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Title: Shadows in Zamboula
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Language: English
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Title: Shadows in Zamboula
Author: Robert E. Howard



Contents



1 A Drum Begins

2 The Night Skulkers

3 Black Hands Gripping

4 Dance, Girl, Dance!





A Drum Begins

"Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!"

The speaker's voice quivered with earnestness and his lean, black-
nailed fingers clawed at Conan's mightily-muscled arm as he croaked
his warning. He was a wiry, sunburnt man with a straggling black
beard, and his ragged garments prolcaimed him a nomad. He looked
smaller and meaner than ever in contrast to the giant Cimmerian with
his black brows, broad chest, and powerful limbs. They stood in a
corner of the Sword Makers' Bazaar, and on either side of them flowed
past the many-tongued, many-colored stream of the Zamboulan streets,
which are exotic, hybrid, flamboyant, and clamorous.

Conan pulled his eyes back from following a bold-eyed, red-lipped
Ghanara whose short skirt bared her brown thigh at each insolent step,
and frowned down at his importunate companion.

"What do you mean by peril?" he demanded.

The desert man glanced furtively over his shoulder before replying,
and lowered his voice.

"Who can say? But desert men and travelers have slept in the house of
Aram Baksh and never been seen or heard of again. What became of them?
He swore they rose and went their way--and it is true that no citizen
of the city has ever disappeared from his house. But no one saw the
travelers again, and men say that goods and equipment recognised as
theirs have been seen in the bazaars. If Aram did not sell them, after
doing away with their owners, how came they there?"

"I have no goods," growled the Cimmerian, touching the shagreen-bound
hilt of the broadsword that hung at his hip. "I have even sold my
horse."

"But it is not always rich strangers who vanish by night from the
house of Aram Baksh!" chattered the Zuagir. "Nay, poor desert men have
slept there--because his score is less than that of the other
taverns--and have been seen no more. Once a chief of the Zuagirs whose
son had thus vanished complained to the satrap, Jungir Khan, who
ordered the house searched by soldiers."

"And they found a cellar full of corpses?" asked Conan in good-humored
derision.

"Nay! They found naught! And drove the chief from the city with
threats and curses! But"--he drew closer to Conan and shivered--
"something else was found! At the edge of the desert, beyond the
houses, there is a clump of palm trees, and within that grove there is
a pit. And within that pit have been found human bones, charred and
blackened. Not once, but many times!"

"Which proves what?" grunted the Cimmerian.

"Aram Baksh is a demon! Nay, in this accursed city which Stygians
built and which Hyrkanians rule--where white, brown, and black folk
mingle together to produce hybrids of all unholy hues and breeds--who
can tell who is a man, and who is a demon in disguise? Aram Baksh is a
demon in the form of a man! At night he assumes his true guise and
carries his guests off into the desert, where his fellow demons from
the waste meet in conclave."

"Why does he always carry off strangers?" asked Conan skeptically.

"The people of the city would not suffer him to slay their people, but
they care nought for the strangers who fall into his hands. Conan, you
are of the West, and know not the secrets of this ancient land. But,
since the beginning of happenings, the demons of the desert have
worshipped Yog, the Lord of the Empty Abodes, with fire--fire that
devours human victims.

"Be warned! You have dwelt for many moons in the tents of the Zuagirs,
and you are our brother! Go not to the house of Aram Baksh!"

"Get out of sight!" Conan said suddenly. "Yonder comes a squad of the
city watch. If they see you they may remember a horse that was stolen
from the satrap's stable--"

The Zuagir gasped and moved convulsively. He ducked between a booth
and a stone horse trough, pausing only long enough to chatter: "Be
warned, my brother! There are demons in the house of Aram Baksh!" Then
he darted down a narrow alley and was gone.

Conan shifted his broad sword-belt to his liking and calmly returned
the searching stares directed at him by the squad of watchmen as they
swung past. They eyed him curiously and suspiciously, for he was a man
who stood out even in such a motley throng as crowded the winding
streets of Zamboula. His blue eyes and alien features distinguished
him from the Eastern swarms, and the straight sword at his hip added
point to the racial difference.

The watchmen did not accost him but swung on down the street, while
the crowd opened a lane for them. They were Pelishtim, squat, hook-
nosed, with blue-black beards sweeping their mailed breasts--
mercenaries hired for work the ruling Turanians considered beneath
themselves, and no less hated by the mongrel population for that
reason.

Conan glanced at the sun, just beginning to dip behind the flat-topped
houses on the western side of the bazaar, and hitching once more at
his belt, moved off in the direction of Aram Baksh's tavern.

With a hillman's stride he moved through the ever-shifting colors of
the streets, where the ragged tunics of whining beggars brushed
against the ermine-trimmed khalats of lordly merchants, and the pearl-
sewn satin of rich courtesans. Giant black slaves slouched along,
jostling blue-bearded wanders from the Shemitish cities, ragged nomads
from the surrounding deserts, traders and adventureers from all the
lands of the East.

The native population was no less hetrogeneous. Here, centuries ago,
the armies of Stygia had come, carving an empire out of the eastern
desert. Zamboula was but a small trading town then, lying amidst a
ring of oases, and inhabited by descendants of nomads. The Stygians
built it into a city and settled it with their own people, and with
Shemite and Kushite slaves. The ceaseless caravans, threading the
desert from east to west and back again, brought riches and more
mingling of races. Then came the conquering Turanians, riding out of
the East to thrust back the boundaries of Stygia, and now for a
generation Zamboula had been Turan's westernmost outpost, ruled by a
Turanian satrap.

The babel of a myriad tongues smote on the Cimmerian's ears as the
restless pattern of the Zamboulan streets weaved about him--cleft now
and then by a squad of clattering horsemen, the tall, supple warriors
of Turan, with dark hawk-faces, clinking metal, and curved swords. The
throng scampered from under their horses' hoofs, for they were the
lords of Zamboula. But tall, somber Stygians, standing back in the
shadows, glowered darkly, rememebering their ancient glories. The
hybrid population cared little whether the king who controlled their
destinies dwelt in dark Khemi or gleaming Aghrapur. Jungir Khan ruled
Zamboula, and men whispered that Nafertari, the satrap's mistress,
ruled Jungir Khan; but the people went their way, flaunting their
myriad colors in the streets, bargaining, disputing, gambling,
swilling, loving, as the people of Zamboula have done for all the
centuries its towers and minarets have lifted over the sands of the
Kharamun.

Bronze lanterns, carved with leering dragons, had been lighted in the
streets before Conan reached the house of Aram Baksh. The tavern was
the last occupied house on the street, which ran west. A wide garden,
enclosed by a wall, where date palms grew thick, separated it from the
houses farther east. To the west of the inn stood another grove of
palms, through which the street, now become a road, wound out into the
desert. Across the road from the tavern stood a row of deserted huts,
shaded by straggling palm trees and occupied only by bats and jackals.
As Conan came down the road, he wondered why the beggars, so plentiful
in Zamboula, had not appropriated these empty houses for sleeping
quarters. The lights ceased some distance behind him. Here were no
lanterns, except the one hanging before the tavern gate: only the
stars, the soft dust of the road underfoot, and the rustle of the palm
leaves in the desert breeze.

Aram's gate did not open upon the road but upon the alley which ran
between the tavern and the garden of the date palms. Conan jerked
lustily at the rope which dangled from the bell beside the lantern,
augmenting its clamor by hammering on the iron-bound teakwood gate
with the hilt of his sword. A wicket opened in the gate, and a black
face peered through.

