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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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He knows the cost of war.

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But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…

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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 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!

Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Chapter One

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter One

The Meörn Wilderness

Without rules, madness. Without discipline, death

—NANSUR MILITARY MAXIM

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

My Thoughts

That is a very apt quote considering we’re picking up with the Skin Eaters. Rules impart order on the chaos of the world. And nothing is more chaotic than battle (or traveling through Cil-Aujas). Discipline keeps soldiers standing when they would have broken. The belief instilled in them, and the training they’ve gone through lets a person endure situations they could not without it.

Now going into Meörn Wilderness, we’re going to see that the Rules and Discipline of the Skin Eaters have been broken. They are going to fall into madness and death by the end of this book. Not even Kosoter will keep them in line.

The Skin Eaters are broken.

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

Even when the Skin Eaters walked ways sheeted in sunlight, some shadow of Cil-Aujas lingered in their eyes. The reflection of friends lost. The glint of things not quite survived.

Two days have passed since the Skin Eaters have escaped Cil-Aujas. “There was madness in the deep, and the scalpers wore it more as fact than trophy.” They’ve been decimated. Men who have survived years of hunting Sranc have cracked from the strain. Whether sunny or rainy, they rejoice in seeing the open sky through the trees they march through.

They walked with the wonder of those who could not fathom their breath, their heartbeat. Who could not believe they still lived.

Achamian thinks they’re too few to have discipline and not sure any Rules of the Slog remain. They would have to find a new way. Kosoter is still in command but in an even more dominating way. Sarl skulks at the rear, no longer Kosoter’s mouthpiece. He mutters all the time but speaks with no one. Mostly he mutters about Hell and “The Slog of Slogs!” Galian has become the second. The Nansur soldier seems unscathed. He, Pokwas, and Xonghis have become “a nucleus of sorts, like a conspiracy of the sane within the greater company.” They maintain authority by not giving their opinion. Whenever Kosoter gives an order, everyone looks to Galian. He would pause and then nod his head, never dumb enough to contradict Kosoter.

Xonghis is the scout, moving ahead. Only he, and Cleric, move with any energy. The others trudge. Pokwas, his head wound gruesome, stays by Galian’s side. The three eat apart from the others, devouring meat cooked by sorcery. Xonghis eyes never stop moving. Pokwas polishes his sword while nursing a grudge. Galian sits between them, watching the other scalpers like a worried father. Soma and Sutadra were now excluded from the group for no reason Achamian can see. Sutadra is silent but is waiting for something to set off his temper. Soma seems the most the same and seems oblivious to how his friends snub him.

Nothing should be the same after Cil-Aujas.

The other survivors are the Galeoth that are both mutinous and complacent. They complain and object until Kosoter looks at them. Then they shut up. They are the ones most broken by Cil-Aujas. Wonard’s wounds are infected, Hameron cries in his sleep, and injured Conger is getting better. His limp has vanished.

But no one had been more transformed in the collective eye than Cleric. Where before they had walked with an enigma, one rounded warm and smooth by local acquaintance, now they walked with a Nonman Ishroi… a Quya Mage.

Even for men so bitten, it was no small thing to walk with a legend. And for a Wizard steeped in the ancient ways, it was cause for more than a few sleepless watches…

Night comes suddenly with the Osthwai Mountains to the west. They don’t make fires or other lights because they’re in skinny country. “They became a company of shadows, skulkers between the trees, loath to speak.” Their losses are so apparent when they camp. Cleric dispenses Qirri reach night, his armor still clotted with blood. He seems more animal than before. Then he would sit by the Captain who either sat like a stone or lecture the Nonman in a low voice.

The Qirri would soak through their bodies, relaxing them. Then the mutters and complaints would start until Cleric began his next sermon. They all fall silent, Skin Eaters, Wizard, and girl. “A silence not of expectation, but of men who awaited tidings of themselves.”

During one sermon, Cleric speaks about how they have wandered “out of light and life.” As he speaks, he seems like he’s judging their mistakes. Cleric speaks about how they have seen things few humans ever have. They will understand how power and history piles upon themselves.

“Ever are Men stranded on the surface of things. And ever do they confuse what they see with the sum of what matters. Ever do they forget the rank insignificance of the visible. And when they do honour the beyond—the beneath—they render it according to what is familiar… They disfigure it for comfort’s sake.

The old Wizard sat rigid.

“But you… you know… You know that what lies beyond resembles us no more than the potter resembles the urn…”

A sudden mountain gust swept the high ridges, whisked through the gnarled jack pine that crooked the stone about them. Mimara raised a hand to brush the hair from her face.

“You who have glimpsed Hell.”

“The Slog!” Sarl exclaimed in hoary tomes. “The Slog of Slogs—just as I told you!” His laugh was half gurgle and half rasp.

Everyone ignored Sarl’s cackling as Cleric continues, saying all things has their place, including death. They have seen what only dead men do. Achamian flinches from Cleric’s gaze. The Nonman hopes that death will “greet you as an old friend.” Silence follows until Sarl cackles again.

Achamian feels the weight of those who have died, those he knew, and those he didn’t. This is the price of his conviction. His quest is paid for by the blood of men he has tricked into this quest. “Distance and abstraction are ever the twin lures of disaster.” He realizes it was so easy to take that first step from his tower. Absurdly so. Now he had come so far through so much suffering because of that first step.

All for the sake of finding Ishuäl… The name spoken by a mad barbarian so many years ago. The Cradle of Anasûrimbor Kellhus. The hidden refuge of the Dûnyain.

Achamian had promised these men riches in the Coffers of Sauglish, the sorcerous vaults. It’s a lie, but these “wrecked and heartbroken” men don’t know that. He has held back his map and the Dreams. He knows the Whore of Fate is on them. Mimara’s presence is proof of that. He had known his “mad mission” would have a heavy toll, but he had deceived himself anyways.

The truth, he had told himself. The truth demanded sacrifice, from him and from others.

Could a man be called a murderer when he killed in the name of truth?

At night, he looks at the men he is deceiving, men who are crippled. No longer the strutting braggarts before Cil-Aujas. Men boasting about the riches they would find and how they would return as princes. Those men were gone. Achamian fears what will happen to them next to pursue his goal.

Mimara often watches him watching them. She was a woman who had skill reading men’s emotions and was always guessing at his. She thinks he feels remorse. He says Cil-Aujas proved her right, referencing how she called him a murderer when she learned of his real goal and had threatened to tell the others. She replies that it “has wronged me more.”

In the absence of consequence, lies were as easy as breathing, as simple as song. During his days as a Mandate Schoolman, Achamian had told innumerable falsehoods to innumerable people, and a fair number of fatal truths as well. He had destroyed reputations, even lives, in the pursuit of an abstraction, the Consult. He had even killed one of his beloved pupils, Inrau, in the name of what could not be touched or seen. He found himself wondering what it must be like for his former brothers now that the Consult had been revealed. What would it be like to belong to an Imperial School, to have princes and kings stammer in your presence? According to Mimara, they even carried Shrial Warrants, holy writ that exempted them from the laws of the lands that hosted them.

Mandate Schoolmen with Shrial Warrants! What would that be like?

Achamian would never know because he had left the Mandate just as Kellhus made the Consult’s existence concrete. Now Achamian seeks Kellhus’s origins through his Dreams. He’s “[s]acrificing the actual for the possible.” He both believes and doubts, and he has more men to kill.

You can only possess a dream while awake. They can take over your entire existence. “Dreams are the darkness that only slumber can illuminate.” Achamian is dreaming of walking through the Library of Sauglish, the home of the first School, the Sohonc. The place is heaped with Wards, making the place ugly “the way all sorcery is ugly.” And yet the perfection of it, like a ship’s great rigging, is beautiful. No invaders had ever attacked this place. They had always brought gifts because this “was the Library!”

Achamian is dreaming of Seswatha carrying the map of Ishuäl through the Library. He uses the Cant of Sideways Stepping to pass through stone. He enters the Upper Pausal, a part of the library the Nonmen had carved when they taught humans Gnosis. It is carved out of “living rock.” Seswatha is almost overwhelmed by all the marks of Sorcery, especially from the Great Gate of Wheels which is both a portal and a lock into the Coffers.

To the mundane eyes, it was a wonder of scale and machination. To arcane eyes it was nothing less than a miracle of interlocking deformities: enormous incantation wheels carved from milk-white marble, turning through a frame of bronze set with constellations of faces carved of black diorite, instilled animata—or proxies, as they called them—enslaved souls, whose only purpose was to complete the circuit between watcher and watched that was the foundation of all reality, sorcerous or not. So hideous was the Mark of the thing, so metaphysically disfigured, that bile bubbled to the back of his throat whenever he found himself before it.

Quya magic. Deeper than deep.

He pauses at the stairs and feels no alarm to see the golden map case was now a dead infant’s body. “Such is the madness of dreams that we can assume the continuity of even the most jarring thing.” To the dreamer, he always had a dead baby. He marches down the stair and stops before the Gate which the proxies open at a command. The baby starts squirming and now the Archmage glances down. He feels revulsion at the dead baby reaching for him. He throws it to the floor. Only it floats in place.

“This,” Seswatha gasped, “is not what hap—!”

The gate opens. The infant falls to the ground and becomes the map case. Achamian stands still, the wind gusting out of the Coffers rippling around him. It’s then that Achamian sees there’s no roof. The Pausal is open to the sky. The Whirlwind has arrived.

TELL ME… the Whirlwind said.

WHAT DO YOU SEE?

WHAT AM I?” The No God’s question echoes in Achamian’s minds as the scalpers cross the Meörn Wilderness, or the Long Side, as they call it. They knew they walked through lands once cultivated and had been through the ruined cities of the Meöri Empire. Once upon a time, the wildlands were on the other side of the Osthwai Mountains. Ten years ago, the first companies had been overwhelmed by the Srancs. The “Stick Days” because you were tossing number-sticks on where you would survive. After five years, the Sranc were driven back to a forest called the Great Mop. They were so successful, the Holy Bounty had to be halved to keep the New Empire from going bankrupt.

The reconquest of the Great Meöri Empire had begun, albeit by Men who resembled the Sranc more than otherwise. When Fatwall, or Maimor, was discovered, the Holy Aspect-Emperor sent a Judge and a company of Ministrate Pikeman to occupy the abandoned fortress over the summer months. Many among the Imperial Apparati spoke of reclaiming all the ancient Meöri provinces—from the Osthwai Mountains to the Sea of Cerish—with ten scant years. Some even argued the Holy Bounty should take precedence over the Great Ordeal. Why wage war against one, they dared ask, when with mere gold you could battle against all?

But the Great Mop changed things. No matter how many Sranc were killed, their numbers were not diminishing. They did not retreat. One mathematician believed these Sranc were reproducing as fast as they were killed. It was a futile endeavor. “He would be imprisoned for his impious accuracy.” The scalpers didn’t care. They understood. The Mop’s dense canopy strangled out the underbrush. It was always dark and dim, perfect for Sranc and the grubs they fed on. “It provided for all but their most dread appetites.

That is, until the coming of men.

With Xonghis in the lead, they planned to march to the ruins of Maimor (nicknamed Fatwall) and hope of getting resupplied. Mimara clings to Achamian, often leaning against him even though she’s not injured. Achamian remembers Esmenet doing the same during the First Holy War. If it wasn’t for the trauma of the last few days, he would have felt the pain of her loss. He asks her about how she drove off the Wight-in-the-Mountain with a Chorae, but she can’t give a satisfactory answer. He doesn’t understand why Kosoter’s didn’t do anything. “Well, I’m not the Captain, am I?” He keeps coming back to it, like an itch that never goes away.

The School of Mandate had long eschewed the Daimotic Arts: Seswatha had believed Ciphrang too capricious to be yoked to human intent. Still, Achamian had some understanding of the metaphysics involved. He knew that some agencies could be summoned shorn of the Outside, plucked whole as it were, while others bore their realities with them, swamping the World with porous madness. The shade of Gin’yursis, Achamian knew, had been one of the latter.

Chorae only negated violations of the real; they returned the world to its fundamental frame. But Gin’yursis had come as figure and frame—a symbol wedded to the very Hell that gave it meaning…

Mimara’s Chorae should have been useless.

He begs her to explain, knowing the Judging Eye somehow made it happen. She just gets mad, calling it madness and not understanding it herself. He says she must know more. She glares at him and calls him a hypocrite. He was equally as evasive when she asked for information about the Judging Eye. He suspects she’s getting back at him. He doesn’t want to burden her with the doom of her future. He doesn’t want her to “forget hope.”

The old Wizard knew this as much from his Dreams as from his life. Of all the lessons he had learned at life’s uncaring knee, perhaps this was the most hard won. So when she pestered him with questions—gazing at him with Esmenet’s eyes and airs—he would bristle. “The Judging Eye is the stuff of witches lore and old wives’ tales! I have no knowledge to share, only rumours and misapprehensions.”

She would ask to know those, but he would tell her to leave him alone. He told himself he did it to spare her. “There is mercy in ignorance.” This is something are born appreciating. The less they know, the happier they are.

Soma also receives Mimara’s anger. When he tries to talk to her, she ignores him. He’s trying to rekindle their old banter in a way to earn her forgiveness. “His approach was at once cowardly and eminently male: he was literally asking her to pretend that he had not abandoned her in Cil-Aujas.” She does not forgive. Finally, he tries to explain himself, saying things just happened so fast.

“But that’s the way it is with fools, isn’t it?” she said, her tone so light it could only be scathing. “The world is quick and they are slow.”

Soma is shocked by her words and looks dumbfounded. Galian mocks him. Later, Achamian joins Soma on the trail and tells him to give her time and let her anger die down because she is a forgiving woman. He adds she’s too smart not to understand the difficulties. Soma is confused and Achamian agrees with Mimara that he’s a fool. He tells him, “Courage for men is fodder for dragons.” Soma doesn’t get it.

“That courage is more complicated than simple souls credit… Mimara may be many things, Soma, but simple isn’t one of them. We all need to build fences about what… what happened.”

Soma just stares with that same affable gaze repeats that she needs more time like he’s taking it to heart. Achamian agrees and keeps walking while fearing that the “daft fool” would take Achamian’s advice as permission. Strong in the same ways, Achamian feels she needs protection. She’s has something beautiful that should not have survived her experiences. “This realization, if anything, made her company more irritating.”

Pokwas believes it’s significant that Mimara saved Achamian’s life. In his lands, a woman saving you means “deep things.” Achamian says she said them all, but Pokwas reiterates that she saved his several times while awe creeps in his expression. Achamian scowls and asks what. Pokwas makes a joke about who would save someone so old and used up. He snorted and jokes back that only a daughter would. At the same time, he flinches from the lie that he’s telling a man who he had shared such abject hardship with.

Maybe this lie had also come true.

Mimara studies Achamian like a “mother reviews her children: the counting of things beloved.” Before he infuriated her by withholding knowledge, starving her of information. Needing him was unforgivable before, but things are different now even though he still denied her. “Still he complains, upbraids, and rebukes.”

The only difference is she loves him.

She recalls her mother, back in the Andiamine Heights, telling her about “Akka.” Mimara asked if he was her father which caused her mother to recoil. Mimara used her father as a weapon since her mother, being a whore, couldn’t answer it. It reminds her of her past. This time, the words hurt and she has tears before answering that he is her father. The response stunned Mimara even as she knew it was a lie. Though she gets why her mother wants it to be Achamian. “Everyone tells lies to dull the world’s sharper, more complicated edges—some more pretty than others.”

This prompts Mimara to ask what Achamian is like. “Foolish, like all men. Wise. Petty. Gentle.” To hurt her mother, she asks why she left Achamian. But Mimara is the one flinching, feeling guilty for it. It’s one thing to hurt her mother over being sold into slavery, this is different, and shows how ugly Mimara is.

Few passions require quite so much certainty as spite.

Defeated and hurting, Esmenet says she choose Kellhus. Mimara remembers that as she watches Achamian she thinks of Esmenet being terrified for her safety. Mimara feels guilt until she remembers being that little girl shrieking “Mumma!” as the slavers took her away. The child still weeps in her.

She asks Achamian why Esmenet left him. He answers that he died, that it’s too hard to “wait for the dead.” She asks about waiting for the living. He stares at her and says you already know that answer. She’s surprised. He smiles at her as Galian and Sutadra walk between Wizard and girl, the pair feeling like strangers to her now. Then Achamian asks her why she didn’t abandon him in Cil-Aujas.

Because I lov—

“Because I need you,” she says without breath. “I need your knowledge.”

