Conan tore the leather shirt from his back in an effort to take the edge off the forge’s suffocating heat. He tied the ruined garment around his waistline, unwilling to discard it in so holy a place.

At least as hot as any forge Conan could recall, Crom’s forge was more than large enough to contain the broad, hissing furnace at its other end, being half again the length of the arena Conan just left, or about thirty paces separating each of the four walls. The only illumination came from the furnace itself, which cast red light over everything within.

He looked around, taking his time; not often did one find himself in the workshop of a god. It was an experience to relish, a memory to someday thrill one’s children with.

The walls of the entire front half of the forge were covered in row upon row of glittering steel weapons, no two exactly alike in type or decoration, hanging from a grid of regularly-spaced metal pins that started a foot off the floor and ended a mere hands-breadth from the vaulted ceiling above. He would have to climb those pins if he cared to reach some of the topmost weapons.

All of the weapons were thoughtfully arranged according to size and function, from one-handed short swords, almost daggers in size, at the bottom, to tremendous two-handed great swords above, the lengths of some of their blades almost as tall as Conan himself. These last he wouldn’t need to climb far to get hold of. There were also various kinds of axes, single- and double-bladed, short- and long-hafted. Some actual daggers and knives were present, though these were not many in number, being almost as rare as the small assortment of blunt weapons hanging at the very edges of the whole collection, maces and the like, some sporting spikes or flanges. Most Cimmerians didn’t favor these last types of arms, and Conan wasn’t surprised to find so few of them here.

Upon close inspection, he found each weapon he looked at to be virtually perfect in form and quality. Not a single flaw could he find upon any of them, all shining brightly as if newly made and polished. He gaped in wonder, dazzled by the beauty of the array spread out around him.

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices at his disposal, Conan walked around, examining the rest of the forge. Four massive columns supported the ceiling, placed to form the corners of a lesser square within the room. Their fat trunks, glossy white shafts of green-veined marble, glinted with red in the light of the furnace. They stood upon wide, dark green bases speckled with white, and were crowned by identical capitals above. The walls, floor and arched ceiling were covered also in marble, though their tiles were solid green in color, apart from the ruby radiance of the furnace.

The furnace itself, as difficult as it was for Conan to get near the source of all the blazing heat, took up most of the rear wall. A waist-high barrier made from black rock as thick as Conan’s arm was long held the coals inside, while an overhanging lip of the same material sloped upward toward the wall from the level of Conan’s shoulders and served to reflect much of the rising heat back at the glowing coals. There were a number of slits cut into the rock lip, presumably to allow the ceramic crucible hanging nearby to be swung into the furnace.

Certainly the furnace seemed hot enough to melt ore, but when he gazed about, Conan couldn’t locate any kind of a bellows. Unless the will of Crom alone kept the coals burning, Conan suspected there must be an underground source heating the forge, mayhap some kind of magma pool. He’d learned of such things in his travels, even bathed in hot springs said to be heated by the same means. Doubtless the tunnel where Mach yet waited was heated by the same source, as most of the rock likely was here in the mountain’s core.

Conan looked around again, perplexed. His explanation still wouldn’t account for the coals themselves, which would degrade to ashes after a time. He couldn’t see any visible store of fuel . . .

Abruptly he growled, exasperated at himself. Obviously Crom had ways of tending to his own forge!

Between the forge and a long quenching pool stood a pair of black anvils, spaced almost as widely apart as the ends of the pool. Each anvil, roughly waist-high like the rock wall of the furnace, looked to have seen much use. Hook-ended chains dangled down into the space between the anvils, their lengths attached to an arrangement of pulleys that clung to the ceiling. The chains and their gear-shaped pulleys formed a run between the quenching pool and the furnace along which the ceramic crucible could be swung and lowered during the process of smelting ore.

The quenching pool itself was a long narrow oval of green marble, about ten paces in length. When Conan looked down into its waters he noticed gratings at either end through which water continuously passed through the pool, probably from an underground stream like the one Mach had found upon first arriving at Ben Morgh. On one side of the pool squatted a wide barrel, filled with raw iron ore, and at the other end was a smaller barrel filled with powdery coke, used for smelting with the iron to make steel.

A wide wooden rack was placed against the wall to the right of the pools, its shelves laden with prongs, hammers, files, awls, chisels–all manner of tools for shaping and carving metal. Directly opposite the rack, next to the wall at the other side of the room, was a small circular pool filled with clay for shaping into molds. Water lapped at the pool’s marble sides, keeping the clay soft and pliable. On the same wall but closer to the furnace sat a small kiln, used for firing the clay molds to a hardness that would allow them to withstand the touch of molten steel, and between the kiln and the small pool was a huge drum, filled with the remnants of shattered molds; apparently Crom was intent upon ensuring that each of his creations remained unique.

