Lore Explainer: The Black Crusades, Part 1 – The First Black Crusade

In The Lore Explainer, we take a deep look at the lore behind our favorite games, movies, and books, and talk about the story behind them and sum up what you need to know and how you can find out more. In this article series, we’re looking at the lore behind the infamous Thirteen Black Crusades of Abaddon the Despoiler.

The Black Crusades have been a key part of Chaos Space Marine lore ever since they were first mentioned in second edition’s Codex: Chaos. Back then, the idea of a Black Crusade didn’t have a ton of lore behind it, aside from being the most metal as hell thing to call a rampaging warpath of Chaos Space Marines. The most formidable of these Black Crusades would be those led by the big daddy of Chaos himself, Abaddon the Despoiler. 

Since then, the lore of the Black Crusades have been both expanded upon and rewritten a few times, and the most important conflicts for the lore of Chaos Space Marines outside of the Horus Heresy. The Black Crusades of Abaddon the Despoiler are front and center in many Warhammer 40,000 stories, from codexes and Black Library novels to video games, specialist games, and even an entire global Warhammer 40,000 narrative campaign.

There’s a lot to cover when it comes to the Black Crusades, so we will be splitting this Lore Explainer into a three part series. 

  • Part One: What is a Black crusade, and Abaddon’s First Black Crusade
  • Part Two: The Second through Twelfth Black Crusades, including the Gothic War
  • Part Three: Both of The Thirteenth Black Crusades – The Global Campaign and the Gathering Storm

With our table of contents set, it’s time to embark on the first part of our series, and find out what a Black crusade is and learn about the first of the Warmaster’s thirteen Black Crusades. 

Credit: Games Workshop

What Is a Black Crusade?

“Thirteen times shall the Traitor King go forth. In the End Times the iron fortress shall be cast down. Its walls breached and its Gate forced open. Those that dwell beyond shall spill through it. The air shall burn and the ground shall melt, The Daemon shall lie down with the machine, Brother shall slay brother with fire and sword. And the sky-wound shall pour its malice forth. The Eye shall stare unblinking at its prize, and the Traitor King shall cross the bridge of stars. He shall return to finish the Warmonger’s red work, Upon holy soil shall the fate of man be decided.” -The Liber Malefact

Following the death of Horus and the defeat of the Traitor Legions at the battle of Terra, the remaining loyal armies of the Imperium pressed their advantage and attempted to drive out the remaining traitor forces from Imperial territory. This period known as The Scouring saw the broken and beaten traitor legions and their armies pushed out of their strongholds and homeworlds, and eventually the bulk of the traitors were forced to retreat into a massive warp-tear in reality called the Eye of Terror. Here, they would find some refuge from the Imperial armies that would not follow them in, but in turn by making their new homes in the eye, the traitor Astartes became truly corrupted by the influence of the Dark Gods and transformed into the Chaos Space Marines we know in the 41st millennium.

By the time they made it to the Eye, the organization and hierarchy of the traitor legions was thoroughly shattered. Rather than the rigid structure and discipline of the legions, Chaos Space Marines would be governed by warlords who gained their seat by might alone. While some legions would maintain more cohesion than others, ultimately a Chaos Lord and their warband of followers would only be as powerful as the might of their warriors and resources they controlled in the Eye. To survive in the Eye, Chaos Lords need to constantly wage war, make deals, and prove their mettle in the eyes of the Chaos Gods.

Credit: Dan “Swiftblade” Richardson

Leaving the Eye of Terror is no easy feat. Here, the laws of reality are warped. Particularly, the unnatural flow of time has meant that many veterans of the Horus Heresy are still kicking around, ten thousand years later, though to those veterans it may seem as far less time has actually passed. While Chaos Warbands would still strike out from the warp in small numbers, turning loose great Chaos fleets from the Eye was much more difficult. The abnormal laws of nature in the Eye makes leaving a very risky endeavor, requiring much planning and resources to actually pull off successfully. 

Through cunning and violence, a Chaos Marine Warlord may acquire enough power to make an attempt to break out of the Eye, and strike out at the Imperium beyond. There, in the Imperium, much-needed resources are more plentiful, captives can be brought back for sacrifice or enslavement, and warriors of Chaos can let loose their hatred against Imperium in the name of Dark Gods, personal glory, or old grudges. So, a Chaos Lord gathers their warband, calls in every favor they have, and strikes out from the Eye of Terror into the Imperium of Man, and hell often follows with them.

