The Spirit Eater (Legend of Eli Monpress Series #3)448
The Spirit Eater (Legend of Eli Monpress Series #3)448
Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)
Nico, however, is finding it a bit hard. Plagued by a demon's voice in her head and feeling powerless, she only sees herself as a burden. Everyone's holiday comes to an untimely close, though, when Pele arrives to beg Eli's help for finding her missing father.
But there are larger plans afoot than even Eli can see, and the real danger, and the solution, may lie with one of his own and her forgotten past.
If only Nico could remember whose side she's on.
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|Series:||Legend of Eli Monpress Series , #3|
|Product dimensions:||4.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Rachel also writes fantasy under the name Rachel Aaron. Learn more about her first series, The Legend of Eli Monpress, and read sample chapters for yourself at rachelaaron.net!
Read an Excerpt
The Spirit Eater
By Aaron, Rachel
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Aaron, Rachel
All right reserved.
The great hall of the Shapers had been flung open to let in the wounded. Shaper wizards, their hands still covered in soot from their work, ran out into the blowing snow to help the men who came stumbling onto the frosted terrace through a white-lined hole in the air. Some fell and did not rise again, their long, black coats torn beyond recognition. These the Shapers rolled onto stretchers that, after a sharp order, stood on their own and scrambled off on spindly wooden legs, some toward the waiting doctors, others more slowly toward the cold rooms, their unlucky burdens already silent and stiff.
Alric, Deputy Commander of the League of Storms, lay on the icy floor near the center of the hall, gritting his teeth against the pain as a Shaper physician directed the matched team of six needles sewing his chest back together. His body seized when the needles hit a nerve, and the Shaper grabbed his shoulders, slamming him back against the stone with surprising strength.
“You must not move,” she said.
“I’m trying not to,” Alric replied through gritted teeth.
The old physician arched an eyebrow and started the needles again with a crooked finger. “You’re lucky,” she said, holding him still. “I’ve seen others with those wounds going down to the cold rooms.” She nodded at the three long claw marks that ran down his chest from neck to hip. “You must be hard to kill.”
“Very,” Alric breathed. “It’s my gift.”
She gave him a strange look, but kept her hands firmly on his shoulders until the needles finished. Once the wounds were closed, the doctor gave him a bandage and left to find her next patient. Alric sat up with a ragged breath, holding his arms out as the bandage rolled around his torso of its own accord and tied itself over his left shoulder. After the gauze had pulled itself tight, Alric sat a moment longer with his eyes closed, mastering the pain. When he was sure he had it under control, he grabbed what was left of his coat, buckled his golden sword to his hip, and got up to find his commander.
The Lord of Storms was standing in the snow beside the great gate he had opened for their retreat. Through the shimmering hole in the world, Alric could see what was left of the valley, the smoking craters rimmed with dead stone, the great gashes in the mountains. But worse than the visible destruction were the low, terrified cries of the mountains. Their weeping went straight to his bones in a way nothing else ever had and, he hoped, nothing ever would again.
The Lord of Storms had his back to Alric. As always, his coat was pristine, his sword clean and sheathed at his side. He alone of all of them bore no sign of what had just occurred, but a glance at the enormous black clouds overhead was all Alric needed to know his commander’s mood. Alric took a quiet, calming breath. He would need to handle this delicately.
The moment he stepped into position, the Lord of Storms barked, “Report.”
“Twenty-four confirmed casualties,” Alric said. “Eighteen wounded, eight still unaccounted for.”
“They’re dead,” the Lord of Storms said. “No one else will be coming through.” He jerked his hand down and the gate beside him vanished, cutting off the mountains’ cries. Despite himself, Alric sighed in relief.
“Thirty-two dead out of a force of fifty,” the Lord of Storms said coldly. “That’s a rout by any definition.”
“But the objective was achieved,” Alric said. “The demon was destroyed.”
The Lord of Storms shook his head. “She’s not dead.”
“Impossible,” Alric said. “I saw you take her head off. Nothing could survive that.”
The Lord of Storms sneered. “A demon is never defeated until you’ve got the seed in your hand.” He walked to the edge of the high, icy terrace, staring down at the snow-covered peaks below. “We tore her up a bit, diminished her, but she’ll be back. Mark me, Alric, this isn’t over.”
Alric pulled himself straight. “Even if you are right, even if the creature is still alive somewhere, we stopped the Dead Mountain’s assault. The Shepherdess can have no—”
“Do not speak to me about that woman!” the Lord of Storms roared. His hand shot to the blue-wrapped hilt of his sword, and the smell of ozone crept into the air as little tongues of lightning crackled along his grip. “What we faced tonight should never have been allowed to come about.” He looked at Alric from the corner of his eye. “Do you know what we fought in that valley?”
Alric shuddered, remembering the black wings that blotted out the sky, the screaming cry that turned his bones to water and made mountains weep in terror, the hideous, black shape that his brain refused to remember in detail because something that horrible should never be seen more than once. “A demon.”
The Lord of Storms laughed. “A demon? A demon is what we get when we neglect a seed too long. A demon can be taken out by a single League member. We kill demons every day. What we faced tonight, Alric, was a fully grown seed.” The Lord of Storms took a deep breath. “If I hadn’t taken its head when I did, we could have witnessed the birth of another Dead Mountain.”
“Another…” Alric swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “But the Dead Mountain is under the Lady’s own seal. Tiny slivers may escape, but nothing big enough to let the demon actually replicate itself could get through. It’s impossible; the whole containment system would be undermined.”
“Impossible?” The Lord of Storms shook his head. “You keep telling yourself that. But it is the Lady’s will that keeps the seal in place, and when her attention wanders, we’re the ones who have to clean up.”
The Lord of Storms clenched his sword hilt, and the smell of ozone intensified. Alric held his breath, wondering if he should go for cover. When the Lord of Storms was this angry, nothing was safe. “It’s not just a large seed,” the commander said at last. “That would be too simple. What we saw tonight was as much a product of the soil as the seed. The Master got his claws in a strong one, this time. Thirty-two League members and a ruined valley are nothing compared to what this could end up costing us. We have to find the creature and finish her.”
