The length of their fall was nearly five spans; fortunately, the bottom of the descent was watery.
What’s the point of giving a numeric distance if it’s in a unit that no one knows? And I mean literally no one, because the “span” used here cannot possibly be the historical span, which was the span of your hand from thumb to pinkie. That’s like half a foot, so even with generous rounding we’re talking about a fall of like three feet, here. Clearly this “span” refers to something else. I’m guessing approximately one yard? Just because the author is American, will probably use American units, and five yards is about the distance that seems to have been fallen here. But American units of distance are already pretty old timey and archaic, you can seriously just use them and it makes perfect sense. A foot is roughly the length of a guy’s actual foot, a yard is roughly the length of a man’s stride, a mile was originally 2,000 yards (while marching, your left foot would hit the ground 1,000 times exactly in a mile) but due to conversion issues between Roman and British units wound up being 1,760 yards instead, and the league is about how far you can get walking in an hour. Almost no one uses leagues outside of fantasy context anymore, but they’re at least a sensible unit of distance for iron age peasants walking places. Inches are the only weird one, a length whose definition is three lengths of barleycorn because fuck you, that’s why, but once you’re using all the other units, you may as well use inches, too.
The water isn’t super deep, but Conan and Elashi soon encounter a White. A Blind White, which I think is just their full name, not a specific sub-type. In addition to being a white ape, these things also have oversized ears and no eyes at all, just smooth flesh and bone where the eyes would go on a normal primate. Likewise, we learn that the full name of the bats are “Bloodbats.” I guess that makes sense alongside “fruit bats.” We also learn the full name of the Webspinners is “the Webspinner Plants,” so not actually spiders. This isn’t a masterclass in worldbuilding or anything, but this underground world does get a little bit more interesting every time we learn more about it.
Conan and Elashi fight their way past the Blind Whites, and a three-way chase soon ensues. Katamay Rey’s cyclops minion has the Blind Whites on his side, while Chuntha’s giant worm has the Bloodbats and Webspinner Plants on his. Both of them want to catch Conan, although why isn’t clear. Steve Perry is really consistently good at these build-up scenes, where problems stack up behind our heroes, but he also consistently has them arrive one at a time and fail to do any lasting damage. They neither compound on one another by showing up all at once nor risk wearing our heroes down by noticeably fatiguing them, injuring them, or depleting any kind of limited resource from them. Instead of danger escalating to a moment of cathartic climax during which lots of tension is released and then begins building up again, the story follows roughly a bell curve, with dangers being introduced one by one and then resolved one by one. Of course, that all happened back in 1987. It’s not impossible that he’s shaken that habit here in 1989. We’ll see.
Oh, also, the two wizards are both making plans for what to do with Conan once they catch him, and it’s not clear why they care so much about him yet, but Katamay Rey plans on chopping up his parts for use as ritual components, while Chuntha plans of using him for sex magic. Because of course the female wizard draws her power from sex magic.
Conan and Elashi continue to flee from their assorted pursuers. They come to what appears to be a dead end, but a fellow named Tull appears from a hidden passage behind a waterfall, which they use to escape. He tells them that they’re in the “Grotterium Negrotus,” or the Black Caves if you’re less pretentious about it. Or the Underdark, if you’re being honest. Tull refers to cyclopes and worms plural, whereas so far we’ve seen only a single cyclops and worm each. The cyclopes are Katamay Rey’s minions, the wroms are Chuntha’s, and the other three switch sides now and again. The cyclopes and worms go around sealing up entrances to the surface, though I’m not sure if that’s to keep new intruders from coming in, to prevent creatures already down here from escaping, or just because plot.
Either way, that’s pretty much the entire chapter. These are kinda short.
Harskell has been slowly zeroing in on Conan’s trail for the past couple of chapters. At the opening of chapter six, they’re finally on it, proper. They’ve found the hole down, they’ve descended, and they’ve picked up the tracks of the giant worm that’s hunting Conan, so now they’re hunting that. Not that they know it’s after Conan. Harskell just decides to hunt it anyway, apparently just in case it’s eaten Conan or will eat him in the future.
There’s only two ways out of the secret passage that Tull has led Conan and Elashi to. The one goes back out the waterfall they came from, and the other goes through a breeding chamber of the Bloodbats. The cyclops discovers the hidden waterfall passage from one end, and the Bloodbat leading Chuntha’s worm around knows of the other, so now they’re coming from both sides. Worse, the Bloodbat breeding chamber is filled with a hundred-odd bats, so if those wake up, then Conan will be too horribly outnumbered to stand any kind of chance. So once again, Steve Perry is good at raising the stakes, and this time he might even be good at resolving them. While Conan and company sneak through the breeding chamber, the cyclops and the Blind Whites emerge from behind. One of the Blind Whites trips, impales himself on some stalagmites, and that’s the entire chamber of Bloodbats woken up, just as Chuntha’s worm minion enters from the opposite side of the chamber, and then Harskeel and their bandits show up following the worm! The Bloodbats have no idea who Conan is and why he’s here, and descend on every intruder except the worm, while all the intruders are after Conan.
So on the one hand, it’s an actual climax! In a Steve Perry novel! I would not have predicted this. Back on the other hand, though, we did have one of these back in spider town during Conan the Defiant, and the piled on threats turned out to each be so inconsequential that it felt neither like Conan had escaped by the skin of his teeth, nor like Conan had paid any significant cost for his victory.
This time around, though, it comes across less like Conan plowed through everything in his path without cost, and more like he retreated from an unwinnable fight against an overwhelming swarm of enemies. The fight and escape is brief, but actually good. Steve Perry may have actually shed his pacing problems here, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that this was mainly luck, and that the rest of the book will have disorganized threats showing up one after another to be mown down by an unfazed Conan.
In this case, the threats are mostly dealing with themselves, but the cyclops and the worm agree to team up. Both decide their minions – the Blind Whites and the Bloodbats, respectively – have mainly gotten in the way. This is extremely untrue of the Bloodbats, who have been pretty much the sole reason why the worm was able to catch up to Conan (however briefly), but is basically a fair evaluation of the Blind Whites. It was the cyclops who discovered the hidden passage behind the waterfall. The Harskeel and their men retreat with a wounded bat for interrogation, which will presumably get them filled in on the political situation down here.
Tull leads them into tunnels he’s not familiar with in order to escape the bats. Elashi runs ahead of the group, trips over a ledge, and winds up in water down below. Fortunately, it turns out the water she’s tripped into is a landmark that Tull can recognize. Not only that, it’s a landmark that I can recognize:
A span or so below Conan, Elashi came up from the water, which reached only to her hips. Conan grinned down at her. “I can keep up. It is just that we don’t know these tunnels and we might happen upon something unexpected,” he said.
“I hate you!” Elashi said.
Tull slid to a stop next to Conan, overbalanced and nearly fell but was stopped by an outthrust brawny arm.
“Take care,” Conan said.
Tull nodded, regaining his breath. “The Sunless Sea.”
We’ve been in the ‘Neath the whole time! On the one hand, whole thing takes place in like 10,000 BC, so it’ll be a while before London falls, but on the other hand, Hyboria reliably has recognizable imitations of every civilization from the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean region, so while the actual First and Second Cities are still a ways out, we can be reasonably certain that there will be pretty close facsimiles of one or both around here somewhere. The Fourth isn’t out of the question, either, since we’ve got Hyrkanians up top. I’m less clear on what the state of the Elder Continent is right now, or whether or not Hell had any client states prior to the 19th century Iron Republic.
Also, Elashi getting soaked means she ends up taking her clothes off to wring them out, but the narrative is surprisingly matter of fact about it. Steve Perry seems way more on the ball ever since we got down into the ‘Neath, both compared to earlier chapters and compared to Conan the Defiant. He’s spending less time dwelling on Elashi’s boobs and assigning dumb sitcom tropes to her and Conan, and the rate of new and interesting locales for them to pass through has been enough to keep things interesting. The extended Fallen London reference was entirely a joke, but there’s monstrous sea creatures down here, including, according to Tull, some kind of massive whiskered fish large enough to swallow a man whole (no word on women – size-wise they’re probably fine, but maybe they’re allergic or something), and which bloat up rapidly when slain. Conan and company plan to catch one, kill it, and use it as a raft to navigate the sea.
There’s just one problem: They need bait. Conan is the ablest swordsman among them, and is needed to stick the creature. Tull is the fisherman, which…uh…requires him to not be the bait? I’m really unclear on what exactly Tull is doing, here. Either way, this means that it’s left to Elashi to serve as bait. She absolutely refuses, and then there’s a smash cut to…uh…them arguing about whether Elashi should be the bait. Like, really, there’s a bit of white space that usually indicates a perspective shift, but this time it just shifts back to Conan, Tull, and Elashi arguing over whether Elashi should be used as bait, a conversation which isn’t nearly as stupid as some of the 80s sitcom knock-offs this book has had, but it still has shades of that in a bad way.
Naturally, the plan goes swimmingly. No pun intended.
Conan grinned at Elashi. “Behold, our boat.”
Elashi wrinkled her nose. “It has a loathesome stench already. In a few days it will stink to the ends of the world.”
Conan and Tull looked at each other. Some people could find fault everywhere. Give them a chest of gold and they would complain of the weight they must carry.
I’m feeling very attacked right now.
For serious, though, having to ride a stinking fish corpse around seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to complain about. This isn’t “oh, my brand new Mercedes is red? How cliche. Why couldn’t it be something unique like purple or even blue?” Elashi is in a genuinely bad situation, regardless of whether it is a slight improvement over where she was an hour ago.