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Strange the dreamer, p.10
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.10

           Laini Taylor
 

  The Rule, the one and only. Self-imposed, it contained, in its simplicity, countless forbiddens. If they lived a thousand years, they’d still be discovering new things they mustn’t do.

  No evidence of life.

  That was it: the four-word mantra that governed their existence. They must betray no evidence of life. At all costs, the citadel must appear abandoned. They must remain hidden, and give the humans no hint that they were here, or that, unthinkably, five abominations had survived the Carnage and eked out an existence here for fifteen years.

  In this ghost’s reaction, they saw that all was well. They were still a secret: the fruits of slaughter, slipped through bloody fingers. “You’re dead,” he said, almost pleading for it to be true. “We killed you.”

  “About that…” said Ruby.

  Minya gave the ghost’s invisible leash a tug that felled him to his knees. “We’re not dead,” she said. “But you are.”

  He must have known already, but the plain words were a sucker punch. He looked around, taking it all in: this place that he only knew from his worst nightmares. “Is this hell?” he asked, hoarse.

  Ruby laughed. “I wish,” she said. “Welcome to purgatory. Care for some soup?”

  14

  BEAUTIFUL AND FULL OF MONSTERS

  Lazlo clutched his spear and moved slowly over the desert sand, Ruza on his left, Tzara on his right. The two Tizerkane held spears as well, and though Ruza had been teaching him to throw, Lazlo still felt like an impostor. “I won’t be any help if it comes to it,” he’d said before they set out on their hunt.

  The creature they sought was something out of stories. He’d never imagined they were real, much less that he would ever track one.

  “Don’t underestimate yourself, faranji,” Ruza had replied, his voice full of assurance. “I can always push you into its mouth and run. So you see, you’ll have saved my life, and I’ll never forget it.”

  “Nice,” Lazlo had said. “That’s exactly the sort of heroism that inspired me to play Tizerkane as a little boy.”

  “It won’t come to anything,” Tzara had cut in, giving Ruza a shove. “We’re just going to poke it. You can’t appreciate a threave until you’ve seen one. That’s all.”

  Just poke it. Poke a monster. And then?

  “Behold the horror,” Eril-Fane had said, approving the excursion. The caravan had adjusted its course to give the thing a wide berth, but Ruza had been keen for Lazlo to see the Elmuthaleth’s ugliest species. Threaves were ambush predators. They burrowed under the sand and lay in wait, for years even, for prey to happen along, and they were only a threat if you had the poor fortune of walking over one. But thanks to the caravan’s threave hawks, they knew exactly where the thing was.

  Low in the sky, one of the birds flew circles to mark the place where the threave lay buried. The caravans had always employed falconers with special birds that could scent the stench of the creatures and avoid them—and occasionally to hunt them, as they were doing now, though with no intent to kill. They were only twenty yards from it, and the back of Lazlo’s neck prickled. He’d never stalked anything before.

  “It knows we’re coming,” Ruza said. “It can feel the vibrations of our footsteps. It must be getting excited. Its mouth will be filling with digestive juices, all bubbly and hot. It would be like falling into a bath if it ate you. A really awful bath.” He was the youngest of the Tizerkane, only eighteen, and had been the first to make Lazlo welcome. Not that any of them had made him unwelcome. It was just that Ruza had an eager nature—eager to tease, more than anything else—and had taken it upon himself to teach Lazlo basic skills, such as riding, spear-throwing, cursing. He was a good language teacher all around, mainly because he talked so much, but he was unreliable—as Lazlo had discovered early on when he’d asked Azareen, Eril-Fane’s second-in-command, what turned out to mean not “Can I help you with that?” but “Would you like to sniff my armpits?”

  She had declined.

  That was early on. His Unseen had improved enough now to know when Ruza was trying to trick him.

  Which was most of the time.

  “Hush,” said Tzara. “Watch the sand.”

  Lazlo did. The hawk drew a circle with its shadow, but he saw no hint within of buried beasts. There was nothing to distinguish the sand there from the sand anywhere.

