“BEL should be pleased with his worship, priest!” Kenton heard the dancer say.
The priest asked, dully: “What do you mean?”
Narada drew closer to him; her hands fluttered out to him.
“Shalamu,” she whispered. “Did I dance for the god? You know I danced for — you. And whom did you worship, Shalamu? The god? No — the priestess. And whom, think you, did she worship?”
“She worshipped Bel! Our Lord Bel who has — all,” the priest answered, bitterly.
Said the dancer, mockingly: “She worshipped herself, Shalamu!”
He repeated, stubbornly, wearily: “She worshipped Bel.”
Closer came Narada, touched him with fluttering, yearning hands.
“Does any woman worship a god, Shalamu?” she asked. “Ah — no! I am a woman — and I know. This priestess would be a god’s woman — no man’s. She holds herself too high, too precious, for man. She loves herself. She worships herself. She would bow down to herself as a god’s woman. Women make gods of men and then love them. But no woman loves any god she has not made, Shalamu!”
The priest said, sullenly: “Well — I worshipped her!”
The dancer said: “As she worshipped — herself! Shalamu — does she long to give joy to Bel? To our Lord Bel who has Ishtar? Can we give joy to the gods — to the gods who have all? The lotus rises to the sun — but is it to give joy to the sun that she rises? No! It is to give joy to herself. So the priestess! I am a woman — and I know.”
Her hands were on his shoulders; he took them in his own: “Why do you say these things to me?”
“Shalamu!” she murmured. “Look in my eyes. Look on my mouth — my breasts. Like the priestess I am the god’s, But I give myself to you — beloved!”
He said, dreamily: “Yea — you are beautiful!”
Her arms were round his neck, her lips close to his.
“Do I love the god?” she whispered. “When I dance is it to delight his eyes? It is for you I dance — beloved. It is for you I dare Bel’s wrath —” Softly she drew his head down on her breast —“Am I not fair? Fairer than this priestess who is Bel’s and worships herself nor will ever give herself to you? Are not my perfumes pleasing? No god possesses me — beloved!”
Dreamily he answered her again: “Yea — you are very fair.”
“I love you — Shalamu!”
He thrust her from him: “Her eyes are like the Pools of Peace in the Valley of Forgetfulness! When she comes near me the doves of Ishtar beat their wings above my head! She walks upon my heart!”
Narada drew back, scarlet lips pale, brows a menacing straight line:
“The priestess,” he answered. “Her hair is like the cloud that veils the sun at dusk. The wave of her robe scorches me as the wind from the desert noon scorches the palm The wave of her robe makes me cold as the wind of the desert night makes cold the palm.”
“That youth was bolder far than you, Shalamu.”
Kenton saw the red rush through the priest’s face.
“What do you mean?” he snarled.
“Why did you have the youth slain?” coldly as before come her voice.
He answered, hotly: “He did sacrilege. He —”
She stopped him, contemptuously: “Because he was bolder than you. Because he dared to tear the veils from her. Because you knew yourself the coward. This is why you had him slain!”
His hands twitched to her throat: “You lie! You lie! I would dare!”
Again she laughed; “You did not even dare to slay him — yourself!”
His hands were at her throat; she thrust them carelessly aside.
“Coward!” she said. “He dared to lift the veil from what he loved. He dared the wrath both of Ishtar and of Bel!”
The priest cried brokenly: “Would I not dare? Do I fear death? Do I fear Bel?”
Her eyes mocked him.
“Hai! You love so greatly!” she taunted. “The priestess awaits the god — in his lonely house! Perhaps he is not in the storm! Perchance he tarries with another maid — Oh, fearless one! Bold lover — take his place!”
He shrank back from her.
“Take — his — place!” he whispered.
“You know where the armor of the god is hidden. Go to her as the god!” she said.
For a long moment the priest stood, quivering. Then Kenton saw irresolution fly; decision take its place. He strode to the altar — down went the lanced flame; wavered; died. In the sudden dark the crouching Kerubs seemed monstrously to take wing.
There came a flash of the weird lightning,
By its irised flare he saw the Priest of Bel passing swiftly along that way Sharane had come and gone; saw Narada lying huddled in her nets of jet, the sipping flocks of golden butterflies at rest upon her; heard a low, heartbroken wailing.
Slowly Kenton’s hand began to slip from the lever. Now was the time to use that key, pass on where the blue priest had pointed. His hand froze upon the lever.
A shadow, blacker than the dusk without, had passed the window; stood over the dancer; a huge and unwieldy bulk — familiar,
“Good!” rumbled the black priest, and touched her with his foot. “Now soon neither he nor Sharane shall trouble you more. And you have well earned that reward I promised you.”
Narada looked up at him with white and piteous face, stretched shaking hands out to him.
“If he had loved me,” she wailed, “never would he have gone. If he had loved me but a little — never would I have let him go. But he angered me — he shamed me, throwing back to me the love I offered him. Not for you, black snake, despite our bargain, did I send him to her — and to death!”
The black priest stared at her, then laughed.
“Whatever your reason — you sent him,” he said. “And Klaneth pays his debts.”
He dropped a handful of flashing jewels into her outstretched palms. She screamed, opened fingers as though the gems burned her; they fell and rolled about the chequered stones.
“If he had loved me! If he had loved me but a little!” sobbed Narada — and crouched again, a huddled heap, among her butterflies.
Kenton, to him now clear all the black priest’s plot, let the lever go; raced to the farther door of bronze, thrust the wedged key into it; slipped past the slowly opening edge, and ran down the passageway it had barred. Two flames burned in him as he raced along that passage — white flame of love for his woman, black flame of hate against Klaneth. He knew that wherever the Priest of Bel was bound there must be Sharane. The end — unless Kenton could reach the Bower of Bel in time and conquer — inevitable.
Narada had repented — but too late! The black priest had gambled — and the black priest had won!
Kenton cursed as he ran. If Sharane, meshed in ensorcelled dream, saw the Priest of Bel as the god himself — still would she have taken earthly lover! Her innocence could not save her. Klaneth would see to that.
And if Sharane should awaken — God! Would she not in the dawn of that awakening take the Priest of Bel for him — for Kenton!
But either way — the presence of priest and priestess in Bel’s Bower would be enough to damn them both. Yes — Klaneth would see to that.
He crossed a traverse passage: ran blindly down a sloping corridor along whose sides glared guarding chimera; stopped in front of a wide portal from which hung, motionless and rigid, folds that seemed carved from solid silver. Caution whispered to him; he put out a hand, parted the metallic curtainings, peered within . . .
He looked into his own room.
There it lay before him, his old room in his old world!
He saw the jeweled ship, glimmering, glittering — but as though he saw it through a fog; through a mist of fiery particles, half veiling it. The long mirror glinted behind that same luminous vapor. Infinitely small, in infinite numbers, the sparkling atoms hung between him and that room of his — back in New York!
And he — here in this strange world!
Misty was the room, nebulous, quivering now into plainer sight; now withdrawing into indefiniteness.
And as he stared at it, incredulous, the old bleak despair clutching him, he felt within his hands the curtains grow light as silken gauze, stiffen back into metal — alternately; slip from his hands, strengthen within them as his room steadied in the sparkling mist, dissolved within it into phantom outlines!
Yet ever as his room swung inward clearer, swung back dimmer, the outlines of the jeweled ship hardened, crystallized, shone forth brighter — summoning him, dragging him back!
KENTON braced himself; he held tight to the curtains. He fought with all his will to check their melting. The curtains were like bars between his old world and this of his great adventure.
A force, a pull like a strong undertow, dragged him forward each time they melted in his hands and the nebulous outlines of his room crisped into steadiness. Plainly he could pick out every detail of that room, the long mirror, the cabinets, the divan — the stains of his blood still wet upon the floor.
And always, whether room were melting mist or clear outline, the jeweled ship shining steadily — watchful.
Now he swung out and over that room; the ancient Chinese rug on its floor was below him — at once close and infinite distances away. He heard the first voices of those shrieking winds of space!
In that brief instant he realized that it was the shining toy itself drawing him back!
Something was reaching up and out to him from the dark deck of the ship! Something malignant and mocking — dragging him, dragging him to it!
Darker grew the black deck — stronger its pull ——“Ishtar!” he prayed, gaze upon the rosy cabin. “Ishtar!” Did the cabin flash as though filled with sudden light? The outlines of his room melted; again the curtains were heavy in his hands; he stood once more on firm feet at the threshold of the House of the Moon God.
Once, twice, thrice more the room pulled back — but each time less real, more spectral. And against each pulse Kenton set his will; closed eyes and thrust away the vision of it with all his strength.
His will won. The room vanished; in that envanishment a finality not to be mistaken. The spell was broken, the subtle links snapped.
Caught by the reaction he clung to the curtains, knees weak and shaking. Slowly he found himself, resolutely parted the folds.
He looked now into a vast hall filled with mist of argent light; still was this mist, yet palpable — as though the rays that formed it were woven. Interlaced and luminous, the webbed mist made of the chamber a home of immensities, of tremendous distances. He thought, but was not sure, that there was motion within these silver webs — shadowy shapes half appearing, vanishing, never quite coming into full sight. Far away he caught another movement; a figure was coming forward; steadily, inexorably. It drew closer, slowly; it swam into sight — a man, golden-helmeted, over his shoulder a short cloak of gold shot through with scarlet, in his hand a golden sword; head bent, pushing on as though against some strong current.
It was the Priest of Bel clad in the raiment of his god!
Scarce breathing, Kenton watched him. The eyes so like his own were black with dread and awe — yet filled with will and purpose; indomitable. The mouth was set, the lips white, and in all the priest’s body Kenton sensed a tremor, a shuddering — deep as the priest’s soul. Whether real or but phantoms, he knew the terrors of this place were realities to this strange double of his.
The Priest of Bel passed, and Kenton, waiting until he was half hidden in the shining mists, slipped through the curtains, followed him.
Now Kenton heard a voice; a still voice, passionless as that which had bidden him arise from his bed of stone; and like that voice neither was it in the place wherein he trod nor within him. It was as though borne to him out of farthest space . . .
The voice of Nabu, God of Wisdom!
Listening, he felt himself not one man, but three — a single purposed Kenton who followed the priest and would follow him through hell so he led to Sharane; a Kenton who, tied by some inexplicable link to the mind of the priest, felt and saw and heard, suffered and feared even as he; and a Kenton who hearkened to the words of Nabu as coldly, as dispassionately as they were uttered, watched as coldly, as detachedly, all they pictured.
“The House of Sin!” the voice rang. “Chief of the Gods! Nannar! Begetter of Gods and men! Lord of the Moon! Lord of the Brilliant Crescent! Great of Horns! Nannar Perfect of Form! Decreer of Destiny! Self Created! Whose House is the first of the Zones and Whose Color is Silver!
“He passes through the House of Sin!
“He goes by the altars of chalcedon and of sard which are set with the great moonstones and with rock crystals, the altars where burn the white flames from which Sin the Fashioner created Ishtar! He sees the pale and shining serpents of Nannar writhe toward him and from the silver mists that veil the crescented horns of sin he sees the winged white scorpions dart upon him!
“He hears the sound of the tramping of myriads of feet, the feet of all the men to be born beneath the Moon! And he hears the sound of the sobbing of myriads of women, the sobbing of all the women to be born and to bear! He hears the clamor of the Uncreate!
“And he passes!
“For lo! Not the Begetter of Gods nor the awe of him may stand before man’s desire!”
So the voice rang — and was silent. And Kenton saw all these things, saw the shimmering white serpents writhe through the silver mists and strike at the priest; saw the winged scorpions dart upon him; visioned within the mists a vast and awful shape upon whose clouded brows the crescent of the moon was bound. In his own ears he heard the tramping of armies of the unborn, the sobbing of worlds of women yet unborn, the clamor of the Uncreate! Saw and heard — even, he knew, as did the Priest of Bel!
