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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.2
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.2

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

  Eliza stayed silent, watching. Her own dread was of a different breed than theirs, and was… far more advanced. It should be. It had been growing all her life.

  Angels.

  Angels. After the incident on the Charles Bridge in Prague some months earlier, she’d been able to maintain a crutch of skepticism at least, just enough to keep her from falling. It might have been faked, then: three angels, there and gone, no proof left behind. It felt, now, as though the world had been waiting with held breath for a display beyond all possibility of doubt. And so had she. And now they had it.

  She thought of her phone, left intentionally behind at the apartment, and wondered what new messages its screen held in store for her. And she thought of the extraordinary dark power from which she’d fled in the night, in the dream. Her gut clenched like a fist as she felt, beneath her feet, the shifting of the planks she’d laid across the quicksand of that other life. She’d thought she could escape it? It was there, it had always been there, and this life she’d built on top of it felt about as sturdy as a shantytown on the flank of a volcano.

  ARRIVAL + 3 HOURS

  3

  CHOICE OF LIFE SKILLS

  “Angels! Angels! Angels!”

  This was what Zuzana cried out, leaping from the van as it fishtailed to a halt on the dirt slope. “Monster castle” loomed before her: this place in the Moroccan desert where a rebel army from another world was hiding out to resurrect its dead. This mud fortress with its snakes and reeks, its huge beast soldiers, its pit of corpses. This ruin that she and Mik had escaped in the dead of night. Invisible. At Karou’s insistence.

  Karou’s very freaked out and persuasive insistence.

  Because… their lives were in danger.

  And here they were back again, honking and hollering? Not exactly survival instincts in action.

  Karou appeared, gliding over the kasbah wall in her wingless way, graceful as a ballerina in zero gravity. Zuzana was in motion, sprinting uphill as her friend dropped down to intercept her.

  “Angels,” Zuzana breathed, brimming with the news. “Holy hell, Karou. In the sky. Hundreds. Hundreds. The world. Is freaking. Out.” The words spilled out, but even as she heard herself, Zuzana was seeing her friend. Seeing her, and reeling back.

  What the hell…?

  Car door, running feet, and Mik was at her side, seeing Karou, too. He didn’t speak. No one did. The silence felt like an empty speech bubble: It took up space but there were no words.

  Karou… Half of her face was swollen purple, scraped raw and scabbing. Her lip was split, puffy, her earlobe mangled, stitched. As for the rest of her, Zuzana couldn’t tell. Her sleeves were pulled all the way down over her hands, clasped in her fists in an oddly childlike way. She held herself tenderly.

  She had been brutalized. That much was clear. And there could be only one culprit.

  The White Wolf. That son of a bitch. Fury blazed in Zuzana.

  And then she saw him. He was stalking down the hillside toward them, one of many chimaera alerted by their wild arrival, and Zuzana’s hands tightened into fists. She started to step forward, ready to plant herself between Thiago and Karou, but Mik caught her by the arm.

  “What are you doing?” he hissed, pulling her back against him. “Are you crazy? You don’t have a scorpion sting like a real neek-neek.”

  Neek-neek—her chimaera nickname, courtesy of the soldier Virko. It was a breed of fearless shrew-scorpion in Eretz, and as much as Zuzana hated to admit it, Mik was right. She was more shrew than scorpion, half-neek at best, and not nearly as dangerous as she might wish.

  And I am going to do something about that, she resolved then and there. Um. Right after we don’t die here. Because… hell. That was a lot of chimaera, when you saw them all together like that, charging down a hillside. Zuzana’s neek-neek courage shrank up in her chest. She was glad for Mik’s arm around her—not that she had any delusion that her sweet violin virtuoso could protect her any better than she could protect herself.

  “I’m starting to question our choice of life skills,” she whispered to him.

  “I know. Why aren’t we samurai?”

  “Let’s be samurai,” she said.

  “It’s okay,” Karou said, and then the Wolf was upon them, closely flanked by his entourage of lieutenants. Zuzana met his eyes and tried to look defiant. She saw scabbed scratch marks on his cheeks and her fury flared anew. Proof, as if there had been any doubt as to Karou’s attacker.

