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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.13
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.13

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

  He was inside the pain, in the place where he worked magic.

  Not sirithar. That was something else entirely. Any magic that he had made on purpose, he had made—or perhaps found—here. In the beginning it had felt like passing through a trapdoor down into dark levels of his own mind, but as time went on, as he grew stronger and pushed deeper, the sense of space was ever-expanding, and he began to awaken afterward vague and off-balance, as though he had come back from somewhere very far away.

  Did he make magic or did he find it? Was he within himself or without? He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything. With no training, Akiva went on instinct and hope, and tonight, minute by minute he questioned both.

  In the middle of the war council, the idea had come to him in a sudden flare that felt like revelation. It was the hamsas.

  He wasn’t delusional about the likelihood of the two armies achieving accord anytime soon. He’d known this would be fraught, but he also knew that the best use of their collective strength was in a true alliance, not just a détente. Integration. However they hit the Dominion—in mixed battalions or segregated—they would be outnumbered. But Liraz had been right: Hamsas in every unit would weaken the enemy and help balance the scales. It could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

  But he couldn’t very well expect his brothers and sisters to trust the chimaera, especially considering their poor beginning. The hamsas were a weapon against which they had no defense.

  But what if they did have a defense?

  This was Akiva’s idea. What if he could work a counterspell to protect the Misbegotten from the marks? He didn’t know if he could—or even if he should. If he succeeded, would it cause more strife than it resolved? The chimaera wouldn’t be pleased to lose their advantage.

  And… Karou?

  Here’s where Akiva lost perspective. How could you tell if your instincts were just hope in disguise, and if your hope was really desperation parading as possibility? Because if he succeeded, along with the chance for a true alliance between their armies came another, more personal one.

  Karou would be able to touch him. Her hands, full against his flesh, without agony. He didn’t know if she wanted to touch him, or ever would again, but the chance would be there, just in case.

  Seraphim and chimaera had both posted guards at the mouth of the passage that joined the village and the grand cavern, with the intention of keeping the soldiers apart. There was a sense of lurking and skulking, the possibility of enemies around every corner. It was impossible to relax. Most on both sides felt trapped by the rough ceilings and windowless walls of this place, the skylessness, the impossibility of escape—especially for the chimaera, knowing that the Misbegotten were encamped between themselves and the exit.

  They rested and ate and salvaged what weapons they could from Kirin arsenals long ago looted by slavers. Aegir melted down pots and tools to make blades, and his hammering joined the noises of the mountain. Some soldiers were put to work refletching old arrows, but there wasn’t activity to occupy the bulk of the host, and their idleness was dangerous. No open aggression flared, but the angels, angry that no beast had been punished for oath-breaking, claimed they felt the sickness of hamsas pulsing through the walls at them.

  The chimaera, however mindful of their general’s clear commands, may have found more occasions than necessary to wearily lean, palms pressed to rock in support of their weight. That the magic of the hamsas passed through stone was unlikely, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. “The black-handed butchers,” they called the Misbegotten, and spoke in murmurs of hacking off their marked hands and burning them.

  And then, atop the general confusion and compounding it, was the despair that had carved each of them hollow, and which still echoed in them like a fading drumbeat, beast and angel alike. None spoke of it, each holding it a private weakness. These soldiers may never have felt despair as profound as the one that had passed through them earlier, but they had certainly felt despair.

  Like fear, it was always, always suffered in silence.

  “Well?” asked Issa when Karou returned, alone, to the village. She’d lagged behind Thiago, Ten, and Lisseth, having had quite her fill of their company, and Issa had come up to meet her at the turning of the path. “How did it go?”

  “About how you’d expect,” Karou replied. “Bloodlust and bravado.”

  “From everyone?” Issa probed.

  “Pretty much.” She avoided Issa’s eyes. It wasn’t true. Neither Akiva nor Thiago had displayed either of those things, but the result was the same as if they had. She rubbed her eyes. God, she was tired. “Brace for a full onslaught.”

