The cold mire of the street did little to sober the man hurled into it. 

“And don’t come back!” Someone shouted, they sounded muffled and far away. 

Rising out of the sucking mud, the man staggered to his feet. Swaying from side to side and wiping his face, he turned toward the door to offer some rebuke, but was met with the bundle of his effects striking him in the chest. “Damned mercenaries,” came with the slamming of the door. 

The man, Jean D’Vigny, was indeed a mercenary. As were many at the close of the 16th century, with Europe torn apart by religious and secular wars. He likewise felt damned, penniless as he was after a failed campaign, reduced to labor, hungover, and soaked in caking mud, unable to afford even a room for himself. 

 “In better days we would have burned that place to the ground and taken all the wine for ourselves with that swine groveling at our feet!” He thought as he spat with indignation. Picking up his things and shaking out the mud he started down the road. 

He stirred at the sight of a stream winding away into a nearby wood. Washing himself in the bitterly cold water, the mud fell away to reveal a handsome countenance aged prematurely by a life of vice and violence. A long scar ran across his left cheek covered partly by a long and thick black mustache, which contrasted deep-set hazel eyes bewitched with a sword-edge cunning. 

Sobered by the ice-cold water, he buckled his sword belt around his hips from which hung the only thing of value he possessed; a longsword, of Milanese make, which he had looted from a campaign many years ago.

“Help! Oh God, have mercy!” A cry came suddenly through the trees.

“Shut up old man!” A cruel voice retaliated.

Jean crept through the brush towards the commotion, moving with a stealthy tread earned through years of dangerous living. At the edge of the brush, he crouched and observed. There were three rough-looking men gripping crude rusty weapons in gnarled hands. At their feet was a gray-clad friar; he was bleeding from a blow to the head and clutching a traveler’s bag. 

“Give it here!” The largest of the bandits demanded.

“I cannot! Oh God save me!” The friar cried out before being struck again “Ouh! Please!” The largest bandit snatched it from his quavering hands. 

Jean loosened his sword in its sheath. If any religious fervor egged him on it was overshadowed by the simple fact that it had been months since he felt the rasp of steel. The possibility of a reward did not deter him either.  

“Dump it out!” The shortest bandit croaked. 

“With pleasure!” The tallest said, overturning the bag. A package wrapped in cloth tumbled out along with a small purse and a few simple personal effects. 

“Worthless junk!” The short bandit snapped at the friar, picking up the package. The cloth fell away to reveal a book bound richly in leather and embossed with an array of garnets. The bandits’ eyes glimmered with devious glee. “Well what do we have here…Bo!” The short bandit called to his tall companion too late. 

Jean lunged from the brush like a leopard and brought the blade of his longsword whistling into the tall man’s neck. The other two scrambled to defend themselves, bringing their weapons to bear clumsily. It was like house pets fighting a wolf; in a flash Jean had bested them, wresting his blade out of the short man’s chest. 

“Oh thank you…you must have been chosen by God! Oh thank you! Thanks be to God!” The friar cried out as he scrambled to his feet. 

Jean glanced up as he wiped the blood from his sword, “Are you not going to pray for their repose?” He asked nonchalantly. A glimmer caught his eye from the ground; he knelt down and retrieved the book. It was sumptuously adorned, embossed with mysterious symbols. He stood and handed it back to the friar.

“There is nothing I can do for them.” The friar said matter-of-factly, quickly re-wrapping the book in its cloth, “But perhaps there is something I can do for you. What is your name, so that I may thank you properly and offer prayers on your behalf?” 

“Jean, D’Vigny” 

“And I am Brother Charles.” The friar said with satisfaction. “God has united our paths, it would seem. I travel on a pressing errand to the monastery nearby. Will you join me? We may yet aid one another.” 

Jean thought for a moment. It could be no worse than the state he found himself in that morning, “I will.” He said, pleased with the apparent turn in his fortune. 

They could see the towers of the abbey from a great distance, and as they approached the roads grew busy. The countryside revolved around the administration of the monks, the axle of a mighty agricultural wheel. 

They came to a gate set in the thick stone wall which enclosed the abbey. The gate was open, and a monk hailed them as they approached , “Ho! What business brings a gray friar to our walls? And who is your companion?”

“All will be made clear brother, but know that this man saved my life! And that I am in a grave hurry! I must speak to your Lord Abbot.” Charles replied.

The monk looked over at Jean and his eyes widened as if Charles’ had with him a slavering wolf. Jean nodded and bowed slightly, “Jean D’Vigny, at your service.”

The monk nodded hastily and turned to Charles, “On whose authority do you come? What message do you bring?” 

“The authority of The Lord our God.” Charles declared. “I cannot reveal it now, please, I must speak with him.”

The monk eyed the motley pair nervously but something in Charles’ earnest entreaty stirred him. He spoke, “I will pass a message, but it will be some time. You will wish to wash and eat in the meantime.” 

“Thank you, brother, and thanks be to God.” Charles replied, embracing the monk. 

“Of course, Brother.” the monk replied. He passed the message to a young novice and glanced at the longsword swinging from Jean’s hip. “See that your guest disarms on abbey grounds.” He insisted. 


The suggestion chaffed Jean and reflexively he squeezed the grip, loathe was he to part with his weapon and especially to leave it in the care of others. Yet he acquiesced at the promise of brother Charles to see to its safe keeping.

Jean was fed, bathed, and clothed; appearing quite different from the man who rose out of the mud that morning. It was, at least, good enough for brother Charles, whose wound was properly cleaned and bandaged, “There you are” he said, “a proper Christian." 

“That’s all it takes eh?” Jean remarked sarcastically. 

“It's a start” Brother Charles replied, “it will do for a meeting with the Lord Abbot, come, he awaits us.” 

Jean followed Charles through the abbey, paying no heed to the whispers and sidelong glances of the monks. He bent his mind to calculating the possible reward. 

They came to a large set of brass-studded doors leading into the chapter-house. “Follow my lead” Charles directed, pushing open one of the doors, “Lord Abbot!” He announced “We are honored by your hospitality,” 

“It is rare we receive a visit from our gray brothers!” The Lord Abbot boomed, “Please come in.” 

After the customary greetings Charles launched right into the story of how Jean had saved him, sparing no praise for his righteous protector. The Lord Abbot was impressed and duly praised Jean, but quickly turned to the quest which had brought Charles there in such haste. 

“To tell it all would fill up many volumes” Charles insisted, “But what you must know is that a delegation of Bishops will arrive here soon, you must be wary! I fear they have ill intentions for your monastery.”

“This is preposterous!” The Lord Abbot rebuffed, “A delegation of bishops? And we received no word?”

The doors swung open, letting in a howling wind and driving rain which had begun while they were inside. A young novice entered, soaking wet. 

“Begging your pardon, My Lord” The boy said exasperated, bowing low. 

“What is it, Lad?” The Lord Abbot turned his full attention to the boy, “Must be important to be worth your getting soaked!” 

“Messengers bring news my Lord Abbot, a papal delegation of bishops are returning from a special mission to the Holy Land and will be coming here tomorrow on their way to Paris.” The novice explained. 

The Lord Bishop shot a glance at Charles. “Very well, we must prepare quickly.” He replied to the novice, “Please escort these two to the guest chambers and send for brother Beringer, we have much to do. Your visit is well timed, it would seem, brother Charles, and your words bear more weight than I supposed. Please accept my apology, I will see you both at dinner.” 

“Of course Lord Abbot” Charles replied, bowing his head and indicating for Jean to do the same. He followed suit, and the monk and the mercenary stepped out into the driving rain. 

They were led to humble rooms, small but lacking nothing. A palace to a man who had spent many nights shivering in hedgerows and wet tents. In the far corner, propped up against the wall of Jean’s room, was his sword; he seized it instinctively and inspected it. 

“You are doing a thing greater than you realize” Charles remarked, leaning on the door jamb. 

Jean started as if awoken from a dream, turning to face Charles, “What do you mean?” 

“I’m not sure how to explain it or even if I could, that you would understand” He spoke to Jean, but looked out the window. 

“Do not taunt me with riddles” Jean said frustratedly. 

Charles turned his glance back to Jean and smiled, “The Lord chooses when and how his will is understood, if at all. It is not our part to guess the role He has chosen for us.” He stood up straight, “Faith has not yet failed me.” 

“What of those who have little?” Jean asked. 

“Call it courage then.” Charles replied as he turned and closed the door, Jean could hear him speaking to himself as he went down the hallway “with God all things are possible…

There was no break in the rain; it beat down with cruel indifference. Despite the ceaseless hammering showers the abbey was in uproar with preparations. Casks of wine were rolled out, the ovens roared, and an army of novices scrubbed the floors; no detail was forgotten. The Lord Abbot was everywhere at once, commanding as if preparing for a siege.

A report came from the gate, the delegation had been spotted on the horizon, a great train of wagons and horses lumbering along the muddy country roads. A host so great it could have been a besieging army, with soaked banners drooping on wet lances over dozens of wagons and carts pulled by hundreds of beasts. Slowly it trudged ever closer, the end nowhere in sight. A company, or more, of men-at-arms rode and marched with it, the points of myriad polearms bouncing with each step. 

Jean was in the abbey stable drilling sword strokes in the company of a few mules; it was dry and the only place he could find that was not overrun with frantic monks. He heard a door swing open and turned quickly to face it, keeping his blade in a low guard. 

“I think you won’t need that for me.” Charles laughed as he walked in, “although the way the Lord Abbot has been acting, I would keep it handy." 

“For the bishops or for him?” Jean asked wryly. 

“At this rate it would be hard to choose.”

“What brings you into our esteemed company?” Jean asked, gesturing to the mules standing idly in their stalls. 

“I sought you, and you certainly were not easy to find, to see if you’d like to watch the Bishops’ train arrive, they should be at the gate within the hour.” Charles stated. 

“I am glad that you did!” Jean declared, sheathing his sword “Let’s find a good place to size them up.”

Jean and Charles departed the company of the asses and, taking circuitous routes to avoid the Lord Abbot who could be heard booming across the grounds, made their way to a window overlooking the gate.  

Through curtains of roaring rain they saw the great train nearing the walls. A gilded wagon near the front bore the Bishops’ arms. 

“I have scarcely seen such a force in the retinue of kings…” Jean muttered in astonishment. 

There was a party of monks near the gate, the Lord Abbot among them, ready to greet the guests. They stood out in the open, soaked to the bone, like defenders of a fortress stoically awaiting an assault. 

The men-at-arms who rode in the vanguard passed under the gate and right past the welcome party, paying them no heed. Jean at once knew these were no second-rate mercenaries or knights down on their luck. They were seasoned killers, veterans of harrowing campaigns, encased in finely wrought, battle-scarred armor. They reigned their horses haughtily around the open area before the gate, scanning about themselves as if expecting an ambush. One, in particular, caught Jean’s eye; a huge man mounted on a jet-black stallion and clad in armor decorated in the German style. The man barked an order to the other riders as they encircled the court, marking himself as the captain. 

“He has a cruel look to him” Charles remarked, “even among those rogues." 

Soon after, the gilded wagon of the bishops lumbered through the gate. Servants rushed out with an awning to spread before the door. This blocked the view from the window, but the ostentatiousness of the emerging occupants was impossible to miss. Gemstones blinked in the gray light and rich furs rustled in the wind, contrasting sharply with the simple habits of the monks. 

There was no customary kiss with the Lord Abbot, but an outstretched hand weighed down by rings which the Lord Abbot embraced instead. One of the bishops stuck his head out from under the awning and Charles leaned forward intently. 

“You know him?” Jean inquired. 

“Yes, unfortunately.” Charles replied, “Bishop Dagnielli Vitori D’Annunzio, a particularly unpleasant acquaintance. He is rumored to be involved with mysterious sects within the Vatican…and I am inclined to believe it.”

“Is he what brought you here?” 

“Partly yes, a rumor came to me from a friend in Italy that the Lord Abbot had exchanged letters with the Bishop. A fragment of a burned letter said something of a ritual…the details were unclear, but it seemed of grave consequence. I heard also that these Bishops came not from the Holy Land but from Egypt, on a secret errand of unholy intentions." 

“The Lord Abbot knew of their coming? Why did he feign surprise? Surely he would have prepared in advance.”

“That would rouse suspicions. He is a piece in the same game."

The bishops followed the Lord Abbot and his party towards the chapter house, never departing the cover of the awning, while the rest of their great retinue trudged in. A cathedral’s worth of luxury carted on muddy wheels. 

One cart was peculiar among the rest; totally lacking any sign of opulence, its contents covered by a canvas tarp. Yet it was surrounded by men-at-arms, and they would let none go near it, shoving away one novice who naively tried to help unload it. They wheeled it out of sight towards the abbey church, overseen personally by the captain on the black stallion. 

“I would very much like to know what is so important about that cart.” Charles remarked. 

“Agreed.” Jean said looking over at the friar, who rubbed his chin in thought. “They will not make it easy.” Jean observed. 

“We do not ask the Lord for easy lives.” Charles replied, still thinking. 

That evening a banquet was held in the refectory. Long benches were brought out, and the room was packed wall-to-wall by the Bishops and their retainers. The Bishops sat at their own table on a dais. The Lord Abbot was the only one from the monastery who sat with them. 

Jean and Charles were at a cross-bench near the foot of the dais, across the room from a table packed with mercenaries. Jean was not sure if any of them recognized him, but often they would glance over at him and lean in to whisper something to each other. 

Charles kept his eyes on the bishops. They were anxiously distant, talking amongst themselves in hushed tones while the Lord Abbot gazed on. Charles bent his mind as to what they were so hurried for. One of them, the Bishop D’Annunzio no less, held a gray cat in his lap which he petted nervously. 

“Jean” Charles said with his cup to his mouth. “The bishops are restless.”

“As are their men.” Jean replied, looking away from Charles.

“It must have something to do with that cart.” Charles said feigning a smile “They are all here now, it is unguarded.”

“We don’t know where it is.”

“Someone must know. I will go to the kitchens and see what the novices have noticed, they are always poking around where they ought not to.”

“I will go a little later to the stable,” Jean replied, “meet me there.”

Charles rose and a pair of men hurried out of the refectory after him. Jean fought the urge to follow them, “Charles can handle himself.” He thought. He bided his time and waited. 

The stables were dark, illuminated only by an oil lamp. Jean’s exit had been easier than Charles’ since the wine had continued to flow and the mercenaries had shown no signs of restraint. He knew he had not been followed, at least. 

Jean waited some time in the flickering lamplight, listening through the thundering rain for sounds of footsteps. Suddenly the inner door swung open and with cat-like quickness he snuffed out the light and seized the handle of his sword. Feet shuffled furtively in the darkness. 

“Jean?” Charles called out in a hoarse whisper.

“I am here.” Jean answered, “Were you followed?” 

“No,” Charles replied as he felt his way forward, “those buffoons they sent after me are probably still wandering the kitchen hallways looking for me. But come! I know where we must go!” He found his way to the outer door and cracked it open. The fury of the storm rushed instantly into the stable and set the beasts to nickering and snorting, “Quickly! Less likely to be followed out in the rain." 

