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´╗┐Title: The Devil in Iron
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 "The Devil in Iron" ***

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                     THE DEVIL IN IRON

                    By Robert E. Howard

    [Transcriber's Note: This etext was first published in Weird Tales
    August 1934. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
    the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



1


The fisherman loosened his knife in its scabbard. The gesture was
instinctive, for what he feared was nothing a knife could slay, not even
the saw-edged crescent blade of the Yuetshi that could disembowel a man
with an upward stroke. Neither man nor beast threatened him in the
solitude which brooded over the castellated isle of Xapur.

He had climbed the cliffs, passed through the jungle that bordered them,
and now stood surrounded by evidences of a vanished state. Broken
columns glimmered among the trees, the straggling lines of crumbling
walls meandered off into the shadows, and under his feet were broad
paves, cracked and bowed by roots growing beneath.

The fisherman was typical of his race, that strange people whose origin
is lost in the gray dawn of the past, and who have dwelt in their rude
fishing huts along the southern shore of the Sea of Vilayet since time
immemorial. He was broadly built, with long apish arms and a mighty
chest, but with lean loins and thin bandy legs. His face was broad, his
forehead low and retreating, his hair thick and tangled. A belt for a
knife and a rag for a loin-cloth were all he wore in the way of
clothing.

That he was where he was proved that he was less dully incurious than
most of his people. Men seldom visited Xapur. It was uninhabited, all
but forgotten, merely one among the myriad isles which dotted the great
inland sea. Men called it Xapur, the Fortified, because of its ruins,
remnants of some prehistoric kingdom, lost and forgotten before the
conquering Hyborians had ridden southward. None knew who reared those
stones, though dim legends lingered among the Yuetshi which half
intelligibly suggested a connection of immeasurable antiquity between
the fishers and the unknown island kingdom.

But it had been a thousand years since any Yuetshi had understood the
import of these tales; they repeated them now as a meaningless formula,
a gibberish framed by their lips by custom. No Yuetshi had come to Xapur
for a century. The adjacent coast of the mainland was uninhabited, a
reedy marsh given over to the grim beasts that haunted it. The fisher's
village lay some distance to the south, on the mainland. A storm had
blown his frail fishing craft far from his accustomed haunts, and
wrecked it in a night of flaring lightning and roaring waters on the
towering cliffs of the isle. Now in the dawn the sky shone blue and
clear, the rising sun made jewels of the dripping leaves. He had climbed
the cliffs to which he had clung through the night because, in the midst
of the storm, he had seen an appalling lance of lightning fork out of
the black heavens, and the concussion of its stroke, which had shaken
the whole island, had been accompanied by a cataclysmic crash that he
doubted could have resulted from a riven tree.

A dull curiosity had caused him to investigate; and now he had found
what he sought and an animal-like uneasiness possessed him, a sense of
lurking peril.

Among the trees reared a broken dome-like structure, built of gigantic
blocks of the peculiar iron-like green stone found only on the islands
of Vilayet. It seemed incredible that human hands could have shaped and
placed them, and certainly it was beyond human power to have overthrown
the structure they formed. But the thunderbolt had splintered the
ton-heavy blocks like so much glass, reduced others to green dust, and
ripped away the whole arch of the dome.

The fisherman climbed over the debris and peered in, and what he saw
brought a grunt from him. Within the ruined dome, surrounded by
stone-dust and bits of broken masonry, lay a man on the golden block. He
was clad in a sort of skirt and a shagreen girdle. His black hair, which
fell in a square mane to his massive shoulders, was confined about his
temples by a narrow gold band. On his bare, muscular breast lay a
curious dagger with a jeweled pommel, shagreen-bound hilt, and a broad
crescent blade. It was much like the knife the fisherman wore at his
hip, but it lacked the serrated edge, and was made with infinitely
greater skill.

The fisherman lusted for the weapon. The man, of course, was dead; had
been dead for many centuries. This dome was his tomb. The fisherman did
not wonder by what art the ancients had preserved the body in such a
vivid likeness of life, which kept the muscular limbs full and
unshrunken, the dark flesh vital. The dull brain of the Yuetshi had room
only for his desire for the knife with its delicate waving lines along
the dully gleaming blade.

Scrambling down into the dome, he lifted the weapon from the man's
breast. And as he did so, a strange and terrible thing came to pass. The
muscular dark hands knotted convulsively, the lids flared open,
revealing great dark magnetic eyes whose stare struck the startled
fisherman like a physical blow. He recoiled, dropping the jeweled dagger
in his perturbation. The man on the dais heaved up to a sitting
position, and the fisherman gaped at the full extent of his size, thus
revealed. His narrowed eyes held the Yuetshi and in those slitted orbs
he read neither friendliness nor gratitude; he saw only a fire as alien
and hostile as that which burns in the eyes of a tiger.

Suddenly the man rose and towered above him, menace in his every aspect.
There was no room in the fisherman's dull brain for fear, at least for
such fear as might grip a man who has just seen the fundamental laws of
nature defied. As the great hands fell to his shoulders, he drew his
saw-edged knife and struck upward with the same motion. The blade
splintered against the stranger's corded belly as against a steel
column, and then the fisherman's thick neck broke like a rotten twig in
the giant hands.



2


Jehungir Agha, lord of Khawarizm and keeper of the coastal border,
scanned once more the ornate parchment scroll with its peacock seal, and
laughed shortly and sardonically.

'Well?' bluntly demanded his counsellor Ghaznavi.

Jehungir shrugged his shoulders. He was a handsome man, with the
merciless pride of birth and accomplishment.

'The king grows short of patience,' said he. 'In his own hand he
complains bitterly of what he calls my failure to guard the frontier. By
Tarim, if I can not deal a blow to these robbers of the steppes,
Khawarizm may own a new lord.'

Ghaznavi tugged his gray-shot beard in meditation. Yezdigerd, king of
Turan, was the mightiest monarch in the world. In his palace in the
great port city of Aghrapur was heaped the plunder of empires. His
fleets of purple-sailed war galleys had made Vilayet an Hyrkanian lake.
The dark-skinned people of Zamora paid him tribute, as did the eastern
provinces of Koth. The Shemites bowed to his rule as far west as
Shushan. His armies ravaged the borders of Stygia in the south and the
snowy lands of the Hyperboreans in the north. His riders bore torch and
sword westward into Brythunia and Ophir and Corinthia, even to the
borders of Nemedia. His gilt-helmeted swordsmen had trampled hosts under
their horses' hoofs, and walled cities went up in flames at his
command. In the glutted slave markets of Aghrapur, Sultanapur,
Khawarizm, Shahpur and Khorusun, women were sold for three small silver
coins--blond Brythunians, tawny Stygians, dark-haired Zamorians, ebon
Kushites, olive-skinned Shemites.

Yet, while his swift horsemen overthrew armies far from his frontiers,
at his very borders an audacious foe plucked his beard with a
red-dripping and smoke-stained hand.

On the broad steppes between the Sea of Vilayet and the borders of the
easternmost Hyborian kingdoms, a new race had sprung up in the past
half-century, formed originally of fleeing criminals, broken men,
escaped slaves, and deserting soldiers. They were men of many crimes and
countries, some born on the steppes, some fleeing from the kingdoms in
the west. They were called _kozak_, which means wastrel.

Dwelling on the wild, open steppes, owning no law but their own peculiar
code, they had become a people capable of defying the Grand Monarch.
Ceaselessly they raided the Turanian frontier, retiring in the steppes
when defeated; with the pirates of Vilayet, men of much the same breed,
they harried the coast, preying off the merchant ships which plied
between the Hyrkanian ports.