  “It’s to be attack, then? Well. We’d better get to work.”

  Karou let out a hard breath. They had until dawn. How many resurrections could they possibly perform by then? “What good is a handful more soldiers in the face of a fight like this?”

  “We do what we can,” said Issa.

  “And this is all we can do? Because warriors make our plans.”

  Issa was silent a moment. They were still at the outskirts of the village, at a hairpin turn in the rock passage around the other side of which the dwellings began, the path continuing down toward the “square.” “And if an artist were to make our plans?” asked Issa gently.

  Karou clenched her teeth. She knew she’d given the war council no alternative to consider. She remembered Liraz’s mockery: “Why don’t we just go and ask Jael to leave?” If only. And the angels all went quietly home and no one died. The end.

  Fat chance of that.

  “I don’t know,” she admitted bitterly to Issa, starting down the path with heavy steps. “Do you remember that drawing I did once, for an assignment? I had to illustrate the concept of war?”

  Issa nodded. “I remember it well. We talked about it long after you had gone.”

  Karou had drawn two monstrous men facing each other across a table, and in front of each was an enormous bowl of… people. Writhing tiny limbs, wretched tiny grimaces. And the men were digging in with forks—each into the other’s bowl—frenzied with hunger, pitching bite after bite of people into their gaping mouths.

  “The idea was that whoever emptied the other’s bowl first won the war. And I drew that before I even knew about Eretz, the war here, or Brimstone’s part in it.”

  “Your soul knew,” said Issa. “Even if your mind didn’t.”

  “Maybe,” Karou allowed. “I kept thinking about that drawing in the war council, and our part in all of this. We cheat the bowl. We keep filling it back up, and the monsters keep stabbing their giant forks in, and because of us, there’s always more for them to eat. We never lose but we never win, either. We just keep on dying. Is that what we do?”

  “It’s what we did,” corrected Issa, placing her cool hand on Karou’s arm. “Sweet girl,” she said. She was so lovely, her face as sweet as a Renaissance Madonna’s. “You know that Brimstone had greater hopes of you.”

  In the chimaera tongue, the pronoun you has a singular form and a plural, and here, Issa used the plural. Brimstone had greater hopes of you, plural.

  You and Akiva. Karou remembered Brimstone telling her—Madrigal-her, in her prison cell, just before her execution—that the only way he could keep on doing what he did century after century was by believing that he was keeping the chimaera alive.… “Until the world can be remade,” Karou said softly, echoing what he had told her then.

  “He couldn’t do it,” said Issa, just as softly. “And the Warlord couldn’t. Certainly Thiago never could. But you might.” Again, you plural.

  “I don’t know how to get there,” she told Issa, like the sharing of a terrible secret. “We’re here, chimaera and seraphim, together but not really. Everyone still wants to kill each other and probably will. It’s not exactly a new world.”

  “Listen to your instincts, sweet girl.”

  Karou laughed, slappy with fatigue. “What if my instincts are telling me to go to sleep, and wake u
p when it’s all done? Worlds fixed, portals closed, everyone on their proper side, Jael defeated, and no more war.”

  Issa only smiled and said, “You wouldn’t want to sleep through this, love. These are extraordinary times.” Her smile was beatific until it turned mischievous. “Or they will be, once you figure out how to make them so.”

  Karou smacked her lightly on the shoulder. “Great. Thanks. No pressure.”

  Issa pulled her in for a hug, and it felt like a thousand past Issa hugs that had always had the power to infuse her with strength—the strength of the belief of others. She had Brimstone’s belief in her, too.

  Did she still have Akiva’s?

  Karou straightened back up. They were almost back to “resurrection headquarters,” the chambers Zuzana and Mik had chosen. She saw the green flicker of skohl torches through the open door. From farther down the path came the sounds of the host and the waft of cooking smells. Earth vegetables, couscous, flat bread, the last of their skinny Moroccan chickens. It smelled good, and Karou didn’t think it was just because she was starving. It gave her a thought.