The golden helm flashed high above him. Kenton paused at the base of a winding stairway whose broad steps circled upward, changing as they arose from pallid silver to glowing orange. He waited until the priest — never hastening, never looking back — had ascended; he passed into the place to which the stairway led; slipped after him.
He looked into a temple filled with crocused light even as that through which he had just come had been filled with webs of moonbeams. A hundred paces away marched the priest, and as Kenton moved on the still voice resumed its whispering:
“The House of Shamash! Offspring of the Moon! God of the Day! Dweller in the House of Luster! Banisher of Darkness! King of Judgment! Judge of Mankind! On Whose Head Resteth the Crown with the High Horns! In Whose Hands are Life and Death! Who cleanseth Man with His Hands like a Tablet of Burnished Copper! Whose House is the Second of the Zones and Whose Color is Orange!
“He passes through the House of Shamash!
“Here are the altars of opal set with diamonds and the altars of gold set with amber and the yellow sunstones. Upon the altars of Shamash burn sandalwood and cardamon and verbena. He goes by the altars of opal and of gold; and he goes by the birds of Shamash whose heads are wheels of flame and who guard the wheel that turns within the House of Shamash and is a potter’s wheel upon which all the souls of men are shaped.
“He hears the noise of myriads of voices, the wailing of those who have been judged and the shouting of those who have been judged!
“And he passes!
“For lo! Not the King of Judgment nor the fear of him may stand before man’s desire!”
Again Kenton saw and heard all these things; and following the priest came to a second stairway whose steps merged from glowing orange into ebony black. And still following he stood, at last, in a great hall of gloom, the name of whose dread master he knew even before the still voice came murmuring to him out of hidden, secret space:
“The House of Nergal! The Mighty One of the Great Dwelling Place! King of the Dead! He who Scattereth the Pestilence! He Who Ruleth over the Lost! The Dark One without Horns! Whose House is the Third of the Zones and Whose Color is Black!
“He passes through the House of Nergal!
“He goes by Nergal’s altars of jet and of bloodstone! He goes by the red fires of civet and of bergamot that burn thereon! He goes by the altars of Nergal and the lions that guard them! The black lions whose eyes are as rubies and whose claws are blood red, the red lions whose claws are as black iron and whose eyes are as jet; and he passes the sable vultures of Nergal whose eyes are as carbuncles and whose heads are the fleshless heads of women!
“He hears the whimpering of the People of the Great Dwelling Place and he tastes the ashes of their passion!
“And he passes!
“For lo! Not the Lord of the Dead nor the dread of him may swerve man from his desire!”
Now the steps of the stairway by which Kenton ascended from the House of Nergal faded from ebon into crimson, and fiery, wrathful scarlet was the light that filled the place in which he stood, watching the Priest of Bel go steadily on.
“The House of Ninib!” whispered the voice. “Lord of Spears! Lord of the Battle! Master of the Shields! Master of the Hearts of Warriors! Ruler of the Strife! Destroyer of Opposition! Breaker of the Lock! The Smiter! Whose Color is Scarlet, Whose House is the Fourth of the Zones! Of shields and of spears are builded the altars of Ninib and their fires are fed with the blood of men and the tears of women, and upon the altars of Ninib burn the gates of fallen cities and the hearts of conquered kings! He goes by the altars of Ninib. He sees threaten him the crimson fangs of the boars of Ninib whose heads are wreathed with the right hands of warriors, the crimson tusks of the elephants of Ninib whose feet are ankleted with the skulls of kings, and the crimson tongues of the snakes of Ninib which lick up the cities!
“He hears the clashing of spears, the smiting of swords, the falling of walls, the crying of the conquered!
“And he passes!
“For lo! Since ever man was, the altars of Ninib have been fed with the fruits of man’s desire!”
Upon the fourth stairway he set his feet; ascended steps that ran from the vermilion of licking flame to the clear serene blue of untroubled skies, stood within a chamber all filled with calm, azure light. Closer now seemed the voice.
“The House of Nabu! Lord of Wisdom! Bearer of the Staff! Mighty One of the Waters! Lord of the Fields Who Openeth up the Subterranean Streams! The Proclaimer! He who Openeth the Ears of Understanding! Whose Color is Blue and Whose House is the Fifth of the Zones!
“The altars of Nabu are of blue sapphire and of emerald and from them shine clear amethysts! The flames that burn on the altars of Nabu are blue fires in whose light only the truth has shadow! And the flames of Nabu are cold flames nor is there any scent over his altars! He passes by the altars of sapphire and of emerald and their cold fires! He passes the fishes of Nabu which have women’s breasts but silent mouths! He passes the seeing eyes of Nabu which look forth from behind his altars and he touches not the staff of Nabu which holdeth up with wisdom the feet!
“Yea — he passes!
“For lo! — when did Wisdom stand before man’s desire!”
Up from the blue of Nabu’s House went the priest, and behind him on a stairway that merged from sapphire into rosy pearl and ivory climbed Kenton. Little, caressing tendrils of incense reached out to him as he went and all about him beat little languorous, linked notes of amorous sound; coaxing, calling, infinitely alluring, perilously sweet. Slowly, slowly Kenton followed him, listening to the voice, yet half heeding it, half forgetful of his quest, struggling with a vast desire to heed the calling, linked and amorous music; surrender to the spirit of this ensorcelled chamber — go no further — forget — Sharane!
“The House of Ishtar!” came the voice. “Mother of the Gods and of Men! The Great Goddess! Lady of the Morning and of the Evening! Full Bosomed! The Producer! She who Hearkeneth to Petition! The Mighty Weapon of the Gods! She who Slays and She Who Creates Love! Whose Color is Rose — pearl. And the House of Ishtar is the Sixth of the Zones!
“He passes through the House of Ishtar! Of white marble and of rose coral are her altars and the white marble is streaked with blue like a woman’s breast! Upon her altars burn ever myrrh and frankincense, attar and ambergris! And the altars of Ishtar are set with pearls both white and rose, with hyacinths and with turquoise and with beryls!
“He goes by the altars of Ishtar, and, like the pink palms of maidens desirous, the rose wreaths of the incense steal toward him. The white doves of Ishtar beat their wings about his eyes! He hears the sound of the meeting of lips, the throbbing of hearts, the sighs of women, and the tread of white feet!
“Yet he passes!
“For lo! Whenever did Love stand before man’s desire!”
From that chamber of amorous witcheries the stairway climbed, reluctant; shifting from its rosy pearl to flaming, flashing gold. And scaling it he stood within another vast place radiant as though it were the heart of the sun. Faster and faster the priest of Bel moved onward as though here all his terrors were concentrated, were crowding upon his hurrying heels!
“The House of Bel!” Rang the voice. “Merodach! Ruler of the Four Regions, Lord of the Lands! Child of the Day! Bull Necked! Elephant Thewed! Mighty One! Conqueror of Tiamat! Lord of the Igigi! King of Heavens and Earth! Bringer of Things to Completeness. Lover of Ishtar.
“Bel–Merodach, Whose House is the Seventh of the Zones, and Whose Color is Golden! Swiftly he passes through the House of Bel!
“The altars of Bel are of gold and rayed like the sun! On them burn the golden fires of the summer lightnings and the smoke of the incense hangs over them like the clouds of the thunderstorm! The Kerubs whose bodies are lions and whose heads are eagle heads, and the Kerubs whose bodies are bulls and whose heads are the heads of men guard the golden altars of Bel, and both are winged with mighty wings! And the altars of Bel are reared upon thews of elephants and are held upon the necks of buijs and the paws of lions!
“He goes by them! He sees the fires of the lightnings sink and the altar shake! In his ears is the sound of worlds crushed by the fist of Bel; of worlds breaking beneath the smiting of Bel!
“Yet he passes!
“For lo! Not even the Might of God may crush the desire of man!”
The voice ceased, it seemed to retreat to those far regions whence it had come. In its withdrawal Kenton sensed finality; knew it would sound no more for him there; that now he was thrown on his own wit and strength; must captain his own way henceforward.
Out from one side of the House of Bel jutted a squared buttress, perpendicular, fifty feet or more wide. It thrust itself into this temple within a temple like the gigantic pier of a bridge. Its top was hidden.
Down its smooth facade darted a broad and angled streak of gold that Kenton for an instant took to be a colossal ornament, a symboling of the darting lightning bolt of Bel. Closer he came to it, following the priest. And now he saw that the golden streak was no ornament. It was a stairway, fashioned to represent the leaping levin but — a stairway. A stepped stairway of sharply angled flights that, clinging to the mighty buttress wall, climbed from the floor of the House of Bel up to — what?
At the foot the priest of Bel faltered; for the first time he looked behind him; seemed half moved to retreat. Then with the same despairing gesture of defiance with which he had turned from the altar, he began to creep cautiously, silently up the angled stairs.
And Kenton, waiting again, until he was but a shadow in the shining mists, followed.
THE TEMPEST had struck. Kenton, climbing, heard thunderings like the clashing of armied shields; clanging of countless cymbals, tintamarre of millions of gongs of brass. Ever louder grew the clangor as he ascended; with it mingled now the diapason of mighty winds, staccato of cataracts of rain.
The stairway climbed the sheer wall of the buttress as a vine a tower. It was not wide — three men might march abreast up it; no more. Up it went, dizzily. Five sharp-angled flights of forty steps, four lesser-angled flights of fifteen steps he trod before he reached its top. Guarding the outer edge was only a thick rope of twisted gold supported by pillars five feet apart.
So high was it that when Kenton neared its end and looked down he saw Bel’s house only as a place of golden mists — as though he looked from some high mountain ledge upon a valley whose cloudy coverlet had just been touched by rays of morning sun.
The clinging stairway’s last step was a slab some ten feet long and six wide. Upon it a doorway opened — a narrow arched portal barely wide enough for two men to pass within it side by side. The doorway looked out, over the little platform, into the misty space of the inner temple.
The hidden chamber into which it led rested upon the head of the gigantic buttress.
One man might hold that stair end against hundreds. The doorway was closed by a single fold of golden curtains as heavy and metallic as those which had covered the portal of the Moon God’s Silver House. Involuntarily he shrank back from parting them — remembering what the parting of those argent hangings had revealed to him.
He mastered that fear; drew a corner of them aside.
He looked into a quadrangular chamber, perhaps thirty feet square, filled with the dancing peacock plumes of the lightnings. He knew it for his goal — Bel’s place of pleasance where Kenton’s love waited, fettered by dream.
He glimpsed the priest crouched against the further wall, rapt upon a white veiled woman standing, arms stretched wide, beside a deep window close to the chamber’s right hand corner. The window was closed by one wide, clear crystal pane on which the rain beat and the wind lashed. With thousands of brushes dipped in little irised flame the lightnings limned the loves of Bel broidered on hangings on the walls.
In the chamber were a table and two stools of gold; a massive, ivoried wooded couch. Beside the couch was a wide bellied brazier and a censer shaped like a great hour glass. From the brazier arose a tall yellow flame. Upon the table were small cakes, saffron colored, in plates of yellow amber and golden flagons filled with wine. Around the walls were little lamps and under each lamp a ewer filled with fragrant oil for their filling.
Kenton waited, motionless. Danger was gathering below him like a storm cloud with Klaneth stirring it in wizard’s caldron. Perforce he waited, knowing that he must fathom this dream of Sharane’s — must measure the fantasy in which she moved, mind asleep, before he could awaken her. The blue priest had so told him.
To him came her voice:
“Who has seen the beatings of his wings? Who has heard the tramplings of his feet like the sound of many chariots setting forth for battle? What woman has looked into the brightness of his eyes?”
There was a searing flash, a clashing of thunder — within the chamber itself it seemed. When his own sight had cleared he saw Sharane, hands over eyes, groping from the window.
And in front of the window stood a shape, looming gigantic against the nickering radiance, and helmed and bucklered all in blazing gold — a god-like shape!
Bel–Merodach himself who had leaped there from his steeds of storm and still streaming with his lightnings!
So Kenton for one awed instant thought — then knew it to be the Priest of Bel in the stolen garments of his god.
