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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.27
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.27

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

  “Those angel-cult freaks” had been a local story for decades, but had only exploded nationally when Eliza disappeared. Her mother—the “high priestess”—only reported her missing weeks after the fact, desperate enough for help finding her lost prophet to go to the officials she scorned as idolaters and heathens. Of course, it had looked fishy, and society is not predisposed to give cults the benefit of the doubt. The headline had snagged the national imagination like a briar: CHILD PROPHET MISSING, BELIEVED MURDERED BY CULT.

  That’ll do it.

  Eliza could have cleared them at any time. She could have come forward—she was in North Carolina by then—and said, “Here I am, alive.” But she hadn’t. There was no pity in her for them. None. Not then, not now, not ever. And, as a body was never found—though it was looked for, assiduously, for months—eventually the law had had to leave them alone. Lack of evidence, they’d cited, though this had swayed neither public opinion nor the minds of the investigators. It was a sordid affair, and you had only to look into the eyes of the mother, they said, to know the worst. One of the detectives had gone so far as to state, on camera, that he had interrogated the Gainesville Ripper in his career, and he had interrogated Marion Skilling—her name, it was not lost on the tabloids, contracted to Marion’s killing—and they gave you the same sense in your soul of pitching headlong into a dark hole.

  “I find it difficult to sleep, knowing that woman is free in the world.”

  A sentiment shared wholeheartedly by Eliza.

  The upshot was, the girl Elazael must certainly be buried somewhere in the vastness of Apalachicola Forest. There was not an iota of doubt.

  At least, not until today.

  “Eliza, come with me, please.”

  Dr. Chaudhary. He was rigid. Behind him, Dr. Amhali was… worse than rigid. He was livid. He was breathing like a cartoon bull, Eliza thought, her mind taking refuge in inanity even as she understood what must be happening, at long last, after seven years of dreading it.

  Oh god, oh god.

  Oh godstars.

  Another tarot card turned over in her mind and gave that to her. Godstars. It tickled her memory, but she couldn’t stop to consider it, not just now. “What’s the matter?” she asked, but Dr. Chaudhary had already turned and walked away, fully expecting her to follow. And they were in the middle of nowhere, in a hot, killing land, at the center of a military perimeter. What else could she do?

  The cat was out of the bag. The corpses were out of the pit. Karou hadn’t even considered this possibility. It felt like a violation, as if her home had been invaded.

  Some home, she thought. She had been deeply miserable here. It was a chapter of her life she had no wish to revisit, and yet she couldn’t help circling nearer, peering down at the figures moving beneath her. She passed in front of the sun and saw her own shadow—tiny with distance—hover and flitter like a dark moth among the folk down below. She could disguise herself, but not her shadow, and someone—a young black woman—caught sight of it and looked up. Karou moved back, drawing her shadow-moth away with her.

  She could smell the rankness of the chimaera corpses even from up here. This was bad. Her whole plan of avoiding a conflict that would pit “demons” against “angels” was up in smoke. Or rather, stupidly, not up in smoke. “I should have burned them,” she told Akiva, whose presence she felt by her side as heat and the stir of wingbeats. “What was I thinking?”

  “I can burn them now,” he offered.

  “No,” she said, after a pause. “That would be worse.” If all the corpses were to suddenly combust? No matter that it was seraphim who commanded the fire to do such a thing, it would look… infernal. “There’s no undoing this. We just get on with it.”

  He didn’t answer right away, and his silence was heavy. It was a mercy they couldn’t see each other, because Karou was afraid of the pain she would find in Akiva’s eyes, as they moved further into their purpose here, obeying their heads and not their hearts. They would return to Eretz when they had done their part here, and not before. And what would they find when they did?

  There was an odd feeling of half death settling over her with the realization that the best they could hope for now was not very much at all, even if they succeeded here and drove Jael, weaponless, back to Eretz. What then, for themselves? There wasn’t even a future of tithing and bruises now, life squeezed in around the edges, and stolen tastes of “cake” to sweeten a difficult life. Cake for later, cake as a way of life. All of that was gone, smothered by a falling sky, shadows chased by fire: an enemy that was, simply, as Karou had known all along, too great to defeat.

  How had she managed to hope otherwise?

