Return to Isstvan – Justaerin Army Showcase & Postmortem

Return to Isstvan – Justaerin Army

Justaerin Army

April 2020. The height of quarantine boredom. Saul Tarvitz is released and a member of our gaming group mentions something about always wanting to do an Emperors Children army.

How great were the older black books?

Always wanted to play through the scenarios.

We should do it. We should totally open a bar!… ahem I mean, we should totally do Istvaan iii.

Thus #returntoisstvan was born. 

This project was a chance to celebrate the Horus Heresy series, which celebrates its 10 year anniversary in 2022. But incidentally, it also helped me escape reality.  

March 2020 and the Prime Minister appears on TV and uses phrases like ‘mandatory lock down’ and ‘pandemic. There’s a note of unreality about it all, even reflecting on the memory. Did that really happen? 

Lock down gives us the chance to knock out an army right? To pursue our pleasures The problem with living through a pandemic is that it’s quite traumatic. It doesn’t leave much room for fun! I’ve had friends lose jobs, become sick… hell, I still suffer from long-term Covid symptoms. And trying to run a small business on top of all this just heaps pressure onto stress points that are unable to manage.

But I don’t mean to be too dour. And what does this have to do with Abaddon?

This hobby has been an escape from reality. A way to conceptualise and even escape the reality of the world, and this project helped a community of like-minded modellers create something. We’ve all helped each other get through the Covid crisis. The #returntoisstvan tag has spawned at least a dozen fully painted armies around the world, and there’s a charity event planned in the UK that’s already raised £1500 for diabetes research. All from dreaming about little toy soldiers.

Life is strange.

The challenge itself started quite simply: 1500pts armies drawn from the Mournival Events Centurion rule set. I won’t go into detail, but the restrictions encourage mass infantry armies to recreate the clashes we love to read about in the books. 

When considering this sort of campaign there are a few gentlemanly accords that must be reached. Firstly, how do you spell Isstvan? Somewhere out in the depths of space-time exists a style guide for Black Library. It seems that the black books and the Black Library fiction use Isstvan, rather than Istvaan – although both have been used and are correct. It’s just one is more correct than the other.

Already discord ferments amongst brothers.

Choral City operated as the capital city of Isstvan III and was the seat of Imperial Governance. It is described as an architectural masterpiece, but when we see it:

“…of the Choral City as they had known it. Every scrap of living tissue was gone, burned to atoms by the flames that roared and howled in the wake of the virus attack.

Every building was black, burned and collapsed so that Isstvan III resembled a vision of hell…

Ben Counter, Galaxy in Flames

Black, charred ruins of an industrial city, swept clean by fire. 

The Siren Hold sits within Choral City and is the seat of Imperial Governance. A product of Imperial brutalism, this concrete stronghold has familiar hallmarks of Terran architecture:

But no sight in the Choral City compared to the Sirenhold. Not even the magnificence of the palace outshone the Sirenhold, its towering walls defining the Choral City with their immensity. The brutal battlements diminished everything around them, and the sacred fortress of the Sirenhold humbled even the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. Within its walls, enormous tomb-spires reached for the skies, their walls encrusted with monumental sculptures that told the legends of Isstvan’s mythical past.

This is the location of Loken and Abaddon’s final showdown (in my mind’s eye this climactic scene looks like London’s House of Lords).

Our second location is Preceptors Palace, the seat old governance before Imperial Law:

“The Precentor’s Palace, a dizzying creation of gleaming marble blades and arches that shone in the sun, opened like a vast stone orchid to the sky and the polished granite of the city’s wealthiest districts clustered around it like worshippers.”

Ben Counter, Galaxy in Flames

It is an uncanny place, rumoured to be of alien origin.


Abaddon – 1st Captain of the Justaerin Army

I wanted a Justaerin Army. Who else could lead it? As the project progressed, logistical issues came to the fore. Forge World was closed. Everything was closed.

