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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.12
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.12

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

  “I’m sorry,” said Ziri.

  “For what?” she asked with poor false lightness, as if he hadn’t seen and understood everything. But of course he had.

  “I’m sorry that things can’t be different. For you.” For her and Akiva, Karou understood that he meant, and—dear Ziri—he was sincere. The Wolf’s face was vivid with his compassion.

  “They can be,” she said, somewhat to her own surprise, and in place of her guilt and her quiet torment, she felt resolve. Brimstone had believed it, and so had Akiva, and… the fiercest happiness in her two lives had been when she had believed it. “Things can be different,” she told Ziri. And not just for her and Akiva. “For all of us,” she said, summoning a smile. “That’s the whole point.”

  24

  CUE APOCALYPSE

  Several hours later, Karou had entirely forgotten what that smile felt like.

  Things can be different, sure. But first, you have to kill a whole lot of angels and probably mess up human civilization forever. And oh, you may well lose anyway. You might all die. No big deal.

  It wasn’t a surprise, exactly. It wasn’t as if anyone was calling this meeting a “peace council.”

  It was one for the history books, no question about that. High in the Adelphas Mountains, which had ever stood as the main land bastion between the Empire and the free holdings, the representatives of two rebel armies faced one another. Seraphim and chimaera, Misbegotten and revenants, Beast’s Bane and the White Wolf, not enemies today but allies.

  It was going about as well as could be expected.

  “I am in favor of the clear course.” This was Elyon, the brother who had stepped into Hazael’s place by Akiva’s side. He and two others—Briathos and Orit—stood for the Misbegotten alongside Akiva and Liraz. With Thiago and Karou were Ten and Lisseth.

  “And the clear course is?” inquired the Wolf.

  Elyon said, as if it were evident, “We close the portals. Let the humans deal with Jael.”

  What?

  This was not what Karou had been expecting. “No,” she blurted, though it wasn’t her place to respond.

  Liraz objected at the same moment, and their words collided in the air. No. Positioned dead across the table from each other, they met eyes, Liraz’s narrow, Karou’s carefully neutral.

  No, they would not close the portals between the worlds, trapping Jael and his thousand Dominion soldiers on the other side for humans to “deal” with. On this they might agree, though for different reasons.

  “Jael will be dealt with by me,” said Liraz. She spoke quietly, tonelessly. It was unnerving, and had the effect of sounding incontrovertible, like a fact long established. “Whatever else happens, that much is certain.”

  Liraz’s reason was vengeance, and Karou didn’t fault her for it. She had seen Hazael’s body, as she had seen Liraz grief-torn and bereft, and Akiva at her side, just as anguished. Even from within Karou’s own black well of grief that night, the sight had gutted her. She wanted Jael dead, too, but it wasn’t her only concern.

  “We can’t put this on humans,” she said. “Jael is our problem.”

  Elyon was ready with a response. “If what you tell us of humans and their weapons is true, it should be easy work for them.”

  “It would be if they saw them as enemies,” she said. Jael’s “pageant” was a stroke of cunning. “They will worship us as gods,” Jael had told Akiva, and Karou didn’t doubt he was right. She said to Elyon, “Imagine your godstars unfasten themselves from the sky and come down to stand before you, living and breathing. How exactly would you ‘deal’ with them?”

  “I imagine that I would give them whatever they asked for,” he replied, adding, with damnable, faultless logic, “which is why we must close the portals. Our first concern must be Eretz. We have enough to deal with here without picking a fight in a world not our own.”

  Karou shook her head, but his words had knocked hers askew, and for a moment she could find none. He was right. It was imperative that Jael not succeed in bringing human weapons into Eretz, and the simplest way to stop him would be to close the portals.

  But it was unacceptable. Karou couldn’t simply dust humanity off her hands and turn her back on an entire world, especially considering that Jael’s pageant traced directly back to her. She had brought the abomination Razgut to Eretz and turned him loose with such dangerous knowledge as he possessed—of warcraft, religion, geography—and he had gifted it to Jael. She had brought this down on the human world as surely as if she’d match-made that pair of foul angels herself.

