Red Nails/Chapter II
Chapter II: By the Blaze of the Fire Jewels
Valeria awoke with a start, to the realization that a grey dawn was stealing over the plain.
She sat up, rubbing her eyes. Conan squatted beside the cactus, cutting off the thick pears and dexterously twitching out the spikes.
“You didn't awake me,” she accused. “You let me sleep all night!”
“You were tired,” he answered. “Your posterior must have been sore, too, after that long ride. You pirates aren't used to horseback.”
“What about yourself?” she retorted.
“I was a kozak before I was a pirate,” he answered. “They live in the saddle. I snatch naps like a panther watching beside the trail for a deer to come by. My ears keep watch while my eyes sleep.”
And indeed the giant barbarian seemed as much refreshed as if he had slept the whole night on a golden bed. Having removed the thorns, and peeled off the tough skin, he handed the girl a thick, juicy cactus leaf.
“Skin your teeth in that pear. It's food and drink to a desert man. I was a chief of the Zuagirs once — desert men who live by plundering the caravans.”
“Is there anything you haven't done?” inquired the girl, half in derision and half in fascination.
“I've never been king of an Hyborean kingdom,” he grinned, taking an enormous mouthful of cactus. “But I've dreamed of being even that. I may be too, some day. Why shouldn't I?”
She shook her head in wonder at his calm audacity, and fell to devouring her pear. She found it not unpleasing to the palate, and full of cool and thirst-satisfying juice. Finishing his meal, Conan wiped his hands in the sand, rose, ran his fingers through his thick black mane, hitched up his sword belt and said:
“Well, let's go. If the people in that city are going to cut our throats they may as well do it now, before the heat of the day begins.”
His grim humor was unconscious, but Valeria reflected that it might be prophetic. She too hitched her sword belt as she rose. Her terrors of the night were past. The roaring dragons of the distant forest were like a dim dream. There was a swagger in her stride as she moved off beside the Cimmerian. Whatever perils lay ahead of them, their foes would be men. And Valeria of the Red Brotherhood had never seen the face of the man she feared.
Conan glanced down at her as she strode along beside him with her swinging stride that matched his own.
“You walk more like a hillman than a sailor,” he said. “You must be an Aquilonian. The suns of Darfar never burnt your white skin brown. Many a princess would envy you.”
“I am from Aquilonia,” she replied. His compliments no longer irritated her. His evident admiration pleased her. For another man to have kept her watch while she slept would have angered her; she had always fiercely resented any man's attempting to shield or protect her because of her sex. But she found a secret pleasure in the fact that this man had done so. And he had not taken advantage of her fright and the weakness resulting from it. After all, she reflected, her companion was no common man.
The sun rose up behind the city, turning the towers to a sinister crimson.
“Black last night against the moon,” grunted Conan, his eyes clouding with the abysmal superstition of the barbarian. “Blood-red as a threat of blood against the sun this dawn. I do not like this city.”
But they went on, and as they went Conan pointed out the fact that no road ran to the city from the north.
“No cattle have trampled the plain on this side of the city,” said he. “No plowshare has touched the earth for years, maybe centuries. But look: once this plain was cultivated.”
Valeria saw the ancient irrigation ditches he indicated, half filled in places, and overgrown with cactus. She frowned with perplexity as her eyes swept over the plain that stretched on all sides of the city to the forest edge, which marched in a vast, dim ring. Vision did not extend beyond that ring.
She looked uneasily at the city. No helmets or spearheads gleamed on battlements, no trumpets sounded, no challenge rang from the towers. A silence as absolute as that of the forest brooded over the walls and minarets.
The sun was high above the eastern horizon when they stood before the great gate in the northern wall, in the shadow of the lofty rampart. Rust flecked the iron bracings of the mighty bronze portal. Spiderwebs glistened thickly on hinge and sill and bolted panel.
“It hasn't been opened for years!” exclaimed Valeria.
