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Title:Jewels of Gwahlur
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Title:Jewels of Gwahlur
Author: Robert E. Howard



Contents



1 Chapter 1. Paths of Intrigue

2 Chapter 2. A Goddess Awakens

3 Chapter 3. The Return of the Oracle

4 Chapter 4. The Teeth of Gwahlur





Chapter 1. Paths of Intrigue

The cliffs rose sheer from the jungle, towering ramparts of stone that
glinted jade-blue and dull crimson in the rising sun, and curved away
and away to east and west above the waving emerald ocean of fronds and
leaves. It looked insurmountable, that giant palisade with its sheer
curtains of solid rock in which bits of quartz winked dazzlingly in
the sunlight. But the man who was working his tedious way upward was
already halfway to the top.

He came from a race of hillmen, accustomed to scaling forbidding
crags, and he was a man of unusual strength and agility. His only
garment was a pair of short red silk breeks, and his sandals were
slung to his back, out of his way, as were his sword and dagger.

The man was powerfully built, supple as a panther. His skin was
bronzed by the sun, his square-cut black mane confined by a silver
band about his temples. His iron muscles, quick eyes and sure feet
served him well here, for it was a climb to test these qualities to
the utmost. A hundred and fifty feet below him waved the jungle. An
equal distance above him the rim of the cliffs was etched against the
morning sky.

He labored like one driven by the necessity of haste; yet he was
forced to move at a snail's pace, clinging like a fly on a wall. His
groping hands and feet found niches and knobs, precarious holds at
best, and sometimes he virtually hung by his finger nails. Yet upward
he went, clawing, squirming, fighting for every foot. At times he
paused to rest his aching muscles, and, shaking the sweat out of his
eyes, twisted his head to stare searchingly out over the jungle,
combing the green expanse for any trace of human life or motion.

Now the summit was not far above him, and he observed, only a few feet
above his head, a break in the sheer stone of the cliff. An instant
later he had reached it--a small cavern, just below the edge of the
rim. As his head rose above the lip of its floor, he grunted. He clung
there, his elbows hooked over the lip. The cave was so tiny that it
was little more than a niche cut in the stone, but it held an
occupant. A shriveled brown mummy, cross-legged, arms folded on the
withered breast upon which the shrunken head was sunk, sat in the
little cavern. The limbs were bound in place with rawhide thongs which
had become mere rotted wisps. If the form had ever been clothed, the
ravages of time had long ago reduced the garments to dust. But thrust
between the crossed arms and the shrunken breast there was a roll of
parchment, yellowed with age to the color of old ivory.

The climber stretched forth a long arm and wrenched away this
cylinder. Without investigation, he thrust it into his girdle and
hauled himself up until he was standing in the opening of the niche. A
spring upward and he caught the rim of the cliffs and pulled himself
up and over almost with the same motion.

There he halted, panting, and stared downward.

It was like looking into the interior of a vast bowl, rimmed by a
circular stone wall. The floor of the bowl was covered with trees and
denser vegetation, though nowhere did the growth duplicate the jungle
denseness of the outer forest. The cliffs marched around it without a
break and of uniform height. It was a freak of nature, not to be
paralleled, perhaps, in the whole world: a vast natural amphitheater,
a circular bit of forested plain, three or four miles in diameter, cut
off from the rest of the world, and confined within the ring of those
palisaded cliffs.

But the man on the cliffs did not devote his thoughts to marveling at
the topographical phenomenon. With tense eagerness he searched the
treetops below him, and exhaled a gusty sigh when he caught the glint
of marble domes amidst the twinkling green. It was no myth, then;
below him lay the fabulous and deserted palace of Alkmeenon.

Conan the Cimmerian, late of the Baracha Isles, of the Black Coast,
and of many other climes where life ran wild, had come to the kingdom
of Keshan following the lure of a fabled treasure that outshone the
hoard of the Turanian kings.

Keshan was a barbaric kingdom lying in the eastern hinterlands of Kush
where the broad grasslands merge with the forests that roll up from
the south. The people were a mixed race, a dusky nobility ruling a
population that was largely pure Negro. The rulers--princes and high
priests--claimed descent from a white race which, in a mythical age,
had ruled a kingdom whose capital city was Alkmeenon. Conflicting
legends sought to explain the reason for that race's eventual
downfall, and the abandonment of the city by the survivors. Equally
nebulous were the tales of the Teeth of Gwahlur, the treasure of
Alkmeenon. But these misty legends had been enough to bring Conan to
Keshan, over vast distances of plain, river-laced jungle, and
mountains.

He had found Keshan, which in itself was considered mythical by many
northern and western nations, and he had heard enough to confirm the
rumors of the treasure that men called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But its
hiding place he could not learn, and he was confronted with the
necessity of explaining his presence in Keshan. Unattached strangers
were not welcome there.

But he was not nonplussed. With cool assurance he made his offer to
the stately, plumed, suspicious grandees of the barbarically
magnificent court. He was a professional fighting-man. In search of
employment (he said) he had come to Keshan. For a price he would train
the armies of Keshan and lead them against Punt, their hereditary
enemy, whose recent successes in the field had aroused the fury of
Keshan's irascible king.

The proposition was not so audacious as it might seem. Conan's fame
had preceded him, even into distant Keshan; his exploits as a chief of
the black corsairs, those wolves of the southern coasts, had made his
name known, admired and feared throughout the black kingdoms. He did
not refuse tests devised by the dusky lords. Skirmishes along the
borders were incessant, affording the Cimmerian plenty of
opportunities to demonstrate his ability at hand-to-hand fighting. His
reckless ferocity impressed the lords of Keshan, already aware of his
reputation as a leader of men, and the prospects seemed favorable. All
Conan secretly desired was employment to give him legitimate excuse
for remaining in Keshan long enough to locate the hiding place of the
Teeth of Gwahlur. Then there came an interruption. Thutmekri came to
Keshan at the head of an embassy from Zembabwei.

Thutmekri was a Stygian, an adventurer and a rogue whose wits had
recommended him to the twin kings of the great hybrid trading kingdom
which lay many days' march to the east. He and the Cimmerian knew each
other of old, and without love. Thutmekri likewise had a proposition
to make to the king of Keshan, and it also concerned the conquest of
Punt--which kingdom, incidentally, lying east of Keshan, had recently
expelled the Zembabwan traders and burned their fortresses.

His offer outweighed even the prestige of Conan. He pledged himself to
invade Punt from the east with a host of black spearmen, Shemitish
archers, and mercenary swordsmen, and to aid the king of Keshan to
annex the hostile kingdom. The benevolent kings of Zembabwei desired
only a monopoly of the trade of Keshan and her tributaries--and, as a
pledge of good faith, some of the Teeth of Gwahlur. These would be put
to no base usage, Thutmekri hastened to explain to the suspicious
chieftains; they would be placed in the temple of Zembabwei beside the
squat gold idols of Dagon and Derketo, sacred guests in the holy
shrine of the kingdom, to seal the covenant between Keshan and
Zembabwei. This statement brought a savage grin to Conan's hard lips.

The Cimmerian made no attempt to match wits and intrigue with
Thutmekri and his Shemitish partner, Zargheba. He knew that if
Thutmekri won his point, he would insist on the instant banishment of
his rival. There was but one thing for Conan to do: find the jewels
before the king of Keshan made up his mind, and flee with them. But by
this time he was certain that they were not hidden in Keshia, the
royal city, which was a swarm of thatched huts crowding about a mud
wall that enclosed a palace of stone and mud and bamboo.

While he fumed with nervous impatience, the high priest Gorulga
announced that before any decision could be reached, the will of the
gods must be ascertained concerning the proposed alliance with
Zembabwei and the pledge of objects long held holy and inviolate. The
oracle of Alkmeenon must be consulted.

This was an awesome thing, and it caused tongues to wag excitedly in
palace and beehive hut. Not for a century had the priests visited the
silent city. The oracle, men said, was the Princess Yelaya, the last
ruler of Alkmeenon, who had died in the full bloom of her youth and
beauty, and whose body had miraculously remained unblemished
throughout the ages. Of old, priests had made their way into the
haunted city, and she had taught them wisdom. The last priest to seek
the oracle had been a wicked man, who had sought to steal for himself
the curiously cut jewels that men called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But
some doom had come upon him in the deserted palace, from which his
acolytes, fleeing, had told tales of horror that had for a hundred
years frightened the priests from the city and the oracle.

But Gorulga, the present high priest, as one confident in his
knowledge of his own integrity, announced that he would go with a
handful of followers to revive the ancient custom. And in the
excitement tongues buzzed indiscreetly, and Conan caught the clue for
which he had sought for weeks--the overheard whisper of a lesser
priest that sent the Cimmerian stealing out of Keshia the night before
the dawn when the priests were to start.

Riding as hard as he dared for a night and a day and a night, he came
in the early dawn to the cliffs of Alkmeenon, which stood in the
southwestern corner of the kingdom, amidst uninhabited jungle which
was taboo to the common men. None but the priests dared approach the
haunted vale within a distance of many miles. And not even a priest
had entered Alkmeenon for a hundred years.

No man had ever climbed these cliffs, legends said, and none but the
priests knew the secret entrance into the valley. Conan did not waste
time looking for it. Steeps that balked these black people, horsemen
and dwellers of plain and level forest, were not impossible for a man
born in the rugged hills of Cimmeria.

Now on the summit of the cliffs he looked down into the circular
valley and wondered what plague, war, or superstition had driven the
members of that ancient white race forth from their stronghold to
mingle with and be absorbed by the black tribes that hemmed them in.

This valley had been their citadel. There the palace stood, and there
only the royal family and their court dwelt. The real city stood
outside the cliffs. Those waving masses of green jungle vegetation hid
its ruins. But the domes that glistened in the leaves below him were
the unbroken pinnacles of the royal palace of Alkmeenon which had
defied the corroding ages.

Swinging a leg over the rim he went down swiftly. The inner side of
the cliffs was more broken, not quite so sheer. In less than half the
time it had taken him to ascend the outer side, he dropped to the
swarded valley floor.

With one hand on his sword, he looked alertly about him. There was no
reason to suppose men lied when they said that Alkmeenon was empty and
deserted, haunted only by the ghosts of the dead past. But it was
Conan's nature to be suspicious and wary. The silence was primordial;
not even a leaf quivered on a branch. When he bent to peer under the
trees, he saw nothing but the marching rows of trunks, receding and
receding into the blue gloom of the deep woods.