These are the Black Crusades. Having the ability to lead one is the pinnacle of power for a Chaos Space Marine. The effects a Black Crusade can have on a sector of space is devastating, especially in the Imperium Nihilus, cut off from the light of the Astronomicon and ripe for raids dispatched from the Cicatrix Maledictum.  

Many Chaos Space Marine Warlords have led their own Black Crusades, carving out a path of death and corruption in their wake and each costing the Imperium dearly to repel. The most famous and notable Black Crusades, and the ones which we will be exploring in this series, are the Black Crusades led by the Warmaster of Chaos and master of the Black Legion: Abaddon the Despoiler.    

Abaddon’s Black Crusades

Credit; Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

The Black Crusades led by Abaddon have gone through a good bit of development over the years, but the basic stuff is there from the jump. Second Edition’s Codex: Chaos establishes that Abaddon has led twelve different Black Crusades against the Imperium, with each one sending the Imperium reeling. Some of these attacks are massive invasions, composed of cultists, daemons, beastmen and Astartes. Others are smaller coordinated strikes, consisting of a handful of Abaddon’s most trusted warriors. Each of these twelve Black Crusades brought wanton destruction to the worlds near the Eye of Terror, weakening the defenses around the Cadian Gate, and each were driven back by the Imperium at great cost. 

The thirteenth Black Crusade, for most of Warhammer 40k’s existence, was a gigantic looming threat just around the corner. The thirteenth Black Crusade would supposedly be the proverbial “big one”, with Chaos forces in numbers not seen since the Heresy. Lucky number thirteen would be the Crusade that Abaddon would break through Cadia and bring the Imperium to its knees, or he’d die trying.

This basic narrative around the Black Crusades caused an image problem for Abaddon for a number of years. Sure, they all cost the Imperium dearly to repel, but so what? They were repelled. Abaddon’s record was 0-12. It made Abaddon look less like Warhammer’s Undertaker, and more like Warhammer’s Team Rocket.

Later publications would seek to amend this image of Saturday morning cartoon villain Abby. Rather than each crusade’s goal being nebulous, the lore of these crusades was expanded so that each one had a specific objective that Abaddon completed. The end result was the same as before: each one of these crusades aimed to weaken the Imperial defenses around the Cadian Gate and bring devastation in their wake. But now, weakening the Cadian Gate and gathering strength was the main goal, rather than a side effect of trying to break through. Each one was a knife dug in the back of the Cadian Gate, bleeding it until it would be weak enough to break completely with the final, thirteenth blow.     

The First Black Crusade

Credit: Games Workshop

Before Abaddon led his fleet out of the Eye for the first time, the wider Imperium had largely forgotten the threat of the traitor legions. The High Lords of Terra assumed that once the traitor legions fled into the eye, there would be unable to escape it. They were still alive, sure, but the traitors were stuck in the hellscape that is the warp. They may as well have been dead. 

One man hadn’t forgotten the traitors. His soul burned with vengeance, white hot in his chest almost a thousand years after the end of the Heresy. That man was Sigismund, the first High Marshall of the Black Templars. Sigismund flew his fleet to the edge of the Eye of Terror, and there he waited for the traitors to return. He waited for Abaddon to return. Sigismund knew Abaddon was full of the same hatred that he was, and it would only be a matter of time before Abaddon returned to finish what Horus started.

Sigismund was absolutely right, too. Abaddon’s eternal enmity, that need for revenge that consumed him whole, was the very thing that helped him create the Black Legion from the ashes of his former Legion, and it would ignite the long war to destroy the Imperium. It’s fitting that these two should meet when the Black Legion fleet burst forth from the eye. Sigismund and Abaddon were reflections of one another, their duel was fated.

Sigismund was one of the most skilled Astartes fighters to ever exist, but he was old now. The centuries had slowed him down. Meanwhile the time-warping properties of the warp had kept Abaddon in top physical condition. Abaddon himself knew he couldn’t beat Sigismund in his prime, but now he was gaining an upper hand in the fight. In a last ditch effort to strike Abaddon down, Sigismund hurled himself at Abaddon, running his legendary Black Sword through Abaddon’s chest. It was a reckless move, and Sigismund paid dearly for it when Abaddon bisected Sigismund with the Talon of Horus. 

