The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 25

Dronkhar resisted the urge to look down at the battle as he bounded up the staircase two steps at a time. However the events of the battle below played out, it was out of his hands.

Stay alive, my friends.

He emerged on the roof of the Citadel. Two enormous statues of an armored sohntar flanked a carpeted walkway leading to his destination. The throne room rested at the base of a tower carved into the side of the mountain. Dronkhar readied his axes and charged into the ornate doors ahead, splintering them with his shoulder.

As the clamor of his entry faded, the sounds of low chanting filled his ears. The chamber was vaulted and polished like mica, rising at least four stories above Dronkhar’s head. Row after row of balconies had been carved into the walls, and upon each stood a robed and cowled spirit-binder.

On a dais of obsidian sat the throne of the Baelrock Empire. A shirtless sohntar waited upon the throne, taller than most, with broad shoulders and thick muscles. His hair and beard were as gray as slate, but there was no sign of age in his face. One hand gripped a large, black axe chiseled with green runes; the other held a dual-bladed iron scepter. Emperor Koltorn grinned mockingly at Dronkhar. “Welcome, emissary of the broken clan.”

Dronkhar paid him no heed. To the side of the dais sat a pillar embedded with chains. Nolaara leaned against it as if in exhaustion. Her beautiful black braids had been crudely hacked off, and she was dressed in scant rags. Nearly every inch of her skin that Dronkhar could see bore cuts, many faded to silvery scars, but some only hours old.

“You…” The air around Dronkhar warped. A red haze lit his vision, the axes in his fists grew searing, and the carpet he stood on began to smolder. “…will release her. NOW!”

Koltorn threw back his head and howled with laughter. “You address the emperor of the earth. I answer to no sohntar, no human, and certainly not to the stunted remnant of a clan better off rotting in their graves.” Still gripping his black axe, he rose from his throne and strode to the pillar, never taking his mocking gaze from Dronkhar.

As Dronkhar began to advance, he flicked the edge of his weapon across a patch of skin on Nolaara’s shoulder before holding the blade to her throat. She started as if burned, drew a hissing breath and glowered at Koltorn. “When I get free, I’m going to enjoy gutting you with your own toy.”

“Nolaara!” Dronkhar shouted.

His wife turned her head and stared at him, disbelief mixed with wild hope filling her face.

“It’s me,” he answered her look, his voice thick with emotion. “I’m here.”

The deep circles beneath her eyes vanished as she smiled. “Always keeping me waiting. I would’ve thought you’d learned to be punctual with a lady by now.”

Koltorn’s axe grazed her back. A hair-thin cut opened, a trifle to a battle-hardened warrior like Nolaara, but she gave an agonized cry and sagged against the pillar. The chanting within the throne room grew louder.

Dronkhar strangled a yell and felt his control over the incandescent rage within slipping. Every muscle screamed at him to charge Koltorn, but the risk to Nolaara was too great. He needed some sort of opening.

Koltorn gave a satisfied sigh. “Her life essence is indescribable. I would offer you a taste, but something tells me you couldn’t quite appreciate it.” He cupped Nolaara’s chin in his hand and turned her face from side to side, as though studying her. “A fitting final act of vengeance.”

Sluggishly Nolaara bit at his hand. Koltorn moved his fingers out of reach and stroked her cheek. “I have already laid the Bloodfire clan low. Now I will drink the souls of the few who remain and claim what was always meant to be mine… immortality.”

He was mad. Dronkhar could see it now. Not the manic insanity of a spirit-binder gone rotten in the head, but a flickering in Koltorn’s eyes gave it away. He wielded his madness like a blade.

“What are you talking about?” Dronkhar demanded.

Koltorn fixed Dronkhar with a withering look. “I forget sometimes how much stupider you commoners are. Did you really assume that a flood of abominations burrowed into the heart of the Bloodfire cities by accident? That the Upheaval was fate’s hand turning against you?”

For a moment Dronkhar’s fingers went numb, and the grip on his axes nearly slipped. The world seemed to tilt around him. Nolaara felt it too as she clutched her chains to keep from falling. Tears of shock filled her unblinking eyes.

“Barely sufficient vengeance for hundreds of years in exile,” Koltorn continued, as calm as if he were discussing the weather. “I suppose I should thank your ancestors though. I was but a boy when my father, the true king of the sohntar, was driven into the wastelands by your clan. If not for that, I would never have found Dar’iron and discovered my true destiny. Not as ruler of the sohntar, but as immortal king of the unbroken world.” He released a savage grin and held up his weapon. The runes smoldered on the dark blade, and Dronkhar felt a tug on something within himself. “Dar’iron… calls to the abominations. It drinks in the night. It is more powerful than you or that Piraen construct can possibly know!” He marched towards Dronkhar, and his voice rose in volume until it thundered throughout the room and drowned out the incessant droning of the spirit-binders. “Give your life now to your once and future king! Surrender to the destiny that was set in motion before you were ever born!”

With a smooth motion, Koltorn cast the iron scepter directly at Dronkhar’s heart. The heightened reflexes of a burning Bloodfire were all that prevented him from being skewered. The force of the throw embedded the scepter a foot deep into the stone wall behind.

Dronkhar gave a cry of rage and hurled one of his axes straight at Koltorn. It took the emperor high in the chest and stuck in his right collarbone. Koltorn staggered, and then began to laugh. “Behold,” he rasped, “the power of destiny.” He knocked the blade aside, and immediately the gash sealed itself, leaving only a few streaks of blood on his chest. “A gift from your loving wife. Your life essences will fuel my eternal reign.” He held the black axe aloft. “Life-Taker. It has drunk of slaves and captives, but nothing so sweet as the blood of a Bloodfire. Come, Dronkhar, offer your life to your emperor!”

