Conan didn’t bother to look up as the heavy steel door to Crom’s forge rumbled back into place, sealing him in. The walls on each side of the stone staircase had sconces bored into them, and their flames served to light Conan’s way downward. As his boots scuffed over the time-worn brown steps, he wondered briefly how the sconces had remained lit for so long, but like many similar instances before, he shrugged it off to magic or the will of the gods; Crom had surely expected his arrival and ignited the beacons to show him the way.
He reached the base of the stairs, stepping down onto a small landing set before an open doorway that led into a short stretch of hallway. He couldn’t make out much of the room that lay beyond, only the dull glow of yellow flames reflecting from more polished stone. While the tunnel above had indeed been hot, waves of even hotter air pushed out through the hallway, drying the sweat upon Conan’s brow into a salty residue. He could feel the fluttery beginnings of the curiosity that always kicked in when he was exploring unknown territory, and he looked forward to the rush of excitement that would inevitably accompany any interesting discovery. If anything other than a warrior, Conan was an explorer at heart.
A loud hiss like a pit of adders made Conan whirl and grip the handle of his broadsword, half drawing it from the sheath at his side. He looked back up the stairs, seeking foes. Thin tendrils of smoke were pouring out of the walls, making the hissing noise. Conan hadn’t expected any outright traps in the forge of his god, and his first thought was that it might only be steam whistling out through fissures in the stone as an underground vein of superheated water geysered its way through some unknown, sidelong tunnel. But he had noticed no cracks or flaws in the stonework, and as he watched the steam or smoke flowed together, coalescing in the center of the staircase until there stood the rough outline of a man, like a shadow somehow brought to awful life.
Conan shivered despite the heat and took a short step backward, toward the tunnel mouth. He drew his sword the rest of the way out and waited. The shadow before him didn’t move, save for a shivering effect around its edges. As hard as the Cimmerian squinted at the dark figure, he could make out no visible features. “Who are you?” Conan demanded, eyeing the shadow uneasily. “Speak, or begone! None save Crom himself will stop me from entering the forge.”
The shadow spoke after a long moment, its voice cold and bleak as the winds that scoured the highest mountaintops. “Once, like you, I sought out the weapons in yonder forge. I was young and foolish, impetuous in my headlong pursuit of a trophy that would gain me riches and power. I would have united all the bickering clans of Cimmeria and secured my place among the legends of our people. I would have been king.” The words came out almost absently, like the shadow was but talking to itself. The voice was still for several heartbeats, and Conan had the distinct impression of being scrutinized by the wraith, its invisible gaze like a beetle scuttling over his soul.
“But,” it finally hissed, “I was found… unworthy. I fell to the guardian who haunted these walls before me, and as punishment I took his place when his soul was freed. I have had long, countless years to think upon my insolence.”
“Look upon me now!” the guardian ordered, spreading its ghostly arms wide, spastically. “I was once a man, like you, made of flesh and blood. You can still avoid such a fate. Turn your back on the forge!”
Conan shook his head, his jaw set in determination. “Nay, I will not.”
The shadow rippled more violently and started to drift apart, its substance floating slowly through the air and back into the walls. “Then prepare to spend the next hundred years among stone and silence, for I intend to join my ancestors, and you are all that stands in my way.” The guardian faded entirely from view then, its insubstantial body disappearing like smoke on a hot breeze.
Conan returned his broadsword to its sheath as he turned again toward the doorway and walked into the tunnel. There was too much at stake, too many lives at risk for him to turn back in fear of threats made by some pathetic specter. Whether they knew it or not, the inhabitants of an entire city depended on him to return with the power to defeat Enkee-Kutul, and the thought of Jessica trapped in that madman’s vile domain was more than enough to stoke the fires of fury already blazing in Conan’s chest. To Arallu with ghosts!
He stalked through the darkened hallway, feeling the immense weight of the mountain all around him. Sweat had dried beneath Conan’s leathers, making them stick to him in the heat. He didn’t notice the discomfort as he focused his senses elsewhere in search of signs of treachery by the lurking shadow, wary of tricks and traps.
Conan reached the end of the tunnel and emerged into a larger room, its bare walls and ceiling forming a perfect square with more sconces lining the stone to either side of him. In the middle of the floor he could make out the room’s only decoration, the outline of an anvil shaped like the one on the steel door. It was hewn into the living rock and a sure sign he was getting closer to his goal.
Remembering the guardian’s threat, Conan advanced cautiously toward the outline of a door across the room, all the while watching the walls for his shadowy opponent, his hand gripping his sword handle. Nothing moved. Even the flames hardly wavered in their sconces, and the hot winds that had swept over him before had ceased, granting Conan some respite.
He was halfway across the room when he chanced to look down. Too late he saw the curls of smoke spewing up out of the rock, signaling that the guardian was staying true to its promise of trouble. Conan’s sword whipped out, slicing and batting at the rising wisps in an attempt to disperse the shadow before it could mount an attack. As he swung the broadsword about him, Conan noticed that the specter was staying within the confines of the anvil, as if the carved lines formed a boundary around it. He suddenly understood that the anvil was some kind of seal, like those oft times used by sorcerers to summon demons and spirits.
Cursing himself for a fool, Conan made to leap from the anvil, its edge a mere two paces away, but the air suddenly and inexplicably thickened, and his limbs strained to the point where he felt as if he were wading through the current of a flooded river. The shadow’s smoky form crawled up around him. It curled about his body, seeping into his mouth, blinding him, enveloping him.
Conan dropped to his knees, the broadsword clattering noisily upon the ground in front of him. Icy fingers invaded the fabric of his mind and insinuated themselves into his thoughts. Still struggling to crawl forward off the anvil, he blacked out.
Conan awoke in bitter cold, feeling it more than he believed even a pure-blooded Cimmerian like himself would feel it. He sat up slowly and looked around. His sword was gone and so were his leathers, though he still wore his breechclout and boots. He was surprised to find himself at the bottom of a deep crevice, with wan sunlight filtering in through a wide rift some fifty or so feet above. The crevice reverberated with a muted roar, like the pounding of a waterfall but not so loud. The wall before him looked to be of solid ice, the edge of a glacier turning the light blue, while the wall behind appeared to be rock, its gray face somewhat worn down by the elements and sporting occasional patches of yellow-green lichen.
He stood gingerly, careful not to slip on the damp floor; the heat of his body had melted a slight imprint in the ice, the tiny pool of water having not yet re-frozen in the indentation. The water had probably saved him from losing some of his skin when he sat up, acting as a buffer between him and the ice. He must have lain there for some time, which would account for the damp chill in his body even though the air seemed oddly balmy. Conan turned and reached out with his hands, trying to touch both walls. They were too far for his outstretched arms to touch at once, and thus more than too wide apart for him to wedge himself between them and lever himself to the crevice’s top. Where the crevice extended onward at the sides of Conan’s prison, huge chunks of rock and ice had collapsed from somewhere in the rent above, filling the fissure with shifting debris that looked too unstable for him to climb.
The walls did appear scaleable, though the glacier, for all its available protrusions and handholds, was slick with water due to the warmer air. He stopped his hand just short of touching the rock wall however, sensing with his fingertips the heat radiating outward like the hot pulse of coals in a fire. Looking down, he also found that the ice of the floor was melted away several inches at the wall’s base. Apparently there in the rock lay the source of warmth in this icy fissure. Conan doubted not that he would risk burning his hands, probably quite badly, were he to attempt climbing the bare stone.
