A storm brewed in the distance. Souls of the dead rose from their mutilated corpses like smoke from extinguished fires. Zagesi stood, still panting in heavy breaths over the slain king. Warm blood stained his large hands. Lifeless eyes stared at him accusingly when he yanked the scepter from the corpse’s grip.
He scanned the sea of bodies that surrounded him. He had killed them all. One by one, in a fit of rage, after he stormed the king's chamber, and claimed the throne of Umma.
A thunderous silence echoed. A faint breeze whispered his name. The stench of death lingered. Blood spread like black ink and the metallic scent filled his nostrils.
“Do you fear death?” A shadow among shadows whispered.
Lightning illuminated the night sky. Zagesi turned and saw a stark silhouette.
“No.” The hairs on Zagesi’s back straightened when the stranger loomed over his shoulder.
“Do you fear me?” The unnatural entity croaked.
Zagesi drew a slow breath to steady himself. His heart pounded against his chest. The hilt of his sword felt slippery in his sweaty grip. He did not believe in omens, and demons, or any other form of supernatural entity. And yet…fearless as he was, Zagesi had never felt as afraid as he did just then.
No, I do not. He wanted to say. It would have been a lie.
“I am not your enemy, Zagesi.” The creature gently wrapped his long, black slender fingers around the usurper’s broad shoulders.
Thunder rumbled in the darkness. A night wind whispered, sharp with a bitter cold.
“Have the gods summoned me?” Zagesi tucked the scepter into his belt. He had lingered on the brink of death many years before. Had glimpsed the abode of the dead. And yet, he had been spared.
“I cannot speak for the gods. As it stands, I fell out of their favor long ago.” The deep voice echoed among the cries of the dead.
Zagesi’s eyes darted back and forth. The souls of the slain swirled about them. Plumes of grey and black smoke, they waited for their master’s command. Zagesi gripped his sword with both hands.
“They will not harm you,” the dark entity said. “The shadows of the dead dance with us, for they know your deepest desires, and they know I will help.”
Zagesi turned to the mysterious creature. In the darkness, he could not make out his features, save for his silhouette and eyes as red as rubies.
“What are you?” Zagesi squinted.
“I am Mephitsophel. The bringer of light and the collector of lost souls.”
Zagesi cast him a suspicious glare. He had heard the legend of Mephitsophel. The archangel the Semitic peoples of the north had feared. They did not trust the light-bearer, or his propositions.
“Why are you here?” Zagesi said.
Mephitsophel studied him momentarily. “Search your feelings, Zagesi. You know the answer.”
Zagesi lowered his sword. In that moment he felt the gods had abandoned him. Perhaps they did not approve of his coup. Had he dishonored the lineage of kings? Zagesi did what needed to be done for the sake of Umma, and for that the gods had forsaken him.
“That scepter you hold is meaningless compared to what I am here to offer.”
What can you offer? Zagesi thought. He inhaled deeply. His broad chest swelled. The pride he felt however had been replaced by sorrow. Tears emerged. His cousin, the king, was dead. The shadows of secrets and betrayal had vanished. Zagesi was now king. He rescued Umma from a weak ruler. Under whose reign the city-state had suffered. His mother’s condition, however, remained unchanged. For even as king he remained powerless to help her.
Mephitsophel appeared before him, but Zagesi only saw his eyes. Red eyes surrounded by darkness. They shimmered and revealed a glimpse into the future shadowed by chaos. Screams echoed in the darkness. Mephitsophel whispered in a language Zagesi did not know; words that were warped, and sent a shiver along his spine.
Zagesi exited the courtyard. He marched to the temple complex. The palace corridors, empty. The few servants who remained had slipped into the shadows. They froze at the sight of blood that stained his chest, arms, and hands, and dripped from the edge of his sword.
When he entered the temple complex, he stopped and gazed at the enormous structure of the gods. A wide staircase ran up along the outer wall and led to the apex in the heavens. Zagesi strode to the steps of the ziggurat and felt a strange anticipation as he climbed. If the gods would not come to him, then he would go to them.