  In the second that she searched for words, she scanned for support around the stone table and met Akiva’s gaze. It was like a kick to her heartbeat, that burning stare. He was blank; whatever he was feeling toward her—disgust? disappointment? bone-deep, baffled hurt?—it was hidden.

  “Shutting a door is one way of solving a problem,” he said. He stared straight at Thiago. “But not a very good way. Our enemies do not always stay where we put them, and tend to come back on us unlooked for, and all the more deadly for it.”

  There was no doubt that he was referring to his own escape and its consequences. The Wolf didn’t miss his meaning. “Indeed,” he said. “Let the past be our teacher. Killing is the only finality.” A glance at Karou, and he added with a very small smile, “And sometimes, not even that.”

  It took the rest of them a second to realize that Beast’s Bane and the Wolf were in agreement, icy agreement though it was.

  “It would be too uncertain,” Liraz said to Elyon. “And too unsatisfying.” They were simple words, and chilling. She had an uncle to kill, and she planned to enjoy it.

  “Then what do you propose?” asked Elyon.

  “We do what we do,” said Liraz. “We fight. Akiva destroys Jael’s portal so he can’t summon reinforcements. We take the thousand out there, and then we come home by the other portal, close it behind us, and deal with the rest of them here in Eretz.”

  Elyon chewed on this. “Setting aside for the moment ‘the rest of them,’ and the impossible odds there, the thousand in the human world makes nearly three to one, their favor.”

  “Three Dominion to one Misbegotten?” Liraz’s smile was like the love child of a shark and a scimitar. “I’ll take those odds. And don’t forget, we have something they don’t.”

  “Which is?” inquired Elyon.

  With a glance first to Akiva, Liraz turned to regard the chimaera. She didn’t speak; her look was resentful and reluctant, but its aim was clear: We have beasts, she might have said, her lip a subtle curl.

  “No,” said Elyon at once. He looked to Briathos and Orit for support. “We’ve agreed not to kill them, that’s all, though we would have been within our rights to do it after they broke the truce—”

  “We broke the truce, did we?” This from Ten. Haxaya, rather, who seemed to be enjoying the deceit, in a way only she could. Karou knew her true face. She’d been a friend, long ago, and her aspect wasn’t lupine, but vulpine, not so different than this, really—only sharper and more feral. Haxaya had claimed once that she was just a set of teeth with a body behind it, and the way she smiled Ten’s wolf jaws was like a taunt. I might eat you, she seemed to be thinking, most of the time, including now. “Then why is it our blood that stains the cavern floor?” she demanded.

  “Because we’re quicker than you,” said Orit, all disdain. “As if you needed further proof of it.”

  And with that, Ten was ready to launch herself over the table at her, teeth first and truce be damned. “Your archers are the ones who should answer for this, not us.”

  “That was defense. The instant you showed hamsas, we were free of our promise.”

  Really? Karou wanted to scream. Had they learned nothing? They were like children. Really freaking deadly children.

  “Enough.” It wasn’t a scream, and it wasn’t Karou. Thiago’s snarl was ice and command, and it tore between the facing soldiers and set both sides rocking back on their heels
. Ten dipped her head to her general.

  Orit glared. She wasn’t beautiful like Liraz, like so many of the angels. Her features were ill-defined, her face full, and her nose had been broken some long time ago, smashed flat at the bridge by blunt force. “You decide what’s enough?” she asked Thiago. “I don’t think so.” She turned to her kin. “I thought we were in agreement that we wouldn’t proceed unless they proved their good faith. I don’t see good faith. I see beasts laughing in our faces.”

  “No,” said Thiago. “You don’t.”

  “Pray you never do,” added Lisseth helpfully.

  Thiago continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “I said I would discipline any soldier or soldiers who defied my command, and I will. It’s not to appease you, and you won’t be audience to it.”

  “Then how will we know?” demanded Orit.

  “You’ll know,” was the Wolf’s reply, as heavy with threat as his earlier pronouncement to Karou, but without the tint of regret.