“A dead city,” grunted Conan. “That's why the ditches were broken and the plain untouched.”
“But who built it? Who dwelt here? Where did they go? Why did they abandon it?”
“Who can say? Maybe an exiled clan of Stygians built it. Maybe not. It doesn't look like Stygian architecture. Maybe the people were wiped out by enemies, or a plague exterminated them.”
“In that case their treasures may still be gathering dust and cobwebs in there,” suggested Valeria, the aquisitive instincts of her profession waking in her; prodded, too, by feminine curiosity. “Can we open the gate? Let's go in and explore a bit.”
Conan eyed the heavy portal dubiously, but placed his massive shoulder against it and thrust with all the power of his muscular calves and thighs. With a rasping screech of rusty hinges the gate moved ponderously inward, and Conan straightened and drew his sword. Valeria stared over his shoulder, and made a sound indicative of surprise.
They were not looking into an open street or court as one would have expected. The opened gate, or door, gave directly into a long, broad hall which ran away and away until its vista grew indistinct in the distance. It was of heroic proportions, and the floor of a curious red stone, cut in square tiles, that seemed to smolder as if with the reflection of flames. The walls were of a shiny green material.
“Jade, or I'm a Shemite!” swore Conan.
“Not in such quantity!” protested Valeria.
“I've looted enough from the Khitan caravans to know what I'm talking about,” he asserted. “That's jade!”
The vaulted ceiling was of lapis lazuli, adorned with clusters of great green stones that gleamed with a poisonous radiance.
“Green fire-stones,” growled Conan. “That's what the people of Punt call them. They're supposed to be the petrified eyes of those prehistoric snakes the ancients called Golden Serpents. They glow like a cat's eyes in the dark. At night this hall would be lighted by them, but it would be a hellishly weird illumination. Let's look around. We might find a cache of jewels.”
“Shut the door,” advised Valeria. “I'd hate to have to outrun a dragon down this hall.”
Conan grinned, and replied: “I don't believe the dragons ever leave the forest.”
But he complied, and pointed out the broken bolt on the inner side.
“I thought I heard something snap when I shoved against it. That bolt's freshly broken. Rust has eaten nearly through it. If the people ran away, why should it have been bolted on the inside?”
“They undoubtedly left by another door,” suggested Valeria.
She wondered how many centuries had passed since the light of outer day had filtered into that great hall through the open door. Sunlight was finding its way somehow into the hall, and they quickly saw the source. High up in the vaulted ceiling skylights were set in slot-like openings — translucent sheets of some crystalline substance. In the splotches of shadow between them, the green jewels winked like the eyes of angry cats. Beneath their feet the dully lurid floor smoldered with changing hues and colors of flame. It was like treading the floors of Hell with evil stars blinking overhead.
Three balustraded galleries ran along on each side of the hall, one above the other.
“A four-storied house,” grunted Conan, “and this hall extends to the roof. It's long as a street. I seem to see a door at the other end.”
Valeria shrugged her white shoulders.
“Your eyes are better than mine, then, though I'm accounted sharp-eyed among the sea-rovers.”
They turned into an open door at random, and traveresed a series of empty chambers, floored like the hall, and with walls of the same green jade, or of marble or ivory or chalcedony, adorned with friezes of bronze, gold, or silver. In the ceilings the green fire-gems were set, and their light was as ghostly and illusive as Conan had predicted. Under the witch-fire glow the intruders moved like specters.
Some of the chambers lacked this illumination, and their doorways showed black as the mouth of the Pit. These Conan and Valeria avoided, keeping always to the lighted chambers.
Cobwebs hung in the corners, but there was no perceptible accumulation of dust on the floor, or on the tables and seats of marble, jade, or carnelian which occupied the chambers. Here and there were rugs of that silk known as Khitan which is practically indestructible. Nowhere did they find any windows, or doors opening into streets or courts. Each door merely opened into another chamber or hall.
“Why don't we come to a street?” grumbled Valeria. “This palace or whatever we're in must be as big as the king of Turan's seraglio.”
