Aquilonia, once the proudest land in all of Hyboria, has fallen under the tyrannical reign of a mad king. As his brutal insanity sweeps the land, only one man dares stand against him: Conan the barbarian.Conan becomes the leader of an army of rebels, brave warriors who thought their battles would be fought with spear and sword, axe and dagger. In this they were mistaken, for their greatest foe is not the army of Aquilonia, but the vile sorcerer Thulandra Thuu.Dark clouds loom ahead for the people of Aquilonia, and only Conan can save them. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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June 01, 2002
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Excerpt from Conan the Liberator by L. Sprague de Camp
WHEN MADNESS WEARS THE CROWN
Night hovered on black and filmy wings above the spires of royal Tarantia. Along fog-silenced streets cressets burned with the feral eyes of beasts of prey in primal wilderness. Few there were who walked abroad on nights like this, although the veiled darkness was redolent with the scent of early spring. Those few whom dire necessity drove out of doors stole forth like thieves on furtive feet and tensed at every shadow.
On the acropolis, round which sprawled the Old City, the palace of many kings lifted its crenelated crest against the wan and pallid stars. This castled capitol crouched upon its hill like some fantastic monster out of ages past, glaring at the Outer City walls, whose great stones held it captive.
On glittering suite and marble hall within the sullen palace, silence lay as thick as dust in mouldering Stygian tombs. Servants and pages cowered behind locked doors, and none bestrode the long corridors and curving stairs except the royal guard. Even these scarred and battle-seasoned veterans were loath to stare too deeply into shadows and winced at every unexpected sound.
Two guards stood motionless before a portal draped in rich hangings of brocaded purple. They stiffened and blanched as an eerie, muffled cry escaped from the apartment. It sang a thin, pitiful song of agony, which pierced like an icy needle the stout hearts of the guardsmen.
"Mitra save us all" whispered the guard on the left, through pinched lips pale with tension.
His comrade said naught, but his thudding heart echoed the fervent prayer and added: "Mitra save us all, and the land as well ..."
For they had a saying in Aquilonia, the proudest kingdom of the Hyborian world: "The bravest cower when madness wears the crown." And the king of Aquilonia was mad.
Numedides was his name, nephew and successor to Vilerus III and the scion of an ancient royal line. For six years the kingdom had groaned beneath his heavy hand. Superstitious, ignorant, self-indulgent and cruel was Numedides; but heretofore his sins were merely those of any royal voluptuary with a taste for soft flesh, the crack of the lash, and the cries of cringing supplicants. For some time Numedides had been content to let his ministers rule the people in his name while he wallowed in the sensual pleasures of his harem and his torture chamber.
All this had changed with the coming of Thulandra Thuu. Who he was, this lean, dark man of many mysteries, none could say. Neither knew they whence or why he had come into Aquilonia out of the shadowy East.
Some whispered that he was a Witchman from the mistveiled land of Hyperboria; others, that he had crept from haunted shadows beneath the crumbling palaces of Stygia or Shem. A few even believed him a Vendhyan, as his name--if it truly were his name--suggested. Many were the theories; but no one knew the truth.
For more than a year, Thulandra Thuu had dwelt in the palace, living on the bounty of the king and enjoying the powers and perquisites of a royal favourite. Some said he was a philosopher, an alchemist seeking to transmute iron into gold or to concoct a universal panacea. Others called him a sorcerer, steeped in the black arts of go�tia. A few of the more progressive nobles thought him naught but a clever charlatan, avid for power.
None, though, denied that he had cast a spell over King Numedides. Whether his vaunted mastery of alchemical science with its lure of infinite wealth had aroused the king's cupidity, or whether he had in sooth enmeshed the monarch in a web of sorcerous spells, none could be sure. But all could see that Thulandra Thuu, not Numedides, ruled from the Ruby Throne. His slightest whim had now become the law. Even the king's chancellor, Vibius Latro, had been instructed to take orders from Thulandra as if they had been issued from the king himself.
Meanwhile Numedides's conduct had grown increasingly strange. He ordered the golden coinage in his treasury cast into statues of himself adorned with royal jewels, and oft held converse with the blossoming trees and nodding flowers that graced his garden walks. Woe unto any kingdom when the crown is worn by a madman--a madman who, moreover, is the puppet of a crafty and unscrupulous favourite, whether a genuine magician or clever mountebank!
Behind the brocaded hangings of the guarded portal lay a suite whose walls were hung with mystic purple. Here a bizarre tableau unfolded.
In a translucent sarcophagus of alabaster, the king lay as if in deepest slumber. His gross body was unclothed. Even in the slackness of repose, his form testified to a life besmirched with vicious self-indulgence. His skin was blotched; his moist lips sagged; and his eyes were deeply pouched. Above the edge of the coffin bulged his bloated paunch, obscene and toadlike.
Suspended by her ankles, a naked twelve-year-old girl hung head down above the open casket. Her tender flesh bore the marks of instruments of torture. These instruments now lay among the glowing embers in a copper brazier that stood before a thronelike chair of sable iron, inlaid with cryptic sigils wrought in softly glowing silver.
The girl's throat had been neatly cut, and now bright blood ran down her inverted face and bedrabbed her ash-blonde hair. The casket beneath the corpse was awash with steaming blood, and in this scarlet bath the corpulent body of King Numedides lay partially immersed.
Set in a precise ellipse around the sarcophagus, to illuminate its contents, stood nineteen massive candles, each as tall as a half-grown boy. These candles had been fashioned, so rumour ran among the palace servants, of tallow stripped from human cadavers. But none knew whence they came.
Upon the black iron throne brooded Thulandra Thuu, a slender man of ascetic build and, seemingly, of middle years. His hair, bound by a fillet of ruddy gold, wrought in the likeness of a wreath of intertwining serpents, was silver grey; and serpentine were his cold, thick-lidded eyes. His mien declared him a philosopher, but his unwinking stare bespoke the zealot.
The bones of his narrow face seemed moulded by a sculptor. His skin was dark as teakwood; and from time to time he moistened his thin lips with a darting, pointed tongue. His spare torso was confined by an ample length of mulberry brocade, wrapped round and round and draped across one shoulder, leaving the other bare and exposing to view both of his scrawny arms.
At intervals he raised his eyes from the ancient, python-bound tome that lay upon his lap to stare thoughtfully into the alabaster casket, wherein the bloated body of King Numedides rested in its bath of virgin's blood. Then, frowning, he would again return to the pages of his book. The parchment of this monstrous volume was inscribed in a spidery hand in a language unknown to scholars of the West. Row upon row of hooked and cursive characters marched down the page in columns. And many of the glyphs were writ in inks of emerald, amethyst and vermillion, unfaded by the passage of the years.
A water clock of gold and crystal, set on a nearby taboret, chimed with a silvery tinkle. Thulandra Thuu once more looked deep into the casket. The tight-lipped expression on his dark visage bore wordless testimony to the failure of his undertaking. The rich red bath of blood was darkening; the surface became dull with scum as vitality faded from the cooling fluid.
Abruptly the sorcerer rose and, with an angry gesture of frustration, hurled the book aside. It struck the hangings on the wall and fell open, face down upon the marble floor. Had anyone been present to study the inscription on the spine and understand its cryptic signary, he would have discovered that this arcane volume was entitled: The Secrets of Immortality, According to Guchupta of Shamballah.