Ninety-seven thousand, nine hundred and forty two. Deruk read the numbers for the tenth time still unable to believe what he was seeing. Ninety-seven thousand, nine hundred and forty two children were missing without a trace. Deruk was going on his tenth year of service in the Adeptus Arbites, so he knew firsthand how often children went missing in the hive city of Mortisberg, but those children had always been the sniveling offspring of the low born dregs of the underhive. The only time that it was of any import to know how those children disappeared was when the monthly population tithe hive census needed to be updated. This was different, very different. In all his years of service, Deruk could only recall six cases that involved Mortisberg nobility going missing, and only two of those cases had involved children.
It all started two months ago, slowly at first, so no one paid any attention or noticed the emerging pattern. At first the only sign was a point one percent decrease of the underhive child population, but this figure was simply trumped up to the increased mortality rate that had resulted from the manufactorums production output being increased to supply the war effort. Deruk had seen child mortality rates spike from increased production demands many times in the past, as it was expected in the best of cases that children would die from working longer shifts in the manufactorums, and in the worst cases they would die to feed their own families who needed more nutrition to survive the longer shifts than was being provided by their standard work rations. In his earlier days in the Arbites, Deruk would have found the idea of increased child mortality abhorrent, but if his years of service had taught him one thing, it was that every one of those sickly bastards that died now, was one less hive ganger he would have to put in the ground later.
The crisis became apparent to Deruk when he was investigating the disappearance of the Ziet family’s youngest son. While the Ziet family was not nobility, they were an affluent merchant family, and the fact that the patriarch of the Ziet family had close ties to Deruk’s superiors meant that this was a case that warranted a real investigation. Deruk began his investigation like he began all things, by the book. Standard procedure in missing persons cases was to interrogate all known associated of the missing person, and it was at this leg of the investigation that Deruk discovered that there was something happening that was far more serious than a missing merchant’s son. When attempting to track down the other children that the child was known to associate with, Deruk saw that every one of them had been reported as missing. Within a day Deruk began compiling a list of all missing person reports in his precinct, and that is when he saw, how many reports there really were. Almost all of the reports were for missing children, and with the exception of the Ziet family, they were all from families with only enough wealth to pay the processing fee to file a report, but not enough to make sure said report was ever looked into.
When Deruk saw this pattern, he decided to broaden his investigation and called upon the other Mortisberg Arbites precincts to see if similar patterns were playing out across the hive city. By the fifth day of the investigation Deruk saw that children were missing across all of Mortisberg, and all from families that could not afford to have the disappearances looked into. That was when Deruk decided to investigate the population tithe census reports to see if children were disappearing from families too poor to file any reports. Deruk saw that the reports that had first shown a trivial decrease in the underhive’s child population had steadily grown at an exponential rate, until one in every five families had lost a child. That was when it happened, almost as if a switch had been flipped, the instant Deruk saw the scale of this crisis, the first report of a noble family’s child going missing came in. After the first report, it seemed as if the floodgates had been opened as hundreds of more reports flooded in.
Looking back Deruk could think of a million things that could have been done differently to have kept this crisis from its current level of severity. One out of every two Mortisberg PDF guardsmen that had a family was missing their children, every Mortisberg noble family was missing at least one child, and the majority of all other citizens in the mid and lower hive were missing their children. Deruk put down the report, and stared at the far wall. How could Ninety-seven thousand, nine hundred and forty two children vanish without a trace? Deruk kept repeating this question in his mind until the more important question he had been dreading arose in his mind. “What am I going to tell the Inquisitor tasked with this investigation?”