'How am I to crush these wolves?' demanded Jehungir. 'If I follow them
into the steppes, I run the risk either of being cut off and destroyed,
or having them elude me entirely and burn the city in my absence. Of
late they have been more daring than ever.'

'That is because of the new chief who has risen among them,' answered
Ghaznavi. 'You know whom I mean.'

'Aye!' replied Jehungir feelingly. 'It is that devil Conan; he is even
wilder than the _kozaks_, yet he is crafty as a mountain lion.'

'It is more through wild animal instinct than through intelligence,'
answered Ghaznavi. 'The other _kozaks_ are at least descendants of
civilized men. He is a barbarian. But to dispose of him would be to deal
them a crippling blow.'

'But how?' demanded Jehungir. 'He has repeatedly cut his way out of
spots that seemed certain death for him. And, by instinct or cunning, he
has avoided or escaped every trap set for him.'

'For every beast and for every man there is a trap he will not escape,'
quoth Ghaznavi. 'When we have parleyed with the _kozaks_ for the ransom
of captives, I have observed this man Conan. He has a keen relish for
women and strong drink. Have your captive Octavia fetched here.'

Jehungir clapped his hands, and an impassive Kushite eunuch, an image of
shining ebony in silken pantaloons, bowed before him and went to do his
bidding. Presently he returned, leading by the wrist a tall handsome
girl, whose yellow hair, clear eyes and fair skin identified her as a
pure-blooded member of her race. Her scanty silk tunic, girded at the
waist, displayed the marvelous contours of her magnificent figure. Her
fine eyes flashed with resentment and her red lips were sulky, but
submission had been taught her during her captivity. She stood with
hanging head before her master until he motioned her to a seat on the
divan beside him. Then he looked inquiringly at Ghaznavi.

'We must lure Conan away from the _kozaks_,' said the counsellor
abruptly. 'Their war camp is at present pitched somewhere on the lower
reaches of the Zaporoska River--which, as you well know, is a wilderness
of reeds, a swampy jungle in which our last expedition was cut to pieces
by those masterless devils.'

'I am not likely to forget that,' said Jehungir wryly.

'There is an uninhabited island near the mainland,' said Ghaznavi,
'known as Xapur, the Fortified, because of some ancient ruins upon it.
There is a peculiarity about it which makes it perfect for our purpose.
It has no shore-line, but rises sheer out of the sea in cliffs a hundred
and fifty feet tall. Not even an ape could negotiate them. The only
place where a man can go up or down is a narrow path on the western side
that has the appearance of a worn stair, carved into the solid rock of
the cliffs.

'If we could trap Conan on that island, alone, we could hunt him down at
our leisure, with bows, as men hunt a lion.'

'As well wish for the moon,' said Jehungir impatiently. 'Shall we send
him a messenger, bidding him climb the cliffs and await our coming?'

'In effect, yes!' Seeing Jehungir's look of amazement, Ghaznavi
continued: 'We will ask for a parley with the _kozaks_ in regard to
prisoners, at the edge of the steppes by Fort Ghori. As usual, we will
go with a force and encamp outside the castle. They will come, with an
equal force, and the parley will go forward with the usual distrust and
suspicion. But this time we will take with us, as if by casual chance,
your beautiful captive.' Octavia changed color and listened with
intensified interest as the counsellor nodded toward her. 'She will use
all her wiles to attract Conan's attention. That should not be
difficult. To that wild reaver she should appear a dazzling vision of
loveliness. Her vitality and substantial figure should appeal to him
more vividly than would one of the doll-like beauties of your seraglio.'

Octavia sprang up, her white fists clenched, her eyes blazing and her
figure quivering with outraged anger.

'You would force me to play the trollop with this barbarian?' she
exclaimed. 'I will not! I am no market-block slut to smirk and ogle at a
steppes-robber. I am the daughter of a Nemedian lord--'

'You were of the Nemedian nobility before my riders carried you off,'
returned Jehungir cynically. 'Now you are merely a slave who will do as
she is bid.'

'I will not!' she raged.

'On the contrary,' rejoined Jehungir with studied cruelty, 'you will. I
like Ghaznavi's plan. Continue, prince among counsellors.'

'Conan will probably wish to buy her. You will refuse to sell her, of
course, or to exchange her for Hyrkanian prisoners. He may then try to
steal her, or take her by force--though I do not think even he would
break the parley-truce. Anyway, we must be prepared for whatever he
might attempt.

'Then, shortly after the parley, before he has time to forget all about
her, we will send a messenger to him, under a flag of truce, accusing
him of stealing the girl, and demanding her return. He may kill the
messenger, but at least he will think that she has escaped.

'Then we will send a spy--a Yuetshi fisherman will do--to the _kozak_
camp, who will tell Conan that Octavia is hiding on Xapur. If I know my
man, he will go straight to that place.'

'But we do not know that he will go alone,' Jehungir argued.

'Does a man take a band of warriors with him, when going to a rendezvous
with a woman he desires?' retorted Ghaznavi. 'The chances are all that
he _will_ go alone. But we will take care of the other alternative. We
will not await him on the island, where we might be trapped ourselves,
but among the reeds of a marshy point which juts out to within a
thousand yards of Xapur. If he brings a large force, we'll beat a
retreat and think up another plot. If he comes alone or with a small
party, we will have him. Depend upon it, he will come, remembering your
charming slave's smiles and meaning glances.'

'I will never descend to such shame!' Octavia was wild with fury and
humiliation. 'I will die first!'

'You will not die, my rebellious beauty,' said Jehungir, 'but you will
be subjected to a very painful and humiliating experience.'

He clapped his hands, and Octavia paled. This time it was not the
Kushite who entered, but a Shemite, a heavily muscled man of medium
height with a short, curled, blue-black beard.

'Here is work for you, Gilzan,' said Jehungir. 'Take this fool, and play
with her awhile. Yet be careful not to spoil her beauty.'

With an inarticulate grunt the Shemite seized Octavia's wrist, and at
the grasp of his iron fingers, all the defiance went out of her. With a
piteous cry she tore away and threw herself on her knees before her
implacable master, sobbing incoherently for mercy.

Jehungir dismissed the disappointed torturer with a gesture, and said to
Ghaznavi: 'If your plan succeeds, I will fill your lap with gold.'



3


In the darkness before dawn an unaccustomed sound disturbed the solitude
that slumbered over the reedy marshes and the misty waters of the coast.
It was not a drowsy water-fowl nor a waking beast. It was a human who
struggled through the thick reeds, which were taller than a man's head.

It was a woman, had there been anyone to see, tall and yellow-haired,
her splendid limbs molded by her draggled tunic. Octavia had escaped in
good earnest, every outraged fiber of her still tingling from her
experience in a captivity that had become unendurable.

Jehungir's mastery of her had been bad enough; but with deliberate
fiendishness Jehungir had given her to a nobleman whose name was a
byword for degeneracy even in Khawarizm.

Octavia's resilient flesh crawled and quivered at her memories.
Desperation had nerved her climb from Jelal Khan's castle on a rope made
of strips from torn tapestries, and chance had led her to a picketed
horse. She had ridden all night, and dawn found her with a foundered
steed on the swampy shores of the sea. Quivering with the abhorrence of
being dragged back to the revolting destiny planned for her by Jelal
Khan, she plunged into the morass, seeking a hiding-place from the
pursuit she expected. When the reeds grew thinner around her and the
water rose about her thighs, she saw the dim loom of an island ahead of
her. A broad span of water lay between, but she did not hesitate. She
waded out until the low waves were lapping about her waist; then she
struck out strongly, swimming with a vigor that promised unusual
endurance.

