This weekend sees the release of a new boxed game from Games Workshop. Cast in the same mould as Betrayal at Calth this one will focus on the razing of the planet Prospero, home to the Thousand Sons legion of Magnus the Red, by his brother the Wolf King Leman Russ.
So how did we get here? How did two legions of space marines, each claiming to be utterly loyal to the Emperor of Mankind, end up beating seven bells out of each other to such an extent that an entire planet was burned down? Well, gentle reader, let me explain – although it is a confusing tale and one which leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Emperor is either a) evil and using humanity as pawns in a fiendishly complex scheme of his own that is yet to become clear or b) so unbelievably stupid that you wouldn’t let him run a bath let alone an interstellar empire. For those of you who’ve not read A Thousand Sons or Prospero Burns yet this post is full of spoilers, better to come back later once you’ve read them yourself.
So the Emperor, so utterly arrogant that he couldn’t imagine being called anything else, decides that he’s spent long enough watching humanity scrabble in the radioactive dirt of the planet formerly known as Earth and he’s going to relocate every lost colony in the galaxy and create himself an Empire to be Emperor of (possibly because he was starting to feel a little self-conscious being called The Emperor when he was all by himself). In order to share the leg work of the galaxy re-uniting business he created himself a number of sons, not in the fairly exciting way that would have involved finding an Empress and possibly loosening up a little, but in a fairly dull way that involved being in a science lab instead. Each of these sons was particularly good at certain things, for example Dorn was good at building forts, Perturabo was good at knocking them over again, Fulgrim was good at picking clothes and Vulcan was good at living for a very, very long time whilst being terribly nice to everyone.
Magnus was designed to be good at magic. The key word in there is designed, remember that because it becomes important later, the Emperor specifically created Magnus with it in mind that he would be a dab hand at spells and so on. In fact it was generally reckoned that Magnus was the best wizard that had ever been, with the possible exception of the Emperor who was also very good at magic (alongside science and having big ideas). Another of the Emperor’s sons, Leman Russ, specialised in a combination of being loyal to the Emperor and killing people, which made him excellent as an enforcer in the event that any of his brothers got a bit out of line. He was also good with pets and really disliked magic.
Anyway, the Great Crusade rolled along quite nicely, most of the humans in the galaxy were reunited into one sharing, caring happy family, or – if they didn’t want to be part of the Project for a New Imperial Century, obliterated to radioactive rubble instead. With everything proceeding nicely the Emperor headed home to work on a new Top Secret project, leaving his favourite son Horus in charge. Before he vanished into his lab and stopped answering his calls altogether however there was one last order of business to take care of; the Council of Nikaea. For some time the Imperium had been split on the question of magic and whether or not it was a good idea. Some, like Magnus, pointed to the enormous potential to do good offered by their powers, and noted that as mankind appeared to be evolving into a race of powerful magic users it might be worth getting out ahead of the game and being prepared for a magic dominated future when it arrived. Generally these people had magical powers themselves. The other side thought that magic was bad news, wizards were dangerous people, and the whole thing should be stopped at once. Generally these people didn’t have magical powers themselves and were probably a bit jealous of those who did. Some of them however, like Russ, had plenty of strange powers of their own, and liked hanging out with wizards themselves, but did a lot of hand-waving to justify it and not come off as massive hypocrites.
The Council of Nikaea was supposed to thrash this out once and for all, but instead it all turned into a bit of a show trial where Magnus was accused of being a very naughty boy and banned from doing any more magic at all. Interestingly, and as an aside, this judgement was regarded as a bad move by several of the Emperor’s sons who went on to side with him in the forthcoming civil war (Roboute Guilliman and the Khan for example), whilst others who agreed with him on this still managed to stab him in the back a short time later (Mortarion I’m looking at you). It also provided Lorgar, Primarch of the Word Bearers, with an excuse to infiltrate many of his brother’s legions under the guise of helping them come to terms with a life without magic. Quite why more of his brothers didn’t tell him where to shove his ‘help’ is unclear but it certainly gave Lorgar the excuse to go around knocking on doors asking if anyone had a few minutes to talk about our lord and saviour the Primordial Annihilator.
Anyway Magnus was rather good at wizarding and didn’t want to go back to living in the cupboard under the stairs. He was sure that if he could just show his dad how useful magic could be then the Emperor would recognise his error and take back his judgement (forgetting for a moment that the Emperor was well aware of what magic could do, being as he was spectacularly good at it himself). What was needed, Magnus realised, was a huge, over the top gesture, proving once and for all that magic was useful and, perhaps even more importantly, that Magnus was a good boy who deserved a second chance. Then they would cry and hug and probably do some quality father/son bonding – perhaps involving a fishing trip or attending some kind of sporting event.
