Episode 23: A Knife in a Dark Hand
by ROBOT E Howard
This story is different from all the others I have posted to the podcast. This one is an original story. ROBOT E Howard is the nickname I gave to the AI program used for generating this story. The iteration of AI software was trained on the text from all of the public domain stories about Conan by Robert E. Howard. As you will read, you’ll notice that the AI is pretty good at making sentences that sound real, at times even wonderful, but it is still bad at making plots. So expect a lot of nonsense. I did edit this story a little, to remove the worst of the non-sequiturs, to correct a little grammar/punctuation, and to switch up a couple of names to keep the number of characters down. However, I added nothing of my own. And so that ROBOT E Howard & I avoid any trademark infringement, the barbarian in this tale’s name is Nanoc.
I will include the full text below so you can follow along with the neural-net generated voice narrator.
A Knife In A Dark Hand DAWN was just whitening the east when Zabibi came upon the shores of the pool. Tina, Natala’s sister, was playing with her new-found toy. But Natala had never dreamed of playing with such tiny things, and she was too used to the flicker of bright white paint to have any need of playing with anything but a fruit.
She had toyed with the little things, and she was just now aware of her fascination with the creatures that squatted like black shadows in the shadow of the cliff. She realized that Natala rubbed the nape of her neck. Natala did not flinch at all, just as she had with her first time playing with a golden peach.
Tina clapped her hands in front of her sister, and her head slightly toward them both. “What did you say?” she asked uneasily. “What do you think I should say?”
Natala did not reply; her dark, sensuous eyes, made clink against the dampness of the pool. She rose to her feet, rubbing her pink palms in her painful excitement.
“I have dreamed what Natala saw,” Zabibi whimpered. “I shall tell you, by Crom!”
“We shall see,” agreed Natala.
With no further comment, Zabibi glided to the distant arches. She did not glance fearfully over her shoulder at the archways.
They were not inviting. Giant black, gaunt, wisps of darkness were closing in about them, huddling menacingly about them. Their silence was sinister as a threat of frost. The low singing of the gongs seemed loud in the deep blackness, like the padding of a swarming river-devil.
With a muttered oath Natala snatched her sword and threw it carelessly aside.
Entering the archway behind her, Natala saw that all were hidden in the corners of the chamber. The walls were not carved in anything unusual, yet they seemed to represent a scene of colossal proportions. Fantastic columns marched along each side of the walls, depicting various scenes from which the voices of the gods had seemed hollow and ghostly.
The Cimmerian stood alone and motionless, the priests had moved. They turned their backs silently, and Natala saw that the door did not give to their efforts.
Then began a curious game, a bizarre and apparently endless one in which each priest followed his own example.
First, each priest went through a door that opened into a corridor. The others passed through several corridors, and each door opened into an alcove, which was larger, but smaller, than the others. Then they went through a curtained doorway into a smaller chamber that was more clearly lighted. They saw, among the curtained alcoves, only the four priests, the four who wore silk robes. They seemed to be treading on invisible feet, treading noiseless tread.
Natala’s curiosity prompted her to visualize them as gray stone statues that walked on invisible feet, treading nothing but their own invisible tongue.
But their tread was no idle boast. A quick glance across the chamber showed them no evil shape; behind them, on the opposite side of the chamber, stood another horror, smaller and more disgusting. This time it was a gray stone which contrasted grotesquely with the clean-cut, compact lines of the primitive Stygian wretch. What lay behind those translucent green stone shelves was more apparent. They lay like dark, cloaked images, but when they looked over the brooding wall they saw something animate and sentient.
This realization came over Natala, which made her wince and quiver in every limb. Then one hand was pressed to her side and she stared fearfully down the long dark road leading away from the chamber.
She saw it, and a muscular arm hooked about its hilt. This arm was concealed by a pair of tigerish fingers.
Natala saw it glimmer and her heart skipped a beat. The stranger was not a Stygian. There was no hypocrisy in his eyes. The man was as different from a Kothian as was possible, if not more distinct, in his approach to women.
Natala’s red, upturned face and the ring of arms was more savage than any her race had ever seen. It was the aspect of a panther, but what it was, and why it was there, Natala could not say. The things that made it hideous were only scratches. When they had looked so closely over the wall, she had known they would come again.
What lurking horror could mimic that unholy union of woe and shame? The man confronting her had a long start, though Natala doubted if he ever had to ride that road again.
The other four facing the door seemed less fearful of the peril they faced than the priests. They were four Stygian women, naked but for a scanty silk clout, with a jeweled girdle, but the fire in their eyes was more intense than the burning of their swords. Their black locks were dark as night, and their lashes were drawn back between wisps of blackened hair.
On one hand, Natala felt as if her flesh would betray the chill of the blood that seethed under her thin skin. Her heart skipped a beat. The man was a barbarian; he had killed a man in her road. Yet she felt a kinship with the man she had seen carried out.
To fight a man whose name was Nanoc, in the grip of a frosty mountain, was to die by starvation, to be cut off as a leech sacrifices to a god, to be cut up as a symbol of the futility of human suffering.
She fought a desire to fight Zabibi, but it was useless. She knew she could not save herself from the madness of what she had witnessed. The man she had seen was utterly without mercy or compassion. She let it be; it was all in the details she had escaped—the realization of her thwarted destiny, her furious resolution, her burning shame and humiliation.
What this man stood doing in Natala’s sight was equally at the heart of her despair. He was like all his kind—a man who came of a race born to treasure and rule, who had sunk into ultimate wealth and power only because his people gave him a wide berth. This man was clad in strange garments, but he walked more like a jungle-cat than anything else. Yet his only color was a hint of the black of the northern woods, and that black cloud which was growing in size and clarity as it expanded. Its clinging and rustling made Natala wince in horror.
What lay behind that mist? Nanoc did not care. He was a Cimmerian, one of those gloomy Cimmerians who dwelt in the wastes of the north. And he thought long and hard about this grim land.
What lay behind that mist? Nanoc did not hesitate. With no warning he plunged into the mist, and suddenly felt the earth – cold, slimy, far below him—rot, turning from ice. That was all.
Immemorial he had gazed upon the grim relics of that mist, haunted and horrific, of which Natala had seen and admired for herself, almost before she knew what had disturbed him in the first place. But this mist had been there for centuries; no man who had looked upon it for three thousand years would have realized that Natala suffered from anything but a vague and horrible nervousness.
The Cimmerian let himself down on the soft leather sward in the blackness, and Natala, staring fearfully over the misted sward, saw the Cimmerian rise and fall at the same instant. They had come into a high building, empty, its ceiling cracked with mud and stone shards. It was dark, yet it was high-walled and gloomy. The building was a fort, in the sense suggested by the dim Stygian legend. In higher regard it was a marvel; not only were the walls pierced with great stones, but the sheer stone back of the walls was covered with prehistoric trees.
Natala believed that this man had come from the far north, and not be fooled by tales of unnamed Hyborians who wandered up from the far South in the past.
It was dark, but not impossible that this giant mist had blown itself up out of the sky in a giant puffball of blackness. What else could make such a bludgeon, she dared not conjecture. What other shapes nor attributes might be expected of that frosty cloud—yet she knew that it hung in conclave above her. For all its monstrous features Natala felt as if she were looking on the ultimate in peril of her life.
There was no turning back now. Rising cautiously she gripped the hem of her gown and forced down her streaming hair. The mist was almost touching her bare thigh. Suddenly she screamed, clutched blindly and caught at something clinging in the air. With a convulsive shudder she recoiled, but only to stiffen, clutching at the thing in the air as if it were an animal.
She was caught in a trap as quick as the leap of a cobra, when all hell and destruction burst at the sight of this accursed thing on the other side of the mist. Instantly there followed a mad rush of impulse.
Nanoc sprang from the mist, blood starting from his thick throat. The Cimmerian’s only weapon was a pair of great curved swords in his right hand, and his only armor was a pair of bright crimson silk breeks.
“How, Nanoc?” Natala gasped.
“Did you see it, Natala?” He shook his head. “It came floating toward the south—nearly at our feet.”
“It came pouring toward us,” she answered absently. “It was coming from the south—long, broad, and slim. As it approached us we saw its outlines fading. Soon it was like a faint glow in the mist. Then it engulfed us, and we froze in a horror-like stare. It was like encountering in a dream the nightmare of a dead world. We screamed and writhed like ghosts in the darkness, but it was only the girl who escaped. We followed her, blind, panting, and we came to a trap. We caught her, but we went to our doom. They dragged us to the edge of the marsh, but we got away. That’s where they chained the bodies of the dead men. They don’t keep anybody from anything. We broke through the black line, and the warriors came after us like phantoms. When they went after us we were like broke-trees; they could not tear us loose. We sweated and died among them. They took our brains, cut us down like rats, and made us queen of the black kingdom. Oh Crom, I see how quickly the gods allow a devil to loose on us!”
She shivered; a revulsion shook her as she stared at the grim, naked shapes that squatted in the dimness before her. She imagined their spears should smite on her, her flesh crawling. She fought against a rising tide of unreasoning passion, frantic with shame and revulsion. She fought against a rising tide of unreasoning panic, a shame more abysmal than the fear of death that assailed her. And she fought against a monstrous cynicism that mocked and malignified her weak-girl spirit. She fought against a monstrous cynicism that stifled her fiercely and inexorably. She was a daughter of the Orient; white-skinned, black-bearded barbarians are considered by many nations to be their enemy.
“I was born in a naked land. I have never hated the Orient. I have hated the Stygian and the Shemitish. I have hated the priests of Asura. I have even hated the priests of Tarim, for they are blood-mad demons of darkness and the gloom of the abyss. I have hated the Shemites because they control the hearts of the people; they control the hearts of the slaves and the warriors. I have hated them especially because of their black arts, which they claim is the secret power behind the ancients.” Nanoc said.
“I love the people. The desert is full of blood-mad Shemites. The Turanians have the strongest army in the world, and the most ferocious clan on the planet. The Turanians are savages as far back as Shushan. The black plague of the ancient Nordheimer’s horror wiped out that other horde, and now only the Turanians, untouched by the Lemurians, are left to waken in the teeth of the fury. No man has touched or sounded the horn of the plague, not even the black wizard himself, who has made a living from the black plague.” He continued. “So I have hated and feared the priests of Tarim so, that night I crept to their camp, and talked with their chief, Yasmela, who is a man from Mount Zabylon. He is a man from whom I have felt the pull of the blackest nightmares ever born. I have hated and reviled him so fiercely that I thought I could crush him with my own hands, but he would not leave me to grope in the mud until I had his filthy hide.”
The steely eyes of the Cimmerian shone through the mist. “I found his lair in the ruins of a hill where, days ago, I found myself entranced by a ghoul while crawling through the reeds. I crawled out into the night and saw his great figure looming against the stars; then I saw him, a great, vulture-like figure, with the eyes of a panther, the lips of a snake, the whole length of the back of his mighty neck drawn back up between his huge shoulders.”
“I wonder if that’s what the governor thinks,” growled Nanoc.
“You’re blunt in your speech,” said the girl.
Nanoc made no reply, and strode toward the bronze door. As he clambered into the great throne room, the torchlight glinted on his thick black mane. He did not glance about him. The chamber was now empty of human life, but there was a glint of steel in his bronze eyes. Nanoc’s veins stood out like blue cords on his temples.
A few moments later he was standing in the great throne room, tense with eagerness. He saw the men clustered thickly about the polished, carven table. Three of the chiefs had gone into the other room, separated by a stone wall. The fourth, still in the great throne room, was leading the charge. His voice came from behind the throne-dais, panting slightly.
“They’ve trapped our king! They’ve cut our heads off! He’s alive and all, and they can hear. Tell me, how did you know my people were not already all cut off?”
“They tried to climb the walls last night,” answered Nanoc. “They came into the building and found our body, wrapped in the hangings. It was found on the fourth floor, but we couldn’t rush it up. They tried to hang the bodies of the people who’d been taken by the soldiers, but they were cut off from the rest of the city.”
“Five dead dogs!” cried Taurus, paling. “Five slain! They’ve left seven of my people still in the city to be slain! The soldiers carried their bodies to the mines beneath the city, but they were so shattered they couldn’t rebuild them. They tried to climb the walls, but they were cut off from the rest of the city, and couldn’t. They found a cleft in the wall, and tried to go about it, but they were cut off from the rest of the city, and found themselves cut off from the rest of the kingdom. Then they came to the ruins and saw the people inside, just as the people of Tarantia had done. They found themselves in that dungeon for a very long time, and stripped naked, and mutilated the bodies of many of the people you mentioned, but you said nothing to anyone, except yourself. I doubt if the Crawler, like all evil things spawned in darkness, was ever truly slain.”
“I saw nothing but yourself in that darkness,” muttered Nanoc.
“Oh, please tell me!” begged the girl, pressing something hard and shiny into his palm. “The barbarian isn’t as quick as he thinks! He can leap and strike like a flash of light, and still I can’t say that he can’t tear men limb from limb. But I saw some of the bones of the rottenness you saw on the outer side – that’s why the others were taken down. Could it be they that were able to do that much damage without dying of starvation?”
“That’s why the people of the city let me live so long,” said Nanoc. “A lot of my people died naturally. There was the pestilence of the black plague; there was the unrestrained ambition of the Hyborians; there was the lust of the Bossonians; there was the burning ambition of the yellow-skinned Tlazitlans; and there finally were the revolts that shook the world against the immutable laws of nature. But the reality was more grisly than any death. That’s why I came into the pits. So why couldn’t the gods change their minds?”