There were few sounds in the pre-dawn stillness, not even the jingling armor of the guards who were supposed to be patrolling the streets. Conan guessed that they, like everyone else, were reluctant to risk exposing themselves to the plague any longer than they had to, even if it meant allowing the city’s underworld free reign during the last few hours between night and daybreak.
Conan gave Jessica a good half-block’s lead ahead of him while he crept through the shadows on panther’s feet, careful to stay out of any direct light in case the shiny bits of metal patterning his bare upper body should give him away. Every so often he would spot another wayward soul, walking around in the same vacant manner as his mistress. Some would fall in step with her, following along until there was a veritable platoon of zombies marching to their own cryptic beat.
High spires and sprawling mansions soon gave way to the more conservative dwellings of Khorshemish’s middle class as the group made its way eastward toward the merchant quarter. Conan took more care in appraising the terrain they passed through since even thieves and cutthroats tended to hunt in well-established territories, and the ones in this city would be more used to areas normally less secure than the wealthy ring of aristocracy revolving around the palace. Habits, by nature, were at best difficult to break, especially for the dregs of society.
Conan was just edging around the corner of a high stuccoed wall when his gaze fell upon a small crowd gathering on the side of the next street. A sewer grate had been pulled out of place and people were dropping down into the sewers that ran beneath the paves. Jessica’s party of victims was heading to converge with the others, no doubt to also play at being sewer rats.
He was about to follow when a pair of arms shot out of an alleyway opening onto the rearmost members of the first group. Conan caught a flash of steel as a particularly richly-garbed man was hauled backward into the alley away from the others. Jessica and her troop would be within reach of those arms in a matter of heartbeats. Conan’s eyes burned feral as he doubled back and silently leapt and caught the bars of a nearby balcony, hauling himself to the roof.
Breht smiled at his unbelievable good fortune while he drew a red-spurting line across the neck of his prey with a half-rusted dirk. Beside him his partner Amar giggled in his high-pitched voice, impatiently thumbing the edge of the razor he favored when the two embarked on their little forays. Amar liked to do things, unnatural things, to the bodies after they’d been stripped of their valuables. Breht didn’t mind so much, as long as he got his fair share of the loot. The petals of the lotus didn’t come cheap these days.
The merchant’s clothing revealed a purse of coins, mostly silver, and to the delight of both men, a secret stash of opals and pearls hidden within a pocket sewn into his waistband. Breht’s eyes rolled in near-ecstasy as he envisioned how much lotus he’d be able to purchase with the haul they’d taken this night alone. His idea to ambush these pathetic plague victims had been his best yet. The only expense they’d faced thus far was for two pairs of heavy gloves to ensure they didn’t become victims as well.
Amar was bent over the still-twitching corpse of the merchant, deciding where to begin cutting, when his eye caught sight of another flock of sheep approaching and just begging to be sheared. In their forefront he saw the woman, clad in the finest of nightgowns. Giggling excitedly, he flung the corpse aside onto a growing pile and pointed his razor at Jessica. “Ohh!” he exclaimed. “I want that one!”
Breht looked up from his money. “Eh? Which one?”
“That one there! Her! Her!” Amar licked his drool-flecked lips.
Breht eyed Jessica dubiously. “She don’t look like she’s anything on her . . .” He noted the determined look on his partner’s face and shrugged. “All right, but only if I get both shares of the loot from the next one.”
Amar nodded curtly, his eyes glazing over as he thumbed at the razor. In his excitement, he failed to notice or care that he’d sliced the digit.
Breht gestured at Jessica. “Go ahead, she’s all yours. It’s your turn anyway.” He crossed his arms.
Amar waited until Jessica finally stopped, her back to the alley as she waited with the others to descend below the street.
Amar took a step forward, his free hand already grasping outward for the back of her gown four feet away, and then he heard the warning growl behind him. He turned as one with Breht, in time to see a dark form hurtling through the air from the edge of a low rooftop adjoining the alley. He saw the gleaming arc of steel as it descended upon him from above a pair of burning blue eyes.
Conan had seen and heard enough. With a growl of rage he’d launched himself from the roof at the duo, aiming specifically at the one reaching for Jessica.
His broadsword arced downward as he bellowed again in bestial hate. Neither of the two vermin below had time to react before Conan’s sword was slicing through Amar’s shoulder blade, passing so close to the skull that an ear and half the man’s cheek were removed first. The Cimmerian landed in a crouch, the force of his plunge adding even more power to the already incredible strength behind his chop, thus serving to drive his sword clean through the entirety of the man’s torso. Amar’s body came apart in twain as blood exploded over the walls of the alley, drenching the other two men.
Conan swung his sword up and to the side, blocking Breht’s dagger slash even as the halves of Amar’s corpse splashed to the ground in a gory mess. Fast as lightning, Conan stepped back and away from his opponent with his left foot and spun on it, whirling his sword around and down in a diagonal strike. Breht’s gloved hand, still clutching the dirk, sailed through the air in a crimson spray, the tip of the blade catching and holding in a crack in the mortar of the wall across the alley.
Breht cried out in pain and clutched at the bleeding stump of his arm. He howled even louder when he saw his hand just a few paces away, clinging to the stonework as if with a life of its own.
Conan lunged forward and gripped Breht’s face in his steely grip. “You’ll never slaughter any innocents again, scum–not after tonight!”
Breht tried to bite the Cimmerian’s palm, and with a snarl, Conan viciously drove the cutthroat’s head into the alley wall. So powerful was the strength behind the blow that Breht’s head splattered like an egg, his blood and brains oozing thickly down the bricks behind his mashed skull.
Conan wiped his hands and sword on the dead man’s tunic, then took a second to rub some of the blood away from his eyes. No pang of remorse was felt over the lives he’d taken–some men just plain needed killing, and these two were such. Had they stuck to thievery alone, Conan may have simply trounced them into unconsciousness for getting in his way. But they’d been rabid killers, slitting throats for no more reason than that they’d enjoyed it. The one man hadn’t even been content with that and had taken to mutilating his victims beyond death to satisfy some perverse desire.
