Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
The Holy Warrior
Those of us who survived will always be bewildered when we recall his arrival. And not just because he was so different then. In a strange sense he never changed. We changed. If he seems so different to us now, it is because he was the figure that transformed the ground.
—DRUSAS ACHAMIAN, COMPENDIUM OF THE FIRST HOLY WAR
I don’t think there’s any doubt who the “he” above is: Anasûrimbor Kellhus. We have already seen how Kellhus can manipulate normal humans through his vast intellect and his ability to read minute micro-expressions and involuntary reactions which reveal a person’s true emotions even when they seek to dissemble. Throughout the various quotes of the Compendium of the First Holy War we have heard of it being transformed or hijacked and we know Kellhus is here to do just that.
Sounds like he succeeds. But how does he do it? And how will people like Achamian change? It is a unique form of foreshadowing to give us foreknowledge of the story to come but painted only in the broadest of strokes. Now the narrative has to fill in those details.
Late Spring, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Momemn
The following evening after Kellhus’s arrival, Achamian finds himself studying the men at a campfire, Serwë at his side. Out of her rags, she is a very beautiful woman. Achamian is bemused, studying the man, trying to understand him. The pair share an exchange of greeting and Kellhus smiles.
The man [Kellhus] smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was unlike any smile Achamian had ever seen. It seemed to understand him much more than he wanted to be understood.
Then the revelation struck.
I know this man.
But how does one recognize a man never met? Unless through a son or other kin… Images of his recent dream, holding the dead face of Anasûrimbor Celmomas in his lap, flickered through his soul’s eye. The resemblance as unmistakable: the furrow between the brows, the long hollow of the cheeks, the deep-set eyes.
He is an Anasûrimbor! But that’s impossible…
And yet the times seemed rife with impossible things.
One of those impossible things is the Holy War, which Achamian had only seen its like in his dreams of the Old Wars. Achamian realizes that Kellhus arrival was history walking in the presence. The prophecy echoes through Achamian’s mind. He is shocked to find out the great blood line survived the First Apocalypse. Kellhus has been warned of Achamian and his dreams by Proyas, no doubt in ridicule, but Kellhus is not hasty in his judgment and then makes a joke. Achamian, laughing, finds himself liking the man, put at ease.
Achamian doesn’t have much of a plan in ferreting out information about Kellhus. As a spy, he would only have curiosities and would ask questions, allowing the conversation to flow while searching for what he needed to get his info. He realizes that is not a good method with Kellhus, a species of man Achamian has never met. He finds himself enthralled by Kellhus’s master of his voice. “It seemed to whisper: There’s more than I’m telling you… Only listen and see.”
Kellhus can shift gears rapidly, being at once innocent then wise, amused then sorrowful, but Achamian detects no guile in his nature, as though Kellhus was honest with his emotions. Even Kellhus’s eyes, knowing but not judging, stir Awe in Achamian.
They turn to why Kellhus came to the Holy War, Achamian still hoping the man lied.
“You’re referring to the dreams,” Kellhus replied.
“I suppose I am.”
For a brief moment, the Prince of Atrithau regarded him paternally, almost sorrowfully, as though Achamian had yet to understand the rules of this encounter.
Kellhus talks about how the dream awoken him from a repetitive life. And now awakened, he could not ignore it. But had to act. The talk of sleep and love, with Kellhus glancing Serwë Then Kellhus asks Achamian why a sorcerer joined the war. Achamian answer is lame “Because I’ve been directed by my school, I supposed.” Kellhus probes and Achamian speaks about the consult with a slow resentment, fearing ridicule. Kellhus understands.
“Perhaps, Achamian, we’re not so different, you and I.”
How do you mean?”
But Kellhus did not answer. He did not need to. The man had sensed his earlier incredulity, Achamian realized, and had answered it by showing him the irony of one man anguished by dreams denying another man the rapture of his. Suddenly, Achamian found himself believing the man’s story. How could he believe in himself otherwise?
