Since Jessica was only travelling as far as the royal palace the next day, she gave Tukali the afternoon off, and the Turanian warrior left to pay another of his daily visits to his ‘friend’. With Conan’s formidable presence at her side, Jessica was certain that nothing short of a raving mob would threaten her safety while she trekked back to court.
Conan guarded his mistress possessively. They had both agreed that no matter what they did when alone in each other’s company, they would still have to retain their professional outward appearances for political and safety’s sakes. Even so, Conan couldn’t help standing a little closer than usual to his illustrious charge, protectively warding off the occasional passer-by that strayed too near with a sullen glare or even the rare growl and feigned reach for his sword.
To Conan the city traffic appeared sparser of late, with fewer numbers crowding the usually jammed byways and alleys than he remembered upon his arrival within the city. The most obvious disappearances seemed to be among the ranks of beggars and street urchins who had dwindled from their former hordes to mere scattered bands of pathetic souls that roamed the dusty streets for food. Conan suspected the mysterious plague was at work, but he kept his musings to himself, knowing it was likely that most within Khorshemish would dismiss his warnings as the incoherent babblings of a northern savage. The fact that many native Kothians were urgently whispering the same admonitions to each other was irrelevant. Just the same, people were still vanishing.
A troop of heavily armed and armored guards flanked the open portal that admitted a stream of nobility arriving to attend court that day inside the royal palace. Before entering the audience hall, Jessica was surrounded by a group of her supporters, many talking at once and pointing past the open gate into the chamber beyond, all wearing looks of concern mingled with outrage. Amidst the din neither Conan nor Jessica could make out what the ranting courtiers were trying to tell her, so it wasn’t until they had breached the entrance that Jessica finally came to understand what all the clamoring was about: Her rival and nemesis, the slave lord Westlun, sat talking easily amongst a band of his fellow slime on the opposite side of the hall.
Jessica’s eyes flashed with fury as she witnessed the freedom Westlun enjoyed despite the well-known fact of his attempt on her life scant days before. “Obviously the slaver’s pockets are deeper than I’d guessed,” she hissed angrily. Struggling to regain her composure, she looked up at her mountainous bodyguard. “Conan, would you ask one of the guards what Westlun is doing out of jail?” she managed to ask before her colleagues swept her away to their place among the benches.
As Conan stalked off through the flow of people streaming into the building, Jessica took a seat within the company of her loyal friends, mentally seething at the thought of her foe prowling about unfettered by the iron chains he deserved. Several of her supporters worked at soothing her indignation, but to no avail; she could already see Westlun worming his fat bulk her way, intent upon flaunting his imagined superiority over her face-to-face.
Sweat glistened over his porcine features as Westlun straddled a protesting chair opposite Jessica at her bench. A hush fell over the table as the slave lord squirmed close, his bald scalp reflecting back the daylight coursing in through the windows above. Jessica only stared coldly as Westlun parted his chubby lips in his best imitation of a smile to reveal crooked teeth coated in a layer of greenish scum, his fetid breath filling the scant air between them and invading her nostrils without mercy. Jessica fought down the impulse to gag from such close proximity to her enemy’s physical and moral corruption.
“And how fares my favorite sparring partner today?” he lisped, the rolls of his meaty jowls jiggling obscenely as he spoke. “No doubt you were worried about my welfare when I ran into trouble recently with the local authorities over a, ah, slight misunderstanding. I assure you though that the matter managed to take care of itself, allowing me to bask once again in the presence of my favorite lady of state.” Westlun’s beaming face did little to disguise the malevolence in his eyes or the irony in his words.
“I see you’ve lost some weight, and your teeth appear cleaner than usual,” Jessica countered frostily. “The lockup must treat its visitors well, no matter how brief the visit.” Leaning close regardless of the noisome stench emanating from Westlun, Jessica lowered her voice so only he could hear her. “I thought you should know that during your absence yesterday the council determined to investigate you and your peers. I guess this means that your hygiene should be improving in the near future,” she said acidly.
Unfazed, Westlun smirked back at her. “I suppose that is yet another matter that will take care of itself in due course.”
Jessica laughed. “Just like the six assassins you sent yesterday ‘took care’ of things, I suppose?” She smiled contemptuously at the glare framed on the bald man’s face. One of Westlun’s eyes began twitching spasmodically in his rage.
The obese slaver seemed about to counter her retort with an insult of his own when a huge fist, accompanied by a ferocious growl from behind him, slammed down onto the table next to Westlun’s elbow. Looking up with an indignant protest just bubbling past his bloated lips, Westlun’s mouth gaped in shock at the sight of a hulking barbarian glaring back at him. Violence smoldered in the barbarian’s flinty eyes like twin funeral pyres.
Conan looked down with undisguised loathing upon Westlun’s paling features. “Squirm back to the rest of the worms, maggot!” Conan barked scornfully. “You foul our company!”
The slave lord hurriedly wriggled out of his chair from beneath Conan’s unmoving stance, careful not to touch any part of the massive warrior looming directly over him. As he lumbered away from the table, Westlun looked back once, sneering, his beady eyes full of hate, before rejoining his group of slavers and bodyguards.
Conan circled the table and sat down, relaxing in a chair next to Jessica. “Did you learn anything from the guards?” she asked.
“Aye. The slaver served a full two hours’ sentence in jail before he’d lined enough pockets to spring him from his cell.”
“It is just as I suspected,” mused Jessica. “He also plans on avoiding the council’s inquiry through similar means.” She sighed. “Is there anyone in this city that cannot be bought?”
“I’ll gut the pig for free,” Conan grunted. “Just say the word and I’ll open up his belly with three feet of steel.” He tapped the hilt of his sword absently as he gazed stonily across the hall in Westlun’s direction. “If you want I’ll even take out his cohorts. It wouldn’t take long.”
Seeing Conan’s grim smile, Jessica didn’t doubt the sincerity behind his words, and she was sorely tempted to let him have his way. But in the end, the lessons of her civilized upbringing won out. “As much as I’d like to see the swine meet his doom, I’m afraid I’d be no better than he if I resorted to open murder. Even if I did have him slain, another of his beastly tribe would only rise to take his place. No, the best way to be rid of Westlun and his kind is to have them disgraced and outlawed, and if he thinks he can escape by spreading some wealth around, perhaps I’ll have to pull a few strings myself.”
Conan shrugged, knowing how apt to be broken were the laws of the ‘civilized’ lands. “No matter,” he said plainly, “I’ll keep my blades keen in case you happen to change your mind.”
With the rest of the people in attendance, Jessica and Conan turned their attention to the bench where the council members were taking their seats. The heavy doors of the audience chamber boomed shut as the court proceedings got underway.
Tukali walked stiffly down the streets of Khorshemish, unaware of the mysterious figure following through the throngs of people behind him. Mach’s cloak periodically and unobtrusively changed color to match the hues and patterns of the people around him, allowing him to blend chameleon-like among the citizens of Khorshemish. Not that it would have mattered much otherwise. Tukali’s mind was so overwhelmed with his simultaneous struggle against the gilded madness and Sharif’s mental control that he was hardly even aware of his own whereabouts, only just barely enough to find his way back to the temple of Damballah.
As they approached the lane near the scarlet citadel Mach noticed the number of travellers thinning out of the area, due as much to fear of getting too near the powerful sorcerer Tsotha-lanti’s city dwelling as to the fact that the temple’s lane contained no shops or public buildings, but only private estates like most of the other streets in the area. Picking up his pace, the Rhan agent flitted to and from the cover of doorways, overhanging balconies and shade provided by the high walls and towers, until he was directly across the paved street from the bronze-domed building Tukali had halted in front of.
