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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.46
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.46

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

  Whatever Scarab read there, they all saw fire dance in her eyes, and she grew beatific, too.

  None of them understood it then, except for Eliza and Scarab. Not even Nightingale. But all present in the Kirin caves that night—seraph, chimaera, and human—would ever afterward say that they felt, in that instant, a dark age quietly give way, and a bright one bloom into being. It was an ending overlapped by a beginning, and it was thrilling and confounding, primal and terrifying, electric and delicious.

  It felt like falling in love.

  Scarab took a step forward. All her life she had been haunted by ananke, the relentless tug of fate. It had been oppressive, and it had been elusive. It had caused her uncertainty and dread. But never had she experienced the perfect, puzzle-piece fulfillment of it that she did now. Completion. More than that. Consummation.

  Ananke went quiet. Her release from it was like the silence when a baby’s cries have become unendurable and then abruptly cease.

  She stood before this woman—this seraph come from nowhere, of the lost line of Chavisaery whom all Meliz had revered as prophets—and all of Scarab’s uncertainty and dread… evanesced.

  “How?” she asked. How was it possible? Where had Eliza come from? Where had her sending come from, and what did it mean?

  How? Eliza’s gaze flickered to Karou and Akiva, and to Zuzana and Mik, and to Virko, who, she understood, had carried her on his back, away from the kasbah, away from government agents and who knows what else. The five of them had rescued her from infamy and madness, and from a life with no future. Because of them, she was here where she was supposed to be, and oh, she had a future now. They all did, and what a future it was. She took in the rest of the company too, and felt the same fulfillment that Scarab did. This was right. This was meant, and it was at once impossible and inevitable, like all miracles.

  “I think it’s time,” was her answer. Spoken with wonder, her words weighed of fate, and even if the company didn’t understand, they were unnerved by the gravity of the moment, and held their tongues.

  Well. Except for Zuzana. She and Mik clung together, drinking everything in with their eyes and ears, and making sense of it, too—the words, at least—because Zuzana had snuck wishes into her pocket earlier, wish police be damned, and they had no sooner come into the presence of the strangers than she vanished two lucknows, one for herself and one for Mik, gifting them both the language of the angels.

  It proved little help in interpreting the moment, though, and so Zuzana ventured to ask, “Um, time for what?”

  A ripple of mirth moved through them all—and relief, that someone had given voice to the question they all wanted answered. Indeed. Time for what?

  “Time for liberation,” said Eliza. “For salvation. Time for the godstars.”

  “They’re a myth,” spoke Scarab, uncertain and ready to be persuaded. Like the rest of them, she held the vision from Eliza’s sending in her mind, and didn’t know what to make of it. She only knew that she wanted to believe it.

  “They are,” agreed Eliza, smiling. Everyone watched her. Everyone listened. How strange, that she should become the nucleus of this moment—this tremendous moment in the story of all their worlds.

  “My people understood that time is an ocean, not a river,” she said to them all. “It doesn’t flow away and pour itself out, done and gone. It simply is—eternal and entire. Mortals might move through it in one direction, but that’s no reflection of its true nature—only of our limitations. Past and future are our own constructs.

  “And as for myths, some are made up, nothing but fantasy. But some myths are true. Some have already been lived. And in the drift of time, eternal and entire, some haven’t.” She paused, gathering up the words that would make them understand.

  “Some myths are prophecy.”

  A race of bright warriors heard of the nithilam and traveled from their far world to do battle with them.

  These were the godstars, who brought light to the universe.

  Sometime in the midst of this, Karou and Akiva had bridged the space between them. They clung together now, their amazement making the cave reel around them. Their good-bye was not forgotten or evaded. Their fear was gone, but not their sorrow. Whatever happened here tonight, a parting was still before them. Loramendi waited, all those souls quiet under ash. Karou was still the chimaera’s last hope, and Akiva was what he was, unquantifiable and dangerous. But they had seen something in that golden sending, and the new future it laid open was as magnificent as it was appalling.

