Four unlikely champions, each touched with Chaos magic at birth, are all that can stop the return of Daemron the Slayer, a hero who became a god—and then a demon. Exiled by the Old Gods, Daemron has long plotted his vengeful return. Now that moment is at hand, as the barrier imprisoning him—the Legacy—crumbles.
Armed with mighty Talismans, the four champions—Keegan, a wizard beset with self-doubt; Cassandra, a seer terrified by her own future; Scythe, a peerless warrior whose only weak spot is a broken heart; and Vaaler, a prince without a kingdom—seek the Keystone, a fabled place where, or so it is said, the Legacy can be restored.
But the plots of the Slayer are cunning and deep, and even the most noble heart can be twisted by the tainted magic of Chaos—as Keegan, Cassandra, Scythe, and Vaaler will soon discover.
Praise for Chaos Unleashed
“A rich fantasy tale dripping with dark elements of horror and driven by . . . characters that will have you flipping pages deep into the night to see what happens next.”—Roqoo Depot
Praise for Drew Karpyshyn’s Chaos Born series
“Karpyshyn’s doom-laden spin on myth and magic invigorates ancient archetypes . . . as if Michael Moorcock’s decadence were filtered through J.R.R. Tolkien’s heroism.”—Publishers Weekly, on The Scorched Earth
“Thoroughly entertaining . . . an engrossing story that’s easy to dive into and hard to leave.”—Roqoo Depot, on Children of Fire
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Keegan’s stomach was rumbling, but he did his best to ignore it. Instead, he focused only on putting one foot in front of the other, relentlessly marching west across the sparse scrubland that stretched ahead of him as far as his eyes could see. With Norr’s death their numbers had dwindled to three: Jerrod, Scythe, and him—a trio of sorry figures trudging slowly across the tundra of the Frozen East.
He leaned heavily on Rexol’s gorgon-headed staff, the powerful artifact reduced to a simple walking stick to help him on his way. Shifting the pack over his shoulder, he was reminded of how much lighter it had become. They had been rationing food ever since they left the icy peaks of the Guardian’s territory over a week ago, hoping their supplies would last long enough to get them to the Southlands.
And then what? the young mage wondered.
From the Guardian, they had learned that Cassandra—the young woman who had unwillingly helped them escape from the Monastery—now carried Daemron’s Crown. She had taken the Talisman and fled south once more, heading for the port city of Callastan, pursued by enemies even more dangerous than Raven, the bird-headed woman who had attacked them to try to get Daemron’s Sword.
Even if we find her before they do, why would she want to help us?
In the wake of Raven’s attack, Jerrod had once again revised his interpretation of the prophecy he claimed to serve. Seeing Scythe use the Sword had convinced him that there were actually three saviors, each bound to one of Daemron’s three Talismans. When the Slayer returned, the monk had explained to them, Keegan, Scythe, and Cassandra would have to work together to defeat him, drawing on the respective powers of the Ring, the Sword, and the Crown.
Keegan wasn’t certain he bought into the new theory, and he was almost certain Cassandra wouldn’t, either. The Guardian had initially seen them as a threat; given what had happened at the Monastery, she was likely to do the same. Would Jerrod even have a chance to try to convince her he was right before she unleashed the power of the Crown against them?
He had no idea what the Crown did, exactly. But it had been powerful enough to destroy Rexol, Keegan’s old master, when he tried to use it.
Will we be strong enough to defeat her? Or the enemies hunting her?
It wasn’t just Jerrod’s reinterpretation of the prophecy that worried Keegan. Though he wouldn’t admit it, the monk was obviously still struggling with the strange double vision he’d been cursed with by Raven. Ironically, the Sword had protected him from the Minion’s deadly spells when he’d fought her, but had done nothing to keep her from healing him of the mystical blindness that afflicted all the members of the Order. The gray veil that had once covered his pupils and irises had melted away, revealing a pair of very ordinary-looking brown eyes. Without his trademark feature, Jerrod no longer looked like one of the Order. Instead, he resembled a fit but otherwise unremarkable middle-aged man.
When they finally reached the Southlands, Keegan thought, the only thing people would find odd about them were their clothes. All three of them were still wearing the simple pants and shirts they’d taken from the Danaan patrol when they’d first met Vaaler, with an extra layer of furs thrown overtop in the style of the Eastern clans to help ward off the cold.