Mach watched carefully as a section of stone swung inward, admitting the Turanian inside the temple. He darted across the broad street just as the slab resealed the entrance with a quiet thud. Not one easily put off by a mere wall of rock, Mach plied his dark hands against the door, testing the thickness of the seams with his fingertips and stoutly pounding the stone with his palms. Listening to the dull thumps of his blows, it took only a few seconds for him to locate the section of the door where the bar inside was laid across. He grasped a corner of his cape, which straightened in his hand, its surface going flat and thin as a razor. Inserting the rigid corner of his cape through the narrow seam, Mach pushed it upwards and flung the metal bar inside away from the door. Hearing no tell-tale clank from within the temple, he guessed correctly that the rod was hinged to the wall. The slab swung silently inward at his gentle push, and he flowed inside.
After securing the door Mach stood in utter blackness for a few seconds until his eyes, in the absence of any useful illumination, switched over to a different kind of vision, much like that used by various of the lower animals. The murky gloom gave way to the sight of reddish trails of heated air currents winding across the room above a path of scarlet footprints, set against the greyish-blue background of the colder stone walls and floor. For Mach it was child’s play to track the recent passage of Tukali and his guide down into the benighted depths of the temple, his strange cape wrapped protectively around him.
Before long he came within sight of two figures as they neared the red-rimmed outline of a door leading out of the darkened hallways. Mach once again called upon his strange powers to clamber up the wall. Spiders and other many-legged creatures not so recognizable scuttled out of his way as he crawled to the ceiling. Blackness gave way to light as the door opened at the behest of the blind keeper, and as Tukali stepped into the bright luminosity Mach scurried in right behind and above him, his eyes readjusting in time for him to observe that he went unnoticed. Clinging to the dank stone over Tukali’s head and camouflaged within the adaptive folds of his cloak, Mach kept pace with the bewitched warrior being led, yet again, through the eerie underground temple to Ashlara’s chambers.
The priestess sat back on her couch contemplating the latest bit of news from Sharif as uttered through Tukali’s lips; Tukali’s mind had fully submerged in its unceasing battle with the plague, leaving the wizard in complete dominance once again, though he seemed far from pleased. “The barbarian has been infected, and your plan nears fruition. So what, then, is the problem?” Ashlara demanded, glaring back at the angry countenance before her.
“The problem? Only that I’m going to end up a mindless zombie before I’ve even had my chance to gain favor with King Yildiz!” Sharif fairly shouted. “I’ve been infected with the gilded madness!”
Ashlara looked stunned, and her form straightened up in astonishment. “How is this possible? Only your minds are linked . . .” She trailed off as realization slowly dawned upon her.
“The plague is of a magical origin and affects the mind as well as the earthly vessel,” Sharif stated, his temper cooling somewhat in the face of the priestess’s ignorance. “I’ve managed to hold off some of the disease’s symptoms through my own efforts, but the incantations must be repeated almost daily, and their effect appears to be waning, no matter how many times I try to renew the power of my defenses.”
Ashlara stroked her cheek thoughtfully, taloned fingers brushing over her ruby lips. “That would explain then why we’ve been unable to find any earthly cause for this illness.” She paused in thought. “We have, however, discovered that the victims follow some blind urge to descend below the streets. More people have come through the tunnels adjoining our temple mindlessly searching for passages leading further beneath the city, much like our first ‘guest’,” she explained. “I’ll have my priests and acolytes attempt to divine any sorcerous origin of the plague we may have missed.”
“If you succeed, remember that the root cause must be destroyed,” Sharif reminded her. “Be sure you have the means to do so.”
A wicked smile curved the corners of Ashlara’s mouth. “Oh, be assured that Father Set is the greatest destroyer of all. I am more than up to the task,” she murmured. “With his aid, we will soon divest and annihilate the source of your affliction. But in the meantime your puppet is in need of mending if you are to continue pulling his strings,” she said, indicating the newly visible signs of the gilded madness on Tukali’s uncovered limbs. “Let us combine our powers to accomplish the task, for you will need a strong host body to pull the Cimmerian back within your reach.”
In one of the murkier corners of the ceiling in Ashlara’s subterranean lair, Mach watched with interest as the priestess summoned forth a blood-giving slave and proceeded to weave her magics over the body of Tukali. Through the use of some of his more passive mental senses, the Rhan was able to determine the nature of the necromancy that kept the Turanian’s mind bound to that of the one called Sharif. Like a glowing silver strand etched in his mind’s eye, Mach was able to trace the course of Sharif’s influence through the ensorceled clasp on Tukali’s turban as it was supported by the dark enchantments of Ashlara, linking all three people together in a magical bond. As far as he could tell, the priestess had been spared from the gilded madness only because it was spread through direct physical or mental contact, but not through more inactive sorcerous connections.
Beneath the concealing folds of his cloak Mach grinned like some hoary specter that, having lain hidden within the darkness of forgotten ages patiently biding its time, had finally chanced upon the means for its release and freedom from the earthly realm. In Mach’s case, it meant that his own quest was drawing to a close after long years of waiting and watching for any sign that his prey, the malefactor Enkee-Kutul, had resurfaced. The dethroned emperor of the Rhan’eitat had fled across vast interstellar reaches of space, intent on avoiding the vengeful clutches of the agents sent to bring him back to justice.
Irony of all ironies that Tukali’s mission had so resembled Mach’s own, and that they both needed Conan of Cimmeria to realize their goals, albeit with different ends in mind. Even though Tukali had abandoned his task in spirit, his body was still being used against his will to accomplish Sharif’s bidding.
Mach smiled again; he would fix that. With his newfound knowledge concerning the nature of Tukali’s ensorcellment, he could free the Turanian from his psychic slavery while dashing apart the minds of the two conspirators in the process, thus clearing his path of any interference in his attempts to gain Conan’s confidence. It was vital to the success of his mission that he enlist the aid of the Cimmerian, for only through Crom’s harbinger could he tap that particular being’s power.
Mach looked on in amusement as Ashlara continued with her invocations. He could easily strike her down now, but it was not his way to kill without being directly provoked or threatened. Of course, had the Turanian ambush party he’d cut apart in the Kothian Hills known that, they might not have been so eager to slay him when he’d walked into their camp. Unfortunately for them, giving up their treacherous errand had been too much to ask, and Mach had been forced to blast them when they’d brandished arms against him.
With deeper reflection upon the matter, he felt that having been too hasty to assume that he’d have to kill Tukali as well had rightfully gained him a wooden shaft in his chest. Had he approached Conan in a manner less dramatic, the Turanian wouldn’t have had reason or opportunity to fire his tainted arrow at all.
Sighing inwardly, Mach resigned himself to waiting, finally seeing the lay of the course he must tread if he wished to fulfill his duty.
Conan and Jessica looked on as one of the councillors charged with investigating the slave trade within Koth spoke at length about his findings that slaves were, in fact, often difficult for their masters to keep in line, whether because of their wish to be free, their discontent with their lot in life, or both.
It was when this councillor was well into a rather drawn-out exposition on why most of the slaves he’d interviewed failed to mention any instances of cruelty or mistreatment that another councillor hastily interrupted, cutting off the first man’s explanations of the slaves’ tight-lipped reserve in speaking out against their masters: “Right, right,” the other man cut in with a wave of his hand. “But it all seems rather obvious to me that your inquiries failed to unearth any evidence to support the allegations against the slave trade.”
