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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.45
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.45

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

  And she was theirs.

  She was always aware of them, but it was when she lay down to sleep, and darkness arched above her, that she felt herself to be facing them across an expanse. Across a barrier, yes, but there had always been—even before there was any sane hope to support it—a… premonition of challenge. Of locking into place, might against might, and no more barrier. She their enemy, as they were hers.

  She their nightmare, as they were hers.

  Scarab, scourge of the monster gods. Claimant to all the eaten worlds.

  There still wasn’t any sane hope. Scarab saw that Nightingale sensed what was growing in her—not only the yoraya begun, but its purpose—and how she shrank from it in horror. And who wouldn’t?

  The Stelians had built their life in this new era on the belief that the Cataclysm could not be defeated, but only held back. So they held it. They held it and died too young and without glory. Accepted a duty their forebears would have despised. Cowering and bleeding out their vitality, no thought given to meeting the enemy in battle because the enemy were world-devourers, and Stelians were no longer even warriors.

  And because what they risked, if they failed, was… all that remained. All that remained. Eretz was the cork to a deluge of darkness that would meet no end. If the Stelians failed, every other world would fall.

  None of this did she say to Akiva. By now she had told him everything but his own part in this story. It should have been easy for her to finish. Look what he has done. But her voice hid from her. Incongruously, faced with the bleakness she had caused in him, she flashed back to the way he’d smiled—at her but not at her—and she remembered the radiance that was in him then, and the joy, and how it had made her reel with discovery, like a novice introduced to the lexica, sensing, for the first time, an entire glittering, secret language. She’d seen it again in the bath cavern where he’d waited for… for what she had called, to Nightingale, “his appointment,” not wanting to use the real word for what it was. For what the lovely, blue-haired alien stoked in him, and the radiance that was born of it.

  Akiva was in love.

  It was a pity, but it wasn’t her problem. Next to the nithilam, it was as a footprint in ash, as fleeting, and as easily brushed away.

  Her pause grew too long, and Nightingale, with great grace, tried to take the tale from her like a skein of yarn, to spin this final piece so that she would not have to.

  Scarab shook her head and found her voice, and told Akiva the rest herself.

  And she felt it in her chest, when he fell to his knees. She thought of Festival, whom she had never known, called to an ugly fate half a world away: to give up her own sanctity to a tyrant king for the sake of bringing this man into being: Akiva of the Misbegotten, who, for some ineffable reason, was powerful beyond all others.

  Well, and it was Scarab’s own ugly fate to fell him to his knees, but she thought that Festival would have understood. Ananke digs grooves so deep you can either follow it or live your life trying to scale the sides and escape. Scarab was not going to try to escape. Always, she had been growing toward this, ever since she heard of a harp strung with taken lives, and before that still, to the earliest moment when energies joined in the making of her. Her path lay before her, and Akiva was entangled in it.

  She had come on this journey to hunt and kill a magus.

  She would return from it armed to hunt and kill gods.

  Once upon a time, there was only darkness, and there were monsters vast as worlds who swam in it. They loved the darkness because it concealed their hideousness. Whenever some other creature contrived to make light, they would extinguish it. When stars were born, they swallowed them, and it seemed that darkness would be eternal.

  But a race of bright warriors heard of them and traveled from their far world to do battle with them. The war was long, light against dark, and many of the warriors were slain. In the end, when they vanquished the monsters, there were a hundred left alive, and these hundred were the godstars, who brought light to the universe.

  Akiva tried to remember the first time he’d heard the myth. World-devouring monsters who swam in darkness. Enemies of light, swallowers of stars. Had it been from his mother? He couldn’t remember. Five years only he’d had her, and so many years since to blot them out. It could have come from the training camp, propaganda to build their hatred of chimaera, because that was how the tale had been twisted in the Empire: into an origin myth so ugly it was silly.

  He’d told it to Madrigal their first night together, as they lay atop their clothes on a bank of shrive moss, heavy and lazy with pleasure. They’d laughed at it. “Ugly Uncle Zamzumin, who made me out of a shadow,” she had said. Absurd.

  Or not. Scarab called them by another name than the one Akiva knew, but it made its own sense. As sirithar had come to mean, in the Empire, the state of calm in which the godstars work through the swordsman, nithilam had been its opposite: the godless, thick-of-battle frenzy to kill instead of die. These names had once meant something about the nature of their world. Somehow, the truth had been lost.

  Now Akiva learned that the monsters were real.

  That every second of every day they battered at the veil of the world.

  That the people who were half his blood lived their lives in devotion to shoring up that veil with their own life force.

  And that he… he… had nearly torn it wide open.

  He was on his knees. He was only dimly aware of getting there. What the Faerers had done was only half a cataclysm. In his ignorance, he had almost finished it.

  —Not just ignorance, sent Nightingale, to his mind. She settled to her own knees before him, while Scarab stood where she was, unmoved. Ignorance and power. They’re a poor combination. Power is as mysterious as the veils themselves. Yours more than anyone’s. We can’t take it from you except by killing you, and we don’t wish to do that. Nor can we leave you, and hope that you’ll contain it on your own.

  And Akiva understood his choice that wasn’t a choice. “What do you want from me?” he asked, hoarse, though he already knew.

  “Come with us,” said Nightingale, aloud. Her voice was soft and sad, but Akiva looked over her shoulder at Scarab, and saw no sadness in her and no mercy. His grandmother added, so softly, “Come home.”

  Home. It felt like a betrayal even hearing the word, all the more so as he was looking at Scarab when he did. Home was what he would make with Karou. Home was Karou. Akiva felt his future unraveling in his hands. He thought of the blanket that did not yet exist, the symbol of his simplest and deepest hope: a place to love and dream. Would they have to rip it in two, he and Karou, and carry their ragged halves with them where their fates were determined to lead them? “I can’t,” he said, desperate, not thinking what it meant, or that it might be construed as his choice.

  Nightingale just looked at him, a twitch of disappointment at the corners of her mouth. As for Scarab, her face gave away nothing, and yet she made the nature of his choice very clear to him, in case he misunderstood. Twice before, he had been overcome by this sudden, intense awareness of his own life. This was the third time, and with it came a sending, cruder than Nightingale’s, unmistakably Scarab’s, and it wasn’t cruel, only pitiless, and he understood that there was no space for pity, not for her. She was queen of a people enslaved by a burden so great that the entirety of the Continuum depended on them. She couldn’t waver, ever, and didn’t. This was strength, not cruelty. Her sending was an image: a shining filament held between two fingers, and the understanding, with it, that the filament was Akiva’s life, and the fingers were her own, and that she could end him as easily as snapping.

  And would.

  But he sensed something else in the sending, and it surprised him. It would be safer for everyone, and easier for her, to kill him now. And not only easier, not only safer. There was something he couldn’t quite grasp, there in the image of that shining filament. A harp string. Scarab and Nightingale had argued about it earlier, and Akiva sen
sed that the queen stood somehow to gain by killing him.

  But she didn’t want to.

  “Well?” she asked.

  And it was an easy choice. Life, first. You have to be alive, after all, in order to figure out everything else.

  “All right,” Akiva said. “I’ll come with you.”

  And of course, because Ellai walked here—phantom goddess who had stabbed the sun, and who betrayed more lovers than she ever helped—Karou stepped into the cavern at just that moment, and heard him.

  85

  AN ENDING

  “Akiva?”

  Karou didn’t understand what she was seeing. The fulfillment of her wish had been simplicity itself. No sooner had the gavriel vanished than she knew where he was: nearby but hidden, deep in a quarter of the Kirin caves that their party had yet to explore. So she’d guided them here, through many turnings, coming finally around this corner to find… Akiva on his knees.

  There were five others, black-haired strangers, and she heard what he said to them but it didn’t make sense, and she didn’t run to him. She didn’t run. Her feet never touched stone, but she was there inside a second, drawing him up beside her and looking at him, into him. Pouring herself into him, and knowing. At once.

  Here was an ending.

  He seemed to her a guttered fire, and all things lost and hollow. “I’m sorry,” he said, and she couldn’t fathom what had happened, in a matter of hours, to do this to him. Where was the waiting gaze, vivid and alive, and the laughter, the tease, the dance, the hunger? What had they done to him? She spun toward the strangers, and that’s when she saw their eyes.

  Oh.

  “What is this?” she asked, and was immediately afraid to hear the answer. She waited for it, though, and it was slow in coming, or else she was misperceiving time again, and then Akiva took her into his arms and pressed his lips to the top of her head, long and lingering. As kisses go, it might have been fine, had it fallen on her lips. As answers go, it was very bad. It was good-bye, through and through. She felt it in the rigidity of his arms, the tremor of his jaw, the defeat in his shoulders. She pulled away, out from under the press of his good-bye lips. “What are you doing?” she asked him. Belatedly she processed what she’d heard him say first of all. “Where are you going?”

  “With them,” he said. “I have to.”

  She took a step back, glancing once more to this “them.” Akiva’s people, Stelians. She knew that he had never met any before, and couldn’t guess what it meant, that they were here now. The older woman stood nearest, and she was very beautiful, but it was the younger woman Karou couldn’t look away from. Maybe it was the artist in her. Sometimes, rarely, you see someone who doesn’t look like anyone else, not even a little, and who could never, ever be mistaken or forgotten. That’s what she was like, this seraph. It wasn’t even beauty—not that she wasn’t beautiful, in her sharp, dark way. She was unique, extreme. Extreme angles, extreme intensity, and her regal stance spoke volumes. Here was someone, Karou thought, envious, who had known exactly who she was from the day she was born.

  And she was going to take Akiva away with her.

  Because whatever this was, not for a second did Karou wonder or fear that Akiva was leaving her by choice. She felt the presence of her own friends and comrades closing the space behind her. All of them were here: Issa, Liraz, Ziri, Zuzana, Mik, even Eliza. Plus two score Misbegotten and more than two score chimaera, all prepared to fight for Akiva when they found him.

  Only to find him not fighting for himself.

  “I have to,” he had said.

  It was Liraz who responded. “No,” she said, in the way she had of laying down a truth and standing over it like a lioness guarding a kill. “You don’t.” And she drew her sword and faced the Stelians.

  “Lir, no.” Akiva raised his hands, urgent. “Please. Put that away. You can’t beat them.”

  She looked at him like she didn’t know him.

  “You don’t understand,” he said. “In the battle. It was them.” He looked to the Stelians, focusing on the older woman. “Wasn’t it? You fought our enemy for us.”

  She shook her head. “No. We didn’t,” she said, and Akiva blinked in confusion. But then she added, with a gesture to the fierce young woman at her side, “Scarab did.”

  And no one spoke. They remembered the way their enemies had fallen limp in battle and plummeted from the sky. One woman. One woman had done that.

  Liraz let her sword slip back into its sheath.

  “Please tell me what’s going on,” Karou whispered, and when Akiva turned again to the older woman, she thought for the briefest moment that he was ignoring her plea. In fact, he was making a plea of his own.

  “Would you?” he asked. “Please?” And Karou had no idea what he meant by it, but was aware that something passed between the two women then: a wordless argument. Afterward she would understand that they’d debated telling them—sending them—the answer to her question, and that Nightingale had won. Because afterward Karou would understand all of it.

  Into her mind—all their minds—came an experience of sense and feeling so complete it was like living it, and it was nothing Karou wished to live. She knew why Akiva had asked his grandmother—his grandmother—to answer them in this way, because no told truth could match this. It enveloped her and entered her: a history of tragedy and unspeakable horror, relentless and complex and yet somehow delivered with the utmost ease. It was simply given to her mind, compressed and precise, like a universe contained within a pearl. Or like memories pressed into a wishbone, Karou thought. But this history was so much deeper and more terrible than her own. It was dreamlike.

  Nightmarish.

  And she understood what had happened to Akiva since she saw him last, because now she was a guttered fire, too, and all things lost and hollow.

  How do you take in something so massive and so hideous? Karou found out. You stand there gasping, and wonder how you ever found it in yourself to imagine a happy ending.

  For a long moment, no one spoke. Their horror was palpable, their breathing louder than it should have been. There had been, briefly, in Nightingale’s sending, a sensation of great weight and savage, quaking hunger, and now that they knew it, none of them would ever unknow it: the press of the nithilam against the skin of their world.

  Karou stood but a pace away from Akiva, but it felt like a gulf, already. His own part in the story had been made clear in the sending, and there could be no question: He had to go. The reshaping of an empire had once seemed so huge to them, and now it was only a side note to the question of Eretz’s very survival. Karou reeled. Akiva looked into her eyes, and she saw what he wanted to ask but wouldn’t, because her own destiny was not some afterthought to pin to his. She couldn’t go with him. Without her, there could be no rebirth for the chimaera people.

  It was he who was meant to stay with her—“a prior commitment,” as he had told Ormerod—but now he couldn’t, and their story was, after all, not to be the story of all Eretz: seraphim and chimaera together, and a “different way of living.” It was only one flutter out of millions within a world besieged, and once more, they were torn apart.

  It was Liraz who broke the silence at last. “What about the godstars?” she asked, like a plea. “In the story, they battle the beasts and win.”

  “There are no godstars,” said Scarab, and with her words came a brief, bleak sending: just a sundered sky and the understanding that there was nothing out there in all the vastness to watch over them, and no help coming. For the many gods they had named and worshiped in three worlds and more, when had help ever come? Scarab said, in a voice to match her words for bleakness, “And there never were.”

  It was the worst, the lowest moment of all, and Karou would always remember it as the blackest of shadows—the kind of black that shadows can only achieve when they lie alongside the brightest light.

  Because another sending came to them then. It cut through the other, brilliant and bli
nding. It was light, reeling and abundant. A sensation of light. An army of light. There were figures limned in it, golden and many, and Karou knew who and what they were. They all knew, though the silhouettes didn’t match the myth. This was dream logic, and heart-deep knowing. These were the bright warriors.

  The godstars.

  Karou saw Scarab’s head snap up, and Nightingale’s, too, and she read their shock and knew that this sending was not theirs, nor the other Stelians’, either, who looked as staggered as they did.

  So where did it come from?

  “Yet.”

  One word, from behind Karou, from within her own party, and the voice was familiar but too wholly unexpected for her to place it in that first instant. She had to turn and see with her eyes, and blink, and see again, before she could believe it.

  “People with destinies shouldn’t make plans,” Eliza would say later, laughing, but right now what she said was, “There never were godstars yet.”

  Because it was her. Eliza. She came forward, and she was beatific, practically glowing. She had been all but forgotten amid the mingled creatures of this world, and no surprise, because none knew what she was, not really. She had told Mik and Zuzana that she was a butterfly, but they had no context for what this meant—the ramifications of it—and anyway, she was more than that. She was an echo, and more than that, too. She was an answer. Mystery sang from her skin; she was suffused with it like a black pearl. There were no ebon seraphim in this the Second Age; those of Chavisaery had perished with Meliz, and so the Stelians gazed at her, amazed.

  She was fixed on Scarab, and Scarab on her. “Who are you?” asked the queen, her severity already softening into wonder.

  Eyes bright with invitation, Eliza gave a nod, calling to Scarab to know her—to touch the thread of her life—and Scarab did, with a single fingertip of her anima, a featherlight caress that ran the length of it. Eliza shivered. The sensation was new, and gave her goose bumps, and she was able to think that it was funny, that her body should respond in so ordinary a way as goose bumps to the touch of a golden seraph queen at the thread of her very life.

 
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