The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 31

Dronkhar brought an axe down on the head of a fallen Dar’Gol, then immediately ducked the lunge of another. He pivoted and swung his other blade upward, cleaving the arm of his attacker above the elbow. It staggered back, ichor dripping from the stump, and another Dar’Gol reared up in its place. With the ground at Dronkhar’s feet littered with corpses, it was becoming difficult to maneuver.

“Dronkhar, this way!” Ilinnia called from the edge of the melee. Chopping at any exposed limbs, he backed away from the throng of metallic foes. Ilinnia beckoned him over, then ran behind a partially crumbled pillar.

Dronkhar inspected her cover. “Not a good place to fight here, lass. Too much rubble.”

“We need a place to hide,” Ilinnia protested, then covered her head with a startled shriek as the pillar behind her fractured. A Dar’Gol hammered it again, and Ilinnia dashed away as the whole structure teetered, then crashed to the ground in a shower of broken chunks.

“Hide?!” Dronkhar shouted scornfully. He had no intention of hiding. He leapt from cover and buried both axes in the closest Dar’Gol. With contempt, he shoved his wounded opponent aside and ripped his blades from its chest, looking immediately for more enemies. Ilinnia’s enchantment hummed over his axes, and they tore through the Dar’Gol armor like paper. With such power, nothing could stand against him! Let the hordes come, all would break before him…

Something yanked on his arm. Dronkhar raised his other to lash out, but he turned and saw Ilinnia’s pale face. She tugged on him again. “We have to find the others,” she pleaded. There it was again, that awareness of a raging fire inside him as it diminished to an ember. Wordlessly, Dronkhar grunted and let Ilinnia pull him away from the battle.

The Dar’Gol gave chase, their tireless limbs navigating the broken terrain with ease. Dronkhar turned and engaged them only when they got too close, striking at legs and ankles. He used them against each other, dodging quickly around the corners of buildings or toppling attackers into the pursuers behind them. “What’s the plan, lass?” he yelled at Ilinnia, still a few paces ahead him.

“Follow me! I feel something close by.” She dashed up a short flight of stone steps.

“Is it the others?” He vaulted up the steps after her.

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not much of a plan!”

Ilinnia skidded on a patch of coarse gravel above the stairs. Dronkhar caught up with her and helped her recover her balance. She grasped his hand and pointed across a lawn of dead grass toward a high-walled building that bore the remnants of bright pennants. “There!”

Dronkhar looked back at the Dar’Gol still in pursuit. He ran behind a nearby pillar and crashed against it with his shoulder. With a groan, the heavy stone archway tumbled down onto the stairs, crushing one Dar’Gol beneath the masonry and scattering those behind it.

They sprinted across the lawn, while more heavy footsteps closed in around them, and ran up another set of steps. Dronkhar was surprised to see intact oaken doors sealed before them, but there was no time to marvel. He and Ilinnia each grabbed one of the heavy iron handles and pulled. The hinges creaked, and the doors slowly inched open. Darkness lay within, but Dronkhar now had a chokepoint. He turned with weapons raised to meet the onslaught.

The throng of Dar’Gol halted just before the steps, quickly shuffling into a military dress formation like ranks of troops awaiting inspection by their general. The heavy doors began to shut, and Dronkhar stepped backward into the darkness with a suspicious frown.

The doors closed with an echoing boom. The following silence was quickly broken by a crackling noise as torches on either side of the doors flared to life. Dancing firelight flickered against a polished marble floor, strangely untouched by decay, and their eyes were drawn to the opposite end of room. An ornate mahogany throne stood on a dais of black velvet trimmed with golden filigree. A man sat heavily upon the throne. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a crown of gold upon his head and garments of rich material but simple design. He stood, and Dronkhar thought he heard the sound of well-oiled gears.

Ilinnia gripped his hand very tight. “Is he what you sensed before?” Dronkhar whispered to her. She nodded, her eyes wide.

