He lands his chariot across the length of the arena. A sarong covers his upper thighs and groin, leaving toned legs wound by strappy leather sandals. He does not carry his lightning spear but a necklace. The hushed spectators bow as he steps off the chariot and strides to me. My gaze holds his, trapped in the aliveness of its color. Swirling golds and reds and oranges, a peek into the living flame within him. He stops and lifts the medallion.
“My champion!” He slips the necklace over my head. The weight lies against my collarbone; the surface is engraved with the gods’ quad emblem.
I start to bow, but he halts me.
“You do not bow to me. My heart, my champion.” The fire-god lowers to one knee and presents a crown, a delicate arrangement of gold-plated lotus flowers. “You shall be my hundredth queen.”
I remove my helmet and drop it in the dirt. The dead surround us, so many I question the sanctity of my soul. But these women tried to separate us. They died so that we might be one.
I place the crown and fall into him.
He cradles the back of my head. “Will you forgive me this trial?”
“You need never ask for forgiveness. I did this for us, and I would do it again.”
His eyes flash at the implication of another tournament, another trial standing between our love. “Nothing will separate us. You and I will be united forevermore.”
The fire-god lowers his nose to mine, tipping our foreheads together. As our lips skim, Cala releases me from her clutches.
Now you remember.
My eardrums pulsate against my skull. I can still feel Enlil’s kiss and smell the misty clouds on his skin. As I reorient myself, he wipes the bloody river water from my cheeks.
Tarek cannot have been right. During my rank tournament, he told our people I was the reincarnated soul of a legend, the greatest tournament champion of all time, who gained the favor of a god. This warrior battled Enlil’s wives and courtesans to secure her place as his one hundredth wife, and, in doing so, brought down an army of women.
She had no name, no fate of her own, except the destiny that bound her to the fire-god. She is simply known as Enlil’s hundredth rani.
She was me, says the voice in my head. And you know my name.
I roll onto my side, away from Enlil. This cannot be. The woman who dominated the first-ever rank tournament was cold-blooded. But Cala’s memory is undeniable. She recalled Enlil in detail. She knows him in ways I do not that nonetheless fit my experiences so far.
It’s true, Kali. You have my medallion.
My satchel was ripped off while I was in the river, but I pat the outline of the necklace in my pocket. I do not need to look upon it again—it is the same medallion Enlil awarded his hundredth rani.
I bury my eyes in the crook of my elbow. “It cannot be.”
“Kalinda, I am sorry I was cross. I could never let misfortune befall you.”
“I . . . I was Cala,” I say, shuddering.
“You are Cala. The soul lives on after death.” Enlil rolls me so my upper body rests against his. “Souls who love each other will remember when united again and again.”
I recall the other women in the Valley of Mirrors. “You and I met in more lives?”
“Cala’s life was the first.”
Her championship spurred a romance that lasted lifetimes, so many I am afraid to ask how often I have suffered through this moment, recalling sentiments lost behind my mortal veil.
“Why didn’t I remember my past lives before now?”
“Do you recall your Razing?” he asks. I could never forget. The ritual, wherein my back was cut systematically to prevent my body from overheating, was excruciating. “During that ritual, your inner stars consolidated to one. Those stars represented your prior lives. To fully come into your Burner abilities, you had to set aside those connections and accept your inheritance as a half-god.”
My truest connection to the gods and my past lives were taken away, cut by cut.
While my waterlogged muscles recover, the sky deepens from heather to sable. Enlil cradles me, still shaken from my near drowning.
“Why did you do that, Kali? This river cannot harm me, but you could have died.”
“I don’t know.”
But I do know. I had to leap after him. Our fates are tied together, his and mine. Our bond transcends eras and our union is irrefutable.
He falls and I fall.
He rises and I rise.
Enlil has laid claim to Cala, and, subsequently, to me. I cannot pursue my path without acknowledging his role in my past, my present, and, gods only know, my future. Cala has lived countless lifetimes at his side. What sort of claim does that leave me to my own heart?
I cannot say what has been determined about my fate, but Cala and Enlil’s history does not alter the present. The fire-god will not lay claim to my soul or exploit my love for Deven to regain a closeness to Cala. My will and heart belong to me, and my purpose has not changed.
I came for Deven Naik, and even if it means defying the gods and resisting fate, I will free him.
Nightfall rests upon the under realm, darkness so thick it stings. Dagger in hand, I slide out from under the low branches of the thorn trees.
