“The Weird of Ironspell” by John R. Fultz
Illustrations by Alex Sheikman
5. The Son of Ironspell
The storm fell from the mountains like the wrath of an angry god. Thunder shook the earth and lightning split the sky, striking fires along the mountainsides. Rain fell in a driving flood, and the wind ripped trees from the earth’s bosom, smashing them to kindling. Servants pulled open the gates of Ironspell Keep, and two black steeds fitted for war galloped into the tempest.
Those left in the wake of the riders bolted the castle doors tight and prepared a funeral bier for the Lady of the Keep. Princess Tyarah of Neshma, Bride of the Avenger, lay pale and bloodless on the floor of the nursery chamber.
They wrapped her in a shroud of white silk, sprinkled her frail body with rose petals, and burned sacred candles at her vigil. They prayed to the God of the Underworld that her soul would find its way; they prayed to the Goddess of Vengeance that Lord Ironspell would find his son and the devil who had taken him.
It would be days before the tragic news reached the fortress city and Queen Zandara. Ironspell Keep guarded the chief pass through the Greyfold Mountains, some thirty leagues from Neshma proper, but a messenger would be dispatched as soon as the storm relented. Weeping, he would tell the queen how her daughter was murdered and her infant grandson stolen away in the night. He would tell how the Avenger rose from a spell of nightmares to find his son’s crib empty, his wife slain by sorcery. He would tell of the storm that rolled from the mountains as if Ironspell’s black wrath had conjured it. How Ironspell rode into the raging squall with Tumnal the Swift racing at his heels. And the messenger would show to the Queen of Neshma the only evidence left by the perpetrator of this terrible crime: a piece of black leather inscribed with the insignia of a golden skull.
Ironspell rode with the speed of a demon. The pelting rain washed tears from his face. His white knuckles gripped the reins, and a horrid emptiness filled his gut. The flames of his anger burned away at the pain in his riven heart. A terrible stench lingered in his nostrils. It was the reek of evil, a familiar stink, and he smelled it even through the driving sheets of rain.
The impossible name rang in his skull, a stricken gong heralding unholy sacrifice. After all these years the Undying One had returned when he least expected it. There was only one possible reason for the taking of his son. The fiend wanted Ironspell to chase after him. Otherwise the baby’s body would lie alongside that of its doomed mother. Poor, sweet-lipped Tyarah who would never see her twenty-fifth year. Ironspell’s throat rumbled with a growl like that of a Greyfold tiger as his mount sped through the night.
Tumnal shouted through the wind at his companion, trailing behind on a white mare. Ironspell ignored him. Since his life had been saved by Ironspell, the Lord of Thieves had stood ever at the warrior’s side. Tumnal, who was born and raised in the land of Hyn, claimed his native customs demanded perpetual servitude to his savior. Ironspell doubted the truth of this, but found that he enjoyed the little man’s company. It had been little more than a year since they returned from the Frozen North bearing the great jewel that won Ironspell his bride. A year of bliss ruined by a single night of savagery. Now, as he galloped through the storm, only Tumnal was brave or foolish enough to follow.
His presence tainted the living world like a noxious vapor, and Ironspell followed that scent as the hungry tiger follows its prey. All through the night and into a grey and soggy morning he rode west, and Tumnal followed.
“Who has done this?” Tumnal asked when the pace of their horses slowed a bit. The mounts must rest or die of exhaustion. Still, Ironspell rode on at a slow trot.
“A sorcerer I killed years ago,” Ironspell said. “Twice.”
“So it’s a ghost, or a spirit-being that we chase…”
Ironspell shook his head, flinging rainwater from his dark locks. “Azazar is…far more than an apparition…far worse.”
“A sorcerer who refuses to die, eh?” said Tumnal. “Where do we find him?”
“Go back, Tumnal,” said Ironspell. “I release you from your servitude.”
“To do that you would have to kill me.”
Ironspell said nothing.
“Shouldn’t we consult a diviner? Ask the wizards of Yom where Tyneus has been taken?”
Ironspell shook his head. “I follow a trail of sorcery,” he said. “I need no wizard to point the way.”
Tumnal nodded. “Very well, then. A quick stop for water and food, and we’ll continue the chase. Catch this fiend by sunfall.”
Ironspell spurred his horse across the grassy plain, driving it back to full gallop. Tumnal sighed, and his stomach growled. “So much for breakfast,” he mumbled, and spurred his own mount.