He struggled not to quicken his pace. He needed to maintain composure. His slow steps would reflect his conviction, and prove he bared no guilt, or shame. He would enter the shrine of Shara, Umma’s patron deity. A place he had been forbidden to enter, for only priests were permitted inside the dwelling of the gods. He would declare himself a liberator; his actions justified, and pray for absolution.
Atop the ziggurat, Zagesi paused. From the terrace he could see the entire city-state of Umma and the desert landscape beyond the outer city walls. He glanced down at the lesser temples that immediately surrounded the ziggurat, all of them vacant. The priests had gathered inside the shrine, two guards at its door. The storm loomed in the distance, the moon hidden by gathering clouds. When he entered the shrine the priests chanted, for they knew why he had come. They parted when he approached the enormous statue in the center of the chamber.
The priest that led the ceremony eyed Zagesi and nodded. “You are the savior of Umma,” Neti declared. “All who are present welcome what you have done. There are thousands more who will show their gratitude when they learn that the spineless king is dead.”
The priests gathered. Many of them raised their arms and chanted their praise. Their bodies warmed the air within the shrine. The stench of sweat filled Zagesi’s nostrils. He knew most of them after many years of seeking Neti’s counsel.
Zagesi looked to Neti once more, his expression hopeful and pleading.
“I have asked Shara to bless your reign. You must do the rest. You must do what is necessary to avenge Umma’s humiliation at the hands of Lagash and restore her former glory. Do as the gods command and your mother may yet be saved.”
Zagesi nodded. A glimmer of hope swelled within his heart at the prospect of saving his mother. He stood motionless before Neti, the priest who had the power to persuade the gods. A mortal with a clean-shaven head and face, his skin browned from exposure to the sun. His hazel eyes reflected ambition, no weakness evident in his soul.
“Henceforth you shall be known as Lugal-Zagesi. Lead us, my king. I will be at your back.”
The chanting of the priests rose steadily. The great statue of Shara loomed before them. The orange glow of the fires swayed. The ziggurat trembled. A deep voice echoed above the rest. The priests fell silent. A breeze extinguished the torches within the shrine. Darkness prevailed and it seemed that the priests had vanished.
Red eyes glowed before Zagesi. Mephitsophel’s sudden appearance spoke volumes about his power and what he offered. Prior to the events of that morning Zagesi had been little more than a general, but that had changed. He had usurped the throne and held the reins. Whereas Ush had disgraced himself by fleeing the battlefield in the past, Zagesi proved to be a fierce leader.
It had been fifteen years since Umma suffered a defeat at the hands of its rival city-state, Lagash. The King of Kish had apportioned land in favor of the victor, and other kings supported the decision. For Lagash was the larger and more powerful of the two city-states. Resentment lingered in Umma as Ush had stifled progress with his submissiveness. Now Mephitsophel offered Zagesi an alternative.
The world needed a new king, one who would bring order out of chaos and create the world’s first empire. He could reestablish the lineage of kings. Erect temples to honor the gods. Sumer would be remade as a region of peace. Perhaps the gods would be inclined to save his soul. Perhaps they would even save his mother.
As it was, the veil between the heavens and the underworld had fallen. Zagesi knew that the fate of the damned had been intertwined with his own destiny. The collector of lost souls came to gather the ones who had made their own deals long ago. The darker the soul, the darker the deeds; and Zagesi’s would one day become the darkest of all.
Inanna had never felt at home in Umma.
She had been born the daughter of builders and was a nomad at heart. The barren landscape that separated the city-states of the Land Between the Two Rivers, bright and arid during the day, cold and full of shadows in the night was her true home.
Unlike the gods of her father, the gods of Umma were unfamiliar to her. They seemed darker, a primal horde of deities that cared more for the offerings of the people than for the people themselves. Yet, for thousands of years the people of Umma turned to them for protection. Protection they now needed after the overthrow of the king.
The heat rose with the sun. The faint breeze whisked past Inanna’s long brown hair. The scarcity of water underscored the need for change in the arid, ancient city frequently at war with Lagash over the canals that flowed from the Idiglat River in the east.