As she neared the island, she saw that it rose sheer from the water in
castle-like cliffs. She reached them at last, but found neither ledge to
stand on below the water, not to cling to above. She swam on, following
the curve of the cliffs, the strain of her long flight beginning to
weight her limbs. Her hands fluttered along the sheer stone, and
suddenly they found a depression. With a sobbing gasp of relief, she
pulled herself out of the water and clung there, a dripping white
goddess in the dim starlight.

She had come upon what seemed to be steps carved in the cliff. Up them
she went, flattening herself against the stone as she caught the faint
clack of muffled oars. She strained her eyes and thought she made out a
vague bulk moving toward the reedy point she had just quitted. But it
was too far away for her to be sure, in the darkness, and presently the
faint sound ceased, and she continued her climb. If it were her
pursuers, she knew of no better course than to hide on the island. She
knew that most of the islands off that marshy coast were uninhabited.
This might be a pirate's lair, but even pirates would be preferable to
the beast she had escaped.

A vagrant thought crossed her mind as she climbed, in which she mentally
compared her former master with the _kozak_ chief with whom--by
compulsion--she had shamelessly flirted in the pavilions of the camp by
Fort Ghori, where the Hyrkanian lords had parleyed with the warriors of
the steppes. His burning gaze had frightened and humiliated her, but his
cleanly elemental fierceness set him above Jelal Khan, a monster such as
only an overly opulent civilization can produce.

She scrambled up over the cliff edge and looked timidly at the dense
shadows which confronted her. The trees grew close to the cliffs,
presenting a solid mass of blackness. Something whirred above her head
and she cowered, even though realizing it was only a bat.

She did not like the look of those ebony shadows, but she set her teeth
and went toward them, trying not to think of snakes. Her bare feet made
no sound in the spongy loam under the trees. Once among them, the
darkness closed frighteningly about her. She had not taken a dozen steps
when she was no longer able to look back and see the cliffs and the sea
beyond. A few steps more and she became hopelessly confused and lost her
sense of direction. Through the tangled branches not even a star peered.
She groped and floundered on, blindly, and then came to a sudden halt.

Somewhere ahead there began the rhythmical booming of a drum. It was not
such a sound as she would have expected to hear in that time and place.
Then she forgot it as she was aware of a presence near her. She could
not see, but she knew that something was standing beside her in the
darkness.

With a stifled cry she shrank back, and as she did so, something that
even in her panic she recognized as a human arm curved about her waist.
She screamed and threw all her supple young strength into a wild lunge
for freedom, but her captor caught her up like a child, crushing her
frantic resistance with ease. The silence with which her frenzied pleas
and protests were received added to her terror as she felt herself being
carried through the darkness toward the distant drum which still pulsed
and muttered.



4


As the first tinge of dawn reddened the sea, a small boat with a
solitary occupant approached the cliffs. The man in the boat was a
picturesque figure. A crimson scarf was knotted about his head; his
wide silk breeches, of flaming hue, were upheld by a broad sash which
likewise supported a scimitar in a shagreen scabbard. His gilt-worked
leather boots suggested the horseman rather than the seaman, but he
handled his boat with skill. Through his widely open white silk shirt
showed his broad muscular breast, burned brown by the sun.

The muscles of his heavy bronzed arms rippled as he pulled the oars with
an almost feline ease of motion. A fierce vitality that was evident in
each feature and motion set him apart from common men; yet his
expression was neither savage nor somber, though the smoldering blue
eyes hinted at ferocity easily wakened. This was Conan, who had wandered
into the armed camps of the _kozaks_ with no other possession than his
wits and his sword, and who had carved his way to leadership among them.

He paddled to the carven stair as one familiar with his environs, and
moored the boat to a projection of the rock. Then he went up the worn
steps without hesitation. He was keenly alert, not because he
consciously suspected hidden danger, but because alertness was a part of
him, whetted by the wild existence he followed.

What Ghaznavi had considered animal intuition or some sixth sense was
merely the razor-edge faculties and savage wit of the barbarian. Conan
had no instinct to tell him that men were watching him from a covert
among the reeds of the mainland.

As he climbed the cliff, one of these men breathed deeply and stealthily
lifted a bow. Jehungir caught his wrist and hissed an oath into his ear.
'Fool! Will you betray us? Don't you realize he is out of range? Let him
get upon the island. He will go looking for the girl. We will stay here
awhile. He _may_ have sensed our presence or guessed our plot. He may
have warriors hidden somewhere. We will wait. In an hour, if nothing
suspicious occurs, we'll row up to the foot of the stair and await him
there. If he does not return in a reasonable time, some of us will go
upon the island and hunt him down. But I do not wish to do that if it
can be helped. Some of us are sure to die if we have to go into the bush
after him. I had rather catch him descending the stair, where we can
feather him with arrows from a safe distance.'

Meanwhile the unsuspecting _kozak_ had plunged into the forest. He went
silently in his soft leather boots, his gaze sifting every shadow in
eagerness to catch sight of the splendid tawny-haired beauty of whom he
had dreamed ever since he had seen her in the pavilion of Jehungir Agha
by Fort Ghori. He would have desired her even if she had displayed
repugnance toward him. But her cryptic smiles and glances had fired his
blood, and with all the lawless violence which was his heritage he
desired that white-skinned golden-haired woman of civilization.

He had been on Xapur before. Less than a month ago he had held a secret
conclave here with a pirate crew. He knew that he was approaching a
point where he could see the mysterious ruins which gave the island its
name, and he wondered if he would find the girl hiding among them. Even
with the thought he stopped as though struck dead.

Ahead of him, among the trees, rose something that his reason told him
was not possible. _It was a great dark green wall, with towers rearing
beyond the battlements._

Conan stood paralyzed in the disruption of the faculties which
demoralizes anyone who is confronted by an impossible negation of
sanity. He doubted neither his sight nor his reason, but something was
monstrously out of joint. Less than a month ago only broken ruins had
showed among the trees. What human hands could rear such a mammoth pile
as now met his eyes, in the few weeks which had elapsed? Besides, the
buccaneers who roamed Vilayet ceaselessly would have learned of any work
going on on such a stupendous scale, and would have informed the
_kozaks_.

There was no explaining this thing, but it was so. He was on Xapur and
that fantastic heap of towering masonry was on Xapur, and all was
madness and paradox; yet it was all true.

He wheeled back through the jungle, down the carven stair and across the
blue waters to the distant camp at the mouth of the Zaporoska. In that
moment of unreasoning panic even the thought of halting so near the
inland sea was repugnant. He would leave it behind him, would quit the
armed camps and the steppes, and put a thousand miles between him and
the blue mysterious East where the most basic laws of nature could be
set at naught, by what diabolism he could not guess.

For an instant the future fate of kingdoms that hinged on this gay-clad
barbarian hung in the balance. It was a small thing that tipped the
scales--merely a shred of silk hanging on a bush that caught his uneasy
glance. He leaned to it, his nostrils expanding, his nerves quivering to
a subtle stimulant. On that bit of torn cloth, so faint that it was less
with his physical faculties than by some obscure instinctive sense that
he recognized it, lingered the tantalizing perfume that he connected
with the sweet firm flesh of the woman he had seen in Jehungir's
pavilion. The fisherman had not lied, then; she _was_ here! Then in the
soil he saw a single track of a bare foot, long and slender, but a man's
not a woman's, and sunk deeper than was natural. The conclusion was
obvious; the man who made that track was carrying a burden, and what
should it be but the girl the _kozak_ was seeking?

