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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.14
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.14

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

  Okay.

  Arrival where?

  It had to be Rome.

  Didn’t it?

  Eliza flicked a glance to Dr. Chaudhary, who gave a minor shrug and lift of eyebrows. “This should be illuminating,” he said.

  Illuminating? Would it be? Were they really going to get access to the Visitors?

  She had a brief image of herself stepping up to do a cheek swab on one of them, and she felt the tug of hysteria. Who would have guessed, after all that she’d turned her back on, that science would be bringing her face-to-face with angels? She had to swallow a laugh. Hey, Ma, look at me! God. It was only funny because it was so preposterous. She had chosen her own path, as different from her past as it could possibly be, and where did it lead her?

  One of the biggest events in the history of humanity, and she would be there… sticking a Q-tip in an angel’s mouth? Open up. Another burble of hysteria, choked down and covered up with a throat-clearing. Eliza was going to analyze angel DNA. If they had DNA. And they would, she thought. They had physical bodies; they had to be made up of something. But what would it look like? What resemblance would it bear to human DNA? She couldn’t begin to imagine, but she believed that it was how this mystery would be solved. At the molecular level.

  She would know what they were.

  In the spinning of her mind, her exhaustion and anxiety and the weight of the dream still perched on her shoulder—like a carrion bird, biding its time—her thoughts kept flipping around to face her. It was like chasing someone, all out, and then just at the moment you reach out to catch them, they whirl on you, savage, and grab you by the throat.

  She would find out what the angels were. That was Eliza in control of her thoughts. She would find out, the way she was trained to find out. Nucleotides in sequence, and the world and the universe and the future would all fall neatly into sense. Phylogeny. Order. Sanity.

  Then the thought spun around and seized her, forced her to look at it, and it wasn’t what she’d thought she was chasing. It had madness in its eyes.

  It wasn’t: I will know what the angels are.

  What Eliza was really thinking was: Will I know what I am?

  27

  JUST CREATURES IN A WORLD

  When Karou joined Zuzana, Mik, and Issa, she discovered that they’d been busy while she was in the war council: preparing the space, unpacking the trays, cleaning and sorting teeth. Zuzana had even taken a stab at laying out some necklaces—still unstrung, pending Karou’s inspection.

  “These are good,” said Karou after careful study.

  “Will they work?” asked Zuzana.

  Karou looked them over further. “This is Uthem?” she asked, indicating the first. A row of horse and iguana teeth with tubes of bat bone—doubled, for the two sets of wings—along with iron and jade for size and grace.

  “I figured he was a given,” said Zuzana.

  Karou nodded. Thiago would need Uthem to ride into battle. “You have a knack for this,” she told her friend. The necklace wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty close—and pretty amazing considering how little experience Zuzana had.

  “Yep.” No false humility from Zuze. “Now you just have to teach me the magic to actually translate them to flesh.”

  “Don’t tempt me,” Karou said with a dark laugh.

  “What?”

  “There’s this story where a man is fated to serve as ferryman across the river of the dead for eternity. There’s one catch, only he doesn’t know it. All he has to do is hand his pole to someone else, and he hands them his fate, too.”

  “And you’re going to hand me your pole?” asked Zuzana.

  “No. I am not going to hand you my pole.”

  “How about we share it?” Zuzana proposed.

  Karou shook her head, in exasperation and wonder. “Zuze, no. You have a life to live—”

  “And presumably I will be living while helping you?”

  “Yes, but—”

  “So let’s see here. I can either do the most amazing, astonishing, unbelievable, magical thing that anyone has ever heard of—ever—and, after all this war stuff is all over, help you resurrect a whole population of women and children and, like, build a race of creatures back to life, at the beginning of a new era for a world no one else even knows exists. Or… I can go home and do puppet shows for tourists.”

  Karou felt a smile twitch her lips. “Well, when you put it like that.” She turned to Mik. “Do you have something to say about this?”

  “Yes,” he said, serious—and not mock-serious, but serious-serious. “I say let’s discuss the future later, after ‘all this war stuff,’ as Zuze put it, when we know there’s going to be a future.”