“They must not have perished of plague,” sad Conan, meditating upon the mystery of the empty city. “Otherwise we'd find skeletons. Maybe it became haunted, and everybody got up and left. Maybe—”
“Maybe, hell!” broke in Valeria rudely. “We'll never know. Look at these friezes. They portray men. What race do they belong to?”
Conan scanned them and shook his head.
“I never saw people exactly like them. But there's the smack of the East about them — Vendhya, maybe, or Kosala.”
“Were you a king in Kosala?” she asked, masking her keen curiosity with derision.
“No. But I was a war chief of the Afghulis who live in the Himelian mountains above the borders of Vendhya. These people favor the Kosalans. But why should Kosalans be building a city this far to the west?”
The figures portrayed were those of slender, olive-skinned men and women, with finely chisled, exotic features. They wore filmy robes and many delicate jeweled ornaments, and were depicted mostly in attitudes of feasting, dancing, or lovemaking.
“Easterners, all right,” grunted Conan, “but from where I don't know. They must have lived a disgustingly peaceful life, though, or they'd have scenes of wars and fights. Let's go up those stairs.”
It was an ivory spiral that wound up from the chamber in which they were standing. They mounted three flights and came into a broad chamber on the fourth floor, which seemed to be the highest tier in the building. Skylights in the ceiling illuminated the room, in which light the fire-gems winked pallidly. Glancing through the doors they saw, except on one side, a series of similarly lighted chambers. This other door opened upon a balustraded gallery that overhung a hall much smaller than the one they had recently explored on the lower floor.
“Hell!” Valeria sat down disgustedly on a jade bench. “The people who deserted this city must have taken all their treasures with them. I'm tired of wandering through these bare rooms at random.”
“All these upper chambers seem to be lighted,” said Conan. “I wish we could find a window that overlooked the city. Let's have a look through that door over there.”
“You have a look,” advised Valeria. “I'm going to sit here and rest my feet.”
Conan disappeared through the door opposite that one opening upon the gallery, and Valeria leaned back with her hands clasped behind her head, and thrust her booted legs out in front of her. These silent rooms and halls with their gleaming green clusters of ornaments and burning crimson floors were beginning to depress her. She wished they could find their way out of the maze into which they had wandered and emerge into a street. She wondered idly what furtive, dark feet had glided over those flaming floors in past centuries, how many deeds of cruelty and mystery those winking ceiling-gems had blazed down upon.
It was a faint noise that brought her out of her reflections. She was on her feet with her sword in her hand before she realized what had disturbed her. Conan had not returned, and she knew it was not he that she had heard.
The sound had come from somewhere beyond the door that opened on to the gallery. Soundlessly in her soft leather boots she glided through it, crept across the balcony and peered down between the heavy balustrades.
A man was stealing along the hall.
The sight of a human being in this supposedly deserted city was a startling shock. Crouching down behind the stone balusters, with every nerve tingling, Valeria glared down at the stealthy figure.
The man in no way resembled the figures depicted on the friezes. He was slightly above middle height, very dark, though not Negroid. He was naked but for a scanty silk clout that only partly covered his muscular hips, and a leather girdle, a hand's breadth broad, about his lean waist. His long black hair hung in lank strands about his shoulders, giving him a wild appearance. He was gaunt, but knots and cords of muscles stood out on his arms and legs, without that fleshy padding that presents a pleasing symmetry of contour. He was built with an economy that was almost repellent.
Yet it was not so much his physical appearance as his attitude that impressed the woman who watched him. He slunk along, stooped in a semi-crouch, his head turning from side to side. He grasped a wide-tipped blade in his right hand and she saw it shake with the intensity of the emotion that gripped him. He was afraid, trembling in the grip of some dire terror. When he turned his head she caught the blaze of wild eyes among the lank strands of black hair.
He did not see her. On tiptoe he glided across the hall and vanished through an open door. A moment later she heard a choking cry, and then silence fell again.