The general, Zagesi, had vowed to reclaim Umma’s former glory. He referred to himself as the Shepherd, but she knew he was merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Despite his promise to avenge the humiliation of the past many referred to him in secret as the usurper.
He will be a cursed king.
Inanna wondered when her husband, Dumuzi, would return. She held tight to the rare multi-colored shawl he offered as a gift on their wedding day. This would be his last campaign. Would Zagesi honor the promise made to Dumuzi by the king he had overthrown? She believed he would. Regardless of Zagesi’s hatred for Ush, he owed Dumuzi for saving his life many years before.
She would have prayed to the gods of her father, but there were no temples in Umma where she could make an offering. The ziggurat and the temple complex were for the gods of her husband, the gods of Umma she did not know and could not trust.
“They failed the king. They will fail us too.” She muttered under her breath. When she arrived at the entrance to the temple complex a pair of guards approached her.
“Lugal-Zagesi requires your presence,” said the taller of the two. It was not a request.
“Lugal?” Inanna arched an eyebrow.
They gripped her arms and escorted her away toward the palace. Bystanders cast them sidelong glances. Inanna’s eyes found her cousin Etana amid the sea of strangers. As a soldier he should have been privy to the order. When he began to approach Inanna shook her head almost imperceptibly. Her light brown eyes directed him to the temple complex.
Etana raced to the ziggurat. If they had come for Inanna they would come for Alamin. He paused at the entrance. He looked over his shoulder. The guards escorted Inanna at a brisk pace. He wanted to help her. She can fend for herself. He proceeded into the temple complex and climbed the steep steps of the ziggurat two-at-a-time. He would more easily locate Alamin from a higher vantage point. Inanna would never forgive him if any harm befell Alamin.
Inanna saw Zagesi when she arrived in the king’s chambers. His large brown eyes hinted at dark thoughts and ruthless ambition. His long, brown locks blended with his full-grown beard that fell over his neck onto his broad bare chest. He dismissed the guards and offered her a seat.
“I’ll stand,” she said coldly.
He nodded and approached. Zagesi gazed into her light brown eyes that rested on her high cheekbones. He studied her features, her lips as full as he remembered them. Her long dark brown hair complimented her olive skin as it fell over her slender shoulders in gentle waves.
“Why am I here?” Inanna demanded.
“Are you afraid?” Zagesi asked.
“Should I be?” She retorted.
“You have nothing to fear.” Zagesi lifted a cup filled with wine and took a sip.
“Then why am I here?” Inanna crossed her arms.
“I want you to help me convince Dumuzi to forego his retirement.”
“Why would I want to do that?” She doubted the forthrightness of his request.
“Dumuzi is a good man. A valiant warrior respected by the people and soldiers alike,” Zagesi shrugged.
“He has fulfilled his commitment to Umma. His duty now is to his family.”
“I will decide when he has completed his service. His duty remains to his king and the gods!” Zagesi snapped.
“Then why bring me here?”
“I had hoped you would help convince him to continue his civic duties. I will appoint him as a member of the high council. Dumuzi will never have to leave Umma or fight in another battle. The gods know he has fought more than his share of wars, and fought well.”
“And if I don’t?” Inanna said.
“Then I will be left with no choice but to have you arrested for treason.”
“What?” Inanna said incredulously. “Is this how you plan to rule?”
“I will not discuss politics with a woman!”
Zagesi approached and carefully tucked her hair behind her ear. She turned away. He breathed in her scent. The scent of lilac lingered near her neck; the scent he remembered, and haunted his dreams. “What games do the gods play with our hearts?”
Inanna felt no love for him. She never had. Even in their youth when her father brought them to Umma to find work. As with the many other suitors she knew they loved her beauty, but they did not truly love her. They could not have loved her. They did not know her. To them, that did not matter. They loved as all men love. Their passion inspired by beauty. Lust confused for love.
“The gods know nothing of affairs of the heart.” Inanna stepped away.
“They led me to you,” Zagesi said.
“And you threaten to imprison me as a result.”
“I ought to know better than to quarrel with you,” he said with a rueful smile.
“Then why ask this of me?” Inanna stroked her multi-colored shawl absently.
