In the grand tradition of the heroic fantasy pulps comes “The Weird of Ironspell” — a serialized novella of original Sword-and-Sorcery adventure coming to you over the next few weeks. Catch a new self-contained chapter every Wednesday right here at blackgate.com. The saga continues…
“The Weird of Ironspell” by John R. Fultz
Illustrations by Alex Sheikman
2. The Moon God’s Bride
They marched out of the wasteland, where the bones of dead cities lay smothered beneath a sea of black sand.
Their captain was tall and broad of shoulder, his dark hair flapping like ravens’ wings about his wolfish face. The hilt of a silver sword gleamed on his back. The other three were strangelings, two with tapered ears and jewel-bright eyes, the third a grizzled gnome with a face like twisted oak. They had survived the death-worshippers of the waste, the leagues of killing sand, the murderous winds, and the terrible things that slumbered beneath the ruined temples. The scars of battle shone upon their arms and chests like tarnished jewels.
The quiet folk of Omzir greeted them with suspicion, as all things are met that crawl out of the desert. Yet when the townsfolk saw their gold and silver coins of ancient mint, they welcomed the travelers like old relatives. Ragged children followed them through the dusty streets like famished dogs.
The captain’s name was Ironspell. He asked for wine and roasted meat. Dranba, the keeper of the town’s only drinking house, offered plenty of wine to earn their gold, but explained that water and food were scarce. He spoke the western dialect since he had once traveled with caravans, so he translated for Ironspell and the strangelings. Jealous townsfolk labeled him a slave to foreign dogs, but Dranba did not care, for in only a few days Ironspell’s generosity made him the richest man in Omzir.
“Your town lies well outside the wastes,” said Ironspell. “Why is your land so infertile?” He and his fellows sat on cushions in Dranba’s establishment drinking bottles of very old wine.
“Alas, Great One, our land suffers the curse of barrenness,” Dranba explained.
“Curse?” asked the wizened gnome. “What god or devil have you offended?” He was a curious little fellow in gaudy robes of orange and green, an iron skullcap tightly fitted to his head.
“None, sirs!” Dranba said. “You see our beloved Princess Ashtra, whose father is the Sultan of Al-Kahna, was born under the grace of the Moon God.”
Ironspell traded glances with the two tall strangelings, whose almond eyes gleamed amber at Dranba. The innkeeper secretly feared them, although their narrow faces were kind. They carried ornate swords with blades straight as arrows, and seemed to look through him and directly at the secrets of his heart.
“Because of the propitious time of her birth, Princess Ashtra’s spirit was bonded to the land itself,” Dranba told them. “This was the will of the Moon God, who came down on a vapor to the Sultan’s palace. He kissed the baby’s forehead and made this pronouncement…” Dranba put on his best god-voice: “As the health of this child waxes, so shall the fertility of your fields. Upon her twenty-first birthday, I will descend again to make her my bride. Until then, guard her well, for her fate shall be the fate of Al-Kahna itself. And he rode a moonbeam back to his sky-home.”
“So gods do lust after mortals…” said Ironspell. He grinned at Dranba’s tale, but perhaps it was only the wine that gave him a morbid humor.
“What happened to her?” asked the gnome. He chewed on a piece of leathery dried pork, the only meat that could be bought at a time like this.
“An evil man came to the palace of the Sultan a few seasons past,” said Dranba. “He is called Azazar the Wicked. All men fear him — even the Sultan — for he is a sorcerer who makes devils and men his slaves. Azazar demanded many things from the Sultan….land, wealth, camels, horses, soldiers…and all these the Sultan provided him. Yet there was one thing more the sorcerer wanted: the hand of Princess Ashtra. By marrying her he would not only become a royal personage by title, but also by blood.
