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Weekly Free Story: The Last Flight of the Intrepid

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!

The Last Flight of the Intrepid

The Skyland of Vesche, 391 VF (Vaarck’s Founding)

For all eighteen years of Thojhen’s life, everyone had thought he was useless—including himself. His ma said it every morning, and his pa often despaired that he’d ever accomplish anything. When he’d been drafted into the Autonomy’s Marines at seventeen, Thojhen was sure his parents were thrilled. “Finally rid of that useless ostrich-brain,” he’d imagined his pa saying, while his ma nodded on, a satisfied smile on her olive-brown face.

Today, he lounged on the supply dock at Aldeyn Watch, his feet dangling off the edge. Below, the Storm churned black and gray, boiling like a thick pot of stew. He fished, hidden behind a few supply crates, sweating in his woolen uniform. He lazily gripped his fishing pole in one hand while running his other hand through his short, blonde hair. Like most Vionese, he had tan-brown skin, blond hair, and deep-green eyes.

He glanced down at the coral-choked side of the skyland where his baited hook floated, buoyed by a fish’s gas-sac, near a school of blue-striped trout that flew in a lazy circle. Instead of fishing, Thojhen should have reported for duty to watch the gate. But after a week of rain, he wanted to enjoy the sunshine. Besides, watching the gate was dull and pointless. Who was going to attack the Watch? The farmers? Agerzak pirates? Aldeyn Watch lay on the eastern edge of the Vesche Skyland, and for miles, there was only ostrich ranches and citrus orchards. As for pirates, the skyland floated too far from the Agerzak Kingdoms for them to be a real threat.

Thojhen loved fishing. It was the perfect thing to do while daydreaming. Today, his thoughts were full of the slender and pretty Sharis, a sailor who served on the Intrepid with him. For months, he’d wavered on whether or not to ask her to join him at the village pub for a few drinks. A hundred times, he’d tried to work up the courage, but he always became a fish scurrying at shadows, too afraid to face her inevitable rejection.

The rod jerked in his hand, startling Trojhen out of his daydream. With a curse, he scrambled to get a firm grip on the pole and set his hook. A smile split his dark face as he fought with the flashing trout, flicking fins darting it to and fro in the air. He reeled, drawing the fish slowly higher and higher, not putting too much tension on the string that it snapped, letting the trout tire itself out.

None of the cooks’ food tonight,” he muttered.

By the Storm Below!” a voice boomed behind. “Attention, Private!”

Thojhen jumped to his feet, his fishing pool falling from his hands. It bounced once, then tumbled off the dock, lost forever to the rage of the Storm Below. He saluted, suddenly aware at the state of his uniform. His white, woolen shirt was only half-tucked into his blue britches while his red jacket, also wool, lay half-unbuttoned. Worse, his sword belt lay discarded upon the dock.

What are you supposed to be doing right this instant, Private?” Sergeant Thuhly bellowed, his face weathered into deep-brown leather, and his blond hair almost bleached white.

Gate duty,” Thojhen mumbled, fumbling at the bone buttons of his coat.

Then what in—”

The watch horn sounded. Deep. Loud. Impossible to ignore. It roared out over the camp from the wooden tower where the scouts spent their days staring east at the Storm. It sounded a second time. A third time, blowing with an urgency Thojhen had never heard before.

The Sergeant spun, fixing his eyes to the east and gazing down at the Storm. One blast meant a known vessel approached while two meant an unknown vessel. The horn blaring over and over meant only one thing.

Thojhen’s blood ran cold as his thumb and forefinger touched, forming the sign of the sun to ward off evil. “Riasruo Above! It can’t be!”

Other horns sounded in the distances, warning the farmers and the village of Isfe that a Cyclone approached. The Stormriders ascended to sweep across Vesche.

In disbelief, Thojhen looked to the east at the churning Storm that stretched to the horizon and beyond, the eternal tempest that covered the skies. A pattern had emerged in the normally chaotic pattern of clouds that rotated widdershins. The swirling mass of clouds bulged upwards from the Storm, like a bubble broaching the surface of a dark pool.

Sergeant Thuhly’s jaw dropped. The veteran of the brutality of the Zzuk Aggression War went pale with fear, sweat beading his forehead. Then the Sergeant straightened, clenching his jaw. “Grab your gear, Private!”

Thojhen just gaped at the Sergeant. Fear had its icy hands about his feet, rooting them in place. I’m going to die. It’s a Cyclone. I’m going to die.

The Sergeant grabbed Thojhen’s sword belt and shoved it roughly into his arms. “Get your Theisseg-spawned rear to the Intrepid, Private, or I’ll throw you off the dock!”

The thought of falling through the Storm to the mythical ground sent a shudder through Thojhen. With a panicked yelp, he wrenched his feet free of fear’s icy clutch. He donned his ostrich-leather sword belt and adjusted the wooden sheath that held his bone sabre to sit on his left hip. He glanced back at the Cyclone, and wished he hadn’t. It had risen to the height of the skyland, a wall of black and gray looming larger and larger as it howled towards them.

Riasruo Above, preserve us, he prayed to the Sun Goddess. Defend us from your sister Theisseg’s terrible wrath.

Thojhen pounded down the dock, his body tingling with static electricity. The sailors and his fellow marines were racing to the Intrepid moored at the next dock over. The Intrepid waited proud, ready to defend the skyland. She was a two-masted corvette with three decks: a foredeck, the mid deck, and the taller stern deck. The mid deck was a well, lower than the fore and stern decks. The fortified gunwale, the ship’s railing, encircled all three. The scouts climbed the rigging to take their place in the crow’s nest, pressure rifles slung on their backs. Sailors in white linen britches and shirts unfurled the ship’s canvas sails, while others unlimbered the Intrepid’s three ballistae, two on the foredeck and one on the stern deck.

A low howl slowly grew, deeper than any predator’s growl. The Cyclone roared closer, a dark wall of raging black that covered half the eastern horizon. Lightning flashed yellow and blue in the maelstrom’s angry clouds, and thunder snarled through the air.

Thojhen reached the gangplank right behind the Sergeant, the wood bending and warping as he ran up it. The Master at Arms, a skinny man in a blue coat named Lieutenant Tharxu, and a few sailors were handing out the ship’s weapons: crossbows to the sailors, thunderbusses to the marines.

Sharis, a slim sailor, her face full of fear, thrust a thunderbuss at him. “Good luck, Thojhen.”

You t-too,” he stammered. He always became tongue-tied around the pretty sailor. Why didn’t I ever ask her out? He opened his mouth, started to say: “Sha—”

Thojhen, take your position!” roared the Sergeant and shoved him from behind.

Thojhen stumbled forward and struggled to remember where his position should be. His feet, however, seemed to know because Thojhen found himself racing to the mid deck’s port gunwale before he realized it. Hawk was on his left; his eyes fixed at the Cyclone as he aimed his thunderbuss.

Sailors cast off the hawsers, and a gentle breeze whipped down the length of the ship, summoned by one of the Windwardens. The sails billowed. The Intrepid slid away from the dock and sailed out into the Arshu Strait. It was one small ship against the horizon-wide wall of the Cyclone.

Aim your thunderbuss, Thojhen,” a quiet voice said from behind, a hand clapping his shoulder.

Thojhen sighed. “I’ll just mess it up, Cap’n.”

Why?” Captain Gronest asked.

He shrugged. “Because I’m useless, sir.”

You are a Stormwall, son.” The Captain squeezed his shoulder, his voice calm.

How can he be so calm? My knees feel like they’re made of black pudding.

I need everyone to break this storm. We cannot fail. Fifty thousand souls live upon Vesche. They can’t afford for you to be useless.”

Words don’t change facts, sir.” Thojhen was surprised by the bitterness in his words.

We’ve had this talk before,” the Captain said. “Remember. What did I tell you?”

* * *

Thojhen trembled before the Captain, trying not to shake too hard. Three days at Aldeyn Watch, and he had been caught sneaking off to fish. “Sorry, Cap’n. I’m just useless.”

Why, Private?”

I don’t know. Just am. My ma always said I’d never ‘mount to nothing. Just plain useless.”

You’re from the skyland of Vilthon, right?”

Thojhen nodded. “Yeah. From Myatle, a farming village.”

Like Isfe?” The Captain pointed with the stump of his left arm, his dark-blue sleeve folded back and pinned to his shoulder.

Thojhen looked back at the skyland of Vesche. The orchards and fields were verdant with spring growth, and beyond them lay the dark smudge that was the village of Isfe along the Bluesnake. It looked a lot like Vilthon had when he’d sailed away to start his marine training—a speck of life floating green and brown above the Storm in the vast, empty sky.

That’s what we’re here to protect. One day, those farmers will need us to act. When that day comes, not a single man or woman serving on this ship can be useless. We are their Stormwall, Private.”

Thojhen swallowed, his shoulders slumping beneath the weight of that responsibility. “I don’t think I’m a Stormwall, Cap’n. I’m just too useless. The Navy shoulda torn up my draft card.”

The Captain stared into Thojhen’s eyes, the marine swallowing beneath the older man’s hard stare. “Do you think the Intrepid is useless?”

No, Cap’n,” Thojhen muttered.

The Captain rested a weathered hand on the white-yellow gunwale. The entire ship was made of the pale wood. “This ship has a proud service. Almost a hundred years ago, they laid her keel and carved her amethyst engine in the secret docks of Les. This ship helped to win our people’s freedom from the Empire.”

Thojhen swallowed, staring in awe at the ship. “It looks newly commissioned.”

She has been lovingly cared for.” There was a smile on the Captain’s lips. “She survived the disastrous Battle of the Neta Sky, defeated the Pirate Kingdoms of Thusseldem and Mecheissen, and defended the Autonomy against the Zzuk. But despite such an impressive service, the Admiralty was going to decommission her.”

Why?”

Better ships have been built, with better engineering.” He gave a snort of laughter. “Progress happened. Everyone said an old corvette like the Intrepid was useless. She’d been outclassed in almost every way. But there’s still some fight left in her. She’s quick, sturdy. The perfect ship to guard a distant skyland like Vesche from Agerzak pirates and Cyclones.”

The Captain looked him straight in the eye. “So is she useless, Thojhen, just because some admirals said so?”

I suppose not, sir.”

So why do you think you’re useless? Just because some people said so?”

He looked at the Captain, not knowing what to say. Can I really be useful?

You’re the only person who can determine whether you’re useless or not, son.” He gripped Thojhen’s shoulder. “It’s a choice. Just like I chose not to let fear consume me when I faced the Zzuk warrior that took my arm. I know you’ll pick the right one, son, when that day comes.”

* * *

Thojhen swallowed, his head turning to stare back at Vesche and its green bluffs. A lone, half-ruined tower rose on one of the hills, an old watchtower built centuries ago. A small boy stood on it, cheering on the Intrepid as she sailed against the roaring Cyclone.

A boy who needed Thojhen to make the right choice.

I need to choose to be a Stormwall, Cap’n,” Thojhen answered.

Exactly.” One more squeeze, then the captain moved on to Hawk.

The Oath of Enlistment echoed in his mind: I, Thojhen Rlyene, affirm that I am the Stormwall of the Autonomy of Les-Vion. I shall defend my fellow citizens from all enemies Above or Below the Storm with courage and fidelity.

Sharis stepped to the rail beside him, aimed her crossbow, and flashed a scared smile at him. He straightened up. It is my choice. Some of the Captain’s implacable certainty had rubbed off on Thojhen, like brushing up against a freshly whitewashed wall, staining him with confidence. Some of the fear retreated. Not all. But enough.

He set the wooden stock of his thunderbuss against his shoulder. His left hand grasped the square, ceramic barrel, aiming his weapon at the Storm. The static electricity tingled through his body and gathered in his left hand, ready to be discharged into the weapon. During his seventeenth year, like everyone in the skies, Thojhen had received Riasruo’s Blessing. Of the four, She’d gifted him two: Minor Mist and Moderate Lightning.