The first speaker stood mute for a few moments, indignant with the other official’s rude breach of conduct. After glaring at the offender a few seconds more, he finally sat with an angry “Humph!” as excited chattering began among both the general assemblage and the councillor’s bench alike.
Encouraged by the excited stir wrought within the hall and the lack of admonishments from the chief speaker, the second councillor continued on. “In light of the wrongful charges brought against Lord Westlun yesterday, which I believe were due . . .” he glanced briefly around the room, letting his gaze rest pointedly in the direction of Jessica and her colleagues, “to the overzealousness of some of those caught up in this fervor to ban a respectable trade within our kingdom, I move that the investigation be terminated immediately.”
There was a rumbling of fists pounding tables and shouts of support from the slavers’ part of the room. Across from them in Jessica’s section, cries of outrage answered back as Jessica herself looked on incredulously. Conan scanned the crowds, seeing the shaking of fists and hearing yells of support or objection from proponents for either side.
The councillors, meanwhile, argued heatedly amongst themselves, striving to come to some sort of agreement as to what course of action should be taken in lieu of the apparent split in their ranks over the slavery issue. Finally, after several minutes of their bitter dispute had passed, the group quieted down and regained their composure somewhat as their chief speaker stood and addressed the assembly: “Before we render a decision, and since we’re fully aware of the anti-slavery faction’s arguments, we would hear from the slavers’ own mouths any reasons compelling enough for us to halt our inquiries.”
Westlun immediately sprang to his feet amidst the supporting cheers and whistles of his cronies, clearing his throat loudly in mock gravity before launching into his oratory. “My lords,” he began, licking his lips absently and thinking furiously, “our trade is one of utmost importance to every citizen of Koth! We supply everyone from the humblest of farmers to the most skilled of architects with the laborers they require. We do this fairly inexpensively while managing to meet the steadily growing demands of our expanding kingdom.” Westlun spread his arms as if to encompass the entire metropolis within his own great bulk. “One has only to look outside the city walls to see just how rapidly our great kingdom grows even greater among its jealous neighbors.”
Low murmurings again circulated through the gathered crowd, and taking this as general agreement with his words, Westlun barreled onward, his fat cheeks balling up grotesquely as he added his rendition of a beneficent smile to his speech. “The slaves that we bring into Koth come from many distant lands, lands where they would have lived in savagery and impoverishment had we not liberated them into the keeping of generous Kothian masters, masters willing enough to take them into their own homes, to share their food and their wealth, to make them as of their own! In return, they have but to toil under the sun like any one of us is made to toil if we wish to reap the benefits that can only be gained through hard, honest work. I ask you, is that such a harsh fate for any man?”
The slave lord’s last words were drowned out in a deafening rumble of support from his followers throughout the hall. Most of the slaver’s opponents looked on in anger and incredulity as the councillors appeared to be considering Westlun’s arguments seriously. “I can’t believe this!” Jessica complained to Conan. “One day that cretin is in jail for attempting to murder me, and the next he’s turning this court on its ear!”
Conan had no words to say, but only waited patiently for the council to make their decision. He patted Jessica’s clenched fist reassuringly.
Conan might have been the most prepared of any in the court for what the chief speaker said next, experienced as he was in the ways of men from various kingdoms and their methods of rule. “The investigation will be put on hold,” the chief speaker announced, “until more pressing matters, like the plague, have been attended to, or until additional evidence is brought forth refuting the claims of Westlun and his . . . confederates,” he finished, biting off the last word with apparent distaste. The more attentive members of the gathering took this to indicate the councillors who had been so brash as to attempt forcing the inquiry to a premature halt.
Conan looked over at Jessica and saw her eyes downcast as another cheer swept the ranks of the slavers. “This is not a true victory for them, but a brief respite.” Conan regarded her gently as Jessica slowly met his gaze. “So we have to convince some slaves to come forth and turn on their masters. A little gold and the offer of protection should suffice to gain you all the witnesses you can use.”
Jessica smiled tentatively. “You make it sound easy.”
“That’s because it is.” Conan grinned. “Tukali and I have but to scour the slave quarter for a couple of days. I reckon we’ll find more than a few men and maids disgruntled enough with life on the slave block to hearken to your cause. They only need some encouragement.”
Jessica recalled the story of Conan’s past, and how he’d fought to free himself from an existence ruled by the whip. “I see your point, Conan,” she nodded, brightening. “If Westlun and his slavers can bribe half the council, then we can at least pay a few slaves enough to get out of the district and keep them safe from their former masters after we obtain their testimony.” She sighed wearily. “I only wish my father were here. He would see to it that justice was done.”
Conan rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Why not ask him for aid? Your enemies appear to have no qualms about playing all of their cards.”
Jessica’s eyes widened suddenly as she glanced quickly around to see that none could hear, a look of cunning stealing over her face. “That’s it then! I shall bring him in on this. If anyone can expose the corruption in the council, surely it is he!” she whispered excitedly. “Conan, none in this hall but you and myself know that I am the daughter of one of Strabonus’s most trusted advisors. Even if he doesn’t wish to make his personal politics known to the king quite yet, my father still has the power to intervene here.”
“Aye, and let you fight the good fight on equal footing with Westlun and his lot,” Conan said quietly. “Of course, I could always speed things along if you would like.”
Jessica smiled and shook her head. “If I let you do that, I’d have nothing but corpses to parley with at court.” She stopped, frowning, having caught sight of Westlun chortling away across the chamber, smug in the belief that he had already won. “However . . . I will keep you in mind, in case all else fails,” she added at last.
“Now that’s the spirit!” Conan laughed, the sound of his voice momentarily booming over the clamor of the audience chamber.
A few people turned their heads at Conan’s outburst, then just as swiftly redirected their attention with the majority of those present back towards the chief speaker. A discussion of the gilded madness was getting underway, and even those most intimately involved in the preceding issue soon found themselves listening rapt to the latest findings on the plague threatening Khorshemish.
Tukali stalked back to Jessica’s mansion, his head clearer than it had been in days. Though he still wasn’t fully aware of the forces struggling for control of his mind, the Turanian did know that with the disappearance of the constant headaches and fog that had until recently dulled his brain, the weird metallic lesions spreading over his body had also taken leave of him, for which he was grateful.
His meetings with Ashlara continued to leave him unsettled, however. Every time he returned from her shadowy temple he was unsure exactly of what he had done there, if anything. The only thing he really knew for certain was that the compulsion to continue his mission to capture Conan kept pealing through his consciousness like a bell that wouldn’t be silenced.
Tukali dwelt upon these thoughts as he reached the manor and let himself in through the gate, all but oblivious to the world around him, so deep was his reverie. No servants were about as he pushed through the front doors into the foyer, intent upon returning to his quarters for a little rest.
No sooner had he shut the doors behind him than he thought he heard a giggle, faint and nearby. He looked up, the spell of his meditation broken as he noticed the door to the tower slightly ajar at the opposite end of the foyer.
Curious, Tukali strolled over to the door and peered within the tower. “Is anyone there?” he called. Seeing nobody and hearing no reply, Tukali had almost entirely closed the door when he heard another giggle, louder now and very feminine. Definitely intrigued, he entered the tower and strolled to the base of the stairs. As he looked up towards the first landing, Tukali just glimpsed the lithe figure of a woman, dressed in gauzy robes that clung enticingly to bountiful curves, flitting up the second flight of stairs. Again came the voice, though now it laughed openly, mocking and bewitching in Tukali’s ears.