Peering upward, he failed to spot any ledges above his head. If he faced the task of climbing out of here on his own, as he assumed, there would scarcely be any opportunities to rest his limbs. Conan could see mist swirling around his intended exit far above, interlaced with what looked like stray gusts of wind-blown snow, though none made it down to his level. The Cimmerian lowered his head and sighed, wondering what bizarre powers evoked by the shadow guardian had dumped him here.
The roaring in the crevice was louder now, underscored by strange bubbling sounds. The floor began to shake beneath Conan’s feet, the ice having melted to the point where he stood in a broad, shallow puddle. Vapor started to rise from the ice in thickening clouds.
Now, he decided, would be a good time to begin his ascent. The ice wall would have to do, sweating or not. Harsh cold he could put up with, at least for a while, but he doubted not that the skin of his hands would fare much worse upon the scorching rock. Pausing long enough to pick his hand- and foot-holds in the center of the glacier, Conan began to climb.
It was slow going. Because of the moisture coating the wall and the smoothness of the ice, Conan had to choose handholds that angled down into the glacier just past the horizontal so he’d have something to grip on to, otherwise his hands and feet might slip out of place and send him tumbling.
He was moving along at a slow but steady pace when the floor gave way less than his own height below him. It just crumbled, its constituent slabs of ice dissolving in a maelstrom of churning water that rose up from the depths of the earth. Now Conan knew the cause of the rumbling noises and vibrations that mildly shook the fissure’s walls. He didn’t look down into the boiling water, but he could see and smell a fog of steam drifting past, feeling it settle and cool on his skin. Perhaps a recent magma flow was responsible for the scalding water now rising into the fissure and the withering heat of the rock behind him.
The ice beneath his palms was melting faster now, running past in spreading trickles, and Conan strove to increase his speed, not daring to rest. He had to outdistance the torrid gush below before the ice became too smooth to climb. If that happened, he would fall to an agonizing demise, his flesh boiling away from bones that would be bleached and scoured clean as they sank into that roiling cauldron.
In his need for haste Conan grabbed onto the larger outcrops of ice that now presented themselves in greater abundance. He pulled his body upward with an effort that fell just short of recklessness.
The wall shuddered and groaned when deep cracks split into the surface of the glacier. Conan used these when he could, sliding his hands into the ice and balling them into fists where he was afforded the space. Thus he kept well ahead of the rising waves, laboring to increase the distance between himself and the seething death below.
The wall’s surface became steadily drier with every few feet Conan pulled away from the heated water. With the drier ice there also came a pronounced outward steepening of the wall as he cleared the faster-melting section of the glacier. Conan stopped for a few moments, clinging to the wall like a human-sized fly while he leaned slightly backward and examined the overhang of ice less than an arm’s length above his head. He shivered with cold, his skin already taking on a bluish tinge upon limbs that were close to being totally numb.
He reached out with his left hand and probed the ice just above the overhang for something to hold on to. After a few long seconds of searching he managed to find but one adequate handhold within reach. Conan guessed that some piece of falling detritus must have chipped a wedge in the ice in its passing. He clenched the hole’s edge, its sharp ridges pressing hard into his flesh as he let his hand take most of his weight. It seemed to be holding.
He took his feet off the wall and then let go with his other hand, letting his body swing gently outward. He kept the muscles of his shoulder tensed so he wouldn’t spin and upset his grip. Now that he could actually see the portion of wall past the overhang, Conan was quickly able to spot another handhold about a foot above the first.
Dangling precariously above the rising waters, he inhaled deeply three times, filling his lungs to their utmost with air for a quick burn of energy. Exhaling forcefully on the third breath, Conan heaved on his one arm, hauling himself up in a smooth, explosive effort, the muscles of his arm, shoulder and back contracting powerfully. His free hand swung up and caught the other handhold, taking the strain off his left arm.
Eyes narrowed in concentration and ignoring the ache in his limbs and the booming all around him, Conan hauled his tired body upward until he could again find purchase with his feet, allowing himself a brief rest. He was dimly aware of a resounding crack from further down the glacier, followed closely by a splash as part of the wall broke off and hit the water.
Conan could no longer feel his fingers, which may have been just as well since most of them were bloody and raw from contact with the ice. A thin dribble of blood flowed past each of his wrists, stopping at his forearms. He was numb all over. He couldn’t even feel his face, not even when he grimaced fiercely in an effort to ward off frostbite.
He craned his neck, seeking out the opening that still hovered maddeningly beyond his reach. He was pleased to find that he’d progressed more than halfway up the side of the glacier. Something small landed in his eye and he blinked. Snowflakes drifted toward him, some blowing in from outside, others forming as water vapor rising within the crevice finally met the colder air above and froze. He knew the waves below were still on the rise.
Hand over hand, foot by foot, Conan resumed his climb to freedom with the endurance and determination of a hungry wolf pursuing a jackrabbit across frozen tundra. He squeezed his fingers together, bending them stiffly at the knuckles to form hooks so he could continue pulling his weight upward even though he could hardly feel his hands.
Sub-zero winds howling through the higher reaches of the fissure sliced across Conan’s bare skin and tugged at him cruelly. He tightened his hold on the glacier, tensing as many muscles as possible to provide an extra degree of stability, though this effort slowed him considerably.
Conan’s movements turned more sluggish as the cold and the monotony of the ascent began to affect his mind. He knew what was happening to him even as his eyelids began to sink of their own accord: Most inhabitants of the northern climes knew the seductive danger posed by extreme cold, while those who didn’t usually found out the hard way when they let themselves give in to the urge to sleep.
And right now, it was sleep that was Conan’s worst enemy, and he struggled in a losing battle against this most alluring and devious foe. It would be so easy to just let his eyes close, let his weary body convince his even wearier mind that it was only for a few seconds’ rest. But he knew he would be doomed to either fall or freeze to death against the glacier at almost the exact moment he relaxed his grasp on the waking world.
Conan allowed his eyelids to blink rapidly several times, then tried to keep them open by forcing a wide-eyed stare. His eyes began to water and he blinked involuntarily. The lids fluttered shut and remained closed past his next two heartbeats.
Before he knew it, some survival instinct not yet disabled by the cold sent a rush of energy through his system, jolting him into a temporary alertness that shook him from his stupor. He looked around groggily, aware that he’d given in to sleep without even realizing it.
As he cleared his head, Conan glimpsed part of the rock wall at a distance down the length of the crevice, prompting him to turn and look at the section directly behind him. Seeing the opposite wall as if for the first time, Conan remembered the heat he’d felt radiating from that wall below. He saw that the rock face was definitely closer to the glacier here, giving him an idea . . .
He caught his eyelids just as they began to droop again, the first spurt of energy already having worn off, though it was rapidly replaced by another as the Cimmerian imposed his iron will upon his limbs in a prelude to action.
Acting on pure impulse before his rational mind had a chance to think it over and balk, Conan bent his legs and pushed off from the glacier with a cry of defiance, springing backward with all the strength his chilled legs could muster. With simian agility, he whipped an arm around in mid-air, letting its momentum swivel his body to face forward. His knuckles grazed rock, and then he was scrabbling madly at naked stone, falling. Conan’s body slid down a full three feet before his chest scraped by a blunt protuberance, his aching arms finding purchase around the solid mass. He clung there for a second, breathing a ragged gasp of relief.
It didn’t take long to find more handholds, and within seconds Conan was climbing again. The heat of the rock wall seeped into his limbs, warming them up. With the heat came a dull throb as nerves came back to life within his thawing flesh. Soon the throbbing gave way to a prickly agony, which Conan endured in silence while he climbed. He considered the pain a welcome companion.