He stood silently facing the dark towers that loomed through the trees,
his eyes slits of blue bale-fire. Desire for the yellow-haired woman
vied with a sullen primordial rage at whoever had taken her. His human
passion fought down his ultra-human fears, and dropping into the
stalking crouch of a hunting panther, he glided toward the walls, taking
advantage of the dense foliage to escape detection from the battlements.

As he approached he saw that the walls were composed of the same green
stone that had formed the ruins, and he was haunted by a vague sense of
familiarity. It was as if he looked upon something he had never seen
before, but had dreamed of, or pictured mentally. At last he recognized
the sensation. The walls and towers followed the plan of the ruins. It
was as if the crumbling lines had grown back into the structures they
originally were.

No sound disturbed the morning quiet as Conan stole to the foot of
the wall which rose sheer from the luxuriant growth. On the southern
reaches of the inland sea the vegetation was almost tropical. He saw no
one on the battlements, heard no sounds within. He saw a massive gate a
short distance to his left, and had had no reason to suppose that it
was not locked and guarded. But he believed that the woman he sought
was somewhere beyond that wall, and the course he took was
characteristically reckless.

Above him vine-festooned branches reached out toward the battlements. He
went up a great tree like a cat, and reaching a point above the parapet,
he gripped a thick limb with both hands, swung back and forth at arm's
length until he had gained momentum, and then let go and catapulted
through the air, landing cat-like on the battlements. Crouching there he
stared down into the streets of a city.

The circumference of the wall was not great, but the number of green
stone buildings it contained was surprizing. They were three or four
stories in height, mainly flat-roofed, reflecting a fine architectural
style. The streets converged like the spokes of a wheel into an
octagon-shaped court in the center of the town which gave upon a lofty
edifice, which, with its domes and towers, dominated the whole city. He
saw no one moving in the streets or looking out of the windows, though
the sun was already coming up. The silence that reigned there might have
been that of a dead and deserted city. A narrow stone stair ascended the
wall near him; down this he went.

Houses shouldered so closely to the wall that half-way down the stair he
found himself within arm's length of a window, and halted to peer in.
There were no bars, and the silk curtains were caught back with satin
cords. He looked into a chamber whose walls were hidden by dark velvet
tapestries. The floor was covered with thick rugs, and there were
benches of polished ebony, and an ivory dais heaped with furs.

He was about to continue his descent, when he heard the sound of someone
approaching in the street below. Before the unknown person could come
round a corner and see him on the stair, he stepped quickly across the
intervening space and dropped lightly into the room, drawing his
scimitar. He stood for an instant statue-like; then as nothing happened
he was moving across the rugs toward an arched doorway when a hanging
was drawn aside, revealing a cushioned alcove from which a slender,
dark-haired girl regarded him with languid eyes.

Conan glared at her tensely, expecting her momentarily to start
screaming. But she merely smothered a yawn with a dainty hand, rose from
the alcove and leaned negligently against the hanging which she held
with one hand.

She was undoubtedly a member of a white race, though her skin was very
dark. Her square-cut hair was black as midnight, her only garment a wisp
of silk about her supple hips.

Presently she spoke, but the tongue was unfamiliar to him, and he shook
his head. She yawned again, stretched lithely, and without any show of
fear or surprize, shifted to a language he did understand, a dialect of
Yuetshi which sounded strangely archaic.

'Are you looking for someone?' she asked, as indifferently as if the
invasion of her chamber by an armed stranger were the most common thing
imaginable.

'Who are you?' he demanded.

'I am Yateli,' she answered languidly. 'I must have feasted late last
night, I am so sleepy now. Who are you?'

'I am Conan, a _hetman_ among the _kozaks_,' he answered, watching her
narrowly. He believed her attitude to be a pose, and expected her to try
to escape from the chamber or rouse the house. But, though a velvet rope
that might be a signal cord hung near her, she did not reach for it.

'Conan,' she repeated drowsily. 'You are not a Dagonian. I suppose you
are a mercenary. Have you cut the heads off many Yuetshi?'

'I do not war on water rats!' he snorted.

'But they are very terrible,' she murmured. 'I remember when they were
our slaves. But they revolted and burned and slew. Only the magic of
Khosatral Khel has kept them from the walls--' She paused, a puzzled
look struggling with the sleepiness of her expression. 'I forgot,' she
muttered. 'They _did_ climb the walls, last night. There was shouting
and fire, and people calling in vain on Khosatral.' She shook her head
as if to clear it. 'But that can not be,' she murmured, 'because I am
alive, and I thought I was dead. Oh, to the devil with it!'

She came across the chamber, and taking Conan's hand, drew him to the
dais. He yielded in bewilderment and uncertainty. The girl smiled at
him like a sleepy child; her long silky lashes drooped over dusky,
clouded eyes. She ran her fingers through his thick black locks as if to
assure herself of his reality.

'It was a dream,' she yawned. 'Perhaps it's all a dream. I feel like a
dream now. I don't care. I can't remember something--I have
forgotten--there is something I can not understand, but I grow so sleepy
when I try to think. Anyway, it doesn't matter.'

'What do you mean?' he asked uneasily. 'You said they climbed the walls
last night? Who?'

'The Yuetshi. I thought so, anyway. A cloud of smoke hid everything, but
a naked, blood-stained devil caught me by the throat and drove his knife
into my breast. Oh, it hurt! But it was a dream, because see, there is
no scar.' She idly inspected her smooth bosom, and then sank upon
Conan's lap and passed her supple arms around his massive neck. 'I can
not remember,' she murmured, nestling her dark head against his mighty
breast. 'Everything is dim and misty. It does not matter. You are no
dream. You are strong. Let us live while we can. Love me!'

He cradled the girl's glossy head in the bend of his heavy arm, and
kissed her full red lips with unfeigned relish.

'You are strong,' she repeated, her voice waning. 'Love me--love--' The
sleepy murmur faded away; the dusky eyes closed, the long lashes
drooping over the sensuous cheeks; the supple body relaxed in Conan's
arms.

He scowled down at her. She seemed to partake of the illusion that
haunted this whole city, but the firm resilience of her limbs under his
questing fingers convinced him that he had a living human girl in his
arms, and not the shadow of a dream. No less disturbed, he hastily laid
her on the furs upon the dais. Her sleep was too deep to be natural. He
decided that she must be an addict of some drug, perhaps like the black
lotus of Xuthal.

Then he found something else to make him wonder. Among the furs on the
dais was a gorgeous spotted skin, whose predominant hue was golden. It
was not a clever copy, but the skin of an actual beast. And that beast,
Conan knew, had been extinct for at least a thousand years; it was the
great golden leopard which figures so predominantly in Hyborian
legendry, and which the ancient artists delighted to portray in pigments
and marble.

Shaking his head in bewilderment, Conan passed through the archway into
a winding corridor. Silence hung over the house, but outside he heard a
sound which his keen ears recognized as something ascending the stair on
the wall from which he had entered the building. An instant later he was
startled to hear something land with a soft but weighty thud on the
floor of the chamber he had just quitted. Turning quickly away, he
hurried along the twisting hallway until something on the floor before
him brought him to a halt.

