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"Herein follows an examination of the most lamentable Siege of Vraks, bastion and Armoury World of His Most Divine Emperor, of the plans of those treacherous and heretical rebels that led to its downfall and the glorious sacrifice of the Emperor's Imperial Guard among the grim and hardy regiments of Krieg, and those misguided Mortals who have unwittingly venerated the Powers of Chaos, at a terrible cost in blood, but worst still -- to the eternal damnation of their own souls."
Inquisition report on the Siege of Vraks

The Siege of Vraks was an Imperial miltary campaign fought over the course of 17 Terran years to retake the Imperial Armoury World of Vraks Prime from the heretical Forces of Chaos led by the Apostate Cardinal-Astra Xaphan. Vraks was besieged by the forces of the Imperium of Man in 813.M41, after the attempted assassination by an agent of the Officio Assassinorum of the heretical and traitorous Cardinal-Astra of the Scarus Sector, Xaphan, failed. The Astra Militarum's 88th Siege Army was raised from line regiments of the Death Korps of Krieg to undertake the planetary siege of Vraks and bring the Renegade Cardinal down in a campaign of attrition that the Administratum's Adepts calculated would take 12 standard years to successfully conclude.

Overall command of the army and the Vraksian Campaign was initially given by the Imperial Guard's Segmentum Obscurus High Command on Cadia to Lord General Zuehlke, the son of a well-connected Imperial noble family from the Segmentum Solar, who maintained his campaign headquarters on Thracian Primaris. The Zuehlke family's influence stretched across the higher echelons of the Imperial Navy and the Astra Militarum. His great-grandfather had once served as an attache to the Lord Commander Solar on Terra. Lord Zuehlke's qualifications for leading the campaign, apart from his social rank, were few beyond his martial upbringing and a detailed study of the Tactica Imperialis, but political pressure and a good family name yielded its rewards.

At the conclusion of what became a 17-year-long campaign of attrition requiring 34 regiments of the Imperial Guard to re-take the planet for the Emperor of Mankind in 830.M41, 14 million Imperial Guardsmen had been lost and Vraks Prime's entire original population of 8 million souls had been consumed in the violence or exterminated after they fell to Chaos corruption. The world was then declared dead and Perdita by the Imperium and placed under an interdiction to cordon it off from the rest of human space as ordered by the Ordo Malleus' Inquisitor Lord Hector Rex.

Prologue

"When the maelstrom descends, Vraks shall overflow with blood and skulls, and even the dead shall find no peace. Millions shall be sacrificed in their names, and the true Gods will rejoice...I have seen it, for I am the messiah of the coming apocalypse."
— Xaphan, Apostate Cardinal-Astral of Scarus, Arch-Heretic and the Despot of Vraks
Xaphan-clendinning

Apostate Cardinal-Astra Xaphan of the Scarus Sector is corrupted by the Heretic Deacon Mamon

After the previous Cardinal-Astra Borja of the Scarus Sector in Segmentum Obscurus died in 366.804.M41 following 400 standard years of life greatly extended by the ministrations of the Adeptus Mechanicus' Magos Biologis, his successor, Cardinal-Astra Scarus Xaphan, took his place as the Cardinal of the Scarus Sector. Over the course of 5 Terran years, Xaphan undertook a pilgrimage across the Scarus Sector, his new domain. Along with the Cardinal, he traveled with a full entourage of a thousand preachers, deacons, chatelaines, servants and menials, along with a personal bodyguard of the Adeptus Sororitas. These warriors were a gift from the Abess 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 had to be ready to protect himself and his flock with force as well as with faith.

Xaphan conducted his grand tour of his new diocese, for he wished to see the places he must now rule, and he wished to bring a spiritual revival to the people. Where he and his entourage passed, he amassed ever more followers in a series of religious uprisings. Criminal governments and oppressive tyrannies were shattered with each world he traveled to. From world to world his small entourage grew into a small army. The Cardinal's arrival had been like a spark that 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 esteemed rank. Out in the frontiers of space, he felt that he could take real action against the doubters and Heretics that threatened the Emperor's divine rule.

Xaphan voiced his opinions to his advisors, in particular Deacon Mamon, a young man (and secret devotee of Chaos), 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 Cardinal into believing himself to be a sacred champion of the Emperor of Mankind, who would single-handedly reignite the faith of the people of the Imperium and lead them to new heights of righteousness. Mamon continued to whisper in Xaphan's ear, twisting and poisoning the Cardinal's mind, convincing him that there were those who opposed him and his thousands of loyal followers. These naysayers were weak-willed fools who lacked the Cardinal's clarity of vision and his holy purpose. With Mamon whispering in his ear, it seemed that Xaphan could not trust anybody. The Cardinal gathered about him an inner circle of trusted advisors -- reliable men who could be vetted and kept under surveillance in return, to safeguard their loyalty. The Cardinal tread softly, for if his desired War of Faith was ever to come into being, he needed a safe, secluded planet on which to prepare and plan.

After years of pilgrimage, during which he was increasingly received as a living saint by the people of his sector, Xaphan went into seclusion on the Imperial Armoury World of Vraks in 809.M41, also the site of a popular Imperial Cult shrine to Saint Leonis the Blind, an Ecclesiarchy Missionary who had been martyred in the 38th Millennium after having his eyes removed while spreading the word of the Imperial Creed across the less civilised worlds of the Scarus Sector. A shrine had been built to contain the saint's remains and relics, as well as a palace for the Cardinal-Astra of Scarus should he ever choose to make a pilgrimage to the shrine. Here, Xaphan chose his battlefield. As the Cardinal had come to hold, through Deacon Mamon's careful encouragement, that corruption was eating away at the Imperium, he now saw himself as a messianic figure destined to ignite a holy war and give the faithful a chance to purge the galaxy of darkness.

Though the Cardinal could not command any forces himself, in times of peril the Basilica of St. Leonis the Blind could raise a substantial 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. The mood on Vraks soon became one of religious zealotry. 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." Also into the inner circle were enticed the commanders of the Vraks' garrison, the Steward of the Citadel and the high-ranking commanders of the Vraks' militia. The loyalty of such powerful men was deemed vital by the Deacon. The Cardinal soon had almost all of Vraks' military forces under his control. Only the Adeptus Arbites contingent on the world remained outside his influence.

The Assassination of Xaphan

Vindicare Assassin Takes Aim

A Vindicare Assassin takes aim and prepares to take out Cardinal Xaphan

The Cardinal's gospel to the repressed and hopeless of Vraks' labour gangs spread like wildfire, igniting the flames of rebellion. The message of redemption in the inevitable holy crusade gave them the hope of an escape from their brutal and short lives. But the Cardinal's message also reached other ears. There were many informers and spies for the Inquisition on Vraks. The news of the Cardinal's preachings alarmed the Ordo Hereticus. Theirs was the 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 that began to believe that they themselves could be worshipped like the Emperor. Decisive action had to be taken. Believing the Cardinal to be amassing far too much popularity and power, an agent of the Officio Assassinorum was sent by the Ordo Hereticus to assassinate Xaphan during one of his sermons. An Assassin of the Vindicare Temple had been lying in wait for many solar days. But when the time came, and the opportunity to kill the Cardinal was right, the sniper-assassin's shot failed to end Xaphan's short reign. The Cardinal was only saved from the deadly round by his Rosarius-mounted Refractor Field.

After the failed attempt on his life by this operative, the Armoury World of Vraks erupted in full-scale rebellion against the Imperium. It wasn't long until the Citadel and the industry of the Armoury World were under Xaphan's control. By seceding Vraks from the Imperium, Imperial forces in the sector and, in some cases, the entire Segmentum, would be left without adequate resupply of arms and armour. By breaking the Imperial supply chain of which Vraks was a part, forces as far removed and important as the Cadian Astra Militarum regiments guarding the Eye of Terror would be sparsely armed, allowing a potentially major Chaos incursion to occur in or around the Cadian Gate.

The Administratum deemed that Vraks Prime must be returned to the Imperium's fold. By the time word reached the Imperium of the rebellion on Vraks, it was already too late. Millions of Traitors and Heretics were now dug into meticulously planned, constructed, and reinforced defences, with massive orbital lasers protecting the world's Citadel from orbital bombardment and assault. It fell on the Imperial Guardsmen of the Death Korps of Krieg, united under the umbrella of the Imperium's 88th Siege Army, to dislodge the traitorous forces of Cardinal Xaphan in what would become a grinding war of attrition that would consume millions of lives across 17 standard years of battle.

Preparations

"The Scarus Sector is a tinderbox - one spark may soon become a great conflagration. I shall light the fires."
— Xaphan, Cardinal-Astra Scarus

The Imperium's preparations for the Siege of Vraks were simple: how many men had to die before the world could be retaken? The Imperial forces had to overwhelm the Apostate Cardinal's defence lines, destroy his planetary defence batteries and then eventually storm and capture the Vraksian Citadel and starport, all operations where losses could be reduced to a simple mathematical formula. Everything in the 88th Siege Army was to be an expendable resource. The campaign for Vraks would be the most impersonal kind of warfare. Within the Death Korps of Krieg regiments that would make up the totality of the 88th Siege Army, the men were not named, just numbered, so that they could be quickly tallied-up and counted off lists, whether for supplies or burial. The regiments would be ordered into combat already essentially knowing how many of their number were expected to die to secure their objectives. The lives of the Krieg Guardsmen were no more important than the daily fuel consumption rates of their vehicles or the expenditure of artillery shells. They were also expected to win the campaign in exactly 12 standard Terran years.

On Vraks Prime after the Cardinal's seizure of the world, the sudden uprising and the Apostate Cardinal's victory had escalated into an unexpected surge of mob violence. For several solar months the Heretics fought amongst themselves to establish a new power structure centred on the Cardinal. New leaders emerged from the Vraksian Planetary Defence Force garrison and the Departmento Munitorum penal labour corps. Those who proved their loyalty to the Cardinal's new regime were rewarded with positions of power over their fellows. The very best of these men were inducted into the ranks of the elite Disciples of Xaphan, the heart of his new Chaos Cult, or given roles as Enforcers -- essentially the Apostate Cardinal's cadre of brutal strongmen who served as officers and oversaw the rank and file, enforcing obedience and discipline through any means necessary, and the more brutal the better. After the rioting and bloodshed had ended, the Cardinal's commanders set about their first task -- to defend Vraks from the Imperium's expected assault. They had to prepare their men and train an army. They had vast quantities of Astra Militarum supplies to plunder. Their army would be well-equipped and occupy very strong defensive positions, but they still had to be prepared for whatever the Imperium's armed forces would throw at them.

The Cardinal issued instructions that Vraks Prime should be turned into a slaughterhouse and that no defender could expect any mercy from the Imperium, so they must fight or face execution by the enemy. Only by defeating the Imperial enemy could any man on Vraks expect to survive. For those that fought well there would be great rewards. For those that failed in their duty to the Apostate Cardinal, there would be summary execution at the hands of Xaphan's corps of Enforcers. After the uprising the Traitors' newly won freedom was short-lived. The labourers of the Departmento Munitorum were soon put back to work for their new master, improving the Citadel's defence lines, moving minefields or laying new ones and rolling out miles of razorwire. Artillery crews practiced ranging shots while the Vraksian Traitor Militia, whether willing combatants or forced into service, were trained with their newly looted weapons, mostly standard-issue Imperial Guard Autoguns. The Apostate Cardinal's Traitor army was well-prepared. When it came, the battle would be hard-fought and very bloody.

Vraks Traitor Forces

Vraksian Renegade Militia1

A member of the Vraksian Traitor Militia, the army of the Apostate Cardinal Xaphan

Vraksian Enforcer2

Enforcer Hakon of the Vraksian Traitor Militia

Ogryn Berserker

A mutant Ogryn Berserker of the Vraksian Traitor Militia

The Vraksian Traitor Militia was a formidable force, primarily due to its sheer size. Although no exact figures remain available, it was believed that the population of Vraks Prime was some 8,000,000 people and all of them now had to be considered Traitors and manpower for the Apostate Cardinal's army. Quality varied greatly in the militia, from well-trained and well-equipped troops who possessed fanatical morale to an undisciplined mob of half-trained conscripts. The best Vraksian troops were the Disciples of Xaphan. This elite cadre of troops were the Cardinal's own men, hand-picked by his Ecclesiarchical representatives for their loyalty to him. Many had prior military experience. All had sworn oaths of service to the Cardinal himself and in return they had the pick of Vraks Prime's plunder. The Imperium had no idea how many Disciples Xaphan had, but they would form the disciplined core of his Traitor Militia.

After the Disciples of Xaphan in quality, there was the original Vraksian planetary garrison's auxillia. Due to its strategic importance, Vraks Prime had been guarded by a large force of garrison auxillia. These troops were equivalent in quality to a well-trained Planetary Defence Force (PDF), the Imperium's standard reserve forces for the Astra Militarum regiments. These auxillia did not have the training or equipment of regular Imperial Guardsmen, but access to the Departmento Munitorum stores on Vraks rectified any equipment deficiencies and provided vast numbers of heavy vehicles such as Leman Russ main battle tanks, Chimeras and Basilisks. The auxillia's fighting strength had been built around a backbone of veteran Imperial Guardsmen and officers drawn from disbanded regiments. Though now well-equipped, the Imperium believed it unlikely the garrison forces could do more than successfully man a static defensive line.

The Traitor Militia's next group of troops were drawn from the Vraksian labour corps. The Departmento Munitorum maintained a labour corps on Vraks Prime that was large and included many Ogryns. The labour corps was made up of indentured workers who did routine labour like constructing and repairing roads, pouring the ferrocrete for new bunkers, digging out new underground storehouses and transporting goods and equipment to and from the planet's only starport. Most were downtrodden souls with little left to hope for in life other than endless toil and sweat. As such, many had willingly joined the Apostate Cardinal's rebellion and saw fighting for him as a way to escape their miserable lives.

A general dislike for the Departmento's then-Master-Prefect on Vraks had also spurred on their support for the rebellion. Many of the labourers had already received some basic military training as the labour corps had also supplied power for the Vraksian militia. Although only poorly trained, Vraks' militia was a truly massive force. One in four labourers either volunteered or were conscripted into the militia. Lacking any sort of heavy weapons, artillery or vehicles, they were a third line force, but their lack of equipment could be easily rectified and once armed from the world's stores, with some additional training, they would be capable enough of joining with the auxillia to hold static defensive positions.

The fourth source of manpower for the Vraksian Traitor Militia were the itinerant pilgrims and the Departmento Munitorum's own workforce of administrators and bureaucrats. These were men with no military experience, but once armed they could hold a defensive position. Whilst many of the pilgrims on Vraks saw the Cardinal as their messiah, most had no idea who or even why they were fighting. Many volunteered for the Vraksian Frateris Militia raised by the Cardinal in the belief that they would be defending the holy Shrine of Saint Leonis the Blind against heretical forces. They had been told that the enemy were the true heretical Renegades and that they must join the Vraksian Militia or see the holy place defiled. These troops were given the lowest priority in weapons and equipment drawn from the Vraksian stores.

To back up these Traitor forces, Xaphan had his own men, former Ecclesiarchy agents and preachers who moved through the ranks preaching the Apostate Cardinal's heretical religious gospel and reinforcing the militia's loyalty. Individuals from the PDF garrison auxillia, many former Imperial Guard Sergeants, had been promoted to become the Vraksian Militia's Enforcers. These were the men who would enforce discipline and loyalty much like the Astra Militarum's own Commissars. In combat the Enforcers would stay behind the front lines and shoot any man who fled his post. Added to the Traitors' ranks were the dangerously insane and psychopathic, as well as those individuals who had shown signs of developing psychic abilities. Unprotected psykers were always easy prey for Warp entities and there were several hundred such men and women in Vraks Prime's deepest underground dungeons waiting for transportation to Terra on the next Black Ship to arrive. The Cardinal believed these rogue psykers to be his own children, and claimed that they relayed messages to him from the Ruinous Powers.

Imperial Build-Up

Krieg Soldat

A standard Infantryman of the Death Korps of Krieg Astra Militarum regiments, like those that composed the 88th Siege Army on Vraks Prime.

DK Quagmire

Guardsmen of the Death Korps struggle to move equipment through Vraks' quagmire.

The forces of the Imperium required to assault these formidable defences would be the Imperial Guard Regiments raised from the world of Krieg: the infamous Death Korps. These were the best Astra Militarum regiments available to the Imperium. The men of Krieg were loyal, dutiful and extremely disciplined. They would fight with an almost inhuman disregard for the cost in casualties, seeing death in battle as the ultimate goal of their lives, to sacrifice themselves for the God-Emperor.

The 88th Siege Army would be equipped depending on each regiment's designation. Most of the regiments would be siege regiments, equipped for a long war against static positions, with a special emphasis on artillery. Artillery was the heart of the plan for laying siege to Vraks Prime, and it would be a gunner's war. Large concentrations of heavy artillery would be needed to blast the enemy from their defensive lines, allowing infantry attacks to sweep forward in their wake. Each regiment would have its own artillery companies, with weaponry ranging from small mortars to the medium artillery of heavy mortars and Quad Launchers.

There would also be heavy artillery in the form of Medusa siege guns and Earthshaker Cannons, the work-horse of the 88th Siege Army, as well as the heaviest Imperial artillery in use, the deadly Bombards. To augment each regiment's own artillery company, independent artillery regiments would be attached to the army. Other regiments would be equipped as mobile armoured regiments, but for a siege campaign the armoured regiments would be used as breakthrough and gap exploitation forces and would not expect to man the lines as the infantry and artillery regiments would. The tanks would be used to support the infantry's attacks and there would be no mass tank battles since the Imperial forces intended to deny the Heretics the chance to engage in armoured warfare. Still, Imperial Guard Leman Russes, Baneblades and Gorgons would all play their part in the siege.

For the men of Krieg, Vraks would prove to be an alien environment. All of them had been raised in the underground hive cities of Krieg, where they became used to the constant overcrowding and recycled air. They had trained for battle on their world's blasted surface, amidst the frigid cold and radioactive hot spots of a perpetual nuclear winter amidst a landscape of ruined buildings and the hideous metallic mass of trench and razor wire left from the planetary civil war that had devastated their world centuries before. While many of the Death Korps regiments were well-established, they had been brought up to strength with many new recruits who had never seen combat before they set foot on Vraks Prime.

Vraks was a barren world, covered in a choking layer of volcanic dust, with little vegetation. Its climate was warmer than that of frigid Krieg, but violent electrical storms were a daily problem, as were the sudden downpours that accompanied them. These storms turned the ground into a churning sea of sticky grey mud as the water drained away into Vraks Prime's dusty surface. The battlefield encompassed the whole of the planet's Van Meersland Wastes, 5,000 square kilometres of dusty, rocky plains with the occasional outcropping of volcanic rock. The defenders knew this terrain well, but the forces of the Emperor would have to learn the nature of the battlefield as the siege progressed.

The Fortress of Vraks, also called the Citadel, housed the headquarters of the Vraksian Planetary Defence Forces, the Master of the Administratum's offices, the great Basilica of Saint Leonis the Blind, the Cardinal's Palace and the Citadel's own garrison barracks. By the time the Imperial siege of the world began, 3 defensive lines had been constructed to the north, west and south of the Citadel by the rebel forces, with the rest of the area to the south and east defended by gorges and canyons, rendering it unsuitable for a massed attack. At the time of the uprising, work had not been completed on the outer defensive lines, providing the Death Korps' forces a target for the first strike against the Heretics' fortress when they finally arrived on the world in 812.M41.

The Killing Fields of Vraks

"Our creed is this. We are ready, at any moment, to sacrifice all for victory."
— Colonel Cseke, 15th Krieg Siege Regiment

Vraks Landings (7908.812.M41)

DK Artillery

The Siege of Vraks would be a gunners' war. A field artillery strongpoint unloads extra ammunition between fire missions

Death Riders Squadron

A squadron of Krieg's Death Riders range ahead of the marching columns, to scout enemy positions and screen troop movements for attack

In 812.M41, 200,000 guardsmen of the Krieg 143rd Siege Regiment marched, up the boarding ramps and into the holds of their transport vessels. They were the first men of the 88th Siege Army to begin their journey to Vraks Prime. They were just the beginning of a vast armada of vessels in orbit above Krieg now prepared to load and rendezvous for the journey to Vraks. Lord Commander Zuehlke established his headquarters on Thracian Primaris, a principal planet of the Scarus Sector. Now that the unstoppable Imperial war machine was in motion, his personal presence on Vraks itself was not required. He would oversee the campaign from a comfortable distance. Assuming victory was already assured, all he needed to oversee was the replacement of men and supplies.

The first convoy of tansport ships carrying men, equipment and supplies from Krieg began to arrive in the Vraks System at 1999812.M41. Carried in 21 transport vessels of various size was the vanguard 88th Siege Army, protected by a flotilla of Imperial Navy escort ships under the command of Admiral Rasiak from his flagship, the cruiser Lord Bellerophon. The landing zones had been chosen to provide the 88th Siege Army with a secure bridgehead on the surface. The first regiment to land was the 143rd, which provided vital protection against enemy attacks.

For months the landing zones were busy, as shuttles constantly shuttled supplies which were stockpiled in vast quantities of food, ammunition, water and every item the army would require for its 12 year war. This massive undertaking continued until all of the 88th Siege Army's regiments had arrived. It took almost a year for the army to be fully in place. The Krieg offensive lines were dug in 1,000 miles away from the Citadel, making use of Earthshaker and Bombard artillery batteries. A Departmento Munitorum labour corps of 500,000 men was brought in from the Imperial penal colonies of Arphista to lay railway lines across the barren wilderness to support the siege so that men, mounts and vehicles could reach the enemy in good condition to wage war against the heretic forces of Cardinal Xaphan.

The Campaign Plan

DK Campaign Plan

The overall campaign plan, showing the encirclement of Vraks' Citadel by the four line korps.

The 88th Siege Army's plan of attack to reduce Vrak's defences, and the eventual recapture of the Citadel, involved repeated offenses on two fronts. Rather than massing for one attack at a single point, and allowing the enemy to amass his forces to block it, the line korps would attempt to encircle Vraks and apply pressure all along the line. The approach to the Citadel was dictated by terrain. The area criss-crossed by Vraks' distinctive gorges and canyons were located to the south and east, unsuitable for any attack and creating an impassable barrier to an advancing army on foot. The attack instead, had to come from the west and north, where the vast majority of the defence lines were situated. The 1st and 30th line korps would form the northern part of the attack, whilst the 12th and 34th line korps formed the southern part, occupying an area from the Saritama Abyss to sector 45-45. These two korps' orders were to breakthrough the western outer defence line.

The orders for the 1st line korps was to attack the northern defence line, having circumnavigated the western defence lines. This might even make it possible for them to push further eastwards and avoid the northern defence line, which had never been completed, and attack directly south from sector 57-53 into the second defence line. Coordinating their attacks precisely would enable the Krieg regiments to drive deep into enemy territory with the support of flanking regiments. With the outer defence lines overrun, the encirclement could begin properly. Approaching the second defence lines the army's overall frontage would shrink, thus making all of its regiments less vulnerable to enemy counter-offensives. This meant that the first defence lines had to be overwhelmed quickly, at any cost.

Once regimental commanders reached the second defence lines they could take a more cautious approach to probe for weaknesses before committing any major attacks. Once the second line of defence was breached, the ring around Vraks' citadel could constrict and close in again to the inner defence line, entirely encircling the Citadel and for the first time bring it under long range artillery fire. This would send a clear message to the defenders that all was lost. Once in position the 88th Siege Army could then afford to sit and wait; their enemies pinned in, with no hope, no respite or a safe place to hide from Krieg's big guns, which would pound the enemy into so much dust.

The Beginning (166.813.M41)

Krieg Artillery

Earthshaker Cannons of the 88th Siege Army open up with a devastating barrage

Official Imperial records show that the official time recorded from the beginning of the Siege of Vraks was at dawn, on 166813.M41, when Krieg's artillery opened up with a devastating barrage of Earthshaker round and the terrible howl of Bombard shells. The shells blew great craters in the soft earth. All morning the bombardment went on, hammering the outer defence lines, explosion after explosion, until the gun barrels of the 88th Siege Army began to glow red with the constant heat of firing.

Meanwhile, behind the outer defence lines' forward positions, the defenders' gunners responded in kind with counter-battery fire from their Basilisk artillery pieces. The artillery duel had begun. Far away in the Krieg gun lines the scream of incoming shells couldn't be heard over the sound of their own guns. The first enemy shells landed well short, then wide, then growing ominously closer. At the 413th battery, an enemy shell scored a direct hit, smashing an Earthshaker Cannon to pieces, detonating the ammunition stockpiled close-by and killing all 8 members of the gun's crew in the ensuing inferno. Though it was a lucky hit at extreme range, it signalled that the artillery duel would not be a one-sided battle that Imperial strategicians thought it would be.

As the artillery duel was getting underway, the gas-masked soldiers of the 158th regiment advanced at an even pace, moving steadily forwards as artillery shells tore through the skies overhead. The infantry was limited to a steady advance towards the enemy, then a halt with enough time to begin the work of digging the first trenches. The Death Korps guardsmen were not to attack the enemy positions yet, the artillery needed far longer to soften-up their lines, but the heavy shelling was acting as a covering bombardment, preventing the enemy from engaging the advancing infantry at long range and harassing the enemy's own artillery positions. By nightfall the first foxholes were dug.

Digging In

The next day each foxhole was extended, via a narrow trench to connect with the next foxhole, thus establishing a single basic trench for each squad. This could then be connected into a platoon trench, and then they too would be linked into a company trench, which could then in turn be linked into other company trenches. Over the course of days, the trench lines would start to spread. These first hand-dug trenches were steadily improved, becoming the basis of a more permanent frontline position. Under the cover of darkness, razorwire teams stretched coils of wire in front of the trench to prevent enemy patrols or raiding parties gaining easy access. Heavy weapons teams were then sited and dug in. This methodically planned and efficient way of conducting war was the way the Death Korps regiments had trained to do it back on Krieg.

Despite the Death Korps methodical digging, the enemy did not attack. Pinned under the daily bombardment the enemy clung to his bunkers and defence lines, offering little fight except the occasional sniper shots and harassing mortar fire. While the Death Korps were digging-in and reinforcing their trenches, Cardinal Xaphan's renegade army was occupying the prepared positions opposite, parallel to the Imperial earth-works, staring across the vacuum of no-man's land, which neither side ventured into. The defence lines were formidable, the enemy burrowing deep underground to protect themselves from artillery. All of their positions were protected by miles of tank traps and razorwire, as well as anti-tank ditches and minefields. The enemy had also laid millions of mines. In places the defensive positions were combined into strongpoints, resistance nests that were strong enough to withstand the heaviest shells. These nests provided the defenders with interlocking fields of fire. Breaking each defence line would be a major undertaking, and any advance would have to be bought at a high price in casualties. To complicate matters, the three main defence lines surrounding the Citadel became gradually denser and harder to crack the closer the enemy came.

First Assault on the Outer Defences (212.813.M41)

KriegGren

An elite Death Korps Grenadier; throughout the Siege of Vraks they were often the vanguard force of the Death Korps' assaults on heavily fortified positions

The 149th regiment was chosen to make the first assault in sector 46-39, for intelligence reports indicated that the defence line might be cracked here. On the 149th regiment's immediate left and right flanks the 143rd and 150th regiments would provide strong supporting attacks, pinning down enemy units and drawing enemy reserves into their sectors and away from the main effort. Behind the 149th regiment, units of the 11th Assault Korps were brought up and made ready. Should the first attack breach the enemy position, then the assault korps' tanks could drive through and thrust deep into the defence zone.

Over the course of two days, 500,000 infantry attacked in waves. The first wave was not expected to make much progress, but was to attack with strong infantry probes to find weak spots in the enemy lines. The second wave, led by Death Korps Grenadier units were to hit the weak spots hard, gaining a foothold in the defences lines and hold them until day two, when the third wave, would move through them and expand the breach. Once this was completed, the 61st Tank regiment would be released from reserve to smash through the hold. All this would follow days of heavy bombardment in 46-39 and its adjoining sectors.

DK Artillery Positions

The 21st Bombardment Korps heralds the beginning of the infantry assault

As the Death Korps prepared for the assault, they brought forward large numbers of guns from the bombardment korps and more men in the infantry companies, all the time under harassing enemy mortar and artillery fire. When the guardsmen went over the top of their trenches, the infantry's own mortars would provide plunging fire into the enemy positions. Behind them, in the second line of trenches would be heavy mortars and quad launchers, targeting identified enemy heavy weapons positions. Still further back would be Medusa Siege Tanks, targeting enemy bunkers and pillboxes. Further behind even these would be the Earthshakers, providing a dense rolling barrage that would precede the infantry companies to pin the enemy infantry in their shelters. These guns would then switch to counter-battery fire against suspected or detected enemy artillery positions. Finally, there were the Bombards. These monstrous guns would be adding their considerable weight to the rolling barrage, then switch to hit enemy strong points deeper in the defence zone. Over 4 million artillery shells had been stockpiled to support the offensive, it would be the heaviest barrage of the war yet, concentrated across three sectors.

DK Prepare to assault

The first wave of Krieg infantry anxiously wait for the assault to begin

The guns of the 21st bombardment korps opened fire, assisting the siege regiment's own artillery companies. It began five days of shelling that would soften up the enemy for the coming attack. The remorseless guns of the Death Korps turned no-man's land and the forward enemy positions into a cratered landscape. The drumbeat tempo of the devastating display of firepower pounded the enemy day and night. It seemed that when the attack went forwards, there would be nothing left to stand in the way. At 212813.M41 the first attacking companies were in place, filling the front line trenches as the squads packed shoulder to shoulder. Overhead the barrage intensified, crescendoing into a rolling thunder of noise as the explosions followed each other so quickly they became a single wall of noise. Then suddenly, it was over, as horrible silence engulfed the battlefield as the guns lifted their barrage. The order to advance was given over the vox-net.

Infantry Assaulting by ARKURION

The Krieg infantry companies bravely advance into no-man's land

As one, the first squads surged forwards towards the scaling ladders and appeared above the parapet and moved forwards, dodging through their own wire to form lines of dark, hunched figures advancing through the craters of no-man's land. But despite the ferocity of the bombardment many of the enemy had survived, hidden deep within their personnel shelters underground. As the bombardment stopped, the enemy squads rushed to man their defences. After advancing more than twenty yards, the guns of the enemy opened up. Even as the shells exploded amongst the ranks of advancing guardsmen, the Death Korps, resolute and steadfast, continued to advance in parade ground order. And so, they died, scythed down by enemy fire, as they walked long into a pitiless hurricane of enemy fire.

To add to the Death Korps' misery, the pre-sighted enemy artillery began to land all around them, no-man's land lighting up with explosions, plumes of flames and earth fountaining amongst the attackers' lines. Bodies were flung into the air like rag dolls by the shell impacts. But still the advancing lines did not falter, on they came, walking ever forwards into the firestorm. As the intensity of the fire grew, some squads went to ground, scrambling into shell craters for cover, only for more plunging enemy artillery to land amongst them. Officers urged their platoons onwards, only to be cut down in turn. Back in the trenches the next squads were assembling, as the shells and bullets whined overhead, they fixed bayonets and waited their turn to charge into the maelstrom.

As they next squad of men climbed the ladders, many were immediately hit, and fell backwards onto their comrades in the trench behind them. Those that did make it over the parapet could barely make it ten yards before being forced to ground. A few squads made it to the enemy lines, charging at the defensive units, bayonets level, hurling grenades ahead of them. But even here they were met by an enemy who fought hard, holding their positions to the last man. In sector 469-391 nowhere did any platoon reach the enemy lines. Of 32nd Company's nine platoons some 600 strong at the outset, 542 were killed or injured in the first wave. Every officer was killed. At roll-call that evening, the 58 survivors were not enough men to constitute a single full strength platoon.

Despite the slaughter ahead of them, in the second line trenches and communication trenches the second wave stoically prepared for its turn to attack. Amongst the jostling men, grenadier squads lumbered forwards under their heavy armour. They faced an advance into almost certain death. Such it was to be a soldier of the Death Korps. The second wave would walk the same ground over which the first had been all but destroyed. On cue, the second wave launched their assault as planned, adding their bodies to the first wave. All day long the slaughter continued, until nightfall saw a halting of the attack. Throughout the night the wounded crawled back over the parapet as the occasional star-shell exploded overhead to reveal a hellish scene of writhing figures. Some survivors held their position in no-man's land throughout the night. Sporadic firefights ensued as brave men still attempted to press forwards towards their objectives.

The cost had been horrific and the gains negligible. At dawn, the slaughter continued. The third wave launched their attack as well, and it too, paid a heavy toll in blood for no gains. The desired breakthrough never came. The defence lines' construction work had been completed, and if anything, improved upon, and the line held. At 218813.M41, the enemy launched its own counter-attack, hoping to exploit its victory, against the surviving Krieg units now back in their trenches. They traitor's counted upon their attackers being weakened by the heavy losses. But the battered men of Krieg manned their heavy weapons, most of these were still in place having never been committed to the ill-fated assault across no-man's land. All along the line determined fire halted the attack, and the quad-launchers and heavy mortars of the second line quickly adjusted their fire, pinned the enemy down. By nightfall the enemy attack had spent itself, their dead piled on top of the men of Krieg. The opposing sides were again at a stalemate. The artillery duel continued, but the fury of three days of battle had subsided.

Life in the Trenches

Stuck in the trench by arkurion

Life in the tenches of Vraks is one of misery and monotony.

All along the line, both sides dug themselves in deeper. Systematically, a maze of trenches spread across the Van Meersland Wastes. It seemed neither side planned on moving for a long time. For weeks on end the stalemate held each side firmly in position, sentries staring out across the desolation of no-man's land at the enemy positions. Despite the stalemate every unit would still have to take its turn at patrolling and raiding the enemy lines. Night operations in no-man's land saw patrols finding or laying minefields, or identifying gaps in the wire for a subsequent raid to exploit. Trench raids to take enemy prisoners were common. The 88th Siege Army was losing an average of 2,000 men a day, without any regiment actually launching an attack. Of course such losses were a planned eventuality for the Krieg regiments as they kept receiving daily replacements to re-fill the ranks. The first year of the siege slipped past. The outer defence lines had held against the first assaults, and both sides contented themselves with wearing down the other, the opposing armies locked in a grinding stalemate of slow destruction.

The Battle of Fort A-453 (897.814.M41)

Advance on fort a 453 by arkurion

Death Korps Grenadiers advancing on Fort A-453

On 897814.M41 the grenadiers of the 261st Krieg Regiment of the 30th Line Korps were ordered to conduct a probing attack along its entire front after six months of relative inactivity. The 9th Company of the 261st, under the command of Commander Tyborc, had been given the task of attacking a strong point in the heretics' line, designated Fort A-453. The Death Korps forces were able to move quickly across the no-man's-land, covered by the smoke from the offensive's heavy preliminary artillery bombardment. Some Krieg troops were able to reach the enemy trench lines under heavy and indiscriminate bombardment. Sending a runner back across the lines to call for reinforcements, Tyborc and his men were able to gain a foothold in the entrance of a personnel shelter, hunkering down as enemy artillery was called in upon them. The runner, having taken several hours to return across no-man's land, was eventually able to report the breakthrough to the 30th Line Korps' commanding officer, General Durjan, in his own command post. The next day, grenadier units worked their way towards the fort while Tyborc's men fought a fierce battle in the galleries and corridors beneath it.

DK 61st Tank Korps

Tanks of the 61st Krieg Tank Regiment of the 11th Assault Korps augment the attack

The third day of the battle saw the deployment of 3 tank companies from the 6st Krieg Tank Regiment of the 11th Assault Korps, augmented with a Baneblade super-heavy main battle tank. These units were accompanied by Atlas Excavators, equipped with dozer blades to fill in the anti-tank ditch that protected the fort and allow the tanks to cross. Meanwhile, underground, the Vraksian Renegade militia attempted to burn out Commander Tyborc with Flamers. Grenadiers were able to force their way into the underground complex and captured the main access tunnel. From there, corridor by corridor, they were able to clear the complex of the heretics' forces. The men of the 261st ultimately secured the area, narrowly avoiding being attacked by their own men before establishing that they were friendly Imperial forces and members of the 88th Siege Army's 30th Corps.

261st Breakout A-453

The 261st Regiment's breakthrough at Fort A-453, and 8th Assault Korps' exploitation of the breach

With more men and tanks thrust into the breakthrough at Fort A-453, the Vraksian Traitors were no longer able to control the entire outer defence line. With the heretics' frenzied attempts to stem the tide, other sectors in the heretics' defensive lines soon became undermanned. The 8th Assault Corps made its way through these breaches and then completely rolled up the heretics' outer defence lines until they were no longer tenable positions. The Apostate Cardinal's units began to abandon their defences and move back to man the second defensive line. Death Riders harried the enemy hard as they fell back en masse. Once the mopping up of several heretical units trapped behind the breakthrough had been completed, the first objective of the Imperial Siege of Vraks had been won.

War of Attrition

"The Krieg method of war is a measure of their discipline and their sacrifice. It demands respect from all -- friend and foe alike."
Lord Commander Militant, Segmentum Obscurus

The Crisis of 1st Korps (255.815.M41)

1st Korps Withdrawal

Advance to the second defence line, the enemy counter-attack & the withdrawal of 1st Line Korps regiments

Following the Krieg breakthrough, the enemy abandoned not only its outer defence lines, but also the northern line, itself a spur of the second defence line, now felt to be undefendable due to the situation on the ground; outflanked to the south, and faced by a recuperated Krieg 1st and 30th Line Korps. Pinned by enemy attacks to the front, any defenders could quickly be cut-off by the advance of the 12th line korps. Instead of risking a catastrophic defeat by holding onto untenable ground, the defenders withdrew furthers. The 1st and 30th line korps found the northern defence lines abandoned, and were soon pushing forwards against light resistance from rearguards, snipers and the inevitable harassing artillery fire. As the 1st line korps moved south and eastwards, it was also encircling the second defence line. So far, in over two years of war, the 88th Siege Army had been constantly on the attack. But at 255815.M41 the strategic position changed as the 1st Line Korps closed in from the north towards the second defence line, its was subjected to the enemy's first concerted offensive of the war.

The northern defence line might have been abandoned without a fight, but the ground between the two positions had been identified as the scene of a strong counter-attack. The 19th Siege regiment was occupying overnight positions in sector 60-53. There was reported movement of enemy vehicles throughout the night by Krieg sentries, and, in response, harassing artillery fire was increased in an attempt to impede whatever the enemy were planning. Expecting a local counter-attack the forward companies were reinforced, and a general stand-to was issued at dawn. The newly dug trenches were lined with men, lasguns at the ready. The enemy responsed with a sporadic barrage of artillery shells, before they unleashed a tornado upon the Imperial defenders. A mass of concentrated artillery fire thundered over the 19th regiment's positions, rolling like a storm of thunder from the ocean. Amongst the heavy shelling came smoke shells, spouting thick white clouds that obscured the battlefield. Behind the smoke came the first wave of enemy attacks.

MalcadorHeavyTank

A Malcador Annihilator of the Vraksian Renegade Militia advanced upon the Krieg line regiments

Through the dust and smoke the growing noise of approaching engines sounded like the forges of hell opening. Enemy tanks opened up with their main guns, the shells flying into the front trenches of the Krieg guardsmen. A series of explosions tore bloody gaps in the crowded trench lines. Soon the vox-net was inundated with reports of squadrons and enemy tanks and Chimeras all along the 19th regiment's front. The Vraksian Renegade Militia troopers swarmed forward, bayonets fixed, knives, axes and fighting blades in hand. They charging recklessly as the Krieg guardsmen returned fire with Lasguns, Heavy Stubbers and Heavy Bolters. The enemy were like rabid dogs, hunting in packs as bullets and tank shells destroyed the 19th regiment's trenches piecemeal.

One after another, the Krieg units were overrun, and onwards thundered the enemy tanks. Watching through his magnoculars from his command post, Colonel Adal, commander of the 19th regiment could make out the fighting through the drift of smoke and dust thrown up by the bombardment. As reports filtered in of positions being overrun, he watched as the enemy tanks engaged and destroyed his forward positions. In desperation, Adal ordered his reserve companies into the line to try to stem the momentum of the enemy assault. The Colonel requested reinforcements from higher command, but reinforcements were unavailable. He must hold his ground with the forces at his disposal. The fighting continued all day and by mid afternoon murderous artillery fire had started again from both sides.

During the day 19 quad-launchers and heavy mortar positions had been overrun, and in many cases the enemy turned the guns around, using them until the ammunition stores were gone. As night dawn, both sides continued to harass one another with probing attacks, but the situation was confused, as there was no longer a clear front line, just a chaotic mess of units. At dawn the enemy attack renewed, and the 19th regiment's own artillery replied in kind. Soon the blood-soaked enemy moved forwards, fighting from trench to trench. The first attack was driven off, the Colonel himself, lasgun in hand, firing from behind sandbags. A second attack as also held, but the shallow trenches to the left and right were now in enemy hands, and the Colonel and his defenders were isolated. His second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Dyneh, was killed when enemy tank fire destroyed Adal's command dug-out. Down to just 80 men, communication to the rear was soon severed. He ordered the wounded to be evacuated as best as they could, and divided the survivors into two groups. The first unit would break out and take new of the enemy breakthrough back. He would command a rearguard and hold for as long as possible, until either relief arrived or he was overrun and killed. He knew there was little hope of rescue, but the taciturn Colonel would fight as long as possible.

Hellhound

An enemy Hellhound flamethrower tank attacks the 19th regiment's command post

The Colonel's group battered survivors fought on bravely, until the Colonel himself was killed when the enemy brought forwards a Hellhound flamethrower tank to smoke them out. Of his fate nothing was ever known, his body incinerated in the blasts of super-heated Promethium that finally destroyed his command outpost. The second line had also been breached with the loss of the command post. The 19th regiment's position was not saveable. Though they no longer had a commander to co-ordinate the regiment's actions, isolated groups of survivors fought on, but as a cohesive unit the 19th regiment was a spent force. In the chaos of the retreat much of the equipment and stores had to be abandoned. It was now left to the 1st line korps to salvage what they could from the sudden fury of the enemy assault.

THE SIEGE OF VRAKS Assault by ARKURION

Survivors of the 19th regiment evacuate their wounded in wake of the enemy assault

After two days of grueling fighting the enemy had their breakthrough, and 1st line korps was forced to make a tactical withdrawal, as its entire position was in danger of being compromised by the collapse of the 19th regiment on its left flank. First and foremost the enemy attack had to be stalled, delayed as long as possible to buy time for the other regimens to reposition themselves. 1st korps gathered elements of the 7th Tank regiment and the surviving Death Rider companies of the 19th regiment. They threw both of these elements into the enemy's path in the hope of delaying the advance. It wasn't enough to stop it altogether but any time it bought the 1st korps was now vital. Orders were issued to the other regiments to withdraw, whilst the 261st regiment would need to turn its flank and dig-in as best it could. This lost ground as a major setback to Lord Zuehlke's campaign timetable. The enemy had now seized the initiative

On the third day, the enemy tanks continued to roll forwards as 1st Korps had at last repositioned some forces to meet the enemy. In all, 52 tanks of the 7th Tank regiment, Leman Russes and Macharius Heavy Tanks, had been positioned, against an estimated enemy attack that still had over a hundred, although their numbers were growing all the time if reports were to be believed. Eventually the enemy armoured thrust was seriously blunted, due in no small part to days of multiple delaying actions by valiant Krieg tank commanders, and with each day the enemy captured less ground. After three more days the counter-attack had been stalled, but it had cut a swathe through 1st Korps and forced it to give up much captured ground. The 19th Regiment had been shredded in the first two days, over 80,000 men of the regiment had been captured or become casualties, including its commanding officer. Enemy losses had also been heavy, especially in armoured vehicles. All along the frontline, attacks that should have weakened the enemy only seemed to have emboldened him. Enemy defences had been organised, and now the second defence line would be much more difficult to crack.

Battles of the Second Defence Line (120.816.M41)

Sector 46-42 Gorgons

A Gorgon-borne assault through artillery fire in sector 46-42

After the sudden rush of the breakthrough and the crisis of the 1st Korps, the advancing regiments of the remaining three korps were ordered to halt. Instead of a headlong rush, the Krieg regiments would approach the task at hand like they did the first line, by slow attrition. The leading infantry companies and Atlas Excavators were called forwards, to dig the trenchworks all over again, always forwards, yard by yard they would close in. The enemy lines would be approached slowly, under the cover of artillery fire. Soon the Van Meersland Wastes were criss-crossed with a spidery network of trenches, which, day after day, grew into a labyrinth.

7th Regiment's Tanks 30th Inf Support

7th Tank regiment supporting attack by the 310th regiment on the second defence line

At 120816.M41, the 88th Siege Army again committed itself to the offensive. An all-out assault was launched by no less than six entire regiments. After hours of saturation bombardment the Krieg guardsmen would surge forward to attack the enemy's front line, trenches, defence lines or inter-connected bunkers. In most placed the attack was stalled, leaving the dead lying in piles across no-man's land. In some places the assault succeeded and the attackers occupied the defender's positions, only for the attack to then stall under the counter-barrage as the enemy's pre-sighted guns unleashed an accurate storm of fire, isolating the attackers in their new positions. The enemy would then counter-attack before the assault troops could be reinforced, as the artillery storm raged unabated. The sudden riposte would drive the Krieg guardsmen back. The waves of Krieg infantry would crash in, only to be repulsed, like the ebb and flow of the tides. This remorseless cycles of abortive offensives went on, each time the attack would be stalled, and the next day the attack had to be widened, to take in a neighbouring sector and eliminate its flanking fire. Always the gains were negligible. Over the months, hundreds of attacks were made, but there was no breakthrough. Another years passed in stalemate.

In the north, the 1st Korps was finally reinforced by an influx of freshly-arrived troops from Krieg. They continued to push their trenchline forwards. The enemy continued to skirmish and harass, but without the protection of their deep bunkers and the reinforced ferrocrete of the defence lines, the Krieg artillery pulverised them. Slowly the ground lost to counter attack was reclaimed, it took almost six months to recover all the ground lost in just a week. By the end of the year hab-zone one had systematically been pulverised by artillery fire, and then captured with barely a fight. After the attack, the hab-zone's prefabricated dwellings had been wiped off the map. The 1st Korps was finally in position against the second defence line, and the Citadel was surrounded by a front of 250 km. During the 88th Siege Army's advance they had overrun many of Vraks' outer storage facilities which had been stripped bare, the war materials plundered to the last round by the rebels. These war materials had been moved closer to the fortress for protection.

The tireless, pitiless cycle of war ground on like an insatiable beast, consuming men and equipment daily. The endless artillery duel began again, turning the frontline into a crater field. Another year passed, then another, and the conditions worsened. Wherever the Krieg regiments made any gains, they were soon recaptured by enemy counter-attacks. Both side employed the tactics of constant harassment, which never allowed their opponents across no-man's land a moment of unguarded rest. The result was that for long periods of time, sometimes years, the front was entirely static. The Krieg commanders wanted a big breakthrough, but for the time being, the war of attrition continued.

Raid on Sector 50-45 (649.818.M41)

DK Infantry night raid

Krieg grenadiers assault a laser silo under cover of darkness

At 649818.M41, the 158th regiment made a large raid in sector 50-45. Their objective - capture and destroy a defence laser silo, part of Vraks' network of orbital defences. To gain the element of surprise, the attackers went without the usual artillery bombardment that preceded an attack on the ground. The attack was led by grenadier squads, infiltrating forwards across no-man's land under cover of darkness to quickly seize the silo's surface at dawn to clear the silo, which was mostly underground, protected on the surface by razorwire, a dense minefield, and several reinforced gun emplacements.

The grenadier squads set off under cover of a dark and gloomy night, stealthily slipping into no-man's land and crawling from crater to crater through the mud. As starshell rounds burst, casting its harsh light over them, the grenadiers froze or played dead, disguised as just another corpse. Once the light faded to earth, the grenadiers continued to slither forwards. One squad stumbled into an enemy patrol, and a firefight erupted, but to the defenders' sentries it was just another nightly clash in no-man's land. The grenadier squads that reached their objective cut the first band of razorwire, clearing a lane for their fellow squads, when a starshell burst overhead. An eagle-eyed sentry noticed the unfamiliar shapes on the perimeter and shouted out a warning as a Heavy Bolter open fired. The men below were roused from their sleep by their bellowing officers.

