Tag Archives: Fantasy

Weekly Free Short Story: Blood to Flame

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

Enjoy!

Blood to Flame

Day of Flames, Month of the Fire, Year of Heart’s Flooding 1062

Passion burned in Sdacsa’i.

Taek’a buzzed with euphoria as he rose from the woman’s embrace, his seed spilled in her. She cooed her delight, her ebony skin gleaming in the torchlight spilling between the two ruined buildings. The revelry raged beyond, the clash of cymbals, trumpeting of horns, and the rill of pipes created a melody of disharmony. A dozen different songs blending together with the shouts of the celebrants.

In Sdacsa’i, passions did not have to be constrained. Only one oath mattered, and only a fool would take that one.

Taek’a lurched with drunken laughter from the woman, his loincloth half-covering his manhood as he stumbled into the debauchery. He hardly thought of the woman who called herself Sa’ina. It meant “Desire” in his Ki’manese tongue.

A fake name. But who cared.

The oaths to the Passions didn’t matter here. The duty to family, friends, town, and Ki’mana did not hold power. Sleeping with a girl, spilling his seed in her, didn’t mean he had to take her for his wife and care for her children.

He’d come to taste fire. The raw Passion without any oaths or rules constraining him. A last chance of freedom before the repercussions of his deeds crushed him. Before he added his melody to Wueda and settled down to manage her father’s bakery.

He didn’t have flour on his hands here. He had the scent of a woman’s passion. He inhaled as he lurched out into the revelers dancing on the edge of the desert. Here, the fertility gifted by the Heartspring ended and the fiery death of the Anvil loomed ahead. The dry scent of the desert brushed his nose. He felt the warmth from its sands even though the sun had long set.

A giggling girl, naked and smiling, pressed a drink into his hand before being dragged off by a pair of her friends. All laughing and stumbling. He inhaled the fruity scent of fortified strawberry wine, the alcohol almost drowned the sugary sweetness. He took a swing, his tongue and throat almost dead to the burning.

Once a decade, this town lived. Once a decade, any acts here were free of the weight. Passions didn’t have to be constrained. He felt a freedom he’d never had in his village alongside the Heartspring, the massive lake at the heart of Ki’mana. From it sprang the Three Mother Rivers, the blessed channels that spread the life-giving water across what should be arid savanna.

A bonfire blazed to his right. Women danced around it, the firelight painting across their ebony skin. Like Taek’a, they were Ki’manese, not pale-tan like the Tethyrians to the north, or snow white like the staid followers of Elohm across the sea. They were the Children of Water and Fire, of passions restrained and blazing.

He drifted to the women, entranced by their movements. Some wore skirts of beads that flashed and swayed, exposing parts of their body kept hidden across the rest of Ki’mana. Breasts heaved, oiled and gleaming. Men clapped a beat around them, drinking, singing, lusting. A feverish pitch burned through Sdacsa’i.

Something built. Taek’a could feel it in the root of his phallus.

Did Wueda come here? he wondered idly. You never announced if you were going to Sdacsa’i, and your family and friends would pretend you hadn’t left. She was a fine girl and would make a fine wife, but…

He smiled as a girl darted past chased by an older man, his snowy beard almost shining against his dark skin. His muscles sagged, but he still had the virility to chase her into the dark corners between the ancient walls of the city.

Taek’a finished off the rest of his fortified wine, the flavor of strawberries lingering on his lips. He looked for a pretty girl to kiss. His eyes cast around, flicking past two men locked in their own embrace. It was Sdacsa’i.

Nothing was forbidden on this night.

The song around the bonfire hit a feverish pitch. The women were swaying in ecstatic passion. The growing sensation he felt rippled through him, a deep, resonating harmony. All the Passions had their own tones. The Passion of the Wind, of the Earth, of Father and Mother. Here, the Passion of Fire reigned. The most destructive. The most fierce. The one most needed to be controlled, or it would destroy everything.

The one place where it could sing to its fullest.

He felt it in the root of his manhood. Everyone did. The rhythm clapped louder and louder. The fire burned and blazed. The flames danced at any one moment looking like frozen crystals of oranges and reds and yellows before they shifted to the next pose. The coals of the burning logs blazed bright. The flames roared to a feverish pitch. The ground rumbled beneath his feet.

She was coming.

The Avatar of Fire. The Passion of Flames given flesh. The time to pledge the one oath enforced in Sdacsa’i had arrived. The one action that was binding. The one drunken boast you never wanted to make here.

The harmonics hummed. The buildings rattled. Groaned.

The bonfire collapsed. Logs spilled towards the dancers. They screamed, fleeing. Coals spilled across the desert sands. Sparks danced through the air. Men yanked gaping women to safety. A silence descended despite the roar of the spilled fire.

The harmony ended.

Well, well, well, look at all of you,” a voice purred in a strange form of Ki’manese, accented but not like any of the Relashim traders that passed through Taek’a’s town.

The woman who stepped up to the spilled fire had skin as pale as milk, her hair the color of spun gold. Her age was hard to say, at once young and bursting with hormonal passion, then mature and blessed with the wisdom of years. She held a silver goblet studied with garnets in one hand. She took a long drink, her ruby-red eyes flashing about the watchers.

O’csari had arrived. The Passion of Flame made flesh.

She finished her drink and threw the goblet into the fire. She laughed and pulled the nearest woman to her. Their naked bodies came together as O’csari planted a hungry kiss that made every watching male groan, Taek’a included. The woman shuddered, her ebony skin as dark as night against the Avatar’s flesh.

Mmm, don’t go far,” purred the Avatar as she broke away. She whirled around and fire burned at her fingertips. They blazed up her arms as a harmonic ringing filled the air. The single note of a tuning fork plucked.

The cup in Taek’a’s had purred.

Look at all of you,” O’csari said, her voice ringing through the night. In the dark around the bonfire, revelers gathered. She stalked around the spilled blaze, her pale flesh painted in dancing reds and oranges. “All this passion unleashed. You burn with it.”

She passed a woman, stroking her face with fiery fingers. The woman shuddered and touched her dark cheek, maybe to soothe a burn or to savor the caress of the demigoddess. The Seven Passions were sacred to Taek’a’s people. They could embody Avatars to enact their will, divinities with purposes mere mortals could never understand.

Yes, yes, you blazed with it.” O’csari breathed deep. “I can smell it. Intoxicants on the air. Lust brimming in all of you. No focus. No control. You spend your fires without any purpose. Isn’t it wonderful?” She smiled. “All this freedom. Look at what you do with it.”

A strange shame rippled over Taek’a as he realized his manhood was exposed. He shifted his loincloth. Women tugged at the scant clothing they wore. Men squirmed in place, shoulders hunching as O’csari circled the blaze, eyes judging.

She shook her head, golden hair dancing down her back. “This? You can do anything in Sdacsa’i, and this is what you choose? To fornicate with any man or woman you find? To sing songs and stumble around in a fog of drugs and wine? To satiate your own passions with no concern for others?”

Taek’a swallowed. Silence reigned

No one?” she asked. “No one wants to defend the pleasures you’ve indulged in? The freedom you’ve chosen?” She paused, glancing at a large man, his chest powerfully muscled. “Not you? You’re a strong one. What do you do?”

Blacksmith,” he grunted.

You know all about passions then,” she said. “Huh? Controlling the fire. Tempering heated metal. Is that why you’re here? Did you think you’d find satisfaction in dancing like the ephemeral flame? Swaying this way and that, blazing bright until you’re snuffed out.”

The man shrugged.

Why aren’t you reveling now?” O’csari looked around. “You have your freedom. Do not let me stop you.” She liked her lips, eyes falling on some of the half-naked dancers huddling together. “Not when there are such beauties to enjoy unless… Unless you came here for the ultimate expression of passion.”

The fire on her fingertips swelled up her arms as the resonance grew louder. It hummed through the soil and rattled Taek’a’s bones. He stood transfixed by her. The flames reached her shoulders, dancing towards her head and caressing her blonde tresses. The tips of her fingertips seemed to blur like the tines of a tuning fork.

She’s humming, he realized, the harmony coming from her divine flesh.

The ultimate resonance of passion is to give yourself completely to something else. Something beyond your selfish existence.” She whipped her gaze around. “You’ve fled your dreary existence to find freedom in this night of excess. You are tired of giving a little of yourself. To your parents. Your children and spouses. Your community. You think you want passion, that you’ll find it in this momentary pleasure. To truly resonate with passion, you have to surrender everything to the flames.”

Her eyes, almost glowing like ruby jewelchines, fell on Taek’a for a moment.

Feed it everything you have until nothing, not even ash, remains.” She shuddered. “That is why you are here. You don’t want freedom. You want the slavery that comes from true passion. To be a servant to something greater than yourself. Do you have the courage to face the trial of the desert? To let the blazing sun consume you and the sizzling sands devour you? Can you survive the furnace and become something better?

A Bloodfire?” someone called.

Bloodfires… The greatest warriors in the world. Unparalleled in their skill. They fought without fear because they had none. Every ten years, O’csari recruited for her fighters. Men and women who could take wounds that would slay Taek’a. Who could run for days on end? They never disobeyed because they gave themselves utterly to their master. They were the ultimate expression of Passion.

It terrified Taek’a that any could take the oath.

O’csari thrust her arms high.

Are you cowards?” she demanded. “Are you too scared to give yourself to me. You didn’t fear surrendering to the wine you drank, the drugs you chewed, the lusts you enjoyed. You willingly threw yourself into debauchery. You have come close to the flames. They are waiting for you. Cast yourself in. Blaze with me and be reborn as something noble. Something beautiful. Give yourself unto me and find the ultimate freedom.”

A drunken man stumbled forward, his hair shaved in the manner of a Kiwuj Ki’manese. He wore a dirty, tunic-like thwab. “I’ll become a Bloodfire!”

The Avatar of Fire whirled. Flames blazed across her entire body as she sauntered to him. She cupped his face and kissed him. The fire burning on her fingers danced to the harmonic resonance surging through the air.

The fire melted into the man. He stiffened and gasped. She broke the kiss. “I accept your oath. Dawn, you start your journey.”

Bloodfire!” a man shouted in salute.

Bloodfire!” Taek’a roared with the others.

I’ll be one!” a lean woman said, pressing from two others. She swayed with drink. “I’ll do it. Sounds easy.”

As easy as being born,” said O’csari before seizing the lean woman’s face with burning fingers and planting the fiery kiss.

The resonance hummed.

Why would they do this? Taek’a asked as another man stepped forward followed by the blacksmith. Most die. Who could survive walking days through the desert without water or food? It’s madness.

I can do it,” slurred a slender man who tripped as he marched forward, falling on his face on the sand. “I can swing a sword.”

Anyone can,” O’csari said as she knelt to kiss him.

Are they too drunk to know? He felt the alcohol burning through his own veins. The fire intense. They’re abandoning everything. They’re families. Their homes. A life of making bread…

He stared down at his dark hands. Wueda would make a fine wife. She had a plump figure. Her father’s bakery was profitable. It would be his one day, and until then he would make loaf after loaf. Day in and day out.

You slept with her that night, he reminded himself. You spilled your seed in her. You made an oath with her that night.

He thought of Sa’ina and the other women he’d enjoyed in drunken romps since arriving in Sdacsa’i. It didn’t matter here that he’d enjoyed their bodies. Even if a child quickened, it would be their husbands’ responsibilities to raise.

If Wueda is here… He pushed that thought away. She didn’t chafe under the regimented life in their village. Every day the same thing, forcing himself to wake up before dawn to work in the bakery. To find his bed before dusk.

He’d grow slowly fat like her father had from nibbling on his own wares. He’d face the ovens day in and day out. This strange horror filled him as his future stretched out before him. He swayed, dizzy from the wine.

Who else has the courage to surrender everything to the fire?”

Everything… His eyes lifted. He met her ruby gaze. A smile spread on her lips.

I can see it,” O’csari said. “Say it. Make the oath.”

I’ll be a Bloodfire,” he said, flinching from that stark feature. He never should have slept with Wueda. He’d been drunk for the first time on wheat beer, the music had been pounding, and the girl he’d wanted to dance with had instead chosen Bue’ab.

I’ll be a Bloodfire!” he declared, his voice slightly slurred. “Better than being a baker.”

Giving life is more work than taking it,” agreed O’csari before her blazing hands seized him. Fiery lips kissed him.

The resonance he felt early intensified. It shook his entire body. He shuddered as his bones shook. His flesh suddenly felt liquid. Porous. It was like the vibrations were energizing every bit of him, allowing him to become one with her flames.

They merged into his body.

She broke the kiss, and he collapsed to his knees, panting. Sweat dripped from his brow. Locks of ropy, twisted hair spilled down his cheek. He looked up to see O’csari collect the first woman she’d kissed, snag a flagon of wine from a man’s hand, and vanish into an alley.

What did I just do?” he groaned, feeling the weight of his oath. The only one that mattered here.

*

The Bloodfire oath was not easily broken.

Taek’a felt it in his bones as he waited for the sun to rise with the others who’d made it. The fire lurked in him, waiting for him to uphold his word, or he would truly surrender everything to the flames. The lean woman rocked back and forth a few paces from him, her eyes wide with the horror at what she’d done. On his other side, the blacksmith wept, staring down at his broad hands.

Every time I get drunk, I make a bad oath,” Taek’a said.

The blacksmith glanced at him, tears staining his ebony face.

I mean, it could be worse, right?” Taek’a tried to focus on that. “We’ll be warriors. Invincible. Not forced to marry the ugliest girl in the village because we were too drunk to see straight.”

The blacksmith looked down, his broad shoulders rippled. The lean woman barked a laugh that turned into a croaking sob. She shook her head and rubbed at her temple.

Headache?”

She nodded. “I’ve never been drunk before.”

I know a great hangover cure.”

She groaned, “What?”

Baking in the desert. We’ll be feeling the sun frying our bodies soon.”

She cocked her head. “Do you always babble stupidly in the morning?”

When I’m nervous. Too drunk last night to be nervous but now…” He glanced out at the desert. The sun neared rising, the world lightened to iron grays. Sand stretched across the horizon. It was said to be nothing but dunes between here and Bue’csa’i. The fortress where O’csari trained the Bloodfires lay at the end of the peninsula.

We’re not going to make it,” groaned the blacksmith. He flexed strong hands. “Passion’s curse this oath!”

But it’s what you want,” the purring voice of O’csari said.

Taek’a glanced behind him to see her emerging wrapped in a robe of Demochian silk. It clung to her lithe, pale body, her ruby eyes almost glowing. A woman hugged her from behind, ebony face blissful, eyes glazed from liquor or chewing brown soothe.

Passion has driven you here. Passions have hammered your life into the shape they now hold. Be free of them. Surrender them to the flames.” A cruel smile crossed her lips. “One way or the other, your lives have ended. You accepted my kiss. My flames burn in you. What will be left once they blaze? What will be born from your ashes?”

The blacksmith snarled and lunged at her. His bulk crossed the iron-gray sands in a flash, a charging rhino. A hum rippled through the world, the vibration of creation itself, the Passion of Fire roaring from O’csari.

Taek’a didn’t see her move. The woman hugging O’csari gasped, suddenly holding empty air. The blacksmith flipped through the air and slammed down on his back. It was an impossible feat of strength. O’csari weighed half of the blacksmith’s bulk and stood two heads shorter. She planted her foot on his broad chest.

Sun is about to rise,” she said. “Burn here or burn in the desert.”

Let me go back!” the blacksmith snarled. “I’ll make their passion-cursed pots and pans. I’ll slave before the furnace. Release me!”

But you gave your oath.” She leaned over. “There are consequences to everything. I used to think differently, I did. I believed in Anidze. We thought we could change the world, and instead we shattered it. We ruined it all.” Her lips curled in a smile as confusion rippled through Taek’a. Anidze sounded so much like A’nimize, the deadly manifestation of the Black Passion. The dread one that caused strife and discord, which had ruined the world in the distant antiquity, fracturing the peoples. It was why oaths were important.

A word spoken held power. A deed committed held repercussions. He could feel that truth in him.