Each blessing had three strengths. Most were gifted a Moderate and a Minor Blessing. Some few were gifted a Major Blessing, like a Windwarden, and others only a single Minor Blessing. With Minor Mist, Thojhen could see through smoke and clouds and, thanks to Lightning, his body gathered a static charge that he could discharge with a single touch. Or he could fire it through a thunderbuss, the marines’ weapon.

He glanced at Sharis, finding the profile of her face beautiful despite the danger. I should tell her how I feel. I’m only useless if I choose to be. He opened his mouth.

There!” Hawk shouted, pointing at the Cyclone. “I can see them.”

Hawk had the best vision of the Intrepid’s ten marines. Like Thojhen, he possessed Moderate Lightning and Minor Mist. Thojhen swallowed his confession and squinted at the tempest’s edge dominating the eastern sky. He peered through the raging clouds like they did not exist, their dense mist unable to hide anything from his gaze. Inside, things reflected the flashing lightning. The Stormriders galloped towards Vesche.

Remember your training!” the Captain’s voice roared over the howl of the storm. “Remember your oaths! We are the Autonomy’s Stormwall! The Cyclone shall break upon the prow of the Intrepid! Vesche shall not be dragged down into the Storm Below like the Dawn Empire!”

A cheer went up from the crew. Thojhen was surprised to hear his voice amongst them.

We shall not fail!” Captain Gronest bellowed. “We are the Stormwall!”

The Stormwall!” the crew roared.

I’m not useless. I am a Stormwall!

The Intrepid sailed straight for the Cyclone. Lightning’s flashes illuminated figures riding in the maelstrom. Thojhen’d grown up his entire life with the stories of the Stormriders, the twisted men who lived beneath the Storm, cut off from the Sun Above. They were full of hatred and jealousy for those lifted into the skies by Riasruo, so they prayed to their dark goddess Theisseg.

And she’d answered their prayers with the Cyclones.

The Cyclone was a thousand or so ropes out when Thojhen started to pick out details of the Stormriders. They were men, armored in the near legendary metal. He’d never seen metal, though he’d heard the stories about it: shiny as the surface of a pond and stronger than any stone. They rode on beasts made of storm clouds, four legs running across the sky as if it was solid, sparks flaring every time their hooves touched sky. They resembled pegasi, but were wingless, with manes of crackling lightning and eyes that glowed white-blue.

The forward ballistae released their first volley. Two ceramic shots soared out into the sky then erupted into fire and smoke amid the Stormriders. Gravel shrapnel burst from each detonation, ripping the Riders apart. The ballistae fired again and again. Stormriders died, but more kept charging from the Cyclone’s depths.

Darkness engulfed the Intrepid as the corvette penetrated the Cyclone. Then the Stormriders were all about them, galloping upon their terrible beasts. They were clad head to foot in metal armor, black hair streaming behind their helmets. Through gaps in their helms, Thojhen could see pale faces twisted in rage. Arrows, fired from short bows, thudded into the ship from all directions. The Stormriders circled the Intrepid like a school of sharks, looking for weakness, ready to swarm and tear apart the Intrepid’s flesh.

The Intrepid sailed on for the Cyclone’s Eye.

Despite the ferocity of the Cyclone, its winds failed to touch the Intrepid. The Windwardens, possessors of Major Wind, held the maelstrom at bay. Without them, the ship would be at the mercy of the tempest, tossed about until the Intrepid was torn to pieces. One Windwarden huddled in the foredeck, and the other at the stern.

The sailors fired their crossbows while Thojhen and his fellow marines discharged their lightning. A bolt of white-yellow leapt from the barrel of his thunderbuss, sizzling through the air. A Stormrider fell from his mount, smoke curling from a blackened patch on his breastplate, and he was tossed about like a jellyfish in a strong wind.

A wild scream escaped Thojhen’s lips. “I killed one!” We can do this!

These bastards ain’t tough!” Hawk yelled, discharging a brilliant bolt from his thunderbuss. It arced to the left, striking a Stormrider in the shoulder.

Thojhen fired again and again. Every time, his lightning bolts struck true. It was like the Stormriders attracted the bolts, each snaking towards the nearest Rider as if it were guided by Riasruo’s loving hand.

A crossbow twanged next to him, the bolt flying true, unaffected by the howling tempest. Sharis grinned excitedly, cranking her crossbow’s windlass back. Her blonde hair didn’t whip about her face despite the wind driving the Intrepid forward. She had the most common Blessing—Wind. Thojhen couldn’t help grinning back. She’s as beautiful as the dawn.

Cover!” Sergeant Thuhly roared.

A flight of arrows rose up before the Intrepid, tips glinting. Thojhen and Sharis ducked behind the gunwale as the arrows thudded into the ship, into flesh. Hawk took an arrow to the shoulder and pitched forward over the gunwale, his screams of pain and fear lost to the tempest’s rage.

Thojhen’s stomach twisted, staring where his fellow marine once stood. Gone, snatched away by the metal-clad demons assaulting his ship.

Up and fire!” the Sergeant roared.

Together he rose up with Sharis, and they fired their weapons. Lightning and crossbow bolts streaked through the sky. His blood howled through his veins, and he roared curses at the Stormriders as the wall of the Cyclone filled the entirety of the sky before them. Sharis screamed defiance beside him. Thojhen felt invincible; the Stormriders couldn’t stand against them. They were the Stormwall.

Thojhen kept discharging his lightning. It was easy. There was so much static in the air, his reserves weren’t even dwindling. He normally had ten good blasts stored inside him, and it usually would take about a quarter hour to recharge. Not today. He could discharge as much as he wanted thanks to the electricity in the air.

At some signal, half the Stormriders discarded their bows, and drew gleaming swords. They charged the Intrepid. Thojhen’s next lightning bolt caught the lead Rider in the chest. Armor smoked as the warrior was thrown from its storm mount.

More raced in.

Keep them from the ship!” roared the Captain.

Three more charged the mid deck, spurring their storm-cloud mounts.

Take that, Storm’s spawn!” shouted Sharis, her crossbow bolt punching through the metal breastplate. The Rider clutched at the bolt, blood staining silver. His mount dissolved into clouds and the demon dropped through it, plummeting into the Cyclone’s howling winds.

Great shot!” Thojhen grinned, his discharge felling the second.

The third leaped off his mount, sword in hand, and sailed over the ship’s gunwale. Silver flashed; Sharis’s head bounced across the deck. Her body remained upright for a heartbeat, for an eternity, then toppled over the gunwale, lost to the Cyclone.

No!” Thojhen stared in horror at her head as it rolled to a rest, a smile locked on her lips.

Never in his life had he hated so deeply before. “Theisseg’s spawn!” he roared at the hulking Stormrider.

The Rider whirled around, sword dripping red, and swung it at him. Thojhen raised the thunderbuss, blocking the swing. The ceramic barrel shattered, the force driving him against the gunwale. For a moment, Thojhen teetered over the edge, his stomach lurching as his hands scrabbled desperately to find purchase.

He caught himself and stared into the pale, cold eyes of the Stormrider. The Rider lifted his sword. I’m going to die. I was useless after all.

The ship lurched. The Rider stumbled. The Cyclone’s winds ripped at Thojhen. A Windwarden had died or lay dying, no longer shielding the Intrepid. The Stormrider recovered and moved to attack. I can stand here and let the Rider kill me, useless as always. His gaze fell on Sharis’s head. Or I can be useful.

It’s my choice!” he roared. He whipped his bone sabre from its wooden sheathe, and swung it at the Stormrider.

Nothing was rarer in the skies than metal. The Stormrider was armored in more wealth than Thojhen would ever possess in his lifetime. Thojhen’s sabre, carved from the bone of a bristleback, could cut through the flesh of a man with ease. But it shattered on the Rider’s armor. Cursing, he ducked the Stormrider’s blow and dropped onto the deck. The Rider stumbled, knocked off-balance by his miss.

You killed her!” he roared at the Theisseg-damned Stormrider.

Thojhen reached out, static crackling across his hand. The silver blade slashed down at him. His hands touched the cold, smooth metal of the Rider’s greaves. He discharged. Sparks sizzled where his hand touched the armor. Smoke issued from the joints. The Stormrider screamed; it sounded so human. The Rider’s sword arm jerked and his blade sliced down Thojhen’s thigh before the enemy crashed dead to the deck.

Chaos reigned on the Intrepid. More Stormriders had boarded. Sailors lay cut down everywhere Thojhen looked. Lieutenant Selech, the fore Windwarden, lay sprawled in a pool of his own blood as Sergeant Thuhly wrestled with his killer. Lightning discharged, and the Sergeant felled the Rider.

Clear the deck!” someone shouted. “Protect Lieutenant Fame!” She was their last Windwarden and only hope of reaching the Eye, let alone surviving the Cyclone.

The ship shuddered and groaned. The foremast flexed. A splintering snap resounded. The foremast’s base cracked. For a single moment, it stayed upright. But with the inevitability of a tree felled by a woodsmen, it toppled over and crashed down onto the deck. Thojhen watched in horror as it crushed the starboard ballista. Then the mast, sails, and rigging were swept off the side, carrying dozens of sailors and Stormriders off the ship.

He would have kept staring in horror except a metallic sword slid across the pitching deck to rest at Thojhen’s foot. The sight shook him out of his fugue. He snatched it up. The blade was heavier than a bone sword. Its edge gleamed deadly except where Sharis’s blood stained it.

Beautiful smile, golden braid. Grief threatened to overwhelm him. Why didn’t I ever tell her? Oh Riasruo, why?

No! No! Now’s not the time to be useless!

A Stormrider had Captain Gronest pressed against the stern deck. The Rider swung his weapon. The Captain parried, somehow turning the metal sword with a bone sabre. Thojhen charged, ignoring the pain flaring in his leg from the long, shallow cut, and slammed his captured sword into the Rider’s back. The enemy pitched forward, a crease denting his backplate. Thojhen swung again, putting all his grief and regret into the blow.

You killed her!” he screamed.

He would never see her smiling face, or hear her snorting laughter again. The Stormriders had stolen her life. It didn’t matter that the Rider who killed her was dead. They were all guilty. If they just stayed on the Theisseg-damned ground where they belong, she’d still be alive! He hammered his sword over and over and over into the ruin of the Rider’s body.

He’s dead, son.” The Captain’s voice was calm, an unbending rock amid the storm.

Tears and snot stained his face, his emotion pouting out of him as the Captain grabbed him with his one hand, turning him away. Thojhen wiped at his cheek. Red stained his fingers. More red dripped from his coat. He didn’t understand where the blood had come from.

The Captain said something. Thojhen stared at his bloody fingers.

Captain Gronest gripped his shoulder. “It’s your choice, son.”

He looked up at the Captain.

What are you, son?”

Thojhen choose to put away his grief. “A Stormwall, sir.”

The Captain nodded.

More Stormriders vaulted onto the deck. Thojhen threw himself into the fray alongside the Captain. The fight was a brutal, chaotic mess. Half the marines were already dead, as were many of the sailors. The ship pitched, dropped, and rolled, the combatants stumbling to and fro. With his right hand, Thojhen battered his captured sword into Stormriders, and with his left hand, he discharged lightning into their bodies.

Quick Rlest fell, a sword stabbed through his stomach, spilling out his ropy innards. Sergeant Thuhly grappled with a Stormrider, discharging his lightning, only to have his back sliced open like a gutted fish by another.

Hold the stern!” shouted the Captain. “We need to hold until we reach the Eye!”

The Stormriders were implacable. Their metal armor made them seem larger and more fearsome. More kept coming, leaping onto the ship from the backs of their storm mounts. Thojhen and the others were driven back, leaving behind their dead and dying, and forced up the narrow stairs of the stern deck.