Sweat trickled over Conan’s limbs, his leather leggings soaked through again and sticking to his skin. Though he felt like he were being roasted alive within the forge’s air, he knew that by all rights it should be hotter still. Any furnace that continuously maintained a temperature high enough to melt steel, a temperature usually only achieved with the aid of a bellows, should have built up a great amount of heat by now, much more than there was at present. But instead, the heat was really no worse than, say, Zem’s forge in Khorshemish, though Conan’s recent travails against the guardian had sapped him of much of his energy, and what heat there was in this place only magnified the strain on his flesh.

In the red glow of the furnace Conan squinted about, searching up and down the heights of the forge walls. After a few moments he found the answer to his dilemma; way up in the shadows, seen only as black patches against dark green marble, were vents cut into the wall. There were two above the furnace, sucking hot air out of the forge as it rose to the ceiling, and two more high above the door, pushing relatively cooler air down inside. Conan felt only a slight stirring against his skin, almost imperceptible, and he guessed the air currents were likely at their strongest closer to the top of the room.

He was profoundly impressed by the construction and layout of the forge. Even if it was fairly modest in size compared to some of those maintained by various royalty, it served its purpose well, easily earning the envy of any master blacksmith–including Conan’s.

He went back to pacing along the steel-lined walls, seeking out a proper weapon for his cause. He took down some of the larger swords, testing them for heft and balance. All felt natural in his hands, like he’d been born to wield them. But as he picked through their ranks, he dwelt upon Crom’s advice, that he pick the weapon best suited to his purpose.

Conan was looking down at the great sword he was handling, contemplating its razor-sharp edges and its awesome reach, when a thought struck him. He hung the great sword back on the wall and strode over to the extreme edge of the array. His own sword had done nothing against Enkee-Kutul’s overseers, the effect of striking against their armored bodies like trying to hew down a giant redwood with a mere carving knife; it couldn’t possibly be done, no matter how strong the man holding the knife. A sharp edge, as he knew, was best used against enemies of flesh and blood.

His gaze fell upon the blunter weapons, and he sorted through the different maces and truncheons, but they all seemed somehow inadequate for the task of taking down the overseers. He wanted something that was built specifically to cave in the thickest armor and damage what lay beneath. He crossed to the opposite side of the forge to inspect what lay at the other end of the assemblage.

Immediately he saw it, hanging at eye-level and the only weapon of its kind in the entire place: An immense war hammer, a weapon few Cimmerians had ever bothered to use before, though it was held in high esteem among the warriors of Asgard. Conan had seen such weapons in use when the Ęsir had joined his own people in raids and battles against the Vanir and other enemies. Few men could withstand even one terrible blow from a skillfully-wielded war hammer. The only drawback from such a weapon was its weight, and the one Conan looked upon now had to be the largest he’d ever seen. Surely it had been forged for someone with even greater thews than his own?

He took it down from where it hung on the wall and was immediately taken aback at how light and evenly-balanced the hammer felt–more like a sword than a weapon with a solid block of steel at one end.

The hammer’s head was about as voluminous as eight or nine of Conan’s fists put together, its shape a solid steel brick with beveled edges. The hammer’s front, used for bashing and pounding, was flat and broad like that of a sledge hammer, while the other end tapered into a short but wicked spike that curved slightly downward. The shaft alone was at least as long as Conan’s leg, made from sturdy oak and set with thumb-wide steel bands spaced at regular intervals, each pressed in flush with the surface of the wood. Four strips of steel, also pressed into the wood, extended down the handle perpendicular to the bands, spanning from head to handgrip. The grip was long and thick enough for Conan to use both hands comfortably, consisting of a single piece of steel molded around the end of the haft with slight depressions where his fingers could find purchase; the metal surface of the handgrip had been carefully wound with black leather cord that was tough but yielding to the hand, to prevent slippage in the action and gore of battle.

Etched vines of ivy could be seen creeping out from underneath the edges of the leathern handgrip, and from there the tendrils wound on upward, growing over the steel strips and bands of the entire shaft in a way that made them look nearly alive. The sides of the hammer’s head displayed the craggy and unquestionably Cimmerian landscape surrounding Ben Morgh. The top of the hammer bore the image of Ben Morgh itself, symbolizing, Conan decided, the divine potency of the hammer as imbued by Crom. The mountain’s base was planted right above the mallet-end, and from there the mountain ascended back the entire length of the head so that its peak merged with the beginning of the spike.

