ammunition in massive quantities. The Adeptus Arbites moved to re-impose order and found themselves in a pitched battle in the streets of Vraks' star port. They requested aid from the citadel garrison, but under Deacon Mamon's instructions received no help. The Arbites precinct house was soon besieged by an angry mob, and would hold out for several weeks before eventually being overrun.
It had started. The Cardinal was moving to take over Vraks and begin his crusade. Soon there was fighting breaking out between the labour corps workers and their guards in hab-zone four. Other labourers followed their lead, and were cutting themselves free of their chains and looting the armouries for weapons. The guards fled rather than face the enraged mobs.
Those still loyal to the Master-Prefect of Vraks tried to issue orders to raise the militia to combat the rebels, but found those orders quickly countermanded by the Cardinal's officers. For the next few days disorder reigned, it seemed like civil war had broken out on Vraks. There were bloody battles and riots everywhere, often bwteen sides who did not know why they were fighting. The Prioress of the Order of the Argent Shroud requested an audience with the Cardinal. Surely she should mobilise her battle-sisters and restore order, or at least aid the beleaguered Adeptus Arbites officers in Vraks star port. Instead she was immediately arrested by the Disciples of Xaphan and thrown in Vraks' dungeons. Following her arrest, the Disciples marched into the priory and arrested the remaining Sororitas sisters. Some fought back, but out-numbered and taken completely by surprise by the sudden treachery, the sisters were soon overrun. Those Sororitas that didn't die in the fighting were clasped in irons and hauled away to the dungeons. Meanwhile, the dungeons were also being emptied, and their former occupants presented before the Cardinal, the man who had saved them from their fate.
Under Deacon Mamon's orders the Disciples of Xaphan also moved against Vraks' Master-Prefect and the Administratum buildings were stormed. The Master-Prefect tried to run but was killed as he tried to reach the Citadel's shuttle landing pad. The entire Citadel was soon in the Cardinal's hands. The garrison followed their commanders' orders and confined themselves to barracks. Any who did not surrender and bow down before the Cardinal were executed by the Disciples of Xaphan. The censorium tower was also stormed, and the astropaths within slaughtered to a man. While across Vraks battles raged, the Citadel, the seat of power, had fallen from within. When the fighting outside subsided, Cardinal Xaphan was left as the sole ruler of Vraks.
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