Lieutenant Fame, the ship’s last Windwarden, knelt before the ship’s wheel. Concentration contorted her face as she fought the winds of the Cyclone and struggled to keep the Intrepid moving towards the Eye. Two sailors manned the only operational ballista, firing at the Stormriders who still circled the ship and loosed their arrows.

Can you see the Eye?” the Windwarden shouted.

It took Thojhen a moment to realize to whom she was speaking. Of the seven crew left alive, Thojhen was the only one who possessed Mist. Seven out of sixty-three. The number staggered him. Riasruo Above . . .

Do you see the Eye, Private?” Lieutenant Fame snapped, her voice shrill with concentration.

Choose to be useful.

Thojhen peered into the Cyclone, seeing through the dark storm clouds. When he used his Blessing, it was like fog melting away before Riasruo’s sun, becoming less and less hazy. Black rage gave way to a golden light. A miniature sun burned in the Cyclone’s center, powering the maelstrom.

A thousand ropes out! Three points to port!”

We’re gonna make it!” yelled Lieutenant Fame. “Just hold a little longer!”

The Stormriders rushed the stairs up to the stern deck. Now Thojhen could only worry about holding the port stairs while the Captain held the starboard. He swung, stabbed, parried, and discharged. “I am a Stormwall!” he bellowed at the Riders as they broke before him. “Stormwall!”

The clouds ahead brightened, golden light filtering through the thick, raging tempest, painting the ship and gleaming off the Riders’ armors. The Eye neared. They just had to hold on. He had to hold on. It was his choice.

Pain seared his right arm. His sword fell from his suddenly numb hand, clattering down the stairs. An arrow clipped his shoulder, leaving a ragged cut exposing bone. The Rider he’d been holding at bay lunged up the stairs. Thojhen stumbled back, flinching from the point of the Rider’s thrusting sword. He tripped on something soft that shifted beneath him, a fallen sailor’s body.

The Stormrider scrabbled up the stairs, metal armor rattling together almost like a wind chime. Thojhen lunged with his left hand, slamming into the Rider’s breastplate. The demon’s helm had fallen off, revealing pale-white, delicate, feminine features twisted in rage; a high-pitched scream issued from the Rider’s lips.

Thojhen discharged his lightning. The female Stormrider’s face contorted as every muscle clenched. She tottered back and crashed hard upon another enemy, pinning the second Rider beneath the weight of her armor and body.

His wounded arm throbbed in time to the frantic beat of his heart, blood trickling past the black shaft. It wasn’t made of wood, but somehow shaped from stone. Instead of feathers for the fletching, it had pale leather.

The roaring of the maelstrom dwindled. Golden light bathed the Intrepid. The ship’s flight became smooth. They had punched through the black clouds, and entered the calm around the Eye. The Eye shone bright, hanging in a column of empty sky. The Cyclone raged around them. Lightning arced from the Eye in regular, thudding pulses. Below them, he could see the skyland of Vesche. Thojhen hadn’t realized that the Intrepid had been blown back over the skyland.

The Cyclone had devastated the farms around Aldeyn Watch. Lemon and orange orchards were littered with broken and twisted trees, while barns and farmhouse had collapsed before the might of the Cyclone’s winds. If it wasn’t stopped, the maelstrom would sweep across the entirety of Vesche. And beyond Vesche lay the skylands of Oname, Elemy, more.

We did it!” Lieutenant Fame exclaimed, sounding surprised as she peered up from her cover to look at the Eye. “Man the ballista, Thojhen.”

Yes, sir!”

He stumbled across the stern deck. I can do this! He stepped over the Captain’s body, impaled by a metal sword. A Stormrider twitched next to the Captain, the Captain’s sabre thrust through the Rider’s throat. Thojhen reached the ballista. He shoved the corpse of a sailor slumped over it to the decking, two arrows sprouting like weeds from her chest.

The ballista resembled a giant crossbow mounted on a swivel. He struggled to work the ceramic handle with only his left hand. The mechanism ratcheted, drawing back the sling. An arrow whizzed at his face and scraped down his cheek. He wanted to duck down and shelter from the Stormrider’s attacks.

No! I will not cower uselessly! I am the Stormwall!

The Intrepid neared the Eye. He had to hurry, to be ready to shoot as the ship passed. With the crew butchered, no one steered the ship. He kept cranking and cranking until the sling drew back enough. Lieutenant Fame dropped a ceramic shot into the cradle, a smile on her face.

We’re only going to get one—” The Stormrider’s arrow made a ruin of her face.

The wind pushing the Intrepid died as the last Windwarden toppled to the deck. Momentum carried the corvette forward past the Eye and towards the far side of the calm where the raging edge of the Cyclone waited.

You’re only getting one shot, Thojhen,” he whispered. “Make it count.”

He swiveled and worked the cranks to swivel the ballista, a job for two men, but desperation gave Thojhen a burst of strength. An arrow thudded into the frame by his hand as he worked. He ignored the Stormriders’ volleys. Nothing mattered except taking the shot. He aimed at the Cyclone’s Eye.

I am the Stormwall!” He squeezed the release.

Taut cable snapped; wooden limbs creaked. The shot launched forward.

The prow hit the Cyclone’s wall. The ship wrenched violently to port, wood creaking in protest. Thojhen’s feet left the deck. The stern gunwale slammed into his left leg. He spun, hands reaching. Fingers brushed the smooth wood of the ship, then he fell past the Intrepid.

The shot struck the Eye.

Light erupted.

The Cyclone died.

The black clouds broke apart and dispersed like a greasy smoke in a strong wind. Riasruo’s sun bathed him in warmth as he fell. Thojhen smiled. I did something useful. If only my ma could have seen it. First his ma’s face, then Sharis’s, flashed through his mind as Vesche rushed up at him.

He closed his eyes. Sharis smiled at him. Maybe I can tell her how I feel up on Riasruo’s—

He landed amid the ruins of an orange grove. The Intrepid crashed not far away.

The END

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter One

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter One

Sakarpus

Welcome to Chapter One of my reread. Click here if you missed the Prologue!

Upon the high wall the husbands slept, while ‘round the hearth their women wept, and fugitives murmured tales of woe, of greater cities lost to Mog-Pharau

—“THE REFUGEE’S SONG,” THE SAGAS

My Thoughts

Pretty straight forward, a reminder of the devastation caused by the First Apocalypse. The men are sleeping at their posts, unable to leave the defenses in case of attack while their women weep because all their children are stillborn. They hear the rumors. They know what is coming.

It is fitting to open Chapter One which also starts out with the Great Ordeal and its mission to stop the Second Apocalypse and the re-awakening of the No-God. Here are the stakes that are being gambled upon. Kellhus has to surpass the original Ordeal that Anasûrimbor Celmomas led two thousand years. He only had to cross the final leg of the Great Ordeal’s march. Kellhus’s army has to survive the ruins of the north just to reach Celmomas’s starting point.

Also, it’s good to know how to pronounce Mog-Pharau. It rhymes with woe. Though the selection is written out as prose, it’s lyrical poetry.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The Kathol Passes

The tracks between whim and brutality are many and inscrutable in Men, and though they often seem to cut across the impassable terrain of reason, in truth, it is reason that paves their way. Ever do Men argue from want to need and from fortuitous warrant. Ever do they think their cause the just cause. Like cats chasing sunlight thrown from a mirror, they never tire of their own delusions.

Across the lands, priests of the Thousand Temples and Judges of the Ministrate preached the Truth and hunted for those who disputed it or ignored it for greed. Caste-slave and caste-noble alike are taught “the Great Chain of Missions.” This is how each person’s job helps other people’s job allowing the Empire and the Great Ordeal to succeed against “the apocalyptic designs of the Consult.” The Great Ordeal is the greatest host in the history of mankind. It took ten years to prepare. They have gathered for their march across the “Sranc-infested Wilds of the Ancient North” to reach Golgotterath.

“It was a mad endeavor.” It was no simple task. It required a massive movement of food and supplies. A knight, his mount, the pack mules that carried the supplies, and the slaves who prepare his supper all needed food. “This was why the most arduous battle waged by the Great Ordeal would not be against the Consult legions, but against Eärwa’s own wild heart.” They had to survive to make it to Golgotterath. So for years, the New Empire produced food and stored them in granaries while herds of livestock were driven north. The records to track this required their own warehouses to store them.

The call to arms did not come till the last.

The Zaudunyani come across the Three Seas to take up the Circumfix from Conryia to Kian. The Schools send their sorcerers including the new Saway Compact of Gnostic witches. Preeminent among them is the Mandate who are no longer seen as fools. They gather in Oswenta in Galeoth, swelling the city with foreign lords and soldiers. “The bowl of each nation had spilled, and now their distinct and heady flavors swirled together, continually surprising the palette with some unheard-of-combination.”

Summer and autumn passed. The lessons of the Holy War are remembered. The officer core is made of Zaudunyani veterans who won’t allow any trespasses. Punishments are swift and lethal because too much was at stake. This is the Shortest Path. “Mercy required a certain future, and for men, there was none.” Two skin-spies are uncovered by Kellhus and publicly executed. The Great Ordeal passes winter at the city of Harwash where the caravans that travel to Sakarpus and Atrithau depart from. Twenty thousand die to lungplague.

It was, the Aspect-Emperor explained, but the first of many tests.

As spring approached, preparations to march were underway. Men weep when the order to march is given. As they march, the men feel like the entire world is kneeling before them, approving their actions. King Saubon of Caraskand, who’s one of the two Exalt-Generals, leads the first host with the faster units. Kellhus’s eldest sun, Kayûtas, leads the Kidruhil with Conphas. They are the most famed heavy cavalry in the Three Seas. Sakarpus’s retreats before them, leaving only their skirmisher to harass the Great Ordeal. Behind them, King Proyas of Conryia leads the rest of the host, including the sorcerers. The column is so long, communication between the front and the back is too great for any rider to travel it quickly.

It snowed the fourth night, when the priests and judges led ceremonies commemorating the Battle of the Pass, where an ancient alliance of refugee Men and the Nonmen of Cil-Aujas had defeated the No-God in the First Apocalypse, so purchasing the World a year of precious respite. Nothing was said of the subsequent betrayal and the extermination of the Nonmen at the hands of those they had saved.

As they march, they sing to Kellhus, to their own might, to their wives and families, and about the world they would save. At evening, they shed armor to pray and listen to sermons. It took days for them all to file through the pass onto the “thawing fields of the Sagland.” The Sakarpi have left scorched earth behind, the King of Sakarpus hoping hunger would save his city.

Few Three Seas Men had ever seen grassland steppes, let alone the vast and broad-back Istyuli. Beneath grey skies, with tracts still scabbed with snow, it seemed a trackless and desolate place, a precursor to the Agongorea, about which they had heard so much in endless recitations of The Sagas. Those raised on the coasts were reminded of the sea, of horizons as flat as a rule with nothing but limits for the eye to fasten upon. Those bred along desert margins were reminded of home.

It was raining when the multitudes climbed into the broad scruffs of land that lifted the Lonely City above the plain. At last, the two Exalt-Generals clasped arms and set about planning the assault. They scowled and joked and shared reminiscences, from the legendary First Holy War to the final days of the Unification. So many cities. So many campaigns.

So many proud peoples broken.

Sorweel finds sleep eluding him so is already awaken when the emissary from the Great Ordeal comes to speak with his father, King Varalt Harweel II. Sorweel attends as the crown prince of Sakarpus, as he has attended all such important meetings. “But until recently, ‘important’ had meant something quite different.” Fights with Srancs, diplomatic issues with Atrithau, disgruntled nobles. He’s usually bored. Now he’s scared. He’s a year from his “first Elking,” on the cusp of full manhood, and is staring at King Nersei Proyas standing before his father. Through translators, Proyas broaches what King Harweel says about Kellhus. Harweel sneers about his “blasphemy,” showing his disdain for Kellhus’s godhood.

“Blasphemy…” the Exalt-General said. “He would not say that.”

“And what would he say?”

“That you fear, as all man fear, to lose your power and privilege.”

