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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.9
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.9

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

  And then there was the way he hunched slightly forward, occasionally shifting his weight as though he were adjusting a load on his back, though there was nothing there.

  Was there?

  Nothing she could see, anyway. Eliza turned up the volume. There was that whispering. It filled his pauses, but she couldn’t make out anything but the eerie, papery sound of it. Where was it coming from?

  She watched the speech a few times through, listening to the Latin and not referencing the translation, just staring at the angel and trying to put her finger on the disparate elements of wrongness. But all the while she was doing it, she knew she was avoiding the real issue, which was his message.

  CNN had been the first to replay the speech with captions, and when Eliza had read them for the first time, a chill had seeped into her and settled, beginning to transform her to ice.

  … the Enemy that hungers… flesh devoured… the Shadow… the Beasts.

  She made herself put on the captioned version now, unconsciously tracing the small scar at her collarbone. She didn’t have the pacemaker anymore. They’d removed it when she was sixteen—not because the terror had ever abated; her body had just grown strong enough to bear it.

  The Beasts are coming for you.

  Ice, from the inside out. Chills and terror. The Beasts are coming. It was familiar terror.

  Because it was the dream.

  16

  WHAT PROMISES ARE WORTH

  The Kirin caves.

  Today, two armies would meet. Soldiers raised to hate one another, who had never looked on one another but with the urge—and intent—to kill, and who, for the most part, had never once attempted to overrule that urge. The chimaera had a small head start. They’d had Akiva and Liraz to practice at not killing, and so far, so good.

  The Misbegotten hadn’t been tested, but Akiva believed that his brothers and sisters would keep their promise to not strike first. Although the Kirin caves and the mountain that held them were still in the distance, he imagined that he could feel the clench of two hundred and ninety-six jaws as they ground down on every instinct, every lash of lifelong training.

  “A détente can only be as strong as the least trustworthy on either side,” Elyon had warned, and Akiva knew it was true. Of the Misbegotten, he believed there was no weak link. A link of chain was, in fact, their sigil, signifying that each soldier was part of a whole, and that their strength was in their unity. The Misbegotten did not make promises lightly.

  And the chimaera? He watched them in flight, taking it as a good sign that they’d left off the petty flashing of hamsas with which they’d begun the journey. As to trust, that was a long way off; hope would have to do in the meantime. Hope. He smiled at the unconscious conjuring of Karou’s name.

  Karou. She was one of many in the formation, and smaller than most, but she filled Akiva’s sight. A snap of azure, a glitter of silver. Even burdened by thuribles, she was as fluid in flight as an air elemental. Around her coursed dragon-things and centaurs set on wings, Naja and Dashnag and Sab, Griffon and Hartkind, and she shone in their midst like a jewel in a rough setting.

  Like a star in the cupped hands of night.

  What would it be like for her here? Artifacts of her tribe were everywhere in the caves: their weapons and utensils, pipes and plates and bracelets. There were musical instruments with rotted strings, and mirrors she must have looked in when she wore another face. She had been seven when it happened. Old enough to remember.

  Old enough to remember the day she lost her entire tribe to angels—and still she had saved his life at Bullfinch. Still she had let herself love him.

  We are the beginning, he heard inside his head, and it felt like prayer. We always have been. This time, let it be more than a beginning.

  Karou saw the shadowed crescent in the face of the mountain ahead and an ache gripped her heart. Home. Was it? She’d said it to Ziri: home. She tested it now, and it felt true. No more air quotes around it. Of everywhere she had lived in her two lives, only here had she belonged without question—neither refugee nor expat but blood daughter, her roots deep in this rock, her wings kin to this sky.

  She might have grown up here, free. She might never have known the way the great cage of Loramendi cut all light to confetti and cast it to the rooftops by the stingy handful—never a full bath of sun or moon on your face but that it was slashed through by the shadows of iron bars. She might have lived her life in this effulgence of mountain light.

  But then she would never have known Brimstone, Issa, Yasri, Twiga.

  Her parents would be alive. They would be here.