“No! said the Sultan. You cannot have my daughter for she is promised to the Moon God! This drew Azazar’s wicked fury. I care not for the will of any god! he bellowed. I am Azazar! Then the wizard unleashed a plague of hungry devils on the Sultan’s court and stole off with the princess. He keeps her prisoner in his Iron Citadel, in the northern province bequeathed him by the Sultan. And true to the Moon God’s words, our land suffers…our crops die, our wells dry up. Famine plagues us while the princess suffers…and she must be suffering terribly if the state of Al-Kahna is any indication.”
Dranba wrung his hands and held back unmanly tears.
“Gods! That is a fine tale, and a sad one,” said Ironspell. He clapped one of the bright-eyed strangelings on the back. “What do you say, Antestus? Shall we help these poor wretches?”
The strangeling called Antestus smiled, his eyes bright as torch flames. “The Sultan will no doubt respond quite generously,” he said, in a singsong language that Dranba could not understand.
“So will the Moon God,” said the gnome, “if there is any truth to this tale.”
“Grobos, you are too cynical,” said Ironspell, slamming down his copper goblet. “If the innkeeper was lying, I would know it.”
The gnome nodded and drained his own battered cup. This was enough for Ironspell’s fellows. The next morning they paid heavily for the few camels that had not been eaten yet, and rode north.
The yellow landscape of Al-Kahna stretched dry as a bone about them. Once-beautiful fruit trees twisted into leering crones, and the rich grasses of the plain grew brown and brittle. They passed a riverbed where only a muddy trickle survived. Villagers tried to harvest drinking water from the sluggish flow. Many towns had already perished, lying empty as cast-off turtle shells, their inhabitants long fled to more fertile lands. They would travel far to escape the Moon God’s curse in hope of sanctuary from a nearby nation. Many would die upon the journey.
Several days’ riding brought Ironspell’s band into the rocky wastes of the northern province. Obelisks of weathered granite stood about the plain where thorny bracken choked the dead grasses. Azazar’s iron fortress stood like a blight on the horizon, a collection of soaring towers and pinnacles flying the wizard’s banner: a golden skull on a field of black. The air seemed cooler here, tainted with the smell of rotted bones. Ironspell recognized the chill of sorcery, creeping like a damp fog across his skin.
About the black citadel grew a ring of tall green grass and orchards of fruit trees heavy with pear and pomegranate. Obviously the sorcerer sustained his own environment with spells. He would not starve; yet such men did not care if others suffered. Ironspell had traveled the world long enough to know this kind of man. He had witnessed enough brutality and cruelty in the Kingdoms of the East, and he had grown to hate such tyrants. This hatred crawled now in his guts like a venomous serpent; it was this gnawing that drove him northward. Unlike the strangelings who followed him, he cared little for the Sultan’s riches. He existed to annihilate men such as this Azazar…it was the calling given to him by his green-eyed mother. And it had taken him far across the world, through blood and death and storms of ringing, sparking metal…it had brought him here. He eyed the House of Azazar and heard the call of his weird drawing him toward its gates.
Along the battlements stood pikes with decaying heads impaled upon their points. Many were those of women and children. Horn-helmed sentries looked down upon the travelers.
“Open your gates, Slaves of Azazar!” bellowed Grobos the gnome in the eastern dialect. He dismounted from his camel and pointed a stubby finger up at the sentinels. “Tell your master that Ironspell has come for him!”
The wall guards laughed. “Why don’t you write him a letter, dog?” one of them shouted. The rest howled with mirth. “Leave off! Or we’ll show you the true meaning of devil!” shouted another.
Ironspell drew his silver blade. The soldiers above gasped when they saw the dancing crimson of its runes against the sunlight. Ironspell exchanged a silent glance with Grobos, and the gnome nodded his tiny head. His little hands knotted into fists, his eyes glowing like hot coals, and his crooked mouth opened wide. He growled at the iron citadel, his voice a croaking moan. It sank into a tremendous basso tone that shook the gravel below his feet. Pears and pomegranates fell to the earth throughout the orchards; the green grasses swayed in the path of some invisible storm. The sentinels blew upon great, curling battle-horns, but they were barely heard over Grobos’ deepening roar.