He stares at her, his beard and hair trembling in the breeze. “So the old wineskin has a few swallows left,” he says inexplicably.

He’s unfazed by her gaze as she’s annoyed by more riddles. She ignores him for the rest of the afternoon, offended that after she saved him he laughed at her. She is furious because he’s holding out on what she hungers for. She understands that some starve and some eat, that’s life. “It’s only when fat men make sauce out of other’s starvation that it becomes a sin.”

Mimara is no one of them. She belongs. They treat her differently. They tease her with “brotherly skepticism instead of masculine daring” They don’t stare at her with lust. They are lessened because of Cil-Aujas and greater because she’s one of them. Even Kosoter appears to accept her, staring at her like his men do.

They camp for the night and she realizes that they’re like lice, and the Mop is the world’s pelt. The others talk about its dangers, but it seems safe after Cil-Aujas. They eat, but she’s aching for the Qirri that is handed out after supper. She keeps ignoring Achamian who is confused about what he’s done, just like all men are. Soma tries to talk to her, but she glares at him. Though he had saved her in Cil-Aujas, he had abandoned her when it was the most desperate.

To think she had thought the fool charming.

She finds herself watching Sarl. The madman hasn’t bathed, his skin sainted with Sranc blood. His clothes are filthy though his hauberk is well maintained. He looks like he’s hiding as he crouches by a boulder. He talks to it like it were his friend.

“The fucking Mop… The Mop. Eh, lads? Eh?”

Viscous laughter, followed by snapping cough. The back of his thought is broken, she realizes. He can only kick and claw where he has fallen.

“More darkness, yes. Tree darkness…”

Mimara can’t remember what happened with the Wight-of-the-Mountain, but she feels that something “was open that should not have been open.” And she closed it. Once during one of the many attempts by Achamian to learn what is going on, he talks about how there’s a line between the World and the Outside and souls can return as a demon. He says it was impossible and asks if it was the Chorae. She wants to say it was the Tear of God. Instead, she shrugs, feigning that she doesn’t care.

She had been given something. What she has always considered a blight, a deformity of the soul, has become fraught with enigma and power. The Judging Eye opened. At the moment of absolute crisis, it opened and saw what needed to be seen…

A tear of the God, blazing in her pal. The God of Gods!

She had been a victim her whole life. So her instinct is the immediate one, to raise a concealing hand, to turn a shoulder in warding. Only a fool fails to hide what is precious.

The irony is using the Tear of God is incompatible with her desire to be a witch. She needs to understand this so it frustrates her that Achamian won’t tell her anything. “Frustration and torment is the very shape of her life.” It’s all she can trust.

She wakens to Sarl crooning. She peers at the Nail of Heaven, listening to his nonsense. She realizes he is old and dying. This makes her worried for Achamian. She looks around and realizes he’s sleeping near her. This comforts her, and she falls asleep staring at him.

I understand, Mother… I finally see… I really do.

She dreams of Kellhus as if he were the wight. “Not a man but an emblem.” He says, “You are the eye that offends, Mimara…” She wants to talk to Achamian about in the morning, but she’s still mad at him. She thinks how caste-noble wives would pay augurs fortunes to interpret dreams while the poor would pray to a god-like Yatwer. In the brothel, the girls would drip wax on pillow-beetles. If it trapped them, it was true. She knows dozens of other ways. But she doesn’t know what to believe. Achamian’s skepticism is wearing off on her.

The eye that must be plucked.”

This morning, the scalpers seem renewed. They’re almost their old selves as they ready for camp. Achamian even senses that the Skin Eaters have returned. “Somehow, they have recovered their old ways and roles.” Though there are signs they are afraid. It’s the Mop, she realizes. It’s worrying them enough to drive out Cil-Aujas. Sarl cackles about killing skinnies and that receives a cheer, but it’s half-hearted. Reminding them that they are so small and Sarl isn’t one of them.

Kosoter slings his shield, announcing the march has started. It’s treacherous terrain, and she annoys Achamian by steadying him as they head lower down the mountain and into the Mop. She starts gasping at how big the trees are. The air is alive with birds. It’s dark, a “piling on of shadows.”

It will swallow us, she thinks, feeling the old panic buzzing through her bones. She has had her fill of lightless bellies. Small wonder the scalpers were anxious.

Tree darkness, Sarl had said.

It finally clicks in Mimara just how enormous Achamian’s mission is. Cil-Aujas is just the beginning. There will be more trials ahead. The company keeps marching into the Great Mop.

Into the green darkness.

My Thoughts

We can see how Kosoter’s discipline has fractured. He needs Galian’s unspoken support now. He alone isn’t good enough to lead. What they went through has shattered the Skin Eaters. They are not the same. And we’ll see that by the end of the book how badly things have changed.

Only Soma is unchanged by Cil-Aujas, and he shouldn’t be. He’s acting the same. More subtle clues that he’s a skin-spy.

Cleric talking about “pilings of powers” is something humans rarely see because we’re always standing on the surface. We have no real appreciation of the past. We might know about it but we truly don’t understand how our present will one day be buried by something different. That all we think is important, all our great works, will one day be the foundation of another civilization. We think the collapse can never come to us, but every other civilization thought the same thing as they stood on the ruins of what came before them.

“May it [death] greet you as an old friend when you return.” Now isn’t that interesting. Harry Potter burst into my head reading that. The Tale of the Three Brothers has the last brother greeting death as the old friend. A joyful reunion. Not something tragic, but something inevitable and a part of life. Not something to be feared but treasured. And here we have a Nonman who can only be killed, he can’t die. He’ll live on and on, never getting to meet Death at all. Never getting to greet his old friend unless someone murders him. Is that what Cleric is looking for on this journey? Is he looking to be killed by an old friend? By Seswatha?

“Distance and abstraction are ever the twin lures of disaster.” What a great sentence. It’s easy to make decisions that affect those far away. Like ordering a drone strike from the Oval Office. Simple. You don’t have to see the effects. Aren’t going to be living where that missile falls. It won’t be the peace of your day shattered by an explosion. It’s the abstraction. Reducing things to simple, ignoring all the complexity, and then making decisions that you cannot possibly understand what the ramifications will be. Worse, you won’t even suffer the consequences for them.

Then he talks about how his first step is easy. It reminds me of Tolkien where Bilbo talks to Frodo about how you never know what will happen when you step foot outside of your home. That the road before their house can take you all the way to the Lonely Mountains.

“Could a man be called a murderer when he killed in the name of truth?” Yep. That’s the worst sort. The ones who think this is all for the greater good. But as we see, what Achamian learns in Ishuäl does not matter one bit. His quest for truth killed all these men for nothing. Isn’t that usually how it goes?

“In the absence of consequence, lies were as easy as breathing, as simple as song.” What a great quote. That is so true about humans. When nothing on the line, just lie. Media, government, corporations, individuals. When you’re not held to account, why behave responsibly?

Cant of Sideways Stepping allows you to walk through stone. That is fascinating. It’s such an evocative name to slip through the atoms of an object. I believe this is the only time we see it used. Maybe you have to do it with specially prepared stone? The library is surrounded by Wards and such. It seems really useful to use like when you’re trapped in another library and the Scarlet Spire is closing around you. Or, perhaps, it was lost to time and Achamian is seeing it for the first time since he’s dreaming one of the special Seswatha Dreams.

Living Rock is how Seswatha describes what the Nonmen carved the Pausal out of. I think this is just saying it’s natural rock, not actually alive. But, perhaps, to the Nonmen, it is alive in its own way. Maybe that is why they delve into the rock and adorn it with so much iconography.

Animata, or enslaved souls, are exactly what we saw with the Wathi doll Achamian had and later used to escape the Scarlet Spire. They are needed to observe reality. This implies that the foundation of reality is observation. If nothing of intelligence observes it, does it even exist? This allows the gate to open without the use of actual sorcery. They observe the spell and hold it ready to be activated.

The baby is the No-God. And since that is Nau-Cayûti is secretly Seswatha’s son, the soul of the No-God, of Nau-Cayûti, is reaching out to Achamian. At the end of the next book, Achamian will even dream Nau-Cayûti’s final moments before being thrown into the Golden Sarcophagus.

I like how they’re moving through the wilderness that used to be cultivated lands after leaving cultivated lands that used to be wilderness.

On the Mathematician who delivered bad news. Just remember, your political masters will only support the experts that agree with them.

That’s the problem with sparing people’s feelings. It pisses them off. No one likes it. She’s an adult. Tell her what’s coming, Achamian. It’s going to happen. Let her make informed decisions. I get Achamian likes her and all. She’s the step-daughter he couldn’t help molesting.

“His approach was at once cowardly and eminently male: he was literally asking her to pretend that he had not abandoned her in Cil-Aujas.” Yeah, sounds right. Why just speak about it? Well, that leads to talking and shit. Why not let it go and be cool. I’m for it, Soma. I mean, I know you’re an evil skin-spy and all, but I’d let it pass. I mean, I’d probably abandon your ass in the same situation. Course, I’m not a woman. It’s the wrong approach with a woman. Soma failed her shit-test. Hard to come back from that.

“But that’s the way it is with fools, isn’t it?” Mimara tells Soma. “The world is quick and they are slow.” See, failed that shit-test, and now she has no respect for him. And it was a big one. If he had rescued her from a horde of murdering and raping Sranc, things would be really different.

“Courage for men is fodder for dragons.” This is saying it’s easy to be courageous but it’s hard when you’re facing real danger. Then that courage is devoured. All men have their breaking point. I think Soma is struggling to understand why he was afraid. He was a skin-spy. Those Sranc would not have killed him on purpose. But he succumbed to the same terror as the others. He stopped being a hunter and became prey. And he doesn’t understand it. He can’t. He isn’t human. Worse, he’s playing at Soma. He needs to keep being Soma, but he doesn’t know how to play a Soma who went through such trauma. It’s why he’s unchanged and everyone else is different. He’s trying the same things and it’s not working with Mimara any longer. More confusion. He’s grappling with things beyond him.

Achamian has definitely grown to see Mimara as his daughter. Which makes their one time having sex a creepy problem in the relationship because, even then, the pair sensed that was what they were. Not biological father and daughter, but adopted through Esmenet, the woman who betrayed them both. In Cil-Aujas, they both came to understand their feelings for the other. As Pokwas said, Mimara saved Achamian. That means something. Yes, she saved the others, but that was to save herself. She risked a horrific fate to keep Achamian alive.

More pretty Bakker? Prettier is a word. I’m glad I’m not the only one that sometimes uses the adjective more instead of the -er ending.

Mimara wants to hurt her mother, but only when it concerns what happened to herself. She is a nice person at her core. She feels bad about using other weapons to hurt her mother. She’s so full of pain and hurt that it’s drowning out that compassionate core of her.

You can only hate so long as you are confident in the truth. You have anything that puts doubt, that makes you consider why the other person wronged you, or to see them as a person hurting like you, and it blunts that spite. Shatters it. So you have to keep honing it on pain. Like Mimara does when she remembers the day she was sold to the slavers.

She cannot admit she loves him because she hates being vulnerable, but it’s there. She knows it.

“It’s only when fat men make sauce out of other’s starvation that it becomes a sin.” This is so profound. Disparity is life. There’s no way to avoid it. It’s a law that the more you have the more you accumulate. It’s true of stars, cities, and wealth. 1% of the stars in the universe have 99% of the mass, 1% of the cities of Earth have 99% of the population, and 1% of people have 99% of the wealth. It’s when you are miserly with it, when you can share it and don’t, that’s when it’s a bad thing.

We see our first signs of addiction to Qirri. Mimara wants it more and more.

Shit tests, guys. You fail a woman’s shit test, and it changes how she sees you.

Want to read more, click here for Chapter 2!

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 Above the Storm today!

Reread of The White-Luck Warrior: Intro

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior

by R. Scott Bakker

Intro

Here we are! Starting Book 2 of The Aspect-Emperor. I am trying to go back to past me and thinking what was I most looking forward to in this book. Achamian and Mimara’s storyline. I wanted to know how they were going to handle traveling through the Wilderness after all the losses the Skin-Eaters suffered in Cil-Aujas.

While Kelmomas messing things up in Momemn was interesting, and we have the whole White-Luck Warrior plotline that’s the title of the book, it was all the interesting things we were learning. About Seswatha. The promises of finding Ishuäl. Mimara and her strange powers. Cleric and learning more about the Nonmen.

The one I was least interested in was Sorweel. While he was our outsider POV and showing us the Great Ordeal, his storyline was interesting, but not exciting. There was the question if he had really fooled Kellhus or if Kellhus was playing along for his reasons. The Kelmomas/Esmenet storyline has this murderous child-Dûnyain causing problems and potentially putting her in danger, the Nannaferi/White-Luck Warrior had some weird stuff going on and intrigued by where it was going, but Sorweel… His storyline lacked that.

But this is really one long story and while Sorweel seemed to be just a reader POV, things are going to be changing in this book.

So, let’s delve into the books.

SPOILER WARNING: Please read the book before any of these posts. This is intended for those who have read ALL the books. I will discuss both the events of the chapter and even their ramification for future events up to and including the Unholy Consult.

As in all the previous books, we start with a quote from the real world.

The heavens, the sun, the whole of nature is a corpse. Nature is given over to the spiritual and indeed to spiritual subjectivity; thus the course of nature is everywhere broken in upon by miracles.

HEGEL, LECTURES ON THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY III

My Thoughts

So I think we can see how this quote relates to the series. Nature is a corpse that is invaded by the subjectivity of the spirit which disrupts the corpse. And that is definitely what we have with the White-Luck Warrior. A man who is literally broken in upon by miracles. The young husband and father are stripped of his identity and then his youth and turned into an assassin who exists in all time. Past, present, and future is all the same for him.

We have the breaking of the Darkness that Comes Before because he is guided by Yatwer who sees all of time at once. There is no cause and effect that moves in a chain. She can break the links at any time and knows exactly what will happen.

Now, who is Hegel? His works are very influential on the canon of Philosophy. He died nearly 200 years ago. He wrote about “absolute idealism” that can overcome the dualism of things like “mind and nature” or “subject or object.”

Sound like what the Dûnyain want? The Zero that the Survivor pursues in the next book. To become a self-moving soul not trapped by the dualism of both being subject to nature and able to understand nature. To be beyond the Darkness that Comes Before.

To Hegel, Geist, spirit or mind in English, is the “manifestation of the logical concept.”

So, yes, this is an apt philosopher for Bakker to reference and one that has, no doubt, greatly influenced his formation of the Dûnyain and their goals.

With the framework of that natural world being violated by the supernatural world establish, we delve into The White-Luck Warrior.

Want to read more, Click here for Chapter One!

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 Above the Storm today!

Reread of The Judging Eye: Interlude-Momemn

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Interlude: Momemn

Welcome to the Interlude of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Sixteen!

Kelmomas is listening to a riot from a balcony. He watches the moon and the clouds drifting around it. “The Nail of Heaven flared white from a sailing summit.” He hears more shouts and cries.

He had no name for his rapture. Clam and slow breathing. Stationary. Stationary amid the clash of all things. The repose of a soul peering out from the world’s shrouded centre. The unmoved mover.

The ruler unseen.

As he hears the sounds of fighting, the voice in him murmurs, “You made this.” His mother asks what he’s doing and he says he’s scared. “Her smile was too fraught to be reassuring.” She tells him he’s safe and holds out her arms. He hugs her the way little boys did. Then they head to his bed. It’s dark because his new nurse, Emansi, had snuffed out the candles. Only a lantern burns.

Esmenet tucks in Kelmomas. Her gentleness was “yet one more thing he cherished with the ferocity of tears.” She slips in with him and holds him tight. He reads her emotions and thoughts. She thinks she’s here to give him comfort for the loss of Samarmas because of “how intense their bond had been in infancy!

This was what she told herself, he knew.

He starts to fall asleep encased in her love. He finds it an “oblivion indistinguishable from bliss.” He has no cares. There’s here and now. He doesn’t care about anything else. He turns over to lie on his side and stare into her eyes. This is the only thing that can be real. He lies that he misses “Sammi.” She does, too.

A part of him, the snake-sneaky part, laughed. Poor Samarmas. Poor poor Samarmas.

He comments he didn’t get to see Kellhus. She explains it’s the war and everyone, even “darling little boys” have to make sacrifices. She falls silent and he reads her thoughts that Kellhus feels nothing that Samarmas is dead.

