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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.37
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.37

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

  That day the twelve bid farewell to the lives they had known and became Faerers, the first and only. They were halved to two sixes, two teams for two journeys. They went into training to prepare for what lay ahead, and who they were at the end was not who they had been. Things were… done to them. To their anima—the incorporeal selves that are the true totality for which bodies were only as icons fixed in space. The magi were always striving and delving, and of the Faerers they shaped something new. It was fitting, for their work was new, and it was great.

  The Faerers were chosen to be explorers, the lightbearers of their people, to voyage through all the strata of the Continuum that was the great All. The Magus Regent of the College of Cosmology had explained it to them:

  “The universes lie one upon the next as the pages of a book. But in the Continuum, every page is infinite, and the book has no end.” That was to say, each “page” extended infinitely along the plane of its existence. One could never hope to come to a universe’s edge. They had none. An explorer traveling along a plane would fly forever and find nothing to come up against. Planets and stars, yes, worlds and vacuum, on and on and no boundary at all. Nothing to cross.

  It was necessary to push through. Not along the plane, but right into it. Like the nib of a pen jammed right through the page to write itself onto the next. The magi had learned how to do it, after thousands of years of study, and such was to be the work of the Faerers: to press through, and write themselves and their race onto each new world as they met it.

  One Six in one direction, the other in the opposite. For the rest of their lives the distance between the teams would grow—to the greatest distance, no less, that had ever been achieved between members of their race or any other. This was the pinnacle of achievement of a very, very old world: no less than to map the totality of the great All and stitch the fullness of the Continuum together with their light. To open doors and go, and go, universe to universe to universe. To know them, and by knowing, in some fashion claim them.

  Each Six would be everything to one another—companions and family, defenders and friends, and lovers, too. They were charged, in addition to their prime directive, to bear heirs to their knowledge. They were three and three, men and women, and that was how the magi had framed the directive: not to beget “children” but “heirs to their knowledge.”

  They were to be the birth of a tribe, something more than their people had ever been before. Elazael and Razgut were of the same Six, with Iaoth and Dvira, Kleos and Arieth, and their direction was set. Another night of blazing light to draw the eyes of the godstars to them. For the glory of all seraphim, this great deed before them, a spreading of wings that would never be forgotten, a departure that would echo through time, and then one day unimaginable, so far was it in the future, they or their descendants would come back home. To Meliz.

  Meliz, first and last, Meliz eternal. The home world of the seraphim.

  They would be remembered forever. Venerated. Heroes of their people, the openers of doors, the lights in the darkness. All would be glory.

  Oh, spite. Oh, misery. Laughter that gnaws like a bellyful of teeth. That wasn’t what happened. No, and no, and no, and no forever.

  The Cataclysm happened.

  It was the dream, simply and purely and terribly.

  Watch the sky.

  Will it happen?

  It can’t. It mustn’t.

  It did.

  Not every stratum of the Continuum was fit to be opened, and not every world in the infinite layering was hospitable to light, as the Faerers learned, to their very great despair.

  There was darkness unspeakable, and monsters vast as worlds swam in it.

  They let them in. Razgut and Elazael, Iaoth and Dvira, Kleos and Arieth. They didn’t mean to. It wasn’t their fault.

  Except that of course it was their fault. They cut the portal, one too far.

  But how were they to have known?

  The Stelians warned them.

  But how were they to have known to listen to the Stelians? They were too busy being chosen, oh, glory.

  Oh, misery.

  And how many portals had they cut by then? How many worlds had they “stitched together with their light”? How many laid open to the Beasts and left unprotected as they wheeled and fled, again and again? They sealed the portals as they raced back toward Meliz in panic and despair. Each portal in turn they closed behind them and then watched the Beasts sunder it and keep coming. They couldn’t hold them out. They hadn’t been taught how to do that, and so, world by world, page by page in the book that was the great All: darkness. Devouring.