  Tzara stopped short. “Would you like to do the honors?” she asked him. She was another of the younger warriors. Her face was smooth and bronze, with a high-bridged, regal nose and a scar bisecting her right eyebrow. She wore her head shaved—all but an inch-thick strip down the center of her scalp, which she left long and wove into a single braid.

  “Honors?” asked Lazlo.

  She handed him a pebble. “Just throw it in.”

  Lazlo held his spear in one hand and the pebble in the other. He stared at the stretch of sand and the shadow of the bird going round and round, took a deep breath, and… tossed the pebble. It arced through the air. And… he did expect something to happen. He even expected it to be monstrous, but perhaps there was no preparing for one’s first monster. The instant the pebble struck the surface of the sand, the desert floor erupted.

  Sand flew. It stung his face and got in his eyes so that the thing that sprang up in front of him was at first sight just a big, bristling blur. He leapt backward, spear heavy in his hand, and managed to trip over his own feet and land with a thud sitting down. Ruza and Tzara didn’t fall back, though, or even heft their spears, and so he took his cue from their calm, wiped the sand from his eyes, and stared.

  It was like an immense spider, he thought, his mind groping for comparisons that might make sense of the thing. But it didn’t make sense. It might resemble a great, bloated abdomen bristling with legs, but the proportions were wrong. The legs were too short, and couldn’t possibly lift the creature’s bulk. They weren’t legs at all, Lazlo realized. They were chelicerae.

  Mouthparts.

  They were moving wildly—a dozen black-bristled appendages roughly the size of his own arms and with pincers for grasping prey and dragging it toward… its mouth.

  Lazlo couldn’t tell how much of the threave lay buried still beneath the sand, but from what he could see, it was made up almost entirely of mouth. It didn’t even have eyes, just a great, pulsating sphincter, gaping, tooth-spiked, hot, and red. The chelicerae writhed, questing for prey, and the sphincter-maw spasmed, teeth clicking open and shut, searching for something to bite into. Finding nothing, it hissed out a blast of hot air flecked with something foul—the digestive juices Ruza had mentioned?

  Like “a really awful bath” indeed. Lazlo had to wonder how many adventurers, crossing the desert without the benefit of threave hawks, had ended their quest in jaws like these. “Nature’s booby trap,” Ruza called it, and they left it there, unharmed, to await the next wave of faranji adventurers foolish enough to attempt the crossing.

  They rejoined the caravan, which had stopped to make camp. “Well?” asked Eril-Fane. “What do you say about threaves?”

  “I need to amend my ‘Ways I Hope Not to Die’ list,” said Lazlo.

  Eril-Fane laughed. “Indeed. We might have come west sooner, you know, but no one had trained a threave hawk in two hundred years. We decided to wait until that had been mastered.”

  “Wise decision,” said Lazlo. Two hundred years. The first mystery of Weep, the one that had opened his mind like a door. “My city lost the world, and was lost to it,” Eril-Fane had said back in Zosma. Lazlo had been daily in his company ever since, and was no closer to knowing what any of it meant.

  Soon, though.

  Tomorrow.

  “I’m going to put up the fog nets,” he said.

  “You needn’t,” Eril-Fane replied. He was currying his spectral, Syrangelis. “We have enough water for tomorrow.”

  The nets were designed to leach condensation out of the cool night air, and were an important supplementary source of water in the Elmuthaleth. It was the last nig
ht of their crossing, though, and the water in the skins would last until they reached their destination. Lazlo shrugged. “There’s nothing like freshly harvested fog,” he said, and went off to do it anyway. The water in the skins was two months stale, and besides, he’d gotten used to the labor—which involved an ironwood mallet and pounding stakes deep into the sand. It loosened him up after a long day in the saddle, and though he would have been embarrassed to admit it, he liked the change it had made to his body. When he stripped off his white chaulnot to bathe—what passed for “bathing” in the desert, that is, scrubbing his skin with a mixture of sand and pulverized negau root—there was a hardness and sculpt that hadn’t been there before.

  Even his hands hardly seemed his own these days. Before, he’d had a single callus from holding his pen. Now his palms were tough all over and the backs of his hands were as brown as his face. His gray eyes seemed shades lighter by contrast to his darkened skin, and the months of traveling into the sun hadn’t only earned him squint lines. They had reshaped his eyes, cutting them narrower against the light, and altered the line of his brow, drawing it forward and knitting it between his black eyebrows in a single furrow. Those small changes wrought an undue transformation, replacing his dreamy vagueness with a hunting intensity.

  Such was the power of a half year of horizons.

  Lazlo had reason to know that he bore little resemblance now to the junior librarian who’d ridden out of Zosma six months ago with the Tizerkane. In fact, when the delegates had all assembled in Alkonost to cross the desert together, Thyon Nero had failed to recognize him.

  It had been four months by then since they had seen each other last, and, to Lazlo’s surprise, the golden godson had several times passed him right by in the caravansary before registering, with a visible start, who he was.

  With his long dark hair and hooded white chaulnot, riding a spectral with panache and speaking Unseen as though his smoky voice were made for it, Lazlo could almost pass for one of the Tizerkane. It was hard to believe he was the same hapless dreamer who used to walk into walls while reading.

  Horizons instead of books. Riding instead of reading. It was a different life out here, but make no mistake: Lazlo was every bit the dreamer he had always been, if not more. He might have left his books behind, but he carried all his stories with him, out of the glave-lit nooks of the library and into landscapes far more fit for them.

  Like this one.

  He straightened the fog net and peered over it at the Cusp. He’d thought at first that it was a mirage. In the midst of the Elmuthaleth, sky had met ground in an unbroken circle, flat and featureless, as far as the eye could see. To travel across it, day after day, for weeks, to make and break camp each dusk and dawn with a sameness that merged the days to a blur, it defied the mind to believe that it could end. When the first shimmer had appeared in the distance, he’d thought it must be an illusion, like the lakes they sometimes saw that vanished as they drew near, but this hadn’t vanished. Over the past several days it had grown from a pale streak on the horizon to… well, to the Cusp, whatever the Cusp was.

  It formed the eastern edge of the Elmuthaleth, and the other faranji were content to call it a mountain range, but it didn’t look like a mountain range. It lacked peaks. The entire formation—a kind of immense mound—was white, from the dun desert floor to the blue of the sky. It looked like milky crystal, or perhaps ice.

  Or… it looked like what the myths said it was.

  “Almost there. Hard to believe.”

  It was Calixte’s voice. She was one of the other faranji. Coming up beside Lazlo to share the view, she pushed back the hood of her chaulnot to reveal her fine, small head. It had been naked as an egg the first time Lazlo saw her—forcibly shaved, as his own had once been, and just as crudely—but her hair was growing in now. It was a soft brown fluff like fledgling plumage. Her bruises were long gone, but she still had scars where her manacles had rubbed her wrists and ankles raw.

  Calixte was not only the first girl Lazlo counted as a friend, but also the first criminal.

  “By this time tomorrow…” he said. He didn’t need to finish the thought. The anticipation was palpable. By this time tomorrow they would be there. They would climb the single track that led through Fort Misrach to the top of the Cusp, and they would get their first sight of that which lay beyond it.

  Weep.

  “Last chance for a theory,” said Calixte. Her ragged notebook was in her hands. She held it up and flapped it like a butterfly.

  “You don’t give up, do you?”

  “It’s been said. Look, there’s one page left.” She showed him. “I saved it for you.”

  “You shouldn’t have.”

  “Yes, I should. Don’t think I’m letting you reach the Cusp without giving me at least one.”

  One theory.

  When the delegates had met up in Alkonost, they had assumed they would be enlightened as to the reason for their journey. The nature of Weep’s “problem,” as it were. They’d earned that much, surely, by coming so far. And when Eril-Fane rose to his feet at the head of the table at their first shared meal, they’d waited with hushed expectancy for the information that was their due. The next morning they would set foot to the great and terrible Elmuthaleth. It was only fair that they should know why—and preferably while they could still turn back if they chose.

  “In your time among us,” Eril-Fane had told them then, “you will be called upon to believe things you would not at this moment find it possible to believe. You are rational men and women who believe what you can see and prove. Nothing would be gained by telling you now. On the contrary. You will find that the relentless nothingness of the Elmuthaleth has a way of amplifying the workings of your mind. I would sooner it amplify your curiosity than your skepticism.”

