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Title: The House of Arabu
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Language: English
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The House of Arabu
Robert E. Howard



To the house whence no one issues, To the road from whence there is no
return, To the house whose inhabitants are deprived of light, The
place where dust is their nourishment, their food clay, They have no
light, dwelling in dense darkness, And they are clothed, like birds,
in a garment of feathers, Where, over gate and bolt, dust is
scattered.

--Babylonian legend of Ishtar

"Has he seen a night-spirit, is he listening to the whispers of them
who dwell in darkness?"

Strange words to be murmured in the feast-hall of Naram-ninub, amid
the strain of lutes, the patter of fountains, and the tinkle of
women's laughter. The great hall attested the wealth of its owner, not
only by its vast dimensions, but by the richness of its adornment. The
glazed surface of the walls offered a bewildering variegation of
colors--blue, red, and orange enamels set off by squares of hammered
gold. The air was heavy with incense, mingled with the fragrance of
exotic blossoms from the gardens without. The feasters, silk-robed
nobles of Nippur, lounged on satin cushions, drinking wine poured from
alabaster vessels, and caressing the painted and bejeweled playthings
which Naram-ninub's wealth had brought from all parts of the East.

There were scores of these; their white limbs twinkled as they danced,
or shone like ivory among the cushions where they sprawled. A jeweled
tiara caught in a burnished mass of night-black hair, a gem-crusted
armlet of massive gold, earrings of carven jade--these were their only
garments. Their fragrance was dizzying. Shameless in their dancing,
feasting and lovemaking, their light laughter filled the hall in waves
of silvery sound.

On a broad cushion-piled dais reclined the giver of the feast,
sensuously stroking the glossy locks of a lithe Arabian who had
stretched herself on her supple belly beside him. His appearance of
sybaritic languor was belied by the vital sparkling of his dark eyes
as he surveyed his guests. He was thick-bodied, with a short blue-
black beard: a Semite--one of the many drifting yearly into Shumir.

With one exception his guests were Shumirians, shaven of chin and
head. Their bodies were padded with rich living, their features smooth
and placid. The exception among them stood out in startling contrast.
Taller than they, he had none of their soft sleekness. He was made
with the economy of relentless Nature. His physique was of the
primitive, not of the civilized athlete. He was an incarnation of
Power, raw, hard, wolfish--in the sinewy limbs, the corded neck, the
great arch of the breast, the broad hard shoulders. Beneath his
tousled golden mane his eyes were like blue ice. His strongly
chiselled features reflected the wildness his frame suggested. There
was about him nothing of the measured leisure of the other guests, but
a ruthless directness in his every action. Whereas they sipped, he
drank in great gulps. They nibbled at tid-bits, but he seized whole
joints in his fingers and tore at the meat with his teeth. Yet his
brow was shadowed, his expression moody. His magnetic eyes were
introspective. Wherefore Prince lbi-Engur lisped again in Naram-
ninub's ear: "Has the lord, Pyrrhas, heard the whispering of night-
things?"

Naram-ninub eyed his friend in some worriment. "Come, my lord," said
he, "you are strangely distraught. Has any here done aught to offend
you?"

Pyrrhas roused himself as from some gloomy meditation and shook his
head. "Not so, friend; if I seem distracted it is because of a shadow
that lies over my own mind." His accent was barbarous, but the timbre
of his voice was strong and vibrant.

The others glanced at him in interest. He was Eannatum's general of
mercenaries, an Argive whose saga was epic.

"Is it a woman, lord Pyrrhas?" asked Prince Enakalli with a laugh.
Pyrrhas fixed him with his gloomy stare and the prince felt a cold
wind blowing on his spine.

"Aye, a woman," muttered the Argive. "One who haunts my dreams and
floats like a shadow between me and the moon. In my dreams I feel her
teeth in my neck, and I wake to hear the flutter of wings and the cry
of an owl."

A silence fell over the group on the dais. Only in the great hall
below rose the babble of mirth and conversation and the tinkling of
lutes, and a girl laughed loudly, with a curious note in her laughter.

"A curse is upon him," whispered the Arabian girl. Naram-ninub
silenced her with a gesture, and was about to speak, when Ibi-Engur
lisped: "My lord Pyrrhas, this has an uncanny touch, like the
vengeance of a god. Have you done aught to offend a deity?"

Naram-ninub bit his lip in annoyance. It was well known that in his
recent campaign against Erech, the Argive had cut down a priest of Anu
in his shrine. Pyrrhas' maned head jerked up and he glared at Ibi-
Engur as if undecided whether to attribute the remark to malice or
lack of tact. The prince began to pale, but the slim Arabian rose to
her knees and caught at Naram-ninub's arm.

"Look at Belibna!" She pointed at the girl who had laughed so wildly
an instant before.

Her companions were drawing away from this girl apprehensively. She
did not speak to them, or seem to see them. She tossed her jeweled
head and her shrill laughter rang through the feast-hall. Her slim
body swayed back and forth, her bracelets clanged and jangled together
as she tossed up her white arms. Her dark eyes gleamed with a wild
light, her red lips curled with her unnatural mirth.

"The hand of Arabu is on her," whispered the Arabian uneasily.

"Belibna?" Naram-ninub called sharply. His only answer was another
burst of wild laughter, and the girl cried stridently: "To the home of
darkness, the dwelling of Irhalla; to the road whence there is no
return; oh, Apsu, bitter is thy wine!" Her voice snapped in a terrible
scream, and bounding from among her cushions, she leaped up on the
dais, a dagger in her hand. Courtesans and guests shrieked and
scrambled madly out of her way. But it was at Pyrrhas the girl rushed,
her beautiful face a mask of fury. The Argive caught her wrist, and
the abnormal strength of madness was futile against the barbarian's
iron thews. He tossed her from him, and down the cushion-strewn steps,
where she lay in a crumpled heap, her own dagger driven into her heart
as she fell.

