A/N: Anyone who has read the Spirit Eater should be familiar with what's going on here, seeing as it's based off the prologue (some of the dialogue from the second scene is from it). No doubt I'll look really silly if Rachel Aaron explains what really happened later. But oh well! Anyway, this one-shot is of how Josef, Nico and Eli became a team, told from each of their viewpoints. It starts off with Alric's POV though, because of the League of Storms involvement just before Nico and Josef meet. And they're all excellent characters, so... why not! Hopefully I've made a decent job for portraying them. *Some spoilers*
Daughter of the Dead Mountain
The demon thrashed, trying to fight the crushing weight that bore down on it. Every League man who was still standing – and even some of those who were scattered across the ground, deathly wounded – had thrown up their hands, issuing a single command to the spirits.
Alric was among the men and still standing, despite the wound that ran the entire length of his body, from where the demon had gouged him with its monstrous claws. It would take more than that to defeat him. The League were falling like flies to its attacks, for none of them were used to fighting a demon actually capable of taking flight. He knew it was no ordinary demon from the moment he clapped eyes on it, so the Lord of Storms' revelation that the creature was a daughter of the Dead Mountain was no surprise. It still came as a terrible shock, however. The League had worked tirelessly for years, and yet a creature like this had still slipped through their grasp.
The demon almost tore free from the spirits crushing it into the ashen ground. It had already eaten so much of the mountain, and the rock looked more like dead ash.
"Hold it down!" Alric shouted the command to the League, and they threw all their concentration into imprisoning it for the Lord of Storms.
They had proven ill-equipped to deal with a child of the Dead Mountain. Countless times they had faced a demon that had awakened with a seed no longer than a few inches – one with incredible strength that could flit through the shadows with preternatural speed. Many League members could take one down single-handedly or in pairs. This monstrosity, however, had led to the entire League of Storms being called immediately to take it down.
Even so, it seemed that the Lord of Storms would be the only one capable of destroying it. So many men had been injured or killed in the attempt that Alric had called them back to try and hold the demon down whilst he and a select few aided the Lord of Storms. Now that even Alric had suffered a would-be fatal blow, their leader had ordered them all the fall back and restrain the creature whilst he dealt with it.
The Lord of Storms was a being not entirely human – he was tireless and invulnerable, but that didn't mean he could deal with the demon entirely alone. It could escape, or worse, try to eat him. Moreover, he seemed to enjoy battle a little too much, so long as he believed it would end in victory, and the League had to try and compensate for any carelessness on his part.
Alric's outstretched hand curved into a claw as he tried to keep the demon down. It was taking every ounce of his will to do so. The blackened, winged abomination raged against its restraints, but the Lord of Storms placed his blades at its neck, and in one swift move, drew the blades in a scissor movement to sever its head.
Foul black liquid surged from the wound, but the body flailed, wrenching free from the spirits that held it. The demon yanked itself backwards into the sky, where it thrashed and writhed in pain. The League members on the ground watched with a mixture of anxiety and curiosity. With one final twist of its shiny black skin, the demon fell still, plummeting from the sky and crashing into the side of a mountain further away from them.
They would have to get to it soon to retrieve the seed, but at least it was over. With the head severed, the demon was undoubtedly dead.
Alric turned to one of his lieutenants. "Get these men to the Shapers for treatment."
Some of them probably wouldn't survive their wounds. It was a pity not all of them asked for practical gifts that were of use to a League man. After all, what good is the ability to consume alcohol without getting drunk, when one might then die the next time a demonseed awakens?
His own wounds were draining, painful and hampering – but they wouldn't kill him. He glanced over to where the Lord of Storms stood, eyes fixed on where the demon had fallen. Its black silhouette still seemed to ghost the sky, despite its death. No matter how many times he witnessed one of those monsters with his own eyes, he never got used to the wrongness of it, the feeling that a being of such raw malevolent power shouldn't be allowed to exist. For all his experience though, he couldn't claim to know everything about demons. He didn't know how the demon had come into being before the Sheperdess trapped it under the mountain, or why she couldn't kill it.
Alric limped over to join the Lord of Storms and voice his relief. The casualties had been horrendous, but it was over now.
The demon was defeated and the world was safe for a little longer.
Josef wandered alone, possibly for the longest time since he'd joined Eli's hare-brained operations. They usually stuck together before a job, throughout, and afterwards. Every so often the thief would disappear to hide their loot or get up to other business, which had made Josef very suspicious when he first joined. It was only recently that he discovered where all of Eli's stolen items ended up.
