Strange the Dreamer, p.43Laini Taylor
No, that was a dream. She’d said so. He’d been walking to the anchor, that was it. He remembered… Drave running, and white light. Understanding slowly seeped into his mind. Explosionist. Explosion. Drave had done this.
A ringing supplanted the silence in his head. It was low but growing. He shook it, trying to clear it, and the moths on his brow and cheeks took flight and fluttered around his head in a corona. The ringing grew louder. Terrible. He was able to roll onto his side, though, and from there get his knees and elbows under him and push up. He squinted, his eyes stinging from the hot, filthy air, and looked around. Smoke swirled like the mahalath, and fire was shooting up behind an edge of shattered rooftops. They looked like broken teeth. He could feel the heat of the flames on his face, but he still couldn’t hear its roar or anything but the ringing.
He got to his feet. The world swung arcs around him. He fell and got up again, slower now.
The dust and smoke moved like a river among islands of debris—pieces of wall and roof, even an iron stove standing upright, as though it had been delivered by wagon. He shuddered at his luck, that nothing had hit him. That was when he saw Drave, who hadn’t been so lucky.
Stumbling, Lazlo knelt beside him. He saw Isagol’s eyes first, staring up from the mural. The explosionist’s eyes were staring, too, but filmed with dust, unseeing.
Lazlo rose and continued on, though surely only a fool goes toward fire and not away from it. He had to see what Drave had done, but that wasn’t the only reason. He’d been going to the anchor when the blast hit. He couldn’t quite remember the reason, but whatever it was, it hadn’t let him go. The same compulsion pulled him now.
“My name,” he’d told Sarai when she asked what he was looking for. “The truth.”
What truth? Everything was blurred, inside his head and out. But if only a fool goes toward a fire, then he was in good company. He didn’t hear their approach from behind him, but in a moment he was swept up with them: Tizerkane from the barracks, fiercer than he’d ever seen them. They raced past. Someone stopped. It was Ruza, and it was so good to see his face. His lips were moving, but Lazlo couldn’t hear. He shook his head, touched his ears to make Ruza understand, and his fingers came away wet. He looked at them and they were red.
That couldn’t be good.
Ruza saw, and gripped his arm. Lazlo had never seen his friend look so serious. He wanted to make a joke, but nothing came to mind. He knocked Ruza’s hand away and gestured ahead. “Come on,” he said, though he couldn’t hear his own words any better than Ruza’s.
Together they rounded the corner to see what the explosion had wrought.
A CALM APOCALYPSE
Heavy gray smoke churned skyward. There was an acrid stink of saltpeter, and the air was dense and grainy. The ruins around the anchor’s east flank were no more. There was a wasteland of fiery debris now. The scene was apocalyptic, but… it was a calm apocalypse. No one was running or screaming. No one lived here, and that was a mercy. There was no one to evacuate, no one and nothing to save.
In the midst of it all, the anchor loomed indomitable. For all the savage power of the blast, it was unscathed. Lazlo could make out Rasalas on high, hazy in the scrim of dust-diffused firelight. The beast seemed so untouchable up there, as though it would always and forever lord its death leer over the city.
“Are you all right?” Ruza demanded, and Lazlo started to nod before he realized he’d heard him. The words had an underwater warble and there was still a tinny ringing in his ears, but he could hear. “I’m fine,” he said, too on edge to be relieved. The panic was leaving him, though, and the disorientation, too. He saw Eril-Fane giving orders. A fire wagon rolled up. Already the flames were dying down as the ancient timbers were consumed. Everything was under control. It seemed no one had even been hurt—except for Drave, and no one would mourn for him.
“It could have been so much worse,” he said, with a sense of narrow escape.
And then, as if in answer, the earth gave a deep, splintering crack and threw him to his knees.
Drave had wedged his charge into the breach Thyon’s alkahest had made in the anchor. He’d treated it like stone, because stone was what he knew: mountainsides, mines. The anchor was like a small mountain to him, and he’d thought to blow a hole in it and expose its inner workings—to do quickly what Nero was doing slowly, and so win the credit for it.
