The meaty slaps of bare footfalls on marble flooring competed with the wet rasp of labored breathing as Westlun paced to each end of the expansive parlor and back. His guards hardly watched him, bored where they stood at their posts and doing little to conceal the fact that the pair of concubines lounging before them on velvet-draped divans were proving more pleasing to the eye than their obese and sweaty employer. Westlun neither knew nor cared what they thought of him, so long as they obeyed his orders.
The slave lord was smart in his way–by far not a scholar in any sense, but possessed of a devious intelligence that had led him to riches and power in a trade that could be vicious at best. Brutality and utter ruthlessness formed the nexus of his business-sense.
Presently his thoughts were enmeshed in a problem that had been growing worse these past few weeks. Most of his slaves, his property, had vanished from their holding pens in the slave quarter and from his household, along with many servants and others in his employ. Ordinarily he would have suspected this to be the work of bold rivals attempting to bolster their own inventory of goods through bribery and outright thievery, but he was no fool; his spies reported losses among all his competitors as well, and with the rest of Khorshemish’s population dwindling, the culprit was obviously the plague.
But Westlun could hardly be called content with only knowing the reasons why he had incurred such losses. He wanted his property back, with the addition of the other slavers’ as well if it could be managed.
He paused from his ruminations to sit his generous bulk onto a sturdy brass-plated stool. Chubby hands greedily tore a leg from the carcass of roast fowl on a nearby platter, and Westlun gnawed at the haunch distractedly, dribbling grease onto his already food-besmirched chin.
The others in the chamber were used to Westlun’s sloppy eating habits, and they took no notice as he ripped into the cold meat and sighed between bites in overt frustration. He didn’t like not knowing what course of action to take. Never before had he ever had such difficulty wrangling a given situation to his advantage. Until now, so it seemed.
One of the concubines, thick on the backside the way Westlun liked his women, moved to get up, momentarily grabbing his attention. As she meandered across the room toward a long table heaped with assorted treats and delicacies, he sat admiring the way her hips rolled beneath their ample padding. As his gaze shifted to follow her slightly jiggling body Westlun caught sight of one of his guardsmen leaning on a spear, eyes glued to the woman’s scantily-clad figure. She turned her head toward the man, winking coyly and receiving an appreciative grin in return.
It was evident to Westlun from the way the two carried on that there was some familiarity between them. He watched patiently as they continued their flirting, the half-eaten leg of meat forgotten in his hand. His brow wrinkled in thought. Watching the two, unaware that their actions had been noticed, gave him an idea . . .
“Nagi!” Westlun hollered. The guard jumped, his face reddening guiltily. The concubine merely popped a tidbit from a plateful of sweets into her mouth, ignoring her flirting-partner now that he was distracted elsewhere. “Nagi!” he snapped again, launching bits of food in a spray. “Put the word out that I want to know where the plague victims have been disappearing to! And double the usual reward!”
Westlun bit off another mouthful of meat, perusing the haunch as he chewed. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? By watching to discover where everybody was going, he might discover where his slaves were and get them back.
He glanced back over at the guard, annoyed. “Why are you still here, dolt?! Go!” Westlun snorted in astonishment as Nagi saluted sheepishly and sped from the room. Why he’d hired some of these fools, the gods could only guess.
A shapely pair of legs glided across his as the wench slid into his lap. “There, there,” she cooed. Placing one of the treats from her plate between her lips, she proffered him a kiss. On a couch behind them, the girl’s counterpart broke into a loud, graceless snore.
Conan dreamt of his first moments of life. In the middle of a blood-soaked field in his native Cimmeria, a fierce battle raged around a mother giving birth to a son upon the grisly scene. He didn’t know how they came to be there, only that his first view of the world of men–odd enough that his eyes were even open–was of straining figures hacking at each other in a whirlwind of blood and steel. Swords slashed, axes fell, and men cried out to their gods in agony or victory.
Frosted air and the golden glow of twilight radiating out of the endless heavens bid welcome to the boy even as hot blood spurting from nearby combatants drenched him in the savage baptism of war.
Across the battlefield a gruesome figure strode toward him through the melee. It hefted a large mace, spattered in gore after crushing the lives out of opponents too numerous to easily count. The reaver drew near, trampling the blood of the wounded down into the slush with each step. The killer was a Vanir, looming far above the baby Conan, who had himself just touched the ground for the first time.
Conan lay there in the snow–his first swaddling clothes–watching as the crazed Vanir raider lifted the mace high above his head with a sadistic grin. He could hear his mother screaming defiance as the murderous ball of metal came whooshing back down.
Conan hadn’t even blinked as a massive sword imposed itself between the Vanir’s attack and his own imminent death. The downward arc of the mace halted, the red-bearded murderer looking up in surprise. A towering warrior bedecked in armor that gleamed like the frozen wastes stood at the other end of the sword, which suddenly swept around and down to separate the Vanir’s head from his shoulders. The body toppled backward into the grime with a clatter of metal harness.
Piercing blue eyes, not yet a minute old, gazed up at the warrior who bent down next to the child. The man shed a battle-stained gauntlet from a hand almost the size of young Conan, and from beneath a horned iron helm fashioned in an ancient style, twin orbs reflected back the blue of glacial ice as they met Conan’s own.
