Wind stirred in the nighted trees and stirred the high grasses to life. Above, the wispy clouds drifted past a gibbous moon, which spilled its silver light across a half-ruined structure of stone.
Conan paused in the shadow of a tree and surveyed the ancient building. It had once been a smooth dome, its stones perhaps clad in beaten copper; faint gleams of metal were still visible in places, and the stones below them were stained with something that looked green enough - though it was hard to tell in the moonlight. A ring of pillars had surrounded it, statues atop them, but now only a handful remained; the others had toppled with the inexorable passage of time. The great central dome, a hundred paces across and nearly that high, was cracked. Off towards the back, a part of it had fallen in.
Conan thought the place had once been a temple. It looked ill-suited for anything else. The thought stirred a faint uneasiness in his barbarian soul, for he knew well the dangers that might lurk in such forgotten shrines. Still, it would have to do. The remains of his Kozaki lay strewn on the battlefield less than half a mile behind him, and there was a sizable reward for Conan's head: the Duke's men were still beating the bushes in search of him. With any real cover, he could elude them; but the trees were growing sparse here, giving way to flat grasslands. His mounted pursuers would quickly ride down a man on foot.
They might hesitate to enter a place such as this, though. And if they did, well... the only passage looked narrow enough that he could stand off a small group of men from inside it. Thus decided, he did not linger. Quick and graceful as a panther, he strode through the grasses, listening for the sounds of his pursuers as he went.
When the high grasses gave way to broken, uneven paving stone, he sprinted for the dark rectangle of the doorway. A moment later he was inside, and he stopped there, looking back. Finally, satisfied that there was no pursuit, he stalked further into the darkness, keeping one hand on the wall and the other extended in front of him. He heard no sounds save his own soft steps, smelled nothing but ancient, dusty stone. Nothing lived here, and nothing came here. The shattered temple was uninhabited, desolate, and would serve his purposes admirably.
Then a section of floor gave way beneath his feet, and he felt himself falling.
There was light when he looked up. It filled the room, soft and white, little brighter than the moonlight he had left outside. He could not see its source. It seemed to come from everywhere, perhaps from the air itself. But it was enough to let him see, and he raised himself from the floor and checked his body for injuries. Despite the added weight of his chainmail shirt, he had suffered nothing worse than bruises.
The room was wide and circular. No doorways were immediately evident. Conan had fallen near to one wall, so perhaps the way out was blocked by the ornate dias and the crude stone altar that filled the center of the room.
Conan began to walk, following the wall. The hairs on his nape were prickling; he did not like that altar. It was only a lump of rough stone, but it was set atop steps carved smooth and even, steps decorated with half-recognizable symbols and strange reliefs. The contrast gave the altar itself an impression of inhuman antiquity, as if the sculptors and masons who had shaped this place had not dared even to touch that one stone.
A pair of stone statues flanked the altar. They were animals, a matched pair, but no animal that Conan knew. They seemed some strange cross between a dog and bull, low-built with wide shoulders, and forward-curving horns on their heads. Such beasts had no place in the world Conan knew, and he wondered if they were fanciful - or if the hands that carved them had been guided by eyes which had once looked upon such things.
His gaze fell on the altar again, and this time a shadowy figure might have been standing behind it. Conan froze, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, as a horrible, atonal, screeching voice filled the room. "You have come at last, sub-creature," it said. "Choose. Choose and perish."
"Choose?" asked Conan. The voice roused in him all the ancient fears of his people, but also a sort of atavistic defiance.
"Choose the form of the Destroyer. Speak your fear and give shape to the Gozerian."
"Bah," snarled Conan, and drew his sword. "I am Cimmerian! I fear not pain or death, neither man nor ghost nor demon! Bring your destroyer, and if he can fall to steel I'll send him back to Hell."
There was a momentary pause, and then the awful voice spoke again. "The choice is made. The Traveler has come."
And from behind the altar stepped... Conan.
On the floor below, Conan grunted in surprise. This reflection was perfect, from the mane of black hair to the battered chain mail shirt, from the torn breeches and leather boots to the sword at its side. Only the eyes were strange, and when Conan met them he was nearly undone. There was a great, sucking sense of vertigo, as if he were being drawn into a whirlpool, and a profound sense of being pulled into something unclean. He forced his gaze away by an effort of will, and found that his reflection had a blade out and had nearly closed the distance between them.
Furious, Conan sprang at his opponent. Steel rang on steel as Cimmerian battled Gozerian. Only the unerring instinct of the barbarian allowed Conan to survive those first few moments, for his twin moved at a pace no mortal man could match. He felt more than saw his opponent's blade as it flashed past his face, and cut up behind it. Backed by Conan's steely-thews and wolf-quick reflexes, the tip of his blade brushed the top of his opponent's hand...
...And Conan felt his own thumb begin to bleed. He backed away, and saw that his opponent was untouched. Understand flashed through him like lightning.
Whoever had summoned this destroyer here had called it from across unimaginable gulfs of time and space, from places strange and alien to this world. And in whatever ancient epoch that was done, the summoner had departed without completing his conjuration. To work its evil in this world, the blasphemous thing needed an earthly form... and in taking Conan's form, the Gozerian had not only bound itself to the Earth, but to Conan's form as well. It had forged a connection between them, and that connection was both its strength and its weakness.
Conan considered none of this. He saw, he understood, and he acted. A tigerish spring carried him momentarily out of the Gozerian's reach, and before it could close with him again he turned his point and rammed it into his own heart. The blow which had unhorsed him in the day's earlier battle had split his mail there, and the blade barely slowed as he drove it home.
Only it was not the Cimmerian who reeled back, wounded and dying, with blood pulsing from a gaping wound in his breast. Conan's flesh was untouched, despite the force of his thrust. The tip of his blade rested lightly against his skin, while his opponent stumbled, gasped, and fell.
"So," said Conan. He extended his arm, and with the back of the blade delivered a powerful blow to his own neck.
A moment later he exhaled, in a powerful mixture of relief and awe, as the head of Conan the Gozerian rolled away across the floor.
The altar cracked, and a powerful tremor shook the temple. The pale light dimmed, then came back. One of the beast-statues fell with a terrific crash, losing an arm and one horn as it plowed down the steps.
Conan continued his original course, following the wall and staying well clear of that ancient and blasphemous altar. There was indeed a door on the far side, and he sprinted for it, unsure if the entire building was about to come down around him. The light from the altar room was just enough to reveal the bottom-most step of a staircase, leading up.
In the morning, Conan departed the temple. From the outside, it seemed only a little more ruined than it had been, but the Duke's men must have been close when it happened: he found traces of their steps near the entrance, and with a little work could see how they had paused, staggered, and then turned and fled back to their master. Realizing this, Conan gave voice to a low, throaty chuckle. He had a blade at his side, and a bit of dried meat in a pouch on his belt. What more did he need? He would continue on his way, perhaps take work with a mercenary company, and see what might come next. He was alive, and had a fighting chance; he asked for nothing more from life...
...Though a flask of wine would have been welcome.