Irony of all ironies that Jessica should find herself sharing the same prison cell with her oldest and most despised foe. She had been sleeping when, a little while ago, Enkee-Kutul had come by with a new prisoner to keep her company. But not for too long, he’d said, for this one had earned himself a singularly painful fate. Only after Enkee-Kutul had left did she look down at the fat and unconscious form lying inside the doorway and realized the identity of her new cellmate.
Her first impulse had been to throttle Westlun before he had a chance to come to his senses. Everything within her told her the action would be justified. None could blame her for seeking retribution after he’d tried to have her assassinated, and surely she owed it to all those upon whose misery Westlun thrived. Every man, woman and child who’d been torn from their homes and sold into Koth’s slave market would gladly dance and spit upon the grave of one responsible for ruining their lives.
But fortunately for the oblivious slaver, Jessica couldn’t bring herself to harm anyone incapable of defending themselves, no matter how vile the one in question. It went against her sense of decency.
And anyway, killing Westlun now would be redundant; Enkee-Kutul seemed bent upon performing the deed himself. But she knew that even if the slave lord were to meet his doom here in Boa, her battle against slavery in the world above would still be far from over. Another would rise to take Westlun’s place, and she’d be right where she’d left off regardless of who the actual slavers were. No, victory would only come when the slave trade itself had been outlawed, once and for all, assuming that any of Khorshemish’s people ever returned to their city alive. Until then, Westlun’s death, as much as she might have yearned for it in the past, would serve no purpose now.
Presently she stood beside one of the columns, looking out at Boa’s light-dotted cityscape. Just past the edge of the doorway Jessica could see a metallic-blue arm hanging down from where an overseer stood guard outside. At least this time around she’d been afforded a view of the city. High above the tallest buildings, part of the cavern’s ceiling glowed with a dollop of reddish-orange light. The sight reminded her of the night sky above Khorshemish when viewed from far away, the clouds catching and holding the myriad lights of the city so that it appeared as if the sun might soon rise to shine solely for the Queen of the South. Jessica could scarcely imagine the sun deigning to shed its radiance over this night-haunted tomb.
Westlun stirred on the floor, groaning. “Set’s fangs, but my head aches!” He groaned again, pitifully, and Jessica almost felt sorry for him. He struggled up into a sitting position, cradling his head in his hands.
Jessica looked on in silence. As of yet, the slaver was unaware of her presence.
Gingerly rubbing his head, Westlun blinked his eyes slowly, the meager illumination of the chamber lancing painfully into his skull. Sudden realization of where he was caused him to curse bitterly. He rested his back against the solidity of the nearest column and grumbled ruefully to himself. “By the gods, why did he have to kill my men? Why couldn’t he have gone for the bargain?”
Someone laughed just outside the periphery of his vision. Westlun gave a start, then looked around quickly. He spotted a figure standing next to another column but a few paces away to his left. A familiar face thrust forward out of the shadows and Westlun’s jaw dropped. “You!”
Jessica laughed again. “You tried to strike a deal with that madman? You’re a bold one, I’ll grant you that.” She shook her head in disbelief.
Westlun recovered from his surprise and a sly smile crept onto his face. “So!” he exclaimed. “I see you’ve made a new ‘friend’. Tell me, did that barbarian lout finally grow tiresome?” He lumbered to his feet, catching hold of the column when his legs swayed unsteadily beneath him.
“If anyone were to be Enkee-Kutul’s friend, I would have expected it to be you,” Jessica replied. “You both seem to derive such pleasure from making others do your own work for you. I can’t imagine why he would have refused whatever deal it was you offered him.”
Westlun leered at her body beneath the flimsy nightgown. “You know what I think? I think its interesting that you’re free of the plague,” he said, “and that here you are, keeping company with the enemy. Oh, if only the high council could see you now!”
“If they did, they would see that I’m as much a prisoner as you,” Jessica said flatly. “How does it feel to be another’s slave, Westlun? For a slave is what you are now, make no mistake.”
Westlun snorted. “Me? A slave? Bah!” He turned away from her and walked toward the door. “Nobody calls Westlun of Koth their slave.”
Jessica raised an eyebrow, seeing where he was headed. “I wouldn’t try it, if I were you. There is a guard outside.”
The slave lord slowed, catching sight of the overseer’s arm. “Damn!” He spun about like a trapped rodent, his eyes flicking around the chamber.
Jessica crossed her arms over her chest and watched as he began pacing along the edges of the room. “Forget it. I’ve already looked for other exits and there are none. Like I said, we are both prisoners here.”
“Pfaugh! As if I should be expected to take you at your word. No doubt you’re enjoying yourself immensely seeing me treated thus,” he waved his arms around at the walls, meaning their imprisonment.
With a sigh, Jessica bent down and worked at tearing a strip of cloth from the hem of her nightgown. “In spite of what you may think, I’ve no wish to remain here any more than you do. We have to put aside our differences and work together if we want to get out of here.” Satisfied with the ribbon she’d torn from her garb, Jessica stood and tied the cloth around her waist to form a makeshift belt; at least now her gown wouldn’t flutter so with every stray draft. “I’m willing to forget the fact that I despise everything you stand for, at least for now, in the interest of getting us both away from this horrid place. After that, things can be as they were for all I care.”
Westlun merely laughed in reply, a nervous tremor giving his voice a strained note. He rushed into the back room, sure that he’d found a way out, only to re-emerge more antsy than before after failing to find an exit. He was sure the woman was mocking him, the way she stood there with her holier-than-thou airs and that self-righteous look on her face, the same one that set him to fuming in barely-controlled fury every time she scored an important point against him at the royal court.
