Boa’s lights went out like so many torches guttering and dying at a storm wind’s rough caress, though darkening the ancient city only slightly more than the brief recess of twilight it had known for the decades of Enkee-Kutul’s intrusion upon its ages-old slumber. Not far from the city’s center fires raged, lapping hungrily at the surrounding buildings as do the waves of a returning tide upon sandy shoreline, persistently and ever bolder. Smoke roiled upward from the demolished smelteries, filling the air with soot while the inferno spread unchecked.
Nearby lay the vast industrial birthing-grounds of the alien tyrant’s armada, the foremost of its ranked steel frameworks caught full within the glare of the firelight. Between the chassis were arranged row upon row of metal spheres that threw back the glow of the flames in a glistening red mantle. Many sizes they were, and so numerous as to be virtually uncountable by any but the most patient of scribes.
But even the spheres were greatly outnumbered by the host of people amassed between them, for here was almost the entirety of Khorshemish’s populace, bereft only of those who had escaped the plague or fallen before Enkee-Kutul’s sacrificial purge of any too lame or sick to serve in his designs of conquest. Here the multitudes worked, hundreds of thousands strong, to prepare the ships for flight. None talked to nor even acknowledged their fellows as they finished their labors, making obscure adjustments to the war machines with arcane-looking tools. What little light there was flashed and twinkled from metal-studded limbs as whitecaps in a sea of enslaved humanity.
Then the people’s shackles were stripped suddenly away as the plague behind their bondage lost its power, dying along with the mechanical mind that had perpetuated it through means both earthly and occult. With nothing to sustain it, the spell broke, for it was only part sorcerous in nature, and those who had been captive to it awoke from the fever dream.
The people blinked and looked about them, moving sluggishly at first. The metal circuitry tracing their bodies turned brown and crumbled and pattered down around their feet to layer the ground with dust. Men, women and children, rich and poor alike, looked around in confusion at the disturbing metropolis that lay huddled beneath the cavern’s roof. Some cried out in fear, but the wits of all soon returned, quelling to some degree their apprehension at unfamiliar surroundings with firsthand knowledge of how they came to be there. A thunderous roar split the near-silence, the result of an entire city’s-worth of people speaking at once.
Those few of Enkee-Kutul’s armored guards that had been left to watch the slaves fled when they realized something had gone terribly wrong here in their master’s domain. They took to the air and headed for Enkee-Kutul’s ship to see what was amiss, uncaring or oblivious to the horde of angry eyes that bore into their backs.
Chaos might have reigned in so large a mob, but before it could take hold and disaster ensue, Khorshemish’s city guard and its other soldiery located their generals and rallied around them, and their combined shouts and prodding for order managed to still the crowds milling on every side. Many long minutes passed as the separated companies of soldiers gravitated toward each other through the throngs to form one large, unified group. When this had finally come to pass, the military leaders met and set about determining a course of action, while the soldiers picked up the tools they’d been using as slaves and armed themselves with those; they knew not the origin or principles behind the sundry implements, but the skills to use them had been imprinted directly upon their brains, as was the case with all present, when they were first pressed into Enkee-Kutul’s service. Remembrance of those skills would last in the people’s minds for many years to come, long after the tools themselves were lost or ceased to function.
The generals organized the people into a number of smaller divisions, each accompanied by a legion of troops to protect them, and thus organized the people of Khorshemish marched across Boa, for in the return of their memories of the waking nightmare had also come recollection of the routes by which they had descended beneath the streets of their own city, and it was these entrances into Boa that they intended to make their exits. Soldiers took up positions at the fore and aft of each column and at intervals in between and alongside. Scouts were sent ranging ahead and to the outlying flanks of the processions to warn against treachery, and a few caught glimpses of foul and lurking things, only some of which had been recently conjured to toil for Enkee-Kutul. But these creatures of the benighted voids shirked the bustling humans, preferring instead to slink away and fight amongst themselves. The demonic snarls and screams of their battles echoed hauntingly through the streets, causing more than a few of the refugees to hasten their steps.
Enkee-Kutul’s massive fist swung around in a tight hook, aiming for Mach’s jaw, but the Rhan’s black-shrouded form was difficult to follow in the gloom of the street and he missed. A foot plunged into Enkee-Kutul’s gut and he staggered back a pace, his balance rocked by the impact.
He slapped aside a follow-up roundhouse kick to his skull and countered with an uppercut to Mach’s stomach, returning the favor. His blow lifted the Rhan clear off the ground, and another fist collided with Mach’s chest to send him flying. Enkee-Kutul watched with some appreciation as his opponent dipped over backward and turned his momentum into a series of handsprings and a twisting flip that brought him into a crouch a safe distance away. That the Rhan could deal and receive blows almost as well as he had proved this duel one of the best sparring matches Enkee-Kutul had enjoyed in years. But, alas, it was time to end it.
A subtle shifting of black shadow against the wan light seeping down from the buildings lining the street was all the warning Enkee-Kutul received that Mach was again on the move. He stood immobile as the other man charged him, almost too fast to see. Enkee-Kutul waited until the last instant when his opponent verged on passing him, a hand knifing out in a vicious slash at his bare neck, and then he stepped in with his opposite foot and ducked. The chop swished through empty air as Enkee-Kutul spun completely around, kicking rearward at Mach’s exposed back as he sped by.
The kick arched Mach’s spine like a bow and tripped up his feet so that he crashed roughly to the ground and skidded along the paves. He lay there, stunned, his legs atingle.