Consumed with curiosity, Valeria glided along the gallery until she came to a door above the one through which the man had passed. It opened into another, smaller gallery that encircled a large chamber.
This chamber was on the third floor, and its ceiling was not so high as that of the hall. It was lighted only by the fire-stones, and their weird green glow left the spaces under the balcony in shadows.
Valeria's eyes widened. The man she had seen was still in the chamber.
He lay face down on a dark crimson carpet in the middle of the room. His body was limp, his arms spread wide. His curved sword lay near him.
She wondered why he should lie there so motionless. Then her eyes narrowed as she stared down at the rug on which he lay. Beneath and about him the fabric showed a slightly different color, a deeper, brighter crimson.
Shivering slightly, she crouched down closer behind the balustrade, intently scanning the shadows under the overhanging gallery. They gave up no secret.
Suddenly another figure entered the grim drama. He was a man similar to the first, and he came in by a door opposite that which gave upon the hall.
His eyes glared at the sight of the man on the floor, and he spoke something in a staccato voice that sounded like “Chicmec!” The other did not move.
The man stepped quickly across the floor, bent, gripped the fallen man's shoulder and turned him over. A choking cry escaped him as the head fell back limply, disclosing a throat that had been severed from ear to ear.
The man let the corpse fall back upon the blood-stained carpet, and sprang to his feet, shaking like a windblown leaf. His face was an ashy mask of fear. But with one knee flexed for flight, he froze suddenly, became as immobile as an image, staring across the chamber with dilated eyes.
In the shadows beneath the balcony a ghostly light began to glow and grow, a light that was not part of the fire-stone gleam. Valeria felt her hair stir as she watched it; for, dimly visible in the throbbing radiance, there floated a human skull, and it was from this skull — human yet appallingly misshapen — that the spectral light seemed to emanate. It hung there like a disembodied head, conjured out of night and the shadows, growing more and more distinct; human, and yet not human as she knew humanity.
The man stood motionless, an embodiment of paralyzed horror, staring fixedly at the apparition. The thing moved out from the wall and a grotesque shadows moved with it. Slowly the shadow became visible as a man-like figure whose naked torso and limbs shone whitely, with the hue of bleached bones. The bare skull on its shoulders grinned eyelessly, in the midst of its unholy nimbus, and the man confronting it seemed unable to take his eyes from it. He stood still, his sword dangling from nerveless fingers, on his face the expression of a man bound by the spells of a mesmerist.
Valeria realized that it was not fear alone that paralyzed him. Some hellish quality of that throbbing glow had robbed him of his power to think and act. She herself, safely above the scene, felt the subtle impact of a nameless emanation that was a threat to sanity.
The horror swept toward its victim and he moved at last, but only to drop his sword and sink to his knees, covering his eyes with his hands. Dumbly he awaited the stroke of the blade that now gleamed in the apparition's hand as it reared above him like Death triumphant over mankind.
Valeria acted according to the first impulse of her wayward nature. With one tigerish movement she was over the balustrade and dropping to the floor behind the awful shape. It wheeled at the thud of her soft boots on the floor, but even as it turned, her keen blade lashed down and a fierce exultation swept her as she felt the edge cleave solid flesh and mortal bone.
The apparition cried out gurglingly and went down, severed through the shoulder, breastbone and spine, and as it fell the burning skull rolled clear, revealing a lank mop of black hair and a dark face twisted in the convulsions of death. Beneath the horrific masquerade there was a human being, a man similar to the one kneeling supinely on the floor.
The latter looked up at the sound of the blow and the cry, and now he glared in wild-eyes amazement at the whiteskinned woman who stood over the corpse with a dripping sword in her hand.
He staggered up, yammering as if the sight had almost unseated his reason. She was amazed to realize that she understood him. He was gibbering in the Stygian tongue, though in a dialect unfamiliar to her.
“Who are you? Whence come you? What do you in Xuchotl?” Then rushing on, without waiting for her to reply: “But you are a friend — goddess or devil, it makes no difference! You have slain the Burning Skull! It was but a man beneath it, after all! We deemed it a demon they conjured up out of the catacombs! Listen!“
He stopped short in his ravings and stiffened, straining his ears with painful intensity. The girl heard nothing.
“We must hasten!” he whispered. “They are west of the Great Hall! They may be all around us here! They may be creeping upon us even now!”
He seized her wrist in a convulsive grasp she found hard to break.
“Whom do you mean by 'they?'“ she demanded.
He stared at her uncomprehendingly for an instant, as if he found her ignorance hard to understand.
“They?” he stammered vaguely. “Why — why, the people of Xotalanc! The clan of the man you slew. They who dwell by the eastern gate.”
“You mean to say this city is inhabited?” she exclaimed.
“Aye! Aye!” He was writhing in the impatience of apprehension. “Come away! Come quick! We must return to Tecuhltli!”
“Where is that?” she demanded.
“The quarter by the western gate!” He had her wrist again and was pulling her toward the door through which he had first come. Great beads of perspiration dripped from his dark forehead, and his eyes blazed with terror.
“Wait a minute!” she growled, flinging off his hand. “Keep your hands off me, or I'll split your skull. What's all this about? Who are you? Where would you take me?”
He took a firm grip on himself, casting glances to all sides, and began speaking so fast his words tripped over each other.
“My name is Techotl. I am of Techultli. I and this man who lies with his throat cut came into the Halls of Silence to try and ambush some of the Xotalancas. But we became separated and I returned here to find him with his gullet slit. The Burning Skull did it, I know, just as he would have slain me had you not killed him. But perhaps he was not alone. Others may be stealing from Xotalanc! The gods themselves blench at the fate of those they take alive!”
At the thought he shook as with a ague and his dark skin grew ashy. Valeria frowned puzzledly at him. She sensed intelligence behind this rigmarole, but it was meaningless to her.
She turned toward the skull, which still glowed and pulsed on the floor, and was reaching a booted toe tentatively toward it, when the man who called himself Techotl sprang forward with a cry.
“Do not touch it! Do not even look at it! Madness and death lurk in it. The wizards of Xotalanc understand its secret — they found it in the catacombs, where lie the bones of terrible kings who ruled in Xuchotl in the black centuries of the past. To gaze upon it freezes the blood and withers the brain of a man who understands not its mystery. To touch it causes madness and destruction.”
She scowled at him uncertainly. He was not a reassuring figure, with his lean, muscle-knotted frame, and snaky locks. In his eyes, behind the glow of terror, lurked a weird light she had never seen in the eyes of a man wholly sane. Yet he seemed sincere in his protestations.
“Come!” he begged, reaching for her hand, and then recoiling as he remembered her warning. “You are a stranger. How you came here I do not know, but if you were a goddess or a demon, come to aid Tecuhltli, you would know all the things you have asked me. You must be from beyond the great forest, whence our ancestors came. But you are our friend, or you would not have slain my enemy. Come quickly, before the Xotalancas find us and slay us!”
From his repellent, impassioned face she glanced to the sinister skull, smoldering and glowing on the floor near the dead man. It was like a skull seen in a dream, undeniably human, yet with disturbing distortions and malformations of contour and outline. In life the wearer of that skull must have presented an alien and monstrous aspect. Life? It seemed to possess some sort of life of its own. Its jaws yawned at her and snapped together. Its radiance grew brighter, more vivid, yet the impression of nightmare grew too; it was a dream; all life was a dream — it was Techotl's urgent voice which snapped Valeria back from the dim gulfs whither she was drifting.
“Do not look at the skull! Do not look at the skull!” It was a far cry from across unreckoned voids.
Valeria shook herself like a lion shaking his mane. Her vision cleared. Techotl was chattering: “In life it housed the awful brain of a king of magicians! It holds still the life and fire of magic drawn from outer spaces!”
With a curse Valeria leaped, lithe as a panther, and the skull crashed to flaming bits under her swinging sword. Somewhere in the room, or in the void, or in the dim reaches of her consciousness, an inhuman voice cried out in pain and rage.
Techotl's hand was plucking at her arm and he was gibbering: “You have broken it! You have destroyed it! Not all the black arts of Xotalanc can rebuild it! Come away! Come away quickly, now!”
“But I can't go,” she protested. “I have a friend somewhere near by—”
The flare of his eyes cut her short as he stared past her with an expression grown ghastly. She wheeled just as four men rushed through as many doors, converging on the pair in the center of the chamber.
They were like the others she had seen, the same knotted muscles bulging on otherwise gaunt limbs, the same lank blue-black hair, the same mad glare in their wild eyes. They were armed and clad like Techotl, but on the breast of each was painted a white skull.
There were no challenges or war cries. Like blood-mad tigers the men of Xotalanc sprang at the throats of their enemies. Techotl met them with the fury of desperation, ducked the swipe of a wide-headed blade, and grappled with the wielder, and bore him to the floor where they rolled and wrestled in murderous silence.
The other three swarmed on Valeria, their weird eyes red as the eyes of mad dogs.
She killed the first who came within reach before he could strike a blow, her long straight blade splitting his skull even as his own sword lifted for a stroke. She side-stepped a thrust, even as she parried a slash. Her eyes danced and her lips smiled without mercy. Again she was Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and the hum of her steel was like a bridal song in her ears.
Her sword darted past a blade that sought to parry, and sheathed six inches of its point in a leather-guarded midriff. The man gasped agonizedly and went to his knees, but his tall mate lunged in, in ferocious silence, raining blow on blow so furiously that Valeria had no opportunity to counter. She stepped back coolly, parrying the strokes and watching for her chance to thrust home. He could not long keep up that flailing whirlwind. His arm would tire, his wind would fail; he would weaken, falter, and then her blade would slide smoothly into his heart. A sidelong glance showed her Techotl kneeling on the breast of his antagonist and striving to break the other's hold on his wrist and to drive home a dagger.
Sweat beaded the forehead of the man facing her, and his eyes were like burning coals. Smite as he would, he could not break past nor beat down her guard. His breath came in gusty gulps, his blows began to fall erratically. She stepped back to draw him out — and felt her thighs locked in an iron grip. She had forgotten the wounded man on the floor.
Crouching on his knees, he held her with both arms locked about her legs, and his mate croaked in triumph and began working his way around to come at her from the left side. Valeria wrenched and tore savagely, but in vain. She could free herself of this clinging menace with a downward flick of her sword, but in that instant the curved blade of the tall warrior would crash through her skull. The wounded man began to worry at her bare thigh with his teeth like a wild beast.
She reached down with her left hand and gripped his long hair, forcing his head back so that his white teeth and rolling eyes gleamed up at her. The tall Xotalanc cried out fiercely and leaped in, smiting with all the fury of his arm. Awkwardly she parried the stroke, and it beat the flat of her blade down on her head so that she saw sparks flash before her eyes, and staggered. Up went the sword again, with a low, beast-like cry of triumph — and then a giant form loomed behind the Xotalanc and steel flashed like a jet of blue lightning. The cry of the warrior broke short and he went down like an ox beneath the pole-ax, his brains gushing from his skull that had been split to the throat.
“Conan!” gasped Valeria. In a gust of passion she turned on the Xotalanc whose long hair she still gripped in her left hand. “Dog of hell!” Her blade swished as it cut the air in an upswinging arc with a blur in the middle, and the headless body slumped down, spurting blood. She hurled the severed head across the room.
“What the devil's going on here?” Conan bestrode the corpse of the man he had killed, broadsword in hand, glaring about him in amazement.
Techotl was rising from the twitching figure of the last Xotalanc, shaking red drops from his dagger. He was bleeding from the stab deep in the thigh. He stared at Conan with dilated eyes.
