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Title: The Phoenix on the Sword
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Title: The Phoenix on the Sword
Author: Robert E. Howard




Contents

I
II
III
IV
V



I

_"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank
Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the
Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms
lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars--
Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired
women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry,
Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its
shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and
gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning
supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-
haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with
gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones
of the Earth under his sandalled feet."_
--The Nemedian Chronicles.


Over shadowy spire's and gleaming towers lay the ghostly darkness and
silence that runs before dawn. Into a dim alley, one of a veritable
labyrinth of mysterious winding ways, four masked figures came
hurriedly from a door which a dusky hand furtively opened. They spoke
not but went swiftly into the gloom, cloaks wrapped closely about
them; as silently as the ghosts of murdered men they disappeared in
the darkness. Behind them a sardonic countenance was framed in the
partly opened door; a pair of evil eyes glittered malevolently in the
gloom.

"Go into the night, creatures of the night," a voice mocked. "Oh,
fools, your doom hounds your heels like a blind dog, and you know it
not."  The speaker closed the door and bolted it, then turned and went
up the corridor, candle in hand. He was a somber giant, whose dusky
skin revealed his Stygian blood. He came into an inner chamber, where
a tall, lean man in worn velvet lounged like a great lazy cat on a
silken couch, sipping wine from a huge golden goblet.

"Well, Ascalante," said the Stygian, setting down the candle, "your
dupes have slunk into the streets like rats from their burrows. You
work with strange tools."

"Tools?" replied Ascalante. "Why, they consider _me_ that. For months
now, ever since the Rebel Four summoned me from the southern desert, I
have been living in the very heart of my enemies, hiding by day in
this obscure house, skulking through dark alleys and darker corridors
at night. And I have accomplished what those rebellious nobles could
not. Working through them, and through other agents, many of whom have
never seen my face, I have honeycombed the empire with sedition and
unrest. In short I, working in the shadows, have paved the downfall of
the king who sits throned in the sun. By Mitra, I was a statesman
before I was an outlaw."

"And these dupes who deem themselves your masters?"

"They will continue to think that I serve them, until our present task
is completed. Who are they to match wits with Ascalante? Volmana, the
dwarfish count of Karaban; Gromel, the giant commander of the Black
Legion; Dion, the fat baron of Attalus; Rinaldo, the hare-brained
minstrel. I am the force which has welded together the steel in each,
and by the clay in each, I will crush them when the time comes. But
that lies in the future; tonight the king dies."

"Days ago I saw the imperial squadrons ride from the city," said the
Stygian. "They rode to the frontier which the heathen Picts assail--
thanks to the strong liquor which I've smuggled over the borders to
madden them. Dion's great wealth made that possible. And Volmana made
it possible to dispose of the rest of the imperial troops which
remained in the city. Through his princely kin in Nemedia, it was easy
to persuade King Numa to request the presence of Count Trocero of
Poitain, seneschal of Aquilonia; and of course, to do him honor, he'll
be accompanied by an imperial escort, as well as his own troops, and
Prospero, King Conan's right­hand man. That leaves only the king's
personal bodyguard in the city--besides the Black Legion. Through Gromel
I've corrupted a spendthrift officer of that guard, and bribed him to
lead his men away from the king's door at midnight.

"Then, with sixteen desperate rogues of mine, we enter the palace by a
secret tunnel. After the deed is done, even if the people do not rise
to welcome us, Gromel's Black Legion will be sufficient to hold the
city and the crown."

"And Dion thinks that crown will be given to him?"

"Yes. The fat fool claims it by reason of a trace of royal blood.
Conan makes a bad mistake in letting men live who still boast descent
from the old dynasty, from which he tore the crown of Aquilonia.

"Volmana wishes to be reinstated in royal favor as he was under the
old regime, so that he may lift his poverty-ridden estates to their
former grandeur. Gromel hates Pallantides, commander of the Black
Dragons, and desires the command of the whole army, with all the
stubbornness of the Bossonian. Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no
personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed
barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land. He
idealizes the king whom Conan killed to get the crown, remembering
only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the
evils of his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they
openly sing _The Lament for the King_ in which Rinaldo lauds the
sainted villain and denounces Conan as 'that black-hearted savage from
the abyss.' Conan laughs, but the people snarl."

"Why does he hate Conan?"

"Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just
behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in
dreams of the past and future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism,
rising, as he thinks, to overthrow a tyrant and liberate the people.
As for me--well, a few months ago I had lost all ambition but to raid
the caravans for the rest of my life; now old dreams stir. Conan will
die; Dion will mount the throne. Then he, too, will die. One by one,
all who oppose me will die--by fire, or steel, or those deadly wines
you know so well how to brew. Ascalante, king of Aquilonia! How like
you the sound of it?"

The Stygian shrugged his broad shoulders.

"There was a time," he said with unconcealed bitterness, "when I, too,
had my ambitions, beside which yours seem tawdry and childish. To what
a state I have fallen! My old-time peers and rivals would stare indeed
could they see Thoth-amon of the Ring serving as the slave of an
outlander, and an outlaw at that; and aiding in the petty ambitions of
barons and kings!"

"You laid your trust in magic and mummery," answered Ascalante
carelessly. "I trust my wits and my sword."

"Wits and swords are as straws against the wisdom of the Darkness,"
growled the Stygian, his dark eyes flickering with menacing lights and
shadows. "Had I not lost the Ring, our positions might be reversed."