Conan frowned and sheathed his sword, exiting the alley. He’d seen his share of strange behavior out in the wilds, but civilization and its cities seemed to breed a far greater number of deviants than what could be thought of as its fair allotment.
The few remaining people gathered around the sewer’s opening revealed no sign they’d been aware of the brief skirmish fought at their backs. Conan wasn’t surprised, considering their state of mind, or lack thereof. Jessica was gone from view, having already clambered down into the humid tunnels.
Conan watched impassively as the last few stragglers dropped below, the faint splashings of their footsteps resounding from slime-coated stonework. Judging by the absence of light in the sewers, whatever extra sense that was leading the plague victims along evidently didn’t require that they be able to see. Conan wasn’t quite willing to go groping blindly about in the gloom of the city’s extensive drainage system, so he trod over to one of the few glowing street lanterns nearby. A couple seconds’ effort saw the man-high fixture, base and all, pulled out of its mounting in the curb.
Conan descended carefully upon the rusted metal rungs jutting from the sewer walls, the lantern-topped iron pole gripped in his left hand lighting his way. Ignoring the foul reek emanating from the ankle-deep sludge all around him, Conan waded after the silent procession of lost souls, using the end of his makeshift staff to probe for obstacles in the muck.
The group marched on, the metal on their bodies glittering as it caught and reflected the glow of Conan’s lantern. As they walked, light skittering noises came out of the dark as rats, snakes and other inhabitants of the sewers took flight at the newcomers’ intrusion. At least, Conan figured, there was some safety in numbers, should anything think of attacking them.
At each ladder, ramp or point of intersection, Conan marked his way by scratching a shoulder-height arrow into the stone of the tunnel, ensuring that he could find his way out, or back again, when the need arose. Soon they came upon another set of rungs in a small antechamber, leading down to a different grid of passages running beneath the sewers. Conan guessed they were now entering an older drainage system, one that had been built over when the city above outgrew it. By the crumbling walls and markedly narrower architecture, Conan reckoned that had been quite some time ago.
Still they pressed on, picking their way single-file over loose rubble and the moldering bones of creatures long dead. At one point their downward advance was temporarily barred by an ancient slab of rock that had fallen across yet another manhole. There was only room for one body at the foot of the rock, and since none among those present appeared to be up to the labor of clearing the way, Conan performed the task after having wriggled his way through the cramped tunnel to the front of the line for the purpose of investigating the reason for their halt. He waited until all had descended before following, first etching yet another arrow to mark his trail.
The rest of the way to their unknown destination was slower and harder going. They trudged through slippery caverns and channels hewn out by water as it had eaten through limestone or washed against clay and dirt. More than a few passages looked suspiciously like they’d been dug by animals, but Conan could name no natural creature that could or would have need to burrow so extensively or spaciously. The travellers passed by many remains, both of humans and beasts alike, though the Cimmerian harbored little interest in knowing how or why they’d died. He only loosened his sword in its scabbard and strove determinedly onward.
The oil in Conan’s lantern was burning dangerously low. Either they would get to where they were going, and soon, or he would have to construct a torch out of his garb to keep from wandering blind, and by the sparse amount of clothing he wore, Conan was loathe to try. He wasn’t disappointed when at long last the expedition broke through a gap in the hard-packed earth of a seemingly dead-end tunnel and piled into a room. The sides of the low hexagonal chamber appeared to be hewn from a basalt-like stone. A few cracks in the wall opposite the entrance let in a few scant shafts of molten light, but enough that Conan left his lamppost resting across the steps of a tumbled-down stone staircase that would have reached, strangely enough, to a ceiling of rocks and debris jammed together above their heads.
Across the room another flight of stairs led down, and one by one they again descended, this time with Conan leading. Jessica and the others were none the worse for wear after crawling through ages-old shafts and sewers, but Conan felt that they were fast approaching the answers he sought, and his sword-arm itched to deal with whoever or whatever was responsible for their plight.
Steps carved of the same material as the walls led down alternating flights, each landing they reached growing moderately brighter with the same reddish illumination, as of twilight. With the light came sounds and smells. Noises of distant voices and deep vibrations grew stronger, as did the odors of sulfur, smoke and dust, so that to Conan it seemed like they were going up a well feet-first, instead of down what might have been a tower except that presently they were at least several hundred paces underground.
From his vantage on the stairs Conan descried the bottom floor, for no further steps were visible in the smooth black surface, and an orange radiance poured in through the outline of a narrow, empty door frame. Conan took the final length of the staircase in bounding strides, hurrying to the door before those behind him had a chance to reach it and announce their presence by passing through it.
Cautiously, he poked his head outside. He wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted his unbelieving eyes: They had indeed been descending a tower of some kind, for outside there were many, many more, sprouting high from within a generous assortment of ziggurats, domes, temples, houses–a variety of buildings too numerous to take in all at one time. Lights winked from the vast majority of the structures, dotting the air like stars far into the distance.
Conan stepped outside, astounded by the sheer immensity of the cavern the city lay within, for it was obvious the place was indeed a city. He looked up but failed to discern the top of the cavern he knew must enclose it all. The landscape stretched out valley-like before him, sweeping down to the center of the cavern like a titanic bowl, with the bowl’s rim containing buildings along its perimeter like the one Conan had emerged from, these standing flush against the cavern wall like sentinels.
The group emptied out of the tower behind him, crowding around and urging him into the city within the press of their bodies. Conan allowed himself to be moved along in their midst as he would still be able to keep his watch over Jessica while going relatively unnoticed himself among the people milling around him.
The air was like that inside a forge, hot and smelling of molten materials and the burning of fuels. A thick smog lay over everything, thinning only slightly as they left the heights in their wake. Conan could see other such crowds of plague victims emerging nearby around the valley’s rim and filtering down into the city.
