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Title: Red Nails
Author: Howard, Robert E.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Red Nails" ***

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                               Red Nails

                          By ROBERT E. HOWARD


 _One of the strangest stories ever written--the tale of a barbarian
 adventurer, a woman pirate, and a weird roofed city inhabited by the
                most peculiar race of men ever spawned_


    Nearly four years ago, WEIRD TALES published a story called "The
    Phoenix on the Sword," built around a barbarian adventurer named
    Conan, who had become king of a country by sheer force of valor and
    brute strength. The author of that story was Robert E. Howard, who
    was already a favorite with the readers of this magazine for his
    stories of Solomon Kane, the dour English Puritan and redresser of
    wrongs. The stories about Conan were speedily acclaimed by our
    readers, and the barbarian's weird adventures became immensely
    popular. The story presented herewith is one of the most powerful
    and eery weird tales yet written about Conan. We commend this story
    to you, for we know you will enjoy it through and through.



_1. The Skull on the Crag_


The woman on the horse reined in her weary steed. It stood with its legs
wide-braced, its head drooping, as if it found even the weight of the
gold-tasseled, red-leather bridle too heavy. The woman drew a booted
foot out of the silver stirrup and swung down from the gilt-worked
saddle. She made the reins fast to the fork of a sapling, and turned
about, hands on her hips, to survey her surroundings.

They were not inviting. Giant trees hemmed in the small pool where her
horse had just drunk. Clumps of undergrowth limited the vision that
quested under the somber twilight of the lofty arches formed by
intertwining branches. The woman shivered with a twitch of her
magnificent shoulders, and then cursed.

She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her
whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the
femininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearing
and her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her present
environs. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches,
which ceased a hand's breadth short of her knees, and were upheld by a
wide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leather
came almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleeved
silk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straight
double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden
hair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson
satin.

Against the background of somber, primitive forest she posed with an
unconscious picturesqueness, bizarre and out of place. She should have
been posed against a background of sea-clouds, painted masts and
wheeling gulls. There was the color of the sea in her wide eyes. And
that was as it should have been, because this was Valeria of the Red
Brotherhood, whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever
seafarers gather.

[Illustration: "Convinced that his death was upon him, the Cimmerian
acted according to his instinct."]

She strove to pierce the sullen green roof of the arched branches and
see the sky which presumably lay about it, but presently gave it up with
a muttered oath.

Leaving her horse tied she strode off toward the east, glancing back
toward the pool from time to time in order to fix her route in her mind.
The silence of the forest depressed her. No birds sang in the lofty
boughs, nor did any rustling in the bushes indicate the presence of any
small animals. For leagues she had traveled in a realm of brooding
stillness, broken only by the sounds of her own flight.

She had slaked her thirst at the pool, but she felt the gnawings of
hunger and began looking about for some of the fruit on which she had
sustained herself since exhausting the food she had brought in her
saddle-bags.

Ahead of her, presently, she saw an outcropping of dark, flint-like rock
that sloped upward into what looked like a rugged crag rising among the
trees. Its summit was lost to view amidst a cloud of encircling leaves.
Perhaps its peak rose above the tree-tops, and from it she could see
what lay beyond--if, indeed, anything lay beyond but more of this
apparently illimitable forest through which she had ridden for so many
days.

A narrow ridge formed a natural ramp that led up the steep face of the
crag. After she had ascended some fifty feet she came to the belt of
leaves that surrounded the rock. The trunks of the trees did not crowd
close to the crag, but the ends of their lower branches extended about
it, veiling it with their foliage. She groped on in leafy obscurity, not
able to see either above or below her; but presently she glimpsed blue
sky, and a moment later came out in the clear, hot sunlight and saw the
forest roof stretching away under her feet.

She was standing on a broad shelf which was about even with the
tree-tops, and from it rose a spire-like jut that was the ultimate peak
of the crag she had climbed. But something else caught her attention at
the moment. Her foot had struck something in the litter of blown dead
leaves which carpeted the shelf. She kicked them aside and looked down
on the skeleton of a man. She ran an experienced eye over the bleached
frame, but saw no broken bones nor any sign of violence. The man must
have died a natural death; though why he should have climbed a tall crag
to die she could not imagine.

       *       *       *       *       *

She scrambled up to the summit of the spire and looked toward the
horizons. The forest roof--which looked like a floor from her
vantage-point--was just as impenetrable as from below. She could not
even see the pool by which she had left her horse. She glanced
northward, in the direction from which she had come. She saw only the
rolling green ocean stretching away and away, with only a vague blue
line in the distance to hint of the hill-range she had crossed days
before, to plunge into this leafy waste.

West and east the view was the same; though the blue hill-line was
lacking in those directions. But when she turned her eyes southward she
stiffened and caught her breath. A mile away in that direction the
forest thinned out and ceased abruptly, giving way to a cactus-dotted
plain. And in the midst of that plain rose the walls and towers of a
city. Valeria swore in amazement. This passed belief. She would not have
been surprised to sight human habitations of another sort--the
beehive-shaped huts of the black people, or the cliff-dwellings of the
mysterious brown race which legends declared inhabited some country of
this unexplored region. But it was a startling experience to come upon a
walled city here so many long weeks' march from the nearest outposts of
any sort of civilization.

Her hands tiring from clinging to the spire-like pinnacle, she let
herself down on the shelf, frowning in indecision. She had come
far--from the camp of the mercenaries by the border town of Sukhmet
amidst the level grasslands, where desperate adventurers of many races
guard the Stygian frontier against the raids that come up like a red
wave from Darfar. Her flight had been blind, into a country of which she
was wholly ignorant. And now she wavered between an urge to ride
directly to that city in the plain, and the instinct of caution which
prompted her to skirt it widely and continue her solitary flight.

Her thoughts were scattered by the rustling of the leaves below her. She
wheeled cat-like, snatched at her sword; and then she froze motionless,
staring wide-eyed at the man before her.

He was almost a giant in stature, muscles rippling smoothly under his
skin which the sun had burned brown. His garb was similar to hers,
except that he wore a broad leather belt instead of a girdle. Broadsword
and poniard hung from this belt.

"Conan, the Cimmerian!" ejaculated the woman. "What are _you_ doing on
my trail?"

He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light any
woman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure,
lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt,
and the clear white flesh displayed between breeches and boot-tops.

"Don't you know?" he laughed. "Haven't I made my admiration for you
plain ever since I first saw you?"

"A stallion could have made it no plainer," she answered disdainfully.
"But I never expected to encounter you so far from the ale-barrels and
meat-pots of Sukhmet. Did you really follow me from Zarallo's camp, or
were you whipped forth for a rogue?"

He laughed at her insolence and flexed his mighty biceps.

"You know Zarallo didn't have enough knaves to whip me out of camp," he
grinned. "Of course I followed you. Lucky thing for you, too, wench!
When you knifed that Stygian officer, you forfeited Zarallo's favor and
protection, and you outlawed yourself with the Stygians."

"I know it," she replied sullenly. "But what else could I do? You know
what my provocation was."

"Sure," he agreed. "If I'd been there, I'd have knifed him myself. But
if a woman must live in the war-camps of men, she can expect such
things."

Valeria stamped her booted foot and swore.

"Why won't men let me live a man's life?"

"That's obvious!" Again his eager eyes devoured her. "But you were wise
to run away. The Stygians would have had you skinned. That officer's
brother followed you; faster than you thought, I don't doubt. He wasn't
far behind you when I caught up with him. His horse was better than
yours. He'd have caught you and cut your throat within a few more
miles."

"Well?" she demanded.

"Well what?" He seemed puzzled.

"What of the Stygian?"

"Why, what do you suppose?" he returned impatiently. "I killed him, of
course, and left his carcass for the vultures. That delayed me, though,
and I almost lost your trail when you crossed the rocky spurs of the
hills. Otherwise I'd have caught up with you long ago."

"And now you think you'll drag me back to Zarallo's camp?" she sneered.

"Don't talk like a fool," he grunted. "Come, girl, don't be such a
spitfire. I'm not like that Stygian you knifed, and you know it."

"A penniless vagabond," she taunted.

He laughed at her.

"What do you call yourself? You haven't enough money to buy a new seat
for your breeches. Your disdain doesn't deceive me. You know I've
commanded bigger ships and more men than you ever did in your life. As
for being penniless--what rover isn't, most of the time? I've squandered
enough gold in the sea-ports of the world to fill a galleon. You know
that, too."

"Where are the fine ships and the bold lads you commanded, now?" she
sneered.

"At the bottom of the sea, mostly," he replied cheerfully. "The
Zingarans sank my last ship off the Shemite shore--that's why I joined
Zarallo's Free Companions. But I saw I'd been stung when we marched to
the Darfar border. The pay was poor and the wine was sour, and I don't
like black women. And that's the only kind that came to our camp at
Sukhmet--rings in their noses and their teeth filed--bah! Why did you
join Zarallo? Sukhmet's a long way from salt water."

"Red Ortho wanted to make me his mistress," she answered sullenly. "I
jumped overboard one night and swam ashore when we were anchored off the
Kushite coast. Off Zabhela, it was. There a Shemite trader told me that
Zarallo had brought his Free Companies south to guard the Darfar border.
No better employment offered. I joined an east-bound caravan and
eventually came to Sukhmet."

       *       *       *       *       *

"It was madness to plunge southward as you did," commented Conan, "but
it was wise, too, for Zarallo's patrols never thought to look for you in
this direction. Only the brother of the man you killed happened to
strike your trail."

"And now what do you intend doing?" she demanded.

"Turn west," he answered. "I've been this far south, but not this far
east. Many days' traveling to the west will bring us to the open
savannas, where the black tribes graze their cattle. I have friends
among them. We'll get to the coast and find a ship. I'm sick of the
jungle."

"Then be on your way," she advised. "I have other plans."

"Don't be a fool!" He showed irritation for the first time. "You can't
keep on wandering through this forest."

"I can if I choose."

"But what do you intend doing?"

"That's none of your affair," she snapped.

"Yes, it is," he answered calmly. "Do you think I've followed you this
far, to turn around and ride off empty-handed? Be sensible, wench. I'm
not going to harm you."

He stepped toward her, and she sprang back, whipping out her sword.

"Keep back, you barbarian dog! I'll spit you like a roast pig!"

He halted, reluctantly, and demanded: "Do you want me to take that toy
away from you and spank you with it?"

"Words! Nothing but words!" she mocked, lights like the gleam of the sun
on blue water dancing in her reckless eyes.

He knew it was the truth. No living man could disarm Valeria of the
Brotherhood with his bare hands. He scowled, his sensations a tangle of
conflicting emotions. He was angry, yet he was amused and filled with
admiration for her spirit. He burned with eagerness to seize that
splendid figure and crush it in his iron arms, yet he greatly desired
not to hurt the girl. He was torn between a desire to shake her soundly,
and a desire to caress her. He knew if he came any nearer her sword
would be sheathed in his heart. He had seen Valeria kill too many men in
border forays and tavern brawls to have any illusions about her. He knew
she was as quick and ferocious as a tigress. He could draw his
broadsword and disarm her, beat the blade out of her hand, but the
thought of drawing a sword on a woman, even without intent of injury,
was extremely repugnant to him.

"Blast your soul, you hussy!" he exclaimed in exasperation. "I'm going
to take off your----"

He started toward her, his angry passion making him reckless, and she
poised herself for a deadly thrust. Then came a startling interruption
to a scene at once ludicrous and perilous.

"_What's that?_"

It was Valeria who exclaimed, but they both started violently, and Conan
wheeled like a cat, his great sword flashing into his hand. Back in the
forest had burst forth an appalling medley of screams--the screams of
horses in terror and agony. Mingled with their screams there came the
snap of splintering bones.

"Lions are slaying the horses!" cried Valeria.

"Lions, nothing!" snorted Conan, his eyes blazing. "Did you hear a lion
roar? Neither did I! Listen at those bones snap--not even a lion could
make that much noise killing a horse."

       *       *       *       *       *

He hurried down the natural ramp and she followed, their personal feud
forgotten in the adventurers' instinct to unite against common peril.
The screams had ceased when they worked their way downward through the
green veil of leaves that brushed the rock.

"I found your horse tied by the pool back there," he muttered, treading
so noiselessly that she no longer wondered how he had surprised her on
the crag. "I tied mine beside it and followed the tracks of your boots.
Watch, now!"

They had emerged from the belt of leaves, and stared down into the lower
reaches of the forest. Above them the green roof spread its dusky
canopy. Below them the sunlight filtered in just enough to make a
jade-tinted twilight. The giant trunks of trees less than a hundred
yards away looked dim and ghostly.

"The horses should be beyond that thicket, over there," whispered Conan,
and his voice might have been a breeze moving through the branches.
"Listen!"

Valeria had already heard, and a chill crept through her veins; so she
unconsciously laid her white hand on her companion's muscular brown arm.
From beyond the thicket came the noisy crunching of bones and the loud
rending of flesh, together with the grinding, slobbering sounds of a
horrible feast.

"Lions wouldn't make that noise," whispered Conan. "Something's eating
our horses, but it's not a lion--Crom!"

The noise stopped suddenly, and Conan swore softly. A suddenly risen
breeze was blowing from them directly toward the spot where the unseen
slayer was hidden.

"Here it comes!" muttered Conan, half lifting his sword.

The thicket was violently agitated, and Valeria clutched Conan's arm
hard. Ignorant of jungle-lore, she yet knew that no animal she had ever
seen could have shaken the tall brush like that.

"It must be as big as an elephant," muttered Conan, echoing her thought.
"What the devil----" His voice trailed away in stunned silence.

Through the thicket was thrust a head of nightmare and lunacy. Grinning
jaws bared rows of dripping yellow tusks; above the yawning mouth
wrinkled a saurian-like snout. Huge eyes, like those of a python a
thousand times magnified, stared unwinkingly at the petrified humans
clinging to the rock above it. Blood smeared the scaly, flabby lips and
dripped from the huge mouth.

The head, bigger than that of a crocodile, was further extended on a
long scaled neck on which stood up rows of serrated spikes, and after
it, crushing down the briars and saplings, waddled the body of a titan,
a gigantic, barrel-bellied torso on absurdly short legs. The whitish
belly almost raked the ground, while the serrated back-bone rose higher
than Conan could have reached on tiptoe. A long spiked tail, like that
of a gargantuan scorpion, trailed out behind.

"Back up the crag, quick!" snapped Conan, thrusting the girl behind him.
"I don't think he can climb, but he can stand on his hind-legs and reach
us----"

With a snapping and rending of bushes and saplings the monster came
hurtling through the thickets, and they fled up the rock before him like
leaves blown before a wind. As Valeria plunged into the leafy screen a
backward glance showed her the titan rearing up fearsomely on his
massive hind-legs, even as Conan had predicted. The sight sent panic
racing through her. As he reared, the beast seemed more gigantic than
ever; his snouted head towered among the trees. Then Conan's iron hand
closed on her wrist and she was jerked headlong into the blinding welter
of the leaves, and out again into the hot sunshine above, just as the
monster fell forward with his front feet on the crag with an impact that
made the rock vibrate.

       *       *       *       *       *

Behind the fugitives the huge head crashed through the twigs, and they
looked down for a horrifying instant at the nightmare visage framed
among the green leaves, eyes flaming, jaws gaping. Then the giant tusks
clashed together futilely, and after that the head was withdrawn,
vanishing from their sight as if it had sunk in a pool.

Peering down through broken branches that scraped the rock, they saw it
squatting on its haunches at the foot of the crag, staring unblinkingly
up at them.

Valeria shuddered.

"How long do you suppose he'll crouch there?"

Conan kicked the skull on the leaf-strewn shelf.

"That fellow must have climbed up here to escape him, or one like him.
He must have died of starvation. There are no bones broken. That thing
must be a dragon, such as the black people speak of in their legends. If
so, it won't leave here until we're both dead."

Valeria looked at him blankly, her resentment forgotten. She fought down
a surging of panic. She had proved her reckless courage a thousand times
in wild battles on sea and land, on the blood-slippery decks of burning
war-ships, in the storming of walled cities, and on the trampled sandy
beaches where the desperate men of the Red Brotherhood bathed their
knives in one another's blood in their fights for leadership. But the
prospect now confronting her congealed her blood. A cutlas-stroke in the
heat of battle was nothing; but to sit idle and helpless on a bare rock
until she perished of starvation, besieged by a monstrous survival of an
elder age--the thought sent panic throbbing through her brain.

"He must leave to eat and drink," she said helplessly.

"He won't have to go far to do either," Conan pointed out. "He's just
gorged on horse-meat, and like a real snake, he can go for a long time
without eating or drinking again. But he doesn't sleep after eating,
like a real snake, it seems. Anyway, he can't climb this crag."

Conan spoke imperturbably. He was a barbarian, and the terrible patience
of the wilderness and its children was as much a part of him as his
lusts and rages. He could endure a situation like this with a coolness
impossible to a civilized person.

"Can't we get into the trees and get away, traveling like apes through
the branches?" she asked desperately.

He shook his head. "I thought of that. The branches that touch the crag
down there are too light. They'd break with our weight. Besides, I have
an idea that devil could tear up any tree around here by its roots."

"Well, are we going to sit here on our rumps until we starve, like
that?" she cried furiously, kicking the skull clattering across the
ledge. "I won't do it! I'll go down there and cut his damned head
off----"

Conan had seated himself on a rocky projection at the foot of the spire.
He looked up with a glint of admiration at her blazing eyes and tense,
quivering figure, but, realizing that she was in just the mood for any
madness, he let none of his admiration sound in his voice.

"Sit down," he grunted, catching her by her wrist and pulling her down
on his knee. She was too surprised to resist as he took her sword from
her hand and shoved it back in its sheath. "Sit still and calm down.
You'd only break your steel on his scales. He'd gobble you up at one
gulp, or smash you like an egg with that spiked tail of his. We'll get
out of this jam some way, but we shan't do it by getting chewed up and
swallowed."

She made no reply, nor did she seek to repulse his arm from about her
waist. She was frightened, and the sensation was new to Valeria of the
Red Brotherhood. So she sat on her companion's--or captor's--knee with a
docility that would have amazed Zarallo, who had anathematized her as a
she-devil out of hell's seraglio.

Conan played idly with her curly yellow locks, seemingly intent only
upon his conquest. Neither the skeleton at his feet nor the monster
crouching below disturbed his mind or dulled the edge of his interest.

The girl's restless eyes, roving the leaves below them, discovered
splashes of color among the green. It was fruit, large, darkly crimson
globes suspended from the boughs of a tree whose broad leaves were a
peculiarly rich and vivid green. She became aware of both thirst and
hunger, though thirst had not assailed her until she knew she could not
descend from the crag to find food and water.

"We need not starve," she said. "There is fruit we can reach."

Conan glanced where she pointed.

"If we ate that we wouldn't need the bite of a dragon," he grunted.
"That's what the black people of Kush call the Apples of Derketa.
Derketa is the Queen of the Dead. Drink a little of the juice, or spill
it on your flesh, and you'd be dead before you could tumble to the foot
of this crag."