"Open, blast you," requested Conan. "I'm a guest. I've paid Aram for a
room, and a room I'll have, by Crom!"

The black craned his neck to stare into the starlit road behind Conan;
but he opened the gate without comment and closed it again behind the
Cimmerian, locking it and bolting it. The wall was unusually high; but
there were many thieves in Zamboula, and a house on the edge of the
desert might have to be defended against a nocturnal nomad raid. Conan
strode through a garden, where great pale blossoms nodded in the
starlight, and entered the taproom, where a Stygian with the shaven
head of a student sat at a table brooding over nameless mysteries, and
some nondescripts wrangled over a game of dice in a corner.

Aram Baksh came forward, walking softly, a portly man, wih a black
beard that swept his breast, a jutting hooknose, and small black eyes
which were never still.

"You wish food?" he asked. "Drink?"

"I ate a joint of beef and a loaf of bread in the suk," grunted Conan.
"Bring me a tankard of Ghazan wine--I've got just enough left to pay
for it."  He tossed a copper coin on the wine-splashed board.

"You did not win at the gaming tables?"

"How could I, with only a handful of silver to begin with? I paid you
for the room this morning, because I knew I'd probably lose. I wanted
to be sure I had a roof over my head tonight. I notice nobody sleeps
in the streets of Zamboula. The very beggars hunt a niche they can
barricade before dark. The city must be full of a particularly
bloodthirsty band of thieves."

He gulped the cheap wine with relish and then followed Aram out of the
taproom. Behind him the players halted their game to stare after him
with a cryptic speculation in their eyes. They said nothing, but the
Stygian laughed, a ghastly laugh of inhuman cynicism and mockery. The
others lowered their eyes uneasily, avoiding one another's glance. The
arts studied by a Stygian scholar are not calculated to make him share
the feelings of a normal being.

Conan followed Aram down a corridor lighted by copper lamps, and it
did not please him to note his host's noiseless tread. Aram's feet
were clad in soft slippers and the hallway was carpeted with thick
Turanian rugs; but there was an unpleasant suggestion of stealthiness
about the Zamboulan.

At the end of the winding corridor, Aram halted at a door, across
which a heavy iron bar rested in powerful metal brackets. This Aram
lifted and showed the Cimmerian into a well-appointed chamber, the
windows of which, Conan instantly noted, were small and strongly set
with twisted bars of iron, tastefully gilded. There were rugs on the
floor, a couch, after the Eastern fashion, and ornately carven stools.
It was a much more elaborate chamber than Conan could have procured
for the price nearer the center of the city--a fact that had first
attracted him, when, that morning, he discoverd how slim a purse his
roistering for the past few days had left him. He had ridden into
Zamboula from the desert a week before.

Aram had lighted a bronze lamp, and he now called Conan's attention to
the two doors. Both were provided with heavy bolts.

"You may sleep safely tonight, Cimmerian," said Aram, blinking over
his bushy beard from the inner doorway.

Conan grunted and tossed his naked broadsword on the couch.

"Your bolts and bars are strong; but I always sleep with steel by my
side."

Aram made no reply; he stood fingering his thick beard for a moment as
he stared at the grim weapon. Then silently he withdrew, closing the
door behind him. Conan shot the bolt into place, crossed the room,
opened the opposite door, and looked out. The room was on the side of
the house that faced the road running west from the city. The door
opened into a small court that was enclosed by a wall of its own. The
end walls, which shut it off from the rest of the tavern compound,
were high and without entrances; but the wall that flanked the road
was low, and there was no lock on the gate.

Conan stood for a moment in the door, the glow of the bronze lamps
behind him, looking down the road to where it vanished among the dense
palms. Their leaves rustled together in the faint breeze; beyond them
lay the naked desert. Far up the street, in the other direction,
lights gleamed and the noises of the city came faintly to him. Here
was only starlight, the whispering of the palm leaves, and beyond that
low wall, the dust of the road and the deserted huts thrusting their
flat roofs against the low stars. Somewhere beyond the palm groves a
drum began.

The garbled warnings of the Zuagir returned to him, seeming somewhow
less fantastic than they had seemed in the crowded, sunlit streets. He
wondered again at the riddle of those empty huts. Why did the beggars
shun them? He turned back into the chamber, shut the door, and bolted
it.

The light began to flicker, and he investigated, swearing when he
found the palm oil in the lamp was almost exhausted. He started to
shout for Aram, then shrugged his shoulders and blew out the light. In
the soft darkness he stretched himself fully clad on the couch, his
sinewy hand by instinct searching for and closing on the hilt of his
broadsword. Glancing idly at the stars framed in the barred windows,
with the murmur of the breeze though the palms in his ears, he sank
into slumber with a vague consciousness of the muttering drum, out on
the desert--the low rumble and mutter of a leather-covered drum,
beaten with soft, rhythmic strokes of an open black hand . . .



The Night Skulkers

It was the stealthy opening of a door which awakened the Cimmerian. He
did not awake as civilized men do, drowsy and drugged and stupid. He
awoke instantly, with a clear mind, recognizing the sound that had
interruped his sleep. Lying there tensely in the dark he saw the outer
door slowly open. In a widening crack of starlit sky he saw framed a
great black bulk, broad, stooping shoulders, and a misshapen head
blocked out against the stars.

Conan felt the skin crawl between his shoulders. He had bolted that
door securely. How could it be opening now, save by supernatural
agency? And how could a human being possess a head like that outlined
against the stars? All the tales he had heard in the Zuagir tents of
devils and goblins came back to bead his flesh with clammy sweat. Now
the monster slid noiselessly into the room, with a crouching posture
and a shambling gait; and a familiar scent assailed the Cimmerian's
nostrils, but did not reassure him, since Zuagir legendry represented
demons as smelling like that.

Noiselessly Conan coiled his long legs under him; his naked sword was
in his right hand, and when he struck it was as suddenly and
murderously as a tiger lunging out of the dark. Not even a demon could
have avoided that catapulting charge. His sword met and clove through
flesh and bone, and something went heavily to the floor with a
strangling cry. Conan crouched in the dark above it, sword dripping in
his hand. Devil or beast or man, the thing was dead there on the
floor. He sensed death as any wild thing senses it. He glared through
the half-open door into the starlit court beyond. The gate stood open,
but the court was empty.

Conan shut the door but did not bolt it. Groping in the darkness he
found the lamp and lighted it. There was enough oil in it to burn for
a minute or so. An instant later he was bending over the figure that
sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood.

It was a gigantic black man, naked but for a loin cloth. One hand
still grasped a knotty-headed budgeon. The fellow's kinky wool was
built up into hornlike spindles with twigs and dried mud. This
barbaric coiffure had given the head its misshapen appearance in the
starlight. Provided with a clue to the riddle, Conan pushed back the
thick red lips and grunted as he stared down at teeth filed to points.

He understood now the mystery of the strangers who had disappeared
from the house of Aram Baksh; the riddle of the black drum thrumming
out there beyond the palm groves, and of that pit of charred bones--
that pit where strange meat might be roasted under the stars, while
black beasts squatted about to glut a hideous hunger. The man on the
floor was a cannibal slave from Darfar.

There were many of his kind in the city. Cannibalism was not tolerated
openly in Zamboula. But Conan knew now why people locked themselves in
so securely at night, and why even beggars shunned the open alley and
doorless ruins. He grunted in disgust as he visualized brutish black
shadows skulking up and down the nighted streets, seeking human prey--
and such men as Aram Baksh to open the doors to them. The innkeeper
was not a demon; he was worse. The slaves from Darfar were notorious
thieves; there was no doubt that some of their pilfered loot found its
way into the hands of Aram Baksh. And in return he sold them human
flesh.

