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In the steaming jungles of Venji, Conan of Cimmeria fights in a war against drug-crazed raiders and an implacable wizard. The intrigues of court eunuchs and generals of Imperial Aghrapur reach south as well, and even the conjurings of Conan's own mind will be turned against him.
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The jungle pond spread murky and stagnant, shaded by dense foliage. A few ripples glided across its green-scummed surface to lap against the slimy shoreline. Then, close above the black water, the tangled thicket of rushes parted and a face peered through.
Dark it was, shadowed and obscure as the muzzle of a stalking beast. Yet from its dimness glinted eyes blue as brooding northern skies, a color seldom seen in these rank jungle depths.
The pale, foreign eyes searched the tree-filtered daylight of the pond bank. Seeing no exceptional danger, the watcher parted the reeds and eased out from between them: a massive man, sword-bearing and grotesquely painted, wading thigh-deep in the stagnant water.
He moved topheavy with a sun-darkened breadth of chest and shoulder, supple as an acrobat poised for swift, forceful action. The colors on his face were muddy tones of lampblack and umber; for further concealment, his headband and lank black mane trailed fern fronds, leafy stems, and other spoor of the forest. The remainder of his costume was sparse, a brief leather breech-wrap anchoring knifebelt and swordbelt crisscrossed on his bare chest and back. Except for the sheen of his fine steel weapons and their bronze-studded fittings, he might have passed for a savage child of the jungle.
He paused in the pond scum, extending the long, double-curved blade of his yataghan to redirect the course of a yellow-green water serpent away from his naked thigh. Then he glided forward, his muscle-corded legs and sandaled feet draining the slime and yellow bottom-muck of the pool. Once ashore he paused, bending to pluck red leeches from the glistening calves of his legs. Straightening, he beckoned behind him with his sword to others yet unseen.
The next man to emerge from the reeds needed no lampblack, since his skin was already dark as jungle night. His face had been daubed instead with white clay to break up its full-featured symmetry. He stood fully as large as the first warrior, armed and armored with light mail and an identical S-curved blade. And he might have moved just as gracefully through the mire, if his attention had not been taken up by others toiling behind him.
The half-dozen who followed were less grandly-sized men, with the olive skins and hawk noses of Turanians evident beneath their daubed makeup. They wore bewildering variations of Turanian military garb, with here a spiked metal cap, there a short purple tunic or chain-mail vest. In further defiance of common uniform, their outfits were threaded with jungle fronds, bright blossoms, and long, iridescent plumes of tropical birds. The blades they bristled with clanked often, and their progress through the marsh occasioned low splashes and muttered curses. These sounds invariably caused the black officer to wheel on them, hissing fiercely for silence.
Their pale-skinned scout, meanwhile, moved higher up the pond's steepening bank. He sank in places to all fours, his yataghan sheathed now on his back. From a distance, his progress was visible only by the faint play of jungle light on flexing limbs and the occasional flicker of a disturbed branch or a frightened, upward-spiraling moth. There was no larger animal life to be seen; though one might expect the dense overgrowth to be alive with the rustlings and twitterings of small creatures, a watchful silence reigned.
From the creeping warrior's own vantage, the way was by no means effortless. His course lay through clinging, dripping foliage, beneath and around slack vines whose thorns could gouge and poison the skin. Yet he dared not stop long to find his way, lest the hovering flies and blood-seeking gnats should settle on his skin to bite and suck their fill.
Near the crest above the pond, the foliage opened out. The creeper braced his hands on the littered earth to haul himself up and peer over the top. Then, with a sudden twist and a muttered oath, he wrenched his hand back and rolled away to one side. Squinting in the green dimness, he stared at what he had touched: the face of a fanged, snarling monkey carved from stone, its round head furred over with damp moss.
"Conan, are you all right?" Feather-soft, the whisper drifted up to him from where the black man crouched a few man-lengths downslope.
"Aye, Juma," the scout mouthed in response, raising a hand to silence the mutters and thrashings that were occurring along the line of men behind him. "Tis nothing."
"Good. But Conan, thrice-curse it!" The black officer's hiss was faint but intense. "Next patrol I scout ahead, and you take charge of these unruly louts!"
Grimly smiling, Conan nodded and turned back to the evil-looking carving. Considering it, he judged it part of a railing or a free-standing statue buried by jungle growth across the course of centuries; probably it meant that their goal was near. Renewing his grip on the carven monkey's furry pate, he dragged himself upward to peer across the brushy crest, into the leafy void beyond.
The monument rising there was too vast for even the greedy jungle to swallow completely. Hewn from solid stone, formed of what must have been a towering natural monolith, the great shrine tapered onionlike from its broad, swelling base to a slender, lofty pinnacle. Conan could see the pointed shikhara gleaming in hazy daylight high above, piercing to the sky through the many layers of dense foliage. And every cubit of the temple's surface was decorated with intricate carvings--from the wide, porched galleries overhanging the jungle cauldron where Conan lay, to delicate friezes that chased each other in bands around its distant spire.
The subject matter of those carvings was difficult to make out, even from this short remove. Seen through the screening branches, a few tangles of life-sized human shapes seemed to Conan to resemble fierce combats; other twinings of bodies looked more amorous and sensuous. He guessed that, like most sculptures he had seen, the statues depicted the diverse cruelties and pleasures of kings and humanlike gods. Tracing these forms was especially hard, because everywhere the jungle's greedy green tentacles invaded and obscured them. Many of the heroic forms looked bound or strangled by parasitic vines, and often it was impossible to tell the carved human contours from the monstrous windings and swellings of ancient roots.
But the shrine was still habitable...and inhabited, it would seem. Ahead and a little to one side rose a curving entry stair, weed-choked and crumbling. In the thick-pillared shadows of the terrace at its end, Conan glimpsed a single pale flicker: the play of daylight, surely, on a burnished metal blade. Peering closer, he made out above it the round paleness of a face scanning the temple's surroundings. To confirm the impression, there came to his jungle-keen nostrils a faint scent of smoke sweetened by ceremonial incense, drifting unquestionably from the direction of the shrine.
To Juma and the Turanians who crept up close behind him, Conan spoke in whispers and quick gestures. He dispatched them toward the base of the stair, indicating that they should await his signal before overcoming any guards there. Then, writhing snakelike, he was off through the roots and stems of the downward slope.
For long moments his progress was stealthy and swift, measured only by the shiver of a branch or the momentary deepening of a green shadow. Then at the base of the temple he emerged into plain view, nimbly mounting the side of the stone edifice. At first there was little challenge apparent in the climb, for the building's massive base shelved inward, with plenty of handholds and footholds in its ornamentation. But he soon enough faced the overhang of the shrine's main body, where its bulbous shape swelled out overhead. Though just as deeply carved and ribboned with vines, this out-jutting face would have been judged by most men impossible to scale, the more so without a rope and in total silence.
But Conan, only pausing at the angle of the slope to tie his sandals to his belt, assaulted the overhang fearlessly. He hauled himself up monkey-like, clutching with bare toes and fingers at carved niches and elbows of vine. Often his legs thrashed in empty air as he forced himself upward hand over hand; at other times, his lithe body clung close amid sculptured shapes both sacred and profane. He appeared almost to take part in their murderous and orgiastic writhings, as just another hero or godling carved in paler stone and deeper relief.
At long last he mounted to the balcony rail at the widest level of the shrine. Once there, he was free to hug the grainy stone, panting shallowly so as not to betray his presence by deep gasps. His climb had brought him up a few paces from the head of the stair, with the broad, gadrooned bulk of one ornate pillar standing between him and the shadowy roost of the guard he had seen.
Now he tried to verify the man's presence, first by peering through the gaps of the thick, carved railing, then by raising his head cautiously over its edge. From this distance, the interior gloom was easily penetrated, with nothing in sight but a lavishly decorated walkway strewn with rock fragments and plant debris. He stood up to lean inward over the rail; then, at the sound of feet shifting restlessly within, he jerked back to his precarious crouch outside. No one passed near, so Conan judged that the lone guard still loitered in his place at the stairhead. He stood upright, stretched himself prone on the rail, and eased across it on his belly.
Edging around the spiral-ridged curvature of the pillar, he spied the guard's arm, bare and muscular, banded with colored cords at shoulder and elbow in the style of the savage Hwong tribe. The man's bronze cutlass was stuck in his waistband, his hands resting on the rail as he watched the jungle.
Drawing a deep, silent breath, Conan moved up close behind him. His massive arms were poised, knife gripped tightly in one hand, ready to seize the sentry's face from behind and lay open his throat. His shoulders tightened for the gruesome deed; but instead, feeling a sudden kinship with the simple tribesman, he turned the knife in his hand and struck the man over the temple with its silver hilt. Catching the collapsing body under the chin with his free arm, he lowered the sentry quietly to the ground.
Just then a yell rang out behind him, followed by a shrill jabber of Hwong speech. Conan turned to see a second sentry come charging from an inner passage, wielding a saw-edged hardwood club. With no time to draw his sword, the northerner raised his dagger to fend off the stroke. The downswing was knocked aside, but its force drove the knife out of Conan's hand and shaved skin from his knuckles in passing.
Before the attacker could swing the club again, Conan lunged against him barehanded. Seizing him by the throat and the crotch of his brightly woven breechclout, he lifted the man and flung him headfirst over the rail. The Hwong's cry of rage and alarm sounded lingeringly this time, to end in a faint bleat of expelled air as he struck the stone outworks below.
Cursing at the noise and at the racking pains in his knuckles, Conan found his knife and sheathed it. Drawing his yataghan from behind his back, he stepped out onto the narrow stairway and waved it high in silent summons. His companions were already halfway up, their, legs racing over the small, worn steps as Juma silently waved them along with his sword. Conan turned to the inner archway, which was a narrow descending stair. No more defenders came out, but he heard a panicked jabbering below and glimpsed a face peering up at him, quickly to vanish in shadow.
Conan cast swiftly about the temple porch. The farther gallery and ascending rampways looked long-deserted and weed-choked; likely there was no benefit to be gained exploring there. It was from below that scented smoke issued; as his companions arrived on the terrace, he plunged into the downward corridor.
Conan took four or five of the tiny stairsteps with each stride. Mentally he cursed the tightness of the corridor, which was miserly in comparison with the vast outer dimensions of the monument. Its narrowness would permit only the first man in line to face the enemy, and even then it afforded no room to swing a sword. Worse, as he descended, his own bulky shadow and those of the men scuffing behind him quickly cut off the daylight. He was forced to slow his headlong rush and prod the scented darkness before him with his swordblade.
Squinting to pierce the dimness, he found himself at the base of the stair in a T-branching corridor; there, suddenly, he was attacked. An unseen club-wielder at one side beat down his extended sword, while the lurker in the other arm of the T stabbed up at his chest with a short, bronze-tipped spear. Catching sight of the razored spearpoint's glint, Conan jerked back, retaining a desperate grip on his yataghan; an instant later his blade lashed out and struck off the menacing speartip--cleanly, like severing the head of a striking serpent. Then, with his fellow-warriors pressing forward at his back, Conan leaped into the level passage to engaged the club-swinger.
Sparks flew from the stone walls as Conan drove at his half-seen enemy. Metal chimed shrilly as his blade tried to stab past the man's desperate parries. In a trice the club's deep-notched edge caught the steel blade of the yataghan, twisting it down and aside out of action. The tribesman bore down savagely on the swordblade, trying desperately to snap it...even as Conan's knife, plied in his free hand, buried itself to the hilt in the man's side.
The Hwong collapsed with a moan, and Conan finished him with a quick, chopping swordstroke. No more enemies stood before him in the dimness. From the rush of feet behind him, he guessed that his fellow attackers had broken through in the other direction. He stepped over the corpse and pressed forward. A yellowish, indirect light outlined the curving passage ahead.
With a couple of Turanians panting at his back, Conan came to the end of the corridor. It opened into a shadowy room, broad and low-ceilinged, with a fire burning on the floor at its center. About the chamber dim shapes of ancient idols, stone pillars, and human figures reflected its glow.
At the room's far end cries and weapon-blows sounded, where a pair of spearmen held the other wing of the attacking party at bay in the cramped entry; but this door was unguarded. Conan and his companions were well into the room before a youthful Hwong came pelting around the fire to face them. The young brave I was attacked at once by the Turanians, giving Conan time to take in the dim scene.
Outlined by firelight was a bent figure in a stiff, flaring gown. From the cloak's bristling feathers and winking ornaments, Conan judged it to be that of a shaman or magic-maker. In the crook of his arm the wizard supported a tall wooden staff crowned by a glittering, jewel-encrusted skull, whether real or cast of shiny metal Conan could not tell, so dense was the ornamentation. Its stooped owner, busy mumbling and tossing powders into the fire, glanced briefly up, and the dim backlight showed Conan a wizened, shriveled face of unguessable age. Calmly, then, the sage turned back to continue his chant unbroken, as if unconcerned by the...
"Swath-cutting characters and blade-honed imaginings...."--Michael Shea
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Book Description Tor Books, 1989. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0812533186
Book Description Tor Books, 1989. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0812533186
Book Description Tor Books, 1989. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110812533186
Book Description Tor Books. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0812533186 New Condition. Seller Inventory # NEW7.2028036