The Iron's Grace

"I, Drothg'r Ironheart, Iron King of all Alchemists, High Lord of Psya Augunen and all it's colonies hereby claim an allegiance on this Midsday, the seventeenth of Tsyh'tema of the year 716 E.P. We, the metal-smiths and our sovereign nation Lyda Auga strike a pact with the Humans of Karnatia and Sentel. From this day on, I—the Iron King—and my subjects will support and govern our new protectorate and our Human brothers and sisters, for we share the blood of a common ancestor.

Those who step in the path of the Humans and denounce their claim to the future will face the wrath and blade of all the Alchemists: mortals forged of steel and arminium. Heed to this warning."

~ King Drothg'r Ironheart, Notification of Colonies

The new suit suited Korr well. Blacksteel plate armor neither adorned with flashy accessories nor any bright jewels superstitious warriors commonly coupled with their chain mail. Blacksteel was forged with an ore mined frequently by the predecessors of Altus M'yd—the Prime. The steel was hammered, thinned and bent over and over again until the silvery sheen was nothing but a smoky and dark yet hardened shell of its former self. It was the rarest and greatest of all metals, it was also the oldest that dated back several millennia. Only honored soldiers of the Iron Army were allowed to wear blacksteel…it was a badge of tribute. Korr understood that the High General, Lord Commander and First Ranks all donned blacksteel and were wyr of true grit and had zero tolerance for nonsense. For him to be fitted in the steel was an enormous honor. Since his first days in the Iron Army, he had only spoken to two of the First Ranks and occasionally with the Lord Commander. But he had never encountered High General Tymour in all of his years living in the castle.

It's finally time.

For years Korr observed the statements and policies of the Alchemists with a keen eye—learning and adapting—climbing the stony steps of the Iron Army with his expansive knowledge of anti-magic.

The former slave, newly garbed and armored, stood by the window of the airship, watching the bright city beneath him. He could feel the humming of the steam locomotives at the base of the pneumatic zeppelin. The glass was clear and shimmering, constantly cleaned by the cold water of the clouds they passed through. It circled the perimeter of the city and was the only zeppelin present in the sky. At the helm, the captain of the ship steered the vessel on the deck above him, keeping it steady and smooth.

Psya Augunen was a unique city. Tall scrapers constructed of steel, contrasted the backward Human cities he had been raised in, the edifices of stone and marble had been forgotten in the five years he had been in Psya. For centuries, it seemed as if the Alchemist were always one step ahead of all others when concerning invention and technology…it was widely speculated that the Alchemists had discovered an ancient city of the Prime deep underneath the surface of the earth. And from the preserved remains of their precursors, they developed their futuristic steam technology.

"So who's the little lord I'll have to deal with?" a gruff voice emerged from the bridge.

Korr turned to see a tall Alchemist, burly and menacing with arms the size of tree trunks striding over the steel bridge in his direction. The blazing purple of his eyes was a color Korr had never seen before. His black beard matched his dark armor and long black-tipped ears jutted out of the sides of his head. The Ironheart emblem was burnt into his blacksteel breastplate as well as smaller hammer symbols of the Iron King etched at each wrist. A short velvet cape was buckled at his shoulders, flowing down to the small of his back, signifying his elevated rank.

Korr bowed stiffly. "It's Korr, sir," he began. "Korr Cobaltson."

"I don't care what your name is," he grumbled. "Any bastard that has two arms and legs is the same to me." He caught a glance of Korr's weapons and swept his upturned hand sideways at them. "You brought your weapons up here?"

Korr nodded. "Aye, two short-swords. It's most effective more me." He tapped the hilt of one short-sword over his left shoulder.

"Confidence—I like that," he said, impressed by Korr's answer. "What's your count?"

The Human furrowed his brow, hesitating before responding. "Count, sir?" he asked.

"How many wyr have met the end your blade?" he spat, suddenly irritable. "What's your kill count?"

"Kill count, sir?"

"You're a fighter, aye?" he asked.

The young Human nodded.

"And you know that soldiers sometimes lose their mind amidst the blood and steel," he muttered gravely. "Our minds should stay far away from compassion and sympathy. We do this by keeping a kill count. The higher your number…the more courage we know you have. It keeps our minds on the game."

