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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.6
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.6

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

  These people might be seraphim, but there the kinship began and ended, and in Melliel’s mind the shape of their mysterious queen—Scarab?—began to warp into something terrible.

  Hunting hunting hunting.

  Hunting what?

  ARRIVAL + 6 HOURS

  9

  LANDFALL

  At 15:12 GMT, with the whole world watching, the angels made landfall. There was a period of hours, while the formation’s flight path carved due west from Samarkand, over the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan, when their destination was a mystery. Across Turkey the westward path held, and it was not until the angels crossed the 36th meridian without turning south that the Holy Land was eliminated from contention. After that, the money was on Vatican City, and the money was not wrong.

  Keeping to the formation in which they’d flown, in twenty perfect blocks of fifty angels each, the Visitors alighted in the grand, winged plaza of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

  The scientists, grad students, and interns who’d gathered in the basement of the NMNH in Washington, D.C., watched the screen in silence as, in baroque regalia befitting his title—His Holiness, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God—the Pope stepped forth to greet his magnificent guests.

  As he did, there came a shift in the first and central phalanx. It was difficult to make out details. The cameras were in the air, hovering in helicopters, and from this high vantage point, the angels looked like a living lace of fire and white silk. Exquisite. Now one of them stepped forward—he seemed to be wearing a plumed silver helm—and in one liquid movement, all the rest went down on one knee.

  The Pope approached, trembling, his hand raised in blessing, and the leader of the angels inclined his head in a very slight bow. The two stood facing each other. They appeared to be talking.

  “Did… the Pope just become the spokesman for humanity?” inquired a stunned zoologist.

  “What could go wrong?” replied a dazed anthropologist.

  Eliza’s colleagues had put together an ad hoc media center by grouping a number of televisions and computers in an empty outreach classroom. Over the course of several hours, the tenor of their commentary had shifted almost entirely away from hoax theory toward the more unsettling realms of… If it’s true, how is it true, and what does it mean, and… how do we make it make sense?

  As for the television commentary, it was inane. They were bandying biblical jargon around like there was no tomorrow—which, hey, maybe there wasn’t! Ba-dum-bum.

  Apocalypse. Armageddon. The Rapture.

  Eliza’s nemesis, Morgan Toth—he of the pillowy lips—was using an altogether different vocabulary. “They should treat it like an alien invasion,” he said. “There are protocols for that.”

  Protocols. Eliza knew exactly what he was getting at.

  “That would go over well with the masses,” said Yvonne Chen, a microbiologist, with a laugh. “It’s the Second Coming! Scramble the jets!”

  Morgan gave a sigh of exaggerated patience. “Yes,” he said with the utmost condescension. “Whatever this is, I would appreciate some jets between it and me. Am I the only non-idiot on the planet?”

  “Yes, Morgan Toth, you are,” Gabriel piped up. “Will you be our king?”

  “With pleasure,” said Morgan, sketching a slight bow and flipping back his artfully overlong bangs on the way up. He was a small guy with a handsome face set atop skinny, sloping shoulders and a neck about the circumference of Eliza’s pinkie. As for the puffy lips, they existed in a state of snide smirk, and Eliza was constantly plagued by urges to bounce things off them. Coins. Gummy bears.

  Fists.

  The two of them were grad students in Dr. Anuj Chaudhary’s lab, both recipients of highly competitive research fellowships with one of the world’s foremost evolutionary biologists, but from the day they met, the animosity Eliza felt for the smug little white boy had felt like nausea. He’d actually laughed when she told him the name of the scruffy public university she came from, claiming to have thought she was joking, and that was just the beginning. She knew he didn’t believe she’d earned her spot here, that some form of affirmative action must account for it—or worse. Sometimes, when Dr. Chaudhary laughed at something Eliza said, or leaned over her shoulder to read some results, she could see Morgan’s nasty assumptions in his smirk, and it enraged her. It dirtied her—and Dr. Chaudhary, too, who was decent, and married, and also old enough to be her father. Eliza was used to being underestimated, because she was black, because she was a woman, but no one had ever been quite so vile about it as Morgan. She wanted to shake him, and that was the worst of it. Eliza was mild, even after everything, and the rage itself enraged her—that Morgan Toth could alter her, bend her like a wire by the sheer awfulness of his personality.

  “I mean, come on,” he said, gesturing at the TV screens. The helmed angel and the Pope still appeared to be speaking. Someone had gotten a camera closer to the action, on the ground with them now, though not near enough for audio. “What are those things?” Morgan demanded. “We know they’re not ‘celestial beings’—”

  “We don’t know anything yet,” Eliza heard herself say, though the last thing she wanted to do—dear god, the irony—was argue on behalf of angels.

  Only Morgan could provoke her like this. It was like his voice—belligerent spiked with obnoxious—triggered an autonomic impulse to argue. All he had to do was take a position and she’d feel an immediate need to oppose it. If he declared affection for light, Eliza would have to defend the dark.

  And she really, really didn’t like the dark.

  “Are you even a scientist?” she asked him. “Since when do we decide what we know before there’s even any data?”