"Oh!"

She lapsed into dismayed silence. There seemed no way out of their
predicament, she reflected gloomily. She saw no way of escape, and Conan
seemed to be concerned only with her supple waist and curly tresses. If
he was trying to formulate a plan of escape, he did not show it.

"If you'll take your hands off me long enough to climb up on that peak,"
she said presently, "you'll see something that will surprise you."

He cast her a questioning glance, then obeyed with a shrug of his
massive shoulders. Clinging to the spire-like pinnacle, he stared out
over the forest roof.

       *       *       *       *       *

He stood a long moment in silence, posed like a bronze statue on the
rock.

"It's a walled city, right enough," he muttered presently. "Was that
where you were going, when you tried to send me off alone to the coast?"

"I saw it before you came. I knew nothing of it when I left Sukhmet."

"Who'd have thought to find a city here? I don't believe the Stygians
ever penetrated this far. Could black people build a city like that? I
see no herds on the plain, no signs of cultivation, or people moving
about."

"How could you hope to see all that, at this distance?" she demanded.

He shrugged his shoulders and dropped down on the shelf.

"Well, the folk of the city can't help us just now. And they might not,
if they could. The people of the Black Countries are generally hostile
to strangers. Probably stick us full of spears----"

He stopped short and stood silent, as if he had forgotten what he was
saying, frowning down at the crimson spheres gleaming among the leaves.

"Spears!" he muttered. "What a blasted fool I am not to have thought of
that before! That shows what a pretty woman does to a man's mind."

"What are you talking about?" she inquired.

Without answering her question, he descended to the belt of leaves and
looked down through them. The great brute squatted below, watching the
crag with the frightful patience of the reptile folk. So might one of
his breed have glared up at their troglodyte ancestors, treed on a
high-flung rock, in the dim dawn ages. Conan cursed him without heat,
and began cutting branches, reaching out and severing them as far from
the end as he could reach. The agitation of the leaves made the monster
restless. He rose from his haunches and lashed his hideous tail,
snapping off saplings as if they had been toothpicks. Conan watched him
warily from the corner of his eye, and just as Valeria believed the
dragon was about to hurl himself up the crag again, the Cimmerian drew
back and climbed up to the ledge with the branches he had cut. There
were three of these, slender shafts about seven feet long, but not
larger than his thumb. He had also cut several strands of tough, thin
vine.

"Branches too light for spear-hafts, and creepers no thicker than
cords," he remarked, indicating the foliage about the crag. "It won't
hold our weight--but there's strength in union. That's what the
Aquilonian renegades used to tell us Cimmerians when they came into the
hills to raise an army to invade their own country. But we always fight
by clans and tribes."

"What the devil has that got to do with those sticks?" she demanded.

"You wait and see."

Gathering the sticks in a compact bundle, he wedged his poniard hilt
between them at one end. Then with the vines he bound them together, and
when he had completed his task, he had a spear of no small strength,
with a sturdy shaft seven feet in length.

"What good will that do?" she demanded. "You told me that a blade
couldn't pierce his scales----"

"He hasn't got scales all over him," answered Conan. "There's more than
one way of skinning a panther."

Moving down to the edge of the leaves, he reached the spear up and
carefully thrust the blade through one of the Apples of Derketa, drawing
aside to avoid the darkly purple drops that dripped from the pierced
fruit. Presently he withdrew the blade and showed her the blue steel
stained a dull purplish crimson.

"I don't know whether it will do the job or not," quoth he. "There's
enough poison there to kill an elephant, but--well, we'll see."

       *       *       *       *       *

Valeria was close behind him as he let himself down among the leaves.
Cautiously holding the poisoned pike away from him, he thrust his head
through the branches and addressed the monster.

"What are you waiting down there for, you misbegotten offspring of
questionable parents?" was one of his more printable queries. "Stick
your ugly head up here again, you long-necked brute--or do you want me
to come down there and kick you loose from your illegitimate spine?"

There was more of it--some of it couched in eloquence that made Valeria
stare, in spite of her profane education among the seafarers. And it had
its effect on the monster. Just as the incessant yapping of a dog
worries and enrages more constitutionally silent animals, so the
clamorous voice of a man rouses fear in some bestial bosoms and insane
rage in others. Suddenly and with appalling quickness, the mastodonic
brute reared up on its mighty hind legs and elongated its neck and body
in a furious effort to reach this vociferous pigmy whose clamor was
disturbing the primeval silence of its ancient realm.

But Conan had judged his distance with precision. Some five feet below
him the mighty head crashed terribly but futilely through the leaves.
And as the monstrous mouth gaped like that of a great snake, Conan drove
his spear into the red angle of the jaw-bone hinge. He struck downward
with all the strength of both arms, driving the long poniard blade to
the hilt in flesh, sinew and bone.

Instantly the jaws clashed convulsively together, severing the
triple-pieced shaft and almost precipitating Conan from his perch. He
would have fallen but for the girl behind him, who caught his sword-belt
in a desperate grasp. He clutched at a rocky projection, and grinned his
thanks back at her.

Down on the ground the monster was wallowing like a dog with pepper in
its eyes. He shook his head from side to side, pawed at it, and opened
his mouth repeatedly to its widest extent. Presently he got a huge front
foot on the stump of the shaft and managed to tear the blade out. Then
he threw up his head, jaws wide and spouting blood, and glared up at the
crag with such concentrated and intelligent fury that Valeria trembled
and drew her sword. The scales along his back and flanks turned from
rusty brown to a dull lurid red. Most horribly the monster's silence was
broken. The sounds that issued from his blood-streaming jaws did not
sound like anything that could have been produced by an earthly
creation.

With harsh, grating roars, the dragon hurled himself at the crag that
was the citadel of his enemies. Again and again his mighty head crashed
upward through the branches, snapping vainly on empty air. He hurled his
full ponderous weight against the rock until it vibrated from base to
crest. And rearing upright he gripped it with his front legs like a man
and tried to tear it up by the roots, as if it had been a tree.

This exhibition of primordial fury chilled the blood in Valeria's veins,
but Conan was too close to the primitive himself to feel anything but a
comprehending interest. To the barbarian, no such gulf existed between
himself and other men, and the animals, as existed in the conception of
Valeria. The monster below them, to Conan, was merely a form of life
differing from himself mainly in physical shape. He attributed to it
characteristics similar to his own, and saw in its wrath a counterpart
of his rages, in its roars and bellowings merely reptilian equivalents
to the curses he had bestowed upon it. Feeling a kinship with all wild
things, even dragons, it was impossible for him to experience the sick
horror which assailed Valeria at the sight of the brute's ferocity.

He sat watching it tranquilly, and pointed out the various changes that
were taking place in its voice and actions.

"The poison's taking hold," he said with conviction.

"I don't believe it." To Valeria it seemed preposterous to suppose that
anything, however lethal, could have any effect on that mountain of
muscle and fury.

"There's pain in his voice," declared Conan. "First he was merely angry
because of the stinging in his jaw. Now he feels the bite of the poison.
Look! He's staggering. He'll be blind in a few more minutes. What did I
tell you?"

For suddenly the dragon had lurched about and went crashing off through
the bushes.

"Is he running away?" inquired Valeria uneasily.

"He's making for the pool!" Conan sprang up, galvanized into swift
activity. "The poison makes him thirsty. Come on! He'll be blind in a
few moments, but he can smell his way back to the foot of the crag, and
if our scent's here still, he'll sit there until he dies. And others of
his kind may come at his cries. Let's go!"

"Down there?" Valeria was aghast.

"Sure! We'll make for the city! They may cut our heads off there, but
it's our only chance. We may run into a thousand more dragons on the
way, but it's sure death to stay here. If we wait until he dies, we may
have a dozen more to deal with. After me, in a hurry!"

He went down the ramp as swiftly as an ape, pausing only to aid his less
agile companion, who, until she saw the Cimmerian climb, had fancied
herself the equal of any man in the rigging of a ship or on the sheer
face of a cliff.

       *       *       *       *       *

They descended into the gloom below the branches and slid to the ground
silently, though Valeria felt as if the pounding of her heart must
surely be heard from far away. A noisy gurgling and lapping beyond the
dense thicket indicated that the dragon was drinking at the pool.

"As soon as his belly is full he'll be back," muttered Conan. "It may
take hours for the poison to kill him--if it does at all."

Somewhere beyond the forest the sun was sinking to the horizon. The
forest was a misty twilight place of black shadows and dim vistas. Conan
gripped Valeria's wrist and glided away from the foot of the crag. He
made less noise than a breeze blowing among the tree-trunks, but Valeria
felt as if her soft boots were betraying their flight to all the forest.

"I don't think he can follow a trail," muttered Conan. "But if a wind
blew our body-scent to him, he could smell us out."

"Mitra grant that the wind blow not!" Valeria breathed.

Her face was a pallid oval in the gloom. She gripped her sword in her
free hand, but the feel of the shagreen-bound hilt inspired only a
feeling of helplessness in her.

They were still some distance from the edge of the forest when they
heard a snapping and crashing behind them. Valeria bit her lip to check
a cry.

"He's on our trail!" she whispered fiercely.

Conan shook his head.

"He didn't smell us at the rock, and he's blundering about through the
forest trying to pick up our scent. Come on! It's the city or nothing
now! He could tear down any tree we'd climb. If only the wind stays
down----"

They stole on until the trees began to thin out ahead of them. Behind
them the forest was a black impenetrable ocean of shadows. The ominous
crackling still sounded behind them, as the dragon blundered in his
erratic course.

"There's the plain ahead," breathed Valeria. "A little more and
we'll----"

"Crom!" swore Conan.

"Mitra!" whispered Valeria.

Out of the south a wind had sprung up.

It blew over them directly into the black forest behind them. Instantly
a horrible roar shook the woods. The aimless snapping and crackling of
the bushes changed to a sustained crashing as the dragon came like a
hurricane straight toward the spot from which the scent of his enemies
was wafted.

"Run!" snarled Conan, his eyes blazing like those of a trapped wolf.
"It's all we can do!"

Sailor's boots are not made for sprinting, and the life of a pirate does
not train one for a runner. Within a hundred yards Valeria was panting
and reeling in her gait, and behind them the crashing gave way to a
rolling thunder as the monster broke out of the thickets and into the
more open ground.

Conan's iron arm about the woman's waist half lifted her; her feet
scarcely touched the earth as she was borne along at a speed she could
never have attained herself. If he could keep out of the beast's way for
a bit, perhaps that betraying wind would shift--but the wind held, and a
quick glance over his shoulder showed Conan that the monster was almost
upon them, coming like a war-galley in front of a hurricane. He thrust
Valeria from him with a force that sent her reeling a dozen feet to fall
in a crumpled heap at the foot of the nearest tree, and the Cimmerian
wheeled in the path of the thundering titan.

Convinced that his death was upon him, the Cimmerian acted according to
his instinct, and hurled himself full at the awful face that was bearing
down on him. He leaped, slashing like a wildcat, felt his sword cut deep
into the scales that sheathed the mighty snout--and then a terrific
impact knocked him rolling and tumbling for fifty feet with all the wind
and half the life battered out of him.

How the stunned Cimmerian regained his feet, not even he could have ever
told. But the only thought that filled his brain was of the woman lying
dazed and helpless almost in the path of the hurtling fiend, and before
the breath came whistling back into his gullet he was standing over her
with his sword in his hand.

She lay where he had thrown her, but she was struggling to a sitting
posture. Neither tearing tusks nor trampling feet had touched her. It
had been a shoulder or front leg that struck Conan, and the blind
monster rushed on, forgetting the victims whose scent it had been
following, in the sudden agony of its death throes. Headlong on its
course it thundered until its low-hung head crashed into a gigantic tree
in its path. The impact tore the tree up by the roots and must have
dashed the brains from the misshapen skull. Tree and monster fell
together, and the dazed humans saw the branches and leaves shaken by the
convulsions of the creature they covered--and then grow quiet.

Conan lifted Valeria to her feet and together they started away at a
reeling run. A few moments later they emerged into the still twilight of
the treeless plain.

       *       *       *       *       *

Conan paused an instant and glanced back at the ebon fastness behind
them. Not a leaf stirred, nor a bird chirped. It stood as silent as it
must have stood before Man was created.

"Come on," muttered Conan, taking his companion's hand. "It's touch and
go now. If more dragons come out of the woods after us----"

He did not have to finish the sentence.

The city looked very far away across the plain, farther than it had
looked from the crag. Valeria's heart hammered until she felt as if it
would strangle her. At every step she expected to hear the crashing of
the bushes and see another colossal nightmare bearing down upon them.
But nothing disturbed the silence of the thickets.

With the first mile between them and the woods, Valeria breathed more
easily. Her buoyant self-confidence began to thaw out again. The sun had
set and darkness was gathering over the plain, lightened a little by the
stars that made stunted ghosts out of the cactus growths.

"No cattle, no plowed fields," muttered Conan. "How do these people
live?"

"Perhaps the cattle are in pens for the night," suggested Valeria, "and
the fields and grazing-pastures are on the other side of the city."

"Maybe," he grunted. "I didn't see any from the crag, though."

The moon came up behind the city, etching walls and towers blackly in
the yellow glow. Valeria shivered. Black against the moon the strange
city had a somber, sinister look.

Perhaps something of the same feeling occurred to Conan, for he stopped,
glanced about him, and grunted: "We stop here. No use coming to their
gates in the night. They probably wouldn't let us in. Besides, we need
rest, and we don't know how they'll receive us. A few hours' sleep will
put us in better shape to fight or run."

He led the way to a bed of cactus which grew in a circle--a phenomenon
common to the southern desert. With his sword he chopped an opening, and
motioned Valeria to enter.

"We'll be safe from snakes here, anyhow."

She glanced fearfully back toward the black line that indicated the
forest some six miles away.

"Suppose a dragon comes out of the woods?"

"We'll keep watch," he answered, though he made no suggestion as to what
they would do in such an event. He was staring at the city, a few miles
away. Not a light shone from spire or tower. A great black mass of
mystery, it reared cryptically against the moonlit sky.

"Lie down and sleep. I'll keep the first watch."

She hesitated, glancing at him uncertainly, but he sat down cross-legged
in the opening, facing toward the plain, his sword across his knees, his
back to her. Without further comment she lay down on the sand inside the
spiky circle.

"Wake me when the moon is at its zenith," she directed.

He did not reply nor look toward her. Her last impression, as she sank
into slumber, was of his muscular figure, immobile as a statue hewn out
of bronze, outlined against the low-hanging stars.



_2. By the Blaze of the Fire-Jewels_


Valeria awoke with a start, to the realization that a gray dawn was
stealing over the plain.

She sat up, rubbing her eyes. Conan squatted beside the cactus, cutting
off the thick pears and dexterously twitching out the spikes.

"You didn't awake me," she accused. "You let me sleep all night!"

"You were tired," he answered. "Your posterior must have been sore, too,
after that long ride. You pirates aren't used to horseback."

"What about yourself?" she retorted.

"I was a _kozak_ before I was a pirate," he answered. "They live in the
saddle. I snatch naps like a panther watching beside the trail for a
deer to come by. My ears keep watch while my eyes sleep."

And indeed the giant barbarian seemed as much refreshed as if he had
slept the whole night on a golden bed. Having removed the thorns, and
peeled off the tough skin, he handed the girl a thick, juicy cactus
leaf.

"Skin your teeth in that pear. It's food and drink to a desert man. I
was a chief of the Zuagirs once--desert men who live by plundering the
caravans."

"Is there anything you haven't been?" inquired the girl, half in
derision and half in fascination.

"I've never been king of an Hyborian kingdom," he grinned, taking an
enormous mouthful of cactus. "But I've dreamed of being even that. I
may be too, some day. Why shouldn't I?"

She shook her head in wonder at his calm audacity, and fell to devouring
her pear. She found it not unpleasing to the palate, and full of cool
and thirst-satisfying juice. Finishing his meal, Conan wiped his hands
in the sand, rose, ran his fingers through his thick black mane, hitched
at his sword-belt and said:

"Well, let's go. If the people in that city are going to cut our throats
they may as well do it now, before the heat of the day begins."

His grim humor was unconscious, but Valeria reflected that it might be
prophetic. She too hitched her sword-belt as she rose. Her terrors of
the night were past. The roaring dragons of the distant forest were like
a dim dream. There was a swagger in her stride as she moved off beside
the Cimmerian. Whatever perils lay ahead of them, their foes would be
men. And Valeria of the Red Brotherhood had never seen the face of the
man she feared.

Conan glanced down at her as she strode along beside him with her
swinging stride that matched his own.

"You walk more like a hillman than a sailor," he said. "You must be an
Aquilonian. The suns of Darfar never burnt your white skin brown. Many a
princess would envy you."

"I am from Aquilonia," she replied. His compliments no longer irritated
her. His evident admiration pleased her. For another man to have kept
her watch while she slept would have angered her; she had always
fiercely resented any man's attempting to shield or protect her because
of her sex. But she found a secret pleasure in the fact that this man
had done so. And he had not taken advantage of her fright and the
weakness resulting from it. After all, she reflected, her companion was
no common man.

       *       *       *       *       *

The sun rose behind the city, turning the towers to a sinister crimson.

"Black last night against the moon," grunted Conan, his eyes clouding
with the abysmal superstition of the barbarian. "Blood-red as a threat
of blood against the sun this dawn. I do not like this city."

But they went on, and as they went Conan pointed out the fact that no
road ran to the city from the north.

"No cattle have trampled the plain on this side of the city," said he.
"No plowshare has touched the earth for years, maybe centuries. But
look: once this plain was cultivated."

Valeria saw the ancient irrigation ditches he indicated, half filled in
places, and overgrown with cactus. She frowned with perplexity as her
eyes swept over the plain that stretched on all sides of the city to the
forest edge, which marched in a vast, dim ring. Vision did not extend
beyond that ring.

She looked uneasily at the city. No helmets or spear-heads gleamed on
battlements, no trumpets sounded, no challenge rang from the towers. A
silence as absolute as that of the forest brooded over the walls and
minarets.

The sun was high above the eastern horizon when they stood before the
great gate in the northern wall, in the shadow of the lofty rampart.
Rust flecked the iron bracings of the mighty bronze portal. Spiderwebs
glistened thickly on hinge and sill and bolted panel.

"It hasn't been opened for years!" exclaimed Valeria.

"A dead city," grunted Conan. "That's why the ditches were broken and
the plain untouched."

"But who built it? Who dwelt here? Where did they go? Why did they
abandon it?"

"Who can say? Maybe an exiled clan of Stygians built it. Maybe not. It
doesn't look like Stygian architecture. Maybe the people were wiped out
by enemies, or a plague exterminated them."

"In that case their treasures may still be gathering dust and cobwebs in
there," suggested Valeria, the acquisitive instincts of her profession
waking in her; prodded, too, by feminine curiosity. "Can we open the
gate? Let's go in and explore a bit."

