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.