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Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Chapter Seven

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Seven

The Istyuli Plains

Welcome to Chapter Seven of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Six!

…and they scoff at heroes, saying that Fate serves disaster to many, and feasts to few. They claim that willing is but a form of blindness, the conceit of beggars who think they wrest alms from the jaws of lions. The Whore alone, they say, decides who is brave and who is rash, who will be hero and will be fool. And so they dwell in a world of victims.

—QUALLAS, ON THE INVITIC SAGES

Ever do Men use secrets to measure those they love, which is why they are less honest with their brothers and more guarded with their friends.

—CASIDAS, ANNALS OF CENEI

My Thoughts

The first quote is amazing. It’s how people embrace being a victim. How they have blame their lot in life on others not their own actions. It’s all the Whore. It’s not their fault they got a shitty deal. So to say that others are “heroes” who dared to be bold and seize their own destiny would mean they could have done something. So they have to say they really got lucky. Because if these people made their own destiny, then the victim’s lot is also their own fault.

The next quote goes on how we don’t like telling our dark secrets to our loved ones. We don’t want to hurt them. To burden them. To see them look at us with disappointment. Disgust. But with a stranger, they can be honest, be less guarded, because they aren’t risking the relationships. The more they conceal, the more they care. It’s a measure measure.

We see Sorweel has shared a secret with Zsoronga while searching for a friend. He swallows the shame because he’s desperate for his advice. He is gambling with the truth to get his friendship back. He’s taking that risk he wouldn’t normally.

Late Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), the High Istyuli

The had fled and they had gathered, like sawdust before the sweep of the carpenter’s hand.

For a while, the Sranc of the Sakarpi Pale had retreated before the Great Ordeal. These Sranc were used to dealing with Men and knew that unless they outnumbered them, it was folly to attack them. These Isranz’horul, the Shining Man, shook the earth as they marched. The fleeing Sranc ran into new clans who inherited fear. Clan after clan after clan retreats before the Ordeal. As their numbers swell, their fear dwindles.

Not long after the army broke apart, General Sibawul the Nurwul wanted to show how badass his Cepalorans are. Disobeying Kayûtas’s orders, he goes far ahead of the hose. He wants to fight Sranc. He got his wish as he finds the teeming thousands of the Sranc. He fled and learns Sranc run fast, losing a third of his men in the first day. A running battle breaks out as hundreds die pointlessly.

Kayûtas is not happy, rebuking General Sibawul. Kellhus knew the Hording would happen but withhold word of it not to hurt morale until it was time to deal with them. So Kayûtas asks Sibawul how he punishes those who disobey his orders. Flogging.

So was the first Lord of the Ordeal whipped for a martial transgression.

And so did the Zaudunyani learn that beyond the northern horizon, their foe roiled in numbers that encompassed the horizon—numbers far greater than their own. About the campfires, those who had argued a bloodless march to Golgotterath were silenced.

None could deny that a grievous toll was about to be paid.

Proyas had seen armies afflicted by many problems from disease to starvation until they look like “doddering old men.” He finds himself thinking about how the First Holy War had been reduce to cannibalism before the end. He sees the Great Ordeal starting down that same path. The first wounds are bleeding.

And about once a week, Kellhus has a one-on-one meeting with Proyas. It’s so the Aspect-Emperor and Proyas can “sit and discuss… madness.” Kellhus comments that he’s still troubled about that Day in Shimeh. The day when Achamian had denounced Kellhus. Twenty years, and it’s still there. An old wound. He can’t get that image of Achamian out of his mind.

“I loved Achamian.”

Of course as a boy, Proyas had loved his “first true teacher.” He could tell that Achamian wasn’t there to teach out of duty but out of a desire to educate Proyas, not a prince. Kellhus says it troubles Proyas that a “soul so wise and gentle would so condemn me.” Proyas snaps back that a cuckold can’t be that. He was spurned. Proyas was too cowardly to even tell Achamian that Esmenet had become Kellhus.

Despite knowing Achamian was angry and bitter at being spurned, the fact he condemned Kellhus troubles Proyas. So much that he read Achamian’s Compendium of the First Holy War. Proyas smiles, having wondered when Kellhus would finally call him out and admits he read a summary of what it claimed about Kellhus. But he didn’t believe it, of course.

The Holy Aspect-Emperor frowned as if troubled by the vehemence of his denial. He lowered his gaze to the fire twirling in the arcane octagon of his hearth.

“But why would that be, when they are true?”

Proyas is bewildered. Shocked. He sees the halos around Kellhus’s hands and asks what he is saying. “That Men are children to me, precisely as Achamian claims.” Proyas agrees because he’s father to them. Kellhus stares at him and asks, “What father murders so many of his sons?”

What was this melancholy? What was this doubt? After campaigning so long, surviving so much calamity, how could the man who gave meaning to it all ask such corrosive questions?

“A divine one,” the Exalt-General declared.

As the Sranc grow hungrier, they become bolder. More violent. Patrols had to be done in force after losing two companies. They have to camp with defenses now. Despite this, the soldiers starting singing as they march. The “Beggar’s Lament” became very popular as they sing about their hardships, inventing new ones.

And so the Army of the Middle-North marched into the Horde’s shadow laughing.

Kayûtas and his council have little humor. Their supply situation is growing worrying and so far half the slaves have died from the reduced rations. When the nobles complained, Kayûtas points out that they’re only here because Kellhus conceded to the bitchy noblemen. It wouldn’t be long before those caste-nobles would have to kill their own slaves, the Slaughter of the Camp-followers. And with them not finding food, it wouldn’t be long for that to happen. And thanks to the drought, there’s not enough grass for the horses to eat.

They start devising new strategies to deal with the Sranc. They will soon be in such great numbers, they will attack. King Hogrim asked how many there are. “More than us, my friend.” King Narnol, whose son was killed by the Sranc, wants to reunite the Great Ordeal and face this threat together. Not a good plan since the army can’t feed itself which is why they broke apart in the first place. “To stand together is to stave together.” Fear is building in Kayûtas’s generals.

“Trust in my Father,” he [Kayûtas] pressed, “who has foreseen and planned for all of these dilemmas. Think of how fifty of your knight can rout a mob of thousands! The Sranc battle in crazed masses, bereft of design or coordination. You need not fear for your flank, only stand your ground! Hack and hew!” He turned to gesture to his sister, Anasûrimbor Serwa, the Grandmistress of the Sawayali, whose beauty was ever a lodestone for ideal eyes. “Most importantly, recall the Schools and the destruction they can rain down upon our foes! Have no fear, my brothers. We will cobble the horizon with their carcasses!”

And the Lords of the Ordeal filed from the council striking their chests and crying out in renewed resolution. So easy it was to kindle the lust for blood in the hearts of Men. Even those thrown more than a thousand miles from their home.

The army marches through dust, whispering about the Horde and speculating on their numbers. They take bets on the scouting patrols while those men feel like they’re at the end of the earth as they drive the Sranc before them through the dust. Sometimes, the wind would change and they’d hear the Sranc shrieking like “children.”

When they do spot Sranc, the patrols would “retreat” and draw the bold Sranc away from the horde to be slaughtered. At first, they count the amount of Sranc they killed, companies boasting about their numbers. But when they start hitting numbers in the tens of thousands, it seemed futile to count. Their enemy was inexhaustible.

As the rations grew worse, more slaves are abandoned, too weak to walk. The soldiers are eating amicut. Some lords murder their slaves at night, and macabre tales are traded. At night, there are less fires as they are running lower on fuel. This march is unlike anything. There is no prospect of battle and a victory to hearten the men. Just drudgery day after day. The men grow frustrated, but they still believe and fear the Judges. They crave battle, their foe just staying out of reach.

Soon, the Lords of the Ordeal hope the many rivers would trap parts of the horde on one side so they could be massacred, but the draught has reduced them to muddy channels. As they cross, they foul the water. Disease starts afflicting the Great Ordeal. Sick columns trail after the four armies and “quickly become pageants of death and misery.” The Great Ordeal learns what the histories and poet’s leave out: “more warrior die in offal than in blood.”

The Sranc keep retreating. But their attacks on the pickets grows in size and scale. The skirmish become more bloody. The ones who get closes to the Horde describe it as “the edge of screaming miles.” This idiom spreads through the horde. There are victories and slaughters, and General Sibawul gets flogged again. Mutters about how ancient emperors had led their men to their deaths out of pride.

Kayûtas reassures everyone that they battle will soon come because while the Great Ordeal is hungry, they’re starving. One guy snorts that they think to steal food the Great Ordeal doesn’t have only for King Vûkyelt calls him an idiot. They are the food.

Some whine to Kellhus for him to give a speech and silence all the doom and gloom. “If your nations cannot endure trials so paltry without my intervention, then truly the Great Ordeal is doomed.” So the soldiers tighten their belts and trudge on, exhausted and moving “like men trapped in nightmares.”

It always shamed Sorweel that he had no brothers. It never made sense why he felt bad that his mom had failed to have another son or his father refusing to get a new wife after her death. His father would fight with advisers when they pointed out if Harweel died, the dynasty would end. It made Sorweel feel precious, and if he had a younger brother, he could share this burden with. So he’d always looked for a brother among his peers, but he was always the Prince. Now, Sorweel needs to have a brother and isn’t sure he has any friends.

Because the Scions had found a vast Sranc horde following the Great Ordeal. They are in peril, especially when they see the Nonmen in command of the army. Insane Erratics who look like Sranc walking around like men. A perversion of what’s “natural.”

There’s barely a hundred of them leading them along with a different type called “Ursranc” as Eskeles calls them. They’re bigger and more obedient than the wild Sranc. The uniformity of their armor marks them from their “wolfish kin” whom they whip and patrol around. Even the numerous Ursranc were nothing compared to the tens of thousands of Sranc all yoked together in squares of ten thousand of them. They’re staring at a Yoke Legions. The Erratics and Ursranc would drive them to the Ordeal and hit them from behind.

The Consult was real. If the unmasking of the skin-spy in the Umbilicus had not entirely convinced Sorweel, this most certainly did. The Aspect-Emperor warred against a real enemy. And unless the Scions could find some way to warn Kayûtas, the Army of the Middle-North was doomed.

For the last “crazed fortnight” the Scions had been trying to catch up with the Great Ordeal. As fast as their going, the Ten-Yoke Legion matched them. They’re pushing their ponies to the limits and, after the first week, the beasts began to flag. As they ride, mounts died. When they did, the best riders were kept and the weakest were abandoned to run on foot. Obotegwa was the first to be left behind. Charampa followed. Only Eskeles was not subjected to this even as the fat Schoolman gained the nickname “Pony-Killer.” Out of shame, he stops eating.

When Baribul has to be left behind after the fifth pony that died beneath Eskeles, he demands to know why he doesn’t use his sorcerer to walk the sky. The sorcerer points out that there are Nonmen Quya hunting them, and if he draws their attention, they’re dead. The youth protests and Harnilas kills him. Then Harnilas shouts that he doesn’t care about who their fathers are. All that matters is the mission. Only one man needs to reach the Great Ordeal to raises the alarm.

Sorweel lingered behind, staring at the body in the dust. For the first time, he understood the mortal stakes of their endeavour—the mission his insight had delivered. The Scions could very well be doomed, and unless he set aside his cowardice and pride, he would die not only without brothers but without friends as well.

They keep riding, exhausted, half-asleep. Zsoronga tells Sorweel that he’ll be the next one left behind when Eskeles kills his current mount. “Imagine. The Satakhan of High Holy Zeüm, stumping along through the dust…” Sorweel tries to reassure his friend, but Zsoronga uses humor to brush it aside, saying when he’s Satakhan and a courtier whines about their problems, he’ll say, “Yes, I remember the time I was forced to hobble alone through Sranc-infested wastes.”

It’s now that Sorweel blurts out he’s not a Believer-King. Zsoronga is surprised Sorweel speaks Sheyic. He protests again and Zsoronga snots in disgust and says he knows. Sorweel asks how he can.

Exhaustion has a way of parting the veils between men, not so much because the effort of censoring their words exceeds them, but because weariness is the foe of volatility. Oft times insults that would pierce the wakeful simply thud against the sleepless and fatigued.

Zsoronga points out that Kellhus saw it, and he always sees true. Sorweel objects and struggles to find the words in Sheyic. He can’t explain with happened that day. Zsoronga says its easy that Sorweel was revealed to be as false as the skin-spy.

Sorweel feels frustrated. He almost feels like giving up. What does it matter. He’s exhausted. Then he gathers himself and growls, “He murdered my father!” Zsoronga asks then why. Sorweel says to make them not trust each other. To make Sorweel not trust himself. He then adds that maybe Kellhus was mistaken. That makes Zsoronga laugh. It’s ridiculous because a barbarian is supposed to have deceived Kellhus. He protests that there’s another reason, but Zsoronga will think him mad.

“I’ve seen you in battle,” he [Zsoronga] finally said, speaking with the semblance of cruelty that men sometimes use to make room for a friend’s momentary weakness. He smiled as best as his heart could manage. “I already think you mad.”

A single teasing accusation, and the rift of suspicion between them was miraculously healed. Often men need only speak around things to come together and so remember what it means to speak through.

Sorweel tells Zsoronga about everything since the fall of Sakarpus including the way Porsparian made Yatwer’s face before the council where Kellhus saw Sorweel as a Believer-King. Zsoronga is still doubtful. But ever since, Kayûtas has been congratulatory at Sorweel’s “conversion.” He asks what Zsoronga thinks.

He’s dismissive of Yatwer, calling her a slave Goddess and beneath them. Sorweel knows this. It shames him that she touched him. He’s pledged to Gilgaöl. However, Zsoronga says she’s still to be respected. She’s the oldest and strongest of the gods. Sorweel asks what he’s getting at.

The Successor-Prince absently stroked his pony’s neck rather than answer. Even when hesitating, Zsoronga possessed a directness, a paradoxical absence of hesitation. He was one of those rare men who always moved in accordance with themselves, as though his soul had been cut and stitched from a single cloth—so unlike the patched motley that was Sorweel’s soul. Even when the Successor-Prince doubted, his confidence was absolute.

“I think,” Zsoronga said, “and by that I mean think… that you are what they call narindari in the Three Seas…” His body seemed to sway about the stationary point of his gaze. “Chosen by the Gods to kill.”

“Kill?” Sorweel cried. “Kill?”

Prince nods. His face goes blank like he doesn’t want to show the pity he feels for Sorweel and thus shame him. “To avenge your father,” is Zsoronga’s reason. Sorweel had known this, but had been afraid to admit that he has to kill Kellhus. He begs Zsoronga to tell him what he has to do. What does Yatwer want from him.

Zsoronga is dismissive, saying that the Gods “are children and we are their toys.” One day, they like you, the next your city is destroyed. It’s why in Zeümi they pray to their ancestors. Sorweel presses what Zsoronga thinks he should do. Zsoronga laughs and says he should stand before him as a joke. Sorweel had learned the Zeümi prize making jokes no matter the situation.

Zsoronga gets serious and points out that Yatwer is guiding his fate. She’s won him accolades on this raid so that now Harnilas looks to Sorweel for advice when everyone used to think him a kid.

“She is positioning you, Sorweel.”

Another truth that Sorweel wanted to ignore. Now he regrets telling his friend what was going on. It felt so absurd looking for a friend in Zsoronga who’s from the other side of the world. He asks what if doesn’t want this?

“We Zeümi pray to our ancestors for a reason.”

Clouds are spotted and the Army of the Middle-North thinks rain is coming. All they got was a break from the dust and a black night. The Sranc attack the Galeoth flank. The surprised men hold ground as alarms are raised. But by the time the army is raised, the Sranc war-party is already defeated, an easy victory. Still, Kayûtas sends out the Kidruhil to scout the night. Calvarymen hate riding pickets at night. Too easy to be ambushed or to have horses crippled. They wouldn’t even get to feast on their dead mounts because one captain deliberately killed a few horses to feed his men. He’d been executed for wasting a valuable resource.