The hum of conversation which had ceased suddenly, rose again as the
guards dragged away the body, and the painted dancers came back to
their cushions. But Pyrrhas turned and taking his wide crimson cloak
from a slave, threw it about his shoulders.

"Stay, my friend," urged Naram-ninub. "Let us not allow this small
matter to interfere with our revels. Madness is common enough."

Pyrrhas shook his head irritably. "Nay, I'm weary of swilling and
gorging. I'll go to my own house."

"Then the feasting is at an end," declared the Semite, rising and
clapping his hands. "My own litter shall bear you to the house the
king has given you--nay, I forgot you scorn the ride on other men's
backs. Then I shall myself escort you home. My lords, will you--
accompany us?"

"Walk, like common men?" stuttered Prince Ur-ilishu. "By Enlil, I will
come. It will be a rare novelty. But I must have a slave to bear the
train of my robe, lest it trail in the dust of the street. Come,
friends, let us see the lord Pyrrhas home, by Ishtar!"

"A strange man," Ibi-Engur lisped to Libit-ishbi, as the party emerged
from the spacious palace, and descended the broad tiled stair, guarded
by bronze lions. "He walks the streets, unattended, like a very
tradesman."

"Be careful," murmured the other. "He is quick to anger, and he stands
high in the favor of Eannatum."

"Yet even the favored of the king had best beware of offending the god
Anu," replied Ibi-Engur in an equally guarded voice.

The party were proceeding leisurely down the broad white street, gaped
at by the common folk who bobbed their shaven heads as they passed.
The sun was not long up, but the people of Nippur were well astir.
There was much coming and going between the booths where the merchants
spread their wares: a shifting panorama, woven of craftsmen,
tradesmen, slaves, harlots, and soldiers in copper helmets. There went
a merchant from his warehouse, a staid figure in sober woolen robe and
white mantle; there hurried a slave in a linen tunic; there minced a
painted hoyden whose short slit skirt displayed her sleek flank at
every step. Above them the blue of the sky whitened with the heat of
the mounting sun. The glazed surfaces of the buildings shimmered. They
were flatroofed, some of them three or four stories high. Nippur was a
city of sun-dried brick, but its facings of enamel made it a riot of
bright color.

Somewhere a priest was chanting: "Oh, Babbat, righteousness lifteth up
to thee its head--"

Pyrrhas swore under his breath. They were passing the great temple of
Enlil, towering up three hundred feet in the changeless blue sky.

"The towers stand against the sky like part of it," he swore, raking
back a damp lock from his forehead. "The sky is enameled, and this is
a world made by man."

"Nay, friend," demurred Naram-ninub. "Ea built the world from the body
of Tiamat."

"I say men built Shumir!" exclaimed Pyrrhas, the wine he had drunk
shadowing his eyes. "A flat land--a very banquet-board of a land--with
rivers and cities painted upon it, and a sky of blue enamel over it.
By Ymir, I was born in a land the gods built! There are great blue
mountains, with valleys lying like long shadows between, and snow
peaks glittering in the sun. Rivers rush foaming down the cliffs in
everlasting tumult, and the broad leaves of the trees shake in the
strong winds."

"I, too, was born in a broad land, Pyrrhas," answered the Semite. "By
night the desert lies white and awful beneath the moon, and by day it
stretches in brown infinity beneath the sun. But it is in the swarming
cities of men, these hives of bronze and gold and enamel and humanity,
that wealth and glory lie."

Pyrrhas was about to speak, when a loud wailing attracted his
attention. Down the street came a procession, bearing a carven and
painted litter on which lay a figure hidden by flowers. Behind came a
train of young women, their scanty garments rent, their black hair
flowing wildly. They beat their naked bosoms and cried: "Ailanu!
Thammuz is dead!" The throngs in the street took up the shout. The
litter passed, swaying on the shoulders of the bearers; among the
high-piled flowers shone the painted eyes of a carven image. The cry
of the worshippers echoed down the street, dwindling in the distance.

Pyrrhas shrugged his mighty shoulders. "Soon they will be leaping and
dancing and shouting, 'Adonis is living!' and the wenches who howl so
bitterly now will give themselves to men in the streets for
exultation. How many gods are there, in the devil's name?"

Naram-ninub pointed to the great zikkurat of Enlil, brooding over all
like the brutish dream of a mad god.

"See ye the seven tiers: the lower black, the next of red enamel, the
third blue, the fourth orange, the fifth yellow, while the sixth is
faced with silver, and the seventh with pure gold which flames in the
sunlight? Each stage in the temple symbolizes a deity: the sun, the
moon, and the five planets Enlil and his tribe have set in the skies
for their emblems. But Enlil is greater than all, and Nippur is his
favored city."

"Greater than Anu?" muttered Pyrrhas, remembering a flaming shrine and
a dying priest that gasped an awful threat.

"Which is the greatest leg of a tripod?" parried Naram-ninub.

Pyrrhas opened his mouth to reply, then recoiled with a curse, his
sword flashing out. Under his very feet a serpent reared up, its
forked tongue flickering like a jet of red lightning.

"What is it, friend?" Naram-ninub and the princes stared at him in
surprise.

"What is it?" He swore. "Don't you see that snake under your very
feet? Stand aside--and give me a clean swing at it."

His voice broke off and his eyes clouded with doubt.

"It's gone," he muttered.

"I saw nothing," said Naram-ninub, and the others shook their heads,
exchanging wondering glances.

The Argive passed his hand across his eyes, shaking his head.

