Chapter no 9

Empire of Storms

Elide Lochan knew she was being hunted.

For three days now, she’d tried to lose whatever tracked her through the endless sprawl of Oakwald. And in the process, she herself had become lost.

Three days hardly sleeping, barely stopping long enough to scavenge for food and water.

She’d turned south once—to backtrack and shake it off her trail. She’d wound up heading a day in that direction. Then west, toward the mountains. Then south, possibly east; she couldn’t tell. She’d been running then, Oakwald so dense that she could hardly track the sun. And without a clear view of the stars, not daring to stop and find an easy tree to climb, she couldn’t find the Lord of the North—her beacon home.

By noon on the third day, she was close to weeping. From exhaustion, from rage, from bone-deep fear. Whatever took its time hunting her would surely take its time killing her.

Her knife trembled in her hand as she paused in a clearing, a swift, nimble stream dancing through it. Her leg ached—her ruined, useless leg. She’d offer the dark god her soul for a few hours of peace and safety.

Elide dropped the knife into the grass beside her, falling to her knees before the stream and drinking swift and deep. Water filled the gaps in her belly left by berries and roots. She refilled her canteen, hands shaking uncontrollably.

Shaking so hard she dropped the metal cap into the stream.

She swore, plunging into the cold water up to her elbows as she fumbled for the cap, patting the rocks and slick tendrils of river weed, begging for one solitary break

Her fingers closed on the cap as the first howl sounded through the forest.

Elide and the forest went still.

She had heard dogs baying, had listened to the unearthly choruses of wolves when she’d been hauled from Perranth down to Morath.

This was neither. This was…

There had been nights in Morath when she’d been yanked from sleep because of howls like that. Howls she’d believed were imagined when they didn’t sound again. No one ever mentioned them.

But there was the sound. That sound.

We shall create wonders that will make the world tremble.

Oh, gods. Elide blindly screwed the cap onto the canteen. Whatever it might be, it was closing in fast. Maybe a tree—high up a tree—might save her. Hide her. Maybe.

Elide twisted to shove her canteen into her bag.

But a warrior was crouched across the stream, a long, wicked knife balanced on his knee.

His black eyes devoured her, his face harsh beneath equally dark, shoulder-length hair as he said in a voice like granite, “Unless you want to be lunch, girl, I suggest you come with me.”

A small, ancient voice whispered in her ear that she’d at last found her relentless hunter.

And they’d now both become someone else’s prey.



Lorcan Salvaterre listened to the rising snarls in the ancient wood and knew they were likely about to die.

Well, the girl was about to die. Either at the claws of whatever pursued them or at the end of Lorcan’s blade. He hadn’t yet decided.

Human—the cinnamon-and-elderberries scent of her was utterly human

—and yet that other smell remained, that tinge of darkness fluttering about her like a hummingbird’s wings.

He might have suspected she’d summoned the beasts were it not for the tang of fear staining the air. And for the fact that he’d been tracking her for

three days now, letting her lose herself in the tangled labyrinth of Oakwald, and had found little to indicate she was under Valg thrall.

Lorcan rose to his feet, and her dark eyes widened as she took in his towering height. She remained kneeling by the stream, a dirty hand reaching for the dagger she’d foolishly discarded in the grass. She wasn’t stupid or desperate enough to lift it against him. “Who are you?”

Her hoarse voice was low—not the sweet, high thing he’d expected from her delicate, fully curved frame. Low and cold and steady.

“If you want to die,” Lorcan said, “then go ahead: keep asking questions.” He turned away—northward.

And that was when the second set of snarling began. From the other direction.

Two packs, closing in. Grass and cloth rustled, and when he looked, the girl was on her feet, dagger angled, face sickly pale as she realized what was happening: they were being herded.

“East or west,” Lorcan said. In the five centuries he’d been slaughtering his way across the world, he’d never heard snarls like that from any manner of beast. He thumbed free his hatchet from where it was strapped at his side.

“East,” the girl breathed, eyes darting to either direction. “I—I was told to stay out of the mountains. Wyverns—large, winged beasts—patrol them.”

“I know what a wyvern is,” he said.

Some temper snapped in her dark eyes at his tone, but the fear washed it away. She began backing toward the direction she’d chosen. One of the creatures loosed a keening cry. Not a canine sound. No, this was high-pitched, screeching—like a bat. But deeper. Hungrier. “Run,” he said.