Conan eyed the heavy portal dubiously, but placed his massive shoulder
against it and thrust with all the power of his muscular calves and
thighs. With a rasping screech of rusty hinges the gate moved
ponderously inward, and Conan straightened and drew his sword. Valeria
stared over his shoulder, and made a sound indicative of surprise.

They were not looking into an open street or court as one would have
expected. The opened gate, or door, gave directly into a long, broad
hall which ran away and away until its vista grew indistinct in the
distance. It was of heroic proportions, and the floor of a curious red
stone, cut in square tiles, that seemed to smolder as if with the
reflection of flames. The walls were of a shiny green material.

"Jade, or I'm a Shemite!" swore Conan.

"Not in such quantity!" protested Valeria.

"I've looted enough from the Khitan caravans to know what I'm talking
about," he asserted. "That's jade!"

The vaulted ceiling was of lapis lazuli, adorned with clusters of great
green stones that gleamed with a poisonous radiance.

"Green fire-stones," growled Conan. "That's what the people of Punt call
them. They're supposed to be the petrified eyes of those prehistoric
snakes the ancients called Golden Serpents. They glow like a cat's eyes
in the dark. At night this hall would be lighted by them, but it would
be a hellishly weird illumination. Let's look around. We might find a
cache of jewels."

"Shut the door," advised Valeria. "I'd hate to have to outrun a dragon
down this hall."

Conan grinned, and replied: "I don't believe the dragons ever leave the
forest."

But he complied, and pointed out the broken bolt on the inner side.

"I thought I heard something snap when I shoved against it. That bolt's
freshly broken. Rust has eaten nearly through it. If the people ran
away, why should it have been bolted on the inside?"

"They undoubtedly left by another door," suggested Valeria.

She wondered how many centuries had passed since the light of outer day
had filtered into that great hall through the open door. Sunlight was
finding its way somehow into the hall, and they quickly saw the source.
High up in the vaulted ceiling skylights were set in slot-like
openings--translucent sheets of some crystalline substance. In the
splotches of shadow between them, the green jewels winked like the eyes
of angry cats. Beneath their feet the dully lurid floor smoldered with
changing hues and colors of flame. It was like treading the floors of
hell with evil stars blinking overhead.

Three balustraded galleries ran along on each side of the hall, one
above the other.

"A four-storied house," grunted Conan, "and this hall extends to the
roof. It's long as a street. I seem to see a door at the other end."

Valeria shrugged her white shoulders.

"Your eyes are better than mine, then, though I'm accounted sharp-eyed
among the sea-rovers."

       *       *       *       *       *

They turned into an open door at random, and traversed a series of empty
chambers, floored like the hall, and with walls of the same green jade,
or of marble or ivory or chalcedony, adorned with friezes of bronze,
gold or silver. In the ceilings the green fire-gems were set, and their
light was as ghostly and illusive as Conan had predicted. Under the
witch-fire glow the intruders moved like specters.

Some of the chambers lacked this illumination, and their doorways showed
black as the mouth of the Pit. These Conan and Valeria avoided, keeping
always to the lighted chambers.

Cobwebs hung in the corners, but there was no perceptible accumulation
of dust on the floor, or on the tables and seats of marble, jade or
carnelian which occupied the chambers. Here and there were rugs of that
silk known as Khitan which is practically indestructible. Nowhere did
they find any windows, or doors opening into streets or courts. Each
door merely opened into another chamber or hall.

"Why don't we come to a street?" grumbled Valeria. "This place or
whatever we're in must be as big as the king of Turan's seraglio."

"They must not have perished of plague," said Conan, meditating upon the
mystery of the empty city. "Otherwise we'd find skeletons. Maybe it
became haunted, and everybody got up and left. Maybe----"

"Maybe, hell!" broke in Valeria rudely. "We'll never know. Look at these
friezes. They portray men. What race do they belong to?"

Conan scanned them and shook his head.

"I never saw people exactly like them. But there's the smack of the East
about them--Vendhya, maybe, or Kosala."

"Were you a king in Kosala?" she asked, masking her keen curiosity with
derision.

"No. But I was a war-chief of the Afghulis who live in the Himelian
mountains above the borders of Vendhya. These people favor the Kosalans.
But why should Kosalans be building a city this far to west?"

The figures portrayed were those of slender, olive-skinned men and
women, with finely chiseled, exotic features. They wore filmy robes and
many delicate jeweled ornaments, and were depicted mostly in attitudes
of feasting, dancing or love-making.

"Easterners, all right," grunted Conan, "but from where I don't know.
They must have lived a disgustingly peaceful life, though, or they'd
have scenes of wars and fights. Let's go up that stair."

It was an ivory spiral that wound up from the chamber in which they were
standing. They mounted three flights and came into a broad chamber on
the fourth floor, which seemed to be the highest tier in the building.
Skylights in the ceiling illuminated the room, in which light the
fire-gems winked pallidly. Glancing through the doors they saw, except
on one side, a series of similarly lighted chambers. This other door
opened upon a balustraded gallery that overhung a hall much smaller than
the one they had recently explored on the lower floor.

"Hell!" Valeria sat down disgustedly on a jade bench. "The people who
deserted this city must have taken all their treasures with them. I'm
tired of wandering through these bare rooms at random."

"All these upper chambers seem to be lighted," said Conan. "I wish we
could find a window that overlooked the city. Let's have a look through
that door over there."

"You have a look," advised Valeria. "I'm going to sit here and rest my
feet."

       *       *       *       *       *

Conan disappeared through the door opposite that one opening upon the
gallery, and Valeria leaned back with her hands clasped behind her
head, and thrust her booted legs out in front of her. These silent rooms
and halls with their gleaming green clusters of ornaments and burning
crimson floors were beginning to depress her. She wished they could find
their way out of the maze into which they had wandered and emerge into a
street. She wondered idly what furtive, dark feet had glided over those
flaming floors in past centuries, how many deeds of cruelty and mystery
those winking ceiling-gems had blazed down upon.

It was a faint noise that brought her out of her reflections. She was on
her feet with her sword in her hand before she realized what had
disturbed her. Conan had not returned, and she knew it was not he that
she had heard.

The sound had come from somewhere beyond the door that opened on to the
gallery. Soundlessly in her soft leather boots she glided through it,
crept across the balcony and peered down between the heavy balustrades.

_A man was stealing along the hall._

The sight of a human being in this supposedly deserted city was a
startling shock. Crouching down behind the stone balusters, with every
nerve tingling, Valeria glared down at the stealthy figure.

The man in no way resembled the figures depicted on the friezes. He was
slightly above middle height, very dark, though not negroid. He was
naked but for a scanty silk clout that only partly covered his muscular
hips, and a leather girdle, a hand's breadth broad, about his lean
waist. His long black hair hung in lank strands about his shoulders,
giving him a wild appearance. He was gaunt, but knots and cords of
muscles stood out on his arms and legs, without that fleshy padding that
presents a pleasing symmetry of contour. He was built with an economy
that was almost repellent.

Yet it was not so much his physical appearance as his attitude that
impressed the woman who watched him. He slunk along, stooped in a
semi-crouch, his head turning from side to side. He grasped a
wide-tipped blade in his right hand, and she saw it shake with the
intensity of the emotion that gripped him. He was afraid, trembling in
the grip of some dire terror. When he turned his head she caught the
blaze of wild eyes among the lank strands of black hair.

He did not see her. On tiptoe he glided across the hall and vanished
through an open door. A moment later she heard a choking cry, and then
silence fell again.

Consumed with curiosity, Valeria glided along the gallery until she came
to a door above the one through which the man had passed. It opened into
another, smaller gallery that encircled a large chamber.

This chamber was on the third floor, and its ceiling was not so high as
that of the hall. It was lighted only by the fire-stones, and their
weird green glow left the spaces under the balcony in shadows.

Valeria's eyes widened. The man she had seen was still in the chamber.

He lay face down on a dark crimson carpet in the middle of the room. His
body was limp, his arms spread wide. His curved sword lay near him.

She wondered why he should lie there so motionless. Then her eyes
narrowed as she stared down at the rug on which he lay. Beneath and
about him the fabric showed a slightly different color, a deeper,
brighter crimson.

Shivering slightly, she crouched down closer behind the balustrade,
intently scanning the shadows under the overhanging gallery. They gave
up no secret.

Suddenly another figure entered the grim drama. He was a man similar to
the first, and he came in by a door opposite that which gave upon the
hall.

His eyes glared at the sight of the man on the floor, and he spoke
something in a staccato voice that sounded like "Chicmec!" The other did
not move.

The man stepped quickly across the floor, bent, gripped the fallen man's
shoulder and turned him over. A choking cry escaped him as the head fell
back limply, disclosing a throat that had been severed from ear to ear.

The man let the corpse fall back upon the blood-stained carpet, and
sprang to his feet, shaking like a wind-blown leaf. His face was an ashy
mask of fear. But with one knee flexed for flight, he froze suddenly,
became as immobile as an image, staring across the chamber with dilated
eyes.

In the shadows beneath the balcony a ghostly light began to glow and
grow, a light that was not part of the fire-stone gleam. Valeria felt
her hair stir as she watched it; for, dimly visible in the throbbing
radiance, there floated a human skull, and it was from this skull--human
yet appallingly misshapen--that the spectral light seemed to emanate. It
hung there like a disembodied head, conjured out of night and the
shadows, growing more and more distinct; human, and yet not human as she
knew humanity.

The man stood motionless, an embodiment of paralyzed horror, staring
fixedly at the apparition. The thing moved out from the wall and a
grotesque shadow moved with it. Slowly the shadow became visible as a
man-like figure whose naked torso and limbs shone whitely, with the hue
of bleached bones. The bare skull on its shoulders grinned eyelessly, in
the midst of its unholy nimbus, and the man confronting it seemed unable
to take his eyes from it. He stood still, his sword dangling from
nerveless fingers, on his face the expression of a man bound by the
spells of a mesmerist.

       *       *       *       *       *

Valeria realized that it was not fear alone that paralyzed him. Some
hellish quality of that throbbing glow had robbed him of his power to
think and act. She herself, safely above the scene, felt the subtle
impact of a nameless emanation that was a threat to sanity.

The horror swept toward its victim and he moved at last, but only to
drop his sword and sink to his knees, covering his eyes with his hands.
Dumbly he awaited the stroke of the blade that now gleamed in the
apparition's hand as it reared above him like Death triumphant over
mankind.

Valeria acted according to the first impulse of her wayward nature. With
one tigerish movement she was over the balustrade and dropping to the
floor behind the awful shape. It wheeled at the thud of her soft boots
on the floor, but even as it turned, her keen blade lashed down, and a
fierce exultation swept her as she felt the edge cleave solid flesh and
mortal bone.

The apparition cried out gurglingly and went down, severed through
shoulder, breast-bone and spine, and as it fell the burning skull rolled
clear, revealing a lank mop of black hair and a dark face twisted in the
convulsions of death. Beneath the horrific masquerade there was a human
being, a man similar to the one kneeling supinely on the floor.

The latter looked up at the sound of the blow and the cry, and now he
glared in wild-eyed amazement at the white-skinned woman who stood over
the corpse with a dripping sword in her hand.

He staggered up, yammering as if the sight had almost unseated his
reason. She was amazed to realize that she understood him. He was
gibbering in the Stygian tongue, though in a dialect unfamiliar to her.

"Who are you? Whence come you? What do you in Xuchotl?" Then rushing
on, without waiting for her to reply: "But you are a friend--goddess or
devil, it makes no difference! You have slain the Burning Skull! It was
but a man beneath it, after all! We deemed it a demon _they_ conjured up
out of the catacombs! _Listen!_"

He stopped short in his ravings and stiffened, straining his ears with
painful intensity. The girl heard nothing.

"We must hasten!" he whispered. "_They_ are west of the Great Hall! They
may be all around us here! They may be creeping upon us even now!"

He seized her wrist in a convulsive grasp she found hard to break.

"Whom do you mean by 'they'?" she demanded.

He stared at her uncomprehendingly for an instant, as if he found her
ignorance hard to understand.

"They?" he stammered vaguely. "Why--why, the people of Xotalanc! The
clan of the man you slew. They who dwell by the eastern gate."

"You mean to say this city is inhabited?" she exclaimed.

"Aye! Aye!" He was writhing in the impatience of apprehension. "Come
away! Come quick! We must return to Tecuhltli!"

"Where is that?" she demanded.

"The quarter by the western gate!" He had her wrist again and was
pulling her toward the door through which he had first come. Great beads
of perspiration dripped from his dark forehead, and his eyes blazed with
terror.

"Wait a minute!" she growled, flinging off his hand. "Keep your hands
off me, or I'll split your skull. What's all this about? Who are you?
Where would you take me?"

He took a firm grip on himself, casting glances to all sides, and began
speaking so fast his words tripped over each other.

"My name is Techotl. I am of Tecuhltli. I and this man who lies with his
throat cut came into the Halls of Science to try and ambush some of the
Xotalancas. But we became separated and I returned here to find him with
his gullet slit. The Burning Skull did it, I know, just as he would have
slain me had you not killed him. But perhaps he was not alone. Others
may be stealing from Xotalanc! The gods themselves blench at the fate of
those they take alive!"

At the thought he shook as with an ague and his dark skin grew ashy.
Valeria frowned puzzledly at him. She sensed intelligence behind this
rigmarole, but it was meaningless to her.

She turned toward the skull, which still glowed and pulsed on the floor,
and was reaching a booted toe tentatively toward it, when the man who
called himself Techotl sprang forward with a cry.

"Do not touch it! Do not even look at it! Madness and death lurk in it.
The wizards of Xotalanc understand its secret--they found it in the
catacombs, where lie the bones of terrible kings who ruled in Xuchotl in
the black centuries of the past. To gaze upon it freezes the blood and
withers the brain of a man who understands not its mystery. To touch it
causes madness and destruction."

She scowled at him uncertainly. He was not a reassuring figure, with his
lean, muscle-knotted frame, and snaky locks. In his eyes, behind the
glow of terror, lurked a weird light she had never seen in the eyes of a
man wholly sane. Yet he seemed sincere in his protestations.

"Come!" he begged, reaching for her hand, and then recoiling as he
remembered her warning, "You are a stranger. How you came here I do not
know, but if you were a goddess or a demon, come to aid Tecuhltli, you
would know all the things you have asked me. You must be from beyond the
great forest, whence our ancestors came. But you are our friend, or you
would not have slain my enemy. Come quickly, before the Xotalancas find
us and slay us!"

From his repellent, impassioned face she glanced to the sinister skull,
smoldering and glowing on the floor near the dead man. It was like a
skull seen in a dream, undeniably human, yet with disturbing distortions
and malformations of contour and outline. In life the wearer of that
skull must have presented an alien and monstrous aspect. Life? It seemed
to possess some sort of life of its own. Its jaws yawned at her and
snapped together. Its radiance grew brighter, more vivid, yet the
impression of nightmare grew too; it was a dream; all life was a
dream--it was Techotl's urgent voice which snapped Valeria back from the
dim gulfs whither she was drifting.

"Do not look at the skull! Do not look at the skull!" It was a far cry
from across unreckoned voids.

Valeria shook herself like a lion shaking his mane. Her vision cleared.
Techotl was chattering: "In life it housed the awful brain of a king of
magicians! It holds still the life and fire of magic drawn from outer
spaces!"

       *       *       *       *       *

With a curse Valeria leaped, lithe as a panther, and the skull crashed
to flaming bits under her swinging sword. Somewhere in the room, or in
the void, or in the dim reaches of her consciousness, an inhuman voice
cried out in pain and rage.

Techotl's hand was plucking at her arm and he was gibbering: "You have
broken it! You have destroyed it! Not all the black arts of Xotalanc can
rebuild it! Come away! Come away quickly, now!"

"But I can't go," she protested. "I have a friend somewhere near by----"

The flare of his eyes cut her short as he stared past her with an
expression grown ghastly. She wheeled just as four men rushed through as
many doors, converging on the pair in the center of the chamber.

They were like the others she had seen, the same knotted muscles bulging
on otherwise gaunt limbs, the same lank blue-black hair, the same mad
glare in their wide eyes. They were armed and clad like Techotl, but on
the breast of each was painted a white skull.

There were no challenges or war-cries. Like blood-mad tigers the men of
Xotalanc sprang at the throats of their enemies. Techotl met them with
the fury of desperation, ducked the swipe of a wide-headed blade, and
grappled with the wielder, and bore him to the floor where they rolled
and wrestled in murderous silence.

The other three swarmed on Valeria, their weird eyes red as the eyes of
mad dogs.

[Illustration: "You can never reach the coast. There is no escape from
Xuchotl."]

       *       *       *       *       *

She killed the first who came within reach before he could strike a
blow, her long straight blade splitting his skull even as his own sword
lifted for a stroke. She side-stepped a thrust, even as she parried a
slash. Her eyes danced and her lips smiled without mercy. Again she was
Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and the hum of her steel was like a
bridal song in her ears.

Her sword darted past a blade that sought to parry, and sheathed six
inches of its point in a leather-guarded midriff. The man gasped
agonizedly and went to his knees, but his tall mate lunged in, in
ferocious silence, raining blow on blow so furiously that Valeria had no
opportunity to counter. She stepped back coolly, parrying the strokes
and watching for her chance to thrust home. He could not long keep up
that flailing whirlwind. His arm would tire, his wind would fail; he
would weaken, falter, and then her blade would slide smoothly into his
heart. A sidelong glance showed her Techotl kneeling on the breast of
his antagonist and striving to break the other's hold on his wrist and
to drive home a dagger.

Sweat beaded the forehead of the man facing her, and his eyes were like
burning coals. Smite as he would, he could not break past nor beat down
her guard. His breath came in gusty gulps, his blows began to fall
erratically. She stepped back to draw him out--and felt her thighs
locked in an iron grip. She had forgotten the wounded man on the floor.

Crouching on his knees, he held her with both arms locked about her
legs, and his mate croaked in triumph and began working his way around
to come at her from the left side. Valeria wrenched and tore savagely,
but in vain. She could free herself of this clinging menace with a
downward flick of her sword, but in that instant the curved blade of the
tall warrior would crash through her skull. The wounded man began to
worry at her bare thigh with his teeth like a wild beast.

She reached down with her left hand and gripped his long hair, forcing
his head back so that his white teeth and rolling eyes gleamed up at
her. The tall Xotalanc cried out fiercely and leaped in, smiting with
all the fury of his arm. Awkwardly she parried the stroke, and it beat
the flat of her blade down on her head so that she saw sparks flash
before her eyes, and staggered. Up went the sword again, with a low,
beast-like cry of triumph--and then a giant form loomed behind the
Xotalanc and steel flashed like a jet of blue lightning. The cry of the
warrior broke short and he went down like an ox beneath the pole-ax, his
brains gushing from his skull that had been split to the throat.

