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The Hour of the Dragon (Conan the Conqueror), Part 3

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Part 3 of 4

In our synopsis and analysis, we left Conan and Hadrathus discussing how to regain the initiative by seizing the Heart of Ahriman. Conan then heads south in the funereal barge of a follower of Asura — to make sure that he and Albiona are unmolested — and he quickly makes up the leagues necessary to visit Count Trocero’s Poitain in the deep south of Aquilonia. From there, he equips himself with a black stallion, and crosses the river into Zingara looking for a merchant who has been sold the flaming gem by Tarascus’ thief. The merchant in question was from Koth, and with foolhardy recklessness he had crossed into Zingara heading for the great sea-port of Messantia. Conan then becomes involved in a series of adventures to return the Heart to his control for the good of Aquilonia, and the ultimate defeat of both Xaltotun and the Nemedians.

On looking for the merchant Zorathus and his strongbox, Conan discovers him in the feudal keep of a lord, Valbroso, who is just one rung up from a robber chieftain. They have heedlessly tortured the merchant to force him to open his reinforced box — and already we see that the great flaming jewel is borne aloft by mayhem and brigandage. Zorathus revenges himself on Valbroso by getting him to prick his finger on a poisoned stud on the containing box — by which time he is already dying. But the lord’s lieutenant, Beloso, has been driven mad by the flaming gem, and with both captive and master dead, he seizes his chance to make off with it. He brings the box down heavily on Conan’s helmeted skull and makes his escape into the ghoul-haunted woods along Argos’ border with Zingara.

The sequence with Zorathus and Valbroso enables Howard to dwell on the perfidy of the human condition, its competitiveness and malevolence, the only morally competent characters being Conan and possibly Zorathus. Beloso is treacherous, Valbroso utterly Machiavellian, the Torturer bestial, and so on . . . while Valbroso’s clan or band are little different from wolves held together by fear of their lord and respect for his acumen.

Conan pursues the jewel-mad Beloso out of Zingara and into Argos before they finally arrive in the port city of Messantia (already mentioned). Thereupon he seeks out an old aquaintance, Publio, a rich merchant who worked his way up from a dive on the water-front due to his dealings in the past with corsairs like Conan.

A tangled skein of plot then ensues. Publio plots Conan’s death to free himself from the past; a Stygian galley containing an arch-priest settles in the city to seize the gem, and four oriental killers are set upon Conan’s traces by Valerius, the new King of Aquilonia, who is determined that his rival, Conan, becomes a legend again as quickly as possible.

All of this leads the Stygian priest to murder Beloso by magic and make off with the jewel; Conan follows and is accosted by Publio’s toughs led by one of his servants, Tiberio. He finishes most of them off but is finally knocked unconscious and later finds himself taken aboard an Argossean galley, which he seizes control of by engineering a slave revolt, so that he can follow the Stygian more easily.

He finally tracks the Stygian galley (with the Heart) to their port city of Khemi, and, leaving the Argossean vessel tied up in a remote estuary, he assails this Stygian city single-handedly looking for the gem. Eventually — and after many adventures — he tracks the Heart of Ahriman to a vault underneath a pyramid.

The Stygians, in Howard’s estimation, are based on ancient Egypt with a religion modeled upon their Book of the Dead. The sequence beneath the pyramid enables Howard to explore the hollowness and pretension of much human myth, the reality often being much more sordid than the romantic illumination of it.

This relates, in a foursquare way, to the vampire Akivasha who lives underneath the Temple of Set, one of the great Stygian pyramids. In Conan’s mythos she is worshiped by lovers and romantics as the woman who never died, but, in reality, she has traded eternal life for a blood-laced place in the shadows. Conan, a famously unintrospective hero, has a moment of awakening when he grasps the hollowness of many saving myths.

Finally, there is a great showdown between the Stygian priests who have stolen the Heart and the pursuing orientals acting for Valerius, Aquilonia’s current King. Conan allows them to fall on each other until it falls to him to clean up the remainder. Finally, and with the help of a reincarnated Stygian magician, Conan leaves Khemi’s temples with the Heart of Ahriman — the life-giving jewel which Xaltotun’s magic cannot touch. He has squared the circle and now has a weapon which can beat back the influence of the once dead Pythonian magician.

Now he is in a position to return to his Kingdom and reclaim it from the usurpers Amalric, Tarascus, Valerius, and Xaltotun. The final installment will tell everyone how he manages to achieve this.

To be continued . . .

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