All around them the fighting seemed to grow silent, the world coming to a momentary halt as the large hand reached out to touch Conan’s forehead with two fingers and traced a figure there in the smear of fresh blood that had not yet had time to cool. And then the warrior was up and gone, the world resuming where it had left off. Conan felt warm furs being wrapped around his tiny body, and the sensation of movement as he was borne swiftly away from the battlefield.
Conan awoke on a fur-covered pallet, bathed in sweat sprung from a raging fever. His entire body ached tremendously so that it hurt even to breathe. Through slitted eyes he could make out that he lay in some kind of cave, its interior dimly revealed by a strange illumination reflecting aqueously from the rough-hewn stone walls. He turned his head and was immediately sorry as he was blinded by a stream of glowing azure half-moons that broke over him from a point near the cave’s center.
Shielding his gaze with a trembling hand, Conan attempted to take in more of the den, but the fever was playing with his mind, and his vision reeled so sickeningly that he was forced to shut his eyes. Perhaps he was merely in some tavern’s cellar after a full night’s carousing and drinking? Surely that would explain the throbbing at his temples and the eerie hallucinations . . .
Despite the queasy confusion of loose thoughts caroming about wildly within his head, Conan managed to attain a small degree of focus, enough that he could force a semblance of order upon his mind. Tentatively, he ventured to open his eyes again, and was rewarded with a view of his surroundings that ceased to rock like a barge caught in a storm-swept sea. Moving gingerly, he lifted his head inches above the pallet and looked toward the mouth of the cave where a wide swath of leather blanketed the opening.
A shadow appeared there, framed within the cave mouth as Conan watched, and at first he fancied that his mental control had failed and given in again to the fever. But the shadow moved, sinking low as if to touch the floor, then grew larger as it shambled over to where the Cimmerian lay.
The person, as Conan could guess by the vague outline of head and limbs, halted a mere pace away. Something in Conan’s addled brain surfaced through the barely restrained chaos there, a fleeting impression of familiarity as the figure extended an arm, light glinting brightly from something held in the outstretched palm.
And Conan was suddenly transported back to the Kothian Hills, in the middle of a thundering downpour, standing before a large rock as he stared violet-eyed death in the face. A ball of intense light flashed once from above and surged forth, rocketing toward his chest . . .
Conan tried to dodge the imagined blow, uttering a startled cry and flailing at his attacker so that he knocked the water jug from Mach’s hand before abruptly passing out from his violent exertion. Once again, darkness claimed Conan for its own as his body went limp and fell back against the furs.
Mach sighed, crouched to retrieve the wooden vessel from its small pool of spilled water on the floor, and went to refill it.
Tukali ducked behind the cover of a statue triumphantly depicting some long-forgotten conqueror as a group of laborers with one of the overseers at their forefront clomped by. Above him, shafts of light leaked out from the rooftops and upper stories of a vast number of buildings, though they did not flicker like firelight.
He had made it back up to the surface that morning, stealing through the empty streets to Jessica’s manse. A hearty meal, the first in days, had helped him regain some of his strength. Markus had sat with him at the breakfast table, listening quietly to Tukali’s descriptions of the lost city he and the mysterious alien sorcerer had found.
After putting together a pack of food and supplies and wrapping his armor in black cloth, Tukali had re-entered the sewers at a point closer to the estate, threading his way through the dank underground passages until he could again follow Conan’s trail of signs. In the meantime, Markus had set about gathering the needed pieces of parchment and inks for Tukali to begin drawing his map when he returned.
Tukali’s second journey down into Boa had proved mercifully uneventful, though more stragglers had appeared descending into the city, their eyes blind in the musty blackness, and yet somehow they managed to find their way.
Now Tukali hid in the dark spaces between structures created by a mad emperor from another world. The buildings were a hybrid of dusty stone walls erected thousands of years before the Turanian’s time, and newer amalgams of metal, concrete and substances unknown. This strange blend of old and new, combined with the bleak spectacle of slave crews toiling in the half-light, lent the city an overwhelming air of the surreal.
The troop of workers finally passed, and Tukali peered cautiously around at the immediate area, contemplating his situation. The streets and alleys provided too little concealment from the eyes of the guards, either living or metal. In a pinch he could blend into the ranks of a work crew to disguise himself among their numbers, but he had already seen for himself that those who managed to shrug off the plague-inspired trance were noticed quickly, though whether because of their change in movement, or attitude, Tukali couldn’t say. He required a safer way to travel through Boa if he was to avoid getting caught.
He examined the granite wall rising up to the left of the statue, part of a rather ordinary-looking construction, and unimportant enough that it boasted no guards. The sheer surface appeared flawless–not so much as a crack or seam to dig a climbing tool into. At the top, however, Tukali spotted narrow beams of light spilling out from between the notches of a short parapet.
He slid the pack from his shoulders and rummaged through its contents. After several moments he withdrew a coil of rope with a padded grapnel tied to one end. Tukali replaced the backpack and, seeing that he went unobserved, whirled the metal prong at his side and flung it up toward the top of the wall. With a muffled thump the grapnel struck the roof behind the parapet, and Tukali gently tugged on the rope until the hooks caught. He pulled hard on the line, which refused to give.
Satisfied with the anchor, he pulled himself up the side of the wall. Weighted down as he was by all of his equipment it took him a few minutes, including a couple of brief rests, to haul himself up and over the roof’s edge. He was surprised to find that his grapnel had not caught against the parapet as he had thought, but had instead hooked onto a cable, thicker than his arm, that snaked across the length of the rooftop to buildings on either side. He hadn’t noticed before the black wire set against the sable backdrop of the cavern’s atmosphere, but now that his view had changed he could see an entire network of cables spread over and between almost every single building in sight like a gargantuan net.
