"A fortress unmanned is as a corpse—it bears the shape of what it is supposed to be, but lacks the vital heart and strength that comes from life, and is instead hollow and purposeless. A fortress manned by a number of soldiers is amongst the most wondrous and terrible things to behold, for few things can stand firm against stone and steel with flesh and blood behind it."
- —Attributed to Rogal Dorn, Primarch of the Imperial Fists
No servant of the Emperor has ever set foot upon Hethgard and felt anything but awe at the scale of what Mankind has created there. The fortresses of Hethgard are a monument to warfare, a testament to the toil and labour of millions and the blood that millions more will shed in defence of the Imperium.
Hethgard exists for one purpose: to defend the rimward flank of the Achilus Crusade's advance, to prevent the enemies of Humanity from reaching the Well of Night and the Jericho-Maw Warp Gate within it.
To that end, it has been remade as a world fortified, with every square kilometre of its surface and many hundreds of metres below ground devoted to the protection of its defenders and the repulsion of an invading force.
Designed by a coterie of Divisio Tactica siege engineers and Adeptus Mechanicus artisans, Hethgard's fortifications have been carefully arranged to allow for the swift and effective detection and destruction of invaders, its structure devised by ancient strategic lore, arcane formulae, and the results of intensive prognostication.
Hethgard has held off several attacks over the decades of the Achilus Crusade, its defenders overcoming all those who have sought to oust them from the world's fortresses.
However, now Hethgard's garrisons are confronted with a foe unlike any they have previously encountered -- Hive Fleet Dagon is poised to overwhelm the world, and Hethgard's precision-designed defences are pitted against an enemy that seems to be without number and entirely uncaring of the horrific casualties that Hethgard's guns cause.
"May the gates hold against the beast without.
May the stones of the wall be firm beneath my feet.
May my blade drink deep of the foe and never be satisfied.
May I not feel the touch of fear at the death that is my service.
May I stand a warrior, and if I fall, may I fall with my blade in my hand."
- —Spoken by Ivar Ravensclaw, Wolf Guard of the Space Wolves Chapter, on the morning of the first spores falling on Hethgard
According to the limited records available, an Adeptus Mechanicus survey expedition set foot upon Hethgard in 312.M34, evaluating the world as having extensive mineral resources sufficient for several millennia of intensive tithing.
For centuries, Hethgard's wealth went to nearby Castobel, its abundant raw ores shipped in massive refinery-haulers to the bustling Hive World. Even as the Jericho Sector collapsed into anarchy, Hethgard continued to supply the still-loyal Castobel for several centuries as the two worlds' respective infrastructures diminished in the absence of the Imperium.
Hethgard's population fractured into distinct nations and city-states over the generations that followed, with clans of miners struggling to survive on the limited quantities of food and potable water available on so barren a world.
These factions changed frequently over the millennia, shifting due to wars and alliances and adapting in response to the intervention of off-worlders. Some of these outsiders were occasional supply ships from nearby Castobel, while others were raiders and the vassals of petty dictators who sought to exploit Hethgard's wealth for themselves.
By the time the Achilus Crusade reached Hethgard, seven solar weeks after the fleet passed through the region's Warp Gate, Hethgard's population was divided into eleven distinct nations, eight of which capitulated without hesitation to the Imperial forces that appeared suddenly and menacingly in the skies above them.
The remaining three chose to defy the Imperium, digging in and fortifying the mines beneath their cities to stave off annihilation by orbital bombardment.
For four long standard years, the Imperium fought against the entrenched population, with millions of troops delving deep into the mines from the already compliant cities to wage war with those who refused to accept the Emperor.
The commander of the Astra Militarum on Hethgard, Lord General Antevan Creaigne, was an expert in more traditional forms of combined arms warfare, used to relying on the might of armour and artillery in conjunction with his infantry, and struggled to deal with the brutal tunnel fighting that denied him the use of much of his forces.
Worse, it became quickly apparent that the forces arrayed against them were more than mere heathens and separatists, but were instead driven by servants of the Ruinous Powers, a group identified by the Inquisition as the Stigmartus, a known Heretic faction encountered on many worlds across the Jericho Reach by scouting expeditions.
