“The Weird of Ironspell” by John R. Fultz
Illustrations by Alex Sheikman
3. Return of the Golden Skull
War had come to the Kingdoms of the East.
The earth grew rich with spilled blood, and the sky grew black with smoke from the fires of conquest. Yet this war was unlike any that had come before it, for the stakes were not those of boundaries, empires, or territories. This was a war of annihilation, a war of extinction and wild slaughter. A flood of massacres and endless suffering, a surging tide of death to drown the lands of men.
Fleeing refugees and survivors of the carnage called them Agnyri, or Demon-Men. They came out of the ancient land Dylestus, where a new power had risen to twist their brutal natures into an organized mass of marching havoc. They were the spawn of devils, born with an inner hatred of their human half, eager to quench that hate by drinking the blood of any who reminded them of their earthly lineage. The Agnyri ate only human flesh and dressed themselves in the skins of slain women and children. They called up dragons to burn the forests and fields in their path. They came in the screeching millions, bearing the banner of their God-King, a golden skull on a black field.
The feuding kingdoms of Draviah, Mydrithia, and Al-Kahna joined forces for the first time in history to face the rushing horde. Already their easternmost neighbor, the city-state of Nyrion, had been obliterated, its people become fodder for the flesh eaters, its opulent palaces now charred piles of stone and scattered bones. Each of the Three Sultans knew his kingdom was next, so longstanding differences were cast aside and the Triple Alliance was formed.
Now a half-million soldiers assembled on the Plains of Zharra, awaiting the arrival of the man-eaters. Beneath a fading sun the eastern legions spread in glittering waves of bronze and silver.
Amid the anxious thousands, the Three Sultans gathered in their war tent to discuss tactics with their generals and sorcerers. There was much disagreement on how to proceed, and time was running out. All knew they must agree on a strategy soon. Oghmaru, Sultan of Al-Kahna, father-in-law to the distant Moon God, received a road-weary messenger who brought him words of great import. The Sultan rose from the map table to adjust his spiked helm and golden belt. The other Sultans and their advisors continued to argue over troop positions and flanking maneuvers while Oghmaru prepared a tray of fruits and fine wines, as if to greet an esteemed guest. Servants adjusted his sash and robes, sprinkled him with jasmine, polished the many rings on his thick fingers.
Soon the messenger returned, and two dusty figures came trudging after him. A hulking warrior with an unruly mane of black hair entered the silken pavilion; the silver hilt of a great sword peeked over his shoulder. A tattered black cloak covered his cuirass of chain mail. Following him like a bodyguard or confidant came a stunted gnome, garbed in outlandish robes of scarlet, gold, and olive.
“Ironspell…” The fat-bellied Sultan greeted his old friend with a hearty embrace. “It has been too long. I did not think you would come.”
The warrior accepted a bowl of wine, as did his diminutive friend. He wiped his mouth with a back of a gauntleted hand. “I saw the insignia of the Agnyri,” he told the Sultan. “The golden skull in darkness.”
“Yes, my friend,” said the Sultan. “It is the standard of Azazar the Wicked. I cannot explain it…”
“I can,” said the gnome, setting down his empty wine bowl, which he had drained in a single quaff. “Some sorcerers die many times before their spirits flee this world.” His beady eyes twinkled at the servant, who poured another draught of the purple vintage.
The Sultan glanced at one of his own sorcerers, and the shaven-headed man nodded his agreement. “It has been eight years since you rescued my daughter from this fiend,” the Sultan said. “Your fame has spread throughout the East. They say you have slain a hundred demons, toppled a southern tyrant, put an end to the Slave Lords of Paryah. Poets name you Ironspell the Avenger.”
“So they do,” said the warrior. His rugged face was browned by sun and wind, laced with fading scars, and his eyes glimmered like emeralds set in black velvet. He quaffed another bowl of wine.
“It’s all true,” whispered the gnome with a wink. He smiled crookedly at the Sultan.
Ironspell strode among the generals to stare at their maps. Many were offended by his presence, but none dared question the will of a fellow Sultan. Oghmaru quickly introduced him with great esteem. All of them had heard his legend but scarcely believed he was real. The gnome bowed low before the lords and introduced himself as Grobos the Bastard, auxiliary and confidante to Ironspell.
“They will come through here,” Ironspell said, his finger tracing a certain passage between the Hills of Armaia. “You’d do best with a pincer formation…here…and here.”
The generals traded dubious glances, torchlight dancing on their golden helms. “How do you know this?” one of them asked. Ironspell did not answer.
The Three Sultans conferred in whispers while the generals listened to Ironspell’s blunt advice on tactics. The gnome traded pleasantries with the royal sorcerers, who found him charming despite their initial revulsion to his grotesque appearance. Then Oghmaru spoke as the voice of the Three.