  She would never have been human, or tasted that world’s rich and decadent peace, thrived in its friendships and art.

  She would have children of her own by now—Kirin children, as wild in the wind as she had once been. A Kirin husband.

  She would never have known Akiva.

  At the moment that this thought flickered unbidden into her mind, she saw him. He was flying, as he had been, with Liraz, off the formation’s right flank. Even at this distance she felt the jolt of his eyes meeting hers, and a whole new set of might haves unspooled in her.

  She might have made this flight eighteen years ago, instead of dying.

  So much to rue, but to what end? All unlived lives cancel one another out. She had nothing but now. The clothes on her back, the blood in her veins, and the promise made by her comrades. If only they would keep it.

  Remembering Keita-Eiri’s casual malice, she was far from confident. But there was no time to worry.

  They were here.

  As planned, Akiva and Liraz entered first. The opening was shaped like a moon crescent, many tall Kirin-lengths in height, but narrow, so that no more than several bodies could attempt entrance at once. There were niches high and low for archers, now unoccupied. The Kirin had been archers of renown. Misbegotten were trained in all weapons, but not generally armed with bows. Why should they be? They were the bodies sent in first to break steel on beasts. Let more precious flesh hang back and fire the arrows.

  It was the steel that Akiva looked to when he scanned the assembly of soldiers, and here is what he saw:

  The hands of his brothers and sisters hung awkward, because they were deprived of their usual place atop their sword pommels. That was where a swordsman rested his hand, but to illustrate their promise, the Misbegotten—all two hundred and ninety-six of them—refrained from it, lest the pose seem threatening. Some had hooked their thumbs in their belts; others clasped hands behind backs or crossed arms over chests. Uneasy, unnatural poses all.

  The moment was come, and it was massive. A host of revenants was bearing down on them—such a sight as all had seen, and they had only survived it before by greeting it with gut-screams and steel. Steel without fail. To not draw now felt like madness.

  But no one drew.

  Akiva’s pride in them in that moment was ferocious. He felt enlarged by it, and charged by it, and he wished he could go to each one and embrace them in turn. There was no time for that now. After, if all went well. As it would. As it must. Elyon stood ahead of the rest, so Akiva and Liraz crossed to him.

  Through the narrow crescent, the entrance “hall” to the Kirin caves revealed itself to be a series of connected caverns stair-stepping deeper into the mountain. At some time long ago, the walls had been opened up and shaped to create one continuous space, but it was still in every way rough and cavernous, complete with fanglike stalactites overhead—hiding more niches for archers; this was a fortress, not that it had saved the Kirin. The floor was of uneven rock, in which the in-billowing snow and rain caught and gathered in puddles and froze. Though the sky was clear today, there was ice on the floor, and frost plumes where each soldier’s breath met the air.

  The seraphim were silent, poised. The growing noise, already kicking off echoes, was not coming from them. Akiva turned on his heel and watched with the rest as the chimaera army entered.

  First came a felid,
petite and graceful, with a pair of griffons. All were light in their landings, though burdened with gear, thuribles included. Astride one of the griffons rode Thiago’s wolf-aspect lieutenant, Ten, who slid to her feet and stalked forward, eyes making a bold sweep of the angels, to take a position facing them. The others followed her, and fell into the beginning of a line. One army facing another. It made Akiva nervous; it looked too much like battle formation, but he couldn’t very well expect the chimaera to turn their backs on their foes.

  More came in, and he saw a pattern emerge: the least fearsome first, the least unnatural, and with breathing space between groups so that the seraphim could accustom themselves by degrees to the presence of their mortal enemy. With each landing of two or three creatures, the formation took shape. Somewhere in the middle, the humans were delivered, and the kitchen women, and Issa, who slipped with liquid grace from the back of her Dashnag mount to incline her head and shoulders in a sinuous bow of greeting to the angels. She was beautiful, her manner more courtesan than fighter. Akiva saw Elyon blink, and stare.

