Chapter 19

Chapter 19: V: Ashtaroth

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Chapter 19: Massenqa

Section V

Ashtaroth – Nowhere: Qemassen

In a tunnel as hazy as dream, the path before Ashtaroth meandered downwards as though into Molot’s heart. Acrid smoke cobwebbed and curled across his path, reaching out ghostly fingers that caressed his shoulders and chest and left his skin prickling with cold.

Ashtaroth had used to think he knew everything about his city. He’d known her secrets, known her dreams, known her worries. He’d walked all her alleys and backroads, explored her passages and markets. Now, somewhere between waking and sleeping, he understood that he’d not just been wrong, but drastically, uncomprehendingly wrong.

When the sky turns red. When the earth begins to shake.

Lilit’s words drifted to him on clouds of sleep.

Or was he asleep?

He had been, of that he was certain. He’d been dreaming he was sitting at his desk, composing a story for his little nephews. He’d heard birdsong, and he’d turned to see what kind of bird it was, and when he’d turned he’d seen the sun, bright as Qemassen’s phoenix, burning red and fierce.

And then darkness, and Ashtaroth was here.

But where was here?

Here was smoke and shadow. Here was nothing and no one.

Ashtaroth’s skin shivered with the touch of ghostly hands, but Lilit was nowhere to be seen and Ashtaroth was alone.

Where was he? How had he come here?

He turned.

Behind him, an impenetrable blackness cut off a path that looked as though it should wind uphill. The darkness was so opaque that staring at it made his eyes ache.

“Hello?” Ashtaroth asked.

A baby’s cry scattered the cloudy air, as though the sound had frightened the ghosts dancing inside the smoke.

Ashtaroth looked left and right, up and down, but there was no sign of the source of the sound. All that greeted him was plain rock wall on every side.

The baby laughed.

It was so hard to tell its direction, but with nowhere else to go, Ashtaroth started downhill. Lilit had told Ashtaroth to go to the maze on Tarefsa Tithmeseti when the sky was red. Wherever this was, it must lead there.

Some magic, Lilit’s magic, had brought him here.

He’d thought this last meeting might go the way of so many others. They’d greet each other with wariness and teasing. She’d try to goad him to anger, and he would deny her what she wanted.

But on their last visit, Ashtaroth had promised what she wanted. He was hers now.

Every barefoot step onto the rocky, dusty tunnel floor should have stabbed through him, but he felt nothing more than a gentle tickle against his skin. He didn’t walk so much as drift, as though he, and not all this, were the dream.

And always trailing him, the sound of the baby.

As Ashtaroth walked, plain walls gave way to faded paintings of Qemassen’s heroes, kings, and queens. Elibat, Shalem, Yehawellon—all the names from his childish scrolls. Stories he’d poured over again and again, or else lingered in the Eghri to hear.

Something metallic glistened along the tunnel and Ashtaroth drifted toward it.

A door.

A relief of Adonen was carved into its surface, only instead of the bland face of a statue it had been carved to resemble Aurelius.

“My family.” Ashtaroth brushed his fingers over Aurelius’s lips.

“You’re sleepy, Aurel,” Hima’s youthful voice cut the darkness and Ashtaroth jumped. “I can tell. Go to bed before I smack you.”

Hima was nowhere to be seen. No one was in the tunnel with him.

Aurelius replied in a child’s high-pitched tone, but his exact words faded from earshot.

Ashtaroth snapped his hand away and moved on to the next: Ashtet.

This time, all he could do was smile bitterly. “Bree.”

Lilit’s games, though intended to sting, were obvious.

On the opposite wall, an image embossed in metal writhed upon another door’s surface: bronze and jade coiling and uncoiling around and around and around and Ashtaroth had to touch it, he had to feel it squirm beneath the press of his fingers and know the patterns it wove with the heat of his skin and—

A person darted through him.

Transparent women hurried down the path. One of them was Qwella.

“Ashtaroth!” cried Lilit.

Ashtaroth tore his gaze from Qwella’s shade as it sped down the corridor. Lilit was down there in the darkness somewhere. He had to go to her.

