The Fossil King

Today I post an extract from the first chapter of my new novel, THE FOSSIL KING, the follow-up to ANCESTOR. 

***********

I’m not dead.

Although the observation is clinical, made with the kind of emotional detachment I used to reserve for patients, it also betrays an element of surprise. This isn’t how things should have panned out. I paid my dues. Settled my Karmic debt. At long last my spiritual balance sheet was in harmony. All things being equal, it should have been the perfect time to cash in my last cheque.
But I did not.
Why?
Was there some malevolent force that wanted to extend the rope of life, hoping to ensnare my soul this time? Or was it simply a conspiracy of chance; an apathetic universe too impotent to recognize a moment of poetic justice even when serendipity’s throbbing pelvis was thrust into its face?
I force a mental shrug. Oh fuck it then. I never believed in that destiny crap anyway. Better to analyze more practical matters. Like how the hell I ended up here.
Hmm. Just exactly where is here?
For one, it’s a dark space. So dark, I can’t discern any kind of detail. Not even my hand, which I’ve raised and moved in front of my face.  
My arm flops back to the ground. It appears I’m lying flat on my back. After lifting my head, I blink a few times, but the suffocating blackness remains fairly constant. So much for sight. Which still leaves me with four other senses, if I’m not mistaken. Okay, three if I discount taste, which seems pretty worthless in my current situation.
I sniff the air. There’s a dank, unpleasant smell – like I’m holed up in a musty cellar. I prick up my ears. Blup…blup…blup. A cellar with leaky pipes, judging from the constant dripping. But the surface beneath me is hard and lumpy. Sloped. Doesn’t feel like a floor. Doesn’t feel man-made.

Just where the hell am I?
Hmm. Time to dig around in my memory. See what pops up. Because I needed to have come from somewhere, right? Let’s see. What’s the last thing I remember? For that matter, what’s the first thing I remember, full stop?

**************

I return to the present. In the distance, I hear more noises, akin to rushing water. Someone running a bath? I prick up my ears. No. Sounds too voluminous.
Suddenly a forceful breeze sweeps across my exposed flesh. The draft’s strength means I can’t possibly be within an enclosed space. Then why am I staring at what looks like a solid ceiling above me?
I extend my hands in expanding concentric circles to inspect the lumpy hard matter beneath me. Hmm. Feels like smooth round pebbles, polished by flowing water. I sit up.
The river.
I wasn’t transported that far after all.
By now my eyes have either accustomed to the darkness, or the level of light is slowly picking up. Another few minutes pass and I’m able to confirm. 
Dawn is breaking.
I scan my surrounds. It appears I’m lying on an upward-sloped, extended reach of the riverbank beneath a rocky overhang. Dark-green moss growing on the overhead rock face seems to explain the dank smell of earlier.
There’s no sign of my rescuers. The smoldering, charred remains of a fire within spitting distance suggests they haven’t left long ago.
A crunching sound rings out.
Footsteps.
I turn my head. Five small silhouettes are rounding the bend. They seem to be carrying wood.
My mind races. Friend or foe? Instinct kicks in and I drop back onto the pebble bed, my eyes closed. When in doubt, play dead.
The crunching footsteps grow louder as the figures draw near. I can hear a high-pitched babble amongst them – I’m not sure if it’s language –  in bursts of sound I’ve never heard before. It sounds like mice on helium squeaking to each other.
The figures pass and advance higher up the slope. They don’t seem to pay me any attention. Perhaps they really do think I’m dead? After all, if my hibernation reflex kicked in, my heartbeat would’ve been imperceptible. Not to mention a body temperature akin to an icicle. Hmm. Then why drag me from the water, though? And what’s all the fucking firewood for if the cold of night has passed?
I inch open an eyelid. My head is tilted to the side and I can make out the lower portion of someone’s leg standing about two meters from me. But there’s something wrong with the picture. Seriously wrong. Because the leg is tiny. Teensy-weensy tiny. And even though my field of vision is vertically challenged, I can make out a kneecap. Which means the person can’t be more than about one meter tall. A child perhaps? Funny, I remember all five silhouettes being of equal height. And their movement didn’t seem…well, juvenile. There was none of the frantic energy or playful interplay I’d normally associate with children.
Dwarves perhaps? Hmm, they seem too properly proportioned for that. Pygmies? No, even they aren’t thissmall.
I close my eyes again. No need to jump to premature conclusions. Let’s see what they’re up to first. Maybe the early-morning fire is intended to warm me. Maybe they’re little Florence Nightingales taking pity on an unfortunate stranger.
Suddenly footsteps approach. After a moment of silence, small hands tug at my boots. What the hell? I can feel my one boot slowly slipping off and I’m not sure whether to resist. Maybe my benefactors want to massage my cold feet? How sweet. Then searing pain shoots up my leg as a sharp object is plunged into my flesh.
I cry out in pain and jerk upright. A small figure is hunched over the lower part of my body with a knife-like object in his hand that’s dripping blood.
Myblood.
When the wee butcher notices me, he jumps backwards, the knife in his grasp jabbed forward. His four companions are farther away, stacking firewood. An assortment of leaves and roots placed on the ground adjacent look ominously like garnishes and spices, with the lack of a main food item glaring. Seemingly alarmed by my screams and the movement in their peripheral vision, they spin in our direction, wood falling from their grasp as they absorb the scene unfolding in front of them.
The creatures – I can think of no other word to describe them – are the oddest things I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re definitely humanoid, but too bizarre-looking to be classified as pure human. First off, they’re hairy. Like monkey-coat hairy. They also have broad faces, flat and wide noses, weak chins and disproportionately big mouths. Dark button eyes are set beneath protruding brow ridges. One of the creatures opens his mouth in a threatening snarl, revealing disturbingly sharp teeth.
I focus on the one nearest me. His initial shock has apparently faded as he inches back towards me, still brandishing the knife. Although they appear to be a different species, speaking in gibberish, his body language seems unequivocal.
Our food is trying to escape.  
I quickly push off the ground with my arms, trying to raise myself. Despite some lightheadedness, I gain a wobbly upright stance. Then, spreading my feet wide, I adopt a defensive Taekwondo posture. Hopefully all my years of training is finally going to pay off.
As the nearest creature approaches, I run through all the attacking moves I know. Since Taekwondo proponents believe the leg is the longest and most powerful limb in the martial artist’s arsenal, the discipline has become known for its high kicking, especially the dollyeo chagi or ‘roundhouse kick’. Although a difficult maneuver to pull off successfully, it packs a devastating blow if delivered correctly. Given my adversaries’ height and size, a low-flying version seems the most lethal option. 
When the little man steps within striking distance, I spring into action. After raising my knee and crouching down for an instant, I uncoil my frame and explode into a hip-thrusting, leg-swirling swipe. But my limb coordination is rusty and my foot misses its target by some distance. Losing my centre of gravity and balance, I topple over and tumble to the ground; an extended left arm cushioning my fall. Awkwardly braced, I leer at the creatures from a skew angle.
Probably sensing my vulnerability, the knife wielding ‘Ewok’ charges at me. This time I have no opportunity to contemplate my actions. Instinct and muscle memory seize control as I kick out with an adrenaline-focused mind.
Bull’s-eye.
The heel of my boot connects squarely with the assailant’s face. There’s a loud thud as he’s simultaneously poleaxed and catapulted backwards into space. He lands with a bone-crunching smack on the hard rock pebbles and erupts with a high-pitched scream of agony. Blood spurts from his crushed nose and streams down his face.
I jump to my feet and pivot towards his companions. They eye their incapacitated friend, then peer apprehensively back at me. For a moment, buoyed by my lucky blow, I’m tempted to invite further combat with a kung-fu finger wave. But I resist the temptation. Instead, I simply growl with all the ferocity I can muster and lunge in their direction.
The critters respond with shrieks of panic. They grab their injured comrade, help him to his feet, then scamper off with comically short, but surprisingly quick, running strides. I drop to my haunches, trying to catch my breath. Phew!
What a way to start your day.


RAYMOND STEYN

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