In the restless shadows of Boa’s perpetual twilight, three figures sprang into existence inside the top level of a crumbling, forgotten tower at the city’s edge. One of the figures stepped forward and gestured with his palms toward the farthest wall, which exploded outward in a maelstrom of hurtling basalt fragments amidst flares of crimson light.
Mach strode purposefully to the edge of the newly-formed exit and looked out at the city. He held up his arms, bent at the elbows, and turned his head slightly toward his two accomplices. “Take hold.”
In turn, Conan and Tukali each took hold of one of the Rhan’s brawny forearms with both hands. Then as one the three men stepped out into empty air and fell.
Conan felt a giddy tingling in his stomach from the suicidal plunge and the rush of heightened awareness that often served to slow time to a crawl in his moments of gravest danger, but even as his body reacted to imminent disaster, Conan’s hands also gripped instinctively tighter about Mach’s forearm when their descent suddenly slowed and angled forward beneath the Rhan’s outstretched cape. Like some exotic bird of prey mounting a rising thermal, Mach swept upward with his two charges and easily cleared the lofty peaks of the buildings directly ahead, soaring onward with hair-whipping speed toward the ancient city’s center.
Before long the silvery length of a bridge spanning the lava-filled rift halving Boa loomed in the distance from between the jutting frames of the urban landscape, and Mach spoke to Conan above the wind’s whistling currents. “Remember our plan, Cimmerian. I would prefer to take Enkee-Kutul alive, but if I am destroyed or if you find yourself faced with no other choice but to kill him, then so be it. Ours is a most perilous undertaking, weighted with the lives of entire worlds. Victory must be attained, no matter what the cost.”
“On my life,” Conan vowed, “I’ll do what it takes. No less.”
If Mach said anything further, Conan didn’t hear it. He was too busy adjusting for a fast and brusque landing upon the clear tract of street rising up from below. Mach swooped low, skimming the paving stones at a height barely over Conan’s up-thrust hands, slowing only minimally enough to afford Conan some chance of avoiding a brutal roll upon the ground while maintaining airspeed enough to keep him aloft under the burden of three men’s weight and drag.
Marking his cue, Conan let go and dropped to the street. Legs churning, he sprinted some two-score yards before his momentum gave way, allowing him to check his pace without tumbling out of control. Above him Mach recovered from his resulting tilt to the left after Conan’s release by shifting Tukali’s weight directly under himself to regain his balance. Conan waved as the two winged away, disappearing into the cold heart of the brooding necropolis.
Swiftly and silently the big warrior eased into the shadows of a nearby architectural overhang and surveyed the area. As far as he could tell, he was alone, which probably meant that his insertion had gone unnoticed as well. He took a quick inventory of his equipment to make sure he hadn’t lost anything during the flight over the city. Conan’s hand closed immediately upon the reassuring grip of the hammer projecting from behind his right shoulder, the weapon held in place across his back by a plain leather baldric; he could have gone naked in this gods-forsaken city for all he cared, so long as he had the hammer. His Ilbarsi knife still clung sheathed at his right hip, and all the components of his panoply were secured in place as well. Before their departure both he and Tukali had donned their bodyguard’s armor and armed themselves well, though Conan had once again elected to leave his helmet behind; he knew that for his particular mission, any protection that his helm might ordinarily provide him would be moot if it was all that stood between his skull and the fist of an overseer. Better to leave his head unfettered so as to make full use of his eyes and ears.
The burnished steel of Conan’s breastplate fairly blazed out in the open light, but with so many of the surrounding buildings plated in metal, it was like having a chameleon’s skin since his cuirass matched hues with a great majority of the city’s buildings, essentially causing Conan to blend somewhat with whatever structures he happened to be next to. Which was well, as Conan didn’t especially want to be seen until the time was right.
He slipped through the streets like a stalking tiger, his well-padded armature not even so much as clinking with his stealthy movements. From the air he’d seen his destination, and having been to the bridge only days ago, his sense of direction remained acute in this strange and jumbled city.
The short jaunt to the bridge proved uneventful. Where there had been the busy hustle and noisy clamoring of numerous slave crews toiling and marching throughout the city, now only unnerving silence reigned in the deserted streets, and Conan couldn’t help being reminded of Khorshemish’s plight. Even the all-encompassing background roar caused by the intermingled sounds of various labors had receded, coming weakly now from only one general area of Boa, where Conan knew from Tukali’s explorations that Enkee-Kutul’s fleet must lay in vast fields of industrial frameworks some leagues to the east on the other side of the chasm. And somewhere nearby, he also knew, Jessica suffered to be at the mercy of the tyrant, and Crom only knew what that soulless villain might have done to her by now.
Conan ground his teeth, trying to shake off the disturbing thought. Up above he could see one of the cables Tukali had utilized in his scouting excursions, and sure enough, it stretched across the yawning fault to a building on the other side. The bridge lying nearby would put anyone crossing it within sight of those lurking in the square beyond, while the cable would not.
With an easy grace Conan shot upward from the bottom of the narrow alley he was in, using the close walls to brace each foot and its opposite hand intermittently with the others, hauling himself aloft. He reached the top of the lower building and vaulted over the parapet onto the roof. The near end of the cable met the building through an opening in the parapet and pierced the steel-plated stone roof, disappearing down into the building’s innards. Conan knelt at the roof’s edge and swung down to hang by his hands beneath the taut wire, and thus he proceeded, hand over hand, through the air over the gaping chasm.
Sulfurous vapors stung the Cimmerian’s nose when he had clambered about midway across, and without looking down he knew himself to be directly above the stream of molten rock far, far below. Turning his head to the left he could see past his shoulder clear down the length of the fault to the next bridge, though from here its massive span was reduced in size to a short gossamer strand, resembling a line of spider’s silk. Red luminescence filtered out of the chasm, reflecting from the walls of the buildings arranged along either side of the precipice and bouncing down again from a cloud cover of smog hugging the cavern’s ceiling. Noticing the sharp odor of sulfur again, Conan hurried his pace, not wanting to get a lungful of anything harmful that might chance to simmer up from the fiery slag below.
He reached the other side in short order and gained the second building’s rooftop. From his new locale he had an uninterrupted view of the square, and over at the front gate of the dome he could see the overseer posted there, standing motionless. Conan plunged down a series of balconies at the back of the building until he once again stood upon the ground. He circled around the base of the next structure, a rather tall and lanky tower with its top all but invisible in the darkness high above the cavern floor, and then he hit an open expanse of ground dotted by dried-out fountains and statues of people long dead and forgotten. The place might once have been a park, only now it was devoid of all life, its forsaken sculptures like irregular rows of grave markers.
Through the remains of the past Conan advanced, a bronze and steel figure hidden in an army of marble, until he could view plainly the mouth of the wide avenue directly across from him and the dark smudge of orange denoting the lower edge of the horizon beyond. There was no sunlight in this hellish place, but the fires buried deep within the chasm combined with those left burning by Enkee-Kutul’s captive workforce to cast a false dawn over much of the city. It was in this somber glow that Conan crouched at the chiseled feet of some grim-countenanced warrior of old to await a new dawn, one of fire and violence that would be Mach’s signal for him to begin the attack.
Conan could hardly wait.
Tukali likewise crouched, waiting. Though he wore much the same garb as before, the bright parts of his armor still swathed in black cloth, he had replaced his backpack with his scimitar, while his brutal-looking morningstar now dangled from his belt. He also had his dagger slung diagonally across his chest, handle pointed left and downward so as to be readily available for any close-quarter fighting, though Tukali’s purpose here was not one of open battle, but of subtle infiltration. His weapons were likely to be employed only if subterfuge failed him.
From where he hid in the shadows Tukali watched expectantly as Mach bobbed up and away, looping about in a great arc so as to approach the entrance to the thrumming installation straight-on. The Rhan had agreed with Tukali’s guess that this unsightly blocky mass might house the Cube of Fuzon; such was the building’s size and importance, this last evidenced by the ring of overseers spread out around its swollen foundation, that it was unlikely to serve any other purpose. As Mach had explained it, the massive cables leading from this place into the rest of the city were responsible for transferring the energy created by the Cube of Fuzon to those things that required that energy to operate. Though Tukali was sure he didn’t fully understand the specifics of how the energy worked, nor those devices that depended upon it, he had, with some explanation from Mach, been able to liken the Cube to a wellspring, transferring its power along the cables like water through an aqueduct, to be received on the other end by a device that, like a waterwheel, performed some kind of work. In reality it all seemed as sorcery to him, but for the task at hand, what little understanding he had was enough.
In the back of his mouth he could still taste the tea Markus had brewed up for him. The tea’s special ingredients, one of which was said to be an extract of white lotus, had washed away most of the weariness in his limbs and had refreshed his mind. While the herbal concoction had not entirely bestowed upon him the benefits of a full night’s sleep, it had still been far superior to the few hours’ rest he might have had time for, though that would have required going without most of the information which Mach had seen fit to relay to him during that brief time before their departure.
Mach came spiraling down out of the sky, shrieking his rage. The overseers stationed on either side of the main entrance tilted their heads up in time to receive the first of a barrage of flashing crimson bursts that rained down on them like a meteor shower. Both overseers were lifted up off their feet and blasted backward against the side of the building while Mach pulled out of his steep dive and reversed direction before the overseers even hit the ground. His attack garnered the attention of all the overseers in the vicinity, as he had planned, and now they came swarming out from around the edges of the building, responding to the threat. The two victims were slow to rise, but they made it to their feet eventually, though looking none the worse for their battering.
As the overseers gathered into a milling crowd near the building’s entrance, Mach could be seen circling above their heads and playing upon their most glaring weakness, that being their inability to engage with any foe that did not fall within reach of their whips. Nevertheless, the resulting staccato crackling as they lashed at empty air attested either to their inability to realize their obvious disadvantage, or their stubborn determination in the face of a hopeless situation. Whatever the case, they kept up their efforts futilely. Mach occasionally sent one of the metallic bullies sprawling with a random blast, but it was apparent to Tukali that the he was herding them together for the purpose, as he knew, of luring them away from the building’s entrance.
Clattering loudly as they bumped into each other or accidentally struck one of their fellows with a blow meant for their elusive target, the overseers gradually moved away from the building in the general direction of the deep crevice that lay beyond. Tukali fully expected Mach to lead them to the chasm and not the second bridge, at least in hopes that one or a few of them might be tricked into falling over the edge.
The Turanian eyed the door, about to make a run for it, when the portal opened seemingly of its own accord. The heavy steel slab, of which Tukali only now realized that he had no clue as how to open himself, rose up into the frame with a creak and a booming reverberation. He hung back and watched as someone or something strode out of the darkness. The figure stood there looking around and Tukali recognized it as one of Enkee-Kutul’s armored henchmen, a man clad in a brownish, glossy suit that resembled the hard outer shell of an insect, almost like a locust or a praying mantis, though without the extra limbs.