The assembled soldiers grow bored. But then cries come from the night. Patrols fail to return. Kayûtas summons Serwa from the Sawayali Witches camp, cloistered from the rest. Because not only are they witches, who until recently were forbidden to openly use their gift, but also women. A few men had already been executed for pursuing their “deranged infatuation.” The witches were important. In reality, the armies were really just the means of delivering the Schoolmen and Witches to Golgotterath. But the time had come to use them.

The “Nuns” are deployed in billowing robes. All are young women since the school is so new. They walk the sky like “flowers of golden silk.” They began chanting and lit the world with Bars of Heaven, about two hundred of them. It reveals that a mass of Sranc are close. A huge host crawling on their bellies.

They had come as locusts, where the lust of the one sparks the lust of the other, until all is plague. They had come, answering a cunning as old as the age of their obscene manufacture. They had come to feast and they had come to couple, for they knew no other possibility.

The Nuns unleash their Gnostic sorcery. The soldiers watch. For seven heartbeats, there is only fire burning Sranc. Some arrows try to strike the Nuns, but they’re destroyed by wards. The Sranc shriek so loudly, men clamp hands over ears. The Sawayali advance and unleash more sorcerer. It’s so loud, no one can communicate even by drum or horn.

But the Believer-Kings had no need of communication; they had but one inviolable order…

Yield no ground.

The army watches the “cyclopean charge” as the horde rushes through the gauntlets. The survivors rush at the army line. They crash into the soldiers. Packed so tight, the dead can’t even fall. The army stands their ground stubbornly. If they flee, the men know they’ll die. From behind the packed phalanxes, the archers shower arrows on the horde. They blind fire, knowing they must hit one of the enemy but there are so many Sranc, what did it matter.

The knights can only watch on. Some want to abandon their mounts and fight with the infantry, but the Judges reminded them of the Aspect Emperor’s Martial Prohibitions. One man, Earl Hirengar, could not be stopped. He killed a few Judges and charged into the fight with his men. They made it thirty yards beyond the line before they were pulled down by the Sranc. All died. This sent a panic through the nearby infantry men, but the Nuns arrived and attack the Sranc before them. This gives them time to recover their morale.

Despite the brutal fight, the men began to sing the Beggar’s Lament at the howling Horde. They they laughed as they fought, “weeping for the joy of destruction.” The song becomes their banner. It’s something pure that can’t be soiled. They became unconquerable.

Sorweel and the Scions raced north. Exhaustion presses on Sorweel. He’s heaving trouble staying upright in his saddle. He and Zsoronga share mock encouragement and insults, the words not mattering just the fact they were speaking that helped the other endure the misery. After days, they had finally outdistanced the Ten-Yoked-Legion, down to only fifteen men. They are riding toward what they thought is a thunderstorm but there’s too much metal ringing in the air. They hear it over the drum of the hooves.

The Horde.

A sound so titanic that Harnilas, for all his ruthless determination to reach General Kayûtas, called the ragged company to a halt. The scions sat rigid in their saddles, squinting at their shadowy companions, waiting for their dust to outrun them. Sorweel peered ahead, struggling to make sense of the flash and flicker that now extended across a good swathe of the horizon.

He looked to Zsoronga, but the man hung his head, grimacing and thumbing his eyes.

Eskeles casts his sorcerous lens to show what is going on. Despite being exhausted, the Scions are horrified by the sight of the “Heaving, howling masses, pale and silvery like fish schooling through dark waters.” The men of the Ordeal are almost impossible to see, but the witches in the sky unleashing destruction are easy enough to spot.

Sorweel thinks the army is doomed while also thinking Kellhus’s war is real. Eskeles mutters he’s seen this in his dreams. Sorweel finds himself saying, “This time the God marches with us.” These words are something he suddenly wants to believe. At that moment, they hear the Beggar’s Lament is being sung, which heartens the Scions. The drinking song is glorious to hear.

A massacre of the mad many by the holy few.

That was when they heard another sound, another ear-scratching roar… one that came shivering through the dark and dust and grasses.

More Sranc.

Behind them.

Kayûtas knows that the Sranc will envelop them, not out of tactics but out of a mad need to mob them. So he’s ready for them to try and flank his army. The fight is brutal, but despite the enemy numbers, none breached the line.

Sorweel and the Scions flee before the Ten-Yoke Legion riding toward the sorcery. Behind them, the Sranc howled. Sorweel realized that the half-starved Sranc have been unleashed on the Horde. He glanced behind him to see the horde on their heels. Eskeles pony dies and he is thrown to the earth. Sorweel goes back for him. He leaps from his mount and grabs the prone Eskeles. He lifted the fat sorcerer and marched ahead as a Sranc rushed at him.

And for a heartbeat he smiled. A King of the Horselords, dying for leuneraal…

One last humiliation.

The beasts surfaced, as if looking back had become looking down. Faces of pale silk, crushed into expressions both crazed and licentious. Slicked weapons. Glimpses piled upon glimpses, terror upon terror.

Sorweel looked to them, smiling even as his body tensed against hacking iron. He watched the nearest leap…

Only to crash into a film of incandescent blue—sorcery—wrapped into a hemisphere about them.

He is surrounded by wards that protect him. The Sranc can’t get to them. But Eskeles is thrashing. Panicking. He’s terrified and wrestling with Sorweel. He has to pin the man and shouts at him to look at him. But the sorcerer is terrified, pissing his pants. Sorweel shouts that Eskeles has to do something as the cracks appear in the Wards. They’re failing. Eskeles babbles, so Sorweel cuffs him.

Sorweel shouts that Eskeles has to summon light to warn the Great Ordeal. That gets through to Eskeles. He pushes Sorweel out of the way as the Ward fails. He stars chanting, light gleaming from his mouth, illuminating all the Sranc around them.

Like a nightmare. Like a mad fresco depicting the living gut of Hell, bleached ever whiter for the brilliance of the Schoolman’s unholy song. Words too greased to be caught and subdued by the Legion’s vicious roar, echoing through canyons.

And there it was… striking as straight as a geometer’s line from the ground at the fat sorcerer’s feet. Dazzling the eyes, stilling the inhuman onlookers with salt-white astonishment…

Reaching high to illuminate the belly of the overcast night.

A Bar of Heaven.

Kayûtas was the first to see the Bar of Heaven to the south. There should be nothing but “dead earth” in that direction. He glanced at his sister who had seen what he had. Others, too. One glimpse at her brother’s face is all for her to know what to do. After all, they “were children of Dûnyain.” She mounts the sky.

Sorweel smells burning snakes. Light explodes around them. He sees women in the air, the Sawayali witches singing. He then notices a Goddess has picked him up and carried him. He gasps out, “Mother?” But he’s not referring to his mother. Yatwer. The Goddess says no. She’s worse. He realizes it’s Serwa as she smiles with “the cruelty of the peerless” while asking him how many will die for her to save him.

“Drop me then,” he croaked.

She recoiled from the floating fury of his gaze, looked out across the threshing darkness, frowning as if finally understanding she bore a king in her arcane embrace. Through acrid veils of smoke, he breathed deep the scent of her: the myrrh of glory and privilege, the salt of exertion.

Let me fall.

My Thoughts

I do enjoy these more removed narrative sections to tell us about these historic events. Not up close, but very dry. Like we’re reading history of what had happened. It’s a good way to cover information that a POV character isn’t witnessing, or would take a chapter to write from such a POV and do it in a dozen paragraphs. It’s effective and conveying important information that might be just told to a POV character by another author.

Cannibalism? I don’t recall cannibalism in the first series. But we’re getting ready for what’s to come. That is why Proyas is thinking these thoughts. He’s being condition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kellhus was behind it or capitalizing on it. After all, Proyas will be his scapegoat for what the Great Ordeal has to do to survive crossing the Fields Appalling.

Now we get to Kellhus deconstructing his mythology to Proyas. To drive this good man, this man of faith, to do such horrendous acts so that Kellhus can keep his hands clean of the atrocities. I like Proyas, and there are a lot of reason I hate Kellhus, and what he does to him is one of those crimes. Kellhus might be fighting to save the world for Esmenet and to end the cycle of damnation for Serwë, but his methods are evil.

So interesting to see how familiarity can affect perception. Sorweel sees the Sranc as something familiar so the Nonmen look strange to him since they’re like Sranc pretending to be men.

I remember the debate. Did Kellhus really see Sorweel as a Believer-King or not. What’s clear from the next book is that Serwa sees Sorweel as a Believer-King and is vexed that she can’t get him to hate her in preparation for arriving at Istherebinth. So there is some supernatural protection on him that Yatwer gave Sorweel. All to make him one of her Narinder. The White-Luck Warrior is another. She’s not using one way to kill Kellhus, but several.

So Zsoronga knows what Sorweel is, but he has the reason wrong. Yatwer does not care about avenging his father or anyone. She’s just scared about losing the power of her worshipers. She can see a lot of people are about to die.

Sorweel doesn’t want others to die for him. He wants to die himself. He wants to be dropped. He doesn’t want Yatwer to use him as her bitch. He rejects that. It shames him. Just like it’s shaming him to be saved by a woman.

Yet, she’s a goddess. Serwa. He loves her, or the idea of her. The princess. The beautiful witch.

Not a lot of comments on this chapter. It’s mostly just setting up this battle. The plot of it. More historical than personal.

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When the Stormriders attack …

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Can he find a way to defeat them?

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

He knows the cost of war.

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

But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…

…isn’t going to make it happen.

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

The adventure begins.

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Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Chapter Six

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Six

The Meörn Wilderness

Welcome to Chapter Six of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Five!

Everything is concealed always. Nothing is more trite than a mask.

—AJENCIS, THE THIRD ANALYTIC OF MEN

If you find yourself taken unawares by someone you thought you knew, recall that the character revealed is as much your own as otherwise. When it comes to Men and their myriad, mercenary natures, revelation always comes in twos.

—MANAGORAS, ODE TO THE LONG-LIVED FOOL

My Thoughts

So these two quotes are a riff on Bakker’s coin analogy. Where every person is like a coin. They have two faces. The face that they show themselves, how they see themselves. The second face is the one that you can’t see but is the one that everyone else sees. Ajencis is saying that everyone wears a mask, and that’s what’s so trite about it. It’s banal. The other one is that the face we see of another is often one that we project on them that can reveal our own biases.

Now, we are heading back to the Skin Eaters. Last time, Mimara realized that Soma is a skins-spy. A literal mask.

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

It tracked their blundering flight through the Wilderness. It watched and it hungered and it hated…

How it hated.

The thing that pretends to be Soma is following the Skin-Eaters by running through the tree limbs. It gleefully eats living creatures, especially a litter of wild kittens. It’s been following them for weeks now. It watches them march and sleep. Three times the Skin-Eaters have fought “the errant children of the Old Fathers.” Sranc.

Sometimes, it gets close to Mimara and dry-hump trees as it watches her. She saved it, and now it lusts at her with “a singularity unknown to Men.” At night, it climbs the tallest trees to scream so high pitch only rats can hear it.

Screaming. Until its mouth filled with blood.

The brutal pace of the Skin-Eaters is killing the surviving Hags. They can’t keep up with the brutal pass the qirri lets the Skin-Eaters maintain. When their de facto leader gets pissed about it, Lord Kosoter murders him. They are losing Hags one after the other. No one comments on the dead. That’s the Scalpers way.

The rains start, making it even harder, especially with the Hags. They drop. One develops a limp and is left behind with a look of panic, another is washed away crossing a river. One attacks Pokwas, tired of being called a cannibal jackal. Pokwas beats him to death. Only Mimara didn’t walk that. Sarl continues to be crazy.

Something was happening…

Achamian could feel it in his bones—catch glimpses of it in the eyes the others. Mimara especially. He had watched a human head hammered into a wineskin, and he felt nothing more than… curiosity?

It was the Qirri. It had to be. The medicine seemed to numb their conscience as much as it quickened their limbs and stretched their wind. Even as Achamian felt himself becoming closer to Mimara, he found himself caring less for surviving Skin Eaters and not at all for the wretched Hags.

Achamian’s experience with other narcotics lets him know he’s becoming an addict and how dangerous that was. But that’s counterbalanced by the fact they are covering lots of ground. They soon reach the ruins of a great bridge called Archipontus of Wûl, proving they had crossed a large distance in two weeks. At this pace, they’ll reach Sauglish by the end of summer. It was just killing the Hags.

The Hags are becoming crazed hostages, bewildered and frightened. A youth screams, demanding answers. When the Captain rises, he bolts into the dark. Galian claimed something grabbed him from the trees.

No one cares. “The dead had no place in their [the scalpers] history.” Every day, the Stone Hags drop as the Skin Eaters stay strong. They have no pity. It has no place on the slog. “You could not be wholly human and survive the Long Side, so you became something less and pretended you were more.”

In subsequent days Achamian would come to look at this leg of their journey with a peculiar horror, not because he had lived necessary lies, but because he had come to believe them. He was a man who would rather know and enumerate his sins, bear the pain of them, than cocoon himself in numbing ignorance and flattering exculpation.

You can only believe in so many lies before becoming one of them.

Receiving the Qirri has become a sacred ritual. What Mimara once called, “The Holy Dispensation.” Every night, the line up before Cleric. He would mostly give it out silently. He pushes his finger into their mouths so as not to waste it. Achamian would kneel when it was his turn. The euphoria it gives makes him think of kneeling before Kellhus. It disturbs him but how good he feels makes him stumble away and seeps into the thoughtless stupor.

One Stone Hag mocked it. They found him dead the next morning. None of them made fun of it again. Occasionally, Cleric would give a sermon, speaking of wonders and horrors.

Often he spoke of war and tribulations, of loves and unravelled and victories undone. But no matter how the scalpers pressed him with questions, he could never recall the frame of his reminiscences. He spoke in episodes and events, never ages or times. The result was a kind of inadvertent verse, moments too packed with engima and ambiguity to form the narrative wholes—at least none they could comprehend. Fragments that never failed to leave his human listeners unsettled and amazed.

Mimara keeps asking Achamian if he knows who Cleric is based on these stories. But he doesn’t because Cleric only speaks of “breaking of things.” He’s a puzzle missing pieces. Even he doesn’t know what he’s lost. And he’s older even than the Tusk, the earliest of human writing. Even their youngest were alive during those times, and Cleric was in his prime when the Ark crashed.

An actual contemporary Nin’janjin and Cû‘jara Cinmoi…

He tells her to go to sleep. Achamian thinks it doesn’t matter who it was. Another night, after Cleric says, “You look upon me and see something whole… singular…” Then says they’re mistaken. Mimara asks what that mean. Achamian asks that he’s not a self any longer like Mimara is.

Because of memory. Memory is what binds us to what we are. Go to sleep.”

But despite telling her to go to sleep, he can’t. He keeps seeing how ugly his Mark. He feels a fool for spending so much time worrying who Cleric was. But he’s an Erratic, one of the Wayward. Whoever he was, he’s not any longer. He stops even pondering Cleric, but more because he’s thinking about why a skin-spy was with them. And it’s simple. The Consult is watching Achamian, so infiltrated the Skin Eaters after he hired them.

He was Drusas Achamian.

But the further Soma fell into the past, the more Cleric’s presence irked his curiosity, the more the old questions began prickling back to life.

The Qirri is affecting even his dreams. Without ink or parchment, he can’t writ down how they’ve changed. He’s now dreaming of things that Seswatha had never dreamed of, like when the Library of Sauglish burned. This night, he’s once more dreaming that he’s in the line of chained, nameless others. Broken and brutalized men. He can see they are going to a brightly lit space before him. He feels a fear that seems to come from outside of him in time and space.

