The Hour of the Dragon

       Robert E. Howard / Fantasy
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The Hour of the Dragon
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THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON

By Robert E. Howard

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was first published in Weird Tales December 1935, January, February, March and April 1936. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

1

O Sleeper, Awake!

The long tapers flickered, sending the black shadows wavering along thewalls, and the velvet tapestries rippled. Yet there was no wind in thechamber. Four men stood about the ebony table on which lay the greensarcophagus that gleamed like carven jade. In the upraised right hand ofeach man a curious black candle burned with a weird greenish light.Outside was night and a lost wind moaning among the black trees.

Inside the chamber was tense silence, and the wavering of the shadows,while four pairs of eyes, burning with intensity, were fixed on the longgreen case across which cryptic hieroglyphics writhed, as if lent lifeand movement by the unsteady light. The man at the foot of thesarcophagus leaned over it and moved his candle as if he were writingwith a pen, inscribing a mystic symbol in the air. Then he set down thecandle in its black gold stick at the foot of the case, and, mumblingsome formula unintelligible to his companions, he thrust a broad whitehand into his fur-trimmed robe. When he brought it forth again it was asif he cupped in his palm a ball of living fire.

The other three drew in their breath sharply, and the dark, powerful manwho stood at the head of the sarcophagus whispered: 'The Heart ofAhriman!' The other lifted a quick hand for silence. Somewhere a dogbegan howling dolefully, and a stealthy step padded outside the barredand bolted door. But none looked aside from the mummy-case over whichthe man in the ermine-trimmed robe was now moving the great flamingjewel while he muttered an incantation that was old when Atlantis sank.The glare of the gem dazzled their eyes, so that they could not be sureof what they saw; but with a splintering crash, the carven lid of thesarcophagus burst outward as if from some irresistible pressure appliedfrom within, and the four men, bending eagerly forward, saw theoccupant--a huddled, withered, wizened shape, with dried brown limbslike dead wood showing through moldering bandages.

'Bring that thing _back_?' muttered the small dark man who stood on theright, with a short sardonic laugh. 'It is ready to crumble at a touch.We are fools--'

'Shhh!' It was an urgent hiss of command from the large man who held thejewel. Perspiration stood upon his broad white forehead and his eyeswere dilated. He leaned forward, and, without touching the thing withhis hand, laid on the breast of the mummy the blazing jewel. Then hedrew back and watched with fierce intensity, his lips moving insoundless invocation.

It was as if a globe of living fire flickered and burned on the dead,withered bosom. And breath sucked in, hissing, through the clenchedteeth of the watchers. For as they watched, an awful transmutationbecame apparent. The withered shape in the sarcophagus was expanding,was growing, lengthening. The bandages burst and fell into brown dust.The shriveled limbs swelled, straightened. Their dusky hue began tofade.

'By Mitra!' whispered the tall, yellow-haired man on the left. 'He was_not_ a Stygian. That part at least was true.'

Again a trembling finger warned for silence. The hound outside was nolonger howling. He whimpered, as with an evil dream, and then thatsound, too, died away in silence, in which the yellow-haired man plainlyheard the straining of the heavy door, as if something outside pushedpowerfully upon it. He half turned, his hand at his sword, but the manin the ermine robe hissed an urgent warning: 'Stay! Do not break thechain! And on your life do not go to the door!'

The yellow-haired man shrugged and turned back, and then he stoppedshort, staring. In the jade sarcophagus lay a living man: a tall, lustyman, naked, white of skin, and dark of hair and beard. He laymotionless, his eyes wide open, and blank and unknowing as a newbornbabe's. On his breast the great jewel smoldered and sparkled.

The man in ermine reeled as if from some let-down of extreme tension.

'Ishtar!' he gasped. 'It is Xaltotun!--_and he lives!_ Valerius!Tarascus! Amalric! Do you see? Do you see? You doubted me--but I havenot failed! We have been close to the open gates of hell this night, andthe shapes of darkness have gathered close about us--aye, they followed_him_ to the very door--but we have brought the great magician back tolife.'

'And damned our souls to purgatories everlasting, I doubt not,' mutteredthe small, dark man, Tarascus.

The yellow-haired man, Valerius, laughed harshly.