He looked around for signs of anyone watching him, and seeing none, hurried up the stairs after the lovely apparition, his blood stirred and his pulse racing.
He reached the landing in seconds and espied the girl just mounting the third set of steps above him. He raced upwards, his boots clattering loudly upon the stairs as he sought to catch up with her.
The chase went on like this, with Tukali hurriedly ascending the tower, slowly gaining on the vision of beauty that always managed to stay just out of his reach, her laughter echoing down off the stone walls serving to entice him further. Higher and higher Tukali sprinted, his heart pounding and his breathing ragged in his ears, until finally, as he breached the uppermost landing in the tower, his grasping hand closed on the girl’s ethereal garment and ripped it away. She let out a surprised squeal and sprang nimbly away from him toward the far end of the room, turning to watch his approach. Panting with his exertion, Tukali struggled for breath as he closed on his quarry, his eyes alight with passion.
All of a sudden, to Tukali’s surprise and absolute disappointment, the girl vanished as if she had never been, her clothes melting away in his hands. He sunk to the floor, bewildered and fatigued, the energy draining out of him.
A man’s voice sounded at his back, deep and oddly accented. “I’m sorry to deprive you of so fanciful a dream, but there are more pressing matters that demand your attention.”
Tukali slowly turned, pulling a leg up beneath him to stand, but when he saw the stranger behind him, his blood congealed in his veins and he froze where he knelt. Not three feet away and looking down at him from beneath a swirl of dark robes stood a figure who looked eerily familiar, the image striking fear into Tukali’s soul for no reason the Turanian could quite fathom until something in his mind clicked and he recognized the silhouette outlined beneath the glowing ball of light held aloft in the stranger’s hand. “You . . .? But you should be dead!” exclaimed Tukali. “I put an arrow in your chest back in the Hills . . .” he trailed off.
The wizard lowered his glowing hand to his side as he threw back his hood. Dark braids spilled out over the man’s shoulders as his dusky visage was revealed. “No thanks to you I managed to survive,” he said easily, as if the matter were trivial, “though I don’t begrudge you your actions, as ill-motivated as they were. No, the business at hand is far too important to put off by dwelling on the fault and blame of decisions made and done with.”
“But I don’t understand. Who are you? What do you want with me?”
The ball of light brightened and pulsed through a spectrum of colors as it was again raised, now between both men. “I am called Mach. As for what I want with you . . . well, that will become clear soon enough.” Mach stared intently into Tukali’s eyes, the light in his hand pulsing faster.
Something within the Turanian struggled against the wizard’s influence, urging Tukali to draw his sword and lash out in fury. His hand slowly closed around the hilt of his scimitar, but to the warrior’s surprise, it was through no conscious motivation of his own, rather like a stranger had usurped command of his limbs.
“Ah, I see you recognize that your will may not be entirely yours to direct. Now you may understand why I have brought you here,” Mach intoned, his voice and bearing passive even in the face of imminent danger. “Let your thoughts go, Tukali. Gaze into the light, for there you shall find liberation.” Slowly, Mach withdrew his hand, the luminous globe hovering in midair between them, drawing to it their eyes and subsequently their thoughts.
Tukali’s sword arm gradually relaxed, dropping back to his hip as the otherworldly iridescence of the sphere beckoned his will into its fiery depths. He stood, mesmerized.
The light in the room grew brighter with each passing second, quickly reaching the point where an observer would ordinarily have been blinded, but to either man it was as if the stronger the light shone, the clearer their thoughts became.
Mach began to chant, his lips moving as his mouth formed words of power, yet the sound of his voice, like everything else, was somehow lost in the brilliance of the glow suffusing the room, so that the silence enveloping the wizard and the warrior verged on itself being heard, so great was its presence.
Tukali watched in fascination as a ray of white light, brighter yet than even the globe itself, lanced out and into his forehead, centering directly through the clasp given him by his master. The light entered his mind and soul like a sun shedding light upon waters that had only ever known the faintest of starlight.
All at once Tukali became aware of his entire being, every thought he’d ever had, every experience in his life from birth up to the events of his present locale. In the space of a few seconds the Turanian glimpsed a view of his existence as a whole like he’d been given the eyes and intuition of a god. He recognized and comprehended how Sharif had manipulated him through Ashlara’s dark necromancy, how even now sibilant voices hissed and cried out in defiant rage as Mach unwove the threads of their domination.
He even realized, secondarily, the consequences he would soon face at having let the gilded madness infect his being, but so great was Tukali’s relief at regaining control over his destiny that he was, for the nonce at least, fairly untroubled by his affliction. He was too caught up in the rapture of the moment to care.
Ashlara stood within the musty confines of the dungeon cell, examining a small chunk of the metal she had removed from the top of her prisoner’s scalp. The wound she had inflicted upon him in doing so had already been covered over by more lustrous growths spawned by the boy’s disease.
She eyeballed the shiny scrap carefully, twisting around the pair of tongs that held it before her face as she examined the fragment through a heavy crystal lens. Below her the boy stirred restlessly, moaning piteously through the flow of drool that ran nonstop from his mouth to the floor.
Ashlara ignored him, focusing her attention instead upon the shard. She twisted the tongs yet a different way in the torchlight, and as the metal winked back at her, she made an unexpected discovery: Peering closer through the lens, she could make out rows and patterns of miniscule projections on the golden-gray surface of the shard. She couldn’t make out anything she recognized, but the patterns were regular, just the same.
Her curiosity piqued, Ashlara put away the lens and examined the fragment closer to the light. The torch sputtered, causing her to jerk back in surprise, but to her relief she didn’t drop the tongs or lose the chip. Steadying her hand, she brought the metal sliver just under her nose and took a hesitant sniff, already growing bored with her fruitless investigation. Maybe the tiny markings on the metal’s surface would lead to something . . .
Searing white light suddenly filled her vision as blinding pain stabbed into the front of her skull, causing her to cry out. In her agony, Ashlara’s body convulsed, and to her horror she felt something cold and hard bump against the back of her throat and tumble down her gullet.
Even as she realized she’d swallowed the chip, a wave of nausea swept through Ashlara’s mind, the result of her spell over Tukali being forcefully broken. The backlash of unrestrained magic swirled through the priestess’s body, funneling down into her stomach and pouring ribbons of energy into the shard. The gilded madness, already concentrated in the metal, blossomed outward as its effects were magnified in the deluge of Ashlara’s own magic. A sea of metal erupted violently over her skin and she fell to the ground, writhing in the grip of the terrible plague. In the midst of her seizures, the contents of her robes spilled out onto the straw-covered floor, the key to her prisoner’s bonds tumbling conveniently within the boy’s reach, though he was slow to notice.
Struggling to control her trembling body, Ashlara gradually regained some mastery over her limbs, though now they were so encrusted with metal that she hardly looked as if she’d ever been human at all. Her snake-like eyes only added to her demonic image, though her soul had been nigh inhuman for quite some time. The fiercest battle raged in her mind, however, as the priestess of Damballah fought against the brain-numbing influence of the plague.
As she struggled both physically and mentally, Ashlara managed to pull herself through the door of the cell and on down the hallway to the base of the ladder that led up to the trapdoor of the dungeon.
