The demon’s eyes were wide open, staring up at me in surprise as blood dripped from my sword and pooled at my feet around his severed head. I looked over to where the rest of his corpse lay, arms outstretched, the right hand still clutching the curved scimitar with which he had planned to finish me off.
Well, who’s laughing now? Never underestimate a pissed-off girl with a sword.
I surveyed the battleground on which I stood. Corpses littered the field, demons and mortals alike. In the distance I could see the flames, their smoke turning the air into a thick haze that carried the stench of burning flesh. There was still fighting and I could hear the sounds of battle coming from beyond the hills in the north. I turned around just in time to see another demon heading toward me, clutching a long dagger in his right hand. When he was close enough I caught my reflection in his shield in the split second before he raised his weapon.
I woke up gasping. With my lungs on fire, I opened my eyes. The room spun uncontrollably. My sheets were damp with sweat and for several minutes I just concentrated on breathing, sucking in air, then slowly letting it out. By the time my room came to a standstill, I could breathe normally again. I ripped off the thick comforter, throwing it on the floor. Then I lay back down and stared at the ceiling.
What the hell just happened?
My eyes burned so I closed them for a second. Big mistake. Images from my nightmare seared the insides of my eyelids. I opened them as wide as I could.
Great. Now I’ll never get back to sleep.
I reached for my cell phone on the window ledge by my bed. Two o’clock in the morning. Who would be up?
I texted a short message. Ben, are you up?
No reply. I put the cell phone back on the ledge. I was too afraid to close my eyes now. But even with my eyes open, I couldn’t get those images out of my head. All that blood. And that creature, whatever it was. And why did it feel like a rerun? I couldn’t remember when, but I’d had this nightmare before. I shook my head. I was being silly. What I needed was to get back to sleep and to lay off the chips and salsa before bed. I forced my eyes shut. There, that was better. I could see nothing but the redness on the insides of my eyelids. Maybe now I could go back to sleep. I tossed and turned for a while but finally fell asleep.
My alarm woke me at 7:00 a.m. Half-asleep, I stumbled to the washroom. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and winced. My normally smooth brown skin was blotchy today. There were dark circles under my eyes and I looked like I’d spent the night crying. My curly black hair stuck out in all directions, making me look like the troll dolls I’d collected when I was younger. With a groan, I pulled it back into a tight ponytail and began to get ready. A half hour and a lot of under-eye concealer later I was dressed and downstairs, hoping to sneak by my mother, who had probably been awake since the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. She always tried to sneak in a half hour of yoga, a habit instilled in her during her childhood in India. Unfortunately, I had not inherited this trait and she never seemed to get that I was not a breakfast person. For the past three days she’d been trying to make me taste some godawful mushy oatmeal concoction from her latest diet. I had to be careful today. I tiptoed as fast as I could into the den to get my bag. Grabbing my jacket, I snuck to the door. Too late. She’d heard me.
“Callie, do you want some breakfast? I made the oatmeal again. Do you want some?”
Do I want some? Hmm, let’s see. I would rather stab myself in the eye with a pencil.
“No, Mom. I have to go early today, I have a test.”
I ran out the door, slamming it shut just in time to drown out whatever she was saying. The Seattle sky was predictably overcast as I walked quickly up the street, turning onto the little road that led to the high school. The parking lot was still fairly empty. I made my way to the lockers, put my stuff in and went to my first class. I could barely stay awake, and Ms. Brennemann, my English teacher, wasn’t making it any easier. She droned on and on, until, thankfully, the bell rang and it was time for my spare. I walked to the library on the second floor, found a quiet corner to begin reviewing for my History test. It wasn’t working. The words blurred on the page and at some point my eyes must have closed. Then the images flashed again, as vivid as though I was actually standing there. In the middle of the battlefield. With blood on my hands. And that smell. My eyes snapped open and I was still in the library. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed me zoning out, but there was only a couple furiously making out behind the sci-fi section. I had to get some fresh air.
I packed up my books and went outside. Seattle was gorgeous in April. The cherry trees were in full bloom and the clouds from this morning had been replaced by sunny skies. Thankfully, no one was there as I took in a few big gulps of air, trying to clear my head. When the bell rang, I headed back inside to my history class, sitting down in my usual spot. The teacher, Mr. Burke, started handing out the test, and when I got mine I turned it over and got started. But the words were swimming on top of the page and I couldn’t get them to stay still. My head was pounding and my eyes burned. This was not good. Then something that had been stuck at the edges of my mind popped up. I remembered something about the nightmare. I knew when and where I’d seen those images before.
