The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 8

The surviving Baelrock stood in a daze as their hands were bound in sturdy rope. It was eerie; Dronkhar had never seen a Baelrock this docile. They weren’t the most courageous of sorts, but they would jeer and taunt, and generally be a nuisance even if they were afraid to fight. The death of the ornate Dar’Gol seemed to have sapped their wills.

“Eyes… in the darkness,” the Spiritbinder muttered, and released a moist cackle that sprayed blood over his chin. The face of his young captor twisted with revulsion, but he held his sword steady.

“Let me go, girl,” Dronkhar growled, his gaze locked on the fallen Baelrock. “This scar on the earth owes me answers, and I will have them.”

Ilinnia released him, and he struggled to his feet, but one of the robed humans barred his way. “Stand down, sohntar. This war party was trespassing across our lands. This is our affair.”

“My stony hind-quarters it is.” Dronkhar started to shove past the man, but two soldiers approached and gripped him by the arms. He thrashed but couldn’t shake their hold. “Unhand me! He and his kind have hunted me like an animal for two days.”

Another human approached. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.

Dronkhar recognized the defiant soldier who had shouted at the Spiritbinder. “I freed your men, damn near rescued the lot of you, and killed the bloody Dar’Gol. I have a claim on this wretch.” He renewed his fighting, sending ripples of pain through his body, but his strength quickly wore out. Sagging in the hands that bound him, he hissed through clenched jaws. “Earth’s mercy, they have my wife!”

The soldier turned to the robed human. “Melekar, he has a point. Without his intervention, we’d all be dead… or worse.”

“Jhellen, you forget your place. Get back with the supplies,” the enchanter snapped.

“I’ll be the judge of his place,” a voice called over the sounds of the camp. Dronkhar immediately recognized the commanding tone of a veteran. A grizzled warrior limped toward the gathering, supported by one of his men. “I’m fairly certain that no matter what happened while I was unconscious, His Majesty wouldn’t appreciate this level of courtesy toward a savior of his soldiers.”

“Captain,” Jhellen exclaimed. “I thought that the Dar’Gol had been the end of you.”

A faint smile tugged at the corner of the old soldier’s lips. “Eolar managed to rouse me. It’ll take more than a walking hunk of metal to send me into retirement.” He turned his gaze back to the robed and now scowling man. “Well, Melekar?”

“Very well. As you are back in command, I leave this mess to you,” Melekar replied with feigned civility. He turned to glare at Dronkhar before stalking off toward the other prisoners.

The soldiers released their grip, and Dronkhar fell to his knees with a grunt. A hand was extended to him, but he waved it off and stood. “My thanks, captain,” he rumbled.

“To hear Eolar tell it, I’m the one that should be thanking you. You really went toe to toe with that monstrosity?” the captain asked dubiously.

Dronkhar shrugged. “More or less. I did have a little spiritual help from someone who was meant to remain hidden.” He fixed Ilinnia with a reproving stare softened by the half-smirk on his lips.

Ilinnia seemed to shrink a little from the attention. “I was just trying to protect one of the humans. I didn’t realize the spell would affect the Dar’Gol as well.”

“Well, it was good that it did, lass. Otherwise I’d have ended up repeating the captain’s performance.”

The captain cleared his throat purposefully. “Pleasantries aside, what is your intention toward our prisoner? As much as it might satisfy me, I cannot condone any actions that would lead to his death.”

“Killing him wouldn’t be of much aid to me either. I need to know what they’ve done with my wife. Though I can’t promise that he’ll have the same amount of blood inside him when I’m done,” Dronkhar growled.

“He’ll make more blood. Just make sure he can still talk, or I’ll be in some measure of trouble myself,” the captain replied with a grim smile.

The Spiritbinder was still giggling softly. As Dronkhar approached, his mouth broke into a wide, sadistic grin. “Bloodfire,” he said as if in greeting. “How your flesh softens here, yes? Brave warriors, pride of the earth… rejected by your mother, cast out as we were. Now lost. So lost.” He lapsed into wordless babbling, punctuated now and then by a high-pitched whine.

“I’ve never seen a Spiritbinder go mad this quickly,” Dronkhar commented.

“This is common?” Jhellen asked.

“Happens to all of them eventually. You can’t bend the elements to your will without it leaving scars. They usually don’t break down until they’re older though.” Dronkhar glared at the Spiritbinder’s twitching face. “This one’s so far gone we’ll never get anything coherent from him.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Melekar stated, striding back to the group. “It is to be expected that you wouldn’t have any knowledge of the deeper arts of the world.” He shoved his billowing sleeves back and knelt beside the trapped Baelrock. Beginning an incantation, he held his palm a few inches above the sohntar’s face. The Spiritbinder seized violently and had to be restrained, but as the minutes dragged by, his muttering and trembling quieted. Finally, he blinked drowsily. “He should be compliant now. You can thank me later,” Melekar said.

Dronkhar stepped forward, glowering down at the captive. “Where is Nolaara?”

The Spiritbinder narrowed his eyes as if concentrating, before replying in a calm voice. “She has been taken to the Citadel.” He raised his eyebrows as if remembering something else. “The emperor wanted a Bloodfire toy and he’s laid claim to her.”

Dronkhar’s hands shook at his sides. The Citadel. Earth-tortured fortress in the depths of the wastelands and the heart of the Baelrock kingdom. Despair warred with fury inside his heart, and it took all of his self-discipline not to bury his axe in the Spiritbinder’s guileless face. He knew there was no way to successfully assault it by himself, but he saw no other choice. He’d give his life to try and save her.

