“The dimming of the sun and stars is the definitive sign that the evernight is entering into our world.” Ashwin rubs his forehead with his thumb. “We don’t have long. The eclipse takes a day to complete . . . or was it two? I don’t remember.”
“What book did you read this in?” I ask.
“The text was lost in the Samiya temple fire.” Ashwin grips his chin in contemplation. “I need a full report on our troops, General.”
“The imperial army isn’t fit to defeat Udug alone. The Lestarian Navy should arrive shortly, but we need a strategy to transport as many bhutas to Samiya as fast as possible.” Fear leaves my voice jagged and torn. Gods, Kali. Why did you go without us? I gesture Brac forward. “This is my brother, Brac. He’s a Burner and a soldier. He’ll serve as my second-in-command.”
“I’m grateful to have you, Commander,” Ashwin says, accepting my hasty appointment.
Brac bows. “An honor, Your Majesty.”
Opal’s concentration goes out the doorway. “Deven, the Lestarian Navy has arrived.”
All at once, we run for the door. Breaking ahead of everyone, I sprint to the main courtyard in front of the palace. Navy vessels pack the river that weaves to the city wall. Far past the last navy ship, another vessel plods up the river. I recognize the ship’s yellow paint and curse under my breath. The sea raiders are relentless.
A commanding, statuesque girl with hair like lightning saunters up to my side. “You must be General Naik. I’m Tinley, Chief Naresh’s daughter.”
“You let Kali fly away on your falcon,” I say.
“Kalinda asked me to tell you she’s sorry she didn’t say good-bye. I told her an apology wouldn’t appease you.”
Her honesty robs most of my annoyance. “You’re right. It doesn’t.”
“Is that the Lestarian Navy?” Tinley asks, then sniffs, unimpressed. “A little late, aren’t they?”
“They did their best.”
“I’m sure,” she says dryly. “My father has a fleet of airships piloted by Galers, not unlike the navy you see there. Only our fleet doesn’t have to squeeze down a waterway to get where we need.”
I do not respond to her blunt arrogance. Her opinion of the navy is moot, considering the Paljorian air fleet opted not to ally with us at all. I wander nearer to the contorted gate and step over a crack, all that remains of the crevice the warlord made.
Tinley keeps pace with me. “If you intend to help the kindred, I suggest you leave for Samiya right away.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose. Just how I am supposed to do that? My mind whirls to take everything in.
Kali gone to Samiya. The navy’s arrival. The sea raiders. Chief Naresh’s daughter. Airships . . .
I spin toward Tinley. “How many Galers does it take to fly an airship?”
“Depends on the weight of the cargo.” She leans her upper half away and crosses her arms over her chest. “Why?”
Ashwin and Gemi catch up, followed by Brac and Opal.
“Can you fly any vessel, or must it be one of your airships?” I ask Tinley, continuing our conversation without pause.
“With enough Galers and sails, we could fly this entire palace.”
I gaze hard at the navy ships. “I know how to get to Vanhi, but I need more Galers. A lot of them.”
“There’s only me,” Opal says. “The navy will have a couple dozen, but that’s all.”
“Princess Gemi,” I say, “don’t the sea raiders have Galers?”
Gemi wags a finger at me. “No, General. The sea raiders are profiteers. Captain Loc won’t help us.”
I gesture at the sun, becoming more eclipsed by the moment. “We show them that, and they will. We’ll offer them the same bounty they would have gotten for capturing Prince Ashwin and Kali. Commander Brac, you and the princess meet with Captain Loc. The prince and I will speak to Admiral Rimba.” My gaze slides to the long line of navy vessels, and I try to picture what they will look like airborne. “I have a feeling we’re both in for a difficult conversation.”
I head back inside to prepare my proposal for the admiral. The prince falls into step behind me.
“General,” he starts, “I know what you have planned, but what will it cost me?”
“We need to prevent the sun from dying, and you’re concerned about the fee?”
Ashwin stays with me, his strides clipped. “I’m afraid for Kali, and for us all, but I must consider every consequence and outcome.”
We pass through the palace threshold, the gilded elephant door handles gleaming. I respect Ashwin’s determination to place his people first, but he has missed the most vital part of his desired success—Kali is the heart of the new Tarachand.
Lose her, and the future is meaningless.
Irritation seeps into my voice. “The only certain outcome right now is Kali’s death. You’d let her fall to keep your fortune?”
“I am rajah now,” he answers, a sort of resigned acceptance of his mantle. “I cannot compromise for anyone.”