With mounting fury she hauled herself up the iron rungs, inch by inch, hatred at her present weakness swelling within her chest until, as she reached the top, she let loose with a terrible scream, sounding more like a serpent hissing in rage than a woman shrieking in intolerance of her own human frailty. In her furor she slipped from the top rung and dropped, crashing through the wooden floor, down into the crypts that honeycombed the temple’s lowest levels. She landed awkwardly on hard-packed earth, an arm snapping wetly beneath her body.
Only now did she give way to panic, and as it seized her in its merciless and chilling embrace Ashlara regained her feet and ran, striking out blindly into the dust-choked darkness as her useless arm flapped against her side, the clink of metal on metal like some bizarre musical accompaniment to her headlong flight.
In the murk and gloom she saw little, her thoughts milling in such confusion that Ashlara hardly noticed when she caromed off a wall or tripped and went sprawling into the muck and filth, only to scrabble madly back to her feet.
In blind desperation she fled along the same paths many of her religion’s enemies had been forced to tread here within the devil-haunted tombs, seeking safety or escape where none would be found. Old bones and newer carcasses littered her path, the sounds they made when she trampled over them like the dry, bitter laughter of ghosts relishing the irony of her predicament.
Earthen walls gave way to stone-carved hallways and chambers. Before long, Ashlara arrived within a cistern-like junction from which branched a series of tunnels, like the spokes on a wheel, where the smooth limestone walls glowed faintly with the yellowish light emitted by a loose scattering of fungi. Panting with exhaustion, she slipped quietly to the floor, her body slowly giving in to the shock of her injury.
Her mind strained to come up with an incantation to drive off the pain and oncoming delirium as she lay there on her back. She prayed to her god one last time for pity, knowing her efforts to be in vain, for Set favored the strong and crushed the weak–he was a destroyer, after all. Just the same, she promised aloud in trembling tones to offer up great sacrifices, to sluice the floors of her temple with rivers of the blood of virgins and the new-born if she were just given another chance.
When her lips finally stilled, Ashlara simply stared upwards, feeling her thoughts starting to slip away amidst the clouds gathering in her brain, her limbs already feeling numb as if with cold.
Sudden movement caught what was left of her attention: Directly above her a large mound of dirt clung precariously to the ceiling, white bones protruding from its underside as if it were the exposed bottom of a grave. In the weak light, the bones could be seen moving around within the mass seemingly of their own accord. Maybe Set had listened after all, and this was a sign of his presence . . .?
The priestess would have shrieked in terror, but she managed only a pathetic whimper as the mound dropped away from the limestone with a sucking sound and plummeted toward her. Ashlara could hardly even twitch let alone roll out of the way as the amorphous gray mass landed heavily directly on top of her. It shifted around to cover her body entirely, and she convulsed in fear and disgust, feeling bones scrape against her flesh as she was smothered. With a dying animal’s last frenzied rush of strength her good arm ripped out an opening around her face, momentarily restoring her sight and supply of air.
As she beat against her tormentor, small clouds of spores erupted like flies from the thing’s surface to blow into her eyes and nose. The spores burnt her face and lungs, but that particular pain was negligible compared to the electric anguish she experienced next as a viscous fluid began eating away at her skin, piercing the gilt surface and stripping away the meat down to the bone.
For a second or two, Ashlara screamed louder than even she had ever thought possible, and then her death cry abruptly ended as stinking ooze crawled into her face, mouth and throat and laid bare her skull.
The slurping noises of the thing’s feeding competed with the dragging footsteps of a form slowly shambling into the chamber, glinting intermittently in the jaundiced light. The figure paused before the gruesome pile, but only in deciding which heading to take from among the proffered choices of hallways.
Some plague-inspired instinct finally led the boy past the remains of his former captor, whose demise only dimly registered in some hidden part of his consciousness. Down he finally went into one of the black tunnels, drawn unerringly to his own bleak fate.
Back in the chamber, the grayish blob laboriously hauled its bulk up again to its former perch on the ceiling, engorged on its meal and bristling with a glossy new addition to its set of ivory armaments.
Outside the walls of Jessica’s tower evening had started its inevitable advance over the spires of the city. Inside, Mach looked on in grim satisfaction as the last remnants of Tukali’s clasp, now molten slag, dripped to the floor in a steaming puddle. The orb hovering before the men’s eyes glowed softly now, pulsating gently through a series of darker hues.
Mach smiled inwardly at the success of his efforts. The Turanian’s mind was free, and two bothersome obstacles in his quest to contact Conan of Cimmeria had been removed, one already permanently. Interference from their quarter had been eliminated, and because of this, the Turanian warrior would no longer be compelled to hinder Mach’s mission by attempting to accomplish what was once his own.
The last few golden rays of sunlight streamed in through the high arches of the windows, the two men highlighted in their paths. Mach reached out and took possession of the orb, plucking it from the air and trapping it within his cupped hands where it shimmered and disappeared.
He walked around to the back of Tukali, who was still staring into empty space as one turned to stone. Mach brought his mouth close to the man’s ear and spoke: “After you leave this tower you will put all that happened here from your mind. Those called Sharif and Ashlara will mean nothing to you. Bury them along with the knowledge of your past treachery, and go from this place free from the guilt of conspiracy.”
The Rhan stopped for a brief second, then added: “Remember only what you have learned about yourself this day. Now,” he commanded, shoving Tukali forward, “go!”.
Without looking back, the Turanian mounted the steps and descended from the tower. Mach listened until he heard the far-off clunk of the tower door slamming shut before he lapsed back into thought.
Because of his delving into Tukali’s mind, he now had useful information on the properties of the gilded madness, useful enough, at least, to concoct some short-term remedy against the disease’s effects. He knew the plague could only be stopped at the source, but that would come in time. For now, he had work to do.
Mach straightened up and gathered his cloak tightly around him. A single barked command in a tongue-twisting language and he was gone, dust motes swirling wildly in his wake.
Aghrapur already lay enshrouded in the darkness of night. A summer storm had blown in from the Vilayet, and the wind howled like a tortured beast as it swept sheets of rain over the city.
Every so often a gust wended its way inside past the shuttered windows, and the light would dance and play with the shadows thrown across the walls of the study as the hanging lanterns swayed.
A litter of arcane paraphernalia teemed over a ring of shelves forming the perimeter of the room; ancient tomes and manuscripts, crumbling from use and yellowed with age; skulls and skeletons of various animals, peoples, and creatures, some no longer found on this world and others that hopefully never were; various effigies of demons and gods known throughout Hyboria or merely forgotten over the dim mists of eons gone by; vials, pouches and bowls of potions, powders, vapors and substances unidentifiable or unspeakable. Cloying, sickly-sweet smoke poured forth from censers placed strategically around the study, the fumes pervading over all.
Centered amidst the clutter stood a broad desk carved from a heavy, rare bloodstone, its legs fashioned after the great claws of a mythical dragon. Seated behind the desk in a rather Spartan wrought-iron chair was Sharif, his shirtless torso hunched and working feverishly over a jumble of texts. The sorcerer’s hands were a blur as they whipped through the pages, stopping only to wipe sweat from his knotted brow or to rub at eyes aching with fatigue from hours of relentless, unavailing research.
He had been working earlier that day, much earlier, albeit at a considerably slower pace, when the pain had hit him like a frost giant’s hammer; his psychic connection with Tukali had been severed, but not before a decidedly alien presence had tampered about in his mind, planting a terrible, chaotic seed prior to its departure. Sharif could feel the growing morass of nightmare and confusion through which his every thought wallowed, adding to the damage against his psyche already being inflicted by the plague to which he played host.