Conan found the war hammer awe-inspiring to behold, and he couldn’t recall having ever laid eyes on a more beautifully and lovingly crafted weapon. Of course, he would have expected no less from the mightiest among the gods.

He hefted the weapon, swinging it about within the spacious area between the columns. Conan wielded the hammer expertly and easily, finding, to his barbaric delight, that he could even do so one-handed.

Only, the hammer’s apparent lightness troubled him. Mach claimed a weapon of the gods should dispel the sorcery protecting Enkee-Kutul’s armor-clad minions, but Conan had to be sure of the hammer’s value upon mortal objects and opponents as well.

He went to the barrel of ore and selected from it a large chunk, which he placed upon the closest anvil. With a heave, he brought the war hammer down upon the rock.

There came a thunderous boom, almost deafening him, as the hammer connected and flaming particles of ore showered out against the opposite wall like meteors, bouncing off the marble to lie smoldering on the floor. Before the his incredulous stare the anvil wobbled, coming close to tipping as it vibrated from his blow. A fine layer of pulverized ore lay upon its top, dark and smoking.

“Crom!” Conan looked at the hammer in amazement; it still shone as new, with no marks or chips visible anywhere upon its shiny face. Now he knew the negligible weight of the hammer to be a lie, its power phenomenal. He hadn’t even put a quarter of his strength into that swing!

A slow smile revealed the whites of the barbarian’s teeth as he envisioned meeting again his golem-like enemies in battle, this time with the odds evened out a bit. Chuckling softly over warm thoughts of retribution, he swung the hammer up onto his shoulder and headed for the door.

Conan strode away from the forge without feeling the need to look back, and he was but remotely aware of the sound of the heavy stone portals grating open at his approach and then shutting tight after he’d gone through. He had a new sense of reverence, not only for Crom, but for himself. Somehow, a piece of the puzzle that was his life had fallen into place, and he felt not constrained in his debt to Crom, but liberated.

As he walked through the arena steeped in thoughts of his destiny, he failed to notice a new addition to the statues ringing the high wall. To Crom’s right had sprung another towering figure, bedecked in full battle-harness and bearing Conan’s unmistakable mien with sullen eyes gazing out onto unknown vistas. Few others would ever look upon that statue, but those who did would do so with respect, knowing the mighty strength of spirit possessed by the man immortalized in stone.

Conan walked briskly through the first room, breached its doorway, and mounted the staircase leading up from the forge. Tons of rock ground noisily above his head as the steel door retreated from the tunnel to let him pass. He emerged into the tunnel, and the door sealed the forge’s entrance behind him with a clang.

Mach rose from where he’d been sitting in quiet meditation, a luminous globe cupped in his palm. “Conan! I see you met with success!”

“Aye,” replied Conan, hefting the hammer forward into the light. “See what I’ve brought back.” He made to hand the weapon over to Mach for inspection.

Mach refused the offer gracefully. “That weapon is not for me to lay hands upon,” he said. “But I can sense its power without touching it. Was the task of obtaining it difficult?”

Conan nodded wordlessly.

“I expected it would be.” Mach didn’t press any further, intuiting that whatever trials Conan had gone through were of a personal nature to the Cimmerian. “Where is your sword?”

Conan sighed. “One of the penalties for gaining this hammer, I reckon, though I’d call it more than a fair trade.” He laughed.

Mach nodded. “Verily so.” He could detect a subtle change in Conan, though he didn’t give voice to his discovery. Some aspect of the Cimmerian’s soul, previously elusive and indeterminable, had found substance, and Mach suspected Conan might have confronted his god once again. “Are you ready to depart?”

“Aye, let us tarry no longer in this sweltering rock. Our work here is done.”

Mach flung out the corners of his cape, which grew long like shadows beneath a setting sun and swirled about the two men. There was a brief flash as space-time folded in on itself, and then they were gone.

Tukali headed for the exit from Boa feeling elated; his map of the city would be complete with the information he had gathered during this last foray through the cavern. High above the ground he jumped and crawled from rooftop to rooftop like an overgrown spider. Since his first scouting mission in the subterranean city, the Turanian’s sure-footedness had improved along with his familiarity of the lofty terrain, and he now found he could cover the same distances as before in roughly half the time.

He was just dropping down onto a fairly cluttered-looking and gently-peaked roof when he felt a dull vibration in his chest. He looked around but saw nothing. The sensation reminded him of the incessant buzz that came off some of the thicker cables he used to clamber across between buildings, but he couldn’t pinpoint anything nearby that might be the cause. Perhaps this was something new.