Tukali was pleased that the cabling could so easily bear his weight, for he could use it to cross the spans between buildings too wide for him to jump. Gathering up the rope and attaching it to his belt, Tukali set off across the rooftops. In the distance he could see a widespread array of long, boxy frameworks where the majority of the noise in the cavern seemed to be sounding from. His curiosity aroused, the Turanian thrust deeper into the city.
Hours later, Tukali was scampering over a series of fragile-looking catwalks high above the ground. Fire puffed and flared into the smoky air from the tops of stacks that rose up like immense, primeval tree trunks. No guards manned the airborne byways, but slaves of Enkee-Kutul’s gilded madness could be seen clambering across the mesh of hanging bridges, performing tasks at each of the smokestacks that the Turanian failed to identify.
He reached the end of the catwalk, glad to be off the precarious-looking thing. Tukali stepped out onto the wide base supporting one of the monolithic chimneys. The brownstone-colored pile was arranged in tiers, broadening as it reached the ground. The shape of the structure was circular, like the stack, and a series of open arches ringed the building on Tukali’s level. He stepped over to one of the openings and peered within.
Five stories below he could see people moving about within the orange light shed by large pools of molten metal. Flames licked out from the sides of a central smelting furnace, bathing the place in a hellish glow. Tukali could feel waves of heat washing past him, exiting the furnace through the ring of arches that presumably served to keep the temperature for those below at a bearable level.
Tukali no longer wondered at how so much metal had been processed in the renovation of Boa. Enough ore could be refined within the half-score furnaces gathered here to do the job easily. The ore itself was being mined from a honeycomb of shafts bored into the cavern walls around both openings of a huge fault that split the city from end to end. He had watched carts overflowing with slave-picked nuggets rolling along, seemingly of their own will, upon some kind of rail stretching from each set of mines to the city’s center where the brooding hulks of the forges sat waiting.
Tukali stepped back from the arch, away from the heat, and followed the perimeter of the wall around to the other side. From there the broad field of rectangular enclosures lay spread out before him like a collection of massive coffins awaiting burial. People swarmed ant-like in and around the buildings, transporting materials and items Tukali couldn’t readily distinguish from his distance.
One of the cables that looped around the forge led from his own level down to a lower rooftop at a gentle angle. The Turanian hooked one of the prongs of his grapnel over the cable, and as he had already learned to do in this place, gripped the rope tightly and pushed off so that he slid effortlessly along the length of the wire to the other building.
Tukali knelt on an iron girder forming the border of an open section of roof forty feet above those he spied upon. He gaped in silent amazement, for he had never seen anything like what he saw now; row upon row of silvery globes lined the building’s interior within a complex grid of iron framing and work stations. Victims of the gilded madness, all of whom had originally been assumed mindless zombies, formed an army of skilled laborers like none ever seen in all of Hyboria. Tukali watched as people operated a variety of exotic-looking tools that drilled metal, handled and maneuvered parts, spat bursts of blue fire and performed any number of functions mysterious to the Turanian warrior.
For all their mystery, each and every device shared common ground: They were all involved in assembling the considerable host of spherical machines with outer shells resembling drops of quicksilver suspended in mid-flight. They varied in states of completion and size, the smallest roughly as large as the boulder whereupon Tukali had first encountered Mach, while others stretched all the way from the debris-strewn ground floor of the site to the high ceiling, though these were few.
Tukali watched as one worker approached what looked to be a completed sphere set alongside a small gathering of its similarly-finished brothers. The worker stepped close to the quicksilver surface, which then spiraled open wide enough to admit him inside. Tukali’s astonishment only blossomed as the sphere sealed itself and floated up several feet off the floor. It hovered there as a team of workers hauled in a thick slab of pig iron, stood it on its side, then cleared well out of the way.
The sphere appeared to list briefly, drifting several feet forward then backward. Of a sudden the globe came to a halt and the quicksilver hull vomited a blinding stream of green energy. When Tukali finished rubbing the glare from his eyes he discovered that the slab now had a cavernous hole blasted through its center. The metal around the edges of the hole bubbled slightly, blackened as from intense heat. Gobs of molten iron lay sizzling on the ground behind the target, which itself was dissolved utterly after another series of bombardments from the sphere.
Tukali boggled at the destructive power of such a weapon. Even one such machine as he saw here could possibly decide the fates of entire armies and nations, but this building contained hundreds, nay, thousands of them. He looked timidly around at the monstrous field that was home to dozens more of these armories, and a chilling hand clutched at his heart. Enkee-Kutul would have an invincible army, entire legions of the terrible craft, and all the manpower he would need to fly them.
He slowly arose from his perch, making no sound in his tense but careful movements. Anxiety beseeched him to return immediately to the comfort and safety of Khorshemish to relay what he’d learned, but practicality demanded he first attempt to locate the Cube of Fuzon. Practicality won out, and Tukali struck out for the most likely prospect, a tremendous blocky mass that swelled growth-like nearer to the true center of Boa. From thousands of yards away, a multitude of lights pinpricking the edifice made it glimmer like a beacon, a self-contained sky guiding him into its vastness by the cold light of artificial stars.
