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White Dwarf 265 (Jan 2002), p68-75 — Index Astartes: The Lost and the Damned

The Death Guard Legion, the dread Plague Marines of Nurgle, has become a relentless and terrifying scourge upon the Imperium of Man. But it was not always so. Ten millennia ago, the Death Guard was one of the original twenty Space Marine Legions, united in the defense of Mankind under the command of the Emperor and their fearsome Primarch, Mortarion.

Origins

When the Emperor's twenty nascent Primarchs were scattered across the galaxy, the Stygian Scrolls tell of one who came to rest on a bleak moor, strewn with dead and scattered with the carnage of battle for leagues in every direction. The planet was Barbarus, perpetually shrouded in poisonous fog, whose mountainous crags were ruled by warlords with fantastic powers and horrific appetite, and whose human settlers, stranded there millennia before, were crowded into the lowest valleys, beneath the choking mists. They lives lives of unrelenting terror, eking out a peasant's existence by day beneath a dim sun which never burned completely through the fog, and cowering by firelight after dark from the terrible beings which moved unseen above.

The greatest of these overlords stood in triumph on the battlefield, revelling in his massacre until the silence was shattered by a child's cry. Legend tells that the warlord walked the sea of corpses for a day and a night in his creaking battle armor, drawn by the wail of the infant. For an instant, he considered ending its young life; but no mere human ought to be able to breathe the poisonous miasma of the heights of Barbarus, much less cry out as this child did. For long moments he contemplated the thing which appeared human but was clearly more; then he gathered up the infant and carried it from the carnage. For all his dark power, until that moment he had not had what this child now promised: a son and heir. Born of death, upon a field of death, the warlord christened the infant Mortarion: child of death.

His master tested the infant's limits. When he had determined precisely how high into the toxic clouds of Barbarus's peaks the child could survive, he erected a stony keep and fenced it behind back iron. Then he moved his own manse beyond, to the highest crag, where the atmosphere was deadly even to the nascent Primarch. Mortarion grew to adolescence in such a world, of citadels of weeping grey stone and cast-iron fences, where the very air was death, and the sun never more than a distant smudge. It was a world of constant war, against opposing lords who came with golem armies of stitched-together dead one day, then tormented shapeshifters, more monsters than men, the next. To survive, Mortarion learned at the foot of his overmaster, and learned voraciously everything his master would teach him. Mortarion devoured it all: from battle doctrine to arcane secrets, from artifice to stratagem. He learned and he grew, shaped by his grim environs, but a child of the Emperor for all that - superhumanly resilient to the poisonous air around him and superhumanly strong even in the absence of sufficient sunlight or nourishment. Mortarion possessed an intellect which was highly keen and which asked questions his lord was not wont to answer.

Increasingly, the questions centered around the fragile things in the valleys below, which the warlords preyed upon for their corpses to reanimate, or victims to accurse. His master kept Mortarion as distant from the human settlements as he could, but his very act of denial fed the maturing Primarch's obsession. The day finally came when Mortarion would be denied no longer. Mortarion slipped through the dungeons from his keep. The last thing he heard was the voice of the overlord, the only father he had known, roaring in the miasmic darkness from the high battlements as Mortarion descended from the mountain, renouncing the Primarch for his betrayal, warning Mortarion that to return would mean death.

Descending beneath the mists was a revelation to Mortarion; his lungs were filled with air free of poisons for the first time. He smelled aromas of food being prepared, of crops freshly harvested, heard voices unmuffle by fog and, for the first time, heard laughter. The young Primarch realised that he was among his own kind, that the 'fragile prey' of the warlords were his own people. And with the realisation came rage. He determined to bring them the justice denied them by the dark powers which moved above.

Mortarion's acceptance amongst the human settlers of Barbarus was no simple thing. However like them he felt himself to be, to them he was little different from the monsters above. Towering over even the tallest of them, gaunt and pallid, with hollow, haunted eyes which betrayed the horrors he had seen, Mortarion terrified most of the settlers. They looked upon him with suspicion and fear. It stung the young Primarch, but he bided his time, using his great strength to work the fields for their meager harvest, knowing that his opportunity to prove himself would come. When it did in the twilight hours, he was ready.

