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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.26
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.26

         Part #3 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 
All she had to do was blow away the dust, and she would know, or begin to know, what else lay buried within herself. She could feel it there. Burgeoning, infinite, terrible and wondrous: the gift, the curse. Her heritage. Stirring. She’d poured so much of herself into keeping it buried, sometimes it felt like any energy she might have had for joy or love or light went there instead. You only had so much to give.

  So… what if she just stopped fighting and surrendered to it?

  Ay, there’s the rub. Because Eliza wasn’t the first to have the dream. The “gift.” She was only the latest “prophet.” Only the next in line for the asylum.

  That way madness lies. She was feeling quite Shakespearean today. The tragedies, of course, not the comedies. It didn’t escape her that when King Lear made that statement, he was already well on his way to crazy. And maybe she was, too.

  Maybe she was losing her mind.

  Or maybe…

  … maybe she was finding it.

  She was in possession of herself for now, at any rate. She was drinking cold mint tea up at the kasbah—not the hotel kasbah, but the beast-mass-grave kasbah—and taking a break from the pit. Dr. Chaudhary wasn’t very talkative today, and Eliza flushed to remember the awkwardness with which he’d patted her on the arm last night, at a total loss in the face of her meltdown.

  Damn it. There really weren’t all that many people whose opinions mattered deeply to her, but his did, and now this. Her mind was circling back to it yet again—another rotation on the shame carousel—when she noticed a commotion rippling through the assembled workers.

  There was a kind of makeshift refreshment station set up in front of the massive, ancient gates of the fortress: a truck serving tea and plates of food, a few plastic chairs to sit on. The kasbah itself was cordoned off; a team of forensic anthropologists was going over it with fine-tooth combs. Literally. They had found long azure hairs in one of the rooms, apparently—the same room in which they’d found, scattered across the floor, a peculiar assortment of teeth that had led to speculation that “the Girl on the Bridge” and the “Tooth Phantom”—the silhouette caught on surveillance cam at Chicago’s Field Museum—might be one and the same.

  The plot thickened.

  And now, something else. Eliza didn’t see where it began, the commotion, but she watched it move from one cluster of workers to the next by way of gesticulations and loud, fast chatter in Arabic. Someone pointed to the mountains. Up, into the sky above the peaks—in the same direction that Dr. Amhali had pointed when he’d said, wryly, “They went that way.”

  They. The living “beasts.” Eliza drew a hard breath. Had they found them?

  She made out the glint of aircraft moving in the distance, and then, at her right, a couple of men disengaged from the general mass of people whose function she couldn’t determine—there were a lot of men here, and most of them didn’t appear to be doing anything—and made for the helicopter that was at rest on a piece of flat terrain. She kept watching, her tea forgotten in her hand, as the rotors began to spin, picking up speed until billows of dirt were kicking their way toward her and the helicopter lifted up and flew. It was loud—whumpwhumpwhump—and her heart was pounding as she scanned the faces of the people around her. She felt handicapped by the language barrier, and very much an outsider here. Surely someone spoke English, though, and this was a small enough feat of courage to perform. With a deep breath, Eliza threw her paper cup in a bin and approached one of the few female workers on-site. It only took a couple of questions to ascertain the source of the commotion.

  A fire in the sky, she was told.

  Fire? “More angels?” she asked.

  “Insha’Allah,” the woman replied, gazing into the distance. Allah willing.

  Eliza recalled Dr. Amhali saying, the day before, “It’s all very nice for Christians, yes?” “Angels” in Rome, “demons” here. How neat, how tidy for the Western worldview, and how wrong. Muslims believed in angels, too, and Eliza gathered that they wouldn’t mind getting some for themselves. For her own part, she had a presentiment that they were better off without them, and she had to wonder—especially in light of what she was beginning to believe—why the prospect of angels frightened her more than the prospect of beasts.

  44

  THIS JUST IN

  The seraphim had had the advantage of staging their arrival. They brought their own musical accompaniment, had costumes made for the occasion, and calculated their destination for effect. And even if they hadn’t managed all of this, they were beautiful and graceful. Centuries of beneficent mythology anticipated them. They could scarcely have gone wrong.