"Nevertheless," answered the outlaw impatiently, "you wear the stripes
of my whip on your back, and are likely to continue to wear them."

"Be not so sure!" the fiendish hatred of the Stygian glittered for an
instant redly in his eyes. "Some day, somehow, I will find the Ring
again, and when I do, by the serpent fangs of Set, you shall pay--"

The hot-tempered Aquilonian started up and struck him heavily across
the mouth. Thoth reeled back, blood starting from his lips.

"You grow overbold, dog," growled the outlaw. "Have a care; I am
still your master who knows your dark secret. Go upon the housetops
and shout that Ascalante is in the city plotting against the king--if
you dare."

"I dare not," muttered the Stygian, wiping the blood from his lips.

"No, you do not dare," Ascalante grinned bleakly. "For if I die by
your stealth or treachery, a hermit priest in the southern desert will
know of it, and will break the seal of a manuscript I left in his
hands. And having read, a word will be whispered in Stygia, and a wind
will creep up from the south by midnight. And where will you hide your
head, Thoth-amon?"

The slave shuddered and his dusky face went ashen.

"Enough!" Ascalante changed his tone peremptorily. "I have work for
you. I do not trust Dion. I bade him ride to his country estate and
remain there until the work tonight is done. The fat fool could never
conceal his nervousness before the king today. Ride after him, and if
you do not overtake him on the road, proceed to his estate and remain
with him until we send for him. Don't let him out of your sight. He is
mazed with fear, and might bolt--might even rush to Conan in a panic,
and reveal the whole plot, hoping thus to save his own hide. Go!"

The slave bowed, hiding the hate in his eyes, and did as he was
bidden. Ascalante turned again to his wine. Over the jeweled spires
was rising a dawn crimson as blood.



II


_When I was a fighting man, the kettle drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horses feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back._


The room was large and ornate, with rich tapestries on the polished-
panelled walls, deep rugs on the ivory floor, and with the lofty
ceiling adorned with intricate carvings and silver scrollwork. Behind
an ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders
and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant
surroundings. He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high
places of the outlands. His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring
muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born
fighting man. There was nothing deliberate or measured about his
actions. Either he was perfectly at rest--still as a bronze statue--or
else he was in motion, not with the jerky quickness of overtense
nerves, but with a catlike speed that blurred the sight which tried
to follow him.

His garments were of rich fabric, but simply made. He wore no ring or
ornaments, and his square-cut black mane was confined merely by a
cloth-of-silver band about his head.

Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously
scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his
smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him. This
person was occupied in his own affairs at the moment, for he was
taking up the laces of his gold-chased armor, and abstractedly
whistling--a rather unconventional performance, considering that he
was in the presence of a king.

"Prospero," said the man at the table, "these matters of statecraft
weary me as all the fighting I have done never did."

"All part of the game, Conan," answered the dark-eyed Poitainian. "You
are king--you must play the part."

"I wish I might ride with you to Nemedia," said Conan enviously. "It
seems ages since I had a horse between my knees--but Publius says that
affairs in the city require my presence. Curse him!

"When I overthrew the old dynasty," he continued, speaking with the
easy familiarity which existed only between the Poitainian and
himself, "it was easy enough, though it seemed bitter hard at the
time. Looking back now over the wild path I followed, all those days
of toil, intrigue, slaughter and tribulation seem like a dream.

"I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at
my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own,
I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself
to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted
was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are
straight and my sword is useless.

"When I overthrew Numedides, then I was the Liberator--now they spit
at my shadow. They have put a statue of that swine in the temple of
Mitra, and people go and wail before it, hailing it as the holy effigy
of a saintly monarch who was done to death by a red-handed barbarian.
When I led her armies to victory as a mercenary, Aquilonia overlooked
the fact that I was a foreigner, but now she can not forgive me.

"Now in Mitra's temple there come to burn incense to Numedides'
memory, men whom his hangmen maimed and blinded, men whose sons died
in his dungeons, whose wives and daughters were dragged into his
seraglio. The fickle fools!"

"Rinaldo is largely responsible," answered Prospero, drawing up his
sword belt another notch. "He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him
in his jester's garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make
rimes for the vultures."

Conan shook his lion head. "No, Prospero, he's beyond my reach. A
great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my
scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose
to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo's songs will
live for ever.

"No, Prospero," the king continued, a somber look of doubt shadowing
his eyes, "there is something hidden, some undercurrent of which we
are not aware. I sense it as in my youth I sensed the tiger hidden in
the tall grass. There is a nameless unrest throughout the kingdom. I
am like a hunter who crouches by his small fire amid the forest, and
hears stealthy feet padding in the darkness, and almost sees the
glimmer of burning eyes. If I could but come to grips with something
tangible, that I could cleave with my sword! I tell you, it's not by
chance that the Picts have of late so fiercely assailed the frontiers,
so that the Bossonians have called for aid to beat them back. I should
have ridden with the troops."

"Publius feared a plot to trap and slay you beyond the frontier,"
replied Prospero, smoothing his silken surcoat over his shining mail,
and admiring his tall lithe figure in a silver mirror. "That's why he
urged you to remain in the city. These doubts are born of your
barbarian instincts. Let the people snarl! The mercenaries are ours,
and the Black Dragons, and every rogue in Poitain swears by you. Your
only danger is assassination, and that's impossible, with men of the
imperial troops guarding you day and night. What are you working at
there?"

