We open with another montage of approaching villains. The Disguise Master is wondering where Brute got off to. He’s been pretty much completely defused as a threat by this point. Without Brute, what’s he gonna do, disguise Conan to death?
Skeer delivers the Source of Light to Neg, and Neg gives him a large reward. Then he offers Skeer some wine to celebrate, and Skeer accepts, is poisoned, and Neg gloats about bringing him back to serve in death afterwards. See, this is the problem with working for super villains. They tend to dick people over for no goddamn reason at all.
Also, the spiders are still on their way. Even though Skeer is dead now. I don’t know what they’re going to do when they catch up with him.
When we come back to focus on Conan, he is behaving uncharacteristically stupidly:
“Will you not try and take them unawares?” Tuanne asked.
“I shall not skulk,” Conan answered. “Direct action would be better here.”
“Even if one of them holds a knife to her throat?”
He paused. “What you say has some merit,” he admitted. “Have you an idea?”
You really needed a zombie friend to warn you of the possibility that your enemies might use their hostage for leverage? Why do you think people take hostages?
Conan continues being a blithe moron when Tuanne suggests she go instead, make sure Elashi is out of immediate harm’s way, then signal Conan to come in and clean up. Conan objects to sending a woman in his stead, and Tuanne’s like “dude, I’m invincible.” Conan says he just kind of forgot she’s a zombie. Tuanne takes this as a compliment, but all I can think of is Danaerys forgetting about the Iron Fleet. The Disguise Master shoots a crossbow bolt at Conan, there’s a brief flashback vignette to how Conan had practiced dodging arrows as a kid after a troupe of performers had done the trick as part of a show…in, uh, Cimmeria. So now Conan can dodge crossbow bolts fired at point-blank range. The Disguise Master is killed almost immediately afterwards, so that’s another of the multitude of threats who have arrayed themselves against Conan which he has dispatched in isolation from one another. If he were actually trying to separate them, that would be one thing, but they just show up in sequential order on their own and are then overcome with little difficulty. It’s not a compounding problem that could threaten to overwhelm our heroes at any moment, it’s just a countdown timer ’till all the antagonists are bumped off and they’re free to get themselves into new trouble.
Also, Neg is trying to take command of the Source of Light and it just isn’t working. So presumably we are going to do the thing where Conan shows up just as the ritual is being completed and has to stop Neg before he can make full use of his newfound power. This is a step up from when it looked like Neg’s supreme necromantic power was just insufficient to stop Conan from stabbing him in the face even with a day or more to get his undead army together, but still, what tension the story had was in the chase, the idea that once Neg had the talisman, all was lost (not that much of this tension survived Conan’s lackadaisical “sure I have time for a nightly threesome” approach to the chase).
Tuanne suggests that they use magic to get themselves into Neg’s otherwise impregnable fortress. Conan notes for the record that he dislikes magic, and then agrees. Tuanne magics them into another dimension, and points them towards a jungle. The jungle correlates to Neg’s castle, and if they can get inside it, they shall be past Neg’s perimeter. Presumably she has some way of getting them back to Hyboria when they get there. The story also spins its wheels with another “approaching villains” montage.
Neg successfully completes the ritual of ultimate power. So long as the talisman is within its receptacle, he can cast Power Word Kill and Animate Dead at-will. So actually we’re back to Neg attaining ultimate necromantic power way ahead of Conan catching up to him, and it turns out it’s just not that great.
Back in the Warp, Conan and company are confronted by sand-bat-monsters made of sand. They’re vaguely humanoid, but have wings for arms, talons on the wings as well as on their feet, and bird-like faces. It’s a pretty cool monster, and on top of that, Conan is actually wounded. Really, this should’ve been happening the whole time, with each skirmish piling up another injury, and Conan having to find new ways of fighting foes to avoid using any of his many weakened body parts. Can’t strike with this arm, can’t run with that leg, and so on, with the thought in the back of his head that his pursuit of Skeer doesn’t allow him the days or weeks he’d need off the road to recover from the injuries. Instead, Conan is taken off-guard by the bird monsters’ leaping ability and takes his very first injury. The narrative even goes out of its way to call it mostly inconsequential. Not every wound has to be a major impediment, but every encounter should have actual consequences to the narrative. Failing that, it should at least be fun to read. This one, like nearly all that came before, barely even slowed Conan down, and was inoffensive but not actually fun to read.
The survivors of the spider swarm catch up with Skeer, except now he’s a zombie and impervious to their attacks, so they just follow him around. These guys might actually show up and be important in the climax. Can you imagine what kind of six-way free-for-all mayhem could’ve ensued if all the villains chasing Conan and company around had caught up with him at the same time? Y’know, maybe Conan fights just Brute by himself once and it’s not a decisive battle, but then he comes back in the climax to fight both Conan and Neg. And the spiders are chasing both Conan and Skeer, and attack them both in the final battle. And that one cane prodigy who went rogue from the monastery actually poses a threat, and shows up at the same time, and maybe realizes Conan’s the good (ish) guys and defects halfway through.
We’ve still got most of our villains (sort of) intact: The Men With No Eyes are undead and still on their way, Skeer is undead, his spider entourage is still hanging out, Neg, of course, is still a thing. Still, total waste of the Disguise Master/Brute and the cane prodigy guy.
Neg is amassing his army of the dead, and the book has managed a bit of actual tension. For the first time in the whole book, it feels like there’s something at stake if Conan fails. It’s not the first time we learned that Neg would be able to summon armies of the dead with the Source of Light, but Conan’s earlier attitude towards catching Skeer and keeping the amulet from Neg was so casual that it never felt like a real threat. Now, the characters are taking it seriously and Tuanne is at risk of being redominated by Neg’s enhanced powers at any moment.
And as slow as the middle section was, this book does at least appear to have actually been going somewhere with all the people who were killed off with trivial ease on the way. All those dead are reanimating and moving towards Neg’s castle. Nothing can change the fact that the middle part of the story felt empty of tension, but at least it was going somewhere.
Or, y’know, maybe not, because apparently Conan still feels safe enough to camp for the night in the Warp rather than pressing on to Neg’s castle immediately. I realize Neg needs some time to get his army together, but having Conan just give it to him makes it seem like he isn’t a threat. They’re in magical in-between land. There’s practically unlimited possibilities as to what could slow them down, including just “time flows differently here.” They’ve already established that distance is different here, they could’ve established time as different in the same moment, and then Conan can just pop back into Hyboria and be like “there’s a zombie army here, it must’ve been like three days here while we were in the Upside Down for an hour.”
They also decide that Tuanne can take the watch herself, since she needs no sleep and sees better in the dark. Apparently all three of them, even Tuanne, have just kind of forgotten that she could get dominated by Neg at any moment. If this keeps up, I’m gonna need an image macro for “Dany just kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet.”
In order to pass back into Hyboria, Conan must defeat a mirror clone of himself. They argue a bit over which one’s the real Conan before they fight, and now I kind of want a novel about mirror Conan grappling with the fact that he’s made of magic. Not that using a magic spell to travel through a magical dimension caused Conan more than five seconds of discomfort here, but in most stories he has a distaste for it that runs stronger than just mentioning he dislikes magic before using it to accomplish his goals anyway.
Conan also has a fun bit here where he’s like “surely, the look on my face can’t be that stupid.” Since they’re the same guy, neither one can defeat the other, until eventually Elashi takes her top off, asks the fake Conan to grope her, and the real one clocks him from behind while he’s distracted. The bowdlerization of cunning (though unrefined) Conan as an idiot is annoying, but at least the narrative is willing to make fun of him for it. Although, the way this book is, I’m not sure if it’s making fun of Conan or making fun of the concept of maleness, since golly gee wilikers does it ever love its dumb gender tropes, and “men are helplessly mesmerized by the sight of boobs” is one of them.
Mirror Conan is knocked unconscious, and when he awakens, the zombie Men With No Eyes have caught up, planning to pursue Tuanne through the portal (the narrative helpfully informs us that she took the same route as Conan and Elashi did behind her, just with a headstart from having got up midway through the night). Mirror Conan dispatches all of them, and scatters their parts.
So probably I was being unduly optimistic when I speculated that all of the assorted antagonists the narrative had been building up would actually matter in the climax.