Read on below for the prologue to Rachel Aaron‘s The Spirit Eater.
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 fi nd 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 fi ne 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 snowcovered 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 fi nd 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 girlbclosed 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.