Ten years before, my parents and I had lived in Kolkata, City of Joy — only I didn’t remember a whole lot of joy, just heat. Intense heat and an unbearable stench. It was everywhere, rising from the open sewers in waves and permeating the air so that it stayed with you wherever you went. And all the people. I was used to big crowds and intense heat, but this was ridiculous. You could barely move, and then only at a snail’s pace. That was bad, because your first instinct was to get out of the crowds and into a secluded spot, preferably in the shade.
But here on the banks of the Hooghly River in Kolkata in the middle of summer there was no escape. We were visiting the temple of the Goddess Kali, one of the oldest, most revered places of worship in the city.
That morning we tried to get an early start to avoid the crowds that were expected later in the day, but judging by the number of people there already, I didn’t know how there could be any more. As we slowly made our way to the temple grounds, the crowd started to thin. I could see many people heading off toward the courtyard while a few entered the main temple that housed the famous statue. Mom had told me that she and Dad had to get special permits to enter the restricted areas on the inside. Apparently some of the worshippers did not come for the Goddess but rather to try to steal the valuable gold ornaments she wore and the ancient artifacts she held in each of her six arms.
“Wow,” I said breathlessly as we approached the main temple. “This is amazing.” The two-thousand-year-old structure stood majestically, its nine spires rising up to meet the sky. The intricate carvings on the outside ran all the way to the top.
Dad put his arm around my shoulder. “Callie, we’ll need about an hour with the head priest to go over our research, but you can look around, okay? Just don’t leave the main building. We don’t want you getting lost.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll be fine, Dad. Just don’t take too long. You promised we would go to the mall after.”
Just then the head priest came out to meet us. He was dressed in a cream-colored dhoti and a saffron shawl, typical attire for a man of his position. In the middle of his forehead was a vermillion circle surrounded by three white vertical lines and a Y-shape. I knew that the Y-shape meant he was a devotee of the Goddess Kali and Lord Shiva, her consort.
“Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Hansen. You have arrived at last. I trust your journey was pleasant.” He greeted us warmly and deftly maneuvered his rather large frame down the stone steps that led down from the temple. He joined his hands in a namaste, the traditional Indian greeting, and bowed slightly. After we had all exchanged pleasantries, he led us back up the stairs toward the main temple.
As we entered the inner sanctum, I was struck by how large it was inside. The high ceilings and curved walls gave it a cave-like appearance, while the low, discreet lighting kept the temple cool and dark. After my parents had left with the priest, I looked around first to decide where I was going to start. The main statue stood in the center of the inner temple, while several smaller ones were scattered around the periphery. Each had its own alcove and was cordoned off with thick ropes, no doubt to deter sticky fingers. I decided to leave the Kali statue until the very end and made my way over to some of the smaller ones. I came to a stop in front of a statue of Lord Shiva the Destroyer. There he was in his famous dancing pose as Lord of Dance. I liked this particular version of him, dancing on top of the demon of ignorance. I moved on to the next few statues.
There was one of the Goddess Parvati, Shiva’s wife, as well as other minor gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Finally I came to a stop in front of the statue of Kali. I’d saved the best for last. It was awesome. She was usually depicted as dark and a little frightening, but here she was, bronze and quite beautiful — if you liked strong, powerful and kick-ass women, that is. She was supposed to elicit terror in the evil-hearted, but to me she was the coolest goddess of them all. She was dressed in a beautiful sari made from red silk with gold threads woven in an intricate pattern. Her eyes were black and fierce. Around her neck she wore a necklace of skulls. They belonged to all the demons she had killed. With each of her six arms she carried a weapon. With her three left arms she carried a bow with arrows, a discus and a mace. With the right she carried a thunderbolt, a trident and her sword. Legend had it that all these weapons were given to her by the gods who created her so that she could vanquish the demon king, Mahisha. The gods had each given her their powers so that she was virtually indestructible. My parents, who were both anthropologists, talked about this sort of stuff all the time, so I was quite well versed in Hindu mythology. I stared at the goddess. She looked right back at me, her piercing eyes unwavering. I shook myself mentally, laughing at my silly imagination.
