The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 17

The last rays of the evening sun crept over the bodies of the fallen. Rank upon rank of unliving statues bled ichor into the fields of Ganele. He heard distant cheers from the fortress behind him. It would have been… should have been natural for him to raise his fist in triumph and join his voice in the brotherhood of victory, but he did not. The steel did not need such things as celebration. Instead he observed the way the light dimmed on the surfaces of the vanquished Dar’Gol. He looked down at his own hands and saw their polished surfaces gleaming in the failing light.

This is as it should be.

The shouts were growing louder and more distinct from one another. He heard a name being called. Dronkhar. That was him, was it not? He turned and saw a young human’s lips split wide with laughter even as tears of mirth streamed from his blue eyes. Jhellen’s eyes were blue… why was he noticing this now?

Once Jhellen had closed the distance, he clapped his hand upon Dronkhar’s shoulder, then recoiled slightly as the steel shifted beneath his touch. “You did it, my friend. You and Ilinnia. We’re all alive thanks to you!”

Alive. Yes. A feeling bubbled to the surface. Relief? Gratitude? He had been dying but was alive, thanks to the words of his ancient brother.

Ilinnia slept peacefully, her face serene despite the battle in the courtyard. With all of the priests bustling about tending to the wounded, he’d wandered down a darkened hallway to think, to make sense of everything that had happened. In the stillness, the voices of the stone murmured to him and he instinctively relaxed, gazing upon the statues of sohntar carved into the walls. Their bodies radiated strength and stability… until one of them moved, reaching out its hand to touch him as he passed. It smiled, a faint curved line drawn across a marble visage. “Welcome, Dronkhar…”

Dronkhar blinked. Jhellen was still beaming at him, but his smile papered over a concern. “We should get back to the fortress. Ilinnia will want to make sure you are all right.”

Nodding, Dronkhar wondered at how stiff and unnatural the motion felt. Steel did not acknowledge, did not seek to reassure or comfort. It merely was.

Jhellen turned his back on the battlefield, and Dronkhar followed behind him. Something wasn’t right. It tugged at him inside. Steel shouldn’t feel, but he did. He was supposed to. Wasn’t he?

The sohntar hadn’t opened his mouth to speak. His words had simply appeared in Dronkhar’s mind. “Who are you?” he asked the marble sohntar with a mixture of awe and trepidation. “What has been done to you?”,

“I am Norgaloth, son of the stone, chosen of Ceanur.” The words seemed tinged with amusement. “Has it truly been so long that the Ritual of Joining has been lost to our people?”

Dronkhar’s only response was a blank stare. Son of the stone itself? Was he in the presence of one of the Firstborn?

“When the Creators brought us forth, we were without substance, without our element. It was through their magic, through the Ritual that we were bound. To the stone, to the sky, to the sea, to the foundations of the world we were forged to serve.”

A memory of the warm caress of an open vein of lava and the comforting heat of a forge filled Dronkhar’s thoughts, and Norgaloth’s smile widened.,

“Yes, I can sense the kinship still exists among the youthful. As long as the call of the Creators remains, the Ritual can fulfill it. Listen, and preserve this knowledge, for the future…”

For the future…

Something soft closed around his body. Strange, Norgaloth’s touch should have been cool and solid. But… was that not just a memory? Dronkhar blinked and looked down at the tumble of blue hair pressed against his chest. Ilinnia’s arms trembled as she held him, her shoulders shaking from stifled sobs. His own arms moved to encircle her, but he stopped halfway. These arms were no longer flesh. They might crush her. Steel does not comfort. It simply is. He stood silent, allowing the moment to pass. Steel could wait.

Whether it had been seconds or hours, Dronkhar couldn’t tell, but eventually Ilinnia looked up at him. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t carry on like this. We’ve won. But I was so scared for us all and worried about you… and…” She turned away from his unblinking stare.

When Dronkhar’s gaze had caught her own, he knew. Ilinnia had taken a life. It would not have mattered whether it was necessary or right. The fact that she had ended it was against everything in her nature. This scar was now hers to bear.

It should have been his. His was the nature of a warrior. Duty, valor and honor were his birthright. Son of the Bloodfire clan.

The surge of heat from Dronkhar’s blood filled his body, heightened his reflexes, amplified his strength. He wrenched his axe blade free from the skull of the abomination before him and gave a resounding shout that echoed through the cavern, joined by the roars of his brothers-in-arms, until the underground pulsed with the heat of the mother’s fire itself. The heat flared again as he struck down another fiend, but the chill on his skin spoke to the unnatural foe that flowed up from the Undervoid. Here was the line that would not falter. Here was where the darkness would be consumed by fire.

A laugh rang out behind Dronkhar. He turned to see another abomination fall lifeless to the stone. Nolaara winked at him and turned back to the fight. “Be careful now. Good captains are harder to come by than good husbands.”

Captain. He had been their captain, and he couldn’t save them… not from what came next… not from the Upheaval…

Ilinnia had pulled back and was gazing at his body cautiously. The surface of Dronkhar’s skin had suddenly grown warm.

Something was wrong. Reliving these memories… his body should have been a furnace! When a Bloodfire was stirred to war, others knew to draw back lest they be scorched. He could feel the heat swirling within his core, but it was trapped within a steel cage.

Dronkhar worked his jaws and tried to open his lips, but his expression was welded in place. A metallic groan was all that emerged behind it. Ilinnia frowned. She knew something was wrong and he could see her mind racing against the possibilities.

Even his concern was quickly smothered by a rush of cold stillness. Steel is not concerned. It simply is. The memories vanished, and the tension in his body relaxed. His thoughts grew ordered and simple again. He stepped to the side and brushed past Ilinnia, an overriding purpose filling his mind.

Dronkhar gave a start when he found himself inside the smithy where his new body had been forged. The rigid whispers of steel resonated within him. Here was where he belonged. Here existence was ordered. Here the steel was.

Whispering metal. A sense of wrongness welled up within him.

“They say too much thinking is unbecoming a warrior,” Nolaara said. “But I’ve always preferred a man who can number his enemies before a fight starts.”

“It’s a good thing I can count quite high then,” Dronkhar bragged, flashing a grin at her.

“Your mind has always been a weapon to match your axes, my love.”

But not that time…

The job shouldn’t have been difficult, acting as a peacekeeper for a Baelrock mining camp. He’d tried so hard to tell himself he was imagining things… but the metal they were digging up was strange… wrong, somehow… he’d passed too close to an open crate and suddenly felt dizzy and sick…

Nolaara was reluctant to leave… they’d been alone and hungry for so long… so he resolved to start asking questions, to learn more, to find a reason to dismiss his doubts…

That ended when the first Baelrock blade sparked against his mail shirt…

Dronkhar clenched his fist and groaned. Memories. So many memories. So many bits and pieces and fragments of himself were being ordered and compressed. How much of himself did he have left?

Brother… help me… how do I free myself from the steel?

As if bidden, Norgaloth’s words returned.

“Without the Creators to bind us, we must use caution when we choose our element. While will is powerful, the elements can be greater still. If you are not strong enough to control your bond, you will be lost to the elements as if you had never been. Though a bond cannot be removed once completed, a new bond can be forged. Seek out the essence of your chosen element once more, and let it infuse and shape you. Remember this lesson, brother, lest you fail the task Ceanur has set before you…”