It was a human figure, which lay half in the hall and half in an opening
that obviously was normally concealed by a door which was a duplicate of
the panels of the wall. It was a man, dark and lean, clad only in a silk
loin-cloth, with a shaven head and cruel features, and he lay as if
death had struck him just as he was emerging from the panel. Conan bent
above him, seeking the cause of his death, and discovered him to be
merely sunk in the same deep sleep as the girl in the chamber.

But why should he select such a place for his slumbers? While meditating
on the matter, Conan was galvanized by a sound behind him. Something was
moving up the corridor in his direction. A quick glance down it showed
that it ended in a great door which might be locked. Conan jerked the
supine body out of the panel-entrance and stepped through, pulling the
panel shut after him. A click told him it was locked in place. Standing
in utter darkness, he heard a shuffling tread halt just outside the
door, and a faint chill trickled along his spine. That was no human
step, nor that of any beast he had ever encountered.

There was an instant of silence, then a faint creak of wood and metal.
Putting out his hand he felt the door straining and bending inward, as
if a great weight were being steadily borne against it from the outside.
As he reached for his sword, this ceased and he heard a strange
slobbering mouthing that prickled the short hairs on his scalp. Scimitar
in hand he began backing away, and his heels felt steps, down which he
nearly tumbled. He was in a narrow staircase leading downward.

He groped his way down in the blackness, feeling for, but not finding,
some other opening in the walls. Just as he decided that he was no
longer in the house, but deep in the earth under it, the steps ceased in
a level tunnel.



5


Along the black silent tunnel Conan groped, momentarily dreading a fall
into some unseen pit; but at last his feet struck steps again, and he
went up them until he came to a door on which his fumbling fingers found
a metal catch. He came out into a dim and lofty room of enormous
proportions. Fantastic columns marched around the mottled walls,
upholding a ceiling, which, at once translucent and dusky, seemed like a
cloudy midnight sky, giving an illusion of impossible height. If any
light filtered in from the outside it was curiously altered.

In a brooding twilight Conan moved across the bare green floor. The
great room was circular, pierced on one side by the great bronze valves
of a giant door. Opposite this, on a dais against the wall, up to which
led broad curving steps, there stood a throne of copper, and when Conan
saw what was coiled on this throne, he retreated hastily, lifting his
scimitar.

Then, as the thing did not move, he scanned it more closely, and
presently mounted the glass steps and stared down at it. It was a
gigantic snake, apparently carved in some jade-like substance. Each
scale stood out as distinctly as in real life, and the iridescent colors
were vividly reproduced. The great wedge-shaped head was half submerged
in the folds of its trunk; so neither the eyes nor jaws were visible.
Recognition stirred in his mind. This snake was evidently meant to
represent one of those grim monsters of the marsh which in past ages had
haunted the reedy edges of Vilayet's southern shores. But, like the
golden leopard, they had been extinct for hundreds of years. Conan had
seen rude images of them, in miniature, among the idol-huts of the
Yuetshi, and there was a description of them in the _Book of Skelos_,
which drew on prehistoric sources.

Conan admired the scaly torso, thick as his thigh and obviously of great
length, and he reached out and laid a curious hand on the thing. And as
he did so, his heart nearly stopped. An icy chill congealed the blood in
his veins and lifted the short hair on his scalp. Under his hand there
was not the smooth, brittle surface of glass or metal or stone, but the
yielding, fibrous mass of a _living_ thing. He felt cold, sluggish life
flowing under his fingers.

His hand jerked back in instinctive repulsion. Sword shaking in his
grasp, horror and revulsion and fear almost choking him, he backed away
and down the glass steps with painful care, glaring in awful fascination
at the grisly thing that slumbered on the copper throne. It did not
move.

He reached the bronze door and tried it, with his heart in his teeth,
sweating with fear that he should find himself locked in with that slimy
horror. But the valves yielded to his touch, and he glided through and
closed them behind him.

He found himself in a wide hallway with lofty tapestried walls, where
the light was the same twilight gloom. It made distant objects
indistinct and that made him uneasy, rousing thoughts of serpents
gliding unseen through the dimness. A door at the other end seemed miles
away in the illusive light. Nearer at hand the tapestry hung in such a
way as to suggest an opening behind it, and lifting it cautiously he
discovered a narrow stair leading up.

While he hesitated he heard in the great room he had just left, the
same shuffling tread he had heard outside the locked panel. Had he been
followed through the tunnel? He went up the stair hastily, dropping the
tapestry in place behind him.

Emerging presently into a twisting corridor, he took the first doorway
he came to. He had a twofold purpose in his apparently aimless prowling:
to escape from the building and its mysteries, and to find the Nemedian
girl who, he felt, was imprisoned somewhere in this palace, temple, or
whatever it was. He believed it was the great domed edifice in the
center of the city, and it was likely that here dwelt the ruler of the
town, to whom a captive woman would doubtless be brought.

He found himself in a chamber, not another corridor, and was about to
retrace his steps, when he heard a voice which came from behind one of
the walls. There was no door in that wall, but he leaned close and heard
distinctly. And an icy chill crawled slowly along his spine. The tongue
was Nemedian, but the voice was not human. There was a terrifying
resonance about it, like a bell tolling at midnight.

'There was no life in the Abyss, save that which was incorporated in
me,' it tolled. 'Nor was there light, nor motion, nor any sound. Only
the urge behind and beyond life guided and impelled me on my upward
journey, blind, insensate, inexorable. Through ages upon ages, and the
changeless strata of darkness I climbed--'

Ensorcelled by that belling resonance, Conan crouched forgetful of all
else, until its hypnotic power caused a strange replacement of faculties
and perception, and sound created the illusion of sight. Conan was no
longer aware of the voice, save as far-off rhythmical waves of sound.
Transported beyond his age and his own individuality, he was seeing the
transmutation of the being men called Khosatral Khel which crawled up
from Night and the Abyss ages ago to clothe itself in the substance of
the material universe.

But human flesh was too frail, too paltry to hold the terrific essence
that was Khosatral Khel. So he stood up in the shape and aspect of a
man, but his flesh was not flesh, nor the bone, bone, nor blood, blood.
He became a blasphemy against all nature, for he caused to live and
think and act a basic substance that before had never known the pulse
and stir of animate being.

He stalked through the world like a god, for no earthly weapon could
harm him, and to him a century was like an hour. In his wanderings he
came upon a primitive people inhabiting the island of Dagonia, and it
pleased him to give this race culture and civilization, and by his aid
they built the city of Dagon and they abode there and worshipped him.
Strange and grisly were his servants, called from the dark corners of
the planet where grim survivals of forgotten ages yet lurked. His house
in Dagon was connected with every other house by tunnels through which
his shaven-headed priests bore victims for the sacrifice.

But after many ages a fierce and brutish people appeared on the shores
of the sea. They called themselves Yuetshi, and after a fierce battle
they were defeated and enslaved, and for nearly a generation they died
on the altars of Khosatral.

His sorcery kept them in bonds. Then their priest, a strange gaunt man
of unknown race, plunged into the wilderness, and when he returned he
bore a knife that was of no earthly substance. It was forged of a meteor
which flashed through the sky like a flaming arrow and fell in a far
valley. The slaves rose. Their saw-edged crescents cut down the men of
Dagon like sheep, and against that unearthly knife the magic of
Khosatral was impotent. While carnage and slaughter bellowed through the
red smoke that choked the streets, the grimmest act of that grim drama
was played in the cryptic dome behind the great daised chamber with its
copper throne and its walls mottled like the skin of serpents.

