"The Hand Of Nergal" is a story fragment begun in the 1930s but not finished or published in Howard's lifetime. It was completed by Lin Carter and in this form appeared in Conan (Lancer, 1967, later reissued by Ace Books). It was published in its original form in The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People Of The Black Circle, Gollancz, 2000.
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Conan has enjoyed his taste of Hyborian intrigue. It is clear to him that there is no essential difference between the motives of the palace and those of the Rats' Den, whereas the pickings are better in higher places. With his own horse under him and a grubstake from the grateful—and thoughtful—Murilo, the Cimmerian sets out to look over the civilized world, with an eye to making it his oyster.
The Road of Kings, which winds through the Hyborian kingdoms, at last leads him eastward into Turan, where he takes service in the armies of King Yildiz. He does not at first find military services congenial, being too self-willed and hot-tempered to submit easily to discipline. Moreover, being at this time an indifferent horseman and archer, in a force of which the mounted bowman is the mainstay, he is relegated to a low-paid, irregular unit. Soon, however, a chance arises to show his true mettle.
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The oath was torn from the young warrior's grim-set lips. He threw back his head, sending his tousled shock of black hair flying, and lifted his smouldering blue eyes skyward. They widened in sheer astonishment. An eery thrill of superstitious awe ran through his tall, powerfully-built body, which was burnt brown by fierce wasteland suns, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, lean of waist, long of leg, and naked save for a rag of cloth about his loins and high-strapped sandals.
He had entered the battle mounted, as one of a troop of irregular cavalry. But his horse, given him by the nobleman Murilo in Corinthia, had fallen to the foemen's arrows at the first onset and the youth had fought on afoot. His shield had been smashed by the enemy's blows: he had cast it aside and battled with sword alone.
Above, from the sunset-smouldering sky of this bleak, wind-swept Turanian steppe, where two great armies were locked in a fury of desperate battle, came horror.
The field was drenched in sunset fires and bathed in human blood. Here the mighty host of Yildiz, king of Turan, in whose army the youth served as a mercenary, had fought for five long hours against the iron-shod legions of Munthassem Khan, rebellious satrap of the Zamorian Marches of northern Turan. Now, circling slowly downwards from the crimson sky, came nameless things whose like the barbarian had never seen or heard of before in all his travels. They were black, shadowy monsters, hovering on broad, arch-ribbed wings like enormous bats.
The two armies fought on, unseeing. Only Conan, here on this low hill, ringed about with the bodies of men his sword had slain, saw them descending through the sunset sky.
Leaning on his dripping blade and resting his sinewy arms for a moment, he stared at the weird shadow-things. For they seemed to be more shadow than substance—translucent to the sight, like wisps of noisome black vapor or the shadowy ghosts of gigantic vampire bats. Evil, slitted eyes of green flame glared through their smoky forms.
And even as he watched, nape-hairs prickling with a barbarian's dread of the supernatural, they fell upon the battle like vultures on a field of blood—fell and slew.
Screams of pain and fear rose from the host of King Yildiz, as the black shadows hurtled amongst their ranks. Wherever the shadow-devils swooped, they left a bloody corpse. By the hundred they came, and the weary ranks of the Turanian army fell back, stumbling, tossing away their weapons in panic.
"Fight, you dogs! Stand and fight!" Thundering angry commands in a stern voice, a tall, commanding figure on a great black mare sought to hold the crumbling line. Conan glimpsed the sparkles of silver-gilt chain mail under a rich blue cloak, and a hawk-nosed, black-bearded face, kingly and harsh under a spired steel helm that caught the crimson sun like a polished mirror. He knew the man for King Yildiz' general, Bakra of Akif.
With a ringing oath, the proud commander drew his tulwar and laid about him with the flat of the blade. Perhaps he could have rallied the ranks, but one of the devil-shadows swooped on him from behind. It folded vaporous, filming wings about him in a grisly embrace and he stiffened. Conan could see his face, suddenly pale with staring, frozen eyes of fear—and he saw the features through the enveloping wings, like a white mask behind a veil of thin, black lace.
The general's horse went mad and bolted in terror. But the phantom-thing plucked the general from his saddle. For a moment it bore him in mid-air on slowly beating wings, then let him fall, a torn and bloody thing in dripping rags. The face, which had stared at Conan through shadowy wings with eyes of glazing terror, was a red ruin. Thus ended the career of Bakra of Akif.
And thus ended his battle, as well.
With its commander gone, the army went mad. Conan saw seasoned veterans, with a score of campaigns under their belts, run shrieking from the field like raw recruits. He saw proud nobles fly screaming like craven serfs. And behind them, untouched by the flying phantoms, grinning with victory, the hosts of the rebel satrap pressed their weirdly-won advantage. The day was lost—unless one strong man should stand firm and rally the broken host by his example.
Before the foremost of the fleeing soldiers rose suddenly a figure so grim and savage that it checked their headlong, panic-stricken flight.
"Stand, you fatherless curs, or by Crom I'll fill your craven bellies with a foot of steel!"
It was the Cimmerian mercenary, his dark face like a grim mask of stone, cold as death. Fierce eyes under black, scowling brows, blazed with volcanic rage. Naked, splattered from head to heel with reeking gore, he held a mighty longsword in one great, scarred fist. His voice was like the deep growl of thunder.
