TEMPLE OF NANNA, CITY OF UR, SUMER, 2025 BCE:
My name is Asharru. I am six years old, and my knees are sore. I have been kneeling on the steps at the top of the temple for a very long time, while above me my mother recites the words that will dedicate me into the service of the Inanna, Goddess of love and war; daughter of Nanna, God of the moon.
Today, I will begin my education. I will learn my letters, mathematics, and the history of my people and my city. I will learn to read the paths of the stars and planets, and to see how they influence the world of men. Most importantly, I will learn the secrets of the Anunnaki, our divine teachers.
Already I know more about the gods than most of the children in the city. My Mother is High Priestess, the keeper of their word. I was born here, in the temple complex in the city of Ur, the capital city of the Sumerian empire. My city is the greatest city of the greatest empire in all the world. Our King makes his home here, and our temples are the highest in the land. As a girl-child born to the temple, this moment was arranged soon after my birth. I was born to this calling.
Born to the gods.
I am frightened by what is to come, but I am also proud. And right now, a little bored. I stretch and scrunch my toes against the mud-brick, rocking back and forth on the step until I catch my mother’s glance, and stop abruptly. I am not used to having to be so still. Until now I have been allowed to do as I wished, running and playing games with the other temple-born in the narrow streets between the tiled tangle of buildings. We are not allowed to play with the children outside the complex. But sometimes we climb up the walls and watch them, or more often, tease them, threatening them with the anger of the gods if they dare speak back.
I gaze out over the city, daydreaming as my mother and the other priestesses chant invocations. The view from the height of the Ziggurat is breathtaking. Far to the south, a line of hazy blue mist cloaks the delta where it meets the sea. Closer in, past the walls and stretching to the river, are acre upon acre of fields, orchards and gardens; the irrigation ditches that feed them shimmering silver in the sunlight. Nearer still, the city gates, the canals, and the city itself: a tangled maze of gardens and houses, markets and people.
Most of the citizens of Ur are gathered at the foot of the temple to witness the ritual. Many of their daughters have been chosen. It is not only the temple-born who may be initiated into the priesthood, any child may be. Many parents give generously to the temple so that the gods might name their children. They are good people, the people of Ur.
I test the words, whispering them to myself in the same way my mother says them, with a certain seriousness. It is the place of the priesthood to give to the people the word of the gods. It is the duty of the people to carry out those commands, but the priests and priestesses are responsible for making every instruction clear. If they do not—if we do not—then the gods would be angered, and the empire would fall.
The heat of the new summer morning beats down upon my shoulders as I squint against the waking sun to look up at my mother. The ceremony seems to go on forever and I wonder how she has memorised all those words, knowing that soon I will be expected to do the same. At last, after what feels to me like an eternity, she stops, and I am led with the other neophytes up the steps to the house of the gods. My mother offers me a proud smile as she lays her hand on my hair and begins to speak again, aiming her voice so the crowds gathered below can hear every word.
I cannot hear her, however, for, at that instant, a sound fills my head, building like music until the very stones seem to ring. Then the light of the rising sun falls into place in the stone archway above, its warm rays hitting me full in the face, bringing tears to my eyes. There is a gasp from the masses gathered below, and I am filled with pure joy. The gods have accepted me. They have blessed me in front of thousands.
I can’t help smiling as my mother speaks the final words of dedication, and I am guided to stand beside another girl in the long row of neophytes. The ceremony moves on, but I keep crying and smiling. The other girls gape at me. Not all of them have been affected the way that I am. But I do not care. I know that I am chosen. With absolute faith, I believe. I am a true servant of the gods, a true daughter of Inanna.
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. What matter where if I be still the same?’
CHAPTER ONE: RUE
Smoke and screams fill the air. I can’t breathe, can’t see, as I fall, and fall. I flail in the dark, reaching for any help, any hold to stop my descent—and hit the ground. Hard.
Gasping for breath, I scramble to my feet and try to run, but the earth beneath me slips away, and I can’t find enough friction to move. Panic thunders through me, as I stumble on unstable earth. Then, a sickly orange light shivers and lights the darkness.
I know this place.
Black sand surrounds me, stretching out in every direction. A warm wind whips up, and a sound follows. A deep, hollow roar that fills me with dread. I look up to a sky on fire; the arms of a hundred rising suns raging toward each horizon.