Conan blew out the light, stepped to the door and opened it, and ran
his hand over the ornaments on the outer side. One of them was movable
and worked the bolt inside. The room was a trap to catch human prey
like rabbits. But this time, instead of a rabbit, it had caught a
saber-toothed tiger.

Conan returned to the other door, lifted the bolt, and pressed against
it. It was immovable, and he remembered the bolt on the other side.
Aram was taking no chances either with his victims or the men with
whom he dealt. Buckling on his sword belt, the Cimmerian strode out
into the court, closing the door behind him. He had no intention of
delaying the settlement of his reckoning with Aram Baksh. He wondered
how many poor devils had been bludgeoned in their sleep and dragged
out of that room and down the road that ran through the shadowed palm
groves to the roasting pit.

He halted in the court. The drum was still muttering, and he caught
the reflection of a leaping red glare through the groves. Cannibalism
was more than a perverted appetite with the black men of Darfar; it
was an integral element of their ghastly cult. The black vultures were
already in conclave. But whatever flesh filled their bellies that
night, it would not be his.

To reach Aram Baksh, he must climb one of the walls which separated
the small enclosure from the main compound. They were high, meant to
keep out the man-eaters; but Conan was no swamp-bred black man; his
thews had been steeled in boyhood on the sheer cliffs of his native
hills. He was standing at the foot of the nearer wall when a cry
echoed under the trees.

In an instant Conan was crouching at the gate, glaring down the road.
The sound had come from the shadows of the huts across the road. He
heard a frantic choking and gurgling such as might result from a
desperate attempt to shriek, with a black hand fastened over the
victim's mouth. A close-knit clump of figures emerged from the shadows
beyond the huts and started down the road--three huge black men
carrying a slender, struggling figure between them. Conan caught the
glimmer of pale limbs writhing in the starlight, even as, with a
convulsive wrench, the captive slipped from the grasp of the brutal
fingers and came flying up the road, a supple young woman, naked as
the day she was born. Conan saw her plainly before she ran out of the
road and into the shadows between the huts. The blacks were at her
heels, and back in the shadows the figures merged and an intolerable
scream of anguish and horror rang out.

Stirred to red rage by the ghoulishness of the episode, Conan raced
across the road.

Neither victim nor abductors were aware of his presence until the soft
swish of the dust about his feet brought them about; and then he was
almost upon them, coming with the gusty fury of a hill wind. Two of
the blacks turned to meet him, lifting their bludgeons. But they
failed to estimate properly the speed at which he was coming. One of
them was down, disemboweled, before he could strike, and wheeling
catlike, Conan evaded the stroke of the other's cudgel and lashed in a
whistling counter-cut. The black's head flew into the air; the
headless body took three staggering steps, spurting blood and clawing
horribly at the air with groping hands, and then slumped to the dust.

The remaining cannibal gave back with a strangled yell, hurling his
captive from him. She tripped and rolled in the dust, and the black
fled in panic toward the city. Conan was at his heels. Fear winged the
black feet, but before they reached the easternmost hut, he sensed
death at his back, and bellowed like an ox in the slaughter yards.

"Black dog of Hell!" Conan drove his sword between the dusky shoulders
with such vengeful fury that the broad blade stood out half its length
from the black breast. With a choking cry the black stumbled headlong,
and Conan braced his feet and dragged out his sword as his victim
fell.

Only the breeze disturbed the leaves. Conan shook his head as a lion
shakes its mane and growled his unsatiated blood lust. But no more
shapes slunk from the shadows, and before the huts the starlit road
stretched empty. He whirled at the quick patter of feet behind him,
but it was only the girl, rushing to throw herself on him and clasp
his neck in a desperate grasp, frantic from terror of the abominable
fate she had just escaped.

"Easy, girl," he grunted. "You're all right. How did they catch you?"

She sobbed something unintelligible. He forgot all about Aram Baksh as
he scrutinized her by the light of the stars. She was white, though a
very definite brunette, obviously one of Zamboula's many mixed breeds.
She was tall, with a slender, supple form, as he was in a good
position to observe. Admiration burned in his fierce eyes as he looked
down on her splendid bosom and her lithe limbs, which still quivered
from fright and exertion. He passed an arm around her flexible waist
and said, reassuringly: "Stop shaking, wench; you're safe enough."

His touch seemed to restore her shaken sanity. She tossed back her
thick, glossy locks and cast a fearful glance over her shoulder, while
she pressed closer to the Cimmerian as if seeking security in the
contact.

"They caught me in the streets," she muttered, shuddering. "Lying in
wait, beneath a dark arch--black men, like great, hulking apes! Set
have mercy on me! I shall dream of it!"

"What were you doing out on the streets this time of night?" he
inquired, fascinated by the satiny feel of her sleek skin under his
questing fingers.

She raked back her hair and stared blankly up into his face. She did
not seem aware of his caresses.

"My lover," she said. "My lover drove me into the streets. He went mad
and tried to kill me. As I fled from him I was seized by those
beasts."

"Beauty like yours might drive a man mad," quoth Conan, running his
fingers experimentally through the glossy tresses.

She shook her head, like one emerging from a daze. She no longer
trembled, and her voice was steady.

"It was the spite of a priest--of Totrasmek, the high priest of
Hanuman, who desires me for himself--the dog!"

"No need to curse him for that," grinned Conan. "The old hyena has
better taste than I thought."

She ignored the bluff compliment. She was regaining her poise swiftly.

"My lover is a--a young Turanian soldier. To spite me, Totrasmek gave
him a drug that drove him mad. Tonight he snatched up a sword and came
at me to slay me in his madness, but I fled from him into the streets.
The Negroes seized me and brought me to this--what was that?"

Conan had already moved. Soundlessly as a shadow he drew her behind
the nearest hut, beneath the straggling palms. They stood in tense
stillness, while the low muttering both had heard grew louder until
voices were distinguishable. A group of Negroes, some nine or ten,
were coming along the road from the direction of the city. The girl
clutched Conan's arm and he felt the terrified quivering of her supple
body against his.

Now they could understand the gutturals of the black men.

"Our brothers are already assembled at the pit," said one. "We have
had no luck. I hope they have enough for us."

"Aram promised us a man," muttered another, and Conan mentally
promised Aram something.

"Aram keeps his word," grunted yet another. "Many a man we have taken
from his tavern. But we pay him well. I myself have given him ten
bales of silk I stole from my master. It was good silk, by Set!"

The blacks shuffled past, bare splay feet scuffing up the dust, and
their voices dwindled down the road.

"Well for us those corpses are lying behind these huts," muttered
Conan. "If they look in Aram's death room they'll find another. Let's
begone."

"Yes, let us hasten!" begged the girl, almost hysterical again. "My
lover is wandering somewhere in the streets alone. The Negroes may
take him."

"A devil of a custom this is!" growled Conan, as he led the way toward
the city, paralleling the road but keeping behind the huts and
straggling trees. "Why don't the citizens clean out these black dogs?"

"They are valuable slaves," murmured the girl. "There are so many of
them they might revolt if they were denied the flesh for which they
lust. The people of Zamboula know they skulk the streets at night, and
all are careful to remain within locked doors, except when something
unforseen happens, as it did to me. The blacks prey on anything they
can catch, but they seldom catch anybody but strangers. The people of
Zamboula are not concerned with the strangers that pass through the
city.

