Tinley watches the behemoth. “When I say so, throw a heatwave at the smaller mahatis.”
My powers swell under my skin.
The mahatis’ landing trembles the ground. They crowd up to the altar and tear the flesh from the dead with their sharp beaks. I grimace at the feeding noises. Can these mahatis truly ferry Anoush to the Beyond? Must a deplorable act precede peace?
The younger falcons snap at the same limb and screech at each other. Behemoth cuffs one with his wing. I dare not move. Their behaviors differ from the tamed flock in the aviary. These wild males are vicious. One wrong move and we could be their next meal.
As their feeding comes to an end, Tinley draws her winds. Behemoth’s head goes up—he spots us. The mahati throws out his wings, the feathery tips standing upright like blades, and dips his head aggressively. The smaller falcons detect our presence and bristle.
“Now!” Tinley launches to her feet.
Gods. She runs right for the monstrous mahati.
I rise and hurl a heatwave at the smaller falcons. They launch into the sky. Their leader jerks his head toward Tinley. Without warning, a wall of wind slams me forward into the rock. A second later, the gale releases me. I push up, gasping.
Snow flurries rage, thick as a blizzard. Through the fluctuating whiteout, I make out Tinley’s shape. The Galer pins Behemoth to the ground. Her convex of winds holds him while warding off the mahatis screeching above.
Tinley leaps onto Behemoth’s back. “Get on!”
She wants to ride him?
A falcon dives. I throw a heatwave at him. The wind devours most of my flames, but the bird flaps off.
I dash into the whiteout and up to Behemoth. The mahati’s legs are wedged beneath him. He strains to stand, his wings locked down. Tinley hauls me up behind her. I clutch her middle, and the gusts die off.
Behemoth secures his footing and launches into the sky. The impetus nearly flings us off. A momentary weightlessness tingles down the length of me. I crouch behind Tinley, arms tight around her. She lifts her chin to the moon as the mahati ascends at breakneck speed. Finally, when I fear we may slide off and fall forever, he flattens out.
Tinley pumps one arm and whoops. I wish I shared her elation. We are so high.
Below us, moonbeams illuminate the dips and rises of hills—correction, peaks. Behemoth races over the snowy crests of the Alpanas. Our swift pace prevents me from guessing our location along the mountain range, but Tinley has patrolled this region. She probably knows which direction we are headed.
Shrieks sound in the night. The smaller mahatis fly up and flank us. Tinley and I hunch farther over Behemoth’s neck to hide from the others. I rest my head against her shoulder. The high altitude is shrinking my lungs and fuzzing my concentration. She grasps my forearm, and sunny air inflates me, returning my focus.
“What was that?” I ask.
“A lung boost. The air is too thin up here. The boost should last a couple hours.”
Our flock soars at a distant summit—Wolf’s Peak. From our northern approach, the mountain’s slopes drop in deadly gradients. Behemoth soars toward its face. A passing rush of rock and snow fill my view. We ride gales to the top and suspend over the whole of the world, equal to only the stars. The extraordinary moment lasts a fraction of a breath. Behemoth tucks in his wings and spirals into a dive.
Tinley and I lean forward as our bottoms lift off his back. The sky and land spin into a whirl of gray and white. My grip starts to slip from Tinley’s waist. On the next roll, her own grasp fails.
We plummet head over end, tumbling faster and faster. A scream expands in my throat. Tinley summons a gust and rights herself. Plunging headfirst, she rides a gale to me and grabs my cloak. I lurch at the sudden connection.
The ground is seconds away. Tinley throws out her hand. A mighty wind bursts up, flipping us onto our backs and slowing our fall.
We hit the frozen land and the sky quiets. I ache everywhere, especially my head. I rest my palm over my chest and seek the assurance of my heartbeat. Tinley pants beside me as the falcons disappear over the peak.
“Bastards,” she says.
I get up and help her next. She walks to the precipice and tilts her ear to the night. By some mercy, we both retained our packs in the fall and Tinley still has her crossbow.
“They landed close by.” She starts uphill. “Follow exactly in my footsteps. The ice is unstable.”
I place my footsteps in her tracks. We have not gone far when Tinley switches directions, and I follow her parallel up the mountainside. After we return to our original course, I see that we circumvented a crevasse.
“You’ve done this before,” I say.
“Haziq and I were on a routine flight over the Alpanas. His novice falcon got spooked by lightning and knocked us off. Haziq sent a warning call for help. He wanted to wait, but I suggested we find shelter from the storm. We were almost to a cave when he fell in a crevasse. It took me a day to climb down to him.” Tinley’s voice folds in on itself. “Bedros found us. I held Haziq between us during our flight home. I tried to bury my grief in my affections for Bedros, but no one can replace Haziq.”
