Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 1: The Judging Eye
by R. Scott Bakker
Welcome to Chapter Sixteen of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Fifteen!
A soul too far wandered from the sun,
walking deeper ways,
into regions beneath map and nation,
breathing air drawn from the dead,
talking of lamentations.
—PROTATHIS, THE GOAT’S HEART
Not sure why this is called the Goat’s Heart, but it’s talking about our characters in Cil-Aujas. They have wandered too far from the sun and are moving through a crypt. They are in uncharted territory, beyond the boundaries of civilization. Not really much to say. It’s more setting the atmosphere for the chapter than anything more.
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Mount Aenaratiol
She is terrified and alive.
Mimara runs through Cil-Aujas holding the light over her head. In her soul, it feels like it’s circling her while it swings back and forth. Despite her fear, she ponders how that doesn’t make sense. It feels both like light and not light. She’s excited that she’s holding to the sorcerous light only for fear to snuff it out. She knows why Achamian gave this to her. “Part of her, she realizes, will not survive this underworld labyrinth…”
She is inclined to see history as degeneration. Years ago, not long after her mother had brought her to the Andiamine Heights, an earthquake struck Momemn, no severe, but violent enough to crack walls and to set arms and ornaments toppling. There had been one mural in particular, the Osto-Didian, the eunuchs called it, depicting the First Holy War battling about Shimeh, with all the combatants cramped shield to shield, sword to sword, like dolls bound into sheaves. Where the other murals had been webbed with fractures, this one seemed to have been pounded by hammers. Whole sections had sloughed away, exposing darker, deeper images: naked men across the backs of bulls. In the shallow sockets here and there even this layer had given out, especially near the centre, where her stepfather had once hung out of proportion in the sky. There, after dabbling away the white powder with her fingertips, she saw a young man’s mosaic face, black hair high in the wind, child-wide eyes fixed upon some obscured foe.
That, she understood, was history: the piling on of ages like plaster and paint, each image a shroud across the others, the light of presence retreating, from the Nonmen to the Five Tribes to the New Empire, coming at last to a little girl in the embrace of hard-handed men.
To the daughter who dined with her Empress mother, listening to the tick of enamel tapping gold, watching the older woman’s eyes wander lines of sorrow, remorse thick enough to spit.
To the woman who raged beneath a wizard’s tower.
Cil-Aujas is the final proof of “history as degeneration.” This place is far more impressive than anything humans have done. She is breathing ancient air. “Dead air, the kind that lingers in the chests of corpses.” She feels the weight of the mountain and remembers her rages when she wanted to rip down the roof and die to get back at her mother, and wonders what it would be like if the mountain falls on her.
She runs holding the light, feeling a dark glee at finally being a witch. She had dreamed of this so many times. Then the company stops marching and sees her holding the light witch “wonder and consternation.” She says Sarl and Achamian are following. The scalpers are re-evaluating her. She finds herself strutting like her sister-slaves would when they had new clothes to wear and “posed like rare and precious things.” Even Mimara had enjoyed getting new dresses.
The scalpers look at the dark then back to her, studying her. They feel like a barrier to her as her light gleams off their armor and shields. “It paints white circles in their beasts’ black gaze.” She feels their wild pride and how they would rape her if not for Achamian. They would claim her as a trophy.
It seems she has always know that men were more animal than women were animal. She was sold before her mother could tell her this, but she knew. The animal continually leans forward in the souls of men, forever gnaws the leash. Even here, in the Black Halls of Cil-Aujas, this truth is no less ancient.
Even here, so tragically out of their depths, they lean to the promise of her vulnerability.
One asks where Achamian is. She retreats and glances to Lord Kosoter, risking “his dominating gaze” but looks at the dirt. This makes her look submissive. Then Somandutta asks what’s wrong. Another asks don’t be afraid of us. She’s rescued by Sarl and Achamian arrival. Only Soma pays attention to her, asking how she can hold the light.
She finds herself wanting to lean against Soma for comfort while Achamian is arguing with Lord Kosoter about Chorae moving beneath them. Kiampas suggest it’s the Bloody Picks, but Achamian says anyone rich enough to own one wouldn’t be a Scalper. “Mimara wonders if their Chorea-bearing Captain will take offense.” Cleric agrees with Achamian, sensing them, too.
The Skin Eaters open, back away, each staring at the company of prone shadows splayed across the dust scuffed about their feet. She knows they think they can feel the Chorae too…
Then suddenly she feels them. Her limbs jolt, and she sways, for her body had thought the ground solid, and now she senses open space, breaths and plummets between leagues of stone. Chorae, bottomless punctures in being, traverse them, a necklace of little voids carried by something that runs in a lumbering file… something.
Cleric says it’s traveling towards their destination, the Fifth Anterograde Gate. Kiampas asks if they mean to cut them off from leaving. No one answers. Sarl glances at Achamian, drawing her eyes to him and as she does, “she finds that her Judging Eye has opened.” As she does, she remembers what she read in Novum Arcanum, written by Kellhus. The God peers through all eyes. The Few are just better at recalling “something His all-seeing gaze and so could speak with the dread timbre of His all-creating voice.”
She sees Achamian as others do, stooped in his mad hermit robes, his beard stiff against his breast, his complexion the dark of long-used skins. She sees the Mark, soiling his colours, blasting his edges.
And though her eyes blink and roll against it, she sees the Judgment…
He is carrion. He is horror. His skin is burned to paste.
Drusas Achamian is damned.
Her breath catches. Almost without thinking, she clutches Somandutta’s free hand—the slick cool of iron rings and the grease of leather shocks her skin. She squeezes hard, as though her fingers need confirmation of their warm-blooded counterparts. The Chorae and their inscrutable bearers move beneath her feet, each a point of absolute chill.
Part of her, she realizes, will not survive this underworld labyrinth.
She prays it is the lesser part.
Sarl shouts for them to make haste and Pokwas curses at the mules as the company moves through Cil-Aujas, racing the enemy below. Mimara is panicking as she hurries with the other, worried that Achamian hasn’t said a word since they left the Repositorium. He staggers beside her, breathing heavily and coughing wetly.
As they run through halls, she can’t sense the Chorae any longer. Their pursuers got ahead of them. No one senses them. The Skin Eaters have put all their faith in Kosoter. “Questions have become perverse, an indulgence fit only for the obese.” Cleric leads them through the maze through tunnels that stretch them out in single file, those in the back trapped in darkness.
A pain climbs into her chest, and she imagines an eye squinting from her heart.
There is no doubt they move through the deeps now. Only when the walls are tight and the ceilings low can you feel their constricting aura—or so it seems. Only the threat of closure makes the boggling enormity plain. They are sealed from all things, not simply sun and sky. The world walls them in.
They reach another large chamber, not as big as the Repositorium, but still big. A mule collapses from exhaustion. They move through an underground marketplace, or so Mimara thinks. Achamian thinks it’s the High Halls but then a terrifying cry echoes. Everyone looks around realizing those are Sranc horns.
They feel it in their teeth—not so much an ache as a taste.
She’s never seen a Sranc, but she now understands the “madness that saw mothers strangle their own children in besieged cities of yore.” Cleric leads them on. They abandon the exhausted mule and keep running, the horns putting them all on edge. She can feel the hunters out amid the pillars, feeling like a herd animal being stalked. She feels like she knows this place, like she had always known her future and what’s to come.
They are coming. Out of the pit they are coming. The flutter of reverberations in her chest seems to confirm it. This is where she dies.
