Read Soul Eater Online

Authors: Michelle Paver

Soul Eater

Soul Eater (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness #3)
Michelle Paver
ONE

Torak didn't want it to be an omen. He didn't want it to be anything more than an owl feather lying in the snow. So he ignored it. That was his first mistake.Quietly, he went back to the tracks they'd been following since dawn. They looked fresh. He slipped off his mitten and felt them. No ice in the bottom. Yes, fresh. Turning to Renn, farther uphill, he tapped his sleeve and raised his forefinger, then pointed down into the beech wood. One reindeer, heading south.Renn gave a nod, whipped an arrow from her quiver, and nocked it to her bow. Like Torak, she was hard to10see in a pale reindeer-hide parka and leggings, with wood ash smeared on her face to mask her scent. Like him, she was hungry, having eaten nothing since a slip of dried boar meat for daymeal.Unlike him, she hadn't seen the owl feather.So don't tell her, he thought.That was his second mistake.A few paces below him, Wolf was sniffing at a patch where the reindeer had scraped away the snow to get at the lichen. His ears were pricked, his silver fur fluffed up with excitement. If he sensed Torak's unease, he didn't show it. Another sniff, then he raised his muzzle to catch the scent-laden breeze, and his amber gaze grazed Torak's. Smells bad.Torak tilted his head. What do you mean? he asked in wolf talk.Wolf twitched his whiskers. Bad muzzle.Torak went to examine what he'd found, and spotted a tiny bead of yellow pus on the bare earth. Wolf was telling him that the reindeer was old, its teeth rotten after many winters of munching gritty lichen.Torak wrinkled his nose in a brief wolf smile. Thank you, pack-brother. Then he glanced at Renn, and headed downhill as silently as his beaver-hide boots would allow.Not silently enough for Wolf, who flicked a reproachful ear as he moved over the snow as11soundlessly as smoke.Together they crept between the sleeping trees. Black oaks and silvery beeches glittered with frost. Here and there Torak saw the crimson blaze of holly berries; the deep green of a wakeful spruce standing guard over its slumbering sisters. The Forest was hushed. The rivers were frozen. Most of the birds had flown south.Except for that owl, thought Torak.He'd known it was an owl's feather as soon as he'd seen its furry upper side, which muffled the sound of flight when the owl was hunting. If it had been the dusky gray of a Forest owl, he wouldn't have worried; he'd simply have given it to Renn, who used them to fletch her arrows. But this feather was barred with black and tawny; shadow and flame. That told Torak it belonged to the greatest, the fiercest of owls: the eagle owl. And to find one of those--that was bad.Wolf's black nose twitched.Torak was instantly alert.Through the trees, he glimpsed the reindeer, nibbling beard-moss. He heard the crunch of its hooves, saw its misting breath. Good, they were still downwind. He forgot the feather, and thought of juicy meat and rich marrowfat.Behind him, the faint creak of Renn's bow. He fitted an arrow to his own, then realized he was blocking her12view, and dropped to one knee, since she was the better shot.The reindeer moved behind a beech tree. They'd have to wait.As Torak waited, he noticed a spruce, five paces below him. The way it spread its snow-laden arms ... warning him back.Gripping his bow, he fixed his gaze on the prey.A gust of wind stirred the beeches around him, and last summer's leaves rustled like dry, dead hands.He swallowed. It felt as if the Forest were trying to tell him something.Overhead a branch shifted, and a flurry of snow hissed down. He glanced up. His heart jerked. An eagle owl. Tufted ears as sharp as spearpoints. Huge orange eyes like twin suns. With a cry he leaped to his feet.The reindeer fled.Wolf raced off in pursuit.Renn's arrow sped past Torak's hood.The eagle owl spread its enormous wings and silently flew away."What were you doing?" shouted Renn furiously. "Standing up like that? I might have killed you!"Torak didn't reply. He was watching the eagle owl soar into the fierce blue of the noonday sky. But eagle owls, he thought, hunt by night.Wolf came bounding through the trees and skittered13to