The trail wound southward through the lush Kothian Hills, its meandering length of hard-packed earth coursing along more like a young stream than a footpath. To the sides of the trail, slopes burgeoning with vegetation rose up and rolled away to each distant horizon, their leafy cover often serving to impede an eye in search of potential headings.

Mounted atop a hulking warhorse, Conan the Cimmerian, lately of Ophir, found his bearings by way of the sun’s position high above the greenery. He turned his face away from the sky and paused a moment, broodingly, before gesturing down at the trail with a callused hand. “These tracks are fresher than the last, no more than a day old, and they bear the marks of eight riders.” His eyes narrowed upon the Turanian riding a grey charger several paces away. “I thought you said this trail was little known?”

Tukali shrugged, apparently unconcerned. He inclined his head, and sunlight glinted dully from the clasp holding his spire-helmeted turban in place. “I said the trail was little known, not little traveled.” He glanced away from Conan’s icy stare and spread his arms at the hills around them. “They are probably only men like ourselves, evading the tax-collectors at the border posts,” he offered. “I suppose we could have taken the main road. That’s where all the guards are–keeping the merchant ilk safe and the revenues flowing.” Tukali smirked knowingly at Conan. “I had thought, though, that you wished to avoid any taxes since your ill luck at the gaming tables in Ianthe.”

“True enough,” Conan replied, his tone losing some of its edge. “Perchance on our arrival in Khorshemish we’ll find work guarding some wealthy lordling’s hide and so cure our flagging purses. Until then, I’d like to avoid any confrontations with the locals that might attract unwanted attention. I have little enough coin as it is, and border guards tend to be suspicious of armed men riding abroad all but penniless!”

Tukali grunted in acknowledgment and spurred his horse to catch up with Conan’s, which had suddenly trotted past him. “Your horse must smell water. This trail leads to a lake just before it circles around a border post some leagues ahead.”

Though Conan was several years younger than the Turanian, he was easily the more experienced of the two. Long used to the habits of beasts of war, Conan shook his steel-helmed head at Tukali’s suggestion. “Nay, I think not. Our horses are well fed and watered, and the land provides good foraging. I think they smell something else, something closer than a few leagues . . .” Conan reined in his steed and stood in the stirrups, his red cape billowing out behind him in the breeze as he craned his head and sniffed. “Do you smell that?”

Tukali halted his horse and took several hesitant whiffs of the summer air. “You’re either imagining things, or you’ve the nose of a hound,” he said, shaking his head in baffled annoyance. “I smell nothing.”

“It’s carnage–a lot of it.” Conan settled his large frame back into the saddle. “A recent enough kill, I’d wager, and not very far ahead.” He peered intently up at the leaf-covered crests around them while Tukali looked at him in wonderment. Conan continued, “These hills provide too many likely ambushes. Ever since we left Ophir I’ve felt as if we were being watched or followed. We had best be cautious.”

The two men again urged their horses forward. Conan, his eyes glued to the sides of the trail ahead of them, didn’t notice the brief look of worry steal across Tukali’s face as he finally caught the coppery tang of death on the noonday breeze.

After about a quarter hour’s cautious ride, they came across the first corpse lying in the middle of the path about fifty feet ahead of them. Before Tukali could even comment, Conan was spurring his mount up the side-trail of a nearby slope, scoping among the trees for signs of lurking treachery. Tukali squinted at the hills around him, and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, cantered his horse to where the corpse lay.

Conan soon finished scouting out the area, having searched the foliage of the surrounding hilltops to his satisfaction. Finding nothing amiss, he headed back toward Tukali, who had dismounted next to the corpse. Conan rode up beside Tukali’s horse and swung down next to the body, scarcely making a noise as he landed on the dirt trail. Tukali looked up at the sudden intrusion. “It would seem that the scavengers arrived well before we did.” Tukali nodded toward the legless torso lying face-down before them. “His legs must have been scattered by the local wildlife.” He pointed an unsteady hand to a spot about ten yards ahead on the trail where two legs, looking chewed and ravaged, lay slightly apart in a pool of congealed blood.