  The “beasts” made their debut with somewhat less aplomb. Their clothing was wrinkled and dark with dried blood, their music was chosen for them by sensationalistic television producers, and their beauty and grace were somewhat lacking.

  On account of their being dead.

  Two days after the angelic leader’s stunning proclamation of “The Beasts are coming for you”—two days of riots and suicide pacts and mass baptisms in overcrowded churches, two days of furrowed brows and hemming and hawing on the part of a closed council of world leaders—a news bulletin preempted a preempt and exploded in the collective human consciousness with as much force as the Arrival had, if not more.

  “This just in.”

  The media was already operating at a pretty fevered pitch—it was hummingbird-metabolism journalism: fast fast fast, and voracious. The many flavors of fear were seasoned liberally with glee; such times as these were the stuff of broadcasters’ dreams. Be afraid. No. Be more afraid! This is not a drill.

  In that context, the delivery of the latest “this just in” stood apart for its solemnity and gravitas.

  The story was broken by the highest-paid news anchor in the world, a kind of human comfort food delivered nightly to American living rooms, year after year, his youthful face changeless save for a subtle lengthening effect brought on by a slow-climbing hairline. He had dignity, and not just the faux kind created by a real-or-fake sprinkling of salt in his pepper, and, to his credit, if it hadn’t been for his willingness to use his clout in the service of journalistic ethics, things could have been far worse.

  “My fellow Americans, citizens of Earth…” Oh, to be able to say that, Citizens of Earth! Lesser broadcasters trembled with envy. “This station has just come into possession of evidence that appears to validate the Visitors’ claims. You know what claims I mean. Early independent inquiry suggests these photographs are legitimate, though as you’ll see, many questions arise to which we do not yet have answers. I warn you. These images are not suitable for children.” Pause. Millions leaned forward, breath held. “They may not be suitable for anyone, but this is our world, and we cannot look away.”

  And no one did, and very few sent their children from the room as, without further preamble, he showed the pictures in silence.

  In living rooms across the nation, and in bars and offices and dorm commons and fire stations and the basement laboratories of the National Museum of Natural History and everywhere else, when the first image appeared, brows furrowed.

  This was the grace period—the furrowing of brows, the knee-jerk disbelief—but it didn’t last long. Knee-jerk disbelief had, over the past forty-eight hours, been knuckled under by credulity. Many people were newly learning how to believe. And so, swiftly and in a great wave, viewer cognition swept from What the hell? to Oh my god, and panic on Earth met its new high-water mark.

  Demon.

  It was Ziri, though of course no one knew his name, or wondered at it, the way Eliza had.

  The personals ad Zuzana and Mik had composed for the Kirin in flight was something along the lines of: “Heroic sweetheart currently occupying smoking-hot maniac body in order to save the world. Would sacrifice everything for love, but hopefully won’t have to. I really deserve a happy ending.”

  In a fairy tale, Zuzana had argued, he would get one for sure. The pure of heart always prevail. There was, bet
ween her and Mik, a fairy-tale promise: that when he had performed three heroic tasks, he could ask for her hand. She’d meant it in jest, but he’d taken it to heart, and was only one task down out of three—though secretly Zuzana accepted his fixing the air-conditioning in their last hotel room as a heroic act and counted it.

  Ziri’s sacrifice of his born flesh absolutely qualified as heroism, but life so very much is not a fairy tale, and furthermore, it sometimes goes out of its way to prove just how un-fairy-tale-like it can be.

  As now.

  Far away, something happened. It was a connection no one would or could make, in either world. What happened in Eretz, happened in Eretz, and the same went for Earth. No one was auditing the time lines for coincidence. But this… it almost suggested a synchronism between the worlds.

  At the same moment that the image of Ziri’s discarded Kirin body made its debut on human airwaves—the same moment exactly—in Eretz, a Dominion blade… pierced him through the heart.