They stop and she is relieved to be able to catch her breath. They’ve reached the edge of the room. In the carvings on the wall, she sees Men have been carved. But not her people. These are the Emwama, the slaves of the Nonmen, the humans of Eärwa. She spies a woman in the carving, a naked slave, and thinks that could be her. She feels nauseated by the alienness of Cil-Aujas.
They are coming. And she is just a child—a child! Everything everywhere clatters with dread and threat. Angles become knives. Inaction becomes blood. A mad part of her kicks and bucks and screams. Her shriek bunches like a fist at the base of her throat. She must get out. She has to…
Achamian grabs her shoulders, telling her not to give in. To trust him. He tells her he will teach her while his eyes warned her not to be a sobber. She regains her breathing and her composure, so aware of Kosoter. “The mere thought of him has scared the panic from her—this, she realizes, is his warlike Gift.” The Skin Eaters stand shoulder to shoulder, forming a shield wall while Sarl tells them to toe the line. They are going to fight.
Suddenly all the reasons she feared these barbaric men become reasons to prize them. Those hoary trophies. Those deep-chested bodies, grit with chain, leather, stink, and soiled cloth. That bullying saunter. Those wide-swinging arms, with hands that could break her wrists. And for some strange reason, their fingernails, each as broad as two of her own, rimmed in black crescents. Everything she had scoffed at or despised she now sees with thin-lipped understanding. The glib cruelty. The vulgar posturing. Even the glares that nicked her when she was careless with the cast of her eyes.
These are Skin Eaters, and their slogs are the stuff of legend. They would eat her if they could—but only because they walk so near the world’s teeth.
Achamian thinks they should have stayed in the Repositorium, but Kiampas says this is a more defensive position. Achamian is worried about the Chorae, but Kiampas isn’t. “Believe you me, we know how to stack skinnies…” He trails off as the horns stop and silence falls. All they hear is the “ageless roar of Cil-Aujas.”
After being forgotten with the mules, Kiampas tells her to stay with the mules, maintain the torch, and asks if she knows any battlefield medicine. Can she use her sword. She answers honestly while Sarl cackles, “Oh, yes, boys, this is going to be a chopper!” She readies torches, lighting them then tries to soothe the mules. She feels like she’s mourning them. The tension builds. Kosoter stands just behind his men at the center of the line. He “looks as ancient as Cil-Aujas.” She realizes his shield as an Ainoni pictogram on it that means “duty and discipline.” He doesn’t feel alive to her. Achamian is beside Kiampas, the pair a few paces from the captain on the left. Cleric and Sarl are to the right. She draws her sword, something her mother gave her. She named it Squirrel “because of the way it always seemed to trembles in her hand.” Like now. She can’t remember the hours she spent training with her half-brothers. This place is too removed from the Andiamine Heights.
“They come,” the Nonman says, his black eyes as inscrutable as the darkness they plumb.
Mimara expects to feel Chorae approaching, but all she hears is the scrabble of the approaching Sranc. It grows louder and then a rank scent feels the air. Sarl cries out it’s Skinnies like Kosoter said. Some of them crack jokes. Whey joke about whores which makes her squirm.
They speak more to their terror than to one another, she realizes. Ever do men play the mummer, strutting on the stage of themselves to avoid the parts the world has assigned them? Women would speak of their fear.
Jokes continue. Everyone is laughing. Even Sarl joins in, jokingly pointing out they are in mortal peril. “Lord Kosoter stands motionless.” She doesn’t notice Achamian stepping up to the line until he’s there. She’s afraid for him. He looks frail, but he’s speaking, and his voice knocks the laughter from the scalpers. A Ward appears around them and she sees him now as a Gnostic Wizard. Then one of the Surillic Points goes out and Kiampas calls for a torch. She lights a fresh one from the ones she had already lit. Kiampas flings torch out into the dark. She wraps her arm around a mule’s neck and names it Bastion. “She cares not who thinks her a fool!”
The darkness itself seems to rasp and chip and clank and wheeze. Inhuman barks ring across the unseen ceilings.
Cleric joins Achamian on the line and he throws back his cloak, revealing his silvery armor. She sees him as an Ishroi. He joins Achamian in chanting. “Deep words well up out of the root of things, so indecipherable they seem to yank at her eyes.” The last Point goes out. Now only torchlight and the glow of sorcery illuminates the world. Kiampas calls for more torches and chucks them out into the dark and lights up the approaching Sranc. She realizes they have Nonmen faces, but deformed. They have a canine cast to them.
She stumbles back to Bastion and hugs him. She whispers to him, praising his idiotic bravery. Lord Kosoter stands unmoving. The Skin Eaters ready shields while Cleric and Achamian add more Wards. Now she can feel the Chorae. The horns blow. The “underworld horde” charges over the torches. Sorcery slam into them. Their sorcery tears apart the Sranc and starts destroying columns. As another collapses, Achamian shouts, “Nooooo!”
The stench of burning Sranc blood fills the air while Sarl shouts that no one is to falter. Achamian retreats through the lines, bumping into Kiampas. Before he even recovers, he’s chanting a new ward. Someone shouts out that a Bashrag is coming and Sarl roars, “Not! One! Knee!”
The eyes have rules. They are bred to the order of things and mutiny when exposed to violations. At first she can only blink. Even though she has read innumerable descriptions of the obscenity, the meat of it overwhelms her faculties. Elephantine proportions. Cabbage skin. Amalgam limbs, three arms welded into one arm, three legs into one leg. Moles like cancers, ulcerous with hair. A back bent in a fetal hunch. Hands that flower with fingers.
The Bashrag charges into the scalpers and starts killing them with mighty sweeps of its ax. Achamian cries out behind his useless Wards while Mimara charges forward with Squirrel and cuts it below the elbow, severing sinew. But she only hurt one of the three arms welded together. It stares at her with a face made of three melted together. A predator recognizes her as prey. It raises its ax to kill her. She stands frozen, crying out with “[s]omething more plea than prayer.” Oxwora slams his shield into the creature’s guts and attacks with his ax, driving back the Bashrag and saving Mimara’s life. A Sranc jumps on Oxwora’s back and stabs him in the neck. He drops his ax and grabs the Sranc and rips it off of him. Another Sranc stabs him in the guts with a spear. He collapses to his knees but then rises. Spitting blood, he bear-hugs the one who stabbed him and crushes it as he falls to the ground.
The one Oxwora had choked turns to Mimara. It’s erect beneath its loincloth. It wasn’t to rape her. Fear seizes her only for invisible sorcery to drive it away. She spots a kneeling Achamian chanting Gnosis on the other side of the dead Bashrag. Mimara senses more Chorae closing in. The mules panic. People screaming. Pokwas sword-dancing. Kosoter is stabbing past his shield, killing Sranc while Cleric is standing on another Bashrag’s shoulder and riding its dead body to the ground, killing it with his sword. “And she thinks, Ishroi…”
Kiampas is shouting to hold when a Javelin skewers his head and kills him. One of the mules is on fire. Achamian grabs her and jerks her back, his grip strong. Another Bashrag is killing scalpers by “[h]ammering them aside like effigies of straw.” It then attacks the mules, massacring them. Bastion gets its head cut off as Achamian shouts they’ve lost the battle while Sarl is screaming to “Toe the line?” What line?
Sranc throw themselves against the spectral screens, thrashing, shields smoking, skin blistering, blades scraping sparks. She clutches the old Wizard, stares in something too numb to be fear or terror. Starved and hairless. Draped in flayed skins laced with iron rings. They are hunger. They are horror. They are the quick that renders hatred vicious in Men.