But mesarthium was not stone, and the anchor not a mountain. It had remained impervious, and so the bulk of the charge, meeting perfect resistance from above, had had nowhere to blow but… down.
A new sound cut through the ringing in Lazlo’s ears—or was it a feeling? A rumbling, a roar, he could hear it with his bones.
“Earthquake!” he hollered.
The ground beneath their feet might have been the city’s floor, but it was also a roof, the roof of something vast and deep: an unmapped world of shimmering tunnels where the Uzumark flowed dark and mythic monsters swam in sealed caverns. How deep it went no one knew, but now, all unseen, the intricate subterranean strata were collapsing. The bedrock had fractured under the power of the blast, and could no longer support the anchor’s weight. Fault lines were spidering out from it like cracks in plaster. Huge cracks in plaster.
Lazlo could barely keep his feet. He’d never been in an earthquake before. It was like standing on the skin of a drum whilst some great hands beat it without rhythm. Each concussion threw him, staggering, and he watched in sick astonishment as the cracks grew to gaping rifts wide enough to swallow a man. Lapis paving stones buckled. The ones at the edges toppled inward and vanished, and the rifts became chasms.
“Strange!” Ruza hollered, dragging him back. Lazlo let himself be dragged, but he didn’t look away.
It struck him like a hammer blow what must happen next. His astonishment turned to horror. He watched the anchor. He saw it shudder. He heard the cataclysmic rending of stone and metal as the ground gave way. The great monolith tilted and began to sink, grinding down through ancient layers of rock, ripping through them as though they were paper. The sound was soul-splitting, and this apocalypse was calm no longer.
The anchor capsized like a ship.
And overhead, with a sickening lurch, the citadel of the Mesarthim came loose from the sky.
Feral was asleep in Ruby’s bed.
Ruby and Sparrow were leaning over the garden balustrade, watching the fire in the city below.
Minya was in the heart of the citadel, her feet dangling over the edge of the walkway.
Sarai was kneeling on her terrace, peering over the edge.
In all their lives, the citadel had never so much as swayed in the wind. And now, without warning, it pitched. The horizon swung out of true, like a picture going crooked on a wall. Their stomachs lurched. The floor fell away. They lost purchase. It was like floating. For one or two very long seconds they hung there, suspended in the air.
Then gravity seized them. It flung them.
Feral woke as he was thrown out of bed. His first thought was of Ruby—first, disoriented, to wonder if she’d shoved him; second, as he tumbled… downhill?… if she was all right. He hit the wall, smacking his head, and scrambled to stand. “Ruby!” he called. No answer. He was alone in her room, and her room was—
Minya was thrown off the walkway but caught the edge with her fingers and hung there, dangling in the huge sphere of a room, some fifty feet up from the bottom. Ari-Eil stood nearby, as unaffected by the tilt as he was by gravity or the need to breathe. His actions weren’t his own, but his thoughts were, and as he moved to grab Minya by the wrists, he was surprised to find himself conflicted.
He hated her, and wished her dead. The conflict was not to do with her—except insofar as it was she who kept him from dissolving into nothing. If she died, he would cease to exist.
In the garden. On the terrace. Three girls with lips stained damson and flowers in their hair. Ruby, Sparrow, and Sarai went weightless, and there were no walls or ghosts to catch them.
Or, there were ghosts, but Minya’s binding was too strict to allow them the choice they might or might not have made: to catch godspawn girls and keep them from falling into the sky. Bahar would have helped, but couldn’t. She could only watch.
Hands clutched at metal, at plum boughs.
And one of the girls—graceful in all things, even in this—slipped right off the edge.
It was a long way down to Weep. Only the first seconds were terrible.
Well. And the last.
WHAT VERSION OF THE WORLD
Lazlo saw. He was looking up, aghast, at the unimaginable sight of the citadel tilting off its axis, when, through the blowing smoke and grit he saw something plummet from it. A tiny far-off thing. A mote, a bird.