Passions must be channeled, and if you do not have the self-control to manage it yourself…” Her eyes flicked to Taek’a and the others. “Go or die with him. Perhaps you’ll be reborn into something with purpose. Something strong and powerful. Perhaps you can be free of it all.”

A Bloodfire?” I asked.

Her smile flicked across her lips. “Maybe. We’ll see. Succeed or fail.”

Taek’a felt the harmony in him swelling. He glanced at the desert before him, gray, almost cool and inviting. The hairs at the back of his neck stood up. He ran a hand over his hair dreadlocks. He thought of Wueda. Is this better than marrying her?

No.

He jogged out into the desert, the others rushing with him. Flames erupted behind him. The blacksmith howled in agony, his screams flogging Taek’a. His legs found endurance. Despite the queasiness in his stomach, his pace quickened. He ran as fast as he could. His sandaled feet smacked on the sun-baked sand. The muscles rippled beneath his dark skin. The pounding in his head intensified. The taste of blood soon filled his mouth. His side throbbed.

He ignored it. He pressed into the desert.

The sun rose behind him. He felt its fire kissing his back. It spilled over his skin. A coating of sweat gleamed over his flesh. Scrub brush passed him by as he crossed the sandy soil. Lizards scurried into cover and desert thrushes chirped from thorny bushes. Grasshoppers bounded with him, their bodies as tan as the soil.

Finally, his endurance failed. He stumbled to a gasping halt. The sun’s heat already hammered at him. The air danced and wavered on the horizon, showing deceptive pools of refreshing water.

Thirst attacked him.

He looked around and saw none of the others. He glanced back behind him and only saw his footsteps disturbing the sandy slope of a dune. His head cast about while the pulsing rhythm of fire buzzed through his bones.

It pulled him onward.

You’ll be a warrior of legend,” said Taek’a as he stumbled forward. His feet kicked at the sand. His chest heaved. He licked lips, finding them cracked. He panted, his mouth dry. He rubbed his tongue across the roof of his mouth, struggling to generate moisture. “A mighty Bloodfire. Won’t that be something?”

Of course, have to be consumed by the desert,” he answered himself.

True.”

The sun’s heat intensified as he spoke to himself. The sheen of sweat on his body evaporated by noon. None replaced it. When he stopped to urinate, a weak stream of dark yellow spurted out. It hurt. He kept rubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth, struggling to find any moisture.

His steps grew woozy. He stumbled and swayed, panting. His heart screamed in his chest. He felt it pounding with a frantic rhythm. He sucked in breaths, the air as hot as a baker’s oven. He coughed and wheezed. The sun kissed every inch of his body. His skin broiled in it. He shook his head, the world stumbling about him.

Someone has to make it through this,” he muttered, his bones buzzing. “I’ve seen a Bloodfire, remember?”

The Water’s Gift Festival?” he asked himself.

Yes, yes, the big chap with the huge sword. All the girls swooned over him. More than a few tried to entice him into a marriage.”

Not that he cared. Do Bloodfires even care about pleasure?”

Don’t care about anything, do they? Not surprising, feel like I’m getting wrung dry.”

Every drop squeezed out.”

His words trailed off as he stumbled forward into the setting sun. He blinked at that, his thoughts molten. It shone on him, half-blinding his eyes. His back and shoulders throbbed. His skin felt pinched taut by a thousand tiny fingers. He licked cracked lips oozing sluggish blood.

He tripped.

Pain flared through his toe. He gasps, stumbling and falling on the sizzling sand. He sucked in a breath, rolling over onto his back. He screamed in agony at the pain bursting across his blistered skin. He staggered to his feet, swaying.

Stared at the skull he’d tripped over.

Sand spilled out of one of the eye socket. More gagged the mouth. It was human, the exposed parts bleached white, the buried stained a dirty brown. He groaned and picked it up.

Look at you,” he said. “What happened to your flesh? Burst into flames?”

A mad cackle rasped from Taek’a. “Tried to turn your blood into fire, eh? That’s what I’m doing. Feeling it boiling out of me. Soon, soon, I’ll blaze!”

He turned and stumbled forward again, marching into the sunset, a skull gripped in hand. Sand tumbled off his back, spilling over the oozing blisters cooked into his dark flesh. The sun vanished. He’d survived the first day in the desert.

One down,” he muttered. He chortled again, his mind broiling. “See, did better than you, huh? Can’t fail. Can’t be like the blacksmith. He burst into flames…” A mad idea popped into Taek’a’s sun-addled mind. “Is that you, Blacksmith? Did you blaze here? Where did it happen?”

He staggered as the world cooled around him. Darkness deepened. He collapsed onto his chest and sank into dreams.

A dark, warm confine held Taek’a. He felt safe, curled up into a ball, his knees pressing into his chest. Whatever held him rippled and shifted. It squeezed him tight like a babe wrapped in swaddling.

Are you strong enough?” whispered a woman. “Birth comes in blood and pain.”

His eyes snapped opened.

The sun cooked him. Heat danced around him. Movement cracked pain across his back, muscles rippling splitting open blisters. Thick puss oozed across leathery skin, quickly congealing in the heat. He clutched the skull and staggered to his feet.

It was a wild night,” he babbled to the skull. “You know it. You were there.”

I was, answered the skull. He spoke with the deep timbre that reminded Taek’a of his father. Good harvest. A night of bounty. Many oaths were sworn.

Wrong oaths,” Taek’a muttered. “Wueda nice enough girl, but Obra’a… Now there was a girl to marry.”

She danced with Bue’ab. What was so wrong with Wueda?

Shrugged. He stumbled towards the west, the sun flogging his aching back. His heart screamed in his chest, struggling to pump his thickening blood. He shook his head, the skull floating beside him. Ropy locks of hair spilled around the bleached-white bones of her face.

Wueda’s hair

Yes, what was so wrong with me? Wueda’s skull asked, mandible moving, teeth clattering together.

Just… Just…” Taek’a shook his head. His ebony skin had a waxy complexion where it wasn’t blistering from the sun’s burning touch. “It’s not fair. One drunken mistake, and I had to marry you.”

I know, Wueda’s skull said. If I had been sober… Well, I was willing to make it work, but you were a coward. Too afraid of your passions. It’s why you’re going to fail. You’re not going to make it.

Show you,” he muttered and staggered forward.

The day passed in a haze of hallucinations. Skulls drifted around him, laughing, jeering, cheering. He struggled to speak to them, but his tongue didn’t seem to work. It felt shriveled in his mouth. Everything about him felt reduced.

He fell to his knees, not even feeling the searing heat of the sand. He crawled forward, staring at the horizon, at the ball of the setting sun. Skulls danced around it, a spiraling circle feeding the fiery orb. He would join them soon if he stopped.

His blood boiled away. It poured out of his pores, a red steam. His heart hurt. Every beat a struggle to pump congealing gunk through his veins. He dug at the sand, pulling himself forward another pace. He wanted to laugh. To cry. To… to…

Remember.

Taek’a collapsed into a ball. He dreamed he was in a womb, the comforting presence squeezing around him. Flames danced around him. They burned, hungry to swallow him. His bones yearned for it. For the end, but he was still safe here.

Protected.

He sucked on his thumb, his body held tight.

Do you have the strength to see the Eternal Tone? the mother asked him. Her voice echoed from all directions. To harmonize with pure fire. Your blood is gone. Sludge oozes through your veins. Do you feel it? The darkness? Do you want that?

He did not. Fear ripped through him. He trembled in the womb, the last of his passion raging in him. That was the last bit of him that existed. It had a name. Taek’a. He would have to surrender it to be born. He would have to give up everything to emerge from the womb.

His heart labored. He could feel the pain that living cost him. It was proof that he wasn’t gone. That he still breathed. If he gave up his last passion, it would take away his will. He would be bereft of it.

Terror rippled through him. He didn’t want to stop being Taek’a. He was scared of giving up his identity. It was his core. The flames burned around the womb. The fire wanted to devour his essence. If he were born, he would die.

He couldn’t surrender.

NO!” he screamed and clutched onto that last bit of life. He held it into his heart.

His blood caught fire.

He gasped as he felt his will, his desire to live, surging through his veins. The thick sludge that had become his blood, almost desiccated of any moisture, burned with hunger. It spread through his body. His heart pumped living flames through his network of arteries and veins. They spread, consuming everything.

Taek’a’s memories became the fuel for his life. His body grew stronger, sustained by his own passions, a never-ending inferno. He wouldn’t die. He wouldn’t pass from life into death. His flesh would survive.

You swore an oath, a voice whispered. To give it all up.

Taek’a’s awareness quivered at that revelation then it was gone, devoured by the fire now sustaining his body. His identity reduced to ash. The flames spread through him, merging with him. He became a living flame. The heat of the desert did not matter. The sun did not hurt. He didn’t need water when he had fire burning through his veins.

He opened his eyes.

I see you failed,” a disappointed voice said. A mother’s voice.

She stood over him, her pale skin framed by blonde hair, her red eyes soft. She touched his ebony face. The caress was tender and gentle. Pain swelled in her eyes as she stroked down to his thick lips. Her flesh felt cool, almost icy, on him.

They always fail,” she said. “No one can surrender everything to the flames. You tried. You were close. You came far, but it wasn’t enough, was it? You didn’t want to stop existing.”

Who am I?” he asked, his voice a rumbling monotone.

Her head cocked. “Why, a Bloodfire. A failed ascension. I have to keep carrying my burden.”

The Bloodfire blinked eyes.

You don’t understand. They never do.” She sighed and rose. “You need a name. How is… Ni’mod?”

Ni’mod shrugged. He flexed fingers, feeling the heat pulsing beneath his veins. A harmony sang inside of him, fiery and hungry. It demanded to be unleashed. It wanted to roar from him, to blaze and burn.

Come, Ni’mod,” she said. “I think one more made it far enough.”

As Ni’mod rose, his naked body hole and hale, he noticed a lean woman standing with a blank expression. He didn’t give her a thought. He turned and followed the pale-skin mother as she marched across the desert, lit by the setting sun. Ahead, another figure lay curled up in a fetal position, rust-red steam rising from dark skin.

Ni’mod walked into his future without care. Whatever burdens drove him into the desert were gone, consumed within his fiery blood. Only his life remained. The last passion he’d clung to. His final act of selfishness.

END

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Blood to Flame takes place in the Jewel Machine Universe!

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

Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

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

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

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

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

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

Get it today!

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Three

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Three

Momemn

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

On my knees, I offer you that which flies in me. My face to earth, I shout your glory to the heavens. In so surrendering do I conquer. In so yielding do I seize.

NEL-SARIPAL, DEDICATION TO MONIUS

My Thoughts

So, as we’re about to see in the first paragraph of the chapter, that this is the dedication to a seditious poem just written. It is a bold statement that is saying that though Nel-Saripal has surrendered to the tyranny of the Anasûrimbor dynasty and their rule over the New Empire, he has found the opposite. He is saying that they have no power over him in truth because he understands just what power is.

It’s not something that can be taken but only given.

No tyrant can rule a nation without being given power. Now, I’m not talking about the subjected people who are held in bondage by physical force. No, it is the instrument of that force that has surrendered to the tyrant. The various functionaries and generals and bureaucrats who have, for one reason or another, given to the tyrant the ability to rule the state.

And what is given, can be taken away.

If one day, all of Hitler’s chief advisers, his Himmlers and Goerings and the like, stopped giving him power, he would have been impotent. This is the dirty secrets of hierarchy. You don’t climb to the top but are lifted there by your peers for a myriad of personal reasons. To believe that you rule by some sort of divine right, as promulgated by the new religion, or because you believe you deserve it, that you’re somehow better than those around you, is a trap.

An easy one to fall in to.

The poet is showing the illusion of it. The contradiction of power and rule. And that’s what we see from Esmenet throughout this chapter.

That she’s a fraud.

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

Nel-Saripal had his body slave deliver his newest poem to Empress Anasûrimbor Esmenet the moment it was penned. Within an hour it was on a ship. Seventy-three days later, it’s in her hand. She’s eager to read it as she grasped the scroll “the way a barren woman might grasp a foundling babe.” However, the opening lines strike her “as surely as a husband’s slap.” Already whispers start echoing through the hall at the utterance of first sentence: “Momemn is the first in our breasts, the beating heart.”

She gets mad while the reader, a famed orator named Sarpella, falters at the text. Everyone can tell this is seditious. That it implies Momemn beats its people to maintain power. Her poet was calling the government a thug. As the poem continues, she thinks all “great artists” punish their patrons in some way. She decides Nel-Saripal wasn’t subtle about it. That Nel-Saripal wasn’t as good a poet as Protathis who would have insulted her and gotten away with it. The rest of the poem is moving, so she first decides to forgive him.

But as the days past, that first line stuck with her. Slowly, Momemn became Esmenet. Every day, the poem becomes more and more personal for her. With Kellhus in the field, she was now the government. She was no Momemn. “A tyrant.”

You…” That was how Monius truly began.

You are the fist that beats us.”

Esmenet dreams of Mimara calling to her. She can’t seem to find her but instead finds an apple tree. The apples fall and become shrunken heads that glare at her. She screams as fingers break free of the ground. The dead spill out with their harvest. She’s thinking only of Mimara. She wakes up.

Esmenet wept as though she were her only child. Found, then lost.

The next afternoon finds her sitting bored as she listens to petitions. “The New Empire, she had long since learned, was a kind of enormous mechanism, one that used men as gears, thousands upon thousands of them, their functions determined by the language of the law.” It required upkeep, though she has Ngrau, formerly Ikurei Xerius’s seneschal, who now served hers. She has a comfortable relationship with him, and he knew to only send her the most important decisions. If she suspected any influence peddling or other corruption, she’d send them to the judges. It couldn’t be tolerated.

Mankind was at war.

She has a request for money form Shigek to help deal with Fanayal ab Kascamandri and his renegade army out in the desert. The last Kiani emperor refuses to die and admit defeat. Though her word could destroy any life, she liked to pretend her decisions were trivial.

For twenty years she had been Empress. For almost as long as she could read.

Other times, she’s almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of power she has as the Empress. The horror of what she could do with it. But usually, it’s routine. Even simple, as she just approves the actions of others, leaving them to carry it out. However, crisis would come along that could overwhelm her with confusing details.

Part of her would even laugh, convinced that it was simply too absurd to be real. She, Esmenet, a battered peach from the slums of Sumna, wielding an authority that only Triamis, the greatest of the Ceneian Emperors, had known. Souls in the millions traded coins with her profile. Oh what was that, you say? Thousands are starving in Eumarna. Yes-yes, but I have an insurrection to deal with. Armies, you see, simply must be fed. People? Well, they tend to suffer in silence, sell their children and whatnot. So long as the lies are told well.

At such a remove, so far fro the gutters of living truth, how could she not be a tyrant? Not [No] matter how balanced, thoughtful, or sincerely considered her judgments, how could they not crack like clubs or pierce like spears.

Exactly as Nel-Saripal had implied, the wretch.

Kelmomas bursts in on her latest meeting to shout that her daughter Theliopa had found a skin-spy. As he talks, she feels motherly pride in him. He’s beautiful and perfect. She believes the Gods have spared one of her children the curse of her husband’s blood. Then she stiffens as she realizes what her son had said.

A moment later, Captain Imhailas appears and kneels. She orders the court cleared while demanding how her son could bring her this news. Imhailas has no idea how Kelmomas while Kelmomas begs to see the skin-spy. She says no. He responds that he kneads to know for when he’s older. She asks Imhailas his opinion and he quotes, “Calloused hands suffer no tender eyes, your Glory.” That annoys her because it’s so hackneyed statement. Never ask an idiot for advice. She stares at her son’s innocence. She just wants to protect him, especially after the assassination attempt at his Whelming a few months ago. He keeps begging.

She composed her face and looked back to Imhailas. “I think…” she said with a heavy sigh. “I think you’re quite right, Captain. The time has come. Both my sweet cherries should see Thelli’s latest discovery.”

Another skin-spy in the court. Why now, after so many years?

Both boys, your Glory?”

She ignored this, the way she ignored all the tonal differences that seemed to colour references to Kelmomas’s twin, Samarmas. In this one thing, she would refuse the worlds its inroads.