She hears the Wizard’s sorcerous call through his chest—the birth of his words. Incandescent lines flare from his palms, strike along the Emwama Wall, being scissoring to his gesticulations.
White light carves the darkness deep. The Sranc jerk and scream and burn.
One with a Chorae steps through the wards and swings his sword for Achamian, but she blocks with Squirrel. The Sranc punches Achamian with its hand holding the Chorae. He falls backward and collapses. She manages to kill the Sranc. It drops the Chorae, and she is transfixed by it on the floor.
It wrenches the eyes even to glance at it, to see both the plain iron ball tacked in Sranc blood and the pit that cries into oblivion. She clutches it, she who is not yet cursed, pressed it against her breast and bodice. Nausea wrings her like wineskin. The vomit surprises her mouth, her teeth.
Something strikes and she blinks, suddenly on her hands and knees, coughing, retching. Darkness swirls, as though it were a liquid chasing cracks in the light. And she understands with graven finality… No one recognizes their own death. It comes inevitable and absolute.
It comes as a stranger.
Achamian awakens. He’s lying on the floor staring up at the Emwama wall. He believes he’s about to die. “He knew his life was over.” He’s detached from everything, stunned. He passes out.
A stunned Mimara hears men in a panic asking after Cleric and to grab her and Achamian. They ask about Achamian since part of his face has turned to salt from the Chorae punch. Mimara is rising out of unconciousness and realizes that she’s being carried by Soma.
He [Soma] is a landmark, and the lay of her circumstances comes crashing back to her. “Akka!” she croaks. They are running with wounded haste, a meager party of nine or ten or maybe more. Soma tells her to clutch his neck, raises her chin to his shoulder. Between ragged breaths, he tells her the Wizard lives but that they know no more. She can feel the Chorae between their two hearts. He explains how she’s luck to be alive, how a Sranc javelin had capped her. He beings naming the fallen.
She’s not listening, still dazed from her head wound. She notices they are running along the Emwama wall and spots a sole torch remaining to illuminate the “wreckage of Men and Sranc and mules.” Someone is limping and losing ground, a straggler. Kosoter catches up with the limper and cuts him down. Beyond even him, Cleric is still casting sorcery, javelins “explode like birds” on his Wards. Three Bashrags surround him, each one wielding a Chorae. But he dodges around them, his sword swinging and sorcery killing. “The very air seems to shriek.”
And Cleric laughs and sings and exacts his dread toll, the last heir to Cil-Aujas.
The Emwama Wall comes to an end. Soma turns with the fugitive part in tho the dark. Stonework draws across the mad scene, blotting the horror and the glory with desperate practicalities of flight.
And she thinks, Incariol…
The word Flee echos in Mimara’s mind. She had fled from her mother, but this was different. She’s fleeing in terror and realizes this is what true flight is. “Fleeing is when the howls of your pursuers cut the nerves from your skin.” She wonders if Achamian can be roused to stop their pursues.
Fleeing is when all the world’s directions crash into one…
Cil-Aujas is obliging the survivors with no dead-ends so far. They keep finding directions that lead away. They only have two torches, but one soon goes out. The tunnels become narrower. Everyone is drenched in blood, wounds bandaged and tourniquets binding wounds. Sarl looks shell-shocked and Achamian is still unconscious. Pokwas wipes away tears. Only Kosoter seems to have “carried his inscrutability away intact.” He and Soma are holding her hands. She’s surprised that Soma looks so noble right now.
They run fast, chase by the baying of the Sranc. The horns start blaring. The others are moaning and crying. “They are all sobbers now.” They run into a bronze door that they have to pry open, feeling the Sranc on their heels. Pokwas, Galian, Xonghis, and others are pulling it open. Kosoter throws her down to Achamian. She understands that she has to get him up. She begs him to wake up. He starts to. She begs and pleaded as the efforts to pry open the door is failing. Galian shouts that they Sranc are here. Only it’s Cleric who appears out of the dark.
The scalpers stumble back, bewildered and horrified. Awash in Sranc blood, his skin and armour are filmed in soaked dust. Basalt dark, he looks like an apparition. Cil-Aujas made animate.
He laughs at the astounded Men, waves Pokwas from the door. His sorcerous murmur makes a deep-water pop in Mimara’s ears. His eyes and mouth flare white, and something, a flickering waves of force, shimmers through the air. There is a deafening crack; the bronze doors fly ajar.
“Time to run,” the Nonman says, his voice miraculously audible through the screeching roar.
With awe too brittle to be hope, the survivors scramble into the blackness beyond the bronze rim.
They are driven deeper into tunnels with now adornment. There rough, hewn from stone. It’s hot down here, the stones warm to the touch. They are in the mines where “the toil of a thousand human generations, slaves begetting slaves, dredging holy nimil for their Nonman masters.” The Sranc follow them, somehow seeing in the dark like bats. Cleric keeps having to face the Sranc, buying the scalpers more time. He laughs as he kills them. Fearing they’ll be cut off, Kosoter has them take every left and downward passage in hopes of scattering the Sranc through the maze of tunnels.
And the world piles higher and higher above them.
The heat only makes her exhaustion worse. She’s barely running. She can’t stop, though. She has to “run to the very edge of Away.” As she does, she begs her mother to forgive her. She trips, too weak to even hold her arms out before her to break the fall. She believes she’s going to die and asks for her mother’s forgiveness. Then Soma picks her up, smelling of myrrh.
“You will not perish for me!” She hears his voice rasp. “I’ll carry you across the doors of hell! Do you hear me? Mimara! Do you hear me?”
She is too weak to move as he carries her, staring wherever her head turns her eyes. Ahead, Achamian is slumped between two scalpers. And then, they come across a burning light. They are shocked by it. It’s not Cleric’s doing, they’ve lost the Nonman behind them.
Suddenly she feels the heat felting the air, making ash out of emptiness. It seems she always sensed it, only as a shadow through the slick-skin chill of unconsciousness.
The world sets its hooks deep, ever drawing souls tight across its infinite contours. Circumstances are reborn, and hearts are renewed. A spark throbs through her gutted muscles, returns slack exterminates to her will. She glances at the man bearing her—Soma, stripped of his earnest foolery—and it seems she is a child in a swing.
She knows that he lovers her.
The light is luxurious. The tunnel opens up and into a ruined amphitheater, the floor covered in gravel. They are in a ravine made of “cliffs piled upon cliffs.” The air is sulfurous and so hot it dances. Everyone is silent as they move to the edge. Free of the tunnels, they can see just how many they lost. Friends and provisions are gone. They’re a remnant of what they had been. The light is coming from a lake of fire at the bottom of the chasm.
Soma sets Mimara down and collapses on all fours gasping for air. She crawls to the unconscious Achamian. He still breaths. She puts his head on her lap and he wakes up, whispering her name. She feels joy that he’s awake but he jerks from her, sensing the Chorae she had picked up. She had forgotten it. Now she can feel the gravity of it about her neck, “the sudden nothingness of it sucks the voice from her heart.”
Pokwas says that is Hell down there. They’ve gone too deep. Sarl claws at his head, looking more like a crying baby now. Xonghis agrees. He and Kosoter are the only ones still standing. Kosoter disagrees. This isn’t hell though Sarl cackles and says it is, pointing at it. Kosoter draws his sword and lifts Sarl’s chin with it. That makes him go still. Kosoter repeats this isn’t hell. Galian asks how he knows.
