1 But, earlier . . .
Cinder ash whirls in the fireplace. His hand snaps out. Even as the ash forms into the fairy Tanit, his hand is around her throat and shoulders.
“Hi,” Tanit says.
He looks her up and down. She’s small. She’s winged. She is a threat to him, an ancient enemy, an unbound god—a creature, he knows, that his great-great-grandfather educed from the first hero, Ella, back before she’d made herself a hero. Tanit had been with Ella, and the fiend White Lion, when they raged amidst the monster’s armies in Assyria. She had escaped when Ella fell.
She looks so puzzled and so empirically interested that he’s seized her that he can’t help laughing.
“I should break your neck,” he says.
“Yes,” she agrees. “But you won’t.”
He lets her go. She flutters wildly for a moment, trying to get her bearings.
“What is it?” he asks.
“It’s Mylitta,” she says. “She’s gone to the Underworld.”
Mylitta stood at the gates of the Underworld. She knocked. The gate opened. The guard on the other side was a scorpion-man. His eyes terrified her. They brought fear and death. She could not move.
“What do you want?” it asked her, slowly. Its voice was the rasp of chitin on chitin. It looked at her expectantly, and that expectation broke the spell of her fear.
“My mother,” she said. “My mother Ella is dead.”
“You do not want her to come back,” the scorpion-man said. “If she comes back, she’ll be hungry. She will eat living people. She will kill everyone you know. That’s why it’s bad to bring back the dead. They also carry diseases.”
“In a week,” she said, “I go to the temple. I want to see my mother before I go.”
It is 556 years before the common era. It is the last day of spring.
Nabonidus’ eyes narrow. “Going to the Underworld was foolish,” he says.
“Why would you come to me?”
“I asked the sky for help,” Tanit says, “but there was only wind. I asked the moon for help, but there was only moonlight. Not even the sun can help me. So I came to you.”
Nabonidus sighs. He stares out his window. “What will happen to her?”
“She will suffer,” Tanit says, “and then she will die.”
“Please,” Mylitta said.
“You have power,” the scorpion-man said. “It won’t help you, below. Everyone enters the Underworld naked and powerless. Then terrible things happen. If you’re lucky, you get to leave. If you’re not, they just keep happening until the end of time.”
Mylitta winced. “I’d rather not be powerless,” she said. “Or naked.”
“Then go home.”
Mylitta hesitated. Then she shook her head, firmly. She took off her clothes. She removed her anklets. She removed her bracelets. She handed all of these things to the scorpion-man. Then she walked inwards.
“Are you a goddess?” it asked, curiously, as she passed him.
“No,” she said.
She walked on.
Nabonidus is silent for a long time.
“You haven’t said no,” Tanit points out.
“I haven’t,” Nabonidus agrees.
“That’s a hopeful sign,” Tanit says. “See, I’m practically an inch taller right now. That’s from hope!”
“Why did she go?”
“I’ve told her about her mother,” Tanit says, “all her life. I wanted her to remember Ella like I remember Ella. But they never really met.”
“What was she like?” Nabonidus asks.
“Ella had a fire,” Tanit says. “She fought brilliantly. You didn’t know?”
“I’m young,” he says.
“I visited Ella, once or twice, before she died. She was a husk. She wasn’t even useful.”
Tanit shrugs. “Life sucks,” she says brightly. “Will you help?”
Nabonidus rubs his temples.
“I know what I’m asking,” Tanit admits.
His eyes are like a hurt animal’s.
The Underworld was very dark. Its twists and turns confounded her. Mylitta did not find her mother. She did not find anything. In the end, she began to cry out: “Ella! Ella!” Her words echoed in the halls. She could hear things skittering in the distance. She was cold and could not warm herself.
In the distance, she heard a whisper. “Namtar,” it said. “Unleash the sickness upon her.”
There was something crawling in her veins. She felt very ill.
“Namtar,” said the voice. “Make her hurt.”
Something twisted in her arm. She cried out. Her ankle gave way. She fell on the rough stone. In the distance, she could hear a terrible laughter. She fought, desperately, to hold back tears.
