Enkee-Kutul pushed away the supple arms that lay draped across his torso, ignoring the protesting moans of those resting upon the satiny ground around him. He arose, steam curling into the frosty air from his naked skin. Several of the succubi longed for his warmth and tugged plaintively at his limbs when he passed, but he shrugged them off; a man could easily lose himself in the passionate embraces of such creatures, but now that his desires had been sated he had more pressing interests in his own dimension.
He picked his way through the tangle of female bodies, his surroundings lit by a cinnamon light that came from everywhere and nowhere in particular. A brown haze closed in behind Enkee-Kutul and drifted at the edges of his vision, obscuring the true scope of this land populated solely by the demon-women.
His steps brought him to the edge of a wide pit, one of many scattered about like wells sunk into the plush landscape. It mattered not which pit he chose. For him they all led back to the same place.
Without hesitation he stepped over the brink. Instead of falling, his body tilted until it was parallel with the ground, and he walked down the side of the hole, leaving the netherworld of his demonic playmates.
The tunnel’s end could be seen as if at a great distance through the darkness, the great glowing portal appearing wide enough to march an army through. Enkee-Kutul walked onward, unhurried.
The walls of the tunnel eventually narrowed, the exit that had appeared so large at a distance shrinking unnaturally in size at his approach. Enkee-Kutul was used to the strange twist of perspective, and when he was soon forced to proceed on hands and knees he knew he’d reached the end of the passage. The tunnel’s other entrance had long since dwindled to a tiny dot of light and all but disappeared.
In the middle of a small and dimly lit chamber stood a man-high chunk of rock carved into the likeness of a woman’s head, its face tilted upward so that empty eye sockets glared endlessly at a point where the column-ribbed walls seemingly ended, merging into the groin vault above. The woman’s mouth was opened as if to roar, exposing identical rows of serrated fangs.
A pair of muscular black arms shot out past the fangs and clamped down onto the carving’s chin and upper lip. The rest of Enkee-Kutul’s body hove into view as he pulled himself up, twitching out of the carven mouth like a tongue protruding blackly in the last moments of strangulation.
Enkee-Kutul hopped to the floor, snatched up a simple green cloth lying at the statue’s base and wrapped it about his loins. A round portal spiraled open between the columns of the nearest wall and he stepped through.
He strode through a series of rooms, each with its own unique purpose, many with control modules blinking lights and humming busily as they directed various functions aboard Enkee-Kutul’s vessel. As he passed into the central core of his ship he slowed. The circular room was home to an hourglass-shaped device suspended above the floor by a mess of power cables and support struts. Each crystalline cone housed a glowing lattice, fuzzy and bright, lemon yellow with black spots in the cone above and noxious green below. A purplish halo of what looked like mist spun in mid-air around the wasp-waist connection of the two lattices, and thick power cables trailed out from the pulsing intersection into conduits bored into the floor, ceiling and walls, bearing energy to the rest of the ship.
Enkee-Kutul walked around to the other side of the energy core. The lattices bothered the eyes to look at, for they appeared exactly the same from every angle as if they continually rotated to follow an observer. Enkee-Kutul looked instead to a set of thrumming computer banks for information, making a few adjustments in the power flow to suit his whims before continuing on.
Several rooms later, he finally arrived at his destination, a large deck with its concave ceiling running along the curved inner surface of the outer hull. As Enkee-Kutul entered the darkened chamber an image of a starry night sky sprang to life upon the ceiling, though the constellations would have been unrecognizable to human eyes.
He seated himself within an oversized throne, its surface a grisly patchwork of Rhan faces sewn together, the chair’s frame pushing out against the leathery skin like the bones of a starving animal. The deposed emperor took great delight in the throne, constructed from the remnants of his enemies after he’d slain them with his own hands; eight new faces had been added over the past few decades since his exile, serving to cover the footrest that was now bolted, like the chair, onto a swiveling base-plate in the metal deck.
The chair turned within a dense profusion of computers and other equipment that covered the floor and walls like mutant fungi. Screens were placed everywhere, some facing toward the throne from atop clusters of machinery, others branching in toward Enkee-Kutul at the ends of long steel arms, making the deck look like a paranoid’s sanctum.
Different views of the city flashed upon each screen, so that Enkee-Kutul could see the general entirety of Boa within a few minutes’ time. Slaves mined ore and operated equipment of all kinds, toiling endlessly in the noise and dust and heat beneath the ever-watchful eyes of their overseers. Enkee-Kutul checked on the progress of his fleet, a cold satisfaction welling up inside of him as he surveyed his instruments of destruction, instruments that would soon enable him to reconquer his lost empire. Scybor would be pleased when the blood of the Rhan’eitat once again flowed like wine at his command.
He switched monitors, his chair swiveling noiselessly around. The Cube of Fuzon supplied energy to Enkee-Kutul’s army of laborers and their tools much like the power source he’d examined earlier powered his entire ship. Only, the Cube was far more important, the source of its power infinite, unlike that of his ship.
The new screen allowed him to gaze into a room that was the source of mad activity. Surrounded on all sides by towering computer banks, another glittering mass of machinery took up most of the floor space and the attention of dozens of impish creatures, their spindly bodies clambering over and through equipment like mice in a larder. The arthropodal things scurried about, chattering at one another in rapid, high-pitched squeals. Two huge cables, each as thick as a barrel, stretched down from the central mass of equipment to the floor, where they disappeared into the rest of the building.
Enkee-Kutul adjusted the monitor. His point of view sank toward the ground and then forward into a narrow chute that cut through the block of machinery’s underside. The chute ended at a delicate-looking arrangement of wires and needle-like projections surrounding what appeared to be a simple cube of glass. The back of a chitinous head popped up on the monitor as one of the creatures ambled into the chute.
Enkee-Kutul pressed a button on the armrest of his chair and the creature turned, looking at him through the small window that suddenly opened up in the air at its back. It chittered a query. Enkee-Kutul responded in kind, his mouth twisting horribly as he spoke in the squealing language. The worker paused, then rummaged around in a gap in the natural armor upon its chest, its hands disappearing within a pocket of flesh and then reemerging with a liquid-filled vial.
Enkee-Kutul smiled and reached through the screen, taking the proffered vial. His view again shifted forward, past the worker, bringing him within reach of the Cube. He jammed the stoppered end of the vial onto one of the sharp projections until the needle met the clear liquid. There was a blaze of light as energy suffused the vial’s contents, and he removed the container from the projection. Pulling his arm from the window, he sealed the pliable surface of the vial’s stopper with his thumb while the screen angled around to again face the worker. He squawked a final command and the creature sped off to carry out the order. Still smiling, Enkee-Kutul tucked the container into the cloth at his waist and turned to yet another monitor.
