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Strange the dreamer, p.14
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.14

           Laini Taylor
 

  And the goal was achieved.

  Nearly thirty voices were subtracted from the world that day, not even counting the six gods or the dozen humans who, like the Ellens, had gotten in the way. If it weren’t for Minya, then Sarai and Feral, Ruby and Sparrow would have been four more small bodies in the nursery that day. The humans had done that. They had slaughtered babies. It was no surprise that Sarai had become the Muse of Nightmares, a vengeful goddess to haunt their dreams.

  But, as she had told Feral, she’d spent her vengeance years ago.

  The wretched thing—and the thing she never dared talk about—was that in order to exploit the humans’ fears, she’d had to dwell in them. And you couldn’t do that for four thousand nights without coming to understand, in spite of yourself, that the humans were survivors, too. The gods had been monsters, and had deserved to die.

  But their children didn’t. Not then, and not now.

  The citadel was their prison, and it was their sanctuary, but for how much longer could it be either? No matter how well they obeyed The Rule, someday the humans would come. If the horror of Minya’s fresh-caught ghosts told them anything, it was that the people of Weep would do again what they had done before, and how could they hope to defend themselves?

  Moths and clouds and flowers and fire and ghosts. They weren’t powerless, but Sarai had no delusions. They couldn’t survive a second Carnage. Their only hope was in not being found.

  She paced on her terrace, back and forth beneath the moon, while down in the city her moths went from house to house like bees from flower to flower. Her consciousness was a subtle instrument. It could divide evenly among her hundred sentinels, or shift between them in any configuration, honing in where attention was required and receding where it wasn’t. Every moment her perception was shifting. She had to react on a wing’s edge, trust her instincts, carom through the city dipping in and out of minds, spin a hundred moths through their wild dance, twist dreams and sharpen them, harry gods and beasts down the paths of the unconscious. And always, always, whatever else she did, whatever fears she deployed, to each she attached a sneak postscript, like devastating news at the end of a letter. It was always the same. Every nightmare that shook every sleeper in Weep carried the same subliminal warning.

  It was a nameless horror of the citadel and all it contained.

  This was the work she set herself: to weave through all the dreams of Weep a dread so potent that none could bear to look at the citadel, much less go near it. So far it had been enough.

  The night felt very long, but it ended as all nights do, and Sarai called her moths home. She stopped her pacing, and waited. They winged through the last gleams of starlight, re-forming into their siphon of whirling wings, and she opened her mouth and took them back in.

  In the beginning, the return had been even worse than the exodus. That first time, she hadn’t managed it at all. She just couldn’t open her mouth to them, and had had to watch them turn to smoke when the sun rose.

  She’d been mute all day, as though her voice had turned to smoke with them.

  Come nightfall, though, she’d felt the burgeoning again, as the whole cycle began anew, and she’d learned that if she wished to be able to speak, she’d better open her mouth and let the moths back in.

  “Who would ever want to kiss a girl who eats moths?” Ruby had once asked her in a spirit of commiseration. And Sarai had thought then—as she did now—that kissing wasn’t a problem likely to arise for her. But she didn’t eat the moths, in any case. There was nothing to choke down, no creatures to swallow. Just the feather-soft brush of wings against her lips as they melted back into her, leaving an aftertaste of salt and soot. Salt from tears, soot from chimneys, and Sarai was whole again. Whole and weary.

  She’d hardly stepped back inside when Less Ellen entered, carrying her morning tray. This held her lull in a small crystal vial, with a dish of plums to cut the bitterness. “Good morning, lovely,” said the ghost.

  “Good morning, sweet,” replied Sarai. And she reached for her lull, and downed her gray oblivion.

  18

  THE FUSED BONES OF SLAUGHTERED DEMONS

  For all his fanciful storytelling and talk of open minds, what had Lazlo really expected to find as the caravan approached the Cusp? A fissured cliff face of weather-riven marble? Rock that looked enough like bones to spawn a myth, with a boulder here and there in the rough shape of a skull?

  That was not what he found.

  “They’re really bones,” he said to Eril-Fane, and tried to read confirmation in the hero’s expression, but Eril-Fane only gave a ghost of a smile and maintained the silence that he’d carried with him all day.

