THE BIRTH OF A WORLD THE BOOKS OF AUGUSTUS BOOK I

JOSE DA SILVEIRA

ISBN-10: 1424166276 ISBN-13: 978-1424166275

I want to thank my family, my grand parents Paul and Fafa who taught me the meaning of love, my parents who have followed me in the most difficult times and allowed me to find myself again, my sister Anne Paule who has linked her soul to mine when I was in need of her warmth, and my Brother Marc who has shown me indulgence and compassion when the image he had of me started to include frailty and a lack of strength. This family has demonstrated too many times that I was one of them, and that they loved me with no boundaries. Thank you... I love you. Thank you to you, Claudia and Russ, day after day your have been here, showing me the beauty of life, proving your loyalty, and opening infinite windows, for me to remember the colors of the world. To my children Chloe and Paul who give meaning to my life.

PART I

PROLOGUE

Is the world so empty of meaning that you can’t believe me? My life, has it been for nothing? Little has really changed in the human heart after two thousands years. So many cold nights of wandering in the world, was it all for nothing? I don’t know, after all, after the nights, so often, I felt the reassuring warmth of the sun on my skin, giving me hope, almost making me forget about my long dead friends, and so much killing…and the screams and the repetitive begging. Do you really think I would die so easily? So they will lay me down on the metallic table as others before me, and they will stick a needle in my arm, and then as society has ordered, death will flow into my veins...and I could care less, and you don’t care either because I am only another report, another number, another screenplay to be written, another movie to be made; after all, you are Hollywood. So, you got a phone call, and somebody told you about me, my life, and about the few wandering souls that I am accused of killing, and for a day, you left your studios, and your fancy cars, and your whores, and your drugs to check me out. Do you really want to know who killed them if not me? I have agreed to meet with you, to talk to you in the hope that, perhaps, you will be able to search for the real monster, the real killer, the one who has framed me: my maker. More will die if you don’t get me out of here…I am the only one who can stop him. But in all truth, why should I care? And why should you? If you don’t want to fight for me, at least will you help and hurry my sentence? Bring death to me; bring it fast, death my sweet recognizable love with her cold, sensuous and comfortable kiss, bring her fast, and don’t let me rot in here. Let them throw away my dead body, and then I will be free. No, I won’t plead my innocence; no one is innocent, not I and certainly not you. Yes I am a killer, and perhaps even a monster, but I haven’t killed in so long. I am not the one, and even if I were, you and me, we are not so different. I know that for a fact gentlemen. I know, because I have met your kind throughout the centuries, you, the powerful of the era. You will politely listen in case there is money to be made, and you will write my words down on paper, and you will file my story as another story born of the tormented mind of a mad man, and you will study it untouched by the sound of my voice. Is there a movie to be made? But in the end, years from now, when you are close to your last instant, when fear fills your guts; with supplication in your voice, you will wonder and you will cry: Perhaps he was telling us the truth? Of course it is the truth; but I don’t expect you to understand. After so many years I barely understand; so why would you? I feel so old today! He said that I would never age, that I would never die; but I feel old. Two thousands years of memories, of deceptions and disillusions. That will do it to a mind. But still, I am not the killer. I will die asserting it. Death my old love, are you slowly walking towards our rendez vous?

To you gentlemen I look young, barely twenty, ageless, but it is an illusion; as I have seen the death of your fathers, and of your father’s fathers, and all those who came before them. I have seen empires that could not fall, crumble; and I have even seen their mere memory fade away, and I have seen fire, and I have seen kings beg for their lives, and faithful queens fall in love with new kings. I have roamed the world, like a man among men, but am I still a man? I think I am, but not when I look in your eyes; I can see my reflection, and the way you see me, and in your eyes I have lost my mind. But only in your eyes, because I know I am telling the truth, and I know that your eyes will close and that your cheeks will become hollow, and that your flesh will rot until you are only bones, and that even your bones will turn into dust; I know, because I have seen it. Even your name will be forgotten and the names of your children, and your children’s children. To me, you don’t exist. You are a dream from which I can’t awaken. I will even forget our meeting gentlemen; you are not so important for me to remember. I will forget the way you looked at me; your pity and your disgust, as if I were a mad man. I do understand that you need me to be mad, I would want the same if I were you; but I am not you. And I will still walk the earth even when all men are gone, and I am terrified. One morning, there will be nothing left but the earth, and a few other monsters, your killer and a few other killers, and me, alone; not another mortal soul alive to talk to, only the few who broke the natural order, but I don’t talk to them. And then the earth will disappear into the sun, the burning sun; what will it be of me, then? Yes, I am terrified, so much so, that I wish I were mad; but I am not. Will I ever die? I cannot die; I know, I have tried so many times; I drowned myself, and I slit my wrist. I was even burned alive for witchcraft, and I survived; I felt the fire on my skin and I begged for my death. They listened to my cries and laughed as they wished me to hell. They laughed at my torment, but how can I explain the unspeakable horror of burning, when the flames enter your nose and your gasping mouth and your exploding lungs. And then, when all was done, when the night had passed and the fire was cold, they checked me, and they saw I was alive, they burned me again, and again and again until they realized that I was not of the kind that dies from fire. They prayed to the gods, some useless mumbling to sanctify my suffering, while they cut me into pieces. And they buried the pieces and I was still alive; I was dismantled, unattached pieces of life. But my body put itself together; it always put itself together. I remember the lack of air as, for weeks, I dug myself back up with my nails, and the feeling of the wind on my face after months underground. And, I remember, hunting all of them down and finding them, one after another. One by one, I buried them alive in the same pit; their eyes emptied of hope. How they screamed and cried, while I poured dust over their trembling bodies. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, it is said. So when, on the cold table, as it has been ordered, and as it will be witnessed, death will come and give me her moist kiss, I will taste her and feel her with my soul, and I will feel my mind drifting towards nothingness, and I will abandon myself to the beautiful emptiness of not being. And then, unable to keep me in her arms, as always she will release me to the embrace of

life. I will awaken again, as so many times before. I cannot die. I told you. Believe it, just believe. And, I am terrified as I should be, because I know that one day I will be, forever waiting, in the eternal coldness of space, until the universe is no more; and then? Unless…unless I find her, as I know she is the beginning and she is the end. After all, only loneliness is to be feared. No I won’t die on the cold table for my maker’s killings. It isn’t that easy, but only I know this.

CHAPTER I

It was during the great fire, the time of Nero, a time when my name was still Augustus, after the Emperor’s great grandfather, a time before I became the observer of your kind. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I know I didn’t care about the fire. It was summer time, I think. I recall how the flames were fanned by summer winds. It began in the Circus, by the Palatine and Caelian hills. I admired it from a safe distance, from my villa outside of the city; I found it beautiful mainly at night. It lasted for days, feeding itself, a week or more I think, and when all was consumed, Rome was a changed city. Two thirds of it had burned. The indestructible had been destroyed, temples, homes, shops. All was gone. As long as Julia was not among the victims, and there were so many, it wasn’t my concern. I believed the gods had stricken the unfaithful; they were punishing us for allowing the Christians to flourish. Burrus had died; Pompeii had burned down after the eruption of 62, and now Rome… If I had been the gods I would have done the same, I would have had them all, the followers of Paul, eradicated before they could spread their monstrous rites and infest our civilization. I had heard about them and their atrocities. They had love feasts where they practiced incest, sleeping among sisters and brothers, even with their mothers. That’s what I was told. And they drank blood and fed on human flesh. How little I knew; Julia was among them. My little bird of a woman…how I loved her. Oh! I can barely make out her face nowadays, so many years have passed. She was seventeen years old, I was told, and her cheeks and lips were painted red with ochre, her brown eyes surrounded with Kohl, her brows strongly emphasized with black, and she always applied eye shadow made of saffron, as it was customary. I’d told myself I would never forget her and now I can’t even make out her face, only her make up. Also, her perfume – krocinion, I think - and her voice. She had a good voice, which still dances in my ears like a distant and unbearable melody. How could I have known that she had joined their sect years earlier? After the fire burned itself out, I walked the ruins with the Emperor at his return from Antium. Nero was so concerned for his people, as the great Emperor we all thought that he was. You should know the pride I felt, and how much I hated myself for my feelings when I learned; I was walking with the Emperor, I Augustus! It was a terrible sight, a world of ashes, and among the ashes looters and beggars all around. For an instant, I even stopped thinking of Julia, as I was overwhelmed by the smell. Nero opened Public buildings; he even opened his own properties to the homeless, as they numbered in the thousands. To this day, I don’t believe Dio Cassius; how uninspired of him

to write that the Emperor had “climbed onto the palace roof, from which there was the best overall view of the greater part of the fire, and sung 'The capture of Troy’.” But what do you care, It was almost two thousand years ago and you think I am a mad man and a slayer of men. Soon after, rumors started to spread. I was disappointed by my fellow Romans; how easily they turned against the Emperor; I could not bare them and their angry reactions. So ready to point the finger at Nero. They believed he had started the fire. Why? I still can’t explain it! But now, I realize than Human kind as a whole always yearns for a scapegoat, when their vulnerable daily routine is disturbed. But soon the fingers turned. As we were told who had started the fire; the Christians! It was easy to think of them with torch in hand. They hated the Empire; so many times, they had refused to worship the Emperor, the living God. Julia came to my family’s villa a few days after the fire had died out. I knew it wasn’t the proper way to behave, as she wasn’t supposed to see me so close to the day of our wedding. I thanked the gods that my old father had not yet returned from the city of Firnum Picenum, where he usually summered, since my mother’s death. “They are going after the Christians,” she said frantically. “Nero will have all of them put to death.” Her face was crumbling with sadness. I understood they were going to die, but I didn’t see their death as a harsh or unusually cruel punishment. I would have liked to tell her that I was sorry for them, but I wasn’t. I was indifferent to them, and I believed in their atrocious nature. It made so much sense that, in all their hatred of Rome, they had destroyed it. And Now, Rome would destroy them! “It doesn’t concern you,” I said. “We should have banished them a long time ago; Rome would still be standing. But Nero in his generosity, opened the heart of Rome and tolerated them, and now__” She seemed slightly angry and oblivious to my logic. She frowned and flapped her mouth open repetitively. She wanted to say something, something difficult to express, but I continued. “__You should be looking forward to our wedding,” I said. “My father is going to give us a very large allowance, larger than the peliculum offered to many...” “But the Christians,” she interrupted. “The Christians, what will become of them?” I could see that she was growing more nervous; I gently grabbed her by the shoulders. I realized she was shaking. Why? The Christians, they were responsible, their hands were sullied and only their blood would clean the stain. Their execution was justice. It would satisfy everyone. “What is their death compared to the suffering they have caused?” I asked. She closed her eyes. “Nero is going to feed them to the dogs… they have announced crucifixions…and burnings…” she said. I didn’t understand her at first; it made no sense that she felt for them, she wasn’t connected to this group of lunatics. She was still an innocent girl, unaware of the games of politics, I thought. I think this is what I liked so much about her: her innocence.

So Nero was going to feed them to the beasts… and the crucifixion! Their leader, the Christ, he had been nailed to a cross under the reign of Tiberius. So! And, according to a majority of Romans, they were innocent and Nero was guilty. So! I was young and beautiful, and rich, and I was going to marry Julia. It wasn’t a time for questions. And, certainly, I didn’t care about Christians with their tortured eyes and their cannibalistic rituals. “What will happen?” She asked. “What will become of them?” “Their fate is sealed,” I answered. She opened her eyes and looked into mine for a silent instant. “Then, so is mine,” she whispered softly.

CHAPTER II

I was a different man then, certainly less aware, and I couldn’t understand why Julia would conduct herself in a manner, which reflected badly on both my family and hers. I didn’t think of her as one of the Christians, and, certainly, I could not imagine she would become part of the martyrdom. Rivers of blood were to come and they were not to stain our families. There were only a few days left before our wedding, and I wasn’t going to let her mistake spoil our celebration. “Whatever the problem, my father will fix it,” I said. “He is an old man now, but he has seen and done so much. He was close to Sextus Afranius Burrus, before his death. And more, he helped Nero become Emperor…” “Burrus is dead,” she interrupted. “ And all your father’s friends are dead. Your father is only powerful among ghosts.” “Maybe, but the Emperor will remember,” I said, confident. “Forget all about this Christian nonsense. I still can’t believe you attended their meetings; what came over you?” “I was curious; I only met with them three times.” “Three times!” “You know how my mother fell ill three years ago. When we moved back to Rome from the province, my father traveled the long road to Didyma to meet with the oracle?” “I remember, it was a few months after I met you,” I said. Julia’s Mother had been sick for many years and the medicus had been unable to cure her. Her body had slowly deteriorated into a shadow of itself, and she could barely walk. I hoped she could make it to the wedding, as I knew that Julia loved her dearly. Julia’s father had taken upon himself to visit Apollo’s oracles, pleading with the gods to be lenient. Let me explain here: women, when they became older, used more facial creams made with lead to mask the signs of time. We didn’t know it was poison and that they were killing themselves. “And how sad he looked when he returned,” she continued. “Yes!” “The Oracle had told him that my mother would not survive another year…and that’s why he wanted us to get married so soon, and not wait for the more favorable month of June under Juno’s blessing.” “I understand, but why the Christians?” “Because they are said to have eternal life.” “And you believed it,” I said. “You’ll see how eternal their life is, when they beg Nero on the cross.” “But I hoped…” “You didn’t partake in their atrocities…did you?” I interrupted. I wasn’t interested in what she had done; rather, I wanted to know what she had not done. I wanted her clean for me, unspoiled; it was perhaps more about me than it was about her. “No I didn’t!” She answered her eyes lowered.

I felt a bit relieved. Thinking of Julia eating flesh and drinking blood. No! Whatever the problem, my father could fix it I believed. He had helped Agripinna and Burrus clear the way for Nero to become Emperor, after the murder of his father Claudius. Surely it still meant something! As I told you, I was another man, in another life, and I knew only what I was told. I didn’t know that Nero had poisoned Burrus. I didn’t know that my father had lost all influence two years earlier, after more than thirty-two years in the Senate. I only knew that I was the son of a great man, and that the general direction of my life would be heroic, and I accepted it because it made sense and gave purpose to my being alive. “He said he could cure my mother, and also that he could make her live for a very long time,” Julie continued. “Even centuries he said…that’s the reason I went and met with him.” “Him,” I wondered under my breath. “Whom are you talking about? Only the gods can give life.” “His name is Ziusudra! He’s one of the leaders; they say he has eternal life and that he cannot die,” she said, with a sad smile. “He was born before King Gilgamesh from a land of giants…” “Gilgamesh died almost 3000 years ago,” I interrupted. I was surprised by her naivety. “Only gods and heroes can live that long. And you believed it? The Christians would do anything to corrupt Roman citizens, you know how they are?” “I don’t even think he’s really a follower of Christ; I don’t even understand how he became one of their leaders, but I have seen him die and be reborn with my own eyes,” she added slightly annoyed. “The first time I went there, he cut his wrist open, and he slowly let himself bleed to death into a jar…” “Blood drinkers,” I whispered, petrified. “All is true then, they drink blood and eat human flesh. Do they?” “I haven’t seen it, the human flesh I mean, but, yes, they drank his blood until the jar was empty. They mixed his blood with their own in small cups and they drank. And I saw the open cut on his wrist disappear, and slowly life came back to his body.” “Magic?” “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “But he was dead and then he was alive. And that's not all; the followers, they seemed different, younger. After a few hours, bald men had hair and mothers looked almost as young as their daughters.” “Nonsense!” “Why don’t you believe me? I was there and I saw…” “Nonsense,” I repeated, a bit frightened. “It could be a trick or worse, it could be black magic? Did you think about that? Tell me you didn’t drink from his blood!” “I didn’t,” she mumbled, looking down. “ I can see you’re lying,” I said, hoping she wasn’t. “Did you or did you not?” “I said I didn’t!” “And you went two other times?” “I had to see more, I had to save my mother…and this time, I talked to him. I asked him who he was and if he truly couldn’t die. That was the first time I saw him so clearly. I was so close to him. He didn’t look Roman and he spoke with a strange accent, I couldn’t figure out where he came from…but surely not from the known world, and he looked ageless, his eyes

were older than a dying man but his face had no wrinkles. He could have been a young man, but he wasn’t.” “I can’t believe you spoke to…” “Please, let me finish,” she asked with a sigh. “I had to talk to him, I wanted him to save my mother. I had to ask him if he could, and if he would…anyway, I asked him who he was and whether he was a god.” “A god? Have you gone mad?” “Please,” she continued. “He told me he had been alive for more than nine thousand years.” “You see, a lie! A ridiculous lie, nothing more. I don’t even think that the world has existed for that long, you see,” I interrupted with certainty, slightly reassured. The man was evidently an impostor, another magician, or one of these miracle workers who infested Rome from time to time. That was the safe way of thinking and I would not walk the other path. “How can you be so naïve? First Gilgamesh, and now a man claiming that he has been around for more than 9000 years?” “He is what he says he is,” she almost snapped. “Do you want me to tell you what happened or not?” “Continue!” “Well, anyway, he said that he wasn’t a god, although he couldn’t die, and that he had seen entire worlds disappear, and had learned how to write when men discovered writing, and also that he had the power to give life to the dying.” “Evidently, she’s mixed up in her head,” I thought. “The man is taking advantage of her naivety. I hope Nero will make an example of him, he deserves no less.” “I asked him how to save my mother and if it was in his power. At first, he seemed hesitant but after a long silent moment, his eyes grew younger, as if he remembered another time, perhaps his own mother as he was born of a woman, or perhaps a daughter, and he agreed.” “How much did he want?” I asked, with a sarcastic tone. “They always go for gold.” “Nothing, he wanted nothing. He asked me to bring my mother to him, but I told him she was too sick and didn’t have the strength.” “Humph, no gold!” “Finally, he said I should come back, and bring him some of my mother’s blood.” “That’s the third time you went?” “Yes! With a small flask containing the blood he’d asked for…” “Your mother’s?” “Yes! He mixed it with his own and told me to make her drink it.” “Did you?” “No, he said, I had to wait until the new moon in a week, the day after we get married.” “You won’t,” I interrupted. “ You will give the flask to me and I will destroy it.” “But…” “There’s no but, as your husband, I will pay for the best doctors, even better than Roman medicus, but you will do what I say__” She gave me an unconvinced look. “__Or I will tell Nero myself about your Ziusudra.” “Please,” she begged. “You seem terrified.” And I was terrified. Instinctively, I understood that no man born of a woman should tamper with life and death; I knew it wouldn’t please the gods, and that Ziusudra was either a liar or, worse, an insult to the natural order, an atrocity.

I grabbed her by the shoulders and held her against my chest. “Do you understand,” I said. “You need to bring me the flask.” “I will bring it to you,” she whispered. I could feel her body against mine, the warmth of her entire being, and her skin, yes gentlemen, I remember her skin; so white and so soft, I remember. “And you will never mention him again.” I added.

CHAPTER III

The days that followed passed quickly, as I was preparing for my wedding. I could already imagine the procession, Julia, bathed in the sunlight, walking to me, dressed in a white woven tunic, a tunica recta, belted with a beautiful knot of Hercules, wearing an orange wedding veil to hide her face, and orange shoes, as was the custom. And I knew that a feast which brought her into my arms would follow the celebration. I could already taste the food, the wine – we had ordered the best quality, from the vineyard of Campania – and I imagined the guests dancing. She had promised to bring me the flask, I believed her, and I hadn’t given it another thought. I was also trying to forget the Christians. Well, I’d heard how they were being arrested and tortured. And how all confessed to setting Rome on fire, and how quickly they gave up names of others to be found. They were guilty, if not them, who else then? Certainly not the Emperor, as some people wanted us to believe. The Christians; It made sense to me, and to this day I haven’t changed my mind, their confession was only a confirmation of their guilt, at first, I didn’t care about their suffering, and I cared even less that they only spat back words that had been put in their mouth, simply to stop the pain. They’d all conspired to burn down the city, and had rejoiced in the suffering of the people of Rome. They hated Rome and the Emperor. But now, the tables had turned and fear had changed sides, and they, the followers of Christ, were found sprawled in the gutter, hiding in the shadows, and praying to a God who had forgotten them. One by one, Nero had members of the cult arrested, fathers, and mothers, and even children, entire families. I only had Julia in my mind; I didn’t want her to be preoccupied by the events, and she was not to be linked to the Christians to insure her safety, not that I really believed Nero would go after a person of her social status, but times were unsafe for everybody. I’d asked her father to keep her home, without revealing to him that she had taken part in some repulsive rituals a few weeks before, and he had logically agreed. I think like I, he wanted to shield her from the suffering of Romans, the pain and misery of men and women without food or water, and the anger, the hopeless rage of the crowd. Walking the streets had become difficult. The stench of urine and dirty sweat, and burned flesh made breathing unbearable. Rats had invaded the city, leaving the sewers to come into daylight. They were feeding on the dead, devouring burned bodies to the bone, and we couldn’t do a thing, as there were so many. We could hear human voices crying from under crumbled buildings, some of them cried for help, for days, until they stopped. We could see starving children holding onto their mothers who had died days before. I think, the only time I saw so much despair was during the fire of San Francisco in 1906, but that is another story. And the Christians, how they paid for their crimes. Even I, who didn’t care for them,

started to feel uneasy faced with their punishment. It was a hideous sight. Nero had them covered with the skin of wild beasts and had entire packs of dogs, excited by the smell, tear them apart, some of them lived for hours while the dogs chewed away at their bones. And they were the lucky ones; it was even more atrocious for the ones nailed to crosses, mouths opened, gasping for air, slowly drowning in their own blood, unable to weep or beg. Very few proved able to transcend the pain, their twisted bodies waiting for a miracle, and I don’t know what the books remember, but believe me gentlemen, I was there, no miracles. They lasted for days, their naked bodies soiled by their own waste, and small groups of people clustered around the crosses to better hear and see the last appeals in the Christians’ dying eyes. It was even worse for the ones who were nailed upside down, their faces at crowd level; their eyes pierced by children, their tongues cut off, the taste of blood in their gasping mouths struggling to breath in the summer heat. You seem speechless gentlemen, why? You know your kind, you know you are capable of the worst, haven’t you learned from history? There is no explanation; it’s in your nature. But it doesn’t stop there. As the days waned, Nero, in his ferocity, set the survivors on fire to serve as evening lights. As I told you, even I, started to feel compassion towards the sufferers, and I was not alone as the crowd, slowly changed moods. However, I didn’t make it too much my concern, only my wedding to my bride meant anything to me, and she was safely waiting at home. How ignorant! I’d asked around about Ziusudra, with no concrete answer, but the second time I really heard about him... let me tell you. It was two days before I was to wed Julia. I had met my friend of many years Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, better known as Lucan, at the forum. All morning I had enjoyed watching him arguing about how Rome would rise above the terrible events of the times to become an even more beautiful city. And even if the place wasn’t as lively as before the fire, the spectacle was still interesting. It was possible to see all kind of people; from hurrying slaves to rich women, beautifully dressed in long tunics embroidered with a long frill made of gold at the bottom, and enveloped in long scarves, which almost touched the ground. We had ended up by going to the Baths. He was a poet and a storyteller. He could recall tales and legends, and the birth of the world, how Gaia had given birth to Kronos and his sister Rhea, and the first sorcerer, and also the creation of Rome; all about the past, he knew. And also, he could listen and was often of good advice. I had come to love him so much that I shared every thought with him. We were in the last room, the caldarium, the warmest, half full, people scrapping oil and dirt from their bodies, all getting ready for the pools. It was dark. I could barely make out many shadows, anonymous, I liked it like that; the smell of sweat, human voices, young people, old people, men and women, words difficult to discern, something very alive, but not fully real. Just what was necessary for people to mingle. Perfect! “Lucan!” “Yes,” he answered, with his soft voice, the voice of a storyteller. “What is it?” “Have you heard of a man named Ziusudra?” I asked. If anybody knew of the man it was Lucan. He had a passion for these things. Strange. “Why are you asking?” He said, certainly surprised. “Some names should not be mentioned nowadays…why are you asking?” “Wait, you know the name, then?”

“What do you mean?” He glanced at me. He had this very generic expression that I knew well, always the same when he wanted to hide his thoughts. He realized that he was revealing himself but it was too late. And he wasn’t really shocked that I could read him so easily, he knew he wasn’t a very good liar. “So, tell me,” I continued, with a loud voice, he was six feet away. “Ziusudra, who is he?” “Shush,” he whispered, “are you mad? Come here, I will tell you what I know...and what I think I know.” I smiled and walked closer, and even closer until he was satisfied. Lucan, always so secretive. Even more than usual, he seemed to me. Was he going to make a big thing of very little? I mean, he was a storyteller after all. “So, What do you know,” I whispered. “And even more interesting, I suppose, what do you think you know? “There’s the story that everybody accepts and the one of which you must have some knowledge__” I gestured, no. “__There’s Saul of Tarsus, the one they called Paul of his Roman name,” Lucan continued. “The Christian who died two years ago.” It meant nothing to me, at the time, I’d never heard of a Paul or a Saul for that matter. But I could see that Lucan was growing irritated. “Augustus, you should know these things.” “Why should I know about Christians? But, anyway, please continue.” “Well, Paul was also a Jew,” he resumed. “To make a long story short, he became one of the followers of Christ, and then a leader.” “The Christ, The man killed by Pontius Pilate?” “Yes, the one they called the Messiah; well, when Paul was brought to Rome, many of his followers followed to be close to him until the end. And Ziusudra was one of them...After Paul died; he started his own Christian cult. There are rumors that he can’t die.” “I heard... only rumors?” “I don’t know how true. If you are Christian, you certainly can believe it. They believe in eternal life, you know?” I nodded confidently. “They say Christ came back from the dead, it isn’t so much to believe then, that it’s also possible for others; perhaps Ziusudra could have a similar gift?” “Lucan, don’t tell me you believe in those…” “Certainly not,” he quickly mumbled. “But it’s still better than the alternative. I think, I wish I believed... the idea of ending up in the underground, I don’t...” “You haven’t told me what you really know,” I interrupted. “You haven’t... we are brothers of heart, trust me!” He paused for a long moment. As often he was vulnerable to my will, though he didn’t fully realize it. He could have ignored my demand, and at this instant, if he had kept to himself, perhaps things would have been different then. Maybe it would have kept my soul clean, I wouldn’t have searched for a forbidden world, and in the end I would have accepted my fate, and found another life for myself; a short life followed by an endless death. But, “I will trust you,” he said. “Tell me, not what you know but what you think you know?” I asked.

“It’s much worse than it seems,” he murmured. “What, I told you is bad enough that you should not even pronounce the name of this man. It’s not a good time to know Christians as they will probably all die to the very last one, by the end of the week…” “They burned the city down,” I interrupted. “They brought it upon themselves.” “Hum... doubtful,” he whispered. “What are you suggesting?” “Nothing, I’m too hot my friend, that’s all. Before I can tell you more, let’ walk to the cold room, I really need to cool down,” he said, gesturing to his slave to follow us. He was right, the steam was, as was often the case, too hot to bear for a long time. We entered the cold room and walked to the pool. I remember thinking for an instant that Lucan could have been one of them, Christians I mean. After all, he had always been interested in strange things, new religions and new philosophies, prophets and magicians, even forbidden books. But it was what poets and storytellers were supposed to like, I assumed. “So what is it you are so afraid to talk about,” I asked, entering the pool. “What is it?” “You’re going to think I’ ve lost my mind.” “Is it really too lose,” I said with a smile. “You’re an artist, you’re more heart than mind.” “Maybe you’re right,” he said, laughing. “Let me continue.” “Yes, Ziusudra?” “I heard that he met Paul, around the time Pilate crucified the man named Christ.” “How could it be? I was told he looks younger than me... it would be almost thirty years ago.” “Listen! What I heard is that, Ziusudra was even friend with this man, Jesus.” “Christ?” “Yes! He’d been roaming all over Palestine with the so-called messiah until his death, and had been part of every miracle. There is even a story of a Lazarus who’d died to be resurrected by Christ; but some say Ziusudra was involved.” “You believe it?” “Who really cares about what I believe. I’m just telling you what I heard. But I don’t want you to think I’m telling you lies. You know I don’t lie, although I’m known as a storyteller. Perhaps I embellish sometimes, but I’m no liar.” I nodded. “You say you believe me but I know the way you look at me Augustus. You have your doubting eyes. But you are the one asking. And the more I will tell the less you’ll believe. Enjoy it as if it were a good story if that makes it easier for you. “Let me tell you how I came upon Ziusudra... there was a Mosaic from the time of Julius Cesar; yes I’m correct, it was the first time I heard of him.” “What about it?” I asked. “I saw it with my own eyes, the mosaic, it was during my search for the gods; you remember, four years ago, when I disappeared for a year.” “Yes! When you decided to find out for yourself whether or not there was some truth to the existence of the gods, when you’d lost your faith” “I had given up on my search for the gods and was traveling at a leisurely pace for the summer, just before returning to Rome. I’d arrived the night before, exhausted, a small house, very dark, difficult to see. I went to bed right away without giving it another thought.

“When I woke up, everything was different. I walked to the gardens - a beautiful peristyle - beyond a double raw of columns of very eclectic style, smooth cadmium red on the bottom, easy to clean, and nicely fluted white above, I could see the slopes of mount Vesuvius. “It was a very warm summer day, and I decided to retreat from the sunlight into the colder tablinum. Surprisingly, the room was nothing fancy, I can’t even recall how it was, however, in the distance, another room - the atrium - caught my eye, very different in the way it was built. I entered it, curious, because it didn’t satisfy the accepted architectural rules of proportion.” “The Vitruvius’ rules of proportion?” “Exactly, very small room with a very high roof, disturbing to my tastes. You know how I like a good architectural balance, everything else is an insult to the order of things, houses have to be Roman in style, or at least Greek. However, I saw it, on the right wall of the atrium, the mosaic, a beautiful piece of art, a blue background; exquisite, really. A man and a woman floating in the heavens. Well, the woman represented was certainly Venus, and at first, I believed the man to be Jupiter. But the owner of the house told me that he represented an early god, Ziusudra, he called him. You seem surprised? I’d never heard of him either, a very old God, as old as Kronos. He said he was the god of life and Venus’ first lover, and also that he’d saved the world from the floods. And about my faith, You’re right, because I’d lost it, I didn’t think too much of this old god, except that it would, one day, make a beautiful story to tell at the bath house. The man had a beautiful strange face, not as pale as us Romans, probably a man from a place of bright sun. His eyes were like no others; dark and deep; and beautiful, but dead...No, not dead rather, not alive, it’ s difficult to explain.” “Are you telling me that they’re the same Ziusudra then?” He sighed, impatiently. “Listen and I will tell, I know more than you think. The man on the mosaic, except for his beard, yes, he looked like Ziusudra, the one you’re asking about.” My eyes said, “Really, how could it be?” “I understand perfectly, it would make your Ziusudra a very old man, more than sixty years old in fact.” “Where is it, the mosaic?” “Pompeii, the house is in Pompeii, under 12 feet of ash.” He said, provocatively. “Hum, impossible to prove then...and how would you know that they are the same man?” “I saw him, one day, I saw; the night when Paul was beheaded; I saw him, so tall in a corner, just by the prison, waiting to catch a glimpse of his friend. It was night but the moon was round enough for me to see his face, and they are the same, I’m telling you. He was the man of the mosaic, I know, nobody has the same eyes, the same glow, an ageless man, a man of today and yesterday.” “From a mosaic, you could tell?” “That’s what I’m saying,” he snapped, as I looked unconvinced. “This is when I decided to search further, to know who this man called Ziusudra was, and why he looked so much like an early god. And I wanted to know more, perhaps I could write something, similar to my tale of the witch who fed on human flesh…do you remember my story? The one where I describe the underground?” “Yes!” “But…” Lucan stopped, his eyes looked into my eye for an uncomfortable moment, evaluating

me, it seemed; was I of the kind who could accept the unacceptable? “Continue,” I said. “I’m all ears.” “I tried to find out when and where Ziusudra was born, and whether he was a Roman citizen... but nothing. The first reference to his past came from one of Paul’ followers. A man called Barnabas told me a very strange tale. He said that he had seen Paul dead and alive again.” “Another resurrection,” I smiled. “Can’t these people stay dead?” “He said it happened when Paul was in Lystra.” “ Yes, I know Lystra, I have been there with my father when I was a child. Very barbaric!” “Well, Paul went there with a group of missionaries, Barnabas was one of them as was Ziusudra. At first they were mistaken for gods; don’t ask me why, I wouldn’t know how to answer your question. What I know is that it didn’t last. When the locals realized Paul and his friend were no gods, they stoned Paul to death.” “Was he really dead?” “According to Barnabas, he was, and if he wasn’t, his injuries were grave enough that no man or woman of this world could have saved him.” “And?” “Ziusudra took the body with him into a small house; you know the type of house barbarians have, one room, nothing like the homes in Rome. Anyway, in the morning, Paul emerged without a bruise! “I even tried to meet him, without success. After the death of Paul, Ziusudra went into hiding for a while; he was nowhere to be found. I searched for him all over Rome. I wanted to ask him directly who he was. Who knows, with a bit of luck he would have told me the truth. Anyway, he’d disappeared.” I have to admit gentlemen; I was slowly growing more interested; I had never seen Lucan so taken by his own stories. His pale face - even paler than usual, probably because of the cold water - surrounded his eyes, making them even more lively; two moving blue dots, strangely turned into themselves, not looking at me directly. He fully lived his words at that instant. Certainly what he was telling me wasn’t the flavor of the month. It wasn’t one of his usual stories told for my pleasure; he believed every word he uttered. “But who is he, really, Ziusudra,” I asked. “A god, a hero, a man; do you know?” “I’m not sure. I heard of him again last year when he started his Christian cult. I didn’t go to see him preach, though I was very tempted, because I knew of his miracles.” “What else? If somebody is to know, you would be the one.” “Hum, well, I’m trying to learn about Ziusudra the god, but it’s become difficult.” “Why?” “There’s very little information, and it seems that all there is to find comes from ancient texts, some strange tales about a city of gods: Shuruppak, of which Ziusudra was the king.” “I heard of Shuruppak,” I said. “I thought it was a tale though.” “Barnabas’s told me he had seen the ancient texts himself; the Eridu genesis, he said it was called. According to him, there are tables of clay older than the world...” Lucan was suddenly interrupted, I heard a commotion and recognized the voice of one of my father’s slaves “Augustus, Augustus, Julia’s been arrested.” It didn’t take but a second; I felt a crushing blow in my heart. Life, the way it had been

planned by both my family and Julia’s had come to an abrupt end.

CHAPTER IV

The afternoon, and then the evening had passed and my courier hadn’t returned. I’d sent him to ask Nero, or at least his closest advisors to receive me. Julia’s arrest was a mistake, a temporary blunder to be fixed, easy enough, I thought. In fact I could not accept the unthinkable. So many had told me that Nero was crazy, a mad man holding the ultimate power over an Empire so grand that it would be remembered to this day. But so far I had not accepted this possibility. I saw Nero in a different light, through my young eyes, and my recent childhood, protected from the truth and the word of the street. I saw the man who had abolished the death penalty, not a vicious murderer. So what, he loved the arts and liked to sing from the roof of his palace; he was a bit of an eccentric, it didn’t make him a monster. I also hoped that my father would cut his trip one day short. We had no way to reach him on time. He was more than a day away from Rome even with the fastest horse, but he’d often shortened his vacation in the past; although a very old man now, he was easily bored by the lack of activity typical of a small city. He knew how to get his way, and certainly, no man in his right mind would take upon him to keep a political figure of my father’s status from talking to Nero. After all, he had been a friend of Burrus when he was alive, and also he was still close to Seneca the great orator. As I have already mentionned, I didn’t know at the time that he had lost favor with the Emperor. Perhaps, his return wouldn’t be necessary. Perhaps good news was on its way. I was in the peristyle; I believed it to be one of the most colorful enclosed gardens I had laid eyes upon. My father’s slaves took excellent care of it. A large fountain in the center kept the place fresh during the hot Roman summer, and surrounding it, flowers, roses, violets and lilies. Overpowering scents, but I didn’t care. It was a place of leisure where I liked to spend hours, drinking Muslum - my favorite wine mixed with honey as it was prepared during the Empire - reading, meditating, listening to Lucan and his embellished stories, and where I had spent hours with Julia. She had touched this column, sat on this bench; she was everywhere. The night was falling. Rome was always so beautiful at dusk. In the distance, I could see hundred of lights illuminating the city. Bright orange. Splendid and vibrant colors, with a life of their own, like a provocative fauvist painting before its time. Suddenly, I realized they were burning corpses, crucified bodies; they were unacceptable dots of suffering entering my reality for the first time. Julia! She had been arrested in the afternoon, she still had a day in front of her...before. Terrible before. I could not even pronounce the words; dogs, cross or fire. The world’s suffering had finally entered my protected reality.