He crept back up to the entrance, keeping his eyes on her all the while as if a knife might suddenly sprout from her hands to be plunged into his back when he let his guard down in the least. He failed to recognize the fact that she could have done so while he lay unconscious, but such was the slave lord’s state of mind that sensibility did not lend itself easily.
With one more quick look back at Jessica, Westlun poked his head outside hoping to espy at least one of his men, particularly Nagi, but he could see no one. Had his captain deserted him? He thought it possible, but it seemed more likely the man had been butchered with the rest, along with their prisoner. No matter. If he could manage to get by this one guard, and now that he thought upon it he had little doubt that he could for they appeared to be cumbersome lackeys at best, he was sure he could slip into the cover of the surrounding buildings and backtrack along the Turanian’s route. His unfailing memory, along with his wits, had done much to propel him to the top of so ruthless a trade as his own. He realized he’d let his greed get in the way of his good sense when he’d attempted to bargain with Enkee-Kutul, but if he made it out of here alive, and he would, then he’d soon rectify that mistake, even if he had to go to King Strabonus himself in order to have an army put the torch to the wizard’s stronghold. Revenge would go far in easing the loss of his men and his slaves.
Ah, yes. Revenge. There was still one matter he could attend to before he took leave of the wizard’s lair. He ducked back inside, aware that Jessica was speaking to him again. Good–let her prattle on! While he strangled her he would fantasize he was doing so while she was in the midst of giving one of her long-winded speeches at court. How often he had yearned to do just that!
“Did you hear what I said?” asked Jessica. Westlun turned, and she could see that she had his attention. Mitra! Talking to the slaver seemed as difficult as wringing water from a stone. “I said, we should try to create a diversion to lead the guard away. In any case, we have to try something soon; Enkee-Kutul will be back for you, and I don’t think you want to be here when he returns.”
“Oh believe me, I won’t be,” Westlun said with a sneer. He started toward Jessica, his hands twitching at his sides. “I’m going to create a little ‘diversion’ of my own. We’re both going through that door, but I’m the only one who will leave here breathing.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Then Jessica saw his arms bend at the elbows and raise slightly out to her, his hands flexing spasmodically at the air, and she read the deadly intent in his eyes. She started to slowly back away. “Don’t be foolish–what will killing me gain you now?” She glanced over to the wall at her left, looking for the remains of the tile she had accidentally broken earlier. If she could get her hands on one of those stone shards then she would have a weapon with which she might successfully defend herself even against one who outweighed her by so much. Her eyes shifted back to Westlun. The man was actually drooling, his face screwed up into a demented mask of hate. “Keep away from me,” she warned.
“Or what?” he growled. Rivulets of sweat ran from his bald pate, trickling down over his forehead to drip past deeply furrowed eyebrows. His teeth were gritted in a deathly rictus, and when he spoke only his lips parted. “I’m going to wring the life out of you with my bare hands, something I should have done myself a long time ago. Then I’m going to use your corpse as a shield when I escape past that guard.” He giggled with a lunatic’s mirth.
Jessica used that moment to spring forward and aim a well-placed kick at Westlun’s groin. Her foot snapped upward with a satisfying crunch and the big man staggered, howling in pain. He stopped his advance long enough to clutch at himself, and Jessica slipped between the columns, running over to the pieces of broken tile that lay near the idol at the room’s end.
Her hands had just seized upon a rather sharp-looking fragment when she whipped back around at a high keening sound coming from Westlun. He looked up and spotted her through watering eyes. “I’ll kill you, you bitch!” he screamed, spittle flying from his chubby lips.
A deep voice, loud and menacing, rang out unexpectedly from the front of the chamber. “I think not.”
There was a pinging snap, like a steel cable stressed to the point of breaking, and all of a sudden the slave lord was clawing at a heavy length of metal coiled tightly about his throat. With a creak of leather and a heavy thump he sat down, hard, while trying to dig his fingers in around the whip squeezing his windpipe shut.
Jessica dropped her weapon and moved to the side of the granite path, peering out cautiously from around the dark bulk of a column. Before her eyes Westlun was dragged bodily along the granite blocks, the scuffing sounds of his movement accompanied by a persistent hum that filled the air. One gigantic arm, the overseer’s, was extended into the room, and the slaver was being drawn inexorably toward it.
Westlun had given up on easing the grip around his throat, opting instead to spare his neck from being broken under the burden of pulling his body by grabbing hold of the whip with both hands at a point just behind his head. His face was fast approaching a shade of blue similar to that of the overseer behind him.
Jessica could see the head of the overseer just outside the door. Apparently it had descended a step or two so it could reach into the room. She almost gave voice to a protest for it to stop strangling Westlun, but after he had been so intent upon killing her, she just couldn’t bring herself to intervene. Not that it mattered. She knew from experience that the overseers were devoid of any sense of mercy.
Still maintaining its hold on the suffocating slave lord, the overseer shuffled to the side, allowing Enkee-Kutul to enter through the open doorway. He ducked inside and remained slightly stooped since he was too tall to stand erect beneath the ancient shrine’s ceiling. He looked down at Westlun, who was too weak to do much more than roll his eyeballs in Enkee-Kutul’s direction.
“It wasn’t enough that you invaded my realm, thus earning my contempt. But now you have threatened my consort-to-be, provoking my ire.” Enkee-Kutul shook his head. “Such was not wise, obese one, as you will soon learn.”
