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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.5
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.5

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

  Or at her.

  At all of them.

  A pressure in the lowering mists, and with it a seizure of certainty. Karou shrank down and threw back her head to look up. And it wasn’t only her. All around her in the ranks, soldiers were reacting. Dropping, drawing weapons, spinning clear of… something.

  Overhead, the white sky seemed near enough to touch. It was a blank, but there was a rush in Karou’s blood and a thrum like a sound too low for hearing, and then, sudden and looming, fast and massive, pushing before it a wind that flicked the soldiers aside like toys to a tide, something.

  Big.

  On them and blotting out the sky, fast and past, skimming the heads of the company. So sudden, so there, so huge that Karou couldn’t make sense of it, and when it surged past, it touched her, and the trail of its air-warping weight seized and spun her. It was like an undertow, and the chains of her thuribles flew wild, entangling her, and for that dark spinning instant she thought of the black surface of the water far below, and thuribles splashing into it—souls consumed by the Bay of Beasts, and she fought for control of herself… and just like that was released, adrift in a weird calm of aftermath. Her chains were wound tight and tangled but nothing was lost, and all it took now was a glance to see what it was—what they were, oh. Oh—before the dense white day swallowed them again, and they were gone.

  Stormhunters.

  The biggest creatures in this world, save whatever secrets the sea held deep. Wings that could shelter or shatter a small house. That was what had brushed her: a stormhunter wing. A pod of the great birds had just glided right over the company, and a single wingbeat from the lowermost had been enough to scatter the chimaera from their formation. Before there was any space in Karou’s head for marvel, she did a frantic accounting of the host.

  She found Issa clinging to Rua’s neck, shaken but otherwise fine. The blacksmith Aegir had dropped the bundle of weapons—all of them lost to the sea. Akiva and Liraz were still in their place far ahead, and Zuzana and Mik were up ahead, too, not far, but safely clear of the whiplash from that wingbeat. They looked no worse than mildly ruffled, but thoroughly slack-jawed with the marvel that Karou was still staving off—and the ranks were closing back in, not one of them so stoic as wasn’t gaping after the great shapes already vanished into the haze. Everyone was fine.

  They’d just been buzzed by stormhunters.

  In her earliest life, Karou had been a child of the high world: Madrigal of the Kirin, the last tribe of the Adelphas Mountains. Amid the peaks the massive creatures ranged, though no Kirin, or anyone else that Karou had heard of, had ever seen a stormhunter so close. They couldn’t be hunted; they were utterly elusive, too fast for pursuit, too canny to surprise. It was believed that they could sense the smallest changes in air and atmosphere, and as a child—as Madrigal—Karou had had reason to believe it. Seeing them from afar, adrift like motes in the slanting sun, she would take off after them, eager for a closer sight, but no sooner would her wings beat her intention than theirs would answer and carry them away. Never had even a nest been found, an eggshell, or even a carcass; if stormhunters hatched, if stormhunters died, no one knew where.

  Now Karou had had her closer sight, and it was thrilling.

  Adrenaline was coursing through her, and she couldn’t help herself. She smiled. The glimpse had been too brief, but she’d seen that a dense fleece covered the stormhunters’ bodies, that their eyes were black, big as platters and filmed by a nictitating membrane, like Earth birds. Their feathers shone iridescent, no single color but all colors, shifting with the play of light.

  They seemed like a gift from the wild, and a reminder that not everything in this world was defined by the everlasting war. She gathered herself in the air, untangling a thurible chain from around her neck, and glided up to Zuzana and Mik.

  She grinned at her friends, the pair of them still stunned, and said, “Welcome to Eretz.”

  “Forget a pegasus,” declared Zuzana, fervent and wide-eyed. “I want one of those!”

  8

  BRUISE THE SKY

  “More stormhunters,” said the soldier Stivan from the window, stepping aside for Melliel.

  It was their cell’s only window. Four days they had been in this prison. Three nights the sun had set and three dawns risen to illuminate a world that made less and less sense. Bracing herself, Melliel looked out.

  Sunrise. Intense saturation of light; glowing clouds, a gilded sea, and the horizon a streak of radiance too pure to look at. The islands were like the scattered silhouettes of slumbering beasts, and the sky… the sky was as it had been, which is to say, the sky was wrong.