“Go to bed,” Lucan said. “You’ll need your strength in the morning.” “But.” “I will wake you up when your courier returns.” He continued with a reassuring smile, though his eyes showed his nervousness. How could I sleep? However, my friend was right. Exhausted, I would have been of no help to Julia. I asked a servant to prepare a cup of motherwort tea, to calm myself and to keep me from a night of sleeplessness. Though I hated the bitter taste, I drank it quickly, and I went to my room. My slave helped me out of my clothes and sandals. I laid on the small bed and looked at the bedroom; so different from the usual, larger than any other cubiculum - as bedrooms were called at the time - in the house, and recently painted in beautiful orange red for Julia’s arrival. Only two days before the wedding now, but that was before. On the right wall a portrait of Juno to bless our union with many children. So many hours spent preparing a future... Julia had been denounced by one of Ziusudra’s followers. A man, that is what we had been told. He’d been tortured into giving up the names of everybody who had attended their meeting and drank the blood from the dying body of their leader. At least, Julia hadn’t shared in their disgusting practice. Nero ought to be convinced of it. Who is to tell what a man under pain will admit? Anything! When the hurt is so strong as to deny the power of the mind. Everything! Certainly everything necessary to satisfy his tormentors, when the words can’t be spoken fast enough to make the carnal distress stop. Did he tell them that Julia had drunk from the blood? And did she lie to me when she said she hadn’t? Only three times she had met with the group of Christians, she had admitted to me, only three times, and I didn’t doubt her. All arrested, the Christians, we had heard. Even Ziusudra. It was the word from the street; people talk, soldiers tell, it was said that at first he hadn’t resisted when they came for him, just a crystalline laugh and also, but it was only a rumor, I believed, how naive of me, that he suddenly fought became enraged, fought back, with teeth and nails and in a scream had told them, the soldiers, that he would come back from his grave and would find them, and would deal them all an atrocious death letting their descendants, for generations to come, remember and understand the price of hurting an immortal. He would make them meet their end in a way that legends are made of. Words of a mad man? Some of his followers had been killed in the process, some fought back with violence and some with words of love, but what could they do against Roman soldiers, an entire century, eighty men, all of the Praetorian Guard, sent by the Emperor. And of these eighty, it took twenty, the strongest, to subdue Ziusudra. And of his supporters, like him, the ones who survived were taken to prison. To be tortured? And repetitively, all Christians met their fate by the hand of the Praetorian guard. Would they all be tortured, their flesh torn away, their bones crushed, their eyes forever blinded? I hoped not, I thought of Julia, I knew she would probably not survive the pain, and, if

she did, she would be changed forever, my little bird of a woman. Only the night would tell. The tea; It was strong, efficient, and soon, I started to drift off, into a world of fading consciousness and dreams. Julia walking with me, Julia’s laughter, and her smile when she’d heard that our parents had agreed to our union, her face, very clear in my mind and then, less clear, more difficult to see, even more difficult. The night. I heard a noise. My mind clear again. The noise came from the right corner in front of me. Somebody was there, breathing in the shadow. Two eyes looking at me. “Lucan,” I asked. “Is it you?” Silence. “Who is it?” My voice a bit shaky. “She was right,” The voice said, a strong voice. “You’re beautiful.” “Who are you,” I asked again. “I’m going to call for help if you don’t reveal yourself right now.” The man walked out from the shadow. A very tall man, for the times, even tall nowadays; perhaps 6’4”. Surrounded by his very black curly hair, too long for the fashion of the time, a strange face, very dark, but not like the barbarians from the outside colonies. He was evidently a man of high status; he belonged to my kin, not a plebeian. The face was strikingly different, clean-shaven, it was a face which made no sense; ageless, not a wrinkle, the face of a man in his early twenties, but again, he could have been older than my father. It was the eyes, dark, deep and glossy like the elders. Dead eyes with very little movement, which seemed to imperfectly mirror my own eyes. They were two wells calling me, asking me to fall, and feeding from my inner life. “Please, call for help.” He encouraged me, with a smile. Even his smile was different from our smiles. He smiled an open smile, with his teeth, showing all of them. No hiding of imperfections, of a bad tooth with a closed smile. But his teeth were perfect. He wore the Priest's Toga, something too small for him. He had borrowed it, I was certain of it. “Why don’t you call?” I screamed for help, calling for Lucan, calling for slaves, but no one came. I could feel my heart pounding, adrenaline rushing to my head like a nauseating wave. I was afraid of this man but I wouldn’t admit it to myself. “You see, nobody came; perhaps you’re dreaming Augustus?” He knew my name. It could be a dream, after all, this man wasn’t one you meet everyday. His skin was perfect. Perhaps a god was coming to me in my sleep? I’d prayed to them enough during the afternoon. I had asked and begged for Julia’s salvation so many times. I’d heard that, sometimes, gods appear to the dreamers, though I’d not witnessed it myself. I couldn’t see an imperfection on the man. Nobody is flawless, I thought, even children have cuts or bruises from the mere fact of playing. Him, I realized he had the skin of a new born. I stood up, and checked the floor. Solid cold mosaic, clearly echoing under my feet. It wasn’t like a dream but it wasn’t real enough to be true either. I was in a different reality. Something too complex for my simple mind of the time. Something too complex for your

mortal minds of today gentlemen. There are worlds outside your worlds, possibilities for the impossible, entire universes parallel to your universe, waiting to be discovered...but why should I tell you, your minds are empty of imagination, and your lives are so short that you can’t grasp what cannot be seen by your mortal eyes. I breathe one or two times and already you are gone. Anyway, to return to my story. I was looking for a weapon, but by the side of my bed I could only find my small dagger. The dagger had not been sharpened in years; it was a gift from the priests of the temple of Fortune given as thanks for many years of offerings. But it would be enough, against a weaponless man. I grabbed it. And he laughed, a very clear laugh. “What are you going to do with that? In your heart you know it’s useless. Do you really want to strike me dead?” “I will...” “Can one kill a dream? What do you think?” He asked, coming closer. “Stay where you are, I’ll kill you.” “And kill the only man who can save Julia,” He whispered. “Ah, if only you could...kill me, I mean, kill me forever. Ah, the pleasure of not being, of having my mind slip into the endless night.” “Julia, you know of Julia?” “Yes, Julia! I was with her less than an hour ago, until I escaped...” “Nobody escapes Nero.” I interrupted. “How wrong you are. A priest friend of mine is waiting at my place for my return.” It explained the small toga. “Julia, is she all right?” “ Well, she has suffered a great deal, they tried to beat some absurd confession out of her. It wasn’t a pretty sight...in the end she would have confessed anything,” he said, almost emotionlessly. “But, for now, she is fine.” He added, reassuring in a very balanced tone of voice. I felt tears coming to my eyes. My sweet little girl tortured. He looked at me, his eyes into my eyes, almost questioning my pain. “You seem to love her; strange, I thought Romans didn’t care for their brides, that it was a business, a simple agreement, a way of giving birth to offspring...however, you seem to be in love.” “But...” “I know, I know, you are of the kind who believes in love, she told me. Though it’s a good thing that very few know of your love for her. It is better. They would assume that you’re a weakling. It’s always wiser not to tell. Rome is a city of the mind, not of the heart. “I’d told my friend Pompey not to show his love for his wife, another Julia...Caesar’s daughter, but do you think he listened to me, evidently not! And we can all recall the way he ended up. “Anyway, my name is Ziusudra…and for some I was known as Upnapishtim, but it probably means nothing to you…and these names do not really define who I am since I was reborn…and I’m here to save your bride. But for that, you have to trust me.” “You’re the im...” “Immortal! Absolutely.” “You’re the one who can give life to the dead?”

“Legend,” he sighed. “Isn’t it enough that I can take your short lives and make it last for centuries? And more for some of you.” I didn’t know what to answer. I knew of people having very long lives, but centuries; no. Only heroes and half gods. My very logical mind refused to believe him, in fact, I only accepted to speak further because it was a dream. A message from the gods to save Julia, perhaps. Later, I would ask Lucan. “Julia, how can you save her?” “Julia! Yes, she loves you.” “I know...” “Her love for you isn’t the reason why I came to you Augustus,” he interrupted. “What I need to know is how much you love her, what you are willing to sacrifice for her.” “Anything!” I said. What did I know of sacrifices? Very little. I was ready to give up my life, as the ultimate gift to her. An exchange; my life for hers. I would never wake up, I would never dance again, never see the violets in the atrium the morning, I would leave this world, give a coin to Charon the ferryman of the dead, and he would take me to the underworld. I would never see Julia again. But the trade off was acceptable; my heart couldn’t ask less of me. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t my life he wanted, it was my death. He presented me with a little flask. “Drink then,” he said. “You’ll save her soul.” “What is it?” “Only her blood and mine, united for all eternity.” He smiled, his eye looked deeper into mine.” “Poison, I think.” I said calmly. But why would he have poisoned me? “No, it is what I told you; it is my life and her life offered to yours.” “You want me to become a Christian, a blood drinker... you monster, don’t you think you have already done enough damage?” I felt rage, uncontrollable rage. I hated him, even in a dream. How could I save Julia by drinking from this flask? I imagined the disgusting thickness of the blood on my tongue, and its smell, and its disturbing and forbidden sweetness. “No,” I snapped. “I will not commit an atrocity. Julia would never accept it. Never.” He laughed, the laugh of a dying man. I was afraid again, drenched in sweat. “Julia has drunk of my blood many times already, and for many years. In fact, she drank from my blood less than two hours ago - after they tortured her - to stop the pain in her shattered body.” “ Many years…she has not, she met you three times only to save her mother__” “Three times.” He laughed. “ And you believed her? Poor Augustus, she is my most faithful follower...” “Liar,” I interrupted, my anger was growing almost blurring my sight. “She came to you only because she needed to mix your blood to her mother’s, she told me...she wouldn’t lie.” “She didn’t. This time it was for her mother, but Augustus, my naive Augustus, do you think I would have given my blood to her if I hadn’t known her well...poor Augustus, I already love you. Not only did she take the blood for her mother, but she is the one who drank it, when the pain became unbearable.” He walked closer; he was now less than 3 feet away. Fear in my entire body. Dagger ready.

“I don’t understand.” “How could you? She was afraid, and she drank the blood and she was in pain no more. “ And then, in our small jail she came to me, and she begged me Augustus, she begged me to keep her from dying, to keep her soul bound to this earth…but that is not in my power. “ And for one instant, I think I was weakened, and instead of enjoying the free offering of her soul, I told her that death wasn’t to be feared, I told her of the beautiful place awaiting her. And the end to suffering, and the eternal music, but she would not believe me…and again she begged and ask for a way out, a way to bring her soul back to this earth. I told her no and no and again I said no, but she would not listen. I consider her my child, and of all my children she is my favorite…” “You’re mad,” I interrupted. “Mad man or demon.” “Listen Augustus, just listen,” he continued, his face had grown sad now; the sadness was cold and resigned. “I told her, but she would not accept it…so I’m here, and in the end it is her wish, but I am full of disgust for what I am doing, because I’m selfish, Augustus. I want her to stay alive as much as she wants to be. Though I know that one day she could hate me for what I am doing, as she could even hate you for what you are about to do.” “What?” “I need you to drink from this flask, to keep her attached to this earth.” “Go away, I won’t drink, sorcerer.” “Just take the flask, and when the time comes, perhaps...” He was now a foot away. I could smell his breath. A breath without life, scentless, stagnant. But I didn’t believe him, didn’t understand, and didn’t care. Fear was overpowering my entire being. To this day, I still don’t know whether I plunged my dagger into his stomach willingly or whether it was instinct. I felt his flesh giving way. It was pleasurable to my senses, as the stabbing brought him back to my reality, to my level, to my very humanity. The blade inside of him, he grabbed my face with his fine hand, longer than any I had seen. “Perfect being,” I thought. He gave me a kiss on my gasping mouth. With his other hand, he grabbed my left fist and opened it. Inhuman strength. I felt the flask in my palm as he forced my fingers to close. He had become my will. “Thousands of years ago, I would have felt it,” he whispered to my ear. “But it takes more pain to stop my body these days.” With my right hand, I turned the dagger, I pushed deeper into his flesh, all the way, and I felt the warmth of his gushing blood on my skin. He smiled. Dark dead eyes. “Remember Augustus, when you drink, you will give her life back to her, and she will never fully cross to the other world as long as you live, remember. She will see it and it will be taken away from her, but it is her wish as she is terrified of dying. “When you drink, her soul will not rest until you rest...and remember also, that she could one day hate you for obeying her wish, she could forget that she was given a choice, and she could even forget that she loved you. She could curse you and the day you were born. But now you are also given a choice, the way I was given a choice.” He kissed me again. I felt his lips, almost feminine, moist and warm on mine. I felt his mind touching mine, intruding like a tongue into my very soul. It was the mind of a stranger in my world and time, and his spirit was deprived of happiness. “No hope.” I whispered before

fainting.

CHAPTER V

I stood up from the floor. The room was untouched as if nothing had happened. The dagger still in my hand was spotless. No blood. A dream? How long? I could see daylight coming from under the door. An entire night had passed. Had he really come in my dreams to visit me, Ziusudra? Or perhaps, I had created the entire event of the night? After all, it was possible; the socalled immortal had occupied my entire universe for the last two days. He was responsible for Julia’s suffering. Julia, as if she would lie to me. She knew better than that, she knew that after so many years together I could read her. One doesn’t grow up with someone without having an inside into her mind. And as if Nero had tortured someone of her rank. Poor dirty Christians, disgusting, uneducated plebeians, I understood, but nobility; even the Emperor would not dare, I thought. A dream. A ridiculous dream. No blood on my hands either, no pain in my jaw. With such strength, Ziusudra would have bruised my face. A nightmare? But on the floor, I saw the flask. I backed away, afraid, and not ready to believe that it had not been a dream. I didn’t touch it. Sacrilege. I remembered how easily he had opened my hand and put the flask in it. Everything a blur, except the pain. “Augustus, open the door... Augustus,” Lucan said. He was screaming. “The courier is back.” I rushed to the door. “What is the news?” I asked, hurrying to meet with my slave. Lucan looked down; his face had crumbled into sadness. “Nero won’t receive you.” He mumbled. “It can’t be,” I said. “ Did he understand who I am, that my father is Seneca’s friend and that Seneca is your uncle?” Without waiting for an answer, I turned to the courier. “Tell me!” “Master, I went and delivered your message, directly to one of the praetorian guards...” “And?” “I waited all night long. When he came back, he said that your wife to be was a traitor, a monster, one of the Christians. He said that she had been seen drinking blood with the others and that she had taken part in every meeting for the last year...” “Impossible,” I said. “You didn’t deliver my message properly... I should put you to death, yes I should__” He fell on his knees and started to cry, terrified, though I had never put a slave to death myself, he knew that my father wasn’t as forgiving. “Leave us now,” Lucan said. He turned to me. “Augustus, I am sorry.”

“Lucan, perhaps, Nero will listen to you? He used to love you so much…” “My beautiful Augustus, I lost his favor long ago, I’m sorry.” “But,” I asked. “There must be something we can do?” “There is nothing else to do,” a trembling voice said. The old voice of Julia’s father. “Except pray to the gods.” The old man walked out from the shadow, and to my surprise, he seemed weak. He wore the toga praetexta, the clothes of a senator, and along the straight edge of the dress, ran the easily recognizable purple stripe, which showed his rank. A man of power, but this morning he seemed different, perhaps less eager to witness a new day. I had always seen Julia’s father as a very strong man. Although he was very old for the time - when the average life expectancy was 27- some said more than ninety years old, even more, but he was a man not to be broken by the years. His face, mapped with wrinkles from the sun, betrayed his age, but his body was still muscular and full of life. I didn’t know how old he really was, but certainly, he could have been Julia’s grandfather. He had buried one wife, and one daughter, before marrying Julia’s mother. How old was he exactly? Difficult to say, but one thing was certain, he had fought the Germans at the battle of Idistaviso under the general Claudius Drusus Germanicus more than 48 years ago. A great victory for the Empire. A sad day for him, as he came back to Rome, to see his first wife and only daughter had fallen sick to some unknown illness. He moved to the province where the air was believed to be better, hoping they would recover, but they died a few months later, I was told. A broken man, he stayed away from Rome and the civilized world for 45 years, remarried a young woman and tried to rebuild his shaken life as best he could. Then, late in life Julia came along, strikingly beautiful and looking like her long dead sister, according to the elder who had known the first girl. Three years earlier, he had moved back to the capital to have Julia introduced to the world, and to marry, as it would have been unacceptable for his daughter to be joined to a man from the province. But again, Rome had not been kind to him, his new wife fell ill and now, Julia…it was another sad day. In one night, he had gotten old, his skin was sagging and his body appeared to be crumbling under the years. He was losing his wife and now his daughter, the only one he still had. “I met with Nero,” he continued. “Julia will not be spared...” “But,” I interrupted. “It can’t be. She’s no Christian!” “She drank from their blood,” he mumbled. “And she scares Nero__” “Nero?” “Yes Augustus! After they tortured her,” he took a deep breath. “They left her in a cell, alone, hoping she would die before they would take her to the cross. “After all, even Nero doesn’t want people of her kind to be subjected to the humiliation of the cross. We are Nobility, not freedmen, not slaves; we are not supposed to die like beggars. “They left her there, her body entirely broken, her face smashed, bloody all over... she had no more tears and could barely breathe, they said. They even sent a medicus who said she had hours to live__” I clenched my fists. I was part of her pain, but so useless. The images were unacceptable, but I stood collected; what else to do in front of her father? I could not give into my feelings.

“Please Lucan, cry for me,” I thought. And, as if he had read my thoughts, a tear rolled down his cheek. It was the tear of a storyteller who knew he would never find the strength to tell this story, ever. “__They even considered giving her back to me, to let her die at home. Nero told me himself. But then, when they went back to her cell, she was standing, perfectly fit. Only dry blood testified to her earlier torments. “Nero believes that something from the underworld has taken possession of her...he is afraid she could seek revenge if he let her go. “ I pleaded for her Augustus... I was on my knees.” “Perhaps my father,” I said. “He could...” “Your father has been ordered not to enter Rome, or Nero will come after you Augustus,” He sighed. “And if we don’t make a scandal, Nero will allow her a proper death. He will have Julia strangled before they set fire to the cross.” I could imagine Julia, nailed to the cross, I had seen so many in the late days. And her flesh would burn, and the crowd would scream with demoniac pleasure, and Nero would be among the people, singing from his chariot. Lucan, my crying Lucan, had sat on the floor, his shoulders hunched, his mouth opened into a silent scream, and his almond shaped eyes fixed for the first time. I thought he might collapse here, as he was losing his usual magnificence. Julia’s father was right, there was nothing more to do but to pray and go to her execution. We would not say a word if she were to keep her dignity in her last instants. She would not be burned alive, still, she was to be nailed to the cross, she would suffer the atrocity of having her arms spread and her legs forced together and the nails driven through her wrists and feet. I imagined her, twisted in pain. And then they would raise the cross, as she would gasp for air. Finally after hours of pain, a soldier would be carried to her level and with his hands of plebeians, he would take her life. Then the fire would consume her flesh. Unacceptable. I had my plan. If somebody had to take her life, it was I. I decided to spare her from the pain, to go to the execution, to get close to her, and to strangle her myself. I knew what it meant. Nero would have me killed on the spot if I were lucky. Perhaps worse, I would be stoned to death, offered to the beasts, nailed to the cross myself. I didn’t care. We had a few hours. She was to be executed in Nero’s gardens. “Go pray to the Gods old man,” I told her father. “Lucan and I will go to her to be with her in her last moments. And we’ll bring you back what’s left of her body.” Julia’s father obeyed. He was too broken not to. Once alone with Lucan, I sat by him and we cried together. He cried for me and I cried for Julia. I told him of my dream; about Ziusudra but I didn’t mention the way he had forced the warm liquid into my hand. I asked him to remember my life, to make me into a story. “Why would I tell your story, you have years in front of you. You will survive the pain,” he uttered. “You will?” “I won’t...” “Augustus, what are you going to do?” I told him of my plan. I said it was the best way and that I was at peace with myself. He turned away, shivering. “No,” he said. “You will kill your father if you die...think Augustus, Nero will come after

your family, your brother...” I put my finger on his lips. “We are living merciless times. I need you to be strong for me. Please, will you tell my story?” “I will!” He said, but he knew he was lying. We hugged each other and cried over what could have been.

Just before sunset, we arrived at the Vatican hill - where the current Vatican City now stands - Nero’s gardens stood there. It was more beautiful than anything you could imagine. Under the dying sun, we headed towards the top of the hill, walking among flowers, roses, lilies and violets; in other circumstances it would have been a marvelous sight. But in the distance we could see people standing. They were shouting with excitement. Roman soldiers could barely contain the crowd. The night was descending on us, and all knew that very soon, human torches were to be lit. The closer I was to the top of the hill, the more I could smell the stench of the past burnings, and the warm evening didn’t help. I picked some parsley from the ground and crushed it under my nose. Now I could hear the banging of hammers and the screams of pain, and the begging of the hopeless all so real. Christians were already being nailed to crosses. I hoped I was not too late to keep Julia from the nail. “Are you sure,” Lucan asked, for the thousandth time. “They will kill you.” “Yes, Julia will go to Charon by my hands...and then I will join her.” We pushed through the crowd, with two of my slaves in front of us to open the way. Mostly plebeians and freedmen, they were. The smell of sweat and dry blood. Men shoving against each other. Men and women in jubilation. The ambiance was charged with desire, with sexuality; orgies were to come. What a sad moment for mankind. And far on the other side of the hill, I could discern Nero, naked on his chariot. I could see his blond hair, his blue eyes, and the freckles on his shapeless face, his enormous neck, and his fat belly hanging. He seemed happy because he made the crowd happy. He loved to be loved. Madness. I could see men being nailed to crosses, and I could hear the cries of mothers and wives begging, and suddenly they all had faces, identities forced onto me with unbearable certainty. And the fear in the eyes of those who were to be nailed, as they knew their fate was sealed. Some, having lost faith in their God, even tried to escape, but they were stopped by the soldiers, beaten into submission, carried back to the place of the crucifixions. They were weeping like children; grown man calling for their mothers, mother calling for their children, and for the first time, I felt connected to these poor souls. I didn’t care that they had set Rome on fire and I didn’t care that they ate flesh and drank blood. Nobody deserved to die like that. It was an abomination. Lucan had sat on the floor, legs crossed, head in his hands. He was trying not to witness the martyrdom, to ignore the spectacular display that Nero was offering to the crowd. He was not meant to be here, but he had come, my poet of a friend, to be with me in my last moments. He

had taken upon himself to hear the screams, and to smell the stink of the place because he loved me, and because he still hoped he could change my mind. I sat by him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Almost playful. He had the skin of a child, I remember. I enjoyed the feeling of my lips on his face, a bit salty, as he had been crying. I was going to kill Julia out of love, but as much as I was resolved, I was afraid. I had told myself that I could do it, that nothing would stop me from strangling the life out of her, but an intense fear was growing inside of me. My entire body was trembling, as I saw the crucified Christians imploring. “Please give me the strength,” I thought. “Let the Gods be with me. I am afraid father, I am so afraid. I will die the same death as they.” If I survived, I swore that I would kill Nero myself, that I would make him pay for his atrocities. I could imagine him asking me to spare his life, but I knew I would not survive. “Take it,” Lucan whispered, handing me a dagger. “If I can’t change your mind, at least take my dagger and kill yourself before they catch you. Please be strong and kill yourself. You can’t die like them. Look at them! It’s an ugly death. It would make a bad ending to your story if you die begging…don’t you think so?” he smiled, a sad smile. I grabbed the knife and thanked him with my eyes. Would I find the strength? “ Look,” he said. “Here she is.” In the distance, another group of Christians was herded towards us. They were singing, praising their single God, thanking him for their lives with dumb accepting eyes. And Julia, she was walking among this cluster of men, dressed in very simple robes of linen, I think. She was covered in dry blood; like Ziusudra had said, she would be in my dream. I could see that all of them had been tortured, they were limping, and some could barely stand. But Julia, she was untouched. She didn’t even seem afraid. And behind her, I saw him. “Lucan, Lucan,” I murmured, amazed. “It’s him, it’s him, the man of my dream.” “Ziusudra,” he asked. “Are you sure?” “Yes, that’s the man, that’s the one.” Ziusudra was walking slowly. He was visibly in pain. He didn’t look like the strong proud man in the night. His face was bruised and bloody. His lips cracked. He was a sad spectacle. He fell on his knees, unable to go on, but Julia turned around and helped him stand back up. “He certainly doesn’t look like the man you described Augustus, and he barely resembles the man I saw. I don’t see anything unnatural about him…where is the inhuman strength, and the glow you talked about__” I said nothing. “__If he was the half god you told me about, do you think he would be here, barely standing, waiting to be crucified? Look at him Augustus, do you think he would have allowed Nero to break his body like that? Look at your immortal.” What could I answer? Lucan was right; it made no sense. My poor Julia would die because she believed in this man, because she believed he could bring life to the dying, when he could not even save himself. She was close now, a few feet. I could almost touch her. Taking her in my arms, bringing her back with me, marrying her the way I was supposed to marry her. Children, we would have had many, strong boys and beautiful princesses. But between us, stood soldiers, and we could have been miles apart it would have been the same. Julia was already a memory.

“Julia,” I screamed. “I am here.” She turned around and saw me. Beautiful smile. I grabbed the blade. “I won’t forget our love,” I read on her lips. “I won’t forget our love. I won’t forget our love. I won’t forget our love.” Our love! It was real gentlemen. It was long ago, but it was as real as you are. And then, he made his move, Ziusudra. His broken body finding a last energy, he grabbed her face and kissed her lips, the lips I had kissed so many times before. She smiled as he put his immense hands around her neck, and she smiled as he broke her neck. I heard her moan and she closed her eyes. She was dead. He had taken her life, he had stolen what was rightly mine, and he had saved me from the cross. I hated him so much that day. The soldiers jumped on him, but he fought back. I could hear the crowd yelling as he pushed the guards away, and as he grabbed one of them and broke his spine between his arms. Then, from his chariot, Nero sent five men and then ten, and still they could not control Ziusudra. It took twenty men to stop him and put him down. I heard him scream in agony when they nailed his wrists to the wood, and I saw his tears when they raised the cross. How terrible a sight! They had not even taken the time to nail his feet. He could barely breathe, his arms spread, his lungs unable to function under the weight of his own body. “Fire, fire,” The crowd shouted. “Light him up, light him up.” Nervously, a man walked to the cross and set it on fire. Small fire first, a tiny orange tongue of suffering, slowly growing towards Ziusudra’s feet and slowly reaching him. Then, I saw his broken body in pain as he visibly suffered like mortals suffer. He was no god at this instant, not even a man, and he was twisting on the cross, moving his legs away from the burning…but the fire didn’t stop, it grew stronger and hotter. The flames turned blue, and then white. “Stop it,” I cried. “Stop this atrocity.” I think he heard me. He stopped screaming, and he stopped moving his body, accepting the burning. I could see his disappearing hair, and his flesh peeling away, and his ears melting. He looked at me with glassy eyes. “Eyes on the verge of dying.” I thought. “Drink from the flask, Augustus,” he screamed. “She will come back if you drink from the flask.” A terrible fear overpowered me, and, cowardly, I turned away and rushed down the hills, Lucan behind me. And then, mouth gasping for air, I thought of it, the flask, the blood of her life. Gentlemen, now you know how I lost Julia. That night, I spent it in my room. Door closed, I had ordered everybody out, even him, my friend the storyteller. I knew how worried he was, but what I had to do, I had to do alone. On the floor, the flask was calling for me; I could hear it, as if it had been alive. I didn’t have the courage to listen to its call and I didn’t have the courage not to. I was shattered, broken.

I had no hope, but only the flask and the strange sound it made. A sound that only I could hear, as it was only for my ears. Julia’s blood, Julia’s life. What would happen if I drank from it? Would she rise from the dead, my little woman, my bride to be, would she appear in front of me, alive and beautiful? And I thought of Ziusudra, how he warned me, how he said she would hate me…But he was wrong, he didn’t know of our love. Our love, I was convinced that it was eternal. What would happen? When the first rooster sang, I mustered enough strength; I grabbed it, the small velvetlike recipient. Strange sensation in my hand. It was still warm and pulsing like a living heart. I was resolute as I poured the liquid down my throat. I was afraid. “Blood drinker, flesh eater,” I thought. I remember the burning sensation inside of me, and then, in an instant my body convulsing, trying to reject the blood. I remember how, twisted on the floor, I begged for my death and how suddenly he appeared to me. Ziusudra was here, back from the dead, in the room. He stood there; he wasn't the broken man who had died on the cross. He was magnificent. Hallucination? He looked at me, with so much love, as a father looks at his newborn child. And he said: “I wish I could ease your pain my child, but I have to go, until you call for me again.” On the floor, I searched for comfort, my eyes looked into his eyes, one last time. “Call for me when the time comes,” I read on his lips. “Call for me.” And then he disappeared, as if he had never been here. I waited, hours passed, the day became night and again the sun rose, and the days became weeks, and the weeks became months, but Julia never appeared. The suffering, the lack of her, it didn’t make me a wise man, or a good man, as some say it does to people. It only turned me into an uninterested man, with very little purpose.

CHAPTER VI

Lucan visited me every week, and kept me aware. He brought life to me, as I stayed in my room and didn’t care. I closed my eyes and listened to his stories, barely awake sometimes, and wrapped in self-pity. With his passionate voice, with laughter, and crying and music, he told me everything. For a long time, I remained unresponsive to his words. There was a fine layer of despair between us, but slowly, and methodically, he forced himself into my universe. Week after week, he spoke. And I understood the words, but I had no feeling for anyone, as I still lived inside my pain. He spoke of Nero, and of his growing madness. He spoke of the “Domus Aurea”, a place covered of gold and precious stones, how the Emperor had it built where the fire had burned down the city. He said that Italy was ruined, crumbling under taxes, that the provinces had no more money to give, and that both the nations allied to Rome and the free states were ready to rebel. And as if that weren’t enough, Nero committed sacrilege in order to build his Golden Palace. He demolished the temple of Claudius, which had been in the way, and he had stolen the offering to the Gods. And even after all this destruction, there still wasn’t enough to finance the monument to his glory. He sent the freedmen Acratus and Secundus Carinas throughout the Asian and Achian provinces to seize images of deities. He had made a good choice, as both were known for their wickedness. And he also asked Seneca to lessen himself by committing similar sacrileges, but the philosopher didn’t follow his orders, he took ill, hid in his room, and kept himself from obeying. “Because my uncle would not obey him, Nero tried to poison him,” Lucan whispered into my ears. “And he only survived because of his philosophy of simple life. He feeds himself of wild fruits and drank from a spring. My uncle believes that he is only alive because he didn’t touch the food prepared for him by his own freedman…” I stared at him. “Yes, I can see it in your eyes, you are surprised. Nero ordered Cleonicus, the loyal freedman of so many years to poison my uncle…” “Do you have a proof of it?” I interrupted. “There is no need, Cleonicus, stricken by remorse admitted it. He fell on his knees in front of my uncle when he saw him alive in the morning, and he cried with joy and fear, as he asked for mercy.” “Are you certain? After all, the word of a freedman…” “What can I say, we only have his word, but I certainly know what Nero did to me…I’m forbidden to publish now, or to tell my stories in public. The emperor is jealous of my talent.” I

could see tears in my friend’s eyes, him, the storyteller, forbidden to bring his words to the world. “But he is Caesar?” “Yes Nero is Caesar, but he is no artist, just a madman who forces people to witness his pathetic performances. He is a pitiful fat man, and he can only hate, in his confusion, that I am the talented artist and poet than he will never be.” I cried with Lucan, but there was nothing I could do. My father was exiled, and I felt alien to the world. I cried for Rome. “The emperor will be the end of Rome,” Lucan said, one morning. “The senate should stop him. We are all afraid. Did you see the signs?” “What signs?” I asked. “Prodigies, everywhere; in the whole known world…first it was Pompeii and Herculaneum, then the great fire, and now the sky is filled with lighting flashes, and there is the comet which appeared yesterday. If you walk outside tonight, you will see it. “Children are born with two heads throughout the Empire. Those are no natural disasters, I am telling you, the gods are angry with Nero, and they will send more evil upon us as long as he rules. “In the district of Placentia, a calf was born with its head attached to its leg. The oracles said it is a sign, the Gods are letting us know of they desire to see another soul lead the Empire. “In the town of Praeneste, gladiators tried to revolt, and they had to be put down by the military guard. People are talking of Spartacus. “Everybody has seen the signs, everybody is afraid, and we all know that more calamities are to come.” Again I cried for Rome. My tears were salty on my tongue, and I remembered the taste of the blood, Julia’s mixed with Ziusudra’s, and then I forgot about it. I cried for Rome during the day. But at night, haunting my dreams, only Ziusudra and my hatred for him were left. He had taken away my rightful sacrifice. He had promised that Julia would be back, not a ghost, but warm and sweet and breathing in my arms. Lies. Lies. It was all a lie. And Lucan came with more stories, and I cried for Rome, again, and again. As time passed, I also forgot about Ziusudra. I woke up one morning and he wasn’t important anymore. God, hero, mortal, I didn’t care; he had been replaced by a sense of purpose. For the first time, I understood that my life had been spared for a reason. It was the logical choice. I would kill Nero, the monster, the mad man, I would restore the Empire to its magnificence, and I would avenge Julia. My spirit was clear; the fire, the comet, the abnormalities, and Julia; I didn’t need the divine insight, I didn’t need the oracle, I would murder the emperor. It wasn’t solely out of rage or despair; I was the protector of Rome. You could say it was vanity, or arrogance, but it wasn’t. I had just redefined my life around my hatred for this man and my love of the State.

“I’m going to kill Nero,” I said. “It’s the reason why the Gods spared me the day Julia died.” “Hush, my friend.” Lucan whispered. “Don’t speak so loudly, you could be heard.” “I’m going to bleed the pig for the grandeur of Rome,” I continued with a smile. “And then the senate will have its power back, and another man will lead the Empire, hopefully a wiser man.” “Augustus, listen to me,” he said. “You can’t, Nero is not to be killed by you. You will fail and then he will protect himself even more, so much so that nobody will have access to him.” “What do you mean? Do you know something I don’t know?” He stared at me, with his eyes, which didn’t want to lie. “For your own protection…” “Tell me Lucan,” I interrupted. “Tell me what it is or tell me that there is nothing I should be aware of…” “My brother in spirit, it isn’t my right to tell.” His eyes were moving without rest. Beautiful and frightened face. “It isn’t time to question, will you not displease me and let it go?” “I need to know.” “I will arrange a meeting with my uncle then, if you have to know, he is the one to tell,” he sighed. “And I’ll be present__” I nodded. “__After all, am I not the one to tell your story?” he added.

CHAPTER VII

Seneca’s house stood four miles from Rome, on a fertile land covered with olive trees. A splendid villa on the hills, made of pink concrete and the finest marble, and inside, every wall was painted with the most elaborate frescoes. I know gentlemen; you think it couldn’t be because he was a stoic, a man of simple needs, how ignorant of you! Seneca since his return from Corsica-where the Emperor Claudius has banished him for sleeping with his daughter-had amassed a fortune. Some say more than 3,000,000 sesterces, which in money of today would be more than $ 40,000,000. But that is not the point. A freedman led us to the Tablinum, the large reception room of the house, but as I walked, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. It was March but the atmosphere was heavy on my shoulders. An instant I thought that I was going to pass out, as if my body were drawn towards another reality. I had only felt this sensation twice, during the dream, if dream it had been, when I had met Ziusudra for the first time and when I had plunged my dagger into him, and a second time, when he’d appeared to me after I drank from his blood. And when I’d felt myself moving into a different realm, where he’d taken me, or into the illusion borne of my desperate mind. “He was here,” I said. “I can still feel him.” “Whom are you talking about?” Lucan asked. “Ziusudra, Ziusudra was here.” He shook his head, annoyed. “We’ve been through it a thousand times, Ziusudra is dead Augustus. How many times should I tell you? Don’t you remember how he burned and how he died?” “He was here, I am telling you. He won’t leave me alone, I thought I had forgotten him, but I can feel his presence.” He looked at me with a dull look in his eyes. He doubted my sanity, and wondered whether, perhaps, the meeting wasn’t such a good idea? “If he were, it was long ago…” “Is it possible that he was here Lucan?” I interrupted; I was afraid and too proud to show it. “Is it?” I could see he was thinking, looking for an answer, and a way to calm me down. “There is a slight possibility,” he said, after a long silence. “Very slight. My uncle was a friend of Paul’s…” “The Christian?” “That’s what I was told.” “That’s how you know so much about the sect?” “Yes, my uncle introduced me to the man called Barnabas, the one who told me about Paul and his miracles, do you remember?” “Yes.” “And Ziusudra was one of Paul’s followers…but Augustus, this is neither the time nor the place to talk of these things. Forget about your ghost, live men are waiting.” “Men?” “Yes, they wanted to meet you. Do not worry, they share your feelings for Nero,” he reassured me. “And more importantly, collect yourself.”

“Nice to meet you again, Augustus,” Seneca said as we entered the room. “ It has been a long time, since your father brought you to me to teach you the rhetorical art.” I remember that Lucan’s uncle had a strange way of speaking, very monotonous, a bit like his writings, but his words drew respect. He was dignified, superbly dressed in a senatorial Toga. And he wasn’t alone, he was surrounded by the powers of Rome, the most influential men in the Empire or the most courageous, and all had one thing in common: They despised Nero. In the right corner stood Subrius Flavus, tribune of a praetorian cohort, and Sulpicius Asper, the centurion, both men revered by the people for their intelligence and heroism on the battlefield. And closer, very composed, I could see Lateranus, the consul-elect, a huge man, known for his love of the State, his physical and mental strength, and for a short affair years before with the famous Messalina. Man after man, I recognized all of them. Seated in elaborately sculpted chairs, the Senators Flavius Scaevinus and Afranius Quintianus. The lazy Scaevinus and the feminine Quintianus. I recalled how Nero, in a lampoon, had insulted Quintianus, and made fun of his homosexuality; certainly the senator had in his heart to avenge the insult. By his side stood Antonius Natalis - I had already met him when I was younger - the friend of many other influential people who hated Nero as well. Natalis was known for his power of conviction. I recognized all of them. But there was another. I hadn’t noticed him right away because he was hidden by the shadow, in the left corner of the room. He was a man of tall stature, though not as tall as Ziusudra, and yet it made me think of him. I felt slightly threatened by their attitude. It was now evident that I had forced the meeting, when I had told Lucan of my desire to kill Caesar, and I understood that he had repeated each word I’d pronounced to this group. Now they had to let me in their conspiracy. Because it was a conspiracy! Only a fool in my situation would have thought otherwise. They had a common purpose, and similar ideas as to the way of achieving their goal; they would save the Empire from the Emperor’s madness, even if it meant Nero’s death, even if it meant their own, or the death of anyone who stood in the way. The tall man walked out from the shadow. He had a very handsome face, with two beautiful almond-shaped eyes, green I think, but so many years have passed, a pale skin, very short blond hair, and full red lips surrounding his perfectly white teeth. “Caius Piso,” I whispered for myself, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Who else could have better replaced the mad Emperor? I understood why he’d been chosen. He was the descendant of one of the most prestigious houses, and he was connected to the most illustrious families in the Empire. And I should add that he enjoyed power, good reputation and eloquence! He was a man of contrast; he had beauty without arrogance, eloquence without vanity, loyalty towards his friends, and good demeanor towards strangers, but he also indulged in laxity and excess and had no moderation when it came to pleasure. The perfect candidate, a man adored by plebeians and nobles alike.