"Back, if you set any value on your sniveling lives, you white-livered dogs—back—or I'll spill your cowardly guts at your feet! Lift that scimitar against me, you Hyrkanian pig, and I'll tear out your heart with my bare hands and make you eat it before you die. What! Are you women, to fly from shadows? But a moment ago, you were men—aye, fighting-men of Turan! You stood against foes armed with naked steel and fought them face to face. Now you turn and ran like children from night-shadows, faugh! It makes me proud to be a barbarian—to see you city-bred weaklings cringe before a flight of bats!"
For a moment he held them—but for a moment only. A black-winged nightmare swooped upon him, and he—even he—stepped back from its grim, shadowy wings and the stench of its fetid breath.
The soldiers fled, leaving Conan to fight the thing alone. And fight he did. Setting his feet squarely, he swung the great sword, pivoting on slim hips, with the full strength of back, shoulders, and mighty arms behind the blow.
The sword flashed in a whistling arc of steel, cleaving the phantom in two. But it was, as he had guessed, a thing without substance, for his sword encountered no more resistance than the empty air. The force of the blow swung him off balance, and he fell sprawling on the stony plain.
Above him, the shadowy thing hovered. His sword had torn a great rent through it, as a man's hand breaks a thread of rising smoke. But, even as he watched, the vapory body reformed. Eyes like sparks of green hell-fire blazed down at him, alive with a horrible mirth and an inhuman hunger.
"Crom! Conan gasped. It may have been a curse, but it sounded almost like a prayer.
He sought to lift the sword again, but it fell from nerveless hands. The instant the sword had slashed through the black shadow, it had gone cold, with an aching, stony, bone-deep chill like the interstellar gulfs that yawn blackly beyond the farthest stars.
The shadow-bat hovered on slowly beating wings, as if gloating over its fallen victim or savoring his superstitious fear.
With strengthless hands, Conan fumbled at his waist, where a strip of rawhide bound his loincloth to his middle. There a thin dagger hung beside a pouch. His fumbling fingers found the pouch, not the dagger hilt, and touched something smooth and warm within the leathern bag.
Suddenly, Conan jerked his hand away as a tingling electric warmth tore through his nerves. His fingers had brushed against that curious amulet he had found yesterday, when they lay encamped at Bahari. And, in touching the smooth stone, a strange force had been released.
The bat-thing veered suddenly away from him. A moment before, it had hovered so close that his flesh had crawled beneath the unearthly chill that seemed to radiate from its ghostly form. Now it tore madly away from him, wings beating in a frenzy.
Conan dragged himself to his knees, fighting the weakness that pervaded his limbs. First, the ghastly cold of the shadow's touch—then the tingling warmth that had seethed through his naked body. Between these two conflicting forces, he felt his strength draining away. His vision blurred; his mind wavered on the brink of darkness. Fiercely, he shook his head to clear his wits and gazed about him.
"Mitra! Crom and Mitra! Has the whole world gone mad?"
The grisly host of flying terrors had driven the army of General Bakra from the field, or slain those that did not flee fast enough. But the grinning host of Munthassem Khan they had not touched—had ignored, almost as if the soldiers of Yaralet and the shadowy nightmare-things had been partners in some unholy alliance of black sorcery.
But now it was the warriors of Yaralet who fled screaming before the shadowy vampires. Both armies broken and fled—had the world indeed gone mad, Conan wildly asked of the sunset sky?
As for the Cimmerian, strength and consciousness drained from him suddenly. He fell forward into black oblivion.
THE SUN flamed like a crimson coal on the horizon. It glowered across the silent battlefield like the one red eye that blazes madly in a Cyclops's misshapen brow. Silent as death, strewn with the wreckage of war, the battlefield stretched grim and still in the lurid rays. Here and there amidst the sprawled, unmoving bodies, scarlet pools of congealing gore lay like calm lakes reflecting the red-streamered sky.
Dark, furtive figures moved in the tall grasses, snuffling and whining at the heaped and scattered corpses. Their humped shoulders and ugly, doglike snouts marked them as hyenas from the steppes. For them, the battlefield would be a banquet table.
Down from the flaming sky flapped ungainly, black-winged vultures, come to feast on the slain. The grisly birds of prey dropped upon the mangled bodies with a rustle of dusky wings. But for these carrion-eaters, nothing moved on the silent, bloody field. It was still as death itself. No rumble of chariot wheels or peal of brazen trumpets broken the unearthly silence. The stillness of the dead followed fast on the thunder of battle.
Like eery harbingers of Fate, a wavering line of herons flapped slowly away down the sky toward the reed-grown banks of the river Nezvaya, whose turgid flood glinted dully crimson in the last light. Beyond the further shore, the black, walled bulk of the city of Yaralet loomed like a mountain of ebony into the dusk.
Yet one figure moved through that wide-strewn field of ruin, pygmylike against the glowing coals of sunset. It was the young Cimmerian giant with the wild black mane and the smouldering blue eyes. The black wings of interstellar cold had brushed him but lightly; life had stirred and consciousness returned. He wandered to and fro across the black field, limping slightly, for there was a ghastly wound in his thigh, taken in the fury of battle and only noticed and crudely bandaged as he had recovered consciousness and moved to arise.
