The end of the world began with sand hissing against a tent, a sound like the grains disappearing down the throat of an hourglass. Lokutis sat up clenching his chest, legs hanging over the edge of the mattress, and waited for a long moment until a deep breath rattled out of his lungs, and then he collected himself. He wrapped a crimson robe about his pale shoulders and ducked outside to wait for dawn.
As the tent flap fell shut, the air filled with the sound of fluttering wings. Something large had been resting above the tent door, and was taking flight directly into the sunrise. A solitary sand-colored feather drifted down to him, and he shielded his eyes to get a better look at his visitor. It looked like a large vulture, but the crimson light tangled around its silhouette. Something about the creature struck him as odd, but it was gone, and other problems weighted his thoughts.
Lokutis plodded through the sand, picking his way through obstacles that were at first just rocks, then mason stones, and then broken portions of walls. He looked back one more time, just to check. The tent was of the nomads’ design, but enlarged to make a small mountain of shimmering silk, crimson like his robe with gold trim. His simple black banner oscillated serpent-like from the pinnacle. The sky above it was empty.
He stopped at a waist-high circle of mortared stones that contained a spring⎯the pool spilled continuously over the stone lip and soaked into the sand. He thrust his hands into the cool water and splashed his face. He let the water run down his throat and robe. Then, leaning heavily on one elbow, he cupped more water in his palm and wiped it across the back of his neck. He let the liquid wash away the night’s sweat, but it could not wash away the memory of the nightmare.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” said a voice behind Lokutis.
He turned and saw his advisor, awake, silhouetted in the first razor thin line of sunlight. His violet robe and black sash fluttered around his lanky form. His skin was as dark and as smooth as obsidian. His strange almond shaped eyes did not rest on his master, but gazed past his shoulder to the tower.
“Indeed, Akahamet,” Lokutis replied.
“Do you intend on finishing it?” Akahamet asked, arching a painted eyebrow. The rising sun glinted off his shaven head. “Is that why you asked that the meeting take place in its shadow?”
Above the valley walls the sun washed the ruins, turning them surreal and red, more alive than at midday when everything became the same dead color as everything else. A field of toppling columns sent fingers of shadow across the valley floor, toward the megalithic ruins, ruins so huge that from a distance they easily would have been mistaken in the darkness for another of the valley’s craggy peaks.
A tower. A monster.
Well, it should have been. A broad road started at the base, then circumscribed the bottommost tier and appeared on the outside of the next highest, now more narrow. This concourse continued ever so higher right up to the point where construction had ended. Even there, if the dimensions stayed relative, the road must have been broad enough to
allow four oxcarts to travel abreast of each other, miles above the valley floor.
In the distance a large pair of wings coasted around the tower, hunting. It was probably the thing that had crept up to his tent⎯probably a vulture that had been enticed by the smells of his camp. It circled the road and disappeared around one side of the tower, the side that was partially collapsed. There, the architecture was exposed, and probably sheltered many rodents in the great halls meant for men.
Each of the tower’s tiers was a man-made shell circling the outside of a core of natural rock—the tower was constructed around a landform. Monstrous arches fixed the shell walls to the mountain core and six of these radiated outward at each tier. Between the arches stretched out secondary arms, from each corner, that united at the center of space forming a vaulted ceiling for one section of a tier, which in turn would be the floor for another. The network of keystones that kept the megalithic bridgework suspended in air was mind-boggling.
The mountain core was un-hewn at its lower portions, but its peak had been shaped into a perfect cylinder—chiseled down to a smooth circular platform. Not satisfied with the height at this point, the builders had used this platform as a new base for a lattice of arches that supported yet another tier.
It was at this point that construction had come to an abrupt halt. Arching spans hung incomplete. The shell wall was only partially bricked, exposing the frame. The winding road emptied into nothingness. Judging from the width of the last level, there was plenty of room to continue skyward with the tier within tier method of construction before it had to come to an inevitable tip. With one level growing out of another, reaching ever higher, the tower gave the impression of something organic: like a hollow reed of marsh grass. Or perhaps, with its side crumbled away, revealing a thousand-score arches and chambers, a honey comb. Another impression was of peering into the broken shell of a nautilus. Were the builders trying to copy nature? Improve upon its perfection? Or was it that some designs were just simply inevitable?
In any case, the tower was a wonder. To see a man made structure rising from the valley floor, subduing an entire mountain, first inspired shock, followed briefly by disbelief, and then paralyzing awe. It was a city in the sky.
“Were I to finish it,” said Lokutis, “Jhove would curse me and thwart my efforts, just as he has done to every generation that has presumed to build on it.”
Akahamet nodded. “How long is man’s memory? A thousand years? It seems that every millennia some king tries to complete it...believing that he is the one whom Jhove will overlook while they build a monument of self-aggrandizement. But you would know more about that than I.”
Lokutis raised an eyebrow. “About what? Self-aggrandizement?”
Akahamet laughed. “That too, but I meant more about the time between attempts. You are the ancient one, the Nephilim, not I.”
Lokutis laughed as well. He liked his advisor’s sense of humor. “No, I will not be finishing the tower,” he said, splashing more water in his face. “Jhove may be an absent god, but the minute you do something to capture his attention—” he gestured at the tower, “—he will make up for all the millennia he was silent. And not by way of a friendly apology. No, I prefer to keep to the shadows and run my little empire from there. As for who will build on it next, I don’t know. Perhaps it will be Marduk. Perhaps that is why he asked for this ridiculous transaction.”
Lokutis turned to the camp and started back towards the array of tents. They looked like paper lanterns strewn among the sand and rocks. The sight of his own tent door reminded him of his abrupt awakening; he had gone out seeking water, hoping to ease the knot in his stomach brought on by the dreams. He rubbed his temple, rubbing at the images of jeering children, their rocks hurling at him. Their shouts and taunts.
Akahamet trailed behind. “In all seriousness, my lord, your captains are wondering why you chose to hold the meeting here.”
“What? Oh. Marduk and his people are a superstitious lot. They will be less likely to commit treachery while in the presence of a testament to what happens to oath breakers.” And he added, “It is practical, too. The captains should understand that. We may need the narrow valley mouth and our soldiers today.”
“You are worried, then?”
“No, not worried. But it pays to be cautious.”
Movement commenced in the camp, slow at first, then picked up pace as tent flaps were flung open and a few of the captains and the camp herald prepared for their duties.
Akahamet said, “You rose early for some reason, my lord. The dreams again?” When Lokutis did not respond right away, he added, “But it is none of my business.”
Lokutis grunted, and mused out loud, “The past should stay buried, and not resurface in dreams. The dead should stay buried.”
An awkward moment passed. Akahamet turned his attention back to the tower.
“You know what I think?” he said. “It’s as you say: Jhove is an invisible and silent god. The people build this tower, over and over again, not to flaunt their accomplishments, not to compete with his creations...but to get his attention. So he will react. It’s like a child acting out. A cry for attention. Even bad attention is better than none.”
“You are wise my friend,” Lokutis said, smiling. He placed a hand on Akahamet’s shoulder as they walked. His advisor knew the story, and his oblique comfort found its mark. “Godhood, it’s about giving the people what they want. I fulfill their needs and they worship me for it. I fill the void where Jhove is absent.”
