The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 20

King Adarion was waiting, along with his children, and greeted the latecomers with a warm, knowing smile. “Today you embark upon a perilous endeavor, to fulfill a promise made to our sohntar champion,” he intoned, as though reciting the words from an epic tale. He drew his sword from its sheath, and an alabaster glow surrounded it before encircling the party. “Let no fear take you, for you go with the blessings of Ceanur and those of his chosen servants. Be brave and bold, and may the light of the moon guide your steps through the shadow.”

A sense of vigor and strength filled Ilinnia’s body, and she marveled at the power that coursed through her. It was similar to the aura of Sorasil’s magic, but somehow purer, more complete.

Princess Alyan stepped forward, crossed the courtyard and paused before Jhellen, fixing him with an imperious gaze ruined only by the tremor in her lower lip. Jhellen quickly bowed his head in deference, but not quickly enough to hide the blush in his cheeks. “A royal lady must select her champion before battle,” she said in a similarly imperial tone. She removed a golden crest, a crescent moon against a field of stars, and pinned it carefully to Jhellen’s surcoat. “Bear this in my name as you face danger, as it represents Ceanur’s favor and mine.” She turned and walked back to Adarion’s side. Though it wasn’t visible on her face, Ilinnia could feel the faint mixture of longing and concern swirling about the princess.

King Adarion’s expression was impassive, but one of his eyebrows seemed incrementally higher than the other. He turned and nodded to Eolar. “Ceanur guide you all.”

Eolar raised his hands, and the sound of his voice filled the courtyard. Melekar traced the lines of a complicated gesture, and Ilinnia felt a protective aura settle around them. A trip to the heart of their foe required extra precautions. Eolar’s voice rose to a near shout, and the now familiar bending sensation rippled through her body, but instead of ending the sensation stretched on and on as her mind filled with pressure. Emotions tumbled and crashed into her as though she was caught in a rockslide, each feeling amplified to deafening levels.

Without understanding how she knew, Ilinnia realized they had been caught in the ether.

***


Dronkhar’s heart strained against his ribs, his breathing fast and shallow. Every soldier was well-acquainted with fear. The worst tried to deny its presence, but the best learned from it, used it, made it their own. But this feeling… this was abject terror, so thick that he tasted it, the kind of terror that made men turn and flee like children.

Feeling such fear made Dronkhar angry. Another familiar emotion, but magnified to a towering height. He wanted to find something living and make it not so. His fingers clenched around an invisible throat as he imagined the face of an enemy purpling, a feral snarl building in his throat.

Pure savagery. Such monstrous hatred… could he really be capable of this awful feeling? Despair and self-loathing welled up from some deep place in his soul, and for the first time in years he felt tears soaking his rough cheeks.

Raw emotion, unfiltered and uncontrolled. Dronkhar buried his face in his hands and wept. What was happening?

Dimly he became aware of shouts, screams and wails. His companions were nearby, lost in their own tortured minds.

“Find us an anchor, Eolar. Now.” Melekar’s steady voice drifted up from some black depth, eerily calm but strained. “They’ll go mad if we stay within the ether much longer.”

“I’m… I’m trying…” Eolar sounded exhausted. “It’s like a stormy sea at night… I can’t find my way…”

“Yes, you can. Concentrate. You know these paths better than any I have taught. Guide us back.”

The soothing confidence in Melekar’s voice… it reminded Dronkhar of his own father. Even in the midst of his emotional tumult, he found a way to release his anger at the elder enchanter.

Eolar drew a deep, steadying breath. “All right… our destination is blocked. There’s a wave of wild magic.”

“That would be the spiritbinders. We planned for this eventuality. Just find a safe place as close as you can.”

“I can sense an opening… it’s far but… I think… I think I can…”

The feel of warping and the overwhelming emotions came to a jolting stop, and Dronkhar shook his head. His eyes had been clenched tight the whole trip, and as he opened them he felt a pounding pressure behind his eyes and through his head.