  “You’re making my point for me, Eliza. Data. We need it. I doubt the Pope’s going to get it, and I don’t hear the president demanding it.”

  “That doesn’t mean he’s not. He said every scenario is being considered.”

  “Like hell it is. I suppose if a flying saucer descended on the Vatican, they’d clear a landing strip for it in the middle of St. Peter’s freaking Square?”

  “It’s not a flying saucer, though, is it, Morgan? Can you really not see how this is different?” She knew there was no point arguing with him, but it was maddening. He was pretending not to grasp the intense sensitivity of this situation out of some notion that it marked him as superior—like he was so far above the masses that their concerns were quaint to him. How primitive your customs are! What is this thing you call “religion”? But Eliza knew that this was a whole different kind of threat than a flying saucer would have been. An alien landing would unify the world, just like in a science fiction movie. But “angels” had the potential to splinter humanity into a thousand sharp shards.

  She should know. She’d been a shard for years.

  “There aren’t many things that people will gladly kill and die for, but this is the big one,” she said. “Do you understand? It doesn’t matter what you believe, or what you think is stupid. If the powers that be pull any of your ‘protocol,’ it’s not going to be pretty out there.”

  Morgan sighed again, steepling his fingertips to his temples in an attitude of Why must I endure such mental frailty? “There is no scenario in which it’s going to be ‘pretty’. We need to be in control of the situation, not falling to our knees like a bunch of bedazzled peasants.”

  And here Eliza had to bite the inside of her cheek, because she hated to agree with Morgan Toth, but she agreed with that. She’d been fighting that fight for years—to never again fall to her knees, never again be knocked to them and held down, never again be forced.

  And now the sky opened and angels poured in?

  It was kind of hilarious. She wanted to laugh. She wanted to pound her fists against something. A wall. Morgan Tot
h’s smirk. She imagined how he would look at her if he knew where she came from. What she came from. What she’d run from. He would achieve a threshold of disdain unmatched in human history. Or more like fascinated, disgusted glee. It would make his year.

  She decided to shut up, which Morgan took as a victory, but still she had a sense, from the fishy glint of his glare, that she should have shut up sooner. People with secrets shouldn’t make enemies, she warned herself.

  And, clear and unbidden, as if in response, from some deep layer of memory, arose her mother’s voice. “People with destinies,” it said, “shouldn’t make plans.”

  “Oh my goodness!” came a perky trill from one of the embarrassing newscasters, drawing Eliza’s attention back to the row of TVs. Something was happening. The Pope had turned aside to issue orders to underlings, and now, lugging cameras and microphones, a news team approached at a lurching run.

  “It looks like the Visitors are going to make a statement!”

  10

  TILT TO PANIC

  The angel wore a helmet of chased silver topped with a crest of white plumes. It resembled a Roman centurion’s helmet, with the addition of an overlong nasal guard—a narrow strip of silver that projected from the visor all the way to his chin, effectively bisecting his face. This concealed his nose and all but the corners of his mouth, while leaving his eyes, cheekbones, and jawline exposed.

  It was a strange choice, especially considering that the rest of the host was bareheaded, their beautiful faces unobstructed. There were other odd things about the angel, too, but they were harder to assess, and his statement was soon to eclipse them all. Only later would the analysis of his posture begin, and his oddly bloated shadow, his mushy, lisping voice, and the whispering that was audible in his long pauses, as though he were being fed lines. Details would start to catch up with the general impression of wrongness he made—like a sticky residue on your fingers, except that it was on your mind.

  But not yet. First, his statement, and the instant worldwide tilt it precipitated: straight to panic.

  “Sons and daughters of the one true god,” he said—but… he said it in Latin, so that very few people understood him in real time. Around the whole sphere of planet Earth, amid prayers and curses and questions uttered in hundreds of languages, billions scrambled to find a translation.

  What is he saying???

  In the lag time before translations went wide, the majority of the human race experienced the angel’s message first by witnessing the Pope’s reaction to it.

  It wasn’t comforting.

  The pontiff paled. He took a stagger step backward. At one point he tried to speak, but the angel cut him off without a sideward glance.

  This was his message for humanity:

  “Sons and daughters of the one true god, ages have passed since we last came among you, though you have never been far from our sight. For centuries we have fought a war beyond human ken. Long have we protected you in body and soul while shielding you even from knowledge of the threat that shadows you. The Enemy that hungers for you. Far from your lands have great battles been fought. Blood spilled, flesh devoured. But as godlessness and evil grow among you, the might of the Enemy increases. And now the day has come that their strength matches ours, and will soon surpass it. We can no longer leave you innocent of the Shadow. We can no longer protect you without your help.”

  The angel took a deep breath and drew out a pause before finishing heavily.

  “The Beasts… are coming for you.”

  And with that the riots began.

  ARRIVAL + 12 HOURS

  11

  BREEDS OF SILENCE

  Akiva stood stoic. The words he had just spoken seemed to hang in the air. The atmosphere in the wake of his pronouncement, he thought, was like the pressure in the path of the stormhunters’ plunge—all air siphoned toward an onrushing cataclysm. Arrayed around him in the Kirin caves were two hundred and ninety-six grim-faced Misbegotten, all that remained of the Emperor’s bastard legion, to whom he had just made his unthinkable proposal.