Sorweel’s father laughed in an offhand manner that made the boy proud. If only he could muster such careless courage.

Harweel, sounding merry, asks if Proyas actually sees him as using his people as pawns to protect them as opposed to standing up to Kellhus to protect his people. Proyas does see it that way by saying no man can “stand between a God and the people.” It unnerves Sorweel how Three Seas Men speak of Kellhus as a living god. Harweel says his priest call Kellhus a demon.

“They say what they need to keep their power safe,” the translator said with obvious discomfort. “They are, truly, the only ones who stand to lose from the quarrel between us.”

To Sorweel, the Aspect-Emperor had been an “uneasy rumour.” His earliest memories are sitting on his father’s knee as traders spoke about Kellhus. From them, Sorweel had heard about everything in the south. His father would always warn that one day, Kellhus would come for them.

“But how can you know, Da?”

“He is a Ciphrang, a Hunger from the Outside, come to this world in the guise of a man.”

“Then how can we hope to resist him?”

“With our swords and sour shields,” his father had boasted, using the mock voice he always used to make light of terrifying things. “And when those fail us, with spit and curses.”

But the spit and the curses, Sorweel would learn, always came first, accompanied by bold gestures and grand demonstrations. War was an extension of argument, and swords were simply words honed to bloodletting edge. Only the Sranc began with blood. For Men, it was always the conclusion.

Perhaps this explained the Emissary’s melancholy and his father’s frustration. Perhaps they already knew the outcome of this embassy. All doom requires certain poses, the mouthing of certain words—so said the priests.

Sorweel can feel Kellhus lurking outside the walls. “An itch, a name, a principle, a foreboding…” Sorweel knows they have come to kill the man, rape the women, and enslave the children. His father is boasting how Sakarpus survived the No-God and will survive Kellhus.

The Exalt-General smiled, or at least tried to. “Ay, yes… Virtue does not burn.”

Harweel asks what that means and Proyas explains all that is left after death is the good things your children record about you. “All men flatter themselves through their forebears.” Harweel snorts and says Sakarpus is still around, proving his strength. But Proyas says Kellhus has been here when Sakarpus was merely the frontier of a great empire. Its lack of importance is why Sakarpus survived. Chance is ever as fickle as a whore. The silence from his father unnerves Sorweel. The stakes were crushing his father. He was pretending everything was fine, but Sorweel could see the lie.

Proyas continues that the entire Three Seas and all the schools are here. Proyas pleads with Harweel to see that he can’t win, appealing to him as a fellow warrior who has fought and seen the terrors of war.

Another ashen silence. Sorweel found himself leaning forward, trying to peer around the Horn-and-Amber Throne. What was his father doing?

“Come…” the Exalt-General said, his voice one of genuine entreaty. “Harweel, I beg of you, take my hand. Men can no longer afford to shed the blood of men.”

Sorweel can’t believe how aged his father appears. He’s not old, but looks it, his crown heavy. For a moment, Sorweel wants to speak to cover his father’s weakness, but Harweel finds his strength. He tells Proyas if he doesn’t want to fight, then leaves and march to die at Golgotterath or return to “hot-blooded wives.”

As though deferring to some unknown rule of discourse, Proyas lowered his face. He glanced at the bewildered Prince before returning his gaze to the King Sakarpus. “There is the surrender that leads to slavery,” he said. “And there is the surrender that sets one free. Soon, very soon, your people shall know the difference.”

“So says the slave!” Harweel cried.

The Emissary did not require the translator’s sputtering interpretation—the tone transcended languages. Something in his look dismayed Sorweel even more than the forced bluster of his father’s response. I am weary of blood, his eyes seemed to say. Too long have I haggled with the doomed.

He stood, nodding to his entourage to indicate that more than enough breath had been spent.

Sorweel was hoping his father would take him aside and explain why he appeared so fearful. To Sorweel, his father is the bravest man. He’d earned it through is room, revered by his Boonsmen and feared by the Horselords. “How could he of all Men be afraid?” Sorweel fears his father is holding back something important. Sorweel can only watch in the wake of Proyas’s departure as his father gives orders. At dawn, he is marched through the streets with his father’s High Boonsmen, seeing the refugees from the Saglands who’d entered the city, mothers looking dazed as herding their children. Sorweel wants to fight, but he hasn’t had his Elking, so he’s not allowed.

It begins raining as the hours past. It soaks through his armor. He feels useless and miserable. Finally, his father calls for him after a while. He’s brought to an empty barrack and warms his hands at a fire with Harweel. His father is troubled. Sorweel has no idea what to say.

“Moments of weakness come upon all Men,” Harweel said without looking at his son.

The young Prince stared harder into the glowing cracks.

“You must see this,” his father continued, “so that when your time comes you will not despair.”

Sorweel was speaking before he even realized he had opened his mouth. “But I do, Father! I do desp—!”

The tenderness in his father’s eyes was enough to make him choke. It knocked his gaze down as surely as a slap.

His father explains that men who see things in absolute terms can’t handle fear or despair. It breaks them because they have not struggled with doubt before then. His father asks Sorweel if he’s a fool like that. Sorweel is hurt because the question is genuine. He answers no. He has so much fear and doubt in him. He can’t speak it as he feels ashamed for doubting his father. He realized he’d been a burden to his father instead of supporting him on this day. Before he can explain his thoughts, three Horselords enter, calling for them.

Forgive me…

Standing on the walls of Sakarpus, he still feels warm after his talk with his father. He’s in the northern tower It’s raining. He stares at the thick walls and can’t imagine them being destroyed. It’s lined with soldiers in the “ancient armour of their fathers.” Archers wait to fire arrows. He’s proud of his people’s courage and determination. He knows that beyond the rain-choked gray, the Great Ordeal lurks.

He says the war prayers to Gilgaöl like he was trained and to Anagke, the Whore of Fate, to keep him from bad luck. The High Boonsmen pray around him for deliverance from “the Aspect-Emperor’s grasping hand.” Sorweel tries to convince himself that Kellhus is a demon and will lose.

A horn rings out. After a pause, more sound. “Suddenly the whole world seemed to shiver, its innards awakened by the cold cacophony.” More prayers and curses are muttered by unnerved men. The horns die while a father tells his son to “Take heart,” and speaks of an omen that means they’ll have good fortune, but the man’s confidence sounds forced.

Peering after the voices, Sorweel recognized the Ostaroots, a family whom he had always thought hangers-on in his father’s Royal Company. Sorweel had always shunned the son, Tasweer, not out of arrogance or spite, but in accordance with what seemed the general court attitude. He had never thought of it, not really, save to make gentle sport of the boy now and again with his friends. For some reason, it shamed Sorweel to hear him confessing his fears to his father. It seemed criminal that he, a prince born to the greatest of privileges, had so effortlessly judged Tasweer’s family, that with the ease of exhalation, he had assessed lives as deep and confusing as his own. And found them wanting.

His remorse is swallowed up by warning shouts. Out of the rainy mist, siege towers appear. Their size surprises him. They are massive and had to be carried across the wilderness in pieces to reach here. They crawl forward in a V formation, covered in tin armor. They have the Circumfix painted across their fronts. Sorweel had seen that symbol tattooed on missionaries his father had ordered burned. Everyone on the wall grows breathless as they approach. The battle has finally begun. The previous months of stress are over. Behind the towers marches the vast Great Ordeal.

Once again the horns unnerved the sky.

Sorweel sees ten times the number of the defenders (who themselves number ten thousand) approaching. So many strangers who came from lands he’d never heard of. These people didn’t care about Sakarpus. “The Southron Kings, come to save the world.” Sorweel had imagined those lands, wanting to run away as a child to a place where “Men yet warred against Men.” He’d learned, however, to hide his fascination. The South is viewed with contempt. “It was a place where subtlety had become a disease and where luxury had washed away the bourne between what was womanish and what was manly.”

But they were wrong—so heartbreakingly wrong. If the defeats of the previous weeks had not taught them such, then surely they understood now.

The South had come to teach them.

King Harweel appears at his son side and tells them not to fear the Schoolman. They won’t attack because of all the Chorae Sakarpus possesses. The king is inspiring his son and the others. Harweel gives a rousing speech about how they stood unbroken against the Sranc and—

His speech is cut off by a stork swooping down before him, startling everyone. Sorweel presses on his belly, feeling the Chorae tied against his bellybutton. The stork shouldn’t be flying in the rain. The stork stares at them without fear, unnerving the men. Harweel pushes himself forward to stand over the stork. A bright light in the sky, like a star, draws Sorweel’s attention. When he looks back, the stork is gone.

Activity explodes across the battlement, men shouting as the siege towers move forward as the star winked out. It reappeared closer over the front of the marching army. Sorweel realizes that there is a man or a god surrounded by blue light

Sorweel fond himself clutching the pitted stone of the battlements.

The Aspect-Emperor.

The rumor. The lifelong itch…

Sorweel cries a warning to his father as heavy winds blow rains over the walls. Ballistae fire Choraetipped bolts, but the sudden wind cuts their range. They miss him. At the same time, Sorweel hears words of sorcery. Silver lines race out from Kellhus, forming “incandescent geometries, a sun-bright filigree.” Sorweel realizes Kellhus is making mist to blind them. The Southron armies are singing hymns as they advanced.

Harweel grabs his son and tells him to go to the Citadel. That it was a mistake to bring him here. Sorweel is horrified, protesting that his father would treat him like a child. He cries out, “My bones are your bones!”

Harweel raised his hand to Sorweel’s cheek. “Which is why you must go. Please, Sorwa. Sakarpus stands at the ends of the world. We are the last outpost of Men! He needs this city! He needs our people! That means he needs you, Sorwa! You!”

Sorweel protest that he won’t leave, crying hot tears hidden by the cold rain. His father punches him and knocks him to the ground and orders Narsheidel to carry him to the Citadel. Narsheidel obeys and drags Sorweel away. He cries out in protest, seeing his father one last time before the fog hides him.

“Nooooooo!”

The clamour of arms descended upon the world.”

Sorweel continues his struggle against Narsheidel, but the man won’t relent. He sees his father’s eyes watching him, full of love and concern and even regret. He sees a father’s pride and hope that “he might live with greater grace through the fact of a son.” Soon, they’re in the city streets, soldiers rushing to the fight.

And a solitary figure in the midst of the confusion, crouched like a beggar, only clothed in too much shadow…

And with eyes that blinked light.

The Herder’s gate is destroyed with sorcerery. The enemy flood into the streets. Men die, killed by sorcery. A siege tower reaches the wall supported by Angogic sorceries. Harwell is dragged farther and farther from the battle while his father’s blue, beseeching eyes fill his mind. He reaches the Citadel where he once again sees Kellhus as “bright as the Nail of Heaven—only beneath the clouds.” Narsheidel is overcome with fear while retainers and guards ask where the king is. In his panic, Narsheidel is screaming that the Citadel must hold secrets that will save them because it is old. He’s dragged to an antechamber where he finally shouts at Narsheidel to stop. He asks where his father is and is told that Harweel is dead.

The words winded him. Even still, Sorweel heard his own voice say, “That means I am King. That I’m your master!”

The High Boonsman looked down to his palms, then out and upward, as though trying to divine the direction of the outer roar—for it had not stopped.

“Not so long as your father’s words still ring in my ears.”

Sorweel looked into the older man’s face, with its strong-jawed proportions and water-tangled frame of hair. Only then, it seemed, did he realize that Narsheidel too had loved ones, wives and children, sequestered somewhere in the city. That he was a true Boonsman, loyal unto death.

Sorweel starts to shout that his father is dead when the wall explodes. He is thrown to the ground while the commander of the Citadel, Lord Denthuel, has his head crushed by debris. Sorweel lies stunned as he stares at a gaping hole. He doesn’t remember if he spoke. Through the hole, he sees the Aspect-Emperor striding through the air. The rain doesn’t touch him.

