The Black Iron Empire (Ebook)
The Black Iron Empire (Ebook)
Book 4 of The Soul Bound Saga
Transported by unknown magic, Joran and his companions find themselves in a vast, lifeless wasteland.
Struggling to survive in the hellish landscape, they search for any clue to a way back home.
Unknown to them, a familiar foe is on a different quest.
Samaritan seeks the location of an ancient weapon, something powerful enough to destroy the Tiberian Empire, The Church of The One God, and everyone he hates.
Can Joran stop Samaritan before it’s too late and hopefully find a way home at the same time?
The race is on and Joran must win if he doesn’t want everything he loves to be destroyed.
Joran stood, hunched over against the wind, atop one of the jutting columns that formed a sort of path between the island where they arrived and the next closest one to the north. Black clouds blotted out the sun, making midmorning feel more like twilight. Thunder cracked and lightning ran through the clouds without arcing to the ground. So far at least, the sky had only threatened to kill them, it hadn’t actually tried. He dearly hoped to be off of these far-too-small pillars when it did.
His soulmate, Mia, stood in front of him preparing herself to jump to the next pillar. She had her silver sword belted at her waist and a look of grim determination on her face. The wind ruffled her short, black hair, but otherwise didn’t seem to faze her.
The dwarves, Grub and Stoneheart, stayed behind him alternating between aloof indifference and glares of hatred, most of the latter coming from Stoneheart. It seemed nothing would convince the centurion that Grub truly held the empire’s best interests at heart. Joran had told them both more than once that, given their current situation, fighting amongst themselves would only make matters worse.
He felt certain they believed him regardless of their sullen behavior. At least they hadn’t gotten into any further shouting matches. Of course, the fact that the wind made it nearly impossible to hear anything may have had something to do with the lack of arguing as well. He didn’t actually care as long as they did nothing that lessened their odds of reaching the second island.
“Are you ready?” Mia asked. Her words barely reached him over the howls of the wind.
Joran nodded, not wanting to yell himself hoarse.
She gathered herself and leapt with supernatural grace to land easily on the next pillar in a maybe twenty-foot diameter landing zone. It seemed big, but the wind pushing you around made the landing difficult. Or at least more difficult than it seemed for her. Their soul bond had given Mia physical enhancements that made her one of the most dangerous fighters in the world. Joran got clarity of thought that helped him see the best course to take in almost any situation.
Useful, but right now he’d trade all the clarity of thought in the world for a little extra muscle in his thighs.
Mia waved at him to join her.
Right, here we go again.
As soon as the most recent gust passed, he took two strides and jumped with all his might.
His right foot hit the edge of the pillar.
His heart leapt into his throat, but Mia grabbed him and pulled him to safety. Joran fell to his knees gasping for breath. That had been the closest one so far.
“You good?” she asked.
“I’m alive, thanks to you. I’m also glad we don’t have to do this too many more times.”
“Think we’ll find anything good on the next island?”
Joran forced himself to stand. “I don’t know what we’ll find, but if it’s as dead as that last rock and we can’t find anything to drink, well, I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Think about it,” Mia insisted. “You’re good at thinking. If anyone can get us out of this mess, it’s you.”
Her faith heartened him even as he feared it might be misplaced. Unless they found food and water, he could think as hard as he wanted, but it wouldn’t stop them from starving to death.
“I’ll do my best.”
They moved back to make room for Grub and Stoneheart. They glared at each other one last time before Stoneheart moved as far back as the pillar would allow, ran forward, and leapt. He made it more easily than Joran had despite his armor, a testament to the warrior’s strength.
Grub took a slightly different path. Ether flowed into his legs and he sprang easily across. Joran needed to learn that spell. It seemed easy enough, but so far he hadn’t dared risk it. With a week of practice and nothing on the line, maybe he’d give it a try, but certainly not now.
When everyone had caught their breath, they repeated the process over to the next pillar. Luckily for Joran, this one had a smaller gap and he made the jump without issue.
After what seemed like a long time but was probably no more than an hour, they all rested, safe and sound, on the new island. All of them save Mia breathed hard. For her part, she stayed a little ways apart from the group, hand on the hilt of her sword, ready for any danger that might appear.
Joran thanked any power that might be listening that he’d ended up with her as his soulmate.
When he’d finally caught his breath Joran asked, “Grub, can you use your magic to find us some water?”
The geomancer made a sour face. “I can try, but there’s so much corruption both in the earth and the air that I have no idea how the magic will work.”
“I can see the darkness swirling in the ether, but I can’t feel it. Can you?” Joran asked.
Grub and Stoneheart both stared at him as if he’d suddenly grown a second head.
“You can’t feel the oppressive weight, Lord Den Cade?” Stoneheart asked.
Joran shook his head. “Mia, do you feel anything?”
She turned his way. “I feel nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly there’s no oppressive weight trying to crush me.”
Joran seriously doubted that corruption affected dwarves more than humans. If anything, he imagined it would be the opposite. That meant something else left them more vulnerable. But what?