"Such men as Aram Baksh sell these strangers to the blacks. He would
not dare attempt such a thing with a citizen."

Conan spat in disgust, and a moment later led his companion out into
the road which was becoming a street, with still, unlighted houses on
each side. Slinking in the shadows was not congenial to his nature.

"Where did you want to go?" he asked. The girl did not seem to object
to his arm around her waist.

"To my house, to rouse my servants," she answered. "To bid them search
for my lover. I do not wish the city--the priests--anyone--to know of
his madness. He--he is a young officer with a promising future.
Perhaps we can drive this madness from him if we can find him."

"If we find him?" rumbled Conan. "What makes you think I want to spend
the night scouring the streets for a lunatic?"

She cast a quick glance into his face, and properly interpreted the
gleam in his blue eyes. Any woman could have known that he would
follow her wherever she led--for a while, at least. But being a women,
she concealed her knowledge of that fact.

"Please," she began with a hint of tears in her voice, "I have no one
else to ask for help--you have been kind --"

"All right!" he grunted. "All right! What's the young reprobate's
name?"

"Why--Alafdhal. I am Zabibi, a dancing-girl. I have danced often
before the satrap, Jungir Khan, and his mistress Nafertari, and before
all the lords and royal ladies of Zamboula. Totrasmek desired me and,
because I repulsed him, he made me the innocent tool of his vengeance
against Alafdhal. I asked a love potion of Totrasmek, not suspecting
the depth of his guile and hate. He gave me a drug to mix with my
lover's wine, and he swore that when Alafdhal drank it, he would love
me even more madly than ever and grant my every wish. I mixed the drug
secretly with my lover's wine. But having drunk, my lover went raving
mad and things came about as I have told you. Curse Totrasmek, the
hybrid snake--ahhh!"

She caught his arm convulsively and both stopped short. They had come
into a district of shops and stalls, all deserted and unlighted, for
the hour was late. They were passing an alley, and in its mouth a man
was standing, motionless and silent. His head was lowered, but Conan
caught the wierd gleam of eery eyes regarding them unblinkingly. His
skin crawled, not with fear of the sword in the man's hand, but
because of the uncanny suggestion of his posture and silence. They
suggested madness. Conan pushed the girl aside and drew his sword.

"Don't kill him!" she begged. "In the name of Set, do not slay him!
You are strong--overpower him!"

"We'll see," he muttered, grasping his sword in his right hand and
clenching his left into a mallet-like fist.

He took a wary step toward the alley--and with a horrible moaning
laugh the Tauranian charged. As he came he swung his sword, rising on
his toes as he put all the power of his body behind the blows. Sparks
flashed blue as Conan parried the blade, and the next instant the
madman was stretched senseless in the dust from a thundering buffet of
Conan's left fist.

The girl ran forward.

"Oh, he is not--he is not --"

Conan bent swiftly, turned the man on his side, and ran quick fingers
over him.

"He's not hurt much," he grunted. "Bleeding at the nose, but anybody's
likely to do that, after a clout on the jaw. He'll come to after a
bit, and maybe his mind will be right. In the meantime I'll tie his
wrists with his sword belt--so. Now where do you want me to take him?"

"Wait!" She knelt beside the senseless figure, seized the bound hands,
and scanned them avidly. Then, shaking her head as if in baffled
disappointment, she rose. She came close to the giant Cimmerian and
laid her slender hands on his arching breast. Her dark eyes, like wet
black jewels in the starlight, gazed up into his.

"You are a man! Help me! Totrasmek must die! Slay him for me!"

"And put my neck into a Turanian noose?" he grunted.

"Nay!" The slender arms, strong as pliant steel, were around his
corded neck. Her supple body throbbed against his. "The Hyrkanians
have no love for Totrasmek. The priests of Set fear him. He is a
mongrel, who rules men by fear and superstition. I worship Set, and
the Turanians bow to Erlik, but Totrasmek sacrifices to Hanuman the
accursed! The Turanian lords fear his black arts and his power over
the hybrid popularion, and they hate him. Even Jungir Khan and his
mistress Nafertari fear and hate him. If he were slain in his temple
at night, they would not seek his slayer very closely."

"And what of his magic?" rumbled the Cimmerian.

"You are a fighting man," she answered. "To risk your life is part of
your profession."

"For a price," he admitted.

"There will be a price!" she breathed, rising on tiptoes, to gaze into
his eyes.

The nearness of her vibrant body drove a flame through his veins. The
perfume of her breath mounted to his brain. But as his arms closed
about her supple figure she avoided them with a lithe movement,
saying: "Wait! First serve me in this matter."

"Name your price."  He spoke with some difficulty.

"Pick up my lover," she directed, and the Cimmerian stooped and swung
the tall form easily to his broad shoulder. At the moment he felt as
if he could have toppled over Jungir Khan's palace with equal ease.
The girl murmured an endearment to the unconscious man, and there was
no hypocrisy in her attitude. She obviously loved Alafdhal sincerely.
Whatever business arrangement she made with Conan would have no
bearing on her relationship with Alafdhal. Women are more practical
about these things than men.

"Follow me!" She hurried along the street, while the Cimmerian strode
easily after her, in no way discomforted by his limp burden. He kept a
wary eye out for black shadows skulking under arches but saw nothing
suspicious. Doubtless the men of Darfar were all gathered at the
roasting pit. The girl turned down a narrow side street and presently
knocked cautiously at an arched door.

Almost instantly a wicket opened in the upper panel and a black face
glanced out. She bent close to the opening, whispering swiftly. Bolts
creaked in their sockets, and the door opened. A giant black man stood
framed against the soft glow of a copper lamp. A quick glance showed
Conan the man was not from Darfar. His teeth were unfiled and his
kinky hair was cropped close to his skull. He was from the Wadai.

At a word from Zabibi, Conan gave the limp body into the black's arms
and saw the young officer laid on a velvet divan. He showed no signs
of returning consciousness. The blow that had rendered him senseless
might have felled an ox. Zabibi bent over him for an instant, her
fingers nervously twining and twisting. Then she straightened and
beckoned the Cimmerian.

The door closed softly, the locks clicked behind them, and the closing
wicket shut off the glow of the lamps. In the starlight of the street
Zabibi took Conan's hand. Her own hand trembled a little.

"You will not fail me?"

He shook his maned head, massive against the stars.

"Then follow me to Hanuman's shrine, and the gods have mercy on our
souls."

Among the silent streets they moved like phantoms of antiquity. They
went in silence. Perhaps the girl was thinking of her lover lying
senseless on the divan under the copper lamps or was shrinking with
fear of what lay ahead of them in the demon-haunted shrine of Hanuman.
The barbarian was thinking only of the woman moving so supplely beside
him. The perfume of her scented hair was in his nostrils, the sensuous
aura of her presence filled his brain and left room for no other
thoughts.

Once they heard the clank of brass-shod feet, and drew into the
shadows of a gloomy arch while a squad of Pelishti watchmen swung
past. There were fifteen of them; they marched in close formation,
pikes at the ready, and the rearmost men had their broad, brass
shields slung on their backs, to protect them from a knife stroke from
behind. The skulking menace of the black maneaters was a threat even
to armed men.

As soon as the clang of their sandals had receded up the street, Conan
and the girl emerged from their hiding place and hurried on. A few
moments later, they saw the squat, flat-topped edifice they sought
looming ahead of them.

