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Title: The Shadow Kingdom
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0603491.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: July 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2007

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The Shadow Kingdom
Robert E. Howard



1. A King Comes Riding

The blare of the trumpets grew louder, like a deep golden tide surge,
like the soft booming of the evening tides against the silver beaches
of Valusia. The throng shouted, women flung roses from the roofs as
the rhythmic chiming of silver hosts came clearer and the first of the
mighty array swung into view in the broad, white street that curved
round the golden-spired Tower of Splendor.

First came the trumpeters, slim youths, clad in scarlet, riding with a
flourish of long, slender golden trumpets; next the bowmen, tall men
from the mountains; and behind these the heavily armed footmen, their
broad shields clashing in unison, their long spears swaying in perfect
rhythm to their stride. Behind them came the mightiest soldiery in all
the world, the Red Slayers, horsemen, splendidly mounted, armed in red
from helmet to spur. Proudly they sat their steeds, looking neither to
right nor to left, but aware of the shouting for all that. Like bronze
statues they were, and there was never a waver in the forest of spears
that reared above them.

Behind those proud and terrible ranks came the motley files of the
mercenaries, fierce, wild-looking warriors, men of Mu and of Kaa-u and
of the hills of the east and the isles of the west. They bore spears
and heavy swords, and a compact group that marched somewhat apart were
the bowmen of Lemuria. Then came the light foot of the nation, and
more trumpeters brought up the rear.

A brave sight, and a sight which aroused a fierce thrill in the soul
of Kull, king of Valasia. Not on the Topaz Throne at the front of the
regal Tower of Splendor sat Kull, but in the saddle, mounted on a
great stallion, a true warrior king. His mighty arm swung up in reply
to the salutes as the hosts passed. His fierce eyes passed the
gorgeous trumpeters with a casual glance, rested longer on the
following soldiery; they blazed with a ferocious light as the Red
Slayers halted in front of him with a clang of arms and a rearing of
steeds, and tendered him the crown salute. They narrowed slightly as
the mercenaries strode by. They saluted no one, the mercenaries. They
walked with shoulders flung back, eyeing Kull boldly and straightly,
albeit with a certain appreciation; fierce eyes, unblinking; savage
eyes, staring from beneath shaggy manes and heavy brows.

And Kull gave back a like stare. He granted much to brave men, and
there were no braver in all the world, not even among the wild
tribesmen who now disowned him. But Kull was too much the savage to
have any great love for these. There were too many feuds. Many were
age-old enemies of Kull's nation, and though the name of Kull was now
a word accursed among the mountains and valleys of his people, and
though Kull had put them from his mind, yet the old hates, the ancient
passions still lingered. For Kull was no Valusian but an Atlantean.

The armies swung out of sight around the gem-blazing shoulders of the
Tower of Splendor and Kull reined his stallion about and started
toward the palace at an easy gait, discussing the review with the
commanders that rode with him, using not many words, but saying much.

"The army is like a sword," said Kull, "and must not be allowed to
rust." So down the street they rode, and Kull gave no heed to any of
the whispers that reached his hearing from the throngs that still
swarmed the streets.

"That is Kull, see! Valka! But what a king! And what a man! Look at
his arms! His shoulders!"

And an undertone of more sinister whispering:

"Kull! Ha, accursed usurper from the pagan isles." "Aye, shame to
Valusia that a barbarian sits on the Throne of Kings."

Little did Kull heed. Heavy-handed had he seized the decaying throne
of ancient Valusia and with a heavier hand did he hold it, a man
against a nation.

After the council chamber, the social palace where Kull replied to the
formal and laudatory phrases of the lords and ladies, with carefully
hidden grim amusement at such frivolities; then the lords and ladies
took their formal departure and Kull leaned back upon the ermine
throne and contemplated matters of state until an attendant requested
permission from the great king to speak, and announced an emissary
from the Pictish embassy.

Kull brought his mind back from the dim mazes of Valusian statecraft
where it had been wandering, and gazed upon the Pict with little
favor. The man gave back the gaze of the king without flinching. He
was a lean-hipped, massive-chested warrior of middle height, dark,
like all his race, and strongly built. From strong, immobile features
gazed dauntless and inscrutable eyes.

"The chief of the Councilors, Ka-nu of the tribe right hand of the
king of Pictdom, sends greetings and says:" "There is a throne at the
feast of the rising moon for Kull, king of kings, lord of lords,
emperor of Valusia."

"Good," answered Kull. "Say to Ka-nu the Ancient, ambassador of the
western isles, that the king of Valusia will quaff wine with him when
the moon floats over the hills of Zalgara."

Still the Pict lingered. "I have a word for the king, not"--with a
contemptuous flirt of his hand--"for these slaves."

Kull dismissed the attendants with a word, watching the Pict warily.

The man stepped nearer, and lowered his voice:

"Come alone to feast tonight, lord king. Such was the word of my
chief."

The king's eyes narrowed, gleaming like gray sword steel, coldly.

"Alone?"

"Aye."

They eyed each other silently, their mutual tribal enmity seething
beneath their cloak of formality. Their mouths spoke the cultured
speech, the conventional court phrases of a highly polished race, a
race not their own, but from their eyes gleamed the primal traditions
of the elemental savage. Kull might be the king of Valusia and the
Pict might be an emissary to her courts, but there in the throne hall
of kings, two tribesmen glowered at each other, fierce and wary, while
ghosts of wild wars and world-ancient feuds whispered to each.

To the king was the advantage and he enjoyed it to its fullest extent.
Jaw resting on hand, he eyed the Pict, who stood like an image of
bronze, head flung back, eyes unflinching.

Across Kull's lips stole a smile that was more a sneer.

"And so I am to come--alone?" Civilization had taught him to speak by
innuendo and the Pict's dark eyes glittered, though he made no reply.
"How am I to know that you come from Ka-nu?"

"I have spoken," was the sullen response.

"And when did a Pict speak truth?" sneered Kull, fully aware that the
Picts never lied, but using this means to enrage the man.

"I see your plan, king," the Pict answered imperturbably. "You wish to
anger me. By Valka, you need go no further! I am angry enough. And I
challenge you to meet me in single battle--spear, sword or dagger,
mounted or afoot. Are you king or man?"

Kull's eyes glinted with the grudging admiration a warrior must needs
give a bold foeman, but he did not fail to use the chance of further
annoying his antagonist.

"A king does not accept the challenge of a nameless savage," he
sneered, "nor does the emperor of Valusia break the Truce of
Ambassadors. You have leave to go. Say to Ka-nu I will come alone."

The Pict's eyes flashed murderously. He fairly shook in the grasp of
the primitive blood-lust; then, turning his back squarely upon the
king of Valusia, he strode across the Hall of Society and vanished
through the great door.

Again Kull leaned back upon the ermine throne and meditated.

So the chief of the Council of Picts wished him to come alone? But for
what reason? Treachery? Grimly Kull touched the hilt of his great
sword. But scarcely. The Picts valued too greatly the alliance with
Valusia to break it for any feudal reason. Kull might be a warrior of
Atlantis and hereditary enemy of all Picts, but too, he was king of
Valusia, the most potent ally of the Men of the West.