Hesitantly, Kelmomas brings up Uncle Maithanet. And she asks what about him. He hesitates as she presses him until he says, “He [Maithanet]… watches you funny.” She asks what he means. He asks if Maithanet is angry at her. She says no, but he sees her worried. She adds Maithanet is her brother and then cups his face with her left hand, “the one bruised by what she called her ‘ancient tattoo.’”

The Prince-Imperial fluttered his lids as though overpowered by warmth and weariness. “But he has more power…” he whispered, pretending to fall asleep. He would open his eyes later, when her breathing slipped into the long trough of dreams.

Unseen rulers never slumbered, not truly.

My Thoughts

The riots are the people angry about the Matriarch’s death. And since Kelmomas killed her, he most definitely caused all that pain and suffering. But as we see, nothing is real to him but Esmenet. Nothing else matters but her. It’s all just a game.

Now we see him manipulate his mother. Twisted the dagger of her grief, driving a wedge between her and Kellhus, then throwing fuel onto the fires of her own fears and doubts about Maithanet. Kelmomas sees himself as the real ruler of Momemn, his mother his puppet. He needs her all to himself. Everything else can burn. He doesn’t care. They’re just amusements to be crushed.

And thus ends The Judging Eye.

I had to wait a few years to read this. I had the good fortune of finding The Darkness that Comes Before just when all three books of the first series were out. I could read from one to the next. But I had to wait for The Judging Eye. I had just lost my job in the middle of the Great Recession, but I still bought this book. I was reading the middle of it sitting at St. Claire’s emergency room after driving my roommate there. He ended losing a gall bladder. I can still remember sitting in that uncomfortable waiting room to find out what was going on and trying to distract myself.

It mostly worked.

This book sets the stage. It wasn’t what I expected. I found Sorweel’s character to be a strange choice, but seeing his entire story now, I get it. And he’s our outsider POV to get us into the Great Ordeal.

It was a delight to read this book. To see the story threads being set up. I remember all the speculation about the book: we’d see a crazy Dûnyain, a female one. There was all the speculation about what Kellhus would be doing. Achamian. The twenty-year jump works, but there are a lot of questions I have about what went on between. In the final book, there’s an expanded glossary and a lot of people die in the same year.

Wonder what that’s about?

This book does a great job of setting up what is to come, has some amazing sequences, and does one of the most brilliant things: denies us a Kellhus POV. Of the “surviving” major POVs of the last book, Kellhus, Esmenet, and Achamian, we only are given those two. We do not know what Kellhus’s intentions are with the Great Ordeal. His conversation with Moënghus at the end of The Thousandfold Thought echoed in my mind.

The Dûnyain will always side with the Consult because it’s the most logical course of action. The Shortest Path to escape Damnation and to make that world where they can become self-moving souls. How can you be a self-moving soul when the Outside destroys Cause and Effect. When the Darkness can come AFTER.

So that is the Judging Eye. I’ll be heading into The White-Luck Warrior. Thank you all for the encouragement. It’s what’s gotten me this far in the reread after all these years. I hope you’ll keep leaving a comment every now and then. It really, really helps.

JMD Reid, 3/17/21

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When the Stormriders attack …

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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…

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

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Sixteen

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Sixteen

Cil-Aujas

Welcome to Chapter Sixteen of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Fifteen!

A soul too far wandered from the sun,

walking deeper ways,

into regions beneath map and nation,

breathing air drawn from the dead,

talking of lamentations.

—PROTATHIS, THE GOAT’S HEART

My Thoughts

Not sure why this is called the Goat’s Heart, but it’s talking about our characters in Cil-Aujas. They have wandered too far from the sun and are moving through a crypt. They are in uncharted territory, beyond the boundaries of civilization. Not really much to say. It’s more setting the atmosphere for the chapter than anything more.

Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Mount Aenaratiol

She is terrified and alive.

Mimara runs through Cil-Aujas holding the light over her head. In her soul, it feels like it’s circling her while it swings back and forth. Despite her fear, she ponders how that doesn’t make sense. It feels both like light and not light. She’s excited that she’s holding to the sorcerous light only for fear to snuff it out. She knows why Achamian gave this to her. “Part of her, she realizes, will not survive this underworld labyrinth…”

She is inclined to see history as degeneration. Years ago, not long after her mother had brought her to the Andiamine Heights, an earthquake struck Momemn, no severe, but violent enough to crack walls and to set arms and ornaments toppling. There had been one mural in particular, the Osto-Didian, the eunuchs called it, depicting the First Holy War battling about Shimeh, with all the combatants cramped shield to shield, sword to sword, like dolls bound into sheaves. Where the other murals had been webbed with fractures, this one seemed to have been pounded by hammers. Whole sections had sloughed away, exposing darker, deeper images: naked men across the backs of bulls. In the shallow sockets here and there even this layer had given out, especially near the centre, where her stepfather had once hung out of proportion in the sky. There, after dabbling away the white powder with her fingertips, she saw a young man’s mosaic face, black hair high in the wind, child-wide eyes fixed upon some obscured foe.

That, she understood, was history: the piling on of ages like plaster and paint, each image a shroud across the others, the light of presence retreating, from the Nonmen to the Five Tribes to the New Empire, coming at last to a little girl in the embrace of hard-handed men.

To the daughter who dined with her Empress mother, listening to the tick of enamel tapping gold, watching the older woman’s eyes wander lines of sorrow, remorse thick enough to spit.

To the woman who raged beneath a wizard’s tower.

To now.

Cil-Aujas is the final proof of “history as degeneration.” This place is far more impressive than anything humans have done. She is breathing ancient air. “Dead air, the kind that lingers in the chests of corpses.” She feels the weight of the mountain and remembers her rages when she wanted to rip down the roof and die to get back at her mother, and wonders what it would be like if the mountain falls on her.

She runs holding the light, feeling a dark glee at finally being a witch. She had dreamed of this so many times. Then the company stops marching and sees her holding the light witch “wonder and consternation.” She says Sarl and Achamian are following. The scalpers are re-evaluating her. She finds herself strutting like her sister-slaves would when they had new clothes to wear and “posed like rare and precious things.” Even Mimara had enjoyed getting new dresses.

The scalpers look at the dark then back to her, studying her. They feel like a barrier to her as her light gleams off their armor and shields. “It paints white circles in their beasts’ black gaze.” She feels their wild pride and how they would rape her if not for Achamian. They would claim her as a trophy.

It seems she has always know that men were more animal than women were animal. She was sold before her mother could tell her this, but she knew. The animal continually leans forward in the souls of men, forever gnaws the leash. Even here, in the Black Halls of Cil-Aujas, this truth is no less ancient.

Even here, so tragically out of their depths, they lean to the promise of her vulnerability.

One asks where Achamian is. She retreats and glances to Lord Kosoter, risking “his dominating gaze” but looks at the dirt. This makes her look submissive. Then Somandutta asks what’s wrong. Another asks don’t be afraid of us. She’s rescued by Sarl and Achamian arrival. Only Soma pays attention to her, asking how she can hold the light.

She finds herself wanting to lean against Soma for comfort while Achamian is arguing with Lord Kosoter about Chorae moving beneath them. Kiampas suggest it’s the Bloody Picks, but Achamian says anyone rich enough to own one wouldn’t be a Scalper. “Mimara wonders if their Chorea-bearing Captain will take offense.” Cleric agrees with Achamian, sensing them, too.

The Skin Eaters open, back away, each staring at the company of prone shadows splayed across the dust scuffed about their feet. She knows they think they can feel the Chorae too…

Then suddenly she feels them. Her limbs jolt, and she sways, for her body had thought the ground solid, and now she senses open space, breaths and plummets between leagues of stone. Chorae, bottomless punctures in being, traverse them, a necklace of little voids carried by something that runs in a lumbering file… something.

Cleric says it’s traveling towards their destination, the Fifth Anterograde Gate. Kiampas asks if they mean to cut them off from leaving. No one answers. Sarl glances at Achamian, drawing her eyes to him and as she does, “she finds that her Judging Eye has opened.” As she does, she remembers what she read in Novum Arcanum, written by Kellhus. The God peers through all eyes. The Few are just better at recalling “something His all-seeing gaze and so could speak with the dread timbre of His all-creating voice.”

She sees Achamian as others do, stooped in his mad hermit robes, his beard stiff against his breast, his complexion the dark of long-used skins. She sees the Mark, soiling his colours, blasting his edges.

And though her eyes blink and roll against it, she sees the Judgment…

He is carrion. He is horror. His skin is burned to paste.

Drusas Achamian is damned.

Her breath catches. Almost without thinking, she clutches Somandutta’s free hand—the slick cool of iron rings and the grease of leather shocks her skin. She squeezes hard, as though her fingers need confirmation of their warm-blooded counterparts. The Chorae and their inscrutable bearers move beneath her feet, each a point of absolute chill.

Part of her, she realizes, will not survive this underworld labyrinth.

She prays it is the lesser part.

Sarl shouts for them to make haste and Pokwas curses at the mules as the company moves through Cil-Aujas, racing the enemy below. Mimara is panicking as she hurries with the other, worried that Achamian hasn’t said a word since they left the Repositorium. He staggers beside her, breathing heavily and coughing wetly.

As they run through halls, she can’t sense the Chorae any longer. Their pursuers got ahead of them. No one senses them. The Skin Eaters have put all their faith in Kosoter. “Questions have become perverse, an indulgence fit only for the obese.” Cleric leads them through the maze through tunnels that stretch them out in single file, those in the back trapped in darkness.

A pain climbs into her chest, and she imagines an eye squinting from her heart.

There is no doubt they move through the deeps now. Only when the walls are tight and the ceilings low can you feel their constricting aura—or so it seems. Only the threat of closure makes the boggling enormity plain. They are sealed from all things, not simply sun and sky. The world walls them in.

They reach another large chamber, not as big as the Repositorium, but still big. A mule collapses from exhaustion. They move through an underground marketplace, or so Mimara thinks. Achamian thinks it’s the High Halls but then a terrifying cry echoes. Everyone looks around realizing those are Sranc horns.

They feel it in their teeth—not so much an ache as a taste.

She’s never seen a Sranc, but she now understands the “madness that saw mothers strangle their own children in besieged cities of yore.” Cleric leads them on. They abandon the exhausted mule and keep running, the horns putting them all on edge. She can feel the hunters out amid the pillars, feeling like a herd animal being stalked. She feels like she knows this place, like she had always known her future and what’s to come.

They are coming. Out of the pit they are coming. The flutter of reverberations in her chest seems to confirm it. This is where she dies.

They stop and she is relieved to be able to catch her breath. They’ve reached the edge of the room. In the carvings on the wall, she sees Men have been carved. But not her people. These are the Emwama, the slaves of the Nonmen, the humans of Eärwa. She spies a woman in the carving, a naked slave, and thinks that could be her. She feels nauseated by the alienness of Cil-Aujas.

They are coming. And she is just a child—a child! Everything everywhere clatters with dread and threat. Angles become knives. Inaction becomes blood. A mad part of her kicks and bucks and screams. Her shriek bunches like a fist at the base of her throat. She must get out. She has to…

Out-out-out!

Achamian grabs her shoulders, telling her not to give in. To trust him. He tells her he will teach her while his eyes warned her not to be a sobber. She regains her breathing and her composure, so aware of Kosoter. “The mere thought of him has scared the panic from her—this, she realizes, is his warlike Gift.” The Skin Eaters stand shoulder to shoulder, forming a shield wall while Sarl tells them to toe the line. They are going to fight.

Suddenly all the reasons she feared these barbaric men become reasons to prize them. Those hoary trophies. Those deep-chested bodies, grit with chain, leather, stink, and soiled cloth. That bullying saunter. Those wide-swinging arms, with hands that could break her wrists. And for some strange reason, their fingernails, each as broad as two of her own, rimmed in black crescents. Everything she had scoffed at or despised she now sees with thin-lipped understanding. The glib cruelty. The vulgar posturing. Even the glares that nicked her when she was careless with the cast of her eyes.

These are Skin Eaters, and their slogs are the stuff of legend. They would eat her if they could—but only because they walk so near the world’s teeth.

Achamian thinks they should have stayed in the Repositorium, but Kiampas says this is a more defensive position. Achamian is worried about the Chorae, but Kiampas isn’t. “Believe you me, we know how to stack skinnies…” He trails off as the horns stop and silence falls. All they hear is the “ageless roar of Cil-Aujas.”

After being forgotten with the mules, Kiampas tells her to stay with the mules, maintain the torch, and asks if she knows any battlefield medicine. Can she use her sword. She answers honestly while Sarl cackles, “Oh, yes, boys, this is going to be a chopper!” She readies torches, lighting them then tries to soothe the mules. She feels like she’s mourning them. The tension builds. Kosoter stands just behind his men at the center of the line. He “looks as ancient as Cil-Aujas.” She realizes his shield as an Ainoni pictogram on it that means “duty and discipline.” He doesn’t feel alive to her. Achamian is beside Kiampas, the pair a few paces from the captain on the left. Cleric and Sarl are to the right. She draws her sword, something her mother gave her. She named it Squirrel “because of the way it always seemed to trembles in her hand.” Like now. She can’t remember the hours she spent training with her half-brothers. This place is too removed from the Andiamine Heights.

They come,” the Nonman says, his black eyes as inscrutable as the darkness they plumb.

Mimara expects to feel Chorae approaching, but all she hears is the scrabble of the approaching Sranc. It grows louder and then a rank scent feels the air. Sarl cries out it’s Skinnies like Kosoter said. Some of them crack jokes. Whey joke about whores which makes her squirm.

They speak more to their terror than to one another, she realizes. Ever do men play the mummer, strutting on the stage of themselves to avoid the parts the world has assigned them? Women would speak of their fear.

Jokes continue. Everyone is laughing. Even Sarl joins in, jokingly pointing out they are in mortal peril. “Lord Kosoter stands motionless.” She doesn’t notice Achamian stepping up to the line until he’s there. She’s afraid for him. He looks frail, but he’s speaking, and his voice knocks the laughter from the scalpers. A Ward appears around them and she sees him now as a Gnostic Wizard. Then one of the Surillic Points goes out and Kiampas calls for a torch. She lights a fresh one from the ones she had already lit. Kiampas flings torch out into the dark. She wraps her arm around a mule’s neck and names it Bastion. “She cares not who thinks her a fool!”

The darkness itself seems to rasp and chip and clank and wheeze. Inhuman barks ring across the unseen ceilings.

Cleric joins Achamian on the line and he throws back his cloak, revealing his silvery armor. She sees him as an Ishroi. He joins Achamian in chanting. “Deep words well up out of the root of things, so indecipherable they seem to yank at her eyes.” The last Point goes out. Now only torchlight and the glow of sorcery illuminates the world. Kiampas calls for more torches and chucks them out into the dark and lights up the approaching Sranc. She realizes they have Nonmen faces, but deformed. They have a canine cast to them.

She stumbles back to Bastion and hugs him. She whispers to him, praising his idiotic bravery. Lord Kosoter stands unmoving. The Skin Eaters ready shields while Cleric and Achamian add more Wards. Now she can feel the Chorae. The horns blow. The “underworld horde” charges over the torches. Sorcery slam into them. Their sorcery tears apart the Sranc and starts destroying columns. As another collapses, Achamian shouts, “Nooooo!”

The stench of burning Sranc blood fills the air while Sarl shouts that no one is to falter. Achamian retreats through the lines, bumping into Kiampas. Before he even recovers, he’s chanting a new ward. Someone shouts out that a Bashrag is coming and Sarl roars, “Not! One! Knee!”

The eyes have rules. They are bred to the order of things and mutiny when exposed to violations. At first she can only blink. Even though she has read innumerable descriptions of the obscenity, the meat of it overwhelms her faculties. Elephantine proportions. Cabbage skin. Amalgam limbs, three arms welded into one arm, three legs into one leg. Moles like cancers, ulcerous with hair. A back bent in a fetal hunch. Hands that flower with fingers.

The Bashrag charges into the scalpers and starts killing them with mighty sweeps of its ax. Achamian cries out behind his useless Wards while Mimara charges forward with Squirrel and cuts it below the elbow, severing sinew. But she only hurt one of the three arms welded together. It stares at her with a face made of three melted together. A predator recognizes her as prey. It raises its ax to kill her. She stands frozen, crying out with “[s]omething more plea than prayer.” Oxwora slams his shield into the creature’s guts and attacks with his ax, driving back the Bashrag and saving Mimara’s life. A Sranc jumps on Oxwora’s back and stabs him in the neck. He drops his ax and grabs the Sranc and rips it off of him. Another Sranc stabs him in the guts with a spear. He collapses to his knees but then rises. Spitting blood, he bear-hugs the one who stabbed him and crushes it as he falls to the ground.