“You needn’t be a god or even a Nephilim to receive my thanks and praise, my lord,” Akahamet said, his voice once again deep and sincere. “If it were not for you, I’d still be a slave in Cush.”
Lokutis faltered briefly, an image of shackles around his own wrists flashed across his mind. “If you really wish to thank me, you can stop calling me Nephilim. It sounds too much like ‘half-breed’ to me. ‘God’ will do just fine.”
They both laughed and Lokutis felt the knot in his stomach completely unravel. The sound of jeering children quieted in his head and the image of a dirty boy hiding under a building blurred away. The laughter felt good and he let the morning breeze carry his tension away.
“Woe!” boomed a strange voice.
They spun in its direction. On top of a weather worn pillar was a peculiar creature. It was about the size and shape of a leopard, but with plain sandy colored fur. Its feet were chitinous talons, like a hawk’s. On its back, extending from between its shoulder blades, were a pair of great motley wings, and if all that were not strange enough, its head was crowned with a mane like a lion’s, but peering out from it was a vaguely human face.
“Woe!” it cried again. “Woe to the beasts, the creeping things and the birds of the air! But most of all, woe to man! The sun also rises, but too late for today! The sun also rises, but it is too early for today! Only gopherwood!”
“What by the stars is that?” said Lokutis, brow furrowed at the gibbering creature.
Akahamet grunted, but he wore a look of mild awe. “It’s a sphinx, though I’ve never heard of one this far north. They are not uncommon to the lands south of Egypt.”
“Terry, terry, terrestrial!” It continued with its tirade. “Wisteria! Nameless and blameless!”
“What the devil is it ranting about?” Lokutis asked, and blinked when the creature’s head rotated a full circle, yet its eyes stayed fixed on him.
“Pay it no attention, my lord; they are full of lies and nonsense. They are known to taunt their victims with riddles, promising not to eat them if they answer truly. However, their riddles are meaningless.”
“The flood gates of the sky will open! The well springs of the abyss will rise!” the sphinx cried.
“Shoo! Be gone, stupid creature!” Lokutis shouted. He bent over to retrieve some rocks and threw them at the oddity. He missed, but it ruffled its feathers.
“Woe to you O human! Woe!” Its head rotated again.
“Oh really? Riddle me this,” Lokutis said, and snapped his fingers. There was the sound of thunder, and a portion of the pillar just beneath the sphinx burst into a shower of dust and rocks. With laborious flapping, it flew away and disappeared among the craggy peaks of the valley.
“That will teach you!” Lokutis called after it. “Threaten me? I’m a god!”
“We should be going, sire, Marduk and his entourage shall be here soon,” Akahamet said.
Lokutis pulled away from the scene and headed back to his tent. He had been more amused by the encounter than anything.
Akahamet, however, paused before turning to leave. He looked in the direction of the sphinx, a hint of concern creasing his brow.
By early afternoon, Lokutis stood in his tent with his arms outstretched as Akahamet dressed him. Being a god was delicate business, and he wouldn’t let just anybody dress him.
His robe was of luxurious lavender silk, tightly belted at the waist with a gold chain. A gold breastplate adorned his chest with at least one of every kind of precious gem. A gold ring encircled each of his fingers. Rings also dangled from his long pointy ears, which seemed to move independently of his head, scanning the room for the faintest of sounds. His dark hair glistened with expensive oils and perfumes, as did his beard, which hung in coiled ringlets from his angular chin. A pointy bronze helmet held a pair of boar’s tusks above his brow, each of which was sleeved in bronze.
“Marduk approaches?” Lokutis asked.
“Yes, my lord,” Akahamet was almost as richly dressed. His garb was his customary violet robe and black sash, but now he wore a bronze skull piece that fit the contours of his shaven head. His wrists were covered in bronze braces. A large gold ring hung from his ears and nose, and an ivory-handled short-sword hung from his hip.
“He is accompanied by the agreed upon number of men?”
“Men, yes,” Akahamet said. “But he pulls in train twenty women, most likely as tribute gifts or as incentives for the transaction.”
Lokutis scowled, deep in thought. Akahamet now applied kohl to his master’s eyes. He had already painted his own eyes and brows with gold dust.
“Speaking of the transaction, does it appear that they bring the gold?”
“It’s hard to tell. Their beasts of burden pull heavily laden wagons that leave deep ruts in the earth, but the cargo is shielded by cloth.”
Again Lokutis scowled. “And what do the scouts at the valley mouth report?”
“All is well. There are no others in sight. If Marduk brought an army, it is well out of range.”
“But none of this is what troubles you, is it Akahamet?”
His advisor paused in applying the kohl, but then continued with his strokes. “It’s nothing. Mere foolishness on my part, really.”
“Out with it,” Lokutis insisted. “You are my closest advisor for a reason. I trust your intuition.”
Akahamet drew in a breath. “It’s the sphinx, my lord, and all its talk of doom,”
“But it was you who said that was just nonsense.”
“If that were all of it I’d agree. But that, the strange nature of Marduk’s request, the location we’ve chosen for the transaction, the storm brewing in the East, and now I hear from the scouts that they have come across a crazy man and his family outside the valley who have fashioned a giant boat in the desert. All ill portents.”
“A giant boat?” Lokutis said. “Surely you’re jesting.”
“No my lord. The man is a simple farmer, Noam by name, who claims a flood is coming and has convinced his children and their families to take refuge in the boat.”
“There isn’t a large body of water for hundreds of leagues from here. Sounds like a crazy, harmless old man whose family is humoring him.”
“Perhaps, but it’s the sheer size of the boat that concerns me,” Akahamet continued. “It’s the size of a fortress. Large enough to hold a thousand families. No small amount of time and resources went into its creation. It wasn’t made on a whim.”
“A fortress you say? Did the scouts thoroughly check it out?”
“Absolutely. They said the insides were just more craziness: doors that opened into nothing, stairs that ended at the ceiling, cubit after cubit of stalls, but no animals. A group of locals that were there jeering him said that he had been working on it for months—longer than when we had first made plans to meet Marduk here.”
“Well, there you go,” Lokutis pointed out. “It has nothing to do with Marduk, thus nothing to worry about.”
“As I said, my lord, just foolishness on my part.”
A horn sounded somewhere in the camp.
“Speaking of Marduk,” Lokutis said. “Akahamet, my cape.”
Akahamet retrieved another swath of dark silk from the full-sized wardrobe Lokutis took with him on his journeys. He hung this on his master’s thin frame, propping up the collar and clasping the chain across his throat. Lokutis grabbed its edges and spread his arms like a great bat, revealing more of the lavender lining.
“How do I look?” he asked, turning his head in profile.
Akahamet smiled. “Truly like a god.”
“That was the correct response. For your reward I shall let you live another day and not destroy you.”
They both laughed and exited the tent.
A light haze was obscuring the sun and on the eastern horizon, dark clouds confirmed Akahamet’s report. Fortunately they looked far enough away that the day’s business would be concluded by the time they blew in. The morning’s breeze had turned into light yet persistent wind that whipped up dust devils.
“All right already,” Lokutis snapped at the herald, who announced the arrival of Marduk and his entourage. “I can see them.”
The herald tucked his ram’s horn under his arm, bowed to Lokutis and stepped down from the stones.
