Conan is in jail for murder in an unnamed city “whose real ruler” is Nabonidus the Red Priest. The victim was another priest, or Anu, who also worked as a fence and a spy for the police. This was made possible by the temple of Anu being on the edge of the Maze, “a tangle of muddy, winding alleys and sordid dens, frequented by the bolder thieves in the kingdom.” The narrator comically describes how Conan was arrested: his hired prostitute betrayed him while he slept drunk, and waking up to flee “he missed the open door in his headlong flight and dashed his head against the stone wall so terrifically that he knocked himself senseless.”
An aristocrat named Murilo offers to arrange Conan’s escape if he’ll kill Nabonidus. Conan agrees. The plan is that the guard has been bribed to let Conan, having unchained himself with a key from Murilo, bind him with cloth and tell those who discover him a false story about him being broken out by fellow thieves. But some time after coming home, his spy brings the news that the guard had been arrested and thrown into prison – oops! He’s terrified that Nabonidus, who has indirectly threatened his life, is “more than human”, specifically a sorcerer who knows ESP, and used that to foil his plan.
Murilo arms himself and goes to the wall of Nabonidus’ home, fearing what might guard it besides a big dog, a slave and a servant. Then he finds the dog in the garden with a broken neck and bite marks. Breaking into the house, he finds Joka the servant dead too. In the next room he finds a seated figure in a hooded red robe, and he falls in terror when the man in the chair rises and faces him.
Back to Conan: the bribed guard brought him a joint of beef and a tankard so as to leave on a full stomach. Between then and consenting to the pretend escape, he’s arrested on unrelated corruption charges! His replacement is shocked to find a prisoner unchained and eating a huge beefbone. When he enters to restore dungeon propriety, Conan brains him with the remains of dinner and leaves with his sword and keys.
On his way to his mission, Conan walks through the Dung Ages of the Maze (streets are mud and residents empty their chamber pots there). He disembowels the departing John of the hooker who betrayed him just for being her John, then chivalrously(?) gives her the lesser punishment of being defenestrated into the muck.
Next Conan sneaks into Nabonidus’s basement, where he finds Murilo. Murilo tells him their target has been replaced by a thing “not unlike a man, but from the scarlet hood of the priest grinned a face of madness and nightmare! It was covered with black hair, from which small pig-like eyes glared redly; its nose was flat, with great flaring nostrils; its loose lips writhed back, disclosing huge yellow fangs, like the teeth of a dog. The hands that hung from the scarlet sleeves were misshapen and likewise covered with black hair.”
Conan’s response is priceless: “Everyone knows there are men who take the form of wolves at will. But why did he kill his servants?”
They agree to escape without trying to kill the were-thing, but infer that every exit is trapped. They find a half-naked man lying limply in a corridor… and it’s Nabonidus! Conan wants to kill him on the assumption that he’ll werewolf out and be immune to normal weapons immediately upon waking, but Murilo stops him. The priest reveals that his pet ape Thak beat him and stole his robe. And there’s further wacky miscommunication: his threat to Murilo was supposed to be understood as exile, not the death penalty. And why? Murilo bribed someone to filch state secrets, which he in turn sold to rival powers. Murilo retorts that Nabonidus swindles the king, so hey, we’re all three thieves. They agree to work together: they’ll overcome Thak so the priest is back in charge of the house, not report Murilo to the king, and let Conan escape the city to ply his trade in another.
It seems that Thak’s species is something like Australopithecus, and Nabonidus knows about evolution, saying “If they are not exterminated, I believe they will become human beings in perhaps a hundred thousand years… They dwell in the high crags of well-nigh inaccessible mountains, knowing nothing of fire or the making of shelter or garments, or the use of weapons. Yet they have a language of a sort,”
They observe Thak on the main floor through a series of mirrors, the invention amazing Murilo but not Conan, who shrugs it off as witchcraft. A gang of “ardent young nationalists” breaks into the house, and Thak knows how to activate traps to kill them.
(To last story’s deadly black lotus off Khitai we now add “The dust of the gray lotus, from the Swamps of the Dead, beyond the land of Khitai.” It seems to give you instant rabies.)
Eventually Conan gets Thak in a leglock and tries frantically to not get killed in the clench while stabbing him with a sword. (This is why you need usable grappling rules) Succeeding, he says “I have slain a man tonight, not a beast. I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I’ve sent into the dark, and my women will sing of him.”
Well, shoot. We see Conan with more than a dozen love interests by Howard’s own pen alone, before getting into the later authors, and I don’t think we ever see him teaching a woman to sing the Ballad of Thak.
Just one more plot twist before the end: Nabonidus betrays them. He’s going to pull a rope that opens a trap door down to the acid pit, dissolving Murilo along with Conan and Thak – hey, I only swore not to get you killed by the king! Conan quickly dispatches him with a thrown piece of furniture and says Murilo promised him gold and a horse for his death.
This story was published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales (it didn’t make the cover). You’ll notice that despite that despite being written for that market, there’s no demonstrable supernatural element. Claims of magic only appear as part of the comic misunderstandings. This tone is a fun change of pace for the series, but the story’s just not as good as “The Tower of the Elephant”, which it cribbed several bits from (lotus powder, worrying about a wall, and Conan stripping to his loincloth as he leaves a building).