Carefully yet impatiently he moved among the dead, bloody as were they. He was splashed with gore from head to foot, and the great sword he trailed in his right hand was stained crimson to the hilt. Bone-weary was Conan, and his gullet was desert-dry. He ached from a score of wounds—mere cuts and scratches, save for the great slash on his thigh—and he lusted for a skin of wine and a platter of beef.
As he prowled among the bodies, limping from corpse to corpse, he growled like a hungry wolf, swearing wrathfully. He had come into this Turanian war as a mercenary, owning naught but his horse—now slain—and the great sword in his hand. Now that the battle was lost, the war was ended, and he was marooned alone in the midst of the enemy land, he had at least hoped to loot the fallen of some choice pieces of gear they would no longer need. A gemmed dagger, a gold bracelet, a silver breastplate—a few such baubles and he could bribe his way out of the reach of Munthassem Khan and return to Zamora with a grubstake.
Others had been here before him, either thieves slinking from the shadowy city or soldiers who crept back to the field from which they had fled. For the field was stripped; there was nothing left but broken swords, splintered javelins, dented helms and shields. Conan glared out across the littered plain, cursing sulphurously. He had lain in his swoon too long; even the looters had left. He was like the wolf who lingers so late at his blood-letting that jackals have stripped the prey; in this case, human jackals.
Straightening up from his fruitless quest, he gave over the search with the fatalism of the true barbarian. Time now to think of a plan. Brows knotted, scowling in thought, he glanced uncertainly afar off across the darkening plain. The square, flat-roofed towers of Yaralet stood black and solid against the dying gleam of sunset. No hope of refuge there, for one who had fought under the banners of King Yildiz! Yet no city, friend or enemy, lay nearer. And Yildiz's capital of Aghrapur was hundreds of leagues south—Lost in his thoughts, he did not notice the approach of the great black figure until a faint, shuddering neigh reached his ears. He turned swiftly, favoring his injured leg, lifting the longsword threateningly—then relaxed, grinning.
"Crom! You startled me. So I am not the only survivor, eh?" Conan chuckled.
The tall black mare stood trembling, gazing at the naked giant with wide, frightened eyes. It was the same mount that General Bakra had ridden—he who lay somewhere on the field, sprawled in a puddle of blood.
The mare whinnied, grateful for the sound of a friendly human voice. Although not a horseman, Conan could see that she was in sad condition. Her sides heaved, lathered with the sweat of fear, and her long legs trembled with exhaustion. The devil-bats had struck terror into her heart, too, Conan thought grimly. He spoke soothingly, calming her, and stepped gingerly nearer until he could reach out and stroke the panting beast, gentling her into submission.
In his far northern homeland, horses were rare. To the penniless barbarians of the Cimmerian tribes from whose loins he was sprung, the chief of great wealth owned a fine steed, or the bold warrior who had taken one in battle. But despite his ignorance of the fine points of horsemanship, Conan quieted the great black mare and vaulted into the saddle. He sat astride the horse, fumbling with the reins, and rode slowly off the field, now a swamp of inky blackness in the darkness of night. He felt better. There were provisions in the saddlebags, and with a strong mare between his thighs he had a good chance of making it alone across the bleak and barren tundras to the borders of Zamora.
A LOW, tortured moan reached his ears.
Conan jerked the reins, drawing the black mare to a halt, and peered about him suspiciously in the deep gloom. His scalp prickled in superstitious dread at the eery sound. Then he shrugged and spat an oath. No night-phanton, no hunting ghoul of the wastes; that was a cry of pain. This meant that still a third survivor of the doomed battle yet drew breath. And a living man might be presumed to be unlooted.
He swung from the saddle, wrapping the reins about the spokes of a broken chariot wheel. The cry had come from the left; here at the very edge of the battlefield, a wounded survivor might well have escaped the cunning eye of looters. Conan might ride into Zamora with a pouchful of gems yet.
The Cimmerian limped toward the source of the quavering moan, which came from the margin of the plain. He parted the straggling reeds that grew in shaggy clumps along the banks of the slow river and glared down at a pale figure, which writhed feebly at his very feet. It was a girl.
She lay there, half-naked, her white limbs cut and bruised. Blood was clotting in the foaming curls of her long, black hair, like a chain of rubies. There was unseeing agony in her lustrous dark eyes, and she moaned in delirium.
The Cimmerian stood looking down at her, noting almost absently the lithe beauty of her limbs and the rounded, lush young breasts. He was puzzled—what was a girl like this, a mere child, doing on a battlefield? She had not the sullen, flamboyant, sullied look of a camp trull about her. Her slim and graceful body denoted breeding, even nobility. Baffled, he shook his head, black mane swinging against brawny shoulders. At his feet, the girl stirred.
"The Heart—the Heart—of Tammuz—O Master!" she cried softly, her dark head turning restlessly from side to side, babbling as one in a fever.
Conan shrugged, and his eyes clouded momentarily by what, in another man, would have been an expression of pity. Wounded to the death, he thought grimly, and he lifted his sword to put the wench out of her misery.