  Akiva. He had persuaded her. A look from him, and she’d found herself ready to believe in the impossible. It was a good thing that she couldn’t see him now. If his belief had kindled hers so completely, what would the sight of his despair do to her, or hers to him? She thought of the despair that had surged through them all in the cave and wondered: Had it been Akiva’s own? Did such darkness exist in him?

  “How?” he asked. “How do we find Jael?”

  How? That was the easy part. Bless Earth for telecom. All they needed was Internet access and an outlet to charge their phones so she could call some contacts. Mik and Zuze would probably like to let their families know they were okay, too. The two of them were on the ground now with Virko, a couple of miles away, hiding in the shadow of a rock formation. Even in the shade it was dangerously hot. Deadly hot, in fact, and they needed water. Food, too. Beds.

  Karou’s heart hurt. Contemplating even these bare thresholds of life felt like unspeakable luxury. But it’s a different matter to take care of loved ones’ needs than it is to take care of one’s own, and for that reason she considered seeking food and rest. Zuzana hadn’t spoken a word since they came through the portal. Her first close encounter with “all this war stuff” had taken a toll on her, and the rest of them weren’t much better off.

  “There’s a place we can go,” Karou told Akiva. “Let’s go get the others.”

  46

  PIE AND DANDELIONS

  “How could you think… how could you think I would do this?”

  Eliza was aghast. It was so much worse than she’d feared. She’d guessed that Dr. Chaudhary had found out who she was, and oh, he had, but that wasn’t the extent of it, and this… this…

  It could only be the work of that weasel, Toth. No. Weasel did not begin to express the depravity of Morgan Toth now.

  Hyena, maybe: carrion-eater, grinning jut-toothed over the carnage he had wrought.

  She didn’t know how he had found out about her—People with secrets, she recalled with a shudder, shouldn’t make enemies—but she did know that only he could have accessed the encrypted photos. Did he even know what he had done by exposing this gravesite to the world? The real question was: Did he even care? He’d been smart, though, and kept himself invisible in all of it. She could just imagine him, flipping his bangs off his too-high forehead as he set catastrophe in motion.

  Dr. Chaudhary took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. A stalling tactic, Eliza knew. They had come into the nearest of the tents at the bottom of the hill, and the death smell was ripe around them, even in the chill of the refrigerated air. Dr. Amhali had shown her the broadcast on a laptop, and she was still trying to process it. She felt sick. The pictures. Her pictures, seen like that, without proper context. They were horrific. What was the response, out in the world? She remembered the chaos in the National Mall two nights ago. How bad was it now?

  When Dr. Chaudhary lowered his hand, his look was direct even if his eyes were slightly unfocused without his glasses. “Are you saying you didn’t do it?”

  “Of course I didn’t. I would never—”

  Dr. Amhali butted in. “Do you deny that they are your photographs?”

  She swung to regard him. “I took them, but that doesn’t mean that I—”

  “And they were sent
from your e-mail.”

  “So it was hacked,” she said, an edge of impatience coming into her voice. It was so obvious to her, but all the Moroccan doctor could see was his own fury—and his own culpability, since he was the one who’d brought them here to drag his country into infamy. “That message was not from me,” said Eliza, stalwart. She turned back to Dr. Chaudhary. “Did it sound like me? Unholy ignominy? That’s not… I don’t…” She was floundering. She looked at the dead sphinxes behind her mentor. Never had they seemed unholy to her, and never had the angels seemed holy, either. That wasn’t what was going on here. “I told you last night, I don’t even believe in God.”

  But she could see the shift in his eyes, the suspicion, and realized belatedly that reminding him of last night might not be the best strategy. He was looking at her as if he didn’t know her. Frustration welled up in her. If she’d merely been framed for leaking the photos to the press, he might have believed in her innocence and been willing to support her. If she hadn’t had an apparent depressive episode on the roof terrace and cried enough tears to flood a desert. If she hadn’t been unmasked as a dead child prophet. If if if.

  “Is it true, what they’re saying?” Dr. Chaudhary asked. “Are you… her?”

