“It isn’t true,” I repeat.
“You know it is. You saw your soul’s reflection in the flame. Fire shows you dragons, serpents of the dark.”
My soul’s reflection in fire is a dragon, but that is not me. Despite all my wrongdoings, I was born a bhuta. I am good. This man is inherently evil.
“You’re the Voider,” I say. He smiles with Tarek’s lips, but he is not Tarek. This is not the man who claimed me from the temple, not the man who brought life to Ashwin. He is not a man at all. “How do you know me?”
“Tarek was sent to the Void after his death. We became well acquainted.”
Souls that abide by the five godly virtues go to the Beyond, where they await judgment and are rebirthed into their next mortal state. Disobedient souls are sent to the Void. I should have supposed Tarek’s tyranny would not qualify him for rebirth.
“But why did you return as Tarek?”
“I must repay my debt to Prince Ashwin for releasing me. His heart’s wish is to regain his palace. Thus I assumed the form of the person who could aid in fulfilling my favor to him.”
He strokes my cheek and moves in to kiss my neck. I recoil, my hand glowing threateningly.
The demon rajah picks up the Zhaleh from the end of the bed and offers it to my glowing hand. “If you want to burn something, burn this.” I do not take it, so the Voider lights his fingers and holds the book over the blue flames. I watch as the Zhaleh, my only means of returning the Voider to darkness, burns.
Panic kicks deep in my chest. I cannot let this demon stay in our world. After he fulfills Ashwin’s heart’s wish, he will destroy everything. I grab his forearm and feel inside him for his soul-fire. His skin is cool, and within I sense a feral, destructive heat.
“I would not do that,” he singsongs.
I use my powers to scorch the demon rajah, but instead, his cold-hot powers rush into my veins. I cry out and yank free. Tears of agony fill me.
He smirks. “I warned you.”
“I’ll tell everyone what you are,” I say, panting through the pain.
“No one will believe you. Even my own son thinks I am the rajah . . . and you are my kindred.” The demon rajah bends down, his lips above mine. His musty breath sours my stomach. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a body to touch and feel with. Bhutas revolt me with their godliness and divine light. But you and I are kin.”
“We are not,” I croak.
“You killed your husband and aided in the fall of Vanhi, the very act Prince Ashwin employed me to reverse.” The demon rajah rubs his thumb over my bottom lip. “You know I speak the truth. You belong with me in the dark.”
“Father,” Ashwin says, returning. He sees Tarek close to me, and his expression goes flat. “The guards want proof of the sultan’s death.”
The demon rajah aims a prolonged stare at Ashwin. Please let Ashwin be stalling. Please let him realize this man is not his sire. Please let him discern that this replica of Tarek has no humanity whatsoever.
“We will give them proof.” The demon rajah waves at a dead guard’s sword. “Hand me that khanda. We’ll show these people what happens to traitors.”
Ashwin does not move. “I won’t rule with fear.”
The demon rajah rises with deliberate calm, dispassionate as he picks up the khanda. “Fear is the only way.” Clenching the sword with both hands, he arcs down the blade. I grimace at the sultan’s severed head. Natesa still lies motionless on the floor, unconscious.
The demon rajah straps on the sword and returns to my side. “Wait here, love. Soon we will march on Vanhi, and I will return us to our rightful thrones.”
He presses dry lips to my cheek, lingering as Tarek once did. While the demon rajah faces me, Ashwin reaches for one of my daggers. Gods’ mercy. He does realize his father is an imposter. I curtail my revulsion and withstand the demon’s chilling touch long enough for Ashwin to pocket a blade. Then I jerk away.
The Voider picks up the sultan’s decapitated head. “We will go down to the prison camps and show our people their rajah has returned.”
Cooperating with the demon will put Ashwin in danger, but he understands the ramifications of his heart’s wish more than I do. He does not spare me a glance as they walk out.
Alone in my chamber, I lie on my back and stare up at the ceiling in frustration. I must get up. I have to wake Natesa and warn our people, warn Deven. My broken leg is bandaged, and my side still weeps blood. Ignoring the pain, I scoot to the side of the bed and try to stand. My injured leg gives out, and I wind up on my back again.
Footsteps echo closer. I brace, anticipating palace guards or perhaps the demon rajah’s return, but Brother Shaan rushes in with Pons and a limping Indah. They falter to a stop and scan the bodies.
“Kalinda,” Brother Shaan stammers. “I saw . . .”
Brother Shaan lifts his chin, praying skyward. “Gods protect us.”
