Ferlhame was in ruins. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Danaan were dead; burned by fire, or crushed beneath the crumbling debris of the great wooden towers that had once lined the streets. But there was only one casualty that interested Orath.
He'd entered Ferlhame alone, ordering Gort and Draco to wait in the forests outside the city. In the gloom of the night, Orath could pass for one of the Danaan-the men and women running through the streets were too shocked by the carnage to notice the batlike features beneath the shadow of his hooded cloak. The same could not be said for his companions.
The dragon's corpse had been obliterated by the power of the Ring, the beast blown into a thousand pieces. Gruesome chunks of gore-covered flesh were scattered among the corpses and debris, and everything within a hundred yards of where the dragon had fallen was covered in a warm black ichor.
The remains of the Chaos Spawn still trembled with magic. He could feel it as he wandered the dark streets. It lingered, like the acrid clouds of smoke that choked the night air. Even dead and ripped apart, Orath could sense that the dragon had been magnificent.
And what did that say about the mortal who had defeated it? Orath had assumed that once he and the other Minions located the Talismans they could simply take them by force. But the gruesome aftermath of Ferlhame forced him to reevaluate his plan.
Their victory over the Pontiff and the others at the Monastery had given them a false sense of superiority. The Chaos had still flowed in their blood then; they had been strong. But in the weeks since that slaughter, Orath had felt his power fading.
Here, on the other side of the Legacy, it was much harder to unleash Chaos. The barrier that kept his master trapped in exile also thwarted his efforts to draw on the magical fires from the Burning Sea. The longer he and the other Minions stayed here, the weaker they would become.
After so many centuries cut off from the power of Chaos, is it any wonder the Pontiff and his followers were so weak and helpless?
Yet not all among the mortals were weak and helpless, he reminded himself. A handful had been marked by Daemron's spell: the Children of Fire. Touched by Chaos, they could unleash the true power of the Talismans . . . power enough to destroy a dragon. Or a Minion.
Did Raven learn this lesson at the cost of her life? Is that why she hasn't returned with the Crown? Have our numbers dwindled even further?
Had his powers still been at their peak, he could have cast a spell to contact her, even across the entire distance of the mortal world. It might even still be possible. But Orath wasn't willing to try. Every incantation, every spell that he unleashed whittled away some of his strength. He had to conserve his energy; he needed to hoard the lingering remnants of Chaos in his blood for as long as possible.
Are the others aware of this? Have they sensed the slow, subtle ebbing of their power?
If not, there was no need to warn them. Not yet. Not when he could still make use of them.
In the wake of Raven's disappearance, he'd sent the Crawling Twins after the Crown. Individually they couldn't match her strength, but as a pair they were more than her equal. And what they lacked in intelligence, they made up for in savage instincts and unwavering loyalty.
But what if Raven had been destroyed by the mortal bearing the Crown? If that was the case, would the Crawling Twins fare any better? More importantly, would he?
He still might be strong enough to take the Ring by force. But strength alone wasn't why Daemron had anointed him as the leader of those he sent into the mortal world. Orath was cautious and cunning. Even though he could sense the Ring's presence moving steadily eastward, he had no intention of rushing off in pursuit and suffering a fate similar to that of the dragon.
Turning down a side street, he spotted a man in uniform, barking out orders to half a dozen others as they ran about the carnage to and fro.
These mortals have their uses, he thought, using the tiniest bit of Chaos to wrap himself in an aura of power and authority.
"You, there!" he called out. "I must speak with your ruler!"
"I beg you to reconsider, my Queen," Andar pleaded, his voice a low whisper, as if he was afraid the one waiting in her private council chamber might somehow overhear them.
"If you didn't want me to meet with this Orath, then why did you tell me of his request?" Rianna demanded, not bothering to turn her head as she marched purposefully through the castle halls. "Why bring him into the castle?"
"I was afraid to leave him wandering the streets unchecked," the High Sorcerer admitted. "And you have a right to know what is happening in your kingdom," he added as an afterthought.