With little choice, the grenadiers pressed on, scrambling through the wire and rushing forwards to avoid being massacred on the wire. The nighttime erupted in explosions and heavy weapons fire. By dawn, the silo was shrouded in smoke and dust. Though the mission accomplished order had not been received, the order was given by the Krieg commanders to continue the attack as planned, and so, the infantry companies swarmed up and out into no-man's land. But, unknown to the new attackers, the genadier's attack had gone badly. Soon withering defensive fire turned no-man's land into a charnel house of burned, concussed or dismembered men. The survivors straggling back into the cover of their own trenches again. The following day, only superficial damage could be seen, but the silo remained intact and functioning. Several hundred had died in the hopeless attack. Only a few of the attacking grenadiers ever reached their own lines again. Most were killed, those that were captured were tortured for information and then executed. Their bodies left hanging on the razorwire as grisly reminders of their fate.

A New Threat: The Get of Alpharius (820.M41)

By 820.M41, seven standard years had passed since the start of the siege, seven years of bitter and grueling fighting that had seen millions of men on both sides slaughtered for the gain of only a few miles by the Imperial Guard forces as they moved onto the inner defence lines of the Vraksian Citadel. Each side had won victories and suffered defeats and both had suffered terrible losses, but neither side was yet ready to collapse. Lord Commander Zuehlke requested from the Lord Commander Militant of Segmentum Obscurus a new line korps of Imperial Guardsmen from Krieg to join the fighting on Vraks. He believed that these extra men would bring the campaign, already running longer and far more costly than originally planned by the Administratum, back on schedule and help break the stalemate at the Traitors' second defensive line. The order for more men was put through the standard Departmento Munitorum bureaucratic channels and the Adepts set to work to find the needed men from Krieg.

Alpha Legion Astartes

An Alpha Legion Chaos Space Marine aids in repulsing the Krieg assault at Sector 52-49

The siege took an unexpected turn for the Imperium when disturbing reports reached Commander Zuehkle's headquarters on Thracian Primaris. Not only was his campaign plan still well behind schedule, the defenders had also been reinforced. A warband of Chaos Space Marines of the Alpha Legion under the command of the Chaos Lord Arkos the Faithless managed to secretly insinuate themselves among the Chaotic forces defending Vraks in 820.M41. Arkos' Battle Barge, the Anarchy's Heart, had crept into the Vraks System unnoticed and had landed its contingent of Traitor Marines at the Vraks Prime Star Port, who had passed themselves off as Loyalist Astartes come to join the fight. The Chaos Space Marines had crossed the no-man's land between the Loyalist and Chaotic lines by pretending to launch a counter-attack during an attack in sector 52-49 by the 261st regiment. Several Gorgon assault transports had overrun the enemy lines and were threatening to force a gap in the second defence line, when the enemy had counter-attacked. Only this time, the counter-attackers had been Adeptus Astartes in dark blue Power Armour. They had launched the swift attack that had seen the breach quickly sealed and all the Gorgon transports destroyed in battle.

Unknown to the commanders of the 88th Siege Army, Vraks had indeed become a draw to the Traitor Legions. Arkos and his followers had presented themselves at the Citadel of Vraks Prime, offering their support in the name of Chaos Undivided for the Apostate Cardinal's cause. Arkos could not only provide the Chaotic defenders with superb superhuman troops, adept at raiding and disruption behind enemy lines, but also better training for the Apostate Cardinal's poorly-performing Vraksian Militia units. Arkos could also add his own enormous tactical experience to the defensive campaign while his Astartes, all unflinchingly loyal to their lord and their foul Gods, would relish the chance to join the war. The Alpha Legion had been drawn into the battle by the intensity of the fighting and their own desire to win the favour of the Dark Gods by compounding the slaughter for the servants of the Emperor. Lord Arkos was a useful and powerful ally for Cardinal Xaphan and the Chaos Lord's offer of aid was gratefully accepted by the Vraksian Traitors. The Chaos Space Marines were immediately put to work bolstering the Vraksian defensive lines around the Citadel. This unsettling news was made far worse when the Chaos Sorcerers of the Alpha Legion sent a psychic signal burning through the Warp to call old allies to the support of the Chaotic forces fighting for control of Vraks Prime. Those elements of the Forces of Chaos lurking around the Eye of Terror were drawn like moths to a flame by the flickering psychic light emitted by the Alpha Legion's message that promised battle, slaughter and plunder.

The Angels of Caliban

"Our will for vengeance carries all before it."
Supreme Grand Master Azrael, Dark Angels Chapter

Reinforcements (821.M41)

Azrael1

Supreme Grand Master Azrael and half his Dark Angels Chapter deploy to Vraks Prime

In 821.M41, Lord Commander Zuehkle's requests for reinforcements were finally met. A convoy of transport vessels entered the system carrying the 46th Line Korps, with three more regiments to assist in breaking the deadlock around the second defence lines. These were troops that had been designated for other warzones, but now Zuehkle's political connections had proved useful in getting the extra troops he wanted. The Lord Commander Militant's office had also provided some unasked for assistance. The chance that the war on Vraks would escalate could not be taken. Instead, the Lord Commander Militant had acted independently of his subordinate commander and sent his own delegation in search of aid from the Adeptus Astartes. The first to answer were the Dark Angels, the infamous First Founding Chapter, whose mobile fortress-monastery known as The Rock, had allowed them to react quickly. Led by Supreme Grand Master Azrael, the Chapter had responded with a huge commitment of forces - almost half of the Chapter's battle-brothers had been embarked for Vraks, with Azrael himself taking command. The Battle-Barge Angel of Retribution powered into the Vraks System along with the Strike Cruisers Sword of Caliban and Salvation and a small fleet of Escorts.

Azrael sent no communications to the 88th Siege Army's commanders. He simply set about his self-assigned mission -- the destruction of Vraks' star port which would sever any easy access to off-planet reinforcements. Needing no assistance, he saw no reason to involve the Imperial Guard regiments engaged on Vraks. While Lord Zuekkle's staff were adjusting their plans for the inclusion of his new line korps into his front, Azrael and his Company Masters manoeuvred into low orbit and deployed their powerful strike force onto the surface of Vraks via Drop Pods and Thunderhawk gunships.

Azrael's Plan

DA Attack Vrak's Starport

The Dark Angels plan of attack on the star port

Achieving orbit outside Vraks' orbital defence laser coverage, the Dark Angels released their cargos of Thunderhawks to enter the atmosphere and fly around the planet to the chosen landing zone at the Srna Flats. Azrael had chosen this area for landing because it was located at the foot of the Abaros Hills directly south of the star port. It only took mere hours for the Dark Angels to unload their forces from orbit. The star port was chosen as the Dark Angels' primary objective for three reasons: one, the star port was the easiest way for off-planet support to reach the defenders. Secondly, a new attack would force the defenders to commit forces against a new threat. There was currently, only a small garrison to defend the star port, because it was not directly threatened by the Krieg regiments, and this in turn freed troops for the front line. The Dark Angels would draw the enemy troops into a new battle, and thus thin the lines, which would aid the 88th Siege Army's attacks and help bring about the long awaited breakthrough. Thirdly, and known only to the Dark Angels themselves, and probably the most compelling reason for their quick response, was that there were Traitor Legionnaires now on Vraks. These traitors might have knowledge about the "Fallen". Though Azrael had no proof that any of the Fallen were amongst the defender's new allies, the Inner Circle of the Dark Angels knew the name Arkos well - a reviled black-hearted traitor from the ancient days of the Horus Heresy. If Lord Commander Militant Zuehkle could not identify the power amoured forces now facing him, the Dark Angels' Inner Circle knew full well who these warriors were. Azrael had brought along Interrogator-Chaplain Belphegor to extract information from any traitors he could capture.

Azrael's plan of attack was carefully considered. He would launch a fast moving armoured column across the Srna Flats, envelope the star port, and then strike at wherever he felt the enemy was weakest. He could not afford to enter a war of attrition. Taking calculated risks, the Supreme Grand Master was going to commit his battle-brothers to intense street fighting without the aid of the orbital bombardment guns of his battle barge and strike cruisers. His ships would not risk Vraks' defence lasers. Once the attack on the star port was underway, he would attempt to seal off the battle areas from further reinforcements by capturing and destroying the main roads across the Srna Fault line and Balan trench, a set of grand causeways that carried the service roads over great chasms. With these gone no reinforcements could move from the Citadel or the defence lines to assist in the battle at the star port. This task was given to the 3rd Company under Master Orias. Once completed they could move to aid the rest of the strike force already engaged at the star port.

The arrival of highly mobile Adeptus Astartes forces created a strategic problem. They could strike anywhere at anytime, simply flying over the defence lines to strike directly at the Citadel itself. Now Arkos' wisdom proved invaluable and correct. The Dark Angels could not risk attacking the Citadel with its defences and garrison fully intact. Still, in order to counter the Space Marines' attack wherever it fell, troops had to be withdrawn from the second defence line and sent to garrison other locations, including the star port. The presence of just 500 Space Marines was already influencing the entire war on Vraks.

The Battle of Vraks Star Port (944.821.M41)

Ravenwing Land Speeders

Ravenwing Land Speeders spearhead the Dark Angels' assault

At 944821.M41, the Dark Angels began their assault on Vraks' star port. The armoured columns of Land Raiders, Predators, Rhinos, Vindicators and Whirlwinds were preceded by the Ravenwing's Land Speeders, skimming ahead, flying close to the ground in search of enemy blockades along their chosen route of advance, 200 kilometres overland across the Srna Flats. The Land Speeders stayed in constant communication with the Thunderhawk gunships, which acted as aerial cover to the advancing armoured column. The battle-brothers of Orias' 3rd Company maintained a defence around the base until required to launch their own vital part of the operation on the causeways.

The enemy responded with its own reconnaissance forces, composed of Sentinel walkers and Salamanders, criss-crossing the flatlands of the Srna Flats in an effort to locate the Dark Angels. Some of the Sentinels were taken out by black Land Speeders that swooped in, Assault Cannons blazing. Soon the enemy commanders knew that the Dark Angels were heading across the flatlands, their target plainly clear -- the star port. Reinforcements were immediately ordered to strengthen the garrison. Leading the vanguard himself, Azrael rode in his personal Land Raider Prometheus Angelis Imperator, and were soon in sight of the star port.

Battle at the Causeways

DA Assault Squad 1

A Dark Angels Assault Squad storming the causeway.

DA Devastator Squad attack

A Dark Angels Devastator Squad makes short work of a Traitor Militia armour column.

As Azrael's attack commenced, Master Orias' force closed in on the Balan trench causeway. Leaping from a speeding gunship, two Assault Squads made a low level jump directly onto the eastern end of the mile long causeway and quickly overwhelmed its defenders. Most fled rather than face the wrath of the Dark Angels. Those few that did, were quickly cut down like chafe before a scythe. Two more Thunderhawks opened fire with missiles and turbo-lasers, blasting great hunks of masonry from the monumental causeway and turning the checkpoint to rubble. The Dark Angels' Tactical Squads deployed as soon as the gunships touched down. Rushing along the roadway their Bolters hammered into the defenders causing them to fell back before the Astartes' furious onslaught, only to find themselves quickly cut-off by the Assault Squads which had already captured the eastern end. Caught between the opposing Space Marine forces, the garrison was wiped out.

Master Orias' lightning airborne assault captured the target in just a few minutes. As he set about rigging demolition charges, he had a Devastator Squad dig in on the eastern end to cover any enemy approach from the west. Soon, enemy vehicles were seen approaching along the road, heading towards them in an attempt to reinforce the star port. The leading tank erupted in flames as a well-aimed Lascannon shot tore through its front armour. As the following Chimeras swerved to avoid the flaming wreckage blocking the road, they soon found themselves under the withering fire of Orias' Devastator Marines. Krak Missiles and lascannon blasts turned the vehicles of the armour column into smouldering wrecks. In just a few minutes the area was littered with the burning hulks of Leman Russ Tanks, Chimeras, Sentinels and Basilisks.

As the Devastator Marines defended the bridge, the Assault Squads completed their demolition work, explosive charges attached to each of the causeway's main supports. Ordering all his men back across the causeway for immediate evacuation, the Thunderhawks swooped in and picked up all of Orias' battle-brothers. The first attack had only cost the Captain three injured men, all of which, due to their enhanced physique, were fit to continue. As the last Thunderhawk lifted off and banked away north, Orias triggered the detonator. Each of the causeway's supports exploded in rapid succession. The causeway crumbled under its own weight, the rubble plunging into the deep abyss of the Balan Trench, leaving only an expanding cloud of dust. By the end of the day, both the causeways across the Srna Trench would also be captured and destroyed by Orias' forces. The main routes of reinforcement had been severed.

By the Emperor's Wrath

As the 3rd Company successfully accomplished their objective, Azrael moved closer to the starport. Detecting a nearby enemy armoured column moving southwards from the starport, the Chapter Master directed his covering Thunderhawks to intercept, and ordered his own column forwards to engage. By the time the leading Land Raiders were directed to battle by the Land Speeder scouts, the flats were already shrouded in the drifting smoke of burning wrecks. The Land Raiders smashed into the remaining enemy tanks, Lascannons cutting through the Leman Russ tanks and Chimeras as the enemy sought to withdraw to the relative safety of the starport. Azrael's thrust cut clean through the enemy, and swept eastwards, circling the starport. The Supreme Grand Master had already received Master Orias' confirmation of the destruction of the first causeway. Now Azrael planned to attack from the east of the starport, draw the bulk of the enemy garrison to him, then move in 3rd Company from the west, catching the garrison between Orias' anvil and his own hammer.

After the Ravenwing's Land Speeders reported back the best routes of advance into the city, Azrael sent forward his Vindicators, supported by Battle-Brothers riding in Rhinos and Razorbacks. The Vindicators smashed the building occupied by the enemy infantry before the Dark Angels disembarked and began clearing the ruins of any survivors. Azrael's strike force continued to move through the streets of the starport and unleashed unrestrained destruction upon it. Thunderhawk gunships that had already re-armed streaked overhead, remorselessly bombing the enemy from above. Whirlwinds fired salvo after salvo into the starport, their fire directed by the Ravenwing as they identified enemy concentrations before speeding away to safety. The enemy found themselves under constant attack as Azrael's armoured thrusts carefully advanced, clearing the way as they went.

As night fell, there was no let up in the attack, and the Supreme Grand Master continued to push forwards in the darkness. By dawn, the Dark Angels had cleared the eastern approaches to the starport's northern landing fields, and the enemy had fallen back in disarray. Before dawn the 3rd Company was also in position, landing to the west of the main landing fields and deploying as the back stop against the enemy withdrawals. By first light, the enemy occupied the large building surrounding the landing fields, hangars, warehouses and maintenance sheds, turning them into strongpoints as the Whirlwind's barrage continued to fall about them. The roar of Thunderhawk engines could be heard again as the gunships arrived to deliver another payload of bombs upon the defenders. For the second day of his attack, Azrael contented himself with softening up the enemy and sending out fighting patrols to probe enemy positions, giving the enemy time to bring more defenders into the defensive ring. The Supreme Grand Master sought not only the quick destruction of the airfields, but the annihilation of the enemy forces defending the starport. The second day passed with sporadic fighting, but the starport continued to echo to the sound of Whirlwind missile impacts and the crash of the enemy artillery as it returned fire, although the Whirldwinds' mobility made counter-battery fire very difficult as they lighter artillery changed position after each salvo.

By dawn of the third day, the landing fields were a veritable warzone, with rubble and masonry scattered about in piles around the streets. From the patrols conducted the day before, the Supreme Grand Master had an excellent idea of where he would attack in force. He mustered the battle-brothers of the 6th Company, mostly Tactical Squads, placed them under the command of Interrogator-Chaplain Belphegor and gave them the honour of being accompanied by the Chapter's Sacred Standard of Devastation into battle, handpicking veteran brother Anmael as its bearer. The 6th Company hooked southwards and launched an attack to seal the defenders in. Accompanied by Vindicators, Whirlwinds and Predators, the company jumped off its attack and was soon enmeshed in house-to-house fighting with the defenders. The dark green armoured figures could be seen advancing through the ruins, as bright orange tongues of flamer blasts burned the defenders out of their cover. After a day of fighting the streets were littered with the dead. Belphegor reported that the souls of 15 battle-brothers had joined the Emperor, but that the southern sectors had now been cleared of resistance.

Day four of the battle began with Azrael again content to improve his position and bomb the enemy into submission. Azrael knew that the renegade forces now occupying the starport were effectively cut-off from resupply and reinforcement. After consolidating his position, Azrael called for his Company Masters together for a briefing. Gathered inside the Supreme Grand Master's personal Land Raider the veteran commanders discussed the best plan to destroy the pockets of enemy forces they had created. A plan of concentric attacks was decided upon, with the first attack coming from the east by Azrael's forces, then from the south by Belphegor's Company, then from the west by Orias' Company. Over the course of three days each force took its turn squeezing the enemy tighter. During Orias' attack, 3rd Company reported they had overrun several landing pads and identified and engaged a force of Traitor Legionaries -- treacherous followers of Arkos. Azrael wanted as many of the Traitor Legionaries captured as possible. This would be one of the objectives of the Deathwing assault come the final battle.

Fighting for the Vraks Star Port for eight days, Azrael finally ordered the final assault. Leading elements of the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and 9th Companies the Supreme Grand Master led his Dark Angels to finish the enemy's resistance and finally overrun the starport. Dismounting his Land Raider, Azrael led the assault as he plunged into the enemy ranks of militia men, his black blade, the Sword of Secrets, cutting a bloody swathe. As the Dark Angels were about to achieve victory, the duplicitous Alpha Legion sprung their trap. The Chaos Space Marines had been lying in wait, using the militia as bait to draw the Dark Angels on. As the fighting intensified Azrael saw brother Anmael fall, riddled with fire, and the Sacred Standard he was brandishing toppled. Azrael knew he must recover the banner for it could not be allowed to lie in the dust. Racing through enemy fire he reached the banner just as the enemy did. The Dark Angels and Alpha Legionnaires fought over the fallen body of brother Anmael, neither giving ground. While the other Dark Angels fought to escape the Alpha Legion's sudden ambush, Azrael cut down the last of his enemies and plucked up the sacred standard. As he did so, a massive armoured figure stroke through the smoke, his ancient Terminator Armour decorated with blasphemous runes and the heretical eight-pointed star of Chaos Undivided. It was Arkos the Faithless, the Chaos Lord of the Alpha Legion. An Assault Marine launched himself into Arkos' path, only to be cut clean in half by the stroke of the Chaos Lord's Warp-powered blade. The two mighty heroes, one of the Emperor, the other of the Dark Gods, clashed in a titanic close combat.

Azrael was confronted by Arkos, and soon the two were engaged in furious combat. In one hand Azrael held his Chapter's Sacred Standard of Devastation, in the other the Sword of Secrets. The two rained down smashing blows upon each others' armour, until blood seeped through the joints of Azrael's suit of Artificer plate. The weight of Arkos' mighty blows had badly wounded the Supreme Grand Master in the one-sided duel. The Chaos Lord had the combined power of the four Chaos Gods with him this day. Arkos' blows forced Azrael ever backwards, weakening his opponent until a shoulder charge and a fast, low sweeping cut sent Azrael sprawling to the ground, the Sword of Secrets skittering from his grasp. Prone amongst the rubble, the banner still clutched to him, Azrael saw death approaching as Arkos loomed over him, raising his Darkblade for the killing blow.

As he reached out to strike the blow that would see Azrael's reign as Supreme Grand Master end, the impacts of an Assault Cannon sent Arkos staggering backwards. Racing up the street came Deathwing Terminators led by Interrogator-Chaplain Belphegor, who, enclosed in his black Terminator Armour, charged into Arkos, his Crozius Arcanum swinging. Belphegor managed to strike the Traitor to the ground with a blow that cracked his Terminator Armour. Arkos fell dazed and bleeding. Concerned for his wounded commander, the Chaplain turned to aid him. When he turned back to face Arkos, the Traitor had vanished. Though the ambush had inflicted painful losses upon the Dark Angels, the Traitors were unable to carry the day, and soon drifted away as they had been recalled by their thwarted commander. The Dark Angels proceeded to hunt down and destroy the remnants of surviving militiamen. Their ambush had inflicted painful losses on the Dark Angels, with the loss of 200 Battle-Brothers, but the traitors could not win this battle alone. The Dark Angels had failed to take a single Traitor Legionairy alive, although their Battle Barge's cells did contain many captured Renegade militiamen who would face the formidable Interrogator-Chaplains on return to The Rock. After ten days the starport was securely in the hands of the Dark Angels. They set about destroying the facility with demolition charges. Two days later, the starport was damaged beyond repair. Upon completing their mission, the Dark Angels strike force departed the Vraks System.

Breakthrough

"To retreat is defeat. Advance! Advance! In our death lies victory."
— Captain Denos, 19th Company, 468th Regiment

The Big Push (101.822.M41)

It had been nine years since the Siege of Vraks had begun. By now the 88th Siege Army should have been entrenched at the inner defence ring having cracked the defences of the first two rings, and it should have had the Citadel itself within the sights of their heavy artillery. But nine years of war had not gone entirely to plan. The 88th Siege Army had been forced to request more men. The success of the Dark Angels attack gave cause for new hope, and Lord Zuehkle saw the chance to redeem earlier failures with a decisive breakthrough. The addition of a new line korps with three fresh new regiments gave his commanders on the ground the extra forces they needed to mount an unstoppable offensive. Lord Zuehkle was running out of time, he had been given twelve years to complete his mission and the resources of Krieg had poured onto Vraks in vast quantities. He ordered the three new regiments, and those already in the line to plan and execute a big push, an all out offensive that applied constant and sustained pressure on the second defence lines over its full frontage. This would draw in the enemy's reserves and then destroy them under the artillery bombardment or in powerful infantry attacks. By sustaining the pressure, the enemy would eventually have to break somewhere. When they did an assault korps would be ready to pour into the gap and smash through to the inner defence line. If the breakthrough attack was fast enough they might even be able to drive into the inner defence line and establish a foothold before the enemy had a chance to dig himself in again.

The defenders could not fail to notice the build-up for the attack. Patrols and observation posts reported the increase in troop numbers at the front and the stockpiling of arms and equipment. In response, shells rained down on the Krieg trench lines in an attempts to "spoil" the preparations now underway. Krieg's guns replied in their counter-battery role. Every gun destroyed now was one less to rain destruction down on the attack when it finally came time for the infantry to go over the top. At 089822.M41, the preparatory bombardment began in earnest. Every gun in the 88th Siege Army roared out, lightning the sky with muzzle flashes as they poured high-explosives down on the defenders. All day and all night the guns fired in an attempt to break down the defenders' resistance. The defenders grimly awaited the coming assault as the ground outside and above them shook with the force of the explosions. In darkness the communication trenches began to fill up with troops, as the first wave got into position. The second wave was also ready, crowded in shoulder-to-shoulder, heavily laden with extra equipment, grenades, ammunition and rations for the coming battle. As the darkness soon gave way to the first weak rays of dawn's light, the fury of the barrage stopped, and for a brief second there was silence.

Day One

Krieg Infantry Storm Lines

The Krieg infantry surge forwards into no-man's land

The attack order flashed through every vox-caster set in the forward trenches, and was relayed to the men. The Krieg guardsmen scambled up the ladders and over the parapet, surging forward in a tide across no-man's land. Across no-man's land the enemy responded to the lifting of the bombardment. They ran to crew their crew-served weapons, awaiting the inevitable ground assault. Though their targets had not even come into view, the defenders opened a lethal hail of grazing fire. Men started to fall, but the attackers pressed on. Soon the defensive batteries that had not been knocked-out opened up with their own barrage. Shells started to crash down into the advancing Krieg rank, as the defender's fire increased. As the artillery fire hammered down it caused the utter collapse of the 158th regiment's attack in sector 50-45. The Commissars amongst the retreating assault squads demanded that the men stand firm and push on, summarily executing the first men to take any steps backwards. In return, several Commissars were shot out of hand by their own side as the shredded assault companies scurried back to the safety of their own trenches. At the parapet the first wave collided with the second wave as they moved forwards to begin their advance. Fighting broke out as the officers of the second wave tried to force passage forwards. After only a couple hours the 158th regiment's attack had disintegrated into shambles. For the regiment's abject failure, the colonel and his staff would be arrested and eventually executed. The regiment was then disbanded by the 88th Siege Army's commissars. All the survivors would be sentenced to serve amongst the Penal Legions.

Gorgons 11th Assault Korps advance

Gorgons of the 11th assault korps await the order to advance on the third day of the offensive.

In other sectors there was more progress. The Krieg guardsmen pushed on regardless of heavy losses. In places they reached the enemy lines and overran them, bayonets fixed. In places regimental commanders reported good progress, in others failure and heavy losses. Despite the pandemonium, the second wave was ordered forwards, and the guardsmen of surged into no-man's land. As the battle progressed it became clear that most of the enemy had held their positions, but where they had been overrun they had fallen back into the defence line and manned new positions. The 34th line korps attacks seemed to have achieved the most gains. In the 291st regiment's sector they had achieved complete artillery supremacy, having destroyed just about all the defenders' guns. Their infantry pushed on, continuing the attack even in the darkness. The 88th Siege Army seized upon this success as the point of maximum effort tomorrow. The 11th assault korps had so far been held in reserve, and now it was ordered into position to begin a fresh attack through the 291st regiment. The guardsmen clambered aboard into Gorgon assault transports. It would take a day to prepare the attack, so the 291st regiment would need to consolidate its gains tomorrow, and could expect relief on day three.

The cost of the first day's attacks had been appallingly high, and many companies were already faced manpower shortages. Those that had won a foothold would need to hold until reinforcements could be rushed to them. Day two would be a day of consolidating those gains and holding against the inevitable counter-attacks, before day three saw another mighty effort. In truth, the gains had been minimal, the enemy had fought hard, in places with fanatical zeal, to hold their ground, but the attack had to continue.

Day Two

Day two was a day of consolidation and disjointed attacks, as each Krieg company tried to secure its own position or push on to the objectives they had failed to carry the day before. As the artillery duel reigned overhead, the infantry troops continued to fight separate battles from their makeshift positions. Small actions were fought all along the front on day two, as the 88th Siege Army sorted to secure the gains it had made by the sacrifices of the first day. By the end of day two, several regimental colonels were requesting that the offensive be called off, or at least scaled down. At the current rate of attrition their regiments would soon be annihilated. The 88th Army Command, and in particular Lord Commander Zuehkle, would not -- could not -- consider such a request. The offensive was too important to set aside because of dreadful casualties. Speed of action was deemed all important, for the longer follow-up actions were delayed, the longer the enemy had to dig himself in. On day three, more attacks would be launched. Though the 88th Siege Army was sorely hurting, they understood that the enemy must also be feeling the pain.

Day Three

DK Super Hvy Tank

Super-heavy tanks of the 11th Assault Korps add their weight to the tank regiments' attack on day three of the offensive

On day three, the fighting continued, as ordered, all along the entire front but the focus of the 88th Siege Army would be in the south in sectors 51-41 and 52-41, where the 11th Assault Korps was being committed to the attack. The tank companies rolled forwards, slowly crawling across the pitted wastes of no-man's land, fanning out into battle lines and began their thrust. Behind them followed the massive Gorgon transports, packed with platoons of fifty men each, ready to disembark and charge the enemy's positions. The loose line of smashed bunkers, walls and shells holes held by the enemy were soon overwhelmed as the Gorgon carrier's ramps crashed down and hordes of Krieg guardsmen disembarked. The first thin lines could not hold the crushing weight of the 11th Assault Korps' attacks for long, and by mid-morning the tanks and infantry were advancing again. It seemed that the long desired breakthrough of the second defence line was close, but the enemy commanders were not ignorant of the situation on the ground. They had identified the potential threat of the 291st regiment's penetration, and had a day with which to reinforce the sector. The enemy soon executed a renewed counter-attack, pouring forth to meet the 11th Assault Korps. Leman Russes, Chimeras, new Basilisks, Medusas, even a squadron of 12 Destroyer tank hunters had been ordered to attack. As the vanguard of the Krieg assault korps rolled steadily forwards, enemy resistance began to increase. The enemy's counter-attack had the desired effect, by mid-afternoon the Krieg guardsmen were no longer advancing, and the enemy's armoured thrust forced them backwards. Tank losses mounted, and a defensive barrage was hastily requested. The breakthrough had been halted. Fortunately, there was better new in other sectors. On the extreme east of the attack, the 3rd Siege Regiment of 1st Line Korps had now achieved its day one objectives in sector 62-48. The 3rd regiment was gathering itself for a second mighty push on day four. Tank companies of the 14th regiment were brought forwards to assist the drive.

Day Four, and Onwards...

88th Siege Army inner defence

The 88th Siege Army's positions as it faces the inner defence lines

The slight gains and prospective breakthroughs of the first three days could not be given up. It seemed the 88th Siege Army was intent on battering itself to destruction on the second defence lines. The whole of the 88th Siege Army was now committed, its only reserves were those reconstituted companies that had been formed from the survivors and stragglers left by day one. At the new front the battle continued unabated. As company commanders fought to capture and secure local objectives, the initial momentum of the offensive began to substantially subside. Stockpiles of ammunition, especially heavy artillery ammunition, were dwindling. Companies had been reduced to the size of platoons, platoons to the size of squads.

The offensive had raged for seven days, and still no breakthrough had come, until at 122822.M41 the 468th regiment, a new uni in its first battle launched an attack in sector 57-50. Colonel Attas, commanding officer of the 468th, devised a plan to mount a night attack against the enemy trench line now facing him. Finally, in all the confusion of battle, he managed to galvanise his sub-commanders into making a new concerted thrust, rather than the clumsy and uncoordinated thrashings of the past days that had resulted in very little extra ground captured, for the loss of a lot of men and equipment. Korps command at first denied permission for the attack, believing the coordination and difficulty of moving large bodies of men at night, and then stranding them in no-man's land should they become detect, was too risky. But Colonel Attas responded that if supporting artillery concentration was strong enough then the enemy guns could be suppressed, even in the event of failure, and the troops had to be withdrawn, failure would not necessarily be so costly. His superiors were eventually convinced and Attas was granted permission to attempt his plan.

At 124822.M41, on a dark night, Attas' assault companies set off, slithering through no-man's land on their bellies, their Colonel at the fore. As they crawled, every gun in the regiment, plus those independent companies that Attas had secured for the attack, opened fire in a thunderous barrage. At the designated time, the fire concentrated on the front line. Then the barrage lifted, and rolled forwards. The lines of infantry rose as one and began to run. Caught completely unawares, the enemy had little time to react to the surprise infantry assault. Leading his men forwards, Colonel Attas vaulted across a trench, waving his men to follow and give pursuit, only to be suddenly face to face with a huge beast that stood ten feet tall and built of raw muscle. An enraged Ogryn emerged from its trench and dealt a smashing blow with its massive sledge hammer, killing the Colonel instantly. Despite Colonel Attas' death, at dawn the second wave advanced, passing through the successful attackers. The second defence line had been breached.

DK 14th Tank advance

Death Korps tank regiments push through the breach made at the second defence line

New of the 468th regiment's success reached high command quickly, and the reinforcements needed to widen the breach were soon on their way. First to arrive was a battery of Quad Launchers, towed forwards by Centaurs, and these were set up and soon in action, firing off rapid salvoes of shells to smash the enemy's last desperate attempts to counter-attack. Soon more troops followed; tanks, Gorgons, heavier guns, squadrons of Death Riders galloping through then wheeling eastwards and westwards to attack the enemy further down the line from behind. As with the first breakthrough almost eight years earlier, the following days would see the second defence line fold like a house of cards. The dam had finally broken, and the guardsmen of Krieg flowed through in an unstoppable tide. Leaving suicidal rearguards to stall the enemy advance, the defenders pulled back. One by one the siege regiments advanced, in some place unopposed. Any enemy who had not escaped the encirclement were overwhelmed and destroyed.

The 88th Siege Army was too badly damaged to rush headlong into the inner defence zone. It needed time to rebuild and prepare for its next move. The cost of the breakthrough had been too great. It had taken nine years of attrition to reach this position. Years of blood and slaughter equal to the worst warzones anywhere in the Imperium. Over four million guardsmen had already been sacrificed on Vraks, but it seemed that now the ultimate victory was within grasp. The enemy was now bottled up and the front lines had once again been reduced in length, meaning that for future attacks the concentration of guns and men could be even greater. Now the Citadel of Vraks was within range of the Earthshaker Cannons. For the first time the ultimate objective was within striking distance.

As the rebel leaders stood on the precipice of defeat, Cardinal Xaphan seemed not to care. The foretold apocalypse was finally here, the slaughter must continue; he cared not for victory or defeat, only for death and destruction. By now Arks had become Xaphan's closest and most valued advisor, and he counselled the renegade Cardinal that all was not yet lost. The false Emperor's armies might be tightening the noose, but there were powers in the universe far greater than that wielded by mere soldiers with guns. The Chaos Gods would favour Xaphan if he stayed resolute and fought on. Arkos told Xaphan that many allies were ready and willing to aid him, if he only knew how to ask for their aid. The Dark Gods would still bring him victory. Arkos summoned his sorcerous advisors to him. In secret the cabal of Chaos Sorcerers set about a bloody sacrificial ceremony that would summon the Chaos Gods' aid directly to Vraks.

Krieg's sentries soon reported unusual sightings. Strange storm clouds were gathering on the horizon, which was lit red by lights in the sky that seemed to be painting the sky in blood. As the days passed, the storm grew in intensity. The crackling lightning no longer seemed to be natural weather of the world. A huge storm dark storm was gathering directly above the citadel. It was a red and black mass of clouds, flicking with lightning that steadily grew into a whirling maelstrom in the upper atmosphere. After nine years the men of Krieg might be winning their war, but the warp-spawned storm presaged worse horrors still to come.

On the Tides of the Warp

The Chaos Sorcerers of the Alpha Legion sent a psychic signal through the Warp, a call to draw old allies to Vraks. Those forces secretly lurking around the Eye of Terror who heard the call were drawn like moths to a flame by a flickering psychic light that promised battle, slaughter and plunder. Fortunately, the tides of the Warp were against them. The fickleness of the Warp was embraced by the Chaos armadas that dwelled within the embrace of the fierce tides that raged without end. If the gods deemed they should be cast adrift to some distant system, then so be it -- as the gods will it, so shall it be. Most of those that received the Alpha Legion's psychic signal were raiding ships and their supporting transports. Most of these vessels were made up of simply pirates or other renegades from the Imperium's justice. Worst of all were the fierce warbands of the Chaos Space Marine Traitor Legions. Arkos' spell had signalled to them that Vraks was a system worthy of raiding and rich for plundering and slaughter, and so they came.

The Chaos Fleets Approach

Observation station DM498-066 was just one of many secret Imperial listening outposts that maintained a silent vigil on the Eye of Terror. Vraks itself had been a collating point for some of this data, with its choir of Astropaths being able to relate any important information obtained by the listening posts to surrounding star systems as an early warning system against Chaotic raids or even an emergent Black Crusade. The station's sensitive Auspex detected the passage of several large, unidentified vessels in its vicinity, well off the usual trade and patrol routes. The station's astropath transmitted a warning message which, after several weeks, reached Battlefleet Scarus' High Command. Taking careful plottings and referring to their own diviners, the Imperial Navy commanders dispatched patrol groups to systems likely to be the intruder fleet's destination. Several cruiser groups were alerted and brought to readiness in expectation of a raid by Chaos vessels. Even an Adeptus Astartes fast response strike force was put on alert to move to intercept if needed.

Secretly, the Ordo Malleus, ever wary of any potential threat from the Eye of Terror, initiated its own information-gathering mission. A nullship sent on a one-way mission into the Eye crewed by automated Servitors and a single pariah, untraceable through the Warp but equipped with powerful augurs and communications equipment was launched. The Inquisiton's vessel tracked the target's passage before continuing its suicidal one-way mission deeper into the raging Warp Storms, transmitting until all communication was lost forever. The Inquisiton was alarmed by the null ship's findings -- it seemed an enemy armada comprised of almost thirty vessels which had been positively identified was mustering for a major attack. It had to be hounded, cornered and destroyed. Astropathic messages flashed around the ports, bases and command ships of Battlefleet Scarus. Scout and patrol vessels were re-directed to cover the enemy armada's suspected approach. The large capital ships were also ordered out from their home ports, including the fleet flagship, the mighty Emperor-class Battleship Constantin Valdor. The battlefleet mobilized and prepared itself for a major action.

Imperial Navy Presence in the Vraks System

Lord Bellerophon

The Lord Bellerophon in orbit above Vraks; as Rear-Admiral Rasiak's flagship, this Imperial Lunar-class Cruiser formed the backbone of Vraks' orbital defence

Ten years had passed since the first Imperial Navy transports arrived in the Vraks System carrying the lead regiment of the 88th Siege Army. As the Imperial build-up of troops was completed, so the need to transport the many supplies to prosecute the war began. These valuable supplies required the constant protection of the Imperial Navy so a fleet of Imperial vessels had been stationed semi-permanently in the Vraks System. There was an Escort squadron of Sword-class Frigates to accompany each convoy to and from its destination and patrol the system's outer reaches to guard against raiders. A squadron of System Defence Monitors had been towed in to provide close protection for the vulnerable freighters in orbit; these vessels carried enough firepower to deter the boldest pirates or even roving raiders from the Eye of Terror. Commanding these squadrons was the venerable Lunar-class Cruiser Lord Bellerophon under the flag of Rear-Admiral Rasiak. The Lord Bellerophon (known affectionately to her crew as the "Big Ruffian") was the system's main deterrent. A potent ship-of-the-line, she had been seconded from Battlefleet Scarus for the duration of the campaign. One of over 600 Lunar-class vessels in service across the Segmentum Obscurus, she bristled with weaponry and was able to outclass anything pirates, aliens or even most Traitor Marine warbands could use to threaten the Imperial supply lines to Vraks Prime. The Lord Bellerophon was constantly on-station or escorting the Imperial supply convoys as the convoy leader.

After a decade of war on the ground, and with no sign that the system was under threat from outside forces or an impending planetary assault, the Imperial fleet defending Vraks had been gradually reduced. The Escort squadron had been reduced in number and the remaining three starships were now in need of refits, having ploughed the Warp lanes back and forth from supply depots across the Scarus Sector or even as far as the Lucius Forge World. Only the Defence Monitors were still rated in good fighting condition. Battlefleet Scarus' high command had requested that their Cruiser be returned for other, more urgent duties. Nobody expected an attack on Vraks, especially not in a sizable enough force to overwhelm its current defenders. In all his reports, Rear-Admiral Rasiak was convinced that the Vraks System and its interstellar supply lines were secure and in safe hands. He was soon to be disavowed of this conviction.

First Battle of Vraks

"You are expected at all times to conduct yourself in a manner appropriate to the great duties and traditions of the Emperor's Most Glorious and Honourable Navy. Our orders demand nothing else. Look only to your duties gentlemen."
— Rear-Admiral Rasiak before the First Battle of VraksRear Admiral Rasiak was aware of the frenetic activity of Battlefleet Scarus. He too had received the order to stand-to in expectation of the large Chaos raid in the sector. It was now, under the shadow of this growing threat, that the Rear-Admiral re-appraised his status and found it wanting. Only his defence monitors were ready for action, but even these needed extra crew, and their main magazines were not full due to the necessity to maintain regular firing drills. He had just seven ships under his command, which would not be enough. While Rasiak's preparations continued, he placed escort Exuo's three Sword-class frigates on picket duty in the system's outer reaches, where they were to search for intruders and act as his early warning. They were instructed not to engage any enemy ships, but to fall back to the main fleet at full speed and take their places in the battle line so that Rasiak could meet the enemy with his full force.

Soon, the Rear Admiral received a priority message from the frigate Exuo-Four-Three. She had made contact with a squadron of three ships inbound and their energy signatures confirmed them as Infidel-class Raiders. More would follow, Rasiak knew it in his blood. This was just a probe, scouts testing his defences. The smaller vessels did not risk entering into range of the Lord Bellerophon's guns, even to unleash a speculative volley of torpedoes at long range. Instead, they scanned and watched warily before withdrawing. Now the enemy knew Rasiak's strength, or lack of it. Now the enemy would surely feel that the day would be theirs and come in strength enough to overwhelm this ad-hoc fleet.

Battle of Vraks Navy Schematic

Imperial Navy Schematic of the First Battle of Vraks

Six solar days later on 054.823.M41, the Exuo Squadron contacted fourteen different energy signatures as the Chaos warfleet called by the Alpha Legion by-passed the system's outer asteroid fields and made best speed for Vraks Prime. Rear-Admiral Rasiak led the Imperial Navy's defence of the system from the Lord Bellerophon, leading Exuo Squadron's complement of 3 Sword-class Frigates and a hastily-assembled fleet of 3 Defence Monitors, 2 armed freighters, 1 heavy transport and 3 Fire Ships. Despite the reinforcement by the Cruiser Group Marhzur, which arrived not far behind the Traitor warfleet, the Imperial fleet proved unable to prevent several vessels of the Chaos warfleet from entering orbit of Vraks.

The enemy fleet soon divided, with five vessels, led by Arkos' flagship, the Despoiler-class Battleship Anarchy's Heart, which manoeuvred to swing around Rasiak's battleline's port ship. A larger concentration of nine enemy vessels of varying sizes and classes, with the Styx-class Heavy Cruiser Blood Dawn in the vanguard would pass by him off the starboard side. The two fleets slid past each other in a murderous gun battle. It was a vicious duel and both sides were soon wounded. The Anarchy's Heart had raked the length of the Imperial battleline, its firepower stripped shields and buckled armour as it passed. The Sword-class Exuo-Four-One was crippled by the enemy battleship's batteries and was left adrift and helpless. Two of the monitors were also gone. The Izra Mors had lost three plasma reactors to enemy bombing attacks, and was operating on minimal power, and with her manoeuvre thrusters disabled she was a sitting duck. Rasiak was forced to abandon her to her fate. Rather than abandon the ship, the Izra Mors captain ordered his surviving crew to man the guns and keep shooting.

Lord Bellerophon First Battle Vraks

The Lord Bellerophon takes a direct hit from the Anarchy's Heart

The Lord Bellerophon itself had been blasted and buffeted. The old warship was battered and listing, wounded but still fighting. Her guns had damaged the Chaos heavy transport Aharon's Bane and destroyed another of the Iconoclast destroyers. The Chaos fleet had also been wounded, but for reasons as yet unknown two of the cruisers had failed to engage. These had been the rearguard of the second battleline and even as Rasiak watched from his command pulpit console they were coming about and seemed to be disengaging. These enemy vessels' guns could have easily have finished the Lord Bellerophon and her surviving escorts. With much of his communications destroyed, Rear-Admiral Rasiak had no idea that reinforcements were on their way. Battlefleet Scarus had directed the closest battle-worthy force to Vraks. Cruiser group Mahzur, under Rear-Admiral Titus Mahzur, had arrived not far behind the Traitor fleet. Led by the Gothic-class Cruiser Consul Thracii, with the Dominator-class Cruiser Orion and the ancient Grand Cruiser Covenanter in support, as well as a squadron of escorts, the cruisers were now racing towards Vraks and the battle. Together they could swing the battle in the Imperium's favour.

Even with the advent of additional forces, the Anarchy's Heart and the Aharon's Bane both moved towards Vraks, intent on achieving orbit and delivering their payloads to the surface. The Blood Dawn manoeuvred to launch her re-armed attack craft, this time Dreadclaw assault boats sped towards the crippled Izra Mors, intent on making the stricken giant transport their prize. It was then that Rasiak ordered his reserves into the fray, the three fire ships. One of these vessels, ignoring instructions to abandon ship, steered itself directly into the Aharon's Bane. The fire ship his the Chaos vessel in the stern quarters. Critically damaged by the collision, the Aharon's Bane was already caught in Vrak's gravity well and began to plunge planetwards. By some dark miracle, the bridge crew of the Chaos vessel somehow managed to break the vessel's wild descent. The Aharon's Bane impacted with the ground close to the Chaylia Plateau, tearing a great gouge into Vraks' surface. From within the hold the hordes slowly began to emerge, dazed and blinking onto Vraks' surface.

While the Aharon's Bane fell, the Anarchy's Heart manoeuvred into low orbit, and cast hundreds of drop ships and landing craft down onto Vraks. The Alpha Legion had gathered together their allies, other warbands keen to seek battle and plunder. Waves of Dreadclaw Drop Pods rained down onto Vraks, carrying bands of Chaos Space Marines to the war below. Rear-Admiral Mahzur knew he was too late to stop the Anarchy's Heart seeding Vraks with her evil cargo, but he still raced onwards in the hope that he could engage and destroy the mighty battleship. But in the ensuing melee, Cruiser group Mahzur suffered multiple losses of its escort vessels as well as the crippling of the Lord Bellerophon's engines, turning the battle decisively in the enemy's favour. They had four capital rated ships still in the fight, including a battleship and heavy cruiser. The battle for the Vraks System was effectively lost. Rasiak had failed in his duty as an officer of the Emperor's Navy and he gave instructions that the captain of the Covenanter should see to it that these opinions passed to a board of enquiry on Cypra Mundi. Rear-Admiral Rasiak might survive the battle but he would most likely pay for his failure with his career. For himself, Mahzur refused to return to base with his tails between his legs. His only chance for glory now was the destruction of the Anarychy's Heart. With the Emperor standing at his shoulder, Mahzur ordered the Consul Thracii to ramming speed.

Rear-Admiral Mahzur's single-handed (but vain) attempt to ram the enemy battleship was the stuff from which Imperial Navy legends were made. It was a heroic but ultimately futile act that cost Battlefleet Scarus a good Gothic-class cruiser and the Rear-Admiral and his crew their lives. The battle had turned the immediate area of space around Vraks into a graveyard of burned out hulks. Debris from vessels and the abandoned hulks of eleven Imperial Navy ships now littered the area. The butcher's bill had been a costly one; one of the largest capitol ships, four Sword-class frigates, two defence monitors and the heavy freighter Izra Mors. The three freighter converted into fire ships had also been lost. Added to the losses was the damage to just about every other vessel. The Lord Bellerophon had survived, but barely and would need years to be re-fitted and made ready for duty again. Likewise the Orion was heavily damaged. Only the Covenanter had survived with slight damage, fit to continue her duties.

Dreadclaws Khorne Berzerkers

The Blood Dawn disgorging Dreadclaw assault pods carrying berserkers of the Skulltakers warband towards Vraks

Of the enemy fleet, kills could only be confirmed on the Anharon's Bane and at least four Infidel or Iconoclast raiders. But the enemy had seized control of the Vraks System and were now free to unload their cargos of troops to the surface. The Blood Dawn would launch more Dreadclaws, all full of Khornate Berzerkers, including the infamous Berserkers of Skallathrax and the Skulltakers warband of the infamous Warmaster Zhufor the Bloodreaver, himself believed to be a trusted lieutenant of Abaddon the Despoiler. In all, tens of thousands of new Chaos troops would land on Vraks, screaming their insane prayers and liturgies and eager to kill in the name of their blasphemous gods. The Ferrum Invictus unleashed a large warband of Iron Warriors known as the Steel Brethren, whose expertise in siege warfare would aid the heretical defenders of Vraks greatly in their attempt to break the Imperial offensive.

Breaking the Deadlock

"For these men, there can be no "after Vraks."
— Commissar Obionsk, Krieg 19th Siege Regiment

The Greatest Obstacle

On 124.822.M41 the 468th Siege Regiment cracked the second defence line, and the floodgates opened. With Krieg forces pushing forward on all fronts, the renegade forces had been forced to retreat or face encirclement and assured annihilation. Recoiling from their positions the enemy forces left behind their rearguards to slow the pursuit and rapidly fell back to the inner defence line, where they could stand and fight again.

Encircling the Fortress of Vraks along a front of 150 km, the inner defences was no single line of trenches, but a zone of heavy defences up to 8 km deep. It was thicker again than the previous two defence lines, which had already taken nine years of fighting to be broken. The inner defence line was the oldest and best of Vrak’s citadel’s defences. Ever since Vraks’ founding as an armoury world and the establishment of the Departmento Munitorum storage facilities, the Imperium had been building defences to protect their valuable war materiels. Subsequent planetary governors and Administratum overseers had continually added to the defences with ever more ambitious schemes, and as more and more underground warehouses were constructed, so more defences were deemed necessary.

The defences themselves consisted of well-planned and sighted trench lines, bunkers, pillboxes, gun emplacements, hardened artillery firing pits reinforced with sandbagged redoubts and supporting positions. Underneath were labyrinthine bunker complexes and shelters, buried safe from enemy artillery. All had interconnecting fields of fire to turn each approach into a killing zone. As before, the defence line was further protected by belts of razorwire, thousands of tank traps and dense minefields. Unlike the previous two defensive belts, this one was supported by Vraks’ large arsenal of defence laser silos. The defence lasers’ primary role was to protect the citadel and starport from direct assault from orbit. These huge lasers could target and damage enemy spacecraft, but could also be used as heavy artillery on the ground. The defence lasers’ range was such that they could easily engage the Krieg attackers and the defence laser bunkers would be targets for the Krieg heavy artillery, but each had been constructed to protect it from an orbital bombardment, so it was unlikely any land-based artillery would be powerful enough to destroy them. All of this made the inner defence lines a daunting prospect for an attacker. Worse yet, the traitor forces of Cardinal Xaphan had had a decade in which to reinforce them, pre-sight guns and artillery and have every inch swept by fire.

