The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 18

Ilinnia’s mind raced as she watched Dronkhar stride toward the keep. She suspected that the steel form suppressed his powers of speech, but it seemed he had been trying to say something. She probed the retreating figure with her powers but received only brief flashes that were impossible to interpret.

Jhellen cleared his throat. She could sense the concern radiating from him and eclipsing his joyous mood. “Does this seem wrong to you too?” he asked.

“I…” Ilinnia struggled to set aside the tumult of her own emotions and still her mind. “I think the ritual is having a bad effect on him. He’s… losing himself.”

Jhellen shook his head stubbornly. “He is a sohntar. They share a bond with the earth, and steel comes from earth. How could he lose himself to it?”

“Have you ever known a sohntar to bond like that to the earth?” Ilinnia questioned, partly because Jhellen had greater experience with sohntar, but also because she suspected that the ritual Dronkhar had hastily described was somehow special.

Jhellen opened his mouth and narrowed his eyes, but remained silent.

Ilinnia frowned. “I’m going to look for him. Can you go find Eolar? I don’t know anything about what Dronkhar did to himself, so I can only hope that Eolar does.”

Nodding, Jhellen turned and jogged toward the hillside where the enchanters had made camp. “Let me know what you find out,” he shouted back to her.

“I will,” she promised quietly. She offered a quick prayer to the Ai and followed the path Dronkhar had taken.

The halls of the fortress were still clogged with mounds of split rock and torn earth. Ilinnia passed the occasional corpse that hadn’t yet been recovered. Large, armored soldiers worked quickly but stopped to answer when she asked whether Dronkhar had passed by. They pointed her down various passages that all looked alike to her. As the sun sank into the horizon and torches were being lit in the keep, she had still found no sign of him.

“You seem distressed, young one,” called a soft voice from the mouth of a darkened hallway. Ilinnia barely recognized the voice of Melekar. Her memory of the confident, even arrogant enchanter she had first met in the Baelrock camp stood in stark contrast to the huddled figure shrinking in the shadows before her.

“So do you, honored sir,” she ventured. He raised his head, and Ilinnia flinched from his gaze, but he merely leaned into the wall and said nothing. “I’m looking for Dronkhar. Someone said he might have come down this way.”

Melekar stepped aside to reveal a long staircase leading deeper into the keep. “He went down toward the foundations not long ago. For a steel statue, he seemed more agitated than you.”

Ilinnia bobbed a quick curtsy like she had seen other human ladies do in the presence of the enchanters. “Thank you.” She moved toward the staircase, but a hand on her shoulder made her stop and look up.

“I have watched you, young one. You faced your trials with honor.”

The look of introspective sadness on Melekar’s face was so different from his normally severe expression that she was at a loss for how to respond. He closed his eyes, withdrew his hand and looked away. Ilinnia hesitated, struggling against the idea of ignoring someone’s suffering, but her concern over Dronkhar spurred her downward.

The staircase led into a large chamber seemingly carved from the bedrock of the hill. The sound of running water drew her gaze to an underground spring that supplied the fortress in time of need. Over the spring’s rippling a faint pounding rang between the stacked crates and barrels of supplies.

As she stepped around the dusty stacks, the volume of the pounding rose, and Ilinnia felt tremors vibrating the ground beneath her feet.

Behind the last of the supplies she saw Dronkhar braced against the stone foundation, his steel muscles visibly straining. After several seconds, he stepped back and pounded his palms against the wall once more. “Dronkhar, it’s me. Please, I know something is wrong. Can I help?”

Dronkhar turned his head toward her, his expression even more stoic than before. A faint creak issued from his lips, but nothing further. He slammed the wall with his fists before opening his palms against the stone and pressing once more.

He can’t speak. There must be some way to hear him.

Suddenly Ilinnia remembered. “Sorasil’s crystal! Do you still have it? Maybe I can—”

Before she finished the sentence, Dronkhar had closed the distance between them, extending his arm toward her palm up. This steel of his hand swirled, and the glowing crystal emerged. She covered it with her own palm, channeling her focus and all of her hopes into it. There had to be a connection to Dronkhar’s essence, something that could act as a bridge…

A voice as deep and unbending as a mountain filled her mind. “Seek out the essence of your chosen element once more, and let it infuse and shape you.”

The image of Dronkhar pressed against the rock wall returned, only now the brown of the stone began to flow up his arms as his essence re-aligned with the earth.

A sohntar visage of white stone filled her mind’s eye. “He is too far given to the Ritual now. Stone is not enough to replace the bond. He must be returned to flesh, or he will vanish from Ceanur’s gaze. Hurry, child.”