The meeting place was perfect for this transaction. A natural throne rose before a slab of rock that had been a sacrificial altar at one time, complete with blood-gutter that ran to a drainage hole. These two objects sat on a field of massive flagstones and behind the throne were remnants of an amphitheater. Evidently the sacrifices were popular. Opposite the throne, altar, and seats was an open space surrounded by columns in various stages of collapse. It appeared as if there had been an enclosing wall of mortared stone at one time, but villagers seeking a ready source of quarried stone had scavenged it over the millennia.
Marduk entered the field enclosed by the columns as Lokutis had planned. Here there was enough space for Marduk to feel comfortable, but confined enough to discourage his men spreading out in a tactical formation.
Lokutis took his seat on the throne and Akahamet stood at his side. Lokutis’ one hundred soldiers and scores of servants stood on the amphitheater seats. They wore his black and purple, and the soldiers also wore headscarves that covered their faces in the desert nomad fashion. They carried Lokutis’ black pennants, which flapped in the rising wind.
For Marduk, all was red. His approaching entourage looked like an ocean tide rolling in, tinged with red foam. The sort of foam that occasionally washed into coastal towns after a war on an opposite shore, or when the tide carried poison that left gull and seal and fish carcasses strewn along miles of beach. Lokutis did not plan on being a casualty of such a tide today.
The bulk of the entourage was a regiment of crimson clad soldiers each carrying the black-fringed banner of the House of Marduk. Belted at their waists were scimitars. Their uniforms were spacious black pantaloons, and their feet were covered in leather and silk slippers whose toes curled in on themselves, and short, tightly wrapped turbans. Their faces were hidden behind bronze masks fashioned into the appearance of a bearded man, albeit a man with a single slit for an eye. These masks shone like mirrors.
Behind the soldiers next came servants pulling a silver chain that connected a train of twenty women bound at the wrists by silver shackles. They stumbled along mostly concealed in bright blue burqas. Though only their eyes were exposed, they were certainly women and not soldiers in disguise, as the thinness of wrists and shortness of stature attested.
Next came four wagons pulled by oxen which kicked up a large cloud of dust. Tarps concealed their payloads.
And above all, surrounded by the soldiers in a sea of red flags, was Marduk’s barge. It was a magnificent yet functional work of art: a colossal elephant’s head, plated in gold, ears fanning out to either side like two great wings. The tusks were real, taken from some mammoth or mastodon from some far corner of the world. All around the fringe were fist-sized rubies that flared in the sun. At the center of the barge was a flat stage from which the elephant trunk extended and curved back on itself, forming a staircase to the platform. At the back of the stage, recessed between the elephant’s eyes—which were made of some smoky colored glass—was a throne.
Upon this seat sat Marduk.
He was a giant of a man, perhaps half again the height of a normal tall man. His bare chest was broad and muscular, as were his tree-like limbs. His head was shaven; his dark beard was fashioned into three separate jagged points like three black lightning bolts shooting from his jaw. His brow was so prominent and thick that it overhung his eyes and hid their nature.
Each finger was bedecked in a gold ring of some gaudy design. Gold bands, one of which was a serpent creeping elaborately up his forearm, encircled his wrists and upper arms. Both his massive nipples were pierced with rings almost the size of ox leads.
The red tide came within speaking distance of the throne and stone altar. As it did, the soldiers before the barge parted to allow an unobstructed view of Marduk in his splendor. The train of blue robed women took up position to his right and the wagons to his left.
When the soldiers parted, Lokutis saw that the barge hovered above the ground by no apparent means of suspension.
Marduk stood and extended to his full height, crossing his arms over his massive chest. He wore only a white girdle about his waist and sandals whose straps laced up his corded calves to his knees. His skin was deeply bronzed by the sun, in deep contrast to Lokutis’ skin which was so pale it was almost transparent. It was, however, just as smooth and blemish free as Marduk’s.
Bronze and alabaster squared off as the barge slowly descended to the flagstones.
“Nice transportation,” Lokutis said. “You’re not trying to compensate for something, are you?”
Marduk ignored the statement and continued to glower from underneath the jutting brow. A man stepped forward, similarly dressed as the flag-bearing soldiers.
He drew himself up and boomed: “My Lord Marduk graces you with his presence! Marduk, God of the Eastern skies! Bringer of Thunder! Vanquisher of Tiamat! Lord of the Wind! Ruler of Nibiru! Architect of Eridu! Slayer of Kingu! Overshadower of Enlil!”
When the herald at last was silent, Lokutis rolled his eyes and bowed at the hip. His entourage followed suit. When this was done, Akahamet stepped forward, made a flamboyant gesture at Lokutis and boomed right back: “Lokutis, God of the Mountain, Lord of the Fires of the Earth, Proprietor of the Forge of Power, Maker of the Food of Kings and Gods, Guide to the Netherworld, Provider of Dreams, Bringer of Pleasure and Might... is well pleased to tolerate your divine presence.” Akahamet bowed deeply and stepped back.
Marduk sneered and his balled fists quivered, but after a long pause he bowed at the hip and his people followed suit.
“Well now that we have that nonsense out of the way,” Lokutis said, sitting back in the throne and crossing his legs, “let’s get down to business shall we?”
Marduk remained standing, arms still folded. “Yes, let’s.” His voice was booming and unnaturally deep. A sure sign of his own Nephilim nature. “You have the Mizkift?”
“Yes,” Lokutis responded.
Marduk looked around, being slow and obvious about the gesture. “I don’t see it. Nine pillars’ worth of Mizkift should be fairly obvious. Where is it?”
Lokutis stood up from the throne and stabbed a finger at the five wagons. In particular at one whose concealed load was smaller than the rest.
“And where is the five pillars’ worth of gold as compensation? I see, at best, four and a half. No trickery in this exchange will be tolerated!”
Marduk sneered again and gestured with his chin to his men near the wagons. “I knew you would go into a passion over that. Allow me to enlighten you.”
The wagons were uncovered to reveal brick upon brick of lustrous gold neatly stacked into trapezoids. All save the smaller load, which glistened silvery in the sunlight.
Lokutis’ back went rigid and color entered his fair face. “This, for my services and my product? Even if your mines were empty of gold, there should be four pillars’ of silver to compensate, not half of one!”
“Lokutis! Be still!” Marduk’s otherworldly voice stirred the black and purple flags. “It is not silver.” Marduk gestured, and one of the wagoneers laboriously removed an ingot of the material and walked it towards the throne and altar.
“You may be the master of converting gold into the highward firestone, what you call Mizkift, but I am the master of smelting gold from ore.” Marduk’s voice was calm, and bore a touch of pride. “Only those accustomed to mining and smelting as much gold as I in my empire are aware of this material.”
The ingot was half the length of the servant’s forearm and twice as thick as his wrist. He approached the altar, and Akahamet intercepted him and took the object. In doing so, a surprised look crossed his face. He hefted it and carried it to Lokutis.
“At first we deemed it a troublesome impurity that was difficult to separate from gold in the smelting process...”
Akahamet handed the brick to Lokutis, murmuring, “It’s true my lord, it is not silver. It is much heavier.”
“...but then we performed experiments on it. It is its own noble metal. More lustrous than silver and more dense. It does not tarnish nor corrupt. It his harder and stronger than both silver and gold. And most of all…” Marduk paused for emphasis. His smooth voice would have belied his brutish appearance, but when he smiled, he revealed many sharp teeth. “It produces almost twice the amount of Mizkift as gold when fired.”