a halt beside him, shaking off snow and lashing his tail. He hadn't expected to catch the reindeer, but he'd enjoyed the chase.Sensing Torak's unease, he rubbed against him. Torak knelt, burying his face in the deep, coarse scruff; breathing in Wolf's familiar sweet-grass scent."What's wrong?" said Renn.Torak raised his head. "That owl, of course.""What owl?"He blinked. "But you must have seen it. The eagle owl--it was so close I could have touched it!"When she still looked blank, he ran back up the hill and found the feather. "Here," he panted, holding it out!Wolf flattened his ears and growled.Renn put her hand to her clan-creature feathers."What does it mean?" said Torak."I don't know, but it's bad. We should get back. Fin-Kedinn will know what to do. And Torak"--she eyed the feather--"leave it here."As he threw it into the snow, he wished he hadn't picked it up with his bare hand. A fine gray powder dusted his palm. He wiped it off on his parka, but his skin carried a whiff of rottenness that reminded him of the Raven bone-grounds.Suddenly Wolf gave a grunt, and pricked his ears."What's he smelled?" said Renn. She didn't speak14wolf talk, but she knew Wolf.Torak frowned. "I don't know." Wolf's tail was high, but he wasn't giving any of the prey signals Torak recognized.Strange prey, Wolf told him, and he realized that Wolf was puzzled too.An overwhelming sense of danger swept over Torak. He gave an urgent warning bark. Uff! Stay away!But Wolf was off, racing up the valley in his tireless lope."No!" shouted Torak, floundering after him. "What's the matter?" cried Renn. "What did he say?""'Strange prey,'" said Torak.With growing alarm, he watched Wolf crest the ridge and glance back at them. He looked magnificent: his thick winter pelt a rich blend of gray and black and foxy red, his bushy tail taut with the thrill of the hunt. Follow me, pack-brother! Strange prey!Then he was gone.They followed as fast as they could, but they were burdened with packs and sleeping-sacks, and the snow was deep, so they had to use their wicker snowshoes, which slowed them even more. When they reached the top, Wolf was nowhere to be seen."He'll be waiting for us," said Renn, trying to be reassuring. She pointed to a thicket of aspen. "Soon as15we get down into that, he'll pounce."That made Torak feel a little better. Only yesterday Wolf had hidden behind a juniper bush, then leaped out and knocked him into a snowdrift, growling and play-biting till Torak was helpless with laughter.They reached the aspens. Wolf didn't pounce.Torak uttered two short barks. Where are you?No answer.His tracks were plain enough, though. Several clans hunted here, and all used dogs, but there was no mistaking Wolf's tracks for a dog's. A dog runs haphazardly, because he knows his master will feed him, whereas a wolf runs with a purpose: he must find prey, or starve. And although Wolf had been with Torak and the Raven Clan for the past seven moons, Torak had never given him food, for fear of blunting his hunting skills.The afternoon wore on, and still they followed his trail: a straight-line lope, in which the hindpaws trod in the prints of the forepaws. The crunch of their snowshoes and the rasp of their breath echoed through the Forest."We're getting quite far north," said Renn. They were about a daywalk from the Raven camp, which lay to the southwest, by the Widewater river.Again Torak barked. Where are you?Snow drifted from a tree, pattering onto his hood.16The stillness after it settled seemed deeper than before.As he watched the gleam die on a cluster of holly berries, he sensed that the day was on the turn. Already the brightness was fading from the sky, and shadows were stealing out from under the trees. A chill crept into his heart, because he knew that the descent into darkness had begun.The clans call this the demon time, because it's in winter, when the great bull Auroch rears high among the stars, that demons escape from the Otherworld, and flit through the Forest, to cause havoc and despair. It only takes one to taint a whole valley; and although the Mages keep watch, they can't trap them all. Demons are hard to see. You never catch more than a glimpse, and you can't be sure what they look like, because they change, the better to