“You know why you are here Augustus?” Seneca said. “I think I do,” I answered. “I know or I have heard of all of you, and it is common knowledge that you have no love for Nero…” “Is it so?” “Yes it is!” Piso, looked into my eyes, taking my measure, for an instant, and he spoke: “Augustus, I have heard of you. You are a man of character, and a man to be trusted according to Lucan.” I nodded. “In the affair which interests you, we need the most complete secrecy. If Nero were to learn what we are planning he would have us all killed, or he would ask us to take our own lives.” “You want him dead?” I asked. “I won’t stand in your way, you probably know that he had my bride killed?” “We know,” Seneca interrupted. “And we have a problem with that. Understand Augustus, one doesn’t kill an Emperor with rage…” “I have more than rage, I have a blade,” I said, pointing to my dagger, the very one that had failed me against Ziusudra. “Listen Augustus,” Seneca said, impatiently. “When Lucan came to us with your story, and when he told us of your plan to murder Nero, we panicked. You chose an impossible task, young man.” “I…” “You couldn’t even approach Nero,” Flavus added, with the raspy voice of a man injured on the battlefield. A long pale white scar on the right side of his neck attested to it. “The entire Praetorian Guard would be waiting for you and surround you. They would kill you before you could make a move. I know, I trained them myself…and then Nero would be aware, he would be frightened, he would be ready, and surrounded by more walls and guards. “There is a list with all the enemies of the state, and you’re on it Augustus.” “I hate him,” I shouted. “I have nothing to fear.” “Don’t you think I hate him also?” Flavus snapped back at me. “I have served him for many years, I have seen his madness. I was prepared to kill him myself. “I was resolute to stop the Emperor, to attack him when he was singing on stage, or one night when he was running unattended, in the darkness. But even then, I knew that my chances were slim. “I talked to my friend Asper of my idea, as I knew of his hatred for Nero, and that he was one of the bravest centurions of the Empire. I was willing…” “When Flavus came to me Augustus,” Asper interrupted. “I tried to reason with him, but he was set on killing Nero. “We were afraid that he would fail in his attempt, and alarm Caesar, and we resolved ourselves to hurry and dispose of the Emperor sooner than planned. We quickly decided to kill him at Baiae, in Piso's villa. As you must know, the Emperor trusts Piso and goes to his house often, unguarded and without his friends…it would have been easy for me or a guard to spear him.” The massive centurion took a deep breath out of necessity. He spoke fast, hurrying each word and forgetting to breathe in the process, like soldiers often do, as they know the fragility of life and understand that it can be shortened at any time. “Why didn’t you then?” I asked, angrily. It seemed to me like a good plan. Asper didn’t

answer but turned his eyes away and looked at Piso who’d remained in the corner. “There are things one should not do,” Piso shook his head. “Even for the Empire. I wasn’t ready to break the sanctity of my house and to anger the Gods. It’s a despicable crime to break one’s hospitality, even for Nero. “When the emperor is my guest, he’s under my roof, my protection…” “You mean he could be dead already?” I interrupted, amazed. “Yes, Augustus,” Piso continued. “But there are other ways…and the people have to see him die, or they would never believe he’s gone. What good would it do us, if Rome keeps living in fear of his return?” “That’s why I finally had to let Flavus in our conspiracy.” Asper carried on. “Like you today, we took him to Seneca…” “I know Nero well Augustus, I made him,” Seneca continued. “He is a mad man, but he isn’t a fool. If you want to see him dead, you’ll have to trust us.” “When will he die?” I was impatient. Seneca smiled, his eyes into my eyes: “Can we trust you?” It meant. “When will he die?” I repeated. “We will carry out his execution in a few weeks; when he attends the circus game in honor of Ceres.” Seneca pointed to Lateranus. “The consul-elect will take Nero to the ground and hold him down__” Lateranus smiled calmly. “__Then Scaevinus will strike first,” Seneca continued. I looked at him surprised, why would he have the pleasure of the first blow? “He is the only one who has close access to Nero.” “Then you shall give me your word that you will use my dagger.” I looked at all of them, I wasn’t asking, I was telling them the way it ought to be, and I saw in their eyes that they agreed. “If I’m not the one who draws blood first, at least, I want to know that my hand is the one which handed the weapon.” Scaevinus walked to me and grabbed the blade. He pinched my cheek in a gesture of friendship. He was radiant, and with a very sweet voice he whispered into my ear: “Augustus, I shall be happy to oblige. Your blade will be first in his heart, brother, be certain of it.” I thought of Julia, of Nero on his chariot while she died, and I even thought of all the ones he had murdered after the great fire. I recalled the screams and the begging; I recalled the fear in their dying eyes. “The gods be with you.” I answered my eyes into his eyes, proud and happy to see my wishes respected. “After I strike him,” he continued. “Flavus and his men, all of them, tribunes and centurions, soldiers will finish him to make sure that there is no one guilty man to condemn, but too many to point the finger.”

CHAPTER VIII

Two weeks had passed since the meeting, and I had talked further with these men, and other men and even women who hated Nero as well and who had joined the conspiracy, all my brothers in spirit. The Emperor was in my grip, a dead man who hadn’t yet been told he was dead. We had plans. After his death, we would make him fade from history; we’ll erase his name and destroy his statues. Nothing to his glory will stand to remind the world of the monster; even the Golden Dome would have to be destroyed. We couldn’t fail. I had the confidence of a man who has lost everything, and the certainty that my dagger would be the first one to taste blood. I’d warned Scaevinus that the blade was dull, and he’d assured me that he would have it sharpened before plunging it into Nero. Unlike me, all those men, no doubt were afraid, I could see it growing in their eyes as the day grew closer. They had good reason to be, they had lives, and wives, and children, entire futures to attend to. Lucan seemed even more nervous than the others; I understood. He wasn’t a man of action, or a warrior, or a politician trying to improve his status. He was a poet who would never have dared to conspire against Caesar, if he had been given a choice. But a choice, he had been refused, when Nero forced him to keep his stories to himself. We had been talking for an hour or two and then it happened. We had discussed his fears. He was afraid of what could happen if we didn’t succeed, he was afraid of failure and death, and suffering. Suddenly I sensed that we were being watched, nothing physical, but we were not alone, and Lucan sensed it as well, I could see it, his eyes turned larger and round. We felt an invisible presence, and it was growing stronger, filling the entire house. “We are...” I said. “…Not alone,” he took my words. “There’s somebody in the house…but you always send your slaves and freedmen away when we discuss the conspiracy…” “Nobody should be here.” “Do you think somebody heard us?” His eyes stared nervously at me. “We are dead…” He was ready to stand up and run madly away, but fear paralyzed him, not a muscle in his body responded to his mind. My heart was pounding fast, I couldn’t clear my head, what to do? I kept my composure for Lucan; he was pale, and shrinking almost physically. “I don’t know…there’s something…yes somebody’s watching us…” “Stop it, you’re scaring me.” “Can’t you feel it, it’s getting stronger, it has entered the room…” “There’s nothing here but us,” he interrupted. “But I feel it, we aren’t alone. By the gods, Augustus, I am frightened.”

“Hush,” I whispered. “Let me focus.” The invisible thing was almost tangible, and it was cold and empty and dark and old. A very old thing, older than my world. And it was inside me. But I wouldn’t let it enter farther; I was trying to will it out. And then, I felt the pain, like needles forcing their way into my mind. “Sen. .im ..ay.” I heard. Had he heard it, my friend? I couldn’t tell. No! Those words hadn’t been pronounced; they came from inside me, thoughts, but not mine. I heard myself screaming because of the pain. I could see that he wanted reassurance, my poet of a friend, but it was beyond my abilities. I was scaring him. He shook me; I could feel the sensitive skin of his palms against my skin. He was terrified. “Sen. him .way.” Needles. Pain. I couldn’t move my body. The thing clamped to my very being, a parasite, and the pain, and how it reinforced itself as I tried to push it away. I didn’t resist as much, and then, the pain, it was becoming exquisite. I remember that I liked the agony and that I stopped fighting. The thoughts inside, clearly not mine, and not really thoughts, because it was physical, I could hear them, and feel them and taste them. It was succulent. The less I fought the less pain. It was, as if knowledge had materialized and was brushing against my mind. And with it, I could see images, places that I couldn’t understand, fallen kingdoms and worlds that were clearly not of my time. Everywhere I could see beauty, tall men taller than my kind and tall women, each of them different and perfect, all of them long gone. Beauty that one can taste, I said it, succulent! Somehow, I knew that I was witnessing a disappeared universe, nothing real but a repeat. And beyond the beauty echoing in my mind, there was something else, an immense sorrow accumulated over time. Not the simple, short and easily understood timeline of one life, no! It was the pain of a man who had seen too much and had too many memories, and had lost too many friends and too many children. I could feel the despair. I could see young men and old men, and women and children dying. In their different eyes – blue, green brown, gray eyes, shaped differently, round or almond, larger, smaller - the same fear of death. I couldn’t hear their last words but I knew, they begged, they wanted more. All of them how they fought for one more breath, more, more, more... “Send him away.” The words said, clearly this time. And I agreed, I wanted my friend away; I wanted more space for the thing and myself. I had become the thing, two minds in one mind, and both thoughts in one body. And Lucan was a tragic image of fear, only waiting for an excuse to leave without the shame of cowards. “Go, go home Lucan,” I heard myself shouting. “I can’t leave you li…” “Go away. Now! If you are a friend, go away. I need to be alone. Go.” He had his excuse. No shame. He stood up. “I will come in the morning.”

I shrugged. He wouldn’t have to face the shame of cowards, but he knew what he was. He was speechless. “Go!” He stood up and slipped into the shadows, that’s what I remember. I didn’t hear him walk away and I didn’t hear the door open and close, but I knew he’d left. I was alone - no freedmen, no slaves - with the thing which peered into my mind, peered slowly, methodically, discovering the animal behind the man, bringing it back into the light; my anger, my desire for revenge, my taste for the blood of my enemies, my forbidden fantasies, my unacceptable weaknesses. I was exposed, stripped of every civilized layer and forced to face my darkest apprehensions. I heard myself weeping. Stop. Too much! “Who are you?” I asked. “Augustus, Augustus, have you already forgotten me?” The thing said. I hadn’t forgotten. “Ziusudra!” “Yes my young warrior.” “No,” I said. “Ziusudra’s dead.” “Augustus, how disappointing. I told you, I’m not of the kind that can die. My essence cannot leave my body…” “I haven’t called you.” I interrupted. “I know you haven’t, but there isn’t time anymore.” “Show yourself then!” “I can’t. I am not here, only my thoughts and yours…I am finishing up something I have to do before…” “What do you mean?” “Let me show you.” Suddenly, he wasn’t inside of me anymore, he had brought me inside of him. I was he. His body was my body; we shared the same face, the same eyes, the same heart, and the same breath. I was in a small house outside of Rome, and through his eyes - which had become mine I could see a group of men, soldiers, maybe twenty of them, all of them chained to the wall, pleading for their lives, and it made me happy to see the terror which overpowered them. “Look at them,” Ziusudra said. “How afraid they are. Can you taste the fear around us? Can you smell the sweat; can you hear their shouts? It’s deafening. How they clutch to one another, and how they look for comfort in each other. They know!” “What?” I asked, I could feel his anger and the pleasure he drew from the men’s terror. “What do they know?” “They remember the last day we met, how they came into my house, and how they brought me before Nero…oh yes they remember. “I told them they would die a death like mine…and they witnessed my death, and they saw me twisting and screaming and begging.” “The soldiers who arrested you?” “Yes.” He smiled an internal smile, and I smiled with him, as at this instant I was he, though I didn’t want to be part of what was happening. “And you swore that you would kill all of them?”

“Yes I did, and I always keep my word.” He said. “But I am not so bad, I gave them a choice. They have their daggers with them.” He pointed to blades piled up in front of the soldiers. “An easy reach,” he continued. “A bit of willpower and they are free.” “What do you mean?” I asked “What choice?” “They can either burn or they can cut off their arm and free themselves…and I think some of them will try…” he smiled. “I know what it means to burn alive, I would have cut off my arm given the choice.” “We didn’t know, we didn’t… please let us go.” The soldiers begged. One voice for all of them. One scream for all of them. One fear for all of them. I realized the place was hot, I turned my head, his head, looked around, the house was on fire and every door was closed, but the one behind us. “Time to leave.” He said, as he exited the place. “Please, not like that. Please.” The soldiers begged with children’s voices. I enjoyed their fear, but I refused to believe that it was I who took pleasure in their supplications. I was sensing his twisted joy, Ziusudra. It wasn’t I, who rejoiced in their pain, as I first thought, the sensation, the gratification; it was the delight in his soul overwhelming my feelings of disgust. We were outside. I wanted to close my eyes, but they weren’t mine and I wasn’t in control. In horror, I witnessed the fire, how it grew, crimson against the dark background of the night, almost liquid, and the flames running like a river down the sagging roof, and racing up the walls to meet and feed on each other. And following the red, blue and white tongues of heat bursting from broken windows, to be sucked back by the blaze, I could hear the soldiers, and their screams of agony, barely audible, escaping an instant only to be swallowed by the raging inferno. The flames were jumping from wood to melting mortar and bubbling frescoes, and again the screams. And then, framed in the doorway, swaying back and forth, as he emerged from the fire; a fireball of what had been a man. In his fist, melted shut, he held a dagger, his other arm was cut off and already burned into a deformed shaft of matter. I wanted to cry for the burning soldier, but covering my pity, I could only feel the intense joy, the luscious pleasure clamped from Ziusudra’s mind into my mind. “Don’t you like it?” I heard. “Isn’t it sweet and voluptuous, and moist like a woman? Can you feel the pleasure of his pain…why would you refuse it? Accept, drink from his suffering as you drank from Julia’s love for you…accept.” “I won’t,” I answered, “I won’t Ziusudra. I know it’s your pleasure, not mine. I know it’s your revenge, not mine…” He laughed, the usual crystalline laugh. “You will get used to it, and you will learn how to bathe your soul in the pain of others… I did.” The man fell on his knees, his only arm moving towards the heaven, his eyes were gone, and his lips mimicked the remembrance of a scream from his gasping red burning mouth. “Stop it,” I wanted to yell, but it wasn’t my mouth. I felt my soul breaking in cries, “I

won’t enjoy his pain. I refuse, I can’t do it.” The burning man was blindly starring at me with two useless empty red burning sockets. It was clear that he was the only one to have escaped the house. He collapsed, his burned body shaking, his face into the molten earth. Merciless death. “I used to be like you,” Ziusudra said. “But it was long ago…you too one day will enjoy their suffering. You will remember this moment with a smile…” “Never, never.” I shouted. And then the house collapsed and slid into the blackened earth. “All is done.” Ziusudra whispered into my mind. “As I said, I always keep my word.” “Liar,” I snapped. “You said that Julia wouldn’t die. Liar.” “I haven’t lied, she isn’t dead, and she isn’t alive. I feel your surprise. You don’t understand, and how could you…Please bare with me.” “Where is she then?” “Be patient. You will see her again, but not so fast. You don’t understand and you hate me too much…but I need you as my ally before she can come to you.” “I don’t even know who you are or what you are, except a monster__” I could feel him smile. He was amused. I continued. “__I will certainly not trust you before…” “Before you understand who I am. But my sweet innocent Augustus, it has always been my intention to fully reveal myself to you... “For Julia’s sake, will you come with me?” “I will.” I answered with apprehension. “Come then, Augustus, time is of the essence.”

CHAPTER IX

The dead world that I had seen for a furtive instant, when Ziusudra brought my soul into his mind, it was back. The tall people, so perfect and so different from one another, they surrounded me now. I was walking among them. Each man and woman was perfection, and each of them a universe unto themselves. All magnificently dressed in colors that I didn’t know could be stolen from nature and made into the finest clothing. It was a place that, at the time, I couldn’t comprehend. Realize one thing gentlemen, I didn’t know about the modern world, I didn’t know about buildings of steel, or glass for that matter. I had heard of the pyramids, and of colossal structures built to honor the gods, but I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have changed a thing, because it was a city like none I have seen to this day. All around me towers of different colors, mainly red, but also white and black, grew into the sky, dissolving into the clouds. I tried to follow them, but the sunlight poured upon me forcing my eyes down, but without doubt they were taller than anything man has made even today. I walked to one of the buildings, I could feel grass under my feet, I could smell a light sweet scent in the air, a mix of fruit and flowers, and I touched it, the tower, and it wasn’t stone as I first thought or even metal, but a strange material which gave way to my fingers and changed colors under my skin, turning from a red color into pink mauve. And then, it turned into a round opening, just enough for a man to enter, but I didn’t. I realized that nowhere did I see a door, and there was none, buildings just opened themselves to let you in. Fearful I pulled back. I was Ziusudra and I wasn’t him. I could hear myself breathe through his mouth, and his lungs inflate, and his heart pulse and his blood push through his body, or my body? His body? My body? No, I wasn’t him. “Don’t be frightened,” I heard him whisper. “It’s a special substance that we used to build our cities, orichalcum we called it; it could tap into our minds and obey our wishes, change from solid to incorporeal as it just did, or even fly into the sky if we desired.” “Where am I?” I asked, nervously. “What is that?” “Augustus, you are still in my mind. I am taking you where no one has been since the day I was made immortal…I am taking you into my memory. “ Bare with me, for you are going into what was my world, for I am bringing you where and when your world was born…” “ I don’t understand?” “And how could you young Roman, you are so young and your civilization so primitive. Let me explain while I bring you from beginning to end, from the death of my kind to the birth of yours. “Don’t be frightened for what you’ll see is nothing, but a ghost, an echo that can’t hurt you, the heartbreaking immaterial repeat of an era of perfection. “And if you feel like crying, if you feel like screaming, if you feel like dying, again, don’t be alarmed because it will only be my feelings overpowering your heart, and my tears, and my

pain and my endless life growing inside of you. “Please let me show you more of my city…the beautiful Naaca as it was called.” Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t walking anymore, and the tall people, they were shrinking, getting smaller fast, I was flying, my feet solidly anchored to a small disk of orichalcum. I was flying like the gods. “You seem to dislike it,” I heard. Again, it was his voice, and he was right, men weren’t supposed to fly, I thought at the time. “You don’t like to fly…I don’t understand why, I used to enjoy my morning flights over the city, and the air, it was so pure, and the light when the sun barely rose… every day a new day…but that was then.” “I can’t do that,” I shouted. “Why me, when they are so many?” “Augustus, I am not the one who chose you.” “Who then?” “Julia.” “I don’t understand…” “Be patient.” He interrupted. “Look, from here you can see the entire city…isn’t it beautiful, and perfect?” And he was right, it was beautiful, as a full moon is beautiful and it was perfect, as a newborn child is perfect, and one need not have seen beauty or perfection to recognize it at first sight. The metropolis was from each side enclosed by an unknown sea, it stood on a small island. It wasn’t only made of towers, but also surrounding it, I could see temples and palaces, harbors and docks, an entire civilization, alive and thriving. And in the distance, I could see other islands, each of them linked to the other by immense bridges of orichalcum. They all bordered a huge canal, at least three hundred feet wide and sixty miles long, which went from the sea and finished in a far distant harbor. On one of these islands – a small one with a diameter of a mile I suppose - stood a palace bigger and more striking than the others, a marvel of size and beauty, its roof covered in what seemed to be gold and ivory. “What is it?” I asked. “It is…” “Grandiose,” interrupted Ziusudra, and I felt pride, and I knew it was his pride growing inside of me. “The royal palace, where everything started, when we were men, just after we discovered orichalcum. At the time, we didn’t yet know about its properties and that the magical red mineral would become the corner stone of our entire civilization. “We used to be like you and more primitive, just tribes of apelike creatures living by the sea, who worshipped the Sky God with their limited language, were afraid of lighting, cried for their dead and begged for a better life after death. We survived one day at a time Augustus, one day at a time. “And then came the great winter when my people starved to death, children and women were the first ones to go. We sent our fishermen and hunters after food and they roamed over the sea and land but they always came back empty handed. We prayed to the sky God for our salvation and we gave Him offerings and we spoke with all the power of our voices…until the great dream as we called it. “One night it is said, three tribes – the tribes of Shem, Ham and Japheth - shared a vision; it showed a large boat and from it, a white bird took its flight and flew over the waters for days to

finally find a magical land, an archipelago piercing through the sea, a place of trees and plants and unknown animals. “And then, my ancestors thanked the Sky God and built a boat and left their frozen home…to follow the great dream, we sent a dove day after day, hoping that it would find land, but day after day the bird came back…many died but finally, the dove didn’t come back and the starving survivors reached these islands, the very place that I’m showing you now. “To thank the Sky God, they constructed this palace. It was quite a small place when our first king, Aululim, built it, but with every generation, we continued to ornament it, and as every king died, his son tried to surpass his father to the utmost of his power, until the place reached perfection Augustus. “As time passed, and new kings came to power, we built temples to honor the God who had brought us here. We covered them in gold and silver and orichalcum. And inside each temple, we raised statues that touched the roofs of buildings, and around each temple we erected even taller statues representing the first kings…” “But how long did it take?” I interrupted. “Rome isn’t as splendid as this city and it took hundreds of years to build…” “Oh, we didn’t build the city first Augustus. My ancestors still lived in small houses, even when the palace had grown to perfection and that we had many temples around it, and why not? Before life had been a struggle and now it had become easy, everything we needed we collected from the earth and the sea. It was a fertile land with entire forests made of fruit trees and fragrant essences, and roots that could cure every predicament, once you turned them into ointments. It had become a life of abundance. “Everything was easy, hunting wasn’t perilous because we used traps and would kill our preys from afar, and fishing…we used simple nets but the fish were so many…so easy…and also we had discovered the grape trees from which we made wine... Yes easy…we’d forgotten the difficult times which had forced our ancestors to sail the treacherous seas; we had forgotten the cold and we only had a distant memory of our ancestors’ days of starvation. “We lived by simple laws, and we had lost the desire to own. Possessions meant little then, because everything was so freely available, we shared it all, even the children were raised by the community. There was no violence, no murder and no war. A woman, at any time of day or night could walk by herself, in the darkest alley, knowing that she was safe and that no man would force himself upon her body. “We were happy Augustus, for so many generations, it was a time of innocence. “Do you understand?” “I think I do Ziusudra,” I answered, absorbing his story slowly. “And you lost your innocence?” “Not right away, it took a thousand of your years, not right away!” I had a better view of the city now, and I had more control over my fear of falling. I looked down. Naaca was really a spectacular place, not only were there perfectly proportioned towers, but enclosed within the city, I could see fountains, and unknown trees of unseen heights, and bath houses, and aqueducts, and even on one of the islands, all around it, a massive track, where I could make out horses racing. And the entire city of Naaca stood on the largest island, on a flat and even plain surrounded by mountains covered in woods and meadows, and rivers and lakes. It looked like

what you call heaven nowadays gentlemen, and perhaps it was. “Innocence isn’t lost that easily.” He continued. “So, what happened?” I asked, suddenly impatient. “We were still a very primitive people, and it would have stayed this way without the red substance…” “Orichalcum?” I interrupted. “Yes!” he sighed. “As I said, we were primitive, everything about us was in infancy, but we wanted more, so our tenth king decided to build a city that would rival the royal palace and the temples…” “And you constructed the towers?” “…Not at first, we didn’t have the technology to create anything that colossal, but we built larger houses, and we built them all with orichalcum as it was easy to dig it from the earth.” “This is how you saw it could fly and change shape?” “No…it was nothing like that…we used it for its beauty, for the red light that shines from it. Our minds were too simple to tap into its unlimited properties, but we evolved, we invented new ways of building, we discovered engineering, and all along, we surrounded ourselves with more orichalcum. “We learned and learned, our language became more complex and we created an alphabet so that we could transmit our knowledge to others more easily…until the day…” “Yes?” I could feel my curiosity growing as well as my frustration. I wasn’t thinking about the burned soldier anymore, and I had forgotten about Lucan and Nero and everything about Rome. I wanted to know more. “Our world had reached a decent stage of evolution, we had built a society very similar to yours, or perhaps to the ancient Greeks. We had philosophers and artists and architects and scribes and politicians and doctors, even astronomers Augustus, and our entire civilization was constructed around the red substance. “Our city was made of it, and our bridges and our roads, and we knew that our island was a protected heaven, that the rest of the world had not evolved, that men still lived in caves and prayed to many gods. And we felt that we were different, linked to each other, and we felt superior. “And as our minds grew we became able to tap into the limitless possibilities of the orichalcum.” “What do you mean?” “I don’t know exactly how it happened, but it is said that one morning the ninety third king, Alalgar, sensed fear, not a fear coming from inside him, an outside fear entering his very being, the fear became stronger and he realized he was afraid for his new born son, Meskiaggasher, and that he felt like he was drowning, and then he felt a terrible sadness, similar to the pain he had suffered the day his mother had died. “He ran out from his bedroom and asked were the young prince was. And he was told that the queen had taken his son on a small cruise, but that they should be back soon. Even more terrified, he sent his guards to sea and asked them to bring his son back. They found the baby on a piece of wood floating in the water, the boat had capsized and he was the only survivor. “That child was the first one to tap into the link…” “The link?” I asked, thinking more, more, give me more. “Orichalcum had the property to link minds, and the child had transmitted his fear to his father, as well as his sadness at seeing his mother die…but let me show you.”

And in one instant I was connected to all, the tall people, the animals, the trees, the colors, the light, the smell, everything. I felt dizzy, and blinded and afraid, nothing made sense at first, because it wasn’t a world of matter and things; it was thoughts and energy, and vibrations, all in one. “Calm yourself,” I heard Ziusudra whisper into my heart. “Take it all in.” His voice was so tranquil that it overpowered my fears, and as I composed myself, a limitless universe embraced me, and I accepted it, the knowledge of it all. I could hear words, which could not be pronounced, and poetry that was unsurpassed in its simplicity, and I had visions of other places not of this earth: the birth of stars and their ultimate death giving life to new ones. So many souls around me, surrounding me, separate but unified, and so many becoming me, as they opened themselves to me, their lives and their dreams and their hopes. So many minds in one, that their number was impossible to determine. All of them, they were so beautiful, colorful and filled with light. And, it wasn’t a chaos of thoughts, but everything was organized, and although it all happened at the same time, I could distinguish events. I sensed the love of a mother for her child and for every child, and at the same time a young couple kissing, moist lips against moist lips, and other dancing. It was all about love, and pleasure and acceptance. I would have drowned in a sea of emotions, if it had not been for Ziusudra. I could feel him toppled over me and holding onto my mind. No suffering, everywhere I turned, no pain, no cries. Love. Acceptance. Pleasure. I could sense the touch of men and the touch of women. I was all of them, males and females and I experienced their most intimate desires. I was the lover craving sex, looking at a girl, her face so close to mine, smelling her skin and her light perfume, seeing her breast offered as she arched her back to accept me inside of her, and feeling the caress of her hands, and I could see my eyes in her eyes, and I was the girl looking at the lover, and I found him so beautiful. I could see the muscles of his body tightening as I gave him pleasure, and his smooth and perfect face as he inclined his head towards me, with two gray eyes barely open, and I felt him inside me. I shared my passion with him, and I was he and he was I, and I was she. Everything, simultaneous and separate. Much more that simply physical, it was a sharing of essences. And when I passed the first feelings, and opened myself entirely to my new emotions, I forgot about the two lovers, and I went from the desire of the flesh to the desire of the soul, and all of it, it became music. I could hear waves of singing, and it brought a sensation of perfect harmony. “This is peace.” I thought. And I heard my own voice singing with the others; as for the first time I understood the perfection of love.

CHAPTER X

“You are the witness to my world Augustus,” Ziusudra said. “This is the link that you are experiencing. Orichalcum could bridge minds…” “Bridge minds? I don’t understand.” I interrupted. “Listen and you will,” Ziusudra snapped, annoyed. “The red substance allowed minds to become one, one immense thought made of many. Suddenly we knew what our neighbor felt, we knew about other’s memory and desires and hopes and fears, we knew it all. And we became even more spiritual and even less violent as we identified with the longing of others. We fell in love with love. “That was the first step, an increase in spirituality and tolerance. We began thanking the Sky God for His blessings as we had never done before, and as the happiness of each increased so did the happiness of the whole. “The second step, didn’t happen right away…” “The second step?” I asked, listening to his voice and still under the comfort of the link. “The second step towards what?” “Toward the end of my world.” Ziusudra murmured, and suddenly I felt my entire being overpowered by a wave of sorrow. “We discovered knowledge, not the primitive knowledge of what one day your world will call a pre-industrialized society, the knowledge which comes with science…” “But we have science.” I answered. “Not that kind of science naïve Roman…true science which allows men to master the laws of nature, to break and mold and shape the world, and slowly raise themselves up into a Godlike state. “We were so content and we had time, all the time for questioning. At first the questions were simple: What makes fire burn, where does the rain come from, what is wind, what is lighting…” “But I have the answers,” I said. I could feel a smile, my smile on his lips; I was so certain I knew it all. “The gods and their wars they are the ones…” “Augustus, you are like a child.” He answered. “How I wish we had stayed like you…the gods, what a beautiful explanation, so simple… “No, it isn’t the gods…but let me continue. The first answer was undemanding, one of our scientists discovered that rain was simply water, which evaporates from the earth, and before he could write down his discovery to share it with everyone, he realized that, through the link, all of us knew…so he didn’t write it down. And with time more discoveries were made, and instantaneously, we knew, all of us, we knew…knowledge had become a river running from mind to mind, from the child to the ancient, from the pregnant woman to her unborn fetus, it was uncontrolled, addictive and unstoppable. “Soon, we knew that fire needs oxygen to burn, we knew how to make our own lighting …we knew, and we felt powerful, for the first time, we had control over our environment. At first, we learned simple things, how to make fire out of sulfur, how to steal salt from the sea… and then more complex ones, we captured lighting in small containers of glass to replace our

torches at night, and a few decades later, we broke apart the components of matter to supply limitless energy to our machines, and we learned how to fly the small disks, the same kind you are standing on, and we built bigger disks and we flew over the frozen earth, laughing at other men who were still living in caves and terrified of thunder. We could see them, still apelike creatures, trying to survive the ice age the best they could. How they feared us when they saw our disks flying over them, and many believed we were gods. To this day, I still wonder which legends and myths were born in their simple minds from seeing us. “They were our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, but we didn’t care or perhaps we cared, but it was too difficult to admit that we were their descendants and we found it easier to mock them. As we had grown in knowledge, we had gradually and willingly forgotten that once, we were like them, ignorant and vulnerable. I think they disgusted us with their soiled and broken bodies, and shamed and scared us. They were repulsive reminders of our humble beginnings and perhaps of our possible fall to come. They were unacceptable possibilities. “We should have stopped for an instant to help them grow. We should have taught them and brought awareness to mankind in its entirety. We didn’t, we kept to ourselves. And we distanced our kind even more from the rest of humanity; we carefully kept our knowledge for our sole benefit. “Knowledge! Can you appreciate the power of knowledge? We knew Augustus, and because of our recent awakening, we realized that we still had so much to understand, but that all was understandable. In our minds we could capture the heavens, force the darkest part of the sky into the light…and we searched for every answer to every question. We even learned about the universe and how it came into existence…” “When the gods…”I interrupted. “Augustus, you must be patient and accept the fact that multiple gods don’t exist or I won’t be able to continue…knowledge can’t be offered to a deaf ear,” Ziusudra said with countenance. I am not sure how, but through the link, I knew he was telling the truth or perhaps a truth that belonged to his kind, and that my ignorance was a torment to him. I saw everything and I felt everything, but my mind, as simple as it was then, didn’t allow me to completely accept his revelation…revelation, which, gentlemen, has endured the passage of time to reach you. I was still struggling against him, I realized, instead of embracing his very being. If I wanted to learn, I had to open myself more, to fully belong to him…and I did. “The universe,” he continued. “We had studied it for centuries. We understood its cycle, and that there were other, parallel dimensions, and also, how it came to be; through the collision of two of these realms which created a huge explosion of infinite energy that created the constituents of matter, and later of stars, and planets. “And using instruments that you can’t comprehend Augustus, we were able to observe as far as the laws of physics apply, and also we could see back in time, just one second after the moment of creation, one second after the big explosion. “Through the mathematics of all, a single beautiful equation, perfectly symmetrical and simple, our scientists had even gone further and proven beyond doubt the existence of a universe before our universe, an unstable universe made of ten dimensions…” “What do you mean?” I asked. “…And we believed that it had forced itself into stability,” Ziusudra continued without answering. “By splitting in two, through this unimaginable release of energy…the big explosion. We understood that from the split came two worlds, our universe made of four spatial

dimensions and one temporal one, and its twin, made of six dimensions which as our own universe expanded, had coiled into an infinitely small ball...” “Please.” I interrupted. “I am lost here. What do you mean dimensions?” “Dimensions, Augustus.” He answered softly as if he talked to a child. Height, length, width are dimensions…time as well…” “Time?” “Yes…to continue Augustus, as three dimensional creatures, we could only function and see within the restrictions of a three dimensional universe. But Orichalcum was a special substance, and it largely belonged to the fourth dimension, only part of it for some reason was caught into our third dimensional space, the part we could access. And through it and through the link we found ourselves able to access the fourth dimension and to search for him... and we knew that the Sky God wasn’t to be found there. “And nowhere did we find Him…nowhere…so He didn’t exist, we thought. We knew. We became arrogant, and we forgot about the temples and fewer embraced the priesthood. “And what our scientists discovered was instantaneously communicated to each and every one, our thoughts shared it all, knowledge flew from mind to mind, so easily and so much that in the end we stopped writing…” “You didn’t write?” I asked. “No, the art of scribes became an occupation of the past…why would you write down when there is no need to communicate. “The third step was the loss of speech. We never spoke because our language wasn’t elaborate enough to convey our ideas, and using it made no sense when we shared our deepest thoughts, when we didn’t have to describe what we could show. Can you explain sadness or happiness, pleasure or pain? I don’t think so Augustus. You can describe it with words but can you really explain it? Language is so inefficient. “By the ninety eighth king, Lugalbanda, nobody remembered how to speak or write, but we had mastered just about every law of the universe there is, except one. “One?” “Death, Augustus, death. We were able to prolong our lives, using mechanical tricks, replacing failing hearts or lungs or kidneys, growing new body parts, new teeth, and entire bodies. And with more science came more control, in the end, we didn’t have to artificially replace old bodies with new ones grown in laboratories…because we controlled the aging process…yes, we had successfully stopped aging… “We continue to look young for centuries, and in our arrogance, we thought we had become immortal, the eternals we called ourselves, we even forgot about the Sky God. We didn’t need Him anymore, as we had become gods ourselves. And then it happened… “Without explanation, the first generation, that had been made eternally young and had been around for almost a thousand years, started to die. “For the first time in centuries we found ourselves confronted with death, and we realized that we couldn’t stop the process. And slowly, the first generation, they all died. Our scientists spent hundreds of years trying to understand why, because it made no sense, there was no logical explanation, but they had to admit it, they were unable to come up with an answer. They tried new medication, more science, and for a few years the aging process was stopped, but only to resume faster, as if time had decided to catch up with life. “We were still faced with the ultimate torment, the knowledge that one day we would be no more. And because of the link we could feel the fear in the last thoughts of the dying, their

body refusing to surrender, and we could follow their suffering to their last gasping instant, their search for air, their begging…oh how they tried to breathe even when breathing had become a torture. “We knew we would die like them, their fate was ours, and their entire generation would disappear, and then and then, another generation, and another. “They stayed young and beautiful for centuries, the majority reached a thousands years without changing. A few of them, the very few who had the strongest thirst for life, even found it within themselves to keep death away when their body was already crumbling and they kept on living for millennia, the ancients we called them, a hand full, but always, without a choice, one morning age caught up with them, and within a few decades, or sometimes a few centuries, what had been arrogant perfection became old and weak. Their perfect skin turned yellow and their body sank into weakness, and their eyes sunken deep into their skulls, lost the gleam of life, and even their smile became dead. A dead smile, all teeth. “Their long lives, all of them, even the ancients had not made them wiser and more accepting of their fate. They saw the end with lucidity and fear and they fought death with their last broken will, until they became living corpses, they fought with hopeless rage against the inevitable. “Again the son had to loose the father and the daughter had to cry for the mother…so, then, where science had failed us we crawled back to religion. We turned to the priests. The ancients had died, and very few were left from the third generation of eternals, and they were afraid, as they knew their time was close. And they said we had to return to temples and we had to make offerings to the Sky God who was angry because we had forgotten him…and against our better judgment, we did, Augustus, we prayed to Him and we pleaded and we sacrificed animals to His glory…some even spoke of sacrificing human beings…but the priests, even them, they all died and so did the third generation. “This is when the last step came …” “The last step towards the end?” I asked. I could feel my heart pounding and I could feel adrenaline rushing to my mind, as Ziusudra recalled the end of his world, and also an immense sadness was growing inside me, overshadowing the contentment of being part of the link. “Yes, with a mix of fear and egotism, we decided that we would force God to listen to us, if He didn’t come to us, we would go to him…and we did.”

CHAPTER XI

“So you found the Sky God?” I asked, naively. “That’s how you became immortal?” “In a simplified way, you could say that’s how I became immortal. But in reality, it would only be half of the truth,” Ziusudra answered. “We had to find something which very few of us really believed in anymore, the Sky God…it was a long road that we had to walk. To find faith, awe had to accept to feel with our heart and not with our mind. We knew that if a God were to be found, He would not be in our universe or in our time because, as I explained, we had explored everything, we knew about the smallest planet and the hottest star, and we could also search back into the past…” “Until the second following the moment of creation,” I interrupted. “Then it is logical to think that your sky God existed before this second.” “You are right, it was a place and time into which we could not probe. We called it a singularity; a bubble of energy, an infinite heat where the laws of nature don’t apply. “So if the Sky God were there, it would be at the edge of the universe and the limit of our understanding. “This is where I came in, I was the son of Ubartutu, the ninety ninth king…” “You are a king then?” I asked. “Yes, I remember, Lucan told me, you were the king of Shuruppak.” I felt his laughter inside of me, nothing insulting, it was gentle. He found my remark amusing. He closed his eyes or my eyes, I didn’t know anymore, for a moment, and I retreated into a more passive state, and images came to my mind; Julia in the gardens, Lucan at the baths explaining to me who he believed Ziusudra was, Lucan who knew so much and so little. Lucan, my beloved storyteller. Lucan, you have been dead so long, so many years have passed. Lucan, at that moment I envied you so much for not knowing. I felt that Ziusudra would tell me everything, he would have no mercy, he would shape my mind and force me to raise myself to his level, and he didn’t care how distressed I became. But it wasn’t only you, my friend; I envied all of them, Lucan and all the lucky ones who died unaware. Lucan, though I ached for my disappearing ignorance, ironically, I wanted to show him what I knew now, to show him with my thoughts, as no words could speak it. To touch his mind with my own the way Ziusudra’s mind touched mine. I wanted him to feel the love, and the longing, and make him visualize my new understanding of all. I wanted to open his eyes to these new revelations, with my lips on his lips, my mind like a hook into his, and my hand in his hand as to reassure him. “I had almost forgotten.” Ziusudra resumed, pulling me back into his memory before I could escape and let my friendship for Lucan bring me back into a more comfortable present. “You could say that I was the king of Shuruppak, I had almost forgotten, and I was the king of Naaca…and I was there when the civilization of Sumer was replaced by the city of Shinar, which is known by the name of Babel of Babylonia, and Erech, and Ur, and Eridu, and all the other first cities. But it doesn’t really matter, now, does it?” “I am not sure.” I answered. “Probably not. What mattered at the time was our need for faith. We didn’t know whether

there was any veracity in the ancient myth of the Sky God. You must understand, since our ancestors had built the big vessel that had carried them to this place, ten thousand years had passed, an eternity, I thought at the time. We had lost the ability to read the sacred books, recounting their journey from the land of ice to Naaca. Did we find a renewed faith? I am not sure. We probably bet on His existence, more out of despair than faith or even logic, and we gambled that He had created it all, the world and the light and the night and all of us; that, plausibly, He had control over life and death. “Faith? “Was it faith? “Perhaps after all. “A leap of faith, a simple leap of faith.” “And you found him?” I asked with my thoughts. “Oh yes we did Augustus, or rather, I did.” “You are the one who met the Sky God?” “I found the place where He resides, He was hiding at the beginning of time…” “How did you go there?” I cut him off. “Again, be patient Augustus. I could show you but without my words to guide you, the experience would overwhelm your primitive mind, one doesn’t meet God without some damage. “The journey to the edge of the universe was not an option for our physical beings, it would have taken eons, even through wormholes…but what do you know about wormholes?” He laughed, as I knew nothing of it, and after a pause – perhaps he was waiting for me to react but I didn’t - he resumed. “Wormholes would have been useless as remember we had to do more than travel from a place to another, we had to go back to the beginning, more than thirteen billion years in the past. “Do not panic now, Augustus, I am going to take you deeper into my mind, as I want you to see how we reached God, and you will experience my hopes and the last dreams of my people, and our fears, and our despair…but always remember that nothing there is real, it is the echo of events from long ago. It can’t hurt you physically as long as you keep your emotions from pulling you into the past. Don’t make it your reality…but I ought to warn you, you will witness the end of harmony and the birth of my suffering. I will be with you all the way. I will support your fragile mind. I will remind you of your own identity, I will keep you from madness, but in the end you will be a changed man…and then I will give you a choice.” “A choice?” I heard my voice trembling through his lips. “Yes, but only when you’re ready to let go of everything, and I’ll let you know when the moment has come. “I will be our strength, because, I understand your vulnerability and your irrational fears, and your desires Augustus. I was once like you, would you believe it? I knew love and peace, and I wouldn’t have hurt a single living thing. Love was my answer to every question, and therefore, perhaps naively, I assumed that the Sky God was an accepting God; a God who had created with love and for love. A God that wasn’t beyond my human comprehension. I was fearless and willing to do whatever was necessary to make Him understand that death wasn’t necessary, and to ask Him to give to my people eternal life filled with harmony…look now Augustus.”

