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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.24
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.24

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

  Karou didn’t doubt him, but she hadn’t sensed anything there herself, and couldn’t imagine what it might have been. Air elementals? The ghosts of Kirin dead? The goddess Ellai in a bad mood? Whatever it was, their brief moment alone together had come to an end, and they hadn’t been able to say good-bye properly. She thought it might have made parting easier, if they had. But then she recalled their predawn good-byes in the requiem grove years ago, and how hard it had been, every single time, to fly away from him, and she had to admit that a good-bye kiss doesn’t make things any easier.

  And so she focused her mind on her task and tried not to look for Akiva, who was somewhere on the opposite side of the cluster of soldiers coming in to land.

  This was the plan:

  Instead of going through the portal to attack Jael in unfamiliar territory, Thiago and Elyon would take the main force of their combined armies north to the second portal and be there to greet Jael when Karou and Liraz sent him home.

  And here things became interesting. They didn’t know yet where Jael had his troops staged, and couldn’t predict what they would find at the second portal, up in the Veskal Range north of Astrae. They would take it as it came, but they anticipated, of course, a vast force. Ten-to-one ratio if they were lucky, worse if they were not.

  So Karou had given them a secret weapon. A pair of them.

  There they were, sitting quietly by themselves, apart from and above the mass of soldiers, on the rim of the crater, looking down. As Karou watched, Tangris lifted one graceful panther paw and licked it, and the gesture was purely cat in spite of the fact that the face—and tongue—were human. The sphinxes were alive again.

  Karou had given the rebellion the Shadows That Live. She had deeply mixed feelings about it. It had provided a pretext for resurrecting the sphinxes, Tangris and Bashees—and Amzallag along with them, since his soul was in the same thurible and she defied anyone to argue with her about it—and that was good. But she’d always had a horror of their particular specialty, which was to move unseen, in silence, and slay the enemy in their sleep.

  Whatever their gift or magic, it transcended silence and slyness. It was as though the sphinxes exuded a soporific to ensure their quarry didn’t awaken, no matter what was done to them. They didn’t even wake up to die.

  Maybe it was naive to hope that a bloodbath could be avoided at this stage, but Karou was naive, and she didn’t want to be responsible for any more bloodbaths.

  “The Dominion are irredeemable,” Elyon had told her. “Killing them in their sleep is a greater mercy than they deserve.”

  No one ever learns anything, she’d thought. Ever. “The same would be said of the Misbegotten by anyone in the Empire. We have to start being better than that. We can’t kill everyone.”

  “So we spare them,” Liraz had said, and Karou was primed for more of her icy sarcasm, but, to her surprise, none was forthcoming. “Three fingers,” she’d said, and she was staring at her own hand, turning it over and back again. “Take the three middle fingers of a swordsman’s or archer’s dominant hand and they’re useless in a fight. At least, until they can train in the use of their other hand, but that’s a problem for another day.” She looked straight into Karou’s eyes and lifted her brows as if to say, Well? Will that do?

  It… would. They’d all agreed to it, and Karou had had time in flight to register the strangeness of mercy—for Dominion, no less—coming from Liraz. And this on the heels of her puzzling response to Ten’s attack. “I deserved her vengeance,” she had said, angerless. Karou didn’t want to know what she deserved it for; it was enough to marvel at the end of a cycle of reprisals. How seldom it happened, in a long-standing war of hatred, that one side said, “Enough. I deserved that. Let it end here.” But in effect, that was what Liraz had said. “What you do with her soul is your affair,” she had also said, leaving Karou free to glean Haxaya’s soul from the she-wolf body that should never have held it to begin with.

  She didn’t know what she would do with it, but she had it, and now Liraz had not only proposed sparing the Dominion soldiers their lives, but even a usable portion of their hands. They might not be drawing bowstrings or swinging swords again in a hurry, but they’d be much better off than if their whole hand was severed at the wrist. It was more than mercy. It was kindness. How odd.

  So that was settled. The Shadows That Live would, if they could, disable the soldiers guarding Jael’s portal, or as many of them as they could.