The captain touched his shoulder. At the unspoken question, Dronkhar nodded and stepped aside. “What are you doing in our lands?” the soldier demanded.

This time the Spiritbinder didn’t answer right away. He twisted and turned as if trying to avoid the question. He swallowed hard, and a sheen of sweat appeared on his face. “We obey,” he croaked. “He needs the metal. We were sent to deliver it.”

“What metal?”

“The metal!” He pointed a shaking hand toward a pair of carts painted with the insignias of the Baelrock mines. Rumpled blankets concealed their cargo. A memory flashed in Dronkhar’s mind. He had seen carts just like them the day he and Nolaara were ambushed.

“Why is the metal so important?” the captain pressed.

The flickering lights of the torches around the camp suddenly dimmed, and a cloud of shadow streamed from above into the body of the Spiritbinder. His eyes rolled back in his head to be replaced by a crimson glow. Without warning his whole body spasmed, and his hand tore into his own throat, releasing a crimson stream.

“Eolar!” Melekar shouted, as he stretched his hands toward the twisting Spiritbinder. A beam of light shot from his palm into the bleeding figure, only to be twisted with dark strands that crept back toward the straining enchanter.

The second robed man appeared at a run. He seemed much younger than his companion, but his eyes carried wisdom beyond his years.

“I cannot sustain him for long, Eolar. Pull whatever knowledge you can from his mind.” Melekar was sweating profusely. He redoubled his efforts, and the beam of light intensified, but the shadowy strands continued to creep closer.

Eolar touched two of his fingers to the Spiritbinder’s forehead, shuddering at the contact. “Someone ask him what you need to know quickly.”

“What are the Dar’Gol?” Dronkhar blurted before anyone else had a chance to speak.

Trembling at the touch, as if whatever was inside the Spiritbinder was attempting to enter him, Eolar nodded. “Next question,” he hissed through gritted teeth.

“What will my master do with you when he awakens, I wonder?” Eolar broke contact and collapsed, while everyone else took a step back. The voice had come from the Spiritbinder’s lips, but it was far darker and more sinister than before. The light vanished from Melekar’s hands.

The crimson stream became a flood. The sohntar’s body arched sharply off the ground as the blood drained upward from the wound. It collected in a single globule, floating several feet above the ground. The Spiritbinder’s desiccated husk collapsed to the ground as if discarded. A shadow materialized above the globe, and again the glowing eyes shone dread on them all.

“Creep about in the fading light, insects. The Shadow’s dawn comes soon, and I will savor the taste of your souls at your end.” It stretched a hand into the blood, and the scarlet color faded, until the globe became as clear as water. The shadow ascended into the sky, and the globe fell, splashing thickly on the body.

Dronkhar turned away from the corpse. Even with his experience in battle, the sight left him shaken. Ilinnia had fallen to the ground, retching. “My questions have been satisfied,” he said hoarsely. “I take my leave of you.”

Jhellen shook himself from a sickened daze. “Wait, what?”

“My wife has been taken to the wastelands. So I go.”

“To do so would be suicide,” the captain said. “You are a powerful warrior, but even a bear can be felled by a hundred warnet stings. You can not hope to assault the Baelrock emperor without aid.”

“No,” Eolar shouted, as he jerked back to consciousness. It took several seconds before he became coherent.

“What is the matter with you, fool?” Melekar demanded.

“We were wrong, Melekar. I saw it in the sohntar’s mind. This shipment wasn’t going to be used to create more weapons, it was to replace the stockpile they had already used!” Eolar seemed on the edge of panic. “They have already completed an army of Dar’Gol, and it is marching toward our homeland as we speak.”

A look of horror passed over Melekar’s face, and he seemed at a loss for words. Finally, he turned to the captain. “What are your orders, Sendax?”

Dronkhar saw the glint of war awaken in the captain’s eyes. “Prepare the ritual to take us to Delnoth. Jhellen, ready our gear. Men, fall in! We’re returning home.”

“What’s this ‘we’ nonsense?” Dronkhar growled.

The captain’s stare wasn’t unfriendly, but it was unyielding. “These Dar’Gol are already marching on our lands. You, sohntar, can fight them. We require your aid.”

“I owe allegiance to no kingdom. My loyalty is to Nolaara, and she needs me now!”

Eolar interrupted before Sendax could reply. “If your loyalty is to her, then help us. I gleaned the details of the Citadel from the Spiritbinder’s mind. Aid us, and in return, I can send you directly to their heart.”

“Help us drive back this foe, and I’ll lead a damned battalion to rescue her myself,” the captain added.

Dronkhar let loose a string of angry curses.

“Please, Dronkhar?” Ilinnia’s gentle voice somehow cut through the tension like a knife. She gazed at him earnestly. “They need our help, and this is the best chance you have to save your wife.”

“I suppose you think you’re coming too?” Dronkhar asked.

“The Ai would not have set me on this path for no purpose. And if they are going to battle more Dar’Gol, they will need me as much as they need you.” Ilinnia’s lip trembled slightly, but again, Dronkhar saw the strength of perseverance within her.

“May the stone echo your oath,” he intoned, sealing his honor to their pact. “If a legion of Dar’Gol is all that stands between me and Nolaara, then let’s get to fighting.”

The soldiers fell into formation as Ilinnia slipped her hand into Dronkhar’s and gave him a tight smile. Melekar raised his voice, chanting the words to a powerful spell. All around them the world began to waver, and with a thunderclap, they vanished.