Westlun’s eyes bulged, then fluttered shut as he passed out for want of air. Enkee-Kutul waved at the overseer and it released its stranglehold. The whip retracting back into its arm until only a small portion of it dangled at the overseer’s side.
Enkee-Kutul stepped past the unconscious slave lord and looked around the chamber, his gaze coming to rest on Jessica who still stood watching from behind the shelter of the column. He beckoned for her to step forth. She did so, knowing there was little use in hiding from him. She walked over and stopped before him, ignoring the man sprawled at their feet.
“How do you know this fool?”
Jessica looked up, meeting Enkee-Kutul’s gaze unblinkingly to show she hadn’t been shaken by Westlun’s attack. “He is a rival of mine, a political opponent. Each of us would see the aims of the other undone, though Westlun fancies to carry our rivalry beyond mere political intrigue,” she explained, alluding to the attempt on her life.
“He hardly seems worthy enough to be your rival.” Enkee-Kutul frowned down at Westlun’s bulk.
“And yet he is. Westlun may appear the buffoon, but he is a most devious and ruthless man.” She couldn’t help but smile, thinking it strange to find herself defending the slave lord in such a way. “His cunning mind and propensity for treachery have long been the cause of many difficulties for me.”
“Then he’ll bother you no more,” said Enkee-Kutul, recognizing an opportunity to win Jessica’s favor. She had not yet agreed to join him, but maybe if she were to witness the utter humiliation of her enemy at his hands she might become more amenable to his attentions. He stooped and picked up the slaver, stuffing him under one arm. “Go with the guard and await me near the gate. I will meet you there soon. I am sure you will appreciate what I have in store for Westlun of Koth.” He smiled, all teeth, then turned and left.
Jessica wondered if maybe Westlun’s luck was about to finally run out. She couldn’t even guess at the punishment Enkee-Kutul had in mind for the slave lord, though it was likely to be extremely unpleasant. Too bad for Westlun that he hadn’t taken her up on her offer for escape; they might both have been away from there by now.
She shrugged her shoulders resignedly. She hadn’t really expected the Westlun to pool resources with her against their common enemy, even though that would have been the most sensible thing for him to do. Jessica padded outside to be escorted down the ziggurat’s steps by the overseer. Whether she approved of it or not, her rivalry with Westlun seemed about to come to an end.
Markus was overjoyed at the return of Conan and his otherworldly accomplice, Mach. The two arrived at the top of the tower shortly after the sun had begun the downward arc from its apex in the sky. The brooding silence of the city had set Conan’s flesh to crawling, and the familiar sight of Markus’s face had helped to take the edge off of his uneasiness.
Thanks to Markus’s able direction of the household staff, a few of the servants had been left unscathed by the plague, including one of the cooks, and so Conan and Mach were soon served with a hearty repast for which both were immensely grateful. While they ate, Markus described to the men what he had learned about Khorshemish and its plight during their absence.
“The city has been all but drained of its people. When I and another took to the streets in order to find out the well-being of some of our friends, we saw but two others who dared to venture into the daylight, but for fear of catching the plague these only hailed us from a distance. I suspect there are a few other groups such as ours scattered throughout the city, though none of the places we visited revealed any sign of those friends we sought.”
“Did you call upon Girtham?” asked Conan between mouthfuls of food.
The old servant nodded hesitantly, his aged visage taking on a more somber aspect. “Aye, that I did.” He rubbed a hand over his face wearily. “The inn was a shambles, the door left open and nobody about. There was no sign of Girtham nor his servants. I am sorry,” he said at Conan’s disappointed frown,” but I am afraid even the stout innkeeper must have finally succumbed, though not likely through any fault of his own. I saw evidence of at least one last patron, for there was food and whatnot left about as if someone had recently stayed. No doubt Girtham caught the gilded madness from them. A cautious man would have refused to open his doors during a plague, but then Girtham was never one to turn away anybody in a time of need.”
Conan sullenly chewed his meal while Mach told Markus of their trip to Conan’s homeland, occasionally pausing to sip from a water jug. While the Rhan spoke, Markus would look in awe at the gigantic hammer that lay upon the table within arm’s reach of Conan. Never in the old servant’s life had he looked upon a weapon so terrible or so beautiful, and he truly believed Mach’s claim that it had been forged by a god.
Conan soon emptied his plate and sat back in his chair, intent upon working the rest of the way through his generous-sized tankard of ale. As Mach finished recanting some of the events preceding their journey to Crom’s forge, a thought occurred to Conan. “Markus, have you any news of the world outside the city walls?”
Markus nodded. “I climbed the tower at midday yesterday to see what I could see. With the aid of a special crystal I once purchased from a travelling seer, I was able to look out into the plains surrounding Khorshemish.”
“Did you see anyone?” asked Conan.
The old man shook his head. ” Not directly. The towns and fields looked deserted of all but a few stray animals gnawing at the crops. Along the main roads far into the distance I spotted plumes of smoke, and I fancied I could see groups of mounted soldiery, but, alas, my eyes are not what they used to be, even with the aid of my seeing-crystal, and I cannot say for sure whether what I saw was real or not.”
“Doubt not your eyes,” said Conan. “By now word of the plague has spread to Strabonus’s ears. Those soldiers you saw were probably cavalry and archers sent to guard the roads into Khorshemish. Anyone seeking to enter the land hereabouts will be turned away to prevent more people from catching and spreading the plague.”
Markus cleared his throat. “And those trying to leave?”