Conan swam upward through the tenebrous waters of oblivion and awoke from a dreamless sleep. The throbbing ache that had suffused his body before had now been replaced by a slight stiffness in his muscles. He opened his eyes and beheld the same cave he’d awoken to previously, but thankfully it now remained still. Turning his head, he noticed the lambent semicircles of blue luminosity floating toward his face. An indistinguishable word, spoken by someone he’d failed to notice kneeling at his side, caused the blue light to vanish beneath the orange radiance of firelight. Conan sat up, and he felt a wooden jug being thrust into his hands.
“See if you can manage to drink the water this time instead of washing the floor with it,” a voice said good-naturedly. “I think I’ve managed to keep this place clean enough without your assistance.”
Conan sipped at the water, glad to ease the thirst scratching his throat. He regarded the stranger over the rim of the jug, recognizing the purple-hued eyes watching him drink. “You have much explaining to do, whoever you are,” Conan muttered between swallows.
The other man sat back, folding his legs beneath him. Thick dark braids stirred like breeze-touched branches around his dusky visage. “Yes, I suppose I do.” The man spoke in a rhythmic accent unfamiliar to the Cimmerian. “Shall I start with how I helped you escape a rather undesirable fate below Khorshemish?”
Memories of a hopeless battle came flooding back into Conan’s brain. His body had been broken, thrashed about like a child’s plaything. Flexing his limbs, he was surprised to find that his bones were whole, completely healed. With grim resignation, he realized the other man was indeed somehow responsible for his own continuing existence. “I would have died.”
“More than likely. But the worst part is that you wouldn’t have known why you had died. Shall I tell you?”
“Tell me first why you tried to kill me back in the Hills,” Conan said. “That, and who you are.”
The other man’s eyes widened in surprise, then he smiled and nodded. “Of course! What was I thinking? I am called Mach. That unfortunate incident during your excursion through the Kothian hills was a misunderstanding–“
“Mitra’s beard! I thought I understood well enough when you tried to cremate me with sorcery!”
“Nay, Conan. That was an accident, spawned by your friend’s hasty action. Had I not an arrow embedded in my chest, I could have kept my powers from going awry.”
“Why were you there in the first place, then?” Conan set down the water jug, awaiting an answer.
“At the time, I was trying to warn you of your companion’s duplicitous nature. The dead men you found along the trail were under his command.”
Conan scowled. “You had better start to make sense, or I might forget how you saved my skin!”
Mach nodded, understanding the other’s confusion. He sat quietly for a moment, composing his thoughts. “In my efforts to locate you,” he began, “I uncovered a plot for your capture being orchestrated by a group of Turanians.” Mach related the story behind Tukali’s mission, telling how the wizard Sharif had been the prime manipulator of the plot with Tukali spearheading the effort. As Conan listened, his countenance devoid of expression, Mach told how he had defended himself against Tukali’s band when he’d encountered them, and how the Turanian warrior had fired a drugged arrow, originally meant for Conan, at him instead.
“I don’t understand,” muttered Conan. “He’s had more than enough opportunities since then to complete his treachery. Yet, here I am.”
“Your friend had a change of heart. Why–I cannot say for sure, but I suspect he didn’t relish the notion of betraying you, his newfound friend. Whatever the reason, the matter was taken from his hands anyway.” Mach explained how Tukali was ensorceled by Sharif and the priestess Ashlara. As Mach spoke on, Conan came to know how Tukali actually caught the plague that had spread to Jessica and himself, and how Mach freed Tukali from his enslavement to the pair of conspirators.
As disturbed as Conan was at learning of Tukali’s part in the trap set against him, he of all people knew what it was like to be forced into performing actions against one’s will. He knew it was only what a man did of his own volition that counted, and Tukali had chosen to go against his orders, turning his back upon his homeland for the sake of their friendship. “Where is Tukali now?” he asked. “And where is Jessica?”
“Tukali is mapping out the underground city of Boa. We’ll need the information he culls from that place if we’re to save Khorshemish,” Mach said. “I don’t know where Jessica is. I assume she’s still in thrall to the plague. Hopefully, Tukali will find her while he’s out scouting, or at least have word of her when we return. Fear not–now that I’ve managed to find you, we’ll soon have the power to set things aright.”
“You said before that you were seeking me out,” Conan recalled. “Why? You know that if not for your own intervention, I would have died in Boa at the hands of those . . .” Conan’s voice faltered. “I don’t even know what those things were.”
“Machines.” At Conan’s dumbfounded look, Mach went on. “They are called overseers. The reason you don’t understand them is because they’re the product of a craft so advanced that your race is only beginning to delve into its principles. Think of how your sword, the result of working raw iron ore into steel and giving it a shape, would appear to one of a tribe that had never encountered metal.”
“I understand,” Conan said after a moment’s thought. “But where do these things, these overseers, come from?”
“I have a story to tell you.” Mach leaned forward slightly and his expression became somber. “Much of what I say will be difficult for you to comprehend, so I ask that you try to keep your mind open.” Mach knew the story was necessary, for he could see the Cimmerian was no fool and yearned for answers. Conan gestured for him to continue.
“My people, the Rhan’eitat, are very ancient,” Mach began. “Long before the time that the races of Hyboria call the cataclysm, the civilization of the Rhan’eitat flourished on a world far removed from your own. In most ways my people differ little from yours, albeit we came into being far earlier, as such things are measured. We grew out of barbarism and learned the ways of the universe, bending the laws of nature, or what we call ‘science’, to our will. We learned to cure diseases and even to travel among worlds. And, eventually, we began to unlock the secrets of the gods, or what you know as ‘sorcery’.”