  In other words: It’s a surprise.

  And so they’d gone on in mystery, but not without resentment and a vast deal of speculation. The crossing had been hard: bleak and monotonous, physically and mentally grueling. The theory purse had been Calixte’s idea, and a good one. Lazlo had seen how it gave the others a spark of life, to play a game of sorts, to have something to win. It didn’t hurt that they liked to hear themselves talk, and it gave them opportunity. It was simple: You made a guess as to what the problem was, and Calixte wrote it down in her book. You could make as many guesses as you wanted, but each one cost ten silver, paid into the purse, which was a shabby affair of old green brocade held closed with a gaudy brooch. Calixte said it had been her grandmother’s, but then she also said she came from a family of assassins—or else a family of acrobats, depending on her mood—so it was hard to know what to believe.

  Once they reached Weep and all was revealed, whoever had made the closest guess would win the purse—which was up to some five hundred silver now, and bursting at its frayed green seams.

  Lazlo had not entered a theory into the book. “There couldn’t possibly be an idea left unclaimed,” he said.

  “Well, there’s not a boring one left unclaimed, that’s for certain. If I hear one more manly variation on the conquest theory I might kill myself. But you can do better. I know you can. You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable,” she pleaded. “Something beautiful and full of monsters.”

  “Beautiful and full of monsters?”

  “All the best stories are.”

  Lazlo didn’t disagree with that. He made a final adjustment to the net, and turned back toward camp. “It isn’t a story contest, though.”

  Calixte fell into step beside him. “But it is. It’s a true-story contest, and I think the truth must be stranger than that lot is fit to dream up.” She flicked her notebook dismissively toward the center of camp, where the rest of the faranji were gathered waiting for their dinner to be cooked for them. They’d early established themselves in the role of guests—most of them, anyway—and were content to stand idle while the caravan drovers and the Tizerkane—and Lazlo—saw to all the work. They
had already covered their lightweight chaulnots with their heavy woolen ones against the coming evening chill—proof that not one joule of energy had been converted to heat by means of respectable labor. With their hoods up and their purposeless milling, Lazlo thought they looked like a pack of ghosts on coffee break.

  “Maybe not,” he allowed.

  “So it’s all up to you,” said Calixte. “You can’t help but come up with a strange idea. Any idea you have is a Strange idea. Get it?”

  Lazlo laughed in spite of himself. Usually, plays on his name were much less good-humored. “I’m not a member of the delegation,” he reminded her. What was he? Storyteller and secretary and doer of odd jobs, neither Tizerkane nor delegate, just someone along for the dream.

  “But you are a faranji,” she countered. And this was true, though he didn’t fit with the rest of them. He’d ridden into their cities mounted on a spectral, after all, and most of them assumed he was from Weep—at least, until Thyon Nero disabused them of that notion.

  “He’s just an orphan peasant from Zosma, you know,” he’d said, lest they be tempted to feel anything like respect for him.

  “Even if I won,” Lazlo said to Calixte, “the others would just say I already had the answer from Eril-Fane.”

  “I don’t care what they’d say,” Calixte replied. “It’s my game. I decide the winner, and I believe you.”

  And Lazlo was surprised by the strength of his gratitude—to be believed, even by a tomb raider from a family of assassins. Or perhaps especially by a tomb raider from a family of assassins. (Or acrobats, depending on her mood.)

  Calixte, like he, didn’t fit with the rest. But she, unlike he, was a member of the delegation. The most puzzling member, perhaps, and the least anticipated. She was even a surprise to Eril-Fane, who’d gone to Syriza seeking a builder, not an acrobat.

  It was their first destination after Zosma, and so Lazlo’s first experience as the Godslayer’s secretary had been the recruitment of Ebliz Tod, builder of the Cloudspire, tallest structure in the world. And what a structure it was. It looked like an enormous auger shell, or a unicorn’s horn upthrust from the earth, and was said to stand at over six hundred feet. It was a simple, elegant spiral, windowless and unadorned. Syriza was known for its spires, and this was the king of them all.

 
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