The pair slipped out of the stable into the driving tempest and hurried into the darkness. The night was pitch black. No moon shone through the clouds. They made their way to a small graveyard crammed between the outer wall and the abbey church. 

“Aha!” Charles exclaimed as Jean nearly careened into him, “Here!” Indeed, there it was, the unassuming cart, now empty, sitting in the mud. 

“Where are the contents?” Jean demanded, looking for some clue in the murk. 

“God only knows” Charles said, gripping the cart’s wheel, “If only He would send us a sign." 

“Quiet!” Jean perked his ears through the rain. There was a faint noise coming from nearby, a whining cry emanating from somewhere in the darkness “This way.” Jean followed the sound to an arched doorway which seemed to appear suddenly out of the gloom. They stepped out of the rain into a small chamber. 

“Where are we?” Jean asked. 

“The ossuary,” Charles responded, and even as he said this Jean could make out the hollow eyes of hundreds of skulls watching him from the shadows. He looked around for the source of the sound, but saw nothing; no bone was disturbed. 

Suddenly the whining cry resumed, unmistakably from within the room. Jean and Charles snapped simultaneously towards the source of the sound and saw, faintly outlined in the darkness, the Bishop D’Annunzio’s cat crying impatiently on the floor. 

“They have been here.” Jean intuited, glancing about the room for some other sign. 

“Or they are here,” Charles replied, “somewhere…” He rubbed his forehead in thought. 

Jean watched the cat as Charles spoke, it cried out and pawed at the shield of an effigy carved into the floor. Jean knelt down and ran his hands over the stone; within the coat of arms on the effigy’s shield was a circle with two smaller circles within it, hewn deeper than the others. Instinctively, Jean put two fingers in these depressions and twisted. The circle began to turn with a loud creaking and grinding. Jean then pressed on the effigy and it slid away, revealing a stairway that wound down into an even deeper blackness. The cat meowed and darted down the stairs. 

“By God…” Charles muttered, “Nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known…”

“Not now,” Jean commanded, drawing his sword, “Down.” The pair descended the stair into impenetrable darkness. 

The stair went on for longer than either had expected and they lost all sense of how far they were from the surface. In the darkness, they had to feel their way, going as quickly as they dared lest they stumble or walk into a trap. The steps ended abruptly on a smooth flat floor. Light glowed faintly out of an arched doorway. 

“Follow me, quietly” Jean whispered to Charles as they started carefully through the arch. 

They entered a long passage, at the other end of which was a doorway filled with flickering golden light. Slowly they made their way, Jean in the lead, poised like a leopard ready to pounce at any sign of danger. With every step, an inexplicable dread bubbled up inside Jean, some ancient instinct begged him to turn back, to run and never return. He fought on with legs weighed down with fear and his heart pounding like a drum in his head.

The passage had no other openings, but the two at either end. On the walls were strange carvings and symbols, the likes of which neither of them had ever seen. As they drew nearer to the far door, droning chants vibrated from beyond the threshold. This was not the usual singing of monks, but some ancient and long forgotten polyphony.

At last they were close enough to see clearly within the chamber, and they both held their breath in wonder. The inner chamber was illuminated by hundreds of candles and lamps, casting their flickering glow onto walls painted with rigid humanoid figures, some bearing the heads of beasts. The bishops were within, now clad in white robes with uncovered shaved heads, the Lord Abbot among them.  

They carried strange idols and symbols in outstretched hands before a massive sarcophagus, which bore on its gilded surface the image of a man. At the rear of the chamber the mercenary captain and a few of his men watched. 

Without warning, the cat rushed by Jean towards the chamber. Jean tried to grab it, but it hissed and evaded him, his blade clanging on the stone with a deafening ring. All eyes in the chamber shot instantly towards him, “Seize him!” the Lord Abbot cried. 

The mercenaries rushed forward, but Jean was already halfway down the hallway dragging Charles by the sleeve. 

“This is no time for flight!” Charles wrestled at Jean’s iron grip in vain, “I must see what happens in that chamber!”

“Not if you want to live out the night!” Jean admonished him as he ascended the first flight of stairs. He could hear the clanking of armor gaining on them. 

The stairs passed in a blur, shouts carried after them out of the dark as they burst once more into the ossuary. 

“Conceal yourself!” Jean commanded, pushing Charles into a corner. 

Jean crouched among a pile of skulls near the opening of the stair, and just in time. The sound of heavy breath and clink of armor was but a few steps away. He waited as the captain burst forth, then hurled himself point-first as the second man breached the opening. 

Jean skewered him through the neck and he tumbled backward into his comrades sending them sprawling into the darkness. Jean whipped towards the captain just in time to deflect the blow of a mace whistling towards his skull. They began the silent dance of violence. 

Jean fought desperately against the huge man, who moved with the dexterity of a lion. The captain’s eyes bulged and his veins popped with the ferocity of his attacks; each blow Jean deflected reverberated his entire frame. A narrow miss of the mace struck the stone wall and showered the room in sparks, gleaming in hate-filled eyes. 

Jean managed to land a blow which skidded harmlessly off the captain’s harness and earned a swift kick as punishment. Lurching backwards out of the doorway, he splashed nearly senseless into the mud. 

The captain followed after him, looming in the darkness like a prince of Hell. Jean staggered to his feet, gripping his longsword in trembling hands. Each breath was an effort as he steeled himself with fatal resolve. Just as he poised to strike, a rending scream of terror tore through the storm from the ossuary. The two combatants forgot their duel as the mangled body of one of the mercenaries hurtled into the mud. 

The Lord Abbot backed out of the ossuary waving a crucifix and crying,  “Oh God! Forgive us! Deliver us …No. Please!” A hulking form lumbered out after him and lifted his wriggling body off the ground. “Lord Forgive me! No. No!” The Abott was dashed on the stone and fell silent. 

A bolt of lightning rent the sky, and for an instant, Jean and the captain witnessed, stupefied, the paralyzing image of ancient horror awakened. It was a man, or once had been, wrapped in bandages now melting off with the driving rain. Sewn-shut eyes seemed to glare with a terrible knowing, its yellow teeth contrasting horribly with skin blued by decay. It towered above even the captain, who stood petrified in terror. 

Jean acted on instinct. Without hesitation he kicked with all his might, launching the captain at the towering fiend who snatched him up despite the frantic blows of his mace.

With a sickening crunch the ghoul broke his spine and turned to its next victim. But Jean was not going to wait patiently to die. With renewed vigor he danced around the lumbering behemoth, slicing as he went. The blade, however, did not cut, but skipped harmlessly off the leathery skin as if it were steel. Still, Jean fought; if for nothing else than the thrill before death. 

“Jean!” Charles shouted as he burst forth from the ossuary, brandishing a sword. He struck the brute, and the edge bit with keen cruelty, slicing through its leg as if it were parchment. With a cry like the howling wind the fiend stumbled on its stump.

“Charles!” Jean called out to no avail. The friar was no fighter, and a flailing hand seized his habit. 

“Unhand me!” Charles demanded, dropping the sword to put both hands on the fiend’s arm. Its head snapped towards Charles and slowly the second arm reached for his neck. 

Jean leapt with blinding speed for the sword lying in the mud, and seizing it, hurtled himself at the giant. The point drove straight through its chest and he drove it again and again into the wailing devil. It thrashed and writhed beneath him but still he drove the point home until it lay still and fell silent. 

If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me” Charles said standing over Jean, who leaned panting on the sword. 

A pale light rushed over them, and a profound silence prevailed.

“The rain has passed,” Charles noted “God’s will is done.”

Jean stood and wrenched the blade from the hollow breast. It was old, of a type wholly unfamiliar to him.

“The sword of a saint.” Charles explained “I knew it was kept here.”

“And you knew it would slay…that thing?” 

“No, but I was not going to sit idly by. I was only returning your favor. But come, there is no time to talk. This is a foul scene and I doubt any will believe our story. We must make haste if we wish to avoid being burnt at the stake before nightfall.”

The pair hurried back to the stable in the growing light of dawn. They saddled a mule for Charles and Jean claimed the black stallion of the mercenary captain. They rode hard, a clamor arising from the abbey behind them, only stopping at a crossroads after the abbey towers had faded over the horizon. 

“Where will you go?” Charles asked. 

“I’m not sure, maybe to Italy. I hear there is great wealth to be had in campaigns there.” 

“Nothing could change you” Charles smiled “I suppose God makes some men monks and some men mercenaries.” 

“It is not our part to guess.” Jean replied , “and what of you?”

“East.” Charles stated firmly, “to spend some time in contemplation in the mountains. I doubt if I will be welcome in the courts of any clergy.” 

“Indeed” Jean said with a concerned brow. “Our meeting has given me much to think about. Perhaps you will need guard on the road since our paths lie in the same direction.”

 “I would be grateful,” Charles smiled “I don’t think The Lord is finished with us yet.”


Conan is young, in his early thirties, and fighting to make a name for himself among the kingdoms of the Western Sea. He has found himself wandering Koth after brief stints with different mercenary bands. He slew his last captain for withholding pay and absconded with the meager gold they had looted. Now nearly penniless, having spent most of the gold on ale, he hears rumors of someone offering lucrative pay for mysterious work in an isolated town. Necessity brings him to the foothills of the Flaming Mountains…

A moonless night. The autumn air bit like a knife. Conan’s breath shrouded his head with every exhale. He was alone in the streets except for a few practitioners of the night-trades on the way to ply their craft. They gave Conan a wide berth as they skulked past. Conan pulled his cloak closer about him and strode forward down the star-lit street, a thin mist clinging to the earth. 

“Why would they insist on meeting at night?” He scowled at the thought, glancing about himself as he walked, “The pay had better be as promised”.

He came to a castle on the edges of town, stately but in disrepair, and by all appearances abandoned. The gate hung limp on its hinges and no light came from within the keep. The garden was wild and unkempt, a thick blanket of leaves carpeting the path to the door. The hairs stood up on Conan’s mighty neck. 

This was undoubtedly the place that the blind old man from the tavern had told him to go, yet something about it stirred a primordial distrust within him. He tread with great care as he approached the door. It was massive, studded with iron, and from it hung a knocker in the form of a twisted demon, unlike any Conan had seen. He frowned at the unsettling visage and wrapped the iron ring sharply against the wood. It cracked and echoed beyond the door as if into a yawning cavern. 

Conan was sure he only waited a few moments for the door to be answered but the time passed with terrible slowness, perking his ears and glancing about at every noise or quivering leaf. At length he heard a bar being pulled away on the other side of the planks, and the massive door swung open with horrible creaking and grating, as if it had not been opened in years. From within emerged a small man wearing rich servant's garb, holding a lantern which was the only discernible lightsource. The room behind him was dark, even Conan’s keen eyes were unable to pierce the inky blackness. 

“You must be the man who was asking about work at the tavern” The small man said, holding the lantern up to Conan’s face causing him to squint and wince at the dazzling flame. 

“I am,” Came Conan’s terse reply. 

“I am Illin, the servant. What are you called, so I may properly introduce you to my lord?” The man said, looking Conan up and down as if inspecting livestock. 

“I am Conan, a Cimmerian.” He responded, looking down at the smaller man over an up-turned jaw. Illin said nothing but nodded in satisfaction. Then, gesturing for Conan to enter, stepped aside. 

As Conan stepped into the room Illin shut the door behind him, Conan glanced back wearily. The only light was from Illin’s lamp, which barely penetrated the darkness of the keep. It revealed thick carpets beneath their feet, and the suggestion of tapestries on the walls, but the pitch blackness concealed what they depicted. 

Conan had only experienced darkness of this nature in caverns deep beneath the earth, its presence in a man-made structure made him particularly weary. He perked his ears for any strange sound as he followed the servant down a long hallway. 

The air inside was still and cold, no draft or breeze stirred it besides that made by the silent pair passing down the hall. Conan noted a few shadowy doorways into other rooms but even of those he could not be totally sure. Menace emanated from the gloom, and Conan felt always as if he was being watched, or followed. He tensed his hands and gritted his teeth, his eyes two shimmering ice-crystals searching into the enveloping dark. Instinct burned in his gut that something was amiss, yet he pressed forward, spurred on by his empty coinpurse. 

They climbed a twisting narrow stair for what seemed like an hour before Illin stopped suddenly causing Conan almost to slam into him. “Here is my master’s chamber” Illin said, raising his lamp up to a tall door shrouded in brass-studded red leather. “You are expected” Illin stepped aside and bowed slightly. 

Conan glowered at the door in the darkness, but strode forward and pulled on the mighty handle. Instantly he was bathed in the light of hundreds of candles which somehow had not penetrated into the outer chamber. He grimaced at the sudden change in light and turned his head away involuntarily as his eyes adjusted. 

The room was high-ceilinged and broad, centered around a mantlepiece in the form of a man laughing maniacally, from within which cracked a roaring fire. Candles were lit on every surface, causing a thousand tiny shadows to twist and leap about the chamber. Rich carpets covered the floor and on the walls hung intricate silk tapestries depicting knights, dragons, devils, and beasts. Swords and an array of other weapons were strewn about the chamber, glimmering in the firelight. 

What most impressed and surprised Conan, however, was its sole occupant. Before him, seated in a luxurious and intricately carved wooden throne lined with velvet, was a woman. A strikingly beautiful woman, with sharp features highlighted by the dancing firelight. Her hair white as birchwood, yet she was young, no older than Conan by the look of her snow-pale skin. Her eyes were a deep piercing green, like emeralds frozen in ice. Yet in the flickering light Conan thought he glimpsed them flash yellow like the eyes of a wolf. She was clad in a flowing blood-red silk dress that revealed a long and lithe figure, her sleeves dragging on the ground beside her. Upon her supple breast lay a necklace with a single shimmering black stone which sparkled like a diamond devoid of any light. She twirled a chalice of wine idly in her hand as she stared at her guest. Conan stood transfixed, her gaze was like ice in his veins. 

At length Illin spoke from somewhere behind him “Conan, my lady” 

“Very good Illin” She purred in response, “now leave us, we have much to discuss”. Her voice was cold like the night wind. Illin said nothing but bowed and closed the door as he left. 

Conan was suddenly roused from his stupor, and met her eyes with an even head and narrowed eyes. “Who are you?” The Cimmerian demanded. 

“I am the Countess Sillesina, of the line of Vallacia” She said, her eyes never averting their appraising gaze. She sipped her wine before speaking again, “My family line is older than any noble house in Aquilonia, but we are alas dwindling”. Her accent was strange and melodic, Conan had never heard its like before.  She looked into her chalice and back at Conan, “How rude of me, wine?”

Conan nodded in acquiescence but did not move, still highly alert to any strange goings on. She smirked at him and stood up swiftly but gracefully, carefully filling another chalice and striding cat-like over to Conan offered it to him. He accepted it without speaking and raised it to his lips, looking into her eyes all the while. It was sweet and rich, much better than the cheap ale Conan had been forced to drink the past few weeks. He quaffed it swiftly in mighty gulps and offered the chalice back to Sillesina. 

