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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.38
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.38

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

  Many made it all the way to the portal only to be denied. It was small, the cut. Two or three at a time might squeeze through; it was slow, and the Beasts were coming. Screams from on the other side, they echoed in Razgut’s ears to this day as the scream of a whole dying world. He remembered how abruptly it had cut to silence, and how some of the last to make it through were still reaching back for loved ones trapped on the other side.

  So the portal was closed, but this the Faerers had done dozens of times in their retreat, and it had never held the Beasts out yet. Once wounded, the skin between the worlds never fully healed. It would have failed again, and the Cataclysm would have taken Eretz, too, and then Earth, and every world after, through each portal cut by the second Six, however far they’d voyaged.

  But the Stelians were among those who made it out of Meliz, and they were ready. They had always opposed the Faering, and in the years since the Faerers’ departure, they had prepared themselves to do what no one else could or would: mend the skin, the veil, the membrane, the energy, the layers of the great All. They closed the portal and kept it closed, and Eretz was saved, and Earth, and all the rest.

  It was the Stelians who had saved them.

  As for the Faerers: damnation, infamy. And obliteration.

  They heard, from their prison cell, what was done to the memories of the survivors. The magi hadn’t learned not to meddle. They stole from each seraph the past, not just the Cataclysm but Meliz, too, so that their people could begin a new life. So that the people, Razgut understood, wouldn’t wake up one morning and realize where the blame truly lay: with the magi who had dreamt up the Faering in the first place, and had chosen the best of their young folk to see it through. They shared the blame. But not the punishment. Oh no, not they.

  Iaoth and Dvira were the lucky ones: swiftly eaten, swiftly dead.

  As for the rest, their wings were wrenched off. That was the first thing. Not cut. Not sliced. Pulled. Splintering bone, oh pain, oh pain like nothing they had ever dreamt. Razgut saw the other three maimed alongside him, heavy hands laid to the joints of their beautiful wings, twisting, and their faces twisting, their agony unbearable, and he felt it all. They all did, because of what they were, and what had been done to them. They were linked. What each felt, all felt, oh godstars. And the sum of all their pain, it was too much.

  And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Imagine. This was only the salt in the wound of their true punishment, which was exile.

  And even that they might have borne, and made some crippled kind of life in their prison world, Earth, but oh, spite. Oh, misery.

  They parted them. Four they were, and there were four portals, too, by ill luck or cruel planning, and they dragged them from one another to the far corners of Eretz, and threw them out. Alone. Wingless. Legs stomped to pulps. They pitched them into another world, four broken creatures, to fall from the skies and shatter against the alien landscapes there, and not even together.

  Razgut they carried out over the Bay of Beasts, and it was a beautiful day and the water was green, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A beautiful day for agony, and they carried him by his armpits to the edge of that ragged, flapping cut in the sky, and they heaved him through, and he fell.

  And fell. And fell.

  And didn’t die, because of what he was: He was what the tests had proven that long-ago day of glory, and what they had made of him after. He was a Faerer, and he was strong beyond strong, too strong to die of falling, and so he lived, if you could call it that, and he never found the others in the world of their exile, though he felt their pain—and their grief and their guilt, fourfold—until it all began to fall away. Across the years he knew it when they died, each in turn. Not how or where, but which, yes, and they who had been part of him were taken, finally and fully—Kleos, Arieth, Elazael, gone one after another—and he was truly alone. He was a small thing adrift in a great absence. He lived with a crack in his mind, a thousand years in exile.

  And oh, spite. Oh, misery. He lived still.

  Esther Van de Vloet may have lost possession—temporarily—of her wishes, but her money and influence were untouched, and she didn’t lie despairing on the bathroom floor for long. She made phone calls, went online to find photographs of the miscreants—they made it so easy, idiot youth, no sense of privacy—and e-mailed them not to the police, who had their hands full these days keeping hell from breaking loose, but to a private firm who knew her reputation well enough to be at once pleased and dismayed to hear from her.