Grobos raised his gnarled hands and cupped them to his mouth, casting his thunderous voice directly against the gates. With a terrible crash the great valves flew from their hinges, sailing into the courtyard to smash three scrambling guardsmen into pulp.
A legion of black-mailed warriors rushed from the shattered gate. Ironspell met them as a wolf meets its prey. Men died howling beneath the gleaming arc of his blade; he countered their thrusts and sidestepped their spears, spilling the red life from their veins with reckless precision. The strangelings, too, danced among the soldiers of Azazar, spinning their keen blades, smiling and spilling blood like wine from sliced gourds. Grobos fought with his bare hands, which were tough as stone, his arms strong as any giant. The gnome tossed warriors twice his size into the air by their ankles, used them as clubs to beat their fellows, broke their swords and spears by snapping his fingers, and belched out claps of thunder that cracked their bones and sent them flying. Once he took a spearhead in the leg, but it only made him yowl with anger.
“You men do not have to die!” shouted Ironspell from atop a pile of slain and dying men. “Bring forth your leader, the one called Azazar the Wicked, and you will all be spared!”
“Up there,” said one of the strangelings, kicking the body of an impaled warrior off his blade. He pointed upward with the dripping sword, jewels glinting along its blood-splashed hilt.
A cloaked figure observed the slaughter from a balcony atop the central tower. A massive, bat-winged shape perched like a great raven above the wizard’s head, straddling the tower’s peak with clawed limbs.
“Azazar!” called Ironspell. The blood of indentured men stained his tunic and spotted his face; he did not like its reek and craved instead the blood of the wicked. He raised Runesblood high, and it blazed like a torch in the twilight gloom. “Coward! Tyrant! Enough of your slaves have died! Come down and face your death like a man…”
The wizard waved his left hand, and the monstrosity above him launched itself into the air, spreading wings broad as night. It vomited a gout of purple flame as it descended, and Azazar’s own men fled. Ironspell did not wait to be crushed by the devil’s bulk, but ran and leapt from a low wall to meet it in the air. The strangelings, engulfed in the monster’s shadow, watched as it wrapped claws about Ironspell’s waist. Its great maw opened, a fissure to some sparkling abyss, and flaming spittle dripped from its fangs.
Ironspell grit his teeth against the agony of the searing claws that pierced his sides. He thrust Runesblood into that sizzling maw. The beast screeched, writhed, vomited steaming gore that burned his flesh, and finally cast him aside. His body careened into a wall and fell to earth as the devil careened and flapped above the bloody courtyard. His sword fell some distance away and stabbed into the earth. Now the devil-beast caught him in its burning eyes where he lay numb and senseless on the flagstones. It descended like a striking hawk upon a field mouse.
From across a pile of dead men, Grobos launched a great shout that cracked the keep’s outer wall. The flapping beast exploded into a rain of greasy black ichor. Ironspell stood on unsteady legs, wiped his face clear of the devil’s filth, and pulled Runesblood free of the earth’s grip. The sword rang like a hammered gong in his fist.
Upon the high balcony, the hooded wizard looked down with pale eyes shimmering. Then he was gone with a swirl of red curtains.
“Nice job,” Ironspell told Grobos. “Now, if you please…”
Grobos picked up Ironspell by his belt and tossed him toward the balcony. Ironspell landed catlike on its broad surface and rushed through the velvet curtains. He raced into a hall where a pale, eyeless mastiff snarled at him through pearly fangs. The hound leapt, and he caught it on his blade. He pulled the sword free and used it to split open the wooden door beyond. Azazar kneeled inside a round-walled chamber lined with bookshelves, opulent couches, and thick carpets. He held the point of a sharp dagger to the neck of an unconscious girl. By her great beauty, her rich garments, and her very presence here, Ironspell knew she was the Princess of Al-Kahna. The Moon God’s bride.