Enkee-Kutul moved to stand above him, raising up one gigantic foot in preparation for a killing stomp. The Rhan’s face would make a fine addition to the leathern hide of his throne.
The mind that touched Enkee-Kutul’s own at that instant seemed frantic and tinged with agony. He let his foot fall back to the ground, and a muttered invocation ushered a window-like view into being before his gaze. The image of his high priest shimmered in the air before him, and Enkee-Kutul frowned when he saw the lines of the man’s face etched deep with pain and his robes soaked through with blood. He also noticed that the priest appeared to be lying down. “What has happened?”
The priest gasped, and more rivulets of yellowy-orange blood flowed past the corners of his mouth. He swallowed chokingly, biting back the pain. “Th-the barbarian…”
“What?!” Enkee-Kutul’s eyes bulged in his rage. “Where are those fools I sent to kill him?”
With a groan, the high priest shook his head. “They’re dead… all dead. The barbarian w-wields a fearsome weapon. He–” He choked again, and fresh runnels of blood leaked from the hole in his chest, sloshing down onto the stone on which he lay. A dusky hand clapped over the ragged wound, trying to staunch the flow. “He ha…has great power…”
Enkee-Kutul could barely contain his fury. “Where is the woman?”
A blood-smeared finger pointed and the view shifted away from the wounded priest. There in the background, Enkee-Kutul spotted the barbarian in front of his ship, mauling it open with some titanic hammer. His ship! “This is not possible,” he muttered.
The priest gathered his breath in reply. “He frees her even now, m-master.” A claw-like hand reached out toward Enkee-Kutul. “Please… help me–“
At that moment the city went dark. The wispy lights above Enkee-Kutul’s head twinkled and vanished like stars hiding behind clouds blown across an evening sky.
Enkee-Kutul looked around in bewilderment, and then his jaw clenched in his realization that the Cube of Fuzon had just been removed, for how else could everything in his city lose power at once? He’d been too confident in his underlings’ abilities to deal with the barbarian, and Mach had played him for a fool, keeping him distracted while the Cube was stolen out from under his nose.
He dismissed the image of the priest with a wave of his hand and again raised his foot to kill Mach, but when he looked down his prey was gone. The very night air seemed to flinch away as he bellowed his wrath there in the darkness, and far off in the distance there came an answering roar, though much too loud for an echo.
He collected himself, pushing away his frustration. Mach’s death would have to wait–it was the time for the human savage to meet his ruin.
Enkee-Kutul merged with the shadows.
Conan’s hammer sank into the ship’s hull one last time and he tore it loose, casting aside the tall sheet of metal he’d just hewn free. Through the opening Jessica sprang into his arms and he hugged her to him. She wept openly, her tears rolling down his neck and onto his armored chest. After having come so close to rescue the first time he’d found her, it had worn cruelly on her nerves to be snatched away again with the promise of freedom all but whispered in her ear. Now Jessica again cherished the comfort of Conan’s strong, encircling arms, and in their reunion they failed to notice the city lights dying around them, nor the weak stirrings of the mangled priest at the roof’s edge.
After several moments of their embrace, Conan gently dislodged himself from Jessica and stood her on the ground before him. “Tukali and Mach will be here soon, and they can spirit you away to safety.”
Jessica blinked up at him in confusion through red-rimmed eyes. “Mach?”
Conan smiled. “Aye, a man from another world, come to help free us from the alien conqueror. Mach’s a wizard, of sorts, the same one Tukali thought he’d saved me from in the Kothian Hills. It would seem our little adventure there was a misunderstanding after all–“
“Oh!” she cried out suddenly, pointing past his shoulder, and Conan turned to face the new threat.
There was a clumping of feet on the ziggurat’s roof behind them as a little more than a half score of Enkee-Kutul’s chitin-armored guards touched down upon the peak.
“Back,” Conan whispered to Jessica, nudging her protectively behind him. He lifted the hammer cross-wise before him and stepped boldly forward, blocking Jessica further from the attention of the new arrivals.
One among the armored men moved immediately to take up the Cimmerian’s unspoken challenge, and his cohorts advanced also, following the lead man’s example.
Conan’s teeth flashed in a mirthless smile and he shifted the hammer from side to side, ready for the brawl.
Some of the guards hesitated, having seen the decimated remains of the overseers on the ziggurat’s stair far below. The leader sensed their apprehension and cursed in open disgust. He pointed his arm at the waiting barbarian.
“Touch him not.” The voice pealed out at the backs of the armored men, loud and compelling. Even so, the lead guard refused to lower his arm, flicking his head aside in a show of irritation.
“Why should I not?”
Those behind stepped aside to let Enkee-Kutul stride to the fore, where he halted next to the impertinent guard. “Because he will kill you,” he answered quietly, though his jaw seemed stiff in speaking.
But the other’s blood was up and he considered not the fact that it was his master with whom he argued. “Kill me?! Only a coward would fear such a savage, no matter how pretty the toy he wields!”
Enkee-Kutul grunted, his features hardening. “Remove your helmet.”
The guard paused uncertainly before complying, then pulled the helmet clear from his shoulders with a snap and a hiss of air. “Why did–“
Enkee-Kutul’s fist smote downward and the guard dropped instantly, landing stone-dead at the tyrant’s feet with a shattered skull. The other guards stood riveted as their master brushed his baleful gaze over them. “Would another care to defy me?” None stirred, and Enkee-Kutul gestured for them to take posts at the top of the stairs. “No matter what happens, do not interfere.”
While his men withdrew, Enkee-Kutul glanced sidelong at Conan, and then walked with deliberate steps to his fallen priest.