From the darkness came shambling dark things. A lesser lord led his corpse-like thralls into the settlement, taking with silent, remorseless strength those they could carry off for their master's dark purpose. The peasants fought back as best they could, with torches and farmer's tools rendered into makeshift weapons. It was all they could do not to run, much less offer a meaningful fight. They had played out the futility of this scene their whole lives, and they knew how it would end. Until, that is, Mortarion strode into their midst. Towering over them with an enormous two-handed harvesting scythe, he charged into the ranks of the enemy with all his rage-born might, and drove them from the village. Their dark lord smiled at him as he neared and withdrew into the poisonous heights where this rebellious human could never reach him. He was still wearing his contemptuous smile when Mortarion caught up with him on the mountainside and exacted his vengeance for the 'fragile prey' below. After that night, Mortarion's place among the settlers was never in doubt.

As he matured, Mortarion taught the settlers of Barbarus what he knew of warfare. Word of his exploits spread, and many oters made the perilous journey to learn. Slowly, villages became strongpoints, and the villagers were more effective defenders. Eventually, Motrarion went amongst the people, travelling from settlement to settlement, teaching, building and, when occasion demanded, defending them. Always, however, his ultimate justice was denied; the dark powers could always retreat into the impregnable bulwrk of their poisonous mists. His people could only fight in defense. That had to change.

Mortarion recruited the toughest, most resilient of Barbarus' population, forming them into small units which he drilled himself, teaching them not only defense but also attack. He turned blacksmiths from toolworking to weaponsmaking when time allowed, and crafters to the shaping of armor. And, with the best artificers he could find, he bent his formidable intellect to the problem of the poisonous air.

Inquisitor Mendikoff's monograph, Cataphract of Death, relates the now-famous result. When next a warlord descended from above, and the villagers mounted a defense successful enough to drivehis unholy army back, Mortarion and his retinue of warriors, masked with crude filtering hoses and breathing gear, advanced into the fog after them. For the first time in living memory the prey brought death into the realm of death, killing the warlord and massacring his army. Mortarion continually improved his warrior's breathing apparatus, and he and his Death Guard, as his retinue came to be know, campaigned ever higher into the dark powers' domain, encountering ever more virulent pestilence. The constant exposure to ever higher doses of toxins toughened his Death Guard, traits which proved transferable to each new iteration of the Death Guard, growing tougher as though emulating their champion himself.

Only the most toxic peaks were denied Mortarion and the Death Guard and they warred for months across the poisonous spine of Barbarus, until only one grim manse stood against them, one which Mortarion knew well. The concentration of death about it overcame his force, threatening even Mortarion himself, and so he withdrew. Upon his return, however, his world was destined to once again spin out of his control.

Mortarion and his brethren arrived to find the village alive unlike he had ever known it. On everyone's lips was word of the arrival of a stranger, a great benefactor who brought promise of salvation. The Primarch's mood darkened; this day of deliverance was one he had worked for all his life, and he found himself altogether unhappy to see it co-opted by the arrival of some newcomer of uncertain agenda.

Taletellers say Mortarion flattened the massive wooden door of the hall upon his entrance. Seated at banquet, he found the elders and a stranger who was their opposite in every imaginable way. Where they were gaunt and pale, he was robust, his flesh bronzed, his physique utterly perfect. The people greeted Mortarion's arrival expectantly. Despite the effect wrought upon him by Barbarus's poisons, the connection between the new benefactor and their defender was nevertheless plain to them all. As plain as father and son. However, Mortarion was oblivious to any connection. He greeted the stranger with barely masked hostility, which quickly turned to outright anger at the stranger's utter unflappability. The elders spoke of the new arrival's promise to unite the people of Barbarus within a great expandign brotherhood of humanity which could help them be rid of their persecution from above. Mortarion felt his moment of triumph slipping from him. Twisting the haft of his ever-present scythe until this knuckles whitened, he declared that he and his Death Guard needed no help to finish their quest for justice.

It is said that the benefactor quietly challenged the stormy young Primarch's assertion, pointing out the Death Guard's failure to reach the last high citadel, and then threw down a gauntlet. If Mortarion could defeat the high overlord alone, he would withdraw and leave Barbarus to its own means. But if he failed, they would join his Imperium of Man and Mortarion would swear total fealty and allegiance to him.

Over the protests of his Death Guard, he spun on his heel and struck out alone for the last manse standing against him, the keep of the overlord he had called father. If some part of him knew that even he could not survive the highest reaches of Barbarus, he did not acknowledge it. Mortarion climbed ever higher, driven by the inevitability of the imminent conflict with his once master, driven by his desire to bring final justice for the people of his world. However he was mostly motivated by a compulsion to prove himself to the stranger below.

