The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 21

“Shields at the ready, spears to the flanks!” Sendax commanded. The soldiers hurriedly shifted formation. The creature called Boreclaw twisted sinuously, trying to track their movement. With a hiss, it stabbed at them with its foremost claws. The pointed tips dented and scratched the large Cealian tower shields. One soldier gave a panicked cry as the hooked ridges on the underside of the claws caught the edge of his shield and ripped it from his hands.

The pikemen advanced and stabbed probingly, ready to disengage if needed, but their weapons bounced off its armor. Dronkhar’s gaze traced the chitinous plates. They were impenetrable, but there had to be a gap to allow for movement. He spotted his target and pointed. “Aim for the seams!”

The nearest lancer tracked his mark and struck true. The creature issued an angry squeal and twisted away from the strike. It opened its insect-like mandibles and spat a large globule of milky white liquid. Dronkhar dove out of the way, but the two knights closest to him were covered instantly. They could only give a brief scream before they collapsed in a heap of melting armor and oozing flesh.

The soldiers at the other flank rushed forward and struck furiously at the thin fleshy joints between plates. Boreclaw hissed at its attackers and swiftly rolled over them. The knights scattered, but three more were crushed into the sand and impaled by the layer of edged spikes protruding from Boreclaw’s hide.

Attacking it head on wasn’t getting them anywhere. Dronkhar summoned the steel within, coating his left hand in an impromptu gauntlet, then leapt up the creature’s side. He grabbed one of the edged quills and buried his axe in the soft joint of the beast, using that as a bracing point to shift his steel hand up to the next spike. Nimbly, he clambered up the side of the writhing creature and scrabbled toward its head. He grasped a final spike near a large compound eye and hewed it with his axe.

Boreclaw bucked. Dronkhar heard it screech beneath him as he flew through the air, then crashed hard onto the shield line below. In a daze, he tried to right himself as a hissing shadow loomed above him.

A fireball exploded near Boreclaw’s face. With a shudder, the beast reared back, and Dronkhar gaped at the robed figure of Melekar standing between himself and spiked death. The old enchanter spoke forcefully as his hands seemingly grasped at the earth and lifted upward. Dronkhar felt the ground shake, and a massive spike of gray stone speared Boreclaw’s midsection, lifting its full forty-foot length out above the pit.

“Everyone get clear!” Melekar shouted over the rumbling in the sky above. The soldiers hauled each other to their feet and backed away from the monstrosity writhing on its stone skewer. Dronkhar felt his hair stand on end and looked heavenward as the angry sky disgorged three spears of lightning. The bolts crackled against the screeching beast, and the peal of thunder that issued forth knocked the assembled knights clean off their feet.

When it was over, Boreclaw’s charred corpse smoldered limply from the stone outcropping. Melekar collapsed to the ground, crimson trickling from his nostrils. Eolar half dashed, half slid down the dune as he raced to the elder enchanter’s side. “Old fool,” he chided gently. “Exerting yourself that hard in the presence of this much ethereal distortion… you’re lucky you’re not dead.” He motioned Ilinnia down from the top and called for water and bandages.

Dronkhar approached, knelt by Melekar’s side, grasped his shoulder and nodded approvingly. Melekar gave him an appraising look before returning the gesture weakly.

Sendax rallied the remaining soldiers. He and a small group of them attended the fallen while the others were ordered to search the bunker. Whether from Baelrock stragglers, or from any maps or documents, they needed to discover where in the wastes they had landed. Dronkhar quickly decided to join the search.

Boreclaw’s escape appeared to have completely emptied the facility of every soldier that hadn’t been killed in the battle. The silence within the obsidian structure made the blood pounding through Dronkhar’s head seem deafening. He moved down with Jhellen and the rest of the knights into the cavernous, hewn stone chamber where the Baelrock had kept their pet. Amidst the sputtering torches and vile stench, debris and bodies awaited them, evidence of the creature’s violent escape, along with the massive hole it had ripped open to the surface. Dronkhar shielded his eyes from the sunlight above and hunted for anything resembling a captain’s office or records room.