"Seems a little heartless," Korr muttered.

The High General snorted, turned on the heel of his boot and walked towards the deck. As he stalked away, he beckoned Korr with a quick gesture of two fingers. The Human followed him closely, attempting to match his long stride.

"His Grace seems to be impressed with you, pup," he put in. "For five years he kept you under close observation and I can only wonder why. Maybe he's trying to send a message…trying to justify the Human slaves he uses to build his railroads. He's only seen you spar with a bunch of boys in the training yard. You haven't really seen six soldiers coming at you from different directions." He glanced sideways at Korr. "Have you?"

"Four, sir," he told the Alchemist. "I've fought four at once…that's the most I've done…not six."

The High General harrumphed. "I guess that's good enough for his Grace," he shrugged. "Has King Drothg'r debriefed you on the way things are in the higher ups of the Iron Army?"

Korr paused. "I think so, sir," he finally managed to say.

"An Iron King has iron subjects and rules iron country—get with it, boy," he growled. "The sooner you forget the ways of ordinary foot soldiers, the easier time you'll have under me. Up here, we use our wits to win battles. And King Drothg'r thinks you have the stones to play with us."

"General Tymour," Korr began. "I'm not here to cause any trouble. I only want to fight. I only want to serve the king."

They ceased their march and met the helm of the zeppelin. The captain saluted his General, his enclosed fist pressed sideways against his forehead. Tymour repeated the same gesture and nodded in acknowledgment.

"There's no point lying to me," he said, not facing Korr. "All I hear are the wonderful things about Korr Cobaltson. I don't need that. I want to hear your shortcomings, your flaws. In all legends and lore we always hear about the innate goodness in white knights? I don't buy it. This isn't a fairy tale, son."

"I've lived the past five years of my life on the castle grounds, sir," Korr answered. "I was sheltered, I was fed and I was trained with the best of the Steelguard. I couldn't afford to lack in any task handed to me. King Drothg'r picked me from a life of slavery and brought me to Psya Augunen. He could've easily left me down south in New Axil City to rot with the Humans." Korr gritted his teeth. "I owe him everything. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint the king."

"King Drothg'r is no flawless wyr either, boy," Tymour shook his head. "I've known him since we were boys. He's no great friend of mine but he's still was my prince…and now he's my king. I do fear him, but I also recognized that he is mortal, as I am and as you are. You need to learn as citizens of the Iron Empire—king, noble or slave—we are all the same…flawed."

Korr frowned. "I don't understand why you're telling me this, General Tymour," he said, confused.

General Tymour took a moment before proceeding. "Are we at war, Korr?"

Caught off guard by the question, Korr considered his words carefully before responding. "Not exactly."

"Aye…not exactly," Tymour nodded. "The Silent War—they call it—a battle of propaganda and political attrition between the Ironhearts of Lyda Auga and the Galestroms of the Republic. They arm their blades with arminium, we forge arminium resistant armor. We build zeppelins, they construct artillery cannons. There hasn't been a true battle between Drothg'r Ironheart and Orpheus Galestrom to this date…but there will be soon. It isn't the battle that is the hardest part of war…but the days leading up to it. But where do you come in?"

"But what about this talk of peace?" Korr asked. "There have been rumblings about Emperor Galestrom taking on religion."

"Aye, but sometimes you want to spread your religion." Tymour dipped his chin, his lips pursed to the side. "Sometimes you spread your faith by the sword."

Korr put his hands behind his back and held him together. "If it comes to that, how will I serve his Grace?" he asked.

"I've watched you with a close eye ever since he brought you to the capital," Tymour said. He squinted his eyes—watching Korr closely—stern gaze boring into him. "But I find it hard to believe that you have an undying love for our king. There's something inside of you that is unsaid."

King Drothg'r keeps me in Psya Augunen like a prisoner, Korr thought to himself. For five years I've wanted to see my family but the king can't grant me leave. He's been good to me, but sometimes I can't take the brunt of his stubbornness.

Shielding himself, masking his inner emotions masterfully, Korr proceeded to shake his head. "No, General, there's nothing I'm hiding."