A distant flicker of light caught his eye, coming from the nearest edge of the cavern, yet almost a third of the city away. As he watched, the flicker swiftly became a steady red gleam that expanded to the size of a small pebble. By the time the thing became coin-sized, the vibration in Tukali’s chest had deepened and spread to the rest of his body. He crouched down behind a small turret, peering out from the shadows as the thing flying toward him grew to the size of a melon. Now he could see it was a gigantic ball, and he remembered the sphere poised atop the ziggurat overlooking Enkee-Kutul’s sacrificial altar.

The sphere was cruising straight toward him. Tukali’s bones throbbed now with the vibration, and his teeth seemed to be trying to chatter free of his skull. He could hear an intermittent roaring sound like pounding surf, its bass so low as to be almost imperceptible. Tiny grains of rock jiggled, bounced and fell off of the turret against which he leaned, sprinkling unnoticed onto his boots. The sphere kept growing, its surface a bloody red laced with shifting currents of black.

Tukali’s pulse sped up to a furious slave-galley beat, and he fought hard against a panicky impulse to flee. The ball passed directly overhead, and as Tukali looked up, time slowed down. The face of the sphere seemed to ripple in the dim light of the cavern, its black currents rising and sinking beneath waves of viscous red light. He had the distinct impression of looking into a pool of lava where molten rock hardened and darkened as it touched the air near the surface, only to be swept under again to dissolve in the hypnotic maelstrom.

Even with the sphere so close, Tukali found he couldn’t judge its true size. The dingy background of the cavern’s ceiling gave his eyes nothing to use as a reference point–the sphere could have been a million leagues distant or a yard from his face. He was left only with the illusion of profound size, like he was but an ant gazing downward from the rim of a volcano. Something about the impression of the sphere’s enormity gave way to an instinctual terror within the Turanian, some primal fear of being swallowed up or consumed by something so vast as to render his existence meaningless–it was like seeing suddenly how small he was compared to the whole of the universe. For the single second that the molten sphere flew past overhead, Tukali was stricken unto mindlessness.

But then he managed to tear his gaze away, and the sphere flew on past him. Realizing he was out in the open, Tukali scrambled around to the other side of the turret. He steadied himself against the stone, mastering the fear that had threatened his very sanity. The terror had been one of those unreasoning things, a knee-jerk response to the unknown. In the hazy light of the city, the sphere had already dwindled past the point of easy observation, and with an effort Tukali shook off the encounter, continuing his rooftop trek.

Before another hour had fully passed, Tukali was within sight of the tower that had half of its structure embedded in the cavern’s wall. Soon he was back on the ground, trudging up the hill to the tower’s entrance. There were few, if any, workers or guards this far into the city’s fringe, and he was able to avoid all passersby with relative ease by sliding cat-like into the shadows. All around him the lights of the city shone waxy through the smog-filled air, the constant background roar of Boa’s unwilling inhabitants working at their chores serving to drown out the sound of Tukali’s padding footsteps.

It might have been this suppression of lesser sounds, or perhaps Tukali was still shaken somewhat from his encounter with the flying sphere, but whatever the case, he failed to perceive the group of armed men ringing the interior of the tower’s base before he was already inside and encircled by them.

Tukali whirled, about to sprint back out through the door he’d come in, but two burly guards had already blocked his exit and pointed loaded crossbows at him. He heard a loud guffaw at his back, and he turned. As he did so, he felt two pairs of hands clamp down on his arms, pinning them to his sides. A third pair of hands liberated him of his dagger, the sole weapon he’d brought with him into Boa; he’d reasoned that it probably wouldn’t be wise to engage anything in this infernal city that a dagger alone couldn’t readily dispatch.

A fat man sat on the ebony staircase–the same man who had laughed–with his cheeks still jiggling in mirth. His leather armor bulged at the seams from the strain of containing his generous paunch.

Tukali tried to maneuver his arms into a more comfortable position, but the guards holding him wouldn’t relinquish their grip. “Who are you people?”

The fat man chuckled, his bald head shiny with sweat. “Ah! So the rogue speaks.” He spoke to one of the guards flanking him by the staircase, keeping his gaze locked on the Turanian. “Is this the man you saw entering the sewers?”

“The same,” answered the guard. “See there, Lord Westlun, he’s clad in the same lurker’s garb I saw before. I’d say he has business in this place.”