He’d passed down a dank, torch-lit hall when the clink of metal and a muttering voice gave him pause. Axes at the ready, he peered into the next room. The sohntar inside had a matted, grayish-brown beard and was dressed in filthy rags. He was testing key after key on the manacles around his wrists, swearing under his breath. Dronkhar shook his head. It couldn’t be…

The Baelrock prisoner spotted him and went still. For a long moment, they stared at one another silently. “Dronkhar?”

With a roar, Dronkhar charged into the room and drove his fist into the Baelrock’s astonished face. He grabbed the broken chain attached to the manacles and dragged the howling wretch back to the main chamber.

Jhellen, with sword drawn, frowned in confusion at the sight.

Dronkhar grabbed the Baelrock by the nape of the neck and hauled him to his feet. “Gentlemen,” he said almost conversationally, “meet Splug.” Then he punched his captive in the stomach.

Sheathing his sword, Jhellen stepped forward and regarded the writhing sohntar. “Friend of yours?”

“Friend?” Dronkhar spat. “Hardly. I’ll enjoy burying this piece of filth headfirst in the sand outside.”

“By the ass-crack of the Emperor!” Splug hacked and spat and finally glared up at Dronkhar. “What are you raging at me for? I’m the one who landed in this trakdoth warren after the mess you made at the mining camp!”

“You set us up!” Dronkhar yelled. He grabbed Splug’s shirt and yanked him upright. “You knew what they were digging up in that cursed place. You brought us there, and then tried to have me and Nolaara killed!”

Splug tried to shake off Dronkhar’s grip. “All I did was hire you for a job! You think I had anything to do with that… that catastrophe? The tavern trashed, over a dozen guards killed.” Splug fixed Dronkhar with a baleful stare. “You and your wench caused a bloody mess, and I got blamed for it!” He shoved his manacles under Dronkhar’s nose. “This look like a proper reward for some master conspirator to you?”

With a growl, Dronkhar shoved Splug away from him. “If that’s so, what in the Arbiter’s armpit are you doing out in the wastelands? The mining camp was leagues to the east.”

Splug’s mouth split into a proud, rotten-toothed grin, and he straightened his rags in a show of dignity. “I knew they’d want to string me up for your ruckus, so I broke into the storeroom and made off with as much gear as I could lay hands on. Had plans to sell the loot at the border garrisons.” Then his expression went sour and he kicked at the dust in frustration. “Didn’t count on them dispatching a Spiritbinder to track me down, or getting sentenced to be trakdoth lunch out here.”

“Trakdoth?” Jhellen asked.

“Giant rock-boring monsters. They kept this hive’s alpha right here. It certainly ate well on its way up.”

“You mean the plated monstrosity we killed up there?” Dronkhar grabbed Splug by the chin and tilted his head up.

Splug gaped at the sight of the charred, forty-foot husk, still impaled on the stone spike, then burst out laughing. He fell to the ground and his guffaws echoed against the walls. “You really took that thing out? Oh, you have just ruined the Emperor’s day, may the fleas of a thousand mange-hounds infest his tender bits. That alpha had the biggest, nastiest brood in the empire, and the instant that thing died they stopped chewing new tunnels and started chewing on their masters instead.”

Jhellen scowled deeply at Splug. “You mock the deaths of your own people?”

“Any fool who’s thrown their lot in with Emperor Koltorn deserves nothing but mockery,” Splug answered with another nasty grin, but the look in his eyes seemed tinged with bitterness. “I escaped that spitstain’s slave labyrinth underneath his Citadel when I was younger even than you, boy. Believe me, our ‘magnificent’ emperor has done nothing to improve my opinion of him since then.”

“Labyrinth?” Dronkhar raised an eyebrow at Splug.

The Baelrock caught the look, and his expression went flat. “I know that tone, Bloodfire. I’d sooner crawl up the ass-end of a trakdoth than set foot in those tunnels again.”

“We’ll just see about that,” Dronkhar growled as he rolled up his sleeves.