"A map," Conan answered with pride. "The maps of the court show well
the countries of south, east and west, but in the north they are vague
and faulty. I am adding the northern lands myself. Here is Cimmeria,
where I was born. And --"

"Asgard and Vanaheim," Prospero scanned the map. "By Mitra, I had
almost believed those countries to have been fabulous."

Conan grinned savagely, involuntarily touching the scars on his dark
face. "You had known otherwise, had you spent your youth on the
northern frontiers of Cimmeria! Asgard lies to the north, and Vanaheim
to the northwest of Cimmeria, and there is continual war along the
borders."

"What manner of men are these northern folk?" asked Prospero.

"Tall and fair and blue-eyed. Their god is Ymir, the frost-giant, and
each tribe has its own king. They are wayward and fierce. They fight
all day and drink ale and roar their wild songs all night."

"Then I think you are like them," laughed Prospero. "You laugh
greatly, drink deep and bellow good songs; though I never saw another
Cimmerian who drank aught but water, or who ever laughed, or ever sang
save to chant dismal dirges."

"Perhaps it's the land they live in," answered the king. "A gloomier
land never was--all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always
gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys."

"Little wonder men grow moody there," quoth Prospero with a shrug of
his shoulders, thinking of the smiling sun-washed plains and blue lazy
rivers of Poitain, Aquilonia's southernmost province.

"They have no hope here or hereafter," answered Conan. "Their gods are
Crom and his dark race, who rule over a sunless place of everlasting
mist, which is the world of the dead. Mitra! The ways of the AEsir
were more to my liking."

"Well," grinned Prospero, "the dark hills of Cimmeria are far behind
you. And now I go. I'll quaff a goblet of white Nemedian wine for you
at Numa's court."

"Good," grunted the king, "but kiss Numa's dancing girls for yourself
only, lest you involve the states!"

His gusty laughter followed Prospero out of the chamber.



III


_Under the caverned pyramids great Set coils asleep;
Among the shadows of the tombs his dusky people creep.
I speak the Word from the hidden gulfs that never knew the sun
Send me a servant for my hate, oh scaled and shining One!_


The sun was setting, etching the green and hazy blue of the forest in
brief gold. The waning beams glinted on the thick golden chain which
Dion of Attalus twisted continually in his pudgy hand as he sat in the
flaming riot of blossoms and flower­trees which was his garden. He
shifted his fat body on his marble seat and glanced furtively about,
as if in quest of a lurking enemy. He sat within a circular grove of
slender trees, whose interlapping branches cast a thick shade over
him. Near at hand a fountain tinkled silverly, and other unseen
fountains in various parts of the great garden whispered an
everlasting symphony.

Dion was alone except for the great dusky figure which lounged on a
marble bench close at hand, watching the baron with deep somber eyes.
Dion gave little thought to Thoth-amon. He vaguely knew that he was a
slave in whom Ascalante reposed much trust, but like so many rich men,
Dion paid scant heed to men below his own station in life.

"You need not be so nervous," said Thoth. "The plot can not fail."

"Ascalante can make mistakes as well as another," snapped Dion,
sweating at the mere thought of failure.

"Not he," grinned the Stygian savagely, "else I had not been his
slave, but his master. "

"What talk is this?" peevishly returned Dion, with only half a mind on
the conversation.

Thoth-amon's eyes narrowed. For all his iron self-control, he was near
bursting with long pent-up shame, hate and rage, ready to take any
sort of a desperate chance. What he did not reckon on was the fact
that Dion saw him, not as a human being with a brain and a wit, but
simply a slave, and as such, a creature beneath notice.

"Listen to me," said Thoth. "You will be king. But you little know the
mind of Ascalante. You can not trust him, once Conan is slain. I can
help you. If you will protect me when you come to power, I will aid
you.

"Listen, my lord. I was a great sorcerer in the south. Men spoke of
Thoth­amon as they spoke of Rammon. King Ctesphon of Stygia gave me
great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt
me above them. They hated me, but they feared me, for I controlled
beings from outside which came at my call and did my bidding. By Set,
mine enemy knew not the hour when he might awake at midnight to feel
the taloned fingers of a nameless horror at his throat! I did dark and
terrible magic with the Serpent Ring of Set, which I found in a
nighted tomb a league beneath the earth, forgotten before the first
man crawled out of the slimy sea.

"But a thief stole the Ring and my power was broken. The magicians
rose up to slay me, and I fled. Disguised as a camel driver, I was
travelling in a caravan in the land of Koth, when Ascalante's reavers
fell upon us. All in the caravan were slain except myself; I saved my
life by revealing my identity to Ascalante and swearing to serve him.
Bitter has been that bondage!

"To hold me fast, he wrote of me in a manuscript, and sealed it and
gave it into the hands of a hermit who dwells on the southern borders
of Koth. I dare not strike a dagger into him while he sleeps, or
betray him to his enemies, for then the hermit would open the
manuscript and read--thus Ascalante instructed him. And he would speak
a word in Stygia--"

Again Thoth shuddered and an ashen hue tinged his dusky skin.

"Men knew me not in Aquilonia," he said. "But should my enemies in
Stygia learn my whereabouts, not the width of half a world between us
would suffice to save me from such a doom as would blast the soul of a
bronze statue. Only a king with castles and hosts of swordsmen could
protect me. So I have told you my secret, and urge that you make a
pact with me. I can aid you with my wisdom, and you can protect me.
And some day I will find the Ring--"

"Ring? Ring?" Thoth had underestimated the man's utter egoism. Dion
had not even been listening to the slave's words, so completely
engrossed was he in his own thoughts, but the final word stirred a
ripple in his self-centeredness.