Conan looked down at the legless body and flipped it over with a booted foot. As the corpse rolled onto its back, Conan heard Tukali stifle a cry. Conan was more than a little surprised at the other warrior’s skittishness. “Have you never looked upon the face of a dead man before?” he asked, eying Tukali curiously.

Tukali’s face paled visibly as he looked at Conan in confusion. “I have,” he said, looking back down again. “I just didn’t expect to see one of my fellow countrymen lying . . . dead,” Tukali bit off the last word as if it left a bitter taste in his mouth to speak it, “so far from Turan.” He turned away from the corpse and started rooting around in one of his horse’s saddlebags. “I must bury him here, as is my country’s custom.”

Conan looked over the corpse. A dark, bearded face stared sightlessly up into the summer sky. The dead man’s mouth was frozen in a rictus of fright. He had been wearing a chain mail hauberk, which had done little to protect his legs from being cut off like they were. Conan looked at the chain mail around the stumps of the legs a little more closely, and to his surprise, found that the flesh and metal there had not been sheared like he would have expected from sword blows, but had instead been fused. Conan looked over the rest of the corpse. “Your fellow countryman wears no Turanian garb. He has not even a turban. Why do you assume he’s Turanian, and not just of mixed race?”

Tukali looked up from where he had started digging a grave with a short blade just to the side of the path. He jammed the blade into the ground. “What?”

“This man may not be a Turanian at all. Are you sure?” Conan asked, thinking to save time on their journey if it turned out Tukali didn’t have to bury the man. Sometimes it wasn’t so bad to let the vultures have their meal.

“Of course I’m sure!” Tukali snapped, his face mottling in anger. Then his expression shifted to one of indignation. “Think you that I would not know one of my own?” Tukali kneeled on the grass, the grave deepening steadily as he resumed shoveling mounds of dirt from the hole at a furious pace.

Conan shrugged inwardly, deciding to let the matter pass. “The quiver of arrows on his back does look of Turanian make after all,” he mused aloud. Tukali looked up distractedly, grunting curtly in agreement.

“Do what you have to do,” Conan said. “I’m going to scout on ahead to see if whoever did this might be lying in wait for us as well.”

Tukali stared suddenly up at Conan, then blinked. “Of course. I won’t be too long here.” He went back to his digging, quietly humming a Turanian burial hymn. Conan stood looking down at him for a moment longer, thinking to say something more, but he balked. Mounting his horse instead, he headed on down the trail.

The smell of blood and rot grew sharper in his nostrils as Conan rode to the summit of yet another hill in a long succession of hills along the path into Koth. As Conan gained the top, he was nearly overwhelmed by the stench of dead meat baking in the afternoon sun. He looked down into the grassy, miniature valley-like depression between hills where the bodies lay in heaps of gore. More than a dozen startled crows took flight as Conan dismounted and led his horse down into the center of the bloody scene.

Conan judged accurately that these had probably been the main group of riders whose tracks he’d been monitoring during his trip south. By the looks of the place, the riders had had enough time to set up camp before they were attacked. Conan examined the remains of the burnt-out campfire and determined that these men had been laid upon sometime during the previous night. The big Cimmerian led his steed to graze some distance away from the camp before he searched the bodies for clues as to the nature of the attack.

The first corpse Conan examined had a huge hole punched in its torso, as if a giant fist had slammed the meat right out of its chest. The odd thing was, Conan noted as he hunkered down next to the body, was that the flesh again looked melted, the wound cauterized, like the legs of the corpse back on the trail. The meat that was missing from the body lay a few yards away in a bloody heap, now swarming and buzzing with flies.

Conan rose and inspected the rest of the bodies. All of them, aside from being Turanian warriors, were missing various portions of flesh; the parts, Conan discovered, were spread across the site as if a whirlwind had ripped and flung them from their original owners. None of the body parts appeared charred, however, and neither were any of the fallen weapons, swords and bows alike.