  Nothing worse had ever been done, by accident or design, in all of time, in all of space, and the guilt was theirs.

  And finally there were no worlds left between the Cataclysm and Meliz. Meliz first and last, Meliz eternal. The Faerers came home, and the Beasts came behind them.

  And devoured it.

  66

  SO MUCH MORE THAN SAVED

  Eliza woke from the dream to find herself still dreaming. She’d been very deep, she was aware, and supposed she must be emerging through layers of dreams, like climbing up out of the earth, out of one of those open-pit mines that are like hell made real, and each level bringing her nearer to waking.

  It had to be a dream, though, if only because it defied reality.

  She was sitting on a step. Real enough, so far. A girl was beside her: small but not a child. A teenager, doll-pretty and wide-eyed. Staring at her.

  With an audible gulp, the girl swallowed, and said, in hesitant, accented English, “Um. I’m sorry? Or… you’re welcome? Whichever one seems… appropriate… to you?”

  “I’m sorry?” said Eliza. She meant it in the vein of: What? What did the girl mean? But she seemed to take it as an answer to her question.

  “Sorry, then,” she said, deflating. Her eyes were held wide and unblinking. Eliza shifted a glance to the young man by her side. Matching wonder in his eyes, she saw. “We didn’t mean to,” he said. “We didn’t know… that… was going to happen. They just… grew.”

  The wings, he meant: dream wings growing from Eliza’s dream shoulders. Awakening—if you could call the passage from one dream to the next awakening, which she supposed you really couldn’t, much as it felt like it—she had been aware of the change in herself, without visual confirmation or even surprise, as is the way with dreams. She turned her head now to see what it was she already knew.

  Wings of living fire. She shifted her shoulders, feeling the play of new muscles there as the wings responded, flexing and dropping a pretty rain of sparks. They were the most beautiful things Eliza had ever seen, and awe bloomed in her.

  This was a much better dream than she was used to.

  “Sorry about your shirt,” said the girl.

  At first Eliza didn’t know what she meant, but then she realized it hung loose and tattered, as though the wings had torn it when they grew. It hardly seemed consequential, except for one thing. It was an unexpected detail, for a dream.

  “How do you feel?” asked the young man, solicitous. “Are you… back?”

  Back? Back where, or… back from where? Eliza realized she had no idea where she was. What was the last thing she remembered? Being in a car in Morocco, in disgrace.

  She looked around now and beheld a twist in a narrow alley that could almost have been a stage set. Cobblestones and marble, iconic red geraniums lined up on a window ledge. Laundry lines roped overhead. Everything said “Italy” as clearly as Eliza’s glimpse of desert out the airplane window had said, “not Italy.” An old man in suspenders even leaned heavily on his cane, frozen as still as a cardboard cutout, staring at her.

  It was like a tingling, at first, the presentiment that this was not a dream. The old man’s cane had duct tape wrapped around the handle. One of the geranium plants was dead, and there was litter, and noise. Tinny horns just out of sight, a brief canine quarrel, and some kind of muffled drone lying over it all: a hiv
e sound of many distant voices. The blares and dents of the world, intruding in a dream? That was when Eliza began to understand.

  But to understand her situation truly, she had to listen inward.

  The sensation of stirring within her had gone still. The things known and buried, they weren’t trying to dig themselves out anymore. It took her a moment to understand why, and it was so simple. They were no longer buried.

  They were known.

  Eliza understood what she was. This realization was the mental equivalent of a slow-motion clip played in reverse: A great mess lifts itself off the floor and flies upward to arrange itself on a tabletop. Tea unpuddles and siphons itself into cups midair to land neatly on a tray. Books leap from a jumble, flapping their covers like wings, and rise to roost in a stack.

  Sense out of madness.

  It was all there, and it was still terrible—and terrible and terrible—but it was quiet now, and it was hers. She was saved.

  “What did you do to me?” she asked.