“The gods, as we discovered, were beings conceived upon other, higher, planes of existence. The Rhan’eitat discovered how to access the magic of those beings centered around Rhan’esh–my world–and learned to entwine it with science to accomplish feats more wondrous than ever before. Thus my people came into a golden age.”
“But these beings, these gods, were constantly at war with one another. One thing I’ve learned,” Mach divulged, “is that this ceaseless struggle serves to maintain a balance between both the creative and destructive forces of our universe. Oddly enough, the destructive forces have ever appeared to be the most relentless in attempting to usurp the balance, while the powers of creation tend to keep themselves in check. I can but wonder at the consequences of either power becoming dominant . . .” He shrugged his shoulders. “But that brings me to the pertinent part of my tale. If you would but bear with me awhile longer?”
Conan grunted and urged Mach onward with an impatient flick of his hand. Regardless of any misgivings he may have had about the dark stranger seated across from him, Conan had become fascinated with the idea of another world and another race of men far removed from his own.
“One of the gods,” Mach continued, ” known to the Rhan’eitat as Scybor, craved to see his influence extended throughout this plane. In his efforts to gain control of the Rhan’eitat, Scybor adopted the laws of the material plane as his own, incorporating various aspects of our sciences into himself and thus warping them into something less than the ideals of my people. He reached out with his dread powers and found one among us who would serve his need to achieve domination. That one was a malcontent named Enkee-Kutul.”
“In the embrace of Scybor’s dark influence, Enkee-Kutul rose unobtrusively in power until he achieved the lofty position of emperor. Once he came to control our society’s prodigious resources, he allowed his true ambitions to be known when he and his rogue god created the first slave plague and infected our world. The victims were forced to bow down before Enkee-Kutul’s every whim, and Scybor’s unslakable thirst for sacrifices soon caused a veritable ocean of my people’s blood to be spilled in his name upon the very same altars they were commanded to build. And so Enkee-Kutul ruled for nearly a century, indulging in all manner of perversions and atrocities as his god bathed in a bloody tide of the innocent.”
“Finally, a mere two decades ago, after countless lives had been lost and dozens of other worlds had already fallen before Enkee-Kutul’s corruption, an underground resistance, made up of people who had by some means or other avoided the plague, managed to formulate a cure for it. They administered this cure in secret to the slaves and would-be sacrifices until they had created a force capable of battling against Enkee-Kutul’s tyranny. Years without challenge had served to soften the despot and his minions, and before long Enkee-Kutul was on the run after losing a war to those he’d once lorded over mercilessly.”
Mach’s chin lifted, an unsettling intensity of emotion adding fire to his words. “Those of us from the original resistance knew that the threat of a new slave plague would never leave us until Scybor’s power was driven from our plane, and we knew the only way to do that was to track down Enkee-Kutul and sever the bond connecting him and his god. Nine agents were dispatched to find him, and of those nine, I am all that remains. The other eight were killed as each caught up with him, and now the burden has fallen to my shoulders. I tracked Enkee-Kutul here, to your world, but because of the mastery he and Scybor wield over the powers of science and sorcery, I have been unable to descry his exact location. Until now.”
“You mean Boa, the city below Khorshemish,” Conan said.
“The same,” said Mach. “I’ve spent a score of years wandering these lands in search of something that might give me the edge I need to prevail over Enkee-Kutul and to fulfill my quest. My researches have taken me from the reeking depths of the Black Kingdoms to the lofty peaks of your own Cimmeria. My travels have taught me much of your world.”
“What do you know of Boa?” asked Conan. “Parts of it looked too old to be solely the making of this Enkee-Kutul.”
“Boa is aged indeed, as old as Acheron itself, for Boa was one of Acheron’s bastions of power,” said Mach. ” Ah! I see by your scowl that you’ve heard of that ancient empire. Well, when Acheron fell into ruin beneath the barbarian hordes, the occupants of Boa must have attempted to spare their city the same fate. The result was partially as you have already seen: Boa now lies fairly intact within a cavern far below Khorshemish, its former resting place. Enkee-Kutul must have chanced upon it and converted the old architectures to serve his purposes. What became of the city’s inhabitants, I know not. Likely they are as dead as their empire.”
“Somewhere in that city is a powerful object Enkee-Kutul stole when he fled Rhan’esh. This artifact is called the Cube of Fuzon, which was created on the world of Fuzon, nearby to Rhan’esh. This cube is a source of incredible power, for it regenerates its energies constantly through magical means. Before it was taken it served the needs of my people, but now it most likely fuels Enkee-Kutul’s slave plague and his efforts to regain power.” Mach paused for breath, allowing Conan a chance to absorb his words.
Conan’s head virtually swam with the many questions he fervently wanted to ask, but he forced himself to curtail the urge to ask them, as most had little or no bearing on their predicament. “You still haven’t explained what you need with me,” Conan said. “You’ve made it clear how powerful Enkee-Kutul is, and I’ve had a firsthand look at how worthless steel is against his overseers. Granted, I’ve slain many sorcerers and their pets, but I’m a man, not a god! How can you expect me to destroy one when you, with all of your sorcery, cannot?” Conan’s frown deepened.
Mach smiled conspiratorially. “In that case, Cimmerian, I think you’ll find what I have to say next extremely interesting . . .”