slip into sleeping mouths and possess living bodies. There they crouch in the red darkness, sucking out courage and trust, leaving the seeds of malice and strife.It was at this moment, at the demon time, that Torak knew the omens had come true. Wolf hadn't howled a reply because he could not. Because something had happened to him.Nightmare visions flashed through Torak's mind. What if Wolf had tried to bring down an auroch or an elk on his own? He was only twenty moons old. A flying hoof can kill a foolhardy young wolf.17Maybe he'd been caught in a snare. Torak had' taught him to avoid them, but what if he'd been careless? He'd be trapped. Unable to howl as the noose tightened round his neck.The trees creaked. More snow pattered down. Torak put his hands to his lips and howled. Where--are--you?No reply.Renn gave him a worried smile; but in her dark eyes he saw his own anxiety. "The sun's going down," she said.He swallowed. "In a while the moon will be up. There'll be enough light to track."She gave a doubtful nod.They'd gone another few paces when she turned aside. "Torak! Over here!"Whoever had caught Wolf had done it with the simplest of traps. They'd dug a pit, and hidden it with a flimsy screen of snow-covered branches.That wouldn't have held him for long, but in the churned-up snow around the pit, Torak found shreds of braided rawhide. "A net," he said in disbelief. "They had a net.""But--no spikes in the pit," said Renn. "They must have wanted him alive."This is a bad dream, thought Torak. I'm going to wake up, and Wolf is going to come loping through the trees.18That was when he saw the blood. A shocking red spatter in the snow."Maybe he bit them," muttered Renn. "I hope he did. I hope he bit their hands off!"Torak picked up a tuft of bloody fur. His fingers shook. He forced himself to read the snow.Wolf had approached the pitfall warily, his tracks changing from a straight-line lope to a walk, in which front and hind prints showed side by side. But he'd approached just the same.Oh Wolf, said Torak silently. Why weren't you more careful?Then it struck him that maybe it was his friendship with Wolf that had made him more trusting of people. Maybe this was his fault.He stared at the trampled trail that led north. Ice was forming in the tracks. Wolf's captors had a head start."How many sets of prints?" said Renn, staying well back, as Torak was by far the better tracker."Two. The bigger man's prints are deeper when he ran off.""So--he was carrying Wolf. But why take him at all? No one would hurt Wolf. No one would dare." It was strict clan law that no harm should be done to any of the hunters in the Forest."Torak," she called, crouching behind a clump of19juniper. "They hid over here. But I can't make out--" "Don't move!" warned Torak. "What?""There, by your boot!"She froze. "What--made that?"He squatted to examine it.His father had taught him tracking, and he thought he knew every print of every creature in the Forest; but these were the strangest he'd ever seen. Very light and small, like a bird's--but not. The hind tracks resembled tiny, crooked, five-clawed hands, but there were no front prints, only two pockmarks: as if the creature had been walking on stumps.'"Strange prey,'" murmured Torak.Renn met his eyes. "Bait. They used it as bait."He stood up. "They went north, toward the valley of the Axehandle. Where could they go from there?"She threw up her hands. "Anywhere! They could've turned east for Lake Axehead, and kept going all the way to the High Mountains. Or doubled back south, for the Deep Forest. Or west, they could be halfway to the Sea by now-"Voices, coming their way.They ducked behind the junipers. Renn readied her bow, and Torak drew his black basalt axe from his belt. Whoever it was, they were making no attempt at20stealth. Torak saw a man and woman, followed by a large dog dragging a sled on which lolled a dead roe buck. A boy of about eight summers plunged eagerly ahead, and with him a younger dog with a deerhide saddlepack strapped to his belly.The young dog caught Wolf's scent on Torak, gave a terrified yelp, and

sped, back to the boy, who halted. Torak saw the clan-tattoo between his eyebrows: three slender black ovals, like a permanent frown.Renn breathed out. "Willow Clan!