"A regular stoic, are we?" Tymour asked. "No matter, I'm also told you are a warder."

"Anti-Mage," Korr acquiesced. "I can etch wards into armor, swords and the sort. They should hold up against the best of Elementalists."

"King Drothg'r commanded me to take you away from the comfort of the side of his throne and give you a real position in the Iron Army. He didn't tell me what that position exactly is but we'll know soon enough. He may even decide to don the royal armor and ride with you."

He's too sickly. "We both know that's impossible," Korr shook his head. "His Grace is too old."

"That he is," Tymour agreed. "But I have faith in him…and he has faith in you…so I suppose I should look upon your life in our barracks with a close eye, eh?"

"If that's what you want, sir."

Tymour let out a loud snort. "It's not about what I want, boy. It's about the brotherhood this army already has. This Silent War won't last too long. Soon enough we'll be barreling down the field with more fear than courage in our hearts. It would be a shame if there were only green boys at our sides."

Korr put his hand to his chin in thought. "A formal war this soon doesn't seem likely."

"Thirty years as High General and you think I haven't looked at the situation through multiple looking glasses?" Tymour growled in offense, his mouth tight. "You've still got long ways to go before you know how to analyze a campaign as well as I do. I've learnt to hope for the expected but prepare for the unlikely."

"And so far, have you been successful?" Korr inquired.

Tymour guffawed. His laughter soon dissipated but he allowed enough of his amusement show even if it was only for a moment. "I stand here, Human, alive and well," he said, his arms spread wide. "That's the result of my success."

Korr pursed his lips, standing still in front of the General. "Emperor Galestrom wants a peace accord…that would entail no war of any sort."

"I don't believe the rumors," Tymour shook his head. "He could be a flawless saint for all I care. Right now, he's an enemy of my king and I'll see him as nothing else. In my eyes, Galestrom is a Dæmon who's coming to rape my wives and take my children away from me."

Korr remained silent. Beginning to admire his General's ferocious battle-bred attitude.

"They suited you well: blacksteel plate, good new braces, vambraces, greaves," Tymour observed. "And you don't wear your swords at your hip?"

"One sword at the belt makes sense but not two," Korr explained. "Two swords crossed at the spine allows me to move more easily."

Tymour cocked an eyebrow. "Drawing your swords isn't difficult for you?"

"I'm used to it now," the Human affirmed. "I've been unsheathing a sword over my shoulders for nearly five years now."

"Ah, we have a veteran," Tymour smiled, bemused. "At such a young age, that's both a terrible tragedy as well as a laudable accomplishment."

"If his Grace hadn't already told you," Korr said. "I was trained by the Goreus family in New Axil City…so I really didn't have any choice."

"Aye, he did tell me of your past…" A curious expression settled on his face. "Did you leave a family in the south?"

Korr paused, looking down at the floor of the airship in discomfort momentarily. "I did," he nodded, gathering himself. "I have a father, a grandfather and a cousin in New Axil City. For all I know, they could be dead now."

Tymour eyed him carefully. Korr saw something in his eye. It looked like sympathy. "In this contest of nobles…our families mean nothing to kings and lords. It's best if we all understand that as quickly as possible and drown all of the memories of the ones we've left behind."

"Just as you did?" Korr inquired.

Tymour took a deep breath, an old pain clear on his face but soon he grew stony once again and nodded. "Just as I did, Cobaltson."

Not wishing prod any further, Korr put to bed any curiosity that remained within him. He changed the topic of the dialogue. "I finished warding his Grace's chambers as well as his throne room," he informed the High General. "They should hold up against the best of runecasters."

"Eh, did you now?" Tymour grunted. "So," he breathed. "Along with an elite fighter, we have a highly skilled anti-mage, huh? That could explain why the king is so impressed," he watched Korr, once again with an eyebrow raised and with irony in his voice. "Don't tell me you're a god too?"

Korr laughed. "No sir, I'm as mortal as one can be."

"Damn," he simpered. "Because if that were the case, we'd let you win this war for us all by yourself." His brow furrowed suddenly. "But in all seriousness, I have been impressed with you so far, Cobaltson. I can be honest about that much."