He peered at the scene spread out before him, his monitor allowing him to see through walls as if they were transparent. He looked down into a huge dome enclosing a complex maze of rooms and corridors. Lines of people, all in thrall to the slave plague, stood at various points in the maze, gradually being herded through the jumble of machines and robot overseers as they were sorted into groups. Most would be assigned a work detail and a master, while those who were weeded out because of any irreparable physical or mental failings would eventually find themselves being sacrificed to appease Scybor’s hunger for new souls, or mayhap to summon forth something that could labor in their place.
The image on the screen focused specifically on a slow-moving line of slaves. Bursts of light flashed across each subject’s eyes, instantaneously transferring the skills and information necessary for them to carry out their appointed tasks.
A fair-skinned man stood near the front of the line, preparing each slave for the transfer of information through a series of injections and adjustments to the plague-spawned circuitry already bonded to their flesh. The man was bald like Enkee-Kutul, but not nearly so tall or rugged in stature.
Unlike Enkee-Kutul he exhibited an combination of man and machine, marking him as a cyborg. Various artificial implements meshed almost seamlessly with his body, serving to enhance his senses and physical abilities far beyond any natural limits. He was also one among less than a few dozen of Enkee-Kutul’s loyal underlings who had likewise managed to escape when the emperor had been overthrown. Now he ran the skill implanting process, working tirelessly to create the soldiers who would quash the rebellion on Rhan’esh and sweep the Rhan’eitat back under Enkee-Kutul’s heel where they belonged.
A window opened up in the air close to the cyborg, and at the sound of Enkee-Kutul’s voice the cyborg broke away from his work to commune with his master.
“How goes the mustering of my legions? Will these humans make suitable pilots for my ships?”
The cyborg responded in a bored monotone. “They’ll do. There’s less of ’em coming in now, a mere trickle. I think we’ve about drained the city topside.”
Enkee-Kutul waved his hand in dismissal. “Pah! Not to worry. We should have all we need, and the fleet itself is nearing completion. Within two of this world’s days we’ll be ready to take back what was rightfully ours, for the glory of Scybor.”
“Of course,” the cyborg replied, somewhat half-heartedly, “for the glory of Scybor.”
Enkee-Kutul regarded him. “I know these past years have been . . . difficult, but we will once again know the pleasures of power. I know how you relish battle and rapine. Soon you’ll have more than enough foes to crush to make all the waiting worthwhile. Just keep your patience. The hour of our triumphant return is close at hand.”
The cyborg’s demeanor lifted somewhat at this, and sparks played along the length of his mechanically-enhanced arms as he flexed his hands mightily in anticipation of bloodshed. “My brothers will be most eager to rend the flesh of our enemies after so long.”
“Spread the word then,” said Enkee-Kutul. “And as for the rest of these,” he pointed at the slaves,” send them all to be sacrificed. Scybor hungers.”
The cyborg bowed gratefully before cutting power to the skill-transfer equipment. Enkee-Kutul’s window shrank in on itself and vanished as the cyborg began herding the silent line of slaves back through the dome’s steel-walled corridors.
Enkee-Kutul sat back within the deep shadows of his throne. It wasn’t difficult to control his men. They only needed to kill someone every now and then to give their savagery an outlet.
Absently, he poked his fingers into the eyeholes of a face stretched across one of the throne’s armrests. Maybe his men should take turns performing the rest of the sacrifices. Surely that would whet their appetites for the coming battle, and just in case murdering humans was not enough to stoke their bloodlust, he could let them mangle the Rhan dog when he came calling again. He smiled.
The host of monitors fluttered ghost-like around him as they cycled through different scenes of Boa. His gaze chanced to drift sideways as he gloated over his craftiness. His mind barely registered the image of a woman lying half-naked in slumber before the screen displaying the picture shifted, irritatingly, to a different scene.
He bolted upright, the chair swiveling violently as he pawed hastily at the controls. When the throne had stopped more or less facing the monitor in question, Enkee-Kutul flipped through the images until he found the woman. She lay motionless upon a stone floor where torchlight played upon her honeyed skin. He drank greedily of this lovely vision, admiring the graceful curves and silky black hair. This one, he thought, would make a fine replacement for those soul-sucking nymphs he’d been forced to make do with for many long years. And her teeth didn’t look to be nearly as sharp . . .
The realization then dawned upon Enkee-Kutul that he was looking upon his female prisoner, the one left behind by the barbarian and his Rhan accomplice. He’d only seen her when she’d borne the metallic trappings of his slave plague, its scourge covering her body nearly from head to foot.
For the first time since her capture, Jessica’s beauty was revealed to Enkee-Kutul, and he felt the hot tide of desire washing irresistibly through his being.
His hand slapped at a button on the monitor, and he moved its point-of-view closer to the woman. Tentatively, he reached out, the tips of his fingers just beginning to breach the space of Jessica’s cell.
With a snarl, he suddenly jerked his arm back and swatted at the monitor’s controls to change the image, but in his fury he only succeeded in smashing the display in a shower of sparks and smoking debris.
His emotions roiled between desire for the woman and contempt for her species. How could he even consider bedding a human? They were hardly more than glorified apes, good for little past slavery. Had he been without worthy flesh for so long that he would sink to coupling with one of these heathens?
Confused and disgusted with himself, Enkee-Kutul lunged from his throne and stomped from the deck.
Conan breathed deeply of the bracing northern air and let it back out in a gusty sigh. He knelt at the edge of a sheer precipice, looking out at the lichen-covered rock of a neighboring peak thrusting high above the others. Way down on the slopes below, the tree line began with a few gnarled pines, their branches and trunks twisted as if to avoid some invisible barrier guarding the higher reaches of the mountains from the encroaching ranks of trees.
Even in the middle of summer, Conan’s breath could be seen in the chill breeze skating through the Cimmerian mountaintops. “You got us close, but it’ll still be half a day’s walk.”
Mach came up beside Conan and shielded his gaze to look out at the looming shape of Crom’s mountain. “This was the only place I remembered well enough to bring us safely here. A Cimmerian elder once took me to this spot so I could see Ben Morgh from afar after the local chieftains denied me permission to visit the mountain itself.”
“Yet you went there anyway.”
“Yes, I went anyway. I had to.”
Conan hawked and spat. “I suppose you did. Good thing you weren’t discovered. Most chiefs don’t take kindly to having their commands ignored. At best, you would’ve been knocked senseless and thrown off their land. At worst, well . . . you can guess.” Conan stood. “Just as well you didn’t bring us directly to Ben Morgh. We can take the lay of the land while we hike, see who’s out patrolling.”