The guard spotted Mach taunting the group of overseers some distance away and without a second thought bounded off toward the melee, in his haste leaving the portal open and unguarded behind him.
Tukali heard another deep, echoing groan and without hesitation he sprang up from his hiding place and raced for the entrance. He arrived at the door well before it had descended to head level, allowing him time to enter with some amount of caution.
Cold white lights were scattered about at random inside the front entrance, barely illuminating a capacious chamber. The high-ceilinged room with its open hallways set above a raised platform at the room’s far end reminded Tukali of the loading docks of many of the grand warehouses to be found on the west coast of the Vilayet in the larger Turanian cities like Aghrapur and Sultanapur. He had seen such as a child when his father, a merchant, had oft times visited the warehouses to watch his merchandise arrive after it had been off-loaded from his ship. Tukali felt a brief pang of longing for simpler times, but he shrugged the feeling off. He had to focus on the here and now.
The door had since clanged shut behind him, and seeing he was safe for the nonce he retrieved from his belt the black square of metal given to him by Mach. He held the thin box, called a warden, against the bare top of his right forearm, having left the bracer that normally protected that part of him back in his room, and tried not to think that the box might be alive when he felt is begin to move on its own. The metal warmed against his skin and the warden chirped as it suddenly changed shape, elongating and curving its surface to fit snugly against his flesh. At either end of the device flat black strands crept out and encircled his arm like straps, securing the warden in place. What happened next disturbed him further in spite of Mach’s earlier reassurances that this wasn’t any form of devilry that might damn his soul. In front of him there appeared a small-scale model of the complex that looked so realistic it seemed to pop right out at him. It was eerie enough to experience the vision, but it was even more unsettling to know that only he could see it.
The picture changed views to reveal what he understood to be his own location, a tiny dot down at the bottom of the picture. The box chirped again and the view then shifted upward to show another glowing dot flaring to life within the uppermost bulge in the complex, revealing the whereabouts of the Cube of Fuzon.
Tukali sighed with relief at knowing they’d chosen the right place to hunt for the Cube. Even if his luck wasn’t all that he could ask for, at least it looked like it was improving.
Urged forward by an array of flashing arrows conjured up by the strange little box, Tukali jumped up onto the platform and headed down the center hallway.
Tukali soon came to realize that without the guidance of the warden, he would have readily become lost within the labyrinth of intertwining corridors and rooms inside the complex. There seemed to be little or no logic to the building’s layout, as if the builders had assembled the interior randomly as they went.
The device perched on his right forearm almost seemed to sparkle at times, whether it was a trick of the light or simply a part of the warden’s function Tukali knew not, but despite its oddities, so far it had done well to steer him clear of impassable obstacles and dead ends.
He came to the end of a long, twisting corridor and thought perhaps his guide had finally failed him. Up ahead there looked to be nothing at the hall’s end but an empty room. Ignoring his misgivings, Tukali entered the room and looked around in the dimness. The walls here were fairly barren of the pipes, lights and wires that had been common fare everywhere else so far, but just as he was wondering what he should do next, the box warbled, and in his vision there appeared a red glow upon the room’s back wall and a portion of the floor directly beneath. It was then that he noticed how the floor curved up to meet the wall instead of joining it at a right angle. When he looked up he saw tiny white lights that he had thought before to be the usual fixtures upon the ceiling, but when his eyes focused directly on the star-like pinpricks, their true distance away from him became more apparent. He was looking not at a ceiling, but at a shaft that extended upward into the complex. There were no ropes or ladders here that he could see, but his guide drove him toward the back wall with insistent tones and more flashing arrows. Shrugging inwardly, he walked forward…
…And found himself walking up the wall! A brief fluttering of moth’s wings in the pit of his stomach told him that this was no illusion. When he tilted his head back he found himself gazing at the top of the open doorway through which he’d arrived.
“By Hanuman’s eyes,” he breathed wonderingly, “I have never seen such a thing!”
He took another tentative step forward, and then another, and so on until he was walking up the shaft as if it were a regular corridor. There was no mistaking his direction: The glowing dot that marked his position on his guide’s depiction of the complex showed him to be slowly ascending through the building.
Tukali drew near the end of the shaft and the wall beneath his feet curved gently forward until it eventually found its way back to the horizontal and turned into the floor of another hallway. Jogging along in the semi-darkness, Tukali wended through the branching corridors as fast as he dared. He passed by rooms containing guards and creatures he couldn’t directly see, only being aware of their presence through an enhanced vision induced by the warden that seemed at times to border on hallucination. He couldn’t know if some of the shapes he glimpsed in passing were truly there or not, but assuming they were as real as he, Tukali hastened his stride to avoid encountering what could only be considered as ghastly aberrations of nature’s order.
After what felt like hours had passed, Tukali reached the end of a pipe barely wide enough for him to wriggle through its length worm-like. Earlier he’d navigated yet another maze of corridors bound for a second vertical shaft, only to be directed away from his destination at the last second because of the unmistakable and imposing presence of an overseer guarding the shaft’s entrance. Now he patiently endured the cramped vent he’d been forced into in order to circumvent the overseer and gain access to the higher levels of the complex.
In front of him was a grating, and hot winds blew in through the steel mesh with what felt like the intensity of a fumarole in the closeness of the pipe. Tukali reached out with one hand and tested the grating’s strength. It felt discouragingly firm, but when he removed his dagger and used its butt to hammer at the covering’s edges the metal screen broke away from its mooring. Tukali pushed with his free hand and bent the grating aside, then pulled himself free of the pipe.
At first he thought he’d emerged into a room like any other, but once he picked his way clear of the unidentifiable jumble of equipment blocking his view he realized the extremity of his mistake.
He stood upon a deck that ringed the interior of an enormous cylindrical space that formed the complex’s absolute core. Other decks, all crowded with banks of machinery and the short, gangly forms of chattering workers, were arranged above and below his own deck in tiers that extended down the cylinder from the dome-like ceiling high above. Below him the gray walls dropped off into a pit of darkness.
A web of catwalks, massive girders and thick, taut cables reached out from points on every deck to a central spindle that stabbed the entire way down into the pit from the ceiling’s center. The conduit’s length looked to be sheathed entirely in silvery metal, but there were windowed sections along it that revolved slowly across the metal’s surface, sending out beams of white light that swept around with each revolution like beacons. More of the jittery workers clustered together close to the spindle, darting over equipment and each other in a flurry of activity.
Tukali walked to the edge of the deck and peered over the railing. He couldn’t see anything but he could smell a strong and musky odor crawling up out of the darkness. The air in this place, aside from being hot, felt unusually humid. He recalled what Mach had told him about Enkee-Kutul’s terrible computer. The thing was supposedly responsible for directing all that went on within Boa while controlling the guards and captive slaves through the use of dire sorcery.
He squinted down into the pit, trying to spot the fearsome computer. He shivered in the heat and hoped that the beast didn’t decide to climb out of its hole before he’d managed to get his hands on its food source, the Cube of Fuzon.
He moved away from the railing and looked around, wondering where to go next. As if it had read his mind, Tukali’s guide scanned through his surroundings and found another ventilation pipe about a third of the way around the deck. “Blast,” Tukali grumbled. “Not another rat hole.” Stepping carefully, he slipped through the machinery crowding the deck and made for the next pipe.
As he progressed through the clutter he happened upon a number of the tiny workers, unintentionally scaring them out of their workplaces. The creatures shrieked and jabbered at him before scampering off across a narrow girder toward the spindle, spreading word of his intrusion to their fellows ahead of them.
It wasn’t long before the sudden movement on one of the lower decks across the way by a heretofore unnoticed overseer grabbed Tukali’s attention. The raucous screaming of the workers as they relayed news of Tukali’s intrusion had prompted the overseer to action, and now it stalked away from the massive door it had been guarding and mounted a platform that carried it slowly up the side of the wall to his level. Tukali was mentally assuring himself that he’d be in the pipe and well away before the overseer reached him when his eyes alighted upon another sight, one that greatly unsettled him. On his own tier a dark shape bounded over frightened workers and buzzing machinery like an oversized jackrabbit, coming up steadily behind him from the other side of the chamber. Whatever it was, it was big. And fast.
Tukali took running, knowing he’d never make it to his escape route before the thing caught up with him. He dodged around obstacles with reckless abandon, not caring how many of the workers he struck or set to squealing in terror at his passing. Behind him he could hear heavy, rhythmic footfalls and an angry snarling bearing down on him. He broke out into one of the few open spaces on the deck and skidded on the smooth surface while simultaneously reaching for his morningstar. A chirping alarm sounded from the warden even as his skid turned into a sideways slide and he went down. Tukali had the impression of a storm cloud blowing past directly above him, right where his head had been but a second before, and then he was on his feet again with the handle of the morningstar gripped tightly in his hands.
Before him he saw the monster land upon the deck yards away and wheel about to face him. What he beheld then was a vision directly out of nightmare. Like a huge wolf the brute seemed in its aspect, a wolf or a hound. Smooth, dark greenish scales that were almost black covered it completely from head to tailless hindquarters, and cruelly-hooked talons extending from paws like a cat’s dug into the steel deck, shredding the surface like so much parchment. No ears sprouted from the flat sides of its skull, and where eyes should have glared out at the Turanian only a dense layer of armored scales covered its sloping forehead. A narrow band of metal swept from the crest of its wedge-shaped skull to the base of its neck, resembling in its form and coloring an enlarged version of the same metallic patches that branded the victims of the gilded madness.
Now the hound’s fang-studded maw yawned wide, revealing what looked like a bed of coals smoldering within its vitals just beyond the opening of its gullet.
While the frenzied chirping of Tukali’s mechanical guide assaulted his ears, a torrent of flames belched forth, scorching the air between the Turanian and his foe. Tukali dropped to the deck and rolled aside, frantically trying to avoid the arm of blazing death reaching his way.
The half-score smelting furnaces looked completely deserted from the air, but atop a few of the tall chimneys there arose faint plumes of white smoke, telling Mach that inside these vacant behemoths some fires yet burned. In a long, lazy turn, Mach flew past the still-puffing stack of one such furnace and sent bolts of raw energy down through a row of open archways and into the smeltery’s guts. One of his shots penetrated a fuel bin and ignited it. He sped away in time to allow the very fringe of the resulting shock wave to carry him well beyond the worst of an explosion so powerful it lit up the cavern and ripped apart the sturdy walls of another smeltery too close to the detonation.
