Ruins of Chaos (Legacy of the Nine Realms #3) by Amelia Hutchins

Chapter One

Knox, Outside the Border of Norvalla in Steely Keep

My eyes slid over the dead warriors lying beside camp followers and witches alike. Outside of the keep, the putrid scent of death filled the air. Kneeling, I turned over a warrior, his sightless eyes covered in a milky-white film of death. Studying his body, I noted the lack of injury before standing and staring at the ravens feasting on the dead.

One raven sat fixated on me, an eyeball hanging from its beak, then dropping it loose. Opening its mouth, it forced out a loud gurgling croak before retrieving its find and taking to the sky. Hounds had moved in, growling while ripping parts and pieces from the deceased, unbothered by our presence as we walked through them, searching for any signs of injury that would explain the deaths.

“Well, they didn’t just drop dead all on their own, but I can’t see a cause of death,” Brander stated, holding his forearm against his nose.

I undid the sash from my waist, tying it over my mouth and nose before kneeling beside the next warrior who had fallen onto another body. I noted the marking on the woman’s wrist below him, watching with unease as something moved beneath her lips, forcing them to part. A rat pushed from her mouth, squealing and scurrying across the field, away from those interrupting his supper.

“Nothing but fucking scavengers are alive within this keep and its village. I see no wounds and no trace of dark magic that would have brought them down without a full assault. They had magic protecting them,” I stated, standing to nod at the six-foot towers of smoky quartz that marked each corner of the camp. “The land remains purified and protected, yet something powerful got through their wards and spells. This keep is one of the older, more powerful strongholds in which we trade, yet their lord and lady sit headless, with no other signs of injury, and all their guards lay dead but unwounded.”

Someone massacred every village we passed through on the way here. Bodies were shredded and mutilated until they were unidentifiable as human or anything else. Either the dark witches had grown bolder, or they no longer fought alone. They hung people and enjoyed their victim’s deaths as entertainment before removing their heads. “Whoever went through those villages before us, relished in the deaths of their inhabitants. My guess is the beasts that fled from the Kingdom of Unwanted Beasts joined forces with Ilsa. I can’t explain this shit, though. It is morbid and just fucking wrong,” I said, sliding my attention over the chaos.

They pillaged most of the annexed villages we’ve protected and used for trade, slaughtering all life, sparing no one. I agreed it didn’t seem like something witches would do. Then rumors surfaced from those who had seen the unwanted beasts slaughtering and creating chaos in villages that had joined the trade agreement with Norvalla. Suddenly the thought of them joining the dark witches seemed plausible, but what were the unwanted beasts gaining in return?

The high queen was trying to stop Norvalla from receiving food or other goods that supplied my kingdom. It was a bloodbath, one meant to send a warning to any of the villages wishing to join the annex, and I’d failed to protect them.

I hadn’t expected Garrett, the newly crowned King of Unwanted Beasts, to change sides in the war. After what Aria had done to her sister, Amara, his wife, I should have predicted it, but I was too focused on recapturing Aria, knowing that she held the keys to winning this war.

“I don’t see any sign of the council among the bodies,” Brander stated, drawing me from my thoughts and reminding me of the purpose of this journey since they had sent for me. Maybe it was a ruse, and the council was never here.

“What about the tents?” I peered at the camp that sat off to the side.

“Haven’t made it that far,” he admitted.

I moved toward a tent, withdrawing blades and using one to pull back the flap. Inside was a witch, straddling a warrior mid-fuck, both dead and bloated. Sightless eyes stared toward me, and I frowned. I moved deeper into the tent with Brander on my heels, both of us barely containing the need to gag as the heat made the scent of death overpowering without the wind and breeze to carry it away.

Staring at their eyes and the way they looked at the flap, my blood curdled. They’d seen their death coming. Their mouths were open, as were the others outside the tent. The witch’s corpse slid to the side, and Brander withdrew his blade as rats emerged from the warrior’s chest. Chew marks covered the witch’s stomach as if the rodents had gnawed on her to escape his stomach. Brander swore, covering his mouth as their bodies released gasses, and the witch’s mouth opened further, dispelling more rats from her corpse.

“This is so fucking wrong. They’re rotten from the inside out.” Brander continued to gag on the rancid taste of death filling the tent.

I moved outside to check the other shelters, finding each pair of eyes within, staring at the entrance. They’d looked upon whoever had delivered death to the inhabitants surrounding and within the stronghold. Standing in the middle of the camp, I swallowed down the urge to scream in frustration.

“Beasts didn’t kill here. This is the work of dark witches, and they didn’t fear someone overpowering them.” I eyed the keep and pointed at the battlement wall. “I’m going up to get a better look at the carnage from above.”

I moved through the dead, passing over the corpses while ignoring the carrion birds that continued to feast on the deceased. Green water filled the moat, and bloated bodies were half in and out of the water as if they’d drank from the cesspool upon death.