  “They’re in Rome,” she said. “Find them. Payment will be twofold. First, a million euros. I imagine that will suffice?” Of course it would, they assured her, not more pleased by the obscene sum but less, sensing, surely, what must come next. “Second,” said Esther, “succeed and I won’t destroy you.”

  After that, she paced. Waiting was for soldiers’ wives, and she abhorred it. Traveller and Methuselah kept out of her way, bewildered and miserable. The drapes were still yanked wide, not because Esther had any care for the sky, but because they’d been left that way. Her pacing carried her past the windows, but she didn’t turn her head. She felt fluorescent with rage. She had been robbed, violated. She had no sense of irony or just desserts. Only tremulous, vision-narrowing, warpath fury.

  God knows how many turns she took, pacing past the window, before she finally noticed the change in the sky, and her night went from bad to oh so very very bad.

  The angels had risen.

  Cries spread through the streets below. Esther wrenched open the glass doors and rushed onto the balcony. “No.” She felt her voice in her gut, moanlike, and pulled it up and out, unreeling it in strips, moan by moan, each one the same simple word—“No. No. No.”—flayed from her like meat and pulled out raw.

  The angels were leaving?

  What about her? What about their deal? She had given them Karou, and promised so much more—everything they’d need to conquer the world beyond that veil of sky. Arms, ammunition, technology, even personnel. And what had she asked in return?

  Not much. Only mining rights. To an entire world. An entire undeveloped world with a slave population already in place, and an army to guard her interests. Esther had made certain that she had no competition, that no other offers reached the angels, and no bribes topped her own. It was the single greatest negotiating coup of all time. Or, it had been, and Esther Van de Vloet had to watch, trembling and speechless, as wings carried it away.

  “Not much,” Karou had said, evasive. “Just persuade them to go home.”

  And so, it seemed, they had.

  They were gone, and the sky was empty again. Esther fumbled on the TV and watched the helicopter’s-eye view along with the rest of the world as the “heavenly host” retraced the journey it had made from Uzbekistan three days earlier.

  “The Visitors appear to be leaving,” announced the more coolheaded pundits, though it could not be said that cool heads prevailed on this day. “They’re abandoning us!” was the more common refrain. It was a turn of events that called for blame. At the angels’ first appearance in the sky, the crowds at the Vatican perimeter left off chanting and began to cheer and cry out in ecstasy. But when the phalanxes re-formed and began to move off, cheers turned to wails, and the lamentation began.

  The Pope could not be reached for comment.

  By the time Esther’s phone rang, she had gone far beyond fury to a bright white echoing place that might have been the waiting room to madness. To have come so close to greatness and have it snatched away… But the sound of the ring was like fingers snapping in front of her eyes.

  “Yes, what? Hello?” she answered, disoriented. She couldn’t have said who she expected it to be. The agency she’d hired to track down the wish thieves would probably have been her guess, and her best hope. The angels had flown. Esther had lost, somehow, and she was not such a fool as to imagine she would get another chance at a power play like this. So when it was Spivetti on the line—the steward who had,
at Cardinal Schotte’s behest, been doing her bidding inside the Papal Palace—a flare of hope went up in her. Of salvation.

  “What is it?” she demanded. “What’s happened, Spivetti? Why did they go?”

  “I don’t know, ma’am,” he said. He sounded shaken. “But they’ve left something behind.”

  “Well?” she demanded. “What is it?”

  “I… I don’t know,” said Spivetti. The man was beside himself, and might have given some rudimentary description had Esther demanded it, but she did not. In her greed, she was already hurtling down the long hallway.

  It took her hours to get into the Vatican, through the pulsing, stinking, wailing crowd and the military checkpoints. Hours and dozens of phone calls, favors cashed in and favors promised, and when she finally arrived, disheveled and wild-eyed, she mistook Spivetti’s look of horror for a reaction to the sight of her, when in fact it had predated her by some hours, and would linger long after she had gone.

  “Take me there,” she barked.

