Screams come from the upper floor, followed by the unmistakable crack of a whip. I study my bindings, wanting them off even more than before. The screams stop first. The whip goes on several more strikes.

Enlil speaks, his voice colored by revulsion. “Tarek can never return to the mortal realm as the man he was. His mind is wrecked. Does the commander know?”

“Who’s to say what that mortal understands? Our bargain is binding.”

“As is mine with Kalinda,” says Enlil. “Let us go. You will never see either of us again.”

Irkalla glances indirectly at him. “Your living flame irritates me. You may go. The Burner stays.”

“I’m not one of your followers,” I say. “I’ll never serve you.”

Irkalla swings her head so close her whiskers nearly jab me. “Do you know what becomes of bhutas who die in my realm?”

I grit out my response. “They suffer an eternal death.”

“Ah, but that is a mortal’s fate. What will become of you?”

Enlil’s jawline bulges from clenching his teeth.

“He did not tell you?” Irkalla’s insidious mocking frays my nerves. She indicates Edimmu returning from upstairs. “Edimmu was once a Galer, Asag a Trembler, Lilu an Aquifier, and your old friend Udug? He was a Burner.”

I must have misheard her. These demons—these monsters—were bhutas?

“Young soul-fire is more malleable. Once I have the bhuta children, I will raise them up as my fledglings and integrate them into the evernight. My army will be unstoppable.” Irkalla’s big red eyes reflect my horror. “You are more skilled than Udug was. You will be my greatest general yet.”

Enlil’s radiance stings my vision. “You will not pervert her.”

“I will improve her.” Irkalla lowers her head even more, her horns forward like a bull’s. Her foul breath is hotter than the desert sun. “My army is coming, and they will need a leader.”

Enlil blasts apart the weakened stone spike and rock confines with an internal heatwave. Irkalla rears back and roars. Edimmu shrieks and runs off, her scales smothered in flames. Irkalla lands, her thunderous impact quaking the palace.

The fire-god scoops up his spear and leaps in front of me. “You may not have Kalinda. I staked a claim on her soul.”

Cala and I balk. He claimed me?

“You lie,” Irkalla says shrilly.

“I swear on the sun, moon, and stars, Kalinda is mine. Thus, you cannot claim her without declaring war on the gods.”

“You deceive me. She loves the mortal man.”

“Kalinda,” Enlil says, “tell her you wish to spend eternity at my side.”

“You must not lie or I will know,” responds Irkalla.

Enlil is trapping me. Even if I lie successfully, I will be trading one set of shackles for another.

“Tell her,” he presses.

Let me speak, says Cala.

This better work.

I listen for Cala’s prompting and then repeat her truth. “My heart’s wish is to dwell with Enlil forevermore.”

The queen of the dead canvasses me for weakness. Cala cringes and pushes as far from the present as she can without disappearing. I stay close to my love for Deven and hold firm.

“Truth resides within her,” Irkalla says, declaring her judgement, “but Kalinda herself tells a falsehood. Her soul is more Inanna than Cala, and Inanna loves the mortal man. Thus, she belongs to no god.”

I don’t belong to Enlil. My life and heart are mine, regardless of Cala’s affections.

Irkalla sweeps the fire-god to the side with her claw. Asag and Lilu spring at him. Enlil launches lightning bolts at the pair. Lilu leaps behind a pillar, and Asag blocks the assault with boulders.

I melt the cuff at my wrist first and reach for the binding high on my right arm. Irkalla wedges my neck between her talons.

“I will make you perfect,” she hisses.

She stabs her longest talon through my center. My soul-fire flashes and dies out. Lagging heartbeats strum into my bones. Enlil bellows like a thunder crash and shoots lightning at the queen of the dead. I do not see if it connects. The evernight ambushes my soul and snuffs out my star.

Sunshine eases me from my slumber. My parents come into focus. I am nestled between Yasmin and Kishan, hugging my mother and grasping my father’s hand. I close my eyes again and soak in the serenity.

“Kalinda, you must wake,” my father says.

Mother strokes my back until I stir. The sky is aquamarine, soft-hued yet effulgent. We are seated on a downy lounge in a rhododendron garden. Yellow butterflies explore round clusters of white blooms. This must be the Beyond. It is even more spectacular than Ekur.

“Kalinda,” Mother says, “you cannot linger.”

I run my fingers through her hair, marveling at the silkiness. “You don’t want me here?”

“We’ve never been more content, but your path is not finished.”

Father ducks his head near mine, his eyes mirrors of my own. “For too long you have questioned your potential. Do not waste another moment agonizing. You are a warrior. You were born to shine. Embrace how powerful you truly are and carve your destiny from the sun.”