The buildings themselves were not only a motley assortment of styles, but the materials involved in their making appeared widely varied as well. Many were of stone, marble or granite, and in the dim light Conan recognized a medley of colors and textures, all stained with smoke and time. Other structures actually seemed to be entirely made of metals, and Conan boggled at any civilization so wealthy that they could afford to squander such a precious resource; in his mind, iron and steel should be used explicitly for weapons and armor, all else being secondary. Still other constructions were formed from a mix of metal and what looked like a kind of pourable stone. Conan remembered encountering something similar in his journeys, a mixture of rock, water and other elements unknown to him that would harden into whatever shape the mixture dried in, like clay but far stronger and more durable.
The din of the city grew louder as they further penetrated its perimeter. The only people he saw were the ones he arrived with and the others, like he and his group, who were making the same trip. By the echoes of sound and by judging the distance of various lights around the city by eye, Conan guessed the place had to be at least twice the size of Khorshemish, making it among the largest cities he’d ever visited or even heard about. There was also something eerily familiar about it.
Conan felt the stirring of nape hairs of his neck, the same response he’d experienced countless times in his life when his instincts alerted him to the presence of sorcery. An image flashed before his vision, and he looked upon the place around him in a different light. Here, now, was the city from his nightmares. All the sights, noises and smells were there, creating the hellish atmosphere that he’d hoped upon awakening from his earlier dreams was just the result of his fevered brain. But there it was, sprung to full life before his very eyes. There was something missing though, something he’d forgotten about and hoped would stay buried with his memory . . .
Up ahead, a towering figure dislodged itself from the shadows of a cylindrical iron structure and lumbered with thudding steps up the street towards them. Conan heard a low hum beneath the clanking of each movement, and dust rose from the paves with each ponderous stride. It halted ten paces away, its shiny bulk a deepest metallic blue, almost black, looming a full two man-heights above their heads.
Conan got a clear view of the monstrosity before them, knowing he looked upon the one element of his dreams he hadn’t dared recall. An utterly blank, bullet-shaped head crowned a massive pair of shoulders. Arms as long as a man was tall hung at its sides like twin battering rams, one limb ending in a three-fingered hand, the other in a whip-like length of segmented metal. The golem’s misshapen torso tapered slightly to its waist, resting upon a pair of thick legs that were roughly cylindrical from its hips to its wide hoof-like feet. Instead of an entirely uniform outer skin, the inner workings of the creature’s chest cavity were partially visible behind a semi-transparent shell; amidst a collection of wires, cables and other parts unidentifiable, Conan recognized what could have been muscles and tendons attached to a skeleton, though none of what he saw was shaped like anything Conan had ever seen on any living being.
Tiny lights blinked out from the recesses of its innards, glowing like rat’s eyes in the dark. The thing motioned toward the group halted in its shadow like slaves before their master. As it did so, white-blue sparks flashed and pulsed along through its visible infrastructure.
They moved as one to follow the overseer. For those already in thrall to the gilded madness, they knew instinctively who their designated taskmasters were. For his part, Conan played along at follow-the-leader, keeping his peace and staying silent for the time being.
As the city further enveloped them, other work-crews could be seen in and among the buildings toiling at various projects and moving materials around. Each crew stayed within the steadfast presence of an overseer that seemingly directed their efforts without need for words but with total accuracy. Conan realized not all the workers were human. Some were of sub-human species, like ape-men, or merely from races having not yet thrown off the trappings of animalistic savagery. Though he couldn’t tell exactly what regions these last hailed from, Conan had often heard rumors of such beast-men dwelling in the hills and mountains hereabouts.
Mixed in with these were creatures not even remotely related to humanity, resembling more the spawn of the Abyss and beings summoned forth from the night-blasted regions of the lower planes. Hellish, mewling things, twisted in form, scuttling and crawling as they rushed to perform their appointed tasks. The only common ground they may have shared with their human counterparts was some degree of sentience, even if that were but a lowly malign intelligence, suited more to the base perversions of the demon-haunted netherworlds.
Conan couldn’t look at these creatures for long, turning his attention back instead to the humans of each flock. Most appeared to be Kothian or of a mixed race, presumably hailing from Khorshemish above, while some were definitely foreigners like Conan himself, though many bore the ravages of the plague so severely that their homelands could not be easily deduced. In passing, Conan scrutinized some workers more carefully than others, for a few appeared so thin and shrunken as to be cadavers. Conan had heard tales of ancient cities spread throughout the lands of Hyboria, and he wondered if this place might be one of them, those men resembling animated corpses being the city’s former occupants. These, however, looked too well-preserved to have been dead, or so Conan believed.
They advanced steadily onward through the gloom, an endless parade of buildings and workers scrolling past. The air grew more humid as they descended through the valley, combining with the smog and heat to make breathing a very unpleasant experience. Conan glanced over at Jessica. There was still no change in her bearing to indicate that she’d regained her senses. Conan scowled in consternation. He could now feel a tugging at his mind like a persistent drumbeat heard off and on at a distance as the gilded madness sought to exert its numbing influence over him. He fought back by concentrating on his surroundings and what was taking place around him.
Several of the overseers they’d passed along the way had been different than the ones Conan and his group had first encountered. They were closer in height to a tall man, but instead of possessing bodies entirely formed of metal, they actually looked to be some awful combination of metal and flesh. Conan didn’t comprehend how such abominations could be possible, but he reminded himself that sorcery often made the impossible into reality.
Conan poured over these thoughts in his head, unknowingly allowing his attention to slip away briefly from the real world without realizing his lapse. In a way, succumbing to the plague was like going to sleep: One moment he was awake, alertly taking in his environment, the next, he had fallen into mental oblivion, unconsciously ceding control to the plague.
Walking like one in a deep trance, Conan plodded along after the overseer, his face as blank as his wits.
Mach materialized on the uppermost tier of Jessica’s lofty spire in time to be greeted by the first bold rays of dawn. Spreading his cape above his head like an eagle swooping in to catch its meal, he glided swiftly down to the next level, and so on after that, until he had reached the ground floor in almost as little time as it would have taken a man to fall the same distance. Like a phantom he swept through the empty foyer and the hallway beyond until he reached the door to the room he was looking for.
He hadn’t expected the door to be open. Looking inside, he could plainly see the room was empty. Conan was gone.