“Because,” the Holy Veteran says, his voice so cold it seems the sound should fog or frost. “I would remember.”
Hissing, Kosoter cuts Sarl’s cheek and then marches to a set of stairs and descends them into the crevasse. No one speaks for a moment then the sounds of Srancs have them look above. The Sranc are coming, and Mimara realizes Cleric must have been killed.
Cil-Aujas has slain her last remaining son.
Mimara is running again behind Galian and Soma who carry Achamian. “They run like the lost.” They are descending the stairs, the lake of fire far below. The heat rises around them, hot fumes spilling over them. The lava bursts with eruptions that sent fires shooting up higher than any of Momemn’s towers.
They have fled too far, too deep. They have passed beyond the rind of the World into the outer precincts of Hell. There can be no other explanation…
Not lost. Damned.
Lord Kosoter waits for them at the first landing. Already, the Sranc are swarming down after them, killing each other in their frenzy to reach them. She can see more coming as well as a Bashrag wadding through them. She can see in Kosoter’s eyes that they are dead. “Only death and bitter vengeance remained.” Sarl cackles about how they all knew hell and skinnies awaited them. They form a new line, throwing Achamian to the ground as the Sranc charge. Kosoter grabs Mimara and tells her to get the wizard up or they are dead.
She kneels by him. The heat is so intense she gets dizzy. He grabs her and keeps her from falling. Joy sparks through her as she sees him awake. He calls her Esmi as she begs for him to fight, but he thinks she’s Esmenet and he’s reliving the past when he tried to tell her what Kellhus was.
“Origins! Origins are the truth of us!” A fury screws his face, so poisonous she feels the shame of it even through her panic. “I will show you!” he snarls.
A numbness sops through her, a recognition…
The fighting has started. Pokwas begins sword-dancing ahead of the line, killing as he cries out in his Zeumi tongue. Mimara stands over Achamian and draws Squirrel. It reflects the hellfire rising from below.
She is Anasûrimbor Mimara, child-whore and Princess-Imperial. She will die spitting and bawling, be it at Cil-Aujas or the Gates of Hell.
“My dreams show me the way!” the unhinged Wizard bellows from her feet. He fumbles trying to press himself from the stone. “I will track him, Esmi! Pursue him to the very womb!”
As he’s ranting, Pokwas stopped the Sranc for “eleven miraculous heartbeats.” Then javelins start being thrown down on them. One Skin Eater is hit and falls of the edge. Two more javelins land around Mimara as she stands dumbfounded. Pokwas locks one with his sword only for a second to hit his helm and knock him down. He falls into the line of Skin Eaters. The Sranc swarm them. Despite this, the Skin Eaters beat back the attack and Pokwas is pulled to safety. Mimara is thrusting at the enemy, hitting two, but the first Bashrag, holding a Chorae, has arrived.
Then Cleric appears floating in the air in a shimmer of white light. He is casting spells as he walks on the air. His spells are killing the Sranc. He stands over the burning lake, his eyes glowing, as he kills the enemy.
Their inhuman screams skin needles into their ears.
And she thinks, Ishroi…
Kosoter commands them to run but Mimara stops at the second landing. The stairs smoke with Sranc corpses, however the two Bashrags are unharmed thanks to their Chorae. They throw Sranc corpses at Cleric but they don’t get past his wards. He just laughs and keeps casting spells. He destroys the stairs, sending one Bashrag falling to the lava below. The other flees.
Soma grabs Mimara and pulls her after the others running. She feels cool air for a moment. They find a tunnel leading away with cold air blowing down it. They run down it while a “vacant howl overpowers all other sounds.” They are still descending but at a shallow angle. They soon have to crouch to go through the tight tunnel. She can feel all of the mountain’s weight on her while the wind howls against them until it stops.
Sometime later, a voice Screams in Achamian to run, but he is just sitting at his ease. He wears fine clothes and smells jasmine and cinnamon. He’s in the Annexes with the High-King and the young prince Nau-Cayûti. They are staring at the map to Ishuäl. Achamian is dreaming of being Seswatha. Achamian studies the chase that holds it.
“A king,” Celmomas was saying, “stands before his people in all things, Cayû. A king rides at the fore. This is why he must always make ready, always prepare. For his foe is ever the future. Condic marauders on our eastern frontiers. Assassins in an embassy of Shir. Sranc. Pestilence… Calamity awaits us all, even you, my son.
“Some petition astrologers, soothsayers, false prophets in all their guises. Low men, mean men, who exchange words of comfort for gold. Me, I put my faith in stone, in iron, in blood, and in secrecy—secrecy above all!—for these things serve in all times. All times! The day words conquer the future is the day the dead begin to speak.”
He turned to Seswatha. The wolf’s head braided into his beard flashed in the glowering light.
“This, my friend—this is why I built Ishuäl. For Kûniüri. For House Anasûrimbor. It is our final bulwark against catastrophe… Against the darkest future.”
On the scroll case is written: “Doom should you find me broken.” Seswatha asks what that means. But Celmomas says that Seswatha needs to make this his “deepest secret.” Seswatha asks about the dreams Celmomas has been having. In the background, Achamian hears Sarl’s cries to “Toe the Line” in the dream as Celmomas tells Seswatha to bury the case in the Coffers.
Mimara is gazing at the company unable to move. She’s alive, somehow. The others are lie collapsed in the gloom. All are sprawled but Soma who sits like a mystic and Lord Kosoter who stands. Sarl, Pokwas, Galian, Soma, Xonghis, Sutadra, Conger, Kosoter, and three others are all that survive of the Skin Eaters. They are in some chamber where a wind blows through. There is some light, but it’s faint. She spots graffiti on the wall. Human graffiti, sings “scraped in the throes of human anguish.”
And somehow she just knows: This was once a place of great suffering.
A shadow appears in the doorway and that strikes fear in her. She sits up, as do others, but it’s only Cleric splattered in gore. Like Achamian, he has had patches of skin turned to salt by coming too close to a Chorae, but his do not appear as bad as Achamian’s. “Unwinded, he stares with spent curiosity at the spent Men, trades a long look with the Captain before turning to scan the shrouded spaces.” He ponders something only he can see before saying they are safe. For now.
This gives Mimara the strength to crawl to Achamian, her panic retreating. Xonghis points out this wind is cold. Cleric says they are near the Great Medial Screw, a set of stairs that goes to the height of the mountain. Galian asks if that’s an escape rough. Cleric thinks it is, if his memory is accurate. Palpable relief spreads through the survivors. They had focused everything on escape and now are relaxing. Xonghis asks what this place is. Cleric calls it a barracks for captives but Mimara corrects him. “A slave pit.” He grins at her with those fused teeth that were like a Sranc but not serrated. Then he summons a Surillic Point to shed light. They are in a large room with terraces. They can’t tell how high it goes, but can see bronze cages that could hold a single man. There are hundreds of them.
Even though Mimara can imagine how the room once looked, the tiers of piteous faces and clutching hands, it is the graffiti, scratched out along the lowermost wall as far as the light can reach, that most afflicts her heart. The Emwama, and their proof of misery, she realizes. She can almost see their shades, massed in hopeless clots, looks averted from the horrors hanging above, ears aching…
A shudder passes through her, so deep her eyes and limbs seem to rattle in their sockets.
And she thinks, Cil-Aujas…
Then she realizes no one else is experiencing her horror. They all stare to another corner, seeing something unexpected. They see great ribs and bones, a jawed carapace as tall as a man. Cleric pities the humans for carrying such a short span of memory while Sarl starts cackling about how he called “him” a fool.
