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Title: Red Nails
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Language: English
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Title: Red Nails
Author: Robert E. Howard



Contents



1 The Skull on the Crag

2 By the Blaze of the Fire Jewels

3 The People of the Feud

4 Scent of Black Lotus

5 Twenty Red Nails

6 The Eyes of Tascela

7 He Comes from the Dark





The Skull on the Crag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed at her insolence and flexed his mighty biceps.

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

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

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

Valeria stamped her booted foot and swore.

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

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

"Well?" she demanded.

"Well what?" He seemed puzzled.

"What of the Stygian?"

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

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

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

"A penniless vagabond," she taunted.

He laughed at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I can if I choose."

"But what do you intend doing?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's that?"

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

"Lions are slaying the horses!" cried Valeria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valeria shuddered.

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

Conan kicked the skull on the leaf-strewn shelf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan glanced where she pointed.

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

"Oh!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged his shoulders and dropped down on the shelf.

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

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

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

"What are you talking about?" she inquired.

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

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

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

"You wait and see."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is he running away?" inquired Valeria uneasily.

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

"Down there?" Valeria was aghast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan shook his head.

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

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

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

"Crom!" swore Conan.

"Mitra!" whispered Valeria.

Out of the south a wind had sprung up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did not have to finish the sentence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Suppose a dragon comes out of the woods?"

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

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

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

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

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



By the Blaze of the Fire Jewels

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

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

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

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

"What about yourself?" she retorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not in such quantity!" protested Valeria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valeria shrugged her white shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan scanned them and shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A man was stealing along the hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Where is that?" she demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valeria shrugged her shoulders.

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

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

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

"Lead the way," grunted Conan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Perhaps they are your friends," suggested Valeria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hasten! Hasten!" groaned Techotl.

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

Techotl said: "This is Tecuhltli!"



The People of the Feud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Techotl shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man on the ivory seat had not risen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If your ancestors had thought to dip their spears in the poisonous
juice of Derketa's Apples," quoth Conan, with his mouth full, "and jab
them in the eyes or mouth or somewhere like that, they'd have seen
that dragons are no more immortal than any other chunk of beef. The
carcass lies at the edge of the trees, just within the forest. If you
don't believe me, go and look for yourself."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And we can never leave the city," said Olmec. "For fifty years on one
has left it except those--" Again he checked himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Techotl shuddered and glanced furtively about him before answering.

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

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

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

"What's that?" asked Conan.

Techotl shuddered again.

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

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



Scent of Black Lotus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Twenty Red Nails

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

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

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

The other meditated for a space.

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

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

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

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

Suddenly both men stiffened at a noise outside the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What the devil is it?" she called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan caught Valeria's arm and turned her about.

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

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

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

He shook a red shower from his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I will go!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It is the Crawler!" whispered Yanath.

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

The Tecuhltli shivered and shook their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Eyes of Tascela

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you believe in ghosts?" asked Valeria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Drink!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



He Comes from the Dark

"Well, I'm a Kushite!"

Conan glared down at the man on the iron rack.

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

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

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

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

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

"Tell me first."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



THE END




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