Westlun nodded. “Aye, he’s dressed like a regular brigand. Fortunate we saw him before he saw us, else we might have missed such a slippery eel.”

Tukali flinched inwardly. Westlun? Wasn’t that the name Conan had forced out of the assassin from the marketplace? Then this was Jessica’s enemy, the slave lord who tried to have them all killed.

One of the guards standing on the sidelines spoke up. “Maybe we should slit his throat.”

“Nay,” declared another, “there might be a reward for his capture. Lets turn him in!”

“Dolts!” yelled Westlun, silencing the chatter. “Who would we hand him over to? I think it likely that most everyone from Khorshemish is now down here. As for killing him,” he said with a sly smile, “not just yet. Methinks he’s one of those responsible for the plague and the loss of my slaves. I’d wager he has information that could be of use.” He glared at Tukali. “What say you, rogue?”

At Tukali’s defiant scowl, Westlun beckoned to one of the guards holding the Turanian. The guard twisted Tukali’s hand, forcing his arm overhead. Tukali bent double, unable to resist the leverage exerted against his limb.

Westlun lurched to his feet, strutting over to stand before Tukali. “Come now, surely you’d rather avoid making us do this the hard way? Tell us why you’re here. Is that bitch Jessica responsible for my loss of property?”

Tukali spat on Westlun’s foot, the only part of the round man he could presently see.

“Tut-tut. There’s no need to be insolent to your betters.”

At a gesture from the slaver, the same guard twisted Tukali’s arm the other way, bending it while jerking his hand up toward the rear of that same shoulder. Tukali was lifted onto his toes, his elbow pressed into the small of his back.

With his prisoner’s face so exposed, Westlun casually smacked him, then smacked him again from the other side. “Where are my slaves?”

Tukali glowered. “In the city with everyone else, I’d expect.”

“Where in the city?”

“I don’t know.” Tukali did his best to shrug, but the effort came off more like an attempt to shake loose of his captors. They held him even tighter, the guard that gripped his arm slipping one of his own around Tukali’s throat in a semi-relaxed chokehold.

Westlun leaned in close, his nose all but touching Tukali’s own. “Know you what I think, thief? I think you’re a liar. I think all this,” he gestured at their surroundings,” is some scheme contrived by you and your fellow rogues to make yourselves rich. How you managed to create a plague, I know not. Neither do I care. But what I want directly from you now is the truth, or I’ll slit your throat myself!” He took Tukali’s dagger from someone standing off to the side and held it against the Turanian’s jugular. Westlun’s face betrayed no hint of his previous mirth.

Tukali saw murder in those piggish eyes and knew the other man spoke truly. He would have to tell them something or risk ending up a cadaver in a city of zombies. “I’m looking for my companions. Lady Jessica and Conan–my counterpart in Jessica’s service–fell prey to the gilded madness, and when I learned they had disappeared I followed other such victims down to this place in search of them.”

Westlun leaned in even closer, his eyes narrowing in distrust as he stared into Tukali’s own. He pressed the knife blade more firmly against Tukali’s neck, close to drawing blood. “My men say you’ve been coming down here, apparently at this ‘search’ of yours if you’re to be believed, for a few days at least. You haven’t found them yet?”

“‘Tis a big city, and there are many guards to be avoided,” Tukali said cautiously. He swallowed, feeling the sharp edge of the dagger pressing into his flesh. His will was sorely tested in his refusal to flinch away from the fetid reek of the slaver’s breath. He struggled to keep his gaze icy and level, unblinking.

With a sigh, Westlun stepped back, taking the dagger with him. “Whether you speak truth or not, either way you must know something about this place. Tell me what you know. Now.”

Tukali’s mind was awhirl. Should he make something up? A host of credible lies stampeded through his brain, begging that he at least attempt to mislead Westlun. But the cautionary side of him saw no use in spinning falsehoods; they could only make things more complicated by forcing him to keep track of them. Best to tell what he knew, or most of it, and let the slave lord trip himself up in his own folly. “I’ve learned of a man named Enkee-Kutul who is at the root of all this. He is a wizard come from some foreign land, I know not where, but he is the cause of the plague in Khorshemish.”

“And what would this Enkee-Kutul have to gain by spreading a plague?” demanded Westlun, absently patting the dagger against his palm.