Alric was looking for a way to answer that when the soft sound of a throat clearing saved him the trouble. He turned to see a group of old men and women in fine heavy coats standing in the doorway to the great hall. Alric nodded graciously, but the Lord of Storms just sneered and turned back to the mountains, crossing his arms over his chest. Undeterred by the League commander’s rudeness, the figure at the group’s head, a tall, stern man with a white beard down to his chest, stepped forward.
“My Lord of Storms,” he said, bowing to the enormous man’s back. “I am Ferdinand Slorn, Head Shaper and Guildmaster of the Shaper Clans.”
“I know who you are,” the Lord of Storms said. “We’ll be out of here soon enough, old man.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you need,” Slorn said, smiling benignly. “However, we sought you out to offer assistance of a different nature.”
The Lord of Storms looked over his shoulder. “Speak.”
Slorn remained unruffled. “We have heard of your battle with the great demon, as well as its unfortunate escape. As Master of the Shapers, I would like to offer our aid in its capture.”
“Guildmaster,” Alric said, “you have already helped so much, providing aid and—”
“How do you know about that?” The sudden anger in the Lord of Storms’ voice stopped Alric cold.
“These mountains are Shaper lands, my lord,” the Guildmaster replied calmly. “You can hardly expect to fight a battle such as you just fought without attracting our attention. Our great teacher, the Shaper Mountain, on whose slopes we now stand, is enraged and grieving. His brother mountains were among those injured by the demon, many beyond repair. As his students, we feel his pain as our own. We cannot bring back what was destroyed, but we do ask that we be allowed to assist in the capture of the one responsible.”
“What help could you be to us?” the Lord of Storms scoffed. “Demons are League business. You may be good at slapping spirits together, but what do Shapers know of catching spirit eaters?”
“More than you would think.” The old man’s eyes narrowed, but his calm tone never broke. “After all, we Shapers live our lives in the shadow of the demon’s mountain. You and your ruffians may be good at tracking down the demon’s wayward seeds when they escape into the world, but it is my people, and the great mountains we honor, who suffer the demon daily. Tonight, several beautiful, powerful spirits, ancient mountains and allies of my people, were eaten alive. Even for us, who are used to bearing sorrow, this loss is too much. We cannot rest until the one responsible is destroyed.”
“That’s too bad,” the Lord of Storms said, turning to face the old Guildmaster at last. “I’ll say this one more time. Demons are League business. So, until I put a black coat on your shoulders, you will stay out of our way.”
The Guildmaster stared calmly up at the Lord of Storms. “I can assure you, my dear Lord of Storms, we will avoid your way entirely. All I ask is the opportunity to pursue our own lines of inquiry.”
The Lord of Storms leaned forward, bending down until he was inches away from the old man’s face. “Listen,” he said, very low, “and listen well. We both know that you’re going to do what you’re going to do, so before you go and do it, take my advice: Do not cross me. If you or your people get in my way on the hunt for the creature, I will roll right over you without looking back. Yours wouldn’t be the first city I’ve razed to kill a demon. Do you understand me, Shaper?”
Slorn narrowed his eyes. “Quite clearly, demon hunter.”
The Lord of Storms gave him one final, crackling glare before pushing his way through the small crowd of Shaper elders and stomping back across the frozen terrace toward the brightly lit hall.
Alric thanked the Shaper elders before running after his commander. “Honestly,” he said, keeping his voice low, “it would make my life easier if you learned a little tact. They were just trying to help.”
“Help?” the Lord of Storms scoffed. “There’s nothing someone outside the League could do to help. Let them do whatever they like. It’ll end the same. No seed sleeps forever, Alric. Sooner or later, she’s going to crack, and when that happens, I’ll be there. The next time I corner her, there will be no escape. I don’t care if I have to cut through every spirit in the sphere, I won’t stop until I have her seed in my hand.” He clenched his fists. “Now, get everyone out of here, including corpses. We burn the dead tonight at headquarters. I want nothing of ours left in this mountain.”
And with that he vanished, just disappeared into thin air, leaving Alric walking alone through the center of the Shaper hall. Alric skidded to a stop. It was always like this when things were bad, but the only thing to do was obey. Gritting his teeth, he walked over to the best mended of the walking wounded and began giving orders to move out. His words were met with grim stares. Most of the League were too wounded to make a safe portal back to the fortress, but they were soldiers, and they obeyed without grumbling, working quietly under Alric to bring home the dead through the long, bloody night.
Ferdinand Slorn, Head Shaper and Guildmaster of the Shaper Clans, watched the Lord of Storms’ exit with heavy-lidded eyes. The other heads of the Shaper disciplines were already dispersing, whispering to one another as they walked into the crowded hall. Only one stayed behind. Etgar, the Master Weaver, youngest of the elders, remained at the edge of the terrace, the embroidered hem of his elegant coat twitching nervously against his shins.
The old Shaper smiled. “Go on, Etgar.”
Etgar paled. “Master Shaper,” he said, his deep voice strangely timid. “Yours is the voice of all Shapers. I do not oppose your judgment, but—”
“But you do not agree,” the Master Shaper finished.
“We’re all upset,” Etgar said, his words coming in long, angry puffs of white vapor in the cold night. “What happened in that valley is tragedy enough to fill our laments for the next dozen years, but demons are the League’s responsibility. Even if we could do something, if the demon is still alive as the League thinks, it’s probably gone back to the Dead Mountain by now.”
“No,” Slorn said. “Once awakened, a seed can never return to the mountain. The seal works both ways, repelling awakened demons from the outside as surely as it pins their Master below the mountain’s stone. My son told me that much before he vanished.” The old man smiled a long, sad smile and turned his eyes to the snow-covered mountains. “No, Etgar, if the creature is still alive, it’s out there, somewhere, and if it wishes to survive the League’s wrath long enough to recover its power, it will have to hide. If that is indeed the case, the best place for it is under the only cover the creature has left, its human skin. Demons may be League business, but humans are another matter.”