'What purgatory can be worse than life itself? So we are all damnedtogether from birth. Besides, who would not sell his miserable soul fora throne?'

'There is no intelligence in his stare, Orastes,' said the large man.

'He has long been dead,' answered Orastes. 'He is as one newly awakened.His mind is empty after the long sleep--nay, he was _dead_, notsleeping. We brought his spirit back over the voids and gulfs of nightand oblivion. I will speak to him.'

He bent over the foot of the sarcophagus, and fixing his gaze on thewide dark eyes of the man within, he said, slowly: 'Awake, Xaltotun!'

The lips of the man moved mechanically. 'Xaltotun!' he repeated in agroping whisper.

'_You_ are Xaltotun!' exclaimed Orastes, like a hypnotist driving homehis suggestions. 'You are Xaltotun of Python, in Acheron.'

A dim flame flickered in the dark eyes.

'I was Xaltotun,' he whispered. 'I am dead.'

'You _are_ Xaltotun!' cried Orastes. 'You are not dead! You live!'

'I am Xaltotun,' came the eery whisper. 'But I am dead. In my house inKhemi, in Stygia, there I died.'

'And the priests who poisoned you mummified your body with their darkarts, keeping all your organs intact!' exclaimed Orastes. 'But now youlive again! The Heart of Ahriman has restored your life, drawn yourspirit back from space and eternity.'

'The Heart of Ahriman!' The flame of remembrance grew stronger. 'Thebarbarians stole it from me!'

'He remembers,' muttered Orastes. 'Lift him from the case.'

The others obeyed hesitantly, as if reluctant to touch the man they hadrecreated, and they seemed not easier in their minds when they felt firmmuscular flesh, vibrant with blood and life, beneath their fingers. Butthey lifted him upon the table, and Orastes clothed him in a curiousdark velvet robe, splashed with gold stars and crescent moons, andfastened a cloth-of-gold fillet about his temples, confining the blackwavy locks that fell to his shoulders. He let them do as they would,saying nothing, not even when they set him in a carven throne-like chairwith a high ebony back and wide silver arms, and feet like golden claws.He sat there motionless, and slowly intelligence grew in his dark eyesand made them deep and strange and luminous. It was as if long-sunkenwitchlights floated slowly up through midnight pools of darkness.

Orastes cast a furtive glance at his companions, who stood staring inmorbid fascination at their strange guest. Their iron nerves hadwithstood an ordeal that might have driven weaker men mad. He knew itwas with no weaklings that he conspired, but men whose courage was asprofound as their lawless ambitions and capacity for evil. He turned hisattention to the figure in the ebon-black chair. And this one spoke atlast.

'I remember,' he said in a strong, resonant voice, speaking Nemedianwith a curious, archaic accent. 'I am Xaltotun, who was high priest ofSet in Python, which was in Acheron. The Heart of Ahriman--I dreamed Ihad found it again--where is it?'

Orastes placed it in his hand, and he drew breath deeply as he gazedinto the depths of the terrible jewel burning in his grasp.

'They stole it from me, long ago,' he said. 'The red heart of the nightit is, strong to save or to damn. It came from afar, and from long ago.While I held it, none could stand before me. But it was stolen from me,and Acheron fell, and I fled in exile into dark Stygia. Much I remember,but much I have forgotten. I have been in a far land, across misty voidsand gulfs and unlit oceans. What is the year?'

Orastes answered him. 'It is the waning of the Year of the Lion, threethousand years after the fall of Acheron.'

'Three thousand years!' murmured the other. 'So long? Who are you?'

'I am Orastes, once a priest of Mitra. This man is Amalric, baron ofTor, in Nemedia; this other is Tarascus, younger brother of the king ofNemedia; and this tall man is Valerius, rightful heir of the throne ofAquilonia.'

'Why have you given me life?' demanded Xaltotun. 'What do you require ofme?'

The man was now fully alive and awake, his keen eyes reflecting theworking of an unclouded brain. There was no hesitation or uncertainty inhis manner. He came directly to the point, as one who knows that no mangives something for nothing. Orastes met him with equal candor.

'We have opened the doors of hell this night to free your soul andreturn it to your body because we need your aid. We wish to placeTarascus on the throne of Nemedia, and to win for Valerius the crown ofAquilonia. With your necromancy you can aid us.'

Xaltotun's mind was devious and full of unexpected slants.

'You must be deep in the arts yourself, Orastes, to have been able torestore my life. How is it that a priest of Mitra knows of the Heart ofAhriman, and the incantations of Skelos?'

'I am no longer a priest of Mitra,' answered Orastes. 'I was cast forthfrom my order because of my delving in black magic. But for Amalricthere I might have been burned as a magician.

'But that left me free to pursue my studies. I journeyed in Zamora, inVendhya, in Stygia, and among the haunted jungles of Khitai. I read theiron-bound books of Skelos, and talked with unseen creatures in deepwells, and faceless shapes in black reeking jungles. I obtained aglimpse of your sarcophagus in the demon-haunted crypts below the blackgiant-walled temple of Set in the hinterlands of Stygia, and I learnedof the arts that would bring back life to your shriveled corpse. Frommoldering manuscripts I learned of the Heart of Ahriman. Then for a yearI sought its hiding-place, and at last I found it.'

'Then why trouble to bring me back to life?' demanded Xaltotun, with hispiercing gaze fixed on the priest. 'Why did you not employ the Heart tofurther your own power?'

'Because no man today knows the secrets of the Heart,' answered Orastes.'Not even in legends live the arts by which to loose its full powers. Iknew it could restore life; of its deeper secrets I am ignorant. Imerely used it to bring you back to life. It is the use of yourknowledge we seek. As for the Heart, you alone know its awful secrets.'

Xaltotun shook his head, staring broodingly into the flaming depths.

'My necromantic knowledge is greater than the sum of all the knowledgeof other men,' he said; 'yet I do not know the full power of the jewel.I did not invoke it in the old days; I guarded it lest it be usedagainst me. At last it was stolen, and in the hands of a featheredshaman of the barbarians it defeated all my mighty sorcery. Then itvanished, and I was poisoned by the jealous priests of Stygia before Icould learn where it was hidden.'

'It was hidden in a cavern below the temple of Mitra, in Tarantia,' saidOrastes. 'By devious ways I discovered this, after I had located yourremains in Set's subterranean temple in Stygia.

'Zamorian thieves, partly protected by spells I learned from sourcesbetter left unmentioned, stole your mummy-case from under the verytalons of those which guarded it in the dark, and by camel-caravan andgalley and ox-wagon it came at last to this city.

'Those same thieves--or rather those of them who still lived after theirfrightful quest--stole the Heart of Ahriman from its haunted cavernbelow the temple of Mitra, and all the skill of men and the spells ofsorcerers nearly failed. One man of them lived long enough to reach meand give the jewel into my hands, before he died slavering and gibberingof what he had seen in that accursed crypt. The thieves of Zamora arethe most faithful of men to their trust. Even with my conjurements, nonebut they could have stolen the Heart from where it has lain indemon-guarded darkness since the fall of Acheron, three thousand yearsago.'

Xaltotun lifted his lion-like head and stared far off into space, as ifplumbing the lost centuries.

'Three thousand years!' he muttered. 'Set! Tell me what has chanced inthe world.'

'The barbarians who overthrew Acheron set up new kingdoms,' quotedOrastes. 'Where the empire had stretched now rose realms calledAquilonia, and Nemedia, and Argos, from the tribes that founded them.The older kingdoms of Ophir, Corinthia and western Koth, which had beensubject to the kings of Acheron, regained their independence with thefall of the empire.'

'And what of the people of Acheron?' demanded Xaltotun. 'When I fledinto Stygia, Python was in ruins, and all the great, purple-toweredcities of Acheron fouled with blood and trampled by the sandals of thebarbarians.'

'In the hills small groups of folk still boast descent from Acheron,'answered Orastes. 'For the rest, the tide of my barbarian ancestorsrolled over them and wiped them out. They--my ancestors--had sufferedmuch from the kings of Acheron.'

A grim and terrible smile curled the Pythonian's lips.

'Aye! Many a barbarian, both man and woman, died screaming on the altarunder this hand. I have seen their heads piled to make a pyramid in thegreat square in Python when the kings returned from the west with theirspoils and naked captives.'

'Aye. And when the day of reckoning came, the sword was not spared. SoAcheron ceased to be, and purple-towered Python became a memory offorgotten days. But the younger kingdoms rose on the imperial ruins andwaxed great. And now we have brought you back to aid us to rule thesekingdoms, which, if less strange and wonderful than Acheron of old, areyet rich and powerful, well worth fighting for. Look!' Orastes unrolledbefore the stranger a map drawn cunningly on vellum.

Xaltotun regarded it, and then shook his head, baffled.

'The very outlines of the land are changed. It is like some familiarthing seen in a dream, fantastically distorted.'

'Howbeit,' answered Orastes, tracing with his forefinger, 'here isBelverus, the capital of Nemedia, in which we now are. Here run theboundaries of the land of Nemedia. To the south and southeast are Ophirand Corinthia, to the east Brythunia, to the west Aquilonia.'

'It is the map of a world I do not know,' said Xaltotun softly, butOrastes did not miss the lurid fire of hate that flickered in his darkeyes.

'It is a map you shall help us change,' answered Orastes. 'It is ourdesire first to set Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia. We wish toaccomplish this without strife, and in such a way that no suspicion willrest on Tarascus. We do not wish the land to be torn by civil wars, butto reserve all our power for the conquest of Aquilonia.

'Should King Nimed and his sons die naturally, in a plague for instance,Tarascus would mount the throne as the next heir, peacefully andunopposed.'

Xaltotun nodded, without replying, and Orastes continued.

'The other task will be more difficult. We cannot set Valerius on theAquilonian throne without a war, and that kingdom is a formidable foe.Its people are a hardy, war-like race, toughened by continual wars withthe Picts, Zingarians and Cimmerians. For five hundred years Aquiloniaand Nemedia have intermittently waged war, and the ultimate advantagehas always lain with the Aquilonians.

'Their present king is the most renowned warrior among the westernnations. He is an outlander, an adventurer who seized the crown by forceduring a time of civil strife, strangling King Namedides with his ownhands, upon the very throne. His name is Conan, and no man can standbefore him in battle.

'Valerius is now the rightful heir of the throne. He had been driveninto exile by his royal kinsman, Namedides, and has been away from hisnative realm for years, but he is of the blood of the old dynasty, andmany of the barons would secretly hail the overthrow of Conan, who is anobody without royal or even noble blood. But the common people areloyal to him, and the nobility of the outlying provinces. Yet if hisforces were overthrown in the battle that must first take place, andConan himself slain, I think it would not be difficult to put Valeriuson the throne. Indeed, with Conan slain, the only center of thegovernment would be gone. He is not part of a dynasty, but only a loneadventurer.'

'I wish that I might see this king,' mused Xaltotun, glancing toward asilvery mirror which formed one of the panels of the wall. This mirrorcast no reflection, but Xaltotun's expression showed that he understoodits purpose, and Orastes nodded with the pride a good craftsman takes inthe recognition of his accomplishments by a master of his craft.

'I will try to show him to you,' he said. And seating himself before themirror, he gazed hypnotically into its depths, where presently a dimshadow began to take shape.

It was uncanny, but those watching knew it was no more than thereflected image of Orastes' thought, embodied in that mirror as awizard's thoughts are embodied in a magic crystal. It floated hazily,then leaped into startling clarity--a tall man, mightily shouldered anddeep of chest, with a massive corded neck and heavily muscled limbs. Hewas clad in silk and velvet, with the royal lions of Aquilonia workedin gold upon his rich jupon, and the crown of Aquilonia shone on hissquare-cut black mane; but the great sword at his side seemed morenatural to him than the regal accouterments. His brow was low and broad,his eyes a volcanic blue that smoldered as if with some inner fire. Hisdark, scarred, almost sinister face was that of a fighting-man, and hisvelvet garments could not conceal the hard, dangerous lines of hislimbs.

'That man is no Hyborian!' exclaimed Xaltotun.

'No; he is a Cimmerian, one of those wild tribesmen who dwell in thegray hills of the north.'

'I fought his ancestors of old,' muttered Xaltotun. 'Not even the kingsof Acheron could conquer them.'

'They still remain a terror to the nations of the south,' answeredOrastes. 'He is a true son of that savage race, and has proved himself,thus far, unconquerable.'

Xaltotun did not reply; he sat staring down at the pool of living firethat shimmered in his hand. Outside, the hound howled again, long andshudderingly.


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