Captain Krien Barnum rubbed his eyes, as he fought to stay awake through yet another pointless war briefing. General Hurst paced around the holo-map of Voloran, as he delivered his latest briefing on the war taking place on the planet’s surface. “As you can see, the arch traitor forces are no longer contained on the Kriestgard Peninsula. Our last intelligence report that came in at o-eight-hundred confirmed that the enemy has taken hive city Bludberg.” General Hurst said as he indicated toward the holo-map. Barnum tried to appear that he cared about what the General was saying, but despite his best efforts he could not. The traitor forces had invaded Voloran over two months ago, and still had made no effort to so much as approach Mortisberg. Day after day General Hurst droned on giving updates on the war effort in these mandatory war briefings, but what was the point? Since the war began the traitor forces had proven their cowardice in avoiding every opportunity for conflict, with the exception of this most recent report of them taking Bludberg, which is hardly a feat worthy of mention. Bludberg’s defenses were almost non-existent since it had been almost completely destroyed by the greenskin invasion of Voloran four years ago. According to Hurst’s last droning war briefing, all of the Voloran guard forces had been ordered to abandon Bludberg and reinforce other targets of more strategic value, and it was only then that the traitor forces moved in to take Bludberg. The way Barnum saw things, if the traitors were either unable or unwilling to risk attacking a vulnerable target like Bludberg unless all defenses ware withdrawn, then there was no chance they would ever pose a threat to Mortisberg. Mortisberg was the largest and most heavily defended hive city on Voloran, with the resources and manufacturing capabilities to be able to be self-sufficient for two full years if cut off from supplies in a siege. The gun emplacements on the walls had felled no less than three greenskin titan class war engines in the ork invasion four years ago, when those beast dared to challenge the might of Mortisberg. As far as Barnum was concerned the real problem they should be addressing was the disappearance of children in Mortisberg.
“Captain Barnum, are you paying attention to this briefing?” Barnum looked up at General Hurst, with hard eyes, and paused a moment before speaking. “General, permission to speak freely?” “Granted” the Hurst replied. “Sir, I do not see why we have ordered all forces to stand ready for battle against a foe that would never dare attack this city, instead of doing something useful to find our children. My daughter is missing General, and instead of organizing a search party, my forces and I are confined to duty stations until there is another pointless war briefing!” Barnum spoke, raising his voice, more than he knew he should, but far less than he desired to. “Captain, in recognition of your years of service, and the loss of your daughter, I am going to disregard your insubordinate tone this one time, but if you raise your voice to me again I will have Commissar Dietric execute you in front of your entire unit to make an example of you.” General Hurst continued, “The reason I have ordered all forces to battle readiness is because, I have faced this breed of the arch traitor before, and I know how they fight. These traitor Astartes have been identified as members of the traitor legion known as the Iron Warriors, and I know from personal experience that what we are seeing from this force is not how they fight. I have faced these traitors before my assignment to Voloran, and if there is anything I learned from those engagements it’s that the Iron Warriors are no cowards afraid of getting bogged down in siege warfare, in fact the very opposite is true. In many wars against these traitors they would not hesitate to siege a fortification where all of their enemies where gathered in one position.” General Hurst paused for a moment before continuing. “So, when I see how these traitors are acting, my gut tells me that something is amiss, and I refuse to be caught by surprise.”
Almost as if on cue as soon as the General had finished speaking, alarms in the war room went off signaling a proximity alert. “Attention, a large enemy force has entered the ten kilometer detection range of hive city zero, zero, one sigma, alpha, theta, designation Mortisberg” the monotone voice of a city notification servitor droned on as it repeated the message over and over again. Barnum looked at the General, at a loss for words and in disbelief, but General Hurst did not seem to be the least bit surprised. “Get to your post Captain Barnum”. Before waiting for Barnum to acknowledge his orders Hurst had already turned his back, and began issuing orders to his other officers.