Conan tracked his enemy with icy eyes, his face an expressionless mask. Silent and motionless as a lion waiting in tall grass, he sized up Enkee-Kutul with practiced perception. Behind him Jessica stood with her back to the ship, her hands pressed flat against the metal hull as she fearfully regarded the events unfolding before her.
Enkee-Kutul ignored them, hunkering down amid a widening pool of blood as he reached the priest’s side. He held a hand against the underside of the man’s head, raising it up so he could regard his face.
The wounded priest let out a ragged breath and tried to crawl to his knees, but his flesh was not behind his mind’s will, and Enkee-Kutul bid him remain still with a hand laid firmly upon his shoulder. “Do not rise; your wound is most grievous.”
The priest nodded and coughed as more blood washed past his lips. “Per-perhaps it is time for m-me to join Scybor.”
No sound passed the black giant’s lips, nor did his stony eyes even waver.
“Do it!” hissed the priest, his own eyes glazing with fanaticism.
Enkee-Kutul’s hands twitched but briefly as he broke the man’s neck.
The corpse flopped aside and Enkee-Kutul stood, landing a withering gaze upon the grim-faced Cimmerian.
Conan braced himself for a sorcerous attack, but Enkee-Kutul’s mouth remained in its tight-lipped scowl and he made no gestures with his hands. Instead, he approached Conan, cautiously, and halted his stride when he had reached an easy speaking distance.
“So. You are the one whose company she–” his chin lifted to indicate Jessica, “–prefers to my own.” Brazenly, he scrutinized Conan from head to toe, as if the Cimmerian were but an object of his own possession. His eyes alighted upon the hammer and narrowed with a keen interest. “Tell me, little man, are you as brave a fighter without that?”
Conan’s confidence in his own prowess was rooted far too deeply in fact for him to fall victim to such an obvious provocation. His sullen glare alone spoke at length of his many blood-soaked triumphs upon the battlefield, and the flinty edge to his voice foretold of many more victories to come. “Are you such a knave as to cringe unmanly whilst your jackals fight and die in your place?”
The scowl on Enkee-Kutul’s face deepened and the clenched muscles of his body stood out prominently as his hands slowly knotted into fists. Then, suddenly, he relaxed, and the scowl disappeared as his mouth split in a lop-sided grin. “You have caused me no small amount of difficulty, you and your companions, but nothing so great as to be insurmountable. Soon, all will be set aright, after I’ve rid myself of your distraction.” Again his eye fell upon the hammer, and this time Conan fancied he caught the barest trace of concern, perhaps even fear, outlined in those dark features. Enkee-Kutul’s attention remained locked upon the glittering weapon for a moment more, and then his grin became sly. “I had thought to reacquaint the Rhan’eitat with the face of Scybor after my forces had taken Rhan’esh, but clearly the time of his coming is nigh…”
Conan had waited long enough, and even as Enkee-Kutul reached for the beaker tucked into the side of his loincloth, he threw himself at the tyrant with a bone-chilling, ululating war cry.
Demonstrating an agility bordering on the supernatural, Enkee-Kutul gave way before the fearsome onslaught, though for all his speed he backpedaled in scarcely enough time to avoid the first swings of Conan’s hammer. During that string of rapid heartbeats his fingers pried fumblingly at the vial’s stopper, trying to get the container open, but his hasty efforts only served to wedge the plug further inside.
Conan aimed another flurry of hammer-blows at the giant, each bloodthirsty swing missing flesh by little more than hairsbreadths as his foe leapt ever backward. Fleetingly, Conan wondered why thus far there was no sign of a counterattack, and then he noticed the small vial and how Enkee-Kutul clawed at its stopper to get at the colorless potion swirling within.
In the murky light Enkee-Kutul mistook Conan’s sudden pause as a temporary lull in the attack, perchance for the barbarian to catch his breath. But in sooth, Conan had recognized sorcery in the making and halted only to gather his legs beneath him. Now with a bellow he pounced, faster than Enkee-Kutul could withdraw, and his hammer flashed up toward the vial.
Enkee-Kutul’s torso twisted and his hand swept aside, moving the vial out of harm’s way. But even as he did so his own elbow took its place and Conan’s hammer smacked glancingly into it instead, pulverizing the joint before driving the arm skyward. Enkee-Kutul’s eyes widened briefly in horror as his arm straightened to its utmost and the vial flew from his benumbed fingers.
High above their heads sailed the beaker, arcing slightly behind the fiercely grinning Cimmerian. Conan raised the hammer above his head two-handed, intending to finish his enemy while he was yet preoccupied with the thwarted spell.
Enkee-Kutul’s eyes never left the airborne vial, not even when his leg snapped out seemingly of its own volition and caught Conan unawares with a front kick that catapulted him almost to Jessica’s feet.
Conan’s armor struck sparks as he hit the ground and skidded roughly on his side. He shook his head briskly, a little dazed.
Enkee-Kutul took a long stride forward, his eye painstakingly tracing the spinning vial’s descent. Down it came, hardly distinguishable in the dimness as much more than a delicate glinting where the ruddy light of the cavern reflected in lines from the beaker’s crystal. His good arm reached out and, almost casually, he plucked the vial from the air. Again he made to pry out the stopper, but he winced as he was dutifully reminded of his injury by the white-hot nails of pain being pounded through the nerves of his ruined elbow. He saw the barbarian rising, and frantically he racked his brains for another way to get at the potion.