She accepted it with a wry smile, “If you prove capable to the tasks I require there will be many fine things in store for you”. 

“What is it you would have me do?” Conan inquired. 

“I have…enemies” She said, striding back over to her throne and fingering the intricate carvings, “in this kingdom and even this town, I would have you deal with them”. 

“I may be a mercenary but I am no murderer” Conan said sternly, “I will slay in battle, not plunging knives into beds at night like some cowardly assassin.”

“And you will not have to” Sillesina looked up at him. “I wish you would bring them to me, alive, then you are no slayer, a thief perhaps, but what I do to them is my choice”. 

“Snatching poor fools from their beds is not much better.” Conan retorted. 

“Come now, barbarian” She said, eying Conan playfully and walking toward him, “You came here because I offered work and you need it. Work which pays handsomely. You have done worse, I see it in you, a beast this world would hold in chains” She reached out and felt his massive arm, “I would merely set you free, and you are a specimen more suited to the task than I could have ever asked for”. 

Conan scoffed, “I will find gold by other means if I must”

“Not like this” Sillesina purred, “So I ask you not to fight battles but to fight my enemies as I see fit, come, see what I offer” She beckoned him to follow. Conan grimaced but followed reluctantly, he felt compelled, softly, by some force outside himself. 

She led him to a chest in the corner of the room, covered in fantastically wrought silver and coated with ivory. She pushed it open delicately, revealing a hoard of gold and jewels that would make an emperor blush. Conan’s eyes widened at the sight, he leaned forward, mesmerized by the dazzling treasure. 

“This and more I promise, if you will but do this for me” She said, closing the chest,  “I ask not that you would harm innocent people, these are my foes, the ancient enemies of my house” 

Conan stared into her eyes, shining brighter than the gems of the treasure and glinting with more brilliance. Again he felt transfixed, as if held by some physical force. His mind swirled like a tempestuous sea, the image of that great treasure flashing before his mind like lightning. 

At length he spoke, but he felt almost as if another spoke through him. “I will”

“Excellent!” Sillesina flashed a wicked smile “Illin will guide you to your first marks. I think, Conan, that you will find our relationship profitable”. Illin entered without being summoned and escorted Conan back into the keep. They walked again through the dark passage to the door which opened on the courtyard. Conan stepped outside and Illin pointed back to the town.

“The mayor, Ligenwist” He said grimly “and the sheriff Lord Polembitz. They have done my lady great harm over the years and brought much shame and ruin on her house. These she would have you bring her first”. With that he gave Conan a small purse of coins and closed the door leaving Conan alone again in the frigid autumn night. 

Conan felt it had all happened swiftly, as if in a dream. The moment he stepped into the keep it had been like walking through a dense fog, led by a rope tied about his waist. He felt he had been watching himself from outside, but surely he had been there and spoken those words himself. He shuddered at the feeling and turned his mind toward his task, looking back at the town. The sky was beginning faintly to lighten with dawn, this further confused the Cimmerian. He was certain it had been just before midnight that he arrived at the castle. It could not have been so long a meeting, could it? He looked back. No smoke rose anywhere out of the chimneys, then what of the fire? Had they snuffed it out? 

All this made Conan deeply uneasy, as a dreamer awoken from a terrible nightmare. His barbarian instinct roared inside him that something was amiss and yet he had no choice but to carry on. He kept his ears perked and remained vigilant, but his mind was troubled as he walked back into the town in the gray light of dawn. Dead leaves blew gently by his feet. 

His first mark was not so hard to find. The mayor was not by nature a private person, going from his house to the guild chambers and other places on his official business. The trouble was getting him away from the crowd of hangers-on which seemed to follow him incessantly. In his stalking Conan wondered what this man could have done to invoke the countess’s ire, a tax on her family’s holdings? Banishment? It mattered not, Conan was like a lion on the hunt and would not be deterred from catching his prey. 

As he followed the mayor Conan also sought for signs of the sheriff, but he soon found this to be the more difficult mark. The sheriff was not in town, or if he was made no signs of his presence. Without seeing him Conan knew that he must be guarded, and even with the Cimmerian’s considerable prowess he would prefer not to fight outnumbered if he could avoid it. He would need to find him first, and Conan had a feeling the mayor could help put him on the trail.

At length it became clear Conan would have to use some device to pull the mayor away from the crowd or otherwise distract them, unless he wished to risk stealing him in the night. Or both. Conan spent the rest of the day scouting out the town and making preparations, and as soon as night fell made his move. 

“Fire!” The shout from outside caused the mayor to shoot out of his bed and rush to the window. The thatched roof of the building across the way was engulfed in flames. People rushed around in the street below, ferrying buckets of water and frantically grabbing belongings out of the building quickly being eaten by the flames. The mayor hastily threw on a jacket and rushed to join the effort in the street.

He did not make it beyond his chamber. When he flung the door open terror seized his heart and cruelly gripped his tongue. Before him in the dark, obscured by the light of the blazing fire filtering through open windows, stood a hulking black figure, huge and terrible like a wild beast. The last thing that the mayor remembered was a great buffet to the head, and then blackness. 

He awoke suddenly, still in blackness which he soon realized was due to a sack tied over his head. His hands and feet were bound, and he was freezing. 

He squirmed and cried out, “Release me! You will lose your head for this!”

“I’ll sooner remove yours” Came the gruff reply, “But you may save yourself trouble, if you help me.” 

“Help you? Ha! I would-” The mayor’s jest was cut short by a sharp strike to the head and a great force heaving him to his feet. 

“Do you feel that wind?” Conan’s deep voice bellowed. The mayor did not answer. Another blow rattled his skull and would have sent him reeling if he had not been held up. “I asked if you feel it”.

“Yes I feel it” The mayor said reluctantly. 

“You stand now on the edge of a great precipice” Conan informed him “If I release you, your fall will be long and painful, and if you do not die, the wolves will eat your broken body alive”. 

“Why…” The mayor asked before being cut off. 

“Tell me where the sheriff is and I will not release you”. Said Conan.

“No, I…” Again the mayor was cut off when the hand gripping his shirt released and quickly grabbed on again, letting him feel the jolt of the fall. He sucked a huge breath in fear. 

“Tell me”. Conan demanded. 

The mayor thought for a moment, and realizing the direness of his predicament acquiesced, “He rides to town on the southern road, he is with his men, you will never catch him alone! Augh!” He cried out as he was dashed on the cold ground. 

“We will see,” Conan said, lifting up the mayor’s hood high enough to stuff a gag in his mouth before lowering it again. 

The sheriff and his men were discussing what they might eat when they got to town, their long ride was almost over, and a frigid autumn rain fell intermittently. The sun was beginning to set, but they were determined to get to town before the next day, and pushed on. They passed beneath the flaming canopy of dead leaves, all brilliant orange, yellow, and red. Ravens cried out from the treetops as they passed underneath, sending flurries of leaves tumbling as they took flight. 

Suddenly the lead rider’s horse nickered and rocked back and forth, refusing to advance. The others taunted him, and he spurred hard at its flanks to carry on, but it would not budge. Soon the other horses showed signs of fear, and the riders grew alert, looking into the woods for signs of ambush. They heard a rustling in the woods about them and reigned in, drawing their swords. Yet even as the rustling grew louder and they saw branches shake and bushes quiver they could not make out any foe in the woods. 

A grating scream revealed their foe. A herd of wild boar rushed through the woods, squealing and crying. Just as soon as they rushed near them the horses bucked and took off wildly. Kicking and whinnying and screaming as the tusked creatures flew around and into them. The riders grabbed fervently at the reigns as they hurtled down the road, crying out to the others in the cacophony. 

In a few moments it was over. The herd passed by, and the riders had all regrouped further up the road. All except one. A riderless horse snorted and stamped among them, the horse of their liege lord, the sheriff. They searched in vain for hours, calling out his name, wandering for miles into the empty wood, but they found no sign of him, not even a scrap of cloth or drop of blood to reveal his direction. At length they decided he must have walked to town, and continued on their way to meet him there. The sheriff watched them pass beneath him from the branch on which he was held captive, unable to scream with a gagged mouth and a dagger kissing his throat. 

Sillesina sauntered with her usual carefree ease into the chamber where Conan waited, two hooded figures on their knees before him. 

“The marks you requested” Conan stated firmly, simultaneously pulling off their hoods to reveal two battered, but very much alive prisoners. 

“Very good” Sillesina sang, “you have proved more worthy than I imagined”. She walked over and cupped the mayor’s chin, lifting his eyes to hers. “Do you remember me?”

“No..I…” The mayor stuttered. 

“You will.” Sillesina jerked his head back down, and looked back up to Conan, “I am pleased, take you what you will of the treasure, Illin will lead you to your next marks”. 

Conan nodded and stepped away, over to the beckoning chest. He scooped what of the treasure his mighty arms could hold and carried it down the long hallway which led to the courtyard. This time an open door on the far side filtered in the weak light of day, which revealed somewhat more than he was able to discern upon his first visit. 

The connecting rooms remained shrouded in darkness, but the tapestries were visible in the hazy gloom. They depicted hideous twisted creatures devouring the flesh of men, knights doing brutal slaughter upon each other, and cruel scenes of predators devouring prey. Conan, although unsettled by what the light revealed, continued down the long hall. He ignored screams and shouts from Sellesina’s chamber behind him. 

Illin waited for him at the door and gave him a few new marks, which Conan delivered easily. This went on for some time, Conan snatching Sillesina’s selected foes further and further from the town. The local people began to spin yarns and tell tales of a beast which stole people away in the night, of a reawakening of a long forgotten evil, which only the oldest among them remembered hearing about in ancient stories.

 The connections to Sillesina grew ever more tenuous as Conan seized more and more people, feeling always partly compelled by a force beyond himself. Yet he found it harder and harder to ignore the screams and cries of terror that he left behind carrying his armfuls of treasure. 

One day he was passing through the long hallway, burdened as usual by gems and gold beyond counting, but something was different, he heard a door slam from one of the connecting chambers. Perhaps it had never been opened before, or perhaps he had never noticed, but he had heard it this time for sure. He tried to just push down the hallway, to let his curiosity subside beneath the mounds of gold he carried with him, but he could not ignore it. It was too compelling. What had happened to all the people he had captured? Dozens by now, taken screaming away to some unknown fate. 

Conan carefully set his treasure down and stepped with cat-like stealth into the adjoining chamber. It was dark, but not dark enough to hide the outline of the door on the far side of the room. He approached it with care, perking his ears and straining his eyes for any sign of a trap. Reaching the door, he pressed against it carefully. To his surprise it gave way easily and noiselessly, swinging open into another stairway shrouded in darkness but clearly heading downward. 

Conan followed the steps, on and on, down into the endless gloom, until he lost the faintest sight of daylight behind him. He pressed on until he felt the steps give way to a flat tunnell, which he followed by feel for what felt like an hour before a faint breeze caressed his skin.

 “An opening”, he thought. Surely enough he spotted gray daylight emanating from the end of the chamber, growing brighter and brighter until he reached a point where the low roof of the tunnel gave way to a soaring cavern. More and more light filtered into the cavern until his eyes adjusted to the brightness of day. 

The cave was empty at first glance, lined on the outside with trees, but upon further inspection the forest which surrounded the cave was strange and misshapen. Conan continued on, his barbaric senses burning, a primordial caution guiding his every move. As he drew nearer to the surrounding trees his fears grew with the clarity of his vision. These were not trees that encircled the cave, but long spikes of wood, upon which mangled human corpses oozed blood in varying stages of decomposition. 

Conan recognized the faces which had not yet been totally lost to decay. Each one was someone he had been sent to collect for the countess Sillesina. His gut heaved. Even the barbarian, with all the gruesome suffering he had witnessed, was taken aback by the state of these corpses. Their throats open, impaled upon great spikes to rot in the frigid wind. 

How could Sillesina do this? He had not given much thought to what she intended to do with the prisoners he brought her, yet such unbridled cruelty had not even crossed his mind for a moment. He wandered aimlessly for a time among the corpses, noting each one and recalling how he had captured them. Time wore on unheeded, only the growing shadow of twilight casting its dark cloak over him caused the barbarian to note the rapid onset of night. 

A fluttering, as if of wings, caused Conan to whirl, revealing before him Sillesina, who had appeared as if by magic. 

“What is this?” Conan demanded. 

“Revenge” Sillesina remarked nonchalantly. 

“This is more than mere revenge” Conan said, his mighty thews tensed to strike. 

“Perhaps, yet if you knew what their people had done to mine you would understand” Sillesina strolled among the mangled corpses, brushing her delicate hands against the impaling spikes. “Yet since you have seen this, there is no sense sending you on further pointless quests”. 

“Pointless?” Conan asked enraged.

“Not at the time, but I have a greater purpose for you now, Conan” Sillesina’s eyes flashed fully yellow, just as Conan had seen them the first night they met. “I would know you barbarian, and lay with you, to create a creature more powerful than we could imagine. A beast to lay the world of men low! This is only the beginning. Our offspring would bring back the greatness of the Vallacian line! A monster to drag the kingdoms of men to their knees!” As she said this Sillesina approached Conan, bearing her heaving breast and looking into his eyes, gripping him in their unbreakable spell. 

Conan was again transfixed, held in place by the tightening bonds of her gaze. Yet his barbaric spirit raged within him. His mind burned and strained against the invisible bonds encircling him, his mighty form flexed as if under a great load. With one powerful motion he broke free, and sent Sillesina flying with a massive blow from his hammer-like fist. 

She cried out in rage, and as quickly as the daylight faded her visage twisted and contorted into something beyond the ken of Conan or any man, into a foul mask of terror supplied with piercing fangs and slanted eyes. She released a deafening shriek and rushed upon the stunned barbarian who met her oncoming rush with his naked sword. The steel touched her now fur-covered flesh yet it did not bite. She snapped with slavering fangs at his skin and reached with rending claws, bat-like in all ways but her upright posture, a thin silvery flesh stretched between her arms and the sides of her contorted body, filtering the growing moonlight. 

“You have fed me! Now feel my wrath!” Her voice had become as twisted as her form, grating on the ears like rusted metal. 

Conan, although enwrapped in fear, struck out with wild fury, even as his blows did not break the beast’s skin they sent her tumbling back into the forest of impaled corpses until with a shriek she leapt away into the growing darkness.

Conan stood alone, panting, turning this way and that listening and looking for any sign of the foul beast. There was none. He walked along, sword unsheathed, until the forest of death gave way to headstones. He was in an ancient graveyard, evidently hidden below the countess’s castle as it glowered above, outlined by the moon. The moonlight gave a faint glow to everything about him, casting strange shadows onto the leaf-strewn earth. 