As the blade hovered above her white breast, she whimpered again like a child in pain. The great sword halted in mid-air, and the Cimmerian stood for an instant, motionless as a bronze statue.
Then, in sudden decision, he slammed the sword back in its sheath and bent, lifting the girl effortlessly in his mighty arms. She struggled blindly, weakly, moaning in half-conscious protest.
Carrying her with careful tenderness, he limped toward the reed-masked riverbank and lay her down gently on the dry, cushioning reeds. Filling his cupped palms with river water, the barbarian bathed her white face and cleansed her cuts as gently as a mother might tend her child.
Her wounds proved superficial, mere bruises, save for the cut on her brow. And even that, although it had bled heavily, was far from mortal. Conan grunted with relief and bathed the girl's face and brow with cold, clear water. Then, awkwardly pillowing her head against his chest, he dribbled some of the water between her half-parted lips. She gasped, choked a little, and came awake—staring up at him from eyes like dark stars, clouded with bewilderment and the shadows of fear.
"They are gone now, girl," he said gruffly. "You have naught to fear. Came you hither from Yaralet?"
"Yes—yes—but who are you?"
"Conan, a Cimmerian. What is a lass like you doing on a battlefield?" he demanded.
But she seemed not to hear. Her brow frowned a little, as one in thought, and half under her breath she repeated his name.
"Conan—Conan—yes, that was the name!" Wonderingly she lifted her gaze to his scarred, brown face. "It was you I was sent to seek. How strange that you should find me!"
"And who sent you to seek me, wench?" he rumbled suspiciously.
"I am Hildico, a Brythunian, slave to the House of Atalis the Far-seeing, who dwells yonder in Yaralet. My master sent me in secret to move among the warriors of King Yildiz, to seek one Conan, a mercenary of Cimmeria, and to bring him by a private way to his house within the city. You are the man I seek!"
"Aye? And what does your master want with me?"
The girl shook her dark head. "That I know not! But he said to tell you that he means no harm, and that much gold can be yours, if you will come."
"Gold, eh?" he mused, speculatively, helping her to her feet and steadying her with a brawny arm about her slim white shoulders as she staggered weakly.
"Yes. But I came not to the field in time to seek you before the battle. So I hid in the reeds along the river's edge to avoid the warriors. And then—the bats! Suddenly they were everywhere, swooping upon the fallen, killing—and one horseman fled from them into the reeds, trampling me under his hooves unawares—"
"What of this horseman?"
"Dead," she shuddered. "A bat tore him from the saddle and let his corpse fall into the river. I swooned, for in its panic, the horse struck me—" She lifted one small hand to her gashed brow.
"Lucky you were not slain," he growled. "Well, lass, we shall visit this master of yours, to learn what he wants of Conan—and how he knows my name!"
"You will come?" she asked breathlessly. He laughed and, vaulting astride the black mare, lifted her to the saddlebow before him with powerful arms.
"Aye! I am alone, amid enemies, in an alien land. My employment ended when Bakra's army was destroyed. Why should I scruple to meet a man who has picked me from ten thousand warriors, and who offers gold?"
They rode across the shallow ford of the river and across the gloom-drenched plain towards Yaralet, stronghold of Munthassem Khan. And Conan's heart, which never beat more joyously than when thrilled with the promise of excitement and adventure, sang.
A STRANGE conclave was taking place in the small, velvet-hung, taper-lit chamber of Atalis, whom some men called a philosopher, others a seer, and others a rogue.
This figure of mystery was a slender man of medium height, with a splendid head and the ascetic features of a dedicated scholar, yet in his smooth face and keen eyes was something of the shrewd merchant. He was clad in a plain robe of rich fabric, and his head was shaven to denote devotion to study and the arts. As he talked in low tones with his companion, a third viewer—had any been present—might have observed something strange and curious about him. For Atalis, as he conversed, gestured with his left hand only. His right arm lay stretched across his lap at an unnatural angle. And from time to time his calm, clever features were hideously contorted with a sudden spasm of intense pain, at which time his right foot, hidden under his long robes, would twist back excruciatingly upon his ankle.
His companion was one whom the city of Yaralet knew and praised as Prince Than, scion of an ancient and noble house of Turan. The prince was a tall, lithe man, young and undeniably handsome. The firm, clean outline of his soldierly limbs and the steely quality of his cool gray eyes belied the foppishness of his curled and scented black locks and jewelled cloak.
Beside Atalis, who sat in a high-backed chair of dark wood carven by intricate skill with leering gargoyles and grinning faces, stood a small table of ebony inlaid with yellow ivory. Upon this rested a huge fragment of green crystal, as large as a human head. It flickered with a weird inward glow, and from time to time the philosopher would break off his low conversation to peer deeply within the glitterinp stone.
"Will she find him? And will he come?" Prince Than said, despairingly.
"He will come."
"But every moment that passes increases our danger. Even now Munthassem Khan may be watching, and it is dangerous for us to be together—"
"Munthassem Khan lies drugged with the dream lotus, for the Shadows of Nergal were abroad in the hour of sunset," said the philosopher. "And some danger we must risk, if ever the city is to be freed of this bloody-handed scourge!" His features knotted sickeningly in an involuntary grimace of intolerable pain, and then smoothed out again. He said grimly, "And you know, O Prince, how little time is left to us. Desperate measures for desperate men!"
