The gods answered my prayers. The fire-god came and offered to serve my will. This is everything I wanted. What could a god ask of me that would be worth risking this chance for?
“We have a bargain.”
“Magnificent.” Enlil extends his hand, and a spear of lightning appears in his grasp. I stop myself from backing up a step, more impressed than afraid. “I will take us to the nearest gate.”
He whistles, and a chariot of fire charges toward us, arcing across the violet sky. The whole chariot, including the horses, is made of flames and sends a trail of embers in its wake.
“Is that chariot made of fire?” Tinley asks from behind us. She has climbed the stairway by herself.
I slip on my sandals and dash to her. “How is your leg?”
She no longer wears the binding around her thigh. The puncture wound has healed closed. “Don’t ask me how,” she says.
“Ekur is a place of rejuvenation,” Enlil replies. “A haven beyond the woes and pains of the mortal realm.” Grasping his spear, he resembles the sculpture in the entry hall of the Crystal Palace.
“Is that . . . ?” Tinley’s voice trails away, her light eyes gaping. “I need to sit.” She plunks down on the temple steps and drops her head between her knees.
Enlil casts a strange look at her. “She is distressed by my presence?”
“Tinley’s a little surprised you’re real,” I say, which only befuddles him more. I explain. “The gods have been gone a long while.”
“Mortals’ memories are short.” He waves his staff as he speaks in wide, grand gestures. “How speedily they forget the gods’ greatness and mercy.”
His indignation can wait. The blazing chariot is almost here.
“Tinley has no way to get home,” I say.
Enlil whistles, and Behemoth swoops down out of nowhere. The falcon must have been perched above the clouds the whole time. The wild mahati lands by Enlil, then spreads his wings and bows to the fire-god.
“Star-Jumper will take Tinley home.” Enlil strokes Behemoth . . . Star-Jumper. The falcon preens, fluffing his red-and-gold plume. “We have been friends for decades.”
The fire chariot and horses land behind Enlil. The mahati ruffles his feathers and eyes a horse. Star-Jumper probably dines on real steeds for his meals.
Tinley rises and squares herself to the fire-god. “I won’t leave until you tell me what’s become of my grandmother.”
Enlil swings around, his countenance thoughtful. “Your grandmother . . . ? Ah, Anoush. You fret for nothing. She has returned to the Beyond.”
“Oh.” Tinley wrestles against tears.
Enlil slowly approaches her, his expression marked with consternation. “Mortals are blinded to the Beyond so they will not mourn their temporary exclusion from paradise.” His merciful tone could smooth away any care. “As a comfort, I can return your sight for a brief glimpse.”
Tinley looks up at him with needy eyes. “Would you?”
Enlil sweeps his spear above his head, and a portion of the rotunda vanishes. Through the opening, another realm appears, where stars, sun, and moon shine. Beneath them, green hills roll into the horizon.
My heart trips into a run.
A tidy grass hut with a thatch roof overlooks the greenery. A garden has been planted off to the side, alive with rows of vegetables and herbs. Deven comes out from behind the hut carrying a spade.
He is not alone.
Jaya pushes open the door of the hut and steps out, balancing a laundry basket on her hip. She holds the door open, and I exit next, hefting a second basket. Our hair hangs loose, swishing across our backs as we stride down to the creek chatting.
The sight of my best friend captivates me until our forms disappear below the rise. My gaze jumps to Deven toiling in the garden. I prepare to call to him, but Tinley speaks over me.
“Grandmother,” she whispers. I rip my attention away from Deven. Tinley’s tears flow, her expression full of wonderment. “Can you see her, Kali? She looks so young and happy.”
I stare back at my picturesque scene. “I see—”
Tinley covers her gasp. “Haziq is there. He’s waving to me.” She clenches my hand hard. “He said he’ll find me in my next life.”
“But how?” I stammer. We are both viewing the same opening in the heavens, yet Anoush and Haziq are nowhere.
Enlil sweeps his spear over his head, and the glimpse into the Beyond ends. Deven and our hut in the lower Alpanas vanish.
Rawness boils up inside me. I reel on the fire-god. “I don’t understand.”
“The Beyond is a mirror of your heart’s wish.” His voice gentles to velvet. “What did you see, Kalinda?”
My deepest wish is vanishing a little every day. It is too fragile to speak of. “What’s your Beyond like?”
Enlil’s brow creases. “Incomplete.”
My annoyance dissolves. I should not be short with him, but my heart’s wish is a thin comfort without Jaya and Deven at my side.
“It is time for Tinley to depart.” Enlil strides to the falcon and pets its beak.