If anyone had of told Barnum that this would be possible, he never would have believed it, yet here he was experiencing this nightmare firsthand. It had only been four hours since the first alarm sounded, but in that time the enemy had accomplished more than the most accomplished Voloran siege experts could in a full day. Within an hour of the first alarm, the enemy was at the city walls. Within two hours the Iron Warriors had unloaded tens of thousands of slaves and prisoners from the population of Bludberg and charged them forward to the walls. Barnum did not understand why the enemy would charge the kilometer high walls unarmed with no hope breaching them. Wave after wave the Mortisberg guard cut down the charging madmen, yet they kept coming, always at a different area, as if they thought that one section of the wall would surely allow them to break through with their bare hands. Seeing the seas of flesh below, made up of slavering madmen made Barnum think of the stories he had heard an old Cadian sergeant tell of undead heretic that shambled in hordes without regard for their own lives. Barnum had thought that the Grizzled sergeant had made up the stories simply to scare new recruits, but as Barnum saw the hordes below charging forward, climbing over each other as if they were starving animals trying to get to wounded prey, he could believe that such stories may have had some truth to them. By hours end, thousands of the Iron Warriors slaves lay dead on the field. Barnum and his men had been so busy cutting down the seemingly endless waves of madmen, that they did not notice what had been taking place behind the hordes of the dead, until they heard what sounded like a thousand thunderclaps in unison. When Barnum realized what had happened, he was horrified. In the hour that Barnum and his forces had been cutting down wave after wave of the madmen, the Iron Warriors had established a trench line behind the field of the dead. Barnum saw that the hordes had not been charging different areas of the wall at random, like he had thought, but rather they had been locating where every kill zone, gun emplacement and firing arc along the wall was. The Iron Warriors trench line and gun emplacements ran parallel to the blind spots in the Mortisberg defense line, and there artillery emplacements were positioned right outside of Mortisberg’s wall artillery firing arcs. Barnum saw with horror that the source of the deafening thunderclap sound he and his men heard was over five hundred Iron Warriors’ artillery pieces firing in perfect unison.
Barnum ducked down to take cover right before the impact struck the walls. He waited a second to steady himself before rising to survey the damage. What he saw defied his belief. In one barrage, every gun emplacement on the wall had been utterly destroyed. In the hour that followed the Iron Warrior’s bombardment of the Mortisberg outer wall had continued without pause, with the guns firing at alternating times so that there was never a reprieve when the guns would not be firing to reload. Four hours, it had only been four hours since the first alarm was sounded, and already the outer defense wall of the once impregnable Mortisberg had been breach. By the fifth hour General Hurst had ordered all forces to pull back to the inner most defense line. Where the outer parameter defenses of Mortisberg offered protection in the form of two rows of her walls spaced out at a kilometer and a half, the inner most defense line was a series of interlocking bunkers and trenches. General Hurst reasoned that while it was a gamble to give up the second defensive wall and fall back to the inner most defense line, doing so would mean that the only way the Iron Warriors would be able to utilize their artillery would be to completely level both walls, or move it close enough for it to be targeted by Hurst forces since the artillery would not have the firing arc, or range to shoot over the walls. With news that an imperial relief force was on its way, Hurst saw no way that the Iron Warriors would be able to completely level two layers of walls before reinforcements would arrive. Over the course of the next two days, Hurst was beginning to fear that he overestimated the Iron Warriors artillery, as they opened up a hundred meter long breach in both of the walls. However, as soon as the last stone fell from the inner wall, the Iron Warriors’ artillery ceased firing.
Warsmith Karabazmos strode out of his war tent as he heard the last artillery barrage fire. “Lord, here is the slave you ordered brought to you” Captain Pyrodus said indicating to a mortal man wearing a white robe by his side. “Good, now leave us Pyrodus.” Karabazmos said as he waved his hand to Pyrodus dismissing him. Karabazmos looked at the human and gave him an insincere smile before speaking to him. “So, Torgito, ‘Grand Sacral Master of the Cult of Divine Purity’, are all of the plans set in motion?” Karabazmos ask Torgito, with no attempt at hiding his utter contempt for the human’s title. “Yes, lord, everything has been done exactly as you specified, all of the little saints have been prepared, and sanctified!” Karabazmos snarled as he spoke, unable to contain is disgust with the mewling mortal before him “Good, then let us return to them, the little children of the Empreror.”