The shining demon crossed the threshold, framed by gloom and deluge.

A nameless guard flees when Kellhus steps through the breach. Narsheidel charges. Kellhus smoothly doges and whips out his sword, beheading the Boonsman. “The demon” stares at Sorweel the entire time, but Kellhus’s eyes seem far too human.

“On his knees, Sorweel could do naught but stare.”

Kellhus feels unreal, like he’s both physically here and in a spiritual place. He stands taller than Sorweel’s father and wearing a mail of nimil (Nonman steel). He wears the severed heads of two demons on his belt, and he has scabs of salt on his skin. The “vision” announces his identity and Sorweel pisses himself and collapses onto his belly.

“Come,” the man [Kellhus] said, crouching to place a hand on his [Sorweel’s] shoulder. “Come. Get up. Remember yourself…”

Remember?

“You are a King, are you not?”

Sorweel could only stare in horror and wonder.

“I-I d-d-d-on’t understand…”

A friendly scowl, followed by a gentle laugh. “I’m rarely what my enemies expect, I know.” Somehow, he was already helping him to his feet.

Kellhus explains that this fight was a mistake, he’s not a conqueror, but here to save mankind. Sorweel calls him a liar. Kellhus tells him to grieve because it’s natural. “But take heart in the fact of your forgiveness.” Sorweel asks how Kellhus can forgive anything. Kellhus says Sorweel misunderstands what he meant.

“Misunderstand what?” Sorweel spat. “That you think yourse—!”

“Your father loved you!” the man interrupted, his voice thick with a nigh-irresistible paternal reprimand. “And that love, Sorwa, is forgiveness… His forgiveness, not mine.”

The young King of Sakarpus stood dumbstruck, staring with a face as slack as rainwater. Then perfumed sleeves enclosed him, and he wept in the burning arms of his enemy, for his city, for his father, for a world that could wring redemption out of betrayal.

Years. Months. Days. For so long the Aspect-Emperor had been an uneasy rumor to the South, a name heaped in atrocity as it was miracle…

No more.

My Thoughts

Bakker starts right off with a discussion on men and how they are controlled by Cause and Effect. Humans do not like being the villains so we always rationalize our actions and find excuses for them. Some are better than others, but most do it. We come up with why we lie, we cheat, we steal. Why we are selfish.

We spin out our delusions to justify our crimes.

“Men, all Men, warred all the time.” Pure Bakker there. Men are in competition, and war is the ultimate competition. Whether they are competing (warring) with the field they till or competing for the affection of their lover.

It’s clear Bakker thought a lot about how the host would survive the march. It’s great to see that level of detail.

Hello, skin-spies. Slipping them in early. Need to remember that they exist because there’s another one out there.

Men and their delusions are illustrated with: “The Men of the Ordeal could feel it: an approving world, a judging world.” Also, we see judging again. The Judging Eye does exactly what these men believe is happening as does the Inverse Fire.

We have our first reference to Cil-Aujas, the Nonman ruin which dominates the finale in this book. We get the first glimpse of its history, how the humans and Nonmen fought off the No-God and then how the humans later butchered them. It’s a whitewashing of history as well as planting the first seeds for a big story hook to come.

Bakker starts off the Great Ordeal by mirroring how it will end. The army crosses a plain that has been depleted of food, just like they’ll find when crossing the Agongorea, the Field Appalling. There, hunger will reduce them to cannibalism to survive. Like with Sakarpus, the Consult tries that same tactic of starvation to defeat the Great Ordeal. Only we see the armies here at the start, strong and proud and confident, eager to break another proud people.

They don’t realize they’re a proud people.

Bakker’s irony is on full display with the Great Ordeal fighting to save mankind by starting his campaign with conquering a city that has stood up against the Consult and the Sranc since the Second Apocalypse ended. In other fantasy, Sakarpus would welcome and aid the Great Ordeal.

Sorweel is our primary POV for the events of the Great Ordeal. He’s a young man who has to grow up and see the world for what it is. He still idealizes his father like any boy would. It’s easy to see someone as being brave when you don’t know the fear inside of them. It’s as Bakker described in an earlier book, that humans are a two-sided coin. There’s the face the world sees of us and the face we see of ourselves. You can never see how the world sees you, and the world can never see how you view yourself.

Proyas is trying diplomacy here. It is admirable. Harweel is as Proyas describes. He wants to keep his power. He seems like a good man, so he probably has his reasons like protecting his people and defying a demon. The rationalization to justify his desires. After all, Sakarpus survived the No-God. How could Kellhus threaten them?

Kellhus is a Ciphrang… An interesting comment to have in the prose given the deal he’s made Ajokli between the two series.

Bakker brings us some good insight on fighting and why it happens. Some say war is the failure of diplomacy, others say it’s the only way to accomplish it. Force is required to bring people to the peace tables. The threat of it or its actual unleashing. The outcome can often be seen ahead of time, which only makes the tragedy to come pointless. But people are stubborn. They have hope. They don’t want to see reality. They are consumed with pride or fear. A hundred reasons that can lead to men dying on the battlefield. They’re rarely good ones.

Well, Chapter One and fortune is compared to a whore!

Sakarpus says they are here because of the strength of their wall, the might of their ancestors, and the Chorae Horde (which why the Holy War is here). Kellhus says they were on the periphery of events and lucked out that the consult didn’t come. I imagine it’s more in the middle. They did weather attacks but they never felt the full brunt of the No-God.

Sakarpus reminds me of Game of Thrones. The North talked a good talk about how they were strong than their southern men, worth ten of them, and then Arya finds them slaughtered when Ned Stark is captured. She’s confused that their bravado didn’t match reality. Sorweel is starting to see through his father’s bravado before the face of the might before them.

The end is writ in stone. Everyone knows it, but Harweel cannot break free of the expectations that lie on him and the fear of losing all he has. He is grasping at straws to stay free and Proyas knows it. We see that after twenty years, Proyas has grown with more compassion. This isn’t the zealot we first met, but the man who witnessed Shimeh burn.

How many cities has he seen burned since?

I make no bones about how much I dislike Kellhus. What he does to Proyas in this series is brutal. The shortest path as no room for compassion or love.

Great father and son stuff between Sorweel and his father. His father is getting him ready for what’s to come. The fact that they’re going to lose. Harweel can’t bring himself from surrendering without a fight. He must feel trapped by duty and expectation. Sorweel can start clean as the subject ruler. He recognizes how Kellhus operates. He prefers to leave those in place who will be followed if they bend the knee. Sorweel is that person. Someone he can use as both a hostage and a ruler to keep Sakarpus in line after the defeat. Harweel needs his son to be strong enough to survive what is coming.

Sorweel is maturing fast now, feeling empathy to a boy he disliked out of habit. Humans fall into a social hierarchy, and you act in your place to maintain it or risk falling from your place and losing the ability to climb higher.

It’s interesting the relief that can come when the dreaded thing happens. You can finally deal with it and not worry about it, even if it goes bad. Stress is not good for humans in our current modern world. Its designed for life-and-death situations, not worrying for days or weeks on whether you’re going to lose your job. It’s not great having that building pressure with no release for too long.

Warrior cultures always think they are superior in military might to more civilized nations. They can often be surprised then to lose. Those countries might not have the culture on the surface, but that doesn’t mean they’re not humans who, when need to, can be just as aggressive to survive. Barbarians might win when they sweep unprepared against a “soft” enemy, but if the enemy can regroup, they can fight back. The Japanese saw the Americans as weak and easily swept aside. They were followers of Bushido. During the Battle of Midway, in one of the opening skirmishes, a US dive bomber almost crashed into the bridge of an aircraft carrier, nearly killing the admiral in command of the Japanese forces. This shook them badly seeing an American willing to go that far. On that day, they saw inexperience American forces, but not cowards. Not men who wouldn’t fight.

Sakarpus is seeing the same. The “weak” south has marched with the same martial fervor that any human can muster.

Harweel might be the best father in this series. He’s trying to keep his son alive, even if that means punching him in the face to get him to leave. Everything we’ve seen about him through Sorweel is positive. It’s a shame Harweel couldn’t bend his knee, but then giving up power is one of the hardest things to do. The darkness that comes before had its hand around Harweel. He couldn’t break free.

This shadowed beggar is something I’ve never noticed before. Eyes that blinked light. A follower of Yatwer? At some point, Sorweel drew the Goddess’s notice. She makes him her Narindar. I thought it was with the slave he later meets, but it might have been as early as right now.

Sorweel is trying to be an active main character here. His father is dead, and he knows he has to take charge, but Narsheidel is panicked. He’s obeying his last order no matter what. He’s placed Sorweel above protecting his own family because he finds comfort in following his oath. It’s something familiar.

Then Kellhus steps in and removes that agency from Sorweel that he almost had. Sorweel’s story is one of lacking agency. He wants it, but he’s continually forced into different roles, and in the end, becomes nothing more than a pawn for Yatwer.

“On his knees, Sorweel could do naught but stare.” Sorweel meets Kellhus as a kneeler king. Just as he thinks of all those others who serve in disdain, that’s how he meets our Dûnyain.

Kellhus’s Mark is probably at the point where even a near miss from a Chorae can cause him issues.

Come on, Bakker, you can’t use pronouns like this: “Somehow, he was already helping him to his feet.” That’s two different men being referenced by the pronouns. Kellhus is helping Sorweel stand but it sounds like one person is helping himself stand. And that one person would be Kellhus, who is standing! I love Bakker’s writing, but his pronouns sometimes drive me nuts.

If you hadn’t known anything about Kellhus, if this was your first introduction to him, you would buy his act. Hugging the enemy of his son after reluctantly fighting his people in the greater goal of saving the world is something you’d see in fantasy. The savior of mankind with his inhuman power.

We know every word he spoke to Sorweel is an act to win his support and through him the resources of Sakarpus.

Sorweel is fantasy trope of the captured enemy who is out to avenge his father and in the process seduces the daughter of his enemy to his side. He only manages to seduce the daughter, and that only happened because he became a pawn of a Goddess using him in an act of mad defiance to kill Kellhus. It ends in failure. In his death, having no agency. Never taking his own power. He is perpetually pulled from event to event (quite literally when he’s dragged into the bowels of Ishterebinth in The Great Ordeal). Like with Kellhus in the first series, he is a subversion of this trope. In some ways, he’s a mirror of Kellhus. They both start out as the young man stepping out into the world, each their own fantasy trope, and each radically different. One seizes agency, the other is seized. However, they both end up being possessed by the gods.

Sorweel is a pawn. A slave to the darkness that comes before. Only it’s the darkness of Yatwer who can’t see the No-God and his actions. She doesn’t understand the context of the future and can only seek to stop it the way a blind man can: by blundering. Sorweel is one of those who are in her path.

Let’s follow him on his journey and study his character. His part in The Unholy Consult is something I’m eager to dig in when we (eventually) get there.

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Review: Empire of Grass

Empire of Grass

by Tad Williams

Reviewed by JMD Reid

When we last left off, Prince Morgan, the grandson of Simon and Miramele, is fleeing into Aldheorte Forest fleeing the attack at his camp. At the Hayholt, Simon is struggling to hold the High Ward together as their deadly enemies, the fey-like Norns, are planning to attack and resume the war that ended thirty years ago. His wife, Queen Miramele, sells into the viper’s nest of Nabban to bring peace to two feuding power. In the grasslands, Unvar declares himself the Shan of Shan of the nomadic Thrithings and promises to drive back the foreigners encroaching on their grassland.

And behind much of this misfortune, Simon’s trusted adviser, Parcelleus, plots Simon and Miramele’s deaths and the end of their rule.

The characters are thrust into new danger. Everything is in upheaval. The past of the last three decades is crumbling. Treachery and betrayal are undoing everything Simon and Miramele had achieved in their youths while the Queen of the Norns has reawakened after the wounds she took at the end of the war. Competing interests clash and clatter. Events are spiraling out of everyone’s control.