  “Good point,” said Karou, and turned toward the thuribles.

  Best-case scenario was a dozen resurrections, and that was pretty optimistic. The question was: Who? Who are the lucky souls today? Karou pondered, and as she sifted through the thuribles, she started a “yes” pile, a “maybe” pile, and an “oh Jesus, you stay dead” pile. No more Lisseths in this rebellion, and no more Razors with his sack of spreading stains. She wanted soldiers with honor, who could embrace the new purpose and not fight against it at every turn. There were a handful of obvious choices, but she hesitated over them, contemplating how they would be received.

  Balieros, Ixander, Minas, Viya, and Azay. Ziri’s former patrol—the soldiers who had defied the true Wolf’s order to slaughter seraph civilians, flying instead to the Hintermost to die defending their own folk. They were strong, competent, and respected, but they had disobeyed the Wolf’s order. Would their resurrection seem suspicious, another tick mark in a growing column of Things Thiago Would Never Do?

  Maybe, but Karou wanted them; she’d take the blame. She wanted Amzallag and the Shadows That Live, too, but she knew that would be a push too far. She kept their thurible apart, a kind of totem for a brighter day. She would give them their lives back as soon as she could.

  Balieros’s team she put in the “yes” pile. There was a sixth soul with them. Brushing against her senses, it felt like a knife of light through trees, and though it was unfamiliar to Karou, she remembered Ziri telling her about the young Dashnag boy who’d joined their fight and died alongside the others.

  It made no sense to choose an untrained boy as one of a mere dozen resurrections before a battle like the one ahead, but Karou did it anyway, with a feeling of defiance. “Resurrectionist’s choice,” she imagined herself telling Lisseth, or, as she now thought of the poisonous Naja woman: future cow. “You have a problem with that?” Anyway, the Dashnag wouldn’t be a boy anymore. Karou didn’t have juvenile teeth, and even if she did, this was no time for youth. So he was going to wake up and find himself alive, fully grown, and winged, in a remote cave in the company of revenants and seraphim.

  Should be an interesting day for him. A part of Karou’s mind kept telling her it was a terrible idea, but something about it felt right. Dashnags are formidable chimaera, few more fearsome, but she didn’t think it was that so much as the purity of his soul. A knife of light. Honor and a new purpose.

  “Okay,” she told her assistants. “Here we go.”

  The hours vanished like time-lapse. Thiago came in somewhere in the middle to take over the tithing—he’d been to the baths, Karou saw, and was clean of crusted blood, his wounds beginning to heal—and together he and Karou added fresh bruises to those all but faded from their arms and hands. They didn’t make it to a dozen ressurrections. Nine bodies came into being in under six hours, and they had to stop. For one thing, there was no space for more bodies. These nine pretty well filled the room. For another, Karou’s exhaustion was making her dopey. Loopy. Useless. Done.

  Apparently Zuzana was feeling the same. “My kingdom for caffeine,” she mumbled, making prayer hands up at the ceiling.

  When, however, in the next second, Issa entered with tea, Zuzana was not grateful. “Coffee, I meant coffee,” she told the ceiling, as if the universe were a wai
ter that had gotten her order wrong.

  Regardless, they drank the tea, silently surveying their work. Nine bodies, and all that remained now was to transfer souls to them. Karou let Mik and Zuzana handle this part, since her arms were trembling, and every movement sent a coordinated assault of aches and throbs rushing up them. She leaned against the wall with Thiago and watched Zuzana go down the line of new bodies, placing a cone of incense on the brow of each new head.

  “Did you extend the invitation?” she asked the Wolf.

  He nodded. “They consulted, and eventually accepted. Made it seem like a favor to us, mind you. Reluctantly we agree to eat your food, but don’t expect us to enjoy it.”

  “They said that?”

  “Not in so many words.”

  “Well,” said Karou. “It’s pride. They might pretend not to, but they will enjoy it.”