Conan rocked forward in his chair, sitting up straighter. “Besides us, there probably isn’t anyone left willing to leave the city who hasn’t done so already, and we already know that the plague victims head down into Boa, not into the lands without. But those guarding the city limits don’t know these things, and they’ll more than likely slay and burn anyone who approaches them from Khorshemish in order to protect the rest of Koth. Methinks the smoke you saw came from bonfires lit in case the archers are forced to use their talents on unwelcome refugees.” Conan gulped down a last draught of ale and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “If I were king of Koth, I’d do the same. Better to have a city die than an entire kingdom.”
Markus shivered visibly. “I pray neither happens.”
“If you’re going to pray, then pray Strabonus doesn’t order his soldiers to put the torch to Khorshemish. Such is common enough practice in these matters.”
“But surely he wouldn’t!”
“Aye, he would if he deemed the city worse than useless. Think upon it: What good are walls that nobody wants to live within because of a threat of plague? The city would stand idle while the king would be forced to maintain a garrison near here indefinitely in order to face the constant menace of having the plague spread throughout Koth. Nay, burning Khorshemish to the ground and then rebuilding over the flame-cleansed ruins would be the wisest choice by far, even for the huge loss it would represent. I only hope that doesn’t happen before I get a chance to use this,” he said, patting the handle of the hammer. He glanced across at Mach, but the wizard was silent, wrapped in thoughts of his own.
After the meal a thoroughly exhausted Conan retired to his quarters for some much-needed rest while the seemingly indefatigable Mach examined the map Tukali had been assembling over the past few days. With Markus at his side, the Rhan poured over the map of Boa while they sat in Jessica’s study, adding comments and explanations of his own when he came across features of the subterranean city that neither Tukali nor Markus had been able to decipher or even guess at the meaning of. Mach began formulating a plan in his mind as they awaited Tukali’s return. Though Mach had his own agenda, he hoped, as Conan hoped, that they could end the threat posed by Enkee-Kutul and free the people of Khorshemish before their king decided to raze their city.
Tukali made it back to the manse well into that evening looking a little pale and shaken but otherwise unharmed. Markus was about to lay out a meal for him, but the Turanian held off from eating, insisting instead upon first finishing his map before the shock of his recent experience threatened to drive any new knowledge of Boa from his head. Conan was awakened from his slumber by the same maid who’d fetched him when Markus had been pinned beneath a barrel some weeks ago, and together they made haste to the study after Conan had dressed and secured his hammer at his belt. He would have preferred to sleep awhile longer, but he hardly minded the intrusion, especially since his normally hale constitution was back and running at its peak, leaving him feeling refreshed and recovered even after all he’d been through.
Just as Conan reached the others, Tukali was setting down a quill after completing his final additions to the map. After a hearty greeting between the two warriors, Mach bade Tukali sit behind the great marble desk while Markus and the maid were sent to fetch dinner for the Turanian and extra chairs for his compatriots. Conan propped open the skylight, allowing the cool evening air to seep into the study while the men huddled around the desk in the light of the lanterns. Tukali related his adventures as first the chairs and then his food arrived, and for more than one turn of the hourglass Conan and Mach sat, listening rapt as Tukali told of all he had discovered in the city below.
When Tukali’s tale had spun out to its end, Conan breathed a gusty sigh. “It was fortunate that you managed to find Jessica. My heart is still heavy at being forced to leave her in that accursed pit, though I had scant choice in the matter. What became of Nagi, the one who escaped with you?”
“After we emerged from the sewers we parted ways. He planned to gather up his belongings from Westlun’s manor before heading out of Khorshemish. I believe Nagi plans to leave the slave lord’s service and visit family in one of the southern regions of Koth, whether or not his former master yet lives.”
“He’ll likely slip by the garrison easily enough under cover of darkness,” said Conan, “though we would have done well to have the extra sword in our company. Girtham might also have been of help to us but he’s gone as well. I fear we are the only ones in this.” Conan’s expression was grim.
“Three is all we need,” said Mach. “I have thought about the task ahead of us, and thanks to Tukali’s capable scouting I know where we are to strike. In order for us to free Enkee-Kutul’s slaves and cripple his forces, the Cube of Fuzon must be liberated from out of his hands, and that will be easiest to accomplish before he transfers the Cube to his ship, which he will do when he is ready to leave your world to besiege mine. Tukali,” he said, looking directly at the warrior, “I’ve determined the Cube must lie within that heavily-guarded complex you spoke of, the nexus point for every power cable in the city.” He speared his finger at a section of the map, indicating the gigantic amorphous-looking structure that lay across the crevice opposite Enkee-Kutul’s ziggurat. “The entire city draws its energies from there. When the Cube of Fuzon is removed, just about everything–the lights, the armada you saw being assembled–all that has been built by Enkee-Kutul and is directly powered by the Cube will cease to function.”
“But won’t he send his ships to attack us? And the overseers?” asked Tukali.
The Rhan’s long braids swung gently as he shook his head. “The overseers, yes. But only when Enkee-Kutul is aware of our presence and our location.”
Conan pursed his lips. “Why won’t he use his armada?”
“To unleash weapons of such devastating power loose in his city would be to put all that he has created in danger. I don’t believe Enkee-Kutul would dare risk the accidental destruction of the summoning gate, his own ship or the Cube of Fuzon. Those ships were designed to join battle in the open skies above an enemy’s realm, not under the cramped roof of Enkee-Kutul’s lair. Our enemy sees us as a mere annoyance that his overseers and guards can stamp out.”
