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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.4
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.4

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

  She wished she could have them on her side again instead of in a thurible, stashed away, but in a thurible they’d have to remain—for now. For how long? She didn’t know. Until such a time as was yet impossible to imagine: some time after all of this, and better than all of this, when the deception wouldn’t matter anymore.

  Should such a time ever come to pass.

  It will come to pass if we bring it to pass, she told herself.

  Thiago’s scouts had reported no seraph presence within a several-mile radius of the portal in Eretz, which was a relief, but not one Karou could trust. With Razgut in Jael’s hands, nothing was certain.

  It felt wrong to be leaving—to be fleeing—with what was set in motion, but what else could they do? They currently numbered only eighty-seven chimaera—eighty-seven “monsters,” in the eyes of this world, and possibly “demons,” if Jael succeeded in selling his charade of holiness. They were too few to defeat him or drive him back. If they attacked him now, they would not only lose, they would help him in his cause. One look at these soldiers Karou had made and humans would be shoving rocket launchers into Jael’s hands.

  With Akiva’s Misbegotten, though, at least they stood a chance.

  Of course, that was its own hornet’s nest: the alliance. Selling it to the chimaera. Treading the razor’s edge of deception to manipulate a rebel army into acting against its deepest instincts. Karou knew that every step forward would meet resistance from a large contingent of the company. To shape the future, they would have to win at every pace. And who constituted “they”? Along with herself and “Thiago,” only Issa and “Ten”—who was actually Haxaya, a soldier less evil but just as hotheaded as the real Ten had been—were in on the secret. Well, and now Zuzana and Mik.

  “What’s with you?” Zuzana had asked, incredulous, as soon as they’d left Akiva and Thiago to their negotiations. “Chumming with the White Wolf?”

  “You know what ‘chumming’ is, don’t you?” Karou had replied, evasive. “It’s throwing blood in the water to attract sharks.”

  “Well, I meant ‘being chummy,’ but I’m sure there’s a metaphor in that somewhere. What did he do to you? Are you all right?”

  “I am now,” Karou had said, and though it had been a relief to disabuse her friends of their notion of chumming, it had given her no pleasure to tell them the truth about Ziri. Both of them had cried, which had been like a pull-chain to her own tears, no doubt shoring up her appearance of weakness in the eyes of the company.

  And that she could live with, but dear gods and stardust, Akiva was another matter. Letting him believe that she was “chummy” with the White Wolf? But what was she supposed to do? She was closely watched by the entire chimaera host. Some eyes seemed simply curious—Does she still love him?—but others were suspicious, eager to damn her and weave conspiracies out of her every glance. She couldn’t give them ammunition, so she’d kept away from Akiva and Liraz at the kasbah, and tried now not even to glance in their direction, off the formation’s far flank.

  Thiago rode at the head of the host astride the soldier Uthem. Uthem was a Vispeng, horse-dragon aspect, long and sinuous. He was the largest and most striking of the chimaera, and on his back, Thiago looked as regal as a prince.

  Nearer Karou, Issa rode the Dashnag soldier Rua, while right in the middle of everything, incongruous as a pair of sparrows clinging to the backs of raptors, were Zuzana and Mik.

  Zuzana was on Virko, Mik on Emylion, and both were wide-eyed, clinging to leather straps as the chimaera’s powerful bodies heaved beneath them, climbing the air. Virko’s spiraling ram’s horns reminded Karou of Brimstone. He was felid in body, but immense: crouching cat muscle, like a lion on steroids, and from the back of his thick neck bristled a ruff of spikes, which Zuzana had padded with a wool blanket that she’d complained smelled like feet. “So my choice is to breathe feet the whole way or spear my eyeballs out on neck spikes? Awesome.”

  Now she roared, “You’re doing that on purpose!” as Virko banked hard left, causing her to slide cockeyed in her makeshift saddle of straps until he banked the other way and righted her.

  Virko was laughing, but Zuzana wasn’t. She craned her neck looking for Karou and hollered, “I need a new horse. This one thinks he’s hilarious!”