Initially, participants had to turn to their bots boxes to create test pieces or to their books to delve into the lore. Getting the themes straight in my head, the visuals, was so important in creating this rather bleak army. The army as a whole is dark force. The few saturated colours that exist, do so in isolation against the harsh shadows of the miniature. 

Every project is a chance to explore something new. A new paint, or a new paint range, a new technique. I’ve just come across a phrase that fits what I’ve vaguely reached for: Tenebrism.

Developed by the master Caravaggio. I’ve talked about chiaroscuro and how this style of pre-shade underpainting has affected my work, but there’s another distinct aspect to the discipline. 


An art style principally uses dark tones with stark, contrasting light. 

However, this feels like the meme version of the technique, failing to express the cultural context and the religious overtones of light and shadow. Caravaggio used light to express revelation and horror. It’s something that came through on Abaddon, using an incredibly harsh underlighting to throw Abaddon’s rage into relief.

The colour key for this project changed from my usual recipes – whether this was due to the stress of the time, or exploring a new art crush: Patrick J. Jones. I’m obsessed with his colour choices and the use of green to enhance the depth of his pieces. The skin tone for example builds from a base of English uniform and is highlighted with pastel greens. 

Caravaggio’s skin tones were also heavily on my mind as Abaddon progressed. Young, sick Bacchus in particular had a wonderful palette and luminosity. The sick hunger in the eyes was something I was keen to keep in mind as I painted this miniature. I have no idea if it translated at all, but keeping these concepts in mind find strange bedding in your work.

Abaddon as a character has changed during the course of his life. Is this the key trait to his dominance as a leader? Not his sword that can split reality in half, or a claw that murdered an angel and crippled a god: but the ability to adapt to his circumstances. He changed from a mortal to Astartes, a Luna Wolf to Son of Horus, a First Captain to Warmaster of Chaos.

This is a depiction of him at Isstvan III. Full of fury and burning righteousness in his father’s cause. First Captain of the First Legion, if not in name, then deed. At this point, he is secure in his worldview. Horus is Lord, whatever course of action he takes must be the correct one. During the course of the Heresy, we see his perception of the war change, and how he distances himself from the methods Horus employs during the siege.

Each piece of the model was glazed with green, including the skin and red shoulder pad. This helped keep the piece coherent, even if something in the hindbrain tugged against this. The magenta underglow was used as a contrast to the green used in the skin tone to help draw more attention to it.

It would be remiss of me not to praise the sculpt. Simon Egan is a mast of his trade. There are so many little details, little inflections of character that feel alive when you paint it. I’m an avowed addict of his work, and I hope I was able to partially realize his grim dark aesthetic in the paint job.

So there he is. Abaddon, Lord of the Sons of Horus. A being of endurance, vision, and change. A marker in time for the most unusual of times to have lived through.


Sons of Horus Reavers – in a Justaerin Army?

An unusual choice for a Justaerin Army, but I wanted to paint sea green. The miniatures pictured are painted in a realistic style. I wanted to make the viewer feel they had been transported into their universe. This is a top-down depiction of the Astartes mid conflict. The colours are muted, attempting to replicate the colour plates found within the Horus Heresy rule books.

Each armour plate has received a level of weathering normally reserved for characters in a force. I’m only painting 30ish models in total, so this level of detailing is something I can fit into a reasonable time frame.

I can’t shake the idea that the sons of Horus are a legion of bullies. Scratch beneath the laurels and there’s not an ounce of nobility to them, even before the heresy. Force of Will yes. Power. Yes. Unattractive traits in a human being, but for a military force that needs to conquer? 

Reaver squads epitomised the Sons of Horus Legion’s way of war. Heavily influenced by the tactics used in the incessant tribal warfare of Chthonian, Reaver units specialised in lightning-swift assaults which maimed and disabled their foes; striking down leaders, and mercilessly cutting down any who were weak or isolated.


Sons of Horus Contemptor Dreadnought

Do you remember the days when a dreadnought was a centre piece to the army? When you’d read old white dwarf articles and there would be a Sargent with a lovingly crafted banner or a captain with a head swap?