Before its sudden fall to Cardinal Xaphan's uprising, Vraks had been considered impregnable. Only the inexhaustible might of the Imperium with its endless resources of fighting men and war-supplies could have considered attacking Vraks' defences head on, and even the seemingly unstoppable war machine of the Imperial Guard had taken the best part of a solar decade, at the cost of 4,000,000 dead (and many more wounded), to batter its way to the inner defence line.

Many amongst the 88th Siege Army's high command believed they now faced the army's greatest obstacle. The inner defensive zone had been reinforced and upgraded since Vraks' founding. Beyond it lay the fortress’ curtain wall and within that, perched atop a volcanic outcrop stood the fortress itself, the nerve centre of Vraks. Both were well defended, but they were immoveable obstacles that could be pulverised with heavy artillery. The inner defence line was not a single target and the siege regiments in the front line would have to begin the slow process of attrition and small gains at high cost to eventually breach it. Once inside the inner defence line, they believed the curtain wall and fortress itself would fall relatively quickly.

Small Gains

The High Commander of 88th Army, Lord Commander Zuehlke, observing from his distant headquarters on Thrace Prime was keenly aware that he had been given 12 years to recapture Vraks. Twelve years with the full support of the Departmento Munitorum for supplies and replacements behind him. His campaign plan had been brutally simple and carefully laid, with great care given to the logistics required and little thought of the casualties it would entail. He now had just three years left to complete his mission. Given what still faced them, no staff officers seriously believed that the 12 year timetable could be maintained. What happened when they ran out of time nobody yet knew. Most likely it would mean failure and defeat, because the intensity of the war would no longer be maintained, supply priority would slip, regiments might be withdrawn and re-deployed and so the prospect of ultimate victory would recede, leaving the 88th Army trapped in a war they could not win. Cardinal Xaphan might not have realised it yet, but if he could last three more years, then he would have ridden out the storm and survived. His forces had also suffered the horrors of trench warfare and heavy losses, but somehow they had summoned up the strength to endure the strain of nine years of total war. They had a fought a defensive campaign and bled the Imperium’s forces whilst minimising their own losses. They still had the stockpiles, the men and the will to fight on.

Lord Zuehlke’s problem was straight forward. Time was against him, hence a renewed offensive was of the utmost importance, but the commanders on the ground were reporting that their efforts to crack the second defence line had worn their fighting strength down. The losses in men and equipment had been staggering. The enemy continued to fight hard, at times fanatically. To renew the offensive against the next line of bunkers and trenches would be futile and just result in more losses for no gain. They lacked the fighting power to make any worthwhile inroads. The 18 siege regiments of the 88th Army needed time to dig in deep and re¬supply, to rebuild their strength for the new offensive that would see them tear into the enemy again. In the meantime they would continue to harass the enemy with artillery fire, trench raids, and small attacks aimed at draining resources, but an all out offensive was impossible. Of course a lull in the fighting also gave the enemy time to recover, re-arm and re-organise his defences.

With any hopes for an immediate offensive quashed, the Death Korps began their slow, remorseless advance. Digging trench lines as they went, they moved up to their new frontline, surrounding the inner defence lines. All the time harassing enemy fire threatened sudden and unexpected death, but the work continued, day after day, week after week, and the landscape of Vraks became riven by a maze of dug-outs, communication and supply trenches running back as far as the second defence lines. This avoided the necessity to use the surviving service roads, which had long been pre¬targeted by enemy artillery whose accurate barrages made movement dangerous as clusters of shells suddenly fell without warning.

The Assault on Mortuary Ridge

In Sector 558-470, the 468th regiment of the 46th Line Lorps, holding the Korps' right flank found itself faced with a difficult tactical situation. Their sector of the front faced a low ridge, with their frontline running along a shallow valley, overlooked by enemy positions. It was obviously not the place to dig-in for long, exposing the forward companies to plunging fire. Their choice was either to pull back out of range but then leave a large no-man’s land which would eventually have to be re-crossed, or to press on and attempt to gain the ridge and wrestle control from the enemy.

The 88th Army command urged the 468th regiment to move forward and gain a foothold. From this sector there were a series of low ridges running roughly south-eastwards, and each in turn would require capturing as they provided the enemy with the best firing and observation positions for kilometres in every direction. An assault was ordered up the ridge which the guardsmen, with their typical macabre sensibilities, titled ‘Mortuary Ridge’.

Unable to commit to a full-scale, set- piece regimental attack, the focus of the assault would be on a smaller, closer fight with limited objectives. For now the 468th would not seek to drive deep into the enemy lines, only to force the enemy off the immediate higher ground above them. In order to prevent enemy reinforcements from reaching the battlefield, the regiments on either side would be required to launch their own diversionary assaults, to keep pressure up and prevent enemy troops re-deploying.

The attack would be carried out along a 4 kilometre front, with five companies committed to the battle in the first wave, and a further two in reserve. On the left flank a further two companies of the 468th Regiment would be conducting the supporting attack. After previous battles none of these units were at full strength, several were even below half strength. The time for the attack was set for 078.823.M41, with tanks of the 72nd Company moving up to aid the main effort just before the off. Of the 72nd company, only four Leman Russ were available for action, but further armoured support had been requested. The key to the attack would be the artillery support. The entire regimental artillery strength was in place for the attack, much of it designated to firing a box barrage to further isolate the area from reinforcements. In all 360 guns would be firing, but many were low on ammunition and in a dubious state of repair after constant use in recent weeks, with worn barrels and failing recuperation pistons a common fault, causing inaccuracy in many of the heavier weapons.

Following the preliminary bombardment, mortars would lay a smoke screen before the men and tanks attacked up the bare slopes of the ridge. As they advanced, supporting heavy weapons, such as autocannons and heavy stubbers, would fire a stream of rounds high over their heads to plunge down upon enemy positions to the rear, with the aim of suppressing enemy heavy weapons positions.

The enemy position atop the ridge line was a strong one. A front line of trenches was backed up by a solid defence line that incorporated numerous pillbox positions for heavy weapons. As well as dug-out shelters below, there were hardened bunkers in the line and razorwire, tank traps and minefields in no-man's land. To the left of the assault area was a concentration of defences and firing positions designated as Fort C-585, and another strongpoint in the line called the ‘Mortuary Redoubt’. On the rear slope of the ridge were enemy artillery positions, ready to fire a counter-barrage into no-man’s land.

In the line stood the 468th regiment’s 31st, 33rd, 53rd, 54th and 68th infantry companies. 31st company had the task of clearing the Mortuary Redoubt whilst the 54th faced the daunting task of attacking Fort C-585. Their attack would be supported by the available tanks, including two Macharius heavy tanks released from their reserve companies to help deal with the strongpoint.

The attack time was set at 078823.M41 and in the hours beforehand the forward trenches began to fill up with the assault platoons. Extra grenades and ammunition were issued and a final roll call taken by the quartermasters as the grim figures prepared themselves to follow in the attack’s wake and recover any equipment they could.

On 077.823.M41 the opening bombardment began. Overhead the sky shrieked with the passage of out-going shells and behind them came the bass rumble of the massive bombard shells as they climbed high and plunged down on the enemy bunkers and pillboxes. Looking out over the lip of a trench through his periscope Captain Fodor, commanding the 54th company, watched as his objective was shrouded in flames, smoke and dust. The barrage crashed across the enemy’s defences, rolling like thunder as it moved forward over the rear positions, churning the ground and casting boulders high into the air. The almighty bombardment continued as the forward mortar squads opened fire, flinging smoke shell after smoke shell into no-man’s land. All watched as the clouds thickened into a dense blanket that mingled with the dust to form a cloying grey smog. It was time to go. Sergeants barked the orders to advance and hob-nailed marching boots scrambled up the ladders to the parapet and out into no-man’s land. Hunched figures could be seen advancing at a steady pace until they vanished from sight into the smoke. Tank engines roared into life and they churned forward alongside the infantry.

As the guardsmen advanced, the artillery fell silent and the enemy’s own guns opened fire. From the rear it was impossible to see what was happening in the smoke. On the right flank 33rd Company had pressed forward the furthest, advancing beyond the Mortuary Redoubt but were now caught under a lashing crossfire of Heavy Bolter and Stubber rounds from their left. Men were seeking cover in shell holes, the company commander was already dead, killed in the initial salvoes. The 31st Company was pressing towards the dangerous redoubt, but again was taking concentrated fire. Soon enemy mortar shells began to land, including incendiary rounds that burst in bright orange and yellow explosions, scattering oxy-phosphorous gel which burned through clothing and skin. It was accurate pre-sight fire and the 31st company’s leading platoons were soon forced to go to ground. In the centre of the attack 52nd Company was fairing little better, but its lead platoons were still trying to move forward as rounds whipped overhead, crawling on their bellies towards the enemy trenches. The 54th Company was facing the imposing fort and here the artillery had hit in its heaviest concentrations. The ground was littered with deep craters and one of the Leman Russ tanks had already become bogged. The tank was immobilised, but had become a pillbox, firing shell after shell from its battle cannon up the slope at the fort. The infantrymen pressed around the tanks for cover and crept forwards at a slow pace. As they emerged from the white smoke cloud, the enemy were waiting. Pillboxes and bunkers were soon blazing a withering fire. The supporting tanks weaved a path through the craters to return fire. The first Macharius was repeatedly hit, bullets and laser blasts ricocheting wildly off its hull and turret as it returned a suppressing fire from its twin battle cannons, flaying the trenches with high explosives and shrapnel. The second Macharius attempted to find a route forwards but enemy heavy artillery shell landed close by. The force of the explosion tore its right hand tracks away, leaving the armoured behemoth immobilised in no-man’s land. The armour wasn’t faring well on the churned ground. A second Leman Russ was destroyed by a mine, its crew tumbling from the smoking wreck only to be cut down in turn by heavy stubber fire.

On the left flank of the assault, 65th company was climbing the steepest part of the ridge and it was slow going under intense enemy mortar fire. Behind the attacking companies, the two reserve companies moved into the front trenches to await their turn to advance into the maelstrom. Behind them a company of Deathriders was moving up and awaiting a chance to exploit any breakthrough.

All day the battle raged. Artillery rounds shrieked and screamed, crashing and thundering as both sides matched the other’s bombardments with counter¬battery fire. In the centre the 53rd had successfully reached the enemy trenches and were now clearing with grenades and bayonet. It seemed here the enemy had fallen back into their strongpoints. More platoons were being pushed forward to reinforce the first success against the inevitable counter¬attack. They needed more men and heavy weapons if they were to hold what they had captured. A field artillery battery of quad launchers was ordered across no-man’s land to set up in support but was caught in a barrage as it moved up, destroying all its Centaur carriers and leaving the guns scattered and abandoned.

The enemy counter-attacked, launching infantry from the cover of the second defence line in a human wave. Roaring and screaming they charged through the defensive lasgun fire, leaping into the trenches. In a swirling chaotic mêlée men were screaming, fighting with swords, axes, bayonets and their bare hands. Somewhere in the mêlée the company’s commander had been impaled through the chest and lay dying. Those Krieg guardsmen that did not fall back were killed or captured and the trench was soon back in enemy hands again.

At Fort C-585 Captain Fodor crouched in cover behind the still smoking wreckage of a Macharius heavy tank, trying to direct his forward platoons and identify enemy positions as targets for his own mortars. The smoke screen had lifted but dust still lay thick over the battlefield and the sky had darkened rapidly, threatening one of Vraks’ torrential downpours. A stray bullet ricocheted off the tank and hit his helmet, knocking him off balance - but he was otherwise uninjured. Recovering himself, the Captain watched as the remaining Macharius scored a direct hit on an enemy bunker, blasting the reinforced ferrocrete into dust and breaching its walls. The tank jolted forward again, heavy bolters rattling out a stream of shells as the crew inside worked to reload both barrels for the next shot.

Fodor waved his leading squads on and rose from his cover, his command squad at his heels. Pulling his laspistol from his holster he beckoned his men onwards, leading by example. Inch by inch, crater by crater they were closing in on their objective. Soon his squads were hurling grenades into the enemy firing pits and trenches. Within their bunkers and pillboxes the enemy still held out. Fodor raced for cover, sliding into a shallow crater where five Krieg guardsmen already lay dead, bodies torn to shreds by shrapnel. He was close to his objective. With just a few more squads he could carry his attack home and take the strongpoint. Calling for his vox-operator he saw his aide flung into the air, his leg severed after stepping on a mine. Fodor crawled to the wounded man, who lay groaning, blood from the stump of his leg pooling in the mud about him. The captain hauled the vox-caster from his back and called for assistance. Send in the second wave to support him now and the objective would fall, he urged his commanders.

As Fodor battled for his life in no-man’s land, the ferocity of the initial artillery exchange slackened as the gunners found their natural rhythm. Back in the Krieg trenches the second wave platoons were still organising themselves and issuing extra equipment when they received the urgent order to attack. Men scrambled to their feet as the Watchmasters roused them to action and they piled over the parapets and out across the fire-raked ground of no-man’s land.

A few of Fodor’s men had reached Fort C-585. Hunkering down in the enemy trenches and guarding their flanks, they were the furthest forward of the attack which was now stalling, like so many before, in the killing ground of no-man’s land under withering fire.

The second wave scurried across the wasteland as a ragged grey tide, crouching low against the continued artillery explosions that still erupted about them. The attacking platoons raced onwards, disregarding the men who stumbled and fell, plucked from their midst by well-aimed enemy fire. They soon overran Fodor’s position and raced on to attack Fort C-585, bayonets fixed. Many died as they charged home, but many more leapt down into the enemy trenches or over their sandbags, thrusting and slashing with their long glittering sword bayonets, driving the enemy back. Laspistol still in hand, Fodor himself led the attack against one bunker. Already breached by the Macharius’ shells, Fodor could see enemy figures still holding out inside. He gathered the men around him and led them towards the objective, crouching in an enemy trench he worked his way along it, pistol in hand. He instructed those behind to throw grenades around each corner and down into each dug-out they passed. When he was in range he called forward a squad flamethrower to blast the bunker’s breach, then he ordered everybody else to follow him and charge the breach.

The flamer roared as its bright orange jet of promethium gushed over the bunker, burning and smoking fiercely. A second blast arched through the breach and ignited all inside. Immediately, Fodor jumped up and rushed the blazing breach, running headlong through the flames, emptying his laspistol as he stormed into the bunker's smoke-filled interior. His men followed and quickly overwhelmed the few enemy inside, killing them all in hand-to- hand combat. During the fight a stray bullet struck the captain through the wrist, forcing him to abandon his sidearm. In pain, bleeding, blackened and charred from the smoke and flames, Fodor organised the defence of the captured bunker, refusing to retire despite his wound.

The first of Fort C-585's bunkers had fallen to the assault and the others would soon follow, each after a similarly furious attack. As reinforcements arrived, the surviving Macharius tank rolled into position creating a new bulwark for the fortress. The 54th company had captured their objective and now it seemed they had the strength to hold it.

Attacks further along the line had met with little success and most had been forced to ground in the craters and shell holes. As news of 54th Company's success spread, the stalled attacks resumed. With 54th company now clearing trenches ahead, the weight of enemy fire had slackened. Soon the 52nd and 31st Companies also reported they had achieved their objectives for the day. The first defences of Mortuary Ridge had been captured.

Riding the Lightning

As the 468th regiment’s attacking companies were seizing their objectives so the darkening storm broke, shattering the skies with flashes of lightning and rolling peals of thunder. The dark sulphurous clouds deluged the battlefield in a blinding monsoon that quickly turned the planet’s volcanic dust into sticky grey mud. As the short but violent storm lashed down, the Dreadclaw assault pods and larger landing craft from the Anarchy’s Heart, now in orbit high above, plunged down onto Vraks.

The launch bays of the Chaos Battleships unleashed their terrible cargo and the gunners turned their weapons upon Vraks below. In trenches and dug-outs across the Van Meersland Wastes, the guardsmen felt the awesome power of the battleship’s guns. The orbital bombard that presaged the arrival of the assault force exploded with an earthshaking roar on the already tortured landscape. The air crackled and fizzed with the impact of lance batteries, in places scorching the rock to black glass with the intensity of their heat. Macro-cannon shells tore great holes in the planet’s surface, the splintering crash of each round rending the rocks and leaving a thick layer of cordite and dust. The siege regiments had no response to the firepower raining on them from above. No counter-battery fire could suppress this enemy. Trenches were destroyed in single hits, heavy artillery guns were flipped like a child’s toy, left smashed beyond repair. Krieg guardsmen scurried for cover as the tempest landed upon them.

Captain Fodor watched the bombardment from his captured, half- ruined bunker, his wounded hand stuffed inside his greatcoat, leaking a red stain across his chest. He saw a great yellow streak of flame race across the stormy sky as a huge shell tore through the atmosphere and streaked earthwards. The distant explosion raised a towering mushroom cloud before the reverberating crash of its detonation reached him. All around fire was falling from the skies. His own trench line at the base of Mortuary Ridge took a direct hit and he felt the shock wave buffet the bunker like an earthquake as it rolled over him.

More lightning split the skies as the drop pods fell, each trailing a fiery comet's tail as it burned into the atmosphere, thrusters driving each towards its target. The sky was full of falling assault pods, plunging through the rainstorm, riding the lightning down onto Vraks. The Chaos forces crashed down onto the planet, each pod springing open to release a horde of baying, bloodthirsty, blasphemous servants of the dark gods. 

The orbital bombardment ceased as the assault forces landed. Most had aimed their attack at the frontlines around the inner defence lines. Bands of Khorne Berserkers from the Skulltakers, World Eaters and Berserkers of Skallathrax now roamed the trench lines, attacking with divinely inspired fury wherever they encountered the enemy. This was no frontal assault across no-man’s land and the Krieg defences were not prepared for such a sudden attack. They had very little in the way of anti¬aircraft defences, and each regiment’s main strength was at the front. Suddenly artillery positions were being overrun and important supply trenches were lost to the enemy. Command dug-outs were attacked and turned into gore-filled carnal houses by the blazing bolt pistols and chain axes of Khorne’s psychopathic warriors. Chaos and confusion reigned, just as the Lord of Slaughter willed it. The set piece battles of their carefully organised trench warfare could not help the Krieg guardsmen who found themselves suddenly beset from all sides. Reports of attacks were coming in from distant sectors, long thought to be beyond the enemy’s reach.

At Fort C-585 Captain Fodor and his men were suddenly attacked by the crimson armoured traitors of a Skulltakers warband. Each was an enraged, unholy killer with an insatiable lust for blood. The Chaos Space Marines raced from their assault pods and were soon clearing the trenches in savage close combat, piling the bodies of the slain Krieg guardsmen as they advanced. It was a desperate close combat, but the Krieg guardsmen stood little chance. Their opponents were no longer the weak flesh and breakable will of mere men, but Space Marines driven by the power of their insane gods. They were unstoppable, tearing Krieg squads apart in a welter of slaughter. Captain Fodor attempted to rally his troops, but many were already falling back across no-man’s land. He saw the Macharius heavy tank firing its heavy bolters as the Traitor legionnaires climbed up its sides and onto the turret. The hatches were torn open and the crew were dragged out screaming. One massive Khornate champion lifted the tank commander clear from the turret, dangling the commander’s struggling body by a single hand. It inspected the feeble mortal before a slash of his blood- soaked chain axe decapitated him. The body was thrown aside, blood running in rivulets from the corpse. The champion roared his triumph to the skies then jumped from the turret in a single mighty power-armoured leap and raced on in search of his next victim.

All around him Fodor’s men were shooting from the battle-scarred bunker’s remaining firing slits. Now it was the Captain’s turn to grimly defend the bunker as the enemy closed in. The first Traitor Space Marine to leap into the breach was annihilated by a meltagun blast at point-blank range that turned it and its armour into a charred and smoking slag pile but more soon followed. Fodor's men dived for cover as a grenade detonated inside, the ringing blast stunning them. Another grenade exploded, then another, filling the bunker with blinding smoke. Through the smoke the enemy charged, axes held high, their spinning blades spraying blood. With his uninjured hand Fodor drew his sword and lunged at the first enemy. His thrust was parried aside, the enemy’s sweeping chainaxe shattering his blade. The traitor battered him aside, dipping his shoulder and barging into the Captain, sending him dazed and sprawling across the floor. The enemy followed their leader in and soon the bunker was overrun. The corpses of the defenders lay torn and shredded, their severed heads gathered into a gore-soaked pile. The floor was slick with blood which dripped from the walls. Dazed and wounded, Fodor crawled through the gore in search of an exit, but was suddenly plucked from the ground by a powerful grip. Barely conscious he was lifted from his feet, dangling limply he saw the steaming face grill of a red armoured helmet, a baleful light glowing behind its visor. The helmet was blood splattered and bore the engravings of many unholy runes. The power armoured grip tightened around his neck and he began to choke as the Traitor Marine’s chain axe spluttered into life. One swift blow added the Captain’s head to the gathering pile.

The attack of the Skulltakers saw the 468th Regiment thrown back down Mortuary Ridge. The sudden planetary landing had swept them aside and restored the front lines.

Death from Above

Dreadclaw04

Dreadclaw Drop Pods land Khornate Berzerkers in a planetary assault upon Vraks

With the arrival of the Chaos Space Marines, the situation rapidly deteriorated for the Imperial besiegers. The appearance of Khornate Berserkers stole the initiative from the Imperial Guard of the 88th Siege Army. Khornate warbands, including Traitor Marines from the World Eaters warbands called the Skulltakers and the Berserkers of Skallathrax, roamed the Imperial trench lines, attacking wherever they encountered the enemy. Fort C-585 was attacked by the Skulltakers, who arrived in Drop Pods and then began clearing the trenches of Imperial Guardsmen in savage close combat. The 468th Krieg Regiment was forced to withdraw down Mortuary Ridge. The Chaos Space Marines' sudden arrival forced the Imperial Guard's forces to return to their prior positions, effectively restoring the heretics' outer defensive perimeter and guaranteeing that the siege would continue to grind on.

Confusion Reigns

The arrival of the Chaotic reinforcements radically altered the momentum of the Siege of Vraks. A slow, static war of attrition had suddenly been transformed into a more fluid battle, as the deployment of the Chaos Space Marines provided the Apostate Cardinal's forces with the ability to strike deep behind the Imperial lines. But even the Traitor Marines' warbands lacked the heavy artillery and armoured vehicles required to smash the 88th Siege Army's deeply-entrenched positions, nor were they able to effectively hold onto the ground they had retaken from the servants of the Emperor.

Yet being pushed back on the defensive incurred a troubling cost for the men of the Imperial Guard on Vraks. Cut off from easy resupply efforts because of the Chaotic forces' constant and costly harrying pressure on their lines, the Death Korps' units were no longer able to get the regular resupply of men and materiel that was brought in from off-world by the Departmento Munitorum. Whilst the stockpiles of the 88th Siege Army were vast, these supplies could no longer be readily replenished and the Imperial forces on Vraks were now taking far higher casualties than the Administratum had ever expected when its Adepts had laid out the course of the siege.

Counteroffensive: Disaster at 61-47

The sudden Chaos attacks had thrown the Krieg regiments into confusion and transformed the nature of the siege of Vraks. A slow, static war of attrition had suddenly become a more fluid battle, with the enemy able to strike deep behind the lines. The single long frontline was no longer the only battlefield. Although the sudden attacks caused much damage, as yet the reinforcements did not possess the heavy equipment and weapons to smash the Krieg regiments’ defensive positions. Their raids could not hold the ground they had captured and after the initial shock the Krieg regiments began to recover. In places the frontline had been breached and the enemy had capitalised and pushed it back, in others it had held firm. Over the coming weeks more heavy equipment would arrive from orbit, and the Chaos forces could look to make more permanent gains. The Apostate Cardinal’s forces would also look to join the attacks, charging out over no-man’s land to attack the weakened frontline positions and reclaim the lost ground. Where once there had been a clear ring of trenches around the fortress of Vraks, now the picture was less clear. In places the frontline remained in the same position, in others it was forced to withdraw as the traitor forces captured and held ground they had lost over a year ago.

The problem faced by the Krieg commanders was that after holding the initiative for so long and dictating where attacks would take place, they had now lost that initiative. Now they were fighting a defensive war, trying to hold their captured ground against furious attacks inspired by the arrival of powerful reinforcements for the Cardinal’s rebels.

Greater still was the problem of supplies. The loss of the Vraks System left the 88th Siege Army stranded with its supply line severed. The replacement men, guns, ammunition, fuel and stores needed to maintain the momentum of the war were all ferried to Vraks from off-planet, and whilst the current stockpiles were still vast, it did mean that these could no longer be replenished. It was a dire situation. How long could the Krieg regiments fight the war with ever dwindling supplies? Lord Commander Zuehlke's staff set to work calculating how long this would be based on all the thousands upon thousands of Quartermaster reports they had received.

As their work began, news of the imminent disaster on Vraks reached Segmentum Obscuras High Command on Cadia. Alarmed that after ten standard years of brutal war the mission on Vraks was in danger of total failure, an investigation was commissioned to determine what had gone wrong. Led by Departmento Munitorum High Logistician-Adept Istar Ornus, the investigation would have the power to remove the campaign's current high command if it was found to have failed in its duty to the Emperor. News of the impending defeat must also be reported to the Lord of the Departmento Munitorum on Terra and from him it would eventually reach the High Lords of Terra themselves. Their wrath for failure and a squandering of valuable resources would see many careers ruined, and many officers banished to Penal Regiments or dispatched to face the growing Tyranid menace on the Eastern Fringes. But political intriguing to save face and careers did nothing to save the Krieg regiments facing annihilation on Vraks.

More bad news for the Krieg regiments soon arrived. A new threat was looming. From its impact site west of the Chaylia Plateau, the Aharon’s Bane was now disgorging new warbands. The ship's crash landing had killed many, but far more had survived and were now preparing themselves for battle. They were a long way behind Krieg lines, and worse still, alongside the insane warriors of Chaos stalked many great war machines, amongst them Titans of Legio Vulcanum.

Like their Space Marine brethren, the Titan Legions had once all been stoically loyal to the Emperor, but during the Great Heresy many had fallen to the machinations of the Dark Gods and joined the ranks of Horus. Those that had survived Horus' defeat fled to the Eye of Terror, and there, enshrouded in the Eye's warping powers and protected from the ravages of time by its corruption, the Titans remained, only venturing forth to join the ranks of the Chaos armies and Black Crusades as they fought to overthrow the Emperor's divine rule.

This new threat had 160 kilometres of Vraks to cover, but were advancing unopposed. The Krieg regiments of the 1st Line Korps were alerted to the Chaos army's presence only when it had by-passed the cavernous Mora gorge and was approaching sector 60-53. With the rear of 1st Korps' lines under direct threat, the 88th siege army had to move fast to intercept the enemy. It fell to the 101st Regiment of the 11th Assault Korps, who were to withdraw from the line en masse and to quickly reinforce from the other Assault Korps regiments with extra tanks to meet the new enemy.

The 101st Regiment began its move to meet the approaching enemy on 119.823.M41. By the time it was in position to launch its counterattack the enemy had swept a further 50 kilometres south, occupying the old second defence line as it went. The strategic situation wasn't good. The enemy in front was attacking and the enemy behind was threatening to cut off the 1st Line Korps from the rest of the army. All that stood in the way was the 101st regiment, who were preparing to launch an attack in Sector 61-47. If it failed then it was likely to cost the army heavily.

At 158823.M41 the battle commenced. Leading were 101st Regiment's tanks, advancing by companies in line abreast, each Leman Russ and Macharius kicking up a column of dust as they advanced at a steady walking pace in parade ground order. With them were the Assault Korps' few Titan-hunters, Shadowswords and Stormblades. Behind them followed the infantry on foot, followed in turn by the field artillery, still behind its tows. There was little in the way of heavier artillery as there had not been time to move the big guns and the ammunition they required. This was a mobile war for which the siege regiment was not well-equipped. There had been no time either to conduct any reconnaissance of the ground.

The approaching enemy was a horde of foulness, Renegades, sub-humans, mutant-slaves, Beastmen, pirates and other fugitives from the Emperor's justice. The dregs of the galaxy who had come to Vraks to gain plunder and win the reward of their gods. They were led and directed by the Chaos Space Marine warbands, veterans of a thousand battles. Amongst them stalked the Titans, their great strides shaking the earth, each broadcasting a dirge of unholy litanies to urge those about them into battle and whip them into a frenzy.

The 1st Korps commanding officers, accompanied by their Commissar advisors, climbed a low rise from which to gain a grandstand view of the coming engagement. They looked out with their surveyors across a battlefield that was already barren and broken, crater-scarred like the face of a moon. As the columns of dust advanced, they surveyed the horizon for the approach of the enemy, knowing that first to appear would be the towering figures of the Chaos Titans.

In fact the first enemy to strike came as a complete surprise as aircraft suddenly materialised in Vraks' turbulent skies. Like angry hornets they plunged down on the advancing tanks, which found themselves completely without anti¬aircraft defences. As the bombs fell, Lascannon blasts raked the advancing tank squadrons. First one, then another tank blossomed into flames and smoke. Brown geysers of earth and rock began to spout as the well-drilled formations scattered, seeking safety from the surprise first blow. Aircraft had not featured in the Vraks War previously. Suddenly a whole new dimension of the battle was opened up, and instantly the enemy had aerial supremacy over the entire theatre. With their ammunition expended, the enemy aircraft vanished from the skies as rapidly as they had arrived. Despite their losses, the leading tank companies pressed on. On the horizon the first enemy were now in sight. The bright flash of Titan heavy weapons opening fire could be seen. The lead tanks encountered the first enemy ground troops while Chimera-borne infantry were already in position and waiting to open fire. To the left and right the tell-tale dust columns of advancing armour could be seen.

The Centaur tows had halted and the field artillery pieces were being quickly man-handled to readiness, ammunition carriers coming forward to deliver stockpiles to each gun. Soon the rapid thump of quad launchers was reverberating across the battlefield, their four shells landing in quick succession, small explosions that merged into one and left a thickening cloud of dust smearing the battlefield, obscuring the commander’s view.

Now they were relying on Vox-relays to get a picture of the battle. At the front it seemed that the first enemy infantry positions had been overrun, smoking Chimera hulls now added to the obscuring haze, but the Titan's long- range weaponry had found its range and was starting to exact a heavy toll. The brown dust columns were turning to blue-black smoke as the tanks were destroyed by the massive power of Turbo-Lasers, Gatling Blasters and Volcano Cannons. The tanks were returning fire, their armour-piercing shells whining off the Titan's Void Shields with electric blue flashes. It was an uneven fight, even with the super-heavy tanks in support. One Shadowsword found itself a firing position from which to engage the advancing Titans, but saw repeated blasts flicker off the Void Shields to no effect. A return blast from a Turbo-Laser struck the tank's main gun and damaged it. Seconds later a succession of blasts tore straight through the engine compartment and superstructure, immolating the command crew. The surviving hull crew bailed out as the Shadowsword crackled and smoked behind them, its fully charged capacitors threatening to detonate. As the crew sprinted for the rear, the air was thick with fire. Tank rounds and laser blasts by the hundred scorched across the battlefield as artillery rounds started to fall.

On the left flank enemy armour had joined the battle. Led by the ominous, squat bulk of Chaos Space Marine Land Raiders, Predators and Vindicators, the Traitors' armour traded shots with Leman Russ tanks. The momentum of the Krieg attack had already faltered in the face of Titan firepower and soon more hulks were littering the battlefield as the Traitor Space Marines closed in. The battle had raged for two solar hours, growing in intensity, but Vox-reports were soon indicating that the tank attack had failed. The enemy were advancing again, Titans stalking through the smoke and explosions. The 101st Regiment's counterattack had been broken and was in danger of being shattered completely. Orders were issued to pull back and a reserve company of tanks was brought forward to buy more time for an orderly withdrawal. Of the sixteen Leman Russ that had rumbled forward, none returned. Throughout the night the battlefield crawled with wounded and smoke-stained tank crews attempting to return to their lines, whilst the enemy triumphantly reclaimed any damaged vehicles they could salvage.

As the 101st Regiment's commanders listened to the bray of voices over their Master-Vox sets, they could count the smoke columns of burning wrecks before them. Fifty-two black smoke pillars smeared the sky and the dust no doubt obscured more again, as well as those vehicles which had failed to burn. Losses had been heavy, especially in armour. In all, nearly 70 tanks had been sacrificed, including 11 super-heavy tanks, along with 27 artillery pieces and yet uncounted tows and infantrymen.

Retreats and Withdrawals

The defeat of the 101st meant that the ring around the fortress could not be maintained. In the aftermath of the battle, 1st Line Korps was ordered to give up its positions and move westwards, but even then they could hardy hope to avoid the juggernaut that was descending upon them. The eastern flank of the inner defence ring was to be abandoned. In order to save the rest of the Korps’ regiments, the 19th Regiment was required to act as the rear guard. The order would effectively be a death sentence, as the regiment would now be trapped by the enemy advance, pinned with their backs to the uncrossable Demus trench. Their orders were to fight to the last, forming a pocket of resistance that would buy the other regiments time to reposition against the new threat. Once cut off, the 19th could not be re-supplied and it would not be long before the enemy overran them, especially if they used their Titans. Such uncompromising sacrifices were required to save the strategic situation - if only for a short while.

The 3rd, 5th and 15th Regiments abandoned their trenches at 163.823.M41, moving northwest and occupying the positions currently held by 30th Line Korps. The 30th was also to withdraw and establish a new position anchored on the ruins of hab-zone two, with its front line running roughly parallel to the hab-zone’s service road to the south-east. They would be reinforced by other units from 11th assault korps, forming the army’s backstop. Hundreds of thousands of men and vehicles were now on the move, hurrying to dig new defences as the enemy relief force advanced to meet them.

What had once been a war with a clearly defined frontline had become a much messier affair, with the Krieg regiments now forced to face in many directions to meet the enemy. The situation in the eastern sectors had become very fluid. Any slim chance of taking the fortress within the designated schedule was now gone forever.

It would take a major effort just to prevent the Siege of Vraks from ending in defeat.

On the Cusp of Defeat

"In the Emperor's service, the Death Korps will pay any price."
—Lord Marshall Arnim Kagori

A New Commander

News of the perilous situation now developing on Vraks reached the ears of the Lord Militant Obscurus and his councellors and staff on Cadia. From his massive fortified command centre, he had a view of the entire strategic situation across the whole segmentum. A very powerful man, with thousands of armies at his command and with a direct line of communication back to Terra and the High Lords, it was his staff that had originally conceived the plan to besiege Vraks and appointed Lord Commander Zuehlke. Now it fell to those same men to rescue everything. He had already empowered Prefect Istar Ornus to investigate the situation whose first recommendation was to replace 88th army’s command staff. They had failed in their duty and failed the Emperor, squandering the vast resources that had been made available by the Departmento Munitorum.

News of his imminent dismissal made little impact upon Lord Commander Zuehlke. Placid and assured, with the full knowledge that a man of his elevated social rank could not fall far from grace. Zuehlke was already lined up for a command position on the staff of the 7003rd Imperial Guard army, mustering to counter continued Ork attacks by the Great Despot of Dregruk. It was for those beneath him to bear the wrath for this failure. Those that had not already sort appointments elsewhere faced banishment to penal regiments or field commands on the Eastern Fringe to face the growing Tyranid invasions. This was as good as a death sentence for most, as few men who faced the alien Tyranids ever returned.

With the command structure of 88th army being revised, a power vacuum formed. Who was to run this war? There were powerful voices seeking to take advantage of the failure. On the Cardinal world of San Artorus, the Cardinal-Astrals of the Sector claimed that the failure on Vraks was due to lack of faith. The battle should be one to retake the defiled Basilica of St Leonis and liberate the saint’s holy relics from the heretics. The arch-heretic Xaphan had been one of their own, and if anybody should bring him to justice it was the forces of the Emperor’s Ecclesiarchy. They could provide their own forces to help stabilise the battle on the ground and avert defeat, but only on the condition that they could appoint their own commander. These claims were backed by the Scarus conclave of the Ordo Hereticus, who had their own Inquisitors ready to take command. They would seek to impose the Inquisition’s rule on all of the 88th siege army and could induct the whole organisation into their ranks, placing their Inquisitors at the head of each regiment. It was a powerful alliance and lobbying and intriguing to take command of 88th army was ferocious. In the halls and corridors of power, the 88th siege army seemed to be a prize many wanted control over.

But the Departmento Munitorum would hear none of it. The siege army must remain under Administratum control and it was their lines of supply and their materiels the army was relying on. If they could not appoint their own commander, then the priority status of the war would have to be reviewed, warned Prefect Ornus. It was unlikely that anybody who took control could hope to win without the Departmento Munitorum’s full support. They might suddenly find that supplies were less abundant and replacement manpower for Krieg regiments was now needed on other battlefields.

As supreme commander, the Lord Militant Obscurus felt it was his right and duty to find a replacement despite being petitioned by all sides. He had a difficult political job reconciling all parties. In the end he reserved the right to appoint the commander of the troops in the field and allowed his most vocal opponents to find men to join the new commander’s staff and fill the administration roles. With many unhappy with the final outcome, the command of 88th army would be under pressure to immediately transform the campaign. The Ecclesiarchal lobby still pressing strongly and withholding their support until such time as their influence was sufficient to warrant the deployment of their military might.

The commander eventually chosen to take up this poisoned chalice was Marshal Arnim Kagori, a hard-fighting general with an impressive record of victories. Although now aged, he was seen as a safe pair of hands for the 88th siege army. Like his predecessor he was a nobleman, the scion of a family with a long history of service in the upper ranks of the Imperial Guard. Amongst his large entourage was his personal chaplain, a sign of the Marshal’s devout faith in the Emperor. He was also a man of strict routine and fixed ideas of how a war should be fought. He had commanded the 13th Palladius siege regiment during the long siege of Hive Thetis. It was the victory in that campaign that gave him the experience to run the war on Vraks.

Marshall Kagori’s first task, after assembling his own staff, was to gather a force to relieve his beleaguered regiments. He needed to quickly break through the enemy’s blockade of the system, get new supplies and troops on the ground and re-establish the secure supply lines vital to bring the 88th siege army ultimate victory.

The new commander would mark a change in the Imperium’s approach to Vraks. For him, the siege had already dragged on far too long. It was now time to commit more forces for and break the defenders once and for all. The siege regiments had done a good job in wearing the enemy down, now fresh troops and a fresh approach would crush them.

To this end a relief force was gathered. First to be approached for forces was the forge world of Lucius. This mighty planet had strong connections with Krieg regiments and had provided many of the war materiels for the siege. The enemy’s Titans needed to be countered and destroyed and the Titans of Legio Astorum - the Warp Runners, were called upon. The venerable ruling lords of Lucius agreed. A battle group of Titans would be deployed to reinforce the siege regiments and provide the ultimate in heavy firepower. Only these Titans could hope to match the Chaos Traitor legions. Deep within their forge world base, the great war machines were once again prepared for battle. Ceremonies were performed, princeps and crews briefed and blessed. Exotic creatures were sacrificed and their blood used to anoint each Titan’s foot, symbolic that they would lay the blood of their enemies at the Emperor’s feet. Rites of battle complete, they embarked upon their transports for Vraks.

Next, the regiments of Krieg would need a fresh injection of manpower and the production lines of regiments on Krieg was again called upon to provide it. More men, including many specialist engineer companies would be needed in greater numbers than ever. More men, guns and tanks were embarked for the journey to Vraks.

The Imperial Navy would provide the ships and the protection for the relief convoy and also placed a fighter wing and a bomber wing at the service of 88th siege army. These would combat the enemy’s complete aerial supremacy and provide the army with the long range strike force it had so far lacked. The slow war of attrition was being upgraded to total war, using almost every means at the Imperium's disposal.

The Last Stand of the 19th Regiment

The planned new supplies and reinforcements could do nothing to assist the plight of the 19th siege regiment though. It was cut off, surrounded by the enemy with its back to the unbridgeable Demus trench. It had been a necessary sacrifice to save the other regiments of 1 st line korps, but that was little consolation for the Krieg guardsmen now trapped and facing certain death.

The instrument of that destruction would be the warbands of the Plague Father - the dreaded Lords of Decay and the Apostles of Contagion. The blighted followers of the Chaos god Nurgle had also come to Vraks and it was a battlefield to their liking. Already devastated by the ceaseless artillery duel, where the dead lay unburied and the ground had become infectious with disease from the decaying corpses of the slain, it would be a fertile ground for Nurgle’s followers and his favoured weapons. With the 19th siege regiment trapped, they would become the subjects of the Lord of Decay’s special attention and pleasure.

Since the beginning of the war, the Imperium’s commanders had suspected that Cardinal Xaphan’s forces were in possession of proscribed weaponry. Vraks had once been used as a safe storage dump for chemical weapons that had been forbidden thousands of years ago. It seemed these must have fallen into the Cardinal’s hands when the revolt overthrew the Emperor’s rule. It was one of the reasons Krieg regiments had been chosen to conduct the siege. They were troops hardened enough to face such weapons of mass destruction without breaking. Chief amongst the chemical weapon stores was the toxin Trimethyline-Phthaloxyic- Tertius, known as TP-Ill.

TP-Ill was a horrible combination of highly acidic and corrosive heavy gases. Greenish in colour, it was lethal if breathed in, killing in less than 30 seconds due to massive damage to the respiratory system. Concentrations of TP-Ill caused acidic burning and rapid corrosion, melting skin from bone in minutes. In strong concentrations it could corrode through metal and armour. The chemical’s acidic gases were highly volatile and difficult to control on a battlefield, but it could be devastatingly effective in large concentrations.

So far the Apostate-Cardinal had held his captured stocks in reserve, as his weapon of last resort should the time come when it seemed that all was lost.

The arrival of the Chaos Space Marine reinforcements on Vraks, whilst strengthening the war on the ground, had actually weakened the Cardinal’s position as the ruler of Vraks. Amongst his new allies were men who had no intention of following his orders. The warbands had come for their own purposes and where they did not correspond to those of the Apostate Cardinal’s, he was ignored. He had no control over the Chaos Space Marine warbands that now roamed Vraks’ battlefields at will, seeking their own glory and following their own agenda.

Even Arkos, the Warmaster of the Alpha Legion on Vraks could exercise little influence and was not inclined too. What was this petty Cardinal’s little uprising to him? Only a chance to do the work of far greater powers. Whilst all parties in the loose alliance had been formed with the same goal - the destruction of the Emperor’s forces, they had very different ideas of how to achieve it. Xaphan was now hidden away deep within his fortress, enduring the nightly bombing raids and listening to the reports of his corrupt councillors and advisors, chief amongst them Deacon Mamon, the appointed commander of the Cardinal’s Disciples of Xaphan. He had little idea of the true situation beyond the fortress walls.

Upon arrival the Nurgle warbands had not plunged directly into battle as the bloodthirsty followers of Khorne had. Instead they gathered their full strength, mustered their followers under the warband leaders and carefully selected their first victims. The 19th siege regiment would be it - they were about to commit a monsterous experiment upon the trapped Krieg guardsmen. This would not be warfare for any strategic gain, but an unholy ritual, a preparing of the ground. They would seek to turn Vraks’ already infectious environment into a toxic nightmare of disease and pestilence. To this end they forcibly seized the secret supplies of TP-Ill and prepared to put them to use. They would show Xaphan’s mortal followers that the true nature of the universe was decay and the only way to survive it was to embrace it.

At 711823.M41 the first attacks began. Not with an artillery barrage or bombing raid, but in the eerily cold of dawn a strange light could be seen, staining the horizon in a greenish haze. Steadily the light grew stronger as thickening bilious clouds rolled towards the trenches. Krieg sentries issued warnings as the unnatural fog approached, blotting out the first rays of dawn’s light. Thick and heavy it clung to the ground, tumbling into every shell hole and crater. Then it reached the trenches...

The clouds of TP-Ill had a hideous effect. All Krieg guardsmen had been trained to meet chemical attacks and fight on regardless. They were well equipped for just such events, but against the acid soaked cloud respirators provided little protection. The concentrated acid burned through protective clothing and respirator masks. It melted armour and corroded metal equipment. In minutes it would strip a naked man to bare bones. Then it began to envelope the front lines. Skin blistered and burned as their protective clothes decayed, exposing the guardsmen to the full horrors of the acidic environment. A respirator failure resulted in an agonising death, the acid burning the respiratory system and melting lungs so that blood bubbled up from within, foaming from the mouth and nose of its victims even as flesh melted away to expose white bones beneath. In places the chemical was less virulent and the Krieg guardsmens’ protective equipment coped well, but where the gas was densest it destroyed everything in its path. Entire platoons were wiped out in a few nightmarish minutes, turning guardsmen to bubbling, steaming pools of sticky flesh as it struck. As the front line became enveloped in turmoil, the first attack began.

The roar of engines reverberated through the poisonous cloud as the Plague Marines approached, their corroded and corrupted vehicles bouncing across no-man’s land. Rhinos, Predator tanks and Land Raiders emerged from the green mist and opened fire. All along the front the followers of Nurgle attacked, quickly taking advantage of the turmoil their heinous chemical attack had wrought. They had crossed no-man’s land against virtually no resistance.

The adamantium and ceramite doors of rusted and boil-infected Rhinos and Land Raiders sprang open and out poured the bloated and foul enemy, bolt guns blazing as they spread into firing lines and began the final advance towards the parapets. It was difficult to believe these abominations had once been Space Marines, loyal followers of the Emperor. Now they were a disgusting parody of their former selves. Putrefying flesh hung limply from their pitted and pox-marked power armour. Maggots crawled upon their bodies feasting and fat flies buzzed around them in swarms. For all their grotesque appearance they were still superbly disciplined troops, none of their skill had been lost with their decay - both physical and moral. They attacked with the ruthless efficiency of the Adeptus Astartes, a steady stream of bolter rounds denoting amongst the trenches as the first squads waded the last yards of no-man’s land and began to leap down into the trenches.

Just as against the Khornate Berserkers, even the training and morale of the Krieg guardsmen was no match for the supernatural power that drove the Death Guard into battle. They seemed impervious to damage and unstoppable as they swept trenches clear with bolter shells and began tossing blight grenades into dug-outs. These exploded with powerful blasts, spraying more acid and toxins into the air and filling dug-outs with thick noxious fumes. In close combat their powered armour was more than a match for the Krieg bayonet, which was easily turned aside or just snapped on impact. In return the Nurgle worshippers wielded long brutal knives, rusted and oozing unknown poisons. With their massive strength the Traitor Space Marines cleaved through armour and helmets, hacking and slashing their way through the guardsmen as they fought desperately to defend each trench. The Krieg guardsman fought well, standing and fighting to the last. No other Imperial Guard regiment could have withstood the onslaught of acidic gas and bolter fire so well, but they could not hold for long. In desperation platoon commanders called down supporting artillery fire on their own trench lines, and Earthshaker shells were soon screaming in, exploding indiscriminately amongst both sides.

The gas cloud was dispersing now. The fog lifting from the battlefield to reveal more enemy forces approaching. Across no-man’s land came a second wave of men, a ragged horde this time of militiamen and mutants advancing through the Krieg counter-barrage, following in the Traitor Marines’ wake. They too were soon in amongst the trenches and forcing the survivors back along the communication trenches and overrunning the second trench lines.

No help could be sent to save the 19th regiment from the assault. It was too late for them and they had no option but to fight their last stand. There was nowhere to withdraw to. One-by-one their trenches fell to the enemy, field artillery was abandoned as their crews ran out of ammunition and fell back. The few remaining tanks the regiment could field fought from their dug-in positions, hull down, engaging the enemy vehicles as they rolled forwards. The crushing weight of Land Raiders collapsed the trench walls as they passed over them, crushing anybody below. One after another the Krieg tanks were hit and destroyed by the accurate fire of Land Raider and Predator lascannons.

The Toxic War

Night fell, but saw no let up in the fighting. Colonel Keled, commander of 19th, reported that he would hold for another day, after that his ammunition would be spent, his last artillery overrun and his regiment scattered and annihilated. His men served their Emperor well and the 19th regiment clung on, fighting to the last man and last round for another three days as the frontline shrunk ever backwards. The enemy repeatedly and merciless unleashed more chemical weapons. All the dead were left to rot, often stripped bare and gathered into piles where the airborne chemicals could quickly strip the flesh from them. The muddy ground was littered with stinking, decomposing corpses. Fat maggots writhed over them, merrily feasting. Soon thick swarms of black flies crawled over the dead.