The temple of Hanuman stood alone in the midst of a broad square,
which lay silent and deserted beneath the stars. A marble wall
surrounded the shrine, with a broad opening directly before the
portico. This opening had no gate nor any sort of barrier.

"Why don't the blacks seek their prey here?" muttered Conan. "There's
nothing to keep them out of the temple."

He could feel the trembling of Zabibi's body as she pressed close to
him.

"They fear Totrasmek, as all in Zamboula fear him, even Jungir Khan
and Nafertari. Come! Come quickly, before my courage flows from me
like water!"

The girl's fear was evident, but she did not falter. Conan drew his
sword and strode ahead of her as they advanced through the open
gateway. He knew the hideous habits of the priests of the East and was
aware that an invader of Hanuman's shrine might expect to encounter
almost any sort of nightmare horror. He knew there was a good chance
that neither he nor the girl would ever leave the shrine alive, but he
had risked his life too many times before to devote much thought to
that consideration.

They entered a court paved with marble which gleamed whitely in the
starlight. A short flight of broad marble steps led up to the pillared
portico. The great bronze doors stood wide open as they had stood for
centuries. But no worshippers burnt incense within. In the day men and
women might come timidly into the shirne and place offerings to the
ape-god on the black altar. At night the people shunned the temple of
Hanuman as hares shun the lair of the serpent.

Burning censers bathed the interior in a soft, weird glow that created
an illusion of unreality. Near the rear wall, behind the black stone
altar, sat the god with his gaze fixed for ever on the open door,
through which for centuries his victims had come, dragged by chains of
roses. A faint groove ran from the sill to the altar, and when Conan's
foot felt it, he stepped away as quickly as if he had trodden upon a
snake. That groove had been worn by the faltering feet of the
multitude of those who had died screaming on that grim altar.

Bestial in the uncertain light, Hanuman leered with his carven mask.
He sat, not as an ape would crouch, but cross-legged as a man would
sit, but his aspect was no less simian for that reason. He was carved
from black marble, but his eyes were rubies, which glowed red and
lustful as the coals of hell's deepest pits. His great hands lay upon
his lap, palms upward, taloned fingers spread and grasping. In the
gross emphasis of his attributes, in the leer of his satyr-
countenance, was reflected the abominable cynicism of the degererate
cult which deified him.

The girl moved around the image, making toward the back wall, and when
her sleek flank brushed against a carven knee, she shrank aside and
shuddered as if a reptile had touched her. There was a space of
several feet between the broad back of the idol and the marble wall
with its frieze of gold leaves. On either hand, flanking the idol, an
ivory door under a gold arch was set in the wall.

"Those doors open into each end of a hairpin-shaped corridor," she
said hurriedly. "Once I was in the interior of the shrine--once!" She
shivered and twitched her slim shoulders at a memory both terrifying
and obscene. "The corridor is bent like a horseshoe, with each horn
opening into this room. Totrasmek's chambers are enclosed within the
curve of the corridor and open into it. But there is a secret door in
this wall which opens directly into an inner chamber--"

She began to run her hands over the smooth surface, where no crack or
crevice showed. Conan stood beside her, sword in hand, glancing warily
about him. The silence, the emptiness of the shrine, with imagination
picturing what might lie behind that wall, made him feel like a wild
beast nosing a trap.

"Ah!" The girl had found a hidden spring at last; a square opening
gaped blackly in the wall. Then: "Set!" she screamed, and even as
Conan leaped toward her, he saw that a great misshapen hand has
fastened itself in her hair. She was snatched off her feet and jerked
headfirst through the opening. Conan, grabbing ineffectually at her,
felt his fingers slip from a naked limb, and in an instant she had
vanished and the wall showed black as before. Only from beyond it came
the muffled sounds of a struggle, a scream, faintly heard, and a low
laugh that made Conan's blood congeal in his veins.



Black Hands Gripping

With an oath the Cimmerian smote the wall a terrible blow with the
pommel of his sword, and the marble cracked and chipped. But the
hidden door did not give way, and reason told him that doubtless it
had been bolted on the other side of the wall. Turning, he sprang
across the chamber to one of the ivory doors.

He lifted his sword to shatter the panels, but on a venture tried the
door first with is left hand. It swung open easily, and he glared into
a long corridor that curved away into dimness under the weird light of
censers similar to those in the shrine. A heavy gold bolt showed on
the jamb of the door, and he touched it lightly with his fingertips.
The faint warmness of the metal could have been detected only by a man
whose faculties were akin to those of a wolf. That bolt had been
touched--and therefore drawn--within the last few seconds. The affair
was taking on more and more of the aspect of a baited trap. He might
have known Totrasmek would know when anyone entered the temple.

To enter the corridor would undoubtedly be to walk into whatever trap
the priest had set for him. But Conan did not hesitate. Somewhere in
that dim-lit interior Zabibi was a captive, and, from what he knew of
the characteristics of Hanuman's priests, he was sure that she needed
help badly. Conan stalked into the corridor with a pantherish tread,
poised to strike right or left.

On his left, ivory, arched doors opened into the corridor, and he
tried each in turn. All were locked. He had gone perhaps seventy-five
feet when the corridor bent sharply to the left, describing the curve
the girl had mentioned. A door opened into this curve, and it gave
under his hand.

He was looking into a broad, square chamber, somewhat more clearly
lighted than the corridor. Its walls were of white marble, the floor
of ivory, the ceiling of fretted silver. He saw divans of rich satin,
gold-worked footstools of ivory, a disk-shaped table of some massive,
metal-like substance. On one of the divans a man was reclining,
looking toward the door. He laughed as he met the Cimmerian's startled
glare.

This man was naked except for a loin cloth and high-strapped sandals.
He was brown-skinned, with close-cropped black hair and restless black
eyes that set off a broad, arrogant face. In girth and breadth he was
enormous, with huge limbs on which the great muscles swelled and
rippled at each slightest movement. His hands were the largest Conan
had ever seen. The assurance of gigantic physical strength colored his
every action and inflection.

"Why not enter, barbarian?" he called mockingly, with an exaggerated
gesture of invitation.

Conan's eyes began to smolder ominously, but he trod warily into the
chamber, his sword ready.

"Who the devil are you?" he growled.

"I am Baal-pteor," the man answered. "Once, long ago and in another
land, I had another name. But this is a good name, and why Totrasmek
gave it to me, any temple wench can tell you."

"So you're his dog!" grunted Conan. "Well, curse your brown hide,
Baal-pteor, where's the wench you jerked through the wall?"

"My master entertains her!" laughed Baal-pteor. "Listen!"

From beyond a door opposite the one by which Conan had entered there
sounded a woman's scream, faint and muffled in the distance.

"Blast your soul!" Conan took a stride toward the door, then wheeled
with his skin tingling, Baal-pteor was laughing at him, and that laugh
was edged with menace that made the hackles rise on Conan's neck and
sent a red wave of murder-lust driving across his vision.

He started toward Baal-pteor, the knuckles on his swordhand showing
white. With a swift motion the brown man threw something at him--a
shining crystal sphere that glistened in the weird light.

Conan dodged instinctively, but, miraculously, the globe stopped short
in midair, a few feet from his face. It did not fall to the floor. It
hung suspended, as if by invisible filaments, some five feet above the
floor. And as he glared in amazement, it began to rotate with growing
speed. And as it revolved it grew, expanded, became nebulous. It
filled the chamber. It enveloped him. It blotted out furniture, walls,
the smiling countenance of Baal-pteor. He was lost in the midst of a
blinding bluish blur of whirling speed. Terrific winds screamed past
Conan, tugging at him, striving to wrench him from his feet, to drag
him into the vortex that spun madly before him.

