When the travelers entered the Ishtar gate of Babylon, they discovered Nabopolasser sat on the throne. Though still forced to pay lip service to Nineveh and the Assyrians, he had conquered Nippur in the last year.
“That makes it about 619 or 618 BC,” Katie said.
“Labash should be about twenty-four or twenty-five,” Lincoln said.
“Sinshariskun should be king in Assyria,” Katie added and fell silent.
Evan spoke up when the crowd in the streets offered a chance to be heard. “That is very good. I studied in the Greco-Roman world because I could never pronounce those Akkadian names. My Latin was good, and much better now, and my Greek was passable, but Akkadian and Ugaritic gave me nightmares, not to mention Egyptian.”
“Egyptian is easy,” Lockhart said, with a grin. He explained when he had Evan and Katie’s attention. “The little one gift of languages includes the written word. Even when I look at Hieroglyphs, my mind automatically reads it in English.”
“It covers the written word?”
“Yes,” Lincoln said.
“Writing a response in another language that the other person can read can be tricky,” Alexis admitted. “But not impossible.”
The travelers had no trouble knowing where they were going in the city. They saw Etemenank, the great ziggurat of Babylon from the city gate. It looked like a giant hill in the city, covered with vines, fruit trees, flowers and flowering bushes. The building rested underneath all that greenery, roughly twenty stories tall in a three to five story city.
After a short way, they came to a broad avenue that marched right up to the face of the ziggurat. Katie looked back at one point and imagined the buildings that crowded the Ishtar gate would one day be cleared out so the view from the gate to the man-made mountain would be unobstructed, and people could walk straight from the gate to the place of the gods. Lockhart kept his eyes forward. They ran into soldiers, because absolutely no one was allowed to climb to the house of the gods.
“If you wish to offer sacrifice to Marduk, his temple, Esagila, is over there,” the chief soldier said, kindly enough, and pointed across the square between the ziggurat and an enormous building in its own right. “The priests will be glad to help you.”
“Actually, we are looking for Labash, the gardener,” Lockhart said. The soldier paused, but still pointed to the temple.
“Esagila. Marduk,” he repeated.
“Fine,” Lockhart said.
“Just tell Labash his friends from the future came by, and we will wait for him,” Katie said.
“Esagila,” the chief soldier pointed.
The group turned toward the temple, and Lincoln spoke up. “We haven’t seen Marduk since this city was first built.”
“That wall there only stood three feet high in places,” Decker remembered.
Lincoln nodded. “The Ishtar gate was not even finished being built.”
“The time before that,” Boston raised he voice. “Marduk and Assur were like teenagers. I remember they wanted to be cowboys.”
“That was where you found me,” Alexis said. People paused to dismount. They would walk their horses across the square. Lincoln hugged Alexis, as if to say he was glad they found her, but he did not say anything. Her father, Mingus, had kidnapped her again, but then he got himself killed fighting against the ghouls, and no one wanted to remember that time.
“Eliyawe kept the boys in line,” Katie said.
“I had forgotten her name,” Lockhart confessed.
“She looked skinny as an elf,” Alexis said, with a look at Boston. “And full of energy.” Boston smiled at the description.
“When was that?” Sukki asked.
“Early” Elder Stow admitted. “I was not with the group for very long.”
“Before 3300 BC,” Lincoln reported.
Evan’s eyes got big at the date, but his mouth had a question. “What were the gods doing with the Kairos?” He seems to have accepted the notion that the ancient gods were not just archetypes, and the Kairos tended to be in the middle of everything.”
Katie explained. “Eliyawe, Marduk and Assur just killed Tiamut. They recovered the body of Osiris and were returning it to Egypt.”
Evan swallowed. His eyes got big and he looked at the dirt as they came to the temple and found a place to tie off their horses. “The remarkable thing is, I believe you,” he mumbled, and Boston, with her good elf ears, heard, and gave him a pat on the back for reassurance, even as her mouth gave him pause.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“Halt.” The temple had their own guards.
