The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 29

The night passed in troubled silence. No one mentioned Dronkhar’s fevered battle-rage, and the darkness pressed in on the camp so completely that speech itself felt unnatural. Dawn never arrived, but the grayness brightened until it was once again possible to see the road stretching out before them. The lingering horror of what Piraeus had become had rendered rest impossible, so they broke camp early in the morning and plodded on toward Lathos.

After several hours, the city loomed on the horizon like a child’s sand castle left to crumble in the sun. Many of the guard towers had broken and toppled, and the timbers of the city gates seemed to have rotted away. The bare ground was a dry, cracked gray punctuated by the pale yellow remains of what had once been grass.

Dronkhar stared hard as something black and cloudlike drifted above the city. Other shapes stirred outside of the walls, the first signs of movement that they had seen all day, and a sense of foreboding grew in the pit of Dronkhar’s stomach. Less than a quarter mile from the city gates, Ilinnia bent double in her seat and moaned.

No one needed to ask what was wrong. The shapes were coated in Dar’iron, but the figures were unlike any of the Dar’Gol. These were misshapen, some with limbs that bent in the wrong directions or were missing entirely, varying in shapes from as small as a human toddler to the size of a war horse. Dronkhar thought he spotted some wandering skeletons that looked dipped in putrid bronze. All wandered aimlessly near the city walls, and those with the semblance of faces froze and turned to stare at the company of men that passed them by.

“This is… I…” Melekar stammered, his gaze filled with revulsion. Eolar sat mute beside him, his face drained of color. Ilinnia kept her face buried in her hands, the silence broken only by the occasional muffled sob.

Dronkhar’s gaze was still trained on the sky. “Sendax,” he called out, and the captain drew alongside the carriage. “Do those look familiar?” he asked, pointing at the black wisps overhead.

Sendax looked up for a moment, then called for an immediate halt. He’d recognized the thanos as well. “The time for pretense is over, gentlemen,” he announced, tossing aside the plumed hat he’d been forced to wear. “Arm yourselves!”

Dronkhar clambered out of the carriage, axes in hand, but the meandering figures only stared idly, and the clouds of thanos continued to drift like lost ghosts in the stale air high above the city. He helped Ilinnia down from the carriage, and she kept a firm grip on his hand.

Clad once more in proper attire, Sendax’s men formed a protective line around the group. They steeled their hearts and entered the city.

Even more metal covered figures wandered the untended streets. Some moved singly, others in loose groups. They all paused to stare sightlessly at the intruders, their gazes following slowly but unerringly. Not all the creatures here were malformed. A few closely resembled the monstrosities that had ripped Tarn apart and swarmed across the plains of Ganele, but none of these displayed any aggression.

All the buildings they passed had their doors open or torn off, and the shadows within seemed to gaze back at them. They followed the main thoroughfare toward a large city square, and every avenue that branched off of it looked the same as the others. “Where do we go, sir?” Jhellen asked, unable to keep the strain from his voice.

Sendax consulted a map and pointed down a street. “The Cealian embassy lies this way.”

As the captain led the way, Dronkhar looked over at Ilinnia. She seemed settled, but her breath came a little too fast, and she still clung tight to his hand. “I’m going to need that back if we’re attacked, lass.”

Ilinnia didn’t respond. A wandering figure had strayed a little too close, and it lurched away from her and backed itself into a doorway. It stared at them with something approaching bewilderment as they passed by. Ilinnia stared back, her own expression a mirror of the metal-clad creature’s.

“Here.” Sendax pointed to a tall, rectangular building up the street. Dronkhar saw the shreds of several Cealian banners that had once hung from the windows. Like much of the city they’d seen, the doors were gone. Weapons at the ready, the soldiers crept inside.

The interior was dim and stuffy, but there was enough light from outside to see the chaos within. Large wooden desks had been toppled and smashed, chairs had been knocked over, and every piece of glass was shattered. The soldiers spread out to search through rooms, while some stooped to examine scraps of paper on the dusty floors.

A low shuffling above brought them all up short. “We’ll check it out,” Dronkhar told Sendax, and motioned Jhellen to follow him. Ilinnia finally let go of his hand, but only because she needed her own to navigate the broken stairs. The next floor contained offices and small bedrooms. The sound came again from the end of the hallway. Dronkhar readied his weapons and led the way, silently leaning past the doorframe.

A deformed metal figure was pacing the length of the room. It only had one arm, and one of its legs was noticeably shorter than the other, giving it a hunchbacked appearance. Its face was featureless, but it angled in their direction, staring at them.

Dronkhar inched into the room, keeping his weapon between his companions and the creature. “Try something, fiend,” he growled.

The figure shrank away from the menacing tone. It turned and pawed at the wall, as if seeking an escape.

“Come on,” Dronkhar said disgustedly, “let’s go back down.” He and Jhellen turned to leave, but Ilinnia hopped over an overturned cot and approached the creature. “What are you doing, lass? Get back here!”

She looked at Dronkhar and held her finger to her lips before returning her gaze to the agitated figure. “I can hear something.”

“Ilinnia, get back.”

The creature spun around, and its mismatched legs toppled, spilling it to the floor with a clatter. Pathetically it crawled away from them and wedged itself into a corner.

“I think you scared it,” Jhellen remarked with morbid fascination.

Ilinnia inched toward it and knelt. “It’s all right,” she murmured, as though trying to sooth a frightened child. “We’re not trying to hurt you.”

“Lass, it’s a trick,” Dronkhar snapped. “Get away from it!”

She turned her face and pinned him with a steely look. “Dronkhar. Trust me.” Then she looked back at the cowering figure. “I can almost hear you. I know you’re trying to say something. Don’t be afraid.”

Tremulously, the creature stretched out its arm toward her and held out a three-fingered hand. Ilinnia swallowed hard, then touched her unbandaged fingers to it. She bit her bottom lip and stifled a whimper, but held her hand in place for several moments. Then she gave a heavy sigh, carefully stood and looked down on the creature with deep pity. “I’m so sorry.”

“What happened?” Jhellen asked her, but Ilinnia brushed past them both and headed for the stairs.

“In a moment. Everyone needs to hear this.”

***


“It was a man once,” Ilinnia explained to the group. “His name was Argollan.”

“Argollan?” Sendax demanded. “Are you sure?”

She nodded seriously. “Do you know him?”

“He is the Cealian ambassador. King Adarion asked me to find him, and hopefully bring him home…” Sendax gazed up the staircase with a look of horror. “How?”

“He can’t remember the details,” Ilinnia replied. “What’s left of his mind is in constant torment. The last coherent thoughts he held were of being brought to the castle and the sounds of boiling liquid. After that, everything became… shadowed.”

“Then we know where to go next,” Dronkhar rumbled. “There’s something in the castle that needs to die.”