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.