Achamian realizes that there is no ego in the conversation, no rivalries being fenced. There talk had “the character of a voyage.” To Achamian, they are merely discovering new ideas instead of convincing the other who is right. Achamian is no longer suspicious of Kellhus. Since Atrithau is so remote, only Galeoth caravans make the journey there and no Mandate had been in the city for several centuries, there was no way to verify Kellhus’s story. And yet, Kellhus had won Achamian over. He was “a man who moved the souls of those around him.” In their conversations, Achamian found answers to questions he feared to ask. Kellhus reminds him of Ajencis, an “exemplar of Truth.”
Serwë has fallen asleep, head on Kellhus’ lap. He asks Kellhus if he loves her. “Yes… I need her,” is his answer. Achamian can tell Serwë worships Kellhus, which saddens Kellhus. “For some reason, she makes more of me than I am… Others do this as well.” Achamian isn’t surprised, seeing that special something in Kellhus. The Dûnyain finds that ironic.
“And what’s that?”
“Here you possess privileged knowledge, and yet no one believes you, while I possess nothing, and everyone insists that I have privileged knowledge.
And Achamian could only think, But do you believe me?
Kellhus talks about a man who kissed his robe, sounding like he finds it absurd. Achamian understands. Then Kellhus says he believes in Achamian’s mission. This touches the sorcerer, and he tries to joke away his emotion, which leads to talk of Esmenet. Achamian is unnerved by how Kellhus is reading his thoughts. Achamian is curt in his response.
Achamian blamed the silence that followed on those sour words. He repented them but could not take them back. He looked to Kellhus, his eyes apologetic.
But the matter had already been forgiven and forgotten. The silences between men are always fraught with uncomfortable significance—accusations, hesitations, judgments of who is weak and who is strong—but the silences with this man undid rather than sealed these things. The silence of Anasûrimbor Kellhus said, Let us move on, you and I, and recall these things at a better time.
Kellhus then asks for Achamian to be his tutor. Despite a hundred questions, Achamian agrees and Kellhus calls him friend. Achamian feels shy now and is relieved when Kellhus rouses Serwë and they retire for the night. Achamian feels a euphoria as he navigates the alleys of tents to his own.. He feels transformed by his encounter with Kellhus. He doesn’t want to sleep, but finally does and dreams of Anasûrimbor Celmomas’s death and prophecy again. He finds the High King’s voice sounds like Kellhus’s.
One of my seed will return, Seswatha—an Anasûrimbor will return… …at the end of the world.
But what did this mean? Was Anasûrimbor Kellhus in fact a sign, as Proyas hoped. A sign not of the God’s divine sanction of the Holy war, as Proyas assumed, but of the No-God’s Imminent return?
…the end of the world.
Achamian began trembling, shaking with a horror he never before experienced while awake.
Achamian prays to Sejenus to let him die before. He finds it unthinkable, pleading and in denial. He is struck, then, by all those souls sleeping around him dreaming of glory and did not know Achamian’s fears. They were innocences “filled by the heedless momentum of their faith” believing what they did now lay at the center of the world’s events. But that center was Golgotterath.
Later, Achamian felt foolish for his fear and tries to convince himself it is only a coincidence that Kellhus has the same name. Still, Achamian pulls out his “map” of how the great names relate to each other. He ponders Maithanet, fearing he would never know how Inrau died. Then he looks at the consult, scratched to the side, isolated.. He writes Kellhus below “the hated name.”
Cnaiür walks through camp, unsure where to go, while reflecting on his meeting with Proyas and his five Conriyan Palatines to discuss how to outmaneuver the Emperor.
Proud men wagging proud tongues. Even the more bellicose Palatines, such as Gaidekki or Ingiaban, spoke more to score than to solve. Watching them, Cnaiür had realized they all played an infantile version of the same game the Dûnyain played. Words, Moënghus and Kellhus had taught him, could be used hand open or fist closed—as a way to embrace or to enslave. For some reason these Inrithi, how had nothing tangible to gain or to lose from one another, all spoke with their fist closed—fatuous claims, false concessions, mocking praise, flattering insults, and an endless train of satiric innuendos
Jnan, they called it. A mark of caste and cultivation.
