Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Chapter Three

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Three

The Meörn Wilderness

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

The bondage we are born into is the bondage we cannot see. Verily, freedom is little more than ignorance of tyranny. Life long enough, and you will see: Men resent not the whip so much as the hand that wields it.

—TRIAMIS I, JOURNALS AND DIALOGUES

My Thoughts

My, my, what a fun quote to start the chapter. We touch on the Darkness that Comes Before, how men are not truly free. How they’re shaped by their environment to believe and behave in certain ways. So long as we don’t see who’s doing it, this doesn’t matter. But when there’s a face that’s oppressing you, that’s a different matter.

Why do you think news media and politicians spend so much time gaslighting us to deflect us to the true oppression going around us. Making us believe that we have to suffer for our own good when it’s really to their own profit. A leader who understands this and can act from the shadows is one that prospers. It’s best if you’re not the figurehead taking all the blame.

What does this have to do with the chapter? It’s Captain Kosoter trying to re-establish his dominance. To re-yoke the Skin-Eaters. From the murdering of the sobber to how he recruits the Stone Hags. Resentment is building. He’s losing control. They is mutinous talk whispering in the background.

Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The “Long Side”

Birds sing in the canopy of the Mop. When Mimara looks up, the sky is just pinpricks of light that squeeze through the thick branches. It’s so dense and vast, she thinks entire nations can vanish into it. Other than the tree trunks, it’s easy travel, the only real obstacle is thick veils of moss that hang down from branches they have to hack through.

It seems unthinkable that men had once taken hoe and plough to this earth.

The scalpers fear the Mop for good reason, she supposed, but for some reason her fear has left her. It is strange the way trauma deadens curiosity. To suffer cruelty in excess is to be delivered from care. The human heart sets aside its questions when the future is too capricious. This is the irony of tribulation.

To know the world will never be so bad.

She’s so lost in thoughts when Achamian says her name, she jumps and realize he’s standing beside her. He blends in too easily after having spent twenty years living in the wilderness. He tells her she won’t be with how little he knows about it. She thinks he’s afraid to tell her, but he says he’s not. The Judging Eye is a folk tale like the White-Luck Warrior or Kahiht. She sees fear in her eyes and thinks herself cursed.

The Wizard regards her for several unblinking heartbeats. Worry. Pity.

“Aye… I think you are cursed.”

Mimara has told herself this from the very beginning. There is something wrong with you. There is something broken. So she assumed hearing the same from Achamian would leave her intact, confirmed more than condemned. But for some reason tears flood her eyes, and her face rebels. She raises a hand against the gaze of the others.

He says pregnant women get the Judging eye. That makes her gape, numbing her pain. She asks why. He doesn’t know though he speculates that it has to do with childbirth and how carrying a new life in a woman’s body also means having a new soul, a piece of the Outside, enter her. This reminds her of her mother pregnant with Kelmomas and Samarmas.

She demands to know what the curse is with such ferocity she is immediately mad at herself, afraid she’s scared him off now that he’s talking. “People punish desperation as much out of compassion as petty malice.” He explains the women who bear dead children have the Judging Eye and shrugs as if saying that’s not you. But she feel s a chill at that he explains and demanded clarification.

A scowl knits his brow. “The Judging Eye is the eye of the Unborn… The eye that watches from the God’s own vantage.”

She’s shocked, saying she’s had this all her life. It’s not possible. He then says that the Outside makes cause and effect tricky, but she doesn’t understand and gets mad at him speaking in riddles.

“I’m just saying that in a sense your life has already been lived—for the God or the Gods, that is…”

She asks what that means and he scowls and says nothing, angering her. Then there’s a scream and Achamian tackles her and she feels his incipient wards around them as then Cleric is crying. Sutadra had been hit by a shaft in the face.

Again, she realizes. The Skin Eaters are dying again.

Achamian tells her to hold onto his belt as someone shouts Stone Hags. Mimara thinks about what she knows about Mandate Gnosis. Incipient wards are spells that trigger during a surprise attack. She’s always sensed them around him, even at his home. Now they “crackle with life-preserving ugliness.” The arrows hitting his wards dissolve. She tries to make sense of it then realizes that it’s humans firing down at them from the top of the ravine. Cleric has his own wards, Kosoter at his side.

Achamian shouts to rally on him. To stand close. The attackers shout in alarm, using the Galish word for Sorcerer. Then Achamian starts singing. Light flashes up at the attackers who run. Pokwas calls them the Stone Hags.

Fire assaults Cleric’s wards. The Stone Hags have an angogic sorcerer conjuring ethereal dragons. Achamian rakes the attackers with lines of bright white that is blinding. The light sweeps around them, the Compass of Noshainrau. Trees are destroyed. Part of the ravine collapses. The Stone Hags Flee.

Cleric stands unharmed before the Angogic sorcerer and laughs at the pathetic magic. Achamian grips her as Cleric kills the enemy sorcerer. He continues to laughter like “a murder of crows crying across thunder.”