Conan gained his feet and caught Enkee-Kutul’s triumphant leer as the tyrant popped the vial into his mouth and champed down hard, grinding the vessel to pieces between his teeth. In a single, exaggerated gulp, Enkee-Kutul swallowed potion and shards alike, and when his mouth opened again it was to chant a chorus of abominations that sounded foul no matter whether the listeners understood the guttural language or not.
Instinct caused Conan to lunge at his foe with the intention of striking him down before the sorcerous invocation could be completed and its intended effect made reality, but purest horror stopped him cold midway to his goal; his head wanted to turn aside to spare his mind from the nightmare scene at which he now stared with undisguised revulsion, a scene the likes of which only the denizens of Hell could cherish. But Conan couldn’t look away, even had it meant his life to do so.
A blaze of fiery light seemed to illuminate Enkee-Kutul from a point somewhere beneath him, limning his features in a way more demonic than they already were, but Conan could see no obvious source for the eerie radiance.
Huge tumorous growths spurted forth from Enkee-Kutul’s writhing skin, waving violently like jungle vines blown about in a monsoon. All over his body the blackened fleshy spikes erupted. His eyes burst clear of their sockets to dangle above his cheeks as wriggling fronds shot out of his skull. His lower jaw nearly ripped clear of his face at the passage of a thick creeper that twitched and elongated, an enormous tongue licking obscenely at the unseen heavens. In the space of seconds, every inch of Enkee-Kutul’s body lay hidden amongst a forest of whispering, meaty boles. Even the hardened Cimmerian felt his stomach give a flip-flop.
Conan felt a presence then, not unlike the feeling one gets before a storm is about to be loosed, but this was far more tangible, and to him it seemed as if the cavern had just plunged many leagues through the black waters of an ocean to settle at the benighted bottom. He had only ever experienced this impression in the company of great supernatural evil, and without a doubt he knew Scybor had been summoned.
The wriggling mass that had been Enkee-Kutul grew in volume, and as many of the cancerous stalks swelled and rose up in the vertical, more pushed and expanded against the ground, raising the central mass high into the air beyond Conan’s reach.
Conan closed with the thing anyway. He hammered at the nearest growths and felt them give beneath his assault, but swiftly others twined together to snag his weapon so that it became unfettered only reluctantly after he strained and wrenched at it with all the force he could muster. When he did so, more tendrils diverted themselves from the main body and slapped at him, doing him no harm but keeping him at bay just the same with their weighty buffets. He withdrew, unable at present to find or reach a suitable target.
The mass of growths reached a height of almost thirty feet, and before Conan’s wary gaze they knit into a solid column just as a rope is created from thinner, interwoven lengths of twine. A body started to emerge with huge chunks of flesh splitting from the main torso to form first legs, and then arms, and above the whole twisted frame a monstrous head began to take shape.
A concussive blast rocked the darkness where Tukali sat, and he heard a crashing as of debris falling upon the machinery over his head. He sensed movement at the chute’s entrance, and with a scrape of scales on steel flooring the hound’s corpse was dragged clear. Light seeped into the tunnel from a small glowing ball held before a familiar face.
The face smiled and Mach’s free hand reached out toward the battered Turanian. Tukali edged forward and grabbed it, and he was pulled free of his cramped prison. The luminous sphere cupped in the Rhan’s palm revealed small, mangled body parts strewn throughout the room, the work of the rampaging hounds, and a wide rent cut into the ceiling, its edges still smoking. Mach pulled Tukali to his feet.
“An excellent job,” said Mach, gesturing to indicate the city outside the complex. “I knew you would come through! I look forward to hearing your tale–” It was then that he noticed Tukali’s injury. “Your arm!”
Tukali grimaced, not wanting to be reminded. “The price of glory. A fair trade, I think.” He held out his remaining arm, proffering both the Cube of Fuzon and the warden to Mach.
“Nay, the warden soothes your pain. Best you keep it for now.” Again Mach regarded the burnt flesh of Tukali’s shoulder, frowning in thought. “I’ll have to do something about that,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “But it will have to wait. We are needed elsewhere.”
Mach wrapped an arm securely around Tukali’s chest, and his cape spread wide and rustled with mysterious winds, bearing them aloft through the broken ceiling and out into the city.
Any mortal might have quailed in mind-blasting fear before Scybor, and as it was, Jessica moaned in dismay and came close to swooning at the side of Enkee-Kutul’s ship. But Conan stood his ground, and though his skin prickled at the dread sight of a dark god come to earthly life, experience had long since steeled his nerves against even such as the terror he now faced.
Scybor’s towering form reared up threateningly before the Cimmerian. The god’s torso was extensive in length, though in proportion to that of a slender man, with corded muscles that stood out from the ectomorphic frame in high relief, giving the god a lean and hungry aspect. Long bony legs supported it, shaped like a man’s and ending in claw-tipped feet, but Scybor’s arms were much, much longer, each as far-spanning as the god itself was tall; their spare lengths boasted over-long hands, and needle-like fingers that clacked together in restless anticipation of closing upon the warrior standing defiantly before it. In its overlarge, misshapen head, two hell-pit eyes regarded Conan with a vast but malign intelligence, blazing out from under a low brow like bonfires ignited beneath an overhang of basalt. Two holes on either side of its head marked ears like a bird’s, while for a nose it had but slits like those in a human skull, described within thin wrinkles of flesh that twitched and dilated as Scybor sniffed the air. Most terrifying of all was the god’s mouth, which appeared no more than the slightest bit too large when closed, but when it opened, the angular jaw depended all the way down to the top of Scybor’s chest, the gums above and below distended well away from the taut coverings of skin that served as lips. Fangs like blackened sabers protruded from the gums in irregular intervals and rows of up to three deep, their tips curving slightly inward, while between them darted a narrow tongue forked so deeply as to effectively be two. That voluminous maw could devour a full-grown boar in one snap of its jaws.