The one Oxwora had choked turns to Mimara. It’s erect beneath its loincloth. It wasn’t to rape her. Fear seizes her only for invisible sorcery to drive it away. She spots a kneeling Achamian chanting Gnosis on the other side of the dead Bashrag. Mimara senses more Chorae closing in. The mules panic. People screaming. Pokwas sword-dancing. Kosoter is stabbing past his shield, killing Sranc while Cleric is standing on another Bashrag’s shoulder and riding its dead body to the ground, killing it with his sword. “And she thinks, Ishroi…”

Kiampas is shouting to hold when a Javelin skewers his head and kills him. One of the mules is on fire. Achamian grabs her and jerks her back, his grip strong. Another Bashrag is killing scalpers by “[h]ammering them aside like effigies of straw.” It then attacks the mules, massacring them. Bastion gets its head cut off as Achamian shouts they’ve lost the battle while Sarl is screaming to “Toe the line?” What line?

Sranc throw themselves against the spectral screens, thrashing, shields smoking, skin blistering, blades scraping sparks. She clutches the old Wizard, stares in something too numb to be fear or terror. Starved and hairless. Draped in flayed skins laced with iron rings. They are hunger. They are horror. They are the quick that renders hatred vicious in Men.

She hears the Wizard’s sorcerous call through his chest—the birth of his words. Incandescent lines flare from his palms, strike along the Emwama Wall, being scissoring to his gesticulations.

White light carves the darkness deep. The Sranc jerk and scream and burn.

One with a Chorae steps through the wards and swings his sword for Achamian, but she blocks with Squirrel. The Sranc punches Achamian with its hand holding the Chorae. He falls backward and collapses. She manages to kill the Sranc. It drops the Chorae, and she is transfixed by it on the floor.

It wrenches the eyes even to glance at it, to see both the plain iron ball tacked in Sranc blood and the pit that cries into oblivion. She clutches it, she who is not yet cursed, pressed it against her breast and bodice. Nausea wrings her like wineskin. The vomit surprises her mouth, her teeth.

Something strikes and she blinks, suddenly on her hands and knees, coughing, retching. Darkness swirls, as though it were a liquid chasing cracks in the light. And she understands with graven finality… No one recognizes their own death. It comes inevitable and absolute.

It comes as a stranger.

Achamian awakens. He’s lying on the floor staring up at the Emwama wall. He believes he’s about to die. “He knew his life was over.” He’s detached from everything, stunned. He passes out.

A stunned Mimara hears men in a panic asking after Cleric and to grab her and Achamian. They ask about Achamian since part of his face has turned to salt from the Chorae punch. Mimara is rising out of unconciousness and realizes that she’s being carried by Soma.

He [Soma] is a landmark, and the lay of her circumstances comes crashing back to her. “Akka!” she croaks. They are running with wounded haste, a meager party of nine or ten or maybe more. Soma tells her to clutch his neck, raises her chin to his shoulder. Between ragged breaths, he tells her the Wizard lives but that they know no more. She can feel the Chorae between their two hearts. He explains how she’s luck to be alive, how a Sranc javelin had capped her. He beings naming the fallen.

She’s not listening, still dazed from her head wound. She notices they are running along the Emwama wall and spots a sole torch remaining to illuminate the “wreckage of Men and Sranc and mules.” Someone is limping and losing ground, a straggler. Kosoter catches up with the limper and cuts him down. Beyond even him, Cleric is still casting sorcery, javelins “explode like birds” on his Wards. Three Bashrags surround him, each one wielding a Chorae. But he dodges around them, his sword swinging and sorcery killing. “The very air seems to shriek.”

And Cleric laughs and sings and exacts his dread toll, the last heir to Cil-Aujas.

The Emwama Wall comes to an end. Soma turns with the fugitive part in tho the dark. Stonework draws across the mad scene, blotting the horror and the glory with desperate practicalities of flight.

And she thinks, Incariol…

The word Flee echos in Mimara’s mind. She had fled from her mother, but this was different. She’s fleeing in terror and realizes this is what true flight is. “Fleeing is when the howls of your pursuers cut the nerves from your skin.” She wonders if Achamian can be roused to stop their pursues.

Fleeing is when all the world’s directions crash into one…

Away.

Cil-Aujas is obliging the survivors with no dead-ends so far. They keep finding directions that lead away. They only have two torches, but one soon goes out. The tunnels become narrower. Everyone is drenched in blood, wounds bandaged and tourniquets binding wounds. Sarl looks shell-shocked and Achamian is still unconscious. Pokwas wipes away tears. Only Kosoter seems to have “carried his inscrutability away intact.” He and Soma are holding her hands. She’s surprised that Soma looks so noble right now.

They run fast, chase by the baying of the Sranc. The horns start blaring. The others are moaning and crying. “They are all sobbers now.” They run into a bronze door that they have to pry open, feeling the Sranc on their heels. Pokwas, Galian, Xonghis, and others are pulling it open. Kosoter throws her down to Achamian. She understands that she has to get him up. She begs him to wake up. He starts to. She begs and pleaded as the efforts to pry open the door is failing. Galian shouts that they Sranc are here. Only it’s Cleric who appears out of the dark.

The scalpers stumble back, bewildered and horrified. Awash in Sranc blood, his skin and armour are filmed in soaked dust. Basalt dark, he looks like an apparition. Cil-Aujas made animate.

He laughs at the astounded Men, waves Pokwas from the door. His sorcerous murmur makes a deep-water pop in Mimara’s ears. His eyes and mouth flare white, and something, a flickering waves of force, shimmers through the air. There is a deafening crack; the bronze doors fly ajar.

“Time to run,” the Nonman says, his voice miraculously audible through the screeching roar.

With awe too brittle to be hope, the survivors scramble into the blackness beyond the bronze rim.

They are driven deeper into tunnels with now adornment. There rough, hewn from stone. It’s hot down here, the stones warm to the touch. They are in the mines where “the toil of a thousand human generations, slaves begetting slaves, dredging holy nimil for their Nonman masters.” The Sranc follow them, somehow seeing in the dark like bats. Cleric keeps having to face the Sranc, buying the scalpers more time. He laughs as he kills them. Fearing they’ll be cut off, Kosoter has them take every left and downward passage in hopes of scattering the Sranc through the maze of tunnels.

And the world piles higher and higher above them.

The heat only makes her exhaustion worse. She’s barely running. She can’t stop, though. She has to “run to the very edge of Away.” As she does, she begs her mother to forgive her. She trips, too weak to even hold her arms out before her to break the fall. She believes she’s going to die and asks for her mother’s forgiveness. Then Soma picks her up, smelling of myrrh.

You will not perish for me!” She hears his voice rasp. “I’ll carry you across the doors of hell! Do you hear me? Mimara! Do you hear me?”

She is too weak to move as he carries her, staring wherever her head turns her eyes. Ahead, Achamian is slumped between two scalpers. And then, they come across a burning light. They are shocked by it. It’s not Cleric’s doing, they’ve lost the Nonman behind them.

Suddenly she feels the heat felting the air, making ash out of emptiness. It seems she always sensed it, only as a shadow through the slick-skin chill of unconsciousness.

The world sets its hooks deep, ever drawing souls tight across its infinite contours. Circumstances are reborn, and hearts are renewed. A spark throbs through her gutted muscles, returns slack exterminates to her will. She glances at the man bearing her—Soma, stripped of his earnest foolery—and it seems she is a child in a swing.

She knows that he lovers her.

The light is luxurious. The tunnel opens up and into a ruined amphitheater, the floor covered in gravel. They are in a ravine made of “cliffs piled upon cliffs.” The air is sulfurous and so hot it dances. Everyone is silent as they move to the edge. Free of the tunnels, they can see just how many they lost. Friends and provisions are gone. They’re a remnant of what they had been. The light is coming from a lake of fire at the bottom of the chasm.

Soma sets Mimara down and collapses on all fours gasping for air. She crawls to the unconscious Achamian. He still breaths. She puts his head on her lap and he wakes up, whispering her name. She feels joy that he’s awake but he jerks from her, sensing the Chorae she had picked up. She had forgotten it. Now she can feel the gravity of it about her neck, “the sudden nothingness of it sucks the voice from her heart.”

Pokwas says that is Hell down there. They’ve gone too deep. Sarl claws at his head, looking more like a crying baby now. Xonghis agrees. He and Kosoter are the only ones still standing. Kosoter disagrees. This isn’t hell though Sarl cackles and says it is, pointing at it. Kosoter draws his sword and lifts Sarl’s chin with it. That makes him go still. Kosoter repeats this isn’t hell. Galian asks how he knows.

“Because,” the Holy Veteran says, his voice so cold it seems the sound should fog or frost. “I would remember.”

Hissing, Kosoter cuts Sarl’s cheek and then marches to a set of stairs and descends them into the crevasse. No one speaks for a moment then the sounds of Srancs have them look above. The Sranc are coming, and Mimara realizes Cleric must have been killed.

Cil-Aujas has slain her last remaining son.

Mimara is running again behind Galian and Soma who carry Achamian. “They run like the lost.” They are descending the stairs, the lake of fire far below. The heat rises around them, hot fumes spilling over them. The lava bursts with eruptions that sent fires shooting up higher than any of Momemn’s towers.

They have fled too far, too deep. They have passed beyond the rind of the World into the outer precincts of Hell. There can be no other explanation…

Not lost. Damned.

Lord Kosoter waits for them at the first landing. Already, the Sranc are swarming down after them, killing each other in their frenzy to reach them. She can see more coming as well as a Bashrag wadding through them. She can see in Kosoter’s eyes that they are dead. “Only death and bitter vengeance remained.” Sarl cackles about how they all knew hell and skinnies awaited them. They form a new line, throwing Achamian to the ground as the Sranc charge. Kosoter grabs Mimara and tells her to get the wizard up or they are dead.

She kneels by him. The heat is so intense she gets dizzy. He grabs her and keeps her from falling. Joy sparks through her as she sees him awake. He calls her Esmi as she begs for him to fight, but he thinks she’s Esmenet and he’s reliving the past when he tried to tell her what Kellhus was.

“Origins! Origins are the truth of us!” A fury screws his face, so poisonous she feels the shame of it even through her panic. “I will show you!” he snarls.

A numbness sops through her, a recognition…

The fighting has started. Pokwas begins sword-dancing ahead of the line, killing as he cries out in his Zeumi tongue. Mimara stands over Achamian and draws Squirrel. It reflects the hellfire rising from below.

She is Anasûrimbor Mimara, child-whore and Princess-Imperial. She will die spitting and bawling, be it at Cil-Aujas or the Gates of Hell.

“My dreams show me the way!” the unhinged Wizard bellows from her feet. He fumbles trying to press himself from the stone. “I will track him, Esmi! Pursue him to the very womb!”

As he’s ranting, Pokwas stopped the Sranc for “eleven miraculous heartbeats.” Then javelins start being thrown down on them. One Skin Eater is hit and falls of the edge. Two more javelins land around Mimara as she stands dumbfounded. Pokwas locks one with his sword only for a second to hit his helm and knock him down. He falls into the line of Skin Eaters. The Sranc swarm them. Despite this, the Skin Eaters beat back the attack and Pokwas is pulled to safety. Mimara is thrusting at the enemy, hitting two, but the first Bashrag, holding a Chorae, has arrived.

Then Cleric appears floating in the air in a shimmer of white light. He is casting spells as he walks on the air. His spells are killing the Sranc. He stands over the burning lake, his eyes glowing, as he kills the enemy.

Their inhuman screams skin needles into their ears.

And she thinks, Ishroi…

Kosoter commands them to run but Mimara stops at the second landing. The stairs smoke with Sranc corpses, however the two Bashrags are unharmed thanks to their Chorae. They throw Sranc corpses at Cleric but they don’t get past his wards. He just laughs and keeps casting spells. He destroys the stairs, sending one Bashrag falling to the lava below. The other flees.

Soma grabs Mimara and pulls her after the others running. She feels cool air for a moment. They find a tunnel leading away with cold air blowing down it. They run down it while a “vacant howl overpowers all other sounds.” They are still descending but at a shallow angle. They soon have to crouch to go through the tight tunnel. She can feel all of the mountain’s weight on her while the wind howls against them until it stops.

Sometime later, a voice Screams in Achamian to run, but he is just sitting at his ease. He wears fine clothes and smells jasmine and cinnamon. He’s in the Annexes with the High-King and the young prince Nau-Cayûti. They are staring at the map to Ishuäl. Achamian is dreaming of being Seswatha. Achamian studies the chase that holds it.

“A king,” Celmomas was saying, “stands before his people in all things, Cayû. A king rides at the fore. This is why he must always make ready, always prepare. For his foe is ever the future. Condic marauders on our eastern frontiers. Assassins in an embassy of Shir. Sranc. Pestilence… Calamity awaits us all, even you, my son.

“Some petition astrologers, soothsayers, false prophets in all their guises. Low men, mean men, who exchange words of comfort for gold. Me, I put my faith in stone, in iron, in blood, and in secrecy—secrecy above all!—for these things serve in all times. All times! The day words conquer the future is the day the dead begin to speak.”

He turned to Seswatha. The wolf’s head braided into his beard flashed in the glowering light.

“This, my friend—this is why I built Ishuäl. For Kûniüri. For House Anasûrimbor. It is our final bulwark against catastrophe… Against the darkest future.”

On the scroll case is written: “Doom should you find me broken.” Seswatha asks what that means. But Celmomas says that Seswatha needs to make this his “deepest secret.” Seswatha asks about the dreams Celmomas has been having. In the background, Achamian hears Sarl’s cries to “Toe the Line” in the dream as Celmomas tells Seswatha to bury the case in the Coffers.

Mimara is gazing at the company unable to move. She’s alive, somehow. The others are lie collapsed in the gloom. All are sprawled but Soma who sits like a mystic and Lord Kosoter who stands. Sarl, Pokwas, Galian, Soma, Xonghis, Sutadra, Conger, Kosoter, and three others are all that survive of the Skin Eaters. They are in some chamber where a wind blows through. There is some light, but it’s faint. She spots graffiti on the wall. Human graffiti, sings “scraped in the throes of human anguish.”

And somehow she just knows: This was once a place of great suffering.

A shadow appears in the doorway and that strikes fear in her. She sits up, as do others, but it’s only Cleric splattered in gore. Like Achamian, he has had patches of skin turned to salt by coming too close to a Chorae, but his do not appear as bad as Achamian’s. “Unwinded, he stares with spent curiosity at the spent Men, trades a long look with the Captain before turning to scan the shrouded spaces.” He ponders something only he can see before saying they are safe. For now.

This gives Mimara the strength to crawl to Achamian, her panic retreating. Xonghis points out this wind is cold. Cleric says they are near the Great Medial Screw, a set of stairs that goes to the height of the mountain. Galian asks if that’s an escape rough. Cleric thinks it is, if his memory is accurate. Palpable relief spreads through the survivors. They had focused everything on escape and now are relaxing. Xonghis asks what this place is. Cleric calls it a barracks for captives but Mimara corrects him. “A slave pit.” He grins at her with those fused teeth that were like a Sranc but not serrated. Then he summons a Surillic Point to shed light. They are in a large room with terraces. They can’t tell how high it goes, but can see bronze cages that could hold a single man. There are hundreds of them.

Even though Mimara can imagine how the room once looked, the tiers of piteous faces and clutching hands, it is the graffiti, scratched out along the lowermost wall as far as the light can reach, that most afflicts her heart. The Emwama, and their proof of misery, she realizes. She can almost see their shades, massed in hopeless clots, looks averted from the horrors hanging above, ears aching…

A shudder passes through her, so deep her eyes and limbs seem to rattle in their sockets.

And she thinks, Cil-Aujas…

Then she realizes no one else is experiencing her horror. They all stare to another corner, seeing something unexpected. They see great ribs and bones, a jawed carapace as tall as a man. Cleric pities the humans for carrying such a short span of memory while Sarl starts cackling about how he called “him” a fool.

The Skin Eaters gather, beaten by gust and fate alike, gazing in awe at the iron bones of a dragon.

Wracu.

The source of the wind’s cold hymn.

Though the survivors don’t say much, they are all drawn to the “rust-pitted” bones of the dragon. None speak of their dead friends. Violent men like them are used to losing comrades. “They pyre is their only constant friend.” For now, they plan what to do next. Galian and Xonghis have taken charge, the tragedy rewriting everyone’s place. Kosoter merely watches and grunts his agreement while Sarl mops by the graffiti. He’s become a sobber.