Nevertheless he went warily, sword in hand, his restless eyes combing
the shadows from side to side, his springy tread making no sound on
the sward. All about him he saw signs of an ancient civilization;
marble fountains, voiceless and crumbling, stood in circles of slender
trees whose patterns were too symmetrical to have been a chance of
nature. Forest growth and underbrush had invaded the evenly planned
groves, but their outlines were still visible. Broad pavements ran
away under the trees, broken, and with grass growing through the wide
cracks. He glimpsed walls with ornamental copings, lattices of carven
stone that might once have served as the walls of pleasure pavilions.

Ahead of him, through the trees, the domes gleamed and the bulk of the
structure supporting them became more apparent as he advanced.
Presently, pushing through a screen of vine-tangled branches, he came
into a comparatively open space where the trees straggled,
unencumbered by undergrowth, and saw before him the wide, pillared
portico of the palace.

As he mounted the broad marble steps, he noted that the building was
in far better state of preservation than the lesser structures he had
glimpsed. The thick walls and massive pillars seemed too powerful to
crumble before the assault of time and the elements. The same
enchanted quiet brooded over all. The catlike pad of his sandaled
feet seemed startlingly loud in the stillness.

Somewhere in this palace lay the effigy or image which had in times
past served as oracle for the priests of Keshan. And somewhere in the
palace, unless that indiscreet priest had babbled a lie, was hidden
the treasure of the forgotten kings of Alkmeenon.

Conan passed into a broad, lofty hall, lined with tall columns,
between which arches gaped, their doors long rotted away. He traversed
this in a twilight dimness, and at the other end passed through great
double-valved bronze doors which stood partly open, as they might have
stood for centuries. He emerged into a vast domed chamber which must
have served as audience hall for the kings of Alkmeenon.

It was octagonal in shape, and the great dome up in which the lofty
ceiling curved obviously was cunningly pierced, for the chamber was
much better lighted than the hall which led to it. At the farther side
of the great room there rose a dais with broad lapis-lazuli steps
leading up to it, and on that dais there stood a massive chair with
ornate arms and a high back which once doubtless supported a cloth-of-
gold canopy. Conan grunted explosively and his eyes lit. The golden
throne of Alkmeenon, named in immemorial legendry! He weighed it with
a practised eye. It represented a fortune in itself, if he were but
able to bear it away. Its richness fired his imagination concerning
the treasure itself, and made him burn with eagerness. His fingers
itched to plunge among the gems he had heard described by story-
tellers in the market squares of Keshia, who repeated tales handed
down from mouth to mouth through the centuries--jewels not to be
duplicated in the world, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, bloodstones,
opals, sapphires, the loot of the ancient world.

He had expected to find the oracle-effigy seated on the throne, but
since it was not, it was probably placed in some other part of the
palace, if, indeed, such a thing really existed. But since he had
turned his face toward Keshan, so many myths had proved to be
realities that he did not doubt that the would find some kind of image
or god.

Behind the throne there was a narrow arched doorway which doubtless
had been masked by hangings in the days of Alkmeenon's life. He
glanced through it and saw that it let into an alcove, empty, and with
a narrow corridor leading off from it at right angles. Turning away
from it, he spied another arch to the left of the dais, and it, unlike
the others, was furnished with a door. Nor was it any common door. The
portal was of the same rich metal as the throne, and carved with many
curious arabesques.

At his touch it swung open so readily that its hinges might recently
have been oiled. Inside he halted, staring.

He was in a square chamber of no great dimensions, whose marble walls
rose to an ornate ceiling, inlaid with gold. Gold friezes ran about
the base and the top of the walls, and there was no door other than
the one through which he had entered. But he noted these details
mechanically. His whole attention was centered on the shape which lay
on an ivory dais before him.

He had expected an image, probably carved with the skill of a
forgotten art. But no art could mimic the perfection of the figure
that lay before him.

It was no effigy of stone or metal or ivory. It was the actual body of
a woman, and by what dark art the ancients had preserved that form
unblemished for so many ages Conan could not even guess. The very
garments she wore were intact--and Conan scowled at that, a vague
uneasiness stirring at the back of his mind. The arts that preserved
the body should not have affected the garments. Yet there they were--
gold breast-plates set with concentric circles of small gems, gilded
sandals, and a short silken skirt upheld by a jeweled girdle. Neither
cloth nor metal showed any signs of decay.

Yelaya was coldly beautiful, even in death. Her body was like
alabaster, slender yet voluptuous; a great crimson jewel gleamed
against the darkly piled foam of her hair.

Conan stood frowning down at her, and then tapped the dais with his
sword. Possibilities of a hollow containing the treasure occurred to
him, but the dais rang solid. He turned and paced the chamber in some
indecision. Where should he search first, in the limited time at his
disposal? The priest he had overheard babbling to a courtesan had said
the treasure was hidden in the palace. But that included a space of
considerable vastness. He wondered if he should hide himself until the
priests had come and gone, and then renew the search. But there was a
strong chance that they might take the jewels with them when they
returned to Keshia. For he was convinced that Thutmekri had corrupted
Gorulga.

Conan could predict Thutmekri's plans, from his knowledge of the man.
He knew that it had been Thutmekri who had proposed the conquest of
Punt to the kings of Zembabwei, which conquest was but one move toward
their real goal--the capture of the Teeth of Gwahlur. Those wary kings
would demand proof that the treasure really existed before they made
any move. The jewels Thutmekri asked as a pledge would furnish that
proof.

With positive evidence of the treasure's reality, the kings of
Zimbabwei would move. Punt would be invaded simultaneously from the
east and the west, but the Zembabwans would see to it that the Keshani
did most of the fighting, and then, when both Punt and Keshan were
exhausted from the struggle, the Zembabwans would crush both races,
loot Keshan and take the treasure by force, if they had to destroy
every building and torture every living human in the kingdom.

But there was always another possibility: if Thutmekri could get his
hands on the hoard, it would be characteristic of the man to cheat his
employers, steal the jewels for himself and decamp, leaving the
Zembabwan emissaries holding the sack.

Conan believed that this consulting of the oracle was but a ruse to
persuade the king of Keshan to accede to Thutmekri's wishes--for he
never for a moment doubted that Gorulga was as subtle and devious as
all the rest mixed up in this grand swindle. Conan had not approached
the high priest himself, because in the game of bribery he would have
no chance against Thutmekri, and to attempt it would be to play
directly into the Stygian's hands. Gorulga could denounce the
Cimmerian to the people, establish a reputation for integrity, and rid
Thutmekri of his rival at one stroke. He wondered how Thutmekri had
corrupted the high priest, and just what could be offered as a bribe
to a man who had the greatest treasure in the world under his fingers.

At any rate he was sure that the oracle would be made to say that the
gods willed it that Keshan would follow Thutmekri's wishes, and he
was sure, too, that it would drop a few pointed remarks concerning
himself. After that Keshia would be too hot for the Cimmerian, nor had
Conan had any intention of returning when he rode way in the night.

The oracle chamber held no clue for him. He went forth into the great
throne room and laid his hands on the throne. It was heavy, but he
could tilt it up. The floor beneath, a thick marble dais, was solid.
Again he sought the alcove. His mind clung to a secret crypt near the
oracle. Painstakingly he began to tap along the walls, and presently
his taps rang hollow at a spot opposite the mouth of the narrow
corridor. Looking more closely he saw that the crack between the
marble panel at that point and the next was wider than usual. He
inserted a dagger point and pried.

Silently the panel swung open, revealing a niche in the wall, but
nothing else. He swore feelingly. The aperture was empty, and it did
not look as if it had ever served as a crypt for treasure. Leaning
into the niche he saw a system of tiny holes in the wall, about on a
level with a man's mouth. He peered through, and grunted
understandingly. That was the wall that formed the partition between
the alcove and the oracle chamber. Those holes had not been visible in
the chamber. Conan grinned. This explained the mystery of the oracle,
but it was a bit cruder than he had expected. Gorulga would plant
either himself or some trusted minion in that niche, to talk through
the holes, the credulous acolytes, black men all, would accept it as
the veritable voice of Yelaya.

Remembering something, the Cimmerian drew forth the roll of parchment
he had taken from the mummy and unrolled it carefully, as it seemed
ready to fall to pieces with age. He scowled over the dim characters
with which it was covered. In his roaming about the world the giant
adventurer had picked up a wide smattering of knowledge, particularly
including the speaking and reading of many alien tongues. Many a
sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian's
linguistic abilities, for he had experienced many adventures where
knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference between life
and death.

The characters were puzzling, at once familiar and unintelligible, and
presently he discovered the reason. They were the characters of
archaic Pelishtic, which possessed many points of difference from the
modern script, with which he was familiar, and which, three centuries
ago, had been modified by conquest by a nomad tribe. This older, purer
script baffled him. He made out a recurrent phrase, however, which he
recognized as a proper name: Bit-Yakin. He gathered that it was the
name of the writer.

Scowling, his lips unconsciously moving as he struggled with the task,
he blundered through the manuscript, finding much of it untranslatable
and most of the rest of it obscure.

He gathered that the writer, the mysterious Bit-Yakin, had come from
afar with his servants, and entered the valley of Alkmeenon. Much that
followed was meaningless, interspersed as it was with unfamiliar
phrases and characters. Such as he could translate seemed to indicate
the passing of a very long period of time. The name of Yelaya was
repeated frequently, and toward the last part of the manuscript it
became apparent that Bit-Yakin knew that death was upon him. With a
slight start Conan realized that the mummy in the cavern must be the
remains of the writer of the manuscript, the mysterious Pelishti, Bit-
Yakin. The man had died, as he had prophesied, and his servants,
obviously, had placed him in that open crypt, high up on the cliffs,
according to his instructions before his death.

It was strange that Bit-Yakin was not mentioned in any of the legends
of Alkmeenon. Obviously he had come to the valley after it had been
deserted by the original inhabitants--the manuscript indicated as
much--but it seemed peculiar that the priests who came in the old days
to consult the oracle had not seen the man or his servants. Conan felt
sure that the mummy and this parchment was more than a hundred years
old. Bit-Yakin had dwelt in the valley when the priests came of old to
bow before dead Yelaya. Yet concerning him the legends were silent,
telling only of a deserted city, haunted only by the dead.

Why had the man dwelt in this desolate spot, and to what unknown
destination had his servants departed after disposing of their
master's corpse?

Conan shrugged his shoulders and thrust the parchment back into his
girdle--he started violently, the skin on the backs of his hands
tingling. Startlingly, shockingly in the slumberous stillness, there
had boomed the deep strident clangor of a great gong!

