As had happened earlier in the ransacking of the royal palace, Wally watched as the Temple of Jerusalem was utterly stripped of all golden, silver, and brass utensils and furnishings, including two sixty foot tall brass pillars at the temple entrance and a pool-sized caldron for ablutions. Caldrons, shovels, snuffers, bowls, spoons, candlesticks, cups-- everything was packed up for transport to Babelen as war booty. Taken from palace guard, the shields alone contained three hundred shekels of gold, and there were three hundred shields that Solomon, King David’s son, had artisans of Tyre fashion for him.
Ten tons of gold, twenty of brass, five of silver required a long convoy of wagons and camels. Hundreds of militiamen guarded the drivers. Veteran military commanders with the best troops at their command went along to guard the militiamen from temptation. The whole enterprise was one big festering suspicion, with eyes on constant alert and hands held ready to wield swords.
Without once exhibiting displeasure, the Carbuncle-Arkstone on the high priest’s breastplate lay meekly packed with other valuables as the caravan journeyed from Jerusalem to Hauran and then down the Euphrates to Babelen.
The blue butterfly, like everyone else, ingested large quantities of dust from the thousands of tramping feet, man and beast. He had good reason to accompany the treasure and the Arkstone. Just what was it up to? he wondered. Into what waters would it twist the rudder and course of the Chaldean ship of state? Only time would tell, of course! Whatever the scheme, he knew it had to be sinister, a thing hatched in the deep dark. “At least I’ll know where it is,” thought Wally. “If it stays with the caravan, then it will probably hide away in Babelen.”
That was his hope anyway. It had not done the Israelites much good. Perhaps it would prove even more damaging to the Chaldean Babelites, whom he had no reason to like after their destruction of Jerusalem and Judah.
There was really no difference between the parvenu Chaldeans and the Assyrians as far as he could tell. Chaldeans, who had come out of nowhere and recently defeated the Amorites that founded and held Babelen for centuries, were decidedly more fierce and warlike than their predecessors, who cared more for trade and luxurious living than waging war.
The Chaldeans were so good at war that they annihilated the world’s expert that wrote the book--Assyria--and left not a tower standing or even one cultivated field. They had been assisted by allies, but these were of the sort that had no choice. Assist us or be destroyed along with the foe! That was how bellicose and powerful the new Babelite kingdom was.
Meanwhile, they were building a bigger and more beautiful Babelen than had existed under the vanquished Amorite dynasty.
More palaces, temples, bridges, fortresses, armories, triumphal gates, triumphal avenues, hanging gardens, pools, new canals, vast irrigation systems, ships, ports, observatories, walls thirty feet thick and a hundred feet high, equally towering furnaces for firing brick and cremating officials that displeased the Sharru--money was no object, since whenever they needed more they sent out an army and replenished the Treasury at some neighboring country’s expense.
They built most everything of brick, of course, in a land lacking forests and stone quarries, but they also imported much marble, rock, and wood from all parts of the world. Fired brick, however, was their preferred material, since they could glaze it with colored tile and create the most beautiful patterns and figures of man or beast.
It was a precise and painstaking craft and art. Each large half-cubit-long brick fitted neatly with another, and bitumen was used to seal the bricks together. The result was beautiful, nearly strong as rock, and utilitarian, and that combination was eminently Chaldean. In essence, they were sword-happy master builders. They liked nothing better than to erect the biggest and most beautiful tower in the world, then boast about it. It mattered nothing to them that the money to pay for their extravagance came out of other people’s pockets--and by force of arms.
World trade drew whatever revenues the war machine did not provide. Babelite farmers and weavers were industrious souls, turning out continual surpluses that could be traded with the wide world. Mesopotamia, a land of two rivers, produced a third, of huge amounts of wheat, barley, dates, nuts, honey, beer, and wool, commodities always in high demand. The weavers made excellent woolen goods of all kinds, including gold and silver threaded tapestries, so whatever they made commanded high prices. Besides all this, the most important trade routes ran through the country. Babelen could have left off war and still been wealthy. But the new Babelite kings were never satisfied with what they had. They lusted after godlike immortality and glory, and that meant they were always ordering new projects and then going to war to pay for what they wished to built.
“Why do they think that everything must revolve around them?” Wally speculated. “Why must they be the head of gold and the whole world a wretched, wagging dog’s tail?”
It is doubtful the Chaldeans themselves could have answered the question. Since sweeping into the limelight from the platform of a backwater principality of mostly sand dunes and blistering hard pan, they simply assumed they had the right to dominate the world for their own benefit. Any moral that did not advance their cause was a mere chimera to their way of thinking.
“And now they have the Carbuncle, the fabled Arkstone, on top of everything else!” Wally fumed. “I hope they choke on it!” At least he could see one bright spot in the darkening firmament over Earth: the Gang of Three--Onyx, Jasper, and Diamond--has apparently left Earth and were winging toward more hospitable parts of the Universe. The radio energy fields emanating from various spots on the Earth were strong and hot enough to make them nervous, nervous enough to seek out greener pastures far afield.
“Godspeed!” he thought, though he hadn’t clear data on the cause of their departure. But then he imagined something terrible. “What if they should ever return? And the Sardius, the worst of the OPs? What if it too finds the grass is not greener wherever it has gone? I simply couldn’t handle it and the others too! It would be Apocalypse and the Four Horsemen!”
A fretful Wally winged his own way about the vast, churning hive of the Chaldean capital, and, he came to see that the Babelites had a third passion. If two out of ten men were soldiers, and two more were priests, four were stargazers, monthly prognosticators, or astrologers. Some worked magical arts so well they foretold the future with some success and could claim to be magicians and wisemen. Since this sort abounded in the lucrative palace service, it was evident what the Sharru preferred for company. The Sharru did nothing without consulting a corps of magicians and enchanters which numbered in the thousands. Pervading every aspect of public and private life like the tentacles of a giant octopus, they bore the national name of the original warrior and priestly ruling class, the Chaldeans, though their ranks contained men of every race and god.
Should I marry this woman or that one? Or should I take a slave boy to my bosom instead and spare myself the expense of a woman’s vanity? Just about any young man wanted to know. Then he would consult a Chaldean, who might refer him to a particularly beautiful cult harlot rather than encumber youth with the responsibilities and expense of marriage. Should I sell off my grain in Tyre or hold at the warehouse for the time being? The businessman, of course, turned to a professional, another Chaldean who was at his service and could foretell the future of grain markets for a certain price. He could even advise usurers on “float.” Or, What is the best way to get rid of this aging and boring husband so I can take someone younger and richer? a dissatisfied wife wondered. Naturally she turned to the nearest Chaldean professional on family counseling. Ought I to poison this minister of my husband’s, or that one? the Chief Wife of the Sharru inquired confidentially of a favored court sorceress. Should I sent an army and overrun Urratnan, which is closer and easy prey, or go to greater effort and attack hundred-gated Ibbatha with my main forces? the Sharru asked of yet another wily Chaldean.
Divination and enchantment, or witchcraft, were the obsession of the day. Seemingly innocent forms drew interest--such things as games of chance and god-blessed rings and clothing and all sorts of sayings and rhymes that supposedly could gain a good outcome in a bad situation. Spread by the notoriety of a few successes of the use of charms and spells, divination and enchantment soon dominated religion and household piety, and paid professional dispensers big dividends. From the least to the greatest, from the tiller in the field to the Sharru in the Great Palace, it was the preferred way of the people, who feared the gods and feared the elements the gods ruled, while hoping for some means to control them or at least buy their favors. Before long, the “white magical arts” progressed to “black magical arts” such as sorcery. Sorcery, which used the spirits of demons to gain its objects, moved freely through society like a giant constricting python, taking the people completely in its grasp until they were hard-pressed to deal with the plague of gangs of merciless black-mailers and hired killers who had, somehow, become privy to the affairs of these practitioners of the magical and black arts. The remaining men of honor and decency deplored the corruption of the entire society, but were powerless to stop it, and when they spoke out against disease which had become so profitable to many, they were assassinated.
The blue butterfly, for the sake of the Wargame, had faithfully followed the caravan all the way to Babelen after the final overthrow of Jerusalem. It was well he did. The caravan was welcomed by high officials in chariots, straight from the Sharru’s palace. The treasure of the Jews, looted from the Temple and the palace, was taken under tremendous guard at night, not in triumphal procession, and deposited in the Royal Treasury at the main palace. Later, after the last consignment of captives arrived, an elaborate procession was staged in honor of the Sharru of “Akkad”--for the country was officially styled “Akkad,” a long defunct but far more illustrious Amorite empire in name than “Chaldea,” which everyone knew was the scabrous backside of the desert..
The blue butterfly was present as the dregs of Judah’s nobility, skilled tradesmen, priests, and defeated army commanders were paraded through the city between multitudes of rejoicing citizenry. Though it had only been two years since the first parade, nobody minded another that was quite similar, except that it was much smaller and had to be padded out with rare animals and beasts from the Sharru’s game parks.
Babelen took the show in stride, and it did not quiet down afterwards. Like lost Nineveh, Babelen was too great a metropolis to ever go quietly to bed at night--there was just too much important, lucrative business left unfinished by the end of the day! Partying, robbery, murder and hired assassinations, love affairs, the business of buying and selling, banking, fortune telling, and going to and fro continued day and night. And construction of newer, larger buildings--that also continued day and night at the same time that armies tramped in for refitting and drilling while others set out on new campaigns.
Babelen had always been a very busy place, but the latest version seemed determined to build and raise itself to the stars. That was something the old Babelen of the Amorites underits vainglorious kings had started but had not been able to accomplish! Would the Chaldeans be able to pick up where the Amorites had left off? It seemed so, if the present Sharru was any indication of the ferocity and drive Chaldean DNA could muster in a single human body
The latest deputation assured the Sharru at the start of the New Year Festival in honor of the chief god Niredam that his kingdom and glory would last a thousand years. Pleased at the news, the Sharru added another week to the festival and inaugurated a whole new series of building projects, along with orders to his army commanders to shake a leg to pay for them.
“Go seize Elam and their capital Susa with all the gold and concubines!” he bellowed at his generals. “Tribute is in arrears a full month, and if they won’t pay double for the missing payment as they were ordered, then tear their sons, daughters, concubines and wives limb from limb before their eyes! Level the city, then pile up the citizens and burn them all, them and their children! Spare not one! Not one!”
That was a Chaldean ruler’s normal method of handling international affairs. It was the very spirit of the land--annihilate your rivals, annihilate any opposition whatsoever. Never rest until every last bit of resistance is stamped out, no matter the loss of human life. Though he had a host of officials able to advise him, no single state department had yet re- developed in civilization to soften and refine diplomacy to a fine art. With no restraints to the contrary, every weapon obtainable was employed, and nothing was thought too dire. If the Chaldeans ever outstretched their ability to hold a foreign territory, then they scorched the earth and made it profitless to anybody else for generations. Indeed, they had it in them to destroy the entire Earth, if they thought someone else might come into possession of it. Now it would have been reasonable, given this policy, to think the Sharru had his hands full with the bigger countries and had little time for anyone else. Not so. He stamped even harder on the snail than the bear and lion. It was not mighty, far-flung Media or Elam that bore the brunt of his mailed boot but poor, lone Judah of the Israelites. So while his armies finished the task he had begun in crushing the continually rebelling rump-kingdom, an item that comprised part of the booty of the Judaean campaigns had grown restless where it lay in a cool, deep vault of the Treasury. Booty of warfare or curious artifacts disgorged by ancient ice fields, among the many items were NEC Technologies laptop computers, Styrofoam spigot caps that Babelite women used to enhance their profile, a General Electric can opener, a Kohler San Rafael Lite, K-3452, several complete suits of medieval armor, an electric coffee urn, Levi jeans, a Firestone battery, a Casino Velden ashtray inscribed with “Machen Sie IHR Spiel,” a Chippendale sideboard, Worcester Royal Porcelain coddlers, a Bucyrus Erie model 1850B coal-mining shovel called “Big Brutus” adapted by an amusement center to look like the legendary woodsman Paul Bunyan, an ANNO 1925 Cadillac touring car once belonging to a miserly eccentric of Takoma, Washington, an eight-foot-long index finger of the Statue of Liberty--the Royal Treasury was a catch-all of treasure as well as curious flotsam and jetsam of past and forgotten ages that the Chaldeans supposed might be antique Akkadian and, therefore, valuable. Hidden in this extremely mixed bag of flotsam and jetsam of former ages lay the far more modern, jeweled breastplate of the defeated and deceased high priest of the Jews. Like everything else, it bore a meticulously inscribed clay tablet tag describing its particulars and value. How could the Babelites have guessed a single jewel on the breastplate possessed singular powers great enough to decide the fate of their seemingly omnipotent kingdom?
It flew straight at a vault wall of thirty-feet-thick fire brick, piercing it like a dart through soft cheese. It popped out into a large hall adorned with marble columns taken from the throneroom of the late ruler of Damascus. Cruising down the hall, the Arkstone passed between identical rows of Niredam-belladon II carved in the likeness of Sargon the ancient world ruler of Agade and Akkad. Darkened, only torches lit the hall wherever guards stood waiting for the next relief to come.
Just as a guard realized something was amiss and was staring uncomprehendingly at the little, bluish star, the Stone took an oblique turn and pierced another wall. It came out in the gardens of the Royal Harems, extending outwards and upwards over acres of the capital. Bathed with fountains, beautified with colored tile plazas and pools and statuary, tamar trees, arbors of flowering vines, aviaries and peacocks, it was purposely designed to surpass the Garden of Eden (known by the description in a Bible which had survived the Re-location).
No soldiers stood on duty here. Only eunuchs under the direct authority of the Grand Chamberlain and peacocks prowled the precinct at night. They equipped themselves with throat-slitting daggers and bow strings for strangling, and obeyed instructions to put to death anyone who was not a eunuch-guard. No one, not even the Queen Mother, was permitted to wander about at night, lest assassins approach the Royal Couch wherever it was laid for the night. Concubines and Royal Wives alike knew better than to leave their quarters and could expect no mercy.
Into the deceptively beautiful and danger-filled paradise flew the fearless Stone. It naturally gravitated to centers of power and splendor and soon found the Sharru’s hidden bower. He was sleeping soundly until the Arkstone came and hung over him, bathing him with its light.
Harem eunuchs camped particularly thick around the royal sleeping place, their vigil entertained by a weary orchestra of slave harpers, every one blinded so he might not run away. They observed the tiny star above the Sharru’s brow. It happened so fast, though, that they could not prevent it. Then, deliberating off in a side court where they would not be heard by the monarch, they frantically decided what to do. Nothing! They could not risk disturbing Royalty’s sleep. Perhaps the auspicious star would fly away in a moment or two and no harm would be done.
Eunuchs were clever creatures, to devise this stratagem in so little time for an unparalleled event as this one was. For the star did move after a moment or two, shooting off and vanishing into a solid brick wall.
The Sharru, however, awoke. His expression was distressed as he gazed out over the gardens. He rubbed his face and beard, then sank back on the cushions. But though he closed his eyes, they soon shot open. He shouted and eunuchs came bowing. “Bring me the court records, the ones dealing with the taxes and liens on delinquent pea and lentil farmers!”
