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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.28
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.28

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

  He was frowning, listening.

  “But the idea that I could be descended from one? Now that’s crazy! Ship Eliza home, get her some help, and for heaven’s sake, keep her the hell out of my mind palace!” She laughed, mirthless. “You don’t serve my kind in there, isn’t that it? Whoever heard of a black angel, anyway? And a woman to boot. This must be so difficult for you, doctor.”

  He shook his head. He looked pained. “Eliza. That’s not it.”

  “I’ll tell you what ‘it’ is,” she said, but she held on to it, for a second, wondering if she was really going to do it. Tell it. Here. To these hypocritical, doubting men. She looked from one to the other, from Dr. Chaudhary’s pained dismay and… embarrassment, for her—for her delusion, her sad display—to Dr. Amhali’s trembling contempt. Not the greatest audience for a revelation, but in the end it didn’t matter. Eliza’s new certainties had grown beyond concealing.

  “My family,” she said, “are miserable, vicious, pitiless people, and I will never forgive them for what they did to me, but… they’re right.” She raised her eyebrows and turned to Dr. Amhali. “And yes, I do still have visions, and I hate them. I didn’t want to believe any of it. I didn’t want to be part of it. I tried to escape from it, but it doesn’t matter what I want, because I am. Funny, isn’t it? My fate, it’s my DNA.” Back to Dr. Chaudhary. “This should keep the delegates of Science and Faith busy arguing in the halls. I am descended from an angel. It’s my goddamn genetic destiny.”



  There was nothing for it, after that. After they perp-walked her through the site, every set of eyes drilling into her, malicious and condemning. After they put her in a car and slammed the door and ordered her returned to Tamnougalt to await her escort home. It was a couple of hours’ drive, the sere pre-Saharan landscape of the Drâa Valley surrounding her in all directions, and she had nothing to occupy her but her strange coursing exaltation and outrage.

  Well, nothing but that and… all the things known and buried.

  All the many stirring things. A corner protruding from a floodplain—maybe a cask or maybe a world. All she had to do was blow away the dust. Eliza started laughing. There, in the backseat of the car, laughter poured from her like a new language. Later, when the government agents came to fetch her, the driver would report it, as preamble to explaining what happened after.

  When she stopped laughing.

  Back in the “good old days” when she’d had nothing to worry about but building a monster army in a giant sandcastle in the wilderness, Karou had periodically driven a rusty truck over rutted earth and long straight roads to reach Agdz, the nearest town where she might, with her hair covered by a hijab, pass unremarked while buying supplies. Bulk bags of couscous, crates and crates of vegetables, chewy, hardscrabble chickens, and a king’s treasury of dried dates and apricots.

  She looked down on Agdz now, from the sky. Unremarkable. She passed over it, feeling the pull of the others in her wake, and kept going. Their destination lay a little farther on, and was somewhat more remarkable. She spotted the palm grove first, an oasis, the green as surprising as spilled paint on brown ground. And there, within: crumbling mud walls so like the crumbling mud walls they’d just left behind. Another kasbah. Tamnougalt. It had a hotel, Karou remembered, the sort of sprawling out-of-the-way place that would allow for a quiet interlude for their small, strange band, while not so out of the way that they wouldn’t find what they needed.

  “We can get ourselves together here,” she said. “They should have Internet and outlets. Showers, beds, water. Food.”

  Their tiny shadow-moths grew larger as they dropped down to meet them, and they set themselves down in the shade of the palms and released their glamours. Karou took in the sight of her friends first. Zuzana and Mik looked weak and dehydrated, sweaty and showing signs of sunburn—Note to self: You can sunburn while invisible—but the worst was the strain etched into their expressions, and a disturbing laxness about their eyes that made them look unfixed, not fully present. Shell-shocked.

  What had she done, bringing them into war?

  She looked to Virko next, still afraid of what she would see in Akiva’s eyes. Virko, who had been a lieutenant of the Wolf, and one of those to leave her alone at the pit with him. The only one to look back, true, but he had left all the same. He had also saved Mik’s and Zuzana’s lives. He was stalwart and weathered, well accustomed to the rigors of flight and battle—no sunburn for him or fatigue, but the strain was there in his face, and the shock. And still the shame, Karou saw. It had been there since the pit, in every glance.

  She gave him a look that she hoped was focused and clear, and she nodded. Forgiveness? Gratitude? Fellowship? She didn’t quite know. He returned the nod, though, with a solemnity that was like ceremony, and then, finally, Karou turned to Akiva.

  She hadn’t really looked at him since the portal. She had seen him, in brief moments unglamoured, and she had been, every second, attuned to his presence, but she hadn’t looked, not at his face, not into his eyes. She was afraid, and… she was right to be afraid.

  His pain was undisguised, so raw it made her own pain sing straight to the surface, pure enough for tithing, but that wasn’t the worst part. If it was only pain, she might have found a way to go to him, to reach for his hand as she had on the other side of the portal, or even for his heart, as she had in the cave. We are the beginning.

