Hello again! As promised, here is the first chapter of my adventure novel. What is the title? Who knows! (It's currently Kidnapped at Koh Ker, but used to be The God Who Would Be King). In my first and second drafts the first chapter was a flashback (I know, I know) but this is now a flash-forward. After this chapter, the book rewinds two weeks and traces how they got to this place, arriving here about 1/4 of the way into the book. Any critiques/comments/thoughts are super welcome. I've struggled a lot with where to begin and making sure I have an interesting enough first chapter.
In the damp heat of the jungle air, a bead of sweat trickled down Dylan’s cheek. He kept himself pressed low to the stairs of the pyramid, moving straight up the face of the temple, not glancing back at the small plain dotted with sugar-palms that led to the stone wall encircling the complex, where a worn dirt path traced its way through an otherwise green landscape from the gate to the steps.
Dylan placed his feet with care. The stairs were narrow and steep, typical for the Khmer empire, and short stone bannisters lined the walkway. The steps had cracked with age and a few sloped downwards, shaped by the wind and the rain. The stairway led up the side of the pyramid’s seven stone levels, overgrown with jungle plants intruding upon the steps. The lush green grass and brush contrasted against the laterite brick and sandstone of the temple.
A stone slipped from the stair by his foot and clattered as it fell down the steps.
Dylan froze. If they heard him, Thomas was a dead man.
Pausing for a few moments, he listened.
He resumed his climb, taking one step at a time. He pressed his body flat to the surface and crawled on his hands and feet. Dylan moved around a piece of stone lying next to an overgrown bush. The stone held an inscription and a faded carving of Apsara dancers which displayed incredible detail—to the headdresses that each dancer wore, their arms outstretched, one arm pointing upwards and the other angled towards the ground.
He glanced back at the jungle.
From his viewpoint, twenty-five meters above the small plain, he saw the dense foliage continue past the temple in an endless verdant sea. Just ten meters to the top; he had made it this far. He shook his head, clenching his fist.
He didn’t know they were here.
But he had followed them. There was nowhere else they could be. Which meant Thomas was here.
He fingered the key he kept around his neck on a small silver chain. It had slipped out of his shirt and hung just over the stone of the step in front of his face. He gazed at it with a strange expression.
For a moment, he forgot where he was and what he was doing. He shook his head and put it back into his t-shirt, feeling the key trapped between the cloth and his chest. The metal stuck to his skin. A drop of sweat rolled down his breastbone.
Looking back up, he scaled the last couple of stairs.
He remained low as he pulled himself over and onto the top of the pyramid, a twenty-square-yard sandstone platform. A short stone railing encircled this last level. He crouched low and hoped that no one could see him from the ground and scanned the surrounding area.
There was a large opening in the middle. The opening appeared to lead straight into the heart of the pyramid, but it was hard to tell because thick undergrowth obscured his view. Digging and scaffolding materials lay scattered around it, and clumps of fresh dirt lay piled on one side of the crevasse.
They dug there for a reason. The question was: what were they looking for?
Despite being shielded by the stone ridges, Dylan felt exposed. Someone was watching him. He was sure of it. The feeling was unnerving. He surveyed around him and glanced back to the front of the temple pyramid, juxtaposed against the Cambodian jungle.
He had to be sure. He hadn’t missed anything.
Next to a pile of shovels, someone had propped up an old Kalashnikov-style AK-47. A journal lay on the ground beside it, along with a half-full leather satchel.
He sucked in his breath and hurried to the gun. His adrenaline spiked as his fingers brushed the cold metal and he swallowed hard. There was a day you could buy one of these for twenty-five American dollars in the market off of Pochentong Road that now sold army surplus. He remembered that in the 90s. His father had shown him the aisles of weapons and explained what they were.
The Khmer Rouge had favored the gun for its low cost—most of the gun was wood, which made it cheap to manufacture. After its invention in the 1950s, the gun became a symbol of guerrilla warfare. It was not an accurate weapon, but it clocked in at less than 10 pounds and held 30 rounds of ammunition, dispensable in a matter of seconds.
The wood of the gun appeared worn, and the color had faded. The buttstock was discolored where the gun met the shoulder. He pressed the release for the magazine between the trigger and the clip. The magazine was heavy, the bullets spring-loaded.
Full magazine. Shit.
He started to push the clip into to the rifle. Before it clicked into place, he stopped. He removed it a second time and threw it into the opening. He heard a dull thump as the clip collided with soft dirt. He reached for the satchel and threw back the flap. It held several books and a collection of tools. He grabbed a book and opened it. There were drawings of this temple complex, and, at the bottom, a scribbled list of names. The writing wasn’t in English. He recognized it as Afrikaans, a language he spoke poorly. The writing was legible but slanted hard to the right. The book’s owner had circled several names in black pen.
He picked up the journal next to the bag. Then he heard people.
Dylan dropped to the ground.
They were chatting and laughing. From the direction of the sound, the group came towards the pyramid’s back. If they circled the base, they would block his way out and to his dirt-bike.
He would be trapped. That couldn’t happen. If they captured him they’d kill them both. These were dangerous men.
He sprang to his feet and turned to run, but his foot caught on the rifle. Leaned as it was against two stones, it slid into the crevice between them. His momentum twisted the barrel as his foot pulled at the bottom of the stock.
The gun discharged, firing the round in the chamber. The top of the rifle shredded as the bullet tore through the twisted metal. He lost his footing and fell on his stomach. The air whooshed out of his lungs, and he grimaced in pain.
And now, worst of all, they knew he was here.
People shouted in several languages.
He scrambled up and leapt to the side of the pyramid, vaulting over the stone ridge and leaping to the sixth tier. Skirting to the side and avoiding the broken stairs, he jumped to the next level. His ankle twisted as he landed in the unkempt garden that grew on the top. He kept moving, using his momentum to propel himself forward. He was halfway to the bottom of the pyramid before he heard their voices again, this time closer.
That was when they started shooting at him.
He heard muted thumps as bullets hit the dirt around him and the crunch of splitting rock as they pinged off of the sandstone. Fear galvanized him, pushing him to run faster. He leaped the last two tiers in two quick jumps, falling several meters to the ground and hitting it hard. Ignoring the pain, he pulled himself to his feet, dug in his right foot, and broke into a sprint, leaning far forward and running as fast as possible. His rapid steps became long strides as he reached his top speed.
The characteristic rat-tat-tat of an AK-47 added to the sporadic pistol fire coming from the side of the pyramid to his rear. He’d still be in range until he reached the gate where he could run hugging the outside of the sandstone wall, cut across the moat, and get back to his dirt-bike.
They must have realized this too because the shooting stopped. He risked a look back. Ten people ran towards him. Three men led the pack.
One enormous man sprinted in front of the others, hurtling around the side of the pyramid with reckless abandon. He wore faded army fatigues with a strange pattern of brownish-red and tan brush strokes. He moved fast, belying his bulk. The man looked over six feet and at least two hundred pounds of muscle.
As Dylan made eye contact with him, Jan raised his pistol mid-stride.
Dylan whipped his head forward. The gate was a step away. He heard a shot, a whistling sound, and the bullet hit the stone gate as he flew past it, showering him with a puff of rock dust and stone chips. He threw his right foot out and dug in with his heel, turning as he skidded in the dirt. A moment later he was running along the outer wall, protected from his pursuers.
He jumped into the moat and waded through the muck. He couldn’t risk the land bridge, giving his pursuers a clear shot. He had to get to his dirt bike, a CRM-250 two-stroke, parked on the other side of Prasat Thom. He had walked it up after cutting the engine a kilometer away.
Leaping over various pieces of stone rubble that littered the ground, he bounded from rock to rock and vaulted over the other side of the fortifications of the outer temple, half-buried in the jungle soil. Risking revealing his position, he cut through Prasat Krahom. A series of renewed shouts and curses followed. He reached the outskirts of the temple complex as he pushed himself harder. The dirt road, pockmarked with potholes, cut its way back towards the highway.
He vaulted onto the bike and pulled back the kickstand. They would round the gate any second now. He half-stood, his foot perched on the small metal piece. He clamped with his left hand and kicked with his right foot. The engine sputtered. He kicked again, and it sputtered a second time. He kicked a third time, gunning the throttle by twisting the right handle. The engine flared to life with its characteristic high-pitched whine.
Putting the bike in first gear, and letting out the clutch with his left hand, he twisted the throttle with his right. The bike’s back tire spun as the engine squealed. His tire caught, and the bike jerked forward, Dylan shifting gears as the bike picked up speed.
The dirt roads were wild and messy. The monsoon season was just beginning, and the roads flooded often. Large puddles hid enormous potholes that could trap a car or throw a rider from a bike. Out of necessity, he followed brief bursts of speed with slow circumventions of the dents and dings in the road—a proverbial minefield.
But still a better alternative to driving in the jungle. There were paths through the dense overgrowth, ones that a dirt bike could follow. He could have turned on an ox-cart path and cut through the wilderness. But one ran a distinct danger by veering off the beaten path—a literal minefield. Several decades of unrest left the countryside of Cambodia littered with landmines.
Despite de-mining efforts since the 1980s, landmines were still a genuine threat. The Khmer Rouge planted them mid-retreat or surrounding now long-unused hideouts, so they remained scattered throughout the countryside. Dylan remembered seeing vacant village plots of land full of red CMAC mine signs, warning the local children playing nearby. A frequent sight in Phnom Penh was a beggar missing a limb, a victim of a mine incident. The beggars wore kramas on their heads and held out their hands for money or food.
Dylan kept to the roads, running the motor ragged with quick bursts of acceleration. His speed edged past what he knew to be safe. He continued to hear shots, and what he thought was the sound of another motorcycle chasing him. He pushed himself harder, bending over the bike and tensing every muscle. The bike shuddered as it bounced over the potholes and uneven dirt.
Once he was sure that he had escaped, the only sound his own motor as he flew through the jungle, he pulled onto a small ox-cart trail. The bike coasted on the well-worn ruts of the path. He coasted up to a banana tree and put his hand out to steady himself.
He was shaking. The adrenaline was wearing off; exhaustion took hold. He felt pain in his ankle, his knees, his chest, and his biceps. As the adrenaline wore off, the aches would come.
He was sitting on something. Reaching back, he realized he must have stuck the journal in his back pocket. He pulled it out and looked at it. It was a nondescript thing—a black leather journal, six inches by four inches with a leather tie around it. Paper shops in Phnom Penh sold these for a few dollars.
He rolled his head back and relaxed his neck, taking long breaths with his eyes closed. “Shit,” he said to himself. The sun peeked through the leaves of the banana tree and warmed his face. He was sweating, and the bottom half of his pants were still wet from the moat. The muggy heat of the jungle was overwhelming. Even when driving on the bike the air was so hot it was like he was sitting in front of a furnace.
He had escaped. But they still had Thomas. He didn’t understand why they needed Thomas, an archaeologist and a professor.
But he knew one thing: he couldn’t leave his best friend to die.