The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 14

Dronkhar crossed his arms and grunted at Ilinnia’s back. “This idea is ridiculous.” She ignored him and continued feeding scraps of chicken to the fawning tabby.

“It is not merely ridiculous,” Sorasil added. “It is impossible.”

Ilinnia tossed them both a flat look. “It’s not impossible or ridiculous. Maion perform this ritual frequently.”

Jhellen rubbed the cat behind its ears. “There’s no risk to the animal?” he asked, clearly fascinated by the whole notion.

“None. The first time was easier than I expected. It’s even more so if the animal likes you. Don’t you, girl?” From her crouched position she half-turned and held her hand up to Dronkhar. “Ready?”

With an exasperated sigh, he took her hand. “I’m holding you responsible if I end up with a tail—”

Dronkhar’s mouth halted in mid-sentence, and his head buzzed. His vision smeared and warped like light passing through an ancient pane of glass. He felt shapeless and adrift before a warmth settled around him, solidifying his awareness.

I told you this would work.

The cat was already moving. Dronkhar saw the world rushing past at an alarming rate as it made a beeline for its home. There was the castle, and the back door into the kitchens. The cat passed by cooks and servants, often rubbing against their legs for a quick pet. It took a little prodding from Ilinnia to remind it of their destination.

The enchanter dealing in illicit goods had worn a badge from the castle. Melekar kept an office there. They needed to find it, and whatever objects he might have hidden away. Dronkhar couldn’t figure out how to form the words, but somehow Ilinnia understood anyway.

Let me try to explain to her where we need to go. Hold on.

For a while the cat didn’t move. Then it got up, stretched, and wandered down a hallway. It turned into a room and sat in the doorway.

She says she’ll get in trouble if she’s caught playing in here.

They only needed her to nose around for a little. Maybe they’d find a fish for her as a reward.

The cat didn’t seem to need any other persuasion. She rubbed herself against the underside of Melekar’s desk, explored for hidden crevices behind his curtains, and hopped into shelves and twined about their contents. In the bottom shelf of a dusty bookcase, she discovered a box to sit in, but it was occupied by something hard and awful-smelling.

Wine. A dozen or so bottles of expensive wine. And unlike the rest of the shelf, there wasn’t a speck of dust on it.

In another box next to it, the cat found something far more inviting. Rolls of dark, smooth cloth. She happily burrowed into the container and began to purr.

Expensive wine and silks, freshly delivered. Dronkhar had seen enough, and he was getting tired of being shapeless. It was time to bring this to Adarion.

The king was not pleased by the allegations they brought, but he listened with a stony expression as they explained themselves. Dronkhar relayed all that he and Jhellen had learned within the city with a soldier’s matter-of-factness. Ilinnia’s story came out more haltingly, and she kept her gaze on the floor, her nervousness plain to see. Sorasil supported her report and offered the divine concerns he had sensed. Jhellen was a statue, standing at attention with his gaze fixed on the wall. Not even the presence of Princess Alyan could distract him from his dark thoughts.

When they were finished, Adarion remained silent. Finally he turned to a man who wore the livery of his personal guard. “Captain Thrais, find Sendax. Tell I require him and five of his most senior officers. They are to report to the throne room, fully armed, immediately.” The king wrote a short note on a scrap of parchment. “And deliver this to Eolar.”

“At once, your majesty,” the guard captain replied. “Shall I escort your children to safe quarters as well?”

The king shook his head. “Learning to rule a kingdom is about more than diplomacy and niceties.”

Thrais bowed and departed.

A smile played at the edge of Prince Nathias’s mouth, displaying youthful exuberance at being included in the royal proceedings.

“What are you considering, Adarion?” Dronkhar asked.

“Laying a trap,” the king replied in a dire tone.

Sendax and his men arrived quickly, bearing stout arms and grave expressions. “Thrais informed us on the way, my king.” His gaze strayed to Jhellen, who gave a stiff nod and silently moved into formation. “How may we serve?”

“I will send for Melekar, who I pray can explain himself. If his words fail him, or his actions give cause, you are to subdue him and any other enchanters that have turned traitor.”

“Is there a plan to counter any magics they might use?”

“We will have our own magics in place.”

Once the messenger was dispatched, Dronkhar drew Ilinnia close. “Stick with me or the king if trouble breaks out,” he whispered. “Don’t try to save the day again.”

“I can’t this time. Not unless they all turn into Dar’Gol.”