A rustling caused Conan to wheel sharply, as from the darkness Illin emerged, brandishing a long knife. Conan steadied himself, expecting the servant to address him, perhaps also fleeing from the beast which his master had become. Conan had only a moment to react when a scream escaped Illin’s lips as he charged, waving the knife above his head ready to gut the barbarian. A mighty stroke of Conan’s broadsword sent him sprawling to the cold earth, his hot blood steaming as it drained from his flesh. 

Silence again filled the cemetery. Conan listened and waited, a rushing eventually filling his ears. He looked in its direction, but nothing came. Again the same sound whirled, as if a mighty wind passed through, yet no blade of grass quivered to reveal its direction. Then he saw it, a rending claw gripping the side of a nearby headstone. Every thew of Conan’s iron body poised, and as he caught the slightest hint of movement he swung with all his might. 

The blade caught the neck of the beast just as it lunged at him, again not penetrating the vile flesh but imparting enough force to send it tumbling away into the forest of spikes. Conan surged after it, prepared to fight to his last breath. The beast lunged again and this time ducked Conan’s stroke, crashing into the Cimmerian and sending them both tumbling. In the struggle the beast’s fangs reached for Conan’s mighty neck. Conan held it off with all his might, straining with all the power in his iron form. With one massive effort he hurled the beast off of himself into a nearby spike, snapping the wood in half. 

Conan without thinking took up the broken wood like a spear, and hurling with every bit of power his iron-muscled body could conjure whipped the splintered wood square at the screaming beast. The wood pierced the beasts’ heart as it let out a blood-curdling shriek and crumpled to the ground. 

Conan stood for a moment panting over the beast in the moonlight, waiting for it to rise again. After a time its form twisted and contorted back into that of Sillesina, pierced still by the splintered spike. Conan wasted no time in mourning but rushed to the castle and collected what of the treasure he could, setting the castle and the graveyard of impaled corpses alight behind him. 

The smoke was still rising as day broke, Conan now miles away, looking back toward the foothills of The Flaming Mountains. He was headed south, towards Shem, vowing to himself never to return to that land forsaken by Crom and all the gods. 



Morning came harshly into the eyes of the revelers on the beach. Rising slowly, they went about outfitting the ships to get underway. Some men fished or rekindled the fires for breakfast while others carried wood and water onto the boats. A few sat massaging their temples. 

Lookouts were sent across the island to alert of passing ships. Vane came ashore to oversee the work and partake in the morning meal. He ate quietly, separate from the men. He hadn’t joined them in their celebration but he had slept even less than they. Trouble furrowed his brow. 

Grim looked on from a distance with Hakim, eating amongst some of the crew, “ Mark Vane there” Grim gestured subtly with his eyes “he’s got the look of a brewing storm about him”.

“Indeed and it makes me wonder” said Hakim between bites of fish “What paths lay in store for us?” 

“Rich ones I hope” Interjected a short  swarthy southerner named Medilous “That ship was no great prize and the seas have been empty as a gambler’s purse of late”.

“Perhaps that will be less true in Vernilon this time around” Grim nudged Medlious with a grin.

“Stake your share on cards or cocks if you wish savage” Medilous replied haughtily “I will entertain myself in the manner of civilized people”.

“He’d pay half his share for a delicate city girl!” one rough-throated sailor jeered.

“Nonsense, civilized men prefer boys” Hakim snapped with a smirk, the men around burst into laughter. Medilous was red with rage, shouting defenses of his manhood drowned out by  the taunting. 

Three sharp blasts of a horn roused them from their joking. Vane snapped his eyes in the direction of the sound. Another blast confirmed it, armada ships coming through the passage. No words needed to be said, everything was dropped and all the men turned to getting the ships sailing. 

The fires were snuffed in an instant and oars were already being run out when Vane reached the Shark. The lookouts came racing back out of the woods and leapt among the crews shoving the beached ships into the water.

“They haven’t seen us yet” Vane muttered while overseeing the embarkation, “and they’ll never catch us in open water, not with their cruisers manned by lubber city-men and press-ganged farmers, unless….”

Vane had suffered many encounters with the Viscount-governor of Vernilon’s Armada throughout his career. No fleet had cost him more dearly or brought him closer to ruin. What they lacked in skill they made up in numbers and the endless funding of concerned merchant guilds. 

The ships were all in the water and underway, rowing toward the northern horn of the island and getting sails ready for the steady breeze that blew through the central channel of the archipelago. 

“Avast sails! Round behind the further isle!” Vane snapped. The oarsmen pulled hard in response and the planks groaned as the ship swung rapidly away from the channel. As they passed by Vane fixed his gaze on the Armada vessels, they showed no signs of changing course or passing a message.

When Golden Bird at last cleared the inlet Vane sent word to Skyrm, its mate, to report on the Armada patrol. The message came back, “Passed out of sight behind isle, no sign of pursuit”. Vane exhaled sharply, as if blowing his concerns away like a puff of smoke.

“Set sails! Take us into the channel!” He called, sending men scrambling to seize halyards and climb rigging. The sails came up and swelled with the steady breeze which blew up the channel towards Vernilon.

The wind drew them up swiftly, weaving among vessels of all shapes and sizes which thronged the channel ever more thickly as they approached the city. Soon the islands gave way to a great bay so full of masts and sails it resembled a forest stripped naked of leaves. On the opposite side the domes and towers of Vernilon rose out of a salty haze. 

Nimble as dragonflies over the surface of the water the sea rovers glided beneath one of the stone forts guarding the entrance to the bay. They rowed through the tangle of boats to a dilapidated moorage on the south side, tucked away down one of the many muddy marshes skirting the walled city. A man so old he could have been embalmed greeted Vane with a slight raise of his hand. 

“And good day to you Dock-master!” Vane said with a bow. He then produced a hefty sack of coin and tossed it to the old man, who caught it with surprising agility. A quick inspection of the contents and the old man nodded in approval, scribbled something in a ledger, and leaned back in his chair. They moored and unloaded the cargo with practiced speed. A contingent of men were sent to fleece the treasure not already in pecuniary form. 

Vane gave liberty to the rest of the crew, leaving a few behind to stand watch. Descending on the town like vultures on a fresh carcass, the sea-weary swashbucklers sought out their preferred vices. Not all, however, were on a mission of carousing. 

Vane wandered alone along the waterfront within the walls. Among a great throng of merchants, mariners, prostitutes, privateers, and adventurers from every corner of the map. He thumbed at the idol in the pocket of his coat. 

The sun was setting, long tangled shadows of masts and rigging criss-crossed the bustling crowd which showed no sign of retiring with the twilight. Vane stopped at the end of a quay where he could look out into the bay. He leaned on a small carven statue of a lion, and scowled out into the distance. He moved his tongue inside his mouth as if physically chewing on a problem. He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye different from the rest of the jostling crowd. It was elegant, graceful, alluring, it demanded attention and he was obliged to give it. 

A beautiful woman, her smooth gossamer skin made gold by the sun, with piercing gray-green eyes and a cascading mane of mahogany hair twisted with many small braids covered in shimmering beads. She was clad in a flowing chiffon wrap of a blue as light as the winter sky, which only accentuated her lithe figure. Over her breasts and around her waist were snuggly tied two garments of velvet, deep blue like the midnight sea. All over she glinted with silver jewelry, but not an ounce of gold. This all gave her the appearance of a frothing wave in the sunset, shimmering and flowing. 

She sashayed passed where he was sitting, slowing down ever so slightly as she got close, eyeing him slyly without turning her head. She half-sighed half-moaned as she went by and swung her hips with practiced ease. Gliding on supple legs through the crowd. 

Vane was gripped like a tree in a storm, being torn at by two gales. At once obsessed with the idol and the promise of treasure, and immolated with a burning passion awakened from outside his conscious mind. Nothing had been able to pull his attention off the idol since they took it from the Beauty, except this new prize. Somewhere within him felt that the two might be connected, that these two treasures wanted to meet and lead to even greater riches. He felt like the idol was aflame in his coat. 

He strode forward with a purpose, dodging through the crowd with the focus of a shark on the scent of blood. He caught up to her and placed his rough hand on her shoulder. She turned, startled, and stared cautiously with her big eyes glinting like gemstones in the twilight. 

The look of her eyes hit Vane like lightning. The crowd melted away around them and the split-second Vane took to collect his wits felt like an eternity. He brought himself to, and spoke, their eyes still locked, “What is your name?” 

“Jesel” she answered in a voice like flowing wine. Another bolt of lightning crashed through Vane’s heart. 

“I am Captain Aerin Vane, Jesel, at your service” He said bowing slightly. 

At this her eyes widened and her mouth opened slightly, “...Aerin?” She almost dared not to ask.

“The young penniless officer?” Vane replied, a warmth in his face that hadn’t been seen for many years. 

“You! Where have you…What…oh Aerin!” She stammered and nearly cried. 

“I have much to explain, I know” He said, taking her hand, “walk with me”. 

The crowd seemed to split before them as they walked together, paying no heed to the squawking masses. Vane regaled her with stories of the sea and battles and shipwrecks and storms. She listened wide eyed, and in turn she told him of intrigue and her rise in the court of the Viscount-Governor. 

They both recalled old stories of their first meeting and romance when they were barely older than children, in the gardens of a great noble palace. It all seemed like a distant dream. Surrounded by humanity they felt intimately alone, each enthralled by the other. The cacophony of the crowd might have been birdsong and a babbling stream. 

     As darkness fell lamp-lighters made their way along the streets and alleys, racing the sunset. The reminiscing pair turned away from the busy waterfront down a narrow alley into the tangle of the merchant’s neighborhood. The glow of the flickering lamp flames danced in the shadows of the narrow streets, lined with ferns which hung over garden walls. 

“You’ve had so many adventures!” Jesel gasped “You must be commander of the Armada by now!” Vane’s aspect darkened, some of the warmth left his face. He continued on in silence for several paces, the sound of his boots echoing down the curving street. “Aerin?” Jesel asked quietly.

“I’ve not sailed with the Armada in many years.” He said frankly.

“Oh so you’ve taken up as a merchan….” Jesel began before a look from Vane silenced her. She stared into his eyes, like the barrels of two pistols in the darkness. “With whom do you sail?” She asked, almost demanding.

“Myself.” Came the stern reply. “I am captain of my own ships and lord of my own fortune” He said, straightening. “Jesel” He stared into her eyes, flickering with the lamplight “I am a pirate.” 

She stared for a moment, he could not tell if in shock or fear. Then in a complete surprise to Vane, a smile cracked her lips, and it grew wider, and her mouth opened, and she began to laugh! She laughed and swung back away from him, almost dancing down the empty street. Vane stared dumbstruck, no squall had ever caught him so off guard. He smirked, if only because of how absurd it seemed to him. She laughed right back into him and looked up at him with longing and wonder in her eyes. 

“I knew Aerin Vane was not cut out to be an officer in the Armada!” She cried between laughs “You were always too ambitious, too proud, too wild! Those sniveling officers would only have betrayed you when they realized what a danger you were! Oh Aerin I knew it! ‘The Reaver of the Coast’ ‘Black Vane’ I knew it was you!” She laughed and sighed and brought herself close to him. 

“So you’ve heard of what I’ve done?” Vane put his arms on her hips and brought her away from him. 

“Of course! What else does a pirate do?” She snickered, “You know we’re not so different, I simply rob men out of their wealth and knowledge via more subtle means” At this Vane cracked a smile, and it was his turn to laugh, a bellowing mirthful laugh that filled the air like music. As he laughed, something she said stood out to him, and he brought her close again.

“Jesel you were always full of surprises” He said running his hand through her hair, “and I think you may have more than you realize. Knowledge you said, you rob men of knowledge. It is knowledge now that I seek above all else.”

“Oh?” She inquired, “Knowledge of what?”

“I recently acquired an item I believe might be part of a vast treasure, yet I have no knowledge of it and know not where to seek” Vane said, his frustration with the idol rising back to the surface, “I have never seen its like before, it haunts me dreaming and waking”

“May I see it?” Jesel whispered-almost holding her breath. Vane had never thought to show her. He did not respond but thought for a moment, and reached into his coat pocket and produced the idol. It shone differently in the dim lamplight, almost as if it bore a totally new expression and new colors emanated from the inlaid jewels. They stood enraptured by it, the passing of time blurred to a haze. 

The idol glared back at them in the lamplight. 

“Colerites” Jesel’s voice came like a pistol shot. Vane frowned at her with confused brows.

“The court magician” She explained, “he has a vast knowledge of the world and its people, if he does not know surely he will know someone who does, or at least where to start”.

“Does he deal often with pirates?” Vane inquired with a smirk. 

Jesel’s mouth puckered slightly, “No, we will have to tell him you are a merchant or collector or some-such” She looked back and forth in thought, “He is quite gullible for all his knowledge so this will not be difficult” 

“Jesel” Vane interrupted in a hushed voice, “you are brilliant, but the street is no place for plotting” He held her chin between his thumb and forefinger, “let’s get a drink, somewhere quiet” 

She looked up into his face, shadowed darkly in the twilight, “Please”

Vane awoke to the gentle song of birds and distant ringing of bells. Sunlight peaked softly into the room through thin linen curtains which swayed gently in the cool morning breeze. He stretched like a panther and inhaled deeply, the air was full of Jesel’s scent, which jolted his heart and shot fire through his body. Exhaling strongly, fully awake, he looked over for Jesel but she was not there, just an imprint in the satin sheets. He looked about the room, hung with rich drapes and tapestries and strewn liberally with rugs and pillows, but Jesel was not among them. He sat up to stand, and the door opened loudly. 

Jesel appeared in the doorway, a silk robe clinging loosely to her svelte figure, “Good Morning” she purred as she sauntered over to the bed. Vane reached to embrace her but she gently grasped his hands and pushed them aside. “Later” she whispered in his ear before straightening and looking out at the towers of Vernilon, “we have an appointment for lunch at Colerites’ villa, you are an important collector who wishes to discuss a new acquisition with him” 

“Without even telling a lie” Vane leaned back on his hands, admiring her, “I’d better dress”

They stepped out of Jesel’s residence onto the bustling street, Vane in his brocade coat and velvet breeches, Jesel a flowing linen wrap of the southern style, embroidered with tigers and flowers. A carriage was waiting for them. 

“Surely we could walk” Vane protested.

“Wealthy collectors do not walk, and I certainly don’t either” Jesel said with a smile. Vane made no further protest and helped Jesel into the coach. 

The ride took them just outside the city where the manors and grand homes of the nobility lay stretched upon massive estates. They came to one villa centered around a massive tower, easily soaring over the surrounding buildings. The entrance was a large gate decorated with golden astronomical symbols, overlooked by grotesque gargoyles. A lone footman sat in a sentry box, springing to his feet as they approached. 

“You must be the lady Jesel and her guest” The guard said, bowing, “you’re expected”. As he said this he motioned towards the gate and the thick doors swung open silently by no apparent mechanism. The carriage passed through the gate onto a road which led to the main residence, lined by massive oak trees. 

“A wonderful trick” Vane noted sarcastically as the gates swung back together behind them, “I wonder, can he make water change colors?” 