Suddenly the prince's handsome face contorted with panic and he turned upon Atalis with eyes suddenly gone dead as cold marble. Almost as swiftly, light and animation returned to his gaze, and he sank back in his chair, pale and sweating.
"Very—little—time!" he gasped.
A hidden gong rang softly, somewhere within the dark and silent house of Atalis the Far-seeing. The philosopher raised his left hand to check the prince's involuntary start.
A moment later, one of the velvet wall-hangings drew aside, revealing a hidden door. And within the door, like a bloody apparition, stood the giant form of Conan with the half-fainting girl leaning on his arm.
With a little cry, the philosopher sprang to his feet and went toward the grim Cimmerian. "Welcome—thrice welcome, Conan! Come, enter. Here is wine—food—"
He gestured to a tabouret against the further wall and took the fainting girl from Conan. The Cimmerian's nostrils widened like those of some famished wolf at the scent of the food; but also, like a wolf, suspicious, wary of a trap, his smouldering blue eyes raked the smiling philosopher and the pale prince, and pried into every corner of the small chamber.
"See to the wench. She was trampled by a horse but brought me your message," he growled, and without ceremony he swaggered across the room, and poured and drained a goblet of strong red wine. Tearing a plump leg from a platter of roast fowl, he chewed hungrily. Atalis tugged a bell-rope and gave the girl into the keeping of a silent slave, who appeared from behind another hanging as if by magic.
"Now, what is this all about?" the Cimmerian demanded, seating himself on a low bench and wincing from the pain of his gashed thigh. "Who are you? How do you know my name? And what do you want of me?"
"We have time for talk, but later," Atalis replied. "Eat, drink, and rest You are wounded—"
"Crom take all this delay! We shall talk now."
"Very well. But you must let me cleanse and bind your wound while we talk!"
The Cimmerian shrugged impatiently and yielded with poor grace to the philosopher's swift ministrations. As Atalis sponged his gashed thigh, smeared the gaping wound with a scented salve, and bound it with a strip of clean cloth, Conan appeased his hunger by wolfing down the cold spiced meat and drinking deeply of the red wine.
"I know you, although we have never met," Atalis began in a smooth, soft voice, "because of my crystal—there, on yonder stand by the chair. Within its depths I can see and hear for a hundred leagues."
"Sorcery?" Conan spat sourly, having the warrior's contempt for all such magical mummery.
"If you like," Atalis smiled ingratiatingly. "But I am no sorcerer—only a seeker after knowledge. A philosopher, some men call me—" His smile twisted into a terrible grin of agony, and with prickling scalp Conan watched the philosopher stagger as his foot bent horribly.
"Crom! Are you sick, man?"
Gasping from the pain, Atalis sank into his high-backed chair. "Not sick—cursed. By this fiend who rules us with a dread sceptre of hell-born magic—"
Atalis nodded wearily. "That I am no sorcerer has spared my life—thus far. For the satrap slew all wizards in Yaralet; I, being but a humble philosopher, he let live. Yet he suspects that I know something of the Black Arts and has cursed me with this deadly scourge. It withers up my body and tortures my nerves, and will end in a convulsion of death, ere long!" He gestured at the unnaturally twisted limb that lay lifeless across his lap.
Prince Than gazed with wild eyes at Conan. "I, too, have been cursed by this hell-spawn, for that I am next to Munthassem Khan in rank and he thinks I may desire his throne. Me he has tortured in another way: a sickness of the brain—spasms of blindness that come and go—which will end by devouring my brain and leaving me a mindless, sightless, mewling thing!"
"Crom!" Conan swore softly. The philosopher gestured.
"You are our only hope! You alone can save our city from this black-hearted devil that torments and plagues us!"
Conan stared at him blankly. "I? But I am no wizard, man! What a warrior can do with cold steel, I can do; but how can I combat this devil's magic?"
"Listen, Conan of Cimmeria. I will tell you a strange and awful tale—"
IN the city of Yaralet (said Atalis) when night falls, the people bar their windows, bolt their doors, and sit shuddering behind these barriers, praying in terror with candles burning before their household gods till the clean, wholesome light of dawn etches the squat towers of the city with living fire against the paling skies.
No archers guard the gates. No watchmen stride the lonely streets. No thief steals nimbly through the winding alleys, nor do painted sluts simper and beckon from the dark shadows. For in Yaralet, rogues and honest folk alike shun the night-shadows: thief, beggar, assassin, and bedizened wench seek haven in foul-smelling dens or dim-lit taverns. From dusk to dawn, Yaralet is a city of silence, her black ways empty and desolate.
It was not always thus. Once this was a bright and prosperous city, bustling with commerce, with shops and bazaars, filled with happy people who lived under the strong hand of a wise and gentle satrap—Munthassem Khan. He taxed them lightly, ruling with justice and mercy, busy with his private collection of antiquities and in the study of these ancient objects which absorbed his keen, questing mind. The caravans of slow-pacing camels that wound from the Desert Gate bore always with them, amongst the merchants, his agents seeking for rare and curious oddities to purchase for their master's private museum.
Then he changed, and a terrible shadow fell over Yaralet. The satrap was like one under a powerful and evil spell. Where he had been kind, he became cruel. Where generous, greedy. Where just and merciful, secretive, tyrannical, and savage.
Suddenly, the city guard seized men—nobles, wealthy merchants, priests, magicians—who vanished into the pits beneath the satrap's palace, never to be seen again.
Some whispered that a caravan from the far south had brought to him something from the depths of demon-haunted Stygia. Few had glimpsed it, and of those one said shudderingly that the thing was carven with strange, uncouth hieroglyphs like those seen on the dusty Stygian tombs. It seemed to cast an evil spell over the satrap, and it lent him amazing powers of black sorcery. Weird forces shielded him from those despairing patriots who sought to slay him. Strange crimson lights blazed in the windows of a tall tower of his palace, where men whispered that he had converted an empty suite into a grim temple to some dark and bloody god.
And terror walked the streets of nighted Yaralet, as if summoned from the realm of death by some awesome, devil-purchased lore.
Exactly what they feared at night, the people did not know. But it was no vain dream against which they soon came to bolt their doors. Men hinted at slinking, batlike forms glimpsed from barred windows—of hovering, shadowy horrors alien to human knowledge, deadly to human sanity. Tales spread of doorways splintered in the night, of sudden unearthly cries and shrieks torn from human throats—followed by significant, and utter, silence. And they dared to tell of the rising sun illuminating broken doors that swung in houses suddenly and unaccountably empty—The thing from Stygia was the Hand of Nergal.
"It looks," said Atalis softly, "like a clawed hand carven of old ivory, worked all over with weird glyphs in a forgotten tongue. The claws clasp a sphere of shadowy, dim crystal. I know that the satrap has it: I have seen it here"—he gestured—"in my crystal. For, although no enchanter, I have learned some of the Dark Arts."
Conan stirred restlessly. "And you know of this thing?"
Atalis smiled faintly. "Know of it? Aye! Old books speak of it and whisper the dark legend of its bloody history. The blind seer who penned the Book of Skelos knew it well—Nergal's Hand they name it, shudderingly. They say it fell from the stars into the sunset isles of the uttermost west, ages upon ages before King Kull rose to bring the Seven Empires beneath his single standard. Centuries and ages beyond thought have rolled across the world since first bearded Pictish fishermen drew it dripping from the deep and stared wonderingly into its shadowy fires! They bartered it to greedy Atlantean merchants, and it passed east across the world. The withered, hoary-bearded mages of elder Thule and dark Grondar probed its mysteries in their towers of purple and silver. The serpent men of shadow-haunted Valusia peered into its glimmering depths. With it, Kom-Yazoth whelmed the Thirty Kings until the Hand turned upon and slew him. For the Book of Skelos says the Hand brings two gifts unto its possessor—first, power beyond all limit—then, death beyond all despair."
Only the calm voice of the philosopher droned through the hushed room, but the black-headed warrior thought he could hear, as in a dream, the faint echo of thundering chariots, the clash of steel, the cry of tormented kings drowned in the clangor of collapsing empires "When all of the elder world was broken in the Cataclysm and the green sea rolled in restless fathoms above the shattered spires of lost Atlantis, and the nations sank one by one in red ruin, the Hand passed from the knowledge of men. For three thousand years the Hand slept, but when the young kingdoms of Koth and Ophir awoke and slowly emerged from the murk of barbarism, the talisman was found. The dark wizard-kings of grim Acheron plumbed its secrets, and when the lusty Hyborians broke that cruel kingdom beneath their heel, it passed southwards into dusty Stygia, where the bloody priests of that black land set it to terrible purposes in rites of which I dare not speak. It fell, when some swarthy sorceror was slain, and was buried with him, sleeping away the centuries—but now tomb robbers have roused the Hand of Nergal again, and it has come into the possession of Munthassem Khan. The temptation of ultimate and absolute power, which it holds out to all, has corrupted him, as countless others have been corrupted, who fell beneath its insidious spell. I fear me, Cimmerian, for all these lands, now that the Demon's Hand wakes and dark forces walk the earth again—"
Atalis' voice died away in whispering silence, and Conan growled uneasily, bristling.
"Well—Crom, man, what have I to do with such matters?" he rumbled.
"You alone can destroy the influence of the talisman over the satrap's mind!"
The smouldering blue eyes widened. "How?"
"You alone possess the counter-talisman."
"I? You are mad—I hold no truck with amulets and suchlike magical trash—!"
Atalis stilled him with a lifted palm. "Did you not find a curious golden object before the battle?" he queried, softly. Conan started.
"Aye, that I did—at Bahari, yestereve, as we lay in camp—" He plunged one hand into his pocket-pouch and drew out the smooth, glowing stone. The philosopher and the prince stared at it, drawing in their breaths.
"The Heart of Tammuz! Yes, the counter-talisman in very truth—!" Heart-shaped it was, and large as a child's fist, worked in golden amber or perhaps rare yellow jade. It lay there in the Cimmerian's hand, glowing with soft fires, and he remembered with a prickling of awe how the healing, tingling warmth of it had driven from his body the supernatural chill of the bat-winged shadows.
"Come, Conan! We shall accompany you. There is a secret passageway from this my chamber into the satrap's hall—an underground tunnel like that by which my slave, Hildico, led you under the city streets into my house. You, armed with the protection of the Heart, shall slay Munthassem Khan, or destroy the Hand of Nergal. There is no danger, for he lies deep in a magical slumber, which comes upon him whenever he has need to summon forth the Shadows of Nergal, as he has already done this night to overwhelm the Turanian army of King Yildiz. Come!"
Conan strode to the table and drained the last of the wine. Then, shrugging, muttering an oath to Crom, he followed the limping seer and the slim prince into a dark opening behind an arras.
In a moment they were gone, and the chamber lay empty and silent as a grave. The only motion came from flickering lights within the green, jagged crystal beside the chair. Within its depths one could see the small figure of Munthassem Khan, lying in a drugged sleep within his mighty hall.
THEY strode through endless darkness. Water dripped from the roof of the rock-hewn tunnel, and now and then the red eyes of rats gleamed at them from the tunnel's floor, gleamed and were gone with squeaks of rage as the small scavengers fled before the footsteps of the strange beings who invaded their subterranean domain.
Atalis went first, trailing his one good hand along the wet, uneven cavern wall.
"I would not set this task on you, my young friend," he was saying in a low whisper. "But it was into your hands the Heart of Tammuz fell, and I sense a purpose—a destiny—in its choice. There is an affinity between opposed forces, such as the Dark Power we symbolize as 'Nergal' and the Power of Light we call Tammuz.' The Heart awoke and, in some manner beyond knowledge, caused itself to be found; for the Hand was also awake and working its dread purpose. Thus I commend you to this task, for the Powers seem to have singled you for this deed—hush! We are beneath the palace now. We are almost there—" He drew ahead and stroked one delicate hand over the rough surface of rock that closed off the passage. A mass of rock swung silently aside on secret counterweights. Light burst upon them.
They stood at one end of a vast, shadow-filled hall whose high, vaulted roof was lost in darkness overhead. In the center of the hall, which was otherwise empty save for rows of mighty columns, stood a square dais, and upon the dais, a massive throne of black marble, and upon the throne—Munthassem Khan.
He was of middle years, but thin and wasted, gaunt to the point of emaciation. Paper-white, unhealthy flesh and shrunken upon his skull-like face, and dark circles shadowed his hollow eyes. Clasped across his chest as he lay sprawled in the throne, he held an ivory rod, like a sceptre. Its end was worked into a demon's claw, grasping a smoky crystal that pulsed like a living heart with slow fires. Beside the throne, a dish of brass smoked with a narcotic incense: the dream lotus whose fumes empowered the sorcerer to release the shadow-demons of Nergal. Atalis tugged at Conan's arm.
"See—he still sleeps! The Heart will protect you. Seize the ivory Hand from him, and all his power will be gone!" Conan growled reluctant consent, and started forward, his naked sword in one hand. There was something about this that he did not like. It was too easy "Ah, gentlemen. I have been expecting you."
On the dais, Munthassem Khan smiled down at them as they froze in astonishment. His tones were gentle, but a fury of mad rage flamed in his sick eyes. He lifted the ivory sceptre of power, he gestured—The lights flickered eerily. And suddenly, shockingly, the limping seer screamed. His muscles contorted in a spasm of unendurable agony. He fell forward on the marble flags, writhing in pain.
Prince Than plucked at his rapier, but a gesture of the magic Hand stayed him. His eyes went blank and dead. Icy sweat started from his paling brow. He shrieked and sank to his knees, clawing frantically at his brow as pangs of blinding pain tore through his brain.
"And you, my young barbarian!"
Conan sprang. He moved like a striking panther, burly limbs a blur of speed. He was upon the first step of the dais before Munthassem Khan could move. His sword flashed up, wavered, and fell from strengthless hands. A wave of arctic cold numbed his limbs. It radiated from the cloudy gem within the ivory claw. He gasped for breath.
The burning eyes of Munthassem Khan blazed into his. The skull-like face chuckled with a ghastly imitation of mirth.
"The Heart protects, in very truth—but only him who knows how to invoke its power!" the satrap gloated, chuckling as the Cimmerian strove to summon strength into his iron limbs again. Conan set his jaw and fought grimly, savagely against the tide of chill and fetid darkness that poured in black rays from the demonic crystal and slowly blurred his mind. Strength drained from his limbs as wine from a slashed wineskin; he sank to his knees, then slumped at the foot of the dais. He felt his consciousness shrink to a tiny, lone point of light lost in a vast abyss of roaring darkness; the last spark of will wavered like a candle-flame in a gale. Hopeless, yet with the fierce, indominable determination of his savage breed, he fought on—
A WOMAN screamed. Startled, Munthassem Khan jerked at the unexpected sound. His attention flickered away from Conan—his focus broke—and in that brief instant the slim white form of a nude girl with dark flashing eyes and a black torrent of foaming curls ran on swift feet across the pave from the shadow of a column to the side of the helpless Cimmerian.
Through the roaring haze, Conan gaped at her. Hildico?
Swift as thought, she knelt by his side. One white hand dipped into his pouch and emerged, clutching the Heart of Tammuz. She sprang lithely to her feet and hurled the counter-talisman at Munthassem Khan.
