The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 22

“Sit forward just a moment, sir,” Ilinnia told Melekar, placing the softest pack of gear she could find against the sand dune once he had done so. “There. Is that better?”

Melekar leaned back, tested the sensation, and smiled warmly at her. “Much better, young one. Thank you.”

“Try to rest as much as you can while we’re getting our bearings. The both of you,” she said to Eolar, who still looked a bit drawn. “I know this place… hurts you.”

“Only if we exert our magic too greatly, my lady,” Eolar said. “Don’t fret. We’ll be fine.”

Yes… fine, Ilinnia thought dubiously as she stuffed the bloody bandage from Melekar’s nosebleed into an old bag. A new feeling had been occurring to her ever since they arrived on the blasted dunes. She hated this place. The dead, grimy sand beneath her feet, the way the rancid air seemed to stick in her lungs… The Ai had truly abandoned this land.

Looking back toward the Baelrock bunker, she spotted Dronkhar and the soldiers filing out, with something in tow. It looked like a sohntar in chains. Sendax was already moving toward them, and Ilinnia ran to catch up with him.

“Found someone that might prove useful, if he knows what’s good for him,” Dronkhar said, then gave the chain a hard yank that sent his prisoner sprawling at the captain’s feet.

“Soldier?” Sendax questioned.

“Thief,” Dronkhar answered. “But one who knows the tunnels beneath the Citadel.”

“Humans, Dronkhar?” the Baelrock chuckled. He spat out a bit of dirt and crawled into a sitting position. “You really will sell your axes to anyone. What would a lot of humans want in the Citadel?”

Sendax leaned over the captive sohntar with a wolfish grin. “We’d be happy to share that information… if you help us get inside.”

“Hah! Already told your pet Bloodfire, I’d sooner clean a latrine with my tongue than go back to that hellhole.”

Dronkhar braced his foot into the Baelrock’s back and shoved him forward. “Keep being impolite, Splug, and we’ll put that to the test.”

“Dronkhar, stop,” Ilinnia said, fixing her gaze on the dirty prisoner. She knelt down before him as he straightened himself. Perhaps it was her time in the ether, or all of the practice she had acquired, but it was becoming easier for her to glean the emotions of others, and this Baelrock was holding a new sensation.

His black eyes leered at her. “Now what’s a pretty sapphire like you doing in a muckden like this? Come closer, I’ve got something for you.” Puckering his lips, he made a loud kissing sound.

“You filthy—!” Dronkhar already had his axe half removed from his belt.

“Splug, are you afraid of this place?” Ilinnia asked. Muscles twitched in his grimy cheeks, and Splug’s grin faltered. She sensed a deeper emotion beneath the layers of acerbic wit and gallows humor. “I understand. There’s an evil here that permeates everything. We want to stop it.”

Splug licked his lips, clearly trying to recover his bravado. “How very noble, sweetheart. Me, I ain’t got a noble bone in my body.”

“No…” Ilinnia’s eyes narrowed as she grasped at the tendrils of feeling swirling about Splug. Her own small smile grew. “But you have many angry ones. I think you want to escape from this place forever. That’s why you came here. But there’s something more… you crave revenge.”

Splug’s eyes narrowed warily, and a bead of sweat rolled down the side of his forehead. He leaned forward just a little closer, and Ilinnia ignored the stench of his breath, her gaze boring into his. “And just how do you plan on making that happen, little sapphire?” he challenged.

“We seek the Baelrock seat of power. We’re here to rescue Dronkhar’s wife and challenge the emperor. But what becomes of the vast treasure hall once he is gone?” She could scarcely believe the sly tone she heard in her own voice, but it was working. Splug’s eyes had widened. “We’ll have no need of such things. But you… with that much treasure, you could escape to anywhere you wish.”

“Little girl,” Splug whispered in awe, “you have yourself a deal.”

Things moved very quickly after that. Sendax barked orders to have Splug’s manacles removed, and Eolar set about to probing the thief’s mind so that he could transport the company safely beneath the ground. The soldiers gathered up their gear, and everyone made ready to depart.

Dronkhar drew Ilinnia aside, gazing at her with a wry grin. A blush crept into her cheeks. “What?”

“Lass, when we started this trip, I never would have guessed you would turn out so… sneaky.” Then he laughed, long and hard.

***


If the surface of the wastelands was awful, the labyrinth around the Citadel was worse. The warmth of the tunnels made Ilinnia sweat, even as a strange chill invaded her mind. They lit no torches for fear of being spotted by Baelrock patrols, but through some sense that she couldn’t understand, Splug led them unerringly through the crushing darkness. She kept her own senses trained on him, probing for any feeling of deception, but all she gleaned was hungry eagerness and a sense of vengeful triumph. No… he wouldn’t betray them.

The tunnels wound for miles, and with every step Ilinnia felt herself drawing closer to something blacker than the void around them. Dronkhar felt it too. Perhaps not as keenly, but she could hear it in his guarded breathing. This place bothered him. The humans were anxious and edgy. Everyone wanted these tunnels to end, and even as the hours crawled on, no one would dare ask to stop for a rest.

A familiar searing pain seeped into Ilinnia’s mind. Dar’Gol? Could they be here? Had her magic missed another army under the ground? She cast her spirit outward but somehow this felt different, more potent. Soon every step forward caused a wave of agony. But she couldn’t stop, couldn’t let it all be for nothing. She pressed a fist against her mouth to keep from crying out and let tears stream down her cheeks.

At last Splug drew to a stop. Up ahead they sighted a dim, greenish light illuminating a cavernous opening. “There,” he whispered. “That leads into the upper halls. Given the lack of slaves along the way, I can’t imagine there will be many guards to start.” He turned to Dronkhar. “Give the imperial ass-face an axe to the gut for me, would ya?”

Sendax posted a half dozen guards with Splug and the enchanters to keep the exit secure. With the taint of the spiritbinders’ magic thick in the air, the enchanters’ power was as good as useless.

Though Dronkhar pressed her to remain behind, Ilinnia shook her head furiously, unable to speak through the pain wracking her body. She gripped his hand and refused to let go.

It was time. Drawing their weapons, they crept through the opening.

In contrast to the stillness of the tunnels, they soon began to meet small groups of Baelrock guards. The Cealians kept the fights quiet and clean, hiding the bodies in dark corners before moving on. They made steady progress, but every step continued to be agony for Ilinnia. Someone shouted up ahead, and soon they were all running, lances of pain stabbing her with every step.

The hall opened into a wide chamber, and Ilinnia slammed into a wall of blinding pain. A scream burst out of her, high and piercing, and a cloud of darkness with crimson eyes turned as one to gaze upon her.

Thanos. At least two dozen of them, surrounding a jagged piece of metal as large as a tree.

Ilinnia screamed again and felt her mind slip into the void.