Since we’re going through these in an internal chronology, Conan is still a youth of a thief. We’re in an unnamed city in the country Zamora, in a tavern where Conan approaches a foreign kidnapper who says “I know lords in Shem who would trade the secret of the Elephant Tower for [a female victim].” It seems “that Yara the priest dwells there with the great jewel men call the Elephant’s Heart, that is the secret of his magic.”
Conan naively asks why no one has stolen this jewel already, for he’s seen no guards there. Just climb the sheer walls, easy! The man mocks him as a foolish yokel planning the impossible (I guess not every Thief has an 85% or better chance?)
The Cimmerian glared about, embarrassed at the roar of mocking laughter that greeted this remark. He saw no particular humor in it, and was too new to civilization to understand its discourtesies. Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
They of course get into a bar brawl, which knocks out the only candle and leaves the kidnapper dead and most patrons fled when it’s relit. Outside, Conan’s tunic has been ripped, so he one-ups Captain Kirk by entirely discarding it, going about in only a loincloth and sandals.
He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight—snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, longsettled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyards of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.
This establishes that Conan is eager to learn and has now been in cities long enough to start stereotyping them. Approaching the tower’s courtyard wall, he starts to feel fear: he’s heard report that Yara the priest can transform people into spiders. But he continues and finds an armored guard on the other side of the wall, but a dead one! He meets a second thief, Taurus of Nemedia. Now we have an adventuring party. He’s been planning this for awhile, and tells Conan “We’ll steal down through the top of the tower and strangle old Yara before he can cast any of his accursed spells on us. At least we’ll try; it’s the chance of being turned into a spider or a toad, against the wealth and power of the world.” They won’t be able to climb the tower when there are lions guarding it, but Taurus has planned for them too. “A long jet of yellowish powder shot from the other end of the tube and billowed out instantly in a thick green-yellow cloud that settled over the shrubbery, blotting out the glaring eyes.” It’s an airborne toxin made from the black lotus, whose blossoms wave in the lost jungles of Khitai, where only the yellow-skulled priests of Yun dwell.
Conan asks why Taurus can’t just go on killing people by blowing that powder: “Because that was all the powder I possessed. The obtaining of it was a feat which in itself was enough to make me famous among the thieves of the world. I stole it out of a caravan bound for Stygia, and I lifted it, in its cloth-of-gold bag, out of the coils of the great serpent which guarded it, without awaking him.” Well, that’s one way to limit spell-casting!
Taurus throws a grappling hook and starts climbing when Conan has to save his life from the one lion not caught in the toxic cloud. On the 150-foot climb, Conan gets distracted by the scintillating jewels embedded in the wall and suggests prying that fortune out. But changing goals in the middle of a heist could get you killed!
They open the door into the top floor and find a glittering chamber, the walls, ceiling and floor of which were crusted with great white jewels which lighted it brightly, though its only light source. This is akin to an explanation in Hindu Puranas of how the pleasant underworld is illuminated: light bulb-like jewels in the hoods of the nagas who live there.
Something in the room kills Taurus. Conan soldiers on to see what it was. It sneaks in the shadows but eventually reveals itself: a spider the size of a pig, skittering around a second treasure room. Conan is injured even from the splash of tiny drops of venom as the spider misses its attack, and barely prevails in the fight scene. Continuing into other rooms, he finds “Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls.”
This is no statue, but a rational organism, who turns out to have been chained, blinded, and otherwise tortured by Yara. He says his name is Yag-Kosha, and tells a tale of how he came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, with wings faster than light. They fought the strange and terrible forms of life which then walked the earth, so to establish peace and quiet in the jungles of the East. They observed humans develop from apes to city-builders, and the sinking of Atlantis. As Deep Time ground on, all died except Yag-Kosha. Then to the temple in Khitai where he was worshiped came Yara, who learned white magic at his feet before betraying and torturing him to divulge what black magic he’s learned over the eons. Yara also forced him to conjure the bejeweled tower into existence in a single night, like the Slave of the Lamp for Aladdin. Now he asks Conan to kill him and squeeze his heart’s blood onto the Heart of the Elephant, then take it to Yara’s bed chamber and then flee the tower while he, now a mighty spirit instead of flesh and blood, takes his revenge.
Conan is savvy enough to do as a supernatural being says, and runs out past the magically-dead guards on the ground floor as the spirit of Yag-Kosha wreaks vengeance. Then it sways and crashes down into shining shards.
Well that was Lovecraftian, wasn’t it? We’ll see this sort of invocation of Deep Time as the monster’s origin again in this series, but it seems to be done best here. The tone partakes of myth and fairy tale as well as Lovecraftian SF, and the strength of Howard’s descriptive prose adds its own element to all that.