  As for Karou, the angels could have no idea what to make of her—gliding in wingless, absent beast aspect, and trailing her gemstone-blue hair. No one would recognize her for what she was: a Kirin come home. But Akiva saw the taut sculpt of her expression and knew that she was living a barrage of memory. He watched her eyes sweep the cavern and wished he could be with her.

  He watched her when he should have been watching the rest. Both sides.

  There must have been tells, if only he had been watching.

  Eighty-seven was not a great many, as Elyon had previously observed, and they were short even that number, with the scouts Thiago had dispatched. Soon the bulk of the chimaera were on the ground. The Misbegotten had heard, of course, that these chimaera rebels were a breed apart. When their first round of strikes had hit the slave caravans in the south, they were whispered to be phantoms, the curse of Brimstone’s dying words come back to haunt them. Now they saw them clearly. These beasts were winged—most—and overlarge, the biggest among them with a gray cast to their flesh that made them seem half-stone, or iron. In flew a pair of Naja who bore but passing resemblance to Issa; if Elyon blinked at them, it was for a different reason altogether, and far less pleasant. There were bull centaurs with hooves as broad as platters, Hartkind whose massive antler racks bristled more points than Joram’s whole trophy room.

  It came to Akiva that his father’s barbarous trophies—chimaera heads mounted on walls—would have exploded with the Tower of Conquest and dispersed with everything else, and he was glad. He hoped they’d vaporized. He still didn’t understand what he’d done that day, and even doubted at times that it was he who had done it. Whatever it was, it had been epic, and a failure—coming too late to save Hazael, while letting Jael get away with his life. Unfocused energy, pointless violence.

  Thoughts too grim for a moment like this. Akiva shook them off. Saw Thiago’s Vispeng mount out in the sky, dipping toward the crescent. They would be the last. All the other chimaera had landed; the two armies stood facing each other, tense and alert, each biting their promise between their teeth.

  Or their lie.

  Akiva realized that he’d been expecting this success, because he was unsurprised by it. He was pleased—or a greater word for pleased. Moved. Grateful, to the full reach of his soul.

  The détente held.

  …

  Until it didn’t.

  17

  HOPE, DYING UNSURPRISED

  From the rough center of the chimaera formation, Karou’s view of the cavern was cropped by the larger soldiers surrounding her, but she had a clear line on Akiva and Liraz, standing apart from the rest with one of their brothers.

  Here we are, Karou was thinking. Not “home”; she meant something else. Yes, it was home, and the memories were vivid, but that was the past. This… this was the threshold of a future. The Wolf was still in the air; she was aware of his approach behind her, but she was watching Akiva. He had done this, and she felt the marvel within herself, fluttering, like butterflies or hummingbird-moths or… like stormhunters. This was big.

  Could it really happen?

  It was happening. When she and Akiva had breathed their first thoughts of this dream to each other, they had wondered if any of their kin and comrades could be brought around. Not all, they’d always known, but some. Some, and then more. And here in this cavern were the some. Here were the beginnings of more.

  Karou’s eyes were on the angels—her eyes were on Akiva—and so… she witnessed the precise moment when it all fell apart.

  Akiva recoiled. For no visible reason, he flinched as if struck. So, too, Liraz and the brother beside her, and though Karou wasn’t looking directly at the greater throng of Misbegotten, she saw the wave of movement sweep over them, too. The fluttering inside her died. And she knew that this alliance had been doomed the day Brimstone dreamt up the marks.

  The hamsas.

  Who? Damn it, who?

  It didn’t matter if it was one chimaera or all of them. It was a trigger well and truly pulled. A flicker of a second, and everything changed. Just like that, the charge in the cavern went from tension to release—uncoiling of muscle and will—and relief, to shake off this madness imposed on them and fall back to the way they had ever dealt with each other.

  There would be blood.

  Karou’s panic screamed inside her. No. No! She was in motion. A leap and she was airborne, over the heads of the army, and she was looking to see: Who had done it? Who had begun it? No one was standing with hands out-held. Keita-Eiri? The Sab looked alert, alarmed, her hands clenched in fists; if she had done this, she had done it like a coward, like a villain, picking a fight that must kill so many.…

  Zuzana and Mik. Karou’s heartbeat stuttered. She had to get her friends out.

