Spirit's End


By Rachel Aaron

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Eli Monpress is clever, he’s determined, and he’s in way over his head.

First rule of thievery: don’t be a hero. When Eli broke the rules and saved the Council Kingdoms, he thought he knew the price, but resuming his place as the Shepherdess’s favorite isn’t as simple as bowing his head. Now that she has her darling back, Benehime is setting in motion a plan that could destroy everything she was created to protect, and even Eli’s charm might not be enough to stop her. But Eli Monpress always has a plan, and with disaster rapidly approaching, he’s pulling in every favor he can think of to make it work, including the grudging help of the Spirit Court’s new Rector, Miranda Lyonette.

But with the world in panic, the demon stirring, and the Lord of Storms back on the hunt, it’s going to take more than luck and charm to pull Eli through this time. He’s going to have to break a few more rules and work with some old enemies if he’s going to survive.


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Eleven Years Later

The vast desert that stretched across the Immortal Empire’s southwestern tip was still and quiet in the moonlight. At its edges, the coast was calm, the ocean lapping tiredly against the beaches. The great storm that had raged for weeks up and down the continent’s seaboard had died as suddenly as it began, the clouds dissipating in a handful of seconds to leave the night sky clear and blank as though there had never been a storm at all. Only the wreckage of the sea towns and the wall the Empress had raised to protect them remained, an improvised barrier standing awkwardly at the edge of the placid sea.

Suddenly and without warning, a light cut through the stillness. All across the dark desert, white lines appeared. They sliced high in the air, forming long needles of light that dangled several dozen feet above the sand. One after another they appeared until the sky was full of them, their white light filling the desert until it was bright as noon, and then the quiet shattered as the Immortal Empress’s invasion fleet fell through the white lines and crashed into the dunes below.

The palace ships slammed into the sand, their great keels cracking against solid ground. Without the water to keep them upright, the boats toppled immediately, rolling onto their sides like falling horses. The night was full of cracking wood as hulls splintered and masts snapped like twigs, and then, as the white lines faded and the ships settled into their deathbeds, the cries of men rose to drown out the groaning of the boats as the Empress’s army, the largest army ever raised, began to pick itself up.

At the head of the now grounded fleet, a large crowd was gathering around a boat that had lost its prow. Even in the chaos, word spread quickly, and the soldiers surged like ants from their toppled ships to gather around the palace ship with the broken hull at the very front of the fleet where, rumor had it, the Empress herself was buried under the wreckage. Up on the deck, the ship’s captain was already at work, shouting orders to a crew of fifty strong men as they hauled the top half of the broken mast off the deck where the Empress had fallen.

They found her lying in a crater of broken wood. Her golden armor was shattered and the cloth beneath was stained bright red with blood. When they saw her, the soldiers fell silent, struck dumb at the possibility that the Immortal Empress, the undying, unquestioned divine ruler of the world, could possibly be dead.

But then, with a groan, the Empress opened her eyes. The men flinched back. Some fell to their knees, others simply stood, shocked. The Empress paid them no mind. She just pushed herself up, throwing off the remains of her golden armor to free her arms.

“Empress?” her captain whispered.

The Empress didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at her men. Her attention was entirely focused on getting to her feet. When she was standing at last, she reached out and tapped the air in front of her. No sooner had her finger moved than a new, thinner white line flashed in the dark, dropping through the air to just above her feet. The moment the line stopped growing, the Empress stepped through it, leaving the dark desert full of broken ships and moving into a world of pure white light. When she was through, the line shimmered and faded, leaving her soldiers staring in vain at the empty place where their Empress had been.

Opening a door through the veil to Benehime’s private world without the Shepherdess’s permission was forbidden even to stars. Nara didn’t care. She stomped through the portal, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the blinding white. But even before she could see, the Empress knew exactly who was waiting.

Benehime lounged in the air, her white hair falling over her body like a cloak. Behind her, the Lord of Storms hovered like a glowering black shadow. A small, distant part of Nara’s brain noted that the Shepherdess must have pulled him back together not long ago. Bits of him were still shifting between flesh and cloud, giving him that wild look he always got when he was fresh from his true form.