Tinley presses closer to me. “Kali, are you certain trusting him is a good idea? He looks at you strangely.”
Everything about this is odd, but Enlil is a god. I have worshiped him since my childhood. For Deven’s sake, I have to accept his aid.
“I’ll be all right. Will you?”
“I think so. My grandmother was right. Fate led us here to find the answers we seek.” Tinley pulls me close. “Find Deven, Kali. Find him and bring him home. Your friends and family will be waiting.”
I squeeze her harder than I normally would. She swiftly kisses my cheek, a rare show of affection, and strides to the falcon. Enlil boosts her onto its back. She waves farewell, and the mahati leaps into the sky. Star-Jumper flies into the clouds, and they vanish beyond the floating rotunda.
Enlil greets his horses and beckons me over. They remind me of Siva. One of them jerks at his bridle, also crafted from fire. I shrink from the enormous beast.
“Chaser recognizes you,” Enlil says.
From where? I would recall meeting a stallion of fire. Chaser butts his head against my extended hand. As with Siva, Chaser’s flames do not harm me. I pat his back and step onto the chariot after Enlil. He is so big I cannot avoid our sides touching.
“Most mortals are afraid of my chariot,” the fire-god notes.
“Then I hope you enjoy this.” He snaps the reins, and the horses take off.
Our ascent is more gradual than a mahati falcon’s. We rise into the violet sky through delicate clouds and closer to the unreachable dome. The higher we climb, the faster the horses gallop. I could fall out the back of the chariot, but Enlil stands behind me and blocks the opening. His protective stance spurs a thought.
We’ve ridden this way before.
Nausea simmers in my belly. I was someone else before this life. Many someones. One of the former versions of myself must have been close to the fire-god. Close enough to meet his horses. And if I am correct, she was of importance.
Our chariot speeds toward an expanding hole. We pass through it, exiting the splendor of Ekur, and fly over a desolate land of moody grays. Enlil lands beside a circular stone in the ground. We leave the chariot and approach the slab. Glyphs of an ancient script are etched all over it.
“What do they say?” I ask.
“It is a warning to intruders. This is the main portal to the under realm.”
Enlil hunts for something on the marker and then drives the end of his spear into a small indent along the rim. Brilliancy bursts across the stone, flowing out in a steady ripple, and the slab disappears. I peer over the edge.
A sludgy darkness percolates in the pit, not velvety or satiny like the shadows in the mortal realm but alive and squirming. The inky nest wafts of rotting sinew. Gooseflesh puckers my skin. The chilly evernight pours over the lip of the hole and swipes at my feet. I sidestep from contact, my joints rattling.
Enlil hoists his spear and straps on a satchel I did not notice he had. He may have summoned it from nothing. Gods can do that, I think.
“Kalinda, you have your powers, but are you otherwise armed?”
I reveal the turquoise hilts of the daggers at my hip. Since I am down to one hand, he must think I need another defense. “They were my mother’s.”
“You know her?”
“We are acquainted.” Enlil disregards my astonishment and edges up to the portal. The writhing sludge retreats from him and simmers. “You will possess your Burner powers in the under realm, but they will not replenish. Do not rely on them unless you are in dire need.”
Standing at the doorway to the Void, all hope and love in my life feel far removed. “The gods cannot reach us where we are going, can they?”
“Anu and Ki have no authority in the under realm.” Enlil takes my hand. “I will not let any harm come to you, Kalinda.”
And I will defend him.
The whisper comes from far down inside me. Before I can pinpoint its origin, Enlil puts his toes over the pit.
“We could lose each other in the pathways of shadow, so we must jump as one.”
His warmth shields me from the cold emanating from the portal. I lock my knees to quiet my trembling and gaze into his burning eyes. The same strange voice inside me expels a dreamy exhale. I feel around for the source of it and discover a barrier, like a sealed hatch. Something dwells down past my inner sight. I dare not investigate further or I may let it out.
Enlil threads his fingers in mine, and we leap.
Seething winds accost my ears as the evernight charges in around us. Enlil’s lightning spear casts illumination at our surroundings. The portal opens to endless paths and upside-down stairways. We plummet past them, unobstructed by the meandering trails. Black scorched ground appears below.
“Bend your knees!”
I do as Enlil orders, and we land in a pile of sludge. The sticky muck absorbs our fall. Enlil lifts his staff overhead, illuminating our location. We fell into a tar pit. The gritty wetness rubs abrasions over my bare arms and legs where my trousers rode up. I squirm to get out only to sink deeper.