I scoot into the center of the bench. Enlil rows us farther into the swells, the grim waves extending to the horizon.
“How do you know which way to go?”
“In the under realm, the correct direction will be the most treacherous.”
He maintains his rhythmic labor, paddling into the upsurges. Red droplets splash against the hull. I must think of something beyond the gore holding us afloat. One of Enlil’s earlier comments circles back to me.
“When you said my loved ones are in my memories, who did you mean?”
He hesitates on the next stroke and then compensates with more vigor. “It is easier to show you.”
Something bangs against the trapdoor far down inside me. Whatever is locked away desires the acceptance of Enlil’s offer. “Never mind. I was only curious.”
“Mortals are inquisitive by nature. I can select a memory with Jaya.”
All my senses hang upon his words. “You know about her?”
“The gods know every soul, now and through all generations.” Enlil rests an oar in his lap and lifts his hand. I cannot shift away without tipping the skiff. He presses his thumb to my temple. “Shut your eyes.”
To see Jaya again, I forget his bossiness and do as he says.
My soul-fire shines behind my eyelids, a star in my private sky. A blinding glare overtakes my inner vision, and my mind spins into a vortex of noises and sounds.
All goes quiet.
I reopen my eyes and the skiff is gone. Enlil sits beside me, grasping my knee. Both of us wear the finest silks and softest leather sandals. We lounge on satin pillows beneath an opulent canopy. People fill the hall before us, dancing and dining at tables brimming with dishes of food. Women wait in a line before me. They approach our dais one at a time and lay precious tokens of adoration at my feet. Perfumes, veils, lotions, spices, finely crafted weapons . . .
In the shiny blade of a khanda, I view my reflection. The woman I see wears a gold-and-crimson sari—bridal attire. Our features, hair, and physique are identical, save that she has her right hand. Swirling henna trails up her arms.
I am the woman in the bridal sari with matrimonial markings. I feel her heartbeat. Taste the wine on her lips. Smell her jasmine perfume. Detect the heavy rubies around her neck.
How . . . ? I review the banquet hall for answers. Several dancers twist their wrists and shimmy their ankles, rattling their anklets and bracelets to the drumming. Servants refill wine chalices amid the tables where attendees kneel. One of the servants stands out.
“Jaya,” I gasp.
Her shorter frame has a powerful stance, her body a proportional measure of muscle. I adored sketching her; she is not flashy like a peacock but lovely as a dove. I leave the dais, and Enlil grabs my wrist.
“This is a memory, Kalinda. You cannot change what was.”
“I don’t care.” I wrench from him and weave through the tables to my friend. Next to her, I nearly burst from gladness. “Jaya?”
She refills a patron’s dish and continues down the long table.
“I’m so sorry.” Tears wobble my voice. “I’ve missed you.”
Jaya turns around, and her stare goes through me. I try for contact, but my tap passes through her. I return to the dais in a daze, pained by her blunt disregard. Enlil comes to my side.
“She’s . . . she’s forgotten me,” I say.
He guides me back to my floor cushion. “She is a servant in your parents’ household. You are her master, and she knows her place.”
Her place is with me. I kneel behind the pile of gifts and look out over the grand dining hall. “You said this is my parents’ household?”
Enlil points to a couple greeting guests in the center of the room. The woman’s silky hair shines under the lamplight, and the man wears a trim beard and mustache. They are dressed impeccably in fine silks and leather. Their elbows are linked in a casual manner. Though I have never seen them in the flesh, they look just as Chief Naresh described.
“Mother! Father!” I shout.
They are close enough to hear me, but neither responds.
“You cannot speak to them,” Enlil says. “This is a memory. It cannot be altered.”
I rise to go to my parents, but he blocks my path. “Why did you bring me here? This is torment!”
Enlil encircles me in his arms. “That will suffice for now. Wake, Kalinda.”
“Don’t make me lose them again. Let me stay.” I writhe against him, but his hold is unbreakable. He shushes me and presses his lips to my temple. The banquet hall starts to fade. “Please don’t take them from me. Please.”
A flash blinds me, and a vortex sweeps me off-center. I spin, all strength from my limbs draining out.
I wake in the bottom of the skiff. Enlil stands in the knee-deep water and pushes it to shore. Cries embed in my breastbone. I scramble out and brace against the side of the boat, waiting out my unsteady legs. Enlil tries to support me. I wave him back and toughen my voice as much as I dare.
“That memory wasn’t mine. Unless you can show me something that will help me find Deven, leave my past alone.”