Lokutis examined the metallic brick in his hands with raised eyebrows. After a moment he handed it back to Akahamet.
“Platinum,” he said simply. “I am not ignorant of its existence.”
Marduk motioned to his herald, who approached the altar with a clay tablet. Again Akahamet intercepted and took the item.
“The calculations for formulation are noted on this tablet, and the resulting yield,” Marduk said.
Akahamet handed the tablet with a multitude of cuneiform chicken scratches to Lokutis, who merely glanced at it and handed it back to his advisor.
“Being the Lord of the Forge, whose prowess for creating the purest of Mizkift is legendary, you should be able to coax more than three quarters of potential yield from the platinum. Right?” Marduk flashed his sea-monster teeth in the most condescending of smiles.
“You assume a lot,” Lokutis sounded none to pleased. “None of this was agreed upon. Despite your calculations, I could stand to be at a disadvantage. You could walk away with more Mizkift than I with noble metals, and that’s even taking into consideration the ten percent extra you are to have brought in consideration of my stores. Do you have any idea how far you’ve depleted them, ordering your ridiculous amount of Mizkift?”
“I understand.” Marduk sounded uncharacteristically contrite. “It is unexpected, and some measure of risk comes with accepting new terms. That is why I am prepared to offer you these to offset any potential shortfall on your part.” Marduk swung a hand in the direction of the chained women. His herald moved towards them. “Personally, I think you are getting the better of the deal. But this transaction is important enough to me that I’m willing to pay a premium.”
His herald tugged the foremost woman’s veil; her burqa hung from her bound wrists. She certainly was an exquisite creature. Narrow of waist and broad of hip, she stood gracefully in gauzy colorless silken pantaloons. Two strips of the same transparent material crisscrossed her torso, covering but not concealing her breasts. Her abdomen rippled with muscles, as did her arms. A dancer’s physique. Her skin was the color of coffee, her lips full, and her hair was a dark silky mane hanging down her back, braided in gold strands. Her eyes were almond shaped, and despite looking down demurely, Lokutis could see that they were a strikingly rare emerald color.
Lokutis took in the sight, and Marduk let him, remaining silent. Lokutis cleared his throat and mentally slapped his own face to recompose himself. Marduk certainly knew his weaknesses.
“You are very fortunate that I have knowledge of platinum, otherwise I’d put an end to these proceedings,” Lokutis sniffed. “As it is, I accept your gift and we can proceed.”
“I thought you might,” Marduk said, not-so-contritely. “But that does bring us back to my original question: Where are the nine pillars of Mizkift?”
“Why, they are right here.” Lokutis gestured to Akahamet who moved around the amphitheater seats and gestured to yet another helper. He stepped out from behind the seating and approached a clay amphora situated among the rubble. He was dressed all in white, in a material that looked more like finely woven metal than cloth. He wore gauntlets and a hood of the same material, and the hood was fitted with two glass disks over the eyes. A breastplate on his chest bore several stones that glowed with an inner light as he drew near the amphora. He reached up to its lip, which was a little higher than his head, and removed a loop of densely woven copper wires from a metal pole in the lid. The copper loop was the terminus of a copper cable leading away from the amphora, partially buried in the sand. The cable split in many directions, and drawing a subdued collective gasp from Marduk’s entourage, their terminals revealed themselves.
A multiple sunburst of white light strobed the area. Nine objects slowly materialized in the air. Each object was a trapezoidal stack of white ingots similar in size and shape to the gold and platinum bars. A line of the copper cable ran to each stack and was sandwiched between the bricks. And just as Marduk’s mobile throne had been levitating above the earth, so too were the piles of white material. But the moment the copper loop was lifted from the jar, they slowly descended to the ground.
Marduk raised an eyebrow, and then said somewhat grudgingly, “Truly you are a magician of the highest sort, and with a flair for the dramatic.”
“Why thank you.” Lokutis bowed to the rare admission. “Please have one of your people choose a sample at random.”
Without having to be told, Marduk’s herald scurried forward and gingerly removed a brick from the nearest pile.
“That is clever to hide the Mizkift within the Plane of Light right before us,” Marduk said, then gestured at the amphora. “Though I can’t imagine what your plans would have been had the negotiations gone sour and the charge of electrikus in the capacitor had been depleted.”
Lokutis shrugged. “I knew you were good for payment.”
The herald placed the white substance on the altar and another red-clad servant came forward with a tray holding cups and a flagon. Akahamet positioned himself before the altar. The herald placed a cup before himself and Akahamet. He then raised the flagon with one hand by an ornate handle on its side and steadied it with the other hand at its base. He presented it to both camps. “This is Nektar, drink of the gods. This I attest to.” He placed it back on the tray.
Akahamet reached over and took the brick of Mizkift and raised it above the flagon. “This is God-Cake,” he announced loudly, and broke off a chunk of the substance in his hand, crushing it into a powder that dropped into the flagon. “Purest of Mizkift, the highward firestone. This I attest to.” It was Akahamet’s turn to grasp the container. He moved it in a circular motion, mixing the contents inside. He then re-presented the flagon, stating, “Nektar and Mizkift create Ambrosia, food of the gods.” He then set it back on the altar.
The herald picked it up and delicately poured into each cup. A pale rose-colored liquid filled each one. When this was complete, each servant dutifully carried their chalice to their respective master. Marduk and Lokutis saluted each other with their cups and took a long drink.
Though he had drunk the Ambrosia elixir many times before, Lokutis couldn’t help but feel that the first taste always felt like his first. By itself, Nektar was heavy and sweet and imparted a deep-seated euphoria. With Mizkift added, the sweetness was tempered by the metallic bitterness of the powder, which transformed the Nektar euphoria into an acute awareness of the universe.
Lokutis was vaguely aware of handing the cup to Akahamet as his eyes rolled into the back of his head, which lolled towards the sky. The taste assaulted the back of his tongue, first smothering it with an overwhelming berry-honey taste, and then followed by a metallic tartness that drilled ruthlessly into his taste buds. As the euphoria settled in his chest and loins, the tartness shot through nerves like lightning to his brain. A simultaneous burst of light exploded at the center of his mind and across his vision, leaving an after image even as the initial explosion turned to sputtering shooting stars. As the initial sensation receded, Lokutis opened his eyes and looked around.
The world around him was transformed. Everything was sharp and crisp. Colors were more vivid. Lokutis could count the pores on Marduk’s skin, which had previously seemed as solid as polished bronze. He could hear the heartbeats of all living creatures around him and the hum of the giant jar-capacitor. He heard the frenzied work of fire ants under the ruins⎯it was scrabbling, hurried, frantic work, exceptional even for their hardworking kind.
The swirling dust and sand and the flapping banners had meaning. Their movements were not the least bit random. The rocks themselves had a story to tell by their very resting positions and Lokutis could hear them whispering their deepest desires, where they wanted to move to next... and when. Their desires were urgent and immediate; the stones were impatient to go. If he had the time and elixir to spare, Lokutis was certain he could study the air and discern the equation Jhove used to create it. Maybe even improve upon it. Lokutis became more and more aware of his people and those of Marduk. Their heartbeats became a deafening drum and their breaths a howling wind. The blood flowing in their veins was a rushing river and their minds were screaming in awe at being in the presence of gods. Their adoration and their love were suffocating.
