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Conan- The Flame Knife (Ace)

Cover of Conan: The Flame Knife (Ace); art by San Julian

The Flame Knife is a Conan novella by L. Sprague de Camp based on an El Borak story, "Three-Bladed Doom", by Robert E. Howard; it is usually credited to Howard and de Camp. The story was first published in 1955's Tales of Conan, and then in 1968's Conan the Wanderer. In 1981, a fully illustrated version was published as a stand-alone novel.

Plot Summary[]

Now leader of a group of kozaki, Conan, on the run from the displeased king of Iranistan, finds himself in the demon-infested mountain ranges of Drujistan where he discovers a hidden city and the secrets of the cultish Hidden Ones.

Detailed Synopsis[]

  • 1. Knives in the Dark
    Conan is attacked on his way to see his kozaki companion, Tubal, after a disastrous meeting with King Kobad, who wants Conan and his men to hunt down an old enemy, a bandit named Balash. Conan survives his encounter, but is followed by Nanaia, a member of the king's harem, who overheard Kobad order his informer, Hakhamani, to kill Conan. She wants Conan to take her away from Kobad, and he agrees, ordering his kozaki to get ready to ride into the Ilbars Mountains. Meanwhile, Kobad Shah, while contemplating Conan's refusal to follow kingly orders, is attacked and barely fends off an assassination attempt, rescued by Gotarza, captain of the royal guard. The two realize the assassin wields a flame knife, the same instrument used in attempts on other kings and symbol of the Hidden Ones. The Shah's agent, Bardiya, arrives with more news - the attempt on Conan's life failed and he has left the city, and Nanaia has fled the palace. The Shah assumes Conan and Nanaia are in league with the Hidden Ones and commands five hundred soldiers to bring back Conan's head. Three days later, Conan meets with Balash and tries to convince the tribal chief that Kobad Shah will send an army 10,000 strong to capture him, but Balash is confident he can hold the pass. He takes Conan to see a dead man who the tribesmen had found, who claimed to have visited Drujistan, the demon lands, a southern country dark with mystery and magic. Conan realizes the man's eastern features, which the Kushafi believe mark him as a demon, are those of Khitai, making him a man far, far from home. He also notices under his tunic a woolen shirt with the symbol of the flame knife sewed into it. Curious, Conan decides to ride to border of Drujistan to see where the man was found.
  • 2. The Black Country
    Conan, Tubal, Hattusas, and Nanaia make their way into the Drujistan border. Suddenly, as they look out onto the Gorge of Ghosts, they hear a mysterious roar. They decide to make camp so as to have fresh horses in the morning to traverse the gulf. In the middle of the night, Tubal rouses Conan with terrible news - Nanaia is missing and Hattusas lies dead. The two men then hear noises surrounding their camp. Tubal, first fearing demons, is overjoyed to find their assailants human, and he and Conan, backs to the canyon wall, easily fend off the attackers, who soon flee into the darkness. They wait, silently, as the moon rises, wary of an aerial arrow attack which never comes. They examine the bodies, and are startled to discover signs of the cult of Sabateans from Shem. Furthermore, the bodies are tattooed with the symbol of the flame knife. With the moon rising high enough to see the trail of blood, the two decide to follow their assailants and move off the trail and through the thinning ravine. Eventually, their path ends at a sheer cliff, and Conan notices blood smeared high on the cliff wall and proceeds to scale the sheer face of the cliff. He reaches a small shelf where the trail stops, but notices a bloody handprint in the rock. When he presses the handprint, a passage door opens in the face of the cliff, leading into a narrow ravine. Conan drops a rope for Tubal and the two investigate further. Conan drops a lone Khitan sentry and the passage opens into a larger opening in the midst of the mountain cliffs. They hear the sound of trumpets and scramble up another wall and behind some outcroppings to get a good vantage point of the end of the trail. While Conan expected a gathering of tents, he is shocked to see an entire city nestled within the hidden ravine on a plateau. Having discovered the secret of the Hidden Ones supposed city of demons, Conan begins to consider this a perfect headquarters for his kozaki and sends Tubal back to get reinforcements from Balash. He intends to investigate the city on his own...
  • 3. The Hidden Ones
    Making his way towards the city, Conan comes across a band of Zuagirs rolling dice. He approaches them boldly and tells the Zuagirs he's expected by their master. One, Antar, their superiors, recognizes Conan and decides to do what he asks and take him to their king. They tell him that a tribe of Sabateans bragged about killing a merchant and his servants last night . Conan tries to get them to open up about a girl they carried, but they say no more. They go into the city, the streets of which are filled with slaves. They come to Zahak, captain of the guard, to the Magus, who imprisons the Zuagirs for failing in their watch and allowing Conan to get so close unnoticed. A bemused Magus then speaks to him in Iranistani and Conan claims he seeks refuge from Kobad Shah. The Magus, indicating a crystal scrying device, reveals he knows some of the story. The Magus summons a Stygian warrior, Khaza, who backs up Conan's claim of being on the run from Anshan horsemen. The Magus declares he could use a man like Conan, but first Conan must gain the approval of the Tiger. He then reveals himself to be part of the ancient cult of the Hidden Ones, descended from the pre-cataclysm Yezm, who has managed to reunite sects of their cult who had wandered for hundreds of years, with followers in positions of power all over the region. He shows Conan a garden paradise where faithful servants are drugged into a stupor, surrounded by beautiful women, convinced they have died and gone to heaven. Then, he explains his plans for world conquest, and has already ordered assassinations. Conan, wondering how powerful the Magus truly can be if he must wait for the Tiger's approval, asks about Nanaia. The Magus claims, rather clumsily, to not know what Conan is talking about, and summons Khaza to escort Conan to his chambers.
  • 4. Whispering Swords
    Conan is given food and wine, but the wine is drugged. He ignores it and scarfs down the food when a dancing girl, Parusati, arrives. She is terrified at first, but Conan calms her down and she tells him how she was kidnapped and forced into slavery. She was supposed to find, search, and interrogate a drugged Conan. Conan asks her about Nanaia, and is told she had managed to grab a dagger and slay the brother of Zahak, the captain Conan had met earlier. Zahak demanded her life, and not even the Magus could deny that request. She is now imprisoned in the Magus' dungeon. When Conan tells Parusati he will free her and destroy the cult, she shows him a hidden passage that can take him to Nanaia. She and another had planned to escape through the secret corridors, and had planted weapons and food throughout. An armed Conan slays the lone Hyrkanian guard and frees Nanaia. He begins to drag the body to a brightly decorated door to hide it, but a terrified Parusati stops him, saying a demon is imprisoned in there. They decided to wrap the body in Nanaia's clothes and put it in her cell to confuse the guards. They return to Conan's room, and Nanaia remains in the passage. He tells Parusati to return after dark, and she takes her leave. Thinking that the Magus was too suspicious to rely on only one report, he smears his lips with the drugged wine and pretends to sleep. Soon, another girl enters the room, and Conan allows her to carefully search his body, figuring he might as well rest while he can.
  • 5. The Mask Falls
    The next day, Conan is summoned, for the Tiger has returned. Unfortunately for Conan, the Tiger is Olgerd Vladislav, an old enemy. Vladislav tells the Magus that Conan will swiftly betray him, and the Magus casually tells Vladislav to do what he wants with Conan. Vladislav approaches Conan, slowly drawing his saber, savoring the moment, and immediately finds himself on the floor, jaw bloodied, and Conan, now armed, tearing through a dozen soldiers and cultists, on a path towards the Magus. He's slowed by archers, and plunges out a window into the garden. From there, he leaps onto the outer wall, leading to the ravine surrounding the city. A guard on the wall attempts to stop him, but Conan simply uses him as a cushion as he falls into the ravine below.
  • 6. The Haunter of the Gulches
    Conan uses the soldier as a shield to escape the next swarm of arrows, but before he goes is taunted by Olgerd on the wall. Unfortunately, Conan is lost in a labyrinth of knife-edged ravines, littered with skeletal remains. He scrambles to a slightly higher vantage point and sees a path that might take him close to the cliffs of the valley, but he has to retrace his steps back to the walls of the city, which he does cautiously. Surprisingly, the body of the guard is gone, and wonders if that mysterious door in the dungeon, and the demon that lived within, exited to the ravine, and he soon finds the door itself, but it will not open. He is startled to hear a slow, constant drumming sound, but it soon ceases. He heads down the path he believes will take him to the mountain, but is stopped in his tracks by a monstrous snow ape, who charges at Conan. He kills the beast, and finds a possible path to freedom. However, he turns back to the city with a plan to rescue Nanaia.
  • 7. Death in the Palace
    Conan waits behind the outer door, where he suspects that food is delivered to the snow ape. His patience is rewarded as the door opens a crack and a man begins to place vegetables outside. Conan leaps forward and beheads the man. He creeps inside the door and into the dungeons, taking a guard prisoner. The guard leads Conan to the cells of Antar and the Zuagir who had allowed Conan entrance to the city, and were now imprisoned by the Magus. Conan has them swear allegiance to him and he releases and begins to arm them. They begin to search for Nanaia when they hear the mysterious drum beats again. Antar says the drums have been appearing for months now, and the Magus has nearly torn the city apart searching for their source. The band enters the palace under cover of darkness, slaying the guards, and Conan climbs into the window of the throne room, where Nanaia lies bound, interrogated by the Magus. Conan makes short work of the mute Kushite guards and faces the Magus, whose gaze freezes Conan in his tracks. The Magus approaches Conan to deal a killing blow, but a scream from Nanaia distracts him for a moment, and Conan wrenches his gaze free from the sorceror's. The Magus races to unbolt the doors and let his guards in, but Conan throws his sword, pinning the Magus to the door and killing him.
  • 8. Wolves at Bay
    Conan and Nanaia meet up with the Zuagirs in the garden, but find their path back to the dungeon blocked. They flee to a tall mage tower where the Magus stored magic devices and arms, bolting the impassable door behind them. The Zuagirs begin to fire arrows at the hundred Hyrkanian guards that have swarmed into the garden, who have brought forth a battering ram and ladders, and are now led by Olgerd. Conan tips over one ladder, and arrows bring down another, and soon the Hyrkanians are scattered. Under cover of darkness, Olgerd taunts Conan, and his men begin to build seige engines out of sight of the Zuagirs. Conan realizes his only hope is the arrival of his Kushafi allies, but as morning comes, Olgerd's helepolis rolls through the garden walls on a path for the tower. Conan and his remaining followers brace themselves for the inevitable swarm, but the Hyrkanians suddenly abandon their position and flee.
  • 9. The Fate of Yanaidar
    In the surprising silence of the courtyard, Conan once again hears the mysterious drumbeats, but he focuses instead on a welcome sight - Balash and his men have crested the mountain, and although reinforcements are welcome, from Conan's vantage point he can see Olgerd recalling his men in order to lay a trap for the unsuspecting Kushafi. Conan and his allies race to attack Olgerd's forces from behind as the Kushafi are lured into an ambush. The surprise savagery from the rear spoils the ambush, and Conan hacks his way through to the front and reunites with his men, and the Kushafi and kozaki redouble their efforts. Conan himself slays Olgerd, but during a battle with Gotarza, things change. Suddenly, the entire mob is attacked by grey ghouls, the original inhabitants of Yanaidar, and everyone flees to the mountains. Conan takes stock of the stituation and Antar reveals he slayed Zahak. Gotarza tells Conan he is honor bound to bring him in, but he doesn't wish for more men to die. He offers single combat with Conan, who wearily agrees. The battle just begins when Bardiya approaches with news from Anshan - Kobad Shah is dead, and his son, Arshak, now rules and has called off the bounty on Conan. It seems Yezdigerd of Turan is marching armies toward Iranistan and everyone is recalled. Conan realizes this is the perfect time to resume raiding the Turanian steepes, and with his ranks replenished by now leaderless Hyrkanians, he heads north with Nanaia.

Differences from Howard's original story[]

De Camp gave El Borak's role to Conan, deleted and added place and setting information, and extensively re-worked the plot and story-line so that a new "Howard" story could be added to the Gnome Press series in 1955.


  • Conan
  • Tubal, Shemite kozaki
  • Nanaia
  • Hattusas, Zamoran kozaki *
  • Kobad Shah, King of Iranistan *
  • Gotarza, Iranistanian captain of the royal guard
  • Bardiya, Iranistanian major-domo
  • Balash, Kushafi chief and bandit
  • Antar, Zuagir guard
  • Zahak, captain of Yanaidar *
  • Virata of Kosala, The Magus of the Sons of Yezem
  • Khaza, Stygian servant and advisor to the Magus
  • Parusati, Iranistani slave girl
  • Olgerd Vladislav, Zaporoskan raider *

* - dies in this story


  • Iranistan
    • Anshan, capital of Iranistan
    • The Ilbars Mountains
  • Drujistan
    • Yanaidar, city buried deep in the Gorge of Ghosts

Continuity Notes[]

Conan may or may not have made good his boast to burn Jehungir's city of Khawarizm, but in any event he builds his combined kozak and pirate raiders into so formidable a threat that King Yezdigerd calls off his march of empire to crush them. The Turanian forces are ordered back from the frontiers and in one massive assault succeed in breaking up the kozak host. Some survivors ride east into the wilds of Hyrkania, others west to join the Zuagirs in the desert. With a sizable band, Conan retreats southward through the passes of the Ilbars Mountains to take service as light cavalry in the army of one of Yezdigerd's strongest rivals, Khobad Shah, king of Iranistan. - Conan the Wanderer

Miller/Clark/deCamp Chronology
Previous Story:
"The Devil in Iron"
"The Flame Knife" Next Story:
"The People of the Black Circle"
Robert Jordan Chronology
Previous Story:
"The Devil in Iron"
"The Flame Knife" Next Story:
"The People of the Black Circle"
William Galen Gray Chronology
Previous Story:
"The Devil in Iron"
"The Flame Knife" Next Story:
Conan and the Shaman's Curse


Publication history[]