Colonel Aldo Tercius could smell blood.
Literally too of course. After all, the men and women of the 9th Iron Guards Regiment had been engaged at Cold Heights all morning. But this was the blood a predator could sense when a prey was wounded.
The PDF were falling back with the enemy close on their heels. The victorious rebels were shouting and cheering incoherently. There were thousands of them. Tercius was unmoved. He had assigned his fourth and fifth battalion to prepare a fallback position. His remaining three battalions had entrenched in a strong position with good fields of fire.
The chaotic rabble (Tercius could find no other word to describe their formation) was following the fleeing PDF into the 9th’s prepared position. Into the lion’s den, thought Tercius. It was rebel blood he could smell.
He didn’t feel sorry for them. Under normal circumstances he had qualms about shooting civilians, even when armed. But these men and women had betrayed the Imperium. And after he had seen the crucified corpses of captives carried into battle, he was prepared to execute every last one of these scum himself. The PDF troopers had claimed that the enemy host was led by Astartes in dark red plate. This might confirm the incredulous message StatCom had received through the Warmaster’s envoy. A mutiny among the Astartes on a planet somewhere. Could this be related?
Tercius signaled his adjutant, who in turn spoke a single command into his comm. The trap was sprung. Concealed units of the 9th opened fire by companies. The result was devastating. The rebel vanguard staggered back under the withering punishment, men and women fell by the hundreds. Then thousands.
The fire discipline of his troops impressed Tercius. For a moment he had actually allowed himself to doubt the outcome of this day. But the rebel mob was wavering. Even though there seemed to be immense pressure from behind, they were unable to advance. The fire was too strong. They were shaken. All they needed was a stern push.
“They are close to breaking, pour it into them, boys! And unfurl those colors, dammit, let the bastards know who’s killing them.”
On his command, Tercius could see the battalions raise the banners of the 9th and the battlecry from his men could be heard above the horrible concert of war. “Glory to the 9th!” No need for secrecy now.
The enemy broke. What was left of their front ranks fled back through the surging crowd, creating a domino effect and soon the whole mob was running. The ground behind them was littered with dead or wounded.
Tercius could see an excellent opportunity to turn it into a complete rout. “Push on, men. Push on!” he shouted, knowing that none of them could hear him over the battle, but his excitement got the better of him. His adjutant had to gently tug at his commander’s coat to stop him from running down on the field himself, sword in hand.
But second battalion was already out of their positions. Their commander was eager for glory. The unit had fixed bayonets and was beginning to drive the enemy into the next trap.
Tercius made a mental note of the officer’s initiative. He’d make a fine regimental commander one day. But for now, they needed to destroy the enemy on the field, and Tercius urged his subordinate onwards “That’s a good man, Persinus. Give ‘em the cold steel!”
Second battalion successfully drove a large part of the mob into the firing range of first battalion. It was like an execution. First battalion waited patiently until the enemy was only three hundred yards away, then they stood up as one, and delivered a devastating volley into the panicked crowd. The mob screamed. Tercius could swear it almost sounded like a scream of pleasure. Wicked souls, these. Third battalion completed the trap by double-timing up on the side and sending flanking fire into the remains of the rebels.
“Lieutenant, on me.” Tercius ordered, and his command staff went forward. The ground ahead of them was covered with bodies. So many wounded it seemed as if the ground was crawling. Tercius figured he could make it all the way up the line by stepping on corpses. PDF troopers followed behind, finishing off the wounded.
As his battalions fell into new positions, the troopers hastily began erecting fortifications with whatever debris they could find. First and second battalion secured the nearby high ground and third battalion took up a flanking position in a sunken road. That would provide good cover from enemy fire. The enemy was mostly armed with knives or other improvised close combat weapons, but the 9th were hardened professionals. They had learned the hard way to dig in whenever they made a stop.
Through his binoculars, Tercius could see the enemy regrouping for another assault. What he wouldn’t give to have the Damascene Siege Artillery at his side right now. But no matter, they would have to do it the hard way. There appeared to be large figures leading them this time.
Tercius suddenly turned pale. Those figures were Astartes. Astartes leading an assault on his men? Unthinkable. Apparently the PDF had been right.
Then the ground shook.
Tercius adjusted his binoculars and scanned the enemy ranks. There was an odd shadow in the battle smoke that hung over the field. A moving shadow. Massive.
“Titan!” his adjutant yelled.
Tercius turned “Excuse me, Lieutenant?”
“The call came in over the comm, sir. First battalion has got a visual…” The adjutant trailed off as he received another message in his earpiece. “Scout class, sir. Warhound. Marked as… Legio Fulminata, off of Volscia, sir.”
Astartes and Titans among the rebels? Now he really wished he had the Damascene Siege Artillery alongside him.
The enemy host surged forward once more. The Astartes were leading the charge. Bolter fire tore into his positions but his men responded with a cool and steady counter fire. One of the large figures went tumbling down.
But his men were hard pressed. The Astartes among the enemies took life with every shot. The enemy host was now well within range of third battalion’s flanking fire, but nothing happened.
Tercius turned to his adjutant as a bolt whizzed by his ear, “Where is my enfilading fire? Lieutenant? "
“I’m trying to get through to third, sir.” his aide responded.
Tercius could feel the pressure. The companies of first battalion, those closest to the enemy were pulling out of their exposed positions.
“Lieutenant! Why is it that when I look through my binocul-ARSE all I can still see what looks like the entire third battalion lying down in the sunken road. Why aren’t they firing? Are they dead? If those sissies have already died on me, I’ll go to Vindolanda and strangle their mothers. Get me Westi on the comm so I can kick his arse.”
His adjutant was apologetic, “Sir, beg to report, Lieutenant Colonel Westi is dead, sir. Shot in the head. Captain Sesthes have assumed command.”
The enemy Titan emerged from the smoke. The spectacle caused the otherwise steady fire from the 9th to slacken for a moment. Then the Titan opened fire with a roar. Seeing the murderous Mega Bolter tear through his companies like a scythe, Tercius knew they had to fall back. No way could they fight this monster with small arms.
He snatched the comm from his adjutant’s hand with a heavy heart, “All units, this is colonel Tercius, fall back by companies to the second line. Commanders, remember to provide covering fire. Glory to the 9th!”
He needn’t have bothered. Even before his commanders had a chance to respond, their units were already falling back. They weren’t broken, it was a fighting retreat. But the experienced troopers could recognize impossible odds when they faced them.
It was doubtful that they could hold the second line. Or even the third. This might turn in to a full blown rout, and what a pitiful end to such a proud regiment that would be.
Tercius looked to the sky. Anger steadily built up inside him.
…Where was his reinforcements?
A vapor trail across the sky betrayed an incoming craft. It was fast. Dropship most likely…
But were they friend or foe?