"Perhaps it's the wine," he muttered. "Yet there was an adder, I swear
by the heart of Ymir. I am accursed."

The others drew away from him, glancing at him strangely.

There had always been a restlessness in the soul of Pyrrhas the Argive,
to haunt his dreams and drive him out on his long wanderings. It had
brought him from the blue mountains of his race, southward into the
fertile valleys and sea-fringing plains where rose the huts of the
Mycenaeans; thence into the isle of Crete, where, in a rude town of
rough stone and wood, a swart fishing people bartered with the ships
of Egypt; by those ships he had gone into Egypt, where men toiled
beneath the lash to rear the first pyramids, and where, in the ranks
of the white-skinned mercenaries, the Shardana, he learned the arts of
war. But his wanderlust drove him again across the sea, to a mud-walled
trading village on the coast of Asia, called Troy, whence he drifted
southward into the pillage and carnage of Palestine where the original
dwell--in the land were trampled under by the barbaric Canaanites out
of the East. So by devious ways he came at last to the plains of
Shumir, where city fought city, and the priests of a myriad rival gods
intrigued and plotted, as they had done since the dawn of Time, and as
they did for centuries after, until the rise of an obscure frontier
town called Babylon exalted its city-god Merodach above all others as
Bel-Marduk, the conqueror of Tiamat.

The bare outline of the saga of Pyrrhas the Argive is weak and paltry;
it can not catch the echoes of the thundering pageantry that rioted
through that saga: the feasts, revels, wars, the crash and splintering
of ships and the onset of chariots. Let it suffice to say that the
honor of kings was given to the Argive, and that in all Mesopotamia
here was no man so feared as this golden-haired barbarian whose war-
skill and fury broke the hosts of Erech on the field, and the yoke of
Erech from the neck of Nippur.

From a mountain but to a palace of jade and ivory Pyrrhas' saga had
led him. Yet the dim half-animal dreams that had filled his slumber
when he lay as a youth on a heap of wolfskins in his shaggy-headed
father's hut were nothing so strange and monstrous as the dreams that
haunted him on the silken couch in the palace of turquoise-towered
Nippur.

It was from these dreams that Pyrrhas woke suddenly. No lamp burned in
his chamber and the moon was not yet up, but the starlight filtered
dimly through the casement. And in this radiance something moved and
took form. There was the vague outline of a lithe form, the gleam of
an eye. Suddenly the night beat down oppressively hot and still.
Pyrrhas heard the pound of his own blood through his veins. Why fear a
woman lurking in his chamber? But no woman's form was ever so
pantherishly supple; no woman's eyes ever burned so in the darkness.
With a gasping snarl he leaped from his couch and his sword hissed as
it cut the air--but only the air. Something like a mocking laugh
reached his ears, but the figure was gone.

A girl entered hastily with a lamp.

"Amytis! I saw her! It was no dream, this time! She laughed at me from
the window!"

Amytis trembled as she set the lamp on an ebony table. She was a sleek
sensuous creature, with long-lashed, heavy-lidded eyes, passionate
lips, and a wealth of lustrous black curly locks. As she stood there
naked the voluptuousness of her figure would have stirred the most
jaded debauchee. A gift from Eannatum, she hated Pyrrhas, and he knew
it, but found an angry gratification in possessing her. But now, her
hatred was drowned in her terror.

"It was Lilitu!" she stammered. "She has marked you for her own! She
is the night-spirit, the mate of Ardat Lili. They dwell in the House
of Arabu. You are accursed!"

His hands were bathed with sweat; molten ice seemed to be flowing
sluggishly through his veins instead of blood.

"Where shall I turn? The priests hate and fear me since I burned Anu's
temple."

"There is a man who is not bound by the priest-craft, and could aid
you." She blurted out.

"Then tell me!" He was galvanized, trembling with eager impatience.
"His name, girl! His name!"

But at this sign of weakness, her malice returned; she had blurted out
what was in her mind, in her fear of the supernatural. Now all the
vindictiveness in her was awake again.

"I have forgotten," she answered insolently, her eyes glowing with
spite.

"Slut!" Gasping with the violence of his rage, he dragged her across a
couch by her thick locks. Seizing his sword belt he wielded it with
savage force, holding down the writhing naked body with his free hand.
Each stroke was like the impact of a drover's whip. So mazed with fury
was he, and she so incoherent with pain, that he did not at first
realize that she was shrieking a name at the top of her voice.
Recognizing this at last, he cast her from him, to fall in a
whimpering heap on the mat-covered floor. Trembling and panting from
the excess of his passion, he threw aside the belt and glared down at
her.

"Gimil-ishbi, eh?"

"Yes!" she sobbed, grovelling on the floor in her excruciating
anguish. "He was a priest of Enlil, until he turned diabolist and was
banished. Ahhh, I faint! I swoon! Mercy! Mercy!"

"And where shall I find him?" he demanded.

"In the mound of Enzu, to the west of the city. Oh, Enlil, I am flayed
alive! I perish!"

Turning from her, Pyrrhas hastily donned his garments and armor,
without calling for a slave to aid him. He went forth, passed among
his sleeping servitors without waking them, and secured the best of
his horses. There were perhaps a score in all in Nippur, the property
of the king and his wealthier nobles; they had been bought from the
wild tribes far to the north, beyond the Caspian, whom in a later age
men called Scythians. Each steed represented an actual fortune.
Pyrrhas bridled the great beast and strapped on the saddle--merely a
cloth pad, ornamented and richly worked.

The soldiers at the gate gaped at him as he drew rein and ordered them
to open the great bronze portals, but they bowed and obeyed without
question. His crimson cloak flowed behind him as he galloped through
the gate.