When Melekar arrived, he wasn’t alone. A small contingent of enchanters accompanied him, Eolar among them. Melekar seemed taken aback by the sight of so many people already in the throne room, but he fixed his gaze upon King Adarion and made a grand bow.

“I have received disturbing information, Melekar,” Adarion began. “Regarding the nature of the Dar’Gol attack.”

“Your majesty, we have been working tirelessly to discern how they breached our defenses, and we now believe they—”

“Gained access,” the king interrupted, the steel in his voice still sheathed, “through a new, undiscovered form of magic?”

Melekar visibly swallowed. “We… we had considered that possibility, but now we are forced to confront the likelihood of a…” His voice trailed off, as though he wanted everyone to believe the idea pained him. “A traitor in our midst.”

The enchanters started at the news, except Eolar. He bowed his head and sighed.

“A traitor,” Adarion echoed. “A traitor who orchestrated an attack against me and my court. A traitor who has been receiving payments and shipments of rare goods for several days now.”

Melekar’s eyes widened at this news. “You have evidence of this, your majesty? Do we know who it is?”

“We have our suspicions.”

“Your majesty, any information you have would be of great aid to our investigation. Please, let us set this right—”

A deep growl cut him off. Everyone turned to Jhellen, who glared at Melekar with tears in his eyes. “Where is your runestone?”

Dronkhar looked more closely at the enchanters. Each had a small, runed stone fastened about their neck, or carried in a belt pouch. This close to the wards of the castle, the runes’ faint glow could be seen through the cases. Melekar did not appear to have a stone anywhere upon him.

Melekar paled. “What?”

Jhellen stepped out of formation and drew closer. “It is the keystone that allows uninterrupted travel in and around the castle. Produce yours.”

The enchanter tried to wave him away. “Is this some kind of joke, Jhellen?”

“Produce it,” he repeated, “and then perhaps you can explain how the crates of wine and silks ended up in your office.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking—”

Jhellen lunged forward, grasping for his sword. “My father trusted you, you lying snake!”

“Captain!” Adarion’s voice made the polished walls vibrate. “Control him!”

Sendax wrestled Jhellen’s hand away from his weapon, then bodily pulled him back into formation where he was restrained by the other soldiers. “We can empathize with your feelings,” the king said softly to Jhellen, “but this is not the time nor place. Melekar…” He slowly turned back to the pale enchanter. “Produce your runestone.”

“Your majesty, please, you cannot believe that I—”

“Produce your runestone.”

Melekar began to retreat from the ice in Adarion’s voice. “I… I cannot, my king. Upon my return from the scouting mission, I discovered that it was missing.” A pair of guardsmen advanced toward him, and the enchanter’s eyes bulged. “I knew that I’d be implicated if I said anything… please! You must believe me!”

He raised his hands, and chains of smoke and mist wrapped around the guards, pulling them to the ground. “The traitor is still out there, you cannot let him get away with—”

The rest of his words were cut off. A wave of glowing orange light encircled him, and he collapsed to his knees. Behind him, Eolar held aloft a glass rod topped by a blazing crystal. Eolar’s face was torn between disgust and sorrow. “This will keep him bound, my king,” he explained. “To my shame, I had hoped your warning was wrong.”

“Sorasil, Eolar, lead the prisoner and his escort to the temple. We will sever his mind from the ether and then learn what our foes are planning.”

Tears began to stream down Melekar’s cheeks as his eyes turned from one stony face to the next.

Captain Thrais stepped forward. “I will command the escort personally, your majesty.”

Dronkhar let out his breath in a rush. “That could have gone far worse.”

As Thrais passed him, a shadow passed over Dronkhar’s eyes, and he staggered backwards as though struck. Through leather and chainmail, he sensed the presence of old stone… infused with something darker and more ancient. In his mind, he saw a rune of darkness etched across Thrais’s back.

Dronkhar didn’t stop to think. He drew his axes and struck at Thrais, who twisted away with an oath. The throne room became a hive of confusion and brandished weapons. “The runestone!” Dronkhar shouted. “He has the runestone!”

Thrais parried the first blows aimed toward him, but he was quickly surrounded by soldiers and enchanters. He raised his arms, and his armor was blown apart. A wave of shadow emanated from him and flung everyone back. The runestone was revealed, embedded in his chest, the rune black and pulsating. He uttered a primal word, and the shadows folded back into him, surrounding him in impenetrable darkness. When it dissipated, Thrais was changed. A skin of pitch black metal enclosed him, and runes of power glowed over his new armoring. The metal extended down his arms into two jagged blades. He was a living weapon. He was Dar’Gol.