It caught him full between the eyes with an audible thud. Eyes filming, he sank bonelessly into the cushioned embrace of his black throne. The Hand of Nergal slid from nerveless fingers to clank against the marble step.
In the instant the talisman fell from the satrap's grip, the spell that bound Atalis and Prince Than in webs of scarlet agony snapped. Pale, shaken, exhausted, they were whole. And Conan's mighty strength poured back into his sprawled body. Cursing, he leapt to his feet. One hand caught Hildico's rounded shoulder and spun her away, out of danger, while with his other he snatched up his sword from the marble pave. Poised, he was ready to strike.
But he stopped, blinking with astonishment. At either side of the satrap's body lay the two talismans. And from both arose weird shapes of force.
From the Hand of Nergal, a darkly shimmering web of evil radiance spread—a glow of darkness, like the sheen of polished ebony. The foetor of the Pit was its unholy breath, and the bone-deep chill of interstellar space was its blighting touch. Before its subtle advance, the orange glare of the torches faded. It grew larger, fringed with writhing tentacles of radiant blackness.
But a nimbus of golden glory strengthened about the Heart of Tammuz and rose, forming a cloud of dazzling amber fire. The warmth of a thousand honey-hearted springs flowed from it, negating the arctic chill, and shafts of rich gold light cleaved the inky web of Nergal. The two cosmic forces met and fought. From this battle of the gods, Conan retreated with reluctant steps, joining his shaken comrades. He stood with them, staring with awe at the unimaginable conflict. Trembling, the nude form of Hildico shrank into the shelter of his arm.
"How did you get here, girl?" he demanded. She smiled wanly, with frightened eyes.
"I awoke, recovering from my swoon, and came into the Master's chamber, Ending it empty. But within the Master's crystal of seership I saw your simulacra enter the satrap's hall and watched as he awoke and faced you. I, I followed—and finding you in his power, chanced all on a try for the Heart—"
"Lucky for all that you did," Conan acknowledged grimly. Atalis clutched his arm.
The golden fog of Tammuz was now a giant, flashing figure of intolerable light, dimly manlike in configuration but huge as those Colossi hewn from the stone cliffs of Shem by age-forgotten hands.
The dark shape of Nergal, too, had swelled into giant proportions. It was now a vast, ebon thing, brutal, hulking, misshapen, more like to some stupendous ape than manlike. In the foggy hump that was its brutlelike head, slitted eyes of malignant fire blazed like emerald stars.
The two forces came together with a thunderous, shattering roar like colliding worlds. The very walls shook at the fury of their meeting. Some half-forgotten sense within their flesh told the four that titanic cosmic forces strove and fought. The air was filled with the bitter stench of ozone. Foot-long sparks of electric fire crackled and snapped through the roiling fury as the golden god and the shadowy demon came together.
Shafts of unendurable brilliance tore through the clotted, struggling shadow-form. Bolts of blazing glory ripped it into shreds of drifting darkness. For a moment the dark web enshrouded, and dimmed, the golden flashing shape—but for a moment, only. Another roar of earth-shattering thunder, and the black one dissolved before the embrace of intolerable brightness. Then it was gone. And for a moment the figure of light towered above the dais, consuming it like a funeral pyre—then it, too, was gone.
Silence reigned in the thunder-riven hall of Munthassem Khan. Upon the blasted dais, both talismans had vanished—whether reduced to atoms by the fury of the cosmic forces that had been released here, or transported to some far place to await the next awakening of the beings they symbolized and contained, none could say.
And the body upon the dais? Naught of it was left, save for a handful of ashes.
"The heart is always stronger than the hand," Atalis said softly, in the ringing silence.
Conan reined the great black steed with a rough but masterly hand. It trembled, eager to be off, hooves ringing on the cobbles. He grinned, his barbaric blood thrilling to the might of the superb mare. A vast cloak of crimson silk belled from his broad shoulders, and his coat of silvered iron mesh mail glittered in the morning light.
"You are determined, then, to leave us, Conan?" asked Prince Than, resplendent in his robes as new satrap of Yaralet
"Aye! The Satrap's Guard is a tame place, and I hunger for this new war King Yildiz is mounting against the hill tribes. A week of inaction, and I've had a bellyfull of peace! So fare you well, Than, Atalis!"
He tugged sharply on the reins, drawing the black mare about, and cantered out of the courtyard of the seer's house, while Atalis and the prince watched benignly.
"Odd that a mercenary like Conan would accept less in payment than he could get," the new satrap commented. "I offered him a chest full of gold—enough to support him for life. But he would take only one small sack, together with the horse he found on the battlefield and his pick of arms and garments. Too much gold, he said, would only slow him down."
Atalis shrugged—then smiled, pointing to the far end of the courtyard. A slim Brythunian girl with long mane of black curls appeared in a doorway. She came up to Conan, who drew the mare to a halt; he bent to speak with her. They exchanged a few words; then he reached down and caught her supple waist and swung her up before him onto the saddle. She sat sideways, clinging with both arms to his burly neck, her face buried in his breast.
He swung about, flung up one brawny arm, grinned back at them in farewell, and rode off with the lithe girl clasped before him.
Atalis chuckled. "Some men fight for things other than gold," he observed.