The great hall of the Shapers had been flung open to let in the wounded. Shaper wizards, their hands still covered in soot from their work, ran out into the blowing snow to help the men who came stumbling onto the frosted terrace through a white-lined hole in the air. Some fell and did not rise again, their long, black coats torn beyond recognition. These the Shapers rolled onto stretchers that, after a sharp order, stood on their own and scrambled off on spindly wooden legs, some toward the waiting doctors, others more slowly toward the cold rooms, their unlucky burdens already silent and stiff.
Alric, Deputy Commander of the League of Storms, lay on the icy floor near the center of the hall, gritting his teeth against the pain as a Shaper physician directed the matched team of six needles sewing his chest back together. His body seized when the needles hit a nerve, and the Shaper grabbed his shoulders, slamming him back against the stone with surprising strength.
“You must not move,” she said.
“I’m trying not to,” Alric replied through gritted teeth.
The old physician arched an eyebrow and started the needles again with a crooked finger. “You’re lucky,” she said, holding him still. “I’ve seen others with those wounds going down to the cold rooms. ” She nodded at the three long claw marks that ran down his chest from neck to hip. “You must be hard to kill. ”
“Very,” Alric breathed. “It’s my gift. ”
She gave him a strange look, but kept her hands firmly on his shoulders until the needles finished. Once the wounds were closed, the doctor gave him a bandage and left to find her next patient. Alric sat up with a ragged breath, holding his arms out as the bandage rolled around his torso of its own accord and tied itself over his left shoulder. After the gauze had pulled itself tight, Alric sat a moment longer with his eyes closed, mastering the pain. When he was sure he had it under control, he grabbed what was left of his coat, buckled his golden sword to his hip, and got up to find his commander.
The Lord of Storms was standing in the snow beside the great gate he had opened for their retreat. Through the shimmering hole in the world, Alric could see what was left of the valley, the smoking craters rimmed with dead stone, the great gashes in the mountains. But worse than the visible destruction were the low, terrified cries of the mountains. Their weeping went straight to his bones in a way nothing else ever had and, he hoped, nothing ever would again.
The Lord of Storms had his back to Alric. As always, his coat was pristine, his sword clean and sheathed at his side. He alone of allof 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. ”