“Good idea,” Mach said, and they started their trek down the side of the mountain.
The pair of men worked their way steadily toward Ben Morgh. They climbed down cliffs, traversed deep ravines and hopped over broken stone like nimble mountain goats. Though Mach could have easily used his cape to glide them over to the base of the larger mountain, he forwent using his powers out of respect for his companion’s wish to stretch his limbs and tread the soil of his homeland.
As the men reached a stretch of grassy hillocks separating the mountains, they slowed their pace long enough to take in some water.
“The last time my steps led me to the land of my birthing was over a year ago.” Conan tipped his head back as he guzzled water from a leathern skin. He wiped his mouth and regarded his dusky companion with a faint hint of suspicion. “But I suppose you already know that.”
“I know there was a great battle here. You and your kinsmen put down some renegade sorcerers, I believe,” said Mach.
“Aye, and a horde of demons and Vanir besides. In a valley on the other side of this tor,” Conan pointed at Ben Morgh, “lies the Field of the Dead. We fought there among the cairns and in the mountain itself.” He looped the waterskin back over his shoulder. “‘Tis strange now that I think on it: I arrived in Cimmeria from Khorshemish once before to end up in the company of wizards.” Conan’s face was grim as he stared thoughtfully at Mach, “And now here I am again, with you–a wizard–again straight from Khorshemish.” He frowned in thought.
“Interesting.” Mach sipped from his own waterskin. “Life has been said to move in cycles, like the seasons, where all things come back around to us eventually. With luck, we won’t be made to fight our way into the mountain this time around.”
Conan grunted his agreement. “I know not which clan may control the surrounding lands now, so it would be best if we avoid any of my countrymen. They don’t take well to foreigners, and men from rival clans usually fare worse.”
A few hours later found the two hikers starting the climb up from the rocky base of Ben Morgh. Every so often the men’s feet sent loose stones and shale skittering back down the slope, but there was no help for it; Conan was leading them to a trail cut farther up the mountainside, and until they reached it their route would be hard going.
A few strands of greasy black smoke winding into the sky from the other side of the mountain alerted the pair to the presence of others, making them all the more reluctant to circle around to the opposite face of Ben Morgh until they absolutely had to. It was Conan’s belief that some ritual was taking place in the Field of the Dead.
“We may have to wait until nightfall to enter the cave if we’re to go unnoticed.” Conan grimaced as he hauled his body over the surface of bare rock. “I don’t know if the tunnel entrance in the cave is even open or not. If I were the local chieftain, I’d have had the crevasse filled in long ago. When you were here, how did you manage to get through to the tunnels?”
Mach was working at securing a hand-hold in the steep grade a yard away and ahead of Conan. “It was only a few years after you were born that I chanced upon a small fissure back in one of those same ravines we crossed. An underground stream running deep within the mountain emptied out there through the fissure. I simply followed the stream and it led me beneath Ben Morgh.” Having found a foothold, Mach used it to push himself up to a small outcrop. He sat there, regaining his breath, while Conan continued to vie with the mountainside. “A system of tunnels existed deep within the mountain long before the arrival of the demons you fought there. The stream led to the old tunnels, which in turn led to the forge’s door.”
Conan hauled himself up onto the ledge beside Mach. “That was convenient.”
“I thought so, at the time.”
“Why couldn’t we have just used that same passage?” Conan asked.
“Because it had just as conveniently disappeared by the time I went to leave. I ended up transporting myself out. Now I know I was only meant to find the forge, not to tamper with it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t just transport ourselves back into the tunnels since there may have been rockfalls and cave-ins since then.”
“There have been,” Conan said, nodding. “So you think we can reach the forge through the tunnels left by the demons?”
“I hope so. Otherwise, we’ll just have to carve our way through solid rock.” Mach smiled ruefully as he smacked the stone beneath him in emphasis.
There was a loud cracking noise, and the outcrop, along with Mach, fell into the side of the mountain.
Conan threw himself sideways in time to catch Mach’s outstretched hand before it could sink from view. Rock dust puffed upwards from the hole where Mach had been sitting, coating the two men in a thin layer of greyish residue.
Bracing himself with his free hand, Conan got his feet under him and lifted the Rhan clear out of the hole. Mach muttered a hasty thanks as his own feet settled on the solid part of the ledge, and the two men brushed rock dust from their faces.
Conan peered down cautiously into the hole. “I could be wrong, but I think you’ve found a new entrance.”
Conan held up a torch made from rags wrapped around the end of an old thigh-bone. Back near their makeshift entrance into the mountain, Conan had found the broken remains of an old skeleton, picked clean by some unknown vermin, that had supplied enough materials to fashion six of the torches. The other five were tied in a bundle at his belt for later use.
Once swarming with demons, the tunnels beneath Ben Morgh were now empty of all save the two men. Even the various scavengers that had once ravaged the bodies of the dead left behind in the tunnels were nowhere to be seen.
The litter of past rockfalls and cave-ins made the way ponderous at best. The men were forced on more than one occasion to lift aside heavy slabs of rock and to dig their way through mounds of fallen stone. When there was too much rubble even for the combined strength of both men to move by hand, Mach resorted to the use of his other powers. Scarlet beams of energy would sizzle forth from his palms, blasting a way through the debris. The men would then continue down the cleared passage, the acrid smoke of scorched rock stinging their eyes and the backs of their throats.
After Mach had similarly cleared the way through a bottleneck in a collapsed cavern, Conan stopped him before they went on. “As much as I hate sorcery, I must admit to knowing something about it,” he began, frowning. “Whenever you cast your spell to clear away the rock, I don’t hear any words. No chanting, no praying. Nothing. Never have I known a wizard to make magic without speaking at least a bit of gibberish in the process.”
Mach opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. Instead he rolled back the sleeves of his cloak and held his hands out, palms-up. Conan squinted in the flickering torchlight. A smooth flat disk lay nestled within each of Mach’s palms, matte black against the Rhan’s own dark skin. At a gesture from Mach, Conan touched one of the disks with his finger and was surprised to hear a faint clicking noise as if his fingernail had tapped against a hard surface such as fired clay.
Conan also noticed that a small wire ran from each disk up the lengths of Mach’s arms, camouflaged the same color as his flesh so that they appeared at a cursory glance to be nothing more than the ridges of veins. Mach pulled back the braids from the sides of his head and Conan saw that the wires vanished at his temples.
Mach answered Conan’s questioning look. “Not all of my powers are magical. These,” he said, indicating the disks in his palms, “are actually machines under my direct control. This,” he said, bringing forth the thin black box Conan had seen earlier, “is also a machine, called a warden, which helped me heal your wounds after I found you.” He secreted the box away within his robes and rolled down his sleeves.