“He is quite powerful, if only by the strength of his connections” Jesel replied nonchalantly, “It would do you well to feign deference”. Vane rolled his eyes slightly and looked out the window toward the approaching villa. 

The carriage rounded a fountain in the form of a dragon spitting water and came to a rumbling stop in front of the villa. Vane stepped out first to assist Jesel. The tower loomed over them from the center of the building, appearing even taller than it had from the road. To their left a reedy marsh gave way to the bay, their view to the right was obscured by a dense walled garden, and before them was the main house. The walls were chipped and dirty, and flowering vines climbed among the recessed stone work uncontrolled. Ferns made their homes among the weathered statues and reliefs. 

As they approached the door it swung open, unlike the gate it creaked loudly, and was manually opened by another servant, this one a tall lanky black from the southern jungles. “Lady Jesel and guest” he motioned into the house, “right this way”. 

The inside had polished stone floors and was decorated with all manner of skulls and specimens, tapestries depicting weird exotic scenes hung from the walls, an aroma of dust lingered in the air. As they passed through the house behind their escort Vane noted every doorway and the apparent direction of the halls, trying to piece together a floor-plan.

They were led to an outdoor courtyard overlooking the bay, a fountain bubbled into a square pool and vines climbed the walls. There was one tree that shaded the whole space, small birds darted about and sang.  In the center a table had been set with fruits, cheeses, bread and wine. There were three empty chairs. 

“Master Colerites will be with you shortly” The servant said solemnly. He turned and glided out of the room. 

They sat and waited for some time before they heard the shuffle of feet down the hallway. Jesel motioned for them to rise in anticipation. Vane stood reluctantly, who was this wizard to demand so much of a free man? 

The servant appeared first in the courtyard, and gestured towards Vane and Jesel, “The lady Jesel and her guest…” 

He was cut off by a voice ragged with age, “Yes yes I know Basam! I set up the meeting myself..I just had to see the, what was it…idol, yes I had to…well I wanted to...” He rambled to himself as he strode into the room, making no attempt at grace or nobility. Small, slightly hunched, and squinting up his nose through a pair of garish spectacles, his bedraggled beard quivering as he moved his mouth seemingly at random between words, licking his lips and fretting. His garments were fine but quite aged, a blue silk robe shredded from dragging on the floor. Vane was speechless. This was to whom he now offered his respect? 

“Oh Colerites” Jesel’s voice was high-pitched and formal, “what a pleasure to see you” She curtsied and indicated for Vane to bow, he did not. 

“And you as well my dear…always, well, and you must be the collector!” Colerites’ voice trembled with the increase in volume, “yes the collect…say what was your name? I don’t recall if I..I don’t believe…”

“Vane '' came his reply.  Jesel’s eyes shot over to Vane, he did not glance at her. Vane looked down at the frail old man with disdain and fascination. 

“Ah well Mr. Vane, Mr. is it? Vane I thought I’ve heard that…nevermind. Let us have our lunch and we can discuss the…what was it?”

“The idol,” Vane said as he sat down and poured himself a cup of wine. 

“Yes yes! Very interesting the way it was described by…oh well I wanted to see for myself, the idol, if you have…well I would like to see it…” Colerites continued, seemingly to no one in particular,  as he lowered himself into a chair. 

Vane reached into his coat pocket and produced the idol wrapped up in a cloth, as he did this Colerities shakily poured himself a glass of wine and stuffed a hunk of bread into his mouth, crumbs rolling into his beard. Vane stared at him for a moment and gently unwrapped the idol. Colerities, who a moment before seemed to hardly notice anyone else was there, shook his head in astonishment. His eyes looked huge behind his glasses and he involuntarily spat wine and bread onto the ground. 

“Why, I I I I….” He stammered “I’ve never seen something like that before, unless… perhaps, no it is too unique. But it bears certain resemblance to, it can’t be…” He stared at it transfixed. 

A long moment passed as they all stared at the idol, the only sound the trickling fountain and chirping of birds. Vane noticed Basam out of the corner of his eye, likewise locked on the idol. He looked back at Colerities whose mouth was moving but produced no sound, blabbering silently to himself.

“So you know from there it might have come?” Vane asked eagerly. Colerites shook his head once more, snapped out of his trance. 

“I…well I have some idea, I believe.” He stammered lowly, “I need to reference…perhaps it is in the third volume, that’s in the library. Yes! The library.” His voice raised to its cracking-intensity, “There are some, well may be, well in the library is what I need. Ancient books…a map, where was that…” He trailed off once again. 

“Does this bring anything to mind?” Vane said as he brought out the small scrap of fabric with the map written in a strange language. 

“A map!” Jesel exclaimed in a loud whisper before she caught herself. Vane glanced at her intensely. 

Colerites eyes opened wide and he adjusted his spectacles as he took the map in his hand, “This language…this…is wholly unfamiliar to me, although some of the symbols…yes the small, well…they remind me, of, oh what was it! Oh…It was in…what chapter? The library, yes, yes it will be in there.”

“Then we must go to the library!” Vane exclaimed, “There is no time to waste!”

“No no no no no no no no” Colerites swiftly responded, shaking his head. “This musn’t be rushed, no, no, there will be much research to do, certainly…if I could, well I would need it. The idol that is, for some time. Or perhaps you would want to…well probably not”

“How long would it take, wizard?” Vane was having difficulty hiding his frustration. Jesel shot him another look which he ignored. 

“Oh perhaps a year, two maybe, that’s if…could take three, just to know where it is…what was…where it is from! Yes. To find that out.” Colerities sat back and nodded in satisfaction with his answer. Vane looked over at Jesel with a black look of rage burning behind his gray eyes. 

“Well I am certain Mr. Vane would be perfectly patient with however long it took, he loves knowledge so” Jesel said with a smile. 

“Certainly” Vane said, his voice now sharp as a dagger. “I will be seeing you again soon, to study this” Vane stood to leave.

Jesel leapt up, “We are so grateful for your hospitality Colerites” She said curtseying, “my companion is so eager to start he has forgotten even to say goodbye!” 

“Ah very well, of course, no time for such, for…formalities, yes no time for that” Colerites picked at the cheese unperturbed, “Basam see them out!”

“Of course, master” Basam bowed and led them out the way they had come. 

The carriage ride back to the city was quiet, Vane sat with furrowed brow staring out the window. At length Jesel spoke, “So will you give him the idol, to study?”

“I would sooner stick my arm down a shark’s throat” Snapped Vane, “we have used your subtle means to get to Colerites. Now it is time to use my means to get his knowledge. What do you know about the library, do you have a map of that part of the city?”

“I could certainly get one” She said, intrigued, “what do you intend to do?”

“Research” Vane said with a wicked smile. 

Vane had the driver drop him off a ways away from Jesel’s residence, as close to the southern docks as he dared to go. The city in this area compacted, the streets became narrower and the buildings closer together. Stone gave way largely to wood and daub. It all centered around a long winding street which led straight to the docks. It was known by many names: the net, knife-street, the shoals, eel road, and Vane’s personal favorite bleeding-row. A hub for gambling, drinking, and carousing, Vane knew where to look for his crew.

He walked a short ways down the street, ignoring the coos of harlots and calls of street-hustlers working their games. Coming to a sign which stuck out a ways into the street he stopped and looked up, on it was painted a giant shell with a pistol crossed before it and the words “the clam and gun”. A loud commotion from within snapped his attention to the door just as a man tumbled out into the street. 

He fell right at Vane’s feet and sprang up, cursing back into the bar, “A cheat am I? I’ll make you eat that! You scum will be licking my boot heel when I…captain! Ahoy!” The man looked at Vane with pleasant surprise. 

“Good evening, Kay.” Vane smiled, “Trouble?” 

“Aye captain these yellow-gutted cowards call me for a cheat!” Kay said glaring back inside. He was short and thin with hands like bricks and deep set clever eyes which announced his mood, “I was just about to go and teach them respect…” 

“Another time” Vane interrupted commandingly “we have work to do tonight, go and round up everyone and get the boats ready, and be quick about it”

“Aye aye captain” Kay’s eyes lit up with mischief and he smiled deviously, hurrying down the street with purpose. 

Vane watched him go then stepped towards the bar. A dull roar spilled out into the street from within and rose to a cacophony of music, shouting, laughing, and swearing as he passed through the doorway. The inside was lit by hundreds of candles, and a roaring fire in the center of the room over which a pig was turning. There were gamblers playing at every kind of game, and a troop of musicians going furiously away at a jig. 

It did not take long for Vane to spot more of his men; Hakim and Grim were looming above a gambling table, occasionally whispering to each other before bets. 

“A bold move” Vane said after the two decided on a course of action.

“Captain!” They said simultaneously; Hakim went on “what a pleasure for you to join us in this princely establishment” 

“Not to play I’m afraid, there is work to be done. Gather whoever remains here and meet me outside, we’re launching the boats” Vane said with cunning in his voice. 

Hakim’s viper-like smile split his face “Aye captain” He turned to Grim “Do you want to get Medilous?” 

The Northerner returned a wry look “Happily, if you’ll clean up here”. He loped off through the crowd. 

Hakim turned back to the game “I’m sorry good masters but we must be going” and scooped the pile of coins into his purse. 

“Nonsense!” a man at the table stepped towards Hakim in protest, and a swift buffet was his reward. He reeled backward into a table as the other players scattered. 

Hakim and Vane stepped out onto the street, but did not have to wait long. They heard a woman screaming from upstairs and a half-dressed Medilous tumbled out from a first story window, cursing and shouting. He was followed by Grim laughing heartily as he lowered himself down to the street. 

“You oaf! You beast I’ll gut you!” Medilous cried as he scrambled to his feet, pulling a shirt over his head. He did a double take at Vane who watched on in amusement. 

“No time, let’s go” Vane commanded. The four of them hurried down the street towards the docks-and the marshes. 


 The humming and droning of insects vibrated the still, humid night air. A crescent moon peeked out from behind clouds passing high above, casting a weak light over the marshes. The reeds and grasses were silent, no breeze whispered through their stalks. The insects chirped and buzzed away. 

A paddle broke the stillness of the water, which rippled gently away shimmering in the tenuous starlight. Large black hulks glided silently through the marsh. An oar hit something hard and an alligator splashed away noisily into the reeds. “Careful!” the coxswain hissed in a sharp whisper. 

The men in the boats looked like ghouls sent from hell. Gaunt grim faces shadowed in the dim light. Searching eyes scanning the darkness like hunting beasts. Knives glinted from between their teeth. 



THE WAVES rolled high on sand and stone, slipping between the rocks as they retreated like so many slithering vipers. Further out a pack of ships glided past, cleaving through the gem-toned water. There were five in all, triangular sails stretched full. These were shallow drafted, long keeled, sleek lined stallions of the foam; and each was acrawl with salt-hounds attending to their stations. The sun was beginning to set behind the horizon, casting shadows of the sails on the low hills as they rounded a sheer sandstone point covered with rough scrub. Every mast flew the same flag, a red pennant with a lunging snarling wolf, flapping and twisting violently in the wind. 

“Steady, steady you rat-sons!” Ripped a gnarly voice over the whipping winds “Keep the bow out towards open water Bor!” 

 From astern came the snapped response “Aye captain” and the bow tilted out. Seeing this the other ships followed suit, imitating the leader of the pack. They were tacking hard up the coast against the wind coming from open waters, their  wakes scars in the dark sea. Each ship was small but bristling with arms, the points of spears glinting in their racks. 

“SHIP OFF THE BOW!” came a cry from the top of the mast. All eyes snapped forward, and wicked grins split the faces of the crew.

 “Make ready!” The call erupted, a horn was blown in three bursts, each ship giving three more in return. Before them loped a wide-beamed galleon, limping along in the chop. 

The galleon spotted them at the same time, heeling hard in an attempt to swing out to sea and rougher waters where the larger ship stood a better chance in the tossing waves. It was no use. The galleon’s sails flapped and slacked out in the gusts, presenting itself to the sea-wolves broadside and nearly stationary in the water. It wasn’t long before the longships were bearing down on it, lunging out on all sides closing it in. 

Onboard the galleon chaos erupted, men crawling over each other to go up or down the ladders, carrying piles of loose cannonballs in their arms, tearing apart the ship looking for what little arms they had on board. The longships meanwhile had furled all their sails and run out oars. The men howled and shouted together with each stroke. They were circling the galleon, tightening upon it like a constricting snake. 

From the galleon, which was called Beauty, a few haphazard cannon shots whizzed past the longships and splashed in the waves. The crew of the Beauty armed themselves as best they could with knives, boat-hooks, and hatchets. They lined the railings, preparing to toss wood and cargo overboard onto any boarders. Their captain, a small cruel man with a rodent-face, fretted and shouted, threatening any man who did not fight to his death. 

The crew watched the longships grow nearer until they could see the wicked aspects and wild eyes of the men pulling at their oars. Fear of their captain kept them at the railings, but fear of the corsairs began to pull them away in a deadly tug-of-war. 

The wind howled and as the longships got closer,  the air buzzed with swarms of arrows and musket balls biting at the rails of the galleon. This was too much. Pulling back, the Beauty’s crew fired their last few shots which went sailing high over the longship sails. Men fell writhing with arrows in their backs, their cries drowned out by the salty gale.  

The reavers were at the galleon’s guts. Plank-to-plank the ships clapped together, and just as quickly iron hooks dug into the Beauty’s railings. Knives-in-teeth the corsairs climbed, swiftly as a man could walk. Like ants crawling over a dead rat. The first to go over the railings were the most crazed members of the pirate crews; berzerkers, maniacs, and swashbucklers. A lithe, lean, hawk-faced man called Hakim was among them. Gold hoops dangled from his ears, his bald head and sharp  features gave the impression of a skull with skin stretched over it. A grin like a snake’s curled his face as he brandished his short sharp sword. 

“Attack! Forward damn you!”  The Beauty’s captain shrieked at his terrified crew. “Cowards! Dogs!” he kicked one man forward towards the corsair boarding party who stumbled and fell flat on his face before a towering black-haired berzerker. This man was called Grim, a northerner who bore a long mustache and short spiked hair like a boar’s. He loomed two heads over the tallest of the Galleon’s crew, thin and muscular like a starved wolf. He was naked but for a sash girded about his loins. 

Stepping over the groveling sailor begging for mercy Grim approached the crew, now huddled in a circle around the mainmast. Hakim was on the other side, and all around the pirates swarmed with cruel weapons at the ready.

“Fight! Fight or you’ll be flogged! I’ll kill you myself if you don’t fight!” The captain was frantic, screaming. He grabbed one of his crew and raised his sword to strike the man down as an example. Before he could deliver the blow his sword fell from his hand and he reeled, choking and gasping. He looked up in astonished fear, Grim had transfixed him with a javelin. He stumbled forward, clutching at the shaft protruding from his chest with one hand and with the other reaching out for nothing. Grim came up to him and grabbed the end of the shaft, and with one powerful movement swung him around and sent him tumbling over the railing as the javelin was ripped out. 