  As for Akiva, he would fly due west to Cape Armasin, which was the Empire’s largest garrison in the former free holdings. His role—and it could make all the difference—was to seed mutiny in the Second Legion, and attempt to turn at least a portion of the Empire’s might against Jael. While the Dominion forces were elite, aristocratic, and would fight to protect the privilege they were born to, the soldiers of the Second Legion were largely conscripts, and there was reason to believe that their hearts weren’t in another war—especially a war against the Stelians, who weren’t beasts but kin, however distant. Elyon thought that Akiva’s reputation as Beast’s Bane would count for something in the ranks, on top of which, he’d proven himself persuasive with his brothers and sisters.

  Karou had need of persuasion, too, to urge Jael to leave, but it was a particular breed of “persuasion” that Liraz could manage as well as Akiva, and so it was arranged.

  “I’m going to go find out what the scouts have to say,” she told Mik and Zuzana, dropping her gear with a thud and rolling her shoulders and neck. She was passingly bothered by the fact that there had been only three scouts waiting for them: Lilivett, Helget, and Vazra. Ziri had dispatched four pairs of scouts, and each pair was to have sent one soldier to rendezvous here and make report on any seraph troop activity around the bay.

  So there should have been four.

  Probably just late, Karou told herself, but then she heard the Wolf tell Liraz, “We have to assume the worst.”

  And so she did.

  And… so it was.

  41

  UNKNOWNS

  There were just so many unknowns. From their perch in the Adelphas, the rebels were blind. Up here it was all ice crystals and air elementals, but a world lay beyond the peaks, full of hostile troops and slaves in chains, shallow graves, and the blowing ash of burned cities, and it was all as a play behind a closed curtain to them.

  They didn’t know if Jael had sent troops to hunt them down.

  He had.

  They didn’t know if he had found and secured the Atlas portal since they passed through it.

  He hadn’t, yet, but even now his search patrols were crisscrossing the Bay of Beasts, searching.

  They didn’t even know if he’d returned to Eretz, victorious or otherwise, and they had no way of knowing that Bast and Sarsagon, the unrepresented pair of scouts, had been captured within hours of their dispatch from the crater a day and a half earlier.

  Captured and tortured.

  And the rebels didn’t know and couldn’t have begun to imagine that, on the far side of the world, the sky had been twilight-dark for more than a day—a strange and ruthless dark that had nothing to do with the absence of the sun. The sun still shone, but it peered out of the inky indigo like a burning eye from the shadow of a cloak. Its light still fell on the sea and the speckling of green isles. Colors were still tropics-bright—all but the sky itself. It had sickened and blackened, and the stormhunters still wheeled in it, their screams gone hoarse and horrible, and the prisoners in their unprisonlike room watched it out their window and shuddered in nameless horror, but they couldn’t ask any questions of their captors, because their captors didn’t come to them. Not Eidolon of the dancing eyes, not anyone. No food was brought, or drink. Only the basket of bloodfruit remained, and none had grown hungry enough yet to contemplate it. Melliel, Second Bearer of that Name, and her band of Misbegotten brothers and sisters were seemingly forgotten, and, looking out their barred window, they could only imagine that it meant the end of t
he very world.

  Scarab and her four magi were aware of the state of their home sky. Sendings had come to them, even here, and they felt the disaster as a slackness of their own anima, as though their souls shrank from the shadow of annihilation.

  But if they sensed the annihilation that was nearer at hand—much nearer—they did nothing to warn the host in whose midst they invisibly mingled. Perhaps it was apathy bred of centuries of reclusion. They’d been taught that these folk were fools, and that they deserved their wars. To take it a step further, there was a certain sense in the Far Isles that the wars served a grim good: That by occupying itself killing and dying here, the Empire couldn’t muster itself to bother the Stelians with its stupid hostilities.

  And if there was a grandiosity in the Stelian belief that, above all, they must not be bothered, it was a well-deserved grandiosity.

  They must not be bothered.

