Prologue: Demons

"You are the one who brought me here?" the demon crooned, its obsidian eyes gleaming with amusement as it circled her. The last light of sunset glistened on the demon's scaly, draconic body. Its clawed feet scorched the ground with each step it took. She watched, transfixed, as the vegetation caught fire beneath its toes and minute tendrils of smoke swirled around the lizard-like skin.

Amara desperately wanted to look away or run down the mountain as fast as her legs could carry her. But she did not trust her legs to bear her weight at that moment. She knew she needed to be in control, but she knelt on the ground at its feet. A paralyzing fear of what she had summoned…and what was to come…had overcome her the moment Vodeg's dragon minion answered her call.

The demon sat down on its haunches, looking her up and down. Its spiked tail twitched back and forth, scoring long gashes into the gravelly mountain soil. "I must say I expected someone a bit…older…with the force you mustered to summon me." It stretched out one clawed digit as if to caress her face but seemed to think better of it. Instead, it scratched a deep scar in the trail, baring its long teeth in a garish grin. Amara flinched. "But you've nearly exhausted yourself to do so, haven't you, Little One? That could be a deliciously costly mistake on your part." It hissed a laugh. "Should I come back later when you've had a chance to rest?"

Though she trembled all over, Amara somehow found her voice. "N-no. No! I need to make a deal with you." For the first time since she'd summoned the creature, she turned her attention to something behind her, to the body in the dirt…her reason for all of this. Resolve suppressed her fears and cleared her mind; she knew this was what she needed to do. Amara turned back. "A deal for…for the power to bring back the dead."

Nodding its head as if this were an everyday occurrence, the demon said, "That is not a deal you make with my kind."

"Not with your kind," she said, "but with Her. Through you."

"So you do know what you're doing then, Little One. That is good. She does not just gift such powers. You will have to pay." It laughed again, a sound like a hissing cat that set her to trembling once more. "But I'm sure you know that."

"I do."

It snaked its neck around to meet her eyes, pure black staring hard into grey. "Are you willing to accept her terms, whatever the cost may be?"

Amara darted a look to the body in the shadows. She couldn't fail now. She couldn't let herself back down. Determination hardening her gaze, she looked into the demon's eyes and could see herself reflected on their perfect mirror-like surfaces. Amara watched with sick fascination as her lips moved and she said, "I am."

The demon backed away and vanished into the twilight. Amara cried out and jumped to her feet, searching all around in vain. All she saw was the hazy blue dimness of dusk painting the mountains around her; all she heard was the wind whistling through the sedge. The demon was nowhere to be found.

Long minutes passed. Amara waited, though only her dying faith in her knowledge of forbidden magic told her there was something to wait for. As the moments passed, she could almost feel the chilly air carrying even that small hope away with it, scattering it onto the desolate tundra.

Had it only been playing with her? Had it all been a trick?

But the demon reappeared in front of her in a great burst of flame that singed her clothes. Amara leapt away from the creature but it strolled toward her, unfazed. "She has accepted your request, Little One." It coiled its long spiked tail tightly around her abdomen and pulled her close. "In return," it hissed, "when you die, She will keep your soul as long as She desires. You may never be reborn, never leave the fires of the underworld, remain her plaything for all eternity… Do you understand?"

Amara could hardly breathe, the pressure of its grip nearly crushing her chest, but she gasped a response. "Yes!"

"And you will agree to these terms?"

"Yes!"

The moment the word left her lips, the demon tightened its hold on her. Ribs cracked and its spikes pierced her skin. Blood ran hot down her belly, her back, her sides… Amara struggled, to no avail. Already the world grew dark around her. Weakly, she wondered again if she had been tricked.

But as her sight dimmed and her feeble attempts to claw free died off, she felt a different kind of heat and pain, lancing into her from the demon's spikes: the more familiar burn of very powerful magic. It seared every inch of her as it crept through her veins with agonizing slowness. Where it passed, the magic felt as though it tore through her flesh, ripped her own body apart, and replaced it with new muscle, blood, and sinew made of fire itself. The burning wave of magic reached her heart and the pain pushed Amara into welcome unconsciousness.

The world rushed back into focus seconds, minutes, or perhaps hours later. She lay sprawled on her back in the dirt, gulping for air. Each beat of her heart pushed a wave of fresh agony through every vein. The only thing keeping her from screaming and writhing in place was the utter exhaustion she also felt, her entire being begging for rest. But she still had something she needed to do, and now she had the power to do it. Clinging to consciousness through sheer will, Amara scrabbled in the dirt and gravel, leaving dark streaks of blood in her wake, rolled onto her belly and pushed herself to her knees.

The demon looked on, licking her blood off its spikes. Its eyelids drooped lazily over its shining black eyes as it relished her taste.

Though every bit of her screamed in protest, Amara dragged herself to her mother's body. Thanks to a spell of preservation she'd placed on the body the moment she realized her only option, her mother was still warm. A faint blush still painted her cheeks and if she didn't know better, Amara could almost have expected her mother to open her eyes, cup her face with soft fingers, tell her not to worry… But she did know better, knew something was missing.

And now she could feel that something was missing. The body felt empty, hollow. But the magic she'd bartered for gave her new awareness of the world around her and would provide the closure she needed. Amara searched for the soul she knew lingered nearby.

At the edge of the trail, where the rocks ended and the night sky began, a figure slowly came into focus. Amara embraced what little magic she could handle at that moment, bringing a new bout of pain that doubled her over for a moment. But then she felt something unlike anything she'd experienced before in her life. She sensed its magical energy reaching for the edges of her own. It made contact with a cool, light touch that washed over her senses. That energy hit her like the rush of the tide hitting the shore. It made her lightheaded, like she'd had a little too much of the world's finest wine.

This was what a human soul felt like.

Amara beckoned to the hazy spirit on the cliff. The soul slowly drifted closer, almost reluctantly presenting itself to be saved. Somehow Amara knew what to do, her body guiding the magic she wielded and manipulating the soul back into her mother's body while her mind could only observe. She forced her mother's spirit to remain there, securing it in place with a spell she couldn't begin to define, as she healed the body's hurts.

When she could handle no more magic, and at last collapsed to the ground from fatigue, Amara fought to remain conscious just a little while longer, waiting for a sign, any sign, that this had all been worthwhile. Above, the night sky looked on with icy disinterest and the wind whispered through the mountain passes as it did every night. The blood still seeping from her wounds grew cold on her skin and clothing and Amara found her mind drifting toward a deathly sleep despite all her efforts. Her eyelids grew heavy but she refused to give in. Not now. She had come too far to miss that sight…

At long last, her mother took a deep breath. Like Amara had done before her, the older woman simply lay breathing for what seemed an eternity. Then she opened her eyes.

Amara sighed, satisfied. In that moment, she had no regrets.

The demon's claws clicked on the stone as it strolled over and crouched to whisper in her ear. "Farewell, young necromancer," it hissed, and vanished.

Amara let her eyes close.