"Thank you, sir."

"Did you ward the safety bunkers?" Tymour asked. "Should there be a zeppelin bombing?"

"There would be no point," Korr answered. "The charges are made entirely of gunpowder…there's no magic to it. A ward wouldn't be able to stop something like that, sir."

"I see," the Alchemist replied.

The airship shuddered, entering the close embrace of a cloud. Hovering slowly, it brushed against the moisture of the upper air streams and poked out after a moment of darkness. Light streamed back through the glass and lit the hollow deck of the bridge and helm.

"Will you be using the zeppelins in the war?" the Human asked. "And does the Republic have any to counter?"

"Maybe," he responded quickly. "The airships are slow but they could be used in battle if planned beforehand. Chances are they'd be shot out of the sky so quickly it would make your head spin. We've been developing anti-airship artillery and there's a high chance that the Grand Republic is doing the same," he explained. "But we might use them to bomb enemy cities. I'm not too sure whether or not Emperor Galestrom has the plans to build a pneumatic ship…he does have masons and builders who are worthy of the title Alchemist. So even if he does have them, he won't let our scouting reports give them away."

"But what does he have?"

"Right," Tymour smiled. "A good commander only looks at what he has at hand rather than what could be. Straight to business. Eh, Cobaltson?"

"I'm thinking the first assault, should it happen…" he paused before replying. "—at the first sign of spring. The snows would have melted in the far north in Xerion and Emperor Galestrom would have a clear path down to the Third Empire and should our predictions be true…straight to Lyda Auga simultaneously."

"We agree on that much, Human," the Alchemist nodded. "It's late summer now, so the coming spring seems the best time for him to mobilize his infantry as well as his Elementalists. The stone roads would be dry and empty as the trading season begins in late summer. He'll have a straight path…"

"But is it Sanctum City or Psya Augunen he'd attack first?" Korr asked. "It could be either."

"That's where we leave room for surprise, Cobaltson," the High General explained. "Sanctum City is the capital of the Elves…we'll let them deal with the defense of their cities. There's only so much strategy one can plan. We'll have to prepare protection for our own walls…and hope the Elf King has half the mind to prepare his own."

"Could we help King Alyx?"

Tymour shook his head gravely. "We don't have the numbers or the resources…I'm afraid King Alyx and his Third Empire are on their own."

"Are Alyx and Drothg'r on speaking terms?"

"Since the last skirmish?"


"There's peace…for now," Tymour said, his voice oddly ominous. "And there should be another political summit in Sanctum City."

Another peace summit, Korr thought. The perfect place to start a war. "How secure will it be?"

"That's up to King Alyx to decide…he's hosting the event."

Korr let out a breath. "Is his Grace attending the meeting?"

"He's obliged to—the peace agreement with the Elf King expires and a new deal has to be struck—otherwise we'll find ourselves at war with both the Grand Republic and the Third Empire."

Foolish king. If he doesn't work this out, he's setting himself up to get killed. "So what then?" Korr pressed on.

"We let King Drothg'r and the noble houses deal with the politics and concentrate on developing the Iron Army ourselves…war or no war. As for you, you mark the Elementalists we have with us and form a mage's guild," he murmured. "Many Alchemists are terramancers…but they have no knowledge concerning the other three Elements. To be an Elementalist you're required to know all there is to all four.

"On top of that, most of the mages we have in the barracks are retired and old and washed up…having fought in the last war which happened more than twenty years ago," he sighed. "When dealing with the old magics, we're pretty thin and its something to worry about since the scouting report tells us that Galestrom has a whole phalanx of Elementalists at his beck and call."

Because he's taken on the Four as his godshe's vowed a life of Elementals as homage to the Four Fathers. Korr glanced to the metal helm of the zeppelin and then above at the dull metallic pipes built into the steel framework of the airship. They hissed violently and a gush of thick air billowed out of the openings on a strict pattern. The gears of his mind were clicking, trying to make sense of the war preparation he'd been so suddenly thrust into.

"What if Galestrom truly has taken on religion and actually wants peace?" Korr asked.