With a choking cry Conan lurched backward, reeled, felt the solid wall
against his back. At the contact the illusion ceased to be. The
whirling, titanic sphere vanished like a bursting bubble. Conan reeled
upright in the silver-ceilinged room, with a gray mist coiling about
his feet, and saw Baal-pteor lolling on the divan, shaking with silent
laughter.

"Son of a slut!" Conan lunged at him. But the mist swirled up from the
floor, blotting out that giant brown form. Groping in a rolling cloud
that blinded him, Conan felt a rending sensation of dislocation--and
then room and mist and brown man were gone together. He was standing
alone among the high reeds of a marshy fen, and a buffalo was lunging
at him, head down. He leaped aside from the ripping scimitar-curved
horns and drove his sword in behind the foreleg, through ribs and
heart. And then it was not a buffalo dying there in the mud, but the
brown-skinned Baal-pteor. With a curse Conan struck off his head; and
the head soared from the ground and snapped beastlike tusks into his
throat. For all his mighty strength he could not tear it loose--he was
choking--strangling; then there was a rush and roar through space, the
dislocating shock of an immeasurable impact, and he was back in the
chamber with Baal-pteor, whose head was once more set firmly on his
shoulders, and who laughed silently at him from the divan.

"Mesmerism!" muttered Conan, crouching and digging his toes hard
against the marble.

His eyes blazed. This brown dog was playing with him, making sport of
him! But this mummery, this child's play of mists and shadows of
thought, it could not harm him. He had but to leap and strike and the
brown acolyte would be a mangled corpse under his heel. This time he
would not be fooled by shadows of illusion--but he was.

A blood-curdling snarl sounded behind him, and he wheeled and struck
in a flash at the panther crouching to spring on him from the metal-
colored table. Even as he struck, the apparition vanished and his
blade clashed deafeningly on the adamantine surface. Instantly he
sensed something abnormal. The blade stuck to the table! He wrenched
at it savagely. It did not give. This was no mesmeristic trick. The
table was a giant magnet. He gripped the hilt with both hands, when a
voice at his shoulder brought him about, to face the brown man, who
had at last risen from the divan.

Slightly taller than Conan and much heavier, Baal-pteor loomed before
him, a daunting image of muscular development. His mighty arms were
unnaturally long, and his great hands opened and closed, twitching
convulsively. Conan released the hilt of his imprisoned sword and fell
silent, watching his enemy thorugh slitted lids.

"Your head, Cimmerian!" taunted Baal-pteor. "I shall take it with my
bare hands, twisting it from your shoulders as the head of a fowl is
twisted! Thus the sons of Kosala offer sacrifice to Yajur. Barbarian,
you look upon a strangler of Yota-pong. I was chosen by the priests of
Yajur in my infancy, and throughout childhood, boyhood, and youth I
was trained in the art of slaying with the naked hands--for only thus
are the sacrifices enacted. Yajur loves blood, and we waste not a drop
from the victim's veins. When I was a child they gave me infants to
throttle; when I was a boy I strangled young girls; as a youth, women,
old men, and young boys. Not until I reached my full manhood was I
given a strong man to slay on the altar of Yota-pong.

"For years I offered the sacrifices to Yajur. Hundreds of necks have
snapped between these fingers--" he worked them before the Cimmerian's
angry eyes. "Why I fled from Yota-pong to become Totrasmek's servant
is no concern of yours. In a moment you will be beyond curiosity. The
priests of Kosala, the stranglers of Yajur, are strong beyond the
belief of men. And I was stronger than any. With my hands, barbarian,
I shall break your neck!"

And like the stroke of twin cobras, the great hands closed on Conan's
throat. The Cimmerian made no attempt to dodge or fend them away, but
his own hands darted to the Kosalan's bull-neck. Baal-pteor's black
eyes widened as he felt the thick cords of muscles that protected the
barbarian's throat. With a snarl he exerted his inhuman strength, and
knots and lumps and ropes of thews rose along his massive arms. And
then a choking gasp burst from him as Conan's fingers locked on his
throat. For an instant they stood there like statues, their faces
masks of effort, veins beginning to stand out purply on their temples.
Conan's thin lips drew back from his teeth in a grinning snarl. Baal-
pteor's eyes were distended and in them grew an awful surprise and the
glimmer of fear. Both men stood motionless as images, except for the
expanding of their muscles on rigid arms and braced legs, but strength
beyond common conception was warring there--strength that might have
uprooted trees and crushed the skulls of bullocks.

The wind whistled suddenly from between Baal-pteor's parted teeth. His
face was growing purple. Fear flooded his eyes. His thews seemed ready
to burst from his arms and shoulders, yet the muscles of the
Cimmerian's thick neck did not give; they felt like masses of woven
iron cords under his desperate fingers. But his own flesh was giving
way under the iron fingers of the Cimmerian which ground deeper and
deeper into the yielding throat muscles, crushing them in upon jugular
and windpipe.

The statuesque immobility of the group gave way to sudden, frenzied
motion, as the Kosalan began to wrench and heave, seeking to throw
himself backward. He let go of Conan's throat and grasped his wrists,
trying to tear away those inexorable fingers.

With a sudden lunge Conan bore him backward until the small of his
back crashed against the table. And still farther over its edge Conan
bent him, back and back, until his spine was ready to snap.

Conan's low laugh was merciless as the ring of steel.

"You fool!" he all but whispered. "I think you never saw a man from
the West before. Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able
to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles
like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull
before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown
man--like this!"

And with a savage wrench he twisted Baal-pteor's head around until the
ghastly face leered over the left shoulder, and the vertebrae snapped
like a rotten branch.

Conan hurled the flopping corpse to the floor, turned to the sword
again, and gripped the hilt with both hands, bracing his feet against
the floor. Blood trickled down his broad breast from the wounds Baal-
pteor's finger nails had torn in the skin of his neck. His black hair
was damp, sweat ran down his face, and his chest heaved. For all his
vocal scorn of Baal-pteor's strength, he had almost met his match in
the inhuman Kosalan. But without pausing to catch his breath, he
exerted all his strength in a mighty wrench that tore the sword from
the magnet where it clung.

Another instant and he had pushed open the door from behind which the
scream had sounded, and was looking down a long straight corridor,
lined with ivory doors. The other end was masked by a rich velvet
curtain, and from beyond that curtain came the devilish strains of
such music as Conan had never heard, not even in nightmares. It made
the short hairs bristle on the back of his neck. Mingled with it was
the panting, hysterical sobbing of a woman. Grasping his sword firmly,
he glided down the corridor.



Dance, Girl, Dance!

When Zabibi was jerked head-first through the aperture which opened in
the wall behind the idol, her first, dizzy, disconnected thought was
that her time had come. She instinctively shut her eyes and waited for
the blow to fall. But instead she felt herself dumped unceremoniously
onto the smooth marble floor, which bruised her knees and hip. Opening
her eyes, she stared fearfully around her, just as a muffled impact
sounded from beyond the wall. She saw a brown-skinned giant in a loin
cloth standing over her, and, across the chamber into which she had
come, a man sat on a divan, with his back to a rich black velvet
curtain, a broad, fleshy man, with fat white hands and sanky eyes. And
her flesh crawled, for this man was Totrasmek, the priest of Hanuman,
who for years had spun his slimy webs of power throughout the city of
Zamboula.

"The barbarian seeks to batter his way through the wall," said
Totrasmek sardonically, "but the bolt will hold."