A distant urgency plucks at me. My soul has come to the Beyond, but a tether ties me to my physical form in the under realm. I cling to my mother. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Your father and I will be close. The rest of your family and your friends need you.”

“You have all you need to defend them,” Father says.

I lean into him. “What if I fail?”

“No matter how bleak the world may seem, or how mighty the night, dawn always comes.”

I grip him harder. “I love you both.”

Mother caresses my hair, my own fingers tangled in hers. “Whenever you need us, look for your inner star.” She touches my forehead between my brows, forewarning me to seek her and my father within. “We’re with you.”

The far-off tugs intensify to sharp yanks. Enlil calls to me. It’s time.

One more minute.

My father presses his lips to my forehead, and my mother holds me closer. I indulge in their presence and sketch this memory on my heart. The pull of mortality strengthens. My parents’ warmth changes into tearing-hot pain.

Something heavy hammers at my chest. Air inflates my lungs.

I gasp as my head jerks up. I hang from my bindings, faint and woozy. Enlil melts the final chain with his spear. My legs falter, and he throws me over his shoulder.

The hole in my middle is healed. I’m alive.

Cala still lodges inside my head. Enlil saved us.

The fire-god races for the main entry of the throne room. We pass Asag and Lilu on the ground. Burn marks riddle their bodies.

Irkalla blows venomous fire at our backs. Enlil outruns the blaze and throws a single white flame at her. It lands on the ground and instantly grows. Irkalla and the rabisus recoil from the glare. As the blaze expands, the color deepens to a rich blue, and its shape transforms into a dragon.

The cobalt dragon is solid and real, not built of fire like Siva. Her scales have a pearly sheen, and her eyes are just as vibrant. Although the living flame dragon is shorter and less stout than Irkalla, Enlil’s creation springs at her. They lock jaws and tumble across the throne room, smashing through two pillars. Rubble rains from the ceiling. I hang on as Enlil dashes outside and down the palace steps.

Rabisus and two ugallus block our route. Our dragon bellows and then breathes white flames at Irkalla’s snout. The queen of the dead lurches back, her whiskers on fire. Her rabisu troops hasten to her aid. The ugallus prowl in front of the exit to the city.

Enlil sets me down. “Wait here.”

I totter but stay upright.

The ugallus crouch to pounce. Enlil swings his spear and slices at the nearest one’s maned neck. It goes down yelping. The second swipes its claws at his side. Enlil rolls closer and drives his spear up through the ugallu’s chest.

He returns and helps me limp to an alley outside the grounds. Irkalla’s roars tremble the pebbles on the road. I lean against a wall and look back. Inside the palace, rabisus dangle from our dragon’s neck by their jaws. More besiege her flank and snap at her hind legs.

Enlil checks my middle, front and back. No signs remain of my attack.

“How did you . . . ?”

He pulls me into a hug. “It is as I told Irkalla. I laid claim to your soul.”

Some part of me must care for Enlil. Whether that fragment belongs to Cala or dwells within my heart, his loyalty restored me. For that, I can overlook his omissions. Enlil hoped I was just like Cala, yet even Irkalla discerned that I am not. I cannot forge my love for him or be the woman he wishes.

A bellow pulls us apart. Irkalla accosts our dragon with a steady stream of fiery breath. The cobalt creation staggers sideways and topples. Irkalla stomps her talons down on our dragon’s head, standing on her, and locks her jaws around her neck. The dragon stills and vanishes.

“Bring them to me!” Irkalla screeches.

Her rabisus bound down the palace steps.

“We’ll never get out,” I say.

“We will.” Enlil whistles and sprints. I barely keep up as he darts past buildings and down roadways. Howling rabisus pursue us. Enlil stops at one of the taller structures. “Go inside and climb to the top.”

The first room inside the building is packed with wanderers. They stare mindlessly at the walls, floor, each other—me. I slip between them and inadvertently bump into one. My contact sets off a ripple of activity. They revolve toward me and grasp at my clothes and hair. I rip free and push them off, searching for a stairway. Enlil bursts inside. A rabisu leaps through the open door, and he fells it with his spear.

“This way!” He beckons me up the stairs.

Above the city, we see the rabisus filling the roads and surrounding our building. Enlil and I stand back-to-back, mindful of our footing. The rooftop is riddled with holes to the main floor far below.

Rabisus scale the outer walls and climb over the edges. Enlil bangs his spear into the floor, and a tidal wave of heat explodes, leveling the rabble. I cough in the aftermath of smoke and char. Sections of the unstable roof smolder.

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