"Then there's nothing like it," Tymour answered grimly. "We can open up a barrel of dark beer and raise our mugs to peace. I hope for such an outcome, Korr. But history doesn't show a change of heart in rulers that folks out in the market are talking of. Kings and lords don't change…they make a mask for themselves…they forge a public image to fool the citizens. Emperor Orpheus Galestrom has done the very same…he's made a misty image of himself through propaganda. There will be war, boy. We just don't know when."

"Even if there will be war soon, what can we do?" he shrugged. "We can't just train Elementalists in a few short weeks before the summit."

"Aye," Tymour agreed. "We can't. And now you understand my predicament."

"It's a difficult one, I have to concur," Korr nodded. "But we can't just lie down and take the brunt of the magics. It'll slaughter our numbers. I'm the only one who's capable of resisting the Elementalists…I'm the only one who can withstand the barrage of magics."

"You learned fairly quickly."

"Aye…and it still took me a year."

"Could you teach some of the wards to my soldiers?"

He asks me much, Korr thought, folding his arms across his chest. If that kind of battle breaks out, I don't see any other way we can try to prepare ourselves for the level or numbers of runecasters Emperor Galestrom will put in armor in the coming weeks. "I could definitely try…but it would be a stiff climb," he admitted. "I had Scholar Jaryd, a veteran, to teach me the ways of anti-magic and I'm still learning the circuits of wards my body reacts well to." He sighed loudly and continued. "But it doesn't seem like we have a choice."

"Such is our situation," a sad smile touched Tymour's mouth.

The Human didn't see any other way around it. If they were to have a gambler's chance at coming out victorious of any of the (inevitable, according to General Tymour) battles they were clearly unprepared for, they had to make an attempt at every single tactic possible. King Drothg'r had already placed him in a high position wherein it normally it took veteran soldiers several years to climb the ranks. They were all stretched far too thin and nothing could fail before it was even attempted. It was best to see what worked before they committed to any sort of stratagem. Korr nodded succinctly and muttered his thoughts softly. "I'll see what I can do."

Most of the following days proceeded in a similar fashion. He would meet with General Tymour to relay his progress with the group of soldiers that had been deemed worthy of learning the ways of the warders. It wasn't common for a guild of anti-mages to form as quickly as it did. Korr anticipated a slow growth but the sharp wit of the Alchemists—the bulk of the new guild—surprised him. Most of the metal-makers had been schooled for years previously and they took in the techniques of the Anti-Mages as Humans took to gambling. They clearly had an upper hand when compared to most of the other races but Korr knew they'd only know how skilled they were when the time came to put the ways of the wards to use. In the face of fire, ice, lightning and the other Elementals, it was more and more likely that the once honed skills of the student would vanish, all too inconveniently.

The door of the solar was shut. Korr waited for King Drothg'r and the lady queen to accept him into the domed study. The young Human had only seen Drothg'r's wife on three occasions since arriving in Psya Augunen. Neither had he heard much about her around the barracks or the mess hall nor had he met her personally in close quarters. For years, the Iron Army consumed his life. And now, the proceedings of the soon-to-be war had engulfed him entirely.

Tymour works me like a dog, he thought as he patiently stood by the door awaiting a signal. I hope he realizes that he'll need to concentrate on other military matters or else he'll go into the ordeal unprepared.

Suddenly, the steel doors within the rotunda swung inwards. Two guards, both familiar faces, stepped to the side in order to allow Korr to enter the solar. They stood rigidly, staring directly ahead of themselves through the visors of their half helms when the young soldier strode between them.

Gyzar and Karkov, Korr observed. Two Humans born and raised outside the Human states… two Humans who didn't suffer the life of thralls. For their ignorance, I envy them but I pity them as well.

They followed the Human warder as he climbed the set of polished marbled stairs to the entrance of the solar and came to a halt at the top of the flight. He took a quick look around the circular chamber. Several wooden panels closed out most of the light from outside. Numerous shelves boasted parchment books from the old libraries; they had been stacked in an orderly fashion most likely to never be touched again. The important histories and sciences of the old Alchemists had been stored on steel sheets, in a code understood only by the Iron King, his queen and the head of industries.