"Enlil!" swore a soldier. "The Argive has drunk overmuch of Naram-
ninub's Egyptian wine."

"Nay," responded another; "did you see his face that it was pale, and
his hand that it shook on the rein? The gods have touched him, and
perchance he rides to the House of Arabu."

Shaking their helmeted heads dubiously, they listened to the hoof-
beats dwindling away in the west.

North, south and east from Nippur, farm-houses, villages and palm groves
clustered the plain, threaded by the networks of canals that
connected the rivers. But westward the land lay bare and silent to the
Euphrates, only charred expanses telling of former villages. A few
moons ago raiders had swept out of the desert in a wave that engulfed
the vineyards and huts and burst against the staggering walls of
Nippur. Pyrrhas remembered the fighting along the walls, and the
fighting on the plain, when his sally at the head of his phalanxes had
broken the besiegers and driven them in headlong flight back across
the Great River. Then the plain had been red with blood and black with
smoke. Now it was already veiled in green again as the grain put forth
its shoots, uncared for by man. But the toilers who had planted that
grain had gone into the land of dusk and darkness.

Already the overflow from more populous districts was seeping; back
into the man-made waste. A few months, a year at most, and the land
would again present the typical aspect of the Mesopotamian plain,
swarming with villages, checked with tiny fields that were more like
gardens than farms. Man would cover the scars man had made, and there
would be forgetfulness, till the raiders swept again out of the
desert. But now the plain lay bare and silent, the canals choked,
broken and empty.

Here and there rose the remnants of palm groves, the crumbling ruins
of villas and country palaces. Further out, barely visible under the
stars, rose the mysterious hillock known as the mound of Enzu--the
moon. It was not a natural hill, but whose hands had reared it and for
what reason none knew. Before Nippur was built it had risen above the
plain, and the nameless fingers that shaped it had vanished in the
dust of time. To it Pyrrhas turned his horse's head.

And in the city he had left, Amytis furtively left his palace and took
a devious course to a certain secret destination. She walked rather
stiffly, limped, and frequently paused to tenderly caress her person
and lament over her injuries. But limping, cursing, and weeping, she
eventually reached her destination, and stood before a man whose
wealth and power was great in Nippur. His glance was an interrogation.

"He has gone to the Mound of the Moon, to speak with Gimil-ishbi," she
said.

"Lilitu came to him again tonight," she shuddered, momentarily
forgetting her pain and anger. "Truly he is accursed."

"By the priests of Anu?" His eyes narrowed to slits.

"So he suspects."

"And you?"

"What of me? I neither know nor care."

"Have you ever wondered why I pay you to spy upon him?" he demanded.

She shrugged her shoulders. "You pay me well; that is enough for me."

"Why does he go to Gimil-ishbi?"

"I told him the renegade might aid him against Lilitu."

Sudden anger made the man's face darkly sinister.

"I thought you hated him."

She shrank from the menace in the voice. "I spoke of the diabolist
before I thought, and then he forced me to speak his name, curse him, I
will not sit with ease for weeks!" Her resentment rendered her
momentarily speechless.

The man ignored her, intent on his own somber meditations. At last he
rose with sudden determination.

"I have waited too long," he muttered, like one speaking his thoughts
aloud. "The fiends play with him while I bite my nails, and those who
conspire with me grow restless and suspicious. Enlil alone knows what
counsel Gimil-ishbi will give. When the moon rises I will ride forth
and seek the Argive on the plain. A stab unaware--he will not suspect
until my sword is through him. A bronze blade is surer than the powers
of Darkness. I was a fool to trust even a devil."

Amytis gasped with horror and caught at the velvet hangings for
support.

"You? You?" Her lips framed a question too terrible to voice.

"Aye!" He accorded her a glance of grim amusement. With a gasp of
terror she darted through the curtained door, her smarts forgotten in
her fright.

Whether the cavern was hollowed by man or by Nature, none ever knew.
At least its walls, floor, and ceiling were symmetrical and composed of
blocks of greenish stone, found nowhere else in that level land.
Whatever its cause and origin, man occupied it now. A lamp hung from
the rock roof, casting a weird light over the chamber and the bald
pate of the man who sat crouching over a parchment scroll on a stone
table before him. He looked up as a quick sure footfall sounded on the
stone steps that led down into his abode. The next instant a tall
figure stood framed in the doorway.

The man at the stone table scanned this figure with avid interest.
Pyrrhas wore a hauberk of black leather and copper scales; his brazen
greaves glinted in the lamplight. The wide crimson cloak, flung
loosely about him, did not enmesh the long hilt that jutted from its
folds. Shadowed by his horned bronze helmet, the Argive's eyes gleamed
icily. So the warrior faced the sage.

Gimil-ishbi was very old. There was no leaven of Semitic blood in his
withered veins. His bald head was round as a vulture's skull, and from
it his great nose jutted like the beak of a vulture. His eyes were
oblique, a rarity even in a pure-blooded Shumirian, and they were
bright and black as beads. Whereas Pyrrhas' eyes were all depth, blue
deeps and changing clouds and shadows, Gimil-ishbi's eyes were opaque
as jet, and they never changed. His mouth was a gash whose smile was
more terrible than its snarl.

He was clad in a simple black tunic, and his feet, in their cloth
sandals, seemed strangely deformed. Pyrrhas felt a curious twitching
between his shoulder-blades as he glanced at those feet, and he drew
his eyes away, and back to the sinister face.

"Deign to enter my humble abode, warrior," the voice was soft and
silky, sounding strange from those harsh thin lips. "I would I could
offer you food and drink, but I fear the food I eat and the wine I
drink would find little favor in your sight." He laughed softly as at
an obscure jest.