From that dome the Yuetshi priest emerged alone. He had not slain his
foe, because he wished to hold the threat of his losing over the heads
of his own rebellious subjects. He had left Khosatral lying upon the
golden dais with the mystic knife across his breast for a spell to hold
him senseless and inanimate until doomsday.

But the ages passed and the priest died, the towers of deserted Dagon
crumbled, the tales became dim, and the Yuetshi were reduced by plagues
and famines and war to scattered remnants, dwelling in squalor along the
seashore.

Only the cryptic dome resisted the rot of time, until a chance
thunderbolt and the curiosity of a fisherman lifted from the breast of
the god the magic knife and broke the spell. Khosatral Khel rose and
lived and waxed mighty once more. It pleased him to restore the city as
it was in the days before its fall. By his necromancy he lifted the
towers from the dust of forgotten millenniums, and the folk which had
been dust for ages moved in life again.

But folk who have tasted death are only partly alive. In the dark
corners of their souls and minds death still lurks unconquered. By night
the people of Dagon moved and loved, hated and feasted, and remembered
the fall of Dagon and their own slaughter only as a dim dream; they
moved in an enchanted mist of illusion, feeling the strangeness of their
existence but not inquiring the reasons therefor. With the coming of day
they sank into deep sleep, to be roused again only by the coming of
night, which is akin to death.

All this rolled in a terrible panorama before Conan's consciousness as
he crouched beside the tapestried wall. His reason staggered. All
certainty and sanity were swept away, leaving a shadowy universe through
which stole hooded figures of grisly potentialities. Through the belling
of the voice which was like a tolling of triumph over the ordered laws
of a sane planet, a human sound anchored Conan's mind from its flight
through spheres of madness. It was the hysterical sobbing of a woman.

Involuntarily he sprang up.



6


Jehungir Agha waited with growing impatience in his boat among the
reeds. More than an hour passed, and Conan had not reappeared. Doubtless
he was still searching the island for the girl he thought to be hidden
there. But another surmise occurred to the Agha. Suppose the _hetman_
had left his warriors near by, and that they should grow suspicious and
come to investigate his long absence? Jehungir spoke to the oarsmen, and
the long boat slid from among the reeds and glided toward the carven
stairs.

Leaving half a dozen men in the boat, he took the rest, ten mighty
archers of Khawarizm, in spired helmets and tiger-skin cloaks. Like
hunters invading the retreat of the lion, they stole forward under the
trees, arrows on string. Silence reigned over the forest except when a
great green thing that might have been a parrot swirled over their heads
with a low thunder of broad wings, and then sped off through the trees.
With a sudden gesture Jehungir halted his party, and they stared
incredulously at the towers that showed through the verdure in the
distance.

'Tarim!' muttered Jehungir. 'The pirates have rebuilt the ruins!
Doubtless Conan is there. We must investigate this. A fortified town
this close to the mainland!--Come!'

With renewed caution they glided through the trees. The game had
altered; from pursuers and hunters they had become spies.

And as they crept through the tangled growth, the man they sought was in
peril more deadly than their filigreed arrows.

       *       *       *       *       *

Conan realized with a crawling of his skin that beyond the wall the
belling voice had ceased. He stood motionless as a statue, his gaze
fixed on a curtained door through which he knew that a culminating
horror would presently appear.

It was dim and misty in the chamber, and Conan's hair began to lift on
his scalp as he looked. He saw a head and a pair of gigantic shoulders
grow out of the twilight gloom. There was no sound of footsteps, but the
great dusky form grew more distinct until Conan recognized the figure of
a man. He was clad in sandals, a skirt and a broad shagreen girdle. His
square-cut mane was confined by a circlet of gold. Conan stared at the
sweep of the monstrous shoulders, the breadth of the swelling breast,
the bands and ridges and clusters of muscles on torso and limbs. The
face was without weakness and without mercy. The eyes were balls of dark
fire. And Conan knew that this was Khosatral Khel, the ancient from the
Abyss, the god of Dagonia.

No word was spoken. No word was necessary. Khosatral spread his great
arms, and Conan, crouching beneath them, slashed at the giant's belly.
Then he bounded back, eyes blazing with surprise. The keen edge had rung
on the mighty body as on an anvil, rebounding without cutting. Then
Khosatral came upon him in an irresistible surge.

There was a fleeting concussion, a fierce writhing and intertwining of
limbs and bodies, and then Conan sprang clear, every thew quivering from
the violence of his efforts; blood started where the grazing fingers had
torn the skin. In that instant of contact he had experienced the
ultimate madness of blasphemed nature; no human flesh had bruised his,
but _metal_ animated and sentient; it was a body of living iron which
opposed his.

Khosatral loomed above the warrior in the gloom. Once let those great
fingers lock and they would not loosen until the human body hung limp in
their grasp. In that twilit chamber it was as if a man fought with a
dream-monster in a nightmare.

Flinging down his useless sword, Conan caught up a heavy bench and
hurled it with all his power. It was such a missile as few men could
even lift. On Khosatral's mighty breast it smashed into shreds and
splinters. It did not even shake the giant on his braced legs. His face
lost something of its human aspect, a nimbus of fire played about his
awesome head, and like a moving tower he came on.

With a desperate wrench Conan ripped a whole section of tapestry from
the wall and whirling it, with a muscular effort greater than that
required for throwing the bench, he flung it over the giant's head. For
an instant Khosatral floundered, smothered and blinded by the clinging
stuff that resisted his strength as wood or steel could not have done,
and in that instant Conan caught up his scimitar and shot out into the
corridor. Without checking his speed he hurled himself through the door
of the adjoining chamber, slammed the door and shot the bolt.

Then as he wheeled he stopped short, all the blood in him seeming to
surge to his head. Crouching on a heap of silk cushions, golden hair
streaming over her naked shoulders, eyes blank with terror, was the
woman for whom he had dared so much. He almost forgot the horror at his
heels until a splintering crash behind him brought him to his senses. He
caught up the girl and sprang for the opposite door. She was too
helpless with fright either to resist or to aid him. A faint whimper was
the only sound of which she seemed capable.

Conan wasted no time trying the door. A shattering stroke of his
scimitar hewed the lock asunder, and as he sprang through to the stair
that loomed beyond it, he saw the head and shoulders of Khosatral crash
through the other door. The colossus was splintering the massive panels
as if they were of cardboard.

Conan raced up the stair, carrying the big girl over one shoulder as
easily as if she had been a child. Where he was going he had no idea,
but the stair ended at the door of a round, domed chamber. Khosatral was
coming up the stair behind them, silently as a wind of death, and as
swiftly.

The chamber's walls were of solid steel, and so was the door. Conan shut
it and dropped in place the great bars with which it was furnished. The
thought struck him that this was Khosatral's chamber, where he locked
himself in to sleep securely from the monsters he had loosed from the
Pits to do his bidding.

Hardly were the bolts in place when the great door shook and trembled to
the giant's assault. Conan shrugged his shoulders. This was the end of
the trail. There was no other door in the chamber, nor any window. Air,
and the strange misty light, evidently came from interstices in the
dome. He tested the nickel edge of his scimitar, quite cool now that he
was at bay. He had done his volcanic best to escape; when the giant came
crashing through that door he would explode in another savage onslaught
with his useless sword, not because he expected it to do any good, but
because it was his nature to die fighting. For the moment there was no
course of action to take, and his calmness was not forced or feigned.