  “You’re stuck with him!” Karou called back to Zuzana. She flew nearer, having to veer around a pair of overburdened griffons. She herself was weighed down by a heavy pack of gear and a long chain of linked thuribles, many dozens of souls contained within. She clanked with every movement, and had never felt so graceless. “He volunteered.”

  Indeed, if Zuzana hadn’t been so light, it may not have been possible to bring the humans along. Virko was carrying her in addition to his full, allocated load, and as for Emylion, two or three soldiers had wordlessly taken up some of his gear so that he could manage Mik, who, though not large, wasn’t the weightless petal Zuze was. There had been no question of leaving his violin behind, either. Karou’s friends, it was clear, had won real affection from this group in a way she herself had not.

  From most of them anyway. There was Ziri. He might not look like Ziri anymore, but he was Ziri, and Karou knew…

  She knew that he was in love with her.

  “Why don’t you have a pegasus in this company?” Zuzana demanded, paling as she eyed the ever-more-distant ground. “A nice docile flying horse to ride, with a fluffy mane instead of spikes, like floating on a cloud.”

  “Because nothing is more terrifying to the enemy than a pegasus,” said Mik.

  “Hey, there’s more to life than terrifying your enemies,” said Zuzana. “Like not plunging a thousand feet to your death—aaah!” She shrieked as Virko suddenly dipped to pass beneath the smith Aegir, who was heaving hard to bear a sack of weaponry airborne. Karou seized a corner of the bag to help him and together they rose slowly higher as Virko drew ahead.

  “Better be good to her!” she called after him in Chimaera. “Or I’ll let her turn you into a pegasus in your next body!”

  “No!” he roared back. “Not that!”

  He straightened out, and Karou found herself in one of those in-between moments when her life could still surprise her. She thought of herself and Zuze, not so many months ago, at their easels in life-drawing class, or with their feet up on a coffin-table at Poison Kitchen. Mik had just been “violin boy” then, a crush, and now here he was with his violin strapped to his pack, riding with them to another world while Karou threatened monsters with resurrection vengeance for misbehavior?

  For just a moment, in spite of the burden of the weapons bag, and the thuribles, and her pack—not to mention the anvil weight of her duty and the deception and the future of two worlds—Karou felt almost light. Hopeful.

  Then she heard a laugh, bright with casual malice, and from the corner of her eye, caught sight of the flick of a hand. It was Keita-Eiri, a jackal-headed Sab fighter, and Karou saw at once what she was about. She was flashing her hamsas—the “devil’s eyes” inked on her palms—toward Akiva and Liraz. Rark, alongside her, was doing the same, and they were laughing.

  Hoping the seraphim were out of range, Karou risked a look in their direction just in time to see Liraz break mid-wingbeat and swing around, fury clear in her posture even at a distance.

  Not out of range, then. Akiva reached for his sister and restrained her from rounding on their assailants.

  More laughter as the chimaera made sport of them, and Karou’s hands gripped into fists around her own marks. She couldn’t be the one to put a stop to this—it would only make things worse. With clenched teeth she watched Akiva and Liraz draw even farther away, and the growing distance between them seemed a bad omen for this brave beginning.

  “Are you all right, Karou?” came a hiss-accented whisper.

  Karou turned. Lisseth was drawing up beside her. “Fine,” Karou said.

  “Oh? You look tense.”

  Though of the Naja race like Issa, Lisseth and her partner, Nisk, were t
wice Issa’s weight—thick as pythons beside a viper, bull-necked and burly, but still deadly quick and equipped with venomous fangs as well as the incongruity of wings. It was Karou’s own doing, all of it. Stupid, stupid.

  “Don’t worry about me,” she told Lisseth.

  “Well, that’s difficult, isn’t it? How can I not worry about an angel-lover?”

  There had been a time, a very recent time, when this insult had carried a sting. Not anymore. “We have so many enemies, Lisseth,” said Karou, keeping her voice light. “Most of them are our birthright, inherited like a duty, but the ones we make for ourselves are special. We should choose them with care.”

  Lisseth’s brow creased. “Are you threatening me?” she asked.