They rode into the Western Plains for days, stopping only for the briefest of rests, eating only what they could pick from wild trees or buy from scattered villages. At the point of utter exhaustion they reached the towering shadows of the forest Wolfshyre, where black smoke rose from the ruins of a hunters’ village. Here they found evidence of Azazar’s passing: blood-drained corpses and the charred ruins of houses and barns.
The stench of Azazar’s necromancy hung heavy about the place, and Ironspell found among the carnage a piece of blue cloth torn from the hem of his son’s swaddling clothes. Left here among the bodies of slaughtered innocents to taunt him. As Tumnal drew water from the ruined village’s well, the dead bodies began to rise and lurch about like drunkards. The corpses clawed at Ironspell and Tumnal, their mouths gaping with an unspeakable hunger.
Ironspell drew Runesblood and hewed the dead villagers to pieces. Tumnal did his best to assist with a broadsword from Neshma’s armory, a gift from Princess Tyarah. When the monotonous hacking of rotting flesh and shattered bone was done, the exhausted Tumnal fell unconscious. Ironspell would have ridden away if his horse was in any shape for riding. Instead, he built a pyre and burned the twitching body parts from the earth before he took his rest.
So they stayed in the twice-dead village for a single grim day, resting on piles of hay and feeding from the village’s winter stores. Ironspell gazed often into the darkness beneath the boughs of Wolfshyre. Tumnal wondered aloud what dangers lay in that wild wood, and Ironspell said he did not know. But that was the way Azazar had gone, and so it was the way for him. Tumnal nodded. As moon surely followed sun, so the thief would follow his lord and friend.
Into the wild wood they rode and soon were lost in the twisting, mossy corridors between soaring oaks and bittermores. They followed no trail or path, only the stench of Azazar that only Ironspell smelled. Dark meres bubbled with strange vapors; thickets of thorn and black roses tore at their clothes and skin; bloated bats and lazy sloths hung staring among the branches. Soon Tumnal realized that if Ironspell were to fall, or abandon him, he would never find his way out of the tangled woodland.
When night crept into the forest, an army of shadows spread out to fill the groves with darkness, and a chorus wolves howled at the hidden moon. A pack of the lupine beasts descended upon the riders, yet they were not truly wolves for some of them walked like men and whispered in a guttural language. Crimson eyes gleamed hot as fires in the dark. They surrounded Ironspell and Tumnal and leapt slashing with claw and fang.
The quick blades of the companions slew many wolf-beasts, but the hapless horses were torn to shreds beneath their desperate riders. Standing now on the gore-slick moss of the forest floor, hero and thief wove a silver net of steel in the ruddy light of Runesblood’s glow. At last a handful of wailing, snarling survivors fled into the forest depths, leaving behind the bodies of their wolf-brothers. Tumnal cleaned and bound his many wounds, as well as those of Ironspell, who otherwise ignored his own rent flesh. In the pale light of morning, a ring of dead men—not wolves—lay scattered about the travelers’ makeshift camp.
Ironspell and Tumnal walked now through the forest, and the undergrowth grew thicker and more deadly. Thorny vines looped about their ankles like pythons, and poisonous fungi rained like dust from disturbed branches. They sliced their way through the foliage with their blades and came at last to the bank of a mighty river. The invisible trail of sorcery led beyond, and they braved the strong current to make the far bank. A vast serpent reared its head to hiss at Ironspell, spitting venom like hatred. They slew that monster, and many more as well, before they reached the westernmost edge of the Wolfshyre.
The land fell away in a majestic cliff. Far below its jagged edge, the western lowlands stretched toward the horizon. They climbed for a whole day, descending into the festering swamplands. They marched through mud and mire, eating whatever reptiles, fowl, or vegetation they could find. Their beards grew thick and tangled with briars. Like filthy savages they navigated the serpent-haunted wetlands, drawn always onward by Ironspell’s supernatural senses.
When the weary warrior slept, he dreamed of his little son, tortured by the fleshless fingers of Azazar. Sometimes he saw the ghost of his wife weeping, blaming him, accusing him of failing to protect her. At times he sobbed, stuffed his mouth with mud, cursed the gods, and cursed his dead mother. At such times Tumnal held him like a baby until his senses returned. Then Ironspell arose, grabbed the hilt of Runesblood as if it were a charm against his torments, and the journey continued.
Many monstrous things living and unliving came to assail the companions, but always they slew and always they conquered. Time itself was a forgotten concept as they left civilization behind. Barbarian tribes came down from the wild hills to ambush them, or to worship them as mad gods out of the wilderness. The seasons passed in restless agony, stained with blood and mud and tears.