The white figure, that was Sharane, slowly drew hands from eyes; as slowly let them fall, eyes upon that shining form. Half she dropped to her knees, then raised herself proudly; she searched the partly hidden face with her wide, green dreaming eyes.
“Bel!” she whispered, and again: “Lord Bel!”
The priest spoke: “O beautiful one — for whom await you?”
She answered: “For whom but thee, Lord of the Lightnings!”
“But why await you — me?” the priest asked, nor took step toward her. Kenton, poised to leap and strike, drew back at the question. What was in the mind of the Priest of Bel that he thus temporized?
Sharane spoke, perplexed, half-shamed:
“This is thy house, Bel. Should there not be a woman here to await thee? I— I am a king’s daughter. And I have long awaited thee!”
The priest said: “You are fair!” His eyes burned upon her —“Yes — many men must have found you fair. Yet I— am a god!”
“I was fairest among the princesses of Babylon. Who but the fairest should wait for thee in thy house? I am fairest of all —” So Sharane, all tranced passion.
Again the priest spoke:
“Princess, how has it been with those men who thought you fair? Say — did not your beauty slay them like swift, sweet poison?”
“Have I thought of men?” she asked, tremulously.
He answered, sternly. “Yet many men must have thought of you — king’s daughter. And poison, be it swift and sweet, must still bear pain. I am — a god! Yet I know that!”
There was a silence; abruptly he asked: “How have you awaited me?”
She said: “I have kept the lamps filled with oil; I have prepared cakes for thee and set out the wine. I have been handmaiden to thee.”
The priest said: “Many women have done all this — for men, king’s daughter — I am a god!”
She murmured: “I am most beautiful. The princes and the kings have desired me. See — O Great One!”
The irised lightnings caressed the silver wonder of her body, hardly hidden in the nets of her red gold hair unbound and fallen free.
The priest leaped from the window. Kenton, mad with jealousy that another should behold that white beauty, darted through the curtains to strike him down. Halfway he stopped short, understanding, even pity for the priest of Bel holding him back.
For the priest’s soul stood forth naked before his inner sight — and that soul was even as his own would have been he knew, had he been priest and the priest been Kenton.
“No!” cried Bel’s priest, and tore the golden helm of his god from his head, hurled sword away, ripped off buckler and cloak —
“No! Not one kiss for Bel! Not one heart beat for Bel!”
“What — shall I pander for Bel? No! It is the man you shall kiss — I! It is a man’s heart that shall beat against yours — mine! I— I! No god shall have you.”
He caught her in his arms, set burning lips to hers.
Kenton was upon him.
He thrust an arm under the priest’s chin; bent back the head until the neck cracked. The priest’s eyes glared up into his; his hands left Sharane and battered up at Kenton’s face; he twisted to break the latter’s grip. Then his body became limp; awe and terror visibly swept away his blind rage. For now the priest’s consciousness had taken in Kenton’s face — saw it as his own!
His own face was looking down upon him and promising him — death!
The god he had defied, betrayed — had struck! Kenton read his thoughts as accurately as though they had been spoken. He shifted grip, half lifted, half swung the priest high above the floor and hurled him against a wall. He struck; crashed down; lay there twitching.
Sharane crouched — veils caught up, held fast to her by rigid hands — on the edge of the ivoried couch. She stared at him, piteously; her wide eyes clung to his, bewildered; deep within her he sensed grapple of awakening will against the webs of dream.
One great throb of love and pity for her pulsed through him; in it no passion; to him at that moment she was no more than child, bewildered, forsaken, piteous.
“Sharane!” he whispered, and took her in his arms. “Sharane — beloved! Beloved — awaken!”
He kissed her on the cold lips, the frightened eyes.
“Kenton!” she murmured. “Kenton!”— and then so low he could barely hear —“Ah yes — I remember — you were lord of me — ages — ages — ago!”
“Wake, Sharane!” cried Kenton, and again his lips met and clung to hers. And now her lips warmed and clung to his!
“Kenton!” she whispered. “Dear lord — of me!”
She drew back, thrust into his arms little fingers that clutched like ten slow closing fingers of steel; in her eyes he saw the dream breaking as break the last storm clouds before the sun; in her eyes the dream lightened and darkened; lightened — became but cloudy, racing wisps.
“Beloved!” cried Sharane, and all awake, freed from all dream, threw arms around his neck, pressed lips all alive to his: “Beloved one! Kenton!”
“Sharane! Sharane!” he whispered, the veils of her hair covering him as she drew his face to her cheeks, her throat, her breast.
“Oh, where have you been, Kenton?” she sobbed. “What have they done to me? And where is the ship — and where have they taken me? Yet — what does it matter since you are with me!”
“Sharane! Sharane! Beloved!” was all he could say, over and over again, his mouth on hers.
Hands gripped his throat, strong hands, shutting off his breath. Choking, he glared into the mad eyes of the Priest of Bel. Broken, Kenton had thought him — and broken he had not been!
He threw right leg behind the priest’s; hurled himself back against the priest with all his strength. The priest fell, dragging Kenton with him. His hands relaxed just enough to let Kenton thrust one of his own between the strangling fingers and his throat. Like a snake the priest slid from under him, threw him aside, sprang to his feet. Quick as he, Kenton leaped up. Before he could draw sword the Priest of Bel was upon him again, one arm around him prisoning his right arm, the other with the elbow fending off Kenton’s left arm and tearing at his throat.
Far below, through the drumming of the blood in his ears, Kenton heard the faint throb of another drum, awakening, summoning, menacing — as though it had been a beat of the ziggurat’s own heart, alarmed and angry!
And far below Gigi, swinging with long apelike arms from the grapnel he had cast over the outer stairway’s edge, hears it, too; swarms with frantic speed up the rope, and with the same tremendous speed follow him first Zubran and close behind him the Viking.
“Alarm!” mutters Sigurd, and draws them under the protection of the skirting wall that they may hear him. “Pray Thor that the sentinels have not heard! Swift now!”
Hugging the wall, the three climb up and around the silver terrace of Sin, the Moon God. The lightnings have almost ceased, but the rain sweeps down in stinging sheets and the winds roar. The stairway is a rushing torrent half knee deep. Blackness of the great storms shrouds them.
Breasting wind and rain, stemming the torrent, they climb — the three.
About Bel’s high bower reeled Kenton and the priest, locked tight in each other’s arms, each struggling to break the other’s hold. Around them circled Sharane, the priest’s stolen sword in hand, panting, seeking opening to strike; finding none, so close were the two locked, so swiftly did back of priest, back of lover swirl before her.
“Shalamu! Shalamu!” the dancer of Bel stood at the golden curtains — whipped up through the terrors of the secret shrines by love, remorse, despair! white-faced, trembling, she clung to those curtains.
“Shalamu!” shrilled the dancer. “They come for you! The Priest of Nergal leads.”
The priest’s back was toward her, Kenton facing her. The priest’s head was bent forward, straining to sink teeth in his neck, tear out the arteries; deaf; blind to all but the lust to kill, his ears were closed to Narada.
And Narada, seeing Kenton’s face in the fitful light of the brazier, thought it that of the man she loved.
Before Sharane could move she had sped across the room.
She drove her dagger to the hilt in the back of the Priest of Bel!
Huddled for shelter in an alcove cut for them in the ziggurat’s wall, the sentinels of the silver zone feel arms thrust out of the storm. Two fall with necks snapped by Gigi’s talons, two fall under swift thrusts of Sigurd’s sword, two drop beneath the scimitar of the Persian, in that niche now lie only six dead men.
“Swift! Swift!” Sigurd leads the way past the silver zone. They round the orange zone of Shamash the Sun God.
Three deaths reach out of the void, and the sentinels of the orange zone lie dead behind the hurrying feet of the three.
They sense a deeper darkness at their left — the black walls of the zone of Nergal, God of the Dead —
The Priest of Bel slid from Kenton’s opening arms; he dropped to his knees; he fell backward, dying eyes staring into those of the dancer.
“Narada!” he gasped, through bloody froth, “Narada — you —” The froth turned to a red stream.
The Priest of Bel was dead.
One look the dancer gave him, gave Kenton, and knew —
“Shalamu!” she wailed — and wailing flew at Kenton, dagger poised to strike. Before he could draw sword, before he could raise hands to beat her off, even before he could fall back, she was upon him. Down swept the blade, straight for his heart. He felt the bite of its point —
The point swerved, ripped down through the skin over his ribs. In that same instant Sharane had sprung, had caught the dancer’s hand, had wrested the dagger from it and driven it deep into Narada’s breast.
Like a young tree at the ax’s last blow the dancer stood for a heartbeat, shuddering, then down she dropped, prone upon the priest. She moaned and with the last flare of life flung arms around his head and laid lips to his.
Dead lips now on lips of the dead!
They stared at each other — Sharane with red blade in hand, Kenton with red rune on chest written by that blade — they stared down at the Priest of Bel and at Bel’s dancer; there was pity in Kenton’s eyes; there was no pity in Sharane’s.
“She would have killed you!” she whispered, and again;
“She would have killed you!”
A blinding flash filled the chamber: fast on its heels chaotic shatterings. The lightnings had begun afresh. Kenton ran to the doorway; parted, the curtains: listened. Below him the House of Bel lay tranquil in its misty aureate glow. He heard nothing — and yet; had there been sound could he have heard it in the tumult of the thunderings He saw nothing, heard nothing — and yet —
He sensed that danger was close; stealing up to them: perhaps even now creeping up the zigzags of those steps whose base was hidden. Torment and death for Sharane and for him — creeping, stealing, ever closer.
He ran back to the window. Gigi — Sigurd — Zubran! Where were they? Had they failed to make the outer stairway? Or were they marching up to him, cutting their way through the sentries? Were close?
Could they not meet them — Sharane and he?
The window was deep. Three feet of masonry stretched between the inner sill and the yard-wide, single pane that closed it. He drew himself in; saw that the pane was thick, transparent crystal held by a circle of metal, kept shut by levers thrust into niches within the casement of stone. One by one he lifted the levers. The window flew open; he was half pushed, half washed back into the chamber by the wind and rain volleying through. He battled forward against them; looked down over the outer sill —
The steps of the great stairway were full forty feet below him!
Between window and steps fell an almost perpendicular wall, streaming with storm, impossible to descend, equally as impossible to be scaled.
He peered on each side and above him.
The Bower of Bel was a huge cube set on the top of the conical temple. The window through which he peered was close to the edge of a side of this cube. Not more than a yard from his right hand was a corner of that cube; for twenty feet to his left its black wall stretched; its top was twenty feet above him.
He felt Sharane beside him; knew that she was trying to tell him something. Could not hear her in the shrieking of the tempest.
Set within the breast of a lightning flare the sentinels of Nergal see three silhouettes of doom spring out of the blackness. Swords bite among them. One shrieks and tries to flee. His cry is torn to tatters by the roaring gale; he is caught by long arms, long talons snap his neck; he goes whirling with the wind over the stairway’s wall.
And now the red zone’s sentries are dead within their niche.
And now the three pass by the blue zone of Nabu, the God of Wisdom and find no guards to challenge them; nor are there sentries before Ishtar’s white house, and none outside the golden zone of Bel. And here the curving stairway abruptly ends! Now they take counsel there, the three, scanning the smooth masonry rising above them without break. A wail that not even the tempest can still shudders past them — the heartbroken wailing of Bel’s dancer as she hurls herself on Kenton.
“That cry came from there!” Thus Sigurd, pointing outward where the window of Bel’s bower, hidden to them, faces the lightnings. And now they see that the wall of the great stairway merges into the side of the topping structure close to its corner. But the wall’s slope is such that none may stand upon it to peer round that comer; nor can one standing on the highest step see round that corner’s edge. “Use for your long arms, Gigi,” grunts the Viking:
“Stand close as you can to stair wall end. Here! Grip me by knees and thrust me outward. My back is strong and I can twist round that corner.”