Mimara tends to Achamian while Cleric does what little healing he can to the others. He also gives them all a pinch of a black powder called Qirri that will rejuvenate them and help them deal with hunger and thirst. He also sprinkles some into the unconscious man.

It tastes of dirt and honey.

Mimara feels shy around Cleric. His power clings to him like an aura, making him more than the men around him. She’s reminded of seeing Kellhus and how his gaze reaches beyond the limit of her own. This reminds Mimara of Achamian worries bout Cleric. The Nonman is like Kellhus: “one of the world’s powers.” How Cleric fought replays in her mind. She feels humans are animals compared to Cleric. A “variety of Sranc, a corruption of their [the Nonmen’s] angelic form.”

She uses spit to clean the salted scabs on Achamian’s face. Parts of his skin have turned to salt down to the pores, but it’s only skin. It’ snot life-threatening. Cleric says the qirri will get him back on his feet. Though Cleric adds she should not get so close to him with the Chorae she has beneath her jerkin.

Knowing Achamian will recover, she moves away and pulls out the Chorae. It feels alien in her hands. An “inverted presence.” She doesn’t know why it fascinates her when it’s so anathema to her. “It is the bane of her heart’s sole desire, the thing she must fear above all once she begins uttering sorcery. Since the only light is the Surillic Point, the ball appears as a shadow in her hand, the sorcerous light unable to touch it. Only the dim light leaking in lets her see the script on the iron ball. It’s hard for her to look at “as if it rolls from her sight and thought each time she centres her attention upon it.” But she can’t help but stare at it while in the background, some of the scalpers are trying to loot the dragon’s iron bones. They do this because “even in disaster, their mercenary instincts have not abandoned them.”

Shivers scuttle like spiders from her palm to her heart and throat, pimpling her entire skin. She glares at it, concentrates her breath and being upon its weightless horror, as if using it to mortify her soul the way shakers use whips and nails to mortify their flesh. She flats in the prickle of her own sweat.

The suffering beings. The pain…

It’s liking thumbing a deep bruise at first, and she almost revels its odd almost honey sweetness. But the sensation unravels, opens into an ache that swells about wincing serrations, as if teeth were chewing their own mouth through sealed muscle and skin. The violence spreads. The clubs begin falling, and her body rebels down to its rooted bowel, gagging at memories of salt. Emptiness itself… Lying cupped in her palm, a sheering void, throwing hooks about her, a million lacerating stings.

She shudders and spits, noticing Achamian lying unconscious nearby. She sees him as a “corpse boiled in the fires of damnation” and realizes the Judging Eye has opened. She can feel it peering through her, casting off her worldly sight like it were dirty clothes. It draws “out the sanctity and the sin.” She stares with it at the Chorae.

And somehow, impossibly, passes through.

She blinks on the far side of contradiction, her face and shoulders pulled back in a warm wind, a breath, a premonition of summer rain. And she sees it, a point of luminous white, a certainty, shining out from the pit that blackens her grasp. A voice rises, a voice without word or tone, drowsy with compassion, and the light grows and grows, shrinking the abyss to a rind, to the false foil that it is, burning to dust, and the glory, the magnificence, shines forth, radiant, blinding…

And she holds all…In her hand she holds it!

A Tear of God.

As she crouches over the Tear, Soma asks her where she got it. To her, it glows. It’s no longer a Chorae to her. She asks him if he sees it, and he shrugs and says a Tear of God. He doesn’t see it as special. He mentions how the others are trying to steal dragon teeth but she found her treasure. She isn’t here for riches and asks if he sees the light. He glances up at the Surillic Point, clearly seeing that. He has a hard time seeing her, though. She looks like a “breathing shadow.” She holds up the Tear and asks what he sees. But all he sees is a ball of shadow.

She puts the Chorae in her empty coin purse and Soma says that’s better. She’s no longer shielded from the sorcerous light falling on her. She feels that her Chorae is different now from Kosoter’s. No longer is hers a pit sucking everything in. It shines everything out. She wishes to see his to see if it also shines to her.

Fear flushes through her, seems to pull the ancient slave chamber into a slow roll about the axis of her heart. Something is happening to me…

This is when she notices the stranger.

A Nonman stands among them. She thought it was Cleric, their faces are identical, but he’s sitting in prayer or exhaustion. The newcomer sits like the others, eyes closed. He wears a silver crown of thorns and violet robes with nimil mail beneath. She asks Soma who that is over there, thinking she’s gone mad and scared he won’t see what she is. But he does and draws his sword. That sound rouses the others.

The Skin-Eaters draw weapons while Soma steps up before Mimara. Cleric looks up with “feline curiosity.” The stranger looks about but doesn’t seem to stare at them. Mimara notices the wind doesn’t touch his clothes and Galian cries out that he has no shadow. Kosoter barks them to be quiet. “A sense of mortal peril seems to ride the wind, a tingling certainty that the Nonman before them is less flesh or blood than a dread gate, a catastrophic threshold.” The strange Nonman does not move.

Cleric approaches and calls the Nonman cousin. That rouses the stranger. The Nonman moves. He speaks, but the sound comes not from his lips but from Pokwas and Achamian, the two who are unconscious. The stranger recognizes Cleric. Sarl cackles insanely. Cleric says he has returned.

Again the lips move, and the voice of the two unconscious men rise into the void of sound, the one reeded by age, the other deep and melodious.

They-they called-called us-us false-false.”

“They are children who can never grow,” Cleric replies. “They could do no different.”

I-I lovedloved them-them. I-I loved-loved them-them so-so much-much.

So did we all, at one time.”

They-they betrayed-trayed.

“They were our punishment. Our pride was too great.”

They-they betrayed-trayed. You-you betrayed-trayed.

You have dwelt here too long, Cousin.”

I-I am-am lost-lost. All-all the-the doors-doors are-are different-rent, and-and the-the thresholds-holdstheythey are-are holy-lee no-no more-more.”

Yes. Our age has passed. Cil-Aujas is fallen. Fallen into darkness.”

No-no. Not-not darkness-ness…

The Nonman King gains his feat and Mimara realizes he’s not in a robe but wrapped in purple cloth. He declares this is hell. Cleric, still kneeling, stares up at the Nonman figure in “anguish and indecision.” The apparition shouts how could they forget about Damnation. Cleric hasn’t forgotten. Meanwhile, everyone is gaping, their swords lowering from the shock of watching a living Nonman speak with a dead one. Mimara wants to flee but is rooted motionless.

Cleric knows him.

The bones of the dragon began to rattle while the apparition speaks without sound. This is because Pokwas and Achamian are both getting back up. She rushes to Achamian as he struggles to gather himself. He spits out something and she realizes it’s the qirri. She’s relieved that he’s awake and he asks where they are and what’s happening.

She finds herself almost whispering in his ear. “Akka. Listen to me carefully. You remember what you said? About this place… blurring… into the Outside?”

“Yes. The treachery… The betrayal that led to its fall…”

“No. That’s not it. It’s this place. This every room! It’s what they did—the Nonmen of Cil-Aujas… It’s what they did to their human slaves.”

Generations bred for the sunless mines. Used up. Cast away like moaning rubbish. Ten thousand years of sightless torment.

She knows this… But how?

Achamian asks what she’s talking about but then she glances at Cleric kneeling before the shade and begging for him not to do something. The sight brings Achamian fully awake as he gasps. Then he cries at everyone to run and follow the wind. “Courage will be your death here!”

Stand your ground!” the Captain roars.

The scalpers retreat despite Kosoter’s bellow. Mimara sees black bleeding from the wight. Kosoter believes that Cleric can stop this. Achamian tries to reason with Kosoter, but the Holy Veteran is adamant. Cleric keeps kneeling while the Nonman King walks around him to stand behind Cleric. Achamian shouts at the captain. Mimara grabs Achamian’s arm. Soma the other, Achamian still unsteady.

The specter looks to the ceiling, his soundless benediction growing more intense. He raises his arms to the ceiling. He lifts Cleric with black shadows. Kosoter stumbles back. The scalpers drag Pokwas and retreat with Mimara and Achamian. Conger leads the cackling Sarl away. The apparition grabs Cleric and he starts convulsing. There is fury in the apparition’s face.

For an instant, the company glimpses a seal, a savage emblem of hell…

The Surillic Point flickers out.

I dream,” Cleric’s voice booms through the wind howling black, “that I am a God.”

Mimara sobs. The Skin Eaters scream. Achamian begins casting spells in a panic. The light from his sorcery “paints Soma’s blank face against the greater dark.”

Mimara sees a new light. She’s in a new chamber and she can now see the Emwama in their cages, all shirking in agony. It’s “a thousand moments of anguish, a thousand souls, condensed into a mad, smoking blur.” She hears countless eons of pain and suffering of Emwama imprisoned from ever seeing the sun, all screaming in unison.

Mimara screams with them.

Cleric floats towards the scalpers as the Nonman King rants through him about how he hungers.

Despite Achamian shouting beside her, all Mimara can hear is the “million-throated wail.” Achamian, though weak, pulls her away as the apparition asks how a God can hunger.

Molten stone begins erupting around them, killing one scalper, leaving only his arm behind. Finally, Kosoter flees with the other.

The whole company, or what remains of it, is running.

The apparition laughs with “cruelties beyond the range of human comprehension.”

The survivors run through the dragons’ bones into the wind. They find stairs and climb while the damned cry out to them. They want to visit their suffering on others.

The Wight-in-the-Mountain chases them. Mimara feels on the verge of breaking. She is struggling to help Achamian while the others are racing ahead of them. Even Soma has abandoned her. She searches for strength, praying to herself to keep going. Then she feels the Qirri giving her endurance. She screams at Achamian to keep going.

The wind is too much for Achamian. He can’t battle against it. He speaks, but though she can’t hear him, she knows what he says.

Leave me.

Leave me. Daughter, please…

But she refuses. This old stranger… What is it?

Why should she dare hell?

She drags Achamian, laboring to do so. He casts sorcery and brings down the tunnel behind them, collapsing it.

