Download Game! Currently 190 players and visitors. Last logged in:JuggeloPeenariMerioliKlint

Library: The chasm of chaos

Books

Author: drifter
Date:Dec 23 2003

THE ROOM SHOOK. The walls and floor jarred slightly. Dust drib-
bled from the rafters. Onion-flasks full of water clinked against
each other.
   No one seemed to notice at first, except Corbec himself. He
was sprawled on the floor, and he could feel the flagstones stir-
ring under his palms and fingertips.
   He looked up, but none of the Infardi had felt it. They were
too busy with Yael. The boy was dead now; for that much
Corbec was thankful, though it meant it would soon be his own
turn on the bench. But the Infardi were still finishing their ritu-
al butchery, adorning the corpse with shunned symbols while
they muttered verses from polluted texts.
   The room shook again. The bottles clinked. More dust trick-
led down.
   Despite the gravity of his situation, perhaps even because of
it, Colm Corbec smiled.
   A shadow fell across him.
   `Why do you smile?' Pater Sin asked.
   `Death's coming,' Corbec replied, spitting a wad of bloody
saliva into the floor dust.
   `Do you welcome it?' Sin's voice was low, almost breathless.
Corbec saw that Sin's metal teeth were so sharp they cut the
inside of the bastard's own lips.
   `I welcome death all right,' Corbec said. He sat up slightly.
`Takes me away from you for one thing. But I'm smiling 'cause
it's not coming for me.'
   The room shook again. Pater Sin felt it and looked around.
His men stopped what they were doing. With curt words and
gestures, Sin sent three of them hurrying from the room to
investigate.
   Corbec didn't need anyone to tell him what it was. He'd been
close to enough mechanised assaults in his time to know the
signs. The hard shocks of shells falling, the background vibra-
tion of heavy armour...
   The room shook yet again, and this time there was a triple-
peal of noise loud enough to be clearly identified as explosions.
The Infardi were gathering up their weapons. Sin stalked over to
one man who had a light vox unit and exchanged calls with
other Infardi units.
   By then, the shaking and the sound of the explosions was a
constant background noise.
   Sin looked over at Corbec.
   `I expected this, sooner or later. You presume it's taken me by
surprise, but in fact it's precisely what I...'
   He paused, as if unwilling to give away secrets even to a half-
dead old foot-slogger.
   Sin made several guttural noises B Corbec decided they must
be command words in the Infardi's private combat-code B and
the gunmen made ready to leave en masse. Four of them
grabbed Corbec and dragged him up with them. Pain flared
through his torso, but he bit his lip.
   His captors pulled and shoved him along dirty hallways and
across an open courtyard behind the main body of the Infardi
gunmen. In the yard, the sunlight was harsh and painful to
Corbec, and the open air brought the sounds of the Imperial
assault to him with greater clarity: the overlapping, meaty
thump of explosions, the swooping air-rush of shells, the clank-
ing grind of tracks, the slithering collapses of masonry.
   Corbec found himself almost hopping along, trying to favour
the foot with the boot on it. The Infardi punched and jabbed him,
cursing him. They wanted to move faster than he could go. Besides,
keeping one hand on him meant they each had only one hand free
to manage ammo satchels, lasrifles and their other accoutrements.
   They pressed on through the interior of a stonecutter's work-
shop where everything was coated thumb-deep in white stone
dust, before emerging through a set of wooden shutters into a
steep, cobbled street.
   Above, not more than two kilometres away, rose the Citadel.
It was the closest Corbec had been to the building. Its bleached
cliff edges, fringed in mauve mosses and feathery lichens, thrust
up above the skirt of roofs and towers formed by Old Town and
the eastern hill quarters of the Doctrinopolis, supporting the
ashlar-dressed pillars and temples of the holy city's royal
precincts. The monumental buildings were flesh-pink against
the blue of the sky. Sin's men must have taken him and Yael a
good way north through the Old Town.