Tukali shifted uneasily in his chair. “But what of the overseers? I’ve seen the horrors they are capable of. Weapons have no effect upon their tempered skins, and though they are slow, we can’t be expected to run from them if we’re to succeed. At the very least, if Jessica is to be rescued we’ll have to go through them, for we know they lie in wait for us. And what of Enkee-Kutul himself? If he knew enough to set a trap for us, then he knew that we would somehow discover where Jessica was being held captive, which means such an obvious trap must only be a ploy for some other trick…” Tukali trailed off. It was obvious by the Turanian’s dour look that he had little faith in their chances.
With a brief sputtering of the lanterns from an evening breeze that wafted suddenly in through the skylight, the carmine flames of Mach’s eyes appeared to flicker in time with the light. Tukali’s worries had opened a window into the Rhan’s soul through which the other two warriors now caught a glimpse of some past pain sympathetic with Tukali’s own distress. Mach sensed their insight and spoke, his gaze taking on a faraway look. “There was a time, long ago, when I and others among the free-thinking Rhan’eitat felt the same despair in the face of what seemed like impossible odds when we first sought to drive Enkee-Kutul from power. But we fought anyway, winning our way out of darkness and slavery, and though it cost us dearly, the price was trifling compared to the toll already taken upon our people and the likely consequences of taking no action at all.” The Rhan’s eyes closed for a moment, but when they reopened their fire blazed fiercer than before. “Let Enkee-Kutul set what traps he will. We have the means to smash our way through them. He has the benefit of numbers, but we have the advantage of surprise.”
“And lest anyone forget,” Conan rumbled, feeling the same fire kindling in his veins, “we are three determined warriors with the blessing of Crom at our backs, and such will always prove more than a match for the likes of Enkee-Kutul and his pet demon.” He unhooked the hammer from his side and laid it on the table in emphasis of the truth behind his words.
Tukali felt the confidence of his friends bolstering his own. He looked upon the god-wrought weapon lying before him and felt his hopes lifting for the first time since the massacre at the summoning gate.
“Tell us this plan,” Conan said. “I’m eager to take my measure of revenge against the interloper.”
Mach smiled. “Very well. I expect Enkee-Kutul to go after me himself, as he did with my fellow agents, and leave you, Conan, to be overwhelmed by his servants as you had such ill luck with them before. Tukali is thus far unknown to Enkee-Kutul, and that shall play an important role in his undoing.”
While the distant stars peered with curiosity down at them through the open skylight, Conan and Tukali listened closely as Mach explained how the three of them alone would orchestrate the downfall of Enkee-Kutul’s legions.
Just as Jessica was draining the rest of the salty, soup-like meal from a jug one of the overseers had brought her, one of the predatory-looking cyborgs under Enkee-Kutul’s command strode into the square near the gate. The man picked out a place in front of the ziggurat’s wide stairs and stood there silently. He neither looked at nor spoke to Jessica, and she made no effort to disturb his indifference to her.
Soon others arrived, and the standing room between the gate and the giant ziggurat began to fill up with dozens of priests, cyborgs, and what might have been ordinary men except for the extraordinary armor they wore, their exotic, chitinous-looking suits making them appear as strange insects, and Jessica was only reassured that they were men when they doffed their helmets to speak with some of the others. She sensed the mood of the crowd as somewhat expectant, and from the vast storehouse of artificial knowledge churning invasively and incessantly at the back of her mind, she knew they were close to the completion of their fleet of warships. The followers of Scybor looked forward to beginning their reign of terror anew.
She was also sure the gathering must be for Westlun’s punishment since the supply of sacrificial victims had finally been exhausted, with Westlun’s band being the last to give up their blood.
In the hazy dimness before the gate shadows wove together and coalesced in a blatant offense against the light, and suddenly Enkee-Kutul stood before his subjects, all of whom raised their fists and shouted in greeting as he threw a wet, wriggling bundle of flesh to the ground in their midst. Those closest to the captive stepped back, leaving themselves a cautionary buffer around the half-naked, bloated figure lying on the pavement. Enkee-Kutul stepped over the man trying to rise from the ground, pushing him back down with one foot in passing, and strode up to where Jessica still lingered on the ziggurat’s step.
She glanced up at him and caught him eyeing her with a strangely contemplative gaze, but he immediately turned his head away to address his men. “Before another rising of this world’s sun we will be gone from here, gone to retake my empire for the glory of Scybor!” At this proclamation the dozens of men gathered beneath Enkee-Kutul cheered as one, all except for the priests who only bowed slightly, faces hidden within the obscurity of their hooded robes.
Seeing the anticipation of his warriors, Enkee-Kutul went on, a fearsome warlord stoking the fires of bloodlust in his generals. “Long have we awaited this day, long have we tarried with naught but the will of Scybor and the promise of vengeance to urge us on. And how utterly merciless we will be! Once we have reconquered Rhan’esh, we will butcher a million Rhan’eitat to appease the hunger of our Lord. The women and children of our enemies shall be the first to stain the altars with their blood while husbands and fathers are made to conduct the sacrifices!”
A deafening roar of approval caused the man cowering at the emperor’s feet to clamp his hands over his ears and squeeze his eyes shut as he curled up into a pudgy ball. Jessica started, surprised to recognize Westlun, the once cocky and ruthless slave lord, reduced to the pathetic creature she saw cringing before them now.
