For Jim, for the happy middle
Once upon a time,
an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts
and started the apocalypse.
1 NIGHTMARE ICE CREAM
Nerve thrum and screaming blood, wild and churning and chasing and devouring and terrible and terrible and terrible—
A voice. Bright light, and Eliza fell awake. That’s how it felt: like falling and landing hard. “It was a dream,” she heard herself say. “It was just a dream. I’m okay.”
How many times in her life had she spoken those words? More than she could count. This was the first time, though, that she’d spoken them to a man who had burst heroically into her room, clutching a claw hammer, to save her from being murdered.
“You… you were screaming,” said her roommate, Gabriel, darting looks into the corners and finding no sign of murderers. He was sleep-disheveled and manically alert, holding the hammer high and ready. “I mean… really, really screaming.”
“I know,” said Eliza, her throat raw. “I do that sometimes.” She pushed herself upright in bed. Her heartbeat felt like cannon fire—doomful and deep and reverberating through her entire body, and though her mouth was dry and her breathing shallow, she tried to sound nonchalant. “Sorry to wake you.”
Blinking, Gabriel lowered the hammer. “That’s not what I meant, Eliza. I’ve never heard anyone sound like that in real life. That was a horror-movie scream.”
He sounded a little impressed. Go away, Eliza wanted to say. Please. Her hands were starting to tremble. Soon she wouldn’t be able to control it, and she didn’t want a witness. The adrenaline crash could be pretty bad after the dream. “I promise, I’m fine. Okay? I just…”
Shaking. Pressure building, the sting behind her eyelids, and all of it out of her control.
Damn damn damn.
She doubled over and hid her face in her bedspread as the sobs welled up and took her over. As bad as the dream was—and it was bad—the aftermath was worse, because she was conscious but still powerless. The terror—the terror, the terror—lingered, and there was something else. It came with the dream, every time, and didn’t recede with it but stayed like something a tide had washed in. Something awful—a rank leviathan corpse left to rot on the shore of her mind. It was remorse. But god, that was too bloodless a word for it. This feeling the dream left her with, it was knives of panic and horror resting bright atop a red and meaty wound-fester of guilt.
Guilt over what? That was the worst part. It was… dear god, it was unspeakable, and it was immense. Too immense. Nothing worse had ever been done, in all of time, and all of space, and the guilt was hers. It was impossible, and with any distance from the dream Eliza could dismiss it as ridiculous.
She had not done, and nor would she ever do… that.
But when the dream entangled her, none of it mattered—not reason, not sense, not even the laws of physics. The terror and the guilt smothered it all.
When the sobs finally subsided and she lifted her head, Gabriel was sitting on the edge of her bed, looking compassionate and alarmed. There was this pert civility about Gabriel Edinger that suggested a better-than-fair chance of bow ties in his future. Maybe even a monocle. He was a neuroscientist, probably the smartest person Eliza knew, and one of the nicest. Both of them were research fellows at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History—the NMNH—and had been friendly while not quite friends for the past year, until Gabriel’s girlfriend moved to New York for her post-doc and he needed a roommate to cover the rent. Eliza had known it was a risk, cross-pollinating life hours with work hours, for this exact reason. This.
It wouldn’t take much digging for an interested party to ascertain the… depths of abnormal… upon which she’d built this life. Like laying planks over quicksand, it sometimes seemed. But the dream hadn’t troubled her for a while, so she’d given in to the temptation to pretend she was normal, with nothing but the normal concerns of any twenty-four-year-old doctoral student on a tiny budget. Dissertation pressure, evil lab-mate, grant proposals, rent.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Gabriel. “I think I’m okay now.”
“Good.” After an uncomfortable pause, he asked, brightly, “Cup of tea?”
Tea. Now there was a nice glimpse of normal. “Yes,” Eliza said. “Please.”
And when he ambled off to put on the kettle, she composed herself. Pulled on her robe, rinsed her face, blew her nose, regarded herself in the mirror. She was puffy, and her eyes were bloodshot. Awesome. She had pretty eyes, normally. She was accustomed to getting compliments on them from strangers. They were big and long-lashed and bright—at least when the whites weren’t pink from sobbing—and several shades lighter brown than her skin, which made them seem to glow. Right now, it chilled her to note that they looked a little… crazy.
“You’re not crazy,” she told her reflection, and the statement had the ring of an affirmation often uttered—a reassurance needed, and habitually given. You’re not crazy, and you’re not going to be.
Deeper down ran another, more desperate thought.
It will not happen to me. I’m stronger than the others.
Usually, she was able to believe it.
When Eliza joined Gabriel in the kitchen, the oven clock read four AM. Tea was on the table, along with a pint of ice cream, open, with a spoon sticking out. He gestured to it. “Nightmare ice cream. Family tradition.”
Eliza tried, for a moment, to imagine ice cream as her own family’s response to the dream, but she couldn’t. The contrast was just too stark. She reached for the carton. “Thanks,” she said. She ate a couple of bites in silence, took a sip of tea, all the while tensed for the questions to begin, as they surely must.
What do you dream about, Eliza?
How am I supposed to help you if you won’t talk to me, Eliza?
What’s wrong with you, Eliza?
She’d heard it all before.
“You were dreaming about Morgan Toth, weren’t you?” Gabriel asked. “Morgan Toth and his pillowy lips?”
Okay, so she hadn’t heard that. In spite of herself, Eliza laughed. Morgan Toth was her nemesis, and his lips were a fine subject for a nightmare, but no, that wasn’t even close. “I don’t really want to talk about it,” she said.
“Talk about what?” Gabriel asked, all innocence. “What is this ‘it’ you speak of?”
“Cute. But I mean it. Sorry.”
Another bite of ice cream, another silence cut short by another non-question. “I had nightmares as a kid,” Gabriel offered. “For about a year. Really intense. To hear my parents tell it, life as we knew it was pretty much suspended. I was afraid to fall asleep, and I had all these rituals, superstitions. I even tried making offerings. My favorite toys, food. Supposedly I was overheard offering up my older brother in my place. I don’t remember that, but he swears.”
“Offering him to who?” Eliza asked.
“Them. The ones in the dream.”
A spark of recognition, hope. Idiotic hope. Eliza had a “them,” too. Rationally she knew that they were a creation of her mind and existed nowhere else, but in the aftermath of the dream, it was not always possible to remain rational. She asked, “What were they?” before she quite considered what she was doing. If she wasn’t going to talk about her dream, she shouldn’t be prying into his. It was a rule of secret-keeping, in which she was well-versed: Ask not, lest ye be asked.
“Monsters,” he said with a shrug, and just like that, Eliza lost interest—not at the mention of monsters, but at his of course tone. Anyone who could say monsters in that offhand manner had definitely never met hers.
“You know, being chased is one of the commonest dreams,” Gabriel said, and went on to tell her about it, and Eliza kept sipping tea and taking the occasional bite of nightmare ice cream, and she nodded in the right places, but she wasn’t really listening. She’d thoroughly researched dream analysis a long time ago. It hadn’t helped before, and it didn’t now, and when Gabriel summed up with “they’re a manifestation of our waking fears,” and “everyone has them,” his tone was both placating and pedantic, as though he’d just solved her problem for her.
Eliza really wanted to say, And I suppose everyone gets pacemakers when they’re seven years old because ‘manifestations of their waking fears’ keep sending them into cardiac arrhythmia? But she didn’t, because it was the exact kind of memorable factoid that gets regurgitated at cocktail parties.
Did you know that Eliza Jones got a pacemaker when she was seven because her nightmares gave her cardiac arrhythmia?
Seriously? That’s insane.
“So what happened to you?” she asked him. “What happened to your monsters?”
“Oh, they carried off my brother and left me alone. I have to sacrifice a goat to them every Michaelmas, but it’s a small price to pay for a good night’s sleep.”
Eliza laughed. “Where do you get your goats?” she asked, playing along.
“Great little farm in Maryland. Certified sacrificial goats. Lambs, too, if you prefer.”
“Who doesn’t? And what the hell’s Michaelmas?”
“I don’t know. I pulled that out of the air.”
And Eliza experienced a moment of gratitude, because Gabriel hadn’t pried, and the ice cream and tea and even her irritation with his scholarly jabber had helped to ease the aftermath. She was actually laughing, and that was something.
And then her phone vibrated on the tabletop.
Who was calling her at four AM? She reached for it…
… and when she saw the number on the screen, she dropped it—or possibly flung it. With a crack it hit a cabinet and bounced to the floor. For a second she had hope that she’d killed it. It lay there, silent. Dead. And then—bzzzzzzzzzzzz—not dead.
When had she ever been sorry not to have broken her phone?
It was the number. Just digits. No name. No name came up because Eliza had not programmed that number into her phone. She didn’t even realize that she remembered it until she saw it, and it was like it had been there all along, every moment of her life since… since she’d escaped. It was all there, it was all right there. The gut-punch was immediate and visceral and undiminished by the years.
“All right?” Gabriel asked her, leaning down to pick up the phone.
She almost said Don’t touch it! but knew this was irrational, and stopped herself in time. Instead she just didn’t reach for it when he held it out to her, so he had to set it down on the table, still buzzing.
She stared at it. How had they found her? How? She’d changed her name. She’d disappeared. Had they known where she was all along, been watching her all this time? The idea horrified her. That the years of freedom could have been an illusion…
The buzzing stopped. The call went to voice mail, and Eliza’s heartbeat was cannon fire again: burst after burst shuddering through her. Who was it? Her sister? One of her “uncles”?
Whoever it was, Eliza had only a moment to wonder if they’d leave a message—and if she’d dare to listen to it if they did—before the phone emitted another buzz. Not a voice mail. A text.
It read: Turn on the TV.
Turn on the…?
Eliza looked up from the phone, deeply unsettled. Why? What did they want her to see on the TV? She didn’t even have a TV. Gabriel was watching her intently, and their eyes locked in the instant they heard the first scream. Eliza almost jumped out of her skin, rising from her chair. From somewhere outside came a long, unintelligible cry. Or was it inside? It was loud. It was in the building. Wait. That was someone else. What the hell was going on? People were crying out in… shock? Joy? Horror? And then Gabriel’s phone started to buzz, too, and Eliza’s unspooled a sudden string of messages—bzzz bzzz bzzz bzzz bzzz. From friends this time, including Taj in London, and Catherine, who was doing fieldwork in South Africa. Wording varied, but all were a version of the same disturbing command: Turn on the TV.
Are you watching this?
Wake up. TV. Now.
Until the last one. The one that made Eliza want to curl up in fetal position and cease to exist.
Come home, it said. We forgive you.
2 THE ARRIVAL
They appeared on a Friday in broad daylight, in the sky above Uzbekistan, and were first sighted from the old Silk Road city of Samarkand, where a news crew scrambled to broadcast footage of… the Visitors.
In flawless ranks of phalanxes, they were easily counted. Twenty blocks of fifty: a thousand. A thousand angels. They swept westward, near enough to earth that people standing on rooftops and roads could make out the rippling white silk of their standards and hear the trill and tremolo of harps.
The footage went wide. Around the world, radio and television programs were preempted; news anchors rushed to their desks, out of breath and without scripts. Thrill, terror. Eyes round as coins, voices high and strange. Everywhere, phones began to ring and then cut off in a great global silence as cell towers overloaded and crashed. The sleeping slice of the planet was awakened. Internet connections faltered. People sought people. Streets filled. Voices joined and vied, climbed and crested. There were brawls. Song. Riots.
There were births, too. Babies born during the Arrival were dubbed “cherubs” by a radio pundit, who was also responsible for the rumor that all had feather-shaped birthmarks somewhere on their tiny bodies. It wasn’t true, but the infants would be closely watched for any hint of beatitude or magical powers.
On this day in history—the ninth of August—time cleaved abruptly into “before” and “after,” and no one would ever forget where they were when “it” began.
Kazimir Andrasko, actor, ghost, vampire, and jerk, actually slept through the whole thing, but would afterward claim to have blacked out while reading Nietzsche—at what he later determined was the precise moment of the Arrival—and suffered a vision of the end of the world. It was the beginning of a grandiose but half-assed ploy soon to fritter to a disappointing ending when he learned how much work was involved in starting a cult.
Zuzana Nováková and Mikolas Vavra were at Aït Benhaddou, the most famous kasbah in Morocco. Mik had just concluded bargaining for an antique silver ring—maybe antique, maybe silver, definitely a ring—when the sudden hubbub swept them up; he shoved it deep in his pocket, where it would remain, in secret, for some time.
In a village kitchen, they crowded in behind locals and watched news coverage in Arabic. Though they could understand neither the commentary nor the breathless exclamations all around them, they alone had context for what they were seeing. They knew what the angels were, or rather, what they weren’t. That didn’t make it any less of a shock to see the sky full of them.
It was Zuzana’s idea to “liberate” the van idling in front of a tourist restaurant. The everyday weave of reality had by this time become so stretched that casual vehicular theft seemed par for the course. It was simple: She knew that Karou had no access to news of the world; she had to warn her. She’d have stolen a helicopter if she had to.
Esther Van de Vloet, retired diamond dealer, longtime associate of Brimstone and occasional stand-in grandmother to his human ward, was walking her mastiffs near her home in Antwerp when the bells of Our Lady began to toll out of time. It was not the hour, and even if it had been, the tuneless clangor was overwrought, practically hysterical. Esther, who didn’t have an overwrought, hysterical bone in her body, had been waiting for something to happen ever since a black handprint had ignited on a doorway in Brussels and scorched it out of existence. Concluding that this was that something, she walked briskly home, her dogs huge as lionesses, stalking at her sides.
Eliza Jones watched the first few minutes on a live feed on her roommate’s laptop, but when their server crashed, they hurriedly dressed, jumped in Gabriel’s car, and drove to the museum. Early though it was, they weren’t the first to arrive, and more colleagues kept streaming in behind them to cluster around a television screen in a basement laboratory.
They were stunned and stupid with incredulity, and with no small amount of rational affront that such an event should dare to unfold itself across the sky of the natural world. It was a hoax, of course. If angels were real—which was ridiculous—wouldn’t they hew a little less closely to the pictures in Sunday school workbooks?
It was too perfect. It had to be staged.
“Give me a break with the harps,” said a paleobiologist. “Overkill.”
This outward certainty was undercut by a real tension, though, because none of them were stupid, and there were glaring holes in the hoax theory that just grew more glaring as news choppers dared to draw closer to the airborne host, and the broadcast footage became sharper and less equivocal.
No one wanted to admit it, but it looked… real.
Their wings, for one thing. They were easily twelve feet in span, and every feather was its own lick of fire. The smooth rise and fall of them, the inexpressible grace and power of their flight—it was beyond any fathomable technology.
“It could be the broadcast that’s faked,” suggested Gabriel. “It could all be CG. War of the Worlds for the twenty-first century.”
There were some murmurs, though no one seemed to actually buy it.
Eliza stayed silent, watching. Her own dread was of a different breed than theirs, and was… far more advanced. It should be. It had been growing all her life.
Angels. After the incident on the Charles Bridge in Prague some months earlier, she’d been able to maintain a crutch of skepticism at least, just enough to keep her from falling. It might have been faked, then: three angels, there and gone, no proof left behind. It felt, now, as though the world had been waiting with held breath for a display beyond all possibility of doubt. And so had she. And now they had it.
She thought of her phone, left intentionally behind at the apartment, and wondered what new messages its screen held in store for her. And she thought of the extraordinary dark power from which she’d fled in the night, in the dream. Her gut clenched like a fist as she felt, beneath her feet, the shifting of the planks she’d laid across the quicksand of that other life. She’d thought she could escape it? It was there, it had always been there, and this life she’d built on top of it felt about as sturdy as a shantytown on the flank of a volcano.
ARRIVAL + 3 HOURS
3 CHOICE OF LIFE SKILLS
“Angels! Angels! Angels!”
This was what Zuzana cried out, leaping from the van as it fishtailed to a halt on the dirt slope. “Monster castle” loomed before her: this place in the Moroccan desert where a rebel army from another world was hiding out to resurrect its dead. This mud fortress with its snakes and reeks, its huge beast soldiers, its pit of corpses. This ruin that she and Mik had escaped in the dead of night. Invisible. At Karou’s insistence.
Karou’s very freaked out and persuasive insistence.
Because… their lives were in danger.
And here they were back again, honking and hollering? Not exactly survival instincts in action.
Karou appeared, gliding over the kasbah wall in her wingless way, graceful as a ballerina in zero gravity. Zuzana was in motion, sprinting uphill as her friend dropped down to intercept her.
“Angels,” Zuzana breathed, brimming with the news. “Holy hell, Karou. In the sky. Hundreds. Hundreds. The world. Is freaking. Out.” The words spilled out, but even as she heard herself, Zuzana was seeing her friend. Seeing her, and reeling back.
What the hell…?
Car door, running feet, and Mik was at her side, seeing Karou, too. He didn’t speak. No one did. The silence felt like an empty speech bubble: It took up space but there were no words.
Karou… Half of her face was swollen purple, scraped raw and scabbing. Her lip was split, puffy, her earlobe mangled, stitched. As for the rest of her, Zuzana couldn’t tell. Her sleeves were pulled all the way down over her hands, clasped in her fists in an oddly childlike way. She held herself tenderly.
She had been brutalized. That much was clear. And there could be only one culprit.
The White Wolf. That son of a bitch. Fury blazed in Zuzana.
And then she saw him. He was stalking down the hillside toward them, one of many chimaera alerted by their wild arrival, and Zuzana’s hands tightened into fists. She started to step forward, ready to plant herself between Thiago and Karou, but Mik caught her by the arm.
“What are you doing?” he hissed, pulling her back against him. “Are you crazy? You don’t have a scorpion sting like a real neek-neek.”
Neek-neek—her chimaera nickname, courtesy of the soldier Virko. It was a breed of fearless shrew-scorpion in Eretz, and as much as Zuzana hated to admit it, Mik was right. She was more shrew than scorpion, half-neek at best, and not nearly as dangerous as she might wish.
And I am going to do something about that, she resolved then and there. Um. Right after we don’t die here. Because… hell. That was a lot of chimaera, when you saw them all together like that, charging down a hillside. Zuzana’s neek-neek courage shrank up in her chest. She was glad for Mik’s arm around her—not that she had any delusion that her sweet violin virtuoso could protect her any better than she could protect herself.
“I’m starting to question our choice of life skills,” she whispered to him.
“I know. Why aren’t we samurai?”
“Let’s be samurai,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Karou said, and then the Wolf was upon them, closely flanked by his entourage of lieutenants. Zuzana met his eyes and tried to look defiant. She saw scabbed scratch marks on his cheeks and her fury flared anew. Proof, as if there had been any doubt as to Karou’s attacker.
Wait. Had Karou just said, “It’s okay?”
How was this okay?
But Zuzana had no time to ponder the matter. She was too busy gasping. Because behind Karou, taking shape out of the air and filling it with all the splendor she remembered, was…
Well, what was he doing here?
Another seraph appeared beside him. The one who’d looked really pissed off on the bridge in Prague. She looked pretty pissed off now, too, in a focused, come-any-closer-and-I’ll-kill-you kind of way. Her hand was on the hilt of her sword, her gaze fixed on the gathering chimaera.
Akiva, though, looked only at Karou, who… did not seem surprised to see him.
None of them did. Zuzana tried to make sense of the scene. Why weren’t they attacking one another? She thought that was what chimaera and seraphim did—especially these chimaera, and these seraphim.
Just what had gone down at monster castle while she and Mik were away?
Every chimaera soldier was present now, and though surprise may have been absent, hostility was not. The unblinkingness, the concentration of malice in some of those bestial stares. Zuzana had sat on the ground laughing with these same soldiers; she had danced chicken-bone puppets for them, teased them and been teased in return. She liked them. Well, some of them. But right now, they were terrifying without exception, and looked ready to tear the angels limb from limb. Their eyes flicked to Thiago and away as they waited for the kill order they knew must come.
It did not come.
Realizing she’d been holding her breath, Zuzana let it out, and her body unwound slowly from its flinch. She caught sight of Issa in the crowd and gave the serpent-woman a very clear what the hell? eyebrow. Issa’s answering look was less clear. Behind a brief smile of unreassuring reassurance, she looked tense and highly alert.
What is happening?
Karou said something soft and sad to Akiva—in Chimaera, of course, damn it. What did she say? Akiva responded, also in Chimaera, before turning to direct his next words to the White Wolf.
Maybe it was because she couldn’t understand their language, and so was watching their faces for clues, and maybe it was because she had seen them together before, and knew the effect they had on each other, but Zuzana understood this much: Somehow, in this crowd of beast soldiers, with Thiago front and center, the moment belonged to Karou and Akiva.
The two of them were stoic and stone-faced and ten feet apart, currently not even looking at each other, but Zuzana had the impression of a pair of magnets pretending not to be magnets.
Which, you know, only works until it doesn’t.
4 A BEGINNING
Two worlds, two lives. No longer.
Karou had made her choice. “I am chimaera,” she had told Akiva. Was it only hours earlier that he had “escaped” the kasbah with his sister, to fly off and burn the Samarkand portal? They were to have returned and burned this one, too, sealing Earth and Eretz off from each other forever. He had wondered which world she would choose? As if she had a choice. “My life is there,” she had said.
But it wasn’t. Surrounded by creatures she had enfleshed herself and who, almost without exception, scorned her as an angel-lover, Karou knew it wasn’t life that awaited her in Eretz, but duty and misery, exhaustion and hunger. Fear. Alienation. Death, not unlikely.
“We can fight them together,” Akiva said. “I have an army, too.”
Karou stood rooted, scarcely breathing. Akiva had been too late. A seraph army had already pushed through the portal—Jael’s ruthless Dominion, the Empire’s elite legion—and so this was the unimaginable offer Akiva made to his enemy, to the astonishment of all, his own sister included. Fight them together? Karou saw Liraz turn an incredulous look on him. It was a good match for her own reaction, because one thing was sure: If Akiva’s offer was unimaginable, Thiago’s acceptance of it was unfathomable.
The White Wolf would die a thousand deaths before he would treat with angels. He would tear the world down around him. He would see the end of everything. He would be the end of everything before he would consider such an offer.
So Karou was as astonished as the rest—though for a different reason—when Thiago… nodded.
A hiss of surprise came from either Nisk or Lisseth, his Naja lieutenants. Aside from some pebbles discharged downhill by the lashing of a tail, that was the only sound from the soldiers. In Karou’s ears, blood pounded. What was he doing? She hoped he knew, because she really didn’t.
She stole a glance at Akiva. None of the grief or disgust, the dismay or the love that had shown on his face the night before was in evidence now; his mask was in place, and so was her own. All her turmoil had to stay hidden, and there was plenty of it to hide.
Akiva had come back here. Can no one stay escaped from this damned kasbah? It was brave; he had always been that, and reckless. But it wasn’t only himself he jeopardized now. It was everything she was trying to achieve. The position he was putting the Wolf in: to come up with yet another plausible excuse not to kill him?
And then there was her own position. Maybe that was what flustered her the most.
Here was Akiva, this enemy whom she had fallen in love with twice, in two separate lives, with a power that felt like the design of the universe and maybe even was, and it didn’t matter. She stood at Thiago’s side. This was the place she had made for herself, for the sake of her people: at Thiago’s side.
Moreover—though Akiva didn’t know this—this was the Thiago she had made for herself: one she could bear to stand with. The White Wolf was… not himself these days. She had sealed a better soul into the body she despised—oh, Ziri—and she prayed to everything in the infinite array of gods of two worlds that no one would figure it out. It was a wrenching secret, and felt every moment like a grenade in her hand. Her heartbeat slipped in and out of rhythm. Her palms were clammy.
The deception was massive, and it was fragile, and it fell most heavily by far to Ziri to pull it off. To dupe all these soldiers? Most of them had served for decades with the general, some few for centuries, through multiple incarnations, and they knew his every gesture, every inflection. Ziri had to be the Wolf, in manner and cadence and in chill, suppressed brutality—to be him, but, paradoxically, a better him, one who could guide their people toward survival instead of dead-end vengeance.
That could only happen by degrees. The White Wolf wouldn’t just wake up one morning, yawn and stretch and decide to ally with his mortal enemy.
But that was exactly what Ziri was doing right now.
“Jael must be stopped,” he stated as a matter of fact. “If he succeeds in procuring human weapons and support, there will be no hope for any of us. In that, at least, we have common cause.” He kept his voice low, conveying absolute authority and not a second’s concern with how his decision would be received. It was the Wolf’s way, and Ziri’s impersonation was flawless. “How many are they?”
“A thousand,” replied Akiva. “In this world. There will, no doubt, be a heavy troop presence on the other side of the portal.”
“This portal?” asked Thiago with a jerk of his head toward the Atlas Mountains.
“They entered by the other,” said Akiva. “But this one could be compromised, too. They have the means to discover it.”
He didn’t look at Karou when he said this, but she felt a flare of blame. Because of her, the abomination Razgut was a free agent, and he could easily have shown the Dominion this portal, as he had shown it to her. The chimaera could be trapped here, cut off from their retreat to their own world while their seraph enemies closed in on them from both sides. This safe haven she had led them to could so easily become their grave.
Thiago took it in stride. “Well. Let’s find out.”
He looked to his soldiers, and they looked back, wary, parsing his every move. What is he up to? they would be wondering, because it simply couldn’t be what it seemed. Soon he would order the angels killed. This was all part of some strategy. Surely.
“Oora, Sarsagon,” he commanded, “choose teams for speed and stealth. I want to know if there are Dominion at our door. If there are, keep them out. Hold the portal. Let no angel through alive.” A wolfish smile conveyed pleasure at the thought of dead angels, and Karou saw some of the wariness leave the soldiers’ faces. This made sense to them, if the rest didn’t: the Wolf, relishing the prospect of seraph blood. “Send a messenger once you’re certain. Go,” he said, and they did, Oora and Sarsagon picking their teams with quick, decisive gestures as they moved through the gathering. Bast, Keita-Eiri, the griffons Vazra and Ashtra, Lilivett, Helget, Emylion.
“Everyone else, back to the court. Be ready to leave if the report is favorable.” The general paused. “And ready to fight if it isn’t.” Again he managed, with no more than the shadow of a smile, to hint that he would prefer the bloodier outcome.
It was well done, and a little hope wicked into Karou’s anxiety. Action was best, orders given and followed. The response was immediate and unfaltering. The host turned and moved back up the hill. If Ziri could maintain this unassailable demeanor of command, even the surliest of the troops would hustle to meet his approval.
Except, well, not quite everyone was hustling. There was Issa, moving defiantly against the tide of soldiers to come down the hill, and then there was the matter of Thiago’s lieutenants. Except for Sarsagon, who had been given a direct order, the Wolf’s entourage remained clustered around him. Ten, Nisk, Lisseth, Rark, and Virko. These were the same chimaera who had conspired to get Karou alone at the pit with Thiago—with the exception of Ten, who had made the mistake of taking on Issa and was now as much Ten as Thiago was Thiago—and she hated them. She had no doubt they’d have held her down for him if he’d asked, and could only be glad that he hadn’t thought it necessary.
Now their lingering was ominous. They hadn’t followed Thiago’s order because they believed themselves exempt from it. Because they expected to be given other orders. And the way they were regarding Akiva and Liraz left no doubt what they assumed those would be.
“Karou,” whispered Zuzana, at Karou’s shoulder. “What the hell is going on?”
What the hell wasn’t going on? All the collisions Karou thought she’d averted in the past days had boomeranged around to crash into one another right here. “Everything,” she said, through gritted teeth. “Everything is going on.”
The monstrous Nisk and Lisseth with their hands half-upraised, ready to flare their hamsas at Akiva and Liraz, weaken them and go in for the kill—or try. Akiva and Liraz, unflinching in the face of it, and Ziri in the middle. Poor sweet Ziri, wearing Thiago’s flesh and trying to wear his savagery, too—but only the face of it and not the heart. That was his challenge now. It was more than his challenge. It was his life, and everything depended on it. The rebellion, the future—whether there would be one—for all the chimaera still living, and all the souls buried in Brimstone’s cathedral. This deception was their only hope.
The next ten seconds felt as dense as folded iron.
Issa reached them at the same moment that Lisseth spoke up. “What orders, sir, for us?”
Issa embraced Mik and Zuzana, and shot Karou a look that glittered with some bright meaning. She looked excited, Karou saw. She looked vindicated.
“I’ve given my order,” Thiago told Lisseth, cool. “Was I less than perfectly clear?”
Vindicated? About what? Karou’s mind leapt at once to the previous night. After she had dismissed Akiva with a cool finality she certainly didn’t feel, and sent him away for what she’d guessed would be the last time, Issa had told her, “Your heart is not wrong. You don’t have to be ashamed.”
Of loving Akiva, she’d meant. And what had Karou’s answer been? “It doesn’t matter.” She’d tried to believe it: that her heart didn’t matter, that she and Akiva didn’t matter, that there were worlds at stake and that was what mattered.
“Sir,” argued Nisk, Lisseth’s Naja partner. “You can’t mean to let these angels live—”
Let these angels live. That this could even be in question: Akiva’s life, and Liraz’s. They had come back here to warn them. The real Thiago wouldn’t have hesitated to gut them for their trouble. Akiva didn’t know this wasn’t the real Thiago, and he’d come back anyway. For her sake.
Karou looked to him, found his eyes waiting for hers, and met them with a sting of clarity that was the final dissolution of the lie.
It mattered. They mattered, and whatever it was that had made them not kill each other on Bullfinch beach all those years ago… mattered.
Thiago didn’t answer Nisk. Not with words, anyway. The look he turned on him scythed the rest of the soldier’s words into silence. The Wolf had always had that power; Ziri’s appropriation of it was startling.
“To the court,” he said with soft menace. “Except for Ten. We will have words about my… expectations… when I’m done here. Go.”
They went. Karou might have enjoyed their shame-faced retreat, but that the Wolf turned his gaze on Issa next, and on her. “You, too,” he said.
As the Wolf would. He had never trusted Karou, but only manipulated and lied to her, and in this situation he absolutely would dismiss her along with the rest. And just as Ziri had his part to play, she had hers. In secret she might be the guiding strength of this new purpose, anointed by Brimstone with the Warlord’s blessing, but in the eyes of the chimaera army, she was still—at least for now—the girl who had stumbled back blood-soaked from the pit.
Thiago’s broken doll.
They could only work from the starting point they had, and that was the pit—gravel, blood, death, and lies—and she had no choice in this moment but to uphold the charade. She nodded her obedience to the Wolf, and it was acid in the pit of her belly to see Akiva’s eyes darken. By his side, Liraz was worse. Liraz was contemptuous.
That was a little hard to take.
The Wolf is dead! She wanted to scream. I killed him. Don’t look at me like that! But of course, she couldn’t. Right now, she had to be strong enough to look weak.
“Come on,” Karou said, urging Issa, Zuzana, and Mik forward.
But Akiva didn’t let it go so easily. “Wait.” He spoke in Seraphic, which none but Karou would understand. “It’s not him I came to talk to. I would have sought you alone to give you the choice if I could. I want to know what you want.”
What I want? Karou quelled a ripple of hysteria that felt dangerously like laughter. As if this life bore any resemblance to what she wanted! But, given the circumstances, was it what she wanted? She’d scarcely considered what it might mean. An alliance. The chimaera rebels actually joining with Akiva’s bastard brethren to take on the Empire?
Simply put, it was crazy. “Even united,” she said, “we would be massively outnumbered.”
“An alliance means more than the number of swords,” Akiva said. And his voice was like a shadow from another life when he added, softly, “Some, and then more.”
Karou stared at him for an unguarded second, then remembered herself and forced her eyes down. Some, and then more. It was the answer to the question of whether others could be brought around to their dream of peace. “This is the beginning,” Akiva had said moments earlier, his hand to his heart, before turning to Thiago. No one else knew what that meant, but Karou did, and she felt the heat of the dream stir in her own heart.
We are the beginning.
She’d said it to him long ago; he was the one saying it now. This was what his offer of alliance meant: the past, the future, penitence, rebirth. Hope.
It meant everything.
And Karou couldn’t acknowledge it. Not here. Nisk and Lisseth had halted on the hill to peer back at them: Karou the “angel-lover” and Akiva the very angel, speaking quietly in Seraphic while Thiago just stood there and let them? It was all wrong. The Wolf they knew would have had blood on his fangs by now.
Every moment was a test of the deception; every syllable uttered made the Wolf’s forbearance less tenable. So Karou dropped her gaze to the baked, stony earth and rounded her shoulders like the broken doll she was supposed to be. “The choice is Thiago’s,” she said in Chimaera, and tried to act her role.
But she couldn’t leave it at that. After everything, Akiva was still chasing the ghost of hope. Out of more blood and ash than they had ever even imagined in their days of love, he was trying to conjure it back to life. What other way forward was there? It was what she wanted.
She had to give him some sign.
Issa was holding her elbow. Karou leaned into her, turning so that the serpent woman’s body came between herself and the watching chimaera, and then, so quickly that she feared Akiva might miss it, she raised her hand and touched her heart.
It pounded in her chest as she moved away. We are the beginning, she thought, and was overcome by the memory of belief. It came from Madrigal, her deeper self, who had died believing, and it was acute. She bent into Issa, hiding her face so that no one would see her flush.
Issa’s voice was so faint it almost seemed like her own thought. “You see, child? Your heart is not wrong.”
And for the first time in a long, long time, Karou felt the truth of it. Her heart was not wrong.
Out of betrayal and desperation, amid hostile beasts and invading angels and a deception that felt like an explosion waiting to happen, somehow, here was a beginning.
5 GETTING-ACQUAINTED GAME
Akiva didn’t miss it. He saw Karou’s fingertips brush her heart as she turned away, and in that instant it all became worth it. The risk, the gut-wrench of forcing himself to speak to the Wolf, even the seething disbelief of Liraz at his side.
“You’re mad,” she said under her breath. “I have an army, too? You don’t have an army, Akiva. You’re part of an army. There’s a difference.”
“I know,” he said. The offer wasn’t his to make. Their Misbegotten brethren were waiting for them at the Kirin caves; this much was true. They were born to be weapons. Not sons and daughters, or even men and women, just weapons. Well, now they were weapons wielding themselves, and though they had rallied behind Akiva to oppose the Empire, an alliance with their mortal enemy was no part of this understanding.
“I’ll convince them,” he said, and in his exhilaration—Karou had touched her heart—he believed it.
“Start with me,” hissed his sister. “We came here to warn them, not to join them.”
Akiva knew that if he could persuade Liraz, the rest would follow. Just how he was supposed to do that, he did not know, and the White Wolf’s approach forestalled him trying.
With his she-wolf lieutenant by his side, he strode forward, and Akiva’s exhilaration withered. He flashed back to the first time he had ever seen the Wolf. It had been at Bath Kol, in the Shadow Offensive, when he himself was just a green soldier, fresh from the training camp. He’d seen the chimaera general fight, and more than any propaganda he’d been raised on, the sight had forged his hatred of the beasts. Sword in one hand, ax in the other, Thiago had surged through ranks of angels, ripping out throats with his teeth like it was instinct. Like he was hungry.
The memory sickened Akiva. Everything about Thiago sickened him, not least the gouge marks on his face, made certainly by Karou in self-defense. When the general came to a halt before him, it was all Akiva could do not to palm his face and slam him to the ground. A sword to his heart, as had been Joram’s fate, and then they could have their new beginning, all the rest of them, free of the lords of death who had led their people against each other for so long.
But that he could not do.
Karou looked back once from the slope, worry flashing across her lovely face—still distorted by whatever violence she’d refused to divulge to him—and then she moved away and it was just Thiago and Ten facing Akiva and Liraz, the sun hot and high, sky blue, earth drab.
“So,” said Thiago, “we may speak without an audience.”
“I seem to recall that you like an audience,” said Akiva, his memories of torture as vivid as they had ever been. Thiago’s abuse of him had been performance: the White Wolf, star of his bloody show.
A crease of confusion flickered and vanished at Thiago’s brow. “Let us leave the past, shall we? The present gives us more than enough to talk about, and then, of course, there is the future.”
The future will not have you in it, thought Akiva. It was too perverse to think that if this somehow came to pass, this impossible dream, the White Wolf should ride it through to its fulfillment and still be there, still white, still smug, and still the one standing at Karou’s door after everything was fought and won.
But no. That was wrong. Akiva’s jaw clenched and unclenched. Karou wasn’t a prize to win; that wasn’t why he was here. She was a woman and would choose her own life. He was here to do what he could, whatever he could, that she might have a life to choose, one day. Whoever and whatever that included was her own affair. So he gritted his teeth. He said, “So let’s talk of the present.”
“You’ve put me in a difficult position, coming here,” said the Wolf. “My soldiers are waiting for me to kill you. What I need is a reason not to.”
This riled Liraz. “You think you could kill us?” she demanded. “Try it, Wolf.”
Thiago’s regard shifted to her, his calm unruffled. “We haven’t been introduced.”
“You know who I am, and I know who you are, and that will serve.”
Typical Liraz bluntness.
“As you prefer,” said Thiago.
“You all look alike anyway,” drawled Ten.
“Well then,” said Liraz. “That might make our getting-acquainted game more difficult for your side.”
“What game is that?” inquired Ten.
No, Lir, thought Akiva. In vain.
“The one where we try to figure out which of us killed which of you in previous bodies. I’m sure some of you must remember me.” She held up her hands to show her kill tally, and Akiva caught the one nearest him, closed his own marked fist over it, and pushed it back down.
“Don’t flaunt those here,” he said. What’s wrong with her? Did she truly want this to degenerate into a bloodbath—whatever “this” was, this tenuous and almost unthinkable pause in hostilities.
Ten growled a laugh as Akiva pushed his sister’s hand back down to her side. “Don’t worry, Beast’s Bane. It’s not exactly a secret. I remember every angel who’s ever killed me, and yet here I stand, speaking to you. Can the same be said of the very many angels I’ve killed? Where are all the dead seraphim now? Where’s your brother?”
Liraz flinched. Akiva felt the words like a punch to a wound—the specter of Hazael raised casually, viciously—and when the heat around them surged, he knew it wasn’t only his sister’s temper but his own.
Here it was, then, a restoration to the natural order: hostility.
“But it wasn’t a chimaera who slew your brother,” said Thiago. “It was Jael. Which brings us to the point.” Akiva found himself the focus of his enemy’s pale eyes. There was no taunt in them, no subtle snarl, and none of the cold amusement with which he had regarded Akiva in the torture chamber, all those years ago. There was only a strange intensity. “I’ve no doubt we’re all accomplished killers,” he said softly. “It was my understanding we stood here for a different reason.”
Akiva’s first feeling was shame—to be schooled in cool-headedness by Thiago?—and his next was anger. “Yes. And it wasn’t to argue for our lives. You need a reason not to kill us? How about this: Do you have somewhere better to go?”
“No. We don’t.” Simple. Honest. “And so I’m listening. This was, after all, your idea.”
Yes, it was. His mad idea, to offer peace to the White Wolf. Now that he stood face-to-face with him, and Karou nowhere near, he saw the absurdity of it. He had been blinded by his desperation to stay near her, to not lose her to the vastness of Eretz, enemies forever. So he had made this offer, and it was only now, belatedly, that he saw how truly strange it was that the Wolf was considering it.
That the Wolf was looking for a reason not to kill him?
It had felt like aggression, that statement, like provocation. But was it, possibly, candor? Could it be the truth, that he wanted this peace but needed to justify it to his soldiers?
“The Misbegotten have withdrawn to a safe location,” Akiva said. “In the eyes of the Empire, we are traitors. I am patricide and regicide, and my guilt stains us all.” He considered his next words. “If you seriously mean to consider this—”
“This is no ruse on my part,” Thiago broke in. “I give you my word.”
“Your word.” This from Liraz, served on a bare crust of a laugh. “You’ll have to do better than that, Wolf. We’ve no reason to trust you.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. You’re alive, aren’t you? I don’t ask thanks for it, but I hope it’s perfectly clear that it’s no matter of chance. You came to us half-dead. If I’d wanted to finish the job, I would have.”
There could be no arguing with that. Indisputably, Thiago had let them live. He had let them escape.
For Karou’s sake? Had she pled for their lives? Not…
… bargained for them?
Akiva looked up the slope where she had gone. She stood in the arched entrance to the kasbah, watching them, too distant to read. He turned to Thiago, and saw that his expression was still devoid of cruelty or duplicity or even his customary coldness. His eyes were open, not heavy-lidded with arrogance or disdain. It made a marked change in him. What could account for it?
One explanation occurred to Akiva, and he hated it. In the torture chamber, Thiago’s rage had been that of a rival—a losing rival. Beneath the age-old hatred of their races had burned the more personal wrath of an alpha for a challenger. The humiliation of the one not chosen. Vengeance for Madrigal’s love of Akiva.
But that was absent now—as absent as the reasons for it. Akiva was no longer his rival, no longer a threat. Because Karou had made a different choice this time.
As soon as this idea came to Akiva, Thiago’s lack of malice seemed hard proof of it. The White Wolf was sure enough of his place that he didn’t need to kill Akiva. Karou, oh godstars. Karou.
If it weren’t for their bloody history, if Akiva didn’t know what lurked in Thiago’s true heart, it would seem an obvious match: the general and the resurrectionist, lord and lady of the chimaera’s last hope. But he did know Thiago’s true heart, and so did Karou.
It wasn’t old history, either, Thiago’s violence. Karou’s downcast eyes, her tremulous uncertainty. Bruises, gouges. And yet the creature standing before Akiva now seemed the White Wolf’s best self: intelligent, powerful, and sane. A worthy ally. Looking at him, Akiva didn’t even know what he should hope for. If Thiago was this, then an alliance stood a chance, and Akiva would be able to be in Karou’s life, if only at the edges of it. He would be able to see her, at least, and know that she was well. He would be able to atone for his sins and have her know it. Not to mention, they might stand a chance of stopping Jael.
On the other hand, if Thiago was this—intelligent, powerful, and sane—and he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Karou to shape the destiny of their people, what place was there for Akiva in that? And more to the point, could he bear to stand by and see it?
“And there is something else,” said Thiago. “Something I owe you. I understand that I have you to thank for the souls of some of my own.”
Akiva narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“In the Hintermost. You intervened in the torture of a chimaera soldier. He escaped, and returned to us with the souls of his team.”
Ah. The Kirin. But how could anybody know that Akiva had done that? He hadn’t let himself be seen. He’d summoned birds, every bird for miles around. He just shook his head now, prepared to deny it.
But Liraz surprised him. “Where is he?” she asked Thiago. “I didn’t see him with the others.”
Had she been looking? Akiva flickered a glance her way. Thiago’s glance more than flickered. It sharpened, and settled on her. “He’s dead,” he said after a pause.
Dead. The young Kirin, last of Madrigal’s tribe. Liraz made no reply. “I’m sorry to hear it,” Akiva said.
Thiago’s gaze shifted back to him. “But thanks to you, his team will live again. And to return to our purpose, was not his torturer the very angel we now must oppose?”
Akiva nodded. “Jael. Captain of the Dominion. Now emperor. We’re standing here while he gathers his strength, and while your word means nothing to me, I’ll trust one thing: that you would stop him. So if you believe your soldiers can distinguish one angel from another long enough to fight Dominion beside Misbegotten, come with us, and we’ll see what happens.”
Liraz, to Ten, added coldly, “We wear black, and they wear white. If that helps.”
“It all tastes the same,” was the she-wolf’s laconic reply.
“Ten, please,” said Thiago in a warning voice, and then, to Akiva, “Yes, we will see.” He nodded a promise, holding Akiva’s eyes, and the sanity was still there, the cruelty still absent, yet Akiva couldn’t help remembering him ripping out throats, and he felt himself at the precipice of a very bad decision.
Revenant soldiers and Misbegotten, together. At best, it would be miserable. At worst, devastating.
But in spite of his misgivings, it was as if there was a brightness beckoning to him—the future, rich with light, calling him toward it. No promises made, only hope. And it wasn’t just the hope kindled by Karou’s subtle gesture. At least, he didn’t think so. He thought that this was what he had to do, and that it wasn’t stupid, but bold.
Only time would tell.
6 BEAST EXODUS
Karou had overseen one transfer of this small army from world to world already, and it had not been the best of times. Then, with a preponderance of wingless soldiers and no way to transport them from Eretz, they’d had to take multiple trips, and still Thiago had opted to “release” many of them, gleaning souls and bringing them along in thuribles. “Deadweight,” he had deemed the bodies—exempting of course his own and Ten’s, and some other of his lieutenants, who had ridden astride larger, flying revenants.
This time, Karou was relieved to line everyone up in the court and determine that what “deadweight” remained could be managed by the rest, and no releasing would be required.
The pit had been fed its last body.
She saw it from the air one last time as the company took flight, and it had a kind of magnetic hold on her gaze. It looked so small from up here, down its winding path from the kasbah. Just a dark indentation in the rolling dust-colored earth, with some mounds of excavated dirt standing near, shovels stuck in them like pickets. She imagined she could see scuff marks where Thiago had attacked her, and even dark patches that could be blood. And on the far side of the mounds, discernible to no one save herself, was another disturbance in the dirt: Ziri’s grave.
It was shallow, and she’d blistered her hands on the shovel doing even that much, but nothing could have made her tip the last natural Kirin flesh into the pit with its flies and putrescence. She hadn’t escaped the flies and putrescence so easily, though. She’d had to lean over the edge of that soupy, crawling darkness with Ziri’s gleaning staff to gather the souls of Amzallag and the Shadows That Live, murdered by the Wolf and his cronies for the crime of taking her side.
She wished she could have them on her side again instead of in a thurible, stashed away, but in a thurible they’d have to remain—for now. For how long? She didn’t know. Until such a time as was yet impossible to imagine: some time after all of this, and better than all of this, when the deception wouldn’t matter anymore.
Should such a time ever come to pass.
It will come to pass if we bring it to pass, she told herself.
Thiago’s scouts had reported no seraph presence within a several-mile radius of the portal in Eretz, which was a relief, but not one Karou could trust. With Razgut in Jael’s hands, nothing was certain.
It felt wrong to be leaving—to be fleeing—with what was set in motion, but what else could they do? They currently numbered only eighty-seven chimaera—eighty-seven “monsters,” in the eyes of this world, and possibly “demons,” if Jael succeeded in selling his charade of holiness. They were too few to defeat him or drive him back. If they attacked him now, they would not only lose, they would help him in his cause. One look at these soldiers Karou had made and humans would be shoving rocket launchers into Jael’s hands.
With Akiva’s Misbegotten, though, at least they stood a chance.
Of course, that was its own hornet’s nest: the alliance. Selling it to the chimaera. Treading the razor’s edge of deception to manipulate a rebel army into acting against its deepest instincts. Karou knew that every step forward would meet resistance from a large contingent of the company. To shape the future, they would have to win at every pace. And who constituted “they”? Along with herself and “Thiago,” only Issa and “Ten”—who was actually Haxaya, a soldier less evil but just as hotheaded as the real Ten had been—were in on the secret. Well, and now Zuzana and Mik.
“What’s with you?” Zuzana had asked, incredulous, as soon as they’d left Akiva and Thiago to their negotiations. “Chumming with the White Wolf?”
“You know what ‘chumming’ is, don’t you?” Karou had replied, evasive. “It’s throwing blood in the water to attract sharks.”
“Well, I meant ‘being chummy,’ but I’m sure there’s a metaphor in that somewhere. What did he do to you? Are you all right?”
“I am now,” Karou had said, and though it had been a relief to disabuse her friends of their notion of chumming, it had given her no pleasure to tell them the truth about Ziri. Both of them had cried, which had been like a pull-chain to her own tears, no doubt shoring up her appearance of weakness in the eyes of the company.
And that she could live with, but dear gods and stardust, Akiva was another matter. Letting him believe that she was “chummy” with the White Wolf? But what was she supposed to do? She was closely watched by the entire chimaera host. Some eyes seemed simply curious—Does she still love him?—but others were suspicious, eager to damn her and weave conspiracies out of her every glance. She couldn’t give them ammunition, so she’d kept away from Akiva and Liraz at the kasbah, and tried now not even to glance in their direction, off the formation’s far flank.
Thiago rode at the head of the host astride the soldier Uthem. Uthem was a Vispeng, horse-dragon aspect, long and sinuous. He was the largest and most striking of the chimaera, and on his back, Thiago looked as regal as a prince.
Nearer Karou, Issa rode the Dashnag soldier Rua, while right in the middle of everything, incongruous as a pair of sparrows clinging to the backs of raptors, were Zuzana and Mik.
Zuzana was on Virko, Mik on Emylion, and both were wide-eyed, clinging to leather straps as the chimaera’s powerful bodies heaved beneath them, climbing the air. Virko’s spiraling ram’s horns reminded Karou of Brimstone. He was felid in body, but immense: crouching cat muscle, like a lion on steroids, and from the back of his thick neck bristled a ruff of spikes, which Zuzana had padded with a wool blanket that she’d complained smelled like feet. “So my choice is to breathe feet the whole way or spear my eyeballs out on neck spikes? Awesome.”
Now she roared, “You’re doing that on purpose!” as Virko banked hard left, causing her to slide cockeyed in her makeshift saddle of straps until he banked the other way and righted her.
Virko was laughing, but Zuzana wasn’t. She craned her neck looking for Karou and hollered, “I need a new horse. This one thinks he’s hilarious!”
“You’re stuck with him!” Karou called back to Zuzana. She flew nearer, having to veer around a pair of overburdened griffons. She herself was weighed down by a heavy pack of gear and a long chain of linked thuribles, many dozens of souls contained within. She clanked with every movement, and had never felt so graceless. “He volunteered.”
Indeed, if Zuzana hadn’t been so light, it may not have been possible to bring the humans along. Virko was carrying her in addition to his full, allocated load, and as for Emylion, two or three soldiers had wordlessly taken up some of his gear so that he could manage Mik, who, though not large, wasn’t the weightless petal Zuze was. There had been no question of leaving his violin behind, either. Karou’s friends, it was clear, had won real affection from this group in a way she herself had not.
From most of them anyway. There was Ziri. He might not look like Ziri anymore, but he was Ziri, and Karou knew…
She knew that he was in love with her.
“Why don’t you have a pegasus in this company?” Zuzana demanded, paling as she eyed the ever-more-distant ground. “A nice docile flying horse to ride, with a fluffy mane instead of spikes, like floating on a cloud.”
“Because nothing is more terrifying to the enemy than a pegasus,” said Mik.
“Hey, there’s more to life than terrifying your enemies,” said Zuzana. “Like not plunging a thousand feet to your death—aaah!” She shrieked as Virko suddenly dipped to pass beneath the smith Aegir, who was heaving hard to bear a sack of weaponry airborne. Karou seized a corner of the bag to help him and together they rose slowly higher as Virko drew ahead.
“Better be good to her!” she called after him in Chimaera. “Or I’ll let her turn you into a pegasus in your next body!”
“No!” he roared back. “Not that!”
He straightened out, and Karou found herself in one of those in-between moments when her life could still surprise her. She thought of herself and Zuze, not so many months ago, at their easels in life-drawing class, or with their feet up on a coffin-table at Poison Kitchen. Mik had just been “violin boy” then, a crush, and now here he was with his violin strapped to his pack, riding with them to another world while Karou threatened monsters with resurrection vengeance for misbehavior?
For just a moment, in spite of the burden of the weapons bag, and the thuribles, and her pack—not to mention the anvil weight of her duty and the deception and the future of two worlds—Karou felt almost light. Hopeful.
Then she heard a laugh, bright with casual malice, and from the corner of her eye, caught sight of the flick of a hand. It was Keita-Eiri, a jackal-headed Sab fighter, and Karou saw at once what she was about. She was flashing her hamsas—the “devil’s eyes” inked on her palms—toward Akiva and Liraz. Rark, alongside her, was doing the same, and they were laughing.
Hoping the seraphim were out of range, Karou risked a look in their direction just in time to see Liraz break mid-wingbeat and swing around, fury clear in her posture even at a distance.
Not out of range, then. Akiva reached for his sister and restrained her from rounding on their assailants.
More laughter as the chimaera made sport of them, and Karou’s hands gripped into fists around her own marks. She couldn’t be the one to put a stop to this—it would only make things worse. With clenched teeth she watched Akiva and Liraz draw even farther away, and the growing distance between them seemed a bad omen for this brave beginning.
“Are you all right, Karou?” came a hiss-accented whisper.
Karou turned. Lisseth was drawing up beside her. “Fine,” Karou said.
“Oh? You look tense.”
Though of the Naja race like Issa, Lisseth and her partner, Nisk, were twice Issa’s weight—thick as pythons beside a viper, bull-necked and burly, but still deadly quick and equipped with venomous fangs as well as the incongruity of wings. It was Karou’s own doing, all of it. Stupid, stupid.
“Don’t worry about me,” she told Lisseth.
“Well, that’s difficult, isn’t it? How can I not worry about an angel-lover?”
There had been a time, a very recent time, when this insult had carried a sting. Not anymore. “We have so many enemies, Lisseth,” said Karou, keeping her voice light. “Most of them are our birthright, inherited like a duty, but the ones we make for ourselves are special. We should choose them with care.”
Lisseth’s brow creased. “Are you threatening me?” she asked.
“Threatening you? Now, how did you get that out of what I just said? I was talking about making enemies, and I can’t imagine any revenant soldier being dumb enough to make an enemy of the resurrectionist.”
There, she thought as Lisseth’s face went tight. Make of that what you will.
They were moving along all the while, steady in the air in the middle of the company, and now the density of bodies before them parted, revealing Thiago astride Uthem, doubled back into their midst. The company re-formed around them, their progress slowing.
“My lord,” Lisseth greeted him, and Karou could practically see the tattle forming in her thoughts. My lord, the angel-lover threatened me. We need to tighten our control over her.
Good luck with that, she thought, but the Wolf didn’t give Lisseth—or anyone—a chance to speak. In a voice pitched just loud enough to carry, while scarcely seeming to be raised, he said, “Do you think because I ride ahead I don’t know how my army acquits itself?” He paused. “You are as the blood in my body. I sense every shudder and sigh, I know your pain and your joy, and I certainly hear your laughter.”
He swept the encircling soldiers with a look, and jackal-headed Keita-Eiri wasn’t laughing when his gaze came to rest on her.
“If I wish you to antagonize our… allies… I will tell you. And if you suspect that I have forgotten to give you an order, kindly enlighten me. In return I will enlighten you.” The message was for everyone. Keita-Eiri was just the unlucky focus of the general’s chilling sarcasm. “How does that arrangement strike you, soldier? Does it meet your approval?”
Her voice thin with mortification, Keita-Eiri whispered, “Yes, sir.” Karou felt almost bad for her.
“I’m so glad.” The Wolf raised his voice now. “Together we have fought, and together endured the loss of our people. We have bled and we have screamed. You’ve followed me into fire, and into death, and into another world, but never perhaps into anything so seeming strange as this. Refuge with seraphim? Strange it may be, but I would be so disappointed if your trust failed. There is no room for dissent. Any who cannot abide our current course can leave us the moment we pass through the portal, and take their chances on their own.”
He scanned their faces. His own was hard but lit by some inner brilliance. “As regards the angels, I ask nothing of you but patience. We can’t fight them as we once did, trusting to our numbers even as we bled. I don’t ask your permission to find a new way. If you stay with me, I expect faith. The future is shadowed, and I can promise you nothing beyond this: We will fight for our world to the last echo of our souls, and if we are very strong and very lucky and very smart, we may live to rebuild some of what we’ve lost.”
He made eye contact with each in turn, making them feel seen and counted, valued. His look conveyed his faith in them—and more, his trust in their faith in him. He went on: “This much is plain: If we fail to thwart this pressing threat, we end. Chimaera end.” He paused. His gaze having come full circle to Keita-Eiri, he said, with caressing gentleness that somehow made the rebuke so much more damning: “This is no laughing matter, soldier.”
And then he urged Uthem forward and they cut their way through the troops to resume their place at the head of the army. Karou watched as the soldiers silently moved back into formation, and she knew that not one of them would leave him, and that Akiva and Liraz would be safe from errant hamsa strikes for the remainder of the journey.
That was good. She felt a flush of pride for Ziri, and also of awe. In his natural flesh, the young soldier had been quiet, almost shy—the opposite of this eloquent megalomaniac whose flesh he now wore. Watching him, she had wondered for the first time—and maybe it was stupid that she hadn’t thought to wonder it before—how being Thiago might change him.
But the thought subsided as soon as it came. This was Ziri. Of all the many things Karou had to worry about, his being corrupted by power was not one of them.
Lisseth, however, was. Karou looked to her, still hovering near in the air, and saw calculation in the Naja’s eyes as she watched their general resume his place.
What was she thinking? Karou knew there wasn’t a chance in hell of Thiago’s lieutenants leaving the company, but god, she wished they would. No one knew him better, and no one would watch him more closely. As for what she’d told Lisseth about making an enemy of the resurrectionist, it hadn’t been a joke or an idle threat. If anything was certain for revenant soldiers, it was that if they went into battle often enough, eventually they’d be in need of a body.
Bovine, thought Karou. A big slow cow for you. And the next time Lisseth shot her a glance, she thought, almost merrily, Moo.
7 A GIFT FROM THE WILD
The chimaera had ridden high over the peaks now. The kasbah was behind them, the portal just ahead, though Karou could barely make it out. Even up close it presented as a mere ripple, and you had to dive through it on faith, feel its edges feather open around you. Larger creatures did best to fold back their wings and hit it with speed, and if they went just a fraction too high or low they’d feel no resistance and overshoot it, remaining right here in this sky. That didn’t happen now, though. This company knew what they were doing, and vanished through the crease one by one.
It took time, each looming shape winking out into the ether.
When it came Virko’s turn, Karou called, “Hold on!” to Zuzana, and she did, and they careened through the cut. Emylion and Mik went next, and Karou didn’t like having her friends out of her sight, so she nodded to the Wolf, who had circled around to see everyone through, and with one last deep breath of Earth air, she dove.
Against her face, the feather touch of whatever unknowable membrane it was that held the worlds distinct, and she was through.
She was in Eretz.
No blue sky here; it arched white over their heads and darkened to gunmetal gray on the single visible horizon, all the rest lost in a haze. Beneath them was only water, and in the colorlessness of the day it rippled almost black. The Bay of Beasts. There was something terrifying about black water. Something pitiless.
The wind was strong, buffeting the host as it fell back into formation. Karou pulled her sweater closer around her and shivered. The last of the host pushed through the cut, Uthem and Thiago last of all. Uthem’s equine and draconic elements were indistinguishably supple, green and rippling and seeming to pour into the world out of nothingness. The Vispeng race not naturally being winged, Karou had gotten creative in order to preserve his length: two sets of wings, the main pair like sails and a smaller set anchored near his hind legs. It looked pretty cool, if she did say so herself.
The Wolf had bowed his head through the portal, and as soon as he was through, he sat up to take stock of his circling troops. His eye came quickly to rest on Karou, and though he paused on her only briefly, she felt herself to be—knew herself to be—his first care in the world, this or any other. Only when he knew where she was, and was satisfied that she was well, did he turn to the task at hand, which was to guide this army safely over the Bay of Beasts.
Karou found it difficult to turn away from the portal and just leave it there, where anyone might find it and use it. Akiva was to have scorched it closed behind them, but Jael had changed their plan. Now they would need it.
To return and start the apocalypse.
The Wolf once more took the lead, turning them eastward, away from the gunmetal horizon and toward the Adelphas Mountains. On a clear day, the peaks would have been visible from here. But it wasn’t a clear day, and they could see nothing ahead but thickening mist, which had its pluses and its minuses.
In the plus column, the mists gave them cover. They wouldn’t be sighted from a distance by any seraph patrols.
In the minus, the mists gave anyone cover… and anyone—or anything—would not be sighted from a distance by themselves.
Karou was in a central position in the pack, having just come alongside Rua to check on Issa, when it happened.
“Sweet girl, are you bearing up?” Issa asked.
“I’m fine,” Karou replied. “But you need more clothes.”
“I won’t argue with that,” Issa replied. She was actually wearing clothes—a sweater of Karou’s, slit wide at the neck to accommodate her cobra hood—which in itself was unusual for Issa, but her lips were blue, and her shoulders were drawn up practically to her ears as she shivered. The Naja race hailed from a hot climate. Morocco had suited her perfectly. This cold mist, not so much, and their frigid destination even less, though at least there they would be sheltered from the elements, and Karou remembered geothermal chambers in the lower labyrinth of the caves, if all was as it had been years ago.
The Kirin caves.
She had never been back to the place of her birth, home of her earliest life. She had planned to return, once upon a time. It was where she and Akiva were to have met to begin their rebellion, had the fates not had other ideas.
But, no. Karou didn’t believe in fate. It wasn’t fate that had murdered their plan, but betrayal. And it wasn’t fate re-creating it now—or at least this twisted shadow-theater version of it, fraught with suspicion and animosity. It was will.
“I’ll find you a blanket or something,” she told Issa—or started to tell her. But in that moment, something came over her.
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.
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.
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 there 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?”
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, standing 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.
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.
ARRIVAL + 6 HOURS
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.
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 Toth’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 easily 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.
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.
“Hazael is dead.”
There are breeds of silence. As there are breeds of chimaera. Chimaera essentially meant nothing more specific than “creature of mixed aspect, creature not seraph.” It was a term that took in every species with language and higher function that lived in these lands and was not an angel; it was a term that would never have existed if the seraphim had not, by their aggression, united the tribes against themselves.
And the silence that preceded Akiva’s news, and the silence that followed it, were no more kin to each other than a Kirin to a Heth.
The Misbegotten had, in the last year, been pared to a sliver of itself. They had lost so many brothers and sisters that those who remained could have drowned in the ashes of those who had died. They were bred to expect it, though this had never made it any easier, and in the last months of the war, when the body count crested to levels of hollow absurdity, a shift had occurred. Their fury had been growing—not merely over the losses but the expectation that they, being nothing but weapons, would not grieve. They grieved. And by any hallmark, Hazael had been a favorite.
“He was killed by Dominion in the Tower of Conquest. It was a setup.” Speaking of it, Akiva was right back in it, seeing it, and the way that, in the extraordinary radiance of sirithar come to him too late, he had watched his brother die. He didn’t tell the rest: that Hazael had died defending Liraz from Jael’s unbearable plans for her. It was hard enough for her without it being known by all.
“It’s true that I killed our father,” he said. “It’s what I went there to do, and I did it. Whatever you might have heard, I did not kill the crown prince, nor would I have. Nor the council, the bodyguards, the Silverswords, the bath attendants.” All that blood. “All of that was Jael’s doing, and all of it his plan. No matter how it fell out that day, he was going to lay it to me, and use it as pretext to exterminate us all.”
Throughout the telling, the silence continued to evolve, and Akiva felt in it a loosening, as of fists relaxing their grips on sword hilts.
Maybe it was news to them that their lives would have been forfeit no matter what Akiva did that day, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that wasn’t what mattered. These two names—Hazael and Jael—could have served as their poles of love and hatred, and together combined to make this real, all of it. The ascendancy of their uncle, their own exile, even the fact of their own freedom—still so alien to them, a language they’d never had opportunity to learn.
They might do anything now. Even… ally with beasts?
“Jael won’t expect it,” said Akiva. “It will anger him, to begin with. But more than that, it will unsettle him. He won’t know what to expect next, in a world where chimaera and Misbegotten join forces.”
“And neither, I wager, will we.” In Elyon’s voice, Akiva thought, there was a tone of musing, as if the unknown beguiled as much as it alarmed him.
“There’s something else,” said Akiva. “It’s true that the chimaera have a new resurrectionist. And you should know, before you decide anything, that she was willing to save Hazael.” His voice caught. “But it was too late.”
They digested this. “What about Liraz?” asked Elyon, and a murmur went around. Liraz. She would be their touchstone. Someone said, “Surely she hasn’t agreed to this.”
And Akiva said a blessing for his sister, because he knew that he had them now. “She’s with them, encamped and awaiting my word. And you can imagine—” He softened for the first time since arriving and calling them together; he allowed himself to smile. “That she would rather be here with you. There isn’t time to hash it over. Jael won’t wait.” He looked first to Elyon. “Well?”
The soldier blinked several times, rapidly, like he was waking up. Furrowed his brow. “A détente,” he said, in a tone of warning, “can only be as strong as the least trustworthy on either side.”
“Then let it not be our side,” said Akiva. “It’s the best we can do.”
The look in Elyon’s eyes suggested he could think of better, and that it began and ended with swords, but he nodded.
He nodded. Akiva’s relief felt like the passage of stormhunters reshaping the air.
Elyon gave his promise, and the others did, too. It was simple, and slight, and as much as could be expected for now: that when the wind delivered up their enemies, they would not strike first. Thiago had made the same promise on behalf of his soldiers.
Soon they would all learn what promises were worth.
12 A WARM IDEA
“You know what I might do?” Zuzana asked, shivering.
“What might you do?” inquired Mik, who was seated behind her, his arms wrapped all the way around her and his face tucked into the crook of her neck. That was the warmest part of her body right now: the crook of her neck, where Mik’s breath was making its own microclimate, a few lovely square inches of tropical.
“You know that scene in Star Wars,” she said, “where Han Solo slits open that tauntaun’s belly and shoves Luke inside so he won’t freeze to death?”
“Aw,” responded Mik, “that’s so sweet. You’re going to tuck me into a fresh, steaming carcass to warm me up?”
“Not you. Me.”
“Oh. Okay. Good. Because the thing I always think after that scene is that the guts are going to cool off fast, and personally, I’d rather be cold and not covered in wet tauntaun guts than—”
“Okay then,” said Zuzana. “No need to get graphic.”
“It’s called a Skywalker sleeping bag,” Mik continued. “A woman in America tried it in a horse.”
Zuzana made a choking noise. “Stop now.”
“Oh god.” She pulled forward so she could swing her face around to look at him. Immediately the microclimate of her neck began to drop in temperature. Good-bye, tiny tropics. “I did not need that in my mind.”
“Sorry,” said Mik, contrite. “I have a better idea, anyway.”
“A warm idea?”
“Yeah. I was just working up my nerve when you distracted me with Star Wars.”
The chimaera army, plus themselves and Liraz—Akiva having flown on ahead to get the high sign from his army, fingers crossed—was encamped in a sheltered valley in the mountains. Sheltered being a relative term, and valley, too. One thought of meadows and wildflowers and mirror lakes, but this looked like a moon crater. They were out of the worst of the wind, anyway; it was calm enough to get fires going, though they didn’t have a lot of fuel, and the wood that someone—Rark? Aegir?—had chopped with a battle-ax was a stingy burner, throwing off popping green sparks and smelling disagreeably like the decades of cabbage buildup in Zuzana’s aunt’s Prague flat.
Seriously, that smell had no business existing in two worlds.
Zuzana wondered what idea Mik might have that called for nerve. “Will it impress me?” she asked.
“If it works? Yes. If it doesn’t, and I come right back here looking sheepish or… um, looking stabbed, don’t mock me, okay?”
Looking stabbed? “I would never mock you,” Zuzana said, and she meant it in the moment. “Especially when there’s a stabbing risk. There’s not really, is there?”
“I don’t think so. Humiliation, for sure.” He took a deep breath. “Here I go.” And then his body was gone from behind hers, leaving her fully exposed to the elements, and Zuzana realized that she hadn’t actually been cold before, but now she was. Like climbing out of a tauntaun, covered in wet—
“What’s Mik doing?” Karou asked, hopping down from the stone buttress that shielded them—sort of—from the wind. She’d been pacing up there, watching out for Akiva under the pretext of standing guard. The sun was going down, and Zuzana didn’t think they expected the seraph back for a while yet, but she hadn’t bothered pointing this out to her friend.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Something brave, to keep us from freezing to death.” Immediately she regretted the complaint.
Karou winced. “I’m sorry we’re not better prepared, Zuze,” she said. “You should have stayed. It was so stupid of me to let you come.”
“Shush. I’m not sorry, and I’m not actually freezing to death or I’d climb into the blanket pile with Issa.”
There was a huddle around some of the colder-blooded members of the company, and all spare blankets—including Zuzana’s stinky neck-spike pad—had gone to that cause. Zuzana had a fleece on, at least, and Mik a sweater. They were lucky that they’d left all their things at the kasbah when they escaped, or they wouldn’t even have had those.
“Where’s he going?” Karou asked. Mik had set off in the opposite direction from the resting chimaera. “He’s not… he wouldn’t… Oh. He is.” There was dread and awe in her tone.
Zuzana shared both. “What’s he thinking?” she hissed. “Abort. Abort.” But it was too late.
With his hands shoved deep into his jeans pockets and shuffling his feet like a terrified hobo, Mik approached… Liraz.
Zuzana rose to her feet to watch. The angel stood by herself at the farthest edge of this rock trench from the chimaera, looking every bit as pissed off as she had back at the kasbah, and on the Charles Bridge, too. Maybe more pissed off. Or maybe that was just her face? Zuzana had yet to witness evidence that the angel could look any other way. In flight, she and Mik had amused each other by coming up with personals ads for members of the company, and Liraz’s had been something like: Hot, perpetually pissed-off angel seeks living pincushion for scowl practice and general stabbiness. No kissing.
Mik was not going to be that pincushion. Zuzana realized it was the “hot” part—literally—that he was after. It was crazy. And doomed. No way was Liraz coming over here to keep the huddled masses warm with her wings. Her fiery, lovely, toasty wings.
Mik was talking to her now. Gesturing. He made the universal sign of brrr, and then, right after, spread his arms like wings, and gestured back whence he’d come, putting his hands together in a plea. Liraz looked, saw Zuzana and Karou watching. Her eyes narrowed. She returned her attention to Mik, but only briefly, and looked at him—down at him; she was tall—with flat disinterest. She said nothing, didn’t even bother to shake her head, just turned her back on him like he wasn’t even there.
How dare she? “I’ll tauntaun her,” Zuzana muttered.
“What?” said Karou.
Mik was coming back, sheepish but not stabbed, and though his mission had failed—what had he thought, that Liraz could possibly care about their comfort?—it had been marvelously bold. The chimaera, for all their monstrosity, were more approachable than she was.
“My hero,” Zuzana said without a hint of mockery, and, taking Mik’s hand, led him back over to the meager fire to set about conjuring up some more neck tropics.
The sun set. Nitid rose, followed by Ellai, and Karou enjoyed her friends’ wonder at their first sight of the sister moons, even if they were just slivers tonight. They were gifted another glimpse of stormhunters, too, though this one from more like the usual distance. The temperature dropped further, and the huddles of chilled creatures tightened. They cooked, ate. Oora told a story with a haunting, rhythmic refrain.
Liraz still stood aloof, as far as she could get from the beast huddles, and as Karou tucked her fingers into her armpits for warmth, the waste of the angel’s wing heat seemed positively profligate, akin to pouring out water in the desert. She couldn’t exactly blame Liraz, though, after the hamsa flashes she had endured on the journey. Well, she could blame her for being rude to Mik; Mik didn’t have hamsas, and really: Who could be mean to Mik? Even the worst among the chimaera couldn’t manage that. And look at Zuzana! Not for nothing was her chimaera nickname neek-neek, and yet Mik turned her to honey. So far, Liraz alone had proven immune to the Mik effect.
Liraz was special. Specially antisocial. Spectacularly, even. But Karou felt responsible for her, left in their midst as… what? An ambassador of sorts? No one could be worse suited to the role. There had been that moment before Akiva left, when his gaze had cut across the distance to Karou. No one could do that like Akiva could, burn a path across space, make you feel seen, set apart. They still hadn’t spoken since leaving the kasbah, or even stood near each other, and she’d been cautious with the direction of her glances, but that one look had said many things, and one of them was a plea to look after his sister.
She didn’t take it lightly. As far as she’d been able to tell, no one was tormenting Liraz, and she hoped they wouldn’t be so stupid, with Akiva not here to hold her back.
When will he get here?
Down below, the fires popped their green sparks and belched their cabbage stinks, emitting paltry warmth, and Karou paced the ridge, keeping an eye over the chimaera on one side, scanning for Akiva on the other. Still no hint of wing-glimmer in the deepening darkness.
How was he faring? What if he came back with bad news? Where would the chimaera go, if not to the Kirin caves? Back to the mine tunnels where they’d hidden before taking shelter in the human world? Karou shuddered at the thought.
And at the thought of facing the enormity of the angel invasion alone.
And of the loss of this chance.
She realized how much, in so short a time, she had come to rely on the idea of this alliance, crazy as it was, and all that it meant for this company—for both meeting their basic needs and giving them purpose. The chimaera needed this. She needed it.
Also, she was freezing her butt off in the open while the Misbegotten enjoyed the comforts of her ancestral home? Which, if she recalled correctly, had hot springs?
Oh hell no.
She heard the faint scritch of claws on stone, the only hint of the White Wolf’s gait, and turned to him. He carried tea, which she gratefully accepted, wrapping her fingers around the hot tin cup and holding it right up to her face to breathe the steam.
“You don’t have to be up here in the wind,” he said. “Kasgar and Keita-Eiri have the watch.”
“I know,” she said. “I can’t sit still. Thanks for the tea.”
“Where did you send the others?” she asked. From up here, she’d seen him talk with his lieutenants and then send four teams of two back the way they’d come.
“To fan out around the eastern reaches of the bay,” he said. “Keep their eyes to the horizons. One from each pair will rendezvous here in twenty-four hours, and then at twelve-hour intervals after that, so we’ll know it’s clear before we leave the mountains.”
She nodded. It was smart. The Bay of Beasts was seraph territory. Everywhere was seraph territory now, and they had no idea what the rest of the Empire’s forces were doing, or where they were doing it. The mountains provided some shelter, but to return to the human world, they’d have to be out in the open for as long as it took their combined numbers to file back through the portal one by one.
“How do you think it’s going?” he asked, his voice very low.
Karou glanced down toward the company, scattered below them against the edges of the broad rock hollow. Her anxiety was on high alert, but no one was looking at them, and anyway, distance and darkness must render them silhouettes, and the wind carry their voices away. “Good, I think,” she said. “You’re doing so well.” At being Thiago, she meant. “It’s a little eerie.”
“Eerie,” he repeated.
“Convincing. A few times I almost forgot—”
He didn’t let her finish. “Don’t forget. Not ever. Not for a second.” He drew in breath. “Please.”
So much behind that word. Please don’t forget I’m not a monster. Please don’t forget what I gave up. Please don’t forget me. Karou was ashamed for having voiced her thought. Had she meant it as a compliment? How could she imagine he would take it as one? You’re doing so well acting like the maniac I killed. It sounded like an accusation.
“I won’t forget,” she told Ziri. She recalled her brief moment of worrying that wearing the Wolf’s skin might change him, but when she made herself look at him now, she knew there was no danger of that.
His eyes weren’t Thiago’s, not now. They were too warm. Oh, they were still the Wolf’s pale eyes, of course, but more different than Karou would have thought they could be. It was unreal how two souls could look out through the same set of eyes in such drastically different fashion, seeming to reshape them entirely. Absent the Wolf’s hauteur, this face could actually look kind. Of course, that was dangerous. The Wolf never looked kind. Courtly, yes, and polite. Composed in a mimicry of kindness? Sure. But actual kind? No, and the difference was drastic.
“I promise,” she said, dropping her voice low, so that it was almost inaudible beneath the coursing of the winds. “I could never forget who you are.”
He had to lean nearer to catch her words, and didn’t move away after, but replied in the same secret tone, near enough that her ear felt the stir of his breath, “Thank you.” His tone was as warm and un-Thiago-like as his eyes, and laced with yearning.
Karou turned abruptly back toward the darkness, buying herself some space. Even Ziri’s spirit couldn’t alter the Wolf’s physical presence enough that his nearness wouldn’t make her shudder. Her wounds still ached. Her ear throbbed where those teeth had torn it. And she didn’t even have to close her eyes to remember how it had felt, being trapped beneath that body’s weight.
“How are you holding up?” he asked, after a silent moment.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll be better once we know.” She nodded into the night as if the sky held the future—which, she supposed, if Akiva was flying back to them, it did, one way or another. Her heart suddenly squeezed. How deep was the future? How far did it go?
And who was in it with her?
“Me, too,” said Ziri. “At least, I’ll be better if the news is good. I don’t know what to do if this plan fails.”
“Me, neither.” Karou attempted a brave face. “But we’ll think of something if we have to.”
He nodded. “I am hoping to see… the place where I was born.”
So hesitant in his words. He’d been a baby when they lost their tribe, and had no memories of life before Loramendi. “You can call it home,” Karou said. “At least, to me you can.”
“Do you remember it?”
She nodded. “I remember the caves. Faces are harder. My parents are blurs.”
It hurt to admit this. Ziri had been a baby, but she’d been seven when it happened, and there was no one else left to remember. The Kirin existed only as long as her memory held on to them, and they were mostly gone already. She hunched around a pang of conscience. Would she forget Ziri’s face, too? The thought of his body in its shallow grave haunted her. The way the dirt had caught in his eyelashes, then her last glimpse of his brown eyes before she’d covered them over. The blisters on her hands still stung from her desperate burying; she couldn’t feel that pain without seeing his face slack in death. But soon enough, she knew, it would lose its clarity. She should draw him—alive—while she still could. But she couldn’t show him if she did. He had a way of reading too much into small gestures, and she didn’t want to give him hope. Not the hope he wanted, anyway.
“Will you show me around, when—if—we get there?” he asked.
“We won’t have much time,” she said.
“I know. But I hope there’s some time to be alone, even for a little while.”
Alone? Karou tensed. What did he think, that they would find themselves alone?
But he tensed, too, on seeing her expression freeze. “I don’t mean alone with you. I mean, not that I wouldn’t… but I didn’t mean that. Just—” He took a deep breath, let it out hard. “I’m just tired, Karou. To not be watched, and not worry that I’m making some misstep, for just a little while. That’s all I meant.”
Oh god, how selfish was she, thinking only of herself? The pressure on him was so great, crushing, and she couldn’t even stand the thought of being alone with him? Couldn’t even pretend to stand it?
“I’m so sorry,” she said, miserable. “For all of this.”
“Don’t be. Please. I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s worth it.” He looked and sounded so earnest. Again, the expression was utterly foreign to the Wolf’s face and voice, reshaping both, and managing even to tinge the general’s untouchable beauty with sweetness. Oh, Ziri. “For what we might accomplish,” he added. “Together.”
Karou’s heart mutinied, and if there had been a shadow of doubt remaining, it wouldn’t have survived this surge of clarity. Her heart was half of a different “together”—a dream begun in another body, and, contrary to the lie she’d been telling herself for months, apparently not ended in it.
She forced a smile, because it wasn’t Ziri’s fault, and he deserved better from her, but she couldn’t make herself say the word—together.
Not to him, anyway.
Ziri saw the strain in Karou’s smile. He wanted to believe it was because she was forced to look at him through this body, but… he knew. Just like that. If he hadn’t known absolutely before this moment, it was his own fault, not hers, and it settled in him now.
No hope here. No luck friction, not for him.
He bid her good night, left her there pacing on the ledge—watching for the angel to return—and felt, as he walked away, the features of this face slip back into their habitual expression. There was a minor twist at the corners of the lips to convey amusement—the cruel kind. But it wasn’t Ziri’s. He was not amused. Karou was still in love with Akiva? The real Thiago would have been disgusted, furious. The fake Thiago was only heartbroken.
He was also jealous, and it made him sick.
He felt the loss of his body more keenly than ever, not because it would have made a difference to Karou, but because he wanted to fly—to be free even for a little while, to exhaust his wings and lungs, smash himself against the night and let his sorrow show on this face that wasn’t even his own—but he couldn’t even do that. He didn’t have wings. Just fangs. Just claws.
I could howl at the moons, he thought with a scrape of despair, and where his hope had been, in that space of new cold, he placed another that did little to warm it.
It had nothing to do with love; there was no use wasting hope on love. That was a matter of luck, and the only reason he’d ever had to call himself lucky was left to rot in a shallow grave in the human world. “Lucky Ziri”—what a joke.
His new hope was simply to be Kirin again, someday. To live through this—and not be found out, and not burned as a traitor for deceit, and not left to evanesce. He still counted it true, what he had told Karou just now: that it was worth it, his sacrifice, if it could help lead the chimaera toward a future free of the White Wolf’s savagery.
But beyond that, Ziri’s hope was modest. He wanted to fly again, and be rid of this hateful body with its mouthful of fangs, its jagged claws.
If anyone ever did love him, he thought bitterly, it might be nice to be able to touch her without drawing blood.
14 THE LONGEST FIVE MINUTES IN HISTORY
Liraz felt… guilty.
It was not her favorite feeling. Her favorite feeling was the absence of feeling; anything else led to turmoil. Right now, for example, she found herself angry at the source of her guilt, and, though aware that this was an improper emotional response, she could not seem to unfeel it. She was angry because she knew she was going to have to do something to… assuage the guilt.
It was the human with his damned imploring eyes and his shivering. What did he mean, asking her to keep him warm—and his girl—as if they were her responsibility? What were they even doing here, traveling with beasts? It wasn’t their world, and they weren’t her problem. This guilt was stupid enough, but oh, it got worse.
It got stupider.
Liraz was also angry at the chimaera, and not for the reason that would have made sense. They were not, for a miracle, aiming their hamsas at her. She hadn’t felt their magic drill its sick ache through her for the entire time that they’d been encamped here. And that was why she was angry. Because they weren’t giving her a reason to be angry.
Feelings. Were. Stupid.
Hurry up, Akiva, she thought to the night sky, as if her brother might rescue her from herself. Small chance of that. He was a wreck of feelings, and that was another reason for fury. Karou had done that to him. Liraz could imagine her fingers around the girl’s neck. No. She’d twist her ridiculous hair into a rope and strangle her with that.
Except, of course, that she wouldn’t.
She would give Akiva five more minutes to arrive, and if he still didn’t come, she would do it. Not strangle Karou. The other thing. The thing that she had to do to put a halt to this absurd spillage of feelings.
It was her third five minutes already. And each “five minutes” was probably more like fifteen.
Finally, heavily, Liraz started walking, inwardly cursing Akiva with every step. She’d given him the longest five minutes in history, and he still hadn’t arrived to put a stop to this. The camp was asleep, save for a griffon on guard duty, up on a pinnacle. He wouldn’t be able to tell what was happening from up there.
The Wolf had come down from prowling the ledge a half hour ago, and retreated to one of the fires—fortunately, one of the farther ones. His eyes were closed. Everyone’s were. As far as Liraz had been able to determine, no one was awake.
No one would even know what she’d done.
She was silent, prowling slowly. She arrived at the proper… beast huddle… and surveyed it with distaste for a moment before stepping near. The fire was a sad thing, producing almost no heat. There was the pair of humans, sleeping curled into each other like twins in a womb. Fetal, she thought. Pathetic. She stared at them for a long moment. They were shivering.
She looked around once, quickly.
Then she knelt beside them and opened her wings. It was within a seraph’s basic power to burn low or high; a simple thought, and the heat intensified. Within seconds, the warmth spread to the whole huddle, but it took a while, Liraz noted, for the shivering to taper off. She herself had never known cold. It gave every appearance of unpleasantness. Weak, she thought, still watching the human pair, but there was another word lurking, defying it. Fearless.
They slept with their faces touching.
She couldn’t wrap her mind around it. Liraz had never been that close to another living soul. Her mother? Maybe. She didn’t remember. She knew that something in the sight made her want to cry, and so, she thought, she should hate it, and them. But she didn’t, and she wondered why, watching them and keeping them warm, and it was a while before she lifted her eyes to look around the fire. She had wondered something else: whether Akiva and Karou had shared… this? This fearless nearness. But where was Karou? There was Issa, the Naja, resting peacefully, it seemed, but to Liraz’s deep dismay, she saw that Karou was not among these sleepers.
So where was she?
Her heart slammed, and she just knew. Godstars. How could I have been so careless? Suffused with dread—oh, and dread made her angry—Liraz tipped back her head and looked up, and there, of course, was Karou, right above her, perched on the rocky ledge—How long has she been there?—knees tucked up to her chest, arms wrapped around them tight. Awake? Oh yes. Cold, clearly. Watching.
At the moment that their eyes met, Karou cocked her head to one side, a sudden birdlike motion. She didn’t smile, but there was an open warmth in her look that seemed to reach out toward Liraz.
Who wanted to send it right back at her on the end of an arrow.
And then, simply, Karou tucked her face against her knees and settled in to sleep. Liraz didn’t know what to do with herself, caught in the act. Back away? Burn everyone?
Well, maybe not that.
In the end, she stayed where she was.
But by the time the chimaera host was awakened and Akiva’s return made known—with good news: the Misbegotten promise was given—Liraz was up, and no one knew what she’d done but Karou. Liraz thought of warning her not to tell anyone, but feared that caring that much about it just broached a whole new level of vulnerability and gave Karou even more power over her, so she didn’t. But she did glare at her.
“Thank you,” Akiva said quietly when they had a moment by themselves.
“For what?” Liraz demanded, squinting at him as if he might somehow know how she’d passed the last hours.
He shrugged. “For staying here. Keeping the peace. It couldn’t have been fun.”
“It wasn’t,” she said, “and don’t thank me. I might be the first one to draw my sword, once I have backup.”
Akiva wasn’t fooled. “Mm hmm,” he said, suppressing a smile. “Hamsas?”
“No,” she grudgingly admitted. “Not a touch.”
His brows went up in surprise. “Amazing.”
It was amazing. Liraz grimaced, remembering her absurd anger about it—what did they mean, leaving her in peace like that? It was odd, though. It was off. But saying so would just sound foolish, and maybe it was. Akiva looked hopeful. Liraz hadn’t seen him look like that… ever. It squeezed her heart—a bad and good feeling. How could a feeling be both bad and good? Akiva was happy; that was the good. Hazael should be here; that was the bad.
“Did you tell them?” she asked Akiva. “About Haz?” She was strumming at the bad ache in an effort to blot out the good.
Akiva nodded, and she saw with a mixture of guilt and petty triumph—but mostly guilt—that she’d blotted out his hopeful look, too, lacing it with pain. “Can you imagine how much easier this would all be, if he were here?”
Instead of me, thought Liraz, though she knew that wasn’t what Akiva meant. She meant it, though. Maybe she’d been acting on Hazael’s behalf in the night, sharing her fire, but it was feeble compared to what he would have brought to this bizarre communion of beasts and angels. Laughter and helpless grins, a swift breaking down of barriers. No one could hold out long against Haz. Her own gift, she thought with an inward shudder, was very different, and unwelcome in the future they were trying to build. All she was good at was killing.
For so long it had been a source of pride and boasting, and though the pride was gone, she would wear her boasts forever. Her sleeves were pushed all the way down, as they always were now, hiding the truth of her tally—the awful truth that it wasn’t just her hands that were marked. She might have shoved her hands in the chimaera’s faces back at the kasbah, but she hadn’t flaunted the full and terrible truth.
The campfire tattoos, the columns of five-counts—each one made up of four fine lines with a strike-through—were not confined to her hands. Up her arms they climbed, giving her flesh the look of black lace. No one else had a count like hers. No one.
It ended at the elbows, frittering away in one incomplete count: two fine lines that were the last two kills she’d had the stomach to record. Before Loramendi.
She’d been having a recurring dream since then, in which, possessed of the belief that they would grow back clean, she… cut her arms off.
Just how she accomplished this, the dream never made clear. Oh, the first arm was easy, sure. The second was the puzzle her mind skipped blithely over.
How, exactly, does one cut off both of her own arms?
The point was, they didn’t grow back. Or at least, she always woke up before they could. She would lie there blinking, and she could never get back to sleep until she imagined an ending, one in which the fountaining blood from her stumps arranged itself into growth—bone, flesh, fingers—solidifying until she was whole again. Whole, and also unmarked.
A clean start.
She’d never told anyone but Hazael, who had diverted her for a half hour after by trying to solve the puzzle of dual self-arm-severing, ending up sprawled on his back and declaring it impossible. She hadn’t told Akiva because, well, he wasn’t there. After Loramendi, he had left them, and even though he’d come back, he was in a world of his own. Take right now, for example. He was looking past Liraz, and she didn’t have to follow his gaze to know at whom. He was staring; she snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.
“A little subtlety, brother? The chimaera will take it out on her if they think there’s still something between you two. Haven’t you heard what they call her?”
“What?” He looked genuinely surprised. “No. What do they call her?”
She saw his eyes brighten, and rolled her own. “Don’t look happy. It doesn’t mean she loves you. It only means they don’t trust her.” She was scolding him as if she were the one who understood these things—or cared. What little Liraz knew of feelings was more than enough, thank you, but… well, she wasn’t going to go talking about it or anything, but there was something in the good half of this ache in her heart that made her want to curl her wings around it and guard it from the cold.
ARRIVAL + 18 HOURS
15 FAMILIAR TERROR
Eliza didn’t sleep the night of the Arrival. She could feel the dream perched on her shoulder, and knew what would happen if she did, but that wasn’t the primary reason. No one was sleeping. The world had been stirred by a hot poker, and sparks of crazy were flying. The news in the wake of the angel’s address was a horror show of riots and sectarian violence, Rapture cult vigils and mass baptisms, looting and suicide pacts and—oh hell—animal sacrifice. There were also, of course, the all-night Armageddon theme parties, the drunk frat boys in demon costumes pissing off rooftops, the women offering themselves up to have the angels’ babies.
Predictable human idiocy.
There were ecstasy and fury, and there were desperate pleas for reason, and there were fires, so many fires. Madness, thrill, gloating, panic, noise. The NMNH was on the National Mall, and right outside, thousands were passing by, marching on the White House, not so much united in a message to the president as just wanting to be part of something on this momentous night. What kind of something remained to be seen. Some carried votives, others megaphones; a few wore crowns of thorns and dragged enormous crosses, and more than a few guns were tucked into pockets or waistbands.
Eliza stayed in.
She didn’t go home, for fear that someone would be waiting for her there. If her family had her phone number, no doubt they also knew where she lived. And where she worked, too, but there was security at the museum. Security was good.
“I’m going to stay here,” she told Gabriel. “I have some work to catch up on.” It wasn’t entirely a lie. She had DNA to extract from a number of butterfly specimens on loan from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. The clock was ticking on her dissertation, but she didn’t imagine anyone would fault her for taking the day off, under the circumstances. She wondered if anyone in the world had gotten anything done today—besides Morgan Toth, anyway. He’d stalked off in disgust after the angel delivered his message, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the lab, as if he could prove, by contrast to his own calm, what fools the seven-odd-billion other humans on the planet were.
He’d finally left, though, to Eliza’s relief, and she had the lab to herself. She locked herself in, kicked off her shoes, and tried to focus her thoughts.
What did it mean? What did it all mean?
There was a thrum at the base of her skull that felt like caged panic and the onset of a headache. She popped some Tylenol and curled up on the sofa with her laptop to watch the speech again. Again, the angel made her skin crawl before he even opened his mouth and slurred out his wet words. Not that you could see his mouth when he did. Why the helmet? It was so odd. You could see most of his face, but that central piece cut it in half, and the effect was jarring—combined with the fact that his eyes weren’t exactly pools of warmth. They were startlingly blue, flat and cruel.
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.
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.
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 turns, 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.
And, still unfathoming, he felt another pulse slip loose from that same unfamiliar place within him.
It went out and was gone from him, whatever it was—what was it?—and it took sirithar with it, so that Akiva was thrust back into the ordinary flow of time—fast, dim, and loud. It was like passing from a mirror-smooth lake into rapids. He staggered a step, robbed of the brilliance that had seized him, and he could only watch, unbreathing, to see what his magic would wreak.
And to see if it would matter.
18 A CANDLE FLAME EXTINGUISHED BY A SCREAM
All those seraphim, hands to hilts, and chimaera in the coiled instant before the spring.
Thiago was on his knees in the gap between armies—he would be the first to die. Karou’s hands reached for her own blades, and within her was still the hollow scream of No! If there had been time to think in that second—that second that was as full of intent as any second had ever been, as full of the promise of blood—she would not have believed any power could stop it. Her hope had died with the angels’ first recoil.
Her hope had died. She thought. She wouldn’t have believed there could be a depth of despair beneath this one. But then it hit her.
Sudden and devastating. It dragged her under.
The certainty of ending. Seeing the angel blades ready to slide free and slash, hearing the snarl of chimaera ready to tear the future apart with their teeth, it was as if every shred of thought or feeling that had ever or would ever exist was stamped out and replaced by this… this… this bitter smear of pointlessness.
Dead end, it shrieked, and for what?
The despair was entire, complete as a possession, but fleeting. It released her, and was gone, but it left Karou gutted, guttered, feeling for all the world like…
… a candle flame extinguished by a scream.
And in the aftermath of its enormity she might have been nothing more than the curl of smoke left to drift and disperse at the end of all things—at the evanescence of the world itself.
Dead end, and for what?
Dead end. Dead end.
And her hands failed to finish what they had begun. She didn’t draw. She couldn’t. Her blades stayed slung at her hips as she dragged in a breath, almost surprised by the feeling—that there was life still in her, and air to breathe.
Another breath, another second.
She was in the air and she let herself drop, landing in a sagging crouch to fall to her knees, and her mind was still an echo of No! as she became aware that, around her… nothing was happening.
Nothing. Was happening.
Bunched beast muscles had fallen slack. Tally-blacked hands were frozen on sword pommels; seraph blades caught the light, many half-drawn, and halted there.
The two bloodthirsty armies had just… stopped.
The moment seemed very long. Karou, dulled by the immensity of her despair, scarcely knew what to make of it. She had felt the moment tilt and hurl them toward disaster. How was it that they had all simply stopped? Had she misread the tilt, the disaster? Had it all been posturing on both sides, just rattling of swords? Could it be as simple as that? No. No, she was missing something. Around her there was mute confusion, slow blinking, and drags of breath as hoarse as her own. She tried to shake off her fog.
And then she saw, in the no-man’s-land between facing armies, the White Wolf rise to his feet. All eyes fixed on him, hers, too, and the fog began to abate.
Could it be… had this somehow been his doing?
She rose. It was difficult to move. Her despair may have gone, but it had left its heaviness draped over her, thick and bleak. She saw that the Wolf’s knees were bloodied from the impact of his fall; Uthem lay dead, and the pool of his blood was spreading. Thiago had risen just as the blood overtook him, and it pooled now around his wolf feet, slicking their white fur and spreading onward, toward the first file of angels. Uthem was large; there was a lot of blood, and the Wolf made a dramatic picture standing in it, all in white but where his own blood blossomed at his knees and brow. And his palms.
His palms were bloody, and he held them pressed together. It looked like prayer, but it was clear what it meant. Instead of attack, he held his hamsas blind, ink eye to ink eye. He held his power in check, and himself. A soldier dead on the ground, and no reprisal from the vicious White Wolf? It was a powerful gesture, but Karou still didn’t understand. How had it halted three hundred Misbegotten in mid-draw?
Thiago spoke. “I pledge on the ashes of Loramendi that I and mine come to you for coalition, not for blood. This makes a bad beginning, and was no plan of mine. I will discover who among us has raised a hand against my express command. That soldier, whoever it may be, has broken my word.” This he spoke low in his throat, his voice rough-edged with disgust, and a shiver trilled down Karou’s spine.
Thiago turned, sweeping the gathering of his soldiers with a slit-eyed look. “That soldier,” he said, peering into the heart of his army, “courted the death of this entire company today, and will be disciplined.”
The promise was raw; they all knew what he meant by it. His gaze was deliberate and piercing, and lingered several times on particular soldiers, who withered beneath it.
He turned back to the Misbegotten. “There is reason to risk our lives, but we are no longer that reason to one another. A bad beginning may still be a beginning.” He was vehement. He sought Akiva then; Karou felt him waiting for the angel to step in and help him put the pieces of this truce back together. She waited, too, sure of him—Akiva had brought them here; he must have words to mend this moment—but the pause dragged out a brief, strained silence.
Something was wrong. Even Liraz was squinting at Akiva, waiting. Karou felt a stab of concern. He looked unsteady, even ill, his broad shoulders bowed by some strain. What was wrong with him? She’d seen him look like that before; she’d made him look like that, but this couldn’t be the effect of the hamsas, could it? Why should they hit him harder than the rest?
With evident effort, he said, finally, “Yes. A beginning,” but there was a hollowness to his voice, compared with the Wolf’s rich tone and strong words, even as he went on to say, “a very bad beginning. I regret this death, and… deeply I regret our readiness to cause it. I hope it can be put right.”
“It can and will,” replied the Wolf. “Karou? Please.”
A summons. Karou felt spotlighted; fear darted erratic in her veins, but she gathered her will and moved. All focus shifted to her as she threaded her way through the host, straight to Uthem’s side. She was standing in his blood. A nod from Thiago and she knelt, unslung the gleaning staff from across her back and lowered it into position, thurible swaying on its chain. A switch alongside the shaft activated a wheel lock similar to a friction-wheel mechanism in an antique pistol; it ignited the incense chamber in the thurible with a report like a snap of metallic fingers. An instant later, a sulfurous tang effused from it.
She felt Uthem’s soul respond. It felt like gray skies and signal fires, the breaking of waves. Impressions flickered and faded as his soul slipped into the thurible and was safe. A half turn to lock it, a flick to extinguish the incense fuse, and she rose from her kneel, taking care to keep her hamsas from flashing any magic at the angels.
All eyes were on her. She glanced to Thiago. They hadn’t talked about this, but it felt right. She said, “I have never resurrected a seraph, but as long as we are fighting on the same side, I will. If you wish it, though you may not. Think it over; it’s your choice. My offer, my promise. And something else.” One by one, she met the eyes of the rank of angels directly before her. “I might not look like it,” she said, “but I am Kirin, and this is my home. So please step aside and let us enter.”
And they did. They didn’t exactly leap to it, but they parted, clearing the way for her. She looked back, found Issa in the throng. Zuzana and Mik, wide-eyed. Akiva’s presence was like a flare in the periphery, calling to her, but she didn’t look to him. She stepped forward. Thiago fell in beside her. The host came behind them, and the Misbegotten let them pass. With blood on their boots, Karou and Thiago led their army inside.
“How did he do that?” Liraz breathed.
The question jolted Akiva, finally, out of his post-sirithar torpor. “How did who do what?”
“The Wolf.” She looked stunned. “I was sure we were done. I felt it. And then…” She shook her head as if to clear it. “How did he stop it?”
Akiva stared at her. She thought Thiago had stopped it?
He gave a hard laugh. What else could he do? He knew that a pulse had gone out from him—not explosive this time—and whatever it had carried with it, he had felt the soldiers’ collective intention sever. He had done it. He had stopped this slaughter from happening, and… no one had any idea, not even Liraz, and certainly not Karou.
While he had reeled in his magic’s blowback, barely able to string a coherent sentence together, the Wolf had risen to the occasion and claimed the moment, and managed to earn himself even Liraz’s awe? What then must Karou be feeling for him? Akiva watched her disappear down the passage at the head of her army, the White Wolf at her side—a striking pair they made—and all he could do was laugh. It ground like glass in his chest. Perfect, he thought. What a perfect backhand from… what? Fate, the godstars? Chance?
“What?” demanded Liraz. “Why are you laughing?”
“Because life’s a bastard,” was all Akiva could say.
“Well then,” was his sister’s flat reply. “I guess we fit right in.”
19 THE HUNT
Across Eretz, a pulse of magic surged. There was no Wind to presage it this time, no sound or stir, so nearly everyone who felt it—and everyone felt it—believed it theirs alone, their own despair. It was a wave of raw emotion so potent that, for an instant, it carved out every other feeling and took its place, in its brief passage colonizing every thinking creature—every feeling creature—with the absolute conviction of the end.
Its passage was swift and bleak; it raced across land and sky and sea, and no creature was immune to it, and no material nor mineral barrier to it.
Far faster than wings could have carried it there, it swept through Astrae, the capital of the Empire of Seraphim, and just as fast was gone again. In its silent aftermath, no citizen connected it with the shattering of their great Tower of Conquest.
But at the site of the Tower’s husk, inside the vast and twisted metal skeleton that was all that remained of it, there stood five angels who did. Seraphim they were, but not citizens of the Empire. They’d come from afar, hunting—hunting hunting hunting—and now, in unison, like compass needles spun by the same magnet, they turned south and east. This overwhelming despair was trespass and violation; they knew it was not their own, and each paused just long enough to sound the depths of its appalling power before thrusting it away. Another taste from the unknown magus who plucked at the strings of the world.
“Beast’s Bane,” they’d heard him called in the harsh rumor-whispers of this craven city. Murderer and traitor, chimaera-killer, bastard and father-slayer. He had done this.
Now, with eyes the color of fire, the five Stelians fixed on the distant Adelphas Mountains.
And Scarab, their queen, spread her wings and said, with perfect wrath, through sharpened teeth, “On with the hunt.”
In the Far Isles it was night, and the new bruise that blossomed in the sky would not be visible till dawn. It wasn’t like the others. Indeed, it soon engulfed the others—all of them lost in its dark sprawl. From horizon to horizon it spread, deeper than indigo, nearly as black as the night sky itself. It was more than color, this bruise. It was warp, it was suction. It was concavity and distortion. Eidolon of the dancing eyes had said the sky was tired, and ached. She had downplayed the matter.
The sky was failing. The stormhunters didn’t need to see it blacken. They felt it.
And started to scream.
21 NITID’S HANDS
The Kirin caves weren’t so much a village within a mountain as a series of them, connected by a network of passages radiating out from a massive communal space. A collaboration between nature, time, and hands, the space was raw and flowing, unplanned and improbable. A wonder. Overall, the impression was of a miraculous accident of geology, but in truth it was a miraculous accident of geology that had been shaped over hundreds of years by generations of Kirin adhering to a simple aesthetic: “Nitid’s hands.” They were the tools of the goddess, and their duty, as they saw it, was not to stand out or aggrandize themselves, but to copy—as it were—her style.
Scarcely a detail anywhere announced itself as “made.” There were no corners, and even the stairs could almost have been naturally occurring—asymmetrical and imprecise.
It was dark, but not perfectly. Light wells admitted sunshine and moonlight, amplified by hidden hematite mirrors and crystal lenses. And it was never silent. Intricate channels conducted the wind throughout, carrying fresh air and making an eerie, ever-present ambient sound that was part dark and stormy night and part whalesong.
Walking through, Karou experienced it all in a rush of old and new experience that was like the convergence of two swift rivers: Madrigal’s memory and Karou’s marvel, merging at every step. Entering the grand central cavern, she at once remembered it and was struck breathless by the sight of it, stopping dead to throw back her head and stare.
She remembered the swoop of Kirin wings overhead, the calls and laughter and music, the flurry of festivals and the ordinariness of everyday life. She had learned to fly in this cavern.
It was immense, several hundred feet in height, so vast that echoes got lost and only sometimes found their way back. Screens of stalagmites stood up from the floor in undulating walls—dozens of feet high, hundreds of thousands of years forming, but it would be millions before they ever joined with their counterparts high overhead. The walls were veined with ore, glinting with gold, and terraced in places into niches that reminded her of honeycomb, or the balconies in an opera house. This was where the seraph soldiers had made their camps, looking down on the central space where orderly fire rings showed signs of recent use.
“Wow,” she heard Zuzana murmur behind her, and when she turned to glance back, she glimpsed the Wolf’s face as he swallowed hard, struggling against overwhelming emotion. There was no one to see; all the host came behind them, so only Karou witnessed the look of yearning and loss that briefly overtook his features.
“Come on,” she said, and crossed the cavern.
Together, the chimaera and Misbegotten numbered somewhere near four hundred, which was probably more than the number of Kirin who had lived in this mountain in the tribe’s heyday, but there was room enough for all, and room enough to keep them separate. The seraphim could have the grand cavern; it was cold here. Her breath came out in clouds. Deeper down, the villages were warmed by geothermal heat. She made for a passage that would lead them to one. Not her own. She wanted to leave that one in peace, visit it alone, on her own time, if ever such a time came.
22 THE ABYSS’S MAD GAWK
“A whole chocolate cake, a bath, a bed. In that order.” Zuzana ticked off three wishes on her fingers.
Mik nodded in appreciation. “Not bad,” he said. “But no cake. I’ll have goulash from Poison Kitchen, with apple strudel and tea. Then, yes: a bath and a bed.”
“Nope. That’s five. You used up your wishes on food.”
“My whole meal is my first wish. Goulash, strudel, tea.”
“Doesn’t work that way. Wish fail. I win. You and your full belly will just have to watch while I take my magnificent hot bath and sleep in my wondrously soft warm bed.” Hot bath, soft bed—what a delirious fantasy. Zuzana’s aching muscles pleaded with her for mercy, but it was out of her power. They had no wishes; this was only a game.
Mik’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh. I have to watch you bathe, do I? Poor me.”
“Yes, poor you. Wouldn’t you rather bathe with me?”
“Indeed.” He was solemn. “Indeed I would. And the wish police will have a hard time keeping me out.”
“Wish police.” Zuzana snorted.
“Wish police?” said Karou from the doorway.
They were in a series of small caves that Zuzana understood had constituted a family dwelling in the days of the Kirin. With four rooms, shaped with the flow of the rock, it was kind of like an apartment inside a mountain. It had its amenities—some kind of natural heat, and even a rock closet with a sluice hole that strongly suggested a toilet (though Zuzana wanted confirmation of that before proceeding)—but there was no apparent bath, or beds. There were some piled furs in the corner, but they were gross and old, and Zuzana was pretty sure that a variety of otherworldly vermin were living out rich, multigenerational sagas in them.
There was a whole complex of dwellings like this arranged around a kind of village “square”—a much smaller version of the extraordinary cavern they’d passed through on the way here. The soldiers were getting settled, not that there was much to settle. Well, Aegir the smith had work to do, and Thiago had gone off with his lieutenants to do whatever it is war types do before an epic battle. Zuzana could wrap her mind around none of that, and didn’t want to. Not the truth about “Thiago,” and not the epic battle, either. If she tried, she started to shake and her mind switched channels on her, like it was flipping around looking for the kids’ programming or—ooh!—Food Network.
Speaking of food, while Mik was scouting out the best spot for “resurrection headquarters,” Zuzana had taken a few minutes to help the funny little furred chimaera women, Vovi and Awar, set up a temporary kitchen and organize the supplies they’d brought from Morocco. It didn’t do any harm to get in good with the food-providers, and she may have gotten a few dried apricots in the bargain.
A couple of months ago, if someone had told her she’d get excited about a few dried apricots, she’d have given them the eyebrow. Now she thought she could probably use them as currency, like cigarettes in prison.
“We’re playing Three Wishes,” she told her friend. “Cake, hot bath, soft bed. How about you?”
“World peace,” said Karou.
Zuzana rolled her eyes. “Yes, Saint Karou.”
“Cure for cancer,” Karou went on. “And unicorns for all.”
“Bluh. Nothing ruins Three Wishes like altruism. It has to be something for yourself, and if it doesn’t include food, it’s a lie.”
“I did include food. I said unicorns, didn’t I?”
“Mmm. You’re craving unicorn, are you?” Zuzana’s brow furrowed. “Wait. Do they have those here?”
“They did,” said Mik. “But Karou ate them all.”
“I am a voracious unicorn predator.”
“We’ll add that to your personals ad,” said Zuzana.
Karou’s eyebrows shot up. “My personals ad?”
“We might have been composing personals ads on the way here,” she allowed. “To pass the time.”
“Of course you were. So what was mine?”
“Well, we couldn’t write them down, obviously, but I think it was something like: Beautiful interspecies badass seeks, um… non–mortal enemy for uncomplicated courtship, long walks on the beach, and happily ever after?”
Karou didn’t respond right away, and Zuzana saw that Mik was giving her a disapproving look. What? she replied by way of eyebrow. She’d left out the “genocidal angels need not apply” part, hadn’t she? But then her friend dropped her face into her hands. Her shoulders started shaking, and Zuzana couldn’t tell if it was from laughter or sobs. It had to be laughter, didn’t it? “Karou?” she asked, worried.
Karou lifted her face back up, and there were no tears, but there wasn’t a whole lot of mirth, either. “Uncomplicated,” she said. “What’s that like?”
Zuzana glanced at Mik. This was what uncomplicated was like. It was wonderful. Karou didn’t miss the glance. She smiled at them, wistful. “Just know how lucky you are,” she said.
“I do,” said Mik.
“I definitely do,” agreed Zuzana, quickly, and with a little more gusto than was really her style. She still felt so… off. Oh, hungry, dirty, and tired, most definitely—hence her three wishes—but this went way beyond that. For a minute there, back in the entrance cavern, she’d felt like she was staring at the end of the freaking world.
What the hell was that?
When she was a kid, she’d had this favorite doll—well, it was a duck, actually—and she had apparently rendered it quite vile with the depredations of her toddler adoration, including, as her brother Tomáš liked to remind her, her habit of sucking on its eyes. She’d found it comforting, the hard clicky smoothness of them against her tiny teeth.
Less than comforting had been her parents’ campaign to persuade her that this could kill her. “You could choke, darling. You could stop breathing.”
But what did that really mean to a toddler? It was Tomáš who had driven the message home. By… choking her. Just a little. Brothers, so helpful in matters of death demonstration. “You could die,” he’d said cheerfully, his hands around her throat. “Like this.”
It had worked. She’d understood. Things can kill you. All kinds of things, like toys, or older brothers. And as she’d grown up, that list had just gotten longer and longer.
But she’d never felt it this powerfully before. What was that Nietzsche quote that Goth poet-types love so much? When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you? Well, the abyss had looked into her. No. It had gawked; it had glared. Zuzana was pretty sure it had left scorch marks on her soul, and it was hard to imagine ever feeling normal again.
But she wasn’t going to go complaining to Karou about every fear and freak-out. She had wanted to come here. Karou had warned her it would be dangerous—and okay, the warning in the abstract was a little bit like telling a toddler about choking, minus the demonstration… but she was here now, and she didn’t want to be the crybaby in this gang.
And as for lucky? “I’m lucky I’m even alive,” she announced. “When I was little, I sucked on duck eyeballs.”
Mik and Karou just looked at her, and Zuzana was glad to see Karou’s wistfulness give way to bemused concern. “That’s… interesting, Zuze,” she ventured.
“I know. And I don’t even try. Some people are just interesting. You, though, with your drab, ordinary life. You should get out more. Try new things.”
“Uh-huh,” said Karou, and Zuzana was rewarded with a glimpse of that elusive mirth. “You’re right. So dull. I’ll take up stamp collecting. That’s interesting, isn’t it?”
“No. Unless you’re pasting them onto your body and wearing them as clothes.”
“That sounds like someone’s semester project at school.”
“It totally does!” Zuzana agreed. “Helen would do it. But she’d make it a performance. Start out naked with a big bowl of stamps so people could lick them and paste them on her.”
Karou finally laughed outright, and Zuzana felt pride of accomplishment. Laugh achieved. Maybe she couldn’t make Karou’s life—or love—less complicated, and maybe she didn’t have any helpful hints when it came to, oh, angel invasions or dangerous deceptions or armies that clearly just wanted to start killing each other, but she could do this at least. She could make her friend laugh.
“So what now?” she asked. “The angels throw a magnificent banquet in our honor?”
Karou laughed again, but it was a dark sound. “Not exactly. Next is the war council.”
“War council,” repeated Mik, sounding a little dazed, as Zuzana most definitely felt. Dazed and far, far out of her depth. She imagined that every hair on her body was still standing on end from the weird, electric horror of the past hour. Seeing Uthem die? That was a first for her. She’d had to walk through his blood, and while that hadn’t seemed to fuss the soldiers (as cool as if they waded through blood every morning to get to breakfast), it had fussed her, though she’d barely had time to process it. She’d been so… spun by her own paralyzed terror, and what she was now thinking of as “the abyss’s mad gawk.”
Karou gave a hard exhale. “That is why we’re here.” On here, she made a quick scan of the room and added, “Strange as it is.”
And Zuzana felt even more out of her depth, trying to imagine what it meant to her friend, being back here. She couldn’t, of course. This was the site of a massacre. Maybe it was the echo of the abyss that brought it on, but she imagined walking up to her own family’s house and finding it deserted, the beds decayed and no one there to greet her—ever—and she sucked in a little breath.
“Are you all right?” Karou asked her.
“I’m fine. More to the point, are you all right?”
Karou nodded, smiled a little. “Yeah, I am, actually.” She raised her torch and looked around. “It’s weird. When I lived here, it was the world. I didn’t know that everyone didn’t live inside mountains.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” Zuzana said.
“It is. And you haven’t even seen the best part yet.” Karou looked sly.
“Ooh, what? Please tell me it’s a cave where cupcakes grow like mushrooms.”
Score another laugh for Zuzana.
“No,” said Karou. “And I don’t have any cake, either, and I’m afraid the bed situation can’t be helped, but…” She paused, waiting for Zuzana to figure it out.
Zuzana did. Could it be? “Don’t tease me.”
Karou’s smile was pure; she was happy to give happiness. “Come on. I think we can spare a few minutes.”
23 THE WHOLE POINT
The thermal pools were as Karou remembered, but also not at all as she remembered, because in her memories, there were Kirin here. Whole families, bathing together. Old women gossiping. Children splashing. She could feel her mother’s hands working selen root into a lather on her head, and she even remembered its herbal smell, mingling with the sulfur odor of the springs.
“It’s beautiful,” said Mik, and it was: the water a chalky pale green, the rocks like pastel drawings, rose and sea foam. It was intimate but not small, not one pool but a cluster of joined baths fed by a gentle cascade, and the ceiling seemed to ripple, ashimmer with growths of crystal and curtains of pale pink darkmoss, so named because it grew in the dark, not because it was.
“Look over here,” said Karou, and held out her torch, leading the way to the place where the cavern wall was pure, polished hematite. A mirror.
“Wow,” breathed Zuzana, and the three regarded their reflections, side by side. They looked bedraggled and reverent. The curved surface warped them, and Karou had to move around to gauge what of the distortion of her face was from the funhouse mirror effect, and what was left over from her beating. The attack seemed ages ago, but her body knew differently. It had been two days, and her face was not recovered. Her psyche wasn’t, either. In fact, the mirror distortion struck her as fitting: an outward manifestation of the inner warp she was trying to keep hidden.
They peeled off their clothes and slipped into the water, which was hot and very soft, so that within seconds of immersion, their limbs felt as smooth as doll porcelain, their hair like swansdown. Karou’s and Zuzana’s drifted like mermaid coils on the eddying surface.
Karou closed her eyes and sank beneath the surface, head and all, and let the moving water draw the tension out of her. If she were to play Three Wishes honestly, she might wish she could drift off as if this were Lethe, the river of oblivion, and take a nice long break from armies and doom. Instead, she washed and rinsed and climbed out. Mik politely faced away as she dressed in clean clothes. “Clean,” that is, if dipped in a Moroccan river and dried on a dusty rooftop counted as clean.
“You probably have an hour on the torch,” she told her friends, leaving them one and taking the other. “Can you find your way back?”
They said they could, so Karou left the pair to their perfect, uncomplicated enjoyment of each other, and tried not to be too jealous as her feet carried her back up toward the humming enmity of the armies.
“There you are.”
She’d rounded a bend, nearing the hivelike center of the village, and there was Thiago. Ziri. When they saw each other, a flash of feeling transfigured him. He hid it quickly, but she saw it, and knew it. It was love inseparable from sadness, and it made her heart ache for him. “I’m with you,” she had told him back at the kasbah, so he wouldn’t feel so alone in his stolen body. But he was alone. She wasn’t with him, even when she was. And he knew it.
She made herself smile. “I was just coming to find you.” That was true, in any case. “Has anything been decided?”
He sighed and shook his head. He was unkempt, something the Wolf never was, except perhaps immediately after battle. His hair was in disarray, his brow dark with dried blood from his crash landing, and his knees and hands, scraped and bloodied, looked like meat. He cast a glance around and beckoned Karou through a doorway.
Only for an instant did she stiffen and want to demur. He’s not the Wolf, she told herself, preceding him into the small chamber. It was dark, musty. Karou closed the door and made an arc with her sputtering torch to confirm that they were alone.
Alone. Was this what Ziri had hoped for, back in the night, just this small sad slice of time to let his Wolf posture fall slack? He sagged against a wall, plainly exhausted. He said, “Lisseth proposed we choose a scapegoat for a show execution.”
“What?” Karou cried. “That’s awful!”
“Which is why I said no, unless she wished to volunteer herself.”
“She declined.” He gave a wry, tired smile, then pitched his voice low. “They’re still waiting for this to make sense. For me to reveal the true plan, which must, of course, involve slaughter.”
“Do you think they suspect anything?” Karou asked, anxious, her voice a secret murmur like his. She wished she could speak to him in Czech as she could to Zuzana and Mik, and not have to worry about being overheard.
“Something, yes. But I don’t think they’re near the truth.”
“They better not get near it.”
“I’m acting like I have an endgame that I just haven’t shared with them, but I don’t know how long that will hold. I was never in his inner circle. What if he told them his plans, and this secrecy looks wrong to them? As for this problem…” He lifted his hands to his head and drew in a sharp breath at the contact of injury to injury. “What would the Wolf do? He would do nothing. He would give the seraphim no one, and stare them down for asking.”
“You’re right.” The image came to Karou easily, of the contempt the Wolf would hold in his eyes, facing his foes. “Of course, he really would be orchestrating a slaughter.”
“Yes. But this is our tactic, in all of this: to begin believably, where he would, but not follow where he would take it. I’m giving the angels no one, and no apology. It’s a chimaera matter, and that’s the end of it.”
“And if it happens again?” Karou asked.
“I’ll see that it doesn’t.” Simple, heavy, full of threat and regret.
Karou knew that Ziri wanted no such responsibility, but she remembered his words in the air—“We will fight for our world to the last echo of our souls”—and the way he’d stood between two blooded armies and held them apart, and she didn’t doubt that he could rise to any occasion. “Okay,” she said, and that was the end of it.
A silence unspooled between them, and with the matter decided, the quality of “alone” changed. They were two tired people standing in the flickering dark, a tangle of feelings and fears—love, trust, hesitation, sorrow.
“We should get back,” Karou said, though she wished she could give Ziri his peace for a while longer. “The seraphim will be waiting.”
He nodded, and followed her to the door. “Your hair is wet,” he said.
“There are baths,” she told him, opening the door, remembering that he wouldn’t know that.
“I can’t say that doesn’t sound good.” He indicated the blood-caked fur of his feet, his raw-meat hands. There was the wound where his head had smashed the cave floor, too. She stepped closer to him, reached up to touch it; he winced. A good goose egg had risen under the dark, crusted blood.
“Ouch,” she said. “Are you having any dizziness?”
“No. Just throbbing. It’s fine.” He was scrutinizing her face in return. “You’re looking a lot better.”
She touched her cheek, realizing the pain had gone. The swelling, too. She touched her torn earlobe and found that the flesh had knit itself together. What?
With a little gasp, she remembered. “The water,” she said. It came back to her like a dream fragment. “It has some healing properties.”
“Really?” Ziri looked down at his raw hands again. “Can you show me the way?”
“Um.” Karou paused awkwardly. “I would, but Zuzana and Mik are in there.” She blushed. It was possible that Zuzana and Mik were too tired to act like Zuzana and Mik, but with the restorative waters, it was likely that her friends would be making use of their hour of solitude, in, um, Zuzana-and-Mik fashion.
Ziri was not slow to take her meaning. He blushed, too, and the humanity that flooded his cold, perfect features was extraordinary. Ziri wore this body so much more beautifully than Thiago had.
“I’ll wait,” he said with a low, embarrassed laugh, avoiding Karou’s eyes, and she laughed, too.
And there they were, in the doorway, blushing, laughing their embarrassed laughs, and standing too close—her hand drawn back from his brow but her body still curved toward his—when someone came around the bend in the passage and stopped dead.
Dear gods and stardust, Karou wanted to yell. Are you kidding me?
Because of course, of course, it was Akiva. The wind music had drowned out his footsteps. He was not ten feet away, and as skilled as he was at concealing those flares of sudden feeling, he did not entirely succeed in concealing this one.
A jerk of disbelief in his halt, a creep of color across his cheeks. Even, Karou was sure, an unguarded intake of breath. On stoic Akiva, these small signs were equivalent to reeling from a slap.
Karou stepped away from the Wolf, but she couldn’t undo the picture they had made in that second. She’d felt her own flare of feeling at the sight of Akiva, but doubted that he could have detected it in her laughing, blushing face, and now, to make matters worse, there was the guilt of discovery, as if she had been caught in some betrayal.
Laughing and blushing with the White Wolf? As far as he knew, it was betrayal.
Akiva. The pull to fly to him was its own kind of gravity, but it was only her heart that moved. Her feet stayed rooted, heavy and guilty.
Akiva’s voice was cold and quick. “We’ve selected a representative council. You might do the same.” He paused, and on his face played the reverse process as that on the Wolf’s. As he stood looking at the pair of them, his humanity retreated, and he was as Karou had first seen him in Marrakesh: soul-dead. “We’re ready when you are.”
Whenever you’re done blushing by torchlight with the White Wolf.
And he turned on his heel and was gone before they could reply.
“Wait,” said Karou, but her voice came out weak, and if he heard her over the wind music, he didn’t turn back. We could tell him, she thought. We could have told him the truth. But the opportunity was lost, and it was as though he took the air with him. For a long second, she couldn’t breathe, and when she did, she tried her best to make it sound measured and normal.
“I’m sorry,” said Ziri.
“For what?” she asked with poor false lightness, as if he hadn’t seen and understood everything. But of course he had.
“I’m sorry that things can’t be different. For you.” For her and Akiva, Karou understood that he meant, and—dear Ziri—he was sincere. The Wolf’s face was vivid with his compassion.
“They can be,” she said, somewhat to her own surprise, and in place of her guilt and her quiet torment, she felt resolve. Brimstone had believed it, and so had Akiva, and… the fiercest happiness in her two lives had been when she had believed it. “Things can be different,” she told Ziri. And not just for her and Akiva. “For all of us,” she said, summoning a smile. “That’s the whole point.”
24 CUE APOCALYPSE
Several hours later, Karou had entirely forgotten what that smile felt like.
Things can be different, sure. But first, you have to kill a whole lot of angels and probably mess up human civilization forever. And oh, you may well lose anyway. You might all die. No big deal.
It wasn’t a surprise, exactly. It wasn’t as if anyone was calling this meeting a “peace council.”
It was one for the history books, no question about that. High in the Adelphas Mountains, which had ever stood as the main land bastion between the Empire and the free holdings, the representatives of two rebel armies faced one another. Seraphim and chimaera, Misbegotten and revenants, Beast’s Bane and the White Wolf, not enemies today but allies.
It was going about as well as could be expected.
“I am in favor of the clear course.” This was Elyon, the brother who had stepped into Hazael’s place by Akiva’s side. He and two others—Briathos and Orit—stood for the Misbegotten alongside Akiva and Liraz. With Thiago and Karou were Ten and Lisseth.
“And the clear course is?” inquired the Wolf.
Elyon said, as if it were evident, “We close the portals. Let the humans deal with Jael.”
This was not what Karou had been expecting. “No,” she blurted, though it wasn’t her place to respond.
Liraz objected at the same moment, and their words collided in the air. No. Positioned dead across the table from each other, they met eyes, Liraz’s narrow, Karou’s carefully neutral.
No, they would not close the portals between the worlds, trapping Jael and his thousand Dominion soldiers on the other side for humans to “deal” with. On this they might agree, though for different reasons.
“Jael will be dealt with by me,” said Liraz. She spoke quietly, tonelessly. It was unnerving, and had the effect of sounding incontrovertible, like a fact long established. “Whatever else happens, that much is certain.”
Liraz’s reason was vengeance, and Karou didn’t fault her for it. She had seen Hazael’s body, as she had seen Liraz grief-torn and bereft, and Akiva at her side, just as anguished. Even from within Karou’s own black well of grief that night, the sight had gutted her. She wanted Jael dead, too, but it wasn’t her only concern.
“We can’t put this on humans,” she said. “Jael is our problem.”
Elyon was ready with a response. “If what you tell us of humans and their weapons is true, it should be easy work for them.”
“It would be if they saw them as enemies,” she said. Jael’s “pageant” was a stroke of cunning. “They will worship us as gods,” Jael had told Akiva, and Karou didn’t doubt he was right. She said to Elyon, “Imagine your godstars unfasten themselves from the sky and come down to stand before you, living and breathing. How exactly would you ‘deal’ with them?”
“I imagine that I would give them whatever they asked for,” he replied, adding, with damnable, faultless logic, “which is why we must close the portals. Our first concern must be Eretz. We have enough to deal with here without picking a fight in a world not our own.”
Karou shook her head, but his words had knocked hers askew, and for a moment she could find none. He was right. It was imperative that Jael not succeed in bringing human weapons into Eretz, and the simplest way to stop him would be to close the portals.
But it was unacceptable. Karou couldn’t simply dust humanity off her hands and turn her back on an entire world, especially considering that Jael’s pageant traced directly back to her. She had brought the abomination Razgut to Eretz and turned him loose with such dangerous knowledge as he possessed—of warcraft, religion, geography—and he had gifted it to Jael. She had brought this down on the human world as surely as if she’d match-made that pair of foul angels herself.
In the second that she searched for words, she scanned for support around the stone table and met Akiva’s gaze. It was like a kick to her heartbeat, that burning stare. He was blank; whatever he was feeling toward her—disgust? disappointment? bone-deep, baffled hurt?—it was hidden.
“Shutting a door is one way of solving a problem,” he said. He stared straight at Thiago. “But not a very good way. Our enemies do not always stay where we put them, and tend to come back on us unlooked for, and all the more deadly for it.”
There was no doubt that he was referring to his own escape and its consequences. The Wolf didn’t miss his meaning. “Indeed,” he said. “Let the past be our teacher. Killing is the only finality.” A glance at Karou, and he added with a very small smile, “And sometimes, not even that.”
It took the rest of them a second to realize that Beast’s Bane and the Wolf were in agreement, icy agreement though it was.
“It would be too uncertain,” Liraz said to Elyon. “And too unsatisfying.” They were simple words, and chilling. She had an uncle to kill, and she planned to enjoy it.
“Then what do you propose?” asked Elyon.
“We do what we do,” said Liraz. “We fight. Akiva destroys Jael’s portal so he can’t summon reinforcements. We take the thousand out there, and then we come home by the other portal, close it behind us, and deal with the rest of them here in Eretz.”
Elyon chewed on this. “Setting aside for the moment ‘the rest of them,’ and the impossible odds there, the thousand in the human world makes nearly three to one, their favor.”
“Three Dominion to one Misbegotten?” Liraz’s smile was like the love child of a shark and a scimitar. “I’ll take those odds. And don’t forget, we have something they don’t.”
“Which is?” inquired Elyon.
With a glance first to Akiva, Liraz turned to regard the chimaera. She didn’t speak; her look was resentful and reluctant, but its aim was clear: We have beasts, she might have said, her lip a subtle curl.
“No,” said Elyon at once. He looked to Briathos and Orit for support. “We’ve agreed not to kill them, that’s all, though we would have been within our rights to do it after they broke the truce—”
“We broke the truce, did we?” This from Ten. Haxaya, rather, who seemed to be enjoying the deceit, in a way only she could. Karou knew her true face. She’d been a friend, long ago, and her aspect wasn’t lupine, but vulpine, not so different than this, really—only sharper and more feral. Haxaya had claimed once that she was just a set of teeth with a body behind it, and the way she smiled Ten’s wolf jaws was like a taunt. I might eat you, she seemed to be thinking, most of the time, including now. “Then why is it our blood that stains the cavern floor?” she demanded.
“Because we’re quicker than you,” said Orit, all disdain. “As if you needed further proof of it.”
And with that, Ten was ready to launch herself over the table at her, teeth first and truce be damned. “Your archers are the ones who should answer for this, not us.”
“That was defense. The instant you showed hamsas, we were free of our promise.”
Really? Karou wanted to scream. Had they learned nothing? They were like children. Really freaking deadly children.
“Enough.” It wasn’t a scream, and it wasn’t Karou. Thiago’s snarl was ice and command, and it tore between the facing soldiers and set both sides rocking back on their heels. Ten dipped her head to her general.
Orit glared. She wasn’t beautiful like Liraz, like so many of the angels. Her features were ill-defined, her face full, and her nose had been broken some long time ago, smashed flat at the bridge by blunt force. “You decide what’s enough?” she asked Thiago. “I don’t think so.” She turned to her kin. “I thought we were in agreement that we wouldn’t proceed unless they proved their good faith. I don’t see good faith. I see beasts laughing in our faces.”
“No,” said Thiago. “You don’t.”
“Pray you never do,” added Lisseth helpfully.
Thiago continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “I said I would discipline any soldier or soldiers who defied my command, and I will. It’s not to appease you, and you won’t be audience to it.”
“Then how will we know?” demanded Orit.
“You’ll know,” was the Wolf’s reply, as heavy with threat as his earlier pronouncement to Karou, but without the tint of regret.
Elyon was not satisfied. To the others, he said, “We can’t trust them at our sides in battle. We can fight Jael without mixing battalions. They follow their command, and we our own. We keep apart.”
It was Liraz who, with a considering look at the chimaera, said, “Even one pair of hamsas in a battalion could weaken the Dominion and give us an edge.”
“Or weaken us,” argued Orit. “And blunt our edge.”
Karou had glanced at Akiva, and so she saw a spark light his eyes—the vividness of a sudden idea—and when he spoke up, cutting in abruptly, she expected him to give voice to it, whatever it was. But he said only, “Liraz is right, but so is Orit. It may be early yet to speak of mixing battalions. We’ll leave that question for now,” and as the talk moved deeper into the attack plan, Karou was left wondering: What was that spark? What was the idea?
She kept looking at him and wondering, and she had to admit she hoped it might be some way out of all this, because it was becoming clearer to her with every passing moment that, in one thing at least, the seraphim and chimaera were united. It was in their mutual unconcern, in the midst of their plotting, for the effect this attack would have on humans.
Karou tried to give voice to it as the war council wound on, but she couldn’t make her concerns register. Liraz, it seemed to her, pointedly talked over her each time, and if their interests had earlier met in that one loud no, they had now diverged radically. Liraz wanted Jael’s blood. She didn’t care who it spattered.
“Listen,” Karou said, urgent, when she sensed that their accord was becoming a settled thing. And it was a miracle that this council could find accord, but it felt like a bad miracle. “The instant we attack, we become part of Jael’s pageant. Angels in white attacked by angels in black? Never mind what humans will make of chimaera. They have a story for this, too, and in their story, the devil is an angel—”
“We don’t have to care what humans think of us,” said Liraz. “This is no pageant. It’s an ambush. We get in and we get out. Fast. If they try to help him, they become our enemy, too.” Her hands were flat on the stone of the table; she was ready to push off and launch herself right this instant. Oh, she was ready for a bloodbath.
“This prospective enemy that you appear to be taking lightly,” said Karou, “has.…” She wanted to say that they had assault rifles and rocket launchers and military aircraft. Small detail that the languages of Eretz couldn’t begin to communicate these things. “Weapons of mass destruction,” she said instead. That translated just fine.
“So do we,” replied Liraz. “We have fire.” Her tone was so cold that Karou stopped short.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked, her voice pitching high in her anger. She knew all too well what Liraz meant, and it stunned her. She had stood in the ashes of Loramendi. She knew what seraph fire could do. Could this be the same Liraz who had used her heat to warm Zuzana and Mik in their sleep, threatening to use it to burn a world?
Akiva stepped in. “It won’t come to that. They are not our enemy. Our directive must be to cause as little collateral damage as possible. If humans become Jael’s puppets, they do so in ignorance.”
It was cold comfort. As little collateral damage as possible. Karou fought to keep her face blank as her mind rebelled. Literally or not, the human world was dry kindling to a flame like this. Apocalypse, she thought. This was something special even for her résumé of disaster, which had grown pretty fantastical over the past few months. It’s a good thing there are only two worlds for me to worry about destroying, she thought. Except that, oh hell, there probably were more. Why not? One world, and you can call it a fluke—an excellent accident of stardust. But if there were two worlds, what chance that there were only two?
Step right up, worlds, thought Karou, get your disaster here! She cast again around the table, but she was surrounded by warriors in the midst of a war council, and everything that had been decided here could be filed under “Of course, idiot. What did you think was going to happen?” Still, she tried. She said, “There is no acceptable level of collateral damage.”
She thought she saw a softening in Akiva’s eyes, but it was not his voice that answered her. It was Lisseth’s, just behind her. “So worried,” she said in a nasty hiss. “Are you chimaera, or are you human?”
Lisseth. Or, as Karou now liked to think of her: future enjoyer of cud. It took every ounce of her self-restraint not to turn, look the Naja in the face, and say, “Moo.” Instead she replied in a fact-stating tone, and with only the merest hint of condescension, “I am a chimaera in a human body, Lisseth. I thought you understood that by now.”
“She understands perfectly. Don’t you, soldier?” This was Thiago, half-turned to look at the Naja with warning in his eyes. She would get a dressing-down later, Karou thought. The Wolf could not have been clearer, before this council, that they were to present a united front, no matter what. It struck her as telling that Lisseth couldn’t manage to follow that order.
“Yes, sir,” Lisseth said, managing a reasonably deferential tone.
“And humans aside,” Karou continued, “what about us? How many of us will die?”
“As many as necessary,” responded Liraz from across the table, and Karou wanted to shake the gorgeous ice queen angel of death.
“What if none of it is necessary?” she demanded. “What if there’s another way?”
“Certainly,” said Liraz, sounding bored. “Why don’t we just go and ask Jael to leave? I’m sure if we say please—”
“That’s not what I meant,” Karou snapped.
“Then what? Do you have another idea?”
And, of course, Karou didn’t. Her grudging admission—“Not yet.”—was bitter.
“If you think of any, I’m sure you’ll let us know.”
Oh, the slice of her gaze, that sardonic, dismissive tone. Karou felt the angel’s hatred like a slap. Did she deserve it? She darted a glance at Akiva, but he wasn’t looking at her.
“We’re through here,” announced Thiago. “My soldiers need rest and food, and we have resurrections to perform.”
“We fly at dawn,” said Liraz.
No one objected.
And that was it.
Thought Karou as the council broke up: Cue apocalypse.
Or… maybe not. Watching Akiva walk out without so much as a glance her way, she still had no idea what spark had leapt in his eyes, but she wasn’t going to rely on him or anyone else to stand up for the human world. For her own part, she wasn’t giving in to carnage this easily. She still had some time.
Not much, but some. Which should be fine, right? All she had to do was come up with a plan to avert the apocalypse and somehow convince these grim and hardened soldiers to adopt it. In… approximately twelve hours. While deep in a trance, performing as many resurrections as she could.
No big deal.
ARRIVAL + 24 HOURS
25 YOU, PLURAL
From the council, Akiva retreated to the room he had claimed for himself and closed the door.
Liraz paused outside it and listened. She raised her hand to knock, but let it fall back to her side. For almost a minute she stood there, her expression flickering between longing and anger. Longing for a time when she had stood between her brothers. Anger for their absence, and for her need.
She felt… exposed.
Hazael on one side, Akiva on the other; they had always been her barriers. In battle, of course. They had trained together from the age of five. At their best, they’d fought like a single body with six arms, a mind shared, and no one’s back ever open to an enemy. But it wasn’t only in battle, she knew now, that she’d used them for shelter like walls to stand between. It was in moments like this, too. With Hazael gone and Akiva in a world of his own, she felt the wind from all sides, as if it could buffet her apart.
She wouldn’t ask for company. She shouldn’t have to ask, and it hurt her that Akiva clearly didn’t need what she needed. To shut himself away with his own grief and misery, and leave her out here?
She didn’t knock on his door, but squared her shoulders and walked on. She didn’t know where she was going, and she didn’t particularly care. It was all filler, anyway—every second up until the one when she held her sword to her uncle’s heart and slowly, slowly pushed it in.
Nothing would stop that from happening, not humans and their weapons, not Karou’s frantic concerns, not pleas for peace.
Akiva wasn’t grieving. The images that haunted him—his brother’s body, Karou laughing with the Wolf—had been locked away. His eyes were closed, his face as smooth as dreamless sleep, but he wasn’t sleeping. Nor was he exactly awake. He was in a place he had found years earlier, after Bullfinch, while he recovered from the injury that should have killed him. Though he hadn’t died, and had even recovered full use of his arm, the wound to his shoulder had never stopped hurting, not for a second, and this was where he was now.
He was inside the pain, in the place where he worked magic.
Not sirithar. That was something else entirely. Any magic that he had made on purpose, he had made—or perhaps found—here. In the beginning it had felt like passing through a trapdoor down into dark levels of his own mind, but as time went on, as he grew stronger and pushed deeper, the sense of space was ever-expanding, and he began to awaken afterward vague and off-balance, as though he had come back from somewhere very far away.
Did he make magic or did he find it? Was he within himself or without? He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything. With no training, Akiva went on instinct and hope, and tonight, minute by minute he questioned both.
In the middle of the war council, the idea had come to him in a sudden flare that felt like revelation. It was the hamsas.
He wasn’t delusional about the likelihood of the two armies achieving accord anytime soon. He’d known this would be fraught, but he also knew that the best use of their collective strength was in a true alliance, not just a détente. Integration. However they hit the Dominion—in mixed battalions or segregated—they would be outnumbered. But Liraz had been right: Hamsas in every unit would weaken the enemy and help balance the scales. It could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
But he couldn’t very well expect his brothers and sisters to trust the chimaera, especially considering their poor beginning. The hamsas were a weapon against which they had no defense.
But what if they did have a defense?
This was Akiva’s idea. What if he could work a counterspell to protect the Misbegotten from the marks? He didn’t know if he could—or even if he should. If he succeeded, would it cause more strife than it resolved? The chimaera wouldn’t be pleased to lose their advantage.
Here’s where Akiva lost perspective. How could you tell if your instincts were just hope in disguise, and if your hope was really desperation parading as possibility? Because if he succeeded, along with the chance for a true alliance between their armies came another, more personal one.
Karou would be able to touch him. Her hands, full against his flesh, without agony. He didn’t know if she wanted to touch him, or ever would again, but the chance would be there, just in case.
Seraphim and chimaera had both posted guards at the mouth of the passage that joined the village and the grand cavern, with the intention of keeping the soldiers apart. There was a sense of lurking and skulking, the possibility of enemies around every corner. It was impossible to relax. Most on both sides felt trapped by the rough ceilings and windowless walls of this place, the skylessness, the impossibility of escape—especially for the chimaera, knowing that the Misbegotten were encamped between themselves and the exit.
They rested and ate and salvaged what weapons they could from Kirin arsenals long ago looted by slavers. Aegir melted down pots and tools to make blades, and his hammering joined the noises of the mountain. Some soldiers were put to work refletching old arrows, but there wasn’t activity to occupy the bulk of the host, and their idleness was dangerous. No open aggression flared, but the angels, angry that no beast had been punished for oath-breaking, claimed they felt the sickness of hamsas pulsing through the walls at them.
The chimaera, however mindful of their general’s clear commands, may have found more occasions than necessary to wearily lean, palms pressed to rock in support of their weight. That the magic of the hamsas passed through stone was unlikely, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. “The black-handed butchers,” they called the Misbegotten, and spoke in murmurs of hacking off their marked hands and burning them.
And then, atop the general confusion and compounding it, was the despair that had carved each of them hollow, and which still echoed in them like a fading drumbeat, beast and angel alike. None spoke of it, each holding it a private weakness. These soldiers may never have felt despair as profound as the one that had passed through them earlier, but they had certainly felt despair.
Like fear, it was always, always suffered in silence.
“Well?” asked Issa when Karou returned, alone, to the village. She’d lagged behind Thiago, Ten, and Lisseth, having had quite her fill of their company, and Issa had come up to meet her at the turning of the path. “How did it go?”
“About how you’d expect,” Karou replied. “Bloodlust and bravado.”
“From everyone?” Issa probed.
“Pretty much.” She avoided Issa’s eyes. It wasn’t true. Neither Akiva nor Thiago had displayed either of those things, but the result was the same as if they had. She rubbed her eyes. God, she was tired. “Brace for a full onslaught.”
“It’s to be attack, then? Well. We’d better get to work.”
Karou let out a hard breath. They had until dawn. How many resurrections could they possibly perform by then? “What good is a handful more soldiers in the face of a fight like this?”
“We do what we can,” said Issa.
“And this is all we can do? Because warriors make our plans.”
Issa was silent a moment. They were still at the outskirts of the village, at a hairpin turn in the rock passage around the other side of which the dwellings began, the path continuing down toward the “square.” “And if an artist were to make our plans?” asked Issa gently.
Karou clenched her teeth. She knew she’d given the war council no alternative to consider. She remembered Liraz’s mockery: “Why don’t we just go and ask Jael to leave?” If only. And the angels all went quietly home and no one died. The end.
Fat chance of that.
“I don’t know,” she admitted bitterly to Issa, starting down the path with heavy steps. “Do you remember that drawing I did once, for an assignment? I had to illustrate the concept of war?”
Issa nodded. “I remember it well. We talked about it long after you had gone.”
Karou had drawn two monstrous men facing each other across a table, and in front of each was an enormous bowl of… people. Writhing tiny limbs, wretched tiny grimaces. And the men were digging in with forks—each into the other’s bowl—frenzied with hunger, pitching bite after bite of people into their gaping mouths.
“The idea was that whoever emptied the other’s bowl first won the war. And I drew that before I even knew about Eretz, the war here, or Brimstone’s part in it.”
“Your soul knew,” said Issa. “Even if your mind didn’t.”
“Maybe,” Karou allowed. “I kept thinking about that drawing in the war council, and our part in all of this. We cheat the bowl. We keep filling it back up, and the monsters keep stabbing their giant forks in, and because of us, there’s always more for them to eat. We never lose but we never win, either. We just keep on dying. Is that what we do?”
“It’s what we did,” corrected Issa, placing her cool hand on Karou’s arm. “Sweet girl,” she said. She was so lovely, her face as sweet as a Renaissance Madonna’s. “You know that Brimstone had greater hopes of you.”
In the chimaera tongue, the pronoun you has a singular form and a plural, and here, Issa used the plural. Brimstone had greater hopes of you, plural.
You and Akiva. Karou remembered Brimstone telling her—Madrigal-her, in her prison cell, just before her execution—that the only way he could keep on doing what he did century after century was by believing that he was keeping the chimaera alive.… “Until the world can be remade,” Karou said softly, echoing what he had told her then.
“He couldn’t do it,” said Issa, just as softly. “And the Warlord couldn’t. Certainly Thiago never could. But you might.” Again, you plural.
“I don’t know how to get there,” she told Issa, like the sharing of a terrible secret. “We’re here, chimaera and seraphim, together but not really. Everyone still wants to kill each other and probably will. It’s not exactly a new world.”
“Listen to your instincts, sweet girl.”
Karou laughed, slappy with fatigue. “What if my instincts are telling me to go to sleep, and wake up when it’s all done? Worlds fixed, portals closed, everyone on their proper side, Jael defeated, and no more war.”
Issa only smiled and said, “You wouldn’t want to sleep through this, love. These are extraordinary times.” Her smile was beatific until it turned mischievous. “Or they will be, once you figure out how to make them so.”
Karou smacked her lightly on the shoulder. “Great. Thanks. No pressure.”
Issa pulled her in for a hug, and it felt like a thousand past Issa hugs that had always had the power to infuse her with strength—the strength of the belief of others. She had Brimstone’s belief in her, too.
Did she still have Akiva’s?
Karou straightened back up. They were almost back to “resurrection headquarters,” the chambers Zuzana and Mik had chosen. She saw the green flicker of skohl torches through the open door. From farther down the path came the sounds of the host and the waft of cooking smells. Earth vegetables, couscous, flat bread, the last of their skinny Moroccan chickens. It smelled good, and Karou didn’t think it was just because she was starving. It gave her a thought.
Listen to your instincts? How about to her stomach instead? It wasn’t a plan or a solution; just a small idea. A baby step. “Tell Zuze and Mik I’ll be right there,” she told Issa, and went in search of the Wolf.
26 BLEED AND BLOOM
At around seven AM, more than twenty-four hours after waking up screaming, Eliza gave in to exhaustion and was plunged straight into the dream.
It began, as it always did, with the sky. A sky, anyway. To look at, it was simply a blue expanse, a speckling of clouds, nothing special. But in the dream, Eliza knew things. Felt them and knew them in the way of dreams, without consideration or doubt. This wasn’t fantasy or figment, not while she was in it. It was like wandering past the cordon of her known mind into some place deeper and stranger but no less real.
And the first thing Eliza knew was that this sky was special, and that it was very, very far away. Not Tahiti-far. Not China-far. A kind of far that defied what she knew of the universe.
She was watching it, breath held, waiting for something to happen.
Hoping it wouldn’t.
Dreading it would.
Like remorse, the words hope and dread were wholly inadequate to describe the intensity of the feelings in the dream. Ordinary hope and dread were like avatars to these—mere digestible representations of emotions so pure and terrible they would annihilate us in real life, rip open our minds and drive us mad. Even in the dream it felt like it would blast Eliza apart—the savage, unbearable pressure of this suspense.
Watch the sky.
Will it happen?
It can’t. It mustn’t.
It mustn’t it mustn’t it mustn’t.
A choking sob built in her throat. A prayer cut through her hope-despair, plangent as a pull from a violin, a single word drawn out—please—so long and pure it would go on until the end of time—
—which might not be long at all.
Because the world was about to end.
Over and over again, prey to the dream, Eliza had been forced to watch it happen. The first time, she was seven, and she’d dreamt it countless times since, and no matter that she knew what was coming, she was plunged every time into the moment of horror when hope was still just within grasp—
—and then snatched away.
A blossoming in the blue. It started small: barely visible, a disruption in the sky, like a water droplet in an ink wash. It grew quickly and was joined by others.
The sky, it bled and bloomed. Pinwheels of color radiated out and out, horizon to horizon, joining and blending and merging like a kaleidoscope of stains. The sky… failed. It was beautiful to behold, and it was terrible. Terrible and terrible and terrible forever, amen.
This was how the world would end. Because of me. Because of me. Nothing worse has ever been done. In all of time, in all of space. I don’t deserve to live—
The sky would fail, and let them in. Them. Chasing, churning, devouring.
The Beasts are coming for you.
Eliza fled from them, in the dream. She wheeled and fled, and her panic and guilt were as ravenous as the horror that was coming behind her. Somehow, it was her fault. She would do it. She would be the one to let them in.
Never. I will never—
“What the hell? Did you sleep here?”
Eliza gasped awake and there was Morgan before her, framed in the doorway, his hair a freshly shampooed flop down over his forehead, boy-band style. His pouty mouth was twisted with distaste. Dear god, only the dream could make Morgan Toth and his sneer seem benign by contrast. The way he was looking at her, you’d think he’d caught her in the middle of some lewd act, rather than dozing on a couch, fully dressed.
Eliza sat up straight. Her laptop screen had gone dark. How long had she been out? She clicked it closed, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and was glad to find it droolless.
No drool and no screaming, but there was a pressure on her chest that she understood was a scream in the making. It would have burst out right here in the lab if Morgan hadn’t woken her, bless his horrid little self.
“What time is it?” she asked, standing up.
“I’m not your alarm clock,” he said, moving past her toward his preferred sequencer. There were two hulking DNA sequencers in the lab and Eliza had never been able to determine a difference between them, but she knew of Morgan’s preference for the one on the left and so, whenever possible, she tried to arrive first and claim it before he could. Of such petty victories is a day made sweet. Not today, though.
Given that it began with the dream and continued with exhaustion, that the world was falling apart, that her family had tracked her down and were out there, somewhere, and that she was stuck in yesterday’s clothes, Eliza didn’t imagine the day held much in the way of sweetness.
She was wrong; it did. But it held a lot of other things, too, and was soon to veer wildly from any possible expectation she might have had of it.
It began a couple of hours later with a knock that made Eliza look up from her work. She’d been having a hard time concentrating anyway, data swimming before her eyes, and she was glad of the distraction. Dr. Chaudhary answered the door. He’d come in not long after Morgan and had kept his commentary on world events brief. “Strange days,” he’d said with a lift of his eyebrows before heading into his office. No chatterbox, Anuj Chaudhary. A tall Indian man in his fifties with a prominent hooked nose and thick hair turning silver at the temples, he had a genteel English accent and the manners of a Victorian gentleman.
“May I help you?” he asked the two men at the door.
One look at them, and Eliza felt transported into a TV show. Dark suits, regulation haircuts, bland features made even blander by a schooled lack of expression. Government agents. “Dr. Anuj Chaudhary?” asked the taller of the two, flipping out a badge. Dr. Chaudhary nodded. “We’d like you to come with us.”
“Just now?” Dr. Chaudhary asked, as calmly as if a colleague had popped in with an offer of tea.
No explanation, and not a single extraneous word to soften the edges of their demand. Eliza wondered if government agents took a course in being cryptic. What was this about? Was Dr. Chaudhary in some kind of trouble? No. Of course not. When government agents came into laboratories and said, “We’d like you to come with us,” it was because they needed the scientist’s expertise.
And Dr. Chaudhary’s expertise was molecular phylogenetics. So the question was… what DNA did they want analyzed?
Eliza turned to Morgan and found him watching the exchange with creepy, blazing avidity. Alien invasion protocol, thought Eliza. As soon as he felt her eyes on him, he turned with a smirk and said, “Maybe I’m not the only non-idiot on the planet after all,” in a way that clearly singled her out as chief among idiots.
Which only made it incredibly sweet—here it was, her one taste of sweetness in a dark day soon to get much darker—when Dr. Chaudhary asked the agents, “May I bring an assistant?” and, getting a terse nod, turned… to her.
To her. Preciously, gloatingly sweet, almost too good to be true. “Eliza, if you wouldn’t mind accompanying me?”
From the sound Morgan made, Eliza could almost have believed that the air was expelled from his lungs by way of every orifice in his head, and not just his mouth and nose. His ears and eyes had to be in on it, too, cartoon-style. It was that fully committal, a scathing hiss of disbelief, injustice, scorn.
“But Dr. Chaudhary—” he began, but Dr. Chaudhary dismissed him, brusque and businesslike.
“Not now, Mr. Toth.”
And Eliza, sliding off her stool, paused just long enough to say, under her breath, “Suck it, Mr. Toth.”
“That’s what I should say to you,” he replied, acid and furious, sliding a narrowed-eyed glance of insinuation toward Dr. Chaudhary. Eliza froze, experiencing the weird sensation of her palm going white-hot and rigid with the urgency to slap him across the face. Mindful of the agents and her mentor watching, she mastered the urge, but her hand felt heavy with the unspent slap.
Well, it was some consolation to be the one gathering equipment at Dr. Chaudhary’s behest, and then the one following the agents out the door, leaving Morgan to expend his violent little-boy outrage alone.
There was a car waiting. Sleek, black, government. Eliza wondered what agency the men were with. She hadn’t been able to read their badges. FBI? CIA? NSA? Who had jurisdiction over… angels?
Dr. Chaudhary motioned Eliza into the car first, then slid in beside her. The door clicked closed, the agents climbed in front, and the car drew out into traffic. As the distance grew between herself and the museum, Eliza’s triumph faded, and worry began to overwhelm it. Wait, she thought, let’s think this through.
“Um, excuse me. Where are we going?” she asked.
“You’ll be briefed on arrival,” was the response from the front seat.
It had to be Rome.
Eliza flicked a glance to Dr. Chaudhary, who gave a minor shrug and lift of eyebrows. “This should be illuminating,” he said.
Illuminating? Would it be? Were they really going to get access to the Visitors?
She had a brief image of herself stepping up to do a cheek swab on one of them, and she felt the tug of hysteria. Who would have guessed, after all that she’d turned her back on, that science would be bringing her face-to-face with angels? She had to swallow a laugh. Hey, Ma, look at me! God. It was only funny because it was so preposterous. She had chosen her own path, as different from her past as it could possibly be, and where did it lead her?
One of the biggest events in the history of humanity, and she would be there… sticking a Q-tip in an angel’s mouth? Open up. Another burble of hysteria, choked down and covered up with a throat-clearing. Eliza was going to analyze angel DNA. If they had DNA. And they would, she thought. They had physical bodies; they had to be made up of something. But what would it look like? What resemblance would it bear to human DNA? She couldn’t begin to imagine, but she believed that it was how this mystery would be solved. At the molecular level.
She would know what they were.
In the spinning of her mind, her exhaustion and anxiety and the weight of the dream still perched on her shoulder—like a carrion bird, biding its time—her thoughts kept flipping around to face her. It was like chasing someone, all out, and then just at the moment you reach out to catch them, they whirl on you, savage, and grab you by the throat.
She would find out what the angels were. That was Eliza in control of her thoughts. She would find out, the way she was trained to find out. Nucleotides in sequence, and the world and the universe and the future would all fall neatly into sense. Phylogeny. Order. Sanity.
Then the thought spun around and seized her, forced her to look at it, and it wasn’t what she’d thought she was chasing. It had madness in its eyes.
It wasn’t: I will know what the angels are.
What Eliza was really thinking was: Will I know what I am?
27 JUST CREATURES IN A WORLD
When Karou joined Zuzana, Mik, and Issa, she discovered that they’d been busy while she was in the war council: preparing the space, unpacking the trays, cleaning and sorting teeth. Zuzana had even taken a stab at laying out some necklaces—still unstrung, pending Karou’s inspection.
“These are good,” said Karou after careful study.
“Will they work?” asked Zuzana.
Karou looked them over further. “This is Uthem?” she asked, indicating the first. A row of horse and iguana teeth with tubes of bat bone—doubled, for the two sets of wings—along with iron and jade for size and grace.
“I figured he was a given,” said Zuzana.
Karou nodded. Thiago would need Uthem to ride into battle. “You have a knack for this,” she told her friend. The necklace wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty close—and pretty amazing considering how little experience Zuzana had.
“Yep.” No false humility from Zuze. “Now you just have to teach me the magic to actually translate them to flesh.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Karou said with a dark laugh.
“There’s this story where a man is fated to serve as ferryman across the river of the dead for eternity. There’s one catch, only he doesn’t know it. All he has to do is hand his pole to someone else, and he hands them his fate, too.”
“And you’re going to hand me your pole?” asked Zuzana.
“No. I am not going to hand you my pole.”
“How about we share it?” Zuzana proposed.
Karou shook her head, in exasperation and wonder. “Zuze, no. You have a life to live—”
“And presumably I will be living while helping you?”
“So let’s see here. I can either do the most amazing, astonishing, unbelievable, magical thing that anyone has ever heard of—ever—and, after all this war stuff is all over, help you resurrect a whole population of women and children and, like, build a race of creatures back to life, at the beginning of a new era for a world no one else even knows exists. Or… I can go home and do puppet shows for tourists.”
Karou felt a smile twitch her lips. “Well, when you put it like that.” She turned to Mik. “Do you have something to say about this?”
“Yes,” he said, serious—and not mock-serious, but serious-serious. “I say let’s discuss the future later, after ‘all this war stuff,’ as Zuze put it, when we know there’s going to be a future.”
“Good point,” said Karou, and turned toward the thuribles.
Best-case scenario was a dozen resurrections, and that was pretty optimistic. The question was: Who? Who are the lucky souls today? Karou pondered, and as she sifted through the thuribles, she started a “yes” pile, a “maybe” pile, and an “oh Jesus, you stay dead” pile. No more Lisseths in this rebellion, and no more Razors with his sack of spreading stains. She wanted soldiers with honor, who could embrace the new purpose and not fight against it at every turn. There were a handful of obvious choices, but she hesitated over them, contemplating how they would be received.
Balieros, Ixander, Minas, Viya, and Azay. Ziri’s former patrol—the soldiers who had defied the true Wolf’s order to slaughter seraph civilians, flying instead to the Hintermost to die defending their own folk. They were strong, competent, and respected, but they had disobeyed the Wolf’s order. Would their resurrection seem suspicious, another tick mark in a growing column of Things Thiago Would Never Do?
Maybe, but Karou wanted them; she’d take the blame. She wanted Amzallag and the Shadows That Live, too, but she knew that would be a push too far. She kept their thurible apart, a kind of totem for a brighter day. She would give them their lives back as soon as she could.
Balieros’s team she put in the “yes” pile. There was a sixth soul with them. Brushing against her senses, it felt like a knife of light through trees, and though it was unfamiliar to Karou, she remembered Ziri telling her about the young Dashnag boy who’d joined their fight and died alongside the others.
It made no sense to choose an untrained boy as one of a mere dozen resurrections before a battle like the one ahead, but Karou did it anyway, with a feeling of defiance. “Resurrectionist’s choice,” she imagined herself telling Lisseth, or, as she now thought of the poisonous Naja woman: future cow. “You have a problem with that?” Anyway, the Dashnag wouldn’t be a boy anymore. Karou didn’t have juvenile teeth, and even if she did, this was no time for youth. So he was going to wake up and find himself alive, fully grown, and winged, in a remote cave in the company of revenants and seraphim.
Should be an interesting day for him. A part of Karou’s mind kept telling her it was a terrible idea, but something about it felt right. Dashnags are formidable chimaera, few more fearsome, but she didn’t think it was that so much as the purity of his soul. A knife of light. Honor and a new purpose.
“Okay,” she told her assistants. “Here we go.”
The hours vanished like time-lapse. Thiago came in somewhere in the middle to take over the tithing—he’d been to the baths, Karou saw, and was clean of crusted blood, his wounds beginning to heal—and together he and Karou added fresh bruises to those all but faded from their arms and hands. They didn’t make it to a dozen ressurrections. Nine bodies came into being in under six hours, and they had to stop. For one thing, there was no space for more bodies. These nine pretty well filled the room. For another, Karou’s exhaustion was making her dopey. Loopy. Useless. Done.
Apparently Zuzana was feeling the same. “My kingdom for caffeine,” she mumbled, making prayer hands up at the ceiling.
When, however, in the next second, Issa entered with tea, Zuzana was not grateful. “Coffee, I meant coffee,” she told the ceiling, as if the universe were a waiter that had gotten her order wrong.
Regardless, they drank the tea, silently surveying their work. Nine bodies, and all that remained now was to transfer souls to them. Karou let Mik and Zuzana handle this part, since her arms were trembling, and every movement sent a coordinated assault of aches and throbs rushing up them. She leaned against the wall with Thiago and watched Zuzana go down the line of new bodies, placing a cone of incense on the brow of each new head.
“Did you extend the invitation?” she asked the Wolf.
He nodded. “They consulted, and eventually accepted. Made it seem like a favor to us, mind you. Reluctantly we agree to eat your food, but don’t expect us to enjoy it.”
“They said that?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Well,” said Karou. “It’s pride. They might pretend not to, but they will enjoy it.”
This had been her small idea, her baby step: to feed the seraphim. Someone, Elyon or Briathos, had let slip in the war council that the Misbegotten, having fled in a hurry from their various postings around the Empire, had already expended what small stores of food they’d managed to bring with them. Feeding them—nearly three hundred of them—would expend the chimaera’s stores, too, but it was a gesture of solidarity for the sake of the alliance. We eat together and starve together. We are in this together.
And maybe someday we’ll even live together. Just creatures in a world. Why not?
The rasp of the lighter—a little red plastic lighter with a cartoon face on it, entirely at odds with the seriousness of its task, not to mention out of place in this world—and Zuzana lit the incense cones, one by one down the line. The scent of Brimstone’s revenant incense slowly filled up the rock chamber, and first Uthem, then the others, came alive.
Karou’s emotions were complex. There was pride: in herself, and in Zuzana, too. The bodies were well-made, strong and proud, and not monstrous or exaggerated the way her kasbah resurrections had been. These were more in Brimstone’s style, and she felt nostalgia and longing, too, for him.
Here was a refill for the bowls. More meat for the grinding teeth of war.
Just creatures in a world, she had thought, moments earlier, and she wondered now, watching them stir to life: Could that ever be true?
28 ANGEL-LOVER, BEAST-LOVER
As they had led the host down the winding passage to the isolated village, so now did Karou and Thiago lead them back up. The Misbegotten were already present in the grand, echoing central cavern that served as gathering place. They had, quite conspicuously, claimed the far half of the cavern, leaving the other half to the chimaera. Together but not, as though a line were drawn right down the center.
The food was carried in, great bowls of couscous spiked with vegetables, apricots, and almonds. The small quantity of chicken was stretched thin across all that food so that an actual morsel was rare, but its flavor was there, and there were discs of bread baked on a hot rock—more bread than Karou had ever seen in one place in her life. As vast a quantity as it looked, however, it went fast, and the eating even faster.
“You know what would be good now?” Zuzana whispered, when the sounds of spoons on plates had mostly quieted. “Chocolate. Never attempt an alliance without chocolate.”
Karou couldn’t imagine that the Misbegotten, roughly treated as they had been their entire lives, had much experience with dessert.
“Absent that,” Mik suggested, “how about music?”
Karou smiled. “I think that’s a great idea.”
He got out his violin and set about tuning it. Since they had come into the cavern, Karou had been watching for Akiva while pretending not to. He wasn’t here, and she didn’t know what to think. She didn’t see Liraz, either; only several hundred unfamiliar angels, and every last one of them held their faces blank and grim. This wasn’t inappropriate—it was the eve of the apocalypse, after all—but neither was it comfortable. Karou felt the détente to be as insubstantial as it had been on their arrival, and that all of these soldiers would as soon slit one another’s throats as break bread together.
Mik began to play, and the seraphim took notice. Karou watched them, scanning those fierce and beautiful faces one by one, wondering at the soul of each. Gradually, she thought the music began to have an effect on them. The grimness didn’t quite go out of their faces, but something softened in the atmosphere. You could almost feel the long, slow, gradual exhale that sapped the tension from several hundred sets of shoulders.
At dawn they would fly back to the human world. What was happening there? she wondered. How had Jael presented himself, and how had he been received? Were they scrambling to provide him with weapons? Even now training him to use them? Or were they skeptical? Some would be, but who would be louder? Who was always louder? The righteous.
“Karou,” whispered Zuzana. “Translation needed.”
Karou turned to her friend, who was back to learning Chimaera vocabulary from Virko just as she had at mealtimes at the kasbah. “What’s he saying?” she asked. “I can’t figure it out.”
Virko repeated the word in question, and Karou translated. “Magic.”
“Oh,” said Zuzana. And then, with a furrowed brow: “Really? Ask him how he knows?”
Karou duly asked.
“We all felt it,” Virko replied. “Tell her. At the same moment.”
Karou blinked at him. Instead of translating, she asked, “You all felt what at the same moment?”
He met her eyes. “The end,” he said. Simple. Eerie.
A chill went down Karou’s spine. She knew exactly what he was talking about, but she asked anyway. “What do you mean, ‘the end’?”
“What did he say?” Zuzana wanted to know, but Karou was fixed on Virko. An understanding was settling in her like something that had been hovering and darting just out of reach and had finally grown too tired to be wary.
Virko looked around at the company, gathered in small and large groups, some with eyes closed listening to the music, some staring into the fire. He said, “After it happened, I thought to myself: The angels are lucky. I must be losing my wits. I forgot my sword mid-draw. Just stood there with my mouth hanging open, feeling like my heart had been pulled out through it. Thought I was scraping the bottom of a long life, I did.”
He let her process this, and she felt cold and then warm, in waves. “But it was the same for everyone,” said Virko. “It wasn’t me, and that’s some relief. Something happened to us. Something was done.” He paused. “I don’t know what, but it’s why we’re all still alive.”
Karou sat back, dazed. How had she not guessed immediately? Nothing like that despair had ever come over her before, not even when she stood ankle-deep in the ashes of Loramendi. And it had come and gone like something passing. A sound wave, or particles of light. Or… a burst of magic.
A burst of magic at the precise fulcrum of catastrophe, peeling them back from the edge. And if the White Wolf had risen to his feet and spoken, he had spoken into the silence of its passage, helping to gather them all back to themselves as their souls reeled. But he hadn’t done it, hadn’t stopped them from killing one another.
The realization spread through Karou like heat, and before she could even question if she was right, she was sure.
And when Akiva finally did come into the cavern, Karou knew him even from the side of her downcast eyes. Her heart leapt. When she darted a glance to confirm it was him, he wasn’t looking her way.
She felt as much as heard the stir in the company around her, though it was a moment before the words came clear.
“It was him,” she heard. “He was the one who saved us.”
Had someone else figured out what she had?
She swung around to see who had spoken, and was surprised to see the Dashnag boy, who of course was a boy no longer. Rath was his name, and he could know nothing of the pulse of despair; his soul had been in a thurible then. So what was he talking about? Karou listened.
“I’d never have lived to reach the Hintermost,” he was telling Balieros and the others with whom he’d been resurrected. “I was moving south with some others. Angels were burning the forest behind us. A whole village of Caprine, and some Dama girls freed from the slavers with me. We were caught in a gully, hiding, and they found us. Two bast—” He stopped and corrected himself. “Two Misbegotten. They were right in front of us. We could hear the aries screaming as they were slaughtered, but the two angels just looked at us, and… they pretended not to see us. They let us go.”
“Maybe they didn’t see you,” suggested Balieros.
With respect, Rath replied firmly, “They did. And one of them was him.” With the jut of his chin, he singled out Akiva. “Eyes as orange as a Dashnag’s. I couldn’t mistake them.”
And all of this Karou heard with that same feeling that the understanding had been there all along, hovering around and ready to land just as soon as she stopped thrashing it away. Of course it wasn’t only Ziri whom Akiva had saved in the Hintermost, but slaves and villagers, too, the same fleeing folk whom the Wolf had left for dead by choosing to kill his enemy instead of aid his people.
“Beast’s Bane, crusading for beasts?” mused Balieros, leveling a long, speculative look across the cavern, and giving a small smile. “And strangely fold the hours as the end draws near.”
Strangely fold the hours. It was a line from a song. All the soldiers knew it. Not exactly hopeful, but appropriate in the context of that scream of magic. As the end draws near. The end.
Karou couldn’t help herself. She looked at Akiva again. He still wasn’t looking back, and it was enough to make her believe that he never would again.
Here they were in the Kirin caves. It was the eve of battle. They’d brought their armies together, which in itself could be counted an unimaginable triumph, but nothing was as they’d dreamt it. They weren’t side by side. They couldn’t even look at each other.
Karou’s heartbeat was playing tricks on her, surging and then shying, like a creature trapped within her. Akiva was surrounded by his own kind, and she was here, with hers, and it seemed that all that was binding them together anymore was a common enemy and the sweet, pure threads of music.
Mik sat on a stone, head bent over his violin, and his song sounded different here than it had in the kasbah. There, it had floated up into the sky. Here, it echoed.
Here, it was trapped, like Karou’s heartbeat.
She felt Zuzana’s head settle on her shoulder. Issa was on her other side, placid and watchful, and the Wolf was stretched out before her, propped up on his elbows by the fire. He looked relaxed. Still elegant, still exquisite, but absent cruelty, absent menace, as if his stolen body’s default expressions were slowly being changed from within. Karou could see the first inklings of a greater beauty beginning to emerge, and she thought of Brimstone’s art meeting Ziri’s soul. It was nothing to do with Thiago now. That monster was gone forever, and if anyone could purge the taint of him, it was Ziri.
He’d better be careful, though, and not relax too much. Karou took a quick survey of the encircling host, alert especially for Lisseth’s unblinking watchfulness. But she didn’t see Lisseth. There was Nisk, but not his partner, and Nisk was only staring into the fire.
Karou felt the Wolf’s eyes on her, but didn’t return his look. Her gaze felt a magnetic pull—across the cavern to Akiva. Akiva, Akiva. One more time, she would let herself look. With held breath and, it seemed, a held heartbeat, she made herself pause. It was like an old childhood game of superstition when, exhaling, she thought: If he doesn’t look back this time, I’ve lost him.
And the possibility brought on an echo of the earlier despair. A candle flame extinguished by a scream.
She lifted her eyes and looked across the cavern. And…
… living fire. That was what his eyes were like, greeting hers: a fuse that seared the air between them. He was looking at her. And as far away as he was, and with so much between them—chimaera, seraphim, all the living, all the dead—it felt like touch, that look.
Like the rays of the sun.
They looked at each other. They looked, and anyone might notice. Anyone might see. Angel-lover. Beast-lover.
Let them see.
It was madness and abandon, but after everything else, Karou couldn’t make herself care enough to look away. Akiva’s eyes were heat and light, and she wanted to stay there forever. Tomorrow, the apocalypse. Tonight, the sun.
And finally it was Akiva who broke their gaze. He stood up and quietly spoke to the angels around him, and when he wove his way out of the cavern, lingering a moment in the tall, arched entrance, he didn’t look her way again, but Karou still understood. He wanted her to follow him.
She couldn’t, of course. She’d be seen. The forward caves were Misbegotten domain, and though Lisseth might not be present—where was she?—there were plenty of other chimaera here keeping an eye on her.
But she had to try. She couldn’t bear the thought of Akiva waiting for her and waiting for her. It felt like a last chance.
“I’m going to get some sleep,” she said, rising, yawning—it started out fake and quickly became real—and left the cavern by the opposite door as Akiva, the one that led back down to the village.
But as soon as she was out of view, she glamoured herself invisible and passed right back through the cavern, unseen and drifting in a quiet glide over the assembled heads of two armies, her heart pounding, to find Akiva.
29 A DREAM COME TRUE
“Things can be different,” Karou had told Ziri just before the war council. “That’s the whole point.”
Was that the point? To build a world in which she could have her lover? Seeing the look that passed between her and Akiva across the cavern, Ziri wondered if that was what he’d given up his own life for.
“For all of us,” she’d said.
For him, too? What could be different for him? He’d be free of this body someday, in resurrection or evanescence, one way or the other. There was always that to look forward to.
He watched Akiva leave and was unsurprised when, a short while later, Karou left, too. Separately, and by different doors, but he had no doubt that they would find each other. He thought back to the Warlord’s ball, all those years ago, and what he’d witnessed then. He’d been just a boy, but it had been as plain as moonlight to him: the way Madrigal’s dancing body had curved away from the Wolf’s but toward the stranger’s. And even if the full, heady complexity of adult intrigues had been a mystery to him, he’d gotten a sense of it—his first, like a hint of fragrance, exotic, intoxicating… frightening.
Adult intrigues weren’t a mystery to him anymore. They were still intoxicating, and still frightening, and watching Karou and Akiva leave, Ziri felt like a boy again. Left out. Left behind.
Maybe he would he always feel that way with her, no matter the age of the bodies they wore.
A figure appeared in the doorway—the one Karou had taken—and for an instant he thought it would be her returning, but it wasn’t. It was Lisseth.
Ziri hadn’t realized that the Naja wasn’t here with the rest of them, and his first, half-formed thought was one of mild self-disparagement. The real Wolf would have known if any of his troops were unaccounted for. But that thought melted away when he caught the look on Lisseth’s face. It was an unpleasant face at the best of times, crude and broad and host to a limited repertoire of nasty expressions ranging from sly to vicious, but now she looked… stricken.
The wings of her nostrils flared white, and her lips were pressed to a bloodless crease. Her eyes were unexpectedly unguarded, vulnerable, and there was a stony dignity in the lift of her shoulders, the jut of her blunt chin. She gave him a curt nod, and he rose, curious, and went to her.
Nisk, the other Naja, saw it all, and joined them in the doorway.
“What is it?” Ziri asked.
Her words came out… pinched. She sounded affronted. “Sir, have I done something to displease you?”
Yes, Ziri wanted to reply. Everything. But though he strongly suspected that she was the oath-breaker who’d raised hamsas to the Misbegotten, she had denied it, and he had no proof. “Not to my knowledge,” he said. “What’s this about?”
“This command should have been mine. I’ve been waiting for this, and I have more tactical experience. I’m stronger, and when it comes to stealth there’s no contest. To not even be told what you were planning—”
“What I was—? Soldier, what are you talking about?”
Lisseth blinked, glanced from him to Nisk and back. “The attack on the seraph, sir. It’s under way now.”
Did he blanch? Did they see him pale? It was the wrong response. He should have sharpened to cold fury and bared his fangs the instant he realized that his soldiers were, at this very moment, acting without his orders. “This is no plan of mine,” he said, and he saw her face transform. Her indignation vanished. With the understanding that he hadn’t slighted her, she was her vicious self again. “Take me there,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir,” she said, turning, and, serpent-smooth, she led the way. Ziri followed, with Nisk coming behind.
Who was it? Ziri asked himself. Lisseth herself with all her acid scrutiny would have been his first guess for a mutineer. Was she? Was this a trap?
Maybe. And yet he had no choice but to follow. Belatedly it struck him that he should have summoned Ten, and it seemed strange to him that the she-wolf hadn’t followed of her own accord.
They descended one of the cave system’s many down-wending passages, going beyond the ones he knew, deeper and deeper still. Every time they came around a corner with their torches, big pallid insects skittered away ahead of them, squeezing improbably into cracks in the walls. The caverns were pervaded by a heavy, wet-mineral smell, as oppressive a sensory cloak as the wind music was, but as they progressed, new odors filtered through it, traces teased from the darkness. Animal scents, musky and ripe. Chimaera, a group of them. And a cooked-meat scorch, complete with acrid burning hair, that cramped Ziri’s gut with foreboding. Any chimaera who had gone to battle against seraphim knew the tang of a burning body.
Ziri’s sense of smell in this body was far better than his natural one had been, but he was still learning to unweave the information it gave him and identify the world’s many reeks. Its perfumes, too. More smells were bad than good, in his few days of experience, at least, but the good ones were better than he’d ever realized.
Here was one now, weaving through the others like a single gold thread in a tapestry, wisp-thin but bell-bright. Spice, he thought. The kind that burns the tongue and leaves in its wake a kind of purity.
Whoever it was—that it was seraph, he was certain—it was all but blotted out by the overwhelming fug of chimaera musks. Ziri experienced a tightening at the base of his skull. Dread. It was dread.
What—and who—was he going to find up ahead?
Karou moved unseen through the passages of her ancestral home. She passed from chimaera domain into seraph. She didn’t know where to look for Akiva, but assumed he would make himself easy to find. If she was right, anyway, that he wanted her to find him.
A shiver passed through her. She hoped she was right.
The caverns grew cooler as she moved out toward the entrance hall, and soon she could see her breath cloud before her. One last seraph to get past—it was Elyon, looking weary and hopeless when he thought no one was watching—and she held her breath until he was out of sight so its cloud wouldn’t give her away.
There were no other seraphim; they were all together, behind her now. There was only Akiva.
An open door, and there he was. Waiting.
For a moment Karou couldn’t move. This was the nearest she’d been to him—and the first time they’d been alone—since… since when? Since the day he came to her glamoured, beside the river in Morocco, and gave her the thurible that held Issa’s soul. She’d said terrible things to him that day—that she’d never trusted him, for a start, what a lie—and she had yet to unsay them.
Still glamoured, she went through the door and saw him raise his head, aware of her. A flush crept up her neck as his searching look swept over her, even if he couldn’t see her. He was so beautiful, and so intent. She could feel the heat coming off him.
She could feel the longing coming off him.
“Karou?” he asked, very softly.
She pushed the door closed and released her glamour.
It was almost a relief to have her anger vindicated. Even on her knees, sick from the sustained assault of close-range hamsas, Liraz was able to think, without passion or triumph, that the world made sense again. This was why the beasts had left her alone that night in the open, when she’d stayed behind with them of her own free will. Because they’d been biding their time.
There were four of them. Three stood with hamsas upheld, assaulting her with magic. The fourth hefted a big, double-sided ax.
Of course, that didn’t include the three who lay dead between them—so freshly dead their hearts didn’t know it yet and their blood was still escaping in arterial spurts, like water from a hand pump.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” said the leader of this little band of assassins, stepping over the corpses of her comrades, her wolfish grin unwavering.
Liraz didn’t know why she should be surprised that Thiago’s she-wolf lieutenant was her attacker, but she was. Had she actually begun to believe that the White Wolf had found honor? What idiocy. She wondered where he was now, and why he was missing out on the fun. “Believe it or not,” drawled Ten, “we weren’t going to kill you.”
“I have to go with or not on that.” They’d stalked her in the dark, and Liraz had no doubt that her life was at stake.
“Ah, but it’s true. We just wanted to play your game.”
For a beat, Liraz didn’t know what she was talking about. It was hard to think through the thrum and drub of magic, but then it came to her. Her getting-acquainted game. Which of us killed which of you in previous bodies. The sickness in her gut deepened, and it wasn’t just because of the hamsas. Of course, she thought. Wasn’t this exactly what she’d imagined would happen? This had been her point, imagining the game, which she’d certainly found no humor in. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “I killed you once. Or was it more than once?”
“Once was enough,” said Ten.
“So what now? Am I supposed to apologize?”
Ten laughed. Her smile glittered. “You should. You really should. However, since I can’t imagine you give apologies, I’ll just have your trophies instead. You might still live a long and happy life without them. Probably not, but that’s your own affair.”
Her hands, she meant. They were going to cut off her hands. Well, they were going to try.
“So come do it,” said Liraz, spitting derision.
“There’s no hurry,” was Ten’s reply.
Not for them, maybe. Liraz was getting weaker with every second they held their hamsas out to her, and that was the point. Damned devil’s eyes. This was their coward plan: weaken her before they hacked her up.
It wasn’t their original plan, but three dead in under a minute had prompted them to reconsider.
Three bodies. A stupid, bloody waste. The sight of them made Liraz want to scream. Why did you make me do this?
Ten closed in. Flanking her were two Dracands, lizard aspect, with great ruffs of scaled flesh flaring from their necks like grotesque courtier’s collars. Their hands were upheld, hamsas pounding misery into the base of Liraz’s skull, and it was taking all of her focus to keep her trembling from entirely overtaking her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to for very much longer. Soon, the magic would have her juddering like palsy.
The powerlessness was infuriating, and humiliating, and dire. Now, she told herself. If she was to have any chance of getting out of this, she had to act now. The magic of the three pairs of hamsas pulsed at her like sledgehammers.
A single clear thought filtered through her pain: My hands are weapons, too.
Ten blocked, catching her by one wrist, and the magic, it shrieked into Liraz from the point of contact, screaming sickness into her sinews, her flesh and bone and mind. Relentless. Crashing waves of shuddering. White-hot as flaying. Weakness like a scouring wind. Godstars. Liraz thought it would eat her alive, reduce her to ashes or to nothingness.
Ten held her wrist, but Liraz’s other hand made it through. She pressed her own palm flat to Ten’s chest, screaming back, a wordless roar right in the chimaera’s face as… the fire stoked. And smoked.
The lank gray fur at the she-wolf’s chest caught fire. The smell was immediate and foul, and called Liraz straight back to the corpse bonfires in Loramendi. She almost lost her concentration, but managed to just hold on as her hand scorched through the chimaera’s fur and into her flesh.
Ten’s grimace widened, and she let loose a roar to match Liraz’s. They were eye-to-eye and hands to flesh, roaring their fury and agony right in each other’s faces until another set of hands seized Liraz and ripped her away, throwing her so hard into a stone wall that she blinked in and out of darkness and found herself flat on her back, gasping.
That was the end of her chance.
In and out of darkness, she felt hands seize her arms before she glimpsed the faces bent over her—the two Dracands. Their mouths were open and hissing, deeply red and reeking, as they muscled her upright once more, the fabric of her long sleeves making a poor barrier between their palms and her flesh.
Her inked flesh, her terrible hidden tally.
Once again she was eye-to-eye with Ten. The she-wolf had lost her grin and was spectacular with hatred—her wolf muzzle ruched in a snarl that no human or seraph visage could ever match for viciousness. She said, “We’re not done with the game yet. So far I’m winning, and if you don’t have a turn, it’s hardly a game, is it? I remember you, angel, but do you remember me?”
Liraz didn’t. All the kills she’d sliced into her arms with campfire soot and a hot knife—at the best of times they were a blur, and now was not the best of times. How many wolf-aspect chimaera might Liraz have slain in the decades of her life? The godstars only knew. “I never said I’d be any good at the game,” she choked out.
“I’ll give you a hint,” said Ten. The hint was a single word, riding a snarl of hate. It was a place.
The word sliced Liraz’s memory open, and blood spilled out. Savvath. It was a long time ago, but she hadn’t forgotten it—not the village, or what had happened just outside it. She’d just hidden it from herself, like a torn-out page—except that if it were a torn-out page, she’d have burned it.
You couldn’t burn memories.
There was the memory of what she’d done to a dying enemy long ago, and there was the memory of how her brothers had looked at her after. For a long time after.
“That was you?” she heard herself ask, her voice hoarse. She hadn’t meant to speak. It was the sickness. Her defenses were down. And… it was Savvath. If the great bulk of the obscene hundreds of chimaera Liraz had slain in her life were a blur, that one wasn’t, and the simple word, Savvath, brought it all back.
But something didn’t match. “It wasn’t you,” Liraz said, shaking her head to clear it. “That soldier was—”
Fox aspect, she was going to say, but Ten cut her off. “That soldier was me. It was my first death, did you know that? It was my natural flesh you desecrated, and this, of course, is just a vessel. Your game favors us, angel. How could you know who we are by looking? You don’t stand a chance.”
“You’re right,” agreed Liraz, and her head felt like a kaleidoscope of ground glass—churning, churning.
“New game,” said Ten, taunting. “If you win, you keep your hands. All you have to do is tell me who every single one of your marks is for.”
And Liraz imagined telling Hazael she’d solved the puzzle of her recurring dream. How do you cut off both of your own arms?
Easy. Give a chimaera an ax.
Because there was no way she was winning this game.
Ten looked to the big beast with the ax and beckoned him forward as she said to the Dracands, “Push up her sleeves.”
They obeyed, and Liraz witnessed only the first gut-wrench of their stares—Ten actually flinched at the sight of her full tally revealed—and the rest was lost to crashing darkness, like an avalanche of ash, when the Dracands seized her bare arms with their hands. Four hamsas full against her flesh. It almost meant mercy. Liraz saw the nothingness she was to become. She tipped toward it. No seraph could sustain this. She would miss her own death and that wasn’t such a bad thing in the end—
No mercy, then. Ten must have ordered the Dracands to keep her conscious, because the avalanche abated and Liraz found herself staring, up close, at the ruined skin of the handprint she’d burned in the center of the she-wolf’s chest. It was blistered black and seeping, the char beginning to slough off and reveal the red meat beneath. Hideous.
“Go ahead,” Ten commanded in a seethe of malevolence. “I’ll make it easier for you. Start at the end and go backward. Surely you remember the recent ones.”
Liraz’s answering whisper was pathetic. “I don’t want to play your game,” she said. Something inside her was giving way. Her heartbeat felt like a child’s helpless fists. She wanted to be rescued. She wanted to be safe.
“I don’t care what you want. And the stakes have changed. If you win, I’ll have Rark make a clean cut. If you lose…” She bared and snapped her long yellow fangs in an exaggerated grimace that left no doubt as to her meaning. “Less clean,” she said. “More fun.” And she seized Liraz’s hands and pulled her arms out taut. “Let’s start with me. Which one, pretty angel? Which mark is mine?”
“None of them,” gasped Liraz.
But it was true. If the Savvath kill were inked on her, it would be on her fingers, it was that long ago. But at the end of that day, Hazael had made a point of weighing the tattoo kit heavy in his hand and looking at her—a look too long and too flat for Haz, like she’d changed not just herself that day by what she’d done, but him as well—and then shoving it back into his pack before turning away from her.
Liraz had heard it said that there was only one emotion which, in recollection, was capable of resurrecting the full immediacy and power of the original—one emotion that time could never fade, and that would drag you back any number of years into the pure, undiluted feeling, as if you were living it anew. It wasn’t love—not that she had any experience of that one—and it wasn’t hate, or anger, or happiness, or even grief. Memories of those were but echoes of the true feeling.
It was shame. Shame never faded, and Liraz realized only now that this was the baseline of her emotions—her bitter, curdled “normal”—and that her soul was poisoned soil in which nothing good could grow.
I can’t imagine you give apologies, Ten had said before, and she’d been right, but Liraz thought that she would now. She would apologize for Savvath. If her voice was her own. If it wasn’t reeling out of her, rising and falling in a sound that might have been laughter and might—if she weren’t Liraz and it weren’t unthinkable—have been sobbing.
In truth, it was both. She was going to lose her arms, the clean way or the less clean, and here’s where the laughter came in: It was horrific, and it was sadistic, and it was also, literally, a dream come true.
30 NEARER AND TOUCHING
First there was no one.
Then the sense of her, nothing Akiva could pinpoint. He just knew he wasn’t alone anymore.
Then the door creaked closed and the air gave her up. A glimmer and Karou stood before him like the fulfillment of a wish.
Don’t hope, he warned himself. You don’t know why she’s come. But just being this near her, his skin felt alive, and his hands, his hands had their own memories—silk and pulse and flutter—and their own will. He clasped them behind his back to have something to do with them besides reach for her, which of course was out of the question. Just because she’d looked at him back in the cavern—it was the way she’d looked, he argued with himself, like she’d given up trying not to—didn’t mean that she wanted anything more from him than this temporary alliance.
“Hello,” she said. Her gaze dropped to the floor as a blush crept up her cheeks, and Akiva’s battle against hope was lost.
She was blushing. If she was blushing…
Godstars, she’s beautiful.
“Hello,” he said, low and raw, and now his hope exceeded itself. Say it again, he willed her. If she did, maybe she remembered the temple of Ellai, when they’d removed their festival masks and seen each other’s faces for the first time since the battlefield at Bullfinch.
Hello, they’d said then, like a whispered incantation. Hello, like a promise. Hello, breath to breath.
The last breath before their first kiss.
“Um,” she said now, darting a quick glance up to meet his eyes, then veering it wide again, flushing even deeper. “Hi.”
Close enough, Akiva thought, a buoyancy cautiously rising in him as he watched her take a step and then another into this room he’d claimed for himself. They were alone, finally. They could talk, free of the watchful eyes of all their comrades. That she was here at all, it meant something. And with the blaze of the look they’d shared in the cavern, he couldn’t help but hope that it meant… everything.
Having hope was like dangling himself over a chasm and putting the rope in her hands. She could annihilate him if she wanted to.
She was looking around, though there wasn’t much to see. It was a small chamber, bare but for a long stone slab in its center and a few ledges holding very old candles. The slab was, Akiva supposed, unusual. It was cut more precisely than the rest of the rock surfaces here. It was smooth, its hard corners rare in a world of curves.
“I remember this room,” Karou said in a remote voice. “This is where the dead were prepared for burial.”
That was vaguely unsettling. Hours Akiva had lain here in his dreaming, in the place inside his pain. He had lain here like a corpse, where how many corpses had lain before him? “I didn’t know,” he answered, hoping it wasn’t offensive, him being here.
She trailed her fingertips over the slab. She was faced away from him, and he watched her shoulders rise and fall with her breathing. Her hair hung in a braid, blue as the heart of a flame. It wasn’t neat. The soft hairs at her nape had all come unbound and tufted out like down. Longer loose strands of blue were tucked behind her ears, all except one stray that lay curved against her cheek.
Akiva felt, in his fingers, the desire to brush it back for her. To brush it back and linger, and feel the warmth of her neck.
“We’d dare one another to come in and lie here,” Karou said. “The kids, I mean.” She made a slow circle around the table, stopping to face him from the far side of it so it made a kind of barrier between them. She looked up at the ceiling. It was high, rising to a peak and funneling to a shaft in the center, like a chimney. “That’s for the souls,” she told him. “To release them to the sky so they wouldn’t be trapped in the mountain. We used to say that if you fell asleep in here, your soul would think you were dead, and up it would go.” Akiva heard the smile in her voice just before he saw it flicker over her face, fleet and fond. “So I pretended to fall asleep one time, and I acted like I lost my soul and I made all the other kids help me look for it. All day, all over the peaks.” She let the smile come out now, slow, extraordinary. “I caught an air elemental and pretended it was my soul. Poor thing. What a little savage I was.”
Her face, this face, Akiva realized, was still a mysterious land to him, and the smile almost made her a stranger.
If he’d known Madrigal for a month of nights, he’d known Karou for… two nights? Or was it really one, through much of which he’d slept, and two days in scattered pieces? Their few fraught meetings since, all he’d seen of her was her rage, her devastation, her fear.
This was something else entirely. Smiling, she was as radiant as moonstone.
It struck him with force that he didn’t really know her. It wasn’t just her new face. He kept thinking of her as though she were Madrigal in a different body, but she was more than that. She’d lived another life since he knew her—in another world, no less. How might it have changed her? He couldn’t know.
But he could learn.
The pain of longing felt like a hole in the center of his chest. There was nothing in the worlds he wanted more than to start at the beginning and fall in love with Karou all over again.
“That was a good day,” she said, still lost in her long-ago memory.
“How do you act like you’ve lost your soul?” Akiva asked. He meant it as a lighthearted question about a children’s game, but when he heard himself say the words, he thought, Who knows better than I?
You betray everything you believe in. You drown your grief in vengeance. You kill and keep killing until there’s no one left.
His expression must have betrayed his thoughts, because Karou’s smile shrank away. She was quiet for a long moment, meeting his look. Akiva had a lot to learn about her eyes, too. Madrigal’s had been warm brown. Summer and earth. Karou’s were black. They were sky-dark and star-bright, and when she looked at him like this, piercing, they seemed all pupil. Nocturnal. Unnerving.
She said, “I can tell you how you act when you get your soul back,” and he knew she wasn’t talking about a game now. “You save lives,” she said. “You let yourself dream again.” Her voice dropped to a wisp. “You forgive.”
Silence. Held breath. Beating hearts. Was… was she talking about him? Akiva felt the tilt of the world trying to tip him forward: to be nearer to her—nearer and touching—as though that were the only state of rest, and every other action and movement were geared to achieving it.
She looked down, shy again. “But you know better than I do. I’m just starting.”
“You? You never lost your soul.”
“I lost something. While you were saving chimaera, I was making monsters for Thiago. I didn’t know what I was doing. The same things I hated you for doing, but I couldn’t see it…”
“It’s grief,” said Akiva. “It’s rage. It makes us into the thing we despise.” And he thought, And I was the thing you despised. Am I still? “It’s the fuel for everything our people have done to each other since the beginning. That’s what makes peace seem impossible. How can you blame someone for wanting to kill the killer of their loved ones? How can you fault people for what they do in grief?”
As soon as he spoke the words, Akiva realized it sounded like he was excusing his own vicious grief spiral and its terrible toll on her people. Shame seized him. “I don’t mean… I don’t mean me. What I did, Karou, I know I can never atone for.”
“Do you really believe that?” she asked. Her look was sharp, as though she were seeking through his shame for the truth.
Did he really believe it? Or was he just too guilt-ridden to admit he hoped that someday, somehow, he could atone? That someday he could feel that he’d done more good than evil, and that by living he hadn’t brought his world lower than if he’d never been. Was that atonement, the tilt of the scales at the end of life?
If it was, then it might be possible. Akiva might, if he lived many years and never stopped trying, save more lives than he had destroyed.
But that wasn’t what he believed, he realized, faced with the sharpness of Karou’s question. “Yes,” he said. “I do. You can’t atone for taking one life by saving another. What good does that do the dead?”
“The dead,” she said. “And we have plenty of dead between us, but the way we act, you’d think they were corpses hanging on to our ankles, rather than souls freed to the elements.” She looked up at the chimney overhead, as though she were imagining the souls it had conducted in its time. “They’re gone, they can’t be hurt anymore, but we drag their memory around with us, doing our worst in their name, like it’s what they’d want, for us to avenge them? I can’t speak for all the dead, but I know it’s not what I wanted for you, when I died. And I know it’s not what Brimstone wanted for me, or for Eretz.” Her gaze was still sharp, still piercing, nocturnal, black. It felt like recrimination—of course she’d wanted him to carry their dream forward, not find a way to destroy her people—so when she said, “Akiva, I never thanked you for bringing me Issa’s soul. I… I’m sorry for the things I said to you then—” it struck him with horror. The idea of her apologizing to him.
“No.” He swallowed hard. “There was nothing you said that I didn’t deserve. And worse.”
Was that pity in her eyes? Exasperation? “Are you determined to be unforgivable?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing I’m doing is for me, Karou, or for any hope I have for myself, of forgiveness or anything else.”
And under that black-eyed scrutiny, he had to ask himself: Was this true?
It was and wasn’t. No matter how much he tried not to hold out hope, hope surfaced, persistent. He had no more control over it than he did over the drone of the wind. But was it the reason he was doing any of this? For the chance of a reward? No. If he knew absolutely that Karou would never forgive him and never love him again, he would still do anything in his power—and beyond his power, it seemed, in the mind-bending light of sirithar—to rebuild the world for her.
Even if he had to stand back and watch her walk through it at the White Wolf’s side?
But… he didn’t know absolutely that there was no hope. Not yet.
I forgive you. I love you. I want you, at the end of all this. The dream, peace, and you.
This is what Karou wished to say, and it’s what she wished to hear, too. She didn’t want to be told that Akiva had given up the hope of her, and that whatever his motivation was now, it was no longer the fullness of their dream, which had been not merely peace, but themselves together in it. Had he cut the dream up for kindling? Had she? Had it already been fed to the fire?
“I believe you,” she said. No hope for himself. It was noble, and it was bleak, and it wasn’t the conduit her own unspoken words needed. They were heavy in her, and clinging. How do you just thrust “I love you” out into the air? It needs waiting arms to catch it. At least, right now, Karou’s unpracticed, unspoken “I love you” did. After months of its being crushed down into the recesses of her fury and warped out of all natural shape, she could no more blurt it out than she could grab Akiva’s face and kiss him.
Kiss him. That felt a million miles from possible.
Her eyes did their timid dance of glances again, taking him in in snapshots. A freeze-frame of his face, and then dropping her gaze again to the stone slab or her own hands, she held the glimpse in her mind. Akiva’s golden skin, his full lips, his taut, haunted expression and the… retreat in his eyes. Back in the cavern, his eyes had reached for her like the rays of the sun. Now they shrank from hers, reticent and guarded. Karou wanted to feel the sun again. But when she lifted her eyes from her restless hands, Akiva was staring down at the stone slab.
Between the pair of them, you’d think this table was one fascinating artifact.
Well. It wasn’t only “I love you” that she had come to say. She took a deep breath, and got on with the rest.
“I need to tell you something.”
Akiva looked up again. Instantly, something new in Karou’s tone set him on edge. Her hesitation, the catch in her voice. He didn’t have to struggle now to keep his hope at bay. Hope deserted him.
What is she going to say?
That she was with the Wolf now. The alliance was a mistake. The chimaera were leaving. He would never see her again.
He wanted to blurt, I have something to tell you, too, and keep her from saying whatever it was. He wanted to tell her of his new magic, as yet untested, and ask for her help with it. It’s what he’d hoped for, if she actually came here. He wanted to tell her what he’d made possible—for their armies, if not for themselves.
Things change. They can be changed, by those with the will.
Worlds, even. Maybe.
“It’s about Thiago,” she said, and he felt the cool touch of finality. Of course it was the Wolf. When he’d seen them curved toward each other, laughing, he’d known, but a part of his mind had insisted on denying it—it was unthinkable—and then, when she’d looked across the cavern to him like that, to him, he’d hoped…
“He’s not who you think,” Karou said, and Akiva knew what was coming next.
He braced for it.
“I killed him,” she whispered.
“I killed Thiago. This isn’t him. I mean, it’s not his soul.” She took a deep, dragging breath and rushed on. “His soul is gone. He’s gone. I’ve hated letting you think that I… and he… I could never have forgiven him, or…” A quicksilver glance, and, as if she’d read his thoughts: “Or laughed with him. And there could never have been peace while he was alive. And this alliance?” Emphatically, she shook her head. “Never. He’d have killed you and Liraz at the kasbah.”
“Wait,” said Akiva, trying to catch up. “Wait.” What was she saying? Her words wouldn’t settle into sense. The Wolf was dead? The Wolf was dead, and whoever was walking around claiming that title… it wasn’t him. Akiva stared at Karou. The idea spun him. He didn’t even know what questions to ask.
“I wanted to tell you before,” she said. “But I have to be careful. It’s all so fragile. No one knows. Only Issa and Ten… and Ten’s not really Ten, either… but if the rest of the chimaera found out, we’d lose them like that.” She snapped her fingers.
Akiva was still trying to grasp the basic premise.
“They wouldn’t follow anybody but Thiago, at least not yet,” she said. “That was clear. We needed him. This army did, and our people did, but… we needed a better him.”
And Akiva recalled his impression of the Wolf with whom he’d negotiated this alliance. Intelligent, powerful, and sane, that was what he’d thought at the time, never imagining the reason for it.
Finally, the pieces snapped into place and he understood. Somehow, Karou had put a different soul into the Wolf’s body. “Who?” he asked. “Who is it?”
A wave of grief passed over her face. “It’s Ziri,” she said, and when he didn’t react to the name, she added, “The Kirin whose life you saved.”
The young Kirin, the last of the tribe. So he wasn’t dead, not exactly. “But… how?” Akiva asked, unable to imagine the chain of events that had created such a situation.
Karou was silent a moment, and faraway. “Thiago attacked me,” she said, reaching up to touch the cheek that had been swollen and abraded when Akiva flew to her in Morocco, he and Liraz bearing Hazael’s body between them. She was nearly healed now. She looked like she might say more about it, but didn’t. The press of her lips stilled a trembling, and Akiva remembered his full fury at the sight of her brutalized. His fists remembered it, and his heart and gut remembered, too, the unfathomable look of tenderness that had passed between her and the Wolf that night at the kasbah, and it finally made sense.
It didn’t comfort him, though.
“He attacked me and I killed him,” she went on. “And I didn’t know what to do. I knew the others would make me resurrect him if they found us, and I couldn’t face it. If things had been bad before, what would they be like after that? I don’t know what I would’ve done.…” She trailed off.
Then her eyes came clear again, focusing keenly on him. Improbably, she smiled. It wasn’t the radiant unfurling of her last smile, but another species entirely, small and sudden and surprised. “As much as I’ve thought about it,” she said, “I didn’t get it, until right now, how it all comes back to you.”
“Me?” he asked with a jolt.
“You brought me Issa and Ziri both,” she said. “If it weren’t for you, I would have had no allies, and no chance.”
Again, the weight of her words—of her gratitude—stirred Akiva’s deepest shame. “If it weren’t for me, Karou, you’d have a lot more allies.” A lot more. How many corpses weighed in those words? Loramendi. Thousands upon thousands.
“Stop doing that,” she said in frustration. “Akiva. I meant what I said, about forgiving. It’s the only way forward. When the Wolf was still the Wolf, I tried reasoning with him, that his way was death. He wouldn’t hear me. He couldn’t. He was too far gone. But I kept finding your words in my mouth while I argued with him, and I knew that however far you’d gone, you had come back. And… it helped bring me back.”
His words? Akiva had none now. This was all so far from what he’d feared she was going to tell him that he couldn’t get his mind around it.
“You said it depended on us, whether the future would have chimaera in it,” she told him. “And it wasn’t only words. You saved Ziri’s life. If you hadn’t, we couldn’t be here now. You would be dead, and I… I would be the Wolf’s…” She didn’t finish. Again, a shadow of horror darkened her look, leaving Akiva to imagine what exactly those simple words—Thiago attacked me—encompassed.
The flare of his rage threatened to blind him. He had to force it aside and remind himself, breathing, that the object of it was gone. Thiago couldn’t be punished. If anything, this only made the rage hotter. “I wasn’t there to protect you,” he said. “I should never have left you there with him—”
“I protected myself,” Karou cut in. “It was after that I needed help, and Ziri was there, and now we’re here, all of us. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
The horror had left her; the brightness in her eyes was tears, and the curve of her lips was gratitude, and Akiva experienced a surge of self-loathing when he caught himself wondering who the brightness and gratitude were for.
He saw again the look of tenderness that had passed between her and the impostor Wolf back at the kasbah, and saw again the way they’d stood together laughing just the day before.
Godstars. He would be dead right now if the Wolf had been the Wolf, and yet he could stand here and worry whether this “intelligent, powerful, sane” Thiago, this heroic Kirin who was Karou’s closest ally, was a greater threat to his own hopes than a murdering, torturing maniac had been? There were armies poised to fly, and he was worried about who Karou might love?
“But even that’s not the end of it,” she said. “You brought me Issa, and you can’t imagine what else you brought with her, but… Akiva, it made the difference.” Her eyes were so bright, their black gloss like a mirror for the fire of his wings. “It’s Loramendi. It’s… it’s not redemption, not completely, but it’s a start. Or it will be, when we can get there.”
And then she told him about the cathedral.
The magnitude of the news… it struck Akiva dumb and erased all his petty worries.
Brimstone had had a cathedral beneath the city—Akiva hadn’t found it when he walked in a daze through the ruins, because it had been buried, its entrances collapsed and disguised. And in it, in stasis, were souls. Souls uncounted. Children, women. The souls of thousands of chimaera who hadn’t yet gone beyond hope of retrieval.
Akiva had told Karou, back in Morocco, that he would do anything—that he would die a death for every slain chimaera if it would bring them back. He’d said it in the bleakness of believing the words were hollow, that there was nothing he could ever do to prove that he meant them. But… there was.
“Let me help you,” he said at once. “Karou… please. So many souls, you can’t do it alone.” She’d said it wasn’t quite redemption? It was so much closer than he’d ever thought he’d come to it. And if redemption was self-serving, coming as it did ribbon-tied to what he wanted most in life? For once, Akiva’s shame wouldn’t rise to the bait. He wanted what he’d always wanted, and he’d better just say it, his own worries and fears be damned. Whoever she loved, him or the Wolf or no one, he would find out. “It’s all I want, to be beside you, helping you. If it takes forever, all the better, if it’s forever with you.”
And the stone table was between them, a barrier, but there could be no barrier to the smile that was her answer. It was another new species, and Akiva thought that he could spend a thousand years with her—please—and still be discovering new species of smiles. This one was unbearable, sweet as music and heavy as tears. It was all her tension, all her wariness and uncertainty, melting into light.
It was her heart, this smile, and it was for him.
“Okay,” she said. Her voice was small, but the word was bright and heavy, like something he could reach for, and hold.
Okay. Okay, he could help her? Okay to forever?
If that could have been the end of it. Or the beginning. If they could fly together now to Loramendi. Let forever begin now. But of course it couldn’t. Karou spoke again, and her voice was still small, still bright and heavy, but if her okay had been serene and sun-warmed and smooth as a stone, her next words had thorns.
“If we live that long,” she said.
31 THE OPPOSITE OF SURVIVAL
Ziri stood in the doorway. In a glance, he perceived the situation.
Three of his soldiers were dead at his feet. Oora, Sihid, Ves. Wasted flesh, wasted pain, and more blood to walk through. Of those still living, Rark loomed largest, his great ax glinting in the dim, but Ziri’s eyes cut straight to Liraz. Her wingfire burned low—it burned dying low—but she was still the brightest thing in the room. She was shudder-wracked and waxen white, empty-eyed and hollowed out, and she was… laughing? Crying? A horrible sound. She was hemmed in by chimaera, held up by them, and only their grip could be keeping her upright in such a state—keeping her upright and killing her at the same time.
Could a seraph die from the touch of hamsas? One sight of Liraz, and Ziri thought yes. But that wasn’t how they meant to kill her. They held her arms stretched out before her, and in that first glance, Ziri thought he understood.
Rark. The ax. They were going to cut off her arms.
But the ax was at rest against Rark’s thick shoulder, and… the truth came together out of shreds. Sound, sight, odor. The snarl. Slaver strung from yellow fangs, and the reek of triumph. Ten.
That fact hit Ziri like a sucker punch, driving the breath from him. It was Ten. Oh Nitid, oh Ellai, no. Of all the soldiers under his command… his fellow trespasser, his co-conspirator. The one who knew his secret.
She was poised to lunge. And though her body was more human than not, right now her back humped wolflike above her lowered head, fur bristling at the ridge of her shoulders, and the sound of her growl was animal and guttural—felt as much as heard. The room reeked of blood and bowels and burning, hot and close and dead. Corpses and vengeance and no turning back. And Ziri knew what Ten—Haxaya—meant to do.
“Stop.” It was the White Wolf’s voice, smooth and cold as iron, but it was underscored by a horror that was purely Ziri’s. This scene would not have horrified the Wolf, who had ripped apart angels with his own sharp teeth. And once the immediate threat was averted and Ten had swung around to face him, Ziri wasn’t sure why it horrified him as profoundly as it did. He didn’t kill with his teeth, but he’d fought alongside many chimaera who did—and with beaks and claws and horns and spiked tails, and any other weapon at their disposal. Against the superior might of the seraphim, it was a matter of survival.
But this wasn’t. This was the opposite of survival.
This was everything put at risk: the alliance, of course, but the deception, too. Because it was Ten.
Because it was Ten, Ziri stood stiff and silent as Rark and the Dracands spun to face him, too, and Nisk and Lisseth drew up behind him. Because it was Ten, he didn’t know what to say. He felt Haxaya peering out at him through the she-wolf’s yellow eyes, and there was no fear in her, only a sly and roguish contempt.
I dare you, she might well have said. Punish me, and I’ll punish you. Impostor.
His heart was pounding. He fought to slow it. The Naja could read heat signatures, as serpents could; Nisk and Lisseth would be able to sense his turmoil, and Thiago simply did not fall prey to turmoil. Ziri forced his features to hold the Wolf’s default expression of cool, half-lidded appraisal.
“What is the meaning of this, lieutenant?” he asked, low and deadly calm.
Rark’s head gave a small jerk of surprise, and the Dracands, Wiwul and Agwilal, turned hooded looks on Ten. Clearly, she’d told them this was their general’s order, and they’d had no reason to doubt her. She was his second in command, his most trusted lieutenant.
“It’s vengeance,” said Ten, omitting sir. It was stark disrespect, and, he knew, a warning. “This angel is a wicked one. Look at her arms.”
He did look, and was sickened by what he saw—by her extraordinary tally, but by her anguish, too. He didn’t know Liraz, of course. She was beautiful, but what of that? Most seraphim were. She was also hostile and hot-tempered and at full strength she more than matched Ten for ferocity. But he had seen her broken and mourning, too, holding her dead brother in her arms, all that ferocity stripped away to reveal a raw girl. And he had seen something else in her.
Back at the kasbah, to his surprise, she had asked after him—himself, Ziri—in such a way as made clear that… she had noticed his absence. That she had even been aware of his existence was a surprise to him, and then, when he’d told her the Kirin soldier was dead, he had seen—he was certain—a flicker of sorrow in her eyes, there and gone again, like something escaped and quickly recaptured.
Of course, that wasn’t why he couldn’t allow his soldiers to kill or mutilate her in this remote cave—there were a lot bigger and less personal reasons for that. But it might be why a fury was rising in him, as cold as he imagined the real Wolf’s anger would be, and quick to extinguish his turmoil under a layer of implacable purpose. His heartbeat evened out to a calm and heavy hammerfall.
“Release her,” he said, with a flick of his disinterested gaze in her direction. Her eyes were just whites now, rolling up under her fluttering lashes at the edge of consciousness—or life. “Or she’ll be dead before you can explain yourselves.”
Wiwul and Agwilal let go of her at once, and she collapsed against the wall, but only partially, because Ten still held her wrists. A direct order ignored, in the presence of others. So she was going to challenge him. “Explain ourselves?” she asked, mock-innocent with an edge of acid. “What about you… sir?” This sir was worse than none, a bald affront that the Wolf would never abide. “Would you care to explain yourself?”
He heard the intake of breath from behind him—Nisk or Lisseth, stunned by her insubordination. Rark was staring with tusks agape, and Ziri didn’t have to ponder what the real Wolf would do. He knew, and it felt like slipping in blood, to do what the Wolf would. One slip and down you go. The blood coats you. The blood is your life now. But what choice did he have?
His awareness heightened—of the unnatural strength in his borrowed flesh, of the malice and mischief in Ten’s eyes, and of the weight of the future bearing down on all of them if she gave him away.
How could she be so stupid?
It felt like whip-crack, the sliver of an instant it took him to reach her. To lay hands to her head, one behind and one to her muzzle.
And snap her neck.
There wasn’t even time for surprise. With the sound—it wasn’t a snap but a grinding and giving way punctuated by a string of firecracker pops—her eyes went void. No more malice, no more mischief, no more threat, and though the moment before her muscles fell slack felt long, it couldn’t have been more than a second. She fell, and falling, dropped Liraz’s wrists at last, and Liraz fell, too, leading with her cheek to the floor as if she’d long ago lost sense of up and down. Ziri absorbed his own flinch at the impact of her landing, and made himself ignore her as she lay there, her wingfire burning ever dimmer and her trembling the only sign that she still lived.
He faced his soldiers and said, as though there had been no interruption to the conversation, “No, I would not care to explain myself.” His look dared them to be the next to demand it.
Rark was the first to speak. “Sir, we… Ten said it was your order. We would never—”
“I believe you, soldier,” he cut in. Rark looked relieved.
It was too soon for relief.
“I believe that you did, in fact, think that I would be this stupid.” Ziri breathed the last through clenched teeth. “Mere hours until we’re to fly, desperately outnumbered, into battle, and you believe that I would rob my army of strength at the time of greatest need.” He flung a hand out to the dead he’d stepped over in the doorway. “That I would waste bodies that others paid for with their pain. That I would risk every plan I have put in place, and for what? For one angel? You think that I’m stupid enough to cast everything away, rather than wait… a few hours… to engage the thousand angels who are the true and immediate threat. Is this supposed to make me feel better?”
No one answered him, and he shook his head in slow disgust. “The order you followed countermanded every order that you have heard from my own lips, and if you had been able to think further than the jut of your own teeth, you would have questioned it. You did this because you wanted to. Maybe we all want to, but some of us are masters of our desires, and some are slaves, and I had thought you wiser than this.”
Lest Lisseth feel herself clear of his excoriation, he turned to her. “It’s a small grace that Ten didn’t see fit to invite you on her crusade, as you’ve left me in no doubt that you would have complied with eagerness. You’re spared the sentence of your comrades, but we both know it was only circumstance that saved you, not wisdom.”
At the mention of a sentence, Rark, Wiwul, and Agwilal stiffened, and Ziri drew out an uncomfortable silence before putting them out of their misery. “You have lost my confidence,” he said, “and are stripped of rank. You will fight in the coming battle, and if you survive, you will tithe pain to the resurrection of your comrades until such a time as I deem your sins purged. Do you accept this?”
“Yes, sir,” they said, Nisk and Lisseth, too, five voices blending into one.
“Then get out of my sight, and take those three with you.” Oora, Sihid, Ves. “Glean their souls and dispose of their bodies, then wait for me at the resurrection chamber. Tell no one what has happened here. Am I clear?”
Again, a chorus of yes, sirs.
Ziri arranged his face in a look of resignation, a subtle lip curl hinting at distaste. “I will take care of these two.” Ten and Liraz, one living, one dead. He said it darkly, and let the others imagine what they would. He grabbed Ten by the furred scruff of the neck, and Liraz by one arm, roughly—though he kept her bunched sleeve between his hamsa and her skin—as though both were corpses to be dragged down the passageway like cargo. He wouldn’t be able to hold a torch, but with the dim flame of Liraz’s wings, he didn’t need one.
If she died, he would be in darkness.
And darkness would be the least of his worries.
“Go!” he snarled, and the soldiers went, scrambling for the dead, grabbing them and hauling them, leaving blood streaks in their wake, and it was only after they were gone that Ziri readjusted his hold on Liraz, lifting her easily—and gently—with one arm. It felt wrong and far too intimate to rest her body against his own—Not my own, he thought with a shudder—so he kept a space between them, even though it proved awkward as he maneuvered toward the door, all the more so for trying not to hurt her further with his own hamsas.
When he shifted his grip on Ten to navigate the turning, Liraz’s head tipped and fell heavily against his, her brow to his jaw, and Ziri felt the fever heat of a seraph’s skin for the first time before he eased it away, and he breathed up close the scent that he had followed from afar. The spice note was bright, and like a burst of heat it seared a path for something much more subtle and unexpected—the most secret of perfumes, natural, he had no doubt, and so faint his Kirin nose could never have detected it, not even as close as this. It was barely there at all, but in the hint of its existence it was as fragile as night blossoms—not too sweet but just enough, like the dew on a requiem bud in the palest hour of dawn.
Ziri faced straight ahead and didn’t lean or turn to try to breathe it in, but even so, walking in the darkness, dragging a corpse and carrying an angel who would probably gut him for touching her as soon as she recovered—if she recovered—that secret perfume made him conscious of the claws on his fingers, the fangs in his mouth, and all the ways he was not himself. He wore a monster’s skin, and it felt like a violation to even breathe a woman in through its senses, let alone touch her with its hands.
Still he carried her, and still he breathed—because he couldn’t not—and he gave thanks to Nitid, goddess of life—and to Lisseth, whose intentions had been far less pure—for leading him to her in time. He only wished he could have gotten there sooner and spared her the unknown depths of damage the hamsas may have worked in her. Could she possibly be well enough to fly with the rest of them in a few hours’ time? Unlikely. If there was something he could do for her…
Almost at the moment this thought formed, he reached a branching of the passages and realized where he was, and it was the completion of the thought. If there was something he could do for her, he would.
And there was. And so he did.
He turned and took a secondary passage, depositing the she-wolf’s corpse in the entrance to the thermal pools before carrying Liraz to the water’s edge. The healing waters—were they only good for scrapes and bruises? Ziri didn’t know. He had to shift the angel into both arms to carry her into the pool, and when he lowered her into the water, darkness closed in on him and he knew a moment’s panic, thinking that her wings had burned out.
But no. A faint glow lit the water from below; her fire still burned, ember-dim. He eased his hold until he was barely touching her—just his arm beneath the nape of her neck to keep her face above the surface—and he waited, watching her lips and eyelids for some hint of movement. And… so gradually he didn’t at first notice it, the underwater glow brightened, so that by the time Liraz finally moved, Ziri could make out not just the chalk-green cast of the water and the pink of the hanging veils of moss, but the flush of the angel’s cheeks, and the dark gold of her lashes as they fluttered and slowly opened. And fixed on him.
He remembered her words to him back at the kasbah. “We haven’t been introduced,” he had said, to which she’d replied, in hot rebuke, “You know who I am, and I know who you are, and that will serve.”
She didn’t know, though. And he wanted her to.
“We haven’t been introduced,” he said again, as she found her footing under the surface of the soft, dark water. “Not really.”
32 CAKE FOR LATER
“If we live that long.”
It wasn’t what Karou wanted to say. Not even close. In fact, she didn’t want to say anything. Akiva stood facing her from across the stone table, his eyes still full of forever, and all she wanted to do was climb up onto the slab and meet him in the middle. But since when did she get to have what she wanted? Akiva wanted to spend forever with her? It was… it was sun flares and thunderclaps inside her, but it was also like a piece of cake set aside for later. A taunt.
Finish your dinner and you can have your cake.
If you don’t die.
“We’ll live that long,” he said, ardent and certain. “We’ll survive this. We’ll win this.”
“I wish I could be as sure as you are,” she said, but she was thinking: armies angels portals weapons war.
“Be sure. Karou, I won’t let anything happen to you. After everything, and… now… I’m not letting you out of my sight.” After a pause and in the midst of a sweet and bashful blush—as if he was still not certain he was reading her right, or that his now was what he hoped it was—Akiva added, “As long as you want me with you.”
“I want me with you,” she said at once. She heard the mix-up of her words—me with you—but didn’t correct herself. It was exactly what she meant. “But I can’t be with you. Not yet. It’s already decided. Separate battalions, remember?”
“I remember. But I have something to tell you, too. Or better, to show you. I think it might help.” And he sat on the table and swung his legs up, moving to the center and beckoning her to join him.
She did, and felt the temperature rise with his nearness. No more barrier between them. She curled her legs beneath her—the stone was cool—and wondered what this was about. It was no echo of her wanting. He didn’t reach for her, but only regarded her with a half-hesitant intensity. “Karou, do you think the chimaera would consent to mixed battalions?” he asked.
What? “If Thiago commanded it, they would. But what does it matter? Your brothers and sisters won’t. They were pretty clear on that.”
“I know,” he said. “Because of the hamsas. Because you have a weapon against which we have no defense.”
She nodded. Her own hamsas were flat against the slab; it was becoming second nature to conceal the eyes in the presence of seraphim, to guard against accidental assault, but it was precarious. She said, “Our hands are enemies even if we aren’t,” and her tone was light but her heart was not. She didn’t want any part of herself to be Akiva’s enemy.
“But what if they weren’t?” he persisted. “I think I could persuade the Misbegotten to integrate. It makes sense, Karou. One-on-one, the Dominion are no match for us, but it’s not one-on-one, and even without any unforeseen advantage they may have gained, our numbers are strained. Chimaera in our battalions would not only increase our strength, but decrease the enemy’s. And there’s the psychological advantage, too. It will throw them off balance to see us together.” He paused. “It’s the best use of our two armies.”
Where was he going with this? “Maybe you should have told Elyon and Orit that,” she said.
“I will tell them. If you agree, and… if it works.”
“If what works?”
Still looking at her with that half-hesitant intensity, Akiva reached out very slowly, and, with one fingertip light against her cheek, hooked a loose strand of her hair and pushed it behind her ear. The tiny touch sparked and blazed, but the spark and blaze were subsumed by a deeper, fuller fire when he brought the whole of his palm against her cheek. His gaze was vivid, hopeful, and searching, and the touch was whisper-light, and it was… a taste of the cake Karou couldn’t have. It was more than a taunt. It was a torment. She wanted to turn her face and press her lips to Akiva’s palm, and then his wrist, to follow the path of his pulse to its source.
To his heart. His chest, his solidity. His arms around her, that’s what she wanted, and… she wanted movement that spoke to movement, skin to skin and sweat to heat to breath to gasp. Oh god. His touch made her foolish. It spliced her right out of real life with its drumbeat of armies angels portals weapons war and into that paradise they’d imagined long ago—the one that was like a jewel box waiting for them to find it and fill it with their happiness.
Fantasy. Even if they made it to “forever,” it wouldn’t be paradise, but a war-ravaged world with much to learn and unlearn. Work to do and pain to tithe and… and… And cake, Karou thought with defiance. There could be life, around the edges. Akiva every day, in work and in pain, yes, but in love, too.
Cake as a way of life.
And she did turn her face, and she did press her lips to Akiva’s palm, and she felt a shudder go through him and knew that the distance between them was far less than this arm span of physical space. How easy to tip into it and lose herself in a small and temporary paradise…
“Do you remember?” he asked, and his voice was hoarse. “This is the beginning.” And his touch traced down her cheek and down her neck, and it was fire and magic, kindling every atom of her. His fingertips stopped at her clavicle and his palm came down to rest, light as a shawl of hummingbird-moths, against her heart.
“Of course I do,” she said, as hoarse as he was.
“Then give me your hand.” He reached for it and she gave it. He drew it toward himself, and Karou’s eyes were on the V of his neckline, the triangle of his chest, and already in her mind she was sliding her hand under the fabric to rest her palm against his heart.…
Distantly, she recognized the danger and resisted, curling her hand into a fist. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Trust me,” he said. His half-hesitation had melted away when her lips touched his palm, and now there was only the intensity, and the pull—as if, at this distance, their magnets had engaged and could only be wrenched apart by the most committed resistance. Karou’s resistance was not committed. She wanted to touch Akiva like she wanted to breathe. So she let him guide her hand, and when her knuckles brushed his collar, she took over her own part in reenacting the memory—“We are the beginning.”—uncurling her fingers and slipping them under the edge of the fabric to his chest. Akiva’s chest. Akiva’s skin. It was alive under her fingertips and she wanted to follow them with her lips. Her desire was mind-melting, and that was why it took her a long, delirious beat, her hand—her palm—full against his skin, to understand.
Her touch didn’t hurt him.
With wonder in her voice, she asked, “Akiva… how?”
His hand covered hers and held it against him, and she felt the heat in her hamsa as she always did in the presence of seraphim, a prickling sensation, but Akiva didn’t flinch or recoil or tremble. He smiled. The arm span between them had shortened—from the length of his arm to the length of hers, and he shortened it further, leaning toward her, bowing his head and twisting as he whispered, “Magic,” and showed her what he had done.
On the back of his neck was a mark that Karou knew had not been there before. It was low, half-hidden by his collar, but she could see what it was: an eye. A closed eye. His own magic to counteract Brimstone’s. It wasn’t indigo like a hamsa; it wasn’t a tattoo, but a scar. “When did you do this?” she asked.
She traced the fine raised lines of flesh with her fingertip. “It’s already healed.”
He nodded, settling back and raising his head again. And though Karou had begun to get an inkling of what Akiva might be capable of, it still astonished her. The fact that he had scarred and healed himself in a matter of hours was extraordinary, but it was nothing next to the magic it made. He had effectively negated the chimaera’s most powerful weapon—after resurrection, that is, if that could be counted a weapon. Maybe it should have terrified her, but right now, terror wasn’t what Karou was feeling.
“I can touch you,” she marveled, and she couldn’t—or at least didn’t—resist the urge to further prove it by sliding her palm over the hot-smooth terrain of his chest until she felt as if she were holding his heartbeat in her hand.
“As much as you want,” he said, and there was a trembling in him, but it wasn’t from pain.
Skin and forever made for a potent combination, and the real reason Akiva had conjured this magic was as good as forgotten, and so was everything else outside the pulse of their two heartbeats—
—until it turned up at the door.
An unlikelier sight could scarcely have been imagined: shoulder-to-shoulder and dripping wet, stalking through passages with silent purpose and crossing from chimaera domain into seraph by way of a straight shot across the main cavern where nearly everyone was gathered… Thiago and Liraz, dragging the corpse of Ten behind them.
Every voice ceased. Mik had set down his violin some time earlier and was lying with his head in Zuzana’s lap until her gasp served to lurch him upright.
Issa had reared high on her coil and looked more than ever like a serpent goddess from some ancient temple, and all around them the chimaera host were rising or half rising, alert and ready to fight should they be called upon. But they weren’t. The pair marched past, eyes fixed ahead and expressions matching grim, and were gone again, passing by the seraph guard at the far door without a pause or a word of explanation.
Finding Akiva’s door still closed, Liraz gave a chuff of derision and didn’t knock but only crashed it open and glared at the sight that greeted them. Akiva and Karou, eyes bleary with desire, facing each other on a stone slab and touching, hands to hearts.
Some would say that Ellai—goddess of assassins and secret lovers—had been afoot this night, gliding through the passages, busy at mischief and narrow salvation. A few moments one side or the other and Liraz might be dead, or Karou and Akiva caught in a deeper compromise than a bleary-eyed desire fugue with their hands to each other’s hearts. Another moment, and they might have kissed.
But Ellai was a fickle patroness and had failed them—spectacularly—before. Karou didn’t believe in gods anymore, and when the door crashed open, there were only Liraz and the Wolf to blame for it.
“Well,” Liraz said, her voice as dry as the rest of her was not. “At least you still have your clothes on.”
And thank god for that, thought Karou, snatching her hand out of Akiva’s shirt. Instantly she felt the chill of the chamber. How quickly her body adjusted to Akiva’s temperature and made everything else seem cold by contrast. It took a few blinks for her daze to clear, to register the details of wet clothing plastered to skin and the plink of drips, not to mention the waft of sulfur.
Ziri had taken Liraz to bathe at the thermal pools? Well, that was… weird. Fully clothed? Okay, that was less weird than the alternative, but it was all just too weird, and then the Wolf hefted something across the threshold and everything came into focus.
A corpse. “The oath-breaker,” said the Wolf.
Karou unfurled from her perch on the stone table and boosted off the edge to drop down beside the body. At once she saw the scorched handprint on the she-wolf’s chest and looked up at Liraz, who greeted her with a deader-even-than-usual stare.
Akiva joined her beside the body, and in a matter of seconds the corridor was filled with seraphim and also chimaera who’d transgressed the boundary to see what was happening. It was almost funny, that an act of violence like this should in some way be the trigger for the armies’ freer intermingling. Almost funny, but so very not.
It was another powder keg, a lit match poised to fall on it. The next few moments were a scramble of questions and answers. The Wolf told them what had happened, maintaining the deception in every detail. Ten had done this. And Ten had died. As for Haxaya, Karou tried to process the fact of her part in it. She had known her well. As Madrigal, she had fought beside her, and trusted her. She was wild but not unpredictable. Not stupid. In making her part of the deception, Karou had trusted all their lives to her. “Why would she do it?” she asked, and she didn’t expect an answer. She was asking the air, but it was Liraz who answered.
“It was personal,” said the angel. She faced Akiva, and something in her dead stare gave way. The change in her in that instant, Karou thought, was like the change that Ziri brought to the Wolf’s face, though the reason could of course not be the same. It wasn’t somebody else looking out through Liraz’s eyes. It was the mask slipping, and that softer, almost girlish face that she revealed was herself. She said, “Savvath,” and Akiva, letting out a hard breath, nodded understanding.
Karou knew the name. As in: Savvath, battle of. It was a village on the western shores of the Bay of Beasts, or it had been, once. It was before her time.
To Thiago, her face angled toward him but her eyes downcast, Liraz said, “What you do with her soul is your affair, but you should know, I don’t blame her. I deserved her vengeance.”
And Thiago made some reply, but Karou heard it in a state of distraction. Something was tickling at her mind. She kept looking from Ten’s body to Liraz, from the scorched black handprint on the she-wolf’s chest to the angel’s tally, all but concealed by her sleeves, pulled down over the heels of her hands.
Our hands are enemies, even if we aren’t, recalled Karou.
And the angels all went quietly home and no one died. The end.
Her heart started to pound. An idea was taking shape. She didn’t give voice to it, but let its traceries unfurl, following them and searching for defects, anticipating what the arguments would be against it. Could it be this simple? The voices around her muted to a murmur and ran soft under the layer of her thoughts. It could and should be this simple. The plan as it stood was worse than complicated. It was messy. She looked around at the gathered faces: Akiva, Liraz, and the Wolf in the room with her, Elyon and Issa in the doorway, and the shifting figures behind them visible only as a shuffle of fire feathers and furred haunches, black armor and red chitin, smooth flesh and rough, side by side.
All ready to fly into battle, to enact for humanity the apocalypse of its dreams and nightmares.
Or maybe not.
It wasn’t Akiva or the Wolf who first noticed the change in Karou’s manner—the straightening of her posture, the brightness of her exhilaration. It was Liraz. “What’s come over you?” she asked, in a tone of chagrined curiosity.
It was apt, that it was Liraz. “If you think of a better idea, I’m sure you’ll let us know,” she’d said at the end of the war council, scornful and dismissive. And now Karou fixed her with the strength of her own certainty. Her desperation had become conviction, and it felt like steel.
“I’ve thought of a better idea,” she said. “Reconvene the council. Now.”
Once upon a time,
a girl went to see a monster menagerie
where all the exhibits were dead.
ARRIVAL + 36 HOURS
33 LIKE AN ALIEN INVASION
“They should treat it like an alien invasion.”
Morgan’s words kept coming back to Eliza on the plane. Outside the window was a mystery nightscape—a blur of clouds parting now and then to reveal… darkness. Were they over the Atlantic? How crazy to not even know that much for certain. How often did this happen to people, this not knowing where in the world you were?
Eliza shivered and drew her forehead back from the cold windowpane. There was nothing to see out there but cloud tatters and night. If this were a book or a movie, she thought, she’d be able to read the stars and get her bearings. Characters always had just the right random skill set to master the situation at hand. Like, Thank god for that summer on an uncle’s smuggling boat and the handsome deckhand who taught me celestial navigation. Ha.
Eliza had no random skills. Well, she did a mean horror-movie scream, apparently. Useful, that. Oh, and she was handy with a scalpel. When she’d taught the undergrad anatomy lab back at her university, a student had joked that she probably knew all the best places to stab someone, and she supposed she did, though it was not a skill she had ever had to call upon.
So basically, the sum of her special skills amounted to stabbing with great accuracy while horror-movie screaming. She was practically a superhero!
Oh god. It was the fatigue. She estimated that she was into hour thirty-six of keeping awake—not counting her brief doze in the lab—and it was no easy thing. The soft sounds of Dr. Chaudhary’s snores from across the aisle were torture. What would it be like, to be able to nod off without fear?
Who would she be, without the dream? Who was she anyway? Was she “Eliza Jones,” whom she had created from scratch, or was she, immutably, that other self, molded by others, and crushed by them, too?
People with destinies shouldn’t make plans.
Such were her thoughts when she detected the plane’s first pitch of descent. She put her face again to the cold windowpane and saw that the darkness outside was no longer entire. A dawn flush clung to the contours of the world, and… Eliza’s brow furrowed. She leaned closer, tried angling her face for a better view. She had never been to Italy, but she was fairly certain that this was not it.
Italy didn’t have… a desert, did it?
She glanced at the agents seated several rows back, but their faces gave away nothing.
Jostled by turbulence, Dr. Chaudhary finally woke and turned to Eliza. “Are we there?” he asked, stretching.
“We’re somewhere,” Eliza replied, and he leaned toward his own window to peer out.