The girl saw that a heavy golden bolt had been shot across the hidden
door, which was plainly discernible from this side of the wall. The
bolt and its sockets would have resisted the charge of an elephant.

"Go open one of the doors for him, Baal-pteor," ordered Totrasmek.
"Slay him in the square chamber at the other end of the corridor."

The Kosalan salaamed and departed by the way of a door in the side
wall of the chamber. Zabibi rose, staring fearfully at the priest,
whose eyes ran avidly over her splendid figure. To this she was
indifferent. A dancer of Zamboula was accustomed to nakedness. But the
cruelty in his eyes started her limbs to quivering.

"Again you come to me in my retreat, beautiful one," he purred with
cynical hypocrisy. "It is an unexpected honor. You seemed to enjoy
your former visit so little, that I dared not hope for you to repeat
it. Yet I did all in my power to provide you with an interesting
experience."

For a Zamboulan dancer to blush would be an impossibility, but a
smolder of anger mingled with the fear in Zabibi's dilated eyes.

"Fat pig! You know I did not come here for love of you."

"No," laughed Totrasmek, "you came like a fool, creeping through the
night with a stupid barbarian to cut my throat. Why should you seek my
life?"

"You know why!" she cried, knowing the futility of trying to
dissemble.

"You are thinking of your lover," he laughed. "The fact that you are
here seeking my life shows that he quaffed the drug I gave you. Well,
did you not ask for it? And did I not send what you asked for, out of
the love I bear you?"

"I asked you for a drug that would make him slumber harmlessly for a
few hours," she said bitterly. "And you--you sent your servant with a
drug that drove him mad! I was a fool ever to trust you. I might have
known your protestations of friendship were lies, to disguise your
hate and spite."

"Why did you wish your lover to sleep?" he retorted. "So you could
steal from him the only thing he would never give you--the ring with
the jewel men call the Star of Khorala--the star stolen from the queen
of Ophir, who would pay a roomful of gold for its return. He would not
give it to you willingly, because he knew that it holds a magic which,
when properly controlled, will enslave the hearts of any of the
opposite sex. You wished to steal it from him, fearing that his
magicians would discover the key to that magic and he would forget you
in his conquests of the queens of the world. You would sell it back to
the queen of Ophir, who understands its power and would use it to
enslave me, as she did before it was stolen."

"And why do you want it?" she demanded sulkily.

"I understand its powers. It would increase the power of my arts."

"Well," she snapped, "you have it now!"

"I have the Star of Khorala? Nay, you err."

"Why bother to lie?" she retorted bitterly. "He had it on his finger
when he drove me into the streets. He did not have it when I found him
again. Your servant must have been watching the house, and have taken
it from him, after I escaped him. To the devil with it! I want my
lover back sane and whole. You have the ring; you have punished us
both. Why do you not restore his mind to him? Can you?"

"I could," he assured her, in evident enjoyment of her distress. He
drew a phial from among his robes. "This contains the juice of the
golden lotus. If your lover drank it, he would be sane again. Yes, I
will be merciful. You have both thwarted and flouted me, not once but
many times; he has constantly opposed my wishes. But I will be
merciful. Come and take the phial from my hand."

She stared at Totrasmek, trembling with eagerness to seize it, but
fearing it was but some cruel jest. She advanced timidly, with a hand
extended, and he laughed heartlessly and drew back out of her reach.
Even as her lips parted to curse him, some instinct snatched her eyes
upward. From the gilded ceiling four jade-hued vessels were falling.
She dodged, but they did not strike her. They crashed to the floor
about her, forming the four corners of a square. And she screamed, and
screamed again. For out of each ruin reared the hooded head of a
cobra, and one struck at her bare leg. Her convulsive movement to
evade it brought her within reach of the one on the other side and
again she had to shift like lightning to avoid the flash of its
hideous head.

She was caught in a frightful trap. All four serpents were swaying and
striking at foot, ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip, whatever portion of
her voluptuous body chanced to be nearest to them, and she could not
spring over them or pass between them to safety. She could only whirl
and spring aside and twist her body to avoid the strokes, and each
time she moved to dodge one snake, the motion brought her within range
of another, so that she had to keep shifting with the speed of light.
She could move only a short space in any direction, and the fearful
hooded crests were menacing her every second. Only a dancer of
Zamboula could have lived in that grisly square.

She became, herself, a blur of bewildering motion. The heads missed
her by hair's breadths, but they missed, as she pitted her twinkling
feet, flickering limbs, and perfect eye against the blinding speed of
the scaly demons her enemy had conjured out of thin air.

Somewhere a thin, whining music struck up, mingling with the hissing
of the serpents, like an evil night wind blowing through the empty
sockets of a skull. Even in the flying speed of her urgent haste she
realized that the darting of the serpents was no longer at random.
They obeyed the grisly piping of the eery music. They struck with a
horrible rhythm, and perforce her swaying, writhing, spinning body
atturned itself to their rhythm. Her frantic motions melted into the
measures of a dance compared to which the most obscene tarantella of
Zamora would have seemed sane and restrained. Sick with shame and
terror Zabibi heard the hateful mirth of her merciless tormenter.

"The Dance of the Cobras, my lovely one!" laughed Totrasmek. "So
maidens danced in the sacrifice to Hanuman centuries ago--but never
with such beauty and suppleness. Dance, girl, dance! How long can you
avoid the fangs of the Poison People? Minutes? Hours? You will weary
at last. Your swift, sure feet will stumble, your legs falter, your
hips slow in their rotations. Then the fangs will begin to sink deep
into your ivory flesh--"

Behind him the curtain shook as if struck by a gust of wind, and
Totrasmek screamed. His eyes dilated and his hands caught convulsively
at the length of bright steel which jutted suddenly from his breast.

The music broke off short. The girl swayed dizzily in her dance,
crying out in dreadful anticipation of the flickering fangs--and then
only four wisps of harmless blue smoke curled up from the floor about
her, as Totrasmek sprawled headlong from the divan.

Conan came from behind the curtain, wiping his broad blade. Looking
through the hangings he had seen the girl dancing desperately between
four swaying spirals of smoke, but he had guessed that their
appearance was very different to her. He knew he had killed Totrasmek.

Zabibi sank down on the floor, panting, but even as Conan started
toward her, she staggered up again, though her legs trembled with
exhaustion.

"The phial!" she gasped. "The phial!"

Totrasmek still grasped it in his stiffening hand. Ruthlessly she tore
it from ihs locked fingers and then began frantically to ransack his
garments.

"What the devil are you looking for?" Conan demanded.

"A ring--he stole it from Alafdhal. He must have, while my lover
walked in madness through the streets. Set's devils!"

She had convinced herself that it was not on the person of Totrasmek.
She began to cast about the chamber, tearing up divan covers and
hangings and upsetting vessels.

She paused and raked a damp lock of hair out of her eyes.

"I forgot Baal-pteor!"

"He's in Hell with his neck broken," Conan assured her.

She expressed vindictive gratification at the news, but an instant
later swore expressively.

"We can't stay here. It's not many hours until dawn. Lesser priests
are likely to visit the temple at any hour of the night, and if we're
discovered here with his corpse, the people will tear us to pieces.
The Turanians could not save us."

She lifted the bolt on the secret door, and a few moments later they
were in the streets and hurrying away from the silent square where
brooded the age-old shrine of Hanuman.

In a winding street a short distance away, Conan halted and checked
his companion with a heavy hand on her naked shoulder.