Cursing silently at his own tardiness, the Rhan whirled aside and pushed through the doorway beside Conan’s. This room’s interior wasn’t lit by the sun’s early morning light, but Mach could see all within nonetheless. Bits of armor, clothing and a few scattered weapons lay in heaps around the central bunk and the still figure lying upon it.
He approached the side of the bed. Tukali lay there, motionless, his bare limbs glimmering faintly in the low light from the web of metal sheathing the Turanian’s skin. Mach drew forth a pouch from within his robes and pulled its drawstrings apart. He twirled a small pestle around in the pouch’s contents, coating the instrument with an eggshell-colored gel.
A deft stroke of the pestle left a streak of the medicine across Tukali’s exposed inner wrist. Mach tucked the items back within the folds of his clothing and watched while the gel was absorbed into Tukali’s arm with unnatural speed.
Seconds passed, and Tukali began to stir. His eyes snapped open, and the vague expression there eventually faded to be replaced by full awareness. Tukali’s head turned gingerly on the pillow and the warrior saw Mach looming above him. He tried to speak but a motion from the dark man towering above bid him keep his silence for the moment.
Half a minute passed, and an even more dramatic metamorphosis took place in Tukali’s body; the silvery-bronze patchwork of shiny growths rusted, turning brown and flaking apart into a powdery substance that coated Tukali like ash. Within another minute the Turanian was restored to his normal physical self. He sat up, his lips brimming with unasked questions.
Mach finally spoke, again urging Tukali to silence. “There is little time to explain, so you must listen carefully to what I have to tell you.”
Tukali sat in willing silence, simultaneously enthralled by the man’s eerie, almost hypnotic voice and dumbfounded by this unexpected turn of events. He quickly nodded his head, willing to hear what the stranger had to say.
The Rhan continued. “I am Mach. Though you do not know me–” not quite the truth, but he could see by Tukali’s expression that the half-lie would be accepted anyway, “–I know of your situation and that of your friends. I can help you and the rest of this city defeat the slave plague, but for that I need Conan’s help and we have to find him.”
Tukali looked perplexed.
“He is gone, most probably to the same place as the other victims,” Mach answered. “We have to reach him. He has something I need to exterminate the plague. I have given you a temporary cure so you can aid me, but the plague still inhabits your body. I will explain the rest along the way, but we must go, now!”
Tukali sprang out of bed and hurriedly collected his things, donning clothes and armor. This Mach person obviously had to be a friend, or else he wouldn’t have awakened him from the nightmarish effects of the gilded madness. Tukali vowed inwardly to help this man who could help his friends in any way he could. He only wondered where this stranger had come from in so timely a fashion. Tukali finished buckling on the last of his equipment, then followed Mach out of the chamber.
They were halfway to the foyer when Tukali was struck with a sudden concern. “Wait! Jessica needs the same treatment as mine. Please, you must help her!” Tukali still felt the hard-edged guilt of being responsible for Jessica catching the plague. The least he could do was to see that she regained some semblance of health until a real cure was found.
Mach wasted no time in arguing, but arrowed instead for Jessica’s quarters. It would take but a second to treat her before resuming their pursuit of Conan.
Tukali hurried after Mach and they reached Jessica’s room. The bronze door was open and sorrowful groans and snuffles could be heard from inside. The two came upon Markus sitting in his chair with his head held in his hands as he wept forlornly. He looked up at the intrusion, his cheeks stained with tears. Recognizing Tukali, Markus gestured toward the empty bed. “She’s gone missing! I failed to keep watch over her, and now she’s lost. I’ve failed her and her father,” he moaned, rubbing at his eyes with a wrinkled forearm. “Damn it, I can’t even stay awake when I’m needed to! Why Lady Jessica ever accepted the services of a doddering old fool like myself, I’ll never understand–“
As much as Mach felt badly for the old man, he had no time to listen to his self-pity. “Listen,” he cut in, “Conan has left as well, and I–we,” he glanced aside at Tukali, “mean to find them both.”
Just noticing the dark stranger, Markus looked questioningly at Tukali.
“He is a friend,” the Turanian answered. “He made me well. Mach was going to do the same for Conan and Jessica. He needs Conan’s help though, so he can rid us all of the gilded madness!”
Markus’s expression changed to one of hopefulness. “Is he a . . . a wizard?” he asked hesitantly.
“Of sorts,” replied Mach. “But if anything is to be accomplished, Tukali and I must leave at once.” He turned, stepping through the open door.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” asked Markus, standing.
“As a matter of fact, there is,” Mach called back, heading for the corridor. “One or both of us will soon return.” He stopped just outside the door, waiting for Tukali to follow. “Your help will be needed then. In the meantime, see that you are prepared for anything, and stock up on provisions.”
Markus waved farewell after Mach’s parting advice and a reassuring nod from Tukali. Even before the two men had exited from earshot, Markus was forming a mental list of supplies to replenish and preparations to be made.
The front gate silently swung closed on its hinges, clicking as it locked shut. Tukali pocketed his key and looked up and down the street. “Which way shall we go?”
Mach pursed his lips in thought. “I know of a swift way to pick up your friend’s trail, but only if the trail is fresh enough.” He peered intently at the ground as he spoke. “Otherwise, there are other methods I can use to locate Conan, but those are much slower, and involve much more–ah! I’ve found it,” he declared, pulling the Turanian after him as he sped off down the road.
Utilizing the same vision that had guided him through the darkened labyrinth of Ashlara’s temple, Mach could make out the vague outlines of Conan’s boots where they had stepped upon the paves. With the growing light and the passage of time, the heat track had dissipated nearly to the point of vanishing altogether, showing him little except beyond a trail of light blue footprints on a dark blue background of cold stone, but it was just enough for the Rhan agent to follow.
Tukali, for his part, couldn’t see what Mach saw, but he trusted that this man with his peculiarly alien manner about him knew what he was doing.