“I’m sorry.” As trite as they may be, platitudes are all I have.
Tinley’s glowing eyes match the moon. “I prayed the entire climb down. I hoped Haziq had hit his head and couldn’t answer me. But I knew, I knew, he was already gone.” She sniffles and maneuvers around another chasm. “I understand why you keep looking for Deven. If the gods had given me the same chance of seeing Haziq again, I wouldn’t give up either.”
She refocuses on our climb and trudges upward. My freezing limbs barely keep up, but I do not complain about the cold or steep hike.
When we’ve almost reached the top, Tinley drags me down and points at fresh falcon tracks in the snow. We scramble up the overhang, and their trail leads to a cave. Tinley shuffles up to the entry and listens.
My neck prickles. Though I cannot recall another time when I stood at the top of the world, I know this place.
“I don’t hear anything inside,” Tinley reports, her tone testy.
She cannot hear hear. Her powers are not working.
I throw a flame inside the cave, and the murk swallows it. Bhuta powers are rarely stifled, yet a similar dampening happened in the presence of the Voider. Perhaps the same barrier occurs around godly gates.
“This could be a good sign,” I say.
“Let’s find out.”
Tinley pulls a torch out of her pack and drizzles the end with lamp oil. I ignite the oil with a thread of soul-fire. We follow the falcon tracks into the cave, Tinley leading with the torch while I wield my dagger. Glistening ice coats the rock faces. We leave the frosty entry and proceed deeper into the mountain. Soon our torchlight does not reach the ceiling and walls. Tinley jumps at every drip or rattle. It must be disconcerting for her advanced hearing to suddenly be gone.
The falcon tracks peter off in the gravel at our feet. Behemoth has fluttered away like a butterfly. Did he really come in here? Or did the mountain lead us astray? I try to toss a heatwave for more light. My powers are barred. Not even my skin glows.
Our cautious pace gradually leads us into warmer air. Mixed in with the humidity comes a putrid sourness.
Tinley stares into a hot, stinky breeze. “That sounds like”—a low snort comes from the same direction—“breathing.”
A beast strides into our dome of illumination. The horned creature stands on his hindquarters, his torso, arms, and face that of a man, the lower half of him bovine.
A kusarikku—a bull-man. In stories of the gods, they are doorkeepers to the Beyond.
The kusarikku’s hooves thud closer. His tasseled tail swings between his upright hind legs, and his flat nose spews stinky exhalations. The stench of manure overwhelms me.
“Did you see a door?” I whisper to Tinley.
“No, did you?”
The kusarikku chuckles. “Lowly mortals shall not pass through the gate.”
“We’re bhutas,” I reply.
His right hoof paws at the gravel. “Prove yourselves and you shall pass.”
This must be a trick. “We cannot. An unseen force won’t let us access our powers.”
“No mortal shall enter.” The bull-man lowers his horns at us and charges.
Tinley and I jump apart. She trips over a dip in the ground and falls. He barrels past and circles back for her. She throws the torch across the cave. We scramble to different spots and go still. The kusarikku stomps to the torch. His yellow eyes stare out, searching for us in the darkness.
Something bumps into my back. I squeak in surprise. Tinley covers my mouth. The bull-man releases a throaty chuckle and charges again.
We roll apart, each in the opposite direction. The kusarikku redirects for Tinley. I get up and run for the torch.
Come out, Siva.
The fire flickers without any sign of her. I lower my palm over the flames. My soul-fire might be unreachable, but this nature-fire is right in front of me.
I am fire, and fire is me. A face appears in the torch’s flame, heeding my beckoning. Come out, Siva. I need you.
A spindly flame threads off and twirls above my skin, hot but not burning. Siva takes shape into a little ball, the size of a cicada, the smallest form my fire dragon has taken. The kusarikku slams his horns into a wall. Tinley has wedged herself inside a gap in the rock face.
I hold out Siva. “Get him.”
My fire dragon zips across the cave and jumps on the bull-man’s head. He swats at the dancing flame, forgetting Tinley. Siva flies about and lands on his nose. The kusarikku howls and bats at her. I crook my finger, and she floats back to my open palm.
“There’s your proof,” I yell. “I’m a Burner. Now let us pass.”
The kusarikku snarls. I raise the torch, preparing for him to charge. He lifts his horns and stalks off, each footfall echoing into the dark. Tinley squeezes out of the hole and limps to a stop. Blood drips down her thigh from a gore wound. I reach into my bag for a cloth.
“You need a bandage,” I say, frowning.
Tinley waves me off. “No, it’s shallow.”
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