The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 32

The Clockwork King stepped back and angled his blade downward. Ilinnia’s body slid from the sword and collapsed by the dark throne, her blood soaking into the black velvet.

“Bastard!” Dronkhar snarled. The fire within flared to an inferno, and shadow crested the edge of his vision. “Die!” He struck brutishly at the Clockwork King’s exposed back.

The Clockwork King snapped around and carved a sharp line of pain across Dronkhar’s chest. Ilinnia’s blood mixed with his own, and he staggered back. His foe pressed the advantage. Dronkhar deflected a blow, but the edge of the sword still clipped through the skin of his left shoulder. He dropped his axe and grasped the Dar’iron blade with an implacable grip while hacking savagely at the Clockwork King’s belly with his free axe. The flesh coating the metal skin tore away, revealing oiled gears and delicate pistons within the framework of the worked torso. Only the barest scratches from Dronkhar’s axe scored the metal surface.

A sharp knee drove the breath from Dronkhar’s lungs. “He shall never die,” the Clockwork King stated, then drew his fist back. He smote Dronkhar across the jaw.

Dronkhar reeled and fell to one knee. He heard more than saw his enemy close on him and rolled backward to come up unsteadily on his feet. The Clockwork King continued the advance, and Dronkhar struck a raised ankle with the flat of his axe head. His enemy stumbled, and Dronkhar charged into his side. He came down on top of the Clockwork King. With a feral roar, he hewed at the Clockwork King’s throat with all his strength.

The axeblade sliced through flesh but grated against the metal frame of the neck. Even with Ilinnia’s enchantment, the King’s body was too strong.

The pommel of his foe’s sword cracked against Dronkhar’s temple. Color exploded across his shadowed vision, and he fell sideways, striking the side of his face against the cold marble. He heard gears shifting, then boots clanking on the floor as the Clockwork King circled him.

“Even with the magic of the broken spirits, you are unable to harm him? Such disappointment, sohntar. Perhaps you are unworthy of the gift you were granted.”

A scraping noise filled the chamber. Dronkhar tried to rise, but the Clockwork King planted a metal boot on his chest. He held Life-Taker in his hardened fist. “This primitive tool will reclaim the power wasted on you. After the waking, Piraeus shall be the crown jewel of the world.” He lifted the terrible weapon above his head. “Return your fire to the earth!”

The runes along Life-Taker’s side glowed golden as the blade swung down, and Dronkhar couldn’t stop a wicked grin.

***


The grand fortress of Mollara-Dahn loomed before him. Distant cheers sounded in his ears like the echoes of a far off cavern, and he found himself surrounded by the familiar faces of clansmen. The banners fluttered over… the victory celebration after the Battle of Onyx Falls… more than twenty years ago…

Dronkhar blinked, and he stood with Nolaara on the slope of a tree-covered mountain, staring down into the dirty pit of a Baelrock mining camp. He glanced over at her with a questioning frown… and she nodded firmly… had nodded…

He rubbed a hand over his eyes and found himself staring into a dawn-drenched sky, with the smell of his own blood filling his nostrils and a crackling warmth at his side. He lifted his head stiffly and saw a dozing girl with curly blue hair nearby…

More memories enveloped him, each lasting only a few moments. He drifted through them like rooms in a house, and began to realize they were all half-formed. Where the boundaries of his memory ended, a red-hued mist swirled around whatever lay beyond.

He blinked with the realization that he was not alone. Two figures had appeared in the shifting memories and remained even as his mind leapt from one image to the next. One was a tall, broad-shouldered man whose golden-brown eyes glimmered with ancient wisdom as he gazed about their surroundings with patience. The other was a scowling, muscular sohntar with slate-colored hair and beard.

With a growl, Dronkhar advanced on Koltorn and reached for the weapons at his sides, only to discover they were not there. Harsh laughter rang from Koltorn, but his lips did not move, and it was not Koltorn’s voice.

“While I admire your thirst for violence, it is misplaced at present.” The voice carried behind it the sibilant whisper of a serpent. Koltorn inspected a row of new axes in the armory of Dronkhar’s barracks. “Your memories are an interesting record, sohntar.”

“You have journeyed far,” the human said from across the courtyard, caressing the flowering buds on a tree in Delnoth. Though he spoke in a quiet voice, Dronkhar could make out the faint roar of a lion. “You have done much good in your life, son of the stone.”