“What is all this?” Conan demanded again, not yet recovered from the stunning surprise of finding Valeria engaged in a savage battle with this fantastic figures in a city he had thought empty and uninhabited. Returning from an aimless exploration of the upper chambers to find Valeria missing from the room where he had left her, he had followed the sounds of strife that burst on his dumbfounded ears.
“Five dead dogs!” exclaimed Techotl, his flaming eyes reflecting a ghastly exultation. “Five slain! Five crimson nails for the black pillar! The gods of blood be thanked!”
He lifted quivering hands on high, and then, with the face of a fiend, he spat on the corpses and stamped on their faces, dancing in his ghoulish glee. His recent allies eyed him in amazement, and Conan asked, in the Aquilonian tongue: “Who is this madman?”
Valeria shrugged her shoulders.
“He says his name's Techotl. From his babblings I gather that his people live at one end of this crazy city, and these others at the other end. Maybe we'd better go with him. He seems friendly, and it's easy to see that the other clan isn't.”
Techotl had ceased his dancing and was listening again, his head tilted sidewise, dog-like, triumph struggling with fear in his repellent countenance.
“Come away, now!” he whispered. “We have done enough! Five dead dogs! My people will welcome you! They will honor you! But come! It is far to Tecuhltli. At any moment the Xotalancs may come on us in numbers too great even for your swords.”
“Lead the way,” grunted Conan.
Techotl instantly mounted a stair leading up to the gallery, beckoning them to follow him, which they did, moving rapidly to keep on his heels. Having reached the gallery, he plunged into a door that opened toward the west, and hurried through chamber after chamber, each lighted by skylights or green fire-jewels.
“What sort of place can this be?” muttered Valeria under her breath.
“Crom knows!” answered Conan. “I've seen his kind before, though. They live on the shores of Lake Zuad, near the border of Kush. They're a sort of mongrel Stygians, mixed with another race that wandered into Stygia from the east some centuries ago and were absorbed by them. They're called Tlazitlans. I'm willing to bet it wasn't they who built this city, though.”
Techotl's fear did not seem to diminish as they drew away from the chamber where the dead men lay. He kept twisting his head on his shoulder to listen for sounds of pursuit, and stared with burning intensity into every doorway they passed.
Valeria shivered in spite of herself. She feared no man. But the weird floor beneath her feet, the uncanny jewels over her head, dividing the lurking shadows among them, the stealth and terror of their guide, impressed her with a nameless apprehension, a sensation of lurking, inhuman peril.
“They may be between us and Tecuhltli!” he whispered once. “We must beware lest they be lying in wait!”
“Why don't we get out of this infernal palace, and take to the streets?” demanded Valeria.
“There are no streets in Xuchotl,” he answered. “No squares nor open courts. The whole city is built like one giant palace under one great roof. The nearest approach to a street is the Great Hall which traverses the city from the north gate to the south gate. The only doors opening into the outer world are the city gates, through which no living man has passed for fifty years.”
“How long have you dwelt here?” asked Conan.
“I was born in the castle of Tecuhltli thirty-five years ago. I have never set foot outside the city. For the love of the gods, let us go silently! These halls may be full of lurking devils. Olmec shall tell you all when we reach Tecuhltli.”
So in silence they glided on with the green fire-stones blinking overhead and the flaming floors smoldering under their feet, and it seemed to Valeria as if they fled through Hell, guided by a dark-faced lank-haired goblin.
Yet it was Conan who halted them as they were crossing an unusually wide chamber. His wilderness-bred ears were keener even than the ears of Techotl, whetted though these were by a lifetime of warfare in this silent corridors.
“You think some of your enemies may be ahead of us, lying in ambush?”
“They prowl through these rooms at all hours,” answered Techotl, “as do we. The halls and chambers between Tecuhltli and Xotalanc are a disputed region, owned by no man. We call it the Halls of Silence. Why do you ask?”