  She wanted to shake her head. She wasn’t that blurry girl with the downcast eyes. She was not Elazael. She might have changed her name more decisively when she ran away and shed that life, but in some way, “Eliza” had felt true to her. It had been her name of secret protest as a child, the inner “normal” she’d clung to in games of pretend and mental escape. Elazael might have to kneel in prayer until her knees were white-hot, or chant until her voice was as rough as a cat’s tongue. Elazael might be forced to do many things—many and more—that she did not want to do. But Eliza?

  Oh, she was outside playing. Normal as pie and free as dandelions. What a dream.

  And so she’d kept the name, and lived it as best she could: pie and dandelions. Normal and free, though in truth it had always felt like an act. Still, from the age of seventeen on, it was Elazael who was the secret self locked inside, and Eliza who lived in the open—like the prince and the pauper who switched places: the one elevated, the other dispossessed. Of course, the prince and the pauper, she was reminded now, had eventually changed back. But that wasn’t going to happen to her. She would never be Elazael again. But she knew that wasn’t what Dr. Chaudhary meant, and so, reluctantly, she nodded.

  “I was her,” she corrected. “I left. I ran away. I hated it. I hated them.” She took a deep breath. Hate wasn’t the right word. There wasn’t a right word; there wasn’t a big enough word for the betrayal Eliza felt, looking back at her childhood with an adult understanding of just how seriously she’d been abused and exploited.

  From the age of seven. Home from the hospital with a pacemaker and a new terror so big it blotted out even her fear of her mother. From the first moment her “gift” made itself known, she had become the focus of all the cult’s energies and hopes.

  The constant touching. So many hands. No sovereignty over her own self, ever. And they’d confessed their sins to her, begging forgiveness, telling her things no seven-year-old should ever have to hear, let alone punish. Her tears were collected in vials, her fingernail clippings ground into a powder and mixed into the communion bread. And her first menstrual blood? She had to avert her thoughts from that. It was still too sharp a shame, though it was half her life ago. And then there was sleep.

  At twenty-four years old, Eliza had still never spent the night with a lover. She couldn’t bear to have anyone in the room with her. For ten years she’d been made to sleep on a dais in the center of the temple, the congregation clustered around its base. Dear god. The wheezing and weeping, snoring, coughing. Whispering. Even, sometimes, in the dead of night: rhythmic, tandem panting that she hadn’t understood until much later.

  She would never be able to scrape away the memory of the collective, unwelcome breathing of dozens of people surrounding her in the night.

  They’d been waiting for the dream to visit her. Hoping for it. Praying. Vultures, hungry for scraps of her terror. If they couldn’t have the dream for themselves, they wanted to be near it. As though her screams might impart salvation, or better yet, as though maybe, just maybe, it might burst free of her—the dream, the monsters, terrible and terrible and terrible forever, amen—and pour forth its annihilation, to the woe of sinners everywhere, and the glorification of the chosen: themselves.

  As though Eliza might be the actual fount of the apocalypse.

  Gabriel Edinger had gotten nightmare ice cream, and she had gotten that.

  “I still do. I still hate them,” she said now, maybe a little too fervently. Dr. Chaudhary had put his glasses back on, and his eyes were wary behind them. When he spoke, his voice had the stilted delicacy reserved for talking to those of unsound mind.

  “You should have told me,” he said, with a glance at Dr. Amhali. He cleared his throat, evidently uncomfortable. “This could be considered a… a conflict of interest, Eliza.”

  “What? There’s no conflict. I’m a scientist.”

  “And an angel,” said the Moroccan doctor with a sneer.

  Who sneers? wondered Eliza, fadingly. She’d thought it was something only book characters did. “We aren’t… I mean they aren’t. They don’t claim to be angels,” she said, unsure why she was making any explanations on their behalf.

  “Pardon me, of course not.” Dr. Amhali was all chill sarcasm. “Descendants of. Oh, and incarnations of, let’s not forget that.” He stabbed her with a pointed look. “Apocalyptic visions, my dear? Tell me, do you still have them?” He asked it as though it were worse than absurd, as though the very notion profaned decent religion and must be punished.

  She felt herself diminishing, shrinking in the face of double accusation and scorn. Disappearing. She wasn’t Eliza, right now, in this tent, in the eyes of these men. She was Elazael. I’m not her, I’m me. How desperately she wanted to believe it. “I left all that behind,” she said. “I left.” The last part was emphatic, because it still seemed simple to her. I left. Doesn’t that mean something?

