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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.10
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.10

         Part #3 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 

  And, still unfathoming, he felt another pulse slip loose from that same unfamiliar place within him.

  It went out and was gone from him, whatever it was—what was it?—and it took sirithar with it, so that Akiva was thrust back into the ordinary flow of time—fast, dim, and loud. It was like passing from a mirror-smooth lake into rapids. He staggered a step, robbed of the brilliance that had seized him, and he could only watch, unbreathing, to see what his magic would wreak.

  And to see if it would matter.

  18

  A CANDLE FLAME EXTINGUISHED BY A SCREAM

  All those seraphim, hands to hilts, and chimaera in the coiled instant before the spring.

  Thiago was on his knees in the gap between armies—he would be the first to die. Karou’s hands reached for her own blades, and within her was still the hollow scream of No! If there had been time to think in that second—that second that was as full of intent as any second had ever been, as full of the promise of blood—she would not have believed any power could stop it. Her hope had died with the angels’ first recoil.

  Her hope had died. She thought. She wouldn’t have believed there could be a depth of despair beneath this one. But then it hit her.

  Sudden and devastating. It dragged her under.

  The certainty of ending. Seeing the angel blades ready to slide free and slash, hearing the snarl of chimaera ready to tear the future apart with their teeth, it was as if every shred of thought or feeling that had ever or would ever exist was stamped out and replaced by this… this… this bitter smear of pointlessness.

  Dead end, it shrieked, and for what?

  The despair was entire, complete as a possession, but fleeting. It released her, and was gone, but it left Karou gutted, guttered, feeling for all the world like…

  … a candle flame extinguished by a scream.

  And in the aftermath of its enormity she might have been nothing more than the curl of smoke left to drift and disperse at the end of all things—at the evanescence of the world itself.

  Dead end, and for what?

  Dead end. Dead end.

  And her hands failed to finish what they had begun. She didn’t draw. She couldn’t. Her blades stayed slung at her hips as she dragged in a breath, almost surprised by the feeling—that there was life still in her, and air to breathe.

  One second.

  Another breath, another second.

  She was in the air and she let herself drop, landing in a sagging crouch to fall to her knees, and her mind was still an echo of No! as she became aware that, around her… nothing was happening.

  Nothing. Was happening.

  Bunched beast muscles had fallen slack. Tally-blacked hands were frozen on sword pommels; seraph blades caught the light, many half-drawn, and halted there.

  The two bloodthirsty armies had just… stopped.

  How?

  The moment seemed very long. Karou, dulled by the immensity of her despair, scarcely knew what to make of it. She had felt the moment tilt and hurl them toward disaster. How was it that they had all simply stopped? Had she misread the tilt, the disaster? Had it all been posturing on both sides, just rattling of swords? Could it be as simple as that? No. No, she was missing something. Around her there was mute confusion, slow blinking, and drags of breath as hoarse as her own. She tried to shake off her fog.

  And then she saw, in the no-man’s-land between facing armies, the White Wolf rise to his feet. All eyes fixed on him, hers, too, and the fog began to abate.

  Could it be… had this somehow been his doing?

  She rose. It was difficult to move. Her despair may have gone, but it had left its heaviness draped over her, thick and bleak. She saw that the Wolf’s knees were bloodied from the impact of his fall; Uthem lay dead, and the pool of his blood was spreading. Thiago had risen just as the blood overtook him, and it pooled now around his wolf feet, slicking their white fur and spreading onward, toward the first file of angels. Uthem was large; there was a lot of blood, and the Wolf made a dramatic picture standing in it, all in white but where his own blood blossomed at his knees and brow. And his palms.

  His palms were bloody, and he held them pressed together. It looked like prayer, but it was clear what it meant. Instead of attack, he held his hamsas blind, ink eye to ink eye. He held his power in check, and himself. A soldier dead on the ground, and no reprisal from the vicious White Wolf? It was a powerful gesture, but Karou still didn’t understand. How had it halted three hundred Misbegotten in mid-draw?