Cnaiür endured, even when they turned their attention to him. Cnaiür realizes a hardship he had not anticipated—enduring their “peevish unmanly ways.” He has accepted dealing with Kellhus to get his revenge, but did not realize what else he faced. Cnaiür leaves in disgust when the council ends and stars at the scars, remembering his father teaching him the Scylvendi view of the sky and that the World is a lie, only the People were true. Cnaiür questions why he is here “among the cattle.”
Hearing Kellhus’s voice, and fighting his own demons and memories, he spies on Kellhus as he speaks to Achamian.
Cnaiür had intended to scrutinize what the Dûnyain said, hoping to confirm any one of his innumerable suspicions, but he quickly realized that Kellhus was playing with this sorcerer the way he played all the others, battering him with closed fists, beating his soul down paths of his manufacture. Certainly it did not sound like this. Compared with the banter of Proyas and his Palatines, what Kellhus said to the Schoolman possessed a heartbreaking gravity. But it was all a game, own where truths had become chits, where every open hand concealed a fist.
How could determine the true intent of such a man?
Cnaiür realizes Kellhus is even more inhuman than he thought, having no truth or meaning to them but adopting whatever they need, slithering from idea to idea. He ponders what the Shortest Way leads to.
Cnaiür finds himself watching sleeping Serwë and he fears for her caught in Kellhus’s machinations. He thinks of stealing her away in the night and fleeing away from Kellhus, but he knows they are merely fears leading him away from his purpose—revenge. He feels himself weak again for wanting to depart from the path. Cnaiür tries to convince himself Serwë is nothing while he beats his fist into the dirt. As Kellhus leads the sleepy Serwë to their tent, Cnaiür sees her as a little girl—innocent.
Kellhus returns after she is asleep and asks Cnaiür how long he’ll lurk in the darkness. Cnaiür said until the sorcerer is gone, since Sclyvendi despise them. Cnaiür finds himself fearing the man physically since their flight and seeing what he can do. So Cnaiür hides his fear with questions, asking why Kellhus is talking to Achamian. Instruction. Cnaiür doesn’t believe and presses. Kellhus asks Cnaiür why his father is in Shimeh. Cnaiür thinks and realizes the possibility Moënghus is Cishaurim, which Kellhus confirms by talking about the dream. Cnaiür had mentioned the possibility when he first met Kellhus but not realized what it meant that Moënghus was Cishaurim.
Cnaiür scowled. “You said nothing to me! Why?”
“You did not want to know.”
Cnaiür ponders it while Kellhus studies him. Cnaiür recognizes something not quite human in Kellhus. Then Cnaiür realizes why he didn’t want to know about Moënghus because that meant he would have to ask Kellhus for information and show ignorance and need—weakness. And that was dangerous around a Dûnyain So Cnaiür instead informs Kellhus that the Mandate do not share their Gnosis with outsiders, ignoring Moënghus entirely. But Kellhus will need it. Cnaiür marches to the pavilion
“Thirty years,” Kellhus called from behind. “Moënghus has dwelt among these men for thirty years. He’ll have great power—more than either of us could hope to overcome. I need more than sorcery, Cnaiür I need a nation. A nation.”
Cnaiür paused, looking skyward once again. “So it is to be this Holy War then, is it?”
“With your help, Scylvendi. With your help.”
Cnaiür knows it is all lies. He enters the tent to rape Serwë again.
The emperor is not pleased to hear from Skeaös, his Prime Counsel, that Proyas has found a Scylvendi and offers him as replacement for Conphas. Xerius has a temper tantrum, railing against Proyas. Skeaös dismisses the possibility that a Scylvendi could lead the Holy War as a joke.
Suspicion enters Xerius and he demands Skeaös look him in the eye (an offense to do so to the Emperor). Xerius wonders what he’ll see. Fear. Xerius is pleased by that.
Achamian has been in a funk since meeting Kellhus. He can’t figure the man out. He keeps trying to use the Cants of Calling to inform the Mandate about Kellhus, and seven times he has stopped himself. He knew he had to, but also knew Nautzera would be convinced, a man who had strong certainties, and would act. Achamian is plagued with doubts, not sure if Kellhus was the harbinger or just a coincidence. Every generation of Mandate had those who were convinced the end was nigh.