Unsure of whether he should be happy that Mach was using earthly devices and not magic, Conan held his tongue and merely nodded, thinking back to the example of a sword being shown to a tribe that had never seen metal. At least he could be content with knowing Mach’s devices were of mortal creation, even if he didn’t know specifically how they worked.
They continued their journey deep into the heart of the mountain. Entire days seemed to pass within their rocky netherworld before they finally stumbled into a passageway Mach recognized from his previous visit.
Conan looked around at the empty tunnel, his last torch sputtering in the hot, stale air. There were no signs of recent passage, and Conan guessed even the demons hadn’t dared to burrow so deep during their trespass in Crom’s mountain–or at least they had left this particular passage alone. A fine layer of soot, no doubt from fires lit by the same long-gone invaders, lay over everything and floated into the air at the men’s intrusion.
Conan ran a brawny forearm across his face, trying to wipe away caked dust and the sweat threatening to crawl into his eyes. Tired from long hours of hiking and moving stone around, he leaned back against the wall for support. Normally, such exertions would hardly drain him so much, but the work, combined with the damage his body had sustained and recovered from only recently, was enough to make even the mighty Cimmerian pause for rest. Heat rapidly oozed from the wall through Conan’s leather shirt, making him sweat all the more, but he was too fatigued at present to care.
Mach had halted in the tunnel several paces away. With a soft yellow light cupped in his palm, he examined a section of the tunnel wall, probing at it carefully with his free hand. From where Conan stood the wall looked no different than any other they had passed along the way.
The Rhan spent a few minutes inspecting the wall before him in silence, then finally looked back over his shoulder at Conan. “Come and take a look at this.”
Conan pushed off from his resting place and strode over. “What is it? Have you found the door?”
Mach nodded. “I believe so, though it hardly looks the same . . .” He rubbed hard at the coating of soot, revealing a layer of built-up grime hidden beneath. “It was cleaner last time, but this has to be it. I have no memory of any other doors down here.”
“Let me see.” Conan stepped forward, and Mach moved aside to give him room. Standing closer now, Conan could see by the light of his torch that the door was nearly flush with the wall’s surface, and its lighter hue, as of sodden loam, alone set it apart from the rest of the tunnel. By all appearances it was a normal-sized entrance, at least for his people, its top reaching only a few inches past Conan’s considerable height. The heavy film of soot concealed any possible markings, though within the center of the door he could make out some kind of bas-relief design. He couldn’t identify what was depicted, and nothing happened when he pushed against it.
Finding no visible handle, Conan ran his fingers over the face of the door, checking for hidden levers or panels. He found nothing. Neither were there any signs of hinges; had there been, he doubted he could have removed them without the proper tools anyway. The dull clunk that sounded from beneath his knuckles as he rapped them against the portal reminded Conan not of wood, but of iron.
He pushed firmly against the door. It resisted. He pushed harder, to no avail. “Hold this,” he said, handing off his torch to Mach. Conan backed away as far as the opposite side of the tunnel would allow, then rushed forward in a violent burst of motion. He twisted sideways at the last instant and slammed shoulder-first into the portal.
Conan bounced right off. He staggered back a step but managed to keep his balance. Massaging his shoulder, he again inspected the door. Nothing had moved save a little dust that now drifted down from around its edges. “It’s as solid as Crom’s own armor. That iron is thick, to be sure.”
Mach stepped close again, holding forth the topaz light. He tossed Conan’s makeshift torch aside as it sputtered its last and finally died. Now he traced his free hand over the area encompassing the door’s middle, feeling the bumps of raised markings beneath his fingertips. Something stirred in his memory, like moth’s wings fluttering at the back of his brain, and he could see the portal as he’d first seen it, strangely devoid of the stains of time.
“Let me try something,” Mach murmured as he stepped back and raised his palms toward the door.
Already quite used to this particular gesture of his companion’s, Conan cleared well away. He squinted his eyes against the harsh brightness that would inevitably come.
And come it did, as twin beams of eye-scorching light flashed from Mach’s hands to punish the stubborn portal. A slight hum could be heard as waves of energy rippled over the metal surface, burning off the filth in clouds of red-hued smoke. Conan held up his hands in anticipation of flying debris, but none was forthcoming. Amazingly, the door was holding its own against power that had punched through armor and split boulders asunder with no more effort than it took Conan’s sword to cleave through the skulls of his enemies.
Mach ceased his efforts before the intense heat and churning smoke threatened to overwhelm them. Both men continued to cough until well after the air had cleared.
“Did you think to melt it out of the way?” Conan gasped, lapsing into another fit of coughing for his trouble. He concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths to calm his beleaguered lungs.
Mach shook his head at the question. “No. I just remembered what happened when I tried the same tactic many years ago.” Mach pointed, the yellow light filling his outstretched hand. “Look again to the door.”
Conan rubbed at his eyes, made watery from the smoke. Looking at the door, he blinked them open and shut again, unsure at the veracity of what he saw. Now scoured of several decades’ worth of hardened grit, the door appeared to shine as if scrubbed and polished. What Conan had assumed to be but a simple door, most likely made from the crudest of iron, turned out to be a masterwork forged from the finest of steel. He could see now the series of runes sunken into the steel both above and below the raised image of an anvil.
All around the edges of the portal ran a continuous wreath of intertwining images, also raised up from the metal’s surface like the anvil. Conan could make out the figures of warriors brandishing arms against monstrous hordes formed by all manner of dragons, trolls, ghouls, demons, sea monsters, snakes and oversized beasts of many different types. Conan marveled at the detail and intricacy of this artwork; nowhere in his travels had he seen a match for such fine craft. Under the shifting light cast forth from Mach’s palm, the warriors and their horrible foes appeared almost to be moving about in battle.
For all of the door’s revealed beauty, Mach himself seemed suddenly perturbed. “The runes have changed,” he said slowly. He brought forth the small black box hidden within his robes. “When I first deciphered them they were written in an older version of Cimmerian, I’m sure of it.” In a language utterly foreign and almost musical in Conan’s ears, Mach spoke several commands at the warden.
To the Cimmerian’s utter astonishment, two rows of runes, nearly identical to those upon the door, sprang to shimmering life in the air before the men. Conan’s nape prickled at the sight of the floating letters, even though he knew, or at least trusted, that sorcery wasn’t involved. Despite that knowledge, Conan cursed silently to himself. How much better than sorcery was a device that mimicked it?
Mach’s head was nodding vigorously as he compared the runes upon the door to those he’d conjured. “Yes, you see? The ones I recorded long ago were written in an old, almost archaic form of your language. Those carved now within the steel are different. They’re writ in the version currently used by your people.”