"Ring?" he repeated. "That makes me remember--my ring of good fortune.
I had it from a Shemitish thief who swore he stole it from a wizard
far to the south, and that it would bring me luck. I paid him enough,
Mitra knows. By the gods, I need all the luck I can have, what with
Volmana and Ascalante dragging me into their bloody plots--I'll see to
the ring."

Thoth sprang up, blood mounting darkly to his face, while his eyes
flamed with the stunned fury of a man who suddenly realizes the full
depths of a fool's swinish stupidity. Dion never heeded him. Lifting a
secret lid in the marble seat, he fumbled for a moment among a heap of
gewgaws of various kinds--barbaric charms, bits of bones, pieces of
tawdry jewelry--luck pieces and conjures which the man's superstitious
nature had prompted him to collect.

"Ah, here it is!" He triumphantly lifted a ring of curious make. It
was of a metal like copper, and was made in the form of a scaled
serpent, coiled in three loops, with its tail in its mouth. Its eyes
were yellow gems which glittered balefully. Thoth-amon cried out as if
he had been struck, and Dion wheeled and gaped, his face suddenly
bloodless. The slave's eyes were blazing, his mouth wide, his huge
dusky hands outstretched like talons.

"The Ring! By Set! The Ring!" he shrieked. "My Ring--stolen from me--"
Steel glittered in the Stygian's hand and with a heave of his great
dusky shoulders he drove the dagger into the baron's fat body. Dion's
high thin squeal broke in a strangled gurgle and his whole flabby
frame collapsed like melted butter. A fool to the end, he died in mad
terror, not knowing why. Flinging aside the crumpled corpse, already
forgetful of it, Thoth grasped the Ring in both hands, his dark eyes
blazing with a fearful avidness.

"My Ring!" he whispered in terrible exultation. "My power!"

How long he crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue,
drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul, not even the Stygian
knew. When he shook himself from his revery and drew back his mind
from the nighted abysses where it had been questing, the moon was
rising, casting long shadows across the smooth marble back of the
garden seat, at the foot of which sprawled the darker shadow which had
been the lord of Attalus.

"No more, Ascalante, no more!" whispered the Stygian, and his eyes
burned red as a vampire's in the gloom. Stooping, he cupped a handful
of congealing blood from the sluggish pool in which his victim
sprawled, and rubbed it in the copper serpent's eyes until the yellow
sparks were covered by a crimson mask.

"Blind your eyes, mystic serpent," he chanted in a blood-freezing
whisper. "Blind your eyes to the moonlight and open them on darker
gulfs! What do you see, oh serpent of Set? Whom do you call from the
gulfs of the Night? Whose shadow falls on the waning Light? Call him
to me, oh serpent of Set!"

Stroking the scales with a peculiar circular motion of his fingers, a
motion which always carried the fingers back to their starting place,
his voice sank still lower as he whispered dark names and grisly
incantations forgotten the world over save in the grim hinterlands of
dark Stygia, where monstrous shapes move in the dusk of the tombs.

There was a movement in the air about him, such a swirl as is made in
water when some creature rises to the surface. A nameless, freezing
wind blew on him briefly, as if from an opened door. Thoth felt a
presence at his back, but he did not look about. He kept his eyes
fixed on the moonlit space of marble, on which a tenuous shadow
hovered. As he continued his whispered incantations, this shadow grew
in size and clarity, until it stood out distinct and horrific. Its
outline was not unlike that of a gigantic baboon, but no such baboon
ever walked the earth, not even in Stygia. Still Thoth did not look,
but drawing from his girdle a sandal of his master--always carried in
the dim hope that he might be able to put it to such use--he cast it
behind him.

"Know it well, slave of the Ring!" he exclaimed. "Find him who wore it
and destroy him! Look into his eyes and blast his soul, before you
tear out his throat! Kill him! Aye," in a blind burst of passion, "and
all with him!"

Etched on the moonlit wall Thoth saw the horror lower its misshapen
head and take the scent like some hideous hound. Then the grisly head
was thrown back and the thing wheeled and was gone like a wind through
the trees. The Stygian flung up his arms in maddened exultation, and
his teeth and eyes gleamed in the moonlight.

A soldier on guard without the walls yelled in startled horror as a
great loping black shadow with flaming eyes cleared the wall and swept
by him with a swirling rush of wind. But it was gone so swiftly that
the bewildered warrior was left wondering whether it had been a dream
or a hallucination.



IV


_When the world was young and men were weak, and the fiends of the night walked free,
I strove with Set by fire and steel and the juice of the upas-tree;
Now that I sleep in the mount's black heart, and the ages take their toll,
Forget ye him who fought with the Snake to save the human soul?_


Alone in the great sleeping chamber with its high golden dome, King
Conan slumbered and dreamed. Through swirling gray mists he heard a
curious call, faint and far, and though he did not understand it, it
seemed not within his power to ignore it. Sword in hand he went
through the gray mist, as a man might walk through clouds, and the
voice grew more distinct as he proceeded until he understood the word
it spoke--it was his own name that was being called across the gulfs
of Space or Time.

Now the mists grew lighter and he saw that he was in a great dark
corridor that seemed to be cut in solid black stone. It was unlighted,
but by some magic he could see plainly. The floor, ceiling and walls
were highly polished and gleamed dull, and they were carved with the
figures of ancient heroes and half-forgotten gods. He shuddered to see
the vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones, and he knew
somehow that mortal feet had not traversed the corridor for centuries.