And he did not know who he was.

A horn blares and the line is pulled forward. Everyone who steps into the light vanishes. There’s a scream. Then the horn blows and the line is yanked forward again. He dreams this over and over again. It’s mostly the same. He would sometimes be closer to the end or farther.

Was it the Qirri? Was it the deathless rancour of the Mop, or a cruel whim of Fate?

Or had the trauma had the trauma of his life at last unhinged him and cast his slumber to the wolves of grim fancy?

For his whole life, ever since grasping the withered pouch of Seswatha’s heart deep in the bowel of Atyersus, his dream had possessed meaning… logic, horrifying to be sure, but comprehensible all the same. For his whole life he had awakened with purpose.

And now?

As they walk through the forest, Achamian asks Mimara what it was like living in the Andiamine heights “as an Anasûrimbor.” Mimara is skeptical since he’s the enemy of her family but he jokes, “Just think, no more running.” That brings a smile to her since anger and sarcasm are reflexive for her. It’s how she hides herself. But if he can weather her initial anger, a hard thing, he can get some answers out of her.

She says it’s complicated. He suggest starting at the beginning. She talks about the beginning in Carythusal when she was found in the whore house. As she talks, they let the others get ahead of them, even the Stone Hags. She explains that to her, she didn’t feel wrong. She was a brothel-slave from the time of a child. She just believed she was made to be “violated, abused over and over” until she was too old. That was how it was until the Eothic Guardsmen showed up and beat the brothel master. It made no sense to her that anyone would care about her. “You thought you were being attacked instead of saved.”

She nods numbly. She was taken away before the killing began, but she knew it would happen because the soldiers were “as merciless as any of these scalpers.” They were there to kill all who abused her. Her dictation grows rougher, her refined speech falling away. She sounds like an Ainoni whore now, and if it wasn’t such a serious matter, Achamian would teas her about that.

She was brought to a ship and suddenly everyone is kneeling before her. Imperial Apparati begged her to give them orders. They would do anything to make her comfortable. She will never forget how they she went from being valued only for being a young girl with the Empress’s face to someone to be worshiped. She begs them to stop the killing, which is the one thing they can’t do. Why?

“’Because the Blessed Empress has commanded it,’ they said…”

So she watched the Worm burn. Men, women, and children jumping from burning roofs. Achamian is careful to keep pity out of his expression as he realizes she watched her old world burn as she went from child-whore to Imperial Princess.

Esmenet, he understood, had tried to undo her crime with the commission of another. She mhad mistook vengeance for reparation.

“So you understand,” Mimara continued, swallowing. “My first years on the Andiamine Heights were hateful… shameful, even. You understand why I did everything I could to punish Mother.”

He nods after a moment. As he says he understand, the party enters a clearing and can see the sun, a rare thing. He and Mimara were “both victims of Esmenet.” They walk in silence until Mimara thanks him. He doesn’t know why.

“For not asking what all the others ask.”

“Which is?”

“How I could have stayed all those years. How I could have allowed myself to be used as I was used. Apparently everyone would have run away, slit their master’s throat, committed suicide…”

“Nothing makes fools of people quite like a luxurious life,” Achamian said, shaking his head and nodding. “Ajencis says they confuse decisions made atop pillows for those compelled by stones. When they hear of other people being deceived, they ‘re certain they would know better. When they hear of other people being oppressed, they’re certain they would do anything but beg and cringe when the club is raised…”

“And so they judge,” Mimara said sourly.

“They certainly picked the wrong woman in your case!”

This coaxed another smile—another small triumph.

She slowly starts talking about her siblings. She seems surprise as she talks, revealing her hatred of her family is more a way of propping up her own view of herself as being all alone. But as she reveals all the little, familiar details that contradicts it. She talks about Kayûtas, the child Esmenet was pregnant with when she chose Kellhus, would have been a god if she didn’t live with Kellhus. Kayûtas is like a more approachable Kellhus. Moënghus was both the most normal and most difficult. He had a temper. Mimara often had to babysit the two boys, a ploy on Esmenet’s to bring her children together.

The worst part was when she took them swimming because Moënghus would dive in the water and stay down so long, Mimara and the guards would think he’s drowning. Then he’d appear and treat it as a joke. He kept doing it until Kayûtas told Mimara that Moënghus wants “people to think him dead.” Mimara also reveals that no one questions the lie of Moënghus’s paternity.

Lies, Achamian mused. Deceit heaped atop deceit. In the early days of his exile, he would sometimes lie awake at night, convinced that sooner or later someone would see through Kellhus and his glamour, that the truth would win out, and all the madness would come crashing down…

That he could come home and reclaim his wife.

As the years passed, Achamian realized what a fool he was for thinking that. He studied Ajencis. “Truths were carved from the identical woods as lies—words—and so sank or floated with equal ease.” Worse, men don’t like truth. It doesn’t appeal to their vanities.

Theliopa was the only one that would have a true smile. Mimara describes how Theliopa’s autism keeps her from understanding social norms. She was also really smart, had a photographic memory. She became an Imperial Adviser at twelve, often at her mother’s side. Mimara pitied Theliopa even as she was in awe of her. Achamian asked if anyone gossiped about her autism, knowing how deformities would cause people to speculate maliciously about the cause. Mimara says only that her father’s seed was “too heavy for mortal women to bear.” His concubines all either had still births or died from complications. Only Esmenet could bear him children.

Achamian could only node, this thoughts roiling. Kellhus had to have known this, he realized. From the very beginning he had known Esmenet possessed the strength to survive him and his progeny. And so he had set out to conquer her womb as one more tool—one more weapon—in his unceasing war of word, insight, and passion.

You needed her, so you took…

Mimara has little to say on Serwa who was raised by the Sawayali and is no the Grandmistress. Esmenet has hated Kellhus for sending her away while Mimara was so jealous that Serwa was allowed to learn Sorcery, the one thing she wanted. Then then talks quite a lot about Inrilatas. She helped to look after him. He had the most of Kellhus’s strength and Esmenet’s weakness. He spoke as a baby and asw far too deep. She believed his madness was inevitable seeing only the “brute truths.” He would tell Mimara hateful things about how she didn’t punish her mother to avenge her slavery.

“Because what?” [asked Achamian.]

“Because I was broken inside,” she said, her lips set in a grim and brittle line. “Because I had suffered so much so long that kindness had become the only cruelty I could not endure—kindness!—and so suffering would be all I… all I would ever know…”

She trailed, turned her face to swat at the tears cltotign her eyes.

“So I told him,” she continued, avoiding Achamian’s gaze. “I told him that I had never known kindness because everything—everything!—i had been given had been just another way to take—to steal! ‘You cannot stroke a beaten dog,’ he replied, ‘because it sees only the raised hand…’ A beaten dog! Can you believe it? What kind of little boy calls his grown sister a beaten dog?”

A Dûnyain, the old Wizard thought in an unspoken reply.

She get angry at the sorrow he feels at it. She’s pissed he’s pitying her, attacking him now. He begs her not to do this. She demands to know what she shouldn’t do. “Make Inrilatas true.” This killed her anger. She stumbles forward with a look of “desolate horror.” Achamian asks about her other siblings to prod her out of the fugue. “The best way to retrieve a conversation from disaster, he often found, was to speak as if the disaster had never happened.”

She takes some time to collect herself, the company walked through what had been a stream bed, forming a channel. Finally, she says they were the only ones she knew from the beginning. Her mother became pregnant after Mimara was found. She was there for the birth and seeing that, Mimara truly loved her mother. The only time she ever felt that.

“You’ve never stopped loving her,” Achamian said. “You wouldn’t care to hate her otherwise.”

She gets angry but doesn’t lash out. She’s trying to earn his trust like she wants to understand how Achamian asks her. She then asks what he meant. He says no love worth anything is simple. She protests.

“But nothing,” he said. “Fart too many of us confuse complexity for impurity—or even pollution. Far too many of us mourn what we would celebrate as a result. Life is unruly, Mimara. Only tyrants and fools think otherwise.”

She rolls her eyes and asks if that’s Ajencis, his go-to philosopher. He says it’s just his own insight. He doesn’t borrow everything. They walk and her smile fades before she starts talking about Kelmomas and Samarmas, confirming the second one is actually an idiot, and both were feared to be idiots. They spent all day just staring at each other for years before a famed physician pried them apart.

They were normal boys after that, exposing she was fond of them. “They were innocent born into a labyrinth—a place devious beyond compare.” They didn’t see the Andiamine Heights for what it was, a prison, a carnival, and most of all a temple. It wasn’t where children should be raised. She told her mother to raise them somewhere else then trials off as they’re forced to duck beneath a fallen tree.

Once clear, she has lost her enthusiasm for the conversation. He nudges her by speculating Esmenet refused claiming they would have to learn about the dangers of politics. She agrees. He asks if she trusted Kelmomas. She is incredulous as she says he was only a child who adored her so much it annoyed her and drove her to find Achamian.

Something troubled the old Wizard about this, but as so often happens in the course of heated conversations, his worries yielded to the point he hoped to press home. “Yes… But he was a child of Kellhus, an Anasûrimbor by blood.”

“So?”

“So, that means he possesses Dûnyain blood. Like Inrilatas.”

They walk in silence before she gets pissy and says that Kelmomas just has to be “manipulative and amoral.” She thinks he’s been in the wilds too long. He’s just a child. He disagrees.

“That’s all they know, Mimara. The Dûnyain. They’re bred for it.”

But she dismisses that and he realizes she is as blind as everyone else to what Kellhus and his ilk are. Achamian, on the other hand, had spent so much time remembering over and over everything about Kellhus and Esmenet. The words Cnaiür told him. Now he has trouble remembering what it was like being in “the circuit of [Kellhus’s] glamour.” Achamian had still loved Kellhus even after Esmenet’s seduction. Achamian had rationalized it.

Worse, everything Kellhus has done since to prepare for the Great Ordeal proved he was serious about preventing the Second Apocalypse. He was doing what the Mandate—what Achamian—had begged every ruler in the three seas to do. He wonders if he has so biased he can’t see the truth about Kellhus.

He had seen it before: men who had borne perceived injustices so long they could never relinquish them and so continually revisited them in various guises. The world was filled with self-made martyrs. Fear goads fear, the old Nansur proverb went, and sorrow, sorrow.

Perhaps he was made. Perhaps everything—the suffering, the miles, the lives lost and taken—was naughty but a fool’s errand. As wrenching as this possibility was, and as powerful as the Scylvendi’s words had been, Achamian would have been entirely prepared to accept his folly. He was a true student of Ajencis in this respect…

Were it not for his Dreams. And the coincidence of the Coffers.

He mulls this over, troubled by learning that Kellhus’s children were a miss and he mostly absent. He feels pity for Mimara, a broken soul brought to a place she could never mend. The same place that Esmenet could not mend, either. Achamian wonders if that proves that Kellhus only brings pain and war. “Every life that fell into his cycle suffered some kind of loss or deformation.” Is that proof he’s evil? Achamian’s not sure. Pain is the price of revelation, something Achamian understands.

It is proof of Mimara’s feelings. How she talks about her family reveals much about herself. She paints herself as the victim. It’s how she wants to be seen by him. Achamian learned from Kellhus people present themselves as virtuous and innocent. She doesn’t want Achamian to see her as a full of shame and loathing for others for what happened to her as a child.

And he loved her the more for it.

That evening, she says it was foolish of her to speak. That makes him think of his own family in that poor Nroni fishing village. They’re strangers to him now. Not doting sister and a tyrannical father. He realizes that his true family are the “mad children of the man who had robbed him of his wife.” He’s a victim of Kellhus like they are which makes the “mad woman trekking beside him” his only family.

His little girl…

When he had been Proyas’s tutor, he would walk and think about his problem, an old Ceneian practice. He remembers on those walks a beggar he would see which always knocks Achamian out of his thoughts. The beggar just stared ahead beyond caring about anything. He sees a man truly alone and fears it as the man just waits and waits. Achamian then realizes his mother is probably dead.

Mimara finds having to relieve herself a challenge because she’s well aware that all the men are lusting for her. She can’t let them think she’s giving them a glimpse and stroke their lust, so has to go far from them. As she’s squatting, she realizes that Soma is watching her from the tree.

She isn’t afraid. Not really. She realizes if he wants to kill her, she’s dead, or to kidnap her, he’d already take her. He wants something else. She knows she should cry out and send it fleeing, but she’s doesn’t. She’s curious what it wants from her. So she stands slowly and draws up her pants. He studies her.

He’s kill you,” it coos. “The Nonman.”

She knows skin-spies. She’s been taught about them. How they sow discord and how violence turns them on. “They are, as her mother once told her, the consummate union of viciousness and grace.” She says she’ll kill Cleric first, shocked how resolute she is. It’s surprised by her reply and hesitates, thinking, and realizes it doesn’t want the Nonman dead. He finally says she doesn’t have the power. She starts to say her father, and he cuts her off and says he’ll die, too.

There is only one way to save yourself,” it rasps.

“And how is that?”

Kill the Captain.”

Mimara heads back to the others and doesn’t tell them even knowing she should. But this is her instinct to “hide and hoard,” a byproduct of her childhood. It flatters her that Soma approached her. She keeps thinking that as she plays with her Chorae. She can’t understand why it saved her at the cost of exposure nor why it’s following her. Talking to her.

Achamian had, understandably, that Soma was here to spy on Achamian. Here to kill Achamian if he found anything out important. She’s worried more than anything that Soma is here to help Achamian expose Kellhus. Achamian is the enemy of the Consult’s enemy. The Consult fear that there are more like Kellhus. The Consult needs to find Ishuäl and exterminate the Dûnyain. Why not help Achamian. He’s the enemy of their enemy. She can’t tell him that. She remember Achamian saying, “The only thing they found more terrifying than your stepfather was the possibility there could be more like him.”

The possibility of Ishuäl

The origin of the Aspect-Emperor. As much as Achamian desires this knowledge to judge Anasûrimbor Kellhus, would not the Unholy Consult covet it even more?

This makes her wonder if Achamian is damned for being a wizard, which contradicts Kellhus’s claim that sorcery was not an unforgivable sin, or if it’s his sin of blasphemy. That his damnation she witnessed with the Judging Eye is to strike Kellhus down for love only to unleash the very Apocalypse he fears will happen. She cannot tell him that all those who he killed have been in vain.

No. She will not speak what cannot be heard. Soma would have to remain her secret, at least for the immediate future. She needs to discover more before going to the Wizard…

Soma’s words about killing Kosoter echo in her mind. She knows that it’s a trickster, has seen the bones of its “false face.” She knows how to confuse the soulless creature with the right questions. For whatever reason, it needs Kosoter dead. Mimara needs to understand why to figure out what Soma’s true plans are.

So she watches the group and sees how things are changing. Sedition gleams in Galian’s eyes. Achamian is relying more and more of Kosoter’s ruthlessness. The man will get them to Sauglish, a man so driven that the world would yield to him. “He was the Captain.” A shadow on the periphery. Now, though, she’s probing at the men. Testing them. Soma hinted something would happen that she and Achamian weren’t seeing. So pretends to sleep to spy on conversations. She vows to figure it out.

The Mop seems never ending, covering hills and plains. It’s humid. Dark. She feels like a mole. She remembers the Stone Hags who have already died. Then one day, they find a massive stone formation that thrusts out of the earth. It lets them see the sky. The Captain wants them to climb it. So despite a few hours left before night, they camp.