"Conan!" gasped Valeria. In a gust of passion she turned on the Xotalanc
whose long hair she still gripped in her left hand. "Dog of hell!" Her
blade swished as it cut the air in an upswinging arc with a blur in the
middle, and the headless body slumped down, spurting blood. She hurled
the severed head across the room.

"What the devil's going on here?" Conan bestrode the corpse of the man
he had killed, broadsword in hand, glaring about him in amazement.

Techotl was rising from the twitching figure of the last Xotalanc,
shaking red drops from his dagger. He was bleeding from the stab deep in
the thigh. He stared at Conan with dilated eyes.

"What is all this?" Conan demanded again, not yet recovered from the
stunning surprise of finding Valeria engaged in a savage battle with
these fantastic figures in a city he had thought empty and uninhabited.
Returning from an aimless exploration of the upper chambers to find
Valeria missing from the room where he had left her, he had followed the
sounds of strife that burst on his dumbfounded ears.

"Five dead dogs!" exclaimed Techotl, his flaming eyes reflecting a
ghastly exultation. "Five slain! Five crimson nails for the black
pillar! The gods of blood be thanked!"

He lifted quivering hands on high, and then, with the face of a fiend,
he spat on the corpses and stamped on their faces, dancing in his
ghoulish glee. His recent allies eyed him in amazement, and Conan asked,
in the Aquilonian tongue: "Who is this madman?"

Valeria shrugged her shoulders.

"He says his name's Techotl. From his babblings I gather that his people
live at one end of this crazy city, and these others at the other end.
Maybe we'd better go with him. He seems friendly, and it's easy to see
that the other clan isn't."

       *       *       *       *       *

Techotl had ceased his dancing and was listening again, his head tilted
sidewise, dog-like, triumph struggling with fear in his repellent
countenance.

"Come away, now!" he whispered. "We have done enough! Five dead dogs! My
people will welcome you! They will honor you! But come! It is far to
Tecuhltli. At any moment the Xotalancas may come on us in numbers too
great even for your swords."

"Lead the way," grunted Conan.

Techotl instantly mounted a stair leading up to the gallery, beckoning
them to follow him, which they did, moving rapidly to keep on his heels.
Having reached the gallery, he plunged into a door that opened toward
the west, and hurried through chamber after chamber, each lighted by
skylights or green fire-jewels.

"What sort of a place can this be?" muttered Valeria under her breath.

"Crom knows!" answered Conan. "I've seen _his_ kind before, though. They
live on the shores of Lake Zuad, near the border of Kush. They're a sort
of mongrel Stygians, mixed with another race that wandered into Stygia
from the east some centuries ago and were absorbed by them. They're
called Tlazitlans. I'm willing to bet it wasn't they who built this
city, though."

Techotl's fear did not seem to diminish as they drew away from the
chamber where the dead men lay. He kept twisting his head on his
shoulder to listen for sounds of pursuit, and stared with burning
intensity into every doorway they passed.

Valeria shivered in spite of herself. She feared no man. But the weird
floor beneath her feet, the uncanny jewels over her head, dividing the
lurking shadows among them, the stealth and terror of their guide,
impressed her with a nameless apprehension, a sensation of lurking,
inhuman peril.

"They may be between us and Tecuhltli!" he whispered once. "We must
beware lest they be lying in wait!"

"Why don't we get out of this infernal palace, and take to the streets?"
demanded Valeria.

"There are no streets in Xuchotl," he answered. "No squares nor open
courts. The whole city is built like one giant palace under one great
roof. The nearest approach to a street is the Great Hall which traverses
the city from the north gate to the south gate. The only doors opening
into the outer world are the city gates, through which no living man has
passed for fifty years."

"How long have you dwelt here?" asked Conan.

"I was born in the castle of Tecuhltli thirty-five years ago. I have
never set foot outside the city. For the love of the gods, let us go
silently! These halls may be full of lurking devils. Olmec shall tell
you all when we reach Tecuhltli."

So in silence they glided on with the green fire-stones blinking
overhead and the flaming floors smoldering under their feet, and it
seemed to Valeria as if they fled through hell, guided by a dark-faced,
lank-haired goblin.

Yet it was Conan who halted them as they were crossing an unusually wide
chamber. His wilderness-bred ears were keener even than the ears of
Techotl, whetted though these were by a lifetime of warfare in those
silent corridors.

"You think some of your enemies may be ahead of us, lying in ambush?"

"They prowl through these rooms at all hours," answered Techotl, "as do
we. The halls and chambers between Tecuhltli and Xotalanc are a disputed
region, owned by no man. We call it the Halls of Silence. Why do you
ask?"

"Because men are in the chambers ahead of us," answered Conan. "I heard
steel clink against stone."

Again a shaking seized Techotl, and he clenched his teeth to keep them
from chattering.

"Perhaps they are your friends," suggested Valeria.

"We dare not chance it," he panted, and moved with frenzied activity. He
turned aside and glided through a doorway on the left which led into a
chamber from which an ivory staircase wound down into darkness.

"This leads to an unlighted corridor below us!" he hissed, great beads
of perspiration standing out on his brow. "They may be lurking there,
too. It may all be a trick to draw us into it. But we must take the
chance that they have laid their ambush in the rooms above. Come
swiftly, now!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Softly as phantoms they descended the stair and came to the mouth of a
corridor black as night. They crouched there for a moment, listening,
and then melted into it. As they moved along, Valeria's flesh crawled
between her shoulders in momentary expectation of a sword-thrust in the
dark. But for Conan's iron fingers gripping her arm she had no physical
cognizance of her companions. Neither made as much noise as a cat would
have made. The darkness was absolute. One hand, outstretched, touched a
wall, and occasionally she felt a door under her fingers. The hallway
seemed interminable.

Suddenly they were galvanized by a sound behind them. Valeria's flesh
crawled anew, for she recognized it as the soft opening of a door. Men
had come into the corridor behind them. Even with the thought she
stumbled over something that felt like a human skull. It rolled across
the floor with an appalling clatter.

"Run!" yelped Techotl, a note of hysteria in his voice, and was away
down the corridor like a flying ghost.

Again Valeria felt Conan's hand bearing her up and sweeping her along as
they raced after their guide. Conan could see in the dark no better than
she, but he possessed a sort of instinct that made his course unerring.
Without his support and guidance she would have fallen or stumbled
against the wall. Down the corridor they sped, while the swift patter of
flying feet drew closer and closer, and then suddenly Techotl panted:
"Here is the stair! After me, quick! Oh, quick!"

His hand came out of the dark and caught Valeria's wrist as she stumbled
blindly on the steps. She felt herself half dragged, half lifted up the
winding stair, while Conan released her and turned on the steps, his
ears and instincts telling him their foes were hard at their backs. _And
the sounds were not all those of human feet._

Something came writhing up the steps, something that slithered and
rustled and brought a chill in the air with it. Conan lashed down with
his great sword and felt the blade shear through something that might
have been flesh and bone, and cut deep into the stair beneath. Something
touched his foot that chilled like the touch of frost, and then the
darkness beneath him was disturbed by a frightful thrashing and lashing,
and a man cried out in agony.

The next moment Conan was racing up the winding staircase, and through a
door that stood open at the head.

Valeria and Techotl were already through, and Techotl slammed the door
and shot a bolt across it--the first Conan had seen since they left the
outer gate.

Then he turned and ran across the well-lighted chamber into which they
had come, and as they passed through the farther door, Conan glanced
back and saw the door groaning and straining under heavy pressure
violently applied from the other side.

Though Techotl did not abate either his speed or his caution, he seemed
more confident now. He had the air of a man who has come into familiar
territory, within call of friends.

But Conan renewed his terror by asking: "What was that thing that I
fought on the stair?"

"The men of Xotalanc," answered Techotl, without looking back. "I told
you the halls were full of them."

"This wasn't a man," grunted Conan. "It was something that crawled, and
it was as cold as ice to the touch. I think I cut it asunder. It fell
back on the men who were following us, and must have killed one of them
in its death throes."

Techotl's head jerked back, his face ashy again. Convulsively he
quickened his pace.

"It was the Crawler! A monster _they_ have brought out of the catacombs
to aid them! What it is, we do not know, but we have found our people
hideously slain by it. In Set's name, hasten! If they put it on our
trail, it will follow us to the very doors of Tecuhltli!"

"I doubt it," grunted Conan. "That was a shrewd cut I dealt it on the
stair."

"Hasten! Hasten!" groaned Techotl.

They ran through a series of green-lit chambers, traversed a broad hall,
and halted before a giant bronze door.

Techotl said: "This is Tecuhltli!"



_3. The People of the Feud_


Techotl smote on the bronze door with his clenched hand, and then turned
sidewise, so that he could watch back along the hall.

"Men have been smitten down before this door, when they thought they
were safe," he said.

"Why don't they open the door?" asked Conan.

"They are looking at us through the Eye," answered Techotl. "They are
puzzled at the sight of you." He lifted his voice and called: "Open the
door, Xecelan! It is I, Techotl, with friends from the great world
beyond the forest!--They will open," he assured his allies.

"They'd better do it in a hurry, then," said Conan grimly. "I hear
something crawling along the floor beyond the hall."

Techotl went ashy again and attacked the door with his fists, screaming:
"Open, you fools, open! The Crawler is at our heels!"

Even as he beat and shouted, the great bronze door swung noiselessly
back, revealing a heavy chain across the entrance, over which
spear-heads bristled and fierce countenances regarded them intently for
an instant. Then the chain was dropped and Techotl grasped the arms of
his friends in a nervous frenzy and fairly dragged them over the
threshold. A glance over his shoulder just as the door was closing
showed Conan the long dim vista of the hall, and dimly framed at the
other end an ophidian shape that writhed slowly and painfully into view,
flowing in a dull-hued length from a chamber door, its hideous
blood-stained head wagging drunkenly. Then the closing door shut off the
view.

Inside the square chamber into which they had come heavy bolts were
drawn across the door, and the chain locked into place. The door was
made to stand the battering of a siege. Four men stood on guard, of the
same lank-haired, dark-skinned breed as Techotl, with spears in their
hands and swords at their hips. In the wall near the door there was a
complicated contrivance of mirrors which Conan guessed was the Eye
Techotl had mentioned, so arranged that a narrow, crystal-paned slot in
the wall could be looked through from within without being discernible
from without. The four guardsmen stared at the strangers with wonder,
but asked no question, nor did Techotl vouchsafe any information. He
moved with easy confidence now, as if he had shed his cloak of
indecision and fear the instant he crossed the threshold.

"Come!" he urged his new-found friends, but Conan glanced toward the
door.

"What about those fellows who were following us? Won't they try to storm
that door?"

Techotl shook his head.

"They know they cannot break down the Door of the Eagle. They will flee
back to Xotalanc, with their crawling fiend. Come! I will take you to
the rulers of Tecuhltli."

       *       *       *       *       *

One of the four guards opened the door opposite the one by which they
had entered, and they passed through into a hallway which, like most of
the rooms on that level, was lighted by both the slot-like skylights and
the clusters of winking fire-gems. But unlike the other rooms they had
traversed, this hall showed evidences of occupation. Velvet tapestries
adorned the glossy jade walls, rich rugs were on the crimson floors, and
the ivory seats, benches and divans were littered with satin cushions.

The hall ended in an ornate door, before which stood no guard. Without
ceremony Techotl thrust the door open and ushered his friends into a
broad chamber, where some thirty dark-skinned men and women lounging on
satin-covered couches sprang up with exclamations of amazement.

The men, all except one, were of the same type as Techotl, and the women
were equally dark and strange-eyed, though not unbeautiful in a weird
dark way. They wore sandals, golden breast-plates, and scanty silk
skirts supported by gem-crusted girdles, and their black manes, cut
square at their naked shoulders, were bound with silver circlets.

On a wide ivory seat on a jade dais sat a man and a woman who differed
subtly from the others. He was a giant, with an enormous sweep of breast
and the shoulders of a bull. Unlike the others, he was bearded, with a
thick, blue-black beard which fell almost to his broad girdle. He wore a
robe of purple silk which reflected changing sheens of color with his
every movement, and one wide sleeve, drawn back to his elbow, revealed a
forearm massive with corded muscles. The band which confined his
blue-black locks was set with glittering jewels.

The woman beside him sprang to her feet with a startled exclamation as
the strangers entered, and her eyes, passing over Conan, fixed
themselves with burning intensity on Valeria. She was tall and lithe, by
far the most beautiful woman in the room. She was clad more scantily
even than the others; for instead of a skirt she wore merely a broad
strip of gilt-worked purple cloth fastened to the middle of her girdle
which fell below her knees. Another strip at the back of her girdle
completed that part of her costume, which she wore with a cynical
indifference. Her breast-plates and the circlet about her temples were
adorned with gems. In her eyes alone of all the dark-skinned people
there lurked no brooding gleam of madness. She spoke no word after her
first exclamation; she stood tensely, her hands clenched, staring at
Valeria.

The man on the ivory seat had not risen.

"Prince Olmec," spoke Techotl, bowing low, with arms outspread and the
palms of his hands turned upward, "I bring allies from the world beyond
the forest. In the Chamber of Tezcoti the Burning Skull slew Chicmec, my
companion----"

"The Burning Skull!" It was a shuddering whisper of fear from the people
of Tecuhltli.

"Aye! Then came I, and found Chicmec lying with his throat cut. Before I
could flee, the Burning Skull came upon me, and when I looked upon it my
blood became as ice and the marrow of my bones melted. I could neither
fight nor run. I could only await the stroke. Then came this
white-skinned woman and struck him down with her sword; and lo, it was
only a dog of Xotalanc with white paint upon his skin and the living
skull of an ancient wizard upon his head! Now that skull lies in many
pieces, and the dog who wore it is a dead man!"

An indescribably fierce exultation edged the last sentence, and was
echoed in the low, savage exclamations from the crowding listeners.

"But wait!" exclaimed Techotl. "There is more! While I talked with the
woman, four Xotalancas came upon us! One I slew--there is the stab in my
thigh to prove how desperate was the fight. Two the woman killed. But we
were hard pressed when this man came into the fray and split the skull
of the fourth! Aye! Five crimson nails there are to be driven into the
pillar of vengeance!"

He pointed at a black column of ebony which stood behind the dais.
Hundreds of red dots scarred its polished surface--the bright scarlet
heads of heavy copper nails driven into the black wood.

"Five red nails for five Xotalanca lives!" exulted Techotl, and the
horrible exultation in the faces of the listeners made them inhuman.

"Who are these people?" asked Olmec, and his voice was like the low,
deep rumble of a distant bull. None of the people of Xuchotl spoke
loudly. It was as if they had absorbed into their souls the silence of
the empty halls and deserted chambers.

"I am Conan, a Cimmerian," answered the barbarian briefly. "This woman
is Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, an Aquilonian pirate. We are
deserters from an army on the Darfar border, far to the north, and are
trying to reach the coast."

The woman on the dais spoke loudly, her words tripping in her haste.

"You can never reach the coast! There is no escape from Xuchotl! You
will spend the rest of your lives in this city!"

"What do you mean?" growled Conan, clapping his hand to his hilt and
stepping about so as to face both the dais and the rest of the room.
"Are you telling us we're prisoners?"

"She did not mean that," interposed Olmec. "We are your friends. We
would not restrain you against your will. But I fear other circumstances
will make it impossible for you to leave Xuchotl."

His eyes flickered to Valeria, and he lowered them quickly.

"This woman is Tascela," he said. "She is a princess of Tecuhltli. But
let food and drink be brought our guests. Doubtless they are hungry, and
weary from their long travels."

He indicated an ivory table, and after an exchange of glances, the
adventurers seated themselves. The Cimmerian was suspicious. His fierce
blue eyes roved about the chamber, and he kept his sword close to his
hand. But an invitation to eat and drink never found him backward. His
eyes kept wandering to Tascela, but the princess had eyes only for his
white-skinned companion.

       *       *       *       *       *

Techotl, who had bound a strip of silk about his wounded thigh, placed
himself at the table to attend to the wants of his friends, seeming to
consider it a privilege and honor to see after their needs. He inspected
the food and drink the others brought in gold vessels and dishes, and
tasted each before he placed it before his guests. While they ate, Olmec
sat in silence on his ivory seat, watching them from under his broad
black brows. Tascela sat beside him, chin cupped in her hands and her
elbows resting on her knees. Her dark, enigmatic eyes, burning with a
mysterious light, never left Valeria's supple figure. Behind her seat a
sullen handsome girl waved an ostrich-plume fan with a slow rhythm.

The food was fruit of an exotic kind unfamiliar to the wanderers, but
very palatable, and the drink was a light crimson wine that carried a
heady tang.

"You have come from afar," said Olmec at last. "I have read the books of
our fathers. Aquilonia lies beyond the lands of the Stygians and the
Shemites, beyond Argos and Zingara; and Cimmeria lies beyond Aquilonia."

"We have each a roving foot," answered Conan carelessly.

"How you won through the forest is a wonder to me," quoth Olmec. "In
bygone days a thousand fighting-men scarcely were able to carve a road
through its perils."

"We encountered a bench-legged monstrosity about the size of a
mastodon," said Conan casually, holding out his wine goblet which
Techotl filled with evident pleasure. "But when we'd killed it we had no
further trouble."

The wine vessel slipped from Techotl's hand to crash on the floor. His
dusky skin went ashy. Olmec started to his feet, an image of stunned
amazement, and a low gasp of awe or terror breathed up from the others.
Some slipped to their knees as if their legs would not support them.
Only Tascela seemed not to have heard. Conan glared about him
bewilderedly.

"What's the matter? What are you gaping about?"

"You--you slew the dragon-god?"

"God? I killed a dragon. Why not? It was trying to gobble us up."

"But dragons are immortal!" exclaimed Olmec. "They slay each other, but
no man ever killed a dragon! The thousand fighting-men of our ancestors
who fought their way to Xuchotl could not prevail against them! Their
swords broke like twigs against their scales!"

"If your ancestors had thought to dip their spears in the poisonous
juice of Derketa's Apples," quoth Conan, with his mouth full, "and jab
them in the eyes or mouth or somewhere like that, they'd have seen that
dragons are not more immortal than any other chunk of beef. The carcass
lies at the edge of the trees, just within the forest. If you don't
believe me, go and look for yourself."

Olmec shook his head, not in disbelief but in wonder.

"It was because of the dragons that our ancestors took refuge in
Xuchotl," said he. "They dared not pass through the plain and plunge
into the forest beyond. Scores of them were seized and devoured by the
monsters before they could reach the city."

"Then your ancestors didn't build Xuchotl?" asked Valeria.

"It was ancient when they first came into the land. How long it had
stood here, not even its degenerate inhabitants knew."

"Your people came from Lake Zuad?" questioned Conan.

"Aye. More than half a century ago a tribe of the Tlazitlans rebelled
against the Stygian king, and, being defeated in battle, fled southward.
For many weeks they wandered over grasslands, desert and hills, and at
last they came into the great forest, a thousand fighting-men with their
women and children.

