At once she felt it on her neck: a slithering touch. Revulsion juddered through her. It was a tongue. Razgut had gotten his taste. She heard a loathsome gobbling sound as she lurched away, leaving the graverobber on his knees.
That was enough for her. She gathered up the teeth and her sketchbook.
“Wait, please,” Izîl cried. “Karou. Please.”
His plea was so desperate that she hesitated. Scrabbling, he dug something from his pocket and held it out. A pair of pliers. They looked rusted, but Karou knew it wasn’t rust. These were the tools of his trade, and they were covered in the residue of dead mouths. “Please, my dear,” he said. “There isn’t anyone else.”
She understood at once what he meant and took a step back in shock. “No, Izîl! God. The answer is no.”
“A bruxis would save me! I can’t save myself. I’ve already used mine. It would take another bruxis to undo my fool wish. You could wish him off me. Please. Please!”
A bruxis. That was the one wish more powerful than a gavriel, and its trade value was singular: The only way to purchase one was with one’s own teeth. All of them, self-extracted.
The thought of pulling her own teeth out one by one made Karou feel woozy. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she whispered, appalled that he would even ask it. But then, he was a madman, and right now he certainly looked it.
“I wouldn’t ask, you know I wouldn’t, but it’s the only way!”
Karou walked rapidly away, head down, and she would have kept walking and not looked back but for a cry that erupted behind her. It burst from the chaos of the Jemaa el-Fna and instantly dwarfed all other noise. It was some mad kind of keening, a high, thin river of sound unlike anything she had ever heard.
It was definitely not Izîl.
Unearthly, the wail rose, wavering and violent, to break like a wave and become language—susurrous, without hard consonants. The modulations suggested words, but the language was alien even to Karou, who had more than twenty in her collection. She turned, seeing as she did that the people around her were turning, too, craning their necks, and that their expressions of alarm were turning to horror when they perceived the source of the sound.
Then she saw it, too.
The thing on Izîl’s back was invisible no more.
DEADLY BIRD OF THE SOUL
If the language was alien to Karou, it was not so to Akiva.
“Seraph, I see you!” rang the voice. “I know you! Brother, brother, I have served my sentence. I will do anything! I have repented, I have been punished enough—”
Akiva stared in blank incomprehension at the thing that materialized on the old man’s back.
It was all but na**d, a bloated torso with reedy arms wrapped tight around the human’s neck. Useless legs dangled behind, and its head was swollen taut and purple, as if it were engorged with blood and ready to pop in a great, wet burst. It was hideous. That it should speak the language of the seraphim was an abomination.
The absolute wrongness of it held Akiva immobile, staring, before the amazement at hearing his own language turned to shock at what was being said in it.
“They tore off my wings, my brother!” The thing was staring at Akiva. It unwound one arm from the old man’s neck and reached toward him, imploring. “Twisted my legs so I would have to crawl, like the insects of the earth! It has been a thousand years since I was cast out, a thousand years of torment, but now you’ve come, you’ve come to take me home!”
No. It was impossible.
People were shrinking away from the sight of the creature. Others had turned, following the direction of its supplication to fix their eyes on Akiva. He became aware of their notice and swept the crowd with his burning gaze. Some fell back, murmuring prayers. And then his eyes came to rest on the blue-haired girl, some twenty yards distant. She was a calm, shining figure in the moiling crowd.
And she was staring back.
Into kohl-rimmed eyes in a sun-bronzed face. Fire-colored eyes with a charge like sparks that seared a path through the air and kindled it. It gave Karou a jolt—no mere startle but a chain reaction that lashed through her body with a rush of adrenaline. Her limbs came into the lightness and power of sudden awakening, fight or flight, chemical and wild.
Who? she thought, her mind racing to catch up to the fervor in her body.
Because clearly he was not human, the man standing amid the tumult in absolute stillness. A pulse beat in the palms of her hands and she curled them into fists, feeling a wild hum in her blood.
Enemy. Enemy. Enemy. The knowledge pounded through her on the rhythm of her heartbeat: the fire-eyed stranger was the enemy. His face—oh, beauty, he was perfect, he was mythic—was absolutely cold. She was caught between the urge to flee and the fear of turning her back on him.
It was Izîl who decided her.
“Malak!” he screamed, pointing at the man. “Malak!”
“I know you, deadly bird of the soul! I know what you are!” Izîl turned to Karou and said urgently, “Karou, wish-daughter, you must get to Brimstone. Tell him the seraphim are here. They’ve gotten back in. You must warn him! Run, child. Run!”
And run she did.
Across the Jemaa el-Fna, where those attempting to flee were being hampered by those drawn to the commotion. She shouldered her way through them, knocked someone aside, spun off a camel’s flank and leapt over a coiled cobra, which struck out at her, defanged and harmless. Hazarding a glance over her shoulder, she could see no sign of pursuit—no sign of him—but she felt it.
A thrill along every nerve ending. Her body, alert and alive. She was hunted, she was prey, and she didn’t even have her knife tucked into her boot, little thinking she’d need it on a visit to the graverobber.
She ran, leaving the square by one of the many alleys that fed into it like tributaries. The crowds in the souks had thinned and many lights had been snuffed, and she raced in and out of pools of darkness, her stride long and measured and light, her footfall nearly silent. She took turns wide to avoid collisions, glanced behind again and again and saw no one.
Angel. The word kept sounding in her mind.
She was nearing the portal—just one more turn, the length of another blind alley, and she would be there, if she made it that far.
Rushing from above. Heat and the bass whumph of wingbeats.
Overhead, darkness massed where a shape blotted out the moon. Something was hurtling down at Karou on huge, impossible wings. Heat and wingbeats and the skirr of air parted by a blade. A blade. She leapt aside, felt steel bite her shoulder as she slammed into a carved door, splintering slats. She seized one, a jagged spear of wood, and spun to face her attacker.
He stood a mere body’s length away, the point of his sword resting on the ground.
Oh, thought Karou, staring at him.
He stood revealed. The blade of his long sword gleamed white from the incandescence of his wings—vast shimmering wings, their reach so great they swept the walls on either side of the alley, each feather like the wind-tugged lick of a candle flame.
His gaze was like a lit fuse, scorching the air between them. He was the most beautiful thing Karou had ever seen. Her first thought, incongruous but overpowering, was to memorize him so she could draw him later.
Her second thought was that there wasn’t going to be a later, because he was going to kill her.
He came at her so fast that his wings painted blurs of light on the air, and even as Karou leapt aside again she was seeing his fiery imprint seared into her vision. His sword bit her again, her arm this time, but she twisted clear of a killing thrust. She was quick. She kept space around her; he tried to close it, and she danced clear, lissome, fluid. Their eyes met again, and Karou saw past his shocking beauty to the inhumanity there, the absolute absence of mercy.
He attacked again. As quick as Karou was, she couldn’t get clear of the reach of his sword. A strike aimed at her throat glanced off her scapula instead. There was no pain—that would come later, unless she was dead—only spreading heat that she knew was blood. Another strike, and she parried it with her slat of wood, which split like kindling, half of it falling away so she held a mere dagger’s length of old wood, a ridiculous excuse for a weapon. Yet when the angel came at her again she dodged in close to him and thrust, felt the wood catch flesh and sink in.
Karou had stabbed men before, and she hated it, the gruesome feeling of penetrating living flesh. She pulled back, leaving her makeshift weapon in his side. His face registered neither pain nor surprise. It was, Karou thought as he closed in, a dead face. Or rather, the living face of a dead soul.
It was utterly terrifying.
He had her cornered now, and they both knew she wouldn’t get away. She was vaguely aware of shouts of amazement and fear up the alley and from windows, but all of her focus was on the angel. What did it even mean, angel? What had Izîl said? The seraphim are here.