The man stepped down from the throne, and though his movements were graceful, something about the motion seemed stilted. Dronkhar felt his hackles rise as the man came to a stop in front of them. His eyes seemed strange. Dronkhar could detect no hint of color in them beyond a murky bronze. He felt Ilinnia shudder and looked closer. The figure’s eyelids opened and closed over spheres of solid metal.

“Who now addresses the Clockwork King?” the man demanded.

***


The creature that had once been Yarth opened its mouth with a discordant hiss. Jhellen felt a sharp pain, like claws raking across his mind. Across the room, Melekar and Eolar were on their hands and knees, screaming and trying to crawl away from the shadowy figure. “Men, get the enchanters to safety!” Jhellen shouted. Several soldiers shook themselves from an awful daze. They hauled the enchanters upright and bore them through a doorway on the opposite side of the room.

The monster ignored them completely, its smoldering gaze fixed on Jhellen. Its jaws flexed like a ravenous beast. Jhellen’s hands trembled at the sight of the unholy visage below him.

Sendax’s fallen body lay near its feet, his eyes staring sightlessly up into the ashen sky. A rush of hot anger burned Jhellen’s fears away. He gripped his sword in both hands and raised it toward the creature.

A vicious grin stretched across its lips. It lifted a fist covered in writhing shadow and grasped the edge of the platform. With enormous strength, it wrenched the corner of the platform down, nearly knocking Jhellen off his feet. The ceiling anchors strained against the pull, and the sound of cracking stone tore through the chamber. Jhellen threw himself down the steps as the platform ripped free from the ceiling. With almost casual disdain, the creature tossed the platform against the far wall. It clattered to the ground with a riotous clanging, and the fiend turned to face Jhellen once more.

Jhellen bounced off several steps before crashing against the stone floor. A hand seized his throat and pulled him to his feet. He choked, feeling like he had swallowed acid. Blindly he flailed with his sword, but the blade bounced off the black-clouded arm. It threw him into one of the tables. Shards of shattered glass sprayed everywhere, and the back of his head struck the wall.

Jhellen rolled off the table, then instinctively dove again as the creature made another grab for him. He slashed at it with a yell, his physical pain fueling his anger. The blade struck nothing. Something writhed at the edge of his vision, and he leapt back as a tentacle of night ripped through the space he’d just occupied. At its tip, a midnight claw dripped an unholy liquid. Jhellen took aim and sliced through what felt like knotted muscle. With a shriek, the demon pulled the thrashing remnant back into its body and launched three more appendages in its place.

He dodged the strikes and slashed back at the tentacles, but he was slowly driven toward the molten vat. One appendage struck his sword arm and buried a black claw into his flesh. Jhellen screamed, but his grip remained firm even as the other shadowy blades tore into his flesh. He kicked and thrashed, but they looped around his limbs, burrowing their claws into his arms, his legs, his chest. Jhellen’s body flooded with pain, and his strength began to falter.

Crimson eyes blazed with power, and the fiend laughed. The sound drove burning needles into Jhellen’s mind, and he fought to hold onto his sanity. The tentacles elongated, lifted him from the floor and carried him toward the waiting metal. The creature stood below, twitching its fingers like a mad puppeteer and gazing up at its quarry with unbridled malice. Its mouth opened, and the voice of night itself issued forth. “THE LIGHT DIES WITH YOU, LIONSPAWN. BE ONE WITH MY BLOOD.

The presence that suddenly filled the chamber should have struck Jhellen down with maddening terror, but instead it awoke a towering fury. A scream of rebellion built in his throat and erupted from him, though he couldn’t recall commanding it. With a sudden burst of strength, he tore his arms free from the binding tentacles. He did not know the nature of his foe, but something within demanded defiance, even to his final breath.

“For Sendax, and for Cealia!” Jhellen roared in a voice he barely recognized as his own. Light blazed through his eyes, and a staggering power inside called for release.

He pointed his blade at the shadowed fiend, and blinding radiance lanced from the tip into the creature’s heart. The tentacles that bound him evaporated, and he fell, clattering off the lip of the vat onto the floor. The light shone around and through the fiend, consuming the writhing shadows from within. A scream of eternal hatred echoed through the chamber, and then all was silent. The light vanished, and Jhellen let out a rushing breath.