"I come not to eat or to drink," answered Pyrrhas abruptly, striding
up to the table. "I come to buy a charm against devils."

"To buy?"

The Argive emptied a pouch of gold coins on the stone surface; they
glistened dully in the lamplight. Gimil-ishbi's laugh was like the
rustle of a serpent through dead grass.

"What is this yellow dirt to me? You speak of devils, and you bring me
dust the wind blows away."

"Dust?" Pyrrhas scowled. Gimil-ishbi laid his hand on the shining heap
and laughed; somewhere in the night an owl moaned. The priest lifted
his hand. Beneath it lay a pile of yellow dust that gleamed dully in
the lamplight. A sudden wind rushed down the steps, making the lamp
flicker, whirling up the golden heap; for an instant the air was
dazzled and spangled with the shining particles. Pyrrhas swore; his
armor was sprinkled with yellow dust; it sparkled among the scales of
his hauberk.

"Dust that the wind blows away," mumbled the priest. "Sit down,
Pyrrhas of Nippur, and let us converse with each other."

Pyrrhas glanced about the narrow chamber; at the even stacks of clay
tablets along the walls, and the rolls of papyrus above them. Then he
seated himself on the stone bench opposite the priest, hitching his
sword belt so that his hilt was well to the front.

"You are far from the cradle of your race," said Gimil-ishbi. "You are
the first golden-haired rover to tread the plains of Shumir."

"I have wandered in many lands," muttered the Argive, "but may the
vultures pluck my bones if I ever saw a race so devil-ridden as this,
or a land ruled and harried by so many gods and demons."

His gaze was fixed in fascination on Gimil-ishbi's hands; they were
long, narrow, white and strong, the hands of youth. Their contrast to
the priest's appearance of great age otherwise, was vaguely
disquieting.

"To each city its gods and their priests," answered Gimil-ishbi; "and
all fools. Of what account are gods whom the fortunes of men lift or
lower? Behind all gods of men, behind the primal trinity of Ea, Anu
and Enlil, lurk the elder gods, unchanged by the wars or ambitions of
men. Men deny what they do not see. The priests of Eridu, which is
sacred to Ea and light, are no blinder than them of Nippur, which is
consecrated to Enlil, whom they deem the lord of Darkness. But he is
only the god of the darkness of which men dream, not the real Darkness
that lurks behind all dreams, and veils the real and awful deities. I
glimpsed this truth when I was a priest of Enlil, wherefore they cast
me forth. Ha! They would stare if they knew how many of their
worshippers creep forth to me by night, as you have crept."

"I creep to no man!" the Argive bristled instantly. "I came to buy a
charm. Name your price, and be damned to you."

"Be not wroth," smiled the priest. "Tell me why you have come."

"If you are so cursed wise you should know already," growled the
Argive, unmollified. Then his gaze clouded as he cast back over his
tangled trail. "Some magician has cursed me." he muttered. "As I rode
back from my triumph over Erech, my war-horse screamed and shied at
Something none saw but he. Then my dreams grew strange and monstrous.
In the darkness of my chamber, wings rustled and feet padded
stealthily. Yesterday a woman at a feast went mad and tried to knife
me. Later an adder sprang out of empty air and struck at me. Then,
this night, she whom men call Lilitu came to my chamber and mocked me with
awful laughter--"

"Lilitu?" the priest's eyes lit with a brooding fire; his skull-face
worked in a ghastly smile. "Verily, warrior, they plot thy ruin in the
House of Arabu. Your sword can not prevail against her, or against her
mate Ardat Lili. In the gloom of midnight her teeth will find your
throat. Her laugh will blast your ears, and her burning kisses will
wither you like a dead leaf blowing in the hot winds of the desert.
Madness and dissolution will be your lot, and you will descend to the
House of Arabu whence none returns."

Pyrrhas moved restlessly, cursing incoherently beneath his breath.

"What can I offer you besides gold?" he growled.

"Much!" the black eyes shone; the mouth-gash twisted in inexplicable
glee. "But I must name my own price, after I have given you aid."

Pyrrhas acquiesced with an impatient gesture.

"Who are the wisest men in the world?" asked the sage abruptly.

"The priests of Egypt, who scrawled on yonder parchments," answered
the Argive.

Gimil-ishbi shook his head; his shadow fell on the wall like that of a
great vulture, crouching over a dying victim.

"None so wise as the priests of Tiamat, who--fools believe--died long
ago under the sword of Ea. Tiamat is deathless; she reigns in the
shadows; she spreads her dark wings over her worshippers."

"I know them not," muttered Pyrrhas uneasily.

"The cities of men know them not; but the waste-places know them, the
reedy marshes, the stony deserts, the hills, and the caverns. To them
steal the winged ones from the House of Arabu."

"I thought none came from that House," said the Argive.

"No human returns thence. But the servants of Tiamat come and go at
their pleasure."

Pyrrhas was silent, reflecting on the place of the dead, as believed
in by the Shumirians; a vast cavern, dusty, dark and silent, through
which wandered the souls of the dead forever, shorn of all human
attributes, cheerless and loveless, remembering their former lives
only to hate all living men, their deeds and dreams.

"I will aid you," murmured the priest. Pyrrhas lifted his helmeted
head and stared at him. Gimil-ishbi's eyes were no more human than the
reflection of firelight on subterranean pools of inky blackness. His
lips sucked in as if he gloated over all woes and miseries of mankind:
Pyrrhas hated him as a man hates the unseen serpent in the darkness.

"Aid me and name your price," said the Argive.

Gimil-ishbi closed his hands and opened them, and in the palms lay a
gold cask, the lid of which fastened with a jeweled catch. He sprung
the lid, and Pyrrhas saw the cask was filled with grey dust. He
shuddered without knowing why.