Though there is relief in the sunlight, it seems to expose the suspicion on everyone’s faces. Covered in dirt, they seem damned. As the others break into small group, Kosoter motions Cleric to follow him and they leave. Mimara waits then follows at a crouch, hearing muttered voice. She manages to find a spot to spy on them.

They remind you…”

The Captain’s voice. It shocks her as surely as a knife pressed against the back of her neck.

She creeps along the outer circuit of the tortoise stone, nearer, nearer… As shallow as it is, her breath burns against the tightness of her high chest. Her heart thumps.

What’s happening?” the Nonman says. “I don’t… I don’t understand…”

You are truly a blasted idiot.”

Mimara stands up and stares at them. They can’t see her because they’re facing away. Cleric looks so dejected as he sits, Kosoter so close his Chorae is turning Cleric’s scalp to salt. Cleric begs to know why he’s here. Kosoter, annoyed, says because they remind him. Who? Cleric needs to know. Kosoter starts to say of someone you now when he senses Mimara and glares at her, murder in his eyes. She lies and says she needs Qirri. Kosoter decides not to kill her, and Cleric apologies and says it’s not time.

Later, she keeps seeing his lips moving as they spoke her name like a kiss.

She stays by herself the next day, much to Achamian’s obvious relief. She is lost in thought when Cleric walks beside her. She’s shocked, his “unearthly beauty” unsettling her as much as how deep and blasted his Mark is.

“Is it true,” he inexplicably asks, “that being touched by another and touching oneself are quite distinct sensations for Men?”

The question bewilders and embarrasses her, to the point of drawing even more heat to her flushed face. “Yes… I suppose…”

He doesn’t say anything for a while. He overwhelms her. Not in the martial prowess of the others, but that he’s just so much beyond them. He reminds her of Kellhus and “the way the world always seemed to bow at his passage.” She wonders what it would be like to die before him and thinks it would be beautiful.

He finally says he thinks he knew this once. She has trouble reading his emotions and remembers that Nonmen “souls often move in ways counter to the tracks of human passions.” She wonders if “tragedy could be a passion.” She smiles and says he knows again. He says he will never know it again. She asks why his question.

“There is… comfort… in rehearsing the dead motions of the past.”

She finds herself nodding—as if they were peers discussing common knowledge. “We are alike in this way.”

“Mimara,” he says, his tone so simple with astonishment that for an instant he seems a mortal man. “Your name is… Mimara…” He turns to her, his eyes brimming with human joy. She shudders at the glimpse of his fused teeth—there is something too dark about his smile. “Ages have passed,” he says wondering, “since I have remembered a human name…”

Mimara.

She thinks it’s pathetic that memory can make Cleric falter. She realizes Achamian is watching, which he always did. He’s always trying like her mother. He asks with heat what Cleric wanted. She snaps back, asking why he fears Cleric. She doesn’t understand why she knows how to “throw men on their heels.” Achamian scowls at her and says he doesn’t know if he’ll win “when the time comes.”

“When the time comes…” she says in mocking repetition.

He turns to her profile, studies her.

“He’s an Erratic, Mimara. When he decides he loves us, he will try to kill us.”

That reminds her of the conversation she overheard last night between Kosoter and Cleric and asks how he can know. Because Erratics kill their loved ones. She states, “To remember.” She asks if he has memory problems that he can’t keep track of the days, how can he beat Achamian. He answers there’s more than one type of memory. Remembering people and events is not like skills. “They don’t pile on the same way across the ages.” But worse, sorcery needs the “purity of meaning.” He’s had ten thousand years of embracing that purity. What Achamian finds a toil to do, meaning his sorcerery, it’s a reflex for Cleric.

He stars at her and she says, “A Quya Mage.” He repeats it and adds very few things are more dangerous. Tears assault her followed by worry and fear. She tires to small, but is overcome by emotion and looks away. It’s all too much until she sees Achamian giving her a sad but reassuring smile. She suddenl feels like they can survive because she stands “at his gruff and tender side.”

Akka. The world’s only sorcerer without a School. The only Wizard.

“Akka…” she murmurs. A kind of gentle beseeching.

She understands now why her mother still loves him—even after so many years, even after sharing her bed with a living God. The uniform teeth behind his smile. The sheen of compassion that softens even his most hostile glare. The heart and simple passion of a man who, despite all his failings, is capable of risking everything—life and world—in the name of love.

He asks what? She feels shy as she realizes no other man has ever made her feel safe. “May our dooms be one,” she tells him. He smile and agrees.

The skin-spy Soma throws a pebble that wakes up Mimara and only her. She knows it’s Soma, not the real one who’s dead near Marrow. This thing has no soul. She moves from the camp, out of the incipient Wards, and finds Soma wearing her face telling her it can smell her baby and that if she wants her child to live, she has to kill the Captain.

She doesn’t believe she’s pregnant. She thinks this is a deceit. Normally, her thoughts whisper, a habit from her time as a slave. Now it shouts at her. This must be a lie. Skin-spies “play on your frears, your vulnerabilities, use them to craft you into their tool.”

Words echo in her mind. The skin-spy claiming she’s pregnant, that only pregnant women have the Judging Eye, and what the skin-spy wants. She denies it vehemently. She is knows if she embraces the lie, she’ll believe it. Which is what she’ll do.

Days have passed without seeing Soma. She feels relived by that. One night, she finds a solitary pool. She stars into it, the moonlight letting her see her own face. She needs to see her reflection after the skin-spy wore her appearance. Part of her wants to primp and preen like she used to.

Then, in the empty interval between breaths, the Judging Eye opens.

For a time she gazes in stupefaction, then she weeps at the transformation.

Her hair cropped penitent short. Her clothing fine, but with the smell of borrowed things. Her belly low and heavy with child…

And a halo about her head, bright and silver ans so very holy. The encircling waters darken for its glow.

She can’t believe she is good. This is more than she can handle. She returns and Achamian pesters like he always does, especially seeing evidence of tears. She pushes him away, which hurts and confuses him because he sees her as his daughter. But she knows they aren’t because they had sex.

So she spurns him, even as she allows him to curl about her.

To shelter.

Weeks pass as the Skin Eaters keep marching and fighting Sranc. Weeks of feeling her stomach. And then they left the Mop. Everyone stares in awe at it. There’s thirteen of them, including the three surviving Hags. They’re all filthy and disheveled. They stare out at the Cerish Sea and the salt marches around it. They see some ruins that Achamian declares it to be Kelmeol, the capital of Meöri.

She stares at him as she absently rubs at her belly and thinks, Your father, as she fights off throwing up.

Achamian is thrilled to see the Kelmeol. It’s proof that this is working. His mission has a chance. Doubt’s gnawed at him since leaving the Marrow. It’s a miracle they made it this far. He can’t believe he’s done something this momentous, but he has.

The company has to wade through the mire assaulted by mosquitoes, to cross the salt marsh. They reach the ruins of Kelmeol on the other side. Most is buried beneath the ground. This is the oldest ruins Achamian has ever been in. Seswatha had come here. It makes him feel discombobulated thanks to Seswatha’s dreams, it feels like the city just fell. He spots reminders, monuments and remains of prominent buildings from his dreams.

They make camp in the spot in the ruins that provided some defense. Achamian feels grief as he stares at the great city destroyed by the No-God two thousand years ago. He almost feels like he’s walking through one of the Three Sea’s great cities in ruin. That no matter how far he travels, this is all he’s going to find. He feels alone.

Without thinking he reached out for Mimara’s hand. He did not answer her wondering gaze.

He finds himself walking with one of the surviving Stone Hags, Hurm, and Galian. So far, Hurm has kept up with ease. He has constitution that doesn’t need the Qirri. Galian was pressing the man about which scalapers the Stone Hags had murdered. Pokwas warns Galian to back off, but Galian is furious. He wants to know how this man can kill men when there are plenty of srancs. He replies a scalp is a scalp. They still get paid. Galian cries, “The Bounty is the Holy Bounty, is it not?” Hurm asks if it is. What else is it?

It’s merely gold to Hurm. To buy drink. Food. And women. He stares at Mimara with lust. Achamian senses madness brewing now as Galian asks if the man would risk damnation for comforts. The man is skeptical he’ll be damned. Galian grins slyly and says Kellhus declared it is holy. Hurm has a bad view on Kellhus, and Galian is eager to here it.

What was happening here?

The Tydonni thane grinned with alehouse cruelty. “I think his gold was born to burden my urse. I think he overlooks the likes of me… and of you! I think all those prayers, all those little wire circumfixes, are naught but wasted effort! Because in the end,” he continued with a conspiratorial lean, “I think he’s no different than you or me. A sinner. A dog. A demon when too deep in his cups! A fool. A fraud. A scalper of sou—!”

Kosoter appears and stabs Hurm in the neck. Mimara screams. Achamian just watches in shock as Kosoter hacks off the head while Sarl chortles, “No blasphemers on the slog!” Achamian realizes Galian goaded Hurm to get him killed. The captain raves about how Kellhus is god and cutting off Hurm’s head was Kellhus’s work.

Achamian could only watch with detached wonder, the kind that afflicts the survivors of sudden catastrophes. He saw well enough. He knew well enough. And yet none of it made the slightest sense.

He found himself wondering how long before Cleric called on them to dispense the Qirri. He needed it. To the point of wringing hands and clenched teeth, he needed it.

The Captain, it seemed, was a Believer.

Zaudunyani.

Soma the skin-spy runs through grass with only the “pretense of thought.” He glories in the destruction of the city that the Old Fathers had unleashed here. He is aroused by the thought of the thousands who died here. “These were holy facts—sacred.” It has to stay hidden instead of thinking about these things because Xonghis and Cleric had keen eyes.

Soma has his mission, but he stops at Hurm’s headless corpse. He pauses to savor how erect it makes him before he follows the trial. He finds the camp, smelling where they set. He finds Mimara urniated but the scent of her unborn child sickens him. The “sour musk” of Cleric gives him pause.

Something was happening… Something unanticipated by the Old Fathers.

Unnerved, Soma shouts in his “second voice.” This summons the Synthese who has been following all day. Soma bows as the Synthese is not happy because he was only supposed to watch. He says things have changed because Achamian hired the Skin Eaters to go for the coffers. The Synthese is amused that he “old fool” is back in the game. He is surprised Achamian uncovered Soma, but it was Mimara who’s been trained to spot skin-spies. A pregnant woman. The Synthese questions to make sure Mimara is pregnant. Soma is sure.

“Then she cannot be harmed. All the prophecies must be respected, the false as much as the true.”

He says she does. The Synthese asks if she ever leaves the safety of the group. Only to pass waste. Soma has spoken to her and thinks she will yield “their” secret soon. The Synthese is surprised Achamian hasn’t interfered, but he doesn’t know. That makes the Syntheses laugh.

Brave girl…” the Old Father cooed, still considering the crumbs of the age-long feast that was the Meörn Empire. “Continue tracking them, Tsuör. At the very least, they will take you home.”

My Thoughts

Nice to see the Skin-Spy POV and see just how Consult creatures think.

The qirri effect is interesting. It’s a subtle drug that’s altering Achamian’s brain chemistry in a way he’s starting to find negative. He’s feeling the cravings. The addiction. It’s not a good thing. It’s making him even harder.

And the poor hags. They ran to the wrong people for sanctuary. It’s cruel what’s being done to them. The Skin Eaters are showing their darker nature. Perhaps it’s the qirri. Things are breaking apart, though. We’ve seen the signs that these are not men. They’re beasts. They’re little more than Sranc, and when they spot weakness in Kosoter later in the novel, they pounce.

That youth was killed by Soma. I’m ninety-percent sure you all know that, but just putting it out there. A nice way to remind us that Soma is still following the party.

There is nothing more dangerous than a man who believes his own lies.

Memory is what binds us. Without memory, we are not us. We are made up of our experiences. I’ve read some great fiction to cover this. Including one series where five books in we learn that main character’s little sister isn’t just terrified of going out because of how bad she was bullied in junior high. She was bullied so badly that she disassociated and formed a new personality. She forgot her whole life and became a new version of her. One that her mother and father had trouble accepting. They wanted their original daughter back, meaning the new personality would have to die. The problem is the main character came to love this new version of his sister, to care for her, so when her original memories start coming back he has to deal with the fact that one of his little sisters is going to die.

Was the Skin-Spy here for Achamian or to keep tab on Cleric and why he was here with this Skin-Spy. To figure out what Kellhus is up to. But Achamian thinks it must be about him. He must be important since he taught Kellhus Gnosis.

I never caught that the qirri is why Achamian’s dreams are going beyond Seswatha. He’s dreaming things he couldn’t have seen, and now he’s dreaming of being Nau-Cayûti, Seswatha’s son though not even Nau-Cayûti knows that. We’re seeing the moments leading up to Nau-Cayûti becoming the first No-God.

Mimara’s explanation at being raised in a brothel is heartbreaking. She just accepted that the abuse was natural. How the world worked. She knew no better so how can she understand that anyone would come to rescue her. That’s not why men came to her.

It’s easier to commit another sin than to face what we did. To act out of anger instead of remorse. We don’t want to face the evil that we do, so we do more evil to avoid it.

Mimara had every right to be angry at her mother for selling her into slavery, but the real crime was putting the guilt of all those thousands of deaths on that small child.

I love the part about the delusions of living a luxurious life. It’s so easy to say what you would do when the stakes don’t matter. But when you’re facing life or degradation, must people pick life. They choose to survive. To bend the knee. To even rationalize what is happening to them to cope with it.

Moënghus has a very sad childhood. His mother never wanted to admit who his real father was, and everyone pretended he was Kellhus’s son even when it was so obvious. He was surrounded by fake humans. He’s Cnaiür’s son and seems to be pretty intelligent and has figured this out.

Mimara has endured so much at a young age, it truly has broken her. But Achamian told her something interesting there. She had a choice to make what Inrilatas said was true or to do something else. That changed her.

I like Achamian’s self-doubt. Is he wrong about Kellhus? That’s the central question of this series. Is what Kellhus doing ultimately to save the world or to save himself?

The relationship between Achamian and Mimara is transforming more and more into that father/daughter relationship that Mimara had craved and her own self-loathing and hatred of her mother had perverted that night they had sex.

Walking is a good way to think. It occupies part of your mind with the rhythm of walking while leaving you to think. Doing something that can occupy your body but not conscious mind is a great way to think. Plus, you’re pulled away from other distractions.

I can get Mimara’s curiosity. As a reader, I wanted to know what’s up with the skin-spy. It’s always nice when a character can naturally act in a way to satiate the reader’s desire. It makes sense why she wants to know. Skin-spy shouldn’t act like this.

Soma doesn’t want the Nonman dead. That’s what he’s here. To keep an eye on Cleric.

Mimara’s logic is great here, and feeds into us readers who remember how the Warrior-Prophet ended with Aurax hunting of the Dûnyain among the tribes of barbarous humans that survive out in the wilderness feuding with the Sranc claims. But as we find out in the next book, the Consult already wiped out the Dûnyain save for the few they spared and took as prisoner. The Mutilated who took them over. Soma is not here to aide Achamian or kill him. He’s here for Cleric. And for reasons of a prophecy, he sees Mimara as someone that has to be protected for the Consult’s plans.

Mimara wanting to protect Achamian is further driven by the love that’s growing for him. Not romantic love, but familial love. She wishes to spare him pain.

So we can see that not only was Kosoter put here to wait for Achamian by Kellhus, but that Cleric is here for that same reason. The deal he made with Kellhus to remember what he’s forgotten. Achamian will be Seswatha for Cleric. Mimara wasn’t supposed to be here, though. She was sent here by Kelmomas after Kellhus had already left.

The nonman is curious about human masturbation and sex, huh?

Mimara thinks it’s pathetic that losing his memory has destroyed Cleric, but she hasn’t made the connection that memories are identity. Without your memories, are you you any longer?

