The Ship of Ishtar - A. Merritt - ebook

The Ship of Ishtar ebook

A. Merritt

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Opis

The goddess of love and beauty was adrift on an enchanted ocean in a magic world. The myriad forces of satanic evil plagued the vessel of the red-haired, passionate goddess. Only one man, John Kenton, the American adventurer, WWI vet and archaeologist, could save Ishtar’s priestess from the black magic which divides her world from ours. Written in 1924, „The Ship of Ishtar” is a universally hailed classic of the fantasy novel by A. Merritt and is, on surface at least, an obvious early product of Pulp’s Golden Age. Merritt was influential upon the science fiction and fantasy world primarily through the imaginative power he displayed in the creation of desirable alternative worlds and realities.

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Liczba stron: 363

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Contents

PART I

1. THE COMING OF THE SHIP

2. THE FIRST ADVENTURE

3. THE SHIP RETURNS

PART II

4. THE SIN OF ZARPANIT

5. HOW THE GODS JUDGED

6. “AM I NOT—WOMAN!”

7. SLAVE OF THE SHIP

8. THE TALE OF SIGURD

9. THE BARGAINING OF SHARANE

10. ON THE SHIP A-SAILING

11. GIGI SNAPS THE CHAINS

12. MASTER OF THE SHIP

13. MASTER OF—SHARANE!

PART III

14. THE BLACK PRIEST STRIKES

15. DOWN THE ROPE OF SOUND

16. HOW THE SHIP WAS MANNED

17. THEY SEEK SORCERERS’ ISLE

PART IV

18. IN THE SORCERERS’ CITY

19. THE LORD OF THE TWO DEATHS

20. BEHIND THE WALL

21. BEFORE THE ALTAR OF BEL

22. HOW NARADA DANCED

PART V

23. DANCER AND PRIEST

24. THE GODS—AND MAN’S DESIRE

25. IN THE BOWER OF BEL

26. THE PASSING OF ZUBRAN

27. HOW THEY FARED BACK TO THE SHIP

28. THE VISION OF KENTON

29. HOW THE STRIFE WAS ENDED

30. THE LAST BATTLE

PART IV

31. THE SHIP GOES

PART I

1. THE COMING OF THE SHIP

A tendril of the strange fragrance spiraled up from the great stone block. Kenton felt it caress his face like a coaxing hand.

He had been aware of that fragrance–an alien perfume, subtly troubling, evocative of fleeting unfamiliar images, of thought-wisps that were gone before the mind could grasp them–ever since he had unsheathed from its coverings the thing Forsyth, the old archaeologist, had sent him from the sand shrouds of ages-dead Babylon.

Once again his eyes measured the block–four feet long, a little more than that in height, a trifle less in width. A faded yellow, its centuries hung about it like a half visible garment. On one face only was there inscription, a dozen parallel lines of archaic cuneiform; carved there, if Forsyth were right in his deductions, in the reign of Sargon of Akkad, sixty centuries ago. The surface of the stone was scarred and pitted and the wedge- shaped symbols mutilated, half obliterated.

Kenton leaned closer over it, and closer around him wound the scented spirals clinging like scores of tendrils, clinging like little fingers, wistful, supplicating, pleading–

Pleading for release! What nonsense was this he was dreaming? Kenton drew himself up. A hammer lay close at hand; he lifted it and struck the block, impatiently.

The block answered the blow!

It murmured; the murmuring grew louder; louder still, with faint bell tones like distant carillons of jade. The murmurings ceased, now they were only high, sweet chimings; clearer, ever more clear they rang, drawing closer, winging up through endless corridors of time.

There was a sharp crackling. The block split. From the break pulsed a radiance as of rosy pearls and with it wave after wave of the fragrance –no longer questing, no longer wistful nor supplicating.

Jubilant now! Triumphant!

Something was inside the block! Something that had lain hidden there since Sargon of Akkad, six thousand years ago!

The carillons of jade rang out again. Sharply they pealed, then turned and fled back the endless corridors up which they had come. They died away; and as they died the block collapsed; it disintegrated; it became a swirling, slowly settling cloud of sparkling dust.

The cloud whirled, a vortex of glittering mist. It vanished like a curtain plucked away.

Where the block had been stood–a ship!

It floated high on a base of curving waves cut from lapis lazuli and foam- crested with milky rock crystals. Its hull was of crystal, creamy and faintly luminous. Its prow was shaped like a slender scimitar, bent backward. Under the in-curved tip was a cabin whose seaward sides were formed, galleon fashion, by the upward thrust of the bows. Where the hull drew up to form this cabin, a faint flush warmed and cloudy crystal; it deepened as the sides lifted; it gleamed at last with a radiance that turned the cabin into a rosy jewel.

