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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.20
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.20

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

  “Eliza, are you certain you’re all right? If you need some fresh air, please—”

  “No. No, I’m fine.” She forced a smile and bent back over the sphinx in front of her.

  They found they could not satisfy Dr. Amhali’s hope. There were no seams to be found, they concluded, and no “made by Frankenstein” patch sewn conveniently onto the back of the necks, either. There was something, though.

  Eliza held one of the sphinxes’ dead hands in her own gloved one for a long beat, staring at the mark, before speaking. “Did you see this?”

  From Dr. Amhali’s silent stance, she guessed that he had, and maybe had been waiting for them to discover it. Dr. Chaudhary blinked at it several times, making the same connection that Eliza had made.

  “The Girl on the Bridge,” he said.

  The Girl on the Bridge: the blue-haired beauty who’d fought angels in Prague, hands held out before her and inked with indigo eyes. They’d made the cover of Time magazine, and had since become synonymous with demon. Kids liked to draw them on with ballpoint pen to act wicked. It was the new 666.

  “Are you beginning to understand what this means?” Dr. Amhali asked, very intense. “Do you see how the world will interpret it? The angels flew to Rome; it’s all very nice for Christians, yes? Angels in Rome, warning of beasts and wars, while here, in a Muslim country, we unearth… demons. What do you think the response will be?”

  Eliza saw his point, and felt his fear. The world needed far less provocation than actual flesh-and-blood “demons” to go crazy. Still, these creatures ignited a wonder in her, and she couldn’t bring herself to wish them fake.

  In any case, those were concerns for governments and diplomats, police and military, not scientists. Their work was the bodies in front of them—the physical matter, and that alone. There was much to do: tissue samples to collect and store, along with exhaustive measurements and photographs to take and log as reference for each body. But first, they opted for an overview of the work ahead of them.

  “Do all the bodies have the marks?” Dr. Chaudhary asked Dr. Amhali.

  “All but one,” Dr. Amhali replied, and Eliza wondered about that, but the next creature they saw—the large bulk under the white tarp—did have them, and so did the bodies in the next tent, and the next, so Eliza forgot about it. It was enough to try to process what she was seeing—and smelling—one body at a time. She was nauseated and overwhelmed, her panic never far off—the sense of things known and buried—and she was prey, too, to a peculiar sadness. Going tent to tent like this, seeing this array of unearthly creatures, it felt like a carnival menagerie where all the exhibits were dead.

  All were wild amalgams of recognizable animal parts, and they were in successively advanced states of decay. The deeper they had been in the pit, the longer they’d been dead, suggesting that they’d been killed one by one over a period of time, and not all at once. Whatever had gone on here, it hadn’t been a massacre.

  And then they came to the final hazmat tent, off by itself on the far side of the pit. “This one was buried alone,” said Dr. Amhali, lifting the flap for them. “In a shallow grave.”

  Eliza entered, and at the sight of this final “exhibit” in the dead menagerie, sadness sang in her brighter than ever. This was the one without marks on his palms. He’d been buried with some suggestion of care—not flung into the stinking pit, but laid out and covered with dirt and gravel. A grayish residue of dust clung to his flesh, making him seem like a sculpture.

  Maybe that was why she was able to think, right away, that he was beautiful. Because he didn’t look real. He looked like art. She could almost have wept for him, which made no sense. If the others were variously “monstrous,” he was the most “demonic” or “devilish”: mostly humanoid, with the addition of long black horns and cloven hooves, and bat wings stretched out on the ground on either side of him, at least a dozen feet in span, their edges curling up against the sides of the tent.

  But he didn’t strike her as demonic. As the angels hadn’t struck her as “angelic.”

  What happened here? she wondered in silence. It wasn’t her job to figure that out, but she couldn’t help herself. Questions rose in a stir, like startled birds. Who killed these creatures, and why? And what were they doing in the Moroccan wilderness? And… what were their names?

  A part of her mind told her this was the wrong response to seeing dead monsters—to wonder at their names—but this last body especially, with its fine features, made her want to know. The tip of one horn was snapped off, a simple detail, and she wondered how it had happened, and from there it was an easy trajectory to wondering everything else. What had his life been like, and why was he dead?