The Skin Eaters gather, beaten by gust and fate alike, gazing in awe at the iron bones of a dragon.
The source of the wind’s cold hymn.
Though the survivors don’t say much, they are all drawn to the “rust-pitted” bones of the dragon. None speak of their dead friends. Violent men like them are used to losing comrades. “They pyre is their only constant friend.” For now, they plan what to do next. Galian and Xonghis have taken charge, the tragedy rewriting everyone’s place. Kosoter merely watches and grunts his agreement while Sarl mops by the graffiti. He’s become a sobber.
Mimara tends to Achamian while Cleric does what little healing he can to the others. He also gives them all a pinch of a black powder called Qirri that will rejuvenate them and help them deal with hunger and thirst. He also sprinkles some into the unconscious man.
It tastes of dirt and honey.
Mimara feels shy around Cleric. His power clings to him like an aura, making him more than the men around him. She’s reminded of seeing Kellhus and how his gaze reaches beyond the limit of her own. This reminds Mimara of Achamian worries bout Cleric. The Nonman is like Kellhus: “one of the world’s powers.” How Cleric fought replays in her mind. She feels humans are animals compared to Cleric. A “variety of Sranc, a corruption of their [the Nonmen’s] angelic form.”
She uses spit to clean the salted scabs on Achamian’s face. Parts of his skin have turned to salt down to the pores, but it’s only skin. It’ snot life-threatening. Cleric says the qirri will get him back on his feet. Though Cleric adds she should not get so close to him with the Chorae she has beneath her jerkin.
Knowing Achamian will recover, she moves away and pulls out the Chorae. It feels alien in her hands. An “inverted presence.” She doesn’t know why it fascinates her when it’s so anathema to her. “It is the bane of her heart’s sole desire, the thing she must fear above all once she begins uttering sorcery. Since the only light is the Surillic Point, the ball appears as a shadow in her hand, the sorcerous light unable to touch it. Only the dim light leaking in lets her see the script on the iron ball. It’s hard for her to look at “as if it rolls from her sight and thought each time she centres her attention upon it.” But she can’t help but stare at it while in the background, some of the scalpers are trying to loot the dragon’s iron bones. They do this because “even in disaster, their mercenary instincts have not abandoned them.”
Shivers scuttle like spiders from her palm to her heart and throat, pimpling her entire skin. She glares at it, concentrates her breath and being upon its weightless horror, as if using it to mortify her soul the way shakers use whips and nails to mortify their flesh. She flats in the prickle of her own sweat.
The suffering beings. The pain…
It’s liking thumbing a deep bruise at first, and she almost revels its odd almost honey sweetness. But the sensation unravels, opens into an ache that swells about wincing serrations, as if teeth were chewing their own mouth through sealed muscle and skin. The violence spreads. The clubs begin falling, and her body rebels down to its rooted bowel, gagging at memories of salt. Emptiness itself… Lying cupped in her palm, a sheering void, throwing hooks about her, a million lacerating stings.
She shudders and spits, noticing Achamian lying unconscious nearby. She sees him as a “corpse boiled in the fires of damnation” and realizes the Judging Eye has opened. She can feel it peering through her, casting off her worldly sight like it were dirty clothes. It draws “out the sanctity and the sin.” She stares with it at the Chorae.
And somehow, impossibly, passes through.
She blinks on the far side of contradiction, her face and shoulders pulled back in a warm wind, a breath, a premonition of summer rain. And she sees it, a point of luminous white, a certainty, shining out from the pit that blackens her grasp. A voice rises, a voice without word or tone, drowsy with compassion, and the light grows and grows, shrinking the abyss to a rind, to the false foil that it is, burning to dust, and the glory, the magnificence, shines forth, radiant, blinding…
And she holds all…In her hand she holds it!
A Tear of God.
As she crouches over the Tear, Soma asks her where she got it. To her, it glows. It’s no longer a Chorae to her. She asks him if he sees it, and he shrugs and says a Tear of God. He doesn’t see it as special. He mentions how the others are trying to steal dragon teeth but she found her treasure. She isn’t here for riches and asks if he sees the light. He glances up at the Surillic Point, clearly seeing that. He has a hard time seeing her, though. She looks like a “breathing shadow.” She holds up the Tear and asks what he sees. But all he sees is a ball of shadow.
She puts the Chorae in her empty coin purse and Soma says that’s better. She’s no longer shielded from the sorcerous light falling on her. She feels that her Chorae is different now from Kosoter’s. No longer is hers a pit sucking everything in. It shines everything out. She wishes to see his to see if it also shines to her.
Fear flushes through her, seems to pull the ancient slave chamber into a slow roll about the axis of her heart. Something is happening to me…
This is when she notices the stranger.
A Nonman stands among them. She thought it was Cleric, their faces are identical, but he’s sitting in prayer or exhaustion. The newcomer sits like the others, eyes closed. He wears a silver crown of thorns and violet robes with nimil mail beneath. She asks Soma who that is over there, thinking she’s gone mad and scared he won’t see what she is. But he does and draws his sword. That sound rouses the others.
The Skin-Eaters draw weapons while Soma steps up before Mimara. Cleric looks up with “feline curiosity.” The stranger looks about but doesn’t seem to stare at them. Mimara notices the wind doesn’t touch his clothes and Galian cries out that he has no shadow. Kosoter barks them to be quiet. “A sense of mortal peril seems to ride the wind, a tingling certainty that the Nonman before them is less flesh or blood than a dread gate, a catastrophic threshold.” The strange Nonman does not move.
Cleric approaches and calls the Nonman cousin. That rouses the stranger. The Nonman moves. He speaks, but the sound comes not from his lips but from Pokwas and Achamian, the two who are unconscious. The stranger recognizes Cleric. Sarl cackles insanely. Cleric says he has returned.
Again the lips move, and the voice of the two unconscious men rise into the void of sound, the one reeded by age, the other deep and melodious.
“They-they called-called us-us false-false.”
“They are children who can never grow,” Cleric replies. “They could do no different.”
“I-I loved–loved them-them. I-I loved-loved them-them so-so much-much.”
So did we all, at one time.”
“They were our punishment. Our pride was too great.”
“They-they betrayed-trayed. You-you betrayed-trayed.”
You have dwelt here too long, Cousin.”
“I-I am-am lost-lost. All-all the-the doors-doors are-are different-rent, and-and the-the thresholds-holds… they–they are-are holy-lee no-no more-more.”
Yes. Our age has passed. Cil-Aujas is fallen. Fallen into darkness.”
“No-no. Not-not darkness-ness…”
The Nonman King gains his feat and Mimara realizes he’s not in a robe but wrapped in purple cloth. He declares this is hell. Cleric, still kneeling, stares up at the Nonman figure in “anguish and indecision.” The apparition shouts how could they forget about Damnation. Cleric hasn’t forgotten. Meanwhile, everyone is gaping, their swords lowering from the shock of watching a living Nonman speak with a dead one. Mimara wants to flee but is rooted motionless.
Cleric knows him.
The bones of the dragon began to rattle while the apparition speaks without sound. This is because Pokwas and Achamian are both getting back up. She rushes to Achamian as he struggles to gather himself. He spits out something and she realizes it’s the qirri. She’s relieved that he’s awake and he asks where they are and what’s happening.
She finds herself almost whispering in his ear. “Akka. Listen to me carefully. You remember what you said? About this place… blurring… into the Outside?”