Kull reflected long upon the strange state of affairs that made him
ally of ancient foes and foe of ancient friends. He rose and paced
restlessly across the hall, with the quick, noiseless tread of a lion.
Chains of friendship, tribe and tradition had he broken to satisfy his
ambition. And, by Valka, god of the sea and the land, he had realized
that ambition! He was king of Valusia--a fading, degenerate Valusia, a
Valusia living mostly in dreams of bygone glory, but still a mighty
land and the greatest of the Seven Empires. Valusia--Land of Dreams,
the tribesmen named it, and sometimes it seemed to Kull that he moved
in a dream. Strange to him were the intrigues of court and palace,
army and people. All was like a masquerade, where men and women hid
their real thoughts with a smooth mask. Yet the seizing of the throne
had been easy- a bold snatching of opportunity, the swift whirl of
swords, the slaying of a tyrant of whom men had wearied unto death,
short, crafty plotting with ambitious statesmen out of favor at court--
and Kull, wandering adventurer, Atlantean exile, had swept up to the
dizzy heights of his dreams: he was lord of Valusia, king of kings.
Yet now it seemed that the seizing was far easier than the keeping.
The sight of the Pict had brought back youthful associations to his
mind, the free, wild savagery of his boyhood. And now a strange
feeling of dim unrest, of unreality, stole over him as of late it had
been doing. Who was he, a straightforward man of the seas and the
mountain, to rule a race strangely and terribly wise with the
mysticisms of antiquity? An ancient race--

"I am Kull!" said he, flinging back his head as a lion flings back his
mane. "I am Kull!"

His falcon gaze swept the ancient hall. His self-confidence flowed
back. . . . And in a dim nook of the hall a tapestry moved slightly.

2. Thus Spake the Silent Halls of Valusia

The moon had not risen, and the garden was lighted with torches aglow
in silver cressets when Kull sat down on the throne before the table
of Ka-nu, ambassador of the western isles. At his right hand sat the
ancient Pict, as much unlike an emissary of that fierce race as a man
could be. Ancient was Ka-nu and wise in statecraft, grown old in the
game. There was no elemental hatred in the eyes that looked at Kull
appraisingly; no tribal traditions hindered his judgments. Long
associations with the statesmen of the civilized nations had swept
away such cobwebs. Not: who and what is this man? was the question
ever foremost in Ka-nu's mind, but: can I use this man, and how?
Tribal prejudices he used only to further his own schemes.

And Kull watched Ka-nu, answering his conversation briefly, wondering
if civilization would make of him a thing like the Pict. For Ka-nu was
soft and paunchy. Many years had stridden across the sky-rim since Ka-
nu had wielded a sword. True, he was old, but Kull had seen men older
than he in the forefront of battle. The Picts were a long-lived race.
A beautiful girl stood at Ka-nu's elbow, refilling his goblet, and she
was kept busy. Meanwhile Ka-nu kept up a running fire of jests and
comments, and Kull, secretly contemptuous of his garrulity,
nevertheless missed none of his shrewd humor.

At the banquet were Pictish chiefs and statesmen, the latter jovial
and easy in their manner, the warriors formally courteous, but plainly
hampered by their tribal affinities. Yet Kull, with a tinge of envy,
was cognizant of the freedom and ease of the affair as contrasted with
like affairs of the Valusian court. Such freedom prevailed in the rude
camps of Atlantis--Kull shrugged his shoulders. After all, doubtless
Ka-nu, who had seemed to have forgotten he was a Pict as far as time-
hoary custom and prejudice went, was right and he, Kull, would better
become a Valusian in mind as in name.

At last when the moon had reached her zenith, Ka-nu, having eaten and
drunk as much as any three men there, leaned back upon his divan with
a comfortable sigh and said, "Now, get you gone, friends, for the king
and I would converse on such matters as concern not children. Yes, you
too, my pretty; yet first let me kiss those ruby lips--so; no, dance
away, my rose-bloom."

Ka-nu's eyes twinkled above his white beard as he surveyed Kull, who
sat erect, grim and uncompromising.

"You are thinking, Kull," said the old statesman, suddenly, "that Ka-
nu is a useless old reprobate, fit for nothing except to guzzle wine
and kiss wenches!"

In fact, this remark was so much in line with his actual thoughts, and
so plainly put, that Kull was rather startled, though he gave no sign.

Ka-nu gurgled and his paunch shook with his mirth. "Wine is red and
women are soft," he remarked tolerantly. "But--ha! ha!--think not old
Ka-nu allows either to interfere with business."

Again he laughed, and Kull moved restlessly. This seemed much like
being made sport of, and the king's scintillant eyes began to glow with
a feline light.

Ka-nu reached for the wine-pitcher, filled his beaker and glanced
questioningly at Kull, who shook his head irritably.

"Aye," said Ka-nu equably, "it takes an old head to stand strong
drink. I am growing old, Kull, so why should you young men begrudge me
such pleasures as we oldsters must find? Ah me, I grow ancient and
withered, friendless and cheerless."

But his looks and expressions failed far of bearing out his words. His
rubicund countenance fairly glowed, and his eyes sparkled, so that his
white beard seemed incongruous. Indeed, he looked remarkably elfin,
reflected Kull, who felt vaguely resentful. The old scoundrel had lost
all of the primitive virtues of his race and of Kull's race, yet he
seemed more pleased in his aged days than otherwise.

"Hark ye, Kull," said Ka-nu, raising an admonitory finger, "'tis a
chancy thing to laud a young man, yet I must speak my true thoughts to
gain your confidence."

"If you think to gain it by flattery--"

"Tush. Who spake of flattery? I flatter only to disguard."

There was a keen sparkle in Ka-nu's eyes, a cold glimmer that did not
match his lazy smile. He knew men, and he knew that to gain his end he
must smite straight with this tigerish barbarian, who, like a wolf
scenting a snare, would scent out unerringly any falseness in the
skein of his wordweb.

"You have power, Kull," said he, choosing his words with more care
than he did in the council rooms of the nation, "to make yourself
mightiest of all kings, and restore some of the lost glories of
Valusia. So. I care little for Valusia--hough the women and wine be
excellent--save for the fact that the stronger Valusia is, the stronger
is the Pict nation. More, with an Atlantean on the throne, eventually
Atlantis will become united--"

Kull laughed in harsh mockery. Ka-nu had touched an old wound.

"Atlantis made my name accursed when I went to seek fame and fortune
among the cities of the world. We--they--are age-old foes of the Seven
Empires, greater foes of the allies of the Empires, as you should
know."

Ka-nu tugged his beard and smiled enigmatically.

"Nay, nay. Let it pass. But I know whereof I speak. And then warfare
will cease, wherein there is no gain; I see a world of peace and
prosperity-man loving his fellow man-the good supreme. All this can
you accomplish-if you live!"

"Ha!" Kull's lean hand closed on his hilt and he half rose, with a
sudden movement of such dynamic speed that Ka-nu, who fancied men as
some men fancy blooded horses, felt his old blood leap with a sudden
thrill. Valka, what a warrior! Nerves and sinews of steel and fire,
bound together with the perfect co-ordination, the fighting instinct,
that makes the terrible warrior.

