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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 of the galaxy-spanning Imperium of Mankind had fallen silent.
The astropathic communications spire on the armoury world of Vraks, through which thousands of psychically-transmitted messages were received from across the Scarus sector and then re-routed by its choir of astropaths through the Warp to other sectors of the Imperium every day, had ceased transmitting. At first little attention was paid to Vraks' absence by those within the Departmento Munitorum under whose jurisdiction it fell. The vagaries of the Warp meant that communications blackouts were not uncommon, and with no Astra Militarum regiments scheduled to resupply there for months, other matters in the region took precedence.
And so Vraks' silence might have continued, but there were others within the Imperium who had paid a far keener eye to events occurring on that far distant planet. Even then it took weeks for the Master of the Departmento Munitorum to receive news that one of his worlds was no longer responding to ever more urgent attempts to communicate with it. Not until then would suspicions be aroused in the corridors of power of the Segmentum Obscurus, and not until further investigations were undertaken and the final Warp-garbled message that had been received from Vraks deciphered would the whole truth be known.
The seemingly impregnable armoury world and its vast reserves of weapons, vehicles and equipment was now out of reach of the Imperium, and in the hands of an as yet unknown enemy.
In 366804M.41, Cardinal-Astral Borja died. Old beyond the comprehension of the billions whose unquestioning faith in the Emperor he had overseen from the cardinal world of San Artorus, his body had been kept alive for over four hundred years by the arcane arts of the Adeptus Mechanicus Biologis. Although frail, he had endured to do the Emperor's work, and with due reverence his diocese mourned his passing, tens of thousands of bells rolling across the sub-sectors under Borja's rule to mark their grief.
Once the Ministorum-sanctioned period of mourning has been respectfully observed, many months of intense debate and politicking passed before his successor was chosen. The man who would become the new Cardinal-Astral was named as Xaphan, a protégé of Borja's whose rapid rise through the ranks of the Adeptus Ministorum had been aided by his influential patron. With due reverence, Xaphan was enthroned on the cardinal world, but before taking his place on its council, the new Cardinal-Astral decreed that he would complete a pilgrimage of his new domains, to see for himself that all was being done to protect the souls of the billions now in his charge.
So vast was Xaphan' diocese, his grand tour was expected to take over five years to complete, and with the new Cardinal-Astral would also travel his full entourageof more than a thousand preachers, deacons, chatelaines, servants and menials, along with his personal Adepta Sororitas bodyguard, the protection of these devout warriors a gift from the Abbess of the Artorus Priory of the Order of the Argent Shroud, in honour of Xaphan's enthronement.
Over the following months, the Cardinal-Astral's pilgrimage took him to many worlds, where his presence whipped the faithful into a frenzy of devotion. Soon, many fanatical cults had attached themselves to his entourage; Xaphan's pilgrimage was a holy crusade, they claimed, to rid the sector of heresy and to purge it of the impure. Here was a man who could lead them during these ever-darkening times.
On Thracian Primaris in particular, the Cardinal-Astral's sermons attracted hundreds of thousands of the faithful. Rioting broke out just to catch a glimpse of him, and scores died or were injured as his Sisters of Battle bodyguard and local Adeptus Arbites fought to restore order and keep back the crowds. Despite this, hundreds pledged themselves personally to the Cardinal's service and from one world to the next, his entourage grew to the size of a small army.
Amongst this fanatical devotion, Xaphan saw, perhaps for the first time, the true power that came with his new position. On San Artorus there was much work to be done, important work without doubt, but out here, amongst the lay people, he was an inspiring force. Surely this was where he could achieve great things in the name of the Emperor rather than spending long hours debating in the council chamber, signing declarations, or attending countless meetings with Administratum officials dealing with some petty problem or other. Now that he was out amongst his flock, Xaphan saw how he could take real action against the doubters and heretics who threatened the Emperor's divine rule.
