PROLOGUE

Alone in the midst of a violent battle, Istara stood surrounded by fire, her gown torn and bloodstained. In the heated updrafts, her star-clad, tangled hair whipped around her face, her golden eyes raking over the scores of dead and dying, wide, fearful, desperate.

Sethi slammed his way through a glut of warriors, his arms bloody, his body wracked with pain, his double-bladed jihn thrumming, hungry for the blood of the living. He looked up, breathing hard, the burning air searing his lungs. There. He had her. She stood alone, and undefended. No one could stop him now. Not even the one who called himself her protector—

A blade, from behind, delved into his heart, the pain brutal, agonizing. He turned. Urhi-Teshub twisted the blade, his eyes hard, hatred bleeding from him. With a roar, Sethi pulled himself free and slammed his fist into Urhi-Teshub's skull, once, twice, three times. Istara's protector collapsed, senseless. Sethi staggered, blinded by pain. His left pectoral lay torn open, muscle and bone sundered, his heart riven in two. His weapon slid from his grip. He cursed as his light ignited, slow, unsteady, working to heal him. He sank into a crouch, bitter, frustrated. By the time he was strong enough to stand, his quarry would have fled. Marduk would be furious.

Hands came to his face, cradling his jaw, tender. He looked up. Istara's golden eyes, bright with tears, met his. She spoke, her words drowned in the roar of an explosion. Light exploded out of her into him, brilliant, a nova. In its wake, tendrils of her light wove around him, a multitude of them, swarming, darting, closing the rent in his heart, making him whole again.

He looked back up at her, incredulous, stunned. His nemesis—the one who had rallied the armies of men and gods against him, who had set him back battle after battle—granted him her healing light, the stars limning her hair dimming as she brought him back to his full power: Sethi, god of war, Commander of Marduk's armies, Mighty, Lord of All, Giver of Life, Taker of Life.

Rejuvenated, he rose and hefted his jihn, the heat of battle still hot in his veins. In his grip, the jihn's curved blades awakened. Its lethal power coursed through him, hardening him. He looked down at his once-consort, filled with abhorrence for her weakness, scorning her gift to him. He would never have done the same for her. She remained on her knees, ragged, filthy, her eyes on his. A tear slid free and tracked a path through the fine coating of soot dusting her face.

Her lips moved again. He couldn't hear anything over the scream of the ships as they tore across the burning sky, but he read her lips, words enslaved queens had whispered as he rode them, desperate for his favor.

I love you.

He lifted his weapon. Its blades glinted, blue-white, brightening, hungry for her light. She was a fool. Love meant nothing. And soon she would be nothing, her powers consumed by the jihn. He smiled, cold, triumphant. At last. Victory.

He thrust the glowing blades toward her heart.

 

Sethi sat up, abrupt, panting hard. Gritting his teeth, he touched the back of his neck, reliving the agony of the device Marduk had injected into the base of his skull, the shear of its bite hot and sharp as it carved its way through flesh and bone and burrowed deep into his brain. Its malevolent presence poisoned his thoughts, corrupted his memories and turned him into a weapon.

It hadn't taken long for the device to betray Sethi's awareness of Istara's presence in Elati. Marduk had eyed the message, impassive, then gave Sethi his first command: Find her. Capture her. Torture her.

Blinded by the hateful thing controlling his mind, Sethi obeyed, turning kingdoms inside out in pursuit of her. And yet, despite his descent into evil, his light had not abandoned him. Each night during the final hours before dawn, his light would overcome the device's effect and fragments of his true self would slip from their bonds, forcing him to face the horror of what he had become, of the crimes he had committed, and of the one he hunted, relentless—and his helplessness to stop it.

He carved messages into his flesh, telling himself Istara was not his enemy, to protect her at all costs—but no matter how deep he cut, his warnings would last no more than a few hours, his light erasing every one of his desperate, brutal messages. He clenched his fists, drowning in futility. To think he might do it, might plunge a blade into the heart of the one he loved beyond all reason, might be the one to torture her—

He caught a glimpse of his bleak reflection in one of the enormous mirrors facing the bed. The horror of his recent acts filled his mind, damning him for his violence, his wanton killing. Everything he had once stood for had become perverted, his powers corrupted, used to oppress those who dared stand in the way of Marduk's bloody path to world domination.

