After seeing off the bandits, the fleeing villain swears that they will have Conan’s sword. The narrative stops to comment on how weird it is that they specifically want his sword, so safe to say this isn’t just a pack of bandits asking for the one valuable thing Conan carried and then their leader getting unreasonably attached to it when they were denied. Also, Conan is so dumb that Elashi has to point out the possibility of looting the corpses for cash to him, even though he plans to be a thief. It is again difficult to tell whether Steve Perry is buying into the “Conan is dumb” flanderization or if he’s just copy/pasting the “dumb husband” sitcom tropes endemic to the 80s (and which live on through ever worse seasons of the Simpsons and assorted Seth MacFarlane shows to this day).
Conan and Elashi come to stay at an inn in some wintery part of Corinthia, because apparently the road winds through Corinthia a bit before getting into Zamora. Feels a bit like Steve Perry wanted Conan’s journey from Hyperborea to Zamora to not only be exhaustively documented, but to be a grand tour of Hyboria’s northeast-ish. This is not a terrible idea, except that the only places visited in Brythunia were the Suddah Oblates, spider town, and the village that lived in the shadow of Neg the necromancer. Aquilonia is an aristocratic monarchy with knights and legions and such, Zamora is a land of thieves and assassins, Stygia is a place full of ancient magic and occult power, and Brythunia is…home to lots of small time cults, I guess? But I never got the impression that Neg’s village and spider town were meant to be typical exemplars of what Brythunia was like.
Anyway, there’s a guy who works for the inn who makes fun of some dim-witted bandits, and his zingers are one step up from “your face is stupid!” but still somehow manage to sail over one of the bandits’ heads. I guess it’s not completely unreasonable that this bandit is just real dumb, but from Conan’s reaction, we’re meant to believe this guy is actually laugh out loud funny with lines like “I can see that you are a wit. No, on second pass, I think that is probably only half true.” When this inevitably results in violence, it turns out this “witty” fellow knows kung fu. Like, almost literally. He learned it from the men of Khitai somehow, despite the fact that they’re on the other side of a desert, a sea, and a steppe (or a desert, some tundra, and a bit more of a steppe, or a whole lot more of desert, some mountains, and about the same amount of steppe as the first time – there’s a lot of routes there, none of them friendly). Also, Conan gets involved, nominally because Elashi threatened to get involved if he wouldn’t, so he caved to her demands again, but really because God forbid we have a fight in a tavern and Conan not get involved. I wouldn’t even be down on it if Conan was just straight up like “a fight in a tavern? Sign me up, this is my jam!” But instead the narrative contrives to involve him rather than just letting this Lalo fellow fight alone, since apparently he’s Bruce Lee.
So this Lalo guy knows the villain from earlier:
“Who exactly is this Harskeel?” Conan asked.
“Not ‘who’ precisely, but more of ‘what,'” Lalo said. “Its full name is Harskeel of Loplain, and it is an hermaphrodite – half man, half woman.”
I don’t know if it occurred to Steve Perry, writing as he was in 1989, that people similar-ish to what he was describing might actually exist (it’s hard for me to get outside the context of the era I live in and know if this would seem particularly relevant to transgender issues if those issues weren’t a big deal right now, but also intersex people exist and are quite a bit closer to how Harskeel is depicted), but ignorance alone can’t explain why having a weird body configuration makes someone a “what” instead of a “who.” This is fantasy and it’s 1989, the ship on non-human protagonists sailed a long time ago. Lieutenant Data’s been on the air for two years, and if being a robot doesn’t make someone a “what” then how is being a human who combines bits of anatomy not normally found together more bizarre?
Lalo is cursed by a wizard to make fun of anyone he crosses paths with, including Conan, who declines to murder him on account of the curse thing. It occurs to me that Lalo could just be bullshitting, it’s not like any effort at all was made to check, so dear God, add to our terrible villain concept a wacky comic relief character. Conan the Defiant had flaws that crowded out its cool ideas, but Conan the Indomitable is shaping up to be 100% flaws.
Harskeel’s backstory is that they were once two people, lovers who botched a spell to bring them closer together and ended up fused. Desiring to be split apart again, they seek a sword bathed in the blood of its owner, who must be sufficiently brave, at which point the sword will be usable to split them in twain again. So, it actually has nothing to do with Conan’s sword being the one he retrieved from the Thing in the Crypt. Also, does the blood have to be lethal quantities? Could you just go around asking brave people to cut their palms on their sword? Explain your situation and offer to pay them for the inconvenience and you’d probably only have to resort to murder like a third of the time.
Here, the book suddenly takes a bizarre turn and becomes good. Good in the way that you would expect a Steve Perry Conan book to suddenly become good: By introducing some fantasy concepts that had previously not shown up in Conan, but which fit in alongside everything else. Y’know, it’s not like there’s an elf kingdom in Aquilonia imported straight from a Tolkien rip-off or whatever. In this case, a wizard named Katamay Rey is scrying on Conan from a mysterious grotto. Which, really, Hyboria was already lousy with evil wizards, but the submarine theme is something, at least. It’s not the best fiction I’ve ever read, but I am at least glad I’m reading it, in stark contrast to the first two chapters.
Katamay Rey sends a cyclopean hunchback to “the Northern Chambers” to try and safeguard it from…Conan, I guess? It’s kind of vague, which isn’t good, but before I can dwell on it too long, the scene pivots to a witch named Chuntha, who is sending a giant earthworm to the same “Northern Chambers” with instructions to make alliance with anyone who’s open to joining forces against “That Bastard,” who I’m currently guessing is Katamay Rey. The list of potential allies includes “the bats,” “the Whites,” and “the Webspinners,” and there’s also mention of those treading forbidden paths in the lands above. A subterranean world caught in conflict between two magic users with three lesser factions, at least two of which sound like bizarre fantastical creatures? I am intrigued. I expect Conan the Indomitable will have Conan the Defiant’s problem of proceeding through encounters one after another with one having little impact on the rest, nor on the ultimate outcome of the story, but at least this time our journey is through a bizarre fantasy underworld and not a bunch of empty wilderness that is occasionally home to a particularly large wolf.
The rest of the chapter is a montage, with Harskeel setting out with their small army of bandits to hunt down Conan, Katamay Rey’s cyclops and Chuntha’s giant worm thing both moving through different parts of the cave system, and Conan laughing off Elashi’s concern for some “watchbeast” that guards the short road to Zamora. During this montage, we learn a bit more details about the bats, the Whites, and the Webspinners. The bats are, as you’d expect, giant bats. The Webspinners are apparently quite stationary and thin, though I don’t know if this means they literally can’t move or just that they’re a bunch of spiders who are cool hanging out where they are because they’ve got all their webs set up there. The Whites are…a bunch of white apes. Did Lovecraft start this trend? Or was it John Carter?
The watchbeast is some kind of giant rat monster, so that’s another time that Conan has disregarded the warning of a more knowledgeable female companion. We’ll see whether it’s Conan, Elashi, neither, or both who ends up paying the price for it. The immediate consequence is just that Harskeel (now called “the Harskeel” for some reason) and their bandits end up fighting the watchbeast when they startle it while bearing down on Conan and Elashi. The two of them slip away from the melee, Conan declares that they are perfectly safe, and they are then swallowed up into the underground. This book really likes the “Conan is dumb” trope.