"It was in the forest that the dragons fell upon them, and tore many to
pieces; so the people fled in a frenzy of fear before them, and at last
came into the plain and saw the city of Xuchotl in the midst of it.

"They camped before the city, not daring to leave the plain, for the
night was made hideous with the noise of the battling monsters
throughout the forest. They made war incessantly upon one another. Yet
they came not into the plain.

"The people of the city shut their gates and shot arrows at our people
from the walls. The Tlazitlans were imprisoned on the plain, as if the
ring of the forest had been a great wall; for to venture into the woods
would have been madness.

"That night there came secretly to their camp a slave from the city, one
of their own blood, who with a band of exploring soldiers had wandered
into the forest long before, when he was a young man. The dragons had
devoured all his companions, but he had been taken into the city to
dwell in servitude. His name was Tolkemec." A flame lighted the dark
eyes at mention of the name, and some of the people muttered obscenely
and spat. "He promised to open the gates to the warriors. He asked only
that all captives taken be delivered into his hands.

"At dawn he opened the gates. The warriors swarmed in and the halls of
Xuchotl ran red. Only a few hundred folk dwelt there, decaying remnants
of a once great race. Tolkemec said they came from the east, long ago,
from Old Kosala, when the ancestors of those who now dwell in Kosala
came up from the south and drove forth the original inhabitants of the
land. They wandered far westward and finally found this forest-girdled
plain, inhabited then by a tribe of black people.

"These they enslaved and set to building a city. From the hills to the
east they brought jade and marble and lapis lazuli, and gold, silver and
copper. Herds of elephants provided them with ivory. When their city was
completed, they slew all the black slaves. And their magicians made a
terrible magic to guard the city; for by their necromantic arts they
re-created the dragons which had once dwelt in this lost land, and whose
monstrous bones they found in the forest. Those bones they clothed in
flesh and life, and the living beasts walked the earth as they walked it
when Time was young. But the wizards wove a spell that kept them in the
forest and they came not into the plain.

       *       *       *       *       *

"So for many centuries the people of Xuchotl dwelt in their city,
cultivating the fertile plain, until their wise men learned how to grow
fruit within the city--fruit which is not planted in soil, but obtains
its nourishment out of the air--and then they let the irrigation ditches
run dry, and dwelt more and more in luxurious sloth, until decay seized
them. They were a dying race when our ancestors broke through the forest
and came into the plain. Their wizards had died, and the people had
forgot their ancient necromancy. They could fight neither by sorcery nor
the sword.

"Well, our fathers slew the people of Xuchotl, all except a hundred
which were given living into the hands of Tolkemec, who had been their
slave; and for many days and nights the halls re-echoed to their screams
under the agony of his tortures.

"So the Tlazitlans dwelt here, for a while in peace, ruled by the
brothers Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, and by Tolkemec. Tolkemec took a girl
of the tribe to wife, and because he had opened the gates, and because
he knew many of the arts of the Xuchotlans, he shared the rule of the
tribe with the brothers who had led the rebellion and the flight.

"For a few years, then, they dwelt at peace within the city, doing
little but eating, drinking and making love, and raising children. There
was no necessity to till the plain, for Tolkemec taught them how to
cultivate the air-devouring fruits. Besides, the slaying of the
Xuchotlans broke the spell that held the dragons in the forest, and they
came nightly and bellowed about the gates of the city. The plain ran red
with the blood of their eternal warfare, and it was then that----" He
bit his tongue in the midst of the sentence, then presently continued,
but Valeria and Conan felt that he had checked an admission he had
considered unwise.

"Five years they dwelt in peace. Then"--Olmec's eyes rested briefly on
the silent woman at his side--"Xotalanc took a woman to wife, a woman
whom both Tecuhltli and old Tolkemec desired. In his madness, Tecuhltli
stole her from her husband. Aye, she went willingly enough. Tolkemec, to
spite Xotalanc, aided Tecuhltli. Xotalanc demanded that she be given
back to him, and the council of the tribe decided that the matter should
be left to the woman. She chose to remain with Tecuhltli. In wrath
Xotalanc sought to take her back by force, and the retainers of the
brothers came to blows in the Great Hall.

"There was much bitterness. Blood was shed on both sides. The quarrel
became a feud, the feud an open war. From the welter three factions
emerged--Tecuhltli, Xotalanc, and Tolkemec. Already, in the days of
peace, they had divided the city between them. Tecuhltli dwelt in the
western quarter of the city, Xotalanc in the eastern, and Tolkemec with
his family by the southern gate.

"Anger and resentment and jealousy blossomed into bloodshed and rape and
murder. Once the sword was drawn there was no turning back; for blood
called for blood, and vengeance followed swift on the heels of atrocity.
Tecuhltli fought with Xotalanc, and Tolkemec aided first one and then
the other, betraying each faction as it fitted his purposes. Tecuhltli
and his people withdrew into the quarter of the western gate, where we
now sit. Xuchotl is built in the shape of an oval. Tecuhltli, which took
its name from its prince, occupies the western end of the oval. The
people blocked up all doors connecting the quarter with the rest of the
city, except one on each floor, which could be defended easily. They
went into the pits below the city and built a wall cutting off the
western end of the catacombs, where lie the bodies of the ancient
Xuchotlans, and of those Tlazitlans slain in the feud. They dwelt as in
a besieged castle, making sorties and forays on their enemies.

"The people of Xotalanc likewise fortified the eastern quarter of the
city, and Tolkemec did likewise with the quarter by the southern gate.
The central part of the city was left bare and uninhabited. Those empty
halls and chambers became a battleground, and a region of brooding
terror.

"Tolkemec warred on both clans. He was a fiend in the form of a human,
worse than Xotalanc. He knew many secrets of the city he never told the
others. From the crypts of the catacombs he plundered the dead of their
grisly secrets--secrets of ancient kings and wizards, long forgotten by
the degenerate Xuchotlans our ancestors slew. But all his magic did not
aid him the night we of Tecuhltli stormed his castle and butchered all
his people. Tolkemec we tortured for many days."

His voice sank to a caressing slur, and a far-away look grew in his
eyes, as if he looked back over the years to a scene which caused him
intense pleasure.

"Aye, we kept the life in him until he screamed for death as for a
bride. At last we took him living from the torture chamber and cast him
into a dungeon for the rats to gnaw as he died. From that dungeon,
somehow, he managed to escape, and dragged himself into the catacombs.
There without doubt he died, for the only way out of the catacombs
beneath Tecuhltli is through Tecuhltli, and he never emerged by that
way. His bones were never found, and the superstitious among our people
swear that his ghost haunts the crypts to this day, wailing among the
bones of the dead. Twelve years ago we butchered the people of Tolkemec,
but the feud raged on between Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, as it will rage
until the last man, the last woman is dead.

"It was fifty years ago that Tecuhltli stole the wife of Xotalanc. Half
a century the feud has endured. I was born in it. All in this chamber,
except Tascela, were born in it. We expect to die in it.

"We are a dying race, even as those Xuchotlans our ancestors slew. When
the feud began there were hundreds in each faction. Now we of Tecuhltli
number only these you see before you, and the men who guard the four
doors: forty in all. How many Xotalancas there are we do not know, but I
doubt if they are much more numerous than we. For fifteen years no
children have been born to us, and we have seen none among the
Xotalancas.

"We are dying, but before we die we will slay as many of the men of
Xotalanc as the gods permit."

And with his weird eyes blazing, Olmec spoke long of that grisly feud,
fought out in silent chambers and dim halls under the blaze of the
green fire-jewels, on floors smoldering with the flames of hell and
splashed with deeper crimson from severed veins. In that long butchery a
whole generation had perished. Xotalanc was dead, long ago, slain in a
grim battle on an ivory stair. Tecuhltli was dead, flayed alive by the
maddened Xotalancas who had captured him.

Without emotion Olmec told of hideous battles fought in black corridors,
of ambushes on twisting stairs, and red butcheries. With a redder, more
abysmal gleam in his deep dark eyes he told of men and women flayed
alive, mutilated and dismembered, of captives howling under tortures so
ghastly that even the barbarous Cimmerian grunted. No wonder Techotl had
trembled with the terror of capture. Yet he had gone forth to slay if he
could, driven by hate that was stronger than his fear. Olmec spoke
further, of dark and mysterious matters, of black magic and wizardry
conjured out of the black night of the catacombs, of weird creatures
invoked out of darkness for horrible allies. In these things the
Xotalancas had the advantage, for it was in the eastern catacombs where
lay the bones of the greatest wizards of the ancient Xuchotlans, with
their immemorial secrets.

       *       *       *       *       *

Valeria listened with morbid fascination. The feud had become a terrible
elemental power driving the people of Xuchotl inexorably on to doom and
extinction. It filled their whole lives. They were born in it, and they
expected to die in it. They never left their barricaded castle except to
steal forth into the Halls of Silence that lay between the opposing
fortresses, to slay and be slain. Sometimes the raiders returned with
frantic captives, or with grim tokens of victory in fight. Sometimes
they did not return at all, or returned only as severed limbs cast down
before the bolted bronze doors. It was a ghastly, unreal nightmare
existence these people lived, shut off from the rest of the world,
caught together like rabid rats in the same trap, butchering one another
through the years, crouching and creeping through the sunless corridors
to maim and torture and murder.

While Olmec talked, Valeria felt the blazing eyes of Tascela fixed upon
her. The princess seemed not to hear what Olmec was saying. Her
expression, as he narrated victories or defeats, did not mirror the wild
rage or fiendish exultation that alternated on the faces of the other
Tecuhltli. The feud that was an obsession to her clansmen seemed
meaningless to her. Valeria found her indifferent callousness more
repugnant than Olmec's naked ferocity.

"And we can never leave the city," said Olmec. "For fifty years no one
has left it except those----" Again he checked himself.

"Even without the peril of the dragons," he continued, "we who were born
and raised in the city would not dare leave it. We have never set foot
outside the walls. We are not accustomed to the open sky and the naked
sun. No; we were born in Xuchotl, and in Xuchotl we shall die."

"Well," said Conan, "with your leave we'll take our chances with the
dragons. This feud is none of our business. If you'll show us to the
west gate, we'll be on our way."

Tascela's hands clenched, and she started to speak, but Olmec
interrupted her: "It is nearly nightfall. If you wander forth into the
plain by night, you will certainly fall prey to the dragons."

"We crossed it last night, and slept in the open without seeing any,"
returned Conan.

Tascela smiled mirthlessly. "You dare not leave Xuchotl!"

Conan glared at her with instinctive antagonism; she was not looking at
him, but at the woman opposite him.

"I think they dare," retorted Olmec. "But look you, Conan and Valeria,
the gods must have sent you to us, to cast victory into the laps of the
Tecuhltli! You are professional fighters--why not fight for us? We have
wealth in abundance--precious jewels are as common in Xuchotl as
cobblestones are in the cities of the world. Some the Xuchotlans brought
with them from Kosala. Some, like the fire-stones, they found in the
hills to the east. Aid us to wipe out the Xotalancas, and we will give
you all the jewels you can carry."

"And will you help us destroy the dragons?" asked Valeria. "With bows
and poisoned arrows thirty men could slay all the dragons in the
forest."

"Aye!" replied Olmec promptly. "We have forgotten the use of the bow, in
years of hand-to-hand fighting, but we can learn again."

"What do you say?" Valeria inquired of Conan.

"We're both penniless vagabonds," he grinned hardily. "I'd as soon kill
Xotalancas as anybody."

"Then you agree?" exclaimed Olmec, while Techotl fairly hugged himself
with delight.

"Aye. And now suppose you show us chambers where we can sleep, so we can
be fresh tomorrow for the beginning of the slaying."

Olmec nodded, and waved a hand, and Techotl and a woman led the
adventurers into a corridor which led through a door off to the left of
the jade dais. A glance back showed Valeria Olmec sitting on his throne,
chin on knotted fist, staring after them. His eyes burned with a weird
flame. Tascela leaned back in her seat, whispering to the sullen-faced
maid, Yasala, who leaned over her shoulder, her ear to the princess'
moving lips.

       *       *       *       *       *

The hallway was not so broad as most they had traversed, but it was
long. Presently the woman halted, opened a door, and drew aside for
Valeria to enter.

"Wait a minute," growled Conan. "Where do I sleep?"

Techotl pointed to a chamber across the hallway, but one door farther
down. Conan hesitated, and seemed inclined to raise an objection, but
Valeria smiled spitefully at him and shut the door in his face. He
muttered something uncomplimentary about women in general, and strode
off down the corridor after Techotl.

In the ornate chamber where he was to sleep, he glanced up at the
slot-like skylights. Some were wide enough to admit the body of a
slender man, supposing the glass were broken.

"Why don't the Xotalancas come over the roofs and shatter those
skylights?" he asked.

"They cannot be broken," answered Techotl. "Besides, the roofs would be
hard to clamber over. They are mostly spires and domes and steep
ridges."

He volunteered more information about the "castle" of Tecuhltli. Like
the rest of the city it contained four stories, or tiers of chambers,
with towers jutting up from the roof. Each tier was named; indeed, the
people of Xuchotl had a name for each chamber, hall and stair in the
city, as people of more normal cities designate streets and quarters. In
Tecuhltli the floors were named The Eagle's Tier, The Ape's Tier, The
Tiger's Tier and The Serpent's Tier, in the order as enumerated, The
Eagle's Tier being the highest, or fourth, floor.

"Who is Tascela?" asked Conan. "Olmec's wife?"

Techotl shuddered and glanced furtively about him before answering.

"No. She is--Tascela! She was the wife of Xotalanc--the woman Tecuhltli
stole, to start the feud."

"What are you talking about?" demanded Conan. "That woman is beautiful
and young. Are you trying to tell me that she was a wife fifty years
ago?"

"Aye! I swear it! She was a full-grown woman when the Tlazitlans
journeyed from Lake Zuad. It was because the king of Stygia desired her
for a concubine that Xotalanc and his brother rebelled and fled into the
wilderness. She is a witch, who possesses the secret of perpetual
youth."

"What's that?" asked Conan.

Techotl shuddered again.

"Ask me not! I dare not speak. It is too grisly, even for Xuchotl!"

And touching his finger to his lips, he glided from the chamber.



_4. Scent of Black Lotus_


Valeria unbuckled her sword-belt and laid it with the sheathed weapon on
the couch where she meant to sleep. She noted that the doors were
supplied with bolts, and asked where they led.

"Those lead into adjoining chambers," answered the woman, indicating the
doors on right and left. "That one"--pointing to a copper-bound door
opposite that which opened into the corridor--"leads to a corridor which
runs to a stair that descends into the catacombs. Do not fear; naught
can harm you here."

"Who spoke of fear?" snapped Valeria. "I just like to know what sort of
harbor I'm dropping anchor in. No, I don't want you to sleep at the foot
of my couch. I'm not accustomed to being waited on--not by women,
anyway. You have my leave to go."

Alone in the room, the pirate shot the bolts on all the doors, kicked
off her boots and stretched luxuriously out on the couch. She imagined
Conan similarly situated across the corridor, but her feminine vanity
prompted her to visualize him as scowling and muttering with chagrin as
he cast himself on his solitary couch, and she grinned with gleeful
malice as she prepared herself for slumber.

Outside, night had fallen. In the halls of Xuchotl the green fire-jewels
blazed like the eyes of prehistoric cats. Somewhere among the dark
towers a night wind moaned like a restless spirit. Through the dim
passages stealthy figures began stealing, like disembodied shadows.

Valeria awoke suddenly on her couch. In the dusky emerald glow of the
fire-gems she saw a shadowy figure bending over her. For a bemused
instant the apparition seemed part of the dream she had been dreaming.
She had seemed to lie on the couch in the chamber as she was actually
lying, while over her pulsed and throbbed a gigantic black blossom so
enormous that it hid the ceiling. Its exotic perfume pervaded her being,
inducing a delicious, sensuous languor that was something more and less
than sleep. She was sinking into scented billows of insensible bliss,
when something touched her face. So supersensitive were her drugged
senses, that the light touch was like a dislocating impact, jolting her
rudely into full wakefulness. Then it was that she saw, not a gargantuan
blossom, but a dark-skinned woman standing above her.

With the realization came anger and instant action. The woman turned
lithely, but before she could run Valeria was on her feet and had caught
her arm. She fought like a wildcat for an instant, and then subsided as
she felt herself crushed by the superior strength of her captor. The
pirate wrenched the woman around to face her, caught her chin with her
free hand and forced her captive to meet her gaze. It was the sullen
Yasala, Tascela's maid.

"What the devil were you doing bending over me? What's that in your
hand?"

The woman made no reply, but sought to cast away the object. Valeria
twisted her arm around in front of her, and the thing fell to the
floor--a great black exotic blossom on a jade-green stem, large as a
woman's head, to be sure, but tiny beside the exaggerated vision she had
seen.

"The black lotus!" said Valeria between her teeth. "The blossom whose
scent brings deep sleep. You were trying to drug me! If you hadn't
accidentally touched my face with the petals, you'd have--why did you do
it? What's your game?"

Yasala maintained a sulky silence, and with an oath Valeria whirled her
around, forced her to her knees and twisted her arm up behind her back.

"Tell me, or I'll tear your arm out of its socket!"

Yasala squirmed in anguish as her arm was forced excruciatingly up
between her shoulder-blades, but a violent shaking of her head was the
only answer she made.

"Slut!" Valeria cast her from her to sprawl on the floor. The pirate
glared at the prostrate figure with blazing eyes. Fear and the memory of
Tascela's burning eyes stirred in her, rousing all her tigerish
instincts of self-preservation. These people were decadent; any sort of
perversity might be expected to be encountered among them. But Valeria
sensed here something that moved behind the scenes, some secret terror
fouler than common degeneracy. Fear and revulsion of this weird city
swept her. These people were neither sane nor normal; she began to doubt
if they were even human. Madness smoldered in the eyes of them all--all
except the cruel, cryptic eyes of Tascela, which held secrets and
mysteries more abysmal than madness.

She lifted her head and listened intently. The halls of Xuchotl were as
silent as if it were in reality a dead city. The green jewels bathed the
chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor
glittered eerily up at her. A thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria,
driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

"Why did you try to drug me?" she muttered, grasping the woman's black
hair, and forcing her head back to glare into her sullen, long-lashed
eyes. "Did Tascela send you?"

No answer. Valeria cursed venomously and slapped the woman first on one
cheek and then the other. The blows resounded through the room, but
Yasala made no outcry.

"Why don't you scream?" demanded Valeria savagely. "Do you fear someone
will hear you? Whom do you fear? Tascela? Olmec? Conan?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Yasala made no reply. She crouched, watching her captor with eyes
baleful as those of a basilisk. Stubborn silence always fans anger.
Valeria turned and tore a handful of cords from a near-by hanging.

"You sulky slut!" she said between her teeth. "I'm going to strip you
stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me
what you were doing here, and who sent you!"