At the end of the battle, everyone pants and stares in shock. Kosoter climbs up to the top of the ravine and taunts the fleeing Stone Hags and promises to murder them all. Mimara goes to Sutadra lying on his side, the arrow buried in his cheek. They have never talked before despite all they’ve been through. She is shocked by that as she watches him die.

She asks what she can do for him. He tries to speak but is choking on his blood. In the background, Galian explains that the Stone Hags that prey on fellow scalpers and them them easy pickings.

Hands held out and helpless, she stares down at the dying stranger. Why are you doing this? someone cries within her. He’s dying. There’s nothing to be done! Why—

The Judging Eye opens.

Achamian asks if the Stone Hags will return. Galian isn’t sure. No one knows where they winter. They might be desperate. As they talk, Mimara sees the “moral sum” of Sutadra’s life. It’s easier counting emotional wounds than your sins. People like to forget them but the World remembers. For every one hundred Heavens there are a thousand Hells.

She can see it all, intuitions bundled into the wrinkled architecture of his skin, the squint about his eyes, the cuts across his knuckles. Sin and redemption, written in the language of a flawed life. The oversights, the hypocrisies, the mistakes, the accumulation of petty jealousies and innumerable small and selfish acts. A wife struck on a wedding night. A son neglected for contempt of weakness. A mistress abandoned. And beneath these cankers, she sees the black cancer of far greater crimes, the offences that could neither be denied nor forgiven. Villages burned on fraudulent suspicions. Innocents massacred.

But she also sees the clear skin of heroism and sacrifice. The white of devotion. The gold of unconditional love. The gleam of loyalty and long silence. The high blue of indomitable strength.

Sutadra, she realizes, is a good man broken down, a man forced, time and again, to pitch his scruples against the unscalable walls of circumstance—forced. A man who erred for the sake of mad and overwhelming expediences. A man besieged by history…

Regret. That is what drives him. This is what delivered him to the scalpers. The will to suffer for his sins…

And she loves him—this mute stranger! One cannot see as much as she and not feel love. She loves him the way one must love someone with such a tragic past. She knows as a lover knows, or a wife.

She knows he is damned.

As he dies whimpering like child, she lies and says he’s going to Paradise. But then a shadow falls on them. Kosoter is over her. As she does, the Judging Eye closes giving her a glimpse of a “coal-orange eyes leering from a charred face.” He finishes off Sutadra and growls, “You rot where you fall.”

She stares at the dead man and wipes away the dirt from Kosoter’s boot off Sutadra’s face. The captain snarls at the Skin Eaters that they are weak. That is why they were ambushed. He won’t stand for any more weeping. “This is a slog!”

“The Slog of Slogs!” Sarl screeches out, chortling.

“And I am the Rule of Rules,” the Captain grates.

They leave behind Sutadra and head out, Xonghis taking them on a path away from where the Stone Hags fled. As Achamian walks, he realizes that Sutadra had been a mystery to the group. The man rarely talked, keeping to himself.

This was the way with some men. They sealed themselves in, bricked their ears and their mouths, and spent their remaining days speaking only with their eyes—until those became inscrutable. Many, you could wager, held chaos in their hearts, shrill and juvenile. But since ignorance is immovable, they seem immovable, imperturbable. Such is the power of silence. For all Achamian knew, Sutadra was little more than a weak-willed fool, a peevish coward behind the blind of an impassive demeanor.

But he [Achamian] would always remember him as strong.

He’s shocked by Mimara’s tears and silence. He didn’t think she could be affected by violence after Cil-Aujas. He tries to talk to her, but she’s lost in her grief. So he goes to Galian and Pokwas and learns about the Stone Hags. They’ve been haunting the Mop for five years. Pokwas despises them for preying on their own while Galian says it takes balls to do what they do, but it’s clearly an attempt to bait Pokwas. But Achamian agrees that it takes balls to hunt men who hunt Sranc.

They talk about the Stone Hags captain, a renegade Mysunsai wizard name Pafaras. He kept breaking contracts and his school drove him out to the hinterlands. He was the first “Spitter” to become a Scalper. A pompous asshole who later burned down an Imperial Custom House and was outlawed from the Scalper counts. That’s why the Stone Hags live out here preying on their own kind. Because they’re sloppy, Scalpers have escaped to tell the tale of them. They’re the only band more famous than the Skin Eaters.

Achamian glances at Mimara and see’s she’s still grieving, not distracted by the talk. He joins her and says, “He died the death allotted to him.” This makes her defensive and she asks why he would say that. He thought she mourned his death, that she knew him.

“The Eye,” she snapped, her voice cracking about bewildered fury. “It opened. I saw… I saw him… I saw his-his life…”

It seemed he should have known this.

“It’s his damnation I mourn,” she said. The damnation you will share, her look added.

Achamian knew he was damned. Lived with it so long it was easy to dismiss and scorn. But sometimes, he pictured all those thousands of Schoolmen screaming in torment. Even after two decades since breaking with the Mandate, he clutches to their catechism. “Though you lose your soul, you shall gain the World.”