Lokutis squeezed his eyes shut, overwhelmed by it all. He rubbed his temples and took deep breaths until eventually, inevitably, the sensation passed and he was left with a more manageable feeling.
When he opened his eyes, he was gratified to see that Marduk was still under the effects of the elixir. The big man was laid back in his throne, massaging the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger.
Lokutis was also pleased to see that Marduk’s head servant, the herald who had introduced the Ambrosia, was swaying himself from having partaken of the ceremonial drink⎯unlike wise Akahamet, who still held the cup, alert and ready for action should it prove necessary during his master’s brief moment of vulnerability.
It wasn’t much longer and Marduk stood.
“The quality of the product is satisfactory,” he sniffed.
“Your Nektar isn’t half bad either,” Lokutis smirked, knowing full well the Mizkift was more than just satisfactory. “Someday you must tell me who your supplier is among the Olympians.”
Marduk ignored the comment.
Several crimson clad individuals moved among the stacks of Mizkift with clay tablets and styli, tallying the product for their accounts.
Likewise, black and purple clad men moved among the women, removing their robes to ensure the quality was consistent. Lokutis wouldn’t put it past Marduk to hold up one beautiful flower as an example among many concealed weeds. So far, Lokutis liked what he saw.
Marduk sat and glowered while his people counted the Mizkift. Lokutis sat as well, throwing a leg over an arm of the stone chair.
“So Marduk, what on earth do you need so much Mizkift for? Such a quantity is unprecedented.” The big man did not react immediately to the question. He merely drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. “Do you need a lifetime supply of repelling force for your floating chair? Hmm?”
“It is none of your concern,” Marduk said at last, glancing at the accountants anxiously. “You have been paid in full. What I intend to do with it is my business.”
“You see, that is where I disagree,” Lokutis said. He swung his feet to the ground and stood, and his tone was still deceptively light. “This is a huge amount of Mizkift to be loosed upon the world all at once. Surely something unusual is afoot, and I don’t like the sound of it.”
Lokutis made a waving gesture with his hand in the direction of the Mizkift. The stacks levitated and disappeared in a sunburst of white light, leaving Marduk’s accountants stumbling back with open mouths.
Marduk was on his feet, looking in disbelief at the empty space. Lokutis had accomplished the feat without having the capacitor jar reconnected to the Mizkift. “What is the meaning of this?” He turned to Lokutis. “Do you dare forfeit on the agreement?”
“I am not forfeiting! You will get your God-Cake, just as soon as you tell me what you are going to do with it! However, be quick about it. The longer it rests in the Plane of Light, the greater the risk of it being lost there.”
Marduk’s entire head turned red and the cords in his neck stood out. Men in both camps put hand to sword hilt, but stopped short of drawing them. Despite the escalation of tensions, Lokutis suppressed an urge to chuckle at Marduk’s comical appearance. That alone was worth the trouble to meet.
“Disclosure was not a part of the original agreement, Lokutis. Why do you care?”
“Because I care not for letting you manipulate me into slitting my own throat.”
Marduk raised an eyebrow. “Oh, and just how do you come to that conclusion?”
“This amount of highward firestone is only meant for one of two things,” Lokutis’ voice was becoming shrill and his movements agitated. Eclipsed by his legendary temper, the little mirth he was feeling withered. “Either you plan on weaponizing it and using it against me,” he continued, “or you plan on disseminating and selling it yourself at a considerably lower price just to drive me out of business and out of the region.”
Marduk bared his teeth, shook his head and laughed. “You are truly paranoid, even to the point of destroying a perfectly good business transaction.”
“You deny it?”
“I don’t need to convert Mizkift to light energy or even to bankrupt you so elaborately. I can crush you anytime. Take my gold, my platinum, my women and leave. You needn’t concern yourself with me any longer. Now bring it back!”
Lokutis’ face felt hot. “How can I possibly leave you with this much power and turn my back on you?” Spittle was flying from his mouth. He was losing control of himself, letting fear get the better of him, and yet he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “You had to have emptied your entire treasury to come up with this much gold! You must be preparing for some sort of final attack to consolidate your power!”
Marduk paced back and forth in a rage. He glanced between the empty spot, his soldiers and those of Lokutis, weighing his options.
“Very well!” Marduk boomed. His voice echoed up and down the valley, shaking the rocks. “If it will get me out of here sooner, I will tell you.” There was a moment of silence. He paced closer. “I intend to permanently enter the Plane of Shar-On, the Plane of Light.”
Another moment of silence as the gods faced off.
Lokutis blinked and shook his head as if to clear it. “Come again?”
“You heard me. I intend to use the Mizkift to open a portal into the Plane of Shar-On and enter.”
Lokutis once again shook his head in disbelief, but on a grander scale. “What? Are you mocking me?”
Marduk stood with arms crossed, unresponsive.
“Nobody enters the Plane of Light! It is a dimension of energy where Mizkift goes when sufficiently energized. That is all.” Lokutis scoffed. “The only ones who believe otherwise are the pharaohs who have some notion that, after a lifetime of ingesting the cake and saturating their flesh with it, they will wake up there after death. And I know what you think of the pharaohs.”
“You don’t exactly dissuade them from that belief, Lokutis, do you?”
Lokutis feigned shock. “Of course not. Who am I to trample all over somebody else’s dogma? It would be bad for business.”
“Bad for business indeed,” Marduk sneered. “Which is why I don’t understand why you’re willing to make an exception in my case.”
“The Egyptians do not demand this much all at once! It is suspicious!”
“This much Mizkift is necessary to force a doorway open. And as I pointed out, if I am successful, you’ll never see me again. There’s as good a reason as any to bring it back now.”
“Even if you were to force your way into the dimension, assuming you didn’t blast yourself out of existence in the process, what do you expect to find there?”
“A new beginning,” Marduk said solemnly. “An escape.”
Lokutis stared. “From what? Reality? All you have to do is mix a little Mizkift with Nektar to make Ambrosia to do that. You don’t need nine pillars of it.”
“I do not intend to hide in a drunken stupor, but to literally escape this world.” Marduk took to pacing again like a caged animal.
“Another world?” Lokutis scoffed. “You wish to conquer another world? Then invade one of the sanctuaries of the Elohim. Again, a feat that does not require a mountain of highward firestone.”
Marduk stopped his pacing. He did not respond. Rather, he looked side-long at Akahamet and to his own herald. Something about Marduk’s manner struck Lokutis as strange. Over the ages he had come to expect certain behavior in his dealings with Marduk as normal: pomposity, arrogance, bravado, megalomania. The sort of fare that afflicted all the gods. The sort of conduct from which Lokutis himself was not immune.
But now, there was sincerity in his voice, as well as something else. That same something that was in Akahamet’s voice when his advisor had spoke of the approaching storm, his misgivings of the meeting place, the appearance of the sphinx, and the mention of the madman, Noam, building his ark on dry land. It wasn’t just concern, it was fear. But this was coming from a god.
Lokutis narrowed his eyes and chewed on his lower lip. The horizon behind Marduk’s head had become deep-purple, with occasional streaks of lightning. His crimson host shifted uneasily, glancing nervously at their god, and Lokutis could sense his people were doing the same.
