From what I have gleaned reading discussions on this forum, it seems clear that Howard intended Zamora the Accursed to be the name of the original City of Thieves, the location of the Maul, and the actual setting of The Tower of the Elephant. Mention of the Maul in Howard’s Nestor synopsis seems to indicate that the Zamoran city referred to in the synopsis is also the city of Zamora the Accursed, and that is the interpretation I have used.
I hope you like it.
PS with a big thanks to Deuce for his suggestions of amendments and edits, and informative links. Without Deuce, for instance, chapter one would have been missing entirely.
Chapter One A Thousand Aspers for His Head
Swords clashed in the barroom of The Red Kindjal, where a powerfully built youth fought four Zamoran watchmen. Blades flickered in the lamplight as the battling figures cursed and smote, parting the crowd as surely as if a cobra had been flung in their midst. Guttering lanterns among the scattered stools and upturned tables cast the scene into a sinister relief.
The youth was black haired like the Zamorans, but there the resemblance ended. They were of average height, lean and wiry, whereas the youth stood half a head taller, deep chested and broad shouldered. Their skin was the natural darkness of the Zamoran, his was that of the northerner burned brown by the wasteland suns.
The youth fought like a jungle cat, and the ill trained watchmen began falling to the ferocity of his swordplay. Three went down in almost as many blows, and the last turned and fled howling through the crowd, spilling blood from a wounded arm. The youth lowered the broadsword gripped in his scarred fist, and blood dripped sluggishly from the blade into the sawdust on the tavern floor.
He stooped to clean the blade on the cloak of one of the fallen men, then sheathed it in the shagreen bound scabbard that hung from his belt. He turned and strode towards the bar, and the crowd of Zamoran thieves and bravos, swaggering rogues and rascals all, parted to let him through. Their eyes gleamed with a predatory light as they fell upon the accouterments of the fallen, then they rushed forward like a pack of hungry jackals, to plunder the corpses of all valuables. It was not often that un-bribed watchmen braved the revels of the Maul.
Behind the bar a heavily built Nemedian poured a drink of liquor which he quaffed in a single draught. He glanced at the approaching youth and offered the glass and bottle. The youth took up the proffered drink, and swigged from the bottle with unfeigned relish.
“Someone’s after your hide, Conan,” said the Nemedian. “The watch are raising up a stink all through the Maul, and the merchant Verustes has placed a thousand aspers on your head. What have you done this time?” He spoke with a questing familiarity.
“Damned if I know,” Conan grated. “I’ve been out of trouble all month until this. Some noble I’ve upset recently, I’ll guess. They don’t take to my manners. As for that snake Verustes -- ”
His blue eyes smoldered dangerously.
“You’d best leave Zamora, Conan.” said the Nemedian. “Once the word gets abroad, for a thousand aspers, every sell sword and jackal from here to Shadizar will be on your trail. By Bel lad, I’d bring you in myself if I didn’t think you’d gut me first.”
Conan nodded sombrely. Without further word he turned and strode through the crowd, a brooding sinister figure, out into the clamoring, filth clogged maze men called the Maul.
Besides the Nemedian there were only three other foreigners in the barroom of The Red Kindjal: a lean hawk faced Kothian in battered mail, a blond haired Brythunian beauty, and the last, a tall tawny-haired Gunderman mercenary officer, who had sat coolly drinking throughout the conflict which blazed up around him. The Gunderman finished up his drink and rose. He strode purposefully toward the back of the tavern where the Brythunian woman was slinking through the shadows towards the back door. She hissed as he grabbed her arm and her beautiful grey eyes blazed in defiance.
‘Let me go Nestor, you beer swilling pig!’
‘Now Arcavia, I’m not seeking to bed you this time. Just tell me where Conan’s bolt hole is. And I‘ll give you an easy share of the thousand silvers after I hand in his head to the merchant’
‘I don’t know! Let go!’
Nestor grinned. ‘How about a hundred silvers?’
‘Let me go, you dog!’ Arcavia twisted and pulled like a wild cat, but could not break the Gunderman’s grasp. She reached for a knife secreted in her broad flamboyant girdle, but the Gunderman grabbed her second wrist before she could get to the hilt. He twisted aside from her savage attempt to knee him in the groin. ‘Even if I did know, I wouldn’t betray him to a washed out sell-sword like you.’