In the center of the ship, taking up a third of its length, was a pit; down from the bow to its railed edge sloped a deck of ivory. The deck that sloped similarly from the stern was jet black. Another cabin rested there, larger than that at the bow, but squat and ebon. Both decks continued in wide platforms on each side of the pit. At the middle of the ship the ivory and black decks met with an odd suggestion of contending forces. They did not fade into each other. They ended there abruptly, edge to edge; hostile.

Out of the pit arose a rail mast: tapering and green as the core of an immense emerald. From its cross-sticks a wide sail stretched... shimmering like silk spun from fire opals: from mast and yards fell stays of twisted dull gold.

Out from each side of the ship swept a single bank of seven great oars, their scarlet blades dipped deep within the pearl crested lapis of the waves.

And the jeweled craft was manned! Why, Kenton wondered, had he not noticed the tiny figures before?

It was as though they had just arisen from the deck... a woman had slipped out of the rosy cabin’s door, an arm was still outstretched in its closing... and there were other women shapes upon the ivory deck, three of them, crouching... their heads were bent low; two clasped harps and the third held a double flute...

Little figures, not more than two inches high...

Toys!

Odd that he could not distinguish their faces, nor the details of their dress. The toys were indistinct, blurred, as though a veil covered them. Kenton told himself that the blurring was the fault of his eyes; he closed them for a moment.

Opening them he looked down upon the black cabin and stared with deepening perplexity. The black deck had been empty when first the ship had appeared –that he could have sworn.

Now four manikins were clustered there–close to the edge of the pit!

And the baffling haze around the toys was denser. Of course it must be his eyes–what else? He would lie down for a while and rest them. He turned, reluctantly; he walked slowly to the door; he paused there, uncertainly, to look back at the shining mystery–

All the room beyond the ship was hidden by the haze!

Kenton heard a shrilling as of armies of storm; a roaring as of myriads or tempests; a shrieking chaos as though down upon him swept cataracts of mighty winds.

The room split into thousands of fragments; dissolved. Clear through the clamor came the sound of a bell–one– two– three–

He knew that bell. It was his clock ringing out the hour of six. The third note was cut in twain.

The solid floor on which he stood melted away. He felt himself suspended in space, a space filled with mists of silver.

The mists melted.

Kenton caught a glimpse of a vast blue wave-crested ocean–another of the deck of a ship flashing by a dozen feet below him.

He felt a sudden numbing shock, a blow upon his right temple. Splintered lightnings veined a blackness that wiped out sight of sea and ship.

2. THE FIRST ADVENTURE

Kenton lay listening to a soft whispering, persistent and continuous. It was like the breaking crests of sleepy waves. The sound was all about him; a rippling susurration becoming steadily more insistent. A light beat through his closed lids. He felt motion under him, a gentle, cradling lift and fall. He opened his eyes.

He was on a ship; lying on a narrow deck, his head against the bulwarks. In front of him was a mast rising out of a pit. Inside the pit were chained men straining at great oars. The mast seemed to be of wood covered with translucent, emerald lacquer. It stirred reluctant memories.

Where had he seen such a mast before?

His gaze crept up the mast. There was a wide sail; a sail made of opaled silk. Low overhead hung a sky that was all a soft mist of silver.

He heard a woman’s voice, deep toned, liquidly golden. Kenton sat up, dizzily. At his right was a cabin nestling under the curved tip of a scimitared prow; it gleamed rosily. A balcony ran round its top; little trees blossomed on that balcony; doves with feet and bills crimson as though dipped in wine of rubies fluttered snowy wings among the branches.

At the cabin’s door stood a woman, tall, willow-lithe, staring beyond him. At her feet crouched three girls. Two of them clasped harps, the other held to her lips a double flute. Again the reluctant memories stirred and fled and were forgotten as Kenton’s gaze fastened upon the woman.

Her wide eyes were green as depths of forest glens, and like them they were filled with drifting shadows. Her head was small; the features fine; the red mouth delicately amorous. In the hollow of her throat a dimple lay; a chalice for kisses and empty of them and eager to be filled. Above her brows was set a silver crescent, slim as a newborn moon. Over each horn of the crescent poured a flood of red-gold hair, framing the lovely face; the flood streamed over and was parted by her tilted breasts; it fell in ringlets almost to her sandaled feet.

As young as Spring, she seemed–yet wise as Autumn; Primavera of some archaic Botticelli–but Mona Lisa too; if virginal in body, certainly not in soul.

He followed her gaze. It led him across the pit of the oarsmen. Four men stood there. One was taller by a head than Kenton, and built massively. His pale eyes stared unwinkingly at the woman; menacing; malignant. His face was beardless and pallid. His huge and flattened head was shaven; his nose vulture beaked; from his shoulders black robes fell, shrouding him to feet. Two shaven heads were at his left, wiry, wolfish, black-robed; each of them held a brazen, conch-shaped horn.

On the last of the group Kenton’s eyes lingered, fascinated. This man squatted, his pointed chin resting on a tall drum whose curved sides glittered scarlet and jet with the polished scales of some great snake. His legs were sturdy but dwarfed–his torso that of a giant, knotted and gnarled, prodigiously powerful. His ape-like arms were wound around the barrelled tambour; spider-like were the long fingers standing on their tips upon the drum head.

It was his face that held Kenton. Sardonic and malicious–there was in it none of the evil concentrate in the others. The wide slit of his mouth was frog-like and humor was on the thin lips. His deep-set, twinkling black eyes dwelt upon the crescented woman with frank admiration. From the lobes of his outstanding ears hung disks of hammered gold.

The woman paced swiftly down toward Kenton. When she halted he could have reached out a hand and touched her. Yet she did not seem to see him.

“Ho–Klaneth!” she cried. “I hear the voice of Ishtar. She is coming to her ship. Are you ready to do her homage, Slime of Nergal?”

A flicker of hate passed over the massive man’s pallid face like a little wave from hell.

“This is Ishtar’s Ship,” he answered, “yet my Dread Lord has claim upon it too, Sharane? The House of the Goddess brims with light–but tell me, does not Nergal’s shadow darken behind me?”

And Kenton saw that the deck on which were these men was black as polished jet and again memory strove to make itself heard.

A sudden wind smote the ship, like an open hand, heeling it. From the doves within the trees of the rosy cabin broke a tumult of cries; they flew up like a white cloud flecked with crimson; they fluttered around the woman.

The ape-like arms of the drummer unwrapped, his spidery fingers poised over the head of the snake drum. Darkness deepened about him and hid him; darkness cloaked all the ship’s stern.

Kenton felt the gathering of unknown forces. He slid down, upon his haunches, pressed himself against the bulwarks.

From the deck of the rosy cabin blared a golden trumpeting; defiant; inhuman. He turned his head, and on it the hair lifted and prickled.

Resting on the rosy cabin was a great orb, an orb like the moon at full; but not, like the moon, white and cold–an orb alive with pulsing roseate candescence. Over the ship it poured its rays and where the woman called Sharane had been was now–no woman!

Bathed in the orb’s rays she loomed gigantic. The lids of her eyes were closed, yet through those closed lids eyes glared! Plainly Kenton saw them –eyes hard as jade, glaring through the closed lids as though those lids had been gossamer! The slender crescent upon her brows was an arc of living fire, and all about it the masses of her red-gold hair beat and tossed.

Round and round, in clamorous rings above the ship, wheeled the cloud of doves, snowy wings beating, red beaks open; screaming.

Within the blackness of the ship’s stern roared the thunder of the serpent drum.

The blackness thinned. A face stared out, half veiled, bodiless, floating in the shadow. It was the face of the man Klaneth–and yet no more his than that which challenged it was the woman Sharane’s. The pale eyes had become twin pools of hell flames; pupilless. For a heart beat the face hovered, framed by the darkness. The shadow dropped over it and hid it.

Now Kenton saw that this shadow hung like a curtain over the exact center of the ship, and that he crouched hardly ten feet distant from where that curtain cut the craft in twain. The deck on which he lay was pale ivory and again memory stirred but did not awaken. The radiance from the roseate orb struck against the curtain of shadow and made upon it a disk, wider than the ship, that was like a web of beams spun from the rays of a rosy moon. Against this shining web the shadow pressed, straining to break through.

From the black deck the thunder of the serpent drum redoubled; the brazen conches shrieked. Drum-thunder and shrieking horn mingled; they became the pulse of Abaddon, lair of the damned.

From Sharane’s three women, shot storm of harpings, arpeggios like gusts of tiny arrows and with them shrill javelin pipings from the double flute. Arrows and javelins of sound cut through the thunder-hammering of the drum and the bellow of the horns, sapping them, beating them back.

A movement began within the shadow. It seethed. It spawned.

Over the face of the disk of radiance black shapes swarmed. Their bodies were like monstrous larvae, slugs; faceless. They tore at the web; strove to thrust through it; flailed it.

The web gave!

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