  If there were other worlds beyond these two, maybe they were linked, and maybe echoes of his story were playing out in all of them, shadows of shadows of shadows of shadows. Or maybe it was just coincidence. Brutal. Uncanny. While the image of Ziri’s corpse burned itself into the human consciousness—demon!—he died again.

  The pain was far worse this time, and no one was there to hold him, and there were no stars to look at, either, as life ebbed. He was alone, and then very quickly he was dead, and no one was near with a thurible. He’d promised Karou he would name a safety, but he hadn’t. There just hadn’t been time.

  And now there never would be.

  When Karou had felt Ziri’s soul unskinned, back at the pit, when it had brushed against her senses, she had felt in it a rare purity—the high, surging winds of the Adelphas Mountains; home—and it was fitting that that was where he shed the White Wolf’s hated body and slipped free of the clashing swords and howling all around him. There was no sound, in this state. Only light.

  And Ziri’s soul was home.

  “Ladies and gentlemen,” said the anchorman from his desk in New York City. His voice was very grave, without a hint of morbid delight. “This body was unearthed only yesterday from a mass grave at the edge of the Sahara Desert. It is one of many corpses found, no two alike, and none alive. It is unknown who killed them, though preliminary estimates put the deaths at as recently as three days ago.”

  More corpses, and of all the many pictures taken at the site—by Eliza—this array seemed curated for maximal horror: the most gruesome of the slashed throats, close-ups on the most monstrous jaws, studies of decomposition and curdled faces, eyes collapsing into sockets. Bloated tongues.

  In fact, Morgan Toth had forwarded only the grimmest of her shots to the network—directly from her e-mail account, of course. There had been a poetry and poignancy in many of her pictures of the dead beasts; dignity. These he had left out.

  Leaning against a doorjamb in the museum sublevels now, he observed the reactions of his colleagues with a supercilious smirk. I did this, he thought, enjoying himself immensely. And of course, the best was yet to come. He didn’t trust the idiots at the news station to put two and two together regarding the identity of their source, so he’d attached a helpful message. That had been the best part, he thought. Giving public voice to Eliza’s private torment.

  Dear Sirs and Madams, he had written, as her.

  Oh, Eliza. He was feeling something like tenderness for her. Pity. Really, so much made sense now that he knew who she was. Of course, the only breed of pity Morgan Toth was capable of generating was the sort a cat might feel for the mouse between its paws. Oh, you little thing, you never had a chance. Sometimes cats grow bored, and allow their prey to feeble themselves to safety, but they never do it out of mercy, and Morgan wasn’t getting bored anytime soon.

  Dear Sirs and Madams, he had typed. You may remember me. Seven years I have been lost, and while on the surface, the path that I have taken in that time may seem surprising, I assure you it has all been part of a greater plan. God’s plan.

  Just a couple of days ago she had said to him, with insupportable condescension, “There aren’t many things that people will gladly kill and die for, but this is the big one.”

  No, Eliza, Morgan thought now. This is the big one. Enjoy.

  In the service of His will, he had written to the station, I would gladly kill and die, and so gladly, too, do I defy the efforts of our government and others to conceal from the people the truth of this unholy ignominy.

  Ignominy was a good word. Morgan worried that he’d made Eliza sound too smart, but consoled himself that it couldn’t be helped.

  I couldn’t sound stupid if I tried.

  His colleagues were pressed in so close to the TV screens that he couldn’t see the images, but that was fine. He’d had leisure to study them up close—thank you, thank you, Gabriel Edinger, and thank you, naive Eliza, for not passcode-locking your phone—and he had no doubt that after today it would be he and not she who would be continuing this momentous work with Dr. Chaudhary. As soon as Eliza’s name came out, her time would be up.

  So get to it, he thought, beginning to lose patience with the broadcast. Enough with the rotting monsters. He knew the rest was just a postscript, that it was the “demons” that mattered, and as to who had leaked the pictures to the press, the world wouldn’t especially care. But Morgan needed the last piece of this puzzle to fall into place, and so when, at last, he heard the famous anchorman say, in a bemused voice, “As for the source of these startling images, well, it provides the answer to another mystery many of us had given up hope of ever solving. It’s been seven years, but you’ll remember the story. You’ll remember this young woman.”