"I also have the right to decide what is best for my kingdom," she countered. "We are in crisis. Our capital is devastated; our people are in mourning. We have need of allies. Powerful allies."
"Orath is an abomination," Andar warned. "A creature twisted by Chaos."
"The Order would say the same thing about us," the Queen reminded him.
As they rounded the final corner on their journey, Rianna pulled up short. The heavy oaken door of the council chamber was closed. Along the walls on either side stood a half dozen of the Royal Guard, faces grim and weapons drawn.
"Is Orath a guest or a prisoner?" she asked.
"He is dangerous, my Queen," Andar insisted. "Even with the Royal Guard in the room, I cannot guarantee your safety."
"Then the Royal Guard shall wait outside," Rianna insisted, raising a hand to stifle Andar's inevitable objection.
"Open the door," she ordered.
The guard nearest the door obeyed her command, hesitating just long enough to cast a brief glance at Andar before he did so.
Have I already been brought so low? Rianna wondered, though she understood his reaction. She had failed to protect her people from the dragon and the Destroyer of Worlds. Thousands of her subjects lay dead in the streets, and her own son had become a traitor to his people.
I was weak with Vaaler. I foresaw the danger in my dreams, but instead of ordering his execution, I chose to banish him. I acted like a mother instead of a Queen. I put my son's life ahead of my people.
It was a mistake she wouldn't make again. Her heart was hard now, her resolve steeled.
Even so, she balked when she saw what was waiting for her beyond the portal. Andar had warned her that Orath was neither Danaan nor human: he called himself a Minion. But that name had done nothing to prepare her for his unsettling appearance.
He was tall and thin, his frame bordering on skeletal. His clothes were black, as was the long cape draped behind him-a stark contrast to his alabaster skin. His face was long and narrow, his head hairless. His features were vaguely batlike: his pointed ears were too small and pressed close against his skull. His nose was sunken, his nostrils two diagonal slits in the center of his face. His eyes were yellow, the pupils narrow and dark, and his lipless mouth was lined with too many sharp, pointed teeth.
But even more disturbing than his malformed visage was the aura of magic she could feel emanating from him. Chaos enveloped him, surrounded him like a cocoon. The same power that had wrought destruction on her city.
What good is the gift of prophecy if I lack the conviction to act on it?
Taking a deep breath, Rianna entered the room. A second later, Andar followed. The Queen waved her hand without looking back, and behind her one of the guards closed the door, sealing the three of them in together.
"I am Rianna Avareen, Queen of the Danaan," the woman declared.
Her voice was strong and confident, but Orath could sense her revulsion, just as he had sensed it in the High Sorcerer when he first presented himself. He could have cast a spell to hide his appearance, a simple illusion to make him appear to be one of the Danaan. But it would tax his power unnecessarily. And he wanted the mortals to know he was not one of them. He wanted them to understand he could offer them things no other could.
"I am Orath," he said. "I have come here to propose an alliance."
"Come from where?" the High Sorcerer demanded.
He was afraid. Suspicious. So was the Queen. But Orath sensed something else in her as well. A hunger he knew how to feed. At his unspoken command, the aura surrounding him grew stronger-a small sacrifice of his power to project an image of even greater authority, a subtle push that could help his arguments win these mortals to his side.
"I come from the depths of the Great Forest," he explained.
"Our patrols know every inch of the forest," the Queen declared. "We have never had any reports of a creature like you."
Orath laughed softly. "A creature like me," he muttered. "Once I was like you. Have I now become so hideous?"
"You're Danaan?" Andar asked, incredulous.
"Not Danaan. I walked these woods long ago, when the humans and Danaan were still one people. Before the Cataclysm."
"That would make you over seven hundred years old," Andar mocked.
"I have not seen seven centuries," Orath admitted. "For most of this time I have been . . . sleeping. Locked away in stasis by the Legacy."
"You fought with Daemron against the Old Gods," Rianna said, quickly assembling the bits and pieces of Orath's lie, just as he'd hoped.
"Not all of the Slayer's followers were banished with him when he fell," Orath explained. "After the Cataclysm, some of us turned our back on the carnage of the war.