“What difference does that make?” Etgar shook his head in frustration. “Even if she does take a human form to escape the League’s justice, what are we to do about it? I want justice served as much as any, but we are crafters, Guildmaster, not bounty hunters. How are we even to search for her?”
“We will not,” Slorn said. “We shall allow others to search for us.” The Guildmaster reached into his robes and pulled out a small notebook. “She may be a daughter of the Dead Mountain, but so long as she takes refuge in a human form, she will be vulnerable to human greed.” He pulled an ink pencil from his shirt pocket and began to write furiously. After a few moments he smiled, ripped the page from his book, and handed it to Etgar. “Take this to the Council of Thrones.”
Etgar stared dumbly at the paper. “What is it?”
“A bounty pledge,” Slorn said. “The girl, alive, for two hundred thousand gold standards.”
Etgar’s eyes went wide. “Two hundred thousand gold standards?” he cried, looking at the paper again as though it had suddenly grown fangs. Sure enough, there was the figure, written out in the Guildmaster’s nearly illegible hand across the very bottom of the note.
“A small sum compared to what we have lost tonight,” Slorn said, his voice cold and terrible. “This world is not so large that we can afford to be placid, Etgar. Too long we Shapers have left these things to the League, and look where it has gotten us. There are more seeds than ever, and now a fully awakened demon slaughters our ancient allies while we do nothing but wring our hands. I don’t know what game the Shepherdess is playing letting things get this bad, but we cannot afford to play along anymore. This may all be for nothing, but no matter the outcome, I will not be the Guildmaster who shuts his hall against what he does not wish to see.” He reached out, folding the younger man’s hands over the paper. “See that that gets to Zarin.”
For a moment Etgar just stood there, staring dumbly at the note in his fist. Finally, he bowed. “As you will, Master Shaper.”
The old man clapped Etgar on the shoulder and set off for the great hall, the ice on the stones creeping away to make a clear path for him across the wide terrace. Etgar stayed put, looking down at the torn page in his hand, reading it again, just to be sure. Two hundred thousand gold council standards to be paid out on proof of death for the daughter of the Dead Mountain. That was it, no mention of the crime, no personal details, just the amount and a short description of a thin, pale girl with dark hair and dark eyes taken from what one of the wounded League men had been able to get out before he died.
“The Weaver’s will be done,” Etgar muttered. Frowning, he thrust the bounty request into his pocket and set off across the terrace to find a messenger to take the order to Zarin.
In the hills at the foot of the mountains, just above the tree line where the snow was still thin, something black fell from the sky. Ice and dirt flew up in an explosion where it hit, leaving a rounded crater on the silent mountainside. Eventually, the dust settled, but inside the crater, nothing moved. The mountain slope returned to its previous stillness, until, when the sky was turning gray with the predawn light, something reached up and clutched the crater’s edge. Black and bleeding, it pulled itself up, leaving a trail in the dirt. It climbed over the crater’s lip and tumbled down the mountainside, sliding down the slope until it hit the first of the scraggly trees. The creature rasped in pain, clutching itself with long black limbs. It stayed like that for a long while, lying still against the scrubby pines.
As the sky grew lighter, the darkness clinging around the slumped figure burned away, leaving the small, broken body of a girl. She was pale and naked, lying doubled over on her side, clutching her stomach. There was snow on the ground around her, but her body scarcely seemed to feel it. She lay on the frozen ground, never shivering, eyes open wider than any human eyes should, staring up at the mountains above, or, rather, past them, toward something only she could see. Her skeletal body twitched, and she took a shallow, ragged breath.
Why are you still here? The voice was colder than the snow.
The girl on the ground closed her eyes in shame and took another breath.
Stop that, the voice said. You failed. You lost. What right do you have to go on living? Why do you waste my time?
The girl shook her head and curled her body tighter. “Please,” she whispered, her voice little more than a hoarse vibration in her throat. “Please don’t leave me, Master.”
The voice made a disgusted sound. Shut up. You don’t get to speak. You don’t even deserve my attention. Just die in a place that’s easy to find so my seed doesn’t go to waste.
The girl gave a sobbing cry, but the voice was already gone. Her head throbbed at the sudden emptiness, and she realized she was alone. Truly alone, for the first time since she could remember. She would have wept then, but she had no strength left even to break down. She could only lie there in the shade of the tree, hoping the slope was close enough to fulfill the Master’s final request. After losing so completely, it was the least she could do.
It wouldn’t be long, at least. Her blood was red again, mixing with the dirt to dye the snow a dull burgundy in a circle around her. Soon, all her failures would be behind her. All her weakness, everything, it would all be gone. She was so focused on this she didn’t notice the man coming across the mountain slope toward her until his shadow blotted out the sun in her eyes. She looked up in surprise. He was very tall, dressed like a poor farmer in a ragged wool coat, but his body was that of a fighter, with blades strapped up and down his torso and a monstrous iron sword on his back.
He stood a step away from her, his face shadowed and unreadable with the sun behind him. Then, in one smooth motion, he drew a short sword from the sheath at his hip. This much, at least, she could understand, and the girl closed her eyes, ready for the blow.
It never came. The man simply stood there, staring at her with the blade in his hand. When she opened her eyes again, he spoke.
“Do you want to die?”
The girl nodded.
Overhead, the sword whistled through the cold air, then stopped. The man’s voice spoke again. “Look at me and say you want to die.”
The girl lifted her head and stared up at him. The morning sun glinted off the sharp blade he held in the air, ready to come down. How easy it would be to let this stranger end it, how simple. And yet, when she tried to tell him to go on, finish what the demon hunters had started, her voice would not come. She tried again, but all she managed was a squeak. The dull red circle on the snow around her was very wide now. Soon, she wouldn’t even have a choice. She knew she should take his offer, end it quickly, but her mouth would not move, because it was not true.
She did not want to die. The realization came as a surprise, but the truth of it rang in her, vibrating against the inner corners of herself she’d long forgotten. She had been defeated, abandoned, wounded beyond repair. She owed it to the Master to die, owed it to herself to save the horrible shame of living on when she was not wanted, but still, despite all reason…
“I want to live.” The words came out in a croak, and she only recognized the voice as her own from the pain in her dry throat.
