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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.25
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.25

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

  It’s time to part. The reluctance that envelops them all is a complex web—a cat’s cradle of loves and longings and… even the earliest tender unfurlings of a possibility so remote it should have been laughable. Ziri glances to Liraz as she glances to him, and both look swiftly away again: Ziri to Karou, Liraz to Akiva. A second only—an eternity—do they permit themselves for farewells. They wish pointless wishes, and let their what-ifs fall to the ground with the corpses.

  In the legends, chimaera were sprung from tears and seraphim from blood, but in this moment they are, all of them, children of regret.

  As Karou and Akiva begin to turn toward each other for their last look, both their faces falling blank with unfathomable loss—no please no not now please oh—the Wolf speaks up. “Akiva,” he says. “Take them. Get them to the portal. See to it.”

  Akiva blinks twice rapidly. He doesn’t want to refuse, but he’s going to. He should be here, fighting—

  “It may be guarded,” says the Wolf, anticipating his argument. “They may need help.” The battle around them is reaching a fever pitch. “Go!”

  Akiva nods, and they go.

  It’s Liraz’s gaze that Ziri holds as they vanish. There’s no period of transparency, only a sudden lurch from there to not-there, and at the hard and final edge of there, Liraz wears no killing, cutting smile, no scorn or coldness or lust for vengeance. Her features are soft with sorrow and her beauty takes his breath away.

  And then she’s gone. Within the center of the sphere of soldiers, the White Wolf is left alone. Lucky Ziri, he thinks, gutted, hollowed. Not today, and not tomorrow.

  He looks up. The passage of armies has chased back the mist and he sees ranks of soldiers.

  And soldiers, and soldiers, and soldiers.

  He laughs. He gathers his stolen body, bares his fangs, and leaps.

  He climbs them. They’re thick enough; they make it easy. He has only to leap and catch one in the air and, catching, kill him. Leap to the next as the body falls. To the next, to the next, until the ground is far below and they’re tangling their wings in a rush to escape him. Still more are closing behind, and he has no shortage of prey. No shortage of blood to spill, and his laughter sounds like choking.

  He is the White Wolf.

  And Liraz is flying, fast, racing toward the portal. The battle rings behind her, and then fades into the rushing of the air, the air that’s stinging her eyes. That’s all it is, the sting: the air, and speed.

  “We haven’t been introduced. Not really.” That was what he’d said to her in the thermal pools before giving her his secret like a knife. You could kill me with this. But I trust that you won’t.

  Trust. Did she trust him because he’d saved her life, or because he’d trusted her with his secret, or both? Seeing him fight, his style was efficiency with panache; he was brutal and graceful, but it was nothing like the grace she’d beheld in the Hintermost when he wore his true body and danced the Kirin spin of crescent-moon blades. They had seemed an extension of himself. These swords didn’t. This body didn’t, either. Since he told her who he is, his White Wolf form has seemed to her like a costume, as though he might unfasten it and step out, long and lean, dark and horned and winged. In her mind’s eye, he’s a silhouette. She only ever saw him at a great distance, and doesn’t even know what his true face looked like.

  She wishes she did.

  And in the next second the wish seems stupid and petty. What does it matter what his face looked like before? Behind her he could be dying—again and forever. What does “true” even mean when it comes to a face? Only souls are true, and when you spill them to the air they melt away, as Haz’s had, and countless others, and the loss… The loss. Liraz clutches her hand to her stomach. Fires go out, and the world grows dim.

  How could it have taken her so many years to feel the preciousness of life?

  They fly, and it’s long minutes at speed before they leave the mountains behind them and course out over the dark water of the bay. It looks like a sea from here, haze shrouding the horizons and the land that hems it in. Karou finally spots Mik and Zuzana on Virko, ahead. The humans are trying to maintain the glamour but it flickers, unreliable, and a Dominion patrol has spotted them. They’re closing in.