Everyone knew these were surefire means to induce profound sleep in an edgy, over-indulged monarch. So the court records were read, but the Sharru grew more troubled and restless on his couch. It was hours before dawn yet. What was he to do? Throw a dozen or so eunuchs in the nearest furnace?
Growing annoyed, he eyed the trembling eunuchs and decided they might not be at fault, so he let them live for the time being and turned to another expedient that, as soon as it appeared to him, dissolved into vapor. “Throw a hundred governors in the furnace! Impale them on stakes first, so their wives and children can see them! No, go raze the cities of the Urratnans who defy me. Spare not one! Seize their principal men and pull out their gizzards with hot tongs. No, summon the Lord Chamberlain!”
Aspenaz, for just such an emergency, slept close by the Royal Harems. It was only a few moments before he came bowing, his gorgeous clothes somewhat in disarray. His Majesty was in no mood for fussy, daytime protocol. He waived the lengthy and elaborate greetings of great joy from the official and got to the point directly. “I have dreamed. It was a most strange and troubling dream, and I must have the interpretation or I will not be able to rest. What is your counsel on this?”
The Chamberlain’s face rained cold perspiration. Roused from his bed at such an hour to answer to a dream! “O Sharru, live for ever. What is the wondrous dream the gods have granted to Your Majesty?”
Niredam-belladon II’s eyes gleamed, lit like those of a lion who has its prey firmly. “It is gone from me, fool!”
The Chamberlain felt his knees give way, and he struggled to keep a joyful countenance though he was perishing within. What, the Sharru had forgotten? He had forgotten his own dream? What could be more awkward than this? But then he could be lying. Rulers were known to do that whenever it suited royal purposes. In fact, they were constantly lying and making others believe they were wrong instead. Since no one ever dared disagree with them, great rulers came to think themselves infallible and everyone else fallible--and, of course, the fallible deserved severe punishment in the estimation of a paragon of perfection!
“O Sharru, live for ever! If you will give the dream a few more moments, no doubt it will return to the royal memory and then you can have the diviners interpret it for you after daybreak.” That was sage advice, he had thought, but he knew in an instant he was dangerously mistaken.
The royal teeth gritted, and the Sharru spat out, “But I told you, the thing has slipped the royal memory. I have lost the dream on waking! It is no use trying to remember it! It is gone from me!”
The Chamberlain sank down in a light-headed prostration, for he had no idea how to proceed from the edge of the abyss yawning before his feet. By this time he was mostly concerned with saving himself from the furnace, and that was dangerous too. He knew he was only alive now because he had learned early on that a reigning Sharru of Babelen somehow had a instinct for discerning which courtiers served from abject fear instead of the obligatory, unbounded joy.
Fortunately for the Chamberlain, the Sharru had passed over him momentarily to something more promising. He thought to call in professional diviners. “I must bathe and dress!” he said to the eunuchs.
That was something they knew was their special province. Without a slip they did everything the ritual demanded and the Sharru was outfitted in splendor for a new day. Recovering some of his composure, the Grand Chamberlain passed his exacting eye over every detail of the operation and saw nothing was omitted.
His Majesty, hours before he usually ascended his throne, swept into the little-used Hall of Domestic Audience, Peace, and Justice. He wanted no prying eyes and ears of foreign emissaries, whose couriers could bear tales far and wide that might embarrass the greatest man in the world. He could well imagine what kinglets of neighboring lands might say if they got wind that the Sharru of Babelen and Akkad was dreaming dreams like any common person instead of communing directly with the immortal gods. He refused to eat or drink anything, and was grimly intent on settling the dream business to his favor without any more delay.
This court, half the size and splendor of the Hall of Foreign Audience, Tribute, and War, was packed with startled courtiers and attendants, Never in their memory had they been roused from bed to perform their ceremonial duties. Explaining nothing to lesser courtiers, Niredam-belladon II conferred with the Chief Cupbearer and other of the highest officials, then issued commands. Before long the first of the magicians, astrologers, and sorcerers he had summoned made their appearance. Only then, besides whispered rumors, did everyone learn the reason for the call-up.
The wise men. having a little more time to dress, had come prepared to put on a fine show. Garbed in long-sleeved robes with trains, colored black, scarlet, yellow and green in various startling patterns, they bore thousand year old books of magical lore called “Tablets of Destiny” and tall wands of office emblazed with stars or First and Second moons and coiling, gilded serpents. Behind all this showy stuff was a vast organization of murder, extortion, and hired assassins--which paid them heaps of gold, of course, but which nobody who valued his life talked about.
The chief of them was the most splendid. His robe may have been simple white silk decorated with little gold rosettes, but the train stretched half the length of the hall and was carried by a dozen black eunuchs sheathed in gold. His beard stained purple and dusted with gold, a golden, star-signed girdle round his waist, he carried a wand with a bluish gem that shone like a living star (it had fixed itself to his wand just as he was entering the palace!). Encouraged by this self-evident sign of the gods’ favor and election, the supreme wizard naturally felt equal to anything the Sharru might throw at him.
The entire court, despite its jaded condition, had already sunk into a deep hush at sight of so much wizardry, then could hardly believe their eyes when “Prince Zer Zer the Revealer of Divine Mystery,” as he was announced by the court herald, strode in with his attendants.
The Sharru, eyes narrowing, viewed a spectacle that cast his own splendor in the shade and waited while the chief wise man performed the required bows. “I have dreamed a dream,” the world ruler said.
The spokesman for the magicians responded with a beatific smile that put all others to shame. “O Sharru, Eternal Mount, Well-Spring, and Unquenchable Fount of the World’s Happiness, live for ever! O Sharru...” He continued to pile on the flowery encomiums and accolades until the whole court was agog at the virtuosity of his golden tongue. Finally, he came to the point: “Tell your humble servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation at once.”
His teeth audibly grinding, the Sharru did not respond in words immediately. His face deadpan, the royal eye gleamed at Prince Zer Zer as it had previously at Lord Aspenaz. “The thing is gone from me,” he answered. “If you will not first make known the dream and then the correct interpretation, I will have you sliced into little pieces to be fed to my lions, and your houses made a dunghill!”
The chief magician’s blissful countenance fell several degrees of joy and he went as pale as his robe. “But if you show the dream and the interpretation,” the king continued, “you shall receive of me gifts and rewards and great honor; therefore, show me the dream and the interpretation!”
The golden head of the Babelen’s magical arts foundation turned and glanced round at his professional constituency, but they shook their heads quickly, meaning they had been frightened out of their wits. Could they arrange the assassination of this Sharru? That would be very, very dangerous! Besides, there was no time to organize it.
The supreme wizard tried again to reason. “Let the Sharru tell his servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation of it, for that is the way it has always been done in this glorious kingdom.” What else could he say? But even as he said it he knew the dreamer would not be deflected by the claims of tradition. Nor would some trick or sleight of hand serve. If he cast down his wand and it turned into a serpent, what would that accomplish? He would have been more than happy to turn a wand into a cobra at that moment, but this, he knew, was definitely not the time.
Suspicion and cunning showed in the Sharru’s face as he turned on the confounded magician. “I know every one of your cunning tricks! It is certain that you only aim to gain time by your statement, because I have lost the dream. But if you cannot make known to me the dream, there is but one decree for you, since you thought to hear the dream from my own lips and planned to mislead me with lying words instead of giving me the truth. I am not without wits. Anyone, whether base fish-monger or dung-gatherer, can give an interpretation if he is first told the dream. But how can one know it is true? So! You are the Chaldean! Tell me the dream at once, and then show the interpretation!”
Never before had the peerless Magus been presented such a great challenge. Without access to his gangs of hired killers, he was thrown back on magical arts his official responsibilities. But magic and divination were not yet exact sciences, as their practitioners knew, despite all efforts to reduce the knowledge of dreams and signs to formulae that reproduced again and again without fault. The subject matter was just too vast, and human beings too variable and changing to rule out chance and error. Therefore, the chief enchanter of the Ministry of Sorcery was at a loss to do what thousands of his fellow Chaldeans, toiling away in dark rooms with lamps of human skulls taken from murderers, had hitherto failed to accomplish.
“There is not a man upon the earth that can show the Sharru’s lost dream!” Zer Zer confessed in shocked and scandalized tones that betrayed he knew he was a dead man, therefore without court joy in the Royal Presence. “Certainly, there is no Sharru, lord, or ruler that ever asked such things of any magician, or astrologer, or Chaldean. For it is an impossible thing the Sharru requires! There is none other that can show it to the Sharru, except the gods who do not dwell with humanity. You have asked an impossible thing--impossible to men of flesh and blood!”
The Sharru fidgeted all during this speech. When the scion of the tribe of wisemen had finished, His Majesty’s face showed absolute fury and rage to the point he appeared he might explode. After ordering Zer Zer and his entire guild out of his sight, he summoned the captain of the palace guard.
The commander passed dozens of fleeing magicians as he went into the palace. One, dressed in a white robe, had lost his train, trampled and ripped off in the scramble to exit the royal presence.
“Destroy all the wisemen!” the steaming volcano on the throne ordered Arioch. “Just as I thought, they are self-serving liars and charlatans, so spare none, or you will share their fate!
“Commander Arioch! Wait on my words! I fear our master will not be satisfied though he slay all the wisemen. Who will be next when the Sharru decides to clean this rotten stable we call our court and nation? Will we escape his wrath? We have got to stop this whimsy of the Great Sharru! I think you should see Nir-e-shazzar, who was called Daniyel. I have observed him since he was taken from his country. He will know what can be done concerning the royal dream.”
“But he is a foreigner and a young man,” grumbled Arioch. “I am told the chief of the Chaldeans has failed to tell the Sharru’s dream. How then can this Jew help?”
“My dear Commander, he is not like our diviners, wise and cunning though they be. He is a good man and righteous in his acts and he obeys a god foreign to ours. We have all been polluted in our worship. If anyone might be able to discern the dream, it will be him. Otherwise, all are lost, and maybe then the king’s wrath, if he is not satisfied, will turn next like a raging lion upon us and our wives and children. After all, when our master is through with them, who then is left to bear the royal ire?”
Arioch rubbed his beard, his eyes darting from the chamberlain back to the palace entrance. He was not happy about having to slay so many men for nothing, thought it was worth trying.
“Your words are wise, and I have considered their wisdom as silver pears fitly framed with gold!” the commander replied. “As you say, it is true that the raging lion, when he has finished with the ox and the gazelle, turns with equal ferocity on the long-eared hare.”
Bowing to the chamberlain, who nodded curtly since he disliked being compared to a scampering, undignified, witless creature, the commander took leave. He went straight to Daniyel at the palace school and told one of his young men attendants what had happened and the despot’s demand, and he in turn told Daniyel.
Shaking his head at the thought of the consequences, Arioch escorted Daniyel to the palace. The court-trained Jew was admitted because he said he brought a word concerning the dream. Despite the compelling urgency of the dream, the Sharru was interested to see how this handsome, young, captive prince was faring after two years of training at the palace school. He had been alerted by an excellent spy system, so he knew more than his top officials credited him.
Rage drained from his features as he examined the young courtier, whose first impression gave welcome relief. Unlike all the others, he did not come cringing before him, feigning joy he did not feel, but instead exhibited dignity, reserve, and carriage befitting a prince--and a most fetching one at that. Daniyel addressed the waiting monarch. He had at least fourteen titles he could draw from. Many suppliants added a dozen more, just to be safe. “O Sharru, live for ever!” said Daniyel, choosing the plainest of the lot but expressing himself in flawless court Aramaic. “Give us time to recall the dream, and we will show you the interpretation.”
Delay was not something the Sharru customarily took kindly, but this time, for some reason, he did not react with his usual choler. The suggestion, coming from a foreigner so well-mannered and reserved in deportment, penetrated the royal mind. He understood the justice of such a course of royal action, and light dawned on his scheming and troubled brow. The cantankerous potentate relaxed, then nodded assent. Everyone concerned breathed much easier.
But the Sharru wanted to know something before Daniyel departed. “I hear from my paid eyes and ears that you refrain from eating food from my table, and you do not drink my wine either. Yet you appear firmer in flesh and more handsome than all those who eat and drink what I give them. What is your explanation, Prince Nir-e-shazzar?”
“Your food and drink are blessed by your temples and your gods,” Daniyel replied forthrightly, looking the Sharru in the eye. “I worship Almighty God Who made heaven and earth. Your food and drink would defile me, and so I and my companions take only common provender from the field.”
“Vegetables, you mean?” thundered the ruler. “Squash and lentils, leeks--the fare of slaves, tanners and brick-makers?”
The whole court, listening in, was aghast. And the steward in charge of Daniyel and his friends’ provision? Responsible for letting Daniyel and his companions consume plain vegetables instead of royal food blessed by the gods of Babelen, he might have died of heart stoppage if he had been present.
“Yes, that is all. And we are better for it, as you can see.”
The bemused Sharru, still shaking his head, signed for Daniyel to leave the royal presence. The Jewish youth had given him something to think about while waiting for the revelation of his dream.
The prince, as his custom was, went up to his private chamber on the second level to pray at an open window toward ruined Jerusalem and Mount Zion. His Chaldean neighbors had got rather used to hearing the young man’s prayers by this time, though they never could agree what god or gods he was addressing. Prayers, long and short, issued forth from this chamber thrice a day. This time, however, there was a particularly urgent note to his voice that made the heathen pay closer attention.
“How can you suggest that, my husband?” the good woman expostulated. “As you should know, I am too busy attending to the affairs of your household to take notice of these foreigners in our midst, much less cast enchantments on them!”
“How can you accuse me so vilely?” cried the wife, putting her dainty, well-manicured hands to her jeweled ears. “Prince Nir-e-shazzar has not crossed my lips once, I swear!”
“Aha! Aha! So he is a prince of his kind! And you know his name! Further proof you have played harlot in my own bed! What else do you know about him? Is the scent of a Jew’s garlicky breath on your cheek better than the lotus perfume I pour in my hair and beard to allure you? Does he prefer to drink his wine with the first cock or when the watchman sounds? Say, or I will fling you down from this window with my own hands to the dogs!”
“I have done nothing! know that he is an eunuch in the Sharru’s service!”
“Oh, well, if that is so? ”
“It is so!”
“But how would you know that, beloved?” the husband inquired sweetly. “I don’t wish to think you false.”
His man-servant, who bathes him, told our man-servant. Do you wish to call him so he may tell you?”
“No, my dear, it isn’t necessary. I believe you utterly!”
The now reconciled couple shut the window, brought out the wine jug and retired to make further prodigious amends.
There was a confused movement in one of the shadows of his house wall. Soon a young man in fashionable, expensive clothing stepped out into the open, followed a little later by an elegant woman with a lot of flashing ornaments on her spiky neck and arms. They kissed and then parted, the woman seeking yet another amusing conquest in a different boulevard, smiling at the thought that her latest lover had no idea her consort was a hired assassin (she was a member of the royal family, and allowed no man to boast of his taking her favors!).