The Cardinal-Astral cautiously voiced his opinions to his advisors, in particular to Deacon Mamon, a young man who had joined his entourage on Thracian Primaris and rapidly risen through its ranks. Favoured by the Cardinal already as a practical man of action and for his local knowledge, the deacon encouraged the seeds of ambition that were now taking root within Xaphan. Mamon agreed with his new master. That so many were willing to join him was a sign. The people of the Imperium no longer wanted a faceless bureaucrat to rule over them from some distant world, they wre looking for a leader, someone with whom they could take a stand against the dangers that threatened their everyday existence. They had chosen Xaphan as that leader, and with the masses at his command, he could raise up a War of Faith that would cleanse the sector.
But Mamon advised that he must proceed cautiously. Xaphan's intentions, no matter how virtuous, would be seized upon by rival factions as the act of an amibtious man seeking to further his own power. Their jealousy would twist their minds, some going so far as to accuse him of violating the terms of the Decree Passive, the order that forbade members of the Adeptus Ministorum from controlling 'men under arms'. One false move and these immensely powerful men would see Xaphan arrested by the Ordo Hereticus, to live out the rest of his days in an Inquisitorial cell, or worse. Having spent his whole career embroiled in the politics associated with high office within the Ministorum, Mamon's words rang true with Xaphan. He had witnessed his predecessor, Borja, on many occasions signing warrants that would condemn men and women to judgement of the Inqusition for far less. If his dreams were to come to fruition, he would need somewhere safe from which to plan and prepare.
Mamon, naturally, knew of such a world Vraks Prime in the Kerak sub-sector. It was the perfect base from which Xaphan could begin his holy crusade, an armoury world that held weapons and equipment in abundance to arm those who would fight for his cause, and it was also the site of the Shrine of Saint Leonis the Blind, one of the most holiest in the region. Under the guise of visiting the shrine as part of his pilgrimage, Xaphan could take up residence in the attached Ecclesiarchal palace and begin his true work.
The declaration that someone as holy as the Cardinal-Astral of the Scarus Sector was to visit their world sent the workers and pilgrims on Vraks into a frenzy of religious devotion. From dawn to dusk and long into the night in the weeks prior to his arrival, the bells of Vraks Prime rung out, summoning the faithful to prayer, and millions heeded their call. Many thousands also made the long, arduous trek across the Van Meersland Wastes to the planet's star port as Xaphan's fleet arrived in-system, the crowds growing by the hour in the hope of witnessing the Emperor's envoy. And when the Cardinal-Astral's vessel finally touched down, a vast sea of the faithful were there to greet him.
First to step out of Xapahn's ornately decorated landing craft were the imposing warriors of the Battle Sisters of the Order of the Argent Shroud. Boltguns held aloft, they stood to attention on each side of the vessel's ramp as Xaphan's honour guard and protectors. Next to walk down the ramp were the Cardinal-Astral's closest advisors led, of course, by Deacon Mamon. Dressed in the finest ceremonial robes, to the lowly citizens of Vraks each must have seemed to be wearing the wealth of an entire planet, adorned as they were in densely embroidered silks and jewel-encrusted rosaries and holy relics. The, from behind them, out stepped Xaphan and all who saw him knew that the Emperor had tuly blessed thei rhumble world.
Xaphan's appearance has been carefully orchestrated by Mamon to have the greatest impact it could. Stepping from the darkness of the craft's interior, he literally shone with the Emperor's Light, dazzling all as a golden energy field flickered serenely about his exquisite white robes. To the men and women of Vraks, who all their lives had known little but the drab browns and greys of their bleak world, it was the most wondrous thing they had ever seen, and as one, the thousands surrounding the landing field knelt in prayer in adoration of their new messiah.
