If Inanna is born of fire, then she is cinders spit from the flames. For Inanna, the Sky Father fashions a throne from the wood of the huluppu tree; perched upon it, she is golden even then–small enough that her feet cannot yet touch the floor.
Ereshkigal's throne rests rather lower, pitted beneath the ground like a seed too weak to take root. There, Anu leaves her. And there she will wait–a child among corpses, only half a living thing herself. There are few ways to mark the flow of time–no fall of snow to greet the winter, nor sliver of moon to herald night. Ereshkigal builds, more often than not–cages spun from iron or wire or bits of cord, trinkets plucked from the pockets of the dead.
Perhaps this is fitting, that each soul should be sustained by meaningless detritus carried with them in life. It is no comfortable existence, but a more peaceful one than they would find unaided–or so she might hope, if she were inclined to care.
* * *
Heaven and Earth are not enough for Ishtar; it should not surprise her to learn it. Ereshkigal resolves that the Underworld must set a harsher precedent–punish her arrogance, as Anu never would. It is a strange thing, to stand before an Inanna rendered helpless–stripped bare of worldly belongings, the gifts of fellow gods and fawning devotees. Though it coils her stomach to see it, there is no doubt: Ishtar deserves to hang.
In truth, she should count herself fortunate. Beloved Ishtar, golden Ishtar; her resurrection is all but ensured.
* * *
Ereshkigal wakes not cold and lifeless but flushed with pink, drawing breath in stifled gasps. She knows–by the foreign, frantic pulse of her wrist–she is not herself; not quite, or not entirely.
Feverish, she rises, clawing for purchase; she meets only arms and grasping hands, spread wide as if in supplication. They crowd her, these women–circle of searching bodies, clamoring voices. Even here, aboveground with sunlight streaming through open windows, Ereshkigal's touch is death–and oh, they cannot help but touch. A mistake, of course–
–though the corpse, at least, is familiar ground.
* * *
Quetzalcoatl is undignified; godhood does not become her. And still, Ereshkigal cannot help but lean closer when she speaks of conquest. It is only right, that the underworld should swell with souls–the soft shells of their bodies abandoned, cradled in cold safety beneath the earth. Is that so very cruel, after all?
Quetzalcoatl smiles in answer, all teeth.
* * *
Ereshkigal is ill at ease, trapped within the body of the mortal girl; it is as if she wears a second skin, and cannot settle past the weight and the itch of it. Once–before–guilt had not touched them. Now it manifests, and soon blooms into aching. There is no joy left to be found in caging others–not when she is a caged thing herself, growing softer and stranger by the day.
Such trifling, human emotion; such hurt. The underworld was not made to hold these things, and so Ereshkigal chooses to expel them.
* * *
Inanna's body is more than a conduit; it is a kind of shield, too. Beneath that fall of dark hair, there is no cause for restraint. Her sister is a clumsy fool of a goddess, after all. Surely she would lean against Ritsuka's side, tease and huff and splutter like some pitiful parody of a mortal girl; it is only an act, a pink-cheeked embarrassment masking glacial dignity. No goddess of death might truly fall to fondness–least of all for a human foolish enough to think her gentle.
And yet...it is amusing to pretend, all the same.
* * *
Seven gates stay Inanna's path–these and little else. The puzzle Ereshkigal sets is a simple one, born of uneven rivalry. Pressed to choose between the two, no true hero would side with an underworld queen–unless, perhaps, to lie, to entreat favor and with it secure their safety.
There is no better explanation for Ritsuka's success–first among humans to approach the palace Ganzir, and do so as if it were easy.
She had known–at some level–that Ritsuka had seen past the facade of Ishtar's body. Perhaps (and it numbs, even to acknowledge the thought) she had wanted to fail, if only to be seen by someone else–someone kind. It stings enough that she goes to her knees, face muffled against her palms like a disobedient child. The humiliation is unbearable.
But the plan must play out the same–and that steadies her. Ereshkigal quiets, stands; worries her lower lip between her teeth, frustrated.
Don't make that face, Ritsuka. Or I won't have the heart to kill you.
* * *
Inanna is unable to fight, small enough to crush beneath her heel–and still she cannot best them. In a way, that defeat–crushing in its finality–is like release. Perhaps, the Ereshkigal of ages past would fare differently–but there is no denying she has changed, and changed profoundly. That shame and guilt is seeded deeply in her, made worse by Ritsuka's concern–her stray, pitying glances. What more would she offer in life, but regret following death following more of both?
Ritsuka would not lower herself to kill; even so, the blade slots between her ribs, coaxing a bright spill of blood. Easily, Ereshkigal folds.
It's difficult to make sense of the haze, mired in red beneath the furious hail of Ishtar's arrows–and more difficult still to fathom why the world, by degrees, grows ever clearer. Not a killing blow, then, but a freeing one–the terms of her contract purged in bloodshed.
Their killer speaks with assurance: You do not love the dead, he says. You love humanity, who is one day destined to die.
Blood-slick and tired, she cannot speak against him–each protest a tangle of words, weak assertions of her monstrosity. It is impossible, that they who have known only death might yearn for humanity–impossible that they might love the living, in all their warmth and beating hearts.
Ritsuka only smiles. That's not true.
* * *
Ereshkigal's pride will not allow her to contract for Chaldea–not now, much less with Ritsuka. Still, should humanity call upon her (should Ritsuka call), she would not deny them. Her palms are wet with blood as red as any mortal's–and now, she thinks, is as good a time as any to begin again.
* * *
There is a kind of terrible humanity in meeting death with a smile and shaking knees. Ishtar is frantic and furious all at once, as if her infernal fussing could ever hope to shift a mind fixed so stubbornly upon its path. Think of Ritsuka, she snaps, You can never see her again. Are you really so naive?
The rims of Ereshkigal's eyes sting fiercely, blurring their view of Irkalla–that eternal prison of a home, burst open wide at last; even now, the light of Uruk peeks through, tinged orange with the coming sun. It is radiant, as Earth tends to be. Ishtar cannot understand, of course–Ishtar built of light and life; Ishtar, who had not known death so intimately.
The truth, of course, is this: in the end, it is so bitterly, bitterly easy, to die for love.
Where is Ereshkigal? comes the question–tentative, inevitable.
Ishtar is unaccountably gentle. Resting comfortably, she says, in the underworld.
She said to tell you hello.