Suddenly, I wasn’t flying anymore; the disk under my feet had disappeared. I was walking slowly by the seaside, on one of the bridges, towards one of the islands, and this island was even more amazing than the others, its entire surface was covered with a tower larger than the ones I had seen in the city. A red Tower, more than five miles in Diameter at its base, and so high that it seemed limitless. I tried to look up, to concentrate and focus my vision, but the tower had no pinnacle, it grew miles into the sky. It consisted of several platforms, each progressively smaller in size, one on top of the other. I could taste the air, moist and salty on my tongue and I could feel people around me, all walking towards the tower, and so full of anticipation, I could hear my blood rushing with their expectation. Some of the souls were crying like children in my mind and some were simply happy, as they all believed they had found a way to reach God. “Yes Augustus, this is the day…” “The day?” I asked, but in a way I understood what he meant. It was the day when an entire people offended God. “After centuries of research, our scientists had discovered a way to reach the beginning of time, and again we used the red substance, the one which allowed our minds to be linked. We built the Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth. “Only a few of us disagreed, believing that it was a mistake as it would offend the Sky God. If He were hiding, they thought, He had a good reason, and would not tolerate what they called vanity and arrogance. They tried to tell us, and as their fear grew through the link, it was palpable and annoying, and it created a tear in the delicate fabric of our harmony. They had this frenetic effervescence of weaklings and fools. They had lost our innate curiosity for the unknown, and they became more chaotic with the tremors…” “The tremors?” I interrupted, already with regret, I didn’t want to speak, I wanted him to tell me the story; I think at this instant, I had lost all thoughts for Lucan, all hatred for Nero, and even Julia would have to wait, for I was made aware of the mysterious and the sacred as no mortal man before me. It was my answer to the tales and the legends and the myths that, instinctively, I knew to be anchored in a long forgotten reality. I felt relieved when he resumed. “…Yes, the tremors. To build the tower, we needed more orichalcum than our islands could supply so we dug it out, wherever we could find it and we searched the earth for it, drilling deeper, always deeper to the core of the planet, and still it wasn’t sufficient. We even went to the poles and started to melt the eternal ice, as we had discovered more of the red substance under it…and seas and oceans rose drowning lands and forests, and we saw our apelike ancestors run up the hills, terrified, begging, and trembling, but we didn’t care, we constructed walls to protect the city…and we resumed our search…until the tremors started…but still we continued. “The few who were afraid said that we were destroying the planet with our drilling, that it would create volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, that the tremors were only the first signs…we laughed at them, but as their growing fear unraveled, it started to infect others, there were still very few, but for the first time we felt dissent among my people Augustus…” “What did you do?” “We tried to calm them down and to explain that God would receive us with open arms, because we were His glorious children who had crossed an entire universe to meet him, the creator. We tried, and tried and tried, for decades we tried but they clung to their illogical apprehensions. Instead of being convinced they started to organize under one leader, the young Atlas.

“And again, we tried to reassure them, but as they grew larger and more afraid, Atlas became stronger, and more arrogant and less open to compromise…in the end, he became the only voice we heard… “At the time, I didn’t know whether Atlas was driven by fear or an uncontrollable thirst for power, and did it matter? He was growing among us. And as we had to give up our hopes of persuading them, we reached a consensus, and we banished them to preserve the harmony of the group…” “You…” “Yes, we cast them out as soon as we realized that we wouldn’t change their minds. One night, we forced them, all of them, parents and children and even newborns, onto a large vessel made of wood, similar to the one that had carried our ancestors to Naaca and ordered them to sail away. We told them we would find them through the link and bring them back to us once we had found the Sky God, it was temporary, and we believed it. They were our mothers and our fathers, our sisters and brothers, and our offspring, and we loved them, but we didn’t listen to their cries, and their pleas for compassion and their excuses…after all, it was for their own good…and by sunrise, they were gone…that was the last I heard of them for an eternity. And we went back to building the tower, our eyes raised towards the blue sky…as you can see, we finished it.” Hundred of thousands of men were working to finish the huge building. The sky was crowded with flying disks and in a distance, and around the builders, children were running, laughing, and singing with their thoughts: “We will reach the heavens and the universe will be our courtyard.” One of the children stood out in my heart. A little girl, perhaps five years old. Her eyes were beautiful, grandiose blue fringed by lashes, surrounded by the soft and flawless skin of infancy…and also her mouth, her lips; everything that made her human and full of hope…she was enjoying the pleasure of life, of growing up, of wondering, of seeking, of loving. “Augustus remember,” Ziusudra whispered with sadness. “She is a memory, and she died eons ago. Don’t let my emotions become your emotions or my sorrow will drive you mad…she was Elma, and she was my daughter.” And I felt a tear rolling down his cheek. “She was your daughter?” “Yes, but it was long ago, she isn’t part of this earth anymore. Enough with her__” “But…” “__Enough! I said. “Let’s enter the gates of heaven.” I was now in the tower, gentlemen, among a countless number of people who were calmly lying down on small beds of orichalcum. I didn’t sense trepidation or even apprehension, only peace and harmony, and love, so much love for the world and for each other. I wanted to be part of them, to be accepted and feel serenity the way they felt it. The music was stronger and more wonderful than outside, as the link was more complete inside the tower than it was anywhere else, as if their minds were perfectly joined. I was astonished by the gentleness of these souls filling one another with beauty and contemplation, and sharing all secrets, revealing their fundamental nature without fear. I walked among them as one of them, fully accepted, I stood over them, looking down on them, admiring the flawlessness of their faces, the perfection of their skin, the depth of their ageless eyes. “They are love.” I thought.

I drifted along through thousands of beds; thousands of faces, and all were serene and welcoming. I became part of these illuminated souls, and was dazzled, I drew from their perfection, and absorbed it, and made it mine until I had become each and everyone of them. “Aren’t they magnificent?” Ziusudra asked. “See, this is the first level…we built seven levels to the tower and only the most enlightened of us entered them. Each level had the power to unite our minds perfectly and turn them into a single soul made up of the will of thousands, each level reinforcing the next one all the way to the seventh level where the carrier was waiting…” “The carrier?” I asked. “What do you mean?” “At the top of the tower, stood one man, the strongest of us, the one who would not give up until his undertaking was accomplished, who would resist every and any temptation until he had forced the Sky God to give us eternity. “And I was the one, Augustus, the chosen one, but how could you fully understand the weight and the responsibility, after all, my life was so unlike yours. The strength and will and desire of my entire people was to be turned into one energy, one soul…my soul…as you can feel it, the tower allowed me to become all of them, and use the strength of all to send my very essence to the beginning of time, to bring our expectations and our pleas for understanding to God, if a God there were. “And I wasn’t going to meet him, the creator, with a subservient attitude, as a worshipper, as His frightened child; I was coming to Him as an equal, and with me I brought the will of my entire civilization. “Vanity, the banished ones had said; and perhaps they were right…I say perhaps, because I am somewhat uncertain and unclear on that. Was it vanity? Arrogance? Is it vain to know what and who you are? Is a beautiful woman vain because she is aware of her beauty? Is the fighter vain because he knows he can strike faster than any one else? Was it vanity Augustus?” “No human is equal to a God,” I said. “It was stupidity, not vanity…” “You could be right,” he continued. “In the end, it isn’t that important. I am here with you, more than 9 000 years later, entire worlds have died while I continued to walk the earth… and perhaps I have become a God after all, like him, I am here forever, and like Him I kill randomly, and like Him I have no interest in your kind.” “We are not so different, Ziusudra,” I whispered nervously. “I can feel in you all the love you had for your people and for the little girl that you called yours…for Julia…I can sense it. You are still so full of love.” He laughed, his usual crystalline laugh that I now knew so well. Crystalline laugh. Crystalline laugh. Again. A pause, and he answered. “Augustus, you are talking about the love I used to have inside my heart, I am changed. I can’t feel love any longer, and only in your soul can I find the man I used to be.” I wanted to tell him that he was wrong, but somehow I knew he was telling the truth gentlemen; what I felt pouring from him, was more a longing for his disappeared ability to love than love itself. “But enough with love,” he continued. “I haven’t brought you so deep into my past to discuss my feelings, you are here to witness what was, and then to choose.” “Choose what?” “All in good time. For now let’s lay down on the bed.” He whispered, and without warning, I found myself standing in the seventh level, at the top of the tower looking at a unique

empty bed - similar to the ones I had seen at the lower levels. Ziusudra was a bit nervous, perhaps for the first time. “And let me show you what I saw and felt and enjoyed and suffered through when, carried by the will of an entire people, my soul left my body and flew to the gates of heaven.” For a brief second, I think I panicked. I wanted to scream: “No, leave me alone, give me my life back!” And it is quite possible that I screamed through his lips while I laid down on the red bed, but if scream I did, it didn’t last, because as the bed embraced my…his body, my connection to the link, became even more acute, the music more pure and palpable, and my fears evaporated. My fear disappeared. No fear. And, again, I would have rather perished than returned to my separateness, to my imperfect uniqueness. I drew a new strength from every one and from the fact that in my hands they rested their souls. ‘You are us and we are you.’ They sang. An entire nation sang. ‘Whatever the price, bring us back eternity…whatever the price, erase death and allow us to be forever and to love forever.’ Were they singing to me? Were they? Perhaps they were, across thousands of years. I wished they had. But, I understood that they spoke to Ziusudra, not me, as I was simply reliving the moment when, through the strength of the tower, he had personified his entire kind and soared to the heavens.

CHAPTER XII

“We are standing at the last level,” Ziusudra said. “ At the tower’s pinnacle, where my mind was linked to my people for all eternity, as I became the messenger. All of them, unified in one will, they became my wings and they carried me through an entire universe to the instant of creation. Hundreds of thousands of intellects unified into one force and one might, and I wrapped my very being around them in a loving welcome, and then, from their essence, my soul found enough strength to abandon my body and to fly to the edge of the world…can you feel it Augustus? My essence is leaving my body…can you see? Can you feel?” How can I describe what happened to me next gentlemen? I saw creation and I felt it and I was part of it…but let me try to be clearer. We left Ziusudra’s inert body on the red bed in a deathlike attitude, and for a moment we stayed like that, looking down at his empty shell and peacefully floating in a spirit like state. And suddenly, the journey began, we moved higher above the resting body, and then higher, until we left the tower, and as we ascended faster into the blue sky, we saw the gigantic monument getting smaller until it disappeared in the distance swallowed by the entire city of Naaca, and then the very city turned into the islands of Naaca, and everything got smaller and disappeared until we reached the darkness of space. And for the first time, I saw the earth gentlemen like your astronauts have seen it. And confronted with such splendor, I wanted to scream with fear and joy…and perhaps, as Ziusudra had warned me, madness would have overpowered my primitive intellect without his support. “Remember Augustus,” Ziusudra whispered. “It is nothing but a memory and it can’t hurt you…remember.” And as we continued our journey, through space and time, always moving faster, he had to appease my mind many times, and always his words kept me from sinking into a permanent state of insanity, as I was being taken from the now to the then, from the everything to the nothing. And as we were traveling back in time, I saw planets and entire races dying, and entire civilizations that had reached the stars returning to their primitive past, I could witness their slow devolution, from the mastery of writing to the discovery of fire and further back, the birth of very primitive language skills and further back and further back and further back, until I could not distinguished them from their animal like ancestors. I must admit that I didn’t fully understand what I witnessed at the time, as I believed that the Gods had created men, and the spectacle of evolution went against every belief I held dear. “It is only a memory.” I repeated to myself. “Only a memory.” And finally, on so many planets, there was no more conscious intelligence, only animals. And with every new step further in time, I wanted to stop, as I was afraid and cold. This entire process negated my certainty in my importance as a man and my confidence in the magnificence of Rome…but Ziusudra would not stop. Among great forests made of giant trees, they appeared, the lizards as I called them, the ones you call dinosaurs… and it continued, the dinosaurs uninvolved into amphibians and then into fishes, and as the lands had no more life, and on so many worlds, the process of devolution

carried on in the seas. Fishes lost their vertebrate jaws until there were no more vertebrates and slowly life reverted to wormlike forms, and to oxygen producing blue-green algae. And on every planet devolution repeated itself following a similar scheme, until existence itself had vanished from the universe. And all along I remember screaming and begging for him to stop. Life was not yet. Do you understand? Can you imagine the creation emptied of life gentlemen? And as earth and other planets were being bombarded by meteorites I was forced to witness it…can you imagine? How small I felt…can you imagine? Can you understand how it could have broken my spirit without Ziusudra and my link to his entire people, without their music still surrounding me? However, I must admit that a part of me died during the process, the certain innocence which allows humans, as a whole, to hope and believe that they can influence events, creating a better future. Yes, this is when I lost my hopes in better tomorrows, but at the time I didn’t realize it because I had so many emotions conflicting in my heart that it would take me a long time to sort them out. It was a horrifying sight, this birth of planets, nothing beautiful there, only chaotic melted rocks tormented by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and all along, I am almost ashamed to admit it, the hardest thing for me was to accept my unimportance in the big scheme of things, and on a lighter note, the vulnerability of my love for Julia. “Stop,” I screamed again. “Please I beg you, send me back.” “All in good time.” I heard him say in our unique mind. And it continued, the terrible and magnificent sight of devolution. I saw entire suns, our sun and other young suns, and planets being formed out of clouds of gas made of the debris of earliest supernovas long gone. Through the entire process I understood only one thing because only one thing was to be understood: Life always rises from death because the end is the beginning. “Isn’t it grotesque,” Ziusudra whispered. “Life can only come from destruction and suffering…life has its roots planted in chaos and madness…look Augustus, look! Witness the joke of creation, as we get closer to the beginning, closer to the explosion that created it all.” In front of me, and strangely inside of me, as we were linked to it, the universe was expanding, and cooling. In some regions, the gravitational attraction had become so strong that it had stopped the expansion allowing the first stars to be born. I could see their massive accumulation of dead matter become hot enough to start nuclear fusion reactions. “I have seen enough,” I said. “Stop!” I asked again. “You still want me to stop?” He laughed. Crystalline laugh. “Not yet,” he said. “I can feel that you don’t understand it all…I must force your mind to open further, as you will need to be free of fear when we enter the singularity where He resides. We are still a few hours after creation. ” So, again he didn’t stop. Through his eyes he took me from witnessing the absolutely immense to the infinitely

small, when electrons and nuclei were combining to form atoms. “You see Augustus, even the tiniest thing have a part to play in the Universe.” The nuclei of deuterium and helium and other elements that you haven’t discovered yet gentlemen, were reverting to their simpler elements, protons and neutrons. Only a few second after creation, the universe consisted mostly of photons, electrons, and neutrinos and their antiparticles, along with a few protons and neutrons. And it was still the same law, life from death, electrons and anti-electrons annihilating each other to produce photons…always the same rule. Life from death Life from death, as the inherent law, demonstrating the impossibility of immortality…but Ziusudra, how could he be then, if new lives could only come from death? After all, he had told me that he was more than 9,000 years old, and I believed him. “How can you be immortal?” I asked. “It goes against everything you have shown me.” “But you have seen nothing yet,” he answered, a sad voice in my mind. “The rules doesn’t apply to me…in the end you will know… we don’t all have to die for others to live.” And the journey resumed, continual and terrifying, and when I thought that it would never end, we finally reached it, the beginning. In front of us, there was an immense goldenwhite light, and surprisingly it wasn’t blinding us. I realized I wasn’t afraid anymore…I wanted nothing, I cared for nothing but the light, as the rule of birth from death didn’t apply to it. It was a light of life, life from life for the first time. “Careful, Augustus,” Ziusudra said, quickly. “Before you enter the light, remember you can’t make this moment yours or you will go mad when I take you away from it…this isn’t the light of creation, only its echo in my mind…you will have your time later and you will see it with your own eyes…remember if you make my memories your own you will loose you mind and Julia will be gone forever.” Julia, I had forgotten her. Julia. “I understand,” I answered. “But it’s so peaceful.” “It is but this moment of peace belongs to me…you will have yours. Do you still want me to take you back?” He laughed. “No…I want to enter the light.” I think, I screamed, as I was scared that he would take me away from it. Perfect happiness. “So here I grant your wish,” he said, as we entered the moment before creation.

CHAPTER XIII

We were in the light, as we were part of it, and the light was in us as it was part of us. The universe was no more. The torment of devolution was no more. The rule of life from death was no more. Only the light. “Where are we?” I asked. “Nowhere and everywhere, this is the instant just before creation, and space and time haven’t been created yet. This is the light of glory, Lumen Gloria, ” Ziusudra answered. “Without it, souls wouldn’t be able to see the real Sky God.” “I don’t understand…” “It allows the souls to see the Sky God with their mind,” he continued. “Exactly as light allows your physical eyes to see objects.” Gentlemen, you seem lost to me. You must know what I am talking about? You must have heard of the Lumen Gloria? After all, the Sky God is the one you call God, the one you pray to before going to bed, the one you believe loves you and loves every human being, and the one you use as an excuse before waging your wars and killing your own kind, and raping the woman, and killing the child. The Lumen Gloria…never heard of it? Why am I not surprised? The Lumen Gloria. The light of glory. Maybe you believed that your simple human intellects could see him, God, directly? Gentlemen, don’t you think it makes sense that His vision lays beyond the natural abilities of your imperfect intelligences? Why are you smiling? You are here, judging me, calling me mad, keeping me as your prisoner and, yet, you know so little that it could be nothing. As I told you, in 2000 years, I have met your kind over and over. You are the elected few who know just enough to be arrogant…but what do you really know? And if you knew your history better, you would not be surprised, as the council of Vienna recognized the light of glory in 1311. But let’s continue my story, after all this is why you are here, isn’t it? “Have we reached the roof of the world?” I asked Ziusudra. “The place where He resides? “We are close,” Ziusudra answered. “ So close, and so far.” I felt sadness in his heart, a sharp sadness, and I think I felt a tear on his cheek, or was it the salty memory of a tear? “There’s no place where He resides.” He continued. “He is the place, He is the roof of the world, He is Heaven, and He is perfection…according to Him…only according to him, after all, what do I know? And from Him emanates the light of glory which shows the way to souls…look around us Augustus, can you see them, the souls of the deceased, all accepting their fate?” I could not see them the way you see with your eyes, but everywhere I could feel their essences flying towards the center of the light. I could feel their perfect happiness and how they

accepted God and loved Him and loved everything. We were the only ones not dead here, the only ones who had not permanently departed from the world of the living and abandoned their useless deceased and already decaying envelopes. The only souls still attached to a live body. “I was not here to accept Augustus,” Ziusudra whispered, perhaps afraid to disturb the spirits. “I was to bring immortality back to my kind. “And I headed towards the source of the light, as I knew instinctively I would find Him there…not a soul noticed me, not a soul cared, as they had become indifferent to life and death and to everything which wasn’t Him. All, they only wanted one thing, to reach Him and enter His universe.” “Weren’t you tempted?” I asked. “What do you think? But my entire people trusted me not to let the Sky God trick me into dying, and…remember; how they reinforced my will with theirs through the link. I really thought I would resist Him easily…naivety, arrogance… I don’t know. “But as I got closer I received the first gift Augustus…” “The first gift?” “Yes, the first gift out of three to be given, the first gift, the gift of vision…” “The gift of vision?” I interrupted again. “How can I explain,” Ziusudra said, slightly annoyed. “Without showing you. Let me illustrate the agony of my choice.” And without warning gentlemen, Ziusudra took me even deeper into his memory, to the instant when he saw the Sky God for the first time, and although the vision was filtered through his mind, I saw Him…yes don’t look at me like that, with incredulity…I am telling you I saw Him…God, the God of all. The gift of vision, the ability to see God in His infinity and unity and simplicity…the first gift. Now I understand Ziusudra when he asked how he could explain what can’t be explained…how could I explain the infinity and the unity and the simplicity of God…but I will try gentlemen. He was a man and He wasn’t a man. His face, smooth but also old, was every face which had been, was and would ever be, and through His eyes made of every color I could also see the eyes of every being ever born and to be born. And I intuitively understood that He was unlimited through His own perfection. I am not talking about anthropomorphism here, you must understand, He wasn’t a magnified man. His own infinity was derived from His mere existence. In front of me stood a selfexisting being, not a thing created, not a being made up of parts, not a being limited by a causal dependence to preceding events. His own essence was the sole reason for His existence. And although He seemed contained within His own humanlike body, He was also everything and unchangeable. Seeing Him, I understood that the universe that I had just witnessed being uncreated was, only, His imperfect portrait exhibited in different degrees of various finite perfections.

Him, He simply was and it was enough. He wasn’t a being who feels and reasons and loves, He simply was. He was truth and wisdom, and justice, and intelligence and goodness and love and holiness… He was. And I was allowed to see Him with my finite and imperfect mind. I could feel that Ziusudra was crying and I cried with him because, through his mind, I was part of the revelation. And now perhaps you will realize the unity of God…I think it makes sense even to you gentlemen. To me, it was difficult to accept, because, remember, I was Roman and I had been taught to pray to many gods. That was the end of my entire beliefs system. One God. Only one God. But if you recognize as I did the infinity of God, you will accept His unity, because there can’t be multiple infinities. If several were to exist, none of them would really be infinite, as each, to be different from the others, should encompass some perfection not possessed by the others. But even more difficult to express was His simplicity. I tell you now that God is a simple being gentlemen, an entity which excludes any possible composition…let me clarify what I mean. Us, humans, we are composed of parts, a physical body and a soul, we are a composition of essence and existence…him, He is essence and He is existence… But this is a lost cause, gentlemen, without seeing it with your own eyes as I did and without feeling His nature with your own heart…how could you… how could I describe a being who transcends your logical limitations, how can I explain truth embodied…How could I show you that there is no real composition in God…How could I show you, the way I was shown, the infinitely perfect and the infinitely simple. “Now you see Him the way I saw Him Augustus,” Ziusudra resumed. “As I saw Him in His eternal glory…so I moved closer to Him as I wanted to ask Him to release my people from death…and this is when I received the second gift…” “The second gift?” I interrupted. “Yes, after seeing God- visio – the souls receive comprehensio, the gift of possession…” “The gift of possession?” “Yes, there is no point explaining…just feel what I felt Augustus.” And suddenly He saw me, the God of all, and with His infinite eyes searched into my very spirit, He searched very tenderly to find my smallest desire, all my desires, or were they Ziusudra’s desires. I think I screamed, with my entire mind I screamed, as I felt so flawless and ready to surrender my soul. “Only a memory Augustus, only a memory,” Ziusudra whispered, in tears. I could taste our combined tears on our lips. “Only a memory that you can’t make yours, or you will loose your mind when I take you away. “This is the second gift, the gift of possession when the souls find in God the fulfillment of all their desires.” Around us I could hear a soft music, as the souls welcomed God and welcomed me, a music of acceptance - an entire symphony made of colors as well as sounds. We didn’t care about immortality, we didn’t care about the rule of life from death, and we didn’t care about Julia as all our desires were satisfied.

“No!” I heard a scream. And abruptly we were taken away from God “No, we don’t want to die. Don’t let Him trick you Ziusudra…remember, why you are here…ask Him for our immortality.” It was the link, the entire will of Ziusudra’s people screaming to remind him of their existence. And with their entire will, Ziusudra pushed God away and everything became cold and imperfect. “What are you doing Ziusudra?” I screamed at him in anger. “What are you doing…have you lost your mind?” “Only a memory Augustus, remember,” He repeated again. “I can’t change what happened 9 000 years ago.” “But I am so cold suddenly,” I said. “Yes, it is the way God punishes the ones who don’t accept Him, the way I have been for so long…” “But you are the one who pushed Him away?” “Shush, now…just watch.” Ziusudra snapped, annoyed. And then I heard the voice. The voice. The voice. The only voice. The unique voice. The voice of God. And It wasn’t a voice per say, but how could I explain better? God seemed surprised, as His gift had been refused. “Ziusudra, why would you refuse what is freely offered?” God asked. And when He spoke, for an instant the universe stood still, and the souls stopped moving around us, and really looked at us for the first time, and farther in the distance, I saw shadows of light - as there is no other way to describe them - appearing and getting closer, entities that had remained invisible to us so far. They grew nearer and clearer, the entities, and they were beautiful, different from the souls, and flying towards us with magnificent wings of light. They were the angels, gentlemen, coming to see why God himself would speak to us, as, I think, it was a very rare event. I can’t imagine they cared about us or even about the message; they only wanted to hear His voice and rest in it. “Are you the sky God?” Ziusudra asked. Stupid question. I wanted to scream that He was, certainly He was…Ziusudra and his arrogance, asking such a question. “I am what I am,” God whispered. “I am what was before and what will be, I am the beginning and the end.” “Lord, I want to accept your gift.” Ziusudra said. “I want you to fill my heart and fulfill all my desires…” “So join me Ziusudra.” God said. “Forget the flesh you left behind. Forget your mortal body.” I felt Ziusudra, I felt his pain, his 9 000 year old pain as for the first time, I understood the real and total agony of his choice. Every fiber in our common spirit wanted to be with God

and everything was becoming clearer as the struggle of life was no more. “Rejoin with me.” God asked again. His expression was so loving and peaceful and radiant. “Yes Ziusudra, let’s rejoin with Him.” I wanted to scream. “It is so simple a choice.” Around us, souls were singing the music of Heaven, and angels had become brighter, and their wings of light were spread for His glory. “I won’t join you…I can’t.” Ziusudra answered, crying. And the souls around us seemed to shrink and the angels became less bright, and even the music seemed less audible. “Ziusudra, what you desire, I can fulfill, but what you whish for cannot be had,” God said very calmly. “You want me to break the rule of life from death for you and your people and close the doors of heaven to your entire kind.” “Yes God…please this is our only wish, and it isn’t too much to ask,” Ziusudra said, weeping. “Look at us, we are full of love, and we have mastered every law of the universe… please. We deserve eternity.” “Ziusudra, do you understand what you are asking…if I fulfill your desire, I won’t be able to give you my last gift.” “What is it Lord?” Ziusudra asked. “The gift of rejoining with me…the gift of perfect love.” “I understand Lord.” “Do you? Really…and still you would rather be cut off from my love than die your mortal death? You would rather never rejoin me?” “It is why I was sent to you,” Ziusudra cried out. “To keep my people from dying.” “Are you sure this is what your people desire, after all Ziusudra, think, they do not feel what you are feeling, and they do not see what you are seeing. You will have to chose for them, knowing that their desire and their will is based on incomplete information and lack of faith. Free your heart of vanity and come to me.” “They sent me here to keep them from death, for centuries they built the tower, and then, they gave me their strength to cross an universe…it isn’t my choice.” Ziusudra answered. “It is your choice…again Ziusudra, accept the gift of possession, and then accept the final gift of love and rejoin me, and allow your people to also return.” “Lord, I can’t accept. They don’t want to rejoin you.” “So be it then, I cut you off, all from me until you are all forgiven.” God said. “Forgiven?” Ziusudra asked, but God didn’t answer. He moved further away. For as long as I could see them, through Ziusudra’s mind, I focused on His eyes where I could see a tear being born. The tear of God. And everywhere around us, I felt sadness and I heard angels cry as they cried with God. “I am so cold Ziusudra, so cold.” I said. “Augustus, Only a memory.” Ziusudra repeated. “Only a memory. And the light disappeared, the souls, the angels. We were excluded from the beatific vision and perfection was no more.

CHAPTER XIV The place was emptied of light now, as if the fabric of space had been ripped open and turned into an infinitely dark, and inexplicably narrow and oppressing tunnel. The sudden silence was deafening. In the shadow, I could barely see our feet, our hands but it didn’t come as a surprise to me, without His light, we stood in the uncreated and the before, and we were certainly the only breath of life here, maybe these are not the right words, to be more precise, we were the only breath of created matter. We were a universe within a universe. Yet, I knew intuitively that we had not moved and were still at the beginning of time, and just before the creation of the universe, as we understand it but with the Sky God gone, or perhaps simply invisible to our minds, the place had become a frozen instant cut off from the flow of creation. A state of permanent immobility. And even knowing that I was only reliving a memory, I would have collapsed and lost myself into everlasting madness without his mental support, Ziusudra’s. “This is how I became immortal,” Ziusudra said. “When the Sky God took His love away…” “But He didn’t take it away, you are the one who refused His love?” I interrupted. “Why?” “What choice did I have, Augustus? Tell me, what would have you done…what would you do if you were given the same choice knowing that Julia doesn’t want to die. Would you let Julia die or would you grant her wish?” “Julia didn’t want to die.” “No she didn’t…and if you are strong enough, she will not die.” “What do you mean?” “You drank of her blood mixed with mine… and you survived… but again, be patient and let me finish my story. Everything will be explained in due course. There is no need for us to stay here now.” And before I could beg him to stay a little longer - as I was still hoping for the Sky God to come back and illuminate the emptiness one more time - instantaneously we left the place before creation and were back in Ziusudra’s body. But something was different; it was a feeling that I couldn’t explain at first. A surprising sensation of loneliness. It wasn’t the intolerable and spiritual isolation that I had felt when God had taken His light away, it was more earthbound, more tangible; the link with Ziusudra’s people was no more. We had returned, but looking around I realized that we were not in the tower anymore. I could hear the drip of trickling moisture around us and smell the recognizable odor of humidity, salty humidity, we were still by the sea, and I could feel a subterranean chill on our skin. We were in a small cave with a few terrified Naacals surrounding us, perhaps twenty of them gathered in a small circle and staring at Ziusudra’s with panicked eyes. They seemed different, not as perfect as before, tired and more humanlike. It quickly became clear to me that

these people had suffered immensely while our common soul was away on our journey of devolution. I couldn’t tell you how long we had been gone, but clearly, long enough for a change to take place. They were not the proud Naacals that we had left, they were no longer men so certain of their superiority, of their Godlike status, No! They were afraid, and evidently famished as their ribs were pitifully showing under the skin. The time of golden prosperity was gone. Yet, I didn’t really care about them, I wanted to cry to God and beg for Him to take me back, I didn’t care that it was only Ziusudra’s memory, I couldn’t feel the love of God, and the link to Ziusudra’s people and its music had disappeared as well. “It will be alright Augustus, you are now witnessing the retribution...the first step of God’s revenge,” Ziusudra whispered and I felt a limitless anger growing inside of us. “Because I refused His gift, the Sky God decided to punish my entire kind…all of us. At first He destroyed the tower and Naaca…” “But it doesn’t make sense, He is love? I know, I felt His love…” “Only for the ones who worship Him…but if you don’t, if you don’t He is a God of hatred…not love…can’t you see? The tremors, they grew stronger and turned into earthquakes while I was out of my body, and the earthquakes increased in strength and number until the walls that we had built around Naaca cracked and crumbled. “And, the sea, in one large wave, covered every Island, drowning everybody in its wake even Elma, my beautiful daughter, the eyes of my eyes, the mirror of my soul, my only reality and destroying every building in a few minutes. In an instant Augustus, our entire civilization was gone as if we had never been. Everything except a few of us who found my floating body and carried it into this cave, at the top of the hills, the only place not submerged. “My body was almost unrecognizable they said, a bleeding scar without ears or eyes, even my hair had been ripped away from my skull. The tower had crumbled over me, crushing me, and thousands of pieces of orichalcum had pierced my skin and infected my organs, my blood, my lymphatic system, and every part of my very being…” “Lymphatic?” I interrupted. “One day you will understand, Augustus. Don’t concern yourself with a science which isn’t of your time. Anyway, in front of my friends, in a few hours, my eyes reshaped themselves, my hair and ears grew back, my organs repaired themselves, and my skin became smooth as if nothing had happened. “So I woke up, and strangely my blood was boiling, as if it had painfully taken on a life of its own, and I saw the last survivors towering over me with supplication and anticipation in their eyes. They didn’t know what to do…perhaps somehow, after witnessing my recovery they hoped that we had become immortal. I asked them what had happened, but nothing, no answer; they kept staring at me with empty eyes. With my mind I asked again and still they looked at me without answering…” “Why didn’t they answer?” I asked. “As I am sure you have already felt it, the link was gone, replaced by this burning sensation of internal heat…was I the only one to feel it, the heat? “But I didn’t care for long, it was painful, but not enough to keep me from a more pressing matter, we could not communicate anymore, we could not connect minds Augustus. It took me centuries to understand why. The link came from the red substance, from its accumulation, but when the giant wave destroyed the tower and every building and everything ever built with it, the orichalcum was returned to its primitive state and dispersed all over the sea floor, and I think, out of our dimension.

“I stood up, terrified, alone from the first time and I rushed out the cave. Nothing was left; not a building, not a tree, not a flower, we now stood on a tiny island of bare rock and sand surrounded by the immensity of the sea. I screamed with my mind and cursed the Sky God for what He had done to us. “ ‘You promised they would never die.’ I said. ‘We refused to join with you and you killed all of them, all of them. I curse you God, I curse you.’ “But there was no answer, for the first time I was by myself, separated from my people and separated from God. We had lost the ability to speak and write, and without the link, we had no way to communicate. The Sky God had killed and destroyed and left me alone as king of a few terrified and starving inhabitants of an infertile piece of land, and all of that because we had dared to refuse His love.” “But you are the ones who created the tremors…you…” “Shush Augustus, just shush. How do you dare? What do you know of responsibilities? Tell me. Just tell me.” I didn’t answer, afraid to awaken his anger, the same anger that I had witnessed when he had killed the soldiers. But he kept calm. “Yes we drilled all over the world,” he resumed. “And we melted the pole and yes we continued drilling after the earthquakes…but in the end, He was always in control…always.” “And what happened to your companions, the ones who had survived?” I whispered. “At least, they didn’t suffer for too long,” He answered. “About two weeks for the strongest of us, my beautiful friends. One by one they died of thirst, how terrible a death Augustus! “No immortality for them. Only the end of hope as they died stripped of their dignity. “In the beginning the symptoms were minor, our mouths dried out, and our lips parched, but then our tongues swelled and cracked, and we knew we had little time left, we knew that soon the pain would become unbearable... After a few days, our eyes had sunk back into their orbits; our cheeks had become hollow and the lining of our noses had cracked leading to repetitive nosebleeds. “We tried to drink the water dripping from the cave walls but it was salt water. I even thought of ways to get rid of the salt, but it was useless, we had nothing, no material whatsoever to build recipients to separate water from salt. We even dug through the sand with our bare hands hoping to reach some hypothetical hidden spring…nothing. “We were dying; the skin on our bodies that had turned scaly and dry and was hanging loose testified to it. A sad sight…and then came the vomiting from the dried lining of our emptied stomachs and the painful convulsions caused by our dehydrated brain cells. “And all along, though I seemed the only one to feel it, there was this burning pain, the blood of my body running too fast…all along. “That’s how they started to go, my friends, my people, my history… “The lucky ones, after convulsing, passed out to never wake again, I say the lucky ones because the unlucky ones, they stayed conscious until the last instant, asphyxiating slowly, unable to draw breath through their airways that had been plugged by sick secretions and mucus. “One by one, they faded away, in atrocious torture, and like them, I felt the thirst and the hurt every step of the way. Though for me the harm wasn’t only physical, as I felt responsible for their deaths…after all, I was the one who had refused God’s gift of love. And I felt useless, as I could not soothe their pain with my mind, as the link was gone. The last Naacals were dying, and for the first time, in thousands of years, they were dying alone. Yes one by one, I saw their

terrified and imploring dry eyes trying to cry a last impossible tear. “So, don’t talk to me about responsibility, and about who did what until you have been forced to witness the end of so many beautiful minds…You don’t have the right yet, and you won’t have this right until you have held the hand of dying man and felt his trembling fingers trying to hang on to life…until you have felt his nails piercing your skin one last time…” “I am sorry,” I murmured with my heart. “Don’t be. How could you understand? It is a strange process, the death of a mind Augustus, a very strange process. In a detached and broad sense you must have an idea, after all, you have been witness to it so many times over the last two years, as you have seen Nero at his best. It is always the same, whatever the time, the era, the place, at first people refuse and fight because there is hope; there is always hope…this is probably why mortals keep going on with their useless lives instead of letting go. You have seen them, the way they struggle for one more breath, even on the cross, when their legs are broken and their lungs drowned in blood. “Hope, such a lie the sky God has bestowed upon us! What a marvelous and brilliant lie which allows humanity as a whole to think that tomorrow will be better than today…hope…an illusion which feeds on itself. “You don’t know hope, you an immortal?” I asked. “I didn’t say that; I do. You are proof of it, after all if you have come so far, there is a good possibility you will become my ally, and save Julia and perhaps more…” “More?” I interrupted. “Yes more, much more, but let’s go on with my story, and you will understand. The last survivors, some decided to drink the seawater, just a little at first, just enough to sustain their dying bodies, and then more, and more…I think they made the right choice, as they all became mad and delirious and died probably thinking they were back in Naaca before the giant wave. “This is how the people who could fly above the earth when your kind was still hiding in caves, the half gods who could live for centuries when your ancestors barely survived infancy, the empire which had built the most colossal structure ever created by men, a tower able to reach the Heavens, disappeared. “They vanished from the world, humiliated and broken, unable to communicate, to write, to speak, unable to express their love and their fear even on the verge of death. “And if the majority of them drowned in the sea, of the few who had escaped, what can I say, what can I add, I have no good story to tell. In front of me, some died asphyxiated with thirst and some died laughing away in a state of rambling insanity caused by the salt water. Nothing grandiose here; and nothing left to testify to the fact that we had ever been. “But at first I didn’t realize that my fate would be different from them; for me, it was simple, I had been tricked by the Sky God, that’s all there was to it, and I was going to suffer the same fate as my friends. “And alone, with my guilt and my thirst and the physical pain of my dying body, I waited for the night to swallow me…but I didn’t die. Instead, with the last of my friends gone, the burning sensation, it stopped, as if my blood had finally been tamed by my sudden isolation. And for an instant, I felt at peace and I calmly welcomed death. “But it didn’t last, in a permanent state of dying, my body slowly eating at itself…I didn’t die. Only the suffering, the loneliness, and the emptiness engulfed me. “I gathered my last strength and dragged myself into the comforting shadow of the cave, and I prayed for death… but no death for me. “No death allowed.