The magical defenses he’d erected earlier were now only serving to stall the outwardly physical symptoms of the plague, doing nothing to prevent his mind from being consumed like so much food at a banquet.
One thought alone drove him onward, had been with him since the mental onslaught began: Hard, cold revenge would be directed against whomever had done this. Conan’s death at his hands would appear merciful compared to the tortures he’d levy upon the other . . .
Sharif’s eyes glazed over, so engrossed was he in thoughts of hate and vengeance that his senses took their leave of him without his even being aware of what was happening, like one dozing off in front of a crackling fireplace after guzzling a fair amount of wine. All within the study became quite still as the Turanian wizard stood up from behind his desk, his arms falling limply to his sides.
Without even the presence of mind to throw a cloak about his bare shoulders, Sharif took leave of the study, traversed the halls of his estate, and walked out into the sodden night air, the sound of the front door banging against its frame in the wind quickly fading behind him.
Those he passed in the streets only hurried on by after catching sight of his vacant stare during spurious flashes of lightning, and the guards posted at the city gate just gaped in astonishment as the dire sorcerer and master manipulator Sharif, pantaloons soaked through and delicate black curls plastered to his forehead, left Aghrapur heading west.
“Its unbelievable, really,” Jessica said plaintively. She and Conan were strolling home through the near-barren streets of early evening. Above them the lights of the city’s towers sparkled in the sky like gems afire. “They only have but to see for themselves that Khorshemish’s population is dwindling.”
Conan looked up into the night and caught sight of a number of bats flitting about chasing down insects. “Maybe they don’t want to see.”
“What do you mean?”
Conan looked at her sidelong. “You heard the physicians’ reports. It’s mostly the lower classes that have taken losses from the plague. I’ll wager those councillors see the gilded madness as a boon,” Conan said, failing to keep a note of disgust from his voice.
“But that’s ridiculous!” Jessica replied. “How could the council possibly be so callous or short-sighted? They run the city, for Mitra’s sake!”
“A good half of them are bribe-takers,” Conan spat vehemently. “And many more are common snobs besides. They won’t actually do anything until they see their fellow blue-bloods stricken with disease, and by then it may be too late for this city–if it isn’t already. You ask me, that council has been too long away from Strabonus’s eye. The royal court is in need of a purge.”
Jessica sighed and nodded, seeing truth to the Cimmerian’s words. “You may be right, considering how they used the plague as an excuse to put off investigating the slavers. What will they come up with tomorrow to earn their gold?”
“Likely anything they can,” Conan grunted. They’d reached Jessica’s front gate, and he unlocked it, holding it open for her as she walked through.
“Oh . . .!” Jessica stopped in her tracks, pressing her hands to her temples.
Conan was instantly at her side. “What’s wrong?” he asked, watching her closely, concern etched deeply into his eyes.
“It-it’s nothing,” she said uncertainly. “I’m just very tired from all that’s happened.” She straightened up, her jaw set firmly. “I’ll be fine,” she stated firmly, walking toward the manor.
Conan looked doubtful, but he kept silent. Arguing would do neither of them any good.
He was two paces behind her when she swooned, and his strong hands caught her before she could hit the ground. Lifting Jessica to his breast, Conan sprinted for the house.
He burst in through the front door, nearly knocking it clean off its hinges in his haste, and thundered a hue and cry. As servants came running at the noise, Conan headed straight for Jessica’s room, his mistress still unconscious in his arms.
He reached her chamber and laid her gently upon the bed. As people started to arrive he bellowed instructions: One maid to get Markus, another to bring water and towels, and a cook was ordered to fetch Tukali if he was about.
Within a minute Markus rushed in, Tukali close on his heels, followed by the remainder of the household.
“She fainted just outside,” Conan explained, plying a wetted towel to Jessica’s forehead in an effort to revive her. “We need a leech!”
“I know of a surgeon residing a short distance from here,” Markus offered.
“Where?” asked Tukali, the first word he’d uttered under strictly his own power in days. “Tell me the place and I’ll go!”
Markus quickly spoke directions to the Turanian, who lunged for the door. “And show him Jessica’s seal!” Markus rasped at Tukali’s back as the warrior sped away, full-tilt.
While they waited Markus sent one pair of servants to gather extra blankets for Jessica’s bed and another pair to draw yet more fresh water. Conan saw to Jessica himself while Markus looked on, his face somber beneath a forehead creased with worry.
“Things did not go well today,” Conan remarked. “I think the strain of recent events has finally taken its toll on her.” He dabbed cool water about the sides of Jessica’s face, smoothing her long hair into place with his fingers.
Despite his age, Markus’s sight was apparently as keen as Conan’s, for he let out a sudden grunt even as the Cimmerian drew a breath in surprise. “Eh? What’s that now?” exclaimed the old man, pointing at a spot just a fingers-breadth above Jessica’s left ear.
Both men leaned forward for a better look as Conan swept a lock of Jessica’s hair aside, revealing a dull glint beneath.
Markus gasped. “The gilded madness!” His face wrinkled in fear for Jessica. Then he frowned as deeply for the Cimmerian. “Conan, you must be infected too–you’re touching her . . .” He averted his gaze, dropping his eyes back down to the still form upon the bed.
A specter’s hand, colder than any northern winter, seemed to brush its fingers down the length of Conan’s spine. But he couldn’t give in to fear, and he wouldn’t. Not so long as there was any chance of saving himself and the ones he cared for.
“It matters not. While I still stand and breathe I will find a way to cure this devilish plague, even if none else can, by Crom!” he swore.
Markus could only nod gravely at Conan’s words, but still drew courage from the big warrior’s oath.
The two stood resolutely over Jessica for the next few minutes until Tukali soon returned, the servants gathered in the bedchamber stepping aside as the Turanian led in a shorter man behind him. The doctor was bedecked in white linens, a likewise snowy cape folded over one arm, and a long graying beard dangling to just above his belt line. In one hand he gripped a leathern sack, presumably containing the tools of his calling.
Tukali led him over to the bed beside Conan.
The physician nodded toward Jessica’s unconscious form and addressed the burly Cimmerian. “Tell me what happened.” Conan related the story in muted tones. As he did so, Markus and Tukali silently herded everyone else from the chamber, leaving those within some space.
“The gilded madness?” inquired the doctor as Conan finished. Looking carefully at the spot found above Jessica’s left ear minutes earlier, the healer nodded in agreement. “It appears as you say. Unfortunately there isn’t much I can do, nor anyone can do, for that matter. I am so sorry.” He hadn’t even needed to open the sack.
Conan had to check his temper; giving in to his frustration at the hard reality of the situation could only hinder his efforts to find a solution, and the doctor spoke naught but the truth. “I may have it also.”
The physician nodded again, in sympathy. “You look as if you have a hardy constitution. Ill effects may yet take days to show upon you. All I can recommend for either of you is to rest and wait. I know that several groups, including my own circle of colleagues, are working on finding a cure for this plague, no matter how trivial a threat the royal council claims it to be.”
The doctor tugged at his beard thoughtfully. “I have even heard that priests of Ishtar or Mitra, or some such god, have made a fair amount of headway in divining how to halt the disease. I will let you know if we learn anything helpful. For now,” he said, glancing down at Jessica, “let her sleep. The plague doesn’t look to have advanced very far in her yet, and she’ll more than likely awaken in the morning. See that she’s fed well, and have someone watch over her all hours of the day, for the gilded madness may cause her to wander.”