  Looking the other way, the street swept down through the
jumbled old dwellings and massy stoneshops towards the river
plain where the Old Town started. The sky that way was a
whirling haze of black and grey smoke. Fire licked through the
town's flanks. Corbec could see series after series of shell-strikes
fan in ripples through the streets. Geysers of flame, smoke, earth
and masonry blew up into the air.
  His guards pulled at him again and forced him up the slope
of the street. Most of the other Infardi had already disappeared
into the surrounding buildings.
  The gunmen jostled him off the street, through a cast-iron
gate into a level yard where stones and tiles were stacked ready
for use. To one side, under an awning, sat three flat-pan work
barrows and some cutter's tools; to the other, a pair of heavy
old-pattern servitors that had been deactivated.
  The men pushed Corbec down on the barrows. Pater Sin reap-
peared with eight other men, moving from an inner door across
the yard, and words were exchanged.
  Corbec waited. The barrows were covered in dusty sacking.
The masons' tools were nearby: four big adzes, a worn mallet,
some chisels, a diamond-bladed trowel. Even the smaller items
were not small enough for him to conceal.
  A whistling scream shook the yard as a shell passed directly
overhead. It detonated in the neighbouring building and blew
brick chips and smoke back over them with a boneshaking roar.
Corbec pressed his head down into the sacking.
  He felt something under the sacking, reached for it.
  A heavy weight, small, about the size of a child's fist or a ripe
ploin, with a cord attached. A stonecutter's plumb-line; a hard
lead weight on the end of four metres of plaited silk string.
Trying not to let them see, he tugged it out of the sacking on the
barrow and wound it into his hand.
  Pater Sin barked some more orders to his men, and then
engaged his body-shield, effectively vanishing from view.
Corbec saw his hazy shape, crackling in the dustclouds kicked
up from the near-hit, leave the yard by the far side, accompa-
nied by all but three of the men.
  They turned back to him, approaching.
  A salvo of tank shells fell on the street around with numbing
force and noise. Luck alone had caused them to bracket the yard
or, Corbec realised, he and his captors would have been pulped.
As it was, all three Infardi were knocked over on their faces.
Corbec, who had a more experienced ear for shelling times and
distances than the cultists, had braced himself at the first whis-
tle of the incoming shells.
  He leapt up. One of the Infardi was already rising groggily,
lasrifle swinging up to cover the prisoner.
  Corbec spun the looped plumb-line in his hand quickly, let-
ting the lead soar free on the third turn. It smashed into the
gunman's left cheek with a satisfying crack and sent him tum-
bling back to the floor.
  Corbec now spun the line over his head at the full length of
its cord. He had built up enough force by the time the second
gunman jumped up that it wrapped four times around his
throat and cinched tight.
  Choking, the cultist fell, trying to get the tough, tight cord off
his throat.
  Corbec grabbed his lasrifle, and managed to roll with it and
fire off a pair of shots as the first Infardi got up again. He was
firing as he rose, the dent of the plumb-weight bruising his face.
Corbec's shots went through his chest and tossed him over on
to his back.
  Clutching his captured weapon, Corbec stood up. More shells
fell close by. He put a shot through the head of the Infardi who
was still trying to get the line off his neck.
  The third was face down, dead. The close blast had buried a
piece of tile in his skull.
  The rolling thunder of the barrage was coming closer. There
was no time to search the bodies for ammo or liberate a replace-
ment boot. Corbec figured if he headed up the Old Town hill he
could get around the side of the Citadel plateau and perhaps
stay alive. It was undoubtedly what the Infardi were doing.
  He went through the doors on the far side of the yard, in the
direction Sin had taken. He kept hopping as shards of debris
dug into the sole of his unprotected foot. He passed down a
tiled hallway where the force of the blasts had brought the win-
dows and blinds in, then on into a bay area where iron scaf-
folding was stored near to a loading ramp.
   Between the beat of explosions, close and distant, he heard
voices. Corbec crouched and peered through the loading area.
The outer doors, tall and old and wooden, had been levered
open, and a pair of eight-wheel cargo trucks had been backed
in. Infardi, about a dozen of them, were loading sheet-wrapped
objects and wooden crates into the rear of the vehicles.
   There was no sign of Pater Sin.
