The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 16

Dronkhar heard a cloth being wrung. A gentle coolness spread across his forehead, and he held his breath for as long as he could, drinking in the sensation. When he was forced to breathe again, his chest screamed.

“Tell me,” a voice declared. It sounded like… Jhellen. It was raw and worried—the tone a soldier used when he tried to find a way to cheat death for a fallen comrade. “Tell me what it takes. I’ll see it done.”

“It isn’t that simple, Jhellen.” That was Eolar, voice filled with accepted despair. He seemed a likeable fellow. Perhaps it was his willingness to do what was needed without hesitation. “The ether is churning like a boiling lake. If we attempt to teleport him through it, he’d be torn apart within seconds.”

“It’s that wretched Spiritbinder.” Ilinnia. It sounded like she’d been crying. Dronkhar open his eyes. She was pale and angry, with red eyes above a tear-streaked face. Was she crying over him?

“Damn it,” Jhellen shouted as he punched the wall. “How can one man disable all of your powers?”

“The strength of the earth,” Dronkhar rasped. If breathing hurt, talking was torture. He could feel the splinters of bone slicing into his lung.

Ilinnia’s hands pressed against his good shoulder, and she tried to give him a comforting smile.

From the edge of his vision, he saw Jhellen lean his head against the wall. “Eolar, we have to get him to Delnoth now. He will die otherwise.” He was practically pleading.

A cacophony arose outside, as voices tried to shout vainly over one another. A breathless soldier collapsed against the doorway, drawing huge lungfuls of air. “The Dar’Gol are upon us!” he cried. “The Cealian army is too late.” He squeezed his eyes closed and took another hard breath. “We’re all going to die.”

Dronkhar closed his eyes again and felt the growing coldness in his chest. Part of his body was already dead, and the rest of him would soon follow. The others were giving up. The image of Nolaara came unbidden to mind. Fated to each other ’til death, that had been their vow.

He wasn’t dead yet.

Dronkhar set his teeth and struggled his way into a sitting position. It felt like being impaled from within. Amidst their cries of concern they tried to push him back down. He slapped their hands away, coughed a bloody mass and glared at them. “This is not over. Their Spiritbinder is powerful, but his powers aren’t the only in existence. Bring me what I need.”

“What is that?” Eolar asked, a faint hope kindling in his eyes.

“Steel,” he replied. “Find a blacksmith. Tell him to melt down all the broken weapons and any armor we can’t use. We need enough to fill his biggest vat.”

“What will that do, Dronkhar?” Jhellen asked.

“I intend to find out…” He tried to walk, but collapsed. Jhellen and Ilinnia helped him to his feet, and together they headed from the room.

While the steel was prepared, Ilinnia fed Dronkhar a foul concoction that restored some sensation to his body. It wouldn’t do for him to die before they tried his plan. “Listen to me, girl. Even if this works, someone has to deal with the Spiritbinder. The enchanters can’t handle it, so it falls to you.”

“Me?” Ilinnia echoed dubiously. “How?”

“The spiritbinders are a lot like you. They speak to the spirits. But instead of listening to them, they corrupt them, subjugate them.” Dronkhar paused to cough up another mess. “Use that. Turn the elements against him. Help them destroy him.” He looked at her as hard as he could manage. “You know what I’m asking.”

“What if I can’t do it?”

“We die.”

With a shuddering sigh, Ilinnia stared at the floor. She nodded.

“That’s my girl.”

She hugged him then, very carefully.

***


The vat was smaller than he’d hoped, but it was filled to the brim with the glowing, liquefied steel. Dronkhar’s clothes had been removed, and he lay in a large rounded mould. Probably for a siege engine part. The cool touch of metal on his back warred against the heat radiating from the liquid above. He watched the vat being hauled up on a sturdy chain affixed to the ceiling, with another chain around the rim to pull it toward him. He coughed again, but he could no longer feel any pain. His body was failing.

Please earth, accept me into your embrace… but not yet.

Dronkhar called to the dirt and the stone, the iron and steel. All sohntar naturally attuned to whatever elements they were near. It was part of what differentiated the clans before their paths had been chosen. But the story, the story of the ancients becoming one with the elements… it had to be true. For his friends. For Nolaara.

Dronkhar closed his eyes and emptied his mind. “Now.”

The chain went taut. The vat tipped, and molten steel poured forth in a streaming, orange flood. He cried out once in pain, but his voice was silenced as the liquid filled his mouth and covered his body.

For an eternal moment Dronkhar’s mind examined the pain, the burning that now surrounded him. He struggled against the sensation, hurled his anger and rage against it, but it burned hotter. He could feel it consuming him, burning his flesh to ash. Steel did not rage. It was not of fiery temperament. It was solid, unyielding, ordered. Dronkhar released his emotions, and quieted his soul.

The steel awoke.