“Lord Ironspell, we hereby appoint you Warlord of the Triple Alliance. Lead our troops against the death horde. For this service, we will grant you anything in our power to give.”
Ironspell picked up the golden bowl from which he had been drinking.
“Give me more wine,” he said, and they did.
The God-King of Dylestus rode on a vast palanquin of sable silks borne on the backs of a hundred slaves. In all directions his army of howling Agnyri trampled the land, leaving flames, death, and filth in their wake. From atop his throne of gilded skulls, he looked with sorcery across the Plains of Zharra and saw the legions of the Triple Alliance, an ocean of gold and silver, a forest of spears and lances, a sea of frightened, desperate men prepared to die. But the coming slaughter did not make him laugh behind his dark veil; it was something else that filled him with a sinister joy. He sensed the presence of the one who had gifted him with his First Death. He laughed, not in the manner of a living man expressing mirth, but in the barking cough of a thing long dead yet still somehow alive, the excoriations of a dry, decayed throat.
In a matter of days the death-horde reached the plains and rolled like a dark flood toward the metal-shod legions of the Triple Alliance. A dozen black-scaled dragons claimed the sky above the Agnyri, croaking terrible, discordant songs and stirring tempests with their tattered wings.
A figure in brilliant armor rode to the vanguard of the Alliance forces. He lifted a silver sword that burned with crimson flame, and his shout rang louder than the roars of the flapping dragons. Ironspell the Avenger led the charge against the hosts of slavering Demon-Men. Sorcerers took to the air like crows to meet the fire-belching reptiles. Grobos the Bastard flew among them, vomiting thunder at the scaly behemoths. Down below Ironspell waded into the midst of the Angyri with Runesblood blazing, and he carved a crimson path through a forest of flesh and bone.
His warhorse soon went down beneath the fangs and pikes of the Demon-Men, so he fought on the ground, face to face with the man-eaters. They reeked of dung and pestilence. Their slitted eyes were those of serpents, their fanged snouts those of deformed wolves. The Agnyri relied on brute force and strength of arm to swing their iron maces, rusted battle blades, and bronze axes. They were too primitive to have any true skill. Ironspell killed them by the dozens. He was too quick for their clumsy blows. The knights of the Triple Alliance, spread about him as an honor guard, did nearly as well, though many were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the Demon-Men.
A red fury claimed Ironspell’s thoughts, and he drove deeper into the ranks of the subhumans, cleaving the brutes in his path, trampling over their corpses until the Agnyri began to fear his blade. They ran from him like jackals, he of the silver sword and armor drenched in the purpling gore of their fellows.
“Azazar!” he shouted, tearing off his battered helm. “Azazar!”
A mass of tentacles rose before him, a blasphemous thing dripping with the slime of the lower worlds. It peered at him with a hundred milky eyes, growling from a dozen orifices rimmed with a shark’s fangs. Grasping tendrils wrapped about his arms and legs, tearing with unearthly force.
“No demon will keep me from you!” shouted Ironspell. He plunged his silver blade into the creature’s pustulant hide again and again, and it ripped pieces of armor from his body, searching for naked flesh. He found the thing’s tiny brain and pierced it. Crawling from the festering muck of its remains, he leapt slashing through the mass of Angyri that guarded the great palanquin. Again he shouted the name of the man he had killed eight years ago, who was now called the God-King of Dylestus. In every direction men and beasts died in the press of metal against flesh, the pounding of hooves, the cacophony of clanging shield and shattered helm. The stench of blood and spilled entrails thickened the air and curdled the wind.
Black silks flew upward, revealing the skull-throne of Azazar. The sorcerer sat patiently amid the slaughter. Ironspell leaped upon the palanquin, and the slaves groaned beneath its weight. Azazar stood and tore a black veil away from his face.
Ironspell crouched like a wary tiger. Before him stood not a man but a corpse, the last traces of flesh rotted from the yellow bones, a grinning skull staring at him in malevolent glee. Azazar’s empty sockets burned with the light of distant stars, as if some other cosmos were reflected in the shadows of his naked skull. The golden skull banner flew above his head, the very image of his own rotted face. His voice was the banging of a brass gong, deafening.
Now do you see why you can never slay me, Witch-son? I am not of this world, but one far greater, where living souls feed the hungry dark. And yours will be next…
Ironspell pounced, and Runesblood sank deep into Azazar’s chest. There was no fleshly resistance there, only the snapping of brittle bone. Ironspell reeled backward, and the decrepit thing before him cackled at the silver blade impaling it. Unlike the first impaling, there was no blood. Azazar was already slain; he had no blood to spill, no flesh to rend.