SON OF THE MOON. SHARE IN MY TORMENT. DRINK OF MY RAGE.

Thrais raised a swordarm, and tendrils of night sprang from the stones around Adarion’s feet, wrapping him in their embrace. The nearby torches flickered and died as the shadowy appendages consumed the light. Adarion screamed.

At Thrais’s words, Ilinnia had collapsed. Dronkhar checked to make sure she was breathing, and then charged Thrais. With Ilinnia unconscious, he’d have to fight under his own power.

Thrais had already engaged Sendax. He moved faster and more fluidly than any of the Dar’Gol Dronkhar had seen before. With a sohntar warcry, he struck at Thrais’s exposed legs and back.

Thrais was too fast. He turned a blade against each opponent and methodically engaged them both. Another guard lunged from behind him, but he flipped over the attack, skewering the guard in the back and then kicking the body into Sendax.

Alone for a moment, Dronkhar concentrated all of his skill on merely blunting the attacks of his foe. This close, he could feel the taint seeping into his skin, and a faint whispering scratched at the edge of his awareness. For an instant, Thrais seemed distracted by it, and Dronkhar managed a quick blow to his thigh. The blade sheared through the black metal as if it were liquid. Dronkhar saw blood well up before the armor flowed back over the wound.

Whatever this Dar’Gol was, it might be faster and stronger, but it was far less armored.

A piercing scream distracted Dronkhar. He looked up to see tendrils lash out at Adarion’s children. Nathias dodged the attack and scrambled away, but they caught Alyan and dragged her toward the writhing form of her father. Dronkhar didn’t have time to intervene as Thrais pressed his furious assault, but Jhellen was there immediately. He severed the tendrils and placed himself between Alyan and her father, even as another cluster of tentacles struck at him.

Dronkhar focused on Thrais again, with Sendax approaching from behind. They both saw an opening in Thrais’s form and struck simultaneously, but it was a ruse. Thrais’s blades slashed their arms, and the clatter of weapons on the floor was drowned out by Adarion’s continued screams. Sendax narrowly dodged a thrust, but the follow-up strike speared through his shoulder, as Thrais pivoted and kicked Dronkhar hard against a column. He was just too strong. Around the room, the enchanters were finally staggering to their feet, recovering from the energies unleashed against Adarion, but it would be too late to stop Thrais.

The shadows in the room flickered as another voice penetrated the cacophony of sound. Sorasil was on his knees, chanting a prayer to Ceanur. The intonation rose, and a shimmering vision filled the chamber.

A winged lion, formed of light itself, gave a piercing roar, and the shadows encasing Adarion and Jhellen vanished. Thrais whirled and lunged toward the glimmering figure. Claw met blade, and pulses of energy cascaded off the clash. Thrais slashed, struck and hewed at his opponent, tearing bleeding chunks from the lion, but the wounds neither slowed or weakened it. With a roar, it crushed Thrais to the ground with its paw before driving a claw through his head. Instantly light returned to the chamber, and the dark shell covering Thrais melted away.

Ilinnia raised her head weakly, and her eyes widened when she beheld the visage. “Oh, Great Ai…”

The lion turned and padded its way toward the unconscious form of Jhellen, cradled in Alyan’s lap, and it leaned down to breathe on him. Jhellen coughed and opened his eyes just before a blinding flash lit the room. When the light faded, the manifestation was gone.

Adarion was back on his feet, though his skin was very pale Nathias dashed to his side to support him. “Is… is everyone alive?” Adarion panted.

“Everyone that counts,” Dronkhar groaned. “What in the fires of earth was that?”

“I do not know. It was an evil darker than anything I have ever experienced.”

“…dead…”

The garbled whisper came from the center of the room. Dronkhar struggled to his feet as an unfamiliar enchanter materialized in the room. The man fell to his knees and spat a mouthful of blood upon the already stained floor.

Eolar rushed past Dronkhar. “Sivar!” He caught the man as he collapsed, panic plain to see on his face. “What are you doing here? What happened?”

“…Ganele… overrun… thousands of them… coming…”

“They’ve breached Ganele?”

“…not yet… still time… need help now…”

Sivar did not speak again. Apparently, the battle was not yet over.