The confrontation, when it finnaly came, was mercilessly brief. Mortarion, choking in air so toxic that the hoses of his protective breathing gear began to rot away, struggled to the very gates of the overlord's citadel, calling out his defiance. The last thing he saw as he fell to his knees, the world turning grey as he was overcome, was the Overlord of Barbarus coming for him, to fulfill the promise he had made generations before. Then the might stranger stepped between them, defying the death-fog, and felling the overlord with a single blow of his gleaming sword.

Mortarion was true to his oath. When he recovered, he bent his knee to the stranger and swore himself and the Death Guard to his service. Only then did the Emperor of Man reveal himself as the young Primarch's true father, and the destiny such service would bring: command of the fourteenth Legion of the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines.

The Libram Primaris, or Book of Primarchs, tells how Mortarion brought the relentlessness, remorselessness and resilience of his personal Death Guard to the Legion built of his own genetic material, and how in turn they adopted his retinue's title as their own. The resulting prowess of the Death Guard was recognised from the moment Mortarion took command, but the young Primarch never settled in Imperial society outside of battle. Mortarion was a grim, driven Primarch, fixated on reckoning with the oppressors of the galaxy. The easy camaraderie of the other Primarchs was alien to him. The Shadow Journal of Bellerophan, Dark Angels Librarian, confides that, of them all, he found kindred spirits in only two: Night Haunter, the dread master of the Night Lords, and Horus, the Warmaster of the Imperium, and the right hand of the Emperor. Horus above all others recognised the value of the Death Guard. He would often place Mortarion and his Legion in the center of his battleline, counting on the enemy's inability to oust them so that he could either lever his advance from the rock of Mortarion's immovable position, or use it as the anvil upon which the Imperial hammer, in the form of his Luna Wolves, or the Haunter's Night Lords, would break the foe. It was a mercilessly effective combination.

In the charismatic Warmaster, Mortarion found a mentor who seemed to understand his goals and appreciate his methods. So close did Mortarion appear to be to Horus, in fact, it is believed that at least two of the other Primarchs, Roboute Guilliman of the Ultramarines and the ever watchful, ever taciturn Corax of the Raven Guard, approached the Emperor with concerns about where the master of the Death Guard's loyalties lay. The story of his allegiance to the Emperor won through his own failure was by then well-known, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with Mortarion knew that the pallid Primarch chafed at it. The Emperor is said to have dismissed their concerns with a wave; loyalty to Horus was de facto loyalty to the Emperor.

On that matter, the Emperor could not have been more wrong...

The Betrayal

On the feral planet Davin, the Warmaster and his Legion, now named the Sons of Horus in his honor, had fallen to Chaos. Before they would leave, Horus would be utterly possessed, foreswearing allegiance to the Emperor for the cause of Chaos and his own advancement, and would draw the Primarchs and Battle Brothers of half the Imperium's Legions to his cause. Transcripts of the Council of Charon, convened after the Heresy to ascribe responsibility, suggest that, unlike some of the other Primarchs, Horus did not need to resort to ritual possession to win the Death Guard to his side. Horus promised that under his rule the old order woud fall, and a new age would dawn, a just age with right ensured by the mighty. Mortarion turned on the Imperium as he had turned on the overlords of Barbarus, and joined the rebellion which would forever sunder the Imperium - the Horus Heresy. What he did not know then was the price he would be called upon to pay.

Horus was a brilliant strategist; he knew that the heart of the Imperium was Terra, and from the very moment of his rebellion, Terra was his objective. In short order he had gathered sufficient strength to shatter the defenses of the Imperium and lay siege to the Imperial Palace itself. Mortarion was determined that the Death Guard would be there with him. With his entire fleet, he crossed into the Warp and straight into nightmare.

The Death Guard fleet was becalmed by an impenetrable warpstorm, its navigators neither able to guide them through it nor find safe passage into realspace. The fleet was reduced to drifting through the Immaterium, and while they were stilled the Destroyer came.

For Mortarion and the Space Marines of the Death Guard there was nothing so terrifying as the plague which made their legendary resilience meaningless. These were the warriors who the Imperium had sent to conquer worlds no other man could set foot upon, much less fight on and win. Pestilence, contagion, toxin and pollution; there was no environment so hostile which Mortarion and the Death Guard could not overcome, until the plague which raced through their fleet. It roiled in their guts, bloating and distending their once superhuman bodies, transforming them into horrible, pustulent grotesques. They were made corrupt within and sickening to behold without and they grew sicker and sicker, yet could not die, their own constitution becoming their worst enemy. What they endured was unimaginable yet none suffered more that Mortarion. For the Primarch, it was as though he were upon the mountaintop of Barbarus once more, surrendering to the poison, without the mercy of unconsciousness to claim him or the Emperor to come to his salvation.

