All my muscles strain for me to step forward—to protect Rohan, to stop Udug, to do something—but Opal’s wailing holds me back. I promised Rohan I would save his sister. Revealing my presence would jeopardize my chance of keeping my word. Any attempt to save Rohan would put Opal, Natesa, and Yatin in danger, and by all reason would be suicide. I cannot do anything for Rohan, but I can still help Opal.
Dropping my head against the side of the wagon, I fight the need to act. Why couldn’t Rohan have listened to me and stayed behind? Why didn’t he trust me? I should have known he lied to Natesa about needing the latrine. I should have stayed at the wagon until he returned. I failed him. I failed us all.
The night transforms around Udug, thickening to a suffocating depth of nothing. Rohan’s soul-fire fades like a dying day. I grasp my sword so tightly my palm aches. Finally, Udug steals the last of Rohan’s essence and lets him go.
Rohan folds in a heap like a husk, limbs and head angled wrongly.
Opal’s frantic thuds and cries lessen. Udug stares up at the sky and scowls at the stars that defy his darkness. Then he strides into his tent.
Manas wrenches the bolt from Rohan’s shoulder. I cringe from the grisly sound of blade ripping flesh. “Get rid of it.”
The soldiers pick up Rohan and lug him away. Opal’s weeps reverberate into my bones.
Manas raps his fist against the wagon. “You in there. Shut it.” He mutters to himself and ducks inside Udug’s tent.
I wait two breaths. Then five. Then twelve. No one returns.
Opal’s cries continue. Brac must not be with her or I would have heard him by now. Perhaps Udug stole his soul-fire too.
The pair of soldiers returns and stands guard at the end of the prisoner’s wagon.
I press my lips against the wall and whisper so only the wind can hear me. “I’ll get you out, Opal. I swear it.”
Trusting the wind to deliver my message, I slip away to the end of camp. The moon and stars reveal two sets of footprints leading into the rocky field. I follow their trail to the body.
The soldiers dumped Rohan in the grass. They did not even lay him so he looks to the heavens. I roll him onto his back and sniffle away my tears. He was so young.
Without a tool to dig a grave with, I will lay him to rest another way. I set to work gathering rocks. Taking off my jacket to use as a bindle, I load and carry four or five rocks at a time. I stack them around Rohan, burying his feet and legs first.
A rustle in the grass draws me up short. Scavengers must have caught the scent of the body. Before long, they will circle in. I double my speed, gathering and stacking until Rohan is encased in stones.
I kneel back, sweat dripping down my forehead, and try to center myself. My anger against Udug drove me to labor through most of the night, but I must let go of my hard feelings long enough to pray.
“Gods, bless Rohan’s soul so that he may find the gate that leads to peace and everlasting light.” I recite the Prayer of Rest more often than feels fair, but the blessing always instills harmony in my heart.
I sit with Rohan until sunrise stirs on the horizon. Then I leave him to his rest and trudge back to our catapult wagon. Yatin and Natesa are wide awake, sitting upright beside each other.
“Rohan didn’t return,” Natesa says. Her lower lip is red from gnawing it.
Tears I thought I left at the grave site burn my eyes. “He found Opal locked in a wagon. The demon rajah . . . got to him first.”
Natesa’s expression crashes in as she succumbs to shock and sorrow. I slide down to the ground and drop my head in my hands.
“And Brac?” Yatin asks.
My shoulders curve over my hollow chest. “No sign of him.”
Yatin and Natesa fall quiet. We alone cannot stop Udug. We are three mortals against an immortal demon. We could sneak off now, as though we were never here. We could steal horses and run for Vanhi ahead of the army, or backtrack and seek out the Lestarian Navy along the river. But my vow to Opal stops me, and despite my better instincts, I muster the fortitude not to flee.
“I’m staying,” I say. “You two can leave.”
Natesa draws short breaths, working up the nerve to run or hide or both. Yatin wraps his arm around her, and she leans into his side.
“We need to stay together,” he says.
My heart fills until it may burst. They still trust me, even after my terrible mistake. I thought Rohan would regard my plea for him to stay with the others. I should have commanded him not to leave, but I refused to take full responsibility for his life, and now I am partly responsible for his death. I will not repeat my error.
“If you stay, you stay on as my troops.” I leave no quarrel about my authority. “You’ll do everything I order. No questions. No debates. You follow me.”
Yatin does not so much as blink. “Yes, sir.”
“Yes, General Naik,” Natesa amends.
Her use of my rank rubs at an old sore, but I let it alone and rest against the wagon for what is left of the night.