He points out she’ll be damned if he teaches her sorcery. She ignores that with mercurial ease that frustrates him. Then he realizes it’s been days since his last lesson. Since Cil-Aujas, he’d expended no effort. He didn’t have the stomach to teach and figured she didn’t want to learn. Now he wonders if she has new reason not to.

Life’s harder turns had a way of overwhelming naïve passions. He found himself recalling his earlier advice to Soma. She had been given something, something she had yet to understand.

Time. She would need time to discover who she had become—or was becoming.

They stop in a clearing created by a huge oak that had toppled over. Pokwas calls it the stump, a place scalpers know about. He tells about a legend that each tree is a crypt that “Inhaled the dead from the earth.” A few years ago, thinking they could drive the Sranc deeper into the mop, Pokwas and Galian spent three days cutting down the tree. He then point at it and says, “Look what we found.”

Achamian saw it instantly near the peak of the rough-hewn cone. At first he thinks it’s been carved—the product of some morbid scalper joke—but a second look told him otherwise. A skull. A human skull embedded in the coiled heartwood. Only a partial eye socket, a cheek, and several teeth—molars to canine—had been chiseled clear, but it was undeniably human.

A shudder passed through the old Wizard, and it seemed he heard a voice whisper, “The heart of a great tree does not burn…”

Memories from a different age, a different trial.

Pokwas says that some claim this is the Sranc’s forest, but he thinks the dead own it.

Camping in the clearing was different, the woods around her was as dark as Cil-Aujas. They’re on edge supposedly because of the Stone Hags, but it’s being surrounded by the wall of black. Achamian remembers how the witches believe that trees were “as much living souls as they were conduits of power.” They take a hundred years to awaken and would hate, especially if they are planted in blood-soaked soil. In fact, the Ainoni mothers would bury their children and plant a sycamore tree so they could sit under its branches and feel their lost child, though the Shrial priests aid it was a “diabolical simulacrum” and have failed to stamp it out.

For his part, Achamian did not know what to believe. All he knew was the Mop was no ordinary forest and that the encircling trees were no ordinary trees.

Crypts, Pokwas had called them.

The woods are endlessly creaking and groaning while insects buzz. Achamian can’t sleep and starts to think the sounds are a language warning them to leave. Pokwas says nightmares of being choked by wild things are common here. It makes Achamian wonder if the place was a topoi. A “place where trauma had worn away the hard rind of the world.” The place could be “soaked in Hell” like Mengedda had been. The dreams Achamian had suffered there forced him to flee. He fears the same would happen.

But instead he dreamed of finding the No-God then the same dream he’d had since Cil-Aujas, the High King Celmomas giving Seswatha the map and placing it in the Coffers. He doesn’t sleep well as he lies with his back to Mimara. He is half-awake and half-dreaming, seeing the map case and its curse on it should the seal be broken, “Doom, should you find me broken.”

And he thought, Strange…

Finding knowledge in sleep.

He falls back into dreams and is in chains one of many bounced together. He’s in a shadowy tunnel. He is panicked, not sure where he is. He sees that the walls are golden for a moment. Ahead, there’s an opening that is “bright with things he did not want to see.” He thinks he’s been beaten, his teeth missing. Then he is surrounded by trees, waking up and realizing what is going on.

Trees! Crypts, the scalpers called them…

He yells at the trees to stop messing with him or he’ll burn them all down. But as he does, he realizes he’s screaming “with the wrong lips in the wrong world.” He’s still in the dream, being dragged down the hall. Something blares but not a horn. He’s yanked towards the light and terror grips him. He pleads in his mind.

Let this be the end.

Achamian wakes up already sitting, his hands gripping his shoulders. He struggles to gather wits as the others sleep. Someone begs in terror in their sleep in Galish. Hameron, the one “most broken by Cil-Aujas.”

There was a time Achamian had thought himself weak, when he had looked on men such as these scalpers with a kind of complicated envy. But life had continued to heap adversity upon him, and he had continued to survive, to overcome. He was every bit the man he had been, too inclined to obsess, too ready to shoulder the burden of trivial sins. But he no longer saw those ingrown habits as weakness. To think, he now knew, was not a failure to act.

Some souls wax in the face of horror. Others shrink, cringe, bolt for an easy life and its many cages. And some, like young Hameron, find themselves trapped between inability and the inevitable. All men cry in the dark. Those who did not were something less than men. Something dangerous. Pity welled through the old Wizard, pity for a boy who had found himself stranded on scarps too steep to climb.

Pity and guilt.

He notices the Nail of Heaven in the sky. It’s higher than he’d ever seen it outside of his dreams. Then he glances to Mimara sleeping beside him. Someone climbs down from a sleeping platform above. To Achamian’s horror it’s Kosoter. He climbs past Achamian’s platform, their eyes meeting. There’s a starved hunger in Kosoter’s eyes. Then he’s gone out of sight. He hisses, “Sobber!” and kills Hameron.