"Don't forget there was a price--"

"I have not forgotten!" She twisted free. "But we must go to--to
Alafdhal first!"

A few minutes later the black slave let them through the wicket door.
The young Turanian lay upon the divan, his arms and legs bound with
heavy velvet ropes. His eyes were open, but they were like those of a
mad dog, and foam was thick on his lips. Zabibi shuddered.

"Force his jaws open!" she commanded, and Conan's iron fingers
accomplished the task.

Zabibi emptied the phial down the maniac's gullet. The effect was like
magic. Instantly he became quiet. The glare faded from his eyes; he
stared up at the girl in a puzzled way, but with recognition and
intelligence. Then he fell into a normal slumber.

"When he awakes he will be quite sane," she whispered, motioning to
the silent slave.

With a deep bow he gave into her hands a small leater bag and drew
about her shoulders a silken cloak. Her manner had subtly changed when
she beckoned Conan to follow her out of the chamber.

In an arch that opened on the street, she turned to him, drawing
herself up with a new regality.

"I must now tell you the truth," she said. "I am not Zabibi. I am
Nafertari. And he is not Alafdhal, a poor captain of the guardsmen. He
is Jungir Khan, satrap of Zamboula."

Conan made no comment; his scarred dark countenance was immobile.

"I lied to you because I dared not divulge the truth to anyone," she
said. "We were alone when Jungir Khan went mad. None knew of it but
myself. Had it been known that the satrap of Zamboula was a madman,
there would have been instant revolt and rioting, even as Totrasmek
planned, who plotted our distruction.

"You see now how impossible is the reward for which you hoped. The
satrap's mistress is not--cannot be for you. But you shall not go
unrewarded. Here is a sack of gold."

She gave him the bag she had received from the slave.

"Go now, and when the sun is up come to the palace. I will have Jungir
Khan make you captain of his guard. But you will take your orders from
me, secretly. Your first duty will be to march a squad to the shrine
of Hanuman, ostensibly to search for clues of the priest's slayer; in
reality to search for the Star of Khorala. It must be hidden there
somewhere. When you find it, bring it to me. You have my leave to go
now."

He nodded, still silent, and strode away. The girl, watching the swing
of his broad shoulders, was piqued to note that there was nothing in
his bearing to show that he was in any way chagrined or abashed.

When he had rounded a corner, he glanced back, and then changed his
direction and quickened his pace. A few moments later he was in the
quarter of the city containing the Horse Market. There he smote on a
door until from the window above a bearded head was thrust to demand
the reason for the disturbance.

"A horse," demanded Conan. "The swiftest steed you have."

"I open no gates at this time of night," grumbled the horse trader.

Conan rattled his coins.

"Dog's son knave! Don't you see I'm white, and alone? Come down,
before I smash your door!"

Presently, on a bay stallion, Conan was riding toward the house of
Aram Baksh.

He turned off the road into the alley that lay between the tavern
compound and the date-palm garden, but he did not pause at the gate.
He rode on to the northeast corner of the wall, then turned and rode
along the north wall, to halt within a few paces of the northwest
angle. No trees grew near the wall, but there were some low bushes. To
one of these he tied his horse and was about to climb into the saddle
again, when he heard a low muttering of voices beyond the corner of
the wall.

Drawing his foot from the stirrup he stole to the angle and peered
around it. Three men were moving down the road toward the palm groves,
and from their slouching gait he knew they were Negroes. They halted
at his low call, bunching themselves as he strode toward them, his
sword in his hand. Their eyes gleamed whitely in the starlight. Their
brutish lust shone in their ebony faces, but they knew their three
cudgels could not prevail against his sword, just as he knew it.

"Where are you going?" he challenged.

"To bid our brothers put out the fire in the pit beyond the groves,"
was the sullen gutteral reply. "Aram Baksh promised us a man, but he
lied. We found one of our brothers dead in the trap-chamber. We go
hungry this night."

"I think not," smiled Conan. "Aram Baksh will give you a man. Do you
see that door?"

He pointed to a small, iron-bound portal set in the midst of the
western wall.

"Wait there. Aram Baksh will give you a man."

Backing warily away until he was out of reach of a sudden bludgeon
blow, he turned and melted around the northwest angle of the wall.
Reaching his horse he paused to ascertain that the blacks were not
sneaking after him, and then he climbed into the saddle and stood
upright on it, quieting the uneasy steed with a low word. He reached
up, grasped the coping of the wall and drew himself up and over. There
he studied the grounds for an instant. The tavern was built in the
southwest corner of the enclosure, the remaining space of which was
occupied by groves and gardens. He saw no one in the grounds. The
tavern was dark and silent, and he knew all the doors and windows were
barred and bolted.

Conan knew that Aram Baksh slept in a chamber that opened into a
cypress-bordered path that led to the door in the western wall. Like a
shadow he glided among the trees, and a few moments later he rapped
lightly on the chamber door.

"What is it?" asked a rumbling, sleepy voice from within.

"Aram Baksh!" hissed Conan. "The blacks are stealing over the wall!"

Almost instantly the door opened, framing the tavern-keeper, naked but
for his shirt, with a dagger in his hand.

He craned his neck to stare into the Cimmerian's face.

"What tale is this--you!"

Conan's vengeful fingers strangled the yell in his throat. They went
to the floor together and Conan wrenched the dagger from his enemy's
hand. The blade glinted in the starlight, and blood spurted. Aram
Baksh made hideous noises, gasping and gagging on a mouthful of blood.
Conan dragged him to his feet and again the dagger slashed, and most
of the curly beard fell to the floor.

Still gripping his captive's throat--for a man can scream incoherently
even with his throat slit--Conan dragged him out of the dark chamber
and down the cypress-shadowed path, to the iron-bound door in the
outer wall. With one hand he lifted the bolt and threw the door open,
disclosing the three shadowy figures which waited like black vultures
outside. Into their eager arms Conan thrust the innkeeper.

A horrible, blood-choked scream rose from the Zamboulan's throat, but
there was no response from the silent tavern. The people there were
used to screams outside the wall. Aram Baksh fought like a wild man,
his distended eyes turned frantically on the Cimmerian's face. He
found no mercy there. Conan was thinking of the scores of wretches who
owed their bloody doom to this man's greed.

In glee the Negroes dragged him down the road, mocking his frenzied
gibberings. How could they recognize Aram Baksh in this half-naked,
bloodstained figure, with the grotesquely shorn beard and
unintelligible babblings? The sounds of the struggle came back to
Conan, standing beside the gate, even after the clump of figures had
vanished among the palms.

Closing the door behind him, Conan returned to his horse, mounted, and
turned westward, toward the open desert, swinging wide to skirt the
sinister belt of palm groves. As he rode, he drew from his belt a ring
in which gleamed a jewel that snared the starlight in a shimmering
iridescence. He held it up to admire it, turning it this way and that.
The compact bag of gold pieces clinked gently at his saddle bow, like
a promise of the greater riches to come.

"I wonder what she'd say if she knew I recognized her as Nafetari and
him as Jungir Khan the instant I saw them," he mused. "I knew the Star
of Khorala, too. There'll be a fine scene if she ever guesses that I
slipped it off his finger while I was tying him with his sword belt.
But they'll never catch me, with the start I'm getting."

He glanced back at the shadowy palm groves, among which a red glare
was mounting. A chanting rose to the night, vibrating with savage
exultation. And another sound mingled with it, a mad incoherent
screaming, a frenzied gibbering in which no words could be
distinguished. The noise followed Conan as he rode westward beneath
the paling stars.



THE END



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