Gigi takes him by the knees, lifts him; throws one muscle-gnarled dwarf leg over the wall for balance; thrusts Sigurd out with mighty arms.
And Sigurd, held against the side by the wind like a leaf, looks straight into the face of Kenton little more than a foot from him!
“Wait there!” howls the Viking, and signals Gigi with kick of foot to draw him back.
“The Wolf!” he tells them. “There — in a window so close he can draw me through to him! Lift me again, Gigi. When I kick — let me go! Then let Zubran follow by the same road. Stay you here, Gigi — for without you to draw us back there will be no return. Stay where you are with arms outstretched, ready to bear in to you whatever you touch. Quick now!”
Again he is swung outward; his wrists are caught in Kenton’s grip. Gigi loosens him. For an instant he swings in space and then is drawn up to the sill and over.
“Zubran comes!” he shouts to Kenton and runs to the doorway where Sharane stands, sword in hand.
And now the Persian, held by Gigi’s long arms, swings round the bower’s edge, is caught by Kenton; stands beside him.
Fanned by the gale rushing through the open window the brazier flamed like a torch: the heavy golden curtains were bellying; the little lights along the wall all blown out. The Persian leaned back, found the levers and snapped enough of them to hold the window shut. He gave Kenton’s hand one swift clasp; looked curiously at the bodies of priest and dancer.
“Gigi!” cried Kenton. “Is he safe there? Did none follow you?”
“None,” answered the Persian, grimly. “Or if they did — their hands are too shadowy to hold swords, Wolf. Gigi is safe enough. He waits to swing us to him as we crawl from the window — all except one of us,” he added, under his breath.
Kenton, thoughts on Gigi, the way to freedom, did nor hear that last odd phrase. He leaped to the door on one side of which stood watchful Sharane, on the other tense Sigurd. He drew her to him in fierce caress; loosed her and peered through the curtains. Far below him were dull gleamings, reflection from armored caps and coats of mail, glints of swords. A quarter of the way up the angled stair that led from Bel’s House to his Bower they were — soldiers, moving slowly, cautiously, silently; creeping to surprise, as they thought, Bel’s priest in dreaming Sharane’s arms!
There was time, minutes still, for him to put in action the thought swift-born within his brain. He set the golden helm of Bel on his head, fastened buckler, threw the scarlet threaded mantle, over his shoulders.
“Sigurd!” he whispered —“Zubran! Those who come must believe that here are only Sharane and — that man who lies there. Else before we could pass the middle terrace they will have given the alarm, soldiers will be pouring up the outer stairway and — we are done! Therefore when those below are close upon the door Sharane and I. will leap out on them with swords. They will not try to slay us — only capture us. They will be confused — fall back. Then take Sharane swiftly and pass her out to Gigi. We will follow —”
“The first part of the plan is good, Wolf,” interrupted the Persian, smoothly. “But not the last. Nay — one must remain here until the others are safely away from the temple. Else when they had entered here, quickly will the black priest’s wit tell him what has happened. And there will be a ring around the place through which a regiment could not break. Nay — one must remain; stay behind for — a time.”
“I will stay,” said Kenton.
“Beloved!” whispered Sharane. “You go with me — or I go not at all!”
“Sharane —” began Kenton.
“Dear lord of mine —” she stayed him, serenely. “Do you think that ever again I will let you go from me — be parted from you? Never! In life or death — never!”
“Nay, Wolf — I stay,” said the Persian. “Sharane will not go without you. So that bars you — since go she must. Gigi cannot well remain — since he cannot get here to remain. That you will admit? Good! And Sigurd must go to show us the road back, since none but him knows it. Who is left? Zubran! The gods have spoken. Their argument is unanswerable.”
“But how will you get away? How find us?” groaned Kenton. “You say yourself that without Gigi’s help you cannot swing from the window!”
“No,” answered Zubran. “But I can make me a rope out of these bed coverings and the hangings. I can slip down that rope to the steps I glimpsed beneath me. And one may escape where five could not. I remember the road through the city and that road we took when we came out of the trees. Wait you there for me.”
“They are very close, Kenton!” called Sharane softly. Kenton ran to the doorway. A dozen steps below crept the soldiers, a score of them, treading noiselessly two by two, small shields ready, swords in hands; behind them a little knot of priests, yellow-robed and black-robed and among the black robes — Klaneth.
Crouched against the wall at Sharane’s right was Sigurd, hidden but set for swift guarding of her. The Persian dropped at Kenton’s left, pressed close to the wall where those who came forward might not see him.
“Cover the brazier,” whispered Kenton. “Put it out. Best have no light behind us.”
The Persian took it, but he did not touch the cover that would have killed the fires within. Instead, he shook it, covered the flame with embers, set it in a corner where the faint glow of the coals could not be seen.
The feet of the first pair of soldiers were almost on the top step, their hands reached out to draw aside the coverings of the narrow door.
“Now!” breathed Kenton to Sharane. He tore the curtains down. They stood, she in her white robes of priestess, he in the golden panoply of the god, confronting the soldiers. And they, paralyzed by that unexpected apparition, gaped at the twain.
Before they could recover from surprise Sharane’s blade flashed, Kenton’s sword struck like bolt of thin blue lightning. Down went the two leaders. Ere the man he had slain could fall, Kenton had snatched the shield from his arm, passed it to Sharane; slashed down again at the warriors behind.
“For Ishtar!” he heard Sharane cry — and saw her sword bite deep.
“The woman! The priest! Take them!” came the roar of Klaneth.
Down bent Kenton, raised a fallen soldier in his arms and hurled him straight into the pack. The body flailed them — as though alive! Down they went before it — rolling, cursing; down the flight they fell, soldiers and priests, Some there were who crashed into the slender railing, tore gaps in it, dropped and plunged like plummets through the mists to be broken on the floor of Bel’s House so far below.
Back Kenton leaped; caught Sharane in his arms, tossed her to Sigurd.
“To the window!” he bade. “Give her to Gigi!”
He darted before them; opened the pane. Far away now the lightnings glimmered; blackness had given way to darkest twilight; the rain still hissed in sheets driven by the howling wind. In that dark twilight he saw the dripping arms of Gigi stretched out round the Bower’s corner. He dropped back. The Viking slid past him, Sharane in his grip. For an instant she hung in air; she was caught by Gigi. She was drawn from sight.
There was a shouting from the inner stairway. The soldiers had rallied; were rushing up. Kenton saw Sigurd and the Persian lifting the heavy couch, throwing off its coverings, tilting it. They rocked it to the doorway, shoved it through, sent it crashing down the steps. There was another shouting, cries of agony, groanings. The bed had swept the men before it as a well hurled ball does the wooden pins. It had swept and crushed them — had swung across the stairway at turn of the highest lesser-angled ledge and had jammed there against the golden-roped rail — a barricade.
“Go Sigurd,” cried Kenton. “Wait for us by the woods. I fight here with Zubran.”
The Persian looked at him, a light of affection such as Kenton had never before seen there softening the agate eyes. He nodded to Sigurd.
As though it had been a signal prearranged, the Viking’s arms were instantly around Kenton. Strong as he had grown, Kenton could not break their grip. And Zubran whisked the golden helm of Bel from his head and set it on his own; tore loose the golden buckler, dropped his own coat of mail and fastened it in its place; took the scarlet-threaded mantle of the god and wrapped it half around his mouth, hiding his beard.
Then Kenton was carried like a struggling child to the window; was thrust out of it; was caught by Gigi and dropped beside the weeping Sharane.
The Viking turned and folded the Persian in his arms.
“No waiting, Northman! No sentiment now!” Zubran snapped, breaking away. “There can be no escape for me — you know that, Sigurd. The rope? Words — to satisfy the Wolf! I love him. The rope? Why, they would slide down it behind me like snakes. Am I a trembling hare to lead the hounds to the hiding places of my kind? Not I! Now go, Sigurd — and when you have gotten clear of the city tell them. And make for the ship as quickly as you can.”
Said the Viking, solemn: “Shield maidens are close! Odin takes the hero, no matter what his race! You sup with Odin All–Father in Valhalla soon, Persian!”
“May he have dishes that I have never tasted,” jested the Persian. “Out of the window, Norseman!”
And Zubran holding his knees, the Viking crawled out, and was caught by Gigi.
Then down the terraces, Sigurd leading, Sharane covered by Gigi’s great cloak, Kenton cursing still, flew the four of them.
THE PERSIAN did not close the window after them. He let the wind stream through. He swaggered back through Bel’s Bower.
“By all the Daevas!” swore Zubran, “never have I known such feeling of freedom as now! Lo — I am all alone-the last man in the world! None can help me, none can counsel me, none can weary me! Life is simple at last — all there is to it is for me to slay until I am slain. By Ormuzd — how my spirit stands on tiptoe —”
He peered around the doorway.
“Never has that couch given man such trouble to mount!” he chuckled as he watched the soldiers below working to clear away the barrier.
Turning, he piled in the middle of Bel’s Bower the silken coverings of the bed. He ripped down the wall hangings and threw them on the heap. One by one he took the lamps and emptied them on the pyre; the oil in the ewers beneath them he poured upon it.
“That old world of mine,” mused the Persian as he worked, “how it wearied me! And this world has wearied me — by the Flame of Sacrifice, but it has! And I am sure that new world of the Wolf’s would weary me most of all. I am done with the three of them.”
He picked up the body of the Priest of Bel, carried it to the window.
“It will puzzle Klaneth more to find you outside than within,” he laughed, and slid the body over the sill.
He stood over the dancer.
“So beautiful!” whispered Zubran, and touched her lips, her breasts. “I wonder how you died — and why. It must have been amusing — that! I had no time to ask the Wolf. Well — you shall sleep with me, dancer. And perhaps when we awaken — if we do — you shall tell me.”
He stretched Narada out upon the oil-soaked pile. He took the smoking brazier and placed it close beside her . . .
There was a roaring from below; a trampling of feet on the stairway. Up streamed the soldiers, stronger now by scores. An instant Zubran showed himself at the doorway, Bel’s golden mantle twisted round his neck, half hiding his face.
“The priest! The priest!” they cried — and Klaneth’s voice bellowed over all —
“The priest! Slay him!”
The Persian stepped back to the cover of the wall, smiling. He picked up the shield Sharane had dropped.
Through the narrow doorway a soldier leaped, a second on his heels.
The scimitar hissed twice, swift as swiftest snake. The two fell under the feet of those pressing from behind, tripping them, confusing them.
And now up and down, thrusting, ripping, slashing, danced Zubran’s blade until its red sweat dyed his arm from hand to shoulder. In front of him grew a barricade of the dead.
Two by two only could they set foot upon the Bower’s threshold — and two by two steadily they fell, blocking that threshold from side to side with a steadily rising wall of bodies. At last their swords glinted toward him no more; he heard the forward ranks cry out behind the barrier; leaping upon the slain he saw them turn and press back those who, marching upward, tried to sweep them on.
The Persian flexed the weary muscles of his arm; laughed as he heard the voice of Klaneth:
“There is but one man there! Kill him — and bring me the woman. Ten times her weight in gold for him who takes her!”
They mustered; they rushed up the stairway like a racing snake; they clambered over the wall of the dead. The red drip of Zubran’s scimitar became a running rivulet —
An agony bit deep into his side, above the groin. A fallen swordsman had raised himself, thrust up his blade.
The Persian knew the wound was mortal!
He cut down at the grinning face, leaped again upon the dead, cleared the doorway with storm of strokes. He thrust his shoulder against the wall of bodies, threw them out. They spewed upon the steps, rolled down. They fell upon the climbing men, tripped them; pitched them off the railless edge of the stairway; sent them hurtling down through the mists, clutching at the air.
For twenty steps the stairway was clear!
An arrow whistled.
It cut through the twisted mantle around Zubran’s neck; pierced him where helm and gorget met. He drank the salt blood pouring down his throat.
The Persian staggered to the silken pile on which lay Narada. He caught a leg of the brazier and overturned its coals upon the oil-soaked cloths.
