The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 30

Leaving the Cealian embassy and its tragic occupant behind, the group headed up the wide street and toward the palace of Lathos. Though a layer of ornate stonework had been added to the castle over the years, Dronkhar recognized the rocky bones of a fortress underneath. He muttered in disgust at the sight of the same decay that plagued the rest of the city. As they approached, he noticed that there were far fewer aberrant creatures nearby.

A stone causeway led over what had once been a moat. Beyond it, the massive palace gates had collapsed and taken parts of the battlements with them. They scrambled over piles of fallen masonry and broken statues to enter a dusty courtyard. If Dronkhar looked closely, he could almost make out the worn tracks of drilling soldiers from days gone by. A chill passed through him, and he looked up to stare at the listless thanos swarming overhead. Their silence felt deafening.

Looking at the number of buildings in and around the courtyard, Sendax touched Ilinnia’s shoulder. “Did the ambassador remember where he was taken? It could take hours to search this place.”

Ilinnia pointed to what remained of a stone archway that led toward a large domed building. “He remembered that.”

“Then let’s get to it,” Dronkhar grunted. He pushed his way to the front of the line.

A pair of Dar’Gol appeared at the far end of the courtyard. With no cover, the group could easily be spotted, but the creatures ignored them, marched across the courtyard and disappeared into the gloom of another building. Dronkhar found it difficult to loosen his grip on his weapons even after they were well out of sight.

They passed beneath the archway, and other Dar’Gol moved into view on either side of them. The soldiers kept their weapons at the ready, the air thick with tension, but the metallic creatures continued to disregard their presence.

As they walked near the blackened remains of a garden, Dronkhar felt a prickling sensation on the back of his neck. Something was watching them.

Just outside the domed structure, an elaborately runed figure folded itself out of thin air. Dronkhar recognized the foe, as did Jhellen, who raised his sword in challenge.

The sound of the Dar’Gol’s sibilant laughter was also familiar. “You have brought us more subjects! How very courteous of you.”

“Spare us, you piece of filth,” Dronkhar snarled. “I suspected we’d find you here. Has all of this been your doing?”

The Dar’Gol turned and fixed Dronkhar with a momentary stare. “Earthborn. Unimportant.” It waved its hand dismissively at Dronkhar, and a powerful force threw him several feet across the courtyard. With a gasp, Ilinnia rushed to his side.

“Cealians, however…” The Dar’Gol’s gaze fell on Jhellen, and a hungry glow lit in its burning eyes. “You shall serve well.” It stepped forward, its hand clenching and unclenching. “It is good we did not kill you before. This is better. So much better.”

Jhellen lunged forward, his sword aimed at the Dar’Gol’s chest, but as he moved a flash lit the air. A glowing rune etched onto the ground around the humans. The Dar’Gol gave a sinister chuckle and lifted its arms in a strange gesture. Light erupted before Dronkhar’s eyes, and he shielded them with his arm. When the glow vanished, only he and Ilinnia remained in the dead garden.

Dronkhar swore as he leapt to his feet. “More infernal magic!” he roared.

“Dronkhar!” Ilinnia screamed and pointed behind them. Dronkhar turned and saw that several Dar’Gol patrols, so intent on ignoring them before, were charging directly toward them.

***


Jhellen gasped, desperately trying to fill his lungs after a sudden pressure squeezed the last breath from him. The sword fell from his numbing fingers. A strong force yanked his arms back, and something cold and tenuous shackled his wrists. The light faded, the air returned, and he fell hard to his knees.

“Hmm, I see. I see now what you meant. Leardon. Leardon? Yes. How interesting. Very interesting.”

The voice was unfamiliar, high for a man’s and with a tremulous quality. Jhellen felt fingers like dry twigs slip under his chin and tilt his head up. He blinked rapidly to clear the swirls of color from his vision.