But none of Ka-nu's enthusiasm showed in his mildly sarcastic tone.

"Tush. Be seated. Look about you. The gardens are deserted, the seats
empty, save for ourselves. You fear not me?"

Kull sank back, gazing about him warily.

"There speaks the savage," mused Ka-nu. "Think you if I planned
treachery I would enact it here where suspicion would be sure to fall
upon me? Tut. You young tribesmen have much to learn. There were my
chiefs who were not at ease because you were born among the hills of
Atlantis, and you despise me in your secret mind because I am a Pict.
Tush. I see you as Kull, king of Valusia, not as Kull, the reckless
Atlantean, leader of the raiders who harried the western isles. So you
should see in me, not a Pict but an international man, a figure of the
world. Now to that figure, hark! If you were slain tomorrow who would
be king?"

"Kaanuub, baron of Blaal."

"Even so. I object to Kaanuub for many reasons, yet most of all for
the fact that he is but a figurehead."

"How so? He was my greatest opponent, but I did not know that he
championed any cause but his own."

"The night can hear," answered Ka-nu obliquely. "There are worlds
within worlds. But you may trust me and you may trust Brule, the
Spear-slayer. Look!" He drew from his robes a bracelet of gold
representing a winged dragon coiled thrice, with three horns of ruby
on the head.

"Examine it closely. Brule will wear it on his arm when he comes to
you tomorrow night so that you may know him. Trust Brule as you trust
yourself, and do what he tells you to. And in proof of trust, look
ye!"

And with the speed of a striking hawk, the ancient snatched something
from his robes, something that flung a weird green light over them,
and which he replaced in an instant.

"The stolen gem!" exclaimed Kull recoiling. "The green jewel from the
Temple of the Serpent! Valka! You! And why do you show it to me?"

"To save your life. To prove my trust. If I betray your trust, deal
with me likewise. You hold my life in your hand. Now I could not be
false to you if I would, for a word from you would be my doom."

Yet for all his words the old scoundrel beamed merrily and seemed
vastly pleased with himself.

"But why do you give me this hold over you?" asked Kull, becoming more
bewildered each second.

"As I told you. Now, you see that I do not intend to deal you false,
and tomorrow night when Brule comes to you, you will follow his advice
without fear of treachery. Enough. An escort waits outside to ride to
the palace with you, lord."

Kull rose. "But you have told me nothing."

"Tush. How impatient are youths!" Ka-nu looked more like a mischievous
elf than ever. "Go you and dream of thrones and power and kingdoms,
while I dream of wine and soft women and roses. And fortune ride with
you, King Kull."

As he left the garden, Kull glanced back to see Ka-nu still reclining
lazily in his seat, a merry ancient, beaming on all the world with
jovial fellowship.

A mounted warrior waited for the king just without the garden and Kull
was slightly surprised to see that it was the same that had brought
Ka-nu's invitation. No word was spoken as Kull swung into the saddle
nor as they clattered along the empty streets.

The color and the gayety of the day had given way to the eerie
stillness of night. The city's antiquity was more than ever apparent
beneath the bent, silver moon. The huge pillars of the mansions and
palaces towered up into the stars. The broad stairways, silent and
deserted, seemed to climb endlessly until they vanished in the shadowy
darkness of the upper realms. Stairs to the stars, thought Kull, his
imaginative mind inspired by the weird grandeur of the scene.

Clang! clang! clang! sounded the silver hoofs on the broad, moon-
flooded streets, but otherwise there was no sound. The age of the
city, its incredible antiquity, was almost oppressive to the king; it
was as if the great silent buildings laughed at him, noiselessly, with
unguessable mockery. And what secrets did they hold?

"You are young," said the palaces and the temples and the shrines,
"but we are old. The world was wild with youth when we were reared.
You and your tribe shall pass, but we are invincible, indestructible.
We towered above a strange world, ere Atlantis and Lemuria rose from
the sea; we still shall reign when the green waters sigh for many a
restless fathom above the spires of Lemuria and the hills of Atlantis
and when the isles of the Western Men are the mountains of a strange
land.

"How many kings have we watched ride down these streets before Kull of
Atlantis was even a dream in the mind of Ka, bird of Creation? Ride
on, Kull of Atlantis; greater shall follow you; greater came before
you. They are dust; they are forgotten; we stand; we know; we are.
Ride, ride on, Kull of Atlantis; Kull the king, Kull the fool!"

And it seemed to Kull that the clashing hoofs took up the silent
refrain to beat it into the night with hollow re-echoing mockery;
"Kull-the-king! Kull-the-fool!"

Glow, moon; you light a king's way! Gleam, stars; you are torches in
the train of an emperor! And clang, silver-shod hoofs; you herald that
Kull rides through Valusia.

Ho! Awake, Valusia! It is Kull that rides, Kull the king!

"We have known many kings," said the silent halls of Valusia.

And so in a brooding mood Kull came to the palace, where his
bodyguard, men of the Red Slayers, came to take the rein of the great
stallion and escort Kull to his rest. There the Pict, still sullenly
speechless, wheeled his steed with a savage wrench of the rein and
fled away in the dark like a phantom; Kull's heightened imagination
pictured him speeding through the silent streets like a goblin out of
the Elder World.

There was no sleep for Kull that night, for it was nearly dawn and he
spent the rest of the night hours pacing the throne-room, and
pondering over what had passed. Ka-nu had told him nothing, yet he had
put himself in Kull's complete power. At what had he hinted when he
had said the baron of Blaal was naught but a figurehead? And who was
this Brule who was to come to him by night, wearing the mystic armlet
of the dragon? And why? Above all, why had Ka-nu shown him the green
gem of terror, stolen long ago from the Temple of the Serpent, for
which the world would rock in wars were it known to the weird and
terrible keepers of that temple, and from whose vengeance not even Ka-
nu's ferocious tribesmen might be able to save him? But Ka-nu knew he
was safe, reflected Kull, for the statesman was too shrewd to expose
himself to risk without profit. But was it to throw the king off his
guard and pave the way to treachery? Would Ka-nu dare let him live
now? Kull shrugged his shoulders.

3. They That Walk the Night

The moon had not risen when Kull, hand to hilt, stepped to a window.
The windows opened upon the great inner gardens of the royal palace,
and the breezes of the night, bearing the scents of spice trees, blew
the filmy curtains about. The king looked out. The walks and groves
were deserted; carefully trimmed trees were bulky shadows; fountains
near by flung their slender sheen of silver in the starlight and
distant fountains rippled steadily. No guards walked those gardens,
for so closely were the outer walls guarded that it seemed impossible
for any invader to gain access to them.

Vines curled up the walls of the palace, and even as Kull mused upon
the ease with which they might be climbed, a segment of shadow
detached itself from the darkness below the window and a bare, brown
arm curved up over the sill. Kull's great sword hissed halfway from
the sheath; then the king halted. Upon the muscular forearm gleamed
the dragon armlet shown him by Ka-nu the night before.

The possessor of the arm pulled himself up over the sill and into the
room with the swift, easy motion of a climbing leopard.

"You are Brule?" asked Kull, and then stopped in surprise not
unmingled with annoyance and suspicion; for the man was he whom Kull
had taunted in the Hall of Society; the same who had escorted him from
the Pictish embassy.