   Corbec checked the power-load of his appropriated weapon.
Over three-quarters yield.
   Enough to make them sit up and take notice at least.
THE BURNING STREETS were alive. Humans, locals, fleeing from
their devastated homes and hiding places with bundles of pos-
sessions, driving thin, scared livestock before them.
   And vermin... tides of vermin... pouring out of the inferno,
sweeping down the hill streets of Old Town towards the river.
   Kolea's team moved against the tide.
   Chasing uphill at a run, with rebreather masks buckled over
their faces to shut out the searing smoke, they tried to head
away from the blast front of the encroaching armour brigade
while steering a path towards the masons' district.
   Now and then, shells fell so close they were all thrown off
their feet by the shockwaves. Torched dwellings collapsed across
streets to block their route. In places, they waded through living
streams of rodents, guard-issue boots crunching on squirming
bodies.
   The eight Ghosts sprinted across another street junction,
wafer-shreds of ash billowing around them, and took shelter in
a leather worker's shop. It had been gutted by shells, just an
empty ruin.
   Dorden pulled off his rebreather and started coughing. By his
side, Trooper Mkvenner rolled onto his side and tried to pull a
shard of hot glass shrapnel out of his thigh.
   `Let me see to it,' Dorden coughed. He used his medicae kit
tweezers to tug the sliver out and washed the deep cut with anti-
septic from a spray bottle.
   Dorden sat back, mopping his brow.
   `Thanks, doc,' whispered Mkvenner. `You okay?'
  Dorden nodded the question away. He felt half-cooked, wilt-
ed, choked. He couldn't draw breath properly. The heat from
the burning buildings all around was like an oven.
  By an exploded doorway in the far wall, Kolea and Sergeant
Haller looked out.
  `It's clear that way,' Kolea muttered, pointing.
  `For now,' Haller conceded. He waved up troopers Garond and
Cuu and sent them dashing over to secure the premises next door.
  Dorden noted that Haller, a Verghastite recruit himself, and a
veteran of the Vervun Primary regiment, favoured the troops he
knew from his homeworld: Garond and Cuu, both Verghastites.
  Haller was a cautious soul. Dorden felt the sergeant sometimes
had too much respect for the heroic Tanith to give them orders.
  The old medic eyed the other members of the squad:
Mkvenner, Wheln, Domor and Rafflan, the other Tanith men.
Harjeon was the only other Vervunhiver. A small, blond man
with a wispy moustache, Harjeon cowered in the shelled out
corner of the premises.
  Dorden noted he could see a pecking order now. Kolea's in
charge, and he's a war hero, so no one argues. Haller's ex-hive
military, and so's Garond. Cuu... well, he's a law unto himself,
an ex-ganger from the lowest hive levels, but no one doubts his
mettle or his fighting smarts.
  Harjeon... An ex-civilian. Dorden wasn't sure what Harjeon's
calling had been in pre-guard life. A tailor? A teacher? Whatever,
he rated lowest of all.
  If they ever got out of this alive, Dorden knew he'd have to
talk to Gaunt about evening up the prejudices that the new
influx brought with them.
  Volcanically, shells splashed down across the end of the street.
They were showered with debris.
  `Let's move!' Haller cried and took off after Cuu and Garond.
Kolea waited, waving Harjeon and the Tanith past.
  Dorden reached the doorway, and looked at Kolea as he
adjusted his rebreather mask.
  `We really should go back...' he began.
  `Into that, doctor?' Kolea asked, gesturing back at the
firestorm that boiled up through Old Town after them.
  `We're out of options, I'm afraid,' Kolea said. `Just to stay alive,
we've got to keep ahead of the shells. So we might as well keep
on and see if we can find Corbec.'
  They ran through a wall of heat into the next ruin. Dorden
saw the bare skin on his wrists and forearms was blistering in
the crisping air.
  They darted into the next building. It was remarkably intact
and the air within mercifully cool. From the window, Dorden
watched as shells slammed down close by. The building across
the street seemed to shunt sideways, whole and complete,
before disintegrating.
  `Close, huh, Tanith?'
  Dorden glanced round and met the eyes of Trooper Cuu.
