Enlil points his spear at a blazing arch speeding toward us.
His chariot and horse.
“Kalinda, go to the ledge!”
I run into the cleared section. Rabisus swarm up from the stairwell. Several fall through the floor gaps, while others block my route. Smoke stings my eyes. It is too hazy to battle with my daggers, and I am too weak to summon my powers. Enlil hews down a fair number of rabisus behind me, but they continue to multiply.
Siva, I need you.
Tendrils separate from the scattered flames left from Enlil’s heatwave. They combine into a whirling blaze larger than a cicada or lynx kitten. Siva grows into a scrappy dragon the size of a full-grown tiger.
My fire dragon plants herself in front of me. I climb on her back and pat her neck, resting against her. Her nature-fire warms me and loosens my muscles. Reenergized, I draw my dagger. Siva awaits my command. She is too small to heft my weight in flight, but she can run.
She bounds into the fray. We pummel through the teeming monsters, dagger and talons slicing. At the ledge, I kick a rabisu and it plummets over. The chariot flies alongside the roof. I leap off Siva onto it, and Enlil barrels after me. Rabisus jump on and hang from the wheels. Enlil jabs them loose and snatches the reins.
“Siva!” I wave for her to join us.
“You have to leave her!”
Siva snaps her fangs at the mangy rabisus. She jumps off the ground, trying to reach me, and dozens more pile onto her.
“Go!” Enlil commands his horses.
Chaser and his team take off. I watch for Siva’s escape. The rabisus mob her, smothering her flame. But my fire dragon is born of nature-fire. She will rise again.
I settle next to Enlil at the helm. “I thought you said we would be expulsed for cheating.”
He sets his lips in a grim line.
Oh gods, Cala and I exclaim as one. Enraging the Void is risky, but any course that leads to the mortal realm merits an attempt.
The chariot flies above the palace spires. Irkalla roars below, and storm clouds gather. Shards of night appear in the gray sky like demented bolts of lightning. The jagged spears take shape into rows, resembling serrated teeth in a vicious maw.
“Prepare to be expulsed!” Enlil says, steering for the open muzzle.
I clutch him as we fly directly into the razor jaws of the evernight.
Arching my head toward the opening of the rolled-up rug, I work twice as hard to breathe. Every mouthful is a battle. I am entombed by my bindings and confines, stifled and beaten by the heat.
Thoughts of asphyxiation loom, so I focus on the cadence of the camel’s stride. The rocking goes on and on. My captors have yet to stop.
As I am taken farther from the palace, it is hard to forget the day I spent leaning out the window of the carriage, watching the horizon for my mother. At least then I had hope that she might come. Few know that I am gone, much less my destination.
Sand works its way into the rug, dusting my hair and ears. Lokesh gave me almost the same punishment I gave him. I have no confusion about the difference. Mine was a banishment, his, an execution order.
The rocking stops. A camel grunts, and my world drops. All goes motionless, then I am hauled up and thrown to the ground. I roll to a stop, shedding my rug. A wind sprays hot sand over me. I spit out the granules and squint through the blazing sunshine at the outlines of two guards. One of them cuts my bindings.
I push onto my knees, my wrists chaffed and raw. “Don’t do this. Don’t let Lokesh hang the princess. She’s innocent.”
The closest guard’s headscarf hangs open, his expression pitiless. “She’s demon spawn. Her very existence is a sin.”
“Please.” My father would whip me half to death for begging, but I must get to Gemi. “I’ll reward you and your families. I’ll give you anything you want.”
“My father was crushed by a Trembler and left to rot. Anu willing, you’ll die slowly.”
His foot reels back to kick me. I turn my head, and his boot connects with my ear. I cradle my splitting skull, my vision flashing in and out. Eyes covered, I wait for the pounding inside my head to dull. Moments later, with ears still ringing, I heft myself up.
The mercenaries and all three camels are gone.
I stagger into the wind after their tracks, shielding my eyes from the dust cyclones. The winds sweep away the trails. The men and their mounts have vanished between the dunes. I keep after them, guessing their course. Every direction appears the same, but if I put the sun to my back in the morning and walk toward it in the afternoon, the heavens will lead me west.
I trudge up a dune, into the sun. Several times my feet sink up to my ankles. Sand slips inside my boots and rubs against my heels. Before long, sunshine seeps through my tunic and heats my shoulders. I have no cloth to spare to protect my head.
At the crest of the next dune, I pause. The desert rises and dips endlessly. I start down the other side and climb another rise. Then another. Each time I reach the top, more dunes fill my path. Sweat pours into my eyes, changing the sand to sticky grit.