"This ground dust was once the skull of the first king of Ur," said
Gimil-ishbi. "When he died, as even a necromancer must, he concealed
his body with all his art!! But I found his crumbling bones, and in
the darkness above them, I fought with his soul as a man fights with a
python in the night. My spoil was his skull, that held darker secrets
than those that lie in the pits of Egypt."

"With this dead dust shall you trap Lilitu. Go quickly to an enclosed
place--a cavern or a chamber--nay, that ruined villa which lies between
this spot and the city will serve. Strew the dust in thin lines across
threshold and window; leave not a spot as large as a man's hand
unguarded. Then lie down as if in slumber. When Lilitu enters, as she
will, speak the words I shall teach you. Then you are her master,
until you free her again by repeating the conjure backwards. You can
not slay her, but you can make her swear to leave you in peace. Make
her swear by the dugs of Tiamat. Now lean close and I will whisper the
words of the spell."

Somewhere in the night a nameless bird cried out harshly; the sound
was more human than the whispering of the priest, which was no louder
than the gliding of an adder through slimy ooze. He drew back, his
gash-mouth twisted in a grisly smile. The Argive sat for an instant
like a statue of bronze. Their shadows fell together on the wall with
the appearance of a crouching vulture facing a strange horned monster.

Pyrrhas took the cask and rose, wrapping his crimson cloak about his
somber figure, his horned helmet lending an illusion of abnormal
height.

"And the price?"

Gimil-ishbi's hands became claws, quivering with lust.

"Blood! A life!"

"Whose life?"

"Any life! So blood flows, and there is fear and agony, a spirit
ruptured from its quivering flesh! I have one price for all--a human
life! Death is my rapture; I would glut my soul on death! Man, maid,
or infant. You have sworn. Make good your oath! A life! A human life!"

"Aye, a life!" Pyrrhas' sword cut the air in a flaming arc and Gimil-
ishbi's vulture head fell on the stone table. The body reared upright,
spouting black blood, then slumped across the stone. The head rolled
across the surface and thudded dully on the floor. The features stared
up, frozen in a mask of awful surprise.

Outside there sounded a frightful scream as Pyrrhas' stallion broke
its halter and raced madly away across the plain.

From the dim chamber with its tablets of cryptic cuneiforms and papyri
of dark hieroglyphics, and from the remnants of the mysterious priest,
Pyrrhas fled. As he climbed the carven stair and emerged into the
starlight he doubted his own reason.

Far across the level plain the moon was rising, dull red; darkly
lurid. Tense heat and silence held the land. Pyrrhas felt cold sweat
thickly beading his flesh; his blood was a sluggish current of ice in
his veins; his tongue clove to his palate. His armor weighted him and
his cloak was like a clinging snare. Cursing incoherently he tore it
from him; sweating and shaking he ripped off his armor, piece by
piece, and cast it away. In the grip of his abysmal fears he had
reverted to the primitive. The veneer of civilization vanished. Naked
but for loin-cloth and girded sword he strode across the plain,
carrying the golden cask under his arm.

No sound disturbed the waiting silence as he came to the ruined villa
whose walls reared drunkenly among heaps of rubble. One chamber stood
above the general ruin, left practically untouched by some whim of
chance. Only the door had been wrenched from its bronze hinges.
Pyrrhas entered. Moonlight followed him in and made a dim radiance
inside the portal. There were three windows, gold-barred. Sparingly he
crossed the threshold with a thin grey line. Each casement he served
in like manner. Then tossing aside the empty cask, he stretched
himself on a bare dais that stood in deep shadow. His unreasoning
horror was under control. He who had been the hunted was now the
hunter. The trap was set, and he waited for his prey with the patience
of the primitive.

He had not long to wait. Something threshed the air outside and the
shadow of great wings crossed the moonlit portal. There was an
instant of tense silence in which Pyrrhas heard the thunderous impact
of his own heart against his ribs. Then a shadowy form framed itself
in the open door. A fleeting instant it was visible, then it vanished
from view. The thing had entered; the night-fiend was in the chamber.

Pyrrhas' hand clenched on his sword as he heaved up suddenly from the
dais. His voice crashed in the stillness as he thundered the dark
enigmatic conjurement whispered to him by the dead priest. He was
answered by a frightful scream; there was a quick stamp of bare feet,
then a heavy fail, and something was threshing and writhing in the
shadows on the floor. As Pyrrhas cursed the masking darkness, the moon
thrust a crimson rim above a casement, like a goblin peering into a
window, and a molten flood of light crossed the floor. In the pale
glow the Argive saw his victim.

But it was no were-woman that writhed there. It was a thing like a
man, lithe, naked, dusky-skinned. It differed not in the attributes of
humanity except for the disquieting suppleness of its limbs, the
changeless glitter of its eyes. It grovelled as in mortal agony,
foaming at the mouth and contorting its body into impossible
positions.

With a blood-mad yell Pyrrhas ran at the figure and plunged his sword
through the squirming body. The point rang on the tiled floor beneath
it, and an awful howl burst from the frothing lips, but that was the
only apparent effect of the thrust. The Argive wrenched forth his
sword and glared astoundedly to see no stain on the steel, no wound on
the dusky body. He wheeled as the cry of the captive was re-echoed
from without.

Just outside the enchanted threshold stood a woman, naked, supple,
dusky, with wide eyes blazing in a soulless face. The being on the
floor ceased to writhe, and Pyrrhas' blood turned to ice.

"Lilitu!"

She quivered at the threshold, as if held by an invisible boundary.
Her eyes were eloquent with hate; they yearned awfully for his blood
and his life. She spoke, and the effect of a human voice issuing from
that beautiful unhuman mouth was more terrifying than if a wild beast
had spoken in human tongue.

"You have trapped my mate! You dare to torture Ardat Lili, before whom
the gods tremble! Oh, you shall howl for this! You shall be torn bone
from bone, and muscle from muscle, and vein from vein! Loose him!
Speak the words and set him free, lest even this doom be denied you!"

"Words!" he answered with bitter savagery. "You have hunted me like a
hound. Now you can not cross that line without falling into my hands
as your mate has fallen. Come into the chamber, bitch of darkness, and
let me caress you as I caress your lover--thus! and thus! and thus!"

Ardat Lili foamed and howled at the bite of the keen steel, and Lilitu
screamed madly in protest, beating with her hands as at an invisible
barrier.

"Cease! Cease! Oh, could I but come at you! How I would leave you a
blind, mangled cripple! Have done! Ask what you will, and I will
perform it!"

"That is well," grunted the Argive grimly. "I can not take this
creature's life, but it seems I can hurt him, and unless you give me
satisfaction, I will give him more pain than ever he guesses exists in
the world."

"Ask! Ask!" urged the were-woman, twisting with impatience.

"Why have you haunted me? What have I done to earn your hate?"

"Hate?" she tossed her head. "What are the sons of men that we of
Shuala should hate or love? When the doom is loosed, it strikes
blindly."

"Then who, or what, loosed the doom of Lilitu upon me?"

"One who dwells in the House of Arabu."

"Why, in Ymir's name?" swore Pyrrhas. "Why should the dead hate me?"
He halted, remembering a priest who died gurgling curses.

"The dead strike at the bidding of the living. Someone who moves in
the sunlight spoke in the night to one who dwells in Shuala."

"Who?"

"I do not know."

"You lie, you slut! It is the priests of Anu, and you would shield
them. For that lie your lover shall howl to the kiss of the steel--"

"Butcher!" shrieked Lilitu. "Hold your hand! I swear by the dugs of
Tiamat my mistress, I do not know what you ask. What are the priests
of Anu that I should shield them? I would rip up all their bellies--as
I would yours, could I come at you! Free my mate, and I will lead you
to the House of Darkness itself, and you may wrest the truth from the
awful mouth of the dweller himself, if you dare!"

"I will go," said Pyrrhas, "but I leave Ardat Lili here as hostage. If
you deal falsely with me, he will writhe on this enchanted floor
throughout all eternity."

Lilitu wept with fury, crying: "No devil in Shuala is crueller than
you. Haste, in the name of Apsu!"

Sheathing his sword, Pyrrhas stepped across the threshold. She caught
his wrist with fingers like velvet-padded steel, crying something in a
strange inhuman tongue. Instantly the moonlit sky and plain were
blotted out in a rush of icy blackness. There was a sensation of
hurtling through a void of intolerable coldness, a roaring in the
Argive's ears as of titan winds. Then his feet struck solid ground;
stability followed that chaotic instant, that had been like the
instant of dissolution that joins or separates two states of being,
alike in stability, but in kind more alien than day and night. Pyrrhas
knew that in that instant he had crossed an unimaginable gulf, and
that he stood on shores never before touched by living human feet.

Lilitu's fingers grasped his wrist, but he could not see her. He stood
in darkness of a quality which he had never encountered. It was almost
tangibly soft, all-pervading and all-engulfing. Standing amidst it, it
was not easy even to imagine sunlight and bright rivers and grass
singing in the wind. They belonged to that other world--a world lost
and forgotten in the dust of a million centuries. The world of life
and light was a whim of chance--a bright spark glowing momentarily in a
universe of dust and shadows. Darkness and silence were the natural
state of the cosmos, not light and the noises of Life. No wonder the
dead hated the living, who disturbed the grey stillness of Infinity
with their tinkling laughter.

Lilitu's fingers drew him through abysmal blackness. He had a vague
sensation as of being in a titanic cavern, too huge for conception. He
sensed walls and roof, though he did not see them and never reached
them; they seemed to recede as he advanced, yet there was always the
sensation of their presence. Sometimes his feet stirred what he hoped
was only dust. There was a dusty scent throughout the darkness; he
smelled the odors of decay and mould.

He saw lights moving like glow-worms through the dark. Yet they were
not lights, as he knew radiance. They were most like spots of lesser
gloom, that seemed to glow only by contrast with the engulfing
blackness which they emphasized without illuminating. Slowly,
laboriously they crawled through the eternal night. One approached the
companions closely and Pyrrhas' hair stood up and he grasped his
sword. But Lilitu took no heed as she hurried him on. The dim spot
glowed close to him for an instant; it vaguely illumined a shadowy
countenance, faintly human, yet strangely birdlike.

Existence became a dim and tangled thing to Pyrrhas, wherein he seemed
to journey for a thousand years through the blackness of dust and
decay, drawn and guided by the hand of the were-woman. Then he heard
her breath hiss through her teeth, and she came to a halt.

Before them shimmered another of those strange globes of light.
Pyrrhas could not tell whether it illumined a man or a bird. The
creature stood upright like a man, but it was clad in grey feathers--at
least they were more like feathers than anything else. The features
were no more human than they were birdlike.

"This is the dweller in Shuala which put upon you the curse of the
dead," whispered Lilitu. "Ask him the name of him who hates you on
earth."

"Tell me the name of mine enemy!" demanded Pyrrhas, shuddering at the
sound of his own voice, which whispered drearily and uncannily through
the unechoing darkness.

The eyes of the dead burned redly and it came at him with a rustle of
pinions, a long gleam of light springing into its lifted hand. Pyrrhas
recoiled, clutching at his word, but Lilitu hissed: "Nay, use this!"
and he felt a hilt thrust into his fingers. He was grasping a scimitar
with a blade curved in the shape of the crescent moon, that shone like
an arc of white fire.