Conan’s cursory investigation of this charnel scene also revealed the tracks of eight horses, scattered in all directions through both grass and gore, leading away from the blood-soaked camp. No other sign of the beasts was to be found. A slight breeze stirred Conan’s black mane as he stood alone pondering the mystery. No sign of the attackers, nothing apparently stolen, and all apparently killed by some kind of sorcery. No mere bandit’s ambush was this, although the Turanians here looked as if they had been set up to ambush someone themselves, maybe even him and Tukali. But why? “What does it matter?” Conan muttered aloud. Men were always killing each other, often for the strangest of reasons.

The faint jingle of a horse’s harness caught Conan’s attention, and he turned toward the sound. Tukali was just cresting the hill along the path. Conan called out to him. “Turanian! There’s more of your countrymen here, same as the first!” Conan swept his arm around at the clearing, indicating the rotting meat that was once a group of men.

Tukali’s eyes widened in surprise upon hearing Conan’s voice. He cringed inwardly at the sight of the gore-drenched landscape and a numb, disbelieving look crept across his face.

Tukali’s horse came to a halt beside Conan. “We have no time to bury these,” Conan said. He looked at Tukali, who nodded reluctantly. Conan whistled for his horse, which trotted up to him and turned so he could mount. “We’re leaving. Now.” Conan pointed around the clearing, indicating the corpses. “This place stinks of sorcery and I want nothing to do with it.” He jumped into the saddle.

Tukali’s crestfallen look subsided a bit as he spoke. “We’re not very far from Khorshemish. Only a couple days’ ride.”

Conan led the two at a gallop down the trail, Tukali glancing fearfully back over his shoulder.

The sun was sinking low on the western horizon, the gibbous moon already on the rise in the cloudy eastern sky when Conan and Tukali finally reached the top of the last tree-dotted hill that had previously hidden the small lake from their view. From his vantage point, Conan could see that beyond the hill bordering the lake in the valley below, a large wooden enclosure, a border post by the looks of it and if Tukali was to be believed, lay in the center of a small plain in the midst of the surrounding hills. Conan assumed that the whitish-brown ribbon weaving its way alongside and then past the border post was a cobbled road meant for official, if not always friendly, travel between the kingdoms of Koth and Ophir.

“As you know, Khorshemish, the Queen of the South, lies at the end of that road,” Tukali declared, almost cheerful at the prospect of leaving far behind whatever had killed the men back on the trail. “Our path skirts this lake, circles around through the hills that hedge that border post, and joins up with the main road as it leaves the hill country.”

Conan studied the landscape before him and frowned. “I haven’t seen any patrols. Surely the border guards aren’t so busy these days that they have no time to scout outlying trails like this one?”

“Oh, they send out the occasional patrols. But most of the guards around here aren’t so eager to cut off the flow of coins to their own purses.” At Conan’s questioning look, Tukali continued. “The guards in these parts are the recipients of certain . . . ah, royalties, for the allowed use of these paths.”

“Slavers and smugglers avoiding the tariff,” Conan said, snorting in disgust. “It seems to be the nature of these civilized nations to make up their own rules just so they can break them.” His grin was leonine. “But I’ll not complain overmuch. ‘Tis the same underhandedness of wealthy, civilized men that keeps the mercenary trade flourishing.”

Tukali grunted noncommittally and pointed to a lone grove at the western rim of the lake. “We should probably make camp among those trees near the water.”

“A choice spot,” Conan agreed. “Lets get there while there’s still light.”

The two men spurred their mounts down the gentle slope of the hill toward the valley below.

Evening swam with the chirps of birds settling in for the night and the smell of cooked fish emanating from the middle of the grove. The gentle lapping of water on the shore at the edge of the trees was barely audible above the crackle of the campfire as Conan and Tukali finished off their meal of roasted fish, hard cheese, various cooked roots from the surrounding fields and water from one of the small streams that fed the lake. The heated day’s air was already cooling with the onset of night, and both men were glad for it, having travelled far in the summer heat already. Conan’s warhorse and Tukali’s charger stood cropping grass at the outside rim of the trees close to the lake, dipping their graceful heads low to drink the cool water.