"I see you've fitted yourself with the Ironheart swords," the king's rumbling voice came. "Tymour didn't hold on out on spoiling you in your new position…the blades suit you."

"Aye, your Grace," Korr nodded, turning to watch him walk slowly towards him with a noticeable limp. "High General Tymour had them delivered to my chambers. They're weapons worthy of the Alchemist title."

"Let me see them."

Korr drew both short-swords, they whistled deeply when unsheathed. He held them up in the yellow lights of the chandelier above their heads. King Drothg'r marveled at the beautifully crafted blacksteel and chuckled. "Aren't they something else?" he whispered, more to himself than Korr. He then looked away and beckoned Korr up the next flight of steps. "Come! Up the next flight to the upper deck of the solar to the skylight—gods know you need some sun and a strong drink—you look terrible."

A weary smile bubbled at the corner of his lips. "I've had little sleep the past few days, sire."

Drothg'r waved a hand to his Human guards. "Gyzar, Karkov, wait by the doors for us till I call for you."

"As you wish, your Grace," one of the twins murmured without as much as blinking.

Korr followed the Iron King up another deck of stairs. At the top, he caught sight of the queen as he entered the cozy skylight. She sat contentedly, dressed in an ornate ruffled gown the color of the great oceans. Her legs lay along the velvet chair by the open window as she gazed across the opening and out into the calm seas. A moist salty breeze scuttled across the glass of the window and entered the bright, airy solar.

She looks too young for his Grace, he thought to himself.

Korr had deduced that she had given birth to her three royal children very early in her life. Her burning red eyes watched the Human closely, the coiled silvery hair around her black-tipped ears bobbing gently. He bowed to her, putting his fist against his forehead in the common gesture of respect amongst Alchemist. She parted her lips to reveal a small smile.

She made a series of hand gestures to the king. He studied her actions and nodded succinctly soon afterwards. "Aye," he acknowledged. "He's the Human Tymour's been speaking of."

Korr furrowed his brow, studying the queen once again. She raised both hands again and another sweeping set of finger-and-palm signals met his eye. She's mute, the Human thought. She's a mute queen. How have I never known of this?

"I think it's well time for you to meet my lady wife, Korr," Drothg'r began. "Queen Ritzy Ironheart—daughter of Grand Earl Xander Ferristail."

"Sire, I don't know hand-and-palm language," he murmured. "How am I supposed to pay my respects to her?"

"She hears you well, boy," the king grinned. "She just can't talk."

"Oh," he answered, wide-eyed. "My apologies, my queen."

Queen Ritzy smiled again, her red eyes burning more brightly, putting her forefinger, thumb and pinky finger up. She then touched the side of her other hand. Korr turned to Drothg'r for the translation.

"She greets you with the warm heart of her maiden family, the Ferristails."

"It's an honor, your Grace," Korr bobbed his head again.

The queen turned her gaze back to the crashing sea outside the solar window. Drothg'r sat in his large, cushiony chair and let out a loud breath of air. He grunted, grimaced in pain and reached for the jug of brandy, pouring the amber drink in his glass mug. Korr settled on a smaller chair in front of the king.

"With all the Alchemists who've discovered the greatest of all potions…a remedy for muteness is still undiscovered," he said shaking his head. "But that's not important…now to topics that are far more important. You—" he took a large swig and pointed a finger at the smaller Human. "—I haven't seen you in weeks. How fares the preparation?"

"It goes well, my king," Korr replied in a soft tone. "Tymour has taught me a lot about the customs of the higher ups and their...quirks. They've finally accepted me into their fold, the Lord Commander, as well as the others."

The king chuckled. "Aye, I have a bunch of Elves fighting for me," he smiled. "Not that it matters since they'd be fighting the same war as soldiers in Alyx's army. I swear it's only a matter of time before we have equal numbers of all races in every kingdom."

"Maybe," Korr replied. "It would be a different world if that were true. Have you received any word from Galestrom and the Grand Republic?" he asked.

King Drothg'r paused, looked to the ground and sipped at his mug again. He sniffed loudly and nodded. "Aye, he replied to my warning."

"What did he say?" the Human inquired.

"He pleaded with me to reconsider…to approach more diplomatic endeavors," he grumbled. "I've never heard Orpheus Galestrom talk like that…never in my life."