“Never!” Dronkhar roared as he charged.

A quick roll enabled him to recover his second axe, and he met Koltorn’s stroke with both of his blades. Unlike the other Baelrock he’d faced, Koltorn fought with dreadful skill and ferocity. If his foe was truly several hundred years old, then he faced an opponent with a level of experience that far outstripped his own. The fire within was his best and only true weapon against this monster.

A life-stealing weapon. He couldn’t allow himself to be struck, or the emperor would use Dronkhar’s own fire against him. Koltorn smirked as he detected the change in Dronkhar’s style. He began to open his guard to superficial wounds and attacked Dronkhar relentlessly, trusting in the foul enchantment within his weapon to heal himself whenever a blow got through. Dronkhar soon found himself hard-pressed. At this pace he would tire before his opponent.

“Stop dancing around him, Dronkhar!” Nolaara yelled. “This isn’t a grand ball!”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job, lieutenant!” He ducked beneath a vicious swing and rolled away.

“This lieutenant is going to kick your arse if you don’t stop flirting with him!”

Dronkhar snarled and chopped low at Koltorn’s legs, distressed at how his muscles screamed back. Nolaara was right. He was being too cautious, and the tension was slowing him down. He put some distance between himself and his opponent, and opened himself to the full blaze of his fury.

In an instant, his cares and concerns vanished, replaced only with a sense of consuming heat and darkness. He gazed at Koltorn who looked back with a mad smile. This was the fight he had craved all along. With a growl the emperor charged him. Dronkhar dodged a wide swing and buried his axe in the emperor’s chest.

Dronkhar wrenched the blade loose, and as before, the cut healed itself. Then Dronkhar opened another, this time in the shoulder. Then another along the back. He rained blows between dodges and parries until lacerations covered Koltorn’s flesh faster than they could seal themselves. The chanting of the spirit-binders rose to a fevered pitch.

The wounds began to slow Koltorn’s body. Dronkhar tested his reflexes with feints. Koltorn couldn’t keep pace any longer. After a blistering exchange of strikes, Dronkhar found an opening and gashed Koltorn’s chest open from shoulder to waist. He staggered back, his eyes agape.

Dronkhar rushed in, preparing to decapitate his foe.

At the last moment Koltorn ducked. “Enough!” he roared, eyes blazing. He pivoted and hurled Life-Taker straight at the chained pillar.

The blade stuck deep in Nolaara’s chest, and Dronkhar’s mind fell into a strange sense of detachment. Within, a part of himself raged at the sight before him, but another darker impulse stared enviously at the black axe drinking the life of his beloved. What would it feel like to take hold of that weapon and consume Koltorn entirely?

Nolaara gasped as blood poured down her stomach and pooled on the floor. Koltorn’s face took on a look of ecstasy. He drew a deep breath, as if trying to steal away Nolaara’s last.

Then a slender, tiny hand reached around the pillar and touched the axe.

There was no physical reaction, but a shockwave tore through Dronkhar’s mind, extinguishing the fire and the darkness.

The breath caught in Koltorn’s throat. He doubled over, chest heaving. Ilinnia stepped around the pillar, hand fixed on the black blade, with a look of pained determination on her face. Her fingers smoked where they touched the weapon, but she paid them no heed. Shrieks of pain filled the room, and the spirit-binders all collapsed. “No more. Give back what you stole, right now!” Ilinnia shouted over the din. The runes on Life-Taker’s surface surged from green to a brilliant gold.

Dronkhar dropped his axes and dashed to Nolaara’s side, tearing the enchanted blade out of her chest and away from Ilinnia’s grasp. Nolaara gasped for breath, and the cut sealed as quickly as it had for Koltorn.

With a mad roar Koltorn hurled himself at Dronkhar, knocking Life-Taker from his grip. “My blade! My destiny! My world!” He flailed wildly, but Dronkhar struck back with his own fists, driving the emperor further away from Nolaara.

Whatever power had sustained Koltorn was gone. With every blow that landed, a bruise erupted on the emperor’s skin. It blackened and seemed to spread. A decaying stench began to fill the chamber. Koltorn’s punches were weak and uncoordinated, and Dronkhar dodged the blows easily. With a glance at the wall behind them, Dronkhar dazed Koltorn with an elbow strike to his head, then lifted his body and hurled him toward the scepter still buried within the wall. Koltorn gave a faint cry as he was impaled on his own device before his body stiffened and turned gray. His hands fell slack at his sides, and his body came apart completely, crumbling to ash.

Dronkhar ran back to Nolaara’s side. Ilinnia had already released the chains and had Nolaara propped up against the pillar. Sweat filmed his wife’s forehead, and her skin was pale and wan. “What’s wrong?” he demanded of Ilinnia.

“I felt a darkness enter her,” she answered, pressing her hand against Nolaara’s cheek, “when I reversed the enchantment on his axe.”

“Reversed? You mean she drained the life out of him?”

Nolaara coughed, and flecks of blood spattered her lips. “I see… eyes… in the dark…”

“No…” Dronkhar smoothed Nolaara’s hair back from her forehead, bile choking his throat. “No no no no, not like this, not now!”

“Dronkhar!” Ilinnia caught his wrist with her burnt hand. “The darkness felt like the evil in the shard. The steel within you still bears Ceanur’s blessing. I think it can help stop this corruption.”

The steel… Dronkhar concentrated, and it answered his call. It pooled in the palm of his hand with a faint glow. He pressed his hand where the axe had struck and felt the steel flow between them. Nolaara lapsed into unconsciousness, but her breathing steadied.

Dronkhar looked at Ilinnia, concern flooding through his mind. “What happens now?”

“I don’t know.”