He turned to his trusted advisor. “Give us a moment, will you Akahamet?”
Akahamet blinked in surprise at the request, but dutifully bowed at the waist and withdrew a respectful distance. Marduk likewise made a sharp gesture to his herald, who seemed pleased to put distance between himself and the feuding gods.
“A sanctuary?” Marduk said at last, bitterly. “One of the hidden realms created for those Nephilim beloved of Jhove? That is precisely the last place I should go. You and I are perceived as monsters by Jhove. Freaks! Mistakes!” He allowed a moment for the words to bite, and they did. Then he said, “But the Elohim, the Shining Ones, Jhove had pity on them even though they had the same Grigori fathers and mortal mothers as we. And why? Because they were beautiful? Bha! Should I force my way into one of their kingdoms hidden behind walls of air, Jhove would strike me down in a heartbeat. No Lokutis, I intend to hide this face in a realm even Jhove cannot reach.”
At Marduk’s words, Lokutis remembered the dreams from earlier that morning, followed by the memory of an angry man beating him with a switch. Fatherless bastard. So many accusations. Then a woman, throwing herself across his bleeding body, taking the lashings and pleading for the man to stop. Yes, the Nephilim, the Elohim—they were mistakes. Never meant to exist. Incomprehensible creatures, born different, children of the Grigori, the Watchers. These were servants of Jhove who were sent to teach mankind, but instead ended up falling from grace and being banished for lying with mortal women.
Lokutis closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. The image of the woman being strangled by the angry man wouldn’t leave his thoughts. He rubbed harder when the memory turned to the woman’s eyes going lifeless, her head lolling to one side. He opened his eyes and stopped the rubbing. It wouldn’t pay to show signs of weakness before his fellow god. Even as he told himself this, though, he thought of the angry man brushing a spider into a jar, and tossing it away. Somehow that image, the hairy creature in its glass vessel, was worse than the memory of his mother dead at her father’s hands.
What Marduk desired was not unfounded, so Lokutis was stern but not unsympathetic when he said, “The Plane of Shar-On is not a place one can go to. If you truly are looking for a change of habitat, then you should invade a sanctuary. If for no other reason than because it is our birthright. We belong there just as much as the Shining Ones.”
Marduk ground his teeth. “I have reason to believe Jhove will lay waste to this world he created, to wipe it clean of all the mistakes that populate it. Just as he did to this accursed place eons ago.” He thrust his finger at the giant tower that loomed in the background. Its uppermost portions had become veiled by heavy grey clouds. “But it won’t be a localized event this time. It will be the entire world. And I intend on not being here, nor in an Elohim fishbowl where it will be easier for Jhove to see that he missed one of his mistakes.”
“Who is paranoid now? Wherever did you come by such prophecy?”
“The signs are all around you, Lokutis, if only you would look. Mostly it says so in the stars. You would know that if you spent some time outside that cave of yours on that mountain. Even that fool villager crafting that giant ark outside this valley knows it.”
It was Lokutis’ turn to pace.
“Really Lokutis,” Marduk growled, no longer staring at the empty space where the pillars of Mizkift had stood. His voice was now full of soothing and rationale, at odds with the sweat that started to bead on his pate. “If I am wrong, then I will destroy myself in a blaze of white Mizkift-light. If I am successful, then I will enter either an airless field of energy and perish, or enter a new world and you will never see me again. In any case it will be a boon to you. My empire will need a god.”
A bead of sweat fell from his temple. His smile was strained.
Lokutis’ eyes narrowed as he returned the big man’s gaze, weighing all the information and possibilities. The sky was now dark and distant thunder rumbled. The gentle desert breeze was now a full-grown gale.
“Liar!” Lokutis at long last cried, stabbing an accusing finger at Marduk. “Surely you must take me for some kind of fool with this preposterous excuse! I still say you are up to no good...and in this world, not the Plane of Shar-On!”
Marduk dropped all pretenses of calm and civility. “You miserable wretch! You had this planned all along, didn’t you? You never had any intention of handing over the Mizkift! You mean to take my gold by force, don’t you?”
“Don’t change the subject!” Lokutis shouted. “This is about you taking my God-Cake and using it against me!”
A shouting match ensued and they gestured furiously at one another. Their respective camps held hands firmly to sword hilts and their eyes flicked from one enraged god to the other.
Inevitably, somebody drew a sword, setting into motion a scraping chorus of metal drawn from sheathes on all sides.
“Lokutis, this is your last chance. Relinquish the God-Cake or I will squeeze from you the knowledge of how to retrieve it myself.”
“I’d like to see you try!” Lokutis shot back.
Marduk raised his wrists and banged together the metal jewelry.
At the sound, the women slaves tugged apart their shackles, made space between themselves, and commenced to whirl the chains above their heads. The once demure eyes were now intense and focused.
Lokutis bared his teeth at these women, who, as it turned out, did not have the hard bodies of dancers, but the hard bodies of warriors.
Marduk’s force now stood one hundred twenty to Lokutis’ one hundred.
“I thought you might try something,” Lokutis sneered. He snapped his fingers as he had done earlier to drive the sphinx away.
The earth rumbled and shook, and outside the ring of columns forms rose from the ground. They spilled sand and dirt from their bodies. They were pale and dirty giants, bipedal like a man, and stood another man’s height above Marduk. Their limbs were long and deformed with gnarled muscles. Many were bow-legged or hunched, others better formed, but all bearing the heavily muscled bodies of labor and the scars of battle. Naked, hairless, their heads were oblong. Their mouths hung open and trailed strands of drool. These creatures numbered ten and circled the meeting place, encompassing Marduk’s forces—including his warrior women.
After a dramatic pause, Marduk spoke. “You can call upon all the help you want, but you and your menagerie of freaks will not keep me from what is rightfully mine.”
Lokutis tsked. “Come now, is that anyway to talk about your Nephilim brothers?”
“I no more claim these creatures as brother than the Elohim claim you and me. And I tell you, Jhove is coming soon to cleanse this world of such as these,” Marduk responded.
“Enough of that ridiculous story! It is obvious you have treachery in mind!” Lokutis gestured toward the warrior women.
Marduk clenched his fists, drew a deep breath and with his unnatural voice rising as he spoke, shouted, “Give me the firestone you insolent little bastard!”
Lokutis froze at the word. His face contorted into a caricature of itself⎯fangs grew from his upper jaw and his eyebrows turned into bat wings above slitted animal eyes blazing lavender. A shimmering aura surrounded his body that seemed to melt his clothes away and his stature tripled in size, becoming a muscled giant. Great bull horns sprouted from his head, toppling his ornate helm, which fell to the sand. He held out fists engulfed in balls of purple flame.
“How dare you talk to me like that!” he growled in an otherworldly voice.
No sooner had Lokutis started his transformation than Marduk commenced one of his own. He too grew in stature, but not much more than he already was. His fangs lengthened, and his eyes melded into one great cyclopean fireball. He snatched the serpent shaped bracelet from his wrist and made a flinging gesture. It elongated in his hand and turned into a fiery whip.
“Your true face does not frighten me! Jhove will not have to wipe you from the face of the earth, for I will!”
“Woe!” cried a new voice. “For the hour is at hand!”
The opposing forces turned in the direction of the voice.
There, sitting on top of a column, was the sphinx. Its head rotated oddly.