Kelmomas doesn’t appear nearly as excited since Esmenet mentioned his brother. She drags him along as she searches for Samarmas. Though the galleries weren’t large, they could become labyrinthine. She doesn’t have to look for him herself, but she doesn’t want to delegate too much of her life to others. “Power, she had come to realize, had the insidious habit of inserting others between you and your tasks, rendering your limbs little more than decorative mementos of a more human past.” Sometimes, it was like she was reduced to a devious tongue.

Servants bow as she sweeps through the columns. The palace hasn’t changed much since the Ikurei Dynasty ruled it. Momemn had been smart and surrendered to her husband. It hadn’t needed to be conquered. She remembers the first time she had walked through these walls, seeing the rich.

All it had lacked was power.

She doesn’t immediately pay attention to the screams of her third-youngest child Inrilatas. When she does, she pauses by the door to his room. She touches it, feeling only cold metal. Kelmomas suddenly says that Uncle Maithanet thinks Inrilatas should be sent away. Hearing Maithanet always itched her. It’s almost a worry because he’s so much like Kellhus.

They’re frightened of us, aren’t they, Mommy?”

Them?”

Everybody. They’re all afraid of our family…”

Why would that be?”

Because they think we’re mad. They think father’s seed is too strong.”

Too strong for the vessel. Too strong for me.

She tells Kelmomas the God burns the strongest in Inrilatas which is why he’s mad. She keeps him here because she wouldn’t abandon her children. “Like Mimara?” asks Kelmomas. She’s torn for one moment between listening to Inrilatas madness as he gnawed on the other door to the cherubic face of Kelmomas. She prays he’s not like her other children before admitting she had abandoned Mimara. She hopes Akka will keep her safe.

Inrilatas’s screams turn masturbatory. The animal sounds make her hold tight to Kelmomas, knowing an impressionable child shouldn’t hear these sounds. The jerking noises sound personal, meant only for her. Samarmas crying out “Momma!” frees her from listening to Inrilatas. Samarmas looks like Kelmomas but his face has a slackness to it. His eyes bulge. She scoops him up and realizes he’s getting big while beaming “mother-love into his idiot gaze.”

My broken boy.

The nursemaid, Porsi, had followed in his stomping wake, eyes to the ground. The young Nansur slave knelt, face to floor. Esmenet should have thanked the girl, she knew, but she had wanted to find Sammi herself, perhaps even to spy for a bit, in the way of simpler parents watching through simpler windows.

Inrilatas continued screaming through polished stone—forgotten.

Esmenet heads down endless stairs to reach dungeons, leading her two sons. Samarmas pauses to hug everyone who prostates themselves. “He always was indiscriminate with his loving gestures, particularly when it came to slaves.” Kelmomas keeps reminding Samarmas thy have to be warriors and be strong, like a big brother should. Fears for their futures in this world grows in her.

As they head down the last stairs, Kelmomas starts describing how skin-spies have soft bones like sharks and calls them monsters. This scares Samarmas even though he knows all this. “But it was part of his innocence to respond to everything as though encountering it for the very first time.” He has to be told over and over about things. Esmenet admonishes Kelmomas for scaring him as he protests his brother has to know.

She had to remind herself that his [Kelmomas’s] cleverness was that of a normal child, and not like that of his siblings. Inrilatas, in particular, had possessed his father’s… gifts.

She wished she could these worries to rest. For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.

Not after so many… experiences.

There is a large crowd before the Truth Room. Everyone seems to have found an excuse, even her cook while Biaxi Sankas, a powerful member of the Congregate, shouts at the rabble to move. It disturbs her and reminds her that, while Kellhus is gone, she was the ultimate authority of the Empire. And yet even here, she feels like she doesn’t rule with such completeness. When Kellhus was around they would all line up “moist-eyed with awe and devotion.” But for her, it’s all back-fighting and whispers of plot and innuendo. “The long dance of tongues as knives.” She ignores most of it because it would mean the palace were about to revolt on her every week. Of course, if true foment brewed she would miss it. A monarch’s greatest threat came from those closest.

She cries out her Exalt-Captain’s name, demanding of Imhailas why everyone is here. She orders him to clear them out, and they scurry, hearing her anger before the soldiers can obey her.

They’re more of afraid of Father,” young Kelmomas whispered at her side.

Yes,” Esmenet replied, at a loss as to how to respond otherwise. The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed. “Yes, they are.”

Even a child can see it.

As the various people file out, giving her fawning bows, she feels sickened. She wonders how she can rule when these people carry out her orders. “But she had been too political for too long not to recognize an opportunity when she saw one.” So she asks for Lord Sankas to watch over her boys. He towers over her, reminding her that her short stature marks her caste-menial, to her shame. He agrees, like most, he’s eager to feel important. She finds that unseemly in a man as hold as Sankas. However, when he gives her sons advice on behind men, she smiles knowing it will endear her boys to him. Kellhus often told her to seek advice from men who can benefit her. “Men, he was always saying, liked to see their words proved right.”

Samarmas asks if they are going to see the monster. She’s happy to dote on him. She’d rather be a mother than deal with the politics and finds herself retreating from rule into caring for her twins. She tells him not to fear, “Lord Sankas will protect you.”

The Truth Room, as the torture chamber had been known during the Ikurei Dynasty, had been expanded by Kellhus from a small chamber “every bit as dark and closeted as their peevish souls.” Now it is a sprawling organ of the state. It has cells, places to interrogate prisoners, and a galley for observers to watch. It’s like an upside-down step pyramid. At the highest tier, she meets with Phinersa (Master-of-Spies), Vem-Mithriti (Vizier), Maithanet, and Theliopa. The first two prostrate while the latter two merely bow.

Theliopa, her eldest daughter by Kellhus, bowed in stiff curtsy as they approached. Perhaps she was the strangest of her children, even morose than Inrilatas, but curiously all the more safe for it. Theliopa was a woman with an unearthly hollow where human sentiment should be. Even as an infant she had never cried, never gurgled with laughter, never reached out to finger the image of her mother’s face. Esmenet had once overheard her nursemaids whispering that she would happily starve rather than call out for food, and even now she was thin in the extreme, tall and angular like the God-her-father, but emaciated, to the point where her skin seemed tented over the woodwork of her bones. The clothes she wore were ridiculously elaborate—despite her godlike intellect, the subtleties of style and fashion utterly eluded her—a gold-brocaded gown fairly armoured in black pearls.”

Mother, the sallow blonde girl said in a tone that Esmenet could now recognize for attachment, or the guttering approximation of it. As always the girl flinched at her touch, like a skittish cat or steed, but as always Esmenet refused to draw back, and held Theliopa’s cheeks until she felt the tremors calm.

You’ve done well,” she said, gazing into her pale eyes. “Very well.” It was strange, loving children who could see the movement of her soul through her face. It forced a kind of bitter honesty of her, the resignation of those who know they cannot hide—not ever—from the people they needed to hied from the most.

Theliopa says she lives to please. Esmenet reflects that her children all have bits of Kellhus’s “truth” in him. Except Samarmas. That was obvious to her. Only he could be trusted. She instantly recoils from that thought as Kelmomas squeezes her hand. She greats the others with the customary, “Reap the morrow.” Phinersa stands up with spry ease while Esmenet helps aged Vem-Mithriti, whose not just her vizier but the Grandmaster of the Imperial Saik, to his feet. Phinersa is someone that rarely makes eye contact, but when he does, the Master-of-Spies will have such intensity you feel stripped naked. Vem-Mithriti is more shy, like a scared adolescent. Kellhus chose the man for his weakness. “She often wondered whether old Vem was his [Kellhus’s] Gift to her since Kellhus had no difficulty handling the willful and ambitious.”

Maithanet, her brother-in-law and the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, towered next to the two Exalt-Ministers, dressed in a plain white tunic. The oiled plaits of his beard gleamed like jet in the lantern light. His height and force of presence never failed to remind Esmenet of her husband—the same light, only burning through the sackcloth of a human mother.

Maithanet explains the new skin-spy was found by “Thelli” in a surprise inspection of new slaves. He motions to the skin-spy hung spread eagle on an iron device. It is covered in sweat and has black skin. Its held at all its joints to keep it from flexing. It still is testing out the device by twisting its body. A single pin driven through its skull has forced its face to open. This is Dûnyain Neuropuncture. Its face fingers twitch like crab limbs. It still raises revulsion in Esmenet despite how many times she’d been around them. They violated the natural order of the world. She even keeps a skull of one complete with its face fingers, to remind herself about them. She forced herself to look at it.

It had long since become an argument for suffering her husband.

She asks if this is the first time they’ve made a black-skinned Satyothi before? Maithanet says it’s the first, and Theliopa speculates it’s a test to see if the difference in skin tone and bone structure would make it different enough to slip by. She suspects that making this one is why it’s been 733 days since the last infiltration. Her daughter’s gaze unnerves Esmenet and she doesn’t consider these implications. Instead, she checks on her sons. Kelmomas seems to be judging if the skin-spy lives up to his imagination while Samarmas watches it through his fingers, curious and scared at the same time. When Kelmomas looks at her, it reminds Esmenet that he’s still Kellhus’s son and “it worried her.”

She asks him what he thinks. He says scary. She agrees. Samarmas then throws himself at her and cries into her stomach. She storks him and notices Phinersa and Imhailas watching her. She knows with Theliopa around, she doesn’t have to be afraid of their intent because she sees malice or lust (which are the same) in their eyes. Phinersa asks what she wants to be done with the skin-spy. Only Kellhus can successfully interrogate one. Not even Cants of Compulsion worked on them, they had no souls. Pain just turns them on. She orders a public execution so the people can be reminded. Maithanet calls it wise. Everyone stares at it like they were memorizing it, keeping the threat fresh. Imhailas asks if she’ll be in attendance.

Yes,” she replied absently. “Of course.” The People needed to e reminded of more than what threatened them, they needed to be reminded of the discipline that kept them safe as well. They needed to recall the disciplinarian.

The tyrant.

While holding Samarmas still, she watches Kelmomas staring with fascination at the skin-spy. The mother in her rebels as she does what Kellhus would do. For her sons’ sake, they have to become as ruthless as she’d failed to become because being his children put them in danger. She wants her sons there, too.

After handing over her sons to their nurse, she escorts her brother-in-law Maithanet out of the palace. It had become their custom since Kellhus left for her to do this. It was both political, showing them as equals, and she found him a comfort. He’s more human than Kellhus.

And, of course, his blood made him her closest ally.

He brings up she’s thinking about Nel-Saripal’s poem recited the day before. She asks him what he thinks of the opening line. He says it’s significant, but only a signal “the way birds tell sailors of unseen land.” Maithanet says with Kellhus and his most loyal supporters gone, lingering resentments from the Unification shall flare-up. Nel-Saripal is just the first. She asks if they should prioritize stability over the Consult. Maithanet says they need to increase their efforts. The best way the Consult can demoralize the Great Ordeal is to throw the New Empire into turmoil. “When the hands are strong, attack the feet,” as the Ainoni say. Esmenet asks who would be so foolish to do that after everything Kellhus has done.

The well of fools has no bottom, Esmi. You know that. You can assume for every Fanayal who poses us openly, there are ten who skulk in the shadows.”

She just hopes they aren’t as cunning as Fanayal who has been a thorn in the Empire’s side since the First Holy War. He’d escaped Kian’s fall into Kellhus’s hand and fled into the desert. Folk songs spread his fame no matter how many minstrels are burned. The Bandit Padirajah had made things difficult in Fanim lands.

They walk in silence for a while through the apartments where the functionaries lived. The sounds of normal living affect her, especially a young boy crying. She asks Maithanet what he sees her in her face. He tells her not as much as his brother would see.

Dûnyain. It all came back to this iron ingot of meaning. Maithanet, her children, everyone near to her possessed some measure of Dûnyain blood. Everyone watched with a portion of her husband’s all-seeing eyes. For a heartbeat, she glimpsed Achamian as he stood twenty years earlier, a thousand smoke plumes scoring sky beyond him. “But you’re not thinking! You see only your love for him. You’re not thinking of what he sees when he gazes upon you…”

And with a blink both he and his heretical words were gone

She says that wasn’t her question. And he sees sorrow, confusion, and worry for Mimara. She fears her other children more than she worries about them. She’s afraid she’s not capable of governing in Kellhus’s stead. She asks if the others can see this in her. He says some perhaps will catch glimpses, but he reminds her that Kellhus set things up so their redemption goes through her. He has put people around her to help her. He assures her not to worry. She asks why. Because Kellhus chose her answers Maithanet. It’s why he has no fear.

A Dûnyain. A Dûnyain has chosen you.

She asks why he hesitated, and he says if he saw this fear, then so did Kellhus. So it must be a strength. She blinks back tears and asks if she was chosen for being weak. Maithanet answers, “Is the man who flees to fight anew weak?” He says fear isn’t a good or bad thing but how it’s reacted to.

Then why wouldn’t he tell me as much.[?]”

Because, Esmi[,]” he said, drawing her back down the hall, “sometimes ignorance is the greatest strength of all.”

The next day, Esmenet wakes up thinking of her children as babies and not “instruments of power.” It feels miraculous. She didn’t like thinking about her early years. There was a time when Kellhus was relentless to have children. She’d conceived seven times and six had survived. Plus Mimara and Moënghus, Serwë’s son.

Eight!

The thought never ceased to surprise and to dizzy her, so certain she had been that she would live and die barren.

Kayûtas was born a few months after Moënghus, the pair raised as fraternal twins. Kayûtas had been perfect and it made the Lords of the Holy War weep to see him. “It had been Kayûtas who taught her that love was a kind of imperfection.” Despite his perfection, he felt no love. It broke her heart to hold him. Then she had Theliopa. She’d hoped for this child after Kayûtas, but even before the afterbirth was washed off, knew she had born another child lacking love. Kellhus was gone a lot at war and she grew depressed, even suicidal. Only Moënghus kept her alive. “He at least needed her, even if he was not her own.” That was why she really started looking for Mimara in earnest. She even thought of killing Theliopa and herself if Kellhus didn’t find Mimara.

Fate truly was a whore, to deliver her to such thoughts.

She quickly becomes pregnant with Serwa born in Carythusal right after the conquest. Another perfect child like Kayûtas, but Serwa seemed capable of love. A joy. However, at three, it was discovered she had the Gift and was sent to the Sawayal witches.

There had been a bitterness in that decision, and no few thoughts of heresy and sedition. In lowing Serwa, Esmenet learned that worship could not only survive the loss of love, it possessed room for hatred as well

Her next child was born with “eight arms and no eyes.” It almost killed her. Next was Inrilatas, another son incapable of love. However, she’d know there was something even more wrong, an instinct gained from being a mother so many time. By the time he was two, his nurses were scared, and at three he began “speaking the little treacheries that dwelt in the hearts of those about him.” At five, he unnerved hardened warriors. Once after Esmenet had sung him a lullaby, he said, “Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Only Kellhus could manage him after that. And he didn’t have the time. Not long after, Inrilatas descended into madness.

Esmenet yearned for menopause or “the dry season.” But she kept having periods. She started to find surrogates for Kellhus to breed. “Of the seventeen concubines he impregnated, ten died in childbirth, and the others gave birth to more… nameless ones.”

Esmenet sometimes wondered how many hapless souls had been assassinated to keep this secret. A hundred? A thousand?

They found Mimara after Inrilatas’s madness. It took ten years for the Eothic Guard to find her in a brothel dressed up like the Empress. “They had found her daughter, her only child sired by a man instead of a god.” Mimara hated Esmenet. That sweet child was gone, mad in different ways from her “divine daughters and sons.” She also was the Few, but Kellhus allowed Esmenet to keep Mimara. She had refused, willing to destroy her relationship with Kellhus for her daughter. “She would not sell Mimara a second time—no matter how vicious the young woman’s rantings.” Though Mimara was even too old to go, it didn’t stop her from demanding it. Esmenet assumed this was her final punishment for her sin.