Jerrod hadn’t spoken of what he was going through, but Keegan could imagine how difficult it must be. With his vision restored, his supernatural awareness was now under constant bombardment by a collage of light, shapes, and colors. Jerrod no longer moved with the sharp precision Keegan had grown used to; he seemed hesitant and cautious as his mind struggled to comprehend the overabundance of stimuli. He had survived his battle with Raven, but he had suffered a loss from which he might never fully recover.
And Scythe isn’t herself anymore, either.
The young Islander followed close behind the monk, the weapon her lover had sacrificed himself for strapped across her back. Like the others, she carried a small pack slung over one shoulder.
At a glance, she appeared as she always did: a small, lithe young woman with olive skin, almond eyes, and straight, shoulder-length black hair. The blade seemed almost too large for her, but the weight didn’t seem to encumber her. She still moved with a predator’s grace, her muscles always taut and ready. Unlike Jerrod, Scythe’s wounds were mental, not physical.
Raven’s attack had snapped her out of her catatonic state of grief, but since her mind had returned, she hadn’t mentioned Norr’s death at all. She no longer seemed to blame Jerrod for her loss; she showed no signs of being interested in revenge or payback. In fact, she wasn’t interested in much of anything. She was speaking again, but only when absolutely necessary. She didn’t even question or challenge Jerrod’s decisions anymore; she seemed to be willing to just follow along with whatever the monk suggested.
That’s not like her. She used to oppose him just on principle.
Keegan had tried several times to draw her out of her shell, but she hadn’t engaged him. Anytime he tried to start a conversation, she’d listen but wouldn’t respond with more than one- or two-word answers.
In the past when she wanted to be left alone, she’d shut me down with quick, cutting words. It’s like she just doesn’t care anymore.
As much as he’d learned to fear her temper, it was far better than her newfound apathy. The only thing he hadn’t tried yet was talking to her about what happened to Norr. If anything could stir up some emotion in her, that would be it.
But what could I even say to her?
He knew from experience that empty platitudes could offer no comfort. When his father had been killed, the last thing he wanted to hear was tired clichés about holding on to his memories.
That’s just an excuse. The reality is, you’re a pathetic coward. You’re just afraid she’ll see the truth!
Norr had been his friend, but a dark, twisted corner of Keegan’s psyche was always jealous of the big man. Part of me wanted Norr out of the way. Part of me wanted him gone so I’d have a chance with Scythe.
He hadn’t wished for Norr to die, of course. At most Keegan had hoped he might go back to his own people. And even that hope had been tempered by the understanding that it was just a foolish, selfish fantasy. The big man’s heroic sacrifice had hammered home just how petty and shameful Keegan’s feelings for Scythe really were . . . but that didn’t make them go away.
Out of respect for Norr, Keegan had vowed to himself to never act on his feelings. But Scythe already knew he had a crush on her. What if she saw any effort to console her as a clumsy attempt at winning her heart now that his rival was gone? What if she saw him as a predator trying to take advantage of her vulnerable emotional state?
Right now she’s cold and distant, but apathy is better than hate and contempt.
Ahead, Jerrod held up his hand and brought them to a halt.
“We stop here for lunch, then press on. We’re getting close to the Southlands. If we’re lucky, we should come across some of the outlying farms in the next few days.”
To Keegan’s dismay, Scythe didn’t respond to his words. She didn’t object, she didn’t agree. She didn’t even nod. She simply sat down, opened her pack, and took out a thin sliver of jerky—barely more than a few bites’ worth.
With an inaudible sigh, Keegan took a seat on the cold ground beside her, using Rexol’s staff to help lower himself. As he dug out his own rations, she didn’t acknowledge his presence in any way.
Jerrod slung his pack off his shoulder and let it fall to the ground, then crouched and rummaged through it, digging his way past the blankets they used to ward off the cold whenever they made camp for the night. A few seconds later he produced his own piece of jerky, only to offer it to Keegan.
The young wizard shook his head and held up the stump of his left arm, waving the food away with a hand that was no longer there.
“I’ve got plenty,” he lied.
“My body can sustain itself on the most meager of rations,” Jerrod reminded him. “But you need to eat to keep your strength up.”
“Give it to Scythe.”
The monk turned slightly in her direction. She answered with a barely perceptible shake of her head.
“This is all I need,” she said, holding up what was left of her scant meal.