The skin of his palms was turning a furious scarlet, and he could even see rows of blisters forming upon his tattered palms, but he ignored this new damage, glad that the temptation of sleep had finally been driven off. Time enough to tend his wounds when he managed to crawl out of this hole alive.
Conan checked on the progress of the rising tide below. The boiling waters were spinning into a whirlpool right where he’d clambered past the overhang in the ice wall. A rapid series of sharp reports stung Conan’s ears through the roar of the water as huge chunks of the glacier splintered off from the fierce heat and pressure of the whirlpool.
He looked up again and saw he was near the top of the fissure. Elation at being on the verge of escape combined with the pain- and fear-inspired adrenaline coursing through Conan’s veins to whip him into a breakneck pace. Steam rose from Conan’s overworked arms and legs as he clambered spider-like up the remainder of the rock face. He cleared the fissure’s mouth with a cry of triumph, exploding out of the ground into the open, moonlit sky.
Conan’s head swam with dizziness and he groaned, gingerly picking himself up from where he lay in the middle of the floor. He clutched for his sword where it had fallen, clumsily thrusting the weapon back into its sheath. His leathers were soaked through with sweat, the heat of the forge’s stale air contrasting sharply with the memory of the wintry prison still fresh in the Cimmerian’s mind.
He studied his hands, turning them over in the orange light of the sconces. There was hardly any damage to be found upon his toughened skin, only the minor scrapes and scratches he’d sustained during his journey through the hollows of Crom’s mountain. Unless Crom himself had healed his wounds, it seemed likely to Conan that his recent travails within the glacial crevice had taken place solely in his mind.
An unearthly laugh sounded at his back, like a dervish swirling through a sea of dunes. Conan turned, growling. Remembering where he stood, the Cimmerian stepped backward across the anvil’s outer border. He eyed the specter that hovered across from him with undisguised malice.
The shadow guardian stirred, sensing Conan’s hatred. “Despise me not, Conan of Cimmeria. Were you in my place, you would have no choice but to do the same.” It’s form darkened, going opaque. “Nor would you wish to do otherwise.”
Conan glowered in silence.
Ethereal arms lifted up and spread toward the door outlined in the wall of stone at the room’s end. The shadow spoke loudly into empty air, its voice as bitter as an arctic gust. “His will is strong, and I could not break it. By the master of this forge, the Lord of the Mound, may this man pass.”
A harsh grinding issued from within the wall. Conan turned and watched, suspicion writ upon his features, as a giant slab of rock rose into the polished ceiling to reveal a room at the other end of another short hallway.
He glanced back at the specter, expecting more foul play, but the guardian was already disintegrating into light puffs of smoke that scattered apart and rolled through midair toward the walls.
Conan stepped into the hallway and walked slowly toward the other room. By the guardian’s words it seemed he’d won through some kind of trial to prove his worth. With any luck, that would be the only one.
Behind him, Conan heard the heavy slab of rock drop back into place with a ground-shaking thud.
Jessica’s heart leapt into her throat when the empty air before her suddenly belched forth a colossal man. She jumped to her feet, withdrawing away from the apparition as far as her chain would allow.
Enkee-Kutul smiled in an amusement that refused to show anywhere else on his face but his lips. “You need not be afraid, woman. I have no wish to harm you.” He spread his hands before her, palms-up, and took a step forward.
Jessica didn’t believe him. “Who . . .?” she managed to say before recognition abruptly set in. She gasped. “You!”
He took another step toward her. “I am Enkee-Kutul, rightful Emperor of the Rhan’eitat and herald of Scybor,” he proclaimed, his deep voice rumbling.
The words meant nothing to the noblewoman. “Why am I a prisoner here?”
The big man smiled again, sending waves of cold through Jessica’s body. “You are no prisoner, but an honored guest.”
“Then explain this,” she said, lifting up her foot to show him the manacle. “Where I come from, ‘honored guests’ aren’t put in fetters.”
“It was a necessary precaution. The overseer had to be sure you were fully recovered from the effects of the slave plague. Otherwise, you might have wandered into the city and gotten lost or hurt.”
Jessica’s chin thrust out in her indignation. “Slave plague? Is that what you’ve done? Turned the people of Khorshemish into your slaves? Then the gilded madness is your doing!”
Enkee-Kutul laughed. “The ‘gilded madness’? How colorful!” He shook his head in wonderment, stepping forward once again so that he was now but an arm’s length away.
“Please don’t think of the people of your city as mere slaves. In sooth, they are much more than that. I’ve liberated them from their wretched little lives so that they might know their full potential,” said Enkee-Kutul. “I’ve given them the privilege of working for the greater glory of Scybor by becoming my workers and soldiers.”
“Soldiers for what?” she asked, trying to ignore her captor’s irritating, self-important airs.
“Why, to take back my empire, of course.” He swept one massive arm around to indicate the city. “I needed an army to build and pilot my fleet of warships. None could ask for more glorious a role in life than the one for which I have recruited your people!”
Jessica bit off an angry retort. There was rarely ever any point in arguing with tyrants. Her days spent at court working against the likes of Westlun and the other slave lords had taught her that much, and standing before her now was probably the most powerful slave lord and tyrant she was likely ever to encounter. The only way to deal with such monsters, she knew, was to remove them from power.
Enkee-Kutul went on, caught up in the idea of his own role as liberator of Jessica’s fellow citizens from their supposed misery. “Under the influence of my power they will not only be perfect warriors, for they can feel neither fear nor pain, but they will also be content! No disease or ailment can touch them, and since they receive all the sustenance they need through Scybor’s beneficence, they will never again have want of food or any of the other base requirements of physical existence.” He smiled. “They could not hope for a destiny more promising than the one I have provided them.”
Jessica wanted to scream at this madman’s matter-of-factness, as if the fates of others were solely his right to determine. Koth’s slave lords had often presented claims similar to those she heard now, arguing that their slaves were better off under the yoke of a wealthy master than having to live in the poverty and constant danger of their wild homelands. How could anyone be so perverse as to think slavery was the key to the slave’s happiness?
“Why did you free me from your plague? What do you want with me?” Her skin crawled as his eyes roved boldly over her.
“I would give you the opportunity to share in my glory when I reconquer what is rightfully mine.” He reached for her hand. “Let me show you the might at my command. Surely the sight of my invincible fleet will convince you.”
She flinched away in disgust. “I-I couldn’t . . .”
Enkee-Kutul’s face clouded. “Don’t be foolish. Are you expecting your friends to rescue you? Maybe you think they will stop me?” He almost choked with laughter. “Those two are no match for my power. I have a god on my side!”
So Conan and Tukali were alive and free! Jessica’s heart swelled with joy. She knew they must be planning a way to defeat this terrible man. Jessica wondered if she might be of help by finding some way to distract Enkee-Kutul. Maybe she could pretend to play into his hands by feigning an interest in seeing his fleet. Surely the more attention he paid to her was that much less he could spend on trapping her bodyguards? She decided, despite her fear, to give it a try.
Jessica tried to look humble while appearing to consider Enkee-Kutul’s offer, no easy task considering the revulsion she felt at just being in the presence of the man. She put her manacled leg forward, shaking her foot daintily. “I can’t go anywhere with this on me,” she complained, rattling the chain. “If you unfasten my bonds, I will go with you. I shan’t try to escape.” She looked up at him plaintively.
Enkee-Kutul’s face split in a broad grin. Kneeling before her, he gripped the manacle in his huge hands and pulled it apart with casual ease. A tortured shriek issued from the metal, and then Jessica was free. So close to him, she could sense his raw, animal presence. She felt his hot breath on the skin of her thigh and swallowed, stifling a sickened yelp.
