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The Spirit Eater
By Rachel Aaron
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- Mass Market $7.99 $8.99 CAD
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around December 1, 2010. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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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.
Table of Contents
He was asleep, sprawled on his stomach on the double bed under the window, snoring quietly.
But when one has made his name as the greatest thief in the world, true sleep is a habit you lose quickly, which was the only reason he heard the sound at all. The noise was soft, almost lost in the crash of the distant waves, yet unmistakable to anyone who'd heard it before. A sword snickering in anticipation isn't a sound you forget.
Eli threw himself out of bed as the blade stabbed into the mattress where his bare back had been a split second earlier. He landed on the floor in a tangle of sheets as the man, head to foot in dark clothing, yanked his sword free. Eli didn't waste any more time looking. He turned and bolted for the door.
"Josef!" he shouted, scrambling over the rag rug. "JOSEF!"
The assassin caught him on the second yell.
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?
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 448 pages