The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 24

The warm presence within Ilinnia’s mind slowly receded, and in its wake confusion reigned. She couldn’t remember any of what happened after turning the corner and seeing a swarm of thanos surrounding something… surrounding…

The shard. A concentrated manifestation of all the evil she had ever witnessed. Even with it gone, the mere void it had once occupied filled her with a silent dread. Whatever darkness it was connected to remained, deep in the earth. But it was not here now, and their mission was unchanged.

Jhellen drew closer, his gaze filled with concern. When she looked at him, a word floated up from her memory. Lionborn, she had called him. She didn’t understand how or why, but something deep within her knew it was important. Some small part of Jhellen knew it too; she could see it in his bearing.

“What happened?” she managed to croak, and discovered tears streaming down her cheeks.

“You saved us.” Jhellen placed his arms gently around her. “I don¬ít quite know how, or even what happened, but you did.” Ilinnia drew comfort from the sense of closeness and safety, and she quickly regained her composure.

“You spoke with a voice like Ceanur himself,” Sendax murmured reverently, and the expressions of all his soldiers mirrored his words. “How can such a thing be possible?”

“I don’t know,” Ilinnia said, stepping away from Jhellen’s embrace and wiping her cheeks. “I remember being overwhelmed with the sense of a battle between light and darkness.” She caught Dronkhar’s gaze, who kept whatever he was thinking hidden behind that stony mask of his. “Now, I hear only silence.”

“In the end, they’re dead, we’re not. That’s what matters.” Dronkhar’s matter-of-factness surprised Ilinnia, but she found herself glad to hear her companion’s voice once more. “Let’s get a move on.”

They rallied themselves and resumed their trek through the Citadel, cautious at first but with growing haste and boldness. The halls of the fortress had grown empty, as if the armies of the Baelrock had fled when the thanos fell. Now and again they heard the sound of mad gibbering, and a robed figure passed them by without seeing them, arguing with the shadows. The destruction of the shard seemed to have driven the spirit-binders to insanity.

Dronkhar led the way to the dungeons. There was no sign of any guards, but other sohntar, clad in soiled rags, were rushing about unlocking cells. They hurried out of sight when they saw the soldiers coming. Slaves, Ilinnia thought with a frown, and sent a prayer after all of them that the Ai show them mercy and lead them to safety.

Hall after hall they searched, as Dronkhar grew more riled. After the last row of cells was opened, it became clear that his wife was not among the imprisoned. With a roar he threw a discarded set of chains across the final cell. “Damn every Baelrock that was ever vomited from the earth!”

“Be calm, friend,” Sendax said. “Where else might a prisoner of war be taken?”

“I don’t know! But I’m going to find some Baelrock necks and wring the information out of them.”

A dangerous fire lit in Dronkhar’s eyes, and Ilinnia moved to touch his shoulder. The waves of heat rising from him made her snatch her hand away. “Dronkhar, please. It’ll be all right.”

Clenching his jaws, he drew a tight breath then released it slowly. “All right, all right, just let me think.”

“Could the spirit-binder have been lying about Nolaara being here?” Jhellen suggested.

Sendax shook his head. “He was under compulsion. I have never heard of anyone successfully lying to an enchanter. Eolar was absolutely certain the emperor had her.”

“Wait.” Dronkhar shut his eyes tightly. “Wait. He said the emperor wanted a Bloodfire toy… What a bloody fool I am! She must be somewhere near him.”

“His chambers are likely to be under heavy guard. Do we know a way to approach him undetected?” Sendax asked.

“So far, the Citadel’s construction has mirrored the old sohntar capitals. If that holds true, I can at least lead us to the grand hall.” Dronkhar loosened the axes at his side. “Past that, I say we make our own entrance.”

Dronkhar led them back to the upper passageways and sped through the vaulted hallways with unerring purpose. At last they came to a long, wide hall ending with a set of double doors. A growl building in his throat, he charged down the hall and kicked the doors open with a splintering crack. A massive receiving chamber opened before them, wide enough to house hundreds of soldiers and ringed with balconies.

In the center of the room, before an ornate staircase, stood a large, man-shaped statue. Its arms were crossed over its chest, and the runes carved into its metal skin blazed crimson. It tilted its head to regard them with amused malevolence. Laughter echoed in the chamber, as a hundred vile voices slid over each other. The Dar’Gol opened its arms wide, as if in welcome. “We have awaited you, pride of Cealia.”

They drew back in alarm. “Holy Ceanur, it speaks,” Sendax rasped.

“You say this like it is a difficult thing.” The Dar’Gol chuckled. “Much harder to maintain enough patience to wait for your arrival. The chance to snuff out many descendants of the Lion was… tempting.” A wicked smile spread across the Dar’Gol’s face.

“So, you guard Koltorn?” Dronkhar growled.

The Dar’Gol threw its head back in laughter. “Koltorn. A useful tool, but now immaterial. We kill you now…” Its eyes lit with a baleful fire. “…for ourselves.”

It strode toward them but drew up short with a hiss. “You bring pain with you!”

Ilinnia stepped forward. The familiar sting of a Dar’Gol’s presence made her sweat, but she glared her defiance at it. “Yes, fiend. We will return upon you all of the pain that you cause to our world.” She raised her hand, uttering a word of power, and every weapon in the chamber lit with the soft glow of her enchantment. The Dar’Gol snarled angrily and staggered backward.

Dronkhar moved into formation, but Sendax stopped him. “No. This creature means to keep us occupied. Do what you came to do, Dronkhar. Save your wife. We’ll join you once we’ve attended to business.”

Ilinnia could see the doubt behind Sendax’s smile, as could Dronkhar. He paused for a moment and then nodded. Without another word, he dashed up a side staircase and disappeared from view.

A clash of metal pulled her attention back to the Dar’Gol, as two soldiers had met its charge with raised shields. The Dar’Gol dropped to the ground and struck with its leg, sweeping both knights off their feet. It somersaulted forward and landed with a foot on the neck of each soldier. There was a horrid crunch, and the knights fell still. The Dar’Gol leapt back from a desperate swing and kicked one of the corpses into the attacker. Another dodge was followed up with a vicious punch, crumpling the soldier’s breastplate like paper. The knight spat up blood before collapsing.

Sendax commanded his men to circle the creature and attack from all sides. They rushed to obey. The Dar’Gol regarded them, laughed sibilantly, and crouched low. Its motions were fluid, as if it were made of flesh instead of cursed metal. It was poised to spring.

Jhellen sprang first. He leapt toward the Dar’Gol with a mighty cry, but the metal monstrosity parried the blow with its bare fist. The two combatants settled into a battle rhythm, trading blow for blow. Whenever another soldier attempted to strike, it would pivot, kick, or lash out at the attacker, without missing a stroke against Jhellen.

Ilinnia skirted the melee and raised her hands to try a new spell. Her skin burned, and spots swam before her eyes. Before she could speak the words of her enchantment, Jhellen leapt back from the Dar’Gol, his gaze drawn suddenly upward. Before the Dar’Gol could reengage him, he shouted to her, “You have to go to Dronkhar.”

“I can’t!” Ilinnia cried. “This creature is too powerful. If I leave, all of you might die!”

“Helping him is more important, Ilinnia,” Jhellen grunted between sword strokes. “Have faith that we will handle this.”

A wave of darkness crashed into her senses from above the stairs. She didn’t understand how, but she knew Jhellen was right. Without any further hesitation, she dashed up the grand stairwell at the center of the room.