The twins arrived during this time, and with them one final spear throw at Fate

The twins had their own problems. Though they looked perfect, like Kayûtas, if you separated them, they both would not stop crying. Instead, for months they lay side by side staring into each other’s eyes. The physician-priest had warned her of “complications” for having children at her age. The two seemed to share a single sou, which she found poetic. Kellhus had found a famed slave named Hagitatas who specialized in “troubled souls.” He managed to separate the two children and give them their own identity. “Such was her relief that even the subsequent discovery of Samarmas’s idiocy seemed a cause for celebration.”

These sons loved—there could be no question that they loved!

At last the Whore of Fate, treacherous Anagke, who had lifted Esmenet form ignorance and brutality of the Sumni slums to the pitch of more profound torments, had relented. At last Esmenet had found her heart. She was an old mother now, and old mothers knew well the tightfisted ways of the world. They knew how to find largess in its meager capitulations.

How to be greedy with small things.

She feels hope despite her nervousness as she’s dressed. Porsi brings her sons looking like little generals, which delights Esmenet. Then she brings the protesting sons along a passage that ran beneath the Scuäri Campus. The Plate is heard above, summoning the city to witness the skin-spy’s execution. They emerge in the Allosium Forum and are almost deafened by the crowds. They step out atop the height overlooking the campus which is covered in people crying out in adoration to her.

Esmenet was always conscious of her unreality at moments such as this. Everything, even the cosmetics smeared across her skin, possessed the weight of fraud. She was not Esmenet, and nor were her children Kelmomas and Samarmas. They were images, semblances drawn to answer the mob and their anxious fantasies. They were Power. They were Justice. They were mortal flesh draped about the dread intent of God.

Authority in all its myriad incarnations

She pretends to bask in the adoration before being shocked by the sudden silence. She feels hesitant, frozen. Someone coughs. She heads down the stairs, flanked by the Eothic Guard. The lower she gets, she can smell the unwashed masses. As she stares out at the, she wonders how many want to kill her and her children. All eight of them. Theliopa isn’t here, unable to handle so many people, while Moënghus, Kayûtas, and Serwa march in the Great Ordeal. Mimara is with Achamian and Inrilatas in his prison.

Eight. And only these two boys loved.

She leads her sons to their seats, only letting go of their hands to rest them on the golden claws of her throne. She wears various gems and garb to signify different titles and claims to importance. She is facing away from the execution. She can hear the curtains being drawn as the skin-spy is unveiled. The crowd roars, frightening Samarmas. He huddled on his seat. The mother in her wants to order the guards to kill those who scared her child.

But to be sovereign is to be forever, irrevocably, cut into many. To be a matron, simple and uncompromising. To be a spy, probing and hiding. And to be a general, always calculating weakness and advantage.

She fought the mother-clamouring within, ignored his [Samarmas’s] distress. Even Samarmas—who she was certain would be nothing more than a dear fool—even he had to learn the madness that was his Imperial inheritance.

For him, she told herself. I do this for his sake!

The mobs scream at the Consult skin-spy strung up behind her. By tradition, her “eyes were too holy for such a horrific sight.” Lord Sankas, who must have one the lottery among the important nobles, has the honor of bringing her the hand mirror by which she’ll watch the execution behind her. Samarmas leaves his seat to hug her while those in the crowd laughed. She works to get him back to his seat while Sankas looks embarrassed. He holds up the mirror and she’s surprised by how beautiful she looks. She often thinks she’s older and uglier than she looks. Even growing old, it would stay with her.

It also hurts her, so she shifts the mirror to see the skin-spy. Her breath tightens. She watches it thrash against its chains as two of Phinersa’s men are preparing to flay it while another manipulates the Neuropuncture needles controlling it.

Both the twins had climbed into their seats to gaze over the back, Kelmomas pale and expressionless, Samarmas with his shining cheeks pressed to the cushion. She wanted to shout at them to turn away, to look back to the shrieking mob, but her voice failed her. Even though the mirror was meant to protect her, holding it the way she did seemed to make it all the more real, into something that rubbed against the soft-skin of her terror.

Brands burn out its eyes. She watches the torture with a sick, horrific fascination. She wonders how she could have ended up here. She believed in her husband and his mission, she just couldn’t believe it had happened to her. She thinks this is all a dream. Samarmas cries while Kelmomas trembled, not as strong as he usually was. She grabs her sons’ hands to comfort them, unable to stop being a mother. As she does, she feels the comfort it brings. An admission of her weakness.

The masses roared in exultation, becoming in some curious way, the iron that burned, the blade that peeled. And Esmenet sat painted and rigid, gazing out across their furious regions.

Thug. Tyrant. Empress of the Three Seas.

A miracle not quite believed.

My Thoughts

This opening does many things with Esmenet. It instantly reminds us of the thing that had initially seduced her to Kellhus: learning to read. She loves it. I don’t think there is a character in Bakker’s books that loves to read more than she does. It shows how self-conscious she is of her image. She wants to be seen as a loving ruler, but her critic clearly sees her as a thug. Her ego doesn’t like this one bit. It gnaws at her until it becomes more and more personal.

So once a government has power, and has the consent of the majority, it can only impose its will through violence. Every government, even your own, is a thug. Remember this when you lobby a politician to make a law: that law will be enforced by men with guns. At some point in the process, if someone defies it long enough, even in the most civilized country, a law enforcement officer will show up to either force you to comply or arrest you if you don’t. And if you resist, they will use an escalation of force on you.

A government will use force to maintain its order for so long as it can suppress the minority who object. It’s the very nature of government.

It must be terrible to be estranged from your child. I haven’t spoken to my father since June 2003 when my brother graduated from high school. Sometimes I wonder what he thinks about that? Sometimes I think about finding him after waking up from my own surreal dreams.

War. The eternal justification for the expenditure of resources, for marshaling a nation’s engine of economics in a single direction. Sometimes, it’s a necessary exercise to persevere against an aggressor, other times it’s the petty greed of men who want that greener pasture on the other side of the border.

A good discussion on how even someone who can care can be swept up in despotism. She’s reflecting on it thanks to the powers. That’s why his words are gnawing at her. He just stripped away her self-deception about her banality. She oppresses the people because she’s focused on “the big picture” forgetting that it’s made up of individual brush strokes. Or, in modern parlance, all those little dots made by a printer that forms a mosaic so fine it blends into an illusion of a seamless whole to our eyes.

But all those little dots matter when they’re human lives.

I think Theliopa is my favorite of Kellhus’s children. She has this innocence about her and a frailness even as she’s overwhelmed by her intellect and her inability to feel anything.

We get our first clue that Kelmomas knows the palace better than anyone as he beats Imhailas to Esmenet.

Esmenet is in denial that Samarmas isn’t mentally handicapped like he clearly is. She wants both of her youngest children to be perfect. One is faking it. Just like she won’t be able to see what he truly is for a long time.

Why a new skin-spy? We’re seeing an upgrade here. The first hints that the Consult has had another breakthrough and are now probing to see if they infiltrate while Kellhus is gone.

A mark of wealth in ancient times was being able to pay someone to spend their life weaving a carpet. That’s a human being that needs to pay for all of their life needs and are not contributing to the survival of the species. That’s the power that civilization and the diversification of skills gave our species.

Kelmomas is starting to turn her against Maithanet. He senses her worry and he’s going to feed on it through this book. He wants to isolate her. Doesn’t want her to rely on anyone else but him. Notice him then lumping himself and his mother together as one tribe against the rest of the world.

We see Esmenet, despite her intelligence, has a hard time breeding with Kellhus. The first two children came out Dûnyain enough. They’re stable. Able to fake emotions, but the rest of her children, including the stillborn, are not. Theliopa can’t understand fashion and actions. She’s very autistic, but she has a good rationale mind. Inrilatas sees it all for what it is, a joke. He sees the strongest of all of the children, but he doesn’t have the discipline to give a shit. Then we have the twins, one a sociopath and the other mentally handicapped.

We do see that Serwë is probably the most human of them. She does find emotions in the end.

Mimara thinks she’s run, that she escaped, but her mother knows just where she is. Esmenet probably realizes she can’t save her relationship with Mimara by holding tight. Maybe distance, time spent with Achamian, will help her. She has no idea Achamian is about to plan a dangerous journey and her daughter is not going to be safe.

But he does protect her.

It sounds like Samarmas has down syndrome. She had the twins late in life, which increases the risk factor of having a child with down syndrome. I think past the late thirties is when that starts happening. A woman’s eggs form in her in the womb. They’re rather old cells considering the life span for most is only seven years so by time a woman reaches procreation, they’re double if not triple the age of other cells in her body. And over the years, things break down.

Poor Inrilatas. There are limits to every human. He found his mother’s.

I used to work four years driving a paratransit shuttle for Pierce Transit, the local bus agency. A paratransit shuttle picks up those too disabled to ride the regular bus. It’s a requirement of the ADA act. A lot of my passengers were adults with mental handicaps. Down syndrome, extreme autism, other conditions. A lot of them were like Samarmas. Hugging and happy.

I really hate Kelmomas for killing him.

“For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.” And here we have why Samarmas had to die. Kelmomas is a jealous god. He only wants one worshiper, and she needs to bend her full attention to him.

It’s only natural that she’s paranoid. She wants to believe Kelmomas is normal, which probably is why his deception is so successful on her. He has just enough sense to fake emotions, unlike his other siblings. So now she’s convincing herself that he must be, suppressing any doubts she might have because she’s desperate to have a child who loves her.

After all, she ruined things so badly with Mimara and the rest of her children are Dûnyain. All save Samarmas.

Biaxi Sankas, I hope your grateful Conphas is dead. Or else you would be. The last Biaxi in the story was the general Conphas sent after Cnaiür. If he didn’t come back with the barbarian’s head, Conphas vowed to exterminate the Biaxi family.

“The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed.” This sentence is a double negative. Not unwelcomed? Should be not welcomed. It hurt my brain reading that.

Esmenet’s worried about betrayal. Maybe Ikurei had a point to be paranoid. It probably started out as reasonable concern, knowing about history including how his own father was betrayed by his mother so he could take the throne. But if you’re not careful, it becomes pathological. Kelmomas noticed this, and he starts working on her immediately.

The new rich are always embarrassed that they used to be poor around the old rich. They often try to overcompensate. Rarely does it work. Of course, Esmenet has the power of the Empire behind her so the old rich have to suck up to her.

Sometimes, it’s best to tell a white lie to spare hurt feelings especially trivial. I’m a writer, and when my mom tells me she likes my writing, I’m always like, ‘Are you just saying that because you’re my mom?’ At least Esmenet’s children would know if they’re bad or not.

The moment she thinks only Samarmas can be trusted, Kelmomas reminds her of his presence. She is actually on to him more than I realized and deceiving herself. He is doing everything to feed that delusion. “The lies that flatter us are the ones we most readily believe,” is something similar to a Bakker quote. I probably got it wrong, but that’s the essence of it.

“Reap the morrow.” What a curious greeting. Harvest the future. I have a feeling that Kellhus set this up, a reminder to think about what tomorrow is going to bring. You want a good harvest to reap on the morrow. To build towards it.

Esmenet clearly doesn’t love Kellhus at all. She all but hates him, but tolerates him because the world needs to be saving. She believes in his mission. That’s one of the reasons she’s here. It’s one argument, but also her children and seeing them cared for is another. Of course, if she’d know the sort of children she would be having…

733 days. Nearly two years. Who wants to bet that this is when the Mutilated took over the Consult. It can’t have been too many years before that because of the age of the boy. The Mutilated were clearly tortured for a period of time before they used their Dûnyain skills to win over the Consult and then dominate it. They would understand exactly how the skin-spies were detected. Now that Kellhus is gone, perhaps they thought a new type would work or were testing how good the half-Dûnyain are. It might also be a feint to keep Kellhus from suspecting of their existence.

It’s hard to speculate with Dûnyain in the mix.

There is little to no evidence that the Consult is behind any of the happenings that take down the New Empire. Maybe they were doing stuff, but it’s all Kelmomas, Fanayal and his Cishaurim, Zeüm, and Yatwer that cause the problems and draw Kellhus back to the New Empire. Even in the end, it’s Kelmomas becoming the No God not whom the Consult wanted. No one predicted he would be the No God. The Mutilated wanted Kellhus to reach them. They just couldn’t make it easy. They had to try their hardest to destroy him. Now, maybe they were behind Zeüm giving support to Fanayal, but it’s hard to say. Maybe the next book will elucidate it. after all, Zeüm is about to have a bad time.

The Bandit Padirajah. The perfect, romantic symbol of rebellion to inflame the common folk. If the world survives, he’ll be a legendary figure like Robin Hood in our world. Everyone loves to root for an underdog because, unless you’re one of the .0001% at the top of the social hierarchy, you’re an underdog yourself. And you would hope to win if you had the balls to do what Fanayal does.

A sad thing for a mother to fear her children. Normally, the mother or parents would bring that on themselves, but given her children and her inability to relate to them, to even understand them, it makes sense. They are almost aliens to her save for Mimara and poor Samarmas.

Did I mention I hate Kelmomas?

Fear is an important part of humans. As Maithanet says, it’s necessary. Look at Conphas, the man was so narcissistic that he ignored his fear. He pushed doubt aside. Doubt is merely a type of fear, after all. One that makes us question what we’re doing. Be self-reflective. Since most of us aren’t in a life or death struggle like our fear response was designed for, we can use it to help us with more modern issues. It’s healthy, but too much fear is just as bad. Like with everything in life, it’s balance.

Of course, there is the possibility that it doesn’t matter who was in charge. The New Empire was never intended to survive. Kellhus has his mission. Defeat the Consult and stop the No-God from being activated. The New Empire serves no purpose after that. He might even see the eradication of the Dûnyain like himself can only be a positive given where Dûnyain philosophy leads in a world where Damnation is a true thing and morality matters.

Esmenet felt that emptiness inside of her created when she sold Mimara. She’s desperate to replace it with anything. But Kellhus’s children are like him. They just couldn’t fake it yet. How horrifying to have children who might as well be rocks. Mothers need that emotional connection to bond with them, else you get what she descends into postpartum depression. The thoughts of harming herself and the baby are all symptoms of that.

Serwa seems capable of love. She is definitely the most emotional of Kellhus’s children we see (baring Samarmas). Once Sorweel breaks through her barriers. She even saves her mother life when her mission to destroy the Consult should have been all that mattered.

I hope Serwa survives into the next series. She was badly wounded at the end, though.

“Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Inrilatas called his mother a whore to her face. Also, it’s pretty clear that Kellhus pushed the kid into harmless insanity so he would have to be locked up because he did not have time to care for him.

More proof that the Dûnyain are not fully human, they have trouble reproducing. They have strengthened the nonman gene in their bloodlines to a point where they’re verging on a different species from humans. Or so I believe.

Kelmomas certainly loves. He has the jealous love of a child who wants his mother all to himself and the intellect to make it happen combined with not a bit of morality to restrain his actions. We also get another version of this story from Kelmomas about what was going on with him and his brother.

The Plate sounds like a giant symbol used to sound the alarm.

Oh, Esmenet, Mimara loves you. It’s in there. The pain of her hatred wouldn’t be so great otherwise. It might be impossible for them to ever get past that. Mimara was greatly wronged by her mother. If she chooses never to forgive Esmenet, it’s understandable.

She didn’t count Moënghus in her tally of normal children. Yet he’s not Dûnyain, so what happened to him? We’ll see in book 2 and 3.

Notice how many traditions there are around her. Her eyes are too holy to watch an execution. She wears a garnet on her shoulder to signify Kellhus’s blood had passed through her. These are not natural traditions. Not established so fast. They were implemented by Kellhus for he knows the importance of traditions. Most start out as a convenience done by someone who keeps doing it, then others follow until you get a separation between the reason it was done and those who just mimic it because that is how it has always been done.

Esmenet has “impostor syndrome” which is the belief that you don’t deserve where you are. It’s that doubt that can make you question your own skill, your own purpose. It can be a healthy thing, keeping you sharp, or it can destroy you if it becomes a neurosis. She’s not as strong as she thinks she needs to be. Her children are a crutch, an escape, that give her comfort. Hence, why I think she felt it to be an admission that holding their hands soothed her soul.

Our introduction to Esmenet is done. We get her backstory, how she is more a partner to Kellhus than a wife. She believes in him, but she’s long stopped loving him. She hates him now, but she also still trusts him. Worships him.