Sarai, he thought, and shunned the possibility. Everything was unreal, tinged with the impossible. Something had fallen, but it couldn’t be her, and the great seraph couldn’t be keeling over.
But it was. It seemed to lean as though to take a better look at the city below. The delegates had debated the anchors’ purpose, assuming they kept the citadel from drifting away. But now the truth was revealed. They held it up. Or they had. It tipped slowly, still buoyed on the magnetic field of the east, west, and south anchors, but it had lost its balance, like a table with one leg cut away. It could only tip so far before it would fall.
The citadel was going to fall on the city. The impact would be incredible. Nothing could survive it. Lazlo saw how it would be. Weep would be ended, along with everyone in it. He would be ended, and so would Sarai, and dreams, and hope.
This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t end this way. He had never felt so powerless.
The catastrophe in the sky was distant, slow, even serene. But the one on the ground was not. The street was disintegrating. The sinking anchor sheared its way through layers of crust and sediment, and the spidering cracks met and joined and became pits, calving slabs of earth and stone into the darkness below, where the first froth of the Uzumark was breaking free of its tunnels. The roar, the thunder. It was all Lazlo could hear, all he could feel. It seemed to inhabit him. And through it all, he couldn’t take his eyes off the anchor.
Impulse had drawn him this far. Something stronger took over now. Instinct or mania, he didn’t know. He didn’t wonder. There was no space in his head for thinking. It was throbbing full of horror and roar, and there was only one thing that was louder—the need to reach the anchor.
The sheen of its blue surface pulled at him. Unthinking, he took a few steps forward. His hearts were in his throat. What had been a broad avenue was fast becoming a ragged sinkhole with black water boiling up to fill it. Ruza caught his arm. He was screaming. Lazlo couldn’t hear him over the din of destruction, but it was easy to read the words his mouth formed.
“Get back!” and “Do you want to die?”
Lazlo did not want to die. The desire to not die had never been so piercing. It was like hearing a song so beautiful that you understood not only the meaning of art, but life. It gutted him, and buoyed him, ripped out his hearts and gave them back bigger. He was desperate to not die, and even more than that, to live.
Everyone else was falling back, even Eril-Fane—as though “back” were safe. Nowhere was safe, not with the citadel poised to topple. Lazlo couldn’t just retreat and watch it happen. He had to do something. Everything in him screamed out for action, and instinct or mania were telling him what action:
Go to the anchor.
He pulled free of Ruza and turned to face it, but still he hesitated. “My boy,” he heard in his mind—old Master Hyrrokkin’s words, kindly meant. “How could you help?” And Master Ellemire’s, not kindly meant. “I hardly think he’s recruiting librarians, boy.” And always, there was Thyon Nero’s voice. “Enlighten me, Strange. In what version of the world could you possibly help?”
What version of the world?
The dream version, in which he could do anything, even fly. Even reshape mesarthium. Even hold Sarai in his arms.
He took a deep breath. He’d sooner die trying to hold the world on his shoulders than running away. Better, always, to run toward. And so he did. Everyone else followed sense and command, and made for whatever fleeting safety they could find before the final cataclysm came. But not Lazlo Strange.
He pretended it was a dream. It was easier that way. He lowered his head, and ran.
Over the suicide landscape of the collapsing street, around the turbulent froth of the escaping Uzumark, over churned-up paving stones and smoking ruins, to the sheen of the blue metal that seemed to call to him.
Eril-Fane saw him and bellowed, “Strange!” He looked from the anchor to the citadel, and his horror deepened, a new layer added to the grief of this doom: the daughter who had survived all these years, only to die now. He halted his retreat, and so did his warriors, to watch Lazlo run to the anchor. It was madness, of course, but there was beauty in it. They realized, all of them—in that moment if they hadn’t already—how fond of the young outsider they’d grown. And even if they knew death was coming for them, none of them wanted to see him die first. They watched him climb over shifting rubble, losing his footing and slipping, rising again to scrabble forward until he reached it: the wall of metal that had seemed insurmountable, shrinking now as the earth sucked it under.