The part where Mimara realizes she can be safe with Achamian is powerful. She’s truly becoming his daughter. She sees why her mother loved him. She knows that he’ll protect her. That he won’t hurt her like all those men who came to the brothel, by the slave traders. Even by her own mother. This man will risk the World for someone he loves, and he loves her.

Achamian wondering if he’ll only ever find ruined cities, that one day he’ll see Momemn in ruins, might come true in the next series.

It’s interesting how Soma world view is seen through a religious one. That what the No-God and the Consult does is holy and sacred.

What are these prophecies about a pregnant woman that must be respected even if it is false? I don’t know. I hope we’ll get back to this in the next series. Or I have missed it in my readings of the series.

And the Synthese is back. I can never remember which one is the Synthese, but it’s interesting to see that the Mutilated aren’t aware of what Achamian is up to. They’re here to figure out the deal Kellhus has made with Cleric. It’ll matter for the next book when we go to Ishterebinth.

Want to keep going, click here for part seven!

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

Now it’s been turned into an Audiobook!

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

When the Stormriders attack …

…Ary’s people have little chance.

Can he find a way to defeat them?

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

He knows the cost of war.

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

But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…

…isn’t going to make it happen.

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

The adventure begins.

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

Get it now.

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

Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Chapter Five

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Five

The Western Three Seas

Welcome to Chapter Five of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Four!

As death is the sum of all harms, so is murder the sum of all sins.

—CANTICLES 18:9, THE CHRONICLES OF THE TUSK

The world has its own ways, sockets so deep that not even the Gods can dislodge them. No urn is so cracked as Fate.

—ASANSIUS, THE LIMPING PILGRIM

My Thoughts

The first quote is interesting. What are the sum of all sins? What is a sin? When your selfish action impact another. And what is more impactful to another than ending their life? What does this have to do with the chapter? We’ll find out.

Then the next quote is about how there are events that not even the Gods can handle. That Fate is cracked and broken. You can’t possibly control everything You can’t hold everything in your urn. Things are going to leak out.

Even for someone like Kellhus. Or a god like Yatwer.

And since this chapter opens with the White-Luck Warrior’s POV, that’s a very interesting quote for the chapter. That Yatwer’s plans are not perfect even if she thinks they are.

Then we go to Malowebi who sees the costs of war and thinks that humans are like Sranc.

And the third part, we have Kelmomas plotting Maithanet’s death.

Late Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), somewhere south of Gielgath…

That which comes after determines what comes before—in this World.

The Gift-of-Yatwer walked across ordained ground. His skin did not burn, thanks to the swarthiness he had purchased with his seed. His feet did not blister, thanks to calluses he had purchased with his youth. But he grew weary as other men grew weary, for like them, he was a thing of flesh and blood. But he always tired when he should grow tired. And his every slumber delivered him to the perfect instant of waking. Once to the sound of lutes and to the generosity of traveling mummers. Another time to a fox that bolted, leaving the goose it had been laboriously dragging.

Indeed, his every breath was a Gift.

He crossed the exhausted plantations of Anserca, drawing stares from those slaves who saw him. Though he walked alone, he followed a file of thousands across the fields, for he was always stranger he pursued, and the back before him was forever his own. He would look up, see himself walking beneath a solitary, windswept tree, vanishing stride by stride over the far side of a hill. And when he turned, h,e would see that same tree behind him, and the same man descending the same slope. A queue of millions connected him to himself, from the Gift who coupled with the Holy Crone to the Gift who watched the Aspect-Emperor dying in blood and expressionless disbelief.

He sees how he’s going to kill an assassin, an army besieging Shimeh, and how he’ll kill the Holy Shriah. He sees Esmenet dying. He walked alone but is “stranded in the now of a mortal soul.” He walks day after day. When he sleeps, he hears Yatwer whispering to him. He follows his own footprints leading to Kellhus being murdered.

The River Sempis

Malowebi finds comfort in his errand that at least he’d seen a ziggurat. Could his rival, Likaro, say that. Nope. He watches bands of cavalry crossing a land broken by irrigation dikes and over fields of millet and groves. Smoke rises on the horizon. One leads to the city of Iothiah.

Fanayal ab Kascamandri mentions that its dangerous to parley with “the enemies of dangerous men.” And Kurcifra is very dangerous. That confuses Malowebi until her realizes Kurcifra is Kellhus.

Malowebi is also a Mbimayu sorcerer and old enough to remember when Fanayal’s father ruled these lands. He remembers how Fanim missionaries were so frustrating when they entered Zeüm and call them sinful for worshiping their ancestors and the Gods. Instead of being repulsed, many Zeümi embraced it. “Not a month passed, it sometimes seemed, without some public flaying.”

Despite even that, when Fanayal’s father sent a delegation to attend the coronation of Malowebi’s cousin. The sight of the Kianene Grandees were seen as exotic with their simple garb and pious demeanor. It got so bad, the ancient Grooming Laws were enforced one more to stop Kianene goatees from being cultivated.

Now Fanayal’s men in the now would not have inspired such an uproar. They are ragged bandits. Horse-thieves and rapists. This was not what Malowebi had expected to find. Only Fanayal has that same demeanor. He wears helm of gold and one of the finest coats of mail. “His curved sword was obviously a family heirloom.” Using an old diplomat’s trick, he asked if the blade was Fanayal’s father’s.

Relationships went much smoother, Malowebi had learned, in the absence of verbal holes.

Fanayal says Kurcifra means, “The light that blinds.” Malowebi finds the Bandit Padirajah impressive and not an outlaw like his name suggests. Malowebi asks if Fanayal truly believes Kellhus is a man. He laughs and says while he knows that the Empress is a woman, and a former whore, but he does believe Kellhus can be killed. Malowebi asks how he knows.

“Because I am the one doomed to kill him.”

Malowebi is not so certain Kellhus is man considering how he appeared out of the wilderness with a Scylvendi savage and in half a year, is worshiped as a god and ruler of the Three Seas. It was too mad for human plans which are mean and stupid. That’s not Kellhus.

“This is how Men reason in the Three Seas?” he asked. He repented the words even as he spoke them. Malowebi was Second Negotiant for no small reason. He was forever asking blunt questions, forever alienating instead of flattering. He had more teeth than tongue, as the menials would say.

But the Bandit Padirajah showed no outward sign of offence. “Only those who have seen their doom, Malowebi! Only those who have seen their doom!”

Fanayal, the Mbimayu sorcerer noted with no small relief, was a man who relished insolent questions.

Malowebi changes the subject, asking why Fanayal has no bodyguards. He responds why Malowebi cares. Despite the men rampaging around them, the pair are alone as they ride across the field. There is one man wearing a hood that is following them. Not a bodyguard, but someone strange. Malowebi is surprised that there’s no one to protect Fanayal while he treats with an “outland sorcerer.” After all, Fanayal does have a ten thousand gold kellics bounty on his head.

Perhaps it spoke to the man’s desperation…

Malowebi answers that if Fanayal died, so does his insurrection. Why gamble on him becoming a martyrdom. But Fanayal believes he can’t die. Malowebi likes Fanayal because he’s always liked “vainglorious fools.” But he won’t let that cloud his judgment. Malowebi is here to assess Fanayal not to negotiate with him. The Satakhan knows that Kellhus’s empire is the first threat to Zeüm in a thousand years. But despite that, Zeüm’s future was not something that can be gambled with. Not with Zsoronga held as a hostage. Malowebi needs to see that Fanayal has a chance before committing to his aide.

Iothiah, the ancient capital of Old Dynasty Shigek. Iothiah would be an impressive demonstration. Most assuredly.

Fanayal says Kellhus is a punishment to his people for losing their faith and growing fat in their conquered lands. Now they are hard again, and he is anointed and chosen. But Malowebi says “Fate has many whims.” Fanayal laughs and says he has Meppa and tells him to show his face.

The hooded man reveals he wears a blindfold that’s held on by a silver circlet. He pulled it off. He has white hair and no eyes. Malowebi gasps in shock as he realizes he’s an idiot for missing the fact the man wore ocher robes.

Cishaurim.

Fanayal seems to think this revelation is all that Malowebi needs to be confident in the rebellion. He then adds that his very presence in this land inspires revolt and he just has to ride fast to spark of more fires than the New Empire can handle. But Malowebi is too shocked to think. The Cishaurim were supposed to be extinct, something every other school was thrill to learn. It explained how Fanayal had such luck.

Malowebi asks what he wants from Zeüm, trying to hide how flustered he is, but Fanayal had noticed. Nothing escapes his notice. “Perhaps he was the first foe worthy of the Aspect-Emperor. Fanayal says he is still just one foe, but if Zeüm joins, then others will find the courage to rise up and destroy the New Empire.

The Zeümi Emissary nodded as though acknowledging the logic, if not the attraction, of his argument. But all he really could think was Cishaurim.

So… the accursed Water still flowed.

“Discord is the way of imperial power.” The words of Triamis the Great on why his empire lacked peace. He says it’s better that you war on your enemies then to let them war on you. Strife is spreading across the New Empire.

In Carythusal, a slave is whipped by the judges in public. A lenient punishment for her blasphemy. They don’t notice that the crowd watching is unruly. They are not prepared for the mob to swarm them, the judges are soon hung from the Imperial Custom House. A riot consumes the city, forcing the Imperial Garrison to fight slaves and caste-menials. An eight of the city burns.

In Oswenta, a high ranking Imperial Apparati is found in bed with a slit throat. The start of many Shrial and Imperial functionaries being assassinated, some even by their own body-slaves or roaming mobs of angry menials.

Riots abound. In Aöknyssus, Proyas’s wife and children had to be evacuated during the riots that killed tens of thousands. Everywhere, insurrection flared. All the old foes hunger for blood. Fanayal seized the fortress of Gara’gûl. Alarmed, Esmenet sent four columns to defend Nenciphon. In the east, Famiri tribes revolt, killing administrators and converts. The Scylvendi raid Nansur that hasn’t been seen in decades. Veterans are called up. Militias formed. Skirmishes fought. Temples of Yatwer closed. The Slave Laws, which had given protection to the lowest, are revoked. “Speaking at public fountains became punishable by immediate execution.”

The nobles are united like never before in fear of their slaves. Enemies are now allies. Maithanet urged the Cultic priests to remember is the “God behind the Gods.” The faithful start murdering the sinners.

Sons and husbands simply vanished.

And though the New Empire tottered, it did not fall.

Momemn

Kelmomas sits in the Prince’s Box, his place at the Imperial Synod. His older siblings once set here, even Theliopa. Esmenet reminds Pansulla that he’s addressing the Empress. The room houses seats for the thirty Great Factions of the Empire. Cutias Pansulla, the Nansur Consul, paces in the “Slot” before everyone. He’s a fat man sweating through his clothes.

The man protests and saying that he must speak that the people claim the Gods have turned against the Empire. Kelmomas loves the Synod (so long as Kellhus isn’t there), but he pretends that he finds it boring with his mother. There is real conflict here with real consequences that can leave thousands of dead. “This was where real cities were burned, not ones carved of balsa.”

Esmenet demands to know if they’ll be remembered as craven? They will be judged for their actions one day, and they need to stop thinking she’s weaker then Kellhus. Kelmomas hides his smile, loving his mother showing her anger. He wonders if the fat man knows he’s in danger.

He certainly hoped not.

Pansulla says does not assuage their fears. He wants Esmenet to release a statement to the people. Kelmomas isn’t quite sure why Pansulla’s words were important, only that his mother had made a mistake and she’s no hesitating.

That one, the secret voice whispered.

Pansulla?

Yes. His breathing offends me.

Pansulla senses it and presses his advantage, saying they need tools to carry out her will. She glares at Pansulla, then gazes at the watchers and looks nervous. She tells him to read The Sagas about the First Apocalypse and ask why the Hundred allowed it to happen. This shuts everyone up. Esmenet tells Theliopa to tell everyone what the Mandate Schoolman believe.

“The Gods are-are finite,” Theliopa declared in a voice that contradicted the start angularity of her frame. “They can only apprehend a finite proportion of existence. They fathom the future-future, certainly, but from a vantage that limits them. The No-God dwells in their blind spots, follows a path-path they are utterly oblivious to…” She turned, looking from man to man with open curiosity. “Because he is oblivion.”

Much to Kelmomas’s delight, Esmenet gives Theliopa a “thoughtless gesture of thanks” proving she loves him the most. The voice agrees. Esmenet talks about how there’s a hidden world concealed from the Gods and they now are walking in it. This confuses everyone, even Pansulla. Kelmomas is so proud of his mother. Tûtmor, Consul to Ce Tydonn, asks about the Hundred.

Their Empress graced them all with a sour smile. “The Gods chafe, because like all souls, they call evil what they cannot comprehend.”

That’s even more shocking. Kelmomas thinks it’s funny anyone would fear the Gods, especially these powerful men. The voice adds the Gods are old and dying. Pansulla asks if the Gods have turned against them. This is a disaster and Esmenet’s cheeks pale. The voice hates Pansulla. Esmenet gathers herself and warns Pansulla not to voice “heretical supposition” and to remember Kellhus is the “God of Gods and his Prophet.”

It’s an obvious threat. Everyone’s whispering. Pansulla kneels and agrees. Hatred momentarily flashes on Esmenet’s face before she tells him and the others to have courage. Not to put their faith in the Hundred but Inri Sejenus and Kellhus.” Pansulla staggers to his feet and agrees then adds, “We must remind ourselves that we know better… than the Gods.”

His sarcasm angers Esmenet which makes Kelmomas almost giddy with joy. He loves seeing her infuriated and is thrilled because he’s never killed a fat man before. Esmenet reminds Pansulla that they don’t know better but it is Kellhus that does. Esmenet always uses Kellhus’s authority when challenged, but Kelmomas realizes it undermines her own power.

Pansulla agrees and says they will put their faith in the Thousand Temples than asks when Maithanet will ever appear and give his counsel. Then Pansulla is interrupted by an Eothic Guardsmen charging in, flushed faced, gasping that Fanayal has attacked. She asks where.

“He has struck Shigek.”

Kelmomas watched his mother blink in confusion.

“But… he’s marching on Nenciphon…” A frantic not climbed into her voice. “Don’t you mean Nenciphon?”

The messenger shook his head in sudden terror.

“No, most Holy Empress. Iothiah. Fanayal has taken Iothiah.”

Kelmomas is with his mother as she heads through the labyrinthine Andiamine Heights. She prefers “discreet routes” even if it takes twice as long. Not Kellhus. She does this because she hates people bowing to her. With the Synod over, Esmenet and her son are heading back to a remote part of the palace with Theliopa and Lord Biaxi Sankas following.

Kelmomas asks if Maithanet will be mad at her again. She asks why he would say that. “Because he blames you for everything that goes wrong! I hate him!” She ignores him, angered by it. The voice warns Kelmomas is being too greedy. Sankas says that the strain between her and Maithanet is a problem, but she snaps that Fanayal is more pressing. Sankas presses her to speak with Maithanet but she shouts, “No!”

“He must never see my face,” she said more evenly. The shadow of an arch divided her from waist to shoulder so that her lower gown shimmered with light. Kelmomas pressed his face into the warm, scented fabric. She combed his scalp out of maternal reflex. “Do you understand, Sankas? Never.”

Sankas begs her forgiveness before asking why. Kelmomas almost chuckled and hides it by feigning boredom and looking to the roofs. Esmenet answers by asking Theliopa to confirm a skin-spy hasn’t replaced her. Sankas gasps that’s not it but Theliopa confirms it. Esmenet just says that her relationship with Maithanet is complicated and asks for his trust, which he assures her she has, but…

“But what, Sankas?”

