My heart falls to my knees. I press my fist over my chest, willing the pain to recede. “Please don’t.”
“You need not fear me. I would never harm you, Kali.”
I am afraid of him. Terrified, actually, of what I might learn about myself through his eyes.
But I am also curious. So curious, especially about Jaya . . .
This is not why I summoned him. Dwelling on past lives will only distract me from my purpose in this one. Beyond this perilous valley is another gate, then another, and another, and eventually—Deven. I will get to him, either on my own two feet or upon the back of my guide.
“All right. You can carry me, but no more speaking about what I did before this life.”
“No more memories,” he vows.
Before he turns around, I do not miss his satisfied half smirk. I climb onto his back, hanging from his neck. My lips hover by his ear. I take his lightning spear, which hums in my grasp.
He turns his cheek into mine, and his voice dips to a husky purr. “Secure?”
This was a bad idea.
He starts off. I lower my chin to his neck and use his spear to smash the crystal fangs that loom too close. Venom spurts and drips from the decapitated prongs. A saw-toothed end cuts Enlil’s forearm. He grimaces and his walk turns rigid.
“Are you hurting?”
“I am immortal, not infallible. Pain and agony existed long before mortals.”
He sustains more scratches across his bronze skin, yet his step does not falter. I thwack at a particularly large crystal near our heads, and venom showers down. I duck from the patter of poison. Enlil stops.
“Kalinda,” he says, muscles tense. “Were you struck?”
“My hood and cloak protected me.”
“Hold on.” He increases his gait. “Do not concern yourself with the thorns. Our path opens ahead.”
His sudden speed bars me from clearing our trail. I settle against his shoulder and watch the crystals stream by. Their gloomy surfaces blur together to a solid wash of clouds. Fog has rolled into the valley. Our path widens, but Enlil slows to navigate the soupy haze.
Lethargy heavies my bones. I blink slowly at the endless stream of gray. An image of a woman peers out at me. Despite my wooziness, I rouse enough to inspect the mist. Another person appears. She has a slim, solemn face, lustrous midnight hair, and penetrating eyes.
“Someone else is out here.” I push at Enlil. “Put me down.”
Necessity pumps through me. I must find her. We cannot leave her here.
“Let me go!” I drop the spear.
Enlil bends over to fetch it, and I wriggle out of his grasp. My knees wobble as I side-wind into the fog bank. The deadly spikes have vanished, and in their place the crystals have flattened to a reflective wall. I pad up to the row of mirror glasses. Figures inside the mirrors gaze out. Right in front of me is the woman I first saw. She is no stranger.
An entire spectrum of Kalindas stand before me. At least a dozen versions of myself, all dressed in varying attire and hairstyles, stare out of the mirror. Most are young, my age or close to it. Some are in their middle years, while others must be in their last decade of life.
The first and nearest reflection wields an urumi. Its flexible silver blades snake around her legs. She dons old-fashioned armor that is heavy and clunky, and she is speckled in blood, not her own, judging by her lack of injury.
I tread up to the mirror glass, and her reflection takes over my own. I no longer see myself, only her. She holds herself with self-assurance that I do not exhibit. Her indomitable poise is like a tigress’s—exquisite, terrifying. Besides their physical likeness, all the Kalindas are outwardly confident. I envy one more attribute. Every one of them has both their hands.
Something from the deepest trenches of my soul thrashes against the inner trapdoor. The Kalinda before me flings her urumi back and lashes the whiplike blades at me.
A pressure explodes in my chest. The trapdoor flings open, and something—someone—pours into my head. The back of my neck cramps.
Her voice sounds like mine in tenor, but she is surer, more aware of what is happening. Shakiness jogs up my legs. I rest against the cold, flat mirror glass, my skull aching.
“Who are you?”
Again, her voice engulfs my thoughts.
I am Cala.
Her reflection grins hard. She rests her hand on the mirror glass against my prosthesis.
A shadow stirs behind me. The fire-god’s reflection manifests in the mirror. Cala’s attention leaps to him. Yearning beams from her eyes. Enlil.
“Kalinda, what has come over you?” He twists me around so fast I sway on my feet. “I have been calling your name. We need—child of Kur.”
I slump against him, my insides plummeting long after he catches me.
Cala beats her fist against the glass. Enlil touches my face. I have wet spots on my cheek that I did not notice. He scrubs them off. Cala pounds harder. Enlil! Enlil!
“You must remain awake.” Enlil sweeps me up. The ground and sky spin.