Fear fills Achamian. He lies down beside Mimara and pretends to sleep as Kosoter climbs back up to his platform. The sound is so loud, it almost hurts Achamian’s ears. He just lies there breathing, feeling the absence of the dead man’s life. Guilt twists Achamian. He had just feigned sleep while the boy was killed for his Achamian’s lie.

The obsession.

Strength, Achamian told himself. This! This is what Fate demands of you… If his heart had not yet hardened to flint, he knew it would before this journey was done. You could not kill so many and still care.

Fail or succeed, he would become something less than a man. Something dangerous.

Like the Captain.

Not even Mimara asked about Hameron the next morning. Everyone ignores them as Kosoter loomed over them all. Nothing is said, not even talk of the Stone Hag, proves that the men aren’t happy that the Rules of the Slog back in effect. As they march into the woods, it feels even more oppressive with two less members of their party.

The distance between each member grows as the day was on which causes Pokwas and Galian, who are shunning Sutadra, walk beside Achamian and Mimara. Galian whispers that it’ll just be Kosoter sitting on a pile of Sranc bones, everyone else dead. Pokwas agrees.

They were not so much searching for an understanding, it seemed, as they were acknowledging one that already existed. If anything proves that Men are bred for intrigue, it is the way conspiracies require no words.

Achamian thinks he’s gone mad. That sparks Mimara to laugh. She’s been silent since the attack. Galian says Kosoter’s survived more Slog, though he does have a pet Nonman adds Pokwas. Galian says everything is upside down. Madness is now sanity. Achamian asks what they should do. Galian asks Achamian that question. Then what chance do they have to reach Achamian’s “precious Coffers.”

This was when Achamian realized that he stood against these men. Mad or not, Lord Kosoter showed no signs of wavering. If anything his most recent acts of madness displayed a renewed resolve. As much as Achamian hated to admit it, Hameron had been a liability…

The old Wizard found himself warding away thoughts of Kellhus and his ability to sacrifice innocents.

Pokwas complains how they’ve “barely reached the Fringe,” have last three-fourths of their numbers. Achamian points out that once they are out of the woods, they’ll be in the wake of the Great Ordeal and their path clear. They ask if the Coffers are what he claims.

Achamian could feel Mimara watching his profile. He could only pray her look was not too revealing.

“You will return princes.”

Cleric hears a cry then the others. It’s distant. It’s so soft they wonder if they hear it. The sound seems to be all around them. Then a sorcerous crack echos and everyone glances at Cleric. The Nonmen says the trees are playing “games with sound.” And with them. Achamian says they have to free of them. So he climbs into the air with sorcerery.

He has to climb around the branches and pull himself past them while he suffers vertigo. Despite how many times hes done this, his body “resented the impossibility.” He finally breaks free and blinks at the brightness. Even now, the trees are still rising around him, but he’s clear of their canopy. He goes higher and all he can see is a green sea.

From up here, the cries were clearer and to the north. He sees a bit of stone rising out of the forest and uses a Cant of Scrying to zoom on a group of men. They are fleeing something. Another group of them is running towards the Skin Eaters, both fleeing something that has frightened them. Then a tide of Sranc appear and kill those who had stood to fight. There is so many of them, their terrible cries reaching his ears.

A kind of breathless remorse struck the old Wizard. This was how scalpers died, he realized. Lost. Thrown over the edge of civilization. A crazed death—not simply violent. Unwitnessed. Unmourned.

They survivors have to climb down a cliff, throwing off their gear. One steps out, the Mysunsai Schoolman and barely manages to walk on the air. Achamian realizes that the man too high up to stand on the “arcane echo” of the ground and instead is using the slope of the cliff. Achamian is watching the Stone Hags die.

Then their sorcerer leader starts casting agnostic spells to burn the Sranc and his own men. As he is doing that he makes a misstep and falls to his death. Achamian watches, not sure what to do now as it’s over when Cleric startles him and says they should return.

“Who?” he [Achamian] cried before his wits returned to him. “Who are you?”

A Mysunsai Schoolman keeping company with scalpers seemed mad enough, but a Nonman?

A Quya Mage?

Cleric just says the Sranc are moving in force and coming at them. They have to warn the others.

On the ground, Cleric starts telling what happened then trails off and Achamian finishes. Pokwas laughs and is glad the Stone Hags were killed. Galian says he’s missing the point, but Soma also is glad that the Stone Hags are dead. Then Pokwas says they should just kill the Sranc only to be cut off by Kosoter calling them fools and they won’t be doing that.

The black-skinned giant turned to regard his Captain with round-eyed outrage. Lord Kosoter’s scrutiny, which was angry at the best of times, narrowed into a murderous squint.

Galian begs for Pokwas to listen and also seems to be warning him that it’s too soon to push Kosoter. Achamian noticed it as did Mimara, but did Kosoter. They are witnessing the new order of the group being tested while Galian shouts the Hags are the biggest company which is how they get away with killing other scalpers. And they just got massacred by the Sranc, and so will the Skin Eaters.