Nabonidus’ eyes shutter. His expression is indecipherable.
Nabonidus holds out his hands. “Scrape the dirt out from under my nails,” he says.
Tanit flits forward. She pulls out a small brass dagger, fairy-sized. She begins to clean under his nails, and specks of dirt and blood fall on the floor. When she is done, she darts back, and waits.
Nabonidus bends down. He picks up the bits of dirt. He rolls them around in his fingers. He is whispering. Tanit does not understand at first what he is saying. When understanding finally dawns, she covers her ears to shut out the sound of it. The dirt twists. Nabonidus shakes off his hands.
“This is a season of metal,” he says.
Two creatures stand before him.
“This is a time of gathering.”
They look at him with cold dead eyes.
“Go,” he says. And they are gone.
Nabonidus sits down at his desk. He folds his arms on its surface. He rests his head on his wrists.
“Thank you,” Tanit says.
Nabonidus is crying, helplessly, unable to hold back the tears.
Tanit flutters forward, awkwardly. She puts her hand on his shoulder.
“I hate her,” he whispers. His voice is raw and thin. “I hope she dies.”
There was a voice in the darkness. It was deep and rumbling. Its words cut right through her.
Mylitta, ‘litta, hides her fear.
But maidens have no secrets here.
There was a rank, feline stench in the air; and White Lion was beside her, who had been her mother’s god. And in the darkness, and in her ignorance, she did not understand.
“Go away,” she said. “Please go away.”
“As you like,” White Lion said. She heard four feet padding off into the dark.
And she rose.
She struggled onwards through the endless halls.
“What will they do?” Tanit asks.
He is silent for a long time. Then Nabonidus looks up. He rubs his eyes. There’s a hint of cocky arrogance in his gaze.
“They’ll make Ereshkigal love them,” he says.
Tanit looks uncertain.
“She’s more powerful than they are,” he says. “She’s more powerful than I am. But they’ll go right to her weakness and make her their slave. And she’ll let Mylitta go.”
“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” he says. “Didn’t you know?”
“Namtar,” whispered a woman’s voice, “make great sores appear on her skin, and suppurate, and ooze forth pus.”
Mylitta looked down at her body in horror. Great sores appeared on her skin. They suppurated. Her feet hurt, but she dared not sink to her knees. She tried to cover the marks, but her arms and hands were as tainted as the rest. She leaned against the wall, setting her shoulder afire with pain. She sobbed.
There was the voice in the darkness of a returning god.
Mylitta, ‘litta, strength all spent.
Maidens burn it on descent.
“Go,” she whimpered.
There was a hesitation. “As you wish,” the voice said. Something turned to pad away. Then she fell. As she hit the ground, she screamed.
In the darkness, she heard a quiet sigh.
“Help me,” she whispered.
A cat’s tongue rasped on her back. She could feel the sores fading away. It proceeded down her arms, and the back of her legs. A great paw rolled her over. She was too tired for shame. It finished the job.
“I am called White Lion,” it said, as the last sores faded. “White Lion, who was your mother’s god.”
“Oh,” she said.
She sat up, against the wall. Her body felt clean.
“I will show you your power,” White Lion said.
It is the naming of pains.
“I hurt inside,” says Ereshkigal.
Oh, my inside!
“I hurt outside,” says Ereshkigal.
Oh, my outside!
“I hurt,” says Ereshkigal, “because of what happened to me. I hurt because of what happened to others. I hurt because happiness is transient. I hurt because the world is cruel.”
Oh, the world is cruel!
And in this time, and in this place, the cracking voice of Ereshkigal is more real than anything.
“I hurt,” says Ereshkigal, “because Abdi-Ashirta is dead, and Agabus, and Ili-Hadda, and Ninsun, and Odainat, and Yakin, and Mamaea, and Urshanabi.”
Oh, for Urshanabi!
“I hurt because Kummu is dead, and Mithridates, and Panammu, and Zebba. I hurt because Shamshi-Adad suffers, and Adad-guppi, and Sibittibael.”
She names those living, and those dead, and they are badges of her suffering. And when she names a dead man, or a dead woman, that person looks up from the throngs of the Underworld, and their heart shines in their eyes.