Hot, tired, hungry, and his throat still slightly burning from the smoke, Conan wasn’t in the least impressed. “Make your point.”
“Well, the meaning of each line is the same. The runes atop the anvil, as you can see, still spell out ‘Crom’, and those below, ‘steel’. What matters here,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “is why they changed at all.” The glowing letters winked out and Mach put the box away.
Conan flicked his hand impatiently. “If it’s truly the door to Crom’s forge, mayhap he changed the runes himself. Whatever the case, we must find a way in. There’s precious little time to be wasted worrying about who wrote what.” For what seemed like the hundredth time since his escape from Boa, the thought of Jessica being trapped there arose to trouble Conan’s mind. Whether she was being made to toil as a slave or if she had succumbed to some worse fate, the thing causing Conan the most anxiety was not knowing what had actually befallen her. How could he protect her when he didn’t even know if she yet lived? He had to get back to that accursed city to find out for himself one way or the other, and then do something about it.
Sensing his companion’s uneasy state of mind, Mach respectfully kept his silence. He too was anxious to get back for the same reasons as Conan, with one more reason in addition to his concern for the people of Khorshemish; after years of relentless pursuit, of playing cat and mouse with Enkee-Kutul, Mach was loathe to let him slip away now. Too much was at stake, and too high a price had already been paid in the blood of millions of dead Rhan’eitat. The sounds of their souls crying out for justice echoed ceaselessly through his own, driving him ever onward.
Conan looked over the steel barrier with the eyes of a skilled blacksmith and a practiced thief, even if he’d long since retired from the latter occupation. Now that the door’s true nature stood revealed, Conan felt his chances of opening it had been much improved.
Once more he ran his fingers over the metal surface. When the skin of his fingertips brushed across the anvil, he found something he’d missed before. The steel was pitted in patterns of several vertical rows, about three in all, each row the width of a large man’s finger but only half a finger in length. The pits, though small, were deep, like those that oft times appeared upon a sword if it wasn’t properly maintained. Conan knew that just touching steel without wiping off the tiny bit of moisture left behind by a human hand could result in the kind of damage he was seeing now.
As for the runes, Conan knew them well enough, and the reason for them being there seemed quite clear. Crom’s name marked the forge as his, and ‘steel’ was obviously that which Crom created within. Another thought struck Conan: The words could also be clues for opening the door. He focused his thoughts, sifting through the possibilities posed by the words. He had an idea.
“Mach,” he said as he searched carefully through the artwork around the door’s edges, “you claim to know much of my people.”
The Rhan blinked. Conan’s statement sounded like the onset of a challenge. “I know a little. At least, I consider myself well versed in the lore of Crom. . . .And I know your language. But I don’t know all.”
“Then try to answer me this,” Conan said without looking up from his search among the small steel figures. “Of the things in this world, what do Cimmerians prize above all else? What do we hold most dear, that we would rather have in our hands than even gold or gemstones?”
Mach rubbed the back of his neck, made dry by the heat. He was no witling. The answer to Conan’s question was directly in front of him. “Steel.”
Conan was obviously pleased at Mach’s answer, for his teeth showed in a broad grin. “Aye, steel. Most Cimmerians can shape it, and all can wield it. But there is a secret to the metal, a riddle for which every Cimmerian making the journey to Crom’s throne after death must have the answer. To fail in answering the riddle is to be laughed at by the Lord of the Mound and cast into Hell.”
“And if the riddle is answered correctly?”
“Well,” Conan mused, “some would have it that we enter the gray lands, a bleak, lonely place of eternal mists and cold.”
Mach barely stifled a laugh. “That doesn’t sound so much better than Hell! Is that what you believe?”
A few seconds passed as Conan paused in his examination of the door. “I’ve heard the tales of the gray lands are spread to encourage people to live life to the fullest and not fritter it away. Methinks our neighbors in Asgard have the right of it, that in the afterlife there is constant feasting and revelry at the side of one’s god. But who except the dead can say for certain?”
Conan cracked his knuckles as he returned to the task of finding a way to open the portal. “Anyway, the riddle is important.” He hunkered down to get a better view of the artistry on the door’s lower portion.
“So, do you know it?” asked Mach.
“The answer! The answer to the riddle of steel.”
Conan’s search halted near the lower left corner of the door. “I know it well. I received some very painful lessons in finding that answer. It’s not something one discovers without a fair amount of hardship.” Conan’s gaze narrowed as he inspected one of the steel warriors more closely. The one he’d singled out bore no weapon of any kind, and yet the artist had seen fit to leave a clear perimeter around the warrior, the legions of monsters keeping their distance from him as if repelled by some unseen force. He was the only one among his brethren upon the door that Conan found to be unarmed. He pushed at the little figure and it sunk into the door with a clunk.
Mach’s eyes brightened in excitement. “You’ve got it!”
“Nearly. I believe there’s one thing left to do,” replied Conan. “You wanted to know the answer to the riddle?”
“Only if you wish to tell me. It sounds like a hard-won prize.”
Conan nodded. “In sooth it was, but I don’t mind sharing it with one who has saved my life.” Swiftly he stood, stretching his legs. “The answer to the riddle is that the spirit is stronger than steel, because the spirit controls the hands that forge and wield the metal. The strength of a man’s will decides his destiny, not the sword he uses.”
The Rhan was fast to catch on, having learned a similar philosophy among his own people. “So flesh is stronger than steel because it can shape or break it, but the soul is strongest of all because it is master of the flesh.”
“Yes,” Conan agreed. “Well put. Now you’ll understand how I can do this after our other attempts failed,” he said, rearing back his fist. With a punch powerful enough to stun a raging bull, Conan smote the anvil, his knuckles and the fronts of his first three fingers colliding with the metal where the fists of unknown others had done the same countless times before. The sound was like a hammer blow and rang unnaturally loud in the ears of the two men. Acting on a sudden impulse, Conan bellowed out the name of his god, and the door shuddered in response.
Both Conan and Mach watched as the anvil sank into the steel surface, and instead of swinging open on hinges to either side, the door grated backwards far into the wall to reveal the chiseled steps of a stone staircase hidden beneath. A gust of heated air rushed up from the fire-lit depths, blowing back Conan’s long mane as if he stood at the prow of a fast-moving galley.
Mach squinted into the wind as he addressed the Cimmerian. “I cannot go with you into the forge, Conan. I sense yet another barrier that refuses my entry, one that cannot be broken. I’ll await your return here.”
The sound of Conan’s soft tread upon the steps as he descended among the trembling shadows was lost in the scrape of the door sliding forward again, leaving Mach alone in the belly of Ben Morgh.
