Conan the Bold: Cthulhoid Cancer

Chapter 11

Hey, so remember last time when I said that probably this confrontation in Ophir would do in Axandrias? Well, I’m no longer so certain about that, due mostly to this passage just a few paragraphs into chapter 11:

[Axandrias] had awakened that morning with a ringing head, a sour stomach, and a general feeling that death was not an undesirable thing. He had drunk too deep the night before, as had recently become his habit. So, as an experiment, he had halved one of the pills with his dagger and swallowed it. He used no spell this time, so surely he could take no harm from it. In minutes he was fully recovered, feeling like a youth again. He had spent the morning at sword practice with a succession of men.

Axandrias is developing a dependency on the space cocaine he got from Ancient Aliens priest #1. He might be the second most evil barbarian that Ancient Aliens priest #2 referred to, although he doesn’t seem to have the qualities that this story refers to as making a man a barbarian, i.e. an unwillingness to be ruled over by either direct authority or indirect tradition. It’s all very Nietzschean, though not in a bad way (I wonder if John Maddox Roberts even realized the story he was writing was Nietzschean, or if he just osmosed the concepts second-hand from having read other Conan stories?).

It’s possible that he becomes more dependent on the drug during the battle, but paying off this setup in 24 hours isn’t easy and it seems reasonably plausible that Axandrias is getting out of this alive. And if Axandrias gets out alive, probably Tahakra does, too, so possibly we only lose the Hyperborean here. Except, I’m pretty sure the Hyperborean has already left with the captives they plan to sell into slavery in Stygia (they definitely discussed having him leave early in the last chapter). Taharka and Axandrias do have a secret escape tunnel they haven’t told anyone else about, so that it won’t be jammed with other bandits if they should ever have need of it. And really, since the Hyperborean joined team evil halfway through, it’s only the length left in the book that’s got me convinced that he is probably not getting replaced by a new lieutenant when they leave.

In any case, this chapter opens with the Ophirian cavalry arriving. They decline to wait until nightfall so Conan can scout the hidden cavern lair of the bandits and instead charge in, whereupon they are decimated by ambush. Retreating the Ophirian officer admits that Conan was right and they should wait for nightfall for him to scout. It never says how many cavalry the Ophirians have, but I guess it must be enough to prevent the bandits from just leaving? ‘Cause it’s not like they’d be unaware that their hideout has been discovered.

Conan’s headed out for his scouting run.

As he had anticipated, most of the men were asleep near the small fires, their weapons close to hand. There was little to fear from a night attack by a civilized army. Men unaccusomed to such warfare more often killed friends than enemies.

But Cimmerians have darkvision, I guess?

Conan scouts the camp and returns with one of the sentries as a prisoner, from whom they confirm that the captives taken from the caravan are being taken south to Stygia, led by the Hyperborean. Conan resolves to finish his vengeance that night before chasing down the Hyperborean to free the captives.

“So, they are both alive,” [Kalya] said when he was finished. “Perhaps, tomorrow, our vengeance will be accomplished. If that is so, do you still propose to follow the rest and free Ryula and the others? Truly, they are not our affair. The Hyperborean had no part in your woes or mine, and he may live forever as far as I am concerned.”

“That is true,” Conan said, “but, having taken this up, there is something within me that makes me want to see it through. I told them, albeit half in jest, that they had naught to fear while I guarded the caravan, yet Ryula was taken from under our noses. And Vulpio has been a friend.”

I haven’t glossed over a bunch of scenes with this knife-throwing Vulpio guy, by the way. There was one conversation with him, back in the tavern where Conan say the prophetic magic show, and then also like four lines exchanged after the caravan battle where he confirmed his wife was taken. He isn’t a well-developed character at all, but I do admire his spirit in chasing down the bandits who captured his wife despite throwing knives not exactly being a weapon of choice for bandits or soldiers.

The “battle” actually turns out to be a total rout as disorganized bandits crumble under the Ophirian assault, Taharka and Axandrias having slipped out the past night to make their escape. That was disappointing.

Chapter 12

Conan and Kalya have pursued Taharka, and Conan uses the tricks he learned from his Pict buddy way back at the beginning to pick them off one by one like a shadow in the night. He only kills a few each night, but the slavers’ morale collapses about as fast as you’d expect, rather than the incredible courage they had back in Cimmeria. After a few nights, with less than half their number dead, the bandits are on the verge of total panic. The bandits bunker down in a town near the Stygian border, and Conan, Kalya, and Vulpio attack them in the night with a few unnamed acrobat allies. The eight remaining unnamed bandits are killed while the three named villains escape, and with their wives recovered, Vulpio and the acrobats leave the party.

And, uh, that’s it? It’s a decent fight and all, but man, this is way more episodic than the first half of the story and starting to get a little repetitive.