“Maithanet is the Holy Shriah…”

Kelmomas watched his mother smile her calm, winning smile, the one that told everyone present that she could feel what they felt. Her ability to communicate compassion, he had long since realized, was easily her strongest attribute—as well as the one most likely to send him into jealous rages.

Esmenet then points out that Kellhus didn’t put his brother the Shriah in charge but her. She asks him why he did that. Sankas understands then and nods. Kelmomas realizes that men gamble all the time, wagering any and everything. “Once the gambit was made, you need only give them reasons to congratulate themselves.”

After that, Esmenet dismisses Theliopa and Sanaks, leaving her alone with the jubilant Kelmomas. He’s excited to be the only one she brings to her apartments. He’s exultant as they head to her room, passing Inrilatas’s room on the way. He’s not screaming much right now, going through phases. Kelmomas thinks Inrilatas has his ear to the door hearing them. It worries Kelmomas he doesn’t hear Inrilatas doing this, remembering that Inrilatas is the smartest of all his siblings. Kelmomas is glad he’s insane for having all that intelligence.

And so he hated Inrilatas as well.

Slaves attend to his mother once in her rooms, but she ignores them. She isn’t a fan of being helped, which Kelmomas never understands since his father never had a problem with it. Kelmomas just loves it because it lets him be alone with his mother and hug and cuddle with her.

Ever since he had murdered Samarmas.

He looks around her apartments and thinks this is where he’ll always live. He expects to be picked up and hug him, instead she is frightened. Reeks of fear. She slaps him on the cheek and hisses, “You are never to say such things!”

A tide of murderous hurt and outrage swamped him. Mummy! Mummy had struck him! And for what? The truth? Scenes flickered beneath his soul’s eye, strangling her with her own sheets, seizing the Gold Mastodon set upon the mantle and—

“But I do!” he bawled. “I do hate him!”

Maithanet. Uncle Holy.

She hugs him and shushes him, crying. She says he shouldn’t hate his uncle. And it’s even worse, a sin, to hate the Shriah. He keeps struggling until she stares him in the eye. Kelmomas protests that Maithanet is against Esmenet. And Kellhus. He asks if that makes him their enemy, but she cuts him off and says he can never say these things. He’s a prince and an Anasûrimbor. He shares blood with Maithanet.

Dûnyain blood… the secret voice whispered. What raises us above the animals.

Like mother.

She asks if he understands that it’s bad for others to hear him badmouth his family. He says yes. She continues that these are dangerous times. He asks if it’s Fanayal. She hesitates and says many things then says she wants to show him something that Kellhus had added when rebuilding the Andiamine Heights. She pushes a spot on the wall and it opens up to reveal a secret passage.

The next morning, Kelmomas is with Esmenet as she takes her “morning sun.” She’s sitting with Theliopa on the same bench, Theliopa sitting very close. You’d think it meant that mother and daughter were close, but really Theliopa just doesn’t get social cues and personal space. She wears a dress that looks made of many other dresses. Esmenet tells her daughter she doesn’t trust Maithanet.

Kelmomas is playing in the nearby garden, making buildings from dirt he could smash. Then he finds a line of ants and is having fun killing them. As he does, Theliopa asks why Esmenet thinks this. She thinks he’s behind the Yatwer cult’s rebellion, using them to seize power.

Of all the games he played, this was the one the young Prince-Imperial relished the most: the game of securing his mother’s constant attention while at the same time slipping beneath her notice. On the one hand, he was such a sad little boy, desolate, scarred for the tragic loss of his twin. But he was also just a little boy, too young to understand, too lost in his play to really listen. There was a time, not so long ago, when she would have sent him away for conversations such as this…

The real ones.

Esmenet asks if Theliopa is surprised, and she says doesn’t think she can feel surprise. That troubles Esmenet that her daughter isn’t complete. Kelmomas thinks he doesn’t hate Theliopa, one like Mimara, because Theliopa can never love his mother back. Mimara is the real problem, but the secret voice assures Kelmomas that Esmenet will love him more soon.

Theliopa asks if Esmenet has spoken with Kellhus. A look of pain crosses her face, easy to read, but Kelmomas thinks Theliopa can’t feel any stirring of sympathy. He can’t tell because, like Maithanet, Kelmomas can’t read Theliopa. But she’s harmless. Esmenet says that sorcerous contact has been lost with the Great Ordeal. That actually causes Theliopa as flicker of surprise and horror.

Esmenet reassures her daughter that’s all is fine. Kellhus has ordered an Interdiction. All the Schoolmen with the Ordeal are forbidden from speaking to anyone in the Three Seas. The way Far-calling works is the person traveling has to contact the other end and they have to be asleep in the same place. A spot known to the traveler.

Theliopa asks if Kellhus is drawing out spies in the school. Esmenet answer makes Theliopa realize that not even the empress knows why. Kellhus has told her nothing. Kellhus follows his own orders which makes Theliopa ask if he’s abandoned them.

The young Prince-Imperial abandoned the pretense of his garden play. He even beheld his breath, so profound was his hope. For as long as he could remember, Kelmomas had feared and hated his divine father. The Warrior-Prophet. The Aspect-Emperor. The one true Dûnyain. All the native abilities possessed by his children, only concentrated and refined through a lifetime of training. Were it not for the demands of his station, were he more than just a constantly arriving and departing shadow, Father would have certainly seen the secret Kelmomas had held tight since his infancy. The secret that made him strong.

As things stood, it was only a matter of time. He would grow as his brothers and sisters had grown, and he would drift, as his brothers and sisters had drifted, from Mother’s loving tutelage to Father’s harsh discipline. One one day Father would peer deep into his eye and see what no one else had seen. And that day, Kelmomas knew, would be his doom…

But what if Father had abandoned them? Even better, what if he were dead?

The voice cautions Kelmomas that they will never be safe until Kellhus is dead. It’s in this moment that Kelmomas realizes why his mother slapped him the other day. She’s afraid that with Father abounded him and it’s Maithanet’s fault. Kelmomas thinks he’s save while Theliopa tries to postulate that it’s a test or that the Consult has found out how to listen in on the conversations. It might not be Maithanet, but Esmenet is certain. “I can feel it.”

“I can rarely fathom Father,” Theliopa admitted.

“You?” the Empress cried with pained hilarity. “Think about your poor mother!”

Kelmomas laughed precisely the way she wanted.

Esmenet tells Theliopa to think. Kellhus knows that Esmenet and Maithanet’s relationship is strained and now chooses this moment to cut them off. Theliopa counters that Kellhus trusts Esmenet to solve this problem on his own. Esmenet starts to say that Kellhus thinks her ignorance will help before she trails off into anger. She curses Kellhus for his machinations. Theliopa asks if she’s okay. She is, calming down and says she doesn’t care what Theliopa sees in her face. Then asks if Theliopa can read Maithanet. She says only Kellhus and, after hesitating, Inrilatas. He was trained for a time.

Kelmomas interjects like a jealous bother only to be admonished by his mother. But he presses, and she says that Kellhus had tried to teach Inrilatas to master himself. This makes her wonder if Inrilatas if he can see if Maithanet is plotting treachery.

“Perhaps, Mother,” the pale girl replied. “But the real-real question, I think, is not so much can he, as will he.”

The Holy Empress of all the Three Seas shrugged, her expression betraying the fears that continually mobbed her heart.

“I need to know. What do we have to lose?”

Forced to dine alone because Esmenet has state business to attend, Kelmomas takes out his annoyance on the slaves. He blames his mother for the harm he inflicts. Then he works on his model of the city, focusing on Temple Xothei His mother had given him the knives and materials instead of a model, telling him he’ll treasure it more if he makes it himself. He makes his miniature perfect by eye.

He never showed his work to Mother. It would trouble her, he knew, his ability to see places just once, and from angles buried within them, yet to grasp them the way a bird might from far above.

The way Father grasped the world.

But even worse, if he showered his little city to her, it would complicate the day when he finally burned it. She did not like the way he burned things.

When that day came, he would fill the city with bugs. Like those ants then thinks about the Pillarian Guardsmen patrolling outside. He thinks about nearing around them “more shadow than little boy.” That reminds him of murdering the Yatwerian matriarch. When he kills, he sees another person in the eyes of the dying that’s begging not to be killed. The Worshipper is what Kelmomas calls this person and loves them more than his mother.

Kelmomas finds the Worshipper strange and wonders how he can move from person to person. The voice thinks that he’s locked in a room and dying frees him. Kelmomas finds that clever and sneaks off to Inrilatas’s room. His door is the one that the servants can’t clean his room until it’s safe.

Today, they’re into her cleaning. They have to wait for lulls in his tantrums then follow a precise schedule to clean and feed him at noon and midnight. He waits outside, afraid. But soon his curiosity overcomes his fear, since only Father terrifies Kelmomas more than Inrilatas, and he peers inside.

His brother is crouched in the corner and held by chain that ran to a hole in the wall where it can be winched back to hold him while the attendant scrubs the walls. For a moment, it seems as if Inrilatas wasn’t moving only to realize his brother was making faces, mimicking the expressions of the cleaner. The deaf-mute cleaning would stare fearfully at his expression.

Inrilatas then speaks that most of the attendants flee, talking to Kelmomas without glancing at them. “Sooner or later, they choose the whip over my gaze.” Kelmomas says they are fools, too scared to go into the room. Inrilatas says they are what they appear to be. He turns to Kelmomas. “Unlike you, little brother.”

Inrilatas is a strong, young man, muscled by fighting his restrains, and his voice is “deep and beguiling” like Kellhus. He beckons to Kelmomas and leaps for the entrance, scaring the Attendant. Inrilatas then squats and defecates before returning to the corner. He tells Kelmomas he wants “to discuss the shit between us.”

With anyone else, Kelmomas would have thought this a mad joke of some kind. Not so with Inrilatas.

He enters and smells the poop. He stops near it. The slave is alarmed to see him, but he then just goes back to his cleaning, his terror keeping him to his task. Inrilatas comments that Kelmomas isn’t disgusted. Not knowing what to say, Kelmomas keeps his mouth shut. Inrilatas says Kelmomas is like him.

Remember your face, the secret voice warned. Only father possesses the Strength in greater measure!

“I am nothing like you,” the little Prince-Imperial replied.

It seemed strange, standing on the far side of the Door. And wrong. So very wrong.”

Inrilatas adds that all of them have some of Kellhus’s intelligence but mangled. Inrilatas possesses “his sensitivities, but utterly lack his unity… his control.” He is a slave of his desires. He isn’t bound by shame, free. He points to feces and says, “I shit when I shit.” Kelmomas goes to speak but the Voice stops him. Inrilatas asks, “Do you shit when you shit?” The secret voice panics at being noticed, saying Kelmomas has been reckless.

“Who?” Inrilatas laughed. “The shadow of hearing moves through you—as it so often does when no one is speaking. Who whispers to you, little brother?”

“Mommy says you’re mad.”

“Ignore the question,” his older brother snapped. “State something insulting, something that will preoccupy, and thus evade a prickly question. Come closer, little brother… Come closer and tell me you do not shit when you shit.”

Kelmomas lies and says he doesn’t understand, but Inrilatas knows it. Inrilatas wants to know who that voice is. Kelmomas retreats, realizing Inrilatas has crept closer. So Kelmomas blurts out Maithanet is coming to see Inrilatas. This gives the madman a heartbeat of pause. Again, Kelmomas is sidestepping the question but uses truth. Inrilatas thinks Esmenet is behind this visit.

The boy found strength in her mere mention.

He says Esmenet wants Inrilatas to read Maithanet’s face because she fears he plots against them. Inrilatas beckons him closer as Kelmomas says, “But Uncle has learned how to fool you.” The moment the words come out, Kelmomas knows he was clumsy. He’s speaking to an Anasûrimbor. A fellow Divinity.

“Kin,” Inrilatas crowed. “Blood of my blood. What love you possess for Mother! I see it burn! Burn! Until all else is char and ash. Is she grudge you bear against Uncle?”

But Kelmomas could think of nothing else to say or do. To answer any of his brother’s questions, he knew, was to wander into labyrinths he could not hope to solve. He had to press forward…

Kelmomas tries to convince Inrilatas that Maithanet will lie, charging forward. The only option with such a “monstrous intellect.” This voice says this is a mistake which Inrilatas instantly recognizes. He adds, “You do not like sharing… Such a peevish, devious little soul.” The voice is panicked.

Kelmomas tries to use pride to goad his brother by implying he can’t read Maithanet, but Inrilatas ignores that and keeps talking about the voice hiding in Kelmomas, asking if the voice wants Maithanet dead. Kelmomas keeps saying Inrilatas will want to kill Maithanet and he needs Kelmomas’s help. That just makes Inrilatas laugh.

“You will want to kill Uncle Holy,” Kelmomas repeated, his thoughts giddy with sudden inspiration. “Think brother… The sum of sins.”

And with that single phrase, the young Prince-Imperial’s dogged persistence was rescued—or so he thought.

Where his brother had fairly radiated predatory omniscience before, his manner suddenly collapsed inward. Even his nakedness, which has been that of the rapist—lewd, virile, bestial—lapsed into its chill and vulnerable contrary. He actually seemed to shrink in his chains.

Suddenly, Inrilatas seemed as pathetic as the human shit breathing on the floor between them.

Inrilatas then asks if Kelmomas knows why he does crazy things. Kelmomas doesn’t. He does it to make himself as damned as possible. Curiosity seizes Kelmomas. He wasn’t to know while the voice is cautions. Inrilatas answers, “Because I can think of no greater madness.” Kelmomas avoids really thinking about how mad it is to trade a fleeting life for an eternity of pain.

Kelmomas doesn’t understand why Inrilatas doesn’t just follow the rules so Mother releases him. Inrilatas studies his brother then asks who “rules the rule?” The voice is worried as the boy answers the God. Who rules the God? No one.

He breaths as you breathe, the secret voice whispered, blinks as you blink—even his heartbeat captures your own! He draws your unthinking soul into rhythms of his making. He mesmerizes you!

Inrilatas says the God is not bound. He stands up and smears his feces with his foot while saying, “So the God is like me.” In that moment, it all makes sense. His brother’s madness made sense and this place is holy. He is enraptured by his brother’s gaze.

Inrilatas then says that the worse you are, the worse God punishes you. Inrilatas says Kelmomas resembles the God. Kelmomas realizes he’s in a trap as he cries he’s not mad like Inrilatas. His brother laughs like Esmenet, warm and gentle. He then shouts that Kelmomas wants to add more pain to this world.

“I would…” Anasûrimbor Kelmomas admitted. “I would.” His limbs trembled. His heart hung as if plummeting through a void. What was this crashing within him? What was this release?

The Truth!

And his brother’s voice resonated, climbed as if communicating up out of his bones. “You think you seek the love of our mother, little brother—Little Knife! You think you murder in her name. But that love is simply cloth thrown over the invisible, what you use to reveal the shape of something so much greater…”

He remembers killing the beetle and the Yatwerian Matriarch. It makes him feel like he’s assuming glory. That he’s becoming a God. As he revels in it, Inrilatas croons to Kelmomas to come closer and cross “the line others have etched for you.” He starts to, but the deaf-mute slave grabs him from behind and pulls him back while Inrilatas laughs, telling his brother to flee. Inrilatas gets angry. He starts shouting and fighting the chains. He can feel himself coming closer to being divinity.

The boy stood astounded. At last he yielded to the Attendant and his shoulder-tugging hands, allowed the wretch to pull him from his brother’s cell…

He knew Inrilatas would find the little gift he had left him for him, lying along the seam between floor-stones.

The small he had stolen from the palace tinker… not so long ago.

Iothiah

Malowebi rides through smoke and screams with Fanayal beside him. It’s Malowebi’s first time a city being asked. Iothiah burns. It reminds him that his nation doesn’t know much of war and that the Men of the Three Seas “warred without mercy or honour.” All that matters is the goal.