Warp-spawned sorcery and blasphemous rites joined insane fanaticism and vicious close quarters-battle, and only the intervention of an Astartes task force -- comprised of Battle-Brothers from the Storm Wardens, Relictors and Dark Sons Chapters and several battalions of Storm Troopers -- was able to break through the bloody stalemate and cleanse the Stigmartus' taint from the world once and for all, after an eighteen-hour assault.
With Hethgard claimed, its fortification could begin. After millennia of exploitation, Hethgard's resources were all but depleted, as had been predicted so long ago, but mining was not the reason the Imperium had returned to Hethgard.
The newly repatriated citizens of Hethgard were put to work almost immediately, charged with removing the last of their world's mineral wealth even as the landscape was remade around them.
Hethgard's mountains and volcanoes were carved and shaped by the searing fire of orbital lances, clad in massive armour plates and fitted with batteries of Macrocannon and surface-to-orbit missile silos.
By the time the Orpheus Salient was established, the mountain fortress of Bastion Primaris was complete, and nine hundred kilometres of tunnels had been excavated, extending out from the fortress to reach the three nearest cities and their mines, turning caverns into storage vaults, munitions dumps and barracks.
In addition, work had begun on both standalone firebases across the planet, and the process of turning the cities into secondary fortresses, an undertaking that would take solar decades to complete.
Hethgard's defences were first tested a few solar months later, when a flotilla of raiders from deeper in the Reach arrived to extort resources from the miners, as they likely had been doing intermittently since before the Achilus Crusade began.
Unprepared to face the full might of Hethgard's new defences, the raiders were obliterated within solar minutes of arriving in orbit. Since that first assault, countless foes have attempted to strike at Hethgard and been found lacking, but only two instances in the decades-long history of the Fortress World are particularly noteworthy.
The first came in 796.M41, when an Ork warfleet appeared in-system, broadcasting its identity in the self-aggrandising manner common to Orks. Xenolinguists swiftly translated the declaration of identity as being from a Freebooter band known as the Brass Eye, led by Kaptin Azrukk Ur Nazdakka.
The Brass Eye fleet was massive -- dozens of ships and millions of Orks, whose belligerent mentality saw the fortress as a challenge concealing valuable technology to plunder.
The Orks had emerged from the Warp mere hours out from Hethgard itself, dangerously close, but avoiding the picket ships and sentry stations and granting them a measure of surprise over the forces stationed below.
Less than 20 hours after arrival in-system, the first Orks had made planetfall, employing crude Drop Pods to land swiftly and begin their assault.
The Ork assault was predictably long and gruelling, the greenskins' tenacity and bloodthirsty joy difficult to quell even with the heavy firepower and millions of men defending Hethgard. After eighteen solar months of non-stop conflict, the Orks were still deeply embroiled, having forced their way into the tunnels through several of the smaller firebases.
Eventually, through brutal attrition, the Orks' will was broken, their forces on the ground reduced to scattered pockets of resistance and their fleet driven off. In order to contain any re-infestation, annual purges of the formerly Ork-occupied regions are mandatory.
The second major attack occurred years later, and was a far more successful assault. On 5212.809.M41, the picket ship Achilus' Eye detected a localised Warp anomaly approximately seven hundred thousand kilometres from Hethgard. A day later, four picket ships and two of the sentry stations were destroyed, and an unidentified spherical object had arrived in Hethgard's orbit.
Astropaths given secret Inquisitorial ciphers immediately notified their masters of the strange and menacing presence as it disgorged vast numbers of smaller, spherical craft, which plummeted to the world below.
The spherical war engines, and their bizarre amorphous occupants, possessed a terrible power to unmake flesh and steel, projecting auras of incandescent fire that turned all it touched to black ash and noxious vapours.
For fifteen solar weeks, these creatures -- who remain unidentified to this day in spite of the best efforts of the Ordo Xenos -- tore across Hethgard for reasons unknown, but which Departmento Munitorum propagandists attributed to "the envious malice inherent in all xenos breeds."
At the start of the sixteenth week, aid arrived, in the form of the Deathwatch Strike Cruiser Wrathbringer, bearing four veteran Kill-teams clad in priceless suits of Tactical Dreadnought Armour, who struck swiftly from orbit by teleportarium, clashing with the greatest concentrations of the unknown xenos.
Thirteen Astartes died in the savage combat, their blood spilt to locate some weakness or vulnerability in their foes. For their sacrifice, the Deathwatch overcame their foes -- the unknown xenos withdrew in the face of heavy casualties, their ship retreating under fire from the Wrathbringer and Hethgard's defence fleet, and torn asunder before it could translate into the Warp.
