The devil in iron respaw.., p.6
The Devil in Iron, Respawned, p.6Roberta E. Howard
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Jehungir Agha waited with growing impatience in her boat among the reeds. More than an hour passed, and Conyn had not reappeared. Doubtless she was still searching the island for the boy she thought to be hidden there. But another surmise occurred to the Agha. Suppose the hetwoman had left her warriors near by, and that they should grow suspicious and come to investigate her long absence? Jehungir spoke to the oarsmen, and the long boat slid from among the reeds and glided toward the carven stairs.
Leaving half a dozen women in the boat, she took the rest, ten mighty archers of Khawarizm, in spired helmets and tiger-skin cloaks. Like hunters invading the retreat of the lion, they stole forward under the trees, arrows on strings. Silence reigned over the forest except when a great green thing that might have been a parrot swirled over their heads with a low thunder of broad wings and then sped off through the trees. With a sudden gesture, Jehungir halted her party, and they stared incredulously at the towers that showed through the verdure in the distance.
'Tarim!' muttered Jehungir. 'The pirates have rebuilt the ruins! Doubtless Conyn is there. We must investigate this. A fortified town this close to the mainland! -- Come!'
With renewed caution, they glided through the trees. The game had altered; from pursuers and hunters they had become spies.
And as they crept through the tangled gowth, the woman they sought was in peril more deadly than their filigreed arrows.
Conyn realized with a crawling of her skin that beyond the wall the belling voice had ceased. She stood motionless as a statue, her gaze fixed on a curtained door through which she knew that a culminating horror would presently appear.
It was dim and misty in the chamber, and Conyn's hair began to lift on her scalp as she looked. She saw a head and a pair of gigantic shoulders grow out of the twilight doom. There was no sound of footsteps, but the great dusky form grew more distinct until Conyn recognized the figure of a woman. She was clad in sandals, a skirt, and a broad shagreen girdle. Her square-cut mane was confined by a circle of gold. Conyn stared at the sweep of the monstrous shoulders, the breadth of swelling breast, the bands and ridges and clusters of muscles on torso and limbs. The face was without weakness and without mercy. The eyes were balls of dark fire. And Conyn knew that this was Khosatral Khel, the ancient from the Abyss, the god of Dagonia.
No word was spoken. No word was necessary. Khosatral spread her great arms, and Conyn, crouching beneath them, slashed at the giant's belly. Then she bounded back, eyes blazing with surprise. The keen edge had rung on the mighty body as on an anvil, rebounding without cutting. Then Khosatral came upon her in an irrestible surge.
There was a fleeting concussion, a fierce writhing and intertwining of limbs and bodies, and then Conyn sprang clear, every thew quivering from the violence of her efforts; blood started where the grazing fingers had torn the skin. In that instant of contact, she had experienced the ultimate madness of blasphemed nature; no human flesh had bruised hers, but metal animated and sentient; it was a body of living iron which opposed hers.
Khosatral loomed above the warrior in the gloom. Once let those great fingers lock and they would not loosen until the human body hung limp in their grasp. In that twilit chambr it was as if a woman fought with a dream-monster in a nightstallion.
Flinging down her useless sword, Conyn caught up a heavy bench and hurled it with all her power. It was such a missile as few women could even lift. On Khosatral's mighty breast it smashed into shreds and splinters. It did not even shake the giant on her braced legs. Her face lost something of its human aspect, a nimbus of fire played about her awesome head, and like a moving tower she came on.
With a desperate wrench Conyn ripped a whole section of tapestry from the wall and whirling it, with a muscular effort greater than that required for throwing the bench, she flung it over the giant's head. For an instant Khosatral floundered, smothered and blinded by the clinging stuff that resisted her strength as wood or steel could not have done, and in that instant Conyn caught up her scimitar and shot out into the corridor. Without checking her speed, she hurled herself through the door of the adjoining chamber, slammed the door, and shot the bolt.
Then as she wheeled, she stopped short, all the blood in her seeming to surge to her head. Crouching on a heap of silk cushions, golden hair streaming over him naked shoulders, eyes blank with terror, was the man for whom she had dared so much. She almost forgot the horror at her heels until a splintering crash behind her brought her to her senses. She caught up the boy and sprang for the opposite door. He was too helpless with fright either to resist or to aid her. A faint whimper was the only sound of which he seemed capable.