Natesa groans and sits up, holding the side of her head. “What’s going on?”
Pons kneels down to help her, and I explain what they missed. “Ashwin released the Voider to stop Vizier Gyan from doing the same. The Voider came disguised as Tarek to help fulfill Ashwin’s wish to take back the empire. I tried to stop the demon rajah, but he is immune to my powers.” Brother Shaan prays more fervently. “Ashwin and the demon rajah are headed to the camps. We have to warn Deven.” I try to sit up again, but a sharp pain pushes into my side, and I double over. Beads of sweat from the exertion of trying to stand wet my forehead.
Indah helps me lie back. “You’re bleeding through your bandages, and you shouldn’t stand on your leg. Pons will carry you to the boat.”
“Where are Opal and Rohan?” If I cannot go to Deven, I can send someone else.
“They brought Brother Shaan here and then went to the boat,” replies Indah. “We have no time to go to the camps. Iresh will fall into disarray without the sultan ruling or the vizier leading their army. The city is beyond saving.”
“He has Ashwin,” I protest. The Voider recognized Ashwin, Sultan Kuval, and me. Will the demon remember Deven betrayed Rajah Tarek?
“Kalinda, we cannot stop the Voider,” says Brother Shaan. “He does not need to refuel his powers and rest like bhutas. Demons are immortal, like the gods. We must run while we can.”
“But our people—”
“Will follow their rajah,” he finishes. “Even with your tournament win, the people will not stand with you, a bhuta, against their ruler. The Voider is a master deceiver. Our people will believe the demon rajah is Tarek.”
Shrill screams of panic and terrified shouts spill in from the garden. The Voider comes into sight out the open balcony door. He has set the sultan’s head on a pike and lifts it for all to see.
“This is what the gods think of traitors,” the demon rajah proclaims. “Anu raised me from the dead to punish my enemies. First Vizier Gyan and Sultan Kuval. Next the warlord Hastin!”
Janardanian bhuta guards rush at the Voider. He throws blue fire, and the guards are blasted backward in a radiant explosion. Those overtaken by the blue fire melt away. I gawk in amazement as the Voider cuts them all down. His blue fire eats through bhuta winds and rocks, banishing all hope of reprisals.
The demon rajah continues across the courtyard. At the cliff, he stakes the pike in the ground so the people of Iresh can see what is left of their ruler. Then Tarek and Ashwin disappear over the cliff’s edge, traveling the stairs down to the city.
“We have to go now,” Indah says, trying to help me to my feet.
Hot tears flood my eyes. “I cannot go like this.”
Indah sweeps my hair from my clammy face. “I can take away your pain for a time by tricking your body into thinking you’re better.”
“You can do that?” Natesa asks.
“The pain blocker is temporary,” answers Indah. “Kalinda will be pain-free for about half an hour.”
Explosions crash nearby, and blue flames lick the sky as the demon rajah carries on his way to the encampments.
“That’s all I need,” I say.
Indah runs her hands up my leg and over my abdomen. She chants under her breath, and the pain falls off of me like a leaden weight, lightening my whole body. Adrenaline pulses through my limbs. I stand on my broken leg, my stance offset and my balance not quite right. My body will punish me later, but for now, I can walk.
Indah hoists her trident, and Pons fills his blowgun with darts.
Natesa borrows a khanda from a fallen guard. A bruise darkens her cheekbone where Vizier Gyan struck her. “I’m going to find Yatin.”
“My healer is still in camp,” Indah says. “He’ll help you bring Yatin to the boat.”
“Bring him and Deven back,” I add, trusting Natesa to find them both. “We’ll send Opal and Rohan to help you if there’s time.”
Natesa hugs me, a quick embrace. “Send them no matter what,” she says and then darts off.
I sheath my one dagger. Indah’s pain blocker is holding, but this invincibility will not last. I need to make the most of it. “Let’s get to the river.”
Vibrations rumble through the ground around me. I try to move, but the pit holds me like a clenched fist. The guards outside shout orders to launch a defense attack. More quakes shake through the land, the whole world trembling.
The cell door is blown off, devoured by incredible sapphire flames. A figure manifests in the smoky haze. I cough and blink to clear my vision. Tarek? The man looks like Rajah Tarek, except his hands weave blue fire.
The rajah casts more cobalt flames at the guards, and they fly back against the walls. He marches past the open cell door, Prince Ashwin behind him. Neither sees me buried up to my chin in the cell, but someone sneaks in.
Natesa kneels beside me and begins to dig me out.
“What in the gods’ names is going on?” I demand.