The path was a tricky one, leading the men between buildings, across streets and through an assortment of urban foliage all the way into the merchant quarter. Obviously Conan had done his best to stay out of plain sight and to throw off any attempts at pursuit. Mach periodically uncovered other tracks along the way, most of which headed in the same general direction as the Cimmerian’s. The farther they got into the merchant district, the denser the proliferation of footprints became.
Mach led them to the end of a high wall, its surface layered in a tan, sun-glazed stucco. He suddenly paused, glaring over his shoulder at the ground where it stretched back to the beginning of the wall.
“What’s the matter?” Tukali asked.
“Conan’s trail ends here. He may have doubled back, but I can’t be sure. His path has faded too much.” He looked to the top of the wall above. “Perhaps he went up . . .?” Mach mused aloud.
Tukali was busy glancing down both directions of the cross-street. Suddenly he pointed his finger. “This way! He went down here!”
“Eh?” Mach looked around the corner to the spot Tukali was indicating. A sewer grate had been moved out of its place on the street’s edge.
They rushed over to peer past the sewer opening. In the growing light, enough of the murk below was dispelled that both men could see signs of recent passage; muddy footprints, scraps of cloth, and Tukali thought he could even see blood drying around the edges of the hole above the iron rungs.
Mach took stock of their immediate surroundings. He noticed a litter of loose stones and earth on the edge of the curb across the street, like someone had dug or yanked some object out of the ground. More obvious, the alleyway behind them was awash in gore. The Rhan made his way over to it as quietly as possible, aware that they were losing time but feeling the need to satisfy his curiosity. Tukali followed his lead, cautiously stepping up to the dark mouth of the alley after espying the congealing blood. It would do no good to alert any attackers hiding within.
Strewn amongst the piles of trash and assorted junk were bodies, all unmoving.
“What a charnel house!” Tukali breathed, glancing at the carnage in disgust.
“It would seem our barbarian friend intruded upon a robbers’ lair. See the victims with their throats cut,” Mach said, pointing out specific corpses. “And these two near the front look as if they died in battle. Look at the weapons and loot near them, and their sword wounds.”
Tukali grimaced in revulsion as he bent down and inspected the dead bandits for himself. One of them had been sliced in two. “I know of only one man with the strength to do this. Conan was here, all right.” He stood up slowly, trying not to let his stomach churn in response to his viewing the grisly scene.
Mach murmured an agreement. “He took the sewers then. We’ll have to follow . . .” He trailed off as the distant noises of clanking armor and numerous footsteps echoed into the alley from down the street.
Tukali’s eyes widened in alarm and he started to turn back toward the sewer. “The town watch! If they catch us here they’ll–Erlik!” He cried out in surprised horror as his gaze lit upon the gruesome sight of a dismembered hand apparently clinging spider-like to the alley wall. His voice carried easily in the early morning stillness, and at the sound of Tukali’s shout yells erupted from the troop of guards marching toward the alley, their feet pounding hard on the cobbles as they broke into a run.
Mach grabbed Tukali by the arm and hauled him toward the sewer. “Climb down!” he ordered, shoving him at the opening while he checked on the approaching guards. They weren’t quite within a spear’s throw yet, but they had spotted the two men and were coming on, full-tilt.
Quickly climbing down onto the first few rungs, Mach leaned over the edge of the hole and dragged the heavy grate back into place while he descended. A hastily-thrown spear clattered by harmlessly overhead. He dropped the last few feet into the slime with a muffled splash. “Which way, Turanian?”
Tukali grinned, if a bit nervously. “Just follow the signs,” he said, tapping the unmistakable picture of an arrow etched into the side of the tunnel.
Loose stone fragments and bits of old mortar pattered down into the filthy water as the clamoring guards got closer.
Tukali watched in superstitious awe and a little fear as Mach’s hands started to glow, lighting up the area around them. “Shall we go, then?” asked the wizard, waving toward the tunnels ahead.
The sloshing of their footsteps faded as they hurried down the passage. Silence alone greeted the guards when they finally arrived, too late to catch the fleeing pair.
They were led unerringly by Conan’s signs through the dank tunnels and catacombs, and eventually, after what felt like hours, they were inclined to halt at the foot of a crumbling flight of stone stairs that led seemingly nowhere. Tukali was the first to distinguish the battered lamppost lying among the ruined steps. He recognized it from its cousins lining the city streets of Khorshemish.
One of the walls in the hexagonal chamber had collapsed slightly inward, whether from the stresses of the recent passage of Conan and those he had followed down, or some other reason, neither man could tell. The room was awash in a hazy red light that streamed in through the waist-high opening. The glow of Mach’s hands dimmed and went out as he extinguished his own light source.
Using the tall metal post Tukali levered and pushed at the broken stone of the wall, chipping away at the hole’s edges until both men could stoop side by side to look outward.
Or rather, inward. It was immediately apparent that they looked out upon a huge cavern, its unusually smooth roof sloping up and away from their tower, disappearing over distant lights that twinkled in the valley beneath it. From their high position, details of the city were few, but a low roar as of a multitude of people working and the glittery outlines of tall buildings visible in the semi-darkness affirmed their conviction that the place was indeed a city.
Mach looked at Tukali and spoke in a low voice: “Know you anything of ancient Acheron?”
“A little,” whispered Tukali. “Thousands of years ago it was a vast empire of city-states spread across all of Hyboria. …I have heard tales of the perversions and abominations practiced by the Acheronians, and the fall of Python and the treasures said to lie there still–though no sane man would dare seek them out.”
Mach nodded in the gloom. “I have learned much during my vigil on your world. I know that we are looking upon one of those ancient city-states now. When Khorshemish was first built, it was founded upon the ashes of a city from that evil era, one supposedly trampled long ago into the blood-soaked ground by the barbarian hordes who felled the rest of unholy Acheron.”
Tukali looked out into the valley with a look of disbelief. “That looks not like a heap of ashes to me.”
“No, it does not,” Mach conceded. “The city that lies out there was thought long since dead, but it would appear that evil such as Boa is not so easily destroyed.”