  “They’re really bones,” Lazlo said again, faintly, to himself. That, over there. That wasn’t a boulder that looked like a skull. It was a skull, and there were hundreds of them. No, there had to be thousands in all this vast white mass, of which hundreds were visible just from the track. Teeth in the jaws, sharp as any hreshtek, and, in the great eye sockets, just as he had said: carrion bird nests. They were strange and shaggy affairs, woven out of stolen things—dropped ribbons and hanks of hair, fringe torn off shawls and even shed feathers. The birds themselves swooped and cried, weaving in and out of immense, curved ridges that could only be spines, segmented and spurred, and, unmistakably: giant hands, giant feet. Tapering carpals as long as a man’s arm. Knucklebones like fists. They were melted, they were fused. The skulls were warped, like candles left too near the fire, so that none held the same shape. But they held shape enough. These had been living creatures once.

  Though not generally given to gloating, he would have liked to see the other faranji’s faces just now, Thyon’s in particular. But the golden godson was stuck on a camel, farther back in the caravan, and Lazlo had to be content with echoing exclamations from Calixte, who was given to gloating.

  “Hey, Tod, am I really seeing this?” he heard her call. “Or am I lost in my vast credulity?” And, a moment later: “What are you doing here, Tod? Don’t you know it’s rude to wander about in someone else’s credulity?” And then: “Is this fact or reason I’m encountering? Wait, no, it’s more demon bones.”

  He suspected she wouldn’t soon tire of the joke.

  “You’re surprised,” Eril-Fane remarked to Lazlo. “The way you talked last night, I thought you knew.”

  “Knew? No, I thought… I don’t know what I thought. I thought that even if it were true, it wouldn’t be so obviously true.”

  It was strikingly obvious, and somehow too big to fit into his mind—like trying to cram the actual Cusp into his own small skull. It wasn’t every day you got proof of myth, but if this wasn’t proof, he didn’t know what was. “The seraphim?” he asked Eril-Fane. “Were they real, too?”

  “Is there proof, do you mean?” Eril-Fane asked. “Nothing like this. But then, they didn’t die here, so they couldn’t have left bones. The Thakranaxet has always been proof enough for us.”

  The Thakranaxet was the epic of the seraphim. Lazlo had found a few passages over the years, though the poem in its entirety had never found its way to Zosma. Hearing the reverence of Eril-Fane’s tone, he understood that it was a holy text. “You worship them.”

  “We do.”

  “I hope I didn’t offend you with my theory.”

  “Not at all,” said Eril-Fane. “I enjoyed it.”

  They continued riding. Dazzled, Lazlo took in the extraordinary formations around him. “That one was a juvenile,” he said, pointing to a skull smaller than the rest. “That’s a baby demon skull. And this is a mountain of melted demon bones. And I’m riding over it on a spectral.” He stroked Lixxa’s long white ears and she whickered, and he murmured sweet things to her before continuing. “I am riding over the funeral pyre of the ijji with the Godslayer. Whose secretary I am.”

  Eril-Fane’s ghost of a smile became somewhat less ghostly. “Are you narrating?” he asked, amused.

  “I should be,” Lazlo said, and began to
, in a dramatic voice. “The Cusp, which had looked low on the horizon, was formidable at close range, and it took the caravan several hours to climb the switchback track to Fort Misrach. It was the only way through. It was also the place where, for centuries, faranji had been drawn and quartered and fed to the sirrahs. Lazlo Strange looked to the sky”—here, Lazlo paused to look to the sky—“where the foul birds circled, screeching and crying and all but tying dinner napkins around their foul, sloped throats. And he wondered, with a frisson of concern: Was it possible he’d been brought so far just to serve as food for the carrion-eaters?”

  Eril-Fane laughed, and Lazlo counted it a small victory. A kind of grimness had been growing on the Godslayer the nearer they drew to their destination. Lazlo couldn’t understand it. Shouldn’t he be eager to get home?

  “A frisson of concern?” repeated Eril-Fane, cocking an eyebrow.

  Lazlo gestured to the birds. “They are ominously glad to see us.”

