‘They have only one purpose, and there is nothing they will not do to accomplish it, no matter how vile or loathsome it might be. These abominations mean to destroy everything proud and noble, everything we hold dear and have fought so long to achieve.’
- Inquisitor Angmar, on tyranids
It happened in slow motion.
In front of him, the keening, slavering hormagaunt, its scythe-like talons outstretched, pounced clear of the ground a full ten metres from the front of the trench and shrieked through the air towards him. Without thinking, August brought his lasrifle up and let out a long stream of panicked shots, no longer conserving his ammunition. The fundamental urge to survive the next ten seconds was far greater than any rational foresight of the coming battle.
August watched as the searing hot laser bolts lanced through the thing’s chitin armour plating, cauterising the ichor inside and exploding through its spine in clouds of purple; and with the ensuing, ear-splitting wail, suddenly, everything snapped back into focus.
In a flurry of screeching talons and claws and flesh, the dying, writing alien slammed bodily into him and knocked him off his feet. He landed hard against the duck boarding, the full weight of the gaunt landing on his chest-plate and knocking the wind from his lungs.
‘Throne!’ He gasped, rabidly battering his fists against its head whilst it thrashed above him. Its bony jaws snapped at his face, encompassing rows of needle-sharp teeth stained purple from its haemorrhaging blood vessels, and talons and claws whickered and snatched at his vulnerable body. One of the scythes dug into the wood next to his head, drawing blood from his cheek; he felt his knee pad become entangled in one of its claws and shove down the length of his leg, ending up over his ankle; a second talon slammed into his shoulder pad, raking through the thick armour and touching the duck board below.
August squirmed like a man possessed, adrenaline firing through his body and his heart punching against his sternum. Every second was drawn out into a lifetime, as he lashed out with his fists and feet, punching and kicking with all his strength, knowing that it if he could just hold on, it was only a matter of time before the alien died of its wounds.
But it was still taking too long, and his biceps were tiring. Much longer and its teeth would find his face.
In one last ditch attempt before he resigned himself to death, he closed his hands around its throat –
And recoiled sharply as his fingers pierced the skin of its neck and sank four inches into the flesh below, inadvertently yanking a clump of stringy blood vessels out with them. His hand was smothered and dripping in a green, presumably venomous fluid, and it stank worse than anything he’d smelt. Above him, the gaunt’s shrieking turned to a gurgling, and more purple ichor drooled from its mouth, mixed with the green poison.
Seconds later, it was dead.
Sweating and panting, August let his head hit the duckboards, allowing himself a brief moment of relief, before he set to work on pushing the very heavy gaunt corpse off. All around him, las fire spat and whistled through the air, and the larger chopping of heavy stubbers and autocanons boomed further down the line from sandbagged emplacements; but the chorus of screeching was dwindling, and the trench was, as far as he could see, free of gaunts – and Guardsmen.
With all the strength he could muster from his painfully fatigued arms, he shoved the corpse to the side, rolled over to grab his lasrifle, and stood up, instinctively bringing the weapon to bear.
Directly in front of him, a second screeching hormagaunt was midway through its killing-leap, all six limbs arranged to converge on his upper chest, neck and head.
‘Oh sh-’ he began, but was cut off by a hastily directed burst of stubber fire. Limbs, chitin and ichor splattered into the Lieutenant, followed by the still heavy remains of its thorax, and he hit the back of the trench once more.
‘Throne damn it!’ he shouted, wiping blood from his eyes and firing several rounds into the alien’s thoroughly dead remains. Once he had taken stock of the situation, he calmed his breathing and stood up again, weapon prone.
In front of him, Bavarians and fellow Hussars stood on the ground above and beyond the trench, having evidently counter-attacked the small advance horde. They stood in mixed, ramshackle groups where the shift-defenders had been joined by the sudden influx of troops responding to the alarms, kicking alien corpses and tending to the wounded Imperials. There were some human bodies littered about, and other lumps of flesh and gristle that he couldn’t for the life of him identify as human or xeno; but the vast majority of the dead, to his relief, were tyranids.
That wasn’t to say, he noted grimly, that there were many alien corpses. The large harvester constructs had recycled the bodies of the dead and moved back to the main horde, retaining the DNA and jellying them in vast underground pools so the genetic material could be used again. August shuddered at the thought, before he recognised his Vox Officer amongst a squad of Hussars twenty metres away.
‘Udray!’ He shouted, hoisting himself out the trench and jogging over. He reached the gaggle of men and wearily returned their salutes.
‘Let’s get some stretchers, up front.’ He nodded across to the wounded. ‘And some fresh water.’
‘Aye sir,’ the young man replied – small, grimy, wearing a pair of oversized tank commander’s sun goggles. He pulled the mouthpiece from the side of the bulky voxcaster and began making the Lieutenant’s requests.
‘You three,’ August continued, referring to the Hussars in the group, their regimental green jackets smothered in filth and blood. ‘Where’s your CO?’
They looked uneasy, before one shrugged. ‘Not sure sir,’ he said simply.
August cursed under his breath.
‘Who’s your CO?’
‘Uh, Lieutenant Cusken, sir.’
There was a brief pause while he checked the time. ‘You’re not on this watch,’
‘Find Cusken. Find out your orders. Get some water down you. Understood?’
‘Yes sir,’ all three muttered.
‘Go on. Shift.’
He watched as they walked off, left with Udray and a pair of Bavarian Rangers. Both sported thick handlebar moustaches and large, bearskin shakos, and spoke in a regional variation of Gothic that had much the same vowel sound as the Hussars’, but a softer edge to the consonants. August listened for a few seconds, before turning back to Udray.
‘Anything?’ he asked.
‘They want you back in the ops tent,’ Udray said, watching as the medics amongst the regiment appeared on the scene with stretcher bearers. August nodded.
‘Where’s the rest of the regiment?’
‘They’re all in this sector. It’s the Rangers who’ve got it wrong. They’re meant to be waaay further down, on the centre-north line.’
There was a brief pause as the Lieutenant nodded, looking out across the churned fields in front of them. Teams of Guardsmen were piling the tyranid corpses and burning them, sending plumes of stinking black smoke into the evening sky. Two weeks ago and it would have been a very different scene indeed.
‘I’ll have a word with the Captain, see if we can get our distribution sorted.’ He said after a while. In front of them, a chimera with attached dozer blades cleared the burning alien remains into one of the many craters scarring the field.
‘Come on,’ August said, turning back to the encampment.