With a groan, he lifted his head. No trace of the creature of darkness remained. He blinked and stared at his sword, silent in his hand and looking altogether ordinary.

***


Ilinnia inched back as the man advanced. The sense of wrongness that surged about him was stronger than any Dar’Gol she had faced. At the barest edge of her senses, she heard a voice screaming.

Dronkhar kept a tight grip on his axes. “Clockwork King? Never heard of you.”

The bronze-eyed king opened his mouth to speak, and with revulsion Ilinnia saw that his teeth and the inside of his mouth were also metal. “A sohntar and a queferi. Strange travelling companions, and stranger still to enter my chamber seeking sanctuary.” Despite his metal eyes, his gaze was penetrating. “What business have you in Piraeus?”

“This business,” Dronkhar growled. He had kept Life-Taker strapped in its covering on his back. He unbuckled it and held it aloft, letting the cloth fall away to reveal the black, rune-etched axe. Ilinnia shivered at the sight, and at the way Dronkhar’s eyes burned. “Did you make this wretched thing?”

The Clockwork King glanced at it, his gaze tracing the curve of the blade. “The style is similar to other Baelrock armaments I have seen, and the metal is clearly Dar’iron.” He took a deep breath and smiled. “You have felt the touch of the Dar. I can smell it in you.”

“Smell it in… me?” Dronkhar snarled, his eyes bulging. He threw the cursed axe aside. “You are at the heart of this. You are why Nolaara lies at death’s door. And I will send you through it myself for her sake.” He raised his axes in challenge.

The Clockwork King drew a sword from the scabbard at his side and pointed it at Dronkhar. “Then let your blood and your fire wake the iron’s master.”

With a shout Dronkhar charged. The Clockwork King lashed out with his sword, but Dronkhar neatly dodged and sliced an exposed leg. Cloth and flesh parted, but there was no blood, only the screech of metal against metal. The sound of whirring gears grew louder in the room. The Clockwork King kicked with the leg that Dronkhar had just struck, sending him skidding across the floor.

A dim voice continued to shout from some great distance, and Ilinnia sensed it was important. She strained to listen above the noise of battle.

Dronkhar launched himself from his crouched position. The Clockwork King met his charge calmly, sweeping one axe aside and parrying the second before counterattacking. Dronkhar leapt back and narrowly avoided a slice to his ribs.

Ilinnia watched the battle with only half an eye. She circled the room, trying to locate the screaming voice, and paused when she found herself before the dark throne. She sat on it, and the voice grew louder.

The Clockwork King thrust his sword, point down, and would have skewered Dronkhar if he hadn’t rolled in time. Dronkhar came up behind him and plunged an axe into his back. Something sparked, and the whir of gears sounded from the gash. The King spun and kicked him in the face.

The distant voice and the whirs emanating from the Clockwork King merged into one. Ilinnia clenched her eyes shut and strained to make out what was said. With a start, she jumped to her feet. “Leskin!” she shouted.

The Clockwork King froze.

“You were Leskin once,” Ilinnia pressed. “The human king of Piraeus. You were ill. You were dying. Yarth, your father, tried to save you by replacing your failing parts with metal gears, but the metal…” Ilinnia glanced sadly at Life-Taker. “Was Dar’iron.”

Slowly the Clockwork King turned to face her, the expression on his face unreadable, his metallic eyes still.

Ilinnia stepped forward. “Please! I can still feel your mind. You’re fighting against a dark presence, and have been all this time. Let us help free you.”

The Clockwork King advanced a stiff step. “Free…”

“Yes, Leskin! We can free you—”

He launched himself forward, and the rest of Ilinnia’s words cut off. Pain blossomed through her chest, and she looked down at the sword protruding from between her breasts. From somewhere distant she heard Dronkhar yelling madly, but the Clockwork King leaned in close to her ear and the last thing she heard were his words.

“He will never be free.”