All communication with the 19th siege regiment ceased at 735823.M41. It was over - the last pocket of resistance had been shattered by the remorseless onslaught of the Plague Marines and their foul followers. Behind them they left a fetid charnel house with an atmosphere still thick with poisonous chemicals. Pools of green gas hung in the bottom of blasted trenches and deep shell craters. They had turned sectors 61-44 and 62-44 into a playground for the creatures of Nurgle. Strange beasts could be seen stalking the trenches and dug-outs, creatures from nightmares that crawled and oozed, and spider-like machines stalked the mists. Here was a land fit for Nurgle’s servants. Their master was pleased.

The Death Guard’s onslaught was just the beginning. It had been a testing ground for their chemical weapons. Now they could turn their attention to other sectors, and subject them to the same treatment. They would use the TP-Ill indiscriminately and the Krieg guardsmen soon learned that such chemical attacks were always the precursor to an assault or raid. Wherever the Nurgle Space Marine warbands roamed, they left a trail of decay, torturing the land with their foul toxins, spreading disease and poison wherever they could.

It was a deliberate and calculated act. The Death Guard and their allies were not interested in fighting this war of attrition. It mattered not whether Vraks stood or fell. All that mattered was that the Lord of Decay would be pleased by the wanton destruction and corruption of Vraks’ surface. They were preparing the ground, creating a toxic land, making Vraks a home from home for those creatures of Lord Nurgle that were unseen but eager to join the fray and spread their own delicious diseases amongst Mankind. This was not war as the Death Korps of Krieg’s commanders understood it. It was a giant unholy ritual, fanatically pursued, paving the way for worse horrors to come...

The Second Battle of Vraks

Whilst changes were being made in the higher command, the regimental commanders on the ground still had to deal with the enemy in front of them, whilst preserving their supplies and men. All offensive operations were cancelled, with the ultimate objective now placed to one side in favour of a policy of survival. The traitors now had the initiative and it would be they that launched any attacks, while the Krieg regiments dug in deep and tried to hold their positions and husband their diminishing resources until their relief could arrive.

Whilst Marshall Kagori’s staff were busy collecting together the forces that would save Vraks, the enemy took advantage of their newly won supremacy. Supported by their new allies they began to attack in ever greater force. Attacks could be expected anywhere along the front and with defensive artillery fire heavily restricted due to ammunition conservation, many succeeded in capturing Krieg trenches and holding them. Soon salients had been pushed deep into the Krieg lines. They were losing ground that had been so costly to win and being slowly driven back. For almost a year the 88th army had to endure defeats, withdrawals and retreats at the hands of the reinvigorated enemy forces. As manpower and supplies of all types dwindled, it seemed they were on the very edge of defeat.

But Marshall Kagori had been working unceasingly and on 084824.M41 his fleet was ready to set course for Vraks. It was a fleet containing a convoy of transports and supply ships, including the precious Legio Astorum Titan transport, defended by a potent flotilla of escorts. The defeat at the first Battle of Vraks was not to be taken lightly by Battlefleet Scarus and the presence of a Traitor battleship was a threat that could not be ignored.

Battlefleet Scarus’ first move was to send a scouting force back into the Vraks system. Ordering the fastest vessels in the fleet to Vraks, the Cobra class destroyers of Ithica squadron were to discover and report on enemy strength in the system. When the three destroyers arrived they found the drifting hulks and wreckage of the previous battle, but no enemy vessels intercepted them. They returned to report it was all quiet.

Where had the enemy vessels gone? Where was the Anarchy’s Heart? She could still be in the system, lurking in the outer asteroid fields. It would be prudent to expect attack. The twin Luna class cruisers Duke De Walle and General Dyhane were detailed to defend the convoy, along with a full strength escort squadron of eight Sword class frigates. The new Battlefleet Scarus fleet entered Vraks system ready for the second Battle of Vraks.

The convoy’s approach was slow and cautious, surrounded by their escorts, the transports’ stately progress towards the planet was carefully plotted. The Duke De Walle led the way, with her sister vessel the General Dyhane as rearguard. For the first few days there was no contact with any enemy vessels. Leaving the dangerous asteroid fields behind, the fleet seemed to be in the clear. They passed close by to Vraks Tertius and still no enemy moved against them. Perhaps the raiding vessels had moved on in search of new richer pickings, or returned to their secret hideouts in the many dense nebula closer to the Eye of Terror.

Most of the Traitor fleet had in fact dispersed. Their battle won, the raiders had sort new plunder and new victories. But the Anarchy’s Heart had remained, lurking, watching like a giant silent predator awaiting an unsuspecting prey. The relief convoy approached and she was ready to pounce.

Hidden amongst the hulks and drifting debris of the Vraks system, the Anarchy’s Heart and her escorts were invisible with all systems powered down. They lay quietly waiting. Drifting amidst the wreckage she was almost undetectable. As the convoy approached she sprung her ambush.

The battleship’s great plasma reactors roared into life and power surged down her ancient cables and circuits like warm lifeblood. Slave gun-teams were driven to their weapons by the lashes of their overseers. The battleship’s power signature lit up on the augurs of every vessel in the approaching convoy, and alarm klaxons blared their warning as ship crews raced to battle stations. The Anarchy’s Heart was already in range as the escort vessel’s captains called for flank speed, their reactors straining at the sudden demand for power The battleship’s first salvo impacted with crushing force. Two escort vessels vanished into expanding clouds of wreckage and space dust as they took repeated direct hits from the batleship’s big guns. The Duke De Walle’s shields were screaming as repeated laser impacts flared off them, a second volley raked her hull and destroyed starboard thrusters and manoeuvre drives. One supply transport, loaded with fuel and ammunition was crippled and left drifting.

The Imperial Navy cruisers responded to the ambush as fast as her crews could. The Duke De Walle returned fire, her broadsides sporadic at first, but then growing in intensity. The General Dyhane swung about, loosed a wide spread of torpedoes, then powered towards the enemy battleship. As the cruisers engaged, the transports made for Vraks with the escorts in close proximity interposing themselves between the valuable cargos and enemy guns. It was a brave act and cost the escorts more heavy losses, with two more ships quickly crippled as the Anarchy’s Heart thundered out with every gun she could bring to bear.

The two cruisers closed into effective range themselves, and although the Anarchy’s Heart was a potent vessel and her armour was thick, she could not afford to ignore two capital ships. She turned her guns on them, taking repeated torpedo impacts. Deep inside fires started by the explosions could be seen raging - the beast had been wounded.

But the wounded beast’s rage was unholy and merciless. Lances and macro-cannons pounded at the two cruisers. The Duke De Walle was caught in the maelstrom, riding the impacts as if tossed by a stormy sea. She was burning, massive oxygen leaks bleeding flames into the void. The General Dyhane was close now, and her guns ripped into the enemy’s armour. Who would break? Whose will to continue the brutal engage of close range gunnery would snap first?

Damaged, and with her prey escaping towards Vraks, the Anarchy’s Heart disengaged. Her sudden devastating attack had destroyed four escort vessels and left the Duke De Walle crippled and dying. Hundreds of her crew lay dead at their guns, their bodies choking the lower deck corridors, but the General Dyhane had remained true to purpose and never flinched in the face of the battleship’s broadsides. She had torn into the enemy’s flank and set fires raging inside the Anarchy’s Heart. Rather than risk destruction to no further gain, the ancient leviathan withdrew, soon vanishing again into the drifting wreckage, her two escort ships remaining close for protection. The General Dyhane could pursue, but she would then be alone against a far greater enemy. Instead she offered what aid she could to the grievously stricken Duke De Walle. Crippled with damage beyond the crew’s capability to repair, the captain ordered the survivors to abandon ship, leaving the lower deck fires to gut the vessel. They burned for weeks. The surviving crew were ferried across to the General Dyhane, leaving the stricken cruiser as another hulk to add to the growing graveyard around Vraks. Her mission complete, the General Dyhane then set course for Vraks again.

Planetfall

The convoy had made a narrow escape but, by their bravery and sacrifice, the two cruisers had saved the day and maybe the entire campaign on Vraks. Most of the supplies and all the Titans would reach their destination and join the war. The Anarchy’s Heart was still out there - lurking, but she was badly damaged and would not risk another head-to-head encounter. 

The convoy arrived in Vraks’ orbit, and began to disembark its cargo. Soon men by the thousands, tanks by the hundreds, ammunition by hundreds of tonnes, fuel and all manner of equipment were being landed and prepared for immediate transport to the front. Amidst the many unloading cargo landers a huge armoured landing ship set down. Its great slab-sided doors rolling back to reveal the Titans within. Down the exit ramps walked the Warhounds and Reaver battle titans of the Legio Astorum battle group, under the orders of their ancient and venerable High Princeps, Rand Drauca. The war machines’ great strides shook the ground as they took their first steps into a new warzone. In all there were 22 Titans, each bedecked in honour banners and emblazoned with the eagle of the Imperium and the black eclipse symbol of their legion. Ten Reavers towered above all, tall and imposing. Before them strode 12 Warhounds. The battle group was ready for deployment to meet the Traitor titans on the battlefield and resume an ancient war that had been continuous for the last 10,000 years - since the time when many of the Titans legions had revolted in support of Horus, and the loyalists and traitors had first clashed in epic battles between the mightiest war machines in the galaxy.

Vraks would soon see those battles recreated.


Back from the Brink - The "Kagori" Offensive

Even whilst the 19th regiment was being massacred to the last man, Marshall Kagori’s new offensive was being planned, ready to begin the next big attempt to crack the inner defence line. After a long period of bitter defensive battles, the 88th siege army was re-supplying and reinforcing daily, ready to go over to the offensive again. New attacks were being planned all along the front for every regiment. No longer would they just hold their trenches, the Krieg guardsmen would again surge out across no-man’s land and take the battle to the enemy.

Preparations for such a large offensive were long and involved. Each regiment in the line now required vast amounts of staff work to equip new guardsmen with everything they needed from the stores and post them into the fighting companies. The ammunition and fuel stockpiles had to be built up, along with supplies of every type. Companies of men and batteries of guns were on the move, being positioned for the coming battles, whilst regimental commanders worked day and night on their attack plans, artillery fire plans, positioning reserves and all the other myriad of details that would be required for such a big operation.

The ‘Kagori offensive’, as it had become known, was set to begin at 249825.M41. The aim was to recapture all the ground lost since the enemy counter-offensive in 078823.M41 and to crack the inner defence lines, precipitating a breakthrough to the curtain wall. It was a very ambitious plan and it took almost a year to prepare the battered siege regiments for the coming offensive. This would be Marshall Kagori’s first bold stride towards winning the war.

A major decision for the Marshall’s headquarters would be the deployment of the Titan battle group. Although the lines of command did not permit him to give the Legio Astorum Princeps direct orders, his reports to the lords of Lucius forge world would influence any decision they made. In the end, after a careful review of the situation, it was decided that all the Titans would support a main effort in the sectors held by the 12th line korps. All the Reavers and Warhounds would operate in support of the line korps’ four siege regiments: the 143rd, 149th, 150th and 158th. They would also be backed up by elements of the 8th assault korps, including its super heavy tanks.

The first part of the plan involved a prolonged artillery bombardment and new shells and mortar bombs were prioritised for the bombardment korps and artillery companies. With the system now secured, more supply convoys were arriving every week, millions of artillery shells were being transported and stockpiled at the artillery positions, ready to unleash a massive bombardment which would last for weeks before the first men went over the top.

The long bombardment of the enemy was gradually stepped up over the weeks before Marshall Kagori’s grand plan was ready to be put into action. The artillery shells rumbled overhead constantly, keeping up their steady rhythm to harass the enemy and make the movement of troops and supplies to the front difficult and dangerous. In the last days before the infantry offensive was to begin, the bombardment intensified, then stepped up again until the guns were hammering away relentlessly, barrels glowing red hot whilst breach blocks and recoil pistons wore out under the strain.

On 249825. M41, everything was finally in place. In the forward trenches all across Vraks the first assault companies stood ready, bayonets fixed, awaiting the order to attack. Across no-man’s land the artillery shells impacted in a furious tempest on the enemy frontlines, reaching a crescendo in a constant roll of thunder, smothering the enemy in dust and shrapnel. Then, suddenly the guns fell silent.

In sector 54-46 Colonel Thryan of the 143rd regiment had joined his men, an ensign carried the honoured regimental banner at his shoulder. On time the Colonel ordered the launch of a single red flare that arced into Vraks’ sky and burned like a bright drifting star. The master-vox operator flashed the codeword throughout the regiment, the order to attack was given. It was time to go.

The men scrambled up and over the parapets like so many thousands of times before and out into the crater- scarred killing fields of no-man’s land. Behind them Leman Russ and Macharius heavy tanks thumped into gear and began to grind forward. Batteries of mortars launched a barrage of smoke and high explosive shells to keep the enemy gunners’ heads down. Still further back High Princeps Rand Drauca received the attack signal on the command bridge of his Reaver, Praetorian. Wired into the Titan’s cognitive logis engine via mind-impulse leads, Drauca gave the unspoken instructions for the Reaver to advance and its great gears and pistons heaved the mighty war machine forwards in a long stride. The other Titans followed their commander’s lead and Legio Astorum strode into battle.

All along the 12th line korps’ front the same scenario was being played out.

Infantry and tanks plunged into the inevitable defensive fire, slithering through the quagmire to reach the enemy razorwire, trenches and pillboxes. Tanks laid down a curtain of high explosive shells. Their heavy bolters and heavy stubbers rattling out a stream of suppressive fire. The field guns and mortars opened fire again, lobbing shells just ahead of the infantry. To the rear the large artillery guns resumed their bombardments, shifting to targets further to the enemy’s rear or concentrating on strongpoints. The battle had been joined.

For the first hours it seemed that the battle was being fought in the same old way - with the same old results. Heavy losses for small gains. But on 12th line korps’ front the attack was preceding well. The 1,000 tonne metal monsters of Legio Astorum were advancing, crushing everything in their path. Engaging the enemy with all their formidable firepower, the Titans smashed a path forward as their void shield generators flared under the impact of enemy weapons. In sector 54- 45 the enemy counter-attacked with its own tanks and infantry and a battle developed in the centre of no-man’s land with bayonets and knives. Tanks were burning, but they could not stop Drauca’s advance. Soon Thunderbolt fighters screamed overhead, adding their bombs and strafing autocannons to the maelstrom of fire descending upon the enemy. The forward trenches were overrun, and Krieg infantry platoons and grenadier squads were pushing on through the maze of trenches and dug- outs, clearing as they went. By the end of the first day the 158th regiment had recovered the ground it had lost, and all regiments could report good progress wherever the Titans had backed them up. At nightfall the Titans withdrew to safe laagers as fresh infantry and tanks were pushed forward ready for the next day’s continued push.

Across the Van Meersland Wastes the siege regiments reported a variety of successes and failures. Some had been repulsed by fire or thrown back across no-man’s land by heavy enemy counter-attacks. Wherever the Chaos Space Marine warbands joined the fighting, the Krieg infantry faired poorly. The 5th regiment had come under intense attack from enemy chemical weapons and sustained heavy losses. In response the regiment requested that they be allowed to respond in kind. Marshall Kagori, against the advice of many of his staff, granted permission for their own chemical weapons to be used as a direct response. The 5th regiment’s barrages were soon soaking the land in more toxic poisons. Little did they suspect that they were playing into enemy hands, even with the losses inflicted.

The second day of the offensive started with more air attacks, but this time the enemy countered and Thunderbolts and Hell Blades twisted and swooped high above the battlefield as the two sides braced themselves for another day of intense fighting. In sector 57-48 two waves of Marauder bombers hammered the enemy frontlines, racing in low and fast to unload their huge payloads directly into the trenches. With such heavy air support the 468th regiment made good gains and Marshall Kagori noted that more Imperial Navy bomber squadrons should be requested.

As another great lightning storm rolled about them, Drauca’s Titans pitched forward into the battle again. Praetorian itself quickly destroyed eleven enemy armoured vehicles that it had spotted moving forward as reinforcements. Its missile launcher firing salvos of missiles as its gatling blaster and laser blaster raked the column into a burning, smoking ruin. Just as the weapons Moderatii reported the target eliminated, the Reaver’s augurs identified enemy Titans approaching. After the previous day’s heavy losses, the enemy had responded to the Titan attack with their own. Legio Vulcanum had come to match its ancient war machines against the loyalists. The High Princeps issued new orders. Enemy Titans were approaching, they were to be the priority targets, adjust all firing solutions accordingly. Whilst the land battle raged about their feet, the Reavers and Warhounds engaged the enemy Titans in their own separate dual.

Turbo-lasers and volcano cannons flashed, void shields sparked and flared, blazing under the high-energy impacts of massive weapons. Soon missile launcher pods were empty. The ammunition hoppers of the gatling blasters were running low as the six- barrelled battle cannons hammered out shell after shell. Plasma reactors were straining under the demand - Techpriests and servitors working furiously to direct extra power to the void shields and weapons as the Titans growled and groaned under the stresses. Evenly matched, the Titans tore at each other, rocking under the impacts, armour scorched, rent and dented. Invigila Alpha was the first to fall. Closing with the enemy the Reaver was raked by fire from a Vulcan mega¬bolter, the roar of its gatling barrels spitting out thousands of rounds per minute was known as the ‘the laughter of the devil’ to Titan crews, but the last of her void shields was overloaded and shut down. Before the Techpriest could power up the generators to raise the shields again, the Titan took a direct hit to the command bridge. A super-heated blast melted through the thick armour and blast shielded screens, immolating the entire bridge crew in seconds. The tortured screams of the Princeps and Moderatii burned into the Titan’s cognitive engine via the mind-impulse links as they were obliterated. Its higher functions destroyed, the Reaver ground to a halt, weapons still held erect, but silent now. More enemy fire lashed the Titan as it stood motionless and defenceless. The sole surviving Techpriest could not abandon his dying machine. He simply fell to his knees in prayer as the Titan shuddered and groaned in its own death agonies. Peppered by more enemy fire Invigila Alpha stood in defiance, a blasted and scorched silent sentinel, looming over the battlefield. There the god-machine would remain for the duration of the war, a towering landmark in an otherwise barren landscape. Back on Lucius forge world a bell would toll for the lost war machine and for each of its fellow Titans that fell on Vraks.

The titanic battle lasted all day, giants duelling over the heads of the men below as they fought back and forth along the trenches. Progress had slowed, without the direct aid of the Titans there was hard fighting all along the front. By the end of the second day, when the Titans withdrew, little extra ground had been captured. Day three would see the battle resume and then continue into day four.

Both sides had taken heavy losses as the fighting resumed on day five. Weary men in grey trenchcoats gathered weapons and ammunition and prepared for another day in the meat-grinder. Of all the regiments in the offensive, the 143rd had pushed the furthest, driving a salient into the enemy lines in sector 54-45, and here the Titan battle group would concentrate its efforts. A slim crack might be forced open, and failing that, it would draw the enemy Titans to them and with any luck allow another regiment to force the breakthrough further down the line.

With the Titans re-armed and battlefield repairs completed by the cowled Adeptus Mechanicus ordnancers that accompanied the Titan battle group, Drauca again led his survivors back into the inferno. Striding amongst the tanks, each Leman Russ closely followed by a huddle of grey infantry, the Reavers and Warhounds marched unharmed through the enemy’s first artillery barrages. After five days of constant battle the enemy line was thinning. They had lost a lot of men and equipment during the first day’s fighting and now those losses were being felt. Their allied Titans had taken losses too, and only their fearsome presence had stemmed the tide. Now, outnumbered and bearing the scars of the last three days encounters, the Legio Vulcanum war machines pulled back to regroup. The enemy infantry could not hold alone against Drauca’s firepower. They managed to topple one Warhound with the direct hits of a battery of Basilisks - repeated artillery shells eventually sending the Warhound crashing to the earth to lie forlornly amongst the mud, but it was their only success. Some of the renegades fought with fanatical zeal, but others had their will to resist broken by ‘Titan-shock’, and soon fell back in a pell-mell retreat. The 143rd regiment was pushing ever forwards, and tanks and Death Riders of the 8th assault korps joined the rout. One more day of fighting saw the inner defence line breached and fresh tank columns streaming through the gap. Success at last! Kagori’s offensive had broken through the defensive belt and was now driving ever deeper towards the curtain wall. The Titans had won him the battle.

However, unlike when the outer and second defence lines had been broken, the enemy did not abandon his positions this time. The area around the curtain wall and the inner defence line was no longer a bare plain. It was now riddled with a maze of trenches and pillboxes, all constructed over the years as the siege had ground on. It lacked the hardened dug-outs and careful planning of the actual defence line, but the enemy still had many places from which to make his stand and would fight for every inch of ground. The traitors’ commanders knew they could not afford to simply pull back to the curtain wall and dig in again. As they drew closer to the fortress, so every inch must be fought for. They could not afford to keep falling back, trading ground for time as soon there would be nowhere left to fall back to. So, this time there was no sudden clear breakthrough and swift advance, but a monotonous crawl forward against daily attacks and counter-attacks. But in sector 54-45 the enemy strength was spent and the 143rd regiment made more large gains before it too had to halt before it outran its supply lines and artillery support. The Titans were withdrawn from the frontline to the reserve, to refit and await their next deployment. They had made the difference and won their battle. Their battle losses - some four Reavers and seven Warhounds would have to be replaced from Lucius. It was estimated that in all a dozen enemy Titans had been destroyed, a fine total for Drauca’s men who could return to Lucius with honour.

The battle to reach the curtain wall was not over, there were still many more battles yet to be fought but Marshall Kagori was already preparing to put a new phase of his offensive into operation. A large stride had been taken towards victory. The outcome of the siege was no longer in doubt. The enemy had lost heavily and new replacements would soon arrive again for the Krieg regiments. The enemy’s losses were irreplaceable and Kagori knew that attrition always favoured the besiegers.

The 88th Siege Army could at least claim that they were once again winning the Siege of Vraks.

The War Beneath Vraks

"Subterrran im Genitus"
—Motto of the Death Korps of Krieg Engineer KorpsThe ultimate victory over the inner defence line, four standard years after it had first been scheduled and with an as yet unknown casualty list saw Marshall Kagori introduce a new phase to his campaign plan. Since his arrival as commander of the 88th Siege Army, it had always been in his mind to utilise large numbers of specialist Krieg Engineer companies and open up a new front to the war -- deep underground.

Kagori's plan involved using these troops, all well trained in the digging of mines and counter-mines, to tunnel under the Vraksian defences, allowing his men to bypass strong points or attack them from the rear, thus limiting their effectiveness. By adding a new dimension to the war firstly he hoped to take the enemy by surprise and gain quick victories over the strongest enemy positions and secondly that the enemy would lack the resources to match his plans and be at a strategic disadvantage, which might ultimately prove crucial. If necessary he would dig his way right under the fortress and bypass its defence lasers and void shields altogether. Of course the enemy would try to stop him, but he was banking on having superior manpower and resources, a large enough advantage to allow him to tunnel wherever he wished and maybe stretch the enemy beyond breaking point.

It was the Marshall's conclusion that the war on Vraks could be won below the surface of the planet. This did not mean that surface operations would cease, far from it, they must continue as before and press on with the good work of attrition and eating up the enemy’s finite strength. It was below the surface that the Krieg regiments would have their greatest advantage.

The Underground

On Vraks the commanders of the engineer companies were instructed to make preparations for this new phase of the siege. This involved making detailed geological studies of their assigned sectors. Small teams of engineers were sent forward to begin drilling deep bore holes. These would determine the depth of the usable rock strata (and as a useful side effect also locate underground water sources for drinking water for the army), and hence allow them to gauge the suitability of the geology in each regiment’s sectors for offensive tunnelling. It was planned that the tunnelling would ultimately serve one of two purposes. Shallower tunnels would allow for the quick and safe movement of men for surprise attacks (sap tunnels), or deeper tunnels would be dug to undermine enemy defences and position large ‘mines’ - a massive collection of explosives that could be detonated from below, destroying a position ahead of a surface attack.

On 812.824.M41 Krieg Engineer units joined the frontline infantry in their trenches and began the systematic geological mapping of the front as the first stage of the underground war that would follow.

Vraks itself was not particularly well- suited to large scale military mining operations. Its natural geology meant that shallow tunnels could be dug at great speed as in its upper layers the ancient volcanic pumices were soft and highly porous. Although good for digging surface trenches, for miners the rock was just too soft and unstable. It would be impossible for a tunnel to remain secure and each would soon collapse in on itself. Secondly, the rapid drainage of surface water made it very damp. Tunnels would become running streams in no time, and never have a chance to dry out before another heavy rain storm filled it with water again. The absorption of large amounts of water in a short space of time created a severe problem as it led to expansion of tunnel walls and roofs, placing unpredictable pressures on any supports or roof bracings. It would be like tunnelling through heavy, waterlogged sand - an impossibility.

Deeper below Vraks’ porous surface, the rocks began to harden. Here the natural drainage turned into streams and rivers, cutting a labyrinth of underground tunnels and caves. The water carved away at these rocks, draining into ever larger rivers. When these rivers became too large, the cave ceilings above could no longer hold the weight pressing into them and would collapse. This process, repeated over millions of years, had cut Vraks’ surface with many deep wide gorges and canyons. This layer might provide a basis for mining, but again conditions would be very wet and any tunnels risked breaking through into a natural river and flooding, with disastrous consequences for the miners and the mine. It was possible to dig here, but mining would be very slow and dangerous and losses too catastrophic.

Deeper still the rocks became harder again, but had the advantage of being strong and dry. Tunnels dug here could be still be hewn by handpicks and, with the addition of some bracing, would have the strength to support themselves. The relative hardness would make the going slow but if necessary machinery could be introduced to speed things up. Of course, this meant that any secrecy would be compromised if the enemy were listening. It was hoped that he was not prepared for an attack from so deep. At this depth oxygen and ventilation would be a problem, and the occasional encounter with the very hard granite-like remains of ancient volcanic activity would bring some tunnels to a premature end, as digging through these would require blasting with such force that a tunnel’s location would be easily spotted from the surface.

The Enemy Underground

The 88th Siege Army now had a strong engineering korps, with companies of Death Korps Engineers ready to begin their long task. But the Vraksian Renegades themselves had no shortage of personnel with the skills required for a war underground. All of Vraks’ many large armoury facilities had been constructed underground, and the labour corps had been required to do all that mining work. Amongst the foot troops of Vraks there were already many men very familiar with the digging of mines and tunnels, and well- equipped for just such tasks with cutting and boring equipment. Once it was discovered that tunnels were being dug, they could expect to meet strong resistance from counter-mining operations.

After the location of a tunnel had been chosen by an officer, the first task of the engineer squads was to sink a shaft to the required depth. These were vertical tunnels, accessible via ladders, or incline tunnels down which heavier equipment could be moved. The entrance to a shaft or incline needed to be well disguised. Many were hidden behind false trench walls, which could be quickly removed and replaced, and generally had infantry posted on sentry duty outside. Larger entrances had to be positioned further back from the front, using the lay of the land to avoid detection.

Initial progress through the softer outer layers was rapid, even if dug out by hand, with pre-fabricated bracing being added as the shaft deepened. Five-man engineer excavation squads worked together, either hewing at the tunnel face with picks and mattocks, removing the spoil (usually to fill sandbags for the trenches above) and manning a listening post. Using geo-thermic auspex devices, the squad’s listener kept up a constant vigil, listening for enemy counter-digging. If a shaft ran into a very wet area of rock then it would need to be sealed with more permanent bracing against the worst effects of expansion or flooding. This was more time consuming and slowed down progress. As a tunnel progressed, so additional power cables could be run along it, pumps to remove excess water were fitted and winches positioned at the top of shafts to move bulky equipment and spoil bags. Once an engineer officer determined that the shaft or incline had reached the correct depth then a horizontal gallery could be started. Digging a gallery required careful planning, as below ground it was difficult to maintain a steady course. Squad Watchmasters were responsible for the constant surveying of galleries, measuring out distances and depths and maintaining direction. Initially tunnels would be narrow, wide enough only for two engineers to work side by side. As the tunnel war progressed throughout the siege so these narrow tunnels became guide tunnels for the creation of wider galleries by heavier tunnelling equipment.

Battles in the Silent Darkness

The tunneller had many natural enemies, foremost being the danger of collapse. This was mitigated by Vraks’ highly stable tectonics, with very little seismic activity affecting tunnelling (one of the reasons it had originally been selected for subterranean arms storage in the first place). But any tunnel roof will eventually collapse under its own weight and required supporting. A second danger was flooding, although pre-planning usually meant that areas with underground streams and rivers were detected and avoided, pumps (often operated by hand) were installed to remove the excess seepage. Still it was not unusual for miners to work ankle deep in water. A third danger was the build-up of gases. Working in a low oxygen environment meant that odourless gases were an ever-present threat. Engineers were protected with small gas detection devices and were equipped with respirator masks with an oxygen supply.

The miner’s one other great natural enemy was noise. Below ground the only way to detect the presence of an enemy was by sound. Sound travels very well through rock and an enemy could be quickly located by listening for the sounds generated by his work. Picks clashing with rocks made noise, as did digging with spades or the tramp of boots. In the darkness of a deep gallery any noise could give away a position and expose a tunnel to counter-mining and destruction by a secretly placed collapsing charge. The tunnelling war was one of stealth, with noise kept to a minimum at all times.

When enemy tunnels could be detected they could be destroyed by counter-mining. A counter-mine team would seek to intercept the approaching enemy tunnel and set an explosive collapsing charge to destroy it. Collapsing charges, also known as torpedo charges or mole launchers due to their distinctive shape, were used to create a directional blast that would collapse the enemy tunnel. Krieg engineers carried such specialised equipment, whilst the enemy could fabricate their own using blasting charges. A charge would be set by boring it into the side of the tunnel, blocking off the gallery with a wall of sandbags (to contain the explosion) and running a detonator cable back to a safe distance, usually the surface. The charge’s explosion would detonate in an avalanche of earth and rock that would bury the occupants of the tunnel alive, or trap them inside an unmovable wall of earth and rock. By the time a rescue party could dig through the wreckage, the trapped miners would be long dead due to oxygen starvation, a slow and lingering death. If the enemy had detected a tunnel and not been detected in turn, mole launcher attacks came without any warning. Just as on the surface where sudden death could come at any moment from a stray artillery shell, so the engineers endured a war where death struck mercilessly and unheralded.

Alternatively, a counter-mine team might seek to break in and capture an enemy’s tunnels. In the event that the enemy broke through, then invariably a vicious close quarters fight would ensue. In a darkness illuminated by wildly waving torch beams, with shotguns, pistols, grenades and knives, the two sides would struggle for control of the tunnel. In such a confined space, fights would always be brutal and short.

During mining operations against a bunker in sector 544-469 by the 188th engineer company, an excavation team detected an enemy counter-mine and carefully dug under it, patiently waiting for a chance to break-in and investigate the enemy workings. The company set a collapsing charge behind themselves, as insurance should the enemy break through into their gallery, so it could be quickly sealed. All work ceased as they listened night and day until no enemy digging could be heard. Predicting that no enemy were present Lieutenant Zoltz led a hand-picked squad to the end of his tunnel and ordered them to break through. Working quickly with mattocks and picks they soon opened a hole into the enemy tunnel floor. All was silent and dark beyond. Lieutenant Zoltz was first through, scrambling up, his flashlight showing the way. Squatting in the low tunnel he directed half his squad to the left, whilst he led the second half to the right.

Creeping forwards, Zoltz was approaching the enemy frontline when he came to a fork in the tunnel. Turning off all torches he listened hard. There was the unmistakable sound of approaching boots from the right fork. He ordered his men up the left fork and they waited for the enemy to pass by, hoping they were returning to the tunnel face. Through his monocle eye-piece he counted as six enemy miners, tools in hand, pistols holstered, passed them and scurried off into the darkness, from the direction he had just approached. Zoltz was faced with a dilemma, he might be able to find an access to an enemy trench or bunker, but half his squad would be surprised by the arrival of the enemy that had just passed him. Zoltz determined his plan. He put two men at the junction as guards and to set a demolition charge and destroy the tunnel junction. He would stealthily follow the enemy miners and ambush them before they encountered the second half of his squad.

Moving stealthily, the remaining three men at his back, laspistol levelled, Zoltz approached the rear of the enemy digging team. Suddenly the tunnel was illuminated by approaching flashlight beams. The second half of the squad was returning from the tunnel face, unaware that the enemy was directly ahead of them. Zoltz fired, hitting the rear man in the lower back and he collapsed to the floor with a scream of pain. Suddenly there was total confusion and firing in all directions. The enemy miners were trapped between the approaching squad and those behind but put up a brave fight with their autopistols. The tunnel was alive with ricochetting bullets, sudden muzzle flashes and the bark of shotguns. Smoke filled the narrow tunnel as one by one the enemy were cut down. A grenade exploded, sending a powerful blast wave racing down the tunnel and knocking Zoltz and his men to the ground, dazed and winded. In the confusion Zoltz had also been shot in the arm and could feel his tunic becoming damp and sticky with blood. He flipped his flashlight back on and shouted a warning to his approaching men that there were friendly troops here. The shooting stopped. All the enemy were down, riddled with shotgun blasts. Three of Zoltz’s engineers had been injured. These men he ordered back through the hole into their own tunnel. The others should come with him, back to the fork where the demolition charge was almost ready.

The sudden firefight below ground had not gone unnoticed and more enemy were on their way to investigate. This time they were ready for action. At the fork they encountered the demolition team. As Zoltz approached again he heard the echoing blast of shotguns. Running as fast as he could in the low tunnel, he saw his two men emptying their weapons along both forks. Another grenade exploded, its trapped force sent a second shock wave through his squad and filled the tunnel with blinding grey smoke. Both the engineer defenders had been caught in the blast and killed. Through the cloud Zoltz could see more approaching torch beams. There was no time to fire the demoliton charge, it was time to fall back. Zoltz ordered that he would hold the enemy here, the others should get back to their own tunnel and prepare to seal it against an enemy intrusion. Taking one of his men’s shotguns and spare ammunition he began firing down the tunnel whilst his men retreated, leaving their officer to his lone defence. The blast of shotgun shells kept the enemy at bay as he worked his way back to the entrance hole and jumped down. The enemy were close behind in the darkness, firing blind after him, bullets whined and buzzed around Zoltz as he made his escape. One buried itself in his rigid breastplate, shattering his torch.

The engineer-lieutenant staggered back to the demolition charge detonator, where the five survivors of his short but bloody expedition awaited his return. Still bleeding and starting to lose consciousness, he waited for the enemy to close in, then ordered the charge to be fired. The explosion collapsed the roof of the tunnel in a landslide of rock, crushing the advancing enemy and sealing the tunnel. During the skirmish, Zoltz had lost two men and a further four had been wounded, including himself. His expedition had killed at least six, and maybe more, enemy miners. Other mole mortar shells could now be fired to destroy the enemy workings entirely.

The enemy responded to such incursions below their positions and into their tunnels by using booby traps and leaving more guards in the tunnels.

The Attack on Armoury 55-46

The most heavily undermined area of the entire front was in sector 55-46, with both 12th line korps and 46th line korps making constant use of engineer companies to attack enemy positions. Here the main objective was the capture of the large underground armoury, known to be located at 554-467, which was still being used as a stockpile and a safe shelter for enemy equipment. It had already been heavily shelled by the siege guns, but with little effect as the important war materiels were buried deep underground. As the engineers dug forward they attempted to work their way towards the armoury with the objective of effecting a break-in and over-running the facility in a surprise assault. But the enemy detected their approach and counter-mined the area heavily. Soon, deep below Vraks’ shell- tortured surface, a second war was raging in the darkness. It soon became clear that the enemy was aware of the target and taking every step it could to stop the engineers’ progress. A labyrinth of shafts, galleries and tunnels was soon forming and with the element of surprise lost, the heavy tunnelling equipment was brought in to speed up the digging.

The fighting underground in this sector was equal to that above ground, with casualty rates amongst the engineer companies even exceeding those of the infantry. Tunnel fighting was a daily occurrence where the mines and counter-mines collided, battles could rage for days as both sides fought to capture enemy tunnels and exploit any gains. Slowly, by strength of numbers, the Krieg engineers gained the upper hand, pushing the enemy back and on790825.M41 reported that they were finally in a position to attempt to breach the underground armoury. In all, five full strength companies would be dedicated to the task of breaking in and then securing the breach. Behind them more companies were ready to exploit their foothold. These were stiffened by grenadiers squads, themselves equipped with melta-bombs and demolition charges to aid in the mission.

The enemy knew the attack must come soon and had prepared to meet it when it did. Reinforcements had been rushed to the armoury, including a warband of the Berserkers of Skallathrax, whose lust for hand-to-hand combat would be well sated in the close, room-to-room, tunnel-to-tunnel fighting to come. Unknown to the Krieg commanders, most of the enemy’s heavy equipment and stores had been evacuated to safety, leaving the armoury almost bare. The stage was set for a savage isolated battle beneath Vraks, where no tank, artillery shell or mortar bomb could aid either side.

To assist the underground battle, 150th and 471st siege regiments were ordered to launch attacks in the neighbouring sectors. Although just diversions, they were to push hard and drew in more enemy forces, stretching their resources. The 27th artillery company was positioned with orders to fire a box-barrage over the attack, to help seal it from further reinforcements. The 27th company’s guns were in position and well stocked with ammunition when the time for the engineers’ attack came.

Deep below sector 55-46, the lead companies filed down the shafts and tunnels, all carrying heavy loads of equipment and rations for a sustained battle. Two tunnels had been excavated under the armoury and inside each of these a huge breaching charge had been laid. Hundreds of tonnes of explosive had been packed in, then the tunnels sealed with thick sandbag ‘tamps’ to contain the blasts. When the detonations came, it would smash wide holes through to the armoury above and annihilate any enemy forces within. Then, as the dust settled, the engineer squads would rush in and start the job of clearing the armoury’s galleries, warehouses, storerooms and barracks.

The armoury itself was a huge ferrocrete construction, a warren of cavernous warehouses and storerooms, along with barrack facilities for its guards. Most of its defences were on the surface. Inside, the defenders had built barricades from rubble-filled fuel barrels, flak board, sandbags, boulders and anything else solid that came to hand. These barricades blocked the vital corridors and positioned heavy weapons to cover the approaches. Defending a barricade, one militiaman manning a heavy bolter or stubber could rake a corridor with fire, turning it into a killing ground. Every corridor would have to be stormed at a high price in blood.

On 803825.M41 the order to detonate the breaching charges was given. Captain Garis of 98th engineer company pushed down the plunger, the electronic signal raced along the wires to the detonators and then the world collapsed. The explosion could be heard in the trenches above ground, rumbling like approaching thunder, shaking the ground like an earthquake. Within the 55-46 armoury, the twin charges demolished two storerooms, the force of the erupting explosion sending chunks of rock as large as a Leman Russ battle tank hurting through the area to shatter on impact with the crumbling walls. The ceiling collapsed in a landslide of ferrocrete and earth, shaking the entire complex. The emergency lighting failed and plunged all into darkness, and the smoke, fumes and dust rolled out down the corridors like an enveloping fog. Those defenders caught too close to the epicentre were crushed by the shockwave or trapped in the rubble. The battle had begun.

The first squads through the twin breaches clambered into a world of eerie darkness, shrouded in a thick choking fog. Rubble lay everywhere, piled metres high. The squads spread out, flashlight beams flickering as they climbed over the rubble scree. Whatever had been in place to defend these rooms had been destroyed and for now the engineers could advance against no resistance. In minutes engineers were swarming through the breach.

In the darkness the militiamen were holding their nerve and waiting, fingers poised over triggers, as the shock of the breach charging subsided. Then, the echoing retort of a heavy stubber shattered the silence. A long stream of bullets ricocheted down the corridor and tore through the engineers, more guns opened fire, bright muzzle flashes in the darkness, grenades exploding with ear shattering force. Men were hit, cut down with nowhere to hide, their bodies piling up in the corridors. The Krieg engineers returned fire, shotgun blasts ringing and echoing. The traitor gunners continued to fire at the engineers attacking down each corridor, or across each storeroom. The Krieg engineers threw grenades back, trying to dislodge each gunner in turn, but they were protected behind their barricades and any wounded defender was quickly replaced by another gunner. Each barricade took its toll in dead and wounded. Flamethrowers were brought forward, filling each corridor with blazing promethium that consumed the oxygen, replacing it with toxic fumes. High above the rumble of the box-barrage could be heard, like a distant heavy drumbeat, it dislodged dust and mortar from the ceilings to rattle down on the engineers’ helmets as they crouched in the darkness.

The first attack had stalled, each probe forward was cut down in turn in a blaze of automatic fire. The engineers had a slim toe-hold inside the armoury but could advance no further. The initial firefight died down, just the sporadic blast of shotguns reverberated through the corridors to harass the enemy and keep their heads down. Concerned with the lack of progress, Captain Garis of 20th company came forward to assess the situation and find a way of breaking the deadlock. He ordered his men to set melta-charges to blast holes in the interior walls. They could create their own corridors, blasting through into rooms from unexpected directions. He also authorized the use of corrosive gas grenades to dislodge the defenders.

Garis’ intervention got the engineers on the move again, allowing them to cautiously make their way forward. Captain Garis led the way as one melta- charge revealed a dark narrow corridor beyond. Jumping through, with squads at his back, he advanced to a set of steps leading downwards, the bottom of which was sealed by a heavy metal blast door that had been welded shut. Quickly he had a melta-charge placed and fell back to a safe distance as it detonated in a bright orange flash, the door itself becoming molten and steaming violently before the centre collapsed inwards in a pool of liquid slag. Behind it the enemy were waiting, crouched behind a barricade in the darkness, shielded from the melta- charge’s superheated blast. They were ready, poised to pounce, chainaxes gripped tight in one power-gauntleted hand, bolt pistols and plasma pistols in the other. As Captain Garis advanced again, climbing through the now cooling breach, the enemy sprang up and charged. Screaming an unholy curse to their god, their bloodlust over took them. The Khorne Berserkers counter¬attacked in a rush of blazing bolt pistol explosions and the shriek of chainaxes as the spinning blades bit deep. Captain Garis was the first to die, torn into bloody offal in seconds. The engineer squads behind recoiled as one after another they were cut down, their blood spraying the walls and running along the floor in rivulets. The corridor was a slaughterhouse, Khorne laughed long and drank deep of the massacre wrought by his favoured followers. The engineers were no match for these fearsome warriors, each a towering superhuman, strong and fast, protected within blood-encrusted red powered armour, psychopathic with the desire to kill in their master’s name - insane for blood and skulls. In the darkness they killed uncounted numbers and left the mangled bloody corpses to rot.

The violence of the counter-attack halted the engineers’ advance again. They sealed the breaches against the Khorne Berserkers who were now stalking the corridors at will, and fought to hold onto the ground they had captured. Their gas grenades had little effect against powered armour.

For the rest of the first day the deadlock could not be broken. The next day the grenadier squads were sent into the attack from reserve, hoping that they could succeed where the engineers could not. Again they had to face a headlong rush along fire-swept corridors and be cut down. But in some places they did dislodge the defenders with a well-aimed grenade, and turned the barricade to their own defence. Again the Berserkers counter-attacked, charging the barricades, heedless of the enemy fire slashing about them. At one barricade defended by grenadiers, the madmen charged as hellgun shots ricocheted off their powered armour, leaving deep scorch marks but doing no real damage. Grenades exploded but the Berserkers barely broke stride. Then a heavy flamer fired, sending a burning torrent of promethium down the tunnel. The lead Berserker ignited, doused in burning fuel he staggered but ran on, a blazing in human torch, chainaxe raised to strike, still screaming Khorne’s name as he leapt the barricade, bright orange flames engulfing him. Those grenadiers who did not run were cut down. What could mere men, even the stoic men of Krieg, do against such insane and reckless foes?

The third day of battle saw it take a turn for the worse. The enemy had expected the engineers’ attack and had prepared well, including the digging of counter¬mines in secret. They aimed to cut the enemy approach tunnels, and as the battle raged within the armoury, their miners stole ever closer to the Krieg tunnels. A sudden explosion collapsed one tunnel, an engineer squad on their way to the armoury was caught in the explosion and all were killed in the cave- in. Suddenly the flow of men and supplies to the battle was cut to just a single tunnel, if this should be attacked then all the troops ahead would be cut off and face annihilation. The engineers could not afford to have their last lifeline severed. Engineer squads were pulled from the front in order to dig new counter-mines and to man extra listening posts for enemy digging. The heavy artillery still drumming above made the task all the harder.

For three days it had been a desperate fight. Of the first five engineer companies committed to the attack, all had taken horrendous casualties. Of the 600 men in each company at the start of the battle, many were now below half¬strength, Captain Garis’ 20th company was down to just 187 men. Many had been slaughtered in close combat with the Traitor Space Marines.

After four days of no gains, the attack was called off. The enemy were digging again, seeking to attack the remaining supply tunnel. An attempt to dig through the first collapse had ended in disaster as the enemy had been waiting for the new miners and fired a second charge, causing a new collapse and trapping or killing more engineers. It seemed there would be no breakthrough here, and one by one the Krieg squads pulled back.

Dirty, smoke-blackened and with many walking wounded, they emerged from the tunnels below into the frontline trenches, weary men that had been underground for four days, locked in a pitiless battle. For now they had failed to capture the objective, but they would try again. In all, three such battles would be fought for the armoury until it was finally overrun by advancing ground forces of the 471st regiment. The enemy forces that were trapped within by the advance were afforded no mercy. The exits were all sealed and guarded, then the armoury was pumped full with corrosive gas, entombing them below ground forever. Nothing could have survived in an environment so corrosive that it stripped flesh from bones in seconds and then melted the bones to liquid. The engineers had taken their revenge.

The Mine of Sector 57-44

Failure in sector 55-46 did not stop the progress of the underground war in other sectors, and every regiment now had engineer companies attached and at work below ground. There was a second frontline forming below the trenches, and the stealthy tunnel fighting continued day after day, extracting its toll of attrition from both sides, but with the Krieg engineers slowly progressing towards their ultimate objective - the curtain wall.

The curtain wall itself was no single defence line. Over the long years of the war the curtain wall, a tall, thick defence bristling with weaponry and housing bunkers and barracks, had been reinforced with extra trenches and pillboxes laid in front to form another formidable defence line. If not as thick as the previous three, still it must be taken by direct assault.

Marshall Kagori’s plan had always been to undermine the curtain wall, lay large mines and blast breaches through it. Hammering it with siege artillery and bombing it from the sky might work, but would redirect resources that were always in demand elsewhere. Until such time as the trenches could be dug closer to the wall and it could be targeted by direct fire, then a large mine posed the best chance of making a successful breach.

On 673826.M41, over one patient year after the mining operation had first begun, the objective was reached. In sector 57-44 the 383rd engineer company reported it had located the wall’s deep foundations and was in position to set a mine and attempt a breach. Working in total secrecy and silence the engineers ferried the explosives to the chamber constructed to house them. Each explosive charge was carefully stacked and a secondary detonator attached back to the main detonator. It took many days of stealthy work to build the mine. Meanwhile, on the surface an attack was being prepared by the 308th siege regiment. It would fall to them to lead the way and force a route through the last defences between the fortress and ultimate victory.

Preparations for the attack were a closely guarded secret, only the engineers of 383rd company were aware of what was actually being planned. Across Vraks other mining operations were stepped up, to draw enemy attention away whilst the mine was readied. In sector 56-46 heavy cutters were used in a sudden drive for the curtain wall as a deliberate diversion. Quickly spotted by the enemy it drew several counter-mines to it and provoked more bloody underground firefights.

The 57-44 mine would be the largest yet, a massive amount of explosives were needed to make a wide breach, almost emptying 34th Line Korps' stockpiles. They would have one shot at it and they had to make it count!

714826.M41 was set as zero-hour for detonation. The 34th line korps’ high command gathered in a distant bunker to observe the mine and subsequent attack from a safe distance. The cables were checked and double-checked and all engineers removed to safety as the countdown grew ever closer to zero. Over the vox-casters a warning was broadcast - until 10, 9, 8, 7, 6... 2, 1 - 'Fire!’

A tornado howled down the underground tunnels, blowing earth and rock back through the entrances. The ground began to tremble violently as a yellow flame shot hundreds of feet into the air, followed quickly by dense columns of smoke and then the debris behind it. Growing like a mountain in the sky, the black column of rock, earth and masonry rose, up and up, ever upwards, forming a broad mushroom cloud until it peaked and began to tumble back down. With a great booming crash the shock wave rolled out across no-man’s land, rattling the dugouts and trenches of 308th regiment as it swept over them. In the distance all was obscured by the dense pall of smoke and gas now expanding from ground zero. As the smoke cleared the observers could see that the curtain wall had gone. A huge stretch of it had been obliterated into shards of masonry. Nothing remained except a yawning crater. It was a scene of complete devastation. The mine had done its work, 88th army had their breach, now they had to seize it.