Finally, months or years later, they came to the western edge of the Arborian continent, where a turquoise ocean stretched out to meet the sky. An endless expanse of emptiness, glimmering beneath a swollen sun. A solitary temple of greenish stone stood there, built in the baroque style of a vanished race. Moldering bones lay about the temple’s weed-choked vestibule, and a cracked altar stood barren before a crude idol of black basalt. The god of this temple had long been forgotten, as had the name of the people who built it.
Here, among the fragments of a dead god’s shrine, Ironspell lost the scent of Azazar, and he lost all hope. He fell upon the shattered altar, battering it with his fists and staining it with his tears.
“Gods Above and Below!” he wailed, while Tumnal stood voiceless nearby. “What a curse you have lain upon me. So now I curse you! Not for my own sake, but because you have given my son over to evil. Oh, Mother! Would that you were stoned to death before casting me into this blood-soaked cesspit! I turn away from all gods…and I damn the world that made me!”
Tumnal drew back from his friend, horror dawning in his heart at the blasphemous words. Then he lost his footing and fell as the nameless temple began to quake. The great idol, a six-armed beast-god that once had borne sculpted wings upon its back, wings that had long ago crumbled into piles of stony fragments, trembled and moaned like a wounded giant. It raised its serpentine head with a sound like crackling stone, and it stared at Ironspell with eyes of chipped onyx. It spoke in a gravelly language Tumnal did not recognize, but Ironspell understood.
You curse the gods of Men, who took this world from me, said the beast-god. My people are no more. I share your sorrow.
Ironspell stared up at the living sculpture, his face too wracked with pain to show any wonder. Tumnal grabbed the hilt of his broadsword. Was this some new trick of the Undying One that he must battle to save Ironspell? If so, he would die repaying the life-debt that he carried.
Serve me, the beast-god said to Ironspell, instead of your human gods. And I will show you the way to those you seek.
“I seek Azazar!” cried Ironspell. “I seek my son!”
You must enter the Bleak Realm, said the beast-god. A place that lies between death and darkness, outside the walls of time and space.
“My son…Tyneus…is there? Alive?”
He is there. Tyneus lives.
Ironspell unsheathed his dagger, drew the blade across his palm, and spilled his blood on the cloven altar. The beast-god sighed like a volcano venting heated gasses, and the blood steamed upon the dark stone.
“I forsake the useless gods of men,” said Ironspell. “I will serve you, nameless heathen god though you be. This will I do if you send me to the Bleak Realm.”
The beast-god leaned forward and whispered its true name into Ironspell’s ear. Then it rose and spread its six clawed arms. It sang then, in its dead language, and the air began to hum. A churning whirlpool of sorcerous energies exploded before Ironspell, and Tumnal shielded his eyes with his hand.
Enter now the Gate of Worlds, said the beast-god. Take your servant, for he who serves you serves me. Your son awaits you. Remember our bargain…
Ironspell unsheathed Runesblood, and with a single glance at Tumnal, threw himself into the vortex of spinning lights. Tumnal leaped after him, cursing at himself.
A sea of brilliance gave way to utter darkness, then a sensation of falling, and bitter cold. Suddenly, they were no longer part of the living world. Their feet touched ground roughly, and they found their balance immediately.
A vast necropolis spread about them in all directions. Ancient tombs, giant sarcophagi, forests of gravestones, all spreading like a city of gray fungi beneath a trio of rotted, broken moons. Curls of mist wound like phantom serpents about the crooked stones. The stars above pulsed and shifted like reflections in poisoned water, and looking at them caused a great dizziness. Ironspell steadied Tumnal when he almost cracked his head against a tombstone.
The reek of decayed flesh filled the frigid air. Yet something worse, something far more foul, nearly choked Ironspell. The reek of Azazar, emanating from a black citadel towering amid the field of tombs. Behind a barred window high in the citadel’s tower, stood the figure of a young boy, a lad of at least eight or nine winters. Ironspell recognized the face, for it was much like his own, though far younger. Yet too old, for Tyneus was still an infant.
“Time flows differently here,” said a great, rasping voice heavy with echoes. “My foster son has grown…”
A second figure stood behind the boy, wrapped in the dark robes of a necromancer. The sockets of a grinning skull looked down upon Ironspell. Azazar laid his skeletal hand upon the boy’s naked shoulder.
“Tyneus!” shouted Ironspell. He rushed toward the gates of the citadel. “My boy!”