Before Zagesi could speak, two guards entered the chamber. “We could not locate the boy.”
Inanna turned to Zagesi. When their eyes met she knew the darkness had returned. The entity from the underworld had come back for her son. The wizard had warned her Alamin would be in danger when he came of age. She knew the offer for Dumuzi’s place on the council was merely a ploy to distract her.
“Where is your son?” Zagesi demanded.
She shook her head.
“I will ask you one more time.”
“Leave my son out of this!” Inanna seethed with rage.
“It is treason then.” Zagesi ordered his guards to imprison her.
When they moved to apprehend her, Inanna raced for the exit. The first soldier to grip her arm collapsed when she elbowed him in the face. She unsheathed his sword as he fell to the ground and swung at the second soldier. He felt the blade graze his face when he moved to avoid the blade. Three more guards rushed into the chamber and surrounded her.
“Don’t do this Inanna. Don’t make me kill you.” Zagesi warned.
“I’d rather die fighting for my son’s freedom and kill you in the process.” Inanna spat.
The guards unsheathed their swords. Inanna smirked and tapped the tip of her blade against the stone floor. “Are you men or cowards that you would converge on a woman together rather than fight me single-handedly?”
The soldiers exchanged unsettled glances.
“Perhaps this woman needs to learn her place.” One of them smirked.
“Why don’t you step forward and try?” Inanna taunted him.
She stepped forward swiftly and slapped his face with the broad side of the sword. He wiped at the blood that ran from the cut on his cheek. He glared at her and charged. She met his swing with a quick swipe that forced him to follow his momentum and expose his vulnerability. She elbowed his chest before she thrust the butt of the handle against his temple. He collapsed. His comrades took a step back.
“You are quick, for a bitch,” another declared.
“You will suffer worse if you dare move against me,” Inanna replied.
He stepped forward and swung his sword. She deflected his swing and stepped back. Inanna turned and kicked the soldier behind her in the groin. Then she spun back to face her attacker. After deflecting his second charge she ducked and twirled to move around him before she thrust her blade into his back.
After she yanked the sword out Inanna turned to continue fighting but Zagesi had stepped forward, between two soldiers, and punched her in the temple. She fell hard to the ground. The remaining guards apprehended and lifted her to her feet.
Inanna struggled against their grip as they led her to the prison below the palace. She felt no satisfaction in denying Zagesi. Yet, she feared the fate that awaited her husband and son. Dumuzi cared nothing for politics and sought no glory in war. He wanted nothing more than to lay down his sword and till the land. But Zagesi wanted more and threatened her future happiness.
She worried about her son, Alamin. Had Etana found him in time? Had they successfully fled the city? Where would they go? How would they get there? Would the wizard return as he had once promised? She knew this day would come. She had feared it since the night when Alamin was born and the demons had come for her son. His destiny would someday determine the fate of kings.
Inanna kicked and struggled to wiggle free from the soldier’s clutches. They mocked her efforts as they dragged her down a flight of stairs. The long, thin corridors beneath the palace had been dug out of the barren land like trenches. Mapped out like a maze, lined with torches and chambers with wooden doors. Timber beams held up the stone ceiling that lined the palace floor.
She cursed them for their complicity in the king’s usurpation and perpetuating Zagesi’s abuse of power. They pulled her through the corridor. She pushed away from one soldier and shoved her shoulder into the other. They fell haphazardly against the wall, but neither guard relented his grip. She tried to free herself again and they shoved her into the jail cell.
Inanna heard the heavy wooden door slam shut behind her. She lay prostrate on the hard dirt floor angry with herself for not foreseeing Zagesi’s intentions. The soldier’s laughter faded as they walked down the corridor and ascended the steps up to the palace. Another door slammed shut and Inanna sat in complete darkness. She wrapped her multi-colored shawl about her shoulders. The air in the cell, dank and musty, had the odor of death.
“Where the dead linger, evil follows.” Inanna muttered under her breath and dusted the dirt off her hands and knees. “Damn the gods and the kings who worship them! Damn them and their desires.”