He wheeled, crouching like a great cat, sword in hand, glaring down
the narrow corridor from which the sound had seemed to come. Had the
priests of Keshia arrived? This was improbable, he knew; they would
not have had time to reach the valley. But that gong was indisputable
evidence of human presence.

Conan was basically a direct-actionist. Such subtlety as he possessed
had been acquired through contact with the more devious races. When
taken off guard by some unexpected occurrence, he reverted
instinctively to type. So now, instead of hiding or slipping away in
the opposite direction as the average man might have done, he ran
straight down the corridor in the direction of the sound. His sandals
made no more sound than the pads of a panther would have made; his
eyes were slits, his lips unconsciously asnarl. Panic had momentarily
touched his soul at the shock of that unexpected reverberation, and
the red rage of the primitive that is wakened by threat of peril,
always lurked close to the surface of the Cimmerian.

He emerged presently from the winding corridor into a small open
court. Something glinting in the sun caught his eye. It was the gong,
a great gold disk, hanging from a gold arm extending from the
crumbling wall. A brass mallet lay near, but there was no sound or
sight of humanity. The surrounding arches gaped emptily. Conan
crouched inside the doorway for what seemed a long time. There was no
sound or movement throughout the great palace. His patience exhausted
at last, he glided around the curve of the court, peering into the
arches, ready to leap either way like a flash of light, or to strike
right or left as a cobra strikes.

He reached the gong, started into the arch nearest it. He saw only a
dim chamber, littered with the debris of decay. Beneath the gong the
polished marble flags showed no footprint, but there was a scent in
the air--a faintly fetid odor he could not classify; his nostrils
dilated like those of a wild beast as he sought in vain to identify
it.

He turned toward the arch--with appalling suddenness the seemingly
solid flags splintered and gave way under his feet. Even as he fell he
spread wide his arms and caught the edges of the aperture that gaped
beneath him. The edges crumbled off under his clutching fingers. Down
into utter blackness he shot, into black icy water that gripped him
and whirled him away with breathless speed.



Chapter 2. A Goddess Awakens

The Cimmerian at first made no attempt to fight the current that was
sweeping him through lightless night. He kept himself afloat, gripping
between his teeth the sword, which he had not relinquished, even in
his fall, and did not seek to guess to what doom he was being borne.
But suddenly a beam of light lanced the darkness ahead of him. He saw
the surging, seething black surface of the water, in turmoil as if
disturbed by some monster of the deep, and he saw the sheer stone
walls of the channel curved up to a vault overhead. On each side ran a
narrow ledge, just below the arching roof, but they were far out of
his reach. At one point this roof had been broken, probably fallen in,
and the light was streaming through the aperture. Beyond that shaft of
light was utter blackness, and panic assailed the Cimmerian as he saw
he would be swept on past that spot of light, and into the unknown
blackness again.

Then he saw something else: bronze ladders extending from the ledges
to the water's surface at regular intervals, and there was one just
ahead of him. Instantly he struck out for it, fighting the current
that would have held him to the middle of the stream. It dragged at
him as with tangible, animate, slimy hands, but he buffeted the
rushing surge with the strength of desperation and drew closer and
closer inshore, fighting furiously for every inch. Now he was even
with the ladder and with a fierce, gasping plunge he gripped the
bottom rung and hung on, breathless.

A few seconds later he struggled up out of the seething water,
trusting his weight dubiously to the corroded rungs. They sagged and
bent, but they held, and he clambered up onto the narrow ledge which
ran along the wall scarcely a man's length below the curving roof. The
tall Cimmerian was forced to bend his head as he stood up. A heavy
bronze door showed in the stone at a point even with the head of the
ladder, but it did not give to Conan's efforts. He transferred his
sword from his teeth to its scabbard, spitting blood--for the edge had
cut his lips in that fierce fight with the river--and turned his
attention to the broken roof.

He could reach his arms up through the crevice and grip the edge, and
careful testing told him it would bear his weight. An instant later he
had drawn himself up through the hole, and found himself in a wide
chamber, in a state of extreme disrepair. Most of the roof had fallen
in, as well as a great section of the floor, which was laid over the
vault of a subterranean river. Broken arches opened into other
chambers and corridors, and Conan believed he was still in the great
palace. He wondered uneasily how many chambers in that palace had
underground water directly under them, and when the ancient flags or
tiles might give way again and precipitate him back into the current
from which he had just crawled.

And he wondered just how much of an accident that fall had been. Had
those rotten flags simply chanced to give way beneath his weight, or
was there a more sinister explanation? One thing at least was obvious:
he was not the only living thing in that palace. That gong had not
sounded of its own accord, whether the noise had been meant to lure
him to his death, or not. The silence of the palace became suddenly
sinister, fraught with crawling menace.

Could it be someone on the same mission as himself? A sudden thought
occurred to him, at the memory of the mysterious Bit-Yakin. Was it not
possible that this man had found the Teeth of Gwahlur in his long
residence in Alkmeenon--that his servants had taken them with them
when they departed? The possibility that he might be following a will-
o'-the-wisp infuriated the Cimmerian.

Choosing a corridor which he believed led back toward the part of the
palace he had first entered, he hurried along it, stepping gingerly as
he thought of that black river that seethed and foamed somewhere below
his feet.

His speculations recurrently revolved about the oracle chamber and its
cryptic occupant. Somewhere in that vicinity must be the clue to the
mystery of the treasure, if indeed it still remained in its immemorial
hiding place.

The great palace lay silent as ever, disturbed only by the swift
passing of his sandaled feet. The chambers and halls he traversed were
crumbling into ruin, but as he advanced the ravages of decay became
less apparent. He wondered briefly for what purpose the ladders had
been suspended from the ledges over the subterranean river, but
dismissed the matter with a shrug. He was little interested in
speculating over unremunerative problems of antiquity.

He was not sure just where the oracle chamber lay, from where he was,
but presently he emerged into a corridor which led back into the great
throne room under one of the arches. He had reached a decision; it was
useless for him to wander aimlessly about the palace, seeking the
hoard. He would conceal himself somewhere here, wait until the Keshani
priests came, and then, after they had gone through the farce of
consulting the oracle, he would follow them to the hiding place of the
gems, to which he was certain they would go. Perhaps they would take
only a few of the jewels with them. He would content himself with the
rest.

Drawn by a morbid fascination, he re-entered the oracle chamber and
stared down again at the motionless figure of the princess who was
worshipped as a goddess, entranced by her frigid beauty. What cryptic
secret was locked in that marvelously molded form?

He started violently. The breath sucked through his teeth, the short
hairs prickled at the back of his scalp. The body still lay as he had
first seen it, silent, motionless, in breast-plates of jeweled gold,
gilded sandals and silken skirt. But now there was a subtle
difference. The lissome limbs were not rigid, a peach-bloom touched the
cheeks, the lips were red--

With a panicky curse Conan ripped out his sword.

"Crom! She's alive!"

At his words the long dark lashes lifted; the eyes opened and gazed up
at him inscrutably, dark, lustrous, mystical. He glared in frozen
speechlessness.

She sat up with a supple ease, still holding his ensorcelled stare.

He licked his dry lips and found voice.

"You--are--are you Yelaya?" he stammered.

"I am Yelaya!" The voice was rich and musical, and he stared with new
wonder. "Do not fear. I will not harm you if you do my bidding."

"How can a dead woman come to life after all these centuries?" he
demanded, as if skeptical of what his senses told him. A curious gleam
was beginning to smolder in his eyes.

She lifted her arms in a mystical gesture.

"I am a goddess. A thousand years ago there descended upon me the
curse of the greater gods, the gods of darkness beyond the borders of
light. The mortal in me died; the goddess in me could never die. Here
I have lain for so many centuries, to awaken each night at sunset and
hold my court as of yore, with specters drawn from the shadows of the
past. Man, if you would not view that which will blast your soul for
ever, go hence quickly! I command you! Go!" The voice became
imperious, and her slender arm lifted and pointed.

Conan, his eyes burning slits, slowly sheathed his sword, but he did
not obey her order. He stepped closer, as if impelled by a powerful
fascination--without the slightest warning he grabbed her up in a
bearlike grasp. She screamed a very ungoddess-like scream, and there
was a sound of ripping silk, as with one ruthless wrench he tore off
her skirt.

"Goddess! Ha!" His bark was full of angry contempt. He ignored the
frantic writhings of his captive. "I thought it was strange that a
princess of Alkmeenon would speak with a Corinthian accent! As soon as
I'd gathered my wits I knew I'd seen you somewhere. You're Muriela,
Zargheba's Corinthian dancing girl. This crescent-shaped birthmark on
your hip proves it. I saw it once when Zargheba was whipping you.
Goddess! Bah!" He smacked the betraying hip contemptuously and
resoundingly with his open hand, and the girl yelped piteously.

All her imperiousness had gone out of her. She was no longer a
mystical figure of antiquity, but a terrified and humiliated dancing
girl, such as can be bought at almost any Shemitish marketplace. She
lifted up her voice and wept unashamedly. Her captor glared down at
her with angry triumph.

"Goddess! Ha! So you were one of the veiled women Zargheba brought to
Keshia with him. Did you think you could fool me, you little idiot? A
year ago I saw you in Akbitana with that swine, Zargheba, and I don't
forget faces--or women's figures. I think I'll--"

Squirming about in his grasp she threw her slender arms about his
massive neck in an abandon of terror; tears coursed down her cheeks,
and her sobs quivered with a note of hysteria.

"Oh, please don't hurt me! Don't! I had to do it! Zargheba brought me
here to act as the oracle!"

"Why, you sacrilegious little hussy!" rumbled Conan. "Do you not fear
the gods? Crom! Is there no honesty anywhere?"

"Oh, please!" she begged, quivering with abject fright. "I couldn't
disobey Zargheba. Oh, what shall I do? I shall be cursed by these
heathen gods!"

"What do you think the priests will do to you if they find out you're
an imposter?" he demanded.

At the thought her legs refused to support her, and she collapsed in a
shuddering heap, clasping Conan's knees and mingling incoherent pleas
for mercy and protection with piteous protestations of her innocence
of any malign intention. It was a vivid change from her pose as the
ancient princess, but not surprising. The fear that had nerved her
then was now her undoing.

"Where is Zargheba?" he demanded. "Stop yammering, damn it, and answer
me."

"Outside the palace," she whimpered, "watching for the priests."

"How many men with him?"