“And what about me? Conan asked.
“Don’t touch anybody!” the doctor commanded. “You’ll only spread it if you have it. You may want to consult with the priests I mentioned. Maybe they can offer you a little more solace than I.”
With that the doctor waved, turned and exited as speedily as he’d arrived, leaving Conan alone with his thoughts while Jessica slept on.
Dinner had passed with a minimum of conversation. Outside on the grounds, Conan and Tukali sat in front of the converted stable, leaning back against a low, slate-colored rock flanking a gravel path. They were nursing mugs of ale poured from a small cask resting between them as they stared up and out at the glowing towers of neighboring dwellings.
Conan sat relaxed, his face blank as he swilled the dark ale without really tasting it. Tukali’s face was sullen, and so far he’d only managed to down half as much drink as his comrade. Every now and then he stirred as if he were about to speak, but it wasn’t until he was well into his third cup that he finally gave voice to his thoughts.
“Jessica is… a fine lady. Never in all my life have I met so noble a one.”
Conan nodded. “Aye. She definitely is one worth toiling for. Few have ever showed me the same appreciation for my efforts.” He gulped down another mouthful of ale.
Tukali stared disconsolately into his mug. Then, after a few seconds: “I believe I know how she caught the plague,” he said, very quietly. In his heart he knew he had to let his friend know of what he’d guessed he’d done, even though he would never remember any of what Mach had permanently removed from his mind concerning his mission. The only remnants Tukali had left of that whole sorry episode were blurred and fast-fading images of mysteriously getting the disease.
Conan became quite still as he waited patiently for the Turanian’s explanation. “How so?” he finally managed to ask. He wasn’t sure he wished to know the answer.
Tukali took another sip of his drink, swallowing his fears and doubts along with the bitter liquid. “I have the plague. Had it days ago, in fact.” >From the corner of his eye he saw Conan’s hand tightening around his iron mug, but he continued. “Back in the marketplace, when we were attacked, I must have spread it to Jessica when I pulled her to safety.”
Conan’s grip on the drinking-vessel tightened, then abruptly loosened. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Tukali shook his head. “I wasn’t sure at the time, and I didn’t want to alarm either of you. The gilded madness has only begun to show upon me as well.”
Through the hazy night aglow overhead, Conan could just barely make out the stars as he considered his friend’s confession. He was sure that if Tukali had been plotting something against them, he would have discovered it. But he hadn’t. And why would the Turanian have saved his life earlier only to ruin it now? Treachery didn’t make sense, more so that Tukali was now confessing what he thought was his sin.
Conan breathed deeply and let his eyes close for several heartbeats. He almost asked the Turanian how he caught the plague, but he realized that it really didn’t matter now. “There’s no way you could have known for sure when you’d gotten it,” he said at last. “And if you’d not moved Jessica out of harm’s way back in that melee, she might be dead now instead of merely bed-ridden.”
A sigh of relief escaped Tukali’s lips. A breach in his new-found friendship would have wounded him far worse than any foreman’s attack could have done. “You don’t blame me then?”
“Nay, how could I possibly?” Conan replied. “But that doesn’t let you off the hook, Turanian. You’re in this as deep as any of us, and if we don’t find a way to rid us of this gods-forsaken malady we might end up as missing as sunken Atlantis.”
Tukali managed a smile. “So be it!” He drained his mug and refilled it a last time, happy enough to be in good standing with the Cimmerian, even if not in the best of health. A generous draught of the liquor helped put him even more at ease. “Have you a plan?”
“Aye, indeed I do. The surgeon that visited earlier told me about some priests,” he spat in the dirt beside him, his contempt plainly etched in the gesture, “who have supposedly made progress in finding a remedy. I suggest that on the morrow we question some of these bellringers. If that fails to provide us with anything useful, we’ll have to find aid elsewhere in the city, mayhap even beyond Khorshemish. I did know a wizard once who wasn’t so keen to see me removed from the mortal plane. All else failing, we could seek him out . . .” Conan spat again, fairly disgusted with his own suggestion. “Desperate times are these when I entertain the notion of begging help from a trafficker in magic!” Tilting back his head, he drained his mug and burped mightily.
The sun rose and set twice more over Koth as Conan and Tukali sought out aid within the city. Their efforts proved fruitless, however, as all the priests and healers they questioned knew no more about the gilded madness than they themselves already did.
Near dusk of the second day, Tukali at last succumbed to the plague, his senses leaving him even as Jessica’s had fled from her. He was put to bed and another member of the household charged with watching over him.
Jessica had awakened only briefly and sporadically throughout each day, when she would be fed soup and water before again relapsing into unconsciousness. The physician, when again consulted by Markus, put Jessica’s weak resistance against the plague down to the stress and tension already weighing upon her mind from her recent troubles at court.
A third dawn found Khorshemish overcast and swept in a fog that persisted, absolutely refusing to dissipate no matter the day’s heat. Conan awoke, groggily, to find himself bearing irrefutable evidence of the gilded madness; across his chest and intermittently upon his back and legs were tiny metal bumps, like he’d stood too close to a forge and been splattered with molten brass and iron. His clothing and armor did well to conceal the marks, but he was forced to wrap linens about the uncovered parts of his forearms and to pull on a pair of soft leather gloves in order to make the camouflage complete. It wouldn’t do to have people either fussing over him or trying to lock him up for the public safety.
Conan spent the day trudging about Khorshemish following every lead he could discover, all of them taking him nowhere. Having exhausted every possible avenue in his approach to ferreting out some way of dealing with the plague, Conan hiked to the mercenary quarter intending to see Girtham, if not to learn anything useful then at least to inform the innkeeper and friend of Jessica’s about the situation with Conan’s mistress.
As with the other outlying quarters of the city the mercenary district was presently bereft of people, either because they’d left Khorshemish in fear, or had fallen victim to the plague, it was impossible to say. Conan stalked through barren streets, glimpsing the rare face peering out from behind shuttered windows and half-closed doorways. In the mist and fog, shapes stirred at the periphery of his vision, disappearing whenever he made the effort to glance in their direction, until he no longer bothered to look.
The streets intersecting at the corner of the block occupied by the Pig’s Eye were utterly deserted, the colorful sign Conan had seen upon first arriving at the inn now hanging motionless and drab in the fog. The front door, however, was open, and Conan stepped inside, glad at least to leave the eerily vacant city without, if only for a short while.
Girtham stood alone near the middle of the spacious dining hall. He was dressed in sturdy cotton trousers, a shirt of the same material, and gloves, all of which were thoroughly stained a rich brown. From the looks of it, the stain also covered at least about half the room. A strong, pungent smell, as of wine that had aged too long, permeated the atmosphere. Girtham himself, or perhaps the bucket next to him, seemed to be the major source of the fumes. His red beard was carefully braided and tied back over one shoulder, no doubt to ensure it maintained its natural scarlet hue.
The innkeeper turned, hearing the Cimmerian’s approach. Recognizing Conan, Girtham bellowed a greeting. “Ho Conan! I’d shake your hand, but as you can see–” he held up his hands, a brush made from what looked like a sea-sponge gripped in one of his dripping gloves, “–I’m covered in my work, and I doubt you’d appreciate having that fine armor of yours matching my inn!”