Yasala made no verbal protest, nor did she offer any resistance, as
Valeria carried out the first part of her threat with a fury that her
captive's obstinacy only sharpened. Then for a space there was no sound
in the chamber except the whistle and crackle of hard-woven silken cords
on naked flesh. Yasala could not move her fast-bound hands or feet. Her
body writhed and quivered under the chastisement, her head swayed from
side to side in rhythm with the blows. Her teeth were sunk into her
lower lip and a trickle of blood began as the punishment continued. But
she did not cry out.

The pliant cords made no great sound as they encountered the quivering
body of the captive; only a sharp crackling snap, but each cord left a
red streak across Yasala's dark flesh. Valeria inflicted the punishment
with all the strength of her war-hardened arm, with all the
mercilessness acquired during a life where pain and torment were daily
happenings, and with all the cynical ingenuity which only a woman
displays toward a woman. Yasala suffered more, physically and mentally,
than she would have suffered under a lash wielded by a man, however
strong.

It was the application of this feminine cynicism which at last tamed
Yasala.

A low whimper escaped from her lips, and Valeria paused, arm lifted, and
raked back a damp yellow lock. "Well, are you going to talk?" she
demanded. "I can keep this up all night, if necessary!"

"Mercy!" whispered the woman. "I will tell."

Valeria cut the cords from her wrists and ankles, and pulled her to her
feet. Yasala sank down on the couch, half reclining on one bare hip,
supporting herself on her arm, and writhing at the contact of her
smarting flesh with the couch. She was trembling in every limb.

"Wine!" she begged, dry-lipped, indicating with a quivering hand a gold
vessel on an ivory table. "Let me drink. I am weak with pain. Then I
will tell you all."

Valeria picked up the vessel, and Yasala rose unsteadily to receive it.
She took it, raised it toward her lips--then dashed the contents full
into the Aquilonian's face. Valeria reeled backward, shaking and clawing
the stinging liquid out of her eyes. Through a smarting mist she saw
Yasala dart across the room, fling back a bolt, throw open the
copper-bound door and run down the hall. The pirate was after her
instantly, sword out and murder in her heart.

But Yasala had the start, and she ran with the nervous agility of a
woman who has just been whipped to the point of hysterical frenzy. She
rounded a corner in the corridor, yards ahead of Valeria, and when the
pirate turned it, she saw only an empty hall, and at the other end a
door that gaped blackly. A damp moldy scent reeked up from it, and
Valeria shivered. That must be the door that led to the catacombs.
Yasala had taken refuge among the dead.

Valeria advanced to the door and looked down a flight of stone steps
that vanished quickly into utter blackness. Evidently it was a shaft
that led straight to the pits below the city, without opening upon any
of the lower floors. She shivered slightly at the thought of the
thousands of corpses lying in their stone crypts down there, wrapped in
their moldering cloths. She had no intention of groping her way down
those stone steps. Yasala doubtless knew every turn and twist of the
subterranean tunnels.

She was turning back, baffled and furious, when a sobbing cry welled up
from the blackness. It seemed to come from a great depth, but human
words were faintly distinguishable, and the voice was that of a woman.
"Oh, help! Help, in Set's name! Ahhh!" It trailed away, and Valeria
thought she caught the echo of a ghostly tittering.

Valeria felt her skin crawl. What had happened to Yasala down there in
the thick blackness? There was no doubt that it had been she who had
cried out. But what peril could have befallen her? Was a Xotalanca
lurking down there? Olmec had assured them that the catacombs below
Tecuhltli were walled off from the rest, too securely for their enemies
to break through. Besides, that tittering had not sounded like a human
being at all.

Valeria hurried back down the corridor, not stopping to close the door
that opened on the stair. Regaining her chamber, she closed the door and
shot the bolt behind her. She pulled on her boots and buckled her
sword-belt about her. She was determined to make her way to Conan's room
and urge him, if he still lived, to join her in an attempt to fight
their way out of that city of devils.

But even as she reached the door that opened into the corridor, a
long-drawn scream of agony rang through the halls, followed by the stamp
of running feet and the loud clangor of swords.



_5. Twenty Red Nails_


Two warriors lounged in the guardroom on the floor known as the Tier of
the Eagle. Their attitude was casual, though habitually alert. An attack
on the great bronze door from without was always a possibility, but for
many years no such assault had been attempted on either side.

"The strangers are strong allies," said one. "Olmec will move against
the enemy tomorrow, I believe."

He spoke as a soldier in a war might have spoken. In the miniature world
of Xuchotl each handful of feudists was an army, and the empty halls
between the castles was the country over which they campaigned.

[Illustration: "Even as he shifted, he hurled the knife."]

The other meditated for a space.

"Suppose with their aid we destroy Xotalanc," he said. "What then,
Xatmec?"

"Why," returned Xatmec, "we will drive red nails for them all. The
captives we will burn and flay and quarter."

"But afterward?" pursued the other. "After we have slain them all? Will
it not seem strange, to have no foes to fight? All my life I have
fought and hated the Xotalancas. With the feud ended, what is left?"

Xatmec shrugged his shoulders. His thoughts had never gone beyond the
destruction of their foes. They could not go beyond that.

Suddenly both men stiffened at a noise outside the door.

"To the door, Xatmec!" hissed the last speaker. "I shall look through
the Eye----"

Xatmec, sword in hand, leaned against the bronze door, straining his ear
to hear through the metal. His mate looked into the mirror. He started
convulsively. Men were clustered thickly outside the door; grim,
dark-faced men with swords gripped in their teeth--_and their fingers
thrust into their ears_. One who wore a feathered head-dress had a set
of pipes which he set to his lips, and even as the Tecuhltli started to
shout a warning, the pipes began to skirl.

The cry died in the guard's throat as the thin, weird piping penetrated
the metal door and smote on his ears. Xatmec leaned frozen against the
door, as if paralyzed in that position. His face was that of a wooden
image, his expression one of horrified listening. The other guard,
farther removed from the source of the sound, yet sensed the horror of
what was taking place, the grisly threat that lay in that demoniac
fifing. He felt the weird strains plucking like unseen fingers at the
tissues of his brain, filling him with alien emotions and impulses of
madness. But with a soul-tearing effort he broke the spell, and shrieked
a warning in a voice he did not recognize as his own.

But even as he cried out, the music changed to an unbearable shrilling
that was like a knife in the ear-drums. Xatmec screamed in sudden agony,
and all the sanity went out of his face like a flame blown out in a
wind. Like a madman he ripped loose the chain, tore open the door and
rushed out into the hall, sword lifted before his mate could stop him. A
dozen blades struck him down, and over his mangled body the Xotalancas
surged into the guardroom, with a long-drawn, blood-mad yell that sent
the unwonted echoes reverberating.

His brain reeling from the shock of it all, the remaining guard leaped
to meet them with goring spear. The horror of the sorcery he had just
witnessed was submerged in the stunning realization that the enemy were
in Tecuhltli. And as his spearhead ripped through a dark-skinned belly
he knew no more, for a swinging sword crushed his skull, even as
wild-eyed warriors came pouring in from the chambers behind the
guardroom.

It was the yelling of men and the clanging of steel that brought Conan
bounding from his couch, wide awake and broadsword in hand. In an
instant he had reached the door and flung it open, and was glaring out
into the corridor just as Techotl rushed up it, eyes blazing madly.

"The Xotalancas!" he screamed, in a voice hardly human, "_They are
within the door!_"

Conan ran down the corridor, even as Valeria emerged from her chamber.

"What the devil is it?" she called.

"Techotl says the Xotalancas are in," he answered hurriedly. "That
racket sounds like it."

       *       *       *       *       *

With the Tecuhltli on their heels they burst into the throne room and
were confronted by a scene beyond the most frantic dream of blood and
fury. Twenty men and women, their black hair streaming, and the white
skulls gleaming on their breasts, were locked in combat with the people
of Tecuhltli. The women on both sides fought as madly as the men, and
already the room and the hall beyond were strewn with corpses.

Olmec, naked but for a breech-clout, was fighting before his throne, and
as the adventurers entered, Tascela ran from an inner chamber with a
sword in her hand.

Xatmec and his mate were dead, so there was none to tell the Tecuhltli
how their foes had found their way into their citadel. Nor was there any
to say what had prompted that mad attempt. But the losses of the
Xotalancas had been greater, their position more desperate, than the
Tecuhltli had known. The maiming of their scaly ally, the destruction of
the Burning Skull, and the news, gasped by a dying man, that mysterious
white-skin allies had joined their enemies, had driven them to the
frenzy of desperation and the wild determination to die dealing death to
their ancient foes.

The Tecuhltli, recovering from the first stunning shock of the surprise
that had swept them back into the throne room and littered the floor
with their corpses, fought back with an equally desperate fury, while
the door-guards from the lower floors came racing to hurl themselves
into the fray. It was the death-fight of rabid wolves, blind, panting,
merciless. Back and forth it surged, from door to dais, blades
whickering and striking into flesh, blood spurting, feet stamping the
crimson floor where redder pools were forming. Ivory tables crashed
over, seats were splintered, velvet hangings torn down were stained red.
It was the bloody climax of a bloody half-century, and every man there
sensed it.

But the conclusion was inevitable. The Tecuhltli outnumbered the
invaders almost two to one, and they were heartened by that fact and by
the entrance into the mêlée of their light-skinned allies.

These crashed into the fray with the devastating effect of a hurricane
plowing through a grove of saplings. In sheer strength no three
Tlazitlans were a match for Conan, and in spite of his weight he was
quicker on his feet than any of them. He moved through the whirling,
eddying mass with the surety and destructiveness of a gray wolf amidst a
pack of alley curs, and he strode over a wake of crumpled figures.

Valeria fought beside him, her lips smiling and her eyes blazing. She
was stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious.
Her sword was like a living thing in her hand. Where Conan beat down
opposition by the sheer weight and power of his blows, breaking spears,
splitting skulls and cleaving bosoms to the breast-bone, Valeria brought
into action a finesse of sword-play that dazzled and bewildered her
antagonists before it slew them. Again and again a warrior, heaving high
his heavy blade, found her point in his jugular before he could strike.
Conan, towering above the field, strode through the welter smiting right
and left, but Valeria moved like an illusive phantom, constantly
shifting, and thrusting and slashing as she shifted. Swords missed her
again and again as the wielders flailed the empty air and died with her
point in their hearts or throats, and her mocking laughter in their
ears.

Neither sex nor condition was considered by the maddened combatants. The
five women of the Xotalancas were down with their throats cut before
Conan and Valeria entered the fray, and when a man or woman went down
under the stamping feet, there was always a knife ready for the helpless
throat, or a sandaled foot eager to crush the prostrate skull.

From wall to wall, from door to door rolled the waves of combat,
spilling over into adjoining chambers. And presently only Tecuhltli and
their white-skinned allies stood upright in the great throne room. The
survivors stared bleakly and blankly at each other, like survivors after
Judgment Day or the destruction of the world. On legs wide-braced, hands
gripping notched and dripping swords, blood trickling down their arms,
they stared at one another across the mangled corpses of friends and
foes. They had no breath left to shout, but a bestial mad howling rose
from their lips. It was not a human cry of triumph. It was the howling
of a rabid wolf-pack stalking among the bodies of its victims.

Conan caught Valeria's arm and turned her about.

"You've got a stab in the calf of your leg," he growled.

She glanced down, for the first time aware of a stinging in the muscles
of her leg. Some dying man on the floor had fleshed his dagger with his
last effort.

"You look like a butcher yourself," she laughed.

He shook a red shower from his hands.

"Not mine. Oh, a scratch here and there. Nothing to bother about. But
that calf ought to be bandaged."

       *       *       *       *       *

Olmec came through the litter, looking like a ghoul with his naked
massive shoulders splashed with blood, and his black beard dabbled in
crimson. His eyes were red, like the reflection of flame on black water.

"We have won!" he croaked dazedly. "The feud is ended! The dogs of
Xotalanc lie dead! Oh, for a captive to flay alive! Yet it is good to
look upon their dead faces. Twenty dead dogs! Twenty red nails for the
black column!"

"You'd best see to your wounded," grunted Conan, turning away from him.
"Here, girl, let me see that leg."

"Wait a minute!" she shook him off impatiently. The fire of fighting
still burned brightly in her soul. "How do we know these are all of
them? These might have come on a raid of their own."

"They would not split the clan on a foray like this," said Olmec,
shaking his head, and regaining some of his ordinary intelligence.
Without his purple robe the man seemed less like a prince than some
repellent beast of prey. "I will stake my head upon it that we have
slain them all. There were less of them than I dreamed, and they must
have been desperate. But how came they in Tecuhltli?"

Tascela came forward, wiping her sword on her naked thigh, and holding
in her other hand an object she had taken from the body of the feathered
leader of the Xotalancas.

"The pipes of madness," she said. "A warrior tells me that Xatmec opened
the door to the Xotalancas and was cut down as they stormed into the
guardroom. This warrior came to the guardroom from the inner hall just
in time to see it happen and to hear the last of a weird strain of music
which froze his very soul. Tolkemec used to talk of these pipes, which
the Xuchotlans swore were hidden somewhere in the catacombs with the
bones of the ancient wizard who used them in his lifetime. Somehow the
dogs of Xotalanc found them and learned their secret."

"Somebody ought to go to Xotalanc and see if any remain alive," said
Conan. "I'll go if somebody will guide me."

Olmec glanced at the remnants of his people. There were only twenty left
alive, and of these several lay groaning on the floor. Tascela was the
only one of the Tecuhltli who had escaped without a wound. The princess
was untouched, though she had fought as savagely as any.

"Who will go with Conan to Xotalanc?" asked Olmec.

Techotl limped forward. The wound in his thigh had started bleeding
afresh, and he had another gash across his ribs.

"I will go!"

"No, you won't," vetoed Conan. "And you're not going either, Valeria. In
a little while that leg will be getting stiff."

"I will go," volunteered a warrior, who was knotting a bandage about a
slashed forearm.

"Very well, Yanath. Go with the Cimmerian. And you, too, Topal." Olmec
indicated another man whose injuries were slight. "But first aid us to
lift the badly wounded on these couches where we may bandage their
hurts."

This was done quickly. As they stooped to pick up a woman who had been
stunned by a war-club, Olmec's beard brushed Topal's ear. Conan thought
the prince muttered something to the warrior, but he could not be sure.
A few moments later he was leading his companions down the hall.

Conan glanced back as he went out the door, at that shambles where the
dead lay on the smoldering floor, blood-stained dark limbs knotted in
attitudes of fierce muscular effort, dark faces frozen in masks of hate,
glassy eyes glaring up at the green fire-jewels which bathed the ghastly
scene in a dusky emerald witch-light. Among the dead the living moved
aimlessly, like people moving in a trance. Conan heard Olmec call a
woman and direct her to bandage Valeria's leg. The pirate followed the
woman into an adjoining chamber, already beginning to limp slightly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Warily the two Tecuhltli led Conan along the hall beyond the bronze
door, and through chamber after chamber shimmering in the green fire.
They saw no one, heard no sound. After they crossed the Great Hall which
bisected the city from north to south, their caution was increased by
the realization of their nearness to enemy territory. But chambers and
halls lay empty to their wary gaze, and they came at last along a broad
dim hallway and halted before a bronze door similar to the Eagle Door of
Tecuhltli. Gingerly they tried it, and it opened silently under their
fingers. Awed, they stared into the green-lit chambers beyond. For fifty
years no Tecuhltli had entered those halls save as a prisoner going to a
hideous doom. To go to Xotalanc had been the ultimate horror that could
befall a man of the western castle. The terror of it had stalked through
their dreams since earliest childhood. To Yanath and Topal that bronze
door was like the portal of hell.

They cringed back, unreasoning horror in their eyes, and Conan pushed
past them and strode into Xotalanc.

Timidly they followed him. As each man set foot over the threshold he
stared and glared wildly about him. But only their quick, hurried
breathing disturbed the silence.

They had come into a square guardroom, like that behind the Eagle Door
of Tecuhltli, and, similarly, a hall ran away from it to a broad chamber
that was a counterpart of Olmec's throne room.

Conan glanced down the hall with its rugs and divans and hangings, and
stood listening intently. He heard no noise, and the rooms had an empty
feel. He did not believe there were any Xotalancas left alive in
Xuchotl.

"Come on," he muttered, and started down the hall.

He had not gone far when he was aware that only Yanath was following
him. He wheeled back to see Topal standing in an attitude of horror, one
arm out as if to fend off some threatening peril, his distended eyes
fixed with hypnotic intensity on something protruding from behind a
divan.

"What the devil?" Then Conan saw what Topal was staring at, and he felt
a faint twitching of the skin between his giant shoulders. A monstrous
head protruded from behind the divan, a reptilian head, broad as the
head of a crocodile, with down-curving fangs that projected over the
lower jaw. But there was an unnatural limpness about the thing, and the
hideous eyes were glazed.

Conan peered behind the couch. It was a great serpent which lay there
limp in death, but such a serpent as he had never seen in his
wanderings. The reek and chill of the deep black earth were about it,
and its color was an indeterminable hue which changed with each new
angle from which he surveyed it. A great wound in the neck showed what
had caused its death.

"It is the Crawler!" whispered Yanath.

"It's the thing I slashed on the stair," grunted Conan. "After it
trailed us to the Eagle Door, it dragged itself here to die. How could
the Xotalancas control such a brute?"

The Tecuhltli shivered and shook their heads.

"They brought it up from the black tunnels _below_ the catacombs. They
discovered secrets unknown to Tecuhltli."

"Well, it's dead, and if they'd had any more of them, they'd have
brought them along when they came to Tecuhltli. Come on."

They crowded close at his heels as he strode down the hall and thrust on
the silver-worked door at the other end.

"If we don't find anybody on this floor," he said, "we'll descend into
the lower floors. We'll explore Xotalanc from the roof to the catacombs.
If Xotalanc is like Tecuhltli, all the rooms and halls in this tier will
be lighted--what the devil!"

They had come into the broad throne chamber, so similar to that one in
Tecuhltli. There were the same jade dais and ivory seat, the same
divans, rugs and hangings on the walls. No black, red-scarred column
stood behind the throne-dais, but evidences of the grim feud were not
lacking.

Ranged along the wall behind the dais were rows of glass-covered
shelves. And on those shelves hundreds of human heads, perfectly
preserved, stared at the startled watchers with emotionless eyes, as
they had stared for only the gods knew how many months and years.

       *       *       *       *       *

Topal muttered a curse, but Yanath stood silent, the mad light growing
in his wide eyes. Conan frowned, knowing that Tlazitlan sanity was hung
on a hair-trigger.

Suddenly Yanath pointed to the ghastly relics with a twitching finger.

"There is my brother's head!" he murmured. "And there is my father's
younger brother! And there beyond them is my sister's eldest son!"

Suddenly he began to weep, dry-eyed, with harsh, loud sobs that shook
his frame. He did not take his eyes from the heads. His sobs grew
shriller, changed to frightful, high-pitched laughter, and that in turn
became an unbearable screaming. Yanath was stark mad.