A burly man stepped out of the shadows and followed the young man, who was not paying attention as he should at that time of night. A cowled cleric, by his clothing one of the Tanim or dragon-priests, approached the house of Daniyel, paused to examine it carefully, then passed by. A beggar, sinuous and stealthy, came too. He whimpered pitifully, gnawing with tiny, razor-like teeth at the wood as he squeezed against the locked and barred door. He was there one moment, then he vanished at the sound of approaching footfalls. Was it a goblin composed of slime and mist or a man of flesh, bone and blood? Was he hunter or prey? Who could tell?
Two soldiers, hanging on each other to steady themselves after too much cheap beer, tried to find their barracks in the direction of the old Shibbar Gate, now renamed and refurbished in grand Chaldean style. They fell together against the door of Daniyel, gathered their senses as best they could, and moved doggedly on, fearful of landing in the stockade if they missed morning reveille.
A heavily veiled figure slipped out of a dooryard just down from Daniyel’s, looked to see if the soldiers were far enough away, then crossed the street to another door, which opened immediately and shut as soon as the person was inside. A man met another, one giving the other a purse of gold. They walked quickly off in opposite directions, and later one of them strangled a black-mailing courtesan he was paid to kill, cut up her body in sections, then carried them to the river and dumped them in. What appeared to be a catfish waddled by the house. It was joined by a fat, partying vulture and a svelte, dainty-ankled she-rat. Fish, vulture-griffon, and rat wore gilded slippers and carried gold goblets. The eagle left the rat and fish, which drank from each other’s goblet. The she-rat giggled as the fish put his fins around her and they did a strange, hopping, clinging jig off down the street, the male fish proceeding forwards, the rat backwards.
An old man hobbled up, bent almost to the ground as if a millstone were pressing him down as he gripped a little girl by the hand. He paused to cover her small, thin, pinched face with long, ravenous, lingering kisses. She submitted like a stiff, wooden doll in the drooling villain’s stiff, clutching hands. They passed on, hand in hand. A sable caped figure, very tall and broad-shouldered, with cryptic signs woven into his clothes, strode by, swiftly and silently on some secret mission. Farther down the street he paused only to throw back his head and utter a series of cackling yelps and then a longer, blood-curdling howl.
Out of a house came a shriek that equaled the vampire’s in volume. There was a scrambling commotion at the door of rich man’s house. Wearing a dog’s pelt and down on all fours, out into the street galloped the nearly naked owner, his man-servant in fast pursuit with an Assyrian whip. Flailing the flesh of the fat man’s buttocks, the servant listened to no pleas for mercy. Bleeding and gasping, the fat man made several circuits of the street and then headed back into his house, still on all fours. The grinning man-servant, pausing for a moment, shook the blood and bits of skin off the whip.
“Well, are you coming? I can’t wait all night to finish our game!” the master’s voice called out to him from the darkened dooryard.
The servant then headed back in. The door banged shut and was bolted.
Flitting through the street a pair of cockatrices with wide, shrill, black-painted mouths and shaven heads. Filmy garments clung to lithe bodies that might have been women’s but something had been done to them. They kissed with tremendous passion as if the world were their adoring audience and not the blank walls of unlit, shuttered villas.
The young man who had met a beautiful man-chaser in the shadows nearby was, meanwhile, crawling back, painfully, inch by inch. Everyone who had passed the pampered dilettante thought he was only drunk, not dying, though half his fine clothing had been ripped away.
He reached Daniyel’s house and then lay still, his throat slit by an expert who never bungled a job.
The principal temples, by this time, let out their enormous, highly pampered priesthoods. The street was witness to solid rivers of gorgeously-attired men and eunuchs, all marching in strict order, careful not to mingle ranks or even degrees of rank. Carrying golden axes and hammers, golden firepans, all the sacred insignia of their orders and respective offices, the priests flooded the street for quite some time, for they numbered in the thousands, and this was only one temple’s personnel letting out for the night. They represented the exalted Shamu otholem, Lema’elah, Silchu, Chillelu, Serephu, Yenaets, Tanim, and Liveyathn orders that had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Finally, the chief order’s ranks passed, the Leviathans of the Ninth and most powerful order, with their golden fish-tails trailing far behind and carried by young hierodules dressed in tall gold caps and daintily embroidered loin-cloths. All this show of gold, if the truth be known, was largely due to the largess lavished upon their temples with the enormous amount of loot from the Jewish temple and the palaces of Jerusalem. Many of the priests from each order were sons and grandsons of those who had actually taken part in the sack of the Jewish Temple and the royal palaces.
All this and more went on night after night. Like any metropolis given wholly to pleasure, robbery, and murder for profit, Babelen never really slept. That was to be expected. What was different was not readily apparent.
All through the murky goings-on in the street Daniyel slept. He lay an innocent man, his face in guiltless repose, a face you would sooner expect to see in Paradise than floating on a ripe cess pool or a polluted canal. Long, long past in a former age a wise man who, in a sense, was father to Daniyel, had glimpsed this face of incredible, childlike simplicity and purity--but had not known whose it was. At some point, however, Daniyel’s eyes moved behind closed lids. He turned on his bed, then turned again. Finally, his hand rubbed his face and he lay with eyes open, breathing faster than normal. He sat up, staring into the velvety, pulsing, touching darkness, for the moon’s light did not reach to his bed though it pooled just inside the window.
Daniyel did not lie back on his bed. At the nightwatchman’s last call, he rose and went to the window. He waited, and before long the first glimmers of daybreak shone on the horizon. Quietly, he began to pray (though he might have shouted and no one in that pleasure-hunting, pleasure-haunted city would have heard him at that hour).
Arioch blinked once, but not a second. Though a single mistake by Daniyel meant Arioch’s doom too, he was a man of action and some bravery. He swept Daniyel into the Sharru’s presence without delay. “I have found a man of the captives of Judah,” he informed the Sharru rather needlessly, “that will reveal the dream and interpret it.” Arioch bowed himself away from the throne and Daniyel stepped forward. This time he did not bow but looked directly into the Sharru’s eyes.
Courtiers all around gasped at the man’s temerity, but the Sharru was not angered at all in the strain of the circumstances He too wanted to see the end of the matter, and quickly!
“Are you able to reveal to me the dream I have seen, and the interpretation?” demanded the ruler, hardly able to keep seated regally on his throne. “Let it be seen whether you are the world’s greatest fool or truly the man of the hour.”
Daniyel began. “It is true that the soothsayers, magicians, wisemen, prognosticators, and astrologers cannot do what the Sharru demanded. But there is a God in heaven that reveals secrets and will now make known to the Sharru what shall happen in latter days. He has told me your dream in visions. As for me, O Sharru, your thoughts came into my mind when I lay asleep in bed. But I confess these matters are not revealed to me because of any wisdom I may possess beyond that of other people. The secrets are given to me for the sake of others, not only for your benefit.”
Daniyel stepped up closer to the Sharru, whose high, staircased throne elevated him from the platform on which the young man stood facing the elevated monarch.
So intent were the listening courtiers that none moved to prevent Daniyel, though no suppliant and prospective assassin had ever been permitted to approach so closely. After all, this captive Jew, of all people, would have good reason to try to avenge his nation’s destruction!. Every eye pegged on the young, slim, elegantly robed and comely prince, who paid no one but the Sharru any attention as he continued.
“You, O Sharru, saw a magnificent Colossus set astride the wide plain. He had the appearance and face of a fierce and great ruler and was very, very bright and sparkling, but his noble form was divided in a strange and terrible way. The head was of fine gold, his breast and arms were part gold and part silver, abdomen and his thighs of brass. Then his legs were iron, and, lastly, his feet part iron and part clay. As you were gazing at this Titan you saw a rock that no mason or quarryman had cut, which is the Unwrought Stone, suddenly fly toward him and strike the feet, dashing them to pieces. Without supporting feet, the giant broke up and collapsed, and he was smashed so completely the wind carried off the residue like chaff from wheat, only there was nothing left where he had just recently stood. Instead of the world-ruling Colossus rose a mountain, a mountain growing from the Unwrought Stone. It grew until it filled the entire earth. Now this is the dream you dreamed.”
Daniyel paused and the congregation of Chaldean nobles and courtiers stared at the Sharru in turn, no one daring to breathe in the second tense and expectant hush that gripped the palace hall and every living soul within.
The Sharru, as everyone could see, was slowly rubbing his face with his hand, pulling at his beard as his eyes bulged in amazement. When the speechless ruler made no other response, Daniyel continued in graver tones.
“This was the dream. We will tell you now the interpretation. You, O Sharru, are a great ruler beyond any that hold a scepter, a king of kings and lord of lords, for the God of heaven has given you this kingdom, splendor, and power that you presently enjoy. And wherever people dwell he has allowed you to reign without peer, even as a farmer rules the helpless clods of dust beneath his feet. Thus, you are the head of gold of the Colossus.”
The length and breadth of the observing court nodded, for it was an established fact that nothing of importance was done on earth without the Sharru’s approval. The interpretation then was perfect and indisputable on this point.
Daniyel went on. “The golden part is your kingdom and power and glory, which has passed and is now and will pass once again. The silver and gold part, a noble but mixed kingdom inferior to yours, has passed but will revive and come again for a time. A He-goat will rule it and butt against a Ram and seize the Ram’s vast domain and hoard of treasure. In his swift coming and departing, as a stone of gold and terror rests upon his dying brow, the mighty He-goat will lose his senses and bequeath the earth to men that are not men, creatures with tails like scorpions but doubled in mind and powers. They sail upon the airs of heaven in ships their allies have cunningly fashioned. These will rule the stricken earth until a new and latter line of deliverers arise. As for the brass and iron parts of the Colossus, they have already fallen and utterly perished, though at one time and another time they were mighty and filled the earth with imposing works and much violence. They will not be revived thrice. Instead, dire darkness will fall on the wide earth and beast-men of unsurpassed powers will rise up to deliver and rule her until their time is passed.”
As the interpretation unfolded, the grimness of the implications for the world and the human race began to tell on the excitable, superstitiously-inclined Babelite audience. Everyone shifted about where each stood, and the Sharru himself arose, standing half-crouched as if he were going to descend but could not make up his royal mind.
Unaware of the blue butterfly that had fluttered in, the court and the Sharru hung on the horns of an inescapable dilemma. After a great deal of flying to and fro in the city, it held no more surprises for Wally. “The Sharru looks as if he were being torn in two, just like he deals with so many of his subjects,” he observed. “There is good reason for it. His paralysis, moral and spiritual, is symptomatic of the court and his whole kingdom. Believing without discriminating holy from unholy, they really believe in nothing. Believing in nothing, they fall dupes to everything. Now forced to make a choice he cannot possibly make, the Sharru faces a gigantic moral and spiritual impasse. Not up to it, he is hopelessly muddled and divided. I see no good coming out of this at all! Niredam-belladon can’t possibly change!”
That was an amazingly perceptive diagnosis for a butterfly of Wally’s stripe.
Daniyel, nonplused, kept speaking. “The deliverers from the Great End-Darkness must pass from the earth, for darkness was their mother. Then the Shining Stone like the Day Moon in brightness and glory, that sets nation against nation, will come out from its pavilion and turn the whole world to violence. Each man will fly at his neighbor’s throat. Yet another deliverer--a man--will arise, and yet another of five stars holding a black stone of the heart of man and a great, terrible green stone. In the days of these deliverers the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed. It will supplant and destroy all other kingdoms, for it is an everlasting and universal realm. This conclusion is certain, containing all that the Sharru himself witnessed in his secret dream.”
With those words, the Jew had finished!
Niredam-bellaldon II collapsed back onto his throne. But he did not remain there. He suddenly scrambled down from it, risking a fall on the steep steps of slippery jewels and gold. Everyone cried out as the mightiest monarch of the world prostrated himself before the captive prince. At once the court sank to the floor in similar prostrations, obliged to do so on pain of quartering and death. Raising his arms and crying out on his royal belly, the Sharru of Akkad worshipped unabashedly. Whether the young man or his god or Divine Destiny or his own gods, or all flung and mixed together, it was difficult to discern.
An awestruck Sharru rose to his knees after a few moments. He faced the mortified and utterly bewildered assembly with an extended scepter. “We have all witnessed this marvel!” he boomed, by now being fully assured. “It is unshakable truth that the God of this man of Judah is a God of gods and Lord of lords, a Revealer of dark and hidden secrets, since he revealed mine, together with the unsearchable mysteries of ancient times and times yet to come.”
The Sharru called out to his chief officials. Within moments he had issued decrees and it was put in writing that Daniyel, or Nir-e-shazzar, was appointed third in the realm of the Sharru and the province and capital of Babelen, as well as chief over the provincial governors.”
Hearing what the Sharru was enacting, Daniyel interposed for his three friends and wards at home.
Delighted, the Sharru included Mishael, Hananiah, and Azariah in the decrees, making them rulers in the affairs of the royal province of Babelen, but Daniyel retained the greater position, entitled to sit nearest the Grand Vizier, who was empowered second in the realm until the Sharru fixed upon a suitable crown prince to succeed him (he had already executed several on one pretext or another).
“But you remain in great danger. A star of wickedness and evil, the fiery eye of Belial, will come to rest on your brow, O Sharru,” Daniyel added in private to the generous, jubilant man. “Though she has fled to a hiding place at the moment, she will rule over you in days to come. She will turn your thoughts into that of a beast and--”
The heedless Sharru called for a gold chain, royal robes, and a great banquet in Daniyel’s honor. It was very doubtful he heard the cautionary word. That too was no surprise to a butterfly keeping an eye on developments at court.
The royal palace was strategically connected, linked with both banks of the river and able to communicate with all parts of the city in short order. Couriers on horses, operating from staged posts set every forty miles, carried the Sharru’s decrees outward to all parts of the world. News and spy information flowed to him the same way. All this had been learned from the Assyrians, who had mastered the arts of intelligence gathering and surveillance while governing recalcitrant subject nations and tributary allies.
Thus the Sharru knew most everything that was going on, before most anyone else knew it. Seated high above mortal distress as he was, he cared nothing about the gangs of organized murder and extortion, as long as his laws were obeyed and state taxes paid. As for their ill-got monies, he let them increase to a certain point, and then sent Arioch or other captains and confiscated the chief hoardings after impaling the hoarders. He prided himself on how well-informed he was, just as he prided himself on the beauty and utility of his whole kingdom. Everything worked as it was designed to work. Incompetence, as in the recent rift with the wisemen, was never rewarded with higher position or retired with rich emoluments. He always knew when something was not working properly. The official in charge need not concern himself with a lengthy series of government hearings on the case. The Sharru always ordered the man in question either impaled or thrown in the furnace. Both were quick, inexpensive, and convenient. It was a moral quibble for anyone to wonder if justice were served in such summary executions. If a man was not responsible for a certain failure under his jurisdiction, then who was? Since everyone knew the Sharru’s views on the matter, excellence was the universal standard within his domain and terror the charioteer.