Sethi lunged from the bed, claustrophobic, and shoved open the golden doors leading to the terrace. To the east, the arc of the sun breached the ridge line of a tropical mountain range, heralding the start of a new day. He moved to the edge of the terrace and eyed the sheer drop of more than half a short iter. Far below, a waterfall cascaded into an enormous clear blue lake, thick with early morning mist. Last night he had thrown a king over the edge, had sent him hurtling to his death—for entertainment. He clawed at the back of his head, longing to dig the vile device out. He had tried, more than once, but failed, every time. The device igniting before his blade could reach it.

The warmth of the sun's rays slid over him. He glanced at the golden disk as it ascended, fast, recalling a different, slower sun rising over the desert world where he had lived as a mortal. His memories of that life had almost entirely vanished. Soon there would be nothing left of the man he used to be, or of the woman he had once loved beyond all reason. He pressed his palm over his heart sensing Istara's grief for his crimes; her yearning, her loneliness; her determination to free him from Marduk's grip. Somewhere out there, beyond the mountains, beyond the sea, beyond the desert, she gathered allies against him—to save him from himself. His goddess. His consort. His everything.

A flash of searing blue light slammed into his mind. He sank to his knees, nausea gripping him, his muscles tightening, fighting, resisting what he knew was to come as the device within his mind dragged him back, unwilling, to its lies.

He clung, stubborn, to the last images he had of Istara, of when he had lived with her in another world, his love for her endless, overwhelming. The light increased, relentless, scouring his mind, wiping it clean, its heat blistering, agonizing. He roared, fighting its brutal onslaught, refusing to succumb, vomiting over the edge of the terrace, his heart aching, bitterness saturating him as his memories dissolved, slipping through his fingers, grains of sand. Gone. For eternity.

 

The light cut off, abrupt. Sethi fell back on his haunches, blinking, disoriented, waking as though from a deep sleep, wondering when he had come to the terrace from his bed.

He rose, thinking of his dream, and of the mysterious weapon which could consume a god's light. With such a powerful artifact, none could stand against him, not even the gods. He would search for this weapon, and once he possessed it . . . he smiled, his heart cold, considering the goddess he would save for last—and the agonies he intended to inflict upon her, the one who had rallied the armies of men against him. Yes. He glared at the sun as it soared into the sky. He would make her suffer. Forever.

IMARU

The thunderous downpour ended, abrupt. In its wake, a rush of rich, rain-cleansed air. The quiet ripple of potted bamboo. A shear of silence. The plaintive cry of a night heron, far-off. Thoth picked up his wine and left the chaos of his desk and pushed past the silken hangings separating his apartment from the terrace. Barefoot, he went to its edge, skirting the pots overflowing with geraniums, their soft leaves laden with water droplets.

He sipped his wine, once more turning over Istara's request to create a sanctuary for the gods when none of his powers remained. A warm breeze slid past, languid and damp. Below his apartment, the golden lights of the city of Imaru skirted the shore of a vast lake. The clouds parted. Two crescent moons hovered just over the horizon—one pink, one white, both breathtaking. Across the lake's dark surface, the moons' light danced and shimmered, a starry canopy to match the profusion of glittering lights spanning the heavens.

A sweet, earthy scent swept over the terrace. Thoth inhaled, deep, savoring the fresh air denied to him after almost two years of captivity, buried deep beneath the Etemen'anki of Babylon—the enormous stepped pyramid Thoth's presence had destroyed, along with half of Istara's world. If Istara and Baalat's sacrifice hadn't ensured his escape through Surru to Elati--the world he now called home—nothing would have been left of her world on the other side of the portal's ephemeral, churning wall.

Surru. His greatest achievement. A portal which traversed the distance between two universes. The amount of energy it had taken to power it up had been immense, had required the building of—

He caught his breath. Of course. It was so simple.

He turned and hurried back to his desk, uncaring of the wine sloshing over the rim of his cup and onto his hand. The answer he had been seeking for weeks had come in the blink of an eye. How had he not thought of it before? Surru held the answer. It always had. But—he hesitated, looking up from his desk, his hands stilling as they rifled through his notes. Surru led to not one but two worlds, neither of them safe. He sank onto his chair. When he last traversed Surru from Elati to Istara's world—how long had he had before his transformation came over him, robbing him of his powers as a god and rendering him mortal? Hours, at most.

But they would still be there—the pyramids he had created in the long distant past, their cores once used to power up the portals, later modified to protect themselves from destruction—he had given up a fair portion of his own light to ensure they would never fail. They would have stood against the worst of the unraveling in Egypt while the rest of the world succumbed, torn apart by his presence. They had also granted an unexpected barrier against Marduk's devices, although he had discovered that advantage far too late. He would not make the same mistake twice.

