My legs threaten to rebel. I may not have time to get through the blockade before daytime. Then the wanderers will go to rest, and they are my cover.

I sway on my feet, exhaustion replacing my alertness. Tiny specks explode in my vision. The white streamers consolidate to one distant star. Kali’s soul-fire.

She’s here? That must be her. No one else shines that brightly. Her light is a dot far out in the obstructions.

I cannot fathom how she got into the under realm. I would be angry, but knowing she is here provides clarity. The demon’s attack on me could be related to her. Kur summoning his commanders. The blockade. The demon patrols. The army of the evernight would not go to such lengths for a lowly, half-dead mortal. They must want something from Kali. I have to warn her, then I can alert Ashwin about the possibility of an imposter demon in the palace.

I scrub the blood off my chin and wipe it on my trousers. The dead do not bleed. By the time I revisit the blockade, my wounds should clot or else the demons will smell me and I will never pass as a wanderer.

Joining the meandering throng, I tread by Kur’s lair. Nothing moves or makes a sound from within. I am not tempted to linger and wait for a sign of his attentiveness. On the Road of Bone, I set a more decisive pace. I cannot lose this connection to Kali.

A gong rings in the distance, hailing from the city.

No. Not now.

All captives of the under realm halt, no matter their direction. Compelled to blend in, I stop too. Without an uttered word, the wanderers turn around and return to the city to heed their queen. I peer at Kali’s far-off gleam. I will never get through the blockade now. I must behave like a wanderer, and no wanderer ignores Irkalla’s summons.

I turn around. As I pass Kur’s lair again, a big golden eye peers out. I direct my attention ahead to the daggered spires of the Umbra Palace. No other structure compares to the lair of the queen of the dead. She shares it with no one, not even her king.

Rabisu sentinels guard the city gate. I heavy my step to imitate the wanderers. The blood on my trousers and lip has dried, and the lumbering crowd is thick. The rabisus look right past me. I enter the rows of crumbling huts, roofs caving in and walls rotting. The scent of hopelessness strengthens. Last time I entered the city, it took me weeks to sweat the stench from my pores.

Once out of the sentinels’ sight, I stoop behind a wall. Wanderers plod past, heading for the palace. Kali’s soul-fire is less visible here. The darkness is a squirming, sludgy wetness that dampens my skin. I can outlast this short detour and return to finding Kali. For the first time since I have been trapped, the stillness and loneliness are not crushing.

Pairs of rabisus prowl the streets for idlers. I slip back into the crowd. My chest constricts on every step I take closer to the palace. I have another rule of survival that I must break. Avoid the queen of the dead.

27

KALINDA

We cannot see more than a few feet in front of us, yet the fourth gate makes it easy to locate. The rabisu appears up the riverbank, near a copse of dead trees. My damp clothes flake drying blood and smell a fright. I must look as though I am wearing a gutted beast.

Enlil’s great strides eat up the land. I scramble to keep pace with him. His anger over my trip downriver feels disproportionate, so I speak up.

“I don’t understand why you’re still mad. I was trying to find you.”

Enlil whirls on me. “You leaped in after me for that mortal man. You only need me as your guide—to find him. Your lack of concern for your own soul is reckless. Mortals who die in the Void suffer an eternal death. You would have been permanently cut off from the Beyond. No other life justifies that risk.”

I clutch the collar of my tunic. I could have perished forever.

Enlil strides ahead to bargain with the rabisu. The guardian has the girth and stature of a bear standing on its hind paws. His shaggy coat of fur is putrid. Enlil pays him with a larger slab of meat than the last and receives our instructions. The rabisu growls at me, bear claws out, but lets us by.

We cut through the spooky grove of trees. I dodge the thorns protruding from the spindly branches. Despite his anger, Enlil remains by my side. I dislike being the cause of his troubled expression.

“Enlil, I’m sorry. I’ll be more cautious.”

He tugs me against him. “I could not live knowing you were trapped here.”

His sentiment puts my own emotions for Deven into order, but my heart has made room for another. Cala has elbowed her way into my core and lit a fire for Enlil. His eyes occupy my sight, their swirling flames mesmerizing.

He halts and cranes his neck like a bird of prey.

“Be still,” he orders.

His spear stops shining and he shuts his eyes, locking in his living flame. A blackout eclipses the grove. Then flapping. Something is flying overhead. The beating wings circle over us. Enlil quits breathing. Like food, perhaps gods do not need air.