He lingered at her feet a moment longer, admiring the smooth curves of her legs before rising to his feet, towering over her. He licked his lips. “You will soon see that my victory is inevitable. None can hope to stand against me. You will see.”
Jessica glanced aside at the gate and shuddered visibly, partially from real fear, partially for effect. The sooner she left the ziggurat’s vicinity, the less of a chance Conan and Tukali would be ambushed by Enkee-Kutul’s overseers. She felt sure Enkee-Kutul didn’t suspect she knew of his trap for them. “May we leave this place?”
Enkee-Kutul smiled. “The gate frightens you?”
She nodded, shivering. “It does.”
A pang of desire tempted him to ravish her on the spot, but he restrained himself. A prize such as this would only be worth the catching if she gave herself to him voluntarily. Though she was entirely under his dominion, he felt compelled not to force himself upon her, as much as her beauty stirred him. No, he wanted the satisfaction of the hunt, to win her over to his side. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes he had in the past. She would be of no use to him if she did as the others had by taking her own life when the opportunity arose just to escape him.
But he was not long of patience, and he desired that the hunt be short for all its inherent sweetness. She would join him soon, or be doomed to perish with her friends. There were always the succubi to offer up their charms to him in his time of need, though they could provide nothing past the satisfaction of his physical cravings.
Jessica felt a vaguely familiar vibration within her bones, and then she saw the shadows gathering around them, flowing over their bodies. The gleam of Enkee-Kutul’s dark eyes was the last thing she saw as she went numb and blind for what seemed like an hour but in reality took no longer than a second.
The gate and its surroundings faded from her vision, eventually to be replaced with the sight of a dome-ceilinged room crowded with upright screens, like windows, displaying a variety of different pictures within their frames.
Jessica closed her eyes and held a hand to her forehead as the strange vision and relocation made her nauseous for a fleeting instant. When her mind and stomach were calmed, she opened her eyes again. The sizable room with its steel walls and weird pictures was still there, but the light had dimmed to near-darkness, lit only by flashes from the many dozens of screens, their images moving to a slow and steady pulse. She looked up and was surprised to see night sky where the ceiling had been.
“Where are we?” she asked loudly, not seeing her captor.
His voice answered from the center of the room, deep within the welter of fluttering lights. “My ship. The same one you saw atop the great stone building before the gate.”
Her pretty mouth turned down in her confusion. “This? A ship? But how can that be? I saw no sails or rigging.” Jessica tilted her head in bewilderment.
She sensed movement in front of her and watched as Enkee-Kutul swiveled into view. Jessica realized the back of his chair had been facing her, blocking him from sight.
His eyes shone with a darkness all their own from where he lurked in the deep shadow of his throne. The light of the monitors washed over his chair and the equipment around him but spurned the man himself. “If you search your memory, you will know of what I speak. The answers to your questions can be found within your own mind.” He chuckled softly. There came out of the shadows a wet glimmer of teeth.
Hesitantly, she took his advice, riffling through her memory for any knowledge of his ship. It surfaced rapidly, automatically, like she’d been forced to memorize the information through brute force of rote until it had become a permanent fixture in her mind. She saw it all; every room, wall and piece of equipment in fine detail, every function noted and understood. It was perplexing, dredging up memories of things, bizarre things, that she had no recollection of experiencing or learning.
She delved deeper, concentrating on the city around her. In her mind’s eye she saw the city as it was, ancient and abandoned, and then the city as it underwent a transformation into the jungle of metal and industry that it had become. As with the ship, she found she possessed lore encompassing every aspect of the city’s design from its overall purpose down to the nuances of its tiniest components. Such knowledge would have taken her at least several lifetimes to acquire and master, even had such knowledge existed on her world.
“How-how can this be?”
Again the unnerving chuckle. “Every being in this city, myself included, shares the same knowledge you possess.” He tapped at a control on the armrest of his throne, and the sky above them vanished. In its place appeared a close view of the gigantic structure Jessica had glimpsed from afar, a misshapen, metallic lump with thousands of lights spread across its inky countenance like a blanket of glow-fungus. “You know this building to be the storehouse off this knowledge, as well as the power source for this entire city.”
Jessica stared at the screen above in wonder. She did indeed know of what Enkee-Kutul spoke. “The plague allows all of your slaves to share the knowledge kept in that building so they can perform their tasks.” She nodded in understanding. “But if you removed the plague from me, how can I still know all this?”
“I left certain parts of the plague intact,” Enkee-Kutul explained, “at least, those that would allow you to retain your mental connection with my city. Otherwise, you would not even be able to comprehend my speech, let alone my grand design.” He laughed aloud. “And that would not do at all.”
Jessica noticed bright spots shoot by her in the dark. At first she thought it might be some odd feature of the room’s monitors, but then she felt the gnawing in her stomach and her appetite coming back, fast and hard. “I need food,” she said reluctantly, hating the idea of being in need of anything he might possess. But she was hungry, and would be of little help to anyone if she passed out.
Enkee-Kutul grunted, prodding at his armrest. Jessica heard a whirring noise behind her and turned, heading toward the sound. From her knowledge of this craft, she knew a specialized machine was in the process of creating a meal. She stopped in front of the waist-high contrivance set against the ship’s steel wall. It was shaped like a short pedestal. With a soft thump, the center of the pedestal rose up flush with its top, bearing a cup of steaming, green liquid. She took up the cup and sniffed at its contents, finding the smell not altogether unpleasant. A tentative taste proved the food to be palatable, if a little salty. She strode back toward the center of the deck, closer to Enkee-Kutul. As much as she abhorred him, she knew it was wise to keep an enemy in plain sight. She sipped at her meal, feeling her hunger beginning to ease.
He had been watching her the entire time, his face an empty slate. Seated upon the throne, Enkee-Kutul was still a full head taller than Jessica. “Are you in need of anything else?” he queried.
Jessica shook her head, maintaining her distance a few paces away.
“Good.” His throne spun back around so that he looked into the group of screens where they crowded the thickest. All of their views changed to show the outside of the ship from different angles. The air within the control room seemed to thrum with increased energy.
The deck beneath Jessica’s bare feet gave a sudden lurch as Enkee-Kutul’s ship bounded up into the cavern. The unexpected pull on Jessica’s stomach almost caused her to lose that part of her meal she’d already consumed, but she forced herself to swallow, keeping the contents of her belly safely at bay.
There came an instant of weightlessness as her feet barely came off the floor, but then the craft’s own gravity kicked in, resettling her weight as it canceled out the effect of her world’s gravity. Jessica was still surprised to find that she understood all the workings of the ship. She thought of the vast store of alien knowledge her mind was connected to and blanched at the unnaturalness of it all.
The overhead screen blinked, showing a view of the cavern’s ceiling that slid away as the top of the sphere rotated down to face out toward the city. The walls of the room sprang to life with images of their own as dormant screens added to the view so the room’s occupant’s wouldn’t have to strain their necks by relying solely on the overhead screen to see the city. With the illusion of being able to see through the ship’s hull, it seemed to Jessica that she was flying through mid-air under her own power.
Before the smaller screens changed back to their displays of certain areas of the city, Jessica discovered that the sphere’s outer surface had taken on a red glow, making the craft highly visible even in the cavern’s murky atmosphere.
The ship turned in a wide arc, threading toward the center of the city with nimble movements. The large screens showed low rooftops and winding streets whipping by beneath them as the sphere dodged between the taller buildings. To those on the ground, had they bothered to notice, it might have appeared that some enormous will-o’-the-wisp had taken to stalking amongst the higher stories of the city.
