Brule the Spear-slayer!
I don't read fiction much anymore, other than gaming material, my mind simply wanders too much, but, I found myself thinking of Howard, and every now and then, I need a little fix. So I grabbed volume II, KULL, of the BAEN, Robert E. Howard series, and re-read (it's been years) the story, The Shadow Kingdom.
Wherein, King Kull learns that his court has been infiltrated by shape-changing lizard men from ages long past. Now, this concept -- that reptilian men ruled the world long ago, with the remnants of which, striving to regain control or actively pulling strings from the shadows -- is a common Sword & Sorcery trope. Where did it come from? Howard? Elsewhere?
This hangs on my living room wall. Signed by Ken Kelly, 37/200. Arguably my favorite picture (if there is such a thing.) This painting is an amalgamation of the stories, The Shadow Kingdom and By This Axe I Rule!
By This Axe I Rule! would be re-written by Howard several years later as the Conan story The Phoenix On the Sword.
Valka and Hotath! Now these are book covers!
The story begins with King Kull astride a horse watching a military parade. Kull is an Atlantean usurper of the Valusian throne. An outsider, a true barbarian. In so many ways, the proto-Conan. But, where Conan concerns himself with women, wine, and plunder, Kull only concerns himself with kingship (though he too, had an adventurous past.)
Kull then takes an audience from a proud Pict (Picts and Atlanteans are ancient enemies) and agrees to come alone to dine with an elder, Pictish ambassador. The ambassador toys with Kull, almost speaking in riddles, playing age against youth (though Kull isn't exactly a youth) and vaguely warns him. He says to be on the look out for a Pict who wears a dragon armlet and to heed his message.
As Kull rides back to his palace in the dead of night, with a lone Pictish escort, there are several paragraphs focusing on this ancient city and how its towers mock him:
"How many kings have we watched ride down these streets before Kull of Atlantis was even a dream in the mind of Ka, bird of creation? Ride on, Kull of Atlantis; greater shall follow you; greater came before you. They are dust; they are forgotten; we stand; we know; we are. Ride, ride on, Kull of Atlantis; Kull the king, Kull the fool!"
Kull is truly a man out of place, in Valusia, as well as with his own Atlantean customs.
And so, Brule, sneaks into the palace, straight to Kull and proceeds to unravel the illusion of security. Enter the reptilian shape-changers... I won't spoil much more than that, but it's not a long story, in fact, the end comes surprisingly quick.
Near the bottom of this page, as Kull stares off in a trance, deep into the past, we get a clear vision of Howard's grim view of man:
"Against a gray, ever-shifting background moved strange nightmare forms, fantasies of lunacy and fear; and man, the jest of the gods, the blind, wisdomless striver from dust to dust, following the long bloody trail of his destiny, knowing not why, bestial, blundering, like a great murderous child, yet feeling somewhere a spark of divine fire..."
The jest of the gods.
And another use of the word dust.
As Brule (the Pictish, Spear-slayer!) guides Kull through secret passages in Kull's own palace, they discuss ages past. This entire page, and some on the next, is Brule speaking while standing over the body of a reptilian imposter. The beginning few sentences struck me the most:
"They are gone," said Brule, as if scanning his secret mind; "the bird-women, the harpies, the bat-men, the flying fiends, the wolf-people, the demons, the goblins-- all save such as this being that lies at our feet, and a few of the wolf-men. Long and terrible was the war, lasting through the bloody centuries, since first the first men, risen from the mire of apedom, turned upon those who then ruled the world. And at last mankind conquered, so long ago that naught but dim legends come to us through the ages."
There is something incredible about Howard speaking of harpies and demons and goblins, all at war with man. Imagine if Howard had written about that age!
These words tease awesomeness; a hint of primeval violence, even darker times, and a stronger dose of fantasy. These words ignite one's imagination! It leaves you wanting more, but ultimately, it is up to you to fill in the blanks. Too often these days, things are over-explained and all loose ends are tied. That is boring nonsense.
No matter what you create, let there be mystery and unexplored depth.
This is especially true for D&D.
The Shadow Kingdom, excellence in fiction.