sped, back to the boy, who halted. Torak saw the clan-tattoo between his eyebrows: three slender black ovals, like a permanent frown.Renn breathed out. "Willow Clan! Maybe they saw something!""No!" He pulled her back. "We don't know if we can trust-them!"She stared at him. "Torak, these are Willows! Of course we can!" Before he could stop her, she was running toward them, both fists over her heart in sign of friendship.They saw her and broke into smiles. They were returning to their clan in the west, the woman explained. Her face was scarred, like birch canker, marking her as a survivor of last summer's sickness."Did you meet anyone?" said Renn. "We're looking for--"'"We?"' queried the man.Torak stood up. "You've come from the north. Did you see anyone?"21The man's eyes flicked to Torak's clan-tattoos, and his eyebrows rose. "We don't meet many Wolf Clan these days." Then to Renn, "You're young to be hunting so far from your camp."Renn bridled. "We're both thirteen summers old. And we have the Leader's leave--""Did you see anyone?" broke in Torak."I did," said the boy."Who?" cried Torak. "Who was it?"The boy drew back, startled by his intensity. "I--I'd gone to find Snapper." He pointed at his dog, who gave a faint wag of his tail. "He likes chasing squirrels, but he gets lost. Then I saw them. They had a net; it was struggling."So he's still alive, thought Torak. He'd been clenching his fists so hard that his nails were digging into his palms."What did they look like?" said Renn.The boy stretched his arm above his head. "A huge man. And another, big, with bowed legs.""What about their clan-tattoos?" said Torak. "Clancreature skins? Anything!"The boy gulped. "Their hoods were up; I didn't see their faces."Torak turned to the Willow man. "Can you take a message to Fin-Kedinn? "22"Whatever it is," said the man, "you should tell him yourself. The Leader of the Ravens is wise; he'll know what to do.""There's no time," said Torak. "Tell him that someone has taken Wolf. Tell him we're going to get him back."23TWONight brought a bone-cracking frost that turned the trees white, and the snow-crust brittle underfoot. It was past middle-night, and Torak was dizzy with tiredness. He forced himself to keep going. The trail of Wolf's captors lay like a snake in the moonlight. North, always north.With heart-stopping suddenness, seven Mages loomed before him. Lean, horned shadows cut across his path. We will rule the Forest, they whispered in voices colder than windblown snow. All tremble before us. We are the Soul-Eaters....A hand touched his shoulder. He cried out.24"What's wrong?" said Renn.He blinked. Before him, seven birch trees glittered with frost. "A dream.""About what?" Renn knew something of dreams, because sometimes her own came true."Nothing," said Torak.She gave a disbelieving snort.They trudged on, their breath smoking in the freezing air.Torak wondered if the dream meant something. Could it be--was it possible that the Soul-Eaters were behind Wolf's disappearance?But what would they want with Wolf?Besides, no trace of them had been found. Since the sickness last summer, Fin-Kedinn had spoken to every clan in the Open Forest, and had sent word to the Deep Forest and the Sea and Mountain clans. Nothing. The Soul-Eaters had gone to ground like a bear in winter.And yet--Wolf was still gone.Torak felt as if he were walking in a blizzard of ignorance and fear. Raising his head, he saw the great bull Auroch high in the sky. He felt the malice of its cold red eye, and fought a rising tide of panic. First he'd lost his father. Now Wolf. What if he never saw Wolf again? What if he was already dead?The trees thinned. Before them glimmered a frozen river, crisscrossed with hare tracks. On its banks, the25dead umbels of hemlock reached spiked fingers toward the stars.A herd of forest horses took fright and clattered off across the ice, then turned to stare. Their manes stood stiff as icicles, and in their moon-bright eyes Torak glimpsed an echo of his own fear.In his mind he saw Wolf as he'd looked before he vanished: magnificent and proud. Torak had known him since he was a cub. Most of the time he was simply Wolf: clever, inquisitive, and fiercely loyal. Sometimes he was the guide, with a mysterious certainty in his amber eyes. Always he was a pack-brother."What I don't understand," said Renn, cutting across his thoughts, "is why take Wolf at all?""Maybe it's a trap. Maybe they want me, not Wolf.""I thought of that too." Her voice dropped. "Maybe--whoever took Wolf is after you because ..." She hesitated. "Because you're a spirit walker, and they want your power."He flinched. He hated being a spirit walker. And he hated that she'd said it out loud. It felt like a scab being torn off."But if they were after you," she persisted, "why not just take you? Two big strong men, we'd have been no match for them. So why--""I don't know!" snapped Torak. "Why do you keep going on? What good does it do?"26Renn stared at him."I don't know why they