The Vision of the Ax
Night lay heavy on Stygia. Where the great river emptied into its bay, no whisper of wind came off the ocean beyond. The sky was hazed, so that only a few stars glimmered in sight above Khemi, and it was as if they were embers of that furnace heat which the stones of the city still radiated after day had long departed. Outer walls lifted sheer to hold off any coolness the sea might have sent, even as they held off the world from the secret doings within. Around those iron-gated cliffs, watchtowers reared higher yet, their battlements like teeth bared at heaven. The streets beneath were guts of blackness, silent, deserted, save where a sacred python rustled scales dryly over the paving in search of prey, or footfalls padded of someone from whom it slithered back with a hiss of alarm.
The air was otherwise where the magician Tothapis slept. In a crypt among those carved deep out of bedrock, slaves toiled at a giant wheel driving fan blades in a shaft. The breath they sent aloft lent its chill to the sultriness and incense of their lord’s bedchamber. The whir made an undertone for the slumber-music of a carillon played by that same machinery. Though his mattress was hard, as became a man of austerity, it was stuffed with the tresses of sacrificial maidens, while his gown and sheets were of silk, ebon-hued, so fine that the fabric might have been spun by spiders.
Nevertheless, on this night he slept ill, tossing and muttering. Abruptly he woke, sat up, gasped. Four sable candles at the corners of his bed, man-tall, mounted in the legbones of behemoths, flared high and went out.
Such a sign had not come to him before in his centuries of life, but he knew what it portended. He scrambled free of the top sheet with which he had been struggling and sought the floor. There he prostrated himself, kissed the carpet, writhed serpentine. “Iao, Setesh!” he shrilled. “Anet neter aa, neb keku fentut amon!”
Only then did he dare raise his head and stare before him. Amidst the blindness now prevailing, he saw a pale yellow glow; amidst the deafness, he heard a susurration that came out of no human mouth. The glow, strengthened, grew, became the image of a huge golden-colored snake coiled in a circle from floor to high ceiling. By its light he could dimly see the hieroglyphs on every free surface in the room. The sibilance became a monstrous rushing noise, like that of the River Styx in its cataracts far to the southeast. Tothapis groveled again and adored his god.
The noise formed language: “Speak, man. Declare who lam.”
“You are Set,” the wizard intoned, “lord of the universe, whom the Stygians worship before all others.”
“Declare how you yourself do serve me.”
Words torrented forth: “In every way that man may serve That which was before he was, and will be when he is no more. I am a priest in your temple, and if I am not its chief hierophant, the reason is that I can further your cause the better in the Black Ring of magicians whereof I am head. My spells confound the infidels who acknowledge you not, my counsel strengthens the hand of the king against them. Soon, soon they will learn from us how terrible is your wrath, O Set. True, my service is but the least and humblest of tributes to your darkling glory. You have made my days and my nights long in the world; you have given me power over both men and demons; foremost of what you have granted has been an ever more profound understanding of those mysteries that are of your essence. And tonight you have revealed yourself to your slave. What else dare I ask? What else dare I offer in return, O Set?”
“Rise, man. Behold me. Hearken.”
Tothapis got to his feet and stood rigid, arms held straight out, palms down. The reptile head gaped before him, tongue aflicker between fangs, but the lidless eyes unmoving in their stare. “Heed me well,” he heard. “You have called me lord of the universe, but you know how many and diverse are the gods of earth, sea, sky, and underworld. You know how few of them own me their master, how few of their peoples look on me as aught but a devil. Mightiest of my rivals is Mitra of the Sun, who would fain tread me underfoot.”
“Cursed be Mitra and the Hyborians that follow him,” Tothapis mumbled.
“Cursed indeed,” answered the apparition. “Yet through chronicles and through more arcane lore you know his strength from of old. I send this sending unto you to warn of a new danger. It menaces yourself, your king, your nation, and your very god. This day a man and a woman have joined. Never will any child come of their union; but already, all unwitting, they have begotten a destiny. Can it not be slain in womb or cradle, it will fast grow gigantic, and in its hands will be a war ax that hews down many—that will at last, in years to come, strike at the pillars of mine own sanctuary.”
Tothapis, who had gazed with calm upon hellish things, shuddered. If Set could not smite down a pair of mortals, but must instead call for mortal help, then unimaginable Powers were at strife in the world beyond the world.
“Sorcerer, fear not,” hissed the voice. “What is to happen must happen on earth alone, for if the great gods intervened, that could bring on the Last Strife. Yet I, who am Stealth-in-the-Night, bear to you the foreknowledge you will need; and you will have your wonted cunning, your magic and monsters and demons, at your beck, against a foe who remains ignorant of what he himself portends. He is but flesh and blood, however powerful the flesh and fiery the blood. Were it not for this chance encounter with the woman, he would live and die an obscure rover—as you can still make him die.
“Watch, and learn well.”
Within the circle of the serpent’s coil, an image came to being. It was as if Tothapis winged out through the dome of his house to a mile above Khemi. He saw the city hunched by the gleam of river and bay and ocean, he saw cultivated hinterlands like a gray tapestry silver-threaded by canals and spotted with humble villages. Upward his view receded, until Stygia lay stretched immense along the stream that was its northern boundary. Beyond reached the farmlands and grasslands of Shem, southward desert, and then the jungles and veldts of Kush. At this height he discerned no trace of man’s works.
Dizzyingly swift, his vision swept down the Kushite seaboard. Rain forests brooded over surf; swamps and rivers sheened; as the view descended, he glimpsed open spaces where the black primitives had burnt off woods for their plantings. Hawklike, sight swooped westward across the water.
Tothapis saw a ship. She was a fighting craft, a lean black galley with a raised deck from stem to stern. Below were benches, and below them a main deck covering the hold. At her prow gleamed a gilt image, the snarling head of a tiger. Shields hung on the low rails. The forty oars were inboard, for a wind bellied out her single square sail and drove her north in long, feline bounds across whitecaps. Most of the crew were at rest, their sleeping bags laid on decks or benches. As his sight drew close, Tothapis saw that they were Negroes, strong young men who wore little clothing or none but who showed battle scars and kept weapons ready at hand.
His view ranged astern. A small poop deck formed the roof of what must be the captain’s cabin. On it stood a white man and woman. The man’s right hand grasped the tiller of a steering oar, his left arm lay around her waist, and she caressed him in her turn. They were easy to see, for here the sky was altogether clear, thronged by stars and girded by a brilliant Milky Way, while phosphorescence went swirling over the waves.
Tothapis was celibate, lest he lose energy to the ordinary things of earth. But as he looked upon this woman, the air whistled between his teeth. She was young, thinly clad though the sea wind must be cold, a dirk at her hip and a silver headband her sole accessories of dress. Raven-dark hair blew loose, well-nigh down to her waist. Somehow the starlit vision of Tothapis showed colors; he saw that her eyes were big and lustrous brown beneath level brows, her complexion olive, her lips full and vivid. That, together with the finely sculptured curve of nose and the high cheekbones, proclaimed her a Shemite. She was taller than was usual for her race, and never had he beheld such a figure—large yet firm of bosom, slim-waisted, long-limbed, no trace of softness underlying those curves. When she moved, she moved like a panther.
“Here is Bêlit,” the voice of Set told him. “Female, she has nonetheless turned her savages into the most fearsome pirate crew that ever harried the Black Coast; and now they are beating north to Stygia. This day she attacked a vessel whereon Conan of Cimmeria was traveling. She took it at heavy cost, since he fought against her. As he did, love flamed between them across the swordblades, and they made peace; but together they would make red war…Take your heed off her, you fool! Observe Conan.”
Tothapis hastened to obey. The helmsman was also young, albeit at first glance he seemed older. In height and bulk he overtopped most men. The play of muscles in an arm that effortlessly handled the heavy, bucking oar bespoke strength to match his size. However, he was no less agile and supple than his mate. A square-cut black mane fell to his shoulders. The clean-shaven countenance was handsome in a massive fashion. Its sternness had eased into lines of laughter, and the blue eyes sparkled where formerly they had often smoldered. A tunic he had slipped on when he and Bêlit decided to go topside for a while was rather too small for him. Thus the watcher glimpsed skin the sun had not bronzed; its whiteness proclaimed a man of the far North—a barbarian.
The sibilance ended. In its place Tothapis heard rush of waters, creak of timbers, thrum of rigging. He could almost feel the deck pitch and sway underfoot, or taste salt blown on wind. Bêlit spoke, her husky voice gone soft. “The stars rejoice with us, beloved.”
She used the nautical lingua franca. Conan’s bass replied in the same tongue, his Cimmerian accent musical enough to surprise a Stygian who had read few and vague accounts of that remote warrior folk. “Well they might, seeing they look on you.” He chuckled and hugged her closer. “But they will miss you at your most beautiful, when we go below again.”
“Soon?” she purred.
“Quite soon. I told you I just wanted a breath of air, and thought I might as well get some practice at seamanship, if we are to adventure as corsairs. Yes, I’ll call N‘Yano and Mukatu back to this tiller in a few more pulsebeats.” Conan grinned. “And back to their envy, no doubt.”
“Fear no envy or treachery from our crew,” Bêlit assured him. “They are my own dear men of the Suba, who have given me their blood oath. Never once while we fared has any laid untoward hand on me, or offered me the least insult.”
“Woe betide whoever did,” Conan said, only half in jest. “But—hm—I suppose we had better give them a romp somewhere before long.”
“They know they can have that whenever we put into a port safe for us. We carry loot aplenty to pay for it. But revenge is a more urgent wish, in them as in me. First we harry Stygia.”
Conan frowned. “What? Oh, we can strike here and there, but why? The more so when today’s fight cost you a number of your lads.”
“Fear not that the others hate you on that account. No, they are glad to have you as my lover and fellow captain. And I am overjoyed.” Bêlit kissed him. “The Suba think a man who dies in battle goes to dwell forever among the gods in riotous happiness. You gave some of their comrades that gift, without harming any women or children of theirs. Now your strength and skill are on our side, to further our vengeance. You more than make up for what we lost. Aye, you are very welcome aboard, Conan!”
“We share feuds, Bêlit, as we do all else.” The Cimmerian hesitated. “However, I know nothing of what yours may be, nor of how a single ship can do much against one of the mightiest realms on earth.”
The woman winced. “Let me give you the reason later, most dear,” she said unevenly. “Tonight should be for us two alone.”
Conan consoled her. After a while she stood back and said, with the silver band agleam on a head again lifted in pride: “As for how we can make the Stygians grieve for what they did—”
Tothapis leaned avidly forward.
Across the coil of the serpent and the scene that it enclosed, smote downward the vision of a great battle ax. Darkness filled the circle, and the scaled shape writhed. “Mitra!” he heard fading away. “You found me. But the game is not ended, Mitra…no, we have scarcely begun.… ”
Murk and silence entombed Tothapis.
In a far corner of his own mind, it seemed strange that he did not fall delirious to the floor, after what he had witnessed. Had a part of Set’s reptile spirit entered him, this night or during the centuries of his necromancy? He did not immediately know or care. What mattered was that he could await no further miracles from his god, nothing but what he himself could contrive. Yet, before some supernatural balance of power cut it off, he had received a fragment of a prophecy. He had been given a mission.
Tothapis groped his way to the door. Lamps glimmered along the hall beyond. Still trembling, but on resolute feet, he hurried toward the centrum of his stronghold. There he could find that which he needed to cast his questing spells. Given the clues he already had, a certain dead man could tell him who among the living had more information about Bêlit and Conan, and point a way to their destruction.
Copyright © 1980 by Conan Properties, Inc.