He came upon a wide stair carved in the solid rock, and the sides of
the shaft were adorned with esoteric symbols so ancient and horrific
that King Conan's skin crawled. The steps were carven each with the
abhorrent figure of the Old Serpent, Set, so that at each step he
planted his heel on the head of the Snake, as it was intended from old
times. But he was none the less at ease for all that.

But the voice called him on, and at last, in darkness that would have
been impenetrable to his material eyes, he came into a strange crypt,
and saw a vague white-bearded figure sitting on a tomb. Conan's hair
rose up and he grasped his sword, but the figure spoke in sepulchral
tones.

"Oh man, do you know me?"

"Not I, by Crom!" swore the king.

"Man," said the ancient, "I am Epemitreus."

"But Epemitreus the Sage has been dead for fifteen hundred years!"
stammered Conan.

"Harken!" spoke the other commandingly. "As a pebble cast into a dark
lake sends ripples to the further shores, happenings in the Unseen
world have broken like waves on my slumber. I have marked you well,
Conan of Cimmeria, and the stamp of mighty happenings and great deeds
is upon you. But dooms are loose in the land, against which your sword
can not aid you."

"You speak in riddles," said Conan uneasily. "Let me see my foe and
I'll cleave his skull to the teeth."

"Loose your barbarian fury against your foes of flesh and blood,"
answered the ancient. "It is not against men I must shield you. There
are dark worlds barely guessed by man, wherein formless monsters
stalk--fiends which may be drawn from the Outer Voids to take material
shape and rend and devour at the bidding of evil magicians. There is a
serpent in your house, oh king--an adder in your kingdom, come up from
Stygia, with the dark wisdom of the shadows in his murky soul. As a
sleeping man dreams of the serpent which crawls near him, I have felt
the foul presence of Set's neophyte. He is drunk with terrible power,
and the blows he strikes at his enemy may well bring down the kingdom.
I have called you to me, to give you a weapon against him and his
hellhound pack."

"But why?" bewilderedly asked Conan. "Men say you sleep in the black
heart of Golamira, whence you send forth your ghost on unseen wings to
aid Aquilonia in times of need, but I--I am an outlander and a
barbarian."

"Peace!" the ghostly tones reverberated through the great shadowy
cavern. "Your destiny is one with Aquilonia. Gigantic happenings are
forming in the web and the womb of Fate, and a blood-mad sorcerer
shall not stand in the path of imperial destiny. Ages ago Set coiled
about the world like a python about its prey. All my life, which was
as the lives of three common men, I fought him. I drove him into the
shadows of the mysterious south, but in dark Stygia men still worship
him who to us is the archdemon. As I fought Set, I fight his
worshippers and his votaries and his acolytes. Hold out your sword."

Wondering, Conan did so, and on the great blade, close to the heavy
silver guard, the ancient traced with a bony finger a strange symbol
that glowed like white fire in the shadows. And on the instant crypt,
tomb and ancient vanished, and Conan, bewildered, sprang from his
couch in the great golden-domed chamber. And as he stood, bewildered
at the strangeness of his dream, he realized that he was gripping his
sword in his hand. And his hair prickled at the nape of his neck, for
on the broad blade was carven a symbol--the outline of a phoenix. And
he remembered that on the tomb in the crypt he had seen what he had
thought to be a similar figure, carven of stone. Now he wondered if it
had been but a stone figure, and his skin crawled at the strangeness
of it all.

Then as he stood, a stealthy sound in the corridor outside brought him
to life, and without stopping to investigate, he began to don his
armor; again he was the barbarian, suspicious and alert as a gray wolf
at bay.


V


_What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs--I was a man before I was a king._


Through the silence which shrouded the corridor of the royal palace
stole twenty furtive figures. Their stealthy feet, bare or cased in
soft leather, made no sound either on thick carpet or bare marble
tile. The torches which stood in niches along the halls gleamed red on
dagger, sword and keen-edged ax.

"Easy all!" hissed Ascalante. "Stop that cursed loud breathing,
whoever it is! The officer of the night guard has removed most of the
sentries from these halls and made the rest drunk, but we must be
careful, just the same. Back! Here come the guard!"

They crowded back behind a cluster of carven pillars, and almost
immediately ten giants in black armor swung by at a measured pace.
Their faces showed doubt as they glanced at the officer who was
leading them away from their post of duty. This officer was rather
pale; as the guard passed the hiding places of the conspirators, he
was seen to wipe the sweat from his brow with a shaky hand. He was
young, and this betrayal of a king did not come easy to him. He
mentally cursed the vainglorious extravagance which had put him in
debt to the moneylenders and made him a pawn of scheming politicians.

The guardsmen clanked by and disappeared up the corridor.

"Good!" grinned Ascalante. "Conan sleeps unguarded. Haste! If they
catch us killing him, we're undone--but few men will espouse the cause
of a dead king."

"Aye, haste!" cried Rinaldo, his blue eyes matching the gleam of the
sword he swung above his head. "My blade is thirsty! I hear the
gathering of the vultures! On!"

They hurried down the corridor with reckless speed and stopped before
a gilded door which bore the royal dragon symbol of Aquilonia.

"Gromel!" snapped Ascalante. "Break me this door open!"