took him!" he cried. "I don't care if it's a trap! I just want him back!"After that, they didn't speak at all. The forest horses had trampled the trail, and for a while it was lost, which at least gave them an excuse to split up. When Torak found it again, it had changed. For the worse."They've made a sled," he said. "No dogs to pull it, but even without, they'll be able to go much faster downhill."Renn glanced at the sky. "It's clouding over. We should build a shelter. Get some rest." "You can if you want. I'm going on." She put her hands on her hips. "On your own?" "If I have to.""Torak. He's my friend too.""He's not just my friend" he retorted. "He's my pack-brother!"He could see that he'd hurt her."And how," she said between her teeth, "is blundering about missing things going to help him?"He glared at her. "I haven't missed anything!""Oh no? A few paces back, one of them turned aside to follow those otter tracks--""What otter tracks?""That's what I mean! You're exhausted! So am I!"27He knew she was right. But he didn't want to admit it. In silence they found a storm-toppled spruce, and dug out the snow at its base to make a makeshift sleeping-space. They roofed it with spruce boughs, and used their snowshoes as shovels to pack on a thick layer of snow. Finally they dragged more boughs inside, and laid their reindeer-hide sleeping-sacks on top. When they'd finished, they were trembling with fatigue.From his tinder pouch Torak took his strike-fire and some shredded birch bark, and woke up a fire. The only deadwood he'd found was spruce, so it smoked and spat. He was too exhausted to care.Renn wrinkled her nose at the smoke, but didn't remark on it. She took a coil of elk-blood sausage from her pack and cut it in three, then put one piece on the roof of the shelter for the clan guardian, and tossed Torak another. Tucking her own share in her food pouch, she picked up her axe and waterskin. "I'm going to the river. There's more meat in my pack, but don't touch the dried lingonberries.""Why not?""Because," she said crossly, "I'm saving them for Wolf!"After she'd gone, Torak forced himself to eat. Then he crawled out of the shelter and made an offering. Cutting a lock of his long, dark hair, he tied it around28a branch of the fallen spruce. Then he put his hand on his clan-creature skin: the tattered scrap of wolf fur sewn to the shoulder of his parka. "Forest," he said, "hear me. I ask by each of my three souls--by my name-soul, my clan-soul, and my world-soul--I ask that you watch over Wolf, and keep him from harm."It was only when he'd finished that he noticed a lock of dark-red hair tied to another branch. Renn had made her own offering.That made him feel guilty. He shouldn't have shouted at her.Back in the shelter, he pulled off his boots, wriggled into his sleeping-sack, and lay watching the fire, smelling the mustiness of reindeer fur and the bitter tang of spruce.Far away, an owl hooted. Not the familiar bvoo-bvoo of a gray Forest owl, but the deep oo-hu, oo-hu, oo-hu of an eagle owl.Torak shivered.He heard Renn's footsteps crunching through the snow, and called to her. "You made an offering. So did I."When she didn't answer, he added, "Sorry I snapped at you. It's just... Well. Sorry."Still no answer.He heard her crunch toward the shelter--then circle behind it.He sat up. "Renn?"29The footsteps stopped.His heart began to pound. It wasn't Renn.As quietly as he could, he wriggled out of his sleeping-sack, pulled on his boots, and reached for his axe.The footsteps came closer. Whoever it was stood only an arm's length away, separated by a flimsy wall of spruce.For a moment there was silence. Then--very loud in the stillness--Torak heard wet, bubbling breath.His skin prickled. He thought of the victims of last summer's sickness. The murderous light in their eyes; the slime catching in their throats ...He thought of Renn, alone by the river. He crawled toward the mouth of the shelter.Clouds covered the moon, and the night was black. He caught a whiff of carrion. Heard again that bubbling breath."Who are you?" he called into the dark.The breathing stopped. The stillness was absolute.' The stillness of something waiting in the dark.Torak scrambled out of the shelter and stood, clutching his axe with both hands. Smoke stung his eyes, but for a heartbeat he glimpsed a huge form melting into the shadows.A cry rang out behind him--and he spun around to see Renn staggering through the trees. "By the river!"30she panted. "It stank, it was horrible!""It was here," he told her. "It came close. I heard it."Back to back, they stared into the Forest. Whatever it was, it had gone, leaving only a whiff of carrion and a dread memory of bubbling breath.Sleep was now impossible. They fed the fire, then sat up together, waiting for dawn."What do you think it was?" said Renn.Torak shook his head. "I don't know. But I know one thing. If we'd had Wolf with us, it would never have got that close."They stared into the fire. With Wolf gone, they