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

At the end of Book Four, Trull Sengar began to tell the story of how he became chained to the wall in the drowned pocket of Kurald Emurlan.

As the events of Deadhouse Gates and Memory of Ice was happening (sort of, since the Silanah stuff really throws off the timeline) on the other side of the world, the Tiste Edur tribes have been united by the Warlock King. They are facing annexation by the greedy Lether to the south, a nation merchants who want the natural resources in Edur lands. They have destroyed other tribes through shady treaties and deliberate betrayals.

The Warlock King has a new ally. He plans to send the Sengar Brothers (Fear, Trull, Binadas, and young Rulad) on a quest to receive a gift in the arctic wastes north of their lands. Will it prove the salvation of their people or their ruination.

Another set of brothers, Beddicts, have their own goals. Tehol Beddict appears impoverished after his financial collapse, but he had actually discovered the secret to destroying his people’s economy and flinched. However, when those whose people were destroyed by the Lethers want him to try again, will he accept? In the palace, Brice Beddict is the king’s champion. Emroiled in the complex politics of Lether, he vows to protect his king even if the man isn’t worthy of his devotion. Last, Hull Beddict plots his people’s destruction in another way. He wants to save the Edur from the fate of other tribes, weighed down by guilt.

A large cast of characters, both mortal, undead, and immortal, clash and swirl. This is one of Erikson’s best books in the series. Tehol and Bug number among my favorite duo and it was great to read them again. Tragedy and misfortune swirl as no one’s plans quite work out right. The darkest parts of humanity are exposed once more.

This fantasy series continues to be unique and amazing. If you haven’t read any of Malazan Book of the Fallen, you need to. It is worth the journey.

You can buy Midnight Tides from Amazon.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Two

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Two

Hûnoreal

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

We burn like over-fat candles, our centres gouged, our edges curling in, our wick forever outrunning our wax. We resemble what we are: Men who never sleep.

—ANONYMOUS MANDATE SCHOOLMAN, THE HEIROMANTIC PRIMER

My Thoughts

It’s a nice reintroduction to the Mandate Schoolman. They used to be men at the edge of their resources. They are working themselves too hard. They are driven to push themselves to their utter limits. Why?

Because of Seswatha’s dreams.

And since this chapter starts out with Achamian, it’s a fitting introduction.

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

There would have been nightmares aplenty had Drusas Achamian been able to dream a life that was his own. Nightmares of a long, hard war across deserts and great river deltas. Nightmares of sublimity and savagery held in perfect equipoise, though the cacophony of the latter would make all seem like misery. Nightmares of dead men, feeding like cannibals on their once strong souls, raising the impossible on the back of atrocity.

Nightmares of a city so holy it had become wicked.

And of a man who could peer into souls.

Achamian can’t dream of these things because, even though he renounced being a Mandate Schoolman, he still dreams of Seswatha and the First Apocalypse. He relives the horrors of the past. Tonight, he’s dreaming of a feast that the High King Anasûrimbor Celmomas has thrown. He’s reclining on his Urthrone drunk and almost passed out. His Knight-Chieftains are partying. Toasts are cried out and mead is drunk. Achamian (as Seswatha) is at the end of a table only drinking water. He is watching “the High King—the man he still called his best friend—drink himself into unconsciousness.”

Seswatha slips out. No one notices. He moves through the palace and finds a door open as expected. Candles light the room, illuminating Suriala, a wanton beauty. “He knelt in accordance with the very Laws he was about to break.” He’s overcome with her beauty. He goes to the bed, mounts her.

Made love to his High-King’s wife—

A convulsive gasp.

Achamian bolted forward from his blankets. The darkness buzzed with exertion, moaned and panted with feminine lust—but only for a moment. Within heartbeats the chorus call of morning birdsong ruled his ears. Throwing aside his blankets, he leaned into his knees, rubbed at the ache across his jaw and cheek. He had taken to sleeping on wood as part of the discipline he had adopted since leaving the School of Mandate, and to quicken the transition between his nightmares and wakefulness. Mattress, he had found, made waking a form of suffocation.

It takes him some time to banish his arousal from the dream. If he was still a Mandate, this would have been momentous to dream. He wasn’t one, and he had many such revelations in his dreams to be overawed. He glances at the sun shining through curtains thinking exposing truth to the light is “never a bad thing.”

He can hear the children of his two slaves playing outside. He savors the sound because today it felt like a “profound miracle.” He wished to just stay in this moment, a good way to spend the rest of his life.

He looks at his room in a Galeoth military tower. It’s simple and barbaric compared to his life spent in the “fleshpots of the South.” But it had been his home for twenty years. The place where he studied.

He walked different roads. Deeper roads.

How long had he travelled?

All his life, it seemed, though he had been a Wizard for only twenty.

Breathing deep, drawing fingers from his balding scalp to his shaggy white beard, he walked to the main worktable, braced himself for the concentrated recital to come…

The meticulous labour of mapping Seswatha’s labyrinthine life.

Thanks to writing down Seswatha’s dreams for years, he’d learned the best way to do it. Before his memory could taint the recollection, he had to write it down fresh. The first thing he did upon awakening. However, he could only write: “NAU-CAYÛTI?” He stares at the name of Celmomas’s son who helped steal the Heron Spear. That weapon slew the No-God. Achamian has read dozens of books devoted to him. His military exploits. His heroic deeds. How he was slain by his wife, Iëva. Some have noted how many of Seswatha’s dreams had involved Nau-Cayûti. Achamian is realizing Seswatha had bedded his lover, which is in itself a significant revelation. As much as Achamian wants to jump to the conclusion that Seswatha is Nau-Cayûti’s father, he thinks to the dream, wanting to date it to see if was possible. He’s interrupted by one of the slave children asking a question only for a strange woman to reply.

He’s shocked by the accent of the newcomer. She spoke like a Nansur or Ainoni. Someone from the south, not someone from Hûnoreal, a province in northern Galeoth. He looks out the window across the grounds and doesn’t see where the voices are coming from. He scans past a few outbuildings and spots a mule while the voices “continued to chirp and gaggle somewhere to the left.” The boy cries out for their mother and Achamian spots him moving through the trees on the slope. His mother, Tisthana, comes out to meet the children. There are children talking to the stranger, a woman, asking about her sword and the name of her mule. She’s wearing a fine cloak marking her noble caste, but he can’t see her face. He wonders how long it had been since a visitor had come. Maybe five or six years ago.

He remembers how it had been just him and Geraus in the beginning. He often had to use the Gnosis to kill packs of Sranc, leaving marks of the battle all over the place. Geraus still has nightmares about it. Later, Scalpoi came to win the bounty on Sranc scalps. They often brought their own problems, but his Gnosis took care of that.

No matter, the rule had been simple over the years: Visitors meant grief, the Gods and their laws of hospitality be damned.

The woman appears friendly as she greets Tisthana, and Achamian thinks the woman acts like caste-menial despite her fine clothing. He relaxes when he hears Tisthana laugh, knowing she’s a trustworthy judge of character. The two women now walking side by side to the tower, chatting in the friendly way of women. Tisthana points out Achamian. He tries to put on a dignified pose but the mortar of the windowsill crumbles and he almost falls out the window. The children laugh in delight as he rights himself.

The stranger looked up, her delicate face bemused and open and curious…

And something in Achamian suffered a greater fall.

No matter how surprising an event is, there is a reason for it. Cause and effect rule the world. The newcomer calls him the Great Wizard in a tone “balanced between many things, hope and sarcasm among them.” She reminds him of a child with poor manners. He demands to know what she’s doing here after sending Tisthana and the children away. Despite how short she is, she’s standing on the highest fold of the ground to loom over him out of instinctive. He recognizes her. She’s beautiful, her face that of his wife. This is Mimara, Esmenet’s daughter who she’d sold into slavery during a famine. Achamian wonders if finding Mimara is why Esmenet stayed with Kellhus, choosing the Dûnyain emperor over “a broken-hearted fool.”

Not because of the child she carried, but because of the child she had lost?

The questions were as inevitable as the pain, the questions that had pursued him beyond civilization’s perfumed rim. He could have continued asking them, he could have yielded to madness and made them his life’s refrain. Instead he had packed a new life about them, like clay around a wax figurine, then he had burned them out, growing ever more decrepit, even more old, about their absence—more mould than man. He had lived like some mad trapper, accumulating skins that were furred in ink instead of hair, the lines of every snare anchored to this silent hollow within him, to these questions he dared not ask.

And now here she stood… Mimara.

The answer?

Mimara is glad he recognized her. Memories of Esmenet ripple through Achamian at the sight of her, and he says she looks a lot like her. She doesn’t seem pleased about that. He repeats his question, asking why she is here. She gives a flippant, obvious answer that forces him to ask a third time. Anger glazes through her, startling Achamian. The world that had slowly faded away from his valley now has returned. He’d found peace here and realizes he’s about to lose it as he shouts at her to know why she’s here.

She flinched, looked down to the childish scribble at her feet: a gaping mouth scrawled in black across mineral white, with eyes, nose, and ears spaced across its lipless perimeter.

“B-because I wanted…” Something caught her throat. Her eyes shot up, as though requiring an antagonist to remain focused. “Because I wanted to know if…” Her tongue traced the seam of her lips.

“If you were my father.”

His laughter felt cruel, but if was such, she showed no sign of injury—no outward sign.

He explains he met Esmenet after Mimara was sold into slavery. He should have realized Esmenet would have used all her new power to find the “girl whose name she would never speak.” He tries to explain how Esmenet sold Mimara to save her from starving to death and how it broke her. As he says them, he realizes this is just the “same hollow justifications” she’s heard again and again. It’s clear that though Esmenet found her years ago, it was too late to fix her. She then starts pressing that she remembers that he bought her apples. He claims it wasn’t him and he’s not her father because the daughter of whores “have no fathers.” He tried to say it gently, but it comes out too hard. It hurts her. “You said that I was clever,” she accuses.

He ran a slow hand across his face, exhaled, suddenly feeling ancient with guilt and frustration. Why must everything be too big to wrestle, too muddy to grasp

“I feel sorry for you, child—I truly do. I have some notion of what you must have endured…” A deep breath, warm against the bright cool. “GO home, Mimara. Go back t your mother. We have no connection.”

He turned back towards the tower. The Sun instantly warmed his shoulders.

“But we do,” her voice chimed from behind him—so like her mother’s that chills skittered across his skin.

He reiterates that he’s not her father, but she says it’s something else that brought her. Her tone makes him turn back to face her. She says she’s one of the few. A witch. She continues that she isn’t looking for her father, but for a teacher. She wants to learn the Gnosis.

There is a progression to all things. Lives, encounters, histories, each trailing their own nameless residue, each burrowing into a black, black future, groping for the facts that conjure purpose out of the cruelties of mere coincidence.

And Achamian had his fill of it.

Mimara realizes that her mother “the old whore” is right: Achamian likes to teach. It’s been three months since she’s run away from the Andiamine Heights in search of Achamian. She had to dodge the Judges and survive the hard winter. She can’t believe she made it. She’s dreamed of this place, imagined it so much, it actually fits her fantasy. Everything but Achamian.

He’s the Apostate. The man who cursed the Aspect-Emperor out of love for Esmenet. She’s heard many versions of him. Even her mother talks about him in different ways. It’s the contradictions about this man that left the impression. “In the cycle of historical and scriptural characters that populated her education, he alone seemed real.

Only he isn’t. The man before her seems to mock her soft-bellied imaginings: a wild-haired hermit with limbs like barked branches and eyes that perpetually sort grievances. Bitter. Severe. He bears the Mark, as deep as any sorcerers she has seen glimpse through the halls of the Andiamine Heights, but where they drape silks and perfume about their stain, he wears wool patched with rancid fur.

How could anyone sing songs about such a man?

He asks if it’s true that witches aren’t burned. She says there’s even a School, the Sawayal Compact. That shocks Achamian who then asks why she needs him. Her mother won’t let her and the Sawayali won’t anger Esmenet by taking her. “Socerery, she [Esmenet] says, leaves only scars.” Achamian agrees with that.

“But what if scars are all you have?”

Achamian is taken back by Mimara’s statement then asks if she wants power to “feel the world crumble beneath the weight of your voice.” She sees this as a game and asks isn’t that why he did it and strikes a nerve, but she finds no satisfaction in winning. He tells her he’d rather be her father than teacher.

There is a set manner to the way he turns his back this time, one that tells her that no words can retrieve him. The sun pulls his shadow long and profound. He walks with a stoop that says he has long outlived the age of bargaining. But she hears it all the same, the peculiar pause of legend becoming actuality, the sound of the crazed and disjoint seams of the world falling flush.

He is the Great Teacher, the one who raised the Aspect-Emperor to the heights of godhead.

He is Drusas Achamian.

She builds a bonfire that night wanting to burn down his tower. She pretends the fire is living, a fantasy she often indulges in to put magic into the world. “That she is a witch.” It starts to rain. Lightning flashes. She crouches in the downpour, soaked. It slowly smothers her fire. Her misery grows. She finds herself before the tower hollering for him to teach her.

He simply has to hear, doesn’t he? Her voice cracking the way all voices crack about the soul’s turbulent essentials. He needs only to look down to see her leaning against the slope, wet and pathetic and defiant, the image of the woman he once loved, framed by steam and fire. Pleading. Pleading.

Teeeeeach!”

Meeee!”

Only wolves answer, howling with her. It mocks her, but she’s used to people “who celebrate her pain.” She throws her hurt back at the world, declaring he will teach her. Then she sees him watching her from a doorway. He steps out into the rain, hobbling towards her. She can see the unseen sorcery shielding him from the rain. She trembles when he looks down at her from the stairs while the storm rages around them. She feels embarrassed under his scrutiny and demands he teach her.

Without a word, which she could now see is made not of wood, but of bone. Quite unprepared, she watches him swing it like a mace—

An explosion against the side of her skull. Then sliding palms, knuckles scraped and skinned, arms and legs tangled rolling. She slams to a stop against a molar-shaped rock. Gasps for air.

Stunned, she watches him pick his way back up the shining slope. She tastes blood, bends her face back to let the endless rain rinse her clean. The drops seem to fall out of nowhere.

She begins laughing.

Teeeach meeee!”

My Thoughts

A great way to introduced Achamian and remind us of the Holy War and what happened. We cut right to the most important part of his motivation in this series: finding out the truth of Kellhus. He has to know the truth of who he is, and those keys lie in his dream of Seswatha. A dream about a sorcerer cuckolding a king.

So is Seswatha the father of Nau-Cayûti? This certainly seems to imply it. Why else would Achamian dream this moment.? Or more specifically, why else would Bakker write this passage? My theory on why both Nau-Cayûti and Kelmomas are both able to activate the No-God when no one else can is their bloodline. The Anasûrimbor bloodline. It is implied that the only successful mating between human and Nonman happened when an Anasûrimbor daughter was raped by a Nonman. However, if Nau-Cayûti isn’t Celmomas’s bloodline, how does my theory survive?

Well, as we can see from the appendix of Thousandfold Thought, the Anasûrimbor dynasty was large. It ruled several different kingdoms. The Anasûrimbor that Kellhus is a descendant of is a cousin to Kelmomas. If you know anything about royalty, they like to marry important people. There is often quite a number of close kin marrying amid royal families. It is possible that Suriala is also an Anasûrimbor by blood even if her maiden name was another.

In fact, estimates of human history show that most marriages in the history of our race (hardly dented by the small fraction of the modern era) have been between first and second cousins. So the Anasûrimbor bloodline was spread out wide, it was preserved in the Dûnyain as one of their various lines of descent because of its innate gifts. I also think this is why Kellhus has trouble with children. The Dûnyain have bred the Nonman part of the Anasûrimbor genetics to its limits through their program. The reason for their greater intelligence and reflex might be, partly, accounted by this strengthening of the Nonman genes. I think the Mutilated figured this out, but by then they were the last Dûnyain left alive and none of them wanted to do the activation.