Xonghis asks if the Sranc are heading this way? Achamian says they are. The Sranc would find their trail, their scent, they would hunt them down. Kosoter says they’ll make for Fatwall as planned. They’ll either lose them or make their stand there.

“Fatwall!” Sarl cackled, his gums blood red and glistening. His grins had seemed to eat up his whole face as of late. “Latrine of the Gods!”

They “skip-marched,” a fast trot that Achamian fears will do him in. But though he’s old, his body is keeping up, but he’s nearly done for when they stop for the night. He can hardly remember the march, just the pain. Though dinner is nice, he’s desperate for more Qirri. Mimara collapses exhausted, too, while Xonghis, with as much stamina as the Cleric and Kosoter, gets dinner ready while everyone else is lies down.

Kosoter and the Cleric have wondered off like they always did during camp’s set up. Cleric would sit while Kosoter muttered over him. It’s a mystery to Achamian. After coughing hard, Achamian shuffles to the pair. The pair look at Achamian and anxiety seizes Achamian. He just needs Qirri. Cleric starts to give it to him but Kosoter stops the Nonmen, making Achamian nearly panic.

“We need to speak first,” the Captain said. “Holy Veteran to Holy Veteran.”

Achamian had the impression of a sneer over and above the contempt that generally ruled the man’s expression. Something, a demoralizing wave, crashed through him. What now? Why? Why did this mad fool insist on beating complexity and confusion out of simple things?

He needed his pinch.

Wizard nods and Kosoter asks what the others are saying. Achamian says they worry that they won’t reach the Coffers. Achamian is so aware of the threat of the Chorae Kosoter has while says nothing. Achamian then asks if this sort of talk is a violation of the “Rules of the Slog.”

“Talk,” the Captain said, spitting to the left of his feet. “I care nothing for your talk…” The man’s smile reminded Achamian of the dead he had seen on the battlefields of the First Holy War, the way the sun would sometimes shrink the flesh of the face, drawing cadaverous grins on the fallen.

“So long as you don’t weep.”

Mimara keeps thinking how the “North means Sranc.” Back in the Andiamine Heights, the North was talked about like it was meaningless. Something that didn’t matter to her or others. Just like hearing about a famine in Ainoni. “What are these people to me?” Now she feels a fool as she’s running from Srancs once more, now in the Mop.

Qirri is what keeps them running, following Cleric with his pouch and his sorcerous light. Cil-Aujas had crushed in on them but the Mop feels like a void. A never-ending expanse. There was nothing but the “Skin Eaters and rushing shadows.”

For no reason she can fathom, images from her old life on the Andiamine Heights plague her soul’s eye. Gilded folly. The farther she travels from her mother, it seems, the more a stranger she becomes to herself. She cringes at the thought of her former self: the endless straining to stand aloof, the endless posturing, not to convince others—for how could they not see through her in some measure?—but to assure herself of some false moral superiority…

Survival, she realizes, is its own kind of wisdom. Scalper wisdom.

She has learned the truth. Everything is weak and dies. Especially the “conceits of the perpetually wronged.” Someone comments that she’s smiling. It’s Soma, the sort of “Disowned Prince” that the girls in the brothel dreamed of saving them instead of hurt them. But she doesn’t quite trust the restlessness in him. “A strength out of character to his foppish character.”

Soma says that eventually, everyone starts laughing on the slog, but the real trick is to know how to stop. She tries to ignore him, concentrating on the trail and not twisting her ankle, which could be a lethal mishap out here.

Unlike her sisters in the brothel, Mimara had despised men like Soma, men who continually apologized with grand gestures and false concerns. Men who had to smother their crimes beneath pillows of silken guilt.

She much preferred those who sinned with sincerity.

She keeps ignoring him as he keeps trying to talk to her. She knows he’s just another fool after her body. Then they are running again and she finds it peaceful to flee. She’s been doing it all her life, from the brother and her mother, from her fears, from her regrets. But now she’s running from the Sranc. The Qirri gives her endurance but makes her feel like just a small dot, a “plaything of enormities.”

I have the Judging Eye.

She laughs. Galian then Pokwas then everyone joins her. They all are laughing in the oppressive woods fleeing Sranc. This stops Cleric. He pauses and listens beneath his sorcerous light, appearing like an inhuman angel. He says something comes. She draws Squirrel as they all hear it, tensing for danger.

It’s a Galeoth, injured and exhausted, so scared he’ given up. She realizes that she truly hasn’t begun to flee because she hasn’t thrown her all into it like this man has. “To run as they ran in Cil-Aujas.”

The man babels to Galian while Kosoter demands to know what is going on. The Sranc are on his heels. Then Pokwas sees another light moving through the trees. It’s the surviving Stone Hags and they’re carrying their injured sorcerer leader on a litter. Galian and Pokwas shove the Galeoth to his knees to kill him, Achamian arguing that he won’t allow it. Kosoter ignores it all and whispers to Cleric who smiles. Sarl gurgles about Hags.