Conan was the first to finish eating, and as he sat tending the fire he contemplated the day’s events in the sullen silence that was typical of his northern race. He wasn’t pleased with the possible implications mutely suggested by the slain men. It was unlikely they were attacked by bandits, for nothing appeared to be stolen from the corpses, and even though the band’s horses were missing, it appeared that they had simply run off during the slaughter. Murder was the only real motive that Conan could come up with. But why? And by whom? Those men, Conan thought to himself, weren’t killed by any weapon he had ever come across. Instead it appeared that something hot enough to melt steel and fast enough that it wouldn’t char flesh in its passing had cut the men to pieces where they stood. “Sorcery,” Conan growled to himself.

“Eh?” Tukali looked up as he washed down the last of his fish with a swig from his waterskin. “Sorcery, did you say?”

“Aye,” Conan replied. “That man you buried today. Did you not notice how he was killed?”

Tukali shook his head as he set the waterskin down. “Truth be told, I didn’t. I guess I only assumed that the wound was such that I couldn’t readily see it beneath the armor, or maybe it was obscured when the scavengers started in on the corpse.” Tukali narrowed his eyes in interest. “Why do you think it was sorcery?”

Conan thrust a stick in the fire, making embers crackle and causing sparks to flutter upward. The flames reflected coldly in Conan’s blue-gray eyes. “That Turanian’s legs were not chewed off by the scavengers that dragged them away from his body. That first man died after his legs came off, not before.” He paused, pulled the charred stick out of the fire, then continued. “The armor around his legs was melted, as was the flesh. Melted, but not exactly burned. It was the same with the wounds on the rest of them, albeit different body parts were removed, but all in the same way.” Conan spat into the flames. “Only a sorcerer could do that,” he said with a grimace.

Tukali was silent for a few moments, lost in thought as he watched the fire dance before him. “Earlier I noticed clouds moving in from the east,” he said. “If the rains break tonight, we should have ample enough cover to shield us from any patrols,” Tukali’s eyes gleamed eerily in the firelight, “assuming they would even bother to venture out in such weather.”

As Tukali spoke, Conan noticed his strange look, as if the Turanian was keeping something to himself, and Conan felt suddenly ill at ease; what did he really know about Tukali? Was he truly a mercenary in search of employment in Khorshemish, as he claimed, or was he something else? As much as he hated to doubt those he had befriended, Conan felt compelled to learn more. Leaning back, he asked, “Tell me, Tukali, were you always a fighting man?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what did you do before you took up soldiering? In my younger days I was a blacksmith, among other things, taught by my father as he was taught before me.” Conan gazed into the fire, as if seeing in the flames the Cimmerian village where he grew up.

“Well,” Tukali paused, unsure of what answer was expected of him, “I was born into a merchant family in Aghrapur, where I started learning the family trade from the age I could speak.” A look of regret crossed Tukali’s features. “Unfortunately, I learned that I possessed no head for business, so when I reached manhood, I enlisted with the Turanian army where I served my country and my Shah for several years. I guess I grew restless scouting and guarding Imperial caravans, because when the time came for me to decide whether or not to continue my service, I chose to seek my own path, to explore the nations of the west.”

Conan nodded at Tukali’s story. It seemed innocent enough, and much like his own in some ways, at least about the desire to see the world. “I too left my homeland in search of adventure, selling my sword along the way. So far, I’ve seen many wondrous things and travelled to many foreign lands.” Conan decided it would be prudent to leave out the fact that he’d even served as a cavalry captain in the royal guard in Aghrapur, a post that had ended abruptly with his desertion after being caught with the mistress of his commander. Tukali was Turanian, after all, and he might not look favorably upon a man who had deserted from the army of his homeland.