“Because men are in the chambers ahead of us,” answered Conan. “I heard steel clink against stone.”
Again a shaking seized Techotl, and he clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering.
“Perhaps they are your friends,” suggested Valeria.
“We dare not chance it,” he panted, and moved with frenzied activity. He turned aside and glided through a doorway on the left which led into a chamber from which an ivory staircase wound down into darkness.
“This leads to an unlighted corridor below us!” he hissed, great beads of perspiration standing out on his brow. “They may be lurking there, too. It may all be a trick to draw us into it. But we must take the chance that they have laid their ambush in the rooms above. Come swiftly now!”
Softly as phantoms they descended the stair and came to the mouth of a corridor black as night. They crouched there for a moment, listening, and then melted into it. As they moved along, Valeria's flesh crawled between her shoulders in momentary expectation of a sword-thrust in the dark. But for Conan's iron fingers gripping her arm she had no physical cognizance of her companions. Neither made as much noise as a cat would have made. The darkness was absolute. One hand, outstretched, touched a wall, and occasionally she felt a door under her fingers. The hallway seemed interminable.
Suddenly they were galvanized by a sound behind them. Valeria's flesh crawled anew, for she recognized it as the soft opening of a door. Men had come into the corridor behind them. Even with the thought she stumbled over something that felt like a human skull. It rolled across the floor with an appalling clatter.
“Run!” yelped Techotl, a note of hysteria in his voice, and was away down the corridor like a flying ghost.
Again Valeria felt Conan's hand bearing her up and sweeping her along as they raced after their guide. Conan could see in the dark no better than she, but he possessed a sort of instinct that made his course unerring. Without his support and guidance she would have fallen or stumbled against the wall. Down the corridor they sped, while the swift patter of flying feet drew closer and closer, and then suddenly Techotl panted: “Here is the stair! After me, quick! Oh, quick!”
His hand came out of the dark and caught Valeria's wrist as she stumbled blindly on the steps. She felt herself half dragged, half lifted up the winding stair, while Conan released her and turned on the steps, his ears and instincts telling him their foes were hard at their backs. And the sounds were not all those of human feet.
Something came writhing up the steps, something that slithered and rustled and brought a chill in the air with it. Conan lashed down with his great sword and felt the blade shear through something that might have been flesh and bone, and cut deep into the stair beneath. Something touched his foot that chilled like the touch of frost, and then the darkness beneath him was disturbed by a frightful thrashing and lashing, and a man cried out in agony.
The next moment Conan was racing up the winding staircase, and through a door that stood open at the head.
Valeria and Techotl were already through, and Techotl slammed the door and shot a bolt across it — the first Conan had seen since they had left the outer gate.
Then he turned and ran across the well-lighted chamber into which they had come, and as they passed through the farther door, Conan glanced back and saw the door groaning and straining under heavy pressure violently applied from the other side.
Though Techotl did not abate either his speed or his caution, he seemed more confident now. He had the air of a man who had come into familiar territory, within call of friends.
But Conan renewed his terror by asking: “What was that thing I fought on the stairs?”
“The men of Xotalanc,” answered Techotl, without looking back. “I told you the halls were full of them.”
“This wasn't a man,” grunted Conan. “It was something that crawled, and it was as cold as ice to the touch. I think I cut it asunder. It fell back on the men who were following us, and must have killed one of them in its death throes.”
Techotl's head jerked back, his face ashy again. Convulsively he quickened his pace.
“It was the Crawler! A monster they have brought out of the catacombs to aid them! What it is, we do not know, but we have found our people hideously slain by it. In Set's name, hasten! If they put it on our trail, it will follow us to the very doors of Tecuhltli!”
“I doubt it,” grunted Conan. “That was a shrewd cut I dealt it on the stair.”
“Hasten! Hasten!” groaned Techotl.
They ran through a series of green-lit chambers, traversed a broad hall, and halted before a giant bronze door.
Techotl said: “This is Tecuhltli!”