Achamian fears the Mandate will seize Kellhus if they learn of him after so many years of inaction. His guilt over Inrau hold him back. Unsure what to do, Achamian asks Xinemus over the breakfast fire, what he makes of Kellhus. Xinemus is unsure, sensing something about the man, but he doesn’t know what to think. Achamian thinks Kellhus is better than most men.
“Most men? Or do you mean all men?”
Achamian regarded Xinemus narrowly. “He frightens you.”
“Sure. So does the Scylvendi, for that matter.”
“But in a different way… Tell me, Zin, just what do you think Anasûrimbor Kellhus is?”
Prophet or prophecy?
“More,” Xinemus said decisively. “More than a man.”
A silence falls, interrupted by the arrival of the Scarlet Spire whose movement through the camps is about to spark off a riot by flying their banner openly, but Achamian realizes the Spire are doing it to put him at ease, to show they are coming openly, risking a riot rather then startling a Mandate Schoolman. Achamian tells Xinemus to get his Chorae anyways. Xinemus is not happy, ordering his soldiers to get ready. He tells Achamian to tell the fool to skulk away. Achamian is hurt his friend blames him for what is happening.
Xinemus’s soldiers push back the rioters as the Scarlet Spire approaches. The Scarlet Spire grow closer, their Javreh slave-soldiers pushing their way through the mob until the reach Xinemus soldiers, then they are through the palanquin they carry approaches Achamian while the mob throws stones, bones, wine bowls, and more.
Eleäzaras, Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spire, steps out, shocking Achamian. The mob falls silent at the sight since he is the third most powerful man in the world, behind the Shriah and the Padirajah. The mob amuses Eleäzaras They exchange greetings, Eleäzaras joking and dismissive. They banter about Scarlet Spire’s jealousy of Mandate Gnosis. Eleäzaras begins insulting Achamian, asking why such a clever man was still I the field, wondering who he offended or if he buggered Proyas as a child. Achamian is shocked by Eleäzaras’s bluntness.
Angry, Achamian asks what the Grandmaster wants, Achamian hoping to learn more about how Maithanet knew the Scarlet Spire warred with the Cishaurim. Eleäzaras claims he just wants to meet Achamian.
“I needed to meet the man who has utterly overturned my impression of the Mandate… To think that I once thought yours the gentlest of Schools!”
Now Achamian was genuinely perplexed. “What are you talking about?”
Eleäzaras knows Achamian was in Carythusal, the Scarlet Spire’s home city. Achamian believes Geshruuni, the Javreh Captain Achamian recruited way back in Chapter 1, has been uncovered and wonders if he killed the man by recruiting him, like Inrau. Achamian shrugs and says the Scarlet Spire’s secret war is out. He fears this is a preamble to Eleäzaras trying to abduct Achamian to learn the Gnosis. Eleäzaras responds that the Mandate secret is also exposed.
That puzzles Achamian. Eleäzaras speaks like the Mandate has a shameful secret. Achamian is confused. Eleäzaras explains how they found Geshruuni dead by chance, dredged up in a fisherman’s net. The Scarlet Spire is disturbed by how Geshruuni was killed, him. Achamian is dismissive, pointing out why he would kill the Mandate’s best spy in the Scarlet Spire in years. Achamian claims Eleäzaras is being played for a fool.
Someone plays both of us… But who?
Eleäzaras glared, pursing his lips as though holding a bitter segment of lime against his teeth. “My Master of Spies warned me of this,” he said tightly. “I’d assumed you had some obscure reason for what you did, something belonging to your accursed Gnosis. But he insisted that you were simply mad. And he told me I’d know by the way you lied. Only madmen and historians, he said, believe their lies.”
“First I’m a a murderer, and now I’m a madman?”
“Indeed,” Eleäzaras spat in a tone of condemnation and disgust. “Who else collects human faces?”