  Trooper Cuu. Lijah Cuu. Something of a legend already in the
regiment. Just under two metres, slim, corded with muscle. Lean
with a face like a bad lie. That's how Corbec had described him.
  Cuu had been a ganger in Vervunhive before the war. Some
said he'd killed more men in gang fights than he had in battle.
He was tattooed extensively, and sold his ability with ink and
needle to appreciative Verghastites. A long scar split his face top
to bottom.
  Trooper Cuu called everyone `Tanith', like it was a scornful insult.
  `Close enough for me,' Dorden said.
  Cuu flexed around and checked over his lasrifle. His move-
ments were feline and quick, Dorden thought. A cat, that's just
what he is. A scarred and ragged tomcat. Even down to his chilly
green eyes. Dorden had spent the last odd years in the compa-
ny of exceptionally dangerous men. Rawne, that ruthless
snake... Feygor, a soulless killer... but Cuu...
  A casebook sociopath, if ever he'd seen one. The man had
made a life of gang-fights and blade-wars long before the cru-
sade had come along to legitimise his talents. Just being close to
Cuu with his vivid tattoo gang marks and cold, lifeless eyes
made Dorden uneasy.
  `What's the matter, doc? Got no stomach for it?' Cuu chuck-
led, sensing Dorden's unease. `Better you stayed at your nice safe
aid station, huh?'
  `Absolutely,' Dorden said and moved across to a place
between Rafflan and Domor.
  Trooper Domor had lost his eyes on Menazoid Epsilon,
and augmetic surgeons had rebuilt his face around a pair of
military gauge optic sensors. The Tanith men called him
`Shoggy', after the bug-eyed amphibian they decided he now
resembled.
  Dorden knew Domor well, and counted him a friend. He
knew that Domor's implants could read heat and movement
through stone walls and brick facades.
  `You see much?'
  `It's all empty ahead,' Domor replied, the milled focus rings of
his implants whirring as they moved around on automatic.
`Kolea should put me up front. Me and Mkvenner.'
  Dorden nodded. Mkvenner was one of the Tanith's elite scout
troopers, trained by the infamous Mkoll himself. Between his
senses and Domor's augmetic sight, they could be moving
ahead with a great deal more confidence.
  Dorden decided to speak to Kolea and Haller about it. He
moved forward towards the bulky shape of the big miner and
the lean figure of Haller, who still wore his spiked Vervun
Primary helmet as part of his battledress.
  A shockwave threw him off his feet into the far wall. Plaster
smashed and slid away as he hit it.
  For a fleeting, peaceful second, he saw his wife, and his
daughter, long gone with Tanith itself and his son Mikal, dead
these last few months on Verghast far away...
  Mikal smiled, and detached himself from the embrace of his
sister and his mother. He stepped towards his father.
  `Sabbat Martyr,' he said.
  `What?' Dorden replied. His mouth and nose were full of
blood and he couldn't talk clearly. The joy and pain of seeing
his son was making him cry. `What did you say?'
  `Sabbat Martyr. Don't die, dad. It's not your time.'
  `Mikal, I...'
  `Doc! Doc!'
  Dorden opened his eyes. Pain shuddered through his waking
body. He couldn't see.
  `Oh feth,' he gurgled, blood filling his mouth.
  Rough hands yanked his mask off and he heard liquid patter-
ing on the rubble. He blinked.
  Wheln and Haller were bent over him, anxious looks on their
faces. `W-what?' Dorden mumbled.
  `Thought you were fething dead!' Wheln cried.
  They helped him sit up. Dorden wiped his face and saw his
hand came away bloody. He checked his face and realised his
nose was streaming blood. The nosebleed had filled his mask
and blinded his eye-slits.
  `Feth!' he snarled, getting up. His head swam and he sat back.
  `Who did we lose?' he asked.
  `No one,' Haller said.
  Dorden looked around. The shell had taken out the west wall
of the building, but all his comrades were intact: Kolea, Cuu,
Garond, Rafflan, Mkvenner, Harjeon.
  `Charmed lives,' said Cuu with a chuckle.