  Elyon was not satisfied. To the others, he said, “We can’t trust them at our sides in battle. We can fight Jael without mixing battalions. They follow their command, and we our own. We keep apart.”

  It was Liraz who, with a considering look at the chimaera, said, “Even one pair of hamsas in a battalion could weaken the Dominion and give us an edge.”

  “Or weaken us,” argued Orit. “And blunt our edge.”

  Karou had glanced at Akiva, and so she saw a spark light his eyes—the vividness of a sudden idea—and when he spoke up, cutting in abruptly, she expected him to give voice to it, whatever it was. But he said only, “Liraz is right, but so is Orit. It may be early yet to speak of mixing battalions. We’ll leave that question for now,” and as the talk moved deeper into the attack plan, Karou was left wondering: What was that spark? What was the idea?

  She kept looking at him and wondering, and she had to admit she hoped it might be some way out of all this, because it was becoming clearer to her with every passing moment that, in one thing at least, the seraphim and chimaera were united. It was in their mutual unconcern, in the midst of their plotting, for the effect this attack would have on humans.

  Karou tried to give voice to it as the war council wound on, but she couldn’t make her concerns register. Liraz, it seemed to her, pointedly talked over her each time, and if their interests had earlier met in that one loud no, they had now diverged radically. Liraz wanted Jael’s blood. She didn’t care who it spattered.

  “Listen,” Karou said, urgent, when she sensed that their accord was becoming a settled thing. And it was a miracle that this council could find accord, but it felt like a bad miracle. “The instant we attack, we become part of Jael’s pageant. Angels in white attacked by angels in black? Never mind what humans will make of chimaera. They have a story for this, too, and in their story, the devil is an angel—”

  “We don’t have to care what humans think of us,” said Liraz. “This is no pageant. It’s an ambush. We get in and we get out. Fast. If they try to help him, they become our enemy, too.” Her hands were flat on the stone of the table; she was ready to push off and launch herself right this instant. Oh, she was ready for a bloodbath.

  “This prospective enemy that you appear to be taking lightly,” said Karou, “has.…” She wanted to say that they had assault rifles and rocket launchers and military aircraft. Small detail that the languages of Eretz couldn’t begin to communicate these things. “Weapons of mass destruction,” she said instead. That translated just fine.

  “So do we,” replied Liraz. “We have fire.” Her tone was so cold that Karou stopped short.

  “What do you mean by that?” she asked, her voice pitching high in her anger. She knew all too well what Liraz meant, and it stunned her. She had stood in the ashes of Loramendi. She knew what seraph fire could do. Could this be the same Liraz who had used her heat to warm Zuzana and Mik in their sleep, threatening to use it to burn a world?

  Akiva stepped in. “It won’t come to that. They are not our enemy. Our directive must be to cause as little collateral damage as possible. If humans become Jael’s puppets, they do so in ignorance.”

  It was cold comfort. As little collateral damage as possible. Karou fought to keep her face blank as her mind rebelled. Literally or not, the human world was dry kindling to a flame like this. Apocalypse, she thought. This was something special even for her résumé of disaster, which had grown pretty fantastical over the past few months. It’s a good thing there are only two worlds for me to worry about destroying, she thought. Except that, oh hell, there probably were more. Why not? One world, and you can call it a fluke—an excellent accident of stardust. But if there were two worlds, what chance that there were only two?

  Step right up, worlds, thought Karou, get your disaster here! She cast again around the table, but she was surrounded by warriors in the midst of a war council, and everything that had been decided here could be filed under “Of course, idiot. What did you think was going to happen?” Still, she tried. She said, “There is no acceptable level of collateral damage.”

  She thought she saw a softening in Akiva’s eyes, but it was not his voice that answered her. It was Lisseth’s, just behind her. “So worried,” she said in a nasty hiss. “Are you chimaera, or are you human?”