But Leven and Pepet’s door was so close. And hadn’t Lilit mentioned a serpent? The twin gods shimmered on the wall next to him, their scales glistening under a light that had no source. Their bodies were so entwined it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. The blending of their tails was rhythmic, soothing. A blood red jewel sat at the door’s centre.

Ashtaroth walked up to it, frowning as the snakes’ form shifted. Two serpents, one dead and one living, their bodies bound helplessly together, and then a man and a woman’s face in profile, encircled where the jewel had been. The man—Qanmi! And beside him, Uta with her scared eye. Was there a god for every person Ashtaroth knew? The serpents curved toward the necks of the two figures, strangling them.

As the jewel reappeared, Ashtaroth reached toward it.

“No!” Lilit’s soft fingers coiled around his, stopping him just shy of the relief.

“Why not?” Ashtaroth asked.

Lilit’s brown hair glowed, effervescent, just like the serpents on the door. “They’ve woken, but that door’s not meant for you.”

Lowering his hand hurt like he was being pricked by knives, but he let Lilit pull him back down the path in the direction Qwella had taken.

Ashtaroth’s throat was parched. He stared, dazed, as more doors flew past and he glimpsed the face of the woman from his dream the night of Ashtet’s Feast. She was seated amongst Tanata’s stars. His stomach churned. “You told me to go to the maze on the island. You meant Tarefsa Tithmeseti, right? The labyrinth?”

Lilit wasn’t looking at him, and she didn’t answer, though he caught sight of a smile at the corner of her lips.

As they walked, the image of a three-faced door stopped him.

“Wait.” Ashtaroth stopped, and Lilit for once obeyed him, turning to look at the relief that had attracted his attention.

Ashtaroth released Lilit’s hand. “Who is she?”

“The three-faced goddess. Qalita. Molot’s bride.”

Ashtaroth frowned. “I know. I mean, who is she?” He pointed emphatically at the young girl in the painting, an Indat to look at her, with a round face and her head half-shaved, half-braided.

Lilit’s hand closed around his shoulder. “A death-dealer. A killer of kings. The end of a dynasty.”

Ashtaroth eyed the image warily. He’d expected to see Qwella, tried even to convince himself the painting showed her as a child, but the closer he looked the more obvious it was that this girl was a stranger. One of her faces lay in shadow, while the other looked familiar, a little like Hima, with her one eyebrow, but fat and disheveled. Shadows curled around the triple figure like smoke. Every so often faces reeled from inside it, struggling to break free.

Unnerved, Ashtaroth took a step back.

Lilit laid a comforting hand on his back and guided him gently onward. “Here. This is the way.”

In the space between two doors, Lilit stopped.

Molot’s totem was strangely plain, though it was clear it had once been decorated with gold. Empty holes where gems and precious metals would have fitted stared back at Ashtaroth, their treasures long stolen or lost. The tarnished bronze bull on the door’s surface bore a strange metal mask over half its face. A fly crawled from one of the empty indentations and buzzed away down the tunnel.

And to Ashtaroth’s right, Hazzan—

Ashtaroth swallowed. His feet moved without his permission, backing him away from Hazzan’s caprine gaze. He stumbled so quickly he almost slammed right up against Molot’s door.

The face of Hazzan was his own.

It was clear from the great crack in the stone that beyond the wall lay another room, that this, and perhaps each of the reliefs, concealed hidden rooms.

“You promised,” Lilit reminded him. She smiled and extended her hand toward Hazzan’s door, inviting. “The burnt offering. The scapegoat.”

Ashtaroth shook his head. “No. It’s—it’s not right. That one’s not right.”

Whatever had pulled him to want to touch Leven and Pepet repulsed him now. He’d rather stumble through whatever door lay beyond Molot’s face than walk willingly through Hazzan’s.

“No,” said Lilit, “you wouldn’t.”

When he didn’t come to her, Lilit drew up to him. She slid her fingers through his and pulled him after her. “Close your eyes, sweet prince.”

The baby cried.