I wanted the base to tell a story. The Horus Heresy is full of these wonderful vignettes. Small, incidental stories that contextualise the models. Here I had the idea to have a legionnaire reach for a melta bomb as the dreadnought casually crushes him underfoot. I want you to question, what will kill the legionnaire first? The dreadnought, or the inch of water beneath his cracked helmet he is being forced into? Will he manage to get the melta bomb?

Justaerin Army

Close your eyes and whisper, softly, sensuously, ‘Horus Heresy’. What models float to the forefront of your mind’s eye? Justaerin. A Justaerin Army is the right answer. If that wasn’t you need to read more books…bro.

When we came to devise the #returntoisstvan project I knew I wanted a low model count army that could be painted in a reasonable time frame. Each miniature would be bespoke, an art piece in itself. This would take time. The Justaerin miniatures are some of the finest in the range and merit this level of scrutiny.

It’s easy to overlook, but open the pictures and enlarge them. Search for scratches, secondary light reflections, and other nods to the artwork found in the Black books that are both present in the sculpts and the paint job.


I don’t like the Sons of Horus. Swaggering, bullying, and utterly self obsessed. I guess you need those undesirable qualities to conquer a galaxy in less than 200 years.

The older I get the less heroic my characters become. My Blood Angel Praetor is self-sacrificing and rather handy with a blade (he has taken the head of a champion from each of the traitor legions), but he’s rather dull. Sanguinius’ geneseed aggressively overwrites the base template to such a degree that there’s not much humanity left.

Gedephron wants power. He wants the power to practice his petty spite and exercise his might over the weak on a galactic scale. Gedephron wants to put worlds to the sword, picking at some metal scab with his actions, unable to let it heal. He got this power, not through his own merit, but as is common in these regimes, through his devotion to the cause, and his proximity to power.

Is he good with a blade? He likes to think so. Is he a keen strategist? In the way that all Praetors are of this age, but a savant he is not. What lends him power is his associations. A Justaerin Army sends a message.

Painting & Modelling


The hairline was built up by mixing dark grey into the base skin mixture and carefully stippled, over and over. A lighter skin tone was added to this and stippled again. Lots of tiny, tiny little dots, built up, again and again, to create the effect.

Parts List:

  • Body & Claw: Lugft Huron (Forge World)
  • Arms: Cataphratii Praetor (Forge World)
  • Head: MK ii Command Squad (Forge World)
  • Cloak: Asterion Molech (Forge World)
  • Sword: Limited Edition Tartaros Praetor (Forge World)
  • Base (still can’t believe you didn’t get this Alex) Abaddon vs Loken Diorama. (Forge World)
  • Wolf mantle: Horus (Forge World)

So here he is. My mean, spiteful, bully of Praetor, Gedephron Merisi. Pray you never encounter him on the field… he doesn’t fight fair.

Play with your toys.

What good is a Justaerin Army if you don’t play with it? Keith from the Mournival Podcast has created an amazing tournament, reliving the events of this future atrocity. And like anything else associated with this project, it has been affected by Covid. We’ve had to push back the date to April due to the rise of Omicron in February. All proceeds are going to Diabetes Research UK, a very personal issue for Keith who lost a family member due to the condition. This is one of the largest Heresy events in the World boasting over 40 players with a waiting list! In fact it’s proven to be so successful that we are planning another event in 2023 – Return to the Black Sands! 

Events have cropped up over the world, with LVO and Adepticon running official events with local events being reported every month. Who would have thought boredom could spawn such a thing?

This entire project has been a love letter to the Heresy. It’s been a way of managing the unreal circumstances of Covid, of dealing with mundane issues, like keeping a business afloat, against the larger, societal upheaval caused by this pandemic. The community, sculptors, painters and writers have all created something special, and it’s been a privilege to be a part of.

The final word of thanks must go to someone who is no longer with us. Alan Bligh, the architect of the Heresy. We all miss you. 

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