  Wait. Had Karou just said, “It’s okay?”

  How was this okay?

  But Zuzana had no time to ponder the matter. She was too busy gasping. Because behind Karou, taking shape out of the air and filling it with all the splendor she remembered, was…

  Akiva?

  Well, what was he doing here?

  Another seraph appeared beside him. The one who’d looked really pissed off on the bridge in Prague. She looked pretty pissed off now, too, in a focused, come-any-closer-and-I’ll-kill-you kind of way. Her hand was on the hilt of her sword, her gaze fixed on the gathering chimaera.

  Akiva, though, looked only at Karou, who… did not seem surprised to see him.

  None of them did. Zuzana tried to make sense of the scene. Why weren’t they attacking one another? She thought that was what chimaera and seraphim did—especially these chimaera, and these seraphim.

  Just what had gone down at monster castle while she and Mik were away?

  Every chimaera soldier was present now, and though surprise may have been absent, hostility was not. The unblinkingness, the concentration of malice in some of those bestial stares. Zuzana had sat on the ground laughing with these same soldiers; she had danced chicken-bone puppets for them, teased them and been teased in return. She liked them. Well, some of them. But right now, they were terrifying without exception, and looked ready to tear the angels limb from limb. Their eyes flicked to Thiago and away as they waited for the kill order they knew must come.

  It did not come.

  Realizing she’d been holding her breath, Zuzana let it out, and her body unwound slowly from its flinch. She caught sight of Issa in the crowd and gave the serpent-woman a very clear what the hell? eyebrow. Issa’s answering look was less clear. Behind a brief smile of unreassuring reassurance, she looked tense and highly alert.

  What is happening?

  Karou said something soft and sad to Akiva—in Chimaera, of course, damn it. What did she say? Akiva responded, also in Chimaera, before turning to direct his next words to the White Wolf.

  Maybe it was because she couldn’t understand their language, and so was watching their faces for clues, and maybe it was because she had seen them together before, and knew the effect they had on each other, but Zuzana understood this much: Somehow, in this crowd of beast soldiers, with Thiago front and center, the moment belonged to Karou and Akiva.

  The two of them were stoic and stone-faced and ten feet apart, currently not even looking at each other, but Zuzana had the impression of a pair of magnets pretending not to be magnets.

  Which, you know, only works until it doesn’t.

  4

  A BEGINNING

  Two worlds, two lives. No longer.

  Karou had made her choice. “I am chimaera,” she had told Akiva. Was it only hours earlier that he had “escaped” the kasbah with his sister, to fly off and burn the Samarkand portal? They were to have returned and burned this one, too, sealing Earth and Eretz off from each other forever. He had wondered which world she would choose? As if she had a choice. “My life is there,” she had said.

  But it wasn’t. Surrounded by creatures she had enfleshed herself and who, almost without exception, scorned her as an angel-lover, Karou knew it wasn’t life that awaited her in Eretz, but duty and misery, exhaustion and hunger. Fear. Alienation. Death, not unlikely.

  Pain, certainly.

  And now?

  “We can fight them together,” Akiva said. “I have an army, too.”

  Karou sto
od rooted, scarcely breathing. Akiva had been too late. A seraph army had already pushed through the portal—Jael’s ruthless Dominion, the Empire’s elite legion—and so this was the unimaginable offer Akiva made to his enemy, to the astonishment of all, his own sister included. Fight them together? Karou saw Liraz turn an incredulous look on him. It was a good match for her own reaction, because one thing was sure: If Akiva’s offer was unimaginable, Thiago’s acceptance of it was unfathomable.

  The White Wolf would die a thousand deaths before he would treat with angels. He would tear the world down around him. He would see the end of everything. He would be the end of everything before he would consider such an offer.

  So Karou was as astonished as the rest—though for a different reason—when Thiago… nodded.

  A hiss of surprise came from either Nisk or Lisseth, his Naja lieutenants. Aside from some pebbles discharged downhill by the lashing of a tail, that was the only sound from the soldiers. In Karou’s ears, blood pounded. What was he doing? She hoped he knew, because she really didn’t.