Dronkhar frowned at him, his fingers still itching for his axes. “Leskin, I’m guessing.”

The human turned and smiled, and Dronkhar instinctively knew the man was not the king of Piraeus. No mortal’s eyes ever contained that amount of experience or sorrow.

“You have slain a great champion,” the serpent’s voice announced. “Therefore, I offer my patronage. My power is unmatched by any on or beneath the earth. Everything you desire can be made yours.”

The man with the lion’s voice turned and regarded Dronkhar solemnly. “A darkness festers within the earth. A void that you yourself have battled. You are strong enough to face it, but you must choose my path.”

Dronkhar snorted. “There is nothing I desire from the shades of the fallen. Either of you.”

The body of Koltorn faded away, and the serpent’s voice returned, whispering into Dronkhar’s ear. “You do not see what I can grant you, sohntar. Behold.”

Dronkhar stood in the halls of Mollara-Dahn once more, now dim and silent. The grotesque forms of abominations teemed through the once bright tunnels. “Imagine your ancestral home restored to you. Imagine your people filling its halls again, with you as their king!”

“King?” Dronkhar murmured.

They stood now in the ancient throne room of the Bloodfire clan. Dronkhar stared at the image of himself, clad in ornate warplate sitting upon a dual throne with Nolaara next to him.

The hissing voice continued, “Power, immortality, and a legacy of liberation for the slaves of the gods.” Dronkhar, High King of the Stone, stretched forth his hand, and legions of Bloodfire warriors spread across the world. Adarion, Leskin, rulers of nations he did not know existed all knelt before him to pay homage. And by his side, Nolaara, warrior-queen, to rule for all time…

An image of Nolaara on their wedding day flashed into his mind. The light glistened off her black hair and the dozens of filigree threads she had woven into her braids. A scarlet dress flowed around her, one of the few times he’d seen her without a suit of armor, her smile outshining it all…

“She dreams of you,” the lion’s voice said gently, and Dronkhar thought his heart would burst. “Draw your power to you, channel it to the skies, and awaken the moon. Its light will cleanse her of the darkness within.”

“You can resurrect every clansman that fell in the Upheaval!” the serpent whispered triumphantly. “They can all taste immortality, and they shall worship you as god of the new world. All that remains is to claim the power that the night offers to you.”

Dronkhar felt the fires alight whenever the serpent spoke. The lion offered Nolaara’s life, but the serpent offered her life and the world, for all time. Ahead of him, the figure of a night-cloaked snake waited expectantly across from an alabaster lion. Slowly, he stepped toward the serpent.

“Nolaara,” he whispered hoarsely.

Another step. The fires rose to a consuming blaze, and the world of memory trembled.

“I will have you at my side once more.”

A final step brought him a mere foot away from the snake. It bowed its head, waiting for only his touch, his choice, to bestow upon him everything he desired.

“I will give you the world.”

“But I don’t want the world…”

Dronkhar blinked. Nolaara lay stretched out under a warm blanket in their home. The crimson dress hung in the closet, having served its purpose that day. It was their wedding night, and he had just promised her the world. But she said…

“The world’s too big. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. All I want is a life at your side, my captain.” She leaned up to kiss him. “My husband.” Another kiss. “My love.”

Dronkhar staggered back as the memory fought against the black blaze. He glanced from the serpent to the lion and back.

Gods and tyrants. Moon and shadow. Neither offered the desires of a simple warrior.

Dronkhar felt power surge within, and realized that both sought what he held for their own uses. The choice lay with him, and always had.

“I choose my own path. Begone, the both of you.”

The serpent shrieked with rage, while the lion merely raised an eyebrow as a faint smile tugged at its lips. The world around Dronkhar vanished in a blaze of light.

***


Dronkhar lurched upright on the marble floor. The Clockwork King lay before him, but his gears had fallen silent. Life-Taker was still clutched in his hand. The runes had faded away, and the blade no longer carried an aura of malevolence. Without knowing better, he would have guessed that it was a simple overwrought iron weapon. He sprang to his feet and looked down at himself. Though his mail shirt had been cleaved across the middle, he could find no wound. It was then that he noticed the glow. Power radiated across his skin. He felt… renewed. He knew instinctively that if he channeled this strength into himself, he truly could become immortal. But that was not what he had chosen.

He pried Life-Taker from the Clockwork King’s grip. Though the enchantment upon the blade had faded away, the connection Ilinnia’s magic had made with Nolaara remained. He sensed Nolaara’s presence in his mind, as well as the black power that assailed her.

“My love, come back to me,” he whispered, and let the power within flow through the connection. The darkness struggled against him, but the flood of life energy overwhelmed it.

Across the distance that separated them, Dronkhar felt her, as if they occupied the same body. Her hand moved, her limbs stirred, and she opened her eyes, stretching and yawning as if waking from a restful sleep.

The surge of power awakened something in the blade, and the runes ignited with golden fury. Ilinnia had reversed Koltorn’s work, changed the axe to gift the life of the wielder to its target, instead of stealing it. Dronkhar looked back to the mahogany throne where Ilinnia’s body rested. Could it be possible…

He walked over, knelt at her side and smoothed a limp curl of azure hair away from her eyes. Her face was pale, her lips sallow, and her eyes were closed. An expression of hope tinged with sadness conveyed her final thoughts. “This is probably a bad idea, lass,” he told her thickly, “but since you’re not here to stop me, here goes.” He held Life-Taker’s blade above her chest, just over her wounded heart.

Though he didn’t believe in a higher power, Dronkhar muttered a quick prayer to whichever spirits his fallen friend revered. “Whatever light remains within, let it restore your faithful servant.”

The cut was shallow, but Life-Taker surged in Dronkhar’s grip. A channel opened within him, and the suffusing power inside flowed outward. At the farthest end of an impossible distance, he felt a glimmer of light respond. He reached out to it and shouted Ilinnia’s name. The power bled out, but the channel continued to drink. Dronkhar felt his heartbeat falter, and his vision grew dark. He steeled himself and hurled the fire of his blood toward that faint spark…

The pain stopped, and Dronkhar fell backward. The world spun around him, and he was only vaguely aware of Life-Taker crumbling into dust. Ilinnia’s body remained slumped against the throne. Dronkhar laid his head back and closed his eyes. A single tear rolled down his cheek.

Then a cool, delicate hand touched his face. He pried his eyes open, blinking them rapidly as his vision swirled, and Ilinnia’s astonished face settled into proper position.

Laughter rumbled deep in his chest, and Dronkhar wrapped her in a gentle hug. She buried her face against the side of his neck and, unsurprisingly, began to cry. “How?” she croaked as she lifted her head again. “How did you bring me back?”

“Heh, help me up, lass. I don’t know if even you are going to believe this one…”

***


Dar’Gol corpses lay everywhere. There were no signs of wounds, but instead many looked as if they’d begun crumbling into dust. Dronkhar and Ilinnia leaned on each other as they picked their way across the courtyard. A clear voice shouted their names, and they both turned to see Jhellen running towards them, followed by the enchanters and what remained of the Cealian soldiers. Jhellen came to a stop in front of them, breathing heavily.

“Thank Ceanur we found you. Are you all right?” Jhellen asked, and Dronkhar and Ilinnia both shared a glance.

Power of the gods. Bringing the dead back to life. “I’m passable,” Dronkhar replied with a grin.

“Glad to see you’ve recovered your sense of humor, sohntar,” Melekar said as he placed a hand on Dronkhar’s shoulder.

“And glad to see you aren’t dead yet,” Dronkhar returned with a chuckle. He looked around at the faces of his companions and felt his heart sink at a conspicuous absence. “Sendax?” he asked Jhellen.

The young man’s tight expression confirmed his fears, and Dronkhar gave a deep sigh.

“We’ll return for our fallen shortly,” Eolar promised. “Right now, it is time to go home.”

Dronkhar’s heart leapt at the thought of Nolaara. “Then get to it!”

The teleportation spell enveloped the group and bore them away from the lifeless kingdom of Piraeus. A familiar figure faded into view as they arrived in the receiving chamber of Delnoth, and a pair of strong arms encircled Dronkhar the instant he appeared.

“I could feel your return,” Nolaara whispered fiercely into his ear. “I am never letting you out of my sight again, you hear me?”

Dronkhar embraced her tightly. After the battles, the memories, the friendships and the losses, his journey had come to its end. With her, he was home.