  “I suppose I might as well tell you. Due to a shortfall in faranji adventurers, the sirrahs were becoming malnourished. It was deemed necessary to lure some travelers here to make up the lack. After all, the birds must eat.”

  “Damn. If only you’d told me sooner, I’d have put it in Calixte’s book. Then I could have used the prize money to bribe the executioners.”

  “Too late now,” said Eril-Fane with regret. “We’re here.”

  And here, indeed, they were. The fortress gates loomed before them. Helmed Tizerkane drew them open, welcoming their leader and comrades home with solemn gladness. Lazlo they regarded with curiosity, and the rest of the strangers as well, once their camels had been brought through the gates into the central plaza of the fortress. It was sliced right into the rock—or rather, into the melted, heat-rendered bones—which rose in high walls on either side, keeping the sky at a distance. Barracks and stables lined the walls, and there were troughs and a fountain—the first unrationed water they had seen for two months. Dead ahead at some twenty meters was another gate. The way through, Lazlo thought, and he almost couldn’t process it.

  “The moment you see the city,” Eril-Fane had said, “you will understand what this is about.”

  What could it be, that would be clear at a glance?

  He dismounted and led Lixxa to a trough, then turned to the fountain and scooped water over his head with both hands. The feel of it, cold and sharp, soaking to his scalp and rushing down his neck, was unimaginably good. The next scoop was for drinking, and the next, and the next. After that: scrubbing his face, digging his fingertips into the itchy growth of unaccustomed beard. Now that they were nearly arrived, he allowed himself a brief daydream of comfort. Not luxury, which was beyond his ken, but simple comfort: a wash, a shave, a meal, a bed. He would buy some clothes with his wages as soon as he had the chance. He’d never done that before and didn’t know the first thing about it, but supposed he’d figure it out. What did one wear, when one might wear anything?

  Nothing gray, he thought, and remembered the sense of finality he’d felt throwing away his librarian’s robes after joining Eril-Fane—and the regret, too. He had loved the library, and had felt, as a boy, as though it had a kind of sentience, and perhaps loved him back. But even if it was just walls and a roof with papers inside, it had bewitched him, and drawn him in, and given him everything he needed to become himself.

  Would he ever see it again, or old Master Hyrrokkin? Though it had been only half a year, the Great Library had become memory, as though his mind had sorted his seven years there and archived them into a more distant past. Whatever happened here, Lazlo knew that that part of his life was over. He had crossed continents and drunk starlight from rivers without names. There was no going back from that.

  “Strange!” cried Calixte, springing toward him in her dancing way. Her eyes were alight as she grabbed his shoulders with both hands and shook him. “Bones, Strange! Isn’t it ghoulish?” Her tone made clear that she meant good-ghoulish, if there were such a thing. Lazlo didn’t think there was. However you looked at it—whatever the ijji had been, and whatever had killed them, angels or not—this mound of bones was an epic mass grave. But there would be time for pondering the implications later. For now, he allowed himself wonder.

  Calixte thrust a cupped hand at him. “Here. I knew you’d be too virtuous to do it yourself.” Curious, he put out his hand, and she dropped a sharp, curved fragment of glittering white glass onto it. “It’s a Cusp cuspid,” she said, beaming.

  An ijji tooth. “You broke this off?” he marveled. She’d have had to dismount, perhaps even climb.

  “Well, no one said not to deface the mountain.”

  Lazlo shook his head, smiling, and thought how, if he hadn’t heard the rumor in Syriza, if he hadn’t mentioned it to Eril-Fane, Calixte might still be in jail, if she was even still alive. “Thank you,” he said, closing his hand around the tooth.

  It was the first gift he had ever been given.

  There was a small meal waiting for them—simple fare but exquisite for being fresh. Soft, salty bread and white cheese, slices of spiced meat, and quarters of some big, globed fruit that tasted of sugared rain. No one spoke, and there were, for the moment, no divisions among them—rich or poor, outsider or native, scholar or secretary. Never mind that Thyon Nero had grown up on delicacies and Lazlo Strange on crusts, neither had ever enjoyed a meal more.

  “Hey, Tod,” said Calixte, around a mouthful of bread. “Are we still in my credulity? Because if we are, you owe me for this meal.”