The campfire had already started to die down, and the night had grown still except for the faint rustling of leaves by the cooling night breezes. “We’ll rise before dawn so we can pass that guard post in darkness. If it does rain, all the better for our cover,” Conan suggested. He moved silently to the edge of the grove and spread his bedroll on the grass beside the bulk of his armor and equipment beneath an aging oak. He settled himself in for the night, his sword and dagger, as always, only a few inches from his body. “I’ll wake you before the morn.”

Tukali muttered in assent and rolled over on his blanket, his back to the campfire’s glowing embers.

Conan wasn’t the first to awaken, even though he had no problem rousing himself at the appointed time before dawn; Tukali awoke cursing, loudly, as the first few drops of rain pelted him in the face where he had lain asleep in the unprotected center of the grove. Conan, fully awake, grinned from beneath the relative shelter of the oak. “Do you enjoy the rain so much, Turanian? I myself prefer not to sleep in it if I can help it,” Conan laughed.

Tukali grumbled an incoherent and sleepy reply as he fumbled around in the semi-darkness of the pre-dawn, snatching up his belongings as he chanced upon them. By the time Tukali finished buckling on the last of his armor, Conan was already dressed and packed, sitting in the saddle of his warhorse munching on some fish preserved from the night before. Tukali was a little nonplussed at Conan’s swiftness in breaking camp, for he hadn’t even seen or heard him move. He barely caught the piece of fish that Conan tossed his way, and it almost slipped out of his hands in the wet of the early morning rain. Tukali climbed aboard his grey mount, and the horses, eager to stretch their legs after their night’s sleep, carried the two warriors at a brisk trot down the trail.

The trail led them around the edge of the lake, and as the riders passed the shore they could hear the calls and splashings of various waterfowl fishing through the chill waters for breakfast.

In the dull patter of the rain there wasn’t much else to be heard. Conan listened anyway, straining his keen hearing for any sound that was out of place, but he heard nothing, which wasn’t altogether a good sign. The trail crept steadily up the slope of one of the hills that hid the distant fort from view. As their mounts climbed the slope, a small path split off, going straight to the top, no doubt one of many side-trails created by riders seeking to view the activity of the fort.

Conan steered his horse up the hill while Tukali remained on the main trail at a slower pace. It only took a few moments for Conan to gain the top, but when he did there wasn’t much to see, the view being obscured as it was by falling rain. Conan could, however, just barely make out the flickering of distant lanterns set at intervals upon the fort’s high walls; other than that, nothing else was visible.

Conan swiftly rejoined Tukali on the trail, his horse easily keeping its footing on the wet path.

“Saw you anything, Cimmerian?” Tukali asked as their horses cantered onward.

“Naught but the sentry lights. This rain hides the guards from view as well as it hides us from them.” Conan shook his black mane, more to clear the water from his eyes than in annoyance, and pulled the hood of his cloak lower over his forehead. “At least its unlikely any patrols are about.”

The two men rode on, the path turning gradually southward as it passed through the hills, outflanking the fort. The constant, steady hiss of the rain as it pelted grass, rocks and trees was almost calming.

The rainfall grew stronger. Rivulets of water flowed off the surrounding hills and etched paths of their own in the dirt and stone of the trail, creating tiny side-streams and making the going more slippery for the horses. As Conan rode through the rain, he noted that the sun should already be clear of the eastern horizon, even if he couldn’t see it through the downpour and the heavy cloud cover. Enough sunlight filtered through for the men and horses to see where they were going, but it was akin to riding under bright moonlight.

Tukali rode several horse-lengths behind Conan, wrapped up in his thoughts as tightly as he was wrapped in his cloak. No man had ever called Tukali a coward, but he had wit enough to know when he was outmatched, and Conan definitely outmatched him. Never had he seen a man so huge or so deadly! To Tukali, Conan seemed more like a force of nature than a mortal. All the same, he knew he had to at least try to incapacitate him before they arrived in Khorshemish. Even if he failed, his superiors would understand that. But they wouldn’t understand his not attempting the task they had set before him.