With a thump the bolt shot out across the grassy yard and impaled an unripe cantaloupe, the bolt’s fletching serving to catch and pull the melon off the high bench with the force of momentum. Another thump sounded as the fruit hit the ground.
Two high-pitched cheers rose up in unison from the pair of concubines lounging beneath a ragged purple canopy. The women applauded, one of them heedlessly spilling her plate of pastries onto their shared divan. There was a flurry of motion as the plump women scrabbled for loose treats, and in a few short moments the food had disappeared.
Westlun ignored the concubines. He handed his crossbow to the guard behind him so the string could be cranked back and the bolt replaced. The slave lord wore naught but white cloth leggings in the humid afternoon air, and the pallid rolls of fat around his bare torso were greasy with sweat.
Few breezes managed to stray over the high walls and into the yard behind Westlun’s mansion, a fact that the guard reloading the crossbow lamented. His nostrils twitched uncontrollably at the sour reek emanating from his obese master.
Westlun looked over at his shooting-partner. “Ah-hah, Nagi! Let us see you top that!” His stubby chin jutted out slightly in his smugness.
The other man, captain of Westlun’s guards, raised his own crossbow to his shoulder and sighted down its length. “‘Twas a good shot, milord. A bull’s-eye at twenty paces will be hard to beat.” The head of his bolt was aimed at the belly of a clay pot, dead-center. In a movement so miniscule that none present could possibly know what he was doing, Nagi shifted his aim slightly to the left of the pot and fired.
The bolt swished out, scraping a line of black paint from the pot’s belly in passing before it met the stone of the estate wall and shattered. Nagi lowered the crossbow, his face intentionally disconsolate. The women beneath the canopy applauded, as they did after every shot. “It would appear you’re winning, Lord Westlun.” In his master’s service, Nagi had perfected the art of losing without appearing to do so on purpose.
Westlun chortled, unaware he was being kowtowed to. “The practice has done you good, Nagi. Why, you’re a much better shot than you were two moons ago! Given a little more practice, you may even equal me.”
Nagi smiled and grunted in agreement. He didn’t care what his employer thought so long as the fat man continued to put gold in his pocket.
Westlun took back his reloaded crossbow. The guard behind him took the opportunity to step well away from the slaver, sucking in fresh lungfuls of air as quietly as possible.
Westlun raised the crossbow and took aim. “Now pay attention Nagi, and I’ll give you a bit of advice. A master archer from Hyrkania once told me that the secret is to be the arrow. One must imagine the bolt is–“
“Lord Westlun, sir!” exclaimed Nagi, glad for an excuse to cut off his employer’s bragging.
Westlun looked back to where Nagi was pointing and caught sight of one of his guards escorting another man over.
As the newcomers drew near, the new guard spoke up. “Sir, this man claims to have knowledge of interest to you. He seeks the reward you offered.”
Westlun looked from his guard to the other man. “Well? Come on now, out with it!”
The shorter man bowed hastily. Westlun noted he had the manner and dress of a common laborer, his balding head and callused hands covered in fine grit and rock dust. Westlun decided he might be a stonemason or builder, though not a particularly smart one if he’d been outdoors; didn’t he know there was a plague on?
The man bent once more at the waist before speaking, his eyes darting nervously between Westlun and the guard. “I saw a man, a foreigner, when I was walking to a job near the palace. Twice I saw him. The first time, he was crawling up into the street from the sewer. That was last night.”
Westlun gestured impatiently. “Yes, yes–and the second time?”
“. . . Was this morning. He was climbing back down into the same sewer. He was dressed in dark cloth, and had a pack slung across his back. He looked like an Easterner!”
“Where did you see him?” Westlun asked.
The guard spoke up, answering before the smaller man could reply. “I made him show me, milord. He led me to a sewer grate just outside of Lady Jessica’s place. I think the easterner is one of her bodyguards, the Turanian.”
Westlun’s eyes glittered with malice. “Ah, just as well it wasn’t that northern brute,” he mused. “The sewers must be the key to finding my slaves. I know not what Jessica has to do with all this, but if she’s responsible for stealing from me, I’ll have the city guard arrest her!” His laughter boomed throughout the yard. He spun on his heel, an admirable feat for one of his abundant girth. “Nagi!”
Westlun’s guard captain jumped reflexively.
“Assemble a scouting party! We’re going to get my property back.”
The little man before him spoke. “And my . . . my gold?”
Westlun turned to his guard and pointed at the messenger. “Pay him.”
The slave lord nodded. “Why not? We’ll see if we can’t acquire a few extra slaves while we’re out, eh? Some new additions to my stock will more than cover this man’s fee. Considerably more.” He shrugged. “Besides, it simply wouldn’t do to have any nasty rumors going ’round about me refusing to pay my dues. I’d lose credibility. And business.”
He watched as the stonemason scurried off with his purse of gold, escorted out by the same guard. Looking around, Westlun groaned in annoyance. “Well?” he asked, waving his arms impatiently. “What are you all waiting for? Get moving!” He remembered the loaded crossbow in his hand too late to stop it from going off.
Nagi dropped to the ground, narrowly avoiding being skewered by the bolt that flew just inches over his head.
The bolt slammed into one of the canopy’s wooden poles and snapped it, causing the other flimsy supports to collapse beneath the sagging canopy’s weight. The swath of purple cloth draped down over the concubines and elicited a duo of terrified screams.
Westlun’s eyes rolled in disbelief. Fuming silently, he trudged back into the manse.
Heedless of the women struggling to free themselves from beneath the fallen canopy, Nagi sprinted off to gather the men and supplies needed for the upcoming expedition.
The remaining guard snorted in disgust. He’d put up with Westlun’s sweaty stench all afternoon, and now the slaver was going to haul them into the sewers, of all places. He prayed to the gods that his luck might change.
An animal snarl brought Jessica out of her slumber with a jolt. She looked around with frightened eyes, but saw no sign of any beast. Nor did the sound return.
She sat up in the middle of the chilled stone floor, not knowing where she was. Most of her memory was a blur. The last thing she did remember clearly was walking home with Conan. Everything past that was darkness and chaos.
She stood up. The room was lit by the feeble bluish-white glow of some kind of lantern on the wall. There was no flickering of flames beneath the lantern’s rounded glass surface, and when Jessica held her hand to the light, she felt no heat. She shivered. Hunger rumbled in her stomach.
She moved slowly around her cell; Jessica had no doubt that she was a prisoner. Of who, she had no idea. She was confident, at least, that if Westlun had captured her, he’d be there now to gloat before her in person.