“Nay, ’tis just as well,” Conan replied, amused. “I see you’re at a lack of patrons, though.”
“It’s that accursed plague!” Girtham stormed. “People are either vanishing or leaving the city in droves.” He sighed loudly. “At least it gives me a chance to refurbish my establishment, although if business continues to suffer as it has, I could build myself a palace and still have none to occupy it! But enough of my troubles, what’s befallen you since last we spoke?” Girtham grinned.
Conan’s expression was dour. “The worst. I, Jessica and Tukali all have the gilded madness.”
Girtham’s expression fell like an ancient oak yielding to the last axe-stroke. He sunk down heavily at the table he’d been staining, not caring that his backside was resting on a wet bench. “I see from your grim expression that you’re not jesting. In sooth, I truly wish you were.”
Conan took a seat on a dry bench across from Girtham. “I’ve been all over this city, searching for anything that might spare us from this pestilence, but I’ve found nothing.” He glowered at the floor for a moment, then raised his head, his volcanic eyes staring into Girtham’s. “But I swear, if there’s anything out there to be discovered, I’ll find it or die trying.”
Girtham knew by the terrible note underlying Conan’s vow that he meant every word of it, and he doubted him not. “I have all of my available contacts seeking the same answers,” he said. “Nothing has turned up yet, but I promise you, when it does, you’ll be the first to know.” He frowned deeply for a second, his brow knit in consternation. “If you need any help at Jessica’s, I can lend you some of my staff–they’re all hiding out upstairs in their quarters, and none has shown signs of plague as of yet . . .”
Conan shook his head slightly. “That’s generous of you, but at present everyone else in Jessica’s household is fine. I’ll be grateful enough for any information you come across. I only hope I’m still in a position to make use of it when it comes.”
They exchanged good-byes, and Conan left Girtham hard at work within the empty lounge of the Pig’s Eye. He strode silently home, entrenched in his own thoughts. For the first time in many years, he was unsure of what to do next. All he knew was that as little as he actually understood about his current situation, he’d be damned if he didn’t go down without a fight. The only question was: How, and who, to fight?
Sharif stumbled along unknowingly, the searing desert sun baking the flesh upon his emaciated body.
Days ago, the wizard had left Aghrapur without looking back as he set out upon a journey westward, heedless of any geographical or mortal limitations that might bar his way. Through cultivated river basins and semi-arid foothills he’d walked ceaselessly, night and day. The few people Sharif had encountered recognized the blank expression on his face as the mask of the insane and the damned, so they’d left him alone. Even the bandits that roamed in the vicinity hindered him not, seeing nothing of value upon him and knowing where there were richer and more worthwhile pickings to be found. So used to the wizard’s often sudden and lengthy disappearances were those Sharif could call ‘friends’ that they eventually got around to seeking his whereabouts, only several weeks too late.
Just this past night, Sharif had finally encroached upon the desert separating the Turanian Empire from the nations of the western world. No sounds of glorious fanfare or blasting of trumpets had greeted the lone wayfarer, none but the low whisperings of the wind stirring restlessly over a sea of dunes.
Now, in the blast-furnace heat of a vast wasteland, there strode a man who had once sought to twist the lives of others to his own volition, having at last fallen himself to yet a stronger will, one bent upon pushing him mercilessly toward the distant land of Koth even if it killed him.
Sharif’s limbs creaked as he strove forward, his burnt skin cracking and sloughing off his body in clumps until he was raw and bleeding from numerous wounds. The bright metal patches strewn across his flesh only served to draw the light and heat. His eyes were sightless in his head, already useless from such relentless exposure to the sun’s blinding rays. Sheer instinct kept the wizard going, but when a rock turned under his bare foot and tripped him up, even instinct couldn’t get him standing again.
He lay there face-first in the hot sands, his flesh broiling beneath the sun. The sorcerer’s limbs twitched feebly against the ground, still struggling to carry him toward Khorshemish.
As the life cooked out of him, Sharif regained his senses just long enough to utter a pathetic moan, of pain or regret none would ever know, before he sank at last into oblivion. The vultures circling overhead swooped down around his corpse, gathering for the feast.
Sleep held no peace for Conan that night. He didn’t so much as dream as hallucinate, his weary mind enduring fevered visions of a strange city lorded over by massive steel guardians twice the size of a man. In his fitful slumber, the sweat-soaked sheets twisted about Conan’s limbs so that he dreamt of being entangled within the impossibly long arms of a dark, wiry shadow, its pupils reflecting at him the crackling infernos of Hell . . .
He awoke suddenly, a sheet ripping somewhere around his body as he bolted upright to a sitting position. Conan’s room was bathed in moon-glow, and through the window he could see that the mists had lifted.
Shaking off the last vestiges of his nightmare, Conan dimly recalled hearing something. Peering outside he could see nothing amiss, but his view only encompassed the grounds on that side of the manor and failed to reveal what he wanted to know about the front. A sudden thought struck him, one of cloaked thieves and midnight assassins.
Muttering a low curse, Conan hurriedly pulled on his boots and leggings, then gathered up his sword and dagger, strapping them on as he slid out into the hallway. Moving stealthily but swiftly, he made his way toward the main foyer, careful to avoid striding within the moonlight.
Conan encountered no one in the darkened hallways, but as he rounded the last bend before the foyer he saw light shining in through the open front door. Conan’s Ilbarsi dagger flew instantly into his hand as he crouched low, flowing noiselessly and shadow-like to the opening, his gaze sweeping the room for signs of movement or anything out of place. Conan discovered no foes lurking about nor signs of robbery, and the sturdy oaken doors bore no marks of forced entry.
He was considering the idea of prowling around outside for intruders when a faint, rhythmic rasping noise reached his ears. It seemed to be coming from down the hall leading to Jessica’s chambers. Convinced that someone might be attempting to cut their way through the solid bronze portal into Jessica’s room, Conan sprinted toward the sound and found Jessica’s door hanging open, the rasping louder now and emanating from inside. He was through the doorway and gathering himself to strike . . . and lit upon Markus slumped in his chair, snoring loudly and entirely oblivious to the world. Conan would have laughed in relief, but he noticed Jessica’s bed, empty, with no trace of her in sight.
Sheathing his dagger, Conan raced back to the front door and out onto the grounds. He scanned the yard briefly, seeing nothing in it but tall thin trees and the huddled forms of bushes. When he looked beyond the lawn, however, he caught sight of the front gate, which was slightly ajar.
It now seemed obvious to the Cimmerian of what had happened; in her befuddled state of mind, Jessica must have arisen while Markus was sleeping and let herself outside. The thought of Jessica roaming the city streets alone in the dark and out of her wits was enough to bring Conan’s heart into his throat. But as he rushed for the gate a sudden idea streaked through his mind like a bolt of lightning: What if the people disappearing from Khorshemish were not just wandering off, but actually going someplace?
Conan grinned then in the darkness like some sinister night wraith. The solution to his and the rest of the city’s current problem would likely be found at whatever destination the plague’s victims were headed to. All he would have to do is follow Jessica in order to discover the culprits responsible. As much as Conan disliked the notion of using Jessica in such a way, he knew there was little other choice.
Conan’s legs had carried him out into the street and halfway down its length when he realized he hadn’t seen any sign of his mistress, so how could he be certain of the correct path? Yet as he rounded the corner, Conan spotted the back of a familiar-looking white nightgown disappearing further down the next street. Not caring whether instinct or luck had steered him along the proper route, Conan took off after Jessica.