“Woe to the beasts, the creeping things, and the birds of the air!”
“I told you, Lokutis, your monsters will not stop me!” Marduk exclaimed, shaking the whip at his adversary. It writhed like a living thing, throwing off sparks.
Lokutis scowled. “Deception does not become you. That is one of your agents, sent from the start to distract me.”
“Son of Ea,” the winged creature said to Marduk, who started at being addressed as such. “Your time has come! Hewn down by the messenger you shall be! There is not even hope of resting among the stars!”
Marduk turned to Lokutis. “What trickery is this? First you make Mizkift disappear without the aid of a capacitor, now you know the true name of my father?”
“Long wanderings!” The beast now turned to Lokutis. “Slow fade! Power drained from your heel! The green man will cut you down and send you to the venomous cave. Only in the last days will you be set free again, just long enough to be destroyed by the bridge-god on the rock of Ragnor! Woe!” The sphinx took flight and flew away from the tower in swooping arcs, down the valley, to the scene unfolding there.
The mouth of the valley had become a swirling mass of thunderheads, a vortex crisscrossed with lightning. Something that looked like an ocean of water and light was gurgling forth from this tunnel as from an overturned urn, splashing and foaming its way down the valley, breaking against the rocks and hurling loose boulders in front of it.
Wading through this miasma was a titanic figure around whose ankles the water broke. Humanoid in form, it stood almost as tall as the nearest cliffs and light radiated from it as if it were made of it. Though difficult to look at directly, it could be discerned that it bore richly decorated armor, etched in some arcane script. Girded about its waist was a broad belt with a sword in its scabbard. The light-being grasped in both hands a scythe, which it rested on one shoulder as it strode forward. Spreading from its back were great wings opening and closing like respirating lungs. These looked for a moment like clouds, but soon coalesced into solid feathered attachments.
The first impression was of sheer size, a column of light, radiating mist. But the being’s head was what riveted one’s attention, and inspired terror.
Whereas its body glowed, its head was absolutely ablaze with fierce lightning. It had not one but four faces, rotating above its shoulders like the sphinx’s. The first face was nominally human, with eyes, nose and mouth. The next was a bird of prey, with piercing eyes and a raptor’s hooked beak. Another rotation revealed a snorting bull, and the final, a roaring lion.
All who beheld the creature were stricken immobile. It wasn’t until a great horn sounded that Lokutis and the others awakened from their reverie and turned to see where the sound was coming from. A similar creature had perched on the mountaintop and bellowed through a long trumpet. Extended sonorous blasts shook the foundation, causing rocks to slide from the cliffs and the ground to shake.
With the first trumpet blast large drops of rain pelted the dirt, the wind picked up and thunder and lightning rent the sky over their heads. A gushing noise drew Lokutis’ attention to the spring where he had splashed his face that morning. It hissed and frothed as if a subterranean sea was rising to the surface.
Servants and soldiers broke and ran in every direction. They collided and scrambled over the top of one another, forgetting in their panic that only moments before they had been prepared to put their swords in one another. Marduk whipped his people, cursing them to stay put.
Akahamet stood firm at Lokutis’ side. “What are they?” he asked, a mixture of fear and awe in his voice.
Lokutis looked on with disbelief. His form shrunk from the bull-horned monstrosity back to that of a slight man. His frame shimmered and his rich clothing reappeared.
He said simply: “Archangels.”
“I am with you, my Lord,” Akahamet said, reaching out and touching his master’s forearm. Lokutis barely took notice. The storm angel drew back its scythe and cut down Lokutis’ deformed giants. It hooked their bodies and flung their severed torsos into the air. Another swipe sent crimson- and black-clad corpses scattering.
The trumpet blared without cease now, and the rain plastered Lokutis’ hair and clothing against his skin, and the scythe-wielding archangel was almost upon them reaping its grisly harvest.
To his credit, Marduk stood his ground and lashed out with his whip, sending bolts of red energy at the thing. But it was to no avail, for the bolts passed through it as if it were made of mist. Marduk cast aside his whip and the sparking, sputtering weapon turned back into a coiled piece of metal. And even as the scythe bore down on him, he raised his fist and raged.
The weapon passed through him swiftly, yet did not cleave him in half. He went rigid, and a ghostly image of himself was ripped from his body in two pieces. The top half was Marduk’s face, contorted in torment, and the image faded into the wind. His body collapsed. On the ground his head lolled to one side and Lokutis could see that his eyes were glazed with cataracts as if he’d been dead for hours.
“My lord, look out!” Akahamet cried and pushed Lokutis aside.
The scythe plunged. Lokutis crashed to the ground and saw Akahamet take the blow. As the man’s body fell on top of him, Lokutis saw Akahamet’s forlorn specter float away. He struggled out from under the body, but froze momentarily when he made eye contact with Akahamet’s white lifeless orbs.
He snapped out of his horror. The archangel stood above him, raising the scythe.
A wall of water engulfed him first, obscured his assailant, and lifted him off the ground and swept him away.
He flailed in a turbulent current, reaching and grasping for some sort of hold, hoping he wouldn’t be pounded against one of the stone columns. His lungs started to burn, and he struggled out of his breastplate and cape. When he was free of the metal, the current popped him to the surface.
The landscape, or lack of thereof, was now completely different.
Gone was the threatening archangel. Gone was his tent. Gone were Marduk’s corpse and the gilded elephant. Even the meeting place, with its altar, throne, and amphitheater were gone, replaced with a foaming, swirling, disorienting sea. Though much of the tower was still visible, the tips of the valley’s mountains just protruded above the water, and those were quickly being swallowed.
Lokutis flailed around to find some for a haven of safety. He had no immediate foothold on anything, and he considered swimming for the tower, even though it was leagues away. And should he make it? Then what, hide in its honeycomb vaults in the sky, snacking on rats?
He squinted into the driving wind; the rain beat his face and he couldn’t see. He paused in his treading water long enough to shield his eyes with one hand.
The sea-foam was lifting off the surface of the water and gathering in the air like a flock of birds, migrating as a collective towards a light in the sky, a light brighter than any sun. It lit the foam around him, and made it glow like the luminous plankton of the oceans.
Except it wasn’t plankton.
Roughly the size of his fist and alternately round or spherical, depending on how you looked at them, they were little creatures covered in eyes. Human eyes.
They turned like fiery little wheels and bobbed like bubbles in the water. They behaved just as sea-foam, but then rose like smoke or mist, pausing just long enough to stare curiously with that multitude of eyes at Lokutis as they passed by.
“Thrones,” he said, calling the angels by their name in the hierarchy of the Heavenly Host. Never had he heard of the beings coming anywhere near Jhove’s earthly creation. Not since it was first made. Many, many millennia ago. Lokutis now understood what he had seen earlier, pouring out of the maelstrom in the sky like water out of a gourd. It had been the Heavenly Host coming forth to purge the earth of its wickedness and its monsters. Monsters like him.
Marduk had been right.
The last of the shining beings floated away from him and then suddenly something obscured the light in the sky and cast him in shadow. When his eyes had adjusted, he got a good look at what had blocked his vision: It was a giant boat, simple but sturdy. Essentially a cube with another cube on top, a sort of cabin surrounded by a deck.
And just when he thought things couldn’t get any more surreal, Lokutis saw all manner of animals gathered on the deck, in particular a pair of giraffes staring down at him as if he were the oddity.