He veered back around, dodging the stray chunks of flaming debris still falling back to earth, and sought out the guard on his trail. Until now the guard had been content to follow Mach at a distance, neither interfering with nor losing sight of the Rhan agent.
But with the destruction of the smeltery the guard felt compelled to act. He too took to the air now, buoyed aloft by his fantastic armor. His maneuverability seemed as that of a fledgling, but regardless of his awkwardness in the air the guard managed to steer himself in the direction he chose. He floated along, held up by invisible hands, but instead of actively pursuing Mach, the guard stopped himself at about the center point of the collection of smelteries and just hovered there near one of the active stacks, spinning in place to face Mach as the Rhan agent flitted about like a bat on the prowl, never ceasing his motion.
Mach circled the prone guard like a hyena regarding which part of a corpse to gnaw upon first. The man spun in midair, trying to keep up with his intimidator, but at one point he overcompensated, swinging too quickly and too far to the side for him to keep Mach in his field of view.
A steep and swift dive took Mach underneath the guard, who was busy twisting back around to locate the missing Rhan. When the guard felt the sudden tug on his feet he realized his second mistake too late to do aught else but flail his arms helplessly and shout in surprise at unexpectedly finding himself careening headlong down the length of a fat smokestack. A salvo of ruby lights lanced down after the guard, pounding him relentlessly into the seething core of the blast furnace where he splashed heavily into a pool of molten slag.
Mach skimmed the edge of the uppermost level of the smeltery and hurled down bolt after destructive bolt into the building’s guts. Flames gushed out of the openings at its base, setting off a series of internal explosions that combined to give birth to an enormous fireball. Mach let the concussion knock him backward like a straw caught in hurricane winds. The smoke of vaporized stone and metal mushroomed toward the cavern ceiling, and when he finally steadied himself, Mach was pleased to note that two other buildings, one a smeltery and the other a warehouse of some sort, had disintegrated in the blast and now sent up roiling, flame-lit clouds of their own.
Flying directly out of the heart of the inferno, something that Mach took at first to be a tiny smoke cloud gone astray swiftly bore down on him. He rolled well out of the way, feeling the cloud’s peculiar turbulence brush over his exposed skin in its wake. The cloud impacted against a tall whinstone steeple belonging to a decrepit-looking temple behind him and, with a sound not unlike thousands of pickaxes striking over and over, reduced the entire upper portion of the rockwork to falling rubble in a matter of seconds. When the cloud flew back past him again, Mach’s keen eyesight distinguished it as a horde of glossy black pellets. A figure stepped forth then out of the roaring flames below with the temerity of some unholy phoenix. The guard raised one of his arms, and the lethal swarm disappeared into an aperture in his armor. He leaped upward and took to the air, gliding through smoke and flame toward Mach.
It was then that Mach took notice of another group headed their way from the direction of the extensive fields of frameworks housing Enkee-Kutul’s grounded fleet. These newcomers appeared to be the guard’s armored brothers, and they sprang across rooftops and open ground with a speed and length of stride unmatched by any creature, save perhaps demons. They closed rapidly, and Mach turned away. The guard drifting upward aimed another volley of pellets across his path, trying to cut off his retreat, but Mach scattered the approaching cloud with an energy blast, and two more bolts sent the guard himself spinning out of control and crashing back to the ground.
Mach spread his cape and dove through the smoke, placing the haze between himself and his enemies like a shield. By his hand another blast furnace ruptured and heaved a flaming ring of destruction through the air, taking down an entire row of buildings nearby. Before the guards could find him in the chaos, Mach sped into the city with the intention of drawing his foes into a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
Conan sprang to his feet just as the city rocked to an explosion akin to a volcano blowing its top. He’d been sitting quietly beneath the warrior’s statue becoming more attuned to his surroundings when he’d felt the first vibrations even before the thunder sounded in his ears. Now from long off he saw the rain of burning wreckage and a massive cloud of smoke with its core aglow. Recognizing Mach’s unmistakable signal, Conan broke free from the cover of the abandoned park and struck out across the square for the wide avenue leading to Enkee-Kutul’s lair.
Midway across, the ground shuddered again beneath Conan’s boots, and he heard the rolling peal of devastation wrought by Mach elsewhere in the city. Conan’s face flickered with a brief smile; Mach was doing a considerable job of hogging their enemies’ attention.
He heard a noise so faint it might have been lost in the echoing thunder, except that it kept up, growing subtly louder by the second. Conan glanced in the sound’s direction, toward the dome, and his pace slackened off. The overseer stationed there had seen him in the last incandescent burst, and it came for him now. He shrugged and took another step forward, knowing the brute to be too far off and too slow to pose an immediate threat, but again he halted and turned toward the advancing overseer. He could easily outrun it, but the idea of letting it pursue him, no matter how sluggish its pace, proved irksome to the Cimmerian’s nature; he was not one to give an enemy the chance to sneak up on him, to catch him unawares. Prey was not a part Conan was accustomed to playing, and he’d be damned if he took up the role now. He remembered clearly what the overseers had done to him, how they had nearly pounded him clear into the next world.
Conan’s narrowed eyes glowered with a fury colder than any Cimmerian winter, and the mortal man chancing to meet that icy gaze would have seen death there and taken caution, if not instant flight.
But the overseer just clomped stupidly on, recognizing only that there was an intruder for it to annihilate. It had no reason to fear Conan, as every creature it had been called upon to face thus far had perished with less effort on its part than it took to move its oversized limbs.
Conan unhitched the hammer from his back and swung it over his shoulder, bearing the weapon before him at waist-level. He loped toward the overseer with a northland wolf’s casual grace, and when he was a little more than halfway to the dome Conan met his enemy. His mind, however, remained his own, unclouded this time around by the effects of the gilded madness, and the Cimmerian found he could easily anticipate the actions of his ponderously-moving foe before they were even performed.
One of the overseer’s arms came up and to the side, but before it could let fly with its prehensile whip Conan had already interpreted the blow and moved to avoid it. He sidestepped and arced to the outside of the overseer’s raised limb, neatly avoiding the metal coil that unwound and struck full against empty air.
With no defense to stop him, Conan darted in at his enemy’s unprotected flank and smote the overseer’s exposed hip with a two-handed hammer blow. Where the weapon’s steel head met the reinforced armor shell there came a brief flash and scattering of multi-hued sparks, though whether this resulted from the divine properties of Conan’s weapon canceling out the sorcerous protections imbued by Scybor, Conan could only assume as much. All that mattered was that the hammer continued on to plow through the joint with a satisfying crunch, tearing the attached leg almost entirely free from the metal body.
The overseer tottered in place, trying to stay upright and balanced on its good leg while the other dangled limply beside it. Unable to walk, it twisted its torso from side to side, searching for Conan.
But Conan saw no reason to put himself within reach of the overseer’s blindly questing arms. He struck again, shearing off the overseer’s whip-arm from behind. The arm was flung free from the body in a shower of metallic fragments to land some yards away, twitching like a once-living limb. Seconds later, the other arm followed, and now Conan circled back around to the overseer’s front to look upon the blank face of his enemy.
It stood there flicking its upper body from side to side, hopelessly endeavoring to somehow reach the Cimmerian despite the absence of its upper extremities. Conan regarded the overseer mutely; any living creature would have likely expired by now, but the metal monstrosity apparently didn’t know enough to die.
He stepped up close to the hulk, boldly looking over its head and chest with a barbarian’s illimitable curiosity. The subject of his attention could do nothing but stand there, watching, as Conan rapped his fist against the semi-transparent chest plate and wondered at its construction. Learning nothing but a vague pattern to the lines of energy sizzling within the overseer’s innards, Conan swung back the hammer and caved in the overseer’s chest.
As the overseer keeled over backwards, Conan ripped his weapon loose from the sputtering ribcage with a growl. Metal clanged against stone as the overseer hit the ground and Conan sprang upon its upper chest, annoyed that the thing yet moved, albeit feebly. He heaved the hammer above his head and brought it down against the overseer’s. At the last instant before impact, Conan could have sworn he heard a word from that polished visage, a sound like a cross between a mechanical hum and what might have been the grinding of gears, but then his weapon stove in the top of that gleaming scalp and flattened the metal down to the shoulder blades. Conan smashed at his target again and again, until there was nothing left above the shoulders but ragged shards and a blue, powdery debris.
Finally the overseer lay still, and Conan howled with a savage joy. Feeling somewhat vindicated, he spat upon the ravaged carcass and uttered a brief thanks to Crom. But before he could step down from his perch on the deceased overseer, he stiffened at the intrusion of a voice behind him.
“A victory over one of these weaklings is hardly a cause for gloating. Come, test your might against me if you dare.” The deep monotone was followed by a shifting of the overseer’s body, and Conan leapt to the ground in time to avoid being hurled through the air along with the overseer’s remains. The body crashed, bounced once and scraped along the paves, coming to rest in a heap a score or so paces away.
Conan whirled, expecting to find an opponent of such colossal dimensions as to put the overseers to shame. Instead he found a pale man hardly taller than himself, and certainly no larger of limb. Even so, there was no one else about, and Conan eyed the newcomer warily, for he had just thrown the dead weight of an overseer farther than the Cimmerian could have hoped to have dragged it.
Thin tendrils of blue energy danced upon the cyborg’s oddly-patterned arms as he flexed his hands and clenched them into fists, holding them out like twin mallets. He bore no other weapon that Conan could see, marking the man as either a fool or so confident in his own prowess as to be truly dangerous. Having witnessed a show of the cyborg’s strength, Conan believed the latter perhaps even more likely than the former.
“Methinks you fear the sun so much that you must hide down here with the other worms,” Conan taunted him. “Or mayhap your skin has paled on account of your fear of me.” He barked out a laugh. “Tell me, dog! Which is it?” He sneered derisively as the cyborg opened his mouth to respond but ended up cursing him instead.
Conan raised the hammer and braced his legs as the cyborg launched himself through the air, screaming in anger.
At the fringe on the avenue’s side of the open square there came a muffled clanking of numerous metal feet, and at the dome’s open portals facing Conan’s back, additional metal-clad figures emerged from out of the darkness to join the fight, called hither by the last thought of the first among their ranks to fall before the Cimmerian’s wrath.
Enkee-Kutul roused himself from a trance so deep that the alarms onboard his ship had been bleating their worries for many minutes now. His consciousness finished merging with this physical body, having been recalled from mysterious planes of existence few men visited or even knew of until after their material deaths. There was great knowledge to be found in these otherworldly places where none but gods dwelt, and knowledge was among the foremost of powers Enkee-Kutul craved.