They were trying to save their souls, not sacrifice them, so they needed a replacement. And one was coming. Their enemy. They were certain Kellhus would work. They had to have figured out the Anasûrimbor bloodline was the key. They could take out the greatest threat to their power and turn on the No-God in one step. Leave Kellhus alive, and he’d probably figure out how to destroy the No-God again even if one of them activated it.

There is precedent for it happening. Hope they find that missing Heron Spear.

The sound of children laughing and playing, a simple joy, is what Achamian yearns for. He wants to keep hearing it because it means the Second Apocalypse hasn’t come. That there is still innocence in the world.

We noticed near the end of the last book, that Achamian’s dreams with Seswatha were focused on Nau-Cayûti. Now, he’s dreaming things no other Mandate has. The things that the Seswatha-in-his-Soul didn’t think was relevant to their mission. What’s changed for Achamian. What makes him different.

Kellhus.

I believe when Kellhus hypnotized Achamian in the Thousandfold Thoughts, something changed. Perhaps Kellhus talking with the Seswatha caused him to react and start feeding Achamian more information, or whatever Kellhus did to free Achamian to teach the Gnosis loosened the other restraints on the Seswatha in him, and now he’s dreaming all sorts of things.

On another note, Mandate who get obsessed with dreams invariably fall into the conspiracy theory traps and get lost in them. Achamian, at least, is studying new things. But obsession can do a lot of damage if it consumes him.

Poor Achamian, having to dream about an adulterous wife while missing Esmenet. Twenty years, and it still hurts. He’s like Leweth from the first book. The man who went into the wilderness to preserve memories of his wife. Achamian is obsessed with his quest to unmask Kellhus and prove himself right. Esmenet went back to him without telling him why. She probably thought he was dead, she was pregnant, and she had a chance to find Mimara.

Achamian is always the teacher, even if his only pupils are slave children who’d normally never learn to write. The Turtle Shell rock is a nice and subtle reminder of one of Achamian’s core characteristics.

Why did Esmenet stay? I’ve always said it was for her children: Mimara and Kayûtas, the one she was pregnant with. She had to be a mother before a woman, choosing them over her heart.

I think I’ve mentioned this, but altruism is hard to maintain when you’re starving. The hungrier you get, the more you retreat into instinct. And instinct is selfish. We know from Esmenet’s point of view she sold Mimara to feed herself. In a fit of selfishness, she did it and only regretted it later. Once she’d eaten and could think properly, she wanted to take it back. Ironically, it did save Mimara’s life, but the girl suffered greatly anyways. A wound that being told her suffering was for her own good won’t work to heal.

I’m interested in the next series. Will becoming a mother herself bring Mimara and Esmenet together?

Achamian is lying about never meeting Mimara. He’s not her father, but he did know her as a child. He helped Esmenet to try and get her back after the famine but failed, and that was when Esmenet stopped talking about her. I imagined he’s denying he’s Mimara father out of guilt for that. She would have been sold off when he was away. When he couldn’t help Esmenet. Now he can’t be her father. He’s too old. He wants her to leave, not to bond with him.

Mimara being one of the Few is not a surprising plot twist if you were paying attention to the last series. Esmenet mentioned that her mother could do things that she refused to teach her daughter. She was a witch, but Esmenet didn’t have the ability. It’s a recessive gene or something and skipped her generation. So Mimara being one of the Few is not a clue she’s Achamian’s daughter.

She sees his face slacken, despite the matted wire of his beard. She sees his complexion blanch, despite the sun’s morning glare. And she knows that what her mother once told her is in fact true: Drusas Achamian possesses the soul of a teacher.

This is Mimara’s first POV paragraph. Notice the verbs. They are not in past tense like EVERYTHING else in the series. They’re present tense. It’s a subtle thing Bakker does with her POVs. Whenever we’re in her head, it’s not like the past is being retold to us, but that we’re living in the present with Mimara.

We’re seeing what her Judging Eye sees as the world unfolds before her.

I have to confess, I had read The Judging Eye maybe three or four times before I began seriously pursuing my own writing. The next time I read it after I did, in preparation for The Great Ordeal’s release, this leaped out at me at once and it made me ask, “Why did Bakker do this?”

Remember this lesson: if an author has even a modicum of talent, they write things for a reason. Now, don’t get lost in why they made so-and-so’s dress blue, or why such-and-such person has a wart on their nose. Most of the time, those are just there to paint the world, not for any special reason. But pay attention to which details an author shares and how they convey information. Bakker so far has used 3rd Person Omniscient Past Tense for the historical sections and 3rd Person Limited Past Tense for the character POVs. Now we have a shift to 3rd Person Limited Present Tense for Mimara and only Mimara. Why?

The Judging Eye.

When it opens, we see the world as she does. We experience it as she does. She’s the conduit for the God, the Oversoul, to peer out at the world and witness it the way IT sees the world. Damnation and Salvation. It makes her POVs have an immediacy that other sections can lack.

Like many abused as children, she has a great deal of anger inside of her. She’s lost. Looking for the family she should have had while rejecting the one who sold her into that horror. As we later see when she seduces Achamian, she’s been taught by her abuse that her body only holds value in pleasing a man.

Achamian sees too much of himself in her. He wants to hurt Kellhus and the world that has taken everything away. Mimara cuts too close. To protect himself, he has to drive her away. But she’s determined. She’s come too far to give up. Hitting her on the head won’t work. She thinks she has nothing else but this. She has a driving need to be here, manipulated to come here by her darling little brother Kelmomas.

He wants mommy all to himself.

If you want to read the next part, click here for Chapter 3!

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Born to Darkness

Born to Darkness

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Raiann is the twin sister of the heir to the Black Throne. And that’s a problem. Rumors persist that she is the firstborn not her brother. Realizing that her father will do something drastic to ensure his son inherits the throne, she has no choice but to flee.

Her flight doesn’t go as plan. She finds herself in trouble. But a wandering mercenary named Orxy comes to her rescue. He’s a satyr, one of the light blood races while she’s a djinn, dark blood. He promises to teach her to fight and to use the magic brimming in her blood. Djinn have passion pumping through their veins, and he’s going to prove it.

Raiann finds a new life that excites her blood. A mercenary.

Born to Darkness was a great read. It’s fast and flows. It has some great twists and turns and goes into some dark places. Raiann has an interesting path that’s powerful to read. Brit has outdone herself with this one. I’m a fan of her previous fantasy series, and this one showed her growing strength as an author.

I want to read more of this interesting world and the character of Raiann. While I wished she’d made a different decision at the end of the novel, she’s not a perfect character. She’s flawed and struggling to find peace in a world that’s cruel and unfair.

If you’re a fan of powerful and character-driven fantasy, you need to check out Born to Darkness!

You can buy Born to Darkness from Amazon!

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Weekly Free Story: The Assassin’s Remorse

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

Enjoy!

The Assassin’s Remorse

G’nite, Cerena,” Beshie said. “You be careful, you hear? All sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells lurkin’ in them streets when the fog be rollin’ in from the Redmud.”

I’ll be fine, Beshie,” Cerena replied, slipping on her heavy, woolen cloak. It was plain, a deep maroon, and not the greatest quality, but it was the best she and her husband could afford.

I can have one of me boys walk you home,” Beshie offered her.

Cerena sighed, a little irritated at Beshie’s over-mothering. The matronly woman meant well, but Cerena had walked these streets at night for years and never ran into these “ne’er-do-wells” that Beshie always complained about.

The fog lay thick on the streets of Kash-on-Redmud. The town was called Kash-on-Redmud to differentiate it from the larger city of Kash, as well as Little Kash, Kash-on-Tumblewaters, and Upper Kash. She often pondered her ancestors’ lack of imagination. Surely, there were other names besides Kash.

Cerena shrugged the cloak tightly around her, trying to ward off the creeping chill of the mist as she trudged down the cobblestone street to her home. Exhaustion weighed on Cerena, her feet sore from standing for hours serving the homeless of the town their bowl of watery soup and heel of day-old bread. Every Whiteday evening, since she was a child, Cerena had come to the soup kitchen. She found the work rewarding; it fulfilled her Act of Compassion for the week.

She was a devout follower of the Seven Colours of Elohm, and strove with diligence to follow the Seven Tenets: Compassion, Patience, Forgiveness, Virtue, Honesty, Temperance, and Modesty. Each Tenant was represented by one of Elohm’s Colours: Compassion by Orange and Patience by Yellow. Green for Forgiveness and Red for Virtue. Honesty, White; Temperance, Blue; and Modesty, Purple. Only when all seven Colours are balanced in your life, can true freedom be found, the catechism went. Cerena liked to think she had a good balance. She wasn’t perfect, of course, no one was, but she tried her hardest and had been rewarded with a loving husband, a comfortable home, and fast friends like Beshie.

Her boots’ heels clicked on the pavement with each step. One click as her heel touched the cobblestone, then a second click as the ball of her foot came down.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It echoed through the empty streets, half-muffled by the thick fog that rolled in from the river. If it weren’t for the jewelchine streetlamps shining their soft, white light, she’d have been hopelessly lost. She knew her way home—six lamps to Ostler Way, take a right, then twelve lamps to Fishmonger’s Row, turn to the left, and four more lamps would see her to her tenement building.

Jewelchine lights were a marvel. Cerena could remember how dark the streets were as a child before they were discovered. The streetlamps were made using a diamond wrapped with a gold wire. Elohm, in his great mercy, had taught the secret of harnessing the powers of Gems and Metals. Just like there were seven Colours, there were seven Jewels and seven Metals. Each Gem had a certain property: Amethyst for security, Topaz for healing, Ruby for warmth, and Diamonds for light, for truth. Light is the purest form of Truth, banishing the darkness of Dishonesty, the catechism went. The wire provided the power. The purer the metal—with Gold the purest, Zinc the basest, and five others falling in between—the longer the jewelchine would last before the wire burned itself out and had to be replaced. For such an important task as lighting the streets, the Archons had decided to use the more expensive gold wire on the streetlamps, trading a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

There was the rumor of an eighth Jewel: Obsidian. Black as night, and used for only the most vile purposes. It had to be wrapped in the eighth Metal: Black Iron. The Metal found only in the hearts of dead stars that had fallen to the earth. Cerena shuddered at the thought. Only a man so deprived of Elohm’s Colours would dare to use such a thing.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Her contemplation of the jewelchine streetlamps slowly drifted to other thoughts as she confidently walked the foggy streets. She wondered how her husband’s trip to sell his leathers downriver to Ustervin progressed. A nervous pang entered her stomach; she always worried while Asht was gone. He was a tanner, and once a month he would make the day’s journey by pole-boat to do business with the leather merchants of Ustervin. It would take a day or three to sell his work, and then the two-day journey upriver. She missed him desperately when he was gone; their bed felt so lonely without him. But they needed the money his monthly trips brought.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

She frowned, stopped, and peered back into the mist. Was there someone else in the fog? It was so thick a fool all in motley could stand not three paces in front of her and she’d not even see him.

Hello?” she asked, her voice tight. Beshie’s warnings lit a small fire of panic in her belly. She clutched at her cloak, pulling it tight around her, and listened. She strained, trying to ignore the blood rushing in her head as her heart pounded to the rhythm of fear.

Nothing. Only the echo of her own words parroting back at her.

Slowly, she relaxed.

Get a grip, woman, she told herself. She suppressed a momentary stab of irritation at Beshie for planting the sparks of fear inside her. Cerena smoothed her cloak, reminding herself that Beshie was just concerned for her safety. Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours, she repeated the catechism to herself. Weighing down your heart like an anchor. Let go of hate, of all black emotions, and allow your heart to freely soar up into Elohm’s light.

With a deep breath, she kept striding through the fog.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It’s just my imagination playing games with me, she decided as she made the right turn onto Ostler Way. No one is following me.

She tried to gather her thoughts and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home before she could retire and seek the lonely solace of her bed. Asht should return tomorrow unless his business in Ustervin ran that extra day. She reminded herself to lay out her prettiest dress for tomorrow. Her cheeks flushed, thinking on the purple dress that showed just a hint of her bosom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, within the guidelines of Modesty, but you could be a little immodest with your husband alone in your house; Asht was a passionate man after all, and she enjoyed it when was aflame with desire.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

Just my imagination, she kept telling herself. She quickened her steps. Only three jewelchine streetlamps before Fishmonger Row.

Click-click.

Clack.

Click-click.

Clack.

She peered over her shoulder. She saw nothing through the white haze except the fuzzy light of the last streetlamp. There were only two lamps to go. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Click-click.

Clack.

Was it getting closer? Another worried glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. Her stalker could be just paces behind her, cloaked in the fog’s white blanket.

Click-click.

Clack.

Her breath came in quick, ragged gasps as panic nibbled away at her thoughts. She reached the twelfth lamp and went left onto her street. Only four more lamps and she’d be home.

Click-click.

Clack.

She started to trot. Whoever followed her was closer.

Three lamps to go.

Click-click.

Clack.

Panic overtook her in a flash, like fire consuming dried tinder. She broke into a run, hiking up her skirt. She was beyond caring that a man might see her ankles and calves, beyond caring about Modesty; she just had to get away from that clack.

Two lamps to go.

She ran faster, her boots slipping on the damp cobblestone. She gasped, struggling to her balance, feet floundering beneath her. She gained sure footing, and raced forward. The last lamp was just ahead. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and grasped the amethyst bound in copper wire—the jewelchine key to the tenement’s building’s front door—tightly in her sweaty fist.

The last lamp flew by, a white blur in the thick mist. Her building loomed out of the fog, welcoming her with promised safety. She took the steps two at a time to reach the porch. She brought the amethyst key to the gemstone lock. A little arc of purple joined the two followed by a mechanical click. She threw open the door, darted in, and slammed it behind her. As she sucked in relieved breaths, she leaned back against the door.

Safe.

It took her a few minutes to regain her composure. She shook; tears ran down her face, mixing with the sweat. Twice, Cerena dropped her key—the crystal thunking on the old, wooden boards of the floor—before her shaking hands managed to put it back into her pocket. She was safe. Whoever had followed her in the mist wouldn’t have the key to the tenement building. The shaking stopped, her breathing slowed, and she wiped her face clean with a frilly handkerchief she produced from her skirt pocket.

It probably was just my own footsteps echoing back at me, Cerena told herself, feeling silly about the entire ordeal now that she was safely inside. She pushed off from the door and mounted the stairs; they creaked and groaned as she climbed, one hand grasping the banner. As she neared the second floor landing, she stepped over the loose runner near the top—the one the landlord refused to fix. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, Missus Ibsin,” he’d grunt to her whenever Cerena would bring it up. “So what if it wobbles some?” She hated talking with him. His breath always reeked of stale beer and his cheeks ruddy with proof of his less-than-obedient following of Temperance.

The floors creaked in front of Cerena. A plain-faced man stood on the second floor landing. Watery, toad-like eyes stared at her and lank hair fell about his forehead. He wore the slightly shabby clothes of a workman: dark trousers and a red waistcoat missing a button beneath a heavy, dark green coat that fell down to his knees.

Oh, hello, sir,” Cerena said, her voice neutral. She searched her mind, struggling to remember which one of her neighbors he was. “Um . . . I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

Quite all right,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s Missus Ibsin, right? Asht’s wife?”

Yes,” she answered.

His shove caught her completely by surprise. His hand pushed hard square on her right shoulder. Her feet left the steps. For a moment, Cerena was floating through the air. She seemed motionless, staring at the toad-eyed man in disbelief. Her hand reached slowly for the banister like she’d thrust it into thick molasses. Her fingers strained, desperate to grasp the railing and arrest her fall.

Why would he shove me?

Her fingers missed the banister, digits closing on empty air.

Then her back crashed into the middle of the staircase. Pain exploded through her. She grunted, the wind whooshing out of her lungs; her legs flipped over her head as she tumbled down the second half of the stairs. The hard, wooden steps bruised her flesh. She came to a rest sprawled on her back. Her left foot still rested on the stairs, the other lay twisted at a horrible angle.

What in the Black is going on? She was too confused to care about the vile curse. Her head rang too much to feel the pain of her broken leg. She blinked, her body struggling to move and her mind struggling with the stranger’s actions. The stairs creaked. The toad-eyed man descended, his face devoid of emotion.