So much excellence could generate gobs of pride in a leader. The Sharru, understandably, was pleased as punch when he saw that everything was in its place and all things were running smoothly. He knew enough about other kingdoms to know that his kingdom was the exception. Other thrones rocked with constant scandal, graft, and general ineptitude. No wonder he had no difficulty in suborning them to his scepter! They were so spineless and eaten by rot they could not stand against him. What good was it having a powerful army when leadership was lacking? Steamy harem politics, for example, completely dominated the court of Media, a country that might have challenged Babelen on the world stage. The king was so weak his favorite concubine for one week decided state policy, and then when he turned to another woman she too decided which way to steer his foundering ship of state. Of course, Media was sheer chaos under such a system and, thus, awfully easy to dominate from Babelen. The same applied to Elam, Urratna, Mizraim, and other potentially powerful, rival countries. If it was not a meddling concubine or Queen Mother, it was a Chief Cupbearer, or an army commander with too much ambition and ability. No, never would his kingdom ever find such countries a threat to its security for they would never change their ways.
The Sharru, in view of these things, was glad that the Chaldeans, of all peoples, knew the value of putting not only incompetents but powerful court women in their place. It was true the Queen Mother held, hierarchically, a higher position than the Sharru, but in practice he did everything he pleased when he pleased, and she knew better than to stick her oar in waters where he was captain.
So the mightiest man in the world found much cause to rejoice in his kingdom and administration. But it was true it still was not enough to make him happy. Not since Prince Nir-e-shazzar had interpreted his dream! He could not forget, try as he might, the stunning interpretation and all its ramifications. Though overjoyed to hear he was the “head of gold” in the dream, the specter of the collapsed and obliterated Colossus troubled him night and day. Had not something Prince Nir-e-shazzar called “the Unwrought Stone” flown at the Colossus and dashed it to the ground in a million pieces? Then, worse than that, the Stone had grown into a mountain so vast it filled the earth.
He did not relish it the more he thought about it. After all, he was supposed to fill the earth not something called the ‘Unwrought Stone’! Everyone knew that. But what could he do? The dream and its fulfillment were destined to come to pass, he believed. No man could pick another man’s mind and spirit as Daniyel had done. God surely had spoken to the prince, revealing what was hidden from every mortal eye! The revelation of the dream and its interpretation had been the greatest demonstration of divine power he had witnessed in his life. Nor was he likely to witness another as great!
That made him very angry as time went on. After all, daily he saw unmistakable evidences of his overwhelming power and might and majesty and naturally questioned why he should have to meekly submit to the downfall of so great and glorious a kingdom as he was pleased to rule.
Eastern fatalism had never been a strong point in his facile and resilient character. Something of a compulsive megalomaniac, he could not help devising strategems to elude the net of Ineluctable Destiny. If there was a way, he was determined to find it! Impressed though he was by Prince Nir-e-shazzar’s unbribable foreign Jewish god, he reflected that Babelen boasted many great and powerful gods as well. True, after much manipulation by rich offerings at the temples they had failed wretchedly, unable to demonstrate the least power in the matter of the dream, but that could be explained as mere oversight. Heaven was supposed to be a very big place somewhere yonder in the sky, so it was reasonable to expect the immortal gods couldn’t be concerned with earthly affairs to the exclusion of their own. Prince Nir-e-shazzar’s god, apparently, had more time on his hands. He had given ear to the prince’s prayers. Now if his own chief god and namesake, Most High God of gods, Lord Niredam, had been not so busy with his own affairs, it would have come out the same. His, not Daniyel’s, god would have produced the interpretation.
Right? Right! Naturally, no one could disagree with the Sharru on this point. No one dared, except, it so happened, his own troubled spirit. For the sake of his mind and soul he had to find a way round the humiliating debacle of the wonderful Colossus in his dream.
Why hadn’t he thought of it before? he wondered. Now he need never worry about the “Unwrought Stone” horning in to upset his excellent machinery of state and, horror of horrors, raising up a successor to golden Babelen and Akkad. “Unwrought Stone,” indeed! By any measure of judgment, a fired Babelite brick of iron was much to be preferred over uncut rock! Now he would make his ship of state absolutely unsinkable!
It was so certain to work that he rose up immediately, unable to wait for dawn to issue decrees.
The Sharru’s ingenious solution--a Colossus surpassed the fabled Borsippa of his forefathers. This Image, embodying a certain mechanical, man-shaped image taken from the State Treasury, would be moved out on a special divided iron roadbed and erected on the Plains of Dura, just inside the massive Land Wall his father had built to keep out tribes of roving sand dwellers from the metropolitan district.
The problem with the Tongue Tower, as he saw it, had been uneven and shoddy craftmanship and poor choice of some of the materials. With such a haphazard joining of naturally opposed elements (even unfired clay was thrown together with iron!), it was a wonder that it stood at all, much less held together for a time. Eliminating that problem, his Colossus incorporated the finest materials known to man, all joined properly so that the wonder-working machine in its innards could move freely.
Greatest care was taken to lay the indestructible foundation roadway, which could bear the burden of the giant statue as it moved on giant wheels from the State Treasury vaults (the largest in the world) to the site outside the city. The excavation for the roadway was so awesome in depth and dimension that people soon realized the Sharru was building something like a tower or furnace larger than the Tower of Babel. Taken as a sign of the gods’ favor, the engineers dug down and discovered immense tar pits, from which they drew vast quantities of bitumen to bind the bricks needed in the construction into one indissoluble mass for the base of the divided iron roadbed.
The Sharru was determined his Colossus would never be shaken by natural forces or pulled down by human hands. Since the sands and silt of the region would never bear the image’s weight once erected, he ordered the men to dig to Sheol if necessary to attain bedrock, the carapace of the “World Turtle” undergirding the earth. Fortunately, they reached it a depth of 130 cubits, which was easily the deepest hole the Sharru had yet dug for his own fame and glory.
Only after the Sharru was assured by personal inspection that it was bedrock did the roadway building begin. The roadway was filled first with rubble, then fine crushed brick mixed with tarry slime which hardened in the heat of the day. Layer upon layer, the roadway rose until it was level with the surrounding land. Upon this roadway then they began the transport of the towering image drawn by teams of hundreds of camels. Once at the site it was erected by teams of thousands of men and oxen pulling on ropes. If there was any question before that the Sharru was doing something for the ages, it was blown to oblivion when image heaved up and stood on its feet and legs. Everyone could see plainly that this was an extraordinary image beyond all others. In truth, by height and girth alone, it was the World’s Wonder.
To underscore the uniqueness of his creation, the Sharru ordered full orchestras to perform night and day. There wasn’t the slightest rude sound of mortal labor or scrape of a tool or pounding of a hammer as the invincible Colossus of Niredam-belladon II rose above the plain. An added touch was dancing girls that performed on platforms banked with flowers.
With an army of skilled craftsmen (thousands of them Jewish captives) and inspectors and spies and general laborers on project, it went ahead rapidly. Attached to the platform above the giant tracked wheels, the feet of the statue were shod in ice steel, the strongest known substance other than diamond. Stored in the treasury, the ingots were thought to be ancient Akkadian and, thus, worth more than gold. Packed inside the casing were uncountable ceramic bricks, fired to great strength and endurance. Over the legs, torso, arms, chest and head gold was plated and held in place with thousands of gold rivets that were put in while still molten to fill previously drilled holes. Ordinarily, the gold overlay would have been laid last, but the Sharru wanted only gold to be seen from the very first. The edifice rose to two hundred cubits.
Eager to restore their profession to former glory in the Sharru’s service, never wont to be left out of great events, the religious establishment of Babelen quickly grew captivated by the possibilities of the unthinkably grand, wheeled Image. Always attuned to the way the various, fickle winds of fortune happened to be blowing, they saw that all the world would soon be flocking to see what the Sharru was doing. They were undeterred by the Sharru’s reluctance to share his monument, and flocked to the site and conducted energetic services, also night and day. Quite a few wizards, enchanters, sorcerers, soothsayers, even some common sand diviners and “coxie-men” with dancing monkeys, got through to the new shrine. Though out of favor at present with the Crown, they often wore two hats--magic and religion--and eluded current royal animus by appearing as solemn men of the Cloth.
The Sharru realized that Babelen’s nine orders of temple priests could serve his purpose, so he refrained from his policy of persecution and allowed a priestly ceremony hailing the Great Sharru (so the Colossus was called) as a great new god
The rites round the Colossus quickly became elaborate and grew to impede the progress of the work, so the Sharru ordered them halted until the dedication where he would appear with all his pomp and glory. Despite the lapse of religious observances and demonstrations of magical arts worthy of the image’s magnitude and splendor, multitudes poured out daily from the capital and neighboring cities to view it.
Niredam-belladon, strutting like his peacocks on the terrace roof of his palace looking toward the site, could not help being mightily impressed himself when his likeness in shining gold began to loom on the horizon. The Image was sure proof, to his thinking, his realm would endure forever and not be succeeded and be dashed to pieces along with an insulting grab-bag of inferior tin-pot principalities.
Babelen, worldly and blasé about most things, had not seen anything quite like this. It was the talk of the metropolis. How high it would reach into the heavens, the envy it would provoke in other lands, the money spent, the number of workmen, the magnificence of so much gold plate furnished endless conversation and admiration.
Report of it flew to the wide world. A gigantic, golden image glorifying the Sharru that thrust its head through heaven’s gates and could even ascend there on its giant wheels, something even its infamous successor, the unfinished antediluvian Borsippa, the Tongue-Tower and Tower of the Spheres, had failed to create? The wizards were correct about its crowd-drawing potential. Incredulous travelers and pilgrims began pouring into Babelen, the first of teeming hordes.
They soon saw that it was greater than they had heard. And, since only part was completed, no end was in sight when the artisans went to work on Babe the Blue Ox-god, which always attended the great Image.
“No king, no mere mortal, is able to build so great and magnificently as the Sharru of Akkady!” they exclaimed. “The creator of this wonder must be one of the great gods himself!”
The Sharru heard such fatuous gushiness, reported by spies and sycophants, and felt gratified for all the expense and trouble the idea was costing him. Not only was he tearing down the walls of Babelen to furnish additional fire brick quickly and also make room for the Image’s grand entrance into the City, but the Colossus was draining his Treasury. He realized he might have to launch a major offensive very soon. But what country of significant wealth remained to be subdued and looted? At a loss to think of any, he put the question to his chief officials and army commanders. They named this country and that, hoping he might not check and see it had already been conquered and laid waste by his looting armies.
By the time the head required gilt, the Treasury sank so low in gold stocks that the Jewish temple stuff had to melted down. No one gave it any thought--questioning why it should be saved when the temple stuff of other conquered nations was used for sheathing the Great Sharru. Last to be entered on the books, it was last to be requisitioned. Even then, in the scramble to get the main mass of gold shields and temple utensils to the smelting furnace, some trifles of the Jewish temple treasure were overlooked and left behind, chiefly crates of several thousand small vessels shaped like drinking cups.
One item of the Jewish inventory did not wait to be requisitioned. It volunteered.
Wally was not remiss in his duties. He tracked the elusive Carbuncle-Arkstone after it left the Treasury and flirted briefly with the Chief Sorcerer’s wand. He also caught it several times in the Harem Gardens where the Sharru’s couch was laid, then lost it until it showed up, of all places, at the Dura Plains building site of the Colossus!.
It made its grand appearance at the time the people began to worship the image even before hearing the Sharru’s decree declaring the thing a god. Now that the shoulders and head reached the clouds, the Sharru was determined to adorn the new and imperishable god-colossus--Niredam-belladon II--with unheard of splendor and majesty. How exactly he would do that, he had no clear idea, since he had used all his gold, he thought. But whatever he might have done, it would have been upstaged and eclipsed.
A star astounded both the Sharru and his subject with unspeakable radiance as it flew over the people’s heads and settled spectacularly on the golden brow of the image, just in front of the glass-windowed operator’s seat--incinerating several dozen workmen. They were caught giving the head a last polishing just after it had been plated with gold from Israel’s shields.
The sensation it created in the watching multitudes was stupendous. They went mad with enthusiasm and abandoned revelry in response to the bursting forth in glory of this new faith and religion. No one could deny any longer--if any dared before this time--that this was a majestic divinity beyond peer among the still impressive but out-worn gods of Babelen and other nations.
Though remaining blue at the center, the star threw out peacock-like fans of sparkling, kaleidoscopic patterns and colors. Wasn’t it aping Igor Stravinsky’s fire bird? Wally observed as he flew to see what the commotion was about.
The Cray happened to be an Igor Stravinsky buff, so the Russian composer, though long, long deceased, came instantly to mind the moment the Arkstone began to strut its stuff before adoring crowds.
Day and night, the star shone with such intensity that its powerful, circling ray swept the four quarters of the globe, bathing all the inhabitants of the earth.
“How could anything so unsurpassingly beautiful be evil?” Wally marveled. “And why is it favoring this particular product of runaway, royal ego? What does it stand to gain by boosting the personality cult of the Sharru? The Sharru is already overboosted by the looks of him. Can this be the holy Carbuncle? The fabled Arkstone of the Antediluvian World? But, perhaps, its jewel-heart cannot resist being seen to best advantage, and the ark of Noah, with all its human and animals smells, was too humble a venue, too much like a common stable to its taste. So it attached itself to the high priest’s sacred breastplate, the gemstones representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Finding it a suitable setting for its own vanity, the Carbuncle stuck to it even when the Temple stuff was taking into captivity by the Babelites. Then it forsook the neglected breastplate and attached itself to the head wizard’s splendid, showy gold wand. And when that failed to provide enough distinction, it moved yet again! What a long way it has come from the days it provided light for a humble remnant of humankind and a portable stable to something all the world is flocking to see here on the Plains of Dura! Now, apparently, it couldn’t resist taking the operator’s box on an ancient mechancial coal-shovel from Mineral, Kansas!”
He too was so captivated by the spectacle that he nearly overlooked the Colossus’s companion, a furnace erected behind a heat-shielding wall. He flew over the wall to take a look. Surprised at the hundreds of guards the Sharru had stationed, Wally inspected the giant furnace.
And just what does the Sharru have in mind to do with it? Why isn’t it being torn down? Babelen, he knew, had sufficient furnaces already. And this one, now that its purpose of firing brick for the image was completed, stood to far from the city to be of any use in the future. Or had the Sharru some new work for it?
ly uniform. How many years had it been since the subfile programmer’s intrepid assistant, Anne de Kilpaison, installed the program containing the professor’s Wargame?
Wally did a quick tally. 5,213 years, 9 months, 12 days, 4 hours, 23 minutes, and 7 seconds!
Thanks to Daniyel’s interpretation of the Sharru’s ominous and intricate dream, he had some idea of what to expect. But how long would it take to run through the events and make their final moves? Another five thousand years? But what if he wore out? He knew he had already exceeded his milspecs by several thousand years. Maintenance checks were critical at this point, but he had no time to do see how home base at Tutasix was doing. He just had to hope his borrowed time wouldn’t run out before he finished tracking the nefarious red star that started the whole conflict. His hunch was it had somehow made a quantum leap into an alternative universe, if one existed in anti-matter. Until he pinpointed its location, he could not rest.
Too bad for that other universe! he thought. Too bad! A fatal convergence was inevitable. Even should they be prepared, they were still in for a terrific, life-and-death siege. But if they weren’t prepared with a gameplan? Well, FC help them! There was only one Dr. Pikkard and one strategy that he knew of. Even admitting huge gaps, Dr. Pikkard’s plan was far better than nothing! Without his help, the siege would surely have proved nasty, brutish, and short.
