The clamor and noise of the shipyard was nearly deafening early in the day, with slavers shouting and cracking their whips over the naked backs of toiling men, grunting and sweating from the heavy labor of dragging logs across stony ground, slippery with filth. The hot sun, slowly baking the mud into a thick crust, burned on their backs and shoulders, and even those used to southern climates were suffering worse from the heat than from the sting of the cat-o-nine-tails. Some groups of slaves were singing – loud, simple chants from homelands they would never see again; others were quiet, bowing their heads and silently pressing on, grimly awaiting the death which would eventually claim them once their bodies wore out. The slaves were a diverse lot – Shemite soldiers, broad-chested Kothians, a few Eastern hillmen and nomads unfortunate enough to wander too close to Stygia's borders – but for the most part, the slaves were black men, stolen by Stygian masters from southern lands and southern armies. Many of them were soldiers, prisoners of war taken from battles won by the Stygian armies, but many were also victims of raids – peasants, merchants, hunters, and there was even one among them who once had claimed the title of Prince.
Names and high birth mattered little to one enslaved, of course, and all that Batu – once of Kosh – had left of his heritage was hazy recollections of luxury and leisure in his own home lands. Though he was of high birth, he had never been a weak man, and as Prince of a nation only half-civilized he had learned to prove his strength time and time again. It was chiefly this strength that had kept him alive for two years in the Stygian slave camps. Batu of Kosh was tall and immensely powerful, with broad shoulders and a strong jaw. His broad, flat nose and glittering white teeth, filed to a point, granted him a reasonably pleasant appearance if he smiled, but for these two years his expression had been almost constantly grim, his deep, dark brown eyes always set on the horizon. Vainly, he had hoped some word would come – an army, or someone in his home land paying a ransom to find him – but no such thing had happened, and Batu had conceded his family must either be dead, or think him to be.
He was not certain life was yet worth living. If all that would remain of his life was thankless toil for cruel Stygian masters, he thought, he might as well leap into the ocean, and die out of sheer spite, robbing his captors of one of their strongest slaves. Yet he could not bring himself to do it. He came from a harsh and savage land, and he had been taught to fight for his life and value it highly, even as one born to privilege. As he renewed his grip on the heavy beam he was dragging, he tried not to think, but to perceive – to listen, to look, still hoping for any chance to escape. Fighting to carry the heavy beam onwards, it surprised him to hear someone talking about him. Two years as a captive had taught him the Stygian language from his masters, but he had kept his knowledge of it secret, played dumb before the slavers so that they would speak without restraint in his presence.
"The tall Kushite's strength is fading, at long last. I think we'd best see him replaced. There is a new slave that could do his job, a northern barbarian of some kind. Even stronger than the Kushite, I'd wager." rang the smattering voice of an overweight, evil-eyed slaver, talking to his colleague. "One stronger than the Kushite?" replied the other, laughing in disbelief. "By Set, I'll hold you to that wager. That is some slave I'd like to see. What will you bet?"
The first slaver was clearly taken aback by his companions' skepticism, and sputtered. "It is true! Have you not seen him? White-skinned he is, but with hair as black as the night, and quick and strong as a panther! Why, he slew several men before he was captured, I hear, armed with only his iron thews and two empty hands." Still the other slaver was laughing, and the first one spat out, in indignation "If it's a bet you want, then let us wager! The northern barbarian is the strongest, a months' wages say so. What will you stake against me?"
The thinner, older slaver considered. Finally, he said: "Friend, if the Kushite does not win, it's two months' wages you'll have. So strong a man does not exist, I am sure of it. You'd do better not to listen to the soldiers' rambling about their captives; they are fond of exaggeration, to say the least. Is it a pit-fight you'll have arranged, then?" - "It is." responded the first slaver, "And it's your wages I'll have, make no mistake."
