THE SHIP OF ISHTAR: Sci-Fi Classic - Abraham Merritt - ebook

THE SHIP OF ISHTAR: Sci-Fi Classic ebook

Abraham Merritt



This eBook edition of "The Ship of Ishtar" has been formatted to the highest digital standards and adjusted for readability on all devices. The archaeologist hero, Kenton, receives a mysterious ancient Babylonian artifact, which he discovers contains an incredibly detailed model of a ship. A dizzy spell casts Kenton onto the deck of the ship, which becomes a full-sized vessel sailing an eternal sea. At one end is Sharane the assistant priestess of Ishtar and her female minions, and at the other is Klaneth the assistant priest of Nergal and his male minions, representatives of two opposed deities. None of them can cross an invisible barrier at the midline of the ship, but Kenton can. His arrival destabilizes a situation that had been frozen for 6,000 years, and fantastic adventures ensue.

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Liczba stron: 374

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Abraham Merritt


SF & Fantasy Novel

Published by


- Advanced Digital Solutions & High-Quality eBook Formatting -
2018 OK Publishing
ISBN 978-80-272-4293-1
Table of Contents
1. The Coming of the Ship
2. The First Adventure
3. The Ship Returns
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!
14. The Black Priest Strikes
15. Down The Rope Of Sound
16. How The Ship Was Manned
17. They Seek Sorcerers’ Isle
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
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
31. The Ship Goes


Table of Contents


Table of Contents

A tendril of the strange fragrance spiralled 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 go!

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 incurved 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 jewelled 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 . . .


Odd that he could not distinguish their faces, nor the details of their dress. The boys 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 — thr —

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.


Table of Contents

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 sandalled 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 larva, slugs; faceless. They tore at the web; stove to thrust through it; flailed it.

The web gave!

Its edge held firm, but slowly the center was pushed back until the disk was like the half of a huge hollow sphere. Within that hollow crawled and writhed and struck the monstrous shapes. From the black deck serpent drum and brazen horns bellowed triumph.

Again rang the golden trumpet cry from the deck of ivory. Out of the orb streamed an incandescence intolerable. The edges of the web shot forward and curved.

They closed upon the black spawn; within it the black spawn milled and struggled like fish in a net. Like a net lifted by some mighty hand the web swung high up above the ship. Its brightness grew to match that of the orb. From netted shapes of blackness came a faint, high-pitched, obscene wailing. They shrank, dissolved, were gone.

The net opened. Out of it drifted a little cloud of ebon dust.

The web streamed back into the orb that had sent it forth.

Then, swiftly, the orb was gone! Gone too was the shadow that had shrouded the black deck. High above the ship the snowy doves circled, screaming victory.

A hand touched Kenton’s shoulder. He looked up into the shadowy eyes of the woman called Sharane; no goddess now, only woman. In her eyes he read amazement, startled disbelief.

Kenton sprang to his feet. A thrust of blinding pain shot through his head. The deck whirled round him. He tried to master the dizziness; he could not. Dizzily the ship spun beneath his feet; and beyond in wider arcs dizzily spun turquoise sea and silver horizon.

Now all formed a vortex, a maelstrom, down whose pit he was dropping — faster, ever faster. Around him was a formless blur. Again he heard the tumult of the tempests; the shrillings of the winds of space. The winds died away. There were three clear bell notes —

Kenton stood within his own room!

The bell had been his clock, striking the hour of six. Six o’clock? Why the last sound of his own world before the mystic sea had swept it from under him had been the third stroke of that hour clipped off in mid-note.

God — what a dream! And all in half a bell stroke!

He lifted his hand and touched a throbbing bruise over his right temple. He winced — well, that blow at least had been no dream. He stumbled over to the jewelled ship.

He stared at it, incredulous.

The toys upon the ship had moved — new toys had appeared!

No longer were there four manikins on the black deck.

There were only two. One stood pointing toward the starboard platform near the mast, his hand resting on the shoulder of a red-bearded, agate-eyed soldier toy clad all in glittering chain mail.

Nor was there any woman at the rosy cabin’s door as there had been when Kenton had loosed the ship from the block. At its threshold were five slim girls with javelins in hands.

The woman was on the starboard platform, bent low beside the rail!

And the ship’s oars were no longer buried in the waves of lapis lazuli. They were lifted, poised for the downward stroke!


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ONE BY ONE Kenton pulled at the manikins, each toy. Immovable, gem hard, each was, seemingly part of the deck itself; no force he could exert would move them.

Yet something had shifted them — and where were the vanished ones? From where had the new ones come?

Nor was there any haze around the little figures, nor blurring; each lineament stood out clean cut. The pointing toy on the black deck had dwarfed, bowed legs; his torso was that of a giant; his bald pate glinted and in his ears were wide discs of gold. Kenton recognized him — the beater of the serpent drum.

There was a tiny silver crescent upon the head of the bending woman toy, and over its tips poured flood of red-gold hair —


And that place at which she peered — was it not where he had lain on that other ship of his dream?

That — other ship? He saw again its decks ebon and ivory, its rosy cabin and its emerald mast. It had been this ship before him — no other! Dream? Then what had moved the toys?

Kenton’s wonder grew. Within it moved a sharp unease, a sharper curiosity. He found he could not think clearly with the ship filling his eyes; it seemed to focus all his attention upon it, to draw it taut, to fill him with a tense expectancy. He unhooked a hanging from the wall and threw it over the gleaming mystery. He walked from the room, fighting with each step an imperative desire to turn his head. He dragged himself through the doorway as though hands were gripping his ankles, drawing him back. Head still turned away Kenton lurched shoulders against the door; closed it; locked it.

In his bathroom he examined the bruise on his head. It was painful enough, but nothing serious. Half an hour of cold compresses fairly well removed all outward marks of it. He told himself that he might have fallen upon the floor, overcome by the strange perfumes — he knew that he had not.

Kenton dined alone, scarce heeding what was set before him, his mind groping through perplexities. What was the history of the block from Babylon? Who had set the ship within it — and why? Forsyth’s letter had said that he had found it in the mound called Amran, just south of the Qser or crumbled “palace” of Nabopolasser. There was evidence, Kenton knew, that the Amran mound was the site of E-Sagilla, the ziggurat or terraced temple that had been the Great House of the Gods in ancient Babylon. The block must have been held in peculiar reverence, so Forsyth had conjectured, since only so would it have been saved from the destruction of the city by Sennacherib and afterwards have been put back in the re-built temple.

But why had it been held in such reverence? Why had such a miracle as the ship been imprisoned in the stone?

The inscription might have given some clue had it not been so mutilated. In his letter Forsyth had pointed out that the name of Ishtar, Mother Goddess of the Babylonians — Goddess of Vengeance and Destruction as well — appeared over and over again; that plain too were the arrowed symbols of Nergal, God of the Babylonian Hades and Lord of the Dead; that the symbols of Nabu, the God of Wisdom, appeared many times. These three names had been almost the only legible words on the block. It was as though the acid of time which had etched out the other characters had been held back from them.

Kenton could read the cuneatic well nigh as readily as his native English. He recalled now that in the inscription Ishtar’s name had been coupled with her wrathful aspect rather than her softer ones, and that associated always with the symbols of Nabu had been the signs of warning, of danger.

Forsyth had not noticed that, evidently — or if he had he had not thought it worth mentioning. Nor, apparently had he been aware of the hidden perfumes of the block.

Well — there was no use thinking of the inscription. It was gone forever with the dust into which it had turned.

Kenton impatiently thrust back his chair. He knew that for the past hour he had been out temporizing, divided between the burning desire to get back to the room where the ship lay and the dread that when he did he would find all that adventure had been illusion, a dream; that the little figures had not really moved; that they were as they had been when he had first loosed the ship; that it was only a toy manned by toys — nothing more. He would temporize no longer.

“Don’t bother about me any more to-night, Jevins,” he told his butler. “I’ve some important work to do. If there are any calls say that I am away. I’m going to lock myself in and I don’t want to be disturbed for anything less than Gabriel’s trumpet.”

The old servant, a heritage from Kenton’s father, smiled.

“Very well, Mr. John,” he said. “I’ll let no one bother you.”

To reach the room wherein was the ship, Kenton’s way led through another in which he kept the rarest of his spoils from many a far away corner of the world. Passing, a vivid gleam of blue caught his eye and stayed him, like a hand. The gleam came from the hilt of a sword in one of the cabinets, a curious weapon he had bought from a desert nomad in Arabia. The sword hung above an ancient cloak in which it had been wrapped when the furtive Arab had slipped into his tent. Unknown centuries had softened the azure of that cloak, through whose web and woof great silver serpents writhed, cabalistically entwined.

Kenton unhooked the sword. Silver serpents, counterparts of those on the garments, twined about its hilt. From the hilt sprang a rod of bronze, eight inches long and three thick, round as a staff. This rod flared and flattened out into a leaf-shaped blade two feet long and full six inches wide across its center. Set in the hilt had been one large stone of cloudy blue.

The stone was no longer clouded. It was translucent, shining like an immense sapphire!

Obeying some half-formed thought that linked this new enigma with the ship’s shifting toys, he drew down the cloak and threw it over his shoulders. The sword in hand, he unlocked the further door, closed and fastened it behind him; walked over to the shrouded ship; swept off its covers.

Pulses leaping, Kenton drew back.

On it now were two figures only — the drummer, crouched with head in arms upon the black deck, and on deck of ivory a girl, leaning over the rail and looking down upon the oarsmen!

Kenton snapped out the electrics and stood waiting.

Minute after minute crept by. Fugitive gleams from the lights on the Avenue penetrated the curtains of the windows, glimmered on the ship. Muted but steady came the roar of the traffic, punctuated by horn blasts, explosions through mufflers — New York’s familiar voice.

Was that a halo growing round the ship . . . And what had become of the traffic’s roar.

The room was filling with silence as a vessel is filled with water . . .

Now a sound broke that silence; a sound like the lapping of little waves, languorous, caressing. The sounds stroked his lids, slumbrously; pressed them down. By enormous effort he half raised them.

A wide mist was opposite him, a globular silvery mist floating down upon him. Within that mist drifted a ship, its oars motionless, its sail half-filled. Wavelets crisped at its sickled bow, wavelets of pale turquoise with laced edges of foam.

Half the room was lost in the ripples of that approaching sea . . . the part on which he stood was many feet above the waves . . . so far below were they that the deck of the ship was level with his feet.

Closer drew the ship. He wondered why he heard no rushing winds, no clamoring tempests; no sound save the faint whispering of the foam-tipped waves.

Retreating, he felt his back press against the farther wall. Before him drifted that misty world, the ship upon its breast.

Kenton leaped, straight for the deck.

The winds roared about him now; vast winds howled and shrieked — again he heard but felt them not at all. And suddenly the clamor died.

Kenton’s feet struck solid surface.

He stood upon an ivory deck, facing a rosy cabin whose little blossoming trees were filled with cooing crimson billed, vermilion footed, doves. Between him and the cabin’s door was a girl, her soft brown eyes filled with wonder and that same startled disbelief he had seen in those of Sharane when first her gaze had fallen upon him at the foot of the emerald mast.

“Are you Lord Nabu’ that you came thus out of the air and in his cloak of wisdom, his serpents twining within it?” she whispered. “Nay that cannot be — for Nabu is very old — and you are young. Are you his messenger?”

She dropped to her knees; crossed her hands, palms outward, over her forehead. She leaped to her feet; ran to the closed door of the cabin.

“Kadishtu!” she struck it with clenched hands. “Holy One — a messenger from Nabu!”

The door of the cabin was flung open. Upon its threshold stood the woman called Sharane. Her glance swept him; then darted to the black deck. He followed it. The beater of the serpent drum squatted there; he seemed to sleep.

“Watch, Satalu!” breathed Sharane to the girl.

She caught Kenton’s hand; she drew him through the door. Two girls were there who stared at him. She thrust them forward.

“Out!” she whispered. “Out and watch with Satalu.”

They slipped from the cabin. She ran to an inner door; dropped a bar across it.

She turned, back against it; then stepped slowly to Kenton. She stretched out slim fingers; with them touched his eyes, his mouth, his heart — as though to assure herself that he was real.

She cupped his hands in hers, and bowed, and set her brows against his wrists; the waves of her hair bathed them. At her touch desire ran through him, swift and flaming. Her hair was a silken net to which his heart flew, eager to be trapped.

He steadied himself; he drew his hands from hers; he braced himself against her lure.

She lifted her head; regarded him.

“What has the Lord Nabu to say to me?” her voice rocked Kenton with perilous sweetnesses, subtle provocations. “What is his word to me, messenger? Surely will I listen — for in his wisdom has not the Lord of Wisdom sent one to whom to listen ought not be — difficult?”

There was a flash of coquetry like the flirt of a roguish fan in the misty eyes turned for an instant to his.

Thrilling to her closeness, groping for some firm ground, Kenton sought for words to answer her. Playing for time, he looked about the cabined space. There was an altar at the far end. It was sown with luminous gems, with pearls and pale moonstones and curdled, milky crystals. From seven crystal basins set before it arose still silvery flames. There was an alcove behind the altar, but the glow of the seven lights hid whatever was within. He had a swift sense of tenancy of that flame veiled alcove — something dwelt there.

At the far side was a low, wide divan of ivory inlaid with the milky crystals and patterned with golden arabesques. Silken tapestries fell from the walls, multicolored, flower woven. Soft deep silken rugs covered the cabin’s floor, and piles of cushions. At back, at left, two wide low windows opened; through them streamed silver light.

A bird flew upon the sill of one; a snowy bird with scarlet beak and feet; it scanned him, it preened itself, it cooed and flew away —

Soft hands touched him; Sharane’s face was close, eyes now with doubt more deeply shadowed.

“You — do come from Nabu?” she asked, and waited for reply; and still he found no words to answer her. “Messenger you must be,” she faltered, “else — how could you board the Ship of Ishtar? . . . And you are clad in Nabu’s cloak . . . and wear his sword . . . many times have I seen them in his shrine at Uruk . . . and I am weary of the Ship,” she whispered. “I would see Babylon again! Ah dearly, do I long for Babylon.”

Now words came to Kenton.

“Sharane,” he said boldly. “I do bear a message for you. It is the truth, and our Lord Nabu is Lord of Truth — therefore it must be from him. But before I give it to you, tell me — what is this ship?”

“What is the Ship!” she drew back from him, doubt enough now in her face —“But if you come indeed from Nabu — you must know that!”

“I do not know,” he told her, “I do not even know the meaning of the message I carry — it is for you to interpret. Yet here am I, upon the ship, before you. And in my ears I hear command — whispered it may be by Nabu himself — that I must not speak until you have told me — what is this ship.”

For a long moment she stood, scanning him, studying him.

“The ways of the gods are strange,” she sighed at last. “They are hard to understand. Yet — I obey.”


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Table of Contents

SHE slipped down upon the divan and beckoned him beside her. She laid a hand lightly upon his heart. His heart leaped beneath the touch; she felt it, too, and moved a little from him, smiling, watching him through downcast, curving lashes. She drew her slender, sandaled feet beneath her; mused with white hands clasped between rounded knees. When she spoke her voice was low, words half intoned.

“The sin of Zarpanit; the tale of her sin against Ishtar; Ishtar the Mighty Goddess; Mother of the Gods and of men; Lady of the Heavens and of Earth — who loved her!”

“High Priestess of Ishtar at her Great House in Uruk was Zarpanit. Kadishtu, Holy One, was she. And I, Sharane, who come from Babylon, was closest to her; her priestess; loved by her even as she was loved by Ishtar. Through Zarpanit the Goddess counseled and warned, rewarded and punished. Kings and men. Into the body of Zarpanit the Goddess came as to a shrine, seeing through her eyes, speaking with her lips.

“Now the temple in which we dwelt was named the House of the Seven Zones. In it was the sanctuary of Sin, God of Gods, who lives in the Moon; of Shamash his son; whose home is the Sun, of Nabu, the Lord of Wisdom; of Ninib, the Lord of War; of Nergal, the Dark Hornless one, Ruler of the Dead; and of Bel–Merodach, the Mighty Lord. Yet most of all was it the House of Ishtar, who dwelt there of his own right — temple themselves within her holy home.

“From Cuthaw in the north, from the temple there which Dark Nergal ruled as Ishtar ruled at Uruk, came a priest to sit over the Zone of Nergal in the House of the Seven Zones. His name was Alusar — and close as was Zarpanit to Ishtar as close was he to the Lord of the Dead. Nergal made himself manifest through Alusar, spoke through him and dwelt at times within him even as did Ishtar within her Priestess Zarpanit. With Alusar came retinue of priests, and among them that spawn of Nergal’s slime — Klaneth. And Klaneth was close to Alusar as I to Zarpanit.”

She raised her head and looked at Kenton through, narrowed lids.

“I know you now,” she cried. “A while ago you lay upon the ship and watched my strife with Klaneth! Now I know you — although then you had no cloak nor sword; and vanished as I looked upon you!”

Kenton smiled at her.

“You lay with frightened face,” she said. “And stared at me with fearful eyes — and fled!”

She half arose; he saw suspicion sweep her anew; the scorn in her voice lashed him into quick, hot rage. He drew her down beside him.

“I was that man,” he said. “Nor was it fault of mine that then I went away — I who have returned as quickly as I could? And your own eyes lied to you. Nor ever think again that mine hold fear of you! Look into them!” he bade her, fiercely.

She looked — long; sighed and bent away, sighed again and swayed toward him, languorously. His arms gripped her.

“Enough,” she thrust him away. “I read no hasty script in new eyes. Yet I retract — you were not fearful. You did not flee! And when you speak I shall no doubt understand. Let be!

“Between Ishtar and Nergal,” she took up the interrupted tale, “is and ever must be unending hatred and strife. For Ishtar is Bestower of Life and Nergal is Taker of Life; she is the Lover of Good and he is the Lover of Evil. And how shall ever Heaven and Hell be linked; or life and death; or good and evil?

“Yet she, Zarpanit, Kadishtu, the Holy One of Ishtar, her best beloved, did link all these. For where she should have turned away — she looked with desire; and where she should have hated — she loved!

“Yea — the Priestess of the Lady of Life loved Alusar the Priest of the Lord of Death! Her love was a strong flame by whose light she could see only him — and him only. Had Zarpanit been Ishtar she would have gone to the Dwelling Place of the Lost for Alusar, even as did the Goddess for her lover Tammuz — to draw him forth or to dwell there with him.

“Yea — even to dwell with him there in the cold darkness where the dead creep feebly, calling with the weak voices of birds. In the cold of Nergal’s domain, in the famine of Nergal’s abode, in the blackness of his city where the deepest shade of earth would be a ray of sunlight, Zarpanit would have been happy — knowing that she was with Alusar.

“So greatly did she love!

“I helped her in her love — for love of her,” she whispered. “But Klaneth crept ever behind Alusar waiting for chance to betray him and to take his place. Yet Alusar trusted him. There came a night —”

She paused, her face drawn with memoried terror.

“There came . . . a night when Alusar lay with Zarpanit . . . within her chamber. His arms were about her . . . hers around his neck . . . their lips together . . .

“And that night down came Ishtar from her Heavens and entered and possessed her! . . .

“While at the same instant from his dark city came Nergal . . . and passed into Alusar . . .

“And in each others arms, looking into each other’s eyes, caught in the fire of mortal love . . . were . . . Ishtar and Nergal . . . Heaven and Hell . . . the Soul of Life mated to the Soul of Death!”

She quivered and wept and long minutes went slowly by before again she spoke.

“Straightway those two who clasped were torn from each other. We were buffeted as by hurricanes, blinded by lightnings; scourged and thrown broken to the walls. And when we knew consciousness the priests and priestesses of all the Seven Zones had us. All the sin was known!

“Yea, even though Ishtar and Nergal had not . . . met . . . that night still would the sinning of Zarpanit and Alusar have been known. For Klaneth, whom we had thought on guard, had betrayed them and brought down upon them the pack!

“Let Klaneth be cursed!” Sharane raised arms high, and the pulse of her hate beat upon Kenton like a hammer of flame. “Let Klaneth crawl blind and undying in the cold blackness of Nergal’s abode! But Goddess Ishtar! Wrathful Ishtar! Give him to me first that I may send him there as I would have him go!”


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“FOR A TIME,” she said, “we lay in darkness, Zarpanit and I together — and Alusar we knew not where. Great had been the sin of those two, and in it I had shared. Not quickly was our punishment to be decided. I comforted her as best I might, loving her, caring naught for myself — for her heart was close to breaking, knowing not what they did with him she loved.

“There fell another night when the priests came to us. They drew us from our cell and bore us in silence to the portal of the Du-azzaga, the Brilliant Chamber, the Council Room of the Gods. There stood other priests with Alusar. They opened the portal, fearfully, and thrust us three within.

“Now in truth my spirit shrank and was afraid, and beside mine I felt the shuddering soul of Zarpanit.

“For the Du-azzaga was filled with light, and in the places of the Gods sat not their images but the Gods themselves! Hidden each behind a sparkling cloud the Gods looked at us. In the place of Nergal was a fiery darkness.

“Out of the shining azure mist before the Shrine of Nabu came the voice of the Lord of Wisdom.

“‘So great is your sin, woman,’ it said, ‘and yours, priest, that it has troubled even us the Gods! Now what have you to say before we punish?’

“The voice of Nabu was cold and passionless as the light of far flung stars — yet in it was understanding.

“And suddenly my love for Zarpanit swelled, and I held fast to it and it gave me strength; while beside me I felt her soul stand erect, defiant, her love flinging itself before her as a shield. She did not answer — only held out her arms to Alusar. His love stood forth unafraid even as hers. He clasped her.

“Their lips met — and the judging Gods were forgotten!

“Then Nabu spoke again:

“‘These two bear a flame that none but Ishtar can quench — and it may be not even she!’

“At this Zarpanit drew from her lover’s arms; came close to the glory in which hid Ishtar; did homage and addressed her:

“‘Yea, O Mother, are you not the mother of that fire we call love? Did you not create it and set it as a torch above Chaos? And having made it, did you not know how mighty was the thing you made? It was that love of which you are the mother, O Holy Ishtar, that came uncalled into this temple of my body which was yours, and still is yours though you have abandoned it. Is it my fault that so strong was love that it broke the doors of your temple, or my fault that its light blinded me to all save him on whom it shone? You are the creator of love, O Ishtar; and if you did not mean it to conquer then why made you it so mighty? Or if love be grown stronger than you who made it can we — a man and woman — be blamed that we could not overcome it? And if love be not stronger than you, still did you make it stronger than man. Therefore punish love, your child, O Ishtar — not us!’

“It was the Lord Nabu who broke the silence of the Gods:

“‘Truth is in what she says. The flame they bear is one whose ways you know, O Ishtar, far better than do we. Therefore it is for you to answer her.’

“‘From the glory veiling the Goddess a voice came, sweet but small with bitter anger:

“‘There is truth in what you say Zarpanit, whom once I called daughter. Now because of that truth I will temper my anger. You have asked me whether love is stronger than I who created it. We shall learn! You and your lover shall dwell in a certain place that shall be opened to you. Ever together shall you be. You may look upon each other, your eyes may meet — but never lips nor hands! You may speak to each other — but never of this flame called love! For when it leaps and draws you together then I, Ishtar, will enter you, Zarpanit, and give it battle! Nor shall it be the Ishtar you have known. Nay, that Sister–Self of mine whom men name the Wrathful, the Destroyer — she shall possess you. And so it shall be until the flame within you conquers her, or that flame perishes!’

“The voice of Ishtar was still. The gods sat, silent. Then out of the fiery blackness of Nergal’s shrine bellowed the voice of the Lord of Death!

“‘So say you, Ishtar! Then I, Nergal, tell you this — I stand with this man who is my priest! Nor am I much displeased with him, since it was by him that I looked so closely into your eyes, O Mother of Life!’— the Blackness shook with laughter —‘I shall be with him, and I will meet you, Ishtar the Destroyer! Yea, with craft to match yours and strength to grapple with you — until I, not you, have blown out that flame. For in my abode is no such fire — and I would quench it in them that my darkness be not affrighted when at last these two come to me!’