The gaze he turned on his fair companion was as admiring and intense as
if he had a hundred years to live. He had dumped her unceremoniously on
the floor when he turned to close the door, and she had risen to her
knees, mechanically arranging her streaming locks and her scanty
garment. Conan's fierce eyes glowed with approval as they devoured her
thick golden hair, her clear wide eyes, her milky skin, sleek with
exuberant health, the firm swell of her breasts, the contours of her
splendid hips.

A low cry escaped her as the door shook and a bolt gave way with a
groan.

Conan did not look around. He knew the door would hold a little while
longer.

'They told me you had escaped,' he said. 'A Yuetshi fisher told me you
were hiding here. What is your name?'

'Octavia,' she gasped mechanically. Then words came in a rush. She
caught at him with desperate fingers. 'Oh Mitra! what nightmare is this?
The people--the dark-skinned people--one of them caught me in the forest
and brought me here. They carried me to--to that--that _thing_. He told
me--he said--am I mad? Is this a dream?'

He glanced at the door which bulged inward as if from the impact of a
battering-ram.

'No,' he said, 'it's no dream. That hinge is giving way. Strange that a
devil has to break down a door like a common man; but after all, his
strength itself is a diabolism.'

'Can you not kill him?' she panted. 'You are strong.'

Conan was too honest to lie. 'If a mortal man could kill him, he'd be
dead now,' he answered. 'I nicked my blade on his belly.'

Her eyes dulled. 'Then you must die, and I must--oh Mitra!' she screamed
in sudden frenzy, and Conan caught her hands, fearing that she would
harm herself. 'He told me what he was going to do to me!' she panted.
'Kill me! Kill me with your sword before he bursts the door!'

Conan looked at her, and shook his head.

'I'll do what I can,' he said. 'That won't be much, but it'll give you a
chance to get past him down the stair. Then run for the cliffs. I have a
boat tied at the foot of the steps. If you can get out of the palace you
may escape him yet. The people of this city are all asleep.'

She dropped her head in her hands. Conan took up his scimitar and moved
over to stand before the echoing door. One watching him would have
realized that he was waiting for a death he regarded as inevitable. His
eyes smoldered more vividly; his muscular hand knotted harder on his
hilt; that was all.

The hinges had given under the giant's terrible assault and the door
rocked crazily, held only by the bolts. And these solid steel bars were
buckling, bending, bulging out of their sockets. Conan watched in an
almost impersonal fascination, envying the monster his inhuman strength.

Then without warning the bombardment ceased. In the stillness Conan
heard other noises on the landing outside--the beat of wings, and a
muttering voice that was like the whining of wind through midnight
branches. Then presently there was silence, but there was a new _feel_
in the air. Only the whetted instincts of barbarism could have sensed
it, but Conan knew, without seeing or hearing him leave, that the master
of Dagon no longer stood outside the door.

He glared through a crack that had been started in the steel of the
portal. The landing was empty. He drew the warped bolts and cautiously
pulled aside the sagging door. Khosatral was not on the stair, but far
below he heard the clang of a metal door. He did not know whether the
giant was plotting new devilries or had been summoned away by that
muttering voice, but he wasted no time in conjectures.

He called to Octavia, and the new note in his voice brought her up to
her feet and to his side almost without her conscious volition.

'What is it?' she gasped.

'Don't stop to talk!' He caught her wrist. 'Come on!' The chance for
action had transformed him; his eyes blazed, his voice crackled. 'The
knife!' he muttered, while almost dragging the girl down the stair in
his fierce haste. 'The magic Yuetshi blade! He left it in the dome! I--'
his voice died suddenly as a clear mental picture sprang up before him.
The dome adjoined the great room where stood the copper throne--sweat
started out on his body. The only way to that dome was through that room
with its copper throne and the foul thing that slumbered in it.

But he did not hesitate. Swiftly they descended the stair, crossed the
chamber, descended the next stair, and came into the great dim hall with
its mysterious hangings. They had seen no sign of the colossus. Halting
before the great bronze-valved door, Conan caught Octavia by her
shoulders and shook her in his intensity.

'Listen!' he snapped. 'I'm going into that room and fasten the door.
Stand here and listen; if Khosatral comes, call to me. If you hear me
cry for you to go, run as though the devil were on your heels--which he
probably will be. Make for that door at the other end of the hall,
because I'll be past helping you. I'm going for the Yuetshi knife!'

Before she could voice the protest her lips were framing, he had slid
through the valves and shut them behind him. He lowered the bolt
cautiously, not noticing that it could be worked from the outside. In
the dim twilight his gaze sought that grim copper throne; yes, the scaly
brute was still there, filling the throne with its loathsome coils. He
saw a door behind the throne and knew that it led into the dome. But to
reach it he must mount the dais, a few feet from the throne itself.

A wind blowing across the green floor would have made more noise than
Conan's slinking feet. Eyes glued on the sleeping reptile he reached the
dais and mounted the glass steps. The snake had not moved. He was
reaching for the door....

The bolt on the bronze portal clanged and Conan stifled an awful oath as
he saw Octavia come into the room. She stared about, uncertain in the
deeper gloom, and he stood frozen, not daring to shout a warning. Then
she saw his shadowy figure and ran toward the dais, crying: 'I want to
go with you! I'm afraid to stay alone--_oh_! She threw up her hands
with a terrible scream as for the first time she saw the occupant of the
throne. The wedge-shaped head had lifted from its coils and thrust out
toward her on a yard of shining neck.

Conan cleared the space between him and the throne with a desperate
bound, his scimitar swinging with all his power. And with such blinding
speed did the serpent move that it whipped about and met him in full
midair, lapping his limbs and body with half a dozen coils. His
half-checked stroke fell futilely as he crashed down on the dais,
gashing the scaly trunk but not severing it.

Then he was writhing on the glass steps with fold after slimy fold
knotting about him, twisting, crushing, killing him. His right arm was
still free, but he could get no purchase to strike a killing blow, and
he knew one blow must suffice. With a groaning convulsion of muscular
expansion that bulged his veins almost to bursting on his temples and
tied his muscles in quivering, tortured knots, he heaved up on his feet,
lifting almost the full weight of that forty-foot devil.

An instant he reeled on wide-braced legs, feeling his ribs caving in on
his vitals and his sight growing dark, while his scimitar gleamed above
his head. Then it fell, shearing through the scales and flesh and
vertebrae. And where there had been one huge writhing cable, now there
were horribly two, lashing and flopping in the death throes. Conan
staggered away from their blind strokes. He was sick and dizzy, and
blood oozed from his nose. Groping in a dark mist he clutched Octavia
and shook her until she gasped for breath.

'Next time I tell you to stay somewhere,' he gasped, 'you stay!'

He was too dizzy even to know whether she replied. Taking her wrist like
a truant schoolgirl, he led her around the hideous stumps that still
looped and knotted on the floor. Somewhere, in the distance, he thought
he heard men yelling, but his ears were still roaring so that he could
not be sure.

The door gave to his efforts. If Khosatral had placed the snake there to
guard the thing he feared, evidently he considered it ample precaution.
Conan half expected some other monstrosity to leap at him with the
opening of the door, but in the dimmer light he saw only the vague sweep
of the arch above, a dully gleaming block of gold, and a half-moon
glimmer on the stone.

With a gasp of gratification he scooped it up, and did not linger for
further exploration. He turned and fled across the room and down the
great hall toward the distant door that he felt led to the outer air. He
was correct. A few minutes later he emerged into the silent streets,
half carrying, half guiding his companion. There was no one to be seen,
but beyond the western wall there sounded cries and moaning wails that
made Octavia tremble. He led her to the southwestern wall, and without
difficulty found a stone stair that mounted the rampart. He had
appropriated a thick tapestry rope in the great hall, and now, having
reached the parapet, he looped the soft strong cord about the girl's
hips and lowered her to the earth. Then, making one end fast to a
merlon, he slid down after her. There was but one way of escape from the
island--the stair on the western cliffs. In that direction he hurried,
swinging wide around the spot from which had come the cries and the
sound of terrible blows.