The wind is gone.

~~~~~

A light hangs in the fog

Achamian tells her to keep going as her ears ring. He’s not sure that the cave-in will stop him. He jokes that the Wight can follow the “mile-long streak of shit I dragged across the floor.” This makes her laugh. He strokes her hair, happy he made her laugh. This makes her start to break up as she admits she thought he would die. He tells her they need to keep moving.

They stumble together, supporting each other. They are following the trail of the others in the dust and she asks how they could have gotten so far without Achamian’s light. He points ahead to a faint, blue glow. It’s daylight. She knows it deep in her soul. “It was the light her sires were born to, all the way back to the beginning…”

She sees shadows moving then Soma calls her name. She burns with a sudden fury that battles her weariness. Achamian senses it and says, “All men are traitors in a place such as this…” Now isn’t the time for anger. Though Achamian is haggard, she sees “intellect and resolution” in his eyes. This is the old Achamian back from the dead, even if it’s Qirri keeping him going. The other survivors are moving about with excess energy, and not just from Qirri.

They have found their way out of Cil-Aujas.

Achamian calls it the Great Medial Screw. The stones here are wet, water running down them. The stairs are wide as a wagon and spiral upward. In the open space, water pours down. Mimara feels dizzy realizing it runs up to the top of the mountain. She says it’ll take days to climb, but Pokwas says they’ll have water. Xonghis declares it clean. They begin drinking and wiping away grime, helping each other lean out over the empty space.

Achamian grows agitated and tells Kosoter they need to keep moving. Kosoter answers with a wordless gaze while Mimara can only think about water. She can’t remember the last time she drank it. This was a worse expression than the slave ship as a child, and she still has nightmares about that. The qirri is all keeping her going, she fears what will happen when it runs out.

She must have water.

Soma seems to sense her thirst and lets her have his place to get a drink. She thanks him but still angry about being abandoned. She wonders how in one moment Soma could be courageous and another so cowardly and wonders if she’s not any different. She leans out drinks the cold water. It falls hard and stings, but it’s refreshing. It nourishes her. She can see the sky and realizes they’ve left hell and Cil-Aujas behind. They were on the threshold of escape.

As she reflects on that as she hears Achamian arguing about how sorcerers don’t fly. “‘If there is a pit in the ground below,’ he croaks, ‘there is a pit in the sky as well!’” Suddenly, she feels something rising beneath them. Fear kindles in her. She glances at the pool below and sees a flicker in the water. She calls for Achamian but it’s too late. It’s been too late since they passed through the Obsidian Gate and entered Cil-Aujas.

It was always too late. No one leaves the Black Halls.

Hell rises out of the waters. The Wight-in-the-Mountain, the Nonman King with his seal behind him that is “packed with skulls and living faces,” floats up at them. The others sense it and fall silent. “In a moment of madness it seems she can see their hearts through their caged breasts, that she can see the eyes open…” Achamian clutches at his chest. Kosoter reels back. Others grab faces. Sarl cackles and Soma stands motionless. Sarl babbles that he can see while the Unholy Seal rises. Fire spills from it and roars with the voice of a Demon-God that seizes their souls and causes blood to spell out the pores of their skin.

The Gates are no longer guarded.

She falls to her knees and screams. At the same time, she fumbles out the Chorae in her purse. She cringes, a frightened child. The moans of the damn feel her ears. And in it, she “Lifts her Tear of God.”

She knows not what she does. She knows only what she glimpsed in the slave chamber, that single slow heartbeat of light and revelation. She knows what she saw with the Judging Eye.

The Chorae burns as a sun in her fingers, making red wine of her hand and forearm, revealing the shadow of her bones, and yet drawing the eye instead of rebuking it, a light that does not blind.

I guard them!” she weeps, standing frail beneath the white-bleached Seal. “I Hold the Gates!”

Climbing the Great Medial Screw is the greatest struggle they have. It steals all that remains of their “courage, strength, and endurance” they had after surviving the Sranc and the White. They climb and climb and climb. The first time the sun sets, despair almost destroys them before they remember that it always sets and will rise again. “They had been buried so long they had forgotten the cycle of days.”

Achamian appreciates the “marriage of patience and hubris” that built the Screw. It’s insane that it exists. For two days, Mimara has not spoken despite Achamian’s attempts. She would almost speak but couldn’t. He tries to figure out what she did, remembering seeing her holding the Chorae while standing before “a horror that should have devoured her whole, from the flesh of her fingertips to the final spark of her soul.” It makes no sense. While summoned Ciphrang could have their bodies destroyed by a Chorae, what they had faced was unreality. Hell. They should have all been taken.

But something had happened. She had happened.

Anasûrimbor Mimara, cursed with the Judging Eye.

He feels a great deal of pity for her, realizing that the Whore of Fate had brought her to this point. Without her, they would not have survived Cil-Aujas. She had been given to help him in his quest to find Kellhus’s origins and “to shed light on the darkness that came before him.”

When the qirri ran out, they all collapsed in exhaustion. And the climb grew worse and worse. Some fainted. Achamian vomits. The air grew colder and colder the higher they climbed. Achamian adds the Huiritic Ring to the light to keep them warm. More burden on him. As they get higher, they see the water comes from melting ice and snow that covers the final steps.

The icy steps defeat them. They do not have the strength to make it up the last part. It’s as if they all knew that “Cil-Aujas would never relinquish them.” But Achamian shows off the power of a Gnostic Wizard and he begins melting the snow and ice choking the last leg of their climb.

This was a kind of final knell for the Skin Eaters, a tipping point of comprehension. At last they understood the abyssal gap that had always existed between them, scalpers and Wizard. Achamian could see it in their sidelong glances. With the exception of the Captain, they began looking at him with an awe and reverence they had once reserved for Cleric.

And he felt an itch, something small and sharp against the buss of his utter exhaustion… Some time passed before he recognized it: the creeping return of his guilt. These men, these strangers he would kill, now seemed his brothers.

It was no small thing to crawl out of the abyss, to rise from Hell to the very roof of the World. Though their eyes had long adjusted, they still stood blinking, scattered atop the snow-encrusted debris that ringed the opening to the Great Screw. It made Achamian, who stood arm in arm with Mimara, think of the first Men, savages of the plains, rubbing their eyes at what they could only comprehend as a blessing.

With light comes life. With sky comes freedom.

The Halls of Cil-Aujas, the dread Black Halls, had at last relinquished them.

Achamian surveys the scalpers and sees only Kosoter and Soma are unscathed. Sarl is mad. Pokwas, Xonghis, Sutadra, and Galian are injured but are hale. Of the Herd, only Conger, Wonard, and Hameron survived, all three Galeoth. Wonard looks infected, Conger limps, and Hameron is a weeper. They stand on the vista, drenched in violet Sranc blood and patches of red. They are in Aenaratiol’s crater amid a frozen lake. Ruins cover it. They can see higher peaks rising above the rim.

Xonghis says that way is home and the other is the Long Side. Achamian holds his breath. Which way will they choose? Achamian still holds to his desire to find the scroll to Ishuäl. He can remember his dream of actually seeing the map. It exists. He just has to find it in the Coffers. He had used the Coffers as bait, but now he actually needs to get in the vault.

His lie. Fate was making his lie true.

The Skin Eaters look at Xonghis and the two choices but there’s no choice. They are being driven by the Whore of Fate. Sarl cackles about going to the Coffers. The company is content to let the madman choose for them. Kosoter is the first to begin the climb down.

They follow him, warmed by the Huiritic Ring. No one speaks. They find stairs the climb through the ruins, the architecture the same as below but instead of awing them, it’s tragic, even pathetic, to see its collapse. “The work of a race that had gone insane for staring inward.”

At the rim of the crater, they see the Osthwai Mountains spread out before them. It’s daunting. The task overwhelms the “newly born men.” But they can’t stop no matter how tired and starving they air. Then, as they are about to descend, Soma spots something though Achamian can’t see more than a black spec.

And at long last Mimara broke her silence.

“Cleric,” she said.

My Thoughts

So, the earthquakes in the latter book are set up here. Momemn is in a seismically active area.

A great reflection on history and how humans build on the past by burying it. They repurpose things and forget their original purpose. Pagans erected Temples, Christians co-opt them into Churches, and Muslims transform them into Mosques. We put our mark on history to pretend we are better than the generations that comes before. We rip down their monuments to erect our own. In our hubris, we think we’re more moral, more right, more worthy than them.

We’re not.

Suicide as revenge is a sad mental state. Show the world by depriving myself of it. Thinking it’s the only way you can affect the world, the only thing you can control. It shows us the depths of her anger with her mother. And she has every right to be angry. It’s hard to understand what starvation does to a person. Thinking it would be better your child was a slave than to die of starvation. Seeing no other way for you to survive. Unless Mimara goes through the same, she’ll never really understand. But this journey, I think, will show her deprivation. I’m curious to see how their relationship progresses in the next book.

I think the moment Soma sees her using sorcery is when he sees her as fulfilling some prophecy that he needs to respect. As a skin-spy, the scent of a pregnant woman is both disgusting and arousing. They really don’t like the scent of fetuses. They are everything that the Inchoroi hate: consequences to sex. The Inchoroi don’t like consequences. That makes them think about their actions.

And that’s why they want to commit genocide to keep from being damned. They don’t consider doing something to change their fate. To act in a different manner. They want to keep reveling in their pleasure.

Fifth Anterograde Gate is a weird name. Anterograde means to forget things after a traumatic event. It’s thematic to the Nonmen, but a strange thing for someone to name their gate. Like, why would the Nonmen have named it that? The world-building there is lacking, but Bakker likes to use thematic words for his name. Usually, they fit with the world. Gnosis, Angogic, Psûkhe all line up with how their respective magic works.

Kellhus wrote Novum Arcanum. We have heard about the God and the Oversoul before. This is an authoritative source on how sorcery works. Cishaurim and their Psûkhe are even better at it. That’s why they blind themselves so they can see the world even more clearly through the God’s eyes and thus change it without leaving the Mark. Though, I wonder if the Cishaurim didn’t blind themselves if they could see what each other does. Like they’re at a higher level than the normal Few. But maybe not.

So we see the Judging Eye in action. Achamian is damned, but it’s not proof enough to reveal if Kellhus can save people. Achamian has repudiated him, so he could be damned for that and not for using sorcery. But Lord Kosoter is seen and he is definitely damned. Way, way, way worse than Achamian. All the things he did during the Holy War were certainly not forgiven as Kellhus claims.

Pity Mimara didn’t look at Somandutta. Curious what a skin-spy would look like while the Judging Eye is active. Normal? There’s no soul in Somandutta to be damned. Only one skin-spy ever had a soul, and it took over Simas back in the last series.

Honestly, in the sort of situation they’re in, where decisions have to be made and there can’t be any questioning is a good thing if you’re following someone with intelligence and competence. Both things Kosoter has. They are fleeing for their lives. Asking questions, doubting decisions, are not things you need right now. They’ve been in hairy situations, they’ve been lead by Kosoter through dire circumstances. They’re like a military unit working together for one common goal.

This section is well done. The tension is incredible. Bakker is building it up and then come the Sranc horns. We all know this is Moira, but he makes it fit his world and adds his own to it. No story is wholly original. We all are building on the past, just like cities are built upon the rubble of the dead. Nothing wrong with it when you do it well. When you make it fit your world, adapt it to your story. Cil-Aujas maybe one of my most favorite parts of the entire meta-series.

“They are coming.” The same words that the unknown dwarf scribe writes in the Book of Mazarbul that chronicles Balin’s people reoccupying Moria. These are the last words he wrote in haste before being killed by the orcs. Bakker uses them here in a room full of pillars, just like in Moria. Gives me chills reading it.

Can I just say, Sarl’s way of talking reminds me of how orcs talk in the Lord of the Rings. “Oy, yes, boys, this is going to be a chopper. A classic chopper!” I’m just picturing orcs speaking like this.

So I think Cleric is out of control when they are attacking the Sranc, destroying those columns needed to keep up the roof. Hence, Achamian shouting “Nooooo!”

Damn, Oxwora’s a beast. Killed the Bashrag and managed to survive those wounds long enough to slay his killer.

Boy, I had Legolas flashbacks from the Lord of the Ring Movies when Cleric rides the dead Bashrag to the ground.

RIP Kiampas. Liked you.

Those Bashrags are brutal.

Cleric in all his Ishroi glory. Fighting and casting Gnosis is an impressive feat. Not even Kellhus has fought like this, but he’s never been in this sort of situation, of course.

Kosoter is helping Mimara escape. This is a guy who doesn’t let the weak drag him down, and he’s saving Mimara’s life. This is a big clue to just what Kosoter is really about here. He knows who she is, as I recall from the next book.

Interesting words from our Skin-Spy. “You will not perish for me.” He is not in danger from the Sranc like the rest are. He should be able to escape blend in with them and not be their prey. He doesn’t want Mimara to die for him. If she falls behind, she would slow the Sranc so they could have their fun with her. Maybe it’s just for show, but I wonder if this has to do with that “False Prophecy” he respects.

Kosoter would recognize Hell. He is so damned that he looks like a Demon when the Judging Eye falls on him. He would have gone through all of the Holy War’s catastrophes, including the madness of Mengedda. What did he see there? What did he do to survive crossing the desert and then the siege of Carythusal? What crimes did he commit during Shimeh’s pillage?

“Origins! Origins are the truth of us!” I have two things to comment on with this passage. First, we have the Darkness that Comes Before referenced here. “Origins are the truth of us!” To understand Kellhus, we must understand the Darkness that he comes from. The Dûnyain. We can see the poisonous fury in Achamian’s face that makes Mimara feel ashamed. This is the same fury she has at her mother.

The same fury of one who’s been betrayed. She knows the same pain he does.

King Celmomas’s speech about the responsibility of a king, or a leader, is apt. They have to think of the future. To not rely on faith but in reality. That is the duty they owe our people. Sadly, most leaders are self-centered little weasels who care about clawing for power and have no vision of the future.

Sarl’s “him” in who he was wrong for calling a fool is Kiampas. Before entering Cil-Aujas, it was Kiampas’s theory that a dragon lurked here and was killing the scalpers while Sarl just thought it was skinnies. He called Kiampas a fool. Of course, the dragon’s dead so Kiampas wasn’t wholly right.

Qirri tastes of dirt and hunger. Dirt, of course, references the grave. It’s the ash of a dead nonman after all. The honey is the sweetness. That addictive rush that will keep Achamian and Mimara going for the rest of their journey. It’s also a symbol of fertility and good things. The whole “Lands of Milk and Honey” promised to the Israelites during their wandering in the desert.

The Chorae is made of contradiction. A negation of reality. It is made of sorcery and yet destroys it. A singularity that affects the spiritual and not the physical. It sucks in that which is not natural like a black hole. She is seeing into it, able to see it thanks to being one of the Few for what it is. We’ve seen POVs from mainly Cnaiür handling it. He never feels anything weird about it. To him, it’s just a ball of iron. He can’t see with the imperfect vision of the God like a Few can. The Chorae is a foul thing. And then, when the Judging Eye is open, it becomes a Tear of God to her. She passes through that darkness and sees it through the Eye of Faith. The Judging Eye is the Eye of Faith. Of what the belief of mankind is and how they see the world. Not the God’s Eyes, but the belief that has shaped the Outside into what it is. The source of power for the Hundred. The lesser gods, the powerful Ciphrang, who have benefited and even shaped this belief.

The Chorae is both Evil and Good. Both Faith and Denial. That is the contradiction that binds it together. That’s what lets it unravel sorcery, or so I think. I could be way off basis.

It’s interesting that she’s changed her Chorae in some way. Maybe it as simple as she’s shifted her perspective from Sorcery to Faith. But what she did to it is why what she does to the shade of Gin’yursis coming up worked.

A nice twist that it’s the suffering of the poor Emwama that is the cause. They are the victims of both Nonmen and the Five Tribes. The humans who crossed over the mountains exterminated them save for that small population still living as slaves to the Nonmen of Ishterebinth. It makes you wonder who is really driving damnation in this world. The Emwama who are crushed beneath everyone’s heels? Gin’yursis claimed to love the humans, but he allowed them to be brutalized. And now they punish his soul. It’s why he is mad. Lashing out. He wishes to spread the pain to others. If he must suffer, so must they.

Soma has a blank face during the revelation of the Seal around Gin’yursis. He’s not panicking like everyone else. Further proof that he’s already a skin-spy.

So we come to Mimara destroying Gin’yursis’s spirit with the Judging Eye and the Chorae. The last thing the Wight-in-the-Mountain utters is, “The Gates are no longer guarded.” Meaning, it is free to bleed out of hell here. But she instead Judges that the Gates are guarded. She is that Guard. A Chorae negates what is perverted in the natural world by sorcerery. She has made it a Tear of God and does the same to the spiritual. She undoes the topoi and closes the Gate. Hell can’t bleed through any longer. Maybe forever. Maybe just enough for them to escape. The Judging Eye doesn’t just let her see whether a person is damned or not, it gives her some measure of control over these spiritual matters. The word “judging” was chosen by Bakker for a reason. Judging is not a passive concept. It’s not observation. There is directed intent when judging something. Mimara’s intent.

Soma, once again, spots Cleric. The clues that he’s more than human are really subtle. I certainly never twigged on them reading the book, but in hindsight, they stand out. Like in the Darkness that Comes Before when Nautzera notes that Simas has flawless vision despite his advanced age, a subtle clue of him being a skin-spy.

Soma has infiltrated the Skin Eaters no doubt because of Cleric. To watch the last king of Ishterebinth and figure out why Kellhus made a deal with him and what the deal entails. Cleric is here because Kellhus promised him a way to relieve his memory. He has promised him Seswatha. Or Achamian. Knowing Achamian will use the Great Ordeal to reach Ishuäl, Kellhus has put into place plans to aid Achamian. I honestly think Kellhus wants Achamian to succeed. If Kellhus plan to end the belief system that makes damnation, his own divinity will need to be deconstructed one day. Achamian is the man to do it. He’s obsessed over it. He’s been given the tools to succeed. How Mimara factors, I’m not sure. She ran away because of Kelmomas and not Kellhus’s actions. Certainly, I don’t think going into Cil-Aujas was the plan. Predicting that the passes would still be closed might have been outside of Kellhus’s projections or that Cil-Aujas was always a last resort path. It would have been better if they hadn’t gone through Cil-Aujas, but as we’ll see, Achamian makes it to Golgotterath with the truth of Kellhus, so it does work.