Above her, the man nodded and sheathed his sword. “Then take another breath.”
She met his eyes and slowly, shuddering with pain, did as he said.
He grinned wide and reached down, grabbing her arms in his hands. He lifted her like she weighed nothing and tossed her over his shoulder. “Come on, then,” he said. “I had a long walk up here to see what that crash was, and we’ve got a long walk back. If you’ve chosen to live, you’ll have to keep your end and keep breathing. Just focus on that and I’ll get us back down to camp to see to your wounds. Then we’ll see where we go from there. What’s your name?”
“Nico,” the girl said, wincing against his shoulder. The Master had given her that name.
“Nico, then,” the man said, setting off down the mountain. “I’m Josef.”
Nico pushed away from his shoulder, trying not to get blood on his shirt, but he just shrugged her back on and kept going. Eventually she gave up, resting her head on his back to focus all of her energy on breathing, letting her breaths fill the emptiness the Master had left inside her. As she focused her mind on the feel of her lungs expanding and contracting, she felt something close at the back of her mind, like a door gently swinging shut. But even as she became aware of the sensation, she realized she could no longer remember how she’d come to be on that mountain slope, or where her wounds came from, and just as quickly, she realized she didn’t care. The one thing she could remember was that before the man Josef appeared, she’d been ready to die. Now, clinging to his shoulder, death was her enemy. Something deep had changed, and Nico was content to let it stay that way. Reveling in a strange feeling of freedom, she went limp on Josef’s shoulder, focusing only on savoring each gasp of air she caught between jolts as Josef jogged down the steep slope to the valley below.
Two years later.
The house on chicken legs crouched between two steep hills, its claws digging deep into the leaf litter to keep the building from sliding farther down into the small ravine. If Heinricht Slorn had any worries about the precarious position he’d put his walking house in, his face didn’t show it. He sat in his workroom, his brown fur glowing in the strong lamplight. His dark, round eyes glittered as they focused on the object taking up most of the large worktable. It was about four feet long, white as a dried bone, and shaped somewhat like a sword, or like a stick a child had carved into a sword. Despite its crude form, Slorn hovered over the object, his enormous hands running over its smooth surface with the painful, meticulous slowness of one master appreciating the work of another.
Pele sat at his elbow, also staring at the white sword. She was trying her best to match her father’s focus, but they’d been doing this for two days now and she was getting awful sick of staring and seeing nothing. Sitting in the dark room, her mind began to wander back to the other, more interesting projects she’d been working on before Slorn had put her to work on the Fenzetti blade.
“Pele.” Slorn’s gruff voice snapped her back to attention. His eyes hadn’t left the sword, but that didn’t matter. Her father seemed to have a supernatural ability to tell when her attention began to drift. “What is the first thing we determine when examining an unknown spirit?”
“Its nature,” Pele answered at once, sitting up on the hard workbench. “A Shaper must know the nature of her materials. Only when a spirit’s true nature is known will the Shaper be able to bend it to her purpose.”
“Good,” Slorn said, reaching out to take her hand and press it against the smooth surface of the Fenzetti. “And what is the nature of this spirit?”
Pele flinched when she touched the sword. It was unnaturally smooth and strangely warm, yet she knew from experience that its surface could not be scratched even by an awakened blade. They’d tried half a dozen blades the morning it had arrived, and none of them had been able to make so much as a nick in the sword’s white face.
Slorn was looking at her now, and she shrank under his intense gaze, her brain spinning to come up with an answer. “It’s not wood,” she said uncertainly. “Not stone either. It could be a metal not yet known, one of a different nature than iron or the mountain metals, perhaps a—”
“Stop,” Slorn said. “You’re not answering the question. I did not ask what it wasn’t.”
Pele sighed in frustration. “But—”
Slorn picked up the sword and set it point down on the floor between them. “Look at it as if you’d never seen it before and tell me what you think it is.”
Pele bit her lip, looking the sword up and down. “A bone,” she said at last.
Slorn grinned wide, showing all his yellow teeth. “All right, let’s say, for the moment, it’s a bone.”
“But that’s impossible,” Pele said. “Bone metal is ancient. If it was actually bone, it would have rotted away ages ago. And why haven’t we found any two pieces together? Surely if it was bone we’d have found a skeleton or…”
She stopped. Slorn was shaking his head.
“You’re doing it again,” he said. “If you’re ever going to be more than a common wizard tinkerer, you need to stop trying to make the spirits fit into your expectations.” He returned the blade to the table. “This is the spirits’ world, Pele, not ours. We may command them, but they see the nature of things that we cannot. As Shapers, it is our job to fit into the spirits’ order, not the other way around. Fenzetti understood this, and that’s how he was able to shape what everyone else called unshapable.”
He reached out and took the sword, not by its handle but by its point. “A Shaper must remember,” he said, wrapping his fingers around the blade, “trust what you see, not what you know. Human knowledge is fragmented, but the spirit always knows its own nature.”
With that, he began to tilt his hand up. The table creaked as he pressed against it, the muscles in his arms straining from the pressure. The sword, however, remained unchanged, but then, slowly, subtly, it began to bend. The white point curled with his hand, bending over on itself with a creak unlike anything Pele had heard before. Sweat started to soak through Slorn’s shirt, but his face remained calm and determined. His hands were steady, bending the strange metal in a slow roll until, at last, he’d bent it over completely so that the tip of the sword brushed the blade.
He stopped, panting, and slumped over the bench, an enormous grin on his face. Despite the pressure of Slorn’s bending, the curve was smooth, like an ox’s curved horn. Pele touched it with murmured wonder and then snatched her hand back again. The sword was warm as a living thing.
“It is bone,” she whispered, eyes wide. “But bone from what?”
“That’s a mystery I cannot answer,” Slorn said, sitting down on the bench. “But I think it’s time we tested the rumor that drove me to send Monpress after it in the first place.” Still smiling at the curled tip, he picked up the sword. “Fenzetti wrote that bone metal is indestructible, even by demons. It’s the one spirit they can’t eat.” He paused. “Do you know why I make manacles for your mother?”
