Shadows In Zamboula by aphroditus
Summary: Not a fanfic. It's the original story by Robert E. Howard. I'm posting it as a test.
Categories: Conan Characters: None
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 12118 Read: 87 Published: May 13, 2017 Updated: May 13, 2017

1. Chapter 1 by aphroditus

Chapter 1 by aphroditus


1 A Drum Begins


'Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Which proves what?' grunted the Cimmerian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'You did not win at the gaming-tables?'

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan grunted and tossed his naked broadsword on the couch.

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

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

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

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

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




2 The Night Skulkers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now they could understand the gutturals of the black men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Where do you want to go?' he asked. The girl did not seem to object to
his arm about her waist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl ran forward.

'Oh, he is not--he is not--'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'For a price,' he admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'You will not fail me?'

He shook his maned head, massive against the stars.

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

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

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

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

The temple of Hanuman stood alone in the midst of a broad square, which
lay silent and deserted beneath the stars. A marble wall surrounded the
shrine, with a broad opening directly before the portico. This opening
had no gate or any sort of barrier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




3 Black Hands Gripping


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Who the devil are you?' he growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




4 Dance, Girl, Dance!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'And why did _you_ want it?' she demanded sulkily.

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

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

'_I_ have the Star of Khorala? Nay, you err.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'The phial!' she gasped. 'The phial!'

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

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

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

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

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

'I forgot Baal-pteor!'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

Conan rattled his coins.

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

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

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

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

'Where are you going?' he challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

'What is it?' asked a rumbling voice within.

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

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

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

'What tale is this--_you!_'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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