Weekly Short Story: Mutilated

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Mutilated

The scrabbling of claws on stone was his only warning.

Kan dropped his jewelchine torch, the red beam dancing through the air as he whirled. The sleeping girl—her head resting on his shoulder, her body held to his chest—gasped awake at the violent turn.

Steel rasped on leather as his right hand drew his resonance sword. He activated the jewel machine in the weapon’s hilt by rote. A hum, barely perceptible over the girl’s surprised shout, reverberated through the air. The emerald in the jewelchine sang with one of the Seven Harmonious Tones, the Earth Tone of Bazim, and channeled the echoes of creation into the sword’s steel.

The pulse of Kan’s blood pumping through his veins remained steady as the mastiff lunged out of the darkness.

Only the glint of diamonds gave Kan any warning and a target to attack. He thrust just below the glimmer of the mastiff’s eyes and rammed the straight, thin resonance blade down the massive hound’s gullet. The black-furred form crashed into Kan, impaled on three feet of steel.

The girl screamed in fright as the big man recoiled under the impact, his sword penetrating deeper into the hound’s innards. His footing lost, Kan didn’t fight to stay upright. He fell backward, cradling the girl to his chest as he sliced his sword upward.

The resonance blade, humming with the power of its emerald machine, had an edge that could cut normal steel like butter. It sliced through the hound’s spine and skull before cutting through the obsidian jewelchine that had replaced the mutilated mastiff’s brain.

Kan’s left side crashed through the scraggly twigs of a saltbush, the girl crying out in shock. He grunted as he landed hard onto the dry, desert ground. The mastiff, bigger than any breed he’d ever seen, fell upon him, its dead weight crushing his legs.

“Harmonious tones,” he cursed, the pulse of his blood as steady as ever, unchanging despite the pain spreading across his back from his fall.

Already, the topaz jewelchines soothed the hurt.

“Kan,” the girl, Alamekia, gasped, her scrawny, ebony face contorted in fear. She was almost all bones, starvation stretching skin taunt across the features of her skull, replacing the normal round features of a Shattered Islander with pitiful sorrow. “What is that?”

“Mutilation,” snarled Kan, kicking the jewelchine automaton off his legs.

He’d seen other beasts mutilated by the University, but hounds were a new depravity. The ancients had long known of the resonance of the Seven Harmonious Tones and the one Dark Discord with natural gemstones, a different stone tuned to a different Tone. But the discovery that they could be manipulated via metallic wiring and harnessed to power machines had transformed society. Gold wires worked best, but even cheap tin could conduct the power. Called jewelchines, these devices tapped into the echoes of the eight spirits who’d created everything. Each year, scholars across the world discovered new and diverse uses.

Some were even beautiful.

“Can you walk?” he asked the girl cradled still in his arm.

The girl nodded her head, her eyes wide. Red light painted half her face. The discarded jewelchine torch, a slender tube of leather with a colored lens at one end and a diamond jewelchine inside radiating light, survived impacting hard ground. She trembled on his arms. He felt the frantic beat of her heart through his heavy shirt. Kan, distantly, could remember that same frantic beat in his chest when the typhoon had ravaged his village as a boy no older than her.

“Good, move behind me and—”

He threw the girl to his left. She crashed into a saltbush with a shriek as the second mastiff bounded out of the darkness. The beast’s eyes betrayed its attack with silver-white flashes. The air in the desert was clear. The stars and moon provided a modicum of light to see by and to glint off the diamond jewelchines embedded in the creature’s eyes.

Kan swung his sword as the hound leaped at him, expecting the mastiff to crash into his chest, teeth savaging his throat. But the beast landed a few feet short of Kan in a dangerous crouch, its body illuminated by the discarded torch’s focused beam. Short, coarse fur covered its twisted frame. Nodules bulged beneath the skin, creating fierce bumps across the beast’s hide. Its mouth opened. Metal glinted in its gullet. A barrel.

Kan smelled the oily scent of refined naphtha.

“The Seven Harmonies!” He rolled to his right as fire burst from the hound’s mouth.

A sheet of orange flame rippled the air. Light blossomed. Heat seared Kan’s face. He grunted, rolling faster. The bush he’d thrown the girl into, though not touched, caught fire. The dry brush blazed into a bonfire.

They put a Tone-deaf firebelcher in the beast’s stomach?

The horrors of the University always shocked Kan, though they shouldn’t have. His depravity knew no depths. Kan’s body was a mutilated display of the bushy-eyebrowed man’s work. Kan’s wide-legged trousers and long-sleeved shirt hid the evidence from view. His broad-shouldered and deep-chested frame resulted from the University’s cruelty. He stood two or more heads taller than any he knew, making him seem a foreigner despite his dusky olive skin.

The end of his alpaca cloak smoldered as he gained his feet. Fiery death chased him. His pulse remained steady. He missed that frantic beating of his heart, the surge of cold danger through the veins, that feeling of life instead of the dull, rhythmic pulsing that circulated blood through his body.

The hound twisted its head, mouth open, fur burning around its muzzle from the firebelcher’s heat. Kan raced at a speed the fastest runner would envy, circling the beast before darting in for his attack. He dashed past the gout of flame, the heat billowing around him. His sword hummed in his hand. He prayed to the Harmonious Seven, but not their Dark Brother.

His cloak burst into flames. Heat soaked through his trousers. His skin cooked, the topaz jewelchines embedded in his flesh soothing away the pain as he closed the distance. The hound twisted, moving its bulk to bring its fire directly upon Kan.

His sword hissed down.

He severed the beast’s head from its body, cutting spine, wires, and the barrel of the firebelcher. The flames snuffed out as the beast’s head fell to the ground. Its body remained upright for five steady beats, blood and oily naphtha bubbling from the severed neck. Then it, too, slumped to the ground; the control signal from the obsidian jewelchine in the automaton’s head severed.

“What is that, Kan?” the girl asked as he ripped off his burning cloak. She moved forward on her hands and feet, crawling almost like a lizard. A scratch bled on her cheek, shiny in the roaring light of the blazing brush. “There are wires sticking out of its neck. And that smell.” Her small nose wrinkled.

“Refined naphtha,” he grunted, turning to face the direction from which the hounds had come.

Irritation stabbed through him. They’d been so close to the draw that led up the cliff. For two days, he’d carried the girl across the desert, moving from supply cache to supply cache. The precious water stored in them had allowed the pair to survive the soaring heat of the day. He’d rescued her from the slave caravan, saved her from the mutilation of his knives.

Flashes of pain, of screaming agony, wracked all of him while the delicate face of the bushy-eyebrowed man peered down at Kan. Those eyebrows were wispy snow, though not from age. His eyes smiled as he brought his knife down and cut.

The memories almost overwhelmed Kan.

“Are you hurt?” he growled to the girl, his eyes scanning the bejeweled night sky. He sheathed his resonance sword and drew his pistol from a leather holster on his hip loaded with a clip of three small darts.

“Fine,” the girl answered, still crouched by the dead mastiff. “Why would anyone make it breathe fire?”

“Because he could do it.”

There.

In the darkness over the desert, a shape occulted starlight as it drifted through the sky. A condor, swelled to immense size, carried the control officer. Jewelchine automatons had no mind, their brains replaced by an obsidian machine which channeled the Dark Discord and were controlled by harmonies broadcast by the officer—the fruits of the University’s work.

The University of Harmonic Research created monstrosities with their knowledge, soldiers for their client. The process was bloody and utilized the forbidden obsidian jewelchines, tapping into foul Nizzig’s discord. Most of the “subjects” did not survive. Caravans of children, on the verge of pubescence, were driven across to the University. To him. Out there, in the heart of the desert, agony lay. Granite buildings, baked by day, rose over the largest concentration of black iron in the world. Only with foul black iron could Nizzig’s discord be channeled into machines, violating nature with grotesqueries.

The Path and its Guides, founded by the Tinker, sought to rescue those poor children from their fates.

Kan and his fellow Guides knew the Depression. They scouted it, lived in it, planned their routes, learned how to avoid the patrols, all so they could rescue what few children they could when the caravans were at their most vulnerable. Kan had saved twenty-seven children. Of the Guides, he was the most successful. None had survived half as many Paths as him.

Trails could be erased from sight while paths walked across hard stone would leave no trace, but these new hounds changed everything. How could you hide from the keen nose of a hound? Ten other Guides were with him on the raid. Did they live?

Kan pushed questions from his mind and raised his pistol. At this distance, the odds of hitting the control officer were low if he were stationary. But if Kan killed the Tone-deaf bastard, any other automatons sweeping towards them would stand idle, lacking the control harmonics.

Then he would have twenty-eight successes.

Kan fired all three shots in rapid succession, his arm steady, his eyes aiming down the metal barrel, lining up the front sight with the two rear. The weapon hissed as the heliodor jewelchine channeled the harmonics of the Tone of Wind. Air propelled the slender, steel darts at high speed. They streaked through the night.

And missed.

Kan yanked the clip from the wooden handle of the pistol and fished the spare from his belt. He had six more shots. He had to eliminate the officer. If there were more automatons out of in the dark, they could see them even without the blazing fire. They would chase Kan and the girl up the draw, firing dartcasters and projectield launchers. The climb was treacherous enough without dodging attacks.

“Did you get him?” the girl asked, peering into the dark as she knelt, her bony face painted with fierce oranges and black shadows.

The hiss cut off his answer. The metal dart buried into Kan’s chest over his heart. A wet crunch and grating crack echoed as the projectile slammed through his ribs. The shock threw him back. He landed on the ground with a grunt, blood welling through his brown shirt.

“Kan!” she gasped, pressing low to the ground. The girl knew how to survive.

“I’m fine.” He grasped the steel dart. It was as thin as a finger bone. He grunted as he yanked it out. More blood flowed, but the topaz jewelchines soothed the wound. Already, it closed.

“That hit you in the heart.” Awe strained the girl’s words. “That kills. I’s seen it.”

“I don’t have a heart.” The words were reflexive. He thrust his pistol into her hands. She would escape. “There is a draw that climbs the cliff. Amo Ponthia will meet you at the top. She’ll take you the rest of the way on the Path.”

The girl didn’t argue. Survivors never did. The children who were new slaves, still holding out hope that they would again see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cried and sniveled. Alamekia darted away at a crouch as Kan rose, his left hand held out before him, fingers splayed in warding. He drew his sword with the right.

If I had a heart, it would be beating in terror and telling me to flee.

The moment he stood, the hisses came. Falling onto his back had dropped him out of the automatons’ line of sight. But now, at least two dartcasters fired at him, shooting larger projectiles and with more accuracy than his pistol.

They struck the curved dome of the amethyst energy projected from his left hand. The jewelchine embedded in his palm, the wires running between his fingers and connecting with the network of gold and black iron threads that wormed beneath his skin like a second set of veins and arteries, activated at a thought. It resonated with the Tone of Protection. The darts crashed into the curved shield’s harmony, and deflected. One hissed over his head, creasing through his blond hair.

Kan’s eyes stared at the dark shape in the sky. What are you thinking up there?

Only one of the University’s mutilations should possess Kan’s embedded shield.

The final dart hissed out of the darkness and crashed into his shield. The ricochet buried it in the dirt by his right foot. His breath quickened as he listened above the hum of his shield and the crackle of the burning brush for the automatons’ approach.

The diamonds in their eyes betrayed them.

Five pairs glinted red in the darkness. Kan took a deep breath, visualizing his enemy. They spread wide, preparing to come at him from five different angles. They would be swift, brutal. Their attacks aimed to kill him as fast as possible. Scenarios whirled through his mind. His hand tightened on the leather wrapped hilt of his resonance blade, the hum reassuring.

He tensed, ready to act.

The ball glinted firelight as it arced out of the darkness. Kan cursed, burying his eyes into the crook of his elbow. It landed at his feet with a dull thud and rolled against his boot. The light’s brilliance warmed his skin as the pulstun’s diamond released its built up energy. It bled through the skin of his arms and his eyelids. For a moment, his radius and ulna appeared as dark shadows amid red-glowing flesh.

He dropped his arm as the automatons attacked, his vision spared from the stunning blast while their jewelchine eyes were unaffected. These ones were humans, though it was difficult to tell if they were male or female after the changes to their bodies. They’d grown as big as Kan, dressed in gray uniforms, their faces a mix of dusky olives, browns, and one ebony; slaves brought from the corners of Democh and its neighbors. Each held their own resonance sword, hums buzzing through the air. Two were newly mutilated. Instead of heads covered by hair or even smooth skin, they had domed cranial plates of obsidian replacing the top halves of their skulls, their skin growing unevenly to cover it.

The sight of his almost future always stirred horror through Kan. He imagined having a heart fluttering as he gazed at them moving in for the kill.

He had to move faster. His only advantage was his intact brain.

With a grunt, Kan darted towards the automaton to his right, his legs enhanced by the network of emerald and helidor jewelchines which strengthened and quickened his limbs. His blade hissed in a quick arc. It took the automaton a moment to react to the blurring charge. Kan’s blade sang, a hard, vicious swipe.

The automaton’s head parted from its body in a spray of blood. Severed wires protruded from the cut. The body stood rigid for a heartbeat longer before collapsing with the head. Kan already moved, using the momentum to turn his body and meet a slashing sword. He parried.

The other four were on him, resonance blades swinging. Sweat broke out on Kan’s forehead as he whipped his blade back and forth. His left hand thrust forward, his purple shield pulsing into life to deflect their weapons. When sword met sword, the air hummed with vibration, emerald jewelchines flaring with verdant light. Violet waves rippled across his shield with every impact.

He retreated, stepping over the slain automaton. The world slowed as he fought, all his focus bent on keeping those four blades from finding his flesh. They would kill him as fast as he’d killed the first. He couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t let them surround him. He had to be liquid, always moving, embracing the Tone of Water. Adaptation was his only chance, changing, flowing with circumstance, surrendering to necessity.

Waiting for his opening.

Only a handful of heartbeats after the clash began, he spotted it. The automatons had funneled too close together as they’d followed his retreat. None of the four had paid much attention to the others, too focused on their orders: kill. Their shoulders bumped together, hindering their swings for a moment.

Kan didn’t think. He acted.

His sword took an older automaton, a dartcaster slung over its shoulder, in the upper thigh. The enhanced blade cut with ease through the thing’s leg and then bit deep into its torso. Despite the flowing blood, Kan knew it didn’t live. How could it when it had no mind? It was a husk. A weapon.

This was mercy.

The automaton folded up and collapsed mid-swing, its blade missing wide. Kan kept moving, stabbing downward at where its heart would be. His resonance sword pierced the thing’s ribcage with ease and then cracked through the ruby jewelchine, carefully shaped to pump blood through its body. The gem burst. Scarlet light flared through the crimson bubbling out of the wound.

The automaton went limp. Damaging the heart jewelchine or the brain jewelchine were the only ways to kill one swiftly. Blood loss wasn’t quick enough. They would feel no pain, and their network of topaz jewelchines would, given time, heal any wounds.

Pain flared in Kan’s left arm as he darted past his enemies. The tip of a resonance sword grazed him. The nick sliced through his thick shirt and two inches of muscle. But it missed any wires. Already, the pain soothed as his flesh healed. He turned, facing the three remaining automatons. They fanned out, ignoring their dead. Their eyes glinted bright.

A new model, crimson flickering on its obsidian cranial plate, lunged fast, the enhanced body moving swifter than a normal human. Kan deflected with his shield, his left hand angled to let its blade stab past him. At the same instant, he lunged a stop-thrust at the heart of the other new automaton charging in.

His attack was too fast for the thing to bring up its own palm to shield. It was standard for the automatons to have amethyst jewelchines buried in both palms. His sword knifed for the thing’s heart jewelchine, hissing through the air.

The purple shield blossoming across the automaton’s chest shocked Kan.

His sword struck the protective energy. The curve of the shield sent his blade sliding up and to the left, thrusting over the automaton’s shoulder. Kan gaped. The thing had an amethyst jewelchine buried in its chest as well as its palms. A new improvement devised by him.

“Harmonious tones,” Kan grunted, his footing ruined by the surprise. He stumbled past the automaton.

As he did, the enemy blade hissed. It sliced deep into Kan’s left side, his flesh providing almost no resistance. The sword reached a foot or more into him, severing the network of wires running on the outside of his skin and damaging organs. Blood streamed down his side, soaking into his shirt and trousers. His leg buckled as he struggled to regain his footing.

No soothing energy flowed to the wound. His left hand felt at his side, brushed the severed gold and black iron wires protruding from his wound, disrupting the left half of his network of jewelchines. He tripped over the severed automaton’s leg and fell on his face to the ground. Dirt stuck to the spreading blood as he rolled onto his back. The third automaton, an older model, pivoted smoothly, drawing back its sword to ram the point into Kan’s chest.

He raised his left hand between him and his attacker and tried to generate his shield. Nothing. Too many control wires were severed on the left side, disconnecting the obsidian jewelchines that gave him direct control over his protection.

At least the girl has a chance.

Knowing it was futile, he acted. He let go of his sword and raised his right arm, fingers splayed wide. Kan would fight against his cruelties to his last breath.

The darts hissed out of the darkness and crashed into the lunging automaton’s head. Sparks flew as the first pierced skin and struck the obsidian cranial plate beneath, leaving a long, bleeding gash across its forehead. The second scored the cheek; a flap of bloody skin fell dangling. The third took it in the eye, driving deep. A flash of white light burst from the cavity, the diamond jewelchine disrupted. The automaton flinched enough at the attack, conflicting instructions jarring through its obsidian jewelchine. Its downward thrust slammed into the desert floor inches from Kan’s side.

His right hand pointed at the automaton’s chest. He triggered the jewelchine buried in his palm.

He didn’t conjure a shield.

The beam of pure sunlight didn’t so much as fire from his hand as appear. A long shaft blazed out over the dark desert, searing through the chest of the automaton. It lasted not even a heartbeat and left behind a burning afterimage across Kan’s vision.

The Tinker had made his own adjustments to Kan.

Molten ruby poured out of the hole bored through the automaton’s chest and ignited its gray uniform. It collapsed into a smoldering heap, limbs twitching.

“How did you do that?” the girl asked, holding his pistol and crouching by the burning bush, eyes owl-wide.

Kan didn’t answer. He’d held the lightbeam back for emergencies. The jewelchine took days to store the Tone of Light, and its accuracy failed outside of a hundred or so feet. It was hard to aim precisely. His arm lacked the proper sights of a pistol or dartcaster. He hadn’t even considered using it on the officer flying on the condor.

The officer was closer now, watching the fight from safety of the air.

Kan put that out of his thoughts. He still had two more automatons to deal with. He grabbed his resonance blade. Despite the blood pouring from his side, he forced himself to stand. He did not have much life left.

“What are you?” the girl asked.

I thought you were a survivor. “Run!”

The girl ignored him.

The automatons came at him fast. His shield now useless, Kan teetered as he drew his resonance dagger with his left hand. Life drained out of him, soaking his trousers to his boots. He was dying, and his damned jewelchine heart pulsed at the same steady rhythm, uncaring. His vision fuzzed.

He parried the first blow with sluggish movements. The impact of swords jarred down his blade. He almost dropped his weapon, his fingers growing weak. The right side of his body was still strong, the jewelchines working, but the left’s network failed. His left leg dragged as he moved back, pressed by the automatons’ attacks.

“You have to run!” he spat.

The girl shook her head. Her scrawny hand picked up a fallen resonance sword. She held it in such a clumsy grip. She had no idea how to stand properly, how to fight with it. But she let out a fierce scream, her face almost demonic in the roaring light. All the years of torment, of fear, of hopelessness burst from her as she swung at the nearest automaton.

And cut through its back.

It staggered, turning and taking a clumsy swipe at the girl. Blood sheeted down the automaton’s back. Her cut had flayed it open, exposing part of the spine, severing dozens of wires. Its swipe caught her sword, knocking it from her hand. It drew back to strike again but lost its balance and fell backward into its partner, tangling their limbs.

Kan acted, swiped. His sword sang. The movement burned his side. He grit his teeth, fighting waves of dizziness that threatened to drown him with insensibility.

The wounded automaton’s head parted from its shoulders.

Kan’s breath exploded from him. He bent over, gasping, heaving. His lungs were natural, and they flagged. The world spun around him as he faced the last automaton, now untangled from the dead one. The girl scurried on hands and knees to grab her fallen blade. The automaton drew back its sword, and swung at Kan.

He parried.

His grip was too loose on his weapon, his fingers numbed by blood loss. The attack slapped his sword from his hand. It spun through the air before knifing into the hard-packed desert clay. Kan gripped his dagger as the automaton drew back one final time, readying the blow that would kill him.

He threw the resonance dagger with a thrusting-like motion, almost an underhanded toss. The weapon soared point first across the few intervening feet. Stone cracked as it punched through the automaton’s obsidian cranial plate and into its jewelchine brain. Dark unlight bled out around the blade as the thing spasmed. Every muscle in its body twitched. Without any direction, it stood rigid. Off-balance, it toppled to the ground.

“You did it,” Alamekia cheered, holding up her sword like a great prize, waving it over her head.

“Not . . . over . . .” he spat, turning, searching the sky. He wanted to collapse, to surrender to the agony. But now he needed to be like the Tone of Earth. To be strong. To resist. To draw on the harmony of foundation, stability.

“But . . . you got them.”

The condor soared closer. The officer would have weapons, and he’d have outfitted the mutilated, giant bird with either greatcasters that could shred Kan’s body with rapid-fire darts or with other exotic weapons from his perverse imagination.

With effort, Kan bent down and snagged the dartcaster slung over the shoulder of a dead automaton. He jerked hard with his right arm, still strengthened by emeralds, and ripped the weapon’s leather strap. He grunted, raised the long-barreled musket, and aimed into the dark.

His pistol had missed. It was a close range weapon. The dartcaster was not.

A flash of yellow light, a weapon fired by the officer, gave Kan his target. Without flinching, without knowing what hurtled out of the darkness at him, he pulled the trigger. Yellow light flashed out the end of the barrel, the dartcaster’s helidor propelling the thin, metal missiles into the starry sky.

A shape fell from the condor as a net crashed to the ground at Kan’s feet. The tangled wires flared with amethyst light, a purple shield engulfing the piled mess. He grunted, staring down at the projectield that had missed him. The weapon was designed to capture and restrain. The projectield’s net would entwine about the target, then its shield would trigger, engulfing the person in a cocoon from which they could not escape.

His grunt turned into a groan as he toppled backward. The condor was harmless without the rider’s control, falling into a circling pattern. It was over. He stared up at the brilliant stars, a sea just out of reach. The light from the burning bushes dwindled. The girl appeared over him, her eyes shiny.

“No,” she whispered. “No!”

He grabbed her wrist with his shaky left hand, pulling her palm to his bleeding side. He should be dead already. “Feel!” He jammed her hand into his wounds, dragging her fingers along the smooth cut. “Wires. Feel?”

She nodded her head.

“Join them. Have to . . . reattach.”

“Reattach?” Her tone sounded dubious, her forehead furrowing.

“Please . . .” His breathing hurt. His entire left side was numbing fire. His topaz jewelchines worked to replenish the blood flowing out of his side, but it wasn’t enough. The chill spread through his body.

“How?”

“Twist.” Every labored word hurt. “They’ll . . . stay together.” Hopefully.

Alamekia grabbed his wires, not caring about the blood. She’d performed dirty work before. Kan grit his teeth, grunting through the pain as she brought the wires closer and closer. There was slack in the wires, allowing his body to move and flex without tearing them. He felt the wires worming beneath his skin. A pair of gold touched. Healing flashed through his left side, twitching his body, and then it stopped. Tongue thrust through shrunken lips, she tugged again.

“Careful,” he groaned. “Gold . . . delicate . . .”

“Trying,” she muttered, almost an accusation. “Stop moving.”

He tried. It was hard.

The wires brushed again. He spasmed as she braided them together. She let it go, felt through his wound, found another wire, and joined the severed ends. Black iron, part of the control network. The forbidden metal hummed as the wires brushed. Power shocked through him. A purple shield flared from his left hand.

The girl squeaked in fright, flinching away as he clenched his hand, gaining control of the jewelchine again. The black iron networked directly into his body’s natural control system. Your nerves, the Tinker had called them. Natural wires spreading throughout your body. How your brain bosses your body about. But that brain’s too smart. Not good at obeying. It’s why you don’t listen and concentrate like I tell you.

His vision fuzzed. The soothing energy from the topaz jewelchines radiated through his left side. Flesh and organs knitted together. The blood flow stemmed as Alamekia worked around the wound, tying more black iron and gold wires together, repairing his mutilated body. Kan closed his eyes, drifting through dreams.

He screamed in agony, thrashing on the table. His bones throbbed and ground together. They ached like growing pains increased hundredfold. Thousandfold. He watched him as he writhed, eyes blurry with agony. He choked on the glass tube shoved down his throat, a white paste dripping through it to his ravenous stomach.

Always hungry. Always in pain.

Very good growth,” the bushy-eyebrowed man said to the Tinker. “Another one that will live.”

Another one,” the Tinker said, slanted eyes soft. A comforting hand on his forehead. “A fighter.”

Already a man’s growth.” There was an almost child-like glee in his voice. “The new technique is showing results.”

Indeed.”

The pain surged. They cut into him. They threaded wires across his body. Bloody wounds healed as he thrashed, skin growing over hard gems. He felt so big, immense, a giant. He was naked, his head moving, staring down his body at the thick, ropy muscles of his limbs, his chest deep, only smooth flesh at his groin.

He drifted through pain for six months. An eternity of agony. He started a child, he ended an adult.

Have to go,” the Tinker said, unbuckling the straps. “They’re doing it tonight, my boy. Tonight. You’ll never come back from that one.”

Sunlight warmed Kan’s face as he opened his eyes. He blinked. The girl stirred, rising. Her cheek was smeared with dry blood coated in bits of dust and debris. She rubbed her eyes then scurried to him, shaking her head.

“You’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said, feeling his side. It was coated in drying blood. Some flaked off while globs stuck to his hand like gunk. He felt no wound, not even a scar. More blood cracked as he moved his legs, flakes of powdery rust falling away.

“What are you?” she asked, touching him. She traced the wires running like a second set of veins beneath his skin, pushing beneath his torn shirt to brush a hard nodule—a topaz jewelchine.

“Mutilated,” he grunted, pushing her hand away. “Let’s go.”

“Go?”

He looked up at the escarpment looming above them, a jutting pillar of black rock thrusting out near the rim. “Up there. Amo Ponthia is waiting for us. She’ll take you farther.”

“Take me where?”

Kan shrugged. “Safety.”

“You don’t know?” Eyes widened, shocked.

He shook his head. “Can’t betray what I don’t know.”

He stood. His stomach growled, but his limbs were strong, all the jewelchines working throughout is body. Hands flexed. Powdered blood fell from ruined clothing like dust. He found his cloak; the bottom edge was charred.

“I don’t think you’re mutilated,” she said, staring up at him with such innocence in her eyes.

Did I ever have that look? Phantom pain tightened his chest. His body remembered having a heart. He would never have a child of his own staring up at him like that. All he could do was rescue them.

“You’re not like them.” She spat at the nearest corpse. The automatons lay still, their bodies pale now. Flies buzzed along the shattered eye of the one she’d shot.

“Mostly like them.” He scooped her thin body up into his arms. She was like air, almost weightless. He trudged towards the narrow, hidden draw that wound up to the top of the cliff.

She shook her head. “You’re like a hero.”

He grunted.

“I said like a hero. A hero wouldn’t have needed me to fix his wires. Heroes don’t take wounds.”

“So what am I?”

“I don’t know. Special.” She beamed at him. A sunrise over planted fields. “An almost hero. But you’re too strong to be mutilated. And you’re not ugly.” And then she hugged him, her thin arms entwined about his neck. Her face pressed into his chest. He cradled her, the pain increasing in his phantom heart as he felt hers’ rapid beat.

Climbing the escapement had never been easier for Kan, even carrying the girl, even going slow to avoid snapping his repaired wires. They could break again. He would have to see the Tinker, have them replaced. He hated that he needed them.

It took half the day to climb up the steep path. The rocks were loose. Avalanches cascaded down behind them, stones clattering and clashing as they bounced down to the Depression’s floor. He pondered the hounds as he climbed. They changed things for the Guides. Saving what few children they could would be even harder.

If I was a hero, I would save you all.

He reached the top. Amo Ponthia waited, wrapped in a cloak that almost blended in with the scrub lands of the hills which surrounded the Depression. Only her slanted eyes were visible behind the wool veil that covered her hair and face. Her eyes tightened at the sight of his bloody clothing. But she didn’t say a word.

The girl clung to his neck when he tried to pry her away. She let out a whimper, shaking her head. “No.”

“You’ll be safe with her,” Kan said, his voice gentle. “She will guide you to safety.”

“I want you to guide me!”

“I have to keep protecting you. Make sure they follow a different trail.”

Her eyes were wide. “Really?”

He nodded his head. “I’ll lead them away while Amo Ponthia takes you to your new home.”

“You will be happy, child,” Amo Ponthia said.

Kan hoped that was true. The girl was a survivor. He had no idea what happened to the children after he delivered them to the next leg of the Path, to the next Guide who’d lead them away from the Democh Empire’s cruelty. He’d saved one child today out of hundreds.

Twenty-eight out of thousands.

It wasn’t enough, but what more could he do?

He watched Amo Ponthia and the girl walk off into the hills, heat’s shimmers washing them out until they were dancing, watery blurs. He would hide their trail for two miles, then head off in another direction from the top of the draw, leaving an obvious path. He wondered what she would find. Where she would live. If she would ever smile again.

Alamekia was as safe as he could make her. In two months, there would be another caravan. Another chance to save a child. He set about his work. He would be looking for his lost automatons. Kan could afford no mistakes.

As he worked, he pictured Alamekia in a small farm following her new father through the muddy fields as the seeds were planted, a smile on her face, her limbs full and healthy. A tear fell down his cheek.

Mourning what could never be.

The END

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Four

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Four

Hûnoreal

Welcome to Chapter Four of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Three!

For He sees gold in the wretched and excrement in the exalted. Nay, the world is not equal in the eyes of the God

—SCHOLARS, 7:16, THE TRACTATE

My Thoughts

This is about the subject view on who is and isn’t saved. It echoes the sentiment from Christianity that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven. To Christians, this is a statement that material possessions are a path into sin because you focus on them and not putting God first. Bakker’s scripture is saying that it is better to suffer than to be praised. That pain in this life brings reward in the next while those who take glory in this world are in for a surprise. It echoes another Christian teaching about salvation in that doing good deeds to earn salvation is offensive to God like soiled menstrual rags, I believe, is how the translations often go.

In Bakker’s universe, damnation is something seen and judged. This is our first allusion to the title of the book and Mimara’s ability. Fittingly, it is her POV that starts off the chapter and her first unveiling of this power.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

Mimara has no choice but to camp by Achamian’s tower. Where will she go? The brothel? Her mother’s palace (which is like a brothel)? She doesn’t tether her mule, Foolhardy, hoping he will wander free and escape then fearing that he’ll be eaten by wolves at night because of her carelessness. So far, he’s still there when she wakes up. As the days past, she tends her fire, thinking its “singularity of purpose” is divine.

Flare. Wax. Consume.

Like a human. Only with grace.

The children, learning she’s a witch, spy on her and gives fake screams of fright when she spots them. She is a witch because she can see the Wards that Achamian has put around his tower as well as the bruises to the world his violent defense of the valley against the Sranc had left. “The eyes of the Few were with her always, prodding her onto this path she has chosen, fortifying her resolve.”

But more and more the different eye seems to open, one that has perplexed her for many years—that frightens her like an unwanted yen for perversion. Its lid is drowsy, and indeed it slumbers so deep she often forgets its presence. But when it stirs, the very world is transformed.

For moments at a time, she can see them… Good and evil.

Not buried, not hidden, but writ like another colour or texture across the hide of everything. The way good men shine brighter than good women. Or how serpents glow holy, while pigs seem to wallow in polluting shadow. The world is unequal in the eyes of the God—she understands this with intimate profundity. Master over slaves, men over women, lions over crows: At every turn, the scriptures enumerate the rank of things. But for terrifying moments, the merest of heartbeats, it is unequal in her eyes as well.

She believes this “judging eye” is a madness brought on by what happened to her. “It has to be madness.” She wonders what Achamian will look like. She stares at his tower in the morning sun and thinks it’s not so tall. It’s height an illusion.

The world hates you…

This thought afflicts her when she least expects it. She knows this truth and didn’t need her little brother to remind her: “It hurts Momma to even look at you! She wishes she would have drowned you instead of sold you…” As she starves outside Achamian’s tower, she believes this more and more. She traveled all this way to be a witch and is denied.

There is no other place. So why not cast her life across the Whore’s table? Why not press Fate to the very brink? At least she will die knowing.”

She cries though she feels empty. She sees “the Wizard” pacing in his window. She can’t remember when she had cried and felt the emotion. She thinks maybe as a child. She stays because she has nowhere to go. All her choices are the same. Despair lies in all directions.

A broken tree, as her brothel-master once told her, can never yield.

Two days became three. Three become four. Hunger makes her dizzy, while the rain makes her clay-cold. The world hates you, she thinks, staring at the broken tower. Even here.

The last place.

One night, he appears, haggard like he hadn’t slept because of guilt. He has food and wine. She devours it like a “thankless animal.” He watches her and mentions Dreams like they are an old enemy he’s long fought. As she eats and stares at him, he speaks of his Dreams and what it’s like. She finds herself asking the lame question if they’re bad. In the firelight, she can see that though he’s suffered much, he still remembers how “to be tender and honest.” He answers her with a wink then fills a pipe and lights it. He tells her the dreams used to be. That confuses her. He then asks her why Mandate Schoolmen have the dreams.

She knows the answer. Her mother always resorted to talk of Achamian to salve the abrasions between her and her embittered daughter. Because he was her real father, Mimara had always thought. “To assure the School of Mandate never forgets, to never lose sight of its mission.”

“That’s what they say,” Achamian replies, savoring the smoke. “That the Dreams are the goad to action, a call to arms. That by suffering the First Apocalypse over and over, we had no choice but to war against the possibility of the Second.”

Achamian disagrees and says that her adopted father, Kellhus, is right that every life is a riddle that can be solved. He knows this to be a truth before telling her about the First Holy War and his “forbidden love” for Esmenet. He’d been willing to risk the World to have her. He is open and vulnerable with her, making it compelling. She’s heard this story before, but listens with “childish attentiveness,” letting herself feel his emotions. During it, she realizes that he doesn’t know that his love for Esmenet is a story told around the empire.

The only secret is that he still lives.

With these thoughts her wonder quickly evaporates into embarrassment. He seems over-matched, tragically so, wrestling with words so much larger than himself. It becomes cruel to listen as she does, pretending not to know what she knows so well.

“She was your morning,” she ventures.

This interrupts him, and he gets angry, glaring at her. He asks her to repeat it. And she does, explaining how Esmenet told her about what she meant to him. He then says he no longer fears the night because he doesn’t have the same Dreams as other Mandate Schoolman.

“I no longer pray for the morning.”

She leans back to pluck another log for the fire. It lands with rasping thump, sends a train of sparks twirling up through the smoke. Watching their winking ascent to avoid his gaze, she hugs her shoulders against the chill. Somewhere neither near nor far, wolves howl into the bowl of the night. As though alarmed, he glanced away into the wood, into the wells of blackness between the variant trunks and limbs. He stares with an intensity that makes her think that he listens as much as he hears, to the wolves and to whatever else—that he knows the myriad languages of the deep night.

It is then that he tells his tale in earnest…

As though he has secured permission.

Achamian thinks about how Esmenet, after his capture by the Scarlet Spire, had waited for him like Mimara had. He hadn’t come to see the girl out of anger, not wanting to reward her. He did it out of ear not wanting to be caught with missing Princess-Imperial. That he was doing her a favor because she was too old to learn the Nonman tongue to use magic. He used every excuse to hid from his pain.

Her mother, Esmenet, had waited for him on the banks of the River Semis over twenty years previous. Not even word of his death could turn her from her vigil, so obstinate, so mulish was her love. Not even sense could sway her.

Only Kellhus and the appearance of honesty.

Achamian recognizes Esmenet’s stubbornness in Mimara. How else could the girl have traveled so far alone? He finally realized he had to tell her the truth because she would die and he’d be destroyed by guilt. So he came with compassion and food and told her everything, including how his dreams had started changing. It had been twenty years since he spoke without issue. He explains how while the Mandate dream about Seswatha, they don’t witness the normal, day to day stuff. “‘Seswatha’ the old Mandate joke goes, ‘does not shit,’”

All the things that were forgotten, he realized.

The dreams took on new a character, subtle at first. Achamian merely thought it was his change in perspective. Achamian dreamed of Seswatha stubbing his toe to fetch a scroll. Mimara, as he speaks, stars at him the way Esmenet had. “Another abject listener.” He can’t read her, but she’s letting him speak. He explains how he was flabbergasted upon awakening. It wasn’t anything profound. He brings up how the Mandate have cataloged the variation of all the dreams. They could misfire, playing things out of order or corrupted. More than a few Mandate had become obsessed with them, thinking they found some greater truth. But they never could convince anyone else. So Achamian writes off the dream as his own. For two months, he dreamed the usual things, then he has one of Seswatha reading a scroll.

He trailed, though whether to let the significance settle in or to savour the memory, he did not know. Sometimes words interrupted themselves. He pinched the hem of his cloak, rolled the rough-sewn seam between thumb and forefinger.

Achamian notices how Mimara finishes off her gruel like a slave would before she asks what the scroll was. He says it’s a lost scroll by Gotagga. Parapolis. It’s famous. Mimara asks if Achamian invented it. He doesn’t think so. He wrote down what he remembered and it was far better than he could write. It proved they were real. He remembers that morning and the heady feel or realizing “he had begun dreaming Seswatha’s mundane life.” No other Mandate Schoolman had.

How strange it had been, to find his life’s revelation in the small things; he who had wrestled with dying worlds. But then the greater turned upon the small. He often thought of the men he’d known—the warlike ones, or just the plain obstinate—of their enviable ability to overlook and to ignore. It was like a kind of willful illiteracy, as if all the moments of unmanly passion and doubt, all the frail details that gave substance to their lives, were simply written in a tongue they couldn’t understand and so needed to condemn and belittle. It never occurred to them that to despise the small things was to despise themselves—not to mention the truth.

But then that was the tragedy of all posturing.

She asks why this happened. Why him. He has no idea, maybe Fate is fucking with him or maybe he’s gone mad, “for one cannot endure what I’ve [Achamian has] day and night without going mad.” Maybe since he’s abandoned his life, a new one filled it or Seswatha is reaching out to him. He comports himself and says there is a bigger question. He stares at her, watching her even while knowing he must appear as a bitter, old man.

But if there were judgment in her eyes, he could detect nothing of it.

“My stepfather,” she said. “Kellhus is the question.”

This makes him realize that she’s not ignorant of much of what he’s been talking to. She knew Kellhus personally. She’s his stepdaughter. It hadn’t clicked in his mind and he feels like an idiot for how obvious it was. Then he wonders why she came here. Did Kellhus send her even if she doesn’t know it? Is she a spy? Kellhus had seduced the Holy war. Mimara stood no chance.

How much of her soul was hers, and how much had been replaced?

Achamian asks if Kellhus sent her. She looks confused and bewildered. She says he’d drag her home in chains and return her to her mother. Achamian persists. She’s crying as she protests she’s not lying.

“This is the way it works,” Achamian heard himself rasp in an utterly ruthless voice. “This is the way he rules—from the darkness in our own souls! If you were to feel it, know it, that would simply mean there was some deeper deception.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! He-he’s always been kind—”

“Did he ever tell you to forgive your mother?”

She’s confused by that. He asks if he ever knew her heart better than she did. She says he had, not sure why it matters. He asks her if she felt awe in him. Saw him as more than a man. Did his attention make her feel gratified? Achamian is manic, shaking, frightening her. She calls him Akka, sounding to him like her “whore-mother.”

“When you stood before him!” he roared. “When you knelt in his presence, did you feel it? Hollow and immovable, as if you were at once smoke and yet possessed the bones of the world? Truth. Did you feel Truth?”

“Yes!” she cried. “Everyone does! Everyone! He’s the Aspect-Emperor! He’s the Saviour. He’s come to save us! Come to save the Sons of Men!”

Achamian stared at her aghast, his own vehemence ringing in his ears. Of course she was a believer.

“He sent you.”

Her presence returns him to the mindset of being in the First Holy War. In her eyes, he sees hope dying, like it had to him. When he approached her, she’d weakened, dared to believe finally something good would happen to her, and he’d snatched it from her. He believes she’s not a willing slave now and is reminded of Cnaiür who had “a soul at once strong and yet battered beyond recognition.” He sees Esmenet in her.

She was precisely the kind of slave Kellhus would send him [Achamian]. Part cipher. Part opiate.

Someone Drusas Achamian could come to love.

Achamian talks about the day Kellhus arrived at the Holy War. How Achamian was there. Kellhus had been a beggar claiming to be a prince with a Scylvendi. “It was my back he broke climbing to absolute power,” Achamian tells her. He goes on how Kellhus was his friend, his student, and how Kellhus stole his wife anyways. His morning. He dares her to speak now and she stays silent.

“The only thing,” he continued, his voice wrung ragged with conflicting passions. “The only thing I took with me from my previous life was a simple question: Who is Anasûrimbor Kellhus? Who?”

Achamian stared at the bed of coals pulsing beneath the blackened wood, paused to allow Mimara fair opportunity to respond, or so he told himself. The truth was that the thought of her voice made him wince. The truth was that his story had turned into a confession.

Mimara gives the obvious answer to his question: Kellhus is the Aspect-Emperor. Achamian isn’t surprised. Anyone, let alone Kellhus’s adopted daughter, would give this answer. People wanted things to be simple. They would mock questions “for fear it would make their ignorance plain.” Then they would claim to be open.

This was the iron habit of Men. This was what shackled them to the Aspect-Emperor.

He shook his head in slow deliberation. “The most important question you can ask any man, child, is the question of his origin. Only by knowing what a man has been can you hope to say what he will be.” He paused, brought up short by an old habit of hesitation. How easy it was to hid in his old pedantic ruts, to recite rather than talk. But no matter how woolly his abstractions always became snarled in the very needling particularities he so unwittingly tried to avoid. He had always been a man who wanted to digress, only to find himself bleeding on the nub

She gives the official answer, that Kellhus is “the Son of Heaven” as if it were the only one that could be. Achamian points out he’s a real person with parents born like anyone else. Where did that happen? She brings up Atrithau, but he cuts her off and says that Cnaiür, a dead man, told him. A memory of Cnaiür’s conversation, his warning on how Dûnyain “war against circumstances” and see men as dogs to be tamed. How they use love to control. The Dûnyain are Kellhus’s people.

She asks about his bloodline, and Achamian says he is an Anasûrimbor, the only clue to where he’s from. Where had that kingly family survived? She asks where else besides Atrithau since the North is ruined. The Sranc rule it. He says the Kûniüric High Kings must have created a refugee, something Cnaiür had mentioned in their conversation. Hidden in the mountains. Isolated for a thousand years so they could breed themselves into something better than world-born humans.

As he talks about the sanctuary, Achamian knows he sounds desperate to be believed even as he struggled to control how fast he gives Mimara the information. However, when calling the Aspect-Emperor a liar, their words never could come out slow enough. Mimara has gone blank, hiding her offended beliefs. Achamian thinks she sees him as a bitter cuckold railing against the better man who’d taken his wife and now paints a story with himself as the hero.

He breathed deeply, leaned back from the fire, which suddenly seemed to nip him with its heat. He resolved to refill his pipe, but he could only clench his fists against the tremors.

My hands shake.

Mimara watches Achamian as his voice grows shriller, his gestures wilder. At first, she was excited, but then she realizes he’s not free at all, but bound by the past. He’s not speaking to her, either, but to her mother. The irony that he mistakes her for her mother after she mistook him for her father hurts her. She realizes he’s more her brother, another person hurt and betrayed by Esmenet.

Mimara realizes she’s been wrong about him. Her imagination the opposite of reality. He lives only for vengeance against Kellhus. He’s ranting about how keeping Cnaiür alive was Kellhus’s mistake. The Scylvendi knew too much about Kellhus’s past. So now Achamian is using his mutated Dreams to get his vengeance. He’s spent twenty years sifting through Seswatha’s life to find what he needed.

It’s more than a fool’s errand; it is a madman’s obsession, on par with those ascetics who beat themselves with strings and flint, or who eat nothing but ox-hides covered in religious writings. Twenty years! Anything that could consume so much life simply has to be deranged. The hubris alone…

His hatred of Kellhus she finds understandable, though she herself bears no grudge against her stepfather. She barely knows the Aspect-Emperor, and those fare times she found herself alone with him on the Andiamine Heights—twice—he seemed at once radiant and tragic, perhaps the most immediate and obvious soul she had ever encountered.

You think you hate her,” he once said—referencing her mother, of course.

I know I do.”

There is no knowledge,” he had replied, “in the shadow of hate.”

She ponders those words and sees how Achamian has focused everything in his life towards unmasking Kellhus. His Dreams and his Hatred. If you can’t get your revenge, it devours you which only feeds your outrage at the source. She sees Achamian as the same as her.

She asks if he’s found what he’s been searching for in the dreams. He’s found a name, sounding embarrassed because it sounds so paltry compared to his boasts about his work. She nearly laughs, earning a bitter glare.

She reminds herself to take care. Her instinct, given all that she has endured, is to be impatient with the conceits of others. But she needs this man.

He says the name: Ishuäl. It’s almost a whisper. He explains it means ‘Exalted Grotto’ or ‘High Hidden Place’ in a Nonman dialect. She asks if that’s where Kellhus is from and sees it disturbs him when she speaks Kellhus name with familiarity. He is certain, however. She asks how he can find it. He says he’ll know soon. More and more of Seswatha’s life is opening to him. He’s getting the secrets.

A life spent mining the life of another, pondering glimpses of tedium through the lenses of holy and apocalyptic portent. Twenty years! How can he hope to balance the proportions? Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stones.

“Like he’s yielded,” she forces herself to say.

Achamian says that’s just what it likes. He speaks as if Seswatha knows it and is helping him. She can’t imagine what sort of drive it would take to spend twenty years researching this. She doesn’t think any sane person could have such conviction and perseverance.

Faces. All conduct is a matter of wearing the appropriate faces. The brothel taught her that, and the Andiamine Heights simply confirmed the lesson. It’s as though expressions occupy various positions, a warning here, a greeting there, with the distance between measured by the difficulty of forcing one face from the other. At this moment nothing seems so difficult as squeezing pity into the semblance of avid interest.

She asks him again if no other Mandate’s had this happen. He says no and asks her what it means. She’s shocked and offended that he’s showing weakness. At that point, the Judging Eye opens, though she doesn’t know what this is. She sees more than the Mark on him. She sees the “hue of judgment, as though blessing and condemnation have become a wash visible only in certain kinds of light.” He bleeds evil. Damnation.

He is damned. Somehow she knows this with the certainty with which children know their hands. Thoughtless. Complete.

He is damned.

The Judging Eye closes and he’s just Achamian again. She feels great sorrow for this once strong man who is now a wreck. She knows, thanks to the brothel, that a madman needs to be believed. She tells him he’s a prophet from the past and leans in to kiss. “Her whole life she has punished herself with men.”

The memory of his power is like perfume.

After they have sex, they both regret it. She feels lonely as he sleeps beside her, wondering why that should be. She crawls to the fires, wrapped up in blankets, and tries to forget what they did. When he touches her shoulder, giving her kindness, she starts to cry.

“We have made our first mistake together,” he says, as though it were something significant. “We will not make it again.”

The forest is silent and suddenly she can’t stand it and sobs out, asking if she’s broken. If that’s why she runs. He says everyone carries silent burdens that bend them. She throws that back in his face, even as she hates herself for calling him broken. His hands stay on her in a comforting manner, though. He tells her he needs to find the truth more than for his hatred. She asks what difference does it make, and he’s shocked to learn the Great Ordeal has marched for Golgotterath. In a year, the Consult will be destroyed. Already, Sakarpus has already fallen.

Silence. Remorse comes crashing in.

Can’t you see? Something shrikes in her. Can’t you see the poison I bring? Strike me! Strangle me! Pare me to the core with your questions!

But she laughs instead. “You have shut yourself away for too long. You have found your revelation too late.”

My Thoughts

Why is the palace like a brothel? It’s a place where people are seen as objects. As things to be used and manipulated. As the Empress’s daughter, she would be seen as a valuable piece to be claimed as a wife. As an ear to her mother. As a wedge against a political rival. The brothel is, at least, honest.

Flare. Wax. Consume. Be energetic, get tired, and then eat food before you do it all over again. Life reduced to its most basic and honest form.

Unlike the Judging Eye, seeing sorcery’s mark on the world never goes away.

We get our first description of the Judging Eye and what our opening epigram is about: in this world, things are not equal. Men are seen as better than women. Why? I think it’s belief. The Outside exists so long as enough souls on this planet believe in it. That’s why the Inchoroi and the Consult want to depopulate it. To destroy this extra-dimensional realm that is being fed upon by the psyche of intelligent beings. Nonmen are evil because the majority species on this planet believe it. Whatever effect the Nonmen had on the Outside is gone. They’ve been depopulated. It’s all human now. Men think they’re better than women, which is a common thing we’re shown as a great evil in this series.

Bakker is accused of misogyny, but the whale room is his greatest condemnation of women being used as objects. The Dûnyain, who prized intellect above all others, who wanted to breed themselves into perfect beings, realized that the sex differences between women and men made it necessary to turn their women into better breeders. They destroyed their women because they had no emotions.

They did it through logic.

Then you have the other end. The Inchoroi. They are all about sex but don’t care about its biological purpose. Just the pleasure. They are all just men looking to rut with whatever holes they can find. They have a thousand words for ejaculate. Tells you a lot of their priorities.

Esmenet is the perfect person to show the flaws of these beliefs. An intelligent woman denied any chance to use it, forced to sell her body, even her own child, to survive. Achamian came close to treating her as an equal. Considering their culture, he went far beyond what’s normal. Kellhus used this to seduce her by respecting her and feeding her knowledge. However, his logic still led to the same position: she became a breeder for him.

How can Mimara ever heal and find resolution with her relationship with Esmenet when she has Kelmomas poisoning the well, polluting her thoughts with lies? We’ve seen Esmenet’s POV. We know the greatest mistake she’s ever made was selling her daughter.

A broken tree can never yield. A tree yields to the wind that blows past it, bending and swaying. To the forces of nature until those forces are too much and it breaks. The trunk collapses. Then it just lies there, unable to do anything. Unable to yield because it has collapsed. Is this what Bakker means? Maybe.

Reading this section of Mimara is something I can relate to. That feeling of helplessness. That nothing matters so why do anything. Just like you’re in a pit and will die because no one cares about you to come look for you. No one will miss you. Why even bother trying to escape? It takes too much effort. Just lie there and let it end.

Poisonous thoughts. The loss of hope is crippling.

Achamian says he no longer prays for the morning, and yet he just spent all this time talking about what Esmenet meant to him. What he was willing to give up for her. He would have condemned the world if it meant having the woman he loved. He isn’t over her at all. He is, after all, still trying to prove that Kellhus is not what he says. To find proof that he’s lying about salvation for sorcerers and even for Esmenet. That the Great Ordeal isn’t what he claims.

I don’t know about you, but I have dreamed of invented books before. I once heard you can’t read in dreams, but that’s not true. I have. Usually, it’s on the eve of a book I’m looking forward to reading coming out. The Wheel of Time books caused me to have them a few times. I’d be so excited to read them, but I could never find the same place in the books and sometimes would frantically be flipping through pages to find it.

The small things of life are where your true self comes out. Not the mask you wear around others, the various roles we all shift through like chameleons. The good employee. The patient friend. The polite cashier. Spouse. Confidant. Adviser. We never fully act our real selves around anyone but modify our behavior because it’s expected or to avoid friction.

And a brutal critic on those who pretend it doesn’t happen. Who project themselves as something more than the truth: they’re no better than any other human being.

Dûnyain influence on people is almost like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Only it’s still the person you love who betrays you because of Kellhus. Like what happened with Conphas and Martemus in the last series. Martemus was loyal until Kellhus began whispering. Then he nearly killed Conphas. And Conphas never betrayed Martemus. Conphas never did anything to Martemus that would have prompted a sense of betrayal. It was all Kellhus rewriting his soul.

Making Martemus into a new person.

It’s insidious if you’re trying to war against Kellhus. There’s no test like with the skin-spy. No mark left on the person physically. Not even the Mark.

Mimara, of course, was sent by a Dûnyain. Just not Kellhus. So Achamian is right, but, lucky for him, Kelmomas cares nothing about Achamian. He just needed Mimara to go away. She’s lucky not to be dead.

My theory is that Kellhus expected Achamian to try and find Ishuäl and use the Holy War as cover. I believe that’s why he arranged for the nonman king to be with the Ironsoul and his men. He cut a deal with the nonman erratic to let him relive his past through Seswatha (aka Achamian) in exchange for knowledge. He used that knowledge to send Serwa on an attack on Ishterebinth and secure his flank for the march on Golgotterath. Was Achamian supposed to be killed by the erratic? Was he supposed to find the truth about Kellhus?

I don’t know.

Once Kellhus had achieved his goal of defeating the No-God, he didn’t need to rule everything. Perhaps he was readying for some form of enlightened atheism. To have Achamian began to destroy his own myth after Kellhus achieved his plan. I think Kellhus wanted to close the Outside but not the way the Consult wanted to. Not through genocide. I could be just talking out of my ass here because Kellhus died without giving us any closure on Achamian’s storyline. In the end, Achamian’s journey didn’t change what happened at Golgotterath one bit. It was anticlimactic. Perhaps the point, but it seems like a waste of literary potential.

We’ll have to see how the next series handles it.

Achamian is unburdening himself now. He felt guilty for snatching away Mimara’s hope with his accusation. So even though he fears she is exactly what he dreads, a leash from Kellhus, he can’t help but explain himself. To fall into the Dûnyain trap.

People do not like their beliefs challenged. It causes turmoil. Why go through all that mental effort when you can just get on with your life? Like confronting contradictory information to what is in your core identity. Is it any wonder people hate philosophers. No one likes the status quo being challenged when you’re benefiting from it.

Beyond that, our minds take a lot of energy to operate. Humans burn a lot of calories to have our brains process so much, so our minds focus on important things and don’t like us to waste energy on things that cause it to have to burn more resources.

To understand something, you need to know how it came about. Whether it’s an astronomer studying a new cosmic phenomenon or a farmer trying to eradicate a new weed in his crops. The truth of origin can allow you to both understand something better and then categorize it. Handle it.

To war against it.

“There is no knowledge in the shadow of hate.” Mimara doesn’t hate her mother, she loves her. That is why she’s so hurt. Why she wants to punish her back. She doesn’t want to destroy her mother. Doesn’t despise her. She wants to make her mother bleed so she can find closure on the pain she received from Esmenet. You hate what you don’t know. One of the most successful men in defusing racial hatred is a black man named Daryl Davis. He sat down with members of the KKK, became their friends, and more than two hundred of them gave up their robes. He let them get to know what they hated and find understanding.

Achamian hates Kellhus. Mimara resents her mother.

One of those secrets of Seswatha, like how he’d cuckolded the king and is probably the father of Nau-Cayûti.

“Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stone.” Value is subjective, after all. What looks like something as common as stone to one person is the material to build something great and vast to another.

Despite her upbringing, Mimara is having trouble hiding her pity for Achamian let alone feeling it. He’s touched her. Reached through her hard, bitter, cynical exterior that she drew around herself to protect her heart from the suffering she received as a child-slave in a brothel.

Interesting that the Judging Eye triggered as she’s judging him for being weak. I’m going to pay attention to its other appearance and see if there’s anything that triggers it, or if it happens at “random.” I put that in quotes because no book has random things in it. An intelligent mind creates a book and while their reasoning may not make sense, an author chooses when to put information in and for a reason.

Mimara has really only learned one way to deal with men. She hates it, but she doesn’t know other ways to get them to give her things. So she once again goes down that path, sensing Achamian’s vulnerability. This is her moment. She could have continued doing this with him, but he does the one thing she can’t take.

He’s kind to her.

Sex is a punishment for her. To willingly do what she’d been forced to do. What she hates. To be the thing she can never escape. He shouldn’t be kind to her, and yet he is.

She feels lonely beside him because she didn’t have sex out of love, out of a desire to truly be with him. She just wanted to get something from him. They had the veneer of intimacy but in fact, it’s not there. So she can’t take any satisfaction from his presence.

Ultimately, Mimara’s problem is that she hates herself. For how she has grown to become exactly what the brothel masters intended: a woman who uses sex to get things from men. And because of that, she wants the world to hate her, too. Her mother. Achamian. She lashes out at them even as she wants to stop. Even as she wants to receive their love. Until she can stop hating herself, she’ll never be able to accept the love of others.

And what Achamian offers her as he holds her face is love. Not sexual love, but that paternal love she came here seeking. He will become her father in truth over their journey, and since we’re in the world of grimdark fantasy, it comes after they had sex and she becomes pregnant with his child.

And with her pronouncement on the Holy War’s march, Achamian is launched into action. He has his quest. His chance to make it to his goal and find the truth. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. They arrive at the Great Ordeal not caring about the results. They don’t confront Kellhus. He’s never even seen with the Judging Eye. Because we, the readers, don’t need to see Kellhus in that eye. In those final moments, we see what Kellhus’s goals are. Whether or not he’s damned, he’s trying to change things his way. A way that doesn’t see humans suffer more than necessary.

Because, ultimately, he fell in love in his stunted way. He forged an emotional bond to Serwë and Esmenet. He let one of them die for his mission. He couldn’t let the other one. The irony is that this led to his fall. If he never went back to save Esmenet, if he hadn’t spared Kelmomas for her sake, what happened at Golgotterath would have played out very differently.

So what is the point of Achamian and Mimara’s journey? I haven’t read this series since the Unholy Consult came out and know how it ends. It sees these two broken figures reunited with Esmenet both transformed by their journey.

Let’s figure this out together and see if we can piece together what Bakker was intending. Is this another fantasy storyline that ends in failure like all the rest? Probably.

Ultimately, all are protagonists fail. Achamian and Mimara never reveal the truth of Kellhus.

Kellhus never defeats the Consult.

Sorweel never stops the evil emperor and live happily ever after with his princess.

Esmenet fails to protect her children.

But scattered through it is lives and passions, events that have meaning. That resonates. Let’s explore those as we march forward through The Aspect-Emperor.

If you enjoyed this, click here for Chapter Five!

And if you want to help support this blurb, check out my fantasy books on Amazon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Weekly Free Story – Lily’s Kiss

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Lily’s Kiss

Her Royal Highness, Princess Livia Bethany Izzabel Karzinoth, took a deep breath as her new boots crunched on the edge of the crenelation. She did her best not to look down at the plunging drop before her, her rope swaying like a long snake down the side of the tower’s black stone. The knot in her stomach twisted even tighter. Her breath quickened. Frozen air puffed before her, the night’s chill deepening, adding a bite that snapped at her pink cheeks. Already, frost rimed the tower’s edges.

Winter’s chill stole through the structure. On her climb up it, she felt those icy fingers digging through the leather pants and jerkin she wore, rough clothing she’d filched from the laundress and tailored in secret through long nights to fit her shorter, yet curvier, form than the squire who owned them.

Her moleskin gloved hands gripped the rope as she turned around, facing the tower’s center, her back to the vast expanse of air behind her. Her stomach squirmed as the heels of her feet hung off the edge.

I’m going to die,” she whispered to herself.

She could picture it now, her booted foot slipping on the icy stone, the alchemical treatment on the gloves failing, her grip slipping. The rope hissing by her, the tower’s stones streaking past, as she plunged head-first into the outer bailey below.

She stood atop the Raven Donjon, the highest tower of the castle. It was a remnant of the old keep torn down to build the larger, and more impressive, dwelling that housed the royal family. The stonemasons had left behind only the rearing shaft of black, an edifice only a fool would climb.

That’s me, thought the princess. A fool.

But she had no choice. A fortnight ago, she’d discovered love in an unexpected place. Not in the nobles who came from across the known world to court her, the dignitaries from a dozen courts, or the men of power and wealth all looking to forge an alliance with her father’s kingdom. Nor did she find passion in the arms of a rough soldier or a comely servant like many ladies of the court did, reveling in their sordid love behind their lord husbands’ backs.

She’d found love in the face of Lily, her new bedmaid.

It had blossomed so unexpectedly, swelling in her heart until it swallowed her body.

And when discovered abed, the evidence of their sapphic passion found on their flushed bodies and despoiled sheets, Princess Livia lost her Lily. The soldiers had taken the maid away, imprisoning her at the commands of Livia’s horrified parents. Already, the ink upon a betrothal contract dried, signing the princess over to another man who’d carry her away after their affair. Meanwhile, her poor Lily would rot in her cell high up in the Raven Donjon, condemned for loving Livia. Just picturing Lily quivering, freezing in her rags, propelled Princess Livia to step off the battlements and slide down her rope.

I’m going to die, ran over and over through the frightened princess’s thoughts. The rope hissed as it slid through her moleskin gloves. Treated with an alchemical formula she’d filched from the castle apothecary, the gloves gripped the rope in an unnatural way, almost sticking to the gray hemp even as she’d descended down it.

Now, however, she let out a shriek as she slid faster, her heart beating, fearing the treatment’s failure. Flashes of falling shot through her mind again. The darkness rushing up at her, the bone-crunching impact, then nothing. Death. But the idea of her poor Lily wilting away in the cell proved far, far stronger than the terror turning her insides into laundry churned by the fullers’ feet.

Livia was a fool, but her love gave her no choice.

The toes of her boots scraped down the mortared stone of the tower. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look down. Though she had a childhood full of romping through the castle, of climbing trees and smaller towers, never once had she dared the heights of the Raven Donjon. Not even her tomboyish enthusiasm had given the younger her the courage to attempt what she did tonight.

Her toes scraped down the wall until she hit a gap, her feet swinging into nothingness. She let out a squeak of fright as she swung into the opening, fearing a deadly plummet to the courtyard loomed. Then metal rang, her boot striking the barred window of a cell. A heartbeat later, her foot landed on the ledge of the window’s opening. She trembled, realizing she’d reached her destination.

With a sucked in breath, Livia lunged her hand forward and grasped an iron bar. She pulled herself from her rope to perch on the window’s ledge. She had half her feet planted on the stone, the other half hanging off over open air.

Again, she could feel the distance yawning between her and the courtyard’s stones far below.

Lily,” she hissed, peering through the darkness. The chill from the iron bled through her gloves. Her heart thundered in her chest. “Lily, it’s me.”

Nothing answered her.

Did I climb down to the wrong window? Did I misjudge her cell’s location?

A panicked flutter rippled through the princess. She’d carefully planned everything the last fortnight. The moment her parents had stolen Lily from her, she’d launched into her daring rescue. She’d tried to be the model daughter for them when she’d come of age. She’d put away her boys’ clothes. She’d stopped romping through the swampy edges of the moat or playing rough games with the scullion boys. She wore the restraining gowns her mother ordered sewn for her, draped herself in jewels gifted by suitors, wore the unguents and perfumes proffered by servants, allowed the greasy makeup to paint her face, and sat for hours while her hairdresser tamed her dark locks. She would have endured it all if they could have let her have Lily. She would have gladly married any man, done her wifely duty and bore him heirs, so long as she could have her bedmaid with her. To have the woman she loved to keep her company, to share lonely nights, and with whom to enjoy sweet kisses and tender caresses.

But the bitter words her mother spoke to her that night echoed in her head . . .

*

Lady Sun and Father Earth made everything in opposites,” Queen Bethany lectured to the princess.

Livia huddled in the dressing gown stuffed on her after they took Lily from her, hugging her legs as she sat in the middle of her rumpled bed. Candles lit the room, the light dancing upon the stern matron’s face. Tears stained the princess’s cheeks as she ached for her bedmaid’s return.

Day and night,” continued her mother, “white and black, order and chaos, man and woman. They are meant to complement each other. Without opposites, there would only be bland sameness. You were born to be with a man.”

The words struck sparks inside the princess. It offended her that her mother saw only filth in the beauty she made with Lily. Livia bounced onto her knees on the bed, glaring defiance at the queen. “I was born to be with Lily!” the princess raged. “I love her! She loves me! What is so wrong about that? What crime have we committed? It’s not like I bedded a scullion! I just shared something . . . something wonderful with my friend.”

The queen shook her head, lip curling in disgust. “There was nothing wonderful about what we found. It was perversion. We are blessed to rule, Livia. The compliment of those who serve. How can we disrupt the order Mother Sun and Father Sky gave to us? We have to be exemplars!”

Like you and the captain of the guard?” spat the princess. “What part of the natural order is cuckolding my fath—”

The queen’s slap snapped the princess’s head to the side. “You understand nothing about being a woman. I never should have tolerated even a moment of your foolishness as a girl. Look what it has done. Running around like a boy has warped you into thinking you are one.”

I’m a woman,” the princess hissed. “So I do understand just why you bed the captain of the guard. At least I love Lily.”

You are too young to even understand what that word means.” The queen leaned forward, seizing the princess’s chin. “When you’ve brought life into the world through blood and pain, then talk to me about love. Until then, you are my daughter, and you shall never see that little strumpet again! I will find you a husband so you can do your duty to him and to our family.”

The queen whirled, skirts flowing like an angry tide, and marched from the room. Alone, the princess simmered. Thought. Plotted.

*

Memory of that argument gave Princess Livia fire as she peered through the darkened cell. “Lily, are you there?” I’ll crawl across this entire tower. I’ll find you even if I break my neck doing it.

She grabbed her rope and swung out from the alcove, abandoning the empty cell. Anger swelled in her for making such an error. It could ruin everything. She couldn’t afford to die. She had to rescue her sweet Lily. Nothing else mattered.

Swallowing her fear, Livia walked herself along the outer wall of the tower, her feet braced against the stones, the rope creaking as she scurried sideways towards the next window. She spotted it as she walked along the outside of the tower. Above, the rope scraped on stone.

Mother Sun, shine upon me, she prayed, and don’t let my rope fray and break. For Lily. You’ve seen how sweet she is.

The image of her lover swelled in the princess’s mind, that round face framed by cornsilk hair, eyes as blue as the sea, as azure as the sky. Despite her common birth, Lily possessed the natural grace that a princess should embody. Dainty, delicate cheeks paling at the sight of blood, squeamish around mud. Sometimes, Livia imagined a horrible mistake must have happened. That the pair were switched at birth, the universe’s proper order messed up again.

First, you create me to love women, she prayed to Mother Sun, then you give me the personality of a peasant and not a princess. Why would you do that?

She didn’t understand. It confused her why everyone preached the order of creation when she felt so alien from it, so different from what was expected. When she’d met Lily, she finally understood just how flawed she was, how much the Gods had botched the casting of her form into the mold of life.

But she didn’t care about why she was created wrong. It didn’t matter now. Not when she found someone just as flawed, just as alien, just as out of place as her. Someone who understood. As she shuffled across the tower’s rounded exterior, the memory of their first kiss swallowed her thoughts.

*

I’m so sorry,” Lily gasped, jerking her head back from the princess’s. “I didn’t meant to do that. It just . . . You’re just . . . so beautiful.”

Livia blinked in wonder, still feeling the touch of her bedmaid’s lips. Though they’d only known each other for a month—her last bedmaid had married another servant—they’d fast become friends despite the difference in their stations.

As was usual, they shared the princess’s bed tonight so Lily could be on hand to provide for the princess’s any need. As they talked about idle things, they had rolled onto their sides to face each other. The contents of their conversation had utterly evaporated from Livia’s mind by that quick, chaste kiss.

How could she remember anything as she sat their trembling, awakened to her true self? Everything in her mind crystallized who she was. Her eyes widened as she stared at Lily, studying her with new sight, and seeing her as more than her new friend. She saw that opposite she’d searched for to complete her and couldn’t find among the men like she’d expected. All those suitors she’d politely suffered. All those times staring at the guards training and trying to understand why the other courtly girls and servants giggled at their sweaty, shirtless bodies.

It all became clear, Mother Sun’s illumination exposing the truth.

It’s okay,” Livia answered, her words strained by awe. “It wasn’t . . . distasteful. It was . . . rather nice.”

Relief burned across Lily’s face. Her eyes trembled. “Thank Father Earth’s gentle ground. I am truly sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.”

You were afraid I’d be offended?” That hurt Livia. “You never have to be afraid of me.” She took Lily’s hand, scooting a little closer, her nightgown rustling about her skin. “I would never hurt you. Even if you planted a thousand kisses upon my lips.”

Lily squeezed Livia’s hand back. Trembling, the maid asked, “You mean that, Your Highness?”

Livia.” The princess smiled. “Didn’t I tell you to call me that?”

It’s just . . .” Lily scooted closer. “It’s such a dream. Being with you. Every day, I pinch myself.”

Because you’re living in the castle?” frowned Livia.

No. Because of you. That I get to be with you. You make everything so much brighter.”

Me?”

You’re so elegant.”

I’m always tripping over the hem of my skirt.”

You move with such grace.”

So gracefully into a vase or a plinth holding a bust.” The princess grinned. “And then crash.”

Your hair is lustrous.”

If you like horsehair.”

Princess!” Lily said with some heat. “Stop that!”

Livia blinked at the outburst. “What?”

You are so beautiful. You don’t have horsehair. And you’re not so wide that you crash into anything. You walk with wonderful grace. Don’t hate yourself. It’s terrible.”

Livia became even more confused. “Why does it make you so angry?”

Because I don’t like anyone insulting you. Not even yourself. I . . .” She swallowed her words. “I love you, princess. That’s why I kissed you. That’s why I’m so happy and think this is a dream. I know it’s wrong. I shouldn’t say this because it means you’ll hate me, and you’ll send me away from you, but I just had to blurt out what was in my heart. To tell you how I felt even if you—”

Princess Livia kissed her bedmaid. And it wasn’t a quick, chaste kiss.

*

They had two weeks of beautiful nights before that horrid evening when they were caught. Princess Livia wanted them back. So she kept working around the tower, her arms threatening to rip free from her shoulder sockets. She gripped the rope, ignored the cold, and moved with bouncing, swinging steps closer and closer to the next cell window.

She was almost there when her boots slipped on the icy surface as she went to make her next swinging leap. She let out a startled yelp, soles scraping on stone. She found purchase for a heartbeat and made a mad lunge for the window ledge. Her fingers stretched wide. She realized how dumb this was. If she missed . . .

The courtyard was so far below.

With a squeak of relief, she snagged the icy lip of the alcove. Her alchemical gloves gripped. Breath exploded from her lips. Her feet scrabbled against mortared stone. She found purchase and hauled herself into the window’s alcove. She pressed herself against the bars, clutching them, her entire body shaking as she peered inside, praying to see her lover.

That she didn’t risk death for nothing.

Lily!” she hissed, her heart thundering in her chest, threatening to break her ribcage. Her entire body trembled. “Please, are you there, Lily?”

Shadows stirred in the room. “Livia?”

Mother Sun’s blessed light,” gasped Livia, relief flooding through her.

What are you doing?” The shadow rose and darted to the window. Silvery light splashed onto a frail figure, face gaunt and wan, blonde hair lank and swallow, darker than Livia remembered.

She’s so dirty, the princess realized, staring at her lover in the thin nightgown she wore. The same garment that had half-clad her body the night they were caught.

Tears burned Livia’s eyes. “What did they do to you, sweet flower?”

I’m fine,” Lily said, her thin arms reaching through the bars to touch the wool sleeve of the shirt the princess wore beneath her jerkin. “They haven’t done anything to me.”

Did they feed you?”

A crust of bread and a bowl of soup each evening,” she said. “It’s more than enough. But what are you doing? You’ll fall. This is foolish, Your Highness.”

Don’t call me that!” The anger surged through Livia.

Lily flinched.

I’m sorry,” the princess said, grabbing her lover’s thin arm. “I didn’t mean to yell. I had no idea they treated you this poorly.”

She shrugged, looking resigned to her fate. Livia’s heart broke.

They tell me you’re to be married,” the girl continued. “That I’ll be released once you’ve left with your husband.”

Well, I’m releasing you tonight,” the princess said. “You won’t spend another heartbeat in here.”

A sad smile spread on Lily’s face. She leaned forward to the bars, kissing Livia through the gap. “Another sweet dream. I’ll savor it tonight.”

Every night,” Livia insisted. “You’re coming with me.” She shifted around, pulling off the pack slung on her shoulders. From it, she produced a tied bundle of clothing. “Here, for you. Put it on.”

And then what, Liv?” Lily glanced behind her at her cell door. “Am I to break down a stout oak door and overpower my guards? Or am I to shrink and squeeze through the bars?”

The princess winked. “Leave those to me.”

Lily took the bundle from the princess, frowning. “What are you up to?” Then she groaned. “You’re not playing with that alchemical stuff again?”

They cured your pimples,” Livia objected.

And made my skin peel for a week.” But a smile touched Lily’s lips, such radiance in the darkness of the cell.

Livia grinned back, just so happy to see that beauty again on her lover’s face. She could stare at her for eternity, just drinking in that smile, the simple joy in her round face. But you can’t stare at her like a mooncalf all night. They’ll start a search for her come dawn.

Hurry and change,” the princess said, pulling out a glass vial from a pocket. A plug, also glass, stoppered the end, sealed shut by wax. The aqua regal in there could devour through the sternest stone but couldn’t harm fragile glass.

Lily moved deeper into the cells. She turned her back, drawing up the hem of her nightgown, exposing her pale thighs. She paused, throwing a look over her shoulder. “Don’t look, Liv!”

I’ve seen you naked before,” the princess said. “We used to bathe together. And do other things.” A naughty grin spread on her lips.

Just . . . Please.”

Fine, fine,” Livia said. “Just hurry. I’ll focus on getting you out of here. I won’t look. May Mother Sun blind me and Father Earth swallow me if I do.”

As Livia worked the crystal stopper off the vial, breaking the wax seal in the process, she heard the rustle of clothing. She bit her lip, forcing her eyes to stare at the bar. With care, she dribbled the caustic liquid along the bar near the top. It hissed and bubbled, eating into the metal. It ran in hissing lines, etching furrows into the iron. She did the same on the next bar, careful to keep it away from her moleskin gloves.

She shifted on the edge, breathing heavily. Heat washed across her face from the alchemical reaction. A smell, not unlike rust mixed with vinegar, assaulted her nose. She wrinkled it while holding the vial near the bottom of the bar and tipping it over so the contents dribbled out and—

A naked back almost glowed in the dark. Lashes striped it, half-healed, puckered and raw.

Livia froze. Liquid hissed and bubbled, stone groaning as the aqua regal poured out of her vial onto the stone around the bar, forming a caustic puddle. Anger swirled through the princess. Her hand gripped the bar, leather creaking as it rubbed on iron.

Then Lily donned the wool shirt, hiding her injuries.

What did they do to you!” hissed the princess.

I’m fine,” Lily said, her head lowered. “And you promised not to look.”

What did they do? Tell me!”

Lily stiffened. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Her words slapped Livia again. She tried so hard not to be imperious with Lily, to let them be equals, but her upbringing always reared up in her anger. Those barking commands burst from her lips. A lifetime of giving orders to everyone save her parents was not an easy habit to break.

Please, my sweet Lily,” she said, her voice lower. “They hurt you. Why?”

To purify me. A nun came to scourge my sin out of me. But I wouldn’t renounce my love for you.”

Tears fell down Livia’s cheeks. “Why do you love me so much that you would endure such pain for me? I’m not worth it.”

Of course you’re worth it!” Lily whirled around, staring with such shining eyes. “Because it’s you!” She touched above her breast through her wool shirt. “Because you dwell in here. They’d have to cut my heart out to get rid of you.”

You’d die for me?” Livia gasped in awe. How do I ever repay that?

Aren’t you risking death for me?” Lily pulled up the leather britches up her skinny legs. “You’re perched on a window high above the ground. You could slip and fall to your death.”

Don’t remind me.” The princess shuddered, suddenly feeling all that empty air between her and the ground. “If I think about it, I’ll freeze up again and . . .”

The sound of bubbling hisses drew her attention. She gasped, realizing almost all the aqua regal had poured out around the middle bar, eating a smoking depression into the stone. The bar she clutched wobbled in the center of the puddle as she shifted. She looked at her vial and breathed a sigh of relief.

She had enough regal aqua left to eat through the other bar. Or so she hoped. Lily would need two removed for her to squeeze out to freedom despite how slender she’d become. Livia poured the last drops of the hungry liquid onto the other bar. Then she tossed the empty vial over her shoulder. She shuddered, regretting that as it took a dozen heartbeats before it hit the ground with a shattering tinkle.

Just don’t think about how high we are,” she muttered beneath her breath as she jerked on the first bar. She pulled it free with ease, the bottom end popping out of the pool of acid, the top snapping free. Not wanting to make more noise, she thrust it into the cell and reached past the remaining bars to lower it to the floor.

You really are amazing, Liv,” Lily said as she finished lacing up the stout boots. The girl looked almost like a young boy in her men’s clothing. Only her hair was far too long and her face far too feminine for the resemblance to be more than superficial.

If she had my big breasts, she could never pass for a man, thought Livia.

With a twisting jerk, she tried to pull the final bar free. The top came off without any problem, breaking free with a crunching snap. But the bottom only twisted, the metal stretching but staying whole. She took a hard grip on it and tugged hard, heaving with an oxen grunt.

It came free with a clanging pop.

She gasped as she suddenly jerked backward towards the empty air behind her. The soles of her boots slipped on the icy ledge. She felt herself teetering, windmilling her arms to keep from toppling backward. Her heart shot up into her throat as she leaned back.

The ground swam so far below.

Don’t fall,” Lily gasped, rushing to the window. She thrust her arms through the opening and hugged Livia about the waist before hauling her from the precipice.

The princess seized a still-whole bar, arresting her dangerous lean. Her entire body shook. Her blood pounded through her, feeling colder than the air around her. She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in deep breaths. The back of her heels still stuck out over the lip.

Okay,” Livia said, her voice brittle. She struggled to gather her thoughts. “You need to . . . uh . . . The, uh . . .”

The what?” Lily asked.

Livia took a deep breath, struggling to regather her thoughts scattered like a flock of songbirds fleeing the cat which jumped into their midst. “The rope! You have to tie the rope about your waist.” She spoke swiftly now, trying to mask her fear with activity. “Okay?”

Rope?” Lily asked.

Livia pulled a shorter length of rope out of her pouch and handed Lily one end. The other she wrapped about her waist and knotted it. Then she knotted it a second time. Lily’s fingers fumbled at the rope, clumsy in her moleskin gloves. But she managed to cinch the rope about her, squeezing the baggy clothing tight to her narrow waist.

The princess checked the knot just to make sure. It’s not tying off an embroidery or a seem.

Okay, watch that puddle,” Livia said as she took Lily’s hand. The acid had eaten half a foot into the stone, leaving a pockmarked depression. Little crags riddled it where the aqua regal had eaten deeper into the softer veins in the rock. “It’ll melt through your boots and your gloves.”

Lily gave a tight nod.

With a heave, the princess pulled Lily onto the ledge. It grew crowded with both girls clutching at the bars. The princess thrust the longer rope into Lily’s hand. The girl swallowed and looked down. She let out a squeak of fear.

Oh, no, she’s going to freeze up on me and—

But Lily gripped the rope and slid down it, clutching it with her feet with surprising skill. The cord bound between them played out as the princess followed, hugging the hemp and abandoning the relative safety of the ledge.

The rope swung away from it. She gasped as the tower blurred before her. Lily shrieked beneath her as they swung like the bob dangling at the end of a carpenter’s plumb. Her stomach swam as she gripped the rope with her treated gloves.

She choked on her scream.

The exterior of the tower scraped along her arms. Then she gasped, striking one stone which protruded a little more. She spun about. Lily squeaked in fright beneath her. Livia hit back into the tower, bouncing a second time. Her arm ached. She hugged the rope, her dark hair flying out around her face.

And then they dangled beneath the rope’s anchor point, swaying back and forth like a trembling pendulum. Livia let out an explosive breath, her entire body numb from fright. She hugged the rope, her eyes squeezed shut. Sucking in deep breaths, she vowed to never climb anything again.

Liv!” whimpered Lily. “What just happened?”

Part of the plan,” the princess said. I should have realized we’d swing like that! She forced herself to look down. “Mostly. Are you okay?”

Her lover just nodded, lips sealed tight.

Okay, it should be fine. Just slide down. The gloves should keep you on the rope. But you’re tied to me if you do fall.”

Lily smiled at that. “I know you have me.”

I love you,” Livia added. Just in case.

Then the princess and her lover slid down the rope. It rasped against the gloves and the leather of her trousers. She hugged her legs about the cord. The rope was their life. If she slipped, they would both die. She shuddered as they descended faster and faster.

Lily gasped beneath.

Then Livia crashed into Lily. They fell in a tangle of limbs on the paving stones of the courtyard. The princess lay atop her paramour. Lily squirmed beneath while hysterical giggles burst from Livia’s mouth.

We did it!” Her voice echoed through the courtyard. “Oh, Lily, we did it!”

You’re . . . crushing . . . me . . .” choked Lily.

Gasping, Livia rolled onto her back. Lily sucked in grateful breaths. But she still smiled. With Livia’s help, she stood up, gazing at the Raven Donjon, their rope swaying down the side like a narrow braid descending down a giant’s dark back.

Tears fell down Lily’s cheeks. She shook. Then threw herself at Livia. The princess hugged her trembling lover. Hot lips kissed at her neck, wet tears rubbed on her cheek. She rocked Lily in a tight embrace.

You’re free,” the princess cooed. “You won’t have to go back. My parents will never hurt you again!”

Where will we go?”

Will cross the hills and enter the neighboring kingdom. I have plenty of jewels and coins stashed in my saddlebag. It’ll be money to let us live in comfort and safety out of my parent’s reach. They won’t send soldiers past the Menhirs. Father respects them.”

I—”

A shuddering crack snapped from above, cutting off Lily’s words. Then something boomed and crashed down the tower. An avalanche of falling stone slammed into the courtyard nearby. Shards of stone hissed through the air. Livia gasped, her cheek flaring numb. Dust billowed from the rubble. She touched her face, and felt blood.

What was that?” squeaked Lily.

Livia groaned. “The ledge. The acid ate through the stone and some of the wall came down and—”

A horn blared an alarm from the top of the tower. Torches danced in the opening of Lily’s cell, the guards checking the ruckus. Fear struck the princess. Across the castle, she heard other shouts. She seized her lover’s hand and yanked her towards the nearby stables.

Hurry!” shouted the princess, her insides twisting. She’d expected to have hours and hours of night to ride as far from her parents’ castle as possible.

If we’re swift and get out the postern before anyone realizes it, we still might make it.

Hope kept her running, dragging Lily behind her.

They burst into the stables. Horses whinnied and nickered, nervous hooves stamping. Livia threw open the last two stall doors, the horses in them already saddled before she made her climb. Buttercup, her dun-yellow mare, snorted, tail flicking.

It’s okay,” Livia said, grabbing her bridle. “Come on, Buttercup. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Buttercup reared, jerking reins out of Livia’s grasp. The horse’s dark eyes were wild from the trumpeting horns. The princess stroked her horse’s neck, peering into scared eyes. She felt pulse pounding beneath her hide. But her soothing touched calmed the mare.

How’s Dancer?”

As placid as ever,” Lily said, leading out the roan mount she normally rode when the princess took her morning excursions. “I don’t think anything can spook her.”

Good, we need to get to the postern gate and—”

Well, what do we have here?” a voice growled. “Couple of horse thieves?”

Livia whirled to see the hulking Karson, Captain of the Guard, enter the stable wearing a leather jerkin hastily donned, his muscular legs bare beneath. He marched forward on boots laced tight. A sword glittered in his hand, its point long.

We’re not horse thieves,” Livia objected.

“‘Course you are,” he grinned, his bold nose almost quivering, as sharp as the beak of a hawk about to tear into the rabbit. “You probably purloined the queen’s jewels, didn’t you? Sent me out to find them, she did. Wouldn’t even let me get dressed when she saw them missin’. Then that piece of stone came crashin’ down, and I seen you two runnin’ in here. I knew you two was the thieves.”

Anger boiled through the princess. He came from my mother’s bed! Why can she do what she likes, but I have to be proper? Why can’t I have my lover?

Get out of the way, Captain Karson,” she said in a ringing voice. “Or you shall be in so much trouble if you even harm a hair on my head.”

The man snorted. “And why would that be, thief?”

Livia’s eyes widened in realization. He doesn’t recognize me in the dark. In these clothes.

Her gaze darted around the stable, searching for a weapon. She spotted a farrier’s hammer hanging from the wall. She snagged it up, gripping it in both hands. The small, iron head felt so puny compared to the captain’s sword.

Oh, ho, got a brave thief here,” he growled.

Liv, don’t!” Lily gasped.

I won’t let them hurt you!” the princess snarled, her anger too great to care. She lunged in to strike.

The sword hissed.

Though angry, her instincts of preservation surged through her. She skittered back away from the blade. It cut the air before her, flashing silver bright. A blur that left strands of her black hair severed and dancing through the air.

Livia’s heart hammered. Cold pumped through her veins, dousing her anger. The man snarled, recovering from his swing, and thrust the sword at her guts. She dove to the side, rolled across the hay-strewn ground of the stable, and gained her feet only to crash into a stall door with her shoulder.

A horse neighed in fear as she bounced off, stumbling to keep from falling on her face.

Liv! No!”

Lily’s warning gave the princess a heartbeat to act. She ducked low. The sword crashed into the stall door above her. It splintered the wood, caving in several planks, and lodged in the thick, oak frame. The captain of the guard grunted and planted his left boot on the stall. His naked thigh bulged as he struggled to haul his weapon free.

Livia acted.

She slammed the hammer into the guard captain’s right knee with all the force she could muster. Hardened steel crashed into capping patella. A loud, splintering snap echoed through the stables. The shiver of the blow rattled down her arm.

Karson bellowed in pain. Rage twisted his face. He tottered as his left arm swung like a pendulum. Princess Livia, flushed with the triumph of landing a blow on the loathsome man, gasped as the back of his fist slammed into her face.

She reeled. The world spun around her. Her vision went blurry as she crashed into a pile of sacks of millet. She draped over them, staring at the rush-strewn ground. The entire side of her face throbbed. For a moment, everything doubled as she struggled to think. To move. To do anything with her body.

Lily screamed, drawing Livia’s addled attention. Words poured out of the frightened girl’s mouth, her hand pointing wildly, stabbing the air. Livia tried to parse her lover’s meaning, the sounds all blurring together with the bell ringing in the stable. She shook her head, her brain rattling in her skull. A queasy writhe gripped her stomach.

She looked in the direction Lily pointed.

Karson gripped his sword in both hands. He stood, putting his weight on his left leg, his right knee swelling red. With a mighty heave, he wrenched his sword out of the ruined stall door. He staggered around, sliding on his right foot more than picking it up.

Baleful eyes fixed on the princess.

Oh, no,” she said, words slurred. For the first time in her life, Princess Livia witnessed murder in a man’s eyes.

Her body refused to obey her, as if the blow had severed the connection between mind and flesh. She could feel the tendrils reconnecting, her finger twitching first, her head shaking. But she couldn’t stand. Everything still felt so numb, fuzzed by the blow. Her stomach writhed more. Bile burned the back of her throat.

I’m going to die, she realized as Karson raised his sword high into the air, the blade’s edge gleaned razor bright.

And then the stirrup flew through the air, aimed square at Karson’s face. It crashed across his blunt, masculine features. Blood spurted from a twisted nose. The stirrup bounced to the ground as the brute stumbled back.

Putting all his weight on his right leg.

His cry of agony galvanized Princess Livia. Lily’s desperate throw bought her a few more precious heartbeats of life. She had to capitalize on it. She had to rescue them both. If Karson cut her down, his next stroke would end the life of the fearful blonde girl relying on Livia for protection.

She would not let anything worse happen to her Lily.

Poxed whores!” bellowed the guard captain. Snorting like a wild boar, he drew his blade back for the attack to end Livia’s life.

She acted, hugging the sack of millet to her. She stood up and whirled around, millet cradled to her chest. He snarled, his sword flashing down on a curving arc that would end with her cut in half, bleeding on the floor.

She thrust the sack of grain out before her like a shield.

The sword slammed into her makeshift defense. The burlap rasped against her moleskin gloves. If she grasped them with her bare hands, the force of his swing would have ripped the sack out of her hand. Then the end of his sword would still have hurtled down and found her vulnerable skull.

But the alchemical treatment held. Her gloves kept a hold on the sack, withstanding the force of his blow. The sword cut deep into the millet, but the densely packed grain slowed the impact. The sword embedded only halfway through it. Seeds spilled out around it, pouring like a brown waterfall to puddle between their feet.

Sun-blinded bitch!” he spat. He jerked his sword out of the bag. More grains poured out as he drew back for his next attack.

Liv!” screamed Lily in desperate fear. “No!”

Princess Livia thrust the sack of grains before her. Her arms extended. Spilling millet, the burlap tumbled through the air as Karson raised his sword up high. Though not a powerful throw, it still struck him in the bleeding nose, unbalancing the guard captain worse than Lily’s stirrup had.

This time, when Karson put all his weight on his right knee, his turning body torquing the joint, a sickening tear wrenched the air. Bone popped through the skin. Agony exploded from his mouth. He toppled back, hitting the ground hard, sword falling from his hands. He clutched at his ruined knee, grunting through the obvious pain.

Livia darted forward and kicked his sword across the rush strewn ground and away from his hand. It tumbled into the stall he’d hacked open.

Mount up!” the princess shouted.

You earth-cursed bitch!” spat the guard. “I’ll gut you!” He lunged for her leg. “And strangle the whore-life out of you! Poxed slattern!”

She ignored him, dashing for her horse. He struggled to stand, but agony screamed from his mouth again. Livia savored it, triumphing over the defeat of this horrid man. She swung herself up into her horse’s saddle while Lily mounted hers with ease.

Ride!” the princess screamed, exhilaration beating in her heart.

She felt alive as she heeled her horse. Her steed galloped forward. The guard captain cursed, rolling to the side and out of the way of their escaping mounts. They burst out into the night, Livia guiding her horse to the nearby postern gate she’d left open. A narrow opening, just wide enough for a single rider to duck through.

She threw a glance to ensure Lily followed, then plunged through it, leaned low over the neck of Buttercup. Men shouted behind them as she let out a giddy laugh, bursting out of the castle’s outer walls and to sweet freedom. She wheeled her horse to the right, charging for the road that led from the castle and around the town that lay at its feet. Lily spurred her horse abreast with Livia.

The two young women flashed each other smiles. Lily’s blonde hair streamed behind her. The clouds broke above them. Silver shimmered in Lily’s tresses. Livia shuddered, her heart thudding in triumph.

Hooves drummed on hard-packed dirt. Horns sounded behind them. Torches burned on Karzinoth Castle’s parapet. She knew that guards and knights even now rushed to their horses to give chase. The princess and her lover had to ride as swift as the setting moon.

They had to reach the borders of her father’s kingdom. Once past the marking stone, his soldiers could not follow without risking a war.

Livia!” Lily shouted, looking over her shoulder at the castle’s gray walls. It sat up on the hill they rode down, almost glowing in the moonlight against the blackness of the sky. The drawbridge rattled down across the moat that protected the front of the castle.

Just don’t stop riding!” Livia said, leaning low over her mount. “We can reach the border by morning.”

I won’t stop!” Lily said.

Pursuit sounded horns behind them. Metal clattered. Hooves thundered on the road. Livia’s heart drummed as the night raced by them. Stars wheeled above them. The silvery face of the moon descended towards the horizon. She hardly felt the icy kiss of night on her cheeks against the heat burning inside of her.

Her jaw throbbed, her face swollen and puffy. But she didn’t care. It was a small price to pay to save her Lily. To their right, the horizon pinked. Dawn’s promise gave her hope. They just had to keep going. Their horses didn’t carry men in armor now, but light women. They had the advantage.

So long as they didn’t falter.

As the horizon grew brighter and brighter, the land came into resolution. They tore past fields of winter wheat and barley. Already, the peasants were out working. They paused, leaning on fences to watch the two female fugitives fleeing the company of knights.

A ragged cheer rose from some, waving them on.

They’re celebrating our love, a part of Livia thought even as another, more cynical part of her, said, They’re enjoying the spectacle. I bet they’ll cheer just as loud if we’re caught and hung.

Liv!” Lily shouted, pointing ahead with enthusiasm.

The border stones lay ahead. Two great menhirs rose on either side of the road. They were ancient and said to be the bones of Father Earth himself demarcating the boundaries of the hundred kingdoms, dividing the world of men into neat parcels.

They weren’t always respected, but Livia knew this pair was.

Come on!” she urged her mount, putting heels to flank.

Buttercup snorted and neighed, neck lathered with exertion. Livia’s heart twisted with excitement as their freedom came closer and closer. They flew across the plain. The menhirs, dark stones thrusting three times the height of a man and covered in strange runes, loomed closer.

The knights’ thunder dwindled.

She threw a look over her shoulder, seeing them rein up. Defeated.

The two girls raced across the border, passing through the menhirs’ shadows. Their laughter resounded through the air. Huge grins burst across their lips. Tears fell down both their cheeks as they followed the road winding into a new kingdom, escaping from the oppression of the old.

Out of sight of the knights, not wanting to tempt their pursuers into violating the border by taunting them with their love, the two girls reined up. They threw themselves off their horses. They came together, limbs engulfing the other, lips meeting in sweet love. Despite the swollen pain in her face, Livia treasured each and every kiss seasoned with the salt of their tears. Her heart burst for joy in her chest as they held each other. The sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon, falling golden on the lovers.

They shared their joy, their hearts, their lives. Livia clutched Lily tight. No matter what the priests taught or the kings said, she would love her Lily. She would savor every moment with her. They would forge a life together. A life of their own choosing.

I love you, Lily,” the crying princess said when they broke that sweet kiss.

Lily sniffed, pressing her forehead to Livia’s. “Always.”

The END

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Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

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