Thin flames arose. The blast from the opened window caught them and turned them into roaring fans of fire.
Through them Zubran crept; stretched himself out beside the body of the dancer; twisted, and gathered her in his arms.
“A clean death,” he whispered. “At the last . . . like all men . . . I return to the . . . gods of my fathers. A clean death! Take me — O Fire Immortal!”
A flame shot up beside him. It hovered, then bent.
The tip of the flame broadened.
It became a cup of fire filled with wine of flames!
Into that cup the Persian dipped his lips; he drank of its wine of fire; he breathed its incense.
His head fell back, unmarred; the dead face smiling. His head dropped upon Narada’s breasts.
The flames made a canopy over them; the flames tented them.
Now the four for whose freedom the Persian had died were far away. Safely they had passed the terraces; the dead sentries lay as they had fallen. But as they went the four heard a humming begin inside the ziggurat like that of a disturbed and colossal hive, heard the great drum resume its throbbing and sped faster under cover of the wall of stone to where the grapnel of Gigi hung. One by one they slipped down its rope and into the sheltering trees. The tempest scourged them — but it shielded them. None was on the wide street to challenge their going. Emakhtila lay within its painted houses hiding from the storm.
When the cup of flame had dipped to the Persian’s lip they were well along the other way upon which opened the hidden path back to the ship.
When the soldiers had at last mustered courage to swarm the stairs once more, and with the black priest on their heels had poured within the silent Bower, the four were far beyond the clustered houses, stumbling through the deep mud of the farmside, the Viking at lead, Kenton guarding the rear — and watching, ever watching, for Zubran.
And back in that chamber where Zubran’s ashes lay mixed with the dancer’s, the black priest stood, mazed and with something of fear touching his wicked heart — until his wandering gaze caught gleam of the butterflies in Narada’s veils that had slipped from her when the Persian had lifted her, caught, too, the trail of blood that led to the open window. Staring out that window the black priest saw in the livid dusk the crumpled body of Bel’s priest — dead, white face raised to his own, forty feet below.
The priest! Then whose were the charred bodies on the pyre? Who had been the man fighting in golden helm and buckler, face hidden in the god’s mantle? So swift had been the sword play, so much had that man been hidden by the soldiers, so much by cover of the wall, that Klaneth watching from below had caught few glimpses of him; had taken it for granted that he was Bel’s priest.
Back ran the black priest; kicked savagely at the ashes of the pyre and what still lay among them.
Something clanged upon the floor — a broken scimitar! He knew that hilt — Zubran’s, the Persian!
Something glittered at his feet — a buckle, gems undulled by their bath of fire! He knew that, too — the buckle of Narada’s girdle!
Why then — these blackened forms were the Persian — the dancer!
Sharane had been freed!
The black priest stood rigid, face so dreadful that the soldiers shrank back from him, threw themselves against the walls, out of his way.
Then Klaneth plunged howling out of Bel’s Bower, down the angled stairway, through the secret shrines, on and on until he reached that cell where he had left Kenton with the six archers. He threw open the door, saw archers and officer deep in sleep and Kenton — gone!
And shrieking curses, staggered out of the cell, roaring for men to go forth to search the city for the temple drab and the slave; offering all he owned for them — all, all! If only they brought their pair back to him alive!
By now the four had left the road and had halted in that wood where the hidden path began and where the Persian, in his craft, had bade them wait for him. And here Sigurd told them of Zubran’s sacrifice and why that sacrifice had been necessary. And Sharane wept and Kenton’s throat ached with sorrow and Gigi’s beady black eyes grew soft and his tears ran down the furrows of his wrinkles.
“What’s done — is done,” said Sigurd. “He sups, by now, with Odin and the heroes!”
Brusquely he shouldered by them and took the way.
On they went and on. The rain drenched them, the wind beat them. When storm lightened they went swiftly; when it darkened so that the Viking could no longer see the trail, they halted. On and on — beating back to the ship.
Now Sharane faltered and fell, nor could she rise again; and the three, clustering round her, saw that her thin sandals were in rags and that her slim feet were bare and bleeding and that for long each step must have been an agony. So Kenton took her in his arms and carried her, and when he tired Gigi took her; and Gigi was untiring.
And at last they came to where the ship lay hid. They hailed her and found the warrior maids on watch. To them they gave Sharane and they carried their mistress into her cabin and ministered to her.
Now arose discussion as to whether they should stay hid until the tempest had abated. At last they decided that they would not; that it was better to push out to sea than stay so close to Emakhtila and Nergal’s haunted place. So the chains were unshackled from the trees, the ship drawn out of shelter, her bow warped round and pointed to harbor’s mouth.
Then up came the hook; down dipped the oars. Slowly the ship gathered speed. She swung out round the point of rocks and, Sigurd at the steering oar, shot into the eye of the wind, breasted the roaring combers and leaped like a racer out into the open ocean,
Kenton, utterly spent, dropped where he stood. To him came Gigi, lifted and carried him into the black cabin.
Long squatted Gigi beside him, wide awake, though weary as he was, peering here and there with bright eyes; listening, watchful. For it seemed to Gigi that the black cabin was not as it had been when they had left it; it seemed to Gigi that he heard a whispering, ghosts of whispers, coming and going.
And now Kenton moaned and muttered in his deep sleep, gasped as though hands sought his throat. Gigi, pressing paw on Kenton’s heart, stilled him.
But after a time the watchful eyes of Gigi dulled, their lids dropped, his head nodded.
In the empty niche where the idol of Nergal had stood above the bloodstone slab of worship a darkness gathered, a cloudy shape of curdled shadows.
The shape darkened. Within it began to form the semblance of a face, a face that brooded upon the sleeping pair, hate filled, menacing —
Again Kenton groaned and fought for breath against nightmare terror. And the drummer threshed out long arms, leaped to his feet, glared about him —
Swiftly as it had come, before Gigi’s sleep-heavy eyes could open, the shadowy face had vanished — the niche was empty.
WHEN Kenton awakened, it was the Viking and not Gigi who lay beside him, stripped and snoring. He must have slept long, for the drenched garments the Ninevite had taken off him were dry. He put on clout and tunic, slipped feet in sandals, threw over his shoulders a short cloak and softly opened the door. Blackness and dark twilight had given way to a pallid dusk that turned the sea a sullen grey. The rain had ceased, but all the world of the ship vibrated to the steady roar of a mighty wind pouring over it.
Before that wind the ship was flying, riding like a gull on the crests of giant waves; slipping back, as the swells passed, through smoothly onrushing floors of water like liquid slate; rising to fly again upon the crest of the next racing wave.
Kenton struggled up to the steersman’s place, the spindrift stinging his face like sleet. To one of the rudder oars clung Gigi, at the other were two slaves from the rowers’ pit. The Ninevite grinned at him; pointed to the compass. He looked and saw that the needle which held constant to Emakhtila pointed straight astern.
“Far behind us now is that den!” shouted Gigi.
“Go below!” cried Kenton in a pointed ear, and would have taken the oar from him. But Gigi only laughed, shook his head and pointed toward the cabin of Sharane.
“That is your course,” he roared. “Steer it!”
And buffeting the gale Kenton came to the door of the rosy cabin; opened it. Sharane lay asleep, cheek cradled in one slim hand, tresses covering her like a silken net of red gold. Two maids, watchful, crouched at her bedside.
As though he had called to her, she opened sleepy eyes — sleepy eyes that as she looked at him grew sweetly languorous.
“My own dear lord!” whispered Sharane.
She sat up, motioned the girls to go. And when they had gone she held out white arms to him. His own arms were around her. Like a homing bird she nestled in them; raised red lips to his.
“Dear lord of me!” whispered Sharane.
He heard no more the roaring wind — heard nothing but the whisperings, the sighings of Sharane; forgot all worlds save that which lay within Sharane’s tender arms.
Long they flew on the tempest’s wings. Twice Kenton took Gigi’s place at the rudder oars, twice the Viking relieved him before the great wind died and they sailed once more on dimpling, sparkling turquoise sea,
Then for those upon the ship a hunted life began — and a haunted one.
Far, far behind them must lie Emakhtila by now, and yet on all the four rested clear certainty of pursuit. No fear, no terror — but knowledge that the ship was a hunted thing; knowledge that they could outwit, outsail the fleet they knew must be combing these strange seas until they found a safe and secret harbor, there could be but one end for them. Nor did one of them believe, deep in his heart, that there was such sanctuary,
Yet they were happy. Full tide of life beat round Kenton and Sharane. They took their fill of Jove. And Sigurd sang old Sagas, and a new one he had made of Zubran the Persian, while he and Gigi beat out huge shields and arrows for the bows. The shields they set around the bulwarks at the ship’s bow and pierced them with rifts through which arrows could be winged. Two they fastened on each side of the stern to guard helmsman.
And Sigurd would chant of battle to come, and shield maidens who would hover over the ship ready to bear the soul of Sigurd, Trygg’s son, to his seat in Valhalla where Zubran awaited him. He sang of place for Kenton there, and Gigi too — but not when Sharane was in earshot, since in Valhalla was no place for women.
Hunted and — haunted!
Within the black cabin the shadows thickened and faded, grew stronger, passed and returned. Something of the dark Lord of the Dead was there, had retaken seizing of his deck. Nor Gigi nor the Viking cared to sleep in the black cabin now; they sought the open deck or the cabin of the warrior maids.
And the slaves murmured of shadows that flitted over the black deck and clustered at the rail and stared down upon them!
Once, while Sigurd drowsed over the tiller bar, he awakened to find that unaware to all the course of the ship had changed, that the greater needle of the compass pointed straight over the bow to — Emakhtila; that the ship was moving under the oars back to Sorcerers’ Isle!
Thereafter they steered two by two — Kenton and Sharane, Gigi and the Viking.
Nor was there power within Sharane to banish the shadows.
One isle they made and replenished food and water. There was good harbor there, a hidden cover and, beyond, a great forest beckoned them. Here they stopped for a time; talked of drawing the ship up shore, concealing her; then finding place within the woods to build fort; meet there whatever attack might come.
The Ship of Ishtar drew them back to her.
Restless were they all, uneasy on the land, each afraid in secret heart that the other three would make up minds to stay; and gay as children they were when the ship drove out again and dipped her bow to the crested waves while the clean sea wind shouted to them and the isle. dropped behind.
“A prison,” laughed Kenton.
“No life, that!” growled Sigurd. “Hiding in a burrow till the dogs come to dig us out! Now we can see what comes.”
They met a long ship, a unireme like their own, but of twenty oars. It was a merchant carrier and heavily laden, and it would have fled from them. But the Viking cried that she must not escape to carry tidings to Emakhtila. So they pursued and rammed and sunk her with the chained slaves wailing at the oars — Kenton and Gigi and Sigurd ruthlessly, Sharane white-faced and weeping.
They met another — a light vessel no larger than the ship, but this time a war boat, a hunter. They feigned to flee and it gave chase. And when it was close to them the Viking swerved and fell astern; then drove the Ship of Ishtar swiftly against the other’s side, shearing the oars. Those on that vessel fought bravely; yet, hampered by the black priest’s command to take but not slay, they were no match for Gigi’s great mace, the Viking’s blade and Kenton’s sword of blue lightnings. They fell before them and the arrow storm from Sharane and her maids. But they took toll before they were ended. One of the warrior maids died with an arrow through her heart and both Gigi and Sigurd had their wounds.
In this craft they found store of metal for the Viking’s forge. Better still, balls of tow and oils to soak them in and flint to light them, strong shafts to carry the balls when blazing and oddly shaped crossbows to hurl the shafts with their heads of fire. All these and the metal they took. Then they sank that vessel with its living and its dead.
On sailed the ship and on; while Sigurd hammered out his long shields and Gigi and Kenton set the crossbows in place by rosy cabin and dark, with tow and oils and flint ready for the firing.