Cold terror fills my throat, and I try to run again as monstrous, shadowy shapes explode from the sand to surround me; their leering, familiar faces bathed in ash and blood. Razor-clawed hands snatch me up, rip and slash me, flesh and bone until I am torn and dangling like a rag doll between them. I beg for release, but they only grin and close fists of iron, crushing me until my bones crack and splinter.
Limp and hanging helpless in their grasp, I manage one ragged, rasping breath—and the sand rises up, surging into me like a living thing; filling my mouth, my throat, my lungs with a billion shards of black glass, each one slicing through me until I am fragmented; a thousand parts pain.
A hot wind black with blood and sand lifts me up, spinning me to the edge of the earth and dropping me into the centre of a roaring sun. I am blind, helpless, hopeless; my disembodied screams silenced by molten fire. And all the while someone, somewhere, is laughing; a high-pitched, maniacal howl that grows to a lunatic scream—and I gasp upright, tearing in panic at tangled sheets.
Safe. Whole. Not burning.
The scream is a siren splitting the night as a police car speeds past on the street below my window. I release a shuddering sigh as the dream slips away, leaving only fading fragments, like reflections in broken glass, as I remember where I am.
Home. In bed. Hungry.
Extracting myself from the sheets, I get up, making my way across the dark flat to the fridge. My pale arm reflects the dim blue light that flickers on as I tug the door open and stare disbelieving at a pile of wrung out IV bags.
I forgot. Fresh out.
Wait, this doesn’t make any sense. Jude was just here, wasn’t he? Bleary-eyed, I lean in and rummage through, squeezing out a few of the bags in denial, hoping a drop might be left. But no.
I stand up, leaving the fridge door open as the room comes into focus. Rubbing a cool hand over my face, I turn to the sink and drop the bag in my hand. Piled next to the basin are more bags. Empty. The counter and sink are stained crimson.
This is wrong. Very wrong. Wide awake now, I check the doors, front and back, then the security shutters on every window. Locked tight. I check the alarm. Still armed. No one could have got in. Not without waking me.
I move back to the sink, grip the edge with both hands and stare at the dark stain around the drain. The sharp tugging in my gut tells me that I did this, no one else. I can taste the truth of it. And judging by the way I feel now, it must’ve been a while ago. I try to remember, try to see myself dumping it out. But I come up empty.
My stomach groans at the thin, metallic scent, and makes me painfully aware of the burning ache inside. I wipe at the sink and counter with my hands, licking my fingers in vain hope, but there’s not much there, and what’s left has gone off.
Fighting panic, I dart to the fridge and rip open all the empty bags, one by one, licking the plastic clean. Not enough. Fuck. Okay. Have to calm down. I stand there for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. But instead of calm, the terror from the nightmare rises again.
Swearing under my breath, I hurry back across the flat and fumble around the bedside locker for my mobile. I left it charging, thank the gods, but it’s set to silent. Another thing I don’t remember doing. I hit last call and wait.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Okay, he’s upset. I must’ve slept longer than I thought.
“Listen, Jude, I need some more.”
“You’ve been out of touch for three weeks, Rue! Would it kill you to pick up the phone?”
“Probably not.” I sigh, better make nice, he’s in a bad mood, and I should’ve called. “I just tend to sleep a lot when it’s like this. Summer. You know.”
“No, I don’t know. You’ve never done this before! You know, friends are supposed to tell each other about things like this so friends won’t be sick with worry when friends don’t ring them back!”
“Yeah.” I close my eyes, rubbing at a needling headache. “I’m sorry. It hasn’t been this bright for this long for a few years, and—anyway, look. This isn’t something I want to talk about right now.”
“Right. You and the phone thing.”
He thinks I’m paranoid. Maybe I am. But I’m still alive. I wince as the headache moves to the back of my skull, like it’s got a mind of its own. Fucking hell. I start to massage it away again, then what he said sinks in.
“And a bit.”
“What’s going on with you? Are you okay?”
I shake my head and run a hand through my sleep-tangled hair. “I’m fine. Only I really need some more. Tonight.”
Jude sighs on the other end. “Okay. I’ll leave now. But it’ll be a while.”
I’m already shaking, and my skin is coarse and dry. I can feel it, drawing in around my bones. Nearly a month with nothing. This isn’t good. Sleeping so long, blacking out, wasting it all like that —
“Will you last?”
“Yeah, Don’t worry.”
I end the call, throw the phone on the bed, clean up the mess, make certain everything’s back in its proper place, and head downstairs to my library. Have to stay in control.