On the monitor before him a familiar countenance flashed by, and Enkee-Kutul leaned forward for a better look. There was no doubting the identity of the figure laying waste to generous portions of his city, but at least, he saw, his men were pursuing Mach with stubborn, if not mindful, diligence. He winced as another building–a two-pronged spire–toppled as one of his men was tricked into colliding with its trunk. He saw the Rhan maneuver clear of the falling pile and then dive clean through the open center of another structure to temporarily lose his pursuers.
It didn’t take long for the armored guards to find Mach again and take up the attack. More buildings crumbled and Enkee-Kutul slapped a control on his armrest.
“Stop doing his work for him,” he snapped, speaking toward the monitor. “I want you to leave off attacking him, immediately!”
The nearest guard on the screen, the one picking his way clear of the spire’s rubble, turned toward Enkee-Kutul when he heard his master speak. “But he has already destroyed the foundries and a dozen other buildings!”
“And no doubt you and the others have destroyed a dozen more besides,” Enkee-Kutul replied evenly. “Nothing you can do, short of laying hands on him, will prevent him from doing more damage, and I’ve already seen the results of your attempts to do just that.”
The guard raised his palms. “Then what do you want us to do?”
“Let him go, but keep him close and in sight–“
“Let him go–?” the guard interrupted, then hastily bowed in apology as he realized his error.
“Do it,” Enkee-Kutul commanded. “I want him for myself. I have been lenient with you so far, but if you continue to disappoint me, you may find the limits to my patience. Do you understand me?”
There was a nervous tremor to the guard’s answer. “Yes, lord.” His head snapped around at the sound of an explosion in the distance. “I’ll inform the others at once.”
Enkee-Kutul nodded his approval. “Do so. I will be there shortly.” When the guard started to bow again, Enkee-Kutul swiveled his throne away from the screen and rose to his feet.
He was about to leave when a disturbing sight on the huge hull monitor overhead seized his attention. Outside the dome where, at one time or another, all of his slaves had been programmed as workers and soldiers, he could see a man standing over the dismembered ruins of one of his overseers. Twisting the image around with a verbal command, Enkee-Kutul was quite surprised to recognize the human barbarian currently pounding what was left of the mangled overseer’s head into scrap.
But how could this be? How could what he witnessed now possibly be true? His overseers’ armor, like that of the rest of his guards, was invulnerable. Through nameless rites and heaping mounds of bloody sacrifices, Scybor’s protection had been invoked as a measure to ensure that none could stand against him, his men or the overseers. Time and time again that protection had been tested in all manner of circumstances, always successfully. Until now.
Enkee-Kutul reasoned it through. As unlikely as it was, perhaps Mach had discovered some weakness in that adamantine armor and sent the barbarian to exploit it. He couldn’t imagine what might constitute the makings of such a flaw, but he shrugged off these worries, patting the side of his loincloth’s belt line to feel the comforting presence of the vial stowed beneath the green material. In any case, he had a fail-safe, for the potion contained within that vial was the key to summoning up a magic the likes of which none could possibly stand against.
Above him on the screen a cyborg had happened upon the rampaging barbarian and challenged him. Enkee-Kutul gave another series of commands to the machinery encircling him, and on a number of the monitors mobbing the cramped deck, more of his guards, both living and mechanical, could be seen converging from all sides upon the square where Conan fought.
Good. At least his overseers knew enough to overwhelm the lone savage with their superior numbers; with more and more strain put upon his computers of late, what with so many human minds to control, he’d been forced to relinquish command of the overseers to their own dim programming, but they seemed to be performing well enough, if not perfectly. The threat posed by this brooding ape could be only paltry at best, Enkee-Kutul decided, no matter the sharpness of his sting, and without a doubt the human would soon find himself flogged to death by a veritable choir’s worth of singing whips or crushed senseless at the center of a mass of overseers.
Enkee-Kutul sighed. Too bad he might not be available to watch the barbarian’s demise himself, but he had a nuisance of his own to dispose of. His city fortress would have to remain intact, for it was from here that his computers would maintain control over his warrior-slaves when their fleet crossed the galaxy to take Rhan’esh. The main computer was far too large to take with him, but there was practically no limit to its abilities–both sorcerously and technologically enhanced–when it came to manipulating his slaves at a distance, no matter how vast.
The light from a monitor directly behind Enkee-Kutul poured through the space where he had just been standing, revealing by its soft glow yet a third trespasser in the ancient city, a trespasser overlooked yet battling for his life as he struggled to reach and pluck out the heart pumping energy into the very beginnings of Enkee-Kutul’s empire-to-be.
Tukali dodged aside from the stream of fire that set several of the deck’s metal plates to shrieking. Molten steel bubbled and fell away, leaving a hole rimmed by drooping, superheated metal.
Even as he regained his feet Tukali realized that the warden clinging to his forearm had warned him of both attacks, first when the hound had leapt at his back, and then when the monster had spun ’round and vomited flame at him. Somehow his guide could foresee each onslaught and chirped out warnings accordingly. Considering the speed of each attack, Tukali was grateful to have the extra second to evade what might otherwise have meant certain death for him.
Now he charged the hound, unwilling to remain on the defensive. He swung the morningstar and felt a twinge of glee when the spiked iron ball thwacked against the hound’s skull. But that glee sank swiftly into dismay when he found that his blow had merely knocked his foe’s head aside without causing any damage. Tukali swore under his breath; he should have guessed that if the hound’s darkly flashing talons had no problem digging into the tempered steel of the deck, then the scaly armor protecting its long and sinewy body would likely prove just as resistant to his weapon.
But even as the Turanian retreated a step, silently berating himself, he realized he’d had some effect after all. The hound appeared slow to shake off the effects of the morningstar’s impact. True enough, its scales and skull were still intact, but apparently the softer tissues behind them had been given a fair jouncing. Tukali wondered if he might not render the beast senseless or even dead by repeatedly planting solid shots against its head.
All this he considered in one fluttering heartbeat, and then he was set to dodging more gouts of fire, springing about the deck like some phantom elk dodging a hunter’s barbs.
The hound was ferocious, and indeed much larger than Tukali, but for all its physical prowess it was not so sharp of wit as the warrior. It tried to keep up the offensive but its smaller prey proved to be highly elusive. Tukali circled the beast continuously, never giving it ample time to brace itself for a charge, or a target slow enough to douse with its roasting breath. They kept on like this for many long seconds, neither giving the other any real opportunity to strike, until finally Tukali saw an opening when the hound failed to hasten a turn in his direction, and he darted in like a mongoose striking at a cobra and again buffeted the creature’s head with his morningstar.
Seeing the monster reel, he struck again, square to its forehead. His reward was a bestial grunt, more from confusion than any real pain on the hound’s part, but when Tukali heaved back for a third strike, he heard the warning chirp too late and one of the hound’s scaly paws thrust out blindly to cuff him full in the chest.
He flew backward and slammed up against the side of a smoking mound of equipment ruined by the hound’s fires. He was stunned for but a moment, his armor having absorbed most of the impact, and then his hand was at his breastplate checking for blood. Luckily, the hound’s claws had only raked shallow gouges across the metal, failing to pierce through the cuirass before the paw had withdrawn.
Again, suddenly, the warning chirp, and Tukali dove for his life. At his back he heard the pile of wreckage fly apart in sundry pieces across the deck, scattered by the scrabbling limbs of his adversary trying to find purchase atop the smoldering pile.
Tukali was close to regaining his own feet when the hound repeated its leap. He instinctively let himself fall back to the ground, too off-balance to do aught else. The claws of one of the beast’s hindlegs brushed so close that they caught upon Tukali’s turban and tore it loose from his head. Headscarf and spired helm alike were kicked free to sail out over the railing and disappear into the pit.
Wasting no time in mourning for the lost headdress, Tukali rolled onto his back and kicked out his legs, snapping himself upright. He hopped backward, away from a slashing set of claws that came inches away from disemboweling him, and glanced around for some means of escape. Looking past the hound to the far side of the spindle, he caught a glimpse of the overseer circling around toward his side of the deck. He had no trouble predicting the winning side of a battle waged between himself and a team comprised of both the hound and the overseer. By the grace of Ishtar, he hoped, it wouldn’t come to that.
With an energy spawned by desperation, Tukali snatched up the initiative and renewed his offensive. He flailed his morningstar unrelentingly at the hound’s armored skull, swinging the weapon side to side without any regard for the ache spreading through his arms. It was right after the hound’s head was bashed aside by one of these frenzied swipes that Tukali again gave notice to the narrow strip of metal glittering upward from its nape. The shiny band seemed to call to him, the only portion of the hound’s body unprotected by scales and thus, to the Turanian’s mind, a likely target.
For the brief second that the head of his foe was still turned away from him, Tukali focused solely upon the metallic stripe and let fly with his morningstar. Brassy splinters flew at the impact and a split appeared along the entire length of the band, leaking through with emerald rivulets of blood.
The hound went insane, bucking and heaving like a thing possessed, spewing fire wildly in between the mad gnashing of its fangs. Sidestepping a fresh litter of glowing potholes burned into the deck, Tukali promptly retreated, giving the beast room and himself the relative safety of distance. The floor beneath his feet felt warm even through the soles of his boots, and in places he could see wide sheets of steel beginning to warp and discolor from the heat.
More than ten long steps away, Tukali watched as the hound raged on until, without warning, it stopped. The creature just stood there, stock still, as if frozen in place.
Then it moved, its grisly head waving gently from side to side as it searched for him through the hot, rippling air with unknown eyes. In some way Tukali couldn’t readily discern, the hound’s movements seemed less ponderous and more instinctive than before, as if it had been suddenly freed from the imposition of a more… calculating mode of behavior.
The hound blurred forward the second it discovered him, and Tukali started to backpedal away from the onrushing beast. It came on so fast that the Turanian found himself cocking back the morningstar in preparation for a blow meant to ward off his attacker, but at the last second before he would have swung the weapon, the hound crouched low and then vaulted over him, easily clearing his head by one of his own body lengths.
Tukali spun and found his foe advancing warily at where his back had been. The hound neither charged nor made any overt attempt to close and renew the battle between them other than proceeding to stalk toward him at a patient rate. Confident that, as before, he would have time to avoid the monster’s talons and scorching breath, Tukali slid forward with the intention of beating at the hound’s skull until it was too dazed to continue fighting.
He almost got incinerated for his trouble. He’d taken but one step forward when flames blasted out of the hound’s open maw and reduced the section of floor ahead of him to an inferno that burned for several breaths and then fell through to the level below. The warden had failed to warn him.
Strangely enough, the hound didn’t follow up its attack, but instead kept on with its slow advance. Tukali suddenly realized he was being backed up toward the railing that girdled the deck’s edge, with nothing but a fatal drop waiting for him beyond that.