Barnum and his forces stood ready in the trenches as the morning sun began to rise. The Iron Warriors bombardment had finally stopped an hour ago, and since then there had been nothing but complete silence. On the horizon Barnum could see the enemy trench line and artillery silhouetted by the rising morning sun, but everything seemed calm with no movement. It was Barnum’s first lieutenant Surm that pointed it out first, and then Barnum saw, what appeared to be movement coming through the breaches in the walls. At first Barnum could not tell what it was he was seeing as it seemed that a wave of white was moving towards their position. As the wave moved closer Barnum could not believe what his eyes were seeing. A man in a white robe was walking towards them leading thousands of children all wearing white robes as pure as snow. The man and all of the children were smiling ear to ear as they held each other’s hands. Barnum stood stone still for what seemed like an eternity, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Suddenly lieutenant Surm broke Barnum’s trance when he screamed “Emperor be praised, that’s my little Elza!” soon Barnum heard more of his men shouting praises to the God Emperor when they saw their missing children in the approaching crowd.
General Hurst could not believe the reports coming from the defense line, until he left his command bunker and saw for himself. All of the missing children of Mortisberg were walking towards the defense line with a single man leading them. General Hurst stood in confused amazement, but before he could offer a prayer of thanks to the Emperor, his amazement turned to sheer horror. As a cloud of smoke passed over the sun, it was as if the shadow it cast was a window into the depths of hell. Where the children’s robes had before appeared to be of the purest white, they were now torn, and stained with blood and yellow puss that was leaking from infected wounds on their chest. Hurst could see that the children looked as if they had the tell-tell ‘Y’ shaped cuts of an autopsy that had been sewn up with rusted wire. Where the robes were torn to expose more of their chest Hurst could see that what looked like krak charges had been sewn into their chest. Where the children before had appeared to have serene blissful smiles on their faces, now Hurst saw that they all had their mouths unnaturally stretched and stapled to their cheekbones to form smiles that only a demented madman could conceive of. Some of the children had parts of their faces peeled away, with only enough left to identify them, and all of the children had their eye lids stapled open, which caused thick yellow puss to run down their cheeks from the infected wounds. In that instant, forty years’ experience did nothing to still Hurst nerves as he lost control of his bladder.
“Open fire! Open fire now!” Barnum heard General Hurst scream the orders, but he could not believe his ears. He turned to see the General had a look of horror on his face, but Barnum could not understand what madness had infected the General. When Barnum turned around he saw why the General was so horrified. In the instant that the sun was covered by a cloud of smoke, he saw the illusion of the children’s appearance vanish, to reveal the horrors they had become. As Barnum turned to retrieve his rifle, he froze as he heard a small voice call out “Daddy, is that you?” Barnum looked and tears ran down his face as he saw is little girl coming towards him from ten meters away. All of a sudden Barnum saw that General Hurst was beside him with his side arm raised and aimed at his daughter. In an instant Barnum picked up his rifle, and without a second thought he shot General Barnum in the head. Barnum dropped the rifle and ran to his daughter screaming “I’m here Baby, Daddy is here, I’m going to make things all right!” As soon as Barnum reached his daughter she jumped in his arms and hugged him. “Goodbye daddy” she said, as her already stretched mouth tore open to form a sadistic grin.
Karabazmos advanced with his forces, meeting little to no resistance as they moved into the city. All along the defense line there were explosions as the mobile landmines, or as Torgito had called them, “the little saints” reunited with their families. Many of the imperial soldiers had begun killing their comrades as those without children tried to shoot the mobile landmines, and those with children tried to keep them from shooting their returned children. By the end of the day, all resistance in Mortisberg had been eliminated with only five Iron Warriors casualties. By the next day, the surviving population of Mortisberg was enslaved, and the city was stripped clean of all of its munitions and supplies. Karabazmos forces withdrew from Voloran, taking their spoils a mere two hours before the imperial relief fleet arrived in system.