A long look, a lift of his eyebrows, and he settled back into his seat. “Hmm,” was all he said, which, in the parlance of Dr. Chaudhary, translated roughly to: Very strange indeed.
Eliza felt as if her rib cage had flinched up against her heart. Where are we being taken?
By the time the plane’s wheels touched down on a desolate stretch of desert runway, the sun had cleared a ridge of mountains and revealed a land the color of dust. The single building that served as a terminal was squat and fashioned seemingly of the same dust.
The Middle East? Eliza wondered. Tattooine? A sign, hand-painted, was illegible in exotic, curling letters. Arabic, at a guess. That probably eliminated Tattooine.
An official in some kind of military uniform stood off to the side of the runway. One of the agents conferred with him and handed him papers. And in the shadow of the dirt building, two more men leaned against an SUV. One was an agent in the requisite dark suit; the other was dark-skinned, in a robe, with a length of brilliant blue cloth wrapped around his head.
“A Tuareg,” noted Dr. Chaudhary. “Blue men of the Sahara.”
The Sahara? Eliza looked around with new eyes. Africa.
The agents said nothing, only led them to the vehicle.
The drive was long and strange: stretches of perfect featurelessness punctuated by marvelous ruined cities, the occasional laundry line or drift of smoke hinting that they were still inhabited. They passed children riding camels, a flock of walking women in headscarves and shabby long dresses of a dozen sun-bleached colors. At a place as featureless as any other, the vehicle left the road and began to bump and rock uphill, sometimes fishtailing over the scree. Eliza’s knuckles were white on the strap above the door, and all thoughts of angels were left behind with the airplane.
This was something else altogether, she suddenly knew, with a piercing and utterly unscientific breed of knowing that she thought she’d left behind. A dark foreboding gripped her, unleashed from the closet of memory, of childhood, when she had believed with a child’s guilelessness what she had been taught to believe: that evil was real and was watching, that the devil was in the shadow of the yew hedge, waiting to claim her soul.
There is no devil, she told herself, angry. But whatever she’d convinced herself of in the years since she left home, it was hard to believe it now, in light of current events.
The Beasts are coming for you.
“Look.” Dr. Chaudhary pointed.
Uphill, stark against the shadow of distant mountains, appeared a fortress of red earth. As they drew nearer, tires grinding over rocks, Eliza saw that more vehicles stood outside its walls, among them jeeps and heavy military transport trucks. A helicopter, off to one side, idle. There were soldiers patrolling, dressed in dusty desert camouflage, and… she caught her breath and turned to Dr. Chaudhary. He had seen them, too.
Cutting down a path from the fortress: figures in white hazmat suits.
Alien invasion protocol, thought Eliza. Oh hell.
One of the agents made a phone call, and by the time their vehicle came to a stop near the others, a man with a broad black mustache was there to greet them. He wore civilian clothes and spoke with an accent and an air of authority. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Morocco, doctor. I am Dr. Youssef Amhali.”
The men shook hands. Eliza merited a nod.
“Dr. Amhali—” began Dr. Chaudhary.
“Please, call me Youssef.”
“Youssef. Are you able to tell us why we’re here?”
“Certainly, doctor. You’re here because I asked for you. We have… a situation that exceeds my expertise.”
“And your expertise is?” inquired Dr. Chaudhary.
“I am a forensic anthropologist,” he replied.
“What kind of situation?” asked Eliza, too quickly, too loudly.
Dr. Amhali—Youssef—raised his eyebrows, pausing to take her measure. Should she have remained the silent assistant, the obedient female? Maybe he heard fear in her voice, or maybe it was just a stupid question, considering his field. Eliza was well aware what forensic anthropologists did, and what must have brought them all here.
And when he lifted his head, just slightly, and sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose in distaste, Eliza smelled it: a ripe rankness on the air. Decay. “The kind of situation, miss, that smells worse on a hot day,” he said.
“The kind of situation,” Dr. Youssef Amhali continued, “that could start a war.”
Eliza understood, or thought she did. It was a mass grave. But she didn’t understand why they were here. Dr. Chaudhary gave voice to this question. “You’re the specialist here,” he suggested. “What need can you have of me?”
“There are no specialists for this,” said Dr. Amhali. He paused. His smile was morbid and amused, but underlying it Eliza detected fear, and it fed her own. What’s going on here?
“Please.” He motioned them ahead of him. “It’s easier if you see them for yourselves. The pit is this way.”
34 THINGS KNOWN AND BURIED
They were at least twenty minutes doing paperwork, signing a series of nondisclosure agreements that escalated Eliza’s anxiety page by page. Another quarter of an hour fumbling into hazmat suits—ratcheting the anxiety up even further—and at last they joined the insectlike parade of white-clad figures on the path.
Dr. Amhali paused at the top of the slope. His voice came out thin, filtered through the breathing apparatus of his suit. “Before I take you any farther,” he said, “I must remind you that what you are about to see is classified and highly volatile. Secrecy is paramount. The world is not ready to see this, and we are certainly not ready for it to be seen. Do you understand?”
Eliza nodded. She had no peripheral vision, and had to turn to catch Dr. Chaudhary’s nod. Several white figures trouped behind him, and she realized that there were no distinguishing features to any of them. If she blinked, she could lose track of which one was Dr. Chaudhary. She felt like she’d stepped into some kind of purgatory. It was deeply surreal, and became even more so once the restricted site came into view. Downhill from the kasbah, a rope perimeter enclosed a cluster of acid-yellow hazmat tents. Big, squat generators hummed, snaking power lines into the tents like umbilical cords. Personnel milled about, grublike at this distance in their head-to-toe white plastic.
Farther out, soldiers patrolled. In the sky were more helicopters.
The sun was merciless, and Eliza felt as though her air supply were being syphoned into her mask through a straw. Clumsy and stiff in her suit, she picked her way downhill. Her fear, like her shadow, lengthened before her.
What was in the pit? What was in the tents?
Dr. Amhali guided them to the nearest one and paused again. “ ‘The Beasts are coming for you,’ ” he quoted. “That’s what the angel said.” And it seemed to Eliza that in the space of seconds she became just a heartbeat encased in plastic. Beasts. Oh god, here? “It would seem that they are already among us.”
Among us, among us.
And with a showman’s flourish, he whipped back the flap door to reveal…
The word beast, Eliza realized slowly, encompassed an extremely broad spectrum of creatures. Animals, monsters, devils, even unspeakable dream-things so terrible they can stop a little girl’s heart. These were not the latter. Not by a long shot.
These were not her monsters, and as her heart resumed something like normal beating, she chastised herself. Of course they weren’t. What had she been thinking? Or not thinking. Her monsters existed on a vast dream plane, at a whole different order of magnitude.
You call these beasts, Youssef? she might have said, laughing in breathless relief. You don’t know from beasts.
She didn’t laugh. She whispered, “Sphinxes.”
“Pardon me?” asked Dr. Amhali.
“They look like sphinxes,” she clarified, raising her voice but not lifting her eyes from them. Her fear was gone. It had been snatched away and replaced by fascination. “From mythology.”
Woman-cats. Two of them, identical. Panthers with human heads. Eliza stepped through the door, immediately feeling a reprieve from the heat. The tent was cooled by a loud AC unit, and the sphinxes were on metal tables set atop drums of dry ice. Their furred, felid bodies were soft black, and their wings—wings—were dark and feathered.
Their throats had been cut, and their chests were dark with dried gore.
Dr. Chaudhary stepped past Eliza and removed the helmet of his hazmat suit.
“Doctor,” said Dr. Amhali at once, “I must object.” But Dr. Chaudhary didn’t appear to hear him. He approached the nearest sphinx. His head looked small and disembodied above his suit, and his expression was poised at the edge of skepticism.
Eliza took off her helmet, too, and the stench hit her at once—a much purer form of the smell that had wafted up the hill, but she could see the creatures with much greater clarity. She joined Dr. Chaudhary beside the body. Their escort was agitated, scolding them about risk and regulations, but it was easy to tune him out, considering what lay before them.
“Tell me what you know,” said Dr. Chaudhary, all business. Dr. Amhali did, and it wasn’t much. The bodies had been found, more than two dozen of them in an open pit. That was what it boiled down to.
“I hoped to dismiss it easily as a hoax,” said the Moroccan scientist, “but found that I could not. My hope now, I will admit, is that you can.”
By way of reply, Dr. Chaudhary only lifted his eyebrows.
“Do they all look like this?” Eliza inquired.
“Not remotely,” replied Dr. Amhali, twitching a stiff nod toward a sheet of white canvas humped high over a much greater bulk than the sphinxes.
What’s under there? Eliza wondered. But Dr. Chaudhary only nodded and returned his attention to the sphinxes. She joined him, ran a gloved finger over a feline foreleg, then leaned over one dark wing. She lifted a feather with a fingertip and examined it. “Owl,” she said, surprised. “See the fimbriae?” She indicated the feather’s leading edge. “These flutings are unique to owl plumage. It is what makes them silent in flight. These look like owl feathers.”
“I hardly think these are owls,” said Dr. Amhali.
Are you sure? Eliza quipped inside her head, because I heard the owls in Africa have lady heads. She felt… high. Dread had walked down the hill with her. At the mention of the word beasts, it had coiled itself around her and squeezed—the dream, the nightmare, the chasing, the devouring—and now it was gone, leaving relief in its wake, and exhaustion, and awe. The awe was on top: the top scoop in the ice-cream cone. Nightmare ice cream, she thought, giddy.
“You’re right. They are not owls,” agreed Dr. Chaudhary, and probably only someone as familiar with his tones as Eliza was could have detected the dryness of sarcasm. “At least, not entirely.”
And what followed was a cursory head-to-toe inspection with the aim of ruling out a hoax. “Look for surgical seams,” Dr. Chaudhary instructed Eliza, and she did as he asked, examining the places the creature’s disparate elements conjoined: the neck and the wing joints, primarily. She couldn’t share Dr. Amhali’s hope; she didn’t want to find surgical seams. If she did, for one thing… then where—or who—had the heads come from? That would be a horror movie rather than a momentous scientific discovery. And anyway, it was a pointless exercise. She knew that the creatures were real. As she knew that the angels were real.
These were things that she knew.
No, you don’t, she told herself. That’s not how it works. You wonder, and you gather data and study it, and eventually you posit a hypothesis and test it. Then maybe you begin to know.
But she did know, and trying to pretend otherwise was like screaming at a hurricane.
I know other things, too.
And with that, one of the other things… presented itself. It was as though a fortune-teller flipped over a tarot card in her mind and showed her this knowledge, this truth that had been lying facedown in there… all her life. Longer. Much longer than that. It was there, and it was a very large thing to suddenly know. Very large. Eliza took a deep breath, which is not an excellent idea while standing corpse-side, and she had to stagger back, taking a succession of quick, purposeful breaths to clear the miasma of death from her lungs.
“Are you all right?” inquired Dr. Chaudhary.
“Fine,” she said, struggling to cover her agitation. She really didn’t want him thinking she was squeamish and couldn’t handle this, and she really really didn’t want him wishing he’d brought Morgan Toth instead, so she got right back to work, assiduously ignoring the… tarot card… now lying faceup in her mind.
There is another universe.
That was the thing that she knew. In school Eliza had shirked physics egregiously in favor of biology, and so she had only the most simplistic understanding of string theory, but she knew that there was a case to be made for parallel universes, scientifically speaking. She didn’t know what that case was, and it didn’t matter anyway. There was another universe. She didn’t have to prove it.
Hell. The proof was right here, dead at her feet. And the proof was in Rome, alive. And—
It hit her with hilarity. “They should treat it like an alien invasion,” Morgan had said, and he’d been exactly right, the little pissant. It was an alien invasion. It just happened that the aliens looked like angels and beasts, and came not from “outer space” but from a parallel universe. With ever-deepening hilarity, she imagined floating this theory to the two doctors beside her—“Hey, you know what I think?”—and it was about then that she realized her hilarity was not hilarity at all, but panic.
It wasn’t the beasts or the smell or the heat or even her exhaustion, and it wasn’t even the idea of another universe. It was the knowing. It was feeling it inside herself—the truth and depth of it buried within her, like monsters in a pit. Only the monsters were dead and couldn’t hurt anyone. The knowing could rip her apart.
Her sanity, anyway.
It happened, in her family. “You have the gift,” her mother had told her when she was very young and lying on a hospital bed, full of tubes and surrounded by beeping machines. It was the first time her heart had gone haywire and turned into a mass of fibrillating muscle, very nearly killing her. Her mother hadn’t held her, not even then. She’d just knelt beside her with her hands folded in prayer, a fervor in her eyes—and envy. Always, after that, envy. “You will see for us. You will guide us all.”
But Eliza wasn’t guiding anyone anywhere. The “gift” was a curse. She’d known it even then. Her family history was potholed with madness, and she had no intention of being the latest in a string of “prophets” locked away in asylums, ranting about the apocalypse and licking spots on the walls. She’d worked very hard to stifle her “gift” and be who she wanted to be, and she’d succeeded. From teenage runaway to National Science Foundation fellow and soon-to-be doctor? She’d succeeded pretty freaking wildly—in all ways but one. The dream. It came when it wanted, too big to bury, more powerful than she was. More powerful than anything.
But now other things were stirring in her, too, other truths that weren’t her own, and it terrified her. Several times she swayed. Her light-headedness had become extreme, and she was beginning to suspect that by going sleepless to deny the dream, she had weakened something else within herself. She breathed in and she breathed out, and she told herself she could control her mind as she controlled her muscles.
“Eliza, are you certain you’re all right? If you need some fresh air, please—”
“No. No, I’m fine.” She forced a smile and bent back over the sphinx in front of her.
They found they could not satisfy Dr. Amhali’s hope. There were no seams to be found, they concluded, and no “made by Frankenstein” patch sewn conveniently onto the back of the necks, either. There was something, though.
Eliza held one of the sphinxes’ dead hands in her own gloved one for a long beat, staring at the mark, before speaking. “Did you see this?”
From Dr. Amhali’s silent stance, she guessed that he had, and maybe had been waiting for them to discover it. Dr. Chaudhary blinked at it several times, making the same connection that Eliza had made.
“The Girl on the Bridge,” he said.
The Girl on the Bridge: the blue-haired beauty who’d fought angels in Prague, hands held out before her and inked with indigo eyes. They’d made the cover of Time magazine, and had since become synonymous with demon. Kids liked to draw them on with ballpoint pen to act wicked. It was the new 666.
“Are you beginning to understand what this means?” Dr. Amhali asked, very intense. “Do you see how the world will interpret it? The angels flew to Rome; it’s all very nice for Christians, yes? Angels in Rome, warning of beasts and wars, while here, in a Muslim country, we unearth… demons. What do you think the response will be?”
Eliza saw his point, and felt his fear. The world needed far less provocation than actual flesh-and-blood “demons” to go crazy. Still, these creatures ignited a wonder in her, and she couldn’t bring herself to wish them fake.
In any case, those were concerns for governments and diplomats, police and military, not scientists. Their work was the bodies in front of them—the physical matter, and that alone. There was much to do: tissue samples to collect and store, along with exhaustive measurements and photographs to take and log as reference for each body. But first, they opted for an overview of the work ahead of them.
“Do all the bodies have the marks?” Dr. Chaudhary asked Dr. Amhali.
“All but one,” Dr. Amhali replied, and Eliza wondered about that, but the next creature they saw—the large bulk under the white tarp—did have them, and so did the bodies in the next tent, and the next, so Eliza forgot about it. It was enough to try to process what she was seeing—and smelling—one body at a time. She was nauseated and overwhelmed, her panic never far off—the sense of things known and buried—and she was prey, too, to a peculiar sadness. Going tent to tent like this, seeing this array of unearthly creatures, it felt like a carnival menagerie where all the exhibits were dead.
All were wild amalgams of recognizable animal parts, and they were in successively advanced states of decay. The deeper they had been in the pit, the longer they’d been dead, suggesting that they’d been killed one by one over a period of time, and not all at once. Whatever had gone on here, it hadn’t been a massacre.
And then they came to the final hazmat tent, off by itself on the far side of the pit. “This one was buried alone,” said Dr. Amhali, lifting the flap for them. “In a shallow grave.”
Eliza entered, and at the sight of this final “exhibit” in the dead menagerie, sadness sang in her brighter than ever. This was the one without marks on his palms. He’d been buried with some suggestion of care—not flung into the stinking pit, but laid out and covered with dirt and gravel. A grayish residue of dust clung to his flesh, making him seem like a sculpture.
Maybe that was why she was able to think, right away, that he was beautiful. Because he didn’t look real. He looked like art. She could almost have wept for him, which made no sense. If the others were variously “monstrous,” he was the most “demonic” or “devilish”: mostly humanoid, with the addition of long black horns and cloven hooves, and bat wings stretched out on the ground on either side of him, at least a dozen feet in span, their edges curling up against the sides of the tent.
But he didn’t strike her as demonic. As the angels hadn’t struck her as “angelic.”
What happened here? she wondered in silence. It wasn’t her job to figure that out, but she couldn’t help herself. Questions rose in a stir, like startled birds. Who killed these creatures, and why? And what were they doing in the Moroccan wilderness? And… what were their names?
A part of her mind told her this was the wrong response to seeing dead monsters—to wonder at their names—but this last body especially, with its fine features, made her want to know. The tip of one horn was snapped off, a simple detail, and she wondered how it had happened, and from there it was an easy trajectory to wondering everything else. What had his life been like, and why was he dead?
The men were talking, and she heard Dr. Amhali telling Dr. Chaudhary that the creatures seemed to have been living in the kasbah for some time, and had vacated it only the day before yesterday.
“Some nomads witnessed their departure,” said Dr. Amhali.
“Wait,” Eliza said. “There were some seen alive? How many?”
“We don’t know. The witnesses were hysterical. Dozens, they said.”
Dozens. Eliza wanted to see them. She wanted to see them living and breathing. “Well, where did they go? Have you found them?”
Dr. Amhali’s voice was wry. “They went that way,” he said, pointing… up. “And no, we have not.”
According to the witnesses, the “demons” had flown toward the Atlas Mountains, though no evidence had been found to back this up. If it weren’t for the proof of the story in the form of liquefying monster corpses, it would have been dismissed as ludicrous. As it was, helicopters continued to scour the mountains, and agents had gone by jeep and camel to track down any Berber tribes and herdsmen who might have seen anything.
Eliza stepped out of the tent with the doctors. They won’t find them, she thought, looking at the mountains, the vision of snow-capped peaks so incongruous in the heat. There is another universe, and that’s where they’ve gone.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Jael, emperor of the seraphim, gave a savage lurch and twist of his shoulders to dislodge the invisible creature riding on his back.
If Razgut had wanted to stay put, such a maneuver would never have knocked him loose. His grip was strong, and so was his will, and—after a long life of unimaginable torment—so was his pain tolerance. “Make me,” he might have snapped, and laughed his mad laugh while the emperor did his worst.
Usually he found it worth the pain to cause others misery, but, as it happened, Jael’s foulness superseded even the pleasure of torturing him, and Razgut was happy to oblige. He let go of him and flailed to the marble floor with a thud and gasp, becoming visible at the moment of impact. He pushed himself upright, his atrophied legs splayed to one side. “You’re welcome,” he said, a parody of dignity.
“You think I should thank you?” Jael removed his helmet and thrust it at a guard. Only in privacy could the ruin of his face be revealed: the hideous scar that slashed from hairline to chin, obliterating his nose and leaving a lisping, slurping wreckage of a mouth. “For what?” he demanded, spittle flying.
A grimace teased Razgut’s own hideous face—a bloated sack of purple, his skin stretched blister-tight. He replied peevishly and in Latin, which the emperor could of course not understand: “For not snapping your neck while I had the chance. It would have been so very easy.”
“Enough of your human tongues,” said Jael, imperious and impatient. “What are you saying?”
They were in an opulent suite of rooms in the Papal Palace adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, and had just come from a meeting of world leaders at which Jael had presented his demands. Had presented them, that is, by way of repeating every syllable Razgut whispered in his ear.
“For words,” said Razgut, in Seraphic this time, and sweetly. “Without my words, my lord, what are you but a pretty face?” He snickered, and Jael kicked him.
It wasn’t a dramatic kick. There was no showmanship in it, only brutal efficiency. A quick, hard jerk, and the steel-enforced toe of his slipper spiked into Razgut’s side, deep into the misshapen bloat of flesh. Razgut cried out. The pain was sharp and bright, precise. He curled around it.
There was a crack in the shell of Razgut’s mind. It had been, once, a very fine mind, and the crack was as a flaw in a diamond, a seam in a crystal globe. It spidered. It snaked. It subverted every ordinary feeling into some mutant cousin of itself: recognizable, but gone oh so very wrong. When he looked back up at Jael, hatred mingled with mirth in his eyes.
It was his eyes that marked him as what he was. To stand back and look at him in the company of his kin, it seemed impossible that they were of the same race. Seraphim were all symmetry and grace, power and magnificence—even Jael, as long as the center margin of his face stayed covered—where Razgut was a blighted, crawling thing, a corruption of flesh more goblin than angel. He had been beautiful once, oh yes, but now only his eyes told that tale. The almond shape of them stood out as fine in his swollen, bruise-colored face.
The other tell of his ancestry was more dreadful: the spikes of splintered bone that jutted from his shoulder blades. His wings had been torn off. Not even cut, but ripped away. The pain was a thousand years old, but he would never forget it.
“When there are weapons in my soldiers’ hands,” said Jael, looming over him, “when humanity is on its knees before me, then perhaps I’ll value your words.”
Razgut knew better. He knew that he was destined to become a bloodstain the instant Jael got his weapons, which put him in an interesting position, being the one charged with getting them for him.
If he was to become a bloodstain whether he failed or succeeded, the question was: Would he prefer to be a quivering and obedient bloodstain, or a willful and infuriating bloodstain who brought an emperor’s ambitions crashing down around him?
It seemed an easy decision on the face of it. How simple it would be to humiliate and destroy Jael. It had amused Razgut, in the meeting of great gravity and importance they’d just come from, to think up absurd lines he might feed him. The fool was so certain of Razgut’s groveling servility that he would repeat anything. It was a rich temptation, and several times Razgut had chuckled, imagining it.
There is no god, you fools, he might have made him say. There are only monsters, and I am the worst of them.
It was fun, holding the cards. For his part, Razgut understood perfectly well that if Jael had come here without him, and addressed Earth in his native tongue, their hosts would have put all their considerable human ingenuity to work coding a translation program and would probably have been able to understand them perfectly well within a week, and even speak back by way of a computer-generated voice.
As one may imagine, he had not explained this to Jael. Better to intercept every syllable, control every phrase. To the Russian ambassador: Does anyone have gum? My breath is unbelievable.
Or possibly, to the American Secretary of State: Let us seal our communion with a kiss. Come to me, my dear, and take off my helmet.
Now wouldn’t that be fun?
But he had held himself back, because the decision—to ruin Jael or help him—had profound and far-reaching ramifications quite beyond anything the emperor himself imagined.
Oh. Quite beyond.
“You will have your weapons,” Razgut told him. “But we must go carefully, my lord. This is a free world and not your army to command. We must make them want to give us what we need.”
“Give me what I need,” corrected Jael.
“Oh yes, you,” Razgut amended. “All for you, my lord. Your weapons, your war, and the untouchable Stelians, groveling before you.”
The Stelians. They were to be Jael’s first target, and this was rich. Razgut didn’t know what had sparked the emperor’s especial hatred of them, but the reason didn’t matter, only the result. “How sweet will be the day.” He simpered, he fawned. He hid his laughter, and it felt good inside him, because oh, he knew things, yes, and yes, it was good to be the one who knows things. The only one who knows.
Razgut had told his secrets once and only once, to the one whose wish for knowledge had made him a broken angel’s mule. Izîl. It surprised Razgut how much he missed the old beggar. He had been bright and good, and Razgut had destroyed him. Well, and what had the human expected: Something for nothing? From scholar to madman, doctor to graverobber, that had been his fate, but he’d gotten what he wanted, hadn’t he? Knowledge beyond even what Brimstone could have told him, because not even the old devil had known this. Razgut remembered what no one else did.
Terrible and terrible and terrible forever.
It was not forgotten by chance. Minds had been altered. Emptied. Hands had reached in, and scraped out the past. But not Razgut’s.
Izîl, old fool, had tried to tell the fire-eyed angel who came to them in Morocco. Akiva was his name, and he had Stelian blood, but not Stelian knowledge, that was clear, and he wouldn’t listen. “I can tell you things!” Izîl had cried. “Secret things! About your own kind. Razgut has stories—”
But Akiva had cut him off, refusing to hear the word of a Fallen. As if he even knew what that meant! Fallen. He’d said it like a curse, but he had no idea. “Like mold on books, grow myths on history,” Izîl had said. “Maybe you should ask someone who was there, all those centuries ago. Maybe you should ask Razgut.”
But he hadn’t. No one ever asked Razgut. What happened to you? Why was this done to you?
Who are you, really?
Oh, oh, and oh. They should have asked.
Razgut told Jael now, “We will bring the humans around, never fear. They’re always like this, arguing, arguing. It’s meat and drink to them. Besides, it’s not these self-important heads of state we care about. This is just for show. While they wag their withered faces at each other, the people are working on your behalf. Mark my words. Already groups will be building up their arsenals, making ready to hand them over to you. It will only be a matter of choosing, my lord, who you wish to take them from.”
“Where are all these offers, then?” Spittle flew. “Where?”
“You said I would be worshiped as a god!”
“Yes, well, you’re an ugly god,” spat Razgut, no model himself of the patience he preached. “You make them nervous. You spit when you speak, you hide behind your mask, and you stare at them like you would murder them all in their beds. Have you considered trying charm? It would make my job easier.”
Again, Jael kicked him. It was a brighter stab of pain this time, and Razgut coughed blood onto the exquisite marble floor. Dipping a fingertip into it, he scribbled an obscenity.
Jael shook his head in disgust and stalked over to a table where refreshments were laid out. He poured himself a glass of wine and began to pace. “It’s taking too long,” he said, his voice a snap of spite. “I didn’t come here for rituals and chanting. I came for arms.”
Razgut affected a sigh and began to drag himself slowly, laboriously, toward the door. “Fine. I’ll go and speak to them myself. It will be faster, anyway. Your Latin pronunciation is appalling.”
Jael signaled to the pair of Dominion guarding the door, and Razgut was laughing as they seized him by his armpits and hauled him back, dropping him hard at Jael’s feet. He cackled at his joke. “Imagine their faces!” he cried, wiping a tear from one fine, dark eye. “Oh, imagine if the Pope walked in here right now and saw the pair of us in all our magnificence! ‘These are angels?’ he would cry and clutch his heart. ‘Oh, and then what in the name of God are beasts?’ ” He doubled over, quaking with laughter.
Jael did not share his amusement. “We are not a pair,” he said, his voice cold and very soft. “And know this, thing. If you ever cross me—”
Razgut cut him off. “What? What will you do to me, dear Emperor?” He peered up at Jael and held his gaze. Very steady, very still. “Look and see. Look into me and know. I am Razgut Thrice-Fallen, Wretchedest of Angels. There is nothing you can take from me that has not already been taken, nothing you can do that has not already been done.”
“You have not yet been killed,” said Jael, unyielding.
At that, Razgut smiled. His teeth were perfect in his awful face, and the crack in his mind showed mad in his eyes. With taunting insincerity, he clasped his hands and begged, “Not that, my lord. Oh hurt me, torment me, but whatever you do, please oh please, don’t give me peace!”
And spasms of fury moved over Jael’s cut-in-half face, his jaw clenched so tight that his scar pulled white while the rest of him flushed crimson. He should have understood, then. This was what Razgut thought, still laughing, as Jael laid into him with the steel-enforced tips of his slippers, giving birth to pain after pain, a whole family of them, a dynasty of hurt. That was the moment that Jael should have grasped, finally, that he was not in control. He couldn’t kill Razgut; he needed him. To interpret human languages, yes, but more than that: to interpret humans, to understand their history and politics and psychology and devise a strategy and rhetoric to appeal to them.
He could kick him, oh yes, and Razgut would croon to the pain all night long and comfort it like an armful of babies, and in the morning he would count his bruises, and number his spites and miseries, and go on smiling, and go on knowing all the things that no one remembered, the things that should never have been forgotten, and the reason—oh godstars, the most excellent and terrible reason—that Jael should leave the Stelians alone.
“I am Razgut Thrice-Fallen, Wretchedest of Angels,” he sang in a patchwork of human languages, from Latin to Arabic to Hebrew and around again, breaking it up with grunts as the kicks came to him. “And I know what fear is! Oh yes, and I know what beasts are, too. You think you do but you don’t, but you will, oh you will, oh you will. I’ll get you your weapons and I’ll get them fast, and I’ll laugh when you kill me like I laugh when you kick me, and you’ll hear the echo of it at the end of everything and know that I could have stopped you. I could have told you.”
Don’t do this, oh no, not this, he could have said. Or everyone will die.
“And I might have,” he added in Seraphic, “if you had been kinder to this poor, broken thing.”
36 THE ONLY NON-IDIOT ON THE PLANET
“Hello, King Morgan,” said Gabriel, popping his head into the lab. “And how is the planet’s only non-idiot on this fine day?”
“Screw you,” replied Morgan, without turning from his computer.
“Ah, excellent,” said Gabriel. “I’m having a lovely morning, too.” He came into the lab a few steps and looked around. “Have you seen Eliza? She hasn’t been home.”
Morgan snerched. At least, that was the nearest phonetic case to be made for the sound he ejected from his nose: snerch. “Yeah, I’ve seen her. The sight of Eliza Jones asleep with her mouth open ruined my day.”
“Oh,” said Gabriel, all helpful good cheer. “No, that probably wasn’t it. It was probably already ruined, when you woke up from a dream of having friends and being admired and realized you were still you.”
Morgan finally turned around to favor him with a sour glare. “What do you want, Edinger?”
“I thought I said. I’m looking for Eliza.”
“Who is clearly not here,” said Morgan, swinging back around. He was on the very verge of saying, with all the considerable snideness in his arsenal, that she probably wasn’t even in the country, followed up with the charming assessment that her absence likely accounted for the unusual clarity of the air, when Gabriel spoke again.
“I have her phone,” he said. “She hasn’t been home, and she’s gotten about a million messages. I honestly didn’t think it was possible to survive this long without one’s phone. Are you sure she’s all right?”
And Morgan Toth’s expression changed. He was still faced away, and Gabriel might have caught the reflection of his look in his computer screen if he’d been paying attention, but he never paid very close attention to Morgan Toth.
“She went somewhere with Dr. Chaudhary,” Morgan said, and his tone was unchanged, as sour as ever, but there was a slyness in his expression now, and a cool, malicious eagerness. “They’ll be right back, if you want to leave it.”
Gabriel hesitated. He weighed the phone in his palm and looked around the room. He saw Eliza’s sweatshirt slung over a chair by one of the sequencers. “All right,” he said finally, walking a few steps to set the phone down next to it. “Would you tell her to text me when she gets it?”
“Sure,” said Morgan, and for a second Gabriel hesitated in the doorway, suspicious that the little prig was suddenly being so accommodating. But then Morgan added, “Tell you what. Hold your breath until that happens,” and Gabriel just rolled his eyes and left.
And Morgan Toth was remarkably restrained. He waited five minutes, five entire minutes—three hundred tiny stutters of the clock’s long hand—before he locked the door and picked up the phone.
37 PREOCCUPIED BY BLISS
“Are you sure you can do this?” Akiva asked his sister, his brow creased with concern. They were in the entrance cavern where, just the day before, the armies had very nearly ended each other. The scene before them now was… quite different.
“What, spend several days in the company of your paramour?” Liraz replied, looking up from making an adjustment to her sword belt. “It won’t be easy. If she tries to dress me in human clothes, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”
Akiva’s answering smile was humorless. There was nothing he wanted more right now than to be the one spending several days with Karou—even several such days as these would be, persuading their sadistic, warmongering uncle, quite contrary to his own desires, to go back home. “I’m holding you responsible for more than your actions,” he told Liraz. He meant it to sound light.
It didn’t. Her eyes flashed angry. “What, don’t you trust me with your precious lady? Maybe you should assign an entire battalion to escort her.”
Or just go myself, was what he wanted to say. He’d told Karou he wasn’t letting her out of his sight, but it turned out he would have to, one last time. They had all agreed to her plan, as bold as it was sly, and his own part, as it had evolved, was considerable, and crucial, but it would keep him in Eretz while Liraz accompanied Karou back to the human world.
“You know I trust you,” he told his sister, which was almost true. He did trust her to protect Karou. When he’d asked if she was sure she could do this, he’d meant something else. “When it comes down to it, will you be able to keep from killing Jael?”
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
“Not convincingly,” Akiva replied.
In the reconvened war council, Liraz had greeted Karou’s idea with a bark of incredulous laughter, and then stared around the table at each of them in turn, growing ever more appalled that they appeared to be considering it.
Considering not killing Jael.