Maya woke with a start, heart in mouth, drenched in sweat. She was used to this; so much so, she’d stopped wondering what had woken her. That was her new thing these days – lying awake at night, staring at the darkness.

She reached for her phone. The time blinked on the screen: 4.56 am.

That much-coveted smartphone had been a late birthday gift, not just in honour of turning thirteen, but also a gesture of appeasement from her parents. Please stay, was the unspoken message. Don’t go away again to unknown worlds we neither understand, nor want to. Please be normal.

She picked up her phone and unlocked it, opening the app that collected news alerts from around the world – from pandemic updates to what was happening in Palestine, Syria, Ukraine, Kashmir, about floods in Brazil and Australia, snowstorms in America, student protests in her own state in India.

It was a simple little tool she had put together to filter the news using some specific parameters. She wanted the news behind the news. She wanted, no, she needed, the proof that she knew was around somewhere that the Warriors were behind most – if not all – of the unrest in the world, whether it was natural or being done by humans. She needed proof that all this was not because of her. Or maybe that would just prove it was because of her. She kicked off the covers tangled around her legs and padded to the kitchen to get some water. There was a bottle on her bedside table, but these nighttime wanderings too were a recent habit.

The glass shook in her hand, and she set it down after a sip or two. She opened the door to the balcony and stepped out. She hugged herself against the cool breeze, leaning her head against the grille that rose up to the ceiling. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, reaching for her Spirit and allowing her heightened senses to take her further away.

An autorickshaw with a bad silencer sputtered down the road. A dog barked somewhere. There was a sudden tinkling of prayer bells in the neighbourhood. Birds had begun to chirp. As muted sounds of azaan from the neighbourhood mosque started up, Maya opened her eyes. Why couldn’t she concentrate today?

As a matter of habit, she pressed her nose against the grille and tried to peer into the flat underneath the one she lived in. For the past two months it had remained lifeless. No light shone under the door, no sound came from inside, no one answered if you rang the bell. Maya had made some surreptitious enquiries and discovered that Noah’s rent and maintenance bills were paid up for the year. Every day when she passed it, she looked with numbing sadness at the advertisement pamphlets that littered the ground-level balcony, damp, dusty, some faded beyond recognition.

Somewhere deep down, Maya knew Noah wasn’t coming back. The burden of being Watcher to someone who would destroy the worlds was too much. While she understood that Noah wouldn’t—maybe shouldn’t – come back, part of her hated him for deserting her. Yet another part loved him enough to want to spare him being part of the terrible Prophecy.

But she couldn’t go on like this. Her head felt like it was going to burst – not from pain, but from a weird sensation of being too full, as thoughts tumbled and wrestled for space. Her limbs clamoured to move, refusing to stay still. Even without Spirit, she could hear the blood swishing around inside her head. Her skin felt too small to contain her.

Then, a light snapped on in the window below. Relief almost took her legs out from under her. Another few seconds passed before Maya remembered she could move. She ran into the house and grabbed her phone.

Shit! I don’t have his number!

But there was the building intercom. Tiptoeing into the hall, she picked up the landline receiver and dialled the number for his flat. Her heart was beating so wildly, she hoped it wouldn’t fly out of her chest.


That voice, with the odd clipped accent that had become so familiar, had her tongue-tied for a second. “’s me.” She added, just in case: “Maya.”

“I know,” he replied, a smile in his voice. “Go to the Portal Road. I’ll join you there.”

Excerpted with permission from The Key: Sands of Time, Payal Dhar, Speaking Tiger.