Tukali struck out with his feet, slamming them against the roof’s molding to slow his descent, then again onto the rooftop itself, halting him completely. Sliding his grapnel from the cable, Tukali affixed the instrument to his belt and strode to the building’s opposite edge. Above him towered the immense block he’d spotted from afar, teeming with squared-off protuberances that bulged from its ungainly form like tumors. What he had previously thought were lights dotting its outer surface were in fact windows interspersed seemingly at random. Light beamed from each crystalline aperture, slicing outward through the hazy air, reflecting from dust and ash in its passing.
A loud humming made Tukali’s ears buzz and his chest vibrate so that it felt like he was standing too close to a large gong being pounded by some awesome djinn of legend. Great coils of cabling and wires looped out from the structure’s base, transferring the humming noise along their twisting lengths. The cables appeared to be at their thickest here, the same way a branch reaches its largest diameter closest to the tree. The place looked important enough, and judging by the ranks of guards arrayed around the building’s perimeter, Tukali guessed it might even house the Cube of Fuzon. There was no way he could get inside to see for sure–not that Mach had even explained what the Cube looked like–but the building would at least be worth including on his map.
Something in his periphery caught Tukali’s eye. He turned and looked out over a section of the city split by the chasm. Beyond the fissure, seated atop a squat ziggurat, lay the largest metal sphere Tukali had laid eyes upon yet. Its oily surface drew in the light and sent it rebounding off in whorls of color.
Bounding over the rooftops, Tukali sped toward the ziggurat. He reached a building perched just on the chasm’s edge and looked down, scanning the immediate length of the fault. Below, a wide steel bridge offered direct access to the other side, but it was crowded with slaves and their overseers, appearing well monitored. Instead of risking the bridge, Tukali swung down under a wire stretching to a juncture on the other side and pulled himself across. Midway over he peeked past his shoulder into the chasm. Deep within its bowels a thin reddish line of magma could be made out, far enough down that it could only be seen directly from an overhead angle, though its light appeared to be the main source of the cavern’s orange glow.
Resuming his hand-over-hand progress, Tukali soon reached the other side. A little more leaping, sliding and climbing brought him to a sheltered rooftop niche low enough that he could discreetly view the strange activity taking place in the cleared area before the ziggurat’s steps.
Two large black telamones stood widely apart, each depicting a fantastical demon and supporting either end of a rough chunk of jade that lay across their tops. The jade was entirely carved with unfamiliar runes, of what language and significance Tukali could only wonder. In front of the gate was a simple rectangular altar hewn from stone, its rough surface sporting chips and shallow cracks, as well as dark, ominous-looking stains. Metallic guards of deepest blue loomed on either side of the altar and in a line before the ziggurat’s base.
As Tukali watched, a giant obsidian-hued man clad only in a green loincloth presided over the scene from a place on the ziggurat’s broad staircase. Another man, not quite as large as the first, but with skin as dark as his master’s, led what looked to be a one-armed beggar over to lie upon the altar. The beggar lay there motionless and uncomplaining as the second man, who was dressed like a priest in long robes of red and gold, began chanting in guttural tones.
The gate’s support pillars began to glow softly as the runes engraved within the jade above flared up. Sparks shot out and tumbled down before the poor wretch stretched out upon the altar. Tukali looked on in morbid fascination, his body feeling chilled and his hands clammy. The priest’s voice grew louder, more forceful, and a short two-bladed dagger appeared suddenly as if by magic in his upraised hand. The air within the frame of the gate brightened until a luminous white sheet appeared to be suspended between the pillars, its surface and edges quivering as if it were a sail in a strong wind.
Tukali clamped a hand over his mouth to cut off his cry of dismay as the dagger drove down into the victim’s chest again and again, a fountain of blood squirting into the air from multiple wounds. The beggar didn’t even twitch, and Tukali barely caught the sound of a rattling sigh as the man died, released from his torment.
Clouds of steam hissed from the bright space framed by the gate. With a wet hiccup, something the size of a bull and smeared in a foul-smelling ooze fell sideways out of the portal, landing atop the bloody corpse in a flurry of many-jointed appendages and bright pink flesh. At a command from the priest, the new arrival righted itself and crawled down from the altar. Turning to face the ziggurat, it prostrated itself in the dust before the seated form of the ebony giant, then rose at the man’s curt wave of the hand and followed an overseer that led it away.
Tukali swallowed several times to combat the tang of rising vomit. As another victim was being led out for sacrifice, he gladly slipped away and followed along the rooftops behind the creature just summoned. Its guide led it on a lumbering course parallel to the chasm, oblivious to the black-swathed warrior tailing them above.
The overseer and its charge pushed through the bustling length of a wide avenue, their progress slowing intermittently as the creature adjusted to its form, vying to wrest better control over gangly limbs still covered in birthing fluids. Tukali didn’t mind the slow pace, and since the path seemed to be leading him back in the general direction of his exit from Boa, he figured he’d at least see where the thing was being herded before he left to work on the map.
The level expanse of a broad square opened up ahead of them, intersecting with the avenue. Tukali watched as throngs of new slaves and their taskmasters swept the creature and its own overseer away within their collective momentum. The other end of the square emptied into the yawning mouth of a mountainous, dark orange blister which swallowed the new arrivals into its gut.