A violent undulation of the water took the vision from his sight and he was cast among the flotsam. Tree branches, uprooted shrubs, the carcasses of dead birds and domesticated animals, and even the corpses of his own servants. Another heave of water shifted his view again, this time setting him before the great tower, still far away.
The light in the sky burned above the tower like an eye, lighting up the carved cylinder of the mountain. He was amazed to see that a significant portion of it still rose above the waters, but the dark currents clawed at it stones like demons. An arch collapsed and sent a portion of the shell wall falling in a cascade of stones, striking the water and sending up a wall of spray. Though this caused more of the innards on the upper tiers to be exposed, the lower ramparts survived the assault.
The last of the Thrones disappeared into the light, which began to shrink. The tower darkened with shadows, starting at the base then working their way up to the top. As the shadows grew, a chill that had nothing to do with the water crept up his spine and he watched helplessly as the light slowly collapsed in on itself. The light winked out. The world became bereft of light and warmth, as if a door had closed. Only the cold rain, the turning waters, and the tower, somewhere in darkness, remained to watch Lokutis’ slow death.
As he struggled to stay afloat, a revelation came to him. The entire world was destroyed, wiped clean this day. Yet the simple villager, Noam, and his family most likely survived in the ark. This wasn’t the end of all things.
Jhove meant to start anew, and he had left the future generations something: The tower.
When the waters had subsided and Noam’s descendants repopulated the lands, they would eventually come across the tower again.
And it would call to them.
Just as in the ancient stories, where Adam and his wife were set in a beautiful garden with a forbidden tree in it.
That is why Jhove left the tower standing and intact, yet incomplete. Future generations would have to decide for themselves whether to leave it alone, or try to finish it.
Lokutis didn’t have much time to ponder what the chances of either happening would be, for another great wave overcame him and this time all went dark.
The sound of the surf told Lokutis he was still alive. Salty air washed over his skin, and all around, seagulls made their excited cries. He could not move, and to open his eyes was to drag shards of glass underneath his lids, and to swallow was to gag. But there were voices and movement around him, so he forced himself to open his eyes.
The light hurt. He wanted to be blind. But then the brightness coalesced into forms and colors, and he was staring into a blue sky, at wispy clouds, at sea gulls coasting on arched wings.
“Ah, our guest is awake,” a deep voice announced.
There was more movement about him and a face swam into view. This person reached down and helped Lokutis sit up.
“I imagine you have an incredible tale to tell,” the voice said, and eased something soft behind Lokutis’ back to prop him up, “but by the looks of yea, the tale will have to wait a spell. No matter, you are in good hands now.”
Lokutis took a good look at the owner of the voice, who now crouched before him. He was a large man, with full beard and head of hair so dark that it had a blue sheen to it, and was streaked with silver. His skin was very pale, as pale as Lokutis himself. His eyes were piercingly blue, set deeply and fringed with crow’s feet. His teeth were big and straight on an expansive face; Lokutis assumed he was a nobleman in some faraway land.
“Can you at least tell us your name?”
Lokutis swallowed the rocks in his throat and licked swollen flaking lips. Even his tongue was dry, but he managed to say, “Lokutis.”
The large man frowned, yet maintained his fatherly smile. “My, that’s a mouthful. How about we shorten that to something more manageable, shall we? Loki.”
Loki moved his eyes around his surroundings. He was on a rocky beach at the foot of a slope. Snow and scree rose up to a high mountain peak. The air was cool and the rough, grayish foliage was alien. The only thing that looked remotely familiar were the trees, some relative of his native cedar. His host wore coarse clothing of wool, leather and animal skins.
Loki lay on wool blankets, under a pile of skins. The pleasant smell of roasting meat drew his attention to a campfire nearby on the beach. What looked like a boar was turning on a spit above the flames. A kettle boiled in the flames. Many people, dressed as roughly as his host, were gathered there and drinking from horns.
“Frigga, bring our guest some broth, he must be famished...and something to drink.”
A stout woman acknowledged the request and bent over her kettle.
The man turned back to Loki. “Frigga, my wife, she will fix you up nicely.”
Loki gestured weakly. “W-where am I? Who, you?”
“I am Woden, son of Bor, and you are in the highest reaches of Midgard, where we retreated from the Deluge. We have been here well over a moon now, waiting for the waters to recede. I sent out my birds to see if the waters had started to do so, when they came across you, clinging to a log.” Woden gestured to two large ravens sitting nearby on a tree branch. “You have Hugin and Munin to thank for being rescued; otherwise you would have floated right by us.”
The ravens bobbed their heads. “Drowned rat! Drowned rat!” they croaked.
The woman Frigga brought a steaming bowl and a large wooden spoon. She was large of girth, but had a friendly round face that was not at all unattractive. Her blond hair was braided into a rope as thick as Loki’s arm. Woden took the bowl, spooned some broth and put it to Loki’s lips. With his aid, Loki managed to swallow some. Considering the circumstances, it was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted.
After a few spoonfuls of the broth Woden reached for the drinking horn. “I imagine everything and everybody you knew previously are gone now. But as I said, you are in good hands. You are one of us now.”
“There you go again, taking in strays,” somebody nearby scoffed. “Someday it will be your undoing.”
Loki looked in that direction. Sitting apart from the fire was a giant of a man with a flaming red beard and wild head of hair. He scowled as he wrapped a leather strap about the shaft of a great war hammer. The weapon was so huge that no normal person could wield it. But the redheaded stranger had arms as big around as Loki’s torso. All in all, he made Marduk look like a child.
Woden ignored the comment, but lifted the drinking horn to Loki’s lips. “My son Thor, he is a dour and taciturn sort who is slow to trust and even slower to befriend. But you needn’t worry; he will love you as a brother soon enough and there is no greater ally.”
Loki sipped at the dark liquid in the horn, and almost immediately gagged. His reaction drew much laughter from those gathered around the fire.
“Mead is an acquired taste,” Woden admitted.
“Father, look!” A new voice cried.
All in the camp turned towards a figure standing on the rocks at the ocean’s edge. He was another large man, and an elaborately carved horn hung from a strap around his neck. He pointed out into the sky. A hushed gasp rippled through the crowd. Arching across the heavens was an iridescent arc of many colors which was simultaneously solid and ephemeral. Light emanated from it powerfully, so much that Loki could not look at it for very long.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” The man on the rocks said.
“What is it?” Frigga asked, mouth agape.
“It has something to do with the Deluge, I’m certain,” Woden said.
“Hemdal,” called Thor. “What do you make of it? Nobody knows the powers of the earth and sky as you do.”
Rapt with the bow in the sky, Hemdal turned to address the camp. “It has much power, I am sure. As if the song of the world itself was harnessed and made manifest. I can only imagine that it comes from the Creator himself. Why he would leave such a powerful thing unguarded, I do not know.” Hemdal seemed entranced, and his gaze turned inward. “What one could do if they could make it their own!”
Though he had floated to the ends of the earth, as far away from the tower as possible, he still bore witness to the sort of folly that lead to the Deluge. He did not know the true meaning of the prismatic bow, but he was sure Jhove had not put it there to be coveted.
As the camp stared in wonder at the beautiful arch, Loki reached for the spoon and bowl and sipped the broth gently.
Adam Copeland 2