One day the kings of the Land Between the Two Rivers would all be killed. They would fall at the feet of a boy king. Inanna’s son would find his fate in the middle of a great war when angels and demons will hunt him. There would be no glory for the gods. And there would be no peace for Inanna if she died without seeing her son again.
The temple complex bustled with activity. Priests walked in and out of the bathhouses and lesser shrines that surrounded the ziggurat. Scribes carried stone tablets to the library where the previous days records would be stored.
Alamin hid in the shadows between buildings. With his back pressed against a wall he spied on two priests talking in hushed tones as they passed. Like a fly on the wall, he thought to himself before he maneuvered stealthily between the smaller temples.
He darted through courtyards and slid behind pillars. Alamin scanned his surroundings and waited until the coast was clear before he made a beeline to another shadowed alleyway. He tried to steady his breathing; afraid the slightest sound revealed his presence.
As silent as smoke, he repeated from his lessons.
When he was a child he slithered between the huts of the suburban area beyond the outer city wall. Inanna searched for him when he wandered off on his little adventures. With each instance he grew more efficient in his endeavor to remain undetected. Consequently, Inanna often felt a mixture of anxiety and reassurance. Anxious the darkness had found him and stole him away. Confident he had eluded the demons that threatened his life.
To Inanna, that seemed ages ago now that Alamin had reached manhood. He was fifteen. Tall for his age, lean and handsome like his father with his mother's olive complexion, dark brown hair and light brown eyes.
Swift as the wind, he exhaled softly.
Alamin peered around another corner. He eyed the ziggurat. The mountain made by men for the gods. A wide staircase on the eastern side led to the apex where the shrine crowned the looming structure. A thousand steps and I’ll reach heaven.
He took a deep breath. When he leapt from the shadows a pair of strong hands gripped his shoulders and yanked him back. A large hand covered his mouth as he was slammed against the wall.
“Don’t say a word,” Etana whispered.
Alamin stared into the eyes of his mother's cousin. Etana was sharp featured and lean like a predator, but there was always a hint of innocence in his dark brown eyes. He wore a warrior’s garb, a breastplate of interlocking bronze strips and a wool kilt with sandals and a belt made of animal hide. His short sword, dagger and a collection of flint knives sheathed on his belt and around his thighs, as befitted a warrior.
“What are you doing here?” Alamin asked.
“I should ask you the same.” Etana glanced around. “You know you’re not permitted inside the temples of the gods.”
“I was just—” Alamin began to say.
“It doesn’t matter.” Etana cut him off. “We must get you out of here.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Alamin noted the concern in Etana’s eyes.
“It’s your mother.”
Fear washed over Alamin’s face when Etana explained that she had been taken to the king by force.
“We need to get you out of the city.” Etana peered around the corner of the building. A group of priests descended the steps of the ziggurat. To the left and right more priests approached. Their escape would be difficult. There were no allies among the priesthood and the palace guards would no doubt be searching for Alamin.
“But what about—?”
“Your mother can look after herself.” Etana interrupted him again. “Your safety is of utmost importance.”
Etana shushed Alamin and they pressed their bodies against the wall when priests walked past. Alamin felt the cold stone against his bareback. The shadows slowly vanished as the sun lingered to the highest point in the sky. Soon, there would be no place to hide from the guards who would be scouring the city for Alamin. Even in the crowded marketplace the king had eyes and ears.
“Where will we go?” Alamin wondered.
“That will be for the gods to decide.” Etana peered around the corner again and when the coast was clear they ran into an alley between the lesser shrines. They bolted from one hiding spot to the next barely evading the priests that went about their business.
“I don’t understand what is happening.” Alamin shook his head.
“There is no time to explain.” Etana snapped. “Just follow me and stay close.”
“But if the guards are looking for me, why haven’t we seen any?”
“They wouldn’t think to find you here. Commoners aren’t permitted in the temple complex unless they have business with a priest. Had you brought an offering to the gods word would have reached the king that you are here.”
“Then why don’t we simply stay here?” Alamin asked.