  Virko wheels and dips. He makes it. He soars through the cut and vanishes in a ripple, and then Karou, Akiva, and Liraz arrive at the flapping loose edges of the slash in the sky, and instead of darting straight through, Karou spins toward Akiva. They’ve let go of their glamours, and when she looks at him, the impossibility of good-bye overwhelms her anew—and worse than before, so much worse, coming in the crush of peril. How can she leave him like this?

  “Go!” Liraz screams at her. “Go now!”

  Karou grabs Akiva’s hand. Helpless, she tries to forge a final moment with him. A look at least, if not words, if not more. Something to remember. His hand is so warm, and his eyes are so bright—but haunted. He looks aggrieved, heartsick, furious and ready to curse the godstars. He squeezes her hand. “We’ll be okay,” he says, but it’s with desperation. He wants to believe it but doesn’t, quite, and if he doesn’t then Karou can’t, either.

  Oh god, oh god. She wants to drag him through the portal with her and never let him go.

  Liraz is still screaming at her and the sound fills Karou’s head, fills her with panic—and anger—and Akiva touches her elbow, urging her through, and that’s it. She feels the tatter of the sky brush against her face and she’s not in Eretz anymore, and Liraz’s screams—“Go! Go!”—ring in her head, stoking her panic. She flushes with fury, ready to hate her, if only for a moment, absolutely ready to tell her to shut up, and she swings around to face the portal to wait for her—

  —as, on the other side, Akiva turns away from it. He’s empty. He’s just watched Karou disappear, and he turns to meet his sister’s eyes one last time before she follows. Take care of her, he wants to say but won’t. And of yourself. Please, Lir. And their eyes do connect for an instant.

  “The urn is full, my brother,” she says.

  Urn? Akiva blinks, once; then he remembers. Hazael had told him that. Akiva is the seventh bearer of his name; six Akivas dead before him meant the cremation urn was full. “You have to live,” Hazael had said, silly and matter-of-fact.

  Hazael who had died, while Akiva lived.

  Akiva’s thoughts are fractured. The Dominion will be on them in seconds. He sees them as hurtling shapes behind Liraz. There’s a thrum of frenzy that his sister’s screams—“Go! Go! Go!”—have built in him, but still the thought finds purchase: that he’s never seen her look more alive than she does right now. There’s purpose and energy and resolve in her expression. She’s focused; she’s alight.

  And then her feet connect with his chest.

  Heart-bruising, rib-jarring, breath-stealing force. All his air and his thoughts are driven out in a rush, and he’s reeling, unmoored. He can’t breathe and can’t see.

  And when he catches himself he’s through the portal.

  It flares into flame, and Liraz is on the far side. She’s burning it shut. Akiva thinks he hears a shiver of steel—sword on sword—in the instant before the connection between the worlds is lost.

  The slash in the sky is cauterized like a wound. Liraz is still in Eretz and Akiva is here in her place. With Karou.

  43

  FIRE IN THE SKY

  And silence.

  It wasn’t really silence. There was fire and wind, crackle and whisper, and the rasp of their own hard breathing. But it felt like silence in their shock, and they all squinted in the face of the blaze. It flared hot and sudden and died quickly, and there was no smoke and no smell. It was just over, and whatever it was that had burned—whatever held the worlds distinct—it gave off no residue of ash or fume. The portal was simply gone.

  Karou scanned for a sign that it had been there. A scar, a ripple, a ghosted image of the slash, but there was nothing at all.

  She turned to Akiva.


  Akiva. He was here. He was here, and not Liraz. What had just happened? He hadn’t looked to her yet; his eyes were horror-wide as he stared at the new absence in the sky. “Liraz!” he called, hoarse, but the way was closed. Not just closed. Gone. The sky was just the sky now, the thin atmosphere above these African mountains, and that anomaly that had made Eretz seem like… like a neighboring country on the other side of a turnstile… it was over, and now Eretz seemed very, very far away, impossibly and fantastically far, like an imaginary place, and the blood that was being shed there—

  Oh god. The blood was not imaginary. The blood, the dying. And it was so quiet here, nothing but the wind now, and their friends and comrades and… and family, every remaining Misbegotten soldier, Akiva’s blood brothers and sisters, they were fighting in another sky, and there was nothing to be done about it.