Tukali’s place far above the ground afforded him a view of an outlet in the dome’s side from which organized troops of marching workers emerged, their disciplined lines contrasting sharply with the haphazard gush of those yet passing inside.
After waiting the better part of an hour, Tukali witnessed the reappearance of the slimy devil, moving as one within a squad of otherwise human slaves who failed to take notice of the fiend within their ranks. He noted that the brute now moved with a coordination substantially improved over the feeble staggering it had but recently displayed.
Tukali’s stomach rumbled, reminding him of his need to return to the surface. Etching the details of his observations firmly within his memory, Tukali undertook the laborious process of departing the smog-ridden cityscape of Boa.
“You have the mark of Crom upon your soul.”
Conan failed to even blink. He’d heard similar words spoken to him in the past, usually by soothsayers and priests seeking to divine his destiny, and too often for good coin at that.
From his new seat closer to the stone fireplace, Conan picked clean the remains of a badly needed meal, one he had demanded be provided to blunt the hard edge of his appetite before allowing Mach to resume his story. “‘Tis hardly a surprise to me.” Conan shrugged his massive shoulders. “Crom is the god of all Cimmerians. Why shouldn’t I bear his mark?”
Mach pointed a dusky finger at Conan, his eyes narrowing. “This is different. Your god has singled you out for a purpose.”
“And that would be . . .?”
Mach laughed. “Far be it from me to claim knowledge of a god’s thoughts.” He smiled wryly. “But I can hazard a guess.”
Conan’s interest flared. “Go on, wizard. Tell me what you think.” He folded his arms across his chest, sitting back against the bare rock of the cave. With a small bone splinter, he picked intermittently at the food lodged between his teeth.
“One attribute I’ve often found displayed by Crom,” Mach said, “is his reluctance to interfere in human affairs. He appears to prefer that men guide their own lives. Isn’t this what Cimmerians teach their children?”
Conan nodded. “Between a man’s birthing and death, Crom will heed no prayers.” He shrugged. “What’s this to do with anything? Or with me, for that matter?”
“You would deny ever crossing paths with Crom, then?”
A scowl tugged down the corners of Conan’s mouth. “I’m not denying anything. How would you know aught of it anyway?”
“It matters not how,” Mach replied. “I can tell you’ve dealt with Crom before; for one with my knowledge, it’s plain enough to see. It should also be plain then that your god isn’t quite as aloof from the dealings of men as we’d thought, eh, Cimmerian?”
Conan said nothing.
Mach pressed on, undaunted. “I know much of you, Conan of Cimmeria. I have had years to learn of your exploits. Have you never wondered, with all the monsters and magic-wielders you’ve encountered, why you’ve managed to survive every battle with your skin intact and your foes defeated? Mayhap you thought it accountable solely to superior tactics and skill at arms? Or perhaps good luck?” Mach chuckled.
“I’m not laughing, wizard.” Conan’s gaze hardened. “From my experience, sorcerers put too much stock in their mummery and not enough in their opponent’s steel.” He looked pointedly at Mach. “Sharp wits and a strong sword-arm will prevail against all manner of men and beasts. ‘Tis as true as I’m sitting here now.”
“I doubt you not. The numbers of those dead by your hand are legion. Your fame grows to rival even the legendary Kull of Atlantis!”
Whether this last was meant in praise or in jest, Conan ignored the comparison of him to the fabled Atlantean king. “And you believe my survival is Crom’s doing?” Conan barked a laugh.
“Not entirely, Conan. But you must admit, you’ve had uncommon success in such matters, if not more than your share of luck.”
“So what if I have?”
Mach sighed. “There is something you should know about your god,” he said. “During my travels in the east, I discovered a manuscript called “Droplets of the Sea”, penned untold eons ago by a pre-Lemurian scholar. Within its pages were references to a number of deities and their histories, among which I found entries attached to a word I recognized from my studies as a long-forgotten name for ‘Crom’. Translated, one of the passages dealing with Crom and a few other deities had some interesting things to say.” Mach’s gaze focused inward as he began recalling lines from memory. “They would purge the earth of dark magic, for the malign gods of yore seek endlessly to destroy the chosen race. When men call upon evil powers, they expose themselves to the corrupting touch of the Ancient Ones, tainting their souls, and in so doing, summoning forth humanity’s doom . . .”
Conan had several firsthand experiences where the gods, at least those that could be deemed ‘good’, had directly intervened in human affairs in order to counter the misdeeds of various ‘evil’ gods. As Mach had said before, Conan had also witnessed Crom’s influence himself, so it seemed possible Crom would be concerned for the welfare of all people, not just Cimmerians. He knew the idea of his god caring about what happened to humans was a far cry from what other Cimmerians believed, and indeed far from what he himself was used to thinking.
“So you claim that Crom has a hand in waging a war to protect men against sorcery?” Conan snorted in amusement. “Seems like a sound plan to me. The world could only be better off with a few less necromancers!”
Mach smiled. “You’re playing an active role in achieving that goal, Conan. Crom and his allies are working through you and others like you to put an end to the influence of the evil arts in your world. Whether that will mean the removal of all magic, good and bad, I can’t say for sure–“
“Are you saying I’m naught but a tool?” Conan’s hands clenched into fists. He’d heard plenty of this kind of talk before, much of it from when he’d last visited his homeland. He recalled a certain fortune-teller, a Khitan, who’d had much to say on the subject. “Make no mistake, wizard, I decide my own fate,” he said, jabbing his thumb against his chest. “No man or god controls me.”