  Thiago spoke. “I pledge on the ashes of Loramendi that I and mine come to you for coalition, not for blood. This makes a bad beginning, and was no plan of mine. I will discover who among us has raised a hand against my express command. That soldier, whoever it may be, has broken my word.” This he spoke low in his throat, his voice rough-edged with disgust, and a shiver trilled down Karou’s spine.

  Thiago turned, sweeping the gathering of his soldiers with a slit-eyed look. “That soldier,” he said, peering into the heart of his army, “courted the death of this entire company today, and will be disciplined.”

  The promise was raw; they all knew what he meant by it. His gaze was deliberate and piercing, and lingered several times on particular soldiers, who withered beneath it.

  He turned back to the Misbegotten. “There is reason to risk our lives, but we are no longer that reason to one another. A bad beginning may still be a beginning.” He was vehement. He sought Akiva then; Karou felt him waiting for the angel to step in and help him put the pieces of this truce back together. She waited, too, sure of him—Akiva had brought them here; he must have words to mend this moment—but the pause dragged out a brief, strained silence.

  Something was wrong. Even Liraz was squinting at Akiva, waiting. Karou felt a stab of concern. He looked unsteady, even ill, his broad shoulders bowed by some strain. What was wrong with him? She’d seen him look like that before; she’d made him look like that, but this couldn’t be the effect of the hamsas, could it? Why should they hit him harder than the rest?

  With evident effort, he said, finally, “Yes. A beginning,” but there was a hollowness to his voice, compared with the Wolf’s rich tone and strong words, even as he went on to say, “a very bad beginning. I regret this death, and… deeply I regret our readiness to cause it. I hope it can be put right.”

  “It can and will,” replied the Wolf. “Karou? Please.”

  A summons. Karou felt spotlighted; fear darted erratic in her veins, but she gathered her will and moved. All focus shifted to her as she threaded her way through the host, straight to Uthem’s side. She was standing in his blood. A nod from Thiago and she knelt, unslung the gleaning staff from across her back and lowered it into position, thurible swaying on its chain. A switch alongside the shaft activated a wheel lock similar to a friction-wheel mechanism in an antique pistol; it ignited the incense chamber in the thurible with a report like a snap of metallic fingers. An instant later, a sulfurous tang effused from it.

  She felt Uthem’s soul respond. It felt like gray skies and signal fires, the breaking of waves. Impressions flickered and faded as his soul slipped into the thurible and was safe. A half turn to lock it, a flick to extinguish the incense fuse, and she rose from her kneel, taking care to keep her hamsas from flashing any magic at the angels.

  All eyes were on her. She glanced to Thiago. They hadn’t talked about this, but it felt right. She said, “I have never resurrected a seraph, but as long as we are fighting on the same side, I will. If you wish it, though you may not. Think it over; it’s your choice. My offer, my promise. And something else.” One by one, she met the eyes of the rank of angels directly before her. “I might not look like it,” she said, “but I am Kirin, and this is my home. So please step aside and let us enter.”

  And they did. They didn’t exactly leap to it, but they parted, clearing the way for her. She looked back, found Issa in the throng. Zuzana and Mik, wide-eyed. Akiva’s presence was like a flare in the periphery, calling t
o her, but she didn’t look to him. She stepped forward. Thiago fell in beside her. The host came behind them, and the Misbegotten let them pass. With blood on their boots, Karou and Thiago led their army inside.

  “How did he do that?” Liraz breathed.

  The question jolted Akiva, finally, out of his post-sirithar torpor. “How did who do what?”

  “The Wolf.” She looked stunned. “I was sure we were done. I felt it. And then…” She shook her head as if to clear it. “How did he stop it?”

  Akiva stared at her. She thought Thiago had stopped it?

  He gave a hard laugh. What else could he do? He knew that a pulse had gone out from him—not explosive this time—and whatever it had carried with it, he had felt the soldiers’ collective intention sever. He had done it. He had stopped this slaughter from happening, and… no one had any idea, not even Liraz, and certainly not Karou.