Pele shook her head, silent. Slorn never talked about her mother.
“They give the demon something to chew on other than the demonseed herself,” he said. “Before she had to be isolated, Nivel and I did many experiments on the subject. She was the one who came up with using restraints. A demon, you see, will always attack spirits outside the demonseed first, since the seed relies on the host’s strength until it is ready to awaken. This need to be constantly eating can be exploited by placing a strong-willed material along the host’s body. Even though the demon knows better, knows it’s a trick, it can’t help its nature. It will attack those spirits endlessly, focusing its attention on the manacles instead of the host. This division of attention slows its growth phenomenally. Of course, it’s not a perfect solution. Manacles are still spirits, and even the most stubborn awakened steel can only hold out for so long before it gets eaten down. But”—he tapped the bone metal against the table—“let’s see how the demon does with a manacle it can chew on forever. If this bone metal is truly inedible by demons, it may slow Nivel’s degradation to almost nothing, buying us a few more years to work on a cure.”
“But Father,” Pele said slowly. “You always say there is no cure.”
Slorn’s smile faded. “It is good to think that way,” he said, laying the bent sword down again. “We must be realists. Still”—he looked at her, and his dark eyes were almost like the human eyes of the father she remembered from her childhood—“your mother has not given up. Not yet. And I would be a poor husband indeed if I let her fight alone.”
Pele shook her head, blinking back tears. Slorn put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her to lean against him. “None of that,” he whispered.
Pele sniffed and scrubbed her eyes, trying to compose herself. They had work to do. Now was not the time to go crying. But as she tried to pull away, she realized her father had gone stiff. She looked up at him, but he was staring out the window, his round bear ears swiveling.
“Father?” she whispered.
He didn’t answer. Then she heard it too. Outside, something thumped in the dark. It was big, and loud, far too loud to be one of the mountain cats, and the bears never came near Slorn’s house.
“Pele,” Slorn said, “get your knife. We have company.”
She did as he told her, grabbing her knife from its hook. While she was belting it on, Slorn whispered something to the wall. She couldn’t hear what he said, but the wall’s answer was plain.
“I don’t know,” it said apologetically, timbers creaking. “He’s no wizard, and that makes him very hard to keep track of. This one’s especially bad. His soul is like a dull spot. He’d never have been able to slip by the Awakened Wood otherwise.”
“I am well aware of the wood’s weaknesses,” Slorn said, giving the wall a pat. “You’d better wake the house.”
“Yes, Slorn,” the wall whispered, but Slorn was already gone, marching down the narrow hall. He threw open the front door and stepped out onto the rickety stairs. Pele pushed right up behind him, gripping the hilt of her knife as she peeked over his shoulder. There, standing at the edge of the rectangle of yellow light cast from the doorway, clinging to the steep slope with one arm, was a man she never wanted to see again.
Slorn glared down from his steps, crossing his arms over his chest. “Berek Sted.”
The man sneered and moved into the light. He looked very different from when Pele had seen him last. His bald head was covered in several weeks’ growth of stubbly hair, all except the top, where true baldness had left him bare. His scarred face was overgrown as well and streaked with dirt. His black coat was gone, as was his sash with its grotesque collection of severed hands and broken swords. Instead, his bare chest was wrapped in bandages, most of which were dark with old, dried blood. But the greatest change of all was his left arm. His shoulder and the first half of bicep looked the same as ever, but then, his arm simply stopped. He had no elbow, no hand, just a badly bandaged lump that he kept pressed against his side.
“Found you at last,” Sted panted. “Swordsmith.”
“What do you want?” Slorn asked, his voice dry.
Sted shifted his weight, pushing off the steep hillside with his one good arm to hurl something straight at them. It landed with a clatter at Slorn’s feet, biting into the weather-stained wood. Slorn looked down, arching a furry eye ridge at what was left of Sted’s black-toothed awakened blade. The top half of the sword was gone, leaving a ragged, twisted edge, as though the metal had been ripped apart.
“You sold me a faulty sword,” Sted said. “I want another, a real one this time. One that won’t break when I need it.”
Slorn reached down and picked up the broken blade. He turned it over in his hands, and Pele winced. This close, she could hear the metal whimpering.
“Your sword was a quality piece of work,” Slorn said. “Even if there was a flaw, the League is the only body entitled to demand my services, and I doubt very much they sent you here looking like that.”
“Don’t talk to me about the League,” Sted growled.
“Ah,” Slorn said, his voice cold. “Now I see. You’ve been drummed out.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“It is indeed my business,” Slorn said. “I made that sword for the League, not for you. What was it, Sted? Insubordination? Dereliction of duty?”
“Little of everything,” Sted said with a shrug. “To hear that bastard Alric talk, choosing a good fight over a quick demon kill was the end of the world. After all I gave up to join the League, he kicked me out, took away my gifts. But I wouldn’t be in this position if your sword had been up to the task, bear man.”
Slorn crossed his arms over his aproned chest. “And how did my sword fail you?”
“It was weak!” Sted shouted. “Too weak to take a blow from that blunt bat Liechten uses. I said as much in my defense, but Alric couldn’t stand to hear the truth about his precious swordsmith.”
Slorn bared his teeth just a fraction. “If that’s how you feel, why did you come here?”
“To get what I’m due,” Sted said. “After all, it’s only fair. You’re the one whose failure got me kicked out, so you’re the one who’s going to have to make it right.”
Slorn turned the broken sword over. “I can see from the dents that your sword took several blows from Josef Liechten’s ‘blunt bat.’ An impressive achievement, standing up to the greatest awakened sword in the world. I’d hardly call that deficient.” His eyes narrowed. “Though I can’t say the same for its wielder.”
“Don’t blame this on me!” Sted shouted. “I was winning until your sword broke! It’s not my fault I lost! I don’t lose! Your sword failed me, and now you’re going to make up for it. Make me a proper sword, swordsmith! Make me a blade that can take the Heart of War!”