Hearing this, Batu lowered his head and gritted his teeth. It was true that he had grown weaker from malnutrition and mistreatment, but if the slavers wished to have him wrestle with this newcomer, he would have to fight for his life, and enough strength remained in him yet to snap the neck of any opponent. If only that neck could belong to a hated slaver, or to any Stygian for that matter! Batu had no desire to slay a fellow slave, a poor Northerner as unfortunate as himself. Yet it would appear he had little choice. Grunting with the weight of the beam, he continued towards the skeleton of the ship, trying not to exert himself too hard. If the Northerner truly was a match for him, he would have to conserve his strength.
Some days passed, as the slavers' prepared for the fight. They did not own the slaves, of course, but it was not hard for them to make a slave "disappear" - claimed dead from some illness or accident – so it happened that they arranged events such as these for their own amusement. The battle would take place, Batu learned, in a massive vat used for dying ships' sails, and there would be quite some audience – evidently the two slavers were talkative, and it seemed both of them had made a handsome coin by inviting others to see the spectacle against a small fee. But, as was his custom, he pretended not to understand the phrases he overheard between the slavers, and kept on laboring, but secretly saved his strength and ate the cold gruel and flavorless bread with more gusto than usual. In part, this was a conscious effort to prepare himself for the battle, but it was also because his spirits were raised by the prospect of a break from mundane toil. His blood remembered, it seemed, the visceral excitement of battle, and his animal instincts were coming to life, causing him to live life a little more fully, anticipating that he would soon have to either kill, or perish at the hands of another slave.
When the time came, it was late evening. The battle would take place at night, then, to ensure no guards or authorities higher than the slavers found out about it. Batu was already asleep, but he slept lightly, and awoke at the sound of the younger slaver, who had bet against him. He sat up instantly, watching the fat slaver in the darkness – he was grasping something, and before Batu could see what it was, it rang out across his temple. The whip! A throbbing pain spread in his head, and he instinctively held his hand to where he had been struck. Blood. The other slaves in his pen awoke at the sound, but nobody dared move or even speak, fearful that the whip would seek them out next. Knowing that the slaver would strike again if he gave him an excuse to do so, Batu sprang to his feet and hurried towards him. "What?" he asked flatly, the only word he had betrayed to the slavers that he knew. His head was swimming from the pain, and blood was seeping into his eye, but he was wide awake now, and the abuse filled him with strange confidence and pride. So it seemed, that the younger slaver was worried the Kushite would win, and sought to tip the odds in his own favor. This boded well; at least the new slave was not so monstrous as to be a clear winner.
Obediently, the tall black man followed the slaver, stretching his limbs as he walked and preparing himself for battle. He chanced to reveal this clue that he was aware of what would happen, knowing that he must be ready to fight, or die. The slaver, fortunately, did not notice, and led him onwards through the dark shipyards, first across the muddy, slippery ground of the slave pens, then across the cobbled streets where the artisans and craftsmen plied their trade. The cobblestone was cold under his naked feet, and he looked around curiously at the surrounding buildings, which were made out of caked yellow mud. They were set tightly together, leaving only small alleyways and cramped streets for passage, with barely room for himself and the slaver to walk side by side. He was in unfamiliar territory, and if not for this fact, he would have tried to run. A single slaver was no match for him, he knew, even if the slaver was armed and he wasn't; but where to run was a different question. It had been two years since Batu had been outside the area comprised of the dry docks and the slave pens, and he no longer remembered what the city outside looked like. If he ran, the risk was high that he would get lost, and with his tall stature, black skin, and foreign physique, he would be recognized as a slave and executed come morning, if he had not made it out of the city by then. But the risk might be worth it – freedom or death. Still, something held him back, made him hesitate. He felt that he should see this Northerner first, see if the slavers' words had been true.
The dying vat was a pit about five feet deep and fifteen across, set directly into the ground and lined with dried mud. The interior was stained pitch-black from the dye used for the Stygian sails, and when Batu approached, it seemed like a dark hole with no bottom, just a deep inky blackness. But clearly it wasn't bottomless, for a man was already standing in it, his bronze skin a stark contrast to the deep black of the pit, and of the night surrounding them. The man was clearly no civilized man, not even half-civilized like Batu himself, but a barbarian through and through. His blue, smoldering eyes seemed to burn into everything he so much as glanced at, and his black mane of hair framed a powerful face with a savage expression. Yet there was an intelligence in those eyes, a cunning look that, once the mans' eyes met Batus', the Kushite knew must mean something.
