The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 23

Dronkhar caught Ilinnia as she fell back, but his legs suddenly gave out. The two of them collapsed together onto the polished floor of the chamber. The sibilant whispers that had been gnawing at his mind during the trip through the tunnels had turned into chaotic shouts, sapping him of his strength.

The cries in his ears took up the cacophony of his mind. Dronkhar blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision, and saw shadowy forms drifting toward him, crimson eyes lighting the darkness. The soldiers shrank back toward the passage they’d entered from. They thrashed furiously with their weapons when a thanos drew close, but the blades found no purchase against their incorporeal bodies. Dronkhar tried to rise, but wave after wave of dizziness drove him back down.

It was a familiar sensation. The wrongness surrounding the ore carts at the mining camp… the skin of the Dar’Gol and the way it charred flesh. But this was somehow darker… older…

The enormous shard in the center of the room was held by a ring of iron and bracketed into the floor and ceiling, suspended over a yawning pit that seemed to reach down into the Undervoid itself. The evil of this fragment teemed like the throngs of abominations hurling themselves at the fortresses of the sohntar realms. Dronkhar fought back the urge to retch and tore his gaze away.

A panicked cry rang out as one of the soldiers broke ranks and fled toward a far passage. One of the thanos swooped after him and dove into the soldier’s body. The knight stiffened as if impaled. He lurched like a marionette closer to the pit, leaning forward to peer into the maddening depths. One of his fellows dashed forward to pull him back to safety, but he too staggered to a stop as a thanos pounced upon him. With jerky motions, they turned and hacked at the knights’ defensive line, prompting more cries of fear and alarm.

Jhellen stepped from the line, and Dronkhar noted a faint ivory glow surrounding his sword. The two possessed knights immediately turned and flailed their weapons at him. He parried their strikes and kicked the first attacker hard. The soldier staggered backwards and fell, wordlessly, into the gaping abyss. The other leapt at him as if to bite, but ended up skewered on Jhellen’s sword. With tears in his eyes, Jhellen pulled his weapon free and laid his comrade’s body gently on the ground.

The thanos had recoiled when Jhellen stepped forward. They drew high into the air and began to circle the metal shard, red eyes blazing. A thanos drifted out of the knight’s corpse, and a second rose from the pit to join the swirling throng. A piercing scream echoed through the chamber, driving many of the soldiers to their knees.

Harsh, guttural voices rang down the far passages, and Baelrock soldiers rushed into the room with weapons drawn. As one, the thanos dove toward them, until each had possessed a new body with which to fight.

“Ceanur protect us,” Sendax whispered. He lifted the nearest soldier to his feet and pointed his blade at the line of sohntar with their glowing red eyes. “For Adarion and for Cealia! Charge!”

Dronkhar watched the chaos unfold. His warrior blood screamed at him to join the fray, but his body had gone numb, and the walls of his mind struggled to withstand the tides of darkness. Ilinnia was shuddering in his arms, her screams replaced now by choking gasps. Earth preserve him, had he come all this way, fought so hard, only to fail everyone now? Sendax, Jhellen, Ilinnia, Nolaara…

…his beautiful, fiery Nolaara…

The Baelrock numbers continued to surge, but the Cealians seemed determined to depopulate the Citadel in this chamber alone if they had to. Wave upon wave of possessed sohntar broke and died upon the knights’ blades. With each death, a thanos would tear itself from the fallen corpse and dive into a new arrival, and despite their superior skill, the human soldiers were slowly driven backward.

Jhellen, however, threw himself into the enemy lines. Dronkhar’s eyes widened as the youthful soldier fought with the fury of a High King of the Stone. His glowing blade turned aside every strike, and he countered with lethal force, felling scores of possessed Baelrock.

With every body that fell to the ground, the light dimmed within the chamber, and the sense of oppression and darkness grew. Something monstrous was feeding on the chaos and death above.

“…the…Ai…”

Dronkhar looked down. With the sounds of battle, he’d missed the quiet that had fallen over Ilinnia. “Keep still, lass. We can’t do anything here.”

“…they’re…here…”

Dronkhar frowned. Maybe she was delirious. The poisonous whispering was growing louder to him, and he felt himself drawn to temptations of dark power. The image of himself, towering twenty feet above the Citadel, filled his mind, and he relished the thought of crushing every last Baelrock into the cursed earth beneath his feet.

“I can hear them…” Her face relaxed, and she reached up with her hand as if trying to grasp at something.

“What are you talking about?”

“The Ai are here… they came to hold back the darkness… they’re going to help us now…”

Dronkhar ground his teeth in aggravation and felt the fires within rising. There was a darkness behind the blaze though, and he instinctively knew that if he gave into it, he would lose all sense of control. “Where in the bloody fires are they? I see nothing! Nothing but shadow and death. If they don’t get off their mystical arses and help, I’m going to slaughter everyone!”

Ilinnia’s eyes opened, and Dronkhar’s rage vanished. Her eyes were lit with a golden glow that instantly drove the darkness from his mind. She smiled, stretched out her hand, and an invisible force lifted her from his arms, upright… and then several feet off the floor. The gold light swirled about her and soaked into her clothes, her skin, and lit it with radiance.

“Be still, child of the earth.” The voice was no longer Ilinnia’s, but deeper, more mature, and far, far older. “You must save your strength for the fight to come. We will banish this darkness and answer the prayer of our faithful servant.”

The red-eyed Baelrock had paused, and a look of fear tinged with hatred lit upon their faces. A current of fresh, warm air filled the foul chamber. Ilinnia lifted both arms, and the light grew blinding, until it flared behind her like wings.

Two dozen Baelrock soldiers fell writhing to the floor, and the rest fled. The thanos staggered out of the fallen but seemed paralyzed by the waves of golden radiance rolling off Ilinnia. She pointed to Jhellen. “Lionborn! Perform thy duty.”

The alabaster glow surrounding Jhellen’s sword ignited with golden flame. He swung the blade at the nearest thanos and cleaved the formless body in two. With a shrill cry the burning eyes winked from existence.

Every Cealian blade began to glow as brightly as when Adarion had granted them his blessing. With a triumphant cry, the remaining soldiers lashed out at the petrified thanos, driving back the shadows with the light of Ceanur.

Ilinnia drifted toward the shard, and the golden light bent around it, as if the fragment repulsed it with its own evil. “Return to your shadows, Lord of Night, and trouble the waking world no further.” Her internal radiance blazed like a sun, and with a word of absolute power, she channeled a golden ray into the shard.

The shadows in the chamber coalesced into a spinning barrier to withstand the advance of the light, and waves of heat radiated from the clash. The beam was unrelenting, however, and pierced the center of the shard. It shattered to pieces, and each fragment hung in the air, until they had melted away and dripped into the void below.

A faint cry echoed from the depths and was silent.