And time passed; nor did the tides of life that flowed strong through Kenton of the ship wane ever; waned not — grew stronger and more strong for him and for Sharane.
Lying beside his sleeping love Kenton awoke — or thought that he awakened — and opening his eyes saw not the cabin but two faces gazing down upon him from some unknown space; vast faces, vague and nebulous. Their shadowy eyes dwelt upon him.
One spoke — and lo, it was the voice that had guided him through the temple’s secret shrines! The voice of Nabu!
“Again Nergal centers his wrath upon the ship, O Ishtar!” it said. “The strife between him and your Sister–Self once more will trouble gods and men, deepening the shadows in myriad worlds. Great Mother — only you may end it!”
“My word went forth”— the other voice was like the wind rippling over thousands of harp strings —“my word went forth; and that Sister–Self of mine whom of old men have called the Wrathful Ishtar — has she not her rights? She has not conquered Nergal. Nor has Nergal conquered her. There has been no settlement such as I decreed. How, then, can my Sister–Self rest when the word I spoke in anger has not yet been resolved? And as long as she contends, so long must Nergal also who, too, is bound by that word.”
“Yet the flames you kindled within the souls of Zarpanit and Alusar, the flames that were the life of those souls — they did not perish,” the still voice whispered. “Did they not escape both your Wrathful Sister and Dark Nergal? And why, Ishtar? Was it not because you willed it so? Did you not hide them? What of that word of yours then?”
“Wise are you, Nabu!” came the voice of Ishtar. “Now let this man whose eyes we have opened see what that my priestess and her lover wreaked of ill when they brought into each other’s arms the Mother of Life and the Lord of Death! Let the man judge whether my anger were just or not!”
“Let the man judge!” echoed the voice of Nabu.
The vast faces faded. Kenton looked out upon depth upon depth, infinity upon infinity of space. Myriads of suns were hived therein and around them spun myriad; upon myriads of worlds. Throughout that limitless space two powers moved; mingled yet ever separate. One was a radiance that fructified, that gave birth and life and joy of life; the other was a darkness that destroyed, that drew ever from the radiance that which it had created; stilling them, hiding them in its blackness. Within the radiance was a shape of ineffable light and Kenton knew that this was the soul of it. In the darkness brooded a deep shadow, and he knew that this was its darker soul.
Before him arose the shapes of a man and a woman; and something whispered to him that the woman’s name was Zarpanit and the man’s Alusar, the priestess of Ishtar and the priest of Nergal. He saw in each of their hearts a wondrous, clear white flame. He saw the two flames waver, bend toward each other. And as they did so, shining threads of light streamed out from the radiance, linking the priestess with its spirit; while from the black core of the darkness threads of shadow ran out and cooled about the priest.
As the bending flames touched suddenly the shining threads and shadow threads were joined — for an instant were merged!
And in that instant all space shuddered, the suns rocked, the worlds reeled and all the rushing tides of life paused!
“Behold the sin!” rippled the voice of harp strings.
“Open his eyes wider!” came the still, cold voice.
And now Kenton beheld a radiant chamber in which sat dread powers, veiled in glories of light — all save one who hid in the darkness. Before them stood the priest and priestess and at the side of the priestess — Sharane!
Again he saw the white flames within the hearts of those two — untroubled, serene, indifferent to gods or angry goddess! Bending toward each other, unquenchable, immutable, indifferent to wrath of gods or their punishments!
That picture wavered, faded. Now upon the floor of that radiant chamber he saw priest and priestess, Sharane and Klaneth and around them the bodies of many women and men. There was a high altar half hidden by a cloud of sparkling azure mist. Within the mist, upon that altar, a wondrous ship was being built by unseen hands.
And ever as that ship grew Kenton saw, far beyond it as though it were its shadow cast into another dimension, another ship growing; a ship that seemed to build itself out of a turquoise sea in a world of silver clouds! Step by step that shadow ship followed the building of the puppet ship upon the altar.
He knew that the shadow was the real — the toy being shaped upon the altar was the symbol.
Knew, too, that symbol and reality were one; things linked by an ancient wisdom; things created by ancient powers, of which the fate and fortune of one must be the fate and fortune of the other.
Duoform! One a puppet and one real! And each the same!
Now the unseen hands within the mists of azure had finished the ship. They reached down and touched, one by one, the bodies of Ishtar’s priestess and Nergal’s priest, Sharane and Klaneth and all who lay around them. And as they touched, those still forms vanished. The unseen hands lifted and placed, one by one, little puppets on the puppet ship.
Upon the decks of the shadow ship on the turquoise sea in the world of silver clouds bodies lay — one by one they appeared there as the toys were set in place upon the toy ship on the altar!
At last there were no more still forms upon the floor of the council chamber of the gods. The ship was made and manned!
A beam shot out from the radiance that veiled Ishtar and touched the ship’s bow. A tendril of darkness uncoiled from the blackness in which brooded the Lord of the Dead and this darkness touched the ship’s stern. That picture wavered and fled,
There appeared another chamber; small, almost a crypt. In it stood a single altar. Over the altar hung a lamp nimbused by an aureole of azure; and the altar was of lapis lazuli and turquoise and studded with sapphires of clearest blue. And Kenton knew that this was some secret shrine of Nabu, Lord of Wisdom. On the altar rested the ship. As Kenton looked upon it, it was borne to him again that this jeweled toy, a gleaming symbol, was linked inseparably with that other; ship sailing in another space, another dimension; sailing on strange seas in an unknown world —
The ship on which he sailed!
And that as the toy fared, so fared the Ship of Ishtar; and as the Ship of Ishtar fared, so fared the toy; each threatened when one was threatened; sharing each the other’s fate.
That picture faded. He looked upon a walled city out of which towered a high temple, a terraced temple, a ziggurat. A host besieged city; its walls were covered with its defenders. He knew that the city was ancient Uruk and the high temple that in which the ships had been built. And as he looked, the besiegers broke through the walls; overwhelmed the defenders. He had a glimpse of red carnage — that picture fled.
Again he saw the crypt of Nabu. There were two priests there now. The ship rested upon the floor of a lattice of silvery metal. Over the altar hovered a little shining blue cloud. It came to him that the two priests were obeying a voice in that cloud; saving the ship and those who sailed on it from the invaders. They poured over it from huge basins a fine mortar that was like powder of ivory flecked with dust of pearls. It covered and hid the toy. Where the puppet ship had been was now a block of stone. The cloud vanished. Other priests entered; dragged the block out, through corridors and into the court of the temple. There they left it.
Into the court swarmed the victors, looting and slaying. But ever, unheeding, they passed the rough block by.
Now he looked upon another walled city, great and beautiful. He knew it for Babylon in the full moon of its power. Another ziggurat took its place. That melted and Kenton looked upon another secret shrine of Nabu. The block lay within it.
Flickered thereafter before him fleeting pictures of battles and of triumphs; pageant and disasters; quick, broken scenes of temple and city lost and won and lost once more; destroyed only to be built again in greater grandeur —
Then fallen — abandoned by the gods. Then crumbling — abandoned by man; the desert creeping on it; at the last covering it.
Then — forgotten!
There came a whirlpool of images, grey and indistinct in the swiftness of their passing. They steadied. He saw men working in the sands that were Babylon’s shroud. He recognized among them — Forsyth! He saw the block unearthed; borne away by tall Arabs; saw it crated into a primitive cart drawn by patient little rough-coated ponies; watched it tossing in the hold of a ship that sailed a sea he knew; watched it carried into his own house —— He saw himself as he freed the ship! He looked again into the shadowy eyes. “Judge!” sighed the harp strings. “Not yet!” whispered the still voice. Kenton looked again into that immeasurable space wherein he had first seen radiant power and dark. But now he saw within it countless flames like those which had burned in the breasts of Ishtar’s priestess and the Lord of Death’s priest; saw infinity flecked and flaming with them. They burned deep down through the shadows, and by their light up from the darkness came groping multitude upon multitude of other flames that had been shrouded by the darkness. He saw that without those flames the radiance itself would be but a darkness!
He saw the ship as though it floated in that same space. As he gazed a deeper shadow flitted from the soul of the blackness and brooded over it. Instantly something of the soul of the radiance rayed out and met it. They strove, one against the other. The ship was a focus of hatred and of wrath from which, visibly, waves swung out in ever widening circles. As the waves circled outward from the ship the shadow lines that ran from the core of darkness grew darker, thicker, as though they sucked strength from those waves. But under their beat the radiance dulled and the countless flames flickered and swayed, and were troubled.
“Judge!” whispered the cold tones of Nabu. Now Kenton in this dream of his — if dream it was — faced dilemma; hesitated. No trivial matter was it to indict this power — Ishtar, goddess or whatever that power might be in this alien world where, certainly, it was powerful indeed. Besides, had he not prayed to Ishtar and had she not answered his prayer? Yes, but he had prayed to Nabu, too, and Nabu was Lord of Truth —
His thoughts shaped themselves into words of his own tongue, his familiar idioms.
“If I were a god,” he said, simply enough, “and had made things with life, things with lives to live, men and women or whatever they might be, I would not make them imperfect, so that they must, perforce through their imperfections, break my laws. Not if I were all powerful and all wise, as I have gathered gods — and goddesses — are supposed to be. Unless, of course, I had made them only for toys, to play with. And if I found that I had made them imperfect and that therefore they did wrong, I would think that it was I who was responsible for their sinning — since being all powerful and all wise I could have made them perfect but did not. And if I had made them for my toys I surely would not heap upon their heartbreak and misery, pain and sorrow — no punishments, O Ishtar — not if they were toys that could feel these things. For what would they be but puppets dancing through their day as I had fashioned them to do?”
“Of course,” said Kenton naively, and with no ironic intention, “I am no god — and most certainly could not be a goddess — nor until I came into this world have I had any conscious experience with either. Yet, speaking as a man, even if I had punished any one who had broken my laws I would not let my anger run on and hurt any number of people who had nothing whatever to do with the original cause of my anger. Yet that, if what I have just beheld was true, is what this strife for the ship seems to bring about.
“No,” said Kenton, very earnestly, and quite forgetting the vague faces hovering about him. “I can’t see any justice in the torment of that priest and priestess, and if the struggle for the ship does the damage it appears to, I certainly would stop it if I could. For one thing I would be afraid that the shadow might get too thick some time and put all the little flames out. And for another — if I had spoken a word in anger that made all that misery I wouldn’t let that word be stronger than myself. I wouldn’t as a man. And if I were a god or goddess — very certainly, indeed, I would not!”
There was a silence; then —
“The man has judged!” whispered the still voice.
“He has judged!” the vast ripple of the harp strings was almost as cold as that other. “I will recall my word! Let the strife end!”
The two faces vanished. Kenton raised his head and saw around him the familiar walls of the rosy cabin. Had it been all a dream? Not all — those scenes he had beheld had been too clear cut, too consecutive, too convincing.
Beside him Sharane stirred, turned his face to hers.
“What are you dreaming, Jonkenton?” she asked. “You were murmuring and muttering — strange words that I could not understand.”
He bent and kissed her.
“I greatly fear, heart of mine, that I have offended that goddess of yours,” he said.
“Oh — Jonkenton — but no! How!” Sharane’s eyes were terrified.
“By telling her the truth,” answered Kenton; then unveiled to Sharane all of his vision.
“I forgot she is — a woman!” he ended.
“Oh — but beloved, she is all women!” cried Sharane.
“Well — that makes it all the worse then!” said Kenton, ruefully.
He leaped up; threw his cloak about him and went out to talk to Gigi.
But Sharane sat thinking, long after he had gone, with troubled eyes; at last walked to the empty shrine; threw herself before it, prostrate; praying.
“WHAT BEGAN on the ship must end on the ship!” said Gigi, nodding bald head wisely when Kenton had told him also of that vision of the two faces. “Nor do I think we shall have long to wait before we see that end.”
“And after?” asked Kenton.