Chapter 13

Conan has, at this point, pursued Taharka across almost the entirety of Hyboria, as he arrives at the River Styx, border between Stygia and Shem. If you know your Hyborian geography, you may know that Ophir and Stygia aren’t particularly close, but the narrative skips over the intervening space as quickly as I have.

Conan had been standing in his stirrups since they had reached the high bluff overlooking the river from the northern shore. Now he sat back again. “This is marvelous, and I could spend years exploring it all,” he said, “but it does not bode well for our mission. How shall we find them in so populous a country? There must be more people living within sight of us here than I have seen in all my life! And there are many dark people here. To the north, it was easy to ask after Taharka.”

So start asking after the Hyperborean and Aquilonian. Downside to having an international band of criminals is that at least one guy sticks out no matter where you are.

The whole chapter is a fairly boring tracking of Taharka’s new band of pirates. That whole interlude in Ophir killed exactly zero of the people in Conan’s quest log, and while he did save some captives, they were captives he met in Ophir, so the whole thing could’ve been completely excised and the only problem would’ve been one of geography: Conan covers a whole lot of ground between Nemedia where he killed the Bossonians and Gundermen and what’s looking like an approaching final confrontation in Stygia. Would it have killed the author to include another lieutenant in the raid on Cimmeria so that Conan would have someone to chew through in Ophir?

In any case, Conan and Kalya eventually track down some pirates working for Taharka and join up with them in order to close in on their quarry. ‘Course, said quarry now has an army again and knows what both of them look like, so meeting up with him would be a bad thing.

Chapter 14

The pirate band Conan and Kalya have joined up with are planning to kill the captain and crew of the boat they’ve paid passage on, then take the loot to Taharka’s hideout. Our heroes kill not only the pirates on the boat, but also pirates from another boat who come to provide reinforcements to overwhelm the boat’s crew. This second boat is led by the Hyperborean, whom Conan slays. Kalya takes a prisoner alive, who divulges the location of Taharka’s secret hideout. Bits from Taharka’s perspective reveal that Axandrias is now a full-on crack addict with super strength, a short temper, and corpse-like skin and hair. My guess: Kalya is mortally wounded while killing Axandrias, thus explaining why Conan does not travel with her in the future. More optimistically, she might survive the encounter and, being not a barbarian, just retire on the loot recovered from Taharka’s secret Stygian villa (Stygia is so full of abandoned ruins that Taharka was able to just walk into one, buy some slaves, and refurbish it, and no one batted an eye).

This chapter isn’t boring the way the last one was. The fight between Conan and the Hyperborean was a well-written duel in close quarters aboard the boat that then went overboard and became struggle in the waters of the River Styx, both men struggling to drown or crush one another with their massive strength. It also features the first opponent Conan has faced who is stronger than him. He’s halfway crushed to death in the Hyperborean’s mighty arms when the Hyperborean makes the mistake of bringing his face around to grin in triumph, whereupon Conan tears his throat out with his teeth. It’s a good fight, but most of the fights have been good, so there’s not much to comment on.

Chapter 15

Here is the completely unedited opening couple of paragraphs to chapter 15:

Taharka was disturbed. His uneasiness about the island upon which he resided had been increasing, and this very day he had heard from a local tradesman that the place had an evil name, that people had avoided it for centuries. The man said that the pleasant location had caused many to seek to build there over the years, the most recent being the wealthy man who had constructed the villa. All had fled after a brief stay. Some had committed suicide. The evil rumors centered on the ruined temple atop the island. In this land of hundreds of gods, no man now remembered to which god that temple was dedicated.

He was ready to abandon his river operations immediately and had already given orders to begin packing. It would mean abandoning much of his loot still waiting in scattered warehouses or stored with fences, but he had never let such considerations hold him back ere now. There would be more loot to be found on the high seas, more slaves, more conquest. Now he only awaited the return of his trusted lieutenant, Kuulvo. Where was the man? He should have been back before nightfall. He turned at a sound and frowned when he saw who it was.

“It is no use,” Axandrias said. “We can try to flee, but they will find us.”

For a moment Taharka did not understand who the Aquilonian meant. “Find us? You mean your erstwhile victim and her barbarian friend? Do you really think that is why we are leaving?” He was incensed at the man’s single-minded obsession.

“They will find us!” Axandrias shouted. “She haunts my dreams, sleeping and waking! A thousand times I have blinded her and killed her and still she comes for me!”

Taharka shook his head. The man’s mind was as shattered as his body, and he regretted not killing him long ago. “You are wrong, my friend. Now go and—”

“No, he is not wrong,” said a voice behind him. Taharka spun, snatching his sword from his sheath, hearing the hiss of Axandrias’s blade as the Aquilonian drew.

“You see!” said Axandrias, his face almost ecstatic in its concentrated terror. “She has come for me, my little one-eyed beloved. Come to me, little creature, let me finish what I began so long ago.” His voice had turned to a grotesque crooning.

That was fast. If the rest of the story moved with this much alacrity, we would’ve been done like seven chapters ago.

The narrative briefly pauses its final battle to let us know how climactic it is:

Kalya was fighting in an exalted state, almost ecstasy, as she felt her whole life culminating in this climactic battle.

Thanks for that, book, but I had figured out this was the final battle when I saw the two protagonists squaring off against their respective nemeses. And apparently Taharka doesn’t keep any of his pirate army around the villa? It’s the first time he’s been alone (except for Axandrias) for any reason other than having recently had all of his men slaughtered.

The final battle is…really anti-climactic, actually. Kalya duels with Axandrias, dealing him mortal wounds that his drug-induced frenzy prevents him from feeling. Just as the pace of the fight really gets going, she’s killed him. Pivot back to Conan, he fights with Taharka a while, but then Taharka decides to flee. He tosses a tapestry over Conan, retreats while Conan free himself, and throws a javelin. Conan ducks the javelin, which instead impales Kalya, coming up after her fight with Axandrias. Here is Conan’s complete reaction to Kalya’s death:

Conan caught her as she fell. “Kalya!” he cried, lowering her to the floor. “Has he taken you from me as well?”

She looked down at the ruin of her body, then at the corpse of Axandrias. She turned her face upward and smiled at him wanly. Her face had gone ghost-pale. “It is as well, Conan. There was nothing left to live for, now he is dead.” Her face twisted as a new wave of pain swept over her. “But let me say this,” she gasped. “From childhood, I devoted myself to hating a man. I am glad that I had a chance to love one before I died.” She reached up weakly and stroked his dark face. “Now, my love, go and kill that animal for me.” Her hand dropped and the body in his arms seemed to lose all its bones.

Gently, he wrapped her in a priceless hanging and laid her body atop a table of precious wood. Then he took his sword and went to search for Taharka.

This finale is a parody of an original work that was never written.

There’s a part of the ruin that Taharka never refurbished, a lost temple. He retreats there after discovering that all the boats on his island have been set adrift, and Conan pursues after he wraps up Kalya. The temple is, naturally, an Ancient Aliens temple, where there’s a whole bunch of Ancient Aliens priests gathered about, to properly ritualize the final battle.

Taharka of Keshan held his sword at the ready, and on his face was a strange expression of terror mixed with triumph.

A third priest stood on the small dais which surrounded the fire pit. “Now the candidates are gathered,” he intoned.

Conan ignored the enigmatic statement. “I have come to kill that man,” he said pointing to Taharka with his sword. “Do not interfere.”

“Hold!” said the priest, extending a bony hand. Conan was stopped as if he had struck a wall. His mind seethed with anger. Was he never to have the pleasure of killing this monster?

“This must be done according to ritual,” said the priest. “Only one of you can live. Many gods watch this struggle. Its outcome will determine whether our Ancient Ones are to come again, or the youthful gods are to continue their reign. Neither of you is a master of sorcery, so the issue is to be settled by combat.”

“That is what I intended,” Conan said. “Stand aside.” He struggled against the invisible wall, but to no avail.

“The candidate of the Ancient Ones is Taharka of Keshan. If he prevails, the reign of true evil will return,” the priest’s attempts at impassivity were marred by a tone of obscene glee. “If Conan of Cimmeria should triumph, we must dwell in shadows for another fifty generations!”

The magician from the mountebank troupe spoke for the first time. “The two of you are, of course, only the vessels of the will of the gods. Your struggle here is only the earthly reflection of the titanic struggle now sweeping the cosmos as the gods battle for supremacy. It is indeed ironic that their chosen men of destiny are not kings, emperors, or great mages, but a pair of primitive savages. It seems that the gods are not without a certain sense of humor.”

Let's Get Ready To Rumble

Really, though, the effort to lampshade how disproportionate these Ancient Aliens stakes are compared to the rest of the story doesn’t fit. If the gods are designating mortals for a proxy duel at all, who cares how important the mortals are? Ancient Aliens priests shouldn’t be surprised by this at all, so really they’re just turning to the camera and reminding the audience that the tonal mismatch between the stakes of Conan’s personal story and the stakes of this weird Ancient Aliens plot tumor aren’t technically a plot hole, which, yeah, they’re not, because there are storytelling flaws other than plot holes, and grafting world-saving stakes onto an otherwise personal story concerning like twelve people is one of them.

Also, didn’t Ancient Aliens priest #1 say that the Ancient Ones backing Taharka aren’t gods? So a maximum of one barbarian is a vessel of the will of the gods here.

Also, also, didn’t Ancient Aliens priest #2 say that there were other candidates? Was he referring to Conan? But  the priesthood of the Ancient Aliens anoints Conan as the champion of their enemies here. If Conan wins, Cthulhu is ritually defeated. If Taharka wins, he goes off to become a blue water pirate and refuses to conquer the world and usher in a ten thousand year reign as an awesome snake monster (or whatever “obscene hybrid” he’s so terrified of turning into). There’s no version of this where Cthulhu wins!

Also, also, also, why close off the possibility of the elder evils getting involved in any future Conan story? Why scuttle perfectly good villains like this? If you really wanted Conan to be a proxy for the forces of light and justice against a Lovecraftian evil, you could’ve retroactively framed several of his stories to have likewise been proxy battles between Mitra and Cthulhu. Having this grandiose good vs. evil element here in Conan’s origin only to drop it for the rest of his career is just jarring, reframing all of Conan’s stories to have been part of a greater struggle wouldn’t have been very true to the original, but it would’ve at least retroactively have made the rest of the stories consistent with that narrative. Upping the stakes to the fate of the entire world for one story that is actually about two particularly proactive non-conformists trying to kill each other just continues this chapter’s self-parody.

Whatever the Hell is going on, the priests release the two of them from their magic spell of Hold Person once they’ve finished announcing the contestants and the two clash. Taharka was always stronger than even the Hyperborean, but now he’s even stronger, and I’m starting to imagine a level hierarchy like this was LitRPG or something.

“You feel it, boy?” Taharka said, his face ashine with sweat. “Their Ancient Ones are cheating. They lend me strength. They are dishonorable gods, boy. That must be why they want me for their candidate to be Emperor of the World. Do not envy my victory, though. My fate is to be terrible.”

“Then why do you fight?” Conan asked. Sweat was making his grip insecure. His parries were becoming less sure. He was gasping for breath and his last words all but exhausted him. He resolved to speak no more, until this issue was decided.

“Because I will have many years of pleasure ere their gods take me,” he gasped, “and because you are before me to be slain, and I love to kill!”

How about “because I am under no compulsion to conquer the world after I kill you?” I mean, okay, maybe he actually is, but if so, that hasn’t been established. He walked away from his destiny once. Why not just do it again?

Conan gets knocked off the dais the two were fighting on, his sword goes flying, Taharka stops to gloat, and Conan throws a knife into his eye. He learned that trick from the throwing knife guy, but Kalya was supposed to have been learning how to dodge projectiles from his acrobat wife, and look how that turned out. Plus, what exactly is the symbolic significance of Conan having learned throwing knives from that guy? Like, the whole thing where a trick the hero has learned in their travels helps them win in the end is that the trick is supposed to be somehow thematically demonstrating how they have grown from their journey, or how their advantage over their ultimate enemy is something they had with them all along, or, y’know, something. Here it’s just a trick Conan happened to learn along the way, and even Conan attributes it to something that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that’s happened for the entire story:

“The work and planning of centuries,” said the “conjuror.” “defeated by a mountebank’s trick.” The bitterness in his words was vast.

Conan cared nothing for this. He was mightily relieved to be free of his blood debt, and now he could mourn for Kalya. “You said yourselves that this was just the reflection of a greater battle. I think Crom just planted a dagger between the eyes of your Ancient Ones.”

Rather than using their wizard superpowers to paralyze Conan again and then just slit his throat, the Ancient Aliens priests just leave. Granted, apparently this whole struggle wasn’t actually about who would rule Hyboria, y’know, it doesn’t actually matter that Taharka was going to conquer nations and shed the blood of millions or anything, all that matters is that the Ancient Ones bet their prophecybux on the wrong guy in a title fight. Given that, Conan’s continued survival will have no impact on the good vs. evil struggle at all, despite both Conan and Taharka having been told that it was the things they would accomplish that made them champions of respective gods (or Lovecraftian non-gods). But apparently no, it doesn’t matter what they will actually do with the kingdoms they conquer. It only matters that Crom put his money on the right guy, and now the Ancient Ones are ritually bound not to make trouble for a couple of millennia. The story is over three paragraphs after that, with Conan picking a random direction to wander in.

This post is double-length, which often happens when I approach the end of a story and want to tie it off, but it also covers four chapters instead of the usual one or two, and the first three of those chapters was like 3/4s of a regular post’s length (I aim for about 2,000 words, usually). The extensive coverage of the final chapter is not because the final chapter is good. Not only were the final encounters too brief to build up to anything (what could’ve been two parallel duels between matched sets of nemeses with perspective switching and tides frequently turning was instead three sequential duels in which one side or the other had a clear upper hand, with only the final duel featuring an actual reversal of fortune, and even then only one reversal), the final final encounter was eaten alive by this cancerous Ancient Aliens epic fantasy plot.

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