  It was also, somehow, instantly… certain. It was as though Eliza’s sending had spliced itself into all of their life threads and become a part of them.

  There was no stepping back from this.

  Ziri had caught Liraz’s hand when the first dark sending gripped them, and he held it still. It was the first time either of them had ever held another’s hand, and for them alone, the immensity of what unfolded that night was overshadowed by the perfect wonderment of fingers intertwined—as though this was what hands had always been for, and not for holding weapons at all.

  Their wonder was also undercut by sorrow, as the understanding grew in them that they were not yet done holding weapons.

  Not even close.

  Eliza was a prophet, and she was a Faerer, too, and the first was great, because she gifted them this sending and all that it portended, but the second was greater, because she was the fulfillment of her own prophecy. Maps and memories were in her. Elazael of Chavisaery had, so long ago, journeyed beyond the veils and mapped the universes there, and because of what power-drunk magi had made of the twelve, those maps were all Eliza’s now, and so were her foremother’s memories of the beasts themselves. No one alive had beheld the nithilam or traveled the lands they had laid waste, but Eliza contained it all.

  If Scarab was going to fight the Cataclysm, she would need a guide. And she was, and now she had one.

  And more than a guide. Anyone could see it. Scarab and Eliza were settled fate and halves made whole from the moment they set eyes on each other. Even Carnassial, silent throughout, relinquished his hopes as quietly as he had ever held them.

  And as for the rest of them, they’d all seen the silhouettes in the sending, and they all believed it in the way of dreams, without consideration or doubt. “Some myths are true,” Eliza had said. “Some have already been lived. And in the drift of time, eternal and entire, some haven’t.”

  And the rest of them knew two things at once: who the bright warriors were, and what they were.

  The “what” was simple, though no less profound for it. They were the godstars, who in the swim of time had not yet come to pass.

  And as for the “who”?

  The silhouettes were light-drenched, magnificent, and… familiar. They saw themselves, each one of them, from Rath the Dashnag boy who was no longer a boy, to Mik, the violinist from the next world over, and Zuzana the puppet-maker. To Akiva and Liraz, who would never lose their longing for Hazael to be among them. To Ziri of the Kirin, lucky after all, and even to Issa, who had never been a warrior before. And to Karou.

  Karou who had, a lifetime past, begun this story on a battlefield, when she knelt beside a dying angel and smiled. You could trace a line from the beach at Bullfinch, through everything that had happened since—lives ended and begun, wars won and lost, love and wishbones and rage and regret and deception and despair and always, somehow, hope—and end up right here, in this cave in the Adelphas Mountains, in this company.

  Fate took a bow, so neat it all was, but still it stole their breath away to hear Scarab, queen of the Stelians and keeper of the Cataclysm, say, with a fervor that sent tremors up every last spine, including her own: “There will be godstars. And they will be us.”

  EPILOGUE

  Karou woke most mornings to the sound of forge hammers and found herself alone in her tent. Issa and Yasri would have slipped out quietly before first light to help Vovi and Awar see to the volumes and volumes of break
fast that began their days in the camp. Haxaya was with the hunting party, away for days at a time tracking skelt herds up the Erling River, and who knew where Tangris and Bashees spent their nights.

  By the time Aegir’s first hammer fell—Karou’s alarm clock these days was an anvil—Amzallag’s excavation crew would already have eaten and left for the site, and the other work crews would be taking their turn at the mess tent.

  Aside from the smiths—and they were forging thuribles now, not weapons—there were fishers, water haulers, growers. Boats had been built and caulked, nets woven. A few late summer crops had been seeded in good land a few miles away, though they all expected hunger this winter, after a year of razed granaries and scorched fields. Fewer mouths to feed, though, and this was not a silver lining, but a truth that would, nevertheless, help get them through.

  The rest concerned themselves with the city. What bones had survived the incineration had been buried first of all, and there was nothing to salvage in the ashes. There would be builders eventually, but for now the ruins had to be cleared, and the twisted iron bars of the great cage hauled away. They were still trying to find beasts of burden enough to accomplish this, and they didn’t know what they would do with all the iron once they had the muscle to move it. Some thought that the new Loramendi must be built under a cage as the old had been, and Karou understood that it was too soon for chimaera to feel any safety beneath an open sky, but she hoped that by the time that decision had to be made, they might choose to build a city befitting a brighter future.

  Loramendi might be beautiful one day.

  “Bring an architect back with you,” she’d told Mik and Zuzana, only half in jest, when they left for Earth astride the stormhunter they’d named Samurai. They’d gone back for teeth, primarily, chocolate secondarily—according to Zuzana—and to see how their home world fared in the aftermath of Jael’s visitation. Karou missed them. Without Zuzana to distract her, she was always a step away from self-pity or bitterness. Though she was far from alone here—and a million miles from the isolation she’d suffered in the early days of the rebellion, when the Wolf had led them into bloodshed and she’d spent her days building soldiers to resurrect a war—the loneliness Karou knew now was like a blanket of fog: no sun, no horizon, just a continuous, creeping, inescapable chill.

  Except in dreams.

  Some mornings when the hammer woke her with its first ringing strike, she felt herself drop back into her life from some sweet golden sphere that lost all definition with the flood of consciousness—like vision blurred by tears. She was left with a feeling only; it seemed to her the impression of a soul, as she got when she opened a thurible, or went gleaning over the dead. And though she had never felt his soul—as, blessedly, he had never died—it left her awash with a sense of grace, like standing in the sun. Warmth and light, and a feeling of Akiva’s presence so strong she could almost feel his hand to her heart, and hers to his.

  This morning it had been especially powerful. She lay still, a phantom heat lingering on her chest and palm. She didn’t want to open her eyes, but only rise back into the golden sphere and find him there, and stay.

  Sighing, she remembered a silly song from Earth about how if you want to remember your dreams, as soon as you wake you should call to them as if they were little kittens. Pretty much the entire song went, “Here kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty… and it had always made her smile. Now, though, the smile was more of a twist, because she so wanted it to work, and it just didn’t.

  And then, at the flap door of the tent: a softly cleared throat. “Karou?” The voice was pitched low enough not to wake her if she still slept, and when she saw the figure framed in the opening, the dawn sun painting itself along the line of one strong arm as bright as gold leaf on an altarpiece, she was upright like a snapped spring.

  Cover thrown aside, to her knees and rising before she realized her mistake.

  It was Carnassial.

  She couldn’t disguise her anguish. She had to cover her face with her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said after a moment, pushing it all down deep, as she did every morning, in order to get on with her day. She took her hands away and smiled at the Stelian magus. “It really isn’t horrible to see you,” she told him.

  “It’s all right.” He stepped inside. She saw that he’d brought tea and her morning ration of bread, so that they might start out directly for the site. “It’s good to know what it’s supposed to look like when someone is happy to see you. Though I don’t imagine most people ever get a reaction like that. I never have, but now I’ll hold out for it all my life.”

  “Maybe it’s a curse, anyway,” said Karou, taking the tea from him. She understood that Carnassial had shared something with the queen, and that it was over now; she suspected it was why he had volunteered to come to Loramendi, instead of returning to the Far Isles with the others. “Or maybe it’s like skohl,” she said. That was the high-mountain plant whose stinking resin they burned on their torches at the caves. “And only grows in the worst conditions.” You’d never find skohl in some sun-dappled meadow, but only on a cliff face, crusted with hoarfrost. Maybe heart-crushing love was the same, and could only grow in hostile environments.

  Carnassial shook his head. He didn’t really look that much like Akiva, but was mistaken for him constantly here, since Akiva was the only Stelian known to this part of the world.

  “He did the same thing, you know,” he told her. “The first time we saw him. We’d come to kill him. It would have happened then and there, if he hadn’t turned out to be who he is. Scarab made a sound and he turned and fixed on where she was glamoured. And he smiled as though joy itself had just cornered him in the dark.” He paused. “Because he thought it was you.”

  Karou’s hand trembled, holding her tea, and she steadied it with the other, to little effect. “When did you get back?” she asked him, changing the subject. He had been to Astrae in his capacity as representative of the Stelian court. Liraz and Ziri had gone, too, to meet with Elyon and Balieros and discuss plans for the coming winter.

  “Last night,” Carnassial told her. “Some of yours came back with us. Ixander is furious to have missed the chance, in his words, to become a god.”

  A god. A godstar.

  There had been plenty of discussion of what this meant since the night of Eliza’s sending, and for the most part, they agreed that by no feasible interpretation were they going to become “gods.” There was an extraordinary unity and solemnity among them, though, in accepting their fate. They would play a part in the realization of myth. It might have been a seraph myth before, but now it belonged to all of them. Mortal or immortal was beside the point. A war loomed, of such epic scope as made knees buckle and minds go dim, and they were the bright warriors who would banish the darkness.

  “I’m going to just go ahead and consider myself a god,” Zuzana had said. “You guys believe what you want.”

  Karou enjoyed the idea that you could “believe what you want,” as though reality were a buffet line. If only.

  Triple helpings of cake, please.

  Carnassial went on about Ixander. “He says by right he should be one of the godstars, since he wanted to return to the Kirin caves with you, but was ordered to Astrae instead. I was afraid he was going to challenge me for my place.” He smiled.

  Karou found her own smile, imagining the big ursine soldier arguing loopholes with fate. “Who knows,” she said. “It’s not like we could freeze Eliza’s sending and make a list of names.” They couldn’t see the sending again, either, because Eliza had gone to the Far Isles with the Stelians and Akiva. “Maybe we all saw what we wanted to see.”

  “Maybe,” Carnassial agreed. “I saw you, though.”

  Karou couldn’t reply in kind. She hadn’t seen him. She had seen herself in the radiance of that vision, and she had seen Akiva at her side. The sight had been like a buoy to one drowning, and she clung to it still.

  She did believe that the
time would come when their duties would free them to be together—or at least a time when they could twist and bend and wrestle their duties into alignment. If they were bound to be dutiful fate-slaves forever, then mightn’t they at least be dutiful fate-slaves on the same continent, perhaps even under the same roof?

  Someday.

  And hopefully before Scarab’s war called them all to meet the nithilam.

  And when would it? Not soon. This wasn’t a confrontation to rush into. The very idea of it had met with violent opposition when the Stelians returned home, according to Carnassial, who received sendings from his people.

  The opposition wasn’t universal, though. Apparently, many stood with their queen in hoping for a future free of their duty to the veil.

  “Have you heard from home?” Karou allowed herself to ask. There had been some messages from Akiva, and she was hoping today might bring another.

  Carnassial nodded. “Two nights past. Everyone is well.”

  “Everyone is well?” she repeated, wishing for Zuzana’s eyebrow prowess to express just what she thought of the extent of this news. “Is that seriously all?”

  “More than well, then,” he allowed. “The queen is home, the veil is healing, and it’s nearly the dream season.”

  Karou understood that the veil was healing because Akiva was no longer draining it, and that ordinary stability was returning, but she didn’t know what the dream season was. She asked.

  “It’s… a good time of year,” Carnassial replied with a roughened voice, and looked away.

  “Oh,” she said, not yet understanding. “How good?”

  His voice was still rough when he said, “That entirely depends on who you share it with,” and this time it was Karou who looked away.

  Oh.

  She pulled on her boots and gathered her hair back, tying it with a strip of cloth she’d torn from one of her two shirts. Fancy. Get rubber bands, she willed Zuzana, wishing for telesthesia of her own.

 
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