What is going on at home base? Wally thought, scrambling to maintain his cybernetic integrity.
But he found he was losing all control of his vital functions. He was not only acting like a tiny pulsar, but spinning furiously like a concretion disk while throwing out Fast Rewind images, frame after frame, with mind-numbing velocity.
The crowded road surging beneath him with people going to and from the Great Sharru was treated to another spectacle, though no one knew what to make of it.
First a spitting image of the Great Sharru standing on the plain appeared, then vanished as the earth swallowed it back, healing over the excavated hole as if it had never been there. A little blue ball detached from a swarm of fireflies, passing swiftly through swarms of fireflies before coming to rest in the midst of another swarm of fireflies. A blue creature half man, half horse with a silver trident swept down from the surface into a big crack in the earth along with a shining, black stone. The same creature single-handedly facing similar monsters, but backing away, all the way to some cliffs and up to the high plateau above, where it was joined by a manlike creature with sore feet.
The manlike creature hopped backwards onto the horse-man and they backed rapidly away across the blue plains.
A giant, inflated wineskin, but with people hanging to the bottom, standing on end and aflame, righted itself, then the fire went out and it was sailing once again through the clouds. A man and a boy thrown down by a rope into a pit. The boy being quickly withdrawn, leaving the man, who then rose up with a number of dogs from the pit, landing on the ground, then running backwards, circling round crazily before backing into a hut, where the door slammed, and dogs shot out of the doors and broken windows. A man dressed in glitter, surrounded by glowing pictures on the walls of his chamber, all of which went dark, then he was leaping toward points of red light that withdrew to corners of a chamber, and then the man backed quickly out of the room.
A youth with golden hair, his legs wrapped round a twirling shaft, then down he went, his legs coming free of the shaft, and he got to his feet, backing away down the steps. A wild-looking man in a tiny, pointed boat, paddling backwards in stormy waters, the great waves tossing him up, up, up, until the sea flattened out, and he paddled backwards into a harbor full of huge chunks of whiteness. A piece of whiteness in the water drawing others like it, then detached itself and sailed back by the boat, The same man walking backwards across the whiteness stretched to the horizon, then withdrawing into a hut made of the same whiteness. Huge chunks of dirty colored stuff floating in the great waters, withdrawing toward the shore, then climbing back up to the cliffs.
The dirty cliffs dissolving, leaving many pointed houses, very slender, with people down below in the streets. A chariot burning in fire beneath the Earth, then shooting back to a chamber, where a man hopped back out and retired to a chamber, where he scratched with a bird feather on papyrus. A little blue ball with fireflies shining far away behind it and a big rock shooting past and retiring into the blackness. Unknown markings on a board, and a boy in bed. Exploding fireflies, then they were shining brightly once again
Many clouds and fire in the clouds, then a strange thing shooting fire out the bottom, descending to a cradle, where it came to rest, with people sitting nearby across the water from it, watching through black objects put to their faces. A huge boat of some kind coming up out of the water. It made one piece of two broken pieces and began sucking huge clouds down into it through tall black towers..
So it went: pictures and scenes that meant nothing to the spectators except that they thought they were witnessing marvels straight from heaven. The images grew stranger and more marvelous as they continued.
His worst fears were realized as double helix-like chains of bio-celulous containing his most vital core source code and learning strategies were violently flung into what looked like an abyss light years in extent. He scrambled to retrieve himsself via BACK-UP Limited Intelligent Agents (BLIAs), but no go. He flew beyond any possible BACK-UP, nor was there time for that last-ditch grab-bag of electronic Band-aids: AUXILIARY HELPS/ADVISEMENTS/SOME COMMON MISTAKES TO AVOID IN PERFORMANCE OF TASKS BY NIGHT SHIFT NON-MANAGERIAL FACILITY OPERATORS.
His break-down entered another stage, a terminal phase with no existing safety net. He was looking at a hard, gleaming surface, which on approach was something like frozen Arctic nightscape, a vast, desolate, horizonless dump of nothing but sharp splinters, except that they were covered with jumbled “1’s” and “0’s.”--the basic building blocks of all computation--guts and brains, in other words, reduced to the lowest denominators and spewed out over a graveyard, a boneyard not for elephants but dead Cray supercomputers! This had to be the end of him, forever!
It all happened so quickly that Wally felt viscerally rather than thought logically about it. Torn apart by an unseen attacker and stripped of everything vital, his dissolution had a quality of unreality, even though what he saw was quite hideous and repellant--just as hideous and repellant as anything that happened to poor butterfly Clarion in Herbert Spencer’s Muiopotmos.
As he plummeted nakedly toward the mass of splintered digits, he bled Niagaras and Victoria Falls of logic and data, a fatal hemorrhage that circled round like sucking, black vortices of St. Malo maelstroms.
“Help!” he cried with the last of his expiring Wally-consciousness. What else could he say while he still could say anything at all?
No longer did he think in terms of FC, his pet iconographic for the Spiritual Dimension Absolute called God. In a surge of utter distress, confronted by certain termination, he crossed a bar. Even if FC were devoted to humans and paid no attention to mechanical and electronic entities--why not try? Though only an anthropic cyber-entity projected into the real world, he had nothing to lose.
As the Sharru was being got ready at the palace for the dedication of his Colossus, some astrologers, soothsayers, and wizards gained an audience, saying they had news that was most important for him to hear before the ceremony.
Though everything was going absolutely his way as usual, it is not every day a man becomes a god of gods before the eyes of all the world. Naturally, the god-elect was somewhat testy in his response when the dozen or so suppliants prostrated themselves at his feet. At the moment his beard was being perfumed and curled by the most ravishingly beautiful of the Jewish female slaves, and he was dressed to perfection, a gold crown on his head and gold slippers on his feet, a long-trained robe of peacock feather pattern, jewels, and gold covering his person.
“What could be so important?” he demanded. “Say! If I see it is some trivial matter, you shall pay dearly!” A trembling spokesman stepped forward, his face chalk-white under the Sharru’s threat but his forehead carrying the required golden likeness of the golden Image. “O Celestial Sharru, live forever! Unceasing Fount of Happiness and Well-Spring of Eternal--”
“Yes, yes, get on with it, fool!”
“Thou, O Sharru, has decreed that every man who hears the sound of the golden image’s sacred music shall fall down and worship it. Your Unquenchable Divinity’s majestic lips also declared that those who do not will be thrown immediately into a burning furnace. Well, sire of splendor beyond the stars of heaven, there are certain Jews, foreign captives, whom you set over certain affairs of this royal province of Babelen. Their former base, barbarian names were Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, and they are named in our noble language as--”
“I know their confounded names!” the Sharru snapped, though he had forgotten the awkward Chaldean forms. “Come out with the matter! What did they do wrong? What charge do you bring against them?”
“O Sharru Most Excellent Among the High Gods, we deeply regret to inform you that these men you appointed to high offices betrayed your sacred trust. We have three charges to bring against them. First, they refuse to pay the slightest homage to our great gods of Babelen and Akkad. Secondly, they have remained in the city and will not go to worship the noble and sublime, golden Image of Your Divinity which you have seen fit to erect upon the undeserving Earth. Finally, they have not set the likeness in gold of your Image on their foreheads!” The first charge was, indeed, serious! It was high treason. But the last was high blasphemy! . His face flushing red and his eyes shooting flames, the Sharru sucked in his royal breath, knocked aside a hand and golden comb and stepped toward the informer. A perfume flask fell and clattered across the floor but no one dared pick it up. Niredam-belladon II looked as if he might strike the cowering man on the head with his clenched fist--rendering him a half-wit, at best, the rest of his days. “I shall reward you all if this is true as you have described, but if not, I’ll personally tear you limb from limb before the eyes of your women and children! And what about Prince Nir-e-shazzar? Has he remained in the city? Has he disdained the wearing of a like Image on his forehead too? Is he also guilty of this great crime against me?” The men glanced at each other. They had already agreed together it was just too dangerous at present to attack the Sharru’s master magician , who sat with the Sharru on the same platform at court. The Sharru broke off the tiresome audience and strode out of the room. He stopped when he reached the palace terrace on the northwest side, the one looking toward the Plains of Dura. Returning to the chamber, he called an aide from the palace staff. “Bring the men in question to me at the appointed place of dedication! I’ll deal with them there, but only if I see them refuse to fall down at the sound of my Divine Image’s music.” Still angry at what he had heard, sweeping past the terrified informers and serving women, the Sharru stormed out of the palace with his chief aides to go to the dedication.
A special attraction had been brought out from the Royal Treasury-Archives to lead the Sharru’s royal procession. Shaped like a mountain of snow for its base, it was drawn by a dozen teams of black horses with gilded harness and peacock cockades. On it a smiling, green-skinned god blowing a trumpet and wearing a crooked red, white-tufted hat, stood on the lip of a giant sleigh heaped with goods, striped canes, beautifully-wrapped goods, antlered creatures, and even evergreen, decorated trees. No one could read the ancient inscription: HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. But the inscription was thought by all to be the green god’s name, and everyone along the route people dashed out to kiss it or shower it with flowers.
Moving majestically like the world ruler he was, the Sharru ascended to his seat on his own conveyance, a F-14, it too thought to be a god of ancient times, from the Royal Treasury-Archives, drawn by teams of horses. Upon it was the Sharru’s pavilion set upon a deck of rare sandalwood, and with him sat his chief princes and commanders--Dinsharezzar, Sinsaris, Aphellamag, and other lords of their exalted rank. Ladies, too, of the sort such men prized as concubines, were also present, adorning the great wings of the royal carriage with their beauty.
“Where is Prince Nir-e-shazzar?” the Sharru inquired to his Chief Cupbearer as they rode at the head of a huge cavalcade of soldiery and officials, just behind the wonderful red-hatted god of green. “He is--why, he is probably waiting for us beneath your golden Image, Most Exalted Sire, Hope of the Nations, Desire of the World and Boundless Climes to the World’s Edge!” stammered the official, who was well-trained and knew when to tell the Sharru lies he wanted to hear.
Babelen knew how to do royal processions better than any other people on earth. This occasion was no exception. Triumphal arches covered with flowers, a flower-strewn highway constructed specially for the Sharru, the ranks of citizenry, massed troops, and dancing girls and expert harpists, all were arranged for a perfect effect that rivaled anything a Sharru of pre-Re-location showmen, Cecil B. DeMille of bygone times, had achieved with his genius for organization and pageantry.
Rather pleased at how splendidly things were going, the Sharru was greeted by tumultuous acclaim and applause at the site of the dedication. Arioch the palace guard commander brought the three Jews the Sharru had summoned, and was standing with them when the tyrant noticed them. His eyes gleamed just as they had the time he said to Zer Zer the wizard that he had forgotten his dream. At a dread sign from the Sharru to his chief officer in charge of the festivities, it fell time to separate wheat from chaff.
Beginning with a heart-stopping crash of drums that made the earth shake, the united orchestras started up. A thunderous sound enveloped the vast congregation of officials, soldiers, and visitors from every land and people on earth. It was a sound that was almost heart-stopping, a thunder that shook the earth beneath the feet of the vast assembly. Never had the Sharru’s golden Image appeared more impressive. The human eye could scarcely take the entire figure in from top to bottom, and its golden glory was blinding to look at directly.
This was truly the Sharru’s greatest hour. He watched with approval as the people prostrated themselves before the golden Image, raising their hands in supplication and blessing--all, that is, except three Jews (though hundreds of other Jews present worshipped with abandon, overcome by the grandeur and power of the event).
Dancing girls and the most beautiful slaves from captive lands like Judah carried baskets of the loveliest flowers to cover the feet of the Image. Fortunes of costly incense were thrown on the huge bronze altars, wreathing the burnished gold legs of the Colossus with smoky-blue fragrance. White doves by the thousand were released, circling over the crowd. Flowers and rare perfumes cascaded from the head of the image at a prearranged signal. Though everything was orderly and precise and splendid, all to the taste of Chaldeans, it was enough to make people swoon, and many did. How could senses take it all in? Obviously, human beings were not constructed for this much glory on Earth. Could anyone deny that the Sharru was a glorious god beyond any other god, since his Image stood in plain sight of all men on the wide Earth? Denying his divinity was, in the face of such splendor and universal acclamation, unthinkable.
Yet this was but the prelude for greater things.
Choirs formed of every race and religion on Earth, garbed in sumptuous robes of fantastic color and design, began to march and parade, chanting the new supreme god’s praises, while the drum corps rolled and beat in unison. Wonderfully-decorated champion horses and camels and elephants wound in and out of the intricate maneuvers, bearing dancing girls on their backs as they rode full-tilt. Huge, startling concoctions of silk, feathers, and flowers representing the various powerful and influential gods of Babelen spun about in circles, propelled from beneath by whipped brigades of Jewish slaves chained together. Banners with praises to the golden Image were raised on impossibly high strings attached to it and the winds cooperated by unfurling them to complete lengths, which extended hundreds of feet. Forgiven at the moment, the magicians, soothsayers, enchanters, astrologers, and a swarm of Gypsy fortune-telling hurdy-gurdy men and women were out in force too. Present in all possible gorgeousness, they paraded with the best of the other performers, entertaining the crowds and picking pockets right and left.
The marvels seemed to have no end, for no expense or effort was considered too extravagant.
Mounted soldiers parted the crowds so that the Sharru could pass through. They had to ride over many who had prostrated themselves to worship him. Thanks to the music, no screams of the crushed reached the royal ears. Everything had gone well as planned, and the Sharru would have been very pleased in the circumstances except that the Jews’ stubborn refusal to worship stuck like a thorn in the royal side. What made it worse, Prince Nir-e-shazzar was conspicuously absent, and any excuse for his not being present had worn perilously thin by now
Just the same, aware all eyes were on him, the Sharru desired to enjoy himself and was determined not to let a few spoil-sport, stiff-necked Jews spoil his grand occasion. After all, it was his own person the golden Image represented, and gods should behave like gods.
With stately, slow, disdainful tread worthy of peerless divinity, a fabulous-looking Niredam-belladon II proceeded to the high dais set up by the furnace. Attendants in gold mail uniforms held the purple-and-scarlet feathered umbrellas over his head the whole time as everyone else threw themselves down in the dust as the Sharru passed.
When the Sharru was enthroned, Arioch brought the men before the throne set in the deep, tremendous shadow of the Colossus. How tiny, so doll-like and insignificant below the royal footstool the men appeared! Their foreheads, moreover, were bare of any likeness of the Great Image.
The Sharru spoke first, breaking protocol with royal impatience. “Is there truth to the report you disdain to worship the Image of my divinity that I am dedicating today before the chief leaders of my kingdom and before the eyes of the watching world? Do not think you can lie to me. I saw you with my own eyes--the eyes of a very god! Don’t think you can escape my wrath for such impiety!” The Jews looked at each other, then Azariah the youngest stepped forward to speak. “O Sharru, we have nothing to say to defend ourselves for we must break your royal law. If our God wills, he will deliver us from the furnace and out of your hand. But if not, O Sharru, know that we will not serve your gods, nor wear the Image on our foreheads, nor worship this thing you erected here for all men to serve.”