“The Sword gives her strength,” Jerrod surmised, turning his attention back to Keegan. “But the Ring is different. It seems to be draining you. You’re wasting away.”
“I’m sick of jerky,” Keegan protested though he knew there was truth in what Jerrod said.
The Ring still dangled from a chain around his neck, tucked away beneath the cloth of his shirt.
But though out of sight, it was never out of mind. He could always sense its power, calling to him, urging him to put the Talisman on his finger and unleash Chaos on the mortal world. Ignoring that call wasn’t easy; it put a slow but constant strain on his mind . . . and possibly his body, too.
“Until we reach the farms, there is nothing else,” Jerrod reminded him. “And if you don’t eat to keep your strength up, one of us will end up having to carry you.”
Realizing it was pointless to argue, Keegan took the jerky and grudgingly choked it down. The rest of the meal passed in silence and they were soon on their way again, but he couldn’t stop himself from continuing to worry about Scythe.
If you’re too much of a coward to speak with her about Norr, maybe you can convince Jerrod to try.
When darkness fell they bedded down for the night. As usual, Jerrod took the first watch. But instead of letting himself drift off to sleep, Keegan waited until he heard Scythe snoring softly. Then he quietly slipped out of the blankets he had wrapped himself in, stood up, and signaled for the monk to follow him a short way off from the camp.
Once they were out of earshot, the young mage said, “I’m worried about Scythe.”
“Everyone copes with grief in their own way,” Jerrod assured him, brushing aside his concern.
“I don’t think she is coping,” Keegan replied. “She’s just blindly following along like some kind of pack mule. It’s like part of her shut down.”
“Perhaps Norr’s sacrifice made her understand the true value of our mission,” the monk offered. “Or maybe she felt something when she used the Sword to kill Raven, and she finally accepts the role she has to play. Maybe she no longer protests everything we do because she has decided to embrace her destiny as one of the three saviors.”
I doubt that, Keegan thought. But maybe there was an opportunity to use Jerrod’s beliefs to his advantage.
“What if she can’t play that role in her current state?” Keegan wondered aloud. “After Raven’s death, you said the flames of Chaos burn inside her. It’s what makes Scythe who she is: spontaneous, argumentative, confrontational. But she’s not like that anymore. What if that fire inside her has gone out?”
Jerrod hesitated, then shook his head. “Chaos cannot so easily be extinguished. It is part of her core, the very essence of her being. The Chaos in her blood defines her, just as it defines you.”
After a brief pause, he added, “And Cassandra, too, no doubt.”
“I still think you should talk to Scythe,” Keegan pressed. “If we can just get her to open up about what happened to Norr, maybe she’ll go back to her old self.”
“Such a conversation could have consequences we are not prepared to deal with,” the monk replied carefully.
“What are you talking about?”
“Backlash,” he said, his voice dropping into a low whisper. “You used the Ring to save us from the yeti horde. Maybe the backlash of the Chaos you unleashed is what caused Norr’s death.”
The idea wasn’t new to Keegan; it’s one he had struggled with himself. The thought that he might be indirectly responsible for what happened to Norr only intensified his guilt over his feelings for Scythe. But there was no way to be certain he was to blame, and he had already decided he wasn’t going to take on the extra burden.
“If I hadn’t done that, we’d all be dead,” Keegan reminded him.
“I agree. But will Scythe see it that way? If we delve into this, she might decide you are to blame for Norr’s death.”
“Even if it was my fault,” Keegan said, the words coming grudgingly to his lips, “Scythe wouldn’t blame me. She’s smart enough to understand it was an accident.”
“Was it?” Jerrod asked.
Keegan was too stunned by the accusation to answer.
“Your feelings for Scythe are obvious enough,” the monk continued. “And your power is growing. Every time you’ve used the Ring, you’ve become stronger. More able to control and direct the Chaos it unleashes.
“What if your jealousy of Norr made you subconsciously direct the backlash in his direction?”
“That’s . . . that’s not even possible,” Keegan stammered, shaking his head. “Nobody can control backlash. That’s why it’s so dangerous.”
“Perhaps. But you have already done many things that no other has accomplished.”
“I didn’t cause Norr’s death,” Keegan declared. “Not on purpose, at least.”
“It doesn’t matter if you believe that,” Jerrod reminded him. “Or even if I believe it. It only matters if Scythe believes it.