Chaos threatens to destroy all.

It’s a great followup to the Witchwood Crown. It’s full of twists and turns, misfortune and misunderstanding sparking new conflicts, disrupting plans on both sides. The plot is engaging, keeping you reading to find if Simon and Miramele can hold their life’s work together and protect their grandchildren.

Will Prince Morgan survive being lost in the forest? Will Parcelleus treachery lead to Miramele’s death in the chaos of Nabban? What will happen to Count Eolair as he surrenders to the men who attacked and butchered his men? The Norn are descending on the world of men while they’re torn apart by petty conflicts.

Williams prose and story structure are engaging. The cast of characters is engaging, especially the trolls. They again are a favorite of mine. His plot has more pieces going than the original series, but he’s keeping it going so far.

Things have never seen bleaker. I can’t wait for the next book in this series!

You can buy Empire of Grass from Amazon!

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Review: House of Chain (Malazan Book of the Fallen 4)

House of Chain (Malazan Book of the Fallen 4)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

A giant barbarian, arrogant in his abilities, begins a journey of bloody rampage. He wishes to relive his grandfather’s epic journey and show the strength of his people. He’s about to learn that history isn’t what he thinks.

In the Holy Desert, Felisin Paran has been reborn as the apocalyptic Shrike, an avatar for a vengeful goddess. To gain her own revenge on the sister that sold her into slavery, she surrenders everything she has. Around her are a host of men plotting how to use her power for their own benefit while the desert tribesmen ache to unleash the fury of her power on the Malazan Empire

Crokus has lost his innocence. No longer a youth, he’s now an assassin called Cutter. To keep walking beside Apsalar’s side, he forces himself to become what she is. But is that what she wants from him? Has he stepped onto a path that will change everything for him.

Fiddler, re-enlisted in the Malazan army, lands with the newly formed 6th army under the command of Tavore Paran. With him is a group of veterans and new recruits who will have to march into the desert and battle the Army of the Apocaylpse and avenge Coltaine and his massacre outside the walls of Aren. However, the new army’s start is beset with dire omens. How will they fare in the desert?

Will they meet Coltaine’s fate?

In the Holy Desert, gods, ascendants, and mortals are thrown together in a clash that will change everything as the Chained God makes his bid to seize power. So many storyline are woven together in this book. Storylines criss and cross. Erickson weaves them all into a vast tapestry built on the foundation of the weight of history.

If you’ve been reading Malazn Book of the Fallen, then you know what you’re in for. Many of your favorite characters are back for the next chapter in the bloody history of the Malazan Empire. Everyone has their own agendas. Their own tales that mix together to form this outstanding book. It’s riveting to read, drawing you on the final showdown between two sisters.

Felisin wants revenge on her sister Tavore never knowing that Tavore’s plan to protect her went so wrong in Book Two. Now they are dragged by the chains of fate to fight each other. Only one shall survive in this tragic tale.

You can buy House of Chains from Amazon.

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Review: The Thousandfold Thoughts (The Prince of Nothing Book 3)

The Thousandfold Thoughts (The Prince of Nothing Book 3)

by R. Scott Bakker

Reviewed by JMD Reid

The Holy War has bent knee before Kellhus, proclaiming him the Warrior-Prophet. Thanks to their renewed fanaticism, the siege of Caraskand has been broken. Nothing stands between them and their final march on Shimeh.

Achamian has to adjust to the new reality. His wife, Esmenet, is now Kellhus’s. After thinking he died, she was seduced by the Dûnyain and is pregnant with his child. Believing Kellhus is the Harbinger, the only hope for humanity against the Consult and the threat of the return of the No-God, he swallows his hatred and tries to fight his desire to reclaim his wife.

Conphas is the only great name that still defies Kellhus. He is forced to surrender his legion’s weapons and be interred at Joktha under the brutal watch of Cnaiur. The Scylvendi barbarian knows the truth about Kellhus and realizes he has been put into a trap. If he doesn’t kill Conphas, the Nansur prince will plot and scheme, but if Cnaiur does kill the man, he’ll lose his own life in the backlash of Conphas’s loyal legions.

Around them all, the Consult studies, struggling to understand just who this Kellhus is and what to do about him. They see one tool that will be useful. One tool that can help them destroy the Warrior-Prophet once and for all.

Kellhus’s father awaits him near Shimeh. The Dûnyain’s original mission still needs to be completed. What will happen when father and son reunite? Will Kellhus discover he’s merely a pawn in a greater scheme himself, or will his trials prove too much for even one of his conditioning?

The Thousandfold Thought is the conclusion of the first series in Bakker’s ambitions Second Apocalypse Megaseries. The book does not hold your hand. Bakker philosophy abounds, unveiled on every page mixed in with the poetry of his pose. The entire series has been building towards the moment when Kellhus and Moenghus meets. The fate of the world pivots on the relationship between father and son.

Characters are tested. Some are broken while others finds strength in them they never knew they had. Passions clash. Betrayals and mistakes lead to devastation while chance and misfortune afflict others. No one comes out of the crucible of the Holy War and Kellhus’s manipulation unchanged. The story is gripping. The stakes are high. Bakker has shown himself not adverse to maiming, breaking, and killing characters.

None are safe. The tension has never been higher as the assault on Shimeh begins. Love, religion, vengeance, and more clash and swirl in the conclusion of The Prince of Nothing.

When you finish this book, you’ll want more. You’ll want to know what happen next. You’ll be eager to plunge into the Judging Eye. Bakker’s writing is engaging, enthralling, and enlightening in turns. It will leave you in awe, keep you at the edge of the seat, and have you weeping.

The human soul is laid bare in Bakker’s epic fantasy story!

You can buy Thousandfold Thoughts from Amazon.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Prologue

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Prologue

Welcome to the Prologue of my reread. Click here if you missed the Introduction!

When a man possesses the innocence of a child, we call him a fool. When a child possesses the cunning of a man, we call him an abomination. As with love, knowledge has its season.

—AJENCIS, THE THIRD ANALYTIC OF MEN

My Thoughts

Wow, a warning about Kelmomas? He is introduced in this prologue. He’s certainly an abomination.

It’s nice to have Ajencis start us off. After quotes of Achamian’s Compendium of the First Holy War, quotes from The Third Analytic of Men were among the most common. It’s like a welcome sight at the start of this new series. Yes, this is continuing. We’re going to be diving into dark and difficult subjects wrapped up in the guise of a fantasy story.

Knowledge is something you have to gain over time. Having it too early is atypical and not gaining it as you age is disappointing. We do not like things that differ from the norm. We like predictable things. Children may be smart but lack knowledge, and adults may be dumb but possess it. The familiarity is comforting.

The opposite provokes a reaction. So, Kelmomas is the child with too much intellect, so who is the fool?

Samarmas. He might not be an adult, but he’s Dûnyain. The only child of Kellhus that has a normal intellect. And to Kelmomas, that makes him a fool.

Autumn, 19 New Imperial Year (4131 Year-of-the-Tusk), the “Long Side”

A horn pealed long and lonely beneath the forest canopies. A human horn.

For a moment all was quiet. Limbs arched across the imperious heights, and great trunks bullied the hollows beneath. Shorn saplings thatched the intervening spaces. A squirrel screeched warning from the gloom of interlocking branches. Starlings burst into the squinting sky.

They came, flickering across bands of sunlight and shadow.

The Sranc come running wearing armor and shield decorated in human trophies: teeth, skin, fingernails, and more. They smell mannish blood and spill their black seed on the ground. Their scouts have reported what they can smell. “It had been so long since they had glutted their rapacious hunger.” They are eager to kill and rape.

They ran, weeping for joy.

They spot their prey. The Sranc charge across the ground. Just as they are about to fall on the men, the ground collapses beneath them. They fall into pit traps. Some manage to stop in time, shocked by what has happened. They stare “in lust and apprehension” at their prey.

Men.

A hard-bitten handful, running as though by magic across the forest floor. They lunged into the Sranc’s midst, their heavy swords high and pitching. Shields cracked. Mouldered iron was bent and broken. Limbs and heads were thrown on arcs of glittering blood.

The Men roared and bellowed, hammered them to earth, hacked them to twitching ruin.

Later, a lone traveler cries out, “Scalper.” They all turn to face him and the traveler thinks they’re like animals. He threads through the slaughtered Sranc, passing one “white as drowned fish, floating face down in a pool of translucent red.” The traveler notes the ambush was very successful with many Sranc killed. He approaches the scalpers taking their grisly trophies with efficiency. A Galeoth washes the scalps off in a stream, treating them with the same care like they were gold. Even with the lowering of the Hallow Bounty offered by Kellhus, they still were worth money.

All the scalpers watch him even as they pretend to indifference. It was unusual for an outsider to find them in the wilderness. “This work, the work of collecting and counting, was the least manly portion of their trade.” Their shameful secret.

It was also the point.

Nearly eleven years had passed since the Aspect-Emperor had declared his bounty on Sranc scalps, before the last of the Unification Wars had ended. He placed the bounty on Sranc because of their vast numbers. He placed the bounty on scalps because their hairlessness made them distinctive to Sranc. Men such as these, the traveller supposed, would be far happier poaching something less inclined to kill back—like women and children.

So began the Scalping Years. Over that time, countless thousands had trudged into the northern wilderness, expedition after expedition, come to make their fortune as Scalpoi. Most died in a matter of weeks. But those who learned, who were wily and every bit as ruthless as their foe, prospered.

And some—a few—became legendary.

The traveler has come looking for one such legend. He studies the man who is dressed in the “traditional costume of his caste and race” only his armor and clothing ripped and rusted, soiled. The man is an Ainoni known as Ironsoul. The man the traveler judged to be him says it and the traveler bows out of respect to a Veteran of the First Holy War. It’s a crime not to “venerate a survivor” of that conflict.

“How did you find us?” the man asked in his native tongue. From the cadence of his voice, it was obvious that he despised speaking, that he was as jealous of his voice as he was of his women or his blood.

The traveller did not care. Men prized what they would

“We find everyone.”

A barely perceptible nod. “What do you want?”

The Ainoni glanced back towards his cowled companion. No words were exchanged, only an inscrutable look.

Autumn, 19 New Imperial Year (4131 Year-of-the-Tusk), the “Long Side”

Ever do Men seek to hide what is base and mean in their natures. This is why they talked of wolves or lions or even dragons when they likened themselves to animals. But it was the lowly beetle, the young boy decided, who they must resembled. Belly to the ground. Back hunched against the world. Eyes blind to everything save the small circle before them.

The boy, Anasûrimbor Kelmomas, follows the beetle scurrying across the floor in the wake of his Whelming. Prayers drift through the temple’s columns as he is curious to where the beetle is going. The beetle leaves a trail in the dust and obliterates it as the beetle leads to the statue of Ajokli, the Four-Horned Brother.

“The Thief?”

Kelmomas is not impressed. Ajokli’s godhouse is a poor one compared to the other gods, his brothers and sisters. It’s a statue carved from black diorite to look like a fat man crouching over to chamber pot. He has no jewels or precious metals. Kelmomas finds the expression inhuman. “Grinning like a monkey. Snarling like a dog. Staring like a dew-eyed virgin.”

It [the statue] also watched the beetle as it scurried into its gloomy bower.

Kelmomas follows the beetle and mocks the statue by mimicking its posture by crouching over the beetle. Then he grabbed the insect. “It writhed like a little automaton beneath his fingertip.” He anticipates killing it, knowing he could do it easily and enjoying his power. He rips off two legs and tells the statue to watch. He sets the beetle back down. Missing two legs, it moves in a circle.

See?” he exclaimed to Ajokli. They laughed together, child and idol, loud enough to blot out the chorus of chanting voices.

“They’re all like that,” he explained. “All you have to do is pinch.”

“Pinch what, Kelmomas?” a rich, feminine voice asked from behind him. Mother.