Lilit drew his hand up and twisted it around so his palm faced the image.

This was his door, his purpose.

“Things aren’t as simple as all that.” She stroked his cheek and neck. “A dying god must spend some time in darkness to rise again.”

What did that mean? A spark of hope alit and then burned out in his chest. He didn’t dare think, after all this, he might be fine.

Ashtaroth bit his lip. “Adonen is the rising and dying god.” Aurelius.

“And what of the phoenix?”

Qemassen. And he was doing this for her. His city. His people.

Ashtaroth pressed his trembling hand to the surface of the broken door, dragging his flattened palm along its fault, feeling its imperfections. The earth seemed to shake around them again, yet Ashtaroth couldn’t feel it and wasn’t jostled by it. Someone downhill was shouting. He turned for an instant from Molot’s door and stared down the dark, winding tunnel that sloped downhill.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

Lilit closed her hand around his, urging him on. “Forget them. You can’t help them. Go through.”

“I can’t.” Ashtaroth frowned. “It’s just a wall. There’s no way in. It’s broken.”

“Go through.”

Ashtaroth hesitated.


There wasn’t anywhere he could walk, yet Lilit’s tone compelled him to try, and he took a step forward, expecting to meet cold stone. When he didn’t, his hairs stood on end, one by one.

He passed through the rock itself and into blinding sunlight. Ashtaroth shaded his face with his arm. “This wasn’t what I saw from the other side. We’re on the island. How did we get here?”

He’d run up and down this maze all his life, chasing his brothers and sisters and their friends. It was different though—its hedges and trees blown as though in a rough wind, the sky above him surging between night and day. The clouds rushed past, the shadows on the sundials that stood outside its entrances flashing around and around. A place outside of time.

“Don’t you get tired of asking questions?” Lilit asked.

The wind was chill against his skin, blowing through his hair, coursing like the waters of a great river. It was said Lilit was a creature of the air; was this wind her doing now?

“I’m tired of being denied answers,” Ashtaroth replied, keeping his face still as stone. “I’m tired of bending to suit the will of others.” He took a step toward the labyrinth’s entrance, the tall trees and hedges to either side of him casting shifting shadows along the path. “If I do this, it’s because I’ve chosen to.”

He turned, expecting to see Lilit’s enigmatic smile, but he was alone again.

When he returned his attention to the labyrinth, the light had receded, so that the garden looked like a dark recess carved into a mountain of leaves. He took a step forward, then another, struggling not to look at the dizzying shadows spinning around and around on the surfaces of the sundials to either side of him.

If he entered here, there was no coming back. His home would be closed to him.

Ashtaroth’s home had been closed to him a long time. He took the final step, feeling the crush of autumn’s leaves underfoot, even as a summer sun shone its dying light upon him.

In shape, the labyrinth was how he remembered it, but the familiarity only made it more sinister. It was as though something large and slithering writhed beneath the surface, stretching the skin of this place over itself to remain hidden. The trees were the same, yet strangers, and it dredged up memories of the Qemassen whose streets Ashtaroth had walked that day in the Eghri, the Qemassen where its people spoke Lora and not Massenqa, where Lora buildings rent the skyline.

Someone giggled behind him. Ashtaroth swerved to look. “Lilit?”

That laugh again. It didn’t sound like the demon.

An unnatural light flickered further up the path, followed by the trill of a songbird. A few paces away from Ashtaroth, sheer, colourful scarves darted around one of the passages that lay ahead, as though someone had been standing there and he’d only just missed her. The same shrill laughter followed, dancing on a wind that had grown eerily calm.

“Should I follow?” Ashtaroth asked the trees. He stared up into their shadowed branches, which seemed to leer at him as they blocked the sun.

The laugh came again, more distant.

Ashtaroth rounded one bend, then another, always out of reach of the runner and her streaming fabrics. She reached behind herself, pulling her brown, coiled hair free of its bindings so that it flew loose and wild in her wake. It seemed she moved more slowly than Ashtaroth, yet she remained ahead of him, never near enough to glimpse her face.

“Aurel! Aurel!”

It was a woman’s voice calling his brother’s name. He didn’t recognize her, but she had a western accent.


Ashtaroth hurried after her, swallowed by a warm, hovering mist that clung to his cheeks.

The wound at Ashtaroth’s back screamed. Blood, or something worse, dripped down his back and side. Ashtaroth bent over, gripped his knees, and huffed into the foggy air. The pain was gone almost as soon as it had hit.

Beneath him, Moniqa had left footprints in the soft earth. Ashtaroth stepped into them like he was a child. If he followed her exactly, would he reach her? Would she speak to him? If this wasn’t now, but the past, could he warn her in some way about what was going to happen to her and to Ashtara?

“Mother?!” Ashtaroth tried to yell, but his voice came out a whisper.

Moniqa’s laughter reached him from a distance. A man’s voice replied to something she’d said.

Ashtaroth stepped carefully inside her footprints and followed them down the next path.

Beyond the hedges, Moniqa sat on a bench, her arms wrapped around the neck of a soldier dressed in Lora robes and armour.

Ashtaroth took a step toward her. “Mother?”

Moniqa looked up, fright knitting her brow. And like that she vanished, as though she’d been a figment just like the women in the tunnel.

Something about her—her face. She hadn’t looked like the woman Ashtaroth had seen in his vision of the alabaster man. And the Lora soldier she’d sat with hadn’t been the alabaster man.

Ashtaroth crept tentatively inside the square courtyard with its bench. There was no one here, and no way forward.

He turned to go back, only to be faced with closed hedge. The passage behind him had disappeared.

“You will wear it,” said a stranger’s hard, deep voice behind him. “Wife or no wife.”

The scene with the bench had been replaced. Two men—one only a little older than Ashtaroth, the other in his thirties or forties—stood in the middle of a path leading onwards beyond them. The older of the two wore Abaal’s crown and with his strong nose and handsome face he certainly looked the king. The younger man was also handsome, but lean where the king was heavily muscled. He was dressed in the blue robes of a priest of Tanata, his wavy gold-brown hair tied in topknot.

The Ashqen bowed his head, taking the king’s rebuke with a practiced calm, as though he were used to such abuse.


Ashtaroth frowned. He took a cautious step forward, hesitant to approach when last time he’d frightened the vision away by getting too close.

Samelqo kept his gaze down, but there was a haughtiness in what ought to have been a demonstration of deference. “In such circumstances, he should be the wife’s choice. That is the tradition of our temple. The participants should be willing.”

If the king were Isir, then they must be talking about the Feast of Ashtet.

With the speed of a striking snake, Isir reached out his hand as though to grab Samelqo’s face, or maybe to punch him. But he stopped just short, his fingers quaking. “It’s not about what either of you wants. You think what’s good enough for other men, should hold true for your king?”

Samelqo turned to look in Ashtaroth’s direction.

Ashtaroth shuddered.

In an instant, Samelqo and Isir had vanished.

A woman appeared in the man’s place, her thick hair looped intricately atop her regal head, face turned away from him. She bent down and lifted a small child into the air.

Ashtaroth’s heart stopped.


She spun round, the child giggling happily in her arms. She parted her lips and mouthed a name—Ashtaroth’s name—but no sound came out. She hurried down the righthand path toward the centre of the maze, the child bouncing along with his chin tucked over her shoulder.

Djana’s baby watched Ashtaroth from over her shoulder, his golden eyes catching the light.

Ashtaroth’s child, and Djana’s.

Ashtaroth swallowed back the sadness thickening in his throat.

There was no point following. Like the others, Djana was a phantom doomed to disappear. She was dead, she had no child, and she would no longer speak anyone’s name—especially not his—with such a joyful smile. If that had been a vision of the future he’d rejected the night of the Feast of Ashtet, he didn’t want to see it.

Ashtaroth stood lonely in the middle of the path. Hidden alleys to either side of him seemed to pull him with equal force. He knew they were there; he’d spent too long playing here as a child not to.

“Where, Lilit?” She couldn’t trap him here forever. There was something he had to do. He’d been brought here for a purpose.