Around the pit were set four torches, and there was a rabble of people there, but neither Batu nor the stranger paid them any heed. They knew that they had come here to fight each other, and that is what they would do, without regard for the bystanders. Neither man was armed, and they were both clad in simple loin-cloths, yet both men were clearly strong and skilled enough to strike fear in even a mounted knight. Even the slavers stood back as they witnessed Batu descend into the pit with a single leap. For his own part, Batu felt fearful, for though both men were perhaps of equal strength, he could tell from the barbarians' posture and graceful movement that this northerner was the better fighter of the two. Further, Batu was weakened by his years in slavery, and he was already wounded, blood seeping into his eye and obscuring his vision. The smell of burning pitch from the torches stung in his nostrils and mixed with the smell of his own blood, and he clenched his teeth, preparing to at least put up a good fight before he died.
Without warning, the northerner was upon him. He leaped forwards like a great cat, his hands aimed for Batu's throat. He side-stepped in the nick of time, but the other mans' hands still caught hold of his arm. A lesser man would have fallen, or indeed, have his shoulder dislocated entirely – but Batu was strong, and he scantly managed to keep his footing, using the barbarians' speed against him to hurl him into the wall of the pit. The northerner fell, but was on his feet with astonishing quickness, and his piercing blue eyes burned with intensity – but not with fury. Under his breath, the northerner hissed a sentence in the Stygian tongue, with a strange and foreign accent: "You are strong."
Batu merely inclined his head to indicate that he had understood these words, and kept an eye on the northerner, anticipating he would spring from the wall any second to attack again. But he did not. The black man hesitated – it would be easy to pin the northerner against the edge of the pi where he stood, but perhaps it was a trick? Yet, moment after moment went by, and the other man remained immobile, still as a bronze statue. Batu had to chance it, and ran towards the white man, intending to smash him into the wall. Surprisingly, the enemy did not move aside, and was knocked into the wall with such force that it was a wonder his ribs did not snap. Astonishingly, the northerner even had the wits to speak, and did so – whispering in Batu's ear as the tall black giant held him pressed against the wall, the northerners' shoulders painfully bent over the edge of the pit. "I know a way out." the barbarian said, and Batu hesitated. The way the other man had his neck so close to the edge of the pit, the iron thews of the dark-skinned prince could easily snap his neck, even were it stronger than that of a bull. But here was promise of escape – of freedom. Did the man speak the truth? The prince hesitated for just a moment – and was thrown off his feet by a mighty push. Before he could react, the barbarian was upon him, pummeling him with one fist while holding him down with the other; but it was just an act, for the blows were soft, or at least softer than the killing blows this brutal savage could clearly inflict should he wish to. As he shielded his face with his arms, Batu heard the man continue, speaking quietly - "There are small fishing ships not far to the west. I saw them on my way here. One man can crew them-" here the ebon prince kicked the barbarian hard in the stomach, to keep up the appearance of the fight, and the other stumbled backwards, saying no more, but staring at his antagonist with those flaming blue eyes. As the dark giant came to his feet, the two regarded each other carefully, standing a few feet apart, both ready to spring. But the barbarians' message had come through – one man could crew such a boat, but one man might not be able to reach it. Batu had only limited knowledge of sailing, but his mind had been made up – if this stranger presented a chance, no matter how small, then by the gods, he was going to take it.
The northerner nodded up towards the audience surrounding them, and smiled for the first time. Raising his voice, he spoke, his voice filled with a strange mirth: "I am Conan, of Cimmeria. Will you fight or run, black man?" The audience was excited, not expecting to see conversation take place between two mud-stained slaves, a far cry from trained gladiators. Some of them even cheered loudly for Conan, including the fat slaver who had bet on him. Now, however, Batus' face also split in a wide grin, revealing shining white teeth, filed and sharpened as was his peoples' tribal custom. Bracing himself to leap, he cried out triumphantly: "Both!"