“They fought the way Sranc fought.”

He sees bodies lying every where, several rapes in progress, and executions. Fanayal attempts to justify these atrocities by speaking of what the First Holy War had done. He speaks as if all this is right. “The Bloodthirsty Excuse,” as Memgowa had named retribution. Fanayal adds this is more than just vengeance but a lesson. Kill the first man and show mercy to the second. “The Honey and the Goad.”

Malowebi thinks how it’s easy to mix them up as he sees the Kianene reveling the atrocities and thinks he is among savages. Fanayal, perhaps sensing Malowebi’s disgust, cuts short their tour. The screams of a baby haunt Malowebi as they return to the section of city wall where Meppa had brought down. Malowebi gawks at it.

Fanayal points out that Cishaurim Psûkhe frightens him because he can’t see any evidence of sorcery like he should. Malowebi remembers Meppa’s fight with the sole Imperial Saik Schoolman guarding the city had “astounded, and mortified,” him.

To be sorcerer was to dwell among deformities.

He plays it off that while extraordinary, sorcerers like him are used to miracles. He says it almost like a bigger joke. He is impressed by Meppa’s power and Fanayal’s skill. What he most saw was how weak the New Empire was. Kellhus had gutted the Empire for the Great Ordeal, leaving behind the dregs to guard a disaffected population. Even more interesting, not a single Chorae was found in the city. He has to tell his people.

“The people call him Stonebreaker,” Fanayal said. “Meppa… They say he was sent to us by the Solitary God.”

Malowebi turned to him, blinking.

“What do you say?”

“I say he was sent to me!” the hawk-faced Padirajah cried laughing. “I am the Solitary God’s gift to his people.”

“And what does he say?” the Second Negotiant asked, now genuinely curious.

“Meppa? He does not know who he is.”

My Thoughts

Are very first line of this chapter stands in direct opposition to the Dûnyain supposition that the Darkness Comes Before. The White-Luck Warrior violates Cause and Effect. He is the Effect that precedes the Cause. As we see, he sees time in its totality. All of his actions he will take and has taken are with him in the present.

It reminds me of something called a TAS. This is a Tool Assisted Speedrun of a video game. If you ever see one, you’ll see the game being played in ways that are impossible. Well, not impossible but so improbable no human being can do it. It requires inputs performed on frame specific moments. When you view it, it seems almost like the person playing it is predicting the future.

In reality, a TAS is made by playing on emulators and using tools to manipulate the game often frame by frame and program it to do button presses and other inputs. This is how the White-Luck Warrior works. Yatwer can see all of time. She can know how every one of his actions will play out and change with the White-Luck Warrior does to give her the most optimal gameplay. To have the perfect route to beat the game (kill Kellhus).

Sorry for quoting so much, but it’s so telling to how the White-Luck Warrior works. How he can see himself going all the way to Kellhus’s death.

Flaying people for converting to another religion. Very nice, Zeüm. Very nice. And you’re going to be all judgmental on the sacking soon.

Fanayal is a fanatic. He thinks he has a destiny, and nothing is going to stand in the way. Why be mad that Malowebi is doubtful. It’s natural to be doubtful of such claims, but Fanayal is special. He doesn’t have the level of narcissism that Conphas had, but there is an ego there. A purity of belief.

The problem with expanding fast. It’s hard to keep what you take. It can take generations for a people to change their tribal identities, and if you can’t hold it, things will erupt. And even then, future generations will start to remember that they were abused and want their freedom again.

But the New Empire was made for a purpose. It has served it. Kellhus never cared if it survived. He just pretended he did for the sake of the men marching off to die for their families.

Good explanation from Theliopa on why the Gods can’t see the No-God. (Or a certain young psychopathic Dûnyain.)

We’re seeing Esmenet’s paranoia with Maithanet that Kelmomas is nurturing. He just wants mommy all to himself. He can do the manipulation, but he doesn’t understand about seeing beyond tomorrow. He lives in the now the way a child does.

I’m sure that Kellhus would be content not to have slaves wait on him, but he understands trappings. It’s his place to have it, part of his power, so he uses even that. Esmenet doesn’t play the role of caste noble. She’s not one at heart. She’s not the chameleon that Kellhus is.

Also, Bakker takes a moment to point out a sycamore visible from the balcony of Esmenet’s quarters and how its “limbs forking through the air.” Trees are symbols of the Dûnyain and the Probability Trance. We see it in Kellhus’s opening way back in The Darkness that Comes Before when he’s entranced by a tree. When Kellhus was taught how to fight as a child, he was told he must be a tree, reaching in all directions. Trees are possibilities that all have to accounted for and controlled. They spread wide, covering the land in their shadows.

We see that he is full of murderous anger at being slapped by his beloved mother. He doesn’t really love her. He is too much of a narcissist. Everything has to be about his desires. His id. He’s a child, and all he needs is his mother, but one day, he would have tired of her as he matured.

The whole exchange between Inrilatas and Kelmomas shows that, despite all of Kelmomas’s intellect, he’s still a child. He’s not ready to take on someone with his talents matured.

And there is something else that Inrilatas says he’s is the only “unbound soul.” Even Kellhus is bound by something, but Inrilatas can’t understand it. That’s Kellhus’s neutered love for Esmenet. He’s saving the world for her instead of destroying it. And in loving Esmenet, he spares Kelmomas which leads to Kellhus’s own downfall.

Kelmomas is not an unbound soul, though. He’ll be very bound.

Remember that beetle that Kelmomas killed in the first book? Yeah, we’re being reminded about it. Killing a beetle before the statue of Ajokli, the very god that is working with Kellhus. We are introduced to Kelmomas killing a beetle like he’s God. He plays at God, but Kelmomas is No God.

“They fought the way Sranc fought.” Bakker is setting the stage for what is to come after Dagliash.

“Meppa? He does not know who he is.” The line that launched the is Meppa Kellhus’s father. Is Moënghus who had some how survived. But this chapter proves he’s not. He has too much Water to be Moënghus. Meppa is a Primary, the best of the Cishaurim. It takes emotions to do that. Psûkhe is a dead-end for Dûnyain. Who is Meppa? I don’t actually remember what the books give other than I’m pretty sure he dies.

Want to read more, click here for Chapter Six!

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

Now it’s been turned into an Audiobook!

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

When the Stormriders attack …

…Ary’s people have little chance.

Can he find a way to defeat them?

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

He knows the cost of war.

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

But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…

…isn’t going to make it happen.

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

The adventure begins.

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

Get it now.

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

Review: Chayna: A Black Diamond Origin Story

Chayna: A Black Diamond Origin Story

by P. Kuroki

 

Chayna is facing her execution for using purple smoke, an illegal narcotic. Trembling through withdrawals, she stares at the gallows.

But when a general rides up needing soldiers with the war, she finds a repreive. But is being a soldier any better? Especially when the general leads them weirdly into the mountains.

Cold. Hungry. Beset by rabid animals, Chayna and her fellow conscripts are taken deeper into the mountains. Is their general really interested in the war, or is he leading them to another fate?

Chayna is another origin story for one of the Black Diamond assassins. This one was an interesting one. They’ve all been different, exploring different parts of the world.

I really liked how the flute was used. This is a short fantasy story, but Kuroki does a fantastic job of making you care for the supporting cast. Like Sammick and Pevrel.

Another great offering from Kuroki and leaves me salivating for more.

If you’re looking for something to read that’s quick, you’re going to find a lot of depths in this fantasy story.

Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Chapter Four

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Four

The Istyuli Plains

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

All ropes come up short if pulled long enough. All futures end in tragedy.

—CENEIAN PROVERB

And they forged counterfeits from our frame, creatures vile and obscene, who hungered only for violent congress. These beasts they loosed upon the land, where they multiplied, no matter how fierce the Ishroi who hunted them. And soon Men clamoured at our gates, begging sanctuary, for they could not contend with the creatures. “They wear your face,” the penitents cried. “This calamity is your issue.” But we were wroth, and turned them away, saying, “These are not our Sons. And you are not our Brothers.”

—ISÛPHIRYAS

My Thoughts

An interesting quote. All futures end in tragedy. The tragedy of death, certainly. But also the tragedy of history. The cycles of violence because we cannot see each other as brothers and we cannot take responsibility for our mistakes as we see in the second quote.

The Nonmen didn’t want to admit their responsibility in the Inchoroi’s survival nor did they want to ally with those they thought were their lessers. Especially those who are being harmed by their mistake. They could have helped them, but didn’t. Not until it was the ruin of them all.

And now we find ourselves back with Sorweel heading out on their patrol. And where does his future end?

Tragedy.

Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The High Istyuli

The Scions are crossing the plain to the southwest looking for game to drive towards the Army of the Middle-North. But they find so little, they’re barely feeding themselves. The Parching Wind doesn’t cease. Sorweel, despite being “bred to the plains, to open endless skies” feels so small on the barren, flat plain. It’s a reminder to Men that the World is far bigger than their ambition.

Sorweel can’t ever shake how small he feels, not even during the embarrassing language drills with Eskeles. Sorweel feels like a schoolboy around Eskeles not the King of Sakarpus despite Eskeles saying he’s here to chaperon all the members of the Scions. But he is because they are special to their parents, the enemies of Kellhus that remain a threat to the New Empire. Sorweel finds the fat man with no armor or weapons with them ridiculous and yet believes that Eskeles is there to protect them with his sorcerery.

At night, he pretends that those around him are his father and uncles out hunting pumas, a costume called the Lioning that the men of his family do during the planting season. He had loved that more than anything.

The Lioning was how he learned his father was truly funny… and genuinely beloved by his men.

SO he would lie with these memories, curl about their warmth. But whenever it seemed he could believe, some dread would lurch out of the nethers and the pretense would blow away like smoke before gusting apprehensions. Zsoronga. The Aspect-Emperor. And the Mother—the Mother most of all.

He wonders what Yatwer wants from him. He spends many sleepless nights trying to understand what happened. How he could pray to Yatwer and have never wondered what “Lay behind the ancient names.” What does her name even mean? He had not paid too much attention to her. She had been something “dark and nebulous.” Too near to the beginnings of things.

All children come to temple with a fear of smallness, which the priests then work and knead like clay, shaping it into the strange reconciliation-to-horror that is religious devotion, the sense of loving something too terrible to countenance, too hoary to embrace. When he thought about the world beyond what his eyes could see, he saw souls in their innumerable thousands with only frayed threads to hold them, dangling over the gaping black of the Outside, and the shadows moving beneath, the Gods, ancient and capricious, reptilian with indifference, with designs so old and vast that there could only be madness in the small eyes of Men.

And none were so old or so pitiless as the dread Mother of Birth.

That was what her name was: childhood terror.

He feels pinched between Yatwer and the Aspect-Emperor. “Gods and Demons.” He wants to escape the Great Ordeal and all of this madness. He’d rather be out here on the plains. One night, he asks Zsoronga his fear with as much care as he can, using the discussion of omens and portents that proclaim that Kellhus’s dynasty is doomed for overreaching.

“What happens,” Sorweel finally ventured, “if we fail the Gods simply because we don’t know what they demand?”

Tzing says, damnation. “The Gods care for nothing for our excuses.” Zsoronga disagrees and says only if they fail their ancestors. They decided who gets into heaven, not the gods. Charampa gets mad, calling that Inrithi nonsense and saddened the Zeumi believe it. Zsoronga says honoring ancestors predates Inrithism. “Family survives death.” Sorweel, listening hard to what is being said, and realizes that as a conquered people, he’s turning to foreign beliefs. He asks, what if his family is damned? Through Obotegwa, Zsoronga has an answer.

“Then you must do everything in your power to discover what the Gods do want. Everything.”

Sorweel understands that the Zeumi see death as the “great life.” So it’s important to have ancestors that got your back. Sorweel asks what happens if you don’t have that. Zsoronga studies him to see if he can trust Sorweel.

“Otherwise you are lost.”

Morning comes, making the world seem larger as night if banished. It’s a bright day. Sorweel, bred to this land, finds it dizzying because he is “beyond the Pale.” Beyond Sakarpus’s domain. Not only that, but the Place feels like a “moral boundary.” He thinks of all the miles between him and his holy city. He finds it insane that such a small company is riding out here alone.

However, his respect for Captain Harnilas brings him comfort. Old Harni is a veteran of the Kidruhil, and it shows. He had tried to hate the man, like the other Scions, but the man is too good and full of “warlike wisdom.” The man so didn’t care what others thought of him. Zsoronga calls him a nkubaru, “stone-hewers.” A man has to be stronger than stone to cut it. Eskeles added, “Or smarter.”

Sometimes they chat. Other times they ride in silence. Usually, it would be a momentary spark then snuffed out. On the tenth day, they sighted the tracks of elk. A huge one, thousands of hoofs crossing the vastness of the world.

Sorweel cursed himself for a fool, such was his relief.

They track the elk for two days and spot crows. They are excited until Sorweel understands what it means. He rides up to the front where Captain Harnilas snaps at him. But the says the word that “transcended all languages of Men.”

“Sranc.”

As he stares Captain Harnilas in the eyes, Sorweel realizes this man is much like his father’s bondsmen. A man who quarantine’s his compassion from clouding his senses, loving only “in the cracks and crevices of a warring world.” Eskeles joins them. Sorweel says those are not crows but storks, holy birds that only follow Sranc. Captains Harnilas believes him.

Through Obotegwa, Sorweel learns there is a debate between Captain Harnilas and Eskeles. The Schoolman wants to use Gnosis on them while Captain Harnilas wants to attack with the Scions to give them a taste of real combat even if some will die. “Better to begin with an easy blooding, he says, then a hard one.”

They track the storks and realize that it’s a warband of three hundred, not a migrating clan. They travel at an angle and close within a mile of the enemy. It’s here that the argument happened. It’s been a thrilling afternoon, everyone smiling and eager for the fight. They’re gleeful for the first fight. Sorweel feels no fear and is glad for that. He’s eager for the fight, too. Even his pony is hungry for it.

“Of course Eskeles was intent on ruining everything. Blasphemer, Sorweel found himself thinking.

Rumor says Mandate Schoolman outrank even the Judges, but Sorweel hopes Captain Harnilas can outrank Eskeles. Especially since the captain wasn’t a political man, hence his position leading the Scions. Intrigue, as Sorweel’s father always said, kills more men than battle.

Captain Harnilas loses his temper at Eskeles, driving off the Schoolman who calls him a fool. Sorweel sings out, “Practice-practice,” as the Schoolman always said during their language drills. Zsoronga chuckles while Eskeles glares as Sorweel before regaining his composure. He hopes Sorweel is right.

A chill seemed to creep into the shadow.

Captain Harnilas gives orders and they ride out in a wedge formation. The Sranc don’t move as they approach which surprises Zsoronga who is shocked that their group hasn’t been seen. Sorweel says the Sranc are probably resting since they like traveling at night. Zsoronga is confused why they wouldn’t camp on a hilltop. Closer to the sun they hate. Zsoronga points out that men hate the night and keep watch only for Sorweel to counter no men have walked this land in thousands of years. “Why should they keep watch for myths and legends?”

His earlier eagerness seemed to slip out of him, plummet through the soles of his boots. They climbed a slope, riding into their shadows at an angle to the dust that pealed away from them. Everywhere he looked he saw the ground, and yet it seemed he rode the lip of a perilous chasm. Vertigo leaned out from him, threatened to pull him from the saddle. There was no certainty, he realized. Anything could happen on the field of war.

Anything.

The Sranc all cry together at once then fall off into individual squeals as they mob together. They draw weapons and raise their standards of human skulls attached to bison hide. They bated them into attacking and the Scions know it.