“Yes. The treachery… The betrayal that led to its fall…”
“No. That’s not it. It’s this place. This every room! It’s what they did—the Nonmen of Cil-Aujas… It’s what they did to their human slaves.”
Generations bred for the sunless mines. Used up. Cast away like moaning rubbish. Ten thousand years of sightless torment.
She knows this… But how?
Achamian asks what she’s talking about but then she glances at Cleric kneeling before the shade and begging for him not to do something. The sight brings Achamian fully awake as he gasps. Then he cries at everyone to run and follow the wind. “Courage will be your death here!”
“Stand your ground!” the Captain roars.
The scalpers retreat despite Kosoter’s bellow. Mimara sees black bleeding from the wight. Kosoter believes that Cleric can stop this. Achamian tries to reason with Kosoter, but the Holy Veteran is adamant. Cleric keeps kneeling while the Nonman King walks around him to stand behind Cleric. Achamian shouts at the captain. Mimara grabs Achamian’s arm. Soma the other, Achamian still unsteady.
The specter looks to the ceiling, his soundless benediction growing more intense. He raises his arms to the ceiling. He lifts Cleric with black shadows. Kosoter stumbles back. The scalpers drag Pokwas and retreat with Mimara and Achamian. Conger leads the cackling Sarl away. The apparition grabs Cleric and he starts convulsing. There is fury in the apparition’s face.
For an instant, the company glimpses a seal, a savage emblem of hell…
The Surillic Point flickers out.
“I dream,” Cleric’s voice booms through the wind howling black, “that I am a God.”
Mimara sobs. The Skin Eaters scream. Achamian begins casting spells in a panic. The light from his sorcery “paints Soma’s blank face against the greater dark.”
Mimara sees a new light. She’s in a new chamber and she can now see the Emwama in their cages, all shirking in agony. It’s “a thousand moments of anguish, a thousand souls, condensed into a mad, smoking blur.” She hears countless eons of pain and suffering of Emwama imprisoned from ever seeing the sun, all screaming in unison.
Mimara screams with them.
Cleric floats towards the scalpers as the Nonman King rants through him about how he hungers.
Despite Achamian shouting beside her, all Mimara can hear is the “million-throated wail.” Achamian, though weak, pulls her away as the apparition asks how a God can hunger.
Molten stone begins erupting around them, killing one scalper, leaving only his arm behind. Finally, Kosoter flees with the other.
The whole company, or what remains of it, is running.
The apparition laughs with “cruelties beyond the range of human comprehension.”
The survivors run through the dragons’ bones into the wind. They find stairs and climb while the damned cry out to them. They want to visit their suffering on others.
The Wight-in-the-Mountain chases them. Mimara feels on the verge of breaking. She is struggling to help Achamian while the others are racing ahead of them. Even Soma has abandoned her. She searches for strength, praying to herself to keep going. Then she feels the Qirri giving her endurance. She screams at Achamian to keep going.
The wind is too much for Achamian. He can’t battle against it. He speaks, but though she can’t hear him, she knows what he says.
Leave me. Daughter, please…
But she refuses. This old stranger… What is it?
Why should she dare hell?
She drags Achamian, laboring to do so. He casts sorcery and brings down the tunnel behind them, collapsing it.
The wind is gone.
A light hangs in the fog
Achamian tells her to keep going as her ears ring. He’s not sure that the cave-in will stop him. He jokes that the Wight can follow the “mile-long streak of shit I dragged across the floor.” This makes her laugh. He strokes her hair, happy he made her laugh. This makes her start to break up as she admits she thought he would die. He tells her they need to keep moving.
They stumble together, supporting each other. They are following the trail of the others in the dust and she asks how they could have gotten so far without Achamian’s light. He points ahead to a faint, blue glow. It’s daylight. She knows it deep in her soul. “It was the light her sires were born to, all the way back to the beginning…”
She sees shadows moving then Soma calls her name. She burns with a sudden fury that battles her weariness. Achamian senses it and says, “All men are traitors in a place such as this…” Now isn’t the time for anger. Though Achamian is haggard, she sees “intellect and resolution” in his eyes. This is the old Achamian back from the dead, even if it’s Qirri keeping him going. The other survivors are moving about with excess energy, and not just from Qirri.
They have found their way out of Cil-Aujas.
Achamian calls it the Great Medial Screw. The stones here are wet, water running down them. The stairs are wide as a wagon and spiral upward. In the open space, water pours down. Mimara feels dizzy realizing it runs up to the top of the mountain. She says it’ll take days to climb, but Pokwas says they’ll have water. Xonghis declares it clean. They begin drinking and wiping away grime, helping each other lean out over the empty space.
Achamian grows agitated and tells Kosoter they need to keep moving. Kosoter answers with a wordless gaze while Mimara can only think about water. She can’t remember the last time she drank it. This was a worse expression than the slave ship as a child, and she still has nightmares about that. The qirri is all keeping her going, she fears what will happen when it runs out.
She must have water.
Soma seems to sense her thirst and lets her have his place to get a drink. She thanks him but still angry about being abandoned. She wonders how in one moment Soma could be courageous and another so cowardly and wonders if she’s not any different. She leans out drinks the cold water. It falls hard and stings, but it’s refreshing. It nourishes her. She can see the sky and realizes they’ve left hell and Cil-Aujas behind. They were on the threshold of escape.
As she reflects on that as she hears Achamian arguing about how sorcerers don’t fly. “‘If there is a pit in the ground below,’ he croaks, ‘there is a pit in the sky as well!’” Suddenly, she feels something rising beneath them. Fear kindles in her. She glances at the pool below and sees a flicker in the water. She calls for Achamian but it’s too late. It’s been too late since they passed through the Obsidian Gate and entered Cil-Aujas.
It was always too late. No one leaves the Black Halls.
Hell rises out of the waters. The Wight-in-the-Mountain, the Nonman King with his seal behind him that is “packed with skulls and living faces,” floats up at them. The others sense it and fall silent. “In a moment of madness it seems she can see their hearts through their caged breasts, that she can see the eyes open…” Achamian clutches at his chest. Kosoter reels back. Others grab faces. Sarl cackles and Soma stands motionless. Sarl babbles that he can see while the Unholy Seal rises. Fire spills from it and roars with the voice of a Demon-God that seizes their souls and causes blood to spell out the pores of their skin.
The Gates are no longer guarded.
She falls to her knees and screams. At the same time, she fumbles out the Chorae in her purse. She cringes, a frightened child. The moans of the damn feel her ears. And in it, she “Lifts her Tear of God.”
She knows not what she does. She knows only what she glimpsed in the slave chamber, that single slow heartbeat of light and revelation. She knows what she saw with the Judging Eye.
The Chorae burns as a sun in her fingers, making red wine of her hand and forearm, revealing the shadow of her bones, and yet drawing the eye instead of rebuking it, a light that does not blind.
“I guard them!” she weeps, standing frail beneath the white-bleached Seal. “I Hold the Gates!”
Climbing the Great Medial Screw is the greatest struggle they have. It steals all that remains of their “courage, strength, and endurance” they had after surviving the Sranc and the White. They climb and climb and climb. The first time the sun sets, despair almost destroys them before they remember that it always sets and will rise again. “They had been buried so long they had forgotten the cycle of days.”
