“Is this the Sea of Desolation?” I ask.
I whirl on Enlil. “But we were already here.”
“This is the way to the last obstruction.”
I kick at a bone mixed in with the rocks. “The under realm makes no sense!”
Our gate appears near the water. I am tempted to throw a stone at the low wall. How could the rabisu lead us in a circle? We have trekked for hours. I have no idea how long, since the sky of the under realm has no celestial powers. We have wasted so much time!
The bloody waves lap against the short wall. Bubbles dot the liquid near the gate, growing in number. Enlil walks down to the shoreline. A sea monster slowly surfaces and stares at us with egg-size eyes. This rabisu, partially submerged, must be the largest yet. Bonelike ridges run down its twisting back and disappear underwater, the bloody sea dripping down its sleek scales.
Enlil takes a massive chunk of meat from his satchel. “We seek passage across the next obstruction.”
The rabisu answers in a gruff timbre, flashing its pointy teeth. “The Mount of Ruin awaits your arrival.”
Enlil throws the rabisu his payment. It catches the hunk of meat in its jaws and dives under. Waves ripple out from its descent. I rub at my chilled forearms, wondering what other horrors lurk in the sea.
The fire-god returns to me. “Are you prepared to climb?”
“Climb what? There’s no—”
He pivots me into the wind. In place of the desert we left stands a mountain. The misshapen landform is nothing like the Alpanas. Instead of a sharp apex, the peak is rounded like the end of a boot. Its ridges are not pinnacles of strength but slopes of rocky sluices. As with all else in the Void, the Mount of Ruin is a poor replica of its cousins in the mortal realm.
I glance back at Enlil to find that the sea has vanished. We are stranded on an overhang on the mount, which is no longer far off in the distance but under our feet. My belly spirals from the sudden shift. The only constancy is the badgering wind. Gusts chisel at the slopes, sending lone pebbles down to our precipice. The rocks bounce past us and sail off the edge.
Enlil clutches my elbow, steadying me. “Our path is ahead. Do not stray.”
After my incident in the desert, he does not need to warn me again. Enlil locates the path, though I cannot tell how he distinguishes it from the rest of the gravelly channels. I gaze up the vertical incline. “Must we hike to the top?”
“And down the other side.”
“A flat path would be boring in this hole of misery,” I grouse and trudge upward.
We have been living on the verge of injury every godsforsaken second. My exhausted nerves misfire, and I deviate slightly from Enlil’s course. The rock crumbles beneath me. I fall onto my front and skid down to the end of the overhang.
My hand grasps the firm lip and stops my fall. My shoulder spasms from holding my weight. Enlil pulls me up. I lie on my back, my pulse bellowing at me for my clumsiness.
Enlil helps me stand. His nearness has become a second skin. Cala wants him closer. She desires to cozy up to him and—
I retreat from her aspirations.
“Kalinda, are you well? Did you harm yourself?” Enlil checks me over, his frown positively dashing. Cala wishes to touch his hair. I stop her—myself—before we do.
“Let’s keep going.” I wave him along.
Enlil’s expression transforms from worried to charmingly perplexed. He begins up the trail once more. My muscles relax once he is out of reach. Cala, however, grinds my teeth. I direct her strength of mind into climbing this mountain. In a short time, we are single-minded in our objective.
Do not trip.
Do not fall.
The atmosphere thickens the higher we hike, the air an amalgamation of foul gas. I dare not dwell on its content. We crest the final rise, my thighs quaking. Cala and I are in agreement. We are tired of traveling.
Enlil halts just shy of the summit.
“What is it?”
“Shh.” He swaps his grip on his spear from walking stick to weapon.
I hear flapping. Two ugallus soar over the peak. I learned about the vicious lion-eagles in the book I studied about the Void. Edimmu and Asag, demon siblings, ride on the ugallus’ backs.
Enlil shifts in front of me, my god shield, and addresses the demons. “We have honored the directives of the under realm and secured passage over the Mount of Ruin. We do not wish to contend with you.”
“Relinquish the Burner and depart,” Edimmu says, her crocodile jaws snapping.
“I will not,” Enlil rejoins. “Kalinda and I have an agreement.”
Asag aims his poleax at him. “You are not welcome in our realm, son of Ki.”
Enlil speaks to me from the corner of his mouth. “Remember when I advised you to reserve your powers? Now you must call upon them.”
He shoots a lightning bolt from his spear at the demons. The ugallus veer apart and out of the line of fire. Edimmu flicks her tongue, hurling a dusty spiral in retaliation. We duck low to the ground, and the howling wind tunnels over us. The rocks beneath us rumble, the path buckling. Asag is turning the mountain against us.
