Enlil lifts his spear. “We seek no quarrel with you, Kur.”
“You accost me with your luminance.” Kur lowers his head closer; our reflections shine in his gold eye. “Have you come to dwell with your father, my son?”
“We are visiting,” Enlil says crisply. “Kalinda and I will be on our way.”
“No, wait!” I grab the fire-god’s spear and shine it in Kur’s eye. The demon dragon flinches. “I’m not leaving until you tell me where to find Deven.”
“You request my aid?” Kur asks. “I lost an eye by your treachery, Burner.”
“Spare me your self-pity. Where are you holding Deven captive?”
“I am not holding him anywhere.” Kur’s nostrils flare, his exhale stinking of sulfur. “Inquire of the queen.”
He blows a scalding breath over me and lumbers back into his lair. Enlil wrenches his spear from my grasp and speeds off, his long legs putting mine to shame.
“I don’t understand,” I say, skipping after him. “Kur brought Deven here. Why doesn’t he have him?”
“Irkalla rules the under realm. Kur is her consort.”
Once Kur’s lair is well behind us, Enlil returns to a cautious tread. I cannot rub the gooseflesh from my skin. Kur is the most frightening monster I have ever beheld, yet he bends to his queen.
“Where is Irkalla?” I ask.
“Where else does a queen reside?” Enlil sweeps his spear low and points at the onyx sky. My eyesight adjusts to the dimness and etches out a city skyscape. “The Umbra Palace.”
We set a direct course for the City of the Dead. The imperial stronghold is a skeleton of civilization, a mockery of what life represents. Treading toward it feels akin to approaching a scorpion’s burrow. Though all is still, malice crouches within and waits to strike.
At the city wall, Enlil directs me to stop and detours to a ramshackle guardhouse. He drops a handful of chicken legs by the open door. A foxlike rabisu with a bushy tail darts its head out, snatches one, and returns inside to feed. Its crunching noises follow us through the gate.
Every building is in poor condition, as if bhutas blasted them with their powers and abandoned them to ruin. The real culprit is the unceasing march of time. Negligence eroded the city to shambles.
Enlil skillfully navigates the nameless roadways. He has been here before, inhaled the foul air and tasted the rot of death, yet he returned and has not uttered a single complaint. I am still furious that he took advantage of my desperation to save Deven, but I would not wish to confront this trial with any other god.
We round a corner to an unobstructed view of the Umbra Palace. The roofline is a crooked arrangement of spiny towers, thin and serrated as splintered bones. Every broken window is replete with gloom. On the lower floors, several walls are missing. The gaps line up so the palace itself appears to leer at its entrants. Enlil’s glow reveals an empty courtyard and intrudes upon the footing of the open main door—an arch so lofty Kur could pass through.
“It’s . . . big,” I squeak.
“Once we crest the threshold, you cannot turn back.”
Cala quivers. Her vote is to abandon this trek and retreat with Enlil, but she does not ask this of me. Not when I am almost to Deven.
I cross the courtyard first and we ascend the steps. Statues of ugallus are stationed before the door, roaring with their tongues out. The glint of Enlil’s spear breaches the throne room. Within, the evernight thickens, tangible as oil. A haunting melody resounds off the cathedral beams, ruining any chance of pinpointing the source of the song. Though no rabisus or demons are within sight, I sense watchers in the evernight. Chains dangle from the far stone wall, and more are piled on the floor.
On the far side, past chipped pillars, a drapery hangs from ceiling to floor. The cloth ripples periodically, coinciding with breaks in the melody. I learned the tune about Anu’s greatness in the temple when I was little. This off-key rendition is eerie.
Enlil bows to the dais. “Hello, Irkalla.”
The humming stops.
“Only one being would dare trespass in my domain,” says a female voice. I heard her in my nightmare, right before claws dug into my thighs and dragged me into the abyss.
“We have come for the mortal man,” Enlil explains.
Irkalla’s curtain stirs, then a single talon draws the covering back a little, revealing Deven chained to the wall.
Enlil blocks me with his spear to prevent me from running to him. Deven’s arms are clamped about his head, and more iron secures his ankles. His chin rests against his chest, which rises and falls. In the short time we have been apart, he has withered to frailty. Blood, wet and dry, stains his side, seeping from a wound.
“What did you do?” I demand.
“I was cordial.” Irkalla’s tone takes on an amused lilt. “What will you trade for his freedom?”
“What will you accept?” I counter.
“I could be convinced to give him up—for your soul.”