Then the Stone Hags are on them, blundering into Cleric’s light. They are shocked, dropping the litter, raising pleading hands. They are screaming that there is no time. Everyone is shouting, drowning out the sound of the approach until they hear the twigs snapping. The Sranc are on them.

Mimara is dead. She knows this absolutely. She and Soma are standing on the periphery, several paces from the commotion of the latest arrivals—from Achamian and his life-preserving Wards.

Achamian shouts at everyone to rally on him then he starts casting sorcery. The Sranc attack, and Mimara is fighting to defend herself. There are too many of them. Then she realizes that Soma is fighting with skill beyond the other scalpers. He moves too fast. With too much skill. It’s a “performance written in each singular moment.” The fight’s over quick.

Achamian pulls Mimara close and she hugs him back realizing that Soma is “standing above the twitching dead, watching her.”

Achamian is relieved that Mimara survived, expecting her to be hurt. Killed. Then they here Kosoter yelling. He holds Pafaras, the Stone Hag sorcerer. The man is standing on one foot, his other leg badly broken. The other Stone Hags just watch, knowing Pafaras is dying and not willing to fight for him. Kosoter shouts, “Tell me!”

Pafaras says it’s at least four clans chasing them. Galian is shocked and asked if they are mobbing. Pafaras pauses and says maybe. Achamian asks what that is. Pokwas says it’s “scalpers greatest fear.” The Sranc clans normally war with each other, but occasionally they band together though no one knows why. Pafaras continues to say that a few followed them down the cliff, the others must be looking for a way around.

“Your sort,” the Captain grated in disgust. He bent his face back to show the mayhem in his eyes. “Come to flee the Ordeal, is that it? Come to lord your power?”

“N-no!” the man coughed.

The Captain raised his Chorae as though inspecting a jewel, then, with a kind of casual malice, slammed the thing into the Hag’s mouth.

Sparking light. The whoosh of transubstantiation.

Achamian watches as the salted Pafaras falls backward onto the soft ground. Kosoter pries out his Chorae from the dead man’s mouth then glares at all of them but Cleric. Mimara asks what he’s doing. Achamian says Kosoter is recruiting. Achamian feels pity for the dead Pafaras since that could be his own fate. Kosoter stares at the surviving Stone Hags.

“You dogs have a choice,” he grated. “You can let the Whore play number-sticks with your pitiful lives…” A rare grin, sinister for the murder in his eyes.

“Or you can let me.”

And with that, the Stone Hags ceased to exist, and the Skin Eaters were reborn.

Like fugitives, they run. The former Hags don’t have Qirri and beg for a rest or a slower pace. Not even Achamian and Mimara listen. “This was the Slog of Slogs.” The Hags had to adapt or die. Already, two had fallen behind.

They come across a river called the Throat that is swollen with the spring melt. They see smoke on the horizon and Xonghis says Fatwall is burning. They find a ford several miles down. A Hag drowns the crossing. They run through the woods and hit the Throat again where they had first found it but on the others side. They can now here the Sranc following their trail down the far bank to the ford.

“Skinnies, boys!” Sarl cried with a gurgling laugh. “Mobs of them! Didn’t I promise you a chopper? Eh? Eh?”

They are chased now, the Sranc on their heels. Then they hit the edge of the woods and find the old fortress of Aenku Maimor. Fatwall. Achamian can barely recognize the place after it’s fall in the First Apocalypse and two thousand years of time. It has been rebuilt in spots, palisades used to patch holes in the wall by the scalpers. Those are now burning.

Pokwas is worried. The Sranc are ahead and behind them. He thinks this is more than a mobbing and that they’re all dead. Achamian realizes that these men fear for their lives in different ways than others. They gambled them on every trip and so are more blase that their luck has run out.

The fortress seems abandon. Cleric walks the sky to check it out. He motions them forward. They enter daylight, the Hags looked more like slaves terrified of their master. Despite Achamian thinking that these men, who preyed on other scalpers, are the lowest scum there is, they’re still human. And when you’re hunted by Sranc, that matters a lot.

Any reckoning of their crimes would have to come after.

They enter the fortress but don’t find any sign of a slaughter or pillage. Xonghis says the Imperial garrison here had burned the fortifications before they fled. Achamian likes ruins because he always had found “freedom from the demands of his calling as well as connection with the ancient days that so tyrannized his nights.” He feels complete here.

Mimara calls him Akka, sounding like her mother. He finds her smiling as she witness the ancient Norsirai construction for the first time. While not as grand as Cil-Aujas, it’s still impressive. He starts to talk about them but realizes she’s looking off at something else. Then in Ainoni says, after hesitating, that Somandutta is a skin-spy.

He is shocked then remembers that as a Princess-Imperial, she has been trained to recognize them and probably knows more about them then he does. She explains how he fought. How it was impossible. He’s shocked that there’s one here. He can’t believe it at all while she says he exposed himself to protect her.

“Soma!” Achamian called again.

