I glimpse a single shadow loitering at the border of the crystals in the valley below. I stomp after Enlil and let Cala’s reflection die in my vision.
The long-needled thorn slips off the hilt of my janbiya hilt and punctures my thumb. I shake my hand to ease the stinging and slip my bleeding finger into my mouth.
Mistake. I spit out the grimy taste of my skin and throw away the dull thorn. I break another needle off the tree in front of me and return to my project. My progress engraving Kali’s name into the hilt of my dagger has been painstaking. I only just completed the first letter.
As I work on the next one, my eyesight blurs. I still have not slept. The rabisus and demons still camp at the blockade down the road. They have been quiet for some time. By nightfall, every one of them will be awake and alert. If I do not sleep now, I will be awake all night again. I drag the needle through the dirt, writing KALI so I remember to finish the engraving, and lie on my side.
Knocks come from the Road of Bone. The bones are solid but resonate with a scant tapping when walked upon. I come awake and lie on my front at the base of the tree.
Something travels in my direction from the blockade. Big shapes that begin as shadows soon sharpen. Two demons astride ugallus pause every so often to canvass the thicket. Edimmu and Asag are on patrol.
I roll onto my sides and then my back, smothering myself in dirt. Demons have a powerful sense of smell. After my first few days on the run, the putridness of the Void camouflaged me. I coat myself in grime for extra protection.
On my stomach again, hot breaths blow off some of the filth caking my lips. The demons stalk closer. I stretch out low with my dagger.
Close enough that I can count her scales, Edimmu halts her ugallu and licks the air with her forked tongue. The ugallu’s silver feline gaze stays on the trees. I breathe only when necessary and swallow even less.
“The road is clear,” Asag rumbles.
“I smell flesh,” his sister hisses.
She can only mean me. Her sense of smell must be stronger than Asag’s.
Edimmu jumps off her mount, her tongue flicking the air. She follows the taste of my smell closer to the spiny trees. The grove is thick with brambles and undergrowth. To get in, I had to slide on my belly to the middle. Getting out in a hurry, and without them seeing me, is impossible.
Skies above, why isn’t my dagger a sword?
Asag rides up to his sister, his ugallu growling and snapping at hers. “The road is clear. We can return to camp.”
Edimmu samples the air again. Her crocodile snout bears brown stained teeth. “Whatever it is will soon be carrion.”
She mounts her ugallu and they ride up the road. Their ugallus steal away, tails twitching. My pulse hammers at every pressure point. I could seek out another hideout, but I would have to sneak past Kur’s lair. The roadblock prevents me from going out to the obstructions, and I will not go into the city. The wanderers live there and so does she.
I lessen my grasp on my janbiya. A pattern is impressed into the handle, a K and a slash?
The dirt beside me has markings—letters. Near them is a pile of dull thorns. I must have rubbed away some of the letters when I rolled around. All that remains is an L and an I.
The letters swirl around my mind in a jumble. I inspect the dirt closer. The missing letter is barely visible, an A.
Kali. Memories of her flood my thoughts, some hazier than others. The flimsy recollections may float away in an instant.
How could I forget Kalinda? The gap in my mind is expanding like a sinkhole. Any wider and who I am right now, who I was when I was first brought here, will fall in.
My hand shakes as I pry off another thorny needle from a tree. I resume carving her name, faster and more fervently. My remembrances of her turn around and around in my mind as I work. Her solemn expression and thick, silken hair. The way she touches her mother’s daggers at her side when she is deep in contemplation. How she juts out her chin anytime someone suggests she do something she does not like.
Thoughts of her bring my awareness back into my grasp.
When Kali’s memory is alive, so am I.
We arrive at the third gate. The rabisu stands from behind the low stone wall and stretches until its shoulders are nearly in line with Enlil’s. The guardian’s furry physique is mannish; it even has hands with fingernails. Saliva runs down its chin, dripping from fangs. It watches me and licks its chops. Enlil tosses a hunk of stinky meat at the beast.
The rabisu catches his payment. “Cross the River of Ordeal. The gate is on the other side.” It rips into the meat with its teeth.
The bone-chilling noise of its feeding follows us up a steep gradient. When the sounds finally quit, I glance back. Gate and guardian have disappeared.
“Why is the landscape always changing?” I ask. “Where does it disappear to?”
“Nowhere. The Void is empty unless it is not.”
I cannot puzzle out the fire-god’s meaning. Omnipotent nonsense, I suppose.
Enlil ascends the slope. I drag behind, my legs twinging and my side aching. The long stretches of sleeplessness have dwindled my stamina. Enlil notices my sluggishness and pauses. I almost overtake him, and he climbs on. He does this again and again without a word of encouragement. Cala is still, but I sense her near, like a person breathing in my ear.