Whether he perceived, in those terrible hours, the loss of what he had once stood for, and the damnation he had wrought upon himself and his Legion, only Mortarion will ever know. Unable to endure the suffering any longer, Mortarion offered into the Immaterium himself, his Legion and his very soul in exchange for deliverance. A presence in the Immaterium answered, as though it had been waiting all along. In the depths of the warp, the Great God Nurgle, Lord of Decay and Father of Disease, called that debt and accepted Mortarion and the Death Guard Legion as his own.

What emerged from the warp when the Death Guard fleet broke out bore little resemblance to what had entered. The gleaming white and grey armor of Imperial champions was no more, burst and shattered from the horrific bloating of infected bodies, scabbed with boils, putrescence and the filth of corruption. Their weapons and machinery of war were now powered by the sickly sorcery of Chaos, glowing with lambent green luminescence and oozing gangrenous pus. The name Death Guard itself would pass into secondary use, as the walking pestilence-carriers became a terrifying sight across the Imperium. To their victims, to their erstwhile allies, even to themselves, they had become the Plague Marines.

Horus was eventually defeated by the Emperor and Chaos was driven back across space, finding refuge in the weeping sore known as the Eye of Terror. Mortarion and his Death Guard retreated there as well, but not in disarray, as many of the other Legions did.

Even in damnation, the resilience of the Death Guard remained, and under the direction of their Master they withdrew into the Eye intact, Loyalist Space Marines and Imperial Guard regiments breaking upon them time and again.

Within, Mortarion claimed the world which would become known as the Plague Planet as his own; its location near the fabric of reality was ideal for launching new strikes into the Imperium and across the galaxy. He shaped it so satisfactorily and defended it with his Plague Marines so well that his patron, Nurgle the Unclean, elevated the Primarch to daemonhood and gave Mortarion what the Emperor had denied him, and what Horus had not been able to provide: a world of his own. Mortarion became the overlord of a world of poison, horror, and misery. He had come home.

Home World

Barbarus was a feral world which orbited near its dim yellow sun, creating a thick, miasmic atmosphere of toxic chemicals. The most virulent gases rose through Barbarus's perpetual cloud towards the heat of its star, making the world beneath a dismal place of night, unbroken by starlight and with short, shadowy days. An atmosphere breathable by humans existed only in the lowest elevations, on flat moors and in the valley basins of the jagged, stony mountains which spined the world. Beings immune to the toxic soup of the planet's higher atmospheres once existed on Barbarus, building great grey keeps in the mountain fastnesses. When humans came to Barbarus, the horrific conditions from which they had to eke out survival quickly reduced them to a pre-feudal state. The higher beings' incomprehensible powers, their ability to survive where men could not, and above all their hunger to prey upon, experiment with and accurse Humankind caused the settlers to ascribe to those beings a medieval supernaturalism. What manner of creatures these dark overlords were will never be known.

Since his elevation to daemonhood, Mortarion has, consciously or not, remade the Plague Planet very much in Barbarus's image. Its citizens cower in festering villages on the planet's surface, serving their supreme masters, Mortarion's champions and other daemonic chosen of Nurgle who reside in mighty fortress-citadels high above them. Diseased things which should be dead, yet are not, roam the landscape, and skeletal Mortarion rules over all, enthroned upon the highest peak of the world.

Combat Doctrine

Mortarion was well-educated, if narrowly. Matters of culture, history, philosophy were often alien to him, but on the subject of dealing death he was a prodigy. Mortarion believed that victory came through sheer relentlessness, and communicated that ethic throughout the Death Guard. Their weapons and armor were rarely the most expertly artificed, certainly not the most beautifully-ornamented, but functioned without flaw. The Death Guard did not manouevre fancifully, or confound their opponents; they picked the best ground upon which to fight, then smashed their foes after they had broken themselves against the Death Guard line. There was no environment which Mortarion and the Death Guard feared. What Mortarion and his adepts could not devide means to compensate for, the Death Guard overcame through sheer resilience.