The guns of 308th Regiment opened fire as one. The barrage that signalled the start of the attack impacted beyond the curtain wall, shells bursting in rapid succession as the artillery prepared the ground for the first wave of infantry in their Gorgon transports.

War in the Air

With the 88th siege army re-equipping and re-supplying and with new allies on the way to the front, the balance of power had again shifted in favour of the Emperor's forces. They could now match the Traitor Titans of Legio Vulcanum and the arrival of 717th fighter wing and 1099th bomber wing meant that they could also contest the enemy’s aerial supremacy.

Along with the planetary landings of thousands of battle-hardened Chaos worshippers and the renegade warbands of Chaos Space Marines, there had also arrived the infernal Hell Blade and Hell Talons. Sleek and fast, they now streaked into battle, bombing and strafing with impunity. The 88th siege army had little to respond with. It was severely short of anti¬aircraft weaponry, the plan for the siege had not envisioned requiring it in great numbers and that which had been deployed had long since been converted for ground use or lost to the endless artillery bombardments. The Krieg regiments had no air support to call upon themselves, so the enemy had free reign over Vraks’ skies.

Enemy aircraft could strike far and wide, making nowhere on Vraks’ surface safe from attack. Across the Van Meersland Wastes, Hell Blades and Hell Talons plunged down onto supply depots and artillery positions, even attacking the distant landing fields and interrupting the flow of supplies. The losses to the air attacks were mounting daily.

Marshall Kagori’s reinforcements could now however meet the enemy above Vraks with Thunderbolt and Lightning fighters to provide air-defence and escort the Marauder bomber missions. The Marauders gave the 88th siege army a reach well beyond its artillery range so the Imperium’s army could now strike at the heart of the enemy and the citadel would soon come under regular air raids. Strongpoints could be targeted by low-level precision bombing, whilst entire areas of the frontline could be carpet bombed in preparation for an offensive. The siege of Vraks would take on a whole new dimension as the war esculated again.

The 717th fighter wing consisted of ten squadrons, each of approximately 20 aircraft. They would be deployed mainly as a defensive force, flying constant combat air patrols ready to intercept enemy attacks, whilst others would be required to fly as long range escorts alongside the Marauders. 1099th bomber wing consisted of seven squadrons, each of approximately a dozen bombers, supported by four Marauder Vigilants for long-range reconnaissance and command and control support. This was a potent asset for Marshall Kagori, over 80 heavily ladened bombers would be able to pound the rebels and their defences night and day.

It took time to prepare the aircraft after their long journey and to stockpile enough fuel and ammunition whilst labourers constructed airbases for both wings. On 930824.M41 the work was finally complete and the first missions were ready to be launched. The stormy skies of Vraks, once filled by peels of thunder would now reverberate to the roar of jet engines.

To those in the trenches below, looking up to see the vapour trails of high flying bombers and their escorts, it seemed that the Imperial Navy crews had the easiest of lives. They did not face the ever-present threat of sudden annihilation by enemy shelling or the prospect of going over the top in the face of withering enemy fire. These crews knew little of the torments of life on the frontline, living safely in well- protected barracks far away. The pilots knew differently. Part of Vraks’ system of defences against planetary assault was heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft weaponry, much of which surrounded the citadel. The pilots sent to attack the citadel soon named it the ‘hornet’s nest’. A bombing raid would be met with a tremendous barrage of flak and Manticore missiles. Enemy fighters swooped in to meet them, recklessly attacking without fear for their own lives. The Chaos worshippers threw themselves into the new aerial war, seemingly heedless of their losses. Ferocious dogfights swirled and dived and the Imperial Navy's losses started to mount. Proportionally, during attacks on the citadel, an air crewman actually had less chance of survival than an infantryman. Just like the ground war, the battle in the skies was bitter and merciless.

The fortress was their main target and Marauder Vigilant missions quickly revealed that over the years of the siege the enemy had not relied wholly upon the plundered stores (massive through they were). The fortress was now surrounded by its own crude manufacturum. A shantytown of arms and metal working factories had sprung up, where tanks could be repaired and weapons and ammunition constructed. Clustered around the foot of the fortress rock these armouries, workshops and forges were burning night and day to supply the troops at the front. Well beyond the range of Krieg artillery, they soon became a priority target for the bombers. The fortress itself was very well defended and almost invulnerable beneath the shroud of its void shields. The surrounding workshops were also well protected by Vraks’ many anti-aircraft weapons. Here the air war raged with its greatest intensity, Marauders roaring in to unleash devastation into the teeth of heavy flak concentrations. Although other missions to strike at strong points on the front or to interdict the service roads that acted as the main supply routes were also planned and executed, the citadel remained the priority. As the air war intensified, aircraft became a common sight over Vraks.

Marshall Kagori was assured that the Imperial Navy’s commitment to Vraks was in it for the long haul. They would see the campaign to its conclusion, just as the siege regiments must. A constant stream of replacement aircraft, pilots and crew would be supplied to keep the commitment up to strength. Enemy strength in aircraft was unknown and given their nature difficult to pin down. Estimates ranged from 200 aircraft up to 500. Most likely the enemy enjoyed an advantage in numbers at the beginning of the air campaign but as attrition began to take its toll, and Imperial Navy replacements began to arrive, by 278825.M41 most aircrews estimated that they had achieved a rough parity in forces. From then on the Imperial Navy would be gaining the upper hand, if only in numbers alone.

The aircraft that faced each other over Vraks were very different. The vast bulk of the fighter wing was made up of Thunderbolts, the workhorse of the Imperial Navy, well-armoured and armed, with good speed and manoeuvrability. The fighter squadrons could also field a few Lightnings - smaller, faster and lighter than the Thunderbolts they lacked the heavy fighter’s firepower, but could compete with the enemy’s better manoeuvrability in a dogfight. The real striking power came from the Marauder bombers. A medium bomber with excellent range and a large payload of bombs but slow and heavy, the Marauder was very vulnerable to enemy fighters and could not operate without a strong fighter escort. These would be supported by the Marauder’s Vigilant variant. These aircraft sacrificed bomb payload for technical equipment, scanners and high-powered imagers. Used for aerial reconnaissance of targets before an attack, or to study the effects after a raid, they were specialised aircraft and had to be carefully husbanded.

The Imperial Navy faced the Hell Blade and larger Hell Talon. The Hell Blade was small, very fast and agile in a dogfight. They operated in large numbers, swarming the Imperial Navy’s formations. The Hell Talon was a heavier aircraft operating in the fighter/bomber role, carrying a payload of bombs as well as its defensive weapons. Despite its size it was still a mobile aircraft and match for the Thunderbolt in a dogfight. So far on Vraks none of the much feared Harbinger super-heavy bombers had been encountered.

Into the Breach

"With every death on Vraks our victory comes closer. There is no army in the galaxy that can stop the forces we began to invoke so many years ago. Soon they shall be unleashed at our bidding!"
—Deacon Mamon - declared Extremis Diabolus by the Conclave of Scarus 2059.826.M41

Gorgon Assault

The assault would be led by Gorgons, with two companies fully equipped to ride into battle inside 30 Gorgon transports, supported by Leman Russ, Baneblade and Macharius heavy tanks. Once at the breach the Gorgons would disgorge a tidal wave of infantry to overrun the defenders. Behind them would follow more infantry on foot and grenadiers in Centaur carriers. The artillery was already firing overhead, to box-off the battlefield from reinforcements and the aircraft would join the attack, striking at reinforcements before they could reach the breach and help stop-up the gap.

The curtain wall itself was an imposing structure. Completely encircling the citadel, it was six stories high, 30 meters thick at its base and topped by a reinforced parapet. There were hundreds of towers, each armed or providing firing slits for heavy weapons that had clear lines of fire and plunging fire down onto any enemy below. Within the walls were many bunkers, armouries, shelters and corridors. It also mounted automated sentry guns as well as the heavy weapons positioned along the parapet. If this wasn’t enough, the defences were supplemented by more trenches, pillboxes and defence lines in front, with mines, razorwire, tank traps and anti-tank ditches ringing them. The one compensation for the attackers faced with the daunting prospect of breaching it, was that it lacked the depth of the other defensive rings. It was a single line of reinforced ferrocrete that once destroyed could be quickly swamped.

Before the dust from the great mine had settled, the Gorgons’ engines roared into life and their drivers released the brakes. The massive transports began to grind forwards, slowly at first but gathering pace as the air turned blue with thick exhaust fumes. Like a flotilla of boats on a stormy sea, the Gorgon formations set out across the pitted and cratered landscape towards no-man’s land. Within, crowded shoulder-to- shoulder, stood ranks of Krieg guardsmen, jostled and shaken by the Gorgons’ rough passage towards the objective. The guardsmen could see nothing of events beyond the armoured walls, they could only hear the shriek of out-going shells as they awaited the critical moment when the ramps fell and the order to charge was given. All was proceeding as planned, each Gorgon’s huge plough carving a path across the rough ground, steadily closing on the breach.

For the watching defenders it seemed like a the wall of heavy armour was grinding towards them. Many were still dazed or injured from the huge explosion that had just annihilated this section of the wall. The groggy survivors roused themselves and manned their pillboxes and trenches.

As the Gorgons advanced, counter-fire from the renegade’s artillery started to land, just a few mortar shells at first, bursting amongst the Gorgon formations, lashing them with dirt and shrapnel but doing little harm. Heavier shells followed as more batteries received the co-ordinates and orders to open fire. Soon the intensity of the bombardment was growing, mortar bombs and Earthshaker shells mingling with the deep booming detonations of massive Bombard impacts. Through the thunderous explosions the Gorgons rode onwards. One unlucky vehicle took a direct hit, a shell falling directly into the open troop compartment. Trapped within its confines the explosion wrought carnage amongst the densely loaded guardsmen and the Gorgon slued to a smoking halt, its deck a scene of horror, awash with blood.

From the curtain wall the enemy gunners opened fire. Lascannon blasts scorched the air as they smashed into the first assault wave. Impacts whined and ricocheted off the Gorgons’ heavy frontal armour, designed to absorb just such punishment. The supporting Leman Russes returned fire, their battle cannons firing and recoiling, their shells smashing into the wall and sending masonry tumbling as each shell gouged rends in the thick defences. As the two sides traded blows, a second Gorgon was hit and burst into flames, its fuel igniting. The guardsmen within tumbled out, many already on fire, human torches stumbling in the mud until they fell and lay still. A third Gorgon was immobilised. A fourth exploded in a fireball.

The leading assault transports were close now. The order was given to fix bayonets and inside each Gorgon 50 gleaming blades flashed from their scabbards as one and snapped into place. The first ramps began to fall, smashing down into the mud as the Gorgons crawled to a halt. Within, the watchmasters and officers issued the order to charge. The Krieg squads surged forward, hob-nailed boots ringing over the metal ramps as they plunged out into the thickening maelstrom of fire.

The first officer out of his transport, leading 15th platoon, 7th company, died before he cleared the ramp. Shot through the head he fell dead as his men leapt over his body. More were cut down by streams of heavy stubber and heavy bolter rounds as eager gunners clamped down hard on their triggers. All along the sector the defenders hurled fire into the attackers. As platoon after platoon charged forward they were met with accurate grazing fire, cutting down whole squads as they scrambled to get to grips with the enemy.

At the crater’s rim the Krieg guardsmen found themselves scrambling over a wall of earth and rock. Huge chunks of masonry, all that remained of the wall and its foundations, lay scattered about, providing cover but preventing the tanks and Gorgons from advancing any further. The Gorgons’ job complete, the drivers snatched them into reverse and began to back away, their own weapons blazing a stream of suppressing fire over the heads of the infantry in front. From hereon in, deeper into the breach, it would be an infantry battle, man against man. More artillery fire was landing, adjusting its target to the point of the attack. The Krieg infantry were pushing forwards through the dense rubble under plunging fire from the walls and towers. The 19th company commander, Captain Naler, was already on the ground, urging his men onwards when a mortar bomb impacted at his feet, lacerating him with shrapnel wounds and severing his left leg below the knee. Critically wounded, the Captain fell. Closeby, Commissar Moroth saw the Captain fall and immediately took command. Powersword in hand, he ordered the squads in his vicinity to follow him over the rim and down into the deep crater below. Charging through plunging fire, his peaked cap plucked from his head by a passing bullet, the Commissar reached the far embankment, dropping prone as the squads around caught up and followed his example. They were now the furthest forward of any of the attacking platoons. The breached wall’s ruined ends towered above them, swept clear of defenders by withering fire from the tanks. The Commissar started to climb the steep rise, the rocks below him still steaming from the heat of the explosion. He had almost reached the top when the enemy counter-attacked.

Knowing the attack against the breach must come, the enemy had raced to bring up any forces it could to block the breach, dragging in troops from neighbouring sectors through the hail of artillery now descending upon them. Awaiting at the top of the crater lip, hidden amongst the masonry rumble, were the Ogryns. Waiting until the last moment before being spurred into action by their surgically fitted chemical injectors, the brutish creatures rushed down to meet the Krieg guardsmen as they climbed upwards. The Ogryns’ momentum carried them through the first squads, hacking indiscriminately as they went. Krieg guardsmen, caught by surprise and already at a disadvantage due to the slope, stood little chance. Each Ogryn was a ten foot monster, psychopathically insane due to the combat drugs coursing through its blood. Hacking and slashing, roaring in drug-induced pain, the Ogryns bludgeoned their way into the depths of the crater. Commissar Moroth was thrown aside by the first charge, wounded and loosing his powersword from his grip. He emptied his laspistol into one beast, which shrugged off the wounds as if they were no more than insect stings. As he reloaded, a second Ogryn rushed him, wielding a huge rock cutting drill. Unable to defend himself, the blade’s spinning teeth chopped into the Commissar, dissecting his torso from his legs in a spray of blood and entrails. Still more Krieg squads were climbing down into the crater and a swirling mêlée had formed in the bottom as the Ogryns fought with a reckless fury. It was a bloodbath. Ogryns fell, each taking ten or more Guardsmen until the crater floor was carpeted with the dead and dying of both sides.

More artillery was landing, directly hitting the crater itself, mangling and flipping bodies and killing both sides indiscriminately.

As the guardsmen fought hand-to-hand in the breach, the Krieg tanks were unable to push on, the way forward was too heavily blocked by rubble. Without them in close support the Krieg guardsmen struggled to fight their way forward in the face of fanatical enemy resistance.

Behind the fighting a second wave of attackers was now on the move, Centaur carriers loaded down with heavily armoured grenadiers leading the way as more infantry platoons joined the attack. The enemy fought with a zeal and divinely inspired courage that belied their numbers. Losses from both sides had been heavy. Of the first two Krieg companies into the breach, most had become casualties. Many platoons had been wiped out altogether. The second wave fared no better as the fighting lasted on into darkness. The breach could not be captured and held, time and again the infantry scrambled on into the killing zone of the mine crater, only to be cut down as the enemy re¬positioned guns to sweep it clear, or counter-charged. In darkness the attackers withdrew, back to their own trenches, most dragging wounded comrades with them. The dead lay thick, in places piled on top of each other, three or four deep. The hulks of tanks and Gorgon hulls littered the sector. Under cover of darkness, the Quartermaster and their servitor aides emerged to count the cost and scoured the battlefield, like carrion birds stripping the dead.

The 308th regiment’s commanders conceded that the first attempt to capture the breach had failed. Colonel Tolan agreed to a second attempt, given time to properly prepare for another set piece attack. Next time he would lead it personally and face death rather than a second defeat.

Second Assault

On 820826.M41, the 308th regiment got its second chance to seize the breach and take a vital step closer to ending the siege of Vraks. It was meticulously planned. The first attack had only failed because no armour had been able to force its way through the rubble, so the 4th siege artillery regiment, positioned south of the Darro Rift, was given the task of shelling the breach, day and night with heavy bombard shells in an attempt to break up the rubble enough to allow tanks to cross it. The rest of the regiment was to shell the surrounding walls and towers, further smashing their firing parapets and the automated weapons mounted upon them. This softening up was to go on for two weeks - a huge drain on the artillery shell resources of 34th line korps.

Meanwhile, Colonel Tolan prepared his new assault units. The Gorgons had been a success and they would once again carry his men to the target with the full support of more tank and heavy tank companies.

The post-mortem on the failed first assault had also decided that it had been too narrow - a single dagger thrust with just two companies in the lead. The next attack would be wider, storming the walls all along the regiment’s front. This might seem like a futile gesture, but the enemy had been able to hold the breach by using the wall itself to move troops down the line in relative safety from the heavy artillery fire falling all around. This time those troops would be pinned in place defending their wall section. These attacks would be reinforced by more super heavy tanks that would attempt to use their firepower to blast new breaches. With a single location to defend, the enemy had been able to mass enough forces to blunt the attack. With multiple breaches its forces would be stretched thinner and less likely to withstand the hammer blow when it landed.

This time the 308th regiment’s assault was met by a better prepared defence. The Gorgons encountered a fusillade of krak missiles and lascannons as they closed on the objective, many were knocked out, joining the other rusting hulks in no-man’s land. The enemy artillery had had time to zero-in, and responded quickly with overwhelming force. Colonel Tolan led his men into the crater again, but once more found the enemy defending it with fanatical zeal. The Colonel himself was killed in the assault, cut down with the regimental standard bearer at his side as he fought hand-to-hand with the traitors holding the breach. His body lay unidentified under a pile of dead men who had followed his lead and were also killed.

The attacks further along the walls to the north and south gained some success. Two new smaller breaches were blasted in the walls, widening the possible targets, but again they could not be captured and held. In one fight the breach changed hands eight times before the Krieg attack was forced to withdraw. The second assault had been repulsed just as the first. A third would be needed...

Third and Other Assaults

This time the 8th Assault Korps was brought into the line to lead the attack on the walls. Again the tides of Krieg infantry swarmed up the breaches, and again they were repulsed. The enemy was fighting back with everything it had. Over the course of the next Terran year four more assaults were attempted and all ended in bloody retreats. Titans joined the battle, and the area around Sector 57-44 became the bloodiest, hardest fought of the entire siege so far. The battle was a meat-grinder that drew in both sides' men and massacred them. The fourth assault ended when the enemy detonated their own massive mine under the original crater, in the process destroying hundreds of Krieg soldiers caught in the crater at the time. The explosion deepened the area further and scattered more rubble, but it effectively ended the attack.

How was the breach to be captured? Marshall Kagori was concerned that it was taking up too many resources. Request for more aid from the Titans had to be turned down. The fighting here might be intense, but there was still a war to conduct. The entire region was still one big battleground. Attacks and counterattacks, raids and counterraids, both sides constantly flung themselves at the enemy's positions in a bid to break them. Sector after sector was consumed in the all-out war. The Chaos Spaces Marines continued their devastating attacks. Alpha Legion troops were identified conducting raids deep behind the front line, destroying artillery positions and ammunition storage dumps. The 1st Line Korps was fully engaged against the forces of Nurgle, faced by the horrors of continued chemical warfare. The Legio Vulcanum was still out there, lending its strength wherever a major attack went over the top. The Legio Astorum Titans were needed to counter their threat, and became scattered across the Van Meersland Waste. Daily, the frontline was ablaze with furious battles. More reports of engagements and losses streamed across the Marshall's desk. The tunnelling war also continued.

Maybe it could provide another breakthrough, perhaps even a second breach? But it did not happen, as the enemy had learned a lesson and was counter-mining with better effect. Underground the war had become a stalemate just like above. The two sides were evenly matched. Like great pugilists, each bruising attack was met with a counterstrike, but neither seemed to have the strength to knock the other out. After the furious battles and over a 1,000,000 more Krieg Guardsmen consigned to the Emperor's Peace by Vraks, the war's tempo slackened. The Marshall's great plans for a new impetus had run its course. The enemy had matched it and, with herculean efforts, held it. In places the gains saw Krieg regiments within sight of the curtain wall. In others they remained trapped at the inner defence lines.

No longer surrounded the enemy could launch flanking attacks and raids far to the east. Out there, far from the trenches, the Krieg Death Rider companies saw their own hard fighting -- riding long distances to scout out any enemy moves. Running skirmishes with enemy reconnaissance units were common.

And so another Terran year of the Siege of Vraks had passed, with heavy losses and small gains in ground and no end in sight for the battle-weary Guardsmen who endured it. One piece of good news reported to Marshall Kagori was that patrol sweeps of the Vraks System had found no trace of the lurking Battleship Anarchy’s Heart. She must have fled the system, too badly damaged to risk another battle. The Imperial supply lines into Vraks were secure once again.

The Long War Continues

After the latest surge in fighting, the long war of attrition resumed. Both sides husbanded their forces, re-organised, and re-equipped. The daily artillery duel continued, but both sides were a spent force for now. Marshall Kagori accepted the gains his offensive had made and drew up new plans for the recapture of the lost ground, but he realised now that the attrition would have to go on, indefinitely if needs be. The enemy, reinforced by the most fervent of Chaos worshippers and now fully embracing the power that the dark gods were offering, would not break or surrender. They would have to be wiped out, annihilated to the last man. In all it had been estimated that 8,000,000 men had started out defending Vraks and their self proclaimed messiah. Now how many were left? If the 88th siege army had killed the enemy at the projected rate of one for every two casualties borne by its regiments, then over 3,000,000 Heretic souls had been purged from the galaxy since the start of the war. That meant the 88th siege army wasn’t even halfway through the Apostate Cardinal’s manpower reserves, and he had been reinforced.

Where once the enemy had been mere militiamen, labourers and a rabble of untrained workers, all were now veterans, hardened in the crucible of this bitter siege into excellent soldiers. They believed their gods were supporting them and believed victory could ultimately be theirs, regardless of defeats in the field. Cardinal Xaphan had not been seen or mentioned for a long time. Was he still alive, hidden within his lair? Perhaps a servant of the Officio Assassinorum should be dispatched to Vraks to eliminate him? Ultimately it would serve little purpose. It was more likely that the Chaos Space Marine Warmasters had taken direct command. This war was now being fought to their plans and their desires.

So the two armies were once again at deadlock. The long war must continue. The projected date for the end of the siege of Vraks had passed almost two years ago. The Administratum had accepted the extension and found the extra resources but the Department Munitorum was now conducting another of its long reviews of the campaign. The twelve year plan had run its cycle and more, but it had not brought the projected victory.

Marshall Kagori argued against it but the commitment of resources that Vraks had demanded could no longer be maintained. The Adeptus Administratum’s planning required Krieg guardsmen for other warzones and the high priority the campaign on Vraks had enjoyed must be downgraded. The siege was not to be abandoned, the heretic forces must still be fought and defeated and Vraks returned to the Emperor’s rule. This new policy just meant that it would take longer and cost more in the long run. The Marshall and his advisors argued in council with the Departmento’s delegates sent to inform him of the decision. It didn't help his cause. The revised plans had already been stamped on Terra by the Office of the Master of the Department Munitorum. Marshall Kagori must make do with fewer replacements and fewer supplies. He should revise his plans accordingly. He had another five years before the next review would be undertaken.

In response to this bitter blow the Marshall dispatched a delegation of his own staff officers, with a mission to enlist more aid quickly, before the Departmento Munitorum’s new policy started to take effect.

Attack Force Ainea

Marshall Kagori’s delegates rendezvoused with the strike cruiser Arx Fidelis in the Cantus system. The Adeptus Astartes vessel was returning from a patrol sweep through the dangerous Fydae nebula and was using the Imperial Navy victualling station at Cantus IX to re-supply before returning to base.

On board was a combined strike force of elements of four companies of the Red Scorpion’s Chapter, led by Commander Ainea of 3rd company. He had with him approximately 100 battle brothers from the 1st, 3rd, 6th and 8th companies who had attacked and destroyed an Ork pirate stronghold. It had been a routine mission and the engagement had seen the aliens crushed. More anti-pirate operations were to be prosecuted before they returned to their Chapter fortress.

Kagori’s delegation was met with due ceremony and Commander Ainea listened to their request. The Marshall needed assistance in prosecuting the war on Vraks. His Imperial Guard regiments were locked in a stalemate and he needed to get his campaign started again. Many attempts had failed. Now he was turning to the Emperor’s finest warriors for assistance. The Commander agreed to review the situation and put the request to his Lord High Commander. He would not authorise the deployment himself, even though as a trusted officer he was perfectly at liberty to do so.

After several months delay, Marshall Kagori finally got his answer at his Thracian Prime headquarters. The Lord High Commander of the Red Scorpions had agreed to the deployment. It seemed that the opportunity to rid the galaxy of a dangerous heretic and the Traitors Legionnaires that had allied themselves with him was a blessing from the Emperor. Strike Force Ainea would proceed to the Vraks system and assess the campaign on the ground before deciding where best to deploy themselves. This would only occur under the proviso that Ainea was to remain at all times under his own offices. No Red Scorpion was to be placed under any other commander, Ainea had sole discretion and free rein in the use of his forces.

The Marshall agreed, happy that the elite strike force was willing to help even as the Departmento Munitorum was reducing its support. He had the Space Marine officers briefed and they held their own planning council to decide where to commit their forces. They chose the breach at sector 57-44. Here their small force could best effect the outcome of the campaign. They would plan and launch a fresh attempt to seize the breach and crack the curtain wall. It would be codenamed Operation Execution Place.

Operation Execution Place

The mission took careful planning and would involve all the resources Commander Ainea had at his disposal, including the Arx Fidelis. It would be a lightning assault, conducted in darkness and requiring superb timing. The spearhead of his attack was the 1st company’s squads - veteran battle brothers in Terminator armour. Ainea and Codicier Yaec would lead them personally, utilising the Arx Fidelis teleport chamber to deliver this potent assault team directly into the breach. For this attack he would need to be incredibly accurate, this involved getting his teleporter as close to the target as possible and having a teleport homer beacon in place - nothing could be left to chance.

The mission of placing the teleport homer at the breach would require a small volunteer team to drop in via Thunderhawk, seconds before the Terminators were in position. This team would use jump packs to land, then set¬up the beacon so that the Arx Fidelis' surveyors could lock onto it. The Terminators would then teleport in and begin the actual attack. Meanwhile, as the spearhead was engaging, a second ground assault team would be ready to race to the Terminators’ position in the strike force’s armoured vehicles, using specialist siege equipment such as Vindicators. As the Terminators seized the breach, so the ground forces would arrive to hold it against the inevitable counter-attacks. When the Space Marines had secured the breach, they would signal the mission complete codeword and a special battle group from 11th assault korps, picked for the job, would be the first through the breach to begin the exploitation. This exploitation force would include support from the Titans of Legio Astorum. High Princeps Drauca agreed to the plan and would personally join the force in his Reaver battle Titan Praetorian. If all went to plan, the Red Scorpions could then hand over security of the breach to the Krieg forces and withdraw back to their strike cruiser. The heretics were about to face a true army of the Imperium for the first time, an all arms attack. Zero-hour was set at 989826.M41.

Aboard the Arx Fidelis the battle brothers were preparing for combat. The Chaplains were blessing weapons and armour. Commander Ainea spent a day in prayer, knelt before the Emperor’s altar in the cruiser’s shrine before donning his Terminator armour suit, along with Codicier Yaec and the veteran brothers of 1st company. He had already hand-picked five volunteers for the mission of placing the homer beacon, all were assault troops of 8th company, led by Sergeant Culln. The ground forces were preparing to deploy via Thunderhawks to the surface. These were placed under the command of Ainea’s most trusted deputy, Veteran Sergeant Zhyr of 6th company, assisted by the company’s most experienced battle brothers, three Dreadnoughts, former Chaplain Nalr, venerable brother Rzasa and brother Daeres who would be equipped for siege warfare with a rock-crushing assault drill and inferno cannon.

The Arx Fidelis’captain was briefed. He would be taking his ship into range of Vraks’ remaining defence laser silos, they would no doubt detect his approach and quickly open fire. The cruiser was taking a risk, but it only had to weather the enemy defences long enough for Ainea’s force to teleport into the battle. Then the captain should make evasive manoeuvres and head for safety with all speed, his role in the mission complete.

Zero-hour approached as the Arx Fidelis came under fire. Defence laser blasts streaked skyward as the strike cruiser blasted into low orbit, her bombardment cannons returning fire as she approached. Several defence laser blasts smashed into the vessel’s thick armour as her void shields failed under repeated impacts.

Deep in the bowels of the strike cruiser ancient energies, barely contained by archaic machinery, were thrumming with power. Within the teleport chamber lightning flashed and arced unpredictably as the Techpriest scurried to and fro, adjusting dials and muttering incantations to appease the archaic machine’s spirit. In the centre stood Commander Ainea, resplendent in his huge armoured suit, draped in purity seals and honour badges, the powersword of his rank in his left hand, storm bolter loaded in his right. Behind him stood Codicer Yaec and ten men, all similarly equipped, each carrying tall thunderhammers and stormshields or the long glittering blades of lightning claws protruding from their powergloves.

Whilst the Arx Fidelis was buffeted and smashed by the defence laser salvoes, a single Thunderhawk gunship was racing low over the dark surface of Vraks, approaching the breach from the south at no more than 100 feet above ground, skimming the contours below as it approached the target. At the rear ramp stood five Space Marines, Sergeant Culln’s assault squad. The sergeant clasped the homing beacon as the pilot warned them to stand-by - drop zone approaching. In response the Space Marines’ jump packs turbines whined into life, the ramp slowly descending to reveal the slate-dark sky beyond.

On command Culln’s men jumped, plunging out through the darkness and into the violent current of the Thunderhawk’s slip stream. With jump packs straining at full power to break the short fall, the five assault Space Marines aimed directly for the centre of the breach crater. In seconds they had landed, smashing into the ground with an impact that would have killed lesser men. Each Space Marine rolled with the impact and sprang back to their feet, bolt pistols levelled, alert and seeking targets.

The enemy had been forewarned of the Thunderhawk’s approach by the sound of its three great rocket engines. It passed directly overhead flying flat out. It was a swift black shadow, a roar of engines, and then it was gone - quickly receding into the distance. But enemy sentries were alert now and started scouring the area. Flashlights and searchlights beams criss-crossed the breach as Sergeant Culln set up the beacon, his men surrounding him, covering every direction. Then, suddenly the team was spotted. At first a few shots pierced the darkness, whining overhead as Culln hurried to direct the beacon’s signal back to the Arx Fidelis. More shots whizzed past. The enemy was coming.

The beacon bleeped into life as the Arx Fidelis’ surveyors locked on. Sergeant Culln immediately gave the order to open fire. Bolt pistols barked their distinctive sound as each bolt ignited before the sudden thunder-clad explosion of its warhead on impact. Sentries on the crater’s rim burst apart with the force of the bolts, torn limb from limb. The battle had begun.

Just five Space Marines stood before hundreds of enemies. Undaunted, Culln’s squad ignited their jump packs again and launched themselves up the crater’s slope, straight at the enemy. Chainswords slashed and hacked and bolt rounds roared in the night in their furious assault. Squad Culln cut down the first sentries, but the alarm had already been raised. More traitors were now rushing to man the defences. A missile’s fiery trail streaked from the darkness, smashing one battle brother clean in the chest, the blast of its krak warhead piercing his armour and severing his torso. Another Space Marine was wounded, his helmet punctured, leaving his face a bloody ruin of flesh and blood. Outnumbered and outgunned, even the Emperor’s finest could not hope to stand for long. Culln needed reinforcements.

The teleport chamber of the Arx Fidelis exploded in light as the blue lightning arcs streamed about Ainea and his men. The air was alive, fizzing and sparking with raw power. As the blinding brightness faded to darkness, the chamber was left empty.

Ainea’s Terminators appeared in a flash of light and a halo of sizzling power, directly on target. They appeared out of nowhere, cast through the warp the short distance from their strike cruiser to Vraks’ surface. Now they began the slaughter. Ainea’s stormbolter hammered a stream of bolts as the veterans advanced, the defender’s fire pattering off their Terminator armour and storm shields like mere hail stones. Their Thunderhammers and Lightning Claws cut a swathe through the traitors. In darkness all was confusion, but the Space Marines knew their plan and retained their discipline, working together to systematically clear the breach. Power wreathed Codicier Yaec’s force weapon as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his commander, lightning leapt from his fingers, smiting down any who stood before him with the power of the warp tamed and at his command. Those enemies who did not run were slaughtered without mercy.

As the Terminator armoured battle brothers began their attack, so veteran Sergeant Zhyr’s strike force was racing across no-man’s land, deploying squads into battlelines to complete their advance on foot. Amongst their ranks stalked the three lumbering Dreadnoughts. The darkness did not shroud their attack for long. Searchlight beams played across no-man’s land, locked on to the Space Marine vehicles, and the enemy firing began.

Zhyr’s battle brothers advanced through the fire, bolt guns returning shots in a steady, accurate stream. From behind the advancing squads missiles and lascannon blasts raced overhead, impacting against the wall’s parapets. Heavy bolters were blazing, rocket- powered shells shrieking as they tried to suppress the enemy’s strongpoints. Pre-ranged artillery fire began to land. Zhyr himself was flung through the air by a close impact, landing unharmed in a rain of rock and hot shrapnel. The veteran sergeant struggled to his feet and urged his brothers onwards. Their commander was ahead of them, fighting for the breach, they must reach him. Somewhere in the darkness a Vindicator’s cannon opened fire, scoring a direct hit on the remains of a pillbox that had been rebuilt with sandbags and boulders. The small bunker exploded apart, its heavy weapons obliterated.

Zhyr’s leading tactical squad reached the edge of the crater. Under heavy fire they paused to regroup and reload, laying down a suppressing volley of bolt gun fire. Dreadnought Chaplain Nalr was with them, his lascannon barrels glowing red-hot. They were soon joined by Brothers Rzasa and Daeres, whose rock-cutting power drill was smashing the largest boulders to clear a route for the following vehicles. Behind him came the first Vindicator. Another of its huge shells launched, looping a high trajectory onto the wall parapet above, its shattering detonation gouging into the rock and sending masonry crashing to the ground.

Zhyr’s main force had reached the mine crater. With Chaplain Nalr at the fore they now plunged down into the crater- bottom where so many Krieg guardsmen had fought and died before them. Racing through the plunging fire and thickening artillery barrage they climbed the far slope. Driven forward by their power armour, they never broke stride as they raced to their commander’s aid.

Just ahead of them Commander Ainea’s brothers met a counter-charge by the Ogryns head on. The commander’s powersword was slicing left and right, severing the leg of one enraged beast, which stumbled and fell, still swinging wildly with its heavy club. The Ogryns’ attack was quickly cut to pieces, they were no longer facing mere Imperial guardsmen. Thunderhammers sent the creatures reeling, their drug induced nervous system overloaded by the weapon’s fearsome impact. Lightning claws slashed and thrust, raking through crude plasteel armour like paper to dice Ogryns in gory hunks of meat. Alongside Aineas stood the sole survivor of Culln’s assault squad, the Sergeant himself, wielding his chainsword in both hands, his bolt pistol discarded, empty of ammunition. For his heroic efforts in the breach that bloody night, Sergenat Culln would later be elevated to the Chapter’s 1st company.

Zhyr and Chaplain Nalr rendezvoused with their commander. Both were battle- scarred, their armour dented and scorched but the Red Scorpions had captured the breach. Enemy bodies lay scattered across the ground, adding to the mouldering bones of the long dead. The Red Scorpions’ lightning attack had succeeded where all the Krieg attacks

had failed. The enemy had been unable to stop the Terminators’ sudden teleport assault, the fury of their attack or the psychic-fuelled power of Codifier Yaec. Commander Ainea formed his newly arriving reinforcements into a defensive perimeter. They had taken the breach. The mission complete signal was transmitted. Now they must hold until the Krieg battle group and Drauca’s Titans arrived. Ainea and his battle brothers knew this battle had not been won yet.

Here We Are...

The enemy had emergency plans in place to counter the breaching of the curtain wall. A rapid response force of tanks and Chimera-borne infantry was stationed to move quickly to meet any breakthrough. As news of the defeat reached their commanders, this force was sent into the counter-attack to blunt any exploitation and drive on to retake the breach. With it would follow the Titans.

Before dawn the two opposing forces were on a collision course. Commander Ainea’s battle brothers occupied the blasted wreckage of the curtain walls and the rubble strewn ground. Devastator squads were positioned at the breach, with the Terminators withdrawn, ready to rush in and block any breakthrough should the enemy attack get too close. Here the Red Scorpions would stand, unbreakable in their defiance. Enemy shelling was still landing accurately and Ainea’s men had to dig in and erect hastily-built barricades. Behind his strike force reinforcements were on the way.

The 11th assault korps’ battle group had been preceded by engineer squads. These set about demolishing the remaining obstacles around the breach. Following them came tanks, the spearhead of the breakthrough force, each company again accompanied by a super-heavy tank. Behind them came infantry and field artillery, which were soon deployed and supplied, ready for immediate action.

In the first glimmer of a pale dawn light the enemy counter-attack began. Titan weapons opened fire at long range, raking the breach with earth shattering impacts, causing more of the wall to collapse. A Razorback took a direct hit and was vaporized by the high-energy beam of a volcano cannon, leaving only black scorched rocks to mark the machine spirit’s passing. Chaplain Nalr lost an arm, torn away by a large white- hot piece of shrapnel. The Krieg artillery returned fire. From far to the rear the siege guns sent shells rumbling and whining over the Space Marines’ heads, impacting about the Titan’s feet. Ainea watched the blossoming explosions through his magnocular scanner. He could see enemy vehicles racing forward, heavy tanks with infantry carriers behind. Several carriers were already burning, caught in the artillery strikes and belching acrid smoke. More incoming Titan fire blasted his positions, leaving craters and shattered rocks. Where was Drauca? He needed to be able to respond to the heavy firepower before it was too late. These massive guns could would make short work of even mighty Space Marines. He turned to scan back towards the Krieg lines and, through the lingering smoke, he saw the lumbering form of a Reaver Titan appear.

High Princeps Drauca’s Reaver strode towards the breach, stepping over and around the tanks and light vehicles still ploughing forwards. At full striding speed the Titan raced ahead. Drauca’s augurs had already detected the enemy Titans. His weapons Moderatii was busy calculating long range firing solutions for all weapons. In the Reaver’s wake followed two Warhounds. Praetorian was first through the breach as its void shields flared and crackled under the first impacts. Ainea looked up as the towering war machine stepped directly over him, its Princeps riding far above, eight stories high. He had a god-like view of the battlefield, fitting for the god¬like powers of the machine at his control. Ainea smelt ozone and felt the air vibrate and buzz as the Reaver’s three turbo-laser destructors powered up and suddenly burst into life, blindingly-bright triple beams flashing. He tracked the bolt’s flight and saw the void shields of the enemy Titan flare brightly from the impact. Pistons whined as the great war machine strode clear of his men, two smaller Warhounds behind, almost nimble by comparison with the Reaver’s earthshattering footfalls. The Warhounds also opened fire. Satisfied Ainea snapped his helmet back into place. With the Titans locked in their own duel, his men could concentrate on the approaching enemy tanks. Firing was intensifying as the enemy closed in. Lascannons and krak missiles shrieked. A Chimera exploded into an expanding orange fireball. Ainea withdrew. This time he would keep an overview of the battle, this was not the time for his personal involvement - that would come later. For now it was a long range duel of firepower. Looking back

again he could see the first Shadowsword Titan-hunter slowly crawling its way across the crater, cresting the slope and gunning its engine hard as it forced aside the remaining rubble. Soon it too would be engaging the enemy Titans.

The enemy counter-attack pressed hard all day, but more Krieg forces poured through the breach and out into the wider battlefield beyond. Several times enemy infantry reached the breach, only to be repulsed by the charge of Ainea and his Terminators. Ainea himself was wounded in the fighting by a direct hit from a plasma blast. His Terminator armour had saved his life, but the thick breastplate had been punctured, the searing heat of the violent impact burning away the armour and the Commander’s chest, exposing the black carapace implant within. When an apothecary dragged Ainea from field, assisted by Sergeant Culln, the commander was barely conscious but still issuing orders despite the pain of his wound. It was a grievous injury but once the apothecary had administered stabilising drugs he declared the commander would live, with the aid of extensive cybernetic rebuilding.

Command on the ground now passed to Veteran Sergeant Zhyr and brother Nalr as they orchestrated the stoic defence. All day the Red Scorpions fought until their ammunition was expended. By then the Krieg forces had fought the enemy to a stalemate. Princeps Drauca’s battle group had duelled with the enemy Titans. One Warhound had been destroyed by a volcano cannon strike, leaving just two great legs jutting skyward, the scout Titan’s torso and head obliterated in a catastrophic plasma reactor explosion that had illuminated the battlefield like a second sun bursting into life. But the enemy had been heavily damaged in the exchange of fire and had withdrawn rather than be destroyed. Rand Drauca could list another victory over the despised Legio Vulcanum traitors on Praetorian’s honour banner.

When Zhyr determined that the Imperial Guard forces were now in position in such strength that no enemy attack would move them, he ordered his own survivors to withdraw. The Red Scorpions fell back, mostly on foot or clambering onto the hulls of the few surviving vehicles. Ninety six battle brothers had begun Operation Execution Place. Just 34 returned, many of them also bearing horrible wounds. Commander Ainea was badly

wounded and venerable brother Nalr had lost his lascannon right arm. Brother Daeres had been destroyed, lost to a tank’s armour piercing shell that had punched through the Dreadnought’s armoured sarcophagus. The wreckage was towed away to be rebuilt and one day fight for Emperor again.

The apothecaries searched the battlefield and collected the all- important progenoid glands of the slain, then survivors loaded the bodies into Rhinos for transport back to the Chapter’s fortress. Upon their return, the correct burial rites would be performed before the Chapter’s Lord High Commander. Sergeant Culln was still alive, his jump pack now discarded, he trudged back, his armour was rent and pitted, his left shoulder pad torn away and his helmet shattered and lost. Soon the Thunderhawks would arrive to lift them back to orbit. High above the Arx Fidelis had survived its exchange with Vraks’ defence lasers, it had been damaged in the approach but escaped without further harm.

Their mission was complete. The Red Scorpions’ sacrifice to the Emperor’s cause on Vraks had been made. The price for victory had been paid in the loss of many brave battle brothers and the spirits of vehicles vanquished forever. But the Chapter’s role in the siege had been a vital one. Few other forces in the Emperor’s service could have done it. Thanks to the Red Scorpions' sacrifices, in Sector 57-44 the Krieg Guardsmen were finally through the curtain wall.

Only the Fortress of Vraks lay before them.

Harbingers and Portents

"And behold, a Daemon Lord comes in the full panoply of battle. At his passing the very stones scream their hate to the uncaring heavens and the sky weeps tears of blood. He hunts the enemies of his master, for his meat is mortal flesh and his wine mortal souls.

At his left hand moans a Daemon, bound to the shape of a great axe. Its songs of blood and hatred echo forth, and fill the skies with a noise that stirs even the long dead. At his left stands lesser daemons, huntsmen all and straining at the leashes are the hounds. They feast upon the shades and spirits they have harried, throwing morsels of innocence to each other, so that all may sample the sweetest meat.

Behind him await the legions of his master, arrayed in armour, graven and unholy, brass shining like the sun, redder than blood, yet darker than midnight. Each holds a shrieking sword, each shrieks in disharmony with his blade, each pins the chorus of Chaos, a promise of worse than death for those that hear it and do not run. Beneath their feet the earth writhes, as if to escape their presence.

Behold a Daemon Lord comes, the Deathbringer Unbound, and we are all doomed...
"
—Prophesies of Malphius the Seer - Readings on the fate of Vraks. Inscribed into the eighth volume on the Codex Daemonica on the Orders of Inquisitor Lord Hector Rex.

On Thracian Prime Marshall Kagori was interrupted in his routine round of briefings and reports from Vraks. News of the breakthrough in sector 57-44 was being reviewed and, given the changing situation, new supply calculations were needed. The Marshall’s plan to employ a Space Marine Chapter had worked and it seemed that the 88th siege army was finally within sight of the ultimate objective. The crisis since the defeat at the First Battle of Vraks had been contained.

Then a Servitor-cipher arrived carrying an automated message for the Marshall. An important visitor had arrived at his headquarters, claiming to be a representative of the Emperor’s Inquisition. It was urgent.

The Marshall put his briefing on hold to meet with the stranger. Not even a high ranking Marshall of the Imperium, with millions of men at his command would keep an Inquisitor waiting. Under his heavy, thick robes the visitor was tall, almost unnaturally so, and built like a Space Marine, wide in the chest and shoulders, all muscle. His rich attire was trimmed in exotic furs. His face bore the scars of battle, his eyes were piercing and otherworldly, inhuman one might say. Around his neck he wore a heavy chain, from it a heavy golden T of the Inquisition hung as a badge of office.

Behind him stood a retinue of equally strange individuals. Servitor-scribes whirred and hummed. Ritually-scarred feral warriors glared. A small cherubim creature hovered on feathered wings at its master’s shoulder. One pale, thin, dark-robed figure was blind, his eyes milky white orbs - an astropath. He was branded with the sign of Imperial conditioning - a mark of a survivor of the fabled ‘soul-binding’.

The Inquisitor addressed the Marshall sternly but with respect. He introduced himself as Lord Hector Rex, bearer of the Inquisitorial Mandate and Proctor- General of the Scarus Conclave. The war of Vraks was in danger, he explained. The Inquisitor had taken many readings from the Emperor’s Tarot. His seers had been meditating on the subject, using their clairvoyance to search the probable future. All the signs were grim. Vraks was a world ready to explode. As an Inquisitor Lord, Hector Rex knew what he was talking about - this was no mere warning, it was the truth. The future of Vraks was grim, far bloodier than anything the war had yet seen. The rebels might have been pushed back, but in the wider scheme of the dark gods the work of mere mortals was almost complete. Rex already knew that the traiors were openly worshipping the unnameable powers and had made allies of Traitor Legionnaires. Soon they would be offering themselves as hosts for possession and attempting to summon daemonic creatures. If they succeeded, Vraks might be beyond saving. All around the system the warp was already in ferment. The 88th siege army was in peril... peril that all the Marshall’s maps, reports and battle plans could not predict, and all his guns and tanks would not stop. The dark gods were ready to unleash their blasphemous legions - the ritual was almost at its climax. Urgent action must be taken. Lord Rex was forced to invoke his Inquisitorial mandate and indenture the entire of 88th siege army into the Ordo Malleus’ service...

...meanwhile on Vraks itself the signs and portents were ill, but there was none present who understood the changing nature of the war. A second sun had been reported by pilots over the Van Meersland Wastes. The planet’s naturally volatile atmosphere was becoming more so, lightning storms flickered constantly in the upper atmosphere. Clouds darkened. Some sentries even claimed to have seen the dead of previous battles rise from the mud of no-man’s land and walk again. Little attention was paid to these strange portents - but soon a new enemy would threaten the Emperor’s soldiers on Vraks...

The Conclave of Scarus

A Room of Secrets

The colonnaded forum before the council chamber was a bustle of people and servitors. Hundreds of scribes, servants, menials and acolytes had gathered before the ornate vaulted brass doorway that led into the council chamber beyond. They were all awaiting admittance to the viewing balconies that surrounded the debating floor. Today the great Lord-Inquisitors of the Conclave of Scarus would sit in full session, and many items were listed upon the agenda. From the indictment of numerous failing Admmistratum Principles and Adepts on minor charges, to those accused of the most heinous crimes of blasphemy and heresy against the Emperor and facing the ultimate punishment of excommunication. Top of the agenda was the motion brought by the Proctor General himself, Inquisitor Lord Hector Rex, for the induction of the entire 88th Imperial Guard siege army into his service.

Lord Hector Rex was seeking the conclave's approval for an order to take command of the war on Vraks. So far the siege of the Apostate-Cardinal Xaphan's fortress on the former Departmento Munitorum armoury world of Vraks had dragged on for fourteen years. At best estimates over six million Imperial Guardsmen of the Krieg siege regiments had been sacrificed in an unrelenting war of attrition, other figures reached as high as eight million. The Cardinal's heretical army had offered stern resistance from its strong defenses, and each yard gained had been bought at a bloody price in loyal lives. Such slaughter would have concerned the Inquisitor-Lord little had it not been for two further factors; first the intervention on Vraks of warbands of the Traitor Legions of Chaos, and second the subsequent prophesy of the renowned and honoured hunch backed Warp-seer Malphius - whose mastery of the predictive power of the Emperor's Tarot was second to none Malphius' readings had made grim and worrying news. Lord Rex believed the aged, misshapen seer had seen the future for Vraks, and based upon his experience of a lifetime as a daemon-hunter of the Ordo Malleus, Lord Hector Rex was now certain that Vraks was about to become the site of a major daemonic incursion. The ground had been well prepared by fourteen Terran years of bitter warfare. Now the vile servants of the Chaos Gods were ready to unleash their worst allies, dark powers from the Warp made flesh and bone in the material universe -- daemons -- the true children of Chaos daemons were malevolent spirits that could not be defeated by conventional means.