  With the help of Wheln and Haller, Dorden got to his feet. He
felt like the spirit had been blasted out of him.
  `You all right?' Kolea asked.
  Dorden spat clotted blood and wiped his face. `Just dandy,' he
said. `If we're going, let's just go, right?'
  Kolea nodded, and signalled the party to their feet.
  Firestorms were ripping down both sides of the street by
them, and further shells were adding to the inferno. Behind the
dwelling, they found that the shell had blown open a water-
course gurgling below street level in a brick defile.
  Kolea and Mkvenner leapt down into it. The brackish water,
perhaps an ancient tributary of the holy river, surged around
their boots.
  Dorden followed them down. It was cooler here, and the
moving water seemed to wash away the thick smoke.
  `Let's move along it,' Kolea suggested. No one argued.
  In a tight line, the seven Ghosts tracked up the watercourse
through the fires.
  They'd gone no more than a hundred metres when Trooper
Cuu suddenly held up his hand. The crude tats of a skull and
crossbones marked his knuckles.
  `Hear that?' he asked. `Las fire!'
CORBEC'S SHOTS TORE through the loading bay. Two Infardi were
slammed back off the side of one of the trucks. Another top-
pled, dropping the crate he had been carrying.
  They started firing back almost immediately, pulling hand-
guns from their sashes or grabbing the lasrifles leaning up
against the wall. Glittering laser fire and whining hard rounds
hammered into the stacked scaffolding around Corbec.
  He didn't flinch. Kicking over a stack of scaffolding, he ran
down the length of the bay's side wall, firing from the hip.
Another Infardi clutched his throat, fell on his back and
slithered off the bed of one of the trucks.
  A bullet creased his tricep. A las-round tore through the thigh
pocket of his combat pants.
  He threw himself into cover behind an archway pillar.
  It went unpleasantly quiet. Gunsmoke and the coppery stink
of las discharge filled the air.
  Corbec lay still, trying to slow his breathing. He could hear
them moving around.
  An Infardi came around the pillar and Corbec shot him through
the face. A torrent of shots poured in his direction and the Tanith
colonel started to crawl on his hands and knees down the stone
passage. The wood-panelled walls above began to splinter and
shred into the air as solid and energy rounds rained into them.
  There was a doorway to his left. He rolled across into it, and
got up. His hands were shaking. His chest hurt so much he
could barely think any longer.
  The room was an office of some sort. There were book cases
and a large clerical desk lined with pigeon holes. Sheets of paper
coated the floor, some fluttering in the breeze from the small,
broken window high in the end wall.
  There was no way out. The window was about large enough
for him to stick his arm out of and that was it.
  `Feth me..' Corbec murmured to himself, wiping a hand
through his matted beard. He hunched down behind the heavy
desk and laid the barrel of his weapon over the desktop, point-
ing at the doorway.
  The gun's power cell was all but a quarter spent now. It was an
old, battered Imperial issue job, with an L-shaped piece of metal
brace welded on in place of the original stock. The makeshift
brace jutted into his collarbone, but he aimed up as best he
could, remembering all the things Larkin had taught him about
spot shooting.
  A figure in green silk darted across the door mouth, too fast
for Corbec to hit. His wasted shot smacked into the far wall.
Another swung round into the doorway, firing on auto with a
small calibre machine pistol. The spray of bullets went high
over Corbec's head and destroyed a bookshelf. Corbec put a sin-
gle round into the Infardi's chest and threw him back out of
sight.
  `You messed with the wrong man, you bastards!' he yelled.
`You should have finished me when you had the chance! I'm
gonna take the head off anyone who comes through that door!'
  I just hope they don't have grenades, he thought.
  Another Infardi ducked in, fired twice with his lasgun and
jumped back out. Not fast enough. Corbec's shot didn't kill him
but it went through his arm. He could hear whimpering outside.
  Now a lasgun came around the doorframe, held out blind
and firing. Two shots hit the desk hard enough to jerk it back
against him. He shot back and the gun disappeared.
  Now he could smell something. An intense chemical stink.
  Liquid promethium.