“If we ask her about Norr, she might start looking for reasons he is gone. She might stumble down this same road of thinking. She might decide you are to blame. And she might decide you must pay with your life.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” Keegan said, though he didn’t sound as confident as he’d hoped.
“It’s a chance I’m not willing to take,” Jerrod concluded. “Scythe is strong; I believe her spirit will return in time.”
“Do we really have the luxury to just wait and see?” Keegan asked, still not willing to let it rest.
Jerrod considered the matter for several seconds before replying.
“You may be right,” he conceded. “If Scythe has not shown any change or improvement in the next few days, I will speak to her.”
Satisfied, Keegan nodded his thanks.
“Get some sleep,” the monk said. “Tomorrow might be a long day.”
It didn’t take more than a few minutes from when Keegan bedded down before he was snoring soundly.
Scythe was careful to keep her breathing steady as Keegan got up and went to speak to Jerrod, maintaining the illusion that she was sleeping peacefully. She wasn’t tired; since taking up the Sword, she only needed an hour of sleep each night. But she’d rather pretend to be unconscious than have to deal with her traveling companions right now.
On the few occasions when she did sleep, she dreamed of Norr. Her mind kept taking her back to a time when he was still alive, to their days in Praeton, mostly. Scythe had often found the small village mind-numbingly dull, but now she longed for its simple pleasures. Even the boredom would be bearable if Norr were with her.
But he’s not. He’s gone.
Every time she woke up, there was a brief moment when she expected to roll over and see Norr snoring beside her. And then reality would come crashing in, and the pain would hit her, hard and fresh. In some small way, it felt like he was dying over and over again.
Scythe had never given much thought to what happened to a person after death. Many of the new religions spoke of some other world where the deceased would be reunited with those they loved in some kind of never-ending paradise. A nice thought, but one she found far too convenient to be credible.
The Order preached that those who died would become one with the Chaos Sea, the essence that ignited the spark of life slipping away to rejoin the universal whole from which the Old Gods themselves had been born. There was something appealing in that theory—death as a release from everything, including your own sense of existence. And maybe someday she’d embrace such a fate. But for now she still welcomed the pain of Norr’s memory. It was all she had left of him, and she wasn’t about to give that up for eternal oblivion quite yet.
She continued to lie perfectly still as Keegan came back and lay down on the other side of the smoldering peat fire, maintaining the ruse until the young man started snoring softly. Despite their precautions, she’d overheard every word he and Jerrod had said about her; thanks to the Sword, all her senses had been unnaturally heightened.
The idea that Norr’s death was due to backlash from Keegan’s spell was nothing new to her. But she hadn’t considered the possibility that Keegan had intentionally directed the backlash at her lover. Even if he had, though, it didn’t change anything.
Norr had given his life because he truly believed Keegan was some kind of savior. Looking at him now, it was hard to see. He was thin to the point of being frail. His black hair and dark, sunken eyes contrasted with his skin to make it look white as the snow that surrounded them; his cheeks were so smooth and hairless that he looked more like a boy than a real man.
And he only has one hand!
Despite all this, however, Scythe couldn’t allow herself to have any doubts about his destiny. Or hers. She’d seen Keegan’s power, but that wasn’t what sustained her faith. The only way Norr’s death made any sense, the only way it had any meaning or purpose at all, was if Jerrod was right. For the sake of Norr’s memory, Scythe was willing to buy into the mad monk’s prophecy, no matter how many times he changed the details around. She was determined to see this through to the end, no matter what the cost.
I’ll follow you to Callastan while you try to convince Cassandra to join us. If she refuses, I’ll cut her down with the Sword and put the Crown on my own head if that’s what it takes.
And in the end, if you decide the only way to save the world is for me and Keegan to sacrifice ourselves, then that’s what’s going to happen. And if Keegan isn’t willing to pay that price, I’ll be happy to send him on his way.
Norr had been the noblest, most generous, kindest man she had ever known, and now he was gone. He was a better person than she was; he was better than any of them. If he had to die for the cause, then why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn’t Keegan? Why shouldn’t anybody—or everybody—else have to die, too?
She was no prophet; even armed with the Sword she hadn’t started having cryptic dreams or visions. At night all she saw were memories of a time when Norr was still alive. But somehow she knew this already tragic quest wouldn’t end without more bloodshed. And she was willing, even eager, to watch the crimson rivers flow.