  Pressure was building, the weight of the air defying the thin altitude. And then…

  Laughter. Incredulous and uneasy.

  “And will we all sleep head to toe, beast-seraph-beast-seraph?” asked Xathanael, one of Akiva’s many half brothers, and not one he knew well.

  Beast’s Bane wasn’t known for jokes, but surely this was a joke: the enemy coming to shelter with them? To join with them?

  “And brush each other’s hair before bed?” added Sorath.

  “Pick their nits, more like.” Xathanael again, to more laughter.

  Akiva suffered an acute physical memory of Madrigal sleeping by his side, and the joke was not funny to him. It was all the less funny here, in the echoing caves of her slaughtered people, where, if you looked closely, you could still make out the blood tracks of dragged bodies on the floor. What would it be like for Karou to see that evidence? How much did she remember of the day she was orphaned? Her first orphaning, he reminded himself. Her second was much more recent, and his fault. “I think it would be best,” he replied, “if we kept separate quarters.”

  The laughter faltered and gradually faded. They were all staring at him, faces caught between amusement and outrage, unsure where to settle. Neither end of that spectrum would suit. Akiva needed to bring them to a different place altogether: to acceptance, however reluctant.

  Right now it felt very remote. He’d left the chimaera company in a high-mountain valley until he could make it back to bring them to safety. He very much wanted to bring Karou to safety—and the rest of them, too. This impossible chance would never come again. If he failed to persuade his brothers and sisters to try it, he failed the dream.

  “The choice is yours,” he said. “You can refuse. We have removed ourselves from the Empire’s service; we choose our own fight now, and we can choose our allies, too. The fact is that we’ve shattered the chimaera. These few who survive are the foes of yesterday’s war. We face a new threat now, not just to us, though indeed to us, but to all of Eretz: the promise of a new age of tyranny and war that would make our father’s rule look soft by comparison. We must stop Jael. That is primary.”

  “We don’t need beasts for that,” said Elyon, stepping forward. Unlike Xathanael, Akiva did know Elyon well, and respected him. He was among the older of the bastards left living, and not very old at that, his hair barely beginning to gray. He was a thinker, a planner, not given to bravado or unnecessary violence.

  “No?” Akiva faced him. “The Dominion are five thousand, and Jael is emperor now, so he commands the Second Legion as well.”

  “And how many are these beasts?”

  “These chimaera,” replied Akiva, “currently number eighty-seven.”

  “Eighty-seven.” Elyon laughed. He wasn’t scornful, but almost sad. “So few. How does that help us?”

  “It helps us eighty-seven soldiers’ worth,” said Akiva. For a start, he thought, but didn’t say. He hadn’t told them yet that it was true the chimaera had a new resurrectionist. “Eighty-seven with hamsas against the Dominion.”

  “Or against us,” pointed out Elyon.

  Akiva wished he could deny that the hamsas would be turned on them; he still felt the sickness of their furtive palm flashes as a dull ache in the pit of his belly. He said, “They have no more reason to love us than we do them. Less. Look at their country. But our interests, for now at least, align. The White Wolf has given his promise—”

  At the mention of the White Wolf, the company lost its composure. “The White Wolf lives?” demanded many soldiers. “And you didn’t kill him?” demanded many more.

  Their voices filled the cavern, bouncing and echoing off the high, rough ceiling and seeming to multiply into a chorus of ghostly shouts.

  “The general lives, yes,” confirmed Akiva. He had to shout them down. “And no, I didn’t kill him.” If you only knew how hard that was. “And he didn’t kill me, either, though he e
asily could have.”

  Their cries died away, and then the echoes of their cries, but Akiva felt as if he’d run out of things to say. When it came to Thiago, his persuasion ran dry. If the White Wolf were dead, would he be more eloquent? Don’t think of him, he told himself. Think of her.

  He did.

  And he said, “There is the past, and there is the future. The present is never more than the single second dividing one from the other. We live poised on that second as it’s hurtling forward—toward what? All our lives, it’s been the Empire propelling us—toward the annihilation of the beasts—and that has come and gone. It belongs to the past, but we’re still alive, less than three hundred of us, and we’re still hurtling forward, toward something, but it’s not up to the Empire anymore. And for my part, I want that something to be—”

  He could have said: Jael’s death. It would have been true. But it was a small truth overshadowed by a greater one. In his memory dwelt a voice deeper than any other he had ever heard, saying, “Life is your master, or death is.”

  Brimstone’s last words.

  “Life,” he told his brothers and sisters now. “I want the future to be life. It isn’t the chimaera who stand in the way. They never did. It was Joram, and now it’s Jael.”

  When it’s a question of greater and lesser hates, Akiva knew, the more personal hate will win, and Jael had gone far to ensure himself that honor. The Misbegotten didn’t yet know, though, how far.

  Akiva held the news to himself for a moment, not wanting to tell it. Feeling, more than ever, at fault. Finally, he laid it like a corpse atop their hard silence.

 
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