  Her look swept backward, an arc that took in the collective crouch to pounce, the baring of fangs, the first instant of soldiers giving in to instinct.

  And she saw Thiago, still in the air. Uthem, with his head stretched forth on his long neck, suspending his beautiful length from his two sets of wings. And she saw a streak in her peripheral vision. A second later she registered the twing that had preceded it…

  As the arrow pierced Uthem’s throat.

  From the first sick touch of magic, the single word no pounded in Akiva’s head. No no no no no no!

  And then the arrow—

  The Vispeng screamed. It was the scream of horses dying, and the sound filled the cavern, it entered them all, and the creature was falling. It collapsed out of the air, the chimaera host leaping clear beneath it as it came in reeling to pitch headlong onto the rock floor. The impact was violent. Eyes rolling wild, its neck whipped and lashed, the arrow splintering as its long, gleaming body torqued, hurling its rider off before finally scudding to a sickening stillness.

  Thus was the White Wolf delivered to the feet of the Misbegotten: flung right to them over the ice-slicked floor as, at his back, his army sent up a roar.

  Akiva saw it all through a veil of horror. Had the chimaera planned this treachery? The hamsas had come first, of that he was certain.

  But the arrow. Where had it come from? Overhead. Akiva’s eye caught flickers of movement amid the stalactites, and his horror was joined by fury at his brothers and sisters. The ferocious pride he had felt in them vanished. All those hands hovering clear of sword hilts—it was an empty show when archers hid overhead with bowstrings stretched taut. And as for the hands, they wouldn’t hover for long.

  The White Wolf was on his knees. Teeth bared in grim smiles on both sides. Dead center in the seraph formation, a hand reached. The movement cascaded. It was like choreography. A split second and one hand became three became ten became fifty, and Akiva’s own uncoiling reaction was too slow, and desperate. He raised empty hands in supplication, heard Liraz give a hoarse cry of, “No!”

  There was only this second. A second. Hands on hilts. In one second a tide tur
ns, and a tide cannot be unturned. Once those swords sang free of their sheaths, once those winched beast muscles unwound, this day would run as red as the Kirin’s last and fill this cavern once again with blood, to all of their sorrow.

  A flash of azure. Akiva’s eyes met Karou’s, and her look was unbearable.

  It was hope, dying unsurprised.

  And for the third time in his life, Akiva felt within himself the chrysalis of fire and clarity—an instant, and then the world changed. As if a muting skin were peeled back, all was laid before him: steady and crisp-edged, gleaming and still. This was sirithar, and Akiva was poised inside a moment.

  Had he told his brothers and sisters that the present is the single second dividing the past from the future? In this state of calm, crystal brilliance—the gathering violence slowed to a dream—there was no division. Present and future were one. Every soldier’s intention was painted in light before him, and Akiva saw it all before it happened. In those strokes of light were swords drawn.

  Hands hewn off, collected in heaps, hamsas and kill tallies mingled, seraph hands and chimaera, scattered.

  Foretold by light, this beginning died, just like the last, and a new beginning took its place: Jael would return to Eretz and find no rebel force to fight through—neither chimaera nor bastards to oppose him but only their blood frozen to red ice on this cavern floor, because they’d been so kind as to kill each other for him. The way would be open, and Eretz would suffer. Akiva saw all of this, the grand, echoing, world-shaking shame of it, and he saw… in the tilt toward chaos… in the seconds still to come, how Karou would unsheathe her moon blades.

  She would kill today, and perhaps she would die.

  If this second was allowed to turn.

  It must not be allowed to turn.

  In Astrae, Akiva had loosed from his mind a pulse of rage, frustration, and anguish so profound that it had exploded the great Tower of Conquest, symbol of the Empire of Seraphim. He couldn’t fathom what it was, or how he’d done it.

 
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