  While he had reeled in his magic’s blowback, barely able to string a coherent sentence together, the Wolf had risen to the occasion and claimed the moment, and managed to earn himself even Liraz’s awe? What then must Karou be feeling for him? Akiva watched her disappear down the passage at the head of her army, the White Wolf at her side—a striking pair they made—and all he could do was laugh. It ground like glass in his chest. Perfect, he thought. What a perfect backhand from… what? Fate, the godstars? Chance?

  “What?” demanded Liraz. “Why are you laughing?”

  “Because life’s a bastard,” was all Akiva could say.

  “Well then,” was his sister’s flat reply. “I guess we fit right in.”

  19

  THE HUNT

  Across Eretz, a pulse of magic surged. There was no Wind to presage it this time, no sound or stir, so nearly everyone who felt it—and everyone felt it—believed it theirs alone, their own despair. It was a wave of raw emotion so potent that, for an instant, it carved out every other feeling and took its place, in its brief passage colonizing every thinking creature—every feeling creature—with the absolute conviction of the end.

  Its passage was swift and bleak; it raced across land and sky and sea, and no creature was immune to it, and no material nor mineral barrier to it.

  Far faster than wings could have carried it there, it swept through Astrae, the capital of the Empire of Seraphim, and just as fast was gone again. In its silent aftermath, no citizen connected it with the shattering of their great Tower of Conquest.

  But at the site of the Tower’s husk, inside the vast and twisted metal skeleton that was all that remained of it, there stood five angels who did. Seraphim they were, but not citizens of the Empire. They’d come from afar, hunting—hunting hunting hunting—and now, in unison, like compass needles spun by the same magnet, they turned south and east. This overwhelming despair was trespass and violation; they knew it was not their own, and each paused just long enough to sound the depths of its appalling power before thrusting it away. Another taste from the unknown magus who plucked at the strings of the world.

  “Beast’s Bane,” they’d heard him called in the harsh rumor-whispers of this craven city. Murderer and traitor, chimaera-killer, bastard and father-slayer. He had done this.

  Now, with eyes the color of fire, the five Stelians fixed on the distant Adelphas Mountains.

  And Scarab, their queen, spread her wings and said, with perfect wrath, through sharpened teeth, “On with the hunt.”

  20

  WARP

  In the Far Isles it was night, and the new bruise that blossomed in the sky would not be visible till dawn. It wasn’t like the others. Indeed, it soon engulfed the others—all of them lost in its dark sprawl. From horizon to horizon it spread, deeper than indigo, nearly as black as the night sky itself. It was more than color, this bruise. It was warp, it was suction. It was concavity and distortion. Eidolon of the dancing eyes had said the sky was tired, and ached. She had downplayed the matter.

  The sky was failing. The stormhunters didn’t need to see it blacken. They felt it.

  And started to scream.

  21

  NITID’S HANDS

  The Kirin caves weren’t so much a village within a mountain as a series of them, connected by a network of passages radiating out from a massive communal space. A collaboration between nature, time, and hands, the space was raw and flowing, unplanned and improbable. A wonder. Overall, the impression was of a miraculous accident of geology, but in truth it was a miraculous accident of geology that had been shaped over hundreds of years by generations of Kirin adhering to a simple aesthetic: “Nitid’s hands.” They were the tools of the goddess, and their duty, as they saw it, was not to stand out or aggrandize themselves, but to copy—as it were—her style.

  Scarcely a detail anywhere announced itself as “made.” There were no corners, and even the stairs could almost have been naturally occurring—asymmetrical and imprecise.

  It was dark, but not perfectly. Light wells admitted sunshine and moonlight, amplified by hidden hematite mirrors and crystal lenses. And it was never silent. Intricate channels conducted the wind throughout, carrying fresh air and making an eerie, ever-present ambient sound that was part dark and stormy night and part whalesong.

  Walking through, Karou experienced it all in a rush of old and new experience that was like the convergence of two swift rivers: Madrigal’s memory and Karou’s marvel, merging at every step. Entering the grand central cavern, she at once remembered it and was struck breathless by the sight of it, stopping dead to throw back her head and stare.