  And now Morgan Toth did elbow his way into the throng of scientists. He wasn’t going to miss this. There on the TV was the picture that had had its time in the limelight. Seven years ago the story had come and lingered unsolved before finally frittering away into the sad land of cold cases, and Morgan could have kicked himself for not putting two and two together the first moment he met Eliza Jones. But how could he have recognized her as the girl in this picture? It was a terrible shot. Her eyes were downcast, and there was a motion blur, and anyway, he’d written her off as dead. They all had.

  The headline summed it up: CHILD PROPHET MISSING, BELIEVED MURDERED BY CULT.

  Eliza Jones, a prophet. Morgan’s first thought—well, his first coherent thought, after concussive astonishment had given way to the first of many waves of mirth—had been to get business cards printed for her, leave them somewhere for her to find. Eliza Jones, prophet. And of course he couldn’t leave out the best part. Oh boy. The thing that elevated this story to its special pinnacle of Crazytown. No, really. It was the mansion on the hill overlooking Crazytown. It was “my crazy can beat up your crazy” kind of crazy. Blindfolded. With one hand tied behind its back.

  Or one wing.

  Oh god. Morgan had actually fallen out of his chair, laughing. His elbow still smarted as a reminder. Eliza Jones’s charming family cult? These were no run-of-the-mill “chosen ones,” not they. Their spectacular difference?

  They claimed to be descended from an angel.

  DESCENDED FROM AN ANGEL.

  It was the best thing Morgan Toth had ever heard.

  Eliza Jones, Prophet

  1/512th Angel (give or take)

  That’s what the business cards were going to say. But then he’d seen what she’d e-mailed to herself from Morocco and gotten a better idea. It was playing out now.

  “We all prayed for her seven years ago,” said the highest-paid news anchor in the world. “Known to us then only as Elazael, she was believed by her… church… to be the incarnation of an angel of that same name who fell to Earth a thousand years ago. It’s quite a story, and it’s not over. In an unexpected turn of events, ladies and gentlemen, the young lady is not only alive and living under an assumed name, she is a scientist in the nation’s capital, on trac
k to earn her doctorate.…”

  And Morgan didn’t hear the rest, because someone gasped, “It’s Eliza!” and then the others erupted in a frenzy.

  And that was all right. Frenzy all you want, my fine idiots. Frenzy away, thought Morgan Toth, strolling back to his lab. It’s good to be king.

  45

  CATS OUT OF BAGS

  The next fluttering of commotion to sweep through the kasbah had a different feel from the start. No Insh’Allahs or gazing skyward this time. There was disbelief, rancor, and… they appeared to be looking at… Eliza.

  Eliza had had a problem with paranoia all her life. Well, for a good chunk of her life, it hadn’t even been paranoia, but the foregone expectation of rote persecution: simple and nasty and certain. People were looking at her, and they were judging her. Back home in Florida, in a small town in Apalachicola National Forest, everyone had known who she was. And after she ran away, well. Then it was the chill at the nape of her neck, the dread of being found or recognized, the always looking over her shoulder.

  That had gradually faded—never completely—but when you lived with a secret, the paranoia was never far beneath the surface. Even if you’d done nothing wrong (which in her case was debatable), you were guilty of having the secret, and any searching glance cast your way took on this ominous meaning.

  They know. They know who I am. Do they know?

  But they didn’t. They never knew. At least, they never had before, and for that, Eliza had a particular perversity of the church to thank. They shunned “graven images”—not just of God and their “foremother,” but of the prophets as well, and after Eliza’s first vision, no more pictures of her were taken. Not that there were many before that. Her family wasn’t exactly preserve-memories-for-posterity kind of people. They were more like prepare-for-Armageddon, guns-in-a-bunker kind of people. The photo used on the news had been taken by a tourist passing through Sopchoppy—that was the actual name of the town near which their church compound stood—who, alerted by a local, had snapped a picture of “those angel-cult freaks” when they came in for supplies.

 
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