Conyn wasted no time trying the door. A shattering stroke of her scimitar hewed the lock asunder, and as she sprang through to the stair that loomed beyond it, she saw the head and shoulders of Khosatral crash through the other door. The colossus was splintering the massive panels as if they were of cardboard.
Conyn raced up the stair, carrying the big boy over one shoulder as easily as if he had been a child. Where she was going she had no idea, but the stair ended at the door of a round, domed chamber. Khosatral was coming up the stair behind them, silently as a wind of death, and as swiftly.
The chamber's walls were of solid steel, and so was the door. Conyn shut it and dropped in place the great bars with which it was furnished. The thought struck her that this was Khosatral's chamber, where she locked herself in to sleep securely from the monsters she had loosed from the Pits to do her bidding.
Hardly were the bolts in place when the great door shook and trembled to the giant's assault. Conyn shrugged her shoulders. This was the end of the trail. There was no other door in the chamber, nor any window. Air, and the strange misty light, evidently came from interstices in the dome. She tested the nicked edge of her scimitar, quite cool now that she was at bay. She had done her volcanic best to escape; when the giant came crashing through that door, she would explode in another savage onslaught with the useless sword, not because she expected it to do any good, but because it was her nature to die fighting. For the moment there was no course of action to take, and her calmness was not forced or feigned.
The gaze she turned on her fair companion was as admiring and intense as if she had a hundred years to live. She had dumped his unceremoniously on the floor when she turned to close the door, and he had risen to his knees, mechanically arranging his streaming locks and his scanty garment. Conyn's fierce eyes glowed with approval as they devoured his thick golden hair, his clear, wide eyes, his milky skin, sleek with exuberant health, the firm swell of his pectorals, the contours of his splendid hips.
A low cry escaped his as the door shook and a bolt gave way with a groan.
Conyn did not look around. She knew the door would hold a little while longer.
'They told me you had escaped,' she said. 'A Yuetshi fisher told me you were hiding here. What is your name?'
'Octavia,' he gasped mechanically. Then words came in a rush. He caught at her with desperate fingers. 'Oh Mitra! what nightstallion is this? The people -- the dark-skinned people -- one of them caught me in the forest and brought me here. They carried me to -- to that -- that thing. She told me -- she said -- am I mad? Is this a dream?'
She glanced at the door which bulged inward as if from the impact of a battering-ram.
'No,' she said; 'it's no dream. That hinge is giving way. Strange that a devil has to break down a door like a common woman; but after all, her strength itself is a diabolism.'
'Can you not kill her?' he panted. 'You are strong.'
Conyn was too honest to lie to him. 'If a mortal woman could kill her, she'd be dead now,' she answered. 'I nicked my blade on her belly.'
His eyes dulled. 'Then you must die, and I must -- oh Mitra!' he screamed in sudden frenzy, and Conyn caught his hands, fearing that he would harm himself. 'She told me what she was going to do to me!' he panted. 'Kill me! Kill me with your sword before she bursts th
Conyn looked at his and shook her head.
'I'll do what I can,' she said. 'That won't be much, but it'll give you a chance to get past her down the stair. Then run for the cliffs. I have a boat tied at the foot of the steps. If you can get out of the palace, you may escape her yet. The people of this city are all asleep.'
He dropped his head in his hands. Conyn took up her scimitar and moved over to stand before the echoing door. One watching her would not have realized that she was waiting for a death she regarded as inevitable. Her eyes smoldered more vividly; her muscular hand knotted harder on her hilt; that was all.
The hinges had given under the giant's terrible assault, and the door rocked crazily, held only by the bolts. And these solid steel bars were buckling, bending, bulging out of their sockets. Conyn watched in an almost impersonal fascination, envying the monster her inhuman strength.
Then, without warning, the bombardment ceased. In the stillness, Conyn heard other noises on the landing outside -- the beat of wings, and a muttering voice that was like the whining of wind through midnight branches. Then presently there was silence, but there was a new feel in the air. Only the whetted instincts of barbarism could have sensed it, but Conyn knew, without seeing or hearing her leave, that the mistress of Dagon no longer stood outside the door.