hadn't only lost a friend. They'd lost someone to keep them from harm.31THREEThey heard nothing more that night, but in the morning they found tracks. Huge, manlike--but without any toes.The tracks were nothing like the booted feet of the men who'd captured Wolf, but they headed the same way. "Now there are three of them," said Renn. Torak didn't reply. They had no choice but to follow. The sky was heavy with snow, and the Forest was full of shadows. With each step they dreaded seeing a figure lurching toward them. Demon? Soul-Eater? Or one of the Hidden People, whose backs are hollow as rotten trees....32The wind picked up. Torak watched the snow drifting across the tracks, and thought of Wolf. "If this wind keeps up, the trail won't last much longer."Renn craned her neck to follow the flight of a raven. "If only we could see what it can."Torak gave the bird a thoughtful stare.They began their descent into the next valley through a silent birchwood. "Look," said Torak. "Your otter's been here before us." He pointed to a line of webbed prints and a long, smooth furrow in the snow. The otter had bounded down the slope, then slid on its belly, as otters love to do.Renn smiled, and for a moment, they pictured a happy otter taking a snow-slide.But the otter had never reached the frozen lake at the bottom of the hill. In the lee of a boulder twenty paces above the shore, Torak found a scattering of fish-scales and a shred of rawhide. "They trapped it," he said."Why?" said Renn. "An otter's a hunter----"Torak shook his head. It didn't make sense.Suddenly Renn tensed. "Hide!" she whispered, pulling him behind the boulder.Through the trees, Torak caught movement on the lake. A creature snuffling, swaying, searching for something. It was very tall, with a shaggy pelt and a trailing, matted mane. Torak smelled carrion, and heard a wet bubbling of breath. Then it turned, and he saw a33filthy one-eyed face as rough as bark. He gasped."It can't be!" whispered Renn.They stared at one another. "The Walker!"The autumn before last, their paths had crossed with this terrifying, mad old man. They'd been lucky to escape with their lives."What's he doing so far from his valley?" breathed Torak as they shrank farther behind the boulder."And how do we get past without being seen?" hissed Renn."Maybe--we don't.""What?""Maybe he saw who took Wolf!""Have you forgotten," she said in a furious whisper, "that he nearly killed us? That he threw my quiver in the stream, and threatened to snap my bow?" It was unclear which she considered worse: threatening them or her bow."But he didn't, did he?" countered Torak. "He let us go. And Renn. What if he saw something?""So you're just going to ask him, are you? Torak, he's crazy! Whatever he says, we couldn't believe him!"Torak opened his mouth to reply ...... and around them the snow exploded."Give it back!" roared the Walker, brandishing his green slate knife. "She took his fire! She tricked him! The Walker wants it back!"34***"The Walker has tricked the tricksters!" he bellowed, pinning them against the boulder. "Now they must give it back!"His mane was a tangle of beard-moss, his scrawny limbs as gnarled as roots. Loops of green slime swung like creepers from his shattered nose and his rotten, toothless mouth.He'd left his cape on the ice to fool them, and was naked but for a hide loincloth stiff with filth, foot-bindings of moldy wovenbark, and a rancid jerkin made from the skin of a red deer, which he'd ripped from the carcass and then forgotten to clean. The tail, legs and hooves swung wildly as he waved his knife in their faces."She took it!" he shouted, spattering them with slime. "She tricked him!""I--I didn't take anything," stammered Renn, hiding her bow behind her back."Don't you remember us?" said Torak. "We never stole anything!""Not she!" snarled the Walker. "She!" Quick as an eel, a grimy hand flashed out and seized Torak by the hair. His head was twisted back, his weapons tossed in the snow. "The sideways one," breathed the Walker, blasting him with an eye-watering stink. "Her fault that Narik is lost!"35"But we didn't do anything!" pleaded Renn. "Let him go!""Axe!" spat the Walker, fixing her with his bloodshot eye. "Knife! Arrows! Bow! In the snow, quick quick quick!"Renn did as she was told.The Walker pressed his knife against Torak's windpipe, cutting off his air. "She gives him her fire," he snarled, "or he slits the wolf boy's throat! And he'll do it, oh yes!"Black spots darted before Torak's eyes. "Renn--" he gasped, "strike-fire--""Take it!" cried Renn, fumbling at her tinder pouch.Deftly the old man caught the stone, and threw Torak to the ground. "The Walker has fire!" he exulted. "Beautiful fire!" Now he can find Narik!"That would have been the time to run. Torak knew it, and so did Renn. Neither of them moved."The sideways one," panted Torak, rubbing his throat."Who is she?" said Renn.The old man turned on her, and she dodged a

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