From the direction of the cliff face, away from the centre of the maze, the sound of a baby’s cries whistled on the wind.

Ashtaroth took a sharp left toward the cliff where the goddess of the island looked out on the Helit Sea. The way was hard going, the wooden walkways along the side of the mountain precarious. The only thing between Ashtaroth and the empty air was a flimsy guardrail that rattled from the strength of the winds breaking against the cliffs. Untamed cedars and scraggy shrubs stretched grasping, skeletal branches from even the most tiny nooks, and overhead the gulls wailed, circling without landing as though they sensed that something was wrong not just in the ocean, but on the island as well.

In some places, missing planks forced Ashtaroth to hop over gaps. Far, far below him, at the base of the cliff, the Helit seethed angrily, its waves thrashing against the steep cliffs. Ashtaroth hadn’t ever seen the waves crest so high.

He hugged the rough rock wall of the cliff, pressing himself as close as he could, praying the wind didn’t knock him over the rail and into the ocean below.

The end of the path beckoned from up ahead. He was nearly there.

The trail ended on a precipice, a precarious and wind-torn cliff above the statue Queen Elibat had once carved into Tarefsa Tithmeseti’s side. A ring of cedars marked the lookout post. An age ago, Hima had sailed him out to see the spirit of Qemassen represented by the statue, but as Ashtaroth inched toward the precipice above her, it wasn’t the statue that filled him with terror and awe.

Out in the harbour, a carnage of ships danced before Qemassen’s walls—Lora, Anata, and Massenqa ships. The waves buffeting them to and fro were visible even at this distance.

Stuck in a fugue as he watched the battle, Ashtaroth all but hopped off the deadly path along the cliff and onto the small patch of grassy hillside above the statue.

Which one of those ships was Hima’s?

“The Myrpalma, I believe.” Lilit’s finger pointed over Ashtaroth’s shoulder to one of the ships bobbing on the waves. She seemed to be locked together with the Ziphax, pinned by her battering ram.

They were losing.

Ashtaroth stiffened. He couldn’t watch this. He didn’t want to watch his sister die.

A desperation he didn’t want Lilit to hear flooded his voice. “You told me I would save them. I’m here. I’ve come. I’ve done everything you asked. Now save them.” His lip trembled, the tears coming. “Save my family.”

“See?” It sounded like Lilit was holding back laughter. “Very clever indeed. Don’t you see them, sweet thing, on the ships?”

On board the Lora and Anata vessels, men anchored long bridges into the Massenqa ships, pinning Qemassen’s navy against their hulls. Hima’s sailors were sailors first, unused to hand-to-hand fighting. The Lora army, better equipped and more prepared for close combat, would make short work of Qemassen’s men. The war was ending quickly, as had been promised, only not in the way any of them had intended.

“The tunnels,” Ashtaroth choked. “Qwella will get them.”

Lilit stepped past him. “The Lora have already breached the walls. Not all of them could be stopped. And who’s left to protect the city? Women, children, weaklings.” She stared Ashtaroth down. “You.”

“Me.” Ashtaroth swallowed.

Lilit smiled. She was entirely unaffected by his sadness or anything else happening around her. Qemassen was her city, the same as his. “Don’t you care? Did you ever care about me, or my family, or my city?” He reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder.

The touch sent a lance of pain down his back. He let go and collapsed to his knees.

“It’s all right, prince,” Lilit spoke in a daze. Her eyes shone opalescent. So round. So hungry. Fierce as an owl’s. “The serpent wakes. There’s nothing you need do anymore.”

The pain rolled over him in waves, from his toes to his scalp. It was as if his skin wanted to rip open. “The serpent?”

Lilit grinned. Beneath their feet, the ground started to shake.

Ashtaroth crawled forward in the grass. Every touch of his knees to the earth was like stepping on sharp pins. He peered over the edge of the island.

The cliff was shedding chunks of rock into the ocean.

Lilit’s laughter and the cruel ecstasy in her words were the only things Ashtaroth could hear above the wind. “The serpent waiting at the end! The serpent, hungry to consume itself! He sees you, Ashtaroth, he hears! Look how he welcomes the Lora to his jaws!”