He ran to the side, trying to get past the hound. Flames drove him back, and when he dashed the other way the creature followed, pouncing into a crouch before him like a cat toying with a mouse drawn into the open upon a kitchen floor. Tukali scrambled backward and his foe resumed its crafty scheme, pushing him inexorably toward the edge.
When Tukali felt the steel rail press against the small of his back the hound was only a few short strides away. Seeing its prey now trapped, it spread its front paws apart and brought the fore of its body down toward the deck, leaning upon its hind legs. The fang-studded jaws parted, and then the split between them widened as the hound shifted its weight forward again. For the beleaguered Turanian, death had all but clenched him in its skeletal grasp.
Knowing that the consequences of failure would be the same as doing nothing, Tukali flung himself at the creature, facing down an imminent and fiery death. Orange-tongued flames were just licking outward when the spiked ball of Tukali’s morningstar swished upward against the hound’s lower jaw and pounded it shut. Tukali shuddered in relief at avoiding being broiled alive, however temporarily.
But the hound’s massive frame shook and trembled as the beast swallowed its own fire, and in a panicky counter-blow it lurched into him, butting him solidly in his steel-plated midsection with its cranium.
Tukali shot out past the rail and over the precipice like a rock thrown from a catapult. He felt a sickening pull in his belly as he flew through empty air, and though it seemed like forever, in reality he was only airborne for a second or two. Something streaked by at the edge of his vision and, on impulse, he lashed out at it with the morningstar still miraculously clutched in his right hand.
Links of iron chain wrapped and snagged around one of the many wires suspended between the spindle’s scaffolding and the outer, surrounding tiers of the chamber. Tukali felt the pull on his extended arm right before the chain caught fast and immediately clasped his free hand to the morningstar’s handle, preventing the weapon from being wrenched from his grasp. Luckily he had been near the apogee of his flying arc, and when the cable checked his flight, the resulting strain on his arms was only minimal when he jerked to a stop and swung down under the wire like a human pendulum.
He dangled there from the morningstar, thinking of what to do next while trying to ignore a new series of painful bruises spread over the front of his torso, when he found himself sliding in the direction of the spindle. The wire above him had bowed downward with his weight, though only enough that his progress was incremental. At least he was moving away from the hound. Tukali twirled his legs, trying to spin himself around to see just how far he had left his enemy behind.
Not far enough to his liking. He spotted the railing about twenty feet away and the hound pacing back and forth behind it. Even out here over the roar of empty space he could hear the creature’s frustrated snarls.
He watched it back away from the rail and wondered what it might be up to. The hound surprised him by sprinting forward and, with a powerful flexing of its legs, bounded clear over the edge.
Tukali recognized the hound’s intention and yanked fervently at the morningstar, trying fruitlessly to increase his sliding momentum. And then he was holding on tightly to the handle, hugging it to his chest as the beast landed upon the wire a few yards ahead of him and almost sent him plunging down. The hound growled and tilted its head back toward Tukali, apparently dumbfounded at having overshot its quarry. It tried to turn around, an impressive undertaking when one considered the beast even had the balance to remain standing upon the narrow span. It began a complicated maneuver of spreading apart its hind legs and bringing its forepaws inward between them.
Fate couldn’t have placed the Turanian in a more advantageous position, and his face lit with a grim smile when the hound looked to have reached a most precarious-looking stance. He lifted himself up by the morningstar’s handle and let himself bounce, thus shaking the wire.
With wobbling legs the hound rode the wire, successfully keeping its balance though unable to change position. Tukali increased the speed of his efforts, jolting the wire so hard that he again started to slide forward. Seeing that the beast wasn’t likely to be dislodged by the wire’s vertical motion, he pulled himself up by the morningstar’s chain and hung from the wire itself. From there Tukali used his shoulders to tug the strand forcefully sideways.
The hound growled again and tried to hang on, but it made the reflexive mistake of extruding its claws, which had been withdrawn for its leap, and attempted to cling to the wire with these.
Metal parted at the touch of the first razor-edged talon and the wire snapped.
The hound pawed uselessly at the air, suddenly left without any footing, and then it was falling into the abyss. Crackling flames flurried upward, making Tukali flinch away from the heat, but he was already out of the way, swinging downward at the end of the wire. He heard the clink of the morningstar as it slid off the cord and followed the hound into seething darkness below.
His momentum took him between decks, his own above and another below. He could have easily dropped to the tier beneath his swaying feet, but instead he climbed back up the cable toward familiar territory; there was no telling how long it might otherwise take him to reach his intended exit.
Ignoring the fatigue in his limbs, Tukali reached the railing above and climbed back onto solid ground. Sore and shaken, he took a few seconds to catch his breath, smelling the acrid fumes of burning metal. He spotted the overseer tromping around the rim, closer now, but hampered in its passage by numerous obstacles that would have been as nothing to the agile hound.
Tukali pinpointed the location of the second grate and discovered that it was closer to the overseer than to himself. Without too much concern, he set off at a run. With the warden guiding him he had no trouble finding a clear path through the jumbled machinery, and he arrived at the grate well before the overseer.
Working quickly, he pried off the protective screen with his dagger and slithered into the duct. Then, following the visual directions of his guide, he escaped further into the wall. From behind him he could hear snapping sounds as the overseer finally reached his exit point and probed what it could of the pipe with its whip, but Tukali was already far enough away that the best the overseer could do was to send out a silent alarm to the rest of the complex, and then turn around and head back to take up its prior occupation of guarding the spindle bay against intruders.
Conan’s hammer struck the attacking cyborg full in the face, mashing the man’s head so thoroughly that his chin and tongue were all that remained clinging to his neck. Amber blood and shreds of meat and bone flew backward from the toppling corpse to plash like stew onto the ground behind. Conan looked down at the mystical hammer clutched in his hands, then at the cyborg’s still-twitching corpse, and a smile reappeared on his lips.
He became aware of the ring of overseers moving toward him, surrounding him, but Conan made no efforts to escape.
“Come, fools! Meet your doom!” he bellowed. The first real fires of battle-lust were kindling inside him, and he stoked them to a full-blown fury. Impatiently he awaited the oncoming ranks, and his limbs itched and cried out for action. Ever closer the overseers came, tireless, unhurried, they tightened their lumbering net around the lone warrior. Any man unacquainted with Conan’s prowess would have thought him suicidal to stand his ground amid so many foes, even with as deadly a weapon as Crom’s hammer at his disposal. But there were those who had seen him weave his grisly magic upon a crowded battlefield, and these would have been quick to lay handsome wagers upon an outcome in favor of the Cimmerian, no matter how desperate the odds at first appeared.
And then the first few were upon him, and Conan let himself go, giving in totally to the berserker fury. Time slowed to a crawl for the seething barbarian as a bloody tide swept through his being, and he was enveloped by a primal battle trance long unknown to most among the civilized races.
He dodged a duo of striking whips with what seemed like careless ease, sliding forward and between them so that their tips punished only empty air behind him. His hammer tore through an arm and then into the chest of one overseer, and as it toppled, not quite dead but paralyzed, he lashed out with a sideways swing and hit the other in the waist with the hammer’s curved spike, tearing through its lower back where the base of the spine would have been in a human. The blow sheared the overseer nearly in half, the hammer’s shaft serving to rip through energy-spewing metallic viscera just as well as the weapon’s head. Conan hopped to the overseer’s other side. With a thunderous crack his hammer plowed through the other half of its midsection, and the second overseer’s upper body crashed to the ground.
Conan twisted aside to avoid the swing of a night-blue arm meant to bash in his skull, and then he crouched and took out both of the third overseer’s legs with a swipe that crunched through its shins in series. He rolled out of the way to avoid being flattened by the falling ruin, and the second he regained his feet the hammer descended through the fallen robot’s shiny faceplate.
More overseers crowded in toward him, and he thrust himself defiantly among their superior numbers.
He fought as a crazed lion among sheep. With every movement he crippled one of his enemies. Spark-shooting limbs flew through the air, and chests collapsed under the frightful power of Conan’s blows. Wherever he smote, bodies twice as large as he crumpled to the ground as yieldingly as wheat to the scythe.
The overseers’ whips were next to useless in such close quarters, and Conan’s instincts led him to exploit his greater mobility to the fullest. By staying constantly on the move he forced the slower robots to seek him out, and in the cramped press of their oversized bodies this proved more than a little impractical for them.
The remains of Conan’s first victims lay strewn about haphazardly, making for treacherous footing, but the Cimmerian was faster than the overseers and far more agile. He sprang lithely about the wreckage that tripped up the overseers’ feet, wielding destruction against all those that strayed within reach. A loose-knit array of mounds built steadily upon the paves with each foe Conan downed, and before long he rained blows upon his enemies from atop a sprawling pile of crushed metal shells.
They stumbled at him from all sides, clambering past the bodies of the fallen toward the raging Cimmerian. Conan’s hammer rose and fell above the tide of overseers, knocking them back to lie still in battered heaps. In the rare instances when a whip managed to be loosed at him, his hammer blocked the attack cold every time, right before demolishing the instigator.
When the attacks finally trickled to a standstill, Conan surveyed the devastation he’d wrought, his chest heaving beneath his breastplate. He shook his head in amazement; if he’d been armed with a mortal weapon and had faced human foes, he wondered if he might have prevailed against so many at once. All around him were the ravaged bodies of scores of overseers, some of their parts still quivering at the bottom of many tons of scrap. A grim sense of satisfaction welled up within him, satisfaction and exultation borne of revenge fulfilled.
No, revenge fulfilled only in part, he thought. Jessica was still in need of rescue, and though in the process he’d evened up the score a bit against some of the overseers that had come close to killing him last time, Conan would have no real cause for celebration until he’d liberated her. And, of course, the rest of Khorshemish.
He gazed about the square, ready to continue on, but upon seeing movement at the gates to the great dome, Conan bounded down from where he stood upon the pile of stacked metal bodies. Emerging from the darkened interior of the dome were three man-sized figures, though in appearance quite unlike the cyborg he’d killed earlier. These bore armor that looked to have been fashioned after some manner of insect, and by Tukali’s descriptions Conan knew there to be living men beneath that armor.
They moved with a speed and grace all but lacking from the overseers, their unnaturally long strides quickly eating up the distance between them and Conan.
One of the guards raised an arm as he ran and pointed it at Conan. From it streamed forth a funnel of swirling black particles.
Seeing the danger, Conan leapt to the side. The funnel slammed into the pile behind him and set up an ear-wrenching cacophony the likes of which he’d never heard. He would have turned to catch a glimpse of the cause of that terrible sound, but he felt a host of flying shrapnel bounce off his armor and thought better of it. He rushed the guards instead.