  “It must have been very difficult for you,” said Dr. Chaudhary.

  It wasn’t that it was the wrong thing to say. Under other circumstances, this conversation might have led there: to his legitimate pity in the face of her tale of hardship. Damn straight it had been difficult for her. She’d had nothing, no money or friends, no worldliness at all. Nothing but her brain and her will, the first woefully neglected—she hadn’t been given an education—and the second so often punished that it had become stunted. Not stunted enough. Kiss my will, she might have said to her mother. You will never break me.

  But under these circumstances, and in the tone in which he said it—that stilted delicacy, that patronizing indulgence—it wasn’t the right thing to say, either. “Difficult?” she returned. “And the Big Bang was just an explosion.”

  She’d said that to him last night, in jest. She’d smiled ironically and he’d chuckled. She meant it in the same spirit now… well, sort of… but Dr. Chaudhary raised his hands in a calming gesture.

  “There’s no need to get upset,” he said.

  No need to get upset? No need. What did that even mean? No reason? Because it seemed to Eliza that she had plenty of reasons. She’d been framed and she’d been outed. Her hard-earned anonymity had been snatched from her, her professional credibility from this moment forward would be entangled with the history that she’d fought so hard to hide, not even to mention this vicious allegation and the damage it could do to her, the legal ramifications of breaking her nondisclosure agreements, and… hell, the violent fallout on the world. But the most immediate reason was taking shape in this hazmat tent, in the company of two presumptuous men bent on treating her like their cardboard cutout of a long-lost victim.

  Reflexively she glanced at the laptop screen that had shown her her undoing. It was frozen on that old photo of her,
with its same old caption. CHILD PROPHET MISSING, BELIEVED MURDERED BY CULT.

  “I’m not upset,” she said, taking a series of measured breaths.

  “I don’t blame you for who you are, Eliza,” said Anuj Chaudhary. “We can’t change where we come from.”

  “Well, that’s big of you.”

  “But perhaps it’s time now to seek help. You’ve been through so much.”

  And that’s when things started to go sideways. He still had his hands upraised in that let’s-not-do-anything-rash manner, and Eliza just stared at him. What was that all about? He was acting like she was hysterical, and for a second, it made her doubt herself. Had she raised her voice? Was she wide-eyed and nostril-flared, like some kind of lunatic? No. She was just standing there, arms at her sides, and she would have sworn by anything worth swearing on—if there was anything worth swearing on—that she didn’t look crazy.

  She didn’t know how to react. It brought on a bizarre feeling of helplessness to face such an exaggerated response. “What I need help with,” she said, “is proving that I didn’t do this.”

  “Eliza. Eliza. It doesn’t matter now. Let’s just get you home, and worry about that later.”

  Her heartbeat started to pound in her ears. It was anger, it was frustration, and it was something else. Free as dandelions, she remembered. Normal as pie. Well, maybe not normal. Maybe not ever, but she would be free. She looked at her mentor, this dignified man of rare reason and intellect who stood to her as a kind of paragon of human enlightenment, and she felt his hypocrisy weighed against her truth—her own new knowing—and there was no contest. “No,” she said, and she heard her tone, which had gone soft and slippery with her own shame, slough off all weakness. “Let’s worry about it now.”

  “I don’t think—”

  “Oh, you think plenty. But you’re wrong.” A flick of her hand toward the laptop and all it stood for with its freeze-framed news broadcast. “Morgan Toth did this. Look into it. The truth is so far beyond him, I wouldn’t expect him to get it. He might be smart, but he’s a shallow pond. You, though.” Again he tried to interject, and again Eliza silenced him. “I expected more from you. You’ve got gods strolling the hallways of your ‘mind palace’.” She put good, fat air quotes around that. “And they’re trying not to bump into the… what was it? The delegates of Science, so they can keep it cordial in there. That’s how open-minded you are, right? And now you’ve seen angels, and you’ve touched chimaera.” Chimaera. The word came to her the same way godstars had: a card flipped upside. “You know they’re real. And you know—surely you know—that, wherever they came from, they’ve been here before. All our myths and stories have a real, physical origin. Sphinxes. Demons. Angels.”

 
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