"None. We came alone."

"Ha!" It was much like the satisfied grunt of a hunting lion. "You
must have left Keshia a few hours after I did. Did you climb the
cliffs?"

She shook her head, too choked with tears to speak coherently. With an
impatient imprecation he seized her slim shoulders and shook her until
she gasped for breath.

"Will you quit that blubbering and answer me? How did you get into the
valley?"

"Zargheba knew the secret way," she gasped. "The priest Gwarunga told
him, and Thutmekri. On the south side of the valley there is a broad
pool lying at the foot of the cliffs. There is a cave-mouth under the
surface of the water that is not visible to the casual glance. We
ducked under the water and entered it. The cave slopes up out of the
water swiftly and leads through the cliffs. The opening on the side of
the valley is masked by heavy thickets."

"I climbed the cliffs on the east side," he muttered. "Well, what
then?"

"We came to the palace and Zargheba hid me among the trees while he
went to look for the chamber of the oracle. I do not think he fully
trusted Gwarunga. While he was gone I thought I heard a gong sound,
but I was not sure. Presently Zargheba came and took me into the
palace and brought me to this chamber, where the goddess Yelaya lay
upon the dais. He stripped the body and clothed me in the garments and
ornaments. Then he went forth to hide the body and watch for the
priests. I have been afraid. When you entered I wanted to leap up and
beg you to take me away from this place, but I feared Zargheba. When
you discovered I was alive, I thought I could frighten you away."

"What were you to say as the oracle?" he asked.

"I was to bid the priests to take the Teeth of Gwahlur and give some
of them to Thutmekri as a pledge, as he desired, and place the rest in
the palace at Keshia. I was to tell them that an awful doom threatened
Keshan if they did not agree to Thutmekri's proposals. And, oh, yes, I
was to tell them that you were to be skinned alive immediately."

"Thutmekri wanted the treasure where he--or the Zembabwans--could lay
hand on it easily," muttered Conan, disregarding the remark concerning
himself. "I'll carve his liver yet--Gorulga is a party to this
swindle, of course?"

"No. He believes in his gods, and is incorruptible. He knows nothing
about this. He will obey the oracle. It was all Thutmekri's plan.
Knowing the Keshani would consult the oracle, he had Zargheba bring me
with the embassy from Zembabwei, closely veiled and secluded."

"Well, I'm damned!" muttered Conan. "A priest who honestly believes in
his oracle, and can not be bribed. Crom! I wonder if it was Zargheba
who banged that gong. Did he know I was here? Could he have known
about that rotten flagging? Where is he now, girl?"

"Hiding in a thicket of lotus trees, near the ancient avenue that
leads from the south wall of the cliffs to the palace," she answered.
Then she renewed her importunities. "Oh, Conan, have pity on me! I am
afraid of this evil, ancient place. I know I have heard stealthy
footfalls padding about me--oh, Conan, take me away with you! Zargheba
will kill me when I have served his purpose here--I know it! The
priests, too, will kill me if they discover my deceit.

"He is a devil--he bought me from a slave-trader who stole me out of a
caravan bound through southern Koth, and has made me the tool of his
intrigues ever since. Take me away from him! You can not be as cruel
as he. Don't leave me to be slain here! Please! Please!"

She was on her knees, clutching at Conan hysterically, her beautiful
tear-stained face upturned to him, her dark silken hair flowing in
disorder over her white shoulders. Conan picked her up and set her on
his knee.

"Listen to me. I'll protect you from Zargheba. The priests shall not
know of your perfidy. But you've got to do as I tell you."

She faltered promises of explicit obedience, clasping his corded neck
as if seeking security from the contact.

"Good. When the priests come, you'll act the part of Yelaya, as
Zargheba planned--it'll be dark, and in the torchlight they'll never
know the difference. But you'll say this to them: 'It is the will of
the gods that the Stygian and his Shemitish dogs be driven from
Keshan. They are thieves and traitors who plot to rob the gods. Let
the Teeth of Gwahlur be placed in the care of the general Conan. Let
him lead the armies of Keshan. He is beloved of the gods.'"

She shivered, with an expression of desperation, but acquiesced.

"But Zargheba?" she cried. "He'll kill me!"

"Don't worry about Zargheba," he grunted. "I'll take care of that dog.
You do as I say. Here, put up your hair again. It's fallen all over
your shoulders. And the gem's fallen out of it."

He replaced the great glowing gem himself, nodding approval.

"It's worth a roomful of slaves, itself alone. Here, put your skirt
back on. It's torn down the side, but the priests will never notice
it. Wipe your face. A goddess doesn't cry like a whipped schoolgirl.
By Crom, you do look like Yelaya, face hair, figure, and all! If you
act the goddess with the priests as well as you did with me, you'll
fool them easily."

"I'll try," she shivered.

"Good; I'm going to find Zargheba."

At that she became panicky again.

"No! Don't leave me alone! This place is haunted!"

"There's nothing here to harm you," he assured her impatiently.
"Nothing but Zargheba, and I'm going to look after him. I'll be back
shortly. I'll be watching from close by in case anything goes wrong
during the ceremony; but if you play your part properly, nothing will
go wrong."

And turning, he hastened out of the oracle chamber; behind him Muriela
squeaked wretchedly at his going.

Twilight had fallen. The great rooms and halls were shadowy and
indistinct; copper friezes glinted dully through the dusk. Conan
strode like a silent phantom through the great halls, with a sensation
of being stared at from the shadowed recesses by invisible ghosts of
the past. No wonder the girl was nervous amid such surroundings.

He glided down the marble steps like a slinking panther, sword in
hand. Silence reigned over the valley, and above the rim of the
cliffs, stars were blinking out. If the priests of Keshia had entered
the valley there was not a sound, not a movement in the greenery to
betray them. He made out the ancient broken-paved avenue, wandering
away to the south, lost amid clustering masses of fronds and thick-
leaved bushes. He followed it warily, hugging the edge of the paving
where the shrubs massed their shadows thickly, until he saw ahead of
him, dimly in the dusk, the clump of lotus trees, the strange growth
peculiar to the black lands of Kush. There, according to the girl,
Zargheba should be lurking. Conan became stealth personified. A
velvet-footed shadow, he melted into the thickets.

He approached the lotus grove by a circuitous movement, and scarcely
the rustle of a leaf proclaimed his passing. At the edge of the trees
he halted suddenly, crouched like a suspicious panther among the deep
shrubs. Ahead of him, among the dense leaves, showed a pallid oval,
dim in the uncertain light. It might have been one of the great white
blossoms which shone thickly among the branches. But Conan knew that
it was a man's face. And it was turned toward him. He shrank quickly
deeper into the shadows. Had Zargheba seen him? The man was looking
directly toward him. Seconds passed. The dim face had not moved. Conan
could make out the dark tuft below that was the short black beard.

And suddenly Conan was aware of something unnatural. Zargheba, he
knew, was not a tall man. Standing erect, he head would scarcely top
the Cimmerians shoulders; yet that face was on a level with Conan's
own. Was the man standing on something? Conan bent and peered toward
the ground below the spot where the face showed, but his vision was
blocked by undergrowth and the thick boles of the trees. But he saw
something else, and he stiffened. Through a slot in the underbrush he
glimpsed the stem of the tree under which, apparently, Zargheba was
standing. The face was directly in line with that tree. He should have
seen below that face, not the tree trunk, but Zargheba's body--but
there was no body there.

Suddenly tenser than a tiger who stalks his prey, Conan glided deeper
into the thicket, and a moment later drew aside a leafy branch and
glared at the face that had not moved. Nor would it ever move again,
of its own volition. He looked on Zargheba's severed head, suspended
from the branch of the tree by its own long black hair.



Chapter 3. The Return of the Oracle

Conan wheeled supply, sweeping the shadows with a fiercely questing
stare. There was no sign of the murdered man's body; only yonder the
tall lush grass was trampled and broken down and the sward was dabbled
darkly and wetly. Conan stood scarcely breathing as he strained his
ears into the silence. The trees and bushes with their great pallid
blossoms stood dark, still, and sinister, etched against the deepening
dusk.

Primitive fears whispered at the back of Conan's mind. Was this the
work of the priests of Keshan? If so, where were they? Was it
Zargheba, after all, who had struck the gong? Again there rose the
memory of Bit-Yakin and his mysterious servants. Bit-Yakin was dead,
shriveled to a hulk of wrinkled leather and bound in his hollowed
crypt to greet the rising sun for ever. But the servants of Bit-Yakin
were unaccounted for. There was no proof they had ever left the
valley.

Conan thought of the girl, Muriela, alone and unguarded in that great
shadowy palace. He wheeled and ran back down the shadowed avenue, and
he ran as a suspicious panther runs, poised even in full stride to
whirl right or left and strike death blows.

The palace loomed through the trees, and he saw something else--the
glow of fire reflecting redly from the polished marble. He melted into
the bushes that lined the broken street, glided through the dense
growth and reached the edge of the open space before the portico.
Voices reached him; torches bobbed and their flare shone on glossy
ebon shoulders. The priests of Keshan had come.

They had not advanced up the wide, overgrown avenue as Zargheba had
expected them to do. Obviously there was more than one secret way into
the valley of Alkmeenon.

They were filing up the broad marble steps, holding their torches
high. He saw Gorulga at the head of the parade, a profile chiseled out
of copper, etched in the torch glare. The rest were acolytes, giant
black men from whose skins the torches struck highlights. At the end
of the procession there stalked a huge Negro with an unusually wicked
cast of countenance, at the sight of whom Conan scowled. That was
Gwarunga, whom Muriela had named as the man who had revealed the
secret of the pool entrance to Zargheba. Conan wondered how deeply the
man was in the intrigues of the Stygian.

He hurried toward the portico, circling the open space to keep in the
fringing shadows. They left no one to guard the entrance. The torches
streamed steadily down the long dark hall. Before they reached the
double-valved door at the other end, Conan had mounted the outer steps
and was in the hall behind them. Slinking swiftly along the column-
lined wall, he reached the great door as they crossed the huge throne
room, their torches driving back the shadows. They did not look back.
In single file, their ostrich plumes nodding, their leopardskin tunics
contrasting curiously with the marble and arabesqued metal of the
ancient palace, they moved across the wide room and halted momentarily
at the golden door to the left of the throne-dais.