“A means to build his city, I suppose,” Tukali said. “From what I’ve seen, all the people brought down here by the gilded madness are now his slaves. Without rest they labor, night and day. They’ve built over the ruins that were already here, like this tower we stand in. He has a vast host of–” Tukali caught himself, having almost named the battle-spheres he’d seen. There would be no use in trying to explain something he himself had no real knowledge of, nor did he wish to give Westlun ideas about obtaining such lethal weapons. “…a vast host of men assembling within the city,” he continued, “an army more fearsome than any I’ve ever seen, mustered from the ranks of those he has enslaved thus far. I think Enkee-Kutul must be planning to carve out an empire for himself.”

“An empire, eh?” mused Westlun. “Does he have his eye on aught else but Koth?”

Tukali tried to shrug again, much to the annoyance of those restraining him. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Hmm . . .” The slave lord simply stared at Tukali a few seconds longer, contemplating his story. “What think you, Nagi?” he asked suddenly, looking off to Tukali’s left. “Do this rogue’s words have the ring of truth to ’em?”

A voice answered from the left, and Tukali thought it likely to be from the same man who took his weapon, though he couldn’t presently turn his head to see the speaker. “I believe so, milord. His tale sounds too strange to be a lie. Surely he could’ve come up with a better yarn if his heart were in it, although . . .” and there was a pause during which Tukali could feel eyes upon him, “he doesn’t look stupid enough to lie to thirteen armed men,” Nagi finished.

Westlun pursed his lips. “Aye, captain,” he said after a pause. “I suppose you are correct.” He thrust the dagger through his belt and glanced once more at Tukali, then set to slowly pacing before his men and his prisoner, hands folded upon his ample stomach as he ruminated in silence.

Before long the slave lord halted near the base of the stairs, a new gleam in his eye. Surely this Enkee-Kutul would require more slaves to convert to soldiers if he indeed sought to build an empire. If so, then he would need to procure them through private sources, else he’d soon be the target of all the neighboring nations once they uncovered the threat posed by his imperialistic aspirations; before the combined might of so many armies this Enkee-Kutul would undoubtedly fall, even with the considerable population of Khorshemish under his command. As one who made his living off the slave trade, Westlun could supply Enkee-Kutul with recruits through his own plentiful connections until the wizard had a large enough force to adequately defend and expand his empire. All he would ask for in return was to be allowed to head the slave trade, unopposed by competitors or soft-hearted lawmakers, from within the protective borders of the new empire.

Westlun turned back to the Turanian, his pudgy fingers tapping an excited rhythm of greed upon the leather stretched taut over his belly. “You will lead us to Enkee-Kutul, after which I will decide what to do with you. Try to escape and I’ll have you killed.”

“But this is folly!” protested Tukali. “There are guards everywhere! And Enkee-Kutul is a killer, a madman!”

“You appear to have found a way to go unnoticed in this city,” said Westlun. “I have complete faith in your ability to do the same for us. As for this madman, well… I’m sure I can work something out with him. Cooperate, and I’ll let you go free after we reach our destination. I promise.”

Tukali knew he had little other choice but to go along with the slaver, that is, if he didn’t want to be killed on the spot. Not that he had much faith in any promise made by Westlun, but at least he’d continue to live for a while yet.

Travelling by rooftop as he had done on his own was out of the question; so many men would slow things down and cause far too much noise, leaving them all open to discovery, and Westlun himself would doubtless need more than a little assistance just to get across some of the longer cables, slowing them further.

No, if he were to lead them it would have to be through the streets. The journey wouldn’t take nearly as long as by rooftop, though the chances of their being noticed by guards would increase considerably. Tukali had every reason to believe the slave lord would have him killed if it appeared they’d been led into a trap. Fortunately, his travels above the city had also revealed to him those paths through the streets less utilized than others, many of which were alleys too narrow for the overseers to pass through. He still had his rope and grapnel in his backpack. If he saw the chance for escape, he would take it and flee into the rooftops, confident that these fools would never catch him once he was back on comfortable terrain. Westlun and his men would probably be caught in the streets before they ever made it back to the lone exit they knew of.

Westlun was still waiting expectantly for an answer. “Agreed,” Tukali said, relaxing. “I’ll lead you to Enkee-Kutul. But I can’t guarantee that he won’t kill all of us.”

The slaver chuckled. “You let me worry about that.” He pointed at the Turanian. “Nagi, bind his hands. You’re responsible for keeping this one from getting away.”

They left the tower, Tukali and Nagi at their fore, Westlun walking at the center of the grouped mass of his guards. The slave lord rubbed his hands together gleefully, thinking of the riches and power that were all but within his grasp.

About a score of men had gathered silently in the square before Jessica, about as motley a group as she had ever seen. They all stood between her and the gate, waiting. A few talked among themselves in hushed tones, while others stood quiet and immobile. Most of these silent ones were clothed in long flowing robes decorated with patterns and symbols that marked the wearers as priests.