Enkee-Kutul broke the silence. “Thus far you have seen but the smallest examples of Scybor’s power.” From behind the chair, Jessica could see him gesturing with his hands. “The plague, this ship, the wonders of this city, all these things you have seen, are toys. Before I was betrayed by a mongrel faction of Rhan’eitat, my empire thrived at the touch of my master. The altars of ten thousand temples ran hot with the blood of the unworthy as my priests purified our race of the weak, the deformed and the diseased.”
“For the souls we offered up unto our god, Scybor rewarded us a thousand-fold! His dark miracles became commonplace, and the very stars would tremble when we wished it. We built monuments to his greatness, and the people were happy.” He growled, his arms flopping distractedly over the sides of the armrests. “But what did I get in return? Gratitude? Nay! Treachery, at the hands of a few malcontents somehow resistant to Scybor’s divine touch.” He breathed a heavy sigh.
Jessica had inched forward in spite of herself, gripped in a morbid fascination at his tale. “But you ensorceled the people with your slave plague. How can you say they were happy?” The orange glow of the city rolled by above their heads, the landscape twisting sickeningly in tune to the sphere’s brisk movements.
There was movement on the other side of the throne. “Pfaugh! The people are cattle! They can’t know true contentment unless its rammed down their throats. I freed them from themselves, and they turned on me for my efforts.” He rubbed his hands together. “When I return, I will sacrifice a million of their number for their insolence! Only then might Scybor have mercy on the rest.”
In his fervor, Enkee-Kutul swiveled the throne back around, and it was then that a stray patch of light from one of the monitors caught a section of the brooding throne, illuminating the grisly patchwork of faces covering its frame. Jessica found herself staring into the stretched, empty smile of one such leathery face, and her hands flew to her mouth in a vain attempt to muffle her horrified shriek.
Enkee-Kutul heard her cry and saw the terror writ so plainly upon her visage. “Ah! These,” he purred, stroking the throne’s hide, “were some of the more foolhardy of my enemies. See what became of them when they thought to confront me directly.” He gripped the armrests, digging his fingers in. “The might of Scybor flows through my limbs, granting me strength enough to battle a hundred such fools with naught but my hands.”
Jessica pushed the shock away from her, trying not to think about the horrid work that must have gone into the making of the chair. She quickly changed the subject, unsure whether her courage could last if made to dwell upon the object of her disturbance. “Why did you come hither, to this world? Why not another?” she asked hurriedly.
“There were others, but none so well suited to my needs as this one. Your planet is young and replete with sorcerous energies. The people of your world have learned early the arts of trafficking with demons and gods, making this a convenient place to hide my presence until the time comes to reclaim my empire.” He leaned forward upon the throne. “The lands here about were also developed enough that I could find an adequate supply of workers. Your people are close enough to my own in most ways as to make them the obvious choice for recruitment into my army.” He steepled his index fingers, tapping them against his lower lip in thought. Once the Rhan’eitat were back under his sway, it might even be pleasing to Scybor if he were to lay claim to this world as well. He looked out at the city displayed above them, lost in his ruminations.
Jessica was about to speak when the black giant pointed at the screen. “There is the entrance to the fault I followed down to this cavern.”
The noblewoman looked to where he was pointing and saw a ragged tear in the cavern wall reaching from ground to ceiling. The rent continued along the cavern floor, splicing the city from end to end. “How did you know of this place?” asked Jessica.
Enkee-Kutul shrugged. “I didn’t. I discovered the fault while blasting into the cone of an extinct volcano I originally sought to make into my stronghold. I traveled through the fault to this city, which I think Scybor intended me to find.”
“You think? You mean you don’t know?” Before Jessica could catch herself, a mocking laugh slipped from between her lips. Here was this foreign invader, so confident in his right to enslave her race so he could return to sacrificing his own, and he wasn’t even sure how or when the god he claimed to serve directed his actions.
Enkee-Kutul stiffened, but chose to let the tone of her outburst pass. His goal was to win her to his side, not berate her for the resistant state of mind that her position unavoidably demanded. He had to convince her of the power that would be at her disposal if she joined Scybor’s cause.
Instead of retaliating for her ridicule of him, he offered up his defense through clenched jaws. “It is no mean feat to commune with a god. At the time, I did not have the luxury of preparation to make the proper incantations so as to be sure of Scybor’s intent.” He stabbed a control on his armrest and the view on the overhead screen changed.
Jessica looked in wonderment upon a large number of roofless, low-walled buildings, set end-to-end across a broad swath of the city. Within each building, Enkee-Kutul’s slaves thronged like worker ants within a grid of stout iron girders, acting in perfect concert with each other as they labored to assemble the last vestiges of Enkee-Kutul’s fleet.
“Surely now you can see there is no disputing Scybor’s hand in my arrival here. Behold my armada,” he said, waving a hand at the screen. Thousands of battle spheres sparkled up out of the buildings like glowing rubies, the polished metal hulls of the finished ships reflecting back the hazy light of the cavern in bursts of scarlet. “The completion of my warships draws nigh, and soon I’ll set forth to quash the rebellion of the Rhan’eitat.”
Jessica hadn’t seen firsthand what kind of destruction each ship was capable of, but she didn’t need to; at the mere thought of it, the vast mechanical mind that was linked to her own coldly dredged up the information for her. Memories that were not hers whisked through Jessica’s head, showing her the blasted walls, twisted metal and scorched earth of an entire city laid to waste, the remains of its former inhabitants intermingled with the cinders of smoking ruins. The scenes that she now witnessed mentally seemed so vivid that she felt as if she were there, standing amidst the smoldering wreckage of a place once full of vibrant, living people, their existence reduced to ashes. A single tear rolled down Jessica’s cheek and she wiped it away hastily, but Enkee-Kutul hadn’t seen, too busy gloating at the sight of his killing machines and the mayhem he was planning to add to the long list of atrocities he had already wrought.
Jessica had been so caught up in the horror of what the black-hearted villain before her intended that she’d failed to realize he had resumed talking about his discovery of the underground city.
” . . .told me it had been preserved with magic. The spell was so potent that I left it in place, for not only did it cause the city to be swallowed up by the earth, but it was also responsible for everything within being virtually intact after the passing of untold eons. I strengthened the spell with my own sorcery and put the sleepers to work–“
“I-I’m sorry,” Jessica interrupted. “Sleepers?”
Enkee-Kutul frowned impatiently. “The survivors, the ones I found here. It seems the same powers they called upon to save their precious Boa from the invading barbarians only managed to spare a few among their ranks, protecting them over the centuries from the effects of time and the elements. Unfortunately for those few, survival meant being condemned to an existence of eternal sleep no better than death. That is, until I woke them up. Even now they aren’t much more than zombies, not dead, but not quite alive either, their souls caught in a limbo between our world and the next. I gathered what knowledge I could from them before setting them to the task of reconstructing Boa to fulfill my needs.”
Boa. Now at least Jessica knew the name of the city. At the mention of the survivors, her thoughts turned to the stone slab she’d found in her cell, its dusty top imprinted with the shape of a body. She had been right in thinking of the chamber where she’d awakened as being somebody else’s sleeping quarters before ending up as her cell. She remembered now what the scholars taught about Khorshemish, how it had been built over the ruins of a city that fell with the rest of Acheron in bygone days. Little did the scholars know of the literal truth to their teachings. Boa had indeed fallen, though not quite into ruin.
The overhead screen showed them approaching a labyrinthine collection of brown structures linked together with steel tubes evidently serving as passages from one building to the next. Enkee-Kutul sat up in his throne, guiding their craft to hover above the complex. “Here is where I put to use the greatest of all the powers Scybor bestowed upon me.”