  She stole a glance at Akiva. None of the grief or disgust, the dismay or the love that had shown on his face the night before was in evidence now; his mask was in place, and so was her own. All her turmoil had to stay hidden, and there was plenty of it to hide.

  Akiva had come back here. Can no one stay escaped from this damned kasbah? It was brave; he had always been that, and reckless. But it wasn’t only himself he jeopardized now. It was everything she was trying to achieve. The position he was putting the Wolf in: to come up with yet another plausible excuse not to kill him?

  And then there was her own position. Maybe that was what flustered her the most.

  Here was Akiva, this enemy whom she had fallen in love with twice, in two separate lives, with a power that felt like the design of the universe and maybe even was, and it didn’t matter. She stood at Thiago’s side. This was the place she had made for herself, for the sake of her people: at Thiago’s side.

  Moreover—though Akiva didn’t know this—this was the Thiago she had made for herself: one she could bear to stand with. The White Wolf was… not himself these days. She had sealed a better soul into the body she despised—oh, Ziri—and she prayed to everything in the infinite array of gods of two worlds that no one would figure it out. It was a wrenching secret, and felt every moment like a grenade in her hand. Her heartbeat slipped in and out of rhythm. Her palms were clammy.

  The deception was massive, and it was fragile, and it fell most heavily by far to Ziri to pull it off. To dupe all these soldiers? Most of them had served for decades with the general, some few for centuries, through multiple incarnations, and they knew his every gesture, every inflection. Ziri had to be the Wolf, in manner and cadence and in chill, suppressed brutality—to be him, but, paradoxically, a better him, one who could guide their people toward survival instead of dead-end vengeance.

  That could only happen by degrees. The White Wolf wouldn’t just wake up one morning, yawn and stretch and decide to ally with his mortal enemy.

  But that was exactly what Ziri was doing right now.

  “Jael must be stopped,” he stated as a matter of fact. “If he succeeds in procuring human weapons and support, there will be no hope for any of us. In that, at least, we have common cause.” He kept his voice low, conveying absolute authority and not a second’s concern with how his decision would be received. It was the Wolf’s way, and Ziri’s impersonation was flawless. “How many are they?”

  “A thousand,” replied Akiva. “In this world. There will, no doubt, be a heavy troop presence on the other side of the portal.”

  “This portal?” asked Thiago with a jerk of his head toward the Atlas Mountains.

  “They entered by the other,” said Akiva. “But this one could be compromised, too. They have the means to discover it.”

  He didn’t look at Karou when he said this, but she felt a flare of blame. Because of her, the abomination Razgut was a free agent, and he could easily have shown the Dominion this portal, as he had shown it to her. The chimaera could be trapped here, cut off from their retreat to their own world while their seraph enemies closed in on them from both sides. This safe haven she had led them to could so easily become their grave.

  Thiago took it in stride. “Well. Let’s find out.”

  He looked to his soldiers, and they looked back, wary, parsing his every move. What is he up to? they would be wondering, because it simply couldn’t be what it seemed. Soon he would order the angels killed. This was all part of some strategy. Surely.

  “Oora, Sarsagon,” he commanded, “choose teams for speed and stealth. I want to know if there are Dominion at our door. If there are, keep them out. Hold the portal. Let no angel through alive.” A wolfish smile conveyed pleasure at the thought of dead angels, and Karou saw some of the wariness leave the soldiers’ faces. This made sense to them, if the rest didn’t: the Wolf, relishing the prospect of seraph blood. “Send a messenger once you’re certain. Go,” he said, and they did, Oora and Sarsagon picking their teams with quick, decisive gestures as they moved through the gathering. Bast, Keita-Eiri, the griffons Vazra and Ashtra, Lilivett, Helget, Emylion.

  “Everyone else, back to the court. Be ready to leave if the report is favorable.” The general paused. “And ready to fight if it isn’t.” Again he managed, with no more than the shadow of a smile, to hint that he would prefer the bloodier outcome.

  It was well done, and a little hope wicked into Karou’s anxiety. Action was best, orders given and followed. The response was immediate and unfaltering. The host turned and moved back up the hill. If Ziri could maintain this unassailable demeanor of command, even the surliest of the troops would hustle to meet his approval.