An old man’s grinning face came into focus. His brown eyes were filmy and sunken deep in his skull, and his hair was a yellowish white, draping thin and scraggly strands to his bony shoulders. The runed Dar’Gol stood silently by his side.

Jhellen shook off the grip on his chin and looked around. The room was wide and circular. Numerous tables were cluttered with steaming cauldrons and scraps of parchment. Vials of strange liquid lined the walls alongside rusted metal shackles. A large cage sat at the far end of the room, and with horror he saw his brothers-in-arms locked within. The sound of bubbling liquid drifted up from below. He looked down and realized he was kneeling on a metal platform suspended above a massive vat of shadowy fluid.

He strained at his bonds. They didn’t feel like rope or shackles, but they would not yield an inch. “Who are you?” he demanded of the old man.

“Name? Name. I had… Yarth. I was Yarth once. Once? Yes, yes. Yarth.” He grabbed Jhellen’s face again, then leaned in very close and took a deep breath, as if smelling him. “Power! Power in you! Shape it. Shape you, I will. Construct or King? Construct or King or… different? Something magnificent… or something dangerous?” Yarth wandered around the platform, muttering to himself. “King… King needs Champion. You!” He turned and smiled madly at the Dar’Gol behind him. “Brother. No, no brother. Leardon was brother, but is now Champion. But Leskin… needs brother! You can be brother! Brother to the Construct King!” Yarth capered about the platform as he sang tunelessly.

Jhellen’s eyes widened as he made out the shapes at the back wall of the room. The awful truth of the missing Piraens dawned on him. Vats of dark metal, shackles on the wall, and in the back, the discarded metal forms of failed Dar’Gol experiments. Jhellen gagged. “You… you made these monstrosities out of your own people?”

Yarth’s expression turned savage. He dashed back and dug his fingers into Jhellen’s face like claws. “Human flesh weak, diseased, breakable. Metal is pure, unending. Filled with… power…” He released his grip suddenly to lean over the platform, gazing into the bubbling liquid as if nothing else existed. Slowly, he blinked and whirled about in confusion. He spotted Jhellen, and the manic grin returned. “Too soon for you. Too much to process. Bleed first. Metal is hungry, metal desires sacrifice. Must eat meat before eating sweets!” He pointed an idle hand at the soldiers within the cage. “Leardon, I require subjects!”

The Dar’Gol bowed low, then marched down the steps toward the cage. Jhellen started after it, but a strong grasp on his arm halted him, and the edge of a dagger appeared at his throat. The blade was black and wickedly curved, and the metal singed his skin on contact. Yarth held the Dar’iron blade in a steady hand, grinning dangerously.

Though the cage was locked, the Dar’Gol gestured, and Sendax appeared before it. “Captain!” Jhellen called out, and Sendax lifted his weary gaze at him… and nodded.

Sendax slammed his shoulder into the Dar’Gol, and it staggered backward. The captain ran to the wall and sliced his rope bindings apart with the raw edge of a broken shackle. The Dar’Gol charged after him and lunged, but Sendax rolled away. He backed up slowly toward the cage door and when the Dar’Gol struck at him again, he ducked. The swing clipped the lock on the cage and shattered it. Jhellen’s face lit in triumph, but the joy was short lived as the Dar’Gol kneed Sendax in the chest. The captain dropped to the ground.

The soldiers threw open the gate to the cage and rushed out, tackling the Dar’Gol in a pile of flesh and metal limbs. The chanting of myriad voices filled the chamber, and the pile of knights blasted outward. A wave of force flung the humans into the walls and across the room. With a scream, one of the soldiers landed in the metal vat and vanished beneath the liquid darkness.

“My subjects!” Yarth screamed, and Jhellen saw his opportunity. He jerked backwards, pulling his throat from the edge of the blade, and before Yarth could recover Jhellen kicked at his knee. The old man went down with a howl of pain. Jhellen ran from the platform as a jagged bolt of ice shattered against the ceiling.