The Road of Bone has transformed into an active highway. Rabisus guide the latest influx of souls into the city in oxen-pulled wagons. The oxen’s horns curl around their hairy faces and glistening snouts. Souls reach out the rear doors of the wagons, begging for release. A rabisu on foot snaps a whip at them, and the wagons plods onward.
Every night new souls arrive, fresh from their mortal death. They greet the evernight fully aware, remembering who they are and what choices led them to this prison. Before long they forget their pain and wander about mindlessly. The under realm is full of these wanderers, shadows of their former selves. This will not be my fate.
I join the wanderers leaving the city and mimic their expressions. Eyes flat, mouth turned down in a perpetual grimace, and a sluggish gait. Ahead, demons guard the blockade, admitting wanderers out and in. Putting my head down, I tuck my janbiya in the waist of my trousers and cover the hilt with my tunic. I finished engraving Kali’s name on it just before nightfall. I will not forget her again.
I come up to the group of wanderers waiting to cross the blockade. Asag is on guard. I have a better chance of getting past him than Edimmu. Asag rakes his stony gaze over a wanderer and grunts, sending him along.
Shoulders sagged and head lolled to the side, I shuffle up to the barrier and bump into Asag. He grabs the front of my dirty tunic. Before I left, I rolled in the dirt again. I will myself not to shudder as I stare at his thick legs. He snorts and shoves me forward. I stride off, so slowly I may explode.
The blockade falls behind me, and pathways lead up into the sky. I follow the instructions on the back side of my janbiya. 1st right. 6th left.
A shadow stirs behind me. I continue but train my senses on the slinking presence. It could be the same thing that has been following me up to the gate.
Up ahead, the path splits at an overhang. Right at fork.
Instead of selecting right, I duck down the opposite way. My pursuer comes up to the divide. I capture his neck and lift my blade, locking him against me.
“Who are you?” I ask. “Why are you following me?”
“Deven,” replies a choked voice. “It’s me.”
“Brac?” I look askance at my brother’s honey eyes and coppery hair. I start to lower my blade. “How did you get here?”
“I stepped through the gate after you.”
Impossible. Kali tried that without success. “Who are you really?”
He elbows me in the side. I bend over, and he throws me toward the end of the path. My heels teeter over the drop-off. I secure my balance and stumble from the ledge.
Whatever this thing is, he is not Brac.
He stalks up to me and throws a punch. His knuckles smash into my cheek. I wheel around with my dagger, and he kicks me in the side. I fold in on myself. He fists a handful of my hair, wrenches my head up, and knees me in the jaw. One of my lower teeth wiggles.
“What are you?” I garble out.
“I am whatever my queen requires. Presently, she requires you.” He robs me of my weapon and tosses it over the ledge.
“No!” I scramble after it, but my dagger has fallen into the night.
My pursuer grabs the back of my head and slams it against the road. I lie in a daze, engulfed by a deluge of pain. When I drift back into myself, the demon, still assuming Brac’s appearance, is dragging me down the path.
This monster, this demon, can wear a disguise. If he followed me out of the under realm, through the gate, and assumed the appearance of Brac, the bhuta ambassador . . .
I seek out Kali’s soul-fire high up in the nothing. Still, she is not visible. My dagger with my directions is lost, and my memory is dodgy, but I have to get home. Irkalla’s sudden interest in me must be related to the demon impersonating my brother. I have to return to the mortal realm and warn Ashwin.
I twist my tunic from the demon’s grasp. He stops and cuffs me across the jaw. Braced on my side, blood spills from my split lip. I spit two busted lower teeth onto the ground.
The demon reels back for another swing. I swipe my leg under his ankles, unbalancing him, and shove him over the ledge. He falls out of sight.
I rub at my sore jaw. Skies alive, his fists are like mallets. I stagger to my feet, and the demon climbs back up. He wears Brac’s irksome smirk.
“Son of a scorpion,” I breathe.
He grabs for me. I rotate from his clutch and totter toward the edge. My inclination is to stop myself from falling, but I let the sky have me.
I plummet through the pathways and lunge for one. My weight drags me over again. Another few seconds, and I land on a lower roadway of shadow. I pant and wait out the aching. Most paths return to the city. I get up and jog down the sloping road.
Please lead me beyond the blockade. My steps weave, my vision watery. I have to get home. I have to warn the others.
The path lets me out near the city gate. I am farther from the obstructions than where I began the night. I will have to pass Kur’s lair, take the Road of Bone, and sneak through the demon’s blockade again.
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