There were few forces in the universe able to repel such an assault, which would be both physically and morally corrupting. But the Ordo Malleus had been founded for just such demanding work. Theirs was the sacred task to protect Mankind from terrible powers that the common man should never know about. In order to take command, the Inquisitor-Lord wanted the authority of his conclave behind him. With it he could take overall command of the war on Vraks and deploy all the resources available to the Ordo Malleus to counter the threat. If needs be he could always invoke his inquisitorial Mandate and proceed without his conclave's full backing, but to do so would seriously weaken his power within the chamber and, should his mission fail, open him up to accusations and indictments from his enemies, especially in the Ordo Hereticus.

Those enemies were already gathered here in number. The Ordo Hereticus, the Witch Hunters, was the arm of the Inquisition founded to police the threat to the Imperium from within its own organisations. It was the single largest and most powerful faction within the byzantine structure of the Emperor's Inquisition. Their sacred task was to route out heresy, incompetence and criminality from the ranks of the Emperor's own servants. The powers they wielded in searching out those that failed in their duties to the Emperor were unparalleled and virtually unlimited. Even an Inquisitor-Lord of the Onto Malleus was not beyond their reach Lord Rex knew that the Witch Hunters would seize any opportunity they could to take control of the war on Vraks. They had already assisted the Ecclesiarchy in lobbying hard to be granted command of the siege army fighting on Vraks. Their argument was that as the Apostate-Cardinal was a renegade from within the Adeptus Ministorum. He should face justice at their hands and no other. Crimes had also been committed against the Adeptus Sororitas, the holy Sisters of Battle who served alongside the Witch Hunters as their chamber militant. Lord Hector Rex expected that today's debate on Vraks would be hard fought, and failure in the council chamber might see him forced to act alone, and risk the ire of the Ordo Hereticus. Before he could win any battles on Vraks he must first win the political battle here.

Despite the enemy factions entrenched against him, Inquisitor Rex also knew that the conclave would have to act. Failure to do so against the threat of daemonic incursion on Vraks could have terrible consequences, not just in defeat for the Imperial Guard forces but the surrounding systems would be next. Perhaps Vraks might become a Daemon World, where the barriers between the Warp and realspace have been broken down completely, and daemons roam at will. Defeat would mean that the Chaos gods would have gained a foothold m the Scarus sector and more attacks and raids would then follow, perhaps becoming a Black Crusade. Who knew how many worlds would be lost and how many souls would be damned to the service of the dark powers before an incursion was halted?

All had been prepared. Seer Malphius had been summoned to appear before the conclave, and other evidence had been gathered and prepared. Hector Rex's agents had sounded out the other members of the conclave, and knew that those who supported his motion and those that stood against it were evenly split. As the Inquisitor-Lord donned his luxurious ceremonial robes and the many symbols of his offices he had his opening speech memorized. He joined the procession of the other conclave members as they moved across the forum and the great doors swung slowly open.

The debating chamber was an ancient hall, used by the conclave for the past 2,000 standard years, its marbled floor was worn and scuffed, its granite chairs and benches smoothed and polished with age and wear. Servo-skulls hovered overhead carrying lanterns to light the chamber, but It was still dark and gloomy, except in the centre of the circular debating floor, where a spotlight fell upon each Inquisitor who took his turn to address the conclave. Down the years many criminals and malcontents had been named and excommunicated from within this hall, many Inquisitors and their agents dispatched upon missions to hunt down those that sought to threaten or overthrow the righteous rule of the High Lords of Terra. The upper tier of the chamber was surrounded by viewing balconies, from where scribes and secretaries could record the debates and motions placed before the conclave. Higher still, in the intricate ironwork rafters overhead where gargoyles and saintly statues held up the arching roof, plump cherubim creatures perched and fluttered on feathered wings, carrying parchments and messages for those below.

Access to the chamber was through the single gleaming brass doorway, huge and heavy, carved with images of the Emperor battling mythic beasts with many heads, symbolic of the many enemies that Mankind must vanquish if the Emperor's divine rule was to be maintained across the galaxy. Through that door now came in procession the Inquisitor-Lords of the Conclave of Scarus. Each resplendent in his or her finest ceremonial robes. Here were the great and powerful lords that could determine the fate of all within the Scarus sector, planets as well as mere citizens, from menial Admimstratum workers to planetary governors, army generals and even, should occasion and law demand it, fellow Inquisitors.

The procession entered in solemn silence to the chanted words of the Inquisitorial oath, to serve loyally and faithfully the only true ruler of Mankind and maintain his divine order against all threats. They were led in by the venerable Lord Thor Malkin, once Proctor-General of the conclave himself until terribly wounded in battle. Now he was ancient and bent with age his body rebuilt with bionics. Once Thor Malkin had travelled the galaxy with the famous Rogue Trader Joff Zuckerman, and their adventures were the stuff of legend amongst the Acolytes that followed them, including victory in the infamous Kynbaex Genocide. Behind him followed lords of the Ordo Hereticus, Ordo Xenos, Ordo Malleus, and the other lesser orders. Those lords that could not be present due to circumstance or duties far away, had sent representatives in their place, to vote by proxy and report back on the developments and the decisions of the conclave.

By custom the last to enter would be Lord Hector Rex himself and he would seat himself in the large ornate granite throne at the head of the chamber. When all were seated, the litany readings complete and the viewing galleries above full, Lord Rex rose from his throne and strode to the centre of the debating floor, long robes trailing behind him. He placed himself firmly at the top of the twin-headed eagle engraved m gold into the worn marbled slabs and addressed the council.

"Worthy Lords. I have come before you today to offer my life in the service of our Emperor. The choice before you is a simple one. To act now, decisively to support my actions on Vraks, or to prevaricate and delay and risk greater harms in the future. Given the evidence I shall place before the conclave the course of action that I recommend is. I believe the only course that can see us safeguard this sector from future disasters and damnations. There is no other. Support my motion and I shall promise you victory, even at the cost of my own life. Defeat my motion and we all shall have failed. Failed in our holy duty to the Emperor and all Mankind."

The last line brought outrage and uproar to the chamber as Inquisitors rose to castigate the Proctor-General for his harsh words and assertions of failure. Others rose to raise their voices in support of him, and for minutes the furious arguments created a tumult over which none could make himself heard over any other. In the galleries above scribes and secretaries frantically scribbled down what they could but it was not until the calls for order in the chamber were heeded that the motion could be properly debated and the evidence heard.

Many had their say as the Proctor- General now returned to his seat sat. Watched and listened and added nothing more to the debate. After Maiphius the Seer had addressed the chamber and been cross-examined, further evidence from Vraks was presented. Others took the floor to argue for or against the motion, and order had to be called several times when Lord Thor Malkin took the Hoot and addressed the crowd, supporting his former Acolyte's plan and condemning those that would block his motion.

After the debate, the motion was put to the vote. It would be dose Lord Rex had known it must be, but he could sway just a few of his rivals, then he would win. It turned on the Ordo Hereticus. Although of one order its Inquisitors were not of one faction, each had his own ideas and independence of action ultimately, each Inquisitor had to be his own man - their missions required it. The hard liners would not be turned. But in the end Lord Inquisitor Balzac abstained, and took three fellow Radicals with him. It was enough to pass the motion by just two votes. Lord Rex had won.

But, if the conclave's Proctor General had hoped to forge an alliance of the factions to fight together, or at least support him on Vraks, he had failed. The council chamber emptied in an acrimonious atmosphere of discontent and distrust. The hard-liners had failed to be convinced of anything, except that the Proctor-General was exceeding his jurisdiction in inducting the 88th Siege Army into a war that was clearly theirs to be fought. Bringing an Apostate Cardinal and his allies to justice should be their task, and theirs alone.

There was no sense of brotherhood or unity of purpose in the Conclave of Scarus as the arguments and recriminations continued out into the forum. But for Hector Rex his narrow victory in the council chamber would now have to be followed up with victory on the artillery-shredded battlefields of Vraks. Now the battle to save Vraks from daemonic incursion would begin in earnest and that would require many more sacrifices, endurance, single-mindedness of purpose and obdurate will on the Inquisitor's behalf. Waver now and only catastrophe could follow.

Preparations for a New War

Lord Hector Rex immediately prepared the dictum that would officially place the 88th siege army at his command. It would soon be formerly under the control of the Ordo Malleus, with Inquisitor Lord Hector Rex taking over as supreme commander. With the great lord would come not only his own formidable retinue of followers but also other Inquisitors of the Ordo Malleus, allies of Rex who supported their leader and would now be placed amongst the headquarters of each Krieg regiment on Vraks. Each Inquisitor would have his own retinue and the power to call upon other weapons of the Imperium should he need them: soldiers of the Inquisitorial storm trooper regiments, agents of the Officio Assassinorum and not least Space Marines of the Ordo Malleus order militant: the secret Grey Knights, an entire chapter of the Adeptus Astartes dedicated to the combating and banishment of Daemons.

As soon as the chamber had been cleared a pre prepared plan had moved into action, no time could be wasted. A priority astropathic message was forwarded from Inquisitor Rex to the moon of Saturn, Titan, where the Grey Knight's fortress-monastery awaited just such calls for aid. From here a fast cruiser, loaded with the best warriors the Imperium could tram and equip for such soul-testing combat would be dispatched, along with orders to place themselves at the service of the Inquisitor Lord Chosen to lead the elite strike force was Brother Captain Stem.

The Grey Knights were not the only Space Marine force Inquisitor Rex turned to - potent though they would be. The Red Hunters Chapter also had a long history of putting themselves at the service of the Inquisition. So strong was the link between this Chapter and the three great Inquisitorial orders that rumors was that they had been founded at the request of the Inquisitorial representative on Terra, and that there was a secret pact between the Inquisition and the Chapter for mutual support. Uniquely, the Chapter even bore the Inquisitorial I upon its badge. Although still a Chapter of Space Marines that looked to the Codex Astartes for its organisation and spiritual guidance, the Chapter made their squads available for rapid responses to Inquisitorial calls for assistance The Inquisitors fighting on the frontline on Vraks would also have an honour guard of Red Hunters squads to call upon.

Finally, Inquisitor Rex made a last gambit. The Red Scorpions Chapter had already done proud service on Vraks, as had the Dark Angels Chapter. He would dispatch envoys to each in order to request their aid again, but he would not demand it. In the case of the Dark Angels he had little hope of success. The Dark Angels were a Chapter that surrounded themselves in secrecy and mystery and rarely had any contact with the Inquisition. In the past many Inquisitors had attempted to investigate the dark secrets that seemed to be at the heart of the Chapter, but none had ever succeeded, and the Chapter's Grand Master would have little trust or loyalty towards an Inquisitor Lord of the Ordo Malleus. But the Red Scorpions had no such concerns. They were a Chapter obsessed with their own purity of geneseed and purity of purpose. They might, if the negotiator was careful and worded his request well, be persuaded to return to Vraks to finish the job they had started.

Lord Rex chose his best diplomat and dispatched him via fast courier across the galaxy to find the Red Scorpions and ask them to return, in force, to Vraks. He did not expect to see a rapid response. The journey alone would be arduous, and there was no guarantee of success, but he had set the wheels in motion.

As Inquisitor Rex's envoys set out, so he would travel to Thracian Prime, to the headquarters of 88th siege army and meet with its commanding officers. They would be informed of the conclave's decision and handed the dictum. Command of the army would be turned over to Inquisitor Rex immediately. As for Lord Marshall Amim Kagori, he could either accept a new position subordinate to the Inquisitor or resign his post and seek a new appointment. No blame or charges would be attached to him, although a Departmento Munitorum review of his conduct of the war would no doubt be held. From Lord Rex's point of view, the Marshall’s efforts on Vraks had generally been a success. He had prosecuted the war well and little more could be asked of the Marshall, whose martial honour remained intact.

Arriving on Thracian Prime, the Inquisitor Lord interrupted Marshal Kagori's routine round of briefings and reports to inform him of the conclave's decision. On being informed of the Ordo Malleus order to induct his army, the Marshall immediately requested transfer to Vraks itself. He would take command of a regiment, or failing that a company on the frontline in order to lead men in combat again He had done his duty from a distance, now he wished to meet the enemy face to face. The transfer was immediately granted along with a cadre of other staff officers wishing to join the war.

Whilst Hector Rex was re-organising the 88th siege army on Thracian Prime, the first Inquisitors would be arriving on Vraks to begin field operations. In all, 38 Inquisitors of Lord Rex's chamber-practical and their retinues would be quickly re-deployed to Vraks. They would be placed in each regiments headquarters, to observe operations and to lead from the front when the time came. Even the venerable Lord Thor Malkin had volunteered for service on Vraks. The old man, now more metal and bionics than flesh and bone, would once again don his armour and take up his force weapon. Vraks would be the veteran daemonhunter's final battle against his oldest foe. He may be aged, but no one in the Scarus sector knew more about the nature of Daemons and their banishment. Lord Rex was honoured to have his old mentor once again at his side.

Meanwhile on Vraks, each siege regiment commander and all their supporting units, including the Departmento Munitorum Labour Corps and supply columns received the orders that the Ordo Malleus was taking over supreme command of the siege. Orders would now come directly from the Inquisition, and those not carrying the Inquisition's authority were to be ignored. At the front, in the trenches, very little would change. Still the artillery rumbled overhead and crashed into no man's land, still the enemy fought with bitter resolve. But far behind the frontlines, preparations were being made for the new war that was about to begin...

Closing the Ring

"But to wrestle with the Daemon and emerge from the battle unscathed, we must maintain Runty of Purpose. I've must each conquer ourselves m order to win a thousand battles."
—Brother Captain Stem of the Grey Knights, prior to the Cleansing of Vraks.On 101.827.M41 the fast Strike Cruiser Honour-Amentum arrived m the Vraks System, speeding into orbit directly from its home base on Titan. Amongst the swiftest vessels in the Imperium's fleet, heavily armed for its size and equipped with enough powerful teleportation champers to allow multiple squads to teleport to the surface at once, the Grey Knights strike cruiser was the cutting edge of the Imperium's fleet, and only available to the Ordo Malleus elite Chapter. Each ship's navigator was the best the Navis Nobilis houses could provide, tied to the Grey Knights by ancient pacts signed when the Chapter was founded. These strange mutants could find their way through the Warp by instinct and make longer warp-jumps than any other guiding vessels safely through the unpredictable currents of the Immaterium. With their aid a Grey Knights strike force could speed to any location in the galaxy faster than any other forces available to the Imperium Now the first of the Daemon Hunters had arrived in Vraks system under the command of Brother Captain Stem.

The first major tactical problem the Inquisitor Lord and his newly emplaced staff had to tackle was no different from that which Marshall Kagon had already been wrestling with. One look at the strategic holo-map would show even a first year student of an officer cadet training academy that the siege could not be completed whilst the eastern flank remained wide open The encirclement of the citadel was incomplete and whilst it remained so the enemy would have an escape route. Even the capture of the Citadel might not see the war end if the enemy could withdraw to fight again another day. Also the current position meant that 30th line korps was tied down having to act as a rear guard to the 1st line korps against attack from behind. Useful regiments and guns were being tied down on the defensive.

Inquisitor Lord Rex gave orders that the ring was to be sealed. The four regiments of the 30th line korps would be ordered to go on the offensive and attack in echelon, with the northern 263rd regiment first, followed in turn by the 262th, 269th and finally the 261st regiment in the south. They were to swing round, pushing southward then south-westward to close the ring about the Citadel by meeting up with the 308th regiment in sector 57-44, where they were the southern-most unit in the front currently held by the 34th line korps. The offensive should swing like a door hinged upon the 1st line korps positions. From the north this offensive would have over sixty kilometres to cover, and from the reports of Death Rider patrols, Nurgle warbands and their allies were still infesting the entire area. In order to hasten the attack, the 7th and 11th tank regiments were ordered to attach themselves to the 30th line korps, becoming the armoured fist that would conduct the left hook and smash through the enemy.

It would take time to get organised for the offensive, but for the time being it was to be the priority for 88th army’s staff. The other regiments were told to hold their positions and conduct nothing but nuisance raids and patrolling whilst the Citadel was sealed within a ring of guns. Expecting fierce fighting and counter-attacks by the Nurgle followers, Inquisitors would be assigned to support the offensive, and the Grey Knights strike force under Brother Captain Stern would act as a rapid reserve, awaiting in the strike cruiser Honour-Amentum, ready to intervene wherever the enemy seemed strongest or daemonic activity was encountered The time set for the opening of the battle was 273.827.M41.

In the wake of a successful offensive, two more major operations were also in the pipeline. The first would see the 1st line korps three regiments push to the curtain wall, tightening the noose around the Citadel and hemming the defenders in. The second would see the 46th line korps, the least experienced of the army's major units (its three regiments had seen a mere six years of service on Vraks so far), push down from the north, to take the high ground and hills and the vantage point at point 202. With these two operations complete, the ring around the Citadel would have closed up to the curtain wall and the enemy would be sealed in an ever-shrinking pocket.

A Green Inferno

Only a faint glow of sunlight glimmered through the grey clouds hanging low over the 30th line korps positions. Soon one of Vraks' regular rainstorms would break and turn the battlefield into another sodden quagmire, but the Krieg guardsmen had become well adapted to the conditions. This time their offensive would not be attacking any fixed enemy positions, there was no constant enemy defence line to break, instead ahead lay a battlefield littered with the remains of previous fighting. The old rusting hulks of tanks and guns lay half buried in the mud or abandoned in shell craters alongside the smashed remains of old trenches and fortifications and seemingly random sprouting of rusted razorwire, which had once protected something, but now were abandoned to the elements. It was ground that had been fought over, to and fro, for years. Worst of all, under the surface might lie long forgotten mines and unexploded shells that could detonate with massive force without warning after years lying dormant in the mud.

It was 273.827.M41 when the guns opened fire, a rolling barrage of shells from the guns of 30th Line Korps, mixed with smoke shells to obscure the 263rd regiment's first lunge forwards. With terrific force the barrage slammed down, battering the already tortured landscape as the leading infantry companies clambered up the ladders and out of their trenches. The tanks were close behind, tank companies combining with the infantry to form armoured battle groups. In the wake of the artillery, the steady, well-ordered advance began.

At first progress was good, but then the enemy counter-barrage began to land. Wherever a rolling barrage was falling, then an attack would not be far behind. First mortar shells were impacting, soon followed by heavier artillery rounds. They were exploding all around, but mingling with the grey smoke plumes was a green-tinged fog - chemical shells releasing their lethal payload of TP-III. The acidic gas clouds were soon billowing across the 263rd regiment’s front. Casualties were high, throwing the attack into confusion. Units became lost in the thick smoke and chemical smog. Squads that blundered into a concentration of gas were quickly wiped out; nothing remained, they simply vanished as the acid ate away their flesh and bones.

Through it all the tanks rumbled on. Within their sealed hulls the crews were safe from the gas, and they now formed the point of the attack. It had become a hellish battlefield. Visibility was reduced to just a few metres by the acid clouds, tanks were becoming bogged down as they blundered into large shell craters or long forgotten tank traps. Several Leman Russ hit mines. Then, through the green haze, the enemy counter¬attacked. The resulting battle was a series of messy skirmishes fought inside the gas clouds. Enemy armoured vehicles fired blindly, or closed in to point blank range. Unable to co-ordinate tanks, infantry and artillery, the enemy scored quick victories, blasting tank squadrons into burning hulks before withdrawing again. But, despite their successes, the enemy lacked the numbers to halt the advance. The local counter-attacks might stall the offensive for a while and cost men and machines, but by its sheer weight the offensive was still pushing forward. Where the gas cleared the Krieg guardsmen pushed ever onwards against sporadic enemy resistance. By the end of the first day they had made ten kilometres of ground. Tomorrow would see the 263rd lunge forwards again. To the south the 262nd regiment would also join the battle.

For the first few days the offensive continued with the enemy throwing their forces in piecemeal to hold up the attack wherever they could and with the Krieg armoured battle groups thrusting forwards. On the fourth day enemy resistance stiffened. They had now had time to organise a more effective defence. The warbands of the Plague Marines had moved into place, with their own armoured vehicles m support. Worst still, all manner of hideous mutants and slimy, plague-ridden creatures were now unleashed upon the battlefield. Amongst the chemical smog these beasts howled and wailed in pain and fury. Ogryns, now barely recognisable as such Chaos spawn in all shapes and sizes. Unnamed, tormented creatures that oozed acidic slime. All were thrown into the fighting.

As it joined the battle, the 269th regiment reported encounters with plague zombies. These were hordes of creatures of ragged flesh and bone which shambled through the mud and smoke, armed only with teeth and nails, but hungry for the taste of warm flesh and blood. They were the remains of the long dead, risen from their graves to fight again by some blasphemous art unknown to the soldiers of Krieg. The dead of both sides now fought for the enemy, mindless and unarmed they were cut down by the Krieg guardsmen in their hundreds but still they came on heedless of losses. Some died once, only to rise again, and were cut down time and again until nothing was left of their once human forms. Inquisitor Thor Malkm came to the 269th regiment's aid. Here was some blasphemous witchcraft that must be punished but if the dead fought for the enemy, then their manpower was all but inexhaustible - you could not fight a war of attrition against an enemy that would not stay dead. Soon the 262nd regiment, then the 263rd regiment were also reporting encounters with plague zombies. The hole battlefield had come back to life below their very feet.

After eight days of fighting, the 34th line korps offensive had become embroiled in a green hell. Progress had now stalled. The initial gams were being held but the 263rd regiment's long attack had only reached midway towards its objective. The number of enemies facing them was now almost a match for the Krieg forces. The offensive was at deadlock. To break the stalemate the Inquisitors loading the battle authorised the counter use of chemical weapons, adding to the poisonous landscape with chemical shells and in the process coating sectors 59-45 and 60-45 in a toxic soup that would make them uninhabitable for hundreds of years.

The regiments of the 11th assault korps that had assisted the drive could now be withdrawn for refit and redeployment. 11th assault korps would now be moved to support the 1st line korps offensive, whilst the 8th assault korps was already in place to assist the 46th line korps operation to capture point 202. Both attacks would begin at 400827.M41, and again both attacks would be led by Lord Rex’s fellows inquisitors.

The need to completely refit the 7th and 11th tank regiments caused the 1st korps to delay the offensive but at 400827.M41 the 46th line korps began their assault alone. Along a fifteen kilometre front, the korps three regimets went into action. The 468th regiment faced the greatest difficulty. Their sector saw them climbing the northern slopes at a range of low hills. At the southern most tip of this range, once a string at volcanoes, stood the Citadel. The regment’s first objective was seizing the highpoint 187, the next was to tackle a series of three defence laser silos, all hardened facilities, well protected from artillery bombardment. Then would come the short climb over to claim point 202. From this position they would be overlooking the curtain wall.

On the night of the offensive the 470th regiment had a longer distance to advance, although over easier terrain, but two lines of enemy trenches blocked the way and would have to be stormed before they reached the curtain wall. With 8th assault korps in support, approximately 350 tanks were ready to pin the advance, along with 30 heavy tanks. Should they be needed, the Titans of Legio Astorum were also on standby to join the push.

In preparation for the attack the engineers in each regiment's sector had been hard at work undermining the enemy. The first day of the battle would see engineer companies detonate their pre-positioned mines and use their sap trenches to break out behind identified enemy strongpoints.

As teeming rain fell from the lead grey skies, the lead companies of the 468th regiment began to climb. After a few hours of combat, all along the line the advance had been checked by the enemy holding hidden strongpoints dug deep into the rising ground, each with commanding views of the advance. Bullets and shells fell upon the advancing guardsmen like gusts of lethal hail. Many of the following companies had been chopped to pieces by artillery fire from guns hidden safely below the curtain wall.

To aid the movement of the tanks to support the attack, the 109th company’s engines had been ordered to construct a temporary roadway. Moving up behind the initial assault waves, the engineer had worked all day under shellfire, blast away rocks and clear a path over which a temporary surface could be lac for the waiting armour. Their construction work's progress was painfully slow, and without the tanks to suppress the enemy gun pits the infantry could do little but die. The 468st regiment's advance to point 202 would be another long and bitter slog.

On the left flank of the korps attack, the 470th regiment preceded their own advance with a valiant charge of sever Death Rider companies. Hoping to catch the enemy unprepared with a swift cavalry charge, the Death Rider squadrons gathered behind the forwrd trenches before moving up to their departure line. With parade ground efficiency the 450 men and mounts set off at a canter, striking directly along the service road. There was no preliminary bombardment to soften up the enemy as it was felt that the artillery would do little to move the enemy and only warm them of an impending attack. The charge was all about surprise. It had some success, breaking through along the service road, some squadrons advanced as far as sector 582-458, but most were cut down by enemy fire. At the end of the first day only some 60 riders were alive to answer roll-call.

The 46th line korps' offensive was progressing slowly, with the usual costly butcher's bill in men and lost equipment. The delay in the 1st korps attack was proving expensive. The enemy was able to free men from that front to aid the defences here, and that meant that the attrition required to wear down the forces facing them would take so much longer. The 46th line korps' commanders pleaded with Inquisitor Lord Rex to get 1st korps moving and help relieve the pressure, but orders remained that the 1st korps was not to be moved until it was ready and all the tanks were back in place again. For over a week, the 46th line korps regiments bled away their combat strength in their lone offensive.

On 431.827.M41 the 1st Line Korps went over to the offensive. Three regiments struck out southwestward on a fifteen kilometre advance to the curtain wall. Like the 46th korps, they had massed tank and heavy tank companies with them, and soon the armoured spearheads were smashing into the enemy lines. Here they encountered the survivors of 30th line korps’ earlier offensive, now forced back into the pocket. The Nurgle worshippers fought fanatically, unleashing more chemical and biological weapons. Traitor Space Marines of the Purge were blamed for the indiscriminate use of such weapons of mass destruction but they were not alone. Impenal Navy air support was flying daily, bombing and strafing. The enemy's own aircraft, dwindling in numbers now, were occasionally seen, but it seemed 88th siege army had now gained almost total air superiority. The Marauder bombers dumped payload after payload onto the curtain walls in Sector 58-45, carpet bombing the enemy's rear areas. The weight of the combined attacks was remorselessly crushing the defenders.

The Ascension of Zhufor

As the fighting continued, day after bitter day, and the Krieg siege regiments pressed ever onwards, even the defender's Chaos Space Marine allies could not save them from the juggernaut of war the Imperium had set in motion. For the first lime the renegades' ammunition, food and fuel were becoming scarce. In some units supplies were being hoarded, and other units saw their stocks dwindling daily.

Morale amongst the original defenders was falling. Some still fought with fanatical determination born of insanity or an unshakable belief in their dark gods, but others despaired and, risking the wrath of their enforcers, threw down their arms or fled. Here was a first: falling morale might result in a catastrophic collapse - if one sector gave up the fight, then the next might also, and soon Cardinal Xaphans heretical army might fall apart. For the enemy commanders this could not be allowed to happen. There were men (or creatures who had once been men), who would not allow this war to end yet. The Traitor Legionnaires would never break. They lived only to kill the false Emperor’s servants, but they had not come to Vraks to see the war end without eking out every last drop of slaughter they could.

One such man was Zhufor, Lord of the Skulltakers. Reports from the front that some units had fled rather than fight and that the enemy was almost at the curtain wall brought swift and bloody retribution. Zhufor could not suffer such weak-willed cowardice, and Khorne must see it avenged.

It was only during the Ordo Malleus' long and thorough investigation into the events behind the Vraksian war that information regarding affairs within the upper echelons of the Vraksian traitors was revealed. At the time the Emperor's commanders were unaware of what was happening within the Citadel's walls. Only prisoner interrogations and the use of invasive telepathic psykers from the Schola Psykana would later deduce a clear picture.

Driven by his own ambition and a desire to prolong the war. Lord Zhufor, commanding the largest Khornate warband, moved to stop the rot before it brought the whole house down. He had only come to Vraks to bring slaughter in Khorne s name, and he neither served nor recognised the authority of Cardinal Xaphan. Zhufor's warband, like the others, had no loyalty to anybody but their lords and their god. Such men made dangerous allies. Potent on the battlefield but, with the situation at the front deteriorating and with supplies becoming scarce, the Chaos warbands quickly turned against their allies and against each other. Death was Zhufor's only motivation: to continue the killing until the last drop of blood had been squeezed from Vraks. For him, this war was far from over Zhufor planned to take over Vraks.

First he moved to subjugate the Khornate warbands and unify them under his leadership. This gave him by far the largest Khornate faction on Vraks and then, with their support, he moved to take over the entire Vraksian renegade army - and that meant the removal of the reclusive Cardinal Xaphan and his ineffectual cronies.

No doubt the Lord of the Skulltakers had always planned a coup, or was acting under orders from his own master, Abaddon, to run the war on Vraks to his own liking. Zhufor had bided his time, but now he chose to strike Mastery of the Khorne-worshipping warbands was the first of his two tasks. They respected only martial prowess and few could match Zhufor’s. A giant of a man, he led by example and by fear. Now he challenged the leader of the Berserkers of Skallathrax to a duel. At stake would be the leadership of both warbands. To refuse would be an affront to Khorne, and would no doubt see his opponent ousted by his own ambitious followers anyway. Such a battle between his champions would please Khorne mightily.

So, stripped of armour and armed with chainaxes the two Chaos lords fought to the death, Zhufor winning the mighty combat. Striking the head from his opponent, he raised it to the baying crowd and claimed, by right of conquest, lordship over the Berserkers of Skallathrax. Any who would oppose his rule must fight him now. None did. Zhufor was Khorne's chosen champion on Vraks and now he had proved it with his own blood-soaked hands. The Berserkers of Skallathrax would fight for him.

Next. Zhufor subjugated the Sanctified. To do so he made them an offer - sign a pact and swear to follow him for the duration of the war and in return he would provide the Sanctified with all they needed to open a warp portal on Vraks. The Sanctified were daemonancers, and they worked constantly to bring Khorne's children into the material universe. They had the expertise, now Zhufor would provide them with the tens of thousands of sacrificial victims needed in order to create a warp portal through which daemon legions could pour out. Zhufor also gave them a name and a bold promise. The promise was that he would facilitate the summoning of the greatest daemon legion in Khorne's endless armies. The name was a powerful one - An'ggrath.

The pact was too alluring to refuse. The Sanctified joined forces with Zhufor in order to summon the Guardian of the Throne of Skulls himself, the Lord of Bloodthristers would come forth to bring fresh slaughter. The Khorne warbands were now united under Zhufor.

The Lord of the Skulltakers now had the single most powerful faction under his sway, so he turned it against the other Chaos warbands. The ultimatum was - join him or face destructor at his hands. To prove his mettle Zhutor suddenly attached and killed the lord and champions of the Black Brethren of Ayreas. Outnumbered and taken by surprise by the treachery, the survivors surrendered after a brief battle. The other warbands followed — all save Arkos the Faithless and the Alpha Legion. They would not submit to Zhufor, but in order to save his warbands from being attacked Arkos made his own treacherous deal. Of all the warband leaders he alone had the trust of Cardinal Xaphan who was hidden away inside his fortress. Arkos knew that the Apostate-Cardinal was already little more than a symbolic leader. Arkos had really been directing the war for years, but many of the Vraksian renegades saw the Cardinal as their messiah. He had proclaimed himself as such. Arkos agreed to turn traitor against Xaphan. To maintain his own independence he would allow Zhufor to capture the Cardinal.

The treacherous pact made, Arkos was true to his word. In secret, the Alpha Legion allowed Zhufor and his personal bodyguard of Terminator-armoured killers to the Cardinal's Palace. Those Disciples of Xaphan not assassinated by the Alpha Legion were quickly slaughtered by Zhufor and his men, who swept through the palace leaving a trail of butchery behind them. Deacon Mamon and his closest guards fled to save themselves and would later be found fighting alongside the Nurgle warband of the Tainted - although Vernon’s own refuge was to be short. The Apostate-Cardinal himself was captured alive. Zhutor plucking the feeble mortal from his gaudy throne. The Cardinal had played his part on Vraks but now Khorne only had one use left for him; as a sacrifice. Soon, Xaphan’s skull would now join those who piled before the Blood God’s throne. Zhufor threw the Cardinal and his surviving cronies into Wraks deepest dungeons to await her fate.

Zhufor’s coup was complete. By blood and treachery he had made himself master of Vraks. The war was now his to fight. Millions would now march to his command and, as promised, there was a Warp portal to construct.

To Hangman's Hill

Blissfully unaware of the turmoil and sudden demise of Cardinal Xaphan, or the emergence of Zhutor as the new warlord of Vraks, Inquisitor Lord Rex kept a stem vigil over the offensives of the 1st and 46th line korps. At first the big push towards the curtain wall had been much slower than he had anticipated but now the enemy had cracked and the daily gams were growing. Enemy prisoner numbers had soared. The Quartermaster’s reports showed that the gams included massive amounts of abandoned vehicles and captured equipment. In some sectors it seemed that the enemy’s will to fight had broken.

The 1st line korps’ 3rd siege regiment was now within striking distance of the curtain wall, and Lord Rex gave orders for the regiment to capture the main gate in sector 579-459 or to force a breach elsewhere and hold it. Either way, the korps’ offensive would only end when they had forced a passage through the curtain wall. Titans would be deployed to aid them.

In the 46th line korps’ sector progress had also been ponderous. The construction of the temporary road had actually held back the entire assault, with companies clinging to the hillside awaiting tank support that could not reach them. Hundreds of engineers had perished under enemy shell fire, and the tanks had made little headway.

Still, even without the tanks, one-by-one the defence laser silos were overrun in pitched battles. From here the guardsmen could see up ahead of them that the enemy had taken captive Krieg guardsmen and erected a gory trophy atop point 202. Makeshift gibbets had been erected and prisoners were hung from them, their ragged bodies silhouetted against the skyline as a warning to the Emperor’s soldiers. With their typically macabre sensibilities the Krieg guardsmen named it Hangman's Hill and continued the attacks.

At 628827 M41, the 468th regiment's 15th company was finally within striking distance of the summit. Proceeded by the crash of mortar rounds which tumbled stones down the slopes in great sprays of fire and dust, an arcing signal flare gave the order to attack. The battered platoons scrambled upwards, most were no more than 20 men strong after hard fighting. Skidding on the scree but still shooting, the guardsmen dashed for the summit. Grenades twirled down from the hilltop to bounce amongst the rocks and detonate in clouds of grey smoke. Laser Bass whistled past the attacking squads. A sniper bullet drilled the company commander through the head, his helmet punctured he lay dying for several hours. On top of the summit a brawl of bayonets, knives and swords had begun. The enemy fought the first Krieg squads back, but more followed.

Three times 15th company stormed up and three times they were repelled by hand-to-hand fighting. They tried again under cover of darkness, and after a confused night battle finally seized Hangman's Hill. A single junior officer was all the company could muster to take command of the defence before reinforcements could arrive. The expected enemy counter-attack never came, another sign of their growing weakness. The hanging bodies were cut down and the regiment’s banner was brought forward to plant on the summit. The Krieg guardsmen had the objective and below them was the curtain wall. Beyond it, now visible in the distance, was the Citadel itself.

The Daemons Set Loose

"In all war, the human machine has its limits"
—High Princeps Rand Drauca

A Test of Loyalty

At 756827.M41 the 88th siege army headquarters was issued with Directive 4007-72-09 by the Departmento Munitorum. It ordered 88th siege army to withdraw from the frontline and prepare for transportation a dozen Krieg regiments from Vraks. The Departmento Munitorum had reviewed troop allocations across the Scarus sector and had found that the current force strength on Vraks was no longer sustainable or required. Logistical and transportation resources would likewise have to be reduced. The Siege of Vraks was being downgraded in priority, and with the protections of damage inflicted to the enemy the Departmento’s logis calculations meant that the forces left would be sufficient to finish the Vraksiann war with an acceptable loss of time and the resulting extra casualties.

The directive was immediately transmitted to inquisitor Lord Rex’s forward headquarters on Vraks itself. The inquisitor`s staff recognised the directive instantly for what it was. Here was the madding hand of the Ordo Hereticus and their Ecclesiarchy allies. Thwarted in their efforts to seize control of the war themselves they had been working behind the scenes to hamper the Ordo Malleus efforts and secure some of the force allocation on Vraks for their own ends. What had the Synod of Cardinals-Astra promised in return for the use of the Imperial Guard regiments that were now lo be taken from Vraks? No doubt their future support and votes in other political issues of great importance.

Angered at the directive, Lord Rex dispatched his own emissaries to Terra. In response to the directive he would bypass the Departmento Munitorum’s hierarchy and seek the ais of the Inquisitorial Representative. The Inquisitorial Representative was a High Lord, one of the twelve grand masters of Mankind that interpreted the Emperor’s will. He had the power to countermand the directive or at least press inquisitor Lord Rex’s case with the Master of the Departmento Munitorum or, if needs must, the Master of the Administratum herself; the single most powerful Lord of Terra. The Departmento Munitorum was responsible for the deployment and support of all Imperial Guard regiments, but the 88th siege regiment was now under the official command of the Ordo Malleus; the Departmento Munitorum had surely overstepped their authority by ordering a reduction of troop numbers without reference to Lord Rex.

The Inquisitorial emissaries travelled to Terra and became just another group of the many petitioners that gathered daily outside the meeting chamber of the Inquisitorial Representative. All were seeking an audience and aid for some injustice. Once each petitioner had been heard, the High Lord would pronounce his judgment and set his own officials to the task of righting the wrongs. It would not happen quickly, but backed by a High Lord's authority anything could be fixed, only the other eleven High Lords could block the pronouncements of the Inquisitorial Representative. It would take time for the bureaucracy at the heart of the Imperium to process the judgment, but in the end it would be done. In the meantime. Inquisitor Lord Rex could only get on with fighting the war - such political distractions were only counter-productive to the Emperor 's cause on Vraks.

When it finally came, the news from Terra was not good. The Inquisitorial Representative had petitioned the Master of the Departmento Munitorum to overrule directive 4887-72-09, but the Departmento Munitorum's master had sought the support of the Master of the Admmistratum. In turn, during the debate the Admmistratum had also been backed by the High Ecclesiarch. It was a powerful political concord. Other High Lords, such as the Fabricator- General of the Adeptus Mechanicus and the Lord Militant Solar had abstained. The official word came that Directive 4887-72-09 must stand, although the overall troop reductions had been modified slightly in Lord Rex’s favour. Still, the 88th siege army must shrink as required; the High Lords of Terra endorsed the decision. Lord Hector Rex could do nothing about it. His own inquisitorial Mandate was being overruled by the highest judgement in the Imperium; and their word was law.

Of course he could choose not to act, to defy the Directive, but that would be quickly pounced upon as an act of rebellion by the Ordo Hereticus and surely see him arrested and the war on Vraks handed over to their control. With a powerful army at his command, Lord Rex could always resist any attempts of arrest him, perhaps long enough to win the war on Vraks, but such was the par to rebellion, which led only to excommunication and another war, this time against the Ordo Hereticus forces. Many had allowed their pride to temp them down that path before, including the Warmaster Horus himself. Did Inquisitor Lord Rex really think he knew better than the High Lords of Terra what was best tor the Imperium? There was a title for such men: traitoris.

Lord Hector Rex was no traitor, and never would be. He was feted and honoured as a champion of the Emperor. He was Auditorii Imperator. He had passed into the Emperor’s throne room on Terra and communed with the Divine Lord of Mankind himself. Then he had been made fully aware that at stake in the endless war with Chaos was the future of the entirety of Mankind. Such was his appointed role and political points scoring could not stand in his way. Lord Rex gave the necessary orders for the required regiments to withdraw.

At 253828 M41 the 1st line korps three remaining regiments would all be withdrawn from Vraks, along with the 19th bombardment korps’ three artillery regiments - halving the army’s heavy firepower from its largest guns. The 8th assault korps was also being withdraw but his arguments had at least saved 11th tank regiment, which would now be moved into the 11th assault korps. Half the independent artillery companies, used to bolster the firepower of regiments at the cutting edge of offensives, would also go. Go where? Lord Rex did not know. Most of the units would probably find their way to the Eastern Fringes where the Tyrannic Wars seemed to eat up Imperial Guard regiments as fast as they could be deployed. Once the orders were dispatched those Krieg regiments were no longer Rex’s concern; his duty was to complete the Vraksian war with the regiments he still had.

The news from Terra did not get any better for Lord Rex when he learned that during his emissaries' return journey, they had all been killed - assassinated in their state rooms, their heads removed by the swift strike of phase-weapons. The assassins were never identified or caught, but no doubt the brutal attack had been a thinly veiled message to him. The Ordo Hereticus were watching and judging him. His loyalty had been tested, and he had passed.

Internal diversions within the Imperium could not stop the siege. Now Lord Rex had fewer guardsmen, tanks and shells at his disposal, but the enemy were at last showing signs of cracking. The remaining line korps were reassigned new positions along the front. The mission of taking the sector 579-459 gate was now handed to the 12th line korps, who were ordered to make one full strength regiment available for the operation. They provided the 143rd regiment, who moved into position and began the preliminary arrangements for an assault upon the curtain wall. It took time, weeks to get all the artillery into place, and even more weeks for the engineer companies to dig their sap trenches, but by 412.828.M41 the regiment was ready to begin.

The Battle for Gate 579-459

Whilst Colonel Thyran of the 143rd regiment planned the assault, Commissar-General Maugh would lead it from the front. As ever, tanks and infantry would attack behind a sustained barrage. The Reaver Titans Astor Tyrannis and Aeacus Ultra would support the regiment's assault. Their job would be to target the walls and gate with their heaviest weapons and blast the breaches the infantry and tanks would need.

The outgoing bombardment whined and rumbled overhead as Commissar- General Maugh climbed into the turret of his Leman Russ, Landwaster, from which he would lead the attack. He watched through his surveyor, intent upon the distant curtain wall, now shrouded in flame streaked smoke as the thundenng barrage rolled over it. He gave his driver the order to advance, and waved the tanks around him to follow before slamming down the hatch above him as he dropped into his seat In seconds the first Leman Russ squadrons were advancing, pitching and rolling over the artillery churned ground.

As the 143rd advanced toward its objectives, the Titan's missile pods launched salvoes upon the objective. As they closed in, enemy fire concentrated and thickened. Inside the hull of his tank, Commissar Maugh could hear the pattering of bullets against the front glacis and the whine of larger calibre rounds that flashed close by. His gunner and loader were hard at work, sending shell after shell arching towards the wall’s parapet, high explosive rounds to suppress enemy firing positions. All along the firing line others were doing likewise but despite the intense fire the enemy counter-attacked. A ragged horde launched itself through the gateway, its armoured doors rolling back as infantry, tanks, artillery and spider-like walking machines rushed through. Enemy artillery was falling about them now, adding to the din and confusion of battle. The Commissar-General felt the tank jolt as it lurched forward again, the cannon barrel depressing to target the new threat. Then suddenly, in a blinding flash of light it was hit. A shell blast tore through the front armour of the turret - a direct hit that decapitated the gunner and incinerated the loader in a fraction of a second. The shell passed by Maugh's shoulder. Instinctively he reached for the hatch release and leapt up to escape. As he clambered out and jumped down, the turret erupted behind him. Its ammunition store had detonated, a searing hot orange fireball mushroomed into the sky. The force of the explosion threw the Commissar- General away from the stricken tank, a smoking piece of shrapnel wedged through his left shoulder blade. Grievously wounded, the Commissar- General writhed on the ground, calling for aid, then blacked out.

Black smoke was still swirling about him when the Commissar came round, the twisted hulk of his Leman Russ was belching it high into the air. Around him the battle continued. Men were fighting, firing their weapons left and right. The shape of tanks emerged through the smoke and dust, then vanished again like wraiths. The Commissar-General had lost his communicator. He had no idea how the battle was progressing. Grimacing in pain he slowly rose, his crisp black uniform now scorched, blood-soaked and caked in mud. Then, through the smoke, the enemy arrived. Their counter-attack must have pushed the Krieg forces back and the enemy had reached him. Commissar Maugh fumbled for his powersword, by good fortune it was still in its scabbard, and he yanked it free. The first enemy to approach was a huge man, dwarfing the Commissar, his armour painted the deep red of arterial blood. His eyes glowed with malign power. In one hand he carried a massive chain axe, the other was a powerfist, crackling with energy. The traitor-lord saw the wounded Commissar and locked him in his sights.

Commissar Maugh raised his sword and thumbed the power-stud, it crackled into life just as the Khorne champion charged. Weakened by blood loss. Maugh was slow to react, the first sweep of the champion's axe smashed aside his parry and sent him sprawling backwards, falling again. The traitor- enemy loomed above him, laughing through a facemask of fanged teeth. Maugh tried to roll away, but the pain of his wounds crippled him, leaving him defenceless. Unable to save himself the Commissar-General simply stared defiantly into his foe's bitter face. It was whizened and old, skin pulled taut over his skull in a rictus of death. Then the enemy's powerfist reached out to crush him...

The death of Commissar-General Maugh did not end the battle. The Krieg forces had been pushed back by the sudden counter and the arrival of Khornate Berserkers and Chaos Terminators, but the guardsmen's numbers soon began to tell and more tanks thrust towards the gate again. Meanwhile, repeated impacts from the Titan Aeacus Ultra's melta cannon had vaporised the gate and brought down the parapet above it. The gate towers were being smashed into rubble by artillery impacts and tank fire.

Across the still smoking rubble the battle surged to and fro. Amidst the smoke and din the Kneg guardsmen rushed the remains of the gate, bayonets fixed, only to be thrown back by the warriors of Khorne. Berserkers with chainaxes in hand plunged into the fray, leaving a tide of destruction where the two sides met. Zhufor was amongst them, a towering powerhouse, his axe dripping gore. With him were his Terminator bodyguard, each a battle-harden veteran of hundreds of battlefields. All day and through the night they fought as artillery rounds howled around them, each side's shelling now mingled together into one furious barrage.

For two more days the Krieg guardsmen threw themselves into the breach, and each time were bloodily repulsed, rifts no were mere accident, there was a malevolent will behind them. Surely, Cardinal Xaphan and his entourage would not yet be able to manipulate the powers of the Warp to summon Daemons, but the Chaos Space Marines warbands could. Inquisitor Rex requested that his old mentor, Inquisitor Lord Malkin set about discovering who or what was behind it.

Inquisitor Malkin was happy to oblige. It was his work that would later revel the story behind Zhufor’s rise and the construction of the warp portal by the Sanctified. In the meantime the Grey Knights responded and dispatched a second strike force to Vraks to reinforce Stern’s brothers. Arriving at 996828.M41, Brother Captain Arturus joined his battle brothers on the frontline.

Underground Operations

As the cauldron of pitiless war boiled about the walls of the Citadel above, the engineers were pressing ever deeper towards their objective. Just as above ground, the fighting was bitter and progress slow but there was progress. Tunnels were approaching the Citadel from all directions: north, east, south and west. The enemy counter-mined but did not have the vast resources that the Krieg engineers had at the disposal - drilling machinery, hundreds of tonnes of explosives and seemingly endless manpower to hew their way towards the objective.

The enemy, unable to counter-mine fast enough took to unleashing beasts into the galleries and tunnels. Mutant creatures, things of slime and ooze, insane with pain and glibbering madness. Chaos Spawn and the wrecked remains of plague ridden Ogryns were all set loose inside the tunnels. The Krieg engineers found themselves facing nightmarish creatures - spawned for cruel sport by the enemy and carelessly. Shotgun blast and krak grenades brought the creatures down, but each skirmish delayed the digging and cost more lives.

Inquisitor Rex interrogated the engineers-commanders over progress and urged them to push onwards. The battle above ground was eating men and machines faster than the voracious Tyranid. Already whole regiments had been smashed apart in the repeated assaults. A break-in from below could well be the best way into toe Vraks Citadel. Still, the engineer commanders could not predict any tunnel breaching the Citadel Undercroft for at least another six months. The wasteful battles above ground would have to continue until then, if for no other reason than to prevent the enemy from re-deploying its manpower to counter-mining.

The Hill of Perdition

"We step forth on your path. Our Emperor be before us. Our Emperor be beside us. Our Emperor be in our tread."
—Chaplain Landrath of the Red Hunters -- Invocation before the first assault on the Citadel of Vraks.

