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Literature / Xuthal of the Dusk

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"Xuthal of the Dusk" (a.k.a. "The Slithering Shadow") is a Conan the Barbarian story written by Robert E. Howard. First published in September, 1933.

Conan and Natala, a woman he rescued from slavers, have become lost in the desert after Conan's forces are decimated in a surprise attack. Fearing either capture or death of dehydration, Conan prepares to Mercy Kill the two of them, until Conan spots what appears to be a city in the distance.

The city has a violet glow about it and is surrounded by hundred foot walls. The city seems abandoned except for people that seem like corpses, and when they wake they appear mad. The two steal food and water until they are met by Thalis, a former slave herself who came upon the city in much the same way Conan and Natala did. She instantly takes a liking to Conan. Thalis explains that the people of the city live in a constant state of dreaming, with their bodily needs taken care of by their technology. The only thing they have to worry about is Thog, the Eldritch Abomination who lives under the city and gives it its power, coming up every now and then looking for a meal.

Natala begs Conan to leave, saying that such a city is cursed and unnatural, and Conan agrees, but Thalis won't have it: she wants Conan all to herself and plans to sacrifice Natala to Thog!

It has been adapted by both Marvel Comics in their Savage Sword of Conan magazine and by Darkhorse Comics in their Conan the Avenger comic.

Xuthal of the Tropes:

  • Arcology: The City of Xuthal is one of these. All their needs are handled by their advanced technology, including conjuring food from "the base elements". The buildings of the city are also all interconnected so that it resembles one gigantic palace.
  • Beautiful Slave Girl: Conan found Natala in a Shemite slave market, and took her with him on his latest misadventure, which resulted in them wandering in the desert almost dead of thirst.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Well, tapestries. Conan tears and ties silken tapestries into rope to finally escape Xuthal.
  • Berserk Button: Whether Conan and Natala's relationship is romantic, sexual, or something else entirely, he considers her "his," and imperiling her is a fatal career choice. Loads of Xuthal men and Thog find this out firsthand. Thalis dies before she can be shown the depth of her mistake.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Quite literally with Xuthal inhabitants. They are extremely technologically advanced compared to the rest of Hyboria and are capable of learning new languages almost immediately, but they spend almost all their time dreaming on Black Lotus.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Thalis notices Conan noticing her naked body, and soon erotically glomps him in an attempt to seduce him. When Natala notices this, Conan has the grace to be embarrassed.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Natala and Thalis, both toward Conan. This isn't going to end well.
  • Damsel in Distress: Natala. Probably the straightest example in Howard's Conan works thus far.
  • Designated Girl Fight: Natala struggles valiantly when Thalis abducts her. Natala even slashes Thalis with her own jeweled dagger.
  • Diamonds in the Buff: Thalis is described as "clad in a narrow girdle crusted with jewels," and that's the extent of attention paid to her wardrobe. Conan also encounters a woman of Xuthal dressed so.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Armed only with a normal sword Conan inflicts so much damage on Thog that it retreats back to wherever it is that it lives when not stalking the halls of Xuthal.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Thog, whose only distinct feature is a frog-like head, whose body remains cloaked in shadow, and whose method of locomotion defies Natala's understanding. Conan describes fighting to be like fighting many different animals all at once.
  • The Fatalist: Thalis. When Thog wants you, he will take you, no sense fretting about it. The inhabitants of Xuthal as a whole follow this example. They know that their society is doomed, they'll be extinct in a few generations, and they could easily relocate and rebuild just a day or two away from their current settlement... but they just can't be bothered.
  • Fantastic Light Source: The interior of the city is lit by crystals powered by radium. Thalis demonstrates they can be turned on or off by rubbing them with a finger.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: When Natala goes into hysterics thinking that they have both died and are ghosts, Conan spanks her and tells her that her reaction proves that she's still corporeal. In general, Conan is noticeably more physical with Natala throughout the story, as she's noticeably more hysterical than most women in Conan stories so far.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Both Thalis and Natala, Thalis to the point of trying to Murder the Hypotenuse. Conan calls Natala out on hers in the end.
  • Healing Potion: The golden wine, "which heals wounds, prolongs life, and invigorates the most sated debauchee."
  • Hoist by Her Own Petard: Thalis's torture of Natala means that Thalis is still there when Thog shows up, resulting in Thalis herself being killed instead of Natala, whom she'd wanted him to claim.
  • Hollywood Mirage: Conan fears that he sees this and not a refuge.
  • Human Sacrifice: As a Stygian, Thalis has some experience in this area.
  • Hysterical Woman: Natala is much more emotionally fragile than previous girls of the week, requiring Conan to be a bit more hands-on with her.
  • Informed Attribute: Conan notes that her time with him and his rebel army has made Natala tougher than most civilized women. Not that you could tell from how she acts.
  • It's a Small World, After All: Conan gets so lost in Xuthal he admits only luck will let him find Natala. One Zerg Rush, Fanservice Extra, and Trap Door later, guess who he drops in on.
  • Jabba Table Manners: Conan's table manners are described as "wolfish" at the best of times, but after days wandering in the desert, he completely eschews any sense of propriety. . . or silverware.
  • Just in Time: Right as Natala is suffering the Touch of the Monster, Conan happens to drop by. On a villainous note, the men of Xuthal wake up and attack Conan right after Thalis abducts Natala.
  • Leg Cling: The second paragraph of the story describes Natala like this.
    At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blond head drooped. Her white skin contrasted against his hard bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic, low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasized rather than concealed her lithe figure.
  • Living Shadow: Thog, who light refuses to illuminate as it would a sane creature.
  • Look Behind You: Thalis tells Conan to watch a door, afraid she heard something, then grabs Natala and retreats through a secret door.
  • Magitek: Xuthal seems to run on it. Their crystals create light with friction and Thalis mention they are great in many scientific fields (and other fields like cooking) but too high on gray lotus to care.
  • Mercy Kill: Conan considers killing Natala at the start of the story when they run out of water as he is not sure they can find a safe place in time and doesn't want her to spend her last moment suffering from thirst.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Thalis, in-universe and out. The men of Xuthal were quite taken with her when she arrived, and she proudly claims to be the only thing for which they'll leave their lotus dreams. She seems quite happy to be Xuthal's "village bicycle."
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Thalis attempts it, reasoning that Conan desires her, but feels obligation to Natala, and with Natala gone, Thalis can have Conan all to herself. Natala lampshades that Thalis has seriously misjudged Conan.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Being Stygian, Thalis is quite blase about Thog eating the inhabitants of Xuthal, asking what difference it makes if a priest offers a sacrifice to the god or if the god comes to take it in person. Conan and Natala, whose societies don't practice Human Sacrifice, think this is ridiculous.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Whatever Thog does to Thalis. She did say that Thog's hunger and lust needs to be sated, and that Natala would be "bride of he who dwells below."
    From the black shadows came sounds, incomprehensible and blood-freezing. She heard Thalis' voice pleading frenziedly, but no voice answered. There was no sound except the Stygian's panting voice, which suddenly rose to screams of agony, and then broke in hysterical laughter, mingled with sobs. This dwindled to a convulsive panting, and presently this too ceased, and a silence more terrible hovered over the secret corridor.
  • Security Cling: Conan is not amused when Natala does this as grabbing hold of his sword arm when he might need to use it could get him killed.
  • Schmuck Banquet: Natala fears it. Conan doesn't care, as they are dying anyway. It turns out someone just made a feast than decided to use gray lotus and forgot to eat.
  • A Taste of the Lash: After Natala knifes her superficially, Thalis punishes her with a silken cat o' nine tails.
  • Touch of the Monster: Thog touches Natala with a tentacle, and the touch itself and her reaction are this trope, described in lurid detail.
  • Trap Door: Fleeing from a Xuthal Zerg Rush, Conan rushes into the chambers a Fanservice Extra who dumps him down one of these. It drops him right where Natala is being menaced by Thog.
  • The Underworld: Natala thinks they died and went to one. Conan spanks her back to reality.
  • Unwilling Suspension: Thalis to Natala, all the better to whip her then sacrifice her to Thog.
  • Unstoppable Rage: When Conan sees Thog about to take Natala, he becomes so enraged that he attacks without hesitation and fights so fiercely he causes the monster to retreat.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Thalis's advice. The "fate" she refers to is being eaten by Thog.
  • Zerg Rush: The men of Xuthal attack Conan in this fashion. Being completely unused to battle they are easy for Conan to kill, but is forced to retreat by their sheer numbers.

Alternative Title(s): The Slithering Shadow