“We have come to see Marduk,” Lockhart said.
“You carry weapons,” the guard pointed to the knives on their belts, things they had gotten so used to carrying, they forgot they had them on. Fortunately, the Patton sabers stayed tied to their saddles, and the guns were not recognized as weapons; not even Decker’s rifle, which he rarely set down. “Weapons are not allowed in the place of the god.”
Lockhart, Katie, Decker, Lincoln and Sukki turned to leave their knives in their saddlebags. Boston kept her knife in her personal slip, as they called the little interdimensional hole that followed her around. She had her gun belt, her wand, and her bow and arrows in there, too, and she could pull them out at a moment’s notice. Alexis had a knife, buried at the bottom of her pack, and rarely carried it. Evan had no weapons, and Elder Stow had plenty of weapons, but no guard in ancient Babylon would ever recognize them as weapons. They looked like little sticks and boxes attached to Elder Stow’s belt.
While the others slipped their knives in their saddle bags, Boston had a thought. “Elder Stow. My personal slip. Do you think the fauns, in a similar way, slip their entire selves into their other dimension?”
Elder Stow nodded. He did not respond with a bunch of technical data, even for Boston who had her PhD in electrical engineering. She would not have understood the theoretical math. But he did say, “Something similar, like that,” and Boston nodded.
“We’re ready,” Lockhart said upon his return.
“But, where is your sacrifice? What did you bring to offer the god?” The guard got harsh, since he and the other guards he called to back him up appeared to have the only weapons.
“We bring good wishes for an old friend,” Katie said.
“I wonder if Ishtar is around,” Lincoln whispered.
“And thanks for saving me from the cave and the servants of the masters,” Alexis added.
“Maybe Hebat,” Lockhart returned the whisper and grinned at some memories.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a cowboy hat to give him,” Boston said.
The guards stood for a second, looking at each other, before the rude guard went back to the beginning. “Where is your sacrifice?”
An older man came to the front of the temple. He appeared to be shivering, and afraid, but he spoke up loud and clear. “Let them pass. Let them enter.” They pushed past the guards and looked curiously at the old man, obviously a priest, if not the high priest.
The man shook and spoke softly as he walked and led the travelers into the temple. “I have seen him twice in my lifetime. I do not think my master ever saw him. I have been twice graced, and I pray there is not a third time. My heart would not survive that.”
“Who?” Lockhart had to ask.
“Marduk, the inexorable,” the old man said. “Several years ago, the whole city shook from an earthquake. The anger of the god. He appeared in the temple, and told the Babylonian army to go in support of Sinsharishkun against his brother, Ashuretiliani, King of Assyria. I fell to my face and remained unmoving for three days. It scared me so.”
“He is here?” Katie asked.
“He is crying,” the priest said. “That is almost worse, but he says he has to see you.” The priest clearly did not understand, but he acted faithfully and dedicated himself to do what the god required.
They found Marduk, a much older looking Marduk, sitting heavily on a bench beside his own altar. Something smoked in the sea. The burnt offering smelled like lamb. The travelers stopped just in front of the priests who mostly knelt with their eyes lowered, though some prostrated themselves. They cried with their god.
“Why so sad?” Katie asked.
“Can we help?” Alexis wondered, even as the eyes of the travelers teared up. When the god cried, everyone cried. Finally, Marduk spoke.
“I am so sorry,” he said, which sounded so unusual. The gods never apologized for anything. “Ishtar is not talking to me. I think Hebat hates me. Ninlil is the only one who will talk to me, and she always has scolding in her voice.”
“But, we had some good times, defending the city,” Elder Stow said.
“And saving me,” Alexis added, and Lincoln had to step in because Alexis’ voice became shaky with tears.
“Eliyawe and her husband. And you and Assur were having such a good time.”
Marduk wailed. He began to weep and repeated, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” Of course, when the god wept, everyone wept, until they heard a sound.
“Lockhart,” someone shouted, and Marduk vanished.