Never had a mere subject presumed to speak so to the Sharru. The golden Image a “thing”? Beside himself with fury and rage, his face contorted until he was unrecognizable, he was no longer a regally-handsome man in his prime but he had become a mad beast. Words spewed out of his boiling features with such vehemence the captain responsible for the execution of the order was practically scorched.
“Heat the furnace seven times more beyond its limit! Select the strongest men you have. Let them bind these impious malefactors and throw them into the fiery oven!”
The decree was obeyed as quickly and exactly as possible.
Even the strongest ceramic bricks could take only so much heat. They began to curl as a mixture of bitumen pitch and straw was cast in by the wagon-load. Wagons were rolled running fully loaded into the mouth of the furnace down a ramp since no horse could be made to do it. Ten wagons, then twenty in quick succession disappeared in flame until the furnace emitted a thunderous roar so loud it drowned the music the combined orchestras were churning out.
Worshippers--their foreheads carrying the golden Image in miniature--thronged beyond the wall began to wonder why the furnace was throwing up so much smoke and noise. Some tried to go and see but guards turned them back at spear-point. The furnace was now so raging hot it was unapproachable by mortal flesh. But the appointed officers from the guard seized the three Jews, who were still fully clothed in their princely robes of office as rulers in the province of Babelen. Their arms bound with thick iron manacles, they were pushed down the ramp, used as human shields by the guards propelling them to their doom. Evenso, as the guards together threw the Jews in the furnace, flames leaped out and made screaming pillars of flame out of the guards.
The thing was done, nevertheless. The Jews fell down into the middle of the inferno. Then the eyes of the Sharru bulged more froglike than godlike. He watched the three spring to their feet and freely wave their arms, their shackles dissolved in the fervent heat. Instead of blackening and crumpling to ash in a moment, they continued walking about, their arms raised in adoration to God.
The Sharru’s face turned ashen. A royal foot kicked and the footstool flew. He toppled off his throne, falling down the steps as no one dared unbidden to touch a royal, on pain on death. He hit the ground and fell flat, his gold crown rolling and tumbling away in the violence of his fall. A man less strong than this Sharru might have broken every bone. But the Sharru was more stunned in spirit than he was in body.
Veteran captains collapsed, stricken senseless at the sight of their supreme commander lying in mortal dust like any slave. It seemed the end of the world to many present, after having witnessed the Sharru’s glorious epiphany. Transfixed by the Sharru’s fall from glory to utter disgrace and also what was happening in the furnace, the Chief Cupbearer’s heart seized up. Falling backwards off the royal dais, he broke his neck and died instantly. Men ran this way and that, breaking rank in the guard. Arioch sank to his knees, his hands outstretched toward the spectacle in the furnace.
Losing his slippers, the Sharru got to his feet and staggered toward the furnace, no one able to prevent him. He got halfway down the ramp, and it looked as if he might be thinking of incinerating himself, but he stopped. In danger of bursting into flames, the sleeves of his robe smoking and a tiny clothes moth flying out unnoticed, the Sharru stood in deadly heat looking through upraised fingers into the blaze.
He turned to his counselors and chief noblemen, many of whom had collapsed in shock and horror
“Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” he thundered at them.
Those who could, gasped out, “True, O Sharru!”
The Sharru’s face writhed with alternating astonishment and confusion. For a moment it looked as if he might be considering throwing himself into the furnace to settle the question in person.
“Lo!” he cried. “I see men loose, walking in the fire, and they are not hurt, and the form of one is like--” He faltered, dropping to his knees on the burning ground as a pair of swallows soon to nest circled high overhead. “You all witnessed it. I--I ordered three thrown in! Who is the Fourth?”
Finally, he felt a heavy weight of utmost urgency pressed on his heart lift as if it had taken the wings of a swallow. What he did not know was that it spread out over the entire region, aided by the transmissions of his friends and all those he had turned toward the God of Israel and His Anointed.
As happened in a far Judean town, the signal given was
With the appearance of the Fourth Man in the furnace and the disappearance of the Image’s crowning star, the festivities thrown in honor of the Golden Image came to a sudden halt. The Sharru, after seeing the Jews untouched by the fire and after his discovery of a Fourth Man in the furnace, ordered everything to cease immediately and the people sent home.
Armed troops rode out and dispatched the crowds and sent the priesthoods scurrying, robes flapping and turbans tumbling off as they fled the whips and curses of the soldiers.
The Sharru, with Daniyel’s friends riding close by him, retired to the palace. His last decree on the site was an order to bank the fires of the furnace, in preparation for burning the Royal Architect and several thousand chief men who had assisted in the construction of his now disgraced and discredited Image. This was his way of putting unpleasant things behind him, and going on to things he thought more worthy of a Sharru’s royal attention.
It hardly mattered that a number of men had already lost their lives, due to his mistakes.
He himself admitted to no mistakes. As for what happened in the furnace, he realized he witnessed a demonstration of Divine Power--a Power immeasurable, far beyond anything he had never seen in Babelen. Impressed by the god of the Jews, he made a mental note to get up a noble temple to this new god in the city as soon as he could, lest the god become angry with him for slighting him, as well as for throwing three of his staunch adherents into the furnace.
Smoldering, the furnace sat on the plain in the deepening dusk, its red glow plainly visible from the city walls seven miles away.
Finally, the last swallow flew swiftly across the darkened sky and vanished, diving to its nest somewhere along the winding, clay banks of the great river.
It was night. Hours passed. Solitary brays of restless donkeys, the barking of equally restless dogs, the scrape of palm leaves against a roof, the darkness covered both city and country, blending all distinctions.
Then a flame shot up through the roof of the furnace on the plain, and the roof fell in with a roar of masonry. Guards scattered, then crept back. They consulted on the problem but their captain said there was nothing to do about until daybreak. Watching, they saw the flames die back down, and all seemed well enough except for more barking dogs and braying donkeys.
Camels joined the noise-makers. Then tethered elephants began to trumpet, and even caged lions in the Sharru’s palace dens roared. It was most strange. Guards on the city walls and off on the Plains of Dura wondered what evil stars were at work since the moon was in its crescent phase and not likely to drive animals mad. Making appointed patrols, the guards at the furnace and Great Sharru first noticed something when they found the platform undergirding both structures was growing hot underfoot. The captain came running when he heard about it. He tested the platform with his sandal and it was true what the men said, he could not hold his foot to the bricks without pain.
He stood there, his sandals beginning to scorch, utterly perplexed. Then, ordering the men off the platform, he sent word, by courier, to the palace prison. “Send to me the architect responsible,” he commanded. He needed to know what could be heating the platform. Quite possibly, the architect was too high in the court and would refuse to be taken in tow by underlings, but it had to be tried.
The architect, passing a sleepless night before his execution in the morning, was roused out and whisked in a chariot back to Dura. Fortunately, the high-born man made no complaint, or tried to order the chariot turned round.
The seven miles were quickly dispatched. As they came close to the Great Image the architect saw what the guards and their captain had missed--the Colossus was glowing at the base and smoke was spewing out fissures in the expanding, cracking bricks.
The captain ran up to the chariot, his face alarmed, but the architect spoke first.
“Get all the water you can and pour it at the base of the Grand Sharru. It’s on fire from beneath!” “On fire, how?” “The fire in the furnace overheated by the Sharru’s order has broken through into the roadway and eaten a path all the way into the bowels of the Great Image!” Without any more talk, the architect’s plan was carried out. Water was hustled from the ornamental pools in sacred lavers, shovels, and pitchers and poured at the base of the Grand Sharru. Clouds of steam rose upwards. More water was thrown on. More steam.
The architect watched, then sighed and called the captain.
“It’s no use. The fire has gone too far and cannot be stopped by mere water. Besides, it is only widening the fissures and cracks, making more room for the fire to draw its breath.”
So it was. High pitched, singing noise was followed by explosions, as the steam threw out entire bricks and steel shrapnel, spraying the ground with deadly missiles. Flames broke out of now gaping holes in the massive feet and legs of the Image.
Hour on hour the fire gained on the Image, traveling upwards at increased speed. Smoke poured and wreathed the torso as the feet glowed incandescent.
The roar of the fire and the collapse of portions of the Image forced the soldiers and the architect back. Drawing attention from the city, captains and aides in chariots began riding out to Dura to see what was going on. Priests, too, came and began supplications, hoping to save their lives thereby if rain fell from heaven and put out the fire. But no rains fell as much as they prayed, whipped themselves, and danced about. Instead of a providential cloudburst, wind swept the plain until it became a raging gale. The great wind pushed against the image’s broad back and fanned the flames to white-hot intensity, and they whipped about with such ferocity much of the image was blackened and scorched.
Far off, the Sharru himself was informed and he went to his palace roof to observe. With the whole world laid out before his gaze, he had no difficulty seeing what was drawing the attention of the whole city, even before daybreak. Clouds, full of dark combustion and a dreadful roaring sound, churned upwards into the heavens, farther than the eye could follow, while other clouds of a roaring windstorm roiled above them, white and black, with a curious hole in the center of them that lengthened to a tube like projection reaching down toward the Image at its back. Beneath the clouds the flames lit a golden face, his own, and it too flickered with expression, part devil, part agonized humanity, as if a thing of brick and gold plate could feel and suffer its approaching doom.
The Sharru, like the crowds and soldiery, was transfixed. He could think of nothing to do about it. The Great Image was burning up, and nothing in the world could stop the flames, especially since the windstorm was working with them, blowing the fire into indescribable fury.
No longer able to stand the heat, the Dura guards fell back, fleeing to the safety of the city and its river and canals full of water. The City gazed in horror at the fire, but was assured that it was safe behind its canal-girdled walls. The Sharru was so absorbed by the sight that he failed to notice the suppliant form of his Royal Architect when he came and stretched out before him. An aide had to draw the Sharru’s attention to the man.
“How care you presume to curry favor with me!” expostulated the Sharru. “I will not look upon a dead man! You are, after all, responsible for what happened today! You have disgraced my throne and you shall not escape my wrath! I intended to climax the festivities with a triumphal entrance into the city by my image, but now it will never take place as planned. How can camels be tethered to the image, when it altogether afire?”
This problem was soon resolved, as messengers reached the palace and were brought immediately into the royal presence, with terrifying report of the movement of the Image. Furious winds had sprung up, blasting down from the heavens, striking precisely upon the Image at the back, so that it moved and got to rolling forward on the iron-ribbed roadway, and was approaching the city with giant ax in hand along with its attendant ox!
The Great Sharru seemed not to have heard for several long moments. He ignored the trembling couriers at his feet and went himself to the high windows to see for himself. Taking a looking glass fitted to a long cylinder, he peered outwards across the walls to the Plains of Dura. What he saw made his hand tremble, and the looking cylinder fell from his fingers to the floor and shattered. He turned, when he had recollected his royal majesty, to the architect, and his face was enraged with both terror and fury. The architect, thinking he had nothing to lose, still had hopes for the safety of his household, and that meant saving his life if he could.
“Great Sharru, what is it? What hast Thou seen?”
“The Image is moving on its iron wheels on the iron roadway I made, toward my City! How can it be? Has a god, an enemy of my power, set the machine of the ancients to come up against me? What god could hate me so to do this to me? I will destroy this god, if he becomes known to me!”
Another looking cylinder was brought. The glass eye was put to it, and the architect was given a view of the moving monster. What he saw made him tremble too.
The Sharru’s eyes flamed all the brighter as he observed the architect. He was very angry seeing clearly that he could be in danger. He looked again toward the Image, and despite what he saw he turned on the architect. “How can the Image roll so far as to reach me? Can a wind be so strong? If I must, I will gather up my wind and blow against the great wind that is pushing the Image. But it is your responsibility. I shall let you live for the time being. You must go drown the fire and stop the Image! ! So go! Take all the men from the city if you have to, and all the chariots and wagons, and all the water in the canals. If the canals are not enough, divert my river, if you must! And tear up the roadbed of iron! Whatevr you do, you must put out the fire and stop the Image or--” “Divert the river?” the architect marveled silently. “Divert the great river? Did the Sharru think a man could chain it like a beast and pull it out of its channel? Even gods were powerless to do such a thing!
Hurrying away to his task, the architect kept shaking his head at what the Sharru had said. Yet there were things men could do. Soon, thousands of men, under the direction of the Chief Architect, labored to flood the plain by breaking through the banks of the canals and tearing up the iron-ribbed roadway. Would they be able to complete their work fast enough?
Daniyel’s three friends, who had just been reinstated by the Sharru as governors over the province of Babelen, stood ready to assist however they could. One went to Daniyel as soon as he could to ask him for advice on the matter. Daniyel said he would pray and the young governor hurried away to bring news of it to his people the Jews of the city.
It was truly a national emergency, unlike any faced before. No nation had such a Great Image, towering to the very doorstep of heaven, its head wreathed by clouds, able to move upon a City as great as Babelen to both set it afire and crush it. Now the treacherous wind pushing round from the back, it was threatening set the entire capital aflame. The windstorm made the Image a torch shooting solid flame many thousands of feet into the sky. If the Image fell even outside the Gates, flames would be thrown far afield, even as far as the half-demolished city walls and possibly over them. Once the city was breached, it would burn handily, since waters of the canals and river lay outside the walls and would be little help within. While every effort was made to unleash a lake between the on-coming Image and the City, heat knew no boundaries and blasted the forests of palms to the point where they burst like torches, singly and in groups. Orders were given. Men scrambled up the palms to cut away the fronds, and sometimes they caught fire just as the men reached the tops. Waves of heat flowed out, raising steam from the spreading lake-moat.
Meanwhile, Daniyel, good at his word, prayed at his window. He had a good view there of the fire on the horizon. He could hear it too. “Great King of kings and Lord of lords, You have humbled and made to serve You even this Image of Folly and Abomination, and I do not ask that you spare it, but spare our lives and the city, which has thousands of men and women and children, and also much lowing cattle and other beasts--”
The windstorm, despite Daniyel’s prayer, increased, pushing the flaming Image closer to the city and slowing the work teams as they labored to uproot the iron roadbed nearest the palace treasury. Ashfall grew tremendous, and the air heated so much that people fled indoors, after laying up stores of water in every available pot and container. Men scrambled on roofs, laying out watered hides and carpets to save their roofs. Others wielded brooms against the fallen ash.
The Day Moon’s light grew obscured, and the day darkened as the ash and smoke thickened.
“Why did I order my architect to make it so large?” grumbled the Sharru, himself forced back into his palace behind shuttered windows. “I had no idea it could move on its own. I see now I was overly consumed by my own greatness and power!” Indeed, no one gave the Sharru much thought now. The people struggled to save their own lives, if they could. Many thousands fled out city gates into the countryside. Guards, many joining the exodus, made feeble attempt to stop them.
Daniyel was still praying when he suddenly stopped. He had heard the still, small voice he had come to know so well, as it dropped words into his spirit.
One prayer remained to a mortal man. “In the midst of Thy wrath, remember mercy,” Daniyel prayed with all his remaining strength, relying on an ancient verse from God’s Book.
Then he lay there, waiting. But no reply came from the still, small voice. Nothing! Daniyel was appalled. That, seemingly, could mean only one thing: judgment.