Pausing only briefly to bless those most senior of the dignitaries assembled before his void craft, the Cardinal-Astral set off on foot for the holy shrine of Saint Leonis. Those worshippers who had secured a place on the road leading up to the shrine wept with joy and praised his name to the heavens; the mnay days of hunder and exposure to Vraks' grim elements they'd endured whilst waiting for that brief glimpse forgotten in a moment as they watched him enter the cool darkness of the shrine. Nearly two hours passed before Xaphan reappeared and made his way to a pulpit that had been set up on a promontory overlooking the masses. As he approached it, cyber-cherubs were released from rare-wood caskets carried by each of his entourage. With a beat of angelic wings, scores of the ornate vox-casters flew out across the wasts to broadcast Xaphan's message directly to those gathered below.
For three hours he stood before the masses and preached. He preached to them of the good work they had done, listing scores of worlds that had been saved through their devotion to the hard task that the Emperor had set them. It was they, he claimed, not the massed regiments of the Astra Militarum or the Chapters of the noble Adeptus Astartes who were the True Warriors of the Emperor. Without Vraks and its people, they would not have had the weapons, munitions and equipment to prosecute His holy wars, and the great empire of Mankind would have been swept into darkness long ago. Only then did Xaphan finally pause and into the brief silence that followed, the voices of every man, woman and child on the armoury world called out in praise for the Emperor and the Cardinal-Astral.
Seizing the moment, Xaphan changed his manner to fit the true message he intended to deliver, one which Deacon Mamon had promised him would lay the foundations of the War of Faith the Cardinal-Astral would soon lead. Gone was the praise and the platitudes, and the golden light that had made him seem almost angelic now took on an altogether darker hue. An enemy was approaching, he warned them. One who would bring war to Vraks on a scale never before imagined. Already many worlds had been lost and soon Vraks might be amongst them. One day soon, it would be they who would have to bear arms to protect their homes and families, for if the enemy came to Vraks then they could be certain that all the Emperor's mighty armies had already fallen into darkness.
Leaving them with those dire words of warning, Xaphan retired swiflty to his new palace, his Adepta Sororitas honour guard taking up residence in the small priory attached to the Basilica of Leonis. Making no further appearances in public, he sealed himself away within its walls, with only a select few granted a rare audience with him. Then, aided by Deacon Mamon, the Cardinal began to plan his War of Faith.
For weeks they worked in secret, pouring over Adeptus Ministorum reports that recorded population numbers in the sector, levels of devotion and incidents of blasphemy. Worlds and systems in particular that showed signs of turning from the Emperor's Light were noted, a border drawn around the heretical regions singling them out for further scrutiny. Eventually, the plan was drawn up and Xaphan's War of Faith began to take shape. But as each new world and system were added, doubts began to surface within Xaphan with increasing intensity. Even here, far from the prying eyes of his rivals, they would still have spies. Any declaration of his intent would no doubt draw their attention and the plans Xaphan and Mamon had drawn up would require a vast amount of manpower to prosecute. Even if they could find a way around the Decree Passive, it would take many months to amass the forces he needed. It was Deacon Mamon, as always, who provided the solution.
Mamon had not only suggested Vraks because of its distance from Xaphan's rivals, but also because of its large population and the vast numbers who attended the Shrine World. In times of peril, the Basilica of St Leonis the Blind could raise a Frateris Militia to protect the holy relics kept there. After Xaphan's rousing speech, it would not take much for him to convince the population of Vraks that the threat to their world he had spoken of was approaching, and its millions would provide all the troops he would need. At no point would the Frateris be considered directly under his control, but as the most senior member of the Adeptus Ministorum on the armoury world, it was Cardinal-Astral Xapahan's to influence as he saw fit.
His doubts assuaged, the Cardinal-Astral gave his blessing and Mamon's men moved swiftly amongst the pilgrims and labour gangs, preaching that the darkness Xaphan had warned them of had now set its sights upon Vraks, that legions of heretics and traitors were already attacking neighbouring systems and had cut off the armoury world from the Emperor's aid. Within hours, panic had set in across the planet and the ranks of Vraks' Frateris Militia swelled in response, hundreds joining by the hour, exactly as Deacon Mamon had predicted.
Whilst they had been planning the war, Deacon Mamon had also set about establishing an inner circle around the Cardinal-Astral, knowing that the moment their plans became clear, there would be reprisals. These 'Disciples of Xaphan' would be his closest allies, men whom he could trust and who would fight to the death for him. Also into this inner circle, Mamon had already secretly enticed the commanders of Vraks' garrison, the Steward of the Citadel and the high-ranking commanders of the Vraks' militia, and where allegiances could not be bought by appealing to their faith, the Cardinal-Astral's vast wealth soon acquired them.
Not all on Vraks, however, were as easy to convince. No matter how hard he tried, Mamon had not managed to persuade the commander of his Adepta Sororitas bodyguard that Xaphan's cause was just and true. She had already made her suspicions clear regarding the Cardinal-Astral's actions with her superiors, accusing Xaphan of 'sedititious actions bordering on blasphemy', and rescinded her Battle Sisters' role as his honour guard - one which had been swiftly picked up by Xaphan's new protectors. Subtle approaches to the loyal men of the Adeptus Arbites precincts had also been rebuffed and they too remained outside of Mamon's and the Cardinal-Astral's reach.
Xaphan's confidence wavered once more. These were the Emperor's chosen. If they would not provide their blessing and support his plans, did that mean that his crusade was not truly the righteous cause they thought it to be? For days the Cardinal-Astral and Deacon Mamon debated the matter, the deacon barring all others from entering the chambers where their heated words could be heard day and night as he tried to convince Xaphan that his cause was just.
Finally, on the fifth day, the exhausted Cardinal-Astral conceded and agreed to a plan which would not only rid him of the unbelievers that stood in his way, but would convince all on the armoury world that now was the time to rise up and defend themselves.
And it would be those who opposed him the most who would set it all in motion. All Xaphan had to do, Mamon patiently explained to his master, was to wait for them to make the first move.
As Xaphan had rightly feared, his actions had already been brought to the attention of the Ordo Hereticus via missives sent by the Sister Superior to her priory on San Artorus. Her words had generated immense concern there and agents posing as pilgrims visiting the Shrine World had been immediately dispatched to Vraks, their reports in turn doing little to allay those fears. Upon consultation with representatives of the Inquisition, the order was given to end the Cardinal-Astral's life, a dangerous move given his growing popularity, but it was sanctioned nonetheless.
With haste an Inquisitorial agent was deployed to Vraks, infiltrating the Citadel disguised as one of the masses visiting the relics of St Leonis. There, on a narrow ledge on the Citadel's tallest tower, he had lain for three days, camouflaged by a stealth suit, patiently waiting for any sign of his target. On the dawn of the fourth day, the sniper's patience was rewarded. With a gentle squeeze on the trigger of his rifle, a single shot swiftly traversed the distance between the sniper and the far side of the palace's courtyard. The heavy penetrator round punched clean through a decorative marble pillar before hitting the Cardinal-Astral. Xaphan did not die though, a sharp flash of golden energy indicating that his relic-mounted refractor field had halted the bullet's velocity, saving his life.
Immediately, Xaphan's Disciples leapt to surround him, two dying quickly as following shots took each clean through the head, their blood splashing wide across the palace's mosaic floor, but the sniper's one clear shot had failed. Abandoning his equipment and rifle on the ledge, he dived for the thin vent that had provided access to his vantage point and made for the narrow spiral staircase, the assassin's escape route already meticulously planned.
In the few short moments it took him to reach the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, the courtyard was in a frenzy as Disciples poured into its bounds; anyone who got in their way being pushed roughly aside as they charged towards the tower. As the assassin emerged through the narrow arched doorway, a young acolyte froze in place before him, startled by his sudden appearance. It was the last thing the acolyte knew as the bullet from one of the sniper's pistols punched through his chest. It was a momentary distraction, but one that had allowed the guards to strength their numbers at the gates to the courtyard before he could reach them, the uniformed men rushing to take up position as sirens started to wail across the Cardinal's Palace.
Cursing the delay the acolyte had caused him, the sniper took the only option remaining to him and made for the nearest door. There was no longer any need for stealth, just a headlong rush to escape - and death for anybody who got in his way. With pistols in both hands, the sniper ran down the dim high-vaulted corridor, palace guards and Disciples clattering in behind him. Firing blind over his shoulder, two guards fell bleeding. The sniper dodged into a side alcove and rapidly fired more shots down the corridor to keep his pursuers pinned. The, from the far end of the corridor, more guards and Disciples appeared, blocking his way. Desperately, the sniper looked for an alternative escape route.
Dodging a volley of weapons fire, he ran a short way down the corridor towards a closed door, blasting away at its hinges as he closed the distance. Beyond was an old stairway down into the basilica's ancient vaults, and he leapt down into a musty darkness filled with grim sarcophaguses of the hundreds of pilgrims who had died over the centuries whilst visiting Vraks, their devotion ultimately rewarded with internment upon the Shrine World. The first guard through the stairs' archway died to another well-aimed pistol shot, but they now had the assassin cornered. With nowhere left gor him to run to, grenades were hurled in and the mortuary chamber began to fill with choking dust and smoke. Moments later, in rushed the guards, weapons blazing. The cornered sniper's final two pistol shots killed two more before he died, riddled with weapons fire.
This was the opportunity Mamon had promised Xaphan would come and the Inquisition had handed it to them on a silver platter. Throughout the Van Meersland Wastes, the Citadel and Vraks Star Port, Mamon's preachers declared that their great enemy was now amongst them and their world stood alone. As proof, the sniper's corpse was paraded through the Citadel's streets, and images of it were vid-linked around the planet. Here was the man who had tried to kill the messiah of the Scarus Sector, but he had failed; his treacherous act denied by no less than the will of the Emperor himself. But, preached Xaphan's disciples, he was merely a puppet. It was those who had sent him that the loyal people of Vraks should be most on guard against, traitors and heretics who had infiltrated the highest levels of the Imperium, and who would now be sending the full measure of their treacherous forces against them.
News of the assassination attempt sparked rioting in Vraks Star Port as Xaphan's followers panicked, terrified beyond rational belief that the Emperor's enemies could reach so far and so easily onto such sacred ground. Meanwhile, the swollen ranks of the Frateris Militia raced to arm themselves in expectation of the invasion they believed would soon be underway. As the thousands marched on Vraks' armouries, there was little the Departmento Munitorum garrison could do but stand aside and let the angry mobs in, the looters taking weapons and ammunition in massive quantities.
As Xaphan and Mamon had anticipated, the Adeptus Arbites squads swiftly attempted to re-impose order. Their patrols moved to secure vital areas, but against the masses they faced, there was little they could do except exacerbate an already volatile situation. Soon, pitched battles were being fought through the streets and the Arbites squads were ordered to retreat back to their precinct whilst they were still able. Aid was immediately requested from the Citadel's garrison, but under Deacon Mamon's instructions, their requests were denied. Instead, it was the Battle Sisters of the Order of the Argent Shroud who would heed their call.
Unknown to Mamon, the sudden death of the sniper had triggered a comms-device hidden amongst the equipment he had left at the top of the tower. The moment it registered his death, it transmitted a simple but very clear instruction directly to the Canoness - 'Kill the heretic'. The order was accompanied by authorisation codes from both the Abbess of the Artorus Priory and senior members of the Ordo Hereticus.
Immediately the Canoness moved into action. Knowing Xaphan would already be under heavy protection within the palace after the assassination attempt, she sought to link up with the only forces she knew she could still trust, and who had the training and equipment to support an attack on its formidable defences - the Adeptus Arbites. Expecting stiff resistance when they left their sanctuary, the Battle Sisters instead were surprised to find their way down to the precinct square clear, the roaming mobs letting them march past uncontested. In the confusion, Mamon's Disciples did not yet have complete control of the roaming masses and many of the workers and pilgrims still believed that the Battle Sisters - who had stood with Xaphan as his honour guard upon his arrival - were on their side; some even begging them for salvation from the advancing hordes they believed would soon encroach upon their world.