“Who knows?” Gigi shrugged broad shoulders. “No rest for us. Wolf, while Klaneth lives. Nay — I think I know What this darkening of shadows on black deck means. By those shadows Klaneth watches us. They are the thread by which he follows us. Also my skin is sensitive, and it tells me the black priest is not so far away. When he comes — well, we conquer him or he conquers us, that is all. Also, I do not think that you can count on any help from Ishtar. Remember that in your vision she promised only that the strife of the Wrathful One and the Dark One should end. She made no promises, I gather, as to Sharane or you — or the rest of us.”
“That will be well,” said Kenton cheerfully. “As long as I am given chance to stand fairly, face to face with that swine bred from hell swill Klaneth, I am content.”
“But I think you gathered that she was not mightily pleased with what you had to say to her,” grinned Gigi slyly.
“That is no reason for her punishing Sharane,” answered Kenton, harking back to his old thought.
“How else could she punish you?” asked Gigi, maliciously — then suddenly grew serious, all impishness gone. “Nay, Wolf,” he said and laid paw on Kenton’s shoulder; “there is little chance for us. And yet — if all your vision were true, and the little flames you saw were real — what matters it . . .
“Only,” said Gigi, wistfully, “when those flames that were you and Sharane journey forth into space and another flame comes to you that once was Gigi of Nineveh — will you let it journey with you?”
“Gigi!” there were tears in Kenton’s eyes. “Where ever we go in this place or any other, no matter what may happen — you go with us as long as you will.”
“Good!” muttered Gigi.
Sigurd shouted at the rudder; he pointed over the ship’s bow. To Sharane’s door they sped and with her through the cabin of the maids and out beneath the sickled prow. Across the horizon ran a far flung line of towers and minarets, turrets and spires and steeples, skyscrapers and mosques; a huge chevaux-defrise. From where they stood, the outlines of this bristling barrier seemed too regular, too smoothly shaped, to be other than the work of man.
Was it another city — the refuge they had sought? A place where they might stay, safe from Klaneth and his pack until they could sally forth to meet that pack and its master on more equal terms?
Yet if a city — what giants were they who had reared it?
The oars dipped faster; the ship sped; closer came the barrier —— It was no city!
Up from the depths of the turquoise sea thrust thousands of rocks. Rocks blue and yellow, rocks striped crimson and vivid malachite; rocks all glowing ochre and rocks steeped in the scarlet of autumn sunsets; a polychrome Venice of a lost people of stone, sculptured by stone Titans. Here a slender minaret arose two hundred feet in air yet hardly more than ten in thickness; here a pyramid as great as Cheops’, its four sides as accurately faced — by thousands, far as eye could reach, the rocks arose in fantasies of multi-colored cone and peak, aiguille and minaret and obelisk, campanile and tower.
Straight up from the depths they lifted, and between them the sea flowed in a maze of channels both narrow and broad; in some of the channels smoothly, in others with swift eddies and whirlpools and racing torrents; and in others the sea lay like placid lakes.
There came another shout from the Viking, urgent, summoning — and with it the clangor of his sword beating upon the shield.
Down upon the ship and little more than a mile away rushed a long line of other ships, a score or more of them both single and double banked — boats of war racing on oars that dipped and rose with swiftness of sword blade stroke. Between them and the Ship of Ishtar drove a lean and black bireme leaping the waves like a wolf.
The pack of Klaneth with the black priest in the lead!
The pack, breaking out of the mists unseen by Sigurd, eyes like the others fast upon that colossal fantasy of stone that seemed to be the end of this strange world!
“In among the rocks!” cried Kenton —“Quick!”
“A trap!” said Sigurd.
“A trap for them as well as us then,” answered Kenton. “At the least, they cannot ring us there with their boats.”
“The only chance!” grunted Gigi.
The slaves bent their backs; through a wide channel between two painted monolithic minarets they flew. Behind them they heard a shouting, a baying as of hungry hounds in sight of a deer.
Now they were within the maze and the rowers must go slowly and the Viking’s rudder-craft was needed indeed, for the currents swung them. gripping at bow and stern and the sheer rocks menaced. Twisting, turning, on and on they went until the painted decks closed from them sight of the open sea. Yet now, too, Klaneth and his fleet were in the maze. They heard the creak of the oars, the commands of the helmsmen, searching, ferreting them out.
Abruptly as though snapped out, light vanished and darkness fell! Darkness blotted out the channel they were following, blotted out the towering rocks. From the pursuing boats came horn blasts, orders shrill with fear, outcries.
A purplish glow sprang up within the blackness.
“Nergal!” whispered Sharane. “Nergal comes!”
The whole of the black deck was blotted out as though an inky cloud had dropped upon it and out of that cloud leaped Sigurd and ran to where the others stood.
And now from every quarter of the horizon whirled pillars of darkness. Their feet were in the sullen sea, their heads lost in the pall that spread above. Ahead of them drove a charnel odor, the breath of death.
“Nergal in all his might!” shuddered Sharane.
“But Ishtar — Ishtar promised the strife should end!” groaned Kenton.
“But she did not say how it would end!” wailed Sharane. “And, O Beloved — Ishtar comes no more to me — and all my power is gone!”
“Ishtar! Ishtar!” she cried — and caught Kenton in her arms. “Mother — my life for this man’s! My soul for his! Mother Ishtar —!”
The van of the whirling pillars was close; the circle between them and the ship swiftly narrowing. On the echo of Sharane’s cry a blinding light, pearl white and pearl rose flashed down upon them — on Sharane, the three men and the warrior maids crouched white-faced at Sharane’s feet.
High over their heads, thrice the height of the mast, a great globe of moon fire hung poised, effulgent, serene, and brighter, far brighter than a score of moons at full. From its periphery poured rays, enclosing the whole fore part of the ship as in a tent of light; a radiance that ringed them and in whose center they stood as though prisoned in a hollow cone whose top was the moon globe.
Around that radiant tent the pillared darknesses, churned, pressing for entrance; finding none.
Faint at first and far away began a keen-edged shrieking; louder it grew as though from racing hordes fresh loosed from Abaddon. The purple darkness lightened, turned to a lurid violet. It was pricked by countless points of crimson fire.
And now the myriads of fiery points were at the ship; striking like little snakes of fire at globe and sides of radiant tent, shooting at them like arrow heads of fire, thrusting like little lance tips of fire.
There was the whir and rustle of thousands of wings. Around calm globe and cone of light whirled doves of Ishtar in thousands. And as the points of fire struck and stabbed the doves darted to meet them. Like little living shields of shining silver they caught the thrusts of the fiery javelins upon their breasts.
Where were the doves coming from? Cloud upon cloud of them poured from above the moon orb yet, for each whose ashes were whirled away a score rushed in to meet the striking fires, and all the air was palpitant with the tumult of their wings.
The shrieking raised itself a full octave. The inky cloud that had leaped upon the black deck shot up towering, gigantic, into the heavens. The countless points of fire rushed together, coalesced. They became a crimson scimitar of fire that struck down upon shining orb and ship!
Before the first stroke could fall the phalanxes of the doves had wheeled; had formed themselves into a shield mighty enough to have been held and wielded by Ishtar’s own arm!
And ever as the scimitar of fire slashed and thrust at the radiant globe and ship, the shield of the doves met it. Fiery point and fiery edge struck and blackened the living argent — but could not pierce. And ever the seared wounds of that shield shimmered moon white, as soft, untouched silver breasts darted in and healed them.
In mid-sweep it met another sword of brilliant light — a sword forged all of those white flames he had seen in his vision and that were the life of that radiance that fructified the swarms of worlds!
The scimitar was dimming! No longer was its fire so crimson bright!
The moon orb pulsed; its radiance flamed wide, dazzling, blindingly, hurling back the darknesses. Swiftly as it had come it vanished! With it went the doves!
Kenton saw the gigantic scimitar pause, quiver uncertainly — as though the dread hand that held it had been stilled with sudden doubt — then down it swept once more.
The red scimitar fell shattered!
He heard a voice — the voice of Ishtar —
“I have beaten you, Nergal!”
And Nergal, snarling —
“A trick, Ishtar! Not with you, but with your Sister–Self was my warfare to be!”
And again Ishtar —
“No trick, Nergal! I never said that I would not fight you. Yet this I will grant — though you have lost the ship — I will not take it! The ship is free!”
Then Nergal, grudgingly, snarling still —
“The strife is ended! The ship is free!”
For one beat in time Kenton seemed to see a vast vague face gazing down upon the ship, a face in which were all the tendernesses of all mothers, all loving women beneath the sun — the shadowy eyes dwelt softly on Sharane, softly but enigmatically upon him —
The face was gone!
As when a shutter is dropped before a closed lamp, so the darkness had fallen; and abruptly as when the shutter is lifted so the darkness fled; light took its place.
The ship lay in a wide channel; around it the phantasmagoria of the sea floored city of stone. At port a thicket of obelisks all dull greens and glaring vermilions raised tops on high. Three arrow flights on starboard a pointed monolith arose, pyramidal, its pointed tip hundreds of feet in air.
Around an edge of it crept the black bireme of Klaneth!
SIGHT of that lean boat that like a lank hound leaped at them was like wine to Kenton; like strong wine to all. Heavy upon them had hung the conflict just passed — they but midges, dancing helplessly now in the fierce radiance of life’s spirit, now stilling as helplessly in the blackness of life’s negation. The charnel odor was still in Kenton’s nostrils; the chill of the grave on his heart; the touch of the worm upon his eyes.
But there — there on the black priest’s ship — were things he knew!
Sword edges and arrow point; death — it might be; death with pulse beating like war drums; hot death striking in as the red tides of life rushed out; things understandable; reality.
He heard the golden clarion of Sharane’s defiance, the roar of Gigi, the shouting of Sigurd. And he was shouting too — challenging the black priest, taunting him, menacing him.
Silently the lean ship drove down on them. “Sigurd, to the helm!” Sanity returned to Kenton. “Make for a narrow channel. One we can row but one that will force them to draw in their upper bank of oars. Thus shall we equal their speed — at the least!”
The Norseman ran back to the tiller. The whistle of the overseer shrilled in the pit; the ship leaped forward.
It swept round the obelisks, the bireme now only two arrow flights behind, and into a wide lake of blue water bordered by a hundred domes, magenta set on huge cubes of damask; the turquoise tides ran between the mathematically spaced sides of the cubes in a hundred canals, each barely wide enough for the oars of the ship to dip without touching the stone.
“In there! Take any channel!” shouted Kenton. The ship heeled, darted to the closest opening. A flight of arrows from the bireme whistled into their wake — five ship lengths short!
The huge blocks with their mosqued tops bordered the narrow canal into which they had passed; for a full mile the open way stretched, straight ahead of them. A third through and they heard the bireme’s sweeps clanking, saw it come swinging on a single bank of oars into the entrance. Quicker, at Kenton’s command, dipped the ship’s blades; heavier than the ship, the bireme fell behind.
And as they flew through the blue water Kenton and Sharane took swift counsel with Gigi and Sigurd back at the stern.
“Ravens gather!” chanted Sigurd, eyes brightening with fey fires. “Shield maidens ride from Valhalla! I hear the feet of their horses!”
“They may return empty handed!” exclaimed Kenton. “Nay, Sigurd — now we have our only chance. None but Klaneth has smelled us out. Let us pick our place and give battle to him.”
“We are but seven, and there are many times seven on that bireme, Wolf,” said Gigi, doubtful it seemed — although his little eyes sparkled.
“I run no longer from the black swine!” cried Kenton, hotly. “I am weary of dodging and skulking. I say let us play the game out now! What does your thought tell you, Sharane?” he asked.
“My thought is as yours,” she told him, tranquilly. “As you will it, so is my will, beloved!”
“What do you say, Norseman?” asked Gigi. “Quick now — decide!”