His expression, however, was solid as sharpened steel and locked on her with a look of pure disgust as Nara stumbled forward. But even as she registered his presence, Nara put the Lord of Storms out of her mind. He was beneath her notice. All that mattered was the Lady and the creature she held in her arms.

The thief sat in Benehime’s lap like a dog. The travel-stained clothes he’d worn on the beach were gone, replaced by a pure white fitted jacket and trousers tucked into tall white boots. The Shepherdess held him close, one hand around his waist, the other brushing over his thigh like she was petting him. The thief had the good sense to keep his eyes down as Nara approached, but the Shepherdess looked straight at her, absently stroking the boy as she regarded her former favorite through narrowed, white eyes.

I do not recall summoning you here, Empress.

For the first time in her life, Nara’s rage was so great that even the sound of the Shepherdess’s voice couldn’t shock her out of it. She stopped right in front of the Lady, breathing the cold, white air in great gasps until, at last, she managed a single, coherent word.


Benehime tilted her head, laying her ear against the thief’s chest. He is my favorite, she said simply. I thought I’d made that clear.

“I’m your favorite!” Nara screamed. “I’ve always been your favorite! For the last eight hundred years I’ve given you my utter devotion. I gave you half the world as a peaceful, prosperous Empire! I raised you an army and sailed across the Unseen Sea. I destroyed an island, sacrificed my men, all for you! Everything I’ve ever done has been for you! So why? Why am I so summarily replaced by this disobedient, arrogant, faithless—”

The words froze in her throat as the air around her solidified. Suddenly, Nara couldn’t move. She couldn’t even breathe. In front of her, Benehime’s white mouth curled in a disgusted sneer.

You will not speak so of my favorite.

Completely frozen, Nara could only stare in response.

The Lady reached down and took Eli’s wrist. He flinched when she touched him, but didn’t say a word as the Shepherdess lifted his hand and held it out to Nara.

I am the Shepherdess, the Lady said, turning the thief’s hand palm down and pushing it forward until his fingers were half an inch from Nara’s frozen lips. A Power of Creation, given dominion over all spirits by the Creator himself. There is no opinion in the world that matters save mine, no will save my will. Now, do you love me, Nara?

The frozen air thawed just enough for Nara to take a breath. “Yes,” she whispered, tears running down her face. “But—”

And do you wish to stay by my side forever?

“I do.” The words burned in Nara’s throat.

The Lady smiled a cruel, beautiful smile. Then know your place. She pushed Eli’s fingers closer to Nara’s lips. Kiss my favorite and apologize for hurting his lava spirit and putting his friends in danger.

Nara stared at the Lady, her battered body perfectly still though the frozen air had already released her.

Benehime’s smile faded. Do it, she snapped. Prove you love me. Honor my favorite and take your place at the bottom of my stars.

Nara glanced at the thief’s fingers, now barely a quarter of an inch from her lips. On the Shepherdess’s lap, Eli’s face was a calm, bored mask, his gaze fixed on some unseen spot on the ground. But as much as he tried to hide it, Nara saw the truth. The thief’s eyes were full of pity. He pitied her, and in that moment, Nara hated him more than she knew she could hate. But even so, even though it boiled her blood to do it, she leaned forward until her lips touched the thief’s outstretched hand.

“Hail the favorite,” she whispered.

Eli flinched as though the kiss were an arrow in his chest, but the Shepherdess looked pleased. She dropped Eli’s hand and reached out to lay her fingers gently on Nara’s head.

Poor Nara, the Shepherdess said, stroking her hair. You probably think I’ve played you unfairly these last few days.

The Empress resisted the urge to lean into the Lady’s touch. “You used me,” she said, glaring daggers at Eli. “To get to him.”

That I did, the Shepherdess said. But it was you who said you would do anything for me. What could be a greater honor than being a tool in the pursuit of my happiness?