  If it had been flesh, one would say it was bruised. This dawn, like the others, it was revealed to have set forth new blooms of color overnight—or rather, of discolor: violet, indigo, sickly yellow, the most delicate cerulean. They were vast, the blossoms or bleeds. Melliel didn’t know what to call them. They were sky-filling, and would spread by the hour, deepen and then pale, finally vanishing as others took their place.

  It was beautiful, and when Melliel and her company were first brought here by their captors, they assumed that this was just the nature of the southern sky. This wasn’t the world as they knew it. Everything about the Far Isles was beautiful and bizarre. The air was so rich it had body, fragrance seeming to carry in it as easily as sound: perfumes, birdcalls, every breeze as alive with darting songs and scents as the sea was with fish. As for the sea, it was a thousand new colors every minute, and not all of them blues and greens. The trees were more like a child’s fanciful drawings than they were like their staid and straight cousins of the northern hemisphere. And the sky?

  Well, the sky did this.

  But Melliel had gleaned by now that it was not normal, and neither was the stormhunter gathering that grew by the day.

  Out there over the sea, the creatures were grouped in ceaseless circlings. Blood Soldier of the Misbegotten, Melliel, Second Bearer of that Name, was not young, and in her lifetime she had seen many stormhunters, but never more than a half dozen in one place, and always at the sky’s farthest edge, moving in a line. But here were dozens. Dozens interweaving with more dozens.

  It was a freakish spectacle, but even so, she might have taken it in stride as some natural phenomenon if it weren’t for the faces of their guards. The Stelians were on edge.

  Something was happening here, and no one was telling the prisoners anything. Not what was wrong with the sky or what drew the stormhunters, and not what their own fate was to be, either.

  Melliel gripped the window bars, leaning forward to take in the full panorama of sea and sky and islands. Stivan was right. In the night, the stormhunter numbers had surged again, as if every one of them in the whole of Eretz were answering some call. Circling, circling, as the sky bled and healed itself and bruised anew.

  What power could bruise the sky?

  Melliel let go of the bars and stalked back across the cell to the door. She pounded on it and called, “Hello? I want to talk to someone!”

  Her team took notice and began to gather. Those still sleeping woke in their hammocks and put their feet on the floor. They were twelve altogether, all taken without injury—though not without confusion over the manner of their capture: a blinking stupefaction so entire that it felt like a breakdown of brain function—and the cell was no dank dungeon but only a long, clean room with this heavy, locked door.

  There was a privy, and water for washing. Hammocks for sleeping, and shifts of lightly woven cloth so they might remove their black gambesons and stifling armor if they chose—which, by now, all of them had. Food was plentiful and far better than they were used to: white fish and airy bread, and what fruit! Some tasted of honey and flowers, thick-skinned and thin and varicolored. There were tart yellow berries and husked purple globes that they hadn’t figured out how to open, having understandably been deprived of their blades. One kind had sharp spines and hid custard within; they grabbed for that one first, and the
re was one that none of them could stomach: a queer kind of fleshy pink orb, nearly flavorless and as messy as blood. Those they left untouched in the flat basket by the door.

  Melliel couldn’t help but wonder which, if any, was the fruit that had so enraged their father the emperor when it appeared by mystery at the foot of his bed.

  There came no answer to her call, so she knocked again. “Hello? Someone!” This time she thought to add a grudging “please” and was irritated when the key turned at once, as though Eidolon—of course it was Eidolon—had only been standing there waiting for the please.

  The Stelian girl was, as usual, alone and unarmed. She wore a simple cascade of white fabric fastened over one brown shoulder, with her black hair vine-bound and gathered over the other. Engraved golden bands were spaced evenly up both slim arms, and her feet were bare, which struck Melliel as embarrassingly intimate. Vulnerable. The vulnerability was an illusion, of course.

  There was nothing about Eidolon to hint that she was a soldier—that any of the Stelians were, or that they even had an army—but this young woman had been, unmistakably, in command when Melliel’s team was… intercepted. And because of what had happened then—Melliel still couldn’t wrap her mind around it—and though they were a dozen war-hardened Misbegotten against one elegant girl, no thought entered their heads of attempting escape.