  Okay, maybe some divisions persisted.

  The sirrahs continued to circle, squalling their ravenous chorus, and their ranks were disrupted once more, as they had been yesterday, by the passage of a message falcon. Half their size, it dove through the scribble of their ragged, stinking wings, driving them back with its piercing cry. Eril-Fane held up his arm, and the bird spiraled an elegant descent, luffed into the wind, and landed.

  The Godslayer retrieved the message and read it, and when he looked up from the page, he sought out Lazlo, first with his eyes, then with his feet.

  “News?” asked Lazlo as he approached.

  “What, this?” He held up the message. “More like orders.”

  “Orders?” From whom? A commander? A governor? “I thought you gave the orders.”

  Eril-Fane laughed. “Not to my mother,” he said.

  Lazlo blinked. Of every improbability packed into that moment, this struck him the most forcefully. He had crossed the Elmuthaleth at the Godslayer’s side and now carried, in his pocket, the tooth of a creature from the world’s oldest myth. But myth was the ordinary terrain of his mind, whereas it had never occurred to him that the Godslayer might have a mother.

  Because he was a hero. Because he seemed cast from bronze, not born like a mortal man. Because Lazlo, lacking one himself, tended to forget about mothers. It occurred to him that he might not ever have met one, or at least never exchanged more than a word or two with one. It hardly seemed possible, but there it was.

  “She’s looking forward to meeting you,” said Eril-Fane.

  Lazlo looked at him, blank. “Me,” he said. “But how could she know…?” He trailed off, a lump forming in his throat. The Godslayer had a mother waiting for him in Weep. He had sent her word of his imminent arrival, and in his note he had seen fit to mention Lazlo.

  “You’ll stay with her when you reach the city.”

  “Oh,” said Lazlo, surprised. The faranji were to be hosted at the Merchants’ Guildhall; he had assumed he would be, too.

  “She insists, I’m afraid. I hope you don’t mind. It won’t be as grand as the guild. Comfortable, though.” And Lazlo hardly knew what was more extraordinary: that Eril-Fane was subject to his mother’s insistence, or that he imagined Lazlo might mind.

  “No,” he said. “Comfortable is good.” Those were the words his mind served up to him. Comfortable is good. “Wait.” Eril-Fane’s word choice struck him. “You said when I reach the city. Aren
t you coming?”

  “Not tonight.”

  “What? Why?”

  Eril-Fane looked weary. The vitality that usually radiated from him was all but gone. Averting his eyes as though ashamed, he said, “I don’t sleep well in Weep.”

  It was the only time Lazlo had heard him use that name, and it chilled him.

  “So you see,” said Eril-Fane, trying to smile, “I’m offering you up to my mother as proxy. I hope you can endure a fuss. She’s had no one to look after for some time, so I expect she’ll make the most of it.”

  “It will be the first fuss I have ever endured,” said Lazlo, hearing something raw in his voice that could not be put down to a dry throat. “But I imagine I’ll do all right.”

  The Godslayer smiled, eyes warm and crinkling, and reached out to thump him on the shoulder. And Lazlo, who lacked not only a mother but a father, too, thought that having one might feel something like this.

  “Well then,” said the great man. “Here we are.” He looked across to the far gate and seemed to steel himself. “Are you ready?”

  Lazlo nodded.

  “Then let’s go.”

  19

  THE SHADOW OF OUR DARK TIME

  Eril-Fane led the party to the far gate. He didn’t go through it, but turned his spectral around to face them. He didn’t speak at once. There was a weight to his silence. There was tension and resignation in his face, even a hint of dread.

  “Two hundred years ago, there was a storm.” He paused. They all hung on the word storm. The twin metallurgists exchanged a hopeful glance, because one of their theories had involved a hurricane.

  “It wasn’t like other storms,” Eril-Fane continued. “There was no rain, only wind and lightning, and the lightning was like nothing that had come before. It was directly above the city, furious. It formed a sphere… as though some great hands had skimmed the sky and gathered a world’s worth of lightning into a ball.” He acted this out, his great shoulders bunching as his hands dragged the specter of lightning and shaped it, and held it.

 
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