  She remembered the swoop of Kirin wings overhead, the calls and laughter and music, the flurry of festivals and the ordinariness of everyday life. She had learned to fly in this cavern.

  It was immense, several hundred feet in height, so vast that echoes got lost and only sometimes found their way back. Screens of stalagmites stood up from the floor in undulating walls—dozens of feet high, hundreds of thousands of years forming, but it would be millions before they ever joined with their counterparts high overhead. The walls were veined with ore, glinting with gold, and terraced in places into niches that reminded her of honeycomb, or the balconies in an opera house. This was where the seraph soldiers had made their camps, looking down on the central space where orderly fire rings showed signs of recent use.

  “Wow,” she heard Zuzana murmur behind her, and when she turned to glance back, she glimpsed the Wolf’s face as he swallowed hard, struggling against overwhelming emotion. There was no one to see; all the host came behind them, so only Karou witnessed the look of yearning and loss that briefly overtook his features.

  “Come on,” she said, and crossed the cavern.

  Together, the chimaera and Misbegotten numbered somewhere near four hundred, which was probably more than the number of Kirin who had lived in this mountain in the tribe’s heyday, but there was room enough for all, and room enough to keep them separate. The seraphim could have the grand cavern; it was cold here. Her breath came out in clouds. Deeper down, the villages were warmed by geothermal heat. She made for a passage that would lead them to one. Not her own. She wanted to leave that one in peace, visit it alone, on her own time, if ever such a time came.

  “This way.”

  22

  THE ABYSS’S MAD GAWK

  “A whole chocolate cake, a bath, a bed. In that order.” Zuzana ticked off three wishes on her fingers.

  Mik nodded in appreciation. “Not bad,” he said. “But no cake. I’ll have goulash from Poison Kitchen, with apple strudel and tea. Then, yes: a bath and a bed.”

  “Nope. That’s five. You used up your wishes on food.”

  “My whole meal is my first wish. Goulash, strudel, tea.”

  “Doesn’t work that way. Wish fail. I win. You and your full belly will just have to watch while I take my magnificent hot bath and sleep in my wondrously soft warm bed.” Hot bath, soft bed—what a delirious fantasy. Zuzana’s aching muscles pleaded with her for mercy, but it was out of her power. They had no wishes; this was only a
game.

  Mik’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh. I have to watch you bathe, do I? Poor me.”

  “Yes, poor you. Wouldn’t you rather bathe with me?”

  “Indeed.” He was solemn. “Indeed I would. And the wish police will have a hard time keeping me out.”

  “Wish police.” Zuzana snorted.

  “Wish police?” said Karou from the doorway.

  They were in a series of small caves that Zuzana understood had constituted a family dwelling in the days of the Kirin. With four rooms, shaped with the flow of the rock, it was kind of like an apartment inside a mountain. It had its amenities—some kind of natural heat, and even a rock closet with a sluice hole that strongly suggested a toilet (though Zuzana wanted confirmation of that before proceeding)—but there was no apparent bath, or beds. There were some piled furs in the corner, but they were gross and old, and Zuzana was pretty sure that a variety of otherworldly vermin were living out rich, multigenerational sagas in them.

  There was a whole complex of dwellings like this arranged around a kind of village “square”—a much smaller version of the extraordinary cavern they’d passed through on the way here. The soldiers were getting settled, not that there was much to settle. Well, Aegir the smith had work to do, and Thiago had gone off with his lieutenants to do whatever it is war types do before an epic battle. Zuzana could wrap her mind around none of that, and didn’t want to. Not the truth about “Thiago,” and not the epic battle, either. If she tried, she started to shake and her mind switched channels on her, like it was flipping around looking for the kids’ programming or—ooh!—Food Network.

  Speaking of food, while Mik was scouting out the best spot for “resurrection headquarters,” Zuzana had taken a few minutes to help the funny little furred chimaera women, Vovi and Awar, set up a temporary kitchen and organize the supplies they’d brought from Morocco. It didn’t do any harm to get in good with the food-providers, and she may have gotten a few dried apricots in the bargain.

 
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