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Iron Hearted Demons
A Heroic Fantasy Short Story
The capital of the first republic, Etrusca, ignited its celestial beacon, which only meant one thing: the seat was in dire trouble. The first to respond for aid was the Scholar Melchior. With his legion of about one hundred scholarii, they rode on horseback to give relief. As he crested the mountain ridge, which overlooked the plateau upon which the once city-state was located, he spotted the plumes of smoke which rose from inside the circular city walls.
As they descended, the smoke grew thicker, creating a ceiling from which lightning crashed and thunder boomed. Ashy rain tumbled from the sky. It stung the skin and eyes of anyone unprotected from the unnatural precipitation. Getting close to Etrusca grew challenging. They crossed the Natura Barrier, the line where nature stopped its expansion, beyond which nothing grew, and onto the metal plate upon which the capital rested.
There were two main gates but only one portcullis was open, and a flood of citizens poured out, distraught, shattered. The legion’s march came to a near halt as they forded the endless stream of people fleeing from the chaos inside the walls. Melchior and his horsemen came to a trot, with no other choice but to let the people pour out around them as they entered.
Finally, inside, along the plaza which usually held merchant stalls for foreigners wishing to trade with the people of Etrusca, was thoroughly destroyed by the stampede of those in flight. A set of three Victoriae, the city’s elite guard, sat trying to control the flow and usher people away from the city.
Melchior raised the faceguard of his horsehair helmet. “Where are we needed?”
The leading Victoria’s golden armor bore a light glow against the torches which her compatriots held.
“Up the Grand Stair, an ancient one has awakened.” She pointed up the central set of steps which lead to the Podium of the Orator, the city’s seat of power.
From down the Grand Stair, hordes of citizens flooded. There was no way they would get up there in time.
“We’ll take the back alleys.” Melchior shouted to his men.
Behind the city were twisting and winding pathways which enabled heavy carts to move material from the ground up to the highest tiers of Etrusca. Layered like a bouquet of roses, the topmost flower was the podium. And around it, the various neighborhoods and businesses came to bloom.
The scholarae formation tightened to two wide and they rushed in procession toward the seat of power. As they climbed, the smoke grew more intense. When they crossed the middle tier, toward the upper section of the city, a series of carts were wrecked and strewn across the pathway. It was too dangerous for a horse to cross but not for Melchior’s men.
“Dismount, we go on foot from here. It’s not far.” The Scholar called out as he stepped down from his horse.
From a leather bag on his saddle, he pulled a tome. Upon it, a compass was embossed in the metal cover. The cardinal directions bore small colored orbs. North was green, west was red, east was blue, and south was gold. He adjusted the sword on his hip and steadied the book under his arm.
“Hadrian, get your men squared away.” Melchior called out to his second-in-command after seeing the legion still disorganized after dismounting.
“Yes sir, at once.” Hadrian burst into a sprint; his silvery armor wagged as he rushed to the back of the line.
As Melchior took stock of the obstruction, a blue ray of light cut through the smoke in the air above him and crashed into the residence that flanked the pathway. In the blink of an eye, the terracotta building burst into flames. He recovered from the shock and blast, then looked over the building bathed in flame. Without a second thought, he ran his finger down the compass on the book cover from north to west. As he did, the red orb ignited, and the tome lifted from his hand.
The book, hovering at the left side of his waist, followed him as he rushed to break down the door. With two kicks from his armored boots, he sent the thick wooden frame flying open. The moment it did, a backdraft exploded and knocked him from his feet with a scorching cry. After he slid on his brass pauldron and came to a halt, Melchior heard cries from within pleading for help.
He got up and the splayed book hovered back into position. With carefully flipped pages, he turned to the Evocations of water. Pouring over the text, the dim glow of the ancient words hinted at the faintness of the World Spark here. The ancient ones were sapping its strength, muting its unending song. Until the beasts were slain, Melchior could only rely on what Esper power was stored within his tome. But he wasn’t going to leave those within the building to their fate. Efficiency was critical and he was determined to save them.
With an exacting incantation, Melchior summoned forth a small orb of water in front of him. As it formed, the text grew more dim. There wasn’t any room for error.
Ducked low under the ceiling of fire pouring out of the main entrance, he rushed. As the wind would part the sea, Melchior carved a path with light shots of water from the orb. With each blast, it grew smaller. He rushed upstairs and found a small family of three, cowering next to the window, desperate for air. With a booming shout, he beckoned. They left and Melchior found his path burning again once more. As the last of the water orb faded and splashed upon the burning walls, the four of them escaped the house. Not long after, it collapsed.