They had split up for a short while now, however. The thief had been oddly quiet about his destination, only saying that he was visiting an old friend for tips on their next heist, and that Josef wasn't invited along. Josef couldn't help but wonder how much trouble Eli was likely to get into on his own, but resigned himself to the knowledge that if the Eli was going out of his way to gather information on the job, then at least he didn't intend to rush in there blindly.
The thief had gotten the idea into his head that they should break into the Shapers' fortress, though what he intended to steal was still in question. According to Eli, anything they picked up was likely to be awakened, and therefore scream bloody murder if they tried to run off with it. Such complications were Eli's problem, however. As the wizard thief, he was the one who should be doing the wizarding.
Josef, meanwhile, in their time apart, was heading towards the Shaper fortress to see what kind of defences the place had and how easy it might be to get in and out without Eli's spirit-charming tricks to help them out. Usually, the thief would just have a chat with a wall or something equally strange, and then the bricks themselves would rearrange themselves to make a path for him. Or a tree would lift them up to an upper floor. Josef was mildly annoyed at how reliant he'd become on Eli's tricks that he couldn't think up entrance routes for himself.
The Shaper fortress was only just becoming something more than an intangible blob on the horizon when Josef's wandering was disturbed by the sounds of an intense fight in a valley farther ahead. As far as he knew, Shapers weren't the fighting types, and anyone with a grain of sense in his head wouldn't take on wizards like that. Even with the Heart of War – and perhaps because of it – Josef would have a tough time fighting a wizard who could turn his own weapons against him.
So, if the Shapers weren't down there, who was?
Without warning, the sounds of fighting drew to an abrupt halt, and an anguished shriek ravaged his ears. Something dark shot into the sky over the valley, and he lifted a hand to his eyes, squinting against the sunlight to try and get a better look at it. Before he could guess what it was, the shape crashed into the rocks far ahead of him.
Whoever the shape had been fighting was still in the valley below, which had grown oddly silent. Despite his better instincts, Josef decided to investigate. If nothing else, he should perhaps put the creature down.
What Josef had discovered, was a young woman with dark straggly hair and looking incredibly malnourished, naked on the mountainside. She looked beaten bloody, and it was clearly taking every ounce of strength she had just to draw in another breath.
Without hesitation, Josef strode down to where she lay, drawing a blade from one of the numerous sheaths on his body. He directed it at the girl, who took a shuddering breath and stared at him with miserable, desperate eyes. He didn't know what had happened in that valley, or what she was, but he knew what a person in pain looked like, and he had only one form of comfort to offer – that of a mercy kill.
"Do you want to die?"
The girl nodded weakly, shutting her eyes and waiting for the blow with a poorly disguised cringe.
"Look at me and say you want to die," Josef said firmly.
Her eyes flickered open, and she gazed at him with impossibly dark eyes. Behind the anguish and fear, he could see determination, and a strong will. Whatever this girl was, she was undeniably human.
"I want to live."
The girl seemed almost shocked to hear herself say it, but Josef nodded once, sheathing his sword. "Then take another breath."
With another shuddering gasp, she did what he said, the broken ribs of her body rising and falling. Anyone who looked at her wouldn't have said she could live, but Josef had faced grave injury and survived, because he was a fighter. If this girl was too, then she would cling on no matter how grave the injury, and he had to respect that kind of willpower.
"Come on then," Josef said, grinning. He reached down and swung her up into his arms so he could carry her back to his camp in the woods. She felt as though she hadn't eaten for days, and considering how emaciated she was, that was a likely possibility. He would have to feed her once he'd tended to the wounds. "I've had a long walk up here to see what that crash was, and we've got a long way 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," she said with a tentative croak.
He nodded, and told her his own name. Nico responded to this by falling into a thoughtful silence that he didn't interrupt. Josef had been a swordsman long enough to when someone was strong, and tough enough to persevere. He had faced many adversaries not worth their name as swordsmen, just loud-mouthed fools with no talent. But this girl was another matter. She had seen adversity, that much was clear.
If she was a survivor, and could hold on to her life, then Josef would help her. Just as the Heart of War pulled him back from the brink when he was at the end of his limits and hanging onto life only by sheer force of will, he would pull this girl back. Whatever she had been fighting in that valley would not defeat her if she was strong enough to keep living – and she would be, if Josef helped her.
She could recover, and keep fighting.
Nico felt exhausted. Everything in her body hurt, and Josef's brisk pace jostled her broken bones, but she didn't want to shut her eyes and miss their journey away from the mountain. Considering that she didn't know how she had gotten up there in the first place, or why she was broken an naked, Nico hoped that something in their surroundings would trigger a memory.
That door remained firmly closed, however.
Despite this, Nico was still able to remember some things, such as her name. She knew what she was too. Even with her memories closed off, she could feel the shadows itch around her and the strange strength that was keeping her awake even now – breathing, just as Josef had instructed.
She didn't understand why he had agreed to help her live, or why he was carrying her away from the mountain. As far as she knew, this was the first time they had met, and he didn't owe her anything. It seemed like a random act of kindness. Perhaps he didn't realise she was a demonseed? As far as she could tell, he wasn't a wizard, despite having a sword that was obviously awakened. Maybe he didn't have the same sense of why people like her were dangerous or feared.
They passed from the snow-clad mountains to a sparse forest, and Josef made his way through the trees purposefully, clearly knowing where he was going. For her part, Nico ignored the pain as best she could, and kept breathing. One after the other. She didn't need to worry about anything further into the future than her next breath.
After the short walk into the forest, Josef came to a halt. In the shade of some of the thicker trees, large dead branches had been gathered and bound to form a makeshift shelter that would provide reasonable shelter against the elements. Just outside the entrance were the remnants of a fire, and Nico could see some blankets within. She eyed them longing.
Josef ducked into the shelter and fetched a couple, laying one of them across the ground for her to sit on, whilst the other he handed over for her to cover herself with. He also retrieved a satchel, and when he removed the contents, it was clear these were for taking care of her wounds.
He reached for her wrist, which had been broken when he first encountered her.
His pale eyes widened as he handled the perfectly set wrist. "How did you heal this? It was bent completely the other way before."
Nico bit her lip, wondering whether she should explain to him. Caution told her that if she did, he might reconsider his offer of help and slay her anyway, but another part of her – one she wasn't familiar with – told her to trust him.
"I'm a demonseed," she murmured in a low voice. She waited for him to say something, but the swordsman remained silent and she felt the need to elaborate. "It gives me abilities, like healing. It doesn't work completely on its own, but if you did something like set the bones on a broken arm, the healing would fix it back together much faster than normal."
"So that's why you were so beaten up when I found you," Josef mused. "It must have been the League of Storms that came for you."
"I can't remember." She could remember what the League of Storms was, just as she knew what she was, but she didn't recall what had happened to cause her to end up on the mountain, or how she had been fighting them.
"It was just you against the League, and you survived," he said. "That's pretty impressive."
Nico blinked at him. "It doesn't worry you? What if I attacked you?"
Josef regarded her calmly. "It would give me a chance to try out my skills against a demonseed. Any opportunity to hone my skills can't be an entirely bad thing. But I don't think you're going to attack me."
"Why?" She lowered her eyes. "I'm not human. I'm a demonseed." Nico didn't need to remember her past to know they were reviled by everyone, not just the League and the spirit world.
"You look human to me. And I don't set much store by names. If you were just a demon, then you'd have died down in that valley, but you clung on to your life. Now you just have to keep living."
Nico watched him carefully. He made it sound so simple, but where was she supposed to go? She couldn't remember anything about her life, and even if she did there was no one who would want a demonseed following them around. "What about the League of Storms? They'll just keep coming after me. The spirits can sense what I am – they'll start to panic and that will call the League. Then they'll kill me."
"They aren't panicking now, are they?"
"No." It was something making her suspicious. "I don't know why not. Maybe it's for the same reason I lost my memory. But I'm still a demonseed. I can feel the power of it."
"So they'll start to panic sooner or later." Josef nodded. Although he wasn't a wizard, he talked as though he had heard this sort of thing before, which must mean he had connections to wizards. Perhaps she should be wary of that. Wizards would have far more idea of what she was capable of.
Josef didn't say anything else, and instead continued to patch her up, setting bones that had been broken or limbs that had been twisted and allowing her natural healing to do the rest of the work. Many of the cuts had already sealed themselves up, but there was one particularly deep gash across the front of her shoulders that needed tending to.
She waited silently as he worked, wondering what she would do when he sent her on her way. It was very unlikely that he was helping her just to kill or fight her later on, so he must mean to let her go. If he had intended to hand her over to the League then he would have done so when he found her prone on the mountainside. Nico couldn't work out why he would be doing this for her.
Once he had finished, Josef got to his feet and disappeared into the small shelter, returning a few moments later with a large black shirt that he handed to Nico. She looked at it.
"It's for you to wear," he explained, seemingly amused. "I think those blankets might draw too much attention if you walked around just wearing them. You wouldn't even need to wait for trees to rat you out."
Nico managed a small smile, and tugged the shirt over her head. Because Josef was so tall and muscular, whilst she was so short and thin, the shirt fell about her like a shapeless dress, hanging to her knees. He handed her a strip of material which she then tied about her waist like a belt. The dark material felt a little like she was hiding herself in the shadows.
"Now, I have an offer for you, Nico," said Josef. She waited tentatively. "I'm guessing you don't have anywhere to go, because even if you did go, the League would catch up to you the moment doors start rattling. I have a friend who is a wizard, and he can charm these spirits as easily as I can mow down a group of second rate mercenaries. I have a feeling that he might be able to help you out if you come with me."
She stared at him in wary bemusement. "Why would you want to help me?"
"I didn't bring you down off that mountain just to let you get caught now. You deserve a chance at survival, and I'm offering it. In return, you could join our team. I think your talents could be pretty useful."
"The wizard I mentioned is a thief, and I go along on his jobs for the action. Eli is flashy, and always attracts attention, so there's never any shortage of lackeys for me to fight. You'd be welcome to join us."
"Your friend would let a demonseed join?"
Josef shrugged. "He isn't part of the Spirit Court, and he doesn't follow ordinary wizard rules. Or so he says, I have no idea. But you let me deal with him. Eli is a thief first, and he wouldn't pass up the chance for a new member to make his life more interesting. What do you say?"
Nico considered silently. This Eli might refuse Josef's deal, but the worst he could do was call the League, which was what would happen anyway, eventually. And if there was a chance the wizard could help her conceal what she was, she couldn't pass that up. It was the only way she would be able to survive. And she quite liked Josef. He was calm and strong, and he'd offered a second chance. Nico doubted that was something that happened to a demonseed often.
She looked up at him with a determined smile, and Josef, understanding, smiled in return.
It was just typical of Josef to have wandered off when Eli wanted to talk to him. Swordsmen were so easily distracted though. He wouldn't be surprised if the big lug had gone wandering off to some larger town in order to see what fights could be had. Well, whatever he was doing had to be more productive than Eli's wasted trip.
The old grouch, Slorn, hadn't been remotely helpful about their next job. In fact, instead of offering juicy titbits of information about how to deceive the Shapers, he had called Eli a fool and claimed that both he and Josef were getting in over their heads. The bear-headed man seemed rather tickled by the idea until Eli pointed out that if the Shapers were so omniscient, why was it they had no idea where Slorn had disappeared to? Of course, at that point, the testy ex-Shaper had become all crabby and said that if Eli didn't have any paying work that needed doing, he should just go on his way.
Which of course, he did. Not much point in staying where he wasn't wanted. After the long trek back down from the Awakened Wood and to the town where he had Josef had a safehouse, he had wanted nothing more than to sink into a hot bath, or grumble to the swordsman about the unreliability of his friends. Of course, Josef would probably just tell him to interrogate a teacup or something, as though dealing with spirits was so simple.
Of course, it was simpler for him than it was a Spiritualist. The thought made him grin happily, and the expression remained sat on his face even when Josef appeared in the doorway, trailed by an unfamiliar face.
"I didn't realise you were bringing guests home," he said cheerfully as Josef shut the door and folded his arms over his chest. The girl remained hidden in the swordsman's shadow, but Eli could still make out some of her features. For one thing, he could tell that she was thin, and not just because her shirt – which looked suspiciously like one of Josef's – was hanging about her like a bed-sheet. Her face was pale and hollow, her eyes wide and dark. Although a little odd, none of this put Eli on edge quite like the strange sensation he got from looking at her, as though there was something not quite right about her. He got the impression the room could feel it too.
Still, Eli planted a bright expression on his face as he regarded the pair of them. "I didn't realise you'd taken to bringing in waifs and strays, Josef. Remind me to never take you through some of the poorer towns in the Council areas, or we'll have a whole host of orphans following us before long."
"Nico, this is Eli," Josef said, completely ignoring Eli's little speech as he spoke to the girl. He then turned to the thief. "Nico's going to join us."
Eli looked at him sceptically as the swordsman took a seat opposite. "Join us? Have you been telling random kids about me? You should probably know I'm not keen on the idea of a fan club," he told the girl teasingly. "Flattered, but not interested."
"As if your ego needs inflating any more than it already is," the swordsman replied dryly. "She's going be a new member of the team."
He glanced at the girl, who was staring at him wide-eyed. Eli seriously doubted she had anything to offer a thieving operation, unless it was the ability to squeeze through cracks in the wall – but Eli could already talk those cracks into opening a little wider anyway. Or Josef could just smack the entire wall down with the Heart. "So what exactly can you do then?" he asked her. "See both Josef and I have unique talents that let our do our jobs to a professional level. If your greatest achievement is pick-pocketing guardsmen, then I'm afraid that won't be good enough."
Nico's gaze flickered to Josef uncertainly, and he was the one who answered for her. "Nico is a demonseed."
Eli gave an undignified yelp and jumped in his seat, though the girl hadn't even moved. He regarded her far more warily than he had done before. This certainly explained her appearance and the sense of wrongness about her – any wizard could feel the way a demonseed pulsed with an unnatural presence.
"Why did you bring her here?" he hissed at Josef. "Are you crazy? She could eat this entire building and us along with it!"
Josef glanced at the girl disbelievingly. "I doubt it, she's skin and bones. She probably hasn't had a decent meal for weeks."
"All the more reason for her to start with us!" Eli insisted in a strained voice.
The swordsman shook his head at the thief's behaviour. "Ignore him, Nico."
Eli goggled at Josef, wondering if he had finally received one blow to the head too many. Then he realised, Josef wasn't a wizard – he couldn't feel the same presence Eli could when he looked at the girl, and he didn't have the same appreciation for spirits as living beings that a wizard would. To a non-wizard, Nico suddenly eating the table would be bizarre, and not a little creepy, but it wouldn't be the same horrifying sight that it would be for a wizard. He wouldn't see a demon devouring another being's soul. Josef had no idea how dangerous she could be if she chose to.
Another thing then occurred to him. What was the girl going to get out of this? She obviously hadn't awakened, and they had nothing she could want as a demon. If she'd wanted to eat the Heart of War, then she would have tried when Josef was alone. That meant he must have said something to appeal to her human side. "Why exactly do you want to help us?"
"I have nowhere else to go," she said, her voice hoarse, as though she had been crying or screaming a great deal lately. "Josef saved my life, and I want to pay him back. He gave me a second chance."
"You saved her life?" Eli asked his friend. "How? Where did you even find her?"
"Out in the hills," Josef replied vaguely. "She'd been badly beaten up, probably by the League, but she was still alive. So I took her back to my camp, patched her up a little and made her an offer to work with us."
Eli would never have figured Josef for a man with business sense. "How can you help us?" He asked the girl warily. "I'm guessing you must have something to offer besides giving spirits a good scare?"
"I can step through shadows," she replied quietly. "I'm strong, and I heal quickly. And my senses are more powerful."
Eli wasn't one to throw away an opportunity. If Nico could be controlled enough not to eat spirits – which she didn't look hugely interested in at the moment – then her unique abilities could prove useful. Stepping through shadows in particular sounded like it could be put to some use, other than general fighting, and he supposed another heavy-hitter like Josef couldn't hurt. He imagined the swordsman would be able to take her down if she proved too dangerous.
The girl could prove more helpful in a wider sense too. There was no way Benehime would allow her League goons to go after Nico if she was with him – which they would undoubtedly want to do – so he wouldn't have to worry about the League of Storms interfering in his affairs just because Benehime had told them to. It would be one extra way of slipping out of her control, and with a demonseed as well, a fragment of Benehime's greatest foe. One of the few things that wouldn't fall to its knees in worship of her. Accepting Nico's help would be a great insult to the white woman who had claimed him as her own. Eli smiled. Perhaps this wasn't such an unfortunate turn of events.
Josef nodded his head approvingly. "Nico said she will need a way to hide herself from the spirits, so they won't start worrying."
"Panicking," Eli corrected. He mused for a moment, before grimacing. "I think I know just the person who can help, but I have to visit him alone." Considering Slorn had just about thrown Eli out the last time he went around looking for a favour, he could only imagine what the bear-headed Shaper would do to him if he turned up asking for a way to conceal demonseeds. Still, if there was a way to do it, Slorn would know.
Eli gave a long-suffering sigh, but Josef just looked satisfied, familiar enough with the thief's theatrics by now to know he was on board with the idea. Eli looked over at Nico. "Are you ready to become part of the world's best thieving operation?"
She nodded firmly. "I'm make sure you don't regret it."
He extended his hand for her to shake. After a wary glance at his face, her expression grew slightly more confident, even hopeful, and she grasped his hand, shaking it to close the deal. Service in return for protection. It was a little like a Spiritualist's deal with their spirits, and that was enough to make Eli nauseous. Perhaps she would be best as a partner, not a tool.
Eli gave the girl a welcoming smile as Josef looked on in satisfaction. "Welcome to the team, Nico."