The giant drew a deep breath and launched his mighty frame against the
panels, which groaned and bent at the impact. Again he crouched and
plunged. With a snapping of bolts and a rending crash of wood, the
door splintered and burst inward.

"In!" roared Ascalante, on fire with the spirit of the deed.

"In!" yelled Rinaldo. "Death to the tyrant!"

They stopped short. Conan faced them, not a naked man roused mazed and
unarmed out of deep sleep to be butchered like a sheep, but a
barbarian wide-awake and at bay, partly armored, and with his long
sword in his hand.

For an instant the tableau held--the four rebel noblemen in the
broken door, and the horde of wild hairy faces crowding behind them--all
held momentarily frozen by the sight of the blazing-eyed giant standing
sword in hand in the middle of the candle-lighted chamber. In that instant
Ascalante beheld, on a small table near the royal couch, the silver scepter
and the slender gold circlet which was the crown of Aquilonia, and the
sight maddened him with desire.

"In, rogues!" yelled the outlaw. "He is one to twenty and he has no
helmet!"

True; there had been lack of time to don the heavy plumed casque, or
to lace in place the sideplates of the cuirass, nor was there now
time to snatch the great shield from the wall. Still, Conan was better
protected than any of his foes except Volmana and Gromel, who were in
full armor.

The king glared, puzzled as to their identity. Ascalante he did not
know; he could not see through the closed vizors of the armored
conspirators, and Rinaldo had pulled his slouch cap down above his
eyes. But there was no time for surmise. With a yell that rang to the
roof, the killers flooded into the room, Gromel first. He came like a
charging bull, head down, sword low for the disembowelling thrust.
Conan sprang to meet him, and all his tigerish strength went into the
arm that swung the sword. In a whistling arc the great blade flashed
through the air and crashed on the Bossonian's helmet. Blade and
casque shivered together and Gromel rolled lifeless on the floor.
Conan bounded back, still gripping the broken hilt.

"Gromel!" he spat, his eyes blazing in amazement, as the shattered
helmet disclosed the shattered head; then the rest of the pack were
upon him. A dagger point raked along his ribs between breastplate and
backplate, a sword edge flashed before his eyes. He flung aside the
dagger wielder with his left arm, and smashed his broken hilt like a
cestus into the swordsman's temple. The man's brains spattered in his
face.

"Watch the door, five of you!" screamed Ascalante, dancing about the
edge of the singing steel whirlpool, for he feared that Conan might
smash through their midst and escape. The rogues drew back
momentarily, as their leader seized several and thrust them toward the
single door, and in that brief respite Conan leaped to the wall and
tore therefrom an ancient battle-ax which, untouched by time, had hung
there for half a century.

With his back to the wall he faced the closing ring for a flashing
instant, then leaped into the thick of them. He was no defensive
fighter; even in the teeth of overwhelming odds he always carried the
war to the enemy. Any other man would have already died there, and
Conan himself did not hope to survive, but he did ferociously wish to
inflict as much damage as he could before he fell. His barbaric soul
was ablaze, and the chants of old heroes were singing in his ears.

As he sprang from the wall his ax dropped an outlaw with a severed
shoulder, and the terrible backhand return crushed the skull of
another. Swords whined venomously about him, but death passed him by
breathless margins. The Cimmerian moved in, a blur of blinding speed.
He was like a tiger among baboons as he leaped, side-stepped and spun,
offering an ever-moving target, while his ax wove a shining wheel of
death about him.

For a brief space the assassins crowded him fiercely, raining blows
blindly and hampered by their own numbers; then they gave back
suddenly--two corpses on the floor gave mute evidence of the king's
fury, though Conan himself was bleeding from wounds on arm, neck and
legs.

"Knaves!" screamed Rinaldo, dashing off his feathered cap, his wild
eyes glaring. "Do ye shrink from the combat? Shall the despot live?
Out on it!"

He rushed in, hacking madly, but Conan, recognizing him, shattered his
sword with a short terrific chop and with a powerful push of his open
hand sent him reeling to the floor. The king took Ascalante's point in
his left arm, and the outlaw barely saved his life by ducking and
springing backward from the swinging ax. Again the wolves swirled in
and Conan's ax sang and crushed. A hairy rascal stooped beneath its
stroke and dived at the king's legs, but after wrestling for a brief
instant at what seemed a solid iron tower, glanced up in time to see
the ax falling, but not in time to avoid it. In the interim one of his
comrades lifted a broadsword with both hands and hewed through the
king's left shoulderplate, wounding the shoulder beneath. In an
instant Conan's cuirass was full of blood.

Volmana, flinging the attackers right and left in his savage
impatience, came plowing through and hacked murderously at Conan's
unprotected head. The king ducked deeply and the sword shaved off a
lock of his black hair as it whistled above him. Conan pivoted on his
heel and struck in from the side. The ax crunched through the steel
cuirass and Volmana crumpled with his whole left side caved in.

"Volmana!" gasped Conan breathlessly. "I'll know that dwarf in Hell-- "
He straightened to meet the maddened rush of Rinaldo, who charged in
wild and wide open, armed only with a dagger. Conan leaped back,
lifting his ax.

"Rinaldo!" his voice was strident with desperate urgency. "Back! I
would not slay you--"

"Die, tyrant!" screamed the mad minstrel, hurling himself headlong on
the king. Conan delayed the blow he was loth to deliver, until it was
too late. Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected
side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation.

Rinaldo dropped with his skull shattered, and Conan reeled back
against the wall, blood spurting from between the fingers which
gripped his wound.