"He's not the youngest of rulers…maybe someone else is doing the talking for him," the Human frowned. "Has anyone thought of a possibility that it isn't Orpheus who sits on the throne?"

"Tymour told me of your conspiracy theories…it doesn't seem likely…a change of heart makes more sense."

"Someone as old as Orpheus Galestrom doesn't suddenly have a change in heart."

Drothg'r cocked his head to the side. "It doesn't matter, boy. We're still in this no matter who leads the army against us. We should spend less time bickering about who sits on the enemy throne and more time talking about potential strategies that'll help us win the war."

"You shouldn't trouble yourself with the war, your Grace," Korr said. "The surgeons say the bone breaking disease is worse now."

"My ailments shouldn't worry you, Korr Cobaltson," the king responded instantly almost in an irritated manner. "I worry for the Iron kingdom and the folks that call it their home…my limp shouldn't be the topic of the day."

"As you say, your Grace," the Human nodded. "The guild is as good as can be, with the limited time I have to prepare them for the onslaught of magic. There's nothing more I can do to help them…to help us," he rested his head against his palm. "Taina says there's not much more we can do in terms of Elementalism."

"I spoke to her just yesterday," Drothg'r nodded, his expression brightening at the mention of Taina. "She speaks highly of you."

"I would give her my thanks," Korr frowned. "But she isn't exactly the friendliest of wyra."

Drothg'r chuckled in bemusement. "Aye she isn't exactly the most swoon-worthy of maidens, but I'm fortunate to have you both on my side."

It grew silent for a moment.

"Orpheus Galestrom has taken on her gods they say."

Korr nodded. "The Four."

"You don't fall for his propaganda, do you Korr?"

"I've personally detained Coalitionists that are sympathetic to his cause…they say nothing of his intent to strike a peace bargain with you or King Alyx…only vows of violence and bloodshed."

"They don't know better. His official sealed statement claims he wants to be at peace," Drothg'r grumbled. "But I don't believe a single lie that comes out of the bastard's mouth. He's trying to lure us into his ploy…trying to catch us off guard. I won't be fooled by his tactics."

"But he clearly doesn't want war," Korr shook his head.

Drothg'r paused. "Maybe I do," he said finally."

Korr grew confused. "Your Grace?"

"You know what we do, Korr? As citizens of Lyda Auga?"

"Progress, your Grace."

"Aye," he nodded. "We industrialize. We invent. All on a national scale. If Orpheus continues to tell folk that the ways of the old…of the Four…are still intact, we'll stay forever in our old ways."

"Did you tell this to Taina?"

"You're asking me if I shat on her gods and spat on the remains?" Drothg'r asked, an eyebrow arched high. "Clearly you have me mistaken for a king. Eh, Korr?"

"I appreciate the sarcasm, sire," Korr replied with a pursed-lip smile.

The Alchemist laid a gentle hand on the Human's shoulder. "But you're more pragmatic, and you know soon…both magic and anti-magic will no longer be part of our lives."

Korr considered his king carefully. What is he planning?

"Ironheart Industries will dominate every empire…with both communication and transport. The future is inevitable, my boy. And both warders and runecasters will serve as collateral damage."

"I never doubted your ambition, my king," Korr spoke. Only your sanity, he thought afterwards.

Drothg'r stopped abruptly. He looked into Korr's eyes, as if searching his soul. "Is something bothering you, Korr?" he inquired.

Korr glanced down to the carpeted floor uneasily. His gaze returned to met that of his king's and he spoke. "I don't know how much longer I can stay in Psya, your Grace…I need to return to New Axil City."

"Why would you want to go back to the south?"

"My family, your Grace."

"We're your family, Korr," he answered flatly. "The Ironhearts have taken you in, the Alchemists are your brothers. I'm your father."

"No," Korr said, before he could stop himself. "You took me from my family. I didn't have a choice in the matter. I was only a slave. But I need to go back and make sure that my father, grandfather and cousin are still alive."

"Why?" Drothg'r frowned.

Korr took a deep breath before responding. "I want to bring them to Psya Augunen."