Again the screens flashed, and Jessica recoiled at the sight of the macabre collage that appeared on them; contorted, bestial things, some covered in slime and ichor, others plastered with scales or hidden beneath shells of granular-looking armor, all howling, snarling or hissing their rage. There were tentacles and pseudopodia, spines and horns, some of which sprouted from bodies in the most unlikely of places. Sinewy limbs flailed, claws sheathed and unsheathed, and gaping, oversized jaws snapped at the air, their owners somehow sensing the proximity of their creator. All moved with careful purpose, despite their agitation, revealing an intelligence that belied their brutish appearance.
Enkee-Kutul turned to face Jessica, his already immense chest swelling with pride. “Scybor has given me the power to create life. Look upon these creatures that knew no form in the physical world before I conceived the idea of their very existence. Here is power to rival any of the gods, and it is mine to wield as I please!”
Jessica tore her eyes away from the writhing monstrosities, the sight of which was like gazing into an open wound–sickening, and yet somehow riveting at the same time. “Why are you showing me this?” she asked, shaken. “Tell me what it is you want!”
He stood up, looming over her, a shadow of blackest velvet against the background glow of the screens. His voice rang out like a gong booming forth from the deepest pit of hell, and Jessica saw his eyes afire like flames burning in his skull. “Be my consort. Rule with me. Serve Scybor by my side, and we can bask in his dark glory for an eternity.” His voice dropped, low and insinuating. “Scybor’s power extends to all things. I can show you pleasures beyond your most wanton fantasy, all manner of the dark and exotic. You could hold sway over entire worlds. Your enemies would be as dust, and your deepest yearnings would become reality at your command.”
Enkee-Kutul’s words wriggled to Jessica’s ears with the intent of weaving a spell of temptation, promising a world of depraved delights. But to her, his voice was like the hiss of a snake, escaping from between fangs brimming with venom, fangs that, in time, would undoubtedly close upon her even if she’d been so weak and corrupt as to give in to him. Jessica despised Enkee-Kutul with all her being, everything he was and everything he stood for. She would sooner die than consider selling herself to such a fiend.
“I need some time–I have to think,” she stalled.
Lines appeared on his forehead, an approaching thunderhead. “Woman, how can you have aught to think about? Would you turn down an offer of absolute power?”
She had no intention of joining him, but she had couldn’t voice her true feelings. She had to keep him distracted. “You ask me to turn my back on my friends, my people, all that I hold dear. Would you have me regret my decision long after I’ve made it?”
Enkee-Kutul’s cheek twitched, and he sat down. Long seconds passed in silence, and Jessica feared she might have pushed this temperamental ogre over the edge. “Nay,” he said at last, “I wouldn’t. But you must choose your course soon. I leave here in mere days, and you will accompany me, one way,” he rumbled, “or another.”
“Think upon this,” he said, settling back into his throne. “Until you decide, you will go back to being a lure for my enemies, a poor choice at best, especially when you could be so much more. Would you indeed choose slavery out of some misguided loyalty to your people, or will you have the strength to leave their memory behind in favor of a place among the gods?” He smiled humorlessly, turning his throne’s back to her. His terrible creations vanished from the screens as he steered his ship back toward the ziggurat.
Jessica shivered in the heat. This man was so cold. She could sense his soul clearly, shriveled and stained, devoid of any warmth. She wondered how the gods could stand to have such a ruthless terror exist in their universe, and she prayed silently to Mitra that it might not be for much longer.
A screen at her left abruptly caught her attention as it flipped through a rapid succession of images. She started in surprise, catching sight of a familiar upturned face on the monitor, and then it was gone, hidden among the metal crenelations of a rooftop passing beneath the sphere.
Tukali! She’d recognized him instantly, though he was wrapped in dark clothing and concealed among the shadows like a stalking panther. If he knew enough to camouflage himself from prying eyes, then he would probably soon uncover the trap set for Conan and himself, if he hadn’t already. Girtham had done well to introduce Conan and Tukali into her service. Out of all the people in Khorshemish, it appeared those two alone had avoided becoming slaves, even managing, it seemed, to take up the offensive against the one responsible for this city of nightmare.
Jessica felt the strengthening of her own hope, and she resolved to muddle Enkee-Kutul’s thoughts for as long as she could if it meant giving her bodyguards any kind of an edge against him.
The tiered levels of the ziggurat appeared above their heads, and the sphere came to a hover at the building’s crown. On one of the side-monitors Jessica could see a rounded crater in the ancient stone where the weight of the craft had created its own niche, preventing the ship from rolling off the ziggurat’s otherwise flat top. Their view spun to face the roof of the cavern, and then there was a slight bump as normal gravity returned and the craft settled into place, the constant thrumming that reverberated through the metal hull coming to an end as the sphere powered down.
Enkee-Kutul stood, and shadows enveloped them both like the briny waters of a rising ocean tide, whisking them back before the awful presence of the summoning gate.
Jessica was allotted a place near the bottom steps of the ziggurat to sit, stand or pace as she pleased, but the two speechless overseers that Enkee-Kutul beckoned over provided well-defined boundaries to either side of her, limiting her space. She already knew of the others standing motionless in the shadows of nearby buildings, and she didn’t need to be warned about the danger of an escape attempt. She doubted not that he would be watching her anyway.
“Thank you for not chaining me,” she said, trying to appear grateful.
“I have no fear of you wandering off,” he said confidently. “You may stay here as long as is necessary for you to make up your mind before I leave. If you have any needs, tell one of them,” he said, indicating the overseers, “and they will bring you what you request, within reason, or they can escort you back to my ship when your decision is made.”
Enkee-Kutul disappeared, bent on whatever vile business it was his aim to pursue.
Jessica took a seat on the ziggurat’s steps, trying hard to avoid looking at the gate and its ghoulishly wrought altar. She would wait for her rescue or for Enkee-Kutul to enslave her again, whichever came first; giving in to his request was not an option.
Patiently she sat, scanning the rooftops for signs of her bodyguards, the two silent automatons her only company.
Conan stepped out of the short hallway and drew his sword in preparation for the unknown. He hadn’t moved more than a pace into the room when a heavy iron grille clunked into place at the tunnel mouth behind him, effectively cutting off any chance for him to act on second thoughts.
He wondered what kind of test awaited him now. The hard-packed dirt floor failed to disclose any markings or engravings like the one in the first chamber, a fact that relieved the Cimmerian. It was hotter in here, and fresh beads of sweat sprung forth on Conan’s brow.
Smooth walls of polished granite enclosed the expansive room, reaching up more than two full man-heights. Except for the grille behind him, Conan could see no breaks in the near-perfect circle formed by the walls. The place looked like one of the pits he used to fight in, playing gladiator to those watching and hollering from the safety of the ground above.
The only watchers poised along the edges of this arena were a handful of statues hewn from grey stone, looking on with unblinking eyes from where they stood in silence. Their faces glowed eerily, lit from beneath by the rosy flames of braziers set within sheltered nooks, one between each statue. Most of the watchers appeared to be warriors, all Cimmerian by the look of their faces, garb and weaponry. One statue whose face Conan couldn’t make out had been placed above the section of wall directly opposite the iron grille, a full twenty paces away. The man depicted by the statue wore armor fashioned after an old, forgotten style, and both of his gauntleted hands gripped a broadsword of equal antiquity, its blade lying flat upon his left shoulder. Conan could see only shadows behind the great helm, the tips of its curved horns grazing the high ceiling, but he didn’t need to see the face to know that this statue, like its larger twin seated within a lofty cavern in the mountain above, was of Crom himself.