Help!” she rasped, struggling to yell.

Surely, one of her neighbors had heard her crashing tumble. She balled a fist and pounded on the wall. His shadow fell on her, blocking out the soft, white light from the jewelchine crystal glowing from the ceiling. His knee came down between her breasts, crushing her lungs. She tried to breathe, desperate to suck in a lungful of sweet air. The entire weight of his body pressed down on her; ribs cracked like twigs. She clawed at his knee, struggling to push him off. She needed to breathe, her lungs burning and her head swimming.

He’s killing me, Cerena realized in utter disbelief. No! I can’t die! I don’t want to lose my husband! She kept pushing at his knee, using every bit of strength she could muster; her face burned as the blood pumped furiously through her veins while her body screamed for air. No, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please! Her husband’s friendly face swam up in her mind—sweet smile, loving eyes. Please, Elohm! I’ve followed the Tenets all my life! Please, give me this one thing! Let me live!

Her strength gave out. The world grew black on the edges, narrowing her vision. Her body ached for air, but it was useless. She could fight no longer. All she could do was stare up at her killer. Never in her life had Cerena hated someone more—a black, corrosive, heavy rage. How dare this man steal my life! It isn’t fair, Elohm!

His eyes were green.

As her heart began to flag, that one thing filled her mind. Green. The Colour of Forgiveness. She was about to die. How could she face the Rainbow of Elohm with hatred in her heart? With a weight dragging her down into the blackness? I can’t! I don’t want to be dragged into the black depths! She gathered every last bit of will she possessed, focused on her killer’s green eyes, and whispered three words.

And then she let go and was swept up by the beautiful, scintillating light.

* * *

Cerena’s lips moved, struggling to speak; her eyes focused intently on the assassin.

Liquid blue pools became black as the life fled her body.

The assassin kept pressing his knee into her chest. He counted calm heartbeats; when he reached one thousand, he was satisfied that she’d died. He studied her round face, the color fading from scarlet cheeks, leaving peaceful beauty staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

What had she tried to say to me at the end? His memory focused on her dull lips—no reddening rouge to brighten them, a modest woman—as they formed soundless letters. It wasn’t a damnation or a curse. The anger had melted out of her face and her eyes had softened right before she’d struggled to speak. A calm acceptance transformed her final moments.

Confused, the assassin walked back up the stairs, found his absorber—a yellow jewelchine that trapped sound in its influence, covering most of the stairwell—and slipped the Heliodor wrapped in Nickel into his pocket. She’d tried to raise a racket, but thanks to this handy jewelchine he’d invented, none of her neighbors had heard a peep.

He descended the stairs, taking care to step over the loose step that would be blamed for Cerena’s death. He paused at the bottom, studying her face—dead, beautiful, framed by golden hair—one last time, trying to puzzle out what she’d tried to say.

It doesn’t matter, the assassin told himself, pulling his gaze away.

On his walk to the tenement building’s front door, he slipped out his Obsidian blade bound in a Black Iron wire. The blade had a lot of nicknames: black tooth, shadowed death, the assassin’s wife. Death by focused light was the sentence for being found with an Obsidian jewelchine, particularly this one.

He touched the lock with the blade, tricking the amethyst jewelchine. It clicked mechanically, and he slipped out into the fog, carefully sheathing the blade. Despite being able to easily slip between a man’s ribs and find his heart, the blade was fragile and easily chipped. That would destroy it. The Obsidian had to be shaped just so, and the assassin did not have the skill to make a new one. The cost of a replacement blade would beggar him. It had taken years, and many deaths, to pay off this one.

With a staggering walk, he stumbled off into the fog, just another drunk coming home from the tavern. The mist wreathed him in a thick, white blanket smothering sight and sound. The assassin’s thoughts drifted—dull lips moved soundlessly; the plump kind that were nice to kiss.

What did she try to say?

He went two blocks too far before he realized he’d missed his turn. A momentary panic shot through him as he struggled to get his bearings in the thick fog.

Pay attention, Eljin, the assassin admonished himself. Plan, think, succeed. His mantra: plan carefully, think everything through, and you will succeed. Thanks to his meticulous care, he didn’t make mistakes, and thus commanded high rates for his work. So stop rainbow watching!

The lapse of situational awareness puzzled the assassin, his mental discipline weakening beneath the question of her final words. What could she have possibly been trying to say with such a calm, almost forgiving, look on her face? It annoyed him when he missed the second turn, and he grew angry at himself for walking past the third.

Plan, think, succeed.

His house was a narrow, tall building, built cheek-to-jowl with the other houses on the street. The assassin had inherited it from his mother when she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d lived in the house alone ever since. Inside it was neat, orderly. He took off his heavy jacket, hanging it carefully on the coat hook, his shoes placed precisely beside the door, and pulled on his felt slippers.

A trapdoor lay in his sitting room beneath a gray, oval rug decorated with seven lines woven in many intricate knots. Each line was a different color, giving the appearance of piety. The assassin gave little thought to the Colours and the uptight God, Elohm.

Descending the narrow, wooden ladder, he entered his dark, dry cellar made of smooth dirt walls. Wooden slats, resting on the hard-packed soil, creaked beneath his feet. By memory, his hand found the jewelchine light; the black was banished by white light. He hung his tools—his wife, the obsidian blade; the absorber; two emerald stunners, each wrapped in black iron wires; a pair of grip-gloves, and his pocket-torch—on a board of cork studded with nails, providing a spot for each tool to rest.

The assassin surveyed the cellar, searching for any minute thing that lay out of place. Plan, think, succeed. A spider formed a cobweb in the corner—wispy, spindly, untidy. He found a rag, killed the spider, and wiped up the clinging silk. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed the ladder, closed the trapdoor, and repositioned the prismatic rug.

He washed the cobwebbed cloth in his sink and left it to dry before he climbed the stairs and found his bedroom. He readied himself for sleep precisely. He dropped each article of clothing into his hamper before pulling on a clean nightgown. Then he drew back the quilted duvet and crawled beneath. Sleep came the moment his head rested on his pillow.

* * *

I forgive you.

The assassin jumped awake, nightgown drenched in sweat, heart pounding, lungs heaving. The dream lingered in his mind—dull lips struggled to speak; blue eyes widened black. Soundless words echoed in his mind.

I forgive you.

He stumbled downstairs into his kitchen and his hands trembled as he filled up a clay cup with water from his jewelchine kitchen sink. The assassin downed the liquid in a single gulp before filling another cup. His paroxysms spilled water as cold as ice, as death, across his hand. He concentrated, forcing his hand to stop shaking. He drained another cup, carefully placed it back into his cabinet, then climbed the stairs, and returned to his bed.

* * *

The assassin woke as the first rays of morning peeked into his room. No more dreams had plagued him after he’d returned to bed. Last night was just an aberration, he told himself as he dressed in his sober clothes before making his bed. To break his fast, he picked a tomato out of his garden, sliced it thinly, and fried it with two eggs. After eating, he cleaned his dishes, wiped down the counter, and took the leftover food to his mulch pile.

He had a short walk to his jewelchine shop. On the way, the assassin passed the same, familiar faces. He nodded to Master Tosner and Master Isthen as they sold their fruit and meat pies on the street corner, gave Ostin a polite nod while giving his nightsoil cart a wide berth, and shook hands with Master Hron as he smoked a cigar before his business, Property and Life Insurance. It lay next door to the assassin’s jewelchine business.

Often, it amused the assassin that none of these men knew the real person who lurked behind his mild-mannered mask. To them, he was just a jewelchine smith—boring, unremarkable, trustworthy—a paragon of Elohm’s Colours. He was honest with his customers, dressed modestly despite his apparently successful business, was temperate in his behavior, compassionate enough to give to soup kitchens, forgave other’s their trespasses, was virtuous in his habits, and only patience could allow a man to craft delicate jewelchines. He played the farce, mouthed their catechisms while thinking his own: Think, plan, succeed. A sloppy assassin was a dead one. Whether by treacherous associates, vigilant targets, or sorrowful executioner, the end was the same.

He unlocked his shop’s door and threw wide the drapes covering his storefront. He examined the shelves, making sure every jewelchine was in its proper place and in working order. Satisfied, he entered his back room and, with great care, set out his jeweler’s tools. First, he set about repairing a broken aquifer, carefully bending gold wires around a deep-blue sapphire. The wires had been damaged, stopping the gem from condensing water out of the air. It should only take the assassin’s practiced fingers half the morning to replace the delicate wire.

I forgive you.

Hands shook; gold wire snapped, ruining the morning’s work. Suppressing his annoyance, the assassin set his pliers down. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He dropped the two broken halves of gold wire into a jar to be melted down later for new wiring, and snipped a new length from a spool. He took a breath then returned to the delicate work of bending the wire in the specific pattern to channel the gem’s power. The way the gem was cut and the way the wire was wrapped and bent instructed the jewelchine on how to manifest the inherent energy of the gem, channeling the power into useful tasks. It was an art form—figuring out the angle of the facets, the degree at which the wire had to be bent, and just where the wire would lay upon the jewel. The assassin had found moderate success at inventing a few devices to aid his nocturnal work.

By midday, though his back ached from bending over, his mistake had been repaired. He stretched protesting muscles while his stomach rumbled. He put his tools in their proper spots, locked up his shop, and walked to a small, open-aired cafe at the street corner. He bought his usual ham sandwich on rich, black bread along with the midday paper. Unfurling it, he scanned the headlines as he took a large bite—salty ham, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard warred in his mouth.

Woman found dead in tenement,” the headline read. He moved down to the article. “Late last night, Cerena Ibsin was found dead of an accidental fall in her tenement. Neighbors blame a loose step that her landlord had long refused to repair. Friends spoke of Cerena’s generous heart. ‘Every Whiteday evening she was helping out at my soup kitchen,’ a tearful Beshie Corvan reported. Cerena was survived by her husband, Asht, who . . .”

Pale lips, blue eyes. I forgive you.

Bile rose in his throat. Pushing back from the table violently, the assassin bolted for the gutter. In a trickle of dirty water, he emptied his stomach with three heaves. He watched the green-yellow chunks washed away in the filthy current with the other effluence.

You a’ight, Eljin?” the cafe owner asked, picking up the assassin’s chair that he’d knocked over in his haste.

Yes, yes, Kefin,” the assassin muttered. “I was out in the fog last night.”

The owner shook his head, red jowls swaying beneath his chin. “Gotta watch out for them bad vapors. I always wear a cheesecloth ‘round my mouth. Strains out the bad vapors, it does.”

I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kefin handed the assassin a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth and spat the bile into the gutter.

What is wrong with me? After so many years, so many deaths, the assassin was at a loss as to why Cerena Ibsin would affect him even a little. He’d killed his heart years ago. What was so special about one housewife? She is hardly the first wife I’ve killed for a husband.

Blue eyes softening with forgiveness. Forgiving eyes widening into death.

A creak drew his attention, a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, a faded tankard painted on the splintered wood. Just one drink, he thought. What is the harm? The bar was nearly empty at midday, the proprietor snoring in a chair, his face ruddy with drink. Barley whiskey, cheap, burned the assassin’s throat after he’d roused the barkeep. The fire in his guts drove away those black-damned eyes. Slapping three brass glimmers on the counter, the assassin felt his composure restored.

Work went a little slower that afternoon. This wasn’t like him; he rarely drank and never in the afternoon. Maybe a touch of sherry to drive out bad vapors on a particular foul night, or a glass of port when his cousin visited.

I forgive you.

Why? he asked the blue eyes.

Pain flared; half-a-finger of tin wire stuck into the meat of his thumb. Blood welled dark-red around the metal then trickled down his digit. A bloody tear shed.

The bell tinkled, announcing a customer entering his shop. The assassin grunted as he pulled the wire out, his thumb throbbing harder. He wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and walked through the beaded partition to the counter.

Good day,” the assassin said to the man and a woman in the shop.

The man had a friendly smile as he sauntered up to the counter while a bored look filled the woman’s dusky face, her plush lips pursed as her dark eyes scanned the shelves of jewelchines. The pair couldn’t have been more opposite: the man dressed in the rough clothes of a tradesman, hands calloused from heavy work, his skin pale, a local. Her dusky skin named her a Terysian from across the sea, her clothes rich-red brocade, low-cut to display a magnificent bosom. Not even the whores in Ustervin revealed so much flesh. The assassin could not stop his eyes from admiring her lushness. Terysians didn’t follow Elohm and his Rainbow of Morality.

Hello, Master Ibsin,” the assassin greeted the man, his client. “How’s your day been?”

Sad,” he answered, though not a hit of grief afflicted his friendly face. “My, uh, friend and I returned from Ustervin this morning to find that my wife had a tragic accident.”

The assassin glanced at the woman, evaluating her: beautiful, expensive clothes, jewelry—costly to stay “friends” with.

May the Rainbow of Elohm carry your wife’s soul to the heavens.” The platitude sounded wrong when the assassin spoke them; a mockery of Cerena’s life.

Blue, forgiving, dead eyes stared at him.

Are you all right?” Ibsin asked the assassin; he sounded concerned.

A skilled liar, the assassin guessed. A heart as dead as mine beats in his chest.

Yes, yes,” the assassin answered, gathering his thoughts. “You’re here to pick up your pocket-torch, right?”

Ibsin nodded. “I believe we settled on two gold beams?”

The assassin glanced sharply at the woman, who was still browsing his shelves. Two gold beams, more than a month’s salary for a laborer, was far too much coin for a simple pocket-torch jewelchine.

Don’t worry about Jasymina, Master Eljin,” Ibsin said with a dismissive wave. He produced two large, golden coins and slapped them counter.

The assassin’s hand darted out, scooped them up and pocketed them. From beneath the counter, he produced a diamond gem wrapped in zinc, the cheapest of metals, and handed it to Asht. The “grieving husband” nodded then motioned to Jasymina.

She swayed to him as he marched to the door. “I bet you could sue your landlord for neglecting to repair the step, Asht,” she purred, taking his arm. “That must be worth as much as her life insurance.”

Ibsin laughed; it was rich, full of life. “You might be right. I know a barrister . . .”

The door closed behind them. Disgust filled the assassin, clinging like muck to his soul. Killed so her husband could support his mistress. The assassin froze. Why do I care about why he wanted her dead? He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the two gold beams.

* * *

Cerena stared up at him, her blue eyes shining with forgiveness as his knee pressed on her chest. Her face was turning red as she struggled to live. She was beautiful in a natural way, lacking any enhancement by immodest cosmetics. Her face was round, nose dainty, lips plump, and hair golden silk.

As pretty as Jasymina.

The assassin pressed harder. Reminding himself, you were hired to kill her. Don’t go getting soft now, Eljin. Ribs snapped like dry twigs. Her dull-pink lips struggled, soundlessly speaking.

Only this time, sound issued from those pale, wriggling lips: “I forgive you.”

Why?” he asked her, pressing harder with his knee.

Coins clinked behind him.

Fear rushed through him, cold as a winter’s gale. His hand darted by instinct to draw his wife. He spun with the Obsidian dagger held low. Cerena stood behind him, a nimbus of rainbowed light surrounding her, two gold coins held in her hand.

Is this what my life was worth?” she asked, blue eyes glistening. “You stole my happiness, my future, for two little bits of metal?”

I . . .” The words died in his throat.

You stole me from my husband, my friends, my family. You stole me from everyone that cared about me, loved me. All for these coins?”

The assassin floundered as her blue eyes held his gaze, pleading for answers. “It’s what I do.” The answer sounded lame—unsatisfactory, insulting, cheapening—the moment it left his lips.

I see,” she sadly whispered. “I was simply a nail to be hammered? A fish to be gutted? A cowhide to be tanned?”

His mouth opened, but he found no words to speak, no excuse worth the cost. He never thought about why he killed. He was good at it, and the rewards supported his jewelchine tinkering.

Was my life so worthless you can’t even answer me?” The pain in her words tore at the assassin’s soul. Guilt—crushing, suffocating guilt—filled his heart, squeezing it with an iron grip, trying to arrest its beat.

It was your husband that wanted you dead,” the assassin gasped, clutching his chest as his heart warred to stay alive. “Not me. I didn’t kill you! It was your husband! I was just his tool—the hammer wielded by his hand. It wasn’t my fault!”