"You know I can't let you do that, Korr," the king said, shaking his head. "You're far to important to let go at this moment. There's no immediate danger for the Humans. The Peace Summit is in three weeks. After that, when we know whether or not they'll be a war, then you have my permission to retrieve your family from New Axil City."

Korr put his hands in his lap and breathed heavily through his nostrils. He could feel the strain of the anxiety bear down upon him and knew better than to worry of unimportant things. But he could take it no longer. "How can you expect me to follow your orders if there's a conflict of interest?"

Drothg'r didn't look too amused with the response. "You have to forget about the ways of the past, Korr," he said. "Right now, you're under my rule, my protection and I've reminded you time and time again, I know what's best for you. For now, I'm your king and you know well that I only wish that your people come into the future safe and unharmed."

"Safe and unharmed?" Korr stood up from his chair, incredulity in his voice. "The Humans have been treated no better than the mongrels on the streets of the slums! They toil on your rails day in and day out without as much as a crust of bread and a sip of water."

"Don't start this, boy," Drothg'r warned. "There's no room for patriotism in this castle!"

"And you, my king?!" the Human said, growing red. "You speak of the honor of the Alchemist and you stop me from fearing for my people? How dare you?"

"Sit down, Korr!" Drothg'r roared. "I won't be spoken to like this! I am the Iron King!"

Korr gnashed his teeth together in frustration. "As you wish, your Grace," he answered grimly, returning to his seat.

Drothg'r took a sip from his glass, grimacing at the strength of the drink and returned to stare at his upstart soldier with a glare that was only fit for kings.

Queen Ritzy turned to watch them bicker, but she wasn't captivated enough to continue and once again turned to gaze out at the crimson sea. Korr glanced back to her and then to the king again, curiosity in his eyes. "Does she care that we're arguing?" he inquired.

"Ha!" Drothg'r exclaimed in amusement. "This fight is nothing compared to what my lady and I get ourselves into," he bemused. "You'd be shocked. It's surprisingly loud even though you'd think the fights were awfully quiet."

Korr leaned back into his chair and put his hands together. No king would put up with such impudence from any subject, yet Drothg'r seemed…oddly calm. "I hope you can forgive me for my outburst, your Grace," he apologized.

The Iron King surprised Korr by showed off a wry smile. "If you didn't have such fire bottled up in your chest, I wouldn't be comfortable promoting you to such a high position in the army."

"No," Korr shook his head. "I'm a lot smarter than that. But you do underestimate my reserve. I know what's at risk over here. I started this in Psya Augunen and I won't rest until this is over. But this is my family you're talking about."

"Aye boy, I can understand your feelings," he answered, in a serious tone. "But it isn't the time. You may hate me for it, but I can't let you go…not yet."

"Why did you call me here, your Grace?" Korr asked, suddenly irritated with his king. "You said it was important."

"I called you here to prove to you that I've left all my patriotism in the past…just as I command you will. I don't see you as a Human…but as a citizen of Psya Augunen. I no longer grant Alchemists high positions based only on their blood but I grant all wyr honors based on their merit. And it's for that reason the Iron Army is from now on, held under both General Tymour's…and your command."

"My command, sire?" Korr asked, confused.

Drothg'r took a deep breath, rising from his chair. When he rose, Korr had a fleeting glance at the deep gray bruise on the side of his left leg, the obvious reason for his limp. He walked unevenly towards the large study desk in an awkward manner and extracted two small silver pins. They were shaped in the form of the hammer symbol of the Ironhearts, but directly above them were four-pointed stairs. Korr had seen a similar brooch, attached to General Tymour's collar. The Iron King tossed the pin to Korr. "Put them on," he instructed. "You're Second General now. You only answer to Tymour and most importantly…me."

"Your Grace?" Korr frowned, utterly baffled. "But—"

"Just put the damn pins on," he grumbled, irritated. "I don't want to waste my energy explaining why you've risen through the ranks with nothing but doe eyes and twin short-swords…just put them on, and for once, ask no questions."

"Yes sir," Korr muttered, straightening his back as he stood. "Is that all?"

"Aye," the king nodded, brushing his hand aside, gesturing him towards the door. "Now get out of my solar."