Mortarion learned battle in a theatre of rocky mountainous terrain, without benefit of machinery. Though his considerable intellect allowed him to grasp the value of such support when his elevation to Primarch of a Space Marine Legion made such things as tanks and transport available, the primacy of the foot soldier remained ever the trademark of the Death Guard. Mortarion preferred to utilise huge waves of infantry, well-equipped and highly-trained on an individual level. He demanded that they be able to function and fight in almost any kind of atmosphere, and gave little emphasis on specialised units using jump packs or bikes. In fact, the Death Guard did not have dedicated Assault and Tactical squads as such; all his Space Marines were expected by Mortarion to be equally adept with bolter, pistol and close combat weapon, to fight with whatever weapon circumstance dictated. Such doctrine lent itself well to the use of Tactical Dreadnought armor, and the Death Guard regularly used Terminators before the Heresy. The Death Guard were particularly renowned for their success at such high-risk missions as space hulk clearance and the Plague Marines continue that success, using hulks to spread disease, infection and the cult of Nurgle throughout the body of the Imperium. The combat doctrine which served the Death Guard so well in life now suits the damned character of the Plague Marines to perfection.

Organisation

Mortarion was an infantryman, and the Death Guard were organised around the principle of equipping the individual Space Marine as well as possible. Obedience was extended through every rank: sergeants were extensions of their captains, who were extensions of Mortarion himself. If there were any of the original Legions that could be said to be of one body, it was the Death Guard. As a consequence, the Death Guard were organised into fewer companies than any of the other First Founding Legions. There were never more than seven companies at any time in its history, but each was of considerably greater size, and heavy with Space Marine infantry, including Terminator squads.

With Mortarion elevated to daemonhood, his hand upon the Legion became more remote and the Death Guard became broken up through space and time into smaller units. Warriors of the Death Guard are most often seen afoot, or at best accompanied by mad, plague-infested Dreadnoughts. Few of the tanks and transports of the Legion still function, their upkeep and maintenance being no priority to Space Marines dedicated to the incarnation of Rot and Decay. Some such constructs do soldier on, possessed by minor daemonic entities or infested and animated by Nurgling hordes, the swarming worker drones of the Lord of the Unclean. These forces are often found organised in squads of seven banded together into cohorts of seven squads. An echo of their Legion's organisational model at its height, seven is also the sacred number of the Death Guard's patron power, and they believe that by forming themselves in multiples of that number, they carry the favour of the daemon lord Nurgle and create a kabalistic strength. Whether their 'Rule of Seven' draws the attention and sorcerous blessing of the Death Guard's deity or not, the manner in which the Plague Marines carry themselves to war still reflects the hand of the Primarch which forged them, shaped them, then led them to their damnation. The daemon prince Mortarion remains master of the Death Guard even after their fall, orchestrating their movements unseen from his bubonic throne.

Beliefs

The beliefs of the Death Guard echoed those of Mortarion, beginning as one thing and ending as the corrupt opposite. A resolute determination that individuals should be free of oppression and terror became a conviction that individuals were not suited to decide what was just for them. A faith in inner strength, iron will and unshakeable resolution in the face of hardship led to pride, arrogance and an utter contempt for those they deemed inferior.

When Nurgle's Rot came to the stranded Death Guard, their pride and arrogance was revealed, and their contempt for weakness turned upon themselves. Their surrender to Nurgle left them with only one seething, burning outlet, stoked white-hot by the depth of self-loathing: to infect the strong, slay the weak and rot the foundations of everything in their paths until it collapses. Their debasement would no longer seem so shameful, if the pestilence of their Unclean Lord eventually brought everything to ruin.

Gene-seed

The Space Marines of the Death Guard always reflected the gaunt, shadow-eyed, quality of their Primarch, that gave the lie to the hardiness with which they were made. The contagion which led to their damnation corrupted them physically, as well. As Plague Marines, the once-gaunt Death Guard are now bloated and seeping like an infected abscess, covered in boils, sores and weeping wounds crusted with the brown and green filth of the unclean. Nurgle does not accompany this repulsive aspect with gifts of mutation as freely as other powers (such capricious change is the province of his antithesis, Tzeentch), but on occasion will alter the countenance of a Death Guard aspirant with a tentacle, facet-eyed head of an insect or some other hideously repulsive form.

Battlecry

The Death Guard have no rallying cry as such. As Plague Marines, they are the incarnation of silent death, the virulent epidemic, the wasting disease and the remorselessness of deay. They are pestilence and pox, famine and blight, contagion and cancer, and like all of these things, are most terrifying when they come without word or warning.