Cala’s reflection runs after us. She jumps from crystal to crystal, her voice transferring to my head. Her calls for Enlil are soundless. He hears not one.
The giant crystal thorns thin around us. Cala runs to the last mirror and whips her urumi at the unbreakable glass. We travel farther from the brambles, and she sinks to her knees. I watch over Enlil’s shoulder until I lose sight of her. Though her form is trapped in the Valley of Mirrors, her soft weeping rattles inside my mind.
Enlil climbs out of the valley and lays me on the ground. He presses down on my breastbone. “This will be painful.”
Searing agony lances into my bones. I shriek and buck, but he presses me down and pushes soul-fire inside every hidden pocket of my veins. His powers scorch out the venom, leaving no part of me untouched. At last, when I have no voice left, the cleansing inferno dissipates.
I wilt into a heap. Sweat dampens my brow and chest from his residual heat. My skin glows with tiny trails of lightning. I feel around inside my head for Cala. She has gone quiet. I wheeze in the fragile silence. Gradually, my radiance dims and my temperature cools.
Enlil rests my head in his lap. “Kalinda?”
His shoulders slump over his chest. “Had the thorn punctured your skin, the venom would have killed you. Can you stand?”
“Not yet.” My teeth and tongue taste of cinders. My bones and muscles have splintered to tinder. “The mirrors showed me versions of myself. The reflections were of me, but not me.”
Enlil gazes off at the valley. “They were you before, in your other lives.”
“But I’m not like them. They were warriors.”
“As are you.” The fire-god’s gaze sears into mine. “We are always more than we think we are.”
I inhale his spring water scent, and longing floods up from a well of secrets that I cannot see or grab hold of. I search for the source inside me, but I am trying to read an expression on a face that is turned away. “Who is Cala?”
Enlil stills, frozen as a statue. “You told me you did not wish for me to interfere with your memories.”
I still do not, but I feel her lurking. She is out now, and I do not know how to put her back. Perhaps if I understand who she is, I can force her from my mind.
“How did you meet?”
Enlil picks up my left hand and laces our fingers. “That was a long time ago.” He kisses my knuckles in sequence. Memories bubble up from a well of secrets and cascade over my mind. The surge sweeps me from my bearings and drags me further into myself.
I kneel in the garden near the rhododendron forest, my charcoal stick in hand. Father will be irritated with me for sketching on his terrace tiles. The whole of the world is my sketchbook, and the sunshine is friendliest this hour of day.
A shadow falls over the sketch of my mother, blocking the midday sun. I gaze up into startling, fiery eyes. I open my mouth to call for Mother, but Fire Eyes speaks.
“Did you draw this?”
I glance nervously at the open double doors to my home.
He sits near my pile of charcoals. “You are gifted.” He brushes my hair behind my shoulder, his touch natural as an afterthought. “How old are you?”
“And your name?”
His soothing scent, like spring rain, relaxes me. He must be a friend of Father’s for the guards to have allowed him through our front gate. “I’m Cala.”
“Would you draw for me, Cala?”
He asks tentatively, as though expecting me to refuse. His shyness does not suit his striking appearance. He must be lonely, like me. “Yes, I will draw for you.”
And I do.
The vision swirls around, and a torrent of new memories arrests me. Cala and Enlil stand at an altar in Ekur, Enlil wearing a fitted white-and-gold tunic and Cala a silk gold-and-red sari. She vows to love him until the end of time, and he promises her his heart forevermore.
Enlil kisses the last of my knuckles and lets me go. The loss of his touch reels me back to the present. I gape at him, my head still in his lap. Cala was his wife. Her love for him pushes me to bury my burdens in his embrace.
Kiss him. My emotions twist and tangle with Cala’s. He’s our fate.
Enlil’s nearness is intoxicating. Any closer and I will be fully drunk on him. I roll onto the ground. “Get out of my head.”
He crouches over me. “Cala? Cala, are you there?”
Enlil! I’m here!
Get out of my head!
I dig my fingers into the dirt and shove Cala back down into my chest. Her presence finds lodging beside my drumming heart.
I blink myself into awareness. Cala’s cries for Enlil drift to muffled pleas. I am not alone, but I am in charge. I stagger to my feet.
“My name is Kalinda, and you are my guide. We have come to find Deven Naik. He’s the entire reason we’re in this awful place, so let’s move.”
Enlil peers into my eyes. I stare icily in return, willing any trace of Cala from my expression.
The fire-god picks up his spear and treads on.
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