  The men were talking, and she heard Dr. Amhali telling Dr. Chaudhary that the creatures seemed to have been living in the kasbah for some time, and had vacated it only the day before yesterday.

  “Some nomads witnessed their departure,” said Dr. Amhali.

  “Wait,” Eliza said. “There were some seen alive? How many?”

  “We don’t know. The witnesses were hysterical. Dozens, they said.”

  Dozens. Eliza wanted to see them. She wanted to see them living and breathing. “Well, where did they go? Have you found them?”

  Dr. Amhali’s voice was wry. “They went that way,” he said, pointing… up. “And no, we have not.”

  According to the witnesses, the “demons” had flown toward the Atlas Mountains, though no evidence had been found to back this up. If it weren’t for the proof of the story in the form of liquefying monster corpses, it would have been dismissed as ludicrous. As it was, helicopters continued to scour the mountains, and agents had gone by jeep and camel to track down any Berber tribes and herdsmen who might have seen anything.

  Eliza stepped out of the tent with the doctors. They won’t find them, she thought, looking at the mountains, the vision of snow-capped peaks so incongruous in the heat. There is another universe, and that’s where they’ve gone.

  35

  THRICE-FALLEN

  “Get. Off.”

  As soon as the door closed behind him, Jael, emperor of the seraphim, gave a savage lurch and twist of his shoulders to dislodge the invisible creature riding on his back.

  If Razgut had wanted to stay put, such a maneuver would never have knocked him loose. His grip was strong, and so was his will, and—after a long life of unimaginable torment—so was his pain tolerance. “Make me,” he might have snapped, and laughed his mad laugh while the emperor did his worst.

  Usually he found it worth the pain to cause others misery, but, as it happened, Jael’s foulness superseded even the pleasure of torturing him, and Razgut was happy to oblige. He let go of him and flailed to the marble floor with a thud and gasp, becoming visible at the moment of impact. He pushed himself upright, his atrophied legs splayed to one side. “You’re welcome,” he said, a parody of dignity.

  “You think I should thank you?” Jael removed his helmet and thrust it at a guard. Only in privacy could the ruin of his face be revealed: the hideous scar that slashed from hairline to chin, obliterating his nose and leaving a lisping, slurping wreckage of a mouth. “For what?” he demanded, spittle flying.

  A grimace teased Razgut’s own hideous face—a bloated sack of purple, his skin stretched blister-tight. He replied peevishly and in Latin, which the emperor could of course not understand: “For not snapping your neck while I had the chance. It would have been so very easy.”

  “Enough of your human tongues,” said Jael, imperious and impatient. “What are you saying?”

  They were in an opulent suite of rooms in the Papal Palace adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, and had just come from a meeting of world leaders at which Jael had presented his demands. Had presented them, that is, by way of repeating every syllable Razgut whispered in his ear.

  “For words,” said Razgut, in Seraphic this time, and sweetly. “Without my words, my lord, what are you but a pretty face?” He snickered, and Jael
kicked him.

  It wasn’t a dramatic kick. There was no showmanship in it, only brutal efficiency. A quick, hard jerk, and the steel-enforced toe of his slipper spiked into Razgut’s side, deep into the misshapen bloat of flesh. Razgut cried out. The pain was sharp and bright, precise. He curled around it.

  Laughing.

  There was a crack in the shell of Razgut’s mind. It had been, once, a very fine mind, and the crack was as a flaw in a diamond, a seam in a crystal globe. It spidered. It snaked. It subverted every ordinary feeling into some mutant cousin of itself: recognizable, but gone oh so very wrong. When he looked back up at Jael, hatred mingled with mirth in his eyes.

  It was his eyes that marked him as what he was. To stand back and look at him in the company of his kin, it seemed impossible that they were of the same race. Seraphim were all symmetry and grace, power and magnificence—even Jael, as long as the center margin of his face stayed covered—where Razgut was a blighted, crawling thing, a corruption of flesh more goblin than angel. He had been beautiful once, oh yes, but now only his eyes told that tale. The almond shape of them stood out as fine in his swollen, bruise-colored face.