Close to the wall, about midway to the empty doorway framed at the end of the room, lay a stone block, just slightly larger than the dimensions of a man. Bits of cloth lay upon it, swiftly dissolving to smaller pieces at her hesitant touch. The outline of a person was also visible upon the block, imprinted in dust as thick as a blanket. It looked like someone had lain there for quite a long while before getting up.
No decorations or identifying marks were to be found upon the room’s seamless stone walls, though several small heaps of sawdust had collected in the corners. Jessica had the impression that the room had once been someone’s sleeping quarters. She walked to the doorway, stepping over a pile of splintered wood into a larger room.
Within the feeble glow of more lights set at intervals about the walls, Jessica peered around at the wide chamber. Two rows of glossy black columns ran the length of the high-ceilinged room, flanking a narrow path of pink granite bricks raised slightly above floor level. One end of the path stopped short of a broken marble statue cloaked in shadow, while the other end led to some kind of metal door, the oddly shaped face of it gleaming dark blue in the ghostly light. She could hear a faint buzz or hum coming from behind the door, like bees swarming. She didn’t like that sound at all.
Jessica decided she’d at least familiarize herself with her surroundings, maybe even find another exit or a place to hide, before attempting to steal through that eerie front door. She had no idea when her captors might come for her.
Delicate hands probed at the walls, seeking out hidden openings or weak areas in the stone. Ancient black tiles full of carvings covered these walls completely from floor to ceiling. Interspersed between what looked like religious depictions of people and priests offering up sacrifices to bizarre-looking gods were hieroglyphics that seemed somehow familiar to the Kothian noblewoman.
She examined the writing more closely and discovered, to her surprise, that she could read some of it. History lessons from the days of her youth seeped forth from old memories she had thought totally forgotten. Jessica shuddered, recalling tales of Acheron, the twisted empire that had once soiled Hyboria with its unfathomable evil. She couldn’t understand all the glyphs, but she managed to deduce that she now stood in the remains of one of Acheron’s lost cities. Unfortunately, the city’s name lay beyond her limited knowledge of that unholy empire.
The marble statue sitting at the end of the granite path had too many of its components shattered to be identified, but by the lurid look and feel of the room, the statue could have once resembled any one of the countless horrors the Acheronians had worshipped. Jessica nudged at another pile of sawdust, finding nothing of interest in the moldering remains. She felt among more of the tiles across the chamber, a growing dread urging her to find a back way out of this place before some ghoul slithered in through the front door in search of her.
Jessica’s hands bumped a loose tile, knocking it to the floor where it smashed, loudly, into jagged rubble. The humming she’d heard from behind the blue door grew noticeably louder, like the noise had caught the attention of the bee swarm.
Where were her bodyguards? Where was Conan when she so desperately needed him? Jessica ached to have the reassuring presence of the Cimmerian at her side.
Maybe this entire place was all in her imagination. Maybe she was caught in the throes of the gilded madness. Jessica closed her eyes and breathed slowly, trying to calm her racing mind. She couldn’t give in to those thoughts. She had to think her way through this. Conan wasn’t there to help her, might not even know where she was. At the moment, she had only herself to depend on.
The humming from behind the door grew faint again. Jessica noticed the change and scrutinized the door from across the chamber. Was it merely a trick of the light, or was there now a crack in the door’s metal?
She trod quietly toward the door, using the dark columns as cover until she’d reached the last one in the row. Her closer position allowed her to see out through the crack, enough to glance a hazy orange gloaming. She could smell sulfur and smoke in the air.
The glimpse of freedom lying just beyond the doorway gave her some courage. Swallowing her fear, Jessica walked up to the door and pushed against it. It refused to yield. She gave a stronger push and pounded her fists against the cold metal when it still wouldn’t give. She smacked the door, frustrated. “Damn!”
With a clank the door moved backward, the sound of bees growing angrier than before. She watched as the door retreated further, turning into a giant body that swiveled around to show her a semi-transparent chest where innards sparked eerily and caused the buzzing sound. What she had thought to be a crack in the door was actually the gap between some creature’s arm and torso.
Jessica stood rooted to the spot, her jaw agape as a bullet-shaped head regarded her with an expression almost utterly blank but for her own warped image reflecting back at her from the shiny metal. Jessica’s courage fled again in the face of this monstrosity and panic seized her limbs, her flesh steadfastly refusing the shouted order of her brain to run. She watched numbly, unable to save herself as powerful legs drove the automaton back toward her. Its blue arm reached out for her, something hard coiling about her waist like a python. She looked down slowly, seeing the segmented length of a whip holding her prisoner.
Animation returned belatedly to her limbs, allowing her to squirm ineffectually as she was pulled from the decrepit shrine and hoisted into the air. Jessica glimpsed her distance to the ground and stopped struggling; if she fell from this height, she’d likely be hurt too badly to flee.
The thing holding her descended the stepped front side of a giant ziggurat from about halfway up. Jessica’s gaze found the lights and buildings of the city stretching out before her like glistening ocean swells. With the view came a flood of terrible memories from the past few days, and at once she knew how she came to be here in this dread city. She’d collapsed on her way home from court with Conan. No doubt the plague had been responsible, as it was for the poor wretches she could see moving about in the streets below, but how she’d caught it and why she’d been released from its grip, Jessica could only guess. She remembered being led through the city, able to register what was going on but lacking the ability to act or think, just a dispassionate viewer trapped within a body under someone else’s control.
Jessica’s heart leapt as she also remembered Conan’s rescue attempt. Tukali hadn’t been with him, and mayhap he too had fallen ill with the gilded madness. Conan had been there though, and he’d hidden her away while he battled their enemies, though it appeared his rescue wasn’t successful. Was he still alive?
Some kind of feeling, a connection on a subconscious level, told her he was alive and seeking her out. Hope bloomed within her, hope of the chance of being safely in her lover’s strong arms once again.
She regarded her overseer, instinctively knowing what it was and what it was meant to do in this hellish city. It showed no outward sign of intellect, and Jessica doubted she could reason with it. She relaxed her restless mind and rigid body, trying to conserve energy should an opportunity for escape present itself.
They reached the base of the ziggurat, and it took under a handful of the overseer’s long strides to close the distance to some kind of gate. Jessica examined the gruesome pillars below their heavy jade burden, and a shiver ran down her spine when she spotted the gruesome altar that lay just beyond. The foul reek of death assailed her nostrils, and she swallowed down a scream.
The overseer set her down, using the hand on its free arm to fasten a manacle at the end of a thick chain to her ankle. A sturdy iron spike had been pounded through the other end of the chain and into the stone paves. Jessica could walk in a short circle without touching the gate or the altar, but she was near enough, chillingly, to witness anything that might happen involving either. The overseer withdrew the metallic whip, releasing its hold around her waist, and lumbered over to stand motionless at the base of the ziggurat’s steps.