Tukali reached down into the quiver strapped to the side of his saddle, flipped up the leather cover and pulled out the arrow. He examined the snubbed tip closely, noting that the purple lotus paste was still intact in the grooves along the arrowhead where he had secretly coated it the night before. Though he knew he had enough of the narcotic on the arrow to paralyze a bull, to him the weapon somehow seemed inadequate, as if it were but a child’s toy that would break and fail if he attempted to use it on the Cimmerian. He had no choice. His men were all dead, mysteriously slaughtered at the spot where they were waiting to capture Conan. He knew that he hadn’t really missed his chance last night, considering that Conan slept like some wary jungle cat, seemingly with one eye always open.

Tukali hid the arrow within easy reach inside his cloak, hoping that a suitable chance would arise enabling him to use it. Until then, he would have to wait, especially if he didn’t want to get skewered while he was still drawing his bow.

The morning sky grew steadily darker as the rain fell even harder. What little light that had made it through the clouds before had now dwindled so much that it was like midnight. Even Conan’s hawk-like eyes could barely pierce the gloom ahead of him, and the constant drumming of the rain practically blotted out the sound of everything else. Conan knew they were riding blind, and the worst part of the situation was that he was getting that feeling again of being watched, although how anybody else could see through this mess was beyond him. Tukali was riding somewhere behind him, but he couldn’t see him when he turned and looked. If they got separated it could be a while before they found each other again, if at all, and Conan still wasn’t sure whether to consider that a bad thing or not.

Lightning suddenly arced across the sky, and in the brief flash of almost-daylight Conan glimpsed the inky, sodden hills around him, as well as what appeared to be a large boulder sitting in the middle of the trail a little farther ahead. Darkness blanketed Conan’s eyes once again as the booming thunder rolled over him. His horse staggered a bit as it recovered from a brief slip on the wet trail. Conan dismounted, deeming it best to lead his horse until the footing improved.

The feeling of being watched grew more intense, but Conan hadn’t spotted anyone among the trees on the slopes around him. As far as he could tell, the trail was devoid of tracks, although in the rain and dark he could easily miss the signs of someone’s passing. As he led his steed, Conan continuously scanned the ground ahead of him, hoping he might find some evidence of those unseen eyes before he found himself on the wrong side of an ambush.

The Cimmerian had apparently forgotten about Tukali, who had spotted Conan a few dozen yards ahead during the last flash and had knocked his bow with the drugged arrow in anticipation of using it during the glow of the next lightning strike. Tukali knew that Conan’s armor would absorb enough of the force of the blow that it wouldn’t be lethal, but the arrowhead itself should breach his black scale mail hauberk enough to deliver its paralyzing dose of purple lotus. If the arrow did fail to knock out the Cimmerian however, Tukali could always escape in the rainy darkness and thereby live to try again in the future. Whatever the outcome, Tukali believed that his was currently the upper hand, and he was prepared to use it.

He sighted along the arrow’s shaft out into the darkness, out to where he last saw Conan riding, and slowly pulled back on the bowstring until it was just past halfway drawn. He waited.

In the meantime, Conan had approached to within a few man-lengths of the boulder; he could now see it, a large black mass barely standing out against the pitch background of rain and darkness. A stream of water flowed around the huge rock, split in twain by the boulder’s unyielding presence. As he walked, Conan could see small stones and clumps of mud and vegetation wash by him as the streams carried the debris back the way he had come. Then, not quite before he knew what was happening, he was falling, his footing having been washed away by the torrent of rainwater. It was all Conan could do to keep from sprawling flat on his face as he managed to land on one knee, mud and water soaking into his legging.

He was about to rise when his hackles rose first, instincts bred in his barbaric homeland and honed in the chaos of battle alerting him to danger like they had so many times in the past. Conan froze and listened intently, trying to push past the beat of the rain. He found himself staring at the boulder and figured that there must be someone waiting behind it. Conan slowly unsheathed his broadsword as he let go of his horse’s reins and nudged the animal to the side of the trail. A sudden scuffing noise, sounding from above, told him that whoever or whatever it was waited on top of the boulder, not behind it. These thoughts barely registered in Conan’s brain before he was rolling to the side and coming up in a defensive swordsman’s stance, ready to fight.