For a moment, the two sides face each other before they charge. Sorweel whispers in his pony’s ear, “One and one are one…” The two sides crash together. His lance strikes a shield, deflects to the other side, and kills a different Sranc. He draws a sword and swings, killing them with ease. It was no “different from practice melons.”

Then he’s cut through the horde and finds Zsoronga grinning at him. Sorweel grabs a lance gutting from the ground and turns for the next charge, howling his war cry. The Sranc flee and are run down. Sorweel felt joy in the pursuit. He finally feels like he’s a Horselord. He was born for this.

There was joy in the race. Ecstasy in the kill.

One and one were one.

The Scions exterminated the Sranc, losing three with another nine wounded. Eskeles isn’t happy, but Harnilas is thrilled. They are all exultant, slapping each other on the back. Including Sorweel. He ends up climbing to the top of a hill and stares across the plain. He thinks about his ancestors doing this, killing Sranc. Killing “those who did not belong.”

The darkening sky was so broad that it seemed to spin with slow vertigo. The Nail of Heaven glittered.

And the World towered beneath.

Harnilas busts out the rum so the Scions can celebrate. They are “boys drunk on the deeds of men.” They only get two swallows. They also stake a surviving Sranc down. Most of them were “youths of gentle breeding” who don’t do more than kick the Sranc. Sorweel finally gets fed up and puts out its eye. Some love it, but others say torture is a crime. Part of their “effeminate and obscure laws of conduct.” Sorweel is shocked by this and Captain Harnilas moves to his side and tells Sorweel to explain just what the Sranc really are.

Through Eskeles, not Obotegwa, he tells how the Sranc usually attack in winter when they can’t dig grubs out of the frozen ground. This is why his people have a strong defense on their border. But one tower is almost always overwhelmed and the Sranc will reach a village. They mostly kill the men. But women and especially children are taken for their rape. He trails off, remembering that day when he was fourteen and his father showed him the aftermath of one of those pillages.

We could torment a thousand of these creatures for a thousand years,” his father had told him that night, “and we would have repaid but a droplet of the anguish they have visited upon us.”

He repeated those words.

When he hears silence, Sorweel thinks they hated it and Eskeles’s continued speech is him trying to undo the damage. But Obotegwa translates the Eskeles is saying Sorweel peaks true. That Sranc are “beasts without souls” and “flesh without spirit.” They are not beings with feelings, but things no different from dirt. Despite Eskeles’s strong words, the Scions look at Sorweel. He realizes they weren’t condemning him.

Respect. Admiration, even.

Only Zsoronga seemed to watch him with troubled eyes.

The sport began in earnest after that. The Mannish laughter was as shrill as the inhuman screams were crazed.

What was left twitched and glistened in the blood-sodden grasses.

The next day, they are surprised vultures aren’t feasting on the Sranc. They ride out laughing and joking, acting like veterans but they still are talking like boys. “Easy victories, as a Horselord would say, grow no beards.” They resume tracking the elk only to find them slaughtered and left to rot in the hot sun. None of the Scions can utter a world as they stare at fields of dead elk. Vultures feast and fill the air with their cries. Sorweel sees they have been gutted and their entrails strewn across the ground.

They descend into the massacre which unnerves Sorweel because they’ll be seen for miles, alerting anyone that their feast was disturbed. Zsoronga doesn’t understand this. It’s madness. Eskeles say it’s a Hording. Sorweel can see the Sranc massacring the elk.

“In ancient days,” his Mandate tutor continued, “before the coming of the No-God, the Sranc would continually retreat before hosts too powerful for any one clan to assault. Back and back, clan heaped upon clan. Until their hunger forced them to take game, until their numbers blackened the very earth…”

“And then?” Sorweel asked.

“They attacked…”

They realize the Great Ordeal has forced the Sranc back and back until the Hoarding is now happening. Eskeles tells Captain Harnilas about the danger of this. Sorweel stares at the destruction and it worries him at how many it would take to do this to the elk. Sranc clans never numbered more than a few hundred. Rarely, a chieftain would enslave a few other clans then besiege Sakarpus. It happened five times. Still, this slaughter is something more.

Only some greater power could have accomplished this.

Sorweel realizes that Kellhus’s war is real. Zsoronga concedes it might be, but still questions Kellhus’s motivation.

Zsoronga’s warning that Sorweel is lost without his ancestors echoes in his mind over the coming days. Zsoronga, despite being young, has “salt.” He’s mature. He can’t deny that Yatwer has possessed him even though he was “trothed to her brother Gilgaöl” since he was five. It’s strange because he’s a warrior, a Taker and a thief in her eyes. It was a humiliation that she had chosen him, and one he was worthy of. He just wants to know why.

Porsparian would know. The slave is clearly some priest even though Sorweel thought only women “attended to the worldly interests of the Ur-Mother.” He was never educated on Yatwer. She’s a goddess for the poor. He feels an idiot for not realizing that Porsparian would be the key. Sorweel just had to learn Sheyic to get his answers.

That night, Sorweel remembers Porsparian making the face in the mud only to realize he’s doing it right now. It is insane and makes his stomach churn. He has trouble making the face in the dry soil. But he works to form it. Once done, he stares at it. “For a mad moment, it seemed the whole of the World, all the obdurate miles he had travelled, multiplied on and on in every direction, was but the limbless body of the face before him.” Instead of Yatwer, he realizes he made his father’s face. And his father speaks to him, calling him “son.”

He felt himself bend back… as if he were a bow drawn by otherworldly hands.

Water,” the image coughed on a small cloud of dust, “climbs the prow…”

Eskeles’s words?

Sorweel raised a crazed fist, dashed the face into the combed grasses.

Sorweel hovers between waking and sleeping, remembering what Eskeles said about the Sranc building up like water before the prow of the ship. Despite never seeing many boats, he understands the metaphor. Sorweel realizes that they are very far from the prow tracking game. Something doesn’t make sense about the massacre. So he waits for dawn to tell the others what he’s realized.

“With all due respect, my King…” the sorcerer said with a waking sneer. “Kindly go fuck your elbows.”

Eskeles is not happy to be woken by this and snaps out, letting his rare temper ride free. Captain Harnilas watches, but Sorweel doesn’t speak Sheyic well enough. He explains how the Sranc had no sentries. Eskeles just wants to go back to sleep, but he persists and asks how water piles behind the boat. That has Eskeles blinking. Then he groans and gets up. They go to Captain Harnilas and Eskeles takes too much time. Impatient, Sorweel snarls, “We’re tracking an army!”

That raises alarms. Harnilas asks why he thinks that. Because the Sranc can’t be Hoarding. Something is driving them. He speculates the Consul knows about the Hoarding and is using that knowledge. Eskeles admits the Consult would know about it. Sorweel continues to explain the Consult will know when the Hoarding reaches critical mass and attacks the Great Ordeal. Eskeles concedes that’s possible.

Sorweel through of his father, of all the time she had heard him reason with his subjects, let alone his men. “To be a worthy King,” Harweel had once told him, “is to lead, not to command.” And he understood that all the bickering, all the discourse he had considered wasted breath, “tongue-measuring,” was in fact central to kingship.

Sorweel says that their expedition is a joke. They are patrolling a safe place where you wouldn’t have patrols to keep them busy and safe. But then they stumble on a war party with no sentries who are not afraid of the Great Ordeal. They think they are safe. And the fact they slaughtered the elk is something they shouldn’t be doing here. Eskeles encourages Sorweel to keep talking, to give his thoughts, but he doesn’t know what is happening. He feels unsure.

Sorweel guesses that they have stumbled onto elements of a Consult army. They’re using the elk to hide their passage and shadow the Ordeal. This army will attack the Great Ordeal from behind when they fight the Hoarding. But this confuses Sorweel. The Sranc don’t do this. They don’t plan. Use tactics. This worries Harnilas and Eskeles. They ask what Sorweel thinks they should do. He says to ride for the Ordeal and sound the alarm. Harnilas agrees and approves.

Sorweel asks if his theory is possible because it makes no sense. Sranc don’t use tactics. Eskeles has a fatherly gleam in his eyes as he thinks. Then he talks about the time before the No-God was activated. Back then, the Consult would chain Sranc into massive armies called Yokes and drive them like slaves. They starve them. When they’re famished and desperate for food, they strike their chains and let them rampage.

Something within the Sakarpi King, a binding fear and hope, slumped in relief. He almost reeled for exhaustion, as if alarm alone had sustained him through all the sleepless watches.

Eskeles asks if he’s okay. He dismisses the worry then glances at the horizon. He asks what Harnilas said. Eskeles replies that he thinks Sorweel has “the gifts of a great king.” Eskeles has a look of fatherly pride that makes Sorweel feel guilty.

Gifts? something within him wanted to cry. No…

Only things the dirt had told him.

My Thoughts

We see Yatwer working on Sorweel to do what she wants him. Through Zsoronga and his talk of honoring ancestors and families surviving death, he is saying what Sorweel needs to embrace Yatwer and be her Narindar. He just doesn’t see how the circumstances are being manipulated from the outside by a being that can see past and future all at the same time. The Darkness that Comes Before as a weapon being turned against Kellhus. Sorweel doesn’t even know it.

The “Our smarter” line from Eskeles is a nice point to his character and contrasts with the captain who is strong while Eskeles is smart. Two different ways to come at something.

Why does he curse himself for a fool? Because he’s relieved that they found food for his enemy. He is bouncing between two people: the rebel and the conquered.

Come on Eskeles, let’s not be a party pooper!

Interestingly, we see our hero is the one who does the most vicious act. He is shocked they don’t want to torture the monster. This is not the first parallel we’re going to be drawn between Sranc and Men. But you’ll never see Sranc hesitating. Men are trapped between Intellect and Desire. The Dûnyain and the Inchoroi. Some are closer to one end of the other. Both lead to bad decisions. The balance has to be struck.

“Go fuck your elbows?” There’s a phrase.

Yatwer continues guiding him. She’s positioning him as someone insightful and knowledgeable. She’s winning him respect. Bringing him more into the notice of Kellhus so he could be in a position to strike when the time came.

Not a lot to say, but we are seeing those strings being pulled. It puts Sorweel on a very typical journey, but it’s out of his control. He’s not a hero who’s answered the call. He’s just dragged along on the journey by the will of a goddess that will end up with him dying.

And yet, I think he has a big impact on Serwa. But we’ll get to that when we get to the fourth book.

Not a lot to say. Pretty straightforward chapter.

Want to read more, click here for chapter 5!

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

Now it’s been turned into an Audiobook!

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

When the Stormriders attack …

…Ary’s people have little chance.

Can he find a way to defeat them?

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

He knows the cost of war.

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

But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…

…isn’t going to make it happen.

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

The adventure begins.

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

Get it now.

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

Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Chapter Three

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Three

The Meörn Wilderness

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

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

—TRIAMIS I, JOURNALS AND DIALOGUES

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To know the world will never be so bad.

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

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

“Aye… I think you are cursed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Judging Eye opens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She knows he is damned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seemed he should have known this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories from a different age, a different trial.

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

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

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

Crypts, Pokwas had called them.

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

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

And he thought, Strange…

Finding knowledge in sleep.

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

Trees! Crypts, the scalpers called them…

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

Let this be the end.

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

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

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

Pity and guilt.

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

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

The obsession.

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

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

Like the Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You will return princes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quya Mage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He needed his pinch.

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

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

“So long as you don’t weep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She much preferred those who sinned with sincerity.

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

I have the Judging Eye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“N-no!” the man coughed.

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

Sparking light. The whoosh of transubstantiation.

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

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

“Or you can let me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any reckoning of their crimes would have to come after.

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

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

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

“Soma!” Achamian called again.

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

The entire time.

He revealed himself to save me…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It does not.”

The words pinched the old Wizard deep in the gut.

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

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

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

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

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

A revelation.

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to read more? Click here for Chapter 4!

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

Now it’s been turned into an Audiobook!

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

When the Stormriders attack …

…Ary’s people have little chance.

Can he find a way to defeat them?

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

He knows the cost of war.

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

But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…

…isn’t going to make it happen.

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

The adventure begins.

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

Get it now.

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

The Virtues of Plotting Your Novel by Jonathan Pembroke: Authors in Focus Episode 120

Hi! Welcome to this episode of Authors in Focus Podcast. I’m James Reid, a fantasy author publishing as JMD Reid. This podcast is all about getting to know writers, their books, and what makes them tick.

We all have a storyteller inside of us. Join me as we find out what the rising stars and established voices in publishing have to say about their craft and inspiration.

My new book, Mask of Guilt (Mask of Illumination Book 1), is out!

We all wear masks. Some of us to hide our guilt. Lady Foonauri, lost in the malaise of depression, finds purpose with a group of all-women thieves, the Cracked Gems. Intrigue, romance, betrayal, and adventure swirls around her in this epic fantasy tale!

Today, I’m joined by Jonathan Pembroke! He is the author of fantasy thriller Rumble in Woodhollow! Follow him on Facebook and Goodreads. Check out his blog!

Finally Writing That Novel Rattling Around in Your Head by R. R. Riley: Authors in Focus Episode 119

Hi! Welcome to this episode of Authors in Focus Podcast. I’m James Reid, a fantasy author publishing as JMD Reid. This podcast is all about getting to know writers, their books, and what makes them tick.

We all have a storyteller inside of us. Join me as we find out what the rising stars and established voices in publishing have to say about their craft and inspiration.

My new book, Mask of Guilt (Mask of Illumination Book 1), is out!

We all wear masks. Some of us to hide our guilt. Lady Foonauri, lost in the malaise of depression, finds purpose with a group of all-women thieves, the Cracked Gems. Intrigue, romance, betrayal, and adventure swirls around her in this epic fantasy tale!

Today, I’m joined by R.R. Riley! He is the author of the sci-fi novel An Average Man! Follow him on Facebook and Bookbubs! And check out his website and his books on Amazon.

Writing Books with Your Spouse by Kelly Blanchard and Matthew Dale: Authors in Focus Episode 117

Hi! Welcome to this episode of Authors in Focus Podcast. I’m James Reid, a fantasy author publishing as JMD Reid. This podcast is all about getting to know writers, their books, and what makes them tick.

We all have a storyteller inside of us. Join me as we find out what the rising stars and established voices in publishing have to say about their craft and inspiration.

My new book, Mask of Guilt (Mask of Illumination Book 1), is out!

We all wear masks. Some of us to hide our guilt. Lady Foonauri, lost in the malaise of depression, finds purpose with a group of all-women thieves, the Cracked Gems. Intrigue, romance, betrayal, and adventure swirls around her in this epic fantasy tale!

Today, I’m joined by Kelly Blanchard & Matthew Dale! They are the authors of the fantasy novel, The Crown’s Secret. You can follow them on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram, and you can find more of Kelly’s book are her website!

Drawing from the Fiction You Love for Inspiration with Ryan D. Meier: Authors in Focus Episode 116

Hi! Welcome to this episode of Authors in Focus Podcast. I’m James Reid, a fantasy author publishing as JMD Reid. This podcast is all about getting to know writers, their books, and what makes them tick.

We all have a storyteller inside of us. Join me as we find out what the rising stars and established voices in publishing have to say about their craft and inspiration.

My new book, Mask of Guilt (Mask of Illumination Book 1), is out!

We all wear masks. Some of us to hide our guilt. Lady Foonauri, lost in the malaise of depression, finds purpose with a group of all-women thieves, the Cracked Gems. Intrigue, romance, betrayal, and adventure swirls around her in this epic fantasy tale!

Today, I’m joined by Ryan D. Meier! He is the author of the fantasy novel Shadows of Creation (Creation Chronicles Book 1)! You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. And check out his website, the World Hoppers Guild, and his books on Amazon!