The man spared him a sideways glance before turning back to the mutter of those about him. Conger. Pokwas. Achamian blinked, suddenly very feeble and very old. The Consult? Here?

The entire time.

He revealed himself to save me…”

The confusion did not so much lift as part about necessity, leaving only naked alarm and the focus that came with it.

Achamian gets pissed and casts the Odaini Concussion Cant to take him down. But Soma jumps over it and lands “with the scuttling fury of a crab.” He flees before Achamian even finishes casting the spell. Everyone just gapes while Sarl cackles and tells the Hags, “Steer clear the peach, lads.”

“What the Captain doesn’t gut, the Schoolman blasts!”

They sleep in the sunlight since everything is topsy-turvy. The Qirri wears off and everyone including Mimara, Cleric doesn’t hand any of it. She can’t stop thinking about the events of her life as Achamian sleeps. They are in the central keep, the only place they have a chance of defending against the Sranc. Cleric sits cross-legged on the battlements keeping watch while the others try to rest.

When Afternoon arrives, Cleric begins his sermon, talking how they once more are stranded and “trapped in another of the World’s hard places…” Stranded resonates with Mimara. Cleric says he’s been in spots like this thousands of times. “This is my place!”

“Wreaking destruction on these perversions… Atoning… Atoning!”

This rouses the Skin Eaters while the Stone Hags gape. Cleric says this is their place now, too. Sarl cries out his agreement. And then the Sranc began baying. Thousands are in the mop. Everyone leaps to their feet and crowd the wall, everyone peering out to the woods. As the Sranc come closer, birds taking to the sky, Cleric continues his sermon. “A thousand times over a thousand years!”

“You live your life squatting, shitting, sweating against your women. You live your life fearing, praying, begging your gods for mercy! Begging!” He was ranting now, swaying, and gesticulating with kind of arrhythmic precision. The setting sun painted him with lines of crimson.

Unseen throats howled and barked across the distance—a second congregation.

“You think secrets dwell in these mean things, that truth lies in the toes you stub, the scabs you pick! Because you are small, you cry, ‘Revelation! Revelation hides in the small!”

The black gaze fixed Achamian—lingered for a heartbeat or two.

“It does not.”

The words pinched the old Wizard deep in the gut.

“Revelation rides the back of history…” Cleric said, sweeping his eyes to the arc of the horizon, to the innumerable miles of wilderness. “The enormities! Race… War… Faith… The truths that move the future!”

Every one is struck by awe, even Achamian who remembers being around Nonmen thanks to the dreams. Only Kosoter is unmoved as Cleric adds, “Revelation rides the back of history,” “And it does not hide.” His ancient years seem to pour off him, washing away everything but the “pain and crazed profundity.” Dusk falls and the first Sranc rushed out of the woods.

As they did at Pir-Pahal during the First Apocalypse, the Sranc charged them, flowing over the walls and firing “an endless spray of arrows.” The Nail of Heaven glitters as the sky darkens. The scalpers huddle behind their few shields while Cleric and Achamian stand on the battlements.

All was screaming destruction below. Monochrome madness. The Men gagged on the porcine smile. And they watched, knowing that they witnessed something older than nations or languages, a Gnostic sorcerer and a Quya Mage, singing in impossible voices, wielding looms of incandescence in wide-swinging arms. They saw hands glow about impossible dispensations. They saw light issue from empty air. They saw bodies pitched and prised, and burned, burned most of all, until the ground became croaking charcoal.

Incariol had spoken true… It was a mighty thing, a sight worthy of the pyre.

A revelation.

My Thoughts

The way that nature can swallow up the works of men. What was once fertile farmland is now a forest. I lived in New Mexico. It’s a rather barren areas, full of scrub lands. You’d never know that about a thousand years ago, the Anasazi farmed the entire area before their civilization collapsed thanks to the changing climate and poor farming technique that destroyed the fertility of the soil allowing the desert to claim it. Same thing with North Africa. Now the Sahara, it was once the bread basket of the Roman and Byzantine empire, supplying grain too much of the Mediterranean.

Survival instincts shut down a lot of the higher processes of the brain, focusing you on fight or flight. Prolonged stress will deaden you. Instead of dealing with trauma, your brain is ignoring it to let you keep on going. Keep marching ahead. That’s what PTSD is, your brain having trouble coming out of this mode. You’re stuck in that heighten state of survival when things are not dangerous. So instincts that are necessary in war or other dangerous situations are now detrimental in a peaceful setting.

What’s Kahiht? No idea. This might be the only reference to it in the entire series.

Are you really ever prepared to hear the truth about yourself even if you think you know it? Mimara’s not.

The Judging Eye staring at Sutadra. At man who has done terrible things because he had to and how it broke him. Why he is here where he will die. Punishing himself. But that’s not going to save him. There is no saving him in this world. He is damned. He will be fed on by devils. How could Mimara not love him after knowing him so completely. For all that jaded shell around her, she really does have that heart of gold. It’s battered, gouged, and pitted by what happened to her in her childhood, but you see it gleaming through from time to time.