Gorluga's voice boomed eerily and hollowly in the great empty space,
framed in sonorous phrases unintelligible to the lurking listener;
then the high priest thrust open the golden door and entered, bowing
repeatedly from the waist and behind him the torches sank and rose,
showering flakes of flame, as the worshippers imitated their master.
The gold door closed behind them, shutting out sound and sight, and
Conan darted across the throne-chamber and into the alcove behind the
throne. He made less sound than a wind blowing across the chamber.

Tiny beams of light streamed through the apertures in the wall, as he
pried open the secret panel. Gliding into the niche, he peered
through. Muriela sat upright on the dais, her arms folded, her head
leaning back against the wall, within a few inches of his eyes. The
delicate perfume of her foamy hair was in his nostrils. He could not
see her face, of course, but her attitude was as if she gazed
tranquilly into some far gulf of space, over and beyond the shaven
heads of the black giants who knelt before her. Conan grinned with
appreciation. "The little slut's an actress," he told himself. He knew
she was shriveling with terror, but she showed no sign. In the
uncertain flare of the torches she looked exactly like the goddess he
had seen lying on that same dais, if one could imagine that goddess
imbued with vibrant life.

Gorulga was booming forth some kind of a chant in an accent unfamiliar
to Conan, and which was probably some invocation in the ancient tongue
of Alkmeenon, handed down from generation to generation of high
priests. It seemed interminable. Conan grew restless. The longer the
thing lasted, the more terrific would be the strain on Muriela. If she
snapped--he hitched his sword and dagger forward. He could not see the
little trollop tortured and slain by black men.

But the chant--deep, low-pitched, and indescribably ominous--came to a
conclusion at last, and a shouted acclaim from the acolytes marked its
period. Lifting his head and raising his arms toward the silent form
on the dais, Gorulga cried in the deep, rich resonance that was the
natural attribute of the Keshani priest: "O great goddess, dweller
with the great one of darkness, let thy heart be melted, thy lips
opened for the ears of thy slave whose head is in the dust beneath thy
feet! Speak, great goddess of the holy valley! Thou knowest the paths
before us; the darkness that vexes us is as the light of the midday
sun to thee. Shed the radiance of thy wisdom on the paths of thy
servants! Tell us, O mouthpiece of the gods: what is their will
concerning Thutmekri the Stygian?"

The high-piled burnished mass of hair that caught the torchlight in
dull bronze gleams quivered slightly. A gusty sigh rose from the
blacks, half in awe, half in fear. Muriela's voice came plainly to
Conan's ears in the breathless silence, and it seemed cold, detached,
impersonal, though he winced at the Corinthian accent.

"It is the will of the gods that the Stygian and his Shemitish dogs be
driven from Keshan!" She was repeating his exact words. "They are
thieves and traitors who plot to rob the gods. Let the Teeth of
Gwahlur be placed in the care of the general Conan. Let him lead the
armies of Keshan. He is beloved of the gods!"

There was a quiver in her voice as she ended, and Conan began to
sweat, believing she was on the point of an hysterical collapse. But
the blacks did not notice, any more than they identified the
Corinthian accent, of which they knew nothing. They smote their palms
softly together and a murmur of wonder and awe rose from them.
Gorulga's eyes glittered fanatically in the torchlight.

"Yelaya has spoken!" he cried in an exalted voice. "It is the will of
the gods! Long ago, in the days of our ancestors, they were made taboo
and hidden at the command of the gods, who wrenched them from the
awful jaws of Gwahlur the king of darkness, in the birth of the world.
At the command of the gods the Teeth of Gwahlur were hidden; at their
command they shall be brought forth again. O star-born goddess, give
us your leave to go to the secret hiding-place of the Teeth to secure
them for him whom the gods love!"

"You have my leave to go!" answered the false goddess, with an
imperious gesture of dismissal that set Conan grinning again, and the
priests backed out, ostrich plumes and torches rising and falling with
the rhythm of their genuflexions.

The gold door closed and with a moan, the goddess fell back limply on
the dais. "Conan!" she whimpered faintly. "Conan!"

"Shhh!" he hissed through the apertures, and turning, glided from the
niche and closed the panel. A glimpse past the jamb of the carven door
showed him the torches receding across the great throne room, but he
was at the same time aware of a radiance that did not emanate from the
torches. He was startled, but the solution presented itself instantly.
An early moon had risen and its light slanted through the pierced dome
which by some curious workmanship intensified the light. The shining
dome of Alkmeenon was no fable, then. Perhaps its interior was of the
curious whitely flaming crystal found only in the hills of the black
countries. The light flooded the throne room and seeped into the
chambers immediately adjoining.

But as Conan made toward the door that led into the throne room, he
was brought around suddenly by a noise that seemed to emanate from the
passage that led off from the alcove. He crouched at the mouth,
staring into it, remembering the clangor of the gong that had echoed
from it to lure him into a snare. The light from the dome filtered
only a little way into that narrow corridor, and showed him only empty
space. Yet he could have sworn that he had heard the furtive pad of a
foot somewhere down it.

While he hesitated, he was electrified by a woman's strangled cry from
behind him. Bounding through the door behind the throne, he saw an
unexpected spectacle, in the crystal light.

The torches of the priests had vanished from the great hall outside--
but one priest was still in the palace: Gwarunga. His wicked features
were convulsed with fury, and he grasped the terrified Muriela by the
throat, choking her efforts to scream and plead, shaking her brutally.

"Traitress!" Between his thick red lips his voice hissed like a cobra.
"What game are you playing? Did not Zargheba tell you what to say?
Aye, Thutmekri told me! Are you betraying your master, or is he
betraying his friends through you? Slut! I'll twist off your false
head--but first I'll--"

A widening of his captive's lovely eyes as she stared over his
shoulder warned the huge black. He released her and wheeled, just as
Conan's sword lashed down. The impact of the stroke knocked him
headlong backward to the marble floor, where he lay twitching, blood
oozing from a ragged gash in his scalp.

Conan started toward him to finish the job--for he knew that the
black's sudden movement had caused the blade to strike flat--but
Muriela threw her arms convulsively about him.

"I've done as you ordered!" she gasped hysterically. "Take me away!
Oh, please take me away!"

"We can't go yet," he grunted. "I want to follow the priests and see
where they get the jewels. There may be more loot hidden there. But
you can go with me. Where's that gem you wore in your hair?"

"It must have fallen out on the dais," she stammered, feeling for it.
"I was so frightened--when the priests left I ran out to find you, and
this big brute had stayed behind, and he grabbed me--"

"Well, go get it while I dispose of this carcass," he commanded. "Go
on! That gem is worth a fortune itself."

She hesitated, as if loth to return to that cryptic chamber; then, as
he grasped Gwarunga's girdle and dragged him into the alcove, she
turned and entered the oracle room.

Conan dumped the senseless black on the floor, and lifted his sword.
The Cimmerian had lived too long in the wild places of the world to
have any illusions about mercy. The only safe enemy was a headless
enemy. But before he could strike, a startling scream checked the
lifted blade. It came from the oracle chamber.

"Conan! Conan! She's come back!" The shriek ended in a gurgle and a
scraping shuffle.

With an oath Conan dashed out of the alcove, across the throne dais
and into the oracle chamber, almost before the sound had ceased. There
he halted, glaring bewilderedly. To all appearances Muriela lay
placidly on the dais, eyes closed as if in slumber.

"What in thunder are you doing?" he demanded acidly. "Is this any time
to be playing jokes--"

His voice trailed away. His gaze ran along the ivory thigh molded in
the close-fitting silk skirt. That skirt should gape from girdle to
hem. He knew, because it had been his own hand that tore it, as he
ruthlessly stripped the garment from the dancer's writhing body. But
the skirt showed no rent. A single stride brought him to the dais and
he laid his hand on the ivory body--snatched it away as if it had
encountered hot iron instead of the cold immobility of death.

"Crom!" he muttered, his eyes suddenly slits of balefire. "It's not
Muriela! It's Yelaya!"

He understood now that frantic scream that had burst from Muriela's
lips when she entered the chamber. The goddess had returned. The body
had been stripped by Zargheba to furnish the accouterments for the
pretender. Yet now it was clad in silk and jewels as Conan had first
seen it. A peculiar prickling made itself manifest among the sort
hairs at the base of Conan's scalp.

"Muriela!" he shouted suddenly. "Muriela! Where the devil are you?"

The walls threw back his voice mockingly. There was no entrance that
he could see except the golden door, and none could have entered or
departed through that without his knowledge. This much was
indisputable: Yelaya had been replaced on the dais within the few
minutes that had elapsed since Muriela had first left the chamber to
be seized by Gwarunga; his ears were still tingling with the echoes of
Muriela's scream, yet the Corinthian girl had vanished as if into thin
air. There was but one explanation, if he rejected the darker
speculation that suggested the supernatural--somewhere in the chamber
there was a secret door. And even as the thought crossed his mind, he
saw it.

In what had seemed a curtain of solid marble, a thin perpendicular
crack showed and in the crack hung a wisp of silk. In an instant he
was bending over it. That shred was from Muriela's torn skirt. The
implication was unmistakable. It had been caught in the closing door
and torn off as she was borne through the opening by whatever grim
beings were her captors. The bit of clothing had prevented the door
from fitting perfectly into its frame.

Thrusting his dagger point into the crack, Conan exerted leverage with
a corded forearm. The blade bent, but it was of unbreakable Akbitanan
steel. The marble door opened. Conan's sword was lifted as he peered
into the aperture beyond, but he saw no shape of menace. Light
filtering into the oracle chamber revealed a short flight of steps cut
out of marble. Pulling the door back to its fullest extent, he drove
his dagger into a crack in the floor, propping it open. Then he went
down the steps without hesitation. He saw nothing, heard nothing. A
dozen steps down, the stair ended in a narrow corridor which ran
straight away into gloom.

He halted suddenly, posed like a statue at the foot of the stair,
staring at the paintings which frescoed the walls, half visible in the
dim light which filtered down from above. The art was unmistakably
Pelishti; he had seen frescoes of identical characteristics on the
walls of Asgalun. But the scenes depicted had no connection with
anything Pelishti, except for one human figure, frequently recurrent:
a lean, white-bearded old man whose racial characteristics were
unmistakable. They seemed to represent various sections of the palace
above. Several scenes showed a chamber he recognized as the oracle
chamber with the figure of Yelaya stretched upon the ivory dais and
huge black men kneeling before it. And there behind the wall, in the
niche, lurked the ancient Pelishti. And there were other figures,
too--figures that moved through the deserted palace, did the bidding
of the Pelishti, and dragged unnamable things out of the subterranean
river. In the few seconds Conan stood frozen, hitherto unintelligible
phrases in the parchment manuscript blazed in his brain with chilling
clarity. The loose bits of the pattern clicked into place. The mystery
of Bit-Yakin was a mystery no longer, nor the riddle of Bit-Yakin's
servants.