The First Assault on the Citadel

At the epicenter of the network of service roads which criss-crossed the Van Meersland Wastes, linking habitation areas with armouries, defense laser batteries and the defensive rings which now lay blasted and shattered in the wake of the 88th army 's advance stood the great Citadel of Vraks. Looming imposingly upon a tall pinnacle of volcanic rock, up which, by dint of several switch backs the mam road made its way to the Great Gate. Up and up the road climbed its serpentine way towards the majestic entrance, wrought of carved granite blocks now long worn by wind and weather.

Within, above the grey waits and parapets of the Citadel's wall, rose the spires and pinnacles of the Basilica of St Leonis the Blind. From humble beginnings the original tower that commemorated the death of the martyred missionary in the 38th millennium had grown into a massive cathedral, where pilgrims of the faith came m hordes to visit the bones and relics of the long dead saint A huge edifice in carved stone, the Basilica of St Leoniss was not the tallest building within the Citadel. Higher still rose the censorium tower once the abode of Vrak’s chorus of astropaths and a centre for interstellar communication. It formed part of the Citadels inner ward, separated from the mam fortress by a sheer gorge that cracked the flanks of the citadel rocs. The censorium spire reached skyward, where lightning storms danced around its pinnacle, and from it the whole panorama of the surrounding lands could be seen in detail.

For the observers now watching the approaching Krieg regiments, the surrounding land far below and as far as they could see, had become a blackened pit of smoke and fire. The boom of the guns, once a distant rumble of thunder had become an ear-splitting cacophony of ceaseless explosions that surrounded the fortress. Shells smashed into the hillside or flashed and sparked off the Citadel's powerful void shield curtain every minute. Dust and smoke lay as thick as autumnal fog in dense grey clouds that roiled and boiled as more shells impacted. Down on the plain amidst the fire, shrapnel and choking smoke clouds the slaughter of murderous battle continued daily, ceaseless. Inside, the Citadel was now full of the materials of war. The last redoubt of the defenders was bristling with men and weapons. Outside the safety of the void-shield protected walls, the slopes were thick with weapon pits and observation posts, covered trenches and camouflaged sniper holes pocked every face. Bunkers, pillboxes and dug-outs scarred the surrounding landscape as well. The rebel forces had laboured hard to tum the Citadel into an impregnable fortress, the mighty rock upon which the rising tide of the Emperor’s armies would break and fall back, break and fall back, time and again. Despite months of Imperial Navy bombing raids and long-ranged artillery bombardment by the largest guns the Imperial Guard regiment could muster, the Citadel stood badly damaged but defiant. Now after 18 years, the finale of the great siege was about to be played out.

The Plans of the 88th Siege Army

The 88th Siege army's plan for the assault upon the Cardinal's Stronghold had been in existence almost since the start of the Vraksian war. Even 18 years ago the 88th army headquarters knew full welt what they would be facing when the time came to re-capture the Citadel. They had complete access to all the plans and schematics they could wish for every modification, improvement and strengthening of the Citadel had been done by the Admmistratum, and their records were long and thorough. Originally Lord Commander Zuehlke had planned the assault in detail and in turn Marshall Kagort had reviewed those plans and modified them to suit his ideas. Now Inquisitor Lord Rex was the third Imperial commander to view the data slates and holo-maps of the Citadel and run through the logistical requirements and unit briefings to refine the plan. Before any orders for the assault were issued to the regiments, Inquisitor Rex convened his most trusted fellow Inquisitors for a mayor review of the plan of assault.

The entire operation was huge and highly complex It involved a million guardsmen attacking at phased operations to wear down the defenders step-by-step, then take and hold key points. The greatest drawback of the entire operation was the nature of the terrain. No armoured units could be used in the final assaults – the ground was too steep for infantry and this would channel the attackers into the enemy’s prepared killing grounds. Whichever way the planners looked a it, the final push to break into the Citadel was going to be the bloodiest part of the bloody war. For most of the million guardsmen who would be thrown to rock and the Citadel high above, would be their last battle for the Emperor.

A high priority tor the attack was to knock-out the Citadel's void shield generators. These massive shields, powered by geo-thermic heat-walls sunk under the Citadel rock, were the key to its invulnerability. Using the same arcane technology that protected Titans, the entire Citadel was surrounded by a protective forcefield. Each section of wall, tower or buttress had its own projectors. Whilst the forcefield remained, there was little chance of seriously damaging the structure of the Citadel itself. Inquisitor Rex had no doubt in his mind, he would pour enough firepower that not a single stone would be left standing upon another by the time he had finished. The Administratum would complain and the Ecclesiarchy would protest bitterly about the destruction of the Basilica of St Leonis, but it would be a necessary sacrifice to purge of a far greater evil now festering and spreading its corruption from the hilltop.

The void shields could be overloaded but only when the energy of enough hits forced the generators to cut out or explode themselves. Overloading each void shield, and keeping it down would be the job of the siege artillery. The Earthshakers, Medusas and Bombards of the 21st bombardment korps could hammer the Citadel day and night with volleys of fire that would hopefully be too much for the void shield generators to cope with. They could only do this if enough ammunition was available, and so top priority was given for artillery ammunition to the bombardment korps. Each regiment's own artillery would suffer as a result, and that would mean a lack of shells for preliminary bombardment, smoke screens, counter-battery fire, rolling barrages and reactive fire, all exposing the infantry to greater threat from enemy fire and counter-attacks, but whilst that void shield remained up, all the infantry assaults in the world would not force passage through the wall. Each regiment would have to rely more heavily on its lighter field artillery and the guns of its Leman Russ could add to the barrages, given that they would have no role to play in the assault once the infantry started up the slopes.

Capture of the three main gates was the next objective. With the void shields down and the artillery battering the fortress' interior into ruins, the infantry must sweep up the hill and capture the gates These would then become the stepping stones for the next wave, breaking into the fortress interior. And here would be the most arduous and thankless task, advancing across fire- swept open ground into the teeth of the enemy's heaviest defences and guns. All knew that the platoons and companies would be quickly chewed up in the meat grinder on the hillsides, with the enemy dug-in deep and behind massively thick walls, impervious to anything but direct hits from all but the biggest shells. It would be murder, but the planners could see no other way, somebody must climb that hill and die. Others would have to follow, and climb over the mounds of the first waves to be cut down in turn. And on the cycle would go, as they crawled closer to the gates, body by mangled body. Inquisitor Lord Rex had to decide who would be given this mission.

The regiment chosen to be the first wave up the slopes was the 261st siege regiment, under the command of veteran Colonel Tyborc. Throughout the war Tyborc had risen through the ranks to lead the 261st On Vraks his name had become something of a legend. He had led the attack that was credited with breaking the first defence line, now some 14 years ago. His heroic efforts had seen him cut off and fighting for three days without aid. He had been wounded five times in that battle alone In the ensuing years he had risen to command of the regiment, his predecessor being killed at the frontline when an enemy mortar shell had trepanned the top of his head off - the fractured part-skull now resided in a reliquary on the regimental banner Colonel Tyborc continued to lead from the front, and had been wounded in action another four times, each time surviving - although an enemy chainsword had taken his left arm during the Kagori offensive. Still, he now had a bionic replacement and had returned to lead his regiment during the push through the curtain wall and across the battlefields that had led to the Citadel rock. Now his regiment would be committed en-masse in the first bid to capture the three main gates of the Citadel. Tyborc was summoned to the Inquisitor's command post and given his orders. He must have known what it meant instantly - the probable destruction of his regiment, but he never flinched, accepting the mission with a simple salute. Death in the cause of the Emperor was all he had ever expected, now he would get his wish.

Plans of the 261st Regiment

Colonel Tyborc had picked up the Inquisitor's poisoned chalice, now he must drink deeply from it. First he had to build up his regiment ready for the fight, more shells, more ammunition, more fuel and more men would all be requisitioned from the stockpiles and ferried forwards. Then he gathered his staff and began to study the holo-maps and details the Inquisitor Lord had provided. Taking up positions in the forward trenches that now surrounded the Citadel, the 261st regiment would attack from three directions simultaneously. From the north, aimed at the Cardinal Gate. From the west, aimed at captunng the Lower Gate and destroying the outlying defences and defence laser silo that in turn guarded the St Leoms Gate, and the most powerful strike would come from the south-east aimed at the Great Gate. Each attack would be led by an entire infantry company, each in fifteen Gorgons. 1st company from the north. 7th company from the west and 15th company from the south-east.

Their attack could only begin after the bombardment korps' barrage had had its chance to work. Then, as the bombardment concentrated on the fortress itself. Tyborc would send forth his Gorgons. These big assault earners would push the lead companies through the remaining outer defences and only disgorge the guardsmen when the slope became too steep. The infantry would then advance uphill on their own, under the covering fire of any tanks that could find their way forward into firing positions at the foot of the hill. It would be a three-pronged attack, each prong aimed at capturing one of the gates. When the Gorgon-mounted companies stalled, a second infantry wave on foot would be close behind, to push through the first wave and onwards up the slope. The third wave would do likewise. The fourth wave would contain most of the regiment's grenadier squads, and it was these guardsmen that would carry the assault to the gates and fight hand-to-hand for the bastions at each entrance. At the great gateway Tyborc planned to deploy Atlas recovery vehicles, each equipped with a heavy dozer blade to sweep the service road of mines and allow a company of Leman Russ to push up the road, in single file, and support the grenadiers' assault Fresh reinforcements would also be waiting to strike directly up the road to hold the objective once it was taken.

The Great Gate would be the main focus of the attack, and demanded the largest commitment of forces. The other two gates, the Cardinal Gate and Lower Gate, were far harder prospects. Here each attack would be a strong diversion, carried forward with enough men and machines to pin enemy forces in place, and if the enemy faltered, then they may even have a chance to take the gates. But it was at the Great Gate that Tyborc hoped to win his foothold. If he did then his mission would be complete and another regiment would take over the assault. By then the 261st would be a spent force, casualties would be very high but he knew that was why Krieg regiments had been chosen for this war.

The Murder Slopes

At last, at long last, the end was in sight. If the day’s battle went well and the 261st regiment won their objectives then the end would be within reach. Dawn broke, barely perceptible in the stygian gloom of low clouds and the distant rumble of thunder, or was it guns? There could be no mistaking the opening roar of the bombardment. Situated on the south bank of the Darro rift, the 21st bombardment korps had spent many days and nights preparing for this firing mission. It would be sustained and accurate, concentrated and devastating, withc every gun that could be mustered now trained on that hill and the Citadel on top. As the order to open fire on the pre-set targets was received, Krieg gunners hauled on lanyards and the guns boomed as one. The shells soared high, screaming and whining in fight. First to impact were the higher velocity Earthshaker rounds, screaming in. Next, seconds behind, came the Medusa rounds, a low bass whine as the heavy siege shells fell. Last came the Bombard shells, each huge shell plunging from the clouds with the rumble of a passing freight train. A thousand shells fell in the first minute. As Tyborc and the staff officers of the 261st regiment watched, the Citadel and its slopes vanished into a cloud of flame split explosives. Shell after shell added to the bombardment, thickening the ring of flames that now consumed the Citadel. Could anything live through such of a storm? Surrounding the observing officers, men in brown greatcoats mustered by squad, platoon and company clambered abroad the Gorgon carriers as they idled, spilling reeking exhaust fumes to thicken the air. Each squad was counted onboard in a scramble of hob-nail shod marching boots, ringing on the metal loading ramps. Watchmasters and Commissars cajoled each guardsmen into position before the pneumatic pistons hissed into life and the ramps drew up and locked with a solid clang. Sealed inside their metal behemoths, the next guardsmen would see of the world would be the base of that hill and the murderous fires of battle.

On time, Colonel Tyborc issued the order of attack, and seconds later each Gorgon’s engine revved into life, tracks slowly grinding into the earth as the inched towards, each lumbering carrier gathering speed slowly, men jostling inside, shoulder to shoulder in the packed holes. It had begun, and each company now had its part to play. The wheels of war were turning, and now Colonel Tyborc must now let them run their course. Behind the Gorgons followed more infantry on foot, still in ordered lines, each squad evenly spaced from the next, Leman Russ followed crews riding out of their turrets to better pick a route forwards. Soon yellow tongues of flame would adding the battle cannon shells to the bombardment ahead. The field artillery followed amidst more infantry companies, Centaur earners bouncing across the track-churned ground. Then came grenadiers, some in carriers, other walking, all slouched under weight of their heavy armour and hellguns. The entire regiment was on the move. Only the big artillery guns remained in place, the Earthshakers and Medusa siege guns, and soon they would also be firing. Colonel Tyborc had committed everything he had, with only three infantry companies and the Death Riders as his reserve, and these too would be committed if it seemed a breakthrough might come. It was all or nothing. Victory or destruction.

All three attacks met with expectef fierce resistance. Despite the dense smoke and explosions, the lumbering Gorgons attracted heavy fire. The lead transport of 7th company took a direct hit in the side from a hidden artillery gun. The Earthshaker shell tore through the hold, shredding those inside, before exiting the far side, leaving a ragged hole. A second shot also hit, its high explosive warhead blasting the survivors into torn corpses.

1st company were soon in a minefield and although the Gorgons pushed forwards, several were left burning. From high above, a defense laser silo opened fire, each huge laser impact tearing great scorch marks into the earth. First one, then a second, then a third Gorgon disappeared in a thunderous explosion of light and molten plasteel.

For the 15th company, withering fire was also taking its toll on the Gorgons. One had its driver’s cab torn off by a tank shell. Slewing wildly, another’s tracks were shredded by artillery fire, leaving it stranded. The guardsmen inside disembarked into heavy fire and were soon scattered into cover or lying dead upon the earth.

When the assault ramps crashed down, all the other platoons experienced the same treatment. Heavy bolter and heavy stubber fire swept the ground, more hidden minefields blocking the advance. Defensive mortar fire was plunging onto pre-sighted targets with terrible accuracy. Squads were annihilated in a blaze of murderous explosions and bullets. Captain Attas, leading 7th company was dead, as were his entire command squad - all killed when a bunker that was thought to have been destroyed opened fire at point blank range. His men crawled forward towards the service road leading up to the Lower Gate, corpses piling up in their wake. More corpses and abandoned Gorgons littered the route forwards.

Against the 1st company the enemy counter-attacked and hand-to-hand fighting saw the first infantry wave thrown back. They had barely started to climb the slope up to the Cardinal Gate. The second wave of Krieg infantry charged in, bayonets fixed, counter-attacking in turn and turned the tide again, seeing the enemy cut down or falling back, but they had yet to reach the slopes, and already two waves had been exhausted. The third wave gained another few hundred yards in a spirited rush, but it was still well short of the Cardinal Gate when artillery and mortar fire racked its positions and turned the attack into a rabble. Captain Zolyan of the 19th company tried to press on uphill, but his company suffered the same fate as the first waves. Fewer than 100 guardsmen returned from a full strength unit of 740 when they set out. The Captain was not amongst them.

Whilst the northern and western assaults were stalling, the attack on the Great Gate was faring little better. No less courageous, it was no more successful. The Gorgon transports had taken the brunt of the enemy fire, eight of the fifteen were now wreckage. The others fell back, spitting heavy stubber rounds up the hill until their ammunition bins were spent. The infantry was slogging uphill into a gale of furious fire, plunging down onto them as the guardsmen scrambled forwards, all order was now lost in the tumult of battle.

On the switchback highway ascending to the Great Gate, the Atlas recovery vehicles had ploughed their slow way forward, scraping a path through the mines, before lascannon blasts from the walls left each a smoking hulk on the road, crews scattering out of the hatches and fleeing back downhill. Fighting their way up the hill in the wake of the engineering vehicles was a column of Leman Russ tanks of the 261st regiment's 5th tank company -12 tanks in line astern. They crawled upwards, volleys of battle cannon fire pattering off the gate towers. One by one the tanks were knocked out, the last survivor reached the fourth switchback before the crew abandoned their immobilised vehicle. Burning tank wrecks littered the route back down and their rusting remains would block the road for any future assaults.

Ahead of the main assault the bombardment had now concentrated, hammering the Citadel. The deluge of shells had, as predicted, overwhelmed the void shields, although they could not destroy the generators. The generators were buried far below in the Citadel vaults, and so any damage done could only be temporary. The artillery was now tearing at the buildings, blasting great. The attack plan for clearing the ravine was highly complex, but every unit involved had been thoroughly briefed, studied the maps and been issued their orders. Their first objective was to cross a natural gully that ran across the line of advance. From there the attack would then divide, with two forces assaulting the enemy strong points at the head of the gully, a third force veering right to strike at a defence laser silo that was believed to have been knocked out by heavy bombardment months ago. but its ruined ferrocrete walls still provided the defenders with excellent cover with which to enfilade the mam route of advance - it had to be stormed and taken A fourth force would then come forward to push on down the ravine and assault the gale and walls in conjunction with the Bed Hunters' drop pod assault Once the walls were breached, a renewed assault would clear the remainder of the ravine and drive the attack on to the end and the armoury gates. Once there the mission would be handed over to the engineer companies to blast through the armoured doors and begin to clear the complex beyond. As each objective was taken, new companies would be released to take over the attack. In all, Inquisitor Rex was expecting the assault to last for three to four days of sustained fighting. As ever, progress would be slow and hard fought

When the order to attack came, the guardsmen went over the top and began to advance in good order. At first it went smoothly, tanks and infantry advancing into the smoke that drifted over the landscape following another softening up bombardment by the field artillery guns just behind. The heavy rain was falling again, deepening the mud under foot and tracks. But despite the smooth start the planners had overlooked something. On their tactical maps the natural gully appeared as a single line and was believed to be only lighly held - a minor obstacle to be overrun by the first wave. What the regimental staff had missed was the fact that the gully was actually a natural trench, steep on the northern bank and in many places it was impassable to armoured vehicles. The enemy had dug-in deep into the gully walls, untouchable by artillery, but in its concentration on defenses of the ravine and the threat from plunging from the Citadel above, the regiment’s detailed artillery plan had only designated the gully for a brief bombardment by several quad launcher batteries. From this gully the enemy could foray out to engage the advancing guardsmen then quickly slip back to its protection. The enemy had also hidden tanks in the gully’s base, and prepared firing positions for them at the edge. As the Krieg tanks move forward, the enemy armour would roll into perfect hull-down positions and engage, before rolling back to change positions before any return fire could find them. Just taking the gully was going to be a far harder fight than anybody had planned for.

So it proved. The enemy was patient and only opened fire at short range with a sudden withering hail that flayed the lead infantry platoons. Leman Russ suddenly detonated from surprise flanking shots from unseen enemy tanks. Five tanks were burning in seconds, the others reversing away rather than risk the same fate. The attack stopped dead in its tracks. Mortar fire then began to land, the air singing with shrapnel above the pinned guardsmen's heads. The 3rd company's commander was killed in a blaze of heavy stubber fire. Six of his eleven platoon commanders would die in the opening fusillade. Despite the losses the attack must press on, and so it did Unable to outflank the gully the only choice was to keep bulling forwards in a headlong attack, but little headway could be made.

Urgently re-directed artillery fire smothered the gully in high explosives, but the enemy were well protected, and quickly found shelter under the gully edge. The three Macharius tanks found no way of crossing the gully, then lost two vehicles to demolition charges thrown by unseen enemies from within the gully. More infantry companies were called forward, but it was not until the second day that, by weight of numbers alone, the Krieg guardsmen forced their way into the gully and started to clear it with grenades and bayonets. Inside they would find degenerate mutants, beastmen and renegade militiamen side-by-side, alongside squads of Traitor Space Marines, notable of the Steel Brethren, who had turned this minor feature into another killing ground. On the attack's right flank, the first crossing was made by guardsmen of the 16th company. Their mission had originally been to attack the defence laser bastion but already most of their ten platoons had been savaged in the gully fighting. Lacking the firepower to suppress the hardened enemy outpost, their subsequent assaults soon failed.

Only by the end of the third day was an objective that should have been secured in the first hours in Krieg's hands - with more men arriving to turn it into a solid base of fire for next apring forward. The mouth of the ravine was guarded by twin strong points, each a complex of pillboxes, bunkers, trenches and firing pits. Bombard shells were already targeting each, supplemented by direct tank fire from the gully, but with the attack behind schedule there was no time for a long bombardment. It was time to go again, and the lines of new Krieg guardsmen sprang out of the gully and headed south.

The expected three day battle for the ravine was into its fifth day before any of the Emperor's forces actually made it into the ravine. On the right the attack against the defence laser bastion had failed again, and the regimental commander had requested the aid of Titans to help his third assault. Even the arrival of the Reaver Titan Astor Tyrannis could not get the infantry onto their objective.

In the ravine itself the attackers soar found themselves in a nightmarish labyrinth of trenches and minefields with tank traps thick as trees in a forest preventing tank support from posting forward. The Steel Brethren had again been at work, and progress towards the gate was measured in metres. Furious fire from the gate towers and walls swept the service road, now little more than craters. The enemy fought for every position. To the rear, artillery ammunition was running low, the base had now outrun its dedicated supplies. The suppressing fire on the Citadel above had been forced to slacken. The result was murderous plunging fire from the cliff tops from which there was no cover. Companies expended themselves for no gain in the ravine - which had earned itself the name “the death pit”.

It was seven days into the ongoing battle before Inquisitor Rex gave the order for the drop pod assault to begin. Originally scheduled for day two, it had been delayed, then delayed again. Finally given permission to go, the Ordo Malleus Inquisitors and the Red Hunters strike force plunged into the ravine preceded by a wave of Deathstorm drop pods that scoured the drop zone with random fire. With the low black clouds and the ravine lip blocking their view, the attacking Krieg officers could not see the Space Marines arrive, and so failed to make the planned coordinated push against the wall and gate to strike from two directions at once. The four inquisitors and almost 150 battle brothers on the Red Hunters Chapter descended into a trap. They were isolated from all support, trapped in a cauldron of fire with no escape route. It quickly became apparent that the enemy had expected just such a move and prepared a counter-attack.

Out from the massive armoury doors marched a Reaver Titan, around its feet a swarm of degenerate creatures and sub-human scum, all baying for blood and desperate to earn their master's rewards. The hordes threw themselves at the Red Hunters, who gunned them down mercilessly with the purifying fire of their sacred bolt guns. Hundreds died, but they were just the first wave, expendables that allowed the Chaos Space Marines to close in. Again it was the Khorne warbands and their Berserkers that struck, again led by Zhufor and his bodyguards.

Against the traitorous Legio Vulcanum Reaver even ceramite and adamantium armour provided little protection. Trapped in their own isolated battle, the Red Hunters requested assistance, and eventually the Krieg guardsmen were ordered to attack the gate in a desperate bid to break in. The gate itself was vaporized by multiple plasma blasts from a Stormblade, but the guardsmen could not force a passage inside. A heroic charge by the entire 35th and 36th Death Rider companies was cut down to the man - now the last reserves available for the assault had been used up.

Without relief the Red Hunters strike force was wiped out. All were lost, including the four Inquisitors leading the courageous assault with them. Those not lucky enough to be killed by the followers of Khorne faced a fate worse than death. The wounded and prisoners were dragged away by Zhufor and handed over to the Sanctified, the Traitor Marines with an intimate and deep knowledge of daemonancy. The prisoners would be offered up as daemon-vessels, fodder for hungry daemons to consume. They would soon return to the battlefields, unrecognisably deformed as Possessed.

The bad news for the 269th regiment did not end with the failure of the assault on the ravine, or the failure of the assault on the defence laser bastion, or the annihilation of the drop pod assault. Out to the north-east during one of the many company-strength diversionary attacks that had supported the main efforts, disaster had also befallen the regiment. The 17th infantry company, skirmishing through the outskirts of the now ruined manufactorum had advanced into an ambush. Arkos the Faithless Alpha Legion warband had somehow infiltrated into the bombed-out manufactorum, most probably using unknown underground passages, and set up a trap. The Traitor Space Marines had managed to surround and annihilate the entire company before any forces could be freed up from their own attacks to hep. A full strength company had found itself surrounded by the Alpha Legion and been overwhelmed. Over 700 guardsmen had been lost, many no doubt captured and returned to the Citadel for some horrible fate. Such spoiling tactics were the hallmark of the Alpha Legion

The offensive was called off a day later. The 269th regiment had suffered the same fate as the 261st. Butchered, most of its infantry manpower now lay dead on the fields, the ravine itself was choked with the corpses of guardsmen and Death Rider steeds, along with the wreckage of tanks and guns. The regiment withdrew but left a strong ad-hoc force of survivors to garrison the two captured strong points and form a stopping force at the end of the ravine to prevent an enemy break-out. It was the only gam they made from the entire attack. Eight days of hellish fighting had seen a second regiment devastated, it was no longer an effective fighting force. Inquisitor Lord Rex had little alternative but to again disband the regiment and move its survivors into the two remaining regiments of 30th Line Korps. It had seen its fighting strength halved in the two attacks.

First Victory of the Final Battle of Vraks

On 081.830.M41, as the attack on the ravine was going over the top, Inquisitor Rex craned his neck and peered skywards as the first dozen of some 68 Marauder bombers passed above, their four engines a bass rumble, passing like dark crucifixes as they flew overhead en route for their target As the inquisitor watched, the bombers dumped their payloads onto the Lower Gate spur, which instantly vanished from sight m a cauldron of smoke and flame that boiled up from the hillside The next wave was already inbound, and more bombs followed the first. Hundreds of artillery rounds then joined the bombardment as the Lower Gate spur was pounded with alt the high explosives that the 88th siege army could throw at it. Five more bomber waves soon followed the first.

As the last Marauder bomber banked away, its engine noises fading to nothing, the smoke and dust of the saturation bombing began to clear. The Inquisitor was handed a surveyor by an aide and scanned the walls. In at least four places the wall had been breached. At least two towers had been turned into smouldering piles of nibble, fires still burning deep within the rums. The Lower Gate itself stood in defiance, scorched and blackened but resolute. Above, parapets had been smashed and ramparts crumbled. Inside their bunkers many of the defenders had been crushed by the falling masonry, others had been deafened by the bombardment. More crawled from the nibble digging their passage out into the open again.

The intense bombardment had been an awe-inspiring sight, and the Krieg guardsmen of the first wave now rose to begin their assault. Their objective was still the wall, even if it was little more than rubble in many places, but still enough sections had survived to make it a fine defensive position for the survivors to fight from. And fight they did! Despite the destruction, the bombing was actually of dubious benefit. The survivors set about burrowing into the rubble, creating new finng positions. The heavy weapons that had survived nestled in the masonry, gunners and snipers soon perched on the broken ramparts. The southern bastion of the defence laser silo, the strongest of the spur's defences, had also survived mostly intact and would soon be operational again.

On command, the 269th regiment's assault companies sprang forward, with companies of tanks and super-heavy tanks alongside the platoons, along with High Princeps Rand Drauca's Titan Praetorian and two other Reavers, Tritus and Invictorus. There were also four Warhounds dose by Inquisitor Rex watched as the first waves set off towards the Lower Gate spur, climbing the ever-steepening slope as they vanished into the dust and cordite smog.

In defiance of the air raid the defenders were still waning, and soon the first Krieg wave had slowed to a crawl again. But the weight of armour - nearly 100 vehicles had been dedicated to this wave alone - and the raking blasts of the Reaver Titans with their massive missile pods and gatling blasters were smashing the remaining walls and defence lines asunder. It was only a matter of time until the attacker's firepower overwhelmed the entrenched defenders and carved a path for the infantry to exploit. Still, the tanks found it hard going, the ground had been heavily cratered by the air raid and many were bogged down in the churned earth, becoming pillboxes until their ammunition bins were empty. From Lord Rex's command post, the attack seemed to be working - if slowly. The first infantry platoons were now fighting in the rumble of the walls, clearing them section-by-section. The Titan Invictorus had retired to rearm, whilst Praetorian was supporting the main thrust. On the right Tritus led the attack against the southern bastion. Then came the first major hitch. The bastion might have been heavily scarred by the air raid, but buried within its weaponry had survived. As the Reaver launched salvoes of missiles at the bastion, suddenly, surprisingly, it returned fire. The first defence laser shot overwhelmed Tritus' remaining void shields, the second scored a direct hit - the massive laser cannon penetrating through the Reaver's frontal armour and critically damaging the plasma reactor within. Tritus staggered under the impacts, came to a halt and its weapons fell ominously silent. Then, spectacularly, the plasma reactor detonated. With the force of a small sun the reactor exploded into an iridescent ball of super-heated gases, so bright that its after image burned into the retinas of those who saw it, and it was so hot nothing within 100 metres survived. Rising into a mushroom cloud, when the gases eventually dissipated there was nothing left of the once proud battle titan. Only black scorched ground for a hundred metres in every direction marked its death. Small fragments of smouldering, melted wreckage was all that could be recovered. Another of the Legio Astorum's venerable machines was gone.

Inquisitor Rex commanded more artillery onto the bastion, and a barrage of heavy bombard shells was soon hammering the area. Then, his battlefield retinue trailing close behind him, the Inquisitor left his command post to join the front line.

At the front the Krieg guardsmen were still pushing forward. In places they had almost reached the walls, in others they had been checked and were pinned down Lord Rex took direct command of the attack on the defence laser bastion, calling off the heavy artillery barrage as he ordered the lead platoons and their supporting grenadiers to charge. By nightfall they would be inside, fighting in the tunnels and galleries within. Inquisitor Rex and his retinue led the close quarters fighting and it was he who triggered the demolition charges that finally disabled the defence laser.

Meanwhile, as the Krieg guardsmen forced the enemy from its boltholes and section-by-section captured the Lower Gate spur wall, the enemy counter-attacked. Just as with the first assault upon the Great Gate, the enemy spilled out this time from the St Leonis Gate high above and raced down the Pilgrim's Road. Armoured vehicle, Dreadnoughts, Blood Slaughterers, Defilers and other great clanking war machines, shrieking and screaming their hatred joined the battle. They were reinforced by the Black Brothers of Ayreas, a warband of the Black Legion - once the personal legion of Horus himself. There were no troops in the galaxy more dedicated to Horus' ambition to overthrow the Emperor.

At first their counter-attack swept the Krieg guardsmen back from the wall only for the survivors to rally, and fresh waves of infantry, supported by massed battle cannon fire surged up the rubble glacis again and over the rubble piles. Fighting for the wall was bitter. Six times it changed hands as the day long battle stretched on into the night. It was a night of hellish combat against daemonically powered war engines. The air was filled with their shrieking wails - the tormented screams of those sacrificed to give each machine life. By dawn the rubble pile was back in the Traitors hands again and four full Krieg infantry companies had been broken in the repealed counter-attacks. Bodies littered the rubble and filled the craters.

On the second day, as the Krieg infantry again attempted to wrestle control of the objective back. Inquisitor Rex summoned his own reserves Grey Knights squads raced to his assistance Still in the thick of the fighting. Inquisitor Rex organised the survivors around him for the next push, as the Grey Knights strike force roared into the battle. Ornate silver Land Raider transports dulled by their exposure to Vraks sulphurous atmosphere arrived attacking head-on in a blaze of lascannon and heavy bolter fire. The assault ramps dropped and out burst the elite Space Mannes within force halberds glowing with a corona of blue light. Psychic forces flashed and sparked as the daemon-hunters unleashed their powers. Hacking and slashing with unstoppable wrath they cut their way through the enemy.

Bellowing invocations against the corruptions of Chaos, Inquisitor Lord Rex joined them, bounding up the rubble scree, Krieg infantry close behind. They once again reached the top of the tall rubble piles, beyond which was the cliff-like slope of the hill’s southern face, across which ran the Pilgrim's Road, climbing up under the Citadel's walls to the St Leonis Gate. Back along that road the surviving enemy now withdrew, still firing wildly as they went. The Grey Knights sudden strike had tipped the balance and smashed the traitors back. In a sudden furious holocaust, Daemon Engines had been sent wailing, exorcised back into the Warp. As he surveyed the battlefield, all around the Inquisitor Lord was a scene of utter devastation. The Lower Gate spur was all but gone, the towers had tumbled, the walls had been pulverized to rock and dust. Shattered tanks and war machines lay about on the crater- scarred ground, many were still burning fiercely like orange beacons upon the dust shrouded field, spewing black smoke. The dead of both sides littered the ground, but after two days of fighting, what remained of the Lower Gate spur was in their hands. Here the enemy counter-attack had been defeated and the Emperor's forces had won themselves a platform for an assault on the St Leonis Gate.

It was the first victory of the last Battle for Vraks.

Where Daemons Tread

"Better crippled in body than corrupted in mind."
—Inquisitor Thor Malkin

The Return of the Red Scorpions

At 159830.M41, Inquisitor Lord Rex's earlier diplomatic efforts to secure additional Adeptus Astartes units for the war on Vraks were finally repaid. His emissary had sought out the Red Scorpions Chapter as ordered, travelled via Terra to the Zaebus system and placed the Inquisitor Lord's request directly into the hands of the Chapter's Lord High Commander. Verant Ortys. In turn Commander Ortys had taken it to his own trusted officers in order to confer. No Space Marine Chapter commits itself to battle lightly. Each Chapter is only 1.000 brothers, the finest the Imperium has, so they must be used wisely and with care. Of course, in this case Lord High Commander Ortys already had some knowledge of events upon distant Vraks. A strike force under Commander Ainea had returned from their first operation badly damaged but victorious. Now, the Inquisitor Lord was asking that he follow up that invaluable assistance with a second deployment. The enemy was not yet defeated and the war not yet won. As an Inquisitor, Lord Rex could have demanded the Red Scorpions' presence, and sent one of his Inquisitors to indenture a strike force, but Space Marine Chapters are infamous for their fierce independence, and Chapter Masters do not take kindly to interference in their Chapter's affairs by the bureaucracy of the Imperium or the Inquisition. Their record of loyal service is enough to buy them the trust to operate beyond the many restrictions of the Administratum. Chapters are tied directly to the Imperium by a sacred oath of loyalty to the Emperor. To many Space Marines, those that have broken that oath are the worst of all enemies. Their stain of disloyalty could, and has, been seen to contaminate all. The destruction of traitor Space Marine forces is amongst the highest priority and the most glorious service any Chapter can do for the Imperium.

It was this persuasive argument that Inquisitor Rex's diplomats used to convince Lord High Commander Ortys to return to Vraks. Ortys gathered his entire Chapter together to make the announcement that, after much long thought, he had decided to dispatch a large strike force back to Vraks Commander Ainea had begun the mission, but he would now personally lead a force large enough to finish it. There were still many traitors to Mankind on Vraks. vile fiends who would bring about the downfall of the Emperor's rule. Preparations were to be made for four full companies to join the war. The battle barge Sword of Ordon was to make ready for the long journey back to Segmentum Obscurus.

With the precision of a well-oiled machine, the Chapter immediately went into action. It was a routine that had been practised thousands of times before The Chapter was readying for war. The Master of the Fleet would take command of his battle barge, and 400 battle brothers must be prepared for the crucible of battle against a trrible foe, both physically and spiritually. The Chaplains warned all their charges that Vraks had become the haunt of daemons, and the vile creatures would lust after the souls of each individual. They would face not only the enemy's guns, and they were many, but also the false promises and cruel temptations offered by the dark powers of the Warp. All would have to call upon the power of the divine Emperor in order to resist the morally corrupting temptations and falsehoods that would seek to break their will to fight and turn them away from their true calling as the shield of humanity. Each would be tested spiritually and morally Combat against the forces of Chaos must be won not just on the battlefield, but within each battle brother s heart and mind.

Within days, arming rituals were completed and Dreadnoughts awoken from the Chapter's stasis crypts The Master of the Forge had each vehicle of the armoury blessed and litanies and purity seals attached so as to protect the machine spirits within. All was complete The battle brothers filed aboard their battle barge, its two escort ships were already in position The Lord High Commander gave the order to pull out from dock, and the Sword of Ordon made best speed for the Vraks system.

The strike force arrived at 159830.M41, its arduous journey through the Warp complete. Upon achieving a safe orbit, the Sword of Ordon disembarked its entire strike force down to Vraks' surface via Thunderhawks and drop pods. High Commander Ortys met with Inquisitor Lord Rex directly and placed his strike force at the Inquisition's service. He had come to complete the mission his fellow commander had started four years ago. After a tactical briefing, the two men went into private council to discuss how best the Red Scorpions could be put to use. Commander Ortys studied the holo-maps in detail. The Citadel was a formidable objective but martial duty and pride demanded that his strike force take the toughest mission the Inquisitor could offer. It would be the Red Scorpions' honour to force the first breach into the Citadel.

It was agreed that the Red Scorpions would make a strong attack up the Pilgrims Road from the now destroyed Lower Gate, up the cliff side to capture and hold the St Looms Gate. The attack would have to be directly along the road itself, under the eyes and guns of the Citadel s southern walls for every step of the way. The St Leonis Gate itself was a massive bastion of stone with its own guard towers. The outer gate led through a long tunnel - no doubt another killing zone, to an inner gate, and then on along a colonnaded procession to the Basilica of St Leonis itself. So far, due to the void shields that protected it, artillery fire had only damaged the surface of the gatehouse strongpoint Inside, the defences would be intact and no doubt full of heretics, and worse…

Commander Ortys and his staff gathered to plan the attack. It would take every weapon they had at their disposal in order to succeed. The first objective would be to clear a diff-side strong point that blocked the Pilgnm's Road. This task would be given to assault squads of the 3rd and 8th Companies led by the vanguard assault squad of 1st Company under Brother Sergeant Cufln - a veteran of the first Vraks mission. Once the bunkers were captured, Ortys would lead the main strike force in Rhinos, Razorbacks and Land Raider transports up the Pilgrim’s Road at high speed. They would be covered by Whirldwind strikes and all the Land Speeders the strike force had. These small anti-grav gunships would be invaluable, not being restricted by the terrain they could engage the Citadel walls to keep the defenders suppressed whilst the armoured strike force advanced. Thunderhawk gunships would also attack the walls and the gate with bombs and rockets. As the main force began the attack on the gatehouse, supported by Dreadnoughts, son the Sword of Ordon would manoeuver into position in low orbit and begin an orbital bombardment of the Citadel, including the Basilica. The Master of the Fleet would have to unleash every gun the battle barge had to overwhelm the void shields and prevent enemy reinforcements reaching the gatehouse. The enemy had a few remaining defense laser silos still operational, but no longer possessed enough firepower to seriously threaten the massive Space Marine battleship. Also abroad the battle barge would be a coup-de-main force of Assault Terminators squads, led again by Commander Ainea of the 3rd Company. On Orty’s command, the veteran battle brothers would teleport directly into the gatehouse bastion, just as the main force was attacking from without. The combined power of the attack should see the St Leonis Gate’s defence wall.

Those battle brothers not dedicated to the assault would be used for a secondary attack against the Great Gate, mostly as crew for Predators tanks and Vindicators.

The Red Scorpions would not be attacking alone. The Krieg 158tth regiment would put in another strong attack from the north, whilst Inquisitor Rex, his followers and a strike force made up by more Inquisitors, Storm troopers, the Red Hunters and the Grey Knights of strike force Arturus would simultaneously be launched at the Cardinal Gate.

Battle for the Gate of Saint Leonis

Veteran Sergeant Culln watched from the lip of a three storey high pile of rubble that had once been part of the Citadel‘s wall. Behind and below him were gathered assault squads from three companies. His own vanguard squad was also close by, each a veteran for at least 100 battles, each equipped as he preferred, each amongst the finest warriors of his Chapter. They had trained for missions such as this daily. The target was a collection of low bunkers dug deep into the cliff face.

From here he could see their gun embrasures. All were constructed of thick ferrocrete, resistant to plunging artillery fire but each attacking assault squad had been issued melta-bombs that would quickly demolish such defenses and allow his men access to the degenerate sub-humans awaiting within. All were about to be expunged from the galaxy.

As Culln watched the first Thunderhawk roar in low over his position, the heat of his quad-jet’s washed over him as the gunship unloaded its cargo of plasma bombs directly onto the strongpoint. Culln’s photo-chromatic lenses dimmed as the target vanished into a bright burning inferno of super-heated hydrogen that melted rock and sucked the surrounding air into a swirling vortex of dust and smoke. As the inferno burned out, it was time to go. Culln gave the order over his thought-activated comm-link. “For the Chapter! For the Emperor! Attack!” His idling jump generator unit burst into life, twin jet engines propelling him through the air in a single long bound. Behind him his men followed, each battle brother dropping from the sky, jets blazing, weapons in hand, bolt pistols hammering out a wall of micro-explosions. The Battle of St Leonis Gate had begun.

As Culln's force launched into the attack, Commander Ortys climbed aboard his command Rhino and ordered the column of armoured vehicles to move up to their departure point, the former Lower Gate. Over the comms-channel he listened to the flight crew of a second Thunderhawk as it approached the Citadel, locked onto the gatehouse bastion and unloaded a salvo of Hellstrike missiles before banking away hard and climbed back towards the Sword of Ordon in orbit above. Flicking channels he noted that the Land Speeder squadrons, his close air cover, were already inbound, on time and on target. Flicking channels again he gave the command for the Whirlwinds to open fire. Shrieking, the Whirlwind missiles screamed overhead, trailing fire, and impacting along the Citadel walls, where the void shields sparked and flashed as they absorbed the energy of the repeated impacts. Ortys held the grab rails inside the command compartment as his Damocles Rhino pitched and jolted violently across the heavily cratered landscape. The road that had once led to the gate was gone now, blasted into broken shards by repeated artillery bombardments, but with their engines gunning hard the Space Marine transports churned through the mud and over rocks towards the position from which to begin their part in the attack.

Checking suit camera feeds, the Lord High Commander could see Culln’s men were inside, clearing the strongpoint in bloody hand-to-hand fighting. The comms were garbled, as ever in battle, and no doubt the veteran sergeant had no time for reports Checking Culln's bio-readouts showed him to be under great stress, both heart beats high - no doubt more heathen heretics were being cleansed from the galaxy by the sergeant's powersword.

Satisfied that everything was in place, and with the strongpoint now fully engaged and being gradually overrun, it was time for the main column to advance, three Land Raiders leading the way. High Commander Ortys ordered the Land Speeder squadrons into their attack runs, then strode from the Damocles Rhino and up the single line of armoured vehicles to the leading Land Raider He climbed through the side door and into the red-lit gloom within, where his battle brothers stood ready, weapons loaded. He took his place at the forefront of the squad, drew his sword and bolt pistol and ordered the driver to advance, full speed ahead

The huge battle tank lurched forwards, tracks throwing up great clods of earth’ exhausts spilling blue fumes as it powered over the rubble and down onto the remains of the Pilgrim Road One- by-one the vehicles behind followed, gradually gathering speed uphill. Muffled beyond the tank’s armoured walls, the firing had begun. The blasts of sponson-mounted lascannons, the tearing shriek of assault cannons and the thunder of missile impacts - the cacophony of battle was rising.

The Red Scorpions’ armoured advance was swift, the leading Land Raiders racing past the strong point where Culln’s force was still engaged within Every weapon the vehicles had was blazing ahead and up the steep rocky slope to their left, hammering the walls and the St Leonis Gate's bastion. The route was a narrow one. It was just a single roadway used by files of pilgrims for millennia. To the left were cliffs up to the Citadel’s ramparts. To the right a near sheer drop to the valley floor. The road rose up the hill steeply, and occasionally became broad steps. Here the Space Marine drivers gunned their engines and thrust their vehicles forward, smashing into the steps, the tracks fighting for grip, then biting and lurching the armoured earners upwards, ancients stones shattering under the Land Raider's seventy tonnes of pressure Bounced and jarred, the Space Marines within held tight as each vehicle surmounted the obstacles, fire and explosions impacting about them, hulls ringing with the hammer-like impact of autocannon shells falling like rain. Then the lead Land Raider was hit, slewing to a grinding halt across the roadway, smoke belching from the engine deck, tongues of orange flame licking skywards. The troop compartment quickly filled with oily smoke. Commander Ortys snapped his helmet into place, engaged the night vision and hit the assault ramp open stud on the wall. Nothing happened. The mechanism was damaged. He pulled open the control panel and disabled the mechanism, breaking the magnetic locks that held the huge armoured assault ramp in place Ordering those beside him to assist, he leaned on the ramp and pushed with ail the might his body and power-assisted armour could manage. Three Space Marines heaved and heaved again as the smoke thickened. Behind the stricken Land Raider, the tank column was stalled, as yet not halfway up the road. The ramp moved, moved again then gave up its resistance and collapsed, smashing down under its own weight High Commander Ortys led his squad out, plunging out from the smoke and fire within to set oft up the road on foot with his men at his side, spreading across the road, boltguns levelled.

The second Land Raider rammed the stricken vehicle, driving it to the side of the roadway, then backed up, swerved hard around the knocked out tank and began to move forward again, only to hit a hidden mine which tore away its right track and left it immobilised. Behind, the Razorbacks and Rhinos could go no further. The ramps fell and from the rear of each vehicle disgorged squad after squad, all following their commander uphill, to where the Chapter banner could be seen moving ahead through the thickening flame-streaked gloom.

On foot now the Red Scorpions stormed onwards, and from the St Leonis Gate above the enemy spilled out to meet them. Again the dark armoured figures of the Black Brethren od Ayreas led the degenerate hordes of the Chaos gods. Commander Ortys raised his sword and waved all squads forward into the charge, to meet them head-on. The fighting on the roadway and up the steps was savage. Ortys lifted one Chaos Space Marine off his feet and pitched the traitor over the road's edge, down the plunging cliff beyond, then cut a second heretic in two with the arching slash of his powersword. Overhead the Land Speeders were banking and diving, assault cannons tearing into the horde. Behind Ortys came his brothers and the Dreadnoughts. Now they proved their worth, climbing to where the armoured fighting vehicles could not go. Their arrival turned the tide back, driving the enemy before them with withering salvoes of heavy weapons fire. In minutes hundreds of shredded bodies lay strewn across the roadway. The Red Scorpions' advance continued until, under the walls of the gate tower, it paused to regroup. The enemy had withdrawn within and barred the first gate behind them. The High Commander gathered his men around him, including the venerable Dreadnought Chaplain Nalr. They had reached the target. Now to storm the bastion.

The enemy might have been driven back but he was not yet beaten. Within the bastion more warriors of Chaos awaited, and at their call were the daemonic legions. The rites had been completed the sacrifices made, now they choose to unleash their allies, tearing a rend into the material universe. The gates opened again and, from a pool of darkness, out they stormed – Bloodletters and Flesh Hounds, great brass Juggernauts of Khorne charging, heads down like demented bulls. With them came hideously deformed Possessed, frenzied Chaos Spawn, and mutants, all the filth of the Warp now came wailing into battle.

The fighting ebbed and flowed up and down the wide steps in the shadow of the bastion. Hard-pressed, High Commander Ortys ordered his terminators into battle, and its seconds, with a flash of light they appeared, crackling with energy as they teleported to their master’s aid. Lightning claws tore and raked. Thunderhammers clashed with the warp-twisted brass of Bloodlethers’ swords. Many Red Scorpions fell, cut down, their powered armour little protection from the daemonic power that the enemy wielded. The Chapter standard bearer fell, smashed down then trampled by the goering charge of a Juggernaut, its rider screaming in killing frenzy before a plasma pistol blast tore it crushing back into the Warp. The Venerable Chaplain Narl also fell, toppling backwards and crashing down the steps. Blood was slick across the stones as the Red Scorpions fought with all their might against the inhuman foe. Bolt guns hammered white hot, cutting through the daemonic ranks as the 2nd Company’s Chaplain chanted his liturgies of hate and prayers against corruption, crozius Arcanum held high for all to see. They would not give way.

High Commander Ortys fell wounded, but was dragged clear of the melee by an Apothecary, the commander’s helmet and weapons were gone. It seemed his brothers must fall back before the onslaught or be destroyed, then, as victory was slipping away, more reinforcements arrived.

His mission at the strongpoint complete, Sergeant Culln and his remaining battle brothers fired their jump packs and swooped into the swirling melee at the gate. They dropped from the sky unlocked for, and smashed into enemy ranks. Culln’s unstoppable charged vanquished the demons and sent their mortal followers fleeing. The Assault Marines remaining melta-charges blew a great hole through the outer gate and the Red Scorpions leapt inside, Culln leading once again.

Meanwhile High Commander Ortys shrugged off his Apothecary’s attentions and rejoined the fray, limping but snatching up a fallen chainsword as he went.

The battle brothers inside the bastion were clearing it, level by level. There was no mercy for any that remained. Soon the daemon-hunted bastion was in their hands. Blasted and scorched, wounded and bleeding, the Red Scorpions battle brothers sealed the entrances and set up their defence. Most of those brothers that had begun the attack were now at peace with the Emperor, their torn bodies lay strewn along the Pilgrim’s Road and piled against the gatehouse walls were they fought and die. Those that survived pledge to stand and hold against whatever horrors may come – too many battle brothers had died to allow their gains to be lost now. Then, wearly, Ortys climbed to the bastion roof, the tattered Chapter banner in hand and planted it on top, a signal to all that the assault had succeeded. As he did son the first salvoes of the Sword of Ordon’s orbital bombard began to impact on the void shield defences.