"But we were still beings touched by Chaos, and when the Old Gods created the Legacy, we fell into hibernation with the Chaos Spawn."
"The Ring woke you," the Queen whispered. "Like it woke the dragon."
Orath nodded but didn't speak, knowing the less he said the better. His lies would carry more weight if the Queen believed she was figuring things out for herself.
"You spoke of an alliance," she added, urging him to continue.
"I can help you reclaim what is rightfully yours. I can help you get the Ring back."
"Why do you want to help us?" Andar demanded. "What do you get out of this alliance?"
This one doesn't trust me, Orath thought. The aura worked better on some than others. But he didn't need to win him over. The High Sorcerer's loyalty to his monarch would compel him to follow her orders despite his personal doubts.
"For centuries you and your line kept the Ring safe," Orath said, ignoring Andar and addressing the Queen. "You kept its power in check. Now it is in the hands of one who has no idea of how to properly control Chaos.
"What happened to your city was only the beginning," he continued. "If used again, the Ring's power will awaken armies of sleeping Chaos Spawn. They will unleash death and devastation across the world on a scale you cannot even fathom.
"I witnessed one Cataclysm. I know another will destroy the world, and me along with it."
"How do we know you don't want the Ring for yourself?" Andar asked.
"It would destroy me if I tried to use it," Orath admitted, countering the question with a half-truth. Using any of Daemron's three Talismans by itself was dangerous and unpredictable. Their powers were meant to be used in concert, with each artifact balancing out the other two. He would only dare to unleash their power once he possessed the Ring, the Sword, and the Crown.
"If I could take the Ring myself, I would," the Minion said. "To keep it safe," he quickly added. "But I'm not strong enough to stand against one who wields its power on my own. And neither is your kingdom."
He sensed her uncertainty, her confusion, her fear. His spell wasn't strong enough to compel someone to obey, but it could push them in a direction they were already leaning. She was lost, and she was looking for someone to tell her what to do.
"Do you believe we can get it back if we work together?" the Queen wanted to know.
"That depends on you, my Queen," Orath said with a bow. "How far are you willing to go to protect your people? What are you willing to do to reclaim the Ring?"
"Anything," Rianna promised. "Anything."
Keegan couldn't move. He lay paralyzed on the battlefield that had once been a beach, surrounded by the bodies of the dead. Not all the bodies were human. Above him stood a towering figure bathed in Chaos fire, the blue flames so intense they burned Keegan's eyes. A deafening roar drowned out all other noise-the sound of the Legacy crumbling.
Terrified and helpless, the young wizard couldn't look away-an unwilling witness to the fury of the Talismans' full power finally unleashed.
He woke with a start, his heart pounding and beads of sweat trickling down his forehead. The stump of his left arm throbbed with heat and pain, and he could feel the phantom fingers of his missing left hand clenching and unclenching involuntarily in response to the nightmare.
In the flickering light of the campfire's dying embers, he could just make out Vaaler's form crouched beside him.
"What's wrong?" his friend asked. "Are you okay?"
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Keegan muttered, "It's nothing. Just a bad dream."
"Your dreams are more than nothing," the exiled Danaan prince reminded him.
"I'm tired," Keegan protested, cradling his stump in his other arm and rolling over to turn his back to Vaaler. "I need to rest."
After a few moments, Vaaler got up and walked to the other side of the camp, leaving him alone. Sleep came again quickly, and mercifully the dream did not return.
Scythe tossed and turned, her mind churning. When she heard Keegan thrashing and moaning in his sleep, she almost got up to check on him. But Vaaler beat her to it, so she decided to stay where she was.
Having Norr sound asleep beside her only made things worse. Normally the deep, rhythmic rumbles of his breathing helped her drift off, but tonight they had the opposite effect.
It's not his fault, she chided herself. It's this whole damn situation.
Unlike her barbarian lover, who could have snored his way through the Cataclysm, her nights had been spent in restless worry since the five of them had fled the destruction of Ferlhame.
Excerpted from The Scorched Earth by Drew Karpyshyn. Copyright © 2014 by Drew Karpyshyn. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.