As I flounder up another dune, the steep slope gives way and pitches me downward. I tumble to the bottom in a heap of dust. A gust spatters more sand over me. I shut my gritty eyes and let my tears wash them clean.
I should have never given Lokesh a chance. Lords alive, did Tarek know he’s my older brother? I am still his kindred’s firstborn and rightful heir, but Lokesh embodies the warped values of our father, the customs so many of our people love.
Lokesh is who I would be had I stayed.
The realization comes at me sideways. My mother made the hard decision to send me far away. She gave me a gift—the opportunity not to become like my father.
Lokesh never had that chance. Tarek tarnished him and everyone else he subjugated under his rule in Vanhi.
Why should I fight for my city? My people will never change. I could abandon Vanhi and let the desert have me. The probability that I will return to the palace on foot is negligible, yet pretty pale-gold eyes consume my thoughts. Gemi could be the kindred of my heart. I brought her here to Vanhi. I idealized this political transition, not fully considering her feelings or my people’s reaction. Everything that happens to her is my fault.
“Gods,” I pant, “whichever of you is listening, you know I’m not much for praying. But don’t you let Gemi die. This is my fault, not hers. Do you hear me?”
A gust blows more sand in my face. Coincidence? Or condemnation for making demands? I get up and trudge onward into the sun.
The horizon is a sepia blur, barren of anything or anyone. I slog up another hill, ignoring my blisters and parched tongue. My prayer may not have been heard, but uttering my motivation for surviving has given me a boost of strength. I cannot lose Gemi.
At the top of the dune, I glance back to judge my progress and spot two mahati falcons off to the east. I rub at my eyes, questioning my sight. When I look again, they are still there, sailing nearer. The one in the lead is . . . Chare?
She circles overhead, confirming my identification. Tinley waves from her saddle as they land. I wave back and fold over to catch my breath.
Tinley jumps down and bounds over to me. “I heard you nearby and couldn’t believe it.”
Heard me . . . ? She must have overheard me threatening the gods.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
Chief Naresh and another young woman land behind us on the second falcon. The chief tosses me a water flask. I chug the warm, clean drink while he responds. “We were on our way to your wedding when the wind carried a warning to us that the palace has been occupied.”
“A former army commander has taken control.” I wipe at my wet mouth. “He opposes my choice of viraji and means to hang Gemi.”
Naresh sharpens his ear to the wind. “The execution is set for sunset. We must go now or we won’t make it.”
I climb onto Chare after Tinley and ask, “Who’s the woman with your father?”
“My sister, Maida.” Tinley scrunches her nose at my sorry state. I smell of foot rot. “You have a lot to tell us.”
I was thinking the same about her. Last I saw, she was flying off with Kalinda. “Help me stop Gemi’s execution, and I’ll tell you anything you want.”
The mahatis take off across the desert. Chare outraces the chief’s falcon by several wingspans. I attach my gaze to the horizon, overanxious to see the golden domes of my home.
Enlil holds the reins steady as Chaser charges through the abyss. After we went through the monstrous mouth in the sky, it retched us out here. I thought I had seen every horror of the Void, but nothing compares to this lonely dreariness. A sea at night has breaks in the waves. A desert has dips and rises that add variety. This chasm continues without end.
“How do we get out?” I ask.
“We must find Deven’s gate!” Enlil replies. Sound does not travel far. Communicating feels like shouting into a box. “Occupants of the under realm cannot leave without a mortal opening a gate for them. Once the gate is open, it will reopen for the same mortal until destroyed.”
Deven inadvertently released Marduk. Returning to me night after night gave Irkalla access to our realm. We did not know, but our ignorance is little consolation now.
Enlil and I fly onward for what could be minutes or hours; my senses cannot discern up from down, let alone the passage of time. Enlil does not admit it, but we are lost. The Void has swept us up and locked us in an unbeatable oblivion.
The horses tire. Strips of their flanks tear off and vanish in our wake. Enlil sends his living flames at the steeds to repair their breakages. The glowing tendrils roll off them and wither to smoke.
I speak directly into Enlil’s ear. “What’s wrong?”
“The evernight is too strong! It is choking their fire!”
One of the horses shatters to embers. By the time we fly through them, the ashes are cold. Two more horses split apart, as does the back end of the chariot. Chaser, the only horse remaining, pushes on.
Enlil and I clutch each other. Cala would usually take advantage of his closeness, but she hid when we left the City of the Dead. Perhaps she knows the evernight will eventually snuff out my soul-fire and she will disappear too. Enlil risks another fate. As he cannot perish, he would plunge through obscurity forever.