  “Threatening you? Now, how did you get that out of what I just said? I was talking about making enemies, and I can’t imagine any revenant soldier being dumb enough to make an enemy of the resurrectionist.”

  There, she thought as Lisseth’s face went tight. Make of that what you will.

  They were moving along all the while, steady in the air in the middle of the company, and now the density of bodies before them parted, revealing Thiago astride Uthem, doubled back into their midst. The company re-formed around them, their progress slowing.

  “My lord,” Lisseth greeted him, and Karou could practically see the tattle forming in her thoughts. My lord, the angel-lover threatened me. We need to tighten our control over her.

  Good luck with that, she thought, but the Wolf didn’t give Lisseth—or anyone—a chance to speak. In a voice pitched just loud enough to carry, while scarcely seeming to be raised, he said, “Do you think because I ride ahead I don’t know how my army acquits itself?” He paused. “You are as the blood in my body. I sense every shudder and sigh, I know your pain and your joy, and I certainly hear your laughter.”

  He swept the encircling soldiers with a look, and jackal-headed Keita-Eiri wasn’t laughing when his gaze came to rest on her.

  “If I wish you to antagonize our… allies… I will tell you. And if you suspect that I have forgotten to give you an order, kindly enlighten me. In return I will enlighten you.” The message was for everyone. Keita-Eiri was just the unlucky focus of the general’s chilling sarcasm. “How does that arrangement strike you, soldier? Does it meet your approval?”

  Her voice thin with mortification, Keita-Eiri whispered, “Yes, sir.” Karou felt almost bad for her.

  “I’m so glad.” The Wolf raised his voice now. “Together we have fought, and together endured the loss of our people. We have bled and we have screamed. You’ve followed me into fire, and into death, and into another world, but never perhaps into anything so seeming strange as this. Refuge with seraphim? Strange it may be, but I would be so disappointed if your trust failed. There is no room for dissent. Any who cannot abide our current course can leave us the moment we pass through the portal, and take their chances on their own.”

  He scanned their faces. His own was hard but lit by some inner brilliance. “As regards the angels, I ask nothing of you but patience. We can’t fight them as we once did, trusting to our numbers even as we bled. I don’t ask your permission to find a new way. If you stay with me, I expect faith. The future is shadowed, and I can promise you nothing beyond this: We will fight for our world to the last echo of our souls, and if we are very strong and very lucky and very smart, we may live to rebuild some of what we’ve lost.”

  He made eye contact with each in turn, making them feel seen and counted, valued. His look conveyed his faith in them—and more, his trust in their faith in him. He went on: “This much is plain: If we fail to thwart this pressing threat, we end. Chimaera end.” He paused. His gaze having come full circle to Keita-Eiri, he said, with caressing gentleness that somehow made the rebuke so much more damning: “This is no laughing matter, soldier.”

  And then he urged Uthem forward and they cut their way through the troops to resume their place at the head of the army. Karou watched as the soldiers silently moved back into formation, and she knew that not one of them would leave him, and that Akiva and Liraz would be safe from errant hamsa strikes for the remainder of the journey.

  That was good. She felt a flush of pride for Ziri, and also of awe. In his natural flesh, the young soldier had been quiet, almost shy—the opposite of this eloquent megalomaniac whose flesh he now wore. Watching him, she had wondered for the first time—and maybe it was stupid that she hadn’t thought to wonder it before—how being Thiago might change him.

  But the thought subsided as soon as it came. This was Ziri. Of all the many things Karou had to worry about, his being corrupted by power was not one of them.

  Lisseth, however, was. Karou looked to her, still hovering near in the air, and saw calculation in the Naja’s eyes as she watched their general resume his place.

  What was she thinking? Karou knew there wasn’t a chance in hell of Thiago’s lieutenants leaving the company, but god, she wished they would. No one knew him better, and no one would watch him more closely. As for what she’d told Lisseth about making an enemy of the resurrectionist, it hadn’t been a joke or an idle threat. If anything was certain for revenant soldiers, it was that if they went into battle often enough, eventually they’d be in need of a body.

  Bovine, thought Karou. A big slow cow for you. And the next time Lisseth shot her a glance, she thought, almost merrily, Moo.