  Lisseth. Or, as Karou now liked to think of her: future enjoyer of cud. It took every ounce of her self-restraint not to turn, look the Naja in the face, and say, “Moo.” Instead she replied in a fact-stating tone, and with only the merest hint of condescension, “I am a chimaera in a human body, Lisseth. I thought you understood that by now.”

  “She understands perfectly. Don’t you, soldier?” This was Thiago, half-turned to look at the Naja with warning in his eyes. She would get a dressing-down later, Karou thought. The Wolf could not have been clearer, before this council, that they were to present a united front, no matter what. It struck her as telling that Lisseth couldn’t manage to follow that order.

  “Yes, sir,” Lisseth said, managing a reasonably deferential tone.

  “And humans aside,” Karou continued, “what about us? How many of us will die?”

  “As many as necessary,” responded Liraz from across the table, and Karou wanted to shake the gorgeous ice queen angel of death.

  “What if none of it is necessary?” she demanded. “What if there’s another way?”

  “Certainly,” said Liraz, sounding bored. “Why don’t we just go and ask Jael to leave? I’m sure if we say please—”

  “That’s not what I meant,” Karou snapped.

  “Then what? Do you have another idea?”

  And, of course, Karou didn’t. Her grudging admission—“Not yet.”—was bitter.

  “If you think of any, I’m sure you’ll let us know.”

  Oh, the slice of her gaze, that sardonic, dismissive tone. Karou felt the angel’s hatred like a slap. Did she deserve it? She darted a glance at Akiva, but he wasn’t looking at her.

  “We’re through here,” announced Thiago. “My soldiers need rest and food, and we have resurrections to perform.”

  “We fly at dawn,” said Liraz.

  No one objected.

  And that was it.

  Thought Karou as the council broke up: Cue apocalypse.

  Or… maybe not. Watching Akiva walk out without so much as a glance her way, she still had no idea what spark had leapt in his eyes, but she wasn’t going to rely on him or anyone else to stand up for the human world. For her own part, she wasn’t giving in to carnage this easily. She still had some time.

  Not much, but some. Which should be fine, right? All she had to do was come up with a plan to avert the apocalypse and somehow convince these grim and hardened soldiers to adopt it. In… approximately twelve hours. While deep in a trance, performing as many resurrections as she could.

  No big deal.

  ARRIVAL + 24 HOURS

  25

  YOU, PLURAL

  From the council, Akiva retreated to the room he ha
d claimed for himself and closed the door.

  Liraz paused outside it and listened. She raised her hand to knock, but let it fall back to her side. For almost a minute she stood there, her expression flickering between longing and anger. Longing for a time when she had stood between her brothers. Anger for their absence, and for her need.

  She felt… exposed.

  Hazael on one side, Akiva on the other; they had always been her barriers. In battle, of course. They had trained together from the age of five. At their best, they’d fought like a single body with six arms, a mind shared, and no one’s back ever open to an enemy. But it wasn’t only in battle, she knew now, that she’d used them for shelter like walls to stand between. It was in moments like this, too. With Hazael gone and Akiva in a world of his own, she felt the wind from all sides, as if it could buffet her apart.

  She wouldn’t ask for company. She shouldn’t have to ask, and it hurt her that Akiva clearly didn’t need what she needed. To shut himself away with his own grief and misery, and leave her out here?

  She didn’t knock on his door, but squared her shoulders and walked on. She didn’t know where she was going, and she didn’t particularly care. It was all filler, anyway—every second up until the one when she held her sword to her uncle’s heart and slowly, slowly pushed it in.

  Nothing would stop that from happening, not humans and their weapons, not Karou’s frantic concerns, not pleas for peace.

  Not anything.

  Akiva wasn’t grieving. The images that haunted him—his brother’s body, Karou laughing with the Wolf—had been locked away. His eyes were closed, his face as smooth as dreamless sleep, but he wasn’t sleeping. Nor was he exactly awake. He was in a place he had found years earlier, after Bullfinch, while he recovered from the injury that should have killed him. Though he hadn’t died, and had even recovered full use of his arm, the wound to his shoulder had never stopped hurting, not for a second, and this was where he was now.

 
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