  “I don’t know,” said the girl, worried. “We didn’t know what was wrong with you, so we just made this broad kind of wish in the hope that the magic would know what to do.”

  Magic? Wish?

  “I know what was wrong with me,” Eliza said, realizing it was true. There was an explanation for the things known and buried, and it was not that she was an incarnation of the angel Elazael.

  Elation and devastation fused to become a new emotion, unnameable, and she didn’t know how to react to it. She knew what had been wrong with her, and it was not the thing she’d most feared. “It wasn’t me,” she said aloud, and this was the elation. The guilt from the dream was not, and never had been, and never would be, her own.

  But the Cataclysm was real. She understood it fully now, and this was the devastation.

  Her hands went to her head, holding it, and it felt familiar under her fingers—I’m me, Eliza—but on the inside, it, and she, encompassed a vast new territory.

  The young man and woman were watching her with furrowed brows, probably wondering if she was crazier now than she’d been before. She wasn’t. She knew this absolutely. Her brain, her body, her wings felt as finely calibrated as one of nature’s perfect creations. A double helix. A galaxy. A honeycomb. Entities so improbable and uncanny that they made you dream that Creation had a will and a wild intelligence.

  It didn’t.

  It wasn’t that she understood. No one ever could. But… she knew the source.

  Of everything.

  It was among the things known and no longer buried, all of them part of her now, orderly and intertwined, and it was so beautiful she wanted to worship it, even though she knew it had no consciousness. It would make about as much sense as worshiping the wind. She saw that magic and science were heads and tails of the same bright coin.

  And she beheld Time itself laid open before her, unzipped like a strand of DNA. Knowable. Possibly even navigable.

  Her mind trembled at the brink of this new vastness. She was saved, she had thought, moments ago. She saw now that she was more than saved. So much more than saved.

  “So,” she said, trying not to cry as she fixed her saviors with all the warmth her eyes could bestow. “Who are you guys?”

  67

  A SPRAY OF SPARKS

  Karou followed Akiva away from the Papal Palace, and they were glamoured, so when she came to him it was clumsy. But only for the first surprised seconds.

  She didn’t even mean to do it. Well, it’s not that it was an accident. They didn’t stumble against each other with their faces. It was only that her body didn’t run it by her brain first.

  She knew where he was by heat and airflow, and she meant to follow him to the cupola of St. Peter’s. From there, the four of them planned to watch Jael’s exodus and escort the Dominion army unseen all the way back to Uzbekistan, and through to Eretz.

  But a part of Karou was still poised at the edge of that hurled knife, hearing the scream she had almost become. She couldn’t see Akiva, to reassure herself that he was well, and so she couldn’t catch her breath. They had no victory to celebrate yet except for being alive, and that was all she could bring herself to care about in the moment it took her to catch up to him. They were over the plaza, Michelangelo’s colonnades curving beneath them like outstretched arms.

  Karou reached for where Akiva’s shoulder might be and got wing instead. A spray of sparks, and he turned into her touch, startled by it, so she careened into him and he caught her against him, and that was all it took.

  Magnets collide, and swiftly align.

  Her hands found his face, and her lips followed. She was clumsy, showering kisses of thanks on his invisible face. She was overwhelmed, and her lips landed where they would—on his brow, then his cheekbone, then the bridge of his nose—and in the profound relief of the moment she barely registered the sensation of his skin against hers: the heat and texture—at last—of Akiva against her lips.

  She dropped one hand to his heart to be sure it hadn’t been some illusion, that he was truly whole and uninjured, and he was, and so her palm, satisfied, joined her other in slipping to where his neck met his jaw to hold his face steady and gauge the location of his lips.

  He didn’t wait for her to find them.

  A beat of his wings and he surged through the air with such force that she was melded to him more completely even than when they had embraced in the shower, and her face was not against his chest this time, nor her feet planted on the floor.