  But… the beginning of what? Karou wondered, desolate, because there was rage in Akiva’s eyes, too, and an implacability that was unmistakable. It was hatred, and it was vengeance. It was terrifying, and it froze her in place. When she had first lain eyes on him in the Jemaa in Marrakesh, he had been absolutely cold. Inhuman, merciless. What she had seen on him then was vengeance as habit, and fury cooled by years of numbness.

  Later, in Prague, she had seen his humanity return to him, like a thaw releasing a heart from ice. She hadn’t been able to fully appreciate it at the time, because she hadn’t understood what it meant, or what he was coming back from, but now she did. He had resurrected himself—the Akiva she had known so long ago, so full of life and hope—or at least, he had begun to. She still hadn’t seen him smile the way he had back then, a smile so beautiful it had channeled sunlight and made her feel drunk with love, at once light-headed and firmly, perfectly, gratefully connected to the world—earth and sky and joy and him. Everything else had paled beside that feeling. Race was nothing, and treason just a word.

  She had just begun to feel that smile was possible again, and the feeling of effortless rightness, too, but, looking at Akiva now, it felt very far away again, and so did he.

  As she understood it, there had been several thousand Misbegotten soldiers as recently as last year, and the final berserk push of the war had reduced that number to those she knew from the Kirin caves. Akiva had endured that, survived it, and then he had endured and survived the death of Hazael, and now he was here, safe, while possibly—probably—he lost all the rest.

  What Karou saw in him was vengeance still molten, and it was wrong, it wasn’t where they were supposed to be, but it felt… inevitable. Brimstone had told her, just before her execution, “To stay true in the face of evil is a feat of strength,” but maybe, thought Karou, sick at heart, it was just too much to expect. Maybe that strength was too much to ask of anyone.

  The feeling of half death was with her still. She felt flattened out, or hollowed out. Again.

  She turned to her friends and, with effort, spoke almost evenly. “Could you two go in and get a room? Maybe it’s best if the rest of us aren’t seen.”

  She thought—hoped—Zuzana might make some sarcastic comment to that, or suggest riding right up to the gate on Virko-back or something, but she didn’t. She just nodded.

  “Do you realize,” asked Mik, in a bald effort to jostle some Zuzana-ness back into Zuzana, “that our three wishes are about to come true? I don’t know if they’ll have chocolate cake here,

  Zuzana cut him off. “I’m changing my wishes anyway,” she said, and counted them off on her fingers. “One: for our friends to be safe. Two: for Jael to drop dead, and three…”

  Whatever she meant to say next, she didn’t manage it. Karou had never seen her friend look so lost and fragile. She cut in. “If it doesn’t include food,” she reminded Zuzana gently, “it’s a lie. At least, so I’ve been told.”

  “Fine.” Zuzana took a deep breath, centering herself. “Then I could really use some world peace for dinner.” She was all dark-eyed intensity. Something was lost in her. Karou saw it and mourned. War does that, nothing for it. Reality lays siege. Your framed portrait of life is smashed, and a new one thrust upon you. It’s ugly, and you don’t even want to look at it let alone hang it on the wall, but you have no choice, once you know. Once you really know.

  And who was Zuzana going to be, now that this knowledge was hers?

  “World peace for dinner,” mused Mik, scratching his beard stubble. “Does that come with fries?”

  “It freaking better,” said Zuzana. “Or I will send it freaking back.”

  The angel’s name was Elazael.

  The church founded by her descendants—and they preferred the term church to cult, naturally—was called the Handfast of Elazael, and every girl child born in the bloodline was christened Elazael. If, then, by puberty, she had not manifested “the gift,” she was rechristened by another name. Eliza had been the only one in the last seventy-five years to hold on to it, and she had often thought that the worst thing of all—the cherry on the cake of her awful upbringing—was the envy of the others.

  Nothing glitters in the eyes like envy. Few could know this as profoundly as she did. It had to be something special to grow up knowing that any given member of your large extended family would probably kill and eat you if it meant they could have your “gift” for themselves, Renfield-style.

  The Handfast was matriarchal, and Eliza’s mother was the current high priestess. Converts were called “cousins,” while those of the blood—venerated even if they didn’t have “the gift”—were “the Elioud.” It was the term, in ancient texts, for the offspring of the better-known “Nephilim,” who were the first fruit of angels’ congress with humans.

  It was notable that in Nephilim scripture, both biblical and apocryphal, all the angels were male. The Book of Enoch—a text that was canon to no group except the Ethiopian Jews—tells of the leader of the fallen angels, Samyaza, ordering his hundred and ninety-nine fallen brethren to, essentially, get busy.

  “Beget us children,” he commanded, and they complied, and no mention was made of how the human women felt about this. Unsurprising in writings of the era, the mothers had all the agency of petri dishes, and the progeny that sprang from their wombs—accompanied by, one surmised, extreme discomfort—were giants and “biters,” whatever that meant, whom God later bade the archangel Gabriel to destroy.

  And maybe he did. Maybe they had existed, all of them: Gabriel and God, Samyaza and his crew and all their enormous biting babies. Who knows? The Elioud dismissed the Book of Enoch as absurd, which was kind of the pot calling the kettle black, Eliza had always thought, but wasn’t that what religions did? Squint at one another and declare, “My unprovable belief is better than your unprovable belief. Suck it.”