On the Kushite's call, both men turned around and leaped out of the pit. Batu crashed into a flimsy aristocrat, and scrambled for a weapon but found none – Conan, however, had planned his jump more carefully, and fell upon a slaver, crushing his face with a single blow from his right fist. Drawing the slavers' long, wicked knife, he called out: "Black man! Ho!" and, with no regard for his own safety, threw the weapon across the pit. Batu grabbed it where it fell, and no sooner had he done so than the slavers were upon him. Without a weapon he would have had trouble fighting them, but now – armed both with his wicked strength and with sharpened steel, it was they who were at a disadvantage. With a single swift stab, he struck one of them in the gut, and he fell – but before he could steal the slavers' dagger and return Conan the favor of a weapon, a second slaver nearly struck him in the neck, and it was only swift reflexes that saved his life. Batu cast a glance across the pit: Conan, still unarmed, fought like a wounded tiger. Apart from a slight cut on his arm, the barbarian was not yet injured, and had already killed two slavers – a third was now trying to keep him away with the point of his long knife, while another man – an aristocrat, it would seem, armed with a wicked curved blade of his own – was approaching from the side. Fearing for Conans' life, Batu ignored his own enemies and ran around the edge of the pit, cutting people down or shoving them aside to come behind the aristocrat.
Unfortunately, the man heard him, and Batu found himself trapped – a nobleman with a sword before him, and two slavers with knives behind him. Now it was not Conan he feared for, but himself. Unashamed to call for help if he needed it, he cried out: "Conan!" The barbarian spun around, and the slaver he was fighting lunged forwards, hoping to plant his blade in the escaped slaves' back. Yet the northerner was fast – much faster than anyone Batu had ever before seen – and leaped aside, leaving the slaver to charge past him and, before he could stop himself, he fell into the pit. Conan now moved behind the swordsman, and with a single, swift motion, reached for his sword-arm and broke it. Grabbing the falling sword, Conan lunged forwards and waved with his free arm. "West! That way!" Unhesitating, Batu ran in the direction the Cimmerian had indicated, stabbing his knife into someone – slaver or bystander, Batu could not tell – who stood in the way. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Conan remaining behind, fighting off two last slavers who were apparently brave enough to attempt pursuit.
Batu ran, but knew not where he should run. After a short while, he found himself forced to slow down, and eventually stopped, uncertain of where to go next. Moving to the side, he decided to hide in an alleyway between two houses of mud-brick – behind, he heard alarms being called and in the distance, a bell was ringing. He was afraid that the barbarian might have fallen, but presently he heard someone running through the streets, and his keen ears distinguished that the man was barefooted, not clad in sandals like the hated slave-keepers. "Conan." he called. "Here."
Conan approached, and though he could barely see his face in the darkness, Batu had never appreciated the sight of any living being more. "Well fought, Cimmerian", the prince greeted him. Batu had never heard of his homeland, and only understood that it must be someplace quite far north, but he had a good memory for names. "I am Batu, of Kush. I hope your promise of freedom was true." The Cimmerian laid a heavy hand on his shoulder, and spoke, without so much as needing to pause for breath after the skirmish and the flight that followed it. "It is, but I think we may have to approach stealthily. If they know we are headed for the fishing-boats, they can send men to cut us off. Crom! They fight poorly, these Stygians, but I am in no mood to deal with well-equipped soldiers tonight." Batu agreed, and the two began to walk at a slower pace towards where the Cimmerian said the ships would be. They walked in silence for a short while, both listening for enemies, but the streets were quiet. Since nobody was nearby, there was little point in sneaking carefully, and eventually the men – impatient with the promise of freedom – were half-running through the empty streets. Presently, though, Batu reached out to grab hold of Conan, and they both stopped instantly, ducking into another alleyway. "What?" the barbarian spat impatiently. "Hear!" Batu whispered, "A sentinel, ahead!"
"I heard," Conan replied brusquely, "It is but one man. I can kill him before he makes a sound." - "No, no," the Kushite responded, "It is better he lives. He is on his way to light a great brazier, that the guards may see more clearly. Every district has such a brazier, and a man on duty to light it as soon as the alarm is called. If the brazier is not lit, they will know something is wrong!"
"Lir an Mannanan Mac Lir", swore Conan, "We must let him light it and kill him afterwards, then. I saw such a brazier, it is right by the harbor. If the guards swarm in there, they may shoot us down before we have time to cast off. Come, let us follow him – he is headed in the right direction." Batu nodded, and stalked off in the direction of the man, Conan right behind him. They could see the sentinel clearly, for he carried a torch – a thin, swarthy Stygian with great mustaches, headed for the brazier by the harbor. Already they could see it quite clearly, a massive bronze cauldron, as tall as a man and filled with wood and pitch. The bonfire lit within would be big enough for most of the small fishers' harbor to be illuminated, if dimly.
"I think it best," whispered Batu, "if we let him light the brazier and kill him, while the fire is still catching." Conan gruffly nodded, and revealed nothing of his thoughts, but gripped his blade tighter and prepared himself to launch, still as a statue, yet tense like a coiled spring, ready to fly. The swarthy sentinel approached the brazier and yawned, and by the light of his torch, both the escaped slaves could see that he was alone. Yet, as he brought the torch to the brazier, Conan hesitated. Something was wrong. Batu looked at the northerner, and seeing him motionless, prepared himself to leap out of the shadow and attack – but the Cimmerian swept out his great arm, and struck him in the chest to stop him. "Archers." whispered Conan, and pointed towards a nearby tower. Indeed, there were men in the tower – although they were almost impossible to see, at a distance and in the darkness. Yet the sentinel, so close to the brazier, would be quite visible to them – as would the two escaped slaves, if they ran out of the cover of the small street they were on.
As he heard Conans' words, hope began to fade from Batu. If they could not make their escape here, were they then doomed to be re-captured in the morning, when the cover of night would withdraw and bright daylight rob them of hiding-places? The Cimmerian, however, did not seem hopeless; although a troubled expression was upon his face, it looked more calculating than miserable. "I think there may still be a chance", he explained. "There are foreign ships, merchant ships, in this city, the only city in Stygia that allows them. We have no chance of embarking with a ship of our own, but we may be able to climb aboard one of the larger merchants' vessels and hide there. It is a slim chance, but it is one worth taking."
Batu, with a grim expression, agreed, though he saw little reason for the plan to succeed, especially since the ships would no doubt be searched in the morning – the Stygians were wary of foreigners. Still, he agreed with Conan that it was better than no chance at all, and in the cover of darkness, they both began to move towards the waterline. They did their best to stay outside the circle of light thrown by the brazier, but as the fire caught on, the light spread further. Conan moved with the instinctive stealth of a great cat, slowly, patiently making his way towards the black water. Batu, however, was somewhat more impatient – excited at the thought of freedom, and fearful of the risk of losing it yet again – and thus his movement was quicker, more jerky. As they were but a few yards from the water, he heard swift steps behind him: They had been seen. Panic overcame him, and he sprinted the last few yards to the water, confirming the suspicions of the sentinel. He felt the salty water splash around his feet, and anticipated the sound of cries of alarm from behind him, but none such came. Too excited to wonder why, Batu hurriedly threw himself into the water once it became deep enough, let go of his knife, and began to swim. Abruptly, he was reminded that he was still bleeding, and sharp pain shot through the wound on his temple. The acrid taste of saltwater entered his mouth, and as the dark water engulfed him, he anticipated arrows to rain down around him – but no arrows came.
Blindly, he swam further out, not stopping until he was sure he'd cleared the range of the archers. Only then did he realize, that in the complete blackness he had lost track of Conan, who knew the location of the merchant ships. Gazing around in the complete darkness, he saw only the fire burning in the harbor; there was no trace of his companion. Bitterly swearing under his breath, Batu realized he was lost. He did not dare risking to call out, in case the sentinel on the beach should hear him – besides, if Conan was still alive and back on the beach, risking exposure would be doing him a great disservice. No, he would have to fend for himself for now. He trod water, casting his glance around for any other feature, anything he could move towards and hold on to. His attention was caught, then, by light glowing from the porthole of a ship. Thinking it as good a destination as any, the prince began to swim in that direction.
As he came closer, he saw that the ship must be a private yacht of some kind, a small, fast ship, not of any make he recognized. There were two sails, triangular, pale white – that much he could tell, but he could not see if there were any flags or banners displaying the ships' origin. As far as he could tell, there was activity within – a light was burning in one of the rooms below deck, and he heard something that sounded like a womans' singing emanating from the porthole. Perhaps he should chance sneaking aboard? The song would be distraction enough for anyone below deck, and he did not think anyone would be above, not at this time of night. Before he could make up his mind, however, he heard something splash, and pressed himself as close to the ships' hull as he could. A large, yet lithe shadow was moving up the anchor chain – climbing it deftly to reach the deck. In what little light there was, Batu thought that the shadow must be Conan – none other had such strength, yet moved so swiftly; so he had made it, then. The sword glittered between his teeth, and Batu was greatly surprised to see the Cimmerian still had it with him. Still not wanting to call out in case he drew attention, the prince thought that he would be safer in the Cimmerians' presence than anywhere else, and began swimming toward the anchor chain. By the time he got there, the shadow had already disappeared up onto the deck, and though Batu was no poor climber, Conan was already gone when he pulled himself over the railing to scan the poop deck. He saw two tall masts, too tall to make out the shape of any flags that might decorate their tops – and everything else littering the deck, ropes, secured barrels, and a small bucket, gave no clue to the nationality of the ships' owner or crew. For all he knew, he might be on a Stygian ship – although clearly, it was not a warship of any nationality, so there would be no soldiers aboard. This thought comforted the Kushite, as he made his way towards a hatch, thinking to descend into some cargo deck and hide there. He was interrupted, however, as a scream suddenly pierced the night.
It came from a woman – the woman he had previously heard singing, no doubt. Cursing that the stillness had been broken, Batu dashed for the nearest door, and wondered if the womans' scream had been Conans' doing. He threw himself down steep stairs, into the darkness, but something seemed wrong. Firstly, Conan was much too careful to reveal himself in such an obvious manner, and no doubt Conan would swiftly kill the woman if she began screaming. But there was something else, a smell in the air... Batu sniffed it, carefully. He had known it once, in the courts of his own homeland – a strange herb, a mystic spice, a strange and exotic smell, similar to burnt cinnamon and rare incense. He did not know its name, though he had seen it used before, by sorcerers in his fathers' court. He grew pale as the memory resurfaced, working its way through the haze inflicted upon him by his years in slavery – for this herb was only used in black rituals, spells of such danger that they often spelled doom even for the sorcerer practicing them. Then the screaming of the woman began again, no longer wordless: She began crying out in many different tongues. Batu recognized only a few of them, but certainly all were cries for help.
Suddenly, another noise interrupted her – the loud crash of a door being torn off its hinges. For a moment, everything went quiet – then a loud, manly voice split the silence like a hammer striking iron: "Crom! What devilry is this?"
The Kushite prince could not believe his ears. The Cimmerian had stormed into the chamber with the woman, and had now revealed himself. Then again, once the woman had started screaming, Batu reflected, they were both as good as dead. Grimly, he clenched his fists and wished for a weapon, then hurried towards the source of the sound. He entered through the very door Conan had kicked off its hinges, and the scene he saw before him made even the jaded prince pause.
The room was a study of some kind, with a heavy brass chandelier hanging from the ceiling and illuminating it. A sturdy writing desk stood at the far end of the room, a chair before it. Several iron-bound chests were lined along the left wall, and on the floor was drawn some kind of occult symbol; Batu did not recognize it. But he recognized well the nature of that horrid beast which stood broad-legged above the symbol, glowering with inhuman hatred. The otherworldly creature was two-legged and had two arms, but its semblance with anything sane or human ended there; its black, squamous skin was covered in ooze and slime as though it had just crawled from some monstrous womb, and its eyes, glowing with evil intelligence, glared upon Conan, who stood paralyzed with shock not far to Batu's left. The creatures' very existence seemed an offense to nature – which it was, Batu knew, a being conjured into existence by foul and dangerous sorcery. His eyes scanned the room for the perpetrator of this crime against natures' laws, and spotted her, hidden behind Conan; the barbarian had thought her an innocent victim of the monster, when in fact, the prince knew, she must be the very reason it was here. She was of Hyborian blood, blond, fair-skinned and fine-limbed, naked except for a jeweled girdle, from which hung rich, violet silken cloths. Her wide, green eyes were open in shock and horror, and her high brow frozen in terror – it was clear she feared the beast, even as she had been the one to call it into existence.
"Woman!" Batu called out, "This creature is your doing!"
At these words, Conan was shaken out of his paralysis. "Her doing?" he cried incredulously. Batu nodded. "She is a sorceress, no doubt! I have seen magic like this before! Conan, you-"
Batu had no time to continue speaking, for suddenly the monster charged at him, moving in a weird, unreal fashion, almost flying through the air. He ducked backwards into the corridor from whence he'd come, but the creature continued straight for him, and grabbed its slimy clawed hands around his neck – yet Batu was not helpless. Fiercely, he directed a strong kick towards its abdomen, then another one, but it seemed the monster did not feel pain. Only when Conan, finally shaken loose from his fear of the otherworldly thing, fell upon it from behind with his blade did it loosen its grip, and turned its attention to the barbarian, flying back inside the chamber. Batu regained his wits, and hurried after them; man and beast were on the floor now, blackish blood spewing from a great wound in the beasts' back, but it did not seem impeded; indeed, its weird frog-like mouth sank into Conan's shoulder with an almost improved fervor. Over the clamor, Batu, weaponless, called out: "Woman! Undo this beast if you can! If not, hand me a weapon!"
The woman shook her head, meekly, and in shock. She had wrought sorcery too powerful for her to contain; Batu cursed at her foolishness. Looking around, he kicked one of the chests open in vain search of a weapon, but found only books. In desperation, he grabbed a heavy, leather-bound volume – no doubt worth a small fortune – and hurled it at the monsters' head. Its grip of Conan's shoulder loosened, momentarily, and he threw off the beast to stab at it again. Batu could see fear mixed with mad rage in the barbarians' eyes – he clearly did not fear men, but this strange beast seemed to inspire a savage, animal fear in the Cimmerian, a fear turned now to desperate blood-lust, as he stabbed the weapon again and again into the creatures' breast – but it did not yield. Again it fell upon him, biting deep into his arm with its weird, frog-like mouth, and Batu cursed his lack of weaponry. Using all his great strength, he took to more desperate measures, and lifted one of the heavy, iron-bound chests. With a mighty heave, he hurled it towards the man and beast, and it hit true – pinning the monster's leg in place for a moment. But the abomination was too strong to be seriously hindered, and cast the chest off again.
Swearing, the Kushite lifted another chest, as Conan struggled with the terror, lost to mad rage now, biting at the monster as it bit at him. Somehow, he had jammed his sword straight through the gut of the otherworldly antagonist, and there it was stuck now, doing him no good – but he kept fighting, with bare hands, bared teeth, and mad, barbarian strength. Even in the heat of battle, Batu could not help be awed at the sheer savagery of the Cimmerian. But sheer savagery would not save his life – not against a foe such as this. Batu lifted another chest, and threw it; it served as little more than a distraction. Desperately, he glanced around the room – his eyes fell on the chandelier. The struggling two were now right underneath it. With immense effort, he lifted a third chest – he could not reach the chandelier without coming too close to the madly struggling two, but perhaps a well-placed throw would do. He placed his legs broadly apart, and mustered every ounce of strength his giant body could offer him. His muscles hammered with pain and exertion as he hurled the heavy chest with all his might towards the chandelier. It hit true.
Both chest and chandelier came crashing to the ground with an ear-splitting noise, and it was but for the Cimmerians' cat-like reflexes that he could avoid having his skull crushed by the heavy chandelier. Instead, it fell on his mighty arms, feverishly holding the creature in place, and Batu was astonished that they did not both break. There was a mad gleam in Conan's eye, a terrible joy, as both chandelier and chest crashed down on the terrible monstrosity, pinning it in place. Conan's arms were under the chandelier, so he could not move more than the beast could, but he panted between breaths: "Batu! The sword! Kill it!"
Wasting no time, the prince stepped up to where man and monster lay, drew the sword out from the creature's gut, and hacked at its neck. Though he was stronger than any man he had ever met save Conan, he had to strike four times before that scaly, unseemly head was finally severed from the shoulders, and the thing died.
Batu now turned to the woman, pointing the blood-spattered sword at her. "Sorceress!" he cried, "Have you any idea what you have done?"
It was at this point that the sailors entered. Seeing a black giant with a sword pointed at their mistress, they cried in anger and drew their own blades, but the woman stopped them and, for the first time, spoke: "Hold, men. These two have saved my life. Do them no harm." Her voice was strange, soft and musical, with an implacable foreign accent. It seemed to flow from her mouth like sweet nectar and rare perfume. Hearing the soothing voice, Batu lowered the sword, and then dropped it to rescue Conan from the heavy chandelier, still pinning him to the floor. The barbarian rose, massaging his battered arms, not speaking but clearly in great pain, now the mad rush of battle had worn off. The woman continued: "I thank you, and I assure you, I do know what I have done. My fault is not lack of skill, it is lack of patience. Here in Stygia I have learned this ritual, by paying vast sums to study obscure teachings and hear secrets whispered from arcane scholars. But I was forbidden from practicing it in the kingdom. In my impatience, I decided to try my hand at it already back at my ship, instead of waiting until in proper protection by blessed symbols and magical amulets in my own fortress in Argos. I am Qerephis, the sorceress." she finished. The two escaped slaves exchanged a glance; neither trusted those who worked magic much, whether sorcerer or sorceress. Still, here was their way out, and they both knew it.
"Then, Qerephis," spoke Batu, "I suggest you had better return to that fortress with its blessed symbols and magical amulets, and that soon. If the Stygians find out you have nearly released such a monster in their port, I doubt your teachers will look kindly upon you." - "I will." she replied curtly. "And you? I owe you a favor." she said decisively. "We will come with you-" spoke Conan, quickly, but Batu interrupted him. "First, I would like you to take us to Kush. Wasting no time, I suggest – guards will have heard your screaming, and they might ask questions." The woman nodded, and left the chamber briskly to instruct her sailors. Incensed, Conan turned to the black man. "To Kush? I have unfinished business in Argos, myself: I must find the man who sold me out to the Stygians, and kill him. I understand your wish to return home, but what is there for me in Kush?"
Batu's face again split into a toothy, white grin, the same smile he had shown Conan when they escaped. "Have I failed to tell you, barbarian? The people of Kush will be generous to one who has saved the life of their Prince." The effect his words had on the barbarian were much smaller than he had expected – Conan merely blinked. "Prince? Princes and kings matter little to me" he said flatly. Batu considered, then smiled again. "Well, consider this then. If promises of titles and respect matter little to you, well – being Prince means is more than a mere name. I can promise you fine wine and as much meat as you can eat, or carry with you for that matter, if you accompany me home."
The Cimmerians' dour expression slowly broke into a mirthful smile. "Well," he said, "If that is the offer you make, I suppose revenge can wait."