Conan turned and peered into the darkness, an icy finger crawling
along his spine. Then he went along the corridor, cat-footed, and
without hesitation, moving deeper and deeper into the darkness as he
drew farther away from the stair. The air hung heavy with the odor he
had scented in the court of the gong.

Now in utter blackness he heard a sound ahead of him--the shuffle of
bare feet, or the swish of loose garments against stone, he could not
tell which. But an instant later his outstretched hand encountered a
barrier which he identified as a massive door of carved metal. He
pushed against it fruitlessly, and his sword point sought vainly for a
crack. It fitted into the sill and jambs as if molded there. He
exerted all his strength, his feet straining against the floor, the
veins knotting in his temples. It was useless; a charge of elephants
would scarcely have shaken that titanic portal.

As he leaned there he caught a sound on the other side that his ears
instantly identified--it was the creak of rusty iron, like a lever
scraping in its slot. Instinctively action followed recognition so
spontaneously that sound, impulse and action were practically
simultaneous. And as his prodigious bound carried him backward, there
was the rush of a great bulk from above, and a thunderous crash filled
the tunnel with deafening vibrations. Bits of flying splinters struck
him--a huge block of stone, he knew from the sound, dropped on the
spot he had just quitted. An instant's slower thought or action and it
would have crushed him like an ant.

Conan fell back. Somewhere on the other side of that metal door
Muriela was a captive, if she still lived. But he could not pass that
door, and if he remained in the tunnel another block might fall, and
he might not be so lucky. It would do the girl no good for him to be
crushed into a purple pulp. He could not continue his search in that
direction. He must get above ground and look for some other avenue of
approach.

He turned and hurried toward the stair, sighing as he emerged into
comparative radiance. And as he set foot on the first step, the light
was blotted out, and above him the marble door rushed shut with a
resounding reverberation.

Something like panic seized the Cimmerian then, trapped in that black
tunnel, and he wheeled on the stair, lifting his sword and glaring
murderously into the darkness behind him, expecting a rush of ghoulish
assailants. But there was no sound or movement down the tunnel. Did
the men beyond the door--if they were men--believe that he had been
disposed of by the fall of the stone from the roof, which had
undoubtedly been released by some sort of machinery?

Then why had the door been shut above him? Abandoning speculation,
Conan groped his way up the steps, his skin crawling in anticipation
of a knife in his back at every stride, yearning to drown his semi-
panic in a barbarous burst of bloodletting.

He thrust against the door at the top, and cursed soulfully to find
that it did not give to his efforts. Then as he lifted his sword with
his right hand to hew at the marble, his groping left encountered a
metal bolt that evidently slipped into place at the closing of the
door. In an instant he had drawn this bolt, and then the door gave to
his shove. He bounded into the chamber like a slit-eyed, snarling
incarnation of fury, ferociously desirous to come to grips with
whatever enemy was hounding him.

The dagger was gone from the floor. The chamber was empty, and so was
the dais. Yelaya had again vanished.

"By Crom!" muttered the Cimmerian. "Is she alive, after all?"

He strode out into the throne room, baffled, and then, struck by a
sudden thought, stepped behind the throne and peered into the alcove.
There was blood on the smooth marble where he had cast down the
senseless body of Gwarunga--that was all. The black man had vanished
as completely as Yelaya.



Chapter 4. The Teeth of Gwahlur

Baffled wrath confused the brain of Conan the Cimmerian. He knew no
more how to go about searching for Muriela than he had known how to go
about searching for the Teeth of Gwahlur. Only one thought occurred to
him--to follow the priests. Perhaps at the hiding-place of the
treasure some clue would be revealed to him. It was a slim chance, but
better than wandering about aimlessly.

As he hurried through the great shadowy hall that led to the portico
he half expected the lurking shadows to come to life behind him with
rending fangs and talons. But only the beat of his own rapid heart
accompanied him into the moonlight that dappled the shimmering marble.

At the foot of the wide steps he cast about in the bright moonlight
for some sight to show him the direction he must go. And he found it--
petals scattered on the sward told where an arm or garment had brushed
against a blossom-laden branch. Grass had been pressed down under
heavy feet. Conan, who had tracked wolves in his native hills, found
no insurmountable difficulty in following the trail of the Keshani
priests.

It led away from the palace, through masses of exotic-scented
shrubbery where great pale blossoms spread their shimmering petals,
through verdant, tangled bushes that showered blooms at the touch,
until he came at last to a great mass of rock that jutted like a
titan's castle out from the cliffs at a point closest to the palace,
which, however, was almost hidden from view by vine-interlaced trees.
Evidently that babbling priest in Keshia had been mistaken when he
said the Teeth were hidden in the palace. This trail had led him away
from the place where Muriela had disappeared, but a belief was growing
in Conan that each part of the valley was connected with that palace
by subterranean passages.

Crouching in the deep, velvet-black shadows of the bushes, he
scrutinized the great jut of rock which stood out in bold relief in
the moonlight. It was covered with strange, grotesque carvings,
depicting men and animals, and half-bestial creatures that might have
been gods or devils. The style of art differed so strikingly from that
of the rest of the valley, that Conan wondered if it did not represent
a different era and race, and was itself a relic of an age lost and
forgotten at whatever immeasurably distant date the people of
Alkmeenon had found and entered the haunted valley.

A great door stood open in the sheer curtain of the cliff, and a
gigantic dragon's head was carved about it so that the open door was
like the dragon's gaping mouth. The door itself was of carven bronze
and looked to weigh several tons. There was no lock that he could see,
but a series of bolts showing along the edge of the massive portal, as
it stood open, told him that there was some system of locking and
unlocking--a system doubtless known only to the priests of Keshan.

The trail showed that Gorulga and his henchmen had gone through that
door. But Conan hesitated. To wait until they emerged would probably
mean to see the door locked in his face, and he might not be able to
solve the mystery of its unlocking. On the other hand, if he followed
them in, they might emerge and lock him in the cavern.

Throwing caution to the winds, he glided through the great portal.
Somewhere in the cavern were the priests, the Teeth of Gwahlur, and
perhaps a clue to the fate of Muriela. Personal risks had never yet
deterred him from any purpose.

Moonlight illumined, for a few yards, the wide tunnel in which he
found himself. Somewhere ahead of him he saw a faint glow and heard
the echo of a weird chanting. The priests were not so far ahead of him
as he had thought. The tunnel debouched into a wide room before the
moonlight played out, an empty cavern of no great dimensions, but with
a lofty, vaulted roof, glowing with a phosphorescent encrustation,
which, as Conan knew, was a common phenomenon in that part of the
world. It made a ghostly half-light, in which he was able to see a
bestial image squatting on a shrine, and the black mouths of six or
seven tunnels leading off from the chamber. Down the widest of these--
the one directly behind the squat image which looked toward the outer
opening--he caught the gleam of torches wavering, whereas the
phosphorescent glow was fixed, and heard the chanting increase in
volume.

Down it he went recklessly, and was presently peering into a larger
cavern than the one he had just left. There was no phosphorus here,
but the light of the torches fell on a larger altar and a more obscene
and repulsive god squatting toadlike upon it. Before this repugnant
deity, Gorulga and his ten acolytes knelt and beat their heads upon the
ground, while chanting monotonously. Conan realized why their progress
had been so slow. Evidently approaching the secret crypt of the Teeth
was a complicated and elaborate ritual.

He was fidgeting in nervous impatience before the chanting and bowing
were over, but presently they rose and passed into the tunnel which
opened behind the idol. Their torches bobbed away into the nighted
vault, and he followed swiftly. Not much danger of being discovered.
He glided along the shadows like a creature of the night, and the
black priests were completely engrossed in their ceremonial mummery.
Apparently they had not even noticed the absence of Gwarunga.

Emerging into a cavern of huge proportions, about whose upward curving
walls gallery-like ledges marched in tiers, they began their worship
anew before an altar which was larger, and a god which was more
disgusting, than any encountered thus far.

Conan crouched in the black mouth of the tunnel, staring at the walls
reflecting the lurid glow of the torches. He saw a carven stone stair
winding up from tier to tier of the galleries; the roof was lost in
darkness.

He started violently and the chanting broke off as the kneeling blacks
flung up their heads. An inhuman voice boomed out high above them.
They froze on their knees, their faces turned upward with a ghastly
blue hue in the sudden glare of a weird light that burst blindingly up
near the lofty roof and then burned with a throbbing glow. That glare
lighted a gallery and a cry went up from the high priest, echoed
shudderingly by his acolytes. In the flash there had been briefly
disclosed to them a slim white figure standing upright in a sheen of
silk and a glint of jewel-crusted gold. Then the blaze smoldered to a
throbbing, pulsing luminosity in which nothing was distinct, and that
slim shape was but a shimmering blur of ivory.

"Yelaya!" screamed Gorulga, his brown features ashen. "Why have you
followed us? What is your pleasure?"

That weird unhuman voice rolled down from the roof, re-echoing under
that arching vault that magnified and altered it beyond recognition.

"Woe to the unbelievers! Woe to the false children of Keshia! Doom to
them which deny their deity!"

A cry of horror went up from the priests. Gorulga looked like a
shocked vulture in the glare of the torches.

"I do not understand!" he stammered. "We are faithful. In the chamber
of the oracle you told us--"

"Do not heed what you heard in the chamber of the oracle!" rolled that
terrible voice, multiplied until it was as though a myriad voices
thundered and muttered the same warning. "Beware of false prophets and
false gods! A demon in my guise spoke to you in the palace, giving
false prophecy. Now harken and obey, for only I am the true goddess,
and I give you one chance to save yourselves from doom!

"Take the Teeth of Gwahlur from the crypt where they were placed so
long ago. Alkmeenon is no longer holy, because it has been desecrated
by blasphemers. Give the Teeth of Gwahlur into the hands of Thutmekri,
the Stygian, to place in the sanctuary of Dagon and Derketo. Only this
can save Keshan from the doom the demons of the night have plotted.
Take the Teeth of Gwahlur and go; return instantly to Keshia; there
give the jewels to Thutmekri, and seize the foreign devil Conan and
flay him alive in the great square."