  And that was how Esther Van de Vloet came at last into Jael’s chamber and approached the grand, carved bed. It was dim. Her eyes were scanning for a casket of treasure, maybe, some object of wealth. A message even, a map. She didn’t sense the presence until she was practically on top of it, and by then it was too late. The shadows reached for her and they were arms. Spindly and as tough as rawhide, they eased around her, almost caressing. Like a lover settling a shawl down over her shoulders. That thought came and went. The arms tightened and flushed from shadow to flesh, so that Esther Van de Vloet saw, for the first time, the thing that was going to be her companion to the end of her days.

  It was both promise and threat when he said to her, in a coarse, chuckling mewl: “You’ll never be lonely again.”

  ARRIVAL + 72 HOURS

  69

  DON’T LET THE SKY-FLAP THINGY HIT YOU ON THE WAY OUT

  On the twelfth of August at 9:12 GMT, a thousand angels vanished through a cut in the sky.

  There had been no witnesses to their arrival. Heavenscapes of cumulus clouds had been imagined, rays of light escaping aslant, like a picture from a Sunday school workbook. The truth was less impressive. One by one through a flap. There was almost a livestock quality to it. Sheep to the shearing, cows to the slaughter, on you go. At a rate of approximately six seconds per soldier, it took more than two hours, and this was plenty of time for a cadre of helicopters to amass behind them.

  In keeping with their established inability to decide on a course of action regarding the angels, the leaders of the world balked at attempting to send a mission through behind them. What message would this send? What diplomatic consequences might there be? Whose ass was on the line?

  It took a billionaire independent adventurer to attempt it. Piloting his own state-of-the-art helicopter, he hesitated just long enough to line his craft up with the cut, keeping a fixed visual the whole time. He had begun acceleration when the fire flared.

  Fire in the sky.

  He kicked aside just in time and had a front-row view of the burn: fast and bright and over, and with it, his chance at his fourth world record. First manned mission to… heaven? Who knew?

  No one. And now they never would.

  Zuzana, Mik, and Eliza watched the fire in the sky on the TV in a corner bar in Rome, and toasted success with prosecco.

  “What do you want to bet Esther never drank that champagne she ordered?” Mik gloated, taking a deep swill of bubbly.

  After all their worry and Evil Esther’s fell contrivances, Karou, Akiva, and Virko had pulled it off. The angels were out, and they had definitely not been carrying guns.

  “In your face, fake grandma,” Zuzana crowed, but her triumph was chased by sorrow. The portal was closed, and a violin case full of wishes wouldn’t get her back to Eretz, where anything could still be happening. There was nothing to do now but keep worrying, and possibly mope.

  “What do you want to do?” she asked Mik. “Go home?”

  He blew out a breath. “I guess. See our families. Plus, a certain giant, wicked marionette is probably very lonely.”

  Zuzana scoffed. “He can stay lonely. My ballerina days are over.”

  “Well. You could make him a wife at least, so he can enjoy his retirement.”

  At Mik’s mention of the word wife, something inside Zuzana fizzed. She smothered it with a scowl.

  Eliza looked at them, perplexed. “You’re going back to Prague?”

  Zuzana shrugged, ready to sink into a good, slumpy self-pity jag. Maybe I’ll even cry, she thought. “What are you going to do?”

  “I can tell you what I’m not going to do,” she said. Her wings were glamoured, which she’d somehow figured out how to do on her own, and her torn shirt didn’t even look that weird. It could practically have been fashion. “I’m not going to finish my dissertation. Sorry, Danaus plexippus.”

  “Who?” asked Mik.

  Eliza smiled. “Monarch butterfly. That’s what I research.” She paused, corrected herself. “Researched. I can’t go back to that life, not now, as much as I yearn to demolish Morgan Toth with the most excruciating forehead smack of all time. What I want to do?” She looked at them intently, her eyes so big and bright. “Is go to Eretz.”

  Zuzana and Mik just looked at her. Zuzana cut a significant glance at the TV screen, where they’d all just watched the portal burn.

  Eliza, cottoning to this nonverbal language, raised eyebrows and shoulders in a fully committed Yeah, so?