In the water, something that shouldn’t be moved.

Ashtaroth shrunk back from the cliff, but there was nowhere far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to see the thing in the water.

The dark shadow of something vast and monstrous stirred beneath the waves. Its writhing body coiled about itself, scales upon scales and folds upon folds rolling the ocean with every movement. With each slow drag of its winding body, the rough seas beat rougher, and the earth groaned underfoot.

On the cliff face, half the goddess’s face broke away in a shattering cascade of rock, sloughing into the water below.

She’d take the whole island with her.

Ashtaroth glanced behind him at the small ring of cedars anchoring the soil in place—it might be enough. He wanted to believe it was enough.

On the water, the ships nearest the beast were split apart as the serpent’s sloping skin curled above the surface of the water. Its body was like an immense rope, its flesh like a whip atop the waves. There was no end to it—no head or tail. Where it oozed, Lora vessels fractured like wooden toys and human cargo spilled into the sea.

The earth roared, Ashtaroth’s body and what felt like every tree and rock on the island rattling with the earthquake.

The city wall cracked.

Waves slammed against the ships below, shattering boats like glass against what remained of the city walls.

Another wave of searing pain pitched Ashtaroth forward, and below him, what had remained of Tarefsa Tithmeseti’s statue crumbled.

Ashtaroth screamed.

In the harbour, the water clawed backwards, away from Qemassen, revealing sand and earth and debris strewn across the naked ocean floor. In its eagerness, the water ripped up ships and warves and men with indiscriminate hunger. It dragged them back back back toward Tarefsa Tithmeseti and Tarefsa Qusirai.

The serpent lashing the ocean was gone. Invisible. And yet, Ashtaroth could still feel its heart beating alongside his, the slap of its tail against the waves. A wall of water taller even than the city, taller than any hill or mountain, loomed over the bare rock below, holding prisoner all the bodies and broken ships it had collected inside itself.

For an instant, everything was quiet.

Some time ago, Lilit had vanished, and the pain in his back—all over his body—had sharpened till it became so omnipresent he no longer seemed to feel it.

And then the wave broke and ploughed toward the city.

Dampness ran down his back, his flesh breaking, his skin sweaty, freezing and on fire at once.

I’m dying. I’m dying. Let me die.

Ashtaroth shut his eyes, not wanting to see. He couldn’t think about Hima, or Qwella, or his nephews, or any of the others; it was too much.

Another earthquake rocked the island, and finally the cliff broke apart beneath his knees. Ashtaroth tumbled toward the water, pelted with stones and earth and the remnants of branches and roots.

Something sharp pierced his skin, ripping a hole through his back.

His whole body felt loose.

He waited for the smack of his bones breaking against the water, but it didn’t come.

It was quiet now. Peaceful. And he was hanging in the air somehow. It was like he’d been snared in the grip of a falcon—or an owl.

“Open your eyes, child. Open them.”

A woman’s voice.

Water ran down Ashtaroth’s leg, dripping from his toes.

“Open your eyes, child of Qemassen.”

He didn’t want to. He was tired of listening. He wanted to go home. He wanted to lie in his bed and sleep for an eternity. He wanted to sit in the gardens and let his brother read to him.

“Open your eyes.”

Aurelius. Qwella. Hima. Hiram. Reshith. Even Aurelius’s nameless child. He’d never see them. Not ever.


Soft fingers cupped his cheeks and wiped the tears from his eyes. He felt a woman’s lips pressed to his forehead, tender and kind. The kindness made him cry harder. Who was she to be so kind?

“I love you.”

“Mother?” Ashtaroth opened his eyes.

The breeze was calm around him, the sea an almost perfect blue. He hung suspended above the water, blood coursing down his legs, tatters of skin hanging from his back. He glanced to his side and caught a glimpse of bloodstained white feathers. He reached for his wings, fingers shaking. As he touched them, the feathers turned to dust, leaving only the bones.

Heavy, he tumbled from the sky.

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