Have you still not learned what men are? The laughing wizard pulled the sword from his chest and cast it far into the swirling, screaming chaos of the battlefield. Ironspell gasped for breath as the stink of death filled his lungs, forcing out the air.
I serve Death itself, Azazar said. And Death has come for your world. Sorceries danced about his skeletal fingers as he carved dreadful sigils into the air. The sight of them burned Ironspell’s eyes, blinding him.
The battle raged on about them, Agnyri killing human, human killing Agnyri, miles of earth gone scarlet with blood and black with inhuman ichor. Dragons and sorcerers continued their battle among the clouds. The winged serpents caught wizards in their jaws and crunched them to pulp. In the distance a slain dragon fell to earth, crushing men and Agnyri alike with its immense bulk. On the backs of a hundred terrified slaves, the God-King of Dylestus slowly murdered the Warlord of the Triple Alliance.
Azazar wrapped his fleshless fingers about Ironspell’s throat. They were far stronger than any living man’s could ever be.
Once more I hold your life in my hands…and this time I drink my fill. Your mother saw my coming, and worked a great spell to stop it. Today that spell is broken…
Sightless, breathless, without strength, Ironspell hung in the grasp of his enemy. His brain hammered against the inside of his skull…his spirit fluttered, ready to flee his body and slide into the darkness of Azazar’s lipless mouth. The sorcerer would devour him utterly, then throw his soulless flesh to the Agnyri.
Tears of blood crept from Ironspell’s eyes like tiny rubies and fell across his cheeks leaving scarlet trails. A man could only fight for so long…he had lived a short but storied life. Perhaps this was for the best. If the world was doomed to die, who was he to save it? He was only a man, and all men must die eventually…
No, my son.
The face of his mother came to him, floating in the brilliance of his blindness.
It is not yet time for you to join your ancestors.
But how? he wanted to ask, but had no voice. He was dying, regardless of her presence. I cannot…
Remember, she said. Remember the Library of Neshma. Remember…The Book of Souls…
Ironspell saw his young self again, pouring over ancient compendiums and the vellum of yellowed scrolls.
He saw it…lying on the table before him…The Book of Souls…saw himself opening its lizard-scale cover…deciphering the glyphs and runes of an ancient world… reading the Incantation of Divine Illumination…
Skeletal fingers burned like hot irons about his throat. Dragonsongs mingled with the wails of dying men and the ringing of sword on shield…
His blind eyes rolled back in his head.
Yes, Witch-son…give up your sweet life to me…
And he rasped out the words he remembered:
Gods of the Spheres
Winds between worlds
Glorious living flame
Fall upon these mocking bones
These hollow shells of empty spite
Bless the blasphemous
By Scorrah, Vivania, and Alvor
By hammer, flame, and sky
Burn away the dark
Azazar shrieked as his dark robes ignited with pale fire. It leapt about his narrow frame, a nimbus of unearthly light, consuming him in an instant. His pale bones blackened and fell to piles of ash across the silken conveyance. The limp body of Ironspell fell from the palanquin like a forgotten rag doll.
The dragons above shivered at the sound of the God-King’s demise, and the Agnyri began to turn and flee. The knights of the Triple Alliance pursued and cut them down like rabid dogs, battle turning to butchery. The rest of the day and long into the night, Man slew Demon-Man, and the death-horde of Dylestus became a sea of rotting meat upon the plain. The hooves of horses and the armored feet of men trampled the banners of the golden skull into the gory mud. Men built great pyres to burn the unclean bodies. A single dragon escaped the sorcerers, rising beyond the clouds to find its refuge in the voids between the stars.
Ironspell awoke in the war tent of the Sultans with Grobos standing guard over his torn and battered body. He coughed, groaned, and the gnome grinned at him with twinkling eyes. A white bandage wrapped Grobos’ leg where an arrow had pierced his thigh. He limped across the tent and returned with two bowls of wine. Ironspell drank deep.
“Found you under a pile of Agnyri corpses,” said Grobos. “I was surprised to see you alive…your sword turned up later.” He pointed across the tent where Runesblood lay oiled and gleaming in a leather scabbard.
Ironspell’s throat burned still, and his voice was only a whisper. “Victory is ours?”
Grobos nodded. “They’re killing the last of those maggots as we speak.”
“What of Azazar?”
“Gone…burned to nothing. Only this left.” He handed Ironspell a charred skull. “You never told me you had studied sorcery.”
Ironspell forced himself to stand, every muscle and bone in his body aching, fresh blood seeping through his bandages. He did not mind it. Pain meant life. The bliss of death would have to wait for another day.
“My mother was a witch,” he explained.
He set the blackened skull on the floor of the tent and brought his boot down hard, smashing it into a pile of dark dust.
Next Week: The Jewel and the Giant-King
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!