“This Void will root out the less appealing parts of your soul’s progression,” Enlil answers sympathetically. “You are better off to remember your past lives through me.”
Far inside my center, a pounding sensation ricochets through my chest cavity. I cast him a direct glare. “I don’t need you interfering with my head.”
Enlil draws up to his full height, his toned abdomen tucked in. “As you desire.”
I set off ahead of him toward the cliffs. The pounding inside me quiets to raps.
“The second gate is ahead,” Enlil says, his footfalls behind mine. “Beyond it lies the Valley of Mirrors.”
“Sounds less ominous than the Sea of Desolation.”
“A misconception. The obstructions become more hazardous the nearer we are to the city.” He takes a mango from his bag. “Be wary. The rabisu has scented you.”
The path in the cliffs closes after us. Another wall appears ahead, taller than the last. A rabisu the size of a brown bear waits to receive us. He smells the air and licks his chops. I shift closer to Enlil, closer to the hammering deep within me.
The sap of the thorn tree sticks to my tunic, stinking of rot. Everything in the under realm reeks of decay. Plugging my nose does nothing. I have learned to tolerate the stench.
The early morning hour is quiet. The creatures of the Void have slunk back into their holes for the day. I settle my head against the tree trunk. My own sleep pattern has become nocturnal. I rest when the under realm does.
Thuds vibrate up through the ground. I hold still and wait for the disruption to pass. More quaking comes, accompanied by a rapid drumming. I sit forward and peer out of the thicket into the grayish haze. The noises hail from the city.
Dropping to my belly, I slide forward toward the road. The vibrations strengthen, pulsing into my gut. Creatures march through the city gates. Rabisus of all shapes and sizes travel toward Kur’s cave. They pass by the First-Ever Dragon’s lair and continue toward the Road of Bone. Toward me.
I have never seen hundreds of rabisus together, let alone congregated during daylight hours. Demons command the group, riding astride ugallus. Triple the size of an adult bear, with the head and body of a lion and wings of an eagle, the tawny ugallus are functional steeds for both ground and air battle. The hideous beasts close in, and I recognize their riders. Edimmu, a crocodile-snake demon; her brother Asag, the rock demon; and their sister Lilu, whom Kali nicknamed Fish Face.
The drummers approach first, bears walking on their hind legs. The mangy army behind them is a crew of demented bears, tigers, wolves, and other predators found in the mortal realm. None of the rabisus display pennants or banners. They wear no uniforms and are not organized into units. They travel like a stampede, crushing everything in their path.
I scoot back from the road, deeper into the cover of the thicket. Down in the muck, the foulness of the Void should mask my mortal scent. I stay low, regulating my movements to half breaths.
The demon commanders ride past on their ugallus. Their lion-eagle mounts are massive, large as an elephant but with the jaws of a monster. They start down the Road of Bone, and the rabisus prowl past next. A wolfish one pants hard as it pads by. The beast and its kind are emaciated to bones and matted fur.
At the rear of the troops, rabisus loiter, sniffing and scavenging for scraps. The army stops at the far end of the Road of Bone. Asag calls orders near the front, his rumbly voice unforgettable. Rabisus set to work, pushing up the ground into big dirt piles. The mounds block the entrance to the road, filling the expanse. The paths to the mortal realm are on the other side of their blockade.
They have locked me in . . . or are they keeping something out?
I stay down, dagger close, and observe the camp. The troops quit moving about and all goes quiet again. Exhaustion threatens to grind me down. The army seems to have settled in for the day, so I return to my tree to rest.
As I drift off, a wolf rabisu howls. Their lonely calls are only common at night. I sit up and spot movement down the road. Rarely do the creatures of the Void stir during the daylight hours.
I crawl through the thicket, and my chest hitches. An army of rabisus set up a blockade at the other end of the Road of Bone. New paw and hoof tracks mark the roadway that runs past my location. They must have marched by me. How did I sleep through their patrol?
I inspect the undergrowth for the answer. Fresh dents are on the ground in my usual lookout spot, as recent as the last hour. Panic skitters through me. I didn’t sleep through their march. I’ve forgotten it.
Sometimes, when I am very fatigued, I lose gaps in my memory. The gaps are getting wider and closer in frequency.
I return to my thorn tree and tear off a spiky needle. Turning over the handle of my janbiya, I press the sharp end of the needle into the ivory and start to chisel a K into the top.
K. A. L. I.
Over and over, I recite the spelling of her name. I cannot forget her or my friends and family. I must remember there is more to my life than the dark.
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