Others amid the gathering were clad in an alien-looking mechanical armature that, though they were smaller than the overseers, made them appear every bit as imposing. Also in attendance were a handful who appeared to be both man and machine. From the great store of information at her disposal, Jessica knew these last to be cyborgs, men who had traded in portions of their mortal bodies so they could reap the advantages of their mechanical replacements; much of their humanity had also been traded along with their flesh, though Jessica believed humanity had been scant in these men to begin with.

She heard soft steps behind her, and when she turned to look she saw Enkee-Kutul’s face looking back at her from up on high. He descended to her stair and took a seat beside her.

Those assembled before the gate turned to face Enkee-Kutul, bowing low.

He called out, “Is all in readiness?”

One of the priests nodded from deep within a voluminous hood. His red and gold robes were embroidered with strange gilt designs resembling the markings of the plague, though the embroidery’s pattern was much more regular. “All is in preparedness,” he answered.

“Good,” said Enkee-Kutul. “Bring forth the first offering.”

The priest nodded again, then motioned to someone unseen off to the ziggurat’s edge. An overseer emerged, frighteningly enormous compared to the pitiful form it led over to the altar. Arms of cobalt lifted the unknowing slave onto the sacrificial stone, laying the boy out. The overseer stepped back.

One among the assemblage, a cyborg, took an object proffered by the head priest and strode to the altar.

Enkee-Kutul whispered to Jessica, “I have a most wondrous spectacle in store for you. Be glad, for few have had the honor of looking upon Scybor himself.” He motioned down at the priest. “Let it begin.”

The priest turned toward the gate and began chanting. The words were like none Jessica had ever heard, flowing together strangely, echoing in the stillness of the square. There was no discernible rhythm to the chanting that she was aware of, though many of the syllables were repeated, but every word was spoken with its own tone, as if each demanded to be uttered with distinct emotion.

Jessica stirred, just beginning to comprehend what was about to happen. She looked at Enkee-Kutul. “You needn’t do this–“

“Quiet!” he hissed, his eyes remaining fixed on the scene unfolding below.

Jessica sat mutely, not wanting to watch, but feeling compelled to do so nonetheless.

The cyborg stood over the oblivious slave with hands raised above his head, a twin-bladed dagger clutched between them.

The priest abruptly fell silent. With a deft movement he signaled to the cyborg.

As Jessica watched in dread and sorrow, the dagger plunged down into the slave’s throat and elicited two spurts of blood that pumped over the length of the altar. Again and again the dagger rose and fell as the cyborg stabbed the slave’s prone body with devilish ferocity. The sight of crimson squirting through the air was accompanied by the meaty thumping of steel tearing into flesh and the cyborg’s savage grunts.

Jessica squeezed her eyes shut, cringing away from the sight. At her side she heard Enkee-Kutul laughing at her. With gentle force, one of the giant’s hands turned her head back toward the sacrifice, and her eyes fluttered open of their own accord. “This is not the time for weakness!” he hissed again.

The stabbing had ceased. The mangled body lay still upon the altar where blood ran off the dusky stone in rivers, though already the flow had begun to slacken. The cyborg stood there panting, his body smeared completely in the gore of his victim. Without even a whimper of protest the slave had died, in thrall to the gilded madness even to the very end.

There came a distant sound, faint but distinct, like rending metal. The space framed by the gate began to glow, the air solidifying into a white-hot sheet. Beneath the glare the demonic telamones seemed to writhe with a life of their own, and for a moment Jessica was more than convinced that they did indeed live.

Sparks shot out from the carved lump of jade squatting above the gate like a megalithic and malevolent eye. The runes upon the jade’s surface began to glow, catching fire. They burned with a hellish light while the sparks continued to pour down in a rain of hate.

Another sound erupted, screeching and metallic like the first, but much louder. The noise hurt Jessica’s ears.

Enkee-Kutul beamed evilly at her. “Watch,” he said, before turning back to look for himself.

A noisome smell oozed from the gate’s general direction, a smell like any number of foul things rotting together on a hot day, only far, far worse than anything Jessica could actually put a name to. She breathed through her mouth to avoid gagging at the stench. A shadowy and insubstantial shape appeared behind the glare. There was an impression of long coiled limbs, like tentacles, and a gaping maw atop a wriggling torso, but nothing was distinct in the gate’s glow.

All those gathered near the gate, except for Jessica and Enkee-Kutul, bowed down as one to prostrate themselves on the flagstones. The shape twitched.