‘How about I explain to the watch sergeant, or the Magistrate, just how much time you’ve been spending with Conan lately, eh’
Arcavia wailed and shrank back. ‘Devil take you! Conan will split your skull for this!’
Chapter Two Into the Hills
Nestor strode up the narrow gorge, with the easy gait of one long accustomed to campaigning. Under the midday sun the air in the gorge was sweltering, and he tilted back his helmet to wipe the sweat from his brow. But heat was not the only reason he was sweating. The high walls of the gorge were broken up with numerous landslides, an indication of how unstable was the rock face here. Added to this, the Gunderman knew that his quarry, the youth Conan, was a Cimmerian, born of that barbaric race of grim hillmen. Worse still, they were headed for Kataiphon. He had cursed when Conan’s doxy had told him that the Cimmerian planned to assay the rumor of treasure in that ill-omened city. Even the bold thieves of Zamora avoided the place, shunning it with a superstition which bordered on fear.
Nestor paused and raised his wineskin to his dry lips. He took a deep swig of fortified wine that burned reassuringly as it passed down his throat and into his belly. He was tall, with a rangy build, and had the characteristic tawny hair and grey eyes of the Gunderman. His helm, breastplate and greaves were of fine Aquilonian make, as was the long blade that hung from his hip, though all were worn with use. He glanced down to where his squad of Zamoran soldiers were filing up the gorge in a disorderly line, and waited for them to approach. Then he turned and headed back up the gorge at their head.
Nestor recalled the turn of events that brought him here to the hills above the city of Zamora the Accursed. He recalled how he had joined the Gunderman mercenaries who had set out from Shadizar with the ragged army of the satrap Zavas, across the wastes of Turan to harry and reave beyond the border. But the wily Turanian general, Yildiz, had caught them out on the plains with his mobile force of horse archers, constantly harassing them with a hellish rain of arrows, and then withdrawing in a cloud of dust when Zavas sought to respond with his heavier cavalry. Zavas then ordered a fighting withdrawal towards the mountainous borders of Zamora.
A second Turanian force had come out of the northwest to cut off their retreat, and Zavas’s army was caught between the two Turanian forces. In the battle which ensued the toll on both sides was horrendous, but towards the end of the day a Turanian victory was inevitable. The Gunderman mercenaries, with Nestor, had cut their way clear and fallen back in an orderly formation towards the mountains along the Zamoran border.
And then, in the foothills, more butchery began. Yildiz sent a force of dismounted Janissaries into the foothills to harry the Gundermen as they retreated. Of the two thousand Gundermen who set out with Zavas only one hundred survived, Nestor among them. In Shadizar they were accounted deserters, for the satrap Zavas was captured and ransomed by the Turanians, and bruited widely that the Gundermen deserted, thus loosing him the battle. So they fled to Yezud and Zamora the Accursed, the only survivors among that ill-fated force who were not either enslaved, or ransomed.
In Zamora Nestor had signed on as a mercenary officer for the city watch, though, like many, he accepted bribes, and worked as much for the thieves as for the authorities. And there he had learned of the large bounty placed upon the head of a young thief named Conan, a barbarian from Cimmeria who had infuriated the local merchants and nobles with his daring thefts. Nestor had readily taken up the commission to track down the outlander.
Nestor’s reverie was broken when he tripped and fell sprawling. He glimpsed a rawhide rope lying in the long grass. The wall of the gorge to his right sheered off and began to split and topple inward. Nestor rolled to his feet with a fervent curse and ran, as a massive section of the gorge wall broke up and came cascading down. Rocks and debris pounded against him and he was knocked from his feet and half buried at the edge of the avalanche.
For a long while Nestor lay there unmoving, with agony coursing through his buried limbs. He gazed up to where a tall figure in a camel hair khilat stood on the lip of the gorge silhouetted against the cloudless sky. The garment could not conceal the clean cut lines of his powerful frame or the massive sweep of his broad shoulders. He wore a wide belt from which depended a great broadsword. His mane of black hair and scarlet cloak flapped in the wind that blew across the ridge above the gorge. The elemental presence of the youth was evident even at this distance; he seemed as much a part of this bleak landscape as one of the lions that prowled these hills. It was Conan who stood there like a devil come to survey his handiwork. He expected the Cimmerian to come down and butcher him where he lay, but he kept deathly still, and soon Conan turned and moved out of sight beyond the rim.
Nestor feared that his arm and leg were broken. He carefully extricated himself by rolling aside rocks, and clawing away dirt and debris with his free arm. He was bruised and lacerated, and his helmet and cuirass were dented, but he found himself to be other wise unharmed.
Nestor rose carefully to his feet and looked back down the gorge. It was filled some fifteen feet deep for almost fifty yards. Sandstone dust drifted in the air. There were no cries, nor calls for help - besides himself no one could have survived that carnage. Nestor reached for his wineskin, to find it punctured and empty. He cursed profusely, then carried on up the gorge alone.
The sweltering air of the gorge gave way to a windswept chill as Nestor crested the rise and looked out over the plateau. His cloak whipped around his tall lean frame like the ragged wing of a vulture. The grey eyes under his tawny brows surveyed the massive walls of the ruined city through narrowed slits, until they lighted upon the form of Conan, seeming now a tiny figure moving before the cyclopean gates of Kataiphon. Conan’s attention was taken up with questing for an entrance. Nestor watched the Cimmerian move away from the gates. He had found no means of ingress there, and had begun to circumnavigate the walls.
Nestor hurried forward, intending to engage his quarry while he was still distracted. He moved forward swiftly and cautiously, using the crumbled walls of the city’s suburbs for cover, easing the long narrow blade at his side from its sheath as he advanced. He came upon Conan just as he was about to climb in at a point where the wall had fallen almost completely away, where the plateau had been eroded beneath it. Nestor cursed as the Cimmerian turned to face him, then he yelled and charged.
Conan drew his heavy broadsword and twisted aside from the first savage thrust. He gave ground and parried wildly as the Gunderman officer barreled forward like a boar, slashing and thrusting as he advanced. In the first exchange of swordplay it was evident that Nestor had the edge in experience. The seasoned warrior was gradually forcing the Cimmerian back towards the edge of the plateau.
Although Conan was not trained like the Gunderman, he possessed a body honed by all the wild vitality of his barbaric existence knit to the keen brain of the natural fighting man. His steel trap speed and co-ordination and the sheer power of his blows began to tell. As he fought his eyes burned with the fire of a wolf’s and his lips were set in a savage grin. He rained fierce strokes upon the Gunderman’s guard, beating down his defense. Then he laid in with a massive sweep to Nestor’s head which carried all the power of his heavy arm and shoulder. The youth’s great broadsword smashed the blade from Nestor’s hand and crashed onto his helmet with a shower of sparks. The Gunderman dropped like a pole-axed hog, and his body rolled over the edge of the plateau and down the slope, coming to rest against a boulder.
What do you know of barbarian ways
You who are swaddled by ‘civilized’ lies?
Of we who must fight with spear against fang
Beneath the angry clouds of savage skies?
Chapter Three The Lurker in the Ruins
Conan gazed at the unmoving body of the mercenary officer sprawled below. He had previously felt no grudge against the Gunderman, whom he recognized from the Maul - but it seemed Nestor had no compunctions about helping the Zamoran authorities track him down across the wilderness, so long as there was enough coin at stake. Conan grunted. As a Gunderman Nestor should have known better than to chase a Cimmerian into hill country.
Conan turned back toward the city. Sheathing his sword, he clambered over the rubble clogging the shattered breech in the wall. He strode casually through the debris strewn streets, his blue eyes wandering over the fluted columns, bizarre friezes and torturous arabesques that adorned the crumbling masonry. His mind reeled from the dark conjectures raised by the scenes depicted there. As for the buildings themselves, they were all weirdly angled, leaning gradually inward like hellish blooms towards the vast black palace that towered over the city from the ebon hill at its center. Conan gave an involuntary shudder.
In a market place in Zamora Conan had heard two sages talking about Kataiphon. They said its origin was lost in the fathomless mists of time, having been built long before even the ancient Zemri, ancestors of the Zamorans, had settled in the region. And the swarthy thieves that frequented the thronging revels in the Maul of Zamora spoke of Kataiphon in hushed whispers, even more hushed and warily than they spoke of the spider-haunted towers and minarets of their own accursed city. Now that he was here Conan could understand why. He did not mean to spend a single moment more than he had to in this damnable place.
Conan smelled a hint of something rank and feline on the wind. The hackles on his neck rose. It was the spoor no doubt of some predator which made it’s home in these ruins. From that point his scarred hand never left the hilt of his broadsword, and he walked now with deliberate caution as he proceeded towards the huge black palace that brooded over the city.
It was the stealthy pad of unseen feet which warned the Cimmerian that he was being stalked. He wheeled, but no fanged horror presented itself to his gaze along the streets, nor did any furtive shape slink among the shadows beyond the empty doors and windows. He stood motionless, his every sense alert. A change in the wind brought a hint of that fetid odor to his nostrils once again, but this time it was stronger.
Conan scanned the nearby buildings. His instincts drove him to seek some high ground, and his eyes lighted on a tall dwelling with bas reliefs and inset carven pillars that would make for an easy ascent. Conan caught a movement at the edge of his vision and turned in time to see the dark beast glowering down upon him from a nearby roof. It pounced, as silent as a specter. Conan dived, rolling aside from the massive bulk that hurtled down upon him. The splayed claws that had sought his flesh instead found purchase in his cloak, which was ripped from his shoulders. He rolled back to his feet from the momentum of his dive, ran and leaped for the pillared wall, swarming hand and foot up it’s crumbling surface with a facility that few but a Cimmerian could have accomplished. In his flight he did not turn back until he had vaulted the parapet and stood on the broken roof, looking down to see the creature prowling the street below.
It had a form resembling the mountain lions of his native Cimmeria, but was far bigger than a bear, high at the shoulder with a great thick neck and massive head. It prowled around the base of the building, casting baleful glances upon him from the dark eyes under its heavy furrowed brows, and gave out the snarl of the hungry beast baulked of the flesh it craved. Conan admired the terrifying handiwork of nature that had bred this primordial incarnation of death, even as he realized he was hopelessly outmatched. This creature was a throwback to a previous age, an age merely hinted at in the myths and legends of his people. Some of these creatures still lived, it seemed, in the far off places of the world. Conan prepared himself to die here fighting with the last ounce of his prowess. Yet there was more of a savage kinship between himself and his enemy than there was between either of them and the vast unnatural city which formed their battleground.
The creature leaped and Conan sprang back from the parapet as its huge paw swept over the edge where he had been standing. Its rear legs scrabbled for purchase then it slipped and fell back into the street, landing with catlike surety in spite of it’s bulk. Conan could not believe that a beast of such size could leap so high. Galvanized by the knowledge that his refuge was not safe, he hefted one of the dislodged blocks upon the roof in both hands and hurled it over the parapet. It struck the creature’s side heavily, causing it to flinch and snarl.
The beast was lining up for another leap when Conan hefted a second block and cast it downward. Three more blocks Conan threw, and all but one hit home, but the beast’s dull brain did not seem to register any pain or injury, though he could see the dark glistening of blood on its fur where his missiles had struck. At least he had distracted it from leaping.
The roof on which Conan stood was surrounded by a waist high parapet which swept up to the height of a man at the corners and in the center of each side. Worn by long ages, the masonry was crumbling and the raised sections reeled drunkenly. Conan set his back to the raised central section and with a volcanic effort sent it toppling down into the street, where it struck the brute across the shoulders. Such was his effort that he followed it bodily over the edge and found himself hanging by his fingers from the rim. He twisted his head to look back down, and swore sulfurously. The dark beast still stirred amongst the rubble.
Conan could see no other recourse now but to close in and die locked in bloody combat with his foe. He swarmed halfway down the wall and then dropped, landing cat-like on the street, some yards from the dark bulk that was even now rising sluggishly from the ruins of the parapet. Conan drew his poignard, ran, and leaped for the one place that he felt could offer him some slim chance of survival - the great broad back of the beast itself. His left hand locked with an iron grip in the hair of the dark mane about its neck. The long poignard in his right hand rose and fell like a butcher’s knife, seeking the jugular.