“Not much of a captain” He smiled as he inspected the gore on his javelin “If you don't want to wind up like him throw down your arms!” Instantly the weapons of the crew clattered on the deck. 

“Secure them!” Hakim called from the other side and the corsairs began tying up the crew and taking from them what meager weapons and jewelry they had. 

Some went below to clear out the lower decks and once the ship was accounted for “All Clear!” was shouted down from the railings. With astonishing efficiency the sea-reavers looted the ship from top to bottom. Taking only the most valuable goods and piling the rest up in the hold or out on the deck. 

The Beauty’s crew were tied together by their necks sitting in a circle on the middle deck. They muttered back and forth to each other about what might happen to them, if they were to see their homes ever again. An occasional blow from the but-end of a spear quieted their whispering. Glancing about furtively they saw men of every race and build hurrying about ransacking their vessel. 

There were small delicate men from the west, with olive complexions and curly blonde hair. Large ones from the southern grasslands and jungles whose dark skin was marked with ritual scars. Tall lean northern men like grim, black-haired easterners, all of them bearing in common a wolfish expression and faces hardened by a long life at sea. 

A few came out of the captain’s cabin and whispered something to Hakim, who whispered something to Grim, who in turn said something to one of the pirates with a large gold-inlaid horn at his side. He bellowed on it eight times and a few men instantly went to haul up one of the boarding ropes. They pulled it up swiftly, and lifted up a man unlike any of those crawling over the galleon. 

He was tall with thick black hair held back by a silk headscarf. Clean shaven and roughly handsome. His broad hairy chest exposed by his open shirt beneath a coat of gold brocade. His eyes burned a deep gray like smoldering ashes beneath his heavy brow. His look was exacting, his presence formidable, and at his waist hung a brutally simple steel cutlass, notched and unadorned. Captain Aerin “Black” Vane, terror of empires and reaver of the coast. The Beauty’s crew had only heard of him in stories and rumors, his presence stunned them to silence.

“Something to show you in the cabin, Captain” said Grim, genuflecting to the shorter man. Vane said nothing but followed Grim aft. 

The cabin was garish with trinkets and oddities, most of them worthless garbage. Vane glanced about the bric a brac with disdain, sneering “Captain must have been had by every peddler and dock-side swindler from here to the jeweled coast. Is this what you brought me to see?” 

“No” said Grim, “look here.” He produced a small wooden box from underneath the central table. It was decorated with strange human figures in a style unlike any  Vane had ever seen. Grim opened it on the table, and they both stared wide-eyed at its lone occupant. Inside was an idol, human like, with a large head and small body, unmistakably made of solid gold, and inlaid with jewels of every color and hue. It smiled silently at them, the gem eyes twinkling. 

“Are there more like it?” Vane broke the silence. 

“No, just the one” Grim replied, eyes still locked on the shimmering idol. 

“I have seen jewelry and artistry of every people of the known coasts and just as many unknown, and never have I seen such a thing before. Whoever made this surely made more.” Vane asserted, the dazzling colors of the gemstones glinted in his eyes. 

“A vast untouched hoard…” Grim trailed off. Vane reached out and picked up the idol, its smooth gold contrasting with his powerful weathered hand. 

“Look!” Grim exclaimed, and grabbed out of the box a piece of fabric which was hidden under the idol. Unfolding it revealed a map, written in a language unfamiliar to the sea-rovers, and marked with strange symbols similar in style to the ones on the box. 

“Devils take me” Vane cursed under his breath, and then spoke aloud “It must lead to the place this was taken from, to the treasure” 

“What say it?” Asked Grim eagerly “Where stand that coast?”

“I don’t know.” Vane growled in frustration, “but perhaps we might find someone who does, finish up the job here! We make way north to Vernilon, move like hell’s devils are after you!” 

“Aye captain!” Grim responded eagerly as he cracked a wicked smirk. 

Short work was made of getting off of the Beauty, the loot was all loaded away and what of the crew who were fit enough were loaded onto the corsair’s ships to be sold in the slave markets of civilized men. The rest were pushed out to sea in one of the Beauty’s small boats to watch the galleon burn away to nothing, the calling card of the Sea Wolves. The longships hurried north up the coast under a firm wind. 

They sailed a day and a night before they reached a chain of small wooded islands known as “the maze” a few days south of Vernilon, a haven for pirates and smugglers. The ships of the Sea Wolves were gliding across the water as graceful as swans, the Shark, Southern Stallion, Storm-Wind, Golden Bird, and Terror. The Shark being the oldest, built by captain Vane himself. Each ship had been made by its own crew, named for the place or circumstances of its construction. 

They pulled into a small bay made by one of the myriad islands and pulled what of the ships would fit onto the small beach, the others laying at anchor a short ways off. The sun was setting, and the pirates wasted no time. Keenly shaped wooden boards were produced off the ships, in all shapes and sizes, and taken to the windward side of the island where there was a steady swell. The sea-wolves stripped to their breeches and paddled into the water with vigor, howling and laughing. They paddled with the waves until they were caught up in their pull  and rode their boards with great skill, a practice they had taken from the natives of a remote and isolated isle. 

They surfed until the sun set, then kindled great fires on the beach and smashed open casks of wine and beer which had been taken from the Beauty. Singing and wrestling and story-telling they passed the evening.

Darkness came on slowly. The land curved around them from a rocky point connected to the rest of the island by a low narrow spit, the sky could be seen through the tall pines before it retreated behind a granite cliff. The fires cast tall shadows onto the cliff face of dancing giants. 

Vane stood on board the Shark anchored a ways off the beach, smoke curling from his pipe. A fresh cool wind poured over the island driving away the clouds and causing the ships to sway and creak. The moon shone brightly among the bright stars piercing the sky. He breathed deeply of the air and closed his eyes. Again he exhaled and inhaled harder and longer and again before drawing a long pull of his pipe and giving it up to the wind. 

The idol sat facing him reflecting the moonlight. 


CONAN, now king of Aquilonia, is beset by traitors aided by the neighboring kingdom of Nemedia, determined to oust him from his throne. He is aging, now in his early forties, but in his full wisdom and cunning.

            News reached the Aquilonian camp of a company of Nemedian cavalry moving across the border to flank Conan's host. The king took a troop of his most worthy knights to cut them off and drive them back across the border. 

Autumn had set the forest ablaze. Leaves danced in the afternoon light, coming to rest gently on the forest floor.  They muffled the plod of heavy hooves stamping a sodden road. Spears and helms glinted in the light filtering between the trees. The image of a gold dragon on a black field waved on a pennant atop each lance. King Conan rode in front,  looming in his dark mail, atop a powerful jet black stallion. His roughly chopped black mane lay carelessly over his mailled shoulders, and two piercing eyes like frozen blue fire scanned the woodline carefully. 

The sun was setting rapidly, tinging the already ruddy forest an even deeper orange. 

“This road is little taken my liege, it is faster to follow the river.” A knight broke out, cantering up alongside Conan. 

“All the better, less of a chance that Nemedian dog or his men find out our plans.” Growled Conan. 

“Certainly they will not expect us to come from this way, surprise will be ours” The knight said eagerly.

“And they will suffer for it” Replied Conan, full of malice and black inent “We ride through the night”. 

The company rode on, and as they plunged further down the old road the light became faint and pale, and the woods grew thicker and encroached further onto the path. Not a word was spoken. The only sounds were the plod of many hooves, the creak of saddles, and the jangling of armor and weapons. A mist came up out of the wet earth and shrouded even more the thick twilight woods. The air took a chill and the breath of the horses surged in white clouds about the riders. 

The road became rougher and narrower, little more than a gap between walls of tangled branches, forcing the knights to break formation until they could barely ride two abreast. Their lance points caught on overhanging branches; roots and loose stones in the path forced them to slow to a steady walk. Darkness was seeping through the wood, choking out the last tinges of light. 

If any of the knights felt uneasy they would not word it, they had followed Conan into great peril before, into the thickest fray of battle, and would have followed him into the pit of hell without question, such was their loyalty. These were Conan’s best knights, the flower of his chivalry, each chosen for outstanding bravery and courage in battle.

Yet some among them grew restless and shifted in their saddles, glancing back and forth into the now endless blackness of the nightime wood. No creatures stirred beyond the trees, save for the hooting of a lone owl somewhere away off the path. The mist still hung about the wood but the sky was clear, their path now dimly illuminated by the stars which seemed far away beyond the branches reaching over them like many slender fingers. 

Conan remained alone at the front of the company, his murky dark figure like a great moving shadow was all that could be seen of him by the men behind. His eyes glinted like spear-points in the sparse starlight, attempting in vain to penetrate into the woods and darkness that lay before them. He too was unsettled, but his dis-ease came from a place of primal instinct, not a civilized fear of the dark. Like a wolf detecting some unknown danger he scanned about himself carefully, perking his ears for the slightest sound, drawing each breath slowly as if to parse the air for an unfamiliar scent. Yet nothing revealed itself, only in the raw and honed instinct of the barbarian did he feel something was amiss. 

The night wore on and the progress of the knights grew even slower. The forest spilled further and further out into the treacherous path with roots and ferns, the trees reaching out with slender branches now snagging at their armor. The horses too began to show fear, snorting and pulling at the reins. The men spurred them forward with much difficulty. Even Conan’s great stallion slowed his pace and nickered his dislike of their current position. 

Just as they had almost slowed to a complete stop a bright light overtook the path. The moon had risen past the screen of the trees and was glowing full, huge low and yellow like the eye of a wolf, illuminating the overgrown road. The light cast a weird glow about them, sending long shadows of knights and horses twisting among the roots and brambles. The fog persisted but now glowed with a golden haze in the moonlight. They pressed on, picking up their pace again despite the growing protestation of the horses. 

They had gone only a little ways when Conan abruptly halted, raising up his huge hand and staring into the woods. The knights immediately behind him reined in quickly and their horses snorted and whinnied as they halted. The knights looked about quickly and waited, a few murmuring indistinct words to each other, Conan remained still, as if in a trance, staring off ahead into the wood. 

At length a knight, Robert of Valeuse, one of the bravest in their number, broke out in a low hoarse voice, “What is it my liege?”

Conan remained still for some time, Robert watching him anxiously. At length Conan responded “The owl stopped”. 

The knights looked around at each other and back out into the woods, the murmuring grew slightly louder as they passed what had been said to the back of the company. 

Robert looked back at his companions and then forward again to Conan, who still had not turned from where he stared away into the moonlit woods. Robert drew breath to speak, to ask what Conan wished them to do, but as his lips parted a bellowing sound filled the woods. The horses screamed and squealed and some reared up at the sudden noise, nearly tossing their riders. 

The sound seemed to come from all around them, a deafening drone at first but as they listened it multiplied into many pitches and tones, like the call of many hunting horns. 

“A TRAP!” Conan snarled above the clamor “RIDE!” His voice boomed down the path as he spurred his horse into a reckless gallop. 

The knights quickly followed suit, barreling down the narrow path as fast as they dared, barely keeping their king within sight. They rode with such abandon that branches broke on their faces and arms but they paid little heed, only thinking to escape the snares of the trap and the bellowing of the horns. 

The noises did not seem to change or grow more distant as they rode, the horns blowing at all times different calls and notes like a great unseen hunting party. 

They galloped hard at the heels of Conan, his black stallion charging ahead into the night puffing steam with every snorting breath. Conan glanced about him as he rode, expecting to see scouts or enemy soldiers come at him from the surrounding wood. But the moonlight only revealed trees passing away into obscurity. Looking ahead the path narrowed until it closed off, two great fir trees growing out blocking the way ahead. Conan drew his sword and charged forward, ready to meet a host of foes beyond the trees. 

He burst through the boughs like a great cat lunging at its prey, roaring and brandishing his sword, barely with enough time to stop his horse before they struck the great looming shape which jumped out at them beyond the trees. 

At first he thought it was a massive stone or a cliff, but looking side to side he saw the unmistakable form of a castle looming among the trees. Its towers stood stark, mossy and overgrown with ivy and ferns silhouetted against the huge moon.  

The horns still sounded all around as the first of his knights charged through the clearing. They had the same surprise as Conan, turning quickly to either side to avoid collision with the walls. 

In the confusion beneath the walls Conan scanned the ramparts rapidly for awaiting enemies, seeing only mossy stones. Looking down along the walls he saw that they were in fact before the gate, the opening masked by overhanging ivy in the dark.

“Inside! Quickly!” He roared at his confused knights and charged forward, slashing down the ivy as he thrust into the courtyard. Finding this too to be free of foes, Conan wheeled his horse and filled his powerful lungs to shout over the cacophony of the horns and screaming horses, “Dismount! Dismount and fight!” he swung his huge broadsword in a circle above his head as he shouted, the blade flashing like a yellow flame in the moonlight “Dismount and hold the gate! We face them here!” his voice echoed like thunder off the walls. 

Conan sprung from his saddle and landed with pantherish dexterity on the mossy cobbles. Frantic horses were stamping  around the courtyard, as the knights dismounted quickly to form a defensive line at the gate. Conan looked for some way to mount the walls so that he might get a better view of the surrounds, but if there ever was any stairway outside the towers it had either crumbled or rotted away. There were holes in the masonry of the wall where beams had once been held, low enough to reach. Conan bounded over to the wall with great springing strides and clambered up using the holes as a great cat clambers up a tree. From the ramparts he gazed out into the forest beyond. 

The horns rattled the trees in the surrounding wood, yet Conan saw no sign of any foe. The treetops went on seemingly forever, a vast ocean of blazing autumn leaves occasionally pierced by the points of pines and firs. Nowhere in any direction did a clearing show spear tips among the foliage, no branches stirred enough to be moved by a host of men, the horns blasted away but no shouts or hoof beats joined their blaring. Above all gleamed the massive yellow moon, now high in the night sky, casting its strange glow over the foggy woods. 

Below Conan in the aperture of the wall his knights had formed a solid wall of steel. The gate bristled with lance-points, held in anxious grips as the knights scanned the woodline for any movement. The horns were blowing now in a great frenzy, a crescendo of bleating and blasting, like a hunting party closing in on its mark. Conan strained his every sense for any sign of the source of the sound, but found only the endless forest.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the noise ceased. The wood was silent, and suddenly every sound the knights made was like the striking of anvils to their ears. The metallic jingle of armor, even their breath was like mighty waves crashing upon rocky cliffs. The horses were calming down, but their hooves on the cobbles rang like crashing thunder and their neighs like howling winds. Conan adjusted his ears as best he could, and strained his keen eyes into the darkness beyond, but only a faint breeze in the treetops revealed itself to his refreshed senses. He leaped from the wall, landing with catlike lightness in the courtyard below. The knights held their position, but a few glanced back at the massive figure of Conan brooding in the darkness, staring off at nothing as if in deep thought. 

“Break formation, we camp here tonight.” Conan finally broke the silence “If that was a Nemedian scouting troop they must have missed us in the wood, or are going back to bring reinforcements to besiege us here.” He looked around at the overgrown battlements “Set a watch at the gate and on the walls, secure the horses, we’ll have no luck trying to move in the woods at night now that we’ve lost the road, we ride at first light”. 

With his order the knights busied themselves preparing camp and choosing sentries for the first watch. Conan looked around the courtyard. Towards the back opposite the gate there stood a great hall built against the outer wall. Its doors were gone and the arched entrance stood open, a black maw in the mossy stones. Conan strode toward the opening, crushing fallen leaves as he crossed the courtyard. Approaching, he noticed ornamental carvings beneath the moss. He wiped away some of the growth. The moss fell away to reveal images of wolves hunting deer and other animals. Carved with intricate detail the forms of the animals writhed and twisted together. The moonlight cast shadows in the deep valleys of the carvings, and they seemed almost to move in the eerie glow. Conan grimaced at the images and looked into the doorway. 

The hall was empty, from what the moonlight could reveal. A few leaves were blown across the stone floor by a breeze coming from the doorway. The far walls were shrouded in shadow but Conan recognized it as a banquet hall by the raised stone platform and central fire pit. He perked his ears for any sound from within but only heard the gentle howl of the wind and the echoing sounds of his knights going about their duties. 

He turned to the sound of footsteps approaching him from behind, it was Sir Robert, his cloak wrapped about his lean form and his deeply-lined, mustached face like the bark of an old tree in the stark light. 

“What troubles you my liege?” the knight inquired, noting Conan’s furrowed brow.

“This place…” Conan paused “I do not like it. I have heard of no castle in these woods, and I feel this one is not so long abandoned as it appears” 

“Truly it troubles me as well” Robert said looking off into the darkness of the hall “but I am more interested in the origin of those horns we ran from”

“Indeed” Conan shifted his gaze “Perhaps we will find something of their owners here. Get a fire going and bring torches”

“As you wish, my king” Robert bowed and made his way across the courtyard. 

At length Robert returned with three other knights all bearing torches, with an extra for Conan. They passed beyond the doorway and held up their brands against the thick gloom. The light from the torches struggled to lap against the far walls, but it was enough to reveal what was there. The knights recoiled, Conan scowled at the sight. Bones, great piles of them, lay scattered around the hall. 

“What animals!” Robert hissed, turning his torch to illuminate the dark corners and recesses of the hall. 

Conan said nothing but advanced cautiously to the nearest skeletal mound. As his torchlight climbed up the walls it unveiled doorways out of the blackness. Two openings stood opposite each other on the two side walls of the chamber. Crouching, he looked over the bones briefly, turning a few over with his free hand. 

“Animals indeed” he said, standing and holding up a femur gnawed on one end. “Wolves, by the look of it”. 

“Then the horns came from elsewhere” Robert said with inquisition on the end of his tongue. His voice seemed small in the lofty chamber, stifled by the choking shadows. 

“The wolves did not sound them” interjected another knight, Sir Alaric of Noet, the greatest rider among the company and likewise among the most learned. His sarcasm received only a sidelong glance from Robert as a reply. “Yet, the wolves cannot have been so far gone as to not have heard, the clamor will have drawn them back. They may even now be watching us from the trees, figuring if they will eat us or wait for us to leave” 

“If they do we will give them a warm welcome at the king’s table” Conan grinned “Set a double watch on the gate, tell them to give a shout if so much as a twig snaps. Get the rest moved into the hall and get a fire in the hearth. We are the only wolves here tonight”. 

The moon rose ever higher; it shone so brightly that the stars were few. A few strands of cloud passed before it and were engulfed and made thin by the consuming glow. Light flickered out of the doorway of the hall to meet it, but the pulsating light of the fire was overtaken by the yellow lunar haze. The knights passed the evening in what revelry they could, drinking sparingly of their wine skins and attempting to out-do each other's accounts of chivalrous deeds. 

Conan sat on his saddle staring silently into the fire. His chin rested on his powerful fist. The light of the fire and his fur mantle gave him the appearance of a brooding bear. The light reflected in his eyes like a candle seen through a piece of ice. Alaric sat nearby, watching Conan a while before speaking below the rumble of the storytellers. 

“You are troubled by it too”  Conan shot his eyes over to Alaric, who continued as he caught the king’s gaze, “the noises in the wood, the overgrown path, this place itself” he looked around the fire-lit hall “I have been thinking, a shred of a story I once heard came to me when we first came here, and I have been seeking it desperately in my mind the whole night” 

“Hints came to me only briefly of hunting parties and a castle left to the trees, of wolves and murder and black secrets in the night, but try as I might I could not recall the whole tale or from where it came to me” 

“Cease your dramatics Alaric” Conan interrupted gruffly “I am in no mood for your pontification”

“But I have found it, liege” Alaric lowered his voice yet his eagerness made it seem louder than any in the hall, “or I should say I found something that returned the memories to me. I walked through the other chambers of the keep while the fire was made, seeking some evidence of the lost lords of this place, and found something that is better seen than described” 

Conan scowled, “Damn your obscurity, yet I will see this thing.” He rose, and followed Alaric into the far door. Robert saw them go and silently followed after them. 

They passed into the shadows of the passage. It was brighter than Conan expected. Great beams of moonlight shone through windows in the adjoining chambers. They passed in silence, Robert came up swiftly behind “What is it?” He whispered eagerly. 

“You will see” Alaric said calmly. 

They came to an arched doorway at the end of the passage, carved much like the one at the entrance of the hall. Except that carved at the peak of this door was the lifelike face of a snarling wolf. 

“In here” Alaric gestured them inside. Conan made no indication, but he found the place unsettling. His instincts were roused as they were earlier in the wood, he glanced about carefully. 

The chamber was brighter than the passage, lit by moonlight streaming through two massive arched windows on the inner wall. At the far end was an altar, piled all about with bones. Upon it was the effigy of a knight, as was customary in noble aquilonian burials, but the effigy was strange and half shrouded by shadow. 

“It was here that I remembered” Alaric started, his voice was now grave and steady “Sir Loriot of Chaliac, steward of the Eastwold. A great knight by many accounts but an even greater hunter. He lived for the chase and his skill was unmatched. He would go out alone for days and return with boar that would have taken five men to subdue. It is this skill at the hunt which earned him the name ‘The Wolf of Chaliac’”.

“He took the moniker as his crest, and wore a wolf’s pelt upon his helm. But there are stories that it was more than just a name. It is said that in battle he would take on the form of a massive wolf, and tear men apart with nothing but his claws which were as hard and sharp as the best steel. No weapon of iron could wound him. Always after fighting his mouth would be dripping with the blood of his fallen foes…”

“The fire was a better place to tell legends” Robert scoffed. Alaric ignored him and went on,

“He was slain at the battle of Markden, some three-score years agone. His body was taken back here to be buried, we stand now before his funerary altar. He left no heirs and had no living family, and his castle was so remote no knight would take up its care, so slowly the woods took it back”. 

“It was said that after his death his hunting horn could still be heard echoing through the forest. And some even claim to have been come upon by whole troops of ghostly hunters in the night, blasting their many horns as if hot on the tail of some mighty beast” 

“Surely you don’t suggest…” Robert interjected indignantly

“I am only repeating what I have heard” Alaric responded patiently

“Enough.” Conan stopped both of them “I did not come here to be regaled with old woodsman’s stories”

“There is more than old woodman’s tale-weaving in this my king” Alaric said intently, “It is recorded in the Chronicle of Emperor Alesios, who reigned at the time, that the knights closest to Loriot disappeared shortly after his death. And I have heard it said that they came here to form some sort of secret pact, which they first made with Loriot in life, to something ancient and terrible which dwelt in these woods. Something that gave Loriot the wolf’s shape. They would sacrifice any wanderer unfortunate enough to get lost in these tangled trees to this thing”. 

“I am no child to be scared out of wandering in the woods” Conan sneered “Your knowledge of lore is great but I put no stock in fables” 

“As you wish, my liege” Alaric bowed “I only thought this might clarify our situation somehow” 

“If only you’d have spent as long thinking of how to get us past the Nemedian troop we certainly encountered, we would have no need of wolf-stories” Robert jabbed. 

As they spoke the moonlight stretched across the stone floor to the altar, it mingled with the bones at the foot of the stone slab, which appeared different than the bones in the hall. Conan still could not shake an instinctual fear; he looked more closely at the bones beneath the altar and saw among them the hollow eyes of a human skull staring back at him. His gaze focused. The growing light of the moon slithered across the effigy, revealing the side obscured by shadow. This side was hideous and bestial, a hairy snarling creature that looked like the union of the lupine and the simian. It was melded to the human side of the effigy like it was growing out and over it, strands of fur licked over the armor as if to overtake it.

“By Crom…” Conan muttered. Alaric invoked Mitra under his breath.

Suddenly from outside came a shout from one of the sentries on the wall. Conan and the knights in the altar room wheeled to face the noise, and Conan dashed out the window into the courtyard. 

All was again confusion. Horses whinnying and pulling at their neck-ropes. Knights rushing this way and that to arm themselves and take up positions. Conan looked about on the walls and saw the sentry who had called waving others over to his position. Again Conan sped towards the wall and vaulted up it with cat-like ease. He stood before the man, and witnessed a gruesome scene. 

The sentry who called had stumbled upon the knight he was to relieve sprawled upon the rampart in a pool of blood, his throat was open and he stared up into the sky with glassy eyes. 

“Sir Gerard, my king, I found him like this. It must have been an enemy scout, they climbed the wall and slit his throat and sped away when they heard me coming”

Conan looked over the wall then knelt to inspect the corpse more closely. The man’s throat was torn open, as if by a bear, all the way back to the spine. The moon shone overhead, mirrored darkly in the pooling blood.

“No knife rips a man open like that” Conan said “Hardly the technique of a cowardly Nemedian skirmisher. Did you see anything?”

“Only a black shape jumping down from the wall into the trees, over there” The knight gestured to a spot in the woods. Conan scanned the trees, his eyes of all the men there were best at spotting movement among the branches, yet he could make out nothing. Not even the swaying of a leaf gave away any sign of life. 

A few other knights had mounted the stair to the wall where Sir Gerard had been slain, others watched from down in the courtyard. From across the courtyard where they did not look came a crash, the horses screamed and frothed. Whipping around to face the sounds they saw a dark shape lying in a heap near where the horses were tied. 

“Do not take your eyes off these woods!” Conan barked as he rushed back across the courtyard. The men who had watched from down below reached the shadowed shape first. “Sir Bours!” One exclaimed “He has met the same fate as Sir Gerard”.

Conan was wroth, to lose men in battle was one thing, but to see two of his best knights slaughtered from the shadows like hunted game drove him to rage. “Get every man up on the wall! We watch for the rest of the night. No Nemedian brigands will slay my men from hiding like cowards! At first light we ride out to find these dogs.” 

His knights took to the ramparts, armed and weary. They were tired from a long ride but fear and apprehension kept them wrapped to their duty. Conan took a place in one of the towers, with him was Robert and Alaric. They watched in silence, any man who saw or heard so much as a rustling leaf was to call it out. 

The night wore on. The moon dropped lower into the sky, growing larger with every second. Time seemed to pass unnaturally slowly. The air was sharp and brisk, and their breath steamed into the windless air. 

Conan could not shake the sight of the grotesque effigy from his mind. It stalked his thoughts incessantly. He pondered Alaric’s tale and other stories he had heard of men who were said to fight like wolves or wild beasts and rip their enemies with their teeth in violent ecstasy. He wondered at the stories he had heard as a child of men who used to long ago roam the earth, half man and half beast, turning wildest under a full moon. He glanced up to the great orb watching them in the black sky and glared at it with malice. Whether man or devil he would see these foes laid low, yet he was uneasy. Trapped there in the castle like a boar in the hunter’s net, waiting for the killing stroke. 

A noise reached his ears from somewhere in the trees, it was faint but steady, a continuous rustling like the stealthy movement of men. The civilized ears of his companions had not heard it yet, but Conan waited to call it out lest his shout alert the skulking foes and he lose his chance before they were close enough to be pursued. It grew steadily louder, but still was no more than a whisper amongst the trees. 

“Ready yourselves, but make no sign of warning” he whispered to his companions in the tower, his words no louder than a drawn breath “Follow me when I move”

The two knights glanced around the woods, and groped nervously at the hilts of their swords, but made no shouts or signs. 

Without a word Conan swiftly descended the stone stair of the tower to the connecting wall, Alaric and Robert rushed to follow him. Conan burst onto the wall and swiftly swung himself over the ramparts and lowered himself down before the gate, startling the men on watch. Robert and Alaric did their best to climb down the inner side. 

“Show yourselves, dogs!” Conan roared into the wall of trees “Or be hunted down like the mongrels you are!” He brandished his longsword at the woods and strode boldly forward into the open space between the wall and the trees. Alaric and Robert now hurried out of the gate with their swords drawn and stood behind Conan. Mist swirled about their feet in the clearing. 

There was a loud rustling in the branches but no words came in response. Conan readied his blade, every iron thew in his body ready to lunge at an oncoming foe. The branches before him shook and dropped a few dead leaves, a low shape emerged from the foliage. 

Conan tensed his poised blade, then slowly lowered it. A great ruddy wolf emerged from the woods. It’s huge eyes flashed like gems in the moonlight. It watched him cautiously. There was another rustling of leaves and a dozen more wolves emerged into the clearing. Watching and circling Conan and the knights at his flanks. 

“Ha!” Conan laughed a deep laugh “Here they are the great knights of Aquilonia held at bay by stalking wolves like shepherds!” He menaced the largest one and shouted like a lion. It bared its yellow teeth at him but gave way at his approach. “Well?” He called back to his men, help me see them off!” 

The knights strode boldly forth shouting and swinging their blades and the wolves quickly backed away. The large one who first emerged let go a great howl, and the woods around them erupted in echoed  calls. The sound was so great and the calls so numerous that there could have been an entire host of wolves surrounding the castle. The knights for a moment paused and looked to Conan, who laughed and doubled his roaring shouts in response. The knights were emboldened. They charged up to the edge of the trees and threw stones and jeered. They would rise up with a great cry then they heard a whimper to tell them that a stone had found its mark. The howling continued but grew more distant. 

Conan watched this for awhile before he was satisfied the wolves would not return. He was about to call his men back, when a renewed commotion away on the flank caught his ear. Approaching he heard a redoubled howling from wolves who had drawn closer. His men shouted and continued throwing stones, calling out and laughing,

“Looks like they don’t know what’s good for them!” 

“They’ve come back for more, here catch this doggy!” 

A tall knight hurled a stone with all his might into the fog-shrouded woods and a sharp yelp came in response. The knights cheered and the howling died away. Conan stood and listened while the knights hurled taunts and mockery after the wolves. He pricked his ears at the breaking of branches and trampling of leaves, louder than any of the wolves had been and approaching swiftly. 