Jhellen slammed into a wall at the base of the stairs. A lightning bolt tore into the stone above him, showering him with fragments of rock. The chanting of three distinct voices now echoed through the room as the enchanters faced off against the spell-wielding Dar’Gol. Gouts of flame leapt from outstretched hands, only to be redirected by roaring gusts of wind. A sizzling glob of acid soared through the air to explode against a hastily erected stone wall. The room concussed with the powers of creation turned into living weapons.

Looking frantically about for any sort of weapon he could use, Jhellen was caught off guard by an errant shock blast. The spell hurled him against the wall, and it was all he could to do keep himself upright.

“Dangerous!” a voice seethed. Jhellen blearily made out the figure of Yarth advancing on him. “I see it! See it now! Lionspawn! Be not!” He pulled his arm back to throw.

The dagger streaked toward Jhellen, and a shadow crossed his vision. The sound of tearing metal met a spray of warm liquid across his face. He blinked his eyes clear and looked down at the fallen form of Sendax, the Dar’iron blade jutting from his breastplate.

“No!” Jhellen screamed and dropped to his knees beside his commander. “Captain,” he gasped, but the rest of the words caught in his throat.

Sendax tilted his head up weakly. His gaze caught Jhellen’s, and a faint smile spread across his face. Jhellen felt a surge of power from the blade, and Sendax shuddered briefly before falling silent.

A sizzle echoed through the room as Eolar channeled a torrent of fire through a globe of water Melekar had conjured. Scalding steam billowed over the Dar’Gol, and a hundred voices screamed in agony. “I can’t channel for much longer,” Eolar said with a strained voice. “Whatever you’re going to do, Melekar, do it fast.”

The steam cloud vanished into the Dar’Gol, its metal skin now molten red. It swept its hands out in a grand gesture, and Jhellen staggered back against the wall as a wave of shadow condensed into an orb of consuming void in front of the Dar’Gol.

Melekar cast his gaze frantically about the room before locating what he needed. He mentally lifted one of the confiscated Cealian spears and held it in the air before Eolar. “Strike this with everything you’ve got!” he shouted above the keening magic.

Eolar raised his hands, and lightning streaked from his fingertips to strike the hovering spear. As crackling electricity ricocheted off the metal surface, the spear took on a blinding glow.

Jhellen felt a dark energy tugging at his life essence, as if the globe of shadow sought to consume all life within reach. Just as his resistance began to buckle, a pulse of light scattered the shadows, and Melekar launched the radiant lance. The shaft of blazing light tore through the orb and buried itself in the chest of the Dar’Gol.

A single voice cried out in pain. As ichor spilled from its chest, a wailing concord separated from the staggering figure, and black shadows poured from the creature’s mouth. The thanos fled from the room in droves, until the lone cry was all that remained. The Dar’Gol fell and reached helplessly toward Yarth. “Father…” It collapsed, and Jhellen’s bonds faded away.

“Leardon?” Yarth shouted. “Leardon! No good. Broken. Now broken.” His eyes went wide as he noticed the crimson-stained shard of ice jutting from his stomach, a remnant of the magical duel now past. “Must… fix…” He staggered to the edge of the vat and rolled onto the wide stone lip. Thrusting his face into the bubbling surface, he began to drink.

Jhellen felt the echo of darkness awaken in the aged figure and dashed up the platform to recover his sword. Yarth, searing metal dripping down his throat, threw back his head and howled. His back arched impossibly, and Jhellen shuddered at the sound of splintering bone. Yarth lurched back to his feet and raised a hand. Red light lanced from his palm and tore through the roof of the chamber, blasting through several floors to open a path to the sky. Up above, hundreds of thanos continued to drift in silence.

“COME!” Yarth shrieked.

The thanos poured into the room and adhered to his withered body, until Jhellen lost sight of him in the cloud of darkness. The shadows settled into a vaguely human shape, with seething skin as black as night. From the darkness, two crimson orbs awoke, staring directly at Jhellen.