“No death. “No death. “Eventually after a few weeks, perhaps a few months, I am not sure, it was so long ago, my lungs and my heart and even my brain failed…And twisted on the floor, I almost thanked Him, the Sky God, for what I thought was my end. “So you died…but you are__” “__Here with you, I know. “I wasn’t dead long enough, never long enough to know the eternal tranquility of death. My soul had nowhere to go but in my body, as I had refused God’s love, the last gift. “But think about it Augustus, in a way, the Sky God had granted my wish, I couldn’t fully die…and still, He had not broken the rule of life from death, I was still subjected to it, and if I didn’t die, it doesn’t mean that I was alive, Augustus, without nourishment, I was trapped in the instant of my death, with my passing body repetitively drawing a last unending breath. “It took a long time, many of your mortal lifetimes, but finally I fell into a vegetative state, my undead remains slowly rotting in a cave, forever away from the world of the living. “And without me as part of it, time passed. All over the world, the climate became warmer. Glaciers retreated to the poles, leaving more space for humans to expand, and men slowly evolved, forgetting about us. As humankind became more comfortable and developed farming, men started to feed themselves more easily. And, logically, as agriculture provided a more reliable food source, the world population grew. “After many hundred more of your lifetimes, men decided to build cities, certainly not as splendid as Naaca, but still they were cities…I think that the first one was Jericho, but so many were built, and so many disappeared while I was sleeping. “And the evolution of your kind continued. In Greece, sailors learned how to travel the seas and, according to what I was told, reached the Island of Milos more than 7000 years ago… and still I was sleeping.” “At least, your suffering was over,” I said. “Augustus, there are so many kinds of suffering…so many.” He answered.

CHAPTER XV I suddenly realized that Ziusudra was telling his story, not showing it, not sharing it with me as he had done previously. I was no longer cursed with sensing everything he sensed. My spirit was mine again though Ziusudra was still strongly clamped inside of me. But he was telling not sharing; he was recalling what could have been a simple account of past events, something which could have happened to someone else, not him, though, evidently, it had happened to him. It was as if a veil had been thrown upon my eyes, keeping me from accessing the most private parts of his memory, perhaps his ultimate suffering, the loss of himself. Still I could feel his anger and his despair and, certainly, a thirst for revenge anchored to his millennia old feelings of misery and self-pity, as he felt that God had betrayed him. Love, it was nowhere to be found in his martyred mind, blinded as it was by an eternity of pain. I was tired and confused and with Ziusudra, I was teetering on the verge of despair, and I could almost taste it. I remembered the fear in so many eyes, and the agony in so many last screams, and as I recalled what hopelessness could lead to, I recalled the face of Nero, and the smiles in the crowd watching the burning crosses. No despair. No despair. I forced my drifting thoughts into obedience, remembering Lucan and his unending stories and marvelous poetry, and Julia, and her lively eyes beneath her lashes, saying that she would always love me. No despair. And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to fully judge him, Ziusudra. The monster who had condemned a group of soldiers to a slow death by fire was the same man who had found enough love in his heart for his people to journey across infinity and eternity, the very same man who had met and defied God out of love for his kind. Gentlemen, if you think about it, how could I have even come close to understanding what Ziusudra had been through. I had suffered with him, I had loved with him, I had met the Sky God with him, I had felt the love of God with him, and with him I had felt it being taken away from us, but still, I wasn’t the one who had lived through the millennia. I was still a mere mortal trying to comprehend the journey from light to darkness, and still, somehow, I hoped that I would find a reminiscence of humanity in him. Hope among the hopeless. I tried to probe his mind as he had probed mine, perhaps clumsily, and he felt it right away. “Augustus, what are you doing?” He asked. “You won’t find the man I used to be with your pathetic attempts to read my thoughts. This man died a long time ago. Perhaps I was still a man, even after I died a thousands deaths from thirst and hunger, perhaps…but, as I told you, there are many kinds of suffering…and pain from the flesh is nothing compared to the total mental agony that I was subjected to during my long sleep in the cave.” “I am not sure you are right.” I said, but I knew little of the complexities of the mind. “For what it is worth,” he answered. “I am right, whatever was left of the man I once was, after the physical torture, was killed by the unending and relentless guilt bestowed upon me by

the ghosts.” “The ghosts?” I asked. “Let me explain Augustus,” he continued. “What we didn’t understand when it came to death, is that the destruction of the flesh isn’t death…only the soul which has rejoined with the Sky God can be considered dead, dead to the rule of life from death and ready to rejoice in a permanent state of perfect love. “For an eternity which seemed an instant, I slept a dreamless sleep. And then it started, the ghosts, or to be more precise, before the ghosts, at first came the whispers, and the end of a found balance between madness and peace. “It began with a far away noise, not fully a sound in my mind, more a sensation of noise, barely perceptible, but it was just enough to wake the last part of life in my undead body and to reopen my mind to my unbearable reality. “ ‘ What is it?’ I asked. But there was no answer, only the feeling of not being alone. ‘What is it? I can hear you.’ I tried to open my eyes but my body didn’t respond; it had been lifeless too long to obey my command. I looked more like these fatless Mummies that Julius Caesar brought back from Egypt before he was murdered, than like a man Augustus; my flesh had turned into leather and my joints had fused and become inflexible. Time had turned my immortal remains into a grotesque caricature of what I once was. “But again, there was the noise, closer now, like an inarticulate voice trying to reach me from far away, fighting its way through my eternal prison of silence. And, slowly it became a whisper…yes people were whispering in my mind and their voices were growing in strength and clarity…” “Were you afraid?” I interrupted, naively. “Afraid!” Ziusudra laughed. “Why would I have been afraid Augustus? What could have been done to me which had not already been done. To be afraid, you must have something to loose…no I wasn’t afraid because in my prison of flesh, I had found freedom as I had lost everything which mattered…no I wasn’t afraid, perhaps annoyed that’s all. But I should have been terrified. “Still confused, I focused my attention in the direction of the whispers; I wished it to be the Sky God coming back to me to end my torment; and I tried to call again. ‘Who is it?’ But then it became clear that I wasn’t only hearing distant voices but also cries, a hopeless and pitiful and unsteady crying slowly sliding into my mind. “ ‘Who is it?” I asked again, perhaps a bit nervous. ‘Who dares to disturb my sleep?’ And then I heard her voice. ‘Papa, my papa.’ “Elma. It was my sweet little girl…” “It was a dream then?” I interrupted. “I wish I had been so lucky, but no, no dream, no dream at all, it was the bare reality, Elma or rather her spirit had found a way to reach me.” “Elma, she was the one I saw with the other children?” I asked. “She was your daughter?” “My daughter…yes. I will have to talk about her after all, if I want you to understand, but even now, after so many years, I can feel my guts twisting when I think of her. “And the voice turned into a person, into my little girl. I could now make her out, beautiful as she was the last day I saw her. I wanted to reach and caress her face and let my fingers run through her hair, to tenderly rock her as I used to do when she was sad. And even though I knew intuitively that she was only a reflection of the past, I looked up into her eyes and

grabbed for her impatiently, but my imaginary hand reached nothing, and I saw my fingers closing around some immaterial mist. Unable to touch her, I was choking with tears, but repetitively I reached. I reached. I reached like no tomorrow. “ ‘Elma.’ I screamed. ‘Let me feel you, let me caress your skin, it has been so long.’ But she was only a soul, a fleshless living soul. And behind her, I could discern distorted shadows, thousand of them, hundreds of thousand of them, and all, they were crying and imploring. “ ‘Have you come to take me with you?’ I asked, begging. ‘Take me with you; it has been so long since you left. I am ready; I am ready for death now.’ “She looked at me tenderly and smiled a sad smile. And, though it was sad, her smile, for an instant, it was enough to make me vulnerable to my feelings, and to erase the rotten and vicious and angry self that an eternity of suffering had slowly generated beneath my leathery undead body. But only for an instant. “ I focused my entire will upon her smile and tried to make it mine as I concentrated on feeling with my mind what was kept away from my grasp. And, doing so, I became more aware of the shadows in the midst of her, pointing to me and accusing, and of their multitude of voices in agony, all asking the same question: ‘Why have you done this to us?’ “And Elma, she was part of them. “ ‘ Why have you done this to us?’ Elma asked with the voices. “What to answer? I didn’t understand what she meant. “ ‘Why have you done this to us?’ She repeated. “ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked, still unaware of my people’s fate. “ ‘There is no night darker than the night that came upon us when you separated us from the vision of God.’ She said. ‘Look around. This is what you have done papa.’ And behind her, the shadows, they became clear; the shadows, they were the undead souls of my people. “ ‘I don’t understand.’ I said, but somehow, I knew what had happened to them and I recognized my hand in their suffering. ‘This is the place where I stood when I met the Sky God, the place, the way it became when He took His love away…’ “ ‘Yes, papa. Will we be here, forever, knowing that God and His love await us? Papa, do you know? How long will we wait before we are offered the beatific vision? Papa, we have been waiting for so long, do you know when we will finally die and enter His heaven? Do you know?’ “I think I cried a few words as I remembered what the sky God had said, ‘until you are all forgiven.’ Forgiven by whom, for what? Was it He, the Sky God, who would forgive us? If so, how could we reach Him and ask for forgiveness? Should we pray or beg or accept? I didn’t know, and my people, lost in their universe of darkness, close to the light and forever sensing its warmth and forever unable to see Him and comfort their souls with the ethereal beauty of unconditional love; my poor people, so close and so far away, they didn’t know either. “They only knew that they couldn’t die and that they couldn’t go back to their long dead bodies. I was the only undead, kept in a prison of flesh; their prison, it was different, it was a place before time and a time out of space, the same place where I had arrogantly stood in front of God, and spoken to Him and refused death for my kind, it was Heaven without His light and without His love, with the constant doubt that it would never end. “And night after night, day after day, they came back haunting my dreams, being my only dream, my repetitive nightmare, my sustained penitence. “ ‘Help us to be forgiven, help us…we will find a way…help us…’ they cried out, as if I

had been able to do a thing, I the mummified, I the solitary prisoner of the flesh.” “But why was their fate different from yours?” I asked, trying to fill my changed life with a new meaning. For me, things had to make sense and as Rome and my past pride in the empire and life itself had lost their significance. It had to make sense. A long moment, Ziusudra said nothing. “Why was their fate different from yours?” I repeated uncomfortably. And the moment came to an end; slowly he spoke, very carefully, “Augustus, by now I thought you would have understood. Don’t you see? When I met the Sky God, I carried with me the energy, the essence, the spiritual life so to speak of my people, not their flesh, not their bodies. Only I was still linked to the flesh, only I was still attached to my body and when I refused the gift of God, when I refused the rule of life from death, I merely gave immortality to their souls because only their souls were part of me…” “So your body…” I interrupted. “…Yes Augustus.” He continued. “My body became immortal because it was still part of me and I was still part of it…everything I was linked to became immortal.” “So, because the link reinforced by the tower was not with their bodies but with their spirits they died?” I asked, at the risk of being annoying, but I wanted to fully understand. “Yes, they died in the flesh but only in the flesh. And without a carnal container for their immortal souls, they found themselves unable to live and unable to die. Many became mad, confronted with the prospect of eternity without progression, evolution, change, and growth. “And all along, while I slept, they tried to force their misery upon me. ‘Why have you done that to us? Can you help us?’ They constantly asked, and I had to witness their despair; some of them trying to recreate their past life within an imaginary world, some simply crying, and the majority turning for all eternity around an imaginary pylon in their universe without light, waiting for the beatific vision to be offered and gradually falling into misery, as their realized that God had forgotten them. And all, without exception, not even my daughter, they were accusing me, telling me how I had condemned them to an eternity of darkness. “But then, there were the revolted, the ones who clang to some stupid notion of hope. They were asking for my help, telling me that together we could find some way to save them, and to save myself, that we shouldn’t give up. And for a while, they convinced me. “So we tried, so many ideas we tried, we tried singing His praise, and we tried apologizing, because anything was better than this eternal wait. And they searched for an opening out of the darkness, and sometimes they thought they had found it, and I would hear them sing a song of deliverance, but it would always turn out to be a dead end, and another one, and I could hear them moan, and cry, and get furious. And many were slowly broken. “After a long time, I realized that it was fruitless and I stopped listening. It was all madness; there was no getting away. And I suddenly understood that it was part of my penitence, witnessing their pain, my people who had lost everything, unable to let go of some ridiculous hope. I rejected them, and their ridiculous ideas, there was no way out. “They tormented me for a very long time, until I finally found it in myself to keep their screams away. Something had shut down in me, they kept reaching for me, but I didn’t hear them anymore, I could only see their ghostly spirits, and their bulging eyes and the tears and their mouth begging in silence…and for a few years, I enjoyed the quiet. If I had been able to keep the images away, I would have done it as well, even Elma’s, but don’t ask me why, I couldn’t; I tried and tried and tried, but their soundless faces kept resurfacing. “So Augustus, you see, I am right, the torture of the flesh counts for little compared to the

suffering of the mind. From the second I saw Elma, as a repetitive nightmare, lingering in my sleep, my people, my disappeared people, my silenced people were with me, haunting me, and sharing their unbearable torment with me… “And slowly, the world of the living changed unaware of our fate.”

PART II

CHAPTER XVI

I believe I should have been more afraid than I was. Ziusudra had shown me the rarest visions of life; the creation, the rule of life from death and the role it played in everything, and also the simple and beautiful face of God. But listening to him, I was already changing into a man who was less fragile and more able to endure than the average human. It is said that knowledge is power; in this case it is the truth. My body in its weak mortal form was terrified, though it was asleep - I could feel it shaking - but Ziusudra’s acute description of his unending life was slowly reinforcing my spirit. If he had survived his ordeal without losing his mind, so could I, I thought. “Before I talk further about me and the ones who saved me,” he resumed. “I should tell you how the end of my people is also the birth of a world, I should tell you of the banished ones, the Naacals who had refused to search for immortality.” “The ones that you had forced onto a vessel?” I asked. “Yes Augustus,” he said. “ The very ones that we thought we would bring back after we had reached the Sky God. As you may recall, I told you how we ordered them to sail away.” “I remember, you didn’t want them around because they could have weakened your will…” “You are correct Augustus.” He continued, before I could finish my thought. “I remember Atlas, the day we banished them, his eyes, burning with the despair of the forsaken, holding his young wife Ningikuga and his young child Nannar. Atlas was looking at me in the distance, piercing the crowd like a hawk, and like a storm ravaging the link, I felt his fury towards me, and more, his growing hatred for everything I stood for. “And I recall Ningikuga who had followed her husband though she would have rather stayed with us; but we didn’t separate families, and we had given her little choice; Ningikuga, the beautiful one as she was known, standing proud, and smiling as the night fell on them as the boat sailed away. And more clearly than any of them, I have this memory of Nannar, and the terror in his young child’s mind, and how, shivering with fear, he wanted to be reassured, against everything his father believed, and how, through the link, I let him know that everything would be fine, that I would find the Sky God and that I would come back for them. “ ‘I will be back.’ I said to him. “ ‘I will be back.’ “ ‘Wait for me Nannar, I will be back.’ “And as the night swallowed their thoughts, as it had swallowed their bodies, I heard his little mind, suddenly at peace, answering. “‘I will be waiting for you my king.’ He whispered, resting his soul in mine, trusting in the way of children, his heart open to miracles. “Imagine the shock then Augustus; from a distance, they must have seen the giant wave and the annihilation of Naaca and the tower, and suddenly, they realized – I know how terrified they must have been – that they could not communicate with their thoughts as the link had been broken. As best as they could, under rain and thunders, they hurried back towards our lost cities, probably hoping for survivors, but they found nothing more than a sea of water and floating

cadavers. I can relate to them, and I can imagine their despair and the fear eating at their insides. “After hours of searching, they had to resign themselves to the unacceptable, they were the only legacy of an era. And so, Led by Atlas, they left what had been the center of human knowledge behind them. “The journey towards a new land took them six days, and the elements were against them, I was told. But in the end the survivors reached terra firma, a place where the majority decided to settle down while a few of them continued the journey further to the East.” “How do you know what happened to them?” I asked. “I learned about their fate from two sources; I was told about the first settlement from a young aristocrat who later would be known under the name of Plato…” “The Greek politician?” I interrupted. “You heard of him?” Ziusudra asked, a bit surprised. “Yes, my friend Lucan told me about him and his strange teaching and that he created the renowned Athenian Academy.” “Plato was more a philosopher than a politician Augustus. And to convey his ideas, he used to make up dialogues between real and fictional characters…always stretching the truth to reinforce his message.” He said lightheartedly. “About four hundred years ago, I lived in Athens under the name of Xisuthros. It was a time of intellectual revolution with an entire generation of philosophers fighting to bring new ideas to the world. One day, I was having a long discussion with one of these thinkers, a man named Socrates, an interesting character, as stubborn as he was physically repulsive - I suppose that I was trying to convince him of the existence of a world of essence, of perfection superseding our physical existence – when one of his students approached me.” “Was he Plato? He knew about Naaca?” I asked. “Yes, he was, although he wasn’t yet known as such. His name was still Aristocles…and he knew quite enough.” Ziusudra continued. “He became to me as close to a friend as it is possible for a mortal to be. And for a while he made my life less boring. I found him intriguing, perhaps because of his wit and beauty, and also because of his eyes. They burned with a light which testified to his thirst for knowledge. One morning he came to me with a story that his great grand father Critias had told him when he was a child, he wanted to write the anecdote into one of his dialogues, as an example of ideal societies. “Critias’ great great great grand father Dropides had been told by the poet Solon, a great traveler, of a terrible war between the first Athenians and a very powerful people, the Atlantes.” “I believe Lucan told me about it, a war almost nine thousand years ago, but he said that it was a legend,” I answered, as gently as I could. “As no proof of this war was ever found.” “Oh Augustus, though it was inaccurate, it was certainly true,” Ziusudra whispered, perhaps slightly irritated. “Plato, when he told me the story, wasn’t the strong figure that artists have depicted, he wasn’t the powerful bearded men of sculptures, he was a young twenty seven year old nervous thinker in search of his truth…only his broad shoulders and chest testified to his physical strength…and I quickly nicknamed him Plato, which as you know signifies broad…” “You gave him his name?” I interrupted, incredulous. “Why would you doubt me?” Ziusudra snapped seriously irritated this time. “Haven’t I shown you enough?” I could feel his pulsing heart beating a bit faster in my mind. But before I could apologize, he resumed his story, as if he had already forgotten about my doubts. “Except for his physical attributes, I believe that only his voice attested to what the man

would, one day, become; it had a certain hypnotic power, which always urged me to listen. “In all accuracy, what he wrote, as it was intended for simple people, was a simplification.” “So what Lucan told me was incorrect?” I asked. “The Atlantes were not this great civilization which had been vanquished by the first Athenians I believe, just before they were destroyed by some cataclysmic event?” “Yes, in a way they were Augustus.” He answered. “But I would suggest that what your friend said was a far cry from reality. Plato had only written and embellished the last part of the story that he told me, as the true and entire tale would have not added a thing to the purpose of his writings. “And in all truth, he wrote of Athenians where they were none; only a bunch of illiterate and warlike tribes standing where Athens would be erected 6000 years later.” Ziusudra said, disdainfully. “He wanted to prove to the world that Athens had been around forever. Very humanlike behavior…” “And the Atlantes?” I asked, my mind rushing onto the rest of his story. Were they the Naacals? Were they the survivors? The first settlers… “They were their descendants.” He interrupted. “The degenerated descendants of the first settlement which, 500 years before, had survived the elements and the beasts and the down of their civilization. “According to Plato, at the time of the war with the Athenians, they stood beyond the pillars of Heracles, remembering and glorifying their past through myths and legends. Who were their ancestors exactly? He couldn’t tell, but by the way he described Atlantis, by the name of their king, and by the way his story felt in my heart as it emerged from the shadow of time, and because of the passion and relentless energy it carried in my soul, I realized rather quickly who they were. “ ‘They were not fully human.’ Plato started his story; I could sense the excitement in his voice and the pleasure he drew from words rolling on his tongue. ‘The first Atlantes were a group of semi immortals who came from a land far away, the last survivors of a great civilization which embodied the best of humanity, the search for beauty, and the search for greatness and the search for knowledge. But one day, they found their long life insufficient and in their search for more, for eternal life, they defied the Heavens. They angered the gods and were punished. They lost the ability to speak and the awareness of the written word. And as it wasn’t enough, Poseidon sent a giant wave, which destroyed their world and allowed only the faithful to escape. After six days and six nights on a boat, they reached a new land and under the supervision of their King, Atlas the first, they ventured to rebuild their world. “ ‘Atlas the first!’ I said, smiling. And I recalled the young man who had tried to keep me from reaching the Sky God. How long a way he had come while I was sleeping. So in the end, it wasn’t fear that had led him to revolt, it was power that he was after. “ ‘Yes, a very powerful king.’ Plato resumed. ‘Their new city was named after him as well as the Atlantic, the ocean they had crossed in their journey to the east. With his help, they slowly rediscovered the spoken and written word, but that was all. He made sure they would never defy the gods again and he put priests in charge of science and medicine and teaching. He wanted his people to live in harmony even if it meant keeping knowledge from them. He believed there were laws in the universe which should not be discovered. And he encouraged the Atlantes to build temples to the gods and to pray for their forgiveness.’ “ ‘What do you mean he kept them from knowledge?’ I asked. ‘Did he keep the younger

generations from knowing where they came from as well?’ “ ‘No Xisuthros.’ He answered. ‘He made certain that they knew of the fools who had broken the laws of the gods and of the terrible price they paid, and he made sure it would never happen again. They slowly built a very religious community centered on the temples. They mixed their blood with that of the mortals, as there were not enough of them to survive on their own. They believed, and continued to rebuild the echo of a great civilization. And they had children and their children had children and the children of their children had children while the pure ones, the ones who had crossed the ocean, were still alive. And with every generation, the children’s life span grew shorter until all of them died before their parents. “ ‘So the younger generations started to wonder why they lived so short a life compared to their ancestors and, as they asked for more years in the world, some spoke the forbidden word…’ “ ‘The forbidden word!’ I said. “ ‘Science! They started to speak about science and research. But instead of answering their prayers, Atlas made sure that nobody would search for immortality ever, and as of this moment, children were taken from mothers to be raised by the priests and to be taught true godly knowledge and the danger of unworthy quests…’ “ ‘Idiots!’ I interrupted, annoyed. I believe Plato was surprised by my reaction as he paused for an instant. I could feel the bitter taste on anger in my mouth, as he put his strong hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t accept the voluntary search for blindness, as it was a direct insult to my sacrifice, but I understood Atlas’ reasons. Evidently, he drew his authority from what he knew and he held onto his power with passion, even if it meant keeping his offspring in the dark. But understanding his motive didn’t make me feel better, my anger fed on Plato’s recounting of events. It had never occurred to me that a mortal could still make me suffer, but I suffered greatly Augustus, as my spirit reached out towards the past, the ghosts, and Elma. It was as if, through Plato, Atlas had killed my people one more time. “ ‘Should I continue?’ He asked. ‘I understand your frustration as we both share the same respect for knowledge, but this is a story to be told.’ “I could see a certain discomfort in him now, perhaps the way he looked at me? I smiled a reassuring smile. After all, there was nothing I could have done to change the past at this instant, whatever I felt no longer mattered. To him the story of Atlantis was a tale, how could he have known that he was describing my brothers’ fate? I concealed the pain that he was causing me and instead of crying out, I kept to myself, as I wanted to know more and everything. ‘Please do so.’ I said, my blood still boiling. And he obliged. “ ‘And 500 years after they had reached the new land, Atlas and the pure bloods were still alive, their bodies sustained by some unknown magic. But they didn’t help their children, they left them die in the dark as incomplete seeds unable to ever fulfill their potential. “ ‘Slowly only the king and the priests had access to the real story about the origins of Atlantis. And holding onto power as they did, they kept written manuscripts of the precise events which had created the city in well guarded temples, as far as possible from the people.’ “ ‘Where are they, the manuscripts?’ I asked, giving myself foolishly to new hopes, feeling an excitement that my body had forgotten long ago. ‘Where are the manuscripts?’ “ ‘Nobody knows where they are. Some believe they were destroyed during the war and some believe that they are buried in one of Atlantis temples…some say they were taken from Atlantis and hidden in the great pyramid in Egypt…it is possible, after all, as the story was told to Solon by Egyptian priests…’

“ ‘Perhaps the other Atlantes knew where to find them?’ I interrupted, almost as a prayer. “‘The other descendants, you mean, the ones who didn’t come either from Atlas or the priests…I don’t believe so, as they only remembered their ancestors as some kind of godlike figures who had created Atlantis. They had been told some confusing tales about immortals and about a great city made of a magical substance named orichalcum, which had magical properties.’ “ ‘Orichalcum?’ I asked, as I walked closer to him, shutting my eyes for an instant to feed my spirit to the mere memory of the link. I recalled the constant hum and the comfort of not being alone, the touch of thousands of minds in my minds, the warmth of permanent bliss and the safety of belonging. The harmony. I remembered the harmony, the perfect harmony. How I longed for the red substance. “ ‘Yes, a material so powerful that it could link minds, allowing people to share thoughts, and make objects fly…’ “ ‘Did they find any?’ I asked, opening my eyes. ‘The so called Athenians, did they find any orichalcum during the war with the Atlantes?’ “ ‘According to Solon, they found nothing, no magical world, and no orichalcum. Only king Atlas, who battled for days it is said, his body broken and bloody, pierced a thousands times, before he took his last breath, and a few priests, and a peaceful people who fought the invasion the best they could, and prayed the gods to save them. When the Athenians entered the walls of Atlantis, it was night it is said; they encountered a few terrified survivors, mainly women and children. Mothers willingly tried to sacrifice themselves so that their children might be spared, but the soldiers, drunk with the sweet wine of victory, showed no compassion and no mercy. They raped and killed to the last. And then they set the city on fire. In the morning, only ashes and the rotting smell of burnt flesh were left of Atlantis to bear witness to the savagery of the night.’ “So…what happened then? I asked, thirsty for more. “Nothing!” Ziusudra said. “You know as much as Plato told me. Perhaps unable to face the pain, unable to hide my anger from him, I never saw him again. A few months later, his mentor Socrates was forced to commit suicide by the Athenian government and Plato, afraid for his life left Athens and went to Italy and then Egypt. “I read his books years later, when he had just died, and I recognized the story, though he had changed it to make the Athenians a more evolved people.” “And what happened to the survivors who had continued their journey further east?” I asked. “They saved me Augustus, they saved me and told me their story long before I met Plato.”

CHAPTER XVII

Something had changed. Without warning, I felt his grasp loosening, almost releasing my mind as he mentioned how they had saved him, the last Naacals - the ones who had journeyed further east - from his tortured sleep. For an instant it was silent, the way it used to be, before Ziusudra invaded my spirit. And I found myself unsure; did I want him to fully release me? Did I want to know more? In all accuracy, for a second I faltered, I welcomed the sudden stillness. Perhaps it was fear that made me welcome this silence of the mind, I am not sure, but it didn’t last. I didn’t really have a choice, if you think about it, awareness feeds on itself, and the more you receive the more you want. Still I enjoyed the moment. It was so quiet and serene, almost as if Ziusudra had left me. But in all truth, now that I’ve had time to think about it, at this instant, a separation of our common minds would have been agony as I had been given a new thirst for knowledge. I craved my new understanding of things without choice. Probably like an addict needs his drugs as much as he hates them…anyway, whatever my reasons, I am still unclear here, I decided that Ziusudra was not to stop; I would force him to continue if need be. It was a duty I had bestowed upon him or that he had bestowed upon himself, the awakening of my essence had to go on. He had started a process and raised questions in my mind. And with all that was dear to me, I would have my answers. But quickly it became clear that he was only recoiling, and not leaving my soul to its usual uniqueness, loneliness I should say. His spirit was simply preparing itself to tell it all; how they had awaken his broken body, and how they had kept the ghosts and the guilt at bay, the unbearable guilt of a man responsible for the destruction of an entire civilization…and so much more, a man responsible for the undead passing of his daughter. “Yes Augustus, they saved me,” Ziusudra resumed. “To the extent it is possible to save a man who has denied entry to heaven to his kind, a man who has forced his own child’s eyes to remain open in unending darkness…but to you it is only a story even if intuitively you understand my pain and my anger. “How?” I asked, trying to rush his words. “How did they do that? How did they wake you?” “As I told you,” he continued, calmly, ignoring my excitement. “For generations, and long before my encounter with Plato, I had been sleeping in a cave, prisoner of my rotting body, praying to the sky God to forgive me and to allow my people to join with him…my people!” “The ghosts?” I asked to be certain. “Yes! The ghosts, I had been trying to escape them, their eyes in my mind, their screams of despair, the constant begging…but I knew instinctively that they would only go away if I could find within me the strength to awaken myself. But without water or food to feed my body, to give life to my flesh, moisture to my lungs, energy to my heart, all my efforts had only been a desperate succession of failed and exhausting endeavors. “How ironic, I was the one to blame for my inability to awake. When I had dragged my carcass into the cave to find some comfort, away from the unforgiving sun. I hadn’t realized that I was also keeping it from the elements, certainly from the rain which would have kept my skin and my organs from drying up and cracking, and finally mummifying into a prison of leathery flesh.

“So here I was, a captive in my own body, and I had no accurate knowledge of the time that had elapsed since the end of Naaca. I only knew that my torment was going on and on…how long? Decades, centuries, more? How long? How long since the physical pain of my repetitive deaths had ceased and left me prisoner of the agony of my mind? How long? And does it really matter when madness starts to distort the very notion of time? “But then it happened…” “What?” I interrupted. Again trying to peer into his mind. “Life Augustus, life happened.” Ziusudra answered. I experienced a warm smile growing inside my mind; it was his, he seemed content just remembering the moment when in a way, he was born again. “Life always finds a way. At first, I felt a change around me, on my body, nothing major, barely a sensation…but as time progressed it became clearer…my remains, they had been moved. I wasn’t in the cave anymore, I was in the outside; even the air had changed, the rancid and petrified air around me had turned fresh and deliberate. And that wasn’t all, I could smell, I could smell and it was the scent of life. Certainly the scent was faint at first… but in time it grew into stronger smells, more fragrant perfumes…spices, flowers, lilies perhaps, even human sweat, all these magnificent odors that mortals take for granted because they don’t understand how they can make the difference between living and surviving. But I had forgotten about odors, and I was so accustomed to dreaming that it took time for me to recognize that the scents were real. Removing me from the cave had rescued me from the night, but only partly. “But then, after months, it became clear to me that my condition was improving, I could hear. I could hear the hum of people talking, though I could not make out what they were saying or differentiate women from men. Naively you could say I convinced myself that my agony was over, and that I had been forgiven. One day, nervously, I even tried to open my eyes…nothing, to move an eyebrow…nothing…just move anything that would be willing. But again I failed and panicked, realizing how close I was to life and yet how far. “Help me, help me I screamed with my mind…help me! “I am alive, I am alive, I am alive. “Can’t you see? I am alive. “But it was no use, though I had been awakened, I was still confined to my own dry skin...but at least the nightmares were gone, as long as I could keep from sleeping, and focus my mind onto the reassuring whispers of human exchange I would be able to keep the ghosts away. “And slowly I calmed down, at least I was flesh and blood again, I could feel my body even so slightly. I could sense when it was moved, when it was still…I knew when it was night, when it was day; I enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my skin and the freshness of the moonlight. “I couldn’t tell you how long I stayed in this state of blinded paralysis, being moved from place to place, but it was certainly months. And all along, I realized that a small group of people always stood by my side, carrying my remains, looking after them. Though not once did I feel the touch of a hand on my skin…not even a whispers closer to my ears. Only the distant and reassuring hum of distant voices…until one day, my body was laid to rest, not to be moved again. It was a different place. I was indoors certainly as I couldn’t feel the nights or the days. I waited a long time, expecting to be carried to some new place, but it didn’t happen and as seasons passed, I understood that we had reached our final destination.” “What happened next?” I asked. “Surely, you didn’t stay in this state forever…you are here with me...” “Something miraculous Augustus…if I believed in miracles…she came into my life.”

“She?” I asked surprised. “Yes she, Inanna.” “Who was she?” I asked, but as if I weren’t here, Ziusudra continued, his voice calm in my mind, without his usual latent despair for the first time. “Since a time I couldn’t remember, I had not felt my putrid carcass so alive as when she came to me. I even believed that she had been sent to me by a forgiving God to take me away from the darkness…after all these years.” “Tell me now,” I almost screamed. “Just tell me what happened.” “I don’t remember exactly when,” he continued, undisturbed by my impatience. “But for what seemed to be no reason, my body awoke to a forgotten sensation, pain. So much pain. “So painful, but at least I was finally fully alive. “My blood was boiling, literally boiling as she walked towards me for the first time, filling the place with her presence. And I remembered when I had last felt the burning, after the destruction of Naaca, with the last survivors…an eternity ago. How could I have known that this new and foreign person, hidden by the darkness of my dead sight, was the one who had awakened me with her mere presence? “But, though I couldn’t see her, I knew she was a woman, her aura was female. She was heading towards me, and in my mind, with each step she took, I sensed something growing stronger; not really the link but a memory of it, an inexplicable impression, unknown but familiar, mixed with the growing pain from my sweltering blood. “And as she reached my broken body, to my surprise, I heard the impossible, a weak and uncontrolled moan escaping from my lungs and passing through my fetid lips, my own voice, after many years. I felt a shadow over my face and a hand caressing it, and slowly my eyes opened. “At first it was a blur but gradually as my eyes reacquainted themselves with this new world, I saw Inanna, gleaming in the soft light of torches…I saw her, unknown but strangely familiar, her mouth barely parted and her small nose, and two immense green eyes, powerful and distressed…I saw the face of an angel standing over me. And the red lips whispered to my ear, a few words that I didn’t understand. I think it was the first time I had heard someone speak. Her voice and her words. “Words into a sentence. “Words into music. “I didn’t even try to talk back. I knew nothing of words, if you think about it, but I wanted more…more of the voice, more of her. “I experienced a sudden pull towards her, something uncontrollable, my entire body trying to stand up, failing, but trying. She probably saw my ridiculous efforts to make the lifeless come to life, and again I felt her reassuring hand touching my mummified face. I tried to smile, and certainly to her, it must have appeared a very sad smile made of gumless naked teeth, but she didn’t stop caressing my face, rather she smiled back, a peaceful smile which meant: ‘welcome home.’ And for the first time since the end of my world, I cried, tearless tears, but I cried, and she cried with me. “ ‘Welcome home.’ “ ‘Welcome home.’ “ ‘Welcome home.’ “ And though around us, there was a sense of disorder; people moving back and forth frenetically, screaming strange words, and - as I was told later - talking of miracles and thanking

the gods for bringing me back to life, the sense of peace she provided was so strong, so distinct, that all this agitation was only murmurs to my ear.