Another boy would have been startled, even ashamed, to be surprised by his mother after doing such a thing, but not Kelmomas. Despite the obscuring pillars and voices, he had known where she was all along, following her prim footsteps (though he knew not how) in a corner of his soul.

He asks if they’re done as he whirls to see his mother, the Empress Esmenet. He finds her the “world’s most beautiful thing” despite her makeup and jewelry. She is finished and rolls her eyes, signaling she’d rather dote on him then do boring things. Kelmomas knows she does things to maintain appearances, just not nearly as good as he did. He asks her if she prefers his company even though he already knows the answer. He doesn’t let her know he knows because “it troubled her when he read aloud the movement of her soul.” She smiles and scoops him up in her arms, adjusting his hair while he savors her embrace. He thinks, “Never was there such a sanctuary.”

Mommy…

She leads him away and he is satisfied the beetle still stalks in circles. Then he hears the sounds of a crowd and he grows nervous, not wanting to leave. She asked him what is wrong, but he lies and says anything. She licks her fingers and attends to his messy hair like any mother would.

“It’s proper that you be anxious,” she said, distracted by her ministrations. She looked him square in the eye, and he stared into the pith of her, past the paint and skin, past the sheath of interlocking muscles, down to the radiant truth of her love.

She would die for you, the secret voice—the voice that had been within always—whispered.

“Your father,” she continued, “says that we need fear only when we lose our fear.” She ran her hand from his temple to his chin. “When we become too accustomed to power and luxury.”

Father was forever saying things.

He sneers inside while faking being an adorable kid. The secret voice tells him to both hate his father but fear him. Kelmomas “must never forget that the Strength burned brightest in Father.” Meanwhile, Esmenet is happy to have such a good son and hugs him. Holding her hand, he allows her to lead him out of the Allosium. They exit the temple onto the Scuäri Campus, the plaza before all the temples. Eothic Guardsmen protect them. He can see the whole vista of the Home City. It’s massive.

On and on it went, the vast and mottled vista of the Home City, the great capital of all the Three Seas. For his entire life it had been encircled him, hedged him its teeming intricacies. And for his entire life it had frightened him, so much so that he often refused to look when Samarmas, his idiot twin, pointed to something unnoticed in its nebulous weave.

But today it seemed the only safe thing.

“Look!” his mother cried through the roar. “Look, Kel!”

He stares at the thousands crowding the square, pilgrims and locals, “churning like floodwaters about the base of the Xatantian Arch.” They all reach for them while his mother tells him they are all here to witness his divinity. He fakes the “bewildered gratitude” she expects; he feels only disgust. “Only fools, he decided, travelled in circles.” He wants to show Ajokli this truth.

People were bugs.

It feels like a long time that Kelmomas and his mother stand in their “proscribed places.” He focus on flying birds and sunlight on rooftops. He wants to ask his mother for a model of the city so he can burn it. Soon Thopsis, Master of Protocol, arrives and all the Imperial Apparati on the steps turn to face Kelmomas and his mother. He studies their faces, seeing all their emotions despite blank spaces. Ngrau, Xerius’s old seneschal, still holds that position. Phinersa is the Holy Master of Spies, and Imhailas is the Exalt-Captain of the Eothic Guard and Esmenet’s sometimes lover. Werjau is the Prime Nascenti and leads the Ministrate while Vem-Mithriti is the Grandmaster of the Imperial Saik and Vizier-in-Proxy. There are sixty-seven in all in descending order of importance to witness Kelmomas’s Whelming. He’s the youngest son of Kellhus. Only his Uncle Maithanet, the Shriah, is unreadable. He doesn’t like Maithanet’s scrutiny.

He suspects, the secret voice whispered.

Suspects what?

That you are make-believe.

The cheers die as the horns sound. Then, at Thopsis’s shout, “the whole world seemed to kneel.” The citizens of the New Empire prostrate themselves save for Maithanet who only kneels to Kellhus. Kelmomas is dazzled by the sun reflecting off small tusks decorating his vestments and loos away. As they descended, he can’t help but laugh at how absurd the Exalt-Ministers look “grovelling in the costumes of kings.”

“They honour you, Kel,” his mother said. “Why would you laugh at them?”

Had he meant to laugh? Sometimes it was hard to keep count.

“Sorry,” he said with a glum sigh. Sorry. It was one of the many words that confused him, but it never failed to spark compassion in his mother’s look.

They walk through the square to the Andiamine Heights under the armed escort of the hallowed Hundred Pillars. The walk makes Kelmomas nervous despite the familiarity of being escorted by towering, armed men. He can smell the unwashed masses, a nauseating reek while they chanted “Bless-bless-bless,” over and over. He stars at the “landscape of kneelers.” A beggar weeps while a young girl watches when she shouldn’t. It stretches forever.

He walked across a living ground.

And then he was among them, in them, watching his own steps, little more than a jewelled shadow behind a screen of merciless, chainarmoured men. A name. A rumour and a hope. A god-child, suckled at the breast of Empire, anointed by the palm of Fate. A son of the Aspect-Emperor.

They did not know him, he realized. They saw, they worshipped, they trusted what they could not fathom.

No one knows you, the secret voice said.

No one knows anyone.

He glances at her mother and sees she’s worrying over Mimara. He asks if she is thinking about Esmenet’s first daughter, “the one she loved with the most desperation—and hated.” Kelmomas drove Mimara away at the secret voices urging while the voice. His mother lies and says she’s worrying for his father and Kellhus. Seeing she still worried for Mimara, Kelmomas isn’t happy that all his manipulations haven’t worked. The secret voice wonders if they should have killed Mimara. He then asks when Kellhus will return.

He knew the answer at least as well as she did, but at some level he understood that as much as mothers love their sons, they loved being mothers as well—and being a mother meant answering childish questions. They traveled several yards before she replied, passing through a fog of please and whispers. Kelmomas found himself comparing her to the countless cameos he had seen depicting her in her youth—back in the days of the First Holy War. Her hips were wider, perhaps, and her skin not so smooth beneath the veneer of white paint, but her beauty was legendary still. The seven-year-old could scarce imagine anyone more beautiful.

She says he won’t return until the Great Ordeal is over. That gives Kelmomas such joy. He wants his father to die and this brings his “first true smile of the day.” As they continue walking, someone yells out cursed. A madman with a knife rushes to attack Esmenet. He watches “battling shadows” and a word pops into his mind.

Assassins.

My Thoughts

A human horn sounds. The fact Bakker has to point this out should let us know, we are in a place humans shouldn’t be. We start with the Sranc. They dominate this series. They are the great concern of the Holy War, which only grows worse as they start marching and began fighting their way across the Sranc to the north. In this wake travels Achamian and his band. It’s fitting that we start with these bestial creatures, reminding the reader what they are. How they wear trophies of human flesh. How they get so excited by the scent of human blood that they ejaculate their black seed. They are pure hunger.

The “traveler” sees the scalpers as nothing more than animals. We see how fighting Sranc dehumanizes men. The Great Ordeal is marching out to fight these same creatures. Bakker is laying the groundwork of what being around Sranc does to humans. How it’s going to twist them into beasts like Ironsoul and his men.

Scalpers must be seen as the most dangerous and deadly men. The ones with the balls to go off into the wilderness and fight the monsters then come back with their trophies. It’s as masculine as you can get, and yet to earn their money, they have to do something almost domestic: washing and counting and organizing.

Trust Bakker to slip in that comment about scalpers needing to bring back something purely Sranc else they’d just be murderers. Most follow the path of least resistance, and those who do this will quickly have the innocence beat out of them. Even if they started off killing Sranc, soon they’d realize easier ways to make money after the dehumanizing work.

Well, Bakker’s really building up Ironsoul and his men. As we’ll see, they earn it. Especially Ironsoul.

Ironsoul is a man cast in the vein of Cnaiür. As brutal and deadly. He’s Ainoni, which in the first series was the most effete of all the races. The most urbane and decadent. Though they had their soldiers who fought in battle with skill, but they were always looked down as being lesser men by the others. Yet here we have Ironsoul, dressed like an Ainoni down to having tattoos mimicking makeup, purple lips, and eyeliner. Still, there’s no denying this man could rip you apart. It’s a nice subversion of expectations of Ainoni, showing that they’re not monoliths but a diverse people.

So who is this Traveler his “cowled companion.” The man is someone who revers the laws of Kellhus Empire by showing defense to a Veteran of the First Holy War. He is someone on a mission, searching these men out. He is delivering them this cowled companion. This is Cleric. We see no mention of Cleric in this passage. No nonman preaching. This is how he was delivered to them. We see the Cleric agree with a silent nod

We later learn Cleric is the last Nonman King Nil’giccas who is supposed to be in their last city of Ishterebinth. Kellhus sends his daughter, adopted son, and Sorweel there ostensibly to negotiate with Nil’giccas. But Kellhus already knew he wasn’t there. Clearly, he has met with Nil’giccas and made an agreement with him. He delivers him to the Scalpers to act as his elju, his book, because the nonman king is an Erratic.

Kellhus appears to have placed these scalpers and Nil’giccas into the path of Achamian. He is arranging protection and the skills for Achamian to make his journey, probably because Kellhus anticipates Mimara will join him. He is protecting those Esmenet loves. Mimara, Achamian, Kelmomas, and Samarmas (well, Kellhus would have if he knew about Kelmomas activities).

I do not think Kellhus cares if Achamian learns anything or not. Maybe he had different plans for Achamian and Mimara after the Consult’s defeat, but Kellhus’s plan failed in the final moments and so we’ll probably never know.

Well, we see Kelmomas’s opinion of people. It has the clinical detachment of a Dûnyain but possesses a spite to it. A delusion of grandeur a sane Dûnyain wouldn’t have. Right there in the opening paragraph about him. He destroys the beetle’s trail, obliterating its history, the evidence of its existence.

It’s fitting knowing where he ends up. Many thought he would be the Narindar (avatar/agent) of Ajokli because of this scene, but Kelmomas is acting as an equal, not a servant, to what he calls “the Thief.” The humans have scurried to the gods to save them. The ones who steal their souls.

“It writhed like a little automaton beneath his fingertip.” What’s an automaton but a slave to what comes before unable to deviate from the cause that set it in motion. He proves it by ripping off the beetles two legs then shares in the joke with the god. Kelmomas is Ajokli’s equal. Or will be.

Kelmomas tracking his mother is something we’ve seen from Kellhus. Of course, Kellhus has gone past that, but it’s showing us that Kelmomas going to have some Dûnyain level of skills and manipulation as we see his interactions with Esmenet. But he’s also untrained. He does this all instinctual.

However, while he’s Dûnyain, he clearly has an emotional attachment to Esmenet. A jealous and obsessive love, as we’ll see. It’s very childish, the only thing childish about him. She’s his favorite toy but also the only place he feels safe. Interesting that he feels fear. He gets scared by the sounds of the crowd though he refuses to admit it and lets himself be mothered by Esmenet.

Kelmomas is scared by the city because it’s too much for him. He can’t possibly take it all in and pay attention to it. Take that line “something unnoticed in its nebulous weave.” Kelmomas needs to control everything, especially his mother. In the palace, he can do it. When Kellhus is absent, he has free rein, or so he thinks. He can’t control a city.

But today, everyone in the city is cheering for him. All the beetles have come to worship him.

Werjau… I remember you. Did that slave plot in Thousandfold Thoughts go anywhere? I’m going to be paying attention to him in this book because I can’t for the life of me remember what he does in this book and the next. Is he still working against Esmenet?

So Kelmomas has a secret voice. This is another indication that he’s a broken Dûnyain like many of his siblings. We later see he’s not sure if he meant to laugh or not. He can’t maintain the facade as well as others.

We have a Dûnyain who is jealously in love with his mother and has the impulse control of a seven-year-old. We can see him struggling to maintain his facade at times. He does acts that could get him caught, like mutilating the insect. He has a god compact. As we see going forward, he’s not as smart as he thinks when dealing with other half-Dûnyain.