The attack by the Stone Hags has knocked the rust off Kosoter’s blade. He was as affected as the others (well, not our favorite skin-spy Soma). He allowed discipline to fall. But no longer. They all almost died. He has to stop wallowing himself. He’s taking charge, and they better obey him. Can he hold them together. (Well, if you’re read the book you know the answer).

Just because someone is talking, doesn’t mean they are wise. They could just have nothing to say. They could be empty inside. Or full of knowledge. Pain. Anger. The silence makes them into a rorcshach that we can see what we project on them. We’d like people to think us strong and wise if we had the courage to not speak the dumb things that pop in our mind.

“The heart of a great tree does not burn.” I have searched every book published so far, and I can’t find this phrase. This must be from Seswatha’s life, but I can’t find where it is. I get what it means. If there’s a forest fire, the flames will never burn that far into the wood. It will survive.

And we get a little bit more tidbits on witches. They can use trees as conduits of power. I wonder if Bakker will explore witches in the next series. He certainty has teased us. They commonly bind souls and think trees have souls. They also make contraceptive charms for women.

Achamian’s dream of being chained to captives and moving through halls that seemed Golden is an incomplete version of the dream he has as Nau-Cayûti at the end of The Great Ordeal. Where the prince is dragged through with the others and shoved into the Sarcophagus to become the No God.

The Nail of Heaven is higher in the sky the farther north you go. More indication that it’s something glowing bright right above the pole. Not a star, though. It’s too bright and there are some indications it predated the crash of the Ark, like a satellite they sent ahead, but I don’t know how a satellite can hold position above the pole. You can only do that over the equator.

Maybe Achamian would have become a different person, but he is still feeling that guilt for what he’s doing. He certainly still cares as the series goes on.

Achamian doesn’t want to face the fact he is becoming a sort of Kellhus to find the truth of Kellhus. Stare too long into the abyss and all.

With Pokwas and Kosoter’s stare-down when the company learns about the Sranc, we are seeing that Kosoter isn’t in charge as well as he thinks. There is resentment and defiance in them.

So Kosoter talking with Cleric is probably because Kosoter is his elju. His book. Something errant Nonmen use to store memories. Kellhus promised Cleric that he would remember again, that Achamian would substitute for Seswatha, someone Cleric knew as we’ll see at the end of the book. Odds are, Kosoter is prepping Cleric for this. After all, Kosoter is out here to keep an eye on Achamian and to be in position to guide him. I still think Kellhus wanted to be deconstructed after his victory with the Consult. He wants to end the Outside but not through genocide. Through atheism. Kill people believing in this stuff, and it will end. But that’s just my theory.

We’re seeing the Qirri addiction on full display. Like any junkie, when things get worse, you need that fix sooner.

Maybe Kosoter should be concerned about the talk. Oh, wait, he is. But he’s blustering. He has to be seen as strong and uncaring, but if he really didn’t care, he wouldn’t have asked. He knows that his position as leader is precarious. Cil-Aujas broke the Skin-Eaters. If they hadn’t gone there, I am curious what would have happened at the Coffers.

Mimara is sensing that there’s something inhuman about Soma.

Got to like that Mimara not a fan of the hypocrite pretending their a good person and not a jackass.

Kosoter doesn’t like that people are avoiding fighting in the Great Ordeal. Like he hates himself for not being there. He would if he wasn’t here on his mission from Kellhus. But that disgust he has for the others who avoid it is palpable.

Cleric talks about his place is killing Sranc and atoning. The guilt for the Womb Plague, for trusting the Inchoroi back in the day, is there. He’s immortal and his race is doomed. And all he can do about it is kill Sranc. There’s no escape for him.

Cleric’s sermon, where he talks about how you think Revelation hides in the small, then looking and Achamian is interesting. He’s almost saying, “You think that finding Ishuäl is going to matter? That you’re going to find Revelation there in the mundanity of the Dûnyain life?” And does Achamian find it there? No. What happens at Golgotterath, where Achamian ends up at the end of this series, that is were Revelation happens. That is where the important things happen.

And we end it there. The scalpers besieged as Revelation happens once more.

And you have to check out my fantasy novel, Above the Storm!

Now it’s been turned into an Audiobook!

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

When the Stormriders attack …

…Ary’s people have little chance.

Can he find a way to defeat them?

At 19, Ary has spent ten years mourning his father’s death. The aftermath of the attack still haunts him. Now, on the eve of the draft he faces his greatest fear, being sent to become a marine.

He knows the cost of war.

All he wants is to marry Charlene, who he has loved since they were kids. Building a farm and starting a family sounds perfect. There’s just one problem, his best friend Vel adores her, too. He’d give anything for peace.

But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…

…isn’t going to make it happen.

For love, for his people, and especially for the life he wants, Ary makes a decision that will change everything.

The adventure begins.

You’ll love this beautifully creative dark fantasy, because James Reid knows how to create characters and worlds you’ll grow to adore.

Get it now.

You can buy or burrow The Storm Below Box Set today!

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