There was no hesitation in obeying. Chattering with fear the priests
scrambled up and ran for the door that opened behind the bestial god.
Gorulga led the flight. They jammed briefly in the doorway, yelping as
wildly waving torches touched squirming black bodies; they plunged
through, and the patter of their speeding feet dwindled down the
tunnel.

Conan did not follow. He was consumed with a furious desire to learn
the truth of this fantastic affair. Was that indeed Yelaya, as the
cold sweat on the backs of his hands told him, or was it that little
hussy Muriela, turned traitress after all? If it was--

Before the last torch had vanished down the black tunnel he was
bounding vengefully up the stone stair. The blue glow was dying down,
but he could still make out that the ivory figure stood motionless on
the gallery. His blood ran cold as he approached it, but he did not
hesitate. He came on with his sword lifted, and towered like a threat
of death over the inscrutable shape.

"Yelaya!" he snarled. "Dead as she's been for a thousand years! Ha!"

From the dark mouth of a tunnel behind him a dark form lunged. But the
sudden, deadly rush of unshod feet had reached the Cimmerian's quick
ears. He whirled like a cat and dodged the blow aimed murderously at
his back. As the gleaming steel in the dark hand hissed past him, he
struck back with the fury of a roused python, and the long straight
blade impaled his assailant and stood out a foot and a half between
his shoulders.

"So!" Conan tore his sword free as the victim sagged to the floor,
gasping and gurgling. The man writhed briefly and stiffened. In the
dying light Conan saw a black body and ebon countenance, hideous in
the blue glare. He had killed Gwarunga.

Conan turned from the corpse to the goddess. Thongs about her knees
and breast held her upright against tha stone pillar, and her thick
hair, fastened to the column, held her head up. At a few yards'
distance these bonds were not visible in the uncertain light.

"He must have come to after I descended into the tunnel," muttered
Conan. "He must have suspected I was down there. So he pulled out the
dagger"--Conan stooped and wrenched the identical weapon from the
stiffening fingers, glanced at it and replaced it in his own girdle--
"and shut the door. Then he took Yelaya to befool his brother idiots.
That was he shouting a while ago. You couldn't recognize his voice,
under this echoing roof. And that bursting blue flame--I thought it
looked familiar. It's a trick of the Stygian priests. Thutmekri must
have given some of it to Gwarunga."

The man could easily have reached this cavern ahead of his companions.
Evidently familiar with the plan of the caverns by hearsay or by maps
handed down in the priest-craft, he had entered the cave after the
others, carrying the goddess, followed a circuitous route through the
tunnels and chambers, and ensconced himself and his burden on the
balcony while Gorulga and the other acolytes were engaged in their
endless rituals.

The blue glare had faded, but now Conan was aware of another glow,
emanating from the mouth of one of the corridors that opened on the
ledge. Somewhere down that corridor there was another field of
phosphorus, for he recognized the faint steady radiance. The corridor
led in the direction the priests had taken, and he decided to follow
it, rather than descend into the darkness of the great cavern below.
Doubtless it connected with another gallery in some other chamber,
which might be the destination of the priests. He hurried down it, the
illumination growing stronger as he advanced, until he could make out
the floor and the walls of the tunnel. Ahead of him and below he could
hear the priests chanting again.

Abruptly a doorway in the left-hand wall was limned in the phosphorous
glow, and to his ears came the sound of soft, hysterical sobbing. He
wheeled, and glared through the door.

He was looking again into a chamber hewn out of solid rock, not a
natural cavern like the others. The domed roof shone with the
phosphorous light, and the walls were almost covered with arabesques
of beaten gold.

Near the farther wall on a granite throne, staring for ever toward the
arched doorway, sat the monstrous and obscene Pteor, the god of the
Pelishti, wrought in brass, with his exaggerated attributes reflecting
the grossness of his cult. And in his lap sprawled a limp white
figure.

"Well, I'll be damned!" muttered Conan. He glanced suspiciously about
the chamber, seeing no other entrance or evidence of occupation, and
then advanced noiselessly and looked down at the girl whose slim
shoulders shook with sobs of abject misery, her face sunk in her arms.
From thick bands of gold on the idol's arms slim gold chains ran to
smaller bands on her wrists. He laid a hand on her naked shoulder and
she started convulsively, shrieked, and twisted her tear-stained face
toward him.

"Conan!" She made a spasmodic effort to go into the usual clinch, but
the chains hindered her. He cut through the soft gold as close to her
wrists as he could, grunting: "You'll have to wear these bracelets
until I can find a chisel or a file. Let go of me, damn it! You
actresses are too damned emotional. What happened to you, anyway?"

"When I went back into the oracle chamber," she whimpered, "I saw the
goddess lying on the dais as I'd first seen her. I called out to you
and started to run to the door--then something grabbed me from behind.
It clapped a hand over my mouth and carried me through a panel in the
wall, and down some steps and along a dark hall. I didn't see what it
was that had hold of me until we passed through a big metal door and
came into a tunnel whose roof was alight, like this chamber.

"Oh, I nearly fainted when I saw! They are not humans! They are gray,
hairy devils that walk like men and speak a gibberish no human could
understand. They stood there and seemed to be waiting, and once I
thought I heard somebody trying the door. Then one of the things
pulled a metal lever in the wall, and something crashed on the other
side of the door.

"Then they carried me on and on through winding tunnels and up stone
stairways into this chamber, where they chained me on the knees of
this abominable idol, and then they went away. Oh, Conan, what are
they?"

"Servants of Bit-Yakin," he grunted. "I found a manuscript that told
me a number of things, and then stumbled upon some frescoes that told
me the rest. Bit-Yakin was a Pelishti who wandered into the valley
with his servants after the people of Alkmeenon had deserted it. He
found the body of Princess Yelaya, and discovered that the priests
returned from time to time to make offerings to her, for even then she
was worshipped as a goddess.

"He made an oracle of her, and he was the voice of the oracle,
speaking from a niche he cut in the wall behind the ivory dais. The
priests never suspected, never saw him or his servants, for they
always hid themselves when the men came. Bit-Yakin lived and died here
without ever being discovered by the priests. Crom knows how long he
dwelt here, but it must have been for centuries. The wise men of the
Pelishti know how to increase the span of their lives for hundreds of
years. I've seen some of them myself. Why he lived here alone, and why
he played the part of oracle no ordinary human can guess, but I
believe the oracle part was to keep the city inviolate and sacred, so
he could remain undisturbed. He ate the food the priests brought as an
offering to Yelaya, and his servants ate other things--I've always
known there was a subterranean river flowing away from the lake where
the people of the Puntish highlands throw their dead. That river runs
under this palace. They have ladders hung over the water where they
can hang and fish for the corpses that come floating through. Bit-
Yakin recorded everything on parchment and painted walls.

"But he died at last, and his servants mummified him according to
instructions he gave them before his death, and stuck him in a cave in
the cliffs. The rest is easy to guess. His servants, who were even
more nearly immortal than he, kept on dwelling here, but the next time
a high priest came to consult the oracle, not having a master to
restrain them, they tore him to pieces. So since then--until
Gorulga--nobody came to talk to the oracle.

"It's obvious they've been renewing the garments and ornaments of the
goddess, as they'd seen Bit-Yakin do. Doubtless there's a sealed
chamber somewhere were the silks are kept from decay. They clothed the
goddess and brought her back to the oracle room after Zargheba had
stolen her. And, oh, by the way, they took off Zargheba's head and
hung it up in a thicket."

She shivered, yet at the same time breathed a sigh of relief.

"He'll never whip me again."

"Not this side of Hell," agreed Conan. "But come on, Gwarunga ruined
my chances with his stolen goddess. I'm going to follow the priests
and take my chance of stealing the loot from them after they get it.
And you stay close to me. I can't spend all my time looking for you."

"But the servants of Bit-Yakin!" she whispered fearfully.

"We'll have to take our chance," he grunted. "I don't know what's in
their minds, but so far they haven't shown any disposition to come out
and fight in the open. Come on."

Taking her wrist he led her out of the chamber and down the corridor.
As they advanced they heard the chanting of the priests, and mingling
with the sound the low sullen rushing of waters. The light grew
stronger above them as they emerged on a high-pitched gallery of a
great cavern and looked down on a scene weird and fantastic.

Above them gleamed the phosphorescent roof; a hundred feet below them
stretched the smooth floor of the cavern. On the far side this floor
was cut by a deep, narrow stream brimming its rocky channel. Rushing
out of impenetrable gloom, it swirled across the cavern and was lost
again in darkness. The visible surface reflected the radiance above;
the dark seething waters glinted as if flecked with living jewels,
frosty blue, lurid red, shimmering green, and ever-changing
iridescence.

Conan and his companion stood upon one of the gallery-like ledges that
banded the curve of the lofty wall, and from this ledge a natural
bridge of stone soared in a breathtaking arch over the vast gulf of
the cavern to join a much smaller ledge on the opposite side, across
the river. Ten feet below it another, broader arch spanned the cave.
At either end a carved stair joined the extremities of these flying
arches.

Conan's gaze, following the curve of the arch that swept away from the
ledge on which they stood, caught a glint of light that was not the
lurid phosphorus of the cavern. On that small ledge opposite them
there was an opening in the cave wall through which stars were
glinting.

But his full attention was drawn to the scene beneath them. The
priests had reached their destination. There in a sweeping angle of
the cavern wall stood a stone altar, but there was no idol upon it.
Whether there was one behind it, Conan could not ascertain, because
some trick of the light, or the sweep of the wall, left the space
behind the altar in total darkness.

The priests had stuck their torches into holes in the stone floor,
forming a semicircle of fire in front of the altar at a distance of
several yards. Then the priests themselves formed a semicircle inside
the crescent of torches, and Gorulga, after lifting his arms aloft in
invocation, bent to the altar and laid hands on it. It lifted and
tilted backward on its hinder edge, like the lid of a chest, revealing
a small crypt.

Extending a long arm into the recess, Gorulga brought up a small brass
chest. Lowering the altar back into place, he set the chest on it, and
threw back the lid. To the eager watchers on the high gallery, it
seemed as if the action had released a blaze of living fire which
throbbed and quivered about the opened chest. Conan's heart leaped and
his hand caught at his hilt. The Teeth of Gwahlur at last! The
treasure that would make its possessor the richest man in the world!
His breath came fast between his clenched teeth.

Then he was suddenly aware that a new element had entered into the
light of the torches and of the phosphorescent roof, rendering both
void. Darkness stole around the altar, except for that glowing spot of
evil radiance cast by the Teeth of Gwahlur, and that grew and grew.
The blacks froze into basaltic statues, their shadows streaming
grotesquely and gigantically out behind them.