“Flee to safety, outside the walls.” Melchior pointed toward the Grand Stair, which was filled with escaping citizens.
The family, without hesitation, ran from the house and disappeared into the crowd.
Melchior pinched the tome shut and turned to Hadrian, who had organized the scholarii into a tight formation and already began to scale the broken wooden wagons that obstructed the road. Hadrian was a new centurio and often tested Melchior’s patience with his infrequent yet novice mistakes, but it was times like this that the Scholar appreciated him.
The formation, along with Melchior and Hadrian, continued on foot up to the podium. As they got close to the massive stone structure, adorned with marble pillars and the statues of great Orators past, did they find eerie stillness. The smoke, thick and bellowing, moved in patches through the air. The chaos of the crowds quieted. There wasn’t much life up here at the topmost terrace.
As Melchior closed in on the twin gates of the seat of power, from behind the wall, eight red lights pierced the veil which bathed the area. He halted the formation and ordered them to spread out. They took up cover behind anything they could find: wagons, fence posts, low walls, decorative stones. Hadrian ordered his men to load their tonoascia, hybrid gun-axes. In unison, they opened the breaches and loaded a brass-cased round. They were all aimed toward the gate.
“Hadrian, hold this position.” Melchior called out.
He drew his sword and opened his tome, which fell to rest at a hover beside him. With careful steps, he inched forward toward the unnatural array of luminance.
A sudden jolt urged the lights to dip then disappear and left a light trail upwards. The smoke in the air glowed. Melchior, reading the motion and sensing immediate danger, staggered backwards. As he did, the last place he stood exploded in a cloud of stone brick and dirt clumps. The airburst from the impact deafened. He shook his head in a bid to stop the world from spinning.
As he recovered his bearings, Melchior found himself face-to-face with the eight glowing lights. They were eyes. Attached to a scorpion mech, a GKT-401. It was a creation of a civilization long since lost to the sands of time. It raised its right arm, a large-bore cannon and stuffed it point-blank into Melchior. Several snaps and clicks rang out. Empty. He stumbled back and exhaled with momentary relief.
But without hesitation, the mech slid and pivoted its right arm, a gatling gun. With many barrels attached to a core cylinder, which began to spin, a rattling noise filled the air. Empty.
In one fluid motion, it followed up with an over-head tail strike. The only tell was its writhing tail which sent sparks flying as its armor plating rubbed together. Melchior, noticing the sheering metal, stumbled to the side. His foot caught on a loose stone and he fell prone.
“Fire!” Hadrian called out.
The scholarii fired a volley into the mech. The bullets ricocheted but staggered the machine.
“Formation, charge!” Hadrian rushed toward the mech, which was still recovering.
As one, the legion abandoned their cover and rushed forth toward the mech. Melchior pushed himself to his feet and reached for his tome. These things were resistant to flame. Too heavy to be toppled by wind. Often shrugged off water. But were not resistant to the blood of the land, from whence they were made. He poured over the texts and dragged his finger along as he readied the Evocation.
The scholarii as sets of cohesive squads, slammed into the machine. They hacked and slashed with their tonoascia; the clatter deafened as the machine’s armor shrugged off the wild blows. Surrounded and stifled, the mech slammed its tail down and dragged it along the ground. Throngs of scholarii were sent flying as the machine swept its tail across the courtyard. As the GKT recovered from its assault, a blue light began to glow upon the tip of its tail. The light swelled into a blinding sphere.
Hadrian threw himself upon the back of the mech as it turned toward a pile of scholarii that had not recovered from the machine’s spinning strike. With unsteady feet, he rushed toward the base of the tail and jabbed his sword in between a gap in its armor. As it slammed in place, the tail fell limp. The dangling appendage bobbed and wagged with the machine’s motion. The blinding light exploded into a ray and etched a spiraling path into the stone flooring of the plaza.
“Make way, Hadrian!” Melchior called out; his fist glowed with golden sparks.
His centurio looked up and without hesitation dove away from the mech. As he opened distance, Melchior flicked his fingers open, and the light escaped from his palm. Around, the rock in the rubble from destroyed buildings burst into motion. They swirled and closed in on the machine.
With the snap of his fingers, the rubble formed a ring around the GKT. Then, in the blink of an eye, battered the machine with an unyielding stream of stone. Before the ring was depleted, the mech was buried beneath a pile of debris. Its eight eyes dimmed, then extinguished.
Melchior walked up to the mech, its face plate protruding from the pile of rocks. With his sword, he jabbed it through the center of its eyes, just to be sure. This hallowed place had no home for such iron hearted demons. Let it be cleansed