  They had a flamer out there.
GOL KOLEA SNAPPED his fingers and made three quick gestures.
  Mkvenner, Harjeon and Haller sprinted forward to the left,
down the side of the stonemason's shop. Domor, Rafflan and
Garond ran right, around to the gaping entrance of the loading
bay that opened onto the narrow back street. Cuu headed for-
ward, jumped up onto a rainwater tank and from there swung
up onto the sloping roof.
  With Dorden at his heels, Kolea moved after them. The chat-
ter of las and solid firing from inside the buildings was audible
over the roar of the advancing tank assault down the hill behind
them.
  Domor, Rafflan and Garond rushed the bay doors, firing tight
bursts. They came in on half a dozen Infardi who turned in
abject surprise to meet their deaths.
  Mkvenner, Harjeon and Haller kicked in big leaded windows
and fired into the bay, cutting down a trio of Infardi who were
running back through, alerted by the sudden firing.
  Cuu shot in a skylight and began picking off targets below.
  Kolea went in through a side door, firing twice to drop an
Infardi trying to flee that way.
  Dorden watched the Ghosts at work with awe. It was a stun-
ning display of precision tactics, exactly the sort of work that the
Tanith First-and-Only was famous for.
  Caught from several angles at once, the enemy panicked and
started to die.
  One of the trucks spluttered into life and spun its heavy
wheels as it started to speed out of the bay. Domor and Rafflan
were in its way, and stood their ground, firing their lasguns from
the shoulder, peppering the cab. Garond, to the side, raked the
vehicle as it ran past.
  Sharp-edged punctures stung the cab's metalwork. The
windows shattered. It veered drunkenly, smashing a crate
waiting to be stacked and rolling over the sprawled corpses of
two Infardi with nauseating crunches.
  At the last moment, Rafflan and Domor dived aside. The truck
sped right across the back alley and battered nose-first into the
opposite wall, which caved in around it.
  Rafflan and Domor advanced into the bay, joining up with
Garond and then with Kolea and Dorden. The soldiers formed
a straggled knot, firing safety shots into corners where the col-
lecting weapon-smoke blocked vision.
  Dorden felt his pulse racing. He felt exposed, and more, he
felt elated. To be part of this. Killing was misery and war was a
bestial waste, but glory and valour... they were something else.
Pleasures so intense and so fundamentally contiguous with the
horrors he abominated, they made him feel guilty to cherish
them. At times like this, he understood why mankind made war,
and why it celebrated its warriors above all others. At times like
this he could understand Gaunt himself. To see well-trained
men like Kolea's squad take down a significantly larger force
with discipline, skill and daring...
  `Check the other vehicle,' Kolea snapped, and Rafflan turned
aside to do so. Domor went ahead and covered the corner into
a short passageway.
  `Flamer!' he cried, leaping back, and a moment later fire gout-
ed out of the passageway mouth.
  Kolea pushed Dorden into cover and keyed his microbead.
  `Haller?'
  `Inside, sir! We're coming at you from the east. A little light
opposition.' From the bay they could all hear the las
exchanges.
  `Go slow: we've got a flamer.'
  `Understood.'
  `I can get him, sure as sure,' Cuu's voice crackled.
  `Do it,' Kolea instructed.
  Trooper Cuu moved across the shop roof and swung his
lithe body down through a gap between broken shutters. He
could see the Infardi with the flamer now, cowering in a
passageway outside some kind of office with two other gun-
men.
  Cuu could smell the sweet promethium reek.
  From thirty metres, he put a las round through the flamer
operator's skull, then picked off the other two as they stumbled
up in alarm.
  `Clear!' he reported, gleefully. He crept forward.
  `Who's out there?' a hoarse voice called from the office.
  `That you, colonel?'
  `Who's that? Lillo?'
  `Nah, it's Cuu.'
  `Is it clear?'
  `Clear as clear.'
  Corbec limped cautiously out of the doorway, gun raised,
glancing around.
  `Gak, ain't you a mess, Tanith,' smiled Cuu. He flicked open
his bead. `I found Colonel Corbec. Do I win a prize?'


Books