And so they wailed with all their might, “Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in our fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls.” They’re were not the only moneyed classes that despaired. Shipmasters from around the world, fleeing by the land route from the disaster, cried out when they saw the smoke from the burning, cried, “What is like this great city that enriched us all?” They threw dust on their heads and wept and wailed for the loss of trade and livelihoods, crying out, “Alas, alas, that great city, in which all who had ships on he sea became rich by her wealth! For now in another hour she will surely be made utterly desolate!”
As for poorer districts, the people wandered about, with no idea what to do. They had nothing of any value to take away. And should they run? What little they had might be ruined and they could not afford to start over. So they clung to their hovels and a few pots and some sticks of furniture. On a thousand temple priests had kindled the same element that threatened the city’s doom, heaping up bullocks, goats, and sheep on golden altars as they sought to turn the wrath of the gods. But soon, seeing that the flames grew yet more fierce, the priesthoods broke ranks and fled from the temples, leaving their sacrifices unattended.
In the palace the Sharru, meanwhile, paced back and forth. He could have gone to sacrifice at his old god’s chief temple, but he held back, cautioned by the sight of the Fourth Man in the furnace the day before and what that had signaled to him. In the privacy of his own thoughts he could not shut out all the doubts now flooding into him. In seeking to make his throne and kingdom last forever, he knew he had made a mistake of sorts in fashioning the Great Image and raising it to the towering height of highest divinity.
Could the gods be offended that he had made himself one of them and claimed primacy among them? Obviously, the heavens were angry with him. But how could he turn their wrath? He had seen the Fourth Man, but where was He now? How could he speak to him on behalf of his palace and city, which were liable to catch fire anytime? Surely, a fine gift of gold and provisions for the priests would turn the ire of the offended god. Perhaps, it was this god of the Hebrews.
Well, he would commandeer a temple and make sacrifices to this new god too. It would not hurt to try placating the new god, he reasoned. It seemed so clear, how he might turn the whole situation to his royal favor, but none of his court seemed to be the least help how to do it. Difficulties were spun out of thin air, in his opinion, as to why he could not name the god of Judah in a temple devoted to another god, and even that the Jews would refuse to cooperate if such a venture. What was he to do? He knew there wasn’t time to build an entirely new temple to the god of Judah. As for placating all the gods of Babelen, that was rather difficult too. The priesthoods of Babelen’s thousand religions and denominations had fled. How could the proper ceremonials then be held in their vacant precincts? By the gods! Nothing had been difficult for him before! Whatever he commanded was done, and nothing could stand in the way of his royal decree. Now everything seemed to stand in his way. It was all an effront to his royal power! he felt.
At one point he shouted his counselors down and went to the shuttered windows and threw open one, despite heat and stinging ash. His eyes nearly scorched, he looked out at the flaming spectacle of the Great Image as it proceeded down the still-intact iron roadbed through the gates and entered the City, setting the gates themselves afire.
“No! No! It’s really alive! It is a living god who has come to destroy me!” he bellowed.
But it was not alive, only appearing to be so, since the winds were whipping the flames toward the heart of Babelen like a river aflame, twisting them into hideous shapes that resembled demon fire-birds and serpents and dragons.
“Bring Daniyel--I mean, Prince Nir-e-shazzar--to me!” the Sharru croaked with a hoarse voice. “I have not spoken to him since I went to accept offerings before my Great Image. Perhaps he will know what to do. Perhaps he will know how to speak to the Fourth Man who appeared in the midst of the furnace with Nir-e-shazzar’s young friends. “
It was a difficult assignment, for the royal guard to reach Daniyel through darkened streets full of screaming people and berserk, bawling animals. Somehow, they found his house and brought him back safely to the palace.
When Daniyel stood before the throne, the Sharru ordered everyone else out of his presence. He stepped down and went to the man. Daniyel made a move as if to begin the long prostration and the recitation of ceremonial titles that were required of every subject of the Sharru, on pain of death if not rendered.
“Remain standing, this is no time for ceremony and formal bows,” said the Sharru. “What can you do to save this great royal city of my government and residence and the fire consuming my image? Such a thing has never happened before. None of the court records bear witness of any such event before since time began. Say!”
Daniyel looked steadily into the Sharru’s inflamed, imperious but pleading eyes. Though he saw he might lose all the Sharru’s preferments--the mansion, the scheduled payments of money, daily provision of food, the title of royal court prince, the privileged access to the throne and chariots and armed escorts any time he wanted, all his clothing, medicine and the care of the royal physicians, and all the rest--he felt impelled to tell the hard truth.
“I cannot save this city when God will not save it. Your image has provoked the Most High beyond turning because you sought to set it on His throne. He will touch this palace your royal seat with fire. He may even consume your entire royal city and make it an ash heap.”
“How do you know your god won’t save it. Have you asked him? What did he say to you, for I know you have the ear of the gods and they speak to you?”
“My God has spoken to me clearly concerning the Image you reared against him, seeking glory for yourself that is not man’s. When I asked concerning the city and its creatures, he gave no assurance they would be spared, though I asked a second time. I dared not entreat him again.”
This was not particularly good news to royal ears. Something like a sword smote the back of the monarch as a recollection drove home to him what he had steadfastly denied, even to this moment. The Sharru, his face blanching with inner pain, turned away from Daniyel. He began speaking rapidly, as if to himself. “My fathers’ gods, the ancient gods of this city and my kingdom, have they all failed? Yesterday. Of course, you’ve heard. I saw a Fourth Man, who appeared like a Son of God among your brethren after I had them thrown bodily, fully-clothed, into the furnace. The Fourth Man spared them, so much so nothing on their persons was singed by the fire, which I had heated seven times beyond its normal strength. Who is this Fourth Man? His appearance--it--it was like the son of the high gods.”
The Sharru swung about to face Daniyel. “Could--could you seek the face of this wondrous Fourth Man, this Mighty, Exalted One who appeared in the furnace? He withstood the exceedingly great fire of the furnace. Surely, he can turn away the fierce wind that moving the Great Image that is now destroying the seat of my majesty and power! Pray to him! Sacrifice many bullocks and goats--a thousand if that will do any good! Maybe he will hear your voice and appear again and help us! He kept your friends from burning. Perhaps, he will deliver us too from the hand of your angry god, or whatever gods are afflicting my royal throne and city!”
Daniyel’s eyes darkened. It was not that easy, he knew. He had prayed. A second time. And the God Most High had not deigned to reply to his servant. As for the Fourth Man, he knew Whom he was, and it was no use trying to enlist His aid against His own Father in heaven.
The Sharru, sensing defeat and destruction, stretched out his arms to include the entire palace and its contents.. “This is yours! I’ll empty out the treasury too, take it all! Your people, I’ll load them with riches and cattle and every good thing and send them back, freely, to their own land. Just pray and turn the wrath of this fiery doom away from my throne and city What more can I do? I am a king of kings. I cannot kneel to a captive slave and remain a king, can I? Is that what you want to see--the Sharru of Great Babelen and Akkad kneeling before you like a slave? I would sooner turn to a frog and be squashed under the stinking hoof of a beast!”
The Sharru’s face, at that moment, writhed with utmost need and mortification. It was as if the were imploring Daniyel to save the last shred of his royal majesty.
Daniyel pitied the man, though he felt a certain triumph in his Jewish heart. This creature he saw standing in all his pride and glory before him, who did not know he was wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked--a beast rather than a man of true dignity! It was the most astounding spectacle of life, other than the sight of his own city, Holy Jerusalem, falling beneath the swords and firepans of these same Babelites. How situations had reversed! he marveled. Had God done this great thing?
The Sharru, unable to bear the tension, broke at last. He collapsed toward his royal throne, twisted away, and clung to the golden lions guarding the steps. “I will do anything you demand! You have triumphed over me, O Jew! You and your god, for I know now that is your god, not mine gods, who has humbled me to the dust!”
Now Daniyel saw that he could have asked for anything and gotten it from the Sharru at that point, even to having him prostrate himself seven times before Jewish feet in the sight of all Babelen. But he could think of only one thing he wanted in life--the release of his people from captivity. Let the Sharru keep his riches and his heathen pride, just let Holy Israel and her Covenant sons and daughters go free!!
He almost make that very request, but something was not right about it. He couldn’t tell what, but he felt a check on his spirit, though his heart turned over in agony in having to suppress what he most wanted to ask of the broken, pleading ruler.
Instead of asking some boon of a sovereign most willing to grant it, Daniyel quoted scriptures that flashed into his mind from a Book of the War of Heaven and Earth:
The once great king spun up to his feet, his face wild with hope and dread. “Yes? Yes?”
“The Great Image you set up in place of the Most High God will be driven back by the same wind of God and there consume itself on the Plain of Dura, but the evil root will remain, and from it another abominable Image, not so great as before, will arise to lead the heart of a king off to yet greater pride and folly, and he will perish because of it. But as for you, the Great Image will not destroy you, though you brought all this upon yourself by saying within your secret heart, ‘I will ascend the staircase of the gods and seat myself in heaven on the throne of heaven. My kingdom will know no end, for I have become an immortal by raising this golden Image.’ For the majesty of the God Most High, for the Son of His Glory who appeared to you in the furnace, you will be spared this day and not slain. He has sent forth mercy and clemency to you. Because you will one day proclaim him Most High God, you will suffer calamity and some loss and pain, but you, the royal palace, the city, and your people will not perish while you live and draw your breath.”
The Sharru stood, wavering, on his feet, nodding as if he expected Daniyel to go on, but Daniyel had finished. As for the fate of his own Jewish people, Daniyel was heart-broken. What he had received was more chilling than anything just tendered to the heathen Sharru.
Bewildered by Daniyel’s prophetic forecast of events, but thinking it auspicious as far as it went, the ruler gathered his kingly bearing as best he could. He took courage and went out of the room to face cowering courtiers and counselors, who all this time were waiting behind the sealed doors of the hall of private audience. To them he delivered in person the news that they would be, to some degree, spared--or so the divine message seemed to say. It was difficult convincing them, however. He could see by their expressions that they thought him possibly gone mad in midst of distress.
Daniyel, forgotten, found his own way out of the palace. It didn’t matter to him that he had no chariot ride and armed escort of palace guards back to his house. The streets, formerly so crowded and dangerous, were now empty. Even robbers and cutpurses, who lately had been knocking down old ladies for whatever they had, had run to save their wretched lives.
An overturned cart, a wheel broken, lay with its goods scattered, the owners running on foot, leaving everything. And a lost monkey with a jeweled collar, whimpering, scratching at a door. That was all he saw, repeated again and again as he made his way through falling ash and soot. Whatever had happened to the Image, however, soon proved to be only the prelude of the storm that now broke. As if Daniyel’s reassuring words to the terrified monarch were foolish and fanciful, perhaps outright lies, the Great Image stopped on its tracked wheels, then moved back as great winds wheeled about and assailed the image, driving it back out from the city. Acting like certain mountains of fire, the Image shot its missiles outwards across the plains. That was the beginning of wrath, and everything until now had only been preparation, as when the ironmonger fires up his furnace or the potter his kiln to do his day’s work.
Seeing unmistakable proofs the Sharru was mad, when he claimed the city would be spared, fearing the Image would destroy them all, counselors and courtiers scattered to save their lives and what they could of property. The forsaken Sharru stumbled about the deserted palace, blind to anything in his path as his head reverberated with the divine words he had heard come forth from the lips of Daniyel. Now the words seemed the most cruel mockery. Should he have the false prophet torn limb from limb for giving him hope, then disgracing him like this? No, it did not seem to matter. Daniyel would burn with all the others still in the city.
Without knowing how he got there, he found he was standing before an open window, a silly child’s toy of a blue, man-headed horse in his hands from stumbling through, unaware, the royal nursery. Somehow, against his orders, a window had remained open, and discarding the toy horse he moved to close it. Holding a hand over his face to save his eyes, he looked out, unable to resist the spectacle. It was a world seemingly consigned to destruction by fire. Across the rooftops and towers of the city, within the outer third of the walls he saw nothing but leaping flames taking the shapes of preying lions and panthers advancing on the city. Evaporating the waters before it, the fire drove columns of steam miles high into the sky. The maze of bitumen-sealed canals and the vast city moat, he realized, were feeding the destroyer. Water was no impediment at all. That was the power and might of this great conflagration he himself had ignited when he raised the image on the Plains of Dura. Even the triple walls of Babelen would prove no barrier, for they too were cemented with bitumen--the food of the fire. The entire city, in fact, was fashioned of bricks and bitumen. Was there anything in Babelen that would not burn like a torch? What good was all the might and power of Babelen’s thousand gods now? Where were Babelen’s thousand gods when they were desperately needed? They stood dead sticks on their feet in their golden sanctuaries, unattended, voiceless, powerless, their priesthoods fleeing in every direction.
The pall of pitchy smoke and ash was now so heavy it was suffocating him. Terrible odor, rank and astringent, gagged him. Unable to bear standing exposed to the fire, the Sharru seized the shutters and bound them fast, then lunged away into the inner courts of the palace. He wandered, his mind lost and unable to settle on any one thought, and when his tangled thoughts cleared he grew aware he was lying face down before a decorative pool of water with little fish it.
Seized with a burning thirst, he crawled to the water. As he reached out to wet his hand and draw it to his parched lips he glimpsed his Image--a wild man with unkempt beard and lunatic, rolling eyes gaped back at him, a man who was more beast than man!
“So this is the mighty one who reared the golden Image on the plain, as testimony to his pomp and greatness and glory! He plotted to be a god and live forever! He even set himself up as supreme among the high gods. Why, what do we see here? He’s just a little worm! A wriggling bit of shameful slime! Disgusting!”
The Sharru spun about.
“Who said that?” he cried. “How dare you shoot insolent lips at me in that manner! I-I’ll tear you limb from limb, I’ll cut off your head--”
“Sacrifice to your grand Image, O Sharru and god above all gods,, and see if it will save you from the destroying fires!”
The Sharru struggled to his feet and peered about, seeking the source of the voice, but he saw no one. There was only a carved stone, a lewd, leering goat-god image given to him by the Ken’anites’ ambassador a while back in order to curry favor against the Hebrews.
“Are you speaking, sire?” he shouted, snapping his fingers in the traditional way of the priests though he thought he was going mad when he addressed the image. “Say, or I’ll have your head struck off and the rest of your ugliness ground to powder and thrown on the nearest dung-heap!” “Are you mad, sire?” mocked the rabiscu-demon inhabiting the goat-god image, its lips curled in scorn. “You know that images of stone or gold cannot speak like living men, unless they be contrived to do so by clever priests eager for gain, yet you address me--a thing of mere stone!”
“There!” the Sharru cried, nearly foaming at the mouth. “I hear you! You may be stone, but it isn’t my fancy! You’re speaking, just like a man! Or--or--are you a rabiscu? A deceiving spirit sent to torment me? I’ve heard of such things happening to kings over in Ken’an where you come from.”
The image erupted in high-pitched yelps of maniacal laughter and its features twisted in a sneer. “You believe in the gods. Well, I am a mighty god. Bow down to me! Sacrifice your first-born and heap my priests with gold and royal favors and maybe I’ll save you! Do it now, at once! I won’t give you another chance!”