He’d almost closed upon the same man who’d sent the funnel after him when he heard the buzzing sound at his back. Conan threw himself to the ground in time to avoid being nailed by the returning particles, which the guard, only a score of yards away, seemed to catch effortlessly with his other arm.
Conan arose from where he’d landed to clash with the converging guardsmen. One swung an armored fist at his chest, but Conan twisted aside so that the blow caromed glancingly off his cuirass, and then he rammed the hammer up into the man’s crotch, lifting him from the ground. The guard screamed in pain as his armored codpiece gave way and Conan’s steel unmanned him. He dropped like a stone, dead.
Another fist shot out directly at Conan’s face. He intercepted it with his hammer while aiming a sidekick at the belly of the other guard left standing, whose arms were reaching out to grapple with him. If these men were anywhere near as strong as the cyborg had been, he didn’t want them getting close enough to lay hands upon him. His hammer budged not at all as it was struck, and his kick sent the other guard staggering back half a dozen paces.
Even as the guard who’d thrown the punch withdrew his broken hand, Conan followed up with a vicious swing aimed at the side of his head. But at the same time the guard tried to leap up into the air, and Conan’s hammer collided with his shoulder instead, punching through the armor there with so much force that the man cartwheeled over. He flopped limply to the ground and Conan spun, ready to deflect the last man’s attack. None was forthcoming, for the guard ran past him in a panic, heading toward the dome.
Conan started forward, intending to pursue the fleeing guard, but he checked his stride. He would waste no more time in chasing cowards. Jessica needed him now, and nothing more stood in his way here.
He let the man go, leaving him to the fates, and trotted out across the square. At his back now lay only the dread scene of carnage, the shattered remains of both machines and men giving mute testimony to the folly of arousing the ire of a mighty Cimmerian and his god.
The blinding radiance of another crimson light blast shimmered off of Enkee-Kutul’s muscular frame and dissipated. The tyrant stood atop the high battlements of a long-deserted fortress, one that had once served as a mustering point for Boa’s warriors in the city’s final days of tribulation. Enkee-Kutul had materialized there to deal with Mach personally.
Another blast sizzled into the rooftop behind Enkee-Kutul, melting through its steel coating. Mach knew he couldn’t hope to breach the magical protections that guarded Enkee-Kutul. Scybor’s wards would not buckle under anything less than the direct will of another god, and the only incantations Mach could call upon that sprang from the divine were for healing purposes only. His technology and wits alone would have to suffice for keeping his enemy at bay.
And yet the effects of Mach’s technology were being shrugged off as nothing by Enkee-Kutul, who even now raised his arms and put voice to the first phrase of a spell that was sure to kill the Rhan. Mach suspended his attacks upon seeing their lack of effect upon Enkee-Kutul’s concentration, then he ceased his aerial maneuvering. His cape rippled and flowed about his body, keeping him aloft though relatively still. Fortunately, the guards hounding him earlier had been dismissed by their master back to their posts to finish readying the armada, and without them to pose a distraction, Mach had no difficulty in freeing his consciousness from its material vessel while Enkee-Kutul was engaged with his chanting.
The instant that his astral body left his physical one, the world around Mach changed. No longer were there just the buildings or the boundaries of the cavern, but now he looked out with his mind upon a realm more ‘real’ than any material existence alone. Here, souls were laid bare for any who wished to see them, as well as the traceries of magics past and present, and all around eddied currents that led to a veritable ocean’s worth of existences undreamed of by most. The astral plane served as a medium between universes, a plane upon which Mach was well-travelled.
Before him, Enkee-Kutul’s spirit fairly throbbed with malignancy, and Mach could sense the dire sorcery composed by the emperor reaching a crescendo.
Drawing deep from the well of spiritual energy inside himself, Mach unleashed a psychic flood that disrupted Enkee-Kutul’s spell and scattered its energies, but as a result Enkee-Kutul became aware of Mach’s presence in the astral plane and projected his own spirit to contend with the Rhan’s.
Much like a diamond, the soul is not easily destroyed, if indeed such a thing be even possible. But also like a diamond the soul can be shaped, stolen or hidden away, and so the battle between the astral bodies of Mach and Enkee-Kutul resembled more a contest of wills than a violent clashing of swords.
Mach bore down on his opponent, suffusing Enkee-Kutul with an overload of psychic energy in an attempt to stun his mind and thereby curb his actions in the material world, if only temporarily. Enkee-Kutul’s soul was an ugly thing, shriveled and twisted from countless years of feeding upon its own corruption, and Mach found his task easy enough.
But as they grappled, Mach felt another presence, some looming, enormous shadow that crept up around their struggling spirits like a hand closing about a pair of gnats.
There was a blossoming of great fear within Mach as he realized Scybor was upon them. The god had intervened in their struggle on the behalf of its servant, and now darkness clouded the Rhan’s mind, engulfing him like a sun setting over his soul. He knew that Scybor would try to absorb him into itself, like it had with the souls of countless sacrifices. His spirit would smother there, bereft of any identity or purpose other than serving to strengthen Scybor by allowing the god to draw upon that much more power.
Enkee-Kutul gloated in the embrace of his god, reveling over his imminent triumph.
A flare of anger lit up the darkness as Mach rebelled against the paralyzing infection that was Scybor’s will. The ethereal silver strand connecting his astral body to his physical one contracted, pulling him safely away from encroaching oblivion.
His soul returned to his flesh with a jolt and his eyes snapped open. Enkee-Kutul’s body stood motionless atop the battlements before him, his spirit apparently lingering yet in the astral plane. Without hesitation Mach flung a barrage of light into the lower levels of the fortress, the radiant shafts slicing through steel to pulverize the stone underneath.
The entire fortress shuddered as its foundation cracked and crumbled, falling in upon itself after having endured unscathed by the world for eons. Enkee-Kutul’s body fell alongside huge chunks of stone and lacerated metal, descending through a rising dust cloud.
Mach wheeled and soared away into the gloom. He was not so foolish as to believe his foe had perished. Now he sought to put distance enough between them that he might utilize the same strike and fade tactics he had employed so well against the guardsmen. The trick was to keep Enkee-Kutul distracted long enough to benefit Conan and Tukali without getting himself killed.
Through the tall stalks of towers and spires shooting upward all around, Mach sighted an interesting arrangement of brown formations ahead. He drew nearer and saw they were actually a group of buildings, lumpy and set low to the ground, all interconnected by a network of metal piping. They seemed too out of place to have found their origins alongside the city’s native structures. Obviously, they were here by Enkee-Kutul’s design.
Detecting no innocents nearby, Mach circled above the bulbous-looking structures and drenched them with spears of fire, laying waste to the entire site within seconds. He circled the blaze to make sure that nothing remained. As he did so, he spotted Enkee-Kutul down at the edge of the flames peering skyward. Mach took off, seeking out another target.
Without warning, Enkee-Kutul appeared in the air before him, well-nigh invisible against the cavern’s tenebrous backdrop. Before Mach even had a chance to swerve, his stomach connected with an out-flung fist that knocked the wind from his lungs. He crumpled, straining to draw breath.
Enkee-Kutul grabbed Mach by the fringe of his cape and whirled him around, his teeth bared to the gums in anger. “It makes no difference to me whether I kill you in this dimension or another, but I will kill you!” With that, he flung the Rhan away from him.
Mach collided heavily with some ancient temple’s pillar and his breath returned to him. He shook off the impact and flew at Enkee-Kutul faster than a loosed arrow. He struck out with his foot and kicked the tyrant on the chin, snapping back his head.
Enkee-Kutul tumbled through the air head-over-heels, but then he stopped himself with outspread arms and grinned. “Ha! You would prefer to fight me physically, then? Man to man? That suits me, for I would much prefer to kill you with my bare hands, though I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll skin you before or after you’re dead.” He held up one of his fingers and licked its razor-edged talon, drawing a thin line of blood along his tongue. “I think before–it is so much more enjoyable that way!”
Mach ignored Enkee-Kutul’s boasts and flitted around him, dodging the other man’s gaze.
Enkee-Kutul did not appear to care that he couldn’t see his prey, though he did turn every which way in search of the Rhan. “What good did you think your barbarian friend would do you? Oh yes, he did manage to defeat one of my overseers, so it would seem, but I suspect you somehow had a hand in that.” He whipped his head around to the left, just catching sight of one tiny corner of Mach’s cape before it disappeared behind him. “It doesn’t matter. Your friend is surely dead by now, or well on his way. Did you leave him as bait for my men so you could have me all to yourself? Well… now you have me!” He twisted his body so suddenly and quickly that Mach once again had no time to alter his course. Enkee-Kutul’s fist came around in a backhand swing and socked him in the jaw, sending him spinning. Enkee-Kutul’s foot then thrust outward and pounded him stoutly between the shoulder blades.
Mach fell out of the sky, his head swimming in pain and confusion. Above he could hear Enkee-Kutul’s mocking laughter recede as he plummeted toward the street.
He inhaled once, powerfully, sucking air deep into his belly, then exhaled with force. The resulting spike of energy helped clear his thoughts, barely in time. Ten feet from the ground he twisted onto his back and spread his cape. His fall slackened considerably but he smacked into the paves nevertheless, and what shock his extraordinary garment didn’t absorb was taken up by his arms and feet as he purposely slapped at the ground with them.
Mach arose, unhurt for the most part except for a few new bruises upon the backs of his arms. And his jaw would be sore for the rest of the day, if he survived that long.
The sound of Enkee-Kutul’s feet landing upon the street somewhere behind him caught his attention, and he turned to face his enemy. He had to reconsider his tactics. Losing Enkee-Kutul within the city had never really been an option since the emperor could sense Mach’s presence anywhere within Boa. Fighting him spiritually would leave him prone to Scybor’s dark influence, and Mach knew Enkee-Kutul’s magical abilities surpassed his own by far too much for a war of sorcery to gain him any advantage.
Enkee-Kutul wished to tear him apart by hand, but his physical strength, as impressive as it was, wasn’t limitless, and therein lay Mach’s best hope for survival.
With a thought he sent the folds of his cape twining about his body, covering his limbs in a protective shroud. The material stretched and flowed across his torso, wrapping him completely, except for his eyes, from head to toe. With the cape so employed as armor he would not be able to fly, but his strength would be increased tenfold, as would his resistance to punishment. And there was no magic at work here for Enkee-Kutul to sense and counter with spells of his own–just technology.
His cape bled out all its color, fading to a shade of black so deep that it neither gave off nor reflected any light but rather seemed to suck it in, rendering Mach nearly as imperceptible as shadow.