Even though it was sinking, still he looked so small before it. It was absurd what he did next. He put up his hands and braced it, as though, with the strength of his body, he could hold it up.
There were carvings of gods in just this pose. In the Temple of Thakra, seraphim upheld the heavens. It might have been absurd to see Lazlo attempt it, but nobody laughed, and nobody looked away.
And so they saw, all together, what happened next. It had the feel of a shared hallucination. Only Thyon Nero understood what he was seeing. He arrived on the scene out of breath. He’d run from his laboratory with his shard of mesarthium clutched in his hand, desperate to find Strange and tell him… tell him what?
That there were fingerprints in the metal, and it might mean something?
Well, he didn’t need to tell him. Lazlo’s body knew what to do.
He gave himself over, as he had to the mahalath. Some deep place in his mind had taken control. His palms were pressed full against the mesarthium, and they throbbed with the rhythm of his heartbeats. The metal was cool under his hands, and…
Even with all the tumult around him, the noise and quaking and the ground shifting under his feet, he sensed the change. It felt like a hum—that is, the way your lips feel when you hum, but all over. He was unusually aware of the surface of himself, of the lines of his body and the planes of his face, as though his skin were alive with some subtle vibrations. It was strongest where his hands met the metal. Whatever was awakening within him, it was waking in the metal, too. He felt as though he were absorbing it, or it was absorbing him. It was becoming him, and he it. It was a new sense, more than touch. He felt it most in his hands, but it was spreading: a pulse of blood and spirit and… power.
Thyon Nero had been right. It would seem that Lazlo Strange was no orphan peasant from Zosma.
Elation swept through him, and with it his new sense unfurled, growing and reaching out, seeking and finding and knowing. He discovered a scheme of energies—the same unfathomable force that kept the citadel in the sky—and he could feel it all. The four anchors and the great weight they upheld. With the one tipping out of alignment, the whole elegant scheme had torn, frayed. The balance was upset, and Lazlo felt, as clearly as though the seraph were his own body slowly falling to earth, how to put it right.
In fact, it was that easy. Here was a whole new language, spoken through the skin, and to Lazlo’s amazement he already knew it. He willed, and the mesarthium obeyed.
In the sky above Weep, the angel folded its wings, and the moonlight and starlight that for fifteen years had been held at bay came flooding in, seeming sun-bright after such long absence. It spiked in shafts through the apocalypse of smoke and dust as the citadel’s new center of gravity readjusted to the three remaining supports.
Lazlo felt it all. The hum had sunk into the center of him and broken open, flooding him with this new perception—a whole new sense attuned to mesarthium, and he was master of it. Balancing the citadel was as simple as finding his footing on uneven ground. Effortlessly, the great seraph came right, like a man straightening up from a bow.
For the minutes it took Lazlo to perform this feat, he was focused on it wholly. He had no awareness of his surroundings. The deep part of him that could feel the energies followed them where they led, and it wasn’t only the angel that was altered. The anchor was, too. All those who were standing back and watching saw its unassailable surface seem to turn molten and flow down and outward: underground, to seal the cracks in the broken bedrock—and over the streets, to distribute its weight more evenly over its compromised foundation.
And then there was Rasalas.
Lazlo was unaware that he was doing it. It was his soul’s mahalath, remaking the monster as he had in his dream. Its proportions flowed from bunched and menacing to lithe and graceful. Its horns thinned, stretching longer to coil spiral at the ends, as sinuously as ink poured into water. And as the anchor redistributed its weight, seeming to melt and pour itself out, the beast rode it down, ever nearer the surface of the city, so that by the time it stopped, by the time it all stopped—the earth shaking, the grit blowing, the angel taking its new pose in the sky—this was what witnesses beheld:
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor / Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes