Rogue zombie Tuanne has some kind of magical means of detecting the current location of the Source of Light, and she’s following that to track down Skeer, who is fleeing towards Neg with it. Also, she is nearly attacked by a mountain lion, but then the mountain lion realizes that she’s dead and rotting and thinks better of it. There’s a bunch of undead brooding about how the animals can sense her curse and woe is her, although it does at least manage to notice that repelling predators is actually a good thing, even if it’s framed as “oh, this curse has been a blessing this time, but truly she was the most unfortunate of creatures to be so repellent.” It’s not like humans are repelled by her. Is she, like, super into cats?
Skeer tries to dodge pursuit by leaving a false trail. Conan’s latest female sidekick Elashi falls for the trail, but Conan doesn’t, because of course he is better than everyone at everything (so long as it’s not too civilized), even when it is their area of expertise and he just took it up five minutes ago.
Tuanne reaches the village where Skeer is headed and sets up shop at the inn to wait for him. There is a bizarrely cosmopolitan gaggle of guests at the inn. It is, of course, an inn, so you’d expect everyone here to be from out of town, and you’d expect a bunch of them to be from out of country, so it’s not weird that only two out of the four with identified nationalities are Brythunian. But then the other two are a Stygian and a Kushite or Keshanite, both from even further south than Stygia. No sign of any Zamorans, Corinthians, Nemedians, Hyperboreans, or Turanians, all of whom have some kind of land border with Brythunia.
Naturally, Conan and Elashi catch up with Skeer just as Tuanne has invited him back to her chambers, feigning interest in order to get him alone and murder him for the Source of Light. The opportune moment for her strike doesn’t come until after they’re both naked, because Conan, which means Conan bursts in on her completely nude, because Conan, and also the mortal wound she survives by being a zombie instantly seals itself up rather than leaving any mark on her, because Conan. Also, she’s already knocked Skeer unconscious, because that’s what rocks to the head do to people in the 80s. It knocks them unconscious. Serious brain injuries never result.
Skeer is only feigning unconsciousness, though, and leaps out the window while Tuanne is distracted by Conan. Because Elashi is “spirited” (read: pointlessly antagonistic), she immediately demands the Source of Light from Conan as soon as she enters. Conan hasn’t actually had time to retrieve it and wants to pursue Skeer, because he’s in it for revenge, so there is now an entirely avoidable conflict happening. After they waste precious seconds exchanging swordplay (Conan is way better, although at least in this case it’s because Elashi isn’t good at it – back on the other hand, why is she so aggressive against armed and aware opponents if she’s not actually a good fighter?), Conan finally bothers to explain himself and the assumptions of Conan’s disloyalty that had previously driven her to homicidal fury now immediately evaporate. Then Elashi implicitly concedes that she is responsible for creating the problem, when the plot could’ve just ended right here.
“It was you who created the diversion,” [Conan] said. “Had you not come in with your swordplay, we would have Skeer and the talisman. Now we have neither.”
“Your talent for stating the obvious is wonderful, Conan. Now we have to find them both.”
Also, bonus sexism:
She turned and stalked from the room, and Conan could only shake his head. Women. What man could understand them?
We open with Skeer stealing some clothes and figuring out who has the Source of Light. The line of reasoning here is really well done. Skeer doesn’t have all the facts and thus comes to some incorrect conclusions, but still settles on the correct course of action, chasing Tuanne to the east, guessing that she came from Neg’s lair and will be returning there. He doesn’t know Tuanne is rogue, and instead thinks she was sent by the necromancer to take the Source, not trusting in Skeer’s abilities. Likewise, he thinks Conan was hired by the Suddah Oblates, and that if he had acquired the Source of Light, he’d be returning to the Temple That Will Not Fall with it. But he also reasons that if Tuanne could fool him, she can fool a barbarian, and that she probably escaped with the Source of Light. So, east it is.
Conan and Elashi don’t know Tuanne is a zombie who doesn’t need rest, nor do they know that Skeer knows that, and will therefore be foregoing rest in pursuit of her, so they bed down in the room they’ve seized for the night.
Also, bonus sexism:
“Did you think she was beautiful?”
Conan came back from the edge of sleep. “Who?”
“That woman. Tuanne, you called her.”
“You thought so? With such unhealthy white skin you thought her beautiful?”
Conan awaited further dialogue, but none came. He shrugged again and sank into blissful sleep.
Skeer has a special trick up his sleeve for dealing with the undead Tuanne. Apparently zombies can be temporarily paralyzed by saltwater, so a flask of that and he’s able to nick the Source of Light and be off, gloating into the distance. Conan and Elashi reach her just as she is recovering her ability to move.
Also, bonus sexism:
Conan loomed over the sitting woman. He pointed his sword at one shapely breast. “We’ll have Skeer’s purse and that which it contains,” he said.
Tuanne began to cry. Her body shook with great sobs, and lines of tears tracked her perfect skin. She cried as does a child who has lost her mother.
Conan found himself backing a pace away and lowering his weapon. “Hear, what is this?”
The woman continued to cry. She was not especially loud, but it was obviously founded in deepest grief.
“Stop that,” the young Cimmerian said, feeling awkward. “Nobody will harm you. We want only-”
“Oh, hush, fool barbarian!” Elashi said. She had already sheathed her own sword, and now she bent to put her arms around the crying woman. Tuanne buried her face in Elashi’s breast and continued to sob quietly. Elashi petted the dark hair and murmured softly. “There, there.” She turned and glared at Conan. “See what you have done.”
“I? I have done?”
“Yes, you and your threats.”
Alright, I’m kind of running that gag into the ground and in fairness to this bit, although it is reinforcing gender roles something fierce, plus a reference to a “shapely breast,” there is some of what I hope is intentional comedy around the idea of Conan the Barbarian being disarmed by an opponent just bursting into tears in front of him. But also “shapely breast” and Elashi, the relentlessly shitty and unreasonable person, suddenly has the superpower of empathy and half of our female cast is reduced to hysterics upon facing significant setback.
The two swap stories with Tuanne and decide to team up to kill Skeer and Neg and retrieve the Source of Light and use it to deanimate all the zombies under Neg’s control, releasing them from their torturous thrall. Conan decides he’s up for vengeance on Neg, since he gave the order to Skeer, and I’m not really sure why Elashi is signing up for this, although the implication is “because gender roles.” You know, the woman has to be the one who has empathy/sympathy for other people and wants to help them with their problems, while the man has to be socially and emotionally oblivious.
A blizzard hits, and after it clears the trio must chase after Skeer despite some four-ish feet of snow having fallen across the landscape. Elashi, desert woman that she is, has no idea how they’ll get through all this snow and is somewhat surprisingly familiar with the potential danger of frostbite:
Elashi had her doubts. “We will sink to our breasts in this accursed snow and freeze!”
Not shoulders. Breasts. None of the sexism here is single-handedly obnoxious enough to be worth more than a quick comment, but it’s getting absolutely exhausting how omnipresent it is.
There’s an evolving theme here of Conan learning the idea of thieving. Which is weird, because the very first thing Conan did onpage was decide to become a thief. He isn’t learning any thiefly skills, like, sleight of hand or stealth or anything. He’s just starting to realize things like “hey, we could steal horses, couldn’t we?” (This thought occurs to him when they come across a town after the blizzard, having found Skeer’s dead horse and realized he’d need to visit town to replace it). Of course you can steal a horse, Conan. You entered this country with the goal of becoming a thief. The basic idea of trying to lead into the thief-era Conan stories makes sense, but in execution it feels like Conan is just now learning about the concept of thievery.
Also, Conan fights a dire wolf and wins.
Neg has realized that Tuanne is missing, and dispatches six of his blind minions, (living) priests of some deity or other, to retrieve her. The immediate problem with sending blind minions on a search mission does not occur to him.
Conan et al continue their pursuit of Skeer to the city of Opkothard. Skeer gets in by noticing spider graffiti and claiming to be a pilgrim from the spider god, who seems to be pretty well regarded around here. Conan et al get in because Tuanne can apparently cast suggestion. And then…they sell a wolf pelt? And Conan scares off some would-be muggers with a show of strength? I am baffled as to why the second bit in particular is at all important to the narrative, although Conan does internally boast about how he’s scared off dangerous men and impressed beautiful women (specifically, his traveling companions) with the gesture of lifting a merchant’s anvil to reposition it with ease. Maybe the author was just worried that he wasn’t making his Mary Sue quota for the book and tossed that bit in to get back up to par.