It bonded to his wounds and sealed them, seeped into his skin and fortified his body. His very blood soaked into the super-heated metal. Dronkhar and the steel became one.

A cloud of steam suffused the smithy as he was doused with water. He stood up, and the fire of the forge glinted off his skin, as polished and hardened as any Dar’Gol, but pure and untainted.

Ilinnia approached him tentatively. He inclined his head gently to let her know that he was there. She unwrapped the priestly crystal and held it toward him. As the crystal touched his chest, the metal rippled and welcomed the holy artifact within. His skin began to glow, and he felt Ilinnia’s power join with his own.

They opened the front gate for him. Nothing stood between him and his foes. The chaos of war was about to meet the bastion of steel.

***


Ilinnia, Jhellen and Eolar watched the field from the battlements. Dronkhar ran out of the fortress, and the earth trembled beneath his footsteps. The first ranks of the Dar’Gol paused as they caught sight of him. Recoiling from the power that radiated from his skin, they seemed confused. Here was a foe who knew no fear, no pain. The shining figure barreled into their ranks. The battle was joined.

Ilinnia swallowed hard. “Be safe, my friend.”

She had a task of her own. She felt the Spiritbinder’s will within the earth, directing his rage at this new opponent. The Ai whispered their anger at this unnatural torture. Even were she not a Maion, she could not allow this taint to exist in the world any longer.

She released her spirit into the wind and began the hunt for him. Whispers became howls, as the Ai guided her toward her prey. She soared over the heads of the Dar’Gol foot-soldiers. The hillside upon which Ganele stood faded behind, and she drew close to a rocky outcropping. He stood, partly embedded in the earth, and his sickening leer hinted at the madness that awaited him. But this one was not insane, and he would not be easy.

***


Dronkhar crushed a Dar’Gol underneath his foot and tore open three more with a swing of his fist. Their armor was as nothing to him. The order of steel demanded that his foes fall. And so they did. The voice in the earth raged at him, and shadowy motes swirled upon the armor of the Dar’Gol. Their strikes bounced harmlessly off of him, but the shadows remained on his skin. He could feel the darkness sapping him, leaching the light and the order away.

***


The Spiritbinder looked up, and Ilinnia knew that he sensed her. He closed his eyes and his spirit ascended, wreathed in fire and earth. She called the wind to her and channeled it into him, but the flames only grew hotter. His counterstroke singed her thoughts with fear, and though her body was far away, it felt as if on fire. He was too strong here in his element. Her winds were not enough to extinguish the flame, to erode the earth. There was something beyond his presence—a power so dark and vast that the merest sense of it sent Ilinnia’s mind recoiling in terror.

***


The shadows coalesced within him as Dronkhar sundered more and more of the Dar’Gol soldiers. The shimmer on his skin was nearly gone, and his body slowed. The will driving the steel weakened. He could feel the bond slipping away. Though the shadow grew with every foe he struck down, he could not stop. They must be felled. They would be felled.

Dronkhar continued to swing away.

***


Ilinnia staggered back, and she knew that her body had fallen to the ground. She could feel Jhellen supporting her, but it would not take much more for the Spiritbinder to break her soul. The flames around him grew, and she braced for an attack, when the memory of Dronkhar’s voice filled her mind.

Turn the elements against him. Help them destroy him.

She was not powerful enough to overcome his defenses. But, like the wind that carried her spirit, she did not need to be. The fires gathered together and leapt at her, a vicious serpent of flame to end her life. She released her wind and let it blow about her. It caught the serpent in its currents and drew it in a circle around her. She sensed the growing concern from the Spiritbinder as he tried to call back his power in vain.

The serpent grew thin and wan as the wind pulled it farther and farther away from its source. With a cry, the Spiritbinder lost control, and the fires winked out. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the earthen shards jutting from the Spiritbinder began to grow. He turned, frantically, from one side to another, trying to shake himself free. But the earth was implacable. He had delved into it, twisted it. Now he would be one with it.

The Spiritbinder’s essence vanished, and Ilinnia watched resolutely as the stone around his body grew up and over him, leaving no trace of the fiend behind.

***


A surge of power awakened inside Dronkhar. The crystal rose on the back of his right hand and shone with a radiant light, banishing the shadows crawling across his skin. Ilinnia had done it. The threat was no more. He raised his hand, and the crystal pulsed a blue ring of light, expanding outward as it passed through the assembled Dar’Gol. The dark force that reinforced them was gone.

Another burst of energy drew Dronkhar’s attention, and he looked back toward the fortress. Eolar and a line of enchanters stood on the hillside, stretching forth their hands. A wavering line spread along the ground, as if reality was being warped between two places. A horn sounded from the distance, and a thundering line of Cealian cavalry issued forth from the line of portals.

“For Cealia and for King Adarion!” rang the cry. Dronkhar joined with the charging throng and unleashed the wrath of steel upon his foes.