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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.44
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.44

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

  “No,” spake Mik, voice of sanity.

  “But—”

  “No.”

  “Fine. But I want someone to see us.”

  Everyone saw them. Liraz went to fetch them, and they crowded into the crescent, and there were gratifying gasps and shouts. Zuzana heard Virko’s affectionate bellow of “Neek-neek!” and then felt, finally, that it was okay to bring this ride to an end.

  They brought the huge creature as close as they could to the rock face and jump-scrambled from its back, hugging its vast neck first in thanks and farewell. They supposed it would go now and leave them, but hoped that it wouldn’t (“If it doesn’t, we’re naming it.”), and they paused to watch, wistful, as it rose higher and higher until it was just a shape cut from the glittering vault of the sky.

  Only then, turning toward the gathered chimaera and seraphim, did they realize that something was wrong. There was a pall over their manner, and… Karou was there. Not busy. Why not? And why was she standing way back there? And where was Akiva?

  Karou gave them a wave, and a brief marveling smile and head shake, and her eyes popped at the sight of Eliza’s wings, of course, but even that didn’t draw her forward to greet them. She was talking to Liraz, and Liraz was no longer laughing like a person who laughs. She was back to her most terrible self. Tight-lipped and white-nostrilled with ire, more savage than ever the White Wolf had looked.

  Zuzana forgot all her glory and rushed to her friend. “What? What what what? God, Karou, what?”

  “Akiva.” So lost. Karou looked so lost. That wasn’t how she was supposed to look. “He’s gone.”

  82

  ABERRATION

  —There is a reason—

  (“What have I done?”)

  —There is a reason for the tithe.

  This wasn’t speech. What Nightingale conveyed to Akiva, she did so in silence, in sending, and it was more than words. It was memory opened to him, in sound and image, and emotion unfolded for him, in horror and heartache. It was not possible to misunderstand. He stood before Nightingale and Scarab and outwardly he saw them, and the other three behind them. But inwardly, he experienced something else, and shrank from it.

  —Be calm. You are my child’s child.

  Festival. Nightingale gave her to Akiva in a memory so saturated with yearning that he understood, for its duration, what he himself could have no context for: a parent’s love for a lost child.

  —I wish to know you. To help you, and not to hurt you. And so you must listen to me. You are my child’s child, but I never knew of you. Festival was lost to us. Vanished. Only because you exist do I know what became of her. I know that my beloved daughter was a concubine in the harem of a warmonger who tore half a world apart.

  She didn’t disguise the desolation this caused her, and Akiva felt himself to be the root of it, as though time worked backward, and he had caused his mother to make the choice that would create him.

  —I also know that this could not have befallen her… against her will. She was Stelian, and mine. She was strong. And so she must have chosen this.

  The memories were as seamless as though they were Akiva’s own. Running beneath the surface of Nightingale’s words: a pure distillation of the woman who had been Festival, beautiful and troubled. Troubled? By a dowser’s sense for the veins of fate, and a compulsion to follow them, even into the dark.

  —And so. And so she must have had a reason.

  From Nightingale’s mind to Akiva’s passed the understanding that for many Stelians, fate was as real as love or fear—a dimension of their life with weight enough to shape it. It was called ananke, this sensitivity to the pull of destiny. If your ananke was strong, well then, you could follow or resist, but with resistance came an oppressive sense of wrongness that would haunt your every choice.

  —And the reason must be you.

  The memories evanesced, leaving a void, and Akiva bereft in it.

  You, you, echoing in the emptiness, and finding other words there, waiting. “My son will not be tangled in your feeble fates.” But before he could begin to process this, a new sending bloomed in the space where Festival had been. It was very different: cold, and remote, and immense.

  —The Continuum that is the great All is bound and bounded by energies. We call them veils. They have other names, many, but this is the simplest. They are beyond our compass. They are the first and nest of all things, and this we know: The veils hold the worlds intact, and they hold them distinct. Touching, but separate, as the worlds are meant to be. When you pass through a portal, you’re transgressing a cut in a veil.

  Veils, the Continuum, the great All. These were not terms that Akiva had heard, but he was gifted an idea of them, and there was reverence in it bordering on worship. It wasn’t a picture or a memory, because that was impossible. No one can have seen the Continuum. It was everything. The sum of the worlds.

  Until now, Akiva had known of two: Eretz and Earth. In Nightingale’s sending, he understood… many.

  It was dizzying. What he glimpsed in the idea of the Continuum was enough to make him want to fall to his knees. He beheld space, all around him and peeling open. And open, and open, no end to its opening, no limit to its dimensions. Like a god rearing its thousand-thousand heads, one after another after another after another, opening its thousand-thousand mouths to loose a tremendous, world-echoing roar—

  —We draw energy from the veils to make magic. They are the source. Of everything. It is no simple matter. Power can’t just be taken. There is a price, a trade of energies. This is the tithe.

  “The pain tithe,” Akiva said. He spoke it, not knowing how to communicate in kind, and saw Scarab’s brows knit, while Nightingale’s, which had been knit, fell smooth. She regarded him curiously, and her reply imparted gentle pity.

  —Pain is one way. The easiest and crudest. The pain tithe is… using a plow to pluck a flower. Is it all you know?

  He nodded. It was unnerving, this speaking without speaking.

  “Not all,” objected Scarab, aloud. “Or we wouldn’t be here.”

  The way she looked at him, the blame. Akiva began to understand. “Sirithar,” he said, hoarse.

  Scarab’s look sharpened. “So you do know.”

  “I know nothing.” He said it bitterly, feeling it more keenly than he ever had before.

  Sensing his distress, Nightingale came forward. She didn’t reach for him but he felt, as he had once before, a cool touch at his brow, and knew it had been she who had prevented him from drawing power in the battle of the Adelphas, and who had, so briefly, soothed him after. In the next instant, he knew something else, and it staggered him: The enigma of the victory in the Adelphas. It had been them, of course.

  These five angels had somehow turned the tide against four thousand Dominion. Many times over the past years, Akiva had tried to imagine the magic of his kin, but he had never guessed at such might as this.

  Nightingale spoke now aloud, putting no more into his mind, and Akiva was glad of it, especially when he heard what more it was she had to say.

  No cool touch could mitigate this.

  “ ‘Sirithar’ is the energy itself, the raw substance of the veils. It is… the shell of the egg, and the yolk, too. It protects and it nourishes. It gives form to space and time, and without it there could be only chaos. You asked what it is you’ve done. You have taken sirithar.” She sounded sad. “So much at once that to tithe for it would have killed you hundreds of times over, but it didn’t, because you didn’t tithe. Child of my child, you gave nothing, only took. It shouldn’t be possible, and this is a very grave thing. What Scarab said is true. We tracked you here to kill you—”

  “Before you could kill everyone.” This from Scarab. No gentleness from her. It didn’t matter.

  Akiva was shaking his head. Not in denial. He believed them. He felt the truth of it, and the answer to the question that had been gnawing at him. But he still didn’t understand. “I know nothing,” he said again.
How could I kill—?” Everyone.

  Nightingale’s voice grew hoarse. “I do not understand why ananke guided my daughter to the creation of you. Why should the veils give birth to their own destruction?”

  Ananke. Echoes and reverberations of fate. “Destruction?” echoed Akiva, hollow. All his life, it had been made clear to him that he was not his own, that he was only a weapon of the Empire, a link in a chain; even his name was only borrowed. And he had broken free, claimed himself. He had claimed his life as a medium for action—action of his own choice—and he had believed that he was finally free.

  He didn’t understand yet what Nightingale was telling him, or why Scarab held his life in question, but he understood this: All along, he had been ensnared in a far greater web of fate than ever he had ever dreamed.

  His heart pounded, and Akiva knew that he was not free.

  “It shouldn’t be possible to take without a tithe,” Nightingale repeated. She said it heavily, significantly, as though to be certain he understood. There was consternation and wariness in her look, and other flickers—blame? Possibly awe? “It isn’t possible for anyone else,” she added, her stare undeviating, and a word came to him—from a sending or from his own mind, he couldn’t tell.

  Aberration.

  “But you’ve done it three times. Akiva, to take without a tithe thins the veil.” Her gaze flickered to Scarab. She swallowed. “By thinning the veils…” She hesitated. This was it, Akiva knew. Here was the truth. It lurked behind her eyes, and it was as deep and bleak as any story ever told. He caught echoes, shreds. He had heard them before. Chosen. Fallen. Maps. Skies. Cataclysm. Meliz.

  Beasts.

  Nightingale tried to shy away from the telling, but Scarab didn’t let her.

  “You wanted to talk to him, didn’t you? So talk. Tell him what it is we do, hour by hour, in our far green isles, and what he has to thank us for. Tell him why we’ve come for him, and what he nearly brought down on us. Tell him about the Cataclysm.”

  83

  MOST THINGS THAT MATTER

  Karou held a gavriel on her palm. Everyone was gathered around her in the grand cavern. Chimaera, Misbegotten, humans. And Eliza, whatever she was now. Karou looked to where the girl was standing back by Virko’s side, and she didn’t know what Eliza was, but that they shared this: They were neither of them quite human, but something more, and each the only one of her kind.

  “What will you wish?” asked Zuzana.

  Karou looked back down at the medallion, so heavy in her hand. Brimstone seemed to gaze back at her. It was a crude casting, but it still brought his eyes home to her in a rush, and his voice, so deep it had been like the shadow of sound.

  “I dream it, too, child,” he’d told her in the dungeon as she awaited execution, and she wished she could show him what was before her now—though no wish could ever accomplish that. See what we’ve done. See how Liraz and Ziri stand side by side. She would bet anything that the skin of their arms, so close to touching, was electrified as her own skin had been earlier, when Akiva was near her. And there was Keita-Eiri, who just a few days ago had been flashing her hamsas at Akiva and Liraz and laughing. She stood beside Orit, the angel from the war council who had glared across the table, arguing with the Wolf about the discipline of his soldiers. And Amzallag, who was ready, in the body Karou had made for him—not massive and gray like his last, or horrifying—to go and draw the souls of his children out of the ashes of Loramendi.

  They were solemn and united, comrades who had fought together and survived an impossible battle, and who carried with them the mystery of it, and even more than solidarity. After the Adelphas, there was a creeping sense of destiny.

  Destiny. Once again, Karou couldn’t shake the sense that, if there was such a thing, it hated her.

  As to Zuzana’s question, what was she going to wish on this gavriel? What could she wish that would bring Akiva back to her, that would quell this vicious feeling stealing over her that they might accomplish everything they had believed they needed to, and still not be allowed to have each other? Brimstone had always been very clear as to the limits of wishing.

  “There are things bigger than any wish,” he’d said, when she was a little girl. “Like what?” she’d asked, and his answer haunted her now, this gavriel heavy in her hand, and all she wanted was to believe that it could solve her problems. “Most things that matter,” was what Brimstone had said, and she knew he was right. She couldn’t wish for the dream, or for happiness, or for the world to just let them be. She knew what would happen. Nothing. The gavriel would just lie there, Brimstone’s likeness seeming to accuse her of foolishness.

  But wishes weren’t useless, either, so long as you respected their limits.

  “I wish to know where Akiva is,” she said, and the gavriel vanished from her palm.

  84

  THE CATACLYSM

  Nightingale began the telling, but Scarab took it over. The older woman was being too gentle, trying to downplay the horror of a story that was the essence of horror—as though she feared the warrior before her wouldn’t be able to bear it.

  He bore it. He paled. His jaw clenched so tight that Scarab could hear the creak of bone, but he bore it.

  She told him of the hubris of magi who had believed they could lay claim to the entire Continuum, and she told of the Faerers, and how the Stelians alone had opposed their journey. She told of the puncturing of the veils, how the chosen twelve had been taught to pierce the very fabric of existence, a substance so far beyond their ken that they might have been carrion birds pecking at the eyes of god.

  And she told him what they had found on the far side of one far distant veil. And unleashed.

  Nithilam, they named them, because the beasts had no language to name themselves, only hunger. Nithilam was the ancient word for mayhem, and that is what they were.

  There was no describing them. No one living had ever seen them, but Scarab felt their presence, less here than at home, but even now. They were always there. They never stopped being there. Pressing, leeching, gnawing.

  Being Stelian meant going to sleep every night in a house where monsters ravened on the roof, trying to force their way in. But the roof was the sky. The veil, really, but it aligned with the sky, in the Far Isles where everything was either sea or sky, and so they spoke of it this simply: the sky bleeds, the sky blooms. It sickens, it weakens, it fails. But it was the veil, made up of incalculable energies—sirithar—that the Stelians nurtured, guarded, and fed, every second of every day, with their own vitality.

  Such was their duty. It was how they held the portal closed when the Faerers themselves had failed, and it was why their lives were shorter than those of their dissolute cousins to the north, who gave nothing, but only took from this world they had come to for sanctuary and then claimed by force.

  Stelians bled energy to the veil that fools had damaged, to hold it against the mindless, battering force of the nithilam. The monsters. But they were greater than monsters, so vast and destructive that, to Scarab, only one word would do:

  Gods.

  Why else did such a word exist, if not to express an unseen immensity like this? As for the “godstars,” so long worshiped by her kind, to Scarab they were no more use than a bedtime story. What good were bright gods who only watched from afar while dark gods strove every moment to devour you?

  She imagined the nithilam as immense black rooting things, and their great mouths—pulsing, cartilaginous suckers—fixed to the veil like glower eels to the flesh of a sea serpent washed up on a beach, pale belly to the sun, dire and dying while its parasites still pulsed. Still sucked. Frenzied at the end to drain every mortal drop.

  She didn’t tell Akiva that. It was her own nightmare, what she saw when she closed her eyes in the darkness and felt the writhe of them against the veil. She only told him what the myth said, for in the myth was truth: There was darkness, and monsters vast as worlds swam in it.

  And when she told him of Meliz,
she saw the understanding sweep through him, and then the loss. It was an echo of what she’d seen a short time before, when Nightingale sent to him of Festival. Perhaps the older woman had meant to be kind. Or perhaps she was made blind by the grief of her own loss. It had surprised Scarab to be the one who saw what it did to Akiva, to have his mother given to him in a sending—his first sending, and his mind would be scrambling to distance it from reality—and then taken away again so abruptly.

  And now Meliz. Meliz, crown of the Continuum, garden of the great All. The home world of the seraphim, and all the grace of its hundred thousand years of civilization. She watched Akiva’s face as she simultaneously gave him the undreamable depths of his own history, the greatness of his ancestry, the glory of the seraphim of the First Age, and took it away. Meliz, first and last. Meliz, lost.

  She reminded herself of what he was, and hardened herself to the waves of loss and sorrow working through him, each one seeming to rob something vital from him, leaving him… less than she had found him.

  Was that what she wished? To diminish him? What did she want with him? She wasn’t entirely sure. She had hunted him to kill him, but the answer, she knew now, was not that simple.

  After the battle in the Adelphas, when she had scythed at life threads of attacking soldiers, gathering them for the beginning of her yoraya—that mystical weapon of her ancestors—the thought had settled in her that his thread would be its glory. His life to string her harp. His power, under her control.

  And maybe that was the answer. Perhaps it had been the end that Festival’s ananke had impelled her toward all along.

  Scarab could wish her own ananke to be clearer on the matter.

  On one matter, it was very clear. The nithilam were her fate.

 
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