The Iron King

The predecessors of all the peoples present on Altus M'yd today were known as the Prime. The forefathers of the Elves, Humans, Nymphs and Alchemists possessed an amalgamation of traits that define the races we know of today. The Prime were also known to wield technology beyond the wildest dreams of our common mortals, but it was lost in the unending destruction that is known as history. To this day, the first Prime are revered in certain cultures as gods of the old.

~ Dominique Breezetrent, The Old Scrolls

The dreary wasteland in the distance was a sight to behold in the dimming dusk. The wisps of clouds did their best to hide what was left of the waning light of the twin suns as they descended into the horizon. As if a stern father and loving mother, Crios and Cylexa looked down on the quiet and unassuming world from afar, both silent and watchful. A breeze, damp and heavy, hissed in between the heavy crenellated walls that surrounded the Human city known as New Axil.

High up atop the defenses of the north gate two boys of fourteen gazed out across the outskirts of the city with curious eyes, both pairs a color of gray-blue that ran deep in the Cobaltson family. Korr and his younger cousin, Daun Cobaltson, remained dangerously close to the edge. Their legs dangled down into the wind, the expressions worn on their faces devoid of any fear, typical nature of careless and intrepid younglings. Even a single misstep and either would soon understand the meaning of intense agony. The fall from the top of the crenels wouldn't kill them, but it would surely break every single bone in their legs, leaving them victims to an excruciating pain like none other.

They awaited the arrival of a great king. From their high perch, they spotted the caravan of riders coming in close across the undulating land from the north. Even in the distance, the boys could sense the importance of the event. The Iron King of the Alchemists was riding south in search of laborers. And each and every soul from the Four Kingdoms knew where to gather slaves—the Human nations.

In neat rows along the gate were several soldiers and nobles belonging to the last two noble houses of the Human race. On the right fluttered the sigil of the Goreus—a black wolf. And on the left was displayed with pride—the golden serpent of the Parissus in a field of green. Although customarily bitter enemies, House Parissus and House Goreus had come to an agreement to share the responsibility of playing host to the Alchemist King on his expedition to the south. It wasn't every day, one of the great royals would pay visit to the underbelly of Terris. The greatest asset the Humans had to boast was their numbers. Peasants became mere tokens, bought and sold on grounds that had become almost nonexistent in the everyday dealings of the slaving nation.

"Why do you think they need slaves?" Daun asked Korr, his voice small. "Doesn't the Iron King already have all the servants he needs?"

"I don't know," Korr mumbled in reply. "Maybe there aren't enough in Lyda Auga."

Daun turned to face the scene unfolding before them, his face still full of awe.

The entourage of the Alchemist king was smaller than either expected it to be. A handful of guards rode aside the great steel carriage pulled by thick, burly chargers, housing Drothg'r on his journey to the southern provinces. Two riders rode tall destriers on the carriage's immediate right and left. Even behind the great helms of the riders, Daun and Korr could tell what race they belonged to. Their faces were hidden behind the darkness but poking out from the ear holes of the helmets were the long, black-tipped ears of the Alchemists. As Drothg'r's personal guards, they never left the Iron King's side. They ate with him, they slept on the floor in his chambers and they stood outside the baths when his Grace was washing himself.

Daun counted six others that made up the rest of the entourage—either High Elves or Drow (Dark Elves—the colored faction of all Elves). But it was not the incoming band of Elves and Alchemists that had caught his attention. Rolling along the front and back of the steel carriage of King Drothg'r were strange contraptions of steel and steam. The stories were true, stories of the steely creatures. "By Raab," Korr murmured to himself in awe. "Metal soldiers."

Each of the machines was a strange crisscrossing network of cables and steel sheets put together by gears and clockwork by the greatest inventors of King Drothg'r's Iron Kingdom, formally titled as Lyda Auga. They rolled along, on large spheres of silvery steel, sporting a large crossbow on what seemed like a right hand and a jagged short-sword on the left. The heads of the machines were merely squat squares, attached to the neck as an ornate piece. This was so they would look more familiar—more like their creators.

"So it is true," Daun smiled in excitement, looking sideways at his cousin.

"I wonder what they call those devices," Korr mumbled more to himself than to Daun. "Why do they need slaves if they have those contraptions to work their every command?"

The van of soldiers continued along the road and slowly inched their way in between the lines of Humans stationed at the gate. Both sides watched the automatons with curiosity and wonder, paying more attention to the machines than to the foreign soldiers. When the carriage of the king halted, the riders dismounted and lined up along the front of it. Soon the attention of the Humans returned to the wide door that was bolted shut. When the metal slid to the side, standing in the archway was the Iron King. A middle-aged wyr[1], the Alchemist king was already showing signs of aging. His close cut beard was almost entirely white, flecked with brown along the edges. The black, beady eyes scanned the crowd of Humans before him and they looked as if they had seen much struggle and conflict in past. The king donned ordinary clothes and a dreary black surcoat hid most of his handcrafted steel breastplate. He doesn't look…in any sort or manner…kingly, Daun thought to himself.

"He's smaller than I imagined," Korr said, holding the edge of the crenels tightly.

"Aye, but look at the size of that sword!" Daun exclaimed, pointing to the weapon attached to the king's back.

Drothg'r descended the steps and approached his hosts, the heads of the two great houses, closely followed by his automaton guards as well as his live protectors. The oldest and most highly ranked noblemen of both House Goreus and House Parissus had made the trip to the outskirts of New Axil City, despite their brittle bones and weak joints, because of the rare occasion. Brent Parissus and Markus Goreus looked like frail children, wrapped in their cocoon of cloaks and shawls, atop their outrageously tall horses.

Look at him, Korr thought, admiring the otherworldly Iron King. He must've fought a hundred battles.

King Drothg'r's steel-tipped boots thudded against the dusty earth outside New Axil City as he approached the elderly noblemen. In immediate response, they perked up, anticipating a greeting from one of the Royals of Terris. An automaton rolled across the dirt in front of Drothg'r, marking a perimeter with deadly precision before halting on the king's left side. Peeling his gloves off, the Alchemist looked up at Markus and Brent, offering his ringed hand. One after another, the old nobles shook the hand of Iron King as firmly as their arthritic fingers would allow them.

From high up on the walls, the Cobaltsons couldn't hear what they spoke of but they speculated the dialogue consisted of typical pleasantries that were expected of such ranked individuals. It wasn't before long before they continued through the entrance of the city. On either side, two long rows of stone columns led them to the northern gate. The large, cylindrical structures looked like giants frozen in stone. A large pattern of wrought iron crisscrossed along the foundation of the doorway. A mechanism was attached to a rotating gear by the base of the watchtower on the inside. Several slaves stood watch along the edges of the wall and across the middle of the entrance.

As the Iron King strode towards the gates, three slaves gripped the latch and the lever, rotating it around until the stone weight was high enough to hold the bulk of the gate. The iron rose and clods of dirt dropped down to the ground from the metal spokes that were previously dug into the earth. The portcullis was sturdy and strong, built from fire and steel, but it was no match for the awesome inventions the Alchemists constructed. Rust from the gears trickled down the metal as slaves dropped to their knees, submitting to the Markus Goreus and Brent Parissus, as they rode through the main street with their bodies hunched over their purebred steeds.

"Hurry!" Korr cried, scrambling up to his feet.

The Cobaltsons moved along the brick walls with sheer dexterity. Leaping from stone to stone, grabbing onto the jutting wooden platforms of the windows built into the framework of the buildings, the young Humans kept a close eye on the caravan beneath them. They followed the band of riders and the outlandish metal soldiers that escorted the Iron King.

"Taskmaster said we're to present ourselves in the cells by sundown," Daun said, jumping to an adjacent stone. "He says we're to serve at the feast."

"Maybe Alchemists eat more than the Humans," Korr replied, following his cousin closely.

"Maybe," Daun said, dropping down onto the rooftop in front of him. "At least we'll get a closer look at the king!"

"A closer look at those steel soldiers!"

"He looks almost like us," Daun murmured, almost disappointed by the outcome. "The only difference is the long ears…and the black parts at the end of the ears. Otherwise, they look the same!"

Korr placed his feet on a flat platform that led into a squat balcony, sliding down the wood. "Father says that Alchemists come from a long line of Humans, Drow and High Elves."

Mirroring his actions, Daun followed. "Maybe that's why they look like us."

Falling down half a dozen feet, both finally reached the solid ground. They had cut through the middle of the city, moving roof to roof, moving far more quickly than the Iron King's caravan could through zigzagging streets. Dusk had passed and night occupied the throne in the sky. Torches had been lit and the gas lamps along the main cobblestone ways of the city were giving off the familiar hissing sound.

They entered a throng of peasants, moving against the current of the shifting crowd. Side by side, they strode towards the manse belonging to the Goreus—the house of their masters. The great house, along with the Parissus, hailed from Sentel—the central dominance of the Human region in the south. Ever since they were children, Korr and Daun were placed under the care of House Goreus. The two boys became a staple in the household, even the older noblemen knew who they were and could tell them apart easily based on their physique and personality. They knew, as the younglings grew, Korr was powerful and strong while Daun was lithe and agile. However, there were more similarities than differences between them due to their shared blood. Both were lean and slender, of long limb and wide shoulders. Both had the same willowy brown hair and the grimly cast gray-blue eyes.

Even in servitude, there was a lively spark in two. They dreamt of traveling to the ends of Terris, even though they knew well that they would most likely live and die in the confines of New Axil City. But within the walls of their home city was friendship and camaraderie. They knew that they could rely on one another. Cousins they were, but brothers they seemed.

The Cobaltsons stood before the great fortress of House Goreus. It was a place of cruel familiarity. The fort was both tall and wide, comprising of several adjacent outposts. Stone, steel and red brick were used to raise the house of the Goreus family. Jagged caltrops were built into the steel walls for protection. The castle had a wide entrance with a fountain court as well as a sand pit situated at the east wing for the training of guard-slaves. The cells of all the thralls stood nearby, for easy access.

But rather than coming to an empty fountain court, Daun and Korr came to a fully occupied grounds. There they stood—the Iron King's wyr. Swiftly and silently, Daun and Korr took their places. The stewards and bearers were stationed at the grand entrance of the grand hall, close enough so they could carry out orders as soon as they were issued. But Drothg'r didn't care for his food or his sleeping arrangements. He only cared for what he came to the south for—slaves. Therefore, the thralls stood idle, awaiting the command of either Drothg'r or their own masters. But both Markus and Brent wouldn't dare make a move without the consent of the Iron King.

The Cobaltsons noticed more numbers the second time they witnessed the band of foreigners, being in closer proximity. It turned out that the day's surprises weren't finished—to their astonishment—two Humans accompanied King Drothg'r. They were clad in the same armor—the gray steel plates with the sigil of House Ironheart stamped proudly into their breastplate—the twin hammers of the Steel Gods.

"Korr," Daun whispered under his breath. "Do you see that?"

So, there are Humans living in the other kingdoms, Korr thought. Humans working under the other thrones.

And before them were rows and rows of slaves, all of which were brawny, large Human males. Whatever King Drothg'r wanted of slaves, it was obviously for tasks that required great physical strength. He had come to inspect the specimen and wasted no time to begin his search for the perfect purchases. Although he didn't look like the impatient sort, he was showing some sense of haste…as if he were in a hurry to move on. But it did look like Drothg'r was pleased with what the noblemen of New Axil had to offer. "They seem like a good lot," he said to Markus Goreus.

"Of course!" exclaimed the old Human. "Only the best is offered by our humble house."

"Eh, I still don't understand why the greeting feast couldn't have been in my grand hall," Brent Parissus grumbled.

"Please, my friends," the Alchemist King began, "keep your differences at bay as long as I'm here. Once I have what I need, you can resume your city squabble."

Daun couldn't help but smile at how quickly both Lord Markus and Lord Brent grew silent in response to the Iron King's comments. Neither looked too pleased with the king's cold words.

"Horn of wine," Drothg'r commanded suddenly, holding his hand out. "Peach, if you have it."

Surprised by the sudden request, Markus turned to his army of slaves and waved his arm about, choosing the closest steward. His finger found Korr. "You!" he screeched. "Boy! Get a horn of peach wine for his Grace. And quickly!"

Stunned, Korr stood still for a second. But when Markus' glare bore straight into him, he jumped to his feet, turned on his heel and disappeared behind the large doors of the grand hall, swiftly making his way to the kitchens and the cellar storage. Daun remained as rigid as a statue, as did the other stewards. In the meantime, Drothg'r walked slowly to the edge of the phalanxes of slaves, inspecting the specimen with scrutiny. It was silent when Korr returned. He ran up to the Alchemist King, his arms trembling in excitement when he handed the wine to Drothg'r. Careful not to stare at the king, the young Human made his offer, bowing low.

Glancing sideways at the young Human slave, the Alchemist nodded in thanks and took a swig of his drink. He grimaced when the wine touched his tongue. Not impressed by the taste, he held it away from himself, looking down on it. Placing the stopper back on the horn, he threw it to the ground. "It's like water," the king grumbled.

Markus Goreus' face grew red, but cared to keep his irritation stifled. Brent Parissus had a wry smile on the corner of his wrinkled mouth, reveling in his rival's mishaps.

"Boy!" Markus shouted at Korr. "Pick the horn up and fetch something stronger!"

Drothg'r stopped him with a wave of a hand. "No need," he said, his voice stony. "The boy fetched the wine in the first place, he doesn't need to run back for no reason. If you had the care to give me your best wine in the beginning, opposed to the piss you've handed me, maybe you would've been seen as a respectable host in my eyes."

The Iron King then turned to Korr, suddenly interested. He studied the Human boy carefully—from foot to head—as if he was determining what he was worth in gold. His inspection continued for a lengthy period before he finally spoke. "Do you make your stewards train with a sword, Markus?" he asked. "This one looks like he's been using a blade."

The senile nobleman was quick to answer. "Yes, your Grace, we do."

Cocking an eyebrow, Drothg'r showed that he was genuinely curious. "Why?"

In his raspy, uneven voice, Markus shrugged and then spoke. "You never know when you'll need an army."

Drothg'r smirked. "It seems like I'll be buying most of your army today."

"Aye but gold can buy you a new army."

The Alchemist King took a deep breath and sighed. "The more I spend time with the Humans…the more I understand why you people have fallen into the deepest of all recesses," Drothg'r muttered, a hint of disgust in his voice. "We're meant to have slaves…yes we are…but if a nation's entire fate is contingent on how many wyr it sells for gold, doom awaits them. There is a reason why Sentel and Karnatia are on the back end of Terris. You and your nations live in the dark ages, Human."

Brent spoke his mind with care. "Dark they may be, your Grace, but we're quite comfortable where we are. Not everyone looks to the future like you and your Alchemists do."

The Iron King grunted in reply.

"Sire, you haven't told us why you need the slaves?" Markus Goreus asked inquisitively. "Surely you can't be going to war again?"

"Not now, no," Drothg'r shook his head. "I can't afford to go to war with the plans for my kingdom now."

Lord Brent tried to dig deeper. "What are you trying to accomplish, your Grace?"

The Alchemist locked eyes with the Human noble, finally giving him the information he wanted. "I need workers on my rail," he said.

"Rail, your Grace?"

Drothg'r waved his hand about in irritation. "You wouldn't know, Lord Brent," he dismissed. "It's something that'll change the fate of Terris. There's no real point in explaining what I'm planning to do…it's too complex. No, you'll witness the dawn of this revolution whenever it happens."

Revolution? Korr thought to himself. He suddenly realized he was standing directly in front of King Drothg'r. Not knowing whether or not to move back to the ranks of slaves, he awaited the command of either the Iron King or Markus Goreus.

"I'll need a scholar as well," Drothg'r pointed out. "A Human well read in the histories and religions of your nations. So that I may be learned in your backward ways."

"We were well aware of that," Lord Brent nodded, seemingly unaffected by the king's insults. "We have a young girl of fifteen—well-read and sharp as a sword—just recently she joined the ranks of the Elementalists in the Cult of Lumii. Her name is Taina Saiya."

"An Elementalist?" Drothg'r asked, his lip curling in disgust. But his expression softened. "I suppose I could take the girl on…she's young and still has some formative years left in her. With the proper training in my capital, she could become a court advisor…a bridge between the slaves and the citizens of Lyda Auga. She will be civilized…without use of her magic." He stressed magic, as if it were a foul word.

"As you wish, your Grace," Lord Markus bowed.

"I want this boy as well," Drothg'r put his hand on Korr's shoulder. "There are a handful of worthy Humans in this world." He pointed to the Human guards that stood still by his carriage. "The Flora twins are two of them—honest, loyal, fierce in combat," he finished. "And I feel I can do something with this one."

Taking a good look at Korr, Markus shook his head in disbelief. "He's worth more to us than to you, King Drothg'r," he said. "It makes no sense purchasing a slave with no purpose or service for your country."

Drothg'r flashed a smile, Korr wasn't too sure if it was that of kindness or mischief. The Iron King took his gloved hand away from his shoulder, before speaking once again. "None the matter," he said with a wave of a hand. "I'm feeling a little…generous."

[1] Wyr: A collective term for all mortals on Altus M'yd.