Conan laid a hand on his shoulder, and as if the touch had released all
the frenzy in his soul, Yanath screamed and whirled, striking at the
Cimmerian with his sword. Conan parried the blow, and Topal tried to
catch Yanath's arm. But the madman avoided him and with froth flying
from his lips, he drove his sword deep into Topal's body. Topal sank
down with a groan, and Yanath whirled for an instant like a crazy
dervish; then he ran at the shelves and began hacking at the glass with
his sword, screeching blasphemously.

Conan sprang at him from behind, trying to catch him unaware and disarm
him, but the madman wheeled and lunged at him, screaming like a lost
soul. Realizing that the warrior was hopelessly insane, the Cimmerian
side-stepped, and as the maniac went past, he swung a cut that severed
the shoulder-bone and breast, and dropped the man dead beside his dying
victim.

Conan bent over Topal, seeing that the man was at his last gasp. It was
useless to seek to stanch the blood gushing from the horrible wound.

"You're done for, Topal," grunted Conan. "Any word you want to send to
your people?"

"Bend closer," gasped Topal, and Conan complied--and an instant later
caught the man's wrist as Topal struck at his breast with a dagger.

"Crom!" swore Conan. "Are you mad, too?"

"Olmec ordered it!" gasped the dying man. "I know not why. As we lifted
the wounded upon the couches he whispered to me, bidding me to slay you
as we returned to Tecuhltli----" And with the name of his clan on his
lips, Topal died.

Conan scowled down at him in puzzlement. This whole affair had an aspect
of lunacy. Was Olmec mad, too? Were all the Tecuhltli madder than he had
realized? With a shrug of his shoulders he strode down the hall and out
of the bronze door, leaving the dead Tecuhltli lying before the staring
dead eyes of their kinsmen's heads.

Conan needed no guide back through the labyrinth they had traversed. His
primitive instinct of direction led him unerringly along the route they
had come. He traversed it as warily as he had before, his sword in his
hand, and his eyes fiercely searching each shadowed nook and corner; for
it was his former allies he feared now, not the ghosts of the slain
Xotalancas.

He had crossed the Great Hall and entered the chambers beyond when he
heard something moving ahead of him--something which gasped and panted,
and moved with a strange, floundering, scrambling noise. A moment later
Conan saw a man crawling over the flaming floor toward him--a man whose
progress left a broad bloody smear on the smoldering surface. It was
Techotl and his eyes were already glazing; from a deep gash in his
breast blood gushed steadily between the fingers of his clutching hand.
With the other he clawed and hitched himself along.

"Conan," he cried chokingly, "Conan! Olmec has taken the yellow-haired
woman!"

"So that's why he told Topal to kill me!" murmured Conan, dropping to
his knee beside the man, who his experienced eye told him was dying.
"Olmec isn't so mad as I thought."

Techotl's groping fingers plucked at Conan's arm. In the cold, loveless
and altogether hideous life of the Tecuhltli his admiration and
affection for the invaders from the outer world formed a warm, human
oasis, constituted a tie that connected him with a more natural humanity
that was totally lacking in his fellows, whose only emotions were hate,
lust and the urge of sadistic cruelty.

"I sought to oppose him," gurgled Techotl, blood bubbling frothily to
his lips. "But he struck me down. He thought he had slain me, but I
crawled away. Ah, Set, how far I have crawled in my own blood! Beware,
Conan! Olmec may have set an ambush for your return! Slay Olmec! He is a
beast. Take Valeria and flee! Fear not to traverse the forest. Olmec and
Tascela lied about the dragons. They slew each other years ago, all save
the strongest. For a dozen years there has been only one dragon. If you
have slain him, there is naught in the forest to harm you. He was the
god Olmec worshipped; and Olmec fed human sacrifices to him, the very
old and the very young, bound and hurled from the wall. Hasten! Olmec
has taken Valeria to the Chamber of the----"

His head slumped down and he was dead before it came to rest on the
floor.

       *       *       *       *       *

Conan sprang up, his eyes like live coals. So that was Olmec's game,
having first used the strangers to destroy his foes! He should have
known that something of the sort would be going on in that black-bearded
degenerate's mind.

The Cimmerian started toward Tecuhltli with reckless speed. Rapidly he
reckoned the numbers of his former allies. Only twenty-one, counting
Olmec, had survived that fiendish battle in the throne room. Three had
died since, which left seventeen enemies with which to reckon. In his
rage Conan felt capable of accounting for the whole clan single-handed.

But the innate craft of the wilderness rose to guide his berserk rage.
He remembered Techotl's warning of an ambush. It was quite probable that
the prince would make such provisions, on the chance that Topal might
have failed to carry out his order. Olmec would be expecting him to
return by the same route he had followed in going to Xotalanc.

Conan glanced up at a skylight under which he was passing and caught the
blurred glimmer of stars. They had not yet begun to pale for dawn. The
events of the night had been crowded into a comparatively short space of
time.

He turned aside from his direct course and descended a winding staircase
to the floor below. He did not know where the door was to be found that
let into the castle on that level, but he knew he could find it. How he
was to force the locks he did not know; he believed that the doors of
Tecuhltli would all be locked and bolted, if for no other reason than
the habits of half a century. But there was nothing else but to attempt
it.

Sword in hand, he hurried noiselessly on through a maze of green-lit or
shadowy rooms and halls. He knew he must be near Tecuhltli, when a sound
brought him up short. He recognized it for what it was--a human being
trying to cry out through a stifling gag. It came from somewhere ahead
of him, and to the left. In those deathly-still chambers a small sound
carried a long way.

Conan turned aside and went seeking after the sound, which continued to
be repeated. Presently he was glaring through a doorway upon a weird
scene. In the room into which he was looking a low rack-like frame of
iron lay on the floor, and a giant figure was bound prostrate upon it.
His head rested on a bed of iron spikes, which were already
crimson-pointed with blood where they had pierced his scalp. A peculiar
harness-like contrivance was fastened about his head, though in such a
manner that the leather band did not protect his scalp from the spikes.
This harness was connected by a slender chain to the mechanism that
upheld a huge iron ball which was suspended above the captive's hairy
breast. As long as the man could force himself to remain motionless the
iron ball hung in its place. But when the pain of the iron points caused
him to lift his head, the ball lurched downward a few inches. Presently
his aching neck muscles would no longer support his head in its
unnatural position and it would fall back on the spikes again. It was
obvious that eventually the ball would crush him to a pulp, slowly and
inexorably. The victim was gagged, and above the gag his great black
ox-eyes rolled wildly toward the man in the doorway, who stood in silent
amazement. The man on the rack was Olmec, prince of Tecuhltli.



_6. The Eyes of Tascela_


"Why did you bring me into this chamber to bandage my legs?" demanded
Valeria. "Couldn't you have done it just as well in the throne room?"

She sat on a couch with her wounded leg extended upon it, and the
Tecuhltli woman had just bound it with silk bandages. Valeria's
red-stained sword lay on the couch beside her.

She frowned as she spoke. The woman had done her task silently and
efficiently, but Valeria liked neither the lingering, caressing touch of
her slim fingers nor the expression in her eyes.

"They have taken the rest of the wounded into the other chambers,"
answered the woman in the soft speech of the Tecuhltli women, which
somehow did not suggest either softness or gentleness in the speakers. A
little while before, Valeria had seen this same woman stab a Xotalanca
woman through the breast and stamp the eyeballs out of a wounded
Xotalanca man.

"They will be carrying the corpses of the dead down into the catacombs,"
she added, "lest the ghosts escape into the chambers and dwell there."

"Do you believe in ghosts?" asked Valeria.

"I know the ghost of Tolkemec dwells in the catacombs," she answered
with a shiver. "Once I saw it, as I crouched in a crypt among the bones
of a dead queen. It passed by in the form of an ancient man with flowing
white beard and locks, and luminous eyes that blazed in the darkness. It
was Tolkemec; I saw him living when I was a child and he was being
tortured."

Her voice sank to a fearful whisper: "Olmec laughs, but I _know_
Tolkemec's ghost dwells in the catacombs! They say it is rats which gnaw
the flesh from the bones of the newly dead--but ghosts eat flesh. Who
knows but that----"

She glanced up quickly as a shadow fell across the couch. Valeria looked
up to see Olmec gazing down at her. The prince had cleansed his hands,
torso and beard of the blood that had splashed them; but he had not
donned his robe, and his great dark-skinned hairless body and limbs
renewed the impression of strength bestial in its nature. His deep black
eyes burned with a more elemental light, and there was the suggestion of
a twitching in the fingers that tugged at his thick blue-black beard.

He stared fixedly at the woman, and she rose and glided from the
chamber. As she passed through the door she cast a look over her
shoulder at Valeria, a glance full of cynical derision and obscene
mockery.

"She has done a clumsy job," criticized the prince, coming to the divan
and bending over the bandage. "Let me see----"

With a quickness amazing in one of his bulk he snatched her sword and
threw it across the chamber. His next move was to catch her in his giant
arms.

Quick and unexpected as the move was, she almost matched it; for even as
he grabbed her, her dirk was in her hand and she stabbed murderously at
his throat. More by luck than skill he caught her wrist, and then began
a savage wrestling-match. She fought him with fists, feet, knees, teeth
and nails, with all the strength of her magnificent body and all the
knowledge of hand-to-hand fighting she had acquired in her years of
roving and fighting on sea and land. It availed her nothing against his
brute strength. She lost her dirk in the first moment of contact, and
thereafter found herself powerless to inflict any appreciable pain on
her giant attacker.

The blaze in his weird black eyes did not alter, and their expression
filled her with fury, fanned by the sardonic smile that seemed carved
upon his bearded lips. Those eyes and that smile contained all the cruel
cynicism that seethes below the surface of a sophisticated and
degenerate race, and for the first time in her life Valeria experienced
fear of a man. It was like struggling against some huge elemental force;
his iron arms thwarted her efforts with an ease that sent panic racing
through her limbs. He seemed impervious to any pain she could indict.
Only once, when she sank her white teeth savagely into his wrist so that
the blood started, did he react. And that was to buffet her brutally
upon the side of the head with his open hand, so that stars flashed
before her eyes and her head rolled on her shoulders.

Her shirt had been torn open in the struggle, and with cynical cruelty
he rasped his thick beard across her bare breasts, bringing the blood to
suffuse the fair skin, and fetching a cry of pain and outraged fury from
her. Her convulsive resistance was useless; she was crushed down on a
couch, disarmed and panting, her eyes blazing up at him like the eyes of
a trapped tigress.

A moment later he was hurrying from the chamber, carrying her in his
arms. She made no resistance, but the smoldering of her eyes showed that
she was unconquered in spirit, at least. She had not cried out. She knew
that Conan was not within call, and it did not occur to her that any in
Tecuhltli would oppose their prince. But she noticed that Olmec went
stealthily, with his head on one side as if listening for sounds of
pursuit, and he did not return to the throne chamber. He carried her
through a door that stood opposite that through which he had entered,
crossed another room and began stealing down a hall. As she became
convinced that he feared some opposition to the abduction, she threw
back her head and screamed at the top of her lusty voice.

She was rewarded by a slap that half stunned her, and Olmec quickened
his pace to a shambling run.

But her cry had been echoed, and twisting her head about, Valeria,
through the tears and stars that partly blinded her, saw Techotl limping
after them.

Olmec turned with a snarl, shifting the woman to an uncomfortable and
certainly undignified position under one huge arm, where he held her
writhing and kicking vainly, like a child.

"Olmec!" protested Techotl. "You cannot be such a dog as to do this
thing! She is Conan's woman! She helped us slay the Xotalancas, and----"

       *       *       *       *       *

Without a word Olmec balled his free hand into a huge fist and stretched
the wounded warrior senseless at his feet. Stooping, and hindered not at
all by the struggles and imprecations of his captive, he drew Techotl's
sword from its sheath and stabbed the warrior in the breast. Then
casting aside the weapon he fled on along the corridor. He did not see a
woman's dark face peer cautiously after him from behind a hanging. It
vanished, and presently Techotl groaned and stirred, rose dazedly and
staggered drunkenly away, calling Conan's name.

Olmec hurried on down the corridor, and descended a winding ivory
staircase. He crossed several corridors and halted at last in a broad
chamber whose doors were veiled with heavy tapestries, with one
exception--a heavy bronze door similar to the Door of the Eagle on the
upper floor.

He was moved to rumble, pointing to it: "That is one of the outer doors
of Tecuhltli. For the first time in fifty years it is unguarded. We need
not guard it now, for Xotalanc is no more."

"Thanks to Conan and me, you bloody rogue!" sneered Valeria, trembling
with fury and the shame of physical coercion. "You treacherous dog!
Conan will cut your throat for this!"

Olmec did not bother to voice his belief that Conan's own gullet had
already been severed according to his whispered command. He was too
utterly cynical to be at all interested in her thoughts or opinions. His
flame-lit eyes devoured her, dwelling burningly on the generous expanses
of clear white flesh exposed where her shirt and breeches had been torn
in the struggle.

"Forget Conan," he said thickly. "Olmec is lord of Xuchotl. Xotalanc is
no more. There will be no more fighting. We shall spend our lives in
drinking and love-making. First let us drink!"

He seated himself on an ivory table and pulled her down on his knees,
like a dark-skinned satyr with a white nymph in his arms. Ignoring her
un-nymphlike profanity, he held her helpless with one great arm about
her waist while the other reached across the table and secured a vessel
of wine.

"Drink!" he commanded, forcing it to her lips, as she writhed her head
away.

The liquor slopped over, stinging her lips, splashing down on her naked
breasts.

"Your guest does not like your wine, Olmec," spoke a cool, sardonic
voice.

Olmec stiffened; fear grew in his flaming eyes. Slowly he swung his
great head about and stared at Tascela who posed negligently in the
curtained doorway, one hand on her smooth hip. Valeria twisted herself
about in his iron grip, and when she met the burning eyes of Tascela, a
chill tingled along her supple spine. New experiences were flooding
Valeria's proud soul that night. Recently she had learned to fear a man;
now she knew what it was to fear a woman.

Olmec sat motionless, a gray pallor growing under his swarthy skin.
Tascela brought her other hand from behind her and displayed a small
gold vessel.

"I feared she would not like your wine, Olmec," purred the princess, "so
I brought some of mine, some I brought with me long ago from the shores
of Lake Zuad--do you understand, Olmec?"

Beads of sweat stood out suddenly on Olmec's brow. His muscles relaxed,
and Valeria broke away and put the table between them. But though reason
told her to dart from the room, some fascination she could not
understand held her rigid, watching the scene.

Tascela came toward the seated prince with a swaying, undulating walk
that was mockery in itself. Her voice was soft, slurringly caressing,
but her eyes gleamed. Her slim fingers stroked his beard lightly.

"You are selfish, Olmec," she crooned, smiling. "You would keep our
handsome guest to yourself, though you knew I wished to entertain her.
You are much at fault, Olmec!"

The mask dropped for an instant; her eyes flashed, her face was
contorted and with an appalling show of strength her hand locked
convulsively in his beard and tore out a great handful. This evidence of
unnatural strength was no more terrifying than the momentary baring of
the hellish fury that raged under her bland exterior.

Olmec lurched up with a roar, and stood swaying like a bear, his mighty
hands clenching and unclenching.

"Slut!" His booming voice filled the room. "Witch! She-devil! Tecuhltli
should have slain you fifty years ago! Begone! I have endured too much
from you! This white-skinned wench is mine! Get hence before I slay
you!"

The princess laughed and dashed the blood-stained strands into his face.
Her laughter was less merciful than the ring of flint on steel.

"Once you spoke otherwise, Olmec," she taunted. "Once, in your youth,
you spoke words of love. Aye, you were my lover once, years ago, and
because you loved me, you slept in my arms beneath the enchanted
lotus--and thereby put into my hands the chains that enslaved you. You
know you cannot withstand me. You know I have but to gaze into your
eyes, with the mystic power a priest of Stygia taught me, long ago, and
you are powerless. You remember the night beneath the black lotus that
waved above us, stirred by no worldly breeze; you scent again the
unearthly perfumes that stole and rose like a cloud about you to enslave
you. You cannot fight against me. You are my slave as you were that
night--as you shall be so long as you shall live, Olmec of Xuchotl!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Her voice had sunk to a murmur like the rippling of a stream running
through starlit darkness. She leaned close to the prince and spread her
long tapering fingers upon his giant breast. His eyes glazed, his great
hands fell limply to his sides.

With a smile of cruel malice, Tascela lifted the vessel and placed it to
his lips.

"Drink!"

Mechanically the prince obeyed. And instantly the glaze passed from his
eyes and they were flooded with fury, comprehension and an awful fear.
His mouth gaped, but no sound issued. For an instant he reeled on
buckling knees, and then fell in a sodden heap on the floor.

His fall jolted Valeria out of her paralysis. She turned and sprang
toward the door, but with a movement that would have shamed a leaping
panther, Tascela was before her. Valeria struck at her with her clenched
fist, and all the power of her supple body behind the blow. It would
have stretched a man senseless on the floor. But with a lithe twist of
her torso, Tascela avoided the blow and caught the pirate's wrist. The
next instant Valeria's left hand was imprisoned, and holding her wrists
together with one hand, Tascela calmly bound them with a cord she drew
from her girdle. Valeria thought she had tasted the ultimate in
humiliation already that night, but her shame at being manhandled by
Olmec was nothing to the sensations that now shook her supple frame.
Valeria had always been inclined to despise the other members of her
sex; and it was overwhelming to encounter another woman who could handle
her like a child. She scarcely resisted at all when Tascela forced her
into a chair and drawing her bound wrists down between her knees,
fastened them to the chair.

Casually stepping over Olmec, Tascela walked to the bronze door and shot
the bolt and threw it open, revealing a hallway without.

"Opening upon this hall," she remarked, speaking to her feminine captive
for the first time, "there is a chamber which in old times was used as a
torture room. When we retired into Tecuhltli, we brought most of the
apparatus with us, but there was one piece too heavy to move. It is
still in working order. I think it will be quite convenient now."

An understanding flame of terror rose in Olmec's eyes. Tascela strode
back to him, bent and gripped him by the hair.

"He is only paralyzed temporarily," she remarked conversationally. "He
can hear, think, and feel--aye, he can feel very well indeed!"

With which sinister observation she started toward the door, dragging
the giant bulk with an ease that made the pirate's eyes dilate. She
passed into the hall and moved down it without hesitation, presently
disappearing with her captive into a chamber that opened into it, and
whence shortly thereafter issued the clank of iron.

Valeria swore softly and tugged vainly, with her legs braced against the
chair. The cords that confined her were apparently unbreakable.

Tascela presently returned alone; behind her a muffled groaning issued
from the chamber. She closed the door but did not bolt it. Tascela was
beyond the grip of habit, as she was beyond the touch of other human
instincts and emotions.

Valeria sat dumbly, watching the woman in whose slim hands, the pirate
realized, her destiny now rested.