Enkee-Kutul’s voice resonated powerfully above the din. “Let us not forget those who will make our triumphant return possible.” He gestured down at Westlun with a grandiose sweep of his arm. “Scybor guided us to this primitive world, not only for its rich natural resources and abundance in sorcerous energies, but for the heathens that populate it, heathens from which we have culled a fighting force to fly our ships into battle and victory.” The dark giant turned, again glancing down at Jessica before resuming his speech in a somewhat more restrained tone. “And, as I know some of you have guessed, I have discovered a gem among the stones of this earth, a gem to be my queen.” He looked down at Jessica, his face as expressionless as one of his overseers.
A cold wave surged through Jessica’s bones, but she made no move to refute Enkee-Kutul’s claim. She simply looked dispassionately upon the men staring at her, judging her. If she were to spurn Enkee-Kutul in front of his men, her life would surely be forfeit. Apparently he had tired of waiting for her answer and made the decision for her. She desperately prayed that she might be spared from such a fate as becoming the consort of this murderous fiend, whether through rescue, or through… other means.
The faintest trace of a smile lit Enkee-Kutul’s lips when he saw that his future bride would not deny him. “As a gift to my queen-to-be,” he continued, “as a symbol of my courtship of her, I have provided some entertainment by which she and all of you may derive some amusement on this hour of our ascension.” He held his hands out and spread them apart. The group below split apart, forming ranks on either side of Westlun. He still lay there, clad only in his white loincloth. With his bald head, fat proportions and by the way he lay there in a fetal curl, it seemed to Jessica that Westlun might have been some grotesque, oversized baby. Despite the grimness of the situation and her surroundings, she had to stifle a sudden mad impulse to giggle aloud.
“In his own petty way and in his own little world, the one lying before you thought himself a master of men.” The emperor chuckled softly. “And then he met me.” With stony eyes he glared down at Westlun. “Get up, master!”
There was laughter from the gathered men as Westlun rolled stiffly onto his knees and rose jerkily to his feet. His body trembled with the effort and his jowls shook, flinging off droplets of sweat, and though it appeared that he might topple over, Westlun nonetheless made it to a standing position for all the strain it put upon his legs to get him there. Once he was up though, the slaver remained utterly still, hardly daring to breathe let alone speak.
Again Enkee-Kutul addressed the onlookers. “By my consort’s own admission, this one that Scybor has delivered into my hands is an enemy of hers, and so I believe she will appreciate this as thoroughly as the rest of you.” He took a seat on the step at Jessica’s side, giving her a meaningful look. Then, glaring at Westlun, he clapped his hands once. “Dance!” he commanded.
To the delight of Enkee-Kutul’s priests and warriors, and indeed, even to Jessica herself, Westlun began dancing. His arms flailed and his head tossed from side to side in a bizarre parody of a tavern-dancer. The obscene swaying of his hips elicited wails of teary-eyed laughter from the armored warriors while the cyborgs and the priests, these last with their hoods thrown back, watched in quieter amusement.
Jessica couldn’t help laughing as Westlun flaunted his blubbery physique, jiggling about as if he were some slim-waisted, nubile dancing-girl. His countenance was one of pure horror, and Jessica had to dig her nails into her palms to keep from laughing so hard that her recent meal might come back up, especially when she imagined him performing for the royal court in Khorshemish.
The dance slowed as Westlun labored harder for breath. His skin glistened with a coating of sweat and his steps became clumsier so that he now stumbled about, threatening to crash into those standing nearby. Jessica’s laughter trailed off as the sight soon became wearisome. Sensing in Jessica what he took to be boredom, Enkee-Kutul ordered Westlun to halt. The slaver stood there gasping as the crowd around him waited for the fun to resume.
Enkee-Kutul pondered his human puppet for a moment, and then his eyes lit up cruelly with a sudden idea. “Westlun of Koth, your flesh has caught fire. You must beat out the flames.” With Enkee-Kutul’s order, Westlun began yelling incoherently, slapping at rolls of flesh that twitched and shuddered at each impact of his hands. He whirled about frantically, his eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. The men around him watched with undisguised glee, pointing and shouting at the stricken man in their midst.
Jessica could plainly see Westlun was not on fire, but the sight of him reacting as if he were burning up evoked more of her laughter. Her mirth redoubled itself when Westlun dropped to the ground and began rolling and twitching like a fish unexpectedly finding itself on dry land.
Seconds passed and Westlun’s cries became quiet though he kept up his antics. In spite of the humor that had gone before, Jessica found that as the seconds seemed to stretch into what felt like hours, the sight of her rival’s performance began to trouble her. She could hear the man’s desperate sobs as his frenzied pace slackened off until he lay upon his side, his arms and legs churning weakly of their own volition. All around the raucous laughter grew silent, the men crowded before the ziggurat fast becoming bored as Westlun’s endurance gave out.
With an enraged snarl Enkee-Kutul bounded down from the steps and stormed over to where Westlun lay. “I didn’t order you to stop!” he thundered. The tyrant’s cohorts looked down at the exhausted slaver in contempt and disgust at having their sport ended so abruptly. There were grumbles and murmurings from the crowd.
Westlun stirred weakly. “P-please milord. Ha-have… mercy…”
“Who said you could speak?!” Enkee-Kutul screamed, his face contorting in rage. “Hold your breath, fool!”