She did.

Lorcan had to give the girl credit: despite the still-injured leg, despite the exhaustion that had made her sloppy these past few days, she bolted like a doe through the trees, her terror likely leeching away any pain. Lorcan leaped the wide stream in an easy movement, closing the distance between them in mere heartbeats. Slow; these humans were so damned slow. Her breathing was already ragged as she hauled herself up a hill, making enough noise to alert their trackers.

Crashing from the brush behind them—from the south. Two or three from the sound of it. Big, from the snapping branches and thudding of footfalls.

The girl hit the top of the hill, stumbling. She stayed upright, and Lorcan eyed the leg again.

There was no point in having tracked her for so long if she died now. For a heartbeat, he contemplated the weight in his jacket—the Wyrdkey tucked away. His magic was strong, the strongest of any demi-Fae male in any kingdom, any realm. But if he used the key—

If he used the key, then he’d deserve the damnation it’d call down upon him.

So Lorcan flung out a net of his power behind them, an invisible barrier wafting black tendrils of wind. The girl stiffened, whipping her head to him as the power rippled away in a wave. Her skin blanched further, but she continued, half falling, half running down the hill.

The impact of four massive bodies against his magic struck a moment later.

The tang of her blood as she sliced herself open on rock and root shoved itself up his nose. She was nowhere near fast enough.

Lorcan opened his mouth to order her to hurry when the invisible wall snapped.

Not snapped, but cracked, as if those beasts had cleaved it.

Impossible. No one could get through those shields. Not even Rowan-rutting-Whitethorn.

But sure enough, the magic had been sundered.

The girl hit the gully at the bottom of the hill, near-sobbing at the flat expanse of forest sprawling ahead. She sprinted, dark braid thrashing, pack bouncing against her slim back. Lorcan moved after her, eyeing the trees to either side as the snarling and rustling began again.

They were being herded, but toward what? And if these things had ripped his magic apart…

It had been a long, long while since he’d had a new enemy to study, to break.

“Keep going,” he growled, and the girl didn’t so much as look over her shoulder as Lorcan slammed to a stop between two towering oaks. He’d been spiraling down into his magic for days, planning to use it on the

human-but-not girl when he grew bored of stalking her. Now his body was rife with it, the power aching to get out.

Lorcan flipped his axe in his hand—once, twice, the metal singing through the dense forest. A chill wind edged in black mist danced between the fingers of his other hand.

Not wind like Whitethorn’s, and not light and flame like Whitethorn’s bitch-queen. Not even raw magic like the new King of Adarlan.

No, Lorcan’s magic was that of will—of death and thought and destruction. There was no name for it.

Not even his queen had known what it was, where it had come from. A gift from the dark god, from Hellas, Maeve had mused—a dark gift, for her dark warrior. And left it at that.

A wild smile danced on Lorcan’s lips as he let his magic rise to the surface, let its black roar fill his veins.

He had crumbled cities with this power.

He did not think these beasts, however fell, would fare much better.

They slowed as they closed in, sensing a predator was waiting—sizing him up.

For the first time in a damn long while, Lorcan had no words for what he saw.

Maybe he should have killed the girl. Death at his hand would be a mercy compared to what snarled before him, crouching low on massive, flesh-shredding claws. Not a Wyrdhound. No, these things were far worse.

Their skin was a mottled blue, so dark as to be almost black. Each long, lightly muscled limb had been ruthlessly crafted and honed. For the long claws at the end of their hands—five-fingered hands—now curled as if in anticipation of a strike.

But it was not their bodies that stunned him.

It was the way the creatures halted, smiling beneath their smashed in, bat-like noses to reveal double rows of needlelike teeth, and then stood on their hind legs.

Stood to their full height, as a crawling man might rise. They dwarfed him by a foot at least.

And the physical attributes that seemed unnervingly familiar were confirmed when the one closest to him opened its hideous mouth and said, “We have not tasted your kind’s flesh yet.”

Lorcan’s axe twitched up. “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure, either.”

There were very, very few beasts who could speak in the tongues of mortal and Fae. Most had developed it through magic, ill-gained or blessed.

But there, slitted with pleasure in anticipation of violence, gleamed dark, human eyes.