“There aren’t many places for us to hide. The lesser shrines are too small and we would be spotted immediately. Given that we aren’t permitted into the shrines, or the ziggurat for that matter, the guards would be alerted to our presence and that would end your little adventure quite quickly, don’t you think?”
Alamin bit his lower lip. He had really done it this time. He should have stayed home and completed his chores. Perhaps then his mother would have been able to hide from the king’s guard instead of being arrested while searching for him. Returning home was no longer an option. What would become of our home and our land?
Alamin thought of Aos just then. He had been in the family’s service for many moons now. More than Alamin could remember to count. A slave from the northern lands when Dumuzi purchased him for his size, strength and knowledge of herbs, which would be useful on the farm, was left unprotected.
Little had been known of the Amurru when Dumuzi had inquired about his personal history. He wished to ascertain if the man had been born into slavery, or was a warrior enslaved after defeat. The latter might have resulted in the man taking a knife to Dumuzi and his family in their sleep.
The slave trader did not know. He had acquired him among a group of prisoners from a general of Uruk. Captives of conquered city-states exchanged for weapons and mules.
Dumuzi had stood before Aos. The Amurru towered over him, but when Dumuzi looked into his light brown eyes he saw no malice, or resentment for his predicament. Long, light brown strands of hair framed his sharp features and fell just below his bearded jaw line.
After his initial inquiries about the skills Aos possessed Dumuzi led him beyond the clamor of the market. During their conversation, Aos spoke of his life in the Martu land before the invasion that led to his captivity. Dumuzi had been impressed with the understanding the eighteen-year-old Aos possessed regarding the healing properties of herbs through his experience cultivating the land.
When they arrived at Dumuzi's chariot, he released Aos from his shackles and freed him. The Amurru stared at Dumuzi, perplexed. The gesture had surprised him and made him curious of Dumuzi's intentions. Dumuzi offered him a choice: to be in the service of Dumuzi's family as a free man, or gamble on a fate decreed by the gods.
The Amurru had accepted Dumuzi's offer. He had grown fond of the family, and they of him, for, from that day forward Aos and Alamin behaved like brothers. Aos, the elder, had taught Alamin how to utilize the gift of stealth the gods had granted him. A gift he needed to remember how to use straightaway.
The activity in the temple complex increased as the day wore on. Etana scanned the vicinity for an opening. Alamin grew anxious about what would become of Aos when the guards arrived at their home.
Priests poured out of the lesser shrines and flooded the temple complex after they completed their hourly offerings to the gods. When Etana peered around the corner a priest caught a glimpse of him and did a double take.
“Shit!” Etana hissed.
“What?” Alamin asked.
“I think we've been spotted.”
“We need to think of something fast,” Alamin said.
“Nothing gets by you, does it?” Etana snapped.
They heard shouting and approaching footsteps. The priests closed in on their location as someone barked an order to summon the guards. Panic gripped Alamin's throat the way a demon paralyzes someone when they awake mid-dream in the middle of the night.
Etana's hand gripped the hilt of his sword. He closed his eyes. Gods forgive me. Though he had been trained to kill with clear eyes and unwavering conviction, the prospect of killing a priest did not sit well with him. He was a soldier, not a murderer. But Alamin could not fall into the clutches of the king.
As Etana unsheathed his sword, Alamin grasped his forearm. “No. Wait.”
Etana glared at him incredulously. The priests neared, anxious and indignant. Neti, the head priest of Umma led the contingent. They rushed with tremendous impetuosity at the prospect of apprehending Alamin for Zagesi.
Alamin’s anxiety vanished in a decisive moment of clarity. He grasped the amulet around his neck. He closed his eyes and felt Etana look at him. The tiny carvings on the amulet glowed briefly before Alamin and Etana vanished.
The solid mass of priests turned the corner. They stood bewildered when they found no one in the alley between the lesser shrines. They yammered excitedly at each other and wondered where the intruders had gone. There existed only one entryway into the alley. The wall at the opposite end of the alleyway had been too high for anyone to climb.
“Perhaps they found a way!” A priest shouted.
“Impossible,” argued another.