“Cast your blade aside,” hissed the sorcerer. “Or watch the princess die…and the land along with her.” His robes were stitched with the deadliest of runes, and Ironspell recognized their dark power. Azazar had slain many an innocent to gain such protections…he would not hesitate to doom her and all of Al-Kahna to save his own skin.
Ironspell spat upon the fine rug. “Coward…” He cast Runesblood across the room into a pile of cushions. The wizard had imprisoned his royal concubine in splendor. Ashtra was doubtless kept drugged to ensure her compliance. Even now, while her champion stood ready to liberate her, she slumbered still. The pitchy blood of the winged devil dripped from Ironspell’s tattered tunic, mingling with his own scarlet blood. His wounds pulsed and seethed as he scowled.
Azazar grinned, his face sharp as a jackal’s, and dropped the princess onto her bed. “Now…who are you, devil-slayer? Why is this quarrel yours? Has the Sultan promised you gold? A title? How has he won your soul?”
The warrior took a painful step forward. “It is only fitting that you know the name of the man who is going to kill you. I am called Ironspell, and this quarrel is mine because I make it mine. It is my fate to rid the world of evil men.”
Azazar threw back his head and laughed. “Will you pull down the stars next and fashion them into a crown for yourself? You must be the greatest of all the fools who walk this earth. You cannot rid mankind of that which is its true self. All men are evil…”
Ironspell shrugged. “Only one like you could believe such a thing.”
“You are cursed with ignorance,” said Azazar. “You have no idea what men truly are.”
“I know what you are…”
Azazar licked his lips. “You may be a fool, but you are impressive…a man of war. So I will make you an offer to rival the Sultan’s: Lead my legions as a general. We will take this kingdom together. Be the Warlord of Al-Kahna. We will build an empire. Infinite riches and power, endless blood to shed. A true warrior’s dream. This is my offer…choose it or choose death.” The wizard’s eyes gleamed, twin moons with spinning rings of diamond.
Now Ironspell laughed. “Kill me then.”
The spell faded in Azazar’s eyes. He raised a long-nailed hand. “Pity…”
Bolts of indigo flame leapt from his palm to writhe across Ironspell’s body like angry serpents. Ironspell grimaced, moaned, and stalked forward on trembling legs, fists clenched into tremulous hammers.
The sorcerer’s eyes grew wide. He raised his arms and sang in the language of demons. A jade mist flowed from nowhere, sliding hungry tentacles into Ironspell’s mouth, ears, and nostrils. The warrior convulsed, and lurched forward. He fell at Azazar’s feet, and the jade mist poured from his mouth like bile. His right hand wrapped about Azazar’s ankle.
“Very well,” said the sorcerer. “I’ll do this up close.” He muttered an incantation and his delicate hands grew into massive, hairy claws. He grabbed Ironspell about the throat, talons sinking into the soft flesh. The wizard howled with laughter as he squeezed the life from his enemy. He took great pleasure from the extinction of any life…and here was a life brimming with power. He savored it as the addict savors the sweet smoke of hashish.
Ironspell’s eyes bulged. The bones of his neck began to crack. He looked up into the face of his killer, whose eyes gleamed with a fiendish glee. A pall of darkness began to blot the world about him…his ears rang with the beating of his own taxed blood.
A word echoed in the chambers of his dimming mind…a name.
The bright blade of the sword chimed a clear, high note. Heeding the call of its blood-brother, it picked itself off the floor and hurled itself across the chamber.
The wizard slumped to his knees and his grip relaxed. A trickle of blood spilled from his lips, and Ironspell, gasping for air, thought of the muddy water trickling along the dried riverbed. Azazar stared down at the length of silvery metal protruding from his chest. His demon hands shriveled and became human again, his magic draining away along with his heart’s blood. Ironspell struggled to his feet and walked behind the crumpled sorcerer. He grabbed the sword’s hilt and pulled it free.