Almost as an afterthought, a pattern of raised designs had spread across Scybor’s dark skin, identical in shape and arrangement to the metallic components of the slave plague, but these were entirely decorative, signifying Scybor’s adoption of the sciences of the Rhan’eitat as the basis of its magical influence on the material plane.
Scybor stretched out its arms and opened its jaws to their widest extent, letting loose with a sepulchral bellow.
Conan’s ears rang with that tremendous sound, and the ziggurat’s foundations could be felt vibrating at the god’s cry. One ghastly hand reached out tentatively for the Cimmerian, fingers splayed wide to snatch him up, and Conan drove his hammer against the flat of the palm with a resounding smack.
Scybor’s arm flinched away as if stung, and it roared again. The god’s other hand grasped for Conan with uncanny speed and caught him around the waist before he could fend it off.
The rooftop fell away from Conan’s boots as he was lifted into the air. He pounded savagely at the hand ensnaring him, but the fingers of Scybor’s other hand closed about his arms, pinning them to his sides, and he found he could do aught else but retain the hammer in a one-handed grip.
The god drew Conan close to inspect the anomalous creature that could cause it pain. This close to Scybor, Conan was nearly overwhelmed by the charnel house stench oozing from the half-open jaws.
Eyes of burning blood drilled into his own, as if examining his very soul. Conan steadfastly returned the stare, glowering with righteous hate. Their eyes remained locked for what seemed like ages, neither acceding supremacy to the other.
And then Scybor laughed, or so it sounded to Conan’s besieged ears, a prolonged, unbroken screech that might have been the wailing of captive souls begging for release. Scybor held the straining barbarian at arm’s length before it and wrapped its fingers fully and tightly around his body.
Conan struggled fiercely with every ounce of strength at his command. He wasted no breath on curses, but instead focused his efforts on wielding the hammer through the restricted range of motion afforded his lower arm. He managed a few ineffectual swipes at Scybor’s hand, and the malign god’s fingers constricted more tightly around Conan in response.
All that saved him from having the air crushed from his lungs in those next few instants was his sturdy, alloyed cuirass, and the rock-hard muscles backing up its integrity. Nevertheless, he felt the pressure building to an intolerable level, and with a superhuman effort he swung the hammer sideways, bludgeoning Scybor full on the wrist.
The god hissed in pain, and Conan’s jaws clacked together as Scybor’s arm shook agitatedly without relinquishing its hold on him. He was about to repeat the blow when something coiled up around his face, obscuring his vision, and his forearm was jerked tight against his side, the hammer pinioned along with it.
Scybor’s fingers grew longer, flowing about Conan’s body to enwrap him in a smothering shroud. Conan thrashed and fought valiantly to free himself, but he was suffocating, and the fingers continued to coil like pythons, layering him many times over until all that remained was a bloated pod of godflesh.
Jessica’s anguished scream preceded Scybor’s victory roar, which all but drowned out the jubilant shouts of the guards behind it, and the eldritch god raised its still-clasped hands over its head in fang-gnashing, hideous triumph.
Heated air gusted into Tukali’s face, the atmosphere cloying and rank even at their lofty elevation. The cavern’s fiery rift passed beneath them, a thin line of crimson with borders of pitch, and they flew on toward the ziggurat ahead.
As they drew near, a bestial roar shook the cavern and rebounded from the ceiling, sending thin trailers of dust spiraling down through the soft-glowing haze.
Mach descended until they became nearly level with the top of the ziggurat, and it became apparent to both men that there was some kind of gathering at the peak.
“What is that?” Tukali exclaimed, pointing at the distorted shape that loomed there over all.
Catching sight of the monumental shadow, Mach cursed suddenly and brought their flight up short, stopping dead in the air. “No,” Mach breathed fearfully. “It cannot be…”
The Turanian’s mouth went dry at the thought of anything that could elicit such dread from even one such as Mach. With great trepidation, he repeated his question. “What is that?”
Mach hesitated. “Scybor.”
And as Tukali watched, he caught a glimpse of a black mane flowing above steel armor. “By Tarim! It has Conan!”
With horrified eyes they bore witness to the brief and intense struggle between man and god, and then it was over, Scybor’s exultant cry ringing painfully in their ears as the god held up its coiled hands, bearing aloft its hidden trophy.
Tukali moaned in dismay at seeing the Cimmerian’s defeat, knowing it meant that all their efforts had been for nothing.
Mach gaped in shock at the appalling turn of events. He shook his head slowly, unbelieving of what he had just seen. “How can this be?” he asked himself aloud. “How could Scybor be permitted to walk the earth?” He had expected Conan to face Enkee-Kutul, and had helped him prepare for just that. A direct confrontation with Scybor had not even been a possibility in his mind, and now he bemoaned his shortsightedness. “I have sent Conan to his doom.”
“Nay, look!” exclaimed Tukali excitedly, his trembling finger pointing to Scybor’s clasped hands.
Mach looked, and new hope surged within his breast. A silvery point thrust up through Scybor’s entangled fingers, and ichor squirted and dripped down the god’s hands as the point flashed above Scybor’s flesh like a shark’s fin above the water. The god shrieked in pain and frustration, starting to bring its arms down but unable to unravel its fingers in time to spare them from mutilation.