  There was more to Eidolon—as there was more to the Far Isles—than beauty.

  “Are you well?” asked that elegant girl in the Stelian accent that could soften the sharpest of words. Her smile was warm; her Stelian fire eyes danced as she greeted them with a gesture—a kind of cupping and proffering of her hand, a sweep of her gold-banded arm to take in the lot of them.

  The soldiers murmured responses. Male and female alike, they were all in some fashion fascinated by this mysterious Eidolon of the dancing eyes, but Melliel regarded the gesture with suspicion. She had seen the Stelian… do things… with just such graceful gestures, unaccountable things, and she wished she’d keep her arms at her sides. “We’re well enough,” she said. “For prisoners.” Her own accent was coming to sound vulgar to her, compared to theirs, and her voice gruff and grizzled. She felt old and ungainly, like an iron sword. “What’s happening out there?”

  “Things that would better not,” Eidolon replied lightly.

  It was more than Melliel had gotten out of her before. “What things?” she demanded. “What’s wrong with the sky?”

  “It’s tired,” said the girl with a shimmer in her eye that was like the sparking of a stirred fire. So like Akiva’s eyes, Melliel thought. Every Stelian they had seen so far had them. “It aches,” added Eidolon. “It is very old, you know.”

  The sky was old and tired? A nonsense answer. She was toying with them. “Is it something to do with the Wind?” Melliel asked, thinking the word with a capital letter, to distinguish it from every wind that had ever come before.

  Indeed, calling it a “wind” was like calling a stormhunter a bird. Melliel’s team had been nearing Caliphis when it hit them, seizing them like so many shed feathers and sucking them back the way they’d come, along with every other sky-borne thing in its path—birds, moths, clouds, and, yes, even stormhunters—as well as many things that the surface of the world had not been gripping as tightly as it might, like trees’ entire blossom bounties, and the very foam off the sea.

  Powerlessness, reeling miles of it. They’d been caught and carried—eastward first, beating their wings to get control of themselves, and then… the lull. Brief and far too still, it had given them just time to gasp before the full force came on again and sent them reeling again, westward now, back to Caliphis and beyond, where it finally released them. Such force! It had felt as though the ether itself had dragged a deep breath and expelled it. The phenomena had to be linked, Melliel thought. The Wind, the bruised sky, the gathering of the stormhunters? None of it was natural or right.

  Eidolon’s expression of mild loveliness went flat, no shimmer in her eyes now. “That was not wind,” she said.

  “Then what was it?” Melliel asked, hoping this unexpected candor would persist.

  “Stealing,” she said, and seemed poised to withdraw. “Forgive me. Was there anything else?”

  “Yes,” said Melliel. “I want to know what will be done with us.”

  With a viper-quick turn of her head, Eidolon made Melliel flinch. “Are you so eager to have something done with you?”

  Melliel blinked. “I only want to know—”

  “It is not decided. We get so few strangers here. The children should like to see you, I think. Blue eyes. Such a wonder.” She said it with admiration, staring right at Yav, the youngest of the company, who was very fair. He blushed to his blond roots. Eidolon turned back to Melliel with a contemplative look. “On the other hand, Wraith has requested that you be given to the novices. For practice.”

  Practice? At what? Melliel wouldn’t ask; since coming into contact with these people, she had seen such things as hinted at magic unimaginable. Those arts were long lost in the Empire, and filled her with horror. But Eidolon’s eyes were merry. Was she joking? Melliel was not consoled. So few strangers, the Stelian had said. Melliel asked, “Where are the others?”

  “Others?”

  Not at all sure she wanted to press, Melliel replied, “Yes,” and tried to sound stalwart. It was her mission, after all, to find out. Her team had been dispatched to trace the emperor’s vanished emissaries. Joram’s declaration of war on the Stelians had been answered—with the basket of fruit—so it had clearly been received, but the ambassadors had never returned, and several troop detachments had likewise gone missing in the quest for the Far Isles. In their days here, Melliel and her team had seen or heard no hint of other prisoners. “The emperor’s messengers,” she said. “They didn’t come back.”