  The other tell of his ancestry was more dreadful: the spikes of splintered bone that jutted from his shoulder blades. His wings had been torn off. Not even cut, but ripped away. The pain was a thousand years old, but he would never forget it.

  “When there are weapons in my soldiers’ hands,” said Jael, looming over him, “when humanity is on its knees before me, then perhaps I’ll value your words.”

  Razgut knew better. He knew that he was destined to become a bloodstain the instant Jael got his weapons, which put him in an interesting position, being the one charged with getting them for him.

  If he was to become a bloodstain whether he failed or succeeded, the question was: Would he prefer to be a quivering and obedient bloodstain, or a willful and infuriating bloodstain who brought an emperor’s ambitions crashing down around him?

  It seemed an easy decision on the face of it. How simple it would be to humiliate and destroy Jael. It had amused Razgut, in the meeting of great gravity and importance they’d just come from, to think up absurd lines he might feed him. The fool was so certain of Razgut’s groveling servility that he would repeat anything. It was a rich temptation, and several times Razgut had chuckled, imagining it.

  There is no god, you fools, he might have made him say. There are only monsters, and I am the worst of them.

  It was fun, holding the cards. For his part, Razgut understood perfectly well that if Jael had come here without him, and addressed Earth in his native tongue, their hosts would have put all their considerable human ingenuity to work coding a translation program and would probably have been able to understand them perfectly well within a week, and even speak back by way of a computer-generated voice.

  As one may imagine, he had not explained this to Jael. Better to intercept every syllable, control every phrase. To the Russian ambassador: Does anyone have gum? My breath is unbelievable.

  Or possibly, to the American Secretary of State: Let us seal our communion with a kiss. Come to me, my dear, and take off my helmet.

  Now wouldn’t that be fun?

  But he had held himself back, because the decision—to ruin Jael or help him—had profound and far-reaching ramifications quite beyond anything the emperor himself imagined.

  Oh. Quite beyond.

  “You will have your weapons,” Razgut told him. “But we must go carefully, my lord. This is a free world and not your army to command. We must make them want to give us what we need.”

  “Give me what I need,” corrected Jael.

  “Oh yes, you,” Razgut amended. “All for you, my lord. Your weapons, your war, and the untouchable Stelians, groveling before you.”

  The Stelians. They were to be Jael’s first target, and this was rich. Razgut didn’t know what had sparked the emperor’s especial hatred of them, but the reason didn’t matter, only the result. “How sweet will be the day.” He simpered, he fawned. He hid his laughter, and it felt good inside him, because oh, he knew things, yes, and yes, it was good to be the one who knows things. The only one who knows.

  Razgut had told his secrets once and only once, to the one whose wish for knowledge had made him a broken angel’s mule. Izîl. It surprised Razgut how much he missed the old beggar. He had been bright and good, and Razgut had destroyed him. Well, and what had the human expected: Something for nothing? From scholar to madman, doctor to graverobber, that had been his fate, but he’d gotten what he wanted, hadn’t he? Knowledge beyond even what Brimstone could have told him, because not even the old devil had known this. Razgut remembered what no one else did.

  The Cataclysm.

  Terrible and terrible and terrible forever.

  It was not forgotten by chance. Minds had been altered. Emptied. Hands had reached in, and scraped out the past. But not Razgut’s.

  Izîl, old fool, had tried to tell the fire-eyed angel who came to them in Morocco. Akiva was his name, and he had Stelian blood, but not Stelian knowledge, that was clear, and he wouldn’t listen. “I can tell you things!” Izîl had cried. “Secret things! About your own kind. Razgut has stories—”

  But Akiva had cut him off, refusing to hear the word of a Fallen. As if he even knew what that meant! Fallen. He’d said it like a curse, but he had no idea. “Like mold on books, grow myths on history,” Izîl had said. “Maybe you should ask someone who was there, all those centuries ago. Maybe you should ask Razgut.”

  But he hadn’t. No one ever asked Razgut. What happened to you? Why was this done to you?

  Who are you, really?

  Oh, oh, and oh. They should have asked.

  Razgut told Jael now, “We will bring the humans around, never fear. They’re always like this, arguing, arguing. It’s meat and drink to them. Besides, it’s not these self-important heads of state we care about. This is just for show. While they wag their withered faces at each other, the people are working on your behalf. Mark my words. Already groups will be building up their arsenals, making ready to hand them over to you. It will only be a matter of choosing, my lord, who you wish to take them from.”

  “Where are all these offers, then?” Spittle flew. “Where?”

  “Patience, patience—”

  “You said I would be worshiped as a god!”

  “Yes, well, you’re an ugly god,” spat Razgut, no model himself of the patience he preached. “You make them nervous. You spit when you speak, you hide behind your mask, and you stare at them like you would murder them all in their beds. Have you considered trying charm? It would make my job easier.”

  Again, Jael kicked him. It was a brighter stab of pain this time, and Razgut coughed blood onto the exquisite marble floor. Dipping a fingertip into it, he scribbled an obscenity.

  Jael shook his head in disgust and stalked over to a table where refreshments were laid out. He poured himself a glass of wine and began to pace. “It’s taking too long,” he said, his voice a snap of spite. “I didn’t come here for rituals and chanting. I came for arms.”

  Razgut affected a sigh and began to drag himself slowly, laboriously, toward the door. “Fine. I’ll go and speak to them myself. It will be faster, anyway. Your Latin pronunciation is appalling.”

  Jael signaled to the pair of Dominion guarding the door, and Razgut was laughing as they seized him by his armpits and hauled him back, dropping him hard at Jael’s feet. He cackled at his joke. “Imagine their faces!” he cried, wiping a tear from one fine, dark eye. “Oh, imagine if the Pope walked in here right now and saw the pair of us in all our magnificence! ‘These are angels?’ he would cry and clutch his heart. ‘Oh, and then what in the name of God are beasts?’ ” He doubled over, quaking with laughter.

  Jael did not share his amusement. “We are not a pair,” he said, his voice cold and very soft. “And know this, thing. If you ever cross me—”

  Razgut cut him off. “What? What will you do to me, dea
r Emperor?” He peered up at Jael and held his gaze. Very steady, very still. “Look and see. Look into me and know. I am Razgut Thrice-Fallen, Wretchedest of Angels. There is nothing you can take from me that has not already been taken, nothing you can do that has not already been done.”

  “You have not yet been killed,” said Jael, unyielding.

  At that, Razgut smiled. His teeth were perfect in his awful face, and the crack in his mind showed mad in his eyes. With taunting insincerity, he clasped his hands and begged, “Not that, my lord. Oh hurt me, torment me, but whatever you do, please oh please, don’t give me peace!”

  And spasms of fury moved over Jael’s cut-in-half face, his jaw clenched so tight that his scar pulled white while the rest of him flushed crimson. He should have understood, then. This was what Razgut thought, still laughing, as Jael laid into him with the steel-enforced tips of his slippers, giving birth to pain after pain, a whole family of them, a dynasty of hurt. That was the moment that Jael should have grasped, finally, that he was not in control. He couldn’t kill Razgut; he needed him. To interpret human languages, yes, but more than that: to interpret humans, to understand their history and politics and psychology and devise a strategy and rhetoric to appeal to them.

  He could kick him, oh yes, and Razgut would croon to the pain all night long and comfort it like an armful of babies, and in the morning he would count his bruises, and number his spites and miseries, and go on smiling, and go on knowing all the things that no one remembered, the things that should never have been forgotten, and the reason—oh godstars, the most excellent and terrible reason—that Jael should leave the Stelians alone.

  “I am Razgut Thrice-Fallen, Wretchedest of Angels,” he sang in a patchwork of human languages, from Latin to Arabic to Hebrew and around again, breaking it up with grunts as the kicks came to him. “And I know what fear is! Oh yes, and I know what beasts are, too. You think you do but you don’t, but you will, oh you will, oh you will. I’ll get you your weapons and I’ll get them fast, and I’ll laugh when you kill me like I laugh when you kick me, and you’ll hear the echo of it at the end of everything and know that I could have stopped you. I could have told you.”

 
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