  This had been her small idea, her baby step: to feed the seraphim. Someone, Elyon or Briathos, had let slip in the war council that the Misbegotten, having fled in a hurry from their various postings around the Empire, had already expended what small stores of food they’d managed to bring with them. Feeding them—nearly three hundred of them—would expend the chimaera’s stores, too, but it was a gesture of solidarity for the sake of the alliance. We eat together and starve together. We are in this together.

  And maybe someday we’ll even live together. Just creatures in a world. Why not?

  The rasp of the lighter—a little red plastic lighter with a cartoon face on it, entirely at odds with the seriousness of its task, not to mention out of place in this world—and Zuzana lit the incense cones, one by one down the line. The scent of Brimstone’s revenant incense slowly filled up the rock chamber, and first Uthem, then the others, came alive.

  Karou’s emotions were complex. There was pride: in herself, and in Zuzana, too. The bodies were well-made, strong and proud, and not monstrous or exaggerated the way her kasbah resurrections had been. These were more in Brimstone’s style, and she felt nostalgia and longing, too, for him.

  And bitterness.

  Here was a refill for the bowls. More meat for the grinding teeth of war.

  Just creatures in a world, she had thought, moments earlier, and she wondered now, watching them stir to life: Could that ever be true?

  28

  ANGEL-LOVER, BEAST-LOVER

  As they had led the host down the winding passage to the isolated village, so now did Karou and Thiago lead them back up. The Misbegotten were already present in the grand, echoing central cavern that served as gathering place. They had, quite conspicuously, claimed the far half of the cavern, leaving the other half to the chimaera. Together but not, as though a line were drawn right down the center.

  The food was carried in, great bowls of couscous spiked with vegetables, apricots, and almonds. The small quantity of chicken was stretched thin across all that food so that an actual morsel was rare, but its flavor was there, and there were discs of bread baked on a hot rock—more bread than Karou had ever seen in one place in her life. As vast a quantity as it looked, however, it went fast, and the eating even faster.

  “You know what would be good now?” Zuzana whispered, when the sounds of spoons on plates had mostly quieted. “Chocolate. Never attempt an alliance without chocolate.”

  Karou couldn’t imagine that the Misbegotten, roughly treated as they had been their entire lives, had much experience with dessert.

  “Absent that,” Mik suggested, “how about music?”

  Karou smiled. “I think that’s a great idea.”

  He got out his violin and set about tuning it. Since they had come into the cavern, Karou had been watching for Akiva while pretending not to. He wasn’t here, and she didn’t know what to think. She didn’t see Liraz, either; only several hundred unfamiliar angels, and every last one of them held their faces blank and grim. This wasn’t inappropriate—it was the eve of the apocalypse, after all—but neither was it comfortable. Karou felt the détente to be as insubstantial as it had been on their arrival, and that all of these soldiers would as soon slit one another’s throats as break bread together.

  Mik began to play, and the seraphim took notice. Karou watched them, scanning those fierce and beautiful faces one by one, wondering at the soul of each. Gradually, she thought the music began to have an effect on them. The grimness didn’t quite go out of their faces, but something softened in the atmosphere. You could almost feel the long, slow, gradual exhale that sapped the tension from several hundred sets of shoulders.

  At dawn they would fly back to the human world. What was happening there? she wondered. How had Jael presented himself, and how had he been received? Were they scrambling to provide him with weapons? Even now training him to use them? Or were they skeptical? Some would be, but who would be louder? Who was always louder? The righteous.

  The fearful.

  “Karou,” whispered Zuzana. “Translation needed.”

  Karou turned to her friend, who was back to learning Chimaera vocabulary from Virko just as she had at mealtimes at the kasbah. “What’s he saying?” she asked. “I can’t figure it out.”

  Virko repeated the word in question, and Karou translated. “Magic.”

  “Oh,” said Zuzana. And then, with a furrowed brow: “Really? Ask him how he knows?”

  Karou duly asked.

  “We all felt it,” Virko replied. “Tell her. At the same moment.”

  Karou blinked at him. Instead of translating, she asked, “You all felt what at the same moment?”

  He met her eyes. “The end,” he said. Simple. Eerie.

  A chill went down Karou’s spine. She knew exactly what he was talking about, but she asked anyway. “What do you mean, ‘the end’?”

  “What did he say?” Zuzana wanted to know, but Karou was fixed on Virko. An understanding was settling in her like something that had been hovering and darting just out of reach and had finally grown too tired to be wary.

  Virko looked around at the company, gathered in small and large groups, some with eyes closed listening to the music, some staring into the fire. He said, “After it happened, I thought to myself: The angels are lucky. I must be losing my wits. I forgot my sword mid-draw. Just stood there with my mouth hanging open, feeling like my heart had been pulled out through it. Thought I was scraping the bottom of a long life, I did.”

  He let her process this, and she felt cold and then warm, in waves. “But it was the same for everyone,” said Virko. “It wasn’t me, and that’s some relief. Something happened to us. Something was done.” He paused. “I don’t know what, but it’s why we’re all still alive.”

  Karou sat back, dazed. How had she not guessed immediately? Nothing like that despair had ever come over her before, not even when she stood ankle-deep in the ashes of Loramendi. And it had come and gone like something passing. A sound wave, or particles of light. Or… a burst of magic.

  A burst of magic at the precise fulcrum of catastrophe, peeling them back from the edge. And if the White Wolf had risen to his feet and spoken, he had spoken into the silence of its passage, helping to gather them all back to themselves as their souls reeled. But he hadn’t done it, hadn’t stopped them from killing one another.

  Akiva had.

  The realization spread through Karou like heat, and before she could even question if she was right, she was sure.

  And when Akiva finally did come into the cavern, Karou knew him even from the side of her downcast eyes. Her heart leapt. When she darted a glance to confirm it was him, he wasn’t looking her way.

  She felt as much as heard the stir in the company around her, though it was a moment before the words came clear.

  “It was him,” she heard. “He was the one who saved us.”

  Had someone else figured out what she had?

  She swung around to see who had spoken, and was surprised to see the Dashnag boy, who of course was a boy no longer. Rath was his name, and he could know nothing of the pulse of despair; his soul had
been in a thurible then. So what was he talking about? Karou listened.

  “I’d never have lived to reach the Hintermost,” he was telling Balieros and the others with whom he’d been resurrected. “I was moving south with some others. Angels were burning the forest behind us. A whole village of Caprine, and some Dama girls freed from the slavers with me. We were caught in a gully, hiding, and they found us. Two bast—” He stopped and corrected himself. “Two Misbegotten. They were right in front of us. We could hear the aries screaming as they were slaughtered, but the two angels just looked at us, and… they pretended not to see us. They let us go.”

  “Maybe they didn’t see you,” suggested Balieros.

  With respect, Rath replied firmly, “They did. And one of them was him.” With the jut of his chin, he singled out Akiva. “Eyes as orange as a Dashnag’s. I couldn’t mistake them.”

  And all of this Karou heard with that same feeling that the understanding had been there all along, hovering around and ready to land just as soon as she stopped thrashing it away. Of course it wasn’t only Ziri whom Akiva had saved in the Hintermost, but slaves and villagers, too, the same fleeing folk whom the Wolf had left for dead by choosing to kill his enemy instead of aid his people.

  “Beast’s Bane, crusading for beasts?” mused Balieros, leveling a long, speculative look across the cavern, and giving a small smile. “And strangely fold the hours as the end draws near.”

  Strangely fold the hours. It was a line from a song. All the soldiers knew it. Not exactly hopeful, but appropriate in the context of that scream of magic. As the end draws near. The end.

  Karou couldn’t help herself. She looked at Akiva again. He still wasn’t looking back, and it was enough to make her believe that he never would again.

  Here they were in the Kirin caves. It was the eve of battle. They’d brought their armies together, which in itself could be counted an unimaginable triumph, but nothing was as they’d dreamt it. They weren’t side by side. They couldn’t even look at each other.

  Karou’s heartbeat was playing tricks on her, surging and then shying, like a creature trapped within her. Akiva was surrounded by his own kind, and she was here, with hers, and it seemed that all that was binding them together anymore was a common enemy and the sweet, pure threads of music.

 
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