“Something comes!” He called to his knights “Cease your jokes and ready yourselves!” Some stopped and steadied themselves, but the knight who had thrown the stone was intoxicated by his own prowess. He swaggered over to the woods and raised up another stone, “You must not have heard me doggy! I said fetch!” He whipped the stone with all his might towards the rapidly approaching sounds but no yelp came in reply, but a deep throated snarl. He fumbled for his sword, just as an immense dark shape sprung on him from out of the mist. 

He screamed but it was cut short and his bloody corpse was hurled to the ground limp and broken. Before the knights stood a beast whose sight froze their limbs and minds. Its yellow eyes glowed like the moon and its fur was black as pitch. It was huge, tall as some of the younger trees, but lean and long and well muscled. It stood like a man but was in all other ways like an immense terrible wolf. Its visage was a nightmare, twisted in a snarl which revealed its yellow knife-like fangs dripping with blood. It tilted its head back and released a bone-shaking deep throated howl which echoed away into the trees. 

The knights stood paralyzed by the sight of it, all except Conan, who roused them from them stupor with a cry as he charged to meet the beast

 “Are you knights or shepherds! At him!” 

Conan rushed past them straight at the creature who snarled and poised to strike him. Conan ducked a sweep from the rending claws and gave a cry as he swung his great broadsword. The blade connected with the furry flank but did not cut, the beast barely seemed to notice as it ripped at Conan with another slash of its claws. He deftly dodged the second stroke and came again with a blow that would have split a man’s skull. His blade rung and shivered as it crashed into the monster’s head as if he had struck stone. 

Conan’s knights rushed up to his aid, shouting and swinging their swords. Their points turned away on the creatures hide as it faced them, dashing one knight away like a man swats a fly. It roared and rent about them with its claws, shivering shields and bursting mail with every stroke. Two more knights fell and more were wounded as they circled the beast, slashing at it in vain. 

Conan’s fury grew with each blow that fell without drawing so much as a drop of blood. His hair bristled and his eyes burned in primal rage. He threw down his sword and hurled himself full on at the creature, screaming with wild abandon. The impact sent them both sprawling. Conan landed on top of the creature and gripped its tangled fur in his fist as he rained blows like hammer strokes down on its head. 

It writhed beneath him and pulled at him with its claws, ripping his mail shirt and deeply gashing his arms. Conan struck it between the eyes and it snapped at his hand as he drew it away, catching his arm in its crushing jaws. Conan’s eyes were stoked with barbaric fury as the teeth began to pop the mail rings of shirt in their tightening bite. Conan could not pull it free and his blows did not loosen the grip of the jaws. With a guttural roar he sunk his teeth into the creatures ear with all his might, and felt a warm stream of blood flood over his jaw and neck. 

The beast released him and gave a cry, and flung Conan off with iron strength. Conan rose where had landed, blood dripping from his chin, and screamed a primal yell that shook the air. The beast rose quickly and howled again, its brutal monstrous howl, and this time it was met by others. Not the howls of wolves, but more of the same wicked howls that ripped the night air like ax-blows. 

Conan charged again but the wolf-beast gave back and disappeared into the woods.

“Back to the keep!” Conan called to his men “They will be back and we will hold them at the gate!” 

The knights rushed back to form up in the gateway and Conan followed, checking always for pursuit. He knew not why no weapon would bite on the monster, but he had wounded it, and if it could be wounded it could be slain. It was not long after they had filed panting back into the courtyard that a chorus of terrible splitting howls awoke in the wood. 

“Turn and face them! Hold this gate with your lives!” Conan barked at his men.

Lances were brought out and their points burst from the gate ready to meet the foe. The men were steadfast, their breath and bodies steaming in the frigid air but their spirits fired by the words and deeds of their king. 

Soon the howling ceased and out of the mist emerged hulking black figures, three in all, each as huge and terrible as the first. Their black fur shone like obsidian. They snapped and snarled as they approached, and the men grew fearful. How could they fight off three if their swords could not wound one? Even Conan was unsure how they would defeat the creatures, it had taken all of his ferocity to wound one and his men’s morale would not hold for long. Yet he showed no sign of fear.

“Send these fiends back to the pit they crawled out of, show them what Aquilonian steel tastes like!” He commanded as the beasts drew nearer. The leader of the pack howled and the others snarled and growled in response as they charged, running on all fours with astonishing speed. 

The knights braced themselves at the gate, planting the butts of their lances firmly in the earth. The wolf-beasts came straight on, their snorting breath fuming in the frigid night air. They rushed headlong at the lance-points as if they were blades of grass, and lunged. The lead was struck in the chest in midair and although not pierced, was sent sprawling onto the dirt. This tripped up the second one but the third launched itself over its tangled comrades and snapped a lance with a swing of its massive paw. It crashed among the men like a hurled log, sending three large knights tumbling. 

Immediately the carnage began, the beast ripping men apart with its claws and sinking its fangs into their flesh like daggers. Conan leapt at the best and wrapped his massive arm about its jaws, fighting with all his strength to keep them closed. He drew a dagger and stabbed at its eyes, but as he and his men fought this one the other two had recovered and rushed into the fray. One came up and ripped Conan from the other, tossing him away like a small child. The other mounted the wall and came down behind the men inside the courtyard. It rushed to where the horses were tied and began slashing the throats of the terrified screaming beasts. 

“The horses! Protect the horses!” Robert called from the gate as the chaos spread out into the courtyard. Conan staggered to his feet from where he been thrown and beheld a scene of pure terror. Slain knights lay all about with mangled faces and bodies. Those left standing were fighting for their lives with little hope, no weapons would even injure the murderous creatures. Many of the horses had been slain where they were tied and their corpses pulled on the leads of the others tied to the same line. Conan resolved himself to fight to the death and began to rush in when suddenly all became dark. 

A wind had picked up from the north and had driven dense clouds before it, which now shrouded the massive moon. The wolf beasts appeared unfazed by the diminished light and continued their brutal slaughter. The men would be left to die hopelessly in the dark without so much as a fighting chance.

One source of light remained, however, the glow of the fire from within the hall. 

“Torches!” Conan cried with all his might “Bring torches!” and he and those knights who heard him rushed to the hall and thrust torches into the flames. They quickly emerged brandishing their burning lights and charged towards the beasts. To their surprise the beasts gave way at their coming, not daring to attack any of the men wielding fire. 

“They fear the flames!” Conan shouted and he rushed at the nearest beast, stabbing at it with the torch. The flames singed the fur and it caught fire, yelping in a frenzy to extinguish its burning pelt. The knights surged forward with their torches and the beasts gave way. Hurrying off into the woods, the one still smoking where it had been burned. 

The knights who remained did not cheer victory. The light of the torches saved them, but also revealed how dire their situation was. Half the horses had been slain, and nearly as many knights. The night was dark, and the three beasts still stalked the woods. A light snow began to fall. 

The knights regrouped in the hall and made fires about the courtyard. They had enough wood to last the night, but none knew if the day would prove a respite. 

“It was as if they wore armor of solid steel!” Robert exclaimed, inspecting the dulled edges of his sword. “I was wrong to be so hasty Alaric”

“The fault is not yours Robert, even I was dubious of the tales, I never thought them so literal” Alaric replied solemnly. 

“Yet there must be some way” Conan brooded “I made one bleed, and the other was hurt by the fire, they are not invincible” 

“Even Loriot was slain” Said Alaric

“How?” Conan asked with renewed interest

“It is not recorded” Alaric sighed, “yet we are at his tomb, perhaps his bones may give us an idea.” 

They rushed back to the chamber where they had seen the monstrous effigy. The image was eerily familiar to them now, it looked exactly as the beasts which had done so much slaughter amongst their company. With a great effort Conan pushed the effigy aside, revealing that it was no tomb at all, but a passageway with stairs that led down into blackness. 

Conan muttered an oath as they stared into the pitch darkness of the stairway. 

“We have no choice but to descend” he said, and taking a torch went down into darkness. 

The others followed, and they climbed down for what seemed a great distance, though the passage never altered course or deviated. Eventually the light of the torches shone on a flat floor, not further steps, and they emerged into a massive natural cave. The roof was too high to be reached by the torches, and the furthest walls were dim shadows. It was empty except for a stone table carved from the living rock at the other end of the chamber. 

As they approached the torches revealed a carving in the wall behind the table more hideous than the one in the chamber. It was a nauseating chimera of different beasts of all kinds, sharks, wolves, chimps, snakes, all fused into one disgusting visage of primordial terror. 

“By Mitra…” Muttered Alaric as he held up his torch to better reveal the image “Nothing I have heard or read has described such a hideous beast” 

“I doubt if those who carved this left any record”.

“What of this?” Robert brushed dust from the top of the table, revealing an inscription.

“It is in a dialect of Aquilonian, it could not be older than a century” Alaric said studying the inscriptions 

“What does it say?” Conan asked brusquely.

“It is a poem…an epitaph” Alaric answered without taking his eyes off the inscription. 

“I am terror in the night

All are my prey

A hunter beneath the full moon

I offered praise to Baagaash

And he made me death”

“Foul deviltry” Conan cursed, looking about the cave “But where is Loriot?” 

“I know not” Alaric said, looking up from the carven words “I doubt if any know”

Conan paused, “Why should an effigy be carved upon a table?” He leaned against the side of the rock and pressed with all the strength in his massive form. As he pressed the top gave way, sliding off the top slab of the rock. It was a sarcophagus carved so carefully out of the stone that it appeared to have no gap between the lid and the box. Within there was a skeleton, not of a man but of the wolf-beasts form. Long and unnaturally-shaped the fangs smiled at them from the hollow skull. 

The torchlight glinted on an object in the ribcage.  Conan leaned in to get a better look. There imbedded in the spine was the point of a lance, but it shone much brighter than steel and had not rusted despite the flesh of the body rotting away. Conan gripped it and drew it out as the bones crashed and snapped. Holding it up in the torchlight it glimmered brightly. It was finely wrought, and was carved with runes and images which were too ancient even for Alaric to recognize. 

“Silver…” Conan said, “I would recognize its shine anywhere” 

“Yes silver!” Alaric started suddenly “I recall now of an old fragment I once read which spoke of silver being used to fight demons in ancient days. They laugh at steel, silver is the only thing which can slay the spawn of hell.” 

“Well it certainly slew Loriot” Robert said looking into the sarcophagus, “but how are we to use it on the beasts which yet live?” 

“They will not have gone far” Said Conan, “we have wounded two but they will wait for us to leave and try to pick us off in the woods”.

             “I will hunt them” He asserted. 

“I will go with you” Robert spoke with grave concern 

“And I” Said Alric steadfast. 

“I wish no more of my men to be slain by these beasts” Conan said, “But I know I cannot dissuade you”. 

They made preparations to go out into the woods and ordered the remaining knights to ready the horses to leave as soon as they returned. They brought no torches so as not to scare off the wolf-beasts and headed out into the dark autumn woods, now dusted by the gently falling snow. 

They tracked on for some time, making no attempt at stealth hoping to draw the beasts to them. Conan held the lance tip like a dagger inside his cloak. The woods were silent save for their walking, and they followed the trail of the beasts as best they could although much of it had been obscured by the snow. It was nearly morning when they stopped for the first time.

“How long are we to look for them?” Robert asked “If we go on too far we shall get lost in this damned forest”.

“Go back if you wish” Conan said callously “I will find them” 

“Perhaps they have gone back to slay the rest” Alaric suggested

“No they would not risk facing the fire…silence” Conan trailed off and held up his hand.

The hairs on Conan’s neck stood up, there was the unmistakable feeling of being watched yet he heard nothing.  Back to back they scanned the dark woods but could make out nothing in the snowy wet tangle. For a moment the clouds parted, and a beam of moonlight shot through illuminating the freshly fallen snow. Then Conan saw them, a pair of glowing eyes in the dark. They stared at him with primal hatred. Conan rushed in a frenzy, charging with all the explosive power of his mighty frame. From the woods on either side burst the other two wolves. Robert and Alaric drew their swords as the beasts closed in on them, parrying the slash of rending claws. 

Conan burst through the branches and collided with the oncoming beast as it tore at his mail shirt. It gashed him deeply, but as they came together Conan plunged the lance-point into its heart and it let out a blood chilling cry as it crashed to the ground. Conan ripped the bloody blade from the fallen beast and turned back towards the others. 

The beasts fighting Alaric and Robert had turned away when they heard their comrade's death-cry. They ignored the blows of Alaric and Robert's swords as easily as the falling flakes of snow and rushed at Conan with frothing fangs. Conan came to meet them and ducked a ripping slash, thrusting up into the ribs of the nearest creature. The point bit deeply and the creature writhed with the blow, wrenching the handle from Conan’s hand and leaving it embedded between in its breast. Conan dodged desperately an onslaught of blows from the two beasts, but they overwhelmed him, and slashed him several times before sending him careening  into a tree. He staggered to his feet, back to the tree like a lion at bay, clutching a great gash in his side and picking up a stone for his only weapon. 

The two beasts snarled at him with slavering fangs and positioned themselves for another attack. Conan gritted his teeth and poised to strike, ready to fight to his last breath. There was a crackle of movement from the woods; Alaric and Robert burst forth and threw themselves onto the great furry backs. They shouted and clung on with all their might as the beasts roared and tried to shake them. Alaric had mounted the one with the spear-point in its side. He gripped it with all his strength and attempted to pull it free but he could not move it. The beast backed itself into a tree slamming Alaric against it. He grunted with the blow but held on. Conan came up before the beast and entangled himself in the grapple. 

They smashed through the woods and the claws rent Conan’s back. His hands gripped and searched for the handle of the blade, gulping air in great gasps each frigid breath was a greater agony. His fingers found the Spear-Point and with a desperate heave he ripped it out. Immediately he plunged it back into the creature's throat and it fell gurgling to the snow. 

The third beast had tossed Robert from its back and was holding him up with dripping claws. He hung limp in its grasp as it opened its massive maw about his head. Before it could bite down Conan leapt into it like a bolt of  black lighting and drove the lance-point deep into its breast. It had no time even to whine as it crumpled into a bloody pile among the tangled roots. 

“Robert!” Alaric rushed to the body still clutched by the massive claws.

It was too late, he had been felled by the beast. His eyes were closed as if in deep slumber. 

“He will be remembered!” Alaric cried “Songs will be sung of him for generations!”

Conan looked over the scene as the snow fell quietly through the bare branches. The sun was rising, a gray-blue light was filtering through the trees from behind the heavy clouds. 

“They have returned!” Came the cry from the watchman as the bloody pair trudged back to the castle. The remaining knights rushed to meet them and beheld a sorrowful sight. Conan, bloody in his shredded armor, bore Robert’s body on his back. Alaric followed behind carrying something in his hands. 

“The deed is done” Conan said gravely, and he laid Robert's body down onto the snow. Alaric tossed before the astonished knights the ears of all the beasts, severed and bloody. 

“What are we to do now my king?” A knight inquired solemnly.

“Erect a pyre for the bodies, then we ride out” Conan replied

“To where shall we ride?” Another knight asked

“To the border.” Conan said passing into the courtyard “To find those Nemedian dogs”.