All in all, Cil-Aujas is one of the best parts of the story. This slog of a chapter is intense and riveting to read. After the build up, we have the chase. The terrifying race through the bowels of hell and out into the very pinnacle of the mountain. The comparisons to Lord of the Rings are there. Not only do they go through the mountain, they battle down into the bowels then rush all the way up to the peak of the mountain where they are reborn, just as Gandalf was. It’s homage down right because Bakker makes it fit seamlessly into his world and built on the worldbuilding he has done.

He made it his own.

Click here for the Interlude: Momemn!

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Now it’s been turned into an Audiobook!

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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.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Thirteen

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Thirteen

Condia

Welcome to Chapter Thirteen of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Twelve!

Damnation follows not from the bare utterance of sorcery, for nothing is bare in this world. No act is so wicked, no abomination so obscene, as to lie beyond the salvation of my Name

—ANASÛRIMBOR KELLHUS, NOVUM ARCANUM

My Thoughts

So we have Kellhus’s justification for why sorcerery is cool these days. And, if I understand the rules of this world, if enough humans believe this, it will happen. We know the Inchoroi wrote the Tusk to make their task easier, and before the Tusk there were Shamans. Prophets and Sorcerer both. But then the Tusk comes along and condemns them. It’s the dominant belief, and now Sorcery is damned. However, I don’t think Kellhus accomplished his goal of actually making sorcery not damnable. Too many people still believe the opposite. Either way, he is convincing the Few that they are not going to be damned and that’s all he cares about.

Now, how does this quote relate to the chapter? Well, Sorweel is getting to know his new tutor in this chapter. A Mandate Schoolman. He’s dealing with something he considers an abomination. This is to give us the start of the New Empire’s view on it versus Sorweel’s, which he’ll be grappling with.

Is Kellhus God and thus able to make that proclamation?

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

Sorweel’s people despise scholars, calling them hunched ones and see it as a disease. None are weaker than a “hunched one.” Sorweel’s new tutor isn’t just a hunched one but a Three Seas Schoolman. This is a problem. Sorweel believes the Tusk that “sorcerers were the walking damned.” Still, he has always been secretly fascinated with sorcery. He wonders, “What kind of man would exchange his soul for that kind of diabolical power?”

As a result, Eskeles was both an insult and a kind of illicit opportunity—a contradiction, like all things Three Seas.

Not long after the day’s march started, Eskeles would begin teaching Sorweel Sheyic. It’s mind-numbing tedium. He comes to dread these lessons. He even asks Zsoronga to hide him, but the Successor-Prince betrays Sorweel, wanting to be able to speak to Horse-King without going through Obotegwa. Sorweel finds Eskeles strange. He’s fat by Sakarpi standards but there are fatter men in the Great Ordeal. Despite wearing silk and leggings, his robe is open leaving his chest exposed to the cold. But he never seems cold. He’s a friendly and merry man. He’s hard to dislike despite being a sorcerer and a Ketyai.

Eskeles learned Sakarpi while being a Mandate spy posing as Three Sea traders to the city. He says it was a dreadful time. Sorweel thinks because it doesn’t have “Southron luxuries” but it’s because of the Chorae horde. He calls them trinkets.

“Trinkets?”

“Yes. That’s what we Schoolmen like to call them—Chorae, that is. For much the same reason you Sakarpi call Sranc—what is it? Oh, yes, grass-rats.”

Sorweel frowned. “Because that’s what they are.”

Despite his good humour, Eskeles had this sly way of appraising him [Sorweel] sometimes, as if he were a map fetched from the fire. Something that had to be read around burns.

“No-no. Because that’s what you need them to be.”

Sorweel understood full well what the fat man meant—men often used glib words to shrink great and terrible things—but the true lesson, he realized, was quite different. He resolved never to forget that Eskeles was a spy. That he was an agent of the Aspect-Emperor.

Sorweel discovers learning another language is hard as he discovers grammar for the first time. He learns how his own language is constructed so he can then learn how others are. He pretends to be aloof (he is with a hunched one) but is disturbed how he could know grammar without knowing it. “And if something as profound as grammar could escape his awareness—to the point where it had simply not existed—what else was lurking in the nethers of his soul?”

So he came to realize that learning a language was perhaps the most profound thing a man could do. Not only did it require wrapping different sounds around the very movement of your soul, it involved learning things somehow already known, as though much of what he was somehow existed apart from him. A kind of enlightenment accompanied these first lessons, a deeper understanding of self.

It still was boring. Luckily, even Eskeles would tire of it by afternoon. Then Sorweel could satisfy his own curiosity. All save the one that fascinated him the most: sorcerery. He learned about the various people of the Great Ordeal. As he did, Sorweel realized that Eskeles “discussed all these people with the confidence and wicked cynicism of someone who had spent his life traveling.” And, despite being vain, Eskeles wasn’t arrogant. He’s honest about the strengths and weaknesses of each nation.

Finally, after several days, Sorweel dares to ask about Kellhus, starting with an abridged version of the emissaries to Zeüm who slit their throats. He’s awkward as he wants to know what Kellhus is. Eskeles nods as if he had worried this question would come up and tells Sorweel to come with him. Since the Kidruhil ride on the front of the left flank, it doesn’t take the pair long bore they are riding ahead of the host. They climb a knoll from where the plains stretch to the horizon, the land looking dead. No longer the green of the lands to the south. Eskeles point out and asks what is out there. He peers out and then sees the great herds of elk that cover the plains in countless numbers. Then Eskeles turns and points back at the Great Ordeal and asks what that is. He turns back and is confused. He sees countless men stretching back to the horizon.

“The Great Ordeal,” he heard himself say.

“No.”

Sorweel searched his tutor’s smiling eyes.

“This,” Eskeles explained, “this… is the Aspect-Emperor.”

Sorweel keeps staring at them but he doesn’t understand. Eskeles says there are many ways to divide up the world, saying this part belongs to this man and so on. But what if you did that with his thoughts. Where does a man’s idea begin and end? Sorweel’s brain hurts, still confused. Eskeles dismounts and starts fishing in his mule’s rump pack. He produces a small vase. Sorweel is dismissive of it as “another luxury of the Three Seas.” Eskeles tells him to come and then searches for a stone rising out of the grass. He calls the vase a philauta used for sacramental libations. As he raises it, Sorweel sees little golden tusks on it and hears something rattling inside. Sorweel flinches when Eskeles shatters it on the stone. He tells Sorweel to stud the various pieces. Eskeles picks a splinter up.

“Souls have shapes, Sorweel. Think of how I differ from you”—he raised another splinter to illustrate the contrast—“or how you differ from Zsoronga,” he said, raising yet another. “Or”—he plucked a far larger fragment—“think of all the Hundred Gods, and how they differ from one another, Yatwer and Gilgaöl. Or Momas and Ajokli.” With each name, he raised yet another coin-sized Fragment.

“Our God… the God, is broken into innumerable pieces. And this is what gives us life, what makes you, me, even the lowliest slave, sacred.” He cupped several pieces in a meaty palm. “We’re not equal, most assuredly not, but we remain fragments of God nonetheless.

He asks Sorweel if he understands. The boy does. More than he wanted. “The Kiünnatic Priests had only rules and stories—nothing like this.” Eskeles makes too much sense. He wants to object, but he can’t. Eskeles continues his lesson by asking what is the Aspect-Emperor. He gathers up a chipped replica of the original that had been inside rattling around.

“Huh?” The Schoolman laughed. “Eh? Do you see? The soul of the Aspect-Emperor is not only greater than the souls of Men, it possesses the very shape of the Ur-Soul.”

“You mean… your God of Gods.”

Our God of Gods?” the sorcerer repeated, shaking his head. “I keep forgetting that you’re a heathen! I suppose you think Inri Sejenus is some kind of demon as well!”

Sorweel feels embarrassed and says he’s trying to understand. Eskeles says they’ll discuss Inri Sejenus and says Kellhus is soul is the same shape as the God. He prompts Sorweel to say, “He is the God in small…” That terrifies Sorweel saying it. Eskeles is proud and says this is why people cut their throats for him and all these tens of thousands march behind him. “Anasûrimbor Kellhus is the God of Gods, Sorweel, come to walk among us.” This causes Sorweel to collapse to his knees. He feels fragile, on the verge of falling apart.

Eskeles continues how sorcerers used to be damned. “We Schoolmen traded a lifetime of power for an eternity of torment… But now?” Sorweel thinks of his father being killed by sorcery and wonders if Harweel is still burning from it because sorcerery is damned. However, Eskeles’s eyes are full of “uncompromising joy.” It’s the look of someone who has been rescued. He speaks with worship now.

“Now I am saved.”

Love. He spoke with love.

He keeps thinking that Kellhus is God walking among them as he eats his meal with Porsparian. “Men often make decisions in the wake of significant events, if only to pretend they had some control over their own transformations.” So Sorweel decides to ignore it, as if being rude to Eskeles would stop the process. Then the youth laughs but it peters out.

Then he finally decided to think Eskeles’s thoughts, if only to pretend they had not already possessed him. What was the harm of thinking?

As a boy, he once found a poplar seed beneath a bush. He would watch it as it slowly grew, destroying the bush in the process. When his city fell, it had become a big tree and he realizes, “There was harm in thinking.” He feels what Eskeles has spoken is true. The Mandate Schoolman’s explanation makes too much sense. That even Sorweel is a piece of God. He realizes this is why the Kiünnatic Priests had demanded Kellhus’s missionaries to be burned.

Had they been a bush, fearful of the tree in their midst?

As he lies beneath his blankets, he relieves his first meeting with Kellhus and fears that he’ll come to believe in Kellhus like the others.

When he wakes up, he feels relief instead of a clutch of fear. For a moment, there is only silence and then the Interval tolls for morning prayers. Soon there are drills and his pony is finally responding to Sakarpic riding commands. He has no problem with the drills this morning and is called Horse-King.

When chance afforded he leaned forward to whisper the Third Prayer to Husyelt into the pony’s twitching ear. “One and one are one,” he explained to the beast afterward. “You are learning, Stubborn. One horse and one man make one warrior.”

He suddenly feels shame. He’s not a man since he never has, and never will, go through his Elking. “A child forever without the shades of the dead to assist him.” He glances at the wonder of the Great Ordeal and feels small.

Later, as he’s riding with Zsoronga and Obotegwa, he asks what the Successor-Prince thinks of the Ordeal. Zsoronga thinks it’s their end. Sorweel asks if Zsoronga thinks their goal is a real one. The Ordeal believes it. He’s not sure how Sorweel sees it from his one city, but Zeüm is a nation mightier than any other and he’s never seen anything like this. No Satakhan could ever have gathered so many and marched them to the world’s end. This event will be “[r]ecalled to the end of all time.” After some silence, Sorweel asks what Zsoronga thinks of the Anasûrimbor.

The Successor-Prince shrugged, bunt without, Sorweel noticed, a quick glance around him. “Everyone ponders them. They are like the mummers the Ketyai are so found of, standing before the amphitheater of the world.”

Everyone thinks he’s a Prophet or God. Sorweel asks but what does Zsoronga think. He quotes the treaty Kellhus made with Zsoronga’s father. Kellhus is the “Benefactor of High Holy Zeüm, Guardian of the Son of Heaven’s Son.” Sorweel presses for a real answer. Zsoronga asks what Sorweel thinks about Kellhus.

“He’s so many things to so many people,” Sorweel found himself blurting. “I know not what to think. All I know is that those that time with him, any time with him whatsoever, think him some kind of God.”

As Zsoronga confers with Obotegwa in their tongue, Sorweel realizes that Zsoronga is a spy and he, Sorweel, is but a distraction to the Successor-Prince. Zsoronga looks at Sorweel like the Successor-Prince wants the Horse-King to be a trustworthy ally.

Finally, Zsoronga asks if Sorweel’s heard of Shimeh’s fall in the First Holy war. Sorweel shrugs and says not much. Zsoronga brings up Achamian’s “forbidden book.” Zsoronga explains that Achamian had been Kellhus’s teacher and that the Empress had been Achamian’s wife, stolen from him by Kellhus. He adds how Achamian declared Kellhus a fraud and a liar. Sorweel has heard something of that. Achamian only lives because “the love and shame of the Empress prevent his execution.” Zsoronga laments that while his book rings true, it’s also the bitter account of a cuckold that casts doubt on it. Still, Sorweel has to know if Achamian thought Kellhus a demon but learns he doesn’t. Sorweel begs to know exactly what Achamian, pleading his friendship with Zsoronga to get the Successor-Prince to speak.

The Successor-Prince somehow grinned and scowled at once. “You must learn, Horse-King. Too many wolves prowl these columns. I appreciate your honesty, your overture, I truly do, but when you speak like this… I… I fear for you.”

Obotegwa had softened his sovereign’s tone, of course. No matter how diligently the Obligate tried to recreate the tenor of his Prince’s discourse, his voice always bore the imprint of long and oft-examined life.

Still, Sorweel wants to know what Achamian wrote. Zsoronga finally answers him that Kellhus is a mortal man with a vast intellect that makes others seem children. Sorweel presses for more. Zsoronga says, “The important thing, he [Achamian] says, isn’t so much what the Anasûrimbor is, as what we are to him.” Sorweel is frustrated by the answer. He urges Sorweel to remember what being a child was like and how you believed nursemaid’s tales and your emotions always were on your face. How adults had molded you. Kellhus is the adult and everyone is a child.

Zsoronga dropped his reins, waved his arms out in grand gesture of indication. “All of this. This divinity. This apocalypse. This… religion he has created. They are the kinds of lies we tell children to assure they act in accord with our wishes. To make us love, to incite us to sacrifice. This is what Drusas Achamian seems to be saying.”

These words, spoken through the lense of wise and weary confidence that was Obotegwa, chills Sorweel to the pith. Demons were so much easier! This… this…

How does a child war against a father? How does a child not… love?”

This dismays Sorweel and shames him, though he realizes Zsoronga feels the same way. Sorweel then asks what Kellhus’s true goal is. Achamian never said, though Zsoronga fears they’ll learn by the end.

Sorweel dreams of his father arguing with Proyas from the earlier chapter when Proyas came to parley. They are feuding about bondage. Proyas says there is slavery that sets one frees, which Harweel denounces, “So says the slave!” Harweel shouts while burning. Sorweel thinks, “How beautiful was his [Harweel’s] damnation.”

Porsparian wakes Sorweel from his nightmare and soothes the prince. He tells the uncomprehending slave he saw his father burning. Porsparian’s touch feels grandfatherly and comforting. He asks if his father is damned. “A grandfather, it seemed, would know.” Porsparian forms the feminine face of Yatwer in the dirt of the tent floor. He then rubs dirt on his eyes and prayers, rocking back and forth “like a man struggling against the ropes that bound him.” The sun rises, lighting up the tent as the slave keeps praying. Porsparian’s movement grows jerky. Violent. He spasms and convulses. Worried, Sorweel leaps to his feet and cried out in concern.

But he feels the ritual’s rules demand he not interfere, so he just watches. Porsparian is writhing on the ground like he’s being beaten. Then, he suddenly springs upright and pulls his dirty hands from his eyes. They are stained red. Then he looks down.

Gazed at the earthen face.

Sorweel caught his breath, blinked as though to squint away the madness. Not only had the salve’s eyes gone red (a trick, some kind of trick!), somehow the mouth pressed into the soil face had opened.

Opened?

There’s water pooled in the mouth that pours into Porsparian’s palm, his eyes no longer red. “Muck trailed like blood from the pads of his [Porsparian’s] fingers.” Sorweel backs away. Suddenly, the slave seems made of river mud. He says this is spit to keep face clean. It will hide him. Suddenly, Sorweel understands that the Old Gods are protecting him. He closes his eyes and the mud is smeared on his cheeks. “He felt her spit at once soil and cleanse.”

A mother wiping the face of her beloved son.

Look at you…

Somewhere on the plain, the priests sound the Interval: a single note tolling pure and deep over landscapes of tented confusion. The sun was rising.

My Thoughts

Grass-rats. I do like that name for Sranc. Sorweel, is of course, right. We give glib names to terrible things. Or grand things. We like to minimize. Like America and England like to call the Atlantic “the Pond” as if it was just this small thing separating our two countries.

There is a lot of things humans do without thinking about it. Language is the most unique trait of our species. No other creature on earth has language. They can communicate, but even the gorillas and chimpanzees who have been taught sign language can only string together a few words to form a very basic idea. They can’t speak with the complexity and nuance of grammar. This is hard-coded into human beings when we’re young. English, despite its large vocabulary, has had its grammar flattened to an extent. You would not realize this if you only spoke English, but our complicated grammar is simple compared to a many other languages. Some can have such a complexity to it only native speakers can ever grasp its nuance. It actually seems the more a language is spoken by only a small group of people, the more and more complicated it becomes.

While Sorweel has this vast revelation about knowledge, I know when I studied German, I didn’t have any profound epiphany on the nature of reality. However, it does tie into the greater theme of the Second Apocalypse: how little men understand why they do the things they do. Language has always been a large part of the series. Just notice the appendix at the end of The Thousandfold Thought that shows the family tree of the languages of men. It also ties into the fact that sorcerery requires learning another language that buffers the purity of meaning from the way a spoken language drifts and meanders. Words change so drastically, sometimes in a generation, and can come to mean even their opposites or something wholly alien.

Eskeles has a mule like Achamian. He’s very much a surrogate for that role, teaching Sorweel while during a holy war. Only Sorweel is the opposite of the Young Prince trope that Kellhus was. Neither one of them fulfill the trope but subvert it in different ways. Sorweel never avenges his father. He dies a failure. Though, he did get the princess before the end. I think that decision is one of the reasons Serwa behaves as she does during the climax of the Unholy Consult.

We can see Eskeles’s disregard for wealth and comfort. He breaks a rather expensive looking vase without thought to teach a lesson to his pupil. Eskeles might dress in silks and be fat, but he’s a man that has lived without much and understands how possessions can weigh you down.

Ideas have no boundaries. They spill from person to person. You can’t contain them. Can’t segment them. They spread as new people encounter them and embrace them or discard them. It is honestly why the idea of “Cultural Appropriation” is such a problem. The very act of strangers coming together rubs off some of their cultures on each other. It morphs and mutates and changes into new ideas (or bad ones). The more human cultures mix and exchange, the more advancements we make. Strangers can see what is common to one group in a new light and make a breakthrough in so many different areas. Haven’t you ever been stuck on a problem only for “fresh eyes” to easily spot what you’re missing?

And now we see Baker reinforcing for us, the readers, on his world’s metaphysics. Reminding us that the God is broken into an innumerable amount of pieces, each one inside of a person and peering out through their eyes. This is why his sorcery works. Those who can use sorcery are better able to see with “God’s Eye”. It’s also how Mimara’s Judging Eye works. Destroying this Oversoul is the goal of the Consult and the Inchoroi. With it gone, so are the effects of its existence.

Namely Damnation.