“Impossible,” Slorn said, handing the broken blade to Pele. “The Heart of War is the first and greatest awakened blade, forged at the beginning of the world. Even if I could somehow make a blade to rival it, it would be pointless.” He glared at Sted. “A blade is only as powerful as the swordsman behind it. I’ve never seen you fight, but I can tell from how you’re acting now that you are no match for Josef Liechten.”
Sted sprang forward with astonishing speed and grabbed Slorn by the collar. Slorn was a large man, but Sted towered over him, his face scarlet with rage.
“Mind your snout before I take it off your face!” he roared, jerking Slorn off his feet. “You’re going to make me that sword, and then I’m going to kill Liechten and everyone else who’s made a fool of me. Starting with you, if you don’t watch yourself.”
Pele fumbled for her blade, her hands trembling in panic, but Slorn’s calm never faltered, even with Sted’s screaming mouth an inch from his black nose.
“You will unhand me,” he said.
“Or what?” Sted growled.
Slorn smiled, and the fibers of his collar where Sted was holding him suddenly unraveled. Sted was left gripping air as Slorn dropped down. The Shaper landed neatly, and he had just enough time to give Sted a toothy smile before the stair beneath the swordsman’s feet snapped like a green branch, launching the larger man into the night. Sted was too surprised to make a sound. He flew through the air, landing with a bone-snapping crack on the opposite slope. He bounced once and then began to slide into the ravine as the leaves that might have stopped his fall skittered away from the source of Slorn’s displeasure.
Sted slid all the way to the bottom of the little gorge, landing with a splash in the icy stream. Twenty feet up, Slorn stared down from his stairs, a smirk on his muzzle as his torn collar began to mend itself. “This is my land, Sted,” he said calmly. “You don’t get to make demands here. Any tacit welcome you had as a League member is now gone, and I suggest you go as well. The forest is unkind to those who threaten me.”
As he spoke, a large outcropping of rocks on the slope above Sted began to creak menacingly, but Sted heard none of it. “This isn’t over!” he screamed. “You owe me!”
Slorn gave him a final long, disgusted look before turning and marching silently back into the house, pushing Pele ahead of him. The moment the door closed, the house began to move, climbing expertly along the ravine edge on its wooden chicken legs. From the window, Pele could see Sted flailing through the creek after them, but the trees along the water were barring his way, tripping him with their roots and tangling him in their branches. The last thing Pele saw before Sted vanished into the dark was Sted falling into the water, his one arm still reaching out for the retreating house.
“Will he come after us?” she whispered.
“He’ll try,” Slorn said, easing Sted’s broken blade to sleep before tossing it into a barrel full of damaged parts. “The League doesn’t take men who give up easily. But don’t be afraid; the woods are a dangerous enemy and he’s no wizard.”
He gave her a yellow-toothed smile and disappeared into his workroom. Pele looked out the window one last time. The dark woods sped by outside as the house crawled north faster than a man could run, farther into the mountains, leaving no footprints behind.
In the dull light just before morning, Nivel sat as she always sat, straight on her rock with her hands folded across her lap. High overhead, the treetops, flat, black shapes against the gray sky, rocked in the wind, but here in her dry ravine it was silent, except for her manacles. As always, the metal cuffs buzzed against her skin. Their silver outsides were gnawed away in places, revealing the dense steel core. Nivel shifted. The decay was unsettling. Slorn had made the manacles for her just a month ago, but each new set seemed to wear out quicker than the one before. Nivel’s lips tightened. She knew what that meant, even if she’d never seen it happen. She knew.
Of course you know. The voice sounded almost bored. You always knew you would lose in the end.
Nivel folded her hands tighter.
I don’t see why you’re putting your family through this, it said. How selfish, fighting a losing battle on their time. You should just let go, let me have you, and set them free. Do you think your husband likes having a bear’s head?
An image flashed before her eyes, Slorn as he’d looked fifteen years ago when they were first married. But the memory had that strange crispness to it that told her it was the demon’s sending, and not her own. It liked to riffle through her mind for weapons, but this was a battle they’d been fighting for a long time now, and Nivel was too wise for these old tricks. She closed her eyes against the image and kept her silence. Speaking to the voice only gave it more power, and she had no more to give.
She was finding something else to think about when a strange shadow appeared at the edge of her ravine. Nivel snapped her head up. It was far too early for Slorn or Pele, and no spirit would come near the warding. It could be a phantom. The demon had been making her see things that weren’t there for years. Yet, from the confusion in her head, she felt that this was as much a surprise to it as to her. That terrified Nivel more than any false vision. She couldn’t afford surprises.
The figure leaned over the edge of the ravine, peering down, and she saw it was a man. A large man with a bald head and a missing left arm. He had bandages across his torso and scars everywhere else. His skin was filthy and scratched all over, as though he’d been wrestling with a thornbush, and his eyes were the eyes of a madman.
He jumped down without a word, landing in a crouch on the sandy bed of the dead creek. He stayed in that crouch, looking around until he spotted her a few feet in front of him.
“There you are,” he said, a crooked grin spreading across his face. “Took me awhile to find this place, but I knew the bear man wouldn’t take his house too far from his big secret.” He took a step forward, his boots dragging through the dry sand. “They tried to keep it away from us, back at headquarters, but the Lord of Storms has a loud voice and no love for you. To hear him talk, I thought you were some sort of monster, a barely controlled disaster waiting to happen, but you’re just a woman.”
Nivel glared at him. Her eyes were burning, a sure sign they were glowing, but for once she was glad. The large man didn’t look so confident anymore. “Who are you?” she said. “Are you League?” Had her time come at last?
“Berek Sted,” the man answered, eyeing her more carefully. “And no, not League. You’re a demonseed, aren’t you? The one Slorn’s been experimenting on, trying to find a cure?”
“We have been experimenting together,” Nivel said testily.
The man shrugged. “But you have a demon inside you, right? I want to talk to it.”
Nivel recoiled. “Where is Slorn? How did you get here through the trees?”
“Trees can be bashed down like everything else,” Sted said. “As for the bear man, he’s not my problem anymore. Are you going to let me talk to the demon, or am I going to have to force it out?” He looked her up and down. “I may not be League anymore, but even I can tell it wouldn’t take much. You’re so close to the change I’m surprised you can keep a human form.”