Meanwhile Horus was starting to get bit cheesed off. He was finding out that being Warmaster was a lot harder than the Emperor had made it sound before he gave him the job and between his brothers squabbling and generally being dysfunctional, and trying to co-ordinate a war on an almost infinite number of fronts, he could also use a bit of a chat with the Emperor for a bit of fatherly advice. Unfortunately whenever he rang the Emperor he got his voicemail in the form of Malcador the Sigilite who told him that the Emperor was super busy dealing with something far more important than re-uniting humanity and Horus would just have to use his initiative. Regrettably Horus’s initiative was telling him to listen to Lorgar who was full of talk about evil gods in the Warp and how we should listen to them instead and how the Emperor had never loved them anyway (this being a rough summation of the path from loyal son to traitor that actually takes three whole books to play out). The Emperor, as it turns out, was well aware that these warp gods existed, and that they planned to corrupt mankind, but at no point did it occur to him to mention this to his sons. Instead, in a display of exceptional parenting, he waited until Horus was leading half the Imperium against him in civil war before declaring something to the effect of “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal”.
Anyway Magnus found out about what was happening and, having failed to convince Horus that he might be making a mistake in going against the Emperor’s will, decided to go against the Emperor’s will by using magic to project himself across the galaxy to warn his dad. Remember when you were a kid and you saw someone breaking the rules and ran to the teacher to tell, only to get in trouble yourself for being a tell-tale? Well that’s what happened to Magnus. Also when he projected himself into the Emperor’s lab he brushed aside all the wards which the Emperor had put there precisely to stop anyone using magic to project themselves into his lab, which caused a major infestation of daemons which to this day threatens to burst through and devour everyone. This ticked the Emperor off no end and he focussed his anger on Magnus and sent Russ to put him back in line. At this point the plot becomes a bit confused – some versions have it that Horus told Russ that Magnus was planning to trap him and to go in all guns blazing, or that the Emperor told Russ to kill Magnus, or that Russ was caging for a fight anyway and decided to have his revenge on Magnus for all the times he’d shouted ‘walkies’ at him or confused him by pretending to throw a ball whilst actually hiding it behind his back. The plot of the novel covering these events does nothing to clarify things and instead adds in an unnecessary shape-shifting daemon which only serves to muddy the waters and poke holes in the plot (bad boy Dan Abnett – and you’re usually so good).
Thus Russ and his Space Wolves arrive at the planet of Prospero and set about breaking everything in sight, a terrible battle ensues and Magnus teleports his legions off the planet and into the arms of an elaborate Tzeentchian scheme. And if you thought that was hard to follow you should read the bloody books!
Looking over the events that shaped the Horus Heresy it’s hard to buy into the Imperial version of events, that the Emperor had a plan for humanity which would have kept us safe and secure into a glorious future but was blindsided by Horus’s short-sighted betrayal. Indeed it’s pretty obvious that some of the Primarchs were designed to fail. From the moment of their creation they were set on paths that led them to Chaos and the Emperor seemed to be deliberately shaping events to encourage them on that journey. Magnus, Angron, Curze, Lorgar, even Horus himself; all seem to have been the victims of a deliberate set-up. I’ve even wondered if the Emperor only despatched the Wolves to Prospero because Magnus was so stubborn in remaining loyal when any right thinking individual would have told him to get stuffed long before. (Note also that whilst both Curze and Angron had their knuckles rapped at various points the only other legion to be shamed and reprimanded in quite such a grand fashion were the Word Bearers, again for too much loyalty rather than not enough).
One possibility is that some of the Primarchs were intended as deliberate sacrifices. After all the Emperor is known to have made a pact with the Chaos gods in exchange for the knowledge required to make the Primarchs in the first place. What we don’t know is what the Gods asked for in return. Perhaps the Gods said to the Emperor ‘Kill me a son’ (and the Emperor says “Man, you must be putting me on!”)
Ultimately much remains unknown about the Emperor and his motivations but what we do know is that he foresaw the Heresy, if not its full extent, and his actions did more to cause it than to prevent it. Here we have a man – supremely skilled with magic – who, through elaborate schemes and misdirection, created the modern Imperium upon which the Gods of Chaos have feasted for ten thousand years. Ultimately Horus may have fallen at the Siege of Terra but it was the Gods who were victorious. The Imperium, with its teeming millions and constant warring and plotting, has been the perfect vessel for their schemes for ten millennia. Tzeentch loves those who struggle against their fate, all the while binding themselves tighter and tighter within his schemes, and the Imperium of Man has struggled so very hard indeed. The engines of the state are devoted to covering up the existence of Chaos and stopping an outbreak of pyskers, all the while preventing mankind from achieving its psychic potential. All the races which might prove a threat to the dominance of Chaos (the Orks, Tyranids, Necrons, Tau, even the Eldar) find themselves under the Imperium’s guns. And if you still don’t believe me that the Emperor is either serving Tzeentch, or actually is Tzeentch himself, take a look at that double-headed eagle banner and tell me you’ve not seen it somewhere before…
I rest my case.