Even though Sigismund had been cut in half, he made sure to get some of the hardest dying words ever. With his last breaths, Sigismund cursed Abaddon, “You will die as your weakling father died. Soulless. Honourless. Weeping. Ashamed.”

Credit: Games Workshop

While Abaddon had won, he was nearly killed by Sigismund’s gambit; but this was the least of his concerns. As the Black Legion fleet broke into realspace, it was followed by the fleet of a rival Chaos Lord Thagus Daravek. Daravek intended to destroy the Black Legion there and claim the title of Warmaster, and now stuck between the Templars and Daravek’s forces the Legion’s fleet had to scatter to survive. Daravek was defeated, and Abaddon’s ascendance to power made clear, but any hopes of a singular, organized assault on the Imperium was dashed. 

Even so, the Black Legion was triumphant. In the aftermath of the breakout, Abaddon respected Sigismund too much to desecrate the fallen champion’s body. Rather, he had it sent back to the Imperium, with a declaration of war etched onto Sigismund’s Black Blade: We Are Returned


With the first Black Crusade underway, the forces of the Black Legion would bring chaos and destruction to the Segmentum Obscurus for years before retreating back to the Eye to regroup. Before he did though, Abaddon would claim one of the most powerful weapons in the galaxy: Drach’nyen.

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Drach’nyen is a powerful daemon born from the first murder, and despite being associated with an act of bloodshed it isn’t beholden to any of the Chaos gods. While Khorne is associated with wanton violence and bloodshed, Drach’nyen is given power by the evil intentions, suffering, and malice of taking another’s life. Drach’nyen would stalk the warp for untold millennia, growing stronger and more conniving with each day. 

Drach’nyen would eventually become fixated on killing the Emperor of Mankind. The Daemon would confront the Emperor in the Webway, while the Master of Mankind was at work on his Webway project. Drach’nyen terrorized the Custodes and Sisters of Silence he found there, before eventually facing the Emperor himself. Drach’nyen was too powerful for the Emperor to banish outright, instead he was forced to transform Drach’nyen to take the form of a blade after Drach’nyen wounded the Emperor. Then, the Emperor plunged the blade into one of his trusted Custodian Guard, avoiding his servant’s vital organs, and commanded him to flee. The Custodian disappeared into the Webway, and from there Drach’nyen was presumed lost, now trapped in the form of a sword.

Centuries later, as Abaddon gained strength in the Eye and built his Black Legion, he began to hear whispers from Drach’nyen, compelling the Warmaster to seek it out and promising him even greater power. So, when Abaddon launched his first Black crusade, his goal wasn’t just to declare war on mankind: it was also to find Drach’nyen and take the daemon blade for himself. 

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

While the Black Legion terrorized the worlds near the Eye, Abaddon advanced his own ambitions. The Warmaster had been hearing whispers from Drach’nyen in his mind, beckoning him to find the lost blade. In pursuit of Drach’nyen, Abaddon assembled his finest and most trusted warriors and made a pact with mysterious warp entities to guide him to it’s hidden resting place. The influx of souls sent to the warp by the carnage of his Black Legion’s crusade was payment enough for the warp entities, who guided Abaddon to the Tower of Silence, a mysterious labyrinth in the world of Uralan.  

The Tower itself was filled with malignant constructs of dark energy that fell upon Abaddon and his men almost immediately. Fighting through these forces offered no reprieve, as the maze within the Tower of Silence shifted constantly, bending the laws of reality itself while ghosts of past and future whispered madness in Abaddon’s ears and assaulted his ranks. Nearing exhaustion after an untold time in the labyrinth, Abaddon was approached by a towering figure bathed in golden light. This figure brought Abaddon directly to Drach’nyen at the heart of the Tower. Upon taking the daemon blade for himself, Abaddon turned to demand the name of the golden figure that brought him there, but the figure had vanished. Abaddon and what was left of his men left the Tower behind, with the great prize of the first Black Crusade in the hands of the Warmaster of Chaos. 

Next Time: The Black Crusades Continue

In the next installment of this series, we will explore more of the violence let loose upon the galaxy by Abaddon in the second through the twelfth Black Crusades, including the Gothic War that would be the central conflict of Battlefleet: Gothic.

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