“Being close to the edge doesn’t mean jumping over,” Nivel said. “You League types never appreciated the difference, but then, your lot never was any good at subtleties.”
“Don’t talk to me about the League!” Sted growled, stepping closer. “I’m here on my own. You see, I have a fight to win, and that thing inside you is going to help me.” He took another step. “I’ve seen the kind of power it can give. If it makes a little girl into a monster who can break my arm, how much stronger will it make me?” His hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. “Let me talk to the demon!”
Before she knew what was happening, Nivel lashed out. She kicked him, hard, and Sted flew backward, crashing into the wall of the ravine with enough force to crack the stone. For a moment Nivel just stood there, panting, and then she realized what she’d done.
“No,” she whispered, falling to her knees as the demon-given power roared through her. Her wrists, ankles, and neck burned as the last bits of her manacles dissolved. “No no no no.”
The voice was roaring in her mind, louder even than her terror. But even as it laughed in triumph, Nivel was not beaten. With a wordless cry of rage, she threw open her spirit. For the first time in a decade, power surged through her, filling her until she thought she would burst. Her own soul felt dark and slimy against her mind, polluted by the creature who had lived in it for so long. Even so, she grabbed her power with the intense focus Shaper wizards train for years to master. Grabbed it and turned it inward.
The laughter stopped. What are you doing?
“I didn’t fight this long to lose now,” Nivel whispered around a mouth that was no longer fully human. “I didn’t put my family through this to lose to you.”
You answered me at last, the voice crowed triumphantly. Now I really have won. Rest, Nivel, you fought long and hard. Give up; you deserve it.
Nivel opened her soul wider still, forcing her will stronger and stronger until she almost matched the demon. “No,” she said. “Never.” Just a little further. Just a little further.
A hand closed on her throat.
Nivel’s eyes shot open. Sted was standing over her, his fingers on her neck, bearing down. She began to choke, beating against him with her fists, but her blows were as weak as a child’s. Her demon strength was gone.
Of course, dear. Why would I give you anything you so clearly do not want?
Nivel choked again. She couldn’t tell if the voice had been in her head or if she had spoken the words herself. The demon drenched her, flooding through her open soul even as it collapsed. All she could see was Sted above her, laughing as he crushed her throat.
I can kill him for you. The words were a whisper in her ear. All you have to do is let me.
Nivel’s chest began to convulse, and she realized she was laughing.
“You should know by now,” she whispered as she dangled from Sted’s hand, “I’d rather die to a stranger than give in to you.”
Her breath was gone now, and she could feel her body growing heavy. Still, she wasn’t afraid. After ten years of fighting, death felt like a release. She could feel the demon’s frustration as her consciousness dimmed, feel it struggling to grab final control of her mind and force the awakening. But it was too late. She was dying, but she was dying as a human. Nivel felt her lips curl into a smile. She may have lost, but so had the demon, and that was as great a victory as she could hope for. Clinging to that final, happy thought, Nivel let the demon, and the last shreds of her life, go. Her last thought was a fuzzy image of her husband, fully human and happy, holding their newborn daughter. She ran to him, arms out and free, as a final, welcome silence fell over her mind.
Sted stood panting in the dark ravine, clutching the neck of the dead demonseed. He could have dropped her at any time, and his muscles begged him to, but Sted ignored them. The bitch was dead—he was sure of it—but she’d died smiling. That was never good. Worse, she was still human. He may have been in the League of Storms for only half a year, but even he’d paid enough attention to know that any demonseed past its first week of gestation should change on death. So why was the thin body hanging from his hand still human?
He was mulling this over when he felt a familiar burning sensation against his fingers. He cursed and jumped back, dropping the body. The woman crumpled to the ground. Then, like a puppet with its strings caught, she jerked. Sted sucked in his breath. The body jerked again, sitting up stiffly. Its back was to Sted, and he briefly considered running before dismissing the idea with a sneer. Men didn’t run. So he stood firm in the sand, watching as the corpse turned slowly to look at him.
It was only when he saw its eyes that he was truly afraid. The woman’s eyes were enormous, and bright as lanterns. They fixed on him like snake eyes on a mouse, and the creature, for he knew for certain there was nothing human left in the body before him, gave him a small, cold smile. “You wanted to speak with me, yes?”
Sted flinched. The voice coming out of the woman’s body was nothing like the voice she had used in life. It was low, strong, masculine, and extremely wrong sounding. Something in it made him want to run, to hide, to cower like a rabbit before a predator. It was a deep, primal need, and for a long moment he had to fight himself to stay still. In the end, however, he stood firm in the sand as the creature in the woman’s body examined him.
“You expected something grander,” it said bitterly. “So did I. But that woman trapped me at the very end, and if I hadn’t taken a bit of you just now, this seed would have died with her.” It sighed with a hiss. “Such a waste. This is one of my oldest surviving seeds. If it could have completed the awakening, this cursed trap of a valley would be a very different place right now, and you, dear sheep, would be on your way to the mists.”
Sted swallowed. He was barely following this, but the threat in the creature’s words was clear enough for a deaf man. Every instinct he had was screaming at him to run, but Sted held fast. After all, he’d come here for a reason, and he wasn’t leaving until he got what he wanted.
“You’re the demon, then?” he said, standing up straight. “Good, I wanted to talk to you. Seeing how you admitted just now that you wouldn’t be here without me, I think you should listen carefully.”
The creature chuckled. “Don’t think too highly of yourself, Berek Sted. I would have beaten this girl in a few months anyway had you not interfered, and had a proper awakening.” The woman’s head tilted, and the creature’s voice grew smooth. “Still, let’s not fret on particulars. I know why you came here. I saw it just now”—it tapped its head with one of Nivel’s long, pale fingers—“in your mind. You want the power to pay back the Heart of War and its wielder, plus one of my own errant children, for your rather pathetic defeat.”
“I wasn’t defeated!” Sted shouted. “The League sent me in unprepared with a faulty weapon. If I’d had the power to match that bastard’s sword, I would have slaughtered them both! Instead, the coward took my arm, humiliated me, denied me a warrior’s death! I won’t rest until I pay him back in full!”