Was it my husband that pushed me down the stairs? Did he crush my lungs with his knee and stare me in the eyes while I died?”

The assassin bolted awake, his nightgown stuck to him with sweat. He raced downstairs into his orderly kitchen and tore open cabinets. He threw plates and crockery to the side to find his cooking sherry. He grasped the green bottle and didn’t bother with a cup. He took a long swig of the wine. Then a second deep swallow, the drink burning his insides, warring with the guilt crushing his heart.

It was your husband!” he sobbed at the blue eyes. “He killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

Then leave me alone! Haunt your black-damned husband! He killed you!”

I forgive you.

I didn’t kill you! I don’t need your forgiveness!” He threw the bottle at the blue eyes, striking a crock of honey. Both smashed into unsightly, untidy shards. The assassin didn’t care. He only shrieked incoherently at those eyes.

* * *

The assassin dressed in dirty clothes; none were clean in his house. Unsteady with drink, he grabbed the first pair of trousers he found on the floor and pulled them up his leg. He tottered on one foot, the room spinning around him, and fell back onto his bed. He grunted and continued dressing. He found a stained shirt and a greasy waistcoat and did the buttons up crooked. He stumbled down the stairs, catching himself twice before he tumbled head-first. He snagged a half-empty bottle of whiskey left on a shelf in the sitting room, took a swig, then kicked the rug aside that hid his cellar. Bottle in hand, he descended into the black hole, the drink weighing him down into the darkness.

As he stared at the cork board from which hung his assassin’s tools, he struggled through the fog of his drink to remember what items he would need for the night’s work. His wife, of course. He slammed the obsidian dagger into its sheath. Then he snagged his diamond pocket-torch, the absorber, and his pair of leather grip-gloves made with tiny Emeralds bound with Aluminum wire that adorned the glove’s palm and fingertips.

I invented these, right? The assassin asked himself, staring bemused as the light glinted in the emeralds’ facets. Pretty sure I did.

He made it halfway down his street when he realized he’d forgotten the igniter. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He struggled to focus through the fog of drink. Part of him knew he shouldn’t imbibe the alcohol, but it shrouded him from those forgiving blue eyes.

No more mistakes, he berated himself. You need this job, Eljin. It had been the first nocturnal job he’d taken in the weeks since the Ibsin job—the assassin didn’t like to think about that one; the blue eyes always appeared when he thought of her. Desperation drove him to accept this one. I could make some money again if those damned, forgiving eyes would go haunt Ibsin instead.

He felt ill while he’d talked to Missus Kithan—the same roiling, nauseating inferno that consumed his stomach every time he talked with a potential client—but he needed the money. Creditors were pounding on his door: rent was due for his store, vendors needed payment for materials, and his customers demanded refunds for shoddy work. The two gold coins burned in his pocket, weighing him down with every step.

He should just part with them, couldn’t. Her eyes castigated him every time he tried.

He got lost on the way to Salmon Row. The helpful proprietor of a bar gave him directions, as well as selling him a bottle of cheap whiskey. Off lurched the assassin down the streets, stumbling from one side to the other.

An hour later than he’d planned, the assassin found the house. It was large, constructed of river stones fitted together with mortar. A tall garden wall encircled the house. Green tendrils crept over the top of the wall and hung down the bricks, reaching for the street.

The assassin pulled on his grip-gloves. With ease, he climbed up the wall. The problem came when he tried to hook his right leg over the lip. He balanced precariously atop the narrow wall, struggling to get his legs to cooperate. His foot kept catching on the stone lip. He gave a jerk and his leg lurched over too hard. For a moment, he flailed his arms in a useless attempt to maintain his balance before he fell heavily into a rhododendron bush.

Stems scraped his face as he struggled to escape the bush, lavender petals clinging to his clothing. He stumbled out, tripped forward, and fell onto soft grass. He patted himself as he stood and realized he’d dropped something important. With a grunt, he strode back into the bush with drunken determination to find the bottle of whiskey he’d dropped.

He found the bottle just in time, feeling the blue eyes nearing. He took a drink to ward them off. Then a second for good measure. The assassin tried to remember why he hated whiskey; it was such a marvelous drink. He whistled as he staggered to his target’s back door.

He found it locked.

He stared stupidly at the knob then twisted it again. It refused to turn, as stubborn as he was. He grunted, the metal rattling. He grunted. Now what? he asked his foggy mind. There were windows he could break. He frowned. That didn’t feel right to the assassin. Don’t I have a tool that can open doors for me? He patted his pockets, and felt something hard. Igniter? I could burn the door down. Absorber? It would keep anyone from hearing me break open the window. He touched the dagger.

Feeling like a motley fool, he drew his wife and casually touched the black tip to the door’s jewelchine lock. Purple light arced; the lock clicked. With a triumphant shout, he entered the house. A cat yowled and hissed.

The bottle fell out of the startled assassin’s hand and clattered as it rolled across the wooden floor.

He almost fell over trying to grab the whiskey. Once it was securely in hand—well, once he’d taken another deep, fortifying drink of the wonderful liquid—he peered around, trying to get his bearings.

Have to find the stairs, he remembered as the cat hissed from beneath a couch.

He tried to walk lightly, but his feet kept crashing onto the wooden floors no matter how much he concentrated on gentle steps. He was thrilled to have only tripped once while ascending to the top of the stairs.

His target, Missus Kithan’s husband, slept soundly in a large bed next to his young mistress. Both snored. Several wine bottles littered the room and a half-smoked cigar lay on the floor. The bed was rumpled, the occupants naked.

The assassin struggled to remember Missus Kithan’s instructions. “I want them to burn. Him and his hussy,” she’d cackled. “He’s always fallin’ asleep smokin’ his darkness cigars! Just set the bed aflame.”

That’s why I brought the igniter.

Pulling it out of his pocket, he concentrated. The gem glowed with an inner fire, reddening the copper wire that bound it. He bent down to touch the gem to the tangled blankets when the mistress rolled over, golden hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Round face, framed with gold hair, blue eyes staring up with forgiveness.

He froze. She found me. The assassin’s hand shook. Just touch the cloth, he ordered his hand. Do it!

The blue eyes held out her hands; a pair of gold coins gleamed around pale, dead fingers. Is this what my life was worth?

Why are you hesitating, Eljin? thought the assassin. Just do it! Touch the cloth. The hand refused to move. It’s not your fault. You’re not killing them, not really. It’s Missus Kithan and Mister Ibsin and all the others who hired you over the years. You’re the hammer. They’re the hammerer. If you didn’t do it, they’d just find another tool.

Was it my husband who pushed me down the stairs? the blue eyes asked.

No.”

The assassin fled, racing down the stairs. The cat yowled, scared out of its fur and whiskers as he barreled through the parlor. He burst out of the house, scrambled over the fence with drunken desperation, and pounded down cobblestone streets. Terror and guilt whipped at his heels, spurring him to race faster and faster. He ran until his sides ached to bursting and the whiskey in his belly rebelled, vomiting out of his mouth into the gutter.

I didn’t kill you!” he sobbed over and over, bile bittering his tongue, his soul whipped raw by the tempest of his guilt. “Your husband killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

The tempest dissipated. Those three words banished the storm inside him. A placid calm, the lull in a titanic storm, descended on the assassin. She forgave me. The assassin looked up at the sky, dark clouds parting. The green moon, Elohm’s Forgiveness, shone down on the assassin.

How could her husband have wanted to kill her? the assassin wondered. She was such a loving woman. She found the strength to forgive me. Why did he deserve to have happiness and love? Why did he deserve to live and not her?

Why did he deserve to live?

* * *

For days, the assassin stalked Cerena’s husband, her real killer. I didn’t kill her, he would tell himself, fixing his green eyes with mad fervor on the friendly face of Asht Ibsin—the mask hiding the callous monster from the world. The assassin didn’t need the drink any longer; he didn’t need to hide from her blue eyes in a haze of alcoholic fumes. He knew what the eyes needed: vengeance, justice.

Ibsin would die. Then Cerena’s soul would be able to rest.

It disgusted him watching Ibsin cavort with his hussy, Jasymina. They spent their days shopping, buying the disgusting slattern more clothing, more makeup, and more sweet unguents. Their nights were spent carousing in expensive wine shops, the ones the wealthy merchants or itinerant noblemen patronized. Ibsin had not a care in the world, his happiness bought by his wife’s murder.

For a week, the assassin waited for his opportunity, becoming more and more delighted with the slattern’s behavior. Ibsin had begun to bore Jasymina, her lustful gaze roaming to new conquests. He watched from the back of the wineshop as Ibsin walked in, looking for his mistress. He found her draped on a wealthy merchant’s arm. The assassin smiled; she’d found someone with deeper pockets. For the last few nights, drink’s fog had kept Ibsin from realizing his Jasymina was seducing her next lover.

The assassin padded after the dejected Ibsin, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his dagger. Swollen bruises marred Ibsin’s face from the chastisement he’d received at the hands of the merchant’s guard when he’d objected too vociferously about Jasymina’s abandonment.

The assassin wondered if the guilt gnawed at the tanner now. You killed your wife for that slattern and she tossed you aside like a torn petticoat. He wanted to laugh, to revel in Ibsin’s humiliation, but that might give him away.

Plan, think, succeed.

The assassin thought it was fitting to kill Ibsin in the very tenement stairwell where Cerena had died. Where Ibsin—through the assassin—had murdered his wife.

Ibsin reached the door, pulled out his key, and touched the amethyst to the lock. The soft, white glow of the jewelchine streetlights revealed no witnesses. Like a haunting ghost, the assassin drifted to the tenement. Ibsin pushed the door open. The assassin slammed into him, throwing the tanner into the tenement. Ibsin cried out in alarm, his foot tripping on the stoop, and fell into a heavy heap on the wooden floors.

The assassin drew his wife, sleek, black, gleaming deadly in the white light of the stairwell.

You?” Ibsin blinked drink-bleared eyes in confusion. He froze as the assassin fixed hard, green eyes on him. “W-wait! I can pay you more!”

He scrambled back before the assassin’s slow advance. The tanner pulled a thick, steel knife from his boot, a heavy blade used to cut hides. A single kick, aimed with care, connected the tip of the assassin’s booted foot to Ibsin’s wrist and sent the knife clanging to the floor.

I’ll pay double your rate,” Ibsin blubbered. An acrid-sour odor filled the air—nightsoil. The assassin’s eyes flickered down, the breach of the tanner’s pants mud-brown. Yellow piss puddled on the floor.

The assassin hovered over the murderer, his obsidian wife raised. Ibsin’s eyes fixed on the black blade. All he had to do was thrust his dagger, slip it between the man’s ribs, and find the monster’s treacherous heart. Then she shall be avenged! Then she shall stop haunting me.

You killed her,” the assassin hissed.

Who?” squealed Ibsin.

Your wife!”

N-no, you did!” Tears ran from his gray-blue eyes. “I didn’t kill her.”

Yes you did! You sought me out! Walked into my shop! You hired me!” Words paused for a ragged inhalation. “You used me like a tool! A hammer!” Spittle rained down on Ibsin’s face. “A hammer to pound the nail into your wife’s heart!”

B-but you killed her! I just gave you the money. I never would have hurt her myself! She was just in the way of my happiness! But I didn’t kill her. That was all you! Please! There’s still some of the insurance money left! And I have a settlement coming. My barrister tells me I have a huge negligence case against my landlord!”

I don’t want your money!” roared the assassin. “Cerena doesn’t want your money! She wants vengeance on the man who killed her!”

That was you! Not me! Please! Elohm save me! I didn’t kill her. I’ve never even harmed a freckle on her body!”

The words struck the assassin—the sound of ribs cracking filled his mind, hands frantically trying to pry his knee off her chest, a beautiful face turning red, Cerena fighting desperately to live.

It crystallized in an instant for the assassin. He never harmed a freckle on her face . . . But I did.

No, we killed her,” the assassin admitted. He felt something fall from his heart—a great weight. I killed so many, the Colours help me. There is so much blood on my hands. “You were the mind, the thought that swung the hammer, Ibsin. You wielded me, but I’m not a mindless tool. I’m not a hammer swinging with no control over where I land, which nail I pound into the wood. I could have said no. I could have stopped you or warned her. I could have done any of a hundred things. Together, we murdered her.” The tear welled in his green eye, rolling down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cerena.”

Blue eyes whispered back: I forgive you.

Eljin dropped the black blade. It tumbled, light glinting bright on its irregular surface. With a tinkling crash, it splintered into three large shards on the faded floor.

She forgave us,” Eljin told Ibsin. “I don’t know why. Elohm knows we deserve her curse, her anger.”

She was a kind woman,” Ibsin blubbered.

Fishing into his pocket, Eljin pulled out two gold beams, each stamped with Elohm’s rainbow, and dropped them next to his broken blade. Then he turned, and walked towards the door.

Cerena was a better person than me. All I ever did was take. Eljin knew it was time to find something else to do with his life, find some way to repay Cerena for what he’d stolen from her. Maybe this is why she forgave me, he mused, to teach me to be a better man.

Ibsin’s dagger slid easily into Eljin’s back, slipping through the ribs and piercing his lung.

You killed her, not me!” Ibsin howled as Eljin pitched to the floor. “I would never harm a freckle on her! Never!”

Cold stole over Eljin as he rolled over onto his back. Ibsin loomed above him. Gripped in his white-knuckled hand was his tanner’s blade decorated with Eljin’s blood. The chill swelled through him as Ibsin raved, wild-eyed. The words didn’t matter; Eljin was beyond them. Anger clenched his heart. I spared this man, and this is how he repays me?

Cerena appeared, riding down from the heavens on a rainbow of light, and stood above him—light opposing her husband’s darkness. A sad smile graced her lips as she stared down at Eljin with soft eyes. Her murderer.

How?” Eljin croaked to her. “How could you forgive me?”

How what?” Ibsin cackled. “What are you saying!”

Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours. It weighs down your heart like an anchor,” she answered. “Let go of hate, of all the black emotions, and allow your heart to soar up into Elohm’s light.”

That’s . . . it?” The words were growing harder to bring forth, his mouth coppery with blood.

That’s what?” demanded Ibsin; Eljin ignored the monster’s mad face, fixing instead on the plain beauty of Cerena’s.

That’s it, Eljin.” Her blue eyes were soft, forgiving, compassionate.

I robbed the world of an angel.

Eljin looked at Ibsin and spoke three words. The chain snapped. The anger plummeted into the darkness. Eljin’s soul rose up into the light.

The END

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter One

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter One

Sakarpus

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

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

—“THE REFUGEE’S SONG,” THE SAGAS

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The call to arms did not come till the last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So many proud peoples broken.

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

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

“And what would he say?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But how can you know, Da?”

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

“Then how can we hope to resist him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So says the slave!” Harweel cried.

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

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

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

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

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

The young Prince stared harder into the glowing cracks.

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

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

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

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

Forgive me…

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

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

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

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

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

Once again the horns unnerved the sky.

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

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

The South had come to teach them.

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

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

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

Sorweel fond himself clutching the pitted stone of the battlements.

The Aspect-Emperor.

The rumor. The lifelong itch…

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

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

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

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

“Nooooooo!”

The clamour of arms descended upon the world.”

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

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

And with eyes that blinked light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember?

“You are a King, are you not?”

Sorweel could only stare in horror and wonder.

“I-I d-d-d-on’t understand…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more.

My Thoughts

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

We spin out our delusions to justify our crimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many cities has he seen burned since?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Chapter Two!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Review: Empire of Grass

Empire of Grass

by Tad Williams

Reviewed by JMD Reid

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

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

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

Chaos threatens to destroy all.

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

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

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

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

You can buy Empire of Grass from Amazon!

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

House of Chain (Malazan Book of the Fallen 4)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

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

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

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

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

Will they meet Coltaine’s fate?

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

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

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

You can buy House of Chains from Amazon.

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

The Thousandfold Thoughts (The Prince of Nothing Book 3)

by R. Scott Bakker

Reviewed by JMD Reid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy Thousandfold Thoughts from Amazon.

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