  Except, well, not quite everyone was hustling. There was Issa, moving defiantly against the tide of soldiers to come down the hill, and then there was the matter of Thiago’s lieutenants. Except for Sarsagon, who had been given a direct order, the Wolf’s entourage remained clustered around him. Ten, Nisk, Lisseth, Rark, and Virko. These were the same chimaera who had conspired to get Karou alone at the pit with Thiago—with the exception of Ten, who had made the mistake of taking on Issa and was now as much Ten as Thiago was Thiago—and she hated them. She had no doubt they’d have held her down for him if he’d asked, and could only be glad that he hadn’t thought it necessary.

  Now their lingering was ominous. They hadn’t followed Thiago’s order because they believed themselves exempt from it. Because they expected to be given other orders. And the way they were regarding Akiva and Liraz left no doubt what they assumed those would be.

  “Karou,” whispered Zuzana, at Karou’s shoulder. “What the hell is going on?”

  What the hell wasn’t going on? All the collisions Karou thought she’d averted in the past days had boomeranged around to crash into one another right here. “Everything,” she said, through gritted teeth. “Everything is going on.”

  The monstrous Nisk and Lisseth with their hands half-upraised, ready to flare their hamsas at Akiva and Liraz, weaken them and go in for the kill—or try. Akiva and Liraz, unflinching in the face of it, and Ziri in the middle. Poor sweet Ziri, wearing Thiago’s flesh and trying to wear his savagery, too—but only the face of it and not the heart. That was his challenge now. It was more than his challenge. It was his life, and everything depended on it. The rebellion, the future—whether there would be one—for all the chimaera still living, and all the souls buried in Brimstone’s cathedral. This deception was their only hope.

  The next ten seconds felt as dense as folded iron.

  Issa reached them at the same moment that Lisseth spoke up. “What orders, sir, for us?”

  Issa embraced Mik and Zuzana, and shot Karou a look that glittered with some bright meaning. She looked excited, Karou saw. She looked vindicated.

  “I’ve given my order,” Thiago told Lisseth, cool. “Was I less than perfectly clear?”

  Vindicated? About what? Karou’s mind l
eapt at once to the previous night. After she had dismissed Akiva with a cool finality she certainly didn’t feel, and sent him away for what she’d guessed would be the last time, Issa had told her, “Your heart is not wrong. You don’t have to be ashamed.”

  Of loving Akiva, she’d meant. And what had Karou’s answer been? “It doesn’t matter.” She’d tried to believe it: that her heart didn’t matter, that she and Akiva didn’t matter, that there were worlds at stake and that was what mattered.

  “Sir,” argued Nisk, Lisseth’s Naja partner. “You can’t mean to let these angels live—”

  Let these angels live. That this could even be in question: Akiva’s life, and Liraz’s. They had come back here to warn them. The real Thiago wouldn’t have hesitated to gut them for their trouble. Akiva didn’t know this wasn’t the real Thiago, and he’d come back anyway. For her sake.

  Karou looked to him, found his eyes waiting for hers, and met them with a sting of clarity that was the final dissolution of the lie.

  It mattered. They mattered, and whatever it was that had made them not kill each other on Bullfinch beach all those years ago… mattered.

  Thiago didn’t answer Nisk. Not with words, anyway. The look he turned on him scythed the rest of the soldier’s words into silence. The Wolf had always had that power; Ziri’s appropriation of it was startling.

  “To the court,” he said with soft menace. “Except for Ten. We will have words about my… expectations… when I’m done here. Go.”

  They went. Karou might have enjoyed their shame-faced retreat, but that the Wolf turned his gaze on Issa next, and on her. “You, too,” he said.

  As the Wolf would. He had never trusted Karou, but only manipulated and lied to her, and in this situation he absolutely would dismiss her along with the rest. And just as Ziri had his part to play, she had hers. In secret she might be the guiding strength of this new purpose, anointed by Brimstone with the Warlord’s blessing, but in the eyes of the chimaera army, she was still—at least for now—the girl who had stumbled back blood-soaked from the pit.

 
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