The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 7

“We’re gaining on it,” Ilinnia said. Her face was set with grim determination, and sweat beaded on her forehead. Dronkhar gave her a short nod, more as support than confirmation, then quickened their pace. The creature had continued to demolish a path as it moved through the woods. Despite the debris, they made good time by following down the center of its wake. Dronkhar forced his body to calm. It wouldn’t do either of them any good if he slipped into a battle rage early.

The evening air was still, so it easily carried the guttural shouting from ahead. Dronkhar pressed a finger to his lips and stalked forward. At the end of the path of destruction, the forest opened into a half-dug quarry in the hillside, long since abandoned from the look of it. He pressed himself against a wide tree that had escaped the fate of its fellows and cautiously looked down.

A Baelrock warband, at least twenty strong, had erected a crude camp around a cluster of prisoners. About a dozen humans, gauging by their size, sat bound and under guard. Most looked like soldiers, but Dronkhar could pick out a pair wearing robes in the waning light. Their equipment lay in a pile nearby, taunting them with the possibility of freedom. A Spiritbinder stalked across the camp, snarling like a wild beast at his prey. But it was the hulking figure standing in the center of the camp that drew Dronkhar’s attention.

It looked no larger than the statues that had laid waste to Tarn, but its form and features seemed more complete. Complex symbols had been carved into its metallic skin along with gilded filigree, and a blood-red aura shone from its eyes. Two crumpled bodies lay at its feet.

Ilinnia caught up with him soundlessly, ducking behind a nearby bush. He watched the color drain from her face as she peered down the slope. “What do we do?” she mouthed.

Dronkhar didn’t have a chance to answer. The Spiritbinder shrieked a command, and the ornate creature gripped a human soldier by the throat and lifted the man to his feet.

“Do not make the same mistake as your fellows,” the Baelrock leader screeched. His voice quivered with tenuous sanity. “You came here seeking the metal. Tell me what you know!”

The restrained human clawed frantically at the implacable fist around his throat, his face a mask of anguish. Dronkhar heard Ilinnia smother a cry.

“Stop!” another human yelled, straining violently at the ropes binding his wrists and ankles. It took several guards to subdue him, and many more abandoned their watch posts around the camp to see the commotion. This was Dronkhar’s chance.

He crouched down beside Ilinnia. “Work your magic on my axes.”

She dragged her stricken gaze away from the camp, a confused look on her face.

“Your imbue talent,” he snapped. “I need your power to stop that creature.”

“Oh,” she gasped. Dronkhar quickly handed over both blades.

Though she looked drained when she was done, he could feel the power vibrating within the axes as he took them back. He caught Ilinnia’s gaze and pinned her with a serious stare. “You stay here,” he commanded and refused to look away until she nodded. Then he slipped as quietly as he could along the forest’s edge.

Everyone’s attention was fixated on the Spiritbinder as Dronkhar crossed the shadowed ground toward the prisoners. The Baelrock’s eyes squinted with paranoia and spittle flecked his lips. “Weaklings,” he raged. “Mindless puppets. The metal is not for you. Not until your time. Why did you seek us?”

The now subdued prisoner glared at the Spiritbinder. “We know nothing of what you speak. We are just a scouting party. You are trespassing on lands!”

The Baelrock’s face grew livid, and Dronkhar worried that he would personally strangle the prisoner.

Instead of screaming again, he made a sharp gesture, and the statue clenched its fist with a sickening crunch. The defiant human gave a pained cry and turned away from the remains of his compatriot.

The fires of rage began to course through his limbs, but Dronkhar kept moving toward his target. He reached the hind-most prisoner, a young human in ill-fitting armor. The lad was too terrified to shout even when Dronkhar grabbed his shoulder. He pressed a firm hand over the boy’s mouth then pointed at the rope around his wrists.

He received a terse nod in reply.

Dronkhar drew a small knife from his boot and quickly sawed through the rope. Thankfully the Baelrock had used cheap cord.

He left the knife with the boy, and they moved in separate directions toward the other prisoners.

“I grow tired of these games,” the Spiritbinder snarled. “Perhaps one of the enchanters will provide the knowledge I demand.” Dronkhar saw the two robed humans tremble in fear.

He had finished cutting the last prisoner’s bonds when someone seized his shirt from behind. “What the bloody—”

Dronkhar lashed out with his axe and the sentence ended with a gurgle. A yell went up from the rest of the Baelrock, and the camp erupted into chaos. Several guards rushed at him, and he eagerly leapt at them, ducking, spinning and striking. Moving past the wounded opponents, he fixed his gaze on the rune-covered monstrosity directly before him.

The Spiritbinder’s eyes widened when he saw who was approaching him. “You,” he growled. “Dar’Gol, I command you. Slay this Bloodfire. Slay them all!”

The statue inclined its head toward the Baelrock and strode toward Dronkhar, one hand still dripping with gore. Unlike the others, it did not blindly rush him. It approached carefully and adopted a combat stance. The sigils on its skin flared with that same red gleam that shone from its eyes. It balled its fists, and for the first time Dronkhar realized its knuckles had been sharpened into short, bladed edges.

He ducked a punch aimed at his head and raked the monster’s leg with one axe, but it recovered far faster than he expected. The creature halted its blow and backhanded Dronkhar across his shoulders. Its metal skin was cool, but the contact felt as though it seared his back.

Dronkhar sucked in a harsh breath and ignored the pain. The statue attacked again, striking with quick spear-like punches. Though he tried to parry the blows, Dronkhar could barely turn them aside, and the attacks drew closer to striking true.

All around him, the humans laid into the Baelrock with their recovered equipment. The sohntar daggers and crossbows could maim and injure, but without the might of the Dar’Gol, the Baelrock were no match for the trained human knights.

As Dronkhar tumbled away from another vicious assault, he caught a flash of blue hair on the battlefield. As expected, Ilinnia had ignored his orders, but the Dar’Gol wouldn’t give him time to do anything about it.

To the side, he saw several Baelrock guards swarming toward the defiant human, who had fallen to the ground. Ilinnia raised her hands and a blinding flash lit the battlefield. The Baelrock fell back, screaming in pain. The Dar’Gol seemed stunned by the sorcery, and Dronkhar took the opportunity to sever one of the statue’s arms with a mighty swing.

The creature reeled backwards, confusion radiating from it despite its emotionless face. With a cry Dronkhar rushed it bodily, ignoring the burning pain as he knocked it to the ground. It flailed as it went down, and foul ichor spewed from the stump of its arm. It lashed out with the good fist and caught Dronkhar squarely in the wounded side. The rush of white-hot agony only enraged him, and he used that fury to fuel blow after blow. Great rents opened as Dronkhar’s axes tore into the statue’s armored skin. The glow within the runes began to fade. Dronkhar rose to his feet, knocked its last arm away contemptuously, and raised his main weapon. Focusing all of his rage, his pain, his loss and frustration since the breaking of the clan, he slashed downward and drove his axe halfway into the stone beneath his foe. The Dar’Gol’s head rolled from the body down an incline.

A silence fell across the battlefield as all the surviving Baelrock collapsed, gasping for air as if struck a great blow. The Spiritbinder shrieked in terror and began to gibber madly. Beneath Dronkhar, the body within the metal skin shriveled into dust. A black cloud rose and took shape, fathomlessly dark against the night sky. It stretched an arm to point at Dronkhar, and two glowing eye slits opened in the void. Behind him, Dronkhar heard a voice shout, “Ceanur protect us from the thanos.”

The shadow violently shuddered at the recitation and soared skyward, until the faint red glow could no longer be seen.

Releasing a breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, Dronkhar felt his battered body tremble. His knees shook, then gave out. Small arms wrapped gently around his shoulders, and he found he didn’t have the strength to shake them off.

A gurgling kind of cackle drew Dronkhar’s attention. The Spiritbinder lay on his back, his lips coated with blood as he grinned madly up at the young soldier who held a sword to his throat.