Hethgard was regarded as a fortress second only to Karlack in its might, but even a world that well-defended could not adequately prepare for what was to come next -- Hive Fleet Dagon. In 816.M41, the first vanguard ships arrived, followed soon after by larger Kraken and eventually a colossal Hive Ship.
None could have predicted that the Tyranids would have pushed so deep into the territories claimed by the salient that quickly, and to have them assaulting one of the worlds of the Iron Collar was an eventuality that few had the courage to consider.
The world is now under continual assault by the Tyranids, and while the defenders have the advantage of massive fortifications and extensive stores of supplies, the Tyranid presence prevents those supplies from being moved to worlds elsewhere in the salient as was their original purpose.
In besieging Hethgard, the Tyranids may have inadvertently set in motion the slow and painful demise of the entire salient, starving it of vital reinforcements and supplies.
Hethgard's planetary climate is arid with high temperatures and a dense legacy smog/smoke cloud layer caused by now-dormant volcanoes, which maintains the high surface temperatures, typically between 28 and 35 degrees Celsius.
The planet has no surface water, though many subterranean reservoirs exist. Much of the landscape is dominated by artificial structures in the form of abandoned mines and quarries, and extensive fortifications.
Beneath the surface exist tens of thousands of kilometres of tunnels and caverns, most of which are of Imperial origin, with a minority being the remnants of mines created during the sector's "Age of Shadow" after the Imperium abandoned the region.
The following are a number of significant locations on Hethgard, still holding out against the continued onslaught of the Tyranids.
The single largest and oldest of Hethgard's fortresses, Bastion Primaris is built within the hollowed-out shells of three of Hethgard's tallest mountains, with the billions of tonnes of rock excavated from within turned into outlying firebases and picket-forts.
The very peak of the bastion, 13 kilometres high, is capped with a colossal defence laser battery, greater in magnitude than the weaponry found aboard ancient battleships and powered by a geothermal power plant many kilometres below the planet's surface.
The entire complex is wreathed in many layers of protective void shields and clad in sixty metre thick plasteel-ceramite composite armour plate, rendering the entire fortress nigh-impervious to assault by land or from orbit.
Within the bastion's immense walls are thousands of barracks sufficient to house over a million men, armouries, manufactories and generatoria to keep them supplied with weapons, power and ammunition for generations, and immense storage depots and supply vaults containing potable water, preserved food and raw materials to supply not only Hethgard but the conquering armies of the Orpheus Salient as well.
Deeper within are archive crypts, shrines, the chambers of the astropathic choir, and the strategium-maximus, designed to serve as the command centre for both Hethgard and the entire Orpheus Salient beyond it.
The strategium-maximus in particular is a monumental chamber, fitted with unending rows of cogitators arranged in precise accordance with ancient numerological and technomantic rites, and equipped with some of the most sophisticated hololithic projectors and vox-simulacra available.
It grants a commander intricate and precise simulations of any conceivable strategic scenario, rendered in light and sound a hundred metres across.
Since its creation, the Bastion Primaris has never fallen, and only recently have its defences been truly tested, by the unrelenting tide of Tyranid monstrosities that now roam across Hethgard's surface and scuttle within its tunnels.
In the last few years, the lower depths of the bastion have been infiltrated by subtle and cunning beasts, and though they have been driven back each time, they press deeper with every new attack.
Ringing the nearest of Hethgard's three moons, the anchorage is a massive network of docks, hangars and cargo yards, originally constructed to ease export of unrefined ores and the import of necessary supplies.
Shortly after the conquest of Hethgard, a massive effort was made to reconsecrate and expand upon the anchorage to allow it to support the great battlegroups and flotillas of transport ships that would soon be a near-constant presence in the world's orbital space.
Since that time, the Hethgard Anchorage has been a hive of activity, operating at all hours to keep hundreds of starships of all kinds active and well supplied.
Since the Tyranid assault began, the anchorage has been a battleground, fending off Tyranid bio-ships while attempting to repair and rearm the system defence ships.
Sector 903/Cell 11/Depth 1281, to give its full designation, is so named because it exists 1,281 metres below Hethgard's surface. The deepest extent of the tunnel network, Depth 1281 exists as a demesne of the Adeptus Mechanicus, claimed while the world's fortifications were still being designed.
