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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.22
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.22

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

  And what would their findings tell them? She couldn’t begin to hypothesize. Would they be composites of different DNA? Panther here, owl there, human in between? Or would their DNA be consistent, and only expressed differentially, in the same way a single human genetic code could express as, say, eyeball or toenail, and every other thing that made up a body?

  Or… would they find something stranger yet, stranger by far, unlike anything they knew in this world? A shiver shot through her. This was so big, she didn’t even know where in her head to put it. If she were allowed to talk about it, if she could call Taj right now, or Catherine—if she even had her phone—what would she say?

  She rose and went to the window for a glimpse of the view. It opened onto an interior courtyard, though, nothing to see, so Eliza pulled on her jeans and shoes and crept out the door.

  Creeping, surely, was unnecessary. If she’d been in a big, bland mega-hotel, she’d have felt wrapped in anonymity and sallied blithely forth to go where she wished. But this was not a big, bland mega-hotel. It was a kasbah. Not the kasbah, but a kasbah-turned-hotel not too far from the site. Okay, so it was a couple of hours’ drive, actually, but in this landscape, that seemed like nothing. If you kept going down the highway right over there, you’d hit the Sahara Desert, which was the size of the entire United States. In that context, a couple of hours’ drive could be classed as “not too far.”

  The kasbah was called Tamnougalt, and in spite of having been greeted at the gate by unsmiling children making stabbing gestures with pointed sticks, Eliza kind of loved it. It was this mud city in the heart of a palm oasis, the bulk of it a deserted ruin with just the central part restored, and not to any kind of grandeur. It still looked like sculpted mud—if fancy sculpted mud—and the rooms were comfortable enough, with very high beamed ceilings and wool rugs on the floors, and there was a rooftop terrace overlooking the waving tops of the palm trees. Last night, when she’d eaten dinner up there with Dr. Chaudhary, she’d seen more stars than she ever had in her life.

  I’ve seen more stars than anyone alive.

  Eliza stopped walking and closed her eyes, pressing her fingertips against them as if by doing so she could tame the stir within her. Conjure some psychic mind spikes and skewer some freaking dream pigeons.

  I’ve killed more stars than anyone will ever see.

  Eliza shook her head. Traceries of the familiar terror and guilt were slicking into her conscious mind. It made her think of the pale, desperate roots that force their way out through the drainage holes in potted plants. It made her think of things that cannot be contained, and she didn’t care for this thought at all. Ignore it, she told herself. You’ve killed nothing. You know this.

  But she didn’t. All of a sudden she was “knowing” things, experiencing highly unscientific feelings of conviction about big cosmic questions like the existence of another universe, but certainty of her own innocence was not among them—at least, not in that deeply resonant way. The voice of reason was starting to seem flimsy and unconvincing, and that probably wasn’t a good sign.

  Step by heavy step, Eliza climbed the stairs back up to the terrace, telling herself that it was just stress, and not madness. Still not crazy, and not going to be. I’ve fought too hard. Emerging into the night air, she felt a surprising chill and heard the dogs more clearly, barking away down in the hardscrabble terrain.

  And she saw that Dr. Chaudhary was still sitting where she’d left him hours earlier. He gave a little wave.

  “Have you been here all this time?” she asked, walking over.

  He laughed. “No. I tried sleeping. I couldn’t. My mind. I keep thinking of the implications.”

  “Me, too.”

  He nodded. “Sit. Please,” he said, and she did. They were silent a moment, surrounded by the night, and then Dr. Chaudhary spoke. “Where did they come from?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question, Eliza thought, but it was followed by a pause long enough that she might hazard a guess, if she dared.

  Morgan Toth would dare, she thought, and so she replied simply, “Another universe.” Trust me. It’s a thing I know; it was lying around my brain like litter.

  Dr. Chaudhary’s eyebrows went up. “So quickly? I had thought, Eliza, that perhaps you believed in God.”

  “What? No. Why would you think that?”

  “Well, I certainly don’t mean it as an insult. I believe in God.”

  “You do?” It surprised her. She knew that plenty of scientists believed in God, but she’d never gotten a religious vibe from him. Besides, his specialty—using DNA to reconstruct evolutionary history—seemed particularly at odds with, well, Creationism. “You don’t find it difficult to reconcile?”

  He shrugged. “My wife likes to say that the mind is a palace with room for many guests. Perhaps the butler takes care to install the delegates of Science in a different wing from the emissaries of Faith, lest they take up arguing in the passages.”

  This was unaccountably whimsical, coming from him. Eliza was astonished. “Well,” she ventured, “if they were to bump into each other right now, who would win?”

  “You mean, where do I think the Visitors have come from?”

  She nodded.

  “I am obliged to say first that it is possible they came from a lab. I think we can rule out surgical hijinx based on our examinations today, but might not someone have managed to grow them?”

  “You mean, like, in a supervillain’s lair inside a volcano?”

  He laughed. “Exactly. And if it were only the bodies—the ‘beasts,’ as it were—then this theory might seem to have some merit, but the angels, now. They’re a bit more complex.”

  Yes. The fire, the flying. “Have you heard,” Eliza asked, “that facial recognition databases got no hits on any of them?”

  He nodded. “I did. And if we consider, prematurely, that they might indeed be from… somewhere else, then our contenders are?”

  “Another universe, or… Heaven and Hell,” Eliza supplied.

  “Yes. But what I find myself thinking, out here, staring at the stars… ‘Gazing’ is too passive, don’t you think, for stars like this?”

  Very whimsical, Eliza thought, nodding agreement.

  “And perhaps it’s the guests in the palace mingling—” He tapped his head to clarify what “palace” he meant—“but I find myself thinking: What does that mean? Might they just be two ways of saying the same thing? Suppose ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ are just other universes.”

  “Just other universes,” Eliza repeated, smiling. “And the Big Bang was just an explosion.”

  Dr. Chaudhary chuckled. “Is another universe bigger or smaller than the idea of God? Does it matter? If there is a sphere where ‘angels’ dwell, is it a matter of semantics, whether we choose to call it Heaven?”

  “No,” Eliza replied, swiftly and firmly, a bit to her own surprise. “It isn’t a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of motive.”

  “I beg your pardon?” Dr. Chaudhary gave her a quizzical look. Something in Eliza’s tone had hardened.

  “What do they want?” she asked. “I think that’s the bigger question. They came from somewhere.” There is another universe. “And if that somewhere has nothing to do with ‘God’ ”—It doesn’t.—“then they’re acting on their own behalf. And that’s scary.”

  Dr. Chaudhary said nothing, but returned his gaze to the stars. He was quiet long enough that Eliza was wondering whether she’d smacked down his newfound loquacity when he said, “Shall I tell you something strange? I wonder what you’ll make of it.”

  The horizon was paling. Soon the sun would rise. Seeing it from here, such a horizon, and such a sky, it really made you mindful of being plastered by gravity to a giant, hurtling rock, and from there it was a hopscotch to picturing the immensity that surrounded it: the universe, too big for the mind to compass, and that was only the one universe.

  Too big for the human mind, perhaps.

  “You know of Piltdown Man, of course,
said Dr. Chaudhary.

  “Sure.” It was maybe the most famous scientific hoax in history—a supposed early human skull unearthed in England about a hundred years ago.

  “Well,” said Dr. Chaudhary, “it was in 1953 that it was proved a fake, and the year is important. With all the haste of shame, it was removed from the British Museum, where for forty years it had served as erroneous ‘evidence’ of a particular wrongheaded view of human evolution. Only a few years later, in 1956, another discovery was made, in the Patagonian Andes. A German amateur paleontologist discovered a cache of…” Here he paused for effect. “Monster skeletons.”

  And… it all went screwy for Eliza, somewhere in there. Dream siege, and a failure of psychic mind spikes. Dr. Chaudhary had said he was going to tell her something strange, and even as she swerved into some kind of altered state, she had the clarity to understand that the monster skeletons were the relevant fact here, not the site. But it was there that her mind took her.

  To the Patagonian Andes.

  As soon as he said it, she saw them: mountains that were pitched and pointed, sharp as teeth honed on bone. Lakes, absurd in their purity of blue. Ice and glacial valleys and forests dense with mist. Wildness that could kill, that did kill, but hadn’t killed her, because she was not easily killed and had survived so very much worse already—

  She had been turned inward somehow, like a dress pulled inside out, and she was still sitting there with Dr. Chaudhary, and she could hear what he was saying—about the monster skeletons, and how in the days of scorn after Piltdown they’d been nothing but a joke, even though they were a joke that rather defied explanation—but his words were as a rushing of water over a streambed, and the streambed was a thousand polished stones, a thousand-thousand, and they gleamed beneath the surface, beneath her surface, and they were her and more than her. She was more than her, and she didn’t know what that meant but she felt it.

  She was more than herself, and she could see the place Dr. Chaudhary was talking about—not the monster skeletons unearthed there, but the land and, most of all, the sky. She was leaning back and looking up and she saw the sky above her now and the sky above her then—What then? When?—and it was with the grief of mourning that it came to her that it was denied her.

  The sky was denied her, then and now and forever.

  She felt the tears on her cheeks right as Dr. Chaudhary noticed them. He was still talking. “The Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley has the remains now,” he was saying. “As much for curiosity as scientific merit, but I have a feeling that is going to change.… Eliza, are you all right?”

  She swiped at the tears but they kept falling and she couldn’t speak.

  For a vertiginous moment, staring up at the stars—not gazing, but staring—she felt the scope of the universe around her, so vast and full of secrets, and she sensed the presence of more and greater beyond that… and beyond beyond, and then beyond even that, and somehow the unknowable depths within herself corresponded to the unknowable scope without, and… there wasn’t another universe.

  There were many.

  Many beyond many, unknowably.

  I’ve seen them, thought Eliza. Knew Eliza. Tears were streaming down her face now, and she finally understood the nature of the dream, and it was worse, so much worse than she’d even feared. It wasn’t prophecy. They’d had that wrong all along. It wasn’t the end of the world she was seeing.

  At least, not the end of this world.

  The dream wasn’t future, but past. It was memory, and the question of how Eliza could possibly have such a memory was overshadowed by what it meant. It meant that it couldn’t be stopped. It had already happened.

  I’ve seen other universes. I’ve been to them.

  And I destroyed them.

  39

  SCION

  Sirithar had drawn her to him like a musk, through passages of wending stone within the mountain fastness of a dead people, and thus had Scarab, queen of the Stelians, found the magus she had come to kill.

  She had hunted him halfway around the world and here he was, alone in a close and quiet place. With his back to her, he was stripped to the waist and scooping water from a channel in the cavern wall, cupping it to his face, to his neck and chest. The water was cold and his flesh was hot, so steam rose from him like mist. He dipped his head into the flow, scrubbing his fingers through his hair. His fingers were tattooed, and his hair was dense and black and very short. When he straightened, water sluiced down the back of his neck, and Scarab noticed the scar there.

  It made the shape of a closed eye, and though she felt power in the mark, she was unfamiliar with the design. It was not from the lexica. Like the world-wind and the despair, she supposed that this was his own creation, though it had not been wrought of stolen sirithar or she would have felt the tremor of its making. Still, sirithar clung to him, electric. Like ozone, but richer. Heady.

  Here stood the unknown magus who plucked at the strings of the world and who, if they didn’t stop him, would destroy it. She had assumed that she would feel a corruption on him, and that her soul would cry to the killing like lightning to a rod, but nothing here was as she had expected. Not the mixed company of seraphim and chimaera, and not him.

  —Will you do it, my lady, or shall I?

  Carnassial’s voice came into her head with the intimacy of a whisper. He was several paces behind her—glamoured, as she was—but his mind brushed hers like the stir of breath against her ear. Tickle and heat and even a trace of his scent. It was deeply real.

  And deeply presumptuous.

  She delivered her response and felt him flinch away.

  —What do you think? she returned. Those were her only words, but there was more to her reply.

  Telesthesia was an art form more akin to dreaming than speaking. The sender entwined sensory threads, with or without words, to form a message that keyed to the receiver’s mind at every level: sound and image, taste, touch, smell, and memory. Even—if they were very good at it—emotion. A sending from a master telesthete was an experience fuller than reality: a waking dream delivered on a thought. Scarab was not a master telesthete by any stretch, but she could twine several threads into her sending, and she did now. The flexion of cat’s claws and the sting of nettles—Eidolon had taught her that one—declared to Carnassial: Back off.

  Did he think that because she had made him the gift of her body for her first dream season, he could touch her mind uninvited?

  Men.

  A single dream season was a single dream season. If she chose him again next year, that might begin to mean something, but she didn’t suppose she would. Not because he hadn’t pleased her, but simply this: How could she know his worth if she had no one to compare him to?

  —Forgive me, my queen.

  From a respectable remove came this sending, more like an approximation of his physical distance, and it was stripped of scent and stir, as was right. She could feel a wisp of penitence, though, and that was a fine flourish. Carnassial wasn’t a master telesthete, either—it would be a long time before either of them could hope to achieve mastery; they were both very young—but he had the makings of one. Not for nothing had Scarab chosen him for her honor guard—and not for his lutenist fingers, either, that had learned to play her with such ardor in the spring, or for his deep bell laughter, or for his hunger that understood her own and spoke to it, not unlike a sending, at every level.

  He was a fine magus, as were the rest of her guard, but none of them—none of them—pulsed raw power like the seraph before her now. Her eyes swept down his bare back, and she felt the tug of surprise. It was a warrior’s back, muscled and scarred, and a pair of swords hung crossed in their harness from a jut of stone to his right. He was a soldier. She had gleaned this much in Astrae, where the folk spoke of him with acid fear, but she hadn’t fully believed it until now. It didn’t fit. Magi didn’t use steel; they didn’t need it. When a magus killed, no blood flowed. When she killed him, as she had come her
e to do, he would simply… stop living.

  Life is only a thread tethering soul to body, and once you know how to find it, it is as easily plucked as a flower.

  So do it, she told herself, and she reached for his thread, conscious of Carnassial behind her, waiting. “Will you do it or shall I?” he had asked her, and it galled. He doubted that she could, because she never had. In training, she had touched life threads and let them sing between her fingers—the fingers of her anima, that is, her incorporeal self. It was the equivalent of laying a blade to an opponent’s throat in sparring. I win, you die, better luck next time. But she had never severed one, and doing so would be the difference between laying a blade to an opponent’s throat and laying his throat open.

  It was a very great difference.

  But she could do it. To prove herself to Carnassial, she had an inspiration to perform ez vash, the clean slash of execution. An instant and it would be done. She wouldn’t feel the stranger’s thread or pause to read anything of it, but only scythe it with her anima, and he would be dead without her ever having seen his face or touched his life.

  She thought of the yoraya then, and a feeling of reckless might flowed through her.

  It was only a legend. Probably. In the First Age of her people, which had been far, far longer than this the Second Age and had been ended with such brutality, Stelians had been very different than they were now. Surrounded by powerful enemies, they had lived ever at war, and so a great deal of their magic had been concentrated on the war arts. Tales were told of the mystical yoraya, a harp strung with the life threads of slain foes. It was a weapon of the anima and had no substance in the material world; it could not be found like a relic or passed on as an inheritance. A magus made his own, and it died with him. It was said to be a reservoir of deepest power, but darkest, too, achievable only by killing on a staggering scale, and the playing of it was as likely to drive its maker mad as it was to strengthen him.

  When she was a little girl, Scarab used to scandalize her nursemaids by plotting her own yoraya. “You will be my first string,” she had once said, wickedly, to an aya who had dared to bathe her against her will.

 
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