A light appeared above the rock, a reddish orb framing the outline of outstretched fingers. The light grew suddenly brighter, and the rain hissed and steamed as it fell against the glowing hand. Conan could see a cloaked figure, black robes billowing wildly beneath the vermillion luminescence, its violet eyes the figure’s only other visible feature. Conan bellowed, “Who are you?!” He tightened his double-handed grip on his sword. Recalling the mysteriously slain men of the day before, Conan’s current situation did not bode him well.

The figure spoke, a guttural response in Conan’s native Cimmerian, but with a strange lilting accent that Conan could not place. “Barbarian, I have come for you. Beware–” The sentence was abruptly cut off as the speaker gasped and clutched at an arrow protruding from his chest. In that same instant the ball of light, previously held aloft by the stranger, streaked down from the upraised hand as the figure slumped atop the boulder.

“Crom!” Conan ducked and flung himself aside. As he crashed into the ground, the bolt of crackling energy flashed by. With a deafening explosion it slammed into the trail several feet behind the spot where Conan had just been, throwing up a wall of silt in all directions and temporarily lighting up the darkness, blood-red.

An ululating Turanian battle-cry pierced the air as Tukali drove his horse up the muddy path. When the strange light had appeared above the rock blocking the path, Tukali thought at first that it must be some sign of favor from the gods, illuminating his quarry amid the stygian murk around them so he could get a clear shot. Then he had noticed the obscure figure perched on the boulder, apparently the source of the light, and Tukali guessed that this must be the one who killed his men. In a heartbeat, Tukali had decided that rather than risk having to fight the mysterious newcomer after immobilizing Conan, his best bet was to avenge his men and spare Conan their fate. After all, he’d been ordered to deliver the Cimmerian alive and in one piece to Yildiz’s palace. So he had fired the drugged arrow at the wizard, drawn his scimitar and charged up the slope.

Conan lifted his head and wiped the muck from his eyes in time to see the wounded individual atop the boulder wrap his cape around himself and disappear in a flash of white light. Conan got to his feet and turned at the sound of the pounding of horse’s hooves as Tukali rode up, his scimitar twirling above his head. Upon seeing they were alone and the danger past, Tukali sheathed his scimitar and climbed down from the saddle. The rain was already lessening, as if a pall had been lifted from the land with the disappearance of their strange attacker.

Conan put his own sword away and clenched Tukali’s shoulder in a vice-like grip, his face grim.

Tukali swallowed, the chilling needles of fear pricking their way up his spine, fear that Conan had somehow discovered his true intentions. Beads of sweat sprang from his forehead and were lost in the rain. He tensed for the blow that was sure to come.

Conan grinned with mirth at Tukali’s desolate look. “You saved my life!” he boomed. He released his grip and swatted Tukali heartily on the same shoulder, almost bowling the other man over. “I don’t know what that wizard’s gripe with me was. Maybe I killed one of his brethren some time in the past. But whatever the case, I owe you.”

Sudden realization made Tukali relax; the Cimmerian suspected nothing was amiss. “It wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for any comrade-in-arms,” he replied, a note of amusement in his voice. “I am honored that I was able to aid the famed Conan of Cimmeria in battle. I only hope that my family will believe such an ostentatious story on my part!”

Conan laughed. “Enough kidding, Turanian! In sooth, we must be moving on. Rain or not, there may be patrols about, and I for one don’t feel like pressing my luck just now.”

As both warriors remounted their horses and got under way, Conan couldn’t help thinking that maybe he had mistrusted Tukali for no good reason. If the Turanian had wanted him dead, he could have feathered him with arrows, or even just let the sorcerer blast him to Arallu. Either way, if Tukali had intended ill for him, saving his life probably wouldn’t have been the option he chose. Conan’s fellow mercenary may have seemed a little odd, but that was no crime as far as Conan was concerned. He was happy enough to be in good company.