"In, now, and slay him!" yelled Ascalante.

Conan put his back against the wall and lifted his ax. He stood like
an image of the unconquerable primordial--legs braced far apart, head
thrust forward, one hand clutching the wall for support, the other
gripping the ax on high, with the great corded muscles standing out in
iron ridges, and his features frozen in a death snarl of fury--his
eyes blazing terribly through the mist of blood which veiled them. The
men faltered--wild, criminal and dissolute though they were, yet they
came of a breed men called civilized, with a civilized background;
here was the barbarian--the natural killer. They shrank back--the
dying tiger could still deal death.

Conan sensed their uncertainty and grinned mirthlessly and
ferociously. "Who dies first?" he mumbled through smashed and bloody
lips.

Ascalante leaped like a wolf, halted almost in midair with incredible
quickness and fell prostrate to avoid the death which was hissing
toward him. He frantically whirled his feet out of the way and rolled
clear as Conan recovered from his missed blow and struck again. This
time the ax sank inches deep into the polished floor close to
Ascalante's revolving legs.

Another misguided desperado chose this instant to charge, followed
half­heartedly by his fellows. He intended killing Conan before the
Cimmerian could wrench his ax from the floor, but his judgment was
faulty. The red ax lurched up and crashed down and a crimson
caricature of a man catapulted back against the legs of the attackers.

At that instant a fearful scream burst from the rogues at the door as
a black misshapen shadow fell across the wall. All but Ascalante
wheeled at that cry, and then, howling like dogs, they burst blindly
through the door in a raving, blaspheming mob, and scattered through
the corridors in screaming flight.

Ascalante did not look toward the door; he had eyes only for the
wounded king. He supposed that the noise of the fray had at last
roused the palace, and that the loyal guards were upon him, though
even in that moment it seemed strange that his hardened rogues should
scream so terribly in their flight. Conan did not look toward the door
because he was watching the outlaw with the burning eyes of a dying
wolf. In this extremity Ascalante's cynical philosophy did not desert
him.

"All seems to be lost, particularly honor," he murmured. "However, the
king is dying on his feet--and--" Whatever other cogitation might have
passed through his mind is not to be known; for, leaving the sentence
uncompleted, he ran lightly at Conan just as the Cimmerian was
perforce employing his ax arm to wipe the blood from his blinded eyes.

But even as he began his charge, there was a strange rushing in the
air and a heavy weight struck terrifically between his shoulders. He
was dashed headlong and great talons sank agonizingly in his flesh.
Writhing desperately beneath his attacker, he twisted his head about
and stared into the face of nightmare and lunacy. Upon him crouched a
great black thing which he knew was born in no sane or human world.
Its slavering black fangs were near his throat and the glare of its
yellow eyes shrivelled his limbs as a killing wind shrivels young
corn.

The hideousness of its face transcended mere bestiality. It might have
been the face of an ancient, evil mummy, quickened with demoniac life.
In those abhorrent features the outlaw's dilated eyes seemed to see,
like a shadow in the madness that enveloped him, a faint and terrible
resemblance to the slave Thoth-amon. Then Ascalante's cynical and all-
sufficient philosophy deserted him, and with a ghastly cry he gave up
the ghost before those slavering fangs touched him.

Conan, shaking the blood drops from his eyes, stared frozen. At first
he thought it was a great black hound which stood above Ascalante's
distorted body; then as his sight cleared he saw that it was neither a
hound nor a baboon.

With a cry that was like an echo of Ascalante's deathshriek, he
reeled away from the wall and met the leaping horror with a cast of
his ax that had behind it all the desperate power of his electrified
nerves. The flying weapon glanced singing from the slanting skull it
should have crushed, and the king was hurled halfway across the
chamber by the impact of the giant body.

The slavering jaws closed on the arm Conan flung up to guard his
throat, but the monster made no effort to secure a deathgrip. Over
his mangled arm it glared fiendishly into the king's eyes, in which
there began to be mirrored a likeness of the horror which stared from
the dead eyes of Ascalante. Conan felt his soul shrivel and begin to
be drawn out of his body, to drown in the yellow wells of cosmic
horror which glimmered spectrally in the formless chaos that was
growing about him and engulfing all life and sanity. Those eyes grew
and became gigantic, and in them the Cimmerian glimpsed the reality of
all the abysmal and blasphemous horrors that lurk in the outer
darkness of formless voids and nighted gulfs. He opened his bloody
lips to shriek his hate and loathing, but only a dry rattle burst from
his throat.

But the horror that paralyzed and destroyed Ascalante roused in the
Cimmerian a frenzied fury akin to madness. With a volcanic wrench of
his whole body he plunged backward, heedless of the agony of his torn
arm, dragging the monster bodily with him. And his outflung hand
struck something his dazed fighting brain recognized as the hilt of
his broken sword. Instinctively he gripped it and struck with all the
power of nerve and thew, as a man stabs with a dagger. The broken
blade sank deep and Conan's arm was released as the abhorrent mouth
gaped as in agony. The king was hurled violently aside, and lifting
himself on one hand he saw, as one mazed, the terrible convulsions of
the monster from which thick blood was gushing through the great wound
his broken blade had torn. And as he watched, its struggles ceased and
it lay jerking spasmodically, staring upward with its grisly dead
eyes. Conan blinked and shook the blood from his own eyes; it seemed
to him that the thing was melting and disintegrating into a slimy
unstable mass.