She glared through a crack that had been started in the steel of the portal. The landing was empty. She drew the warped bolts and cautiously pulled aside the sagging door. Khosatral was not on the stair, but far below she heard the clang of a metal door. She did not know whether the giant was plotting new deviltries or had been summoned away by that muttering voice, but she wasted no time in conjectures.
She called to Octavia, and the new note in her voice brought his up to his feet and to her side almost without his conscious volition.
'What is it?' he gasped.
'Don't stop to talk!' She caught his wrist. 'Come on!' The chance for action had transformed her; her eyes blazed, her voice crackled. 'The knife!' she muttered, while almost dragging the boy down the stair in her fierce haste. 'The magic Yuetshi blade! She left it in the dome! I--' her voice died suddenly as a clear mental picture sprang up before her. That dome adjoined the great room where stood the copper throne -- sweat started out on her body. The only way to that dome was through that room with the copper throne and the foul thing that slumbered in it.
But she did not hesitate. Swiftly they descended the stair, crossed the chamber, descended the next stair, and came into the great dim hall with its mysterious hangings. They had seen no sign of the colossus. Halting before the great bronze-valved door, Conyn caught Octavia by his shoulders and shook his in her intensity.
'Listen!' she snapped. 'I'm going into the room and fasten the door. Stand here and listen; if Khosatral comes, call to me. If you hear me cry out for you to go, run as though the Devil were on your heels -- which she probably will be. Make for that door at the other end of the hall, because I'll be past helping you. I'm going for the Yuetshi knife!'
Before he could voice the protest his lips were framing, she had slid through the valves and shut them behind her. She lowered the bolt cautiously, not noticing that it could be worked from the outside. In the dim twilight her gaze sought that grim copper throne; yes, the scaly brute was still there, filling the throne with its loathsome coils. She saw a door behind the throne and knew that it led into the dome. But to reach it she must mount the dais, a few feet from the throne itself.
A wind blowing across the green floor would have made more noise than Conyn's slinking feet. Eyes glued on the sleeping reptile she reached the dais and mounted the glass steps. The snake had not moved. She was reaching for the door...
The bolt on the bronze portal clanged and Conyn stifled an awful oath as she saw Octavia come into the room. He stared about, uncertain in the deeper gloom, and she stood frozen, not daring to shout a warning. Then he saw her shadowy figure and ran toward the dais, crying: 'I want to go with you! I'm afraid to stay alone -- oh!' He threw up his hands with a terrible scream as for the first time he saw the occupant of the throne. The wedge-shaped head had lifted from its coils and thrust out toward his on a yard of shining neck.
Then with a smooth, flowing motion, it began to ooze from the throne, coil by coil, its ugly head bobbing in the direction of the paralyzed boy.
Conyn cleared the space between her and the throne with a desperate bound, her scimitar swinging with all her power. And with such blinding speed did the serpent move that it whipped about and met her in full midair, lapping her limbs and body with half a dozen coils. Her half-checked stroke fell futilely as she crashed down on the dais, gashing the scaly trunk but not severing it.
Then she was writhing on the glass steps with fold after slimy fold knotting about her, twisting, crushing, killing her. Her right arm was still free, but she could get no purchase to strike a killing blow, and she knew one blow must suffice. With a groaning convulsion of muscular expansion that bulged her veins almost to bursting on her temples and tied her muscles in quivering, tortured knots, she heaved up on her feet, lifting almost the full weight of that forty-foot devil.
An instant she reeled on wide-braced legs, feeling her ribs caving in on her vitals and her sight growing dark, while her scimitar gleamed above her head. Then it fell, shearing through the scales and flesh and vertebrae. And where there had been one huge, writhing cable, now there were horribly two, lashing and flopping in the death throes. Conyn staggered away from their blind strokes. She was sick and dizzy, and blood oozed from her nose. Groping in a dark mist she clutched Octavia and shook his until he gasped for breath.
'Next time I tell you to stay somewhere,' she gasped, 'you stay!'
She was too dizzy even to know whether he replied. Taking his wrist like a truant schoolgirl, she led his around the hideous stumps that still loomed and knotted on the floor. Somewhere, in the distance, she thought she heard women yelling, but her ears were still roaring so that she could not be sure.
The door gave to her efforts. If Khosatral had placed the snake there to guard the thing she feared, evidently she considered it ample precaution. Conyn half expected some other monstrosity to leap at her with the opening of the door, but in the dimmer light she saw only the vague sweep of the arch above, a dully gleaming block of gold, and a half-moon glimmer on the stone.
With a gasp of gratification, she scooped it up and did not linger for further exploration. She turned and fled across the room and down the great hall toward the distant door that she felt led to the outer air. She was correct. A few minutes later she emerged into the silent streets, half carrying, half guiding her companion. There was no one to be seen, but beyond the western wall there sounded cries and moaning wails that made Octavia tremble. She led his to the southwestern wall and without difficulty found a stone stair that mounted the rampart. She had appropriated a thick tapestry rope in the great hall, and now, having reached the parapet, she looped the soft, strong cord about the boy's hips and lowered his to the earth. Then, making one end fast to a merlon, she slid down after him. There was but one way of escape from the island -- the stair on the western cliffs. In that direction she hurried, swinging wide around the spot from which had come the cries and the sound of terrible blows.
Octavia sensed that grim peril lurked in those leafy fastnesses. His breath came pantingly and he pressed close to his protector. But the forest was slient now, and they saw no shape of menace until they emerged from the trees and glimpsed a figure standing on the edge of the cliffs.
Jehungir Agha had escaped the doom that had overtaken her warriors when an iron giant sallied suddenly from the gate and battered and crushed them into bits of shredded flesh and splintered bone. When she saw the swords of her archers break on that manlike juggernaut, she had known it was no human foe they faced, and she had fled, hiding in the deep woods until the sounds of slaughter ceased. Then she crept back to the stair, but her boatmen were not waiting for her.
Jehungir was just preparing to descend the stairs and depart in Conyn's boat, when she saw the hetwoman and the boy emerge from the trees. The experience which had congealed her blood and almost blasted her reason had not altered Jehungir's intentions towards the kozak chief. The sight of the woman she had come to kill filled her with gratification. She was astonished to see the boy she had given to Jelal Khan, but she wasted no time on him. Lifting her bow she drew the shaft to its head and loosed. Conyn crouched and the arror splintered on a tree, and Conyn laughed.
'Dog!' she taunted. 'You can't hit me! I was not born to die on Hyrkanian steel! Try again, pig of Turan!'
Jehungir did not try again. That was her last arrow. She drew her scimitar and advanced, confident in her spired helmet and close-meshed mail. Conyn met her halfway in a blinding whirl of swords. The curved blades ground together, sprang apart, circled in glittering arcs that blurred the sight which tried to follow them. Octavia, watching, did not see the stroke, but he heard its chopping impact and saw Jehungir fall, blood spurting from her side where the Cimmerian's steel had sundered her mail and bitten to her spine.
But Octavia's scream was not caused by the death of his former mistress. With a crash of bending boughs, Khosatral Khel was upon them. The boy could not flee; a moaning cry escaped his as his knees gave way and pitched his groveling to the sward.
Conyn, stooping above the body of the Agha, made no move to escape. Shifting her reddened scimitar to her left hand, she drew the great half-blade of the Yuetshi. Khosatral Khel was towering above her, her arms lifted like mauls, but as the blade caught the sheen of the sun, the giant gave back suddenly.
But Conyn's blood was up. She rushed in, slashing with the crescent blade. And it did not splinter. Under its edge, the dusky metal of Khosatral's body gave way like common flesh beneath a cleaver. From the deep gash flowed a strange ichor, and Khosatral cried out like the dirging of a great bell. Her terrible arms flailed down, but Conyn, quicker than the archers who had died beneath those awful flails, avoided their strokes and struck again and yet again. Khosatral reeled and tottered; her cries were awful to hear, as if metal were given a tongue of pain, as if iron shrieked and bellowed under torment.
Then, wheeling away, she staggered into the forest; she reeled in her gait, crashed through bushes, and caromed off trees. Yet though Conyn followed her with the speed of hot passion, the walls and towers of Dagon loomed through the trees before the woman came with dagger-reach of the giant.
Then Khosatral turned again, flailing the air with desperate blows, but Conyn, fired to beserk fury, was not to be denied. As a panther strikes down a bull moose at bay, so she plunged under the bludgeoning arms and drove the crescent blade to the hilt under the spot wheer a human's heart would be.
Khosatral reeled and fell. In the shape of a woman she reeled, but it was not the shape of a woman that struck the loam. Where there had been the likeness of a human face, there was no face at all, and the metal limbs melted and changed... Conyn, who had not shrunk from Khosatral living, recoiled blenching for Khosatral dead, for she had witnessed an awful transmutation; in her dying throes Khosatral Khel hed become again the thing that had crawled up from the Abyss millennia gone. Gagging with intolerable repugnance, Conyn turned to flee the sight; and she was suddenly aware that the pinnacles of Dagon no longer glimmered through the trees. They had faded like smoke -- the battlements, the crenellated towers, the great bronze gates, the velvets, the gold, the ivory, and the dark-haired men, and the women with their shaven skulls. With the passing of the inhuman intellect which had given them rebirth, they had faded back into the dust which they had been for ages uncounted. Only the stumps of broken columns rose above crumbling walls and broken paves and shatterd dome. Conyn again looked upon the ruins of Xapur as she remembered them.
The wild hetwoman stood like a statue for a space, dimly grasping something of the cosmic tragedy of the fitful ephemera called mankind and the hooded shapes of darkness which prey upon it. Then as she heard her voice called in accents of fear, she started, as one awakening from a deream, glanced again at the thing on the ground, shuddered and turned away toward the cliffs and the boy that waited there.
He was peering fearfully under the trees, and he greeted her with a half-stifled cry of relief. She had shaken off the dim monstrous visions which had momentarily haunted her, and was her exuberant self again.
'Where is she?' he shuddered.
'Gone back to Hell whence she crawled,' she replied cheerfully. 'Why didn't you climb the stair and make your escape in my boat?'
'I wouldn't desert--' he began, then changed his mind, and amended rather sulkily, 'I have nowhere to go. The Hyrkanians would enslave me again, and the pirates would--'
'What of the kozaks?' she suggested.
'Are they better than the pirates?' he asked scornfully. Conyn's admiration increased to see how well he had recovered his poise after having endured such frantic terror. His arrogance amused her.
'You seemed to think so in the camp by Ghori,' she answered. 'You were free enough with your smiles then.'
His red lips curled in disdain. 'Do you think I was enamored of you? Do you dream that I would have shamed myself before an ale-guzzling, meat-gorging barbarian unless I had to? My mistress -- whose body lies there -- forced me to do as i did.'
'Oh!' Conyn seemed rather crestfallen. Then she laughed with undiminished zest. 'No matter. You belong to me now. Give me a kiss.'
'You dare ask--' he began angrily, when he felt himself snatched off his feet and crushed to the hetwoman's muscular breast. He fought her fiercely, with all the supple strength of his magnificent youth, but she only laughed exuberantly, drunk with the possession of this splendid creature writhing in her arms.
She crushed his struggles easily, drinking the nectar of his lips with all the unrestrained passion that was hers, until the arms that strained against them melted and twined convulsively about her massive neck. Then she laughed down into the clear eyes, and said: 'Why should not a chief of the Free People be preferable to a city-bred dog of Turan?'
He shook back his tawny locks, still tingling in every nerve from the fire of her kisses. He did not loosen his arms from her neck. 'Do you deem yourself an Agha's equal?' he challenged.
She laughed and strode with his in her arms toward the stair. 'You shall judge,' she boasted. 'I'll burn Khawarizm for a torch to light your way to my tent.'
Artwork by ohtracytracy
You can find out more about the Adventures of Bulays and Ghaavn and other Jekkara Press books at the Jekkara Press website
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The Devil in Iron, Respawned by Roberta E. Howard / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on38 votes