Tascela grasped her yellow locks and forced back her head, looking
impersonally down into her face. But the glitter in her dark eyes was
not impersonal.

"I have chosen you for a great honor," she said. "You shall restore the
youth of Tascela. Oh, you stare at that! My appearance is that of youth,
but through my veins creeps the sluggish chill of approaching age, as I
have felt it a thousand times before. I am old, so old I do not remember
my childhood. But I was a girl once, and a priest of Stygia loved me,
and gave me the secret of immortality and youth everlasting. He died,
then--some said by poison. But I dwelt in my palace by the shores of
Lake Zuad and the passing years touched me not. So at last a king of
Stygia desired me, and my people rebelled and brought me to this land.
Olmec called me a princess. I am not of royal blood. I am greater than a
princess. I am Tascela, whose youth your own glorious youth shall
restore."

Valeria's tongue clove to the roof of her mouth. She sensed here a
mystery darker than the degeneracy she had anticipated.

The taller woman unbound the Aquilonian's wrists and pulled her to her
feet. It was not fear of the dominant strength that lurked in the
princess' limbs that made Valeria a helpless, quivering captive in her
hands. It was the burning, hypnotic, terrible eyes of Tascela.



_7. He Comes from the Dark_


"Well, I'm a Kushite!"

Conan glared down at the man on the iron rack.

"What the devil are _you_ doing on that thing?"

Incoherent sounds issued from behind the gag and Conan bent and tore it
away, evoking a bellow of fear from the captive; for his action caused
the iron ball to lurch down until it nearly touched the broad breast.

"Be careful, for Set's sake!" begged Olmec.

"What for?" demanded Conan. "Do you think I care what happens to you? I
only wish I had time to stay here and watch that chunk of iron grind
your guts out. But I'm in a hurry. Where's Valeria?"

"Loose me!" urged Olmec, "I will tell you all!"

"Tell me first."

"Never!" The prince's heavy jaws set stubbornly.

"All right." Conan seated himself on a near-by bench. "I'll find her
myself, after you've been reduced to a jelly. I believe I can speed up
that process by twisting my sword-point around in your ear," he added,
extending the weapon experimentally.

"Wait!" Words came in a rush from the captive's ashy lips. "Tascela took
her from me. I've never been anything but a puppet in Tascela's hands."

"Tascela?" snorted Conan, and spat. "Why, the filthy----"

"No, no!" panted Olmec. "It's worse than you think. Tascela is
old--centuries old. She renews her life and her youth by the sacrifice
of beautiful young women. That's one thing that has reduced the clan to
its present state. She will draw the essence of Valeria's life into her
own body, and bloom with fresh vigor and beauty."

"Are the doors locked?" asked Conan, thumbing his sword edge.

"Aye! But I know a way to get into Tecuhltli. Only Tascela and I know,
and she thinks me helpless and you slain. Free me and I swear I will
help you rescue Valeria. Without my help you cannot win into Tecuhltli;
for even if you tortured me into revealing the secret, you couldn't work
it. Let me go, and we will steal on Tascela and kill her before she can
work magic--before she can fix her eyes on us. A knife thrown from
behind will do the work. I should have killed her thus long ago, but I
feared that without her to aid us the Xotalancas would overcome us. She
needed my help, too; that's the only reason she let me live this long.
Now neither needs the other, and one must die. I swear that when we have
slain the witch, you and Valeria shall go free without harm. My people
will obey me when Tascela is dead."

Conan stooped and cut the ropes that held the prince, and Olmec slid
cautiously from under the great ball and rose, shaking his head like a
bull and muttering imprecations as he fingered his lacerated scalp.
Standing shoulder to shoulder the two men presented a formidable picture
of primitive power. Olmec was as tall as Conan, and heavier; but there
was something repellent about the Tlazitlan, something abysmal and
monstrous that contrasted unfavorably with the clean-cut, compact
hardness of the Cimmerian. Conan had discarded the remnants of his
tattered, blood-soaked shirt, and stood with his remarkable muscular
development impressively revealed. His great shoulders were as broad as
those of Olmec, and more cleanly outlined, and his huge breast arched
with a more impressive sweep to a hard waist that lacked the paunchy
thickness of Olmec's midsection. He might have been an image of primal
strength cut out of bronze. Olmec was darker, but not from the burning
of the sun. If Conan was a figure out of the dawn of Time, Olmec was a
shambling, somber shape from the darkness of Time's pre-dawn.

"Lead on," demanded Conan. "And keep ahead of me. I don't trust you any
farther than I can throw a bull by the tail."

Olmec turned and stalked on ahead of him, one hand twitching slightly as
it plucked at his matted beard.

       *       *       *       *       *

Olmec did not lead Conan back to the bronze door, which the prince
naturally supposed Tascela had locked, but to a certain chamber on the
border of Tecuhltli.

"This secret has been guarded for half a century," he said. "Not even
our own clan knew of it, and the Xotalancas never learned. Tecuhltli
himself built this secret entrance, afterward slaying the slaves who did
the work; for he feared that he might find himself locked out of his own
kingdom some day because of the spite of Tascela, whose passion for him
soon changed to hate. But she discovered the secret, and barred the
hidden door against him one day as he fled back from an unsuccessful
raid, and the Xotalancas took him and flayed him. But once, spying upon
her, I saw her enter Tecuhltli by this route, and so learned the
secret."

He pressed upon a gold ornament in the wall, and a panel swung inward,
disclosing an ivory stair leading upward.

"This stair is built within the wall," said Olmec. "It leads up to a
tower upon the roof, and thence other stairs wind down to the various
chambers. Hasten!"

"After you, comrade!" retorted Conan satirically, swaying his
broadsword as he spoke, and Olmec shrugged his shoulders and stepped
onto the staircase. Conan instantly followed him, and the door shut
behind them. Far above a cluster of fire-jewels made the staircase a
well of dusky dragon-light.

They mounted until Conan estimated that they were above the level of the
fourth floor, and then came out into a cylindrical tower, in the domed
roof of which was set the bunch of fire-jewels that lighted the stair.
Through gold-barred windows, set with unbreakable crystal panes, the
first windows he had seen in Xuchotl, Conan got a glimpse of high
ridges, domes and more towers, looming darkly against the stars. He was
looking across the roofs of Xuchotl.

Olmec did not look through the windows. He hurried down one of the
several stairs that wound down from the tower, and when they had
descended a few feet, this stair changed into a narrow corridor that
wound tortuously on for some distance. It ceased at a steep flight of
steps leading downward. There Olmec paused.

Up from below, muffled, but unmistakable, welled a woman's scream, edged
with fright, fury and shame. And Conan recognized Valeria's voice.

In the swift rage roused by that cry, and the amazement of wondering
what peril could wring such a shriek from Valeria's reckless lips, Conan
forgot Olmec. He pushed past the prince and started down the stair.
Awakening instinct brought him about again, just as Olmec struck with
his great mallet-like fist. The blow, fierce and silent, was aimed at
the base of Conan's brain. But the Cimmerian wheeled in time to receive
the buffet on the side of his neck instead. The impact would have
snapped the vertebræ of a lesser man. As it was, Conan swayed backward,
but even as he reeled he dropped his sword, useless at such close
quarters, and grasped Olmec's extended arm, dragging the prince with him
as he fell. Headlong they went down the steps together, in a revolving
whirl of limbs and heads and bodies. And as they went Conan's iron
fingers found and locked in Olmec's bull-throat.

The barbarian's neck and shoulder felt numb from the sledge-like impact
of Olmec's huge fist, which had carried all the strength of the massive
forearm, thick triceps and great shoulder. But this did not affect his
ferocity to any appreciable extent. Like a bulldog he hung on grimly,
shaken and battered and beaten against the steps as they rolled, until
at last they struck an ivory panel-door at the bottom with such an
impact that they splintered it down its full length and crashed through
its ruins. But Olmec was already dead, for those iron fingers had
crushed out his life and broken his neck as they fell.

       *       *       *       *       *

Conan rose, shaking the splinters from his great shoulder, blinking
blood and dust out of his eyes.

He was in the great throne room. There were fifteen people in that room
besides himself. The first person he saw was Valeria. A curious black
altar stood before the throne-dais. Ranged about it, seven black candles
in golden candlesticks sent up oozing spirals of thick green smoke,
disturbingly scented. These spirals united in a cloud near the ceiling,
forming a smoky arch above the altar. On that altar lay Valeria, stark
naked, her white flesh gleaming in shocking contrast to the glistening
ebon stone. She was not bound. She lay at full length, her arms
stretched out above her head to their fullest extent. At the head of the
altar knelt a young man, holding her wrists firmly. A young woman knelt
at the other end of the altar, grasping her ankles. Between them she
could neither rise nor move.

Eleven men and women of Tecuhltli knelt dumbly in a semicircle, watching
the scene with hot, lustful eyes.

On the ivory throne-seat Tascela lolled. Bronze bowls of incense rolled
their spirals about her; the wisps of smoke curled about her naked limbs
like caressing fingers. She could not sit still; she squirmed and
shifted about with sensuous abandon, as if finding pleasure in the
contact of the smooth ivory with her sleek flesh.

The crash of the door as it broke beneath the impact of the hurtling
bodies caused no change in the scene. The kneeling men and women merely
glanced incuriously at the corpse of their prince and at the man who
rose from the ruins of the door, then swung their eyes greedily back to
the writhing white shape on the black altar. Tascela looked insolently
at him, and sprawled back on her seat, laughing mockingly.

"Slut!" Conan saw red. His hands clenched into iron hammers as he
started for her. With his first step something clanged loudly and steel
bit savagely into his leg. He stumbled and almost fell, checked in his
headlong stride. The jaws of an iron trap had closed on his leg, with
teeth that sank deep and held. Only the ridged muscles of his calf saved
the bone from being splintered. The accursed thing had sprung out of the
smoldering floor without warning. He saw the slots now, in the floor
where the jaws had lain, perfectly camouflaged.

"Fool!" laughed Tascela. "Did you think I would not guard against your
possible return? Every door in this chamber is guarded by such traps.
Stand there and watch now, while I fulfill the destiny of your handsome
friend! Then I will decide your own."

Conan's hand instinctively sought his belt, only to encounter an empty
scabbard. His sword was on the stair behind him. His poniard was lying
back in the forest, where the dragon had torn it from his jaw. The steel
teeth in his leg were like burning coals, but the pain was not as savage
as the fury that seethed in his soul. He was trapped, like a wolf. If he
had had his sword he would have hewn off his leg and crawled across the
floor to slay Tascela. Valeria's eyes rolled toward him with mute
appeal, and his own helplessness sent red waves of madness surging
through his brain.

Dropping on the knee of his free leg, he strove to get his fingers
between the jaws of the trap, to tear them apart by sheer strength.
Blood started from beneath his finger nails, but the jaws fitted close
about his leg in a circle whose segments jointed perfectly, contracted
until there was no space between his mangled flesh and the fanged iron.
The sight of Valeria's naked body added flame to the fire of his rage.

Tascela ignored him. Rising languidly from her seat she swept the ranks
of her subjects with a searching glance, and asked: "Where are Xamec,
Zlanath and Tachic?"

"They did not return from the catacombs, princess," answered a man.
"Like the rest of us, they bore the bodies of the slain into the crypts,
but they have not returned. Perhaps the ghost of Tolkemec took them."

"Be silent, fool!" she ordered harshly. "The ghost is a myth."

She came down from her dais, playing with a thin gold-hilted dagger. Her
eyes burned like nothing on the hither side of hell. She paused beside
the altar and spoke in the tense stillness.

"Your life shall make me young, white woman!" she said. "I shall lean
upon your bosom and place my lips over yours, and slowly--ah,
slowly!--sink this blade through your heart, so that your life, fleeing
your stiffening body, shall enter mine, making me bloom again with
youth and with life everlasting!"

Slowly, like a serpent arching toward its victim, she bent down through
the writhing smoke, closer and closer over the now motionless woman who
stared up into her glowing dark eyes--eyes that grew larger and deeper,
blazing like black moons in the swirling smoke.

The kneeling people gripped their hands and held their breath, tense for
the bloody climax, and the only sound was Conan's fierce panting as he
strove to tear his leg from the trap.

All eyes were glued on the altar and the white figure there; the crash
of a thunderbolt could hardly have broken the spell, yet it was only a
low cry that shattered the fixity of the scene and brought all whirling
about--a low cry, yet one to make the hair stand up stiffly on the
scalp. They looked, and they saw.

Framed in the door to the left of the dais stood a nightmare figure. It
was a man, with a tangle of white hair and a matted white beard that
fell over his breast. Rags only partly covered his gaunt frame,
revealing half-naked limbs strangely unnatural in appearance. The skin
was not like that of a normal human. There was a suggestion of
_scaliness_ about it, as if the owner had dwelt long under conditions
almost antithetical to those conditions under which human life
ordinarily thrives. And there was nothing at all human about the eyes
that blazed from the tangle of white hair. They were great gleaming
disks that stared unwinkingly, luminous, whitish, and without a hint of
normal emotion or sanity. The mouth gaped, but no coherent words
issued--only a high-pitched tittering.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Tolkemec!" whispered Tascela, livid, while the others crouched in
speechless horror. "No myth, then, no ghost! Set! You have dwelt for
twelve years in darkness! Twelve years among the bones of the dead! What
grisly food did you find? What mad travesty of life did you live, in the
stark blackness of that eternal night? I see now why Xamec and Zlanath
and Tachic did not return from the catacombs--and never will return. But
why have you waited so long to strike? Were you seeking something, in
the pits? Some secret weapon you knew was hidden there? And have you
found it at last?"

That hideous tittering was Tolkemec's only reply, as he bounded into the
room with a long leap that carried him over the secret trap before the
door--by chance, or by some faint recollection of the ways of Xuchotl.
He was not mad, as a man is mad. He had dwelt apart from humanity so
long that he was no longer human. Only an unbroken thread of memory
embodied in hate and the urge for vengeance had connected him with the
humanity from which he had been cut off, and held him lurking near the
people he hated. Only that thin string had kept him from racing and
prancing off for ever into the black corridors and realms of the
subterranean world he had discovered, long ago.

"You sought something hidden!" whispered Tascela, cringing back. "And
you have found it! You remember the feud! After all these years of
blackness, you remember!"

For in the lean hand of Tolkemec now waved a curious jade-hued wand, on
the end of which glowed a knob of crimson shaped like a pomegranate. She
sprang aside as he thrust it out like a spear, and a beam of crimson
fire lanced from the pomegranate. It missed Tascela, but the woman
holding Valeria's ankles was in the way. It smote between her shoulders.
There was a sharp crackling sound and the ray of fire flashed from her
bosom and struck the black altar, with a snapping of blue sparks. The
woman toppled sidewise, shriveling and withering like a mummy even as
she fell.

Valeria rolled from the altar on the other side, and started for the
opposite wall on all fours. For hell had burst loose in the throne room
of dead Olmec.

The man who had held Valeria's hands was the next to die. He turned to
run, but before he had taken half a dozen steps, Tolkemec, with an
agility appalling in such a frame, bounded around to a position that
placed the man between him and the altar. Again the red fire-beam
flashed and the Tecuhltli rolled lifeless to the floor, as the beam
completed its course with a burst of blue sparks against the altar.

Then began slaughter. Screaming insanely the people rushed about the
chamber, caroming from one another, stumbling and falling. And among
them Tolkemec capered and pranced, dealing death. They could not escape
by the doors; for apparently the metal of the portals served like the
metal-veined stone altar to complete the circuit for whatever hellish
power flashed like thunderbolts from the witch-wand the ancient waved in
his hand. When he caught a man or a woman between him and a door or the
altar, that one died instantly. He chose no special victim. He took them
as they came, with his rags flapping about his wildly gyrating limbs,
and the gusty echoes of his tittering sweeping the room above the
screams. And bodies fell like falling leaves about the altar and at the
doors. One warrior in desperation rushed at him, lifting a dagger, only
to fall before he could strike. But the rest were like crazed cattle,
with no thought for resistance, and no chance of escape.

The last Tecuhltli except Tascela had fallen when the princess reached
the Cimmerian and the girl who had taken refuge beside him. Tascela bent
and touched the floor, pressing a design upon it. Instantly the iron
jaws released the bleeding limb and sank back into the floor.

"Slay him if you can!" she panted, and pressed a heavy knife into his
hand. "I have no magic to withstand him!"

With a grunt he sprang before the women, not heeding his lacerated leg
in the heat of the fighting-lust. Tolkemec was coming toward him, his
weird eyes ablaze, but he hesitated at the gleam of the knife in Conan's
hand. Then began a grim game, as Tolkemec sought to circle about Conan
and get the barbarian between him and the altar or a metal door, while
Conan sought to avoid this and drive home his knife. The women watched
tensely, holding their breath.

There was no sound except the rustle and scrape of quick-shifting feet.
Tolkemec pranced and capered no more. He realized that grimmer game
confronted him than the people who had died screaming and fleeing. In
the elemental blaze of the barbarian's eyes he read an intent deadly as
his own. Back and forth they weaved, and when one moved the other moved
as if invisible threads bound them together. But all the time Conan was
getting closer and closer to his enemy. Already the coiled muscles of
his thighs were beginning to flex for a spring, when Valeria cried out.
For a fleeting instant a bronze door was in line with Conan's moving
body. The red line leaped, searing Conan's flank as he twisted aside,
and even as he shifted he hurled the knife. Old Tolkemec went down,
truly slain at last, the hilt vibrating on his breast.

       *       *       *       *       *

Tascela sprang--not toward Conan, but toward the wand where it shimmered
like a live thing on the floor. But as she leaped, so did Valeria, with
a dagger snatched from a dead man, and the blade, driven with all the
power of the pirate's muscles, impaled the princess of Tecuhltli so that
the point stood out between her breasts. Tascela screamed once and fell
dead, and Valeria spurned the body with her heel as it fell.

"I had to do that much, for my own self-respect!" panted Valeria, facing
Conan across the limp corpse.

"Well, this cleans up the feud," he grunted. "It's been a hell of a
night! Where did these people keep their food? I'm hungry."

"You need a bandage on that leg." Valeria ripped a length of silk from a
hanging and knotted it about her waist, then tore off some smaller
strips which she bound efficiently about the barbarian's lacerated limb.

"I can walk on it," he assured her. "Let's begone. It's dawn, outside
this infernal city. I've had enough of Xuchotl. It's well the breed
exterminated itself. I don't want any of their accursed jewels. They
might be haunted."

"There is enough clean loot in the world for you and me," she said,
straightening to stand tall and splendid before him.

The old blaze came back in his eyes, and this time she did not resist as
he caught her fiercely in his arms.

"It's a long way to the coast," she said presently, withdrawing her lips
from his.

"What matter?" he laughed. "There's nothing we can't conquer. We'll have
our feet on a ship's deck before the Stygians open their ports for the
trading season. And then we'll show the world what plundering means!"


[THE END]



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Weird Tales_ July, August-September
    and October 1936. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
    that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor
    spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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