The child stared down from his lofty vantage point, his round face emotionless and empty, like a death mask. He blinked once with eyes the color of dull emeralds.
“Tyneus is now the Son of Azazar,” said the rasping voice. “You took my life, Ironspell, so I take this one as restitution.”
Ironspell battered at the black gates with Runesblood, but they did not open.
Azazar’s laughter rang like thunder across the dark realm.
Then the black gates opened, and a host of fanged horrors poured forth. Ironspell and Tumnal fought, cleaving brittle bones and rotted flesh, as the citadel’s demons shambled over them. As he sliced the unearthly flesh, Ironspell saw his boy and his enemy walk away from the window, and Azazar’s laughter rang still in his ears like the scraping of bone.
Ironspell shouted terrible words of sorcery inherited from his mother, and the dead things fell to dust. He shouted again, and again, until his voice grew hoarse. He gained the inner courtyard of the citadel, where trees of putrid flesh hung ripe with burning skulls. There, a skeleton steed spread its dragon wings and leapt toward the stars. On its back sat Azazar with Tyneus before him. The boy glanced back at Ironspell, neither smiling nor weeping. Flashes of green in a death-pale face.
The warrior cried out as the demon steed carried his son deeper into the shimmering void. Tumnal fought on against the lumbering ghouls. The necropolis quaked about them, tombs and sepulchres crumbling, and the stars whirred crazily, blinking out one by one. Suddenly Ironspell knew…the very reality of this undead world teetered on the brink of annihilation. This was a trap Azazar had set for him: to perish as the Bleak Realm collapsed upon itself.
“Worry not, Witch-son,” the voice of Azazar echoed, growing smaller now. “Tyneus shall rule an empire of death in the living world. We go there now to build it…”
Then the Bleak Realm began to shatter and implode like a vast cavern rocked by tremors. The broken moons fell from the ruptured sky, and the black citadel flowed away like the smoke of burning flesh. In the cacophony of destruction, Tumnal spoke loudly. “We may die here,” he said, “but our ghosts will follow him into the living world to wreak vengeance. It is an honor to die alongside you, Ironspell.”
Tumnal’s words somehow broke the warrior’s crippling spell of anguish.
“No!” Ironspell shouted, choking in a tide of black dust. A colossal pressure, like the depths of the ocean, pressed against his bones. “I’ll not abandon my son!”
He called out the name of the forgotten beast-god as the Bleak Realm disintegrated. Tumnal lost his senses. Thunder and lightning exploded within his skull. Then darkness.
Some measureless time later, he awoke in the ruined seaside temple.
Glad to be back among the living, Tumnal first vomited, then attempted to stand. His limbs were too sore and his wounds so painful that he could not rise. Fresh bandages wrapped the worst of his lacerations, but his limbs were stiff as oak branches. So he scooted himself over to where Ironspell sat meditating before his nameless god.
“There is food,” said Ironspell, coming out of his trance. He pointed to a rough table in the temple’s corner. Tumnal fell upon the roasted meat and wild onions with gusto.
“Where did you get pork?” he asked through a full mouth.
“I killed a boar while you slept,” said Ironspell.
“I don’t know,” said the warrior. “Time is a meaningless riddle.”
Tumnal drank freshwater Ironspell had gathered in a hollow gourd. With some difficulty he was now able to stand. The sun rose warm and bright over the nameless shore, and he smelled the salt wind of the ocean blowing through holes in the temple walls.
“I am sorry about your son,” said Tumnal.
Ironspell stood. He had washed the filth and slime from his body with cool seawater and tended to the unconscious Tumnal. Runesblood leaned gleaming and oiled against the beast-god’s altar.
“My son lives,” he said. “And I have escaped the doom Azazar meant for me.”
Tumnal nodded. What inner strength had Ironspell gained from his devotion to this pre-human god? He no longer seemed lost or mad. His resolve had been renewed by the savage deity. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that his son still lived that restored his steely determination.
“What now?” Tumnal asked.
Ironspell took up his silver sword and slid it into the scabbard on his back.
“We find him.”
“We?” said Tumnal. It was a word the warrior seldom used.
Ironspell placed his calloused hand on Tumnal’s shoulder. No further words were spoken, nor could they express what Ironspell’s silent, steady gaze said.
When the sun reached its zenith, they began the long journey back into the East, where the walls of civilization held back a new flood of darkness.
Next Week: The return of Grobos the Bastard! Into the Tomb of Azazar!
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!