As High Commander Ortys and his squads were attacking and dying for the St Leonis Gate, so their fellow brothers were fighting their diversionary attack against the Great Gate. Led by Predators and Vindicators they met the enemy’s walking war machine and daemonic engines, exchanging fire and keeping the enemy busy whilst all the time monitoring the main assault’s progress.

Battle for the Cardinal Gate

Meanwhile, as High Commander Ortys and his brothers fought their way along the Pilgrim’s Road and into the St Leonis Gate, Inquisitor Lord Rex’s assault force was ready and assembled for its own attack upon the Cardinal Gate. Westward, already the rolling barrage of artillery that preceded the 158th regiment’s fresh attack was pummelling the hillside again, shrouding the Citadel above in a fog of thickening grey dust.

Lord Rex’s assault force was ready, a handpicked team of the best troops he had available to him: eight Ordo Malleus Inquisitors and their full retinues, supported by the brothers of the Red Hunters Chapter, inquisitorial Storm troopers companies and reinforced by Krieg grenadier squads from the 150th and 158th regiments. Also in support was the Grey Knights strike force of Brother Captain Arturus, Terminator and Purgation squads mounted in Land Raider transports, the Brother Captain himself leading them. Thunderhawk gunships were already airborne and on standby to provide air cover as the attack closed in on the gate itself.

The sound of battle were running down the hillside as Lord Rex stride [] between his waiting troops, who knew its respect for his rank. Rex’s personal priests followed in his wake providing a blessing to each man, a final vow against the terrible enemy they must now face and defeat. The Inquisitor inspired courage, taller by a head for even the Space Marines around his artificer armour bedecked and beautifully ornate symbols and seals, on one hand he carried the sacred Powersword Arias, gleaming silver white. Legend had it that had been blessed by the Emperor himself. In the other hand he effortlessly carried a huge storm shield, too large for a normal man to carry, let alone weld on battle, sculpted into the shape of the symbol of the Inquisition, the “I”. He was a giant of a man, a goliath, and it seemed that no foe could stand against him. Even daemons must qual before such a man.

On the Inquisitor Lord’s word his me rose as one. The enemy awaited up the long hill, an enemy that loathed and hated him, an enemy that existed only to despise them and the Emperor that they served. Here was a test worthy for heroes, today great names would be forged in the heat of battle, great honours won and legends made.

The ordeal began. The Inquisitor Rex signaled for the advance to begin, and the men move out alongside their armoured vehicles. Land Raiders and Rhinos rumbled forward at walking pace, the burnished red carapace of Red Hunter’s Dreadnoughts mixed with the dusty greys and black of the Krieg grenadiers. They began to climb as the skies blackened lika an omen of the approaching storm. Ahead of the lead squads the first artillery rounds began to land, blossoming in fiery flowers of yellow and orange around the Cardinal Gate.

Above, the lightning storm broke with a clash of thunder that made the ground tremble. Great bolts of light flashed in the sky – the wrath of the gods were unleashed upon Vraks. But there was no rain, just coruscating waves of lightning leaping amongst the clouds as Inquisitor Rex and his me headed themselves upwards, ever upward towards their objective. It was dark now, unnaturally so, and a great foreboding was in the air. Inquisitor Rex’s psychically attuned mind felt that doom had descended upon Vraks, great deeds were afoot, maybe even his death awaited. So be it, he would go to his Emperor willingly, but only after the foe had been vanquished.

And then, suddenly, the enemy was coming, pouring down from the Cardinal Gate to meet them, in a tide of red and brass, chanting their war cry “Blood, blood, blood, blood...” as the Inquisitor s men opened fire. But on they came, through the explosions, their chant ringing around them. Bloodlettters and Flesh Hounds, Juggernauts of Khorne and Brass Scorpions clanking and wailing, daubed in blood, their cannons belching molten brass and spitting death. They charged and the Inquisitor sent his men forwards to meet them, Arias shining, held high, storm shield before him. The two sides clashed. Hacking and slashing, grunting and screaming, the daemons shrieking as Inquisitor Rex cast them back to the Warp. Psychic power now encircled him, crackling about his armour, his very presence made the daemons shrink from him as he exorcised their blasphemous forms back into the realm of Chaos from which they had been summoned

The Grey Knights disembarked from their transports straight into battle, psycannons and incinerator units purging great swathes of the enemy ranks, force lighting flashing blue from their halberds. Overhead a Thunderhawk swooped in, its psychically infused ammunition flaying the red devils below- It was a pitiless fight, Inquisitors bellowed orders as the Storm Trooper squads maintained a steady fire, but the daemons would not be denied their harvest of skulls. “Blood, blood, blood, blood...” they chanted, and their hell blades left the hillside aked in gore. Inquisitor Rex forced his halo of divine power about him as he drove the foe ever backwards. About him many had fallen, savaged upon the insatiable fangs of the great red hounds that hunted the hillside in ravenous packs, but many men were still with him as he approached the gate Through it poured out still more foes, eager for the battle.

There, they found only destruction at the hands of the Grey Knights who basted their own path after the Inquisitor, sweeping the daemons before them A great Brass Scorpion of Khorne was sent shrieking back into the Warp, a force halberd driven deep into its unholy workings, where the bodies of the sacrificed withed in torture within. Their Land Raiders were dose behind, all weapons blazing as the last of the daemons were destroyed. The battle had been savage and bestial, but brief, the Cardinal Gate now lay before them. It seemed victory must be theirs - until the Bloodthirster arrived...

A Daemon Lord Cometh

Vraks' dark sky was sundered by lightning and vomited forth Anggrath, mightiest of Bloodthirsters, guardian of the Throne of Skulls, most beloved servant of Khorne, come to Vraks to revel in its landscape of destruction and death. He plunged from the storm ridden skies on black pinioned wings, a child of the lightmng, and came to rest upon the ramparts of the Cardinal Gate, perched so as to survey his battlefield, glowing red eyes sweeping back and forth, searching for a target worthy of his mighty martial prowess. He paid no heed to the shells that exploded about him, red-hot fragments of shrapnel sizzling through the air as harmless as rain.

With a great beat of his outstretched wings An’ggrath rose and for the first time bellowed his master’s name as a war cry into the sky to announce his arrival. His cloven feet slammed into the ground, splitting stone as he raised his axe high above his head and smashed it down with all his might The red hull of a Dreadnought splintered, its sarcophagus torn open, a second blow shattered the Red Hunters Dreadnought into a thousand pieces as its reactor exploded.

Enemy fire was raining around An’ggrath as he plunged into the enemy again sweeping aside all within reach his rage now unstoppable. His axe cleaved down onto a Land Raider, the Grey Knights vehicle unable to reverse away fast enough, the weapon's saw-toothed blade sheared through the armoured hull, driven deep by An’ggrath’s vast strength, then it exploded into a fireball that engulfed both the tank and its assailant. Consumed in orange flames the beast bellowed in delight, and leapt high again on its beating wings its mane and wings now trailing fire. Still smoking An’ggrath landed, flicking out with its fire-wreathed lash to claim two more souls for Khorne.

Seeing the destruction. Brother Captain Arturus charged, his fellow Grey Knights at his feet, force halberds levelled as they met the great beast at a run. Force power whipped from the halberds, and for the first time An'ggrath roared in pain Arturus" brethren added to the psychic barrage, each unleashing their mental powers, blasting the Daemon with waves of force lightning that grew into a storm raging about it m searing bolts of light and flame. An’ggrath writhed in agony and lashed out wildly, its first axe blow sending one brother flying through the air. Its second cut a Grey Knight in two torso severed. Die! demanded Captain Arturus. The effort of his psychic exertions now draining from him, and with it his strength. But his reactions were still fast, and his halberd swept up to meet An’ggrath’s axe as it cut down onto him. The weapons met and sparked with energy, but neither gave way.

The fierce psychic vortex around the melee was dissipating, but the surviving Grey Knights plunged forwards again An'ggrath countered, sweeping aside the halberd strikes and driving his enemies back in a flurry of massive blows and another brother was cut down, his body trampled beneath cloven hooves. Arturus summoned the last of his strength and felt power surge through him again and into his halberd re-energised it crackled into life with a blue halo. An’ggrath swung again, a blow to split a mountainside, and Arturus met it. Crying out with the agony of the effort Again both weapons met, dark energies sparking, and this time his halberd was destroyed in an explosion of psychic energy that illuminated the darkness. Arturus stumbled back, disarmed, grievously wounded and collapsed, utterly spent. The last two brothers of his sguad leapt to his defence as An'ggrath bellowed his rage. A swift strike sent one wounded Grey Knight tumbling back down the hill, then he snatched up the last of his victims in a massive clawed fist and beat his wings again. The captured Grey Knight struggled but could not break the beast's grip as he was lifted into the boiling thunderous sky. The best of the Grey Knights had been defeated. Surely all must now be doomed and Vraks lost to An'ggrath...

The Inquisitor and the Bloodthirster

As Anggrath was launching his rampage into the Grey Knights, Lord Rex was approaching the Cardinal Gate, having gathered about him all the survivors he could. Most of the gate and its two towers lay in ruins, the artillery bombardment having torn away the masonry stones and left little but craters and rubble. The incendiary shells had also scoured the surrounding walls clear of defenders.

Then the Bloodthirster plunged from the boiling skies like a meteor, dark wings spread as it landed in the remains of the gateway, blocking their passage forwards. An’ggrath roared in defiance, cracking its whip in a challenge to any to stand and fight it. The guardsmen quailed before it and shrank back. Here was a creature from their darkest nightmares, all the malevolence and violence of the human soul drawn together into the perfect killing machine. Only the Ordo Malleus could stand before it - and so Lord Hector Rex did.

The Bloodthirster and Inquisitor fought, sacred sword against daemonic axe, unbendable will and the blessing of the God-Emperor against insatiable battle lust and the strength of the Blood God. It was a battle that had been raging for the last 10,000 years, the Emperor protecting humanity from the dark gods of the Warp and from the darkest recess of the human psyche Inquisitor Rex was bathed in holy light, whilst white fire crackled from his blade and brow, lashing the Daemon with the power of his mind, striking unseen psychic blows. The Bloodthirster was all fury and strength, but what strength! Its blows shattered stone and gouged the earth as Inquisitor Rex dodged and parried time and again, until his storm shield had become useless wreckage. Both were wounded, but An'ggrath never tired of battle and bloodletting, and the Inquisitor was being worn down strength sapped by the impact of blow after blow that could have sliced a tank in two.

In the end it seemed that the inquisitor Lord had met his match. Finally he must meet his doom, as the Malphius had prophesied. Lord Hector Rex was tired beyond the limits of a mortal man, and An’ggrath roamed in glee at his impending victory and the slaughter he would wreak in its wake – for who now could stop his reign of destruction?

But with the very last of his strength Inquisitor Lord thrust Arias deep into the Bloodthirster's chest, plunging it into the Daemon's heart and channelling all his psychic power through it. Shrieking in rage and torment An'ggrath vanished, cast back into the Warp.

Expulsion of the Heretics

"For those that conjure up the most evil on those half-tamed daemons that prey upon the human soul, only death will suffice."
—Interrogator Chaplain Blephegor

Angels Descend

At the point when it seemed the siege was almost over, with the Citadel breached and Inquisitor Rex's forces posed for the final push to clear the Citadel of its last stoic defenders, new reinforcements arrived - the battle barge Liberatorii Delictum accompanied by the strike cruiser Repentant and their two escorts. All were vessels of the Angels of Absolution chapter, and they had come to Vraks upon the request of Supreme Grand Master Azrael of the Dark Angels.

The Angels of Absolution were a Chapter with close ties to their progenitors and organised to exactly mirror their originators At the Supreme Grand Master’s request. Interrogator Chaplain Belphegor had also been attached to the strike force He had a personal score to settle, but commanding the strike force was the Angels of Absolution's own Company Master Yafnr. Both officers flew down to meet with Inquisitor Rex to request permission for their brothers to join the battle. They had come with a specific mission, to find, capture and return with the traitor Arkos the Faithless of the Alpha Legion. Chaplain Belphegor explained that the Dark Angels themselves had narrowly failed to capture him during their mission to Vraks nine years ago. Not to be so easily thwarted again, it seemed Grand Master Azrael had kept a close eye on developments on Vraks. He regularly received reports from the Segmentum Obscurus High Command on Cadia in order that the Chapter and its successors should be kept up to date with any urgent developments in war zones around the Eye of Terror.

The Supreme Grand Master had awaited the siege’s finale and planned to intervene again in a second attempt to take the fugitive Arkos prisoner and destroy his dangerous warband. But now the time had come, the Dark Angels themselves were already fully committed and could not spare the forces required for the mission. Azrael had turned to his most trusted successor Chapter. The Angels of Absolution had always worked closely with the Dark Angels and at times had even undertaken combined deployments. They had come in their place. Before they arrived Master Yafrir had already been fully briefed on the current situation in Vraks, as were his squad commanders.

Inquisitor Rex inquired why Supreme Grand Master Azrael wanted Arkos captured rather than dead, but the Interrogator Chaplain could not answer. It should be enough for the inquisitor to know that Arkos was a traitor to the Emperor and must be stopped. Hector Rex could not disagree, but felt that such a prize as high ranking Alpha Legion commander, with all the sensitive intelligence he could reveal would be best used in the hand of the Ordo Malleus. The Inquisitor’s interrogators could extract no end of information about spies and traitors within the Impreium’s ranks and would use it to strike cultist and traitors across Segmentum Obscurus – such a wealth of intelligence should not be the preserve of a single Space Marine Chapter. He feared that in the Dark Angels hands, Arkos would vanish in the depths of the Rock and never be heard from again.

Chaplain Belphegor’s position was immoveable. He had explicit orders from the Supreme Grand Master, as did Master Yafrir via his own Chapter Master, Arkos must be returned to the Rock, otherwise Yafrir would be forced to withdraw his vessels and battle brothers from Vraks. The Angels of Absolution had authority to join the finale of the siege but only in the strict condition that they would be allowed to search for the Alpha Legion, and any prisoners, in particular Arkos the Faithless, would be theirs and theirs alone, to return with to the Rock. No inquisitorial interference would be allowed in the pursuit of their mission.

The negotiations left Lord Hector Rex in a difficult position. On the one hand here was the opportunity to deploy a fresh, powerful strike force into the Citadel, but the price was to loose any control of any information the Alpha Legion could reveal in the future. He conferred with his closest advisors. Ultimately he had to decide, did he trust the Dark Angels? Would Azrael make good use of any information he acquired? Would his Chapter use it purely to their own ends, or for the good of the wider Imperium? Eventually Interrogator Chaplain Belphegor and Master Yafrir had their answer. They may deploy to Vraks – with the Emperor’s blessing. They would have free rein to plan and execute any operation they needed to. Lord Rex should be kept informed, but he would allow any Alpha Legion prisoners taken to be turned over to the Angels of Absolution. The deal was done. The Space Marine officers returned to the Liberatorii Delictum to prepare the attack. The Angels of Absolution would fight.

Master Yafrir’s brothers would be launching a drop pod assault directly into the Citadel. The designated drop zone would be the outer wall’s main plaza. The drop would be preceded by a wave of Deathstorm drop pods to clear the area, then Belphegor and his battle brothers would descend upon the enemy in a lightning strike. Their target would be the Basilica of St Leonis, the hearth of the Citadel. They would sweep it clear and then press deeper into the Citadel as required. Supporting ground forces would be landed ahead of the attack and move up via the Cardinal Gate to join the deployed force. Master Yafrir would command his force. Whist the vast majority or the battle brothers were engaged with the heretics, the Liberatorii Delictum and the Repentant would begin their own operation to find and destroy the Despoiler class battleship Anarchy’s Hearth. The destruction of the Anarchy’s Hearth, wherever it was hiding, was the strike force’s second objective.

When Lord Rex received these plans and reviewed them, he decide to maximize the advantage he had gained form the unexpected reinforcements. The Angels of Absolution would form the core of his final assault to clear the Citadel and end the siege. Lord Rex would again don his armour, unsheath Arias and lead his own strike force. The Red Scorpions would also join the kill, springing from their t each head at the St Leonis Gate to clear the Cardinal s Palace. The Imperial Guardsmen would be called upon too. It was only right that after so long and so many dead that the men of Krieg should be in on the final act of the war. The 150th regiment would be ordered to join the overwhelming assault and the last of High Princeps Drauca’s Titans would again support them. At last the final battle of this long war had come.

The Final Battle

Before the ultimate attack could begin, the Citadel was again subjected to a heavy and sustained artillery bombardment. The guns of the Krieg artillery companies poured shells onto the hill, overloading the remaining void shields and smashing the buildings within with concentrated fire that pummeled it day and night. Buildings were smashed into rubble and dust and towers collapsed in an inferno of destruction. Marauder bombers added to the firepower now crushing the Citadel into ruins. The bombardment aimed to reduce much of the Citadel to rubble in the hope of sparing the attacking infantry the task of clearing the buildings room-by-room. By the time the assault came, it was hoped that there would be little left of the Citadel but ragged shell-tom remains amidst pieces of masonry and shattered stones churned into dust by repeated artillery impacts. Hidden below ground, the defenders would no doubt endure the punishment and emerge to face them when the attack came. The Citadel had been their ultimate objective for so long, the heart of the enemy's resistance, and it glowered down from its peak as if with an evil eye, seeing all that moved on the battlefields below, protecting the enemy and his stores within its impenetrable walls. Now it was no more. Even the sacred Basilica of St Leonis was targeted until repeated Bombard shelling felled the great spire. Men below cheered as first the spire leaned, then it slowly tumbled, crumbling into more rums scattered across the inner ward’s plaza.

As the destruction continued, playing out Lord Rex's promise not to leave any stone upon another on top of that hill, the many elements needed for the final battle were readying themselves. The Liberatorii Delictum was pinned, her bombardment cannons were already mining the barrage that was preparing the ground for the drop pod assault. It would be targeted on the great courtyard and would take careful planning and precision execution to land the first waves on target. On the ground the armoured vehicles of the relief column were in place along with their supporting squads.

The remaining Red Scorpions squads were also ready. Rearmed and reinforced, Inquisitor Rex inspected the troops before sanctioning their attack plan The Chapter had taken heavy losses in winning their foothold but the war was not yet won so they must fight again. The St Leonis Gate had been heavily reinforced by guardsmen so the Red Scorpions could withdraw in preparation for their next mission.

Underground the engineers were ready for the final push and breakthrough into the undercroft. Their assault would require every available engineer company for a sustained effort to clear the Citadel from below. Inquisitor Rex expected the Adeptus Astartes Terminator squads to join that mission once they were freed from operations on the surface. Lord Rex would now lead a Grey Knights strike force personally. His first objective wood be the former Priory of the Argent Shroud, followed by the inner keep with the censorium tower and the Aedificium.

Lord Rex knew that what awaited them was going to be a hellish enemy - the last Warp spawned dregs, but fighting with a ferocity borne of desperation. The Citadel was now the haunt of daemons and mutants, daemonic and possessed war engines and unnamed horrors that spilled from the ether to feast upon human souls. It was the heart of darkness, a canker, a corrupted and blasphemous boil that he was about to lance. The result would be messy and bloody, but once it was done, this war would be over.

The first Angels of Absolution drop pods flashed across the black skies of Vraks, small bright burning comets as they entered the atmosphere, adjusting their course as they approached, retro- engines firing to slow the descent before impact. Their inertial guidance systems brought them down directly on target, each drop pod landed, crackled open and unleashed a torrent of bullets and missiles, smothering the plaza in fire as the Deathstorms cleared the drop zone. The next wave of drop pods was already close behind, as was the third. They came crashing in, smashing into the rubble to disgorge squad after squad of bone-armoured Space Marines, weapons leveled and ready as the ordeal began. The squads divided and headed for their objectives.

As the firing began, the Red Scorpion’s Lord High Commander Ortys gave the order to attack. Led by his assault squads the battle brothers moved out, using the shattered remains of the colonnade as cover as they closed in on the Cardinal’s Palace.

Below ground the Hades drills whirred into action, hacking the last few metres of rock away to breach the undercroft, behind them the first engineer squads scrambled through, preceded by a barrage of grenades and demolition charges, before they too began their own horrific battle in the deep darkness.

The 150th siege regiment’s leading infantry companies, mounted in Gorgons, made for the Cardinal Gate, slowly climbing the hillside once again, before ramming into the rumble piles that barred their way - all that remained of the gate and its surrounding walls. Their mission was to clear the outer ward and its garrison blocks, buildings now mostly reduced to mere shells by artillery and fires. The grey-clad infantry plunged into the Citadel, bayonets fixed - Demolisher siege tanks in close support and behind them came the heavy footfalls of the Titans.

Lord Rex knew that scouring the Citadel would take days, perhaps weeks of hard fighting. The daemons soon came again, the crackling warp rifts spilling more of their hated kind into the world to shriek and chant, leaping amongst the rubble piles, hacking and lashing with glee at the Space Marines and guardsmen. For days the battle was a confused and bloody mess, but the enemy was no longer a coordinated, well-equipped and determined army, it was now just a rabble of desperados who knew their downfall had come. There were few Traitor legionnaires left now. Most had abandoned Vraks, even Zhufor had gone, his slaughter complete.

Within the Cardinal’s Palace, the Red Scorpions found the remains of the Apostate Cardinal’s guards. Men no longer, they had become more like maddened beasts or psychotic animals Discipline and order had now ceased to have any meaning, they just fought because they knew nothing else, and they could not surrender. Many had become mutants, others had been given over to possession. In the shattered and scorched remains of its former ornate splendour, the Red Scorpions moved forward with well-rehearsed precision. Each squad knew its role, moving and covering, blasting a path into the heart of the palace, whilst the assault squads forayed forward at need to clear enemy resistance points in brutal hand-to-hand combat, Dreadnoughts in close support It took the Red Scorpions four days to purge the Cardinal’s Palace of the remaining heretic dregs that defended it. No prisoners were taken.

The Last Defence of the Faithful

Meanwhile. Interrogator Chaplain Belphegor led his battle brothers towards the massive arched entrance of the ruined Basilica. It was now a shell of a building, choked with rubble, fires still burned inside, their smoke thickened the air. The Angels of Absolution had planned the attack in detail, and each squad had its own objectives. Chaplain Belphegor was leading the Sternguard veterans of 1st Company. It would be they who would face down Arkos when, or if, he was found. Careful reconnaissance work from orbit had revealed that the Alpha Legion were still in the Citadel and formed the backbone of the Basilica’s defences. Arkos' warband had been much reduced by the long war, but the potent Chaos Lord would not be far away and he remained a dangerous opponent even for the vaunted Space Marines.

Bolt shells were already exploding, their thunderclap detonations echoed around the Citadel. A salvo of cyclone missiles erupted around the Basilica s entrance as Belphegor s men climbed the wide steps up to the archway, into the enemy fire that was now whipping around them. Cresting the steps. Belphegor felt the jarring fire of bullets whining off his own Smç^e of Vraks

Terminator armour heavy bolter impacts made him stagger as the veterans about him fanned out. dropped into firing position and unleashed a hail of accurate return fire at their enemies who were taking cover behind barricades and rubble in the entrance On his left a Terminator squad waded forward, their own storm bolters adding to the metal storm of explosions and fizzing shrapnel that now engulfed the enemy Taking that archway was the first objective Belphegor waved his squads onwards with his crozius arcanum, levelled his plasma gun and fired Instantly a barricade was vapourized along with its defenders by the super-heated hydrogen impact. The Chaplain charged, his brothers beside him. The enemy rose in response and charged. Suddenly it was a swirling mêlée amongst the rubble Hacking and slashing, Chaplain Belphegor smashed his crozius into the face of a mutant and saw its skull shatter like thin glass. His back swing swept another mutant off its feet, before he stamped down on his screaming victim, his heavy Terminator- armoured boot crunching bones beneath it. From somewhere a flamer unleashed a blaze of burning promethium, a gush of flaming orange liquid washed over him, but encased inside his armour he barely felt the intense heat. Still burning, he charged on, pitching head long into a huge mutant creature, all slimy skin and festering wounds, its face insectoide with mandibles and fly-tike eyes. Again the crozius rose and swung, the bone at the creature’s knee broken its leg buckled under it. A second swing smashed its chest, exposing broken ribs and spilling internal organs. The creature flailed wildly, its claws gouging uselessly across the Chaplain's armour as it writhed Belphegor paused to fire a bolter shell into its head, which exploded in a shower of blood and pink brains that spattered across the stones.

Soon, the enemy was falling back, the assault had broken them. The Sternguard squad kept them running with more bolter shells that sent them diving for cover The Basilica's entrance had been captured Belphegor ordered a halt. Now he needed his support.

It soon arrived The Space Marine armoured column had roared up the hill, Land Raiders and Vindicators m the vanguard as they scaled the wreckage of the Cardinal Gate and plunged down into the Citadel behind. The heavily armoured vehicles could not be delivered via drop pod and so had been landed days before. When the drop pod landing had begun, they had already en route. Now their heavy weapons tore into the enemy again Vindicator cannons boomed, smashing aside the remains of buildings and blasting holes for the battle brothers now disgorging from their Rhinos around them. The entire strike force was now inside the Citadel. Master Yafrir was in command here and directed his own land Raider towards the Basilica’s entrance. The vehicle roared up the wide steps to Belphegor’s side, tracks locked as it skidded to a sudden halt. The assault ramp fell and Master Yafrir appeared his command squad alongside him After a brief pause to assess the assault s progress, it was time to push on inside.

Inside the Angels of Absolution squads spread out and began to search the rubble. The Basilica was vast. Rubble mountains had formed inside where the roof and interior walls had caved in. The battle brothers fought their way towards the transept. It too was now just shattered remains, but here the faithless awaited. Clad m their blue-green armour emblazoned with the hydra symbol of their chapter, the Alpha legion made their stand.

With bolt gun and pistol, chainsword and power sword, grenade, knife and power-gauntleted fist, the Space Marines fought. They were old foes. The Alpha Legion had deserted the Emperor ten thousand years ago. Their demise would be another step along the path to salvation for the Unforgiven. Those that could be taken alive, even grievously wounded, would be kept alive by the Angels of Absolution's Apothecaries until they reached the Rock. Most died fighting. Driven on by their master and the interrogator Chaplain, the Angels of Resolution hammered at the surviving traitors and cut them down.

In the mist of the battle, Master Yafrir found his target. Arkos the Faithless was brought to bay, surrounded by the last of his warband. He still grasped the darkblade in his armoured fist but he had been wounded, blood was seeping through a puncture in his chestplate. He was already gasping for breath, desperation in his eyes. The last battle-worn survivors stood defiantly around their lord, their armour too was blackened and rent, legionnaire was missing his right arm.

Arkos bellowed defiance and cursed his enemies as the Angels of Absolution moved in, surrounding their dangerous foes, guns leveled and ready for the order to attack. Arkos stood no chance now, he was trap in his lair. He had done his worst on Vraks. His plotting had brought about this long war and millions had died for it. But there would be no escape now.

Old Enemies

Trapped with nowhere to run, the Traitor-lord attacked in a rush. Master Yafrir met his charge, springing forwards and thrusting hard with his powersword clutched in both hands. But Arkos rolled aside, letting the blade side off his breastplate and into his thick shoulder pad, then, fast as a snake strike, rammed his own blade forward and up into Yafrir’s face plate. The visor cracked, plunging the warp-sword’s point into the flesh beneath, turning it into a bloody ruin. Then Arkos shoulder charged, battering the wounded Yafrir backwards, off balance, before a second hammer blow from the darkblade sent his enemy crashing to the ground. He stood over the wounded and barely conscious Yafrir, killing any who came to rescue him. One after another Space Marines were cut down with warp-powered blows that shattered armour, flesh and bone as they fought to save their commander.

Chaplain Belphegor arrived as Arkos stood over Master Yafrir, one foot on the fallen Space Marine’s back, pinning him to the ground as blood pooled under him. The last two survivors of Arkos’ warband flanked him, empty bolt guns discarded, blood-splattered chainswords in hand

”Yield!” bellowed Belphegor. “Yield or be destroyed!’ Arkos laughed in contempt. Yield to what, capture and torture? He would not. He was surrounded now, more of the Angels of Absolution had come to their Master's aid, if too late, but there would be no escape for Arkos. He raised his sword in challenge and Chaplain Belphegor stepped forwards, beside him came the Sternguard veterans, each ready to spring into action. The two Champions had met before. Belphegor s intervention had saved Grand Master Azrael’s life. If Arkos recognised his old foe he showed no sign. Now would be vengeance for the injuries inflicted upon the Dark Angels by the Alpha Legion. “Come and die!” bellowed Arkos, and Belphegor attacked. His crozius swung with crushing force, but Arkos parried, whip fast. Beside him, Arkos’ two men were using their chainswords, slashing at the Angels of Absolution who closed in about them.

But Belphegor swung and swung again, massive, relentless blows that blocked, one after another, but having time to recover his sword for its own deadly swing. Belphegor knew the Emperor was with him, the dark gods were being driven from this place me now was his time. The crozius glittered with a patina of power as he smashed Arkos’ weakening parries aside, then drove the weapon’s ornate handle has into his enemy's face. Arkos staggered stunned, his guard down and Belphegor slammed the crozius down again, cracking against Arkos’ skull, who sank to his knees, blood pouring down his neck and onto the floor, where it ran in rivulets into the dust. Dazed and badly wounded Arkos tried again to raise his sword, but the Interrogator-Chaplain stood over him, and swept it aside with contempt. “Seize him!” he ordered the battle brothers close by, turning to see that both Arkos’ last bodyguard had also been cut down “Find an apothecary. At is imperative that this man be kept alive. And disarm him.“

Immediately, the Interrogator-Chaplain looked to Master Yafrir, turning him over. The Company master was already dead, the lower half of his face smashed. He had bled to death, ever his superior internal organ’s unable to compensate for the sudden massive blood loss inflicted by Arkos blows. The Chaplain said a short prayer for the brave officer's soul before the Apothecaries arrived to take away his body and recover his precious progenoid gland. Belphegor deemed their mission complete. The order was given for the Angels of Absolution to disengage and withdraw.

The Destruction of the Anarchy's Heart

With its payload of drop pods and Thunderhawks released to Vraks surface, the Liberatorii Delictum set out in search of the Anarchy's Heart. Last sighted in the system in 824.M41, the enemy battleship would no doubt be lurking in the outer asteroid fields, and awaiting its masters call. She remained a major threat to the Imperium’s shipping in the Vrakis system and for those surrounding it. For that reason alone her destruction would greatly aid the war, but the Angels of Absolution hoped that the sudden attack on the surface and the end of the siege would flush the battleship out. During this mission the strike cruiser Repentant would act as scout scout, with a single escort both searching the asteroid fields, whilst the battle barge and its escort positioned themselves ready to respond swiftly should any contact be made or should the massive battleship make a run towards Vraks.

As expected the final battle on the ground did bring the battleship from its hiding place. The war on the ground was lost and Arkos and his survivors needed an escape plan. At 288830. M41 the Repentant's long range augurs detected the energy spike as the Despoiler powered up its engines. Immediately the Liberatorii Delictum moved to intercept and the two colossal capital ships were about to meet in a dual of titanic firepower. Both traitor and loyalist ships bristled with massive weaponry behind banks of void shields and thick armour plates. The two leviathans were a match for just about anything else in the galaxy, and equal to each other.

Engines at flank speed, the Liberatorii Dehctum closed in on the Anarchy's Heart. The enemy’s first salvoes began to detonate against her armoured hull, void shields shrieking in resistance to the titanic energies of lance battery impacts. The captain ordered the forward batteries to return fire, and the duel had begun.

The Anarchy's Heart did not run but turned to bring her broadside to bear. The Space Marine vessel was fast, and whilst they remained determined to be engaged, there was no escape for the big battleship in the open. It must fight. As the two leviathans lined up, the Repentant was racing to join the battle, her firepower would be enough to swing the advantage decisively to the loyalists. Meanwhile, both the escort vessels withdrew to safety. These small vessels would be of no use in this clash, they would quickly be overwhelmed by enemy firepower to no gain. The escorts could only stand by and watch as the capital ships traded salvoes.

Both ships unleashed massive salvoes, tearing at the other’s armoured hulls. The gun decks boomed and shrieked and screamed as the big guns unloaded in volley after volley, broadside after broadside. The battle barge was damaged, several fires burning as the ready magazines exploded, but the Despoiler was wounded too. Her engines were damaged, hampering he maneuverability, and allowing the Repentant, just closing into range, to attack from the rear. The strike cruiser’s guns turned the duel, the balance had shifted in the Space Marine’s vessels favour. Shells tore through the vulnerable engine rooms and plasma reactor chambers of the battleship. Anarchy 's Heart was losing power now, and the Liberatorii Delictum was moving in closer. With her cargo of battle brothers all landed upon Vraks she could not risk a boarding action, but her orders were not to capture the enemy vessel but destroy it. Her lance batteries raked the enemy’s flanks again, and opened a great breach in her hull, bleeding oxygen into space, that soon ignited into a sudden fireball that flashed in the void.

The traitor battleship was dying. Listing heavily her remaining batteries still returned fire, but explosions were shaking her from prow to stern as uncontrollable fires within took hold. A plasma reactor overheated and detonated at the stern, tearing away more engines and leaving a trail of debris in her wake. The Repentant maneuvered away, her job complete. The Space Marine battle barge finished the job.

The Anarchy's Heart died. One by one her guns fell silent as the Liberatorii Delictum turned her bombardment cannons onto the enemy’s superstructure, blasting the enemy vessel again and again. It was a storm of fire that would have seen any vessel in the galaxy smashed apart. Defenceless, the Despoiler class battleship was hammered into burning debris as she was torn apart by internal explosions. The Space Marine battle barge banked away, her own damage control teams fighting to bring the fires under control. The ancient traitor battleship would never again threaten the Imperium’s shipping lanes.

Into the Undercroft

Whilst the assault raged across the ruins of the Citadel, deep below the engineers of the Krieg regiments began their own battle. They had undermined the Citadel rock; it had taken them over six years of work, digging, digging, always digging, until they had cut their way through forty kilometres from the inner defense line all the way to the Citadel. Their Hades drills and breaching charges smashed through the last few metres of rock and into the depths of the Citadel and its armoury.

Much like an iceberg, what was visible of Vraks’ Citadel was only a small part of the whole. The Basilica and other surface buildings were all impressive architecture in the grand style of the Imperium; a physical statement of great power, but the workings of the Citadel were below ground. Kilometres of dim, dark corridors and galleries, storerooms and archives, the great geo-thermal heat wells that drew energy from the planets massive transformer chambers thrummed with energy as they harnessed the power and then distributed it via underground cables to the rest of the planet At the base of the rock, the Citadel was actually a power station, next to which were the banks of void shield generators that sucked up that power to generate the Citadel’s many defensive void shields. Also forming part of this underground city was the central armoury. Here, for thousands of years, military stores of all kinds had been racked up. There were vehicles and weaponry there that not seen a battlefield in millennia. Many had been pressed back into service as the war closed in around the Citadel, such as the Malcadors and rarer still the Valdor tank hunters. The tank hunter were ancient vehicles equipped with the powerful but dangerous neutron laser- a weapon of advanced technology now lost to the Adeptus Mechanics. The upper levels had been turned into gigantic barracks and personnel shelters from the incessant shelling and air raids, as well as huge medical facilities and laboratories which had been put to heinous use.

Thousands upon thousands of Krieg engineers now set about the task clearing the Citadel’s undercrofts. Corridor-by-corridor, chamber by chamber they fought with grenade and shotgun. The enemy had turned the depths of the Citadel into a vision of hell, setting loose all manner of twisted mutated creatures; some once human, others far less so; spawn that crawled and slithered, mutants that howled and screamed, warp-beasts and the hounds of Xaphan. They had once been guard dogs, great mastiffs commonly used by the garrison to keep rowdy a rebellious work gangs in order. There had been hundreds on Vraks but were now no longer recognizable as such. They had been used as hosts for the possession of ravenous daemon-spirits, and now they were massive blood-thirsty dog-creatures with huge fangs and claws that lived only to taste mortal blood. So large were they that only an Ogryn’s brute strength restrain them. Now the daemon-dogs stalked and hunted through the corridors of the undercroft, their howls a tortured baying that froze the blood.

The Krieg engineers had to face such reckless and uncaring foes at every corner and in every chamber. Progress was slow, and the dark, dripping corridors became a charnel pit of corpses, friend and foe alike, Hundreds died on the first day and the engineers had only gained a small foothold on the lowest levels. More squads followed the first into the hell-hole, and more men died screaming on the fangs and claws of the warp-spawned beasts. The engineers fought back, using their poison gas grenades to clear rooms. In the darkness the fighting was grueling, but by sheer weight of numbers and bitter determination the Krieg engineers pushed onwards and upwards toward the surface. It would take weeks of fighting.

The Priory of the Argent Shroud

As the Angels of Absolution were fighting for the Basilica of St Leonis and the Red Scorpions were clearing the Cardinal’s Palace, Lord Hector Rex led his Storm Troopers and the Grey Knights into the Priory of the Argent Shroud. A squat, solid fortress in its own right, it had once been a base for the Sisters of Argent Shroud, and the inquisitor's mission was now to clear the priory and if possible find evidence of the missing Sisters. It was here that the Inquisitor Lord found Xaphan, the Apostate Cardinal, cowering - the man in whose name so many had fought and died. The man who had, by his misplaced ambition and twisted faith, set in motion the series of events that had led to a daemonic incursion on Vraks The man who had proclaimed himself the messiah of the apocalypse. He was a man no longer.

The war as good as lost, Zhufor had departed but not before he'd had his final vengeance upon the Cardinal. Zhufor despised Xaphan as a weak mortal and so he had personally dragged the Cardinal from his wretched dungeon and left him to the Sorcerers of Nurgle. They in turn had visited a terrible end upon the Cardinal. Screaming in terror, Xaphan had been offered to their god and for Nurgle s pleasure he had become spawn - a giant mass of tentacles and claws, drooling and jabbering nonsense. Insane, the last of his reason and self- will torn away, the Cardinal was now an idiot-creature. Such was the fate of those that strayed too far from the Emperor’s light. The Grey Knights now unleashed that purifying light to purge the spawn from the galaxy forever Thrashing and wailing, the spawn that had once been Cardinal Xaphan was blasted apart by lighting cast from their nemesis force weapons

Lord Rex and his men systematically cleared the rest of the priory of the last of its desperate defenders. Nothing here could stop Hector Rex, Arias bright in his fist as he killed, killed and killed again in the name of the Emperor. In the dungeons below, the Prior Justicar Ophia’s squad reported having found survivors. Lord Rex joined him to discover within the terrible and ruined remains of six prisoners. All had once been Sisters of the Argent Shroud, captured during Xaphan’s uprising. They had spent eighteen years in the dungeons, subjected to unspeakable tortures. Each was now half-starved and insane. Mute from the horrors inflicted upon them, their eyes were hollow and unseeing. Stupified, the Sisters no longer recognized friend or foe. In closely guarded secrecy the Grey Knights took the Sisters of Battle away, transporting them to their strike cruiser above. The prisoners might have been used in ceremonies of daemonic possession or as daemon-vessels themselves. They could not be allowed to return to their order - who knew what daemonic influence they might carry within them! The Ordo Malleus would hold them as prisoners of war and learn what they could from them. For the foreseeable future their detention must continue, only now it would be inside an Inquisitorial cell.

After two days of combat the Priory, now reduced to a burnt-out shell, was cleansed. Inquisitorial Storm Troopers were ordered to garrison the remains whilst Inquisitor Rex turned his attention to the last of the Citadel’s surface buildings to remain unfought for - the inner keep.

Once the inner keep had been the secure nerve centre of the Citadel Hem the astropath’s censorium tower reached towards the clouds and the Inquisition had maintained their own inner fortress, the Aedificium, from where Inquisitors and their strike forces could be equipped and where prisoners could be detained and interrogated It had also contained the holding cells for the sector’s tithe of captured pskyers, destined for the Black ships that would ferry them to Terra. Those cells had been emptied by Xaphan and the rogue psykers had been set loose upon Vraks - just another of the Apostate Cardinal s criminal acts. Access to the inner keep had been highly restricted. It was separated from the mam Citadel by the plunging ravine which was spanned by a narrow, fortified bridge Artillery shells had now destroyed that bridge, so isolating the inner keep. It was also within the keep’s walls that Hector Rex suspected that the heretics had attempted to open a warp portal. It was from here that the Daemons had been allowed to spill onto Vraks. Even if the warp portal was now sealed, it must be destroyed lest it be re-opened at some unknown future date Inquisitor Rex also knew that the warp portal had not only opened itself, but its monstrous power had also caused the weakening of reality to the point where warp-rifts had started to tear through from the ether wherever the fighting on Vraks was heaviest. Destroying the warp portal would be dangerous, even tor the battle hardened Space Marines. It was a task for the Grey Knights alone. So Inquisitor Rex summoned Brother Captain Stern to his aid again. They were to plan and execute a teleport assault against the inner keep. Inquisitor Rex and a hand-picked force of his best Ordo Malleus Inquisitors would accompany them. The destruction of the suspected warp portal would be the penultimate act in the Vraksian war When it was gone, all that would be left would be the mopping up of the remaining Chaos worshippers.

The Guardian of the Portal

It seemed likely that Zhufor and his men had used the portal to escape throwing themselves to the whims of their gods. They would emerge wherever Khorne deemed it fitting, perhaps recalled to some daemon-world deep in the Eye of Terror, perhaps cast to some other bitter warzone to again fight for their master The Traitor Legionnaires had not left without leaving their enemies a final foe The daemonancers had summoned and bound a creature to protect the portal It was Uraka Warfiend, a Daemon prince of Khorne. His legions now awaited within the inner keep, a daemonic force sent as sentries to guard the portal for all eternity.

They did not have so long to wait At 411830.M41 the Ordo Malleus and their Grey Knight squads teleported from the Honours-Amentum into the Aedificium to clear the last stronghold of the enemy and destroy the warp portal on Vraks forever. Preceded by the orbital bombardment of melta torpedoes and barrage bombs which further pounded the rubble and ruins, the teleport chambers hummed with barely contained power before sparking into life with a crackle of lightning, casting the Inquisitors and the Grey Knights squads through the Warp to reappear seconds later within the inner keep.

Instantly they were beset by the Daemon s legions awaiting them. As if from nowhere the Bloodletters, Flesh Hounds and Juggernauts appeared, screaming their god s name as they charged recklessly into me righteous fury of the Grey Knights’ bolt gun and psycannon fire, which send them shrieking back into the abyss. Lord Hector Rex was again in the midst of the fighting. Arias scything through the blood-red ranks of the foes, his eyes turned into pits of white fire as psychic energy flowed through his mind, the aura of his power enough to drive the daemons before him.

With nemesis force weapon, psycannon and incinerator, the Grey Knights scoured the Aedificium. Brother Captain Stem led them, his own sword ablaze with psychic flames that destroyed the daemons upon touch. He hacked and cut, parried and hacked again alongside his brothers, chanting prayers for the exorcism of the hated denizens of the Warp.

Then Uraka Warfiend himself came to meet the Grey Knights hero. A massive beast snarling and spitting, fangs encrusted with the Wood of his past victims. Encased in the warp-forged brass armour of Khorne, in his hands he held a massive pole-axe, a cruel executioners weapon. With it, he bellowed he would take Captain Stem’s head and Khorne would mount it as a trophy upon the wall of his throne room, and throw his body to the Fleshhounds to feast upon.

Stem’s indomitable will could not be broken by mere boastful words. Uraka might be a champion of Khome, but Stern was the instrument of the Emperor’s justice imbued with the divine wrath of Mankind’s true god - and that wrath he unleashed. Power surged through him, a blazing bolt leapt from his brow and smashed into Uraka, who reeled wounded, then charged. With his great axe swinging in a figure of eight about his head he smashed it down. Stern dodged aside, his bulky aegis suit not impeding his agility as he raised his force sword again, thrusting it upwards seeking a weakness in the red beast s armour. His blade turned. Stern felt the unholy strength of Uraka as he spun, the tong spike in his pole axe’s butt diving into the ceramite plating and drawing blood from Captain Stern. Wounded, Stem staggered away, his vital signs fluctuating wildly, his suits bio-systems damaged. Uraka strode after his foe, the long axe drawn back, ready to strike again, eager for the kill. He swung, and Stem parried, blocking the axe, but the strength of the beast sent him crashing to the floor, his sword smashed aside.

Justicar Ophia arrived, his squad with him, and saw his commander down and wounded. The guardian of the portal was stood over Stem, bringing his axe back for the kilting blow. Instantly, Ophia fired, as did his men, a volley of psychically charged bolter rounds detonated around the Daemon prince, tearing chunks from his armour. Wounded and enraged Uraka saw his new foes and lurched towards them. He saw Captain Stem too late, his sword recovered lunging after him. The white-hot Wade of his force weapon found a fresh niche in the brass armour and Stem drove it home with all his might. Uraka bellowed his last. A roar of pain and anger that boomed around the keep. Then, in a flash he was gone - banished back to his master’s dark realm.That powerful thrust was the Grey Knights Captain’s last action of the campaign. Still bleeding, he was returned to the strike cruiser for urgent medical attention whilst Hector Rex and his men dispatched the last of the guardians. With the daemons destroyed, they gathered before the rune engraved columns that encircled the sealed portal and combined the power of their psychic minds into a twisting holocaust of destruction that vaporized the portal. It was over.

Epilogue

On 414.830.M41, the Siege of Vraks was officially declared at an end. The Administratum scribes that had recorded the first shells fired now completed their report, closed the thick tome into which they had scribbled every detail of the war and sealed it with their stamps, not to be re-opened before it reached the headquarters of the Lord Militant Obscurus. He in turn would see copies made for his own archives and then forward the Liber Vraks Obsidius to the great central Administratum archives on Terra for final processing.

The projected twelve standard year campaign had lasted almost eighteen Terran years. It had seen the deployment of 34 Krieg regiments, and the loss of an estimated fourteen million Guardsmen of Krieg. The enemy losses were likewise massive. Eight million souls on Vraks bad been caught up in Apostate Cardinal Xaphan's misplaced ambitions, and now almost all had been purged from the galaxy. Exact numbers of enemy losses could never be known but the vast majority now lay in the charnel pits and mass graves of the Van Meersland Wastes. There were also tens of thousands of prisoners. All were now to be vetted by the Ordo Malleus interrogators. Those found to be beyond redemption would face execution for their crimes. Others would find themselves shipped to far-flung penal colonies and work camps, there to aid the Emperor's realm with their hard labour.

Vraks itself had been ruined by the war. Nothing of value had survived the siege. The planet's infrastructure had been destroyed in the endless artillery duel. The Citadel itself was gone. Later, the Krieg Engineers saw to it that anything that had somehow survived the battle was leveled.

The surrounding landscape was a nightmarish vision of total war, littered with the detritus of many past battles. The tank hulks would gradually turn to rust and slowly moulder into the ground, as would thousands of kilometers of razorwire. The trenches retained their dug-outs and bunkers. Below ground, the labyrinth of tunnels hacked out by the engineers would also remain abandoned, deserted and silent.

Crossing the Van Meersland Wastes remained dangerous long after the armies had gone. There was still many hidden minefields and unexploded shells buried in the mud. Worse were the chemical weapons still liyng unexploded, or a sudden storm might reenergise ground soaked in poisonous chemicals that would billow up to form new deadly fogs of greenish gas, drenched in acid that could strip flesh from bone. The shattered remains of the three outer defence lines also remained -- smashed bunkers and pillboxes testament to the ferocity of the fighting that had destroyed them. Vraks was now a world beyond reclamation. If the Departmento Munitorum ever hoped to rescue the planet as an Armoury World it was to be disappointed in that ambition. The original armouries were all gone, destroyed in the fighting. The supplies were also gone, used up by the war. Little of anything remained to be reclaimed.

In the years to come the Ordo Malleus would conduct a long review of what had happened on Vraks, and it was Inquisitor Lord Hector Rex's conclusion that the Vraks System should be interdicted. Automated sentry warnings were to be positioned to warn starships away, and periodically Imperial Navy patrols would sweep through, making sure the system did not become a haven for pirates and aliens but the planet and its star system were no longer of any value to the Emperor.

Sources

  • Imperial Armour Volume Five - The Siege of Vraks - Part One
  • Imperial Armour Volume Six - The Siege of Vraks - Part Two
  • Imperial Armour Volume Seven - The Siege of Vraks - Part Three
  • Imperial Armour Volume Two (Second Edition) - War Machines of the Adeptus Astartes, pg. 225