  7

  A GIFT FROM THE WILD

  The chimaera had ridden high over the peaks now. The kasbah was behind them, the portal just ahead, though Karou could barely make it out. Even up close it presented as a mere ripple, and you had to dive through it on faith, feel its edges feather open around you. Larger creatures did best to fold back their wings and hit it with speed, and if they went just a fraction too high or low they’d feel no resistance and overshoot it, remaining right here in this sky. That didn’t happen now, though. This company knew what they were doing, and vanished through the crease one by one.

  It took time, each looming shape winking out into the ether.

  When it came Virko’s turn, Karou called, “Hold on!” to Zuzana, and she did, and they careened through the cut. Emylion and Mik went next, and Karou didn’t like having her friends out of her sight, so she nodded to the Wolf, who had circled around to see everyone through, and with one last deep breath of Earth air, she dove.

  Against her face, the feather touch of whatever unknowable membrane it was that held the worlds distinct, and she was through.

  She was in Eretz.

  No blue sky here; it arched white over their heads and darkened to gunmetal gray on the single visible horizon, all the rest lost in a haze. Beneath them was only water, and in the colorlessness of the day it rippled almost black. The Bay of Beasts. There was something terrifying about black water. Something pitiless.

  The wind was strong, buffeting the host as it fell back into formation. Karou pulled her sweater closer around her and shivered. The last of the host pushed through the cut, Uthem and Thiago last of all. Uthem’s equine and draconic elements were indistinguishably supple, green and rippling and seeming to pour into the world out of nothingness. The Vispeng race not naturally being winged, Karou had gotten creative in order to preserve his length: two sets of wings, the main pair like sails and a smaller set anchored near his hind legs. It looked pretty cool, if she did say so herself.

  The Wolf had bowed his head through the portal, and as soon as he was through, he sat up to take stock of his circling troops. His eye came quickly to rest on Karou, and though he paused on her only briefly, she felt herself to be—knew herself to be—his first care in the world, this or any other. Only when he knew where she was, and was satisfied that she was well, did he turn to the task at hand, which was to guide this army safely over the Bay of Beasts.

  Karou found it difficult to turn away from the portal and just leave it there, where anyone might find it and use it. Akiva was to have scorched it closed behind them, but Jael had changed their plan.
Now they would need it.

  To return and start the apocalypse.

  The Wolf once more took the lead, turning them eastward, away from the gunmetal horizon and toward the Adelphas Mountains. On a clear day, the peaks would have been visible from here. But it wasn’t a clear day, and they could see nothing ahead but thickening mist, which had its pluses and its minuses.

  In the plus column, the mists gave them cover. They wouldn’t be sighted from a distance by any seraph patrols.

  In the minus, the mists gave anyone cover… and anyone—or anything—would not be sighted from a distance by themselves.

  Karou was in a central position in the pack, having just come alongside Rua to check on Issa, when it happened.

  “Sweet girl, are you bearing up?” Issa asked.

  “I’m fine,” Karou replied. “But you need more clothes.”

  “I won’t argue with that,” Issa replied. She was actually wearing clothes—a sweater of Karou’s, slit wide at the neck to accommodate her cobra hood—which in itself was unusual for Issa, but her lips were blue, and her shoulders were drawn up practically to her ears as she shivered. The Naja race hailed from a hot climate. Morocco had suited her perfectly. This cold mist, not so much, and their frigid destination even less, though at least there they would be sheltered from the elements, and Karou remembered geothermal chambers in the lower labyrinth of the caves, if all was as it had been years ago.

  The Kirin caves.

  She had never been back to the place of her birth, home of her earliest life. She had planned to return, once upon a time. It was where she and Akiva were to have met to begin their rebellion, had the fates not had other ideas.

  But, no. Karou didn’t believe in fate. It wasn’t fate that had murdered their plan, but betrayal. And it wasn’t fate re-creating it now—or at least this twisted shadow-theater version of it, fraught with suspicion and animosity. It was will.

  “I’ll find you a blanket or something,” she told Issa—or started to tell her. But in that moment, something came over her.

 
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