One of Mach’s feet slid forward and he lowered his chin, turning his body to the side as he adopted a loose fighting stance. He might not have the means by which to injure Enkee-Kutul, but he should be able to keep him at bay. Or so he fervently hoped.
A dark and terrible giant, Enkee-Kutul closed upon Mach with eager malevolence.
Conan oriented himself when he reached the avenue’s end near the many-stepped ziggurat. There was the hideous gate Tukali warned of, complete with its great jade rock perched above and the chipped and worn altar behind. Some noxious-looking animal stood next to the gate, chained in place. It grunted and snorted excitedly when it saw the Cimmerian, but Conan ignored it, looking around for Jessica.
She saw him first. “Conan!” she cried out. “Oh Conan, no! It’s a trap!” The expression upon her beautiful face changed from one of overwhelming joy at seeing Conan coming to her rescue to one of fear for his life.
He saw her gasp and point behind him. He immediately spun and blocked the whip snapping out from the overseer that had crept up on him from a building at the avenue’s corner. The robot had been lying in wait, expecting him.
But Conan had expected such an ambush, and even as he struck down the overseer and glimpsed a small number of others emerging from the surrounding shadows, he called out to Jessica. “Climb the steps, woman! Run to the top!” he yelled. He caught sight of another overseer that had already rounded the far edge of the ziggurat’s base, heading for the stairs. He could handle himself among the overseers, but he wouldn’t make the steps in time to reach Jessica, and there was no telling what these brutes might do to her now that the trap was sprung.
The hog-thing chained near the gate squealed in panic and tugged at its bonds till it foamed at the mouth. Conan left the battered carcass of the first overseer behind and sprinted for the steps, wishing as all men do at some point in their lives for wings to carry them to their destinations with greater speed and directness than their legs ever could. The side of the ziggurat’s imposingly high first tier flashed past as Conan raced, his countenance hard and determined. Up ahead, the second overseer mounted the steps well ahead of him. Jessica was barely up the incline herself, but the stairs were broad enough that she might evade to either side should the overseer overtake her. Conan heard the rest of them closing in.
Then he reached the steps and hurled himself up their age-worn expanse four at a time. The second overseer was right behind Jessica, drawing its whip-arm back to either lash or snare her, Conan’s didn’t know which, but before it could strike he was there. Blue metal shards flew and skittered down the stairs as Conan’s hammer ruined the overseer’s waist, sending the robot pitching over sideways. It landed upon its back on the steps below him, unable to regain its feet, but it clawed upward for him with its hand. He sheered that arm off with a downward swing, then bashed the overseer’s head with force enough to crush it and send the metal body flying down the steps. It rammed into another overseer and sent it sprawling.
Safe for the nonce, Conan looked around, seeking out enemies. The handful of overseers left below would be near soon enough to swarm up the steps, but so far there was no sign of any more of Enkee-Kutul’s men, nor of the dread invader himself. He felt a hand upon his arm.
He turned and hugged Jessica to him, kissing her on the forehead and then the mouth.
“Oh Conan, I’m so afraid!” Tightly she clung to him, her head nestled upon his shining breastplate. “I have never seen one so evil as Enkee-Kutul! The things he forced me to watch… so horrible! He means to make me his queen, whether I am willing or not!”
He stroked her hair tenderly, but his voice, a dangerous rumble, betrayed the cold hatred he harbored for the alien sorcerer. “Mark me: He’ll wed with naught but my steel.”
Hearing the ringing footsteps of the overseers upon the lowest stair, Conan scooped up Jessica with his free arm and bounded upward. The ziggurat was well over a thousand feet high, at the midpoint of which the first tier ended. Conan reached the middle in just a few minutes, and there he set Jessica down. “Stay here whilst I deal with the remaining curs, then I’ll be back for you.”
Jessica nodded mutely and watched Conan descend from where she stood just outside the door to her old cell, oblivious to the glare of unseen eyes upon her back.
His hair streaming out behind him, Conan stormed down the steps and reached the overseers in no time at all. He bowled into them, slugging the foremost of their number in the head with his hammer after springing outward in a lion’s pounce. The overseer’s head came off and Conan’s feet struck the chest of another, knocking it down and backward several yards. Conan landed upon the steps and readied himself to charge another of his foes when he heard a scream from up on the stair.
Enkee-Kutul’s high priest hauled Jessica toward the ziggurat’s uppermost tier where a shrine had originally stood but had since been demolished to make room for the glistening ship that now waited there.
After overcoming her initial fright, Jessica punched and clawed at the hand trapping her arm, but like a python the hand only tightened its already unshakable grip, sending tendrils of pain shooting through her wrist. She pulled on the arm anyway, dragging her feet in defiance. “Conan!”
The priest laughed at her. “He can do nothing. You belong to Enkee-Kutul.”
Conan would have started upward but the rest of the overseers were already upon him. “Crom curse me for a fool!” he swore, furious at himself for leaving Jessica alone and unprotected, no matter how briefly his intent. He laid about with the hammer, hewing at the overseers in a frenzy. His lips were drawn back against teeth gritted in murderous rage, and his eyes seemed to burn like twin blue suns scorching outward from beneath the roiling thunderhead of his brow. The overseers stood not a chance before the wild onslaught, and to the last of them their bodies tumbled back down the cracked stairs, mangled and dismembered.
Conan raised the hammer aloft and roared out a ferocious, wordless challenge.
Pausing in mid-stride, the priest looked down at the awful blood-freezing sound of that cry, expecting to see Conan near death. Instead, he saw the enraged barbarian shooting toward him like some avenging demon flung clear out of hell’s deepest pit, and he felt his bones turn to water. He thrust Jessica’s struggling form over his shoulder and took off at a dead run for the ziggurat’s peak.
But Conan was iron-thewed and fleet of foot, while the priest, though fairly robust in stature, was weighed down by his struggling burden and quite unused to trials of speed and endurance. The gap between them narrowed steadily, and more than once Conan’s quarry stumbled and almost fell.
Close behind, Conan saw the priest disappear over the edge of the ziggurat’s roof. When he himself reached the stair’s end soon after, he immediately spotted the high priest facing him from out of the shadows cast by Enkee-Kutul’s great spherical ship. There was no sign of Jessica.
The priest strode away from the ship’s curved hull and halted, still within the shadow.
Conan slowed his gait to a walk, for the highest tier of the ziggurat was not long in breadth, and there was nowhere for the impudent priest to escape to other than the staircase at Conan’s back. He glanced around without turning his head, but still couldn’t see Jessica.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
“In her proper place,” the priest replied with a sneer. “She belongs to Enkee-Kutul.”
“Fool!” Conan snarled. “Your master is well-nigh upon his funeral pyre! Give me Jessica and I’ll not have to kill you.”
The priest laughed, but his trembling voice and dead eyes revealed the emptiness behind his mirth. “I am not the one about to die.” He threw back his head, shaking off the hood, and clasped his hands together in front of his chest.
“Fir lihtan, Scybor-ka!”
Conan felt his nape-hairs stand on end and raised his hammer warily; he recognized the tell-tale invocation of sorcery all too well to ignore the pattern now.
A fist-sized glowing disk appeared in front of the high priest, its yellowy, translucent surface pointed directly at the Cimmerian. Conan heaved back his hammer, about to hurl it at the priest, when a brilliant white bolt flickered out from the disk before he could finish the move.
There was a series of ear-splitting booms as lightning superheated the air between them, spiking upward from the stone rooftop in a rapid succession of strikes straight from the priest to Conan. Branches of electricity shot up out of the stone at Conan’s feet and caressed his upraised hammer, drawn to it like filings to a lodestone. Then the lightning vanished. A reek of ozone flared Conan’s nostrils, but he was otherwise unaffected. He grinned humorlessly and moved forward.
The priest’s eyes widened in disbelief, thinking that he’d somehow missed his target. Again he called upon Scybor’s magic, and again the lightning tracked across the roof and played harmlessly off Conan’s hammer. At the termination of his third attempt to kill the Cimmerian he started backing away toward Enkee-Kutul’s ship.
Conan’s thick legs drove him forward in a spurt of motion and his hand shot out, catching hold of the retreating priest by the neck. He tried clamping his fingers tighter to choke some of the breath from his craven captive, but the flesh covering the man’s esophagus would not yield. No matter. For the moment he contented himself with lifting the priest off his feet, knowing his hammer could smash through the protective charm when he so wished it.
“What have you done with Jessica?”
The priest merely clutched Conan’s forearm and tried to pry himself loose of the hand encircling his throat.
Conan shook him hard, growing impatient. “Tell me…” He raised the hammer threateningly before the other’s face.
Unable to free himself, the priest finally gave in, encouraged by the massive war hammer so close to his skull. His eyes flicked aside at the glistening ship. “In there,” he said nervously.
Conan looked from the ship to the priest’s face and back again, scowling. He dropped the priest to the ground. “You had better be telling the truth.” He turned toward the ship.
There was a rustle of cloth so quiet that only one with the Cimmerian’s wilderness-honed senses could have detected it above the city’s ambient rumblings. Instantly, he whirled and struck. The hammer’s prong clove though muscle and rib to gore one of the priest’s lungs. The sacrificial dagger clattered at Conan’s feet and a spray of amber blood exhaled from the priest’s mouth as the man was tossed through the air to land like a broken doll several feet from the rooftop’s edge.
Conan eyed the unmoving priest suspiciously before returning his attention to the waiting sphere.
His reflection followed him as he paced along the huge metal hull, the image only minimally distorted due to the great expanse of the sphere’s exterior. He stopped about where he’d seen the priest loitering and examined the ship. No doors were visible to his eye, and no seams were readily apparent under his questing fingertips.
A heartbeat later Conan’s hammer tore into the ship’s skin, leaving a long, ragged hole. When he looked through the rent he chanced to notice that the ship’s outer covering was actually quite thinner than he’d expected, and comprised of many interlocking and wafer-thin layers of different materials.
Conan could see nothing inside, but he heard a continuing chain of what sounded to his ears like shrill trumpet blasts. Then he heard his name.
“Please get me out of here!” Jessica’s face appeared before Conan’s own, and he could see the relief writ plainly upon her features that he had found her.
“Stand back while I carve you an exit,” he cautioned.
She stood away and Conan set about widening the opening with skillfully precise blows from his hammer.
At the roof’s edge, bloodied cloth and flesh stirred weakly, followed by the high priest’s drawn-out groan.
Tukali slinked cautiously down the corridor, all but invisible in the near-darkness. Tiny fingernail-sized lights marked the sides of the hallway every three feet or so, but their luminosity was too faint even to reach the floor.
