It is often stated that in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war and this may well be the case. Nonetheless two battles stand out, head and shoulders above all others both in scale and importance. The great tank battle at Talarn, the sacking of Prospero, the devastation of Baal or the Fall of Cadia? These are mere skirmishes! Armageddon, Calth, Isstvan, Macragge? Simple border disputes! The great conflicts which rage unseen in Octarius, the Legion Wars in the Eye of Terror or the long lost struggles between the Old Ones and the Necrontyr? Hardly the stuff to define the Imperium-centric universe of the 41st Millennium. No, the battles of which I speak are of course the First Siege of Terra – in which two Primarchs are slain, the Emperor is placed within the Golden Throne and an age of darkness truly dawns, and the Second Siege of Terra, the one yet to come in which Abaddon brings the traitor legions and their daemonic primarchs back to humanity’s birth world for the final, apocalyptic showdown to define our species’ fate.
For those immersed in the world of the 41st Millennium one is the cornerstone of all history, the other the overshadowing conclusion to the future, the ultimate Ragnarok and day of judgement rolled into one. One cries out to be chronicled in a series of novels, the other demands to be left purely to the imagination.
I don’t want to see the final battle for Terra, either through official rules, global campaigns or Black Library novels. I don’t want the Long War to end. Yet with the ghoulish fascination that makes us rubberneck at car crashes my eye is drawn back to it, to that final apocalypse which ends only with chaos standing triumphant over the Emperor’s broken realm or breaking against its defences like a failing wave.
This is mankind defining our own fate. We shall come to this war in many guises, be it the common soldiers of the Astra Militarum or the frothing cultists that oppose them, the astartes rebuilt in the Emperor’s image, the Primarchs fabricated to be demi-gods among men, the bestial creatures of chaos or even the daemons grown from our nightmares and ambitions like the mould that sprouts from the yeast in bread. Xenos will not fight in this war, at least not in a major, defining way. There may be the odd Eldar sneaking about, a genestealer cultist or two in the shadows, an ork who heard this was the place to come for an especially good fight, but ultimately this is our war, fought amongst ourselves for the soul of our species. This is us taking back control.
Of course, one can’t think of war on Terra without thinking of the Adeptus Custodes. For a long time they’ve floated at the edge of 40k fans’ wildest imaginings, yet for all we dreamed of seeing them on our tabletops and bestriding the battlefields of the 41st Millennium, it seemed at best a pipe-dream. After all the custodes were confined to Terra, having sworn oaths of penance in the wake of the Emperor’s death at the hands of his son Horus. GW were never going to make an army that only fought on one planet out of the hundreds of thousands in the galaxy, especially a planet that, almost by definition, wouldn’t see war on a grand scale until the setting itself reaches its ultimate end.
Times however have changed and 40k is an evolving beast. Like the Imperium itself stagnation has been replaced by transformation, and we’re yet to see for sure what shape its final form shall be. Many of us, myself included, cried out against the changes being wrought to the setting. Yet so far whilst the universe has developed it hasn’t strayed as far from the darkness at its core as many feared. We may have raged against the Primaris marines for the disregard of the background lore but we forgave them for giving us easy access to true-scale marines. Likewise I may not be thrilled to see the custodes leaving Terra at long last but I’ll let it pass because we now have the range of glorious golden-armoured warriors we long dreamed of.
That said my pleasure at seeing the custodes doesn’t mean they get a free pass from criticism. After all the custodes may be the Emperor’s golden boys with a long list of victories (almost) unmarred by defeat but they’re still a long way from perfect. They say the man who never made a mistake never made anything and true enough the custodes have spent the last ten millennia making damn sure they never made a mistake.
For those unfamiliar with the background to the custodes the crux of the matter is this; after a history in which they had never known defeat the custodes, sworn to protect the Emperor from all threats, were separated from him as they teleported aboard Horus’ battle barge. By the time they reached their master’s side he had been mortally wounded. Failure strengthens us, it teaches us both how to avoid failing again and how to cope if we do. The custodes had never failed before and now that they had they didn’t know how to cope. They carried the Emperor back to Terra and swore an oath never again to leave the Imperial Palace (admittedly a loosely defined area around the Sol system).
In many ways the custodes exemplified the ignorant, inward-looking nature of the Imperium and its cruelly wasteful treatment of its resources – most notably human lives. It’s always been one of the great ironies of the Imperium that whilst ork waarrghs and black crusades smashed thousands of worlds to rubble and whole chapters of space marines and regiments of imperial guard were being swallowed up by war the finest army at the Imperium’s disposal sat idle. Where were the custodes when Armageddon or Macragge were burning? Sitting on Terra feeling sorry for themselves that’s where.