He scales to the top and waits. The din of gushing water increases as I crest the rise. I bend over, wheezing. A wooden rope bridge spans a sheer divide and, far below, a river. Rapids tear at its surface, sending up an almighty roar. The flimsy bridge has no handrails. The planks have rotted-out holes, and the gaps between them are irregular, some wider than our feet.
Enlil passes me a mango. “Eat and recover your strength.”
I gobble the fruit in record time. My fatigue goes away, as does the pinch in my side.
Enlil sidesteps down the gravel slope to the flat grade where the rope bridge connects to the cliff by double posts. His footing unlooses stones that roll off the edge and plummet into the choppy river.
He motions to me. I clamp his fingers and descend to him. I survey the cliff for another crossing. This rickety bridge is our only path to the other side.
“We must cross one at a time,” he says. “I will go first.”
Holding his spear across his chest for balance, Enlil ventures onto the first plank. The bridge swings from his weight and the ropes tauten. He hazards another narrow plank and glances back at me.
“Face forward!” I yell.
He grins and straddles another gap.
Gods, what a pest.
Enlil navigates the planks in succession, evading the rotten sections. At the center of the bridge, a portion of the plank creaks. He readjusts his footing. As he waves to let me know he is well, the wood beneath him snaps and he drops.
“Enlil!” I fall to my knees at the ledge.
He hits the river and goes under. His spear surfaces, then him. The rapids sweep him along.
“Oh, gods, gods, gods, gods.” I stumble along the cliff, surveying for a trail down to the river.
Enlil floats downstream. Soon he will be out of sight. I will be alone, lost without a guide, and with no means of freeing Deven.
I still cannot find a trail. There is only one way down.
“Please. Please. Please.” Gazing up, as if I can somehow see Anu in the Beyond, I leap.
A scream wrenches out of me as I fall. My feet collide with the icy water first. I submerge and resurface into rapids. Gasping and kicking, I spin and bob downriver. On the next surge, I grab sight of land and lose it again. Another swell drags me under. I am heaved up and pushed into a boulder. The strap of my prosthesis loosens, and my wooden hand is swept in one direction, me another. It is swiftly lost in the torrent of waves. I gulp down water, only it is thicker and heavier than what I know.
Enlil’s words return about Irkalla casting a plague on the under realm and turning the water to blood.
I gag up the dampness. More wetness splashes up my nose and into my mouth. I am going to drown, choking on blood in this godless river.
A beam of light glows in front of me. The current throws me directly into the radiance. I hug the end of Enlil’s spear. He tows me to a shallow bank, and I flop on a bed of pebbles. Blood smears our skin and clothes. A slash on my side bleeds from where I struck the boulder, mingling with the rest. My stomach buckles. I retch on the hard-packed shore and flop onto my back.
Enlil glowers down at me. “You stupid, stupid woman. How many times must I watch you bleed?”
“How. Many. Times . . . ?” I trail off.
Cala shoves into my thoughts. Remember.
I flinch at the power of her hold. If she were physically present, her demand would bruise.
Remember who we are!
Her mandate smashes into my consciousness. A murky splotch charges across my vision and hauls me into the chasm of her being.
Thunderous cheers echo throughout the amphitheater. I hurl my urumi blades. My nearest opponent yields, gashes seeping across her chest. I reel around and slash. The whiplike blades strike another competitor, cutting her down. She howls wildly. I hardly hear her over my inner gong ringing, pushing me to end this match.
One final time, I slice at my rival. My blades slit her throat and put her suffering to rest. She falls onto the stacks of bodies around me. They are blood-spattered messes of ripped limbs, gushing wounds, and silent mouths. No other opponents rush me. She was the last woman, last competitor, standing.
No. I am.
The spectators packing the rows of the amphitheater pound their feet and pump their fists. “Hundred, hundred, hundred,” they chant.
I thrust my blood-streaked urumi above my head. “Father Anu and Mother Ki—it is finished.”
From overhead, descending from a divide in the rolling white clouds, a burning chariot pulled by horses of flame blazes a trail of fire. As the chariot appears, the audience hushes. I drop my urumi. Blood speckles my heavy armor. My lower body is bathed in it, and my own blood flows from a cut near my hip. I tuck my elbow against the wound to slow the bleeding.
The fiery chariot circles the oval arena. I squint into the glory of the horses and their rider. The fire-god radiates vivacity, outshining that of his mounts. His magnificence comes into focus. Flowing hair, wavy yet tamed. Bare chest sculpted from marble. Acres of bronze skin. Hypnotizing cinder eyes. A full mouth drawn out like a bow and a clean-shaven jawline.