Another memory came to mind as Jessica looked upon the demonic pillars, a memory of a giant of a man, larger even than Conan, with skin of onyx and eyes like bottomless wells of hate. Even with the gilded madness stifling her thoughts, she’d felt small and helpless beneath that baleful gaze. She could still see those teeth, dark and sharp in a smile filled with as much malevolence as the aura given off by the pair of carved demons before her.
Doing her best to ignore her proximity to the evil gate, Jessica glanced around at the buildings nearby. A broad avenue led off to her left, while another wide street led out of the small plaza away from the ziggurat. She thought she could see a bridge in the distance, like the one she’d crossed earlier, but there was no way to tell for sure. An incredibly huge shape, some kind of building maybe, squatted just past where Jessica thought the bridge to be, the entire amorphous structure dotted with lights.
Something moved at the edge of her vision and she turned her head to see what it was. An overseer was standing in the shadows between two buildings at her right. She looked into the spaces between a few of the other buildings, suspicion gnawing at her mind. More overseers hid within the shadows. How many, she couldn’t be sure, but the plaza seemed to be entirely surrounded. If Conan tried to rescue her, he would be walking into a trap . . .
Her hands clenched in anger at the sudden realization that she was the bait for that trap. Fury gripped her heart, and she pulled at the chain binding her, trying to wrest the iron spike out of the ground, but even her fury wouldn’t give her the strength necessary for the task.
Jessica sat down upon the hard paves, resigning herself to waiting for either a chance to escape or for a rescue–whichever came first. If Conan came for her, she only hoped she could warn him of his peril before it was too late.
The high granite walls of Jessica’s estate hove into view as Westlun and his band of guards traipsed around a corner down the street. The group of armed men had met no resistance, official or otherwise, as they’d marched into the wealthiest section of the city. Those few people who had not yet been taken by the plague were hidden behind locked doors, and that included the remainder of the city’s guardsmen as well.
Westlun wasn’t at all surprised that they had also met so few looters in the streets along the way. Plagues were different from other disasters, such as fires and battles, in that the threat was invisible and ever present; a plague would claim all, rich or poor, who strayed too close to the source of disease. In the case of the gilded madness, the threat came from other people already infected. Any thief who dared break into the houses of others during a plague risked encountering other people, people who might be infected. Only the foolish would risk looting in Khorshemish today.
Westlun had no wish to join the world’s vast ranks of fools. In addition to their swords and daggers, he and his men were armed with heavy arbalests, weapons powerful enough to bring down anyone who came too close. They hadn’t yet had cause to pincushion anyone, but who knew what they would encounter once they entered the sewers?
One of Westlun’s guards, the same man who had earlier brought in the informer, broke away from the group and jogged over to a section of curb directly across the street from Jessica’s place. In the golden light of dusk, portions of the man’s ring mail armor sparkled like errant fireflies as he waved the expedition over.
The heavy iron grate once covering the storm drain had been pried out of place and shoved aside. Multiple trails of muddy, overlapping footprints stained the cobbles, leading away from the sewer opening in the direction of Jessica’s front gate.
Westlun hunched down next to the guard, peering into the blackness of the sewer. He didn’t seem to notice the dank smell blanching the faces of his men. “Nagi, come here.”
Nagi pushed through from the back of the group and stood next to the slave lord. “I’m here.”
“Good. I want you to go down below and tell us what you see.” Westlun stood up slowly. Nagi could only wonder at the strength of the legs forced to move such a burden upright.
The guard captain moved swiftly, not wanting to appear timid in front of his men. He ignored the pungent smell curdling forth from the sewer by breathing through his mouth. He sat, legs dangling down the hole, and pulled out one of the torches from the sack at his waist. The first guard moved closer to light the torch with hasty skill from several strikes of flint and steel, and then Nagi was descending upon a ladder of iron rungs.
Above, Westlun and the other eleven men could hear the muted splashings of Nagi moving about. They could scarcely see the light of his torch since it was still daylight topside. The splashings grew fainter and eventually only silence reached the ears of those in the street. After several minutes of this, the guards began to murmur, wondering if some gruesome fate had befallen their captain.
Westlun crouched back down and yelled into the sewer. “Nagi! Come back and report!” His voice echoed with a liquid sound through the cramped tunnels.
Another minute or so went by. Westlun was beginning to become concerned himself when he heard the returning splashes of Nagi’s footsteps. He also heard the guard captain call out. “I’ve found a trail!”
The slave lord poked his head down into the sewer, not knowing or caring in which direction to speak. “Is it safe?”
A few more seconds passed in silence. Then, “Aye, its safe,” Nagi called out. In the humid heat of the sewer, Nagi wiped the sweat from his forehead. “It’s safe,” he muttered, “unless you’re a bloated pig.”
“I said, come on down,” replied Nagi, louder. He stood sideways in the slime, looking down the tunnel to each side of him as he awaited the company of the others.
Westlun stood again. He was clothed in a suit of sturdy brown leather armor, made especially to fit his swelled proportions. He didn’t care either that many, including his own guards, often remarked amongst themselves that he looked like an overgrown hedgehog when he wore it. So long as they weren’t so impertinent as to say it to his face, he would let it pass.
One of the guards took Westlun’s sword and crossbow from him before he sat and maneuvered his plump legs through the hole. His feet found purchase on a rung and, with the help of his men, swayed forward into a standing position. Strained metal creaked in protest from below.
Westlun began to lower himself by increments into the sewer. As the lower half of his body disappeared from view, Westlun sucked in his gut as his men kneaded the rolls of his fat below street level. Like a mouse, he squeezed and flattened his body through the narrow aperture. When he had descended far enough, Westlun let out his gut and clambered down the rest of the way by himself.
He took back his weapons as they were handed to him through the hole, and when they were in place he accepted a torch before looking around for Nagi.
While the rest of the men dropped down to join them, Nagi pointed out the trail he’d found to his master. “See here, these arrows scratched upon the walls must certainly point the way used by the Turanian.”
“You’re right, this is the way,” Westlun chattered. The anticipation of finding his slaves lent the big man energy, and he pushed past Nagi in pursuit of more of the signs. “Come on, men,” he yelled, the ringing of his voice shaking dust from the ceiling, “follow me!” Westlun’s infectious excitement was caught easily by his guards, though theirs was more for their curiosity of what lay below than for greed like their master’s.
Fat-tailed rodents and other small creatures used to scavenging undisturbed in the muck scurried away in fear at the thundering racket of thirteen armed and armored men rushing heedlessly through the sewers of deserted Khorshemish.