The slave lord moaned and complied, his lips clamping shut. Jessica watched with an eerie sense of déjà vu as Westlun’s face began to change color. She shuddered at the control her captor had to be able to direct a man’s actions unto the point of death, and she realized the two-fold purpose of Enkee-Kutul’s degradation of Westlun, for not only did it please the emperor to humiliate him for Jessica’s benefit as well as that of his men, but the exercise also served as an object lesson for Jessica herself; she would be Enkee-Kutul’s queen whether she wished it or not. If she was not rescued, then there would be no hope of slipping the bonds Enkee-Kutul had clamped around her. If he saw fit, her every action could be his alone to decide and even suicide would no longer exist for her as a possible avenue of escape.
Regardless of her own formidable predicament, Jessica could still not sit idly by and watch the cold murder of another man, even of such as Westlun.
“You don’t have to kill him.”
The words floated from Jessica’s mouth sounding small and dispassionate to her ears, but her voice had carried, as evidenced by the entire group turning as one toward her. She felt their stares upon her, some in astonishment, others in disdain. Jessica cared little for what such evil men thought.
Mouth agape, Enkee-Kutul could only stare with the others until, without warning, he abruptly threw back his head and laughed. The others turned toward him, surprised at their master. “Let it not be said that my queen is without her flaws, for we have just borne witness to the fact that she would grant mercy to this loathsome wretch.” He bit off the word with a curl to his lip, showing his contempt for her act of grace as another might scorn the miserable whining of a street-corner beggar.
“Is it such a terrible thing,” Jessica countered, “to alleviate the suffering of another?”
Enkee-Kutul’s smile was patronizing. “You seem to be of a mind that mercy is a quality, a virtue even, to which men should aspire. But what is mercy? Mercy is the dismissal of punishment levied against those in need of punishment. What could possibly be the use of such an inane notion?” He chuckled again, quietly, and turned to gaze upon the man smothering at his feet. Frowning, Enkee-Kutul contemplated Westlun for several long heartbeats before he finally spoke a single word. “Breathe.”
Wheezing noisily, Westlun rapidly sucked in deep lungfuls of air, the harsh tint to his face lightening with each indrawn breath.
Seconds passed, and Enkee-Kutul patiently observed Westlun’s labors before deciding to offer up an explanation to his muttering, dumbfounded followers. “As misguided as my Lady’s request is, I do find some merit to it, for I truly would hate to exterminate this piece of offal before his usefulness to me has ended.”
At their master’s behest, the crowd shoved further back, leaving a spacious perimeter around the prone slaver. Enkee-Kutul himself stepped away from Westlun but remained slightly within the edge of the circle cleared by his followers. Hands planted upon his hips, the emperor regarded his men. “Long has it been since any of us have dined upon the flesh of beasts known to us. What might any of us not give for such a taste of home, for a slab of meat that was not only familiar in taste, but so fresh that it still quivered and dripped from the slaughter?”
There were nods and grunts of approval all around as men savored the thought of once again tasting food to which they were accustomed, food they had been forced to replace with barely-palatable rations after being ousted into exile from Rhan’esh.
Smiling in acknowledgment of his men’s reactions, and in fact, having expected nothing different, Enkee-Kutul pointed a finger at Westlun. “Then so it shall be!” From his mouth streamed mystic words of power, their cabalistic syllables serving to unconsciously evoke images both primal and infernal in the minds of all present, though none but the two humans seemed to demur.
Jessica flinched involuntarily at Westlun’s scream, and when she saw the cause of his agony she recoiled, horrified. His skin had erupted with a mass of boils that covered him from head to toe, and as she watched, the boils split open, erupting with a hot, greenish-black muck that flowed over his limbs and congealed in layers that thickened with the continued flow of steaming ooze.
“Behold the miracle Scybor bestows upon us, for it is through his will that our desired sustenance shall be provided!” Enkee-Kutul steadfastly ignored the putrid stink that emanated from Westlun, though the odor reached the nostrils of the others, causing even a few of those hardened villains to blanch.
Realizing she wouldn’t be able to stem the tide of vomit surging up past her esophagus, Jessica grabbed the food jug that lay nearby and retched into it, emptying out the entire contents of her belly until she gagged and dry-heaved, eventually collapsing onto her side in a cold sweat.
Mocking laughter made Jessica glare through slitted eyes at Enkee-Kutul, but she readily discovered that his ridicule was not directed at her. Not surprisingly, Westlun remained the source of his derision. “See how this one suddenly has the energy to thrash so, and yet but scant moments ago he would have had us believe that he could not continue his efforts for our entertainment.”
With the addition of ever-increasing layers of the strange mucous building up around Westlun’s body, the man’s convulsions invariably slackened. Ultimately, the necromantic purulence also ceased in its leakage, leaving a slightly jiggling bulk in place of what had once been a man. The cocoon lay there, undulating gently, swollen to twice the slave lord’s original girth and bearing the shape and aspect of a gigantic and unusually corpulent maggot.
Jessica felt compelled to heave again, but her eye caught the expressions of some of the priests in the crowd, and her mind and stomach were suddenly relieved with the distraction of wondering what these men seemed to be so expectant of; they eyed the stinking, trembling lump with what could only be described as looks of hunger, unlike the rest of the crowd who, excluding their confident-looking master, appeared fascinated but wholly at a loss for what might next occur. And since Jessica had no clue as to what was transpiring here either, she could likewise only watch and wait.
Before her affronted vision the outer surface of the cocoon bulged in a number of places, and then the grisly bulk shook and bucked to and fro while Enkee-Kutul stood there grinning as if the entire event were but some drawn-out jest of appreciable humor. With a tearing noise like parchment being rent, a slime-covered leg punched through the sack’s greasy skin. The hoofed limb kicked around briefly at empty air before withdrawing back inside. In this fashion the rest of the shell was ripped apart under a barrage of kicking hooves until the beast within gave a final vigorous shake, as of a wet dog shedding off water in a spray, and the remnants of the cocoon flew apart to drift and settle into tattered piles upon the ground.
