“Kwasin and the Bear God” – Read the opening scene!
For your reading pleasure, the first of many excerpts from The Worlds of Philip José Farmer 2: Of Dust and Soul. For fans of Philip José Farmer’s novels Hadon of Ancient Opar and Flight to Opar, this is a long awaited treat. Based on an alternate outline of the third Khokarsa novel (which, by the way, has been completed by Christopher Paul Carey and will be published in 2012!), this novella sends the exiled giant Kwasin off on his wildest and most hair-raising adventure yet.
Kwasin and the Bear God
Philip José Farmer & Christopher Paul Carey
When Kwasin crawled from the tiny fishing boat and began hauling it up the sandy slope, he did not know he trod upon the City of the Snake. If he had, he thought later, he might have rowed back out to sea as quickly as his great muscles could carry him, eager to face the boatload of Minruth’s sailors headlong rather than risk disturbing the demons and spirits rumored to haunt this place.
But then again, he was Kwasin, defiler of the Temple of Kho. Even the fact that the Goddess had cursed the grounds of these timeworn ruins might not have been enough to give him pause. Still, in his heart, he had never forsaken Kho, even when the oracle had cast him from civilization and doomed him to exile in the Wild Lands. And secretly he knew he could not escape the superstitions of his people. Though Kwasin was as brave and free a spirit as any that walked the land, the folktales instilled in him during childhood sometimes spoke with a voice louder than that of his adult rationality.
By the time he had hidden the boat amid the thorny flora that grew along the seaside cliffs, Kwasin was already beginning to have misgivings about his chosen landing site. Looking down the beach to his right he could make out in several places broad and flat outcroppings of granite emerging from the sand at irregular angles. Surely these were the remnants of an ancient quay. Farther up the slope shadows arched eastward from vague but towering projections vaulting slantingly in what seemed an unnatural fashion out of the uneven landscape. The shadows were darker emanations within the penumbra of the mountains that rose sharply from the site’s western periphery.
The mountains were the Saasanadar. In order to get to Dythbeth he would either have to go around them by boat along the northern coast of the island or head deeper inland and pass to their south. Both routes carried great risk. Minruth’s forces were everywhere, including on the waters at the mouth of the Gulf of Gahete. Only minutes ago Kwasin had barely escaped the notice of one of the king’s galleys. Or he hoped he had. The bireme had appeared just as Kwasin was rounding the narrow cape that curved into the sea just east of the beach where he had then landed.
His boat now safely hidden, Kwasin sprinted up the slope and into the shadows. Here the land leveled out, although dark, barrowlike mounds rose in places out of the grassy mud and all around him jutted the immense, shadow-spawning projections. A breeze was blowing steadily from the northwest in advance of a storm front. In the distance, lightning flashed, followed a few moments later by a deep booming.
A closer examination of the projections quickly confirmed his suspicions. The giant outcroppings were not natural formations but rather great monoliths of ancient construction, and the drawings carved upon them, though but faintly visible in twilight’s shadow, only heightened his fears about the place.
The symbols on the stones did not resemble modern hieroglyphs. Rather, they were crude, pitted images, graven by primitive hands and likely dating to an era long before Awines invented his syllabary. Some of the petroglyphs depicted Kho as the Bird-Headed Mother; that is, as a steatopygic and large-breasted woman with the head of a fish-eagle. Many of the monuments, however, bore another image: that of a long-fanged serpent coiling tightly as if its deathly embrace meant to draw blood from stone. Everywhere the serpent carvings were surrounded by swarms of spiral pictographs.
He recalled the scribe Hinokly once remarking upon the ancient spiral found in the early stonework of the Klemreskom, the Fish-Eagle People who first populated the island of Khokarsa. The scribe had said Awines had adapted the symbol into the Khokarsan syllabary to represent Kho, in correspondence to the ancient glyph’s original meaning. Then Hinokly had laughed darkly and said that Awines had not wanted the glyph in the syllabary to match too closely the primitive image, so he had altered it, for it was said that he who gazed too long at the deasil spiral would become as the living dead, lost for all eternity enraptured by Great Kho’s terrible beauty.
Kwasin had scoffed at the latter notion, but he told the scribe he had seen similar spiral pictographs carved into the cliffs near where he had lived along the southern sea as a youth. Hinokly had told him the images were doubtless carved there by the aborigines long before the priestess-heroine Lupoeth first explored the region, and their existence so far south was proof that the symbol was ancient indeed.