CHAPTER XVIII Ziusudra said: “Do you understand?” But I wasn’t sure; what was I supposed to understand? Somehow, I wondered whether Ziusudra himself understood what had happened to him over the years, whether he was more than an immortal toy in search of meaning to his endless life. After all, he wasn’t a god. He probably caught my thoughts as he continued: “No Augustus, you don’t understand… or so little…but you will, I can assure you that you will, once we are done.” And I heard his now familiar crystalline laughter echoing within the convoluted dark side of his mind. “But what is it to be understood?” I asked, a bit shattered. “What are you trying to tell me Ziusudra? Yes, your story is sad and I can’t even begin to imagine the hurt of losing a daughter and your entire people…but no, I can’t say I understand…” “Augustus,” he whispered, diving deeper in my soul. “Once you realize what He did to me, the sky God, you will see how close we are and how similar your Julia is to my Inanna.” “The one who awoke you?” I asked, a bit uneasy, and even more nervous. What did he mean: “how similar?” and also “why me? Why had he chosen me with so many possible choices?” But, as if my doubts meant nothing to him, without answering, Ziusudra resumed his story. “I was in some sort of room,” he continued, ignoring me, and I then realized that he wasn’t even truly listening to me, even when he seemed to be. He picked and chose which question of mine to answer, as we do with children. “And Inanna was standing over me, a young and beautiful woman. And though there was this pain, this burning in my blood, trying to free itself, trying to escape my old veins, running madly where it had been immobile for so long, I was reborn. Her eyes into my eyes, she was my first reality in millennia; made of real silky skin and real flesh, with real lips, and real breasts, and a real heart pounding so strongly that I could hear it, as I did the blood rushing to her face, she was life reborn… “I have this first image of her eternally carved in my immortal memory, Inanna, her long dark hair loose like a veil on her white shoulders, Inanna breathing hard, excited and unafraid of my scared remains, Inanna pouring water in my mouth after an eternity of unquenched thirst, and Inanna laughing with joy as I slowly drank the forgotten liquid…I have this image of her forever young and fearless in this temple of some sort where my eyes had opened for the first time in an eternity. I was on a table or some kind of altar made of decorated mud bricks- some geometrical mosaics - in a rectangular room lined with other rooms as far as I could see…but I couldn’t see far, only her, her face by my face and her smile as an answer to my smile, and behind her a huge statue representing some unknown deity. I didn’t care; only Inanna was of importance. I have this image of her…” He sighed and resumed. “…I am telling you Augustus, you will understand how similar we are…don’t you already have the image of Julia eternally young and fearless in front of Nero? Perhaps you will forget her face but her image, the feeling, will forever stay with you. You will always have her voice and her perfume floating uncontrolled in the back of your mind. Believe me.” I didn’t answer, but again I tried to peer with my mind, my incredulous mind, he was

hiding something. And this way of repeating how certain he was that I would understand had made me question his apparent assurance. And I wanted to find it in me, the strength to revolt against this master of my thoughts. I would have liked to tell him that I wouldn’t listen anymore if he didn’t answer my question:” Why me?’ But he seemed so overcome with a mix of excitement and melancholy, as he recalled the memory of the woman, that I didn’t dare, and what would have been the point; as I said, he had our roles well established, he was telling, I was listening. He seemed unable to consider the simplest of possibilities: I could have refused to become his ally against this so-called Sky God. But not once did he entertain the idea that I could have asked to return to my usual existence, that I still had choices; to accept Julia’s death, to welcome the approaching murder of Nero, and to continue my life as a mortal as part of the Empire. Yes, somehow, I sensed he knew something that made him certain of my decision, of my allegiance to his plans, whatever they maybe. But again why me? “Why me? “Why me?” “Because there’s enough love in you for Julia to refuse His gift!” Ziusudra finally answered. “To refuse the third gift as I did and to be with Julia forever…” “Forever,” I interrupted. “But how?” “Again listen,” he answered with this voice in my mind, which was no longer a voice but a familiar sound. “Listen and I will show you how to trust me and how to trust yourself. Stop doubting, let yourself be at peace, let me bring peace to your heart Augustus, and I will show you how to bring Julia back. “But how?” I screamed in the confine of our joined spirits. “You are no god, you have shown me a lot, but your knowledge is still limited, after all, do you know what lays beyond the Sky God, once you rejoin him?” For a long deafening moment, Ziusudra paused. I could feel a terrible rage coming over him, a rage that he was desperately trying to hide but so strong that it overpowered even him. Unclear images of his haunting past reached into my soul, blood and death, screams, open mouths, fires, people begging, charred bodies, centuries and centuries of despair, and encompassing the visions, his eyes demented, and his face smiling and laughing and delighted over the passing times… And I felt panic, a cold dread…but then he resumed calmly as if nothing had happened, and I started to doubt what I had seen…perhaps he used some strange power over me to make me accept, not rebel as if it had been a possibility, I don’t know gentlemen, but at the instant he spoke again, the fear had receded…and I cared no longer for the flashes of suffering as if the visions had never occurred…an illusion, an illusion, nothing but an illusion, I convinced myself. “Even if you are correct in many ways and I don’t know everything,” he answered. “So it is. But you will see that I am the closest thing to a god that has walked this earth…and as I said so many times you will understand.” And again, I listened. Perhaps I could have stopped him, I don’t know, in any case, he had already said too much or I had listened too long, and I had no other choice but to go on. And to be honest, a part of me had been numbed by the promise of eternal life and eternal love with Julia. I wanted her back, whatever the price. Naively, I had visions of children, immortal children growing around us as part of a never changing Roman Empire. I imagined Julia and I as immortal as the Empire, and witnessing the

rise and death of Emperors and queens, and forever passionate and in love… unable to comprehend what curse immortality encompassed, I imagined a lot. And so under his spell, I let him continue. “Slowly she brought me back to life.” Ziusudra explained, “I don’t simply mean my body, but my soul as well. She took me from my era of knowledge and carried me into her world of superstitions. Day after day she came to attend to my needs, to feed my lips, to quench my thirst, and slowly in term of mortal time, my cracked and leathery skin recovered, and I was alive.” “And the small crowd around you?” I asked. “ The ones responsible for the comforting hum that had been with you all along, since your body had been moved from the cave, did they come close to you? Did they comfort you?” “None of the others- they were priestesses and priests and musicians and castrates and hierodules – never dared touch me, and it was a good thing as I felt nothing for them except disdain. “Inanna was different, every time she came close to me, my eternal blood started to burn from inside out, it was the same pain I had felt with the last Naacals, the same pain I had felt when she had awaken me, but with the pain came a strange satisfaction. And quickly I realized, that I was in love with the woman who had saved me, and I felt as much for her as I felt nothing for the other priests and priestesses, so the physical hurt was a small price to pay to have her by my side. “Towards the rest of the world, I had become emotionless. I could see the fear in people’s eyes, in those same eyes who had seen my mummified dead body come back to life, and I could hear them discuss in their unknown language some subject related to me. Sometimes I took them by surprise them as they glanced my way while they talked, and I let my eyes enter their frightened eyes to see the trepidation growing, and they were unable to look away…I enjoyed it, this power to frighten from afar while my broken body was still unable to move without Inanna’s help. In an undefined way, their fright replenished me with emotion, almost as if I made their sensations mine. “Inexplicably, I could feel their fear, their anger, everything from them, except love, and I wondered whether they couldn’t love what they feared or whether I was unable to feel their love for me. “But with Inanna it was different, she was unlike any of them, she wasn’t afraid and she wasn’t angry and I could feel love when she was around me, when she helped me walk, putting her arm under my arm, her fragile body stronger than it seemed, when she talked to me in that strange dialect with a reassuring voice…I could sense love, love for her and adoration from her. “And gradually she taught me her language. To this day, I remember my first two words pronounced: ‘Inanna’ and ‘Babal’ - which means confusion. How surprising it was to use my voice for something else than undirected sounds, to force my vocal cords into words, and the tickling in my throat and the repetitive failures to shape the muscles of my mouth into words, and then into sentences. “And I learned until I was able to express myself as efficiently as possible with the spoken language, and my ability to communicate grew with my might and my self-confidence as my body was regaining its strength. My face was young and alive again, and surprisingly younger than before my encounter with the sky God, and Inanna kept coming to me, and kept talking to me as if I were as fragile as the day I had seen her, and her hand kept feeding me, until one night, though my blood was burning as never before, I found it in me to grab it, this soft

hand, and I kissed it with my reborn lips. “ ‘Kiss,’ she said, smiling. ‘Kiss, here.’ And she pointed to her lips. “And my mouth came closer to hers, and to the moist and warm pleasure of a forbidden embrace.”

CHAPTER XIX “Before I could kiss her again, Inanna took me by the hand, and gently pulled my frail body towards one of the rooms lining the altar, slowly walking, her hips moving like a vessel at sea. She seemed content, the outline of a smile underlining her mouth, as if her entire existence had forever been dedicated to this night. “But, as we entered it, the room, I stopped, my entire being assaulted by mortal fear. On the other side, calmly laid on the floor, what I had first assumed to be statues, two lions were sleeping, and nowhere did I see chains or ropes to keep them from attacking us. And close to them, a snake, long and as thick as a tree trunk. And as my eyes acclimated to the poor light, the room grew more colorful leaving no mistake as to the reality of the beasts. The lions turned from grayish to a deep fauve and the python, as if they were one, I think, gleamed metallically, almost liquid, its eyes into my eyes. “And as my entire being tensed, the blood came to my head, to my heart, to every tiny living part of my very essence, and Inanna, tuned into me, felling my apprehension. “ ‘Don’t be concerned my lord, these are my friends,’ she whispered in my ear. ‘I love my lions for their strength and my snake for its ability to shed its skin and its old life with it…I love its eternal youth…but they would never hurt you, even if they could…even if I let them… even if I asked them.’ She reassured me. “And I followed her, deeper into the room, human and mortal for an instant again, my entire being weakened with a longing for her hidden flesh under the virginal white dress of priestesses. Mixed with the odor of the animals, I could smell the unmistakable scent of old bricks and burning wood coming from a fire in the center of the place, and subtler, almost as faint as if an old memory, the perfume of her skin. I looked around, giving shape to the place with my eyes; it was small and crowed with old decorations on the walls, not the geometrical mosaics of the main room, but red colored human figures in different and very explicit sexual positions. Though the walls had suffered from the passing of time, I could still see the representations; men with immense penises and women with open vulvas ready to be taken. And for the first time perhaps, I realized that I was naked, that I had been naked all along. “And as we headed toward the bed by the fire, I remember smiling with inadequacy confronted with these images of erect members, and Inanna smiled back, a reassuring smile, making me quickly understand that men had not changed much since the end of Naaca. “ ‘My lord,’ she said, as I sat on the bed, with her standing in front of me, her face perfectly chiseled by the soft light of the fire. ‘I have searched for you for so long, and my father before me, and my father’s mother…but never did I lose hope…’ “ ‘But who are you? Who are you people?’ I interrupted. “ ‘Shush my lord,’ she whispered with a soft voice. ‘You know my name; Inanna, I am Inanna.’ “She opened some sort of pin, which held her white dress together, and as the fine cloth slipped, only to stop low around her waist, it slowly revealed her white silky skin, and the perfection of her young breasts, the pink of two small nipples, and more, starting at the birth of her neck, the reddish shadow of a tattooed snake leading the eye to the beginning of her soft pubic hair. “‘Inanna, I am Inanna my Lord,’ she repeated, her hands like a cup around my face to force my eyes into her eyes. ‘We have been waiting for you.’ And with her tongue she parted my

lips, and my teeth, very tenderly, like a butterfly kiss. “I must have closed my eyes, as I don’t exactly remember when her tunic fell to the floor and freed the flawless skin of her hips and legs. But I can recall how, in the warmth of the room, I could smell her perfume and the growing and enticing scent of her moist openess. And I recall the contentment of not being alone, when she straddled me and took me inside of her. “When I opened my eyes, I could see the blue veins trembling with rushing blood on her neck…and her arched back and her breast pointing towards my hands, and a mix of pleasure and pain on her face. And passed her, the very old, cracked and partially defaced ceiling was decorated like the walls, with scenes of orgy; I could make out women on their knees taking men in their mouthes, and women kissing women and men in some tentacular embrace. “But something came as a surprise, though the men had different faces, the women, all of them, looked like Inanna, though it couldn’t be, as certainly, the artist’s hand responsible for the fresco had decayed a long time ago. But the work hadn’t been touched up in recent years, and Inanna, she could have been no more than in her early twenties. “She probably realized my surprise when she saw my lips shaping themselves into the beginning of what could only be a question. And she put her finger on my mouth, and said: ‘Not now my lord, not now.’ “And because then, it didn’t really matter, because I didn’t care, because I wanted to be contented at last and nothing else, because and because and because, but there are so many reasons that can blind a man to the truth, I kept my words to myself and with the passion of new lovers, I dove into the immensity of her green eyes, and allowed myself to be happy for the first time since my soul had been made immortal. Happy and complete. “I could feel the full weight of her body on me and the inside of her thighs around my waist. And slowly, moving back and forth, biting her lips, eyes closed to better enjoy my surrendering and the bliss of my member being devoured by her, she forced in me the growing need to cum. And her body started to tremble, every inch of it. I could feel every muscle in her, tensed and frozen in the moment, and her eyes still closed, she said: ‘share with me.’ And like hers, my body died for the eternity of a single second. “And then I rested exhausted, as she rolled on her back, both of us out of breath and alone again, and hostage to the usual sadness that the separation of the flesh so often brings. I could hear her by my side, her heart trying to find its way into a slower beat. I could hear her so close and so far. “Augustus, it could have been a peaceful moment…but it wasn’t. “The usual painful burning, that I always felt when she was around, I still felt it, but as I wanted Inanna more that anything, I had ignored it. But then, as I rested, the pain grew stronger than ever. I remember it like a sharp knife entering my insides, and pushing my blood from the inside out, and I remember screaming as it had become unbearable. And I wished I were dead because the throbbing from my inside was more intense than my past thousand deaths. And I remember screaming again, my sight red with blood and my tears bloody as well. All inside of me, life was forcing its way out from my very being. And as I looked at my hand, my fingers, I saw that they were getting older, with the smooth skin of my palms reverting to its usual leathery texture, and even my face was changing. I could feel newborn wrinkles stretching and scratching, and bringing my unaltered youth into old age. “I panicked and screamed for a third time. “ ‘Save me, save me,’ I said, with my new found voice. I was terrified, thinking of the ghost, of the permanent night, as if my awakening had been a dream. ‘I won’t go back to my

conscious death…save me…’ “ ‘It will subside my Lord,’ Inanna answered, calmly, seemingly far away, barely audible, almost like a dream entering my impaired universe. ‘Let existence run its course. You won’t go back to the night. I found you, and I brought life back into your broken body, I won’t! This is only the curse that we all feel when we share the same space, the curse of blood, but we found long ago that it is easy to cure…blood to blood.’ And she grabbed my right hand, and I felt a sharp object on my skin, on the tender skin of the wrist, and then its coldness piercing my skin, and then I felt her breath, her lips gently kissing the opening, and kissing harder, and then sucking, sucking the blood, the warm blood of my life, the blood which finally was being freed from my insides, and like one drinks from a spring she drank my life into her life. “The loss of blood, it didn’t make me weak but stronger, more alive, and again time had no meaning for me, its grasp a simple memory. And the pain, the usual affliction, the normal hurt when Inanna was around me, it was leaving me as if my blood had contained within it a mysterious poison. “But, Inanna didn’t seem to feel any agony as she drank, and as the hurt receded, I heard her speak: ‘ I love you Ziusudra, I will always love you.’ The voice was soft and musical and warm. “The voice? “The voice? “Was it a voice? “And as I realized that her lips were still joined to my wrist, slowly draining the warm and poisonous liquid into her throat, I became conscious that, for the first time since the death of Naaca, I was hearing someone else’s thoughts, and the thoughts were of love. “ ‘I love you too.’ I answered with my mind.”

CHAPTER XX So, before it started, it could have been the end of my story Gentlemen, Inanna and Ziusudra would have fallen in love, and they would have left the temple to walk hand in hand into the sun of a new world. And I would have never been made eternal. But life isn’t so simple, even for immortals; in fact it is more difficult for the ones who can’t die. We are the ones who never change, we are immobility within movement, the watchers of repetitive actions, and as such, to avoid boredom, we shape events without your knowledge, and we help your history to become history. But still, so many memories, so many memories that it has been difficult to make new ones in my petrified mind. And in the end, only madness remains. An immortal body without mind. No life isn’t so simple! And perhaps you have heard of her, Inanna, as she was known as Ishtar and Astarte later on, and also Aphrodite, and maybe you believe her to be a myth, a story made up by primitive people…but trust the one who has seen, trust my perfectly unmoving recollection of events; myths, legends are often the pale shadows of a long gone reality. And they didn’t walk into the sun, Inanna and Ziusudra, as I am here as proof of it; the mad crazy man that I will surely become, the true immortal, the improbable possibility of eternal life in front of your incredulous eyes. I can see the birth of a smile on your lips. Smile as much as you wish, you the already decaying, you the living rotten flesh, you who believe yourself to be gods and are not yet feeling the coming wind of your death. Can you hear it? The tempest and the black rider coming for you in a not so distant future, can you hear it? He is coming. But you are smiling. Smile, and I will continue the story that Ziusudra recounted, I will keep talking for your, soon, maggot infested ears. Smile! As long as your flesh allows it. Smile! But let me tell you. Let me tell you how Ziusudra, whispered, as if he had been afraid to wake up some horrific ghost from the past. “I knew I loved her as I fell asleep,” he said. “And when morning came, I awoke into a different world. The fire had died; Inanna was sleeping by my side, and the early daylight poured from an opening in the ceiling and bathed her body in a luminous cloak. “I looked at her, my love, my naked love, and I found her even more striking. In fact, she seemed younger than the night before. The barely visible lines around her eyes had disappeared, and her cheeks were fuller; her face was closer to childhood and her lips were redder, only just opened to let her breathe with the abandon of infancy. “It was a surprising sight, her innocence, as the rest of her body was sensuous and voluptuous, asleep and provoking with the milky white of her breasts, and the reddish tattooed snake willingly leading the eye, and the hips like two half moons, and the soft pubic hair showing between her parted and abandoned thighs.

“She must have sensed that I was awake and she opened her eyes, and smiled, and said: ‘Ziusudra, how is it possible that I could hear your thoughts?’ “ ‘Can you hear them now?’ I asked with my mind, softly as to not scare her. ‘Can you?’ “ ‘Yes, my lord.’ She answered with her thoughts, though they were disorganized. ‘The king is right, you are the one; and your powers are stronger than his. You are Ziusudra of Naaca, the one who reached into the Heavens to bring immortality to his kind.’ “I felt her excitement, her heart pounding, her blood rushing into her arteries, and pulsing, visiting every vein, I felt her with my mind the way Naacals used to feel each other through the link. I was slowly becoming her as she was becoming me. “ ‘How do you know about that?’ I asked, searching and probing her sharp and generous soul, but she didn’t answer, my love. She stood up, nervous, as she had said too much, and unexpectedly she refused to respond. “ ‘I am not the one to tell.’ I heard her thoughts. ‘I can’t my Lord, the prophecy…’ And with her words, I sensed her refusal, an overwhelming resolve fighting my own. Somehow, she was able to cast a shadow over some forbidden secret, which kept me from finding an answer. But I had to know. And I forced my mind into her mind; force against force, but the more I drilled, the darker the shadow. “ ‘You must tell me.’ I asked again, stronger, but again she did not answer, rather she fought me even harder, trying to keep me outside of her. “But instead of stopping me, her fierce opposition to my will pulled me into her even more; it wasn’t about love anymore…No Augustus, unpredictably it was anger that I sensed, anger growing, anger replacing love, not from her, it was my own anger, the eternal anger of a man without hope…and I indulged in the feeling, as if her refusal to tell had forced my memories, my guilt, the years of suffering bestowed upon me by the ghosts back into the moment. I had to know. And I shall know. “And I had no doubt that I would pierce through her defenses, and as she stood there naked and exposed, I kept pushing, almost violating until I felt an utter sadness, as she was nearing defeat. The sadness; it was despair now. The secret so close to be revealed…her will; barely a flickering light… and overcome by some unknown evil, I enjoyed it. I was in a trance, devouring this mind that had dared to keep some hidden knowledge from me, and I was forgetting that I loved her; I was feeding on her pain, on her fear. “ ‘Show me, show me, show me.’ I continued, my thoughts brought together into one intense screaming command. ‘Show me what you hide.’ But in all truth, I had gone too far, and it wasn’t about an answer any longer, it was about the music of her pain engulfing me and somehow making sense of my agonizing years of sleep. As if her suffering made mine more acceptable. As if my love for her was nothing but a glimpse of my humanity, a far cry from the pleasure I felt from her agonizing mind slowly pressed into madness by my all powerful will. “Even the lions that I could feel tensing behind me -perhaps ready to jump and save their mistress from some invisible attacker - didn’t concern me, and intuitively I knew that I didn’t have to fear them, as they were only flesh and bones, nor did I have to fear the silvery snake coiled in the corner; they were simple beasts and didn’t belong in my world nor did they belong in my time. “ ‘Show me more.’ I said to her with the thoughts of a killer. And I drilled further into her very being. ‘Show me your soul.’ “I could see her pink shoulders, her neck and the fragile beating pulse of life, and her paralyzed face, drained of blood, and also her eyes in my eye, her eyes slowly becoming emptied

of reason. I was becoming the Sky God, I was my enemy, the one I hated most, the ultimate judge; and I wanted her soul, the soul of the one I loved… “But then she found the strength to speak; it was barely a whisper escaping her lips. I heard her voice, piercing through my silent anger, and reaching to me from some distant place of harmony. “ ‘I will always love you.’ She said. “And then as quickly as anger had overpowered me, I remembered how much I loved her, how much the man in me loved her, how much what was left of my humanity loved her, and I found the strength to control the monster that I had become and to free her mind, and she fell exhausted back onto the floor. “She looked at me with a forgiving smile and I held her and rocked her as a child, my eyes blinded by tears. “ ‘I am sorry.’ I said, speaking, afraid to use my mind. ‘I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?’ “ ‘I love you.’ She said softly. ‘ I will always love you. I have waited from you for so long…’ “ ‘I am sorry.’ I repeated, weeping without control, unable to endure the guilt, petrified by my actions, unable to understand what abominable darkness had overpowered me. ‘When you didn’t let me in, I…’ “ ‘Felt alone in the universe.’ She continued my sentence. ‘But Ziusudra, you will never be alone as long as I am by your side.’ “ ‘I felt I could have devoured you…I could have made your soul mine…I am an abomination, I wanted to feed on your soul…’ “ ‘But you didn’t my love.’ She said calmly, reassuring. ‘ Because the love that I felt from you was as strong as the anger…your love was unique…and you stopped.’ “ ‘But I could have…’ “ ‘You didn’t. Any man with such powers would have, but not you, not the chosen one… but I cannot tell you…’ “ ‘Tell me!’ Again I felt a certain irritation, but this time I didn’t let it take root, as I realized that my tone of voice had already scared her back into silence. So I said softly: ‘My love, I need to know…How do you know my name, a name not spoken since before the birth of your world…I need to know…’ “ ‘And so you will.’ She answered. ‘ But it is not my right to explain what only he understands…and when the sun will be high enough in the sky, I will take you to him. He has been waiting for you.’ “ ‘But who is he?’ I asked. “ ‘My father.’ She answered. ‘The one who told us of the prophecy, of Ziusudra, the great king who will come back from the Heavens to bring immortality to his people.’ “ And, when the day was old enough, the woman I loved and had almost killed in my raging madness, took me to him.”

CHAPTER XXI “The lions leading the way, we walked through so many corridors that I would have been forever lost without her Augustus. “We were deeper inside the temple, surrounded by the scent of the old walls made of the usual yellow faded mud bricks, the oil from a few scattered lamps, and the sweet aroma of her perfume. With the exception of us, the ambiance was emptied of life, it was disturbing, as if very few had followed this path recently, and recently could have been ages, as under her perfume the air tasted rancid…it was reminiscent of my old friend the cave, which had kept my body away from life for an eternity. “The place was so very old that I felt as if I were becoming part of it. And where the beasts had not frightened me this maze of passages did…and I would have flown if not for an insatiable curiosity and the overwhelming necessity to be with Inanna. “As we reached a new hall, the lions, both, without order stopped and sat, as if they knew that we were now entering the world of gods. And we left them there, and continued, Inanna opening door after door…we kept walking up, always up, throughout narrowing corridors. I could feel the walls closing around me. I had to bend my body to keep walking, but it wasn’t enough, I could feel the cold walls scratching my shoulders, and spider webs in my hair. And a claustrophobic panic, growing pervasively from my insides out, was violating my recently developed self-sense of security, forcing my body to weaken. I couldn’t feel my legs, only fear, as in my mind I was buried again and I was to be turned into the leathery thing that I had been, and the ghosts would be my companions, the ghosts and the guilt, and their screams. “She must have felt the fear pouring from my entire being and my sudden desire to vanish from the world. And though I couldn’t see them, all around I could hear the recognizable hissing of snakes, there were hundreds, invisible and waiting. “ ‘Nothing will hurt you my love.’ She said with a smile. ‘The darkness will subside soon. Take my hand, he is waiting for you.’ “And I felt the softness of her palm against mine, and her fine but strong fingers, as she guided me along the suffocating and putrid tunnels, and all her love for me, and the love I had for her overpowering my fears. “It was as if her skin against my skin were enough to keep the demons away, and the fright, and the unbearable loneliness of my past.” “How was it that you loved her so much?” I asked. “After all you had met her a short time before, and if I am correct, you had a daughter, and perhaps a wife before her…” “Augustus, there are many causes to love,” he answered. “And I had many reasons to love her, as you will see…but there is no love stronger than the love for the one who gave you life…except perhaps from the one who gives life…and in a way she had given me life all over again, and I had received it with the might of an immortal heart. Our love was the purest, and for someone like me, time is of no essence, it is only defined by the death of the ones close to you…so yes… it was recent, you could say it, but as intense as your love for Julia.” “Julia,” I whispered. “My little bird of a woman.” The mention of her name was enough to reopen the wound; Julia, it seemed her death was centuries ago now. “Yes I loved Inanna the way you love Julia,” he said, his thoughts throbbing in my mind. He was not telling, but certainly Inanna, something had happened to her…when, how?

“No, this is different,” I answered, trying to separate the two women in my invaded mind, still struggling to make sense of what was my pain, what was his pain; which thoughts were his, which ones were mine? Was I sad for Julia, for Inanna? I didn’t know anymore, slowly he forced the two women into one…one immense sadness forever inlaid in my own history. “This isn’t the same love, Julia, I had known for three long years before we fell in love…yes, Julia, I knew her.” “Augustus, you think you did, but do we ever really know people?” He asked coldly, but evidently, it wasn’t a question. “And three years, now that I have taken you to the beginning of time…three years, one year, one month, what is the difference? Do you really know Julia? Love is love...and the end of love is the end of love.” I didn’t answer, still trying to separate his story from mine, the pain in my heart from the pain in his heart, and he was right after all, what is three years to an immortal? But still this power that Inanna possessed to keep Ziusudra’s mind at peace I couldn’t comprehend; a man such as him who had shown me his endless ability for rage and for cruelty and even for fear, how could a woman have the power to bring him peace, to find the mortal man behind the eternal monster? Was love really explanation enough? “And her hand in your hand, that was sufficient to calm you down?” I asked, unconvinced. “You, a man who had been buried for an eternity…” “Yes it was Augustus,” Ziusudra answered, slowly like if it were a self-evident truth. “And I remained calm, through the hissings and the darkness, as if her love had given me the strength conceal myself from my own frailty. “With Inanna’s love, I could have broken the door of heaven and forced the Sky God to forgive us, I could have been happy again, I could have mastered this monstrous self which I could feel raging deep inside me, the thing which had almost made me kill her, the thing which needed her soul and her fear and her pain to be whole. Nothing was impossible with her by my side. “I felt no apprehension any longer, no fear of my past…even when they appeared on the floor, intermingled in a last embrace, the two decayed bodies of some unknown unfortunate souls who had lost their way in the dark labyrinth. I stopped and she stopped, she lifted her head and gave me a distant and uncertain smile, she was clearly unaware of who they were, but she had seen them, as her attitude wasn’t one of surprise. And she couldn’t have cared less. “ ‘They shouldn’t have wandered where they were unwelcome.’ She added to her smile. “I didn’t answer. They were unimportant, but I was intrigued. And on closer examination, I could see their bones, broken, crushed by some amazing force. They had been killed, and more; a thin cocoon of transparent silky mater covered their entire bodies; they had been eaten and partly digested by some monstrous creature. The dry air had kept the remaining flesh partially intact; we were offered their darkened blind eyes looking at the forever hidden sky, and the cracked and bent skin of their useless nose, and their opened mouth frozen in a last smile of huge teeth. They could have been here for decades, Inanna’s companions when she walked this path, but she didn’t care. And I didn’t care. “Two cadavers joined in one death. “Nothing else. “The aftermath of their last fight to breathe one more unending second, the forever escaping instant which separates life from death. “I didn’t care. I would never have to know it, the last moment. “And as I looked at them like one examines an object, something thoroughly empty of

meaning, and as I felt nothing for them, I had no choice but to understand – something which I had refused to admit for millennia - that I had become a thing not of this world, a thing that mortals would revere or hate… “But my metamorphosis, I intuitively realized that it wasn’t to be dreaded as long as I was assured of her love, and I was, as I had been in her mind and tasted her love…yes I was Augustus, and this very certitude enabled me to gather the inner working of my own fragility, and to give myself some sense of peace. “And the two bodies, why should I have been concerned? They merely testified to my mortal self and its memory, and to the shadows of my mortality, so long gone and yet so close. And still, I held onto Inanna’s hand even stronger, not for fear of being crushed by the oppressing walls this time, but to anchor myself to her own mortality. “And we left their remains behind us and continued towards the top of the temple where he, the one who knew, was waiting. “And we met more cadavers on the way, many more, and always Inanna dismissed them as unimportant. “ ‘They so want to meet him that they would risk their life.’ She said. ‘We have told them so many times that the king cannot be around them…we have told them that he needs solitude, that he cannot be close to their diseased infected kind…but do they listen? Evidently no! They want proof that he is still alive and they seek it in here, where only priests and priestesses are allowed, only the pure blood…’ “ ‘Why is it so important for them?’ I interrupted. “ ‘The proof?’ “ ‘Yes.’ “ ‘If he were to die before he meets with you, it would mean chaos for our world, it would make the prophecy inaccurate at best, a lie at worst…and the prophecy is the only thing which keep them from returning to the savagery of their ancestors, and they would turn on us as we are so few…look at them.’ She said, pointing to a pile of bones, this time, they had been fully digested. ‘Only my snakes keep them from reaching him.’ “ ‘Would it be so bad if they met him?’ I asked. ‘It would reassure them…and kings need not be separated from their people, whoever he is and whatever secret you have chosen not to reveal.’ “ ‘He is too old, my lord, too old to be with them…but you will see with your own eyes, here we are.’ She said, whispering suddenly as if we had been in one of your temples to the gods, Augustus. “Finally, I was able to stand straight, as the last corridor ended onto an antechamber, largely opened to the sky, and highly ornate with amazing drawings covering the wall and the partial ceiling. And as my eyes acclimated to the light, I could see them more clearly. It was as if I had been pierced by despair itself Augustus, when I fully realized what they were, the images: magnificent mosaics, which, though simplified, showed the story of my people, and my story and so many stories within the larger history. I could see this huge tower, this startlingly tall ziggurat piercing the clouds and this face at its summit…and though it was stylized, I almost screamed when I recognized myself…” “It was you?” I interrupted. “No doubt it was.” He answered. “I could see my long face, my wide eyes, and the confident smile I carried as a badge of honor when I still thought that the Sky God would allow me to return to my people, and to bring to all of them the gift of immortality. And from me a

spirit was flying away, higher toward a light larger than any other stars, through some representation of space and time. It was evidently a representation of the Sky God. “I looked all around. I was petrified, everywhere, they were everywhere, mosaics, carving, paintings; they were everywhere the Naacals, the long disappeared Naacals. I could see the vessel with the banished ones sailing away, and I could see the huge wave and the tower crumbling, and women and men screaming toward their death…all my friends, my people, my mortality, all of it on this sickening shrine to our past. “And even events unknown to me were represented, the banished ones, I could see them reaching some unknown land and then I could see a split, some staying where they landed and a few continuing the journey towards a far away strip of land between two seas and three rivers. “I fell on my knees, my sight blinded by tears, my legs softened by the visualization of what I had done to an entire civilization; I was responsible. The sudden resurgence of these events, it was as powerful as the ghosts could have been, all of them the Naacals, they were back, scratching my barely closed mental wounds, and I screamed: “Elma, Elma…” because at this instant, of all the Naacals, more than anything, the thousands of years old memory of my child how she had died, and how I had condemned her to stand by the gates of heaven, and to never enter them – was resurfacing. I tried to push it away, the recollection; her gentle smile growing brighter when she used to see me, and her trusting eyes and her unconditional love. It meant nothing anymore, all dust to dust. Oh Augustus, I was guilty, never to be forgiven. “And clumsily I looked at Inanna, my arms outstretched towards her. I needed her love to replace Elma’s love more than ever, her love, her warmth and her forgiveness where I couldn’t forgive myself. “ ‘Elma, she was your daughter.’ She whispered in my ears, to my surprise, as she put her arm around my back, and her hand under my arm, and forced me to stand up. ‘ I know, I know my lord, but a king shouldn’t be on his knees. Let’s go, he is waiting.’ “ ‘You don’t see.’ I cried out. I didn’t ask how she knew…I didn’t. ‘I thought they were all behind me, the Naacals, you have no understanding of what I did…how could you?’ “ ‘He is waiting my lord.’ She calmly, but firmly answered. ‘ He can’t stay awake too long, there isn’t enough life left in him…let’s go, he is waiting and with him all the answers… one more door.’ “As we walked closer to the door, a huge one, carved with some heroic, unknown but familiar face, my eyes madly open, I had a sense of impending tragedy. I understood perfectly that I was going to receive my answers. And these answers, all the answers, they were going to bring me back to a place I had left long ago. Did I really want them, these answers that carried with them the weaknesses of my past mortality. Probably not, and with them, all these emotions they could bring back…but it was too late to flee…and what for, my world was long gone, what for? To be alone and driven mad by the useless reminiscence of so may thousands of faces which had decayed long ago…why? “I don’t remember how I walked the last step, the last inches, or how she opened the door, but powerless, I entered the last room. And there he was.”

CHAPTER XXII “As soon as the door opened, I felt the pain, the same pain which had awaken me when Inanna had walked to me, the same pain which she had cut open and taken away with her lips… the curse she had named it, only it was stronger. Did she feel it as well? I wasn’t sure but yet she held my arm tighter. “Though, similarly as the antechamber, part of the room was opened to the sky, I could smell the stench of the place, an odor of decomposing meat. I closed my eyes and raised my hand to my nose, backing away, retreating within myself. No more, no more pain, no more stench. No more. But it was no use; Inanna was set on forcing onto me the answers that part of me wanted no longer. “It was a room from another time, another world, full of objects and furniture and art, all stolen from Naaca. “How miserable it was; this comical memorial to a dead civilization. “I would not describe the objects, it would be useless to you Augustus, it is enough to say that they were misplaced; even the art pieces, so misplaced that their past beauty was no more, they had become ridiculous without the proper environment. I could have laughed if it hadn’t been for the growing pain. “And awkwardly in this place, in front of me, bringing me back to the present, high on the wall, the head of a bull and his two vitrified eyes seemed to catch my gaze wherever I looked; and on the floor, human skulls, and vultures picking at them. “And further, in a corner partially covered, he was there, on a bed, hidden by the shadow, but visibly waiting. And as I stepped closer, and entered the shade, I saw him: the ancient, shriveled with old age, and already vanishing from life. “ ‘Father.’ Inanna said. ‘He has returned.’ Her face was stained with tears; the strong liner around her eyes was running freely. I tried to hug her, but she let my arm go and gently backed away. “ ‘Inanna.’ I cried out. “ ‘No.’ She whispered with a broken voice. ‘Walk to him, he is dying. He won’t be able to stand up, walk to him…walk to him my love, walk to my father.’ “And ignoring the hurt, the twisting of my insides I walked towards the bed where he was resting, the ancient, his eyes barely ajar under the crumbling skin. ‘How can that thing be alive?’ I remember thinking. “ ‘Come closer.’ the thing murmured, with a raspy voice. ‘Let me hear you, I need to hear you…perhaps if I hear you…’ “ So I obeyed, though the smell of rotten flesh coming from him was overpowering my senses, I obeyed, and I walked closer. I couldn’t see his body under some sort of blanket made of animal skin, but the thing’s face was covered with sores, as if the flesh was already dying. “ ‘Closer.’ He repeated. ‘I can’t hear you.’ “ ‘I walked to the foot of the bed, until I was so close as to touch it with my knees, and for an instant I stood looking over the thing, disgusted, nervous, lost and terrified. “ He looked at me, with his vitrified eyes, and then his mouth opened on a large smile of rotten teeth, his tongue piercing from the darkness like a bluish dart. And he started to laugh; his laughter was between joy and despair. “ ‘I don’t even know your voice.’ The thing cried out. ‘I never heard it. I thought, the

tone, maybe...may be you are the one?’ “ Without control, I recoiled, I had seen too much; felt too much, I didn’t want his desperate need for happiness to open a new door. I wanted to scream: ‘die, you disgust me, die, you smell like death, die thing, die with your putrefied flesh, die before you can take me with you…I was there where you are going, and I came back.’ “ ‘No.’ The old thing cried out. ‘Don’t go away. I need you…I so need you to be you.’ “ ‘You are the one who knows, Inanna told me.’ I said, forcing the words out of my sickened body. “And she calls you father…are you her father?’ “ ‘Yes I am.’ He said, hissing. ‘Though I have looked better…and yes, I have the answers…if you are the one, as she told me you are…’ “ ‘I don’t understand.’ I interrupted. “ ‘The one who will bring immortality to his people.’ He continued. ‘She believes you are because of the way she found you and because she found you where they told us you would be…’ “ ‘They?’ I asked. “ ‘The spirits who come to us when we dream.’ He answered. I wonder how offended he would have felt if he had seen my mouth turned into an amused smile. “ ‘That’s why you think I am the one from the prophecy?’ I whispered, trying to ridicule what otherwise was making me uneasy. “ ‘Yes! And also because your dead body came back to life...’ He continued undisturbed. ‘And because you answer to the name of Ziusudra…’ “ ‘Because I am Ziusudra.’ I said, coldly. ‘Look at me, if you know…’ “ I heard his raspy laugh, and saw a lipless smile opening his mouth onto the rot of his useless gray teeth. “ ‘I thought you had realized by now, I am blind.’ He hissed. “ ‘I didn’t.’ I answered unmoved. “ ‘Many have claimed to be Ziusudra.’ He said. ‘Many since I lost my sight. And look at them, they don’t look so sharp themselves.’ He continued pointing to the skulls on the floor as if he could see them. ‘They knew I had lost my sight…I am blind, not stupid…they tried to pass for the one…look at them…they wanted to steal life from me, the little I have left…idiots…I told them they would not survive it…I will give you a bit of my life as well, and if you are lying you will decorate my room like they do, and you will feed my birds…yes you will taste my blood that can slow down the effect of time, and perhaps you will die as they did…’ “ ‘But he is the one father.’ Inanna said, interrupting his senile rambling. ‘He feels the curse like we do. If only you could see me father, he is a pure blood like us, but even more, even more powerful. I took the pain away from him as we do…’ “ ‘When you drank of my blood?’ I asked, but she didn’t react. “ ‘ …And he gave me life, if you could see me, it didn’t only stop the aging process as you do, it reversed it like the ones who come in your dreams said he could...his blood is the blood of an eternal…I look like a teenager father…can’t you feel the pain when you are around him father? Can you feel your blood begging for him?’ “ The old thing didn’t answer, rather he acted as if he were studying the palm of his hands, cackling under his breath. And then, for no reason his faded eyes moved and pierced through the ceiling in search of some invisible ghost. And tears traveled every path of his wrinkled face. “ I remember finding him profoundly mad at this instant, and with a new found strength, I

would have run away, if not for Inanna. I looked at her, what she had just said was true though. Since my blood had entered her mouth, she had been getting younger. What at first I thought to be an illusion was becoming evident. She was younger than when I had met her, perhaps five years had been taken off. “ ‘If I could, only if…’ The old thing cried out. “ ‘He is the one father.’ She continued. ‘ When I drank from is life, I heard his thoughts. Not like we do, I don’t mean that I felt his feelings the way we do, it was as if he could speak through my mind…as you told me it used to be.’ “ ‘The link.’ The old thing whispered, with surprising vivacity. “ ‘You know of the link?’ I asked, my heart beating without control. “ ‘…If only I could see you.’ The old thing said, without answering. ‘ I would know whether you are the one. If only you had come a century ago.’ “ ‘A century…’ “ ‘Shush. Listen.’ He said. ‘If you are the one I will tell you all…but listen because I have little time…if only I had known your voice…but I don’t…would you answer one question, before I answer yours?’ “ ‘I will.’ I said. “ ‘Do you remember the banished ones?’ He asked. “ Again I moved back involuntary, surprised. How could he have known? “ ‘Yes I do.’ I answered. “If it is your question, we banished them because they had followed Atlas and were dangerous to the harmony… “ ‘Wait!’ The old thing interrupted. ‘This isn’t the question.’ “ So I stopped, a bit frustrated. “ ‘Ask him father.’ Inanna cried out. “ ‘It is so difficult.’ The old voice said. ‘Please you must be, you have to be…when the banished ones left Naaca, tell me what were the last thoughts that you heard from them?’ “ I tried to remember, forcing my memory to go back towards a different time, through guilt and pain, until I remembered. “ ‘There was a child… I will be waiting for you my king…they were the last thoughts I heard from them.’ “ Suddenly I saw the tears from the old thing pouring faster from his dead eyes, and I heard Inanna behind me, she was crying as openly as he was. “ ‘Tell me.’ I said. “ ‘You are the one.’ The old thing said. ‘They were not.’ And as he had done before, he pointed blindly at the skulls. “ And to my surprise, I saw Inanna falling on her knees. At this instant, she gave a sense of wonder to the place. She was looking at me with adoring eyes, tears still running down her cheeks, her arms outstretched towards the bright sky, and the sunlight surrounding her entire body. I felt the desire to hold her and yet, I didn’t walk to her because I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. I was somehow feeling as if I weren’t fully part of the event, but more a curious person trying to comprehend some distant incident through hearsay. “ ‘I don’t understand…’ I said, in a last unconscious effort to stay blind to the truth. “ ‘Please look beyond the flesh.’ The old thing whispered. ‘Beyond time and beyond the suffering of my dying body.’ “And slowly and visibly painfully, he raised his hand to touch me, perhaps to grab my hand, but I couldn’t overcome my disgust for this figure of death, and the advanced putrefaction

of his body. I recoiled just enough to be out of his reach. “I recall looking into his dead eyes, forcing myself to see further, trying to find the soul under the rot. And I found my answer, perhaps intuitively, I had always known Augustus…I am not sure. But I recognized him. “ ‘Nannar?’ I asked, but it really wasn’t a question. “ ‘ You are my king.’ Nannar cried out, ‘ And you kept your word, you came back for me.’