A wide-eyed, shaven-headed warrior was the first to break the silence. “What is it, master?”
“Why, it is nothing other than a living feast, waiting to be consumed! Observe closely,” Enkee-Kutul instructed his men, “and you will recognize some of the choicest cuts of any brute you ever deigned to eat. This is a creature of my own design, a delicacy like no other!”
Incredulous but eager gasps sounded out from among the men as they came to realize just what it was they looked upon. The animal had been assembled from the tastiest parts of different land-dwelling livestock native to Rhan’esh, animals that these men had not eaten the flesh of for untold decades and the taste of which all had sorely missed.
To Jessica, the beast was not totally dissimilar in shape to a wild boar, though substantially larger than any she’d seen, and it did bear a pig-like snout, but that was where any real similarities ended. A few short, bristly tufts of hair stuck out at odd intervals across the beast’s flanks, and its skin was discolored in blotches of putrid-looking yellow and green unlike any living creature Jessica could put a name to.
Indeed, as Enkee-Kutul had mentioned, this animal appeared to be an amalgamation of other animals. Each of its four legs, though hoofed, were somehow different from one another, whether in thickness or in shape Jessica could not tell for sure as the creature kept shuffling awkwardly around to look at the crowd. Its head might have come from an ox, except for the flattened snout and the over-long tongue that continually lolled past–not teeth, but empty gums. Two lengthy ears drooped and twitched at the sides of its head, and at its hind end sprouted a long saurian tail that lashed nervously from side to side across the paves, completing the bizarre ensemble. Jessica noted that the body’s form beneath the skin rose and fell in irregular patterns, hinting to the likelihood that the most radical distribution of physical attributes had taken place among the muscles and internal organs. Westlun had become a virtual sack of meat.
But how was Westlun’s transformation even possible? Sorcery, Jessica realized, was only half the key. The other half, as with all else in Enkee-Kutul’s degenerate domain, was his science. She had little doubt that Westlun had been altered in much the same way as the other abominations Enkee-Kutul had proudly displayed to her when she’d been aboard his ship.
More than a handful of the men advanced as one upon the beast, making ready to commence its butchery so that all might partake of the feast at that very instant, but Enkee-Kutul stayed their intentions with a shake of his head. “Nay, not yet. We’ll dine after we have taken our leave of this place. Only when our legions have left this planet’s skies and are bound homeward through the cosmos will we have cause for celebration, not before.”
Just then the beast grunted and snorted, tossing its head in obvious dismay at the emperor’s declaration that it was to be devoured. All there, except for the Kothian noblewoman, laughed at the unruly outburst. “Ah, and lest I forget,” Enkee-Kutul said, chuckling, “Westlun of Koth has not been removed from the material world, at least, not yet. His mind is still intact within this brute. What better revenge,” he said, looking pointedly at Jessica, “than to hear his final, terrified squeals as we gnaw the living flesh from his bones?” The beast that was Westlun snorted tremulously, backing away from his tormentor.
Jessica shuddered at Enkee-Kutul’s unspoken implication that she would join them in an act of cannibalism. Even if Westlun no longer resembled a man, he was still human to her, and she had no wish to sink to such depths of savagery as to partake of his flesh.
She turned her head away from the scene in an attempt to disguise the revulsion writ so plainly upon her face, but Enkee-Kutul had already seen her distaste, and in an impulsive fit of anger at being unable to say or do anything that might truly please her, he laid hold of the cowering beast and dragged it over to the gate where he clamped the chain there around one of its forelegs. “This one will serve to greet a pair of expected but unwelcome guests. Let them look upon my newest creation as an example of the misery I shall bestow upon all my enemies.” He glowered into the faces of his men. “Expect the return of the Rhan agent and his barbarian ally before our departure. Any of you may slay the barbarian as you see fit, but the Rhan is mine.” Several dozen heads nodded as one in obedience, and then the men emptied out of the square, intent upon completing their final preparations for getting the armada underway. More than a few hoped for the honor and the pleasure of disposing of the human barbarian personally.
Enkee-Kutul approached Jessica from across the empty paves. Upon reaching the base of the step where she sat, her face turned away from him, he halted. “I stand at the threshold of reestablishing myself as the leader of a vast empire under the guidance and blessing of an ancient and powerful god, and yet I can do nothing to win your favor. Do I not overshadow the physical and mental prowess of all other men? Have I not vanquished your greatest enemy? By my side you could travel among the stars, conquer entire worlds, even take your place with me among the very gods themselves! Would you spurn such absolute power?” he asked, his tone incredulous.
She turned and gazed down at him with something akin to pity in her eyes. “None of these things matters so much to me as that which dwells within here,” she said, laying a hand over her heart. “And what I sense within you are not the warm fires of love and understanding, but the wintry chill of hatred and the festering wound of corruption. You are the living embodiment of all that I rail against. I could never love one such as you, nor would I even pretend to.”
At her stinging words Enkee-Kutul growled in frustration and looked as if he might strike her, but something within Jessica’s dignified, undaunted poise checked his hand. “We shall see,” he promised, and wrapping the shadows around himself like some spectral cloak, he vanished.
For company Jessica was left with a lone overseer standing to the side of the ziggurat, and the desperate squealing of Westlun that seemed to mockingly echo the tyrant’s words. “We shall see! We shall see!”