Enlil’s spear flares. “You go too far, Irkalla.”
“This is her beloved,” she says, feigning concern. “Let her decide.”
Deven’s soul-fire is faint and fading, a dying ember. Of the two of us, I am more likely to escape here. “Return him to the Turquoise Palace alive, and we have a bargain.”
“No, Kalinda.” Enlil grows bigger in dissent.
“At the palace, Indah can heal him,” I explain. Demons cannot leave the Void without someone else opening a gate, so I address Irkalla. “How will you get him there?”
“I am the queen of the dead,” Irkalla replies, her vague declaration sweeping across the hall. Apparently arrogance is not confined to the gods.
Enlil steps between me and the drapery. “You cannot play her game.”
“You think this is a game?” Irkalla’s voice pitches higher. “You broke your word, Enlil. You swore never to return, yet here you are, aiding a mortal man you want gone.”
“What does she mean?” I ask.
“Ravings of a demon,” the fire-god replies.
Irkalla cackles. “You did not tell her. She thinks this is the first time she has come here. The first time she has come for him.” She levels a talon at Deven. “Kalinda, you have entered the Void before, only then you went by another name.”
“Cease these lies.” Enlil sends sparks off his spear. They hit the stone floor and burn out. Any closer and the drapery would ignite. “Deliver the man and we will take our leave.”
“Then what will become of them? You will not have your precious queen again. Can you not see she yearns for another?” Halfway up the curtain, Irkalla’s bloodred eye appears. “Tell her or I shall.”
Enlil pinches his lips closed.
“Sssssso be it,” Irkalla says, and then addresses me. “Generations ago, when your soul-fire was more star than fire, you fell in love. You and your beloved had lived and loved many generations. Repulses me, frankly, but one god had another reaction—jealousy. You can imagine his surprise when you came to him for aid, desperate for a god’s mercy. A chameleon demon had assumed your form and lured your intended into the Void, the night before your wedding, no less. The jealous god led you here, stood on this very dais, and demanded I return your beloved.”
“But that’s not possible,” I whisper.
Irkalla singsongs her rebuttal. “Before you were Kalinda, you were Cala. Before you were Cala, you were . . .”
I feel flung off a ledge. Tumbling, tumbling, tumbling . . .
“Inanna,” Enlil says, his expression stony. “Before Cala, you were Inanna.”
I hit the end of my disbelief, and everything goes watery. I claw through the heaviness, fighting for a solid hold. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Enlil reverts to sullenness.
I seek out Cala. Did you know?
No, she answers weakly.
Our voices combine, strengthening as one. “Explain.”
“I told you a portion of the truth,” Enlil replies, hushed yet unsparing. “After Inanna was reborn as Cala, I visited her. I thought I was unworthy of her love, but she did not treat me so. Our affections were genuine.”
I do love him, Cala confirms.
“Show me my time as Inanna,” I demand.
Enlil touches me, and time peels away. We are still in the throne room, but Deven is tied up and gagged on the floor. Enlil frees Deven, and we run from the Umbra Palace. The scenery blurs and changes to a humble hut on a green hillside. Deven and I are together again, tending to a garden and a small herd of sheep. The picturesque vision is so vivid, the sunshine warms my hair.
The fire-god releases me, and the brief vision disappears.
“How did you know that’s my heart’s wish?” I ask, clinging to the same lovely dream I saw in the Beyond.
“I was unaware,” Enlil says bleakly. My ideal afterlife is devoid of him. “Those were Inanna’s memories.”
He showed me recollections of actual events. My discussions with Deven about building a peaceful life together were not dreams or wishes—we were remembering our past. Our first meeting in the Samiya Temple must have been fated.
Irkalla said we met and loved many lifetimes in a row . . . until Enlil visited Cala. Then her love for him usurped ours.
I didn’t know about Deven when I met Enlil, says Cala.
You do now. You and Enlil had your time together. This is my life.
I swing toward the ominous red eye. “Irkalla, we have an agreement.”
“Sssssplendid,” Irkalla hisses.
Enlil’s expression sags in disappointment. I have behaved predictably. I cannot determine what Irkalla wants, but it is evident that she was not after Deven.
I sprint to him and unhinge his bindings. He tips against me. My knees give out under his weight, and we slump to the floor. He does not move, his clammy skin ashen. I find his pulse and push small bursts of my soul-fire into him. His body temperature warms, his color returning.
Deven wakes and looks around the throne room. I cradle his bearded jawline and rest my forehead against his.
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