CHAPTER XXIII When Ziusudra mentioned the name Nannar, his spirit seemed unmoved, as if he were unconcerned for the man who had found it in him to keep on living for more than twenty five hundred years. I must have let myself open to him, and as he read my thoughts, he realized my surprise. “ You are wrong Augustus.” He said. “I wanted to care. I was disgusted by the filth of his decomposed remains, and yet, I remembered his eyes as a child, and how they trusted me to come back…I so wanted to feel for him, but something had died in me…and at the time, I couldn’t figure it out. I had become emotionless to the world, as if all of it were nothing but some bizarre waking reverie. “I am not talking about sensations of fear, or disgust or hatred, or desire for violence and destruction, that, I had plenty enough. I had had thousands of years to get in touch with those emotions. Compassion, forgiveness, love, they were the disappeared feelings…” “But Inanna, you loved her?” I asked. “ You loved her without logic and with abandon.” “ Oh yes I did.” He murmured kindly. “ I loved her like no one can love, it was a binding love, a last chance…because that was all the love I was able to give, not one more drop would ever fill my soul…” “ It makes no sense!” I interrupted. “ Love is love…it has no limit, if you can love one, you can love many…when I think of Julia…” “Augustus!” he said. “ Love is an illusion that He created. Inanna used to think of it as a beautiful rose that appears to announce the beginning of spring, and can only flower once a year. But I should add to her thoughts…then it dies leaving only its naked stem, and the thorns, the ugly, convoluted and permanent thorns.” “Love is the rose?” I asked. “And for you, the universe is the…” “The thorns!” He interrupted. “You understand perfectly. Ah love, it isn’t part of the universe…” He smiled as sad smile. “Remember what I showed you; the rule is instability, violence and destruction…life from death…life from death…you observed it through my eyes… love is nowhere if…” “But love? We love.” I interrupted again. “ I disagree, that’s certainly not comparable to some flower…I love Julia. I love my father, I love Lucan…” “Certainly you do,” he resumed. “Because of Him…” “Him?” “Yes, the Sky God,” he answered. “The Universe is His creation, a universe of violence…but He is love, and all we do is tap into Him and feed off Him. Without him the stem would stay naked, only covered with thorns, never to see a blossoming bud. He is the original vessel and we are nothing more than empty containers to be refilled with His love on a regular base. Love is not in us, nor is it in the world…men don’t have the ability… “But…” “ I am telling you, they don’t. You shouldn’t doubt my words, after all, haven’t I shown you the process of devolution?” “ Yes, you have.” “And nowhere did we find love until we reached Him, at the instant of creation. Men could not love without the possibility of replenishing their reserve from His source…He made

sure of it. He is the warmth between friends, and the beating hearts of lovers, and the raw emotions and trust of children, and the sense of understanding and sudden serenity of new parents. He is our justification to live and as we worship Him we become His own validation. Doing so, He made sure that we would always need Him. “Hatred is a different story, it is an infinite material but love…” “Yes.” “…Love, we need Him to dispense it into His creation if we want to be capable of feeling it and of giving it…but no love for me Augustus, after all, I had refused His love, His last gift, all of His love. And I was now immortal, and cold. That was the price to be paid for my insulting His greatness, being granted my wish and being cut off from Him, forever unable to replenish myself from His source,” he continued, his thoughts becoming bitterer by the second. “You hate Him.” “With all my empty heart.” He hissed. “He took everything away from me…almost all… but my love for Inanna. “My love for her, it was my last mortal reserve to be carefully dispensed, after which, they would be no more. Immortality has its price, He made certain of it, one of them being the loss of love and the loneliness that comes from being the only permanent thing in a world in constant change. “And without love, there is no warmth, only frustration…”He laughed. “…I was blessed with having a huge capacity for love before I met the Sky God, and it allowed me to love Inanna for a very long time…so much love in fact that the cup never emptied as long as she stayed with me. “And Augustus, you have the same capacity for love as I did, and you love Julia as completely as I loved Inanna. You will save Julia, and you will find your mortal warmth in her, and you will never have to beg for death as long as she will be with you, as long as she loves you.” “But how?” I asked. “You will go to Him, the Sky God, and you will come back immortal. And in the process, you will save Julia and my people as well…” “Your people?” “Yes Augustus,” he whispered. “You have the power now that you have drunk from both my blood and Julia’s. Forever she is linked to you and as long as you don’t die she won’t.” “But your people?” “ Yes my people, they had found a way,” he said. “And the old thing, Nannar, had waited for me to let me know about it. Let me tell you how I discovered my powers and the way to save them. “ ‘You are the child.’ I said to him. ‘The one who trusted me…but how can it be, you would have to be almost as…’ “ ‘…Old as you, my king,” Nannar said with a smile. ‘It took so much will power to keep this body together my king, but I knew of the ancients, the few Naacals who had lived for thousands of years…’ “ ‘But Nannar, even them, they didn’t live that long. You are twenty five hundred years old.’ “ ‘A bit more.’ He laughed. ‘Two thousand five hundred and eight…it seems to be a small difference but I proudly claim these eight years as mine, it took every thing I had to keep on living. And it was worth every minute because you are here.’ He said, coughing and expelling

blood. ‘Inanna, please…’ “And she walked to him, with a small container, some bird skull. I remember my revulsion as she grabbed the old oozing skin of his arm. And I closed my eyes as she took the same sharp obsidian dagger that she had used on me, and cut deep into the putrid flesh to find a blood surprisingly clear and red. And droplet-by-droplet, she filled up the small skull with the red liquid, his life as he called it, the little he had left, as he had said before. There was something ritualistic to what she was doing, her eyes focused on the slow drip, and yet she was detached from the task, as if she had done it many times in the past. And the blood spilled over, tainting the yellowish exterior of the bones and continuing onto the silky white skin of her fingers. It seemed as if the instant had come to a still. And then slowly she stood up, carrying the full container towards me, as some precious offering to a god. “ ‘Drink from my life.’ Nannar said, visibly exhausted. ‘This is my life to you. When the curse came upon us, and we found ourselves unable to interact with each other without pain, the spirits taught us how to share it. The sharing, it allows us to stay close to each other without the pain…it can even slow down the aging process…though according to the prophecy, it isn’t as potent as yours which can reverse it…at least for a while.’ “ ‘But why should I drink of yours?’ I asked, repulsed. ‘Is it another test?’ “ ‘ Only pure bloods can drink it in its untainted form…others…’ “He didn’t have to go further, I understood perfectly and the fleshless skulls on the floor had gained a new clarity in my mind. “ ‘And others, will find their death in it.’ I whispered, finishing his sentence. Her eyes lowered, Inanna handed me the container. I looked at it, at the crimson liquid and I looked at Nannar, at his repulsing body, and nauseated, I understood that I wasn’t given an alternative. If I were to have Inanna as my mate, I had to drink from the small bird skull. “As I brought it to my lips, I could feel a cold sweat poring from my body. Oh, It was revolting! And in the air, I could smell the enduring stench, and closer, mixed with it, the fresh and recognizable smell of blood. Again I looked at the skulls, people who like me had drank of the red liquid. “And I slowly swallowed, sickened by the taste and the unexpected thickness as it entered my throat. I closed my eyes, trying not to vomit, remembering other times, moments of happiness, and I kept on drinking, struggling through every sip. “And then Inanna gently stroke my face, caressed it with some childish cheerfulness, and I opened my eyes to an empty container. “ ‘He is alive father.’ She cried out. ‘He is pure blood.’ She continued as she took the small vessel away. “And then, as if I had no other choice but to agree, she took hold of my arm, and where she had cut it before, with the dagger she reentered the wound, and pierced until I started to bleed into the emptied bird skull. “And when full, she grabbed it and carried to him, helping his sightless hands around the container, and with their combined fingers they both brought the liquid to his decaying mouth. “As he drank, I saw a change in expression in his eyes that could not share the world with others any longer. I saw beyond the grayish veil covering the iris. And it was hope. “And with the last drop a cry rose from him, a long, terrifying cry as if it came from deeper than his throat, his lungs, as if it were a cry that had been kept inside the crumbling body for the longest of time and was suddenly allowed to escape. And slowly, life came back to his face, colors and warmth fighting an unbearable battle against the yellowish skin, and gradually

winning. Inanna didn’t move, and I didn’t move. Unmistakably the thing was becoming younger, but I felt oddly uninvolved, and yet I knew that I was the cause of it. And then as it had started, it stopped; Nannar had turned into a mature strong man whose, if youth had long passed, was certainly able to sustain life for a number of years. “And, under the reborn lashes, his two magnificent green eyes stared at me, and he smiled showing a set of perfect teeth. And I heard his voice in my mind: ‘You haven’t changed a bit, my king.’ He said. It was the link, brought back to me in the same manner as with Inanna. “ I smiled back, coldly, I could do no more. Though I should have been astonished and utterly excited, I only felt detachment as if I were walking through the dream of another man. I only felt for Inanna. Even then, I was drawn to her without control, and my overpowering desire was to hold her, to be with her, in her, and to lose myself in her mortality, as I realized that she was the last bond from my shriveling heart to my long gone humanity. “ I felt Nannar’s mind clamping further onto mine, and trying to find warmth and consolation where stood only my craving for his soul, for his pain and fear, but he never saw it. I felt the hunger growing; the need to take in me his very essence, but I kept the beast inside, deep under the shadows, and under the fabricated lie of some comforting complicity. Gathering all my strength, I made sure that he saw nothing of my true nature. I had become a monster, but only I was to know. I had seen in Inanna’s eyes and actions her devotion to her father, as well as her lack of empathy for the poor souls scattered amidst the maze of corridors leading to this room. And I wasn’t about to antagonize Nannar; the man who could at best reveal some great secrets, and at worst, slowly but certainly, extinguish Inanna’s adoration towards me. “I caught her glance; she knew of my anger, my rage, my fear, and of my hunger for souls, as she had been the first one to almost fall victim to it, but she trusted me not to pull Nannar’s old soul into mine. And she was right, my love for her was equal to my thirst, and he never sensed anything, but maybe a mask of sadness. “ ‘ The link, my king.’ He said in my mind. ‘It has been so many years. They were right, you have the power…’ “ ‘ They?’ I asked. ‘ Are they the spirits? Who are they?’ “ ‘ They are our sisters and brothers, the souls of the Naacals prisoner in some dark place since the tower crumbled. They have visited me since you kept them from reaching to you, they have told me that you were alive, and they have let me know of a way…’ “ ‘A way?’ “ ‘Yes, they finally found it.’ He continued. ‘The way to escape their prison and to rejoin the sky God…and this is what they tried to tell you, to scream, to yell, but you were not listening anymore, you had already fallen into bitterness…even Elma, your daughter you rejected…But they weren’t lying, there is a way…’ “ ‘Yes?’ “ I felt an undefined mix of nervousness and excitement coming from him, as he answered my question: ‘You must make me as you are.’ He said, his thoughts softly into mine. ‘You must make me an eternal and they will be freed.’ “ ‘My blood has the power to reverse time you said, to give immortality?’ I asked, studying his face, inexplicably but undoubtedly restored to life; was he teasing me? But no, his expression was radiant and loving, and his eyes were becoming even more hopeful. “He stood up - a perfectly healthy body had replaced the dying carcass - and smiled, as I recoiled, gasping for space. I looked at him, at his face in which, under the curly black hair, I could see the remnants of the child who had put his trust in me. Somehow, it was frightening and

hard to admit that this man was the child of my past. Everything about him testified to the power of hope, thrown like a bone to me, the hopeless. “ ‘Only for a while, only for a while.’ He said. ‘If it were so effortless, my lord…no your blood won’t grant me immortality, only a few more years, perhaps centuries, just enough time to slowly dread the unavoidable last day. Flesh to flesh; it isn’t enough, only my soul can force my body into eternity, when I meet the Sky God.’ “Though I knew instantly that he wasn’t lying, I laughed covering his last words, perhaps to hide a growing and overpowering apprehension. His words were dangerous, because they carried the power of faith; and with it, the crushing possibility of failure. Captive of my prison of flesh, a thousand years ago I had given up on hope, just to allow myself to cautiously walk a tightrope between madness and lucidity, without falling. But him, it was different, hope had kept him alive; and now, he dared showing me a new light: there was a way to meet the Sky God, and maybe to ask for forgiveness…but did he understand…what I had seen and what I had done to my people? Did he? “‘And how are you supposed to meet Him?’ I snapped. ‘I can tell you that He is a God who doesn’t listen, and doesn’t care. I have cried out to Him…don’t you think? I talked to Him about their suffering, about all the good in them, and I assured Him that we had learned our lesson…but He never answered, it’s not for lack of trying, for centuries I wouldn’t keep silent. Don’t you understand that they don’t deserve the darkness I told Him…but He didn’t hear me and if He did, He did nothing.’ “ ‘Oh, He heard you all right my king.’ Nannar answered. ‘And He heard the souls, but you weren’t ready to hear Him…don’t you see?’ “ I didn’t answer. “ ‘You are the link! And you have it in you, the power to send my soul to Him.’” “ What did he mean?” I asked. “You are the link?” “ What he meant Augustus,” Ziusudra answered, after a pause. “Was exactly that; I was the link, and through me all souls who were pure blood, were interconnected. “ ‘And how could I be the link?” I asked, knowing quite well that I was, it was more a sensation than anything else. ‘Why would I be?’ “ ‘My king.’ He said. ‘Time has run its course, but surely you remember how you were linked through the red substance, orichalcum, to the soul of every Naacal…and how it gave your spirit the strength to cross a universe…’ “ ‘Yes.’ “ ‘And when you came back, your body had been ravaged they told me.’ “ ‘Yes.’ “ ‘The spirits, they said that thousands of pieces of orichalcum had invaded your crushed body…’ “ ‘ Yes.’ I answered, smiling. ‘My body, it is quite resilient. But the orichalcum, it has left me a long time ago. There isn’t a trace of it in me.’ “ ‘Evidently there is.’ He paused. ‘Don’t you feel it, it only retreated into the fourth dimension where it came from, but it is still part of you…and for a brief instant part of me as I drank from your blood…and this is why we can read each other’s thoughts…your flesh is the bridge between their souls and mine…just use their gathered force to send me to the beginning of time…’ “ ‘Even if I could send your soul to Him, why not mine then? Why shouldn’t I use this immense power that you say I have, to meet Him?’

“ ‘You can’t go because you have already refused His gift…but I can…and I will open the door for all of them, the spirits, and they will be free to rejoin with Him.’ “ I looked at him, so full of life, and hope and certainties and I said nothing. “ ‘So will you help me free our people?’ He resumed. ‘ And in the process help me become as you are, an immortal…’ “ ‘And what makes you think you will find it in you to refuse His gift of love?’ I asked. ‘To offer His love that should be yours to the ghosts?’ “ ‘I will because of Inanna.’ He answered, smiling. ‘Like me she doesn’t want to die… ever. If I link her soul to mine, as long as I don’t die, her spirit won’t either…she is my daughter, and my love for her will give me the strength to refuse His gift…I know.’ “ ‘And how will you do that?’ I asked, a smirk on my face. ‘Link her spirit to yours forever? Tell me?’ “ ‘Yes my king.’ He answered. ‘If I drink of your blood mixed with hers, she will forever be linked to me…forever…the spirits said.” “ ‘Has my blood as much power as that…’ “ ‘The blood of an immortal is powerful’ Nannar interrupted. ‘…Look at me my Lord, look at my revived body if proof is needed.’ “ ‘Do you know of the price Nannar?’ I asked. ‘You are as old as I am, but you do not understand the emptiness in my heart. I will never see the end of my life, ever. When all the ones you love will have departed, you will keep on going as the only steady thing in a world in constant flux. Do you know of my loneliness…’ “ ‘Don’t you see?’ He said. ‘ All the ones I loved are long gone already, but Inanna…you will never be alone again, I will be here with you and my daughter will be here, loving you.’ “ ‘She won’t die.’ I said looking at Inanna. ‘And I will never be alone again.’ “ ‘Never my love.’ Inanna whispered. ‘I will be yours until the end of time.’ “ I felt her hand around my wrist, her small perfectly shaped hand, and she moved forward, resting her head against my neck and her lips slowly kissed the sensitive part of my skin, just behind my ear, and I could feel her breathing slowly. Almost like a child ready to fall asleep. From her hair came the sweet smell of some unknown perfume, so sweet and yet subtle. She was soft and passionate, as I was sure she could only be with me. “ ‘ You see Ziusudra.’ Nannar said, or perhaps it was his thoughts that were betrayed to me. ‘Eternity isn’t a curse, only loneliness. Your fear is nothing but a whisper compared to the love she will bring to your life. Can you feel my daughter, can you hear her heart, it is so full of life…really my king, would you let her grow old, and would you let her perfect eyes sink into her bones and her flawless face slowly turn yellowish, until she is nothing but a memory to carry around like a permanent regret. Do you really want to cling to what could have been? Why are you uncertain? It is a long road to walk alone, eternity! “ ‘Yes.’ “ ‘But I will walk it with you my love.’ Inanna whispered in my ear. “ ‘And I will free our people my king.’ Nannar said. “ ‘Will you?’ I asked. ‘ What makes you so certain that you will be able to refuse His gift of love? You said Inanna, but His love is strong…’ “ ‘ I will resist.’ He hissed. ‘My thirst for life is such that I was able to wait for you, the immortal, even when my body had failed me…I am telling you my king, like you, I will come back an eternal and as long as I live Inanna’s soul will be bound to this earth, and to you.’ “ ‘Forever my love.’ Inanna whispered. ‘Let me bring meaning where meaning was

gone.’ “ ‘Forever.’ I heard myself murmur.”

PART III

CHAPTER XXIV Ziusudra paused, and it was silence in my mind. I was suddenly confronted with my own consciousness. I remember feeling so completely sad, so utterably abandoned by hope, so empty without his thoughts feeding my own. I wanted him back, at first, I hated his intrusion, his spirit that had dared to cling onto mine. And yet, I had learned to accept his presence inside of my mind, until my own thoughts had become insufficient. I could no longer accept being a single mind. I needed the link. So in some strange way, he had succeeded in making me his ally, as I had become addicted to his words. I could hear the distant thump of my beating heart; I was still alive, even if I had become more thoughts than flesh. Without a doubt, it was still here, probably asleep, my body. “Ziusudra.” I whispered as to not awaken myself. “ You can’t leave me like that. What happened next? Did Nannar meet the Sky God? Did he come back as an eternal? And tell me where is Inanna now? He must have succeeded? Tell me? Don’t disappear on me now.” “ I am still here Augustus,” he answered. “ Just remembering the past, trying to be precise, trying to put faces on so many ghosts, trying not to drown myself in the madness…as I told you, eternity has its price, but this is a price that few mortals are able to grasp. Nannar was right, loneliness is part of the hurt, but also, the lack of meaning…when there is no end, nothing has real value, after all, there is always another day…” “Did he succeed, Nannar?” I interrupted. “Is he immortal like you? Is she?” “Augustus, if you want to know whether he met Him, the Sky God, yes he did.” Ziusudra answered. “It didn’t happened right away though. I remember asking them for time, I remember telling Inanna that I couldn’t decide something so important hastily. And she agreed. And for a few centuries my blood kept Nannar alive and Inanna young, and I helped the pure bloods to develop the city further.” “More, tell me more Ziusudra.” I asked. “You haven’t mentioned Nannar’s mother… what happened to her?” And then, after another pause, Ziusudra told me more, everything gentlemen, in all truth, they were events that he had not witnessed himself, but they had been recounted by Nannar. He told me how Nannar’s mother Ningikuga had disagreed with Atlas who wanted to allow sexual relations between Naacals and Humans, the walking apes – some believed it was the only way for them to survive as there weren’t enough of them to maintain a healthy gene pool - and also how the curse had started to plague the small community. How the banished ones had had to live in pain, unable to stay close to each other for more than a few minutes without feeling this burning sensation, their blood begging to be freed from their veins, and how they had been unable to comprehend why, until the spirits came, the same ones who had been trying to communicate with Ziusudra during his long waking sleep, the ghosts. How they had offered a difficult answer: their blood wanted to reassert the link and only through the sharing of the red substance would they ever find peace. But many refused to allow what they considered a pure aberration, and promulgated laws against it. Lead by Ningikuga who could not bear to see the young Nannar hurting, a few Naacals had organized some sort of ritual where they had shared their blood, drinking from one another’s, and the pain had subsided, and more, though different from the link, they had had

access to each other’s feelings, not a linking of the minds per say and yet it was a warmth and reassuring sensation, after the brutal separation and the new loneliness brought by the giant wave which had destroyed the tower. Some, who had fallen sick to new unknown viruses, had been cured at the instant they had drunk from the warm liquid. And the old ones had felt invigorated, as if time had stopped and it fact it had slowed down. But they had been denounced, arrested, condemned as heretics and banished without the possibility of return. Without choice, Ningikuga and a few others, left the new city. And then he explained how the small group had followed Ningikuga, for decades, wandering in a hostile world, unable to fend for itself, and many died from beasts and men. The survivors, they had walked until they reached the northern edge of the fertile Konya plain close to the volcano now known as Hasan dag, in central Anatolia, along the southern edge of the great salt depression, where Turkey lies nowadays. And this is where they had decided to settle and start over. They found the ideal place, and along the edge a small river, outlined by many young poplars they built a few houses, perhaps five encircling a central court. It was a time of rebirth, and a community of more women than men. And Ningikuga remarried. And to make an example and show her hope in the future, she had children, many, so many that her body changed, she grew fat and her breasts became heavy, but she took it as a sign of accomplishment. It meant that pure bloods were being born who would carry with them the memory of Naaca. And somehow it was her way to bring immortality to her entire people. And as for her, all of them had children, and the houses turned into a small village, with rectangular mud-brick, with flat roofs houses joined together, all facing into a common court. Ubaidia they named it. And they made sure to protect themselves from water run off, wandering beasts and the local warlike tribes of hunter-gatherers by having neither windows nor openings towards the outside. The only way to enter these houses was with a removable ladder through small entries part way up the walls. For the primitive minds of local outsiders it looked like an impenetrable fortified wall. But as time passed, Nannar told Ziusudra that the new settlers, the Ubaidians, had found themselves interacting more often with the indigenous population. They met outside the village walls, always keeping a safe distance. Who knows what they thought with their primitive minds, the locals, when they witnessed these settlers who seemed never to grow old - with their permanently child bearing females who walked proudly, their milk engorged breasts testifying to their supreme vitality - drinking from each other’s blood? They probably feared and envied these tall people, seemingly immortal, and dressed in different clothes and using tools unknown to them, and after a few generations, they saw them as Godlike figures. And the Naacals, whether they had been born in Naaca or in Ubaidia had one thing in common. They feared these primitive beings as well; after all they considered them closer to wild beasts than humans and knew them able of the most terrible actions. One evening, a few Naacals who had been sent to the river to bring water back to the city, witnessed the most atrocious scene. One of the local tribes had captured a man from another clan. They saw the man being brought in front of a large carved stone depicting a pregnant woman, evidently a representation of the female settlers turned into a more accessible Goddess, the mother of all for the primitives men of the time, the mother Goddess. And they saw how the man was put on his knees facing the idol, while the clan sang some impenetrable incantation in honor of the mother Goddess. They saw the fear in his eyes

and the pain, and the useless fight that he put up to free himself from the ones who had forced him down, as with some sharp pieces of flint, they cut his wrists open and let the blood flow into small bird skulls. And then, when he was visibly close to death, they saw a tattooed character, a man with a snake on his torso - an animal that the locals thought to have the power of eternal youth, Ningikuga learned later, as they had seen it shed its skin and be reborn – he was some sort of priest most likely, hitting the man’s head repetitively with a large black stone, probably obsidian mined from the close volcano, until, finally dead, he was let fall to the floor. Then they opened his thoracic cage, ripped his heart out, and gave it to the priest who ate it while the rest of the clan drank of his blood. Evidently, the locals, in their yearning for meaning had mixed the ancient cult of the great mother with these events that they had witnessed, and ritualized in the grossest way the sharing of the blood, probably believing that they would come closer to the gods. After this day Ningikuga recognized the danger. And as the walking apes, so very similar to the Naacals, only stockier and shorter, but so intellectually different, were coming closer to the small village walls, she realized that their godlike status was their only protection. Although impressive for a primitive mind, mud walls would not resist long if an assault were to happen, and even if her fears were to never concretize, she understood that the settlers would not survive on their own; a few people, even with so many children, with a language in infancy, and so incapable of violence. They needed access to the outside more freely and without apprehension. They needed to cultivate more of the land, and to use its raw material to create a livable civilization so to speak. And she decided to encourage this first religion among the primitives, to become the answer to the tribesmen’s attempt to give a sense to their reality, and as she became the mother goddess, she took control of their minds and their hearts, using them as labor, and protectors. Soon Ningikuga ordered the tribes to bring her offerings: foods and tools carved in obsidian, and anything necessary for the small community of godlike figures to survive, and they obeyed. And in exchange the Naacals taught the locals how to cultivate the land, and tend to a flock, and to cure some basic afflictions. And the clan’s faith grew stronger as she pulled their primitive minds closer into a state of religiosity, inventing rituals and ceremonies and rites, and everything required to encourage the natives to surrender their souls and free will to the gods. She even chose a few natives, the most deserving, and the most loyal and anointed them into the high priesthood, having them tattooed with the sacramental snake. And they were given the task of messengers between the Naacals and the clans. To Ningikuga’s credit, Nannar told Ziusudra, she put a stop to human sacrifices, not that she really cared. After all, she saw them as nothing more than monkeys. But it was disturbing to her taste; the blood of humans was useless into curing any illness or prolonging the natives’ short lifespan in any form. And the sacrifices didn’t reinforce the humans’ belief in her godlike status. Her blood and the blood of every settler, that was a different story. She knew of its power to cure the curse, to allow a sharing of sensations and feelings, and, more importantly of its power, to slow down the damages of time. And she used it to her advantage, again reinforcing the tribes’ allegiance. Ningikuga was already over nine hundred years old when she came up with the idea, she would share her blood with the most deserving priests, and if it worked it would make them live longer, and for many years to come anchor in their minds her commands over life and death. After a few trial runs in which some priests died in atrocious pain after ingesting the red substance, she diluted it with their own, and it worked. In a time when the average lifespan was

no more than twenty seven years, the chosen ones lived for many decades, some reaching the century. But she also knew that soon, time would catch up with her, that suddenly for no apparent reason, her face would slowly wrinkle, her body would dry up, would become unable to bear children and turn into a fruitless tree. And then? What would they think, the believers? Even if she fought death with her mind, even if she survived the fateful thousand-year mark and as the ancients kept of living for another millennium, her death would come. And then? And then? And then? Was the mother goddess supposed to die? Would the clans turn against the settlers? Though to provide the indigenous tribes’ primitive minds with knowledge was in no way Ningikuga’s priority, after centuries they had seemingly evolved. Like insatiable sponges they had drunk from what they could witness, and as generations were born and died, had learned; they had built their own houses around the village, had grown their own crop, raised their own animals, and had even developed a common spoken language with the Naacals. And yet, their thirst for violence never receded. And, far from the village; in places where they thought the great mother could not see them, and witness the madness in their eyes of killers, and the screams of the dying, and the mouths opened in disarray, and the cut off tongues, and the rapes of the child; they continued fighting and killing each other. But the village saw no violent death, and never did they hurt the settlers whom they thought to be immortal gods.

CHAPTER XXV

“ But I supposed she died?” I asked Ziusudra. “ Did she?” “Yes Augustus,” he answered. “She did. But she fought death all the way and lived to be nineteen hundreds years old. When she died, except for Nannar, who by then had reached the great age of fifteen hundred years old, the first generation of pure bloods, the last ones born in Naaca was already extinct. Few of them had lived to be a thousand years; perhaps, they didn’t have the will to fight death when their entire world had become nothing but a painful memory. Perhaps they had been unable to adapt to a life of survival. Perhaps it was simply in the order of things. “And when all had fallen, only Nannar and Ningikuga continued as living memorials to the first settlers, and protectors of the new generations of pure bloods born in the wilderness. “But Ningikuga had noticed her body’s changes long before her death, perhaps a century…or more. She had made sure never to be seen by the locals or the priests in full light, once her skin had started to turn from the pink to this so well known yellowish tint that – for having witnessed it in so many others - had warned her of the inevitability of her coming decay. “But it wasn’t enough to guard the settlers weakened by their lives of leisure, and unable to fend for themselves used as they were to count on their worshippers for everything, from food to protection, and also, though less important, adoration. “She knew that her passing would bring questions and doubts. How could the mother goddess die, when she was in command of life and death? She had to make her disappearance irrelevant, and have the tribesmen believe that she had rejoined the pantheon of gods…” “So what did she do?” I asked. “After all the locals, they were men, and men aren’t stupid, only crazy.” I felt a smile in my mind, and then Ziusudra’s words, with the taste of honey when it rolls on a tongue; there is no other way to describe the sensation. “Nannar came up with the idea, Augustus.” “The idea?” “Nannar had kept my last words like a cherished secret,” he continued. “He remembered what I had told him the last time he had seen me, and somehow, the child, still buried in the large figure of the man he had become, had kept alive the longing for my return. When, rarely, he had doubted himself, in his dreams, they had visited him, the ones he called spirits, my ghosts… Elma, my little girl. And they had told him about me, that I was alive, prisoner of my own flesh, frozen in a place without wind and without light. And, also that I had shut myself from them, as one day, I had preferred my own perpetual loneliness to their screams. And more importantly that I had come back an immortal.” “So he began the search for you?” I asked. “Not, right away,” Ziusudra answered. “My return had to be orchestrated to make it fit the cult. And so it happened.” “Yes.” “They revived the Sky God, the first one, the High God, the creator of all. And Nannar recounted our story to the priests, as much as they could understand, and as much as he believed they should be told. How the sky God had banished us from the Heavens because we loved Humanity too much…”

“So he lied?” I interrupted. “He made it into something more appropriate,” Ziusudra resumed. “It had been a lie from the beginning. Isn’t it the definition of a myth; a bit of something and a little nothing? He gave the tribesmen what they needed to hear. They would have failed to see beyond his divine nature anyway…and if they had, they would have soon massacred the settlers. “So Nannar explained that the gods had seen man’s suffering, and fear and death, and had asked their father, the High God, to give eternal life to mortals. And he described how His consort Ningikuga, had used of her charms to sway Him into giving immortality to humanity. “And continuing his story, he told them how it turned against her, how the Sky God became jealous of men, as He believed she loved them more than Him and refused to grant eternity to mankind. And then, there was chaos in the Heavens, gods against gods, fathers and mothers against sons and daughters, and confronted with such frenzy, He, the father of all gods, grew tired and merciless, and Nannar, and a few other gods who had risen against Him were cast out and sent to live among the ones they loved so much until the end of time. “Only for Ningikuga whom He loved dearly did He make an exception, and she was allowed to stay. But she cried and cried, and kept on pleading, and finally rejected Him. And loudly, as only gods can speak, she told Him that if He didn’t grant immortality to man and allowed the banished gods to come back to the Heavens, she would follow them to earth. “And the priests believed Nannar?” I asked. “Certainly Augustus.” Ziusudra answered. “ They had to hang onto something which could explain the tragedy of life, an idea, a story, anything to explain the mystery of the unseen. The gods, as they were gods to the tribesmen, remained inaccessible and yet not so distant as not to allow the priests to participate in the divine nature. As I told you, it’s all about the need for meaning. “And once Nannar had given the clansmen this new importance to which every man aspires, he continued his story and reinforced their beliefs with the prophecy.” “The prophecy?” “Yes,” Ziusudra answered. “ The prophecy. This is when I come into play. “Nannar told the priests about the Sky God and His growing loneliness now that Ningikuga, His wife, had cast herself out. How around Him for centuries there was silence, so much so that He remembered the days before, before the chaos, and before the humans, and so much so that He found Himself desperate for some warmth, and He asked her to come back. “But again she refused as long as He didn’t grant her wishes: immortality for humankind and the return of the young gods to the Heavens. Desperate for her touch and with great emptiness in His heart, the Sky God was more sympathetic to her desires, and yet, He couldn’t compromise His position. He searched for a middle ground, and with great wisdom found a way to allow the gods to return and the humans to live as immortals…without granting her victory. “So the priests - who had enjoyed a longer life than any other tribesmen due to their special status - asked Nannar about the way, hoping, in their selfishness, to be the first to know and gain from his revelation. “And seeing their eyes burning with greed and envy, Nannar told them about me, Ziusudra. He said that the Sky god would grant immortality to mankind and would accept any god who desires to return, if only one man found it in him to reach to the heavens and ask for His forgiveness…” “You?” I interrupted. “Yes. And he told the priest that Ningikuga had agreed, and would come back to Him

under these conditions, and the Sky God had His heart filled again, with the joy of a child. But He didn’t know of Ningikuga’s plan; how she had decided to reveal the way into the sky to Humans, how she had told them to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. And how they built it, the great ziggurat. And once the tower had been built, one of the tribesmen…” “You?” “Yes according to what Nannar told the priests. One of the tribesmen climbed and met the Sky God. Angry, he destroyed the tower and created so many languages as to keep men from understanding each other so that they could never collaborate again to build a new tower. And it became known to man as the tower of Babal, which means miscommunication, and all over the world, humans found themselves separated into small communities. “But every god knew of what had been agreed upon, He was forced to meet the tribesman who had crossed the sky to reach Him, and He made him immortal, a new divine being, with the power to bring eternal life back to his kind. “So the priests asked Nannar, who was the tribesman. And Nanar answered my name, ‘Ziusudra’. A man who had walked among the gods and had become one himself. He explained that one day, I would come back and bring immortality to the ones who were deserving. “What did they say?” “They asked how they would know it was the one.” “And?” “Nannar answered that Ziusudra would be able to drink from the pure blood of the gods without dying, as now he was one of them. “And when Ningikuga died, they simply believed that she had reunited with the Sky God, and Nannar started to search for my decayed body. Many humans came passing as me, many tried to drink of his blood without mixing it first with their own, and they died, adding truth to the prophecy. “And as Nannar grew old, his daughter Inanna continued the search.” “Inanna hadn’t been born in Naaca then?” “No!” “She was pure blood?” “All of them were,” Ziusudra answered. “ But due to their new environment - virus, bacteria, unknown illness, even the food, I don’t really know – the ones born after the great wave, they didn’t live as long as their ancestors, perhaps two hundred years…unless…” “Unless?” “Unless they were allowed to drink from the pure and untainted blood of Nannar, the last of the first ones. Then, they would keep death away as long as Nannar himself could keep death away. “When I met Inanna, her young face had already seen four hundreds winters…and she knew that her father was soon to die, carrying her and her entire generation into his grave. This, you had to know.” “And you said that Nannar reached the Sky God?” “Yes.” “What made you decide to grant his wish?” “Multiple reasons; the first one was certainly my love for Inanna. As I said, for centuries I had kept her father alive, not that I really cared for him, I couldn’t care…it was for her, as I loved her with what was left of my human heart. But even the blood of an immortal cannot extend the limits of life forever…and her father was dying again, and the shadow of a few

wrinkles had appeared around her eyes. “I wanted her forever young by my side, and to feel her love, the only love that I could feel. And in exchange, what did she want from me? What would it cost me? Little, and the price I wouldn’t have to pay it, after all. Only her father and her…and selfishly I agreed. “It was an easy choice in the end Augustus. I merely had to remember how, so many times, she had turned a blind eye to the monster I was becoming more evidently everyday. And that she had refused to hear the complaints of the villagers -who came to her, terrified and so helpless as long as they saw us as gods - as more of them were found wandering in the wilderness, mad, their eyes empty of life, my name as a unique word on their lips. And the ones who had pointed towards me for too long, she had had them exiled. “I remember the first one who gave me her warmth, my first victim, as the ones who followed were so many that I have lost count, but her, she is still present almost alive inside of me; a young woman bathing in the river. It was twilight. I could feel her innocent soul barely born, and I could sense a life growing within her…and she wasn’t aware of it yet; she was to become a mother. For a long moment I looked at her, very deliberately. Her young body had not suffered from the ravages of time yet, and the child to come was nowhere to be seen. “Soon she would get fat and stretched, and then she would deliver a life, and never would her breasts be small and firm, and succulent, and unaware of their power over me, the way they were at this instant. I felt desire, desire for her flesh and desire for her soul. And the monster in me said that I could have her and that I should have her. The beast realized that her unshadowed soul had the power to feed its true evil nature, because she was harmony where I was the eternal chaos. All in her was tantalizing. “She saw me, and vulnerably she blushed, as she had dared crossing eyes with of a god. “I should have left then, Augustus. But I didn’t. “I didn’t. Though what was left of my humanity understood the certainty of what was to come. “I didn’t leave. “The craving was too strong. I told her to come to me and she obeyed, unafraid and magnificently naked. The water slowly running down from her perfect stomach to the glistening and provocatively exposed pubic hair. “And as she came closer, she saw what I wanted – but somehow I think she had always known - and I told her I would give her the long life of the priests if she were to abide…but she didn’t answer. Her legs barely parted, for a long moment she studied my face very purposefully, almost shaming me, until I couldn’t bare her eyes in my eyes any longer, and angrily, I grabbed her long dark hair and forced her onto her knees…and I felt her pink lips, and I felt the moist pleasure of her mouth…the pleasure of the flesh… “But the monster in me wanted more…it wasn’t enough that I had forced myself into her mouth… “I should have left, but I didn’t. “And with my nail, I cut open my wrist and gave her my pure blood to drink. And the same lips that had drunk my semen, gently sucked on my immortal blood, until I felt her soul inside me, and I clamped my mind onto it. “And as her physical pain grew from drinking my blood in its pure form, I felt her surprise, her fear coming from the sudden overpowering realization of her ineluctable death, and I fed on it. I grabbed her suppliant soul until she had no more to offer, and the soul tried to escape, to reach to the Heavens, to reach for Him, the Sky God, but I kept her inside of me, and

then, when I was done with her, I felt the soul of her unborn child, and it was even more innocent, and I fed on it as well…until I heard its last scream. “My entire body convulsed from their absorption, and for one instant I felt the love of God through their dying essences… “The beast had won, and their souls would never reach Him, as they had become part of me until the end of times. For a little while the infant’s soul kept crying, and then the sobbing disappeared. “ And when all was done, I felt in harmony with the universe for the first time. I was alive, fully alive…and in front of me, she was on the floor, an empty shell, alive as well, but without a soul.” “What did you do?” “I let her die…what could I have done? She had drunk of my blood without diluting it with hers…there was nothing to be done. I watched her agony, knowing that there was no return.” “Did you feel guilt?” I asked. “Why would I have? No I felt an orgasmic sensation, knowing that I was not only responsible for her death in the flesh, but that I had killed her soul, and the soul of her infant unborn. The Sky God kept my people from entering His heavens so I would do the same, I would reach for the souls of the innocent and I would make them mine…I would do to His children what he had done to mine…” “So it was revenge?” “Revenge!” Ziusudra laughed as if he had been a mad man. “Yes, revenge! But much more…I told you, only Inanna could make me feel love…but their pain, their death, their crying, it provided me with much more…” “Yes.” “It replenished my soul.”