“I am with the Wolf,” replied Sigurd. “No time better than now. In the old days when I was a dragon master there was a trick we played when we were chased. Have you seen the dog when the cat turns on him — ho! ho!” laughed Sigurd. “Swift flies the cat until it has reached a corner. And there it lurks until dog yelps past. Then out springs cat, digging deep its claws, striking at eyes, raking dog’s sides. Ho! Ho!” roared Sigurd. “Swift we would fly like the cat until we had found a place to turn and skulk. Then as other dragon sped by, out we would spring upon it; like the dog, loud would it howl while we clung and tore! Ho — let us find such a corner where we may lurk till this hell dog leaps past. Then we shall spring. Give me two of the maids to guard me here as I steer. You three with the other maid, stand by the crossbows and when I shear their oars, loose the fire shafts upon them.”
“In the meantime,” asked Gigi, face wrinkling, “what about their own arrows?”
“We must take our luck as it comes,” said Kenton. “Gigi, I am one with Sigurd — unless you have a better plan to offer.”
“No,” answered Gigi —“No — I have none, Wolf”— he lifted his great body, shook long arms on high.
“By the Hollow Hells and Ischak their Keeper,” roared Gigi, “I, too, am weary of running away! I ran away from my princess because of my bald head — and what luck did it bring me. By Nazzur the Eater of Hearts — by Zubran.” his voice softened —“who gave his life for us — I run no more! Pick your place, Wolf — you and Sigurd — and let us fight!”
He waddled away; then turned.
“The end of the channel draws close,” he said. “Sharane, between the hearts of you and your maids and their arrow points are only soft breasts and a fold of cloth. Don coats of mail like ours and caps and buskins and greaves for your knees. I go to put on another linked shirt and get me my mace.”
He dropped down the steps; Kenton nodded, and after Gigi trooped Sharane and her three women to doff their robes and kirtles, don battle garb.
“And after you have shorn their oars — if you do?” asked Kenton of the Viking, lingering.
“Then we return and ram,” said Sigurd. “So we did in the old days. The ship is lighter than the black priest’s galley and far more quickly can she turn. When we ram, be all of you at the bow ready to beat off any who try to drop abroad. After Klaneth’s galley is both shorn and rammed we can tear at it as we will — like the cat.”
The end of the canal was near; half a mile behind, the bireme clung to the ship’s wake.
Out of her cabin came Sharane and her three maids, four slender warriors in coats of mail, hair hidden under brown-linked caps, leathern buskins on legs and greaves at knees. They piled arrows on stern and bow; with Gigi seeing to it that crossbows were in order, tow and oil and flints ready.
The ship swept out of the canal, hung on reverse oars while Kenton and the Viking took survey. At left and right, in two great arcs, ran high walls of unbroken crimson rock. Smooth and precipitous, continuing they would make a circle a mile or more in diameter — but whether they did so continue Kenton could not see.
Out of the waters they walled, in its center if they encircled it, a huge pinnacle lifted, its needle point thrice the height of the walls, shutting off the further view. Its pedestal was one colossal block, octahedral, shaped like a star. But from it rayed the star points, long and narrow like titanic wedges, their ends fifty feet high and edged like a knife.
“We go to the left,” said Sigurd. “Let the black dog know which way we turn.”
Kenton leaped to the cabin’s top; waved derisive arms; heard shouting.
“Good!” rumbled Sigurd. “Now let them come. For here Wolf, we make our stand! Look”— he pointed as the ship drove past the first star point —“between the tip of stone and wall there is a little more than room for ship and galley to pass each other. Also the stone is high and hides us when we have passed. Yes, it is the place! Yet not here beyond the first star shall we lurk — Klaneth may expect that and come by it slowly and alert; nor beyond the second — for again he may come slowly though surely not so slowly as before. But not finding us there he will believe that we have but one thought — and that to run. So he will pass the third tip at speed to close in on us. And it is there that we shall leap out upon him!”
“Good!” Kenton, and dropped down to the deck; stood beside Sharane and Gigi.
And Gigi grunted approval and walked away to test once more the crossbows. But Sharane locked mailed arms around Kenton’s neck and drew his face close to hers and drank him with wistful eyes that seemed as though they could not drink enough of him. “Is it the end, beloved?” she whispered. “There shall be no end — for us, O heart of mine,” he answered.
They stood so, silent, while the second star point wheeled by. And now the third leveled its tip at them and Sigurd cried out to raise oars; and when the ship had swam a hundred yards or so, brought her sharply around. He called to him the overseer.
“We strike at the bireme’s left bank of oars,” he said. “No wish have I to run risk of splitting the ship on that edge of rock. When I shout, draw in your left sweeps. When we have sheared and passed, whip the slaves again into full speed. When we have rammed, reverse oars and pull free. Is it clear?”
The black’s eyes glistened; he bared white teeth; ran back to the pit.
Now from beyond the great stone wedge came faint rasp of sweeps, splashings of oars. Two of the warrior women sped back to Sigurd, crouched beside him, arrows ready at slits of the high shields. A tenseness gripped the ship.
“One kiss,” whispered Sharane, eyes now misty. Their lips clung.
Nearer came the oar sounds, closer, closer — faster-speeding ——
A low whistle from the Viking, and the rowers bent back under sting of whip. A dozen strong strokes and the ship leaped like a dolphin straight for the star tip.
Past tip it shot; heeled as the Viking threw the rudder sharp to port.
Ten ship lengths ahead of them was the bireme, racing on its four fold multiple feet of oars like an enormous water spider. And as the ship flashed out and at it a roar arose from its crowded decks, a shouting confused and clamorous, medley of wild commands — and filling all that clamor, bewilderment.
The oars of the bireme faltered; stopped at midstroke; held rigid, just touching sea.
“Faster!” howled Sigurd and as the pit’s whip cracked, he drove with a twist of the rudder the ship down parallel to the course of the galley.
“In oars!” he howled again —
The prow of the Ship of Ishtar struck the bireme’s port oars. It swept through them like a blade through brittle stubble. Broken, splintered, the long shafts fell, holding back the rush of the Ship of Ishtar as little as though they had been straws. But in the bireme those who gripped the great handles fell back with ribs crushed, backs snapped, as the heavy stocks were flung against them.
Up from the ship’s side as it passed, up into the ranks staring down on it, ranks turned wooden with surprise of that unexpected attack, hissed the fireballs from the crossbows. Hissing like serpents of fire, expanding as the air fanned them, the fire-balls struck — hurling back the soldiers, searing them, flaming up as they fell on deck and into open hold and touching with fingers of inextinguishable flame all that would burn.
Again the galley roared — and now with terror in its voice.
The Ship of Ishtar was clear; down thrust the withdrawn oars of it; straight ahead she flew into the wider space beyond the star tip of stone and circling wall. Swift once more the Viking turned her. Back. raced the ship upon the bireme.
And the bireme swung helplessly, sidled grotesquely like a huge spider from one of whose sides all legs have been cut, slithered like that same spider toward the knife-edged tip of the stone star ray. From hold and deck little columns of smoke swirled.
Now Sigurd realized all that galley’s peril; saw that it was close to piercing stone ray; saw that he might drive it upon that ray; send stone blade biting into it; destroy it.
“Guard bow!” shouted Sigurd.
He threw back the rudder, made wider turn, hurtled upon the galley not at stern as he had planned but far toward midship. The ram of Ishtar’s ship struck and bit deep; prow too. Under the shock Kenton and the others toppled over and before they could set foot on bow fell prone on faces, clutching at deck.
Beneath the blow the bireme reeled, heeled until the seas sucked over its farther side. Down dipped its starboard oars seeking to thrust back from the menacing stone. The sweeps churned, but under the weight of the ship clinging to its flank, its bow turned sharply in.
It struck the knife edge of the rock.
There was a crackling as rock bit through hull.
“Ho!” roared the Viking. “Drown, you rats!”
Down upon the ship whistled an arrow cloud. The shafts shrilled over Kenton, staggering to his feet. They pierced deck and pit. Before the rowers could back sweeps, pull free, they dropped, hung limp over oars, bristling with quivering bolts.
On the ship’s bow fell a dozen grapples, holding it fast to the wrecked galley. Ropes whirled and sliding down them came the swordsmen.
“Back! Back to me!” shouted Sigurd.
The bireme shuddered, its gashed bow slid down the rock edge for a dozen feet or more, the water pouring over its fore deck. Up from the sea bobbed heads of soldiers, washed away and swimming for the ship. On the deck of the bireme a milling began as those on it fought to drop upon the ship.
“Back!” cried Kenton.
He caught Sharane’s arm; they ran with heads bent low as from the steerman’s place the arrows of Sigurd and his flanking maids winged into the mass of men swarming over the rosy cabin.
The bireme slipped again along the cleaving edge of stone; checked fall with bow half under water, yet held by the ship’s ram. But that last slipping had wrenched sharply down the ship’s own prisoned bow. As the deck tilted Kenton fell, dragging Sharane with him. He caught swift glimpse of men dropping from the bireme’s side; throwing themselves into the sea, striking for the ship.
He scrambled to his feet as the soldiers at the bow rushed. And now Gigi sprang past him, twirling his great mace. Kenton leaped to his side, Sharane at his heels.
“Back! Back to Sigurd!” grunted the Ninevite, club sweeping the soldiers before it like a flail among wheat.
“Too late!” cried Sharane.
Men were swarming up the stern chains, clambering up from the sea, tearing away the shields.
From the bireme came a howling, frenzied and beastlike. At its sound even the soldiers halted, Gigi’s mace hung in air.
Then upon the Ship of Ishtar leaped — the black priest!
Pale eyes pools of hell fire, mouth an open square from which black hate flew screaming, he hurled himself through the swordsmen, dived under Gigi’s falling mace and flung himself on Kenton.
But Kenton was ready.
Out flashed the blue blade and met the thrust of the black priest’s sword. Quicker than he, that sword swept back, bit into that old wound in his side!
Kenton staggered, hilt half dropping from his hand.
Howling triumph Klaneth swept down the death blow.
Before it could fall Sharane had thrown herself between Kenton and priest, had parried the stroke with her own sword.
The left hand of the black priest shot out, dagger in its grip. He buried that dagger in Sharane’s breast!
Now all the world was but one red flame before Kenton — one red flame in which was nothing but Klaneth’s face. Ere the black priest could move, swifter than the lightning stroke, Kenton had struck.
His sword bit down, shearing away half the black priest’s face, leaving in place of cheek and jowl, only a red smear — swept on half through his shoulder.
The black priest’s sword clanged upon the deck.
The sword of Kenton bit again — straight through his neck.
The head of Klaneth leaped from his shoulders, struck the rail and whirled into the sea. For another instant the gross bulk of the body stood, the neck spouting. The body crashed.
No further heed paid Kenton to him nor to the bireme’s men. He bent over Sharane, raised her.
“Beloved!” he called, and kissed the pale lips, the closed eyes. “Come back to me!”
Her eyes opened, her slim hands made effort to caress him.
“Beloved!” whispered Sharane. “I . . . Can not . . . I will . . . Wait . . . ” Her head dropped upon his breast.
Kenton, standing there with his dead love in his arms, looked about the ship. Circling him were those who were left of the black galley’s crew, staring at him, silent, making no move.
“Sigurd!” he cried, paying no heed to them. On the helmsman’s deck where the Viking had fought was only a heap of slain.
“Gigi!” he whispered.
There was no Gigi! Where Gigi had wielded his giant flail the dead were thick.
“Sharane! Gigi! Sigurd!” Kenton sobbed. “Gone! All gone!”
The ship lurched; shuddered. He took a step forward, Sharane clasped to his breast.
A bow twanged; an arrow caught him in his side.
He did not care . . . let them kill him . . . Sharane was gone . . . and Gigi . . .
Why was it that he could no longer feel Sharane’s body in his arms?
Where had the staring soldiers gone?
Where was — the ship!
There was nothing around him but darkness — darkness and a roaring tempest sweeping toward him out of farthest space.
Through that darkness, seeking as he fled for sight of Sharane, reaching faltering bands for touch of her, whirled Kenton . . .
Swaying, weeping with heartbreak and weakness, he opened his eyes . . .
To look again upon his old room!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58