  Mik released an even breath. Zuzana scarcely dared to hope, but when Eliza started talking again, it wasn’t about Eretz.

  “Did you know, monarch butterflies migrate five thousand miles, round-trip, every year? No other insect does anything like it. And the most amazing thing about it is that the migration is multigenerational. The ones who return north aren’t the same ones that went south the year before. They’re several life cycles removed, but somehow they retrace the route.”

  She was silent for a moment, a weird little smile playing at her lips, like she couldn’t tell if something was funny or not. Honestly, Zuzana didn’t know what to make of Eliza now that she was non-vegetal. It wasn’t just that she was coherent. She was… more than human, somehow. It wasn’t just the wings, either. You could feel it coming off her: this energy, unknowable and crackling. What in the hell had they done to her, with one gavriel?

  “I don’t really remember how I first got interested in them. It was definitely the migration, though, and it makes so much sense now. I guess I always knew more than I knew I knew, if that makes sense.”

  “Not really,” said Zuzana, flat.

  “I’m a butterfly,” Eliza said, as if that explained it. “Several life cycles removed. Well, except more than several. A thousand years. I don’t know how many generations.”

  Zuzana frowned, waiting for her to say something that made sense. Mik, though, in much the same blasé way as he’d reacted to Karou telling them, months ago, that she was a chimaera, said only, “Cool.”

  Eliza laughed, and then she told them about Elazael. The real Elazael, and what she had been and done, and about the dream that had plagued Eliza all her life, and what it meant, and Zuzana had thought she’d lost her capacity for surprise, but she found it again in a corner bar in Rome. No, it wasn’t surprise. It was bigger than that.

  Zuzana found flummox in a corner bar in Rome. Universes. Many. And split seams in the linings of the space-time continuum. Or something. And angels who were like space explorers without ships, like science fiction but with magic in the place of science.

  “The magi did something to the Faerers’ minds,” Eliza explained. “Their anima, actually. It’s more than mind; it’s self. Part of their duty was to bear children on their journey, who would be born with all their maps and memories… coded into them. Like genetically coded ancestral knowledge. Crazy. So one day they could find the way home.”

  “And you’re one of the children,” said Mik.

 
; “Many-greats, or something.”

  “And you have the maps,” he said. “The memories.”

  Eliza nodded. It was Mik’s intensity that clued Zuzana in that something more than storytime was going on here. Maps, memories.

  Maps. Memories.

  “There’s a lot of information in here,” Eliza said, tapping her head. “I haven’t processed it yet. Throughout my family history there’s been madness. I think it’s too much for the human mind to take. It’s like an overloaded server. It just crashes. I was crashed. You uncrashed me. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”

  Zuzana’s slumpy self-pity jag was already over. She sat up straight. “If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, you can totally thank us enough.”

  Eliza skewed her lips into a contemplation pucker. “That depends. What do you think I’m saying?” Mischief gleamed in her eyes.

  Zuzana wrapped her hands lightly around Eliza’s throat and mimed throttling her. “Tell. Us.”

  “I know another portal,” said Eliza. “Duh.”

  70

  WHITE NO LONGER

  Jael’s wingbeats were clipped with fury, anything but smooth as he returned to Eretz. He practically tore his way through the portal, wishing he could damage it, damage something. Akiva. Yes. See the bastard shot full of arrows like an archery-range dummy, dancing from the Westway gibbet for all to come and goggle at.

  He looked around uneasily. Damn the bastard, he could be anywhere. Had he preceded Jael through the portal? Would he come behind? By the terms of their agreement, the moment Jael passed back into Eretz, Akiva was free to kill him in any manner other than igniting the suppurating handprint on Jael’s chest. That left him a lot of options.

  And Jael had just as many. More, because he wasn’t held back by honor, which does shorten a list of ways to kill your enemy.

  It was not lost on him that his very survival depended upon his enemy having honor, but this did not in any way oblige him to play by the same rules. On the contrary, it was critical that he draw first blood. He would not be able to rest until the bastard was dead.

 
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