The altar was laved in the glow now, and the astounded features of
Gorulga stood out in sharp relief. Then the mysterious space behind
the altar swam into the widening illumination. And slowly with the
crawling light, figures became visible, like shapes growing out of the
night and silence.

At first they seemed like gray stone statues, those motionless shapes,
hairy, manlike, yet hideously human; but their eyes were alive, cold
sparks of gray icy fire. And as the weird glow lit their bestial
countenances, Gorulga screamed and fell backward, throwing up his long
arms in a gesture of frenzied horror.

But a longer arm shot across the altar and a misshapen hand locked on
his throat. Screaming and fighting, the high priest was dragged back
across the altar; a hammerlike fist smashed down, and Gorulga's cries
were stilled. Limp and broken he sagged cross the altar; his brains
oozing from his crushed skull. And then the servants of Bit-Yakin
surged like a bursting flood from Hell on the black priests who stood
like horror-blasted images.

Then there was slaughter, grim and appalling.

Conan saw black bodies tossed like chaff in the inhuman hands of the
slayers, against whose horrible strength and agility the daggers and
swords of the priests were ineffective. He saw men lifted bodily and
their heads cracked open against the stone altar. He saw a flaming
torch, grasped in a monstrous hand, thrust inexorably down the gullet
of an agonized wretch who writhed in vain against the arms that
pinioned him. He saw a man torn in two pieces, as one might tear a
chicken, and the bloody fragments hurled clear across the cavern. The
massacre was as short and devastating as the rush of a hurricane. In a
burst of red abysmal ferocity it was over, except for one wretch who
fled screaming back the way the priests had come, pursued by a swarm
of blood-dabbled shapes of horror which reached out their red-smeared
hands for him. Fugitive and pursuers vanished down the black tunnel,
and the screams of the human came back dwindling and confused by the
distance.

Muriela was on her knees clutching Conan's legs; her face pressed
against his knee and her eyes tightly shut. She was a quaking,
quivering mold of abject terror. But Conan was galvanized. A quick
glance across at the aperture where the stars shone, a glance down at
the chest that still blazed open on the blood-smeared altar, and he
saw and seized the desperate gamble.

"I'm going after that chest!" he grated. "Stay here!"

"Oh, Mitra, no!" In an agony of fright she fell to the floor and
caught at his sandals. "Don't! Don't! Don't leave me!"

"Lie still and keep your mouth shut!" he snapped, disengaging himself
from her frantic clasp.

He disregarded the tortuous stair. He dropped from ledge to ledge with
reckless haste. There was no sign of the monsters as his feet hit the
floor. A few of the torches still flared in their sockets, the
phosphorescent glow throbbed and quivered, and the river flowed with
an almost articulate muttering, scintillant with undreamed radiances.
The glow that had heralded the appearance of the servants had vanished
with them. Only the light of the jewels in the brass chest shimmered
and quivered.

He snatched the chest, noting its contents in one lustful glance--
strange, curiously shapen stones that burned with an icy, nonterrestrial fire. He slammed the lid, thrust the chest under his arm,
and ran back up the steps. He had no desire to encounter the hellish
servants of Bit-Yakin. His glimpse of them in action had dispelled any
illusion concerning their fighting ability. Why they had waited so long
before striking at the invaders he was unable to say. What human could
guess the motives or thoughts of these monstrosities? That they were
possessed of craft and intelligence equal to humanity had been
demonstrated. And there on the cavern floor lay crimson proof of their
bestial ferocity.

The Corinthian girl still cowered on the gallery where he had left
her. He caught her wrist and yanked her to her feet, grunting: "I
guess it's time to go!"

Too bemused with terror to be fully aware of what was going on, the
girl suffered herself to be led across the dizzy span. It was not
until they were poised over the rushing water that she looked down,
voiced a startled yelp and would have fallen but for Conan's massive
arm about her. Growling an objurgation in her ear, he snatched her up
under his free arm and swept her, in a flutter of limply waving arms
and legs, across the arch and into the aperture that opened at the
other end. Without bothering to set her on her feet, he hurried
through the short tunnel into which this aperture opened. An instant
later they emerged upon a narrow ledge on the outer side of the cliffs
that circled the valley. Less than a hundred feet below them the
jungle waved in the starlight.

Looking down, Conan vented a gusty sigh of relief. He believed he
could negotiate the descent, even though burdened with the jewels and
the girl; although he doubted if even he, unburdened, could have
ascended at that spot. He set the chest, still smeared with Gorulga's
blood and clotted with his brains, on the ledge, and was about to
remove his girdle in order to tie the box to his back, when he was
galvanized by a sound behind him, a sound sinister and unmistakable.

"Stay here!" he snapped at the bewildered Corinthian girl. "Don't
move!" And drawing his sword, he glided into the tunnel, glaring back
into the cavern.

Half-way across the upper span he saw a gray deformed shape. One of
the servants of Bit-Yakin was on his trail. There was no doubt that
the brute had seen them and was following them. Conan did not
hesitate. It might be easier to defend the mouth of the tunnel--but
this fight must be finished quickly, before the other servants could
return.

He ran out on the span, straight toward the oncoming monster. It was
no ape, neither was it a man. It was some shambling horror spawned in
the mysterious, nameless jungles of the south, where strange life
teemed in the reeking rot without the dominance of man, and drums
thundered in temples that had never known the tread of a human foot.
How the ancient Pelishti had gained lordship over them--and with it
eternal exile from humanity--was a foul riddle about which Conan did
not care to speculate, even if he had had opportunity.

Man and monster, they met at the highest arch of the span, where, a
hundred feet below, rushed the furious black water. As the monstrous
shape with it leprous gray body and the features of a carven, unhuman
idol loomed over him, Conan struck as a wounded tiger strikes, with
every ounce of thew and fury behind the blow. That stroke would have
sheared a human body asunder; but the bones of the servant of Bit-
Yakin were like tempered steel. Yet even tempered steel could not
wholly have withstood that furious stroke. Ribs and shoulder bone
parted and blood spouted from the great gash.

There was no time for a second stroke. Before the Cimmerian could lift
his blade again or spring clear, the sweep of a giant arm knocked him
from the span as a fly is flicked from a wall. As he plunged downward
the rush of the river was like a knell in his ears, but his twisting
body fell half-way across the lower arch. He wavered there
precariously for one blood-chilling instant, then his clutching
fingers hooked over the farther edge, and he scrambled to safety, his
sword still in his other hand.

As he sprang up, he saw the monster, spurting blood hideously, rush
toward the cliff-end of the bridge, obviously intending to descend the
stair that connected the arches and renew the feud. At the very ledge
the brute paused in midflight--and Conan saw it too--Muriela, with
the jewel chest under her arm, stood staring wildly in the mouth of
the tunnel.

With a triumphant bellow the monster scooped her up under one arm,
snatched the jewel chest with the other hand as she dropped it, and
turning, lumbered back across the bridge. Conan cursed with passion
and ran for the other side also. He doubted if he could climb the
stair to the higher arch in time to catch the brute before it could
plunge into the labyrinths of tunnels on the other side.

But the monster was slowing, like clockwork running down. Blood gushed
from that terrible gash in his breast, and he lurched drunkenly from
side to side. Suddenly he stumbled, reeled and toppled sidewise--
pitched headlong from the arch and hurtled downward. Girl and jewel
chest fell from his nerveless hands and Muriela's scream rang terribly
above the snarl of the water below.

Conan was almost under the spot from which the creature had fallen.
The monster struck the lower arch glancingly and shot off, but the
writhing figure of the girl struck and clung, and the chest hit the
edge of the span near her. One falling object struck on one side of
Conan and one on the other. Either was within arm's length; for the
fraction of a split second the chest teetered on the edge of the
bridge, and Muriela clung by one arm, her face turned desperately
toward Conan, her eyes dilated with the fear of death and her lips
parted in a haunting cry of despair.

Conan did not hesitate, nor did he even glance toward the chest that
held the wealth of an epoch. With a quickness that would have shamed
the spring of a hungry jaguar, he swooped, grasped the girl's arm just
as her fingers slipped from the smooth stone, and snatched her up on
the span with one explosive heave. The chest toppled on over and
struck the water ninety feet below, where the body of the servant of
Bit-Yakin had already vanished. A splash, a jetting flash of foam
marked where the Teeth of Gwahlur disappeared for ever from the sight
of man.

Conan scarcely wasted a downward glance. He darted across the span and
ran up the cliff stair like a cat, carrying the limp girl as if she
had been an infant. A hideous ululation caused him to glance over his
shoulder as he reached the higher arch, to see the other servants
streaming back into the cavern below, blood dripping from their bared
fangs. They raced up the stair that wound up from tier to tier,
roaring vengefully; but he slung the girl unceremoniously over his
shoulder, dashed through the tunnel and went down the cliffs like an
ape himself, dropping and springing from hold to hold with breakneck
recklessness. When the fierce countenances looked over the ledge of
the aperture, it was to see the Cimmerian and the girl disappearing
into the forest that surrounded the cliffs.

"Well," said Conan, setting the girl on her feet within the sheltering
screen of branches, "we can take our time now. I don't think those
brutes will follow us outside the valley. Anyway, I've got a horse
tied at a water-hole close by, if the lions haven't eaten him. Crom's
devils! What are you crying about now?"

She covered her tear-stained face with her hands, and her slim
shoulders shook with sobs.

"I lost the jewels for you," she wailed miserably. "It was my fault.
If I'd obeyed you and stayed out on the ledge, that brute would never
have seen me. You should have caught the gems and let me drown!"

"Yes, I suppose I should," he agreed. "But forget it. Never worry
about what's past. And stop crying, will you? That's better. Come on."

"You mean you're going to keep me? Take me with you?" she asked
hopefully.

"What else do you suppose I'd do with you?" He ran an approving glance
over her figure and grinned at the torn skirt which revealed a
generous expanse of tempting ivory-tinted curves. "I can use an
actress like you. There's no use going back to Keshia. There's nothing
in Keshan now that I want. We'll go to Punt. The people of Punt
worship an ivory woman, and they wash gold out of the rivers in wicker
baskets. I'll tell them that Keshan is intriguing with Thutmekri to
enslave them--which is true--and that the gods have sent me to protect
them--for about a houseful of gold. If I can manage to smuggle you
into their temple to exchange places with their ivory goddess, we'll
skin them out of their jaw teeth before we get through with them!"



THE END




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