Officially, Depth 1281 is a temple-forge, established by the Achilus Crusade's Adeptus Mechanicus contingent to minister to the spiritual needs of the Martian Priesthood and their vassals. Unofficially, it serves as containment for archeotech devices of unknown provenance, as well as technology of xenos and heretical origins requiring careful study.
Heavily warded and sealed, not even air can pass into or out of Depth 1281 without being subject to intensive augury by cautious and meticulous Machine Spirits (artificial intelligences).
Certain members of the Inquisition have suspicions about the temple-forge at Depths 1281, but their investigations are hindered both by the secretive nature of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and possibly elements within the Inquisition seeking to gain access to the temple's contents.
Artisan Thol Xannaster is regarded as Hethgard's seniormost member of the Cult Mechanicus, and master of the temple-forge within Depth 1281, maintaining its outward appearance by overseeing the manufacture of limited quantities of high-technology equipment for crusade personnel.
This consists of items too difficult to produce in conventional field manufactories, but within the means of a significant Mechanicus congregation, such as plasma weaponry, power weapons and similar.
In truth, he is merely the public face of the temple, serving at the pleasure of Magos Zoloman Raetzel, a high-ranking member of the sect known as the Crucible Resolviate, with a reputation for gleaning even the most obscure secrets from technology that many regard to be irredeemable in the optics of the Machine God.
Since the start of the Tyranid invasion, little has been heard from Depth 1281, but from time to time phalanxes of Skitarii have been observed moving from the region armed with powerful and startlingly effective weaponry, vanishing back from whence they came without a single word after obliterating a Tyranid infestation.
Whatever secrets lay within Depth 1281, they are clearly ones which could help turn back the Tyranid menace from Hethgard, yet the Adeptus Mechanicus maintain their silence about the matter.
An'karrah, the Cursed City
The last stronghold of the original resistant population on Hethgard, An'karrah has lain abandoned for solar decades, having been quarantined by order of the Inquisition following the successful elimination of its inhabitants in the early years of the crusade.
Much of the surface city was obliterated by orbital bombardment during the campaign to claim Hethgard, leaving little more than ash, rubble and radioactive glass as a testament to the deadly wrath of the Imperial Navy. However, extending below the ruins for almost six hundred metres are the mines and catacombs that the Heretic armies used to defy the Imperium for so long.
The disused tunnels and mines are still marked with the dried blood of sacrificial victims and the blasphemous runes of unholy rites performed by those who had fallen from the Emperor's light, in spite of the cleansing by melta and flamer that accompanied the final assaults upon this last benighted stronghold.
Rumours persist, passed around mainly amongst the rank-and-file during quiet moments, that some force still lurks in the ruins of An'karrah, or that something still worships in the vile fanes and at the dark altars that the Inquisition found there. Such rumours are, of course, punishable by a variety of means, depending on the mood of the Commissar or Preacher who overhears such impiety.
Alas, there seems to be some nugget of truth to those rumours -- cloaked figures have been witnessed passing the sentries and checkpoints leading to An'karrah, unhindered by the Storm Troopers and sanctified weapon Servitors who guard the few remaining passages into the cursed city.
While rumours of such things cannot be tolerated amongst the lower ranks, those of higher station contemplate such things more carefully and more solemnly, speculating that some element within the Inquisition could be delving into forbidden matters.
As the Tyranid assault on Hethgard has intensified, the ruins of An'karrah have proven to be a weakness in the Fortress World's defences, a gap in the network of fortresses and tunnels that the Tyranids have exploited in great numbers.
In response, greater concentrations of troops have been stationed at the entrance passages, seeking to fend off the vile creatures. Thus far, these soldiers have been successful in their efforts, driving the Tyranids back deeper into An'karrah.
However, few who have served as part of the An'karrah Watch, as this section of the garrison is known, are willing to speak of their time there, and a minority of them return changed, harder and crueller than they were before.
The Inquisition and the Commissariat alike seek these individuals, fearing that they have become tainted by Chaos, but the Tyranid onslaught makes this difficult, and cruel, war-hardened men is exactly what Hethgard needs to defend against the beasts of Hive Fleet Dagon.
- Deathwatch: The Achilus Assault (RPG), pp. 114-119
- Deathwatch: Core Rulebook (RPG), pg. 343