“Grub, look at me, Mia, and Stoneheart through the ether and see if anything jumps out at you.” Joran followed his own request and shifted his vision to the ether.
The dark threads of corruption ran all through the chaotic energy, just as it did every time he looked. Those threads pierced Grub and Stoneheart, but when he looked at Mia it appeared the threads couldn’t get close to her. Some sort of glowing barrier stopped them. Since he knew Mia had no skill with magic, something else had to be causing the corruption to leave her alone.
His gaze took in every inch of her and finally he noticed her sword. Every time a black thread drifted into it, the thread vanished in a dark puff of corruption. It affected ethereal corruption the same way it had affected the black sword back in Tiber. Amazing, that made it even more useful than he’d first thought.
“There’s a glow coming from your pocket,” Grub said.
Joran pulled out the amulet he took from Samaritan. As soon as he had it out the disintegrating threads of corruption grew visible. So the amulet had the same power as Mia’s sword. That suggested they had the same source, the Prophet.
As soon as the thought entered his head, he dismissed it. No way would the pope let a newly inducted White Knight anywhere near a holy relic.
Alright, if Samaritan didn’t get it from the Prophet, then he must have succeeded in tracking the fraud back to wherever he came from and found the amulet there. That quest got him put on the church’s hit list after all.
Interesting as he found that line of speculation, Joran set it aside for another time. “Take the amulet, Grub. Maybe having it will make your magic work better.”
“No!” Mia put herself immediately between Joran and Grub. “You’ll lose your protection without the amulet.”
“Maybe, but I have a theory. As long as you have the silver sword, I may be protected through our link. I never felt the discomfort Stoneheart and Grub described even before you took the amulet from Samaritan. And, to be totally honest, if Grub can’t find us water at least, we won’t live long enough for my lack of protection to be an issue.”
“I still don’t like it.” Mia moved aside and Joran handed the amulet to Grub. “Well?”
“I’m okay,” Joran said. “There’s a minor headache forming in the back of my skull, but other than that, I think I’m good.”
She shot him a look that suggested she didn’t fully believe him, but he wouldn’t be able to lie to her with their link. She was probably just feeling overly protective.
Grub ignored them, eyes closed, as ether swirled around the amulet. Corrupt energy went in and pure ether came out. A remarkable and fascinating sight. Joran had no idea how it worked, but he would like to find out.
His headache grew quickly worse, so he released his view of the ether. The moment he did, the pain receded to a dull ache. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that interacting with the corrupt ether had a negative effect on his health.
He resolved only to touch it in an emergency.
“I found… something,” Grub said at last. “It feels like water, but polluted by corruption. I can’t find anything pure.”
“Then what good are you?” Stoneheart asked.
Grub glared at him. “I don’t see you doing anything useful.”
“Enough, both of you.” The headache did nothing to help Joran’s temper. “Stoneheart, not another derogatory word about Grub or so help me I’ll see you busted down to stable hand when we get back. Grub, take point. Show us the water you found. Purifying it won’t be an issue.”
The two dwarves grumbled, but no further complaints were made. Good. Joran was thoroughly sick of listening to the pair bicker.
“How are you going to purify the water?” Mia asked as they set out behind Grub.
“I’m not.” Joran patted her right hand, the one that held the silver sword’s hilt. “You are.”
Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. “I don’t know how to do any of that magic stuff. All I know how to do is fight.”
“You don’t have to do any magic. Remember how the black sword reacted when you touched the silver sword to it? I suspect purification of the black sword’s corruption caused it. Assuming we find water, all you need to do is put your sword into it and let it work. Nothing simpler.”
She frowned. “Are you sure? That sounds too simple.”
“I’m not sure of anything, but everything I’ve observed tells me that will work. If I’m wrong, we’ll just have to think of something else to try. Success or death tends to focus the mind.”
Grub led them away from the cliff face and across a blackened plain of dirt and jutting stones. The land looked exactly the same as the first island. Still no sign of animals or plants. He tried and failed to imagine what might have caused devastation on this scale. Even the giant serpent lacked the power to ruin the land so completely. Joran despaired of their chances to survive in such a hellish landscape.
He lost all track of time as they marched across the unchanging terrain. In the distance, some hills rose, their sides as black as the plain around them. From the looks of it, this island had to be much larger than the one where they started.
The only good thing about the wretched area was a lack of aggressive beasts or monsters. Not that the lack of life led Mia to relax. Every time he looked her way her gaze darted left and right as if she expected an attack at any moment.
“You seem rather antsy given the lack of anything dangerous around,” Joran said. “Do you see something that I don’t?”
Mia shook her head. “No, but this place gives me the creeps. It makes my skin crawl, and I usually only get that feeling when someone’s watching me, usually with an arrow nocked and ready to loose.”
Joran looked around again, even risking a glance into the ether just to make sure, but there simply wasn’t anything to see. Whatever bothered Mia had to be in her imagination.
At least he hoped so.
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