They saw the point stop moving, and, without further warning, the hands exploded outward in a hail of sodden meat, raining down upon Scybor’s skull and pelting the guards behind with sticky gore.
A figure dropped to the ground before Scybor, steam rising off its armor-sheathed body in curling ribbons. Tukali gasped in surprise. “That is not Conan!”
“No,” agreed Mach, beaming. “It’s Crom!”
Jessica doubted her eyes when she saw the glittering sword and great horned helm, knowing Conan had not been in possession of either. Even the armor was different, created from thick overlapping plates of steel after a fashion she didn’t recognize. The new arrival radiated an aura of immense power and competence, like he could move a mountain with a single gesture. She could discern nothing else of this warrior clad entirely in brilliant metal, except that he was even larger than Conan, taller and broader of limb. Jessica strained to see some aspect of his face, but the helmet covered his entire head and concealed his features from view.
She didn’t understand what had happened, and she knew not what had become of Conan, but somehow, just seeing this awesome warrior, Jessica felt her doubts and her terror melting away.
Scybor looked upon the gleaming figure and knew fear. The dark god screamed in rage, bending its torso forward and jaws gaping wide as if to kill the warrior with its voice alone, but if the warrior cared, he did not show it; he stood there motionless, regarding Scybor in grim silence.
Like twin battering rams, Scybor’s handless arms swung down at the warrior from both sides, intending to crush him between them.
Crom’s sword licked out, describing a great, whistling arc. The huge broadsword sheared up through one arm and down through the other, all in a single, smooth action. The dismembered limbs crashed against Crom’s armor and bounced off harmlessly, budging him not a hair.
Scybor staggered, hissing, and fell to its knees in agony. Stinking fluids jetted from its wounds, coating the rooftop with fast-congealing sludge. Three of Enkee-Kutul’s guards fled at the sight of their god’s helpless torment at the hands of the invulnerable stranger, while their fellows stood rooted in soul-freezing awe.
A voice resonated then from behind the great helmet, rolling out majestic and deep, a sound like elemental thunder articulating words, and though the language was not one that any mortal there could put a name to, all understood it as if they’d been born with it echoing from their mouths.
“You hide yourself beneath a false canopy, this pretense to godhood,” said Crom to Scybor, “but you are nothing more than a demon in the guise of divinity. A true god’s power springs from within, while yours must derive from the souls you steal. Therein lies your weakness, pretender.”
Scybor recoiled before these words as evil inevitably must before the truth revealed, and the false god slumped in defeat, chastened by one it could never hope to overcome. Scybor’s hellfire eyes deadened to embers.
Whatever guards were left standing at the head of the ziggurat’s stairs disappeared in haste.
Crom extended his broadsword and pointed at Scybor with the glittering blade. “Before you are banished whence you came, you will give up those spirits you have stolen. So I have ordained, and so it shall be.”
The air around Scybor shimmered as if intensely heated, distorting the demon’s form past all detail until only nebulous shadows remained at the core. Irregular waves of the distortion swelled and flared outward from Scybor in all directions, the wake of an ethereal and translucent deluge of souls that bent the air and what little florid light still permeated through the city’s haze.
When each and every captive spirit had departed from Scybor’s being, Crom strode forth, sword in hand, and opened a great gash in the kneeling demon’s chest. One of his gauntlets plunged deep into the wound and ripped free a twisted shape, which he flung to the ground.
Its powers spent, and with nothing to hold it to the material plane, Scybor’s butchered flesh spontaneously ignited in a column of strange, blue-tinged fire that gave off neither heat nor smoke. Scybor’s jaw worked soundlessly as the flames quickly consumed its entire body, even the severed arms lying yards away, until nothing but vague, greasy stains remained upon the ziggurat’s stone blocks to indicate that the demon had ever been there.
Crom looked up into the air and addressed Mach, who, carrying Tukali, had glided in closer after recognizing the Cimmerian deity.
“Take him,” said Crom, gesturing down at the gore-smeared and shriveled old man. “Take him and salve the wounds of your people. But do not tarry here long, for I intend to drown this city, this vile crypt, in cleansing fire.”
And then the Lord of the Mound was gone, vanished as abruptly as he’d arrived, and Mach landed on the roof. While Tukali saw to Jessica, the Rhan grabbed hold of the old man’s arm and hauled him upright. Toothless and shrunken, Enkee-Kutul was pathetic to behold now that Scybor’s gifts of youth and strength had been stripped away. But the cold glint in his milky eyes had lost none of its evil, and part of Mach was glad, for the Rhan’eitat would be able to find more comfort in the tyrant’s execution than if Enkee-Kutul had taken refuge in penitence or senility.
Mach joined the others, pushing his captive along by the scruff of the neck. Jessica was speaking in hushed tones with Tukali, and at the Rhan’s approach her attention fell upon Enkee-Kutul.
“So your true self stands revealed at last,” she said wryly, a hint of frost in her voice. “Is this the glorious monarch to whom I was betrothed?” But Enkee-Kutul could not meet her mocking gaze, and he looked down in humiliation.
“If you will each come close, I can take you swiftly away from here.” Mach’s cape spread behind himself and his prisoner, and the other two stepped into its shadow, Jessica somewhat reluctantly.
“But where is Conan? Is he safe?” she asked.
Mach smiled warmly. “Safe enough for the moment, I suspect. In any case, I shall return to seek him out and ensure his survival.”
Jessica seemed satisfied with that, and the group was lost from sight as the cape enveloped them.