Octavia sensed that grim peril lurked in those leafy fastnesses. Her
breath came pantingly and she pressed close to her protector. But the
forest was silent now, and they saw no shape of menace until they
emerged from the trees and glimpsed a figure standing on the edge of the
cliffs.

Jehungir Agha had escaped the doom that had overtaken his warriors when
an iron giant sallied suddenly from the gate and battered and crushed
them into bits of shredded flesh and splintered bone. When he saw the
swords of his archers break on that man-like juggernaut, he had known it
was no human foe they faced, and he had fled, hiding in the deep woods
until the sounds of slaughter ceased. Then he crept back to the stair,
but his boatmen were not waiting for him.

They had heard the screams, and presently, waiting nervously, had seen,
on the cliff above them, a blood-smeared monster waving gigantic arms in
awful triumph. They had waited for no more. When Jehungir came upon the
cliffs they were just vanishing among the reeds beyond ear-shot.
Khosatral was gone--had either returned to the city or was prowling the
forest in search of the man who had escaped him outside the walls.

Jehungir was just preparing to descend the stairs and depart in Conan's
boat, when he saw the _hetman_ and the girl emerge from the trees. The
experience which had congealed his blood and almost blasted his reason
had not altered Jehungir's intentions toward the _kozak_ chief. The
sight of the man he had come to kill filled him with gratification. He
was astonished to see the girl he had given to Jelal Khan, but he wasted
no time on her. Lifting his bow he drew the shaft to its head and
loosed. Conan crouched and the arrow splintered on a tree, and Conan
laughed.

'Dog!' he taunted. 'You can't hit me! I was not born to die on Hyrkanian
steel! Try again, pig of Turan!'

Jehungir did not try again. That was his last arrow. He drew his
scimitar and advanced, confident in his spired helmet and close-meshed
mail. Conan met him half-way in a blinding whirl of swords. The curved
blades ground together, sprang apart, circled in glittering arcs that
blurred the sight which tried to follow them. Octavia, watching, did not
see the stroke, but she heard its chopping impact, and saw Jehungir
fall, blood spurting from his side where the Cimmerian's steel had
sundered his mail and bitten to his spine.

But Octavia's scream was not caused by the death of her former master.
With a crash of bending boughs Khosatral Khel was upon them. The girl
could not flee; a moaning cry escaped her as her knees gave way and
pitched her grovelling to the sward.

Conan, stooping above the body of the Agha, made no move to escape.
Shifting his reddened scimitar to his left hand, he drew the great
half-blade of the Yuetshi. Khosatral Khel was towering above him, his
arms lifted like mauls, but as the blade caught the sheen of the sun,
the giant gave back suddenly.

But Conan's blood was up. He rushed in, slashing with the crescent
blade. And it did not splinter. Under its edge the dusky metal of
Khosatral's body gave way like common flesh beneath a cleaver. From the
deep gash flowed a strange ichor, and Khosatral cried out like the
dirging of a great bell. His terrible arms flailed down, but Conan,
quicker than the archers who had died beneath those awful flails,
avoided their strokes and struck again and yet again. Khosatral reeled
and tottered; his cries were awful to hear, as if metal were given a
tongue of pain, as if iron shrieked and bellowed under torment.

Then wheeling away he staggered into the forest; he reeled in his gait,
crashed through bushes and caromed off trees. Yet though Conan followed
him with the speed of hot passion, the walls and towers of Dagon loomed
through the trees before the man came within dagger-reach of the giant.

Then Khosatral turned again, flailing the air with desperate blows, but
Conan, fired to berserk fury, was not to be denied. As a panther strikes
down a bull moose at bay, so he plunged under the bludgeoning arms and
drove the crescent blade to the hilt under the spot where a human's
heart would be.

Khosatral reeled and fell. In the shape of a man he reeled, but it was
not the shape of a man that struck the loam. Where there had been the
likeness of a human face, there was no face at all, and the metal limbs
melted and changed.... Conan, who had not shrunk from Khosatral living,
recoiled blenching from Khosatral dead, for he had witnessed an awful
transmutation; in his dying throes Khosatral Khel had become again the
_thing_ that had crawled up from the Abyss millenniums gone. Gagging
with intolerable repugnance, Conan turned to flee the sight; and he was
suddenly aware that the pinnacles of Dagon no longer glimmered through
the trees. They had faded like smoke--the battlements, the crenellated
towers, the great bronze gates, the velvets, the gold, the ivory, and
the dark-haired women, and the men with their shaven skulls. With the
passing of the inhuman intellect which had given them rebirth, they had
faded back into the dust which they had been for ages uncounted. Only
the stumps of broken columns rose above crumbling walls and broken paves
and shattered dome. Conan again looked upon the ruins of Xapur as he
remembered them.

The wild _hetman_ stood like a statue for a space, dimly grasping
something of the cosmic tragedy of the fitful ephemera called mankind
and the hooded shapes of darkness which prey upon it. Then as he heard
his name called in accents of fear, he started, as one awaking from a
dream, glanced again at the thing on the ground, shuddered and turned
away toward the cliffs and the girl that waited there.

She was peering fearfully under the trees, and she greeted him with a
half-stifled cry of relief. He had shaken off the dim monstrous visions
which had momentarily haunted him, and was his exuberant self again.

'Where is _he_?' she shuddered.

'Gone back to hell whence he crawled,' he replied cheerfully. 'Why
didn't you climb the stair and make your escape in my boat?'

'I wouldn't desert--' she began, then changed her mind, and amended
rather sulkily, 'I have nowhere to go. The Hyrkanians would enslave me
again, and the pirates would--'

'What of the _kozaks_?' he suggested.

'Are they better than the pirates?' she asked scornfully. Conan's
admiration increased to see how well she had recovered her poise after
having endured such frantic terror. Her arrogance amused him.

'You seemed to think so in the camp by Ghori,' he answered. 'You were
free enough with your smiles then.'

Her red lip curled in disdain. 'Do you think I was enamored of you? Do
you dream that I would have shamed myself before an ale-guzzling,
meat-gorging barbarian unless I had to? My master--whose body lies
there--forced me to do as I did.'

'Oh!' Conan seemed rather crestfallen. Then he laughed with undiminished
zest. 'No matter. You belong to me now. Give me a kiss.'

'You dare ask--' she began angrily, when she felt herself snatched off
her feet and crushed to the _hetman's_ muscular breast. She fought him
fiercely, with all the supple strength of her magnificent youth, but he
only laughed exuberantly, drunk with his possession of this splendid
creature writhing in his arms.

He crushed her struggles easily, drinking the nectar of her lips with
all the unrestrained passion that was his, until the arms that strained
against him melted and twined convulsively about his massive neck. Then
he laughed down into the clear eyes, and said: 'Why should not a chief
of the Free People be preferable to a city-bred dog of Turan?'

She shook back her tawny locks, still tingling in every nerve from the
fire of his kisses. She did not loosen her arms from his neck. 'Do you
deem yourself an Agha's equal?' she challenged.

He laughed and strode with her in his arms toward the stair. 'You shall
judge,' he boasted. 'I'll burn Khawarizm for a torch to light your way
to my tent.'





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