And then stones pelt them from the mob.
The next day, Eleäzaras reflects on the disastrous meeting with Achamian, and the riot he almost caused. He is joined by Iyokus, his Master of Spies. Iyokus reports that there last spy in the Thousand Temples is surely dead. Eleäzaras is worried that he has “delivered the greatest School in the Three Seas to its greatest peril.” Without spies, they don’t know what Maithanet’s intentions are.
“It means we must have faith,” Iyokus said with an air of shoulder-shrugging fatalism. “Faith in this Maithanet.”
“Faith? In someone we know nothing of?”
“That’s why it is faith.”
The decision to join the Holy War was Eleäzaras’s most difficult. But the six trinkets offered by the Shriah were hard to ignore. They meant the Shriah was serious. He offered them vengeance. Eleäzaras orders more resources spent on spies in Sumna. They have to know what Maithanet is up to.
Eleäzaras is reminded of ten-years ago, Iyokus falling wounded against Eleäzaras, their Grandmaster dead along with the Cishaurim. The pair had survived the assassination attack. Despite the years, Eleäzaras remembers that day clearly, haunted by it. Eleäzaras would end their war. The Shriah gave them vengeance, but it was a treacherous gift, forcing Eleäzaras to surrender to the Holy War, to the whims of other men. It was a first for their order.
Their talk to turns to the Emperor and the rumors that Ikurei Conphas received a message from the Fanim after the Vulgar Holy War was destroyed, but its contents are unknown, whether a warning or peace overtures. The fact that Conphas will be the general worries Eleäzaras Iyokus then speaks frankly, saying the Scarlet Spire shouldn’t even be here. They are degraded by this. He pleads with Eleäzaras to abandon it.
You too, Iyokus?
Eleäzaras felt coils of rage flex about his heart. The Cishaurim had planted a serpent within him those ten years ago, and it had grown fat on fear. He could feel it writhe within him, animate his hands with womanish desires to scratch out Iyokus’s disconcerting eyes.
Eleäzaras counsels patience, but Iyokus counters with the riot almost sparked by their supposed allies. If it wasn’t for Achamian stopping Eleäzaras, the Grandmaster would have killed the mob in his anger. Achamian had threatened Eleäzaras indirectly with the Gnosis. It galled Eleäzaras because he knew the Gnosis was superior to his schools lesser magic. The Gnosis was the one thing the Scarlet Spire lacked.
How he despised the Mandate! All the Schools, even the Imperial Saik, recognized the ascendancy of the Scarlet Spire—save for the Mandate. And why should they when a mere field spy could cow their Grandmaster?
Eleäzaras says that while their position is fragile, they will destroy the Cishaurim. Then only the Mandate would stand up to them. “…an arcane empire—that would be the wages of his [Eleäzaras] desperate labor.”
Then Iyokus says they checked the records and found another faceless man was found half-rotted in the delta five years ago. Iyokus believes the Mandate have put aside their “tripe about the Consult and the No-God” and play the game for real. Iyokus believes this changes everything, making the Mandate the strongest school if they are going for political power.
“First we crush the Cishaurim, Iyokus. In the meantime, make certain that Drusas Achamian is watched.”
Kellhus uses humor to humanize him in Achamian’s eyes. Laughing, Achamian is less troubled and relaxes, finding himself liking Kellhus. Having been warned by Proyas about Achamian, Kellhus must know the threat the Mandate can pose to him. Seducing Achamian is vital to that and Kellhus’s goal of learning the Gnosis. It is efficient to accomplish multiple things at once.
We see Kellhus, as he told Cnaiür on their journey, acting fatherly. To the Dûnyain, normal men are children, and he is here to treat them as such. To bend them to his will with the promise of reward and the threat of punishment.
Kellhus talk of sleep as something that can’t be wanted or forced, the harder you strive, the harder it is to get is so true. Who hasn’t been desperate for sleep. Here Kellhus uses his tactic of telling universal truths to promote his wisdom and remoteness to awe and win over a person.
The way Kellhus seduces Achamian with words, pointing out hypocrisy, sharing a common thing that others are skeptical of, binding them together.