Here the Turanian slowed and called upon the map of the complex. The warden responded faithfully and displayed the image for Tukali’s vision alone.
He was now on the uppermost floor of the building, just outside an odd lump of a room that bulged upward into the city’s smog-ridden atmosphere to form the complex’s highest point. There were no windows, tunnels or entrances to the room other than the circular door that lay ahead at the corridor’s end. He’d bypassed any guards leading up to this point by following a ventilation shaft that had taken him to a grill set into the corridor’s ceiling. The going had been claustrophobic, but he’d made it.
On the map he could see the pair of adjacent glowing dots that indicated he was close to recovering the Cube of Fuzon. He banished the map and proceeded on through the darkness.
At last he came to the circular portal. The warden chirped once, causing lights to blink rapidly upon a small panel beside the door. The portal fragmented into a ring of inward-pointing triangles that spun apart with a whoosh, revealing the interior of the room beyond.
Tukali ducked through before the portal snapped shut.
The room reminded him of the city without, its floor sinking gradually down from the edges like a valley to a center both level and flat, though here the gradient was slightly less pronounced. Saffron light flooded over everything, leaving no shadows to be seen even between the tallest stands of silver-glittering equipment. At its core, the room harbored a rather large chunk of machinery that looked not entirely unlike a shrine at first glance, and indeed, every other mechanism within the chamber had been situated almost as if to represent disciples congregating in veneration of the unholy centerpiece.
Hundreds of workers bustled ceaselessly, drones attending to their queen. Tukali’s skin crawled as one looking upon a swarm of maggots hollowing out a dead animal. Hurriedly he shook off the feeling and appealed mentally to his guide for direction. As before, the gangly creatures seemed too frightened of him to pose any immediate threat.
Just as he’d suspected, the Cube of Fuzon lay straight ahead, nestled at the bottom of the room’s central, blocky pile. A waist-high chute at the front marked his only possible access to it.
He started across the floor, seeing no guards, men or otherwise, to hamper him in reaching his objective. He’d only taken two steps when suddenly a small gang of workers hastened toward him bearing metal implements in their claws, spurred to courage out of confidence in their numbers and fear for their lives if they were to allow Enkee-Kutul’s most valuable possession to be stolen from them.
Steel whispered on leather as the Turanian drew his scimitar. He slashed at the first bug-like worker to come within range, taking off its arm. Another went down with Tukali’s swordpoint through its abdomen while the first ran off, gushing fluids from the stump of its limb.
The others hesitated, noting the relative ease with which the intruder chopped down their fellows.
Tukali feinted at the rest but they kept off, signaling instead to others well across the chamber while they made their scurrying withdrawal. He saw the frantic communication and knew it could only mean big problems for himself.
He sheathed his weapon and pushed on warily, keeping his eye upon the those workers chittering and gesticulating nervously at the chamber’s other end. Whatever they were planning, they didn’t seem to like their new idea much better than the old one.
One of the workers made the decision for all of them by slapping a wall panel. A previously hidden door slid aside and every one of the creatures near it took off screaming. The chaos infected the rest of the room, and within moments there was total pandemonium as workers either fled for the exit behind Tukali or clawed their way to higher ground, huddling scared within the uppermost reaches of the room’s buzzing equipment.
Then Tukali heard the reason for their terror; a deep roaring issued forth from the hidden space beyond the secret door, followed up by another, and then another. Repeated shrieks filled the air, high and piercing, like metal being ripped apart. And Tukali knew metal was being ripped apart, torn to shreds with each and every contact by black-taloned paws, and at that moment part of his mind couldn’t help wondering why anyone would set such beasts loose in a facility they were trying to safeguard, what with all the damage they caused just by moving around. But then the thought vanished as his body went leaden and he stopped in his tracks, feeling chilled in spite of the room’s oppressive heat.
A long dark body leapt clear of the far doorway, and Tukali’s heart quivered sickeningly in his chest. The hound landed inside and two others appeared, close upon the heels of the first. Their muzzles swept from side to side, scanning the room for the cause of their summoning.
One of the hounds growled and snapped its jaws in distraction at a worker that hadn’t managed to flee very far. The little creature cringed upon its perch halfway up the wall, looking miserable as the hound voiced its complaints. But the large brute did not attack, restrained by the very same mechanical mind for which it was the job of the workers to glut with power they tapped from the Cube of Fuzon.
Then, with a loud baying, one of the hounds discovered Tukali’s whereabouts and began threading its way toward him through the jungle of equipment. The other two split up and followed suit.
Tukali had run out of options. He couldn’t and wouldn’t flee now, not with the lives of Khorshemish’s people at stake. They would remain slaves until Boa’s computer was deprived of power, and if they were still held in thrall when Conan confronted the emperor, there was no telling what might happen to them when Enkee-Kutul was defeated or destroyed; they might all die along with him, or out of some twisted act of revenge.
Fighting the hounds was also out of the question. One had been deadly enough, while three would surely see him reduced to ashes.
No, there was only one thing he could do.
Tukali gathered his courage and ran for the chute. As he descended through the room the hounds were temporarily lost from sight. The chute’s narrow opening drew near and Tukali pumped his legs harder, knowing that his pursuers were too bulky to possibly follow him inside.
But then he heard a scrape of claws on metal to his left, and he espied one of the hounds rounding the corner of the central cluster, moving fast to cut him off.
With a supreme effort Tukali ran full-tilt and launched himself through the air at a headlong dive for the opening. He hit the ground just ere the chute and slid neatly inside. And none too soon, he realized, as the turbulence of the hound rushing past the opening ruffled the cloth of his trousers.
He pushed himself into a sitting position, hearing the first hound already returning and the sounds of the other two arriving on the scene. To his right he saw the Cube of Fuzon lying at the end of the chute, surrounded by an elaborate apparatus busily leeching away its energy.
To his left a blackish-green paw suddenly plunged through the opening, thrashing about with claws extruded in search of Tukali’s flesh. He pulled away reflexively, but the hound could reach no further inside than its shoulder would allow. It raked the air for a few more seconds and then the limb withdrew, though the hound’s shadow still blocked the light.
Tukali sighed in relief, realizing the hounds couldn’t get at him. He looked to the Cube and started shuffling his body toward it, when abruptly he heard a slight panting sound to his left and the wild chirping of the warden on his forearm.
He snapped his head around and found himself staring into the hound’s own blank gaze. It had crouched down far enough to poke its head inside, and now it’s tongue lolled between dripping fangs as if it were just a hunting-dog that had chased a hare to its burrow.
Dread filled Tukali as he watched the tongue withdraw and those jaws begin to stretch apart, smelling the hound’s fetid breath invade his breathing space. He realized the beast was going to incinerate him, and it didn’t seem to care that the Cube of Fuzon lay directly in line behind its prey. Ironically, Tukali figured, with the chute being so cramped, his body would probably end up shielding the Cube from destruction by the flames.
The jaws stretched wider…
Moving further down the chute wouldn’t spare him, and there was nowhere to dodge to.
The air at the bottom of the hound’s throat hissed, and as Tukali beheld the first glow of fire on the rise he perceived his one and only chance for survival.
In one smooth motion his left hand tugged the dagger free from its sheath upon his chest and plunged it straight into the hound’s open maw. His body extended fully and his arm straightened as he rammed the blade through the soft flesh at the back of the hound’s throat, up into the rearmost portion of the braincase.
Without even a whimper, the hound died.
Tukali screamed in agony as the jaws clamped shut, slicing through hardened steel armor to sever his arm below the shoulder. But even at that last instant of the hound’s death some of the fire in its belly roiled upward, charring the detached limb down to the bone, and then puffing past the gaps between the locked fangs to burn into the Turanian’s wound. Flesh melted and Tukali screamed again, almost passing out from the pain.
He leaned away from the corpse, moaning. He slumped back against the wall of the chute, sweat pouring down his face to sting his already watery eyes. The stench of roasted flesh made his stomach lurch, and he had to breathe through his mouth to keep from vomiting.
Several long moments passed as he fought to stay conscious. Then of a sudden the pain in his shoulder began to dissipate along with the shock of his wound. Tukali’s guide warbled, and within but a few of his rapid heartbeats the pain was entirely gone and he no longer felt so queasy. He sat up, surprised, feeling better regardless of his grievous wound. Somehow, Mach’s device had given him strength enough to go on!
He looked at his shoulder, which was now permeated with a cool numbness. There was only a trickle of blood there, for the wound had been cauterized by the hound’s dying breath. He looked away, the sight of his mutilated flesh making him feel sick again, and dragged himself further inside, toward the Cube that beckoned to him through hanging shadows.
He drew near the relic, its surface clear and shiny like a piece of cut crystal. As Mach had instructed him he held out his remaining forearm, allowing the warden to latch onto the Cube. Behind him the hound’s corpse lay where it had settled in death, firmly wedged against the chute’s entrance. The other two hounds paced around and over the body, trying to move past it, but they couldn’t get at the dead hound’s legs to drag it aside as the limbs were pinned firmly beneath the corpse, and they could spew no fire past its armored shoulders and head.
Tukali felt no heat radiating from the Cube of Fuzon as he waited for the warden to finish disabling the hold of the surrounding projections upon it. Something about the way the Cube shimmered seemed odd, and when he examined the glassy surface more closely he fancied that it was made up of smaller cubes, and those of even smaller ones, and so on indefinitely.
He shook his head, clearing it of the hypnotic effect. At the same time a beep sounded at his wrist, signaling that all was in readiness. Slowly, he pulled his arm away from the apparatus and the Cube came with it, glued to the top of the warden. At once the lights in the room vanished, and the deep thrumming in the floor grew still. The hum of all the surrounding machinery faded gradually into silence.
There was a twinge in Tukali’s mind and bright spots danced before his eyes, and then they were gone, along with the last vestiges of the gilded madness. He let out a long breath and relaxed against the wall there in the darkness.
He heard a screech out in the room, followed by a snarl and ripping sounds. High-pitched screams echoed eerily as the hounds, no longer held in check by Enkee-Kutul’s computer, rampaged among the workers. Tukali listened to the clattering of equipment banks toppling and flying apart under the beasts’ paws as they hunted down their game, but the racket of their pursuit was as music to his ears now that the hounds were ignoring him in favor of an easier meal to soothe the pangs they suddenly felt in their empty bellies. The tumult waned and vanished entirely when the two hounds chased their fleeing banquet out into the corridor and the door shut them out of earshot.
Tukali was trapped where he sat, boxed into the chute by the hound’s sizable corpse, but it didn’t matter. Mach would find him and get him out.
He waited, wearing the trace of a smile upon his lips. He may have lost an arm, but he had saved a city and would probably live to tell of it.