Daybreak gradually pours across the grassland, stinging my tired eyes and waking the troops. I could sleep through the ruckus, but sunup pushes us to get underway.
My unit packs up. The loss of our fourth member is stark as we divide the work to ready our horses and wagon. I would like to visit Rohan’s grave site before we leave, bring Natesa and Yatin along, and allow myself another moment to rage about his death. But the wagons ahead of us roll out, so we set off for another grueling day of marching.
I stare bleary-eyed at the smoking rubble. Snowflakes drift down upon the smoldering piles of stone and melt to steam. The fire flattened the structure in the night, dancing like cackling demons around a pyre. This charred wreckage is all that remains of the Samiya temple.
A low, whitewashed sky has long since lightened to the bleakest gray, casting an abysmal glare over the scene. The hundred or so temple wards huddle as one in the crisp cold. In their rush to escape the fire, few sisters and wards brought cloaks. Flakes of ash entwine with the snowflakes and tarnish the sisters’ humble blue robes.
Frightened and saddened tears clean trails down the wards’ sooty faces. The older girls comfort the younger ones, and the sisters comfort the older girls. The wards are too distraught to do little more than steal astonished glances at the men, and the sisters do not stop them. In the wake of this devastation, they do not fear the loss of innocence. I am the enemy they dread.
Priestess Mita huddles with the sisters to discuss what they should do next. Our situation is beyond desolate. By the time Indah and Pons chipped a hole in the icy lake and she sent streams of water at the temple, the inferno was ravenous.
Shifting off my bad leg, I shiver against the wind. The ache in my knee has returned, digging in with frozen claws. Pons and Indah wait down shore, the Aquifier having healed their cuts and the welts on my back. Ashwin broods by the lake, holding a chunk of ice to the back of his head. We have yet to speak, and I can hardly look at him. Does he remember I stole his soul-fire? The remnants of his parched warmth lasted until a few hours ago, and Udug’s cold poison took charge once more. But for a few merciful hours, I felt whole.
I cram my chilly fingers under my arms, but I have little body heat left to share. Take some soul-fire from one of the wards. Just enough to drive back the cold.
No. Living off another’s essence is a base, disgusting kind of survival.
Healer Baka separates from the group of sisters and comes to me. “Are you feeling better, Kalinda?”
“I’m fine. How is everyone else?”
“A few bruises from our evacuation, but as a whole, well.” Snowflakes melt on Healer Baka’s spectacles, but the droplets do not interrupt her avid stare. “The prince blames himself for this.”
I huff a dry laugh. “He doesn’t deserve that right. The glory of this is all mine.”
“This was an accident, Kalinda.” Baka rotates me away from the other sisters’ direct view. “They’ve voted for the prince, your friends, and you to leave.”
“But our wing flyer was taken,” I say, planting my heels. “And Indah sent for aid. The Lestarians will come with rations. We should wait here for them together.”
Healer Baka wraps one arm around me. “Priestess Mita wants you and your companions to start down the mountain. We’ll send the Lestarians for you after they arrive.”
I jerk from her hold. “The sisters and wards should know the truth. Bhutas are good. Don’t send us away or they’ll always fear my kind.”
Priestess Mita speaks from behind us. “They should fear you.” Healer Baka and I whirl around. The priestess’s glare ties my thoughts into a jumble of apologies, rendering me speechless. “You’re no sister warrior, and you’re not my kindred. Leave this place and take the Lestarian abominations with you.”
I am unsurprised that she would cast aside bhutas, but her disrespect for Ashwin unknots my tongue. “What of the prince? He’s your ruler.”
“My ruler is Rajah Tarek,” Priestess Mita corrects. “He leads the empire, not the prince.”
I reel on Baka “You told her?”
She extends an apologetic grimace. “As you said, they deserve to know the truth.”
“Anu sent Rajah Tarek back to save us,” Priestess Mita rails on. “He will preserve our sacred rites and finish exterminating your kind.”
Her gullibility floors me. “The gods never send souls back. They send them forward, to their next life. The rajah isn’t Tarek; he’s a demon in disguise.”
She screws her lips up like I am a piece of filth on her tongue. “You have no place to brand anyone a demon, slag.”
Baka gasps at the priestess’s use of the derogatory term for a Burner. I am flabbergasted they even know it.
Priestess Mita lifts her voice louder, unashamed of her contempt. “Go from here before the gods strike you down for the ruin you have brought upon these faithful sisters and wards.”
I tense my body to ward off my shaking. “These wards should know who they’re following. Rajah Tarek is a—”