"I am Brule, the Spear-slayer," answered the Pict in a guarded voice;
then swiftly, gazing closely in Kull's face, he said, barely above a
whisper:

"Ka nama kaa lajerama!"

Kull started. "Ha! What mean you?"

"Know you not?"

"Nay, the words are unfamiliar; they are of no language I ever heard--
and yet, by Valka!--somewhere--I have heard--"

"Aye," was the Pict's only comment. His eyes swept the room, the study
room of the palace. Except for a few tables, a divan or two and great
shelves of books of parchment, the room was barren compared to the
grandeur of the rest of the palace.

"Tell me, king, who guards the door?"

"Eighteen of the Red Slayers. But how come you, stealing through the
gardens by night and scaling the walls of the palace?"

Brule sneered. "The guards of Valusia are blind buffaloes. I could
steal their girls from under their noses. I stole amid them and they
saw me not nor heard me. And the walls--I could scale them without the
aid of vines. I have hunted tigers on the foggy beaches when the sharp
east breezes blew the mist in from seaward and I have climbed the
steeps of the western sea mountain. But come--nay, touch this armlet."

He held out his arm and, as Kull complied wonderingly, gave an
apparent sigh of relief.

"So. Now throw off those kingly robes; for there are ahead of you this
night such deeds as no Atlantean ever dreamed of."

Brule himself was clad only in a scanty loin-cloth through which was
thrust a short, curved sword.

"And who are you to give me orders?" asked Kull, slightly resentful.

"Did not Ka-nu bid you follow me in all things?" asked the Pict
irritably, his eyes flashing momentarily. "I have no love for you,
lord, but for the moment I have put the thought of feuds from my mind.
Do you likewise. But come."

Walking noiselessly, he led the way across the room to the door. A
slide in the door allowed a view of the outer corridor, unseen from
without, and the Pict bade Kull look.

"What see you?"

"Naught but the eighteen guardsmen."

The Pict nodded, motioned Kull to follow him across the room. At a
panel in the opposite wall Brule stopped and fumbled there a moment.
Then with a light movement he stepped back, drawing his sword as he
did so. Kull gave an exclamation as the panel swung silently open,
revealing a dimly lighted passageway.

"A secret passage!" swore Kull softly. "And I knew nothing of it! By
Valka, someone shall dance for this!"

"Silence!" hissed the Pict.

Brule was standing like a bronze statue as if straining every nerve
for the slightest sound; something about his attitude made Kull's hair
prickle slightly, not from fear but from some eerie anticipation. Then
beckoning, Brule stepped through the secret doorway which stood open
behind them. The passage was bare, but not dust-covered as should have
been the case with an unused secret corridor. A vague, gray light
filtered through somewhere, but the source of it was not apparent.
Every few feet Kull saw doors, invisible, as he knew, from the
outside, but easily apparent from within.

"The palace is a very honeycomb," he muttered. "Aye. Night and day you
are watched, king, by many eyes."

The king was impressed by Brule's manner. The Pict went forward
slowly, warily, half crouching, blade held low and thrust forward.
When he spoke it was in a whisper and he continually flung glances
from side to side.

The corridor turned sharply and Brule warily gazed past the turn.

"Look!" he whispered. "But remember! No word! No sound--on your life!"

Kull cautiously gazed past him. The corridor changed just at the bend
to a flight of steps. And then Kull recoiled. At the foot of those
stairs lay the eighteen Red Slayers who were that night stationed to
watch the king’s study room. Brule's grip upon his mighty arm and
Brule's fierce whisper at his shoulder alone kept Kull from leaping
down those stairs.

"Silent, Kull! Silent, in Valka's name!" hissed the Pict. "These
corridors are empty now, but I risked much in showing you, that you
might then believe what I had to say. Back now to the room of study."
And he retraced his steps, Kull following; his mind in a turmoil of
bewilderment.

"This is treachery," muttered the long, his steel gray eyes a-smolder,
"foul and swift! Mere minutes have passed since those men stood at
guard."

Again in the room of study Brule carefully closed the secret panel and
motioned Kull to look again through the slit of the outer door. Kull
gasped audibly. For without stood the eighteen guardsmen!

"This is sorcery!" he whispered, half-drawing his sword. "Do dead men
guard the king?"

"Aye!" came Brule's scarcely audible reply; there was a strange
expression in the Pict's scintillant eyes. They looked squarely into
each other's eyes for an instant, Kull's brow wrinkled in a puzzled
scowl as he strove to read the Pict's inscrutable face. Then Brule's
lips, barely moving, formed the words; "The-snake-that-speaks!".

"Silent!" whispered Kull, laying his hand over Brule's mouth. "That is
death to speak! That is a name accursed!"

The Pict's fearless eyes regarded him steadily.

"Look, again. King Kull. Perchance the guard was changed."

"Nay, those are the same men. In Valka's name, this is sorcery--this is
insanity! I saw with my own eyes the bodies of those men, not eight
minutes agone. Yet there they stand."

Brule stepped back, away from the door, Kull mechanically following.

"Kull, what know ye of the traditions of this race ye rule?"

"Much--and yet, little. Valusia is so old--" "Aye," Brule's eyes lighted
strangely, "we are but barbarians--infants compared to the Seven
Empires. Not even they themselves know how old they are. Neither the
memory of man nor the annals of the historians reach back far enough
to tell us when the first men came up from the sea and built cities on
the shore. But Kull, men were not always ruled by men!" The king
started. Their eyes met. "Aye, there is a legend of my people--" "And
mine!" broke in Brule. "That was before we of the isles were allied
with Valusia. Aye, in the reign of Lion-fang, seventh war chief of the
Picts, so many years ago no man remembers how many. Across the sea we
came, from the isles of the sunset, skirting the shores of Atlantis,
and falling upon the beaches of Valusia with fire and sword. Aye, the
long white beaches resounded with the clash of spears, and the night
was like day from the flame of the burning castles. And the king, the
king of Valusia, who died on the red sea sands that dim day--" His
voice trailed off; the two stared at each other, neither speaking;
then each nodded.

"Ancient is Valusia!" whispered Kull. "The hills of Atlantis and Mu
were isles of the sea when Valusia was young."

The night breeze whispered through the open window. Not the free,
crisp sea air such as Brule and Kull knew and reveled in, in their
land, but a breath like a whisper from the past, laden with musk,
scents of forgotten things, breathing secrets that were hoary when the
world was young.

The tapestries rustled, and suddenly Kull felt like a naked child
before the inscrutable wisdom of the mystic past. Again the sense of
unreality swept upon him. At the back of his soul stole dim, gigantic
phantoms, whispering monstrous things. He sensed that Brule
experienced similar thoughts. The Pict's eyes were fixed upon his face
with a fierce intensity. Their glances met. Kull felt warmly a sense
of comradeship with this member of an enemy tribe. Like rival leopards
turning at bay against hunters, these two savages made common cause
against the inhuman powers of antiquity. Brule again led the way back
to the secret door. Silently they entered and silently they proceeded
down the dim corridor, taking the opposite direction from that in
which they previously traversed it. After a while the Pict stopped and
pressed close to one of the secret doors, bidding Kull look with him
through the hidden slot.

"This opens upon a little-used stair which leads to a corridor running
past the study-room door."

They gazed, and presently, mounting the stair silently, came a silent
shape.

"Tu! Chief councilor!" exclaimed Kull. "By night and with bared
dagger! How, what means this, Brule?"

"Murder! And foulest treachery!" hissed Brule. "Nay"--as Kull would
have flung the door aside and leaped forth--"we are lost if you meet
him here, for more lurk at the foot of those stairs. Come!"

Half running, they darted back along the passage. Back through the
secret door Brule led, shutting it carefully behind them, then across
the chamber to an opening into a room seldom used. There he swept
aside some tapestries in a dim corner nook and, drawing Kull with him,
stepped behind them. Minutes dragged. Kull could hear the breeze in
the other room blowing the window curtains about, and it seemed to him
like the murmur of ghosts. Then through the door, stealthily, came Tu,
chief councilor of the king. Evidently he had come through the study
room and, finding it empty, sought his victim where he was most likely
to be.

He came with upraised dagger, walking silently. A moment he halted,
gazing about the apparently empty room, which was lighted dimly by a
single candle. Then he advanced cautiously, apparently at a loss to
understand the absence of the king. He stood before the hiding-place--
and "Slay!" hissed the Pict.

Kull with a single mighty leap hurled himself into the room. Tu spun,
but the blinding, tigerish speed of the attack gave him no chance for
defense or counterattack. Sword steel flashed in the dim light and
grated on bone as Tu toppled backward, Kull's sword standing out
between his shoulders.

Kull leaned above him, teeth bared in the killer's snarl, heavy brows
ascowl above eyes that were like the gray ice of the cold sea. Then he
released the hilt and recoiled, shaken, dizzy, the hand of death at
his spine.

For as he watched, Tu's face became strangely dim and unreal; the
features mingled and merged in a seemingly impossible manner. Then,
like a fading mask of fog, the face suddenly vanished and in its stead
gaped and leered a monstrous serpent's head! "Valka!" gasped Kull,
sweat beading his forehead, and again; "Valka!"

Brule leaned forward, face immobile. Yet his glittering eyes mirrored
something of Kull's horror.

"Regain your sword, lord king," said he. "There are yet deeds to be
done."

Hesitantly Kull set his hand to the hilt. His flesh crawled as he set
his foot upon the terror which lay at their feet, and as some jerk of
muscular reaction caused the frightful mouth to gape suddenly, he
recoiled, weak with nausea. Then, wrathful at himself, he plucked
forth his sword and gazed more closely at the nameless thing that had
been known as Tu, chief councilor. Save for the reptilian head, the
thing was the exact counterpart of a man.

"A man with the head of a snake!" Kull murmured. "This, then, is a
priest of the serpent god?"

"Aye. Tu sleeps unknowing. These fiends can take any form they will.
That is, they can, by a magic charm or the like, fling a web of
sorcery about their faces, as an actor dons a mask, so that they
resemble anyone they wish to."

"Then the old legends were true," mused the king; "the grim old tales
few dare even whisper, lest they die as blasphemers, are no fantasies.
By Valka, I had thought--I had guessed--but it seems beyond the bounds
of reality. Ha! The guardsmen outside the door--"

"They too are snake-men. Hold! What would you do?"

"Slay them!" said Kull between his teeth.

"Strike at the skull if at all," said Brule. "Eighteen wait without
the door and perhaps a score more in the corridors. Hark ye, king, Ka-
nu learned of this plot. His spies have pierced the inmost fastnesses
of the snake priests and they brought hints of a plot. Long ago he
discovered the secret passageways of the palace, and at his command I
studied the map thereof and came here by night to aid you, lest you
die as other kings of Valusia have died. I came alone for the reason
that to send more would have roused suspicion. Many could not steal
into the palace as I did. Some of the foul conspiracy you have seen.
Snake-men guard your door, and that one, as Tu, could pass anywhere
else in the palace; in the morning, if the priests failed, the real
guards would be holding their places again, nothing knowing, nothing
remembering; there to take the blame if the priests succeeded. But
stay you here while I dispose of this carrion."

So saying, the Pict shouldered the frightful thing stolidly and
vanished with it through another secret panel. Kull stood alone, his
mind a-whirl. Neophytes of the mighty serpent, how many lurked among
his cities? How might he tell the false from the true? Aye, how many
of his trusted councilors, his generals, were men? He could be
certain--of whom?

The secret panel swung inward and Brule entered.

"You were swift."

"Aye!" The warrior stepped forward, eyeing the floor. "There is gore
upon the rug. See?"

Kull bent forward; from the corner of his eye he saw a blur of
movement, a glint of steel. Like a loosened bow he whipped erect,
thrusting upward. The warrior sagged upon the sword, his own
clattering to the floor. Even at that instant Kull reflected grimly
that it was appropriate that the traitor should meet his death upon
the sliding, upward thrust used so much by his race. Then, as Brule
slid from the sword to sprawl motionless on the floor, the face began
to merge and fade, and as Kull caught his breath, his hair a-prickle,
the human features vanished and there the jaws of a great snake gaped
hideously, the terrible beady eyes venomous even in death.

"He was a snake priest all the time!" gasped the king. "Valka! What an
elaborate plan to throw me off my guard! Ka-nu there, is he a man? Was
it Ka-nu to whom I talked in the gardens? Almighty Valka!" as his
flesh crawled with a horrid thought; "are the people of Valusia men or
are they all serpents?"

Undecided he stood, idly seeing that the thing named Brule no longer
wore the dragon armlet. A sound made him wheel.

Brule was coming through the secret door.

"Hold!" Upon the arm upthrown to halt the king's hovering sword
gleamed the dragon armlet. "Valka!" The Pict stopped short. Then a
grim smile curled his lips.

"By the gods of the seas! These demons are crafty past reckoning. For
it must be that one lurked in the corridors, and seeing me go carrying
the carcass of that other, took my appearance. So. I have another to
do away with."

"Hold!" there was the menace of death in Kull's voice; "I have seen
two men turn to serpents before my eyes. How may I know if you are a
true man?"

Brule laughed. "For two reasons. King Kull. No snake-man wears this"-
he indicated the dragon armlet--"nor can any say these words," and
again Kull heard the strange phrase; "Ka nama kaa lajerama."

"Ka nama kaa lajerama" Kull repeated mechanically. "Now, where, in
Valka's name, have I heard that? I have not! And yet--and yet--"

"Aye, you remember, Kull," said Brule. "Through the dim corridors of
memory those words lurk; though you never heard them in this life, yet
in the bygone ages they were so terribly impressed upon the soul mind
that never dies, that they will always strike dim chords in your
memory, though you be reincarnated for a million years to come. For
that phrase has come secretly down the grim and bloody eons, since
when, uncounted centuries ago, those words were watchwords for the
race of men who battled with the grisly beings of the Elder Universe.
For none but a real man of men may speak them, whose jaws and mouth
are shaped different from any other creature. Their meaning has been
forgotten but not the words themselves."

"True," said Kull. "I remember the legends. Valka!" He stopped short,
staring, for suddenly, like the silent swinging wide of a mystic door,
misty, unfathomed reaches opened in the recesses of his consciousness
and for an instant he seemed to gaze back through the vastness that
spanned life and life; seeing through the vague and ghostly fogs dim
shapes reliving dead centuries--men in combat with hideous monsters,
vanquishing a planet of frightful terrors. Against a gray, ever-
shifting background moved strange nightmare forms, fantasies of lunacy
and fear; and man, the jest of the gods, the blind, wisdomless
striver from dust to dust, following the long bloody trail of his
destiny, knowing not why, bestial, blundering, like a great murderous
child, yet feeling somewhere a spark of divine fire . . . Kull drew a
hand across his brow, shaken; these sudden glimpses into the abysses
of memory always startled him.

"They are gone," said Brule, as if scanning his secret mind; "the
bird-women, the harpies, the bat-men, the flying fiends, the wolf-
people, the demons, the goblins-all save such as this being that lies
at our feet, and a few of the wolf-men. Long and terrible was the war,
lasting through the bloody centuries, since first the first men, risen
from the mire of apedom, turned upon those who then ruled the world.

"And at last mankind conquered, so long ago that naught but dim
legends come to us through the ages. The snake-people were the last to
go, yet at last men conquered even them and drove them forth into the
waste lands of the world, there to mate with true snakes until some
day, say the sages, the horrid breed shall vanish utterly. Yet the
Things returned in crafty guise as men grew soft and degenerate,
forgetting ancient wars. Ah, that was a grim and secret war! Among the
men of the Younger Earth stole the frightful monsters of the Elder
Planet, safeguarded by their horrid wisdom and mysticisms, taking all
forms and shapes, doing deeds of horror secretly. No man knew who was
true man and who false. No man could trust any man. Yet by means of
their own craft they formed ways by which the false might be known
from the true. Men took for a sign and a standard the figure of the
flying dragon, the winged dinosaur, a monster of past ages, which was
the greatest foe of the serpent. And men used those words which I
spoke to you as a sign and symbol, for as I said, none but a true man
can repeat them. So mankind triumphed. Yet again the fiends came after
the years of forgetfulness had gone by--for man is still an ape in that
he forgets what is not ever before his eyes. As priests they came; and
for that men in their luxury and might had by then lost faith in the
old religions and worships, the snake-men, in the guise of teachers of
a new and truer cult, built a monstrous religion about the worship of
the serpent god. Such is their power that it is now death to repeat
the old legends of the snake-people, and people bow again to the
serpent god in new form; and blind fools that they are, the great
hosts of men see no connection between this power and the power men
overthrew eons ago. As priests the snake-men are content to rule--and
yet--" He stopped.

"Go on." Kull felt an unaccountable stirring of the short hair at the
base of his scalp.

"Kings have reigned as true men in Valusia," the Pict whispered, "and
yet, slain in battle, have died serpents--as died he who fell beneath
the spear of Lion-fang on the red beaches when we of the isles harried
the Seven Empires. And how can this be, Lord Kull? These kings were
born of women and lived as men! This--the true kings died in secret--as
you would have died tonight--and priests of the Serpent reigned in
their stead, no man knowing."

Kull cursed between his teeth. "Aye, it must be. No one has ever seen
a priest of the Serpent and lived, that is known. They live in utmost
secrecy."

"The statecraft of the Seven Empires is a mazy, monstrous thing," said
Brule. "There the true men know that among them glide the spies of the
Serpent, and the men who are the Serpent's allies--such as Kaanuub,
baron of Blaal--yet no man dares seek to unmask a suspect lest
vengeance befall him. No man trusts his fellow and the true statesmen
dare not speak to each other what is in the minds of all. Could they
be sure, could a snake-man or plot be unmasked before them all, then
would the power of the Serpent be more than half broken; for all would
then ally and make common cause, sifting out the traitors. Ka-nu alone
is of sufficient shrewdness and courage to cope with them, and even
Ka-nu learned only enough of their plot to tell me what would happen--
what has happened up to this time. Thus far I was prepared; from now
on we must trust to our luck and our craft. Here and now I think we
are safe; those snake-men without the door dare not leave their post
lest true men come here unexpectedly. But tomorrow they will try
something else, you may be sure. Just what they will do, none can say,
not even Ka-nu; but we must stay at each other's sides, King Kull,
until we conquer or both be dead. Now come with me while I take this
carcass to the hiding-place where I took the other being."

Kull followed the Pict with his grisly burden through the secret panel
and down the dim corridor. Their feet, trained to the silence of the
wilderness, made no noise. Like phantoms they glided through the
ghostly light, Kull wondering that the corridors should be deserted;
at every turn he expected to run full upon some frightful apparition.
Suspicion surged back upon him; was this Pict leading him into ambush?
He fell back a pace or two behind Brule, his ready sword hovering at
the Pict's unheeding back. Brule should die first if he meant
treachery. But if the Pict was aware of the king's suspicion, he
showed no sign. Stolidly he tramped along, until they came to a room,
dusty and long unused, where moldy tapestries hung heavy. Brule drew
aside some of these and concealed the corpse behind them.

Then they turned to retrace their steps, when suddenly Brule halted
with such abruptness that he was closer to death than he knew; for
Kull's nerves were on edge.

"Something moving in the corridor," hissed the Pict. "Ka-nu said these
ways would be empty, yet--"

He drew his sword and stole into the corridor, Kull following warily.

A short way down the corridor a strange, vague glow appeared that came
toward them. Nerves a-leap, they waited, backs to the corridor wall;
for what they knew not, but Kull heard Brule's breath hiss through his
teeth and was reassured as to Brule's loyalty.

The glow merged into a shadowy form. A shape vaguely like a man it
was, but misty and illusive, like a wisp of fog, that grew more
tangible as it approached, but never fully material A face looked at
them, a pair of luminous great eyes, that seemed to hold all the
tortures of a million centuries. There was no menace in that face,
with its dim, worn features, but only a great pity--and that face--that
face--

"Almighty gods!" breathed Kull, an icy hand at his soul; "Eallal, king
of Valusia, who died a thousand years ago!"

Brule shrank back as far as he could, his narrow eyes widened in a
blaze of pure horror, the sword shaking in his grip, unnerved for the
first time that weird night. Erect and defiant stood Kull,
instinctively holding his useless sword at the ready; flesh a-crawl,
hair a-prickle, yet still a king of kings, as ready to challenge the
powers of the unknown dead as the powers of the living.

The phantom came straight on, giving them no heed; Kull shrank back as
it passed them, feeling an icy breath like a breeze from the arctic
snow. Straight on went the shape with slow, silent footsteps, as if
the chains of all the ages were upon those vague feet, vanishing about
a bend of the corridor.

"Valka!" muttered the Pict, wiping the cold beads from his brow; "that
was no man! That was a ghost!"

"Aye!" Kull shook his head wonderingly. "Did you not recognize the
face? That was Eallal, who reigned in Valusia a thousand years ago and
who was found hideously murdered in his throne-room--the room now known
as the Accursed Room. Have you not seen his statue in the Fame Room of
Kings?"

"Yes, I remember the tale now. Gods, Kull! that is another sign of the
frightful and foul power of the snake priests--that king was slain by
snake-people and thus his soul became their slave, to do their bidding
throughout eternity! For the sages have ever maintained that if a man
is slain by a snake-man his ghost becomes their slave."

A shudder shook Kull's gigantic frame. "Valka! But what a fate! Hark
ye"--his fingers closed upon Brule's sinewy arm like steel--"hark ye! If
I am wounded unto death by these foul monsters, swear that ye will
smite your sword through my breast lest my soul be enslaved."

"I swear," answered Brule, his fierce eyes lighting. "And do ye the
same by me, Kull."

Their strong right hands met in a silent sealing of their bloody
bargain.

4. Masks

Kull sat upon his throne and gazed broodily out upon the sea of faces
turned toward him. A courtier was speaking in evenly modulated tones,
but the king scarcely heard him. Close by, Tu, chief councilor, stood
ready at Kull's command, and each time the king looked at him, Kull
shuddered inwardly. The surface of court life was as the unrippled
surface of the sea between tide and tide. To the musing king the
affairs of the night before seemed as a dream, until his eyes dropped
to the arm of his throne. A brown, sinewy hand rested there, upon the
wrist of which gleamed a dragon armlet; Brule stood beside his throne
and ever the Pict's fierce secret whisper brought him back from the
realm of unreality in which he moved.

No, that was no dream, that monstrous interlude. As he sat upon his
throne in the Hall of Society and gazed upon the courtiers, the
ladies, the lords, the statesmen, he seemed to see their faces as
things of illusion, things unreal, existent only as shadows and
mockeries of substance. Always he had seen their faces as masks, but
before he had looked on them with contemptuous tolerance, thinking to
see beneath the masks shallow, puny souls, avaricious, lustful,
deceitful; now there was a grim undertone, a sinister meaning, a vague
horror that lurked beneath the smooth masks. While he exchanged
courtesies with some nobleman or councilor, he seemed to see the
smiling face fade like smoke and the frightful jaws of a serpent
gaping there. How many of those he looked upon were horrid, inhuman
monsters, plotting his death, beneath the smooth mesmeric illusion of
a human face?

Valusia--land of dreams and nightmares--a kingdom of the shadows, ruled
by phantoms who glided back and forth behind the painted curtains,
mocking the futile king who sat upon the throne--himself a shadow.

And like a comrade shadow Brule stood by his side, dark eyes
glittering from immobile face. A real man, Brule! And Kull felt his
friendship for the savage become a thing of reality and sensed that
Brule felt a friendship for him beyond the mere necessity of
statecraft.

And what, mused Kull, were the realities of life? Ambition, power,
pride? The friendship of man, the love of women--which Kull had never
known--battle, plunder, what? Was it the real Kull who sat upon the
throne or was it the real Kull who had scaled the hills of Atlantis,
harried the far isles of the sunset, and laughed upon the green
roaring tides of the Atlantean sea? How could a man be so many
different men in a lifetime? For Kull knew that there were many Kulls
and he wondered which was the real Kull. After all, the priests of the
Serpent went a step further in their magic, for all men wore masks,
and many a different mask with each different man or woman; and Kull
wondered if a serpent did not lurk under every mask. So he sat and
brooded in strange, mazy thought ways, and the courtiers came and went
and the minor affairs of the day were completed, until at last the
king and Brule sat alone in the Hall of Society save for the drowsy
attendants.

Kull felt a weariness. Neither he nor Brule had slept the night
before, nor had Kull slept the night before that, when in the gardens
of Ka-nu he had had his first hint of the weird things to be. Last
night nothing further had occurred after they had returned to the
study room from the secret corridors, but they had neither dared nor
cared to sleep. Kull, with the incredible vitality of a wolf, had
aforetime gone for days upon days without sleep, in his wild savage
days but now his mind was edged from constant thinking and from the
nerve-breaking eeriness of the past night. He needed sleep, but sleep
was furthest from his mind.

And he would not have dared sleep if he had thought of it. Another
thing that had shaken him was the fact that though he and Brule had
kept a close watch to see if, or when, the study-room guard was
changed, yet it was changed without their knowledge; for the next
morning those who stood on guard were able to repeat the magic words
of Brule, but they remembered nothing out of the ordinary. They
thought that they had stood at guard all night, as usual, and Kull
said nothing to the contrary. He believed them true men, but Brule had
advised absolute secrecy, and Kull also thought it best.

Now Brule leaned over the throne, lowering his voice so not even a
lazy attendant could hear: "They will strike soon, I think, Kull. A
while ago Ka-nu gave me a secret sign. The priests know that we know
of their plot, of course, but they know not, how much we know. We must
be ready for any sort of action. Ka-nu and the Pictish chiefs will
remain within hailing distance now until this is settled one way or
another. Ha, Kull, if it comes to a pitched battle, the streets and
the castles of Valusia will run red!"

Kull smiled grimly. He would greet any sort of action with a ferocious
joy. This wandering in a labyrinth of illusion and magic was extremely
irksome to his nature. He longed for the leap and clang of swords, for
the joyous freedom of battle.

Then into the Hall of Society came Tu again, and the rest of the
councilors.

"Lord king, the hour of the council is at hand and we stand ready to
escort you to the council room."

Kull rose, and the councilors bent the knee as he passed through the
way opened by them for his passage, rising behind him, and following.
Eyebrows were raised as the Pict strode defiantly behind the king, but
no one dissented. Brule's challenging gaze swept the smooth faces of
the councilors with the defiance of an intruding savage.

The group passed through the halls and came at last to the council
chamber. The door was closed, as usual, and the councilors arranged
themselves in the order of their rank before the dais upon which stood
the king. Like a bronze statue, Brule took up his stand behind Kull.

Kull swept the room with a swift stare. Surely no chance of treachery
here. Seventeen councilors there were, all known to him; all of them
had espoused his cause when he ascended the throne.

"Men of Valusia--" he began in the conventional manner, then halted,
perplexed. The councilors had risen as a man and were moving toward
him. There was no hostility in their looks, but their actions were
strange for a council room. The foremost was close to him when Brule
sprang forward, crouched like a leopard.

"Ka nama kaa lajerama!" his voice crackled through the sinister
silence of the room and the foremost councilor recoiled, hand flashing
to his robes; and like a spring released, Brule moved and the man
pitched headlong and lay still while his face faded and became the
head of a mighty snake.

"Slay, Kull!" rasped the Pict's voice. "They be all serpent-men!"

The rest was a scarlet maze. Kull saw the familiar faces dim like
fading fog and in their places gaped horrid reptilian visages as the
whole band rushed forward. His mind was dazed but his giant body
faltered not.

The singing of his sword filled the room, and the onrushing flood
broke in a red wave. But they surged forward again, seemingly willing
to fling their lives away in order to drag down the king. Hideous jaws
gaped at him; terrible eyes blazed into his unblinkingly; a frightful
fetid scent pervaded the atmosphere--the serpent scent that Kull had
known in southern jungles. Swords and daggers leaped at him and he was
dimly aware that they wounded him. But Kull was in his element; never
before had he faced such grim foes but it mattered little; they lived,
their veins held blood that could be spilt and they died when his
great sword cleft their skulls or drove through their bodies. Slash,
thrust, thrust and swing. Yet had Kull died there but for the man who
crouched at his side, parrying and thrusting. For the king was clear
berserk, fighting in the terrible Atlantean way, that seeks death to
deal death; he made no effort to avoid thrusts and slashes, standing
straight up and ever plunging forward, no thought in his frenzied mind
but to slay. Not often did Kull forget his fighting craft in his
primitive fury, but now some chain had broken in his soul, flooding
his mind with a red wave of slaughter-lust. He slew a foe at each
blow, but they surged about him, and time and again Brule turned a
thrust that would have slain, as he crouched beside Kull, parrying and
warding with cold skill, slaying not as Kull slew with long slashes
and plunges, but with short overhand blows and upward thrusts.

Kull laughed, a laugh of insanity. The frightful faces swirled about
him in a scarlet blaze. He felt steel sink into his arm and dropped
his sword in a flashing arc that cleft his foe to the breast-bone.
Then the mists faded and the king saw that he and Brule stood alone
above a sprawl of hideous crimson figures who lay still upon the
floor.

"Valka! what a killing!" said Brule, shaking the blood from his eyes.
"Kull, had these been warriors who knew how to use the steel, we had
died here. These serpent priests know naught of swordcraft and die
easier than any men I ever slew. Yet had there been a few more, I
think the matter had ended otherwise."

Kull nodded. The wild berserker blaze had passed, leaving a mazed
feeling of great weariness. Blood seeped from wounds on breast,
shoulder, arm and leg. Brule, himself bleeding from a score of flesh
wounds, glanced at him in some concern.

"Lord Kull, let us hasten to have your wounds dressed by the women."

Kull thrust him aside with a drunken sweep of his mighty arm.

"Nay, we'll see this through ere we cease. Go you, though, and have
your wounds seen to--I command it."

The Pict laughed grimly. "Your wounds are more than mine, lord king--"
he began, then stopped as a sudden thought struck him. "By Valka,
Kull, this is not the council room!"

Kull looked about and suddenly other fogs seemed to fade. "Nay, this
is the room where Eallal died a thousand years ago--since unused and
named 'Accursed.'"

"Then by the gods, they tricked us after all!" exclaimed Brule in a
fury, kicking the corpses at their feet. "They caused us to walk like
fools into their ambush! By their magic they changed the appearance of
all--"

"Then there is further deviltry afoot." said Kull, "for if there be
true men in the councils of Valusia they should be in the real council
room now. Come swiftly."

And leaving the room with its ghastly keepers they hastened through
halls that seemed deserted until they came to the real council room.
Then Kull halted with a ghastly shudder. From the council room sounded
a voice speaking, and the voice was his!

With a hand that shook he parted the tapestries and gazed into the
room. There sat the councilors, counterparts of the men he and Brule
had just slain, and upon the dais stood Kull, king of Valusia.

He stepped back, his mind reeling.

"This is insanity!" he whispered. "Am I Kull? Do I stand here or is
that Kull yonder in very truth, and am I but a shadow, a figment of
thought?"

Brule's hand clutching his shoulder, shaking him fiercely, brought him
to his senses.

"Valka's name, be not a fool! Can you yet be astounded after all we
have seen? See you not that those are true men bewitched by a snake-
man who has taken your form, as those others took their forms? By now
you should have been slain, and yon monster reigning in your stead,
unknown by those who bowed to you. Leap and slay swiftly or else we
are undone. The Red Slayers, true men, stand close on each hand and
none but you can reach and slay him. Be swift!"

Kull shook off the onrushing dizziness, flung back his head in the
old, defiant gesture. He took a long, deep breath as does a strong
swimmer before diving into the sea; then, sweeping back the
tapestries, made the dais in a single lion-like bound. Brule had
spoken truly. There stood men of the Red Slayers, guardsmen trained to
move quick as the striking leopard; any but Kull had died ere he
could reach the usurper. But the sight of Kull, identical with the man
upon the dais, held them in their tracks, their minds stunned for an
instant, and that was long enough. He upon the dais snatched for his
sword, but even as his fingers closed upon the hilt, Kull's sword
stood out behind his shoulders and the thing that men had thought the
king pitched forward from the dais to lie silent upon the floor.

"Hold!" Kull's lifted hand and kingly voice stopped the rush that had
started, and while they stood astounded he pointed to the thing which
lay before them--whose face was fading into that of a snake. They
recoiled, and from one door came Brule and from another came Ka-nu.

These grasped the king's bloody hand and Ka-nu spoke: "Men of Valusia,
you have seen with your own eyes. This is the true Kull, the mightiest
king to whom Valusia has ever bowed. The power of the Serpent is
broken and ye be all true men. King Kull, have you commands?"

"Lift that carrion," said Kull, and men of the guard took up the
thing.

"Now follow me," said the king, and he made his way to the Accursed
Room. Brule, with a look of concern, offered the support of his arm
but Kull shook him off.

The distance seemed endless to the bleeding king, but at last he stood
at the door and laughed fiercely and grimly when he heard the
horrified ejaculations of the councilors.

At his orders the guardsmen flung the corpse they carried beside the
others, and motioning all from the room Kull stepped out last and
closed the door.

A wave of dizziness left him shaken. The faces turned to him, pallid
and wonderingly, swirled and mingled in a ghostly fog. He felt the
blood from his wounds trickling down his limbs and he knew that what he
was to do, he must do quickly or not at all.

His sword rasped from its sheath.

"Brule, are you there?"

"Aye!" Brule's face looked at him through the mist, close to his
shoulder, but Brule's voice sounded leagues and eons away.

"Remember our vow, Brule. And now, bid them stand back."

His left arm cleared a space as he flung up his sword. Then with all
his waning power he drove it through the door into the jamb, driving
the great sword to the hilt and sealing the room forever.

Legs braced wide, he swayed drunkenly, facing the horrified
councilors. "Let this room be doubly accursed. And let those rotting
skeletons lie there forever as a sign of the dying might of the
Serpent. Here I swear that I shall hunt the serpent-men from land to
land, from sea to sea, giving no rest until all be slain, that good
triumph and the power of Hell be broken. This thing I swear-I-Kull-
king-of-Valusia."

His knees buckled as the faces swayed and swirled. The councilors
leaped forward, but ere they could reach him, Kull slumped to the
floor, and lay still, face upward.

The councilors surged about the fallen king, chattering and shrieking.
Ka-nu beat them back with his clenched fists, cursing savagely.

"Back, you fools! Would you stifle the little life that is yet in him?
How, Brule, is he dead or will he live?"--to the warrior who bent above
the prostrate Kull.

"Dead?" sneered Brule irritably. "Such a man as this is not so easily
killed. Lack of sleep and loss of blood have weakened him--by Valka, he
has a score of deep wounds, but none of them mortal. Yet have those
gibbering fools bring the court women here at once."

Brule's eyes lighted with a fierce, proud light.

"Valka, Ka-nu, but here is such a man as I knew not existed in these
degenerate days. He will be in the saddle in a few scant days and then
may the serpent-men of the world beware of Kull of Valusia. Valka! but
that will be a rare hunt! Ah, I see long years of prosperity for the
world with such a king upon the throne of Valusia."



THE END




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