He parried the bird-thing's stroke, and sparks showered in the gloom,
burning him like bits of flame. The darkness clung to him like a black
cloak; the glow of the feathered monster bewildered and baffled him.
It was like fighting a shadow in the maze of a nightmare. Only by the
fiery gleam of his enemy's blade did he keep the touch of it. Thrice
it sang death in his ears as he deflected it by the merest fraction,
then his own crescent-edge cut the darkness and grated on the other's
shoulder-joint. With a strident screech the thing dropped its weapon
and slumped down, a milky liquid spurting from the gaping wound.
Pyrrhas lifted his scimitar again, when the creature gasped in a voice
that was no more human than the grating of wind-blown boughs against
one another: "Naram-ninub, the great-grandson of my great-grandson! By
black arts he spoke and commanded me across the gulfs!"

"Naram-ninub!" Pyrrhas stood frozen in amazement; the scimitar was
torn from his hand. Again Lilitu's fingers locked on his wrist. Again
the dark was drowned in deep blackness and howling winds blowing
between the spheres.

He staggered in the moonlight without the ruined villa, reeling with
the dizziness of his transmutation. Beside him Lilitu's teeth shone
between her curling red lips. Catching the thick locks clustered on
her neck, he shook her savagely, as he would have shaken a mortal
woman.

"Harlot of Hell! What madness has your sorcery instilled in my brain?"

"No madness!" she laughed, striking his hand aside. "You have
journeyed to the House of Arabu, and you have returned. You have
spoken with and overcome with the sword of Apsu, the shade of a man
dead for long centuries."

"Then it was no dream of madness! But Naram-ninub--" he halted in
confused thought. "Why, of all the men of Nippur, he has been my
staunchest friend!"

"Friend?" she mocked. "What is friendship but a pleasant pretense to
while away an idle hour?"

"But why in Ymir's name?"

"What are the petty intrigues of men to me?" she exclaimed angrily.
"Yet now I remember that men from Erech, wrapped in cloaks, steal by
night to Naram-ninub's palace."

"Ymir!" like a sudden blaze of light Pyrrhas saw reason in merciless
clarity. "He would sell Nippur to Erech, and first he must put me out
of the way, because the hosts of Nippur can not stand before me! Oh,
dog, let my knife find your heart!"

"Keep faith with me!" Lilitu's importunities drowned his fury. "I have
kept faith with you. I have led you where never living man has trod,
and brought you forth unharmed. I have betrayed the dwellers in
Darkness and done that for which Tiamat will bind me naked on a white-
hot grid for seven times seven days. Speak the words and free Ardat
Lili!"

Still engrossed in Naram-ninub's treachery, Pyrrhas spoke the
incantation. With a loud sigh of relief, the were-man rose from the
tiled floor and came into the moonlight. The Argive stood with his
hand on his sword and his head bent, lost in moody thought. Lilitu's
eyes flashed a quick meaning to her mate. Lithely they began to steal
toward the abstracted man. Some primitive instinct brought his head up
with a jerk. They were closing in on him, their eyes burning in the
moonlight, their fingers reaching for him. Instantly he realized his
mistake; he had forgotten to make them swear truce with him; no oath
bound them from his flesh.

With feline screeches they struck, but quicker yet he bounded aside
and raced toward the distant city. Too hotly eager for his blood to
resort to sorcery, they gave chase. Fear winged his feet, but close
behind him he heard the swift patter of their feet, their eager
panting. A sudden drum of hoofs sounded in front of him, and bursting
through a tattered grove of skeleton palms, he almost caromed against
a rider, who rode like the wind, a long silvery glitter in his hand.
With a startled oath the horseman wrenched his steed back on its
haunches. Pyrrhas saw looming over him a powerful body in scale mail,
a pair of blazing eyes that glared at him from under a domed helmet, a
short black beard.

"You dog!" he yelled furiously. "Damn you, have you come to complete
with your sword what your black magic began?"

The steed reared wildly as he leaped at its head and caught its
bridle. Cursing madly and fighting for balance, Naram-ninub slashed at
his attacker's head, but Pyrrhas parried the stroke and thrust upward
murderously. The sword-point glanced from the corselet and plowed
along the Semite's jaw-bone. Naram-ninub screamed and fell from the
plunging steed, spouting blood. His leg-bone snapped as he pitched
heavily to earth, and his cry was echoed by a gloating howl from the
shadowed grove.

Without dragging the rearing horse to earth, Pyrrhas sprang to its
back and wrenched it about. Naram-ninub was groaning and writhing on
the ground, and as Pyrrhas looked, two shadows darted from the
darkened grove and fastened themselves on his prostrate form. A
terrible scream burst from his lips, echoed by more awful laugher.
Blood on the night air; on it the night-things would feed, wild as mad
dogs, making no difference between men.

The Argive wheeled away, toward the city, then hesitated, shaken by a
fierce revulsion. The level land lay quiescent beneath the moon, and
the brutish pyramid of Enlil stood up in the stars. Behind him lay
his enemy, glutting the fangs of the horrors he himself had called up
from the Pits. The road was open to Nippur, for his return.

His return?--to a devil-ridden people crawling beneath the heels of
priest and king; to a city rotten with intrigue and obscene mysteries;
to an alien race that mistrusted him, and a mistress that hated him.

Wheeling his horse again, he rode westward toward the open lands,
flinging his arms wide in a gesture of renunciation and the exultation
of freedom. The weariness of life dropped from him like a cloak. His
mane floated in the wind, and over the plains of Shumir shouted a
sound they had never heard before--the gusty, elemental, reasonless
laughter of a free barbarian.



THE END




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