“There is the pain of the fire condition,” Ereshkigal says.
Oh, the fire!
“And the water condition, and the earth condition, and the condition of the soul.”
Oh, the soul!
And in this time, and in this place, the cracking voice of Ereshkigal is more real than anything. And all the while through her naming of the pains, two creatures of dirt and blood sit in the corner of the room. They eat the names. They eat the pain. They grow. And when in time the naming of the pains fades into a great and wayward silence, Ereshkigal looks over, and she sees them there.
“What are you?” she says, and it echoes in the room.
“I am hurting inside,” says one. “I am hurting outside. I am hurting because of what happened to me, and what happened to others.”
“I am hurting because happiness is transient,” says the other. “I am hurting because the world is cruel. I am hurting because Abdi-Ashirta is dead, and Agabus, and Ili-Hadda, and Ninsun, and Odainat, and Yakin, and Mamaea, and Urshanabi.”
“Ah!” Ereshkigal cries, stricken. “Ah! I know you both!”
Mylitta climbed up on the great beast’s back. It began to pad down the endless halls to where her mother stayed.
“Namtar,” whispered a voice, “strike her dead.”
The spark of life blew out. Mylitta’s body turned to rotten meat. She tumbled off of White Lion’s back.
It nosed her and she did not move.
It touched her and she did not respond. It bit into her and she did not flinch.
So she lay there, dead, and all hope lost, and it began to eat.
The servants of Ereshkigal came for her corpse. They had spears. They had arrows. They drove White Lion back, strips of Mylitta’s flesh still dangling from its mouth. They picked her up. They took her to the throne room.
They hung her on the wall.
Mylitta can still see. This is the Underworld. She can still hear. She can still feel pain.
“We are here,” the creatures say, “for Mylitta.”
“You may not have her,” Ereshkigal says.
“I am hurting,” one whispers, “because Kummu is dead, and Mithridates, and Panammu, and Zebba.”
“Because Shamshi-Adad suffers, and Adad-guppi, and Sibittibael,” says the other.
Ereshkigal’s fist clenches. “Ah,” she says, in pain. “You have my heart!”
“Please,” says the creature of dirt and blood.
“She may live,” Ereshkigal says. “But she may not leave.”
Ereshkigal gestures. One creature walks to Mylitta. It gives her a measure of its pain, and Mylitta is alive again. It lifts her off the hook. It sets her down. It looks into her eyes.
“Stars,” she whispers.
“Your eyes are like my boy’s,” she says.
It frowns, and backs away, and turns to Ereshkigal. It bows.
Mylitta’s eyes flick to Ereshkigal. “I must remain?” she says.
She is bleeding. There are strips missing from her flesh where White Lion chewed on her corpse. She puts her hand on the blood. She can feel the creature’s thoughts in it, and suddenly there are no boundaries to her world.
“I command the hosts of the dead,” Ereshkigal answers, placidly. “And of the scorpion-men. And Namtar. And Irra. And she who erases. And the god of submission. If these are any barrier to you, Mylitta, then you cannot leave.”
“I’m sorry,” Mylitta says.
She can feel the thoughts of White Lion in her blood, and there are no boundaries to her world.
She draws a sword of starlight. There is a pounding in her ears. She can hear a crowd of thousands roaring out her name.
Not the scorpion-men—
“These things are not a barrier to me.”
“heroes can kill monsters.”
It is 556 years before the common era. It is the first day of summer.
Nabonidus looks out at the sky. There is fire on the horizon, and the earth rolls, slowly and steadily, and he can all but hear the gates of the Underworld cracking.
“Mylitta?” he says.
He’s recovered, a little, from the making of two gods.
And Tanit nods.
“Did she get to see her mother?” Nabonidus asks.
The world shakes. The sky burns red. Namtar falls, and Irra, and the great hosts of the dead. Somewhere beneath the world the death gods scream, and Mylitta their apocalypse.
Tanit shakes her head.
“She didn’t,” Tanit says.
Strepitus; and silence; and
“She’s so helpless,” sighs Mylitta’s boy.