Distant memories stirred in the dim reaches of his consciousness at the sight of that grim figure, and Conan remembered his fever-dream of birth upon a battle-field, the same dream that came to him now and then through the years. The statue of Crom bore a haunting resemblance to the warrior from his dream, and deep within his heart Conan knew the warrior and Crom to be one and the same.
A quick stroll around the arena’s perimeter revealed little but some bits of rotting leather and pieces of broken metal, interspersed with a few brittle bone fragments, all of which had been pushed into a single small pile against the wall. There was nothing else to be found upon the earthen floor.
He searched the walls themselves in earnest, knowing there had to be another exit from the room since he wasn’t yet in the forge itself. His efforts paid off as he found a thin crack in the granite on the portion of the wall below Crom, so thin that it couldn’t be felt even with his sensitive fingertips, but only seen up close as a flaw in the wall’s polished surface, much like the faint black line along the very edge of a blade that only shows up in direct light, marking the blade as razor-sharp. Conan found three other lines, two on either side and one running along the tops of all three, outlining a pair of doors. He pushed against the doors but they refused to budge, not that he’d really expected them to.
“Watch thy back, Cimmerian!” cried a voice, followed by laughter. Conan spun, ready to leap aside from the specter’s touch, but it wasn’t yet near him. Tiny whirlwinds of darkness skittered across the floor, picking up dust and sand in their passing. He watched as they continued their frenzied roaming, growing larger with each speck of debris sucked into their midst. The arena was awash in the noise of hissing sand and insane laughter, laughter that rung on and on, threatening to drag Conan down into the ranks of the mad.
He edged sideways along the wall, sword held at the ready in one hand, the other shielding his face from flying detritus. One of the whirlwinds, as high as a man, blew over to the small pile of debris, kicking it up into the air where the pieces arranged themselves into some kind of pattern, a ragged skeleton, held up by gusts of wind-borne sand.
The laughter grew louder as the rest of the whirlwinds joined with the first, forming a seething cyclone of grit across the room from Conan. Impossibly, the fragments from the pile stayed in place, becoming encrusted with sand.
Before Conan’s horrified gaze a shape took form. Sand built up upon the hovering skeleton, rapidly filling in the outline of a body until that body became solid and real. Legs and arms, created from naught but dust, flexed with the vitality of life as brown sand turned to pink flesh. Conan stood, unbelieving, as the man, a Cimmerian as tall as himself, threw back his head and screamed in demented glee. Plates of steel armor formed out of the swirling sand, encasing the man from head to foot in a nigh-impenetrable shell. A broadsword large enough to rival Conan’s own materialized in the other’s hands, the appearance of which brought a wicked smile to the lips of the wraith-turned-man. Within the space of two even breaths the winds died, and Conan took a two-handed grip on his own weapon, advancing warily. Unknown to Conan, the eyes of the statues above began to glow as the spirits of those long-dead heroes arrived to bear witness to the coming battle.
The guardian stepped forward also, swinging his sword from side to side in anticipation of the fight. “You should have heeded my warning, Conan. I need but to slay you to gain my freedom, and I’ll not miss this chance to end my imprisonment here.” He turned his helmeted head up to face Crom’s statue. “Hai! Lord of the Mound, master of steel! I shall carve the soul from this fool’s body to take my place!”
A deep-rooted primitive dread of the supernatural welled up within Conan, coming on so strong and fast that it threatened to bind his limbs with the heavy chains of panic. But he clamped down on the rising fear, throttling it with the confidence he held in his own ability to strive and to slay.
The guardian’s words were still ringing off the granite walls when Conan shot forward in an incredibly fast burst of motion. He waited an entire half second before bellowing out a battle cry ferocious enough to turn the bones of most human opponents to water.
Hearing that awful cry, the guardian started to turn his head back again in search of his enemy, thrusting a leg backward for a lower, more balanced stance while he did so. These subtle movements were all that spared his life; Conan’s sword swept backwards and upwards as he ran, and then swung down again in a brutal horizontal chop as the enraged Cimmerian sped by, his blow intended to sever the guardian’s head from his shoulders ere the battle had even begun. But as it happened, Conan’s sword kissed the steel crown of the guardian’s helmet instead of tender flesh, and the piece of armor was ripped clear of the warrior’s back-flung head to collide and crumple against the wall behind.
Conan let his momentum take him well past his armored foe before he slowed, whipping around to defend against counterattack. It was well that he did so, for the guardian was already upon him despite the ugly gash in his scalp where metal had buckled and scraped across his head. Conan countered a flurry of blows, their sheer speed and ferocity keeping him from launching another attack of his own. Steel met steel in an ear-splitting din, sparks flying off the blades of both men. They fought in a silence interrupted only by the occasional grunt and the clanging of metal; there was no beating of drums or roar of a crowd here to urge the combatants on.
The guardian’s eyes burned with the fire of a madness spawned from countless years of solitude and regret, and he attacked Conan with a desperate fervor possessed by few but the insane. Conan blocked and dodged a rapid succession of blows, the skin of his chest and arms already trickling blood from a few stray nicks beneath slices in his leather shirt. The superior strength and stamina of his opponent was obvious in the level of agility he was able to maintain while clad in a full suit of plate armor. Because of this physical prowess, Conan was being forced slowly backward under a rain of pounding blows. He could sense the wall coming up behind him.
Conan countered the guardian’s strikes with calculated finesse, relying now on skill instead of the rage that had propelled his first attack–berserker tactics would avail him nothing against a foe as powerful and well-protected as this, and he felt the need to take exceptional care. He was fighting not only for his life and the chance to enter the forge, but to avoid ending up in the same predicament as the wretch he now faced, namely, haunting these sullen halls until another seeker such as himself came along to challenge him.
The barbarian saw an opening and took advantage of it, aiming a front kick at his opponent’s stomach. The kick knocked the guardian back a pace, but he came back in a snarling fury, swinging his broadsword two-handed in a slash at Conan’s unprotected head.
Conan ducked under the blow and rolled, springing up behind his over-extended foe, who immediately snapped his sword around to protect his nape as he started to pivot. Conan’s sword lashed out with the swiftness of an attacking cobra, slamming once into each of the guardian’s armored flanks, just below the shoulder, before he leaped hastily backward to avoid being slashed.
His sword had failed to leave naught but the slightest of dents in the guardian’s steel armor, and as Conan retreated a few paces he reconsidered his tactics. The guardian seemed indefatigable, while he himself was tiring from the constant need to deftly maneuver his unprotected body away from his opponent’s sword strokes. He felt a new kind of fear in icy tendrils that spread upward from his gut. The last time he’d felt this helpless against an adversary had been in Boa when he’d fought Enkee-Kutul’s overseers, where he might have died if not for Mach.
But Conan wasn’t one to ever give in to fear. As the guardian advanced again, leering confidently, Conan put his keen intellect to work, that part of him which had been greatly underestimated by so many of his foes in the past, most of whom had paid the ultimate price for mistaking Conan for an ‘ignorant’ barbarian. He’d lost count of the number of times when his wits had saved him from certain death while his strength and fighting ability alone would have otherwise availed him little.
Conan thought quickly. His opponent would have to defend against any of Conan’s strikes to his head, the only part of him apparently vulnerable to attack. If the guardian were made to think that was Conan’s chief target, then he could possibly make that assumption work against his armored adversary.
With a renewed energy, Conan charged his foe a second time. As he closed with the guardian, he knocked aside a sword thrust meant to spear him and aimed an overhead blow at his enemy’s head.