The flapping noises diminish, moving farther out. Enlil uncurls his body from mine. He taps his spear, and the illuminance goes on. I squint from the abrupt brilliance. He grabs my wrist and pulls me through the trees.

“What was that?” I ask, stumbling after him.

“Demons. They know we are here. One of the rabisus must have reported us. Demons are very territorial, especially about their realm.”

“They can live elsewhere?”

“Before the First Bhutas were given powers, and the gods made a pact not to interfere with mortals, demons could go anywhere.”

When I was a girl, the sisters told the wards tales of demons dwelling in the caves of the mountains near our temple. I thought their stories were to frighten us into better behavior. Long ago they may have been true.

We exit the last of the trees and reach a wasteland. The desert lacks the warm ginger sand dunes of those in the mortal realm. Twisting cracks snake across the dried-up ground, hardened and flat. No vegetation or boulders are in sight. Should the demon patrol circle back, we will have nowhere to hide.

“What is this place?”

“The Desert of Anguish.”

The accuracy of the obstructions’ names so far adds to my wariness. A path slices through the center of the desert, set apart by skulls on either side of the trail. Enlil leads me down the outcropping and we start across. Every skull marker along the path stares at me, prying at my nerves.

“Where are my parents?” I ask, requiring a distraction.

“Kishan and Yasmin are waiting for you in the Beyond.”

“My mother too? I thought mortals had to live as a bhuta first.”

“Your mother sacrificed her life to bring you into this world. She did not need to serve as a bhuta to earn Anu’s blessing. You will meet them again in your next existence.”

His explanation is mostly a comfort. My father was executed by Rajah Tarek for falling in love with my mother, and she passed on soon after my birth. My parents are dwelling together in the greatest place of peace afforded to any soul, a fine reward for their tragic demise. Yet I still must bide my time to join them as a family.

“Why couldn’t I have had parents who raised me?”

“They met their fate, as did you. Anu gave you as a daughter to Kishan to inherit his Burner abilities. That was your soul’s innate predisposition. Bhuta powers are physically determined by lineage, but more so by the soul.” Enlil smiles sideways. “You were meant to wield fire.”

After what I saw of Cala in the arena, I understand his assessment. Her voice invades my thoughts.

Ask him about our meetings.

I am curious too. “How many times have we met?”

“I have been present in most of your lives.”

“But you didn’t find me in this one.”

Cala’s voice grows stronger. Ask him why not.

“Why didn’t you come before now?”

Enlil sighs. “I could not.”

My annoyance laces with Cala’s. Had Enlil come before my Claiming, he could have stopped Tarek from separating Jaya and me. My best friend would still be alive. “You forgot about me?”

Enlil tugs me to a halt. “I have not lived a moment without you that I did not wish you were at my side.”

“Then where were you?” I whisper, my voice mingling with Cala’s.

“You are a bhuta. Your responsibilities set you on a different path.” His spear brightens one side of his face. “Kali, this mortal man you seek is not your fate.”

“You don’t get to decide that.”

Or does he? As a god, Enlil does not see time. His life has no beginning or end. Fate is a spectrum, not a destination.

A pressure builds at the base of my neck, my worries compounding into a headache. I block it before I am off-balance. “I told you from the start, I’ve come for Deven Naik.”

“As you desire,” Enlil replies reasonably. I await a bigger reaction, yet he is the very picture of acceptance.

“All right,” I say, stretching out my reply. We set off, and I look at him askance. “You never told me what my payment will be for our bargain.”

He makes a noncommittal “Hmm.”

“Well?” I ask archly.

“As I clarified before, I will require compensation when the mortal man has been freed.”

“His name is Deven Naik.”

“Of course. Forgive me.”

Enlil resumes our hasty pace. I let silence reign, ignoring his insincere apology. Our discussions help to distract me from this grim landscape, but I will not debate with him about Deven’s importance.

We progress through the dusty wasteland, my mouth and throat parched from the scorched air, like inhaling stale smoke. When the desert rules every direction, I hear a groan. Off the trail lies a person.

“Water,” he rasps, clawing at the barren ground.

I come to a halt. “Who is that?”

“A wanderer,” Enlil replies. “Let him be. The Desert of Anguish is a mercy.”

“Dying of thirst is a mercy?”

“It is in the Void.” Enlil ushers me along.

More wanderers appear off the trail. Some lie on the cracked ground, while others crawl. Fewer stumble about blindly. All of them beg for a drink, but do not cross onto the road. The pleas of the suffering torture my ears.

***

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