It’s been far too long since I returned to the stories of Robert E. Howard, and now that a new edition of D&D looms on the horizon, I have something of a deadline to finish this project.
Queen of the Black Coast is one of my favorite Conan tales. It shows a different, more complicated side to the Cimmerian and features a powerful and engaging female character who is at least Conan’s equal (and it’s pretty easy to argue that Howard positions Belit as Conan’s superior). There’s a real epic quality to the story, and the vast span of time it covers begs the imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s not surprising Queen of the Black Coast also features some very inventive monsters (and its strange were-creatures may be one of the inspirations for D&D’s cornucopia of lycanthropes).
Spoiler Alert! All of these Hyborian age posts are going to be filled with spoilers. From the summary, to the monster stats they are going to ruin any surprises as to what the monster is, when it appears in the story and how and why it is killed. You’ve been warned.
Howard begins his tale with Conan in the thick of it, hurtling down the streets of an Argossean port city on a black stallion towards the docks. One step ahead of an angry magistrate and his men, Conan rides to the very edge of the wharf and leaps from his saddle onto the deck of the Argus, a trading galley just pulling away from the dock. After a few threats from the Cimmerian, the ship’s master agrees to take Conan along. The waters the Argus must ply are thick with pirates and Conan’s experienced blade defending the ship will put the rest of the sailors at ease.
The captain’s fears are justified, for once in Kushite waters, the Argus is set upon by the pirate ship Tigress, and her infamous master, Belit – called Queen of the Black Coast. The Argus puts up a valiant fight, but it is no match for the Tigress and the merchant vessel is soon overtaken and boarded. Bloody carnage breaks out and Conan, knowing this is his last stand, is determined to take as many of the pirates to hell with him as he can. There is something about the exotic northerner’s naked ferocity and bloodlust that intrigues Belit. She orders her men to spare Conan and offers him the chance to join her bloody rampage on the high seas. Conan is likewise drawn to the Shemite woman, not just for her unsurpassing beauty, but by the raw power of her unbridled passion. With the crew of the Argus dead, Conan joins Belit.
Time passes. The ferocity of Conan and Belit’s love is equalled only by the destruction the pair wreaks. The Queen of the Black Coast and her icy eyed consort become legends, their names cursed by the survivors of the Stygian ships laid waste by the Tigress. In an outburst of fevered desire, Belit promises Conan that her love burns so fiercely that not even death can keep her from the Cimmerian’s side.
Guided by rumours and forbidden lore, Belit orders the Tigress up an unnamed river, deep into an impassable, toxic jungle. The waters of the river become poisonous, and have a strange effect on the surrounding flora and fauna. Pressing on, the crew finds the ruins of a city older than mankind itself, whose former occupants Belit names ‘the old ones’. Landing, the pirates sack the ruins, finding both deadly traps and glittering mounds of treasure. Among these is a necklace with weird gems the color of clotted blood. Seized with a kind of madness, Belit becomes obsessed with the necklace, and begins acting strangely. What’s worse, the old ones are not as extinct as the pirates had hoped. The last of their kind still haunts the city, a degenerate, winged, ape-thing, who sabotages the Tigress’ supply of fresh water.
Under the effect of the necklace, Belit is unmoved, caring only for her newfound treasures. Conan, more sober minded, takes a small contingent of warriors into the jungle in search of fresh water. Tragedy strikes Conan, who succumbs to the sleep of the pollen of the black lotus plant. While he slumbers he is tormented by visions of the city’s long and terrible history. He awakens to find that the winged creature has slaughtered the entire pirate crew, including his beloved Belit, who hangs from the mast of the ship, strangled by the cursed necklace.
Filled with cold, black, fathomless rage, Conan climbs a ruined pyramid and awaits the monster for a chance at revenge. The Cimmerian is first set upon by the winged creature’s servants, a pack of were-hyenas the monster cursed in the long past. Conan is victorious, but during the melee he becomes pinned under a piece of rubble. Seeing its opportunity, the winged creature swoops down to finish Conan off, but Belit is true to her word, and her apparition appears, blocking the path between her murderer and her lover. The monster is momentarily stunned, Conan frees himself and in the bat of an eye cleaves the beast in twain.
Silent and grief stricken, the tale ends with Conan watching the Tigress sail away, alight with the flames of Belit’s funeral pyre staining the horizon.
“With fearful speed it was rushing upon him, and in that instant Conan had only a confused impression of a gigantic man-like shape hurtling along on bowed and stunted legs; of huge hairy arms outstretching misshapen black-nailed paws; of a malformed head, in whose broad face the only features recognizable as such were a pair of blood-red eyes.” – Robert E. Howard, Queen of the Black Coast.
Nature 15: Superstition holds that the souls of evil men and women are imprisoned in the bodies of apes as punishment for their crimes. The vilest of these sprout wings so they can take to the air and continue to torment the living.
Nature DC 20: In the dawn of prehistory existed an exalted race of winged beings known only as ‘the old ones’. Their people reached its cultural zenith before humankind had yet crawled out of the muck, but like all civilizations, was destined to fall. A series of natural disasters rocked the old ones’ city state and polluted their drinking water with a foul substance. Those who did not die were changed, and after generations of mutation and degeneration, the twisted creatures fell on each other in a frenzy of infighting and cannibalism. Those few winged ones who still cling to hateful life are incredibly old, and know some of the weird magics of their ancestors.
The Winged One in Combat
Though devolution has robbed the winged ones of much of their people’s former intellect, they have an evil cunning that makes them dangerous foes. Before engaging an enemy directly, a winged one prefers to use distraction and sabotage (often with the aid of its servants) in an attempt to divide their enemies into more manageable groups. Often a winged one will destroy an invader’s supply of food and water, forcing them to drink from the polluted river or face the poisonous denizens of the surrounding jungle. When combat breaks out, a winged one always tries to curse the strongest looking warrior, flying off to a safe distance so it can enjoy the spectacle of the were-hyena attacking and devouring former friends.
Winged ones haunt the jungle ruins of their former civilization, torturing themselves by watching their race’s greatest achievements slowly crumble to dust. A winged one curses any who dare intrude on its lonely vigil, transforming them into bestial were-hyenas. These creatures, as well as packs of gnolls, are often mystically bound to the area and answer the winged one’s call. The winged one reserves its bitterest rage for those foolish enough to try and steal from the temples and palaces of the old ones. The creature will stop at nothing to track down and murder these thieves, displaying their corpses as a warning to future delvers.
Like Thurgra Khotan, I think the History skill is more appropriate for Lore checks regarding the winged one, instead of following the 4e convention and using Nature checks for all creatures with the natural origin.
Inspired by the work of Tony DiTerlizzi (especially during his Planescape years) I tried my hand at coloring the illustration with traditional watercolors rather than using digital color as I have in the past. I think I need a bit more practice, but I’m pleased with the results.