“As the city was known,” said Mach. He sighed deeply and shook his head. “There is much I would explain, but we have so little time. Conan must be found, for without his aid my mission will stand no chance of succeeding, and those who have disappeared from Khorshemish might never return.” Mach’s eyes flashed violet in the dimness as they turned upon Tukali. “I shall make this brief–the details will have to wait for later. Much of what I say might be difficult to accept, but I ask you to trust me.”
Tukali grunted, nodding his acquiescence.
The Rhan continued, carefully organizing his thoughts. “I come from another world, another people called the Rhan’eitat. I came here pursuing a fugitive, one who has committed crimes against his own people beyond the ken of any sane man.” Mach hesitated, looking at Tukali to see whether he’d already confused him, but the Turanian was silent and only nodded for him to continue.
“That fugitive, Enkee-Kutul, was an emperor who ruled my world and others without mercy. He controlled his unwilling subjects through nefarious means, both psychological and physical. One of those means was a slave plague, what your people call the ‘gilded madness’. He created it out of sorcery with the aid of his lord, a demon-god named Scybor.”
“Through the efforts of an underground resistance, Enkee-Kutul was overthrown when a cure to his plague was conceived and given to the people he had controlled. The people rose up against him, defeating his forces and winning their freedom. Enkee-Kutul fled from their vengeance with his cohorts, taking with him a powerful relic called the Cube of Fuzon. Agents such as I were sent out to track him down, bring him back for judgment, and retrieve the artifact for its rightful owners, the Rhan’eitat.”
“His flight took him here, to your world, where I suspect he is attempting to create an army to reconquer his empire with the help of his underlings and the power of the Cube of Fuzon. In the process it seems he has laid claim to the remains of Boa, transforming it to serve his own designs. Conan is vital to my cause, for through him alone can I call upon the awesome power of Crom to battle Enkee-Kutul and Scybor.” Mach finished and drew in a breath, waiting.
Tukali mulled over the story for a good dozen heartbeats. Much of what his new accomplice said was indeed difficult to accept, but he knew that anything was possible–especially when magic was involved. So far, this stranger had done nothing but help him, and even though Tukali didn’t really know Mach that well, his every instinct told him that the man was speaking truthfully. At last he broke his silence. “You are right. I would like to hear more, but I guess the story must wait for later. What do you need of me?”
Mach breathed a little easier. He knew he had the power to influence Tukali’s mind to carry out any orders he wanted, but that would require being something other than what he was, namely a tyrannical equivalent of Enkee-Kutul. Mach much preferred to have others aid him because they wanted to; the tenets of free choice formed the basis of his entire existence.
“While I seek out Conan, I need you to work here, in Boa. Scout out the city and create a map of it. Locate the whereabouts of Enkee-Kutul and the Cube of Fuzon, if you can, and scribe anything else that looks of any import.” Mach’s voice adopted a tone of caution. “Be wary, for Enkee-Kutul is likely to have many henchmen, as well as creatures of his own making or summoning. Avoid them at all costs, especially those clad in metal, for ordinary weapons can do little against them.”
Tukali tapped his thumb confidently against his breastplate. “I was a scout for several years in my nation’s army. I should enjoy polishing some of my old skills.”
Mach smiled. “That is good to hear. You may want to use your employer’s home as a base to return to after your excursions. I suggest working on the map there after each trip. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone, but Conan and I will meet up with you there as soon as we can. As for me, it’s time I was off.” Mach bent low and stepped to the edge of the floor where it led out into the vast open space of the cavern.
Alarmed, Tukali clutched at Mach’s shoulder, restraining him. “Are you not going to use the stairs?” he asked, looking doubtfully into the empty air of the Rhan’s intended exit.
Mach shook his shoulder free, laughing. “Why walk when you can fly?” He leapt outward and immediately dropped.
Tukali felt his heart leap into his throat, believing Mach had suddenly gone mad. He leaned forward and looked over the precipice, watching the dark form plummet. There, before Tukali’s disbelieving eyes, Mach appeared to sprout wings, miraculously turning his headlong dive into a smooth glide that brought him, still laughing, out over the city’s tallest buildings. Tukali could only blink and stare in wonder as he imagined what it would be like to possess the ability to soar through the air. He waited for the distant avian blur that was the alien wizard to dwindle completely from sight before turning his back.
Taking up the discarded lamppost and refilling it with a small vial of oil pulled from one of his belt pouches, Tukali sparked the lantern to life and headed back the way he had come; he’d have to properly equip himself for the job that lay ahead, and from the loud growl rumbling forth from his belly, that would include eating his first full meal in days before he passed out from hunger.
Conan struggled harder than even he would have believed was possible for him. Like a lone firefly drifting high up in a midnight fog, Conan’s psyche fought valiantly, pushing through the oblivion and the overwhelming urge to remain passive that had been inflicted upon his soul by the insinuating spell of the gilded madness. His efforts bore fruit and the dark depths gave way like water being pushed aside by a dolphin leaping free of the ocean. Conan sprang to life, a fountain of color erupting before his eyes as they snapped back into focus. Like a man awakened from a dream about falling just before he hits the ground, the Cimmerian felt as if he’d jumped back into his body, his muscles jerking involuntarily with the sensation.
They were traversing a wide bridge reaching across a chasm that sliced through the city. Far below, the orange light of molten rock could be felt as much as seen, and sulfurous gasses stung Conan’s nostrils. The iron span they trod upon trembled slightly with every step landed upon its surface by the overseer leading their group. Its back was turned to them and Conan could see that the subtle transparency in the front of its shell was absent from its back.
A huge metal dome the color of hot steel loomed out of the haze ahead of them on the opposite side of the fault and at the end of a spacious square. Even at a distance, Conan could make out the forms of two more of the deep blue behemoths like their own flanking a massive pair of doors. The portals were flung wide, admitting a constant stream of hapless people and their overseers. What purpose the gigantic building served, Conan knew not, but he’d decided for himself that he’d seen enough.
As they reached the end of the bridge Conan spotted Jessica in the crowd and began weaving through their senseless ranks toward her. Unless their guardian had eyes in its back, he was sure he could reach her and escape without being noticed.