Kwasin shuddered in the cool shadow of the black stones that rose about him. Were the carvings of the Goddess and clockwise-spinning gyres warnings from Kho to avoid this place or else risk facing the snake demons said to inhabit the ruins?
He did not know, but gazing up at the whorls and slithering creatures decorating the age-old monoliths, he was sure of one thing—he indeed stood among the moldering ruins of fabled Miterisi, the City of the Snake.
Kwasin started as a parrot screeched and flew out at him from behind one of the great columns of stone. He shook his head as if awakening from a trance and forced himself to turn away from the spirals. How long had he been standing here? He could not say for sure, but the scribe’s superstitious yarn about getting lost in the vortex of Kho’s ancient symbol had apparently played upon his ingrained fears about the site.
He cursed. Looking back to the beach, he saw two sailors emerging from a skiff in the shallows. Now they were dragging the craft toward shore. A second skiff—empty—already lay upon the beach, its crew nowhere in sight.
Since he had begun gazing at the stones, the temperature had dropped several degrees and the breeze from the approaching storm now blew with increasing force. If it had not been for the bird, how much longer would he have stood there unknowing?
Kwasin dropped the thought from his mind and slipped behind the nearest monolith, swearing silently.
For a brief moment he had again felt drawn to stare at the whorls.
He crouched behind the enormous stone and listened. Other than the occasional parrot’s chittering caw, the sea breeze, the occasional clap of thunder, and the surf lapping in the distance, he could hear nothing. He slipped the leather thong of his ax from around his shoulder and relished the comfortable feel of the weapon’s half-petrified antelope-bone handle in his grip. Then he peered from behind the stone.
A sword thrust violently upward from the shadows, sheening in a flash from the heavens. If the lighting had not illuminated the blade, Kwasin might have missed it amid the rapidly diminishing twilight.
He swung his ax. Earthly iron clanked against the meteoritic iron of Kwasin’s weapon. His attacker, whom Kwasin could make out only vaguely in the dimness of the gully below him, grunted at the blow. Overcome by fury, Kwasin leaped downward.
If his attacker had also held a sword in his off-hand, it might have been Kwasin’s final action. But the man didn’t, and instead of meeting instant death, Kwasin kneed his assailant in the abdomen with the full force of his downward leap. The man sprawled on his back in the sloping ditch, momentarily stunned, while Kwasin finished him off with a single blow of his ax.
Something whirred past Kwasin’s head as he rose from the corpse. A loud crack came from the monolith above him and small bits of stone showered down upon his head and naked shoulders. Then Kwasin was running for the next monolith. Though the monument he had just jumped from behind was nearer cover, it was not in his nature to remain on the defensive, even against an opponent wielding a sling. He would face his attackers head-on.
Kwasin almost stumbled midstride. For an instant, he thought he had seen a naked female figure standing tall upon one of the stone monuments, lit up in the fleeting brilliance of another heavenly flash. The figure had held forth what looked like a crooked, snake-headed staff. Or it could have been a real snake. He could not be sure. The whole thing might have been a false apparition, conjured in his mind by the unnerving images of Kho and the coiling pythons upon the tall, black stones.
He made it to the monument but paused only briefly behind it. Then he was running again, this time toward the shore, jumping over the rocks and small boulders that littered the scape between the barrowlike mounds. If any sling-stones whirred past him, he did not notice.
Cold rain sprinkled Kwasin’s face as he ran. A moment later, the darkened heavens clamored with fury, and in the next, a deluge of hail and sleet assailed him in what was surely a bad omen. The sungod Resu—who, in his rage at his mother and ex-lover Kho, had sided with King Minruth in the bloody civil war—was also the god of rain.
A javelin hurtled at Kwasin out of the dark but its deadly point missed him, thudding into the muddy ground before him. Kwasin jumped over the weapon and veered to his left toward where he judged the javelin had come.
Then he saw the thrower emerge from behind a mound not twenty strides away, winding up his sling for a throw.
Kwasin looked for cover, but seeing none, roared in competition with the heavens’ din and charged the slinger. Kwasin knew it was a desperate act, but maybe the sight of the furious seven-foot-tall giant charging forward would cause the slinger to flee or to fumble his throw.
The tactic had worked for Kwasin in the past, but the slinger who confronted him now seemed frustratingly cool and levelheaded. He continued to whirl his sling as Kwasin closed upon him, tightening the revolutions of the weapon’s cradle to compensate for the changing proximity of his target.
Blood drained from Kwasin face. He would take the full brunt of the projectile at close range.
Suddenly, the man reeled. The sling-stone shot out of its cradle, flying off harmlessly into the night.
Kwasin ran forward and examined the man, who had pitched forward into the slick, gravelly mud, face down and unmoving. For a moment, Kwasin saw no wound upon the man. Then, running his hand over the man’s back in the freezing rain, he felt something protruding from the skin: a thistle-fletched bamboo dart, impaled deeply.
He grabbed the fallen man by his long hair, lifted up his head, and placed a hand before the man’s nose and mouth. Though frigid rain pelted Kwasin’s palm, he felt warm, shallow breaths upon it.
The dart was doubtless tipped with a paralytic.
Kwasin dropped the man’s face into the mud and looked about. Perhaps he had not imagined the woman atop the monolith after all.
After dispatching the man, Kwasin got up and again made for the shore. This time, however, he proceeded at a cautious jog, his roving eyes seeking to penetrate the gloom of night and storm.
Kwasin arrived at the shore to find it unoccupied except for the two empty skiffs. Grinning darkly, he went to work with his ax smashing great holes in the bottoms of the boats, all the while keeping watch inland, though he could no longer see farther than a few yards in the storm-wracked night. Finished with his sabotage, he looked out to sea, wondering what had become of the bireme that had landed the party of marines on shore. Doubtless she was having a hard time of it on the storm-lashed waves, and he could only hope her captain had taken the vessel back out to sea to avoid being driven onto the shallows.
A man’s throaty cry turned Kwasin’s attention away from the sea and back inland. Still thwarted by darkness, he took off rapidly toward the ruins and the direction of the shout, his great ax held ready in two hands.
When he came to the top of the slope he could just make out the form of a woman in the murk of the ruins ahead. Her long, dark hair whipped wildly in the wind and in her hands she held a long tube. In a crouched stance, she crept forward toward a crumpled form several paces before her on the ground. The form could have been an outcropping for all Kwasin could tell, but in context of the cry he had heard only moments earlier, the scene told it all: the woman had struck down a marine with her blowgun and she was quietly advancing to ascertain whether her dart had fully immobilized its target.
Then, to Kwasin’s horror, he perceived amid the shadows a dark, man-sized figure moving up just behind the woman. Kwasin bellowed a warning but it was too late. The woman screamed as the shadowy figure enveloped her. The bamboo tube of the blowgun clunked hollowly as the woman flailed it against an adjoining pillar in an attempt to repel her attacker. Then the tube clattered to the stony ground. The woman grunted as if struck and went limp.
Kwasin was already running into the ruins at the first glimpse of the woman’s attacker, but by the time he arrived at the spot, he found the man had slipped into the shadows, apparently dragging the woman with him. For a moment, Kwasin bent low and looked for prints in the muddy ground, but the black night made the endeavor impossible. He got up and began running frantically from monument to monument, rapidly circling behind the stones in search of the marine and his captive.
As Kwasin stepped momentarily out of the rain beneath the protection of a half-toppled monolith, something cold and soft slithered across his ankle. He froze. Looking down he saw a grotesque and bloated wormlike form glide across the black ground, its pale skin patterned evenly with darker diamond-shaped markings. The priestess’s python, free of its mistress, must have sought out the relative dryness provided by the vaulting pillar.
He shuddered, thinking of his mother’s death by snake bite when he had been but ten years old. While the serpent that had struck and killed his mother had not been a python, the pictographs on the surrounding monuments unnerved him. That, and the dreams that had assailed him since his return from the Wild Lands—horrendous visions of his mother’s death, played over and over until he thought he might go mad. What did they mean? Might the nightmares presage his death in the ruins of cursed Miterisi?
But adversity, rather than daunting him, more often served Kwasin as a catalyst to overcome what he considered self-weakness. And so, biting back his revulsion, the giant leaned over, lifted up the snake, and looped it over his great shoulders. Despite the cause of his mother’s death, he held no deep fear of snakes. It was only Goddess-forsaken Miterisi that now unsettled him in this regard. Following his mother’s death, he had frequently forced himself to handle serpents, much to his cousin Hadon’s dismay, who awoke all too often to find a slithering companion in his bed.
This last thought brought a grin to Kwasin’s face, and thus distracted, he almost stumbled into a narrow opening in the ground that he had overlooked in the dark. A fortuitous lightning flash, however, prevented the accident, and also revealed a distinct handprint in the mud that ringed the stone-lined, circular hole. The marine had taken his captive down into the underground chamber—perhaps an ancient storage bin for grain or some other harvest—in the hope that he could wait out the giant who sought to slay him. The man had apparently taken the woman as a failsafe—if Kwasin cornered him, the man would threaten to kill his hostage.
For a moment, Kwasin considered his options. He could move one of the small boulders that littered the site overtop the opening and thus seal the marine in a living tomb. This would require the least risk and effort on his part, but he would also be entombing the woman who had risked her life to defend him. He could also drop down into the hole, hoping the element of surprise would aid him. The marine, however, would be waiting below to dispatch Kwasin with his sword. But it was a third option that Kwasin found the most appealing.
Slowly and carefully, he knelt down beside the hole and uncoiled the python from his shoulders. As the snake slithered down an arm, Kwasin lowered the creature toward the opening in the ground. The python paused briefly; then, finding a ledge of rough stone cropping from one side of the hole’s interior, it slid down into the earth.
A fleeting guilt tinged Kwasin’s conscience as he thought of the woman, a guilt he quickly cast off. To live, one often had to do unpleasant things, even if that meant risking the life of a potential ally. Besides, he had seen the woman handle the snake when she stood illuminated by lighting atop the stone pillar—the python appeared to be her familiar. Had he not also seen the oracle at Dythbeth seemingly command her sacred serpent before his very eyes upon the occasion of the pronouncement of his exile to the Wild Lands? The priestesses of Kho—and this woman was certainly one—seemed to have an affinity with their ophidian pets. Surely the woman’s own snake would not harm her.
But doubt returned as Kwasin stood above the hole, the rain running in small waterfalls off the colossal column of black stone. For a long while he stood there waiting, until the fury of the storm abated to a gentle drizzle and he began to wonder if the man had indeed crawled into the pit. Then, at last, it came—a choked-off male scream of utter terror.
Kwasin grinned. His inspired decision had been the right one. After all, in cursed Miterisi, was it not best to ally with the local snake god than to fight against him?
A short time later the woman crawled slowly up out of the dark mouth in the earth, the whitish-scaled, diamond-spotted python draped over her back and coiling around a shoulder and arm. She was indeed a priestess, as evidenced by the jewel-studded ceremonial dagger sheathed upon her shapely hip. She must have recovered the blade from her captor after the snake had strangled him.
Kwasin made the sign of Kho and the priestess’s strong white teeth glistened back at him in the darkness.
He had been about to speak but stopped himself abruptly. Did the woman’s canines look a little too long, a little too sharp? A little too…snakelike?
Kwasin frowned at himself, then laughed—a trifle nervously, he thought. No, it was just these cursed ruins playing tricks on his mind once more. When he saw the woman in the bright daylight he was sure she would appear as ravishingly and humanly beautiful as the darkness of the night hinted.
“What are you looking at?” the priestess said. “We must hurry. Now that the storm’s abated, the shipmates of the sailors we’ve killed will likely come ashore looking for their men. Let’s go!”
The woman reached out for his hand, but Kwasin hesitated. When the woman had spoken, had he merely imagined that her tongue flicked out from between her luscious lips in a most unmistakably reptilian fashion?
Kwasin frowned again. Then, uttering a half facetious—and half serious—prayer to Kho, he took her cold, tiny hand in his own warm, giant one and headed out into the night.
Copyright © 2011 by the Philip J. Farmer Family Trust
That is a mere taste—only 3,300 out of over 20,000 words—of this action-packed novella!
To find out what happens next, order your copy of The Worlds of Philip José Farmer 2: Of Dust and Soul! Be sure to check out the deals we have available if you already own a copy of The Worlds of Philip José Farmer 1: Protean Dimensions, or if you want to order both volumes together. In either case you will get the same numbered copy (out of only 500 copies) of each volume.