  Her legs twined with his. She smoothed her hands up his neck and into his hair and held his head as she was swept away with him, spiraling.

  Finally. Finally, they kissed.

  Akiva’s mouth was hungry and sweet and rich and slow and hot, and the kiss was long and deep and every other measure of scope there was except for infinite. It wasn’t that. A kiss must end for another to begin, and it did, and did again.

  Kiss gave way to kiss, and in the eyes-closed, all-consuming world of their embrace, Karou had the sensation that each kiss encompassed the last. It was hallucinatory: Kiss within kiss within kiss, going deeper and deeper and sweeter and hotter and headier, and she hoped that Akiva’s equilibrium was guiding them because she’d lost all sense of her own. There was no up or down; there were only mouths, and hips, and hands—

  —and now she registered the heat and texture of him. The smoothness, the roughness, the realness.

  A kiss while flying, invisible, above St. Peter’s Square. It sounded like a fantasy but felt so very, very real.

  And then a shared smile was shaping their mouths, and laughter came between them. They were breathless with relief—and with simple oxygen deprivation, too, because who had time to inhale? They rested their foreheads together, and the tips of their noses, and paused to let it all sink in. The kiss, their breath, and all that they’d just done.

  Human soldiers patrolled beneath them, wondering at a sudden gust of sparks, and Karou and Akiva spun there in the air, held aloft by magic and languid wingbeats, and held together by a pull they’d felt from the very moment of first meeting, on a battlefield long ago.

  Karou touched Akiva’s heart again, reassuring herself. “How did you do that?” she asked quietly, her head still spinning from the kiss. “Back there.”

  “I don’t know. I never know. It just comes.”

  “The knife passed right through you. Did you feel it?” She wished she could see him, but since she couldn’t, she kept a hand on his face and her forehead to his.

  She felt his nod, and his breath brushed her lips when he spoke. “I did and didn’t. I can’t explain it. I was there and not there. I saw it hit me and keep going.”

  She was silent for a moment, processing this. “Is it true, then, what Jael said? That you’re… invisible to death? I don’t have to worry about you ever dying?”

  “I don’t think that’s true.” He traced the contours of her face with his lips, as though he could see her like that. “But you
would have resurrected me in any case.”

  Is that what would have happened, if Akiva had died? Or would they have lost control of the situation and all been overpowered? Karou didn’t even want to think about it. “Sure,” she said with false lightness. “But let’s not be casual about this body, okay?” She nuzzled him back. “It may be your soul that I love, but I’m pretty keen on its vessel, too.”

  Her voice had dropped lower as she spoke, and his response was low and husky in kind. “I can’t say I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and brushed his face past hers to kiss a place beneath her ear, sending instant, electric frissons coursing through her body.

  She gave a faint murmur of surprise that sounded like the Oh in Oh my, but without the my, and then she saw, over Akiva’s shoulder, the ascension of the first ranks of Dominion from the Papal Palace, as Jael’s army returned to the sky.

  68

  FALLEN

  “It wasn’t our fault!” Razgut had screamed when the Faerers were sentenced, but this was a lie. It was their fault, and this knowledge made a dimension of grief and guilt in their bodies and minds that supplanted everything else they had ever been or contained.

  Home to Meliz, mindless with panic. Raise the alarm. The Six were only four now. Iaoth and Dvira had turned back to fight the Cataclysm and been devoured.

  Back to the capital and cry out: Beasts are coming! Flee! Beasts are coming!

  Some made it out, through a back door, as it were. The worlds were layered, like a stack of pages. The Beasts came from one direction, laying waste to everything in their path. Those who could fled in the other direction, to the neighbor world the other side: Eretz. There was no time to organize an evacuation. Some thousands out of millions made it out. Not even ten thousand, not even as many as that. All the rest were left behind.

  The many, the colors. The jewels shaken out on a tapestry. A world’s richest offering. Lost.

 
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