Mach held up his hands, trying to soothe the ruffled warrior. “I meant no offense, Conan. I only believe Crom has chosen you to aid him in carrying out his will. Everything I know about your god reveals his desire to see men as the masters of their own fates. You need not glower so, Cimmerian. Your destiny, as ever, is yours to determine.”
Conan glared a second longer, then relaxed. He scratched the back of his neck distractedly and grumbled, “It’s unsettling–all this talk of gods and their wars over men.” His eyes flicked toward the fire when a wood knot popped, showering sparks. “And yet I know you speak the truth. I’ve learned enough battling would-be godlings to know it when I hear it.” Conan looked at Mach solemnly. “I’ve also learned anything is possible. What you said before was true,” he said. “I have met Crom, more than once.”
“Then you must know you’ve been serving his cause,” said Mach.
“Aye. And serving it well, I’d reckon.” Conan thought for a moment. “When I left Cimmeria in search of adventure, it didn’t take long to find me first–not that I’m complaining; I’d rather succumb to a foeman’s axe than die of boredom.” He smirked at the Rhan.
“Indeed… well, your role in this is simple enough to determine,” Mach said, letting the gibe pass. “Scybor has trespassed upon your world and seized control of men’s minds. I believe Crom has been angered by Scybor’s misdeeds against his chosen race, and that he would have justice.”
“And so Crom would have me put an end to this Enkee-Kutul’s power?” Conan asked, looking doubtful. “I likely could have done so when I was in Boa, but for those infernal overseers.”
“Scybor’s magic is responsible for their impenetrable armor,” said Mach. “No mortal weapon will harm them–you could hack all day at a castle wall with your sword and get farther than you would against the armor of Enkee-Kutul’s overseers.”
Conan’s brow furrowed in confusion. “How am I to defeat them? Or Enkee-Kutul? Even if I could avoid his guards, it seems likely he’d enjoy at least the same protection as they.”
“You require something that will annul Scybor’s magic, a weapon of the gods. Or, more accurately, a weapon crafted by Crom himself.”
Conan grunted. “Such weapons are rare at best, if not mere fables,” he said, shaking his head.
“What do your legends say about Crom’s mountain?” Mach asked.
“Ben Morgh? It’s a sacred place to all Cimmerians.” Conan’s skin prickled as memories of the mountain came flooding back. Ben Morgh was a place best left undisturbed, a place where most Cimmerians hoped to venture one day, but only after they’d already died. “Crom is said to judge men’s souls there.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“I have. But there were no weapons there. Only a giant statue of Crom seated upon his throne within a great cave.”
Mach nodded, as if he too had seen the great depiction of Crom. “Do you know of Crom’s Forge?”
Conan hesitated. “I’ve . . . heard of it, but none has ever claimed to have seen it. The Forge was where Crom worked his steel. He fashioned great weapons in his war . . .” He faltered. “Surely you don’t think to–“
“But I do, Conan,” Mach cut in. “I know the Forge lies deep within Ben Morgh. I’ve even been to the mountain, though I couldn’t enter the portal hidden among the tunnels below.”
“Do you mean for me to steal from my god, then? You go too far!”
Mach held up a hand. “Would it indeed be thievery, Conan, if you were serving Crom’s purpose? Tell me, why else would he allow you into such a holy place?”
Conan bit down on an angry retort. The wizard was making sense again.
“Except for those born of Cimmeria, the entrance is closed to all. What kinds of barriers you will encounter once inside, if any, I cannot say. The Forge, however, is your only hope for obtaining a weapon that can defeat Enkee-Kutul and put an end to the gilded madness. What say you Cimmerian? Shall we travel to your homeland?”
Conan glowered. “I don’t see that I’ve much of a choice.”
“You always have a choice. The question is, which choice is best?”
An image of Jessica came to Conan’s mind, and he found himself worried for her safety. Fire swelled within his heart. How could he let anything get in the way of her rescue? And there were also the other inhabitants of Khorshemish, imprisoned within a subterranean hell for no better reason than to serve as slaves. “When we get the weapon, do you have a plan to use it?”
“We’ll have to see what Tukali has managed to discover about Boa before we plan our attack,” said Mach. “I told him we’d meet up in Khorshemish.”
Conan stood from his place before the fire, stretching his legs. “We’ll need provisions and horses if we’re to travel to Cimmeria. And I’m in want of a shirt.”
“I have a few leathers stashed away that you can use. We’ll make the journey easily enough without horses.”
Conan started. “Are you mad? It’d take months to get there on foot!”
“Who said anything about walking?” Mach replied. “I can get us there the same way I transported us away from Boa. I’ve been to Ben Morgh before, so I can take us back.”
“More sorcery,” Conan grumbled. “And what god do you pray to for your powers, Mach?”
The Rhan smiled. “Rest assured, they don’t derive from Scybor.” He took the box of black metal from the stand and thrust it within his robes. “I’ll fetch your sword and a shirt, then we can be on our way.” Mach disappeared through the front entrance, its covering of leather swaying in his passage.
Striding over to the opening, Conan peered out through the leather curtain and saw only empty sky. Startled, he looked down, catching sight of Mach, his cape stretched wide like a pair of wings as he spiraled gently toward the treetops huddled at the base of the rock wall.
Conan frowned in annoyance. Would there never be an end to wizards and their tricks? Shutting the curtain, he went back to the pallet to pull on his boots.