From the edge of an intersecting avenue, a massive bullet-shaped head turned to watch Conan’s progress with something akin to extreme curiosity. Within moments, the huge overseer was striding toward the group, invisibly signaling to another one of its counterparts on the opposite side of the square.
Conan reached Jessica’s side and grabbed hold of her arm, unaware of the unwanted interest he had attracted to himself. He tugged gently, attempting to get her attention, or at least to draw her after him. She resisted, adamantly keeping her course with the others. A firmer pull on her arm did naught but slow her down a trifle. Unless he wished to break the limb, he’d have to use another tactic.
Stepping in front of Jessica, Conan crouched and scooped her up with one arm, swinging her over his brawny shoulder. He straightened, making to push through the flow of people back toward the bridge, when he detected movement at the fringe of the crowd. Whipping his head to the left, Conan saw that he’d been discovered; an overseer was trundling toward him. A glance to the right revealed another metallic bully seeking to close the gauntlet from the other side. Escape across the bridge was blocked by yet another guardian clomping across the arch toward him.
He heard a rumble from behind. Spinning about, he barely perceived the leader of his group joining in on the trap as well before he was off and running, headed toward a cluster of squat buildings at the square’s edge. All around the crowds had stopped, mentally commanded by their masters to halt as they endeavored to get the wayward Cimmerian under control. By the experienced way they moved together and formed their strategy, Conan was far from the first to run against the grain in this metal hell.
He reached the door to one of the buildings, a gray pyramidal affair with stepped sides that rose up twice as high as the overseers. A red light flashed at its pinnacle like a malevolent eye. If he could get up there, he might stand a chance . . .
Conan had already set Jessica upon the first ledge, intending to climb up after her, when the steel door to the pyramid slid down into the ground and something snarling pounced at him. He had a brief impression of flashing, dagger-like talons and a mouth of fire before he was ducking under the attack, drawing his sword as the bundle of fury soared over his head and landed with a braying growl.
A blur of movement and the sound of claws rending stone warned Conan of another assault. His broadsword speared out while the thing rushed him, attempting either to gore him with its spiny head or to sear him with the flames on the verge of spewing from its maw. Steel met yielding flesh and a greenish ichor spurted as Conan’s sword impaled the beast’s eyeless face and pierced its brain. Sinewy limbs flailed and twitched and Conan’s attacker died, gurgling. He freed his sword and backed up against the pyramid’s wall.
The overseers, now six in number as their band was increased with the addition of the two overseers previously guarding the dome, had spread out in order to hedge Conan in against the pyramid. Their strides were unhurried but steady, relentlessly closing the distance to the barbarian warrior so far out of his element.
But maybe not too far. The door that had released the demon-thing showed Conan a small but mercifully empty room, large enough to admit at least one person.
Acting on impulse, Conan grabbed Jessica from where she still sat unmoving on the ledge and lay her within the pyramid’s boxy room. As soon as he stepped away though, the door slid back into place, cutting Jessica off from Conan’s view. If it blocked him, he prayed, then it would block the overseers, as well as anything else that might be lurking in this infernal place.
Conan swung himself up onto the first step of the pyramid, the metal surface cool beneath his hands. He was scaling the second ledge when he heard a low hum from behind. Conan hastily rolled aside, narrowly escaping the lash of an extended blue whip, its tip cracking past his head like a dry branch snapping in the cold of winter.
His roll landed him back on the first step, legs extended beneath him as he adopted a low stance from which he could more easily dodge the overseer’s whip. The overseer’s expressionless head swiveled to follow Conan’s every movement, the whip flicking out like a serpent’s tongue but only ever meeting empty air as the Cimmerian deftly avoided the blows.
Conan stood almost face to face with the overseer at the level of his perch. When his opponent moved in to close the distance between them, Conan was obliged to leap back up to the pyramid’s second tier. From his new position he could see that the other overseers had opted not to close in, but instead to form a half-circle around the building, presumably so he wouldn’t escape to one of the sides. Taking all this in, Conan almost fell victim to the overseer’s next blow as it lashed out with one arm in a backhanded strike, swiping at his legs with its three-fingered limb.
He managed to leap over the blow, but his momentum was taking him too far forward; he would end up back on the first ledge. Instead, he reached out with his free hand as he descended, catching hold of the overseer’s head, and hurdled clear over its left shoulder. Conan landed squarely behind the juggernaut, his sturdy thighs absorbing the full impact of his landing. He swung around and struck out with his sword, putting as much strength as he could muster behind the swing aimed at the overseer’s knee joint.
Metal chimed on metal, striking a flurry of sparks but hardly bothering Conan’s enemy. The small line scored upon the overseer’s leg was due to the steel of Conan’s sword scraping off against the harder metal. He bounded backwards, skillfully dodging the arm aimed at his head like the boom of a wind-tossed sail as the overseer turned about in annoyance.
Of a sudden, the catatonic state induced by the gilded madness tried to reassert itself upon Conan, forcing him to divert precious mental energy to fighting two battles at once. The overseer lumbered forward, its metal-shod feet clanking. Seeing an opening, Conan slashed sideways, directing his steel at the semi-transparent midsection in hopes of cutting into the monstrosity’s vitals. His sword deflected impotently from the deceptively strong armored chest.
Conan had almost withdrawn his sword-arm from harm’s way when a swat from the overseer’s hand crashed into his forearm, breaking it with a loud snap and sending his sword hurtling through the air to land out of reach. He staggered sideways with the force of the blow and the pain, trying to brace his already besieged mind against the new element of his agony. The plague was slowing his reflexes, dulling his wits to the point of leaving him prone to the overseer’s almost clumsy-looking attacks.
Conan shook his head violently in an attempt to clear it, finding a small measure of success. Steel was having no effect on his foe anyway, so he ignored his fallen sword and sprinted for the temporary safety of a short alleyway between the pyramid and a tall granite building beside it. There he discovered that parts of the larger structure had fallen into ruin over the eons, leaving small mounds of rubble on the pavement at its base. He picked up a sizable chunk of granite with his left hand and shifted it about with his fingers to find the best grip as he studied the proximity of the visible overseers. His original foe was still at the pyramid’s front, seemingly taking its time as it chugged toward him.