  Listen to your instincts? How about to her stomach instead? It wasn’t a plan or a solution; just a small idea. A baby step. “Tell Zuze and Mik I’ll be right there,” she told Issa, and went in search of the Wolf.

  26

  BLEED AND BLOOM

  At around seven AM, more than twenty-four hours after waking up screaming, Eliza gave in to exhaustion and was plunged straight into the dream.

  It began, as it always did, with the sky. A sky, anyway. To look at, it was simply a blue expanse, a speckling of clouds, nothing special. But in the dream, Eliza knew things. Felt them and knew them in the way of dreams, without consideration or doubt. This wasn’t fantasy or figment, not while she was in it. It was like wandering past the cordon of her known mind into some place deeper and stranger but no less real.

  And the first thing Eliza knew was that this sky was special, and that it was very, very far away. Not Tahiti-far. Not China-far. A kind of far that defied what she knew of the universe.

  She was watching it, breath held, waiting for something to happen.

  Hoping it wouldn’t.

  Dreading it would.

  Like remorse, the words hope and dread were wholly inadequate to describe the intensity of the feelings in the dream. Ordinary hope and dread were like avatars to these—mere digestible representations of emotions so pure and terrible they would annihilate us in real life, rip open our minds and drive us mad. Even in the dream it felt like it would blast Eliza apart—the savage, unbearable pressure of this suspense.

  Watch the sky.

  Will it happen?

  It can’t. It mustn’t.

  It mustn’t it mustn’t it mustn’t.

  A choking sob built in her throat. A prayer cut through her hope-despair, plangent as a pull from a violin, a single word drawn out—please—so long and pure it would go on until the end of time—

  —which might not be long at all.

  Because the world was about to end.

  Over and over again, prey to the dream, Eliza had been forced to watch it happen. The first time, she was seven, and she’d dreamt it countless times since, and no matter that she knew what was coming, she was plunged every time into the moment of horror when hope was still just within grasp—

  —and then snatched away.

  A blossoming in the blue. It started small: barely visible, a disruption in the sky, like a water droplet in an ink wash. It grew quickly and was joined by others.

  The sky, it bled and bloomed. Pinwheels of color radiated out and out, horizon to horizon, joining and blending and merging like a kaleidoscope of stains. The sky… failed. It was beautiful to behold, and it was terrible. Terrible and terrible and terrible forever, amen.

  This was how the world would end. Because of me. Because of me. Nothing worse has ever been done. In all of time, in all of space. I don’t deserve to live—

  The sky would fail, and let them in. Them. Chasing, churning, devouring.

  The Beasts are coming for you.

  The Beasts.

  Eliza fled from them, in the dream. She wheeled and fled, and her panic and guilt were as ravenous as the horror that was coming behind her. Somehow, it was her fault. She would do it. She would be the one to let them in.

  Never. I will never—

  “What the hell? Did you sleep here?”

  Eliza gasped awake and there was Morgan before her, framed in the doorway, his hair a freshly shampooed flop down over his forehead, boy-band style. His pouty mouth was twisted with distaste. Dear god, only the dream could make Morgan Toth and his sneer seem benign by contrast. The way he was looking at her, you’d think he’d caught her in the middle of some lewd act, rather than dozing on a couch, fully dressed.

  Eliza sat up straight. Her laptop screen had gone dark. How long had she been out? She clicked it closed, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and was glad to find it droolless.

  No drool and no screaming, but there was a pressure on her chest that she understood was a scream in the making. It would have burst out right here in the lab if Morgan hadn’t woken her, bless his horrid little self.

  “What time is it?” she asked, standing up.

  “I’m not your alarm clock,” he said, moving past her toward his preferred sequencer. There were two hulking DNA sequencers in the lab and Eliza had never been able to determine a difference between them, but she knew of Morgan’s preference for the one on the left and so, whenever possible, she tried to arrive first and claim it before he could. Of such petty victories is a day made sweet. Not today, though.

  Given that it began with the dream and continued with exhaustion, that the world was falling apart, that her family had tracked her down and were out there, somewhere, and that she was stuck in yesterday’s clothes, Eliza didn’t imagine the day held much in the way of sweetness.