Tukali couldn’t help marveling at the turn of events. Instead of being forced to undertake the dangerous, even suicidal job of subduing the Cimmerian alone, he believed he’d managed to win him over and gain his trust. It would be easy now. He had even managed to put an arrow in the one he suspected of killing his men. Wherever that sorcerer was now, he had to be either paralyzed or dead. When Tukali contacted his superiors again, they would be content to know how things had turned out to their advantage, excluding the deaths of eight fine Turanian soldiers, of course.

Tukali chuckled softly to himself as he rode down the path beside Conan, passing the boulder beneath the clearing sky. Even the weather was improving!

The cave was nestled halfway up the sheer side of an extinct volcano located somewhere just between Khorshemish and the beginning of the Kothian Hills. Over time, the volcano’s neck had been exposed as the softer mountainside around it had been eroded by the elements, leaving a tall cylinder of hard igneous rock behind. The cave that now pocked the giant tube’s wall, however, had not been carved by natural forces.

Though the cave’s interior was rough and a little cramped, an aura of peace and cleanliness made the closeness of the rock walls that much more bearable. At the back of the cave, about ten paces from the front entrance, a fire crackled away merrily in a small makeshift hearth, the smoke disappearing through a hole in the ceiling. Other than a few furs laid out near a small wooden stand in the middle of the cave, the dwelling was devoid of furnishings. On top of the stand rested a finger-thin, hand-sized square of black metal, its rounded edges strangely sparkling with the firelight like crystals in a geode.

A faint white glow enveloped the black box as Mach materialized at the cave’s entrance. He staggered several steps toward the box and collapsed in front of it, barely clinging to consciousness. The white glow around the box intensified and seemingly reached out, embracing Mach with its snowy light. Within several seconds, he recovered somewhat, enough to shed his cloak into a puddle of dusky cloth on the floor behind him, revealing a muscular body clad in black, skin-tight leathers. The box withdrew its light and spoke to Mach in his own tongue, a language complex and even musical in its form, but entirely alien to the human race.

Mach nodded at the words and uttered a weary reply, his violet eyes struggling to stay open. Then with a sudden shout of pain, he reached up and tore the arrow from his chest, flinging it across the cave and into the fire. Immediately a dark amber began to flow from Mach’s chest, and he clasped his ebony hand over the wound, stemming the flow of his blood.

The box chimed a low resonant tone as several beams of light shot out from it, filling the empty air in front of Mach with several lines of bright golden words. The light beams strained to hold the words together, their letters desperately trying to scatter; the phrases they formed were never meant to be seen or uttered in the material plane. And yet Mach uttered them, each word burning out of the air as it was spoken.

As Mach recited the spell, he unhooked a small bluish tube from the belt at his waist and popped its cap off with his thumb, then squirted the oily contents of the tube into his wound. He bled freely for several seconds, but then the wound started to congeal. Several small, darker globules of tainted blood pushed their way to the surface of the wound and floated up and out of Mach’s chest, carrying the purple lotus that was in his system into the hole in the ceiling and away with the smoke of the fire.

In a few moments Mach finished the recitation and the last of the words shimmered out of existence as the wound in his chest completely healed. He stripped off the blood-soaked leather shirt and settled himself onto the floor, legs crossed in front of him, bare chest glistening darkly with sweat in the firelight and unscarred by any wound.

Mach again spoke to the box as he bowed his head, long black braids cascading down around his shoulders. This time, a stream of azure half-moons pulsed out of the box against Mach’s forehead, like waves washing over a beach. His last, disturbing thought before he relaxed into a sleep-like trance was that by failing to warn Conan about the treachery of the one he travelled with, he may have lost his only chance to obtain the aid he needed. Without the aid of Conan and the being called Crom, Mach would be unable to halt the evil influence of the criminal Enkee-Kutul, and the people of this world would surely be enslaved like the people of his own world had once been.