This chapter is full of so much foreshadowing. We have glimpses of the Holy War’s fate with the scalpers followed by the introduction of one of the biggest sources of chaos in this series. Kelmomas has the idea of assassins implanted in his head, and that is a big thing he does in this book. He causes so many problems for his mother trying to isolate her. We have the mystery of Cleric and what deal he made with Kellhus. And we learn that the inciting incident for Achamian’s storyline, Mimara’s arrival, was orchestrated by Kelmomas.

A great start to this series.

If you want to read on to Chapter One, click here!

Hi, if you like my Analysis, you can connect with me on Facebook and Twitter, and you can pre-order my first fantasy novel, Above the Storm, from Amazon or purchase my short story collection! Also,  please leave any comments or criticisms below! They help keep me motivated!

To save the world, Ary must die!

Ary, a young man scarred by his past, is thrust into the dangers of the military. But he carries a deadly secret: the dark goddess’s touch stains his soul.

Her taint threatens to destroy all he loves.

He must hide the truth from the other marines and the woman he loves. Can Ary survive the dangers of service and the zealous assassin plotting his death?

Are you ready for the action, danger, romance, and betrayal exploding across the skies Above the Storm!

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Introduction

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Introduction

Welcome to the start of my reread of The Judging Eye. Click here if you the Prince of Nothing Reread!

After reading the Prince of Nothing Trilogy, I needed more. It couldn’t just end there with Achamian renouncing everything and walking away from power. Yes, Kellhus had defeated the Fanim and founded his theocracy, becoming the Aspect-Emperor and reviving the Kyranean Empire of old (the very empire who’s ruler King Anaxophus used the Heron Spear to slay the No-God) and had mastered all before him, but the story wasn’t over.

What was all that stuff with the Consult? The skin-spies couldn’t have just been a plot device. The Synthese was working towards its own goals. Goals that had not been realized. The greater danger wasn’t resolved at all. It felt like we’d reached the end of a book in a series and more was to come.

But it was the end of the Prince of Nothing series.

I took to the internet. I discovered the Three Seas forums. I spent hours pouring through posts, struggling to understand the story I had just read. What had occurred between Kellhus and his father, and, most importantly to me, where was the rest of the story? What about the Second Apocalypse. Kellhus becoming emperor didn’t solve that. It was still there.

And then I found out the truth: The Prince of Nothing series was supposed to be one book. The first in a trilogy. Only Bakker soon discovered it was too big to be a book. He has several options, but the one he chose was to split each book into its own series. The Prince of Nothing series was complete, so that left two more.

I was eager for it. Rumors abounded. There were different names for what the next series could be. Different titles for the first book. I came into the series not long after Book 3 was published. I experienced that wait for what it would be. Then the title for the series:

The Aspect-Emperor

Spoilers came out. A time jump. A great war. Things were getting interested. We were all awaiting it. We had a title for the first book. The Judging Eye?

What did that mean? What was this Judging Eye? Nothing in the first series gave a clue. Speculation was rampant. And then it arrived. The Judging Eye was published in February of 2009 in the US. Just in time for me to lose my job delivering pizzas. I had plenty of time to read it. To dive into it. I opened that book with trembling anticipation.

SPOILER WARNING: Please read the book before any of these posts. This is intended for those who have read ALL the books. I will discuss both the events of the chapter and even their ramification for future events up to and including the Unholy Consult.

Like with the Prince of Nothing Trilogy, Bakker opens The Judging Eye with a quote. But not any from his fictional setting. He quotes the bible to start out this series. Fitting given the increased presence of religion and the Gods (specifically Yatwer and Ajokli).

But who are you, man, to answer God thus? Will what is made say to him who made it—Why have you made me this way? Does the potter not have power over his clay, to make, from the same mass, on vessel for honour, and another for dishonour?

—ROMANS 9:20-21

My Thoughts

There are so many different ways to take this verse as it relates to The Aspect-Emperor. Who is the God of this world that Bakker is exposing? Is it the Hundred, the gods who split up the souls of mankind to feast upon in the afterlife. As we learn, human souls are the wheat with which the Gods make their bread.

Is it Kellhus as he takes on the persona of a Living God and remakes the world. He shapes the nations and builds them for a purpose. He took Proyas and turned him into a cannibal only to blame him for what happened, to be a scapegoat to assuage the guilt of the survivors of the final march of the Great Ordeal upon Golgotterath. Kellhus created his empire for one purpose then allowed it to collapse once the army march. He was finished with it.

Is it the Consult and the Inchoroi who shape flesh like men shape clay? They make different beings for different purposes. Sranc, Bashrags, Wracu, Skin-Spies, and other monstrosities. They toy with lives for their own perverse amusements.

Obviously, he chose this verse a critique on religion and the remote coldness of a creator Deity. The entire series is about the pitfalls of blind faith and the irony that the only way to unite people is to give them all the same belief to embrace and in which to find comfort. Humans crave that because it gives us the illusion of safety. We project our simplified view of things upon the world. A veneer of order slathered across the chaos of nature.

Bakker is condemning the level of power such a being would have. To so casually use its creations in such a fashion. The Hundred who vie for worship so they can claim souls to feast upon, Kellhus who fashions everything for one singular purpose to realize the Thousandfold Thought, and the Consult as they bend and twist flesh itself for their own selfish needs. Even Achamian uses the Scalpers knowing they’ll die.

If the Dune series is the critique of the myth of the Great Man and the folly in following one vision, then The Second Apocalypse is that on steroids. The only way to find freedom is to have knowledge else we will all be slaves to the Darkness that Comes Before.

It’s time to begin the second chapter of this story.

It’s time to delve into The Judging Eye.

The Letter

Before the prologue, we have a letter written from an unknown bureaucrat to an unnamed Exalt-Minister.

Exalt-Minister, most glorious, many be your days.

For the sing of apostasy, they were buried up to their necks in the ancient way, and stones were cast into their faces until their breathing was stopped. Three men and two women. The child recanted, even cursed his parents in the name of our glorious Aspect-Emperor. The world has lost five souls, but the Heavens have gained one, praise be the God of Gods.

The writer explains that the source of the heresy comes from them reading Drusas Achamian’s Compendium of the First Holy War. The writer goes on to say that the Heresy it contains is like a disease and must be studied to destroy. Because of that, he has and gives the three bullet points of what he considers the worst offenders that “contradict Doctrine and Scripture.”

I) Achamian had sex with Esmenet before the battle of Shimeh.

II) Achamian claiming that the “Holy Aspect-Emperor” is not an incarnation of “the God of Gods” but is a Dûnyain, a group who use their intellect to enslave mankind. “That his [Kellhus’s] Zaudunyani interpretation of Inrithism is nothing more than a tool, a means of manipulation of nations.” In short, everyone is his slave. The writer is greatly troubled by these words. He finds himself doubting his faith because Achamian wrote: “if all men lay claim to righteousness, and they do, who is to say which man claims true?”

III) The third claim is that Kellhus is not preparing war to stop the No-God. That he is not the savior of mankind but a fraud.

This is all the writer can remember. He understands the reader’s concern. Not only does Achamian’s book undermine their belief, but the man once walked at Kellhus’s side and taught him. The writer says he had his body-slave, who read the book to him, put to death and now the writer awaits his own summary judgment, writing: “It is our doom to suffer the consequences of our acts, regardless of the piety of our intentions.”

Some pollution begs not the cloth, but the knife; this I accept and understand.

Sin is sin.

My Thoughts

The child condemning his parents reminds me of the Hitler Youth and how they were encouraged to inform even on their own parents. They were convinced that an ideology was more important than familial bonds, just like Kellhus wants. He needs to unite mankind.

A body-slave reading for a person was not uncommon. There is a history of slaves being educated and reading for illiterate masters or for those whose age has weakened their eyesight. The Ottoman empire employed slaves to run their government, serving as their bureaucracy.

We see the fanaticism of the Zaudunyani interpretation of Inrithism through the author, how blasphemers have to be put to death to keep this disease from spreading and how even the author expects to die. Kellhus and his ministry understand that ideas are as virulent as a pestilence. They can take root in a population and cause downfall. It has to be rooted out.

Finally, this letter serves as a quick reminder of what Achamian’s motivations and beliefs are. He lost his wife to Kellhus, that Kellhus isn’t a god but a Dûnyain, and that we can’t trust Kellhus’s motivations in his war against the Consult. It’s a great way to set the stage for the series we’re about to read.

Right from the start, Bakker puts the ultimate narrative question before us: Can we trust Kellhus not to betray mankind like a proper Dûnyain would? It’s been twenty years. Has his assessment changed? Is he leading the Great Ordeal to their slaughter?

Other books try to make the readers question if one of the main characters has become a threat. It can be hard to pull off for a character you feel like you know and wouldn’t do that. Bakker pulled it off in this series.

Onward to the Prologue!

If you enjoyed this, continue on to the Prologue!

Hi, if you like my Analysis, you can connect with me on Facebook and Twitter, and you can pre-order my first fantasy novel, Above the Storm, from Amazon or purchase my short story collection! Also,  please leave any comments or criticisms below! They help keep me motivated!

To save the world, Ary must die!

Ary, a young man scarred by his past, is thrust into the dangers of the military. But he carries a deadly secret: the dark goddess’s touch stains his soul.

Her taint threatens to destroy all he loves.

He must hide the truth from the other marines and the woman he loves. Can Ary survive the dangers of service and the zealous assassin plotting his death?

Are you ready for the action, danger, romance, and betrayal exploding across the skies Above the Storm!

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Reread Update and my Books!

Enjoy my reread of R. Scott Bakker’s amazing Second Apocalypse series and waiting for the next post? Well, check out my own fantasy novels. I’m not Bakker (what author is?), but I’ve tried to take what he’s taught me about human nature and put it into my own characters.

I should have the Prologue of The Judging Eye up late next week by the latest. That prologue is dense and full of so much foreshadowing for what’s to come. This is my first time reading The Aspect-Emperor since I’ve read The Unholy Consult!

In the meantime, check out my first fantasy novel Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)! I think you’ll like it!

Death rides in the Cyclones!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Get it now at Amazon!

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Smoke and Mirrors Release Party!

This Tuesday (June 4th) at 7 PM EST, I’ll be hosting an hour at C.L. Schneider’s release party for her new fantasy novel! Smoke and Mirrors is out!

Schneider’s Price of Magic Trilogy is a great series and I knew her new one will be just as exciting. She writes fast-paced and pulse-pounding fantasy!

I’ll be giving away free books, there’ll be fun games, and you’ll have a chance to discover new fantasy authors! What exciting stories will you discover?

All you have to do is join us on Facebook because you’ll have a great time!

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Review: Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

A collection of short stories set in her delightful World of Myrrah. Fleshing out the world surrounding her two fantasy series Rise of the Firth Order and Games of Fire. They involve many of her main characters from before the first series and between the two. Stories of love and guilt, stories of growth and pain.

These were a fascinating collection of stories. Some are short and sweet, others have some real depths, and others full of action and suspense. The writing holds all of Brit’s charm. The stories reveal new facets of her characters and shows the events that shaped them.

Her world has so many corners to explore, and I was glad to enjoy it. If you’ve read Brit’s fantasy series, you have to read this. If you’re a fan of imaginative and exciting fantasy stories, there is plenty in here even for newbies to her writing (though the last few will spoil Rise of the Fifth Order).

I was glad to pick this up and thoroughly enjoyed returning to Brit’s World of Myrahh. I can’t wait for volume 2!

This book peels back more of her world and reveals the underlining pinning of it. This is such a fast-paced and fun book to read. The stakes have never been higher, and the emotions have never been stronger. If you haven’t started reading Brit, then you need to pick up Born of Water and start reading this amazing series!

Fans of fantasy will fall in love with the writing of Autumn Brit! I can’t wait to see what new and imaginative worlds she’ll create next.

You can buy Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1 from Amazon!

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