  She was wrong; it did. But it held a lot of other things, too, and was soon to veer wildly from any possible expectation she might have had of it.

  Wildly.

  It began a couple of hours later with a knock that made Eliza look up from her work. She’d been having a hard time concentrating anyway, data swimming before her eyes, and she was glad of the distraction. Dr. Chaudhary answered the door. He’d come in not long after Morgan and had kept his commentary on world events brief. “Strange days,” he’d said with a lift of his eyebrows before heading into his office. No chatterbox, Anuj Chaudhary. A tall Indian man in his fifties with a prominent hooked nose and thick hair turning silver at the temples, he had a genteel English accent and the manners of a Victorian gentleman.

  “May I help you?” he asked the two men at the door.

  One look at them, and Eliza felt transported into a TV show. Dark suits, regulation haircuts, bland features made even blander by a schooled lack of expression. Government agents. “Dr. Anuj Chaudhary?” asked the taller of the two, flipping out a badge. Dr. Chaudhary nodded. “We’d like you to come with us.”

  “Just now?” Dr. Chaudhary asked, as calmly as if a colleague had popped in with an offer of tea.

  “Yes.”

  No explanation, and not a single extraneous word to soften the edges of their demand. Eliza wondered if government agents took a course in being cryptic. What was this about? Was Dr. Chaudhary in some kind of trouble? No. Of course not. When government agents came into laboratories and said, “We’d like you to come with us,” it was because they needed the scientist’s expertise.

  And Dr. Chaudhary’s expertise was molecular phylogenetics. So the question was… what DNA did they want analyzed?

  Eliza turned to Morgan and found him watching the exchange with creepy, blazing avidity. Alien invasion protocol, thought Eliza. As soon as he felt her eyes on him, he turned with a smirk and said, “Maybe I’m not the only non-idiot on the planet after all,” in a way that clearly singled her out as chief among idiots.

  Which only made it incredi
bly sweet—here it was, her one taste of sweetness in a dark day soon to get much darker—when Dr. Chaudhary asked the agents, “May I bring an assistant?” and, getting a terse nod, turned… to her.

  To her. Preciously, gloatingly sweet, almost too good to be true. “Eliza, if you wouldn’t mind accompanying me?”

  From the sound Morgan made, Eliza could almost have believed that the air was expelled from his lungs by way of every orifice in his head, and not just his mouth and nose. His ears and eyes had to be in on it, too, cartoon-style. It was that fully committal, a scathing hiss of disbelief, injustice, scorn.

  “But Dr. Chaudhary—” he began, but Dr. Chaudhary dismissed him, brusque and businesslike.

  “Not now, Mr. Toth.”

  And Eliza, sliding off her stool, paused just long enough to say, under her breath, “Suck it, Mr. Toth.”

  “That’s what I should say to you,” he replied, acid and furious, sliding a narrowed-eyed glance of insinuation toward Dr. Chaudhary. Eliza froze, experiencing the weird sensation of her palm going white-hot and rigid with the urgency to slap him across the face. Mindful of the agents and her mentor watching, she mastered the urge, but her hand felt heavy with the unspent slap.

  Well, it was some consolation to be the one gathering equipment at Dr. Chaudhary’s behest, and then the one following the agents out the door, leaving Morgan to expend his violent little-boy outrage alone.

  There was a car waiting. Sleek, black, government. Eliza wondered what agency the men were with. She hadn’t been able to read their badges. FBI? CIA? NSA? Who had jurisdiction over… angels?

  Dr. Chaudhary motioned Eliza into the car first, then slid in beside her. The door clicked closed, the agents climbed in front, and the car drew out into traffic. As the distance grew between herself and the museum, Eliza’s triumph faded, and worry began to overwhelm it. Wait, she thought, let’s think this through.

  “Um, excuse me. Where are we going?” she asked.

  “You’ll be briefed on arrival,” was the response from the front seat.

 
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