CHAPTER XXVI

“So five thousand and six hundred years ago,” Ziusudra continued. “I granted Inanna’s wish. Before Nannar had grown too old and decayed, and before he would die, showing the villagers that the Ubaidians were no gods. In a great ceremony orchestrated by the priests, I grabbed his body and forced his soul out of it and into mine, as I had done so many times to a multitude of victims…but differently, I didn’t feed on it, I let his spirit free itself.” “He was going to die?” I asked. “So you had no choice but to grant him his wish…” “As I told you, it wasn’t the only reason.” Ziusudra answered. “ I knew something they didn’t. Something utterly magnificent, which could fill my life with a new sense of direction.” “Yes.” “What I had long thought impossible had happened.” “Yes.” “My fruitless body was reborn, as if the spell had been broken. Inanna carried a life inside of her: my child. I had beaten the beast, and the rule of life from death, and from my seeds, a soul that the Sky God had not created was slowly developing. I imagined His sudden confusion and frustration faced with something that even He had not planned.” “Did she know?” I asked. “No. It wasn’t time. But I had become defiant, I wanted to scream to the Sky God, and tell Him how I had beaten His curse…and laugh at Him. ” “But you didn’t?” “No.” Ziusudra answered. “ Before, I could scream with the joy of my eternal victory, I still had to free my people. So as I helped Nannar’s ascension to the Heavens, before I released him, I asked for the thousandth times whether he was sure that he would have the strength. “ ‘I will!’ Nannar answered. ‘I will meet the Sky God and He will offer me the third gift, the gift of perfect love, the gift of unification, and through the link that we now share, I will present what could have been mine to the ghosts of our people, as we planned, Ziusudra.’ “ ‘Will you?’ “ ‘Yes! And all of them who have been waiting to enter the heavens since the great wave will be free to rejoin with Him.’ “ ‘Are you certain?’ I asked again, afraid to hope. “ ‘Yes I am!’ “ ‘You will free all of them? You will give them His gift? You will find it inside of you to come back to us?’ “ ‘Yes.’ He answered, solemnly. ‘I gave you my word, and I promised my daughter Inanna – whom soul is for all eternity bound to mine – to come back for her, as she shall live as long as I live. “ ‘I felt His love Nannar.’ I said. ‘It is a strong love, and you don’t have the strength of an entire people, as I did, to refuse it, only your craving for life and your adoration for your daughter…I doubt…’ “ ‘Don’t!’ He whispered calmly. ‘ I know I will come back an immortal, and I know our people will rejoin with Him…I know that Elma will be first…’ “ ‘The Sky God said: until you are all forgiven.’ I said. ‘Will He forgive them all?’ “ ‘Yes Ziusudra.’ Nannar reassured me. ‘ They will join with Him as if they were one

soul since they were rejected as one soul. They are the ones who told me. Elma herself…she is certain of it.’ “ ‘So my people, they will forgive me?’ “ ‘They have already forgiven you my lord.’ He answered. “ ‘But why can’t I hear them anymore?’ “ ‘When time comes, you will.’ He reassured me. “ And then, my mind at peace, I freed his soul and I felt it reaching through time and space to the Heavens, as his empty body fell numb between my hands. “Somehow, for an instant my life had found a new meaning as I looked into Inanna’s eyes, she was confident. Suddenly my eternity made sense Augustus. The ghosts had forgiven me I had been told, and Nannar would free them anyway…and I was to become the watcher of our kind, and I would fill the world with my descendants; Inanna, eternally untouched by time, right by my side. And with her I would look after my children, immortals as I am. The prophecy, finally realized, I would have brought immortality back to my people. “Do you understand what it meant, she was carrying my child? But how could you possibly understand my state of mind, after all, you were not the one defeated by the Sky God as I was, and you were not the one responsible for bringing thousands of years of darkness to your kind, to your daughter. But perhaps…perhaps you can grasp a bit of my relief knowing, from what you have now witnessed, this irresistible necessity, which was mine, to free Elma, before I could devote the last of my human love to Inanna, as a wife and a mother to be. “Though nine hundred years had passed since she had freed me from the cave, I had not had children with her, I had not even contemplated the idea, as I believed Elma would have felt betrayed a second time. But I could sense this new life inside of her, as I had sensed the infant soul in my first victim, Inanna was pregnant. I had no other choice but to hope and believe in Nannar’s strength of mind. Not only was Inanna linked to him, but my child was also. And I wanted him to be born an immortal…and perhaps, having me as father, he was already one. I was an immortal soul in a mortal body, and maybe, he would be a mortal soul in an immortal body. “I had to trust in them, and soon it would be all over. And as I looked at her, my Inanna, the mother of my child to come, I whispered to myself ‘ I have a reason to be alive.’ And I filled my entire being with her face, and her breasts which had not fed an infant yet, and her fertile womb waiting for her own immortality before it would free the soul of my child…and Augustus, was it a sign, her tattooed snake, barely visible under the fine white cloth, seemed to move imperceptibly, and it led my hesitant mind to the well known comfort hidden at the jointure of her slightly opened legs.” “ But what happened when Nannar came back?” I asked, slightly afraid of his answer. I heard him laugh in my mind. The laughter of a man without hope. The laughter of a man who had abandoned himself to his own demons long ago. And I paused, because I then knew what would be his answer. “ And you think he came back Augustus?” “Now I know that he didn’t.” “No.” Ziusudra murmured. “ No, he surely didn’t. In the end, Nannar’s love of life wasn’t enough, and he remained with the Sky God as I had feared.” “What did you do?” “I think that, haunted by the idea of Inanna’s ineluctable death, I became mad Augustus.”

He whispered, and in my mind his voice was becoming so thin, almost imperceptible, that I barely heard the end of his sentence. “At least crazy enough to destroy her love for me in a few months...” “What do you mean?” “Perhaps doubtful of our godlike status, after Nannar’s death, the tribesmen grew more daring and came closer everyday to voice some unanswered questions. But I didn’t accept their suspicions, because they were suspicions. And the first ones who dared to repetitively ask about Nannar, and wanted to know when he would come back from the Heavens - I think they were priests - I tore their crying souls and flesh in such a way, that none of the villagers found the courage to ask again. I didn’t try to hide what I had done, as I didn’t care anymore. Only one thing mattered, Inanna would grow old and die, and again I would be alone. “And as for once that I didn’t have to hide myself, it became easy, and openly, I fed on the villagers’ souls. So much so – sometimes twice a day - that our flourishing city of Ubaidia, the center of their primitive civilization; a place of commerce and trade, known from the Konya plain to the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and all the way to Jericho 1500 miles southeast, a place of cults and religiosity and refinement; was soon deserted. The mortals, almost six thousands of them, even the surviving priests, they all moved a few miles away and recreated a similar city, made in the same shape as the original; but this time, the inhabitants were humans, and if there was no window and no openings for the outsider, it was to keep the first Ubaidians, the pure bloods away…to kept the beast way…to keep at bay the man who had come back a god and whose name was pronounced with fear around camp fires…” “Your name?” “Yes.” “So what did you do?” “What do you think I did?” “I don’t know.” “Sure you do,” Ziusudra answered. “I gave myself even more to the beast…but this time my victims, they were not mere mortals, they were the pure bloods, the Ubaidians, the descendants of the Naacals, my own kind. And I fed on their souls with the same excruciating pleasure, as I would have on a clansman’s spirit. “And Inanna, whom by then had grown large and fat, and so superbly pregnant with my child, started to look at me differently. What she had accepted when it came to mankind, she couldn’t when it concerned her own people. And slowly, in her beautiful eyes fear replaced love, but I was so taken by my need to replenish my soul that I didn’t see it Augustus. And in a few months, only a few Naacals of sane behavior were left in the village. The majority of them had lost their souls to me, and the rest had left the city toward the land of two rivers. “ I could have seen it in her eyes if only I had looked - but I was all to my selfish torment - she wondered who would be the next victim, and even the gift of my blood which kept her young, was no match for her mounting apprehension. Souls were too much a price to pay for the gift of youth, and what should have happened, happened.” “What?” “One night, on the advice of one of the youngest pure bloods, his name was Damuzi, a man whom I had chosen to be my next victim, she got me drunk on beer. For hours she pored the liquid in my cup as she told me about my child; how she could feel him and that he was a boy, how he was growing inside her, how she could feel him kick, how she hoped that he would be as strong as his father and as beautiful as his mother, how we would raise him to be the pride of a

new Naaca; and I drank without fear, as she was the only one I could love and fully trusted. “And I woke up, my body in a small dark space. I couldn’t turn around and I could barely breathe. Sweat stinging my eyes, I tried not to panic as the old and familiar claustrophobic feelings reentered my body. I screamed for help, but none came. And for days I tried to free myself…still unable to understand.” “Yes.” “She and Damuzi had buried me alive in one of the rooms.” “She did?” “Yes.” “So what did you do?” I asked. “ For a while I forgave her, I wanted to forgive her, as I thought desperately that she would come back. But as days and nights turned into weeks and months, and as I felt my body change, and as I felt the well know leathery feeling of my skin turning from life to death, I realized that my worshipped queen had condemned me, and was willing to bring me back where she had found me, to a state of eternal decay. “And I finally had to admit that the same woman who had freed me and offered me a new life, had brought the darkness back; after everything I had told her about my years in the cave. I think I gasped and the last of my ability to love escaped from my heart, because she had not understood the nature of my curse. She didn’t have to burry me; she could have left after all, had she forgotten that she had fallen asleep in my arms countless times? And also that for centuries she had fed on my life, that she owed me so many moons and so many mornings? If only she had simply left, I would have understood…I think. “ From this moment, everything changed, even my consuming fear receded and I rejoiced in my hatred for her and also Damuzi. “How could I have been so blind? Perhaps they were lovers? Perhaps she had never loved me? Perhaps I was only her means to reach immortality, nothing more? But I knew that her love had been true, as I had mated with her soul many times…she wouldn’t have been able to hide the truth deeply enough as to deceive me so severely. “But then, how? The thought of her loving me and so swiftly loving not me was more than I could bear. I think it hurt me more than being buried alive. “ I kept on hoping that people would come and free me, but nobody ever came. Ubaidia had turned into a ghost town; in fact, I learned later, that it was seen as a damned city and avoided by the locals even to this day. “I could have stayed there forever, undisturbed and full of hatred and self-pity, if I had accepted, as I had before in the cave. But it was different, this time I had purposes: a son about to be born and the thirst for revenge. So I didn’t and I fought the confine of my prison with my bleeding fists until I could feel my own bones ripping through the skin and shattering against the bricks, but forgetting the pain, I never stopped punching and scratching. It wasn’t even about being free anymore, and it wasn’t about my knowing my child; I wanted them dead, I wanted him, Damuzi, begging for his life in front of me…and then I would feed on his soul, slowly as to make sure that he realized that he was becoming part of me…and I wanted her to feel the way I felt. “Luckily, I wasn’t in the cave. Slowly the mud bricks became lose under my perpetual kicking, my refusal to turn into the mummy that I once was, and after a few centuries, I was free to roam the earth again…and I did. I felt the cold of the night in my lungs as I took my first breath. The nights were as they were, I thought, little has changed. How wrong I was at the time,

but I couldn’t have known. “And I left Ubaidia behind me, and I understood that the last of my humanity was forever buried in the deserted sand covered ruins of what had been, for more than a thousands years, the beckon of a new world. “But before I started my search for my queen and for Damuzi, I surprised myself praying as never before since I had left the cave. I prayed on my knees, and with the humility of a child, because for the first time since I had been made an eternal, I was frightened by the passing of time. I had spent centuries imprisoned, only living soul of Ubaidia, so I could only hope that without my blood to sustain their body, Inanna and Damuzi had found it inside of them to keep on living. “But there was little chance. Inanna and Damuzi were both born out of Naaca, they were Ubaidians, the new generation of pure blood, and I understood that my quest for revenge would probably be fruitless. They had been dead a long time. But maybe, just maybe, they had found a way. “So in the end I screamed toward the heavens, but it wasn’t the scream of joy and eternal victory that I had so naively planned. “ ‘Please God.’ I shouted, my arms outstretched. ‘Let them be alive.’ “And the sky turned gray.”

CHAPTER XXVII

I felt his inhuman hatred toward Inanna and Damuzi growing inside of me. And it had in no way been weakened by the passing of time. Ziusudra hated them as intensely today as he had when he had realized that his queen wouldn’t come back for him. I can only imagine what he must have felt and thought during three centuries, as he called for her in the silence of the night. His hatred…but can one call hatred a feeling so intense that it isn’t possible to struggle against it? When it submerges every sense. The hatred, born in an eternal heart, is so heavy that it can be felt by every limb, and tasted and smeled. It is the glue that binds meaning and eternity. And I am not ashamed to say that it is an exquisite sensation; the only one that resemble the passion of a new mortal love. It was overwhelming, but at the same time, and because I was still human - with all the paradoxical compassion known to man - I heard myself hope that they had died before he had found them. “No Augustus,” Ziusudra hissed with joy. “They weren’t dead.” “And you found them?” I asked. “ Yes! I did,” He answered, his voice rising into my mind and turning into a song of pleasure. It was ecstasy offered to the darkest corner of my mortal spirit. Oh yes, he had found them. “ I followed the path of my people towards the land of two rivers, that you know under the Greek name of Mesopotamia. And as I reached the Euphrates, to my surprise I saw that the world had changed. The Ubaidians had brought knowledge to the mortals; it was the only possible explanation. “And as I followed the river to the south, I realized that they had not done it for selfish reasons, as we had done in Ubaidia. This time, they had shared and helped humanity as a whole…they had made men their equal. I witnessed tribesmen working and collaborating with men from other tribes, hundred of them, perhaps more, and all they were following some vast engineering layout in order to build canals and dikes able to harness the repetitive floods, which had kept their ancestors submissive to the elements. “And the design was so complex that it could only have been born in the mind of a Naacal or at least an Ubaidian. And if it hadn’t been enough to convince me, I heard the people speak Engi, the language of Ubaidia – with the exception of the accent, it had barely changed in three hundred years - a tongue so distinct from all other tongues spoken by the Semitic people of the north. “And I continued on my path, walking among crops so huge, like man had never grown before, unaware that I was witnessing the birth of a kingdom, a place as powerful as your Roman Empire Augustus.” “I would have heard of it, Lucan…” I interrupted. “Lucan doesn’t know everything, but he probably heard of it; Kiengi it was called, the land of Summerian speech. “And every time I stopped to talk to this new kind of man, I learned even more; I was told of their myths, of their gods, and all along I recognized the names: Nannar, Ningikuga, Inanna, Damuszi, the Sky God also known as Anu, and even I Ziusudra, the man who had survived the great flood and came back an immortal.

“And always, almost unable to hide my excitement, I asked if the gods were alive…but nobody knew, nobody had seen them. “ ‘Go further south, the people there, they will know.’ It was the usual answer. So again and again, I resumed my search. “I had probably walked for three weeks when it happened.” “What?” “By the river a group of men was building a city…yes it deserved this name as it was already larger than Ubaidia and larger than the other villages I had crossed along the way. “ ‘What is this place?’ I asked. “ ‘This will be Shuruppak.’ They answered. “And as I had done so many times, I asked: ‘Are the gods alive?’ “And they all laughed. “ ‘Who would be so ignorant as to ask such a question?’ It was an older man who had spoken. He seemed to be in charge of the workers. And he slowly walked towards me, almost painfully, his body ridiculously beaten by time into submission. “ ‘Certainly they are.’ He continued. ‘They are in the heavens watching over us.’ “And with these words he crushed my desire for blood…for an instant I thought I had failed again…but only for an instant Augustus…” “What happened?” “Suddenly, as if he had been punched in the stomach, he fell on his knees, unable to walk closer, and I recognized it, the curse. He was the son of pure bloods. “ I walked to him before anybody could intervene and I put my arm under his arm, and slowly helped him on his feet. His face showed the excruciating torment, which ravaged his useless body. “ ‘I can stop the pain.’ I whispered in his ear. ‘Are they alive?’ “ ‘Who are you?’ He murmured, with the thin voice of a dying man. “ ‘I am Ziusudra, and I will stop your pain, if you answer my question.’ And as his yellow eyes of old man grew wide I understood that he knew who I was. “ ‘Stop the pain…please…my king.’ “ ‘Are they alive?’ “ ‘Yes.’ “ ‘But How? It has been three hundred years.’ “ ‘They have been kept alive by their immortal son.’ “ And suddenly tears came into my eyes. He had been born, my son, and he was immortal. The soul of my soul. “ ‘Where are they?’ “ ‘Please stop the pain.’ “ ‘Where?’ “ ‘Further south.’ He whispered with his feeble voice. ‘They live in one of the twelve cities, one of the older ones, which are now being built…and will one day become the new Naaca…’ “ I recalled how Inanna had told me about the new Naaca, the night she had gotten me drunk and betrayed me. And I squeezed the old man’s arm a bit tighter until he moaned. “ ‘Does it have a name, this city?’ “ ‘When it is finished, it will be called Erech. Please my lord, stop the pain. This is all that I know.’

“ ‘How will I find it?’ “ ‘Just follow the river until the great fork, then takes its right arm and after a two days walk, you will see it.’ “ And as a man of my word, I stopped his pain. As I had done it so many times, I opened my wrist and let him drink of my life. He didn’t die. He was pure blood, though not born of Naaca or Ubaidia. “And what happened?” I asked. “ Slowly, the pain receded, and I saw him smile, and I felt his soul ready for the taking.” “Yes. Did you…” “No Augustus, I didn’t!” Ziusudra answered. “ Although he was pure blood, his soul was of little importance. And though he had lived a long life for a mortal, perhaps ninety years, he had seen little and knew little, and it would have brought me no pleasurable sensation to feed upon it. In all truth, I felt a certain sadness…” “ Sadness?’ I interrupted. “Yes, sadness is an accurate word,” he resumed. “ His soul was so plain, so empty of knowledge, so distant from his ancestors’ that he could almost have been a tribesman. He shared their primitive fear of the unknown, and believed in myths and gods. He testified in the flesh to the inevitable decadence that had finally caught up with the descendants of Naaca. “But somehow in a very primordial way, he understood his origins and took pride in them, and this was probably why his blood was still pure and unchanged. His parents had not mixed with mortals, but from his thoughts I recognized that he was an exception. Ubaidians and clansmen were now mixing. “ ‘ How could you let them do that, Inanna, how?’ I thought. ‘You are killing my people one more time.’ “And perhaps, because I was angry, I hesitated, would I crush him? But in the end I didn’t. And I let him thank me…and I let him go. And slowly he walked away towards the amazed workers, as they were witnessing a miracle. This man who had come to me almost crippled by time was walking back to them, straighter with each step, and visibly he was getting younger. “And he returned to them a man full of strength. I saw them crowding him, trying to touch him; some afraid, some curious, but all looking in my direction. “ ‘Tell them who I am.’ I shouted. ‘ I am Ziusudra and I came back from the heavens to bring eternal life to their kind…I am here as their savior and in return I only want their total loyalty.’ “And as the red glow of the sun embraced Shuruppak, the workers fell on their knees… they knew my name, and they had seen my powers, but they didn’t know of my longing, nor did they know about the beast, the devourer of souls, and reassured, I smiled.”

CHAPTER XXVIII

“It took me three days, and not two, to reach the town Augustus, but finally in front of me, there it stood, Erech the beginning of a city - an older community than Shuruppak. And evidently the news of my return had preceded my arrival, as I was greeted by a crowd of people, many begging me to cure some ailment, other blessing me…and then came the soldiers. They always come. “ ‘The king is waiting for you.’ One of the soldiers said. He was fat and short, and a man of a few words. He seemed to be in charge and ready to force me into obedience. But I didn’t resist, after all, they were driving me where I wanted to go. I followed them through the narrow and winding and irregular city streets. It wasn’t the Erech that one day would stand proudly as sign of a kingdom, but nor was it a village. High and windowless one-story houses surrounded me on both sides as I marched among the unpaved, and filthy streets toward some unknown destination. I could smell the stench of urine mixed with the unclean scent of sweat coming from the soldiers. Was that the new Naaca? A sad echo to the past splendor of my civilization. “ And finally I saw them, the plastered and whitewashed walls of the palace. Not so much a palace for your Roman taste Augustus. It was closer to one of these two stories houses found in the center of Rome - just before the great fire burnt them to the ground - consisting barely of about twelve rooms. “I could hardly contain myself Augustus, so many years had passed and yet the link with her mind was still strong. I could feel my former queen waiting for me in the palace and I could sense that she wasn’t alone, Damuzi was with her. I tried to speak to her with my mind but she didn’t answer. At this instant, perhaps if she had I would have been able to forgive; I so wanted her to love me. But as I searched her mind, I didn’t find any love, or compassion for that matter. “No love for me. “None. “ So I let a flow of hatred submerge my heart, and as I entered the place, I brought with me nothing but anger and a thirst for revenge. Or so I thought. “The first one who walked to me was Damuzi, but I didn’t really see him, and almost didn’t recognize his long face and his powerful smile, because, seated on a large chair of black wood, I could see Inanna in the back of the room, unchanged by time, perhaps even younger and so beautiful. She looked at me, her expression was not angry or afraid, she was very thoughtful, perhaps wondering. So again with my mind I tried to speak to her but again she didn’t answer. “ ‘Why did you come?’ Damuzi asked, with the tone of voice of a man used to being obeyed. ‘You could have disappeared into the night and nobody would have hurt you…’ “I remember laughing. A good laugh. Laughing is always pleasurable. Nothing more. “ ‘I came for my queen and my son.’ I said. “ ‘Our son, he doesn’t care about you.’ Damuzi answered. ‘And Inanna has been my wife for three hundred years now, and she has shared my bed, and opened her body to me night after night, and she begged me to take her…and I did so fully. I know every part of her flesh and I have caressed every inch of her skin, and I have delighted myself with her salty taste on my tongue while you were buried in Ubaidia.’ “ As I heard his words, I felt a wave of heat ravaging my mind, as I imagined her moaning as he entered her body, and thrust inside of her…and also all this intense pleasure that I

knew she could give and that she had given to him, Damuzi. “So I ignored him for fear of freeing the beast in me too soon as I also desired to know where my son was, and this time I spoke to her with my voice. “ ‘Inanna, come back to me.’ I said. ‘Come back before it is too late.’ And I think I saw a tear at the corner of her eyes, but to this day I am not certain. “And Damuzi laughed, it was his turn. “ ‘She loves me now.’ He said. ‘ How could you have thought that she would keep on loving such a monster, a beast who takes more than life, who takes the life of souls? Look at you, you are an atrocity, your past has died and you have no future. You are nothing but a repetitive instant.’ “ ‘Young king’ I answered. ‘ Do you think the few soldiers surrounding me will protect you if I desire to kill you? Do you really? Before they could even move I would have broken your neck with the strength of all the souls I have stolen from the Sky God.’ “ I felt the soldiers shivering as they were afraid of me, after all I was a god and they were only mere mortals among gods. Our frightened witnesses, they were nothing more. “ ‘Inanna, please.’ I was almost begging, I hated her so much, and still I had this love resurfacing again and again. ‘Inanna.’ “ So finally she spoke. And every word burned my immortal insides. “ ‘Leave Ziusudra.’ She said, cold. ‘I loved you but now it is over, now I am Damuzi’s and I will be his for as long as he lives. “ I was beyond pain with every cell of my body falling into silence. I wanted to run to her, make it a nightmare, and awaken my head resting on her pelvis, and then I would gently feed on her moist vaginal lips and she would run her fingers through my hair, pushing my tongue deeper inside, and everything would be back to normal. “ ‘You heard her.’ Damuzi said. ‘Again leave. You must leave now. Do not hold onto the past and you will be free to make a new life for yourself.’ “ Damuzi.’ I said. ‘You simply can’t understand, without her love, I have nothing as I cannot love another…she must come back to me.’ “ ‘My friend.’ He answered with a smile. ‘ So be it, you will leave with nothing then.’ “ I turned to him, and my eyes were so dark that I think he backed down. “ She will love you for as long as you live.’ I whispered. ‘ So you won’t live long.’ “ And I walked towards him, knowing what had to be done. But before I could reach him, the soldiers were on me. They were terrified but they played their roles, poor pathetic mortals. And I tore them apart and crushed muscles and bones, and opened their insides, using fists and nails and teeth, and even their own weapons, some type of primitive swords, until I saw six bodies and a few fleshy bloody crimson parts on the floor. “And then I looked at him, the one who had stolen my queen and my child and all meaning from my existence. “ ‘You see.’ I resumed. ‘ I am now going to take your life, and your soul as you are still linked to me from the time you fed on my blood. And I will have you screaming eternally inside of me as I think that I will not kill it, your soul…I believe that I will simply swallow it to make sure you fully realize where you are…to make certain that you feel day after day the agony and the despair of being buried alive, as you did to me…Yes I will have you alive within my soul for all eternity, and you will be aware, in your prison without eyes and ears and limbs to feel or touch or smell.’ “His eyes grew wide with fear as he knew I was telling the truth, and that they were no

escaping his fate. And I grabbed his neck, the neck of a coward, and he tried to free himself but what could have he done against the will of thousands of souls, and slowly I pushed my mind into his terrified mind. “ ‘Have mercy.’ He begged, his fear like honey on my tongue. ‘Is there no limit to your evil?’ “ ‘No limit, you are correct, Inanna was my last link to humanity, and my evil has no boundary now that you took her love away.’ I whispered into his ear. ‘Can you feel the darkness coming onto you? Can you hear your own soul scream while I am tearing apart the very fabric of your mind?’ “ ‘Stop!’ Inanna shouted, and she suddenly stood up from the chair. ‘ If you kill us, you will never know where to find your son.’ “ ‘I don’t need you to tell me Inanna.’ I answered. ‘ See, I will force your mind open and I will read where he is.’ “ And as I said these words, I released Damuzi, and he fell on the floor, crying like a young terrified child. And I clamped my mind onto hers. “ For a little while she fought an useless fight and then I pushed deeper inside, raping her soul, ignoring her pain and her distress. And I rejoiced in all her emotions. And slowly a picture appeared, it was a place…but before I could make it out, something that I had never experienced happened.” “What?” I asked. “ Tell me Ziusudra.” “ From inside of her, a power as strong as mine stopped me. A strength only known to immortals…and perhaps it was as dark and angry as I was. And then I felt pushed away by it, and almost physically removed from her spirit. It was so violent that I almost lost my balance and fell onto the floor. “ ‘You see.’ She said, the sweat running down her trembling long white neck. ‘You won’t find him if we are dead. And he has the power to keep you outside of my mind, your son. And evidently he doesn’t want you to know where he is.’ “And she started to laugh, an unending and humiliating laughter echoing against every wall of the room. “ ‘So poor Ziusudra.’ She continued. ‘What will you do? Will you kill us and destroy the only remote chance to meet him…after all he is your son, and he is immortal as you are. Poor poor pathetic Ziusudra…poor excuse for a man, poor useless monster.’ “ What did you do?” I asked totally taken by his story. “Did you let her live? “ What could I have done?” Ziusudra answered. “ My son was the last piece of meaning in my empty and repetitive life. He was the only one able to understand me and to stop the longing, the loneliness. So I let her live. “ ‘You are right my queen.’ I said as she smiled. ‘If I kill you, I will never know where he is, but him, I don’t need.’ I whispered as I pointed to Damuzi on the floor. And I grabbed him like a rug doll and I resumed the taking of his soul. And then, as so many before him, his emptied body went numb, and I could hear his tormented screams inside of me. “ And to this day, I wake up some mornings and I can hear him sobbing, and weeping, and begging for freedom…and he will stay like that until the end of time. And it comforts me and warms my heart to simply know it.” “And then?” I asked. “ As I said, I let her live, as she was the only hope that I had to find my son one day, and I went back to Shuruppak, where my legend was already growing and where I became king.”

For a long moment, Ziusudra said nothing. It was silence in my mind, but he was still with me and so I finally asked: “ Is that the end of your story?” “Almost Augustus, almost!” he answered. “I was king and again I was bored and lonely. I could witness the evolution of man, with their short lives, so short in fact that in the end, I didn’t take the time to remember their names. And as discretely as possible I fed on their souls. I had become a living insult to the Sky God. So many, so many Augustus, I took so many souls away from Him, and always with intense pleasure. “But still I couldn’t find meaning to my life. I was witnessing the great great son working the same temple, the same wall, the same Ziggurat, the same canal, as his ancestors, and it seemed to me that nothing changed, that I was living the same repetitive day. “But I was partly wrong. The temple, the wall, the Ziggurat, the canal, they slowly changed, grew larger and bigger and taller, and generation after generation, the mortals slowly made Kiengi the legendary kingdom that is still remembered. The cities grew with every decade. Eridu the old one, and Ur the grandiose one, and Erech which I avoided, and so many others. Somehow, it warmed my heart to see that the little knowledge inherited from my disappeared civilization wasn’t totally lost; it had strong roots and would spread around the world. I even taught my people the art of writing, and they drank from my teaching with the thirst of children. Knowledge, knowledge, that’s all they wanted, and for a while I satisfied their needs. “But it wasn’t enough to keep my mind from getting old; I had too many memories and dead faces haunting me to stay young. And though I was eternal, in an indirect way time had caught up with me…and one night I fell asleep, and months past, and I could have stayed this way. But Nannar had been right, and as he had predicted, when time came, in my sleep, after millennia of silence, I heard Elma’s voice. “ ‘Have you forgotten us father?’ She asked. “ And as I remembered, I woke up, as I had been given a new meaning to my life, the only possible one; I was going to free my people, I will protect the last pure bloods through history, keeping them from mixing, until I find one with enough love in his heart to refuse the Sky God’s gift and become immortal.” “ And you found Julia?” I murmured, almost afraid to be right. I heard his thin laugh in my mind. “Augustus, you still don’t understand.” He said after a long pause. “Julia, I found her about forty years ago as well as her father, but she is no pure blood, though she is a descendant of Ubaidians. Her blood has been mixed through centuries so many times. But she had a desire for life, a fire that I had only found in Inanna…no I gave her my blood mixed with hers as to keep her from dying, as I was waiting for the perfect choice, the pure blood who would fall in love with her with so much passion as to make him able to refuse the third gift. “But who?” I asked, but I think I knew then. “ You my young friend. You my blood and my hope…you.” They were his last words to me, and in a flash I was alone again, his invisible presence had given up all ties to my uniqueness. I think I screamed. “Come back, come back to me. You can’t leave me like that now that I know…come back father.” And then darkness came upon my solitary mind.

EPILOGUE So gentlemen, by now you almost know everything. I suddenly awakened and in front of me was Lucan. He seemed terrified. “Are you all right?” He said. “ You passed out.” He had never left my storyteller, he had never left the room. Was it all a dream then? “How long was I unconscious?” I asked him. “A few minutes, my friend, only a few minutes. All of a sudden you looked at me and you asked me to leave you alone…and then you closed your eyes as if in a trance.” “Only a few minutes,” I whispered. A dream? Evidently not. I had lived more lives in these few minutes than any mortal. Not a dream, certainly not. I had been forced back in time, and I had witnessed the birth of a world…of my world, and I was a changed man. No dream. I had been offered the gift of knowledge; I was the descendant of a race of gods, and the chosen one. I would meet the Sky God, and refuse His gift of eternal love and in so doing, I would open the door of Heaven to Elma and the long gone ghosts of a forgotten civilization… and I would become immortal, Julia’s soul forever linked to mine…and together we would bring children to the world. After this day, it all went very fast. The conspiracy against Nero - one day it would be known as the Piso conspiracy - failed. In all truth, I don’t really know why. Perhaps I was responsible as I was told that scandinavius followed my advice and had the dagger that I had given him sharpened by his slave, as he wrote his will in case he were killed. But then the slave went to Nero, and it was all over. It can’t be that simple but it is what I know. Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide, and he tortured Lucan and each of us who had plotted against him. All were killed or forced to take their own lives. I remember when they came for me, the soldiers, how they entered my house and brought me to the emperor. How I was forced to kneel down in front of the monster…and then I was tortured, humiliated and broken, and asked so many times the same question: “Give us their names.” How could have I answered, I didn’t know so much. I would have told them anything but the ones I knew about, they were already dead. And they crushed my body, limb after limb, and then when they were certain that I could tell them no more they tore my tongue out. Oh I wanted death with all my weakened will…but death wasn’t to be my destiny, and when I was close to my last breath, he came back into my mind. “The time has come,” Ziusudra whispered, caressing my spirit. “It is now that you choose.” “Please,” I answered. “ Make it stop, I am ready.” And I felt my soul taken into his, and then Ziusudra freed me, and I met the Sky God and He was beautiful, a shining light which doesn’t blind, and I felt His love, so much love for me… but Ziusudra was right, he had prepared me well, I found the strength and I took His gift and

gave it to the ghosts, and through me, I witnessed an entire civilization of lost souls rejoice and rejoin with Him. And then for the first time I saw her face, not through Ziusudra’s mind, I saw her face and her smile...Elma, how beautiful a soul she was, and she was thanking me. But before I could return to my now immortal body, another soul tried to force itself into the Heavens. It was Ziusudra’s. “My Lord, in your hands I place my soul,” he said. And slowly, splendidly, God looked at him and cried a tear, and spoke: “ Until you are all forgiven,” he said. “They have forgiven me my Lord.” Ziusudra cried out. “All of them.” “But you haven’t forgiven yourself my son,” God answered with the eternal sadness of a perfect being. And then Ziusudra was pushed away. I felt him falling back to earth, and I heard his screaming despair echoing into the Heavens. And As I felt myself being pulled back into my aching body I heard Julia, her soul, the soul of my soul. “I love you Augustus,” she said from some invisible corner of the universe. “ I will always love you.” And then the pain. I was alive. And in front of me I saw the soldiers, their eyes filled with fear. I wasn’t dead as they thought I was. So much pain in my reborn body. I could feel my tongue growing back, the young flesh mixed with the taste of my blood. And one of them, perhaps the most courageous of my tormentors came behind me, a shrunken man, and I felt his large and trembling hands around my neck, and he strangled me, and I died…darkness. And light again. I was resurrected, as my eternal soul wouldn’t leave my corpse. And again and again they killed me. Until they didn’t have enough strength in their hands. I looked at their faces, one after the other, their sweaty faces, their frightened round eyes, and as they forced themselves to laugh at me, I felt a flood of hatred submerging my very being, and I utterly enjoyed it. “Witchcraft, magic,” they said. So as I told you at the beginning of my story, they burnt me, poring some unknown gooey liquid over me, they grabbed a torch, and they brought the flame closer to my face. I begged them…and then the pain, so much pain. Darkness. Light again. And they burned me again. Pain, only pain. Darkness. Light again. For days they burned me. But I told you. I wasn’t the kind who dies from fire, so they cut me into pieces… I remember waking up in the ground. Alive and buried, my mouth filled with soil. With time I escaped from my grave, digging myself out inch after inch. And finally I saw the stars, and I knew that I one day I would witness their deaths, and then I screamed. “Ziusudra, where are you? I will not stop calling for you until you answer.

“I am here!” he said in my mind. He was different, smaller, weaker, as he knew there was no escaping eternity for him…for a man who couldn’t even forgive himself. “Where are they, the soldiers? I want them in front of me begging, I want to feed myself with their fear…where are they?” “Again you have a choice to make Augustus. Julia is being reborn right now…find her and love her…” “Where are they?” I interrupted. “ I want them.” “You are becoming me, you are becoming the monster,” he whispered with a little voice. “Think of Julia. Remember how much you love her…so much so that you chose to come back an eternal…remember the man you were before you died. ” “I love Julia, and I will love her until there is nothing left of the world but my love…” “Then go and find her!” he ordered. “I will,” I answered. “ As soon as I have found the ones who have made me endure pains that I didn’t know existed…yes I will, once they are dead.” “So if it has to be, find them…but I won’t help you. The last vestige of my humanity won’t help the beast inside of you…I will not help the monster grow.” He answered. And then it was silence. And I called for him in the night until I saw the red glare of the rising sun. Ziusudra was gone. So I searched for them, my torturers…and I found them, and I fed on their fear as they twisted like dying fish in the communal grave that I had dug for them. And long after their last scream had subsided, I could still sense the sweet panic, which had overwhelmed their soul. Then, it was time and I started my search for Julia. And as she was nowhere to be found, I asked Ziusudra to help me find her, I called for him, I screamed for him, but I had already made my choice, and he had warned me. Would he have helped me if I had chosen another path, if I had forgotten about my torturers, if I had decided to drink from love instead, if I had found in me the strength not to take my revenge? I don’t really know. But he was gone…He had cut me off from his mind. And for years, in anger, like him I became a monster…but it was long ago. Over the centuries, I tracked him, following his demented trail, the killings…as I recognized his hand in so many emptied bodies…I looked for him, always one step behind, always one murder short…and perhaps I finally came close, too close. This is why he framed me. No I am not the killer gentlemen.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful