The Hour of the Dragon
Chapter 1: O Sleeper, Awake!
The long tapers flickered, sending the black shadows wavering along the walls, and the velvet tapestries rippled. Yet there was no wind in the chamber. Four men stood about the ebony table on which lay the green sarcophagus that gleamed like carven jade. In the upraised right hand of each man a curious black candle burned with a weird greenish light. Outside was night and a lost wind moaning among the black trees.
Inside the chamber was tense silence, and the wavering of the shadows, while four pairs of eyes, burning with intensity, were fixed on the long green case across which cryptic hieroglyphics writhed, as if lent life and movement by the unsteady light. The man at the foot of the sarcophagus leaned over it and moved his candle as if he were writing with a pen, inscribing a mystic symbol in the air. Then he set down the candle in its black gold stick at the foot of the case, and, mumbling some formula unintelligible to his companions, he thrust a broad white hand into his fur-trimmed robe. When he brought it forth again it was as if he cupped in his palm a ball of living fire.
The other three drew in their breath sharply, and the dark, powerful man who stood at the head of the sarcophagus whispered: ‘The Heart of Ahriman!’ The other lifted a quick hand for silence. Somewhere a dog began howling dolefully, and a stealthy step padded outside the barred and bolted door. But none looked aside from the mummy-case over which the man in the ermine-trimmed robe was now moving the great flaming jewel while he muttered an incantation that was old when Atlantis sank. The glare of the gem dazzled their eyes, so that they could not be sure of what they saw; but with a splintering crash, the carven lid of the sarcophagus burst outward as if from some irresistible pressure applied from within, and the four men, bending eagerly forward, saw the occupant--a huddled, withered, wizened shape, with dried brown limbs like dead wood showing through moldering bandages.
‘Bring that thing back?’ muttered the small dark man who stood on the right, with a short sardonic laugh. ‘It is ready to crumble at a touch. We are fools--’
‘Shhh!’ It was an urgent hiss of command from the large man who held the jewel. Perspiration stood upon his broad white forehead and his eyes were dilated. He leaned forward, and, without touching the thing with his hand, laid on the breast of the mummy the blazing jewel. Then he drew back and watched with fierce intensity, his lips moving in soundless invocation.
It was as if a globe of living fire flickered and burned on the dead, withered bosom. And breath sucked in, hissing, through the clenched teeth of the watchers. For as they watched, an awful transmutation became apparent. The withered shape in the sarcophagus was expanding, was growing, lengthening. The bandages burst and fell into brown dust. The shriveled limbs swelled, straightened. Their dusky hue began to fade.
‘By Mitra!’ whispered the tall, yellow-haired man on the left. ‘He was not a Stygian. That part at least was true.’
Again a trembling finger warned for silence. The hound outside was no longer howling. He whimpered, as with an evil dream, and then that sound, too, died away in silence, in which the yellow-haired man plainly heard the straining of the heavy door, as if something outside pushed powerfully upon it. He half turned, his hand at his sword, but the man in the ermine robe hissed an urgent warning: ‘Stay! Do not break the chain! And on your life do not go to the door!’
The yellow-haired man shrugged and turned back, and then he stopped short, staring. In the jade sarcophagus lay a living man: a tall, lusty man, naked, white of skin, and dark of hair and beard. He lay motionless, his eyes wide open, and blank and unknowing as a newborn babe’s. On his breast the great jewel smoldered and sparkled.
The man in ermine reeled as if from some let-down of extreme tension.
‘Ishtar!’ he gasped. ‘It is Xaltotun!--and he lives! Valerius! Tarascus! Amalric! Do you see? Do you see? You doubted me--but I have not failed! We have been close to the open gates of hell this night, and the shapes of darkness have gathered close about us--aye, they followed him to the very door--but we have brought the great magician back to life.’
‘And damned our souls to purgatories everlasting, I doubt not, ‘ muttered the small, dark man, Tarascus.
The yellow-haired man, Valerius, laughed harshly.
‘What purgatory can be worse than life itself? So we are all damned together from birth. Besides, who would not sell his miserable soul for a throne?’
‘There is no intelligence in his stare, Orastes, ‘ said the large man.
‘He has long been dead, ‘ answered Orastes. ‘He is as one newly awakened. His mind is empty after the long sleep--nay, he was dead, not sleeping. We brought his spirit back over the voids and gulfs of night and oblivion. I will speak to him.’
He bent over the foot of the sarcophagus, and fixing his gaze on the wide dark eyes of the man within, he said, slowly: ‘Awake, Xaltotun!’
The lips of the man moved mechanically. ‘Xaltotun!’ he repeated in a groping whisper.
‘You are Xaltotun!’ exclaimed Orastes, like a hypnotist driving home his suggestions. ‘You are Xaltotun of Python, in Acheron.’
A dim flame flickered in the dark eyes.
‘I was Xaltotun, ‘ he whispered. ‘I am dead.’
‘You are Xaltotun!’ cried Orastes. ‘You are not dead! You live!’
‘I am Xaltotun, ‘ came the eery whisper. ‘But I am dead. In my house in Khemi, in Stygia, there I died.’
‘And the priests who poisoned you mummified your body with their dark arts, keeping all your organs intact!’ exclaimed Orastes. ‘But now you live again! The Heart of Ahriman has restored your life, drawn your spirit back from space and eternity.’
‘The Heart of Ahriman!’ The flame of remembrance grew stronger. ‘The barbarians stole it from me!’
‘He remembers, ‘ muttered Orastes. ‘Lift him from the case.’
The others obeyed hesitantly, as if reluctant to touch the man they had recreated, and they seemed not easier in their minds when they felt firm muscular flesh, vibrant with blood and life, beneath their fingers. But they lifted him upon the table, and Orastes clothed him in a curious dark velvet robe, splashed with gold stars and crescent moons, and fastened a cloth-of-gold fillet about his temples, confining the black wavy locks that fell to his shoulders. He let them do as they would, saying nothing, not even when they set him in a carven throne-like chair with a high ebony back and wide silver arms, and feet like golden claws. He sat there motionless, and slowly intelligence grew in his dark eyes and made them deep and strange and luminous. It was as if long-sunken witchlights floated slowly up through midnight pools of darkness.
Orastes cast a furtive glance at his companions, who stood staring in morbid fascination at their strange guest. Their iron nerves had withstood an ordeal that might have driven weaker men mad. He knew it was with no weaklings that he conspired, but men whose courage was as profound as their lawless ambitions and capacity for evil. He turned his attention to the figure in the ebon-black chair. And this one spoke at last.
‘I remember, ‘ he said in a strong, resonant voice, speaking Nemedian with a curious, archaic accent. ‘I am Xaltotun, who was high priest of Set in Python, which was in Acheron. The Heart of Ahriman--I dreamed I had found it again--where is it?’
Orastes placed it in his hand, and he drew breath deeply as he gazed into the depths of the terrible jewel burning in his grasp.
‘They stole it from me, long ago, ‘ he said. ‘The red heart of the night it is, strong to save or to damn. It came from afar, and from long ago. While I held it, none could stand before me. But it was stolen from me, and Acheron fell, and I fled in exile into dark Stygia. Much I remember, but much I have forgotten. I have been in a far land, across misty voids and gulfs and unlit oceans. What is the year?’
Orastes answered him. ‘It is the waning of the Year of the Lion, three thousand years after the fall of Acheron.’
‘Three thousand years!’ murmured the other. ‘So long? Who are you?’
‘I am Orastes, once a priest of Mitra. This man is Amalric, baron of Tor, in Nemedia; this other is Tarascus, younger brother of the king of Nemedia; and this tall man is Valerius, rightful heir of the throne of Aquilonia.’
‘Why have you given me life?’ demanded Xaltotun. ‘What do you require of me?’
The man was now fully alive and awake, his keen eyes reflecting the working of an unclouded brain. There was no hesitation or uncertainty in his manner. He came directly to the point, as one who knows that no man gives something for nothing. Orastes met him with equal candor.
‘We have opened the doors of hell this night to free your soul and return it to your body because we need your aid. We wish to place Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia, and to win for Valerius the crown of Aquilonia. With your necromancy you can aid us.’
Xaltotun’s mind was devious and full of unexpected slants.