Then a medley of voices reached his ears, and the room was thronged
with the finally roused people of the court--knights, peers, ladies,
men-at-arms, councillors--all babbling and shouting and getting in one
another's way. The Black Dragons were on hand, wild with rage,
swearing and ruffling, with their hands on their hilts and foreign
oaths in their teeth. Of the young officer of the door guard nothing
was seen, nor was he found then or later, though earnestly sought
after.


"Gromel! Volmana! Rinaldo!" exclaimed Publius, the high councillor,
wringing his fat hands among the corpses. "Black treachery! Some one
shall dance for this! Call the guard."

"The guard is here, you old fool!" cavalierly snapped Pallantides,
commander of the Black Dragons, forgetting Publius' rank in the stress
of the moment. "Best stop your caterwauling and aid us to bind the
king's wounds. He's like to bleed to death."

"Yes, yes!" cried Publius, who was a man of plans rather than action.
"We must bind his wounds. Send for every leech of the court! Oh, my
lord, what a black shame on the city! Are you entirely slain?"

"Wine!" gasped the king from the couch where they had laid him. They
put a goblet to his bloody lips and he drank like a man half dead of
thirst.

"Good!" he grunted, falling back. "Slaying is cursed dry work."

They had stanched the flow of blood, and the innate vitality of the
barbarian was asserting itself.

"See first to the dagger wound in my side," he bade the court
physicians.

"Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus."

"We should have hanged him long ago," gibbered Publius. "No good can
come of poets--who is this?"

He nervously touched Ascalante's body with his sandalled toe.

"By Mitra!" ejaculated the commander. "It is Ascalante, once count of
Thune! What devil's work brought him up from his desert haunts?"

"But why does he stare so?" whispered Publius, drawing away, his own
eyes wide and a peculiar prickling among the short hairs at the back
of his fat neck. The others fell silent as they gazed at the dead
outlaw.

"Had you seen what he and I saw," growled the king, sitting up despite
the protests of the leeches, "you had not wondered. Blast your own
gaze by looking at--" He stopped short, his mouth gaping, his finger
pointing fruitlessly. Where the monster had died, only the bare floor
met his eyes.

"Crom!" he swore. "The thing's melted back into the foulness which
bore it!" 

"The king is delirious," whispered a noble. Conan heard and
swore with barbaric oaths.

"By Badb, Morrigan, Macha and Nemain!" he concluded wrathfully. "I am
sane! It was like a cross between a Stygian mummy and a baboon. It
came through the door, and Ascalante's rogues fled before it. It slew
Ascalante, who was about to run me through. Then it came upon me and I
slew it--how I know not, for my ax glanced from it as from a rack. But
I think that the Sage Epemitreus had a hand in it--"

"Hark how he names Epemitreus, dead for fifteen hundred years!" they
whispered to each other.

"By Ymir!" thundered the king. "This night I talked with Epemitreus!
He called to me in my dreams, and I walked down a black stone corridor
carved with old gods, to a stone stair on the steps of which were the
outlines of Set, until I came to a crypt, and a tomb with a phoenix
carved on it--"

"In Mitra's name, lord king, be silent!" It was the high priest of
Mitra who cried out, and his countenance was ashen.

Conan threw up his head like a lion tossing back its mane, and his
voice was thick with the growl of the angry lion.

"Am I a slave, to shut my mouth at your command?"

"Nay, nay, my lord!" The high priest was trembling, but not through
fear of the royal wrath. "I meant no offense."  He bent his head close
to the king and spoke in a whisper that carried only to Conan's ears.

"My lord, this is a matter beyond human understanding. Only the inner
circle of the priestcraft know of the black stone corridor carved in
the black heart of Mount Golamira, by unknown hands, or of the
phoenix-guarded tomb where Epemitreus was laid to rest fifteen hundred
years ago. And since that time no living man has entered it, for his
chosen priests, after placing the Sage in the crypt, blocked up the
outer entrance of the corridor so that no man could find it, and today
not even the high priests know where it is. Only by word of mouth,
handed down by the high priests to the chosen few, and jealously
guarded, does the inner circle of Mitra's acolytes know of the
resting place of Epemitreus in the black heart of Golamira. It is one
of the Mysteries, on which Mitra's cult stands."

"I can not say by what magic Epemitreus brought me to him," answered
Conan. "But I talked with him, and he made a mark on my sword. Why
that mark made it deadly to demons, or what magic lay behind the mark,
I know not; but though the blade broke on Gromel's helmet, yet the
fragment was long enough to kill the horror."

"Let me see your sword," whispered the high priest from a throat gone
suddenly dry.

Conan held out the broken weapon and the high priest cried out and
fell to his knees.

"Mitra guard us against the powers of darkness!" he gasped. "The king
has indeed talked with Epemitreus this night! There on the sword--it
is the secret sign none might make but him--the emblem of the immortal
phoenix which broods for ever over his tomb! A candle, quick! Look
again at the spot where the king said the goblin died!"

It lay in the shade of a broken screen. They threw the screen aside
and bathed the floor in a flood of candlelight. And a shuddering
silence fell over the people as they looked. Then some fell on their
knees calling on Mitra, and some fled screaming from the chamber.

There on the floor where the monster had died, there lay, like a
tangible shadow, a broad dark stain that could not be washed out; the
thing had left its outline clearly etched in its blood, and that
outline was of no being of a sane and normal world. Grim and horrific
it brooded there, like the shadow cast by one of the apish gods that
squat on the shadowy altars of dim temples in the dark land of Stygia.



THE END




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