She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.”
“So what’s real?” she’d wanted to know.
“If you can kill it, or it can kill you, it’s real.”
By that definition, this angel was real enough.
He raised his sword, and she just watched him do it, her attention catching for a moment on the bars of black ink tattooed across his fingers—they were fleetingly familiar but then not, the feeling gone as soon as it registered—and she just stared up at her killer and wondered numbly why. It seemed impossible that this was the final moment of her life. She cocked her head to the side, desperately searching his features for some hint of… soul… and then, she saw it.
He hesitated. Only for a split second did his mask slip, but Karou saw some urgent pathos surface, a wave of feeling that softened his rigid and ridiculously perfect features. His jaw unclenched, his lips parted, his brow furrowed in an instant of confusion.
At the same moment, she became aware of the pulse in her palms that had made her curl her hands into fists at her first sight of him. It thrummed there still, a pent-up energy, and she was jolted by the certainty that it emanated from her tattoos. An impulse overcame her to throw up her hands, and she did, not in cringing surrender, but with palms powerfully outthrust, inked with the eyes she’d worn all her life without ever knowing why.
And something happened.
It was like a detonation—a sharp intake, all air sucked into a tight core and then expelled. It was silent, lightless—to the gape-jawed witnesses it was nothing at all, just a girl throwing up her hands—but Karou felt it, and the angel did, too. His eyes went wide with recognition in the instant before he was flung back with devastating force to hit a wall some twenty feet behind him. He crumpled to the ground, wings askew, sword skittering away. Karou scrambled to her feet.
The angel wasn’t moving.
She spun and sprinted away. Whatever had happened, a silence had risen from it, and it followed her. She could hear only her own breathing, weirdly amplified like she was in a tunnel. She rounded the bend in the alley at speed, skidding on her heel to avoid a donkey standing stubborn in the middle of the lane. The portal was in sight, a plain door in a row of plain doors, but something was different about it now. A large black handprint was burned into the wood.
Karou flung herself at it, hammering with her fists in a frenzy such as she had never unleashed on a portal before. “Issa!” she screamed. “Let me in!”
A long, awful moment, Karou looking back over her shoulder, and then the door finally swung open.
She started to dart forward, then let out a choked cry. It was not Issa or the vestibule, but a Moroccan woman with a broom. Oh no. The woman’s eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth to scold, but Karou didn’t wait. She pushed her back inside and shoved the door closed, staying outside. Frantically she knocked again. “Issa!”
She could hear the woman shouting and feel her trying to push the door open. Karou swore and held it shut. If it was open, the magic of the portal couldn’t connect. In Arabic she hollered, “Get away from the door!”
She looked over her shoulder. There was a commotion in the street, arms waving, people shouting. The donkey stood unimpressed. No angel. Had she killed him? No. Whatever had happened, she knew he wasn’t dead. He would come.
She pounded on the door again. “Issa, Brimstone, please!”
Nothing but irate Arabic. Karou held the door closed with her foot and kept pounding. “Issa! He’s going to kill me! Issa! Let me in!”
What was taking so long? Seconds hung like scuppies on a string, vanishing one after another. The door was jumping against her foot, someone trying to force it open—could it be Issa?—and then she felt a draft of heat at her back. She didn’t hesitate this time but turned, jamming her back up against the door to hold it closed, and raised her hands as if to let her tattoos see. There was no detonation this time, only a crackling of energy that raised her hair like Medusa’s serpents.
The angel was stalking toward her, head lowered so he was looking at her from the tops of his burning eyes. He didn’t move with ease, but as if against a wind. Whatever power in Karou’s tattoos had hurled him against that wall, it hindered him now but didn’t stop him. His hands were fists at his sides, and his face was ferocious, set to endure pain.
He stopped a few paces away and looked at her, really looked at her, his eyes no longer dead but roving over her face and neck, drawn back to her hamsas, and again to her face. Back and forth, as if something didn’t add up.