  More or less.

  The Handfast had its own book: the Book of Elazael, of course, according to which there weren’t two hundred fallen angels. There were four, two of whom were female, one of whom mattered. Victims of corruption in the highest rank of angels, they were maimed and cast unjustly out of Heaven a thousand years ago. What had become of the three other Fallen, or whether they did any begetting of their own, was unknown, but Elazael, for her part, by way of congress with a human husband, was fruitful and multiplied.

  (As a side note, it said a lot about Eliza’s insular childhood and early education—or lack thereof—that she was a teenager before she learned that the governing body of the United States was called “Congress.” In her world, it meant the act that leads to “begetting.” Coupling. Loin fruit. Doing it. As a consequence, congress still sounded sexual to her every time she heard it—which, living in Washington, D.C., was often.)

  In the Book of Elazael, unlike in the patriarchal Book of Enoch, or Genesis for that matter, the angel wasn’t the giver of seed, but the receiver. The angel was mother, was womb, and, credit nature or nurture, her offspring weren’t monstrous.

  At least not physiologically.

  The Book of Elazael wasn’t written down until the late eighteenth century—by a freed slave named Seminole Gaines who married into the matrilineal clan and became its most charismatic evangelist, growing the church, at its height, to number nearly eight hundred worshippers, many of whom were also freed slaves. Of the angel Elazael herself, he wrote that she was “ebon-dark, and the quicks of her eyes white as starfire,” though, living eight hundred years after she did, he was hardly an unimpeachable source. Beyond that obviously massive heresy—a black mother angel; no, even better: a fallen black mother angel—the book was actually pretty orthodox, derivative enough that it could almost have been the result of an epic session of magnetic poetry, Bible edition.

  You know, if magnetic poetry had existed in the late eighteenth century. Or refrigerator doors.

  In any case, what Eliza wanted to know about her heritage would not be found in the Book of Elazael. At least, not that edition. The real book of Elazael was within her.

  She… contained it. Not in her blood, though only those of the blood had it. It was, in fact, encoded on the thread of her life, that tether hooking soul to body that would be found on no anatomy chart ever drawn in this world. She didn’t know that, even as she fell headlong into it, in the backseat of a car on a long, straight road.

  Right into the heart of the madness that had claimed each and every “prophet” to come before her.



  There were no french fries to be had at Tamnougalt, and, in what Zuzana considered a blatant breach of hospitality laws, there was no chocolate, either—except in liquid form, that is, and hot chocolate just wasn’t going to cut it right now. But if she was back to her old self enough to crave these things, she was not back to her old self enough to complain about them.

  And I never will be again, she thought morosely, sitting in the shade on the rooftop terrace of this new kasbah. Well, not new, obviously. New to her. It was strange to see people ambling around in their cool leather slippers, at home in this place that reminded her so much of “monster castle.” Just add a few homey flourishes, like Berber drums and some big woven cushions laid out on dusty rugs, fat candlesticks bearing years of wax drippings. Oh, and electricity and running water. Civilization, of a sort.

  Though Zuzana rather doubted that any running water ever would be able to compete with the thermal pools at the Kirin caves for awesomeness. After Karou had left her and Mik alone in there, they had indulged in a daydream of bringing people to the caves from Earth—not rich adventure tourists, either, but people who needed and deserved it—to “take the healing waters.” They’d be carried on the backs of stormhunters, and sleep on fresh furs in the old family dwellings. Candlelight and wind music, a banquet under the stalactites of the great cavern. Imagine, being able to give that experience to someone. And Zuzana didn’t even like people! It had to be Mik’s good nature rubbing off on her, whether she wanted it to or not.

  They had the rooftop terrace to themselves for the moment. The others were down in the room, hiding out, sleeping, and doing research. Mik and Zuzana had taken it upon themselves to procure food, and so here they were, menus spread before them on plastic tablecloths.

  They hadn’t talked at all about the battle. What was there to say? Hey, Virko sure tore that angel apart, huh? Like he was slow-cooked chicken, ready to fall off the bone. Zuzana didn’t want to talk about that, and she didn’t want to talk about the other things she’d seen
as they made their escape, or to compare notes and know whether Mik had seen them, too. It would make them more real, if he had. Like seeing Uthem, whose revenant necklace she had strung herself, set upon by a half-dozen Dominion. And Rua, the Dashnag who had carried Issa through the portal. How many others?

  “You know what?” Zuzana said. Mik looked up questioningly. “I am too going to complain. Why even bother living if you can’t complain about the absence of chocolate? What kind of life would that be?”

  “A pale one,” said Mik. “But what absence of chocolate? What’s wrong with this?” He was pointing at the menu.

  “You better not be messing with me.”

  “I would never joke about chocolate,” he said, hand to heart. “Look. You’re missing a page.”

  And she was. And there it was, in black and white on Mik’s menu, spelled out, as every item was, in five languages, as if chocolate were not universally understood:

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