The Eth Hound’s eyeless face erupted in a shower of blood and bone fragments as the burst of ten millimet rounds from Lieutenant Bate’s assault rifle blew apart its skull. The creature’s plated, canine-like body crumpled and splashed headlong into the pools of mud in the trench, where it thrashed and clawed aimlessly at the ground as it expired.

Almost instantly, another one of the beasts leaped over the twitching corpse and lunged toward Bates, its silvery teeth and claws flashing in the darkness. Bates fell back and emptied the remaining rounds in his magazine, riddling the creature with armor piercing projectiles. Carried on by its own momentum, the Hound rammed into Bate’s chest, slamming him to the ground. Even mortally wounded, the beast continued to attack—its deadly magic-infused claws ripping and gouging at Bate’s body armor as its mouth full of jagged teeth snapped furiously just a few centimets from his face. The high-pitched trill of its bizarre magical sonar combined with its fetid breath was nauseating.

Finally Bates managed to curl his legs under the monster and kick it away. He scrambled backwards, sloshing through the muck as he fumbled for another magazine. The Eth Hound landed awkwardly a few mets away and instantly twisted back to its feet and charged, determined to finish Bates off. Before it made even two strides the creature was thrown back by a hail of bullets.

Bates looked up as a fellow soldier charged past him down the trench and laid a kick into the still shuddering carcass. Another helped Bates to his feet.

“You okay, Sir?” asked the second soldier, who was bleeding from a hastily bandaged wound to his arm. The other fired a short final burst into the twitching body of the dying Hound and spit on it for good measure before walking over to join them. Rain soaked and caked with mud, both men looked as they’d been through hell itself.

“I’m good. Thanks for the assist,” Bates nodded toward the pair of dead Hounds.

“Orders Sir?” the wounded soldier asked, his voice wavering slightly.

Before Bates could answer, a loud shriek from overhead snapped their attention upward. All three men pressed against the walls of the trench and watched as a netherdragon flew overhead, its black eyes surveying the battlefield below. It passed by without attacking, no doubt scouting for troops that would not be far behind.

Bates looked at his haggard men. They’d been fighting this most recent Imperium onslaught for days now without respite. Despite their tenacity, he could see in their eyes that there just wasn’t much fight left in them.

He glanced back toward walls of Galas, just a few short kilomets east, behind the lines. The city’s luminescent magical dome cast a pale greenish glow against the roiling clouds above. Streams of flak fire arced down from the walls, licking at the tails of the dozen or so netherdragons that strafed back and forth over the field, laying waste to the hapless troops below with magic or their icy breath. The situation was getting bad. His unit had lost over a kilomet of ground in the past two days. Without relief, they were going to lose this flank, giving the Imps a clear path right up to the walls.

Explosions, screams, and the snapping of gunfire indicated that the enemy was again assaulting trench line a couple of hundred mets to the North. Bates hastily wiped the muddy water from his face and reloaded his rifle, blowing the moisture out of the breech before inserting a fresh magazine.

“This is Galas!” he snarled, “By Eorelli’s grace, we’re not gonna let these bastards take it.” He started down the trench in the direction of the fighting. As the men fell in behind him, Bates glanced to the sky and muttered a quiet prayer to Eorelli for that relief to come soon.

As he did so, a green-hued flash of light in the western sky caught his attention. He stopped and grabbed his binoculars. Blinking away the rain he put the glasses to his eyes and focused in on the three quadrangular panes of light in the distant sky. Translocation gateways. For a brief moment, Bate’s heart filled with hope that his prayer had been answered. But as the lead skycruiser passed through the gate, his hopes were utterly dashed.

Illuminated by the halo of etheric lightning coruscating around the perimeter of the gateway, the unmistakeable, blackened hull of the Imperial skycruiser ISS Talon soared onto the battlefield. Flanked by a pair of smaller escorts, the titanic battleship hovered silently in the soft orange glow of the fires on the ground below, surveying the battlefield like some arrogant gladiator gloating over its pathetic foes.

Bates lowered the binoculars, staggered back against the side of the trench, and stared dejectedly up at the Imperial Angel of Death as it crept across the sky, slowly bringing its monstrous batteries to bear on the walls of his beloved city.

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