Dunes of coarse gray sand undulated towards the horizon, broken only by jagged spires of dark rock. Wan, yellow sunbeams slipped through cracks in the thick, ashen clouds. The sulfurous stench of decay filled his nostrils, and he snorted instinctively. There was no doubt. They were in the wastelands.

Dronkhar’s companions, some on hands and knees, others struggling to their feet, sought to master themselves. Eolar, collapsed on the ground, was being tended by Melekar. The elder enchanter’s face was pale and drenched in sweat. Even Ilinnia, who could fall in love with a barren hillside, seemed repulsed by the tainted presence of the landscape around them.

Distant shouts sounded from below their dune, and Dronkhar swore as he recognized the language. “On your feet, soldiers,” he growled. “It’s time to fight!”

A small squad of Baelrock soldiers streamed from an obsidian bunker, clearly aiming to overwhelm the Cealians before they had a chance to recover. Dronkhar roared down the sand bank, shifting his weight to account for the unstable ground, and crashed into them with axes drawn. The Baelrock were unprepared for a frontal assault from an enraged Bloodfire, and with three vicious chops he felled two and disarmed a third. Sendax gave a mighty battle cry as the human soldiers surged past Dronkhar and into the Baelrock lines. After several brutal seconds, the surviving Baelrock turned and fled toward their base.

Sendax frowned and turned to Dronkhar. “I thought you said they’d be the best the Baelrock had to offer.”

Dronkhar was nonchalantly wiping the blood from his blades. “We landed near a small trade garrison, unless I miss my guess,” he said. “If we charge before they can rally, we’ll clear the whole place.”

As the first Baelrock reached the bunker, Dronkhar heard new shouts. When an alarm bell rang out through the stagnant air, Sendax gave a terse nod. “Jhellen, lead us in!”

The Cealians formed ranks on Jhellen, and with a war cry they charged the entrance to the bunker.

Ilinnia looked as if she was going to follow the soldiers as well, but Dronkhar grabbed her by the arm and sat her next to Melekar. “Stay with them, lass. Leave the killing to us.” With his own battle cry, Dronkhar barreled after the soldiers.

The human knights had taken the center of the bunker and were holding the line near a dark stairwell that sank deep into the fouled earth. Dronkhar slipped past the front line and danced through the fray on the steps. Unlike the Baelrock, he’d fought entire campaigns on the broad stairs near the Undervoid. His footwork was as impeccable now as then, and he tore through the unbalanced soldiers like a fanged kithiss.

Dronkhar detected a surge of bodies rushing up the stairwell toward him, and he readied his axes in a fierce stance. Over the din of battle however, he began to make out shouts of alarm and terror. “It’s loose! Boreclaw’s loose!”

The press of Baelrock parted around him and rushed toward the exit, heedless of the human soldiers standing in their way. A tremor ripped through the ground, and Dronkhar braced himself against the low ceiling. He heard several of the knights fall to the ground, followed by cries of pain as the teeming Baelrock horde trampled them on their way out.

Above the chaos, Sendax’s voice could be heard shouting, “Fall back, men. To the dunes, fall back on me!”

Dronkhar turned and raced upwards, pausing to help a pair of stragglers to their feet. Outside, the knights had formed a defensive semi-circle beneath the hilltop where the enchanters were resting.

Another quake knocked Dronkhar clean off his feet, and he gaped in wonder as a massive sinkhole, a full twenty feet wide, tore open the ground in front of them. “Earth’s mercy…”

A massive clawed arm dug into the tannish dirt beneath the falling sand, and a huge armored bulk heaved itself from the yawning abyss. The monstrosity was shaped like a worm, but covered in foot-long spikes and chitinous plates. It steadied itself on six bony claw-arms and turned to face the assembled warriors.

Faceted eyes regarded them with malice, and the creature released a menacing hiss.