Nara clenched her teeth and said nothing.

Unfortunately, the Shepherdess went on, all tools outlive their usefulness eventually.

Nara blinked. “What?”

Times are changing, Nara, the Shepherdess went on, stroking the Empress’s dark hair absently, like she was petting a cat. There’s no room anymore for the disobedient.

“What?” Nara said again, louder this time.

The Shepherdess’s fingers suddenly curled, tangling in Nara’s hair, and the Empress cried in pain as Benehime wrenched her head up.

You shouldn’t have thrown that water on my favorite’s lava spirit, she whispered, her white eyes boring into Nara’s. You shouldn’t have come here uninvited, and you should have kissed my Eliton’s hand the first time I told you to. One disobedience I could overlook; three is simply insulting.

Nara’s eyes watered at the pain of Benehime’s grip on her hair. This was all wrong. This was not how it was supposed to be. The Shepherdess was her beloved, her everything.

“No,” she whispered, reaching up to grab Benehime’s hand. She clutched the Lady’s white wrist, arching her neck painfully as she tried to kiss it. “I love you. If I was ever disobedient, it was from love of you. Tell me what to do, tell me how to change to make you love me again.” Her voice rose to a frantic shriek. “Tell me how to love you and I’ll do it!”

The pain in her head faded as Benehime’s fingers released their grasp. The White Lady snatched her hand away and looked down with a disgust so intense Nara barely recognized her.

Why would I need you? she said, her voice cold as a glacier’s heart as she pulled the thief closer. I already have someone to love me. Good-bye, Empress.

Nara doubled over as something inside her, something deeper than she’d ever known her soul could go, twisted and broke. All at once, she could no longer feel her body. She tried to breathe, but her lungs wouldn’t obey. Looking down at her shaking hands, Nara saw her skin turn gray, then white, then vanish altogether. Her bones shrank before her eyes, growing smaller and brittler until they snapped under their own weight. Her chest ached, and she looked down to see that it was caving in.

She would have screamed then, but there was no longer breath in her crumbling throat. As her vision went dark, her last thought was a memory. She was kneeling in the swamp again, and Benehime was reaching out, her lovely fingers curved in an inviting gesture, her light lighting up the world. Before Nara could rise and go to her, the moment was gone, and she fell to dust with Benehime’s name on the last remnants of her lips.

Well, Benehime said, shaking her hand as though she could shake the last feel of Nara from her skin, that’s that.

On her lap, Eli was staring at the pile of dust that, seconds ago, had been the most powerful ruler in the world. “What did you do?” he whispered.

She was no longer worthy of being my star, Benehime said. So I removed my blessing and allowed age to catch up with her at last. Eight hundred years is a lot to handle all at once. I guess she couldn’t take it.

Eli’s voice was shaking so badly he could barely get the words out. “But she loved you.”

Everything loves me, the Shepherdess said with a shrug. Even you. Isn’t that right, darling?

Eli said nothing, and the Shepherdess tightened her grip, her sharp fingers biting into his ribs.

None of that, she whispered. I won. You’re mine, remember? Now, don’t you love me, darling?

Eli turned to her with a slow smile. “Of course I do.”

Benehime smiled back and gave him a kiss on the nose. Then she motioned for him to get off her lap. Eli moved to sit where she motioned, leaving the Shepherdess some space as she turned to talk to the Lord of Storms.

Their conversation was low and tense. It sounded like an old argument, and though Eli tried to listen, his attention kept drifting to the Lady’s floating sphere, which was hanging in the air by his elbow. Particularly, his eyes kept going to one small island off the coast of the western continent where the fires were still burning in a destroyed city as dawn broke over the eastern sea.

Josef Liechten, King of Osera, was spending the twentieth hour of his reign in the still-smoking shell of Osera’s throne room, listening to old men argue.

He sat on the steps of the throne beside the one remaining iron lion. The other lay toppled on the floor, its head melted to slag by the foot of the war spirit whose cold corpse lay collapsed in the rubble of what had been the throne room’s western wall. The throne was crushed as well, the carved stone bench and backboard pounded into gravel. That was probably for the best. Sitting on the stairs listening to his mother’s advisers bicker over Osera’s future was bad enough. If Josef had been forced to sit in her chair for it, he probably would have walked out.

He was close enough to walking as it was. The advisers weren’t even talking to him, just yelling at each other over his head about what must be done. Apparently, there were a lot of musts. Disgusted, Josef turned and looked out the crushed wall of the throne room. Through the large hole the war spirit had left, he could see the whole of the royal city, or what was left of it.

The stylish stone buildings and narrow lanes that had once covered the western slope of Osera were now little more than blackened piles of rubble. Entire blocks had shattered when the war spirits fired from the Empress’s palace ships had landed, leaving craters of blasted, burned dirt where houses and shops had once stood. The Spiritualists had managed to get most of the fires under control, but a few stray lines of smoke were still rising from the docks, and, of course, there were the war spirits themselves. Their corpses were everywhere. After Eli had done… whatever it was he’d done and the Empress’s fleet had vanished, the war spirits had toppled over and gone cold. They hadn’t moved since, but the damage was done. Everywhere Josef looked, Osera was destroyed, and try as he might to remember that his island had rebuilt before, it was hard to feel any kind of hope.

Josef sighed and rested his chin on his fist. Eli’s eternal optimism usually grated on him, but he could have really used some right now. How long did the useless thief mean to disappear for, anyway?


Josef flinched and glanced up. All the old men were staring at him. Powers, he’d missed something again, hadn’t he?

Seeing his panicked look, the oldest of the ministers, a man Josef remembered seeing with his mother in court as a child, though he couldn’t remember the old bastard’s name now to save his life, repeated the question.

“Minister Archly was asking your opinion on how we should prioritize our emergency response. Should we focus on evacuation or should we concentrate our attention on saving what we can of our remaining structures?”

“We must do all we can to help the people, of course,” put in another minster, whom Josef could only guess was Archly. “But our infrastructure is Osera’s most valuable asset. We should—”

“Can’t have infrastructure without people,” Josef said, glad of a simple question. “Our first priority is to make sure we save as many people as possible. We’ve given the Empress too many Oseran lives as it is. I’ll not give her any more.”

“Of course, sire,” the old minister said, his voice strained. “But what about—”

“Figure it out,” Josef growled, standing up. The old men all started talking at once then, but Josef just pushed past them, stalking off toward the blown-out doors.

The Oseran palace had been as hard hit as the rest of the city, but, remarkably, the royal wing was still intact. Josef stomped through the empty corridors. He’d sent the servants to help with the recovery, and so far he didn’t miss them. After all the noise and chaos of the last two days, the silence in the empty halls was much more comforting than having someone around to make his fire. Josef jogged down the hall and quietly opened the door to his chambers, tiptoeing through the parlor and into his bedroom, where he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the dark.

Nico lay in his bed, a dark shape buried beneath the covers. He’d carried her here himself when they’d cleared the survivors off the storm wall. She’d been awake then, but was sleeping now. Josef let out a breath. Seeing the steady rise and fall of her chest calmed him better than anything else.

Walking to the bed, Josef eased himself down to the mattress. He kept his eyes on Nico to make sure the motion didn’t disturb her, but Nico didn’t stir. Smiling, Josef leaned against the heavy headboard and closed his eyes against his own tiredness.

He hadn’t slept since the night before last, when he’d fallen asleep on the couch waiting for Adela. Now that he was sitting, he could feel the tiredness in his marrow. Even the Heart on his back felt heavy. He wanted more than anything to lie down beside Nico and let her calm breaths lull him to sleep, but there were still fires in the city below. People were still digging their families out of the rubble, and all the ministers wanted to do was argue over infrastructure.

Josef gritted his teeth. He should have sent the old men down to dig through the broken houses themselves. That would have taught them. But, of course, he’d never do that. He could chop a palace ship in two, but Oseran politicians still made him feel like a stumbling boy. They’d probably taken his “Figure it out” command as a chance to do whatever they liked, but Josef wasn’t really sure he cared. After all, they knew more about running a country than he did. Maybe it was for the best if he just stayed out of things.

He must have drifted off in the dark room. One moment he was looking at Nico; the next he was jerked awake by the sound of someone knocking on the door. Stiff and more tired than ever, Josef forced himself to his feet. He walked quietly to the door and opened it a fraction to see one of the guardsmen who’d stood with him on the storm wall.

The young man had bandages on his face and arms, but he was standing, and he bowed when he saw Josef. “Sire,” he said, “you’re needed in the square.”

“What’s happened?” Josef said, slipping out of the bedroom and closing the door so their voices wouldn’t disturb Nico.

The guard grinned far as the bandage across his jaw would allow. “Wouldn’t you know it, sire? The reinforcements have finally arrived.”

“About bleeding time,” Josef said, motioning for the guard to lead the way.

Since most of the palace meeting rooms had been either burned or crushed in the attack, the palace guards, those who were left anyway, had brought the newcomers to a hastily set up tent in the stable yard. A dozen soldiers in Council white stood crammed into the narrow space. Josef wasn’t surprised to see Sara there as well. The Council wizard was talking animatedly to a large, middle-aged man in an ornate military coat who seemed to be the troop’s leader. So far, the only Oserans present were a few bandaged guards. They saluted as Josef approached, and he saluted back, keeping his eyes on the Council man and Sara as he entered the tent.

“Shall I fetch your advisers, sire?” whispered the guard who’d brought him.

“No,” Josef said. The last thing he needed when he was dealing with the Council were old men making him feel like a tongue-tied teenager. “They have their jobs already. I’ll fill them in later.”

The guardsman nodded and moved to take up position behind his king. Meanwhile, Josef himself took a seat on the folding stool, leaning forward so he could rest his weight on his knees. Sara arched an eyebrow at this, but the man in the military jacket looked almost ill with insult.

“You’re the new Eisenlowe?” he said at last, looking Josef up and down, his eyes lingering on the rips in Josef’s shirt and the bloodstains on the bandages beneath.

“I am,” Josef said. “Who are you?”

The man pulled himself straight. “Myron Whitefall, Commander of the United Council Forces, come to offer Osera the Council’s aid against the Empress.”

“You’re a little late for that,” Josef said. “The Empress is gone, but if you’d like to stay and help clean up, you’re welcome to.”

“As much as we’d like to help, the Merchant Prince gathered the Council army to march against the Empress, not to act as janitors,” Myron said testily. “You have our thanks and admiration for turning back her initial assault, King Josef. You should rest and regather your armies. We will take up position on the coast for her next attack.”

“I already told you. There won’t be a next attack,” Sara said, blowing a line of smoke into the air. “The boy’s right; we’ve already done all the work. The Empress is gone. Defeated. Sent packing. You’ve come too late, Myron dear, as you would know if you listened to any of the Relay messages I sent you or the last five minutes I just wasted trying to keep you from looking like an idiot.”

Myron’s face went scarlet. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that you defeated the Immortal Empress with a handful of wizards and a few hundred Oseran troops?”

“What you believe is your business,” Josef said. “The truth is what it is. The Empress vanished. We saw it with our own eyes, and all her ships vanished with her.”

Vanished?” Myron shrieked. “How does an armada vanish? And how do you know it wasn’t a trick?”

“We don’t,” Sara said. “But if it was a trick, it was a badly timed one. She was winning, after all.”

Myron looked affronted, and Sara heaved a long sigh. For a moment, she looked almost sad, and then the expression was gone as she went on brusquely as ever. “Much as it pains me to say it, I believe we were merely the lucky recipients of a miracle. A miracle I intend to thoroughly investigate, but a miracle nonetheless.”