Twisting my hair up, I push a couple chairs out of the way and lay out a small round Persian rug. I do a short meditation, then move into Asanas. The practice is one of a few things that have kept me sane over the years, but tonight I struggle to stay focused. Every time I close my eyes, images from the dream rise, taunting me. Trying to shake it off, I slip into what is usually an easy rhythm of ancient forms I’m sure modern practitioners would love to get their hands on; moving smoothly with each breath. In. Out. Again.
Frustrated, I try another short meditation, then move into my usual martial arts practice. Tonight every stance is off, however, and it’s difficult to stick with it. I’m impatient. Restless. Hungry. After an hour or so I give up, and head for the shower. I can feel my blood stir, weak and weedy through my veins; and my heart jumps and flutters in my chest, arrhythmic. Starved. Not good. I turn the tap to cold and get in. The water brings relief, for the moment anyway, and I stand under the spray for a while, trying to calm down.
That damn dream. Every time I sleep, it’s always the same, and I can’t shake the feelings that come with it. Panic. Terror. Helplessness.
That’s the worst of it. Being out of control. The images flash through my mind again, the lingering emotion mingling with my hunger, making me anxious. Edgy.
Fuck it. I need to get out. I’ll take a walk, clear my head and kill some time before Jude gets here.
I turn the tap to hot and finish washing, then get out, dry off, and dress quickly, sun block first—better safe than sorry—then jeans, T-shirt, harness boots, a couple of scarves, hoodie, fingerless gloves, and my favourite leather jacket. Layers are important, and I like mine in varying shades of black. I grab my phone and a pair of sunglasses as I head out.
I live in a restored Georgian house. It’s one of many such buildings on the quays, and one of a handful of properties I own around Dublin. I use the top two floors to live in, the next for storage, the ground floor I lease to an antique bookseller, and the cellar I’ve converted to a garage. On the whole, it’s convenient, private and safe. Plus the shop gives me extra security during the day. The owner and his employees don’t know much about me, only that I’ve a keen interest in old and rare books, and so charge an exceedingly reasonable rent. Such things make for loyal, unquestioning tenants.
Which is very good for someone like me.
Taking the back stairs all the way down, I cut through the hall behind the bookshop to the lane outside, re-setting the alarm before leaving.
I stand for a moment on the cobblestones, taking in the evening. It’s late summer, and although it’s after ten, the sun has only just set behind the buildings. Its dying light is reflected in the Liffey, giving the city a scarlet glow as night creeps up the eastern sky.
Out of habit, I carefully scan the street and surrounding buildings, doorways and rooftops. Tonight no one’s there, but you never know.
Letting out a long breath, I put on the sunglasses and walk to the quay at an easy stroll. The night is warm, the air heavy with the iron scent of summer; a mingled miasma of buses, cars, trains and a hundred thousand swarming people.
I slip through Saturday night crowds smoking outside pub doors, making myself unnoticeable—although I notice them; the life and heat radiating from their bodies in tempting waves, the rivers of red that run beneath their skin. Again the thing in my gut twists and stabs, sharp enough to make me gasp, and so I move faster, farther away. Past the Custom House, past new bridges and century-old warehouses, until I’m meandering deep into the old and empty industrial streets that border the river as it widens toward Dublin Bay.
Giant cranes loom over soon-to-be shiny new glass and steel towers, being built to replace crumbling old warehouses of brick and stone. Their half-finished skeletons rest like bones in some colossal elephant graveyard, shadows crisscrossing one another, creating patterns of light and dark that would usually entrance me.
But tonight I’m too restless, worried and hungry to be entranced by anything. I still can’t believe I dumped everything out. It isn’t like me to waste anything, every drop is precious. And to pour it down the sink? I wouldn’t ever do that. But I did. Okay. So why? Frustration claws at me, threatening any calm and birthing a growing anxiety; like I’ve forgotten something important, and when I remember, it‘ll be too late.
At the next street, I turn and head for the docks. I need space. The night grows darker as I walk, bringing some relief from the shaking in my veins. I pick up the pace, and soon enough reach the North Wall, winding my way out through the Docklands. It’s quiet enough here, and I calm down a bit, letting the night enfold me like a mother’s embrace. It’s then, as I’ve nearly relaxed, that I hear the gritty scuff of a misstep on gravel behind me. Then, as I round a corner, I glance over my shoulder—and a shadow darts back into a lane.
I’m being followed.