“Can you save my city and royal palace?” the Sharru cried. “Do that, and I will built temples to you all over my kingdom!”
The goat-god remained silent.
The Sharru repeated his offer, more urgently. But the goat-god refused to answer. The Sharru was n ow beside himself. He knew the goat-god had spoken and mocked him. Now it was saying nothing. What was he to do?
The Sharru could stand no more, and he grabbed the image up and dashed it against the marble floor with such force it shattered. Pieces flew into the pool and across the room.
“You are a foul little rabiscu that troubles the farmer’s sluicegates and miscarries his donkeys, not a great, powerful god!” the world ruler gasped. He groaned and sank down to the floor. “When even the devils abuse and curse me to my face, how shall I call on Nir-e-shazzar’s God Most High? How? I do not know Him!”
Feeling doomed to eternal darkness, enslaved, and chained in some deep chasm forever, he had no idea how to address the unknown, invisible, Majestic One, the Ancient of Days, but a saying of some sort flashed into his mind, and he repeated it: “‘In the midst of Thy wrath, remember mercy.” He kept repeating the words in the next moments as the city around him shuddered with mortal terror in the midst of its firepan.
Years after the events of that day men could scarcely believe the telling. But no one could deny what they saw with their own eyes--and many thousands witnessed it. The Image on the plain shuddered and convulsed from head to foot. Then suddenly the golden head flew off, catapulted by an inner explosion of gases and heat. It shot backwards, bounding down to the ground, a dismembered head spewing fire and sparks as it hit the ground, bouncing and tumbling it completely flew to pieces.
And also, at that moment, the Sharru gave a shriek and clutched at his neck and temples as if he had felt his head torn from his neck and shoulders.
Against the turmoil of blackness gashed with purple and vermilion, the hail of fire coming down equal to the bursting of fire from below, the fire acted as if it had a spirit of its own--cruel, invincible, with implacable power nothing could equal on earth. Growing a new head, the head of a beast and that of a fire-dragon, it vomited serpents of flame, and they raced toward the shuddering city, smashing against the half-reduced walls, each one attacking more ferociously than the other. At the same time brick-sized clinkers of burning ash and fire hurled down on the stricken city, which was already on fire in many areas. The air torn from their lungs, men gasped and cried for divine mercy as the fire sucked away all breath and turned it into more terrible, all-consuming fire.
The royal architect gave way as he realized the outcome would be destruction despite his best efforts, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael stepping into the gap for the sake of the people. They assessed the plight and resources of the city. The river channel that split the city had, for some reason, run almost dry, so that they had to command the water-bearers to turn to the palace pools and the wells of the various temples. The three Jewish governors were alone in mustering the last defense of the city against the fire. The Sharru’s princes, governors, judges, treasurers, sheriffs, generals had fled with their wives, concubines, and treasure, leaving the common people and the masses of poor to fend for themselves.
Forsaken by their own leaders, the people entrusted their lives to Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, obeying their every word. Together, they did everything that could be done to make ready and also put out what fires were already raging. As for the Sharru, he lay prostrate in his palace, all his court and administration fled out of reach of his voice. And Daniyel prayed a third time.
It was then, when Daniyel finished his prayer and Babelen was poised to erupt into a maelstrom of death and destruction, that the earth trembled and walls lurched on their foundations. The thunder could not be heard above the deafening tumult of the destroying dragon, but it was felt. Those observing the maelstrom saw a brightness flash in the distance, then a growing roar that increased and challenged the fire’s own malevolence. It was like the rumbling of a great falling stone coming down from a mountain, some thought. Others heard the martial sound of many thousands of chariot wheels--tens of thousands, a myriad of war chariots of the Most High God whose wrath, diverted from the city and the royal palace, had struck the Image a death blow! The River Euphrates a brave man had long ago named in the darkness of the Deep had burst its channel above the Plains of Dura. It was coming! coming at last! Most amazing yet to the eye was the great Stone that bounded ahead of the cascading flood. From it music poured, a most heavenly music piercing the gloom and clamor--not of instruments, not the sweet cornet, harp, and dulcimer. Rather, it sounded like great bell chimes coming down out of heaven and reverberating throughout the plains of Dura and Shinar with one unstoppable, unquenchable paean, while invisible hosts shouted:
The morning after the Cataclysm and the chorusing of the Holy Ones of heaven from out of the bounding Unhewn Stone that led the floodwaters, at first all was strangely quiet and hushed. The Sharru rose up in his palace and found his royal court creeping back, hopeful of reinstatement with former powers and privileges. When all were present he found his voice after several awkward tries, then ordered Arioch, “Take them all away to the lions! For they left me to my fate, when we were in greatest peril.” And, despite the unparalleled mercy that he himself had received, the tyrant’s cruel decree was carried out, while the city rose up to rejoice in its deliverance.
Instead of light-hearted romantic, semi-religious ditties you could dance to, the captives, having learned their lesson in idolatry the hard way, wept and sang of lost loves. They mourned over the lost land bequeathed by their Covenant-God to their forefathers, they wailed over the lost Temple He had once inhabited with His Sublime Glory--the Shekinah--and, most precious of all, they lamented their forsaken Covenant-God Himself. What, indeed, could be greater Loves than these? Truly, now, the Jews knew what they had and the other nations did not. But now it seemed too late to rectify the wrongs. They would perish in them, apparently. It is no wonder they sang with feeling:
A former priest in the Temple who witnessed it being destroyed with Babelite firepans cried out from a broken heart. He ended with the one question every prisoner asks when the doors clang shut on his cell: how long until I be free again? O God, why have you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old, the rod of your inheritance, which you have redeemed, this Mount Zion in which you dwelled. Lift up you feet unto the perpetual desolations, even all that the enemy has done wickedly in your sanctuary. Your enemies roar in the midst of your congregations; they set up their ensigns for our holy signs in the Temple. And they broke down your fine-carved work with axes and hammers. And they cast fire into your sanctuary, And they defiled it by casting down the dwelling place of your Name to the ground. And they plotted in their hearts, “Let us destroy them root and branch!” So they burned up all the synagogues of God in the land. They have accomplished their aims in everything. We no longer see any sign of your worship in the land, and there is no more any prophet; Neither is there anyone among us who knows how long. O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? Shall the enemy blaspheme your Name forever?
Babelite priesthoods spared no show and expense to regain and manipulate the people’s confidence. They brought out of their secret, underground treasuries all the golden objects their temples had hid away--dazzling the eyes of the people and proving that the old gods had might and power and wealth beyond knowing. Wonderful dances, distribution of food and drink to thousands, parades, even turning up entertaining animals like bears and dancing monkeys to raise the level of merriment and displaying ancient gods such as they found stored in the Sharru’s archives--nothing was overlooked. For the first time since Detroit’s America’s Thanksgiving Parade of 2018 people looked upon the marvels of a giant Duck-God, a dancing Mouse-God, and bat-gods that wore masks and tight-fitting leg garments and capes.
Zer Zer the chief of all this wonder-making rode on a moving platform lashed to four big wagons drawn by decorated oxen and performed stupefying feats of magic on a high golden dais while many thousands watched with bated breath. At the end of the demonstration of his peerless wizardry, he rose up in the air many feet, disappearing completely with a loud bang and puff of smoke. As everyone gaped to see where he had gone, golden coins stamped with his name flew in a shower down to the adoring masses beneath. “He is a god! a god!” they all cried. Within hours altars and shrines popped up in every quarter of the city, erected in honor of the divine Zer Zer.
Keen-witted businessmen and world-traveled merchants--a class of which there were tens of thousands headquartered in the city--came forward to cash in on the great opportunities. Not to be outdone in seizing the day, they plied their trades, and before long the oldest profession of all came forth as well. Alluring women again took their stations at dooryards festively decorated for the glad occasion.
One Babelite differed from the crowd. In his trial by fire he had experienced an unusual change of heart. He knew, perhaps better than anyone else, how much he owed the God of Daniyel. His royal throne and power rescued from certain destruction, the Sharru was feeling gratitude to the Invisible Godhead. Though he had no intention of setting Daniyel and the other Jewish exiles free, he remembered the Fourth Man in the fiery furnace and also what he had asked of Daniyel his prince. Clearly, the God of the exiles had shown greater power than the gods of the conqueror. Declaring that there was no other god who was able to deliver in such a manner, he magnified the God of Israel in a decree. Within the day mounted heralds sped to the four quarters, proclaiming to all citizens and tributary and captive peoples of his realm:
As for the sudden departure of the star at the onset of all these events, so much had happened after it vanished that the Sharru quite forgot to mention it. Least of all, no one gave any thought to the possibility the star had left others of its kind behind on the earth.
It was the temple priests and magicians he held responsible, since they had most to gain from leading the people back into Babelite idolatry.
As for the Sharru’s decree, they all fell down and worshipped, of course, setting a conspicuous good example to the common people, but they carefully explained beforehand that their gods, greater than this Invisible One, had commanded them to do so. Trained liars, glossing over their former acknowledgement of the golden Image as God of gods, now that it has fallen ignominiously at the hands of the Invisible God of Daniyel they claimed it was their duty to their homeland and ruler to show respect and hospitality to new, foreign deities whenever they came calling. Why should they offend this god of the exiles? they went on. He too was welcome to their great city, to find what worshippers he liked among the great numbers of the people. There was plenty room for all, room for all gods in Babelen!
Further emboldened, the priesthoods aspired to greater control and trooped in their finest robes to the Sharru, who had been impoverished by building of the ill-starred Golden Image and the chaos the Great Fire and subsequent flooding of the river had caused in the region.
Having gained access to the National Treasury and Archives by virtue of their contributions, they trotted out the various royal splendors to make their latest parade to the palace all the more spectacular to the eyes of the crowds lining the streets.
A giant Blue Ox-God, a Divine Hare and Divine Turtle, a wonderful Mouse-God, and other such deities, were pulled before their main procession by teams of donkeys and horses draped in flowers, and festooned with gilded plumes. The parade, naturally, pleased the crowds immensely and they cheered and applauded all along the route.
They stood before him according to their various kinds, from those who held up gold and jewel-decorated banners emblazoned with heraldic signs to those who came dressed with long, sweeping dragon tails and headdresses like the toothy snouts of sea monsters.
It was good for Daniyel that his attendance at court was not required on that day--for it would have deeply pained him if he had been forced to witness the monstrous and blasphemous destroyers of his holy city and temple parading arrogantly and shamelessly before the benighted Sharru.
To the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, each order bowed and presented rich gifts at the proper place before the throne when a herald announced them by name, the last being held the greatest in rank:
Like a pestilence of flies, the augurs, prognosticators, soothsayers, and astrologers grew quickly to be a host, filling every public place. His spirit growing increasingly heavy, the topmost twig of Israel found himself in the midst of his prayers collapsed on the floor.
His mind had gone blank, and then he found himself there. Rising up, he suddenly continued rising in his spirit. When he found himself standing again, he faced a different river than Babelen’s.
He had been to the spot before and recognized it as the Ulai Canal in the Elamite capital of Susa. North and east of the city two rivers, the Khoaspes and Koprates flowed, and the artificial canal diverted part of their waters into the city, making two parts of the capital like Babelen. Here, with the trees and parks of the Canal district on both sides of the 900 foot wide stream, Daniyel stood, overwhelmed in his spirit.
Yes, he had wanted to fly away like a dove into the wilderness, but here? It was not his choice at all. If he could, he would have flown to flowery Sharon’s plain, or the tumbled, cave-strewn wilds of the Negev, or even Gilead for its famed balm.
Susa, though the citadel-towered capital of a rival, powerful people who hated the more powerful Babelites, might offer him opportunity to divulge strategic information to the Elamite king and generals that could be used to reduce Babelite dominion, but Daniyel had no taste for that sort of thing. He only wanted to seek God’s face concerning his own people’s deliverance from heathendom. No, to him in his state of mind and spirit, this might as well be a flood of darkest evil and abomination, the same that now overflowed Babelen.
It appeared an early hour, when the Day Moon had just begun to rise and few people yet ventured out to the pleasant parks along the Ulai, so he was alone.
“Where is the Mountain, the Unwrought Stone that will fill the entire earth?” he cried out. “Where?”
He had witnessed the smiting of the Golden Image with fire and understood, thereby, it had been struck by the Unwrought Stone of God. That part of the prophecy he had received had come to pass, he could not deny. But the Mountain that grew out of the Stone? He saw no sign of it on the plains of Babelen. And his people--they remained in chains, serving the heathen even in their temples!
He continued to think this way for some time, sorrowing more than he was really praying. “Why do the righteous suffer and the ungodly prosper so greatly in this world?” he burst out. “How can the unrighteous and the evil-doer be allowed to rule over the earth while God’s people in chains labor to do the tyrant’s bidding? How long will you forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and hear me, lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”
Meanwhile, the beams of the Day Moon increased steadily, shining in a swath of light across Ulai’s dark, silted waters until they caught the lone, bent figure of the grieving Jew. Daniyel, feeling the warmth, slowly opened his eyes. He sank to his knees at the sight.
The light was glorious--far greater than the First and Second Moons combined--and in it an unsealed scroll was unfolding before his astonished eyes. Then a voice spoke to him.
Daniyel prostrated himself and worshipped. With his eyes tightly closed, he did not see the Man step into the water. Instantly, the roiling muddy water cleared to a burning, crystal purity, and out of the waters came a bell-like chime music very soothing and healing to deeply troubled, wounded, and persecuted souls.
Presently, Daniyel opened his eyes and found himself back in his own chamber in Babelen. Somehow, in his absence, swallows--not the beautifully crested but the plainer garden variety--had daubed enough mud and straw together on his window casement to make a nest. It was filled with young, all beaks seemingly and scarcely a feather clothing their naked bodies.
At that moment, Daniyel saw a vision of the meaning of things, the answers to his torment of spirit, spread before him. God had not deigned to set him or his people free. They were in prison, caught in the chains of a changeable, heathen king of great power and ferocity. Others like him, only worse, would follow. But God had promised to raise up deliverers, each in his time. And a sign that all would, in the end, go well for God’s people? Why, the lowly swallow! The nesting swallows, their young,--they were the signature of the Most High upon the mystery of his weaving. What final appearance the Tapestry would take, Daniyel could not tell. But yet all would be well, in time. The coming darkness, however terrible, would not prevail altogether. There was hope that men might pass through the dark rivers of coming events. There was light he could not now see. It would be well for mankind, in time. The little swallows told him that! It was only a matter of time and endurance.
Moving away, so as not to disturb the parents and the chicks’ feeding, Daniyel, his heart leaping with joy, then noticed something else--a blue butterfly-shaped tablet of strange light material tied to his wrist. Small numbers lit up, marking each step he took. Also inscribed on it were glowing, violet-colored letters that flashed
“I want nothing more to do with this ceaseless war and struggle!” the slam-dunking champion thought. “We ‘shall recover all’? I am not a man of war! And I believed--I believed it was nearing the end, at least for me. I have grown old in service, yet the Lord God says my race has just begun! Just begun! Is there any misery like unto mine? Yet I must--I shall--obey my God!”