Kellhus and Serwë are complicated. She worships him, believes he is a god, and he is using that, feigning that he is nothing special, and the humility combined with his insights only encourages Achamian to believe it. As Kellhus says, he needs her. She is a beacon, drawing men to Kellhus, showing them that he is special, and then they hear the proof from his own lips all while denying it. No one likes a braggart, a person inflated by his own ego. Does Kellhus love her? Can he even love? Or will he only use her? Bakker has said Serwë is one of the most important characters to the story. We need to pay attention to her and Kellhus’s relationship.
I love Achamian’s selfish “but do you believe me” thought. Bakker is always showing humans for what we truly are. Creatures who strive against our true, selfish nature because we think something better will come form it.
See how dangerous Kellhus is. All Achamian had to do was glance at Serwë while speaking on Esmenet and Kellhus understood Achamian finds Esmi beautiful.
Achamian’s nightmare, his desperate believe that it can’t be, then using logic to explain away fears into self-denial.
Cnaiür can’t even insult the Inrithi without them finding it funny, poor guy. He’s straining. He’s haunted by his past. How long before he breaks?
Cnaiür’s question, wondering how he could ever know Kellhus’s intentions is something you’ll run into later in the series. How can we, the reader, trust a man who uses the truth as a goad, who has no ego but only his mission. He will say or do anything for it. And how do we even know what his mission truly is?
Cnaiür’s obsession with Serwë is one of the reasons she is important to Kellhus.
Cnaiür’s intelligence is shown again, but his fears interfered with him connecting the doubts of his logic about Moënghus being a Cishaurim. But he also understands why Kellhus is seducing Achamian—for the Gnosis.
Well, we’ve had hints that Kellhus would take over the Holy War. Now we have it stated as why he has to. But will it be enough to overcome his father and the Cishaurim?
Even here, telling people he loves Serwë, Kellhus still lets Cnaiür rape her at night. It also proves that Cnaiür, despite what he claims, can’t get Serwë out of his mind.
When the Scarlet Spire comes, I love Xinemus’s comment “They forgot how much they’re hated,” as the riot swells. Achamian’s answer, “Who doesn’t,” is great. Who wants to believe your actually hated? How many people, especially those in power, convince themselves that they are not despised despite the screaming mobs. Look at Xerius and how he acts in his self-deluded word.
Eleäzaras thinks he’s a smart man, but he comes to Achamian so sure he knows the answers that even when he sees the shock in Achamian’s eyes, the man simply believes Achamian is such a skilled liar. An answer should never seek for the question to prove it.
So now we know what the skin spy did to Geshruuni. It cut off Geshruuni’s face so he couldn’t be easily identified then went to assume him. But, of course, Achamian was recalled so the skin spy abandoned that plan to keep following him (as we learned a few chapters back when Achamian spots the skin spy following him in the market). Good thing since the Scarlet Spire found Geshruuni far too early than I think the skin spy intended.
Chanv is a great mystery in the series. A drug that extends your life, sharpens the intellect, but also leads to sterility. It is also said to sap the will, making someone more biddable perhaps. It sounds a lot like spice and no one in the Three Seas knows where it comes from. I suspect the Consult. There goal is too limit human life on the planet. Eleäzaras, despite his other failings, is not dumb enough to use Chanv because he has no idea where it comes from.
We get our first glimpse of Sorcerers fighting in the Eleäzaras remembering the assassination attempt ten years ago. He is suffering from PTSD about it which is driving him to get revenge. He can’t forget. But now he is questioning if he made the right decision, or was vengeance too enticing to resist. His story parallels Cnaiür’s, both allying with something they find anathema to get revenge on a stronger foe.
Iyokus and his eyes being scratched out… Foreshadowing.
So, who in the Ainoni camp has been replaced by a skin spy? Not a lot of prominent candidates to choose from. I love the unintended consequence happening here. The Consult didn’t intend this, but now the Scarlet Spire are convinced our lovable Drusas Achamian is a threat. A dangerous man who cuts off people’s face. Watch out, Achamian.