The vision ended. Ilinnia gripped Dronkhar’s hand and pulled him toward the stairs. “Come on! I know what to do.”

***


Ilinnia tracked down Jhellen and led him and Dronkhar to a space in a small training courtyard, a square sparsely filled with patches of stiff grass and ringed by stone walls. The lights from the flickering torches danced across Dronkhar’s metallic skin as he knelt on the grass. Ilinnia laid a folded blanket at his side.

She fixed Dronkhar with a broad smile. “You had the right idea when you tried to change the Ritual, but you were using the wrong element. You are not made of stone, no matter how gruff an exterior you put on. It’s time to return to your old body, flesh and blood, just like ours.”

Dronkhar inclined his head before raising his hands toward them. The expression etched in his steel face betrayed none of the thoughts or feelings within.

With almost ceremonial slowness, Ilinnia raised her hand and pressed it against Dronkhar’s outstretched palm, motioning for Jhellen to do the same.

“…he must be returned to flesh…”

Ilinnia closed her eyes and let her mind open to Dronkhar, channeling all of the memories and experiences she had gained with her companion. The challenges they had overcome, shared conversations, his mannerisms, the sound of his voice and even the shrug he was so fond of… all of it streamed into the space where her palm met his.

A gasp from Jhellen caused her to open her eyes, but she felt the change even before she saw it.

The steel had receded from Dronkhar’s hands, the flesh slowly creeping up his arms. Ilinnia interlaced her fingers with his and clasped his hand tighter. The crystal surfaced on his chest, and she channeled all of her energies into it.

The jangle of chainmail distracted her when a pair of armed guards patrolled past the courtyard. The flow of flesh reversed as the steel crept back into Dronkhar’s hand. The steel trapped her fingers in a vicelike grip, slowly choking the life from her hand, and Ilinnia cried out in pain.

Setting her teeth, she fixed Dronkhar with a focused stare. “I am not abandoning you, not to this, not to anything.” She threw everything she had back into the steel, willing it into submission. An echo of great power answered back from Jhellen, surging through her, but she was too focused to wonder at its source.

The steel fought back. It slid and shifted to evade the power of the Ritual, but it was no use. The metal edge retreated toward the crystal. As the last vestiges of steel flowed into the crystal, it fell loose and landed on the grass with a faint chime.

Dronkhar fell onto his hands, and his chest heaved with gasping breaths. “Mother’s… f-fire…!”

Ilinnia threw the blanket around Dronkhar’s bare shoulders as both she and Jhellen knelt next to their fallen companion.

Dronkhar coughed and spat a few times, then drew the blanket tight around his stout frame. “You couldn’t have brought back some clothes with this ritual of yours?” he grumbled.

“One problem at a time, my friend,” Jhellen answered with a smile. The cloud that had been shadowing his expression had vanished.

Despite his exhaustion, Ilinnia noticed how Dronkhar squared his shoulders just a little straighter. He reached to the ground, picked up Sorasil’s holy crystal and passed it back to Ilinnia. “Guess this glimmer stone wasn’t completely useless.”

“And praise Ceanur for that,” an elderly voice called out behind them.

Sorasil crossed the courtyard with Sendax at his side. The healers had finally prevailed in convincing the captain to wear a sling for his wounded shoulder. Ilinnia extended her palm to the elder in greeting.

“I come by command of King Adarion. With the immediate threat answered, Ilinnia and I can perform a ritual to search for any remaining Dar’Gol,” he explained. “If the way is clear, we will march with you to the wastelands without delay.”

“By the earth’s patience, what are you waiting for?” Dronkhar hastily rose to his feet and stepped to the edge of the courtyard. Jhellen followed along closely.

Ilinnia knew that Sorasil was referencing the Maion ritual she had described to him in Delnoth. She glanced nervously at her companions near the wall. While the process of sending her awareness into the world was familiar, she had never attempted it on so large a scale.

Sorasil stepped toward her and covered her hands with his. “The power lies within you already. You simply must believe in it.”

A deep breath to steady myself. Open my heart to the Ai. Embrace the world around me.

Light awoke within the heart of the crystal, a maelstrom of gold swirling around a sphere of pure white. It grew until Ilinnia could feel her muscles straining to contain the power. When she could no longer restrain it, she channeled the essence outward like a full-throated shout.

Plain, forest, valley, river… the wave of light swept over it all. The echoes of untainted life reverberated as the energy passed by. For hundreds of miles the only darkness she sensed was the scars left by the army they had just fought. Only at the edge of her power, far to the northwest, was a sense of wrongness present. Whatever that threat was, it was something for another day.