  At all costs, the Stelians must be left in peace. Scarab knew, from halfway around the world, what Melliel and the others abandoned in their cell beneath that unnatural dark did not: that Eidolon of the dancing eyes was one of many who strove against the sickened sky, holding the seams of their world intact. That she didn’t have time for prisoners now, or for anything else.

  And of course it’s possible that the five fire-eyed interlopers didn’t feel the ambush gathering just out of sight—though it seems unlikely that the collective breath passing in and out of thousands of enemy lungs could go unremarked by magi of such exquisite sensitivity. In any case, they didn’t warn the rebels.

  They watched.

  Scarab’s sending to the others was plainthought, without sensory threads or any effort at feeling. It is nothing to do with us, she sent.

  It had always been true before. She could have no way of knowing how deeply untrue it was today, or what it was this peculiar ragged hybrid army stood against, or what would be the fallout if they failed.

  There were just so many unknowns.

  ARRIVAL + 48 HOURS

  42

  THE WORST

  The first awareness is a sensation in the spine. Karou feels it and looks to Akiva, across the crowd of soldiers. At the same moment, he looks to her. A crease knits his brows.

  Something—

  And then, just like that, the sky betrays them. It’s low and bright—a lucent, backlit mist, just as it was when they came from the portal. But this time it isn’t stormhunters that drop from above.

  It’s an army.

  Many.

  The angels are fire, and they are legion, wing to wing, and so the sky has become fire. Bright and alive. But the daylight is brighter and they’re blotting it out—so many—and so a tangled darkness falls on the host below.

  Shadows, chased by fire.

  Very fast. All very, very fast.

  It begins.

  The crater is a ragged bowl, and the Dominion are as a lid of fire, and they are many and many, wing to wing and swords drawn, and when they plummet in a single breath’s span, there is no getting out, and no getting around them.

  Nor is there any hesitation from below. Everything that had almost happened in the Kirin caves happens now, unchecked and with whip-crack quickness. Swords: unsheathed; palms: upraised. The effect of the hamsas is instantaneous. Like grass rippled by a wind, the attacking ranks sway away, and in the moment’s reprieve this gains the rebels, they surge to greet the ambush, roaring. They don’t wait to be pinned between fire and stone but leap—launch—and meet the emperor’s troops in the air with a sound like fists smashing on fists.

  Many fists against fewer, perhaps, but the fewer have magic.

  At the first touch of shadow, Akiva reaches for sirithar—

  —and is thrown to his knees as though clapped by thunder—thunder as a weapon, thunder in his head—and he’s ringing with it, and tilting, and someone catches him. It’s the Dashnag who isn’t a boy anymore. Rath. His hand is huge on Akiva’s shoulder. The same shoulder once savaged by a chimaera, another chimaera now steadies, and there is no sirithar, only the clash of blades, and then the boy Rath lunges into battle and Akiva surges to his feet and draws his swords, and he can’t see Karou…

  … and Karou can’t see him, and she can’t stop to look. There’s Zuzana and Mik and an angel is coming at them and she won’t be able to get there in time. She’s opening her mouth to scream when she sees Virko. He pounces.

  Rends.

  The angel becomes pieces and Karou has her crescent-moon blades in her hands and it’s dance, cutting her way through the enemy to reach her friends.

  Akiva tries for sirithar again, and again thunder invades his head and drives him to his knees.

  For the merest instant, he has the impression of a cool hand pressed to his brow, soothing and then gone. All around him is glitter and clash and snarl and stab and teeth and grunt and stagger. Magic is denied him. All he can do is get to his feet and fight.

  Zuzana has closed her eyes. Reflexive reaction to dismemberment. You could go your whole life without finding out how you’d react to seeing limbs torn off in front of you, but now Zuzana knows, and she knows the coursing terror of “all this war stuff,” and she decides at once that not seeing what’s happening is worse than seeing it and so she opens her eyes again. Mik is right at her side, and he’s beautiful, and Virko is crouched before her, planted there, and he’s terrible, and he’s beautiful, too. The spikes at his neck have flared wide. She didn’t know they did that. They’d lain sleek, almost, like porcupine quills at rest but bigger, sharper, and with serrated edges, but now they’re all fanned out and bristling and he looks twice his size. It’s like a lion’s mane made out of knives.

  And then Karou is there with blood on her blades and Virko is folding his spikes back down—they interweave, Zuzana sees, and the elegance of it… the symmetry almost overwhelms her with its perfection, and that’s the thing that she’ll remember most, not the dismemberment, her mind is already pulling a curtain on that, but the symmetry—and Virko’s spikes aren’t padded now with a smelly blanket, and there’s no harness to hold on to when when Mik boosts her up, but Zuzana’s not afraid, not of this. In the middle of this very bad dream, she’s glad to have a friend with a lion’s mane made of knives. Mik mounts behind her and Virko’s muscles bunch beneath them. He gives a great, labored heave and they leave the ground and then… vanish.

  Ziri sees Virko wink out—gone—and Karou is turning, searching. Not for him; Ziri knows that, and he minds less than he did before. A great gust that can only be the draft of Virko’s invisible wingbeats blows her hair back like a battle standard, silken blue and streaming, and in the screaming maelstrom of battle, she is surrounded by a curious cushion of stillness.

  Because she’s being protected, Ziri sees, by both chimaera and Misbegotten. Because she’s the resurrectionist, and because she has another, more immediate job to attend to. The realization kicks him forward. Whatever happens here, Karou’s plan must go ahead. Jael must be stopped.

  Ziri looks for Liraz and she’s there, and so is Akiva. They’re fighting back-to-back, lethal. Akiva wields a pair of matched swords, Liraz a sword and an ax, and her smile seems a third weapon, almost. It’s the same smile from the war council, where she’d scoffed at the odds of the fight. “Three Dominion to one Misbegotten?” she’d said, with eagerness. And Ziri sees that before him: three to one and more. And more, and more, but something’s happening. There’s Nisk and Lisseth. Astonishingly, they’re backing Akiva and Liraz up. Each has a blade drawn but a hamsa outheld, too, and against the pulse of weakness, the Dominion can’t match the speed and force of the pair of Misbegotten.

  Ziri feels a lift of hope. It’s a hope he knows well and despises: the ugly, black hope that one might, by killing, stay alive awhile longer.

  Kill or die, no other choice.

  Bodies litter the crater and more are falling. Ziri has a flash image of how it will be filled with corpses as though the mountains have cupped their hands to offer up the dead to N
itid, goddess of tears and life, and to the godstars, and to the void.

  The bodies are chimaera, too, and Misbegotten, and then—

  —a second darkness falls.

  Overhead, a second sky of fire is falling, wing to wing to wing, and even the ugly, black hope can’t outlast this. Another wave of Dominion as great as the first, and today Nitid is the goddess of nothing but tears.

  “Karou!” Ziri calls, and it doesn’t surprise him anymore to hear the Wolf’s tenor come from his own lips—a voice to cut through battle clangor and rally tired soldiers to keep on, and keep on, as though life is a prize to be won by bloodletting. Kill and kill and kill to live. How many, and for how long? It’s just a calculus in the end, and though the real Thiago had surmounted impossible odds in battle, none of them had been this impossible.

  And besides, he isn’t Thiago.

  He calls out orders; chimaera and Misbegotten alike take heed. By the time he reaches Karou, there’s a buffer of soldiers forming with Karou, Akiva, Liraz, and Thiago at its center.

  “You two need to go,” the Wolf says. His voice is raised above the chaos, and his eyes are intent but not cold, not mad. This White Wolf will tear out no throats with his teeth today. “Get clear of this. Use the glamour. You have a job to do.”

  Karou objects first. “We can’t leave you now—”

  “You have to. For Eretz.” For Eretz. It’s understood that this means: If not for us.

  Because we’ll be dead.

  “I’ll only go if you designate a safety,” Karou says in a choked voice. “Someone. Anyone.”

  Someone to wait out the killing in safety and come back to glean souls after it’s all over. It’s pointless. Now that the seraphim know about resurrection, they take measures to prevent it. They burn the dead, and guard the ashes until evanescence is certain. But Ziri nods anyway.

 
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