Enlil dispatches more lightning and wallops Asag’s ugallu in the flank. The lion-eagle bellows as it plummets into the peak. Big rocks loosen and vault past us, bouncing down the mountainside.
Edimmu dives at Enlil, her ugallu’s claws outstretched. We stoop low, and the creature misses. I summon my powers and throw a heatwave. The ugallu’s tail lights. The lion-eagle lets loose a feline screech and lunges. Its claws tear into Enlil’s shoulder. He drops his spear as he is lifted into the air.
I hurl a fire blast at them. It falls short and dies off midair.
Enlil calls from above. “You limit yourself with your mind, Kalinda! Never hide who you are for who you think you are!”
Am I hiding? Or at the very least doubting myself? I tested the use of my powers with my right arm once and gave up.
Enlil swings his feet up and kicks the ugallu in the ribs. Edimmu whips her tongue at his back. He bellows, an agonized noise that rattles the stones beneath my feet.
She hurt Enlil, Cala seethes.
I do not think. I lift my arms, channel my powers through them both, and lob a heatwave at Edimmu. A huge blast explodes from my left hand and right wrist. I stumble back as the discharge curves off and fizzles out. I gape at the glowing base of my wrist.
I have total access to my soul-fire?
You have complete access to your powers, Cala answers.
I repeat the realization aloud for Enlil. “I have my full powers!”
Edimmu whips her tongue at him. Enlil swings out of reach, and she strikes her own mount. The ugallu shrieks and dives sideways into its injured flank.
Lifting my arms once more, I cast three consecutive flames at the demon. They pelt her ugallu’s wings, and the screeching monster drops Enlil. He lands uphill on the gravelly slope. The stones beneath me rumble and start to slide.
Edimmu and her injured mount plummet down the other side of the mountain. I scoop up Enlil’s spear and fight the drag of the rockslide, running uphill to meet him. We grab for each other. Our hands clasp, and the avalanche sweeps us away.
Our momentum escalates as we summersault down into a pile, half-buried by rock. Enlil lies beneath me, jaw slack and eyes shut. Coughing on the ashy dirt that covers us both, I set aside his spear and unbury us. Asag and Edimmu are nowhere in sight.
Enlil does not stir, yet his cuts are healing. Cala is not consoled by his recovery. Her panic compels me to tap his cheek and shout, “Wake up,” in his ear. He gradually rouses.
“Thank the gods,” I breathe. “You scared Cala.”
“Just Cala?” He drags me to lie on top of him. Before I connect what is happening, he covers my lips with his own.
I go starkly still. Cala’s need for him debilitates me, paralyzing my impulse to stop this. Her joy brims over, her spirit centered upon Enlil. Through me, she has found her love.
How I envy her. I have felt lost since I stepped down from my throne. My place in the empire, in the palace, in the Sisterhood has changed. Nothing has turned out as I wished, yet Cala is positive that where we belong is with Enlil.
Cala touches his chin, then the nape of his neck. She tucks my curves against his hard planes. I am losing myself to him, to her.
Enlil’s lips grow needier. His body heat flows into me, fusing Cala’s emotions to my own. Her longing for Enlil aches from every pore. Nothing in all the realms matters more to her than him.
No, I tell her.
She delves further. I am Enlil’s hundredth rani. I never concede.
Enlil’s grasp slides up my waist and over my back. He whispers her name over and over. Cala shoves me far inside myself and slams the trapdoor.
Let me out!
I sense Enlil and her kissing. My body experiences the touches, but I cannot stop them. I want to shove him off. Wash my skin. Rinse my mouth. I continue to wail at Cala, my inner voice screaming. She disregards me and becomes more lost in Enlil. My revulsion gags me. There must be a way to escape.
Cala’s memories splay before me, laid out for the picking. I delve through them for something that will compel her to listen. The memory of her tournament is still foremost, closest from our last connection. No, not that one. But my mere acknowledgment of the recollection wrests me to it.
The past rushes in, pushing me off-balance. I stagger into the middle of the dusty arena. The crowd cheers Cala’s name. I am separate from her, a bystander. She wields her urumi against her competitors. One of them runs past me, khanda raised, and attacks Cala. They battle, oblivious to my company. I am an unseen onlooker like in the first flashback Enlil showed me.
Cala dispatches her last two challengers, slashing through them without remorse. Countless women have fallen and bleed out on the arena floor. I turn away from Cala’s barbarity, repulsed, and catch sight of one of the fallen.
My lungs twist on a gasp. I stumble to my friend, passing by more slain women. They stare up lifelessly. In the present, they are very much alive. Indah. Tinley. Natesa. Each one pulverizes my soul. I identify Eshana and Parisa next. No more. Additional blank gazes bore holes through me. Shyla . . . and Asha too?
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