Azazar moaned, weak fingers grasping at the leaking hole in his heart. Ironspell swept the blade in a swift arc that took off the wizard’s head. The carcass slumped forward to lie upon the reddening carpet.
Princess Ashtra stirred on her bed of pillowed silks. She moaned and stared at her savior with bleary eyes. Ironspell faced her with dripping sword in hand, bleeding and dazed with victory. A cold laughter echoed about chamber and the princess jumped.
The severed head of Azazar blinked its diamond-bright eyes.
I will remember you, Ironspell, the head spoke through bloody lips. One day I will show you what men truly are…
A flash of light leapt from the dead man’s eyes and shot about the room like a tiny comet, until it flew out the window to be lost among the evening stars.
Ironspell shivered and went to the girl. She looked at him with uncertain gratitude.
“You’re quite a beauty, Princess,” he whispered. “Are you ready to go home?”
She nodded, and he carried her from the chamber, down the spiraling stairs, and out into the courtyard where bodies littered the sward. The strangelings had been busy driving out Azazar’s remaining legions, and Grobos had slain two lesser demons that haunted the cellar. They found a chest stuffed with gold and jewels — doubtless the tribute Azazar had demanded from the Sultan. The strangelings appropriated the wealth for themselves, tying the chest to a camel. Best of all, they found a dozen fine horses in the stables of the citadel, and each man took a mount. They rode south until the citadel was out of sight, and camped near the riverbed. Its waters already seemed to be flowing heavier, gurgling in the golden moonlight.
A few days later the Sultan of Al-Kahna welcomed Ironspell and his band into his opaline palace, honoring them with feasts, gold, and concubines. The monarch’s joy was so great at seeing his daughter again, he got roaringly drunk. Therefore he never noticed when Princess Ashtra crept into the chamber where Ironspell was sleeping. Nor did he hear the sounds of her heavy breathing as she personally thanked her rescuer with the blessings of her passion.
When the sun rose over Al-Kahna, green things began to blossom. Within days the rivers had refilled themselves, the orchards bore ripened fruit, and the fields sprouted fresh grain. Ironspell remained the Sultan’s guest while his wounds healed, and he enjoyed the princess’s company in starlit garden and luminous bedchamber. The strangelings helped themselves to the opulent pleasures of the court, chief among them wine and women.
One evening, while a chorus of nightingales sang among the lush orchards of Al-Kahna, Grobos brought Ironspell a bit of whispered news. The warrior accoutered himself, gathered his strangelings, and departed the capitol on a fine warhorse given by the Sultan. He did not pause to say goodbye to the princess, for he knew it would only make the girl weep. Yet he must leave this night. Staying one day longer would invite disaster.
Tomorrow was Princess Ashtra’s twenty-first birthday, and Ironspell did not want to be there when the Moon God came to claim his bride.
Next: The Demon-Men of Dylestus
About the Author: John R. Fultz lives in the Bay Area, California, but is originally from Kentucky. He keeps a Virtual Sanctuary at: http://johnrfultz.wordpress.com His fiction has appeared in BLACK GATE, WEIRD TALES, and SPACE & TIME magazines, as well as the DAW Books anthology CTHULHU’S REIGN. His graphic novel of epic fantasy, PRIMORDIA, was published by Archaia Comics. He has new stories forthcoming in BLACK GATE, LIGHTSPEED, SPACE & TIME, and the WAY OF THE WIZARD anthology from Prime Books. In a previous life he made his living as a wandering storyteller on the lost continent of Atlantis.
About the Artist: Alex Sheikman is the incredibly talented creator/writer/artist of the samurai-steampunk-western-scifi comic ROBOTIKA, available at www.amazon.com in two fantastic graphic novels. Much more of his amazing artwork can be seen at http://sheikman.blogspot.com He has a brand-new sketchbook full of wonderful illustrations that readers can order directly from his blog site. Go order his books now–you’ll thank me later!