  “Are you sure of that?” asked the girl. Sweetly. Too sweetly, like honey that masks the gall of poison. And then, with deliberation, her eyes never leaving Melliel’s, she knelt to take a fruit from the basket by the door. It was one of the pink orbs the Misbegotten couldn’t abide. Fruit they might have been, but the things were essentially meaty sacks of red juice, off-puttingly mouth-filling, and warm.

  The girl took a bite, and in that instant, Melliel would have sworn that her teeth were points. It was like a veil yanked askew, and behind it, Eidolon of the dancing eyes was a savage. Her delicacy was gone; she was… nasty. The fruit burst and she tipped back her head, sucking and licking, to catch the thick juice in her mouth. The column of her throat was exposed as red overspilled her lips, streaking down, viscous and opaque, to the white cascade of her dress, where it bloomed like flowers of blood, nothing but blood, and still she sucked at the fruit. The soldiers recoiled from her, and when Eidolon lowered her head again to stare at Melliel, her face was smeared with hungry red.

  Like a predator, Melliel thought, raising its head from a hot carcass.

  “You brought us your flesh and blood along with your animus,” said Eidolon with her dripping mouth, and it was impossible now even to recall the graceful girl she had seemed but a moment ago. “What did you mean by coming here, if not to give yourselves to us? Did you think we would keep you just as you are, blue eyes and black hands and all?” She held up the skin of the sucked-empty fruit and dropped it. It hit the tile floor with a slap.

  She couldn’t mean… No. Not the fruit. Melliel had seen things, yes, but her mind would not admit that possibility. Simply no. It was a hideous joke. Her disgust emboldened her. “It was never our animus,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of choosing our own enemies. We are soldiers.” Soldiers, she said, but she thought: slaves.

  “Soldiers,” said Eidolon with scorn. “Yes. Soldiers and children do as they’re told.” A curl of her lip, surveying the lot of them, and she said, “Children grow out of it, but soldiers just die.” Just. Die. Each word a jab, and then the door flew open untouched and she was on the other side of it without having moved, standi
ng in the corridor. She had done this before: made time seem to stutter and strobe, steps lost along the way like seconds sliced out and swallowed.

  Swallowed like that clotting red juice that wasn’t blood, that couldn’t be blood.

  Melliel forced herself to say, “So we’re to die?”

  “The queen will decide what is to be done with you.”

  Queen? This was the first mention of a queen. Was it she who had sent Joram the basket of fruit that had seen fourteen Breakblades swinging from the Westway gibbet and a concubine flushed out the gutter door in a shroud?

  “When?” Melliel asked. “When will she decide?”

  “When she comes home,” said the girl. “Enjoy your flesh and blood while you can, sweet soldiers. Scarab has gone away hunting.” She sang the word. “Hunting, hunting.” A snarl of a smile, and again Melliel saw that her teeth were points… and again saw that they were not. Strobing time, strobing reality. What was true? A crack and strobe and the door was closed, Eidolon was gone, and…

  … and the room was dark.

  Melliel blinked, shook off a sudden heaviness and looked around her. Dark? Eidolon’s words still echoed through the cell—hunting hunting—so it could only have been a second, but the chamber was dark. Stivan was blinking, too, and Doria and the rest. Young Yav, barely jumped up from the training camp and still with a boy’s round face, had tears of horror in his blue, blue eyes.

  Hunting hunting hunting.

  Melliel spun to the window and, with a push of her wings, thrust herself at it and looked out. It was as she feared. It was no longer dawn.

  It was no longer day. The black of night hid the sky’s bruises, and both moons were high and thin, Nitid a crescent and Ellai but a crust, together giving off just enough light to brush the edges of the stormhunters’ wings with silver as they tilted in their ceaseless circles.

  Hunting, came Eidolon’s voice—echo or memory or phantom—and Melliel steadied herself against the wall as an entire lost day raced through her and was stripped away, every stolen minute, she felt with a shudder, bringing her nearer to her last. Would they die here, the lot of them? She couldn’t—or wouldn’t—believe Eidolon about the fruit, but the memory of its dense flesh between her own teeth still made her want to gag.

 
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