Achamian appreciates the “marriage of patience and hubris” that built the Screw. It’s insane that it exists. For two days, Mimara has not spoken despite Achamian’s attempts. She would almost speak but couldn’t. He tries to figure out what she did, remembering seeing her holding the Chorae while standing before “a horror that should have devoured her whole, from the flesh of her fingertips to the final spark of her soul.” It makes no sense. While summoned Ciphrang could have their bodies destroyed by a Chorae, what they had faced was unreality. Hell. They should have all been taken.
But something had happened. She had happened.
Anasûrimbor Mimara, cursed with the Judging Eye.
He feels a great deal of pity for her, realizing that the Whore of Fate had brought her to this point. Without her, they would not have survived Cil-Aujas. She had been given to help him in his quest to find Kellhus’s origins and “to shed light on the darkness that came before him.”
When the qirri ran out, they all collapsed in exhaustion. And the climb grew worse and worse. Some fainted. Achamian vomits. The air grew colder and colder the higher they climbed. Achamian adds the Huiritic Ring to the light to keep them warm. More burden on him. As they get higher, they see the water comes from melting ice and snow that covers the final steps.
The icy steps defeat them. They do not have the strength to make it up the last part. It’s as if they all knew that “Cil-Aujas would never relinquish them.” But Achamian shows off the power of a Gnostic Wizard and he begins melting the snow and ice choking the last leg of their climb.
This was a kind of final knell for the Skin Eaters, a tipping point of comprehension. At last they understood the abyssal gap that had always existed between them, scalpers and Wizard. Achamian could see it in their sidelong glances. With the exception of the Captain, they began looking at him with an awe and reverence they had once reserved for Cleric.
And he felt an itch, something small and sharp against the buss of his utter exhaustion… Some time passed before he recognized it: the creeping return of his guilt. These men, these strangers he would kill, now seemed his brothers.
It was no small thing to crawl out of the abyss, to rise from Hell to the very roof of the World. Though their eyes had long adjusted, they still stood blinking, scattered atop the snow-encrusted debris that ringed the opening to the Great Screw. It made Achamian, who stood arm in arm with Mimara, think of the first Men, savages of the plains, rubbing their eyes at what they could only comprehend as a blessing.
With light comes life. With sky comes freedom.
The Halls of Cil-Aujas, the dread Black Halls, had at last relinquished them.
Achamian surveys the scalpers and sees only Kosoter and Soma are unscathed. Sarl is mad. Pokwas, Xonghis, Sutadra, and Galian are injured but are hale. Of the Herd, only Conger, Wonard, and Hameron survived, all three Galeoth. Wonard looks infected, Conger limps, and Hameron is a weeper. They stand on the vista, drenched in violet Sranc blood and patches of red. They are in Aenaratiol’s crater amid a frozen lake. Ruins cover it. They can see higher peaks rising above the rim.
Xonghis says that way is home and the other is the Long Side. Achamian holds his breath. Which way will they choose? Achamian still holds to his desire to find the scroll to Ishuäl. He can remember his dream of actually seeing the map. It exists. He just has to find it in the Coffers. He had used the Coffers as bait, but now he actually needs to get in the vault.
His lie. Fate was making his lie true.
The Skin Eaters look at Xonghis and the two choices but there’s no choice. They are being driven by the Whore of Fate. Sarl cackles about going to the Coffers. The company is content to let the madman choose for them. Kosoter is the first to begin the climb down.
They follow him, warmed by the Huiritic Ring. No one speaks. They find stairs the climb through the ruins, the architecture the same as below but instead of awing them, it’s tragic, even pathetic, to see its collapse. “The work of a race that had gone insane for staring inward.”
At the rim of the crater, they see the Osthwai Mountains spread out before them. It’s daunting. The task overwhelms the “newly born men.” But they can’t stop no matter how tired and starving they air. Then, as they are about to descend, Soma spots something though Achamian can’t see more than a black spec.
And at long last Mimara broke her silence.
“Cleric,” she said.
So, the earthquakes in the latter book are set up here. Momemn is in a seismically active area.
A great reflection on history and how humans build on the past by burying it. They repurpose things and forget their original purpose. Pagans erected Temples, Christians co-opt them into Churches, and Muslims transform them into Mosques. We put our mark on history to pretend we are better than the generations that comes before. We rip down their monuments to erect our own. In our hubris, we think we’re more moral, more right, more worthy than them.
Suicide as revenge is a sad mental state. Show the world by depriving myself of it. Thinking it’s the only way you can affect the world, the only thing you can control. It shows us the depths of her anger with her mother. And she has every right to be angry. It’s hard to understand what starvation does to a person. Thinking it would be better your child was a slave than to die of starvation. Seeing no other way for you to survive. Unless Mimara goes through the same, she’ll never really understand. But this journey, I think, will show her deprivation. I’m curious to see how their relationship progresses in the next book.
I think the moment Soma sees her using sorcery is when he sees her as fulfilling some prophecy that he needs to respect. As a skin-spy, the scent of a pregnant woman is both disgusting and arousing. They really don’t like the scent of fetuses. They are everything that the Inchoroi hate: consequences to sex. The Inchoroi don’t like consequences. That makes them think about their actions.
And that’s why they want to commit genocide to keep from being damned. They don’t consider doing something to change their fate. To act in a different manner. They want to keep reveling in their pleasure.
Fifth Anterograde Gate is a weird name. Anterograde means to forget things after a traumatic event. It’s thematic to the Nonmen, but a strange thing for someone to name their gate. Like, why would the Nonmen have named it that? The world-building there is lacking, but Bakker likes to use thematic words for his name. Usually, they fit with the world. Gnosis, Angogic, Psûkhe all line up with how their respective magic works.
Kellhus wrote Novum Arcanum. We have heard about the God and the Oversoul before. This is an authoritative source on how sorcery works. Cishaurim and their Psûkhe are even better at it. That’s why they blind themselves so they can see the world even more clearly through the God’s eyes and thus change it without leaving the Mark. Though, I wonder if the Cishaurim didn’t blind themselves if they could see what each other does. Like they’re at a higher level than the normal Few. But maybe not.
So we see the Judging Eye in action. Achamian is damned, but it’s not proof enough to reveal if Kellhus can save people. Achamian has repudiated him, so he could be damned for that and not for using sorcery. But Lord Kosoter is seen and he is definitely damned. Way, way, way worse than Achamian. All the things he did during the Holy War were certainly not forgiven as Kellhus claims.
Pity Mimara didn’t look at Somandutta. Curious what a skin-spy would look like while the Judging Eye is active. Normal? There’s no soul in Somandutta to be damned. Only one skin-spy ever had a soul, and it took over Simas back in the last series.
Honestly, in the sort of situation they’re in, where decisions have to be made and there can’t be any questioning is a good thing if you’re following someone with intelligence and competence. Both things Kosoter has. They are fleeing for their lives. Asking questions, doubting decisions, are not things you need right now. They’ve been in hairy situations, they’ve been lead by Kosoter through dire circumstances. They’re like a military unit working together for one common goal.
This section is well done. The tension is incredible. Bakker is building it up and then come the Sranc horns. We all know this is Moira, but he makes it fit his world and adds his own to it. No story is wholly original. We all are building on the past, just like cities are built upon the rubble of the dead. Nothing wrong with it when you do it well. When you make it fit your world, adapt it to your story. Cil-Aujas maybe one of my most favorite parts of the entire meta-series.
“They are coming.” The same words that the unknown dwarf scribe writes in the Book of Mazarbul that chronicles Balin’s people reoccupying Moria. These are the last words he wrote in haste before being killed by the orcs. Bakker uses them here in a room full of pillars, just like in Moria. Gives me chills reading it.