The guardian countered easily, blocking the barbarian’s steel. But instead of feinting to the side to avoid being skewered as he’d done so prior to now, Conan kept at his target with a series of nasty chops, each short downward stroke an explosion of controlled fury that forced the other man to keep his sword held aloft in order to ward off mortal injury.
Just before the point of feeling the strain of his exertions in his arms, Conan pretended to stumble, slipping half a pace backwards with a faltering step. His opponent’s sword-tip came right for his breast, as he knew it would, and with a seemingly miraculous recovery of balance, Conan slid out of the way to narrowly avoid death.
With preternatural speed, Conan’s broadsword came up and over in a wide circle, cutting through the air with all the strength he could marshal. At the farthest and therefore most powerful point in its downward arc, the end of Conan’s sword met with the guardian’s own blade right near the pommel as Conan’s enemy moved to raise his weapon in a mistaken attempt to protect his head. But Conan’s blow had been deliberately aimed at the guardian’s sword with the sole intention of knocking it from his grasp.
Steel shattered beneath Conan’s broadsword, peppering the ground with broken shards, and the entire chamber resounded with the piercing snap that served as a death cry for the guardian’s weapon.
Conan howled in triumph, swinging his sword back up for the killing-blow. But his enemy responded swifter than he’d expected, and two mailed hands darted outward with a reflex faster than Conan could avoid, closing around the blade of his own sword in an unshakable grip.
The two strained mightily, pulling the weapon in opposite directions until finally Conan’s enemy tired of this sport and, in an incredible feat of strength, simply snapped the blade between his gauntlets.
The guardian threw the broken pieces to the ground with a contemptuous laugh and lunged at Conan, arms outstretched.
Conan’s fist shot out even as his body turned sideways, avoiding those clutching hands. Cartilage crunched wetly beneath his knuckles as he flattened the man’s nose into a bloody smear. The blow stopped the guardian in his tracks, and Conan’s other fist whipped out in a tight left hook, slamming into his foe’s jaw with enough force to break it, spinning the armored figure around.
Without hesitation, Conan grappled onto that prone back, looping one arm around the warrior’s semi-protected throat. With his free hand, Conan pushed against the man’s temple, trying to snap his neck.
With Conan clinging to his back, the guardian lurched to and fro within the walls of the arena, and the two men struggled as if in a macabre dance. Conan’s muscular arms bulged with his intense effort, but the guardian resisted with impressive determination, twisting his head in the direction opposite to that imposed by Conan. The guardian’s hands, however, couldn’t reach the tenacious Cimmerian, his flailing arms’ freedom of movement restricted by the same plate armor that had given him the advantage of protection against Conan’s sword blows. No matter which way he spun or dodged, he couldn’t fling Conan from his back, and his fingertips couldn’t find purchase enough to rip away the encircling arm, the steel of his gauntlets being too wide for him to slip between the Cimmerian’s flexed forearm and the metal collar protecting his throat.
Conan held on as his adversary suddenly sprinted full-tilt toward the far end of the room, mindless of the barbarian’s weight upon his back. When the wall was near enough, the guardian whipped about in an attempt to dash Conan against the unyielding rock.
But Conan was ready for such a maneuver, already adjusting his hand position to the other side of the man’s head. Even as his foe turned, Conan tucked his knees up and to the side so that as the wall loomed before him, he twisted his hips up square with the wall. His feet hit the granite simultaneously, his bent legs absorbing the impact. Conan’s legs then immediately uncoiled, thrusting him out in an upward, diagonal leap against the twisting, sideways momentum of the guardian, his hand now in a different position, pulling from the other side of the guardian’s head with his foeman’s jaw stuck in the crook of his other arm’s elbow.
The force of Conan’s rebound met with the guardian’s own momentum, and then there came a sharp crack, like a hot desert rock splitting with the arrival of the night’s cold, as straining bull-neck finally gave way to steely arms. Instantly, Conan let go of his enemy, allowing his leap to carry him over the man’s lolling head and toppling body. He swung in midair, flipped halfway over before he’d released the guardian’s neck. He let his body rock the rest of the way forward as he completed the difficult head-over-heels flip with an acrobat’s familiarity, straightening his body so that he ended up landing in a crouch and looking away from the wall. He was up and pivoting to face his defeated enemy before the other man had even slumped fully onto the earthen floor.
But the guardian still clung to life, his arms scrabbling feebly in the dust to raise himself up. His head flopped atop a broken neck, and yet he refused to die. He tried to speak, the words coming out in a gurgle, but Conan had no difficulty discerning the intent in that malevolent stare.
He strode over to the man still writhing upon the ground. He bent down and, clasping the man’s head between his hands, wrenched it the rest of the way around with a series of loud pops. The warrior fell back, his eyes burning with hate and his mouth gasping with soundless curses, until finally he lay still.
Conan jerked hastily away, hearing further movement from the corpse. Would the blasted thing not die?
He watched in horror as that slack face withered before his eyes, crumbling within the metal armor. Conan was suddenly knocked backward as the armor itself disintegrated in an explosion of flying sand. The wraith burst forth, roaring its outrage. It whirled angrily about the Cimmerian like a black tornado, but it was unable to harm him, and with a long howl of frustration it swept about the ring of statues above before disappearing into the ancient stone of the arena, leaving the flames of the braziers guttering in its wake.
The light in the arena changed from natural firelight to a purple glow, and Conan heard a sound as of rock shifting from the direction of the room’s hidden portal.
He started toward the closed stone doors but the sound of more movement rumbling down from above made him stop and look up in astonishment. Was he dreaming, or had Crom’s statue taken on a life of its own? In place of the grey stone there now stood the living form of a man, still clad in the same archaic armor, and he was moving, his arms shifting to swing the giant broadsword down from his shoulder to place the point upon the wall’s stone lip. The great horned helmet tilted down to look upon Conan, and a deep, resonant voice issued forth, one that Conan had heard before. It was Crom himself who spoke.
“Worthy son, you have proven your mastery of steel, flesh and mind. Enter my forge. Choose the weapon which best suits your purpose. But hearken: Only one may be taken, and I will reclaim it when its use has been fulfilled.” Conan thought he saw the flare of blue eyes behind the helmet’s eye-slits. He felt neither the urge to grovel or quail as some would upon coming face-to-face with their god. He stood firm, and whether he realized it or not, Crom honored him all the more for his steadfast heart. “Know that the weapon comes with a price; one day you will be called upon to serve my cause as I now aid you in yours, even at the cost of your life. Will you agree to this?”
The fates of many rested upon Conan’s powerful shoulders, and his honor, which was the root of his self-worth, compelled him to go on no matter the consequences to himself. Life was uncertain at best, he knew, and his own death hardly counted among his innermost fears, having himself heard and fought free of that sepulchral knelling more times than he could easily count. Serving the god of his people seemed a fair price to pay for the god’s help, especially if it might portend Crom’s favor in the afterlife.
“Aye,” he answered without hesitation.
“Then, Conan, enter with my blessing,” Crom rumbled. The purple light receded and Crom disappeared, leaving his grey statue behind with its broadsword still pointing toward the earth. In the dancing firelight of the braziers, a shadow appeared and grew upon the tops of the two stone doors as they sank backward into the wall.
Conan walked forward, following the portals as they slid into the rock. He kept pace with them, noticing a gap widening between them as they tilted inward toward the sides of the tunnel. Through the gap he could see flame-dappled columns and the glitter of steel upon the walls beyond. There was a clack as the doors met a pair of identical counterparts in the middle of the tunnel, leaving a space just wide enough for the Cimmerian to step through. As he did so, the two pairs of doors moved apart again, closing behind him as, at long last, he finally entered Crom’s forge.