It wasn't until they entered the precinct square and were just one hundred metres from its gates that trouble began. Here the fighting had been at its most intense, hundreds focussing their fear on the Arbites compound, and corpses already littered a no-man's-land that had been scoured clear by weapons fired from the ramparts of the compound to hold back the mobs.
As the Battle Sisters stepped out onto the open ground, the Disciples of Xaphan moved to strike. Infiltrating their way through the crowds, they rushed to the front lines, firing upon the squad the moment the Battle Sisters were half-way across. Many found their mark but did little damage, hitting armour and ricocheting back into the crowds. Only one lucky shot grazed the side of a Battle Sister's head, blood spattering her pristine armour.
As one the battle-hardened warriors turned and fired into the crowds, the Disciples bellowing out that the Battle Sisters were traitors in disguise even as they were shot down. In that moment all changed. The hundreds who had witnessed the attack no longer saw the Battle Sisters as their saviours, and with hatred and loathing in their eyes, the mob charged. The Battle Sisters opened fire again and again, cutting down dozens as they attempted to back their way into the safety of the precinct. Behind them, the Adeptus Arbites tried to provide covering fire, and frag and gas grenades and bolter rounds were unleashed into the masses as they surged forwards. From the walls, the heavy weapons opened up again, whilst from the courtyard of the precinct any vehicle-mounted weapons that could be angled upwards were fired, their shots hitting indiscriminately amnogst those they were meant to protect.
Only half of the Battle Sisters made it into the sanctuary of the precinct, the rest trampled or beaten to death as the crowds quickly overwhelmed them, but not before they had taken lives by the score with chainswords and ceremonial eviscerators. For those who did make it into the precinct, there wuld be no salvation. Even as the gates closed and the mobs started to scale the walls, a round of thunderous booms echoed from the Citadel above.
No one knew who had first spread the rumour that the mobs below them were traitor forces that had infiltrated the Citadel, but the gunners watching the raging battle from the defence towers followed the order to fire into the square without question. Volley upon volley rained down from their elevated positions and for three relentless minutes the men fired and reloaded. Only then did the order come to stop.
When the smoke cleared, little was left of the mob in the square or the Adeptus Arbites precinct. Those men and women lucky enough to have been on the periphery of the square had scattered, fleeing for the sanctuary of the streets beyond; many others were not so fortunate. All of the Adeptus Arbites were dead, their precinct a smouldering grave. Of the Battle Sisters who had reached its courtyard six had survived, their power armour taking the worst of the impacts of the falling masonry and explosions. Concussed and wounded, none were in any fit state to put up more than a token resistance when more of Xaphan's Disciples swiftly arrived on the scene, dragging them off in chains to who knew what fate.
With the biggest threat to their plans neutralised in one broad stroke, Xaphan and Mamon seized the moment. On the pretence of making an appearance to prove he had survived the assassination attempt, Xaphan gave a rousing speech to the faithful massed outside the Basilica, urging them to seek out and rise up against those who had claimed to follow the Emperor but who were not at that moment fighting by their side.
Swept up by his words, the mobs surged through the Citadel and star port, turning on all who attempted to resist or flee from them. The first to face their bloody wrath were those stationed at Vraks' Administratum buildings, the Master-Prefect and his terrified staff being hauled out of their offices and thrown into the baying mobs in the streets below. The sensorium tower was also stormed and the astropaths within slaughtered; the choir's attempt to send out a distress call into the Warp cut off part-way through its transmission.
Soon Xaphan's words had reached beyond the Citadel and made their way across the Van Meersland Wastes, battles raging planet-wide as the old order was cut from the heart of the once-loyal world, so that when the fighting finally subsided, Cardinal-Astral Xaphan was left as its sole ruler.
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