As my gaze wandered down, I noticed something. Centered on the base of the statue was a rectangular engraved metal plate with the words DO NOT TOUCH. I really wanted to touch the goddess. I looked around furtively to make sure no one was watching then gingerly reached out to touch the cool stone surface of the statue. Instantly a painful jolt shot up my arm. I jerked it back and glared angrily at the warning. Shouldn’t it be more specific? Like DO NOT TOUCH UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE ELECTROCUTED. My arm was still tingling from the shock and I decided it was time to find my parents. As I made my way toward the back rooms, I saw them coming out with the priest, still talking animatedly. I walked up to them.
“There you are, good timing,” said Dad, putting his arm around my shoulders. “So, did you have fun looking around?”
“Yeah, loads. How about you guys? Got all the information you wanted?” I looked at my mom, who was trying to stuff a thick stack of papers into her huge bag.
“Yes, Mr. Bhandal has been most helpful. We got a lot more than we expected. Thank you once again, Mr. Bhandal, it’s been a pleasure.” Mom folded her hands in a namaste, as did the priest, and we made our way out of the inner sanctum into the blazing heat of the courtyard. Outside was the usual assortment of beggars and sadhus, the holy men who gave blessings and sometimes told your future. I really wanted to get to the mall, so I was walking quickly down the steps when I almost tripped over an old man sitting on the ground right by the bottom of the steps. Fortunately, I caught myself before I ended up in his lap. I muttered something unintelligible, trying to get around him.
“Don’t be so hasty, my child,” he said in a raspy voice. “Enjoy the beauty and serenity of this sanctuary.” I looked down at him. He was really old, his leathery skin tanned a deep brown from the sun. Little wisps of hair grew from random spots on his otherwise bald head. Although he was looking straight at me, I could see that his eyes were sort of opaque. I realized he was blind and I felt really sorry for being annoyed a moment ago. The poor man probably didn’t know how close he was to the steps.
My dad, who had walked ahead, now turned back and came to where I was standing.
“Callie, what are you doing? Let’s go.”
“Dad,” I whispered, “I almost tripped over him. He’s blind. Can you give him some money?”
My dad began to fish in his pocket, but then the old man spoke.
“It is not wealth that I seek. I wish to tell your daughter about her destiny.”
“It’s okay, Baba. Take the money. You don’t have to tell her fortune.”
“Oh, but I must,” the old man replied. “I have been waiting for this moment for many years.”
“What does he mean, Dad?” The old man’s eyes looked straight at me and I was feeling a little creeped out.
“He probably doesn’t want us to think that he’s a beggar. Just let him tell your fortune and then we can go.”
The old man smiled at me, revealing toothless gums. “Come closer, my child.”
I shuffled forward reluctantly and bent down a little as he reached out with his right hand. He placed it on my forehead and began chanting under his breath. Suddenly his body jerked a little and his eyes opened wide. He stared at me as if he had seen a ghost. By this time I’d had enough and I stepped away. His hand fell back on his lap. My dad put his arm around my shoulders and we were turning away when the old man spoke again.
“Your daughter has many difficulties ahead of her,” he said.
“Yes, just like every other person,” my dad muttered under his breath, clearly not very impressed.
“Do not turn away from your destiny, my child. You cannot fight it.”
We began to walk away when he called out once more.
“Take this talisman. It will keep you safe.”
I couldn’t help myself. I turned around to see what he was talking about. A pendant hanging from a braided black cord dangled from his hand. Against my better judgement I walked back to him and took a closer look. It was a little skull made from mother-of-pearl. I had to touch it, and when I did it felt cool and smooth. I loved skulls. Skull earrings, necklaces, anything. I really liked this pendant.
“Take it, my child. It will keep you safe.” I took it from his hands and turned back to look at my dad.
“Can I keep it, Dad?”
“Oh, alright, if you really like it.” He turned to the old man. “How much is it?” he asked, fishing in his pocket again.
“It is priceless. There is not enough wealth in the world to buy this pendant, but it belongs to you, my child. You must take it,” the old man said. I knew he was trying to sound mysterious and was probably hoping that we would give him a generous amount.
My father shook his head, took a few twenty rupee notes out of his pocket and pressed it into the sadhu’s hand. As we were walking away I could feel his eyes following me for a long time. I knew he was blind, but it felt like he could still see. A strange feeling stayed with me all day. That night I had a hard time falling asleep. When I eventually did, I had a nightmare. I was on a battlefield, killing demons with my sword.