Moments later, the Rhan returned as promised. No sooner had his lungs again inhaled Boa’s turbid air than he heard the series of hollow, crashing echoes floating upward from the base of the ziggurat. The cavern also seemed a little brighter.
Mach leapt from the top stair and glided down over the ziggurat’s face, straight toward the square. As the stairs flew past beneath him he searched for the source of the sounds, and behind a narrow plume of white smoke rising up from below he espied a figure. The Rhan swung his feet forward and set down lightly upon the paves.
The summoning gate lay in ruins, its twin carven columns dashed against the ground and strewn at length in broken chunks. All that was left of the jade rune-stone lay in a smoldering pile of fine debris, sending up smoke. There was a rotund man lying upon the ground close to one fallen pillar, naked and chained in place by the ankle. He wept in quiet terror with his face hidden behind his hands, oblivious to all outside his own miserable, inner world, but this wasn’t the one who had drawn Mach’s interest.
The other stood looking down at the sundered remains of the sacrificial altar; the huge stone block, after surviving for untold ages, had been chopped in half and kicked apart.
Conan sensed Mach behind him and slowly turned. His look of bewilderment faded somewhat when he recognized his friend, but not completely. “How in Crom’s name did I get here?” he asked.
Mach suppressed a smile at the irony of Conan’s words and looked the Cimmerian over. He appeared much the same as he’d last seen him, except that there was no sign of the hammer. “What do you remember?” he asked.
Conan glanced around and rubbed his temples as if dazed. “I remember fighting Enkee-Kutul, and that he changed somehow. But then the world went dark, and now I’m here.” He flinched as if startled awake. “Where’s Jessica? And Tukali? Is Enkee-Kutul vanquished?”
“The day is ours, thanks to you,” said Mach, clasping the taller man’s shoulder reassuringly. “I’d gladly give you an accounting of all that has transpired, but the story will have to wait. This city is doomed and we have but little time.” Even as he spoke, the cavern’s illumination spiked so that the ceiling now shone like the eastern horizon at the first hint of sunrise, and a deep, churning vibration started beneath the flagstones, subtle at first but growing.
A sudden choking sob from behind Mach seized Conan’s attention, who clutched instinctively for the Ilbarsi knife at his hip, but then he beheld the origin of the intrusion and left the weapon sheathed.
“Set’s scales, but I do know there was an animal chained before where that man now sits blubbering! He looks somehow familiar to me… Who is he?”
“I know not,” replied Mach, studying the man also and at length.
The subject of their pondering looked up then, as if sensing the eyes upon him. He saw Conan and gave a squeak of alarm.
“You!” Conan snapped, this time drawing the knife fully.
Westlun threw himself prostrate before them, covering his head with his chubby hands. “Don’t kill me, please! I beg you–let me live!” He wailed in abject terror, expecting a deathblow at any second.
Mach looked from the slaver to Conan. “You know this man?”
“Aye, that I do,” Conan said in a low and deadly tone. “‘Tis Westlun, the slave lord.”
“Of course!” Mach exclaimed, remembering the name of Jessica’s enemy. “What do you intend to do with him?”
Conan didn’t answer right away. He looked down at the cringing form, full of contempt. Westlun’s body shook with fearful sobbing, but somehow the slaver seemed already resigned to death, and Conan took pause. The man he looked upon now had little resemblance to the arrogant and devious slave lord who had paid to have Jessica killed, and who had been so bold as to attempt a partnership with the alien invader. What torture, what horror, could have broken this man so?
And then Conan realized–Westlun and the awful beast tethered previously in his place were one and the same! He shuddered to think of the nightmare transformation the Kothian had been forced to endure, no doubt as some jest of Enkee-Kutul’s. Even Conan, a mighty barbarian bred to violence and full of melancholy passions, could not wish such a thing upon another man, no matter how vile the one in question; regardless of a man’s crimes, a clean death was always preferable to torture by sorcery!
The Cimmerian looked upon Westlun and felt pity stir within his heart, and never would Conan have imagined that he could feel such for a sworn enemy. He put the knife away, then stooped down to grab hold of the chain. Westlun moaned at the clinking of his fetters being disturbed, thinking his doom was nigh.
Conan’s hands gripped tightly about the metal links and he straightened his back, pulling upward in one violent burst of near-maximal effort. Muscles honed in countless battles and superhuman labors proved easily more than a match for the crude iron spike, which popped free of the stone as if greased. Under Mach’s approving gaze, Conan hauled Westlun upright and thrust the chain into his trembling hands. “Go,” he ordered. “Go. You’re free.” Spinning Westlun to face the bridge, he spurred him forward with a light smack between the shoulder blades.
Westlun scurried away, slowing once to peer back in wonderment before hurrying off.
Conan and Mach looked around in alarm when the cavern shook for several heart-stopping seconds. The quake passed as quickly as it had come, but the steady vibration it left behind bounced the dust up off the flagstones of the square, warning the men to expect more of the same. Orange light poured out of the rift bisecting Boa like a long column of fire marching between the buildings.
“We should take our leave of this place,” said Conan, eying some of the wobbling spires with concern.
“I agree, but first you must tell me–did you fight any of the cyborgs, one of those men bearing neither armor nor weapons, yet strong just the same?”
Conan nodded. “I did, but why? What does it matter now?”
“Because I have one more errand to take care of. If you would but show me the way…?” At the Cimmerian’s assent, Mach lifted him into the air and Conan guided them to the battlefield.
Not long after the men had left Boa altogether, the ground shook again, hard enough to topple many of the highest towers. At the central rift, magma welled up past the edges, seeping outward from the crack to spread across the cavern floor. Stone and steel alike melted before the destructive tide, and those few structures that managed to resist instant destruction had their innards glutted with fiery currents.
In a few hours the entire city lay submerged beneath a pool of magma, the very earth itself having been compelled to abide by Crom’s decree. Molten rock bubbled and slapped at the cavern’s ceiling, and the impetus of the flow was checked with the city’s utter consumption. Just as miraculous as the flood’s energetic rise was its rapid cooling, and in half the time it took to fill the cavern the magma hardened into a pluton to entomb Boa, that den of evil both ancient and recent, forever in an encasement of solid rock.
The shadows of sun-sparkling Khorshemish had stretched from west to east twice before word finally spread that the plague had ended. From all around the countryside, from villages and temporary camps, those who had been blessed with the foresight to flee the disaster returned to their dwellings in and around the city. Food streamed in along with the people, which was gathered up and distributed by the standing army originally sent by King Strabonus to watch over Khorshemish and to determine whether or not it was to be destroyed. Luckily for all, one man who had been heading for Koth’s southern regions, a man formerly in the employ of an infamous slave lord, had chanced upon the encircling troops–without getting himself accidentally killed–and convinced them that the city would not have to be burned to the ground. The army had eventually let him go his way after breaching the city’s walls to find neither corpses nor scavengers, but empty streets as the man had claimed. There they had waited before deciding to venture down into the sewers, only to then encounter several hundred thousand Kothians climbing out. The tale the refugees told would not have been believed by any sane man, except for the multitude of mouths that confirmed its veracity. The lower tunnels and warrens beneath the working sewers were sealed off, and the army remained long enough to see that the citizens found their homes safely and that order resumed, before finally leaving to join up with their king.
Jessica sat with her bodyguards in her study, hearing the last of the tale from Tukali’s lips, for he was more of a natural storyteller than his Cimmerian comrade. Mach had long since left, eager to return to his homeworld after so many years away. He’d vanished, along with his humbled captive, but only after staying long enough to “do something” about Tukali’s missing limb.
For what seemed to Conan to be the hundredth time that day, Tukali flexed his new arm and watched it’s variegated skin flicker with lines of blue-tinged energy. Mach had used his ‘science’ and more than a little magic to attach the limb to the Turanian’s shoulder, but now Tukali was whole again; more so, considering his new arm possessed greater strength than that of ten ordinary men combined. No doubt Tukali would soon enjoy testing the limits of his new-found power.
Jessica reached across the desk and clasped Conan’s hand warmly. “It seems incredible to me, to have looked upon a living god. And you,” she said, her green eyes looking into Conan’s blue ones, “you were that god, whether you admit it or not.”
“Aye, if Mach is to be believed,” said Conan, amused.
“He told the truth, as did I,” Tukali affirmed. “I saw it myself–you fell into Scybor’s clutches, and we thought you dead, but then Crom won free from where you had been trapped. Who else but you could have served as the vessel for Crom’s intervention?”
Conan sighed deeply, reminded that he was still indebted to Crom for the use of his hammer. He could only wonder when Crom might stake his claim and have him perform some unknown task in his service. And Conan would have to fulfill his obligation, even if it meant his death to do so. He had made a decision, chosen a path, though one that he deeply suspected had already been prepared for him since the day of his birth.
Jessica regarded Conan, saw his troubled frown, and decided to leave the matter alone. “Has there been any word of Westlun?” she asked.
Conan looked at Tukali, who shrugged, and he in turn shook his black mane. “No one has heard from him. Perhaps he has learned his lesson and given up the slave trade.”
“Hmm… perhaps,” said Jessica. “It may yet be too early to tell, though if he has, I’m certain his voice would be more than enough to sway the royal court in our favor.”
“It might, but I doubt that’ll be the end of the matter. The schism between the councillors can bode nothing but ill for Koth. Likely there will be more work to be done and danger to confront as the opposing factions resort to open conflict over slavery, as I suspect they will, for already have I heard murmurings in the streets of such going on in other lands north of Stygia and south of the Border Kingdom.”
Tukali grinned at hearing this, and clapped Conan heartily on the shoulder with his mortal hand. “And who better to face those dangers here in Khorshemish than us, eh, Cimmerian? What say you?”
Conan looked at Tukali, and then at Jessica. Tukali was his loyal friend. Jessica was that, and more. Far more. Jessica looked hopefully at Conan, and he found himself unable to refuse a face or a heart so beautiful as hers. Surely he could stave off his wanderlust awhile yet?
“I came to Khorshemish seeking fortune and adventure, both of which I’ve found aplenty. And I swear, by Crom, I’d be a fool not to stay for more!”
The still silence of the Kothian Hills was broken by a subdued rumbling, an event not uncommon in this land of active volcanoes. But the volcano from which these sounds now emanated had been extinct for many thousands of years, as evidenced by the amount of rock around the central vent that had been worn away by wind and rain, steepening the sides considerably, and the heavy forest growth that had been given leave to cluster around its base. Until now, the side of this same volcanic remnant had harbored the crude but adequate domicile of a particular Rhan agent, come to earth decades ago.
Mach’s ship arose now from inside the rocky neck, the rumbling caused by the constant hum of the ship reverberating off the inner walls of the tube, magnifying the sound. The huge craft, a glistening sphere like Enkee-Kutul’s had been, lifted free of the volcano’s mouth and streaked away into the azure sky, an errant comet bound once more for the stars.