The plan had been a good one, Gilgamesh thought. Tiamat had only just awakened, and would be confused – uncertain. Even better, she had expended much of her strength repairing the world. A perfect time to attack. Only it seemed Tiamat was not so confused as he’d thought. Nor as weak.
Panting, he leapt back as a wall of strangling, barbed vines erupted from the stonework around him. The vines swelled, thickening even as they latched onto statues and pillars, crisscrossing one another to create an ever-expanding barrier. Growling in frustration he launched himself at the plant-life, sword hewing through the greenery and splattering the stones with oily sap. But while there was a certain satisfaction to be had in chopping weeds, however, it availed him little.
For every vine he sliced apart, two more burst from the walls and ground to replace it. Past the whipping vines, he could see the gleam of Tiamat’s scales as she prowled back and forth, watching him struggle against her garden. Marduk had whispered to him of Tiamat’s pride – her arrogance. He had assured Gilgamesh that she could not deny a challenge to her authority. So why then did she refuse to face him?
Perhaps she did not consider him worthy of her time. He stifled the treacherous thought – he could not fall prey to doubt. Not when he was so close to his ultimate goal. “Coward,” he roared, casting the word like a spear. “Is your fear so great that you refuse to face me, Glistening One?”
Tiamat laughed. “Fear? What is fear to me, oh king? No – I am simply bored of this game. Take your new friends and go, Gilgamesh. Before I lose patience.”
Gilgamesh snarled and redoubled his efforts, trying to carve a path towards his enemy with sheer, brute determination. Something snagged his leg – a vine. Another crept up his torso, entwining itself about him, thorns digging into his flesh. He growled in frustration and kept chopping at the shroud of green.
More vines snaked about his arms, and even the blade of his sword. Her cursed as his feet left the path – the vines were hoisting him into the air, and tightening their grip on him at the same time. His struggles became tinged with desperation. He tore one arm free, only to have it snagged again, and jerked back. He bellowed in fury – until a vine closed about his throat, squeezing his windpipe.
Past the green, Tiamat crouched, watching in apparent satisfaction. “You make this too easy, Gilgamesh. Are you so arrogant that you thought you could attack me here – in my own palace?” She rose into the air, crackling wings spread. “I am almost disappointed.”
Her words stung him worse than the thorns. She had baited him in, and he had fallen for it. But he refused to allow his quest to end here. Not like this. He continued to struggle, desperation giving way to determination. The vines continued to tighten.
A bolt of lightning tore through the vines that bound him and smashed apart the pillar beside Tiamat. She jerked back, clearly startled. Bits of smouldering stone pelted her as she retreated. The vines grew agitated and began to slither in the direction the lightning had come from, dragging Gilgamesh with them. “There he is,” he heard a voice deep voice rumble. “Bellona – chop him free while I keep her occupied.”
Moments later, a familiar blade chopped through the vines, and Gilgamesh was able to tear his way free. As he did so, more lightning flashed overhead, striking walls, statues and pillars. The barrage filled the air with fire and dust. From behind him came a laugh like thunder, and when he turned, he saw a white-bearded god standing a short distance away, his arms sheathed in lightning. The god’s eyes flashed as he hurled bolt after bolt.
“Who -?” Gilgamesh began.
“Zeus,” Bellona said, appearing beside him. His ally’s armour was dented and stained, as was her face, from her battle with Tiamat’s spawn. Despite her appearance, she seemed in good spirits. “And you can thank him later. For now, we must retreat.”
Gilgamesh glared at her. “Retreat? Why?”
“Because she’s called for reinforcements.” Bellona chopped through a questing vine and pointed. More of Tiamat’s bestial spawn were racing towards them across the walls and domes of the palace-temple. Hundreds of them. Gilgamesh ground his teeth in frustration. Bellona was right; there were too many to fight, even for him.
Seeing his expression, she clapped him on the shoulder. “Setbacks happen in war. But in every defeat is the seed of victory.”
Gilgamesh nodded – then spun and beheaded a leaping spawn-beast. “Then let us pray for rain, to make that seed sprout and grow.” Together, they fell back towards Zeus. The Olympian was laughing as he tore Tiamat’s temple down – as if he bore the goddess some personal grudge. The thought heartened Gilgamesh immensely.
He would need allies, in the fight ahead. Tiamat would not be caught by surprise a second time. As if in agreement, Tiamat let loose a deafening shriek. A moment later, a heavy rain began to fall, dousing the fires and aiding in the growth of the vines. Spawn prowled through the curtain of rain, yowling to one another as they pursued the retreating gods.
“What was that you said about rain?” Bellona asked, as they joined Zeus.
Gilgamesh didn’t reply. Past the slithering curtain of vines, he caught sight of Tiamat, watching them. Her eyes sparked with rage as they found him and he bared his teeth in a broad smile. “This is not over,” he murmured, knowing she could hear him. “I will have my immortality – even if I must humble you to do it.”
Tiamat watched the trio of gods retreat and fought back against the tide of anger that threatened to overwhelm her. Gilgamesh. Of course it would be him. She knew something of him, though only a little. Semi-divine, and hungry for the power that true godhood brought – the perfect catspaw of the gods. The thought brought some satisfaction. That they had sent him after her, rather than coming themselves, implied that they still feared her.
She had not forgotten their treachery. She had not forgotten how they had bound her husband, and destroyed her children – and for what? For jealousy’s sake. For spite. Because she was mighty, they sought to bring her low.
Her gaze fixed on the distant towers of Olympus. Nor, it seemed, were these new gods any better. They too feared her, and had betrayed her hospitality as readily as Marduk. Some of them, at least. Not all. No, not all…she paused, considering.
Despite the anger that boiled within her, she did not wish to go to war. War brought only destruction. It would threaten the very world that she had expended so much effort to rebuild. But neither could she allow them to threaten her. This world was hers by right, and the gods merely guests upon it. It was time to remind them of that. It was time to –
“Great mother, why do you snarl so?”
Tiamat stiffened. She inhaled, detecting a familiar scent – as familiar to her as her own. She swung her great head towards the speaker. “Neith…” she breathed, almost regretfully. “Daughter of my daughters. I wondered if you would come.”
“How could I not?” Neith, Weaver of Fate, said. She held out a hand, as if to catch the falling raindrops. “I am only sorry that I was not there to greet you when you awoke.”
The way she said it made Tiamat narrow her eyes. “And what would you know of it, child of the first sea?”
Neith smiled gently. “Who do you think told Set where to find you, eh?”
Tiamat reared back, head cocked quizzically. “And why would you do such a thing, child? What am I to you? Though we call the same sea home, it is mine to command and you were but born from it.”
“You are the world’s hope, great mother. It’s only chance for survival.” Neith studied the rain that pooled in her palm. “The world-cycle is broken. And only you can fix it.”
Tiamat paused. She had sensed as much – a discord in the very air. A flaw in the world. But she could not see it – let alone begin to fix it. Not until she better understood what had happened. She glanced towards Olympus. “I do not think I will have time to do so.”
Catching her meaning, Neith nodded. “Thankfully, I am not the only one to understand the purpose behind your return. There are others as well, who come to pledge their friendship.” She turned and cast the handful of water into the air, where it shimmered and stretched, widening into a round portal.
First through was a goddess, clad in living rock – Tiamat could feel her power, echoing up from the very roots of the Earth. Then a hairy, antlered hunter, marked by knotted tattoos and stinking of blood. A hulking giant of rock and stone followed, shaking her temple to its foundations with his tread – one of Neith’s pantheon, she thought.
After the giant came a little old man, riding high in the branches of a walking tree – a curious being, but kindly in his demeanour. And finally, a goddess clad in dour finery and winding vines. She bowed before Tiamat, who gently tapped the goddess on the head with a claw-tip. “Rise, child, and tell me your name.”
The goddess rose, a beatific smile on her face. “Persephone, my lady.”
Tiamat hissed softly in acknowledgement. She rose to her full height, studying her guests for a moment. “Not enough,” she said. Experience had taught her that she needed more than five allies, however potent.
Persephone stepped forward. “There will be others, oh Glistening One, once word spreads. There are many whom wish to renew the world – and even more who will fight with you, so long as you stand against the tyranny of Olympus.”
“Tyranny, is it?” Tiamat murmured. “Strange to hear that word directed at others.” She looked back towards Olympus. Her gaze hardened.
“So be it. I shall save this world – whether your fellow gods like it or not.”
The great council chamber of Olympus echoed with voices. Angry ones. A sadly common state of affairs these days, Athena thought. The gods were arguing – discussing, rather, as Hera might say – what to do.
Zeus had brought both Bellona and the newcomer, Gilgamesh, back to Olympus. Tiamat had raised her defences, shrouding the upper reaches of her palace-temple in living, vicious greenery. The sudden storm, too, was her doing. A persistent rain fell across the surrounding landscape, including Olympus. The porticos and balconies were drenched and dripping, and occasional flashes of lightning illuminated the darkness.
But the storm was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Gilgamesh wasn’t the only newcomer – representatives from the Norse and Chinese pantheons had arrived, and more envoys were expected. Word about Gilgamesh’s foolhardy assault had already flown across the world and back again, in the time it had taken Zeus and the others to return.
Athena sat at the council table, listening to what was said – and what was not. Heimdallr had voted to hand Gilgamesh over to Tiamat as a gesture of good faith; it was obvious that the Norse were still wary her, despite their protestations to the contrary. So too were the Maya. Chaac had advocated doing nothing until Tiamat had shown her intentions.
The Roman envoy – Hercules – stood near the doors, in quiet conversation with Arthur. The ruler of Camelot had a careworn expression on his face. Athena knew that he had good reason to look haggard. Camelot had been restored, just as Asgard had – but unlike Asgard, it was still empty of life. If Arthur’s folk still existed, there was no sign of them. Perhaps Tiamat had not seen fit to return them.
She caught the eye of Baron Samedi, who was speaking with Yemoja. The Baron tipped his hat to her, but did not cease his conversation. So far, Samedi had kept his own counsel on the matter of Tiamat – and that worried her. Usually, he was all too eager to share his opinion on whatever was going on.
“What were you thinking?” Olorun demanded. He sounded angry – a rare thing for the new king of Olympus, and she turned her attention back to the table. Olorun’s eyes sparked with starlight as he glowered at Gilgamesh. For his part, the demigod seemed unconcerned – defiant, even. He was brave, whatever else.
“I was thinking better to have done with it than to wait for that creature to gather her strength,” he said. Arms crossed, he met Olorun’s gaze without blinking. “If you were wise, you would join me in doing so.”
“He is right,” Bellona spoke up. “Tiamat cannot be trusted – she is too powerful, too ancient. What if she decides to rid herself of us as easily as she did Cthulhu?” There were rumbles of assent at this, mostly from Sobek. The God of the Nile had made his feelings on the matter – and seemingly those of Ra and the rest of his pantheon – perfectly clear.
“If she remade the world once, she might well choose to do it again,” the crocodilian god said, digging his claws into the council table.
“Except according to King Gilgamesh, she cannot,” Hera said.
“Not yet,” Zeus interjected. He did not look at his wife as he spoke. “But she will grow in strength with every passing day. If we are to act, it must be now.”
“It seems to me that you have already done so,” Mulan said. Athena glanced at the new goddess. Like Arthur, she had been mortal once. Unlike him, she seemed at ease with her new role – or at least was good at making the pretence. “You saw fit to declare war on behalf of Olympus – on behalf of us all.”
Zeus glared at her. “And is that not my right?”
“No, husband. It is not.” Hera shook her head. “You acted rashly. Tiamat has given us no reason to doubt her –”
Gilgamesh interrupted her. “Tiamat once enslaved the world. I do not intend to let that happen a second time.” He sounded passionate – determined. Athena was reminded of the heroes of old. Gilgamesh had that same fire to him. It was easy to see why his gods had chosen him for the task.
“We have only your word for that,” Olorun said, but Athena could hear the hesitation in his voice. It seemed he had misgivings of his own.
Gilgamesh nodded. “Yes. My word as king – which is equal to any.” He pointed in the direction of Tiamat’s mountain. “I have been sent by the gods of Babylon to ensure that Tiamat is returned to her slumber – and I will see it done, even if I must do so alone.” He paused and smiled. “Though I will admit, it would be easier with some help.”
“If you wished help, it might have been wiser to ask first, before you attacked,” Heimdallr said. Odin’s envoy looked around. “The Allfather has already sent word to Tiamat that we owe her a debt. One that we will pay – whatever the cost.”
Zeus snorted. “Odin? Admitting he owes a debt? Will wonders never cease.”
Heimdallr ignored the former king of Olympus – that he was able to do so, despite the insult, showed why Odin had made him envoy, Athena thought. He stood. “Because of this debt, we can no longer be party to this council – not until the matter is resolved.”
“Resolved how?” Olorun asked.
“However you choose to do so.” Heimdallr turned and started for the doors. When he reached them, he paused. “I wish you luck, Olorun. I think you will need it.”
When he’d departed, Gilgamesh said, “You see? Already she gathers allies. If you do not act soon, she will come for you, and you will find yourselves at a distinct disadvantage. I acted rashly, but only because I know what is coming.”
Olorun sat down. “You have given me – us – much to consider,” he began. Bellona drew her sword and buried it in the table, startling everyone, save Ares.
“The time for consideration is over,” she said, softly. “Sides are being drawn. Choose your allegiance – or have it chosen for you.” She glanced at Gilgamesh and smiled fiercely. “I stand with King Gilgamesh.”
Zeus stood and set his hand on Gilgamesh’s shoulder. “I stand with Gilgamesh as well.” He looked about the chamber, his eyes full of lightning. “Who else is courageous enough to join us?” A challenge, meant to shame the others. Athena hid a smile. Her father had always known how to play to a crowd.
Hera looked at her. “You have been quiet, Athena. I would hope that the Goddess of Wisdom might have something constructive to add.”
Athena was silent for long moments. “Whether we wished it or not, war has been declared. We must move forward from that position, rather than waste time on assigning blame. I suggest all those who have no wish to stand against Tiamat depart Olympus at once, for Zeus’ actions have ensured that she will focus her ire on us.”
Zeus made to speak, but Ares beat him to the punch. “I agree,” he said, speaking up for the first time since Gilgamesh’ arrival. Athena blinked.
Ares didn’t look at her. “I agree with you.”
“Truly, these are strange times,” Athena said, shaking her head. Ares shrugged.
“Of late, I have come to appreciate the merits of strategy.”
Athena held up a hand. “Stop – I might faint from shock.” She looked at the others. “We must make ready for war. Our side has been chosen for us.” Her grey eyes fixed on Gilgamesh.
“Let us hope it is the correct one.”