Could it be done in time? A trip to Istara's world, all the way to Egypt and back? He exhaled. Of course not. He was mad to even consider it. It was too far and would take too long, even with a fast ship--and what of the instability he would bring back to her world? No. He had no choice. He would have to return to the world he and Arinna had fled, the one still caught in the mortal Marduk's brutal grip.

Thoth sighed, so many worlds, so many outcomes, yet all with one constant—Marduk and the endless worlds-spanning fight to overcome him. A battle which, right now, the gods were losing as one of Elati's kingdoms after another pledged its allegiance to Marduk, their unwilling submission forced upon them by the brutality of the god of war, no longer Horus, but another, the once-commander of Egypt, Sethi, Istara's consort. 

Thoth dried his wine-soaked hand against his kilt, his usual pleasure at considering the complex abandoning him. From among the piles of pages and scrolls, a map lay half-exposed. He pulled it out and eyed it: the world he had fled with Arinna more than two years before. He followed the lines and contours of its continents, his gaze coming to rest on the delta of Egypt, long made into a barren wasteland, its boundaries guarded by Marduk's malevolent, patrolling devices. He glanced at a star gliding across the heavens, leaving a dusty trail of white in its wake, considering the horrifying price three had paid to free the other gods from Marduk's tyranny.

Somehow they had managed to get past the patrols and into the hearts of the three pyramids where, as one, they gave up their light to the pyramids' cores to increase the radius of the pyramids' power. It had worked. Their combined energies had, for a brief time, forced Marduk to flee to the heavens, his devices and weapons useless to him while the others escaped. Another star shot across the sky's indigo canopy, followed by one more, surrounded by a halo of brilliant blue. Thoth's heart clenched, remorse biting him deep. His naive arrogance in creating the portals had caused more harm than he could ever have anticipated. He looked down into his cup, morose. They would have suffered unimaginable anguish. The cores would have burned them from the inside out, sucking every drop of their light from them. Teshub, Horus, and Baalat. Gone. Obliterated.

His grip tightened on his cup. No. Their sacrifice would not be for nothing. If the survivors from his and Istara's worlds were to have any chance against Marduk, Thoth needed the cores. With them he could construct the pyramids again and grant the gods an impenetrable refuge from Marduk. He might have gained immortality by traversing the portal with Istara, but his godly powers—just like Teshub's and Arinna's—were long gone. He would never be able to make such powerful artifacts again.

A rustle of material. He looked up.

"Lady Istara," he said, rising, "I did not hear you come in."

"You were deep in thought," Istara said, her voice resonant, beautiful, though her golden eyes were dull and shrouded with sorrow. "I did not wish to disturb you."

Thoth moved around his desk and took her hands in his. "I might have a plan," he said, soft.

Her fingers tightened against his, the stars in her hair brightening, glimmering with nascent hope.

"I have to go back," he said.

"Back?" Istara repeated, her brow furrowing, elegant. "Where?"

"To the world Arinna and I left," Thoth answered. "I must retrieve items of great power, items which may save us all. It will be a dangerous journey."

"But the mortal Marduk is still in control there," Istara breathed. "If he finds you, he will enslave you again."

"Then I must ensure I am not found," Thoth said, dry. A gust of wind cut through the apartment. The silken hangings in front of the terrace billowed inward. He glanced over Istara's shoulder at a profusion of geranium petals skidding across the already dry terrace. "However, I cannot go alone since I am no longer a god—the portal will not open for me."

"I will come with you," Istara said, her grip on his hands tightening, determined.

"As will I," said another, low. An immortal, his powerful body clad in a gold-gilt leather tunic and kilt stepped from the shadows of the doorway. A pair of Marduk's weapons hung from his belt, over his shoulders, the handles of two much larger weapons bristled. Thoth met Urhi-Teshub's eyes and nodded.

"Tomorrow, at dawn, we leave for Surru," he said. "May the Creator—"

A scream split the skies. Marduk's war ship blazed across the starry canopy. Thoth eyed it, bleak. Sethi, on a mission to claim yet another kingdom either by force or by persuasion, while Marduk ruled with his consort, Meresamun, in a place still unknown.

Istara pressed her hand against her heart, broken, sorrowful, her eyes following the ship's path as it traversed the heavens. "My love," she whispered, a silvered tear slipping free, "I beg you, hear me. Fight this. Fight him. You are not the monster he has created."

Her hand fell to her side. She met Thoth's eyes, desolate, and shook her head, the stars in her hair dimming. Urhi-Teshub joined them, his jaw hard, and his eyes cold as they raked the night sky.

Above them, the ship tore on, scorching a path across the heavens, indifferent, cold, uncaring.