Can I just say, Sarl’s way of talking reminds me of how orcs talk in the Lord of the Rings. “Oy, yes, boys, this is going to be a chopper. A classic chopper!” I’m just picturing orcs speaking like this.
So I think Cleric is out of control when they are attacking the Sranc, destroying those columns needed to keep up the roof. Hence, Achamian shouting “Nooooo!”
Damn, Oxwora’s a beast. Killed the Bashrag and managed to survive those wounds long enough to slay his killer.
Boy, I had Legolas flashbacks from the Lord of the Ring Movies when Cleric rides the dead Bashrag to the ground.
RIP Kiampas. Liked you.
Those Bashrags are brutal.
Cleric in all his Ishroi glory. Fighting and casting Gnosis is an impressive feat. Not even Kellhus has fought like this, but he’s never been in this sort of situation, of course.
Kosoter is helping Mimara escape. This is a guy who doesn’t let the weak drag him down, and he’s saving Mimara’s life. This is a big clue to just what Kosoter is really about here. He knows who she is, as I recall from the next book.
Interesting words from our Skin-Spy. “You will not perish for me.” He is not in danger from the Sranc like the rest are. He should be able to escape blend in with them and not be their prey. He doesn’t want Mimara to die for him. If she falls behind, she would slow the Sranc so they could have their fun with her. Maybe it’s just for show, but I wonder if this has to do with that “False Prophecy” he respects.
Kosoter would recognize Hell. He is so damned that he looks like a Demon when the Judging Eye falls on him. He would have gone through all of the Holy War’s catastrophes, including the madness of Mengedda. What did he see there? What did he do to survive crossing the desert and then the siege of Carythusal? What crimes did he commit during Shimeh’s pillage?
“Origins! Origins are the truth of us!” I have two things to comment on with this passage. First, we have the Darkness that Comes Before referenced here. “Origins are the truth of us!” To understand Kellhus, we must understand the Darkness that he comes from. The Dûnyain. We can see the poisonous fury in Achamian’s face that makes Mimara feel ashamed. This is the same fury she has at her mother.
The same fury of one who’s been betrayed. She knows the same pain he does.
King Celmomas’s speech about the responsibility of a king, or a leader, is apt. They have to think of the future. To not rely on faith but in reality. That is the duty they owe our people. Sadly, most leaders are self-centered little weasels who care about clawing for power and have no vision of the future.
Sarl’s “him” in who he was wrong for calling a fool is Kiampas. Before entering Cil-Aujas, it was Kiampas’s theory that a dragon lurked here and was killing the scalpers while Sarl just thought it was skinnies. He called Kiampas a fool. Of course, the dragon’s dead so Kiampas wasn’t wholly right.
Qirri tastes of dirt and hunger. Dirt, of course, references the grave. It’s the ash of a dead nonman after all. The honey is the sweetness. That addictive rush that will keep Achamian and Mimara going for the rest of their journey. It’s also a symbol of fertility and good things. The whole “Lands of Milk and Honey” promised to the Israelites during their wandering in the desert.
The Chorae is made of contradiction. A negation of reality. It is made of sorcery and yet destroys it. A singularity that affects the spiritual and not the physical. It sucks in that which is not natural like a black hole. She is seeing into it, able to see it thanks to being one of the Few for what it is. We’ve seen POVs from mainly Cnaiür handling it. He never feels anything weird about it. To him, it’s just a ball of iron. He can’t see with the imperfect vision of the God like a Few can. The Chorae is a foul thing. And then, when the Judging Eye is open, it becomes a Tear of God to her. She passes through that darkness and sees it through the Eye of Faith. The Judging Eye is the Eye of Faith. Of what the belief of mankind is and how they see the world. Not the God’s Eyes, but the belief that has shaped the Outside into what it is. The source of power for the Hundred. The lesser gods, the powerful Ciphrang, who have benefited and even shaped this belief.
The Chorae is both Evil and Good. Both Faith and Denial. That is the contradiction that binds it together. That’s what lets it unravel sorcery, or so I think. I could be way off basis.
It’s interesting that she’s changed her Chorae in some way. Maybe it as simple as she’s shifted her perspective from Sorcery to Faith. But what she did to it is why what she does to the shade of Gin’yursis coming up worked.
A nice twist that it’s the suffering of the poor Emwama that is the cause. They are the victims of both Nonmen and the Five Tribes. The humans who crossed over the mountains exterminated them save for that small population still living as slaves to the Nonmen of Ishterebinth. It makes you wonder who is really driving damnation in this world. The Emwama who are crushed beneath everyone’s heels? Gin’yursis claimed to love the humans, but he allowed them to be brutalized. And now they punish his soul. It’s why he is mad. Lashing out. He wishes to spread the pain to others. If he must suffer, so must they.
Soma has a blank face during the revelation of the Seal around Gin’yursis. He’s not panicking like everyone else. Further proof that he’s already a skin-spy.
So we come to Mimara destroying Gin’yursis’s spirit with the Judging Eye and the Chorae. The last thing the Wight-in-the-Mountain utters is, “The Gates are no longer guarded.” Meaning, it is free to bleed out of hell here. But she instead Judges that the Gates are guarded. She is that Guard. A Chorae negates what is perverted in the natural world by sorcerery. She has made it a Tear of God and does the same to the spiritual. She undoes the topoi and closes the Gate. Hell can’t bleed through any longer. Maybe forever. Maybe just enough for them to escape. The Judging Eye doesn’t just let her see whether a person is damned or not, it gives her some measure of control over these spiritual matters. The word “judging” was chosen by Bakker for a reason. Judging is not a passive concept. It’s not observation. There is directed intent when judging something. Mimara’s intent.
Soma, once again, spots Cleric. The clues that he’s more than human are really subtle. I certainly never twigged on them reading the book, but in hindsight, they stand out. Like in the Darkness that Comes Before when Nautzera notes that Simas has flawless vision despite his advanced age, a subtle clue of him being a skin-spy.
Soma has infiltrated the Skin Eaters no doubt because of Cleric. To watch the last king of Ishterebinth and figure out why Kellhus made a deal with him and what the deal entails. Cleric is here because Kellhus promised him a way to relieve his memory. He has promised him Seswatha. Or Achamian. Knowing Achamian will use the Great Ordeal to reach Ishuäl, Kellhus has put into place plans to aid Achamian. I honestly think Kellhus wants Achamian to succeed. If Kellhus plan to end the belief system that makes damnation, his own divinity will need to be deconstructed one day. Achamian is the man to do it. He’s obsessed over it. He’s been given the tools to succeed. How Mimara factors, I’m not sure. She ran away because of Kelmomas and not Kellhus’s actions. Certainly, I don’t think going into Cil-Aujas was the plan. Predicting that the passes would still be closed might have been outside of Kellhus’s projections or that Cil-Aujas was always a last resort path. It would have been better if they hadn’t gone through Cil-Aujas, but as we’ll see, Achamian makes it to Golgotterath with the truth of Kellhus, so it does work.
All in all, Cil-Aujas is one of the best parts of the story. This slog of a chapter is intense and riveting to read. After the build up, we have the chase. The terrifying race through the bowels of hell and out into the very pinnacle of the mountain. The comparisons to Lord of the Rings are there. Not only do they go through the mountain, they battle down into the bowels then rush all the way up to the peak of the mountain where they are reborn, just as Gandalf was. It’s homage down right because Bakker makes it fit seamlessly into his world and built on the worldbuilding he has done.
He made it his own.
Click here for the Interlude: Momemn!
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