Whitethorn had warned of what was occurring in Morath—had mentioned the Wyrdhounds might be the first of many awful things to be unleashed. Lorcan hadn’t realized those things would be nearly eight feet tall and part human, part whatever Erawan had done to turn it into this.

The closest one dared a step but hissed—hissed at the invisible line he’d drawn. Lorcan’s power flickered and throbbed at the poisoned claw-tips of the creature as it prodded the shield.

Four against one. Usually easy odds for him. Usually.

But he bore the Wyrdkey they sought, and that golden ring he’d stolen from Maeve, then given to and stolen from Aelin Galathynius. Athril’s ring. And if they brought either to their master…

Then Erawan would possess all three Wyrdkeys. And would be able to open a door between worlds to unleash his awaiting Valg hordes upon them all. And as for Athril’s golden ring … Lorcan had no doubt Erawan would destroy the ring forged by Mala herself—the one object in Erilea that granted immunity to its bearer against Wyrdstone … and the Valg.

So Lorcan moved. Faster than even they could detect, he hurled his axe at the creature farthest from him, its focus pinned on its companion as it prodded his shield.

They all whirled toward their companion as the axe slammed into its neck, deep and permanent. All turned away to see it fall. Lethal by nature, but untrained.

The beasts’ attention diverted for a heartbeat, Lorcan’s next two knives flew.

Both blades embedded to the hilt in their ridged foreheads, their heads reeling back as the blows sent them clattering to their knees.

The one in the center, the one who had spoken, loosed a primal scream that set Lorcan’s ears ringing. It lunged for the shield.

It rebounded, the magic denser this time. Lorcan drew his long-sword and a knife.

And could only watch as the thing roared at the shield and slammed against it with both ruined, clawed hands … and his magic, his shield, melted under its touch.

It stepped through his shield like it was a doorway. “Now we’ll play.”

Lorcan crouched into a defensive stance, wondering how far the girl had made it, if she’d even turned to look at what pursued them. The sounds of her flight had faded away.

Behind the creature, its companions were twitching. No—reviving.

They each lifted a strong, clawed hand to the daggers through their skulls—and yanked them out. Metal rasped on bone.

Only the one with its head now attached by a few tendons remained down. Beheading, then.

Even if it meant getting close enough to do so. The creature before him smiled in savage delight. “What are you?” Lorcan ground out.

The two others were now on their feet, the wounds in their heads already healed, bristling with menace.

“We are hunters for His Dark Majesty,” the leader said with a mock bow. “We are the ilken. And we have been sent to retrieve our quarry.”

Those witches had dispatched these beasts for him? Cowards, not to do their own hunting.

The ilken went on, stepping toward him on legs that bent backward. “We were going to let you have a quick death—a gift.” Its broad nostrils flared, scenting the silent forest. “But as you have stood between us and our prey … we will savor your long end.”

Not him. He was not what the wyverns had been stalking these days, what these creatures had come to claim. They had no idea what he bore— who he was.

“What do you want with her?” he asked, monitoring the creeping approach of the three.

“It is none of your concern,” the leader said. “If there is a reward in it, I will help you.”

Dark, soulless eyes flashed toward him. “You do not protect the girl?”

Lorcan gave a shrug, praying they couldn’t scent his bluff as he bought her more time, bought himself time to work out the puzzle of their power. “I

don’t even know her name.”

The three ilken looked at one another, a glance of question and decision. Their leader said, “She is important to our king. Retrieve her, and he will fill you with power far greater than feeble shields.”

Was that the price for the humans they’d once been—magic that was somehow immune to what flowed naturally in this world? Or had the choice been taken from them, as surely as their souls had been stolen, too?

“Why is she important?”

They were now within spitting range. He wondered how long it’d take to replenish the supply of whatever power allowed them to cleave through magic. Perhaps they were buying themselves time, too.

The ilken said, “She is a thief and a murderer. She must be brought to our king for justice.”

Lorcan could have sworn an invisible hand touched his shoulder.

He knew that touch—had trusted it his entire life. It had kept him alive this long.

A touch on his back to go forward, to fight and kill and breathe in death. A touch on his shoulder to instead run. To know that only doom waited ahead, and life lay behind.

The ilken smiled once more, its teeth bright in the gloom of the wood. As if in answer, a scream shattered from the forest behind him.

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