Neti commanded the guards to canvass the area of the wall directly opposite of where they stood. The congregation of priests dispersed. Alamin and Etana exchanged astonished glances, but they remained rooted to the spot. They appeared as clear to each other as they had moments ago, but the world around them looked different.
Immediately surrounding their bubble of invisibility, the shapes of temples and priests resembled objects as seen under water. Etana squinted and struggled to perceive their surroundings. For Alamin, however, the world became terribly clear.
He led Etana away from the alley, taking deliberate steps as he scanned the temple complex. Alamin heard commands from beyond the wall. He shielded his eyes from the sun, brighter now than it was before. And he studied the faces of the priests. Their human form absent, and their eyes burned incisive and ruthless. He glimpsed the souls within their earthly vessels. Most were varying shades of grey billowing in the breeze, but others, like Neti, possessed souls as black as impenetrable shadows.
A few steps ahead of them, Neti stopped and looked over his shoulder. He raised a finger to silence the priest who stood beside him. He squared his shoulders and stepped toward Alamin. He did not see Alamin and Etana, who froze before him, but they feared he sensed their presence. They drew short, controlled breaths and watched him approach. His yellow eyes burned like candles in the darkness. His darkened face contorted into an evil grin.
When he spoke, his voice a shrill cry, Etana felt a sharp pain in his ears. Neti slowly advanced. He looked past them as he listened for the slightest sound that betrayed their presence. Alamin wrapped his arms around Etana’s shoulders and held him up. He stared at the approaching priest; three more darkened souls rushed towards them.
Desperate, Alamin drew his own dagger from the belt tied around his wool kilt, a six-inch iron blade his father had given him. Strange, elaborate markings lined both sides of the dark weapon, and as the shadowy figures drew near the markings flickered red like glowing blood. The blood of demons it had struck down before it came to be in his possession. A weapon he hoped he would never have to use.
At that moment Alamin stepped between Etana and the approaching entities. Invisible to their enemy Alamin knew he had the advantage. Another shrill cry pierced Etana’s ears. He felt a sharp pain like a thousand needles stabbing the backs of his eyes. He collapsed to his knees and struggled not to wail in agony. A commotion beyond the wall drew the attention of Neti and his followers when Alamin prepared to strike
After the priests scattered Etana recovered from his pain and rose. They looked to the gate where the priests pressed together.
“Are you all right?” Alamin asked.
Etana nodded. He asked how they remained unseen, what the priests had said and more importantly, why the high-pitched sound of their voices had only affected him. Alamin shrugged and took Etana’s arm and led him away. With his grip tight around the hilt of his dagger he thought of Aos, again. The Amurru had recognized Alamin’s gift early on in his youth. He had worked with him in secret to develop his abilities.
“You must not tell anyone of your talents,” Aos had said. “One day, they will be the difference between life and absolute destruction.”
Alamin did not understand it, then, and he didn’t understand it now. Even as he navigated through the temple complex within his bubble of invisibility, avoiding contact with the distracted priests who ran to and fro, he had no idea the destiny that waited.
Immediately after they ran through the gates of the palace, Alamin glimpsed a glowing hand reach for his shoulder. It burned blue and white like a flame and it yanked him into a luminous tunnel. The echo of Etana’s voice faded as Alamin vanished. His mother’s cousin reappeared in the mortal realm and collapsed amid the chaos. Etana covered his head as he lay at the feet of a mob of priests and soldiers running this way and that. He searched for Alamin, but the boy was gone.
The dark was absolute. The stench of urine, blood, and decay had faded. It was as if she had been in a void after the door slammed shut behind her. The dungeon beneath Umma, deeper than she dared imagine, reminded her of the cave that led into the underworld.
Minutes turned to hours. Inanna clung to her shawl and thought of Alamin and Dumuzi. She felt helpless. Only the sound of her breathing lingered in the darkness. She formulated plans of escape when the guards returned. Would there be one or two? One, she could disarm. Two, would prove more difficult, but not impossible.
Her cousins, Etana and Alulim, had taught her how to utilize a dagger in their youth. Bandits had often threatened their safety when their Bitu—caravan—ventured across the Sumerian plain in search of work. Even the children of builders needed to know how to fend off attackers.