Was it dereliction of duty on their part that saw the Emperor slain? I feel that’s a harsh judgement. Blame for Horus’ invasion of Terra, and the Emperor’s fateful decision to teleport aboard the Vengeful Spirit and take the fight to his wayward son, could hardly be laid at the custodes’ door. Yet the ten millennia of mourning and self-recrimination and penance that followed, whilst all around them the galaxy burned, that can be called dereliction of duty of the highest order.
Yet whilst the custodes have exemplified the stubborn ignorance of their era they are not of it. Almost uniquely amongst the people of the Imperium they are granted access to all knowledge and trained in all things. Beyond their superlative combat abilities each is educated to the very limit that their superhuman brains can handle. They are statesmen, philosophers, artists and historians, cartographers of the heavens and a thousand other things beside. They are not oblivious to the threats that fall upon the Imperium, or to the state of decline into which that once great empire has fallen. They must have seen the doom that was swallowing everyone, from the lowliest tech-serf to the Emperor Himself, yet they chose to stay on Terra anyway, allowing self-indulgent misery at the failings of their long-dead ancestors to blind them to the fact that they’d been letting the side down for rather a long time.
They’ve sat on their hands, gathering dust whilst the Imperium collapsed around them. This isn’t a complaint mind you – although if they knew the truth a denizen of the 41st Millennium might feel otherwise. Rather I’ve always found it to be a wonderful part of the 40k background, the idea of a superlative army able to overcome any foe standing idle whilst enemies rage unchecked simply because they believe that they failed ten thousand years ago.
Of course they’ve not been entirely shiftless, there have been shadow wars and hidden conflicts conducted out of sight in the veiled byways and alleys of Terra as the forces of the arch-enemy attempt to corrupt the throne world. From the grander conflicts that the Imperium has endured however they have been absent, leaving the space marines and Imperial Guard to do the leg work.
As far as we’ve seen the wars in which the custodes have taken part have hardly been taxing. Whilst many space marine chapters have come close to extinction the Golden Legion have managed to maintain their numbers at a rough ten thousand. This leads me to wonder; if the custodes are functionally immortal and can only be killed by catastrophic trauma, and they never leave the Emperor’s palace – the most heavily defended site in the galaxy, and when they do have to fight it is almost certainly against someone less skilled than themselves, then how do they ever die at all? The codex describes some as being over a thousand years old but surely many of them should be even older than that.
What happens to them? Surely the warriors who fought in the Horus Heresy aren’t still standing vigil now? It’s something I’ve often wondered, especially nowadays when Bjorn the Fell-handed’s claim to being the oldest living human has been knocked aside by the return of other Heresy-era oldsters like Guilliman and Cawl.
Thankfully we now have an answer. If a custodian finds himself no longer at the peak of fighting perfection he returns his equipment, resigns from his watch and, clad in hooded black robes, set’s off into the galaxy to act as a watchman, spying out any threats to the Emperor and sending word back to his former brothers. It’s a powerful image; a hooded giant, face almost hidden, watching from the shadows with his retinue of agents gathered around him, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t inspire a few Inq28 warbands.
Now in the Imperium’s darkest hour the custodes are unleashed. With a loyalist primarch back in the fight, a new, more pro-active Captain-General at the helm and an attack by Khornate daemons at the very gates of the Imperial Palace to goad them into action, they begin to strike out into the galaxy at large. Cue much back-patting at GW HQ as they finally have the excuse to make the range of models they know we’re always wanted.
It would have been all too easy to make these golden armoured supermen into two-dimensional goodies but, perhaps learning from the accusations fired at the Stormcast Eternals, the writers have done a good job of describing a well rounded and distinctly human force. The custodes may have grown in stature, prowess and intellect above the common man but their flaws have grown with them and this keeps them rooted firmly in the 41st Millennium. Of course with the Sol system under threat from several directions one cannot help but wonder if the final battle might not be close at hand. Is it the wisest move on the part of the custodes to be abandoning their posts and going in search of battle at the precise moment that the battle they have long prepared for is finally coming to them? Perhaps not, but have pity on the Golden Legion as they attempt to find the right path through the pitiless horror of the 41st Millennium. They’re only human after all.
All artwork is copyright Games Workshop and is used without permission.