From the opposite flank and much closer, another overseer was closing in. Conan heaved the rock for all he was worth, bull’s-eying the shiny carapace of the second overseer’s head. Granite crunched against the cobalt blue shell, leaving scuff marks and a peppering of debris on the shiny face-plate. The automaton stopped in its tracks, seemingly stunned. Then, to Conan’s disappointment, it merely wiped away the rock dust obstructing its vision, appearing none the worse for the hit, and continued onward. Conan was figuring out in which direction to run next when he was clouted from behind.
The open-handed slap sent him sprawling yards away out in the open. On three sides of him now overseers tightened the net. Conan shook his head dizzily, trying to clear away the dots of light streaking by his vision. He staggered to his feet and tried to dart between the outstretched arms of the two nearest overseers. Another blow glanced off the crown of his skull, cutting his scalp and sending him to the ground once again.
He struggled back up and got clocked on the left side of the face for his trouble. He grunted in pain as the impact broke his jaw and brought blood to his lips. Conan could already feel an eye starting to swell shut. He was amazed consciousness hadn’t deserted him yet.
In desperation he whirled and struck out with a sidekick that would have easily caved in a man’s chest, but the blow, intended to knock his closest adversary off-balance, didn’t even rock the overseer backwards. An armored fist came down, plowing into his shin and cracking the bone. Conan couldn’t help crying out in response to the pain. He would have fallen then, but another swat from behind hurled him through the air even as it smashed his shoulder blade with a wet sound. He landed, ironically, beside his fallen sword.
His good arm scrabbled outward, closing on the sword’s hilt. He used the weapon as a crutch, lurching to his knees while trying to ignore the throbbing anguish of his wounds. By the ragged pain in his chest and the darkness beginning to obscure his vision, Conan knew he must be succumbing to the shock of his wounds. He only hoped that he could die on his feet like a true warrior, not on the ground like an animal. As the overseers closed in on all sides, Conan raised his shattered arm and bellowed out a final battle-cry, invoking the name of Crom in his anticipation of death.
Something moved in the air above, and the rustling reminded Conan of a vulture’s wings. His grin was ghastly, blood dripping in one long smear from his chin down to his bare chest; maybe he could spear the scavenger before it had a chance to pick at his bones.
Light flashed before his half-closed eyes, accompanied by a resounding boom of sound. A handful of like explosions detonated in a circle around the Cimmerian, momentarily deafening his ears as twilight turned into brightly-lit day. Squinting through narrowed lids, Conan watched as the overseers in his field of view were bowled over, knocked off their feet and scattered backwards away from him. He looked on in grim astonishment, bewildered.
A dark figure landed directly before him, swathed in flowing black robes that billowed with a life of their own. Held aloft in an upraised hand was a glowing sphere of light pulsing with barely-contained energy. Even with shock numbing him from the trauma done to his body and the stupor of the gilded madness descending once more upon his mind, Conan still recognized the sorcerer who had attacked himself and Tukali in the Kothian Hills. “Ymir’s beard! Have you come to finish me off, then?” The words fairly drooled out of Conan’s ruined mouth, but their meaning was clear enough.
Mach replied tersely, stealing glances at the downed overseers to either side. “Hardly, Conan, though it would seem I am none too early.”
In his confusion, Conan’s demeanor softened a bit. “I don’t understand . . .” He slumped forward, but Mach lunged and caught him before he could fall. The Cimmerian felt smooth cloth enveloping him, draping about his battered frame.
Around them, the overseers were slowly standing, having recovered from the unexpected attack. None of them appeared damaged though they had been blasted off their feet like chaff in a whirlwind. At their perimeter, dark shadows suddenly gathered as if a door had been opened into the void.
In the blink of an eye the shadows turned to solid substance, knitting together into the shape of a man, dark of skin like Mach, but devoid of all hair. Standing a full head taller than even Conan, this giant of a man was heavily muscled as well, easily one of the largest humans Conan had ever seen–if he was human. A forest-green loincloth was his only garb, and when he opened his mouth to scream at his underlings, his filed teeth looked like they’d been hewn from pure onyx, so black they were.
The overseers walked forward, again moving to encircle the two figures pointed to by the dark giant. At the overseers’ approach, a cape was flung across Conan’s vision and he thanked Crom for the favor as he blacked out.
Enkee-Kutul watched with resentment as the Rhan agent escaped with the human savage. Light flashed and air banged together as the two dematerialized out of Enkee-Kutul’s immediate reach. No matter, he thought. His plans were so close to fruition that by the time the agent returned, there would be nothing he could do to stop him. Enkee-Kutul smiled.
His smile transformed into a frown as his gaze chanced upon his mechanical creations. They were too slow and cumbersome, even if they were impervious to most forms of attack. They still couldn’t match him or one of his men bedecked in a suit of battle armor. Brawn and brains–that was the idea he’d had in mind when he’d begun creating his more organic mechanical hybrids. Now there was power to be reckoned with, not like these walking buffoons.
Ah, but the end result can only be as good as the design, he chided himself silently.
Enkee-Kutul strode purposefully over to the pyramid door as his overseers went back to their former duties. He passed the corpse of the hound on his way over. A pity it had been slain so easily. He would have to make some improvements upon the next breed, perhaps turn the spines covering its body into armored scales . . .
He pressed his hand against the door’s surface and it slid noiselessly into the ground. Sitting up against the rear wall of the compartment was the woman that the savage had tried to bear away with him. He contemplated killing her outright, but a better plan came to mind. Chuckling at his sudden inspiration, Enkee-Kutul bent low and gathered up the woman in his massive arms.
He looked down, contemplating Jessica’s face. Yes, this one would have the honor of playing his hostage. When the other two returned, as he knew they would, she would be there to draw them into his grasp. To make things more interesting, he’d even remove part of the plague from her system. That way she could take a more active part in luring the men to their doom.
As suddenly as he had come, Enkee-Kutul vanished from the bustling square in a swirl of shadows, taking Jessica with him.