‘You must be deep in the arts yourself, Orastes, to have been able to restore my life. How is it that a priest of Mitra knows of the Heart of Ahriman, and the incantations of Skelos?’
‘I am no longer a priest of Mitra, ‘ answered Orastes. ‘I was cast forth from my order because of my delving in black magic. But for Amalric there I might have been burned as a magician.
‘But that left me free to pursue my studies. I journeyed in Zamora, in Vendhya, in Stygia, and among the haunted jungles of Khitai. I read the iron-bound books of Skelos, and talked with unseen creatures in deep wells, and faceless shapes in black reeking jungles. I obtained a glimpse of your sarcophagus in the demon-haunted crypts below the black giant-walled temple of Set in the hinterlands of Stygia, and I learned of the arts that would bring back life to your shriveled corpse. From moldering manuscripts I learned of the Heart of Ahriman. Then for a year I sought its hiding-place, and at last I found it.’
‘Then why trouble to bring me back to life?’ demanded Xaltotun, with his piercing gaze fixed on the priest. ‘Why did you not employ the Heart to further your own power?’
‘Because no man today knows the secrets of the Heart, ‘ answered Orastes. ‘Not even in legends live the arts by which to loose its full powers. I knew it could restore life; of its deeper secrets I am ignorant. I merely used it to bring you back to life. It is the use of your knowledge we seek. As for the Heart, you alone know its awful secrets.’
Xaltotun shook his head, staring broodingly into the flaming depths.
‘My necromantic knowledge is greater than the sum of all the knowledge of other men, ‘ he said; ‘yet I do not know the full power of the jewel. I did not invoke it in the old days; I guarded it lest it be used against me. At last it was stolen, and in the hands of a feathered shaman of the barbarians it defeated all my mighty sorcery. Then it vanished, and I was poisoned by the jealous priests of Stygia before I could learn where it was hidden.’
‘It was hidden in a cavern below the temple of Mitra, in Tarantia, ‘ said Orastes. ‘By devious ways I discovered this, after I had located your remains in Set’s subterranean temple in Stygia.
‘Zamorian thieves, partly protected by spells I learned from sources better left unmentioned, stole your mummy-case from under the very talons of those which guarded it in the dark, and by camel-caravan and galley and ox-wagon it came at last to this city.
‘Those same thieves--or rather those of them who still lived after their frightful quest--stole the Heart of Ahriman from its haunted cavern below the temple of Mitra, and all the skill of men and the spells of sorcerers nearly failed. One man of them lived long enough to reach me and give the jewel into my hands, before he died slavering and gibbering of what he had seen in that accursed crypt. The thieves of Zamora are the most faithful of men to their trust. Even with my conjurements, none but they could have stolen the Heart from where it has lain in demon-guarded darkness since the fall of Acheron, three thousand years ago.’
Xaltotun lifted his lion-like head and stared far off into space, as if plumbing the lost centuries.
‘Three thousand years!’ he muttered. ‘Set! Tell me what has chanced in the world.’
‘The barbarians who overthrew Acheron set up new kingdoms, ‘ quoted Orastes. ‘Where the empire had stretched now rose realms called Aquilonia, and Nemedia, and Argos, from the tribes that founded them. The older kingdoms of Ophir, Corinthia and western Koth, which had been subject to the kings of Acheron, regained their independence with the fall of the empire.’
‘And what of the people of Acheron?’ demanded Xaltotun. ‘When I fled into Stygia, Python was in ruins, and all the great, purple-towered cities of Acheron fouled with blood and trampled by the sandals of the barbarians.’
‘In the hills small groups of folk still boast descent from Acheron, ‘ answered Orastes. ‘For the rest, the tide of my barbarian ancestors rolled over them and wiped them out. They--my ancestors--had suffered much from the kings of Acheron.’
A grim and terrible smile curled the Pythonian’s lips.
‘Aye! Many a barbarian, both man and woman, died screaming on the altar under this hand. I have seen their heads piled to make a pyramid in the great square in Python when the kings returned from the west with their spoils and naked captives.’
‘Aye. And when the day of reckoning came, the sword was not spared. So Acheron ceased to be, and purple-towered Python became a memory of forgotten days. But the younger kingdoms rose on the imperial ruins and waxed great. And now we have brought you back to aid us to rule these kingdoms, which, if less strange and wonderful than Acheron of old, are yet rich and powerful, well worth fighting for. Look!’ Orastes unrolled before the stranger a map drawn cunningly on vellum.
Xaltotun regarded it, and then shook his head, baffled.
‘The very outlines of the land are changed. It is like some familiar thing seen in a dream, fantastically distorted.’
‘Howbeit, ‘ answered Orastes, tracing with his forefinger, ‘here is Belverus, the capital of Nemedia, in which we now are. Here run the boundaries of the land of Nemedia. To the south and southeast are Ophir and Corinthia, to the east Brythunia, to the west Aquilonia.’
‘It is the map of a world I do not know, ‘ said Xaltotun softly, but Orastes did not miss the lurid fire of hate that flickered in his dark eyes.
‘It is a map you shall help us change, ‘ answered Orastes. ‘It is our desire first to set Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia. We wish to accomplish this without strife, and in such a way that no suspicion will rest on Tarascus. We do not wish the land to be torn by civil wars, but to reserve all our power for the conquest of Aquilonia.
‘Should King Nimed and his sons die naturally, in a plague for instance, Tarascus would mount the throne as the next heir, peacefully and unopposed.’
Xaltotun nodded, without replying, and Orastes continued.
‘The other task will be more difficult. We cannot set Valerius on the Aquilonian throne without a war, and that kingdom is a formidable foe. Its people are a hardy, war-like race, toughened by continual wars with the Picts, Zingarians and Cimmerians. For five hundred years Aquilonia and Nemedia have intermittently waged war, and the ultimate advantage has always lain with the Aquilonians.
‘Their present king is the most renowned warrior among the western nations. He is an outlander, an adventurer who seized the crown by force during a time of civil strife, strangling King Namedides with his own hands, upon the very throne. His name is Conan, and no man can stand before him in battle.
‘Valerius is now the rightful heir of the throne. He had been driven into exile by his royal kinsman, Namedides, and has been away from his native realm for years, but he is of the blood of the old dynasty, and many of the barons would secretly hail the overthrow of Conan, who is a nobody without royal or even noble blood. But the common people are loyal to him, and the nobility of the outlying provinces. Yet if his forces were overthrown in the battle that must first take place, and Conan himself slain, I think it would not be difficult to put Valerius on the throne. Indeed, with Conan slain, the only center of the government would be gone. He is not part of a dynasty, but only a lone adventurer.’
‘I wish that I might see this king, ‘ mused Xaltotun, glancing toward a silvery mirror which formed one of the panels of the wall. This mirror cast no reflection, but Xaltotun’s expression showed that he understood its purpose, and Orastes nodded with the pride a good craftsman takes in the recognition of his accomplishments by a master of his craft.
‘I will try to show him to you, ‘ he said. And seating himself before the mirror, he gazed hypnotically into its depths, where presently a dim shadow began to take shape.
It was uncanny, but those watching knew it was no more than the reflected image of Orastes’ thought, embodied in that mirror as a wizard’s thoughts are embodied in a magic crystal. It floated hazily, then leaped into startling clarity--a tall man, mightily shouldered and deep of chest, with a massive corded neck and heavily muscled limbs. He was clad in silk and velvet, with the royal lions of Aquilonia worked in gold upon his rich jupon, and the crown of Aquilonia shone on his square-cut black mane; but the great sword at his side seemed more natural to him than the regal accouterments. His brow was low and broad, his eyes a volcanic blue that smoldered as if with some inner fire. His dark, scarred, almost sinister face was that of a fighting-man, and his velvet garments could not conceal the hard, dangerous lines of his limbs.
‘That man is no Hyborian!’ exclaimed Xaltotun.
‘No; he is a Cimmerian, one of those wild tribesmen who dwell in the gray hills of the north.’
‘I fought his ancestors of old, ‘ muttered Xaltotun. ‘Not even the kings of Acheron could conquer them.’
‘They still remain a terror to the nations of the south, ‘ answered Orastes. ‘He is a true son of that savage race, and has proved himself, thus far, unconquerable.’
Xaltotun did not reply; he sat staring down at the pool of living fire that shimmered in his hand. Outside, the hound howled again, long and shudderingly.