We enter the throne room, our daylight dimming. “Your Majesty, we’re far past compromised. We’re nearly out of time.”
I dismount Chare and set foot on snowy ground. The falcon immediately spreads her massive wings and launches off. She soars west, her fiery feathers blending in with the sunset. After almost an entire day of flying, the sun is more than three-quarters eclipsed. By dawn tomorrow, a mere crescent will rise. If the sun rises at all . . .
Before Chare landed, I relied upon a bird’s-eye view of the area to search thoroughly for Udug within the frozen landscape. I did not see him. Tugging the bearskin closer, I hike over the hill, away from the frozen lake, past the burned forest, to the remains of the Sisterhood temple. The smoldering heat has gone. Ash and snow blanket the debris of what was the north tower. Part of the blackened piles of stone crumbled down the cliff to the gully below. I hold in tears. The tragic end of my home will never cease to devastate me.
Darkness falls, a crisp curtain of raw winter. My banked soul-fire simmers, sending heat to my extremities. I consumed all the food and water Tinley had in her saddlebag to stockpile my powers, and my inner star hums.
I traverse back to the skeletal woods and hunker down in my bearskin to wait for the stars. None come out to join me. Neither is the moon much company. Its weakening paleness provides no solace from the shadows. Anchored in the dark, I wait anxiously for the night to peel back its lips and bear fangs dripping of fate.
The sound of rocks sliding breaks the silence. I grip the cold handle of my mother’s dagger and whisper my full name, “Kalinda Zacharias.” Firmly grounded to my father’s ancient line of Burners and my mother’s sister warrior courage, I seek the scent of scorched sulfur.
Claws appear at the ledge of the cliff. A whitish demon with deformed features and hideous veined wings clambers up onto the ruins. I lower myself within the charred tree stumps. Udug extends his wings. The sharp bones stick up behind his head like a single set of antlers on a stag. He is jagged ice and splintering bones.
Udug jets into the sky and flies over the dead forest. I push through the trees, pursuing the flapping of his ugly wings. He lands near the shore of the frozen lake, its surface lit by the starving moon. I creep closer, quiet as my weight and caution can bear. Udug snaps his head up, revolves, and peers at me.
“Come to meet your master?” he sneers.
“We serve different gods.”
“Where are your gods now?” Udug spreads his arms and wings to the lost stars and fading moonlight, which is frailer than when night fell.
I leave the dead forest, dagger firmly grasped. “They’re watching over me.”
“They’ve abandoned you,” he counters. “Kur is the only god left here, and he has been restrained for too long.” Udug steps backward to the lake with his clawed feet. I pace him, questioning his route. Where is he going? “He will be your almighty master. With his return, conviction in things believed but never seen will be obsolete. You will have your god hereto and forever to rule over all flesh, in the flesh.”
“Mankind is not here to fulfill Kur’s bidding.”
“Do you not already live per your godly purpose? How will serving Kur be any different than living up to Anu’s demands? Unlike Anu, Kur will have no virtues for you to adhere to. Your purpose will be his.” Udug steps onto the ice. Not trusting the thickness or stability of it, I pursue him but remain close to shore. He edges out to the center of the lake. “I have no regrets or sorrow.” He throws out his wings and inhales the dark. “Through Kur, all will be free.”
Something hits the ice under my feet. I jolt and nearly slip and fall. Craggy rifts spear across the lake. I scramble back to land. Shadows dart under the breaking surface. Udug tarries on the lake, leering with snaggy teeth. Great fissures tear open the frozen sheet to the water below. Figures jump out in an explosion. I shield myself against raining shards of ice.
A trio of demons wades out of the waters of the craterous lake. The largest demon’s physique bulges of rocks. His giant frame is hardpacked and rigid as a mountain. His mouth is a slash, a grimace, and his eye sockets are crevices of nothing, like caverns. The demon lumbers closer, the ground trembling with each step.
The second biggest demon has a sinuous face like a dragon cobra, her scaly skin reminding me of a jungle crocodile’s. A thick, rough tail drags behind her, as long as she is tall. Her three-forked tongue flicks in the air. Its trio of sharp tips resemble an urumi, an advanced warrior weapon with whiplike blades.
The demon third in line comes ashore chomping on a snow trout. Her razor teeth rip through the fish’s flesh and bone. She bears resemblance to her aquatic prey: glassy, circular eyes, gills down her neck, finlike hands and feet, and iridescent scales. She swallows the trout’s head whole in one bite.
Good gods, the lake is the gate to the Void.