With an abruptness that startled Jessica just short of panic, the ragged bundle of meat that was once the slave’s body rose up off the altar. As she watched, blood began to crawl from the corpse through the air like smoke, the red tendrils drifting in silence toward the gate. Blood sparkled brightly, a crimson dew drifting into the shadowy form of Scybor. Another shriek sounded, deeper now, like a groan, as the god lapped up the floating droplets.

The god’s appetite had only been whetted by the taste of blood, and now more rose into the air. Scarlet currents whipped forward with increasing intensity from the hovering corpse as it was drained of every last ounce of blood. The rest was sucked up from where it had pooled around the altar, and gradually the red rain ceased to fall against the gate.

Scybor finished feeding. Not a drop of freshly-spilt blood was to be found anywhere on or near the altar. Even the blood that had covered the cyborg’s body had been removed and devoured.

With a squishy flop the corpse dropped out of the air onto the stone of the altar where it bounced slightly and rolled off the side. Another roar came from the gate, like metal shredding beneath awful talons.

Enkee-Kutul stood up and bellowed, “Scybor!”

Those gathered on the flagstones, still prostrated before the gate with arms outstretched, echoed their master’s greeting. “Scybor!” they cried in unison.

Scybor turned his attention upon his servants. Jessica watched, tight-lipped and shaking as the god’s gaze swept over her in turn, then finally came to rest upon the man standing beside her. Twin orbs of hellfire appraised Enkee-Kutul, and one overly-long and twisted limb flailed out against the glowing haze in which the god was enveloped. The limb split and grew, turning into a squid-like profusion of thinner tentacles that probed and quested at the glowing boundaries until the very tip of one such elongated limb managed to reach partially through the gate.

Jessica was terrified as the frayed-looking appendage emerged and she realized it was in fact one of the god’s fingers, but there came a sudden flash of light, bursting out around the fingertip, and it withdrew back into the confines of the gate. A deep rumbling vibration issued forth from Scybor’s maw, not like his shrieks of hunger, but an actual voice speaking a single mind-cracking word, a word of a language known only to the foulest of gods and unutterable for all but them.

And then, with the utterance of that one blasphemous word, the light within the gate faded along with Scybor’s image, until only empty space existed between the two pillars.

The grovelers rose, talking excitedly. Jessica sat there on the steps, her mind working overtime to reject all memory of the word and Scybor, though only the former readily fled her benumbed mind.

Enkee-Kutul was ranting at the other attendees. “Was Scybor not beautiful to behold? My soul trembles to know I have had the honor of looking upon him yet again. And he spoke!” He spread his arms wide to his priests, cyborgs and warriors who watched him in awe. “We have been blessed this day, for with Scybor’s one holy word, he has shown us his approval. We shall destroy our enemies. We will be victorious!” He gestured at those unseen slaves hidden to the side of the ziggurat. “Continue the sacrifices! We must show Scybor our appreciation by slaking his thirst. Oh! He shall be served a veritable banquet of blood!” Those below cheered in ecstasy, their frenzied shouts accompanied by action as they sped off to carry out Enkee-Kutul’s bidding. All of them would partake in earnest of the continuing bloodshed.

Enkee-Kutul reached down and took hold of Jessica’s trembling arm, hauling her up onto her feet to tow her back up the steps beside him. “How does it feel to be the first of your kind to look upon the most potent of all gods? Ah, I see you are overcome by the moment, but not to worry. I will leave you in peace to dwell upon your experience. I’m sure the sight of your new god will more than convince you to accept my offer!”

He left her at the doorway to her sleeping quarters, confident that he would soon have a new and willing consort. Jessica walked inside, her senses reeling, and slumped down in the middle of the granite slabs between the columns. She was horrified, her mind fairly bending from the unspeakable evils she had witnessed. The noblewoman sat there, still shaking, trying to reaffirm her grip on the reality she knew.

After a time her wits returned to her, and she leaned back against one glossy column, drained. She felt alone and exposed, though her resolve was as steadfast as ever; never would she join Enkee-Kutul, never would she have a hand in such vile acts as she’d been forced to watch. Jessica felt sullied even at having only laid eyes upon Scybor. It seemed to her that the mere thought of serving that abominable creature would be enough to taint her spirit forever.

But she wasn’t beyond hope, for its tiny flame still burned brightly within her. Conan and Tukali would rescue her and stop this evil man and his sick schemes.

Silently, she mouthed prayers to Mitra, Ishtar, and every other benevolent deity she could think of before drifting into an uneasy sleep not far from shock.