Unable to bring it’s claws to bear, the creature slammed against a wall, trying to dislodge this hellcat on its back. Conan was flung bodily against the wall, but he retained his iron grip on its mane, an effort that almost wrenched his arm from the socket. He twisted again onto the back of the beast and continued his grisly work, eyes blazing and lips drawn back in a furious grimace. The creature dropped and rolled, this time trying to crush him. Conan reacted instinctively, throwing himself clear, leaving the poignard impaled in its great neck.
Both Conan and the beast rolled to their feet. The beast’s flank and neck were drenched in blood which flowed down its leg, but yet it still stood. Conan’s eyes burned with a glacial fire as they locked with the creature’s malignant gaze. He ripped his broadsword from its scabbard and stood ready to take one last swing at the beast before it tore him apart. He had done his volcanic best, and that was all that could be asked of any man.
The beast tensed for a spring - then it sagged and lay down, the great chest heaving and nostrils flaring. It made as if to rise, then the massive head dropped and it’s eyes glazed over in death. Conan could not believe it. Somewhere in that hacking frenzy his blade must have struck home in something vital. He sheathed his sword and waited for a while before walking forward to retrieve his weapon from it’s broad neck. He lifted the poignard to the sky and the blood ran in rivulets down his scarred and brawny arm as he bellowed a ferocious war cry that echoed throughout the silent city.
Chapter Four The Hall of the Ancients
Nestor stirred and groaned. Pain lanced through his skull as he lifted his head and glanced about him at the bleak slope. He remembered fighting Conan and feeling a rising panic as he had begun to realize the wild prowess of the youth, but nothing more. Dried blood caked the left side of his face. He sat up, removed his helm and felt the angry wound upon his scalp. He examined the dent in his helm, then donned it once again.
Nestor rose unsteadily to his feet, gritting his teeth against a wave of pain and nausea. He scrambled up the slope until he stood once more in the place where he had fought Conan. The sun had not moved far in the sky, less than an hour had passed. He found his sword lying on the ground, but had no memory of how it got there. Sheathing it, he entered the city through the breech in the wall and wandered warily through the ancient streets. Presently he came upon the gigantic corpse of the predator.
‘By Bori and by Mitra!’ he swore, amazed.
He placed a hand upon it’s flank and felt the warmth still present beneath the thick pelt.
Conan ascended the steps that led up the black hill to the dark palace at it’s crest. The wind stirred his hair, torn cloak and khilat as he took in the view of the city laid out below him, and beyond that, the plateau and the tremendous vista presented by the vast hill country of Zamora. He traversed the pillared portico that fronted the palace and tested the bronze rings, crusted with verdigris, on the gigantic ebon doors before him. The doors did not seem to be barred or locked. He looked down to see a lone figure moving toward the steps at the base of the hill. It was Nestor, who began the long ascent up the stairway, drawing his sword as he approached the summit. Conan grunted irritatedly, and drew his own blade.
Nestor regarded the barbaric figure in torn and bloodstained garments who awaited him before the black doors, looking like he had stepped fresh from a slaughterhouse. Gone was the rash overconfidence, spurred by anger, which Nestor had displayed at their first encounter. Now his grey eyes scanned Conan with a predatory cool, looking for some sign of injury or weakness.
This demeanor was not lost on the Cimmerian.
‘By Crom,’ said Conan, disgustedly, ‘forget the bounty. I’ve wiped out your squad man. Even if you bring back my head those Zamoran vipers will use that as an excuse to deny your pay. They’ll likely hang you into the bargain.’
Nestor’s hand tightened imperceptibly on the hilt of his sword. He was the older man, a trained warrior and better equipped, he should by rights have the best of any exchange between them. Yet memory of the youth’s raw prowess and the dull pain of his head wound fueled indecision.
‘You’ve played the Zamoran game for long enough to know I’m right,’ continued Conan. ‘Besides, my source tells me there’s more treasure in yon palace than ten men can carry away. More than enough loot for the likes of us both, without bloodshed.’
‘You suggest we join up?’
‘Aye. I’ve no interest in rapping your fool pate again.’
Nestor could sense no deceit in the Cimmerian. He was simply speaking the truth with forthright bluntness.
‘Very well,’ said Nestor.
As if that concluded their dealings Conan sheathed his sword and turned without a second thought. It was not the action of a naive youth. Nestor had felt the Cimmerian evaluating him keenly as he spoke. Conan had known the truth of his words struck home more keenly than any steel. Nestor sheathed his sword.
Conan pulled on the bronze rings and the huge doors swung outward, grating on stone hinges. Nestor and Conan stood gazing into the gloomy interior of the vast black palace.
They walked through an antechamber and another set of double doors into a large throne room. Sunlight streamed in through long narrow windows set high in the walls.
‘The thieves and royalty of Zamora avoid this place,’ said Conan, his voice resounding in the silent hall. ‘I met a cut-purse bolder than most who said he found a great treasure here.’
‘So why did he not take this treasure for himself,’ muttered Nestor, incredulous.
‘He said demons guarded it. Such was his fear he dared not touch a single coin.’
'And you believe him?’
‘This throne room matches his description,’ Conan said.
Conan and Nestor continued on, searching rooms and chambers filled with the shattered remnants of a vanished people, on into the bowels of the dark palace, sometimes groping through lightless corridors, and at other times walking across broad chambers with high set windows, open to the elements, through which the sunlight poured. The Cimmerian moved with barely a sound, but the Gunderman’s boots scuffed on the flag stones and his armor straps creaked as he walked. Throughout their journey Nestor began to develop an unusual notion; the size of the throne, the height of the arches and the height at which the handles were set in the stone doors, all seemed to indicate this place was built by a race taller than human. They ascended a spiral stairway onto a balustraded walkway and passed through an arch into a corridor that paralleled the walkway.
‘Here,' said Conan. To the left and right the corridor stretched into darkness and ahead was an engraved stone door with an elaborate surround. In the dim sunlight filtering through from the chamber behind Nestor could see grotesque figures interlocked in writhing patterns carved upon the door, at the center of which was a serpent and goat motif. Conan pushed, and the door gave smoothly inward with a grinding of stone hinges.
They looked in upon a long high chamber with a vaulted roof. High in the far wall was a solitary round window, unlike the others they had encountered, this one was glazed with thick transparent crystal. Around the chamber they saw a gallery, with dark openings along its length on both levels, within which stood what were apparently statues, carved in the likeness of the warriors of some vanished race. Similar figures were set about the chamber in lifelike poses, some sat upon stone benches, others lying in repose, some grouped as if in conversation, like courtiers frozen in time.
At the center of the chamber was a great heap of gold and silver coins, that glittered in the gloom. Within this heap, pulsing red, green and blue like lambent flames, were rubies, emeralds and chunks of lapis lazuli.
Conan entered the chamber. ‘More treasure than ten men can carry.’
‘And this has lain here for more centuries than men can remember?’ Nestor peered about apprehensively. ‘I like it not, Conan.’
Conan threw himself down and wallowed in the heap of coins and gems, grinning hugely.
Nestor wandered uneasily about the chamber. He rapped on one of the sentinels. It appeared to be hollow, formed of some resinous substance with a jade hue. It was about seven feet tall, its humanlike features aquiline with a predatory aspect. A chill ran through him as he saw the same sinister countenance upon all of the silent eidolons about the chamber.
In the darkness below the window on the far wall Nestor saw a dais. Upon the dais were set six huge perfectly matched emeralds around an intricately carved jade serpent, with ivory fangs and diamonds for eyes. He shuddered at the idol’s malign ophidian countenance, even as his mind swam with conjecture of its worth. Nestor looked back to see Conan scooping handfuls of coins and gems into a small sack and several pouches which he had laid out upon the floor. An opal slipped through Conan’s fingers, and rolled across the floor, coming to rest at the feet of one of the leering sentinels.
‘Cut up your cloak,’ said Conan. ‘There’s enough loot here to ransom the King of Turan, could we but carry it all.’
Then Conan saw at last the emeralds and serpent idol glinting upon the dais. He rose and came forward to examine them.
‘Well, I’m a Khemite!’ Conan made to gather up the emeralds, but Nestor grabbed his wrist.
‘Stay your hand Cimmerian. You take the gold and gems. I’ll take these.’
Conan tensed, his blue eyes burning with an ominous flame. Then he said, ‘Let us dice for them.’
Nestor barely suppressed a grin. He carried loaded dice, and the Cimmerian was known in the Maul for gambling wildly and loosing far more than he won. Nestor hooked his dice pouch from his belt and tipped the wooden cubes into his hand. He carefully separated the dice, giving some to Conan and keeping some for himself.
‘You first,’ said Conan.
Nestor shook the dice in his fist, rolled, and grinned at the result.
Conan grunted in consternation. He took up the dice Nestor had handed him in one of his massive fists. ‘By Bel and Bubastes,’ he muttered, blowing on his hand as he had seen the Zamoran’s do, then he slammed the dice down without rolling and lifted his hand. ‘Ha! How about that?’
Nestor peered down and cursed. ‘By Mitra,’ he swore, ‘you are meant to roll them! Take them up and cast again.’
‘You lost,’ growled Conan.
Nestor’s jaw clenched, and Conan’s chin was thrust out truculently, as both men grasped the hilt of their blades. It seemed the two warriors would burst into ferocious and bloody conflict, then Nestor thought better of it and backed down.
‘Pah,' he said with a dismissive wave. ‘’Twill be a devil’s job to fence them anyway.’
Conan emptied the sack, and one of the pouches, on the dais then swept the huge emeralds into the pouch, which he secured to his belt. At the same time Nestor took up some of the filled pouches Conan had abandoned and secured them to his own belt.
Conan took up the serpent idol and thrust it into the sack. As he did so an eerie sussuration passed through the chamber which set his skin to crawling. He looked up and saw hideous movement all around as the dark eidolons broke into sinister life.
Chapter Five Jade Curses
Conan and Nestor stood with their back to the dais, mazed with an increasing sense of unreality as they watched the grisly tableau unfold. Along the upper and lower galleries the sentinels sloughed their resinous shells to reveal cadaverous forms bearing the accouterments of a bygone age. Withered arms en-wrapped with cerements lifted khopesh and shield, and sallow eyeless faces with sunken cheeks turned toward the two thieves. Conan and Nestor smelled the bitter scent of natron filling the chamber.
The sound of Conan’s grated oath blended with that of Nestor’s.
Nestor ran for the door, closely followed by Conan, who had paused a moment to secure the sack to his belt. But the giant cadavers were already closing in all around them. The two men found themselves fighting back to back at the center of a stabbing, slashing circle of the dammned. Conan twisted aside from a thrust and hacked the head from one of the un-dead warriors, which continued to fight on headless until Conan sent it reeling with a powerful kick. Nestor cut through the shield arm of another. He stooped to take up the shield, and blows glanced from his helm and breastplate. His fingers grasped the shield handle, feeling it’s familiar weight, as he rose and used the shield to slam bodily into two of the cadavers, flooring one and staggering the other. He grinned as he settled back behind the shield rim.
Nestor and Conan fought grimly on amid that storm of khopesh. Nestor was wounded in the thigh and arm. Unarmored, Conan had the worst of it, with blood dripping sluggishly from a dozen wounds. A cadaver raked it’s khopesh against his ribs. Conan hacked off it’s weapon arm and locked the iron fingers of his left hand about it’s neck. He lifted it bodily with one arm, and used it for a shield, as he continued to strike and parry with his great broadsword. Then he threw the monstrous thing at his attackers, knocking three of them down in a heap, over which he leapt.
Nestor sought to follow Conan but his foot turned on a severed limb and he went down under a hail of blows, with four of the cadavers looming over him, stabbing for his vitals. Nestor covered himself with the shield. Himself momentarily free of attackers, Conan sheathed his sword and lifted one of the stone benches. With a roar he ran forward and rammed the compact group above Nestor, sending the un-dead warriors reeling. He cast the bench at one of them, crushing in its breastplate, then grabbed Nestor by the scruff, yanking him to his feet. The two warriors staggered out through the door and into the corridor beyond. To their left and right they saw more shapes shuffling in the darkness. The cadavers from the upper gallery had descended and now lurched along the corridor towards them.
Conan and Nestor made for the hall, ran along the balustraded walkway and down the spiral stairs. They fled, loping through the dark palace, pursued by that shambling horde, through the throne room and antechamber, out through the great ebon doors and across the pillared portico of the great palace, and onwards down the long stairway, where at the last they stopped and turned.
Above them several of the un-dead warriors stepped into the sunlight and pursued them down the stairway. Their withered limbs and cerements crumbled to fine ash in the rays of the sun and their arms and armour crashed down upon the basalt steps. A helm rolled bouncing downwards, coming to a halt at Nestor’s feet. Under the shade of the portico the other un-dead sentinels clustered for a while. Then they turned and lurched back into the black palace.
‘That’s as close a call as I’ve had in a good while,’ said Nestor, dropping the shield. Conan said nothing. He stood motionless, the blue eyes under his heavy brows gazing inscrutably up at the black palace.
The ground began to shake as if some monstrous entity had awoken in a cavern far below the plateau. A great earthquake struck the city of Kataiphon. Nestor and Conan ran through the crumbling city. Buildings reeled drunkenly, spilling masonry upon the streets around them, and the ground split beneath their feet. Conan could not remember at what point he became separated from Nestor. He came out through the breech in the wall and ran on through the suburbs, only stopping when he reached the head of the gorge, where he turned and looked back at the shattered city of Kataiphon, it’s great cyclopean gates now buckled and sagging.
Conan waited; but when, after an hour, there was no sign of the Gunderman, he turned and headed back to Zamora.
Arcavia withdrew deeper into the shadows at the rear of The Red Kindjal where she sat alone, drinking. There was no mistaking the leers which were cast upon her by several of the patrons, and once the money that Conan had left her ran out --. She shuddered, and pulled her cloak more closely about her.
A huge heavy hand fell upon her shoulder and she turned fearfully. She looked up to see a hulking stranger behind her in the shadows. The expression of fear in her beautiful grey eyes turned to relief as she recognized the huge sweep of the stranger’s shoulders, and the blue eyes which glinted under the stranger’s hood.
‘Conan!’ she cried, rising to throw her arms about his neck.
‘Hush, girl,’ rumbled Conan. ‘If anyone knows I’m back I’ll have half a hundred jackals on my trail. I told you I’d find us a great treasure, and I have. Feast your eyes on these.’
Conan opened the pouch and tipped the contents out upon the table.
Six huge perfectly matched emeralds rolled across the ale stained oak, and as each came to rest, it crumbled into a pile of green dust.
‘By Macha and Nemain,’ swore Conan barbarously, ‘what devilry is this?’
Arcavia glanced up bemusedly at Conan, who took the sack containing the serpent idol and placed it on the table. Arcavia snatched it up and fumbled with the drawstring. Then she threw it down with a yell.
‘Conan, it moved!’
Conan had no time to contemplate the mystery. Through the door of the Red Kindjal came a squad of Zamoran soldiers led by a portly and richly dressed magistrate. A lean figure in a red kaftan was pointing towards the back of the tavern, directly towards Conan and Arcavia. The soldiers spread out and advanced.
Conan swore sulfurously. He set his back to the wall and drew his sword, blue eyes blazing with the fire of a wolf at bay.
‘You were foolish to come back here, barbarian’ said the magistrate. ‘We’ve had this place watched for some time. The merchant Verustes was found be-headed on his estate last night. Would you know anything about that?’
Conan said nothing. His eyes narrowed and the trace of a smile played at the edge of his grim set lips.
‘We know you colluded with the Gunderman mercenary. He came back to Zamora last night, spending and drinking profusely and bragging of your exploits. Drunk as he was, he somehow managed to blunder through our cordon and escape.’
The magistrate’s eyes lighted on the sack. ‘So, what is this?’
The magistrate lifted the sack from the table and opened the drawstring. ‘More evidence of your thievery.'
He thrust his fat hand into the sack, then shrieked and jerked it back out again, a living jade serpent locked fast to his fingers. The magistrate yelled as his hand turned black. He spun around wildly, and ran through the crowd, then toppled, choked, twitched and lay still. The jade serpent uncoiled from his hand and went slithering across the floor, causing soldier and patron alike to leap back, scattering chairs and stools as they reeled from its passage. The barroom of The Red Kindjal erupted in chaos. One of the soldiers turned back to the rear of the tavern, but there was no sign of either Conan or Arcavia.
With the uncanny quickness of the barbarian, Conan had chosen that moment of confusion to take up his woman and vanish into the night.
Edited by VonKalmbach, 12 January 2013 - 07:47 PM.