The creature gave him a long look. “Under usual circumstances, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to help you. It takes just the right kind of soul to provide what my seeds need to blossom, souls inevitably belonging to those members of your species who are less deaf than the rest, whom you call wizards. Sadly, you’re deafer than most and too old as well, so I cannot give you a seed.”
Sted’s eyes narrowed. “You’re hardly in a position to refuse me, corpse dweller. I may be a one-armed cripple, but I can still bash that body in and reduce your precious seed to a dead nub, so you’d best reconsider.”
The creature in the corpse laughed. “Your ignorance is both astounding and refreshing. I can see why they kicked you out. However, while I can’t give you a seed, perhaps we can come to an arrangement.”
Sted leaned back. “What do you mean?”
The creature gestured at Nivel’s chest. “The woman, Nivel, tended her seed for years, far, far longer than any of my others, holding it back through sheer will. A formidable trick, but it had quite the unintended effect. While a seed’s awakening can be prevented by the host’s will, nothing can stop its growth. Through Nivel’s stubborn refusal to give in, she inadvertently created inside herself a seed more powerful than anything I could otherwise get through my formidable prison. Indeed, she has become, almost through accident, the second-most-powerful shard of myself I have ever created.” It tapped Nivel’s lips. “I am speaking to you through a full-grown seed, steeped in power, yet unawakened. Your meager soul may not be fit to bear a new seed, but it can keep this one alive. So, Berek Sted, let me make you a deal. I will give you Nivel’s seed and all the power she put into it over ten years of fighting. The seed will give you strength, quickness, and all the gifts I graciously bestow upon my children who do my work in the world. I will set it up so that the Heart of War will come to you. You will have power, eternal life, so long as you can keep it, and the opportunity to thrash Josef Liechten into the ground. I’ll even give you your arm back. Is that not generous?”
Berek Sted swallowed and clutched his bandaged stump. “And what price do you charge for this?”
The creature smiled. “Obedience.”
“I’m no one’s slave,” Sted spat out.
“Who said anything about slaves?” the demon said. “You will be my weapon. An unbeatable weapon, greater even than the Heart of War itself. What do you say, do we have a deal?”
Sted stroked the stub of his arm. He’d sworn never to take another order, but he could not beat Liechten as a cripple. His League powers were gone. His skin was as cuttable and weak as any man’s. If he was going to beat the Heart, he needed an edge at any cost.
“And you swear I’ll get to fight Liechten?” Sted said. “Man to man, fair and square?”
The demon shrugged. “If fair is what you like, certainly.”
Sted nodded. “Then you have your deal.”
The creature grinned inhumanly wide, showing a full mouth of teeth and gums. “Welcome to the mountain,” it said, its voice a hissing whisper. “Berek Sted.”
As the creature spoke his name, the corpse of Nivel jumped forward. It moved impossibly fast, slamming its hands into Sted’s bandaged stomach. Sted grunted and fell back as the wounds opened, and he felt something crawl into him. Crawl was the only word to describe it. A shadow fell from the dead woman’s hands into his stomach, galloping into him on waves of fear, revulsion, and bitter cold. Then, as quickly as it had started, it was over. The woman’s corpse flopped to the ground, lifeless again. Sted stood panting, grasping his stomach, but even as he clutched his injured flesh, he felt the skin knitting together under his fingers. Suddenly, the dark shadows of the ravine were clear. The dark was still there, but he could see perfectly. He felt ten years younger, stronger than ever, whole. He had just a moment to revel in this feeling before a crippling pain in his arm sent him to his knees. He turned in horror just in time to see the stump at the end of his shoulder burst open as a hand pushed its way out of his flesh.
Sted cried out in terror. It was no human hand. It was black and shiny, like a bug’s shell, and tipped with five long fingers, human looking but wrong. The hand clenched and grasped, pulling itself out of his arm inch by agonizing inch. An eternity of pain later, it stopped, and a new, black arm slightly longer than his own hung from his shoulder, meeting his body in a mash of flesh that hurt to look at.
Sted stumbled back in horror, but the black arm caught him before he could fall. He stopped and stared at the new limb, wiggling each long, sharp claw just as he would his normal fingers. The more he moved the arm, the more he felt its power. The claws were sharp enough to cut bone, and the black skin was as hard as obsidian. He stood there a moment longer, clenching and unclenching his new fist as a smile began to spread over his face.
There, do I not keep my word?
Sted froze in terror. It was the voice from before, but it had not come from the crumpled corpse of the woman on the ground. It had come from inside his head. The creature was in his head.
I told you. He could almost hear it smirking. You’re my weapon now. We’re going to be very close, you and I. Now, the bear-headed man is coming. It’s time to go home and get your first assignment.
“Where?” Sted’s voice was barely a whisper.
You know where.
And, Sted realized with a creeping horror, he did. Without quite knowing what he was doing, he bent his legs and jumped. The leap sent him flying over the trees, and Sted began to flail as he shot through the morning air.
So much fear, the demon sneered. Get rid of it. Fear is for spirits, not my creatures. You asked for this, Berek Sted. You came to me seeking power, and power I have given you. Don’t tell me you’re too weak to grasp it now that it’s yours.
Sted winced. The creature was right. He could feel the power, an incredible force so much greater than his own. His jump just now, the lack of pain from his injuries, even the black arm was starting to feel like part of himself. It was all power, power he’d paid for, power he’d use to pay back his humiliation.
With this firmly in his mind, Sted hit the ground in a shower of leaves and began to run, skipping northward toward the snowcapped mountains through the long morning shadows. He’d show the demon how a real man used power. Already he could feel the fear fading, and the longer he went, the easier it became. Soon, he was grinning at the sheer strength of his motion, the incredible rush of his power.
Deep in his soul, far deeper than Sted’s poor, deaf mind could go, the demon began to laugh.
Excerpted from The Spirit Eater by Aaron, Rachel Copyright © 2010 by Aaron, Rachel. Excerpted by permission.
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