That night, Daniel lay in his blanket, listening to the comforting sounds of horses around him, and the snores and breathing of his companions. This is my last chance, he thought. Ishtahar, come to me. Advise me as you always have.— Storm Constantine, Stealing Sacred Fire
His mind was totally blank. There was no buzz of psychic contact, just deadness, and the soft cacophony of mundane thoughts. ‘Damn it!’ Daniel said softly and sat up abruptly. Why was his ability so unreliable? He remembered how, when he’d first worked with Shem, he’d had psychic information tumbling out of his mind whenever it was needed. Now, it was such hard work, for so little reward. Maybe he was too old, too closed off. But he was Grigori now; no longer human. Perhaps that meant whatever blocks he was experiencing were self-created.
Daniel felt an urge to walk around and got to his feet. Creeping away from his companions, he ventured beyond the circle that Gadreel had drawn with the sword, and which they still kept intact, punctuated by the bowls of flowers and water.
‘Come to me,’ Daniel murmured. ‘I’m waiting. Come.’
He sat down on the cold stones. The circle, with its smouldering fire, seemed miles away. Wind fretted his hair, reached into his clothes with icy claws. He shivered. ‘Ishtahar! Come to me!’
There was no sign of the blue glow which presaged Ishtahar’s presence, either in reality or in his mind. Daniel concentrated harder, bellowed her name with his inner voice, and willed her to manifest.
After a few moments, he opened his eyes. He felt dizzy, sick with the effort. Nothing, still nothing. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, and uttered a groan of defeat.
‘WHERE ARE YOU, YOU BITCH?!’
He knew that in insulting his goddess, he was castigating himself, and yet the suspicion lurked within him that now that he was Grigori [Igigi], Ishtahar would no longer have dealings with him. He had become the person with whom she’d once had to compete for Shemyaza’s affections.
A rattle of stones alerted him and he dropped his hands from his eyes. For a moment, all he could see was sparkling stars of light, then his vision cleared. A serpent was undulating over the stones towards him. It was as thin as a whip and even in the meagre light of the distant fire, its scales glinted and glistered with a gold-shot blue radiance, as if it were made of lapis lazuli. Its eyes were sapphires, each reflecting a single, purple spark.
Daniel stared at the creature, hardly daring to believe it might have come in answer to his summons.
‘Ishtahar?’ His voice was a whisper.
The serpent reared up and hung before him, its blue-black tongue flickering in and out of it lipless mouth. ‘Ah, Daniel, you chide me so sorely,’ it said.
Daniel’s shoulders slumped in relief. ‘You came. Thank God!’
‘Thank who? lisped the serpent. ‘You should thank me, and me only.’
Daniel detected a new tone to Ishtahar’s remarks, a sharpness that had not been there before. ‘Then I thank you, Ishtahar. My sore words are inspired by desperate need.’
The serpent undulated before him; a private dance. ‘Ssso, you are Grigori now, my Daniel. You have regained what the years have taken from you, while I still languish in my grief.’
‘We both deserve respite,’ Daniel said carefully. ‘Yours will come.’
The serpent dipped and swayed before him. ‘Yet even in your elevated condition, you still need me — as I have ever been needed by men!’
‘You sound bitter,’ Daniel said. ‘You never were before.’
The serpent emitted a sound like a sigh. ‘It is my curse to be a goddess to others,’ it said, ‘yet who will be a god for me? Must I wait for an eternity to live again?’
Daniel thought about this, and saw how he could, in some ways, be seen as instrumental in this continuing torment. ‘You are a goddess because you allow it. People petition you, and you hear; you respond. Surely only you have the power to end the curse?’
The serpent contemplated him silently for a moment.
‘Daniel, I am a forgotten goddess. My shrines are ruins, visited only by lizards and birds. Only you call to me now and hold me to the form I [assume].’
‘I do not wish to cause you suffering,’ Daniel said. ‘You came to me as an adviser. It was you, not I, who initiated our contact.’
The serpent lunged forward, but Daniel did not flinch. ‘It was love that drew me to you,’ the serpent lisped. ‘Love for a man, your master. You do not need me now, yet you bind me to the earth.’
‘I do need you,’ Daniel said softly. ‘And I will always be grateful for what you have done for me. But I don’t want to bind you.’
Purple sparks flared in the serpent’s eyes. ‘You are releasing me, Daniel, from our confederacy?’
‘If you want me to, yes. If my word alone will provide that release.’
The serpent swayed a little. ‘Then I accept that release with gratitude. You may ask me one last question.’
Daniel considered for a while, knowing that the way he worded the question was extremely important. Ultimately, he opted for simplicity.
‘How can I regain my inner sight?’
The serpent did not hesitate. ‘You have never lost it. Your dilemma is that you do not trust yourself, which is why you stare into darkness. You have been so close to the answer, walked the ground where it lay absorbed by the stones, yet did not recognize it. You can hear the things that even Shemyaza did not hear. The answer the key gave to him.’
‘I can’t hear it. I have tried — walked these mountain paths. They are silent.’
The serpent expelled a short hiss. ‘Oh Daniel, Daniel. Look within. Must I hold your hand at every turn? You are more now than I was in life. You have reclaimed your angel blood. Listen to its music.’
Daniel closed his eyes and summoned a quiet within him. Have faith, he told himself. He listened to the beat of his own blood and it resolved into the sound of feet trudging a stony path. An image bloomed in his mind: Shem climbing and climbing. He could feel all that Shem felt as he walked toward the site of vanished Kharsag. He saw the devastation that Shem had seen and then, almost in slow motion, relived Shem’s communication with the crystal. When the time of Shem’s capture came, he was aware of the sound of the guns, but in his head, louder than any metallic threat were the words, ‘Go to the old kingdom. Carry me to the Chambers.’
‘In Khem.’ The words Shem did not hear.
Daniel opened his eyes with a gasp. ‘Egypt!’
‘Yesss! hissed the serpent. ‘Shem has gone to Babylon, but you, my Daniel, must lead your companions back to Egypt.’
‘Back to Egypt? We have not yet been there.’
‘It is the place of beginning, but not your beginning.’
‘But where in Egypt? What must we do there? Will Shem join us?’
‘Remember, Daniel, you are of the Lion,’ answered the serpent. ‘Seek the lion of the desert who guards Orion.’ It began to retreat, back into the darkness.
‘Wait!’ Daniel said. ‘You must answer me, Ishtahar. It is not enough just to tell me we have to go to Egypt. I need more! Stay! I command you!’
The serpent uttered a long, soft hiss. ‘You released me, Daniel. You are on your own now.’