Eskeles speaks with all the conviction of the newly converted. There are none more fervent than those who have abandoned their past belief in favor of a new one. To have so changed their identity takes something powerful on their psyche, so they will really embarrass the new belief. If it’s a dangerous belief, this can be bad. As Dr. James Lindsey describes it, religions can come in two flavors. Those that look up and those that look down. A religion that looks up is one that’s about self-improvement. Being a better person. A religion that looks down is concerned with making sure your neighbors are being virtuous. You could say Jesus’s teachings are an upward-facing religion but many have turned it into a downward-facing one and used it to unleash horrors like the Inquisition or the Witch Hunts. Or the Teutonic Knights’ crusades in Eastern Europe.

The poplar metaphor is fairly obvious. That’s how ideas can work. If they get past your defenses, they can sprout and change you. It can be painful, but once it starts it’s hard to stop.

The Great Ordeal will be recalled until the end of time. But who will recall it? Given how this series ends, will there be anything left? We’ll have to wait and see for the third series.

Zsoronga sees the Dûnyain as performing. That’s very interesting. He comes from a culture that enjoys performing and acting differently in their day to day life. It makes him suspicious of everyone’s actions, I assume. Doubly so of a man claiming such inhuman piety. Sorweel’s answer to that Kellhus mummers (theater acting) is on point.

I do like the added bits of the problem with going through a translator. The words just don’t have the same effect coming from another’s mouth. And why should they? Another person can’t mimic the passions of the person for whom they’re speaking.

Zsoronga’s quote about the lies we tell children in regards to a religious holy war should probably let you know Bakker’s thoughts on religion. We lie to our children to control them, and religion lies to adults for the same reason. Kellhus is just really good at lying.

“How beautiful was his [Harweel’s] damnation.” Sorweel dreams of his father’s damnation was beautiful. His father had never surrendered to Kellhus. Had never succumbed to Kellhus. Sorweel, the perpetual child, has to his new father and that shames him to no end. So he dreams of his father’s defiance and sees it as beautiful. A stubbornness to refuse to bend no matter the cost.

Notice how the mud is like blood on Porsparian’s fingers. We’ve seen in the ritual creating the White Luck Warrior the importance of menstrual blood in Yatwerian rites. And it does hide him. Even Kellhus is fooled. It just doesn’t work. We hear a lot about Narindar, holy assassins, and that is what Sorweel is. He’s being used by Yatwer to kill Kellhus. Another young man being sacrificed.

Sorweel mentions how he’ll forever be a child. That’s how Yatwer is treating him.

Want to keep reading, click here for Chapter 14!

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

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

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 Above the Storm today!

Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Twelve

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Twelve

The Andiamine Heights

Welcome to Chapter Twelve of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Eleven!

Little snake, what poison in your bite!

Little snake, what fear you should strike!

But they don’t know, little snake—oh no!

They can’t see the tiny places you go…

—ZEÜMI NURSERY SONG

My Thoughts

This seems pretty clearly speaking about Kelmomas. The nursery rhyme is being dismissive of the little snake. What poison is in your bite? What fear should you strike? But this snake can go places you can’t suspect, just like Kelmomas. He moves through the palace with impunity. He slithers around and, though he’s a child and shouldn’t be feared by adults, he is killing those who stand between himself and his mother.

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

Kelmomas knows instantly that his father has returned by how people are acting. It’s a lot of subtle clues, from the Guards’ increased alertness to Apparati running around breathless. He didn’t make the connection consciously until he learned the Yatwerian Matriarch had pissed herself.

He’s come to console Mother, the secret voice said.

Kelmomas reacts badly to this. He works on his model of Momemn while wanting to deny this reality that Kellhus was here. He’s always reluctant to think about him. To plot against him. Not fear. But he finally has to face reality and heads to his mother’s apartments. He hears Inrilatas “ranting about the Gods,” his voice broken from years of shouting. He never stopped raving. He has to pass Inrilatas’s door to reach his mother’s rooms. He reaches the door and slows his breath to hear Kellhus telling Esmenet to keep Theliopa at her side. Esmenet asks if he fears skin-spies.

Their voices possessed the weary burnish of a long and impassioned conversation. But the roots of his father’s exhaustion stopped short of the deeper intonations that warbled in and out of his discourse. A heart teasing hum, and a kind of ursine growl, far too low to be consciously heard by Mother. These spoke from something as unwinded as it was inscrutable, an occluded soul, entirely hidden from lesser ears.

He manages her, the voice said. He sees through her face the way you do, only with far more clarity, and he shapes his voice accordingly.

How do you know? Kelmomas asked angrily, stung by the thought that anyone, even Farther, could see further than him. Further into her.

Kellhus says the Consult will grow increasingly desperate as the Great Ordeal marches nearer. They will use everything they have so Theliopa should stay with Esmenet all the time because only she and Maithanet can see the skin-spies. Kelmomas loves stories of skin-spies and their “wicked depredations.” He loved seeing that one getting flayed alive, though he was careful not to let Mother know that. Kelmomas knows he can see skin-spies, too, but he’ll keep it a secret. Hoping to find one and spy on it. “What a game it would make!”

He wondered who was faster…

Mother is horrified that the Consult will attack the Andiamine Heights. Kellhus says it makes sense to distract him. “But nothing distracts you,” complains Esmenet. In this moment, Kelmomas realizes his mother knows what Kellhus is. As Kellhus says he’s leaving, Kelmomas hears the pain in his mother’s voice. He’s about to burst in to comfort her but his secret voice stops him, saying he’ll be recognized by Kellhus. The voice can’t be sure how much Kellhus sees, but Kelmomas needs to be with his mother, wanting to be hugged and kissed by her.

He’s the root, the voice replied, and you’re but the branch. Remember, the Strength burns brightest in him.

For reasons Kelmomas was entirely unable to fathom, that dropped his hand like lead.

The Strength.

Kelmomas runs. But not in flight. He has a plan. He steals a silver skewer while matronly slaves ruffle his hair and give condolences for his dead brother. He plays with them before running off. He can’t get into the Imperial Audience Hall. Luckily, a balcony door is open and he climbs up to it. From here, he can look down at his mother’s seat. This unnerves him. It’s a reminder that no matter how powerful you are, someone can be higher.

He slides down a tapestry and then mounts the Mantle, the seat of his father’s power. He wants the sparrows to come. He waits a while until one gets caught in the net. He doesn’t have a stone, though, but all he has is a skewer.

The world he walked was far different from the world walked by others. He did not need the voice to tell him that. He could hear more, see more, know more—everything more than everybody save his father and maybe his uncle. His sense of smell, in particular.

He smells his mother’s scent and his uncle. It’s the Matriarch’s piss that attracts his attention. He breathes it in. It excites him in a primal way. He then darts to the balcony behind the thrones. The moon’s out over the Meneanor Sea. The dark sea is ominous. It’s too vast and trackless to be known, even for Kellhus.

Ever did Men drown in blackness, even in sun-spliced waters.

He jumps off and avoids the sorcerous Wards with ease since he’s one of the few. He dodges the Pillarian Guard without any effort. The problem is the Eothic Guard. They have a lot of bowmen and they’re very good at hitting things. Saubon sponsors archery contests to find new recruits for the guard. Only the Agmundrmen from Galeoth are better. So Kelmomas is risking getting feathered. Though the risk sounds fun, he doesn’t actually want to hit.

It was no easy task, culling risks from possibilities.

He skulks across the roofs, using every trick he can to keep from being seen. He fights against a savage grin. He revels in the fun of creeping past Guardsmen without making a sound. He eluded them, enjoying being behind them in the dark and unseen. One nearly spotted him, but he keeps his body motionless. Once he was past, the thrill of almost getting caught rushes through him. He wants to cry out in glee. The rest of the guards “stared out in utter ignorance of their ignorance.” It felt like he existed in a different world from them. He could do anything. Then he feels like he’s testing them. “What if he were a skin-spy?” They fail to spot him, and that angers him and decides on what they should learn. “The darkness, he wanted to tell them, was not empty.”

He soon reaches the guest apartment. He feels like that crossing without being seen was both impossible and inevitable. He feels like he broke the world with his actions. That amuses him to no end.

He leaps into a hay pile and wiggles through it. He watches slaves from within it while a group of drunk Kidruhil harasses the workers. A horse is pulling a wagon. Kelmomas times his movement with the horse’s hooves hitting the cobblestones. He jumps beneath one of the horses and clings to its belly, becoming an extension of the horse and enters the Batrial Campus, the guest compound, unseen. He soon drops to the ground and lets the wagon roll over him. He darts to his destination, smelling the Matriarch’s scent.

He follows the trail, thinking it’s like what a worm would make. He hears a guard’s heartbeat around the corner. He takes a single heartbeat to peek around the corner and memorize the hallway and the guard before the Matriarch’s door. He’s not one of the palace guards. Kelmomas starts “crying” and runs around the corner to the guard. The Yatwerian sentry goes to comfort the boy, revealing himself to be a father and used to soothing children. He bends down.

Kelmomas stepped into the fan of his [the guard’s] multiple shadows.

“Come, now, little man—”

The motion was singular, abrupt with elegance. The skewer tip entered the sentry’s right tear duct and slipped into the centre of his head. The ease of penetration was almost alarming, like poking a nail into soft garden soil. Using the bone along the inner eye socket for leverage, Kelmomas wrenched the buried point in a precise circle. There was no need, he thought, to mutilate geometry as well.

The man falls to the ground, Kelmomas using the man’s dead weight to pull the skewer free. He lives for a moment or two longer. Then Kelmomas takes the man’s knife and goes through the unlocked door. A body slave, sleeping on the floor, rouses, waking up three more. He steps between them, slashing with precise strikes to kill them without being splashed by any of their spurting blood. “To walk the cracks between heartbeats.”

The Matriarch was quite awake by the time the little boy slipped into her bedroom. “Tweet!” he trilled. “Tweet-tweet!” His giggling was uncontrollable…

Almost as much as her shrieking.

Esmenet is outside the Matriarch’s quarters. She doesn’t want to see the woman’s corpse. She’s seen enough death in her life. She says they’ll wait here to Phinersa and Captain Imhailas. She sometimes thinks he’s too decisive while Phinersa is too fretting. She feels like Imhailas is always controlling urges he doesn’t even realize he has. He’s always standing close to her, wanting her even though he knows it’s wrong. A sin. As a prostitute, she knows that a man who feels guilty about his actions is more dangerous than the one who doesn’t. “What had the strength to seize also had the strength to choke.”

Maithanet arrives, stepping with care to avoid blood. He’s dressed plainly, the clothing revealing the strength he has, a reminder that he can “break necks with ease.” He has come from the Cmiral temple-complex. To maintain separation of the political and the spiritual, he never stays in the palace. He asks after Kellhus and his opinion. Esmenet snaps at Maithanet, revealing Kellhus left right before the murders were discovered. She then asks how a cult could do this, even Yatwer’s cult.

Maithanet suggests a Narindar, the legendary Cultic assassin. Esmenet presses Maithanet, saying he doesn’t believe that. He doesn’t know what happened other than this was a shrewd move. Sharacinth was the only way they had to seize control of Yatwer’s cult from within or creating a civil war. Phinersa notes Sharacinth is now Yatwer’s weapon.

Esmenet had concluded as much almost the instant she had stepped into the blood-splattered antechamber earlier that night. She was going to be blamed for this. First the rumors of the White-Luck Warrior, then the Yatwerian Matriarch herself assassinated while a guest of the Empress. The bumbling preposterous of it mattered not at all. For the masses, the outrageousness of the act would simply indicate her fear, and her fear would suggest that she believed the rumours, which in turn would mean the Aspect-Emperor had to be a demon…

This had all the making of a disaster.

She orders this to be covered up, but from the nervousness of her subordinates, they know it’s too late. She sighs, resigned. Imhailas declares they should take go on the attack. Up until now, he hadn’t made himself noticed, certain he would be blamed for the assassin getting through. Maithanet agrees but says there might be another possibility about what happened. As they speak, she stares at the dead. It feels surreal that they are holding their “council of war” before the corpses whose lives had been extinguished.

But then, she realized, the living had to forever look past the dead—on the pain of joining them.

She wants the crime investigated by someone with interrogatory. Maithanet suggests a Patriarch of another cult like Yagthrûta, who is “as rabid as his Patron God when it comes to matters of ritual legality.” He’s the leader of Momian’s cult and greatly respected for his piety and honesty. He’d even crossed the Meneanor in a skiff to show his faith. And as a barbarian, no one thought he was a Shrial or Imperial agent. Esmenet likes it and wants them to find Nannaferi. Imhailas agrees, wanting her dead to defang the cult. Esmenet is annoyed by the “inane adages” he always says. Usually, she likes them, not minding because he does it to impress her, but it doesn’t feel appropriate right now.

Phinersa doesn’t have anything new to add other than they think Nannaferi is in Shigek. Hard to say with Fanim raiding across the River Sempis. Esmenet grimaces, and he flinches. Fanayal ab Kascamandri sudden aggression is both annoying and effective. He’s severed the overland routs to Nilnamesh and so attacking fortified towns with a Cishaurim. It was “precisely the kind of confusion the Mother-Supreme needed.”

Weakness, she realized. They smelled weakness, all the enemies of the New Empire, be they heathen or Orthodox.

Phinersa says they’ll need to issue arrest warrants to capture her. Then she’ll be tortured. She isn’t sure and turns to Maithanet wondering if Sharacinth’s murder can be blamed on internal Cult feuds to give the pretext to order Nannaferi’s arrest. Maithanet advises caution and suggests consulting Kellhus.

Esmenet felt her look harden into a glare.

Why? she sound herself thinking. Why doesn’t Kellhus trust you?”

She says they need to prepare for riots and infiltrate the cult. She wants the Imperial Precincts secured to keep any more assassinations from happening. She wants to have the palace prepared for a siege and then orders the Acrong Columns recalled. Everyone is stunned by her sudden burst of orders. She shouts at them which startles them into action. She thinks Phinersa glanced at Maithanet to get confirmation before obeying.

So many looks. So many qualms. It was always the complexities that overwhelmed us. It was always the maze of others that robbed us of our way.

My little boy is dead.

She presses down her misgivings and asked Maithanet if he thinks skin-spies killed Sharacinth. He answers, “I find this turn… incalculable.” Esmenet is reminded of the “septic reaches of Caraskand” and the First Holy War. She is convinced this is the work of the skin-spies as Kellhus has warned her.

My Thoughts

We see Kelmomas’s jealousy on full display as he spies on his mother and Kellhus. He’s that little snake that is creeping around. Not even Kellhus appears aware that he’s there. Probably because he’s exhausted by traveling so far. There are limits even for Kellhus in what he can handle.

His childishness is still on full display with his fascination of skin-spies, not caring about the danger the pose for him and his family. He wants to play with one. Find out who’s the best little snake at crawling around the palace. It’s a game we’ll see him play with the White Luck Warrior in the next two books.

Kelmomas’s childishness is warring with his Dûnyain half. The secret voice claims to be Samarmas, but really it is his Dûnyain logic battling against the human half of him. That part that just wants his mother all to himself.

“When he reached the final pillar, it unnerved him to see that he look down on the Mantle and his mother’s seat.” Kelmomas has his first brush with the concept he’s better than his mother. He’s afraid of this. If he ever crosses that line, he’ll lose his mother as something he can love. He’ll lose what little humanity he has, and he’s not ready for that. If he had grown up, I can imagine him killing Esmenet when he reached maturity.

There’s something I don’t think I ever noticed or paid attention to that Kelmomas is one of the few.

I like that Bakker keeps Kelmomas playing children’s games. Just fucked-up and deadly ones.

The darkness is never empty. That goes into the central thesis of the entire series: our actions are defined by the Darkness that Comes Before. All those things we are unaware of in our past. In those around us. All the thousands and thousands of stimuli that we experience every day that shape our perception and actions. Men like to think they can ignore what they can’t see.

Always a mistake.

No, we don’t want to mutilate geometry, do we, Kelmomas? That line as he’s scrambling the guard’s brain to make sure he’s dead made me chuckle.

So we started his journey with him wanting to kill a sparrow trapped in the netting above the throne room. He can’t get to it since he only has a silver skewer. Then he finds another “sparrow” to kill, the Matriarch. He tracks her and then “tweets” like a bird in mockery as he kills her.

Bakker uses Kelmomas to show us just how much security is at the Andiamine Heights to show that even a child Dûnyain struggles to sneaks around. No wonder Esmenet is so disturbed by the assassination. If they could reach the Matriarch, they could get to anyone. This is the start of Esmenet’s paranoia that Kelmomas will use to turn her against Maithanet.

Reality means that we can’t let grief keep us from living. From acting. Especially in disaster, you have to keep moving. Keep surviving. The dead are gone. You’re still going.

Is this the first mention of the god Momian? He wasn’t in my custom dictionary for the series. Apparently, he’s the god of law. And, interestingly, this is the first cult to have a Thunyeri reach the highest level of authority. Most must be dominated by Nansur and other Ketyai races. It shows the cult respects law more than politics.

So, it has been six months since I have worked on this. I’ve had a crazy time. I’ve been doing a podcast, promoting my new fantasy series Secret of the Jewels, and then I had to move in August. So, I’m trying to get back into the habit of working on this every day! Back to the commentary!

We see more of Esmenet’s doubts with Maithanet already falling into place. The foundation of their conflict is growing especially when she thinks (and I believe it’s her imagination) that Phinersa glances at Maithanet. Kelmomas’s schemes starting to bear fruit.

Maithanet has no clue who killed Sharacinth. It’s an irrational act. He doesn’t have the data to know that Kelmomas is acting in such ways so he can’t see why this happened. He can’t see any motivation to kill her. Not with the capability of getting into the palace and out so cleanly.

Boy, I finished my reread in less than 10 minutes. I was so close to the end of the chapter.

We see the seeds of doubt getting planted in Esmenet’s mind about Maithanet. She sees this as skin-spies so clearly, yet he has no idea what happened. He can’t calculate this event. These are the hooks Kelmomas will use to drive the wedge between his mother and all those taking away her attention. Killing Sharacinth is just one step in that.

Besides the fun he had doing it, of course. He has too much emotion. That’s what makes him so much dangerous. Kellhus’s intellect with Esmenet’s emotions. Well, the emotions of a child, which are always feral and wild things that need to be nurtured and guided so they become well-adjusted adults.

If you want to read more, click here for Chapter Thirteen!

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

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

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 Above the Storm today!