Josef listened with growing anger. Sara’s flippant words seemed like an insult to what had happened last night. He could still see it clearly—the dark, frozen sea, the glowing lines, and Eli standing in the middle of it all with that horrible, defeated look on his face as the white arms dragged him through the world. He’d be back, of course, Josef reminded himself. Eli would never pull something like that unless he had a plan.

Somewhat appeased by that, Josef turned back to Myron. The Council commander had lost his look of confident superiority and was now standing bewildered, his eyes begging Josef to let him in on the joke. But there was no joke, and all Josef could do was try and bring the Council man around to his side.

“There may be no Empress to fight,” he said. “But we still need your help. As I’m sure you saw on your way up, Osera was nearly flattened last night.” He glanced down the mountain to where the Council’s ships were moored to whatever docks were still above water. “A dozen warships full of hands would mean a lot to us right now.”

Whitefall bristled for a moment, but then his shoulders fell. “Of course,” he said at last. “The Council will of course offer aid to Osera in her time of need.”

“Good,” Josef said. “I’d hate to think we were paying those dues for nothing.”

This earned him a nasty glare from Myron, but Josef was already looking over his shoulder to where his advisers had gathered on the stairs. All of them were leaning in to hear what was going on in the tent. When Josef waved his hand, the old men hurried forward.

“The Council has offered to help us clean up,” he said as they entered the tent. “Can you work with him?”

Since he said this to no one in particular, every one of his advisers thought the king was addressing him personally, and they all agreed in unison.

“But of course—”

“Your majesty is too gracious—”

“It would be an honor to serve—”

“The Council is a valued ally—”

The cries dissolved into argument almost immediately, and Josef, realizing he was going to have to do something, started making assignments at random, dividing the city’s five districts between the five younger advisers before putting the oldest in charge of working directly with Whitefall on logistics.

Surprisingly, everyone seemed reasonably happy with this setup. They immediately started working things out among themselves, and Josef took the chance to make his escape.

He motioned for a guard and lowered his voice. “I’m going to grab some sleep while they work this out. Spread the word, whoever wakes me up without a good reason loses his head.”

“Yes, sire,” the guard said, bowing. “Rest well.”

Josef nodded and turned away, disappearing up the stairs toward his room, Nico, and the cool, welcoming dark.

Sara sat back, puffing on her pipe and watching with bemusement as Myron was set upon by a swarm of Oseran officials eager to prove their worth to the new king. Despite the horrible things she’d heard about Theresa’s son, he seemed to be adapting to his new life quite well. He’d certainly learned how to delegate. He’d learned how to make a quiet exit, too, possibly an even more useful skill, and certainly one that served her purposes at the moment. The boy didn’t seem to be any great friend of Banage or his darling apprentice, but she had the feeling the next hour would be much simpler without the king’s interference.

Once Myron had extricated himself from the mass of officials, Sara waved him over. He gave her a dirty look, but he came.


  • Praise for The Spirit Thief:

    "Fans of Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) will be thrilled with Eli Monpress." - Booklist (Starred Review)

    "A romp of a lighthearted fantasy starring an absolutely darling rogue." --- Publishers Weekly

    "Full of humor and suspense, this action-packed fantasy adventure is highly enjoyable." --- SciFiChick.com

    "A charming and fast-paced caper with intriguing worldbuilding and interesting characters." --- RT Book Reviews (4 stars)

    " This book was a nice surprise and a complete winner for me. Rachel Aaron has written a fun story which can be best described as "Terry Brooks Meets Scott Lynch" in a lighter vein." --- Fantasy Book Critic

    " I read all three! I LOVED them! Can't wait for the next one, it needs to be out NOW!!!!" - Felicia Day

On Sale
Nov 20, 2012
Page Count
560 pages

Rachel Aaron

About the Author

Rachel Bach grew up wanting to be an author and a super villain. Unfortunately, super villainy proved surprisingly difficult to break into, so she stuck to writing and everything worked out great. She currently lives in Athens, GA with her perpetually energic toddler, extremely understanding husband, overflowing library, and obese wiener dog. You can find out more about Rachel and all her books at rachelbach.net.

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!

Learn more about this author