  They’d left them there.

  When Akiva did turn to her, he looked stricken. Pale and disbelieving.

  “What… what happened?” Karou asked him, moving toward him through the air.

  “Liraz,” he said, as though he were still trying to understand. “She pushed me through. She decided…” He swallowed. “That I should live. That I should be the one to live.”

  He stared at the air as if he could see through it to the other world—as though Liraz were just on the other side of a veil. But with the portal gone, it had become all at once unfathomable how it had ever existed at all. Where was Eretz, and what magic had brought it within such easy reach? Who had made the portals, and when, and how? Karou’s mind defaulted to her picture of the known cosmos, starting with planets revolving around a star—a hugeness that was insignificant within a vastness that was incomprehensible—and she couldn’t fathom how Eretz fit into that picture. It was like dumping two jigsaw puzzles in a pile and trying to piece them into one.

  “Liraz can handle that patrol,” she told Akiva. “Or at least glamour herself and get away.”

  “And go where? Back to the massacre?”

  Massacre.

  There was a sensation, in the core of her body, like screaming. Her heart and gut screamed; it scoured through her. She thought of Loramendi, and shook her head. She couldn’t go through it again, flying back to Eretz to find nothing but death waiting for her. She couldn’t even contemplate it. “They can win,” she said. She wanted Akiva to nod, to agree with her. “The mixed battalions. The chimaera will weaken the attackers, and you said…” She swallowed. “You said the Dominion are no match for the Misbegotten.”

  Of course, that wasn’t what he’d said. He’d said that one-on-one the Dominion were no match for them. And that hadn’t been one-on-one, not by a long shot.

  Akiva didn’t correct her. Neither did he nod or assure her that everything would be fine. He said, “I tried to reach sirithar. The… power source. And I couldn’t get it. First Hazael died because I couldn’t, and now everyone will—”

  Karou shook her head. “They won’t.”

  “I began this, all of it. I convinced them. And I’m the one alive?”

  Karou was still shaking her head. Her fists were clenched. She hunched in the air and held them tight against her middle: that pit below the inverted V of her rib cage. That was where she felt the hollowness and gnawing—like hunger. And there was hunger. She was underfed and too thin, and her own body felt insubstantial beneath her fists right now, like she’d been whittled down to essentials. But this hollowness and gnawing were more than hunger. They were grief and fear and helplessness. She’d long since given up believing that she and Akiva were the instruments of some great intention, or that their dream was planned or fated, but she found now that she still had it in her to be outraged at the universe. For not caring, for not helping. For, as it seemed, working against them.

  Maybe there was an intention. A plan, a fate.

  And maybe it hated them.

  It was just so quiet, and the others were so very far away.

  She thought of the Dashnag boy from the Hintermost, and of the Shadows That Live and Amzallag, whom she had just restored to life—Amzallag, who had hopes of gleaning his children’s souls from the ruin of Loramendi—and all the others, and most of all, she thought of Ziri, bearing up under his burden, shouldering the deception alone now in the absence of Issa, Ten, and herself. Dying as the Wolf.

  Evanescing.

  He’d given everything, or would soon, while she was here, safe… with Akiva. And her emotions were a poisonous brew in the pit of her empty, empty stomach, because deep down, unspeakably, under all the horror and turmoil, there was at least a shred of… dear god, surely it wasn’t gladness. Relief, then, to be alive. It couldn’t be wrong, to be relieved to be alive, but it felt wrong. So very, very cowardly.

  Akiva’s wings were fanning slowly to keep him aloft. Karou just hovered. Behind them, Virko was flying short back-and-forths with Mik and Zuzana on his back.… Oh. Karou did a double take. Virko. He wasn’t meant to stay here; he couldn’t pass for human, not even close. He was to have set Mik and Zuze down and circled back to the portal. But Karou’s thoughts skipped over him for now. Akiva was looking at her, and she was sure he was feeling the same poisonous mix of relief and horror that she was. Worse, because of Liraz’s sacrifice. “She decided,” he’d said. “That I should be the one to live.”

  Karou shook her head yet again, as if somehow she could shake out every black thought. “If it were you,” she said, looking right into his eyes, “if it were you on the other side right now, like it almost was, I’d believe you were okay. I’d have to believe it, and I have to believe it now. There’s nothing we can do.”

  “We could go back,” he said. “We could fly straight for the other portal.”

  Karou didn’t have an answer for that. She didn’t want to say no. Her own heart lifted at the idea, even as her reason told her it was untenable. “How long would it take?” she asked after a pause. From here to Uzbekistan, and then, on the other side, from the Veskal Range back to the Adelphas.

  Akiva’s jaw clenched and unclenched. “Half a day,” he said, his voice tight. “At least.”

  Neither of them said it aloud, but they both knew: By the time they could get back, the battle would be over, one way or another, and they’d have failed in their task here on top of everything. It wasn’t a failure they could afford.

  Hating to be the voice of sense in the face of grief, Karou asked, cautiously, “If it were Liraz here with me, and you were there, what would you want us to do?”

  Akiva considered her. His eyes burned out of hooded shadows, and she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. She wanted to reach for his hand like she had on the other side, but it felt wrong, somehow, like she was using her wiles to persuade him to give up something intensely important. She didn’t want that; she couldn’t make this decision for him, so she just waited, and his answer was heavy. “I’d want you to do what you came for.”

  And there it was. It wasn’t even a real choice. They couldn’t reach the others in time to make a difference, and even if they could reach them, what difference could they hope to make? But it felt like a choice, like a turning away, and in Karou, like a bloodstain, bloomed the earliest apprehension of the guilt that was to haunt her.

  Did I do enough? Did I do everything I could?

  No.

  Even now, barely this side of catastrophe and the battle still under way in the other world, she could already taste the way that it would taint any happiness she could hope to find or make with Akiva. It would be like dancing on a battlefield, waltzing around corpses, to build a life out of this.

  Look out, don’t step there, one two three, don’t trip on the corpse of your sister.

  “Um, guys?” It was Mik’s voice. Karou turned to her friends, blinking back tears. “I’m not sure what the plan is,” Mik said, his voice tentative. He looked pale and stunned, as did Zuzana, gripping Virko tight and in turn gripped by Mik. “But we need to get out of here. Those helicopters?”

  This was a jol
t to Karou. Helicopters? She saw them now, and heard what she should have noticed sooner. Whumpwhumpwhump…

  “They’re coming this way,” said Mik. “Fast.”

  And so they were—several, converging on them from the compass points. What the hell? This was no-man’s-land. What were helicopters doing here? And then she got a very bad feeling.

  “The kasbah,” she said, a new horror dawning. “Damn it. The pit.”

  Eliza was… not quite herself today. She was faking it well enough, she thought, taking a swig of tea. She had her family to thank for that ability. Thank you, she thought, with the special bile reserved for them, for the complete disconnection of my emotions from my facial muscles. It comes in so handy for pretending I’m not losing my mind. After years of concealing misery, shame, confusion, humiliation, and fear, she could pretty much walk through life like a blank, her facade imperturbable, a thing scarcely animate.

  Except when the dream took her over, of course. Then she was animate, all right. Hoo boy. And last night, up on the roof terrace… or was it this morning? Both, she guessed. It had gone on long enough to straddle the dawn. She just hadn’t been able to stop crying. She hadn’t even been asleep this time, and still it had found her. “It.” The dream. The memory.

  A storm had moved through her, entirely impervious to her will, and the storm had been grief, unfathomable loss, and the full intensity of the remorse she’d come to know so well.

  With the fading of the stars and the break of day, Eliza’s storm had passed. Today she was the ravaged landscape it had left behind. Waters subsiding, and ruin. And… revelation, or